Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Mystery of Mr Wong (1939)

The Mystery of Mr Wong is the second of the series starring Boris Karloff as the great Chinese detective Mr Wong. It was released in 1939.

The subject of Hollywood attitudes towards Asia and Asians from the 1920s to the 1950s is a fascinating one. There was a considerable interest in Asian subjects on the part of the American public and Hollywood saw those subjects as being good box office. In particular there was a huge vogue for Asian detectives. There was the immensely successful series of Charlie Chan films. 20th Century-Fox enjoyed comparable success with their Mr Moto crime/spy thrillers. And then there were Monogram’s Mr Wong movies.

All of these movies featured Chinese (or in the case of Mr Moto Japanese) characters as heroes. They were characters who were brilliant, brave, resourceful and noble. The other Asian characters who appeared in subsidiary rôles ran the gamut from the heroic to the entirely villainous.

These days of course the very idea of having a Chinese character portrayed by a Caucasian actor would be regarded by many as offensive in itself. But this is Karloff, a great actor, and Mr Wong is certainly not a mere stereotype. Karloff avoids any temptation to play the character for laughs or to ham it up, and in fact he underplays his performance. He also doesn’t look or sound remotely Chinese! He plays Mr Wong as an English gentleman, which given the fact that the character was supposedly educated at Oxford this is perhaps not as as bad an acting choice as you might think. And Karloff had a genius for endowing every character he ever played with dignity.

The reality was that these B-movie series rely a great deal on the charisma and star quality of the lead actors, and there was at that time no Chinese actor in Hollywood with both the ability and the box office clout to carry it off. When Karloff departed after the first five films Keye Luke took over the part but sadly he lacked the star appeal of Karloff (and he was also hampered by the fact that Karloff had stablished the character as a rather stately middle-aged man).

At least some of the supporting roles are played by Chinese actors, and none could really be regarded as stereotypes. Of course this was 1939, and growing US hostility to Japan (engaged at that time in a war with China) was going to encourage favourable attitudes towards China, so it’s possible that this political background is partly responsible for the generally sympathetic tone of the movie.

So how does it stack up simply as a murder mystery? It has an incredibly convoluted plot generously littered with red herrings, and it’s entertaining enough without being anything wildly sensational. A wealthy American collector named Edwards has obtained possession of a fabulously valuable jewel known as The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. This jewel was looted during the Japanese sack of Nanking, it has considerable cultural significance, and both the Chinese government and many Chinese-Americans are distinctly unhappy that it has been taken out of China. When the collector is murdered this could well be the motive, but it’s not by any means the sole possible motive. And to make things more interesting, the collector predicted his own slaying and left behind a letter naming his future murderer!

The murder itself is done cleverly and with great style, during a game of charades.

There are other possible motives, apart from The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. Edwards was an insanely jealous man and had quarrelled with a number of men he suspected of taking an excessive interest in his wife. He had also changed his will, providing another very strong motive. The plot is complex but satisfying.

Karloff is excellent, naturally. Grant Withers is in all the Wong movies, playing Wong’s policeman friend Captain Street. Street is a sympathetic character, a cop who does his best and is smart enough to know that it’s always a good thing to have Mr Wong’s help on a case. Dorothy Tree plays Edwards’ wife with perhaps a bit too much hysteria.

This movie series was based (very very loosely) on Hugh Wiley’s James Lee Wong stories (which I reviewed here). Wiley’s version of the character is also an educated man but he’s a Yale man rather than an Oxford man. He’s also a youngish man and he’s a special agent with the Treasury Department. The stories themselves are also much more hardboiled compared to the movies.

The Mr Wong movies have all fallen into the public domain and have had some very dubious DVD releases. All six movies have recently been released in a two-disc set from VCI and the transfers are really very good.

The Mystery of Mr Wong is a B-movie but it’s a quality B-movie, and it’s extremely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

You might also want to read my review of the next movie in the series, Mr Wong in Chinatown.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Dangerous Profession (1949)

A Dangerous Profession is a 1949 RKO film noir staring George Raft. Not everyone likes George Raft but I like him a lot. His co-star is Ella Raines and that’s another reason for me to be interested in this movie. She’s a rather underrated film noir player.

Raft is Vince Kane, an ex-cop who is now a bail bondsman. He likes it better and it pays better. A while back there was this dame by the name of Lucy Brackett and he thought maybe there might be something between but it didn’t work out. She had a husband but he didn't know that at the time. He hasn’t forgotten her though. And there was a securities robbery and a cop who got killed and a guy named Claude Brackett that the police wanted to talk to. Brackett claimed to be innocent. Maybe he was. Either way he took a powder and that was the end of that. Until now. Now Vince’s buddy Nick Ferrone (Jim Backus), a cop, has picked up Claude Brackett. The D.A. is pretty interested in Brackett and the bail is set very high - $25,000.

Claude Brackett cannot raise that sort of money and Lucy Brackett can't either. It would be crazy for Vince to put up the money but Vince likes to gamble and he likes women and he likes Lucy and if he’d thought about it maybe he wouldn’t have done it but he does put up the money. To no-one’s surprise Claude skips out again but this time it’s more complicated and this time it ends in murder and Vince is in a bit of a spot.

