Saturday, July 13, 2019

Princess of the Nile (1954)

It is 1249 and Egypt is groaning under the heel of the Bedouin warriors of the wicked Rama Khan (Michael Rennie). The virtuous Prince Haidi (Jeffrey Hunter), the son of the Caliph of Baghdad, has just arrived on the scene and he is not pleased with what he finds. The people seem to be on the brink of revolt, his trusted aide and friend has just been killed by a slab of masonry hurled from a rooftop by a member of the disgruntled populace and he has just been knifed by the beautiful fiery dancing girl Taura (Debra Paget). This sets the stage for Princess of the Nile, a lightweight but entertaining 1954 Technicolor costume epic.

Rama Khan is determined to destroy Prince Haidi and the feeling is mutual. The odds seem to favour Rama Khan, or they would favour him except that Rama Khan has another deadly enemy in the person of Taura. And he soon finds himself with a new enemy, the Princess Shalimar, daughter of the nominal ruler of Egypt, Prince Selim (the actual ruler is of course the Caliph in Baghdad). In fact the two women are one and the same woman, Taura being merely a disguise the princess puts on so she can keep in touch with the mood of her people. Of course it’s absolutely obvious to the viewer that Taura and the princess are the same woman but we’re expected to believe that nobody has ever noticed the resemblance.

Rama Khan is in cahoots with the evil Shaman who is plotting with Rama Khan. Taura on the other hand has the thieves of the city behind her and they prove to be quite formidable.

Of course the brave and noble Prince Haidi and the brave and spirited Princess Shalimar fall in love, and of course the wicked Rama Khan has plans to force the princess into marrying him.

I must say I’m a bit doubtful that a good Muslim woman like the princess would be offering up prayers to the goddess Isis. I rather suspect that the writers’ ideas about 13th century Egypt were somewhat sketchy.

Mostly this movie looks great although some of the matte paintings make the limited budget a bit obvious. There are some reasonably good action scenes, although of course full-scale battle scenes would have been too much of a stretch.

The underwater secret passageway leading from her bathtub which is employed by the princess to leave the royal palace discreetly is a nice touch.

The movie’s biggest minus is that the plot is thin and at times stretches credibility (even by the standards of costume epics). There’s also Jeffrey Hunter, a bit too stolid for this sort of movie. Michael Rennie is not a favourite of mine but he does quite well as Rama Khan.

Luckily there are plenty of pluses. The costumes are gorgeous. The support cast is excellent and it includes Michael Ansara, a particular favourite of mine. Also look out for Lee van Cleef in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part. There are lots of handmaidens so here’s a plethora of feminine pulchritude on display.

And there’s Debra Paget. First off she has a stunning figure and her costumes are artfully designed to ensure that we don’t overlook that important fact. She does a lot of dancing. Her dances are supposed to be sexy, and they are. She also gets to do some sword-fighting! And she’s perfectly cast. She’s tempestuous and passionate and headstrong and very keenly aware of her effect on men. She has the fiery temper you expect in beautiful princesses and glamorous dancing girls. Debra Paget’s problem as far as her career was concerned seems to have been that she was the right actress to play sexy temptresses in movies such as Princess of the Nile and when that genre began to fade her career faded. She gave up acting at the age of 30 to marry a millionaire. Princess of the Nile was her one real taste of stardom. A pity because she does the temptress thing with great style.

The Fox Cinema Archives made-on-demand release is an open matte transfer. Image quality is terrific. There are of course no extras.

This is very much B-movie stuff although it’s rather lavish for a B-movie (it was produced by Panoramic Productions which made lower budget films for 20th Century-Fox distribution). It’s a fun adventure flick but the main reason to watch it is to see Debra Paget strutting her stuff. Which she does so well that Princess of the Nile can be highly recommended.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Number Six (1962)

Number Six is one of the many Edgar Wallace adaptations done by Merton Park Studios in Britain in the early 60s. It’s an enjoyable little crime B-movie.

Charles Valentine (Ivan Desny) has never been convicted of any crime. In fact there’s never been enough evidence even to charge him. Nonetheless the police in several countries are very interested in Mr Valentine. He has had a number of very wealthy girlfriends, all of whom have met with sudden and very fatal accidents. He is strongly suspected of being a kind of modern Bluebeard. Now that he has taken up residence in the United Kingdom Detective Superintendent Hallett (Michael Goodliffe) of Scotland Yard is very interested in him indeed. Interested enough to give Number Six the job of keeping a very close eye on him. Only Superintendent Hallett knows the identity of Number Six. He could be one of a number of people close to Mr Valentine.

