Monday, June 27, 2011

Wings of Danger (1952)

Wings of Danger was one of Hammer’s early 50s film noir titles. It’s definitely one of the lesser entries in the Hammer film noir cycle.

The idea of a film noir aviation thriller is promising enough. Richard Van Ness (known to his friends simply as Van and played by Zachary Scott) and Nick Talbot (Robert Beatty) are flyers with a very small airline. They’re fast friends although Van is somewhat disturbed by Nick’s irresponsibility. This comes to a head when Nick insists on taking off in atrocious weather to deliver a bunch of flowers to Alexia (Kay Kendall). Nick’s plane fails to arrive and the following day wreckage is found off the coast.

The inquest finds no suspicious circumstances but Van coms across evidence that Nick’s past was perhaps just a little on the shady side. And the airline owner may be equally shady.

Van is in love with Nick’s sister Avril. It’s not quite clear where Alexia fits in although it’s fairly obvious that she is a bit of a bad girl and she may also be involved in some of the dubious undertakings that NIck was mixed up with. There’s also a blackmail subplot.

It takes most of the film’s modest 73-minute running time for these various plot strands to start to come together. When they do connect the results are satisfactory enough but some viewers may not have the patience to stick around long enough to find out. And some plot elements seem rather undeveloped.

Terence Fisher directed but while the movie is fast-paced (as you expect from Fisher) it lacks a little in the area of dramatic tension compared to most of his films.

Hammer’s distribution deal with Lippert Films in the US required them to include a second-rank American star in their pictures. This was either someone whose career was in decline (like George Brent) or someone who had never quite made the grade as a major star but was still a well-known name and a recognisable face (like Lizabeth Scot or Dan Duryea). Either Hammer showed very good judgment in picking these actors or they were very lucky because most of these American imports gave pretty good performances. Zachary Scott kind of fits into both categories - he was one of those actors who looked for a while like being a big star but it didn’t happen and by 1952 he was certainly struggling. His performance is perfectly adequate here.

The British supporting cast is solid enough with Kay Kendall being the standout.

There are some nice shots of rather cool vintage aircraft although the flying angle isn’t developed quite as strongly as one might have hoped.

VCI’s DVD presentation, in their Hammer Film Noir series, is quite acceptable. Not a great movie but still worth a look.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Knight Without Armour was one of the more lavish 1930s productions of the British film industry. The scale of the movie was spectacular and producer Alexander Korda imported Marlene Dietrich to star, for which she was paid a colossal salary (and she was worth every penny). The gamble paid off and the movie made money.

Dietrich is paired with Robert Donat, at that time one of Britain’s biggest stars, in what is a lovers on the run movie with a difference. It’s also a kind of espionage movie, although again an unconventional one.

The first half hour or so is spent establishing the background. Writer Frances Marion (who adapted James Hilton’s novel) and director Jacques Feyder do a find job of setting this up quit economically considering the considerable complexity of the plot.

Donat is Ainsley J. Fothergill, a rather inoffensive Englishman working as a translator and journalist in Czarist Russia in 1913. He is recruited by the British secret service. His task is to infiltrate the revolutionary underground in St Petersburg and report back to the British government on the seriousness of the threat posed by this movement. He has little success as a spy and is captured by the Secret Police and sent to Siberia.

Three years later the prisoners in Siberia are freed in the wake of the evolution. Fothergill has befriended a leading communist in prison, a man who becomes a powerful figure under the Bolshevik regime. As a result Fothergill finds himself appointed as a commissar. His first major task is to escort the beautiful Countess Alexandra Vladinoff to Petrograd for trial. She has to removed to Petrograd before the local peasants lynch her as a wicked aristocrat.

Fothergill has no intention of delivering the countess to the Cheka (the murderous Soviet secret police). Apart from the fact that he’s a decent fellow and would never do such a thing anyway he has fallen in love the countess (and she has fallen for him). The rest of the movie comprises their desperate attempts to stay one step ahead of the secret police whilst finding themselves caught in the middle of the Civil War and having to dodge both the White and Red Armies.

The brave new world of the Revolution has turned Russia into a butcher’s yard and created a nightmare world of chaos. The two unlikely lovers have the odds sacked against them but all they can do is to keep running.

Jacques Feyder and cinematographer Harry Stradling create a moody epic that is utterly enthralling. The visuals are stunning, with some great night scenes. Much of the action centres around trains, which are always good for both suspense and atmosphere. The psychological stress brought by civil war is neatly (and movingly) encapsulated by a memorable sequence at a railway station where the station master continues faithfully to carry out duties, signalling trains that never arrive and instructing non-existent passengers to board non-existent trains.

Another memorable scene occurs in the immediate aftermath of Revolution. The Countess wakes up and finds herself completely alone in her palace. She calls for the servants but no-one answers. In confusion she wanders out into the grounds and is still alone - until suddenly a horde of revolutionary peasants appears over the crest of a ridge and bears down upon her. But she is an aristocrat and bravely faces the mob.

While the Bolsheviks are depicted as the chief villains a civil war brutalises everybody and their White opponents are equally as enthusiastic in machine-gunning their political enemies whenever they are able to capture them.

Robert Donat was extremely ill during the filming (he suffered from very severe asthma which in the 1930s was practically untreatable) and could not have completed the film without Marlene Dietrich. She insisted that he not be replaced and her support and encourage got him through. Despite his health problem he gives (as always) a superb performance. Fothergill might in theory have been a spy but he has long ceased to care about politics, his only concerns being to survive and to ensure that the woman he loves survives.

Dietrich is at her best in what is a very sympathetic and vulnerable role. The chemistry between the two leads is terrific and their unlikely love seems completely believable.

This movie has apparently been released on DVD. I saw it on late-night Australian television. It was a decent enough print although I’m now tempted to get hold of the DVD.

A great love story with an epic sweep, and a beautifully filmed movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Naked City (1948)

The Naked City was one of the most influential crime movies in Hollywood history. Released in 1948 it more or less established the template for the police procedural. But is it a good movie? The answer to that, sadly, is no.

It’s also most definitely not a film noir although you’ll find it included on just about list of film noirs.

It’s a movie with a reputation that is based entirely on the way the material was handled rather than the actual plot. So we’ll get the plot out of the way first. At 1 am in New York a model named Jean Dexter is murdered. At first there are very few leads. There’s a middle-aged man called Henderson who appears to have been her lover (or perhaps more probably her sugar daddy). No trace of Henderson can be found. And there’s a guy named Frank Niles who certainly knew her. Everything Niles tells the police turns out to be a lie so despite having an apparently airtight alibi he becomes the focus of the investigation.

The movie than follows, in considerable detail, the painstaking process whereby the police finally track down the killer. There are no flights of inspiration involved - just lots of routine police work.

It was promoted as the first movie to be shot entirely on location with no studio shooting whatsoever. The claim is rather doubtful. There are several scenes that certainly look like studio interiors and there are a couple of fairly obvious process shots. Nonetheless it was filmed almost entirely on location in New York, and it was the first Hollywood movie that really made location shooting a big issue. The filming was fraught with problems - on several occasions the camera and camera operator had to be hidden in the back of a truck so as to avoid attracting crowds of curious onlookers.

The intention was to make a movie that would look like a documentary, so as well as shooting on location the decision was made not to use name actors (apart from the star Barry Fitzgerald). The actors were mostly either unknown at the time or actors who worked mainly on stage and who would therefore not be familiar to movie audiences. The idea was to give the impression that these were real people rather than actors.

It’s by no means necessarily a bad idea but in practice the results are disappointingly dull. What seemed innovative and fresh in 1948 now seems gimmicky and contrived. The acting is mostly terrible and has the effect of drawing attention to the artificiality of the production rather than making it seem more real. And Barry Fitzgerald may have been an Oscar-winning actor but he’s entirely wrong for the movie and his hammy performance is distracting.

Even more distracting is the voiceover narration by producer Mark Hellinger. It’s too intrusive and the attempts at sardonic humour quickly become tedious and annoying.

Director Jules Dassin does not (to my way of thinking) seem to have a clear idea of what he’s trying to achieve. The tone is jarringly uneven.

Dassin claimed that Universal re-edited the movie before its release and removed much of the political content. For that at least we can be thankful to Universal. Dassin always had a tendency to bludgeon the audience with his very simplistic political views.

