Saturday, May 18, 2019

Daredevils of the Red Circle (serial, 1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Frightened Man (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Jungle Book (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Walk a Tightrope (1964)

Walk a Tightrope is a low budget 1964 British murder mystery with a nicely twisted premise which seems like it’s going to be rather intriguing. The good news is that it delivers on its promise.

Having a bad day at work is something that happens to everyone. Even hired killers like Carl Lutcher (Dan Duryea). Lutcher is having a really bad day. It was such a simple job but now it’s blown up in his face. It’s not just that things did not go quite as expected - things took an absolutely bewildering turn.

Lutcher is not the only one who is bewildered. It seems that everyone involved is confused and disturbed. Including the victim’s widow. Everyone is adamant about what happened but no-one’s story agrees with anyone else’s and no-one’s story makes sense.

The nice thing is that it’s not only the characters who are unsure of what is really happening. The audience is baffled as well. Baffled, but in a good way. We really don’t know which story to believe. A murder has been committed. We don’t know why. We know who did the killing but was someone else behind it?

As soon as we start to think that one of the people involved is telling a pretty plausible story something happens to plunge us into doubt again.

We also see the seeds of suspicion starting to plant themselves in the minds of various characters, and there’s a growing sense of paranoia.

When the major plot twists do kick in they’re deliciously nasty.

These were the days when producers of low-budget British movies liked to use imported has-been American stars whose careers were sufficiently on the downward slope that they would work for peanuts. Surprisingly it’s something that more often than not worked very well, since those superannuated Hollywood stars were often very fine actors. In this case we have Dan Duryea whose career was severely in the doldrums. Duryea was however a great actor and at a time when he was grateful for any work this was an excellent part that suited him down to the ground. He makes the most of it. Duryea was always marvellous at playing mean nasty manipulative characters who were also slightly pathetic. By the time he made this one the years were visibly starting to catch up with him and that adds a certain poignancy to his performance. Carl Lutcher is contemptible but he’s such a sorry loser we almost feel sorry for him.

Patricia Owens as the widow of the murder victim has a very demanding rôle. She has to make Ellen Shepherd sympathetic but we have to be not quite sure of her. Owens carries this off with considerable confidence. The supporting players are very solid as they usually were in even cheap British movies in those days. Trevor Reid manages to make Inspector MacMitchell a slight variation on the usual run of movie Scotland Yard policemen - he’s like a slightly dotty but likeable old uncle.

Richard Leech does a good job as the best friend who’s as ambiguous as all the other characters. Special mention should be made of Shirley Cameron’s touching performance as Lutcher’s devoted girlfriend Maisie.

Frank Nesbitt directed and did so quite competently. It’s one of only three features he directed but one of those three was another murder mystery with Dan Duryea Do You Know This Voice? which I’m now more than a little anxious to see, especially since Neil McCallum scripted both films.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is lovely. The movie was shot in black-and-white and it looks terrific.

Walk a Tightrope is a well above average murder mystery with a cleverly constructed plot and fine performances. Highly recommended and if you’re a Dan Duryea fan it’s obviously a must-see.

Monday, April 15, 2019

He Walked by Night (1948)

He Walked by Night is a bit of an odd one. This 1948 B-movie is usually considered a film noir. That’s probably because the cinematography was by John Alton, the greatest of all noir cinematographers. So it looks very film noir indeed.

Structurally it’s a straightforward police procedural, with a touch of that semi-documentary feel that was briefly fashionable in the late 40s.

There’s nothing startling about any of this, but it’s the killer himself who adds the oddness. He’s not a noir protagonist. He’s a bit of a mystery. He’s a guy who has never come to the attention of the police before and then one day he guns down a police officer. He’d attracted the officer’s attention by seeming to take too much interest in a TV and radio store. Before he dies the cop remarks that the guy seemed like such a harmless clean-cut pleasant-looking young guy. We never really learn anything about him.

The police officer dies. And suddenly this mystery killer is at the centre of a massive manhunt. The killing of a civilian is a routine matter but cops don’t like it when fellow cops get killed.

Almost nothing is known about the mystery suspect, except that he’s an electronics whizz.

Roy Martin (the killer) really does come across most of the time as a quiet and unassuming, and perhaps slightly shy, young man. There is however a definite obsessive side to him. And he’s a loner. Not just a regular kind of loner but an extreme loner.