Valentine has now acquired a new girlfriend. Nadia Leiven (Nadja Regin) is young, beautiful, spoilt, arrogant and not very bright. And very rich.

Valentine has also acquired an associate, Jimmy Gale (Brian Bedford). Jimmy has a talent for disposing of inconvenient people, disposing of them in a very efficient manner. Jimmy has already made himself indispensable by eliminating a man who tried to kill Valentine.

The mystery element here is the identity of Number Six. There are only a few possibilities but we’re still kept guessing, and of course Charles Valentine is also kept guessing. He knows of the existence of Number Six because Superintendent Hallett made a point of telling him. It’s Hallett’s idea of psychological warfare. It’s the sort of thing Hallett enjoys  and it’s not a bad idea at that.

There is a clue to Number Six’s identity and like me you may end up kicking yourself for not noticing it.

The suspense element of course is whether Nadina Leiven will escape the fate of the other unfortunate young ladies who have become involved with Charles Valentine.

The acting is what one has come to expect of these Merton Park films. There are no big names but quite a few faces that will be familiar to fans of British movies and television of the era and the whole cast is extremely good. Ivan Desny is suitably smooth and sinister as Valentine. Michael Goodliffe (known to fans of cult TV as Hunter in the second season of Callan) was always good at this type of rôle. Superintendent Hallett is a cheerful sort of policeman, addicted to crossword puzzles, willing to take risks but always very confident that he’s going to get his man. Nadja Regin is wonderful as the foolish spoilt brat Nadia. Brian Bedford is very creepy as Jimmy Gale. Joyce Blair adds some additional glamour as one of Valentine’s ex-girlfriends, nightclub singer Carol Clyde.

Robert Tronson made few feature films but had a very successful career as a television director. He does a brisk efficient job here. Screenwriter Philip Mackie provides quite a clever and nasty little plot. Mackie went on to do excellent work as a television writer for some of the most interesting British crime series of the 60s and 70s like Mr Rose, Raffles and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

The low budget is not a problem. In fact it’s not really a problem in any of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies. Solid scripts and fine acting are the things that distinguish a good B-movie from a bad one and Number Six has both of these highly desirable ingredients.

This film forms part of Volume 3 of Network’s Edgar Wallace collections. Volume 3 contains seven Wallace films plus a bonus film, Breakout. There are no extras apart from the illustrated booklet which includes brief essays on the films by Kim Newman. The anamorphic transfer is very good.

Number Six is a well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable example of the art of making B-pictures. It is highly recommended.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Do You Know This Voice? (1964)

Do You Know This Voice? is a 1964 British crime thriller that attracted my attention because it was directed by Frank Nesbitt with a screenplay by Neil McCallum, the same team responsible for the excellent Walk a Tightrope made in the same year. And both these films star Dan Duryea, another equally compelling reason for me to seek this one out.

Do You Know This Voice? opens with a shocking crime. A small boy is kidnapped and murdered. A ransom call was made and initially that’s the only evidence that Superintendent Hume (Peter Madden) has to go on. And the telephone call was taped. Then it seems like the police have got a real break. There is a witness - someone who saw the telephone call being made. But she actually saw nothing. Or did she?

And more importantly, does the killer know that the witness saw nothing?

Rather daringly the movie reveals the identity of the killer very early on. In fact it reveals all the details of the mystery. Which doesn’t matter since although this movie seems at first to be a mystery that’s not actually what it’s about at all.

Once the answers to the mysteries are revealed it becomes a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Can the killer afford to leave the witness alive? But on the other hand can the killer afford to try to kill the witness, given that such an attempt is probably exactly what the police are hoping for.

So it’s a suspense movie, with the killer stalking the witness and the police stalking the killer, but it’s not quite a conventional suspense movie. For one thing, it’s not actually the killer that the witness saw, or didn’t see. It was a guilty party, but not the guilty party. And it almost veers into Hitchcock black comedy territory, as the killer’s attempts to eliminate the witness are frustrated by an endless series of miscalculations and bad luck. If it’s intended to be black comedy then it’s very black indeed (but then Hitchcock’s black comedy could be very very black so I still think that this is what this movie is trying for).

