Sunday, November 28, 2010

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

In 1936 someone at Warner Brothers got the bright idea of turning Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon into a screwball comedy. The result was Satan Met a Lady. Now you might think be thinking that this sounds like one of the dumbest ideas ever. If you are thinking that, you’re dead right.

I have to be quite honest here and say that I’m not that much of a fan of the screwball comedy genre. There are some exceptions. Bringing Up Baby is one of my favourite films ever. But the screwball comedy really had to be done well, and done with a cast and crew who knew what they were doing. If you couldn’t afford people in the class of Cary Grant, Carole Lombard or William Powell then you were well advised to steer clear of the genre, because of the danger you’d end up with an annoying mess. Like Satan Met a Lady.

It’s not that the two leads lack talent. The female lead is after all an actress by the name of Bette Davis. You may have heard of her. Yes, a great actress, but she’s not the name that immediately springs to mind when you mention screwball comedies. The male lead is Warren William, one of the great actors of the pre-code era who after the code found himself reduced to doing puerile B-comedies. Like Satan Met a Lady.

There are some bizarre changes to Hammett’s story. There’s no Maltese falcon for starters. The crooks in this picture are seeking the legendary trumpet of the medieval hero Roland. It’s a silly unnecessary change that seems to have been made to allow for the opportunity of adding some painful trumpet gags to an already tedious script. The Sydney Greenstreet role is played by a woman.

The characters have all been renamed. Sam Spade has become Ted Shayne. The basic plot outline, with the trumpet substituted for the falcon, is still there. But it’s played for laughs. Combining a detective yarn with elements of screwball comedy wasn’t necessarily a disastrous idea. In fact, combining a Dashiell Hammett detective story with elements of screwball comedy wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. The Thin Man worked pretty well for MGM. But it had the right leads, and the right mix of crime and humour. It was done with the required lightness of touch. Satan Met a Lady just doesn’t have that. What it has is lots of broad humour, and an air of desperation. Bette Davis regarded it as one of the lowest points of her career.

The big problem though is Warren William. His success in the pre-code era was based on playing cads, but they were cads who were genuinely dangerous. The charm and the wisecracks were combined with a touch of real menace, a mixture that he was able to pull more successfully than anyone else. The Production Code meant that he found himself playing loveable rogues and having to rely on a broad style of comedy that didn’t suit his urbane manner. He ended up being merely irritating.

So is Satan Met a Lady worth bothering with at all? Well if you bought the three-disc DVD Special Edition of The Maltese Falcon you got this movie included anyway, and if you really enjoy this brand of humour you might like it. I loathed it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)

Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, the 1944 RKO production Mademoiselle Fifi sounds promising. Unfortunately that promise is not fulfilled.

It’s based on two short stories by Guy de Maupassant. The big problem is that with a story set during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 but filmed in 1944 the temptation to turn it into crude wartime propaganda is just too overwhelming. Combined with changes forced by the Production Code the results are disastrous.

An assortment of miscellaneous travellers, given a permit by the occupying Prussian army, undertake a coach journey. They are all prosperous middle-class French citizens, except for one humble little laundress (played by Simone Simon). She finds herself caught up in a conflict of loyalties and patriotic duty when a brutal Prussian officer asks her to dine with him. Disliking the occupying Prussians, she refuses. The officer (who for some reason has been nicknamed Mademoiselle Fifi) thereupon withdraws the travel permit for everybody, stranding the passengers, until she is pressured to change her mind.

None of which makes any sense, thanks to the Production Code. In de Maupassant’s original story she is a prostitute, and the officer wants more than dinner. The sanitised version is merely silly, with people making an absurdly big deal about nothing.

The Prussians have been turned into two-dimensional jackbooted thugs, and Mademoiselle Fifi has become a kind of proto-nazi. This robs the story of any subtlety or interest.

There’s also a revolutionary on board the coach, who thanks to the brave little laundress finds the courage to stop talking and start fighting. There’s an equally uninteresting sub-plot about a brave French priest who refuses to ring the church bells as a protest against the Prussian occupation.

What could have been an interesting story about hypocrisy, about moral courage, about the true nature of patriotism is turned into clumsy and tedious propaganda.

It's also a visually rather uninteresting movie, and Robert Wise's direction is uninspired.

