Sunday, March 29, 2020

Une Parisienne (1957)

Une Parisienne (AKA La Parisienne) is an early Brigitte Bardot movie, released in 1957. I find Bardot’s romantic comedies of this era to be rather charming and this one is no exception. It was directed by Michel Boisrond who also helmed two of her other equally enjoyable 1950s romantic comedies, Naughty Girl and Come Dance With Me.

Bardot plays Brigitte Laurier, the daughter of the President of France. She has decided that she is madly in love with her father’s private secretary, Michel Legrand (Henri Vidal). Michel already has enough to worry about, with assorted mistresses including at least one who has tried to kill him. He is also ambitious and does not want to offend her other by playing footsies with his daughter.

Brigitte is however a very determined girl and she cooks up various schemes to capture Michel, schemes which eventually succeed. Once they are married the trouble really starts. Brigitte is sure that her new husband is still playing around with his mistresses (and certainly his mistresses are still pursuing him). So, at a reception for a European prince,  she announces that she is going to have an affair with the next man who walks through the door. The next man who walks through the door happens to be the prince. Brigitte is undaunted.

Prince Charles is played by Charles Boyer, perhaps a little old at that time to be paired with Bardot (he was 58). But then Brigitte’s pursuit of the prince is supposed to be outrageous. It is fascinating to see Boyer, one of the great French male screen heart-throbs of an earlier era, teamed up with the greatest French female sex symbol of the 50s (and possibly the greatest French female sex symbol of all time).

Bardot was twenty-three at the time, at the height of her beauty and already a seasoned actress. She had a particular gift for light comedy. She made something of a speciality of playing naughty girls. Not evil women, not dangerous women, just girls who are harmlessly and delightfully troublesome. The sort of women who won’t ruin a man’s life but they will make his life an endless series of dramas. But he won’t really mind. That’s the sort of girl she plays in this movie. Brigitte is oblivious to the normal social rules and creates mayhem but in a good-natured sort of way. She is exasperating but always adorable.

As is the case with all of her movies of this period (and most of the movies of her career) this is almost entirely a star vehicle for Bardot. She is the reason you’re going to watch this movie and she is more than capable of carrying such a film on her own. She positively sparkles. She is astonishingly sexy, but in a playful and almost wholesome way. She gives the impression of being a woman who really enjoyed everything about being a woman.

While this is very much Bardot’s movie she gets very good support from Henri Vidal and from Boyer.

This movie gets off to a bit of a slow start but once it builds up a head of steam it becomes a sheer delight. It’s a movie in which adultery is taken for granted and anyone could be sharing anyone else’s bed but it’s a kind of honest adultery. The characters have affairs but they don’t really hide them and (in contrast to real life) no-one actually gets hurt. This is the jet set lifestyle.

And Brigitte only wants to have an affair to make her husband love her. What she really wants is a proper marriage, which she doesn’t think she has.

The witty script gives Bardot and her co-stars something to work with.

This was 1957 so there’s no nudity and Bardot proves she didn’t need to get naked to be sexy.

This movie has been released on DVD but good luck finding it, especially a version with English subtitles. I caught it on cable TV. It’s a great pity because it’s one of Bardot’s best early films.

Une Parisienne is a frothy lightweight romantic sex comedy with Bardot at the top of her game, doing the sort of thing she did supremely well. What’s not to love? Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Candidate for Murder (1962)

Candidate for Murder is a 1962 entry in the incredibly prolific series of Edgar Wallace thrillers made by Merton Park Studios in England.

Donald Edwards (Michael Gough) has a beautiful and glamorous wife but Helene Edwards  (Erika Remberg) is a film star and she’s off to Hollywood to make a movie. And she’s announced that she thinks they should have a trial separation. She also has a friend, a handsome barrister named Robert Vaughan (John Justin). Helene insists that there’s nothing in it although it’s pretty obvious that there’s quite a bit in it.

Donald was always a jealous husband and now he’s become just a little unhinged by all this. In fact he’s hired a hitman to resolve his marital difficulties for him.

Kersten (Hans von Borsody) is the hitman. He’s a German, a veteran of the French Foreign Legion, and he’s your archetypal cold-as-ice professional killer.

Of course things don’t go off quite as expected. In fact they don’t go off as anybody expected.

The basic setup is as old as the hills but this one adds some genuinely neat and original twists (and there are quite a few of those twists). It even has some interesting character stuff.

And there’s some location shooting and even some action.

Playing a character who is a bit unhinged is obviously right up Michael Gough’s alley. He’s trying to stay in control but right from the start it’s clear he’s not playing with a full deck. He wants Kersten to tell him all about killing, how it feels for the killer and how it feels for the victim. Kersten obviously doesn’t feel anything at all and is annoyed by the questioning. He’s happy to do the job but not too comfortable about the thought that he may be working for an unpredictable madman.

