Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Richest Girl in the World (1934)

RKO’s 1934 offering The Richest Girl in the World might be lightweight romantic fluff, but it’s entertaining lightweight romantic fluff.

It’s the sort of movie that relies heavily on the personality of its stars to compensate for a rather thin plot. Luckily this one has a cast equal to the job.

Miriam Hopkins is Dorothy Hunter, and she’s the richest girl in the world. When her parents went down with The Titanic in 1912 the two-year-old Dorothy was left in possession of the vast and wealthy Hunter business empire. Now in her early 20s, Dorothy has been shielded from the world by her business managers by an ingenious method. Her secretary Sylvia Lockwood (Fay Wray) appears in public in the guise of Dorothy while Dorothy plays the role of Sylvia.

Dorothy has another reason for hiding behind an assumed identity. While she maintains a carefree slightly façade she is in fact a hopeless romantic. She wants love, and most importantly she wants to be loved for herself, not for her fortune. When she meets a man that she could develop serious feelings for she is able to test his love.

Tony Travers is a young good-looking and personable broker. He’s not poor but he’s certainly not even remotely in Dorothy’s league. He thinks the pretty young woman he has just met is Sylvia Lockwood. They hit it off together immediately, but he’s obviously also attracted to the girl he thinks is Dorothy Hunter. The real Dorothy encourages him to pursue the false Dorothy in order to find out if he is most strongly motivated by love or by money.

Unfortunately for the real Dorothy Tony’s pursuit of the fake Dorothy seems rather enthusiastic, and he is even contemplating proposing marriage. So will Tony turn out to be just another fortune-hunter, or will true love triumph?

The twists and turns of the plot are predictable enough but it’s executed with enough professionalism to remain entertaining. There’s also plenty of characteristic 1930s Hollywood glamour.

Miriam Hopkins and Fay Wray are both amusing and likeable. Joel McCrea plays Dorothy’s handsome suitor with breezy style. Between them the three leads have enough charm to carry this on enough without too much difficulty. The supporting cast is competent. There’s really not much to dislike here.

Director William A. Seiter and writer Norman Krasna both specialised in light comedy and they handle the material effortlessly. This is well-made escapist entertainment and if that’s what you’re after you can’t really go wrong with this movie.

I saw this one on Australian TV, and unfortunately the print that was used wasn’t that great. It doesn’t seem to have been released on DVD.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Plunder of the Sun (1953)

Plunder of the Sun is a movie I’d never even heard of until very recently, and it’s one that is definitely worth a look.

I love movies that have a film noir feel but combine that with exotic locations. If they’re vaguely tropical locations even better. And if they feature actual location shooting in those exotic locations, better still. Plunder of the Sun ticks all those boxes.

Glenn Ford is Al Colby, a somewhat mysterious American who accepts what seems like a fairly simple job. He is employed by antiquarian Thomas Berrien (Francis L. Sullivan) to carry a package from one Central American country to another. The job is unlikely to be strictly legal, but then we get the feeling that Al Colby isn’t overly bothered by such details. On the other hand he’s not an out-and-out crook. He makes it clear he won’t be involved in smuggling drugs. When he’s assured that the package is merely a manuscript, a manuscript of great archaeological significance (which is why its export is not exactly legal), he’s happy enough to oblige. The fact that he’s more or less penniless and is going to be well paid helps to relieve any pangs of conscience.

Of course it turns out not to be so simple. Other people know about this manuscript, people with fewer moral scruples than Al Colby. And Colby’s employer doesn’t inspire much confidence. And then there are the women. Two of them, both beautiful and glamorous, but they’re both up to something. And Jefferson (Sean McClory) is definitely up to no good and obviously wants that manuscript.

Colby is a pretty stubborn guy though and he’s not inclined to back down, plus he’s getting a dose of gold fever. Because that’s what it’s about - the manuscript is the key to a fabulous treasure of gold and silver from the ancient Zapotec civilisation of Mexico.

Colby is going to need help from someone who can translate the manuscript. That leads him to a somewhat unscrupulous archaeologist, Navarro. And it leads him back to Anna Luz (Patricia Medina) one of the femmes fatales he encountered on the steamer. She’s Navarro’s ward and is being pressured to marry his son.

Colby eventually finds himself as an unwilling partner of the even more unscrupulous Jefferson. Jefferson is involved in the antiquities trade as well but in truth he’s an out-and-out crook. And Jefferson has a really bad case of gold fever and has no intention of sharing the treasure with anyone.

