Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949)

Dick Barton – Special Agent was a popular BBC spy thriller radio series which was broadcast from 1946 to 1951. In 1948 Hammer Films made the first of what was destined to be a series of three Dick Barton films. The films were low-budget features but were very successful. A fourth film was planned but the tragic death of star Don Stannard in a car crash caused Hammer to call a premature halt to the series.

The first of the films, Dick Barton: Special Agent, was spectacularly awful. Surprisingly Dick Barton at Bay was reasonably good. Which leaves us with the third film, Dick Barton Strikes Back. This was actually the second movie to be made but was released after Dick Barton at Bay.

Dick Barton Strikes Back begins with the murder of a British secret agent name Creston. Fellow secret agent Dick Barton and the faithful Snowy White are determined to find the killer.

Creston had told Barton that he was on to something bigger than the atomic bomb and he wasn’t kidding. This is something that could mean not just ruin for Britain but the End of Civilisation.

The clever part of the movie is that the evil conspiracy is on a scale that would delight even a Bond villain but it doesn’t require any expensive special effects. It doesn’t require any special effects at all, but it’s still chillingly effective. The conspiracy is in fact very Bond villain-ish. It was made before the first of the Bond novels was published so it’s fair to say that it was inspired by the thrillers of Dennis Wheatley and Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu stories (both of which heavily influenced Bond creator Ian Fleming).

The only clues are a tune and a poster for a travelling fair, and a beautiful but dangerous female.

Despite the outlandishness of the plot it’s all played fairly straight (especially compared to the deliberate silliness of the first Dick Barton movie). The decision to resist the temptation to make a lighthearted spoof was I think the correct one.

Dick Barton is one of those heroes who gets by on bravery and determination. His judgment is pretty awful and he has an amazing propensity for walking straight into obvious traps. It’s not that he’s stupid. He’s good at figuring things out. He’s just foolhardy. Which of course allows for lots of narrow escapes from certain death.

Don Stannard is a fine plucky hero. My great fear was that his sidekick Snowy would be an irritating comic relief character but fortunately the comic stuff is kept at an absolute minimum. One amusing thing is that they’re both secret agents but when Barton is invited for dinner to Lord Armadale’s house Snowy eats in the kitchen with the servants. I guess that Barton is the secret agent equivalent of an officer while Snowy is strictly an enlisted man and therefore of course not a gentleman, even if he shares all the risks with Barton.

Dick Barton Strikes Back benefits greatly from having a terrific villain in the person of the sinister mater spy Fouracada, played with maniacal relish by Sebastian Cabot. Cabot is almost forgotten now but he was a popular television star in the 1960s (notably in the excellent American private eye series Checkmate) and he was always a delightful larger-than-life presence.

The opening credits make the bold claim that the film was shot mostly on location, which is certainly unusual in a low-budget 1949 film. And it really does seem to feature a lot more location shooting than you’d expect, and the locations are used quite well. The scenes in London Zoo and the completely dialogue-free climactic sequence in the tower are done very well.

Hammer’s movies of this era were always cheap but never shoddy. They spent very little on their films but what they did spend was spent wisely. This particular movie is visually quite impressive for a low-budget production. This was Godfrey Grayson’s first effort as  director. He didn’t have much of a career but he certainly does a competent job here.

Icon Home Entertainment released all three Dick Barton movies on a single DVD. The transfer are not stellar but they’re satisfactory. They’re fullframe which is of course quite correct.

Dick Barton Strikes Back is by no means a serious spy thriller. It’s an unashamed  potboiler (with a slight mad scientist element) but it never descends into mere silliness. It’s the best of the three Dick Barton films. It’s harmless but enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 31, 2018

favourite classic movie viewings of 2018

It's that making-lists time of the year again. So here are the ten best classic movies I saw in 2018. They’re listed in order of year of release. I’m not even going to try to rank them. I”m not even going to claim they’e all great movies. They’re just the ten movies I enjoyed most in the past year.

Here they are, with links to my reviews.

Charlie Chan’s Secret (Gordon Wiles, 1936)

First Love (Henry Koster, 1939)

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)

The Desert Hawk (Frederick De Cordova, 1950)

The Woman in Question (Anthony Asquith, 1950)

Rogue Cop (Roy Rowland, 1954)

Dames Don't Care (Bernard Borderie, 1954)

Timetable (Mark Stevens, 1956)

A motley collection covering quite a few genres. There's quite a bit of film noir, an adventure flick and a musical.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)

By the time Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum went into production at 20th Century-Fox in 1940 Sidney Toler had well and truly settled into the rôle of Charlie Chan. This was his sixth Chan film.

It starts with a dramatic courtroom scene. A hoodlum is sentenced to death, on Charlie’s evidence, vows revenge and shoots his way out of the courtroom after seizing a deputy’s gun.