Erika Remberg does well as Helene, making her neither too sympathetic nor too unsympathetic. She probably has done her best to be a good wife but Donald Edwards would obviously be a difficult man to be married to.

Director David Villiers is a bit of a mystery man. He apparently died the same year this movie was released, having directed only two features. He handles things here very efficiently.

Writer Lukas Heller had a much more illustrious career, having scripted a varied assortment of odd but interesting movies (The Killing of Sister George, the delightful tongue-in-cheek spy flick Hot Enough for June, The Dirty Dozen and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). His screenplay for Candidate for Murder is extremely clever.

The black-and-white cinematography is very good and I liked the Edwards house - one of those split-level houses so popular in the early 60s.

The one aspect of the movie that some people seem to find unsatisfactory and implausible (or poorly motivated) actually makes perfect sense if you watch the movie carefully. Perhaps some viewers just weren’t expecting such subtlety, or weren’t expecting to have to think about a cheap B-movie.

This film is part of Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume Three DVD boxed set. As usual the anamorphic transfer (all the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films were shot widescreen) is excellent.

Candidate for Murder is for my money one of the better entries in what is on the whole a pretty solid cycle of mystery thrillers. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Jungle Girl (1941)

Jungle Girl is one of the series of excellent late 1930s/early 1940s Republic serials directed by William Witney and John English. This one was released in 1941 and introduced Nyoka the Jungle Girl who would also feature in a later William Witney-directed serial, Perils of Nyoka.

Jungle Girl is supposedly based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now Burroughs did indeed write a novel called Jungle Girl. And a very good novel it is too - you can read my review here. But there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between this novel and the Jungle Girl serial. Obviously Republic bought the rights to the book since the Edgar Rice Burroughs name would be a definite box-office asset and then proceeded to create their own story. Which doesn't matter. Jungle Girl is a fine novel, and the Jungle Girl serial is terrific as well. They’re just not related in any way.

Nyoka (Frances Gifford) does seem a little bit like a lady Tarzan. She travels through the jungle by swinging through the trees on vines, she rides elephants and she knows the jungle like the back of her hand. But Nyoka is not an orphan raised by apes. She lives in the depths of the West African rainforest in the unexplored region of the Simbula Swamps, in the territory of the Masamba tribe. She lives there with her father, Dr John Meredith. Many years earlier Dr Meredith saved the life of the chief of the Masamba and as a result he was made the tribe’s witch doctor or medicine man and he has spent the intervening years bringing the benefits of modern medicine to the Masamba.

There is a reason that Dr Meredith has chosen to remain deep in the jungle and and has chosen to raise his daughter Nyoka there. He has an evil twin brother named Bradley, a notorious criminal now serving a long prison sentence, and his self-imposed exile is his way of avoiding any contact with his brother, and avoiding the scandals associated with his brother. Nyoka is therefore, like Tarzan, caught between two worlds. She has picked up a western education from her father and she has picked up the lore of the jungle as well.

Everything is fine until Jack Stanton (Tom Neal) arrives in his aeroplane with a passenger, a certain Slick Latimer (Gerald Mohr). Latimer tells Dr Meredith that his brother is dying and that he must go to him immediately. But maybe it isn’t a great idea to trust Slick Latimer. Nyoka has some problems to deal with as well. When Dr Meredith became the tribe’s witch doctor the previous holder of that office, Shamba, was displaced. And he’s been brooding about it ever since. Now he’s ready to do something about it. He’s ready to perform some nasty voodoo rites and to take more direct steps as well, with Nyoka as his target.

The key is the Lion Amulet, which is not only the badge of office of the current medicine man, it also allows across to the Caves of Nakros. That’s where the tribe keeps its treasure. And that treasure consists of an immense hoard of diamonds.

Slick Latimer and Bradley Meredith have their own plans to get hold of the Lion Amulet, with Bradley Meredith posing as his brother.

Frances Gifford is an energetic and appealing heroine. She looks convincing athletic and she’s very attractive. She’s not a great actress but she’s quite adequate. Tom Neal as Jack is an interesting choice for the hero rôle. He’s remembered today for his off-the-wall and disturbingly intense performance in Edgar G. Ulmer’s bizarre but fascinating 1945 film noir Detour. He’s intense here as well, making him intriguingly different to most serial heroes. In fact his acting is pretty decent. So we have a genuinely interesting heroine and a genuine interesting hero.

We also have a pretty cool villain in Slick Latimer, played by Gerald Mohr who positively drips with evilness.