It’s likely that most of what is good in this film is due to cinematographer William H. Daniels. There are some stunning outdoor sequences. There are also some impressive action sequences. Another claim that has been made for the film is that it was the first crime film to feature an extended chase sequence (in fact it feature two such sequences). It’s another dubious claim. Hitchcock was doing impressive chase sequences as early as 1935 (in The 39 Steps) and there's a memorable example in his 1942 movie Saboteur. Having said that, the chase scenes in The Naked City are extremely well done.

In fact the movie switches gears halfway through and the second half is somewhat stronger. Ironically this is mostly because the second half is closer to being a traditional crime thriller with elaborate visual set-pieces.

Anthony Mann's T-Men was made about the same time and is a much more successful attempt to give a pseudo-documentary feel to a crime thriller.

Madman’s Region 4 DVD looks terrific and includes a moderately interesting audio commentary but is shockingly overpriced.

The Naked City was certainly a highly influential movie and that’s really the only reason to see it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bhowani Junction (1956)

Bhowani Junction is a good example of classical Hollywood film-making in the declining days of the studio system, and a reminder that Hollywood in the 50s could still deliver the goods.

George Cukor directed this film about fractured identities and divided loyalties in India in the last days of the British Raj. The stars, Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner, both felt (with some justification) that MGM failed to take them seriously enough as actors and failed to give them opportunities to show what they could do. Bhowani Junction gives them the chance to do some real acting and they acquit themselves well.

Granger is Colonel Rodney Savage, a career British army officer struggling to do his duty without betraying his humanity. His assignment is a thankless one but he’s the kind of man who is always inclined to make the best of a bad job.

Gardner is Victoria Jones. She is also a British army officer, but her situation is very different. Her father was British, her mother Indian. The prospect of independence for India was a frightening one for Anglo-Indians who found themselves belonging nowhere and wanted by no-one. To the British they were an embarrassment while to many Indians they were an object of hatred.

Having always thought of herself as being essentially British she now tries to re-invent herself as an Indian. She had been expected to marry another Anglo-Indian, ambitious young railway official Patrick Taylor (Bill Travers) but now she is persuaded she should marry an Indian. That’s only one of many difficulties she faces. When a sleazy British officer tries to rape her she kills him, and agrees that the body should be hidden.

Colonel Savage is fully involved trying to keep the railways running and at the same time battling against both the moderate Congress Party who seek independence through passive resistance and communist terrorists who seek to achieve the same goal through violence. And at the same time he finds himself drawn to Victoria Jones. It takes him a while to admit to himself that his feelings for her go behind mere concern for a subordinate who has got herself into trouble. Without their really realising what is happening an emotional bond is forming that will develop into love. But can they possibly have any future together?

Almost all the characters in the movie are caught in some way. A situation is developing where the pressure to take sides is becoming inexorable but for many there is no easy choice. And almost all the characters in the movie are also being forced to examine their true identities, and again there is often no straightforward answer.

The movie tries to take a fairly even-handed approach. Some of the British are vicious and stupid while others are intelligent and compassionate. Some of the Indians are violent and ignorant while others are courageous and determined. Some of the Anglo-Indians are hopelessly deluded while others are doing their best to face the future. This even-handedness might annoy modern audiences who are accustomed to movies that show Europeans as always automatically in the wrong but Bhowani Junction is too intelligent a movie to make such simplistic judgments.

Stewart Granger gives a fine understated performance. He’s not a story-book noble hero but Colonel Savage is fundamentally a decent man doing his best. Victoria Jones however is the key character. Ava Gardner’s performance is crucial, and she does a superb job. Bil Travers is the weak link, tending to be rather too histrionic.

This was a big production for MGM with plenty of location shooting but it’s by no means movie that relies purely on spectacle. The writing, the directing and the acting of the two leads are all thoughtful and subtle. I caught this one on TCM but I’m tempted to grab it on DVD.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Road House (1948)

By 1947 Ida Lupino had grown tired of being in Bette Davis’s shadow at Warner Brothers and elected not to renew her contract with the studio. As a freelancer she still had mixed success in getting roles that interested her but in 1948 she leapt at the chance to play the female lead in Road House for Fox. The result was one of her best performances.

The movie had stated life as a treatment heavily influenced by James M. Cain. Darryl F. Zanuck hated it, regarding it as a sordid tale of unsympathetic losers, and insisted on major changes. The final screenplay was an intriguing mix of film noir and melodrama.