This movie does have some problems. In fact it has one major problem, and that’s Jonathan Latimer’s script. David Dodge’s terrific novel of the same name combined hardboiled adventure with complex characteristics and interrelationships between characters. Latimer has kept the same basic cast of characters but he’s softened many of the minor characters and eliminated the really interesting relationships between them.

There’s no problem with simplifying a complex plot and stripping it down to make it merely an exciting adventure yarn but Latimer has done it in a very untidy way. He’s ended up with several characters who no longer serve any purpose in the narrative but they’re still there and now they only serve as entirely unnecessary and confusing distractions. They wander in and out of the movie but have no connection with the main characters or with the plot.

Luckily the movie has plenty of strengths to compensate for the weakness of the script. There’s some magnificent location shooting in Mexico, and director John Farrow doesn’t just throw in exotic locations for the sake of it. They play a vital role in the film. Cinematographer Jack Draper does a superb job and he and Farrow give the movie some wonderful film noir atmosphere. The entire movie was shot in Mexico, with the studio scenes being filmed in Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. The location shooting was done at a number of Zapotec and Mayan sites.

The movie’s other strength is the acting. Glenn Ford is what I’d call a minimalist actor. Most of the time you don’t even notice his acting, and it’s a style of acting that works very well in film noir. He also adds a dark edge to Al Colby which helps to compensate for the deficiencies of the screenplay. If Francis L. Sullivan as Berrien is the poor man’s Sidney Greenstreet then Diana Lynn as Julie is definitely the poor man’s Gloria Grahame. She’s good, but it’s unfortunate for her that Julie is one of the orphan characters who played an important role in the novel but serve no purpose in the movie. Sean McClory makes a splendid villain with his bleached blonde hair and bad attitude.

This was one of the first films made by John Wayne’s production company, at that time called Wayne-Fellows Production but later to become Batjac Productions. They had a distribution deal with Warner Brothers. They wanted Wayne to star but he quite rightly pointed out that he wasn’t suited for the role and recommended Glenn Ford instead (which turned out to be an excellent suggestion).

The Region 4 DVD comes, rather surprisingly, packed with extras. One of the most interesting features an archaeologist who relates the real Zapotec civilisation and the ancient sites featured in the movie to the movie itself. A clever and imaginative extra. It’s also a superb transfer.

Despite its flaws this is a very entertaining and visually impressive movie. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Love on a Pillow (1962)

Brigitte Bardot’s popularity in France was based mainly on the sexy romantic comedies she did in the late 50s and early 60s. By the 60s Bardot was taking on much more varied and more challenging roles in movies like Love on a Pillow, directed by her ex-husband Roger Vadim.

The English title is very unfortunate, giving the impression (undoubtedly intentional from a commercial point of view) that this is going to be a frothy romantic comedy. The original French title Le repos du guerrier would be more accurately translated as Repose of the Warrior and this gives the clue that this is in fact a psycho-sexual melodrama.

Bardot is Geneviève Le Theil, a young woman who has just inherited a vast fortune from her aunt. She’s also engaged to be married to a very pleasant and very decent young man and life for Geneviève seems to be a rather untroubled progress towards personal and marital happiness.

Then fate steps in, as it is wont to do (especially in the movies). On a trip necessitated by the probate of her aunt’s will she walk into the wrong hotel room. On the bed is a man, asleep. Only she quickly realises he isn’t asleep. He’s unconscious and barely alive. He has taken an overdose. She has foiled his suicide attempt and saved his life. Afterwards he jokes that his soul now belongs to her. But he seems to take it seriously, and she finds it impossible to get rid of him.

His name is Renaud Sarti. At first he seems charming in a quirky sort of way, and he is quite good-looking. He’s obviously keen to sleep with her and she’s not entirely verse to the idea and pretty soon they’re lovers. Their relationship is fun at first. She doesn’t even worry too much about his drinking or his irresponsibility. She is falling in love with him. He hangs around with an arty bohemian crowd and has vague pretensions to being creative although he’s never actually achieved anything or even attempted anything in any artistic field. In these circles wanting to be creative is just as good as the real thing. Actually doing anything would be hopelessly bourgeois.

Geneviève is basically a level-headed old-fashioned girl and she’s a little suspicious of these arty friends of his, although she is quite fond of the sculptor Katov (James Robertson Justice in a somewhat typical role for him). Katov is sympathetic. Although he likes Renaud he knows he’s really a spoilt child and will almost certainly make Geneviève unhappy.

