It's that making-lists time of the year again. So here are the ten best classic movies I saw in 2018. They’re listed in order of year of release. I’m not even going to try to rank them. I”m not even going to claim they’e all great movies. They’re just the ten movies I enjoyed most in the past year.
Here they are, with links to my reviews.
Charlie Chan’s Secret (Gordon Wiles, 1936)
First Love (Henry Koster, 1939)
The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)
Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)
The Desert Hawk (Frederick De Cordova, 1950)
The Woman in Question (Anthony Asquith, 1950)
Rogue Cop (Roy Rowland, 1954)
Dames Don't Care (Bernard Borderie, 1954)
Timetable (Mark Stevens, 1956)
A motley collection covering quite a few genres. There's quite a bit of film noir, an adventure flick and a musical.
Friday, December 28, 2018
It starts with a dramatic courtroom scene. A hoodlum is sentenced to death, on Charlie’s evidence, vows revenge and shoots his way out of the courtroom after seizing a deputy’s gun.
Steve McBirney (Marc Lawrence) is the hoodlum in question and he doesn’t do what the police expect him to do. He doesn’t try to leave the city. Instead he takes refuge in the wax museum of Dr Cream (C. Henry Gordon). Dr Cream had another profession before opening his wax museum - he was a plastic surgeon and apparently a very good one. He also apparently did quite a few surgery jobs for members of the underworld, giving them new faces. Now McBirney wants Dr Cream to give him a new face as well.
That old case was particularly convoluted. Two partners in crime who were also partners with a third man (an honest man) in a perfectly legitimate business. There was jealousy and murder, and a revenge killing, but Chan has doubts about pretty much the entirety of the established story.
As you would expect from a movie with a wax museum theme this entry in the Chan cycle has a bit of a gothic tinge to it. The wax museum is not just an ordinary wax museum. It is a museum of crime, devoted entirely to gruesome and brutal murders. And of course whenever the action switches to the wax museum there seems to be a thunderstorm raging (which adds a slight Old Dark House feel).
This is a movie that is visually fairly impressive by B-movie standards. The wax museum is genuinely creepy, the sets are very good, there are some fun props (such as the mechanical chess player automaton). Director Lynn Shores keeps things lively and interesting.
Sidney Toler as always plays Chan with a charming twinkle in his eye. As usual Victor Sen Young provides comic relief as Chan’s son Jimmy, an enthusiastic but not always effective amateur detective. By the standards of comic relief characters he’s not too bad since unlike most comic relief characters he’s not entirely a fool or a halfwit. He has intelligence but he lacks judgment and experience.
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum has a decent mystery, it has some mild thrills, it has effective atmosphere. The comic relief is kept to a minimum and is non-irritating. It’s best not to think too much about the plot, but that’s OK because this is the kind of movie that exists in a universe in which the villains come up with insanely complicated criminal plots that would never work in real life. But this is not real life and it’s not meant to be. The world of Charlie Chan movies is in most respects preferable to real life anyway.
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is a satisfying little B-picture. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, December 25, 2018
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
It is very loosely a sequel to Here Comes Mr Jordan. Very very loosely. Down to Earth in turn apparently inspired the 1980 movie Xanadu (although I’ve never seen Xanadu so I don’t know how much of a connection there really is).
Here Comes Mr Jordan (based on the play Heaven Can Wait) deals with guardian angels and could rather tenuously be regarded be regarded as dealing with vaguely Christian themes. Throwing in pagan goddesses could be considered to be a daring move, or a foolhardy move (or possibly even blasphemous!) but audiences were used to Hollywood’s propensity for hopelessly jumbling up every subject it touched. It does make the plot completely absurd but it’s pretty absurd to begin with. Of course musicals have no need whatever for coherent plots so really it doesn’t matter at all.
Terpsichore manages, with great ease, to convince the show’s producer and star Danny Miller to cast her in the lead, as Terpsichore. She renames herself Kitty Pendleton and acquires kindly rather scatter-brained low-rent agent Max Corkle (James Gleason).