It’s quite amusing that very few of the Masamba tribesmen look even slightly African. In fact I think the actors playing those parts cover just about every ethnicity except African. The Masamba chief is played by a Hawaiian while the evil witch doctor Shamba is played by a Syrian.

There are all the usual hazards for our heroes to face. The only problem with jungle serials is that you pretty much know you’re going to get a guy in a gorilla suit, poison darts, the hero wrassling crocodiles and lions, etc. What matters is that being a Republic serial of this era the fights, the stunts and the cliffhangers are all without exception extremely well executed. There’s an excellent cliffhanger ending that is incredibly similar to an equally excellent cliffhanger in an earlier William Witney-John English serial, the superb Daredevils of the Red Circle. And one cute touch is that in this serial it’s the heroine, not the hero, who wrassles crocodiles and lions barehanded. She gets captured a lot and has to be rescued, but Jack and his sidekick Curly also get captured a lot and Nyoka does her share of rescuing.

There’s also the obligatory cute kid, with an obligatory cute pet (a remarkably intelligent monkey).

With most serials you have to put up with at least one filler chapter made up of flashbacks from earlier chapters but that’s not the case here. There are also no real pacing problems - the action keeps moving along pretty nicely.

The fact that Jack has a plane which plays an important part in the story adds some further interest and there’s an aerial action climax.

VCI’s DVD release is very pleasing. The transfers are very good. The earlier VHS releases of this serial have a very poor reputation (even by VHS standards) for image quality but there’s nothing to complain of here.

Jungle Girl is certainly a superior serial. It’s better acted than most, the jungle setting is utilised well, the cliffhangers are great and it’s generally very enjoyable viewing. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Vice Raid (1959)

Vice Raid is a 1959 low-budget crime pot-boiler included in Kino Lorber’s three-movie set featuring legendary blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren. The title promises plenty of lurid thrills. We’ll see whether it delivers the goods.

Tough but honest cop Sergeant “Whitey” Brandon (Richard Coogan) has been trying to break up a vice racket run by mobster Vince Malone (Brad Dexter). The reason he’s been having so much trouble (as the audience finds out right at the beginning) is that Malone has so many crooked cops on his payroll.

Malone is getting tired of the pressure from Brandon and he cooks up a plan to deal with the problem.

For the plan to work Malone needs a girl with looks and brains and the Syndicate has just the right girl - Carol Hudson (Mamie van Doren). This is a rôle that gives Miss van Doren a chance to strut her bad girl stuff. Carol is one dangerous broad. She has the body of a goddess and the morals of an alley cat.

Carol’s job is to set Brandon up so he looks like a corrupt cop. The plan succeeds and Brandon is out of a job. But Brandon is not a guy who gives up. Now he’s on a one-man crusade against the vice racket and everyone associated with it, including corrupt cops. He just needs to find a weakness in Malone’s setup. He has one big advantage - this is a personal vendetta and he’s happy to risk his own skin if it’s necessary.

Carol’s problem is her kid sister Louise (played by the delectable Carol Nugent), fresh off the bus from Iowa. Louise is physically all grown up but she’s as naïve as they come. The only thing Carol cares about, apart from money, is little sister. The smart thing would be to put Louise straight back on that bus to Iowa, but persuading Louise to go proves to be a challenge. Louise can’t believe how much money her big sister makes as a model. She naturally doesn’t know that Carol is no model. This is Louise’s first glimpse of the glamour of the big bad city and she likes what she sees.

Brandon starts to make his moves in a dangerous game of bluff with Malone. Malone is a tough customer, tally untroubled by moral scruples. He does have a weakness however. He understands the rackets but he doesn’t understand women.

The plot is fairly routine. You can predict most of what’s going to happen. Which doesn’t really matter. It’s executed with plenty of energy and a fair amount of sleaze (a lot of sleaze by 1959 standards) although the sleaze is mostly implied. This is pretty close to being an out-and-out exploitation movie. Since it was released by United Artists it’s perhaps not a true exploitation movie, but it has some of that grungy feel to it. This is a very cheap movie with just a limited number of very basic sets but it was photographed by Stanley Cortez so it manages to look better than it has any right to look.

Mamie van Doren is in fine form. She’s hardbitten and sexy but as she often did van Doren manages to make her character believable. She wasn’t a great actress but she gives it her all and she dominates the movie.

The anamorphic transfer is excellent. This movie is in black-and-white and it’s the sort of movie that really needs to be in black-and-white in order to capture just the right blend of sleaze and seedy glamour.

Vice Raid belongs to an era in which movies like this tried desperately hard to be salacious but they had to pull their punches. They can’t actually tell us that Malone’s model agencies are fronts for prostitution (or that Carol is a prostitute) but they can make sure we figure it out. And perhaps surprisingly they do tell us outright when one of the female characters is raped (and while we only see the lead-up to the rape the woman’s obvious terror is quite harrowing).