And he seems to be up to something. He has some kind of agenda. Although the first killing took place as the result of an abortive burglary he is clearly not just a common burglar.

This movie gave Richard Basehart his first meaty rôle and he makes the most of it. It’s a tough rôle because Roy Martin is the kind of guy who keeps everything inside. He doesn’t reveal his plans, or his motivations, or his feelings, to anybody.

The other standout performance is Jack Webb as the LAPD forensics expert Lee Whitey. Making He Walked by Night got Webb rather obsessed by routine police procedures and their dramatic potential and it wasn’t long after this movie was shot that he pitched the idea of a radio series called Dragnet to NBC. Dragnet of course then went on to become one of the biggest hit series in TV history. You can already see traces of Joe Friday in Webb’s performance in He Walked by Night. It’s worth noting that the opening titles of the movie inform us that this is a true story but the names have been changed to protect the innocent, which of course became the famous tagline for Dragnet.

While Alfred L. Werker (a competent journeyman director) gets the screen credit there was a belief in some quarters that Anthony Mann may have had a hand in directing He Walked by Night.

The real star is of course cinematographer John Alton. Alton wrote a book on photography called Painting with Light and that’s exactly what he does. He was the Rembrandt of film photography.

The superb extended climactic scenes of the movie gives Alton the chance to pull off a truly stunning tour-de-force of noir visual magic.

Also interesting is the detailed description of a very early police attempt at building an Identikit photo of a suspect.

We never really learn anything about the killer. That’s why this is not a film noir. It’s too abstract. In fact it’s like a big game hunt, with the police playing the parts of the hunters hunting down a rogue lion that’s turned man-eater. They don’t know anything about the guy, they just know he killed a cop so they’re going to kill him because that’s the way it works. It could also be seen as a kind of war movie - you don’t need to know about the personal motivations or feelings of the enemy soldier, you just know that either you kill him or he kills you. Except that in this case it’s one man facing hundreds of cops.

What’s clever is that although we do feel sorry for Roy in the same way we’d feel sorry for a hunted animal the movie doesn’t try to paint him as an innocent or misunderstood victim. He is a cold-blooded killer. There are no heroes and no victims. The cops win because there are lots of them up against one man. So the result of the fight is pre-ordained. No-one beats odds like that.

I don’t think there’s any other crime movie of the period that takes such an extremely  abstract view of crime. In fact I’m not sure if there’s any crime movie ever that is quite so abstract. Which does make this movie very interesting and unusual.

An oddity, but highly recommended both for that reason and for its visual brilliance.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Man Detained (1961)

Man Detained is another of those British Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace B-pictures of which I’m so very fond. This one was made in 1961.

It opens with a rather curious robbery. A safe-cracker cleans out the safe in the offices of the Maple Photographic Studio. When Mr Maple’s secretary arrives at work the following morning she calls the police immediately. After all there was a very large amount of cash in the safe. The curious thing is that Mr Maple vehemently denies that there was any money in the safe. He also insists that his secretary should not make any mention of the existence of  the money to the police.

And after the robbery Mr Maple starts behaving even more nervously than usual. Much more nervously.

The safe-cracker is slightly puzzled as well. He’s just lifted ten thousand quid from a safe and there hasn’t been a word about it in the newspapers.

When murder follows soon afterwards the police are puzzled but it’s obvious that the murder is connected with that mysterious money.

In fact the young safe-cracker who thought he’d had an extraordinary stroke of good fortune with his unexpected haul has stumbled into a very large-scale and very serious criminal undertaking.

The police can see the outline of what could be a very big and important case but they have no evidence. They may have to resort to unconventional methods to get the evidence, and may have to call on unconventional allies.

Bernard Archard plays Inspector Verity and he’s one of those character actors who could always be relied up for these sorts of rôles. Inspector Verity is efficient and honest. Clifford Earl plays Detective Sergeant Wentworth, relatively inexperienced but keen and competent.

Greek-born Paul Stassino specialised in smooth deadly ethnic heavies combining charm with menace and that’s the formula he gives us here.

In this movie we have two sympathetic police officers who seem to know what they’re doing. We have a clever and ruthless villain but he is perhaps not quite as clever as he thinks he is. Arrogance and over-confidence are often the weaknesses of criminal masterminds.

Over-confidence can afflict policemen as well. Their plan to trap the villain might well work but it is rather risky. In the end it all comes down to luck.