Terpsichore also arouses the hostility of Danny’s buddy and co-star Eddie (Marc Platt) although I must confess I have no idea why except that presumably it was felt that this hostility would add some spice to the story.
The songs are not all that fantastic. At best they’re adequate.
I’m not quite sure about Larry Parks. He’s not terrible, he’s an adequate enough leading man, he just doesn’t seem to have any real charisma. The chemistry with Hayworth is perhaps not all it could be.
Roland Culver takes over the rôle of Mr Jordan (played by Claude Rains in Here Comes Mr Jordan) and he does a fine job. Edward Everett Horton adds some fun (as he invariably does) as the ever-pessimistic heavenly messenger 7013.
The one massive selling point of this movie is Rita Hayworth. She looks gorgeous and her performance sparkles. She gets to do plenty of dancing and she gets to do some actual acting and she does both with style.
Down to Earth does at times get a bit ambitious, venturing into the dangerous waters of satire. It tries, in a low-key way, to satirise the vulgarity of popular culture and also the pomposity of high culture. Of course since it’s a Hollywood movie we’re never going to doubt that it will come down solidly on the side of enjoyable vulgarity.
The Region 4 DVD which I have is barebones but it’s a nice transfer with vibrant colours.
Down to Earth would have benefited from slightly better songs but overall it’s a fine effort with a touching love story and with Rita Hayworth in fine form. Harmless, lightweight but entertaining. Recommended.
Monday, December 10, 2018
It has a crackerjack opening. A very ordinary couple, Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy), are driving on a lonely country road. A car passes them and something is thrown the back seat of the Palmers’ car. That something is a bag. Inside the bag is money. Lots and lots of money.
Apart from being totally illegal it should be obvious that it would be incredibly stupid even to consider the idea of keeping the money. But that is what Jane Palmer intends to do. The idea of turning the money over to the police never even occurs to her.
Alan thinks they should turn the money over to the police. Jane convinces him that they should just hold on to it for a little while. They won’t spend it and of course eventually they’ll give it to the police but surely it won’t do any harm to hide it away somewhere for a for weeks. Just to know it’s there. It’s an obviously crazy idea but Alan gives in, because there’s no point in doing anything else where Jane is concerned. She’s the kind of woman who always gets her way.
Things start to get worrying when Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea) turns up on the doorstep. He informs Jane that the money us his and he’d like it back.
Things get further complicated by a little matter of murder but that’s not the sort of thing to worry Jane. What does worry her is her sister-in-law Kathy (Kristine Miller). Kathy never approved of Jane and now she’s becoming suspicious that something is going on. Alan’s old army buddy Don Blake has also turned up at a very inconvenient moment.
Things are awkward enough but then the money kind of gets misplaced. Or at least the baggage check ticket gets misplaced and without that ticket getting the money will be a challenge.
Lizabeth Scott is in dazzling form. She’s obsessed and she’s scary and she’s frighteningly manipulative. The worst thing about her is that she never gives up. She intends to have that money and she will destroy herself and everyone else around her to get it.
Dan Duryea is of course excellent in a slightly uncharacteristic rôle - right from the start Jane is in the one calling the shots and Danny just has to go along.
So is Jane a femme fatale? In a way she is. Even though Danny is already a criminal he’s not thoroughly evil but Jane will lead him into doing much worse things than he’s ever done before.
But them maybe film noir is mostly a matter of mood and if that’s true then Too Late For Tears qualifies without any problems.
This movie is in the public domain and some of the DVD editions out there are pretty bad. The one I saw was terrible. There is a fully restored Blu-Ray edition but alas it’s way out of my price range. If you’re independently wealthy the restored edition is probably worthwhile. It’s certainly a good enough movie to justify a Blu-Ray release and as soon as I win the lottery I’ll be grabbing the Blu-Ray.
Too Late for Tears is a superb B noir. Highly recommended.
