Monday, October 31, 2011

Lonely Wives (1931)

Lonely Wives is a movie that I discovered in one of those Mill Creek sets of public domain movies but don’t be put off by that. It’s actually a rather outrageous little pre-code sex farce.

Edward Everett Horton is a familiar face to classic movie fans but he’s mostