Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro was the first of Douglas Fairbanks’ big-budget swashbucklers, appearing in 1920. He’d already made many films, but this was the movie that cemented both his popularity at the time and his enduring legend.

Perhaps not the sort of thing you’d normally think of as a cult movie, but it’s pulpy adventure fun.

And if you enjoy the swashbuckling style of adventure movies, then this is a very good example of the breed.

The story has been told many times since in movies but this was in fact the first movie version of the tale. In the inhabitants of California, still under Spanish rule in the early 19th century, and suffering under the depredations of a corrupt governor and his equally crooked cronies. The native American population is being cruelly mistreated, while the Spanish landowners are being bled dry financially by exorbitant taxation. But a hero has appeared, a hero who defends the poor and fights against the governor and his troopers.This hero is known as Zorro, his true identity hidden behind a mask.

Of course we the viewers know from the outset that Zorro is in fact Don Diego, the apparently weak, foolish, rather fey and somewhat effeminate son of a wealthy landowner.

Don Diego’s father is trying to arrange a marriage for him, with Lolita Pulido. Lolita is the daughter of a neighbouring family of noble blood whose fortunes are in sad decline thanks to the outrageous taxation demands of the governor. Don Diego is attracted to Lolita but he cannot openly romance her since this would endanger the weak-willed and foolish image he has carefully built up as a cover. So he makes a fool of himself in front of her, but he returns later as Zorro as sweeps her off her feet. She despises the foppish Don Diego but she’s madly in love with the handsome and dashing Zorro.

Zorro’s plans is to encourage all the young Spanish blue-bloods, the caballeros, to join him  in a rebellion against the governor. What’s interesting is that this is to be a purely aristocratic rebellion. While one of Zorro’s grudges against the governor is his bad treatment of the Native Americans and the poor, it never occurs to our hero that such people should have the right, or might have the capacity, to fight for their own rights. The making and breaking of unjust governments is the province of the caballeros alone.

In a Fairbanks swashbuckler you expect spectacular stunts. And in this movie you certainly get them. Fairbanks did all his own stunts, partly for his own satisfaction and partly because he was simply a better stuntman than anyone else in Hollywood. There was probably nobody else who could have done some of his stunts.

There’s plenty of action, there’s romance, there’s a stirring story of the struggle against tyranny. It’s all highly entertaining, and it has that special Fairbanks magic that makes his swashbucklers somehow just that little bit better than anyone else’s. Nobody could do the likeable swaggering rogue better than Fairbanks.

Fairbanks produced and co-wrote the movie, a practice he followed in all his great adventure movies of the silent era. The Mark of Zorro was based on The Curse of Capistrano, Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story which introduced Zorro to the world.

There have been various DVD releases. By the standards of silent movies The Mark of Zorro has survived in reasonable condition.

With this movie Fairbanks established the template for the swashbuckling action movie. The 1940 version with Tyrone Power is pretty good as well but the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro is historically important as well as being outrageously entertaining. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Beat Generation (1959)

The Beat Generation is a sleazy little 1959 crime thriller (with a hint of noir) masquerading as an exploitation movie, or an exploitation movie masquerading as a sleazy crime thriller. Either way it’s interesting.

Produced by Albert Zugsmith it boasts an interesting cast - film noir icon Steve Cochran, Mamie van Doren, Jackie Coogan, James Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s eldest son and looking uncannily like his dad), Vampira and Irish McCalla (yes, Sheena Queen of the Jungle herself). And oh yes, there’s Louis Armstrong to provide some cool jazz sounds.

Bitter cop Dave Culloran (Steve Cochran) and his partner Jake Baron (Jackie Coogan) are hunting a serial rapist nicknamed the Aspirin Kid because he wins his victims’ trust by pretending to need a glass of water to take an aspirin. The hunt will take Culloran and Baron into the word of the Beat Generation. The rapist calls himself Arthur Garrett but we will discover that his name is really Stan Hess.

The Aspirin Kid’s latest victim has provided a description. It’s not enough to lead the police to the perpetrator but it does take them a lot closer than they realise.

Then Culloran’s wife Francee becomes one of Hess’ victims. This puts a strain on their marriage, and on Culloran. The case becomes a personal obsession. It also allows the movie to focus on a subject that was far more controversial at the time than rape - abortion. Which, it has to be said, it handles carefully but sensitively.

Hess is a beatnik, or at least he hangs around with beatniks and he certainly has the nihilism popularly associated with the beats.

Now a 1959 Hollywood movie focusing on the world of the beatniks sounds like it’s going to be an exercise in camp, which it is up to a point, but mostly this is a gritty nasty and at times very dark crime flick. A particularly nasty touch is that Hess also leaves evidence at the scene of his crimes that suggests that the women (and he only targets married women) may have been willing. He likes playing with people’s minds.