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Mr Hopta (Dan Duryea) is the killer and his wife (played by Gwen Watford) is his accomplice. The witness is his next door neighbour, Mrs Marotta (Ida Miranda). This is all laid out at a very early stage. Apart from the suspense the real core of the movie is the relationship between Hopta and his wife. Are they reluctant killers? Even accidental killers? Were they driven by desperation? Did they really think they could pull off their scheme without anybody getting hurt?

And now that they’re in it up to their necks what are they going to do? Are they going to stick together? Do they have the coolness and the smarts to somehow get out of the mess they’re in? And can they get out of the mess by killing Mrs Marotta?

You would think that there is no way a child killer could possibly be a sympathetic protagonist. But Hopta is so utterly hopeless at everything he does that maybe he really did have no intention at all of harming the child. Maybe it was just a tragic accident. Or maybe it’s the kind of tragic accident that happens to someone who has gone through life in a state of childish irresponsibility. And what do you do if you’re married to such a man and you really love him?

So it’s a movie that tries to be more than just a suspense movie. I guess it’s a kind of dark psychological thriller in which we see what happens to a guy who really sees to be a nice guy but with a very serious character flaw. So there’s a definite film noir angle here.

By 1964 Dan Duryea wasn’t exactly being deluged with good rôles but when a good rôle like this did come along there’s no doubt that he could still deliver the goods. Isa Miranda had a long and busy career. She had been a major star in Europe. She does a very fine job as Mrs Marotta. Gwen Watford is excellent as Mrs Hopta. These are really the only three characters who matter in the movie and they’re all rather interesting. They’re all people who have a lot going on beneath the surface. These three very fine performances are the keys to the movie’s success.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but boasts an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Do You Know This Voice? is intriguing and slightly offbeat and it’s highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Bombay Waterfront (1950)

Bombay Waterfront (AKA Paul Temple Returns) was the fourth and last of the Paul Temple movies made between 1946 and 1952 based on the extremely popular radio series and novels written by Francis Durbridge. Jon Bentley reprises his rôle as Paul Temple while this time his wife and fellow crime-solver Steve is played by Patricia Dainton.

A series of odd murders has caused something of a flap at Scotland Yard. The murders were apparently all carried out by a mysterious individual known as the Marquis but the links between the slayings are rather obscure. The one clue is a note mentioning Bombay SW. This is obviously a reference to the Bombay Restaurant located in the SW district of London, except that it isn’t. Temple knows that it refers to the Bombay Wharf and to a petty criminal by the name of Sammy Wren.

Inspector Ross has come to the same conclusion but Sammy Wren has become the latest victim of the Marquis. Paul Temple however has unearthed another clue which leads him to the renowned Egyptologist Sir Felix Raybourne. Raybourne has just returned from an expedition in the course of which he supposedly discovered something really startling, and not just to the world of Egyptology.

The main problem with this case is that everybody capable of providing the kind of evidence that could clinch matters gets murdered. There’s even an attempt to kill Paul and Steve. The murder methods are rather nicely varied and ingenious as well.

These weren’t big budget pictures but they don’t look like quota quickies either. There are some effective settings, including Kellaway’s Folly which seems to be one of those mock-medieval towers that wealthy 18th and 19th century noblemen liked to erect on their estates. Sir Felix’s house with its collection of Egyptian artefacts provides some good atmosphere including some very nasty hidden surprises.

Durbridge was a writer of thrillers rather than detective stories and the identity of the murderer can eventually be worked out by a process of elimination - there are only so many suspects left alive! On the other hand Durbridge was a writer of very good thrillers ideal for cinematic adaptation and this movie works very effectively with some reasonable set-pieces. There are lots of night shots as well to add a bit of creepiness.

John Bentley was an excellent Paul Temple, urbane and likeable and quietly determined. This was Patricia Dainton’s only appearance as Steve. Her performance is fine. She’s plucky and resourceful but she’s also sensible enough not to take too many crazy risks. And she’s rather charming.

This time, as an extra added bonus, you get Christopher Lee as the crazy sinister Egyptologist Raybourne. There’s an excellent supporting cast.

In creating Paul Temple Francis Durbridge must have been influenced to some extent by the early Ellery Queen novels. Like Ellery Queen Paul Temple is a crime writer who solves real-life crimes and like Ellery Queen he has the advantage of being well connected with the police, in this case through his friendship with Scotland Yard chief Sir Graham Forbes. Temple’s methods aren’t complicated, consisting mostly of being intelligent enough not to jump to obvious conclusions. And having worked semi-officially with Scotland Yard in the past he knows how the criminal underworld works.

