Saturday, January 29, 2011

Star of Midnight (1935)

Any movie made in the 1930s starring William Powell as a top-flight attorney who is also a part-time amateur detective is pretty much guaranteed to be fun. And Star of Midnight does not disappoint.

Powell had made the move to MGM in 1934 but this 1935 mystery thriller was made at RKO. It manages quite successfully to maintain the glamorous sophisticated feel of Powell’s MGM movies.

The plot is fiendishly complicated, perhaps even too complicated, but these sorts of 30s mysteries rely mostly on style, witty dialogue and classy acting so it doesn’t do to get too stressed out about following every one of the countless plot twists.

The title does not refer, as you might think, to a jewel but to the star of a musical comedy called Midnight. The star, Mary Smith, disappears in the middle of a performance. Lawyer Clay Dalzell (Powell) has already found himself involved in his young friend Tim Winthrop’s search for his missing lady love Alice as well as being roped in by the beautiful young social butterfly Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers) to retrieve some compromising letters from a mobster. Dalzell’s life becomes even more fraught with complications when a newspaper gossip columnist gets gunned down in his living room.

Dalzell feels sure that all these events are somehow connected, but finding the link that binds them together is easier said than done. He doesn’t have to solve the crime alone though - Donna Mantin is determined to help whether he wants help or not. It’s the least she can do for the man she’s going to marry. Dalzell has no intention of marrying her, but Donna has made up her mind and when Donna makes up her mind about something there’s no point trying to dissuade her.

For many years I used to think I disliked Ginger Rogers. I have no idea why. I’ve seen several of her films recently and I’ve found her to be a delightful comic actress. She really sparkles in this one and she and Powell work together superbly. Powell of course is terrific, as always. The supporting cast is a little uneven but Paul Kelly is fun as the gangster Jimmy Kinland who may or may not be involved and may or may not be sincere in offering his assistance to Dalzell.

It’s all splendid breezy fun, perhaps not quite in the same league as other similar William Powell vehicles of this era such as Jewel Robbery or The Thin Man but still very much worth seeing.

Sadly, I believe this one has not been released on DVD.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Marked Woman (1937)

Marked Woman is a 1937 Warner Brothers crime movie, and a surprisingly hardboiled one.

Warner Brothers of course were renowned for their gritty early 1930s gangster epics and their 1940s film noir but the late 30s was a fairly bland time for crime movies. The Production Code had killed the classic gangster film and the American film noir of the 40s had not yet emerged in all its shadowy hard-edged glory. Marked Woman owes quite a bit to the studio’s earlier gangster movies and anticipates the cynical doom-laden film noir style.

The plot is based very loosely on the real-life case of mobster Lucky Luciano but the focus in the movie is not on the gangster at all (which represents a shift from Warner’s earlier gangster films). In this case the focus is on the girls who work in a night-club. It was a fairly respectable night-club until it got take over by crime boss Johnny Vanning. He turns it into a high-class clip-joint.

The girls who work there aren’t overly thrilled about this, and they’re even less pleased that they are now “hostesses” but they don’t have much choice. Vanning control all the city’s night-clubs, and it’s better than working for starvation wages in a resectable job, assuming any of them could get respectable jobs.

One of the girls is Mary Dwight (Bette Davis) who’s been doing this kind of work to support her kid sister Betty through college. When Betty comes to the big city to visit her she tries to hide what she does for a living but unfortunately one of club’s clients has just been murdered by Vanning’s henchmen and the girls (including the innocent kid sister) find themselves arrested on suspicion by the young and zealous DA (Humphrey Bogart). Betty is soon drawn into this twilight world and Mary discovers there is a much higher price to be paid than she ever expected.

Bogart hadn’t yet quite perfected his screen persona and he’s actually rather dull. It’s the women who dominate the movie in any case. Mary and her friends are all complex three-dimensional characters an there are fine performances by all the actresses, especially Lola Lane as the cynical but likeable Gabby and Isabel Jewel as the ditzy but sympathetic Emmy Lou who unwittingly drags Betty into the word of big city vice.

And then there’s Bette Davis. This is Bette Davis in full flight, chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow. At times she goes completely over-the-top but being Bette Davis she somehow gets away with a performance that no-one else could have pulled off.

Lloyd Bacon was a reliable and very competent director and his direction is tight, well-paced and stylish. In 1937 the Production Code was making this sort of subject matter difficult to deal with but Marked Woman manages to avoid being sentimental or too obviously moralistic. Even the ending is quite satisfying.