Vice Raid is a routine B-movie potboiler but it has Mamie van Doren and she’s reason enough to see it. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Fallen Idol (1948)

The Fallen Idol, released in 1948, was the first of three very successful collaborations between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. Reed had come up with the idea of doing a film based on Greene’s 1935 short story The Basement Room and asked Greene to write the screenplay.

The story had been set in the past in a large house in Belgravia but in 1948 such houses with a multitude of servants were becoming a thing of the past. Reed decided that an embassy would be the closest modern equivalent so the movie is set in the French Embassy in London. The early stages of the movie follow the short story fairly closely but towards the end it diverges from the short story in a number of very significant ways.

Phillipe (Bobby Henrey)  is a small boy growing up in the embassy. In fact he’s the son of the ambassador. His mother is away and has been for quite some time, recovering from a serious illness. His father is of course too busy to spend much time with Phillipe. The boy doesn’t mind because he has Baines (Ralph Richardson), the embassy’s English butler, whom the lad hero-worships. Phillipe believes every word of the tall stories Baines tells him of his adventures in Africa as a young man.

One thing Phillipe is learning about life is that you have to keep secrets. You especially have to keep secrets from Mrs Baines. He is afraid of Mrs Baines. Everybody is afraid of Mrs Baines, and with good reason. Phillipe has his secrets. And he discovers that Baines has a secret too. It’s about his niece. At least he tells the boy that Julie (Michèle Morgan) is his niece.

The secrets become important when tragedy strikes. Is it best to tell the truth or to tell lies? Everything Phillipe has seen of life so far suggests that lies are the best policy.

At the point where you think the story has more or less reached its finale it’s actually only just getting into top gear. Now the twists kick in. The lies multiply. There are so many lies that when someone tells the truth it sounds like a lie, and when someone tells a lie it sounds like the truth. Now we’re well and truly in Greeneland, and if you’ve seen the later Graham Greene-Carol Reed collaborations The Third Man and Our Man in Havana you know how cleverly Greene can deal with a world of deception. Once you start telling lies you just have to keep going but there’s quite an art to keeping the lies straight.

But this film not only has a superb script by Greene it also has the visual brilliance that one expects from Carol Reed. The scene with the boy on the fire escape is a typical Reed tour-de-force. This being a 1940s Carol Reed film you’ll be expecting some Dutch angles and other visual flourishes and he provides them, but with Reed the visual pyrotechnics always serve a purpose. This is a twisted world of deceit. Reed was at the top of his form in the late 40s and Greene was just starting to reach his peak.

What’s really interesting is that the lies are not told by bad people and they’re not really told for malicious purposes. Sometimes they’re told with the best of intentions. But they become a habit. Just as secrets are not necessarily a bad thing but they become a habit too. Lies and secrets can be a kindness, but they can be dangerous.

Ralph Richardson gives his finest screen performance. Michèle Morgan and young Bobby Henrey are very good and there’s a terrific supporting cast - Jack Hawkins, Bernard Lee, Sonia Dresdel, Geoffrey Keen.

There’s some definite seriousness here but this is not Greeneland at its darkest. There’s some humour and there are even touches of genuine human warmth. One thing you need to bear in mind is that this was an early short story by a writer still learning his craft. When Greene wrote the screenplay for The Fallen Idol thirteen years later he was an established writer just about at the top of his game.

The Studiocanal Region 2 DVD offers a lovely transfer and quite a few extras. There are several other DVD and Blu-Ray releases.

The Fallen Idol is a quirky film. It’s part murder mystery, part suspense film and part psychological drama. Surprisingly perhaps it was a major box office success. This is a truly great movie, one of the classics of British cinema. Very highly recommended.

My review of the original short story can be found here at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Girl in Black Stockings (1957)

The Girl in Black Stockings, released in 1957, is part of Kino Lorber’s three-movie set of steamy crime potboilers featuring the legendary blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren although she actually plays only a supporting rôle in this particular movie.

A women’s body is found in the bushes at a resort hotel in Utah. The young woman apparently had a less than respectable reputation. The body is found by lawyer Dave Hewson (Lex Barker) and Beth Dixon (Anne Bancroft). The obvious suspect would be Edmund Parry (Ron Randell), the owner of the hotel and a man who thoroughly hated the dead girl (in fact he doesn’t seem overly fond of women in general). Parry is looked after by his devoted sister Julia (Marie Windsor). But Parry is completely paralysed so that pretty much eliminates him as a suspect. Fortunately (or from the sheriff’s point of view unfortunately) there are plenty of other suspects.