Renaud’s behaviour becomes more and more obnoxious and unpredictable. He’s no longer fun. Now he’s gone all existential on her. He’s tortured by the loss of freedom that a permanent relationship entails. He feels trapped and angst-ridden, poor boy. To Renaud this is the stuff of tragedy although to anyone else it’s simply adolescent self-indulgence.

Things come to a head when he ostentatiously picks up a prostitute in front of Geneviève. This is the final straw, and she drives off and leaves him. Driving off was easy enough, but forgetting him is much more difficult. She’s in love, and for her that’s a serious matter. Also she’s not inclined to give up on things, not even on loser boyfriends. But will Renaud give up his precious freedom for love?

The movie is obviously trying to deal seriously with the social changes occurring throughout the western world in the late 50s and 60s. Freedom opposed to responsibility, free love opposed to marriage, etc. It’s unfortunate that Renaud is such an unsympathetic character but it’s not really a fatal weakness. It makes it easier for us to see things from Geneviève’s point of view, and it prevents the movie from taking a simplistic “freedom is always good and marriage is always oppressive” position.

The movie’s greatest strength is Bardot’s performance. She gives her character a nice mix of innocence and passion and makes her slightly old-fashioned view of love and marriage seem perfectly reasonable. While Renaud likes to view her as a typical woman who wants to take a man’s freedom away from him Bardot makes sure we never fall into the trap of accepting his jaundiced view. Geneviève becomes a sadder but wiser person but she is never going to allow life to get on top of her.

Writer-director Vadim has been widely regarded as a lightweight purveyor of mildly titillating fluff but this is a rather unfair judgment on a quite interesting if uneven film-maker. The Region 4 DVD is lacking in the extras department but looks terrific. A slightly offbeat movie that is definitely worth getting hold of. If you’re not already a Bardot fan this will give you a taste of the versatility of this underrated actress. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death is perhaps best-known as the movie that launched Richard Widmark’s career with his portrayal of the giggling psychopath Tommy Udo. This 1947 20th Century-Fox film noir does have a few other things going for it however.

The actual star is Victor Mature. He plays Nick Bianco, a markedly unsuccessful criminal who finds himself caught in a very awkward situation. The movie opens with Bianco being arrested after a failed jewellery heist. Of course this being a 1940s Hollywood movie it goes without saying that it isn’t his fault, poor guy. He didn’t want to rob the jewellery store. Society made him do it. He’s just a victim of the wickedness of the system.

Nick is really a devoted family man who would do absolutely anything for his wife and kids. Well, anything other than getting an honest job.

Poor Nick finds himself in prison, sharing a cell with a very disturbing young man named Tommy Udo. Tommy giggles a lot and loves to talk about his job. He’s a professional killer, and he enjoys his work. He enjoys it a lot.

The DA tries to persuade Nick to cooperate and to reveal the names of his accomplices in the failed jewellery story robbery. But Nick is proud of the fact that he ain’t no squealer. Nick is proud but dumb. But of course it’s not his fault. Did I mention that he was just a victim of society?

Everything changes for NIck when he receives some upsetting news while serving his sentence. His wife, having figured out what her future was going to be married to a loser like Nick, has put her head in the gas oven. Now Nick’s two children are orphans. Nick suddenly decides he wants to be a real father. To do this he needs to get out of prison. Nick now decides that maybe being a squealer isn’t so bad after all.

Of course his wife’s death isn’t all bad news. You see there’s this nice girl called Netty who used to look after Nick’s kids. She’s always had a crush on Nick. She’s young and very pretty. Pretty soon Nick and Netty are married and Nick’s first wife is well and truly forgotten.

Nick still has one big problem though. He’s been a very enthusiastic stool pigeon but now the DA insists that he give evidence in court against Tommy Udo on a murder rap. The DA assures him that the case against Udo is rock-solid, which is just as well because young Tommy is going to be very very annoyed with anyone who gave evidence against him. He has a reputation for going after the families of people who annoy him as well. But still, if the DA says the case is watertight what could possibly go wrong? You know what’s going to happen next.

Despite some tedious and heavy-handed political messages (which you expect from a Fox film with Darryl F. Zanuck running the studio) this is actually a pretty decent noir. The ending looks set to be an absolute cracker but the studio lost its nerve and sadly it’s badly compromised. There’s plenty of effective tension in the lad-up to the finale though.

