Friday, October 23, 2009
The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947)
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)
Pretty soon Blondie has her o
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
I'm now looking for more Marion Davies movies!
Sunday, October 18, 2009
No Man of Her Own (1950)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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 archive.org appears to be complete and uncut. Image quality isn’t fantastic but it’s acceptable.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Bureau of Missing Persons (1933)
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)
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 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.
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.