Friday, May 22, 2020

The Vanishing Shadow (1934)

The Vanishing Shadow is a 1934 Universal serial.

Young Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens) has inherited a newspaper but his two passions in life are inventing and planning to get revenge on Wade Barnett (Walter Miller), whom he blames for his father’s death. When he meets Barnett’s daughter (played by Ada Ince), who calls herself Gloria Grant, he’s inclined to hate her until he discovers that she doesn’t like her old man either. After that you figure it’s a safe bet they’re going to fall in love.

But let’s for a moment return to the subject of inventing. What Stanfield is working on is an invisibility ray. He’s having a few problems so he enlists the help of an older genius inventor, Professor Carl van Dorn (James Durkin), who just happens to be working on an invisibly ray as well. The problem both men are having is with shadows. They can make a man disappear but they can’t make his shadow disappear.

The Professor is working on some other inventions as well. He’s a kindly middle-aged man but he’s developing a death ray, which puzzles Stanley somewhat. The Professor assures him that the death ray will be used only for good although how you can use a death ray for good remains an enigma.

Professor van Dorn has a whole bunch of other gadgets he’s invented as well. One cute thing about this serial is that while Stanley likes and admires van Dorn he’s slightly disturbed (as we the audience are) by the sheer murderousness of his gadgets, and by the Professor’s apparent willingness to use them. In fact, his keenness to use them.

Of course Wade Barnett has plans of his own and those plans are definitely not going to be to Stanley’s advantage. He frames Stanley for murder. All this happened early in the first episode so I’m not giving away any spoilers.

The problem with invisibility is that it makes anyone who possesses the secret too invulnerable so it was a nice idea that this ray leaves you with a shadow so you’re not completely invulnerable after all. And the shadow adds a very slight touch of spookiness.

You might be wondering about the robot. He’s featured in the opening sequence of each chapter but he takes a long time to put in an appearance. But don’t worry, the robot does have a part to play. And he’s like all the Professor’s inventions - the Professor claims that he has lots of peaceful applications but he seems like he’s mostly designed to break things.

There’s a bit more depth to the characters here than you expect in a serial. I’ve already mentioned Professor van Dorn’s combination of kindliness and murderousness. There’s also Wade Barnett. He’s the chief villain and he’s certainly ruthless and immoral, but on the other hand he genuinely loves his daughter.


Gloria is interestingly conflicted. She loves Stanley and she’s thrown in her lot with him. She strongly disapproves of her father. But he’s still her father and she still loves him.

Even Dorgan, Barnett’s chief henchman and an unscrupulous thug, shows in one scene where he discovers something he didn’t know about Barnett that he’s capable of understanding and respecting normal human emotions. He’s a hoodlum but he’s not quite a mere monster.

The acting is slightly more nuanced that usual as well. Walter Miller as Wade Barnett is especially good. He’s a bad guy but he has what seem to be occasional flashes of conscience, and Miller makes them convincing. James Durkin is great as Professor van Dorn he’s disturbingly manic and obsessed.

Even the ending is slightly more complex than you might expect.

VCI’s DVD release is reasonably good. Image quality and sound quality are quite acceptable.

Interestingly this was regarded for some time as a lost serial.

The Vanishing Shadow is an above average serial with a nice mix of science fiction and crime thriller elements. And the science fiction elements are not just tacked on but integrated into the plot. The special effects are also quite effective. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Kitten with a Whip (1964)

Kitten with a Whip is a very underrated 1964 juvenile delinquent melodrama which was a perfect star vehicle for the always awesome Ann-Margret.

David Stratton (John Forsythe) is a rising politician with senatorial aspirations. His wife and daughter are out of town at the moment. That doesn’t mean David has been up to no good while they’ve been away. David’s idea of a wild time is a round of golf. And with his political ambitions he is ultra-sensitive to even the slightest breath of scandal (this was 1964). So he’s a little bit disturbed one morning when he glances into his five-year-old daughter’s bedroom and finds a 17-year-old girl fast asleep in the bed. A very attractive blonde 17-year-old girl in a torn nightdress. The girl is Jody (Ann-Margret) and she has a good explanation. She had to run away from home because her mother’s drunken boyfriend tried to get her into bed and being a good girl and being very protective of her virtue well naturally she had to get away. It was just pure good luck that she found David’s front door open. Well actually it was a window and she had to break in but she was really scared and what else could a poor innocent girl do?