With Albert Zugsmith producing you might be entitled to expect this movie to be complete nonsense but there was some real talent involved. Talent such as Richard Matheson, who co-wrote the screenplay. The movie does have a point to it. Hess hates women and rapes them to express his hatred. But Dave Culloran’s attitude towards women is also troubling. Even before the rape Francee had accused Culloran of treating her the way he’d treat a suspect. He doesn’t ask her questions, he interrogates her. In fact his treatment of the first rape victim is a kind of rape (well that’s the impression the screenplay seems to be trying to give).

Since this was 1959 we obviously see the lead-up to the rapes but nothing of the actual rapes. But we hear enough to make the rape scenes genuinely harrowing. Charles F. Haas didn’t have much of a career as a feature film director but it has to be said that he handles these scenes very effectively indeed.

Steve Cochran is excellent. It’s a tough rôle. Dave Culloran isn’t the most likeable guy and he has to be played as a not very likeable guy. At the same time he isn’t a bad guy. He just has an unfortunate way of dealing with people. He’s a cop. Being a cop is all he knows. Underneath his prickly exterior he loves Francee.

Fay Spain is very good as Francee. Ray Danton is suitably creepy as Hess. Once you’ve seen Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family it’s had to take him seriously in anything else but he’s quite good as well.

And then there’s blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren as Georgia Altera, who almost becomes one of the Aspirin Kid’s victims, or maybe she doesn’t. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that van Doren looks great.

The depiction of beat culture is about what you’d expect from Hollywood. The beatniks really were ridiculously easy to mock, and this film doesn’t miss an opportunity to do so. This leads to an interesting weirdly discordant feel, veering from absurdist farce to social commentary to a surprisingly hard-edged film noir tone. This mixture could have been disastrous but for some odd reason it isn’t.

Olive Films have released this one on DVD and Blu-Ray. The DVD, reviewed here, boasts an excellent anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio).

The Beat Generation is a much better movie than it has any right to be. Underneath its campy beatnik exterior it’s a tough little crime movie. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Futures Vedettes (1955)

Futures Vedettes (AKA School for Love and Sweet Sixteen) is one of Brigitte Bardot’s early films, released in 1955. It was directed by Marc Allégret. Bardot was just starting to attract some attention at this time. A year later And God Created Woman would make her an international star and a cinematic icon.

Futures Vedettes (which means future stars) is a romantic melodrama with a few comic touches but it’s always romance that takes centre stage. It can also be seen as a coming-of-age movie. It focuses on the girls studying music and dance at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. More specifically it focuses on their relationship with their singing teacher, famed tenor Eric Walter (Jean Marais). He is a good teacher but a hard taskmaster. The girls are not only learning to be singers and dancers, they are learning to be women, which means they are learning about love. Eric is quite happy to give them lessons in this subject as well.

Pretty much all the girls are in love with him. There is a rumour that he used to beat his wife, with a belt. This excites the girls a good deal. What a man! So passionate!

Eric is separated from his wife Marie (Denise Noël). He is still obsessed with her. He just cannot forget her or get her out of his system. That does not stop him from having numerous affairs. This year the two students who have caught his eye are Sophie Dimater (Bardot) and Elis Petersen (Isabelle Pia). Both are very talented but there is quite a contrast between them. Sophie is outgoing, confident, determined and somewhat fiery. She knows she is going to be a star. She is also very aware of her feminine charms and the effect they have on men. Elis is shy and totally lacking in confidence. Both girls are hopelessly in love with Eric, both get involved with him and both sleep with him. Despite his reputation for womanising both are convinced that with them it will be different. He will fall in love with them. Perhaps, in his own selfish way, he does. But for Eric there is always Marie.

Obviously hearts are going to be broken, the question is which of the three women will be the ones to suffer. Eric is rather cold-blooded about this. If you want to be a great singer you have to learn about suffering so even if he breaks a girl’s heart at least it will make her a better artist. If he’s not quite a cad he’s pretty close to it but this makes him more sexy and more desirable. As you may have gathered by now this is not a movie that could get made today. Its political incorrectness levels are almost off the scale.

Bardot’s then-husband Roger Vadim, soon to play a very important rôle in her career, was one of the writers. Marc Allégret would direct Bardot again in 1956, in Mam'selle Striptease.

The main reason for seeing this movie today is of course Bardot. It’s not one of her greatest movies but she is impressive. The fact that she was stunningly gorgeous and wiling to take her clothes off led to her being underrated as an actress (and she’s still underrated by critics today). She was very good at light comedy (her early romantic comedies are charming) but she could handle serious dramatic rôles when given the chance to do so.

You might be wondering if Bardot takes her clothes off. The answer is yes. She has a discreet moderately revealing nude scene. It’s restrained but it’s certainly infinitely more daring than anything that would be seen in American movies at the time, or for a decade or so to come. It has to be said that it’s tasteful and playful and it actually does serve a plot function.

Isabelle Pia might have been overshadowed by Bardot but she gives a strong performance as Elis. It’s quite a demanding part since she has to make Elis timid and mousy but at the same time sympathetic and likeable.

Both Sophie and Elis are perhaps naïve but they are supposed to be young, just beginners at the game of love, so we can forgive them and sympathise with their hopes and their heartbreaks. We can’t help liking them both. They’re rivals but neither could be described as scheming or manipulative.

Yves Robert is very good as Eric’s assistant Clément who has been unfortunate enough to fall in love with Elis even though he knows he has no chance with her. Robert manages to make Clément seem not too pathetic. Mischa Auer has some fun as Eric’s manservant Berger.

Cinetrove International’s Blu-Ray release (which includes the movie on DVD as well) is superb. The black-and-white cinematography looks terrific. The only significant extra is a brief featurette on Bardot.

If you enjoy romantic melodramas then Futures Vedettes should satisfy you, and if you’re a Bardot fan you’ll definitely want this one. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Three Steps North (1951)

Three Steps North is an Italian-US production filmed in Italy (in Amalfi) in 1951 with a mostly Italian cast but plot-wise it plays as a fairy typical American crime B-movie in an exotic setting. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was directed by W. Lee Wilder, Billy Wilder’s brother.

Frank Keeler (Lloyd Bridges) did his wartime military service in Italy but he spent most of that career making a bundle on the black market. With the MPs hot on his trail he buries his ill-gotten gains in a field near Amalfi. He picks an easily recognisable tree, takes three steps north and buries the money. The MPs catch him and he spends four years in a military prison, which is not fun but he can handle it because he knows that when he gets out that money is still waiting for him. As soon as he is released he heads back to Italy (serving as a crewman on a freighter) but getting his money turns out to be infinitely more complicated than he’d expected.

He had hoped not to attract any attention but in fact he attracts the attention of a whole bunch of people. There’s the local chief of police, an Italian private detective, a racketeer from Newark, a disreputable fellow crewman, his old girlfriend Elena, a mysterious character known as the Greek, cemetery caretaker Pietro and bar owner Guido. All of them figure out that Frank is up to something and all of them figure out that that something involves money, almost certainly money not legally obtained.

Frank thinks he can stay one step ahead of them but maybe he’s really one step behind. Frank is smart, but maybe not smart enough. He’s also unwilling to trust anybody. That might be wise but it has its drawbacks. Lester Fuller’s screenplay has plenty of twists and turns, some of them confusing but that works to the movie’ advantage - it adds to the atmosphere of suspicion and potential betrayal.

The ironic twist at the end works quite well.

The plot could easily have been approached as farce or black comedy but it’s mostly played pretty straight.

The Amalfi locations are used to good effect.

The guitar music used throughout the film is one of several elements suggesting that W. Lee Wilder was trying for the sort of feel Carol Reed achieved in The Third Man. The black market angle and the setting in Europe in the aftermath of the war add to my suspicions that that’s what Wilder was aiming for. He doesn’t have Carol Reed’s genius but he does manage an interesting and slightly offbeat tone.

Lloyd Bridges’ cocky performance is a major plus. Frank Keeler is not evil but he is a crook and he is selfish and his arrogance turns potential allies into enemies. He’s not a particularly nice guy and Bridges is confident enough to emphasise his unsympathetic qualities. We’re not sure if we want this particular hero to win in the end.

The other cast members are very good. Aldo Fabrizi is a delight as Pietro. Lea Padavani does well as Elena, a woman who is a bit like Frank. She’s not quite a femme fatale but she’s not quite a good girl either. Maybe she wants to win Frank back, or maybe she just wants the money. All of the characters are either shady or they have a touch of ambiguity to them. Frank doesn’t trust any of them and we can’t really blame him.

There are several public domain DVD releases of this movie. The Alpha Video version seems to be the best of a bad bunch. In an ideal world offbeat movies like this would get properly restored and get Blu-Ray releases but alas we do not live in an ideal world. Perhaps if someone could be persuaded that this is a film noir it might get a better release. It does have some very slight noir elements and movies with much more dubious claims to film noir status have been treated to high quality releases.

Three Steps North is an intriguing oddity. It’s a conventional crime story with a few engagingly distinctive elements and Lloyd Bridges really is very good. So I recommend this one, even if the available DVD editions are a bit problematic.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Flat Two (1962)

Flat Two is another of the British Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace mysteries, this one dating from 1962. It is based on a 1927 Wallace novel.

