Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Pearl of Death (1944)

The Pearl of Death is one of the most admired of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes movies, and rightly so. It was released in 1944, and produced and directed by Roy William Neill.

It was based, very very loosely indeed, on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Six Napoleons.

The Pearl of Death begins with Sherlock Holmes giving an impressive demonstration of his genius as a detective. This is, alas, immediately followed by one of the biggest blunders of his career, one that threatens to tarnish his reputation in the eyes of the nation. The blunders is the direct result of Holmes’ overwhelming ego.

The subject of this embarrassing mistake is the famed Borgia Pearl, fabulously valuable but with a very evil reputation. Holmes is certain that criminal mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander) is behind the theft. Conover is certainly a worthy opponent for Holmes - he is clever and he is exceptionally ruthless.

The ruthlessness soon becomes evident with the first in what will be a series of horrifying murders. The victims have had their backs broken. Not surprisingly Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is totally at sea and is not even prepared to admit that the first murder really is a murder. Holmes however already has a shrewd idea how the murders were committed but the motives remain completely opaque. Nonetheless there are certain indications that lead the Great Detective to believe that the murders are linked to the theft of the notorious pearl.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are in sparkling form. Rathbone gets to sport a number of disguises. In fact disguise plays a particularly crucial role in this story with the villains making very effective use of the technique. This gives the studio’s resident make-up genius Jack Pierce plenty of useful employment.

The most notable of the trio of evildoers is Miles Mander as Conover. Conover might not be quite in the Professor Moriarty class but he’s still a fine villain, convincingly intellectual and also convincingly (but subtly) depraved, and oddly seedy as well. Rondo Hatton, who built a brief film career on personal misfortune (he was horribly disfigured by acromegaly), makes a brief but terrifying appearance as the dreaded Creeper. The third member of the criminal triumvirate  is, perhaps surprisingly, Universal’s popular scream queen Evelyn Ankers as the clever and dangerous Naomi Drake. Ankers handles the role reasonably well.

Dennis Hoey is even more blustering, and even more ineffectual, than usual as Inspector Lestrade.

As is usual in the case of the best movies in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes cycle there’s some low-key but effective spooky atmosphere especially when the Creeper puts in his appearance. Cinematographer Virgil Miler was quite adept at this sort of thing while by now director Roy William Neill knew exactly what the studio required of him and he knew how to deliver the goods.

The comic relief is kept to a minimum this time although Nigel Bruce still gets a few amusing moments and Basil Rathbone gets to mock poor Lestrade rather unmercifully.

The transfer (in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection DVD boxed set) is excellent and there are a few extras, including production notes courtesy of Richard Valley.

The Scarlet Claw is usually considered to be the best of all the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies with The Pearl of Death being the second best. From my memories of seeing The Scarlet Claw some years back (I really do need to watch it again) I’d tend to go along with that. The Pearl of Death certainly has no difficulty in living up to its glowing reputation. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Mr Moto’s Gamble (1938)

Mr Moto’s Gamble is the weakest of the Mr Moto films but it does have an interesting story behind, a story that does a great deal to explain why this movie doesn’t quite work.

Mr Moto’s Gamble started life as an entry in Fox’s hugely successful Charlie Chan series. It was going to be a boxing mystery entitled Charlie Chan at the Ringside. Unfortunately by this time the star of the Chan series, Warner Oland, was beginning to have a few problems. He was drinking and his marriage was breaking up. He was forgetting his lines and he was becoming temperamental. On the first day of shooting in January 1938 he walked off the set. Having been persuaded to continue the film, he walked off the set again. He insisted that production be moved to a different sound stage. Finally he walked off the set for a third time, never to return. This was, sadly, to be the end of his career (in August of that year he passed away).

Oland’s departure left Fox with a problem. They had a script that everybody was happy with. They had the sets ready to go. Some footage had already been shot. The studio was reluctant simply to scrap the film. The solution they came up with was to turn Charlie Chan at the Ringside into a Mr Moto film. They had already made two Mr Moto movies which had been extremely successful. It all seemed like a good idea.

