Monday, December 28, 2009

White Cargo (1942)

Poor Hedy Lamarr. The Viennese actress was signed by MGM largely on the strength of her exotic beauty and on the notoriety engendered by her nude scenes in her first European movie, Ekstase, made in 1933. But MGM didn’t seem to know what do with her other than putting her in roles that traded on her exoticism. And roles like Tondelayo in White Cargo were not exactly going to enhance any actress’s reputation.

I’m actually quite fond of lust and madness in the tropics movies, and White Cargo does have a certain camp appeal.

Walter Pidgeon is Witzel, the district officer and manager of a rubber plantation in a British colony somewhere in Africa in 1910. Witzel, his assistant, a drunken doctor and a slightly dotty missionary are the only four white men within a radius of hundreds of miles. There are no white women at all. Witzel has been growing steadily more bad-tempered nd cynical with each passing year, and his mood is not improved by the uselessness of the assistants sent out to him from Britain. Within a couple of years they invariably crack up, while he is left to do everything.

There are the usual hazards of life in the tropics, such as poisonous snakes, crocodiles and fever. But the biggest hazard of all is Tondelayo. This beautiful but unscrupulous half-caste woman has at various times shared her favours with every white man unlucky enough to find himself in this distant outpost of empire, and she has left them all either insane or hopelessly embittered. When Witzel’s new assistant Langford arrives, it is only a matter of time before he attracts the attentions of Tondelayo. He falls for her very hard indeed, and even agrees to marry her! Naturally though Tondelayo does not prove to be a satisfactory wife, and Langford lives to regret his marriage.

With a movie both as politically incorrect and as silly as this one there’s really no point in being offended by the outrageous racism and misogyny. You can either switch it off, or enjoy it for its camp value, and be amused by just how outrageously racist and misogynist it gets. There is for example the relief of the missionary when he discovers that Tondelayo is not really half black after all, but of Egyptian ancestry. So he can marry her to Langford without the shame of marrying a white man to a black woman! Or there’s the scene where Tondelayo complains that after five months of marriage Langford has not beaten her once, and she implies that their sex life would be considerably improved if he did. I’m not sure how the Production Code Authority let that one slip through, although I have the awful feeling that they simply assumed that such behaviour towards a black woman would be perfectly normal.

The biggest of the movie’s problems is that Tondelayo is portrayed as both evil and childishly simple. Apart from its offensiveness it makes her character very uninteresting.

Hedy Lamarr is given no chance at all to act, but she’s given ample opportunities to be sexy, and you have to give her credit for being able to make the idea of making a cup of tea for a man sound really really dirty!

But 1940s Hollywood jungle movies are all politically incorrect, and the only way to enjoy any of them is as camp entertainment. If you can do that, then White Cargo can be very amusing.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Keyhole (1933)

I always approach pre-code movies with some trepidation. I love them, but perhaps I expect too much of them. So many of them promise so much but then don’t deliver, or they spoil everything with a moralistic ending. But The Keyhole is a pre-code gem that most certainly does not disappoint.

Kay Francis is Ann, married to the wealthy but insanely jealous Schuyler Brooks. He is convinced she is having an affair, and employs a private investigator to shadow her. In fact she does have a secret, but it’s not what he suspects. She is being blackmailed by a Maurice, a former lover she had been foolish enough to marry. He had told her he would arrange a divorce, but after she marries Schuyler Brooks she discovers that he never did get that divorce. And now he’s threatening to tell Brooks about her marriage.

Ann and her aunt cook up a plan to lure Maurice (who is not a US citizen) out of the country. The aunt will then use her political connections to make sure he can’t get back into the US. Ann sets off for Cuba, shadowed by both Maurice and by a smooth-talking charmer of a private detective, Neil (played by George Brent). Neil’s mission is to find out how faithful she is to her husband, so he sets about romancing her. She certainly finds him attractive, but will she succumb to temptation?

There’s also a sub-plot involving Neil’s comic relief partner and a brassy blonde gold-digger/conwoman played by Glenda Farrell.

Monroe Owsley makes a very slimy villain. Glenda Farrell is wonderful as always. I’ve never much cared for George Brent, finding his charm a little too contrived and a little too smarmy, but he’s not too bad in this picture. But the movie belongs to Kay Francis, and she’s marvellous.

The plot is very pre-code, with the sacred institution of marriage not being taken over-seriously. The movie takes the thoroughly pre-code attitude that marriage should never be allowed to stand in the way of love.

It’s all very entertaining, the mix of romance and comedy is just right, and as a bonus the movie features some truly gorgeous sets and costumes. You really couldn’t ask for much more.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947)

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an amazingly pulpy ultra-cheap 1947 B-movie that is great fun if you accept it for what it is. It’s often described as a film noir but really it’s just your basic bad guy on the run movie.

Laurence Tierney is Steve Morgan, a bank robber who thumbs a lift with an incredibly dumb traveling salesman called Ferguson. Ferguson is your ultimate sap, frighteningly naive and good-natured. He’s on his way home to his wife after a party. Morgan persuades him to pick up a couple of girls at a filling station. Carol is a good girl who dreams of breaking into the movies, and she’s nearly as dumb as Ferguson. Her pal Agnes is a smart cookie, but she has Bad Girl written all over her.