Susan (Ann Bell)  is a charming young lady with a bit of a problem. She’s lost rather a lot of money at the gambling club run by Louba (David Bauer). She owes ten thousand pounds (an immense amount of money in 1962). There’s no way she can pay the money. Louba suggests that perhaps there is another way in which she could repay him. Some services of a personal nature she could render. In fact he’s planning a trip abroad and if she were to accompany him she would have plenty of opportunities to render ten thousand pounds’ worth of personal services.

Of course Susan could ask her rich father for the money, but Daddy would be awfully cross and it would all be very tiresome. So she resigns herself to her fate.

Susan does however mention the matter to her fiancé, a young architect named Frank Leamington (Jack Watling). Frank is naturally outraged that Louba is effectively blackmailing Susan into going to bed with him. He makes a bit of a scene about it and threatens to kill Louba.

Louba does get killed, but was he killed by Frank? Several people visited Louba’s flat on the fatal night. The difficult is not just that one of them is lying. For various reasons they might all be lying. When famous barrister Warden (John le Mesurier) and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard Hurley Brown (who both had business with Louba) arrive at the flat they discover the body.

One of these people who visited the flat is Charles Berry (Barry Keegan), who has a motive of his own for murdering Louba. Indeed lots of people had a motive for killing Louba, a man whose gambling club was perhaps not entirely honest and who also had a history of sexually blackmailing a whole string of young ladies.

Unfortunately from the point of view of Inspector Trainer (Bernard Archard) there’s rather a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing towards Frank and so Frank ends up standing trial for murder, with Warden defending. Luckily Warden is one of the best defence barristers in the country.

There are plenty of clues pointing towards the actual solution, hingeing not just on the times that various people visited the flat but also on a couple of pieces of physical evidence. It’s actually not that difficult to spot the solution. This is definitely a fair-play mystery.

As is the case with all the Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies the execution is skilful and professional. They were churning these films out like a production line but they managed to maintain a surprisingly high level of quality. And of course this one, like all the others, boasts a very fine cast.

Director Alan Cooke only made a couple of features but had a prolific career in television. He handles the directing duties here unobtrusively but competently. Screenwriter Lindsay Galloway had a similar career and his script here is more than serviceable.

This film is part of Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume three DVD boxed set. And as always Network gives us an excellent anamorphic transfer (these movies were all shot in black-and-white and widescreen).

Flat Two is another solid entry in this extremely enjoyable series and it’s recommended.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Homicide (1949)

Homicide is a largely forgotten1949 Warner Brothers crime B-picture.

A drifter named Clifton, not long discharged from the Navy, witnesses a murder on a farm and is persuaded that it might be real unhealthy for him unless he reports the matter as an accident - that the farmer was drunk and fell off his tractor. That’s the story the sailor tells at the inquest. A couple of days later Clifton is found hanged in a seedy hotel room. It looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide but Lieutenant Landers (Robert Douglas) is very unhappy about the knot. Whoever heard of a sailor who couldn’t tie a knot properly? It’s not much, but it’s enough (along with a couple of other minor details) to put the idea into Landers’ mind that this might not be suicide after all.

The captain of detectives doesn’t think it’s enough to keep the case open but Landers insists on taking a leave of absence to do a bit of digging around.

The clue he’s relying on is a book of matches from a desert resort hotel, the Glorietta Springs Hotel. Which is a very expensive hotel so why would a match-book from that hotel be found in a cheap seedy hotel in LA? When he gets to the Glorietta Springs Hotel first it seems at first that he’s set out on a wild goose chase but then he gets a lucky break thanks to some advice from Jo (Helen Westcott). Jo works the cigarette concession at the hotel. Apart from offering good advice she’s very pretty and very sweet and even if the case doesn’t amount to everything meeting her makes up for it. They fall for each other in a big way. They make such a charming couple that the romance sub-plot is a bonus rather than a distraction.

The bartender at the hotel, Andy (Robert Alda), seems very interested in what Landers (who is posing as an insurance investigator) is up to. Very interested indeed.

The plot is really pretty straightforward. Landers in no genius detective, he just follows up clues methodically as any trained detective would do. He doesn’t make any inspired leaps of intuition. He just does his job, which is part of the film’s appeal. He’s just a regular fairly competent cop.

It does have to be said that Landers is a bit accident-prone. He seems to just sail into dangerous situations without taking even the most basic precautions but of course if the detective hero doesn’t get himself into hot water you’re not going to have a very interesting movie. He contrives to get himself shot and beaten up as well.

Landers is quite an engaging and character - a very polite very easy-going Canadian but he’s conscientious and he’s thorough and he’s stubborn. Robert Douglas gives him a low-key but likeable personality and a certain quiet unobtrusive charm. It’s not at all difficult to see why Jo falls for him and Helen Westcott makes her so adorable that we have no trouble believing that he’s going to fall in love with her. They have just the right chemistry.