For a politician David is rather naïve. He swallows Jody’s story hook, line and sinker. Of course he will try to help the poor girl. He buys her a new dress, gives her some money and puts her on a bus. He’s now feeling very pleased with himself. He handled the situation adroitly and he helped a damsel in distress.

So it comes as a shock some time later in the golf club when he sees the TV news and discovers that Jody actually broke out of Juvenile Hall after stabbing the matron (who may well die). Still he can console himself with the thought that Jody is now on a bus so it’s not his problem. Therefore it’s more than disconcerting when he gets back home and there’s Jody, clad only in a bath towel. Of course she has another really good explanation ready to go. David’s not falling for her line this time. He’s going to call the police. At least that what he intends to do until Jody informs him that if he does she’s going to cry rape.

At this point David starts to know how a trapped animal feels. Jody is an adorable kitten but she’s holding the whip and she won’t hesitate to use it.

David’s problems have only just begun. He’s about to take a roller-coaster ride and there’s no getting off. Jody’s friends turn up, there’s a knifing and eventually the crazy circus that David’s life has become ends up in Tijuana where the roller-coaster is going to stop but will there be any survivors?

Writer-director Douglas Heyes is better remembered for his television work. He was responsible for some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. The film was shot in black-and-white which works, nicely enhancing the B-movie feel.

While this is a juvenile delinquent movie it’s not one of those ultra-cheap Z-grade movies of that genre that enjoyed such a vogue in the 50s. Kitten with a Whip is a lot more slick and polished. It was made by Universal with a reasonable budget. It’s an odd hybrid - it has the camp and even kitsch qualities of a typical juvenile delinquent movie combined with high production values and a very good cast.

The first half of the movie is high camp outrageousness and it’s also very funny. There is some dazzlingly bizarre dialogue. Then the game becomes more dangerous. It’s still outrageously camp but with more and more of a film noir sense of impending doom. But you can never be sure if it’s going to end in tragedy or farce.

Kitten with a Whip is based on Wade Miller’s 1959 novel of the same title which I reviewed here.

Some elements of the novel certainly had to be softened for the film version. In the book David sleeps with Jody and there’s always a touch of lust mixed with his bewilderment and mounting horror of the train wreck that Jody is making of his life. That element is eliminated in the film. An aspiring senator having sex with an under-age girl was not something you were going to get away with in a major studio production in 1964. The surprising thing is that apart from that the movie is a reasonably faithful adaptation and even the ending is pretty close to the feel of the book’s ending.

John Forsythe was a good casting choice. He plays David as a decent kind of guy who’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud and a bit naïve. Forsythe nicely captures David’s sheer bewilderment. He’s like a deer caught in the headlights. He has never met a girl like Jody and didn’t even know such girls existed. He has absolutely no idea what to do. We can’t really despise him. He’s too fundamentally decent. But we can’t quite respect him - he’s too helpless. Forsythe’s performance might seem stilted and colourless to some but he’s playing a guy whose whole life is stilted. He’s a politician. He’s as phoney as Jody.

Ann-Margret pulls out all the stops. She was a competent actress but not exactly subtle. Fortunately subtlety is not required here. What she does manage to do is to make Jody convincingly complex and unpredictable. Jody doesn’t have enough self-awareness to be truly evil. She’s more like a wild animal, frightening because she herself doesn’t know what she’s going to do next, or why. But there is an edge of cruelty. She’s a wild animal but with enough human cunning to be much more dangerous. And she has zero capacity for comprehending the harm she can do. She’s a cat playing with a mouse and David is the mouse.