The cops are more interested in their poker game than in apprehending criminals (and like so many cops in the 1940s American crime movies they’re also terrifyingly trigger-happy). Luckily a public-spirited gas station attendant is on hand to help track down the bad guy. Only in B-movies like this do the cops take along over-enthusiastic civilians when tracking down dangerous armed holdup men, but it adds to the pulpy fun.

Laurence Tierney as Morgan is a smooth talker with a propensity for sudden violence, and Tierney plays the character with relish. Mind you, it’s worrying to contemplate just how stupid anyone would have to be to be taken in by his painfully obvious manipulations. But hey, this is the movies. Betty Lawford is delightfully slutty as Agnes. There’s also a drunken night-watchman and a dumb hick sheriff to complete the cast of stock characters.

It has something of the film noir look, with quite a bit of the action taking place at night, although it doesn’t have the visual brilliance of the finest examples of film noir.

If you’re in the mood for an undemanding but entertaining cops and robbers B-movie that is unashamedly pulpy then The Devil Thumbs a Ride won’t let you down. It ain’t Citizen Kane, but it works for what it is.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies is an amusing lightweight little pre-code comedy from 1932, directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Marion Davies, Robert Montgomery and Billie Dove.

Blondie and Lottie have been best friends since childhood, although they fight constantly. And when I say fight, I mean they trade punches. These are rather feisty girls. Life is tough in the depressed neighbourhood of New York where they both live, and finally Lottie can’t take it any more. She heads off for the bright lights, hoping to make it as a dancer in the Follies. And she does. The next time Blondie sees her Lottie has been transformed onto Lurlene, and has a swank apartment, gorgeous clothes and a rich boyfriend named Larry. The rich boyfriend thinks Lurlene’s little friend is rather cute, and offers to get her a job in the Follies as well.

Pretty soon Blondie has her o
wn fancy apartment, provided by her own rich boyfriend, an oil magnate. The problem is that Larry has fallen in love with Blondie, and she feels the same way about him. This causes trouble with Lurlene (and another brawl between the two girls). Blondie doesn’t want to steal Lurlene’s man, but she has great difficulty in avoiding Larry’s attentions. The romantic complications pile up, and it’s all fairly entertaining.

Being a pre-code picture it has a very casual attitude towards sex. Lurlene and Larry are obviously more than just good friends, and Blondie and her oil millionaire a
re just as obviously cohabiting. It’s all dealt with in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Marion Davies was a revelation for me as I’d not seen any of her movies before. She’s funny and charming. Billie Dove (whose brief moment of stardom sadly ended with this movie) is also absolutely delightful. Robert Montgomery is a perfectly adequate leading man, but the two women dominate the movie.

It’s all good mildly naughty fun, and expertly executed by Goulding. Having Frances Marion and Anita Loos collaborating on the script certainly didn’t hurt either. I liked it quite a bit.

I'm now looking for more Marion Davies movies!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

No Man of Her Own (1950)

The 1950 Paramount production No Man of Her Own is yet another film noir based on a Cornell Woolrich story, in this case his novel I Married a Dead Man (which he originally published under the pseudonym William Irish). Barbara Stanwyck plays a pregnant unmarried woman who finds herself mistaken for someone else after a train crash. She finds the temptation to continue playing along with the deception too much to resist, but naturally complications ensue.

Eventually her past catches her up to her and she finds herself in a nightmare situation with nowhere to turn for help.

The story is told using flashbacks, which is more or less the way the story unfolds in the book. Mitchell Leisen’s direction is solid. The film noir aspect of the movie come mainly from the twisted plot and the use of flashbacks - visually it isn’t really in the noir style at all.

Stanwyck is terrific, and there’s a strong supporting cast. It follows the novel very closely until the ending. It’s a pity they felt the need to change the ending, but perhaps it was too ambiguous to satisfy the Production Code. While the film’s ending is ingenious and reasonably satisfactory, it lacks the brilliance and breath-taking horror of Woolrich’s ending and weakens the movie considerably.

It’s still a very fine movie, and it’s definitely a must for Stanwyck fans.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

To Have and Have Not (1944)

To Have and Have Not looks at first sight like a kind of loose sequel to Casablanca (which is exactly what the studio was looking for). The formula seems almost identical. The setting is another Vichy French colony, Bogart is again the cynic who eventually risks his life for a noble cause, much of the action again takes place in a bar, there’s a piano player, and of course there’s a beautiful woman.

Bogart is Harry Morgan, a professional fisherman in Martinique. His friend the bar owner tries to convince him to transport some Free French agents in his boat but he’s not interested in politics and has no intention of taking risks for a cause. Of course we know right from the start that he will get involved, and that he will end up doing the right and noble thing. While he’s still trying to avoid this entanglement another much more interesting entanglement comes along in the shape of a husky-voiced night-club singer and part-time pickpocket (Lauren Bacall). We know her only as Slim, the nickname he bestows on her (while she calls him Steve). When his alcoholic partner Eddie is picked up by the police he realises he can no longer avoid taking sides, since he’s already had too much contact with the Free French and Eddie’s brains are so addled by the booze he’s bound to talk.