The trouble was that Charlie Chan and Mr Moto are very different characters, and the Chan and Moto movies have an entirely different flavour. Mr Moto is not a straightforward detective. In the novels by John P. Marquand (which I highly recommend) Moto is a Japanese spymaster. In the movies he becomes an Interpol agent but it’s still quite clear that Moto is a man with connections in the intelligence community (in fact he probably has connections in the intelligence communities of several different countries). Mr Moto does not investigate routine murder cases. His cases either involve espionage in some form or at the very least they have some hint of international intrigue to them. Mr Moto is a slightly mysterious figure and there’s a touch of ambiguity to his character. He is also something of an action hero, and he can be quite ruthless. In other words he’s nothing at all  like Charlie Chan and the Mr Moto movies are nothing like the Chan movies.

The problem here is that Mr Moto’s Gamble has a plot that is very much a Charlie Chan sort of plot. The whole movie still feels like a Chan movie. And Mr Moto just doesn’t quite fit in. Peter Lorre as Moto tries hard but he’s just not given enough Mr Moto type things to do and his performance falls just a little bit flat.

Another legacy of the film’s origin is the presence in the cast of Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s son Lee! This also doesn’t quite work out. When Mr Moto is on a case he is the quintessential loner. Given the types of cases he usually deals with this is understandable - he has to play his cards very close to his chest. Moto has absolutely no need whatsoever for a sidekick. In this movie he is given two. Not just Chan Junior but also a kleptomaniac ex-boxer turned trainee criminologist named Wellington (Maxie Rosenbloom). They both provide comic relief, and they provide too much of it, although Wellington’s kleptomania does at least play a role in the plot.

The plot involves a boxing match that may or may not have been rigged but that results in the death of one of the fighters. Moto immediately realises the death was no accident. It was murder. There were some huge and very suspicious bets placed on the fight, by a variety of crooked gamblers all of whom seem to be trying to double-cross each other. It’s not a bad story and would have made an excellent Chan film.

There is of course a romantic sub-plot, in fact a romantic triangle involving boxer Bill Steele (Dick Baldwin), spoilt rich girl Linda Benton (Jayne Regan) and feisty girl reporter Penny Kendall (Lynn Bari).

The supporting cast is quite strong and includes (in a very minor role) Lon Chaney Jr. Bernard Nedell impresses as a very smooth but sinister gambler.

Lynn Bari is probably the standout performer here. She’s lively and vivacious and she manages the feisty girl reporter thing without being irritating.

As I mentioned earlier Peter Lorre is hampered by the necessity of having to play Moto as if he’s Charlie Chan, and to make things worse he’s stuck with dialogue written for Chan.

The first two Mr Moto films were directed by Norman Foster. James Tinling directed Mr Moto’s Gamble and it lacks the style and pace of Foster’s efforts.

Fox’s DVD presentation is more than satisfactory. The transfer is extremely good. There’s a brief but fascinating featurette detailing the movie’s troubled production history.

Mr Moto’s Gamble is reasonably entertaining but it does not have the feel of a Moto film and hardcore Moto fans are likely to be a little disappointed. So this one is recommended, but with reservations.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Naked Truth (1957)

The Naked Truth (also known as Your Past Is Showing) is a 1957 British comedy and it’s a very good one. This one was recommended to me by a commenter to a previous post as being a particularly fine Terry-Thomas comedy, which indeed it is.

I was just a little bit put off when I discovered that Peter Sellers was also among the stars. Sellers is far from being one of my favourites. In fact he’s really not too bad in this one and luckily the rest of the cast is quite superb.

It’s a splendid idea. The smooth, charming but thoroughly unscrupulous Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price) publishes a scandalous gossip magazine but his main business is blackmail. Having dug up particularly embarrassing dirt on famous people he threatens to publish the results in his magazine, The Naked Truth. Most of his victims pay up but if they don’t it doesn’t really matter - he still makes money from them indirectly by publishing the details of their scandals in the magazine.

The scheme is cunningly organised in such a way as to make successful prosecution for blackmail almost impossible.

His latest victims include insurance executive Lord Marley (Terry-Thomas), popular television personality Wee Sonny Macgregor (Peter Sellers), detective story writer Flora Ransom (Peggy Mount) and young actress Melissa Wright (Shirley Eaton). As it happens the members of this latest crop of victims have one thing in common - they are not in a position to raise the money to pay Dennis off. Actually they have a second thing in common - they all (quite independently) decide to take drastic steps to deal with the blackmailer. All four will eventually come up with the same solution - murder.

Of course they turn out to be rather incompetent amateurs when it comes to murder. Their plans are ingenious but tend to misfire rather badly. If any of them had chosen the simple direct approach  to murder they might have succeeded but the simple direct approach does not occur to them.