Dan Jackson provides the comic relief as the Temples’ Burmese houseboy. Terribly  politically incorrect by today’s standards no doubt but in fact Saki is an excellent servant whose only fault is his complete inability to make decent coffee.

Renown Pictures is a British outfit who’ve released quite a few interesting British mysteries and thrillers of this era. Their Paul Temple boxed set includes all four movies (the others being Send for Paul Temple, Calling Paul Temple and Paul Temple’s Triumph) and is typical of their output. The transfers may not be pristine but they’re pretty good. All four Paul Temple movies are worth seeing and the boxed set is highly recommended.

Bombay Waterfront is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery thriller and is also highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Honolulu (1939)

Honolulu is a 1939 MGM offering that is part comedy, part romance and part musical.

The first thing that is made clear is that the plot is going to be pretty thin and not exactly dazzlingly original. Not that thin plots matter very much in this type of movie. Brooks Mason (Robert Young) is a movie star who is tired of being mobbed and almost torn to pieces by his adoring female fans. Then along comes Hawaiian plantation owner George Smith, who looks exactly like Brooks Mason (and is naturally played by Robert Young also) and manages to get himself mobbed by fans who mistake him for the movie star.

This gives Mason an idea. He’s being pressured to go to New York for six weeks of personal appearances and he’s dreading the prospect. Why not send George Smith in his place? Meanwhile Mason can take George Smith’s place in Hawaii, where there’s nothing but peace and quiet?

So George Smith masquerading as Brooks Mason sets off to New York, where he risks life and limb at the hands of the fans while Brooks Mason masquerading as George Smith sets out on what he trusts will be a peaceful ocean voyage to Honolulu.

On board the ship he meets dancer Dorothy Marsh (Eleanor Powell). It’s obvious that romance is going to blossom although he’s going to have his work cut out avoiding the attentions of Dorothy’s unbelievably annoying pal Millie de Grasse (Gracie Allen). His other problem is that Dorothy has fallen for him because she thinks he’s a regular guy, honest and down-to-earth, not like those awful Hollywood people. So clearly he’s going to have some trouble when he finally has to tell her that he’s one of those awful Hollywood types.

There are more complications. Smith’s girlfriend Cecilia is kind of expecting him to marry her and Dorothy is getting jealous of Cecilia. Worst of all, Cecilia’s father thinks George Smith absconded with $50,000 of his money and spent it on high living in Hollywood. So Mason’s challenge is to keep out of prison and avoid marrying Cecilia. Sooner or later it occurs to him that it might be a good idea to end the masquerade but that turns out to be not so easy.

Meanwhile George Smith has spent most of his time in New York in hospital, recovering from the attentions of Brooks Mason’s fans. In fact he’s now a virtual prisoner in the hospital.

Honolulu should be a light-hearted breezy and thoroughly enjoyable affair and it would be except for one very very big problem. That problem is Gracie Allen. The fact that she’s completely unfunny is bad enough but she’s also actively and aggressively irritating. She’s so bad that she’s almost enough to sink the picture. George Burns isn’t so bad - he’s just unfunny.

On the plus side the romantic farce plot works pretty well. Robert Young and Eleanor Powell are likeable and energetic leads.

The film’s biggest asset though is Eleanor Powell’s dancing. Her Hawaiian dance routines including her celebrated hula are terrific. She’s amazingly athletic, and she’s pretty sexy as well. Powell was famous as a tap-dancer and somehow she manages to make a Hawaiian tap-dancing routine work. Her showstopper dances are all solo affairs. That seems to have been her specialty. Of course that did mean that there was no need to giver her a dancing leading man.

Don’t expect to see any spectacular Hawaiian location shooting. There’s some stock footage but Honolulu was made entirely in the studio. There’s perhaps not as much evidence of the MGM gloss as you might expect. This seems to have been pretty much a B-picture.

Honolulu is not one of the great romantic comedies and it’s not one of the great musicals. Really it’s notable only for Eleanor Powell’s dancing. However if you do really like dancing then you might find that to be more than enough to make this picture worth seeing. If you’re an Eleanor Powell fan I guess this one is a must-see. If you’re not then it’s still worth a look despite Gracie Allen.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Sky Murder (1940)

Sky Murder, released in 1940, is the last of the three Nick Carter B-movies made by MGM beginning in 1939. All starred Walter Pidgeon as the famous private detective from the dime novels.