Monday, December 3, 2018
In the 1880s Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) is a celebrated hunter and safari leader. Quatermain is growing tired of it all, tired of the butchery of animals, tired of the people he has to take on safari, tired of Africa and tired of himself. He is tempted to give it all up and return to England. When he is approached by Mrs Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother John Goode (Richard Carlson) to lead a safari to find Mrs Curtis’s missing husband he is not interested at all. He tells her he wouldn’t take on the job even for five hundred pounds. She then offers him five thousand pounds. He takes the job.
Her husband had been searching for a fabulous diamond mine reputed to be located in an unexplored part of Africa. He was sold a map showing the location of the mine. In fact many Europeans have been sold such maps and set off in search of riches beyond counting. Few of those Europeans have returned alive.
There’s also, naturally, romance. Allan Quatermain and Elizabeth Curtis hate each other at first sight, so we know there’s going to be a powerful attraction between them. Granger and Kerr handle this romance element very effectively. They have an unlikely chemistry but somehow it works.
Deborah Kerr does a fine job as well. Hugo Haas is very good as the villainous Van Brun.
During the course of the expedition Quatermain and his party are joined by Umbopa. No-one knows where Umbopa comes from or why he wants to join the expedition. He does however have a knack for making himself useful and while Quatermain isn’t quite sure whether to trust him or not he decides that it might be safer to have Umbopa with them rather than against them.
There’s some great location shooting. The movie was shot in Technicolor and it looks fabulous.
Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines is one of the great adventure tales of all time. This movie certainly makes some significant changes to the plot. Hollywood obviously wanted a love story as well as an adventure story, which would probably have appalled Haggard.
1937 film adaptation is not without interest. It’s quite highly regarded although it’s also not overly faithful to the book and for my money the 1950 version is better.
I saw this film on cable TV so I can’t offer any opinions on the Region 1 DVD (which seems to be the only DVD edition).
The 1950 King Solomon’s Mines was made by MGM and it’s very much a big-budget A-picture with a consciously epic feel to it. It succeeds pretty well. Recommended.
Monday, November 26, 2018
Norman Conquest was a bit like a poor man’s Simon Templar. The first of the Norman Conquest novels appeared in 1937 and was very obviously heavily inspired by Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels. Norman Conquest had the same devil-may-care attitude, he was also young and debonair and handsome, he had a similar schoolboy sense of humour, he had the same lack of respect for the forces of law enforcement, he had the same manic energy. He belonged to the school of dashing rogue heroes that produced not only Simon Templar but also the Baron, the Toff and Blackshirt. Compared to the dazzling stylistic pyrotechnics of Leslie Charteris Berkeley Gray was a bit more obvious and as bit more overtly trashy and pulpy. Having said that, the best of the Norman Conquest novels such as Miss Dynamite are a great deal of fun.
Bringing Norman Conquest to the big screen was a sound idea. The casting of the hero was always going to be crucial. In the event Tom Conway was chosen and while I’m generally quite a fan of Conway’s work he was unfortunately the wrong choice. At 49 years of age he was at least fifteen years too old. For the character to work he has to have the insane over-confidence of youth and he has to be essentially an overgrown schoolboy. Tom Conway looks much too old and tired.
What he finds in Room 605 of the Park Plaza Hotel is a glamorous foreign blonde. He doesn’t remember much after that since said blonde shoots him with a gun that shoots a knockout drug. When he awakes he finds his old acquaintance Superintendent Williams (Sid James) who gives him the less than welcome news that he is now a murder suspect. The victim either fell or was pushed from the window and the superintendent is inclined to believe the latter.
So far it seems like a spy thriller with a bunch of eastern bloc trade officials wanting to defect rather than waiting to be shot. But then we find it has something to do with diamonds and something to do with Nazis. There are multiple double-crosses. Conquest demonstrates a remarkable ability to get himself knocked on the head or drugged or captured and if it’s not Conquest getting captured by the bad guys it’s his wife Pixie.
Eva Bartok is terrific as the mystery woman/femme fatale. She’s by far the best thing in the movie. She’s glamorous and sexy and wicked but also child-like and appealing and she’s amusing as well.