There are a lot of angles to this case. There’s a less than reputable lawyer called Dawson who put up a lot of money for the bail as well even though Claude Brackett had never heard of the guy. And there’s the guy that Vince spilled coffee on. Vince is interested in that guy.

Vince is under pressure from Nick Ferrone. He’s also under pressure from his partner, Joe Farley (Pat O’Brien. Actually the odd thing is that Farley doesn’t seem too worried.

Nick Ferrone is plenty worried though, and he’s not happy about Vince and that dame.

The essence of film noir is a protagonist who isn’t evil but has a weakness and it drags him into the noir nightmare world. In this case Vince has been tempted into playing a very dangerous game with some very dangerous people. But exactly what game is it that he’s playing? Which side is he playing on? And what is he playing for? Is it the girl? Or is it the money? Is he a hero or a villain? Maybe Vince isn’t sure of the answer to that question.

This is a typical George Raft performance. Raft was an actor who played tough guys in an admirably effortless way. Raft really was a tough guy. He didn’t have to act it. But what he was really good at was playing tough guys who were kind of sympathetic, and especially tough guys who took big chances because they liked taking chances. Vince Kane takes a lot of chances. This is a case he should have steered well clear of but that was never going to happen.

Ella Raines plays Lucy Brackett and she’s not an obvious femme fatale but sometimes it’s the ones that aren’t obvious that you really have to be careful of. Lucy tells a lot of lies. Sometimes maybe she tells the truth, but you can never be sure. She’s a pretty good liar.

The supporting cast is excellent. Jim Backus is better remembered for comic rôles (he was the millionaire in Gilligan’s Island and did a lot of cartoons including Mr Magoo) but he was actually quite versatile and here he does a fine job as a hardboiled cop. Pat O’Brien is terrific as Farley.

Everyone in this movie is a bit ambiguous. It’s hard to know who’s on the level and who’s a crook and who isn’t.

Ted Tetzlaff was at best a journeyman director but he does OK here. The script has some nice twists. It’s a bit confusing at times but in a film noir that can be a feature rather than a bug.

The Warner Archive release is very decent.

A Dangerous Profession may not be top-flight noir but it’s fine entertainment. It helps if you’re a George Raft fan (which I obviously am) but even if you’re not there are fine performances from all the other cast members. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Johnny Allegro (1949)

Johnny Allegro is a 1949 Columbia film noir starring George Raft. Now if you’re a regular reader you’ll know that George Raft’s name in the credits is more than enough to entice me.

Johnny Allegro (Raft) is a florist, and apparently a fairly successful one. Then Glenda Chapman (Nina Foch) waltzes up to him in the lobby of the hotel in which his florist shop is situated and starts kissing him. Which is slightly surprising since he’s never set eyes on her before. She hurried explains that she needs him to pretend to know her so she can get out of the building. She’s being tailed by some guy (and Johnny has already spotted the guy as being a cop). What can you do when a beautiful blonde you don’t know asks you to help her out in that kind of situation? You help her out. She is a beautiful blonde after all.

Within the first few minutes Raft, in the most effortless manner, has let us know everything we need to now about Johnny Allegro. He has a shady past (people without shady pasts don’t recognise someone as a cop with a single glance), he’s a guy with a sublime confidence in his ability to handle himself, he likes women and he’s prepared to take risks.

We find out a bit more about him later on. He used to go by the name of Johnny Rock. He’s been in Sing Sing and he left the prison several years ago without bothering to let the prison authorities know he was leaving. We also find out that he was a war hero. He may have had his differences with the law but he’s more than just a common hoodlum.

As for Glenda, she’s a Woman of Mystery. Johnny has no idea what she’s up to. He doesn’t care. He’s hooked.

In fact he’s hooked in more ways than one. He’s had an interesting conversation with a guy called Schultzy (Will Geer). Schultzy is a Treasury Agent and he’s real interested in Glenda. He wants Johnny’s help in the case and he holds out the implied promise that Johnny’s difficulties with the authorities can be made to go away. Johnny doesn’t care too much about that either. He the kind of guy who only cares about the important things in life, like beautiful blondes.

Glenda wants to disappear somewhere and she wants Johnny’s help. At this point he’s going to follow her wherever she decides to go.

Johnny is a fairly typical noir protagonist. He’s an ex-criminal but that was in the past and now he’s a respectable citizen with a solid business. He has an eye for the ladies but he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s well-liked. But like any good noir protagonist he has a couple of weaknesses. His weaknesses are dames and his tendency to take risks. Those weaknesses are going to get him deeply involved with dangerous people. People like Morgan Vallin (George Macready), and people like Glenda.

George Raft is close to being my favourite actor of this era. He has a minimalist acting style which to everyone likes but it’s a style of acting that I like very much. I’m also a fan of Alan Ladd and Robert Mitchum. It’s an acting style that is much harder to pull off successfully than it looks. George Raft practically invented it and no-one does it better. He doesn’t have to go around slugging guys to convince you he’s a tough guy. In this movie we see him arranging flowers and he does it in a way that lets you know that his confidence in his toughness is absolute. Raft also had charm, and he had cool in prodigious quantities.