Critics have generally entirely missed the point of Ann-Margret’s performance. They have complained that while it’s fun it’s too histrionic and artificial and fails to be convincingly real. But that is exactly the point of it. Jody has no understanding whatsoever of real human emotions. All she can do is mimic actual feelings. Jody emotes the way she sees people in movies and on TV emote. She is entirely artificial. We do eventually realise that there’s a real person in there somewhere but Jody herself never realises this. Jody can’t tell the truth because she doesn’t know what it is. She can’t project real feelings because she’s never developed any. She just switches back and forth from one rôle to another, from one piece of make-believe to another. Ann-Margret captures this perfectly. I doubt if any other actress could have played this rôle. They would almost certainly have made the mistake of trying to be real. Ann-Margret does not make that mistake. She is histrionic and artificial but it’s not bad acting, it’s the right acting for the part. Whether this was consciously her intention or whether it was just pure luck doesn’t matter. Her performance is perfect.

Kitten with a Whip is deliriously over-the-top but while it’s often dismissed as a so-bad-it’s-good movie that’s not quite fair. It’s consciously and deliberately over-the-top but that’s the only way it was going to work. Had it tried to play things straight it could have been a dreary Social Problem movie instead of the delightful feast of fun and kitsch with a dash of noir that it turned out to be. It’s obviously a must-see for Ann-Margret fans but it’s also amazingly entertaining. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Solo for Sparrow (1962)

Solo for Sparrow is a 1962 entry in the Merton Park Studios cycle of Edgar Wallace crime thrillers. It’s fairly typical of this generally very competent British B-movie series.

It starts with a clever robbery of a jeweller’s shop. The gang kidnaps an elderly female employee whose job it is to lock up at night. She and the owner are the only ones to have keys to both the front door and the safe. A good plan, if only the old lady hadn’t died on them. Now it’s a murder case.

It’s Inspector Sparrow’s case but maybe not for long. His superior, Superintendent Symington, intends to call in Scotland Yard. Sparrow decides to take some leave, although what he really intends to do is to break the case before the Yard can. Like most local detectives he’s somewhat resentful of the way Scotland Yard ends up getting all the glamour. This is a local crime, Sparrow knows the ground and he knows all the local villains. He can see no reason why he shouldn’t solve the case on his own.

It doesn’t take Sparrow long to pick up the scent. There are a couple of elements in the robbery that excite his curiosity a great deal. Sparrow’s methods are sound but perhaps not entirely conventional. Or it might be more accurate to say, not entirely legal. Wire-tapping is definitely not permitted without Home Office approval but what the Home Office doesn’t know won’t hurt them.

It’s all part of a trap Sparrow intends to lay (he can lay the trap because he already has a fair idea of the identity of at least one of the gang members). Of course there’s always the possibility the gang will lay a trap for Sparrow. This is a pretty ruthless gang.

This is a straightforward crime story with no sensational twists (although the method by which Sparrow extricates himself from one very nasty situation is ingenious). Sparrow just follows the leads he has then puts on the pressure in the hope that one of the gang members will crack, which of course is probable given the fact that murder was involved and the authorities are going to be wanting to hang someone for that.

Glyn Houston plays Sparrow. Houston was one of those thoroughly reliable British actors who could play parts like this in their sleep. He does a fine job. Sparrow is a sympathetic character but he’s a bit of a chancer. Both his career and his love life are at a bit of a crossroads. His love life problem could be easily solved if friendly local barmaid Sue was given half a chance. She doesn’t even mind being dragged along when Sparrow is on the job - surely a perfect candidate to be a policeman’s wife.

Anthony Newlands oozes oiliness as the jeweller Reynolds. Nadja Regin adds some glamour as Reynolds’ wife. Allan Cuthbertson, one of my absolute favourite British character actors, puts in an appearance as Sparrow’s superior officer. Look out for Michael Caine in a minor rôle. Cult TV fans will enjoy seeing William Gaunt (from The Champions) as Sparrow’s sergeant and Wanda Ventham (Colonel Lake from UFO) in a bit part.

Director Gordon Flemyng worked mostly in television. There’s nothing spectacular about the job he does here but he keeps the action moving along. Roger Marshall, who had a very distinguished career as a television writer, provided the very serviceable screenplay.

