Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Share Out (1962)

The Share Out is a 1962 entry in the Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace cycle and it’s based on an intriguing idea.

The Calderwood Property Group is a very successful company with all the trappings of commercial success. The chairman is Colonel Calderwood (Alexander Knox). They have board meetings like any other company, to discuss business matters. But the business of the Calderwood Property Group is blackmail. Blackmail of an unusual kind. They gather, by various means (usually unsavoury and dishonest private enquiry agents), incriminating material - photos, documents and the like - on wealthy individuals and companies. They then force those individuals and companies to sell them properties for a fraction of their value. It’s a very successful racket and it allows Colonel Calderwood and his fellow board members to maintain the appearance of prosperous respectability. And since the blackmail method does not involve cash payments it’s not all that easy for the police to prove that blackmail has in fact been involved. 

Detective Superintendent Meredith (Bernard Lee) has been trying for three years to break this racket but none of the victims (who fear that court proceedings would reveal their dirty little secrets) will co-operate. Now Meredith thinks he’s got a break but it’s a question of whether he or Colonel Calderwood can move most quickly. And Calderwood moves very quickly indeed, and very ruthlessly.

The Calderwood Property Group has amassed a great deal of money and at least one board member, John Crewe (Richard Vernon) feels that it’s time to share out the loot. The Colonel disagrees. He feels that they can accumulate a lot more without taking any undue risks. Monet (John Gabriel) and Diana Marsh (Moira Redmond), the other board members, are willing to go along with Calderwood. The problem of course is that once they share out the loot there’s nothing to stop any of the four from taking his or her share and then turning the others in to the police. So the share out, when it comes, will present difficulties.

So it’s all a matter of who’s going to stab whom in the back, and which of them will strike first, and what alliances may be made, and how trustworthy such alliances might be. And murder makes it rather more urgent that these questions be cleared up. There are only a handful of suspects but the movie is reasonably successful at keeping us guessing as to the truth. 

Blackmail is an inherently sordid crime but blackmail by well-heeled upper-class types provides an interesting flavour. 

There are also romantic complications as Mike Stafford and Diana Marsh fall for each other but is it love or manipulation?

This movie benefits from a fine cast. Bernard Lee could play this sort of rôle with his eyes shut. He was just born to play Scotland Yard detectives. Alexander Knox is smooth and sinister as Calderwood. Richard Vernon is always a delight. William Russell (best known for The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and as one of the very early companions in Doctor Who) plays cheerfully amoral private enquiry agent Mike Stafford (who works for Calderwood but may or may not be inclined to sell him out to Superintendent Meredith. Moira Redmond makes a good evil female conspirator/femme fatale.

Director Gerard Glaister had a distinguished career in television (mainly as a producer) and helmed four of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films. He does a very competent job here. Philip Mackie’s screenplay is typically clever - Mackie was one of the best television writers of the ’60s and ’70s and he wrote no less than eight of the Edgar Wallace films. 

Network, as usual, have provided an excellent anamorphic transfer. There are no extras but these Edgar Wallace sets are such outstanding value for money that it would be churlish to complain.

The Share Out is a good solid entry in the series. The most impressive thing about these Edgar Wallace films is that they didn’t just keep repeating themselves. You’re never quite sure what to expect when you put one of these discs in your DVD player. The lesser movies in the series are good and the better ones are very good indeed. The Share Out is recommended.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Passport To Treason (1956)

Passport To Treason is an obviously low-budget 1956 British spy/private eye movie.

Mike O’Kelly (Rod Cameron) is an American private eye living in London. He often does work for Ben Conner’s enquiry agency. Mike has been asked to help on a case that Ben thinks is too big to handle alone. On his way to Conner’s office, in heavy fog, Mike encounters a number of men obviously in an extreme hurry either to go somewhere or get away from something. One of them drops a passport, in the name of Amedeo Sacchi.

When Mike arrives at Conner’s office he finds Conner dead, and the office has been rifled. Mike decides to needs to know more about Amedeo Sacchi.

