Monday, July 17, 2017

I Cover the Waterfront (1933)

I Cover the Waterfront is a lurid newspaper melodrama released by United Artists in 1933. And it delivers the goods.

Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is an embittered hardboiled newspaper reporter who covers the waterfront for The Standard. He’s tired of the job and he’s tired of the city and he’s very very tired of the waterfront. This is the middle of the Depression though and even if he hates it it is a good job and he’s good at it. He’s a good newspaperman. That’s why he hates himself so much. All self-respecting good newspapermen hate themselves, because it’s a dirty job and you can only succeed if you have no morals at all. You don’t get good stories by being a Boy Scout.

Joe has found what he thinks is a very good story. He’s convinced that local fisherman Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence) is involved in a racket bringing Chinese illegal immigrants into the country. He just can’t find hard evidence. Eli is cunning and ruthless and if he’s boarded and searched by the Coast Guard he makes sure he destroys the evidence beforehand. He does this is an effective but brutal way, by throwing the illegal immigrants overboard (weighted with chains so they sink real fast).

In the meantime there are routine stories to cover. Like a report of a young woman swimming in the sea. The fact that she’s swimming in the sea isn’t the problem, it’s the fact that she’s stark naked. He spots the girl easily enough (strangely enough men usually don’t have much problem spotting naked women) and she turns out to be Julie Kirk, the daughter of Eli Kirk. She’s played by Claudette Colbert and what follows is a delightful exchange of pre-code banter between Joe and the nude Julie (sheltering behind a rock as a token concession to decency).

Joe realises this could be his big opportunity. If he romances Julie he might get some information on Eli’s people-smuggling operation. It’s a mean low-down cynical thing to do but he’s a reporter and such things come naturally to him. Of course there are going to be complications. Julie is a sweet kid and he gets to be rather fond of her, especially after he sleeps with her. Their spending the night together follows a memorably clever and slightly kinky seduction scene (that’s assuming you think that chaining a girl up so you can kiss her qualifies as kinky). He could fall in love with a girl like Julie (it’s not that easy to find girls who like being chained up after all).

Joe continues his relentless pursuit of Eli Kirk. Eli’s methods have become even more ingenious, and even more ruthless, but Joe is a dogged newshound and his mind is as devious as Eli’s. All Joe needs is a small amount of luck and soon it looks like he’s going to get it.

There’s at least one pretty exciting action scene. There’s plenty of atmosphere - the waterfront itself becomes a character in the movie. There’s hardboiled dialogue. There’s shocking, and unusual, crime. There’s romance. There’s a decent plot and the pacing is lively.

This is a pre-code movie and it has its share of the salacious elements that pre-code fans seem to enjoy. The sexual relationship between Joe and Julie is taken for granted. There’s risque dialogue. And there’s nudity. Yes, there’s an actual nude scene although you’ll need good eyes to see anything since it’s a long shot. A very long shot. But I’m assured that if you have good eyesight you can see what is presumably Colbert’s body double’s naked bottom.

Ben Lyon is reasonably good as Joe although an actor with a bit more charisma would have helped. Colbert does her best to generate the required sexual heat and since that was something she was pretty good at (OK it was something she was very good at) she almost succeeds but somehow the chemistry between the two leads isn’t quite there. You can understand why Joe falls for Julie. This is Claudette Colbert at her most beautiful and she has those big big eyes and any man with a pulse would fall for her. It’s not so clear why Julie would fall for the morose and cynical Joe. He doesn’t even have a bad boy vibe going for him.

Colbert’s other problem is that she’s too classy to be convincing as a fisherman’s daughter. It doesn’t really matter. She’s charming and sexy and likeable and she’s a fine actress and she gets away with it.

I found a copy of this movie in one of those Mill Creek public domain compilation boxed sets, their Diva 20-movie pack (which I don’t even remember buying). The transfer is iffy in places but generally watchable. 

I Cover the Waterfront is slightly racy fast-moving entertainment and Claudette Colbert in fine form is hard to resist. It’s a lot better than most pre-code movies because it doesn’t just rely on its mildly risque elements. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based on Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. The novel is somewhat clumsy in execution and is far from satisfactory but the central story idea had obvious cinematic possibilities. Screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder were able to streamline the story and the result was a light-hearted comedy thriller that is one of the most engaging films of Hitchcock’s early British period.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a spoilt rich English girl on holiday in an obscure central European country. She feels that she has now experienced everything that life has to offer and all that is left now is marriage. She is after all in her early twenties and life has little more to offer someone of such advanced years. 

Now the season is almost over and it’s time for the motley collection of English visitors to head back to England.

Just before boarding the train Iris receives an accidental blow to the head. She’s not really injured but it leaves her with a headache and it will have consequences.

On the train she shares a compartment with a mysterious central European baroness, an amiable Italian family and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a slightly dotty late middle-aged English spinster. Iris would not usually tolerate such a companion but having left her friends behind at the hotel she is grateful to find someone who speaks English.

Then Miss Froy vanishes. It is as if she never existed, In fact everyone on the train seems determined to convince Iris that Miss Froy really is non-existent, a delusion brought on by that blow to the head.

The only person who seems to be inclined to believe her is young musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) but it soon becomes apparent that he doesn’t really believe her either. Iris had clashed with Gilbert at the hotel and conceived an immediate dislike for him but now she needs any ally she can find. Eventually Iris starts to think that perhaps she did imagine Miss Froy, and then she finds actual evidence of her existence, but the evidence vanishes as well.