The plot, based very loosely on Hemingway’s novel, is predictable and fairly uninteresting. Which matters not at all, since the heart of the movie is provided by Morgan’s friendship with Eddie and, to a much greater extent, by his rapidly developing love relationship with Slim. The screenplay, by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, is packed with sparkling dialogue. Bogart gives his most relaxed and charming performance. Bacall is spectacular. Sadly, she would never be this good again. Howard Hawks did seem to have a knack for getting better performances out of her than anyone else could. This movie is the sort of thing that Hawks did extremely well, with its stylish and witty script and two perfectly matched leads.

It’s wonderful to see a 1940s movie with a love story between a man and a woman that is very much a meeting of equals, and where the attraction is both intellectual and sexual. Bogart and Bacall achieve a chemistry in this film that has rarely been surpassed.

I think it’s a better movie than Casablanca. It’s tighter, the wartime propaganda is much more muted, and Bogart and Bacall are a much more convincing romantic coupling than Bogart and Bergman. It doesn’t try to be epic. It’s really just a feel-good mix of romance with some humour (courtesy of Walter Brennan as Eddie) and a bit of action, and very large helpings of wit and style.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Secret Beyond the Door… (1948)

The 1940s was the decade that saw HoIlywood discover Freud, and it witnessed the birth of a new genre, the psychoanalytical thriller. The best-known example is Hitchcock’s Spellbound, although personally I’m very fond of an obscure little 1945 MGM programmer called Bewitched. It was inevitable that Fritz Lang would try his hand at this genre, which he promptly did in 1948 with Secret Beyond the Door…. A proper psychoanalytical thriller must have at least one dream sequence, which this one has.
Joan Bennett is Celia, a wealthy woman bored by the men in her life until she meets a handsome and charming architect while on holiday in Mexico. Mark (Michael Redgrave) seems to be the ideal man, intelligent, intellectually stimulating, sensitive and artistic. After a whirlwind romance they marry. The problems start when they move into his mansion in the country, an hour or so from New York.
Mark has already shown signs of sudden emotional switches, but in the overheated and rather gothic atmosphere of this mansion, this emotional instability becomes more and more alarming.

The presence of Mark’s sister and the mysterious Mrs Robie, an employee with a hold over Mark, complicated matters. Mark clearly has issues with women, staring with his mother (who died in slightly odd circumstances) and continuing with his first wife (who died in very odd circumstances indeed). There’s also Mark’s son, who appears to have even more mental health issues than his father! He’s a very disturbing young man indeed.
Mark also has an unusual hobby. He collects “felicitous” rooms. On being told about this his new bride assumed they were rooms in which fortunate things happened, but it turns out they’re actually rooms that proved themselves to be ideally suited to murder! He doesn’t just reproduce the rooms, but re-creates them including all the original objects found in the rooms at the time of the murders in question.

Michael Redgrave had already demonstrated his gift for portraying individuals who were disturbed to the point of being positively deranged in the excellent British 1945 horror movie Dead of Night. His performance in Secret Beyond the Door… is equally good. Joan Bennett is, as always, superb. It’s difficult in this day and age to take psychoanalytical thrillers all that seriously, with their somewhat half-baked Freudian ideas, but they’re always entertaining and this one is no exception. It’s a well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable film. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 9, 2009

I Am A Camera (1955)

The 1955 British film I Am A Camera was based on John van Druten’s play of the same name, which was in turn based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, with both Isherwood’s story and the play providing the basis for the much better known (and infinitely superior) 1971 movie Cabaret.

A young English writer in Berlin in the dying days of the Weimar Republic meets English nightclub singer and would-be adventuress Sally Bowles, who makes his life very complicated indeed. The movie aims for a more comedic approach than I expected, and I don’t think it entirely works although it has some amusing set-pieces.

This movie has several serious problems, the biggest being that it was made in 1955 so it has to pretend that the Isherwood character is heterosexual. Which of course means that his relationship with Sally Bowles becomes inexplicable. There’s plenty of sub-text, with Christopher describing himself at the beginning of the film as a “confirmed bachelor,” and with plenty of other hints that the character is actually gay. But the dynamics of the plot just don’t work with everybody pretending to be heterosexual.

A further problem is the disastrous miscasting of Julie Harris as Sally Bowles. I know she played the role on Broadway as well, but she’s completely wrong. She tries her hardest, and she has her moments, but she’s too much like a prim clergyman’s daughter playing at being decadent by sneaking an extra glass of sherry while the vicar isn’t looking. She also fails to show us Sally’s vulnerability, without which the character remains ultimately lifeless and uninteresting. Of course it’s impossible now not to compare her performance to that of Liza Minnelli, which makes it even more difficult to appreciate Harris’s performance. And being 1955, this version of Berlin decadence in the 20s isn’t terribly decadent either.

Laurence Harvey is reasonably good as Christopher, within the limitations of the script. Anton Diffring as the would-be gigolo Fritz steals every scene he’s in. Shelley Winters is also miscast, but also tries her best. Henry Cornelius’s rather lackustre directing and the generally rather flat look of the film don’t help. Since we have Bob Fosse’s 1971 masterpiece I have to conclude that sadly there’s really no reason any reasonable person would want to see this movie, except as a historical curiosity.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Outlaw (1943)

The Outlaw is one of the most notorious movies in cinema history. Conceived and produced by Howard Hughes as a vehicle to launch the career of his latest discovery, the 19-year-old Jane Russell, it’s best known for the censorship battles fought over it, Battles that were, to a considerable extent, engineered by Hughes himself as an attempt to boost the box office take (an attempt that succeeded).

It’s also famous for its chaotic production history. It took three years to make it to the screen, during which time Hughes fired director Howard Hawks (or Hawks quit depending on which version of the story you hear) and took over the directing himself. The result is pretty much what you expect when someone who knows exactly what he’s doing (Hawks) gets replaced by someone who doesn’t have a clue (Hughes). It’s a pity, because leaving aside the controversy it’s a movie that did have potential. The premise is an intriguing twist on the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid story, and it’s also an interesting attempt to combine a serious western story with comedy. In some ways it’s a precursor of much later westerns such as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with its sceptical attitude towards legendary figures of the Old West.

Doc Holliday has his horse stolen by Billy the Kid, which begins an odd friendship combined with rivalry. The rivalry intensifies when Billy also steal’s Doc’s girl Rio (Jane Russell). The rivals have already fallen foul of newly appointed sheriff Pat Garrett, and the bulk of the movie deals with Garrett’s attempts to bring the two to justice while they squabble over the ownership of the horse and Jane Russell.

The ideas are there, but the execution is sadly lacking. There are some effective scenes (which one suspects were shot by Hawks) but the movie as a whole just doesn’t hang together. The comic elements are poorly integrated with the more serious elements. It’s not clear what the actual intention behind the movie was. The pacing is also badly off (which certainly wouldn’t have happened had Hawks been able to finish the picture).

The movie is also seriously unbalanced by the acting. Walter Huston is superb as Doc, but his performance, merely serves to highlight the deficiencies of Jack Buetel (who plays Billy) and Jane Russell. Buetel is simply atrocious. Russell later developed into a talented comedienne but at this stage of her career she’s far too inexperienced and she’s badly miscast as a sultry temptress. Again you can’t help wondering what might have happened had Hawks remained as director. He might well have recognised her actual strengths as an actress, as he did with the equally young and inexperience Lauren Bacall. It’s ironic that a movie with so many attempts at humour hardly gives Jane Russell a single funny line.

The furore that erupted over the supposedly excessive prominence given to Jane Russell’s breasts certainly seems silly today. There’s plenty of sexual innuendo though, and an ambiguous scene that could be interpreted as a rape, so it wasn’t entirely a fuss over nothing. One of the many legends that has accrued to his movie is the supposed homoerotic subtext. There certainly is such a subtext in quite a few 1940s Hollywood movies, but I think it’s stretching a point to see one here. If you really go looking for one you can find some support for such a theory, but it’s fairly tenuous. More worrying is a very marked misogynistic slant, which I assume was Howard Hughes’ contribution (since misogyny is a charge that no-one could seriously make against Howard Hawks).

It’s not quite as bad a movie as it’s often made out to be. It’s entertaining in patches, and there’s a certain camp appeal to Jane Russell’s hopelessly misguided performance. It’s in the public domain and the version available at appears to be complete and uncut. Image quality isn’t fantastic but it’s acceptable.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bureau of Missing Persons (1933)

Bureau of Missing Persons is pretty much what you expect from a 1933 First National Pictures release. It’s a very fast-moving comedy/drama about a day in the life of a missing persons bureau in a major US city. It’s really a collection of stories, with one main story and half a dozen minor ones.

Lewis Stone is the gruff but kindly and deceptively street-wise Captain Webb of the missing persons bureau. Detective Butch Saunders (Pat O’Brien) has been transferred to his department from the robbery detail, where he’d been causing problems with his over-zealous string-arm methods. The hope is that Captain Webb will teach him to use his brains instead of his fists. Butch has other problems as well. He’s separated from his wife (a typically brassy and funny performance from Glenda Farrell), but she’s always after him for money.

Butch finds himself with even bigger problems when he sets out to find the missing husband of the young and beautiful Norma Roberts (Bette Davis). He’s really more interested in getting her into the bedroom, but then discovers that she’s not who he thought she was and doesn’t have a husband, and that’s only the beginnings of the complicated drama he’s been drawn into. A drama that involves a murder.

The individual stories are a mixture of the sentimental, the romantic, the cynical and the bizarre. The practices of the police will certainly come as a shock to modern viewers - they routinely find missing people but don’t tell their loved ones in order to protect them from the shock of finding out the truth about their wicked and dissipated lives.