This time Nick Carter is on the trail of spies. And there are spies everywhere! They are murdering people and planting bombs all over the place. It’s absolute carnage.

The action starts with a murder on board an aircraft. There’s a very strong suspect but then somebody tries to kill all the passengers and Nick draws the obvious conclusion that there’s a large-scale conspiracy at work here. And the conspirators don’t care how many bodies they leave behind.

Nick’s job is made more difficult by the fact that he’s not only saddled (as always) with bumbling would-be private eye Bartholomew (Donald Meek) but also by ditzy blonde lady private detective Christine Cross (Joyce Compton). He also has six pretty girls he has to protect. They’re models. The only real purpose they serve in the movie is to add some glamour. And the final factor complicating Nick’s task is that apparently every second person in the United States in 1940 was a German spy. That causes problems for the movie because it lessens the suspense - after a while I found myself just assuming that every single character apart from Nick Carter was a German spy. And I wasn’t even too sure about him!

The biggest fault however is the amount of screen time given to the two very feeble comic relief players. They get whole sub-plots devoted to them, sub-plots that do nothing but slow down an already slow movie.

Yet another flaw is that, unless I missed something, we’re never really told what the nefarious German plan actually is. This means there’s no real suspense at all, no sense of urgency. We just know they’re up to no good.

Walter Pidgeon is good as the suave and unflappable hero. The best of the supporting players is Tom Conway but he’s criminally under-utilised. Kaaren Verne is a very dull leading lady. It’s easy to see why the career of this German-born actress fizzled out rather quickly. Donald Meek and Joyce Compton are simply irritating.

There are too many miscellaneous villains when what a good B-movie needs is one memorable arch-villain.

The first two Nick Carter movies were directed by Jacques Tourneur so as you would expect they’re rather better than the average B-picture. In fact they’re extremely good. George B. Seitz took over the directing duties for the third entry in the series and sadly it lacks the style and pace of Tourneur’s efforts.

The history books will tell you that the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941 but Hollywood had already declared war at least two years earlier. Sky Murder is a full-on war propaganda movie, a genre I have little liking for as a rule.

The Warner Archive has released all three Nick Carter movies on a single disc. They look pretty good.

Sky Murder is a spy thriller that never really gets off the ground. It’s unfocused and the plot meanders. Walter Pidgeon is left to try to carry the entire movie on his own. I love spy movies but I find myself horribly bored by movies about the Second World War so that may party explain my rather negative reaction.

I wouldn’t recommend this movie but I do highly recommend the Nick Carter three-movie set because the two earlier movies, Nick Carter, Master Detective and Phantom Raiders really are excellent.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Wrong Number (1959)

Wrong Number is a 1959 British crime thriller. Now I love mysteries and thrillers set on trains so when a movie opens with a pretty girl emerging from hiding in a laundry basket in the baggage compartment of a speeding train and said girl starts helping herself to the mail bags it’s got my attention right from the start.

Within five minutes we’ve been introduced to Maria (Lisa Gastoni) who is beautiful, glamorous, sexy and dangerous and we’ve also been introduced to sinister criminal mastermind Dr Pole (Peter Elliott). And there are hints of a romantic triangle involving the criminal mastermind, his chief henchman Angelo and Maria. So far Wrong Number is ticking all my boxes.

Unfortunately we don’t see any more of trains but we do get a simple but clever little plot. Dr Pole has been the brains behind a series of daring robberies, including that train robbery. The gang’s next job is an armoured car heist. As usual Dr Pole has come up with a sound plan but a criminal mastermind is only as good as his underlings and Dr Pole’s underlings make a right old hash of this job. Killing one of the guards is just one of their blunders. Even worse, Max (Barry Keegan) addresses Angelo by name during the robbery and the surviving guard hears him do it.

Even taking these mistakes into consideration the gang should get away with the crime. Dr Pole is careful to use underlings without criminal records. And although the robbery nets the gang eighty thousand pounds Pole is smart enough and cautious enough to insist that all the five pound notes included in the haul should be destroyed - fivers are just too easy for the police to trace. That leaves forty thousand but forty thousand quid was a great deal of money in 1959 and it’s a safe forty thousand.