Pretty soon the bodies start to pile up. The sheriff knows he’s dealing with a psycho but there seem to be plenty of potential psychos among the suspects.

Apart from those mentioned above there’s a faded movie star, his blonde good time gal girlfriend Harriet (van Doren) and a local Lothario. I was pretty certain I knew what the solution was going to turn out to be but I admit I was totally wrong.

This was 1957 so while there are plenty of brutal murders the violence occurs off screen. The sexual content is obviously entirely implied as well but Mamie van Doren still manages to heat things up in her inimitable style.

For a cheapie B-budget this film boasts a pretty strong cast. Anne Bancroft and Lex Barker are the headliners but of course there’s Mamie van Doren and Marie Windsor, both B-move favourites. And in one of his most substantial rôles, as the local sheriff, there’s John Dehner and he’s one of my favourite American character actors. Ron Randell doesn’t let the fact that the character he’s playing is paralysed stop him from chewing the scenery.

All the performances are very good. The players are giving it everything they’ve got and there really aren’t any weak links among the cast. Ron Randell is the standout - he really is scary and creepy.

This is very much a B-picture but it has absolutely everything you could wish for in a B-picture. There’s some reasonably lurid subject matter, there’s glamour and there’s a well-constructed script by Richard H. Landau with some good red herrings and an effective shock ending. Director Howard W. Koch does a fine job. Given the low budget he can’t do anything too fancy but he gives us some nicely atmospheric moments and there’s certainly no reason to complain about the pacing. It’s a well-crafted little movie.

Location shooting was done at the Parry Lodge in Utah. It’s a great location which was used in countless movies and I believe it still exists.

The anamorphic transfer is excellent. The extras include a fascinating interview with Miss van Doren (who is at the time of writing still very much alive). She talks about the three movies included in the set (of which she has fond memories) and about her 1950s career in general.

The Girl in Black Stockings is a solid murder mystery with perhaps some very faint noir tinges. It’s content to be a B-movie, but it’s a good and very entertaining B-movie. Highly recommended even if Mamie van Doren doesn’t get anywhere near enough screen time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Escape in the Fog (1945)

Escape in the Fog is an odd little Columbia spy thriller B-feature released in 1945.

Nina Foch plays Eileen Carr, a military nurse who has had a crack-up and has been honourably discharged as a result. She has disturbing dreams. So do lots of people. But Eileen’s dreams come true! She dreams about a man, a man she has never seen before, being attacked on a bridge. And the next day she meets the man. The man is Barry Malcolm (William Wright) and for both of them it’s love at first. And he does get attacked on a bridge, exactly as happened in the dream.

Barry Malcolm is a Federal Agent and he’s just been assigned to a vital mission, to deliver important papers to a contact in Hong Kong. The papers concern American plans to attack Japanese forces in China. First he has to collect the papers in San Francisco.

Unfortunately a sinister Nazi spy ring has found out about the mission. They intend to get the papers. Awkwardly for both the Nazis and Barry Malcolm the papers are now at the bottom of the bay after Malcolm threw them off a bridge.

He’s told Eileen about the mission and she’s playing amateur spy with enthusiasm but with mixed results. She naturally manages to get herself captured by the Nazi spies.

It all turns out to be a very conventional by-the-numbers spy flick. Sadly the potentially really interesting angles, just as Eileen’s talent for precognition, are not developed. The story at least moves along at a good pace.

Nina Foch is quite adequate and very likeable as Eileen. William Wright, a now forgotten actor who died tragically young, is a perfectly serviceable hero. In fact he’s pretty good. Otto Kruger plays the enigmatic Paul Devon and does so effectively if predictably. There’s the expected conventional Nazi villain.

This was an early directorial effort by Budd Boetticher, later to gain fame as a director of westerns. This is very much a B-picture so he doesn’t get much opportunity to do anything clever but films like this were great training in getting on with a story without distracting the viewer with unnecessary padding.

There was obviously no money for spectacular action set-pieces. The title does promise fog and there’s plenty of that - always a useful way of disguising a low budget. The fog is certainly used effectively. And Malcolm’s escape plan is very clever.

While it’s been released as part of a film noir set this movie has absolutely zero claims to being a film noir. It’s just a routine spy story. It’s a pity because the story could have been a lot more interesting if there’d been time to flesh it out and explore Eileen’s psychological quirks. You have to wonder if perhaps the script was intending to do this but the demands of B-film production resulted in the more interesting bits of the story being eliminated - why introduce the dream stuff if you’re not going to explain what’s going on in her head?

This movie is included in the three-disc nine-movie Blu-Ray set Noir Archive volume 1 from Kit Parker Films. The transfer is good if you don’t mind a bit of graininess (which is actually an asset in a movie of this type). The Blu-Ray release is just a way to pack lots of movies on just three discs. The image quality is good DVD quality. The packaging of the set is unbelievably shoddy - three discs all packed into in a two-disc case and not surprisingly not all the discs are playable.