Steve McBirney (Marc Lawrence) is the hoodlum in question and he doesn’t do what the police expect him to do. He doesn’t try to leave the city. Instead he takes refuge in the wax museum of Dr Cream (C. Henry Gordon). Dr Cream had another profession before opening his wax museum - he was a plastic surgeon and apparently a very good one. He also apparently did quite a few surgery jobs for members of the underworld, giving them new faces. Now McBirney wants Dr Cream to give him a new face as well.

While the police hunt unsuccessfully for McBirney Charlie accepts a challenge to a radio debate over a celebrated crime that had been a sensation a few years earlier. That crime was solved, but Charlie was never happy about it. He had a strong suspicion an innocent man may have been convicted. He also thinks there may be a connection with Steve McBirney. The fact that Dr Cream is involved with the broadcast makes this seem even more likely.

That old case was particularly convoluted. Two partners in crime who were also partners with a third man (an honest man) in a perfectly legitimate business. There was jealousy and murder, and a revenge killing, but Chan has doubts about pretty much the entirety of the established story.

The radio broadcast leads to more murder. Charlie is lucky not to have been the victim. The murder method at first seems ingenious but it turns out that actually a totally different but also ingenious method was employed. The murderer had to be one of the small number of people in the wax museum at the time of the broadcast. There’s no shortage of suspicious characters amongst them and that’s not counting the ones who were hiding and weren’t discovered until after the murder.

As you would expect from a movie with a wax museum theme this entry in the Chan cycle has a bit of a gothic tinge to it. The wax museum is not just an ordinary wax museum. It is a museum of crime, devoted entirely to gruesome and brutal murders. And of course whenever the action switches to the wax museum there seems to be a thunderstorm raging (which adds a slight Old Dark House feel).

This is a movie that is visually fairly impressive by B-movie standards. The wax museum is genuinely creepy, the sets are very good, there are some fun props (such as the mechanical chess player automaton). Director Lynn Shores keeps things lively and interesting.

The acting by the supporting cast is reasonable B-movie standard. C. Henry Gordon is subtly sinister as Dr Cream. Joan Valerie is very good as his beautiful but slightly exotic and slightly disturbing assistant Lily Latimer. Marguerite Chapman is OK as the Feisty Girl Reporter who is there because a B-movie should have a Feisty Girl Reporter. Michael Visaroff quite correctly hams it up as the forensic psychiatrist (and probably charlatan) Dr Otto Von Brom.

Sidney Toler as always plays Chan with a charming twinkle in his eye. As usual Victor Sen Young provides comic relief as Chan’s son Jimmy, an enthusiastic but not always effective amateur detective. By the standards of comic relief characters he’s not too bad since unlike most comic relief characters he’s not entirely a fool or a halfwit. He has intelligence but he lacks judgment and experience.

This movie is part of the Charlie Chan vol 5 boxed set which is very light on extras but on the other hand it does include no less than seven movies. Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum gets a very satisfactory transfer.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum has a decent mystery, it has some mild thrills, it has effective atmosphere. The comic relief is kept to a minimum and is non-irritating. It’s best not to think too much about the plot, but that’s OK because this is the kind of movie that exists in a universe in which the villains come up with insanely complicated criminal plots that would never work in real life. But this is not real life and it’s not meant to be. The world of Charlie Chan movies is in most respects preferable to real life anyway.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is a satisfying little B-picture. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

season's greetings

Season's greetings to all my readers!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Down to Earth (1947)

Down to Earth is a 1947 Columbia musical starring Rita Hayworth. It’s not usually regarded as one of her great films, but we shall see.

It is very loosely a sequel to Here Comes Mr Jordan. Very very loosely. Down to Earth in turn apparently inspired the 1980 movie Xanadu (although I’ve never seen Xanadu so I don’t know how much of a connection there really is).

Here Comes Mr Jordan (based on the play Heaven Can Wait) deals with guardian angels and could rather tenuously be regarded be regarded as dealing with vaguely Christian themes. Throwing in pagan goddesses could be considered to be a daring move, or a foolhardy move (or possibly even blasphemous!) but audiences were used to Hollywood’s propensity for hopelessly jumbling up every subject it touched. It does make the plot completely absurd but it’s pretty absurd to begin with. Of course musicals have no need whatever for coherent plots so really it doesn’t matter at all.

Supernatural themes were quite popular in romantic comedies and musicals at the time. The premise of Down to Earth is that Broadway producer Danny Miller (Larry Parks) is putting on a show about the Muses and one of the actual muses, Terpsichore (Rita Hayworth), hears about it and is enraged that goddesses (or perhaps they’re actually demi-goddesses) should be treated in such a vulgar manner. She decides to come down to Earth to put a stop to this outrage.