But there is one misfortune that Dr Pole didn’t count on. Part of the plan was for Angelo to telephone Maria after the robbery to let her know that everything went smoothly. Unfortunately an eccentric old lady named Miss Crystal (Olive Sloane) is very worried about her beloved little dog that night and decides to ring the local vet. She gets a wrong number - she rings Dr Pole’s house by mistake and Maria answers the ’phone and since she assumes it is Angelo she uses his name.

This wouldn’t matter except that Miss Crystal is an avid reader of the crime news in the newspapers and the account of the heist mentions that one of the gang members is named Angelo. After discussing the matter with her dog Miss Crystal feels it is her civic duty to notify the police of that odd telephone call.

Sadly Superintendent Blake has to break the bad news to Miss Crystal that her evidence is of no use - there is no way to trace a wrong number if the number was dialled through an automatic telephone exchange, as this call was.

In fact that telephone call will turn out to be vital after all, and in a way that is simple but quite clever and effective.

The plot is driven to a large extent by mistakes on the part of the thieves and some very bad luck but the mistakes and the bad luck are quite plausible - even the major plot twist turns out to be entirely plausible.

This movie is typical of the cheapies churned out by Merton Park Studios at this time. In other words it’s a lot better than you might expect and everything about it is very competent. Vernon Sewell was the kind of guy who could be relied on to direct this type of movie briskly and efficiently (he also directed the rather good Spin a Dark Web). James Eastwood’s screenplay is not fancy but it is effective (Eastwood also wrote the excellent The Counterfeit Plan).

And the acting is top-notch. Paul Whitsun-Jones is very good as the easily panicked gang member Cyril. Peter Elliott does a fine job as Dr Pole, described rather neatly by a member of his gang as a clever man, but not quite clever enough. He’s also an interesting mix of menace and weakness. Peter Reynolds is fine as Angelo. Olive Sloane overacts outrageously as the delightfully dotty Miss Crystal, which is absolutely the correct approach. The acting standout though is Italian bombshell Lisa Gastoni as Maria. She captures Maria’s smouldering sensuality without playing her overtly as a sexpot or a femme fatale. Maria is just one of those women who make men do crazy things. They can’t help it and she can’t help it.

The budget was obviously not going to stretch to any spectacular action set-pieces but the heist sequences are well executed.

This DVD is precisely what we expect from Network in the UK - no extras, an excellent 16:9 enhanced transfer and a reasonable price tag.

Wrong Number has a neat little plot, terrific acting and just the right amount of humour (in other words the humour is kept within very strict limits). It’s a movie that achieves its strictly limited objectives without making a fuss about it. It’s just a totally unpretentious crime B-movie. The running time of just one hour ensures that it’s unlikely to wear out its welcome. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Daredevils of the Red Circle (serial, 1939)

Daredevils of the Red Circle is a 1939 Republic serial directed by John English and William Witney. Which means it’s probably going to be very good. We shall see.

It starts off with a bang, literally. An escaped convict (played by Charles Middleton - yes, Ming the Merciless!) who goes by the name of 39013 (his prison number) is systematically destroying the business empire of a man named Granville. He’s destroying it by blowing it up, piece by piece. His current target is the Granville Amusement Park and his bomb outrage there makes him three implacable enemies - three carnival daredevils. One is a high diver, one is a strongman and one is an escape artist. All useful skills for the heroes in a serial!

The first episode offers everything you could ask for. It has lots of action, impressive visuals, a whizz-bang cliffhanger, a touch of tragedy and a touch of mystery - we know what 39013 is up to but we don’t really know why or what his ultimate intentions are.

The mention of tragedy is important. This is a serial in which real people really can get hurt, or even killed. That’s a daring strategy for a serial but it does give the suspense a definite edge. If they’re prepared to kill off a character (and a sympathetic character) in the first chapter you know that none of the characters is entirely safe. When they seem to be in danger you really believe they are in danger.

While we know the identity of the chief villain there are lots of things we don’t know. We don’t know how many of the people working for Granville are actually working for 39013 so we don’t know if the three daredevils can or should trust any of these people. We also don’t know the identity of the Red Circle, the person who keeps feeding the daredevils vital information. So there’s plenty of material there to provide both mystery and suspense.