At least they are incompetent murderers as individuals, but as a team they might well do better.

They find themselves having to master other crimes as well as the plot builds to a clever climax which even manages to involve an airship!

My reservations about Peter Sellers are similar to my reservations about Alec Guinness as a comic actor. Both seem to me to be too self-conscious and to be trying too hard and they’re often very clever without being especially funny. In this case though Sellers is reasonably amusing.

Terry-Thomas on the other hand is just about my favourite British comic of this period and he’s in dazzling form. This is Terry-Thomas in well-meaning likeable bungler mode rather than dastardly villain mode and this is the Terry-Thomas I prefer.

Peggy Mount is delightfully outrageous as the crime writer who is thrilled by the idea of carrying out a real murder and she gets fine support from Joan Sims as her incredibly nervous daughter who is a very unwilling but dutiful accomplice. Shirley Eaton proves herself to be more than capable when it comes to comedy and of course she adds a touch of glamour.

Dennis Price is a terribly underrated British actor of this era. His comic style was suave and understated which contrasts nicely with the bravura performances of the other stars.

Italian-born producer-director Mario Zampi helmed quite a few classic 1950s British comedies, and did so very effectively. Michael Pertwee’s record as a comedy screenwriter was equally distinguished and his script for The Naked Truth gives the fine cast just the right material to work with.

The Region 4 DVD which I saw (part of a three-movie Peter Sellers collection) is barebones but the transfer is quite satisfactory.

The Naked Truth delivers the comedic goods in fine style. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Two Letter Alibi (1961)

Two Letter Alibi (also released as Death and the Sky Above) is a pretty routine but enjoyable 1961 British crime melodrama.

Charles Hilary (Peter Williams) is estranged from his wife Louise (Ursula Howells). He wants to marry glamorous television presenter Kathy Forrester (Petra Davies) but Louise absolutely refuses to consider giving him a divorce. While Louise is a drunk and she certainly has boyfriends she assures Charles that it would be futile for him to try to divorce her - she has been very discreet in her love affairs. Their final meeting ends in a great deal of unpleasantness.

It is therefore very unfortunate for Charles when his wife is murdered. He is very obviously going to be the prime suspect, and it’s even more unfortunate that there is a great deal of quite convincing circumstantial evidence against him.

Charles continues to protest his innocence but the shadow of the gallows is looming ever closer. The case against him is so strong as to make the verdict in his trial virtually inevitable.

His big problem is that his alibi, while it might well be genuine, is flimsy and unconvincing and is very unlikely to impress a jury (it certainly doesn’t impress the police).

The only way out is clearly to find the real killer. The police regard the matter as closed so Kathy decides she’ll have to play amateur detective. Charles decides (wrongly) that the wisest thing for him to do is to run.

The first half of the movie is well-paced and really quite good. It gets bogged down in the middle. Courtroom scenes always seem like an easy to add drama but unless they’re handled with skill they can end up being slow and tedious, and sadly that’s the case here. Once the courtroom scenes are out of the way the plot kicks in again and things pick up.

Robert Lynn had a less than stellar career as a director in movies and television. He doesn’t quite manage to get the most out of the story. Some of the key dramatic moments don’t have the necessary impact.

Roger Marshall would go on to be one of the best television writers of the 60s and 70s and his screenplay here is more than serviceable.

The very short running time of just 57 minutes is a weakness. Some of the key plot elements, such as the alibi and the two-letter clue, really would have benefited from being fleshed out a bit and some of the dramatic scenes needed a bit more of a buildup.

Star Peter Williams doesn’t really have the charisma to carry this film although his performance is quite adequate. Petra Davies is solid enough as Kathy. Ursula Howells on the other hand gives her usual spirited performance as the spiteful wife Louise. Stratford Johns was a great character actor and he certainly knew how to play policeman (he spent most of the 60s playing them to great acclaim and with enormous success on British television) but as Superintendent Bates he’s rather subdued here and in any case he’s not given enough to do.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but it’s a nice transfer. The movie is black-and-white and in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Two Letter Alibi is one of the lesser British mystery thrillers of its era. It’s very low-key, maybe just a bit too low-key for its own good, but it’s a reasonably diverting time-killer. Worth a rental, or a purchase if you can pick it up very cheaply.