The only saving grace is Simone Simon’s performance. Despite the emasculated script she manages to give her character some real dignity and some genuine life, and to make us feel a real sympathy for a woman whose affections and physical favours are manipulated for political purposes. Her best efforts are sadly not enough to save this movie from terminal mediocrity and dullness.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Charlie Chan in London (1934)

After reading the first of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels I was anxious to see some of the movie versions. In fact, since Biggers only wrote a handful of Charlie Chan novels most of the movies are not actually based directly on the books.

Disappointingly, the Hawaiian settings of the novels appear to have been abandoned and the movies seem to place the detective in just about every imaginable location except Hawaii. Charlie Chan in London is obviously set in London, and it’s your basic English country house murder.

A young man, the master of the hunt at the country house in question, is facing execution or the murder of a house guest. His sister is convinced if his innocence but everyone else seem to think he is guilty, even his barrister played by a very young Ray Milland. Inspector Charlie Chan is in England in connection with another matter, and the sister prevails upon him to investigate her brother’s case.

There are the usual plot twists and red herrings. It’s very much a B-movie, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else and it provides solid entertainment.

Warner Oland makes a very good Charlie Chan. He doesn’t overdo the oriental mannerisms, he’s smart and it’s a fairly dignified performance. Surprisingly perhaps Oland’s Chan isn’t dramatically different from the Chan of the books.

The supporting cast is solid enough. The production values are reasonable for a fairly low-budget movie and in general it's very competently executed.

As long as you’re not expecting more than a thoroughly enjoyable B-movie mystery there’s not much to complain about here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Gay Falcon (1941)

RKO had enjoyed a run of successes with their B-movies based on the Saint novels of Leslie Charteris, but then disaster struck. Charteris regained control of the film rights and pulled the plug on the movie series. The movies had been nice little earners so RKO were rather miffed, but they soon came up with a solution. They bought the rights to Michael Arlen’s story The Gay Falcon, and the rights to use the character, and simply went on to make a dozen Falcon movies that were almost indistinguishable from the Saint movies, starting with The Gay Falcon in 1941.

They were so close to the Saint movies that Charteris sued RKO, but without success.

The first four Falcon movies starred George Sanders, who played the character with the same mix of charm, amusement, mild wickedness and oddly likeable arrogance that he’d brought to the role of Simon Templar. And the Falcon series proved to be every bit as popular, and profitable.

As the movie opens Gay Lawrence is trying to please his fiancée by earning a resectable living as a stockbroker (oddly enough this was apparently considered an honest living in 1941). He has promised to give up his amateur detective activities, and to give up chasing women. His resolve lasts about half an hour, until a beautiful woman arrives seeking his services as a detective. Stockbroking is quickly forgotten.

A society hostess has made a considerable reputation for herself with her very exclusive parties but unfortunately almost all her parties have with one of her guests finding that some very expensive jewels have been stolen.

The Falcon must not only find a way to discover the identity of the thief; he must also try to prevent his love life from collapsing into complete chaos. With his sidekick ‘Goldie’ Locke he throws himself into the case with enthusiasm.

The plot is serviceable enough, but mainly the movie succeeds because RKO was very very good at this sort of thing. Very competently made and entertaining crime B-movies were something of a studio speciality.

While the Falcon movies were not film noir, they have the characteristic gritty film noir look mixed with glamour, a combination that usually succeeded. With production teams who knew exactly what they were doing, with solid supporting players, with some good guest stars (such as Gladys Cooper in this particular film) and with the charm of George Sanders in the title role success became a guaranteed commodity.

When Sanders’ career really stated to take off in Hollywood and he decided to leave the series his place was taken by his brother Tom Conway, who played the Falcon with considerable success as well.

If you’re a fan of the classic 1940s Hollywood crime B-movie then The Gay Falcon is very unlikely to disappoint you. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Conspirators (1944)

The Conspirators is another World War 2 spy thriller with the action taking place entirely in a neutral country. So it’s a bit like Casablanca except it’s set in Lisbon.

It follows a similar formula - some drama, some intrigue, some mystery and some romance. And plenty of atmosphere, with lots of shadows and fog. It works because it’s extremely well made, by people who knew exactly what they were doing.