Oddly enough the film’s biggest weakness is Widmark. Yes it’s a memorable performance, but it’s memorable for all the wrong reasons. It’s hopelessly overplayed and rapidly descends into self-parody. Widmark improved rapidly and a year later he gave a splendid performance in Road House. Tommy Udo is just too much of a one-note character.

Victor Mature on the other hand is superb. Against the odds he makes Nick both sympathetic and believable. He’s a very flawed hero, but hey this is film noir, flawed heroes are what it’s all about. Coleen Gray is quite good as Netty, who is presumably supposed to be the good girl heroine but Gray makes her a lightly conniving character which makes her a bit more interesting. Brian Donlevy as the DA gives good support. Watch out for a young Karl Malden as, yes you guessed it, a cop.

The Region 4 DVD unfortunately lacks extras but looks very good.

On the whole this is a fairly entertaining film noir with the very underrated Victor Mature’s performance lifting it above the average.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mogambo (1953)

John Ford’s 1953 Mogambo combines African adventure with a romantic triangle. It’s a movie that manages to be fun if you don’t take it too seriously.

It’s a remake of the 1932 pe-code classic Red Dust but it’s best not to think about that because a comparison between the two films is not at all favourable to Mogambo. Clark Gable is once more the male in the centre of the romantic triangle, as he was in the earlier film.

The setting has been transposed from South-East Asia to Africa and this time Gable is an animal trapper named Victor Marswell rather than a rubber plantation manager. He collects exotic wildlife for zoos. He enjoys the outdoor life but this idyllic existence is about to be thrown into turmoil by the arrival of two women.

The first to arrive is Ava Gardner. She plays Eloise Kelly, known to her friends as Honey Bear. She is the equivalent of the Jean Harlow character in Red Dust but while Harlow’s character was clearly a whore (and delightfully unembarrassed about it) Honey Bear’s occupation is more ambiguous, this being the 50s rather than the pre-code era. She’s obviously a good-time girl and she’s obviously going to be a somewhat disturbing influence. Marswell grumbles about the annoyance of having women on safari but the more he grumbles the more Honey Bear falls for his manly charms.

Things get more awkward when the second female arrives on the scene. This is Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly). The awkwardness comes from the fact that she arrives compete with husband but it’s clear that she’s just as susceptible to Gable’s manliness. And even worse, he’s equally vulnerable to her feminine charms.

Linda’s husband immediately falls ill with fever. She devotedly nurses him through it but she’s becoming more and more obsessed by the grizzled big game hunter Gable.

The problems with Mogambo have nothing to do with the cast. Gable might have been 52 when the picture was made but he’s still Clark Gable and it’s not the least bit difficult to understand why these two gorgeous women fall for him.

Ava Gardner is superb as the free-spirited but very likable Honey Bear. She wisely doesn’t try to emulate Jean Harlow’s performance. Grace Kelly has the most difficult of the three roles. Linda is repressed, awkward and shy and very uncomfortable about her sexual feelings for Marswell. With Gable and Gardner both playing larger-than-life characters and having a very good time doing so the danger is that Kelly will be overlooked. In fact she does a pretty good job.

The real problem seems to be that Ford wasn’t sure whether to put the focus on the adventure or on the romance and the steamy romantic triangle isn’t quite steamy enough. There’s also the problem that Gardner (who could certainly supply all the steaminess anyone could reasonably demand) is left on the sidelines of the action too much of the time. Whenever she’s allowed to take centre stage the movie gets a lot more interesting.

There’s some reasonably nice location shooting but it’s mixed with stock footage and studio shots. This could be seen as a weakness but actually it moves the movie a fun 50s feel. Ford’s slightly breathless travelogue approach to the material is also quite amusing.

I saw this one one on TCM but I believe it’s available on DVD. It’s the sort of movie you’d have expected to be in Cinemascope and had it been made a year or so later it almost certainly would have been. Not a great movie but still very enjoyable. Worth seeing just for Ava Gardner.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tread Softly Stranger (1958)

Tread Softly Stranger is a 1958 British crime thriller that seems to enjoy a fairly poor reputation. I have no idea why. It’s enormously entertaining. Yes, it is overheated and melodramatic verging on hysteria, but if like me you consider those qualities to be assets rather than liabilities you’ll enjoy this movie. Plus it has some very film noir qualities, and it has Diana Dors.