If Miss Froy did exist then there is some kind of conspiracy afoot but as Gilbert points out, who on earth would want to harm such a harmless old lady? If she never did exist then perhaps Iris is not quite sane. That’s the opinion of the smooth Dr Hartz (Paul Lukacs) and he’s a brain expert so he should know.

The source novel has a melodramatic and somewhat outrageous plot but takes things fairly seriously. The screenplay makes the plot even melodramatic and even more outrageous and Hitchcock wisely elects to treat it as a light-hearted semi-comedic romantic romp. This succeeds perfectly. The film works as a fine suspense thriller, the comedy is genuinely funny and thanks to the two leads, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, the romance angle really sparkles.

Lockwood would go on to become the biggest star in British cinema in the 40s. She was just twenty-two when The Lady Vanishes was made but her performance is confident and assured. Iris is a selfish spoilt girl but being rather lonely and vulnerable on the train made her inclined to feel a certain affection towards the daffy but kind-hearted Miss Froy and the old lady’s disappearance leads Iris to perform the first truly unselfish and noble act of her life. She is going to save Miss Froy. In the course of this adventure Iris starts to grow up and starts to realise that her life might seem less empty if she tried thinking about other people rather than just herself. Lockwood handles the subtle character development very adroitly, and without turning Iris into a sentimental milksop.

Iris’s unselfish and rather courageous campaign to save Miss Froy has its effect on Gilbert as well. He had disliked Iris at first but now he suspects that there may be more to her. She might even turn out to be a young woman very much worth bothering with. Gilbert also grows up to some extent in the course of the film, and discovers that women can be rather nicer than he’d previously thought. The chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave  is perfect.

A major highlight is the comic relief provided by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as two absurd cricket-obsessed Englishmen. This comic team would be featured in several other films, in which they would be equally delightful.

There are of course plenty of Hitchcockian touches, with a bravura opening sequence typical of his British period. This film demonstrated that Hitchcock’s apprenticeship was well and truly over. The unfortunate result for the British film industry was that the film also made it inevitable that Hollywood would soon lure him away.

The sequence with the magic boxes in the baggage compartment does little to advance the plot but it adds a touch of screwball comedy and it’s glorious fun.

The Lady Vanishes is magnificent entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Intruder (1953)

The Intruder is a 1953 British drama that is not exactly a crime film in the conventional sense although crime does certainly play a part, and there is a manhunt.

Jack Hawkins plays Wolf Merton, a stockbroker who discovers a burglar in his home. It’s hard to say who is the more surprised of the two. Merton had been a colonel during the war, commanding a tank regiment. The burglar, Ginger Edwards (Michael Medwin) is one of the men who served under him. Actually Ginger is a bit more than that. He’s the man who saved the colonel’s life, and in fact saved the lives of an entire armoured squadron, during a particularly nasty action in North Africa.

Merton is shocked but his immediate impulse is to help the man. He might be a retired officer but he still feels a responsibility for the men who had been under his command. Unfortunately Ginger panics, throws himself through a glass door and makes a run for it.

Colonel Merton is not prepared to let the matter drop. Ginger had been a fine soldier and a thoroughly decent fellow and Merton can’t stand the idea that he should now be a  common thief. If he can find the man he may be able to find out what went wrong, what chain of misfortunes could have brought him to Merton’s house in the guise of a housebreaker.

Finding Ginger again isn’t easy. Ginger had let it slip that he still kept in touch with one of the men from the regiment and the colonel has an idea that the man in question might be Summers (George Cole). He’s almost right but then the trail seems to go cold again. Merton is sure that the man Ginger has been in touch with is one of the soldiers in a group photograph taken in North Africa.

Much of the story is told in the form of flashbacks to the war years. This technique provides a convenient way to let the viewer know the backstories of both Ginger and the colonel but it does more than that. It gives us the backstories of the various men in that wartime photograph whilst we also get to see those same men ten years later. Some of the men seem little changed while others seem almost unrecognisable. In some cases weaknesses of character already in evidence during the war have been magnified; in other cases those weaknesses have been overcome in surprising ways. 

Colonel Merton of course will also find out more about himself during the course of his search for the elusive Ginger. He is also not the only one on Ginger’s trail. The police are after Ginger as well and Merton hopes to find him before they do.

The wartime sequences are extremely well done. This is a drama but there are some comic moments as well, especially Merton’s encounter with a former corporal turned schoolmaster.

Guy Hamilton is best remembered for the four James Bond movies he directed. He does a fine job here.

Jack Hawkins was a fine actor who played a lot of army officers, a role for which he was ideally suited. Colonel Merton is an affable sort of fellow. He cared about his men during the war and now he finds to his surprise that he still cares about them. The war was an opportunity for men to show themselves at their best, or at their worst. In Merton’s case it is definitely the former. Hawkins is able to make Merton convincingly caring without excessive sentimentality. 

Hawkins gets good support from George Cole as the harassed but well-meaning Lieutenant Summers and Dennis Price as the smooth Captain Pirry, a man who has good cause not to want to remember his wartime career in too much detail. Michael Medwin is quite effective as Ginger.

Modern viewers might find the plot to be a little contrived and melodramatic (it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have as much bad luck as poor Ginger) and the ending won’t please modern audiences.

This is a thoroughly typical Network DVD release, no extras but an excellent transfer at a very reasonable price.

The Intruder is a slightly offbeat film that is worth a look. Not quite a crime film, not quite a war film, but an interesting hybrid. Recommended.