Before achieving fame as a comic actor Sid James was a busy and quite reliable character actor and he does an excellent job here. Superintendent Williams fulfils the same function in the Norman Conquest stories as Claud Eustace Teal in the Saint stories - the long-suffering copper who dreams of nailing the smart aleck young upstart on some serious charge but we know it will never happen.
As for the movie’s sexual politics, just remember that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there and you’ll probably find it as amusing as I did (I like the fact that old movies reflect the times in which they were made).
As far as I know this movie is only obtainable as a DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. The image quality is not fantastic but it’s acceptable (with some slight print damage) and sound quality is mostly OK (with some occasional but not too serious crackling).
Norman Conquest is a lightweight B-movie. It’s meant to be fun and it is fun. Recommended.
Monday, November 19, 2018
The first surprise is that Lang opens his movie in exactly the same way. The opening of Renoir’s movie is a visual tour-de-force, an extended dialogue-free sequence involving trains and railway tracks and setting up the relationship of the hero to the trains he loves so much. The images are magnificent, and for Lang to open his film in exactly the same way was a very brave thing to do. While it’s not quite as impressive, Lang gets away with it.
The stories in the two films run mostly in parallel until the ending. Jeff (Glenn Ford) has returned from the Korean War to his job as a train engineer. He becomes involved with the wife (Gloria Grahame) of the assistant yard manager, and a witness to what appears to be a murder.
The biggest change is in the personality of the hero. Jean Gabin as Lantier has a darkness within him, but Lang admitted he was forced to make Jeff a much more conventional hero. Glenn Ford is no Jean Gabin anyway, but he has little to work with. In some ways that perhaps suited Lang’s purpose. It makes Jeff a complete victim of fate.
Fortunately Grahame is equal to the task. Her performance is so good that the viewer, like Jeff, is never quite sure how much of what she’s telling him is the complete truth, an embellished version of the truth, or complete fabrication. The frustrating thing for us, and for him, is that there is certainly a considerable element of truth in her story.
Lang’s movie though is Lang’s movie, not Renoir’s, it reflects Lang’s concerns, and if you’re prepared to judge it on its own merits it’s a fine example of late American film noir. Highly recommended.
Saturday, November 10, 2018
In fact it probably qualifies as a quota quickie, quota quickies being very cheap movies that took advantage of British government legislation that forced exhibitors to show a quota of British-made movies. These movies are often unfairly despised. Some were terrible but many were good entertaining films.
Sexton Blake was a kind of pulp version of Sherlock Holmes (he even lived in Baker Street). He made his first appearance in 1893, in a story by Harry Blyth. Countless further stories followed (possibly as many as four thousand) and were published in a variety of cheap British magazines. The stories were written by many different writers (including some like John Creasey and Peter Cheyney who later became fairy well known). Blake has a youthful assistant named Tinker. The Sexton Blake stories range from very very good to very very bad.
One key difference between the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Sexton Blake stories is that the latter usually pitted the detective against one of a number of colourful diabolical criminal masterminds.
George Curzon plays Blake in this particular movie. He’s suave enough although he’s not going to convince anybody that he’s an action hero. As played by Curzon Blake has more of an air of a debonair man-about-town than Holmes, and he’s definitely much less neurotic.
Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) were adaptations of Victorian melodramas.
In Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror he plays diabolical criminal mastermind Michael Larron. By ordinary standards it’s an over-the-top exercise in hamminess but by Tod Slaughter standards this is a very subdued and subtle performance.
Tony Sympson plays Tinker. You might expect Tinker to be a comic relief character but he isn’t. He’s a reasonably competent and resourceful assistant.
Grant was apparently on the track of the master criminal known as the Snake, believed to be the head of the dreaded organised crime gang the Black Quorum, a gang responsible for most of the really big crimes in Europe and Britain. There’s an obvious parallel here to the criminal organisation run by Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty.
Blake’s first encounter with the Snake is at a stamp auction. Sexton Blake is a keen philatelist, as is the villainous Michael Larron. At the auction Blake renews his acquaintanceship with the glamorous Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt). Mademoiselle Julie seems to be in the same line of business as Sexton Blake, working sometimes as a freelancer and sometimes for the Sûreté.