Nina Foch had an unbelievably long acting career (65 years in the business) and she was no stranger to film noir. She handles the femme fatale rôle without any difficulties and her chemistry with Raft is subtle but effective.

George Macready of course was always a great villain. In this case he combines menace with hints of craziness and does so with panache. Will Geer is excellent as Schultzy, the Treasury Agent who has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Ted Tetzlaff was a cinematographer turned director. As a director he has an honest workman rather than an artist but he knows what he’s doing here. The script, by Karen DeWolf and Guy Endore from a story by James Edward Grant, has some nice hardboiled dialogue (which the three main stars relish) and a decent plot. It’s a movie that moves along at a brisk pace and it has enough noir style to satisfy those who enjoy such things.

The climactic hunt scenes on the island are pretty exciting.

Johnny Allegro was released on DVD by Sony and it’s also available in the nine-movie Noir Archive Blu-Ray set from Kit Parker Films. The Blu-Ray release was essentially a way to fit nine movies on three discs. Johnny Allegro gets a transfer that is basically DVD quality, but good DVD quality. Image quality is excellent.

As George Raft movies go it’s not quite in the same league as the superb Nocturne or even the underrated Johnny Angel but Johnny Allegro is still a treat for George Raft fans. He’s in top form and this movie delivers solid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Cover Girl (1944)

What ingredients do you need for a successful musical? You need songs, dancing, a few laughs, some romance and you need glamour. Columbia’s 1944 Technicolor musical extravaganza Cover Girl has all these elements. The songs are pretty good. The dancing is provided by Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly so it’s obviously top-notch. The comedy is provided by Phil Silvers and Eve Arden and it’s reasonably good. The romance angle works. And it has absolutely outrageous amounts of glamour. Cover Girl should work perfectly, and to a large extent it does.

The plot is your standard off-the-shelf backstage musical plot as used in countess other musicals. It doesn’t matter. This movie has more than enough going for it in every other department.

Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) and Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) are a dancing team in Danny’s Brooklyn night club. Danny is grooming Rusty for stardom. It’s not something you can rush. Danny knows that if it happens too fast it won't last. You need patience and careful judgment. And then Rusty, more by accident than anything else, is picked as the cover girl for Vanity magazine’s 50th anniversary issue and it all starts happening much too fast. Maybe not too fast for Rusty, but too fast for Danny. Danny thought that he and Rusty would reach stardom together but now Rusty doesn’t need him. Which is a double blow since he’s madly in love with her.

It’s not that Rusty is selfish or ungrateful to Danny. She’s not that kind of girl. It’s just that opportunity has beckoned and she can’t very well say no to it. And before she knows what’s happening she’s on a roller-coaster road to fame and fortune and she couldn’t get off if she tried.

Vanity magazine publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger) had had a disastrous romance with Rusty’s grandmother Maribelle forty years earlier and he wants to recapture his past by marrying Rusty. There are several flashback sequences, some successful and some less so, with Hayworth as Maribelle. Broadway impresario Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman) is also after Rusty although whether he’s really in love with her or just sees her as a potential star who will make him a lot of money is open to debate. Sooner or later Rusty will have to make her choice.

In 1944 Gene Kelly was not yet a major star but he was ambitious. Not just ambitious for stardom. He and his co-choreographer Stanley Donen wanted to take the movie musical in new directions. Cover Girl is a sort of dry run for their later collaborations. They didn’t yet have enough clout to do exactly what they wanted but this film did give them the chance to put some of their ideas into practice. The famous sequence of Gene Kelly dancing with himself, trying to work through his fears and doubts, is a pointer to the future.

At this stage Rita Hayworth was a star but not yet in the top rank. Cover Girl would make her a very big star indeed. While Kelly is very good the movie belongs to Hayworth. She demonstrates her star quality in no uncertain terms.

Eve Arden is terrific and very funny as Coudair’s assistant. Phil Silvers is a matter of taste. I don’t mind him and in the 40s the hero in a movie like this had to have a comic sidekick.

This is an odd sort of musical. It’s an old-fashioned backstage musical trying rather tentatively to push the boundaries of the genre. The thin script is the main problem. It undermines the attempts to give the characters more psychological depth than was customary in a mid-40s musical.

The Region 4 DVD doesn’t have much in the way of extras, apart from a very brief but perceptive interview with Baz Luhrmann. It offers an excellent transfer. The colours look great.

Despite some weaknesses this is a must-see for Gene Kelly fans. The innovations he introduced to the genre are all here, albeit in embryo. And it’s a must-see for Rita Hayworth fans who want to see her at her most seductive. Cover Girl is highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

For You I Die (1947)

For You I Die is a Poverty Row film noir from 1947.