George Baker is Johnny Mansell, a gambler and man-about-town. Unfortunately he’s been on a major losing streak and he owes rather a lot of money and the people he owes it to are the sorts of people who tend to get rough when they’re owed money. Johnny decides it’s time to get out of London for a while.

He heads back to his home town, a grimy northern industrial city. It’s a depressing place but Johnny knows his way around there and he also has a brother there. Dave Mansell is not like his brother. He’s a hardworking sober sort of guy. Johnny has heard of work but doesn’t think he’d like it and he’s never been desperate enough to try it.

Dave has his own problems though. Well one problem really, his girlfriend Calico (Diana Dors). It’s not that Calico isn’t fun to be around. She’s lots of fun. And she’s gorgeous. But Calico likes pretty things. Pretty things that tend to expensive. Jewellery. Nice dresses. And she likes going out to clubs and restaurants. Keeping Calico in the style to which she’s accustomed isn’t easy when you earn 12 pounds a week as a book-keeper for a large steelworks.

Dave has found a solution to this difficulty. He’s been helping himself to the firm’s money. That’s a solution that turns out to be not quite such a clever idea when he discovers the auditors will be checking the books in a week’s time. And the books are not exactly in the sort of state you might wish them to be when the auditors call. Johnny likes his brother and offers to help him out. Johnny has a surefire answer to this ticklish problem. There’s a horse running on the weekend and it simply can’t lose.

Calico and Dave have come up with an alternative solution which is for Dave to rob the factory and steal the payroll. Johnny will need to come through with the money from the horse race in time to stop Dave from putting his hare-brained scheme into practice. The two brothers face another awkward problem. Calico and Johnny have fallen in love. Dave is a nice guy and all that but he’s a little on the dull side for a girl like Calico. Good-looking raffish gamblers are more her speed.

The plot is certainly very clichéd but film noir doesn’t require highly original or even plausible plotting. If a film noir has enough style that can be more than enough. And Tread Softly Stranger has plenty of style. It was photographed by Douglas Slocombe, a superb cinematographer. Everything in this movie is grimy, bleak and harsh. There’s not a ray of sunshine to be seen. Everything is old and rundown. It’s a perfect noir cityscape.

The acting is equally entertaining. I’ve always admired George Baker and he’s a fine noir hero, a likeable loser who drifts aimlessly through life enjoying himself but is not quite as clever as he thinks he is. Terence Morgan is extremely good as Dave, a man who is very different from Johnny but in his own way just as weak and just as likely to find himself shipwrecked by life.

And then there’s Diana Dors, surely one of the most underrated actresses in British film history. She’s a magnificent femme fatale. Calico isn’t evil. She’s actually not a bad person at all. But like Johnny she’s addicted to a lifestyle that is glamorous and expensive and she is determined to have that lifestyle no matter what the consequences. She destroys men no out of malice but because she can’t help herself. All three central characters are good-natured but fatally weak-willed. Dors gives a superb performance and she absolutely sizzles with sex. Calico gets the movie’s best lines. “I come from the slum, where it’s quite a step up, even to the pavement.” And “I discovered that my legs weren’t made just to stand on.”

Perhaps not a classic in a conventional sense but a thoroughly enjoyable movie with a nice mix of darkness with a dash of camp. The all-region DVD from Odeon’s Best of British range is highly recommended. A lovely transfer that does full justice to Slocombe’s cinematography.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

China Seas (1935)

Clark Gable and Jean Harlow were always a good combination and as a bonus MGM’s 1935 China Seas adds Wallace Beery, who had some wonderful comic chemistry with Harlow in Dinner At Eight. The result is one of Harlow’s most interesting movies.

Gable is the captain of a merchant ship plying its trade in the South China Sea in the 1930s. He’s ex-Royal Navy officer Alan Gaskell and he has a reputation as a bit of a martinet. OK, Gable as an Englishman is a bit of a stretch but this is Hollywood so it doesn’t really matter. Gable wisely makes no attempt at an English accent.

As his ship is about to leave Hong Kong he finds himself having to take on one last passenger, the notorious China Doll (Harlow). China Doll (her real name is Dolly Portland) and Captain Gaskell have been a bit of an item for quite some time. She’s crazy about him but she’s not exactly the sort of woman that a man in a respectable position would marry. This is post-Production Code so we’re not told how she earns her living but we’re certainly left to assume that she might well be a lady of easy virtue.