Terpsichore manages, with great ease, to convince the show’s producer and star Danny Miller to cast her in the lead, as Terpsichore. She renames herself Kitty Pendleton and acquires kindly rather scatter-brained low-rent agent Max Corkle (James Gleason).

The problem is that Miller wants to appeal to the taste of the public (a taste that is beyond the comprehension of a goddess) while Terpsichore wants the show to be art. He wants vulgar cheerfulness while she wants seriousness and class. She manages to persuade him to completely rewrite the show and of course she then discovers that the public doesn’t want art, it wants cheerful vulgarity.

Terpsichore also arouses the hostility of Danny’s buddy and co-star Eddie (Marc Platt) although I must confess I have no idea why except that presumably it was felt that this hostility would add some spice to the story.

The songs are not all that fantastic. At best they’re adequate.

On the other hand the script does have some decent gags and the love story (I’m sure you won’t be surprised that Terpsichore and Danny fall in love) is handled reasonably well.

I’m not quite sure about Larry Parks. He’s not terrible, he’s an adequate enough leading man, he just doesn’t seem to have any real charisma. The chemistry with Hayworth is perhaps not all it could be.

Roland Culver takes over the rôle of Mr Jordan (played by Claude Rains in Here Comes Mr Jordan) and he does a fine job. Edward Everett Horton adds some fun (as he invariably does) as the ever-pessimistic heavenly messenger 7013.

The one massive selling point of this movie is Rita Hayworth. She looks gorgeous and her performance sparkles. She gets to do plenty of dancing and she gets to do some actual acting and she does both with style.

This is certainly a movie that looks good. It was shot in Technicolor and the budget was clearly fairly generous (by Columbia standards anyway). Some of the musical numbers are quite bizarre.

Down to Earth does at times get a bit ambitious, venturing into the dangerous waters of satire. It tries, in a low-key way, to satirise the vulgarity of popular culture and also the pomposity of high culture. Of course since it’s a Hollywood movie we’re never going to doubt that it will come down solidly on the side of enjoyable vulgarity.

The Region 4 DVD which I have is barebones but it’s a nice transfer with vibrant colours.

Down to Earth would have benefited from slightly better songs but overall it’s a fine effort with a touching love story and with Rita Hayworth in fine form. Harmless, lightweight but entertaining. Recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Too Late for Tears (1949)

Too Late for Tears is a 1949 film noir B-feature that may well be the ultimate bad girl movie. And since the bad girl in question is played by Lizabeth Scott you can rest assured you’re in for a wild ride. What more could you ask for in a seedy B noir? Well her co-star is Dan Duryea, so that wild ride is going to be very wild indeed.

It has a crackerjack opening. A very ordinary couple, Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy), are driving on a lonely country road. A car passes them and something is thrown the back seat of the Palmers’ car. That something is a bag. Inside the bag is money. Lots and lots of money.

Apart from being totally illegal it should be obvious that it would be incredibly stupid even to consider the idea of keeping the money. But that is what Jane Palmer intends to do. The idea of turning the money over to the police never even occurs to her.

So immediately we know several extremely important things about Jane Palmer. She is prepared to do absolutely anything for money, and she is crazy.

Alan thinks they should turn the money over to the police. Jane convinces him that they should just hold on to it for a little while. They won’t spend it and of course eventually they’ll give it to the police but surely it won’t do any harm to hide it away somewhere for a for weeks. Just to know it’s there. It’s an obviously crazy idea but Alan gives in, because there’s no point in doing anything else where Jane is concerned. She’s the kind of woman who always gets her way.

Things start to get worrying when Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea) turns up on the doorstep. He informs Jane that the money us his and he’d like it back.

Now Jane starts to try to work out some way in which she can string Danny along without giving him the money. Danny is obviously a hoodlum and he’s obviously extremely dangerous but Jane wants that money. What Danny doesn’t realise at first is that Jane is a whole lot crazier than he is, and she’s a whole lot more dangerous because she combines craziness with breathtaking audacity.

Things get further complicated by a little matter of murder but that’s not the sort of thing to worry Jane. What does worry her is her sister-in-law Kathy (Kristine Miller). Kathy never approved of Jane and now she’s becoming suspicious that something is going on. Alan’s old army buddy Don Blake has also turned up at a very inconvenient moment.

Things are awkward enough but then the money kind of gets misplaced. Or at least the baggage check ticket gets misplaced and without that ticket getting the money will be a challenge.

Meanwhile Jane sees other complications arising and decides they need to be dealt with. Dealt with in a drastic, and final, manner. What’s amusing is that Jane is a suburban housewife and Danny is a gangster but he’s starting to get scared of her. Not physically scared perhaps, but scared of her unpredictability and her ruthlessness. And maybe he’s a bit scared physically as well. She’s the kind of dame who would cheerfully shoot a guy if it seemed to be in her interests to do so. Danny is kind of mean and he’s definitely not a nice guy but he’s isn’t quite evil and he’s isn’t the sort who kills people without a very good reason. Jane is something he has never encountered before.