Johnny Coulter (Paul Langton) and Matt Gruber (Don C. Harvey) have just busted out of prison. Only Johnny didn’t want to escape. Gruber put a gun in his ribs and forced him to help him escape. Johnny was a trusty and only had a year left to serve so he’s pretty unhappy about the whole situation. In any case he heads for Maggie Dillon’s diner where Matt assures him that his girlfriend Hope Novak will look after him.

When Johnny gets there he meets a girl and assuming it’s Hope he spills the whole story. But this girl isn’t Hope, she’s Georgie, who also works at the diner. Hope, even though she’s a convict’s girlfriend, is a good girl. Georgie maybe isn’t so good. So it may have been a mistake to tell everything to Georgie.

Hope is pretty sensible. She tries to persuade Johnny that the smart thing to do would probably be to give himself up (and she’s undoubtedly correct). But if a film noir protagonist ever did the smart thing we wouldn’t have a film.

Maggie offers Johnny work pumping gas at the diner and for a while it seems like he’s safe. He has a bit of a scare when the deer is held up but he comes out of that looking like a hero. There is however the problem of Georgie. If ever a girl was an obvious femme fatale it’s Georgie. And she’s decided she likes the look of Johnny. It’s a pretty reasonable assumption that Georgie is going to cause some trouble before this movie ends.

The real problem is that Matt Gruber has arranged to meet Johnny at the diner in a few days’ time. That’s going to be really awkward since Johnny and Hope have grown kinda fond of one another. Matt might not take too kindly to that, and Matt is a psychotic thug. Before Matt arrives Johnny will have to decide what he’s going to do - is he going to wait for Matt, is he going to give himself up, is he going to make a run for it with bad girl Georgie or is he going to try to make a run for it with good girl Hope?

The real problem for the movie is that there’s not enough plot for the 76 minute running time. There’s not near enough plot. For much too long the characters talk about doing things and wait for things to happen but nothing actually happens. When things finally do start to move at the end of the movie we get a climax that is OK though perhaps a bit contrived.

Paul Langton is quite effective as Johnny. Johnny is a guy with a chip on his shoulder the size of Arizona but Langton is able to make him reasonably sympathetic. Cathy Downs is very good as Hope, a good girl who perhaps has a past that is more colourful than it should be. She’s an actress whose career never really took off for some reason. Jane Weeks goes a bit too over-the-top as the bad girl Georgie but her performance is great fun.

There’s some very irritating and completely out-of-place comic relief from Mischa Auer as an eccentric Russian cab driver-musician-artist, and it goes on and on. And there’s more feeble comic relief from Roman Bohnen as the drunk cook Smitty.

The Alpha Video DVD offers us a transfer that is atrocious even by their standards. The problem it’s that much of the film takes place at night, and the night scenes are so dark that it’s difficult to keep track of what is going on and who is who. On the other hand if you want to see this movie this might be the only way to see it.

For You I Die almost makes it as a compelling film noir. It has good moments. It has one priceless gem of film noir dialogue. It has fairly good performances. But it’s too slow and gets sidetracked too often by irrelevancies and the ending doesn’t quite deliver the goods. There are some truly wonderful Poverty Row film noir obscurities, movies that turn out to be neglected gems, but this isn’t one of them. It’s not awful but it’s not all that good. Maybe worth a rental.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Portrait in Black (1960)

Portrait in Black is one of those gloriously overwrought melodramas produced by Ross Hunter for Universal in the 50s and 60s. Right from the start we know that this one is going to be even more overwrought than most.

Sheila Cabot (Lana Turner) is married to shipping tycoon Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan). Matthew Cabot is a control freak, he is cruel and vindictive and he enjoys humiliating those in his power. Now he is suffering from a painful and incurable illness which makes his personality even more unpleasant. Dr David Rivera (Anthony Quinn) keeps his patient’s pain under control as best he can. Matthew Cabot’s is dying. But he is dying very slowly. Much too slowly for Sheila and Dr Rivera. They’ve been having an affair. There’s no way Matthew Cabot would ever agree to a divorce and if Sheila was foolish enough to ask him she’s be setting herself up for further emotional torture, plus Matthew would certainly ruin Dr Rivera’s career. They will just have to be patient and wait for her husband to die.

Or will they? Dr Rivera is a doctor. How hard would it be for him to hasten Matthew Cabot’s departure from this vale of tears? After all his death would not exactly come as a shock. It is very unlikely that anyone would be overly suspicious. And Dr Rivera is a very clever doctor.

The plan goes very smoothly and they seem to be home free until the first letter arrives. It’s not exactly a blackmail letter, but it makes it pretty obvious that somebody has discovered their neat little scheme. What are they going to do now? They might have done better to have tried to brazen it out in the hope that the anonymous correspondent would turn out to have no actual evidence but instead they decide to take a more pro-active line and by doing so they find themselves drawn into one foolish mistake after another.

The great thing about the screenplay (by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and based on their own play) is that it’s utterly predictable. We can see each disaster coming up a mile away. And Portrait in Black being the kind of overheated melodrama that it is that predictability is a major asset. It’s what makes melodrama fun - you know what’s going to happen next and you thoroughly enjoy the anticipation.