Willian Witney (who apparently directed most of the action scenes) had a reputation for doing extremely good cliffhanger endings. And this serial has plenty of great examples of just that. The circus fire in the opening chapter, the destruction of the mighty tunnel, the burning oil well - these are superb action set-pieces and they provide thrilling cliffhangers.

Now you might be thinking this all sounds swell but if only they’d managed to get a death ray into the story somewhere. Well don’t despair - there is indeed a death ray!

The acting is very decent. It’s no surprise that Charles Middleton makes an absolutely  splendid villain (which is not a spoiler since we know he’s a bad egg right from the start). Miles Mander has a fascinating rôle which presented some subtle acting challenges (he’s not always quite what he seems to be) and he carries it off with style and confidence. Carole Landis is a fine leading lady who adds a touch of glamour. The actors playing the three daredevils (Charles Quigley, Herman Brix and David Sharpe) may not be great actors but they’re convincingly athletic heroes and in this serial that matters a lot more than acting ability.

Carole Landis makes a perfectly fine heroine. Mention must also be made of Tuffie, the daredevils’ dog, who not only gets to do clever things but reasonably convincing clever things.

They didn’t have the budgets that Universal had for their serials (Daredevils of the Red Circle was made for just $126,000) but Republic really knew what they were doing when it came to making to getting plenty of bang for their buck. The special effects and the stunts really are excellent. The miniatures work is generally very impressive. Even the rear projection shots are done competently. There are explosions and there are some great fires. William Witney was renowned for doing terrific fight scenes and there are lots of them here.

There’s also a lot of location shooting and the locations have been very cleverly chosen (and are used with great skill). The Granville house itself is riddled with secret passageways which provide endless opportunities for thrills and surprises.

Kino Lorber’s DVD presentation offers an extremely good transfer indeed and it even includes audio commentaries (by film historian Michael Schlesinger) on several of the episodes.

Daredevils of the Red Circle is one of the best of the Republic serials, which means it’s one of the very best of all the serials of its era. It’s entertainment plus and it’s highly recommended.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Frightened Man (1952)

The Frightened Man, released in 1952, is a thoroughly unpretentious and conventional but very enjoyable British crime B-picture. It was produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman (who would enjoy great success as television producers in the 60s) and written and directed by John Gilling (who did some very underrated crime melodramas in the 50s and a couple of extremely good gothic horror flicks for Hammer in the mid-60s). The Frightened Man also has at least some claims to being a film noir.

Elderly antiques dealer Rosselli (Charles Victor) is immensely proud of his son Julius. Julius is at Oxford, studying to become an architect. Only Julius isn’t at Oxford any more, having been sent down for being a drunken violent thug. Julius is in fact pretty much entirely worthless but his doting dad just can’t see it.

Julius certainly has ambition. He intends to be a big man some day. He has no intention of actually working to achieve success. He just assumes that he’s entitled to it. His first step on the road to riches is to steal sixty quid from dear old dad to buy himself a car. He needs the car to impress Amanda (Barbara Murray). Amanda already has a boyfriend, a very decent chap named Harry, but that’s not going to stop Julius. Amanda is a nice enough girl but she has zero judgment when it comes to men. Julius is clearly the sort of man that a woman should steer clear of but she thinks he’s handsome and exciting and misunderstood.

Julius’s next step on what he thinks is his path to success is to get a job. Not a real job or an honest job of course, but something much cleverer and better than that - driving the getaway vehicle in a robbery by the Camden Mob. He proves to be a failure as a wheelman but he isn’t deterred. Through Amanda he has discovered an opportunity too good to pass up - a shipment of diamonds just begging to be stolen. And being convinced that he is a budding criminal genius he comes up with a plan to steal those rocks and he manages to sell his idea to the leader of the Camden Mob.

Of course like so many criminals before them these would-be jewel thieves have never even considered the possibility that Scotland Yard might be one step ahead of them. Actually Inspector Bligh is one step behind them but he’s a professional and he’s catching up fast. He knows a big job is going down, there are some major gaps in his knowledge (he doesn’t know the details or the identity of everyone involved) but slowly and methodically the Yard is filling in those gaps.

There is a sad inevitability about the outcome and that’s one of the things that gives The Frightened Man a slightly noirish flavour - the criminals are rats about to enter a trap and you know they’re just not smart enough to realise that they’re not going to make it.

There is as I said an inevitability about the failure of this ill-advised criminal scheme but the movie does have some plot twists up its sleeve.