There are two women who play important parts. There’s Maple’s wife Stella (Ann Sears), treacherous and possibly with the makings of a femme fatale. And there’s Maple’s secretary Kay Simpson (Elvi Hale), smart and loyal but possibly in over her head.

Robert Tronson directed a couple of these Edgar Wallace crime thrillers and then went on to have a very successful career as a television director. It’s hard to fault the job he does here, given that this is a cheap B-movie.

The action finale is quite satisfactory (and enjoyably chaotic) although it has to be said that the standard of marksmanship among British criminals is absolutely deplorable.

This movie is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 2 boxed set. It receives an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Man Detained might not reach any great cinematic heights but it’s well-constructed and very well-acted and it provides just under an hours’ worth of reasonably enjoyable viewing. The quality of these Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies is variable but even the lesser examples such as this are worth a look. Recommended.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Beau Ideal (1931)

The 1924 novel Beau Geste by P.C. Wren (1875-1941) had been made into a very successful 1926 Paramount silent movie directed by Herbert Brenon. Wren wrote a couple of sequels to his bestselling novel and it seemed to RKO to be a logical move to get Brenon to direct a sound version of one of these books. For some odd reason the first sequel, Beau Sabreur, was ignored and the second sequel, Beau Ideal (published in 1928), was chosen. The results did not please everybody.

Most of the film is occupied by a series of flashbacks. First we go back fifteen years, to the childhood games of Beau Geste and his band - his brothers and a young American named Otis Madison (Lester Vail). Otis and John Geste are jousting to determine who will win the hand of the fair Isobel Brandon.

We then go forward quite a few years. Otis returns to England to ask for the hand of Isobel (played as an adult by Loretta Young). He learns that John Geste (Ralph Forbes) is still his rival but misfortunate has hit the Gestes and all the brothers have joined the French Foreign Legion. John is in a penal battalion somewhere in Africa. In a quixotic gesture Otis decides he will find John and bring him home.

To do this Otis has to find a way to get into the penal battalion. But how? He can’t do anything dishonourable. That would be unthinkable. Fortunately fate steps in.

Naturally there has to be a beautiful but bad woman mixed up in the story somewhere. Zuleika (Leni Stengel) is half-French and half-Arab, a dancer known as the Angel of Death for all the men she has lured to their dooms. Now she is involved in a particularly nefarious plot.

One reviewer described the climactic battle scene as politically incorrect. This shows an extraordinary ability to miss the point. The whole film is politically incorrect. It is a film about a bunch of mercenaries (which is essentially what the Foreign Legion was) enforcing French colonial rule on people who had no particular desire to be part of the France’s empire. Unless you’re prepared to challenge the whole colonial concept (which this film is certainly not going to do) it’s very hard to make a politically correct movie about the French Foreign Legion!

Interestingly enough, given the extent to which the Legion so often gets glamourised, this movie portrays it as extremely brutal and rather incompetent. So it’s also a movie to offend French patriots!

Part of the reason this film didn’t set the box office alight may be the extraordinarily grim beginning.

Criticisms of this film usually focus on the dialogue. In many respects it’s a creature of its time. Early talkies did tend to be a bit clunky due to technical limitations of the early sound cameras and the dialogue was often stilted (partly because the actors were often ill-at-ease due to the aforementioned technical problems). A year after this movie was made those problems had been ironed out.

It also suffers from a less than brilliant cast. Ralph Forbes and Lester Vail lack charisma and the chief villains aren’t colourful enough.

Modern audiences will also find Otis’s motivations distinctly puzzling. It’s not just that he has a strict code of honour, he also has a deliberately self-sacrificing streak that may annoy some viewers. In 1931 it would have made sense.

Beau Ideal does have its good points. It’s visually quite impressive. The Legionnaires lost in the desert in the sandstorm is a frightening scene, the photography is good and the climactic action scenes work extremely well.

This movie is in the public domain. I have the Alpha Video version (which is pretty much your only choice) and it’s what you’d expect. It’s not good but it’s viewable.The sound quality is quite uneven although the dialogue is understandable.

Beau Ideal is by no means as bad as it’s often made out to be. It’s an average if slightly clunky movie of its type but it’s watchable if you’re in an undemanding mood. However, given the iffy Alpha Video transfer, I’d hesitate to recommend a purchase (I got it for a dollar in a bargain bin so I’m not complaining). Maybe worth a rental.