The captain’s position is complicated by the presence of another passenger, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell). Many years earlier Sybil had been the great love of Gaskell’s life but she married another man. Now her husband is dead and she is keen to rekindle her old romance with Gaskell. In fact she intends to finally marry him and he’s pretty sold on the idea as well.

As you might expect Dolly is not thrilled by this development and being of a somewhat excitable nature (to put things mildly) it’s obvious there’s going to be fireworks. Disreputable businessman Jamesy MacArdle has been pursuing Dolly for years and now that she’s been jilted by Gaskell she’s willing to give him a little encouragement. What she doesn’t yet know but is about to find out is that MacArdle is in league with pirates, they know the ship is carrying a large shipment of gold bullion and they have plans to get that gold.

The plot is by no means as unlikely as it sounds.The South China Sea really was infested by pirates in the 1930s, and in fact piracy was still rife in this region in more recent times.

This is a movie that combines the romantic comedy you expect in a Gable-Harlow vehicle with plenty of action and excitement. As well as the attack by pirates Captain Gaskell’s ship has to survive a typhoon. It also has some surprisingly dark moments. There’s a subplot involving another captain (played by Lewis Stone) who has been relieved of his command for cowardice and has signed on as third officer with the intention of seeking redemption. There’s also a rather graphic torture scene - I’m not sure how MGM got that one past the Production Code Authority.

Director Tay Garnett makes this combination of comedy, romance, drama, action and adventure work extremely well. The exotic atmosphere of intrigue and danger in the Mysterious East is captured superbly. It might be a Hollywood version of the East but it’s undeniably glamorous and exciting.

And there’s plenty of the famous MGM gloss in evidence. Harlow’s dresses are a highlight, blending glamour, exoticism and tackiness in equal measures. The strong cast certainly helps. Gable is more a conventional hero than in most of his 1930s roles but with enough of his trademark loveable rogue image to make the character interesting. Wallace Beery is in fine fettle and even Lewis Stone and C. Aubrey Smith (actors with a strong tendency towards pomposity) are entertaining in this movie. And Harlow gets to play a bad girl, always a bonus. She’s not quite a bad girl with a heart of gold, but she’s a sympathetic bad girl and she’s terrific.

I saw this one on TCM (and their print is truly excellent) but it’s available on DVD. It’s really a must-see movie if you’re a Harlow fan. Or a Gable fan. Actually it’s a must-see movie for anyone who likes Hollywood movies of the 30s. A hugely enjoyable movie that delivers the goods in every area.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

House of Bamboo (1955)

The first thing you need to remind yourself when watching House of Bamboo is that this is a Sam Fuller movie. So if you’re going to get all bent out of shape over things like incoherent or downright plotting then you should hit the Eject button straight away and watch something else.

While superficially this might seem like a straightforward crime film on closer viewing it’s as gloriously and deliriously crazed as his monumentally weird early 60s films like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. It’s difficult to justify regarding this one as a film noir but any Sam Fuller movie is going to be of interest to noir fans.

This was a fairly lavish 20th Century-Fox production that features generous use of Japanese locations. Made in 1954 it marked the beginning of Hollywood’s fascination with Japanese culture. It’s hard to think of any movie that makes better or more effective use of exotic locations than this one. It’s also difficult to think of any movie that uses the CInemascope screen to better effect. Combined with stunning colour cinematography the result is a visually spectacular film.

Fuller clearly loved traditional Japanese houses and used the rice-paper screens very cleverly to construct some wonderfully dramatic visual moments. The shot that introduces Robert Ryan is pure genius.

In any case, let’s look at the plot. Japan is still under US military occupation. A munitions train is robbed and a US Army sergeant is killed. This brings the case into the province of the US Army Military Police who are cooperating with the Japanese police in the investigation. One member of the gang is seriously wounded and later dies in hospital.

The gang behind the robbery is comprised entirely of Americans, all ex-GIs. The leader of the gang, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), runs their criminal operations like military campaigns. He controls most of the pachinko parlours in Tokyo but his real enthusiasm is for armed robberies. You have to overlook the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that a group of westerners, none of who apparently speaks Japanese, could possibly run such a successful criminal enterprise in such an insular society. And it’s even more unlikely that the yakuza would allow such a gang to operate. This brings us back to plotting and it’s really best not to think about this subject at all.