He searches Amedeo’s flat and is interrupted by a very jumpy young man with a gun. Mike has no problem dealing with the guy and now he’s getting more and more interested.

He gets even more interested when he meets Orlando Syms (Clifford Evans). Syms runs a group called the International League for World Peace (and writes spy thrillers in his spare time). Syms has been informed that the league has been infiltrated by a secret group. Syms had hired Ben Conner to uncover the truth about this secret group. Now he wants Mike O’Kelly to continue the investigation.

Not everybody in the League is happy about the investigation. Arrogant Harley Street specialist Dr Randolph (Douglas Wilmer) is dead set against it.

It soon becomes apparent that there are quite a few people who want O’Kelly off the case. Including Diane Boyd (Lois Maxwell). O’Kelly isn’t sure which side Miss Boyd is on. She says she’s trying to warn him off for his own protection.

And there have now been two murders. O’Kelly knows he’s onto something big but he’s about to realise, in a very painful manner, just how nasty the people he’s up against really are. They have more ingenious methods than mere crude violence for dealing with meddling private enquiry agents.

O’Kelly is in possession of a vital clue, if only he knew what it meant. It would also help if he had some idea what this secret group within the league was all about but that’s something else he doesn’t know.

Passport To Treason
was produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, with Baker directing and Berman doing the cinematography. Baker and Berman went on to great success in television in the 60s, notably as producers of The Saint and Gideon’s Way.

Kenneth R. Hayles and Norman Hudis wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Irish spy fiction writer Paddy Manning O’Brine (who was rumoured to be a former British spy).

Craggy-faced Canadian Rod Cameron later starred in the short-lived but rather interesting American private eye series Coronado 9 in which he plays a character not unlike Mike O’Kelly - a big shambling gruff tough guy (in fact very tough) but kind of likeable in his own way.

Lois Maxwell as Diane Boyd makes a pretty good femme fatale type.

The whole cast is quite strong, with John Colicos being nicely sinister.

There are some noirish visual touches - lots of fog and shadows and some good night scenes. While there’s nothing particularly noir about the story there is plenty of paranoia.

Passport To Treason is one of the nine feature films in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set (an excellent value-for-money set). The transfer is reasonably good.

Passport To Treason is a very decent little spy thriller of the pre-Bond films era. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Interrupted Journey (1949)

The Interrupted Journey, a 1949 British crime thriller directed by Daniel Birt, has a rather intriguing premise involving trains and infidelity.

John North (Richard Todd) and Susan Wilding (Christine Norden) are running away together. They’re both married, but not to each other. John North is an aspiring writer and he’s leaving his wife Carol because she wants him to give up this writing nonsense and get a proper job. John and Susan catch an express train from Paddington Station but then John has second thoughts about leaving his wife. It occurs to him that Susan may have no more patience with his dreams of being a writer than his wife. He decides he has to get off the train.

John’s change of mind has momentous consequences.

He finds himself in a very awkward situation and has some explaining to do, and not just to his wife. He will also have to explain certain things to Clayton, the man from the railways investigation branch.

I don’t want to say any more about the plot because it has some ingenious elements. The twists start early and it’s better not to risk spoiling any of them.

John North is not an easy character to have much sympathy for. He’s not a bad man but he is rather weak and rather unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. Even when those actions led to disaster he seems to be more afflicted by self-pity than remorse. Richard Todd was a solid if unspectacular actor and his performance is reasonably effective - he makes us have mixed feelings about the character and that’s necessary if the film is to work.

Valerie Hobson is good as Carol, the wife who really doesn’t quite know what to do with this husband of hers.

The British film industry in the 40s and 50s had an endless supply of fine character actors who were remarkably good at playing policemen. Tom Walls fulfils that function here and does so very competently, playing Clayton as an avuncular type but with an obviously sharp mind.

Michael Pertwee, elder brother of actor Jon Pertwee, wrote the script.