This movie was also released individually on DVD in the Sony Choice Collection series but that edition might be hard to find now.

If you’re happy to accept it for what it is, a pure B-movie potboiler, then Escape in the Fog  offers undemanding but reasonably satisfying entertainment. It’s worth a rental.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Prodigal (1955)

In 1955 the Hollywood studios were in big trouble. Television was slowly strangling them. They tried a number of gimmicks to tempt audiences back to theatres. Things like Cinemascope and 3D enjoyed some success but the studios placed much of their faith in big-budget blockbusters. Preferably costume epics. Shot, of course, in colour and Cinemascope. Some of these epics were box office bonanzas and won acclaim from critics. Some were popular with the public but disdained by the critics. And some won acclaim from neither the public nor the critics. Some films in the latter category did go on to become cult favourites for their considerable camp value.

Which brings us to MGM’s 1955 offering The Prodigal. It was a dismal failure at the box office and was regarded with contempt by critics. It hasn’t quite made it to cult favourite status but it has potential in that area - there’s certainly plenty of camp value, the premise is absurd, the script misfires badly, the acting is generally terrible. On the other hand it looks spectacular. It’s not so much high camp as high kitsch but visually it will get your attention.

And it has Lana Turner in full-on bad girl sex goddess mode, for a while at least.

It is, very very loosely, based on the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Micah (Edmund Purdom) is the younger son of the venerable and very pious Eli. Eli lives in a small sea port which is a stronghold of the strictly monotheistic followers of Jehovah. The rest of the country is dominated by polytheists worshipping a bewildering array of gods but the most significant of the pagan cults is that of the goddess Astarte. To say that the followers of Jehovah and the followers of Astarte do not get along would be a masterpiece of understatement.

Micah is to be betrothed to Ruth, the eminently respectable daughter of a neighbour. Ruth is sweet and pretty, she comes from a good family, she is pious and she is determined to be a good wife. She even assures Micah that she can cook. Since Ruth and Micah actually like each other it seems destined to be a successful marriage and Micah has every intention of making a go of it. Unfortunately the day before the betrothal Micah sets eyes on Samarra (Lana Turner). And all Micah’s good intentions go out the window. Samarra oozes sex from every pore. She is not a nice girl and she is most certainly not respectable. Whether she can cook or not we never find out but we’re pretty sure it’s not her skills in the kitchen that interest Micah.

Samarra is the high priestess of Astarte. Like all the priestesses of Astarte she is a temple prostitute. To the followers of Astarte it’s a religious ritual and they consider it to be perfectly normal but the fact remains that her religious duties involve selling her sexual favours for money. She might not be a common woman of the streets but she is certainly technically a prostitute. Surprisingly enough the movie is very explicit about this. There’s no hedging about, no nonsense about her being a dancing girl or anything like that. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, a whore. I have no idea how MGM got away with this in 1955.

In fact the movie goes even further than this. Temple prostitution is at least a religious obligation but in one early scene the high priest is negotiating a very large loan from a money-lender and throws in Samarra’s sexual favours to sweeten the deal (which doesn’t seem to bother Samarra in the least). So Samarra is apparently quite willing to sell her sexual services in any circumstance in which it might be advantageous to do so.

I’m also not sure how they got away with having a character like Yasmin. She’s a ten-year-old girl in training to be the next high priestess and given what we know about the high priestess’s duties that might be considered slightly disturbing.

There are several sub-plots, one involving a scheme by the high priest to enrich himself by starving the people. From time to time the film cuts back to life in Micah’s home town where we’re treated to some boring interludes with his sanctimonious father and brother. Of course the only thing the audience is going to care about is whether Micah can be persuaded to pay the price demanded to gain access to Samarra’s bed and whether Samarra will succeed in corrupting our innocent farm boy.

This movie relies very heavily on the sex and sin angle. In fact it relies on this almost entirely.

There’s plenty of decadence here. There’s the party in Damascus (apparent the Sin Capital of the region) with girls being auctioned off, there’s the card game with a girl as the stake. This is a wicked world in which everything is for sale and the most valuable currency is female flesh. Samarra as high priestess of Astarte clearly has skills beyond compare when it comes to the art of love, or so she assures Micah in order to torture the poor boy. And of course there’s the forecourt of the temple of Astarte, which is plainly and unequivocally a brothel where the temple priestesses/prostitutes service their clients.