Meanwhile a scruffy American two-bit hoodlum has arrived in Tokyo. His name is Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) and he’s looking for an old army buddy who had married a Japanese woman. This old pal was in fact the member of the gang killed in the train robbery. He tracks down his buddy’s widow, a woman named Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi). Eddie is trying to set himself up in the protection racket, targeting the pachinko parlours, This brings him to the attention of Sandy Dawson, which was of course Eddie’s intention. Eddie is no hoodlum, he’s a US Army military policeman. Operating undercover is going to be a dangerous business but Mariko offers to move in with him and help him. She becomes what the gang members refer to as Eddie’s kimono, his woman. They don’t actually share a bed but it’s obvious that what started as a business arrangement is becoming a real emotional involvement.

Eddie has managed to gain a foothold in the gang and becomes something of a protégé of Sandy’s but he faces two major problems. Sandy has a strict rule that any gang member wounded in a robbery will be immediately killed. He doesn’t believe in allowing prisoners to fall into the hands of the police. The other problem is that Sandy is quite mad. It’s a quiet contained madness which makes it all the more disturbing. Sandy is the ultimate control freak. You know that if he ever explodes it’s going to be very very messy.

Much criticism of this film has centred on the supposedly homoerotic overtones of the Sandy-Eddie relationship. There’s certainly some subtext here and it’s reinforced by Robert Ryan’s intense but claustrophobic performance. Most of the relationships in the movie are problematic, the Eddie-Mariko romance because of almost insurmountable cultural obstacles and in fact of course all of the western characters in the movie are outsiders (often in multiple ways) and destined to remain so.

The scene in which Sandy angrily accuses Mariko of betraying Eddie could be read as demonstrating their romantic rivalry for Eddie’s affections. I don’t see it that way. To me it seems that Sandy has tried to create an artificial imaginary family, a family that he believes he can control completely. Sandy wants control, rather than sex or love. The homoerotic element may in fact be a red herring.

Not everyone likes Robert Stack’s performance but I think it works perfectly. He’s meant to be a blundering outsider and that’s how he comes across. His clumsiness and also makes the Eddie-Mariko romance rather poignant and emphasises the difficulty involved in crossing the cultural gulf between them. Robert Ryan was born to play roles like Sandy and gives one of his best and most subtly twisted performances.

The real reasons to see this movie though are for the gorgeous cinematography and the succession of superb and imaginative visual set-pieces that Fuller constructs. The climactic scene on the rooftop fairground is a tour-de-force of sheer cinematic style. The fact that it’s a children’s playground that he’s trapped in rather nicely mocks Sandy’s desperate desire for control.

And it’s a wonderfully entertaining movie whether it makes sense or not.

This is a movie that absolutely must be seen in the correct aspect ratio. Fortunately it’s available on both Region 1 and Region 2 DVD. The R2 DVD from Optimum looks terrific.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Unashamed (1932)

MGM’s Unashamed is a pre-code movie that is on one level very very dated indeed, but if you go beyond the obvious it does still have some interesting things to say about the difficult of putting morality into practice.

Joan Ogden (Helen Twelvetrees) is young, beautiful and about to come into three million dollars. She has everything anyone could possibly want, except common sense. She falls for Harry Swift (Monroe Owsley) hook, line and sinker.

Harry is a fortune hunter and he’s such an obvious one that it’s difficult to imagine that any woman could be taken in by him, but Joan is convinced he’s the man for her.

Not surprisingly both Joan’s father and her brother Dick (Robert Young) are aghast. Her father is absolutely determined that Harry will never marry his daughter but Harry has a plan. He persuades Joan to spend the night with him at a hotel. The idea is that Joan’s father will now insist that they marry in order to save Joan’s reputation.

The plan doesn’t quite turn out as expected. Joan’s father is still determined there will be no wedding and when Harry starts making threats to broadcast Joan’s shame publicly Dick promptly shoots him. The remainder of the movie is occupied by court-room scenes.

Dick’s lawyer wants to use the Unwritten Law defence, in other words he wants to convince the jury that it’s perfectly proper for a man to shoot someone who has disgraced his sister. Neither Dick nor Joan will cooperate. Dick goes all noble and insists that his sister must be kept out of the trial while Joan refuses to forgive Dick for shooting her man.

The most interesting thing about the movie is that the audience is clearly expected to feel that Harry was such a scoundrel and Dick such a noble self-sacrificing brother that the defence is justified in using absolutely any means to get him off. Including perjury and various assorted acts of legal chicanery.