While there’s not much substance to this movie it has a great deal of style, it’s fast and snappy, the dialogue is amusingly hard-bitten and witty, and the performances are superb. Bette Davis desperately wanted to get way from movies like this to play meatier dramatic roles, but her problem was that she was just so good in this sort of thing. She just made a wonderful brassy dame, leading poor Pat O’Brien by the nose but doing it in such a charmingly likeable way. She’s like a female Clark Gable - a loveable but exasperating rogue, the sort of woman you know will get you into trouble but you just don’t care. Pat O’Brien provides her with a perfect foil. Lewis Stone avoids the obvious pitfall of making Webb too annoyingly gruff but kindly. Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly have great fun in supporting parts.

There are a few pre-code moments. There are several drug references, and its generally sceptical attitude towards the sanctity of marriage would most likely have landed it in some trouble once the Code started to be enforced. Overall it’s 73 minutes of non-stop entertainment, and what more could you ask for?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

High Voltage (1929)

The main claim to fame of High Voltage is that it provided Carole Lombard with one of her very early starring roles. Made in 1929, it’s a kind of romance thriller which, despite the title, fails to generate very much electricity.

A bus is stranded in a snow storm somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas (I think it’s the Sierra Nevadas, but my knowledge of American geography is very sketchy). The driver and passengers make it to a deserted church, where they discover a mysterious stranger (played by William Boyd) who offers no explanation for his presence there. Lombard is a escaped female prisoner being taken back to the penitentiary by a rather taciturn lawman. As the storm worsens they find themselves trapped, their whereabouts unknown, and with very little food. Tensions rise, and of course romance blossoms. Meanwhile the food supply dwindles, and one of the other passengers, a slightly innocent young woman, starts to sicken from lack of nutrition.

Lombard is reasonably good, and wisely doesn’t overdo the hard-bitten female convict routine. She’s a little on the cynical side, but she’s generous and likeable. The plot suffers from a rather hokey ending, but the main problem with the film is simply that it’s a very early talkie, with the clunkiness and slow pacing that afflicted the talkies until the technology improved and allowed the camera to start moving freely again.

It’s moderately entertaining, and it gives Carole Lombard fans the chance to see her in an early non-comedy role. It’s in the public domain so it’s easy enough to find cheap copies, or even free online copies, and as long as you don’t pay more than a couple of dollars for it and you don’t have excessively high expectations High Voltage is probably worth a look.

So Long at the Fair (1950)

So Long at the Fair is the kind of mystery thriller that the British film industry did so well in the 40s and 50s. A young woman (Vicki) and her brother John arrive in Paris for the Great Exposition of 1889. The book into their hotel, the sister taking taking Room 17 and the brother taking Room 19. In the morning there’s no sign of the brother. Even more worryingly, there’s no sign of Room 19 either! No member of the hotel staff will admit to having seen Vicki with her brother the previous day. His name is not on the register. And the staff insist that there never was a Room 19, it was only ever a bathroom. They suggest that perhaps she has been undue strain, and should return to England immediately to consult her doctor.

The British Consul is sympathetic, but unless she can provide some evidence there is little he can do. All her attempts to find some proof are of no avail until she happens to run into a rather pleasant young man named George Hathaway who borrowed 100 francs from her brother the night before. And yes, he most certainly remembers her brother. Being an amiable if slightly eccentric young chap (he’s an artist, much to the disapproval of his family) and being somewhat bored and having a taste for adventure he agrees to help Vicki solve this puzzle.

This was one of Terence Fisher’s early efforts as a director (he’s actually credited as co-director along with Antony Darnborough). Fisher of course went on to considerable fame as a director of horror movies for Hammer Studios, but he started out making movies in the mystery and film noir genres, and he made some very fine films of this type (Stolen Face being particularly good). So Long at the Fair has one of Fisher’s classic trademarks as a director - it doesn’t waste any time, it gets on with the plot and the pacing never drags. It also benefits from a very strong cast, with Jean Simmons as Vicki and Dirk Bogarde as George Hathaway being entertaining and very likeable leads. David Tomlinson plays Vicki’s brother; he was fated always to play such secondary roles, but he always played them well. There’s a fine assortment of noted British character actors including André Morell and Felix Aylmer, and watch out for Honor Blackman (better known as Cathy Gale from The Avengers TV series) in a small part.

The plot is ingeniuous and although it’s a little far-fetched the movie is so well-executed it simply doesn’t matter. Vicki’s confusion and growing terror at her bewildering situation are conveyed very effectively and the suspense is maintained right up to the end. The 19th century costumes look great, the sets are good and overall the movie looks polished and assured. A very enjoyable and very well-made movie and highly recommended.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

The Mysterious Lady is one of the three movies in the TCM Garbo silent movie package that is also included in the Garbo Signature Collection. Made in 1928, The Mysterious Lady is a combination spy thriller and romance. And it’s a fabulous film!

The story concerns an Austrian officer in Vienna just before the Great War who becomes involved with a mysterious lady he meets at the opera. The mysterious lady is played by Greta Garbo, and she turns out to be a Russian spy (which is revealed fairly early so I don’t think it requires a spoiler warning, and if it’s a spy movie starring Garbo I think it’s always going to be a safe assumption that she’s going to be the spy). Of course the Austrian officer and the Russian spy fall in love, which greatly complicates things for both of them. There are two kinds of betrayal in this movie, betrayal of country and betrayal of love, and of the two the latter is of course by far the more serious (this is a Garbo movie).