This is classic Ross Hunter material. The high melodrama plot. The deliciously overripe dialogue. The glossiness. The excess. There’s a splendid cast and every single one of the stars knows how to overact. Lana Turner of course is in her element. She was one of the truly great bad actresses. Anthony Quinn’s histrionics would be embarrassing in most movies but in this one they’re just perfect. Richard Basehart as Matthew Cabot’s business partner Howard Mason is a painfully obvious snake in the grass. Sandra Dee is charming as Sheila Cabot’s stepdaughter Cathy but she manages to overact as well. And John Saxon is her boyfriend, a man with quite a few grudges.

The supporting players are enormous fun. There’s Ray Walston as the slightly sinister chauffeur, Anna May Wong as the slightly sinister housekeeper and Virginia Grey as Mathew Cabot’s slightly sinister secretary. And Lloyd Nolan makes a great melodrama villain as Matthew Cabot.

And of course it is all done in the Ross Hunter visual style - it’s in colour and it’s widescreen, it looks lavish, the sets and the costumes reflect a world of glamour, money, high fashion and style. Everything is glossy, everything looks expensive, everything is slightly overdone, but enjoyably overdone. There is nothing remotely gritty or realistic about the style of this movie. Visually it’s a kind of extreme anti-film noir.

There’s a definite Hitchcock influence (pretty much inevitable in a mystery/suspense movie made in 1960) and even a few hints of Hitchcockian black comedy as carefully contrived schemes start to self-destruct. Of course it lacks the genuine suspense of a Hitchcock movie. It’s like someone trying to do a Hitchcock film without understanding anything of Hitchcock’s methods. Mind you, the two-car nightmare drive in the rain is a very entertaining very elaborate set-piece that works in its own way.

This movie was released on DVD by Universal Home Video a few years back as part of a two-movie two-disc set, paired with Madame X. Portrait in Black gets a pretty decent anamorphic transfer.

Portrait in Black is gloriously melodramatic, gloriously trashy and gloriously entertaining. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Bengal and The Indian Tomb (1959)

The Tiger of Bengal (also released as The Tiger of Eschnapur which is a more faithful translation of the original German title Der Tiger von Eschnapur) is the first instalment of Fritz Lang’s so-called Indian Epic, a two-part adventure epic set in India and made in 1959 after Lang’s return to Germany. The second instalment was The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal). They are in fact a single two-part movie. The Indian Epic is based on the 1918 novel The Indian Tomb by Thea von Harbou, who was married to Lang from 1922 to 1933. She and Lang had written the screenplay for a film adaptation to be directed by Lang in the early 20s but, much to Lang’s disgust, the project was taken away from him by the producer.

The film bears only a passing resemblance to the novel. What it does retain from the novel is the strange, beautiful and sinister atmosphere of the enormous palace that is the setting for most of the action.

In the film German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) arrives in Eschnapur in India where he is to design and build schools and hospitals for the local ruler, the fabulously wealthy Maharajah Chandra (Walther Reyer). On his way to Eschnapur Berger had made the acquaintance of the dancer Seetha (Debra Paget). He is fascinated by her and she is by no means indifferent to him. Unfortunately the Maharajah is equally fascinated by Seetha. He hopes that she will take the place of his deceased maharani.

It’s obviously a very dangerous situation that is likely to lead to big trouble for all concerned. The Maharajah does not intend to abandon his attempt to win Seetha and Berger does not intend to give her up.

There’s also trouble stirring behind the scenes at the palace, with conspiracies and counter-conspiracies.

The Tiger of Bengal and its sequel, The Indian Tomb, were released several months apart in Germany but they are in fact a single film, with a total running time of something like three hours and twenty minutes. Turning a fairly short novel into a very long film obviously meant that apart from the other plot changes a lot of stuff was going to have to be added. Some of the mystery and the dreamlike quality of the novel are lost but there’s a great deal of extra action and excitement and the story is (not unnaturally) made a lot more cinematic.

The Indian Tomb continues the story where The Tiger of Bengal leaves off - in fact The Tiger of Bengal even has a classic cliffhanger ending. There is however a slight change of tone - the foreboding in the first film becomes outright menace in the second and Berger’s sister and her husband, who have arrived from Germany in search of Berger, take centre stage for a large part of The Indian Tomb, and do so in a way that those who have read the novel will find rather interesting.

The movie has often been criticised for its special effects. I have no idea why. Some are a bit iffy but on the whole they’re no worse than you’ll see in most movies, even big-budget movies, of its era. There’s some great Indian location shooting (the palace on the lake is the same one that appears much later in the best of the Roger Moore Bond films, Octopussy). The sets are superb, the costumes are gorgeous. It looks like a very expensive movie which it almost certainly wasn’t. At least not by Hollywood standards, although there was obviously some serious money spent on it. But if you want to make a great looking movie you need talent more than you need money. And Lang had the talent.

Debra Paget did not have the greatest of Hollywood careers (although she was terrific in Princess of the Nile) but she was absolutely the right choice to play Seetha. She has the right slightly exotic beauty and she knows how to make a dance suitably erotic. Seetha is supposed to be half-Indian and half-European and Paget has no trouble getting away with that. She looks right for the part and that matters more than her performance (which is in any case perfect adequate).