The acting is excellent. Dermot Walsh makes a fine arrogant but stupid and deluded bad boy who thinks he is destined for great things. Barbara Murray does well as Amanda, making her sympathetic in spite of her shallowness and folly. Charles Victor is extremely good as poor old Rosselli. The supporting players are uniformly good. I particularly liked John Blythe as the cocky but not overly bright thief Maxie and Annette Simmonds as the possessive gangster’s moll Marcella.

There’s more location shooting than you might expect in such a low-budget movie. There are no spectacularly noir visuals but Gilling achieves an effective mood of futility and inescapable failure.

With these kinds of B-movies you’re never quite sure whether you’re going to get a neatly wrapped-up happy (or at least vaguely hopeful) ending or whether it’s going to be totally downbeat. I’m not going to tell you which way this film jumps but the ending is I think quite satisfactory.

The Frightened Man is one of six films included in VCI Entertainment’s three-disc British Cinema: Classic 'B' Film Collection, Volume 1 DVD boxed set. The transfers are nothing to write home about, being television prints (and in the case of The Frightened Man the image quality is quite iffy at times). On the other hand these are six interesting movies which any self-respecting fan of B-movies in general or British mystery/thriller films will want to see.

The Frightened Man is a low-key but well-crafted and very well-acted crime melodrama with a dash of film noir. Recommended.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Jungle Book (1942)

It’s perhaps surprising that Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book was not adapted to film until 1942, although there had already been movie versions of many of his other stories. It was British producer Alexander Korda who finally brought The Jungle Book to the screen, with his brother Zoltan Korda directing. By this time, due to the war, Korda had temporarily relocated his film-making activities to Hollywood.

The publication of The Jungle Book in 1894 marked the beginnings of the jungle boy genre - tales of boys (and later sometimes girls) raised by animals in the jungle. It is therefore a kind of precursor to the equally famous creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan. Of course being a Kipling story there’s just a bit more to it than that.

The Jungle Book opens with a framing story, as an old Indian storyteller named Buldeo tells the story of Mowgli. Mowgli started life as an ordinary Indian boy but his father was killed by the tiger Shere Khan, the only one of the jungle animals who does not obey the strict code of the jungle. Mowgli is raised by wolves. Then Shere Khan returns and Mowgli takes refuge in a human village. He does not realise that the woman who takes him in is his real mother.

He is not entirely comfortable in human society but he does take a liking to Mahala (Patricia O’Rourke), the daughter of the less than trustworthy Buldeo (played by Joseph Calleia and yes it’s the same Buldeo who narrates the tale).

The trouble starts when Mowgli and Mahala discover the ruined city, and more particularly when they discover the treasure room. The old cobra who guards the treasure warns them that the treasure is death.

Mowgli and Mahala heed the cobra’s words but of course there are others who do not. Greed takes hold and brings danger to both the village and the jungle.

Mowgli is played by Sabu, by this time a very big star. Sabu had been discovered by the Kordas when they were making Elephant Boy in 1937. He went on to success in Hollywood in films such as Arabian Nights. As a confused young man who does not know to which world he belongs he’s very effective.

Compared to the now better known Disney animated version this 1942 film focuses more on Mowgli and on human dramas and less on the animals but they are still important and Mowgli can talk to them.

The most impressive thing about this movie is the spectacle. It was shot in Technicolor and Korda uses elaborate sets as well as techniques like matte painting to create not only the world of the jungle but also the vast ruined city which plays an important part in the story. The jungle looks like a real jungle and yet it doesn’t. It’s the jungle of storytelling so it’s not supposed to look quite real.

The use of real animals (mostly) rather than animation as in the Disney version works well.

The plot is simple and there’s not quite enough of it for the movie’s 108 minute running time. There’s also an almost complete absence of wit and humour. Writer Laurence Stallings possibly takes it all a bit too seriously.

While in many respects this qualifies as what used to be called family entertainment it is just a little bit grim at times, too grim (in my view) for young children. Although these days nobody seems to worry about exposing children to horrors. This is a long way from the Disney version.

Unfortunately Umbrella’s Region 4 DVD is not that great. I’m told that Network’s Region 2 release is considerably better but I’ve not seen it. It’s rather scandalous that such a visually spectacular movie has not had a Blu-Ray release (as far as I know).

The Jungle Book is not a complete success but it’s unique and extraordinary visual style is still enough to make it a must-see film.