The other cast members give very solid performances. Robert Alda is fine as Andy.

This was one of only two features directed by Felix Jacoves which is a bit surprising since he handles things very competently.

It’s a low-budget film but manages not to look cheap or shoddy.

This movie was released in the Warner Archive series as part of a film noir double-header (paired with The House Across the Street) although I can’t for the life of me see anything even remotely noir about it. It’s a straightforward police procedural.

The plot is no more than serviceable. It’s the performances by Robert Douglas and Helen Westcott that make it just a cut above the average B-picture. The romance sub-plot is more interesting than than the main crime plot. Homicide is no masterpiece but it’s harmless undemanding entertainment. Recommended.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Too Hot to Handle (1960)

Too Hot to Handle is a 1960 British sin and sensation potboiler about Soho strip clubs, with Jayne Mansfield as the main attraction. And you get Christopher Lee as a bonus.

Johnny Solo (Leo Genn) owns the Pink Flamingo, supposedly the premier strip club in London, with some help from his manager and master of ceremonies Novak (Christopher Lee) and his star attraction and girlfriend, Midnight Franklin (Mansfield).

Reporter Robert Jouvel (Karlheinz Böhm) is doing a story of Soho, focussing on the  Pink Flamingo. He’s supposed to be French but Karlheinz Böhm, perhaps wisely, decides not to worry too much about that and just plays it with his usual slight German accent.

Jouvel becomes a bit obsessed with one of the girls, Lilliane (Danik Patisson). She’s a strange girl, obviously very bitter about all sorts of things. She makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with him but he’s already decided that really she needs him. And perhaps she does.

Johnny Solo has bigger problems. His club is under threat from a protection racket and there may be more to it than meets the eye. It may have something to do with Diamonds Dielli who runs the rival Diamond Horseshoe Club. It’s also possible that he has enemies closer to home. Johnny is not easily frightened but he’s certainly worried and Midnight really is frightened. There are also possible problems looming with a sleazy but rich customer and one of the girls.

If you’re expecting mere cheap sleaze you maybe a little surprised. This is quite a well-crafted little movie, expertly directed by Terence Young. Young was about to achieve major success directing three of the first four Bond movies. Too Hot to Handle is a mixture of seedy glamour and hardboiled crime with a hint of film noir. While this is obviously a somewhat cleaned-up version of Soho in 1960 it still provides a fascinating glimpse of London nightlife at the beginning of the ’60s.

It’s also very well acted. Karlheinz Böhm plays Jouvel as a slightly brash rather over-confident reporter type who is actually a pretty decent guy. Christopher Lee just has to appear slightly sleazy and slightly sinister, which he manages with ease. Danik Patisson is solid as Lilliane. Leo Genn is excellent as Johnny, a quietly determined low-key tough guy. I particularly liked the way the relationship between Johnny and Midnight is handled. It’s an odd sort of love that they have, maybe it’s based on mutual need but it is love just the same and in their own way they’re touchingly devoted to each other. Look out for Barbara Windsor in a small rôle as one of the girls who likes to be known as Ponytail.

But this movie belongs to Jayne Mansfield. While she enjoyed her greatest success in comedies like The Girl Can’t Help It she was actually a decent serious actress when given the chance. Here she’s perfectly cast, she has a good script to work with (by Herbert Kretzmer) and a fine director and she really shines. She also handles her sexy stage routines with plenty of style. Midnight is a tough cookie in some ways but Mansfield makes her warm and vulnerable as well. In retrospect 1960 wasn’t a bad year for Miss Mansfield - she also made the underrated British film noir The Challenge (in which she played a lady gangster and did so surprisingly effectively).

Given the time the movie was made the striptease routines are very very tame. There was obviously no way they were going to get away with actual nudity so they had to rely on style and glamour to provide the sexiness and it works pretty well.

The movie was shot widescreen and in colour but the only available version as far as I know is the Alpha Video release which is fullframe and in black-and-white. Don’t worry too much about that. It’s a good transfer and the black-and-white print enhances the seediness and the slight noirness. This might well be a very different movie in colour.

This is a movie that doesn’t quite develop the way you might expect. It’s partly a crime thriller, partly a love story, partly a sex melodrama with a bit of exploitation and a touch of film noir. The ending is unexpected but it’s nicely set up and it’s effective.

Too Hot to Handle is a bit of an oddity but it’s an enjoyable one and it’s highly recommended.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress is the fifth of the six Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich movies made at Paramount. These movies were so heavily influenced by the personal relationship between director and star that without Dietrich they would probably never have been made, or if they had been made they would have been entirely different films, so it’s reasonable to refer to them as the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies.