Jean Negulesco was to direct, with Lupino, Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark playing the three corners of a classic romantic triangle. Celeste Holm as the obligatory good girl rounded off the cast.

Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) manages an amazingly palatial road house near the Canadian border for his old buddy Jefty (Widmark). Jefty treats the road house as a kind of hobby combined with a means of attracting women. He hires the talent. He makes regular trips out of town and returns with a succession of female singers. The reactions of the staff lead us to believe that they have all been beautiful and that none of them have been overly talented, but the suspicion is that the last thing Jefty cares about is whether they can actually sing or not.

Jefty’s latest find is Lily (Lupino). Right from the start Jefty says that this one is different. And she is. She immediately makes it clear she isn’t going to be pushed about. She also rapidly establishes herself as the biggest attraction the road house has ever had. She admits she hasn’t got much of a voice, but she knows how to use it and she knows how to get an audience eating out of her hand. And Jefty’s reaction to his new chanteuse is different - he falls hopelessly in love with her. In fact he wants to marry her.

It hasn’t occurred to Jefty that Lily might not be interested in marrying him. For all his bravado about his conquests it is clear that Jefty knows little or nothing about women. And despite their initial heated clashes she soon finds herself falling for Pete. Jefty does not take this well. Not well at all. He comes up with a twisted method of gaining his revenge, a method that will have both Pete and Lily dancing to his tune.

If there’s a potential weakness to this movie it’s the way the characters of both Lily and Jefty change dramatically halfway through. But then Lily has never really been in love before, and Jefty has never really been seriously thwarted before. In the hands of lesser talents these sudden dramatic changes might have undone the movie but Lupino and Widmark carry it off fairly convincingly.

The three leads all do splendid jobs. Lily is set up to appear as the femme fatale but as the film progresses we realise that while she’s certainly hardboiled she isn’t destructive. At least no intentionally, although her arrival in town does create an explosive situation. Lupino did her own signing in this picture and while it’s not a big voice that she has she’s rather effective. It’s a voice that speaks of too much whiskey, too many cigarettes (Lupino literally smokes thousands of cigarettes during the course of this movie) and too many men. Lupino also gets the opportunity to show she could play a sexy glamour girl, and she does it extremely well.

Widmark gives one of his giggling psychopath performances but it’s also weirdly sympathetic. Jefty obviously has some major sexual and emotional issues. He’s really a little boy who has never had to grow up and he just isn’t equipped to deal with rejection.

The underrated Cornel Wilde also does a fine job. The important thing is that the attraction between Lily and Pete is totally believable.

The small town setting provides a useful atmosphere of claustrophobia. The town seems to consist of little more than the road house, one hotel and a railway station. In a big city Lily and Pete could easily disappear but in a small town there’s nowhere to hide.

The road house itself dominates the movie. It’s difficult to believe that such a one-horse town could support such a lavish venue but that’s the magic of Hollywood. The art direction is impressive. Also impressive is Lupino’s wardrobe - those ludicrously sexy shorts, her improved bathing costume and the slinky dress she wears for her performances are all delightful.

The Fox DVD includes an enthusiastic audio commentary by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan. Muller’s most interesting point was his theory that Jefty, despite his womanising reputation, is actually a virgin. The great thing about 1940s American movies is that the sexual aspects of the story can never be spelt out directly so there’s always a fascinating sexual ambiguity which woks particularly well in Road House.

Highly recommended.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The System (1964)

The System (later releases in the US as The Girl-Getters) is an odd British movie from 1964. Imagine a mix between an Annette Funicello beach party movie and one of those bleak British kitchen sink dramas from the early 60s but with a large dash of French New Wave influence thrown in as well and you start to get some idea of what this movie is like.

Director Michael Winner is nowadays about as far out of critical favour as it’s possible for a film-maker to be but don’t let that put you off. This is an exceptionally interesting movie. Plus it stars Oliver Reed, and he gives one of his best early performances. The strong supporting cast is a definite bonus as well.

The system of the title is a seduction system used by a group of young men to share out the women during the summer season at the seaside resort of Roxham. For the few brief months of the English summer tourists descend upon the town, including young women in large numbers. And those young women are naturally looking for holiday romances. The system makes sure the boys share the spoils evenly.