This is a classic of hardboiled film-making. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Destry Rides Again (1939)

A comedy drama musical western sounds like a combination of way too many genres in one movie but Destry Rides Again actually works rather well.

The town of Botteneck is a lawless place even by Wild West standards. When the sheriff tries to take action against the crooked poker games on the Last Chance Saloon he mysteriously disappears. The crooked card games are just the tip of the iceberg, a way of accumulating enough landholdings to hold the cowmen to ransom when they need to drive their cattle through the surrounding country. The saloon is the centre of a corrupt cabal which includes the very oily mayor, Hiram Slade.

To cement their control of the town they appoint Botteneck’s most notorious and hopeless drunk as sheriff. Washington Dinsdale had been deputy years earlier when the legendary Tom Destry was sheriff. Being appointed sheriff brings about a surprising change in Washington Dinsdale. He decides to stop drinking and take the job seriously. And he also decides to call in the son of Tom Destry to serve as his deputy.

Tom Destry Jr (James Stewart) has been a successful lawman in Tombstone but he’s not what Dinsdale expects. He’s not what anybody expects. He’s a polite well-spoken young man who doesn’t even carry a gun, and who abhors violence.

Destry may appear to be a milksop but he has a very determined streak. He really does intend to clean up Bottleneck.

He immediately attracts the attention of Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich). Frenchy is the main attraction at the Last Chance Saloon. She’s a singer, but she’s also part of the criminal gang that runs the town. After first attempting to kill Destry in a violent rage she comes to realise that she kinda likes the guy. That maybe she’s even a bit in love with him. Whether she’s going to be an ally or an enemy remains to be seen. First Destry needs to find out what happened to the previous sheriff.

This the early James Stewart, before he started playing darker and more interesting roles in the 50s. He’s perfect for the role and you can’t really find any way to dislike him. Dietruch has fun as Frenchy and she gets to sing several songs, the most notable being the wonderful The Boys in the Back Room. She and Stewart seem an unlikely combination but they work very well together.

It’s a movie that probably has no right to work at all but it’s so well-crafted and the performances are so enjoyable that if you just go with it you’ll find yourself having a pretty good time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Zee and Co. (1972)

Zee and Co. (released in the US as X, Y and Zee) comes from what I think of as the classic high camp phase of Elizabeth Taylor’s career. In this period she made a series of outrageous movies such as Boom! and Secret Ceremony, movies that were generally regarded with disdain by critics.

Personally I adore them, and Zee and Co. fits in perfectly with the over-the-top hysteria that characterised these movies.

Elizabeth Taylor is Zee, married to architect Robert Blakeley (Michael Caine). Their marriage is stormy and unconventional, and it’s about to get even more turbulent when Robert catches sight of Stella (Susannah York) at a party. He’s instantly attracted to her, something that doesn’t fail to attract the notice of Zee. Not that she minds all that much if Robert sleeps with Stella. They’ve both obviously had quite a few affairs on the side, and just as obviously they make no attempt whatsoever to be secretive about their extramarital dalliances. But Zee senses (correctly) that this has the potential to be more than just an affair. Robert can have sex with other women if he wants to, but falling in love with them is definitely not acceptable.

And falling in love is exactly what Robert and Stella proceed to do. Zee reacts in what appears to be her normal way - with bitchiness gradually escalating to hysteria. Poor Stella is quite out of her depth. When Zee discovers that Stella has a deep dark secret hidden in her past (a lesbian passion for one of the nuns at her school) she closes in for the kill.

Elizabeth Taylor dominates the movie, as she dominated every movie se ever made. She’s gloriously excessive and wickedly funny. She projects an overwhelming sexuality and an even more overwhelming emotional neediness, and although she pushes her characterisation almost to the point of grotesqueness she remains glamorous in an extravagantly sleazy way.

Michael Caine is equally good. He plays Robert as a man who’d like to think of himself as cool and always in control but underneath he’s as much out of control as Zee is. His outbursts of violent rage are frightening in their intensity.

Susannah York is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the bravura performances of the other two leads but she’s also very impressive in a much more subtle way. The interplay between these three characters is explosive.

In its day this movie was considered pretty risque (at least by the standards of mainstream major-studio releases), mainly because of the lesbian overtones.

This is very much a movie for lovers of camp, and for Elizabeth Taylor fans. If (like me) you fit into both those categories you’ll have a wonderful time with it. If you don’t fit into either category you’ll probably be left wondering what the hell the makers of this picture were thinking. Personally I loved it.