Lizabeth Scott is in dazzling form. She’s obsessed and she’s scary and she’s frighteningly manipulative. The worst thing about her is that she never gives up. She intends to have that money and she will destroy herself and everyone else around her to get it.

Dan Duryea is of course excellent in a slightly uncharacteristic rôle - right from the start Jane is in the one calling the shots and Danny just has to go along.

Is this a true film noir? It is if you think that Jane was a nice girl who succumbed to temptation and was then drawn into the whirlpool of film noir madness. That’s possible but there’s evidence that Jane was probably already well and truly corrupt. In that sense this movie is quite similar to Double Indemnity - like the two protagonists in that film Jane is a person in whom the moral corruption is already present and it’s just waiting for the right opportunity to blossom forth.

So is Jane a femme fatale? In a way she is. Even though Danny is already a criminal he’s not thoroughly evil but Jane will lead him into doing much worse things than he’s ever done before.

But them maybe film noir is mostly a matter of mood and if that’s true then Too Late For Tears qualifies without any problems.

This movie is in the public domain and some of the DVD editions out there are pretty bad. The one I saw was terrible. There is a fully restored Blu-Ray edition but alas it’s way out of my price range. If you’re independently wealthy the restored edition is probably worthwhile.  It’s certainly a good enough movie to justify a Blu-Ray release and as soon as I win the lottery I’ll be grabbing the Blu-Ray.

Too Late for Tears is a superb B noir. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 3, 2018

King Solomon’s Mines (1950)

H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines has been filmed several times, notably in 1937 and 1950. There’s also a 1985 version with Richard Chamberlain. It is the 1950 version with which we are concerned today.

In the 1880s Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) is a celebrated hunter and safari leader. Quatermain is growing tired of it all, tired of the butchery of animals, tired of the people he has to take on safari, tired of Africa and tired of himself. He is tempted to give it all up and return to England. When he is approached by Mrs Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother John Goode (Richard Carlson) to lead a safari to find Mrs Curtis’s missing husband he is not interested at all. He tells her he wouldn’t take on the job even for five hundred pounds. She then offers him five thousand pounds. He takes the job.

Her husband had been searching for a fabulous diamond mine reputed to be located in an unexplored part of Africa. He was sold a map showing the location of the mine. In fact many Europeans have been sold such maps and set off in search of riches beyond counting. Few of those Europeans have returned alive.

The expedition runs into every danger imaginable - snakes, crocodiles, lions, leopards, hostile tribesmen, cannibals, rogue white men, bushfires, stampeding wildlife, treacherous river crossings, bearers who desert, steamy jungles and scorching deserts. It’s non-stop action and it’s genuinely very exciting.

There’s also, naturally, romance. Allan Quatermain and Elizabeth Curtis hate each other at first sight, so we know there’s going to be a powerful attraction between them. Granger and Kerr handle this romance element very effectively. They have an unlikely chemistry but somehow it works.

Stewart Granger was always an extremely effective lead in adventure films and this is one of his best performances. He’s noble, generous, heroic and possessed of a steely determination but he’s also given to self-pity and stubbornness. He’s a flawed hero and he’s flawed in genuinely interesting ways. Granger is utterly convincing and sympathetic.

Deborah Kerr does a fine job as well. Hugo Haas is very good as the villainous Van Brun.

During the course of the expedition Quatermain and his party are joined by Umbopa. No-one knows where Umbopa comes from or why he wants to join the expedition. He does however have a knack for making himself useful and while Quatermain isn’t quite sure whether to trust him or not he decides that it might be safer to have Umbopa with them rather than against them.

This is a movie that doesn’t worry too much about political correctness but it doesn’t need to. It’s quite nuanced and subtle. Of the many Hollywood movies made in Africa during the 50s and 60s this version of King Solomon’s Mines is perhaps the one that is most imbued with a deep love for Africa.

There’s some great location shooting. The movie was shot in Technicolor and it looks fabulous.

Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines is one of the great adventure tales of all time. This movie certainly makes some significant changes to the plot. Hollywood obviously wanted a love story as well as an adventure story, which would probably have appalled Haggard.

The 1937 film adaptation is not without interest. It’s quite highly regarded although it’s also not overly faithful to the book and for my money the 1950 version is better.

I saw this film on cable TV so I can’t offer any opinions on the Region 1 DVD (which seems to be the only DVD edition).

The 1950 King Solomon’s Mines was made by MGM and it’s very much a big-budget A-picture with a consciously epic feel to it. It succeeds pretty well. Recommended.