Paul Hubschmid is perhaps a little too passive. Walther Reyer does very well as Chandra, who is not so much a villain as a man who has been corrupted by too much unquestioned power. His motives are comprehensible and he really is justified in feeling betrayed even if his response is excessive. Chandra is a more interesting character than Berger and he is in many ways the real focus of the story.

Of course the characters are not meant to be real flesh-and-blood characters with lots of psychological complexity. It’s not that sort of story. It’s much closer to fairy tale than realistic psychological drama and we don’t expect in-depth character analysis in a fairy tale.

This is a movie that bewilders some Lang fans, mostly because they make the mistake of taking him too seriously. He was one of the greatest film-makers of all time and made plenty of complex, intelligent and provocative movies but he always understood that before anything else a movie has to be entertaining, and he liked to entertain. He also shared with Thea von Harbou an enthusiasm for pulpy popular adventure fiction. This was a movie that Lang had wanted to make for nearly forty years. It was a true labour of love. Although Werner Jörg Lüddecke gets the screenwriting credit Lang made major contributions to the script. There are lots of echoes of Metropolis (which had also been scripted by Lang and Thea von Harbou). Lang was able to make the movie the way he wanted to and it is in many ways very characteristically Langian. Even in his American period he made the underrated adventure film Moonfleet (which is interestingly more highly regarded in Europe than the U.S.). It was by no means some strange departure for Lang.

With Lang you always have to remember that he was raised as a Catholic and whether or not he was a practising Catholic or a good Catholic his outlook remained essentially Catholic throughout his life. Critics who obsess over the rôle of fate in Lang’s films miss the point. Lang believed that fate was inescapable but he also believed in free will - whatever fate has in store for us we can still choose how to deal with that fate and redemption is always possible. It always amazes me that there are critics who fail to see the importance of redemption even in a Lang film like You Only Live Once in which it is absolutely central. In the Indian Epic fate certainly plays a part but Seetha, Berger and Chandra all make choices. If you doubt any of this watch the ending of this movie closely. It’s all about redemption.

It’s also important to realise that the movie was in some ways an exercise in style. The visual impact, the atmosphere and the mood are more important than the plot.

The Indian Epic is an adventure film but it’s also to some extent a fairy tale. It takes place in a world that is supposed to be contemporary India but looks more like an imagined version of 19th century India with hints of the Arabian Nights and other fantastic fictional worlds. There are no radios or telephones or automobiles. You might think that Lang could easily have chosen to set the movie in 19th century India but it’s significant that he did not do this. The presence of the British would have been a fatal complication - it is important for the Maharajah to be an absolute ruler with no limitations on his power. In this respect it’s very reminiscent of the world of the Arabian Nights rather than India.

Mention must be made of Seetha’s snake dance. OK, the cobra isn’t very convincing, but when you’ve got a near-nude Debra Paget doing a startlingly erotic dance I don’t think anybody is going to be looking at the cobra. It’s one the scenes that amply justifies Paget's casting.

Lang is smart enough to make few compromises with any kind of strict realism. The film takes place in its own world, which is as it should be.

The question of authorship is intriguing. Thea von Harbou wrote the original novel. She and Lang wrote the screenplay for the 1921 film which Lang had hoped to direct. There was a 1938 German remake directed by Richard Eichberg and a number of plot points from that version found their way into Lang’s 1959 version (for which Eichberg gets a writing credit in Lang’s version). Werner Jörg Lüddecke wrote the original screenplay for the 1959 version but it was very substantially rewritten by Lang.

To add some confusion the two Lang films were edited together into a single 90-minute version for U.S. - Lang hated everything about this version apart from the title Journey to the Lost City which he loved.

Lang’s Indian Epic was a huge box-office hit in Germany. It made a lot of money and it went on making money. The critics in Germany hated the film. Being mid-century film critics they wanted serious realistic politically aware miserable films. They simply could not process the idea that a lavish exotic adventure movie might be something worthwhile. They also disliked the movie because they thought it old-fashioned. Which of course was exactly what Lang was aiming for. Most of all they hated it because it was incredibly popular. Anything that the public loved had to be bad. Critics still struggle with this movie and tend to dismiss it. But Lang liked making popular movies. Unlike the critics Lang had no problem with the idea that a movie could be artistically satisfying and also entertaining and also popular. He liked making adventure movies and science fiction and thrillers and yes he also liked making westerns. He added his personal stamp to all these genres.

It’s worth adding that to appreciate this movie fully it certainly helps if you’ve seen Metropolis, and probably Moonfleet, but definitely Metropolis. There are a lot of fascinating parallels.

Eureka’s Region 2 DVD release offers superb transfers and it’s packed with extras.