Garbo’s performance is superb. Her ability to convey a range of emotion, and a subtlety of emotional response, without any need for dialogue, is simply staggering. Conrad Nagel is excellent as the Austrian officer, and there’s some great chemistry between Garbo and Nagel. And there are some moments of sheer visual magic – the scene with Garbo and the candles, for example, which is breath-taking. Fred Niblo’s direction is imaginative and assured, director of photography William Daniels knew exactly how to photograph Garbo, the sets and the costumes are typical MGM opulence. And, as the commentary track points out, with a cheerful disregard for historical accuracy – it’s supposed to be pre-1914 but all the women are wearing 1920s dresses. Gorgeous 1920s dresses. In any case, it all looks wonderful.

The plot is in essence your basic spy movie plot, but it includes some twists that I didn’t see coming, and I’ve seen an awful lot of spy movies. There’s a memorable scene towards the end with Garbo in a room with the Russian general – I won’t reveal anything about it, but you’ll definitely notice it. And notice the exquisite skill with which Garbo plays the scene. One thing I should mention is that the first few minutes of the film are in very bad condition – don’t be put off by this, it gets better, and although there are quite a few sections of the movie that are badly scratched it is most definitely worth putting up with those annoyances. This is a very fine spy movie, a superb love story, and a beautifully made and very entertaining film. This one is not to be missed.

Cornered (1945)

Dick Powell started his career as a juvenile lead in the classic early 1930s Warner Brothers musicals such as 42nd Street. By the mid-40s he was getting much too old for such roles and tried to reinvent himself as a hardboiled actor in crime ovies. He had some success with this in 1944 with Murder, My Sweet (based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and directed by Edward Dmytryk. Cornered in 1945, also helmed by Dmytryk, was his second such role, but the film is much less successful and Powell’s performance is much less convincing.

Powell plays Laurence Gerard, a Canadian pilot who had been shot down over occupied France during the war. Agents of the French Resistance had helped him escape back to England, and he had fallen in love with and married one of them. She was later rounded up with other Resistance fighters and shot by the Germans. When the war ends Gerard is determined to find out who betrayed his young wife, and returns to France looking for answers. He learns that a French collaborator named Marcel Jarnac was responsible, and sets out to track him down. The trail leads him to Argentina.

I was a little surprised that a movie made so soon after the end of the war should concern itself with conspiracy theories about ex-nazis on the run in South America. Many of the people involved in making the film were later blacklisted, and it does have a very strident anti-fascist tone.

Unfortunately the plot is over-complicated and relies too much on coincidence. Powell is deadly dull. I guess he was trying to appear burnt out by the war, but it’s difficult to care much about his character. Thee are a couple of entertaining turns by members of the supporting cast, especially Walter Slezak as a mysterious and ambiguous figure who both helps and hinders Gerard’s investigation.

It’s a surprisingly brutal movie, especially the scene in which Gerard finally encounters Jarnac. Overall it’s reasonable entertainment if you enjoy 1940s B-movies with a hint of film noir. Worth catching if it shows up on cable, but not really worth a purchase.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Woman on the Beach (1947)

Woman on the Beach, released in 1947, was the last of Jean Renoir’s American movies. It left him totally disheartened by studio interference and public indifference, and disillusioned with the film itself. RKO forced him to radically recut Woman on the Beach, and as it stands the movie feels unfinished and at times becomes more than a little obscure. It feels like a movie that’s had huge chunks cut out of it.

A coast guard officer (Scott, played by Robert Ryan) suffering from wartime trauma (presumably as a result of being on a torpedoed ship) is engaged to a sweet local girl. She’s ideal wife material, and he can’t wait to get married. That is, until he meets a mysterious woman on the beach (Peggy, played by Joan Bennett). She’s married to Tod Butler (Charles Bickford), a painter, but her husband is now blind. She’s wild, sexy, passionate and longing to escape from a marriage that is little more than a prison sentence. She and Scott fall in love. The three of them soon become involved in a tense and very unhealthy love triangle, with Tod baiting both his wife and Scott.

The exact nature of Tod’s feelings for his wife, and her feelings for him, remain enigmatic, a mixture of love and hate, jealousy and possessiveness, sexual obsession and sexual repulsion. In some ways they’re both imprisoned, by the past and by an inability to let go. Scott blunders in, utterly out of his depth, and the situation spiral dangerously out of control. All three find themselves playing dangerous emotional games, and all three are unstable to begin with.

Bickford and Ryan give fine edgy performances. Joan Bennett has one of her most rewarding roles, playing a woman who is superficially a typical film noir femme fatale but is in fact more complex than that. While contemporary audiences would certainly have seen her as very much a dangerously sexual Bad Girl, modern audiences are more likely to see her the way Renoir presumably saw her, as a much more ambiguous character, both victim and tormenter. She uses her sexuality as a weapon, but she is just as much at its mercy as anyone else.