There are some nice visual touches, such as the scene that awaits Blake in the gambling salon. The atmosphere is very pulpy and there’s every old-fashioned thriller cliché you could hope for, from deadly blow guns to doped cigars to concealed trap-doors.
This movie is one of six in VCI’s British Cinema Classic B Film Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is acceptable although far from pristine. The source material was obviously a TV print. These are very obscure movies so we’re lucky they’re available at all, and at a very reasonable price.
Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror is obviously a must-see for Tod Slaughter fans but anyone with a taste for outrageous pulpy fun should find plenty here to enjoy. It’s outrageous fun. Highly recommended.
Friday, November 2, 2018
Lemmy Caution was created by English novelist Peter Cheyney. The books were particularly popular in Europe and the first of the long series of French Lemmy Caution movies, Poison Ivy, appeared in 1953. The movies are on the whole better than the books.
Only one actor has ever played Lemmy Caution - American-born Eddie Constantine. Constantine had established himself as a fairly popular singer in France but the Lemmy Caution movies made him not just a movie star but a minor cultural icon.
Lemmy Caution is an FBI agent but all his cases seem to take him to Europe. It seems like he spends very little time in the United States. This case takes him to Italy.
The very clever opening sequence shows Caution making contact with another FBI agent. The case involves a very large amount of counterfeit U.S. currency which first came to the attention of the Italian authorities when the glamorous Henrietta Aymes (Nadia Gray) tried changing one of the forged notes at a bank in Rome. Henrietta’s husband Granworth committed suicide at about this time, or at least it looked like suicide at the time. When the eyewitness, a night watchman, changed his story it started to look a lot less like suicide.
Henrietta Aymes is obviously a classic femme fatale but she’s not the only one. Paulette (Dominique Wilms) is femme fatale number two. And they’re both terrific sexy bad girls. Both have plausible motives for murdering Granworth Aymes. There’s a complex, twisted and dangerous web of romantic and criminal relationships involving Henrietta and her husband and Pauline and her husband.
This movie is very much in the style of the classic American hardboiled private eye movies of the 40s. And it captures that flavour perfectly. There’s a leavening of humour but mostly it’s played fairly straight. The late Lemmy Caution movies, beginning with Godard’s Alphaville, may have been busily trying to deconstruct the genre but that’s definitely not the case with the early movies made between 1953 and 1963. This was a period when the French were still totally in love with American pop culture.
If you’re the sort of person who is put off by dubbed movies you don’t have to worry about this one. The English language dubbing is excellent, and the English version includes some truly wonderful hardboiled dialogue.
Poison Ivy, made a year earlier, Dames Don't Care is a bit more polished and Eddie Constantine is now entirely comfortable in the rôle and he’s superb. Constantine’s Lemmy Caution is one of the screen’s classic wise-cracking hardboiled tough guys.
Nadia Gray and Dominique Wilms (who had also appeared in Poison Ivy) do the femme fatale thing and they both do it extremely well.
As far as I am aware the only way to get the Lemmy Caution movies is on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. In the case of this film the image quality is quite OK. Sound quality is not so good with a fair bit of hiss but fortunately the dialogue is all perfectly understandable.
Dames Don't Care is stylish entertainment with generous helpings of both wit and action. Highly recommended.
Thursday, October 25, 2018
Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, a Korean War veteran who makes his living running illegal whiskey. It’s a small family business but Luke is finding himself squeezed by agents of the Treasury Department on one side and big-time gangsters on the other.
The action takes place in Harlan County in Tennessee, and illegal whiskey is the main industry in the county. These are hillbillies who have been distilling moonshine, and avoiding the revenue agents, for generations. It’s not just as profitable business. It’s part of their culture.
The transporters are guys like Luke, driving specially modified cars with racing engines and 250 gallon concealed tanks for the whiskey.