The Indian Epic is visually stunning and it’s terrific entertainment. This is pure Lang. He had complete creative freedom. This is a movie he desperately wanted to make and he was able to make it exactly the way he wanted to. It’s not the movie that critics at the time wanted him to make and it’s not the movie that many modern critics wished that he had made, but it is the movie he wanted to make and I think it succeeds. Very highly recommended.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Dick Tracy (1945)

Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip was immensely popular back in the 1930s. It was inevitable that Hollywood would take an interest. Four serials were made by Republic with Ralph Byrd as Tracy and four feature films from RKO followed. Morgan Conway took over the rôle in the first two films and Ralph Byrd in the last two. The first of the RKO films was Dick Tracy, also known as Dick Tracy, Detective, was released in 1945.

I’m note sure why (given that I’m such a keen B-movie fan) but I approached this film with very low expectations. That turned out to be a mistake.

In the serials Dick Tracy is a G-Man but in the movies (as in the comic strip) he’s a cop, with the Homicide Squad.

A brutal murder shocks the city. More murders follow. The motive appears to be extortion although Dick has his doubts about that. The extortion demands were written by someone signing himself Splitface. The victims were viciously slashed to death with a knife. Now the mayor has received an extortion demand as well. He’s not the bravest man in the world so he’s putting a lot of pressure on the police to solve this crime.

The trail leads Tracy to a creepy mortician named Deathridge, a night-club owner named Steve Owen and an astrologer and occultist named Professor Linwood J. Starling. They’re certainly involved, but it’s not clear how. Dick Tracy’s girlfriend got a look at the killer so they know how he got his name - he has a very large and very ugly scar on his face.

This is obviously a kind of serial killer movie, but not in the modern sense. There’s no question of any sexual motive. On the other hand it’s plain that the killer is one very crazy guy.

The trick with a movie like this is to retain enough of the comic-strip flavour that it doesn’t become just a generic crime B-movie but not so much that it becomes too silly or implausible. This movie manages that trick remarkably well. It’s generally realistic but it’s a kind of heightened or subtly warped realism. The villain is outrageously villainous but still just about believable. The plot is just slightly outlandish but again it doesn’t stretch credibility to breaking point. Dick Tracy is a square-jawed action hero but we can buy him as a hardboiled cop. This is not quite real life but it’s not quite out-and-out fantasy. The gadgets (like the famous wristwatch radio) have been dropped because they would have given it a slight science fiction feel and in a non-science fiction film they would have undermined believability too much.

This is a surprisingly violent movie and the violence is quite brutal by 40s standards. And the violence isn’t comic-strip violence. Overall the movie has quite a dark edge. Visually it’s very film noir with just the faintest hint of gothic and perhaps even a touch of German Expressionism. Director William Berke doesn’t try to get too gimmicky but he uses both low-angle and high-angle shots on occasion to add to the sinister mood. This is a very well-made movie.

Morgan Conway doesn’t look quite right as Dick Tracy but his performance more than makes up for this. He captures the feel of the character perfectly. Anne Jeffreys is excellent as Tracy’s likeable but jealous girlfriend Tess Trueheart. Mickey Kuhn manages to be completely non-irritating as Junior. Even when he gets himself involved n the case we don’t mind since this is a comic-strip movie. Mike Mazurki is wonderfully sinister and Trevor Bardette is both fun and slightly bizarre as Professor Starling. Jane Greer is wasted as Owen’s daughter Judith, a sadly underwritten part.

There’s no irritating comic relief character. There is some humour but it’s organic to the plot. And it’s effective.

If you’re expecting anything remotely resembling the comic-strip and comic-book movies and TV series of later eras you might be disappointed. There is not a trace of high camp. There is one brief hint of the paranormal but it can be explained away quite rationally. There are no gadgets. It’s basically the standard crime B-movie formula with a few key differences but those differences give it a unique flavour. It’s also insanely entertaining. Highly recommended.

Since I own a couple of the other RKO Dick Tracy movies you can expect further Dick Tracy reviews from me.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942)

Saboteur isn’t numbered among Alfred Hitchcock’s great films, and it’s not difficult to see why. This 1942 wartime thriller has some terrific moments and some superb visual set-pieces, but it just doesn’t quite come together. The biggest problem lies in the casting, and in the fact that it’s a virtual remake of his classic The 39 Steps.

The basic premise - an innocent man on the run after being wrongly accused of a crime - is a theme Hitchcock returned to again and again. In this case we have an act of sabotage in an aircraft factory, and a young and rather naïve worker (Barry Kane, played by Robert Cummings) finds himself the chief suspect. He encounters the inevitable blonde (played by Priscilla Lane) and gets into a series of scrapes and narrow escapes from both the law and the real saboteurs.

Unfortunately Robert Cummings, while being likeable enough, lacks the combination of charm and that slight edge of ruthlessness that made Robert Donat such a compelling hero in The 39 Steps. And Priscilla Lane makes a very bland heroine in comparison to Madeleine Carroll. There’s also a complete lack of romantic chemistry between the two leads. The supporting players are much more impressive - Norman Lloyd is nicely sinister as the real saboteur, Alan Baxter is wonderfully twisted as a quietly spoken but very disturbing killer, and Otto Kruger is perfectly oily as the leader of the saboteurs.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is the nature of the people that Kane accidentally encounters along the way. They’re all misfits or outsiders in some way. The characters who seem like the most upright and decent all-American solid citizens turn out out to be murderers and traitors, while the misfits and outsiders turn out to be the decent people who genuinely do the right thing. He comes across a kindly blind man whose mistrust of the officers of the law seems almost as extreme as Hitchcock’s own notorious dislike of the police, but the blind man’s insight into human nature is sound and leads him to do the correct thing even though it means lying to the police.