The psychological complexity and the fact that the characters all have valid motivations for their actions, even when those actions are destructive, are the movie’s great strengths. Renoir’s reluctance to cast any of his characters as clear-cut heroes or villains is presumably what upset RKO executives so much. That, and the very overt sexuality. The scene where Tod is anxious to show Scott a nude painting of his wife must have seemed very perverse indeed in 1947. Even as butchered at the behest of RKO it’s a powerful and disturbing movie, which makes it even sadder that the scenes Renoir was forced to cut are apparently now lost forever.

It’s both film noir and gothic romantic and sexual melodrama, and an absolute must-see movie. Even more so if you happen to be a Joan Bennett fan.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brighton Rock (1947)

Brighton Rock (1947) was scripted by Graham Greene, from his own novel. It’s about a 17-year-old gangster called Pinkie, played by Richard Attenborough. Pinkie kills a journalist because he holds him responsible for the death of the leader of his gang, Kite. Pinkie has now taken over the gang. The background to the film is the activities of the infamous razor gangs in Brighton in the 1930s, who were active in running protection rackets. The movie can be seen as a gangster film, and as a juvenile delinquent film, and it stands as one of the greatest moves ever made in either of those genres. There is very little blood in the movie, and only a couple of brief scenes of violence, but it still manages to be extraordinarily menacing. Pinkie is a Catholic, he doesn’t smoke or drink, and he’s a virgin. Although he’s a vicious little thug he sees himself as being free of the corruption of modern life. For Pinkie the corruption of modern life means sex or any other form of sensual pleasure. Pinkie is not only vicious, he’s extremely disturbed. Richard Attenborough is absolutely superb in the role, he’s chilling but he also conveys the sense that Pinkie has of being someone who doesn’t really consider himself part of the world that everyone else belongs to. Pinkie’s nemesis is Ida, who is everything Pinkie isn’t – she’s loud, vulgar, cheerful, and she enjoys having a good time (which for Ida means booze and men). She represent everything Pinkie loathes and fears. And Ida (who had befriended the murdered journalist) is determined to see justice done.

Brighton Rock is beautifully photographed – Brighton looks delightfully seedy and vulgar. There are some wonderful close-ups of Ida, where she becomes almost overwhelming. There is a film that has been superbly put together – fine acting (including the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell, as one of Pinkie’s gang), great photography, great editing. There isn’t a wasted shot in the movie. There is only one tiny blemish, a tacked-on epilogue that weakens the book’s cynical and ironic ending. Overall this is a brilliant example of movie-making at its best.

And God Created Woman (1956)

And God Created Woman (Et Dieu... créa la femme) wasn’t Brigitte Bardot’s first movie, but it was the movie that made her an overnight sensation. Released in the US in 1956 without a Production Code seal, it was a major art-house hit, due mostly to a very brief nude scene that as considered amazingly hot stuff back then. It was the nude scene that generated controversy at the time, but in fact it’s quite a nasty little film, although for reasons that have nothing to do with the nudity.

In St Tropez rich businessman Eric Carradine (played by the wonderful Curd Jürgens) plans to open a casino. To do so he needs to gain possession of a run-down boatyard owned by the three Tardieu brothers. They won’t sell, and it later transpires that they refuse to sell because as long as they own a business, even a failing business, they can convince themselves they’re middle-class rather than the poor white trash they really are. The situation is complicated by the presence of Juliette (Bardot). Both Carradine and the eldest of the Tardieu brothers are desperately anxious to get Juliette into bed.

Juliette has other problems. The family she has been living with don’t approve of her, and are threatening to send her back to the orphanage she came from (a prospect she regards as being slightly worse than being sent to prison). She wears tight sweaters, flirts with men and listens to music on the juke box, which of course is enough to convince the respectable townspeope that she’s a whore. In a particularly creepy scene she’s told that she can avoid being sent back to the orphanage if she can get a certificate from a doctor proving that she’s still a virgin. She quite reasonably tells the woman from the Welfare Board what she can do with that suggestion.

Antoine Tardieu is a dumb, violent, misogynistic creep who treats Juliette like a whore, so naturally she fall falls in love with him. It’s that sort of movie. To avoid the orphanage she needs to get married, but Antoine considers that women of Juliette’s sort are not the sort of woman one marries. His brother Michel though is willing to marry her. Michel is nerdy, sensitive and kind, so naturally she despises him. It’s that sort of movie. They are married, but Antoine seduces Juliette. Which of course is Juliette’s fault, and proves she really is a whore. There’s no hint of disapproval of Antoine’s behaviour, in fact his mother seems to think he’s done Michel a favour by showing him that his wife is a tramp. Michel finally wins Juliette’s love by slapping her around a bit thus proving that he’s a real man.

Director Roger Vadim’s sexual politics seem, more than anything else, muddled. At one point we are told that girls like Juliette were made to destroy men, and it seems that Vadim can’t quite decide if that’s Juliette’s fault or not. She’s presented as a reasonably sympathetic character, but this was 1956, and female sexuality as a destructive force was still a view that found favour with audiences. And when at one point Juliette is informed that what she needs is for her husband to give her a good spanking the complete lack of irony with which this message is delivered is rather depressing.