The Region 2 DVD looks terrific. I believe it’s also been released in the new series of Columbia DVD-Rs.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Body Heat (1981)

The problem with a modern film noir or “neo-noir” such as Body Heat is of course the problem of self-awareness.

The people making the classics of film noir from the 40s, like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity, weren’t aware they making film noir as such. But anyone making such a movie in 1981 was going to be all too much aware they were making a film noir. The writers know they’re writing film noir. The directors know they’re directing a film noir. The cinematographer knows he’s photographing a film noir. The costume designer, the set dressers, the hairdressers, everyone involves is aware of the genre expectations.

And not only do the actors know they’re acting in a film noir, their characters all too often seem to be aware that they’re characters in a film noir.

This is not necessarily a fatal flaw. Some movies, like Basic Instinct, solve the problem by exaggerating it. The self-awareness becomes a crucial ingredient in the movie You can’t really enjoy a movie like Basic Instinct unless you’re familiar with the shadowy world of film noir. The entire movie is an elaborate in-joke, but it works.

Body Heat adopts a similar strategy. Although it’s set in 1981 this movie is not even remotely a realistic depiction of the 1980s, or any other decade. This is the world of film noir, the world of Philip Marlowe, the world of seedy losers and no-good dames, a world where everybody speaks hardboiled dialogue as a matter of course. This is reality heightened almost to the degree of parody, but it works because despite the self-awareness everyone involved still takes it seriously. They want you to care about these people, and you do.

The plot borrows very heavily indeed from Double Indemnity, and the mood of the film is even more indebted to Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic. William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a lawyer. And like Fred MacMurray’s character Walter Neff in Double Indemnity Ned’s character flaws are obvious right from the start. It’s clear that if offered the opportunity for easy money and hot sleazy sex Ned is not going to be overly troubled by ethical considerations. As with Walter Neff the corruption is already there as a potential presence, just waiting for the right (or wrong ) woman to come along and unleash it. The main difference is that Ned is more obviously a loser.

When he meets Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) that seed of corruption starts to flower. And from the time he first sets eyes on her you know he will do anything at all to get her between the sheets. When Matty tells him how much she wants him, and how much she despises her no-good husband, and how unfair it is that her husband has so much money that she and Ned could make so much better use of you know he’s going to agree to anything she suggests, including murder.

An unusual feature of Body Heat is the richness of the supporting characters, and the quality of the performances by the supporting players. Ted Danson as the cynical prosecutor and J. A. Preston as the kind-hearted but remorselessly dedicated and honest cop are particularly good.

William Hurt is extremely good. He’s sleazy and he’s weak but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Kathleen Turner as the femme fatale Matty might not be quite as good as classic femmes fatales like Jane Greer and Barbara Stanwyck but she’s still pretty damned good.

It’s interesting to compare this film to the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, made in the same year. Postman tries for an authentic period setting but ultimately it fails. It just looks too pretty and picturesque. Body Heat is set in 1981 but captures the feel of 1940s noir much more effectively. All the settings look like they could come from a 1930s or 1940s movie. Ned’s office even has the obligatory noir venetian blinds. It’s as if these characters have somehow become trapped in the world of 1940s film noir and they’re forced to act out the plot of Double Indemnity.

The completely non-realistic feel of the movie works heavily in its favour. It’s impossible to believe that in Florida in 1981 no-one had an air-conditioning system that actually worked, but we accept this as part of the artificial world of the movie.

The one major departure from classic noir is the amount of nudity, which is considerable. But 1940s noir was dripping in unhealthy frustrated eroticism anyway so the more explicit sex scenes don’t spoil the mood of the film. And director Lawrence Kasdan is careful not to make the sex too graphic. As in 40s noir the sex is more psychological obsession than physical expression.

It’s a movie that probably shouldn’t really work but it does. There are so many ways in which first-time director Kasdan could have shot himself in the foot but the movie successfully walks the dangerous line between homage and parody. One of the few really great neo-noirs.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Man Bait (1952)

Mention Hammer Films and most people think immediately of horror movies but in fact horror came fairly late in the company’s history. Formed in 1932 Hammer really started to hit their stride in the early 50s with a series of film noir B-movies, such as Man Bait (also released with the less lurid title The Last Page)

Many of Hammer’s best efforts in the film noir mould (including this one) were directed by Terence Fisher, later to become much better known as director of some of the studio’s most successful horror films. Fisher had already made several films including the superb mystery thriller So Long at the Fair.