Daniel Birt’s career was cut short by his premature death in 1955. His relatively few films included the very decent 1952 crime B-movie The Night Won’t Talk.

Everything is moving along nicely until we get to the ending, and then it’s a case of a perfectly good movie being completely and utterly ruined. The ending isn’t just disappointing, it’s catastrophically bad. I have seen it argued that the ending isn’t a complete surprise, and there is some substance to that argument, but even taking that into account for me it was still catastrophic.

The Interrupted Journey
is included in Kino Lorber’s British Noir II boxed set. Does it have any actual claims to being film noir? Possibly. John North is a man whose personal failings lead him to make small mistakes which plunge him into a world of darkness. So it’s marginally noir although the ending makes it difficult to classify it as actual noir.

The Interrupted Journey has some very good ideas but ultimately it’s a bitter disappointment. At the end of this journey I wanted my money back and I wanted that 80 minutes of my life back. Not recommended.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Penguin Pool Murder (1932)

The Penguin Pool Murder, released in 1932, was the first of RKO’s six Hildegarde Withers mystery films. Miss Hildegarde Withers is a spinster and a schoolteacher but she dabbles in crime. Or rather, she dabbles in crime-solving. The character was created by Stuart Palmer in a successful series of detective novels. Hildegarde Withers was played by Edna May Oliver in the first three films.

The film series went rapidly downhill after her departure. Attempts were made to revive it on television in the 50s and as a TV movie in the early 70s, with a noticeable lack of success. There was just no way to make the formula work without Edna May Oliver.

The Penguin Pool Murder
begins with a murder. Stockbroker Gerald Harper is discovered floating in the penguin pool in the New York Aquarium. His wife Gwen (Mae Clarke) and her friend Philip Seymour (Donald Cook) are obvious suspects. She was planning to leave her husband and go off with Seymour and they were both at the aquarium at the time. And Seymour had slugged Harper.

To Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) it all seems straightforward. Miss Withers is not so sure. She was the one who first spotted the body. She was at the aquarium with her class and had already done some crime-fighting, having apprehended a pickpocket. The pickpocket has Harper’s watch in his pocket so he could be a suspect. Bertrand B. Hemingway, the director of the aquarium, might also be a suspect - he blamed Harper for ruining him. Even Hildegarde is a suspect at one point. But Gwen and Seymour seem to be Inspector Piper’s favoured suspects. Gwen’s lawyer Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong) hopes Miss Withers can clear her.

Inspector Piper soon realises that Miss Withers is going to be collaborating with him on this case whether he likes it or not. At first he’s irritated but they grow on each other.

Hildegarde also gets some help from the aquarium’s penguin. He finds a vital clue.

To be honest the mystery plot, while serviceable, isn’t particularly outstanding. Most of the success of the movie is due to the performances of James Gleason and (especially) Edna May Oliver, and the fine comic repartee between the two of them. The other performances are all solid. Plus it has penguin cuteness.

George Archainbaud had a long if not especially distinguished career as a director, starting in 1917 and finishing with television work. He was something of a specialist in westerns.

I haven’t read Stuart Palmer’s novel so I can’t say how well it compares to the movie. I’ve only read one Hildegarde Withers novel, The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, which (like this movie) combines comedy and mystery but with the mystery elements being just a little weak.

All six movies in the series have been released in the Warner Archive Hildegarde Withers Murder Collection boxed set. The Penguin Pool Murder gets an acceptable transfer although the sound isn’t always all that great.

The Penguin Pool Murder would have been a fairly average mystery movie but the two wonderful leads are enough reason to give it a recommended rating. Lightweight fun but nowhere near as good as the contemporary Charlie Chan mysteries.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a gritty extremely bleak neo-noir crime drama directed by Peter Yates and released in 1973. It was based on the novel by George V. Higgins. It gives Robert Mitchum one of his best rôles of that decade (comparable to his superb performance in Farewell, My Lovely two years later).

Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) is a small-time Boston gangster with a problem. The problem is that he’s facing three to five years in New Hampshire for driving a truck filled with stolen goods and he can’t face the prospect of going inside again. The only way out is to turn informer. If he does that then maybe he can cut a deal and escape prison. Cop Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) hasn’t exactly promised him that but he has promised to do what he can. But only if Eddie can give him some really worthwhile information. The trick for Eddie is to give Foley enough to get a deal without getting himself killed by the people on whom he’s informing.

Eddie’s main line of work at the moment is buying the guns that are getting used in a series of bank robberies.

Eddie could definitely get a deal if he offered Foley the bank robbery gang but he doesn’t want to do that. That would mean informing on his friends. Maybe he can offer Foley Jackie Brown (Steven Keats). That’s the guy he gets the guns from. Jackie Brown is not a friend so informing on him would be OK.

Eddie isn’t the only one acting as an informer. This is an incredibly bleak and cynical look at the world of crime. Everybody will sell everybody else out if they have to. There’s no honour among thieves here. It’s just a matter of making sure you’re careful so you don’t pay the price of informing. That’s Eddie’s challenge. He doesn’t want to go to prison but he doesn’t want to get killed either.

There’s an overwhelming sense of futility in this film. These criminals really are losers. They’re not big-time gangsters. They’re not making enough money to live in mansions. They’re not living glamorous lives. Their lives are seedy and squalid. The guy selling the guns makes a deal to sell some machine-gins, which carries a mandatory life sentence if you get caught. And he’s getting two thousand dollars for the guns. He’s maybe making $1,500 profit. Not much money for which to risk a life sentence.

The bank robbery gang offers the same sense of futility, which offers an interesting contrast to the robbers in Yates’s celebrated 1967 British crime drama Robbery. In that film the criminals were going for a huge score which would have set them up for life. The bank robbers in The Friends of Eddie Coyle are robbing small suburban banks and they have to keep robbing them and sooner or later something will go wrong and they’ll get caught. Their jobs are just not all that well-planned. They’re just not that smart. When something does go wrong it’s entirely predictable. These guys are chronic under-achievers.

The job that Eddie did in New Hampshire that caused all his present woes was similarly futile. Eddie’s in his fifties, he knows he’s too old to do any more time, but he got mixed up in a job that just didn’t offer a big enough payoff to make it worthwhile. He didn’t make enough money to spend the rest of his life sitting on a beach in Rio. With the money he’s making from crime Eddie is just barely keeping his head above water financially.

All of these criminals seem to know that eventually they’re going to get caught, and they seem to just accept that. You wonder why they bother. They just seem to be too dumb to figure it out. They just accept their fates.

This may be the most unglamorous and most relentlessly downbeat crime picture ever made. It’s also unusual for a 1970s crime drama in featuring very little action and very little violence. We think there’s going to be a car chase but it doesn’t eventuate. As a result of all this it bombed at the box office. Which in retrospect is sad but unsurprising. Audiences wanted action or glamour or preferably both. They wanted car chases and shoot-outs. What they got in The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a depressing look at the sordid reality of small-time crime. Not only does crime pay very poorly for these guys it isn’t exciting. It’s just a boring dead-end job.

Mitchum gives a superb but very understated performance completely at odds with his tough guy persona. Eddie Coyle is an incredibly passive character. He just drifts along from minor disaster to minor disaster and seems resigned to being a failure.

Peter Boyle is excellent as Eddie’s friend Dillon. Dillon runs a bar and he’s a small-time crook and an informer as well. Eddie doesn’t know Dillon is an informer and Dillon doesn’t know that Eddie is an informer. Richard Jordan as Foley and Steven Keats as Jackie Brown are also impressive.

Eddie’s friends are a sorry lot. And the cops aren’t much better. Foley is as cynical as they are and uses people without a hint of remorse.

The Eureka Masters of Cinema offers the film on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The extras include a very sharp appreciation of the film by critic Glenn Kenny, a lengthy interview with Peter Yates and a 44-page booklet that includes an essay on the film.