The de facto leader of this group is beachside photographer Stephen “Tinker” Taylor (Oliver Reed). As women arrive at the railway station he snaps their photographs. Then of course he has to find out where to end the photos, so the girls tell him where they’re staying. Tinker and his friends then divide them up (taking it in turns to have first choice) and set about seducing them.

Tinker is pretty pleased with his life. His job is undemanding and he gets plenty of sex. But this time one of the new female arrivals gets picked up at the station by her father in a sleek new Buick Riviera. Apparently if you were a young working class male in England in 1963 a Buick Riviera was pretty exciting. At first he’s not sure if he’s more attracted by the car or the girl. Soon it becomes all too obvious that it’s the girl.

Her name is Nicola. She’s rich and socially she’s way out of Tinker’s league. Girls like Nicola don’t marry shiftless beachside photographers. But Tinker doesn’t want to marry her, he just ants to get her into bed. And girls like Nicola have certainly been known to have holiday flings with good-looking woking-class studs. The only problem is that having slept with her he discovers that sex wasn’t all he wanted after all. Tinker is in love with her, in a serious way. Now he is not only face to face with the reality that women like Nicola don’t marry men like him, he is also forced to question his whole way of life. He thought he was cheerfully exploiting the vacationing women he took to his bed but perhaps he’d been the one who’d been taken for a ride all long.

Oliver Reed makes Tinker a complex and surprisingly sympathetic character, and he’s a character who gains in depth as the movie progresses and he discovers more and more disturbing things within himself. Things like feelings. Jane Merrow wasn’t the first choice for the role of Nicola (originally to have been played by Julie Christie) but she’s perfect. Nicola is no vulnerable innocent abroad - she’s as sexually experienced as Tinker and she’s equally happy to treat sex as merely another amusing recreational activity. At the same time she has, again like Tinker, always treated sex as a harmless game that could be played without anyone getting hurt.

A very young David Hemmings pops up as a new recruit to Tinker’s lecherous little band. Harry Andrews (as always) makes the most of his minor role as Tinker’s employer, a man as cynical in his own way as any of the beachside Lotharios.

In an interview at the time Winner talked about his movies as all being about failures at the point in their lives when their dreams are snatched away from them. That’s certainly true of Tinker who realises that everything he had believed about his life was no more than self-deception. He’s by no means the only lost character in the film. But unlike the British New Wave films of that era The System doesn’t wallow in misery and self-pity. There’s a brittle edge to it combined with a feeling of vague melancholy. Winner and scriptwriter Pete Draper don’t insist on torturing their characters to the point of destruction. There’s sadness but not necessarily hopelessness. Tinker probably won’t make much of his life but then again he might.

The film benefits from superb black-and-white cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, which also manages to avoid wallowing in excessive bleakness for bleakness’s sake.

There’s some brief nudity that caused the film major problems with the British censors back in 1964 although it was eventually passed. The whole tone of the movie was remarkably daring for a British film of that date with casual sex being treated in a matter-of-fact way.

Odeon’s all-region PAL DVD release does full justice to this neglected gem of British cinema.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Desert Fury (1947)

Desert Fury is a movie that once again raises the question of what makes a film noir. It takes place entirely in a small desert town and it’s in Technicolor, but this 1947 movie still has plenty of noir qualifications.

Two slightly sinister men are taking an extraordinary interest in a bridge on the outskirts of town when Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott) pulls up behind them in her car. They have to move their car to allow her to pass. A trivial incident, but the bridge will take on considerable significance later and so will this meeting.

Paula has been away and she’s entirely sure she’s pleased to be back. The first thing that happens to her is that two women who know her cut her dead in the street. And then there’s her mother to deal with.

Her mother, Fritzi (Mary Astor), runs the Purple Sage. It’s the local gambling joint. Fritzi is a somewhat larger-than-life character who is accustomed to getting her own way. Fritzi and Paula clash, and it’s obvious that these clashes have been going on for the whole of Paula’s life.

Paula is being wooed by the town’s deputy sheriff, Tom Hamson (Burt Lancaster). Tom’s a nice guy but Paula has fallen for one of the men she met by the bridge at the beginning of the movie. Eddie Bendix is no good. He’s a gangster. Paula knows he’s no good. But she finds him exciting. He spends a lot of time with his shirt of, which of course would be enough to turn any girl’s head.