The Scarlet Empress was a box office failure and while it’s a truly great movie it’s not hard to see why it failed commercially. This is a very extreme movie. Von Sternberg himself described it as “a relentless excursion into style” and he wasn’t kidding. It’s difficult to think of any Hollywood movie of that era that is so obsessively concerned with style rather than substance. The style is the substance. That’s the secret of its greatness but it’s taken to an extreme that undoubtedly alienated contemporary audiences.

Sophie Friederike Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst (Marlene Dietrich) is betrothed to the heir presumptive to the Russian throne, the Grand Duke Peter. In 1744 the young German princess arrives at the court of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. The dashing Count Alexei (John Lodge), who had been sent to Prussia to fetch Sophie, had led her to believe that her prospective husband was a paragon of handsome masculinity so Sophie had been very enthusiastic about her marriage. She is appalled to discover that Peter is actually a misshapen half-wit who plays with toy soldiers.

Sophie, now renamed Catherine at the empress’s insistence, goes ahead with the marriage (the marriage ceremony giving von Sternberg the opportunity to indulge his taste for aesthetic excess). The marriage is hardly a success. Peter has his toy soldiers and his mistress and he hates Catherine. Catherine has her lovers and she disposes Peter. The big problem is what will happen when Elizabeth dies. Will Peter get rid of Catherine before she gets rid of him?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the plot merely exists in order to prove von Sternberg with the opportunity to give us one outrageous visual set-piece after another, and to some extent you’d be right. But those visuals are unbelievable. The sets are grotesque. At the Russian court the chairs are like gigantic gargoyles swallowing people up. The doors in the palace look like they were designed for giants and require half a dozen people to open them. Everything is surreal and wildly exaggerated. It’s like a fairy tale that has turned into a drug-induced nightmare. It’s impossible to list all the strange and wonderful and disturbing visual moments. It’s just one visual tour-de-force after another.

Everything is suffused with eroticism, mostly perverse eroticism. The Production Code started to be enforced in 1934 but The Scarlet Empress either got in just in time to avoid trouble or perhaps the Production Code Authority just missed the bizarre sexual imagery and incredibly risqué dialogue. Maybe the sadomasochism and perversity simply baffled them. There’s also a kind of dream sequence when the young Sophie is having stories read to her which contain quite bit of nudity. There’s even a nudie cuckoo clock.

Dietrich of course looks stunning. Her performance is strange and mesmerising but it would have seriously alienated viewers at the time. They would have been bewildered by the countless layers of irony and the emotional detachment. Catherine is not a heroine but she’s not a villainess. She’s not a monster, nor is she a victim. She is all of these things, and none. She may be an innocent with the soul of a libertine or a libertine with the soul of an innocent. She may be incapable of love or she may love too deeply. There’s nothing for an audience to get a handle on. And audiences do not react well to that. It’s all quite deliberate. She’s giving von Sternberg the performance he wants and she knows what she’s doing but it’s not going to sell at the box office.

Sam Jaffe as Peter and Louise Dresser as Elizabeth give outlandish over-the-top performances. John Lodge plays Count Alexei as the type of arrogant bad boy we could well believe has broken scores of female hearts.

There’s nothing even remotely conventional about this movie. By 1934 Hollywood standards it’s unique and bizarre. By today’s standards it’s unique and bizarre. This is von Sternberg being totally uncompromising. It wrecked his career but with this film and the following one, The Devil is a Woman, he got to make two final extraordinary masterpieces and perhaps after that there would have been nowhere left for his career to go.

The Criterion Collection DVD release is very disappointing and should be avoided. It’s incredibly grainy and it’s rather flat. The liner notes are also pompous and worthless. I believe there’s a far superior more recent UK DVD release.

The Scarlet Empress is an intoxicating blend of irony and delirious aestheticism. You might love it or hate it but you have to see it. I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Black Windmill (1974)

Michael Caine starring in a Don Siegel-directed spy thriller sounds quite promising. With Donald Pleasence in the cast as well The Black Windmill should have been a surefire winner. In fact this 1974 British-made film flopped, and the reason it flopped is that it’s just not all that good.

Caine plays Major John Tarrant, an MI6 operative trying to infiltrate a gun-running racket. His son is kidnapped and the ransom is just over half a million pounds, in uncut diamonds. The exact amount happens to be precisely equal to the value of uncut diamonds that Tarrant’s boss Harper (Donald Pleasence) has just bought. Those diamonds were to be used as bait to catch the gun-runners. It’s obvious there has been a very very serious security leak.

John Tarrant doesn’t give a damn about the security leak, he just cares about his son.

When Tarrant figuresout that the government is not going to pay the ransom he goes rogue. He’s going to get his kid back even if he has to steal the diamonds from MI6 headquarters, which is exactly what he does. He sets off on a one-man rescue mission.