Most successful neo-noirs deliberately avoid going for classic noir visuals because the noir visual style is just about impossible to achieve in colour. This film (along with Farewell, My Lovely) demonstrates that it can be done. The Friends of Eddie Coyle might just be the greatest of all neo-noirs.

Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Hot Enough for June (Agent 8¾, 1964)

Hot Enough for June (also released as Agent 8¾) is a 1964 British spy spoof and it’s an amusing if rather low-key one.

Nicholas Whistler (Dirk Bogarde) is a writer. In other words he’s unemployed and unemployable. Or at least he was until the day he walked into the Labour Exchange and, to his amazement and horror, they offered him a job. As a junior executive in a glass-making firm. But actually he’s being offered a very different kind of job. As a spy. You see one of MI6’s top agents (a fellow with the codename 007) has unfortunately passed way and a replacement is needed. Whistler of course has no qualifications for a job as a secret agent except for one thing - he speaks Czech and MI6 desperately needs someone who speaks Czech for a mission to Prague.

Actually he’s not quite intended to step into 007’s shoes. The job is very routine. Just a courier job really.

And MI6 spymaster Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley) doesn’t bother to tell Whistler that he’s been recruited as a spy. The poor fellow thinks he’s just on a business trip to see the latest developments at the State Glassmaking Works in Prague. He’s told that for political reasons he’ll have to be discreet. He’ll have to have the right password when he makes his contact, the password being “hot enough for June” but he doesn’t know who his contact is so he ends up saying “hot enough for June” to everyone he meets.

Whistler is a nice chap but rather naïve - he genuinely has no idea he is acting as a spy. Being a writer he has no experience of the real world so he figures that maybe the world of international business really is rather secretive. He does suspect that he may be involved in industrial espionage.

The Czech government has assigned him a driver to take him around Prague. Vlasta Simoneva (Sylva Koscina) is young and pretty so that part of his assignment is quite pleasant.

In fact Vlasta works for the secret police and her father (played by Leo McKern) is the head of the secret police. And they’re on to Whistler right from the start.

Whistler of course is a total washout as a spy and finds himself on the run. He may not be a good spy but he is a survivor and he manages to keep one step ahead of the secret police. But if he’s ever going to see England again he’s going to have to reach the British Embassy and that will be more of a challenge. Much depends on whether he can trust Vlasta. They’ve fallen in love (naturally) but she doesn’t want to betray her country and he doesn’t want to betray his.

While this movie was obviously cashing in on the Bond movie craze it isn’t really a Bond spoof. It’s more a spoof of the older style of spy thriller. There are no gadgets and no spectacular action sequences. The comedy 9and this movie is definitely intended as a comedy) is mostly sly and witty and gently satirical rather than outrageous. But it is funny.

The elder Simoneva and Colonel Cunliffe are enemies but they’re also good friends. For both of them the spy business is a kind of game. They’re unscrupulous but not ruthless. This is a spy movie in which nobody gets killed, or even badly hurt.

We never do find out what was in the secret document that Whistler was supposed to bring back and that’s part of the point of the movie. It simply doesn’t matter. It’s just a game.

Rather surprisingly Dirk Bogarde made quite a few spy movies, including the very underrated and hard-to-find Sebastian in 1968 and the notorious Modesty Blaise in 1966. Bogarde was superb at this kind of light comedy. He plays Nicholas Whistler as a naïve but basically thoroughly decent sort of chap, a self-confessed coward but very likeable.

Sylva Koscina was one of the classic eurobabes of the 60s and she’s charming.

The byplay between Robert Morley and Leo McKern as the opposing spymasters is a major highlight - two wonderful actors having a great time with their rôles.

The supporting cast is an absolute galaxy of terrific actors - John le Mesurier, Roger Delgado, Derek Nimmo, Leo Mc Kern, Noel Harrison (who of course went on to star in the TV spy series The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), Derek Fowlds (from Yes, Minister), Eric Pohlmann and Richard Vernon.