A Dutch Resistance fighter named Vincent Van Der Lyn (Paul Henreid) is passing through Lisbon on his way to London after having escaped from occupied Europe. He intends to continue the fight from there. And in Lisbon he meets a woman. An exceptionally beautiful woman who is also rather mysterious (Hedy Lamarr). Her name is Irene, and Vincent quickly decides that the war can wait for a while. He’s in love. Except that the war can’t wait for a while, and Vincent finds himself a key player in a game of cat-and-mouse between German agents in neutral Portugal and a large-scale pan-European Resistance operation run by the flamboyant Ricardo Quintanilla (Sydney Greenstreet).

And the course of true love doesn’t run all that smoothly, since Vincent and Irene both suspect each other of being in league with the Gestapo. Irene also has an inconvenient husband.

Quintanilla has troubles of his own - he’s fairly certain there’s a traitor within his organisation. But Vincent soon has big problems of his own when he’s arrested by the Lisbon police for murder, the murder victim being a member of Quintanilla’s organisation. Soon everybody is suspecting everybody else.

The acting is uniformly good, not surprising given the very strong cast. Paul Henreid is a good low-key hero. Greenstreet’s performance is as ostentatious and entertaining as you’d expect. Peter Lorre is there as well in a fairly minor role. But the movie really belongs to the very underrated Hedy Lamarr. She’s exceptionally glamorous and convincingly mysterious and ambiguous whilst still being sympathetic and likeable.

Jean Negulesco was a highly competent director and this was the type of film he always handled particularly well. He really doesn’t put a foot wrong with this effort.

It’s a Warner Brothers movie and it has that studio’s characteristic 1940s look to it, which of course makes it even more like Casablanca. It has the same blend of grittiness and slightly seedy glamour. But it has enough strengths to stand on its own merits as a solid and throughly enjoyable wartime thriller.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Another Language (1933)

Jean-Paul Sartre said that Hell is other people. In Another Language Stella (Helen Hayes) discovers that Hell is actually other people’s families. More specifically, her husband’s family.

Stella and Victor Hallam (Robert Montgomery) have eloped. Now they’ve returned to the bosom of his family. Victor (known to the family as Vicky) is obsessed with his family. They are everything to him. It soon turns out that they are more important to him than his wife. Stella is informed in no uncertain terms that attendance at the regular Tuesday night family dinners is compulsory, and that it is vital that she accepts the Hallam clan and they they accept her.

Unfortunately the Hallams are the family from Hell. They’re your worst nightmare. They’re vulgar and annoying. They’re prying and interfering. They’re oppressive and suffocating. And they don’t approve of Stella’s modern ideas. Her plans to get a job are soon quashed. She manages to get grudging permission to attend art school twice a week but it’s made clear to her that this is further proof of her unfitness as a wife. In any case the Hallams don’t approve of art. Victor’s nephew Jerry had ideas of becoming an architect but the family soon put a stop to that.

Worst of all is Victor’s mother. She is the most manipulative and clinging woman who has ever walked the earth. No woman is good enough for her beloved son unless the woman is prepared to submit herself entirely to Mother Hallam’s whims and to her extraordinarily narrow view of a woman’s role in life. When Stella commits the unforgivable sin of being late to a family gathering Mother Hallam pulls out all the stops in an effort to destroy her son’s marriage.

I’ve never liked Helen Hayes much as an actress but she’s fairly competent in this movie. Louise Closser Hale as Mother Hallam is one of the great movie villains, and I use the word villain deliberately since the Hallams are so appalling that this almost qualifies as a horror movie! Perhaps there’s no horror quite so terrifying as family.

Robert Montgomery as Victor is one of the nastiest, most obnoxious characters in cinema history. He’s a fool as well as being a pig. There’s nothing whatsoever likeable about him but that’s the way the character is written and Robert Montgomery can’t be faulted for his performance.

So is there anything distinctively pre-code about this movie? You bet there is. Firstly there’s the sexual attraction between an aunt and her nephew, something you weren’t likely to see in a Hollywood movie post-Code. And there’s the whole tone of the film. This is an extraordinary hatchet job on the institution of the family, something the Code would certainly not have permitted.

This is a very unpleasant film. Not that it’s a bad movie, quite the opposite, but the atmosphere of manipulation and oppressiveness is almost overwhelming.