I’ve actually liked some of Vadim’s later films, so I’m reluctant to write him off as a mere sexist creep. The movie does have some compensations. Curd Jürgens is very good, as always. And there’s a very good scene with Bardot in a nightclub, dancing to crazy jazz rhythms. If you want to know why was was one of cinema’s iconic sex goddesses this scene tells you everything you need to know. Bardot is actually quite good. Within the limitations of the script she does her best to portray Juliette as a free spirit rather than a manipulative monster. And the movie does offer an intriguing, if rather disheartening, look at 1950s sexual mores.

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

When we think of Julie Andrews it's difficult not to think of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Which is a little unfair - her career has been far more varied than that and includes some rather interesting films. Unluckily for her, her most interesting movies featuring her most impressive acting performances (movies like Darling Lili) haven’t always been her biggest hits. One of her best is The Americanization of Emily, a quirky and very cynical anti-war comedy romance from 1964.

Julie Andrews is Emily, who works as a driver for the armed forces in World War 2. She used to work as a hospital driver but had to give it up - she always felt sorry for the men about to be sent back to the front and she always ended up sleeping with them. And they invariably ended up getting killed. That’s why she finds Lieutenant Commander Charles Madison (James Garner) so attractive. He’s a dog-robber - a personal assistant to an important American admiral. He’s never been anywhere near the front lines, and he has a talent for avoiding even the merest hint of personal danger. For Charlie the war is one big party - fine food, beautiful women and luxury hotels. There’s no chance Charlie is going to break Emily’s heart by getting himself killed, so she can hardly wait to get him into bed with her.

But fate has an unexpected fate in store for Charlie. His boss, Admiral Jessup, apart from being quite insane, sees the war not so much as a war as a PR opportunity for the Navy. And an opportunity to strike at the real enemy. The real enemy being of course the goddamned Army. The Army wants to make the European theatre of operations an army show, but Admiral Jessup has a plan. The first man killed on D-Day is going to be a sailor. The admiral is going to make sure of it. And he’s not only going to be a sailor, he’s going to be filmed getting killed. And Charlie and his buddy and fellow dog-robber Lieutenant Commander Paul “Bus” Cummings (James Coburn) find themselves assigned to the project of making the film. The fact that neither of them knows the first thing about movie-making isn’t the sort of detail to trouble the military mind.

Paddy Chayefsky’s script is delightfully cynical and witty, a brilliant mix of black comedy and very offbeat romance. The affair between Emily and Charlie starts out as simply recreational sex, but Emily has never been able to stop herself falling in love. Emily believes in all sorts of old-fashioned English virtues like duty and self-sacrifice, but gradually realises they’ve never brought her anything but misery and the dishonest joys and self-indulgent pleasures of martyrdom. Her mother suffers from the same syndrome. Charlie’s unashamed cowardice makes her appreciate, for the first time, that perhaps life is better and more worthy of celebration than death.

Julie Andrews pulls off a difficult and complex part exceptionally well. She has to combine all kinds of apparently contradictory emotions and till make her character believable, and she succeeds. She also has to make a woman with a strong streak of virtue and self-righteousness into a likeable and sympathetic character, and this she also does very successfully. James Garner makes Charlie one of the most admirable cowards in movie history. He’s a coward, but he’s a coward with principles. His hatred of war and of the exaltation of war that allows it to happen is perfectly sincere, and his argument that it isn’t the generals and politicians who make war possible but the ordinary people who celebrate the courage and self-sacrifice involved in war is unexpectedly thought-provoking. James Coburn is fun as Bus, and Melvyn Douglas is both amusing and disturbing as the crazed Admiral Jessup.

I won’t give away any hints about the ending other than to say that it works perfectly and it neatly avoids the pitfalls that could so easily have brought this movie to grief.

Anti-war movies always run the risk of making war too entertaining and of celebrating the very virtues that encourage war, but this is one of the very few anti-war movies that doesn’t fall into that trap. It remains deliciously and unrepentantly cynical throughout, and it has the courage to maintain its mockery of the military virtues right to the end. It also manages to be a movie that comes down very firmly on the side of life, and of love. This is a truly superb movie, and I recommend it very very highly.

Dangerous Curves (1929)

Let’s face it, if you’ve seen one circus movie, you’ve pretty much seen ‘em all, and Dangerous Curves is your basic stock-standard circus movie. It does have one big thing going for it, though, and that’s Clara Bow. And that’s enough. She’s Pat Delaney, daughter of a famous high-wire performer, and in love with the circus’s headliner, Larry Lee, also a high-wire artist. Trouble is, Larry’s in love with his current partner, Zara, and he doesn’t even notice poor Pat. And Zara is a no-good dame who’s two-timing him, and she’s bringing him to the brink of ruin. Will he realise in time that Pat is really the girl for him?

This 1929 comedy/romance (one of Bow’s first talkies) is about as corny as a movie can get, but it’s very corniness somehow pulls it through. If it had been a bit less corny, it wouldn’t have worked. And Clara Bow is sensational, as always. It’s a pity Paramount couldn’t have found her slightly better material, bit if you’re a fan this one is still worth seeing.