Along with Carry On Spying (released in the same year) this is one of the better spy comedies of its era.

Network’s DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer. The only extras are some image galleries.

Hot Enough for June is fine entertainment. It might be low-key but it’s consistently amusing. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Santiago (1956)

Santiago is a 1956 Warner Brothers adventure movie starring Alan Ladd. It has a pretty poor reputation. Whether it’s really that bad remains to be seen.

The movie is set in 1898 with the Cuban revolution against the Spanish providing the historical background. Cash Adams (Ladd) is a former US Army officer who was dishonourably discharged. He now makes his living as a gun runner. He’s being paid to deliver a consignment of guns to Tampa where Cuban revolutionaries will be waiting with $100,000 for him.

The job is much more complicated than he expected. Firstly he and his men are attacked by hijackers before they even reach Tampa and then he discovers that the deal has been changed - he has to deliver the guns all the way to Cuba. The Cubans do agree to double his price which is some consolation.

The guns have to be loaded on board an old paddle-wheel riverboat which will take them (along with Cash Adams and his confederates) to Haiti, then on to Cuba.

I don’t claim to know much about nautical matters but I have to say that the riverboat really doesn’t look like it would last five minutes in the open sea.

The second complication is that the riverboat will be taking a second consignment of guns, along with rival gun runner Clay Pike (Lloyd Nolan) and his cohorts. Cash and Pike have hated each other for years so neither man is happy with this development.

There’s yet another complication - they have to deliver a Cuban revolutionary to Cuba as well. The revolutionary is the young and beautiful Doña Isabella (Rossana Podestà).

The riverboat has to run the gauntlet of Spanish gunboats and then when they reach the Cuban coast they run into yet another obstacle - a Spanish artillery position that they will have to find a way to neutralise.

As you might expect Cash Adams and Pike clash numerous times during the voyage, culminating in a couple of all-in fist-fights. Their clashes have something to do with their pasts but also quite a bit to do with the fact that they both take a shine to Doña Isabella.

And new obstacles just keep on appearing. The gun runners start to wonder just how much they’re going to have to go through to get their money, and whether they’ll live to collect it.

Alan Ladd is pretty good as Cash Adams, a somewhat tortured soul. He’s tortured by shame about the ignominious end to his military career. And while he claims that now he cares only about money we get the distinct impression that he’s not entirely comfortable with his new career as a gun runner. In fact we get the impression that he might be a man in search of redemption.

Lloyd Nolan is of course marvellous as the thoroughly amoral Pike. Rossana Podestà may have been a bit miscast here but she’s OK. Chill Wills is fun as the riverboat captain who seems to have spent the whole of an adventurous life on the losing side. I liked Paul Fix as Cash’s old army buddy Trasker.

Gordon Douglas directed. Douglas had a varied career which included some pretty interesting movies including a couple of very good private eye thrillers with Frank Sinatra (Tony Rome and The Lady in Cement), the spy spoof In Like Flint and the sci-fi classic Them! Martin Rackin wrote the screenplay (his other credits include the underrated noirish crime thriller A Dangerous Profession).

All the right ingredients are here. The story is pretty decent. The setting is unusual and interesting (even though we know that the crew never left the studio backlot). The two lead actors are very good. The film was shot widescreen and in Warnercolor and it looks terrific. So what went wrong? Well, to be honest not all that much did go wrong. It’s really not such a bad movie. Its poor reputation may stem from the perception that with all those desirable ingredients it should have been a classic adventure thriller when in fact it’s a merely competent one.

What’s interesting is that rather than idealists fighting for a good cause what we have here are bad men fighting (rather reluctantly) for a good cause.

The Warner Archive presentation is extremely good with a fine anamorphic transfer.

Santiago isn’t that bad. It doesn’t quite catch fire the way it should but it looks great. It’s worth seeing if you’re an Alan Ladd or a Lloyd Nolan fan. It’s not one of the adventure classics but it’s reasonable entertainment.