Eddie is always accompanied by Johnny. They’re partners. Johnny is the junior partner but in some ways he’s the dominant one. He fusses over Eddie like a mother. Their relationship is obviously close and perhaps just a little pathological - not in a sexual sense but there’s clearly a good deal of mutual dependence. Johnny most definitely does not approve of Eddie’s interest in Paula. Paula’s mother doesn’t approve either. All of which makes Paula more determined to have her bad boy.

There’s also the mystery of Eddie’s wife, apparently killed in slightly suspicious circumstances. Her car crashed, at that bridge that we saw in the opening scenes.

This is one of those noir films that reverses the usual gender roles. Paula is basically a nice girl. She’s just a trifle rebellious and she has a weakness for sexy bad boys. Eddie functions in the femme fatale role in this movie. He’s sexy and bad and he threatens to lead our essentially virtuous heroine astray, and it’s sex that provides the temptation for her.

So what we have is an enjoyably trashy combination of film noir and 40s melodrama, with added sparkle added by some lively performances. Burt Lancaster is solid but (unusually) he’s overshadowed by the other players. John Hodiak is sexy and sinister as Eddie while Wendell Corey is wonderfully creepy and even more sinister as Johnny.

But this is really a women’s film and it’s the two female leads who really shine. Mary Astor is a delight as Fritzi - hardheaded and ruthless but in her own ay devoted to her daughter. She’s a strong character and Astor really goes to town. Lizabeth Scott is a terrific heroine driven by rebelliousness and lust. It’s a bit difficult to buy the 25-year-old Scott as a na├»ve 19-year-old but aside from that it’s impossible to fault her performance.

English-born director Lewis Allen keeps a firm grip on things and the Technicolor cinematography makes the desert setting both impressive and effective.

Sadly the Region 4 DVD has no extras at all but it looks great.

This is a rather overlooked movie that I have no hesitation in recommending.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Too Hot to Handle (1938)

Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon are competing newsreel cameramen in the breezy 1938 MGM romantic comedy Too Hot to Handle.

Neither Chris Hunter (Gable) nor Bill Dennis (Pidgeon) is overly troubled by ethical considerations. They’re in China covering the Sino-Japanese War and if there’s nothing newsworthy to film well then you just need to use a little creativity. Like filming bogus air raids using a model plane (one of Hunter’s stunts).

Bill has come up with an even better one. He’s all set to film the landing of Heroic Girl Pilot Alma Harding (Myrna Loy) who has undertaken a mercy flight to bring desperately needed cholera vaccine to the area. Only there isn’t any actual cholera vaccine nor is there any actual cholera outbreak. Chris’s attempts to upstage him by getting cloose-up footage of the landing go awry when his truck causes Alma’s plane to crash on landing. Chris might be a scoundrel but he’s no coward and he saves her from the wreckage of her burning aircraft.

He now has even more exciting footage than he expected but the film gets switched and his fakery is exposed. Even worse, Alma’s role in the scheme is revealed and she is disgraced and humiliated. This is too much for Chris and Bill - they might be less than entirely ethical but they hate the idea that they may have have inadvertently ruined her life. Especially when she’s trying to finance an expedition to South America to find her missing aviator brother.

They decide they’re going to make sure the expedition goes ahead but while they might be doing the decent thing by Alma that doesn’t mean they’re exactly reformed characters. They’ll still do anything for a story and the brave missing airman sounds like a promising one.

The newsreel background provides plenty of action and adventure which makes this one a little different from the usual run of 30s romantic comedies. There’s also some rather pointed satire at the expense of the news media.

Gable could do this sort of thing blind-folded so it’s no surprise that he’s perfect as an unprincipled but dashing news hound. Walter Pidgeon is splendid as well. Myrna Loy is cast as a bit of an innocent victim and so she doesn’t get quite enough opportunities to show her skill in trading wisecracks. But she does get to do the Heroic Girl Flyer thing and she’s still very good. Walter Connolly and Henry Kolker provide fine support as the rival newsreel chiefs.

Jack Conway handles the director’s job with his customary skill. The scrip was apparently based on the memoirs of a real-life newsreel cameraman.