A collection of circus freaks gives a compelling lesson in the real meaning of democracy and justice. And a jovial truck driver with no love for the police either acts from an instinctive understanding of the requirements of humanity.

One can’t help feeling that the Production Code Administration must have been taken in by  the movie’s apparent patriotic message and that they failed to notice that the movie is actually quite sceptical of patriotism when it’s combined with unthinking zeal and unreasoning suspicion.

The movie ends with two spectacular set-pieces. There’s a real shootout in Radio City Music Hall that occurs while a make-believe shootout occurs on the screen, and there’s the famous climax on the Statue of Liberty. Both are superbly executed, and they’re sufficient reason on their own to make this movie worthwhile.

Despite its undoubted flaws Saboteur has plenty of other skilfully rendered moments of suspense as well, and it’s undeniably entertaining. While it's not in the same league as the best of his 1940s movies such as Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious, even a Hitchcock movie of the second rank is still very much worth seeing.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (1935)

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a 12-chapter 1935 Universal aviation adventure serial. And it’s a pretty spectacular example of the breed. This was actually a follow-up to Universal’s 1934 Tailspin Tommy serial.

Tommy Tompkins (known as Tailspin Tommy and played by Clark Williams) and his pal Skeeter Milligan (Noah Beery Jr) work for Three Point Airlines. Their latest job is surveying an oil pipeline on the Pacific island of Nazil. The survey will be made by dirigible but the dirigible meets the fate that alas usually met such beasties - it runs into a typhoon and crashes. Just as Tommy has performed the daring feat of docking with the dirigible in mid-air.

The survey is resumed but using two aircraft - Tommy’s biplane and a cabin monoplane piloted by Betty Lou Barnes (Jean Rogers), the niece of oil tycoon Ned Curtis (Bryant Washbourne). But more trouble awaits our intrepid heroes.

There’s a virtual civil war raging on the island over control of both the island and the oil. It’s a war between two branches of the Casmetto family (there are two brothers who both seem to think they own the whole island) and there’s a traitor in the camp of the good guys. The bad guys also have an air force, led by a mysterious pilot with XX on his flying helmet. There’s also another mysterious pilot, known as The Eagle, who seems to be on the side of the good guys but no-one has any idea of his identity. There’s also a jovial Irish chef who is really a newspaperman and we’re not sure at first which side he’s on but he’s certainly in the thick of things.

The plot has all the standard serial elements with narrow escapes, the heroes getting captured, the heroine getting captured, a few double-crosses and an abundance of action. And of course a touch of romance. Betty Lou is clearly crazy about Tommy and Inez Casmetto, daughter of the good Casmetto brother, obviously thinks Skeeter is kinda cute.

Clark Williams as Tommy is an adequate hero. Noah Beery Jr as Skeeter steals every scene he’s in. Jean Rogers is adorable as feisty gal pilot Betty Lou Barnes. Needless to say she’s constantly getting herself into scrapes. There’s the usual assortment of heavies. The chief villains are certainly ruthless although perhaps not as colourful as one might like.

The aerial sequences are absolutely superb and are mostly original with surprisingly little use of stock footage. There are lots of dogfights but they’re mostly inconclusive, which of course is intentional - you don’t actually want the good guys shot down and you don’t want the bad guys shot down either, at least not until you’re getting close to the final chapter. While the bad guys and The Eagle have machine-gun on their aircraft Tommy’s aircraft is unarmed so when it comes to a dogfight he has to improvise a bit (such as tossing hand grenades at his aerial opponents). Perhaps it was felt that if Tommy flew an armed plane it would make him seem less of an insanely brave hero.

Most of the cliffhangers involve impending aerial disasters although sometimes the mix is varied a bit. Apart from air combats there’s plenty of gunplay on the ground. And since this is a serial there are of course some hidden passageways and some dungeons!

There’s certainly no faulting the job done by director Ray Taylor. He keeps things moving along and mostly avoids the slow patches that bedevil lesser serials. Serials are by their very nature formulaic and repetitive. The trick is to keep coming up with clever variations on the standard plot devices and cliffhanger endings. This serial on the whole manages to do that.

One thing that amuses me is that Nazil is supposed to be a Pacific island but everybody seems to be Mexican. And it all looks rather Californian.

An unfortunate feature of most serials is the flashback episode comprised mainly of footage from previous chapters. Happily there is no such episode in this serial.

The DVD (I believe there’s also a Blu-Ray) from VCI offers extraordinarily good transfers. Which is a major bonus in this case since the flying sequences look particularly impressive.

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a fairly conventional serial but it’s extremely well executed and it has terrific aerial stunts. Very highly recommended.