Luke’s charisma, resourcefulness and daring has made him the de facto leader of the illegal distillers in the valley. Luke certainly has guts. The question is whether his judgment is entirely sound. He doesn’t just refuse Kogan’s offer, he goes out of his way to antagonise and humiliate him. Kogan has a reputation for ruthlessness and one might think that it would have been wiser not to push him so far. But subtlety is not Luke’s style, and he possibly figures that if he refuses Kogan’s offer then Kogan is going to try to destroy him anyway so why bother refusing him politely?
Things are getting so grim that Luke’s Daddy decides it’s time to get out of the whiskery business, temporarily at least. Luke will make one last run and that will be it.
One of the cool things about a film noir-tinged 1958 movie is that you can’t be certain whether it’s going to have a downbeat ending or a happy ending. From the late 60s onwards movies started to become terribly predictable. You just know there’s going to be a nihilistic downbeat ending. But in 1958 there was no way to be sure which way a movie like this would go. And I’m certainly not going to tell you!
Gene Barry (an actor I’ve always liked) plays Treasury Agent Troy Barrett. In this case Barrett doesn’t really care about Luke Doolin. It’s Carl Kogan he wants. Luke is a bit of a bad boy but Kogan is a gangster and a cold-blooded killer. Barrett’s problem is to try to persuade the moonshiners that this time he’s on their side.
Mitchum’s son James makes his film debut here as Luke’s kid brother Robin.
Thunder Road is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 and there’s a U.S. Blu-Ray release as well. I caught the movie on cable TV so I can’t comment on the quality of those releases.
Thunder Road has no shortage of action. It was just about the first Hollywood move in which car chases were the main focus of the action, and those car chases are extremely well done. The film also benefits from lots of location shooting. This is a very entertaining mix of film noir and action movie, with some of the flavour of an exploitation movie as well. Highly recommended.
Thursday, October 18, 2018
Mr Wong lives in San Francisco and often helps the San Francisco Police on important and difficult cases. His relations with the police are exceptionally cordial. The movie starts with a murder committed in Mr Wong’s own home.
A Chinese woman has called at Wong’s house. By the time Wong makes his way from his laboratory to the sitting room the woman is dead, killed apparently by a fiendishly ingenious Chinese sleeve gun that fires poisoned darts. The woman was obviously a person of wealth and high social class and she has left a tantalising dying clue - the words ‘Captain J’ scrawled on a card.
Mr Wong will need assistance from San Francisco’s Chinese community and he obtains it, from one of the tongs.
Mr Wong is working closely with his old friend Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco PD. They are both also working closely with Feisty Girl Reporter Bobby Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), not by choice but because there seems to be no way to prevent her from involving herself. As Feisty Girl Reporters go she is at least not overly annoying.
Comic relief has been kept to a minimum. There’s some mild comic interplay between Bobby Logan and Captain Street but it’s very low-key and quite amusing and it even advances the plot. Given the fact that ill-advised and painfully unfunny comic relief sank a lot of otherwise promising B-movies of the 30s (including quite a few Monogram pictures) this is quite refreshing.
Boris Karloff of course does not really look all that convincingly Chinese but for an actor of Karloff’s quality that’s a minor problem. He still manages to sell us on his performance.
What’s fascinating about the three very popular 1930s Hollywood B-movie series involving Asian detectives is that the detectives were all quite distinctive. The success of the Charlie Chan movies obviously made both the Mr Moto and Mr Wong series possible but Moto and Wong are in no sense mere Charlie Chan clones. In the original books Mr Moto was a Japanese spymaster. The films made him a detective working for an early incarnation of Interpol but it’s still clear that Moto has certain connections. And he’s much of an action hero than Charlie Chan. Mr Wong is much more upper-class than Chan. He is a man of considerable education and taste.
After a successful career as a silent director William Nigh found himself relegated to helming B-movies for Poverty Row studios, a task he accomplished with reasonable efficiency. He directed the first five Mr Wong movies.
The production values are roughly what you expect from Monogram with a fairly limited array of sets but the picture doesn’t really look cheap or shoddy.
Mr Wong in Chinatown is bright and breezy and it’s fine B-movie entertainment with Karloff impressive as always. Highly recommended.
The first movie in the Mr Wong cycle, Mr Wong, Detective, is also well worth seeing.