Add plenty of sparkling dialogue and you have a very entertaining package. It’s also very politically incorrect, if that bothers you.

I caught this one on cable but I believe it has been released on DVD.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

The Roaring Twenties can be seen as a part of the Warner Brothers gangster cycle of the 1930s but it some ways it stands apart from that cycle, as a kind of summing-up of it.

Released in 1939, it has a faintly nostalgic tinge to it and there’s a hint of melancholy. The 20s were already a vanished age and while it had been in some ways an appalling decade it was equally an extraordinary and exciting one. You get a sense watching this movie that some of the vitality had disappeared from life with the end of the Jazz Age and the passing into history of Prohibition, speakeasies, flappers and easy money.

The impressive opening sequence takes us into a shell hole on the Western Front in the First World War where chance has thrown three American soldiers together in what is going to be a fateful meeting. With admirable conciseness the characters of the three men are revealed. Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) is feisty but likeable. Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) is virtuous but dull with just a dash of hypocrisy. George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) is self-centred and cruel. In modern therapy-speak we’d call him a psychopath.

The end of the war sees Eddie Bartlett trying to get his old job back, without success. In fact any kind of work is hard to come by for returning veterans. Finally his old pal Danny (Frank McHugh) suggests that since he can only drive his cab twelve hours a day Eddie could drive it for the other twelve hours. Soon chance again takes a hand in the story. Eddie is given a parcel to deliver. He is unaware that the parcel contains bootleg liquor. He is arrested and jailed, but then bailed by the woman he was delivering the package for. She is Panama Smith (Gladys George), she runs a speakeasy, and she provides his introduction to the world of bootlegging.

Success comes quickly to Eddie, at least as far as his criminal career is concerned. He’s not quite so lucky in love. Panama is in love with him but he doesn’t even realise it. He has fallen hard for Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), an aspiring singer. She had actually written to him during the war, it being a common practice for soldiers at the front to receive letters from women they’d never met. He’d met her at the end of the war only to realise she was still a schoolgirl. He’d beaten a hasty retreat but no their paths have crossed again. He’s in a position to guarantee her career as a singer and she’s happy to allow him to do so. Eddie convinces himself she is in love with him, but she has eyes only for Lloyd (who is now Eddie’s lawyer).

As the truth finally dawns on Eddie that Jean is never going to love him fate has even more unpleasant surprises in store. The stockmarket crash knocks the bottom out of the night-club industry and the repeal of Prohibition spells disaster for bootleggers who haven’t diversified their activities. George Hally has certainly done so and he continues to rise as Eddie hits the skids. The intertwining of the lives of the central characters is not finished yet however and Eddie may yet have a chance for redemption.

There are an extraordinary number of coincidences in the plot, in fact so many that this could easily be a disastrous flaw. It isn’t though, and that’s because director Raoul Walsh’s whole approach to the story has an epic quality to it. It’s like a myth from an age of legend, and myths don’t have to obey the rules of realistic story-telling. In a myth everything should be connected.

Walsh really does a superb job as director. The action sequences are among the best you’ll see in any movie from this era and they stand up extremely well today. Walsh’s sense of pacing is faultless This is a movie made by a great director at the top of his game. There are so many wonderful visual set-pieces in this movie.

Bogart was still struggling to break out of supporting roles and to escape the straitjacket of being typecast as a psycho heavy. This is a supporting role as a psycho heavy, but it’s a good one and Bogart is effectively chilling. The scene right at the beginning where he shoots a young German soldier just seconds before the armistice comes into force remains as disturbing today as it was in 1939.

Priscilla Lane seemed destined for major stardom at this time but it was not to be. In the 40s she got on Jack Warner’s bad side and that was the end of her career. It’s a pity - she’s excellent in this film, a rather ambiguous character who comes across as the sweet girl-next-door but she uses Eddie quite shamelessly. Gladys George is memorable as Panama.

And then there’s Cagney. Cagney played a lot of gangsters but was always able to find some new variation. He hated the idea of merely repeating himself and although he was anxious at this time to break away from gangster movies he took this role because it offered the opportunity to play a gangster who was very different from the cocky sociopath of The Public Enemy. Eddie Bartlett’s weakness as a mobster is that he’s basically a nice guy. While George Hally is totally untroubled by conscience Eddie has a deep-seated desire to do the right thing, a desire he can never shake. And he has a touching emotional vulnerability. Cagney gives one of his greatest performances.