Tarrant also figures out that he’s been well and truly set up to look like a traitor anyway, so there’s no reason for him to worry about breaking a few more laws. This is a bit of a weakness in the movie - there’s no inner conflict in this character at all. We never have any doubt as to what he’s going to do next and we never have causeto question his motives or his loyalty. In fact there’s no real psychological conflict of any kind in this movie. It’s a Boys’ Own Paper spy story.

Tarrant is an ice-cold professional who appears to have no emotions whatsoever. That might have made him an interesting protagonist in a certain type of cynical spy drama but it doesn’t come off in this film which is really an utterly conventional thriller, which needs a hero the audience can care about. Michael Caine was capable of more than this but the script gives him nothing to work with and he pretty much phones in his performance (which he was inclined to do if a movie didn’t grab his interest). The movie has none of the cleverness and wit and slightly offbeat quality of Caine’s Harry Palmer spy movies and his performance here lacks the magic that he brought to Harry Palmer.

When Tarrant finally does show some emotion it isn’t convincing because it just comes out of the blue.

Donald Pleasence is good as the emotionally crippled Harper, a man who sees his agents as little more than disposable pawns.

The supporting cast does quite well. John Vernon makes a stylish heavy. Delphine Seyrig is good as the scheming woman who sets Tarrant up and Catherine Schell has fun as the sex-crazed alcoholic wife of the director of MI6.

Siegel’s direction is rather flat. He is unable to overcome the predictability of the plot to inject any real suspense and even the action set-pieces are not overly exciting.

There are a lot of missed opportunities. At one point Tarrant makes an escape from an awkward predicament by sneaking aboard the cross-channel hovercraft and you’re expecting an acton sequence to take advantage of the interesting setting but it doesn’t happen.

There’s one very brief nude scene but this is overall a remarkably sexless movie. There’s also no interesting romantic angle. There’s very little humour. That means it has to rely on action or style and it doesn’t have enough going for it in those areas either.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers an acceptable anamorphic transfer.

The Black Windmill is not a terrible movie. It’s a competent spy thriller but it’s just a bit of an under-achiever in every department. There’s nothing to make it memorable. Maybe worth a rental if you’re a Michael Caine or Don Siegel completist.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Midnight Story (1957)

The Midnight Story (AKA Appointment with a Shadow) is a 1957 crime drama (with film noir overtones) released by Universal in 1957 and starring Tony Curtis.

Tony Curtis had a successful career but to him it was also a disappointing career. He always felt that he had the makings of a real actor, and a good one, but producers preferred not to take risks and kept casting him in lightweight rôles (which he happened to very good at). On the rare occasions that he landed a really meaty part (in films like Sweet Smell of Success) he invariably delivered the goods, but then he’d find himself back in those lightweight rôles again. The Midnight Story is one of those movies that demonstrates that Curtis wasn’t deluded - he really could act.

The movie opens with the brutal murder of a priest,  Father Tomasino, in San Francisco. Everybody loved Father Tomasino. Or at least almost everybody loved him - obviously there was one person who didn’t. The circumstances of the murder leave no doubt that the priest was deliberately targeted.

Officer Joe Martini (Tony Curtis) is hit particularly hard. Martini grew up in an orphanage. Father Tomasino was father, big brother and mentor to Joe. Joe wants to help in the investigation but he’s just a lowly motorcycle cop and he’s told in no uncertain terms to stick to traffic offences and keep out of Homicide’s way.

Maybe Joe would have heeded this advice but at the priest’s funeral he spots something that he thinks may be a lead. The Homicide lieutenant in charge of the case still isn’t interested. So Joe Martini quits the force to carry out his own single-handed investigation. That lead that he thinks he has is actually nothing more than a hunch but he just can’t let it go.

Joe strikes up a friendship with Sylvio Malatesta (Gilbert Roland), who owns a seafood restaurant and a fishing boat. Sylvio lives with his mother, his kid brother and his cousin. Sylvio invites Joe over for dinner and when he realises that there’s an attraction between his cousin Anna (for whom he’s been desperately trying to find a husband) he suggests that Joe should move in to the spare room. The bulk of the movie is taken up by the complex relationships between Joe and Sylvio and between Joe and Anna. But Joe has not given up on finding Father Tomasino’s killer. He still has that lead. Sometimes he thinks it’s a false lead and sometimes he thinks it really will lead him to the killer.

While there’s definitely a crime thriller plot this movie is mainly a psychological drama as Joe has to deal with conflicting loyalties and with emotions that are quite new to him. For the first time in his life he has found a home, he has found real friendship and he has found love but can he hang on to any of them?