Hammer imported American stars for most of these movies. They were either stars of the second rank, or stars who had fallen on slightly hard times and were prepared to work for modest fees, but in fact Hammer showed rather good judgment in choosing these imports from cross the Atlantic and got some impressive performances out of them (Lizabeth Scott being particularly memorable in the superb Terence Fisher-directed Stolen Face). In the case of Man Bait the imported star was George Brent.

Brent is John Harman, the manager of a large bookshop in London. He has just cashed in an insurance policy, the money being intended to finance traveling expenses and treatment for his invalid wife. His employees include a very flighty but very attractive young lady named Ruby (Diana Dors). Working late one night they find themselves kissing. Harman is embarrassed, apologises, and assumes the matter has been forgotten. But Ruby has met a very plausible but very shady character named Jeffrey Hart. He’s just out of prison and broke but now sees his opportunity, Ruby can blackmail her boss, and they can share the proceeds. It seems like a simple plan, but things go terribly wrong.

On thing you always expect of a Terence Fisher movie is that it will be tightly paced with not a single wasted shot, and this movie is no exception. You also expect the direction to be exceptionally professional and extremely effective, and that’s certainly the case here. Fisher might not qualify as a great film artist or an auteur but he was a master craftsman.

Brent is quite good. Peter Reynolds is wonderfully slimy as Jeffrey Hart. The cast as a whole performs admirably.

And then there’s Diana Dors. Despite the credits which say “introducing Diana Dors” the 20-year-old was already a veteran with more than a dozen movies to her credit. She was eventually to find her blonde bombshell image a major problem and always had difficulties getting taken seriously enough to land worthwhile roles. Whenever she did get a decent role she invariably turned in a very fine performance. Ruby is an interesting character. She’s set up as a femme fatale but we’re left wondering whether to regard her as villainess or victim. Diana Dors makes her a interesting mix of vulnerability and over-confidence combined with a sexuality that is not quite under her control. It’s a great performance by
a talented and underrated actress.

It certainly has some features that mark it as film noir but whether it’s true film noir or not it’s a well-made and highly entertaining crime thriller and I recommend it unreservedly.

The VCI DVD release pairs it with another Hammer film noir, the delightfully titled Bad Blonde which I haven’t yet had a chance to watch. There are one or two moments when the sound becomes just a tiny bit a bit crackly but in general the sound quality is more than acceptable and the picture quality is excellent. It’s also quite inexpensive and very good value for money so there’s no reason whatsoever not to grab this one.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Shriek in the Night (1933)

The title and the original poster might give the impression that A Shriek in the Night is a horror movie. It isn’t. It’s a routine murder mystery, and a very pedestrian one at that.

Ginger Rogers is ace girl reporter Pat Morgan, and she’s got herself a job as secretary to a millionaire businessman and philanthropist named Harker. Her editor has heard a whisper of a link between Harker and mob boss Joe Martini, and her assignment is to investigate this link and gain a major scoop for the Daily News.

This being a newspaper reporter movie it goes without saying that a reporter from a rival paper is trying to get the same story first, and of course he just happens to be a guy who’s been trying to persuade Pat to marry him. The movie opens with Harker plunging to his death from the penthouse of his hotel, making the story an even bigger one.

This movie has so many problems it’s hard to know where to begin. The identity of the murderer is revealed far too early. The explanation of the murder is contrived and unconvincing. The comic relief, a feature that blighted so many American B-movies of the 30 and 40s, is even more annoying than usual. Albert Ray’s direction is static and dull. This is a Poverty Row production and the production values are strictly bargain basement. The script is confused and boring.

It does have some redeeming features however. The opening scenes are, surprisingly, quite bold visually and quite effective. But the one real plus in this movie is Ginger Rogers. She’s miscast, but to her credit she not only does her best she actually manages not only to make Pat Morgan likeable she also makes her something different from the usual cliché of the wise-cracking hardboiled girl reporter. She plays Pat as a rather hesitant character, feisty but not entirely sure of herself. She’s found herself unexpectedly right in the middle of a series of gangland-related murders so quite reasonably she’s both keen to get the big story and also conscious of the fact that this is all rather dangerous.

Lyle Talbot plays her rival and would-be suitor. Talbot had an exceptionally varied career that included countless B-movies, scores of guest roles in TV series and a role in Ed Wood’s legendary Plan 6 from Outer Space. He’s not too bad in this one. Like Rogers he doesn’t play the role in the standard stereotyped manner - he’s not quite as obnoxious and arrogant as you might anticipate and he’s also less concerned with putting Pat down than you might expect.