There’s an unexpected degree of emotional depth to his movie. It was criticised at the time for being overly sentimental, a criticism that now seems unjust. In fact it strikes just the right balance. It’s a movie that, considering its subject matter, is surprisingly free of cynicism (which might be the reason that not everyone admires it).

The Region 1 DVD includes a host of extras and can be picked up very cheaply.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Sandpiper (1965)

In the 1960s Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the world’s most famous celebrity lovers, their stormy private life threatening to overshadow their reputations as actors. They made numerous movies together, most of which were regarded with a certain amount of scorn by critics. The Sandpiper, made in 1965, has a particularly poor reputation.

Elizabeth Taylor plays Laura Reynolds, a slightly eccentric unmarried bohemian artist raising her son Danny in a beach house in California. The son keeps getting into trouble, largely because she has raised him to regard rules and laws with contempt. Finally she is offered a stark choice - he can either be sent to reform school, or he can be sent to San Simeon School. This is an exclusive and very traditional Episcopalian boarding school, run by the eminently respectable Reverend Dr Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton).

Laura considers any kind of school to be a kind of prison but an Simeon at least sounds marginally preferable to reform school. The local judge pulls some strings to get the boy accepted and to have his tuition fees paid.

Danny finds San Simeon to be much less awful than he expected. In fact he quite likes it. Dr Hewitt takes his duties as headmaster very seriously and feels he needs to get to know Danny’s mother better. Purely for professional reasons of course. The fact that Danny’s mother is a ravishingly beautiful free spirit who does a spot of nude modeling for local bohemian artists has nothing to do with the interest that Dr Hewitt takes in her. At least that’s what he tells himself, and for a while he even believes it. Of course it isn’t very long before they end up sleeping together.

Dr Hewitt is a happily married man, or at least he was until Laura came along. Now he comes to question everything about his life. He and his wife Claire (Eva Marie Saint) had started out with such fine ambitions to live a Christian life and to dedicate themselves to the cause of educating the young but over the years they have learnt to compromise. Dr Hewitt has learnt how to ingratiate himself with the wealthy in order to get more money for his school. Now he feels he has found something pure and fine and noble. Although his wife is more inclined to think he’s just found a younger and sexier woman.

Now Dr Hewitt and Laura have to decide where their lives are going.

The plot is of course laughable. There are countless cringe-inducing moments (many provided by Charles Bronson as a bohemian artist). The whole bohemian proto-hippie free-love free-spirit thing is embarrassing. Much of the dialogue is outrageously over-ripe. This could easily have been a major cinematic train wreck. But despite its egregious faults it’s actually rather entertaining. The biggest mistake you can make with material like this is to try to approach it with subtlety. Luckily there’s no danger of Burton and Taylor making that mistake. Nor is there any danger that director Vincente Minnelli will make such an error - he had a real flair for melodrama and wasn’t the slightest bit afraid of going over-the-top. This is after all the guy who directed The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town. In some ways he’s an ideal director for a slice of Burrton-Taylor excess.

Minnelli is also a man who knows how to make attractive movies and he makes the most of the California locations.

I always get excited by movies featuring Richard Burton as a man of the cloth (movies like Night of the Iguana). Preachers tortured by lust were a bit of a Burton specialty. Taylor is delightfully camp. Laura is a total airhead but she’s a great deal of fun to watch. Poor Eva Marie Saint is left with the totally thankless role of the devoted and faithful wife and there’s really not much she can do with it.

The early 60s was a fascinating and neglected period of movie history. The Production Code was clearly becoming untenable and the studios were consciously trying to make more adult-oriented movies. The Sandpiper is one of the many movies of that period that tried to take a sophisticated modern approach to sex while still being careful not to go too far.

At the same time it was an era when Hollywood was trying to make big pictures and the combination of these two tendencies resulted in some strange but outrageously entertaining movies.

It’s probably fair to say that in order to enjoy The Sandpiper you have to be a fan of Burton and Taylor and you have to have a bit of a taste for 60s camp but if you do fall into those categories you should find plenty to enjoy here.

I saw this one on cable TV but it is available on DVD.