The movie’s biggest asset is Lana Turner. I’m not going to try to convince you that Miss Turner was a great actress. She wasn’t. She wasn’t even a very good one. But she was a star. Once she makes her first spectacular appearance she dominates the movie completely. You’re watching her and you don’t care what else is happening. It’s not sexual allures (although she has plenty of that). It’s charisma. It’s old-fashioned star quality. And when she plays a bad girl she’s like a very beautiful very deadly package of pure sex.

Edmund Purdom is pretty awful. The film didn’t need a great actor as male lead but it did need one with the kind of charisma that Miss Turner had. It also needed a male lead who could convincingly attract Samarra’s lust. Someone like Victor Mature would have had great fun with a rôle like this. Turner and Purdom also simply don’t have any chemistry.

Could anything have been done to save this movie? Perhaps. One major problem is the character of Samarra. For the first half of the movie she’s a dangerous and wicked man-eater. Then the screenwriters seemed to lose their nerve. They tried to make her more sympathetic. Maybe she might even be Redeemed By Love. This was a mistake. Firstly, Lana Turner is a lot more fun when she’s being wicked. Secondly, it shifts the focus away from the Micah-Samarra relationship and onto Micah as Hero. And Micah isn’t a very exciting hero. Had they kept Samarra as scheming evil temptress the movie might have maintained its momentum more successfully. The first half, with Samarra as the queen of sex and sin, is fun. The second half drags badly.

There’s also the problem that Micah is not only dull, he’s thoroughly detestable. If you had any sympathy for him I guarantee that the ending will leave you hating him.

Warner Brothers have released this film as an individual DVD and as part of a camp classics set. The transfer is superb and there’s an audio commentary.

This is unquestionably a bad movie but the first half is visually lush thoroughly enjoyable slightly risqué nonsense (and at times very risqué). Lana Turner fans will certainly not want to miss this one. You have to be in the mood for The Prodigal. If you are in that mood it’s recommended.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959)

Kino Lorber have released a three-movie set of crime potboilers featuring legendary blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren. So far I’ve only watched Guns, Girls and Gangsters but already I’m a confirmed Mamie van Doren fan.

Chuck Wheeler (Gerald Mohr) has just been released from San Quentin and he has big plans - to rob an armoured car carrying the take from Las Vegas casinos to LA. The haul should be at least two million dollars (an astronomical amount of money in 1959). The only thing is, he needs Joe Darren (Grant Richards) because Darren is the one guy who knows how to launder the money. To get to Darren he intends to use his old cellmate Mike Bennett’s wife Vi Victor (Mamie van Doren). Vi is a canary working at one of Darren’s night clubs and Daren’s been making time with her. As well as the two million Chuck intends to get Vi as well. Considering that her husband Mike (Lee van Cleff) is insanely jealous and psychotically violent and is being released in three months’ crime any man thinking of putting the moves on Vi seriously needs his head examined. But of course the whole point of the movie is that any man who sets eyes on Vi is not exactly going to be thinking sensible thoughts.

Chuck’s plan is a good one but Chuck is thinking more about Vi than anything else. His judgment is not as sound as it might be (I must say I can’t blame him).

The plan might have worked except that Mike has found out that his wife has been sleeping around while he was inside so he busts out and proceeds to create havoc for everybody, leaving an ever-lengthening trail of corpses behind him. Vi makes every man crazy but crazy doesn’t even begin to describe what she does to Mike.

The movie relies a lot on voiceover narration which is usually a bad idea but there’s a lot of plot to be packed into the 70-minute running time so it’s perhaps excusable. And it’s important to get the background to the crime sketched in as quickly as possible so we can get to what’s really important - Mamie van Doren. That’s what the audience for this film wants to see, and there has to be time to let her do a couple of musical numbers so we can see just how sexy she is. And she’s plenty sexy.

Vi is hardboiled and not very moral but she’s also rather sentimental. There’s a sweet kid underneath the bad girl exterior. Life hasn’t offered her much and she’s had to take what she can get, which she’s done without hesitation, but while she’s unscrupulous she’s not in the least evil. Miss van Doren does a pretty reasonable job here. She makes Vi believable and she makes her interesting.

As a singer and dancer she wouldn’t set the world on fire (although she’s OK) if it wasn’t for that body, but she has that body and she’s read the instruction manual that came with it. Her night club performances are what you’d expect in the old Vegas of the late 50s. This was the Vegas of the Rat Pack and the movie captures the atmosphere of money and seedy glamour.

Cult movie fans will naturally be waiting to see Lee van Cleef make his entrance. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s bad and mad and dangerous and he’s totally out of control. He’s a killing machine. Gerald Mohr is pretty good too as Chuck. Chuck is a bit like Vi. His problem is that he’s not quite as bad as he thinks he is.