A Shriek in the Night is in the public domain and if you find a copy in the dollar bin it’s probably worth picking up for Ginger Rogers’ performance. I certainly wouldn’t pay any more than a buck for it.

The public domain DVD copy I saw was pretty bad - lots of print damage and rather poor sound quality. Which makes this movie pretty difficult to recommend.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Three Strangers (1946)

Three Strangers is the kind of offbeat little movie that could only have been made in Hollywood in the 40s. It’s part film noir, part melodrama and part fantasy. And perhaps part fairy tale as well.

This 1940s Warner Brothers feature was directed by Jean Negulesco from a script co-written by John Huston. Since it involves a statue with possibly mystic but definitely mythic qualities and given the Huston connection it often gets compared to The Maltese Falcon. In fact it’s a very different type of movie.

In London in 1938 an elegant woman makes eye contact with a man on a crowded street. The man (played by Sydney Greenstreet) appears to a prosperous businessman of some sort. He follows her back to her flat. He presumably thinks she’s a high-class prostitute so he’s a little disconcerted when they reach the flat to find another man already there. The woman (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald) has a proposition for both men although it’s perhaps not what they were expecting.

The woman (her name is Crystal) has a statue of a Chinese goddess and she explains to them the legend that if on the eve of Chinese New Year three strangers make a wish the goddess will grant that wish. And tonight is the the eve of Chinese New Year. There’s one catch though. The three strangers must all make the same wish. What wish could three complete strangers have in common? The answer of course is money.

All three are, in various ways, in a jam. They are victims of fate. Or at least they think they’re victims of fate. Perhaps they’re victims of fatalism rather than fate, and perhaps that’s more deadly. All three believe that money would help to extricate themselves from their respective jams.

We soon discover that these three people are a good deal less respectable than they appeared to be. They are good at maintaining a facade but not so good at keeping their lives together.

Crystal is estranged from her husband. He has now returned from Canada but instead of asking her for a reconciliation (as she had convinced herself he was going to) he asks for a divorce. He has fallen in love with another woman. But Crystal has no intention of letting him go - she knows they’re destined to be together. She will pay any price to keep him, and use any methods no matter how ruthless, no matter how cruel.

Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is a solicitor of impeccable and unblemished reputation. He is most certainly not a thief. After all it’s not stealing if you intend to pay the money back. So he didn’t really steal from a client’s trust account, in fact he was acting in the client’s best interests, if only that speculative share deal hadn’t gone sour. And it’s not as if he were acting irresponsibly - his sources had told him it as a sure thing.

Johnny West (Peter Lorre) has several weaknesses, the main one being booze. It’s not that he’s a nasty drunk. Not in the least. He’s really a very nice fellow, drunk or sober. But after a few drinks his judgment isn’t all it might be, and in any case he’s the sort of guy who allows fate to lead him where it will. Where it’s led him is into the middle of a murder case.

Arbutny’s need for money is direct. If he doesn’t have it quickly he is ruined. Crystal sees money as something that will strengthen her position with he husband, and if you’re a manipulative sort of person money always has its uses.

Johnny perhaps has less need of money than the other two, although money would be useful for buying alcohol and it would also allow him to provide for the young woman who is also mixed up in the murder case. Somewhat to his surprise he has discovered that the young lady in question is in love with him, and even more to his surprise he discovers that maybe his existence might have a purpose after all. While Johnny is a reckless but innocent chap caught up almost by accident in crime his girlfriend is an habitual criminal, but then she’s never met a man before who treated her decently and she’s not really bad.

So we have a series of characters all believing a bit too much in fate, and not really willing to break the cycle of fatalism. Can a winning sweepstakes ticket save them, or can they find something else of more value?

The plot is of course totally contrived, but it’s intended to be. This is an urban fairy tale and it doesn’t need to obey the tiresome rules of real life. The plot is unimportant - it’s what the characters can find within themselves that matters. And it works rather nicely. Of course it’s almost impossible to go wrong when you have Lorre and Greenstreet in the same movie. All three leads in fact are excellent, and Joan Lorring is equally good as Lorre’s sweet but none-too-honest girlfriend.

This is a fine example of 1940s Hollywood film-making at its best, a movie that provides a good deal of entertainment and touches some emotional chords as well. They really don’t make quirky movies like this any more, and more’s the pity.