Curtis’s performance is subtle and powerful. Joe Santini is a man who has never learnt to deal with his emotions and while he maintains an outward calm Curtis has no trouble convincing us of the turbulence of the feelings he has bottled up inside. If you need to be convinced that Tony Curtis could act this movie will do just that.

Gilbert Roland is very good as the loud, boisterous, generous Sylvio. Marisa Pavan is excellent as Anna. Like Joe she has spent her life repressing her emotions and now they’re almost too much for her to deal with. She knows she’s found the man she wants but she just cannot bring herself to believe that he loves her.

Russell Metty’s excellent cinematography is another plus. There’s plenty of San Francisco location shooting.

Screenbound’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in  the 2.35:1 aspect ratio). As far as I know this movie has never had a Region 1 release.

Is it film noir? Kind of, in an indirect way, but I can’t say any more without risking spoilers. There is a mystery to be solved but this is mostly a psychological melodrama and a love story between two troubled but very likeable people with the odds stacked against them. The DVD cover shows Tony Curtis holding a gun, and Joe Santini does have a revolver, but he never gets to shoot it. This is just not that kind of movie.

The Midnight Story is one of those terrific little movies that made little impact at the time and quickly vanished into obscurity. It’s a movie that deserves rediscovery. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

The Devil is a Woman is the last of the six Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich movies made at Paramount. It’s reasonable to refer to them as the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies. She was his collaborator, his muse and his lover. These movies would quite simply have been unthinkable without her and without her von Sternberg would certainly not have made them. Fittingly, The Devil is a Woman is a film about sexual obsession, and the price of such obsession.

It’s also of course, like the other five movies, an expression of von Sternberg’s particular aesthetic principles. He described the previous film, The Scarlet Empress, as “a relentless excursion into style” and that pretty accurately describes all the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies. While Dietrich was a fine actress she was not in these movies to act - she was there simply to be Marlene Dietrich, to be the centrepiece of a visual extragavanza.

The Devil is a Woman was based on the 1898 novel The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs. Louÿs was a product of the fin de siècle Decadence and one of the great French writers of erotic literature. It’s certainly not difficult to see why von Sternberg would have been attracted to his work.

The movie takes place in southern Spain during Carnival. Young revolutionary Antonio (Cesar Romero) has met a fascinating woman. He then runs into his old friend Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill), a middle-aged army officer. Don Pasqual knows this fascinating woman as well. She ruined his life. She really is a devil in the form of a woman. Don Pasqual warns Antonio to keep well clear of her but as we will see no man who falls under the spell of Concha Perez (for that is the lady’s name and she is of course played by Marlene Dietrich) can resist her. The more she hurts them, the more devoted they become.

Don Pasqual tells the story of his own involvement with her in a series of flashbacks. His masochistic longing for her is all the more tragic since he is a man of the world and he knows that she will play with him for a while and then cast him aside. But he keeps going back for more. He is not the first man to suffer at Concha’s hands, and as we will also see he will not be the last.

This story could have been approached as an outrageous sex comedy. While there is plenty of humour this is not quite a comedy. It’s not quite a tragedy either. Perhaps that’s the point. Sexual desire can make us clowns or tragic heroes, and sometimes it can make us both at the same time. It’s a farcical melodrama, or a melodramatic farce.

Concha is both pure evil and at the same time an adorable sex kitten. Dietrich plays the rôle superbly. She also looks absolutely stunning and her costumes are astounding. Lionel Atwill gives one of his finest performances (it may even be his best performance), managing to make Don Pasqual both dignified and ridiculous. Cesar Romero is also excellent. Edward Everett Horton plays the governor, another of Concha’s victims, and while he usually provided comic relief there is a serious edge to his performance here as well.

These are very flawed characters but it’s difficult to judge them too harshly. It’s even difficult to be too harsh on Concha. She is what she is. To disapprove of her would be to disapprove of sexual desire - it’s just in the nature of that desire that it brings joy and destruction. Her victims offer themselves willingly to be emotionally tortured.

Of course to a large extent it’s an opportunity for von Sternberg to indulge is aesthetic excess, which he does to extraordinary effect.

Not only do have characters wearing masks, we have whole scenes that take place behind visual barriers - lattice-work screens, iron grilles, fences, screens of trees and in some cases sheets of rain. This gives the movie a certain detachment which was clearly deliberate.

This movie was released on DVD as part of the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection five-movie set (and a great set it is) and it looks superb.

The Devil is a Woman was not a success at the box office. It was just too odd for audiences at the time, being neither a straightforward melodrama or romance or comedy but instead being all those things at the same time. Concha derives too much enjoyment from her cruelties, and her victims submit too willingly, for audiences at the time to approve of any of the characters. And it’s a movie that is just too wildly different from conventional Hollywood movies. It is however, in its own way, a masterpiece and is very highly recommended.