This movie is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume three DVD boxed set. These sets are an absolute must for British B-movie fans. The 16:9 enhanced transfer is excellent.

Solo for Sparrow is decent if routine entertainment. Not one of the better movies in this cycle but the strong cast is a definite bonus. If you’re going to buy the boxed set anyway (and you should) then it’s worth giving this one a spin if you don’t set your expectations too high.

Friday, May 8, 2020

L’immortelle (The Immortal One, 1963)

L’immortelle (The Immortal One) was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first film as a director although he had already established a reputation in film circles as the screenwriter of the prodigiously clever and convoluted 1961 movie Last Year at Marienbad. And in its own way L’immortelle (like all of Robbe-Grillet’s films) is every bit as interesting.

Here's the link to my review of L’immortelle At Cult Movie Reviews.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Man in the Back Seat (1961)

The Man in the Back Seat is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume Five boxed set but not only is it not one of Merton Park Edgar Wallace films, it’s not an Edgar Wallace film. It was made by Independent Artists from an original script by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice and was directed by Vernon Sewell. It was released in 1961.

Tony (Derren Nesbitt) and Frank (Keith Faulkner) are a couple of likely lads who’ve come up with a foolproof plan for robbing a bookie as he leaves the greyhound track. All they have to do is knock him on the head as he’s getting out of his car, grab his bag containing his takings and make their getaway in his car. Nothing could be simpler. Only one problem - to prevent just this sort of robbery the bookie has handcuffed himself to his bag. So the lads have to take the unconscious bookie with them.

It’s no problem really. He must have the key on him. But he doesn’t.

And the bookie is not looking too good. Maybe Tony hit him a bit too hard. He’s alive but he’s in a bad way.

This movie is like a comedy of errors, except that it’s black comedy. It actually reminds me a little of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, except in this case it’s a live body rather than a dead one causing the trouble. It’s not just the difficulty of getting to the money in the bag. What do they do with the guy then? He obviously needs to be taken to a hospital or at least to a doctor but they can’t do that. They come up with a series of schemes to try to get some help for the stricken bookie, or to find a way to get him to a hospital without being seen, but something always goes wrong.

What’s interesting is that while there’s definitely a black comedy element there’s also a definite film noir element. Tony and Frank are stupid and incompetent thieves but they’re not really evil. Things just got out of hand. Now they’re descending into the noir nightmare world. If the man dies they’ll hang, they don’t want him to die, but they can’t seem to find a way out. They just keep descending further and further into the nightmare.

Derren Nesbitt is one of my favourite English actors of this period and this is just the sort of rôle at which he excels. Tony is over-confident and cocky but he’s not as smart as he thinks he is and he’s not as cool-headed as he thinks he is. His quick thinking, deciding that they’d take the bookie with them, has landed them in a nightmare.

Frank is even less smart and cool-headed than his buddy plus he’s just had a fight with his wife who thinks (quite correctly as it turns out) that he’s spending too much time with that no-good layabout Tony. Frank would like to get out of the situation but he doesn’t want to betray Tony, but he doesn’t want to make his wife any more upset than she already is. Keith Faulkner’s performance balances nicely on the edge of hysteria.

They keep ending up back in the car with the bookie in the back seat. That’s where a large part of the action takes place, giving a nice sense of claustrophobia and desperation. It’s as if they’re condemned to drive around London forever with an unconscious possibly (for all they know) dying man as a back-seat passenger. It all happens at night, in true film noir style.

While the film noir influence is obvious (and both thematically and visually this movie is very film noir) and I’ve mentioned a certain Hitchcock movie already, there’s also a bit of the feel of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with a neat little sting in the tail. The ending is neat too - it’s not quite what you’re expecting in an early 60s British crime thriller. There’s also just a hint of horror. And most effectively there’s that feeling of futility. No matter what these guys do, they’re both literally and figuratively driving around in circles. There just seems to be no escape.

Network’s anamorphic transfer is excellent as always.

The Man in the Back Seat is a very pleasant little surprise, an offbeat and very effective little noir thriller. Very highly recommended.