Of course Monroe Owsley was the kind of actor who specialised in playing rotters and no-good wastrels and he plays Harry with such arrogant oiliness that it’s difficult not to agree that someone should have shot him.

The weakness of the movie is the character of Joan. It’s not that Helen Twelvetrees is a bad actress but the character is simply so willfully naïve and so annoyingly stubborn that one might well end up wishing someone would shoot her as well. Robert Young is an actor I always found unconvincing and this role is no exception. Lewis Stone on the other hand is, as always, irritatingly self-righteous,

While the idea that a woman’s honour should be defended if necessary with firearms certainly dates the movie it does confront some pertinent questions about moral choices. Harry Swift is no loveable rogue and there’s no doubt whatever that he is going to comprehensively wreck Joan’s life and leave her miserable after he’s gone through all her money. Shooting him may have been an over-reaction but leaving aside old-fashioned notions of honour Dick certainly had cause to believe he was saving his sister from having her life ruined.

There’s also the question as to just how far it is justifiable to go in order to save someone we care about from going to the electric chair.

I’m no fan of lengthy court-room scenes but the ones in this movie are fairly well-executed.

Not a great movie but moderately interesting. As far as I know it’s never been released on DVD.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Girl Hunters (1963)

If you’re a writer and you’ve created an iconic fictional character and your works have been turned into movies then you’ve probably experienced the frustration of seeing your character portrayed on the screen in a way that seems to you to be just wrong. There is of course a solution to this. Play the character yourself. It’s something that has very rarely been done, but it’s exactly what Mickey Spillane did in the 1963 adaptation of his Mike Hammer novel The Girl Hunters.

The result is better than you might expect. Spillane also wrote the screenplay so this is as close as you’ll ever get to seeing a movie that is absolutely the author’s vision of a character translated to the screen.

As the movie opens we see that private eye Mike Hammer has fallen as far as ay man can fall. A case went badly wrong and his secretary Velda disappeared, presumably murdered. Velda was more than just a secretary. She held a private investigator’s licence in her own right and assisted on cases in an active way. She was also a friend. And Hammer was in love with her. With Velda gone Hammer could only se one way out - to crawl inside a bottle and stay there.

He is lying drunk in the gutter when the police pick him up. A shooting victim claims to have important information, information that may help to solve the murder of a senator, but he won’t give this information to anyone but Mike Hammer. Police captain Pat Chambers isn’t happy about this but he has no choice other than to bring Mike Hammer to the dying man’s bedside. Pat and Mike used to close friends but Pat blames Mike for Velda’s death and now he hates Mike Hammer.

Another party interested in what the dying man has to say is FBI agent Rickerby (Lloyd Nolan), and his interest is personal as well a professional. In fact it’s mostly personal.

The dying man’s last words have a galvanising effect on Mike Hammer. It appears that Velda may still be alive; in fact she most probably is still alive. That mans that Mike has taken his last drink. Now he once more has a reason to live. He has to find Velda, and he has to find the people responsible for her disappearance. With Rickerby’s help he gets out of the drunk tank and gets his PI licence back. He can now carry a gun, and he can pursue the case in his own individualistic way.

The investigation leads Mike Hammer to the senator’s widow. Laura Knapp (Shirley Eaton) is young, glamorous and very very blonde. Mike may have been in love with Velda but that doesn’t mean he can’t take an interest in young glamorous blondes. And he takes a very keen interest in Mrs Knapp. Mrs Knapp obviously takes an interest in hardboiled private eyes so they have at least enough of a common interest to make it worthwhile going to bed together.

Hammer is also following up a cryptic comment made by the dying man about The Dragon. This clue leads back to the war years, to an espionage ring run by the Soviets, and surprisingly it ties in with Velda. Mike hadn’t realised she’d worked in intelligence during the war and had been involved in investigating this particular spy ring, which happens to be still active. Communists aren’t Mike’s favourite people at the best of times and when they mess with Velda he likes then even less.

Spillane is no great shakes as an actor but he does a reasonable job. He was a big beefy guy so he certainly looks the part, and he can be convincingly seedy and does the tough guy schtick pretty well. Lloyd Nolan is reliable in these kinds of roles and Shirley Eaton is a terrific femme fatale.

Director Roy Rowland had a good touch with hardboiled movies,including the excellent Rogue Cop with Robert Taylor and he handles proceedings skillfully enough. All in all it’s an entertaining private eye thriller with a Cold War background and it’s worth a look.