The heist scenes are done fairly well. This was a pretty low budget film but while it might lack sophistication director Edward L. Cahn keeps things moving along at a cracking pace. It’s also moderately violent by 1959 standards. Of course there’s no gore or anything remotely approaching it but there are a couple of killings that are chilling in their cold-bloodedness. This is a movie that tries to be hardboiled and mostly it succeeds.

The anamorphic transfer is very good. There are no extras. The movie is in black-and-white and looks all the better for it.

This is a B-movie and it makes no apologies for this. It glories in it. It’s a celebration of tackiness and trash culture. It wants to be lurid, and it is.

This would be an entertaining little B-movie even without Mamie van Doren. With her it’s loads of fun. And she sure does fill a dress very nicely.

Guns, Girls and Gangsters is highly recommended.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Robbery (1967)

Robbery is a 1967 British crime thriller directed by Peter Yates and based on the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Steve McQueen saw this film and was so impressed, especially by the car chase, he hired Yates to direct his next film. That film would be Bullitt.

Robbery was produced by Stanley Baker who is also the star. In 1967 Baker was one of the most significant figures in the British film industry. He was a huge star in Britain and after Zulu in 1964 he was a pretty big star internationally. Baker wanted to be more than just a star and he was already establishing himself as a major force behind the scenes. Baker was the first major British film star to be unequivocally and unapologetically working class and as such he not only helped to change the whole character of he industry in Britain, he also paved the way for a new wave of working class stars like Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Robbery starts in the middle of what is obviously a heist but we don’t really know what’s going on. It’s a meticulously planned and timed operation, the sort of robbery that could only have been planned by someone who believes in obsessive attention to detail. It culminates in a car chase but it’s not until the heist is over that we discover it was a diamond robbery. But this movie is not about that diamond robbery. The diamond job was  merely a way of raising capital for a much bigger much more ambitious job. In fact the biggest robbery ever carried out in Britain up to that time.

The diamond robbery went without a hitch. Well, almost. There was one tiny mistake which lands one of the gang in prison. Not so much a mistake, more a case of one of those little things that goes wrong that cannot possibly be anticipated. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The mastermind behind the robberies is Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker). He plans his crimes like military operations. Every single detail is planned and rehearsed and then rehearsed again.

This is very much one of those heist movies in which the emphasis is on the buildup and then on the detailed unfolding of a complex plan. That’s not to say that it’s lacking in action, but the action is always balanced by slower scenes in which the tension builds remorselessly. Clifton’s robberies are so well planned that nothing can go wrong but of course we know that something will go wrong, we just don’t know what it is that is going to bring disaster, and we don’t know how bad the disaster will be since Clifton is the sort of guy who believes in having a contingency plan for everything. He doesn’t have a driver for every vehicle, he has two.

This movie also represents something of a major departure for heist movies in its emphasis on realism. The criminals behave like real criminals. The cops behave like real cops. The police investigation is obsessively realistic police procedural stuff. The cop leading the investigation, Detective Inspector George Langdon, might not be a man of brilliant insights but he overlooks nothing.

Even the car chase is grittily realistic. We really believe we’re watching a real police pursuit through real streets. It’s exciting but unglamorous - the excitement comes from the sense of realism.

The focus is on the nuts and bolts of both crime and police work. The characters are cogs in a machine, with no real personality. We have no idea what motivates Paul Clifton. He’s a criminal because that’s what he does for a living. He wouldn’t know how to do anything else. Inspector Langdon is a cop because he wouldn’t know how to do anything else. The one exception is Clifton’s wife Kate (Joanna Pettet), torn between her obviously genuine love for Clifton and her weariness of life as the wife of a career criminal. She is tired of waiting for him to get out of prison, tired of being a wife cut off from love (and very obviously tired of years without sex).

Yates was a fairly inexperienced director but the similarities in tone and approach between this film and Bullitt are so strong that he was clearly already starting to find his style. Having Douglas Slocombe, one of the greatest of all British cinematographers, on board would certainly have helped. Robbery has an overwhelming grinding sense of emptiness and futility. These are criminals who know they’ll eventually be caught, if not for this crime then for the next one. Their lives are interludes between prison terms. Escaping from the cycle is something that just doesn’t occur to them.

This is clearly a movie that had serious money spent on it, not surprising given Stanley Baker’s box office clout at the time.

The DVD from Kino Lorber offers a very nice anamorphic transfer. The main extra is an audio commentary that is unfortunately very disappointing, focussing mainly on trivial details that we could easily look up for ourselves.

It’s interesting to compare this movie with the excellent 1969 British TV series The Gold Robbers, also dealing with an intricately planned heist that slowly unravels due to the accumulation of small unanticipated factors that didn’t seem to be mistakes at the time but turn out to be fatal errors.

Robbery is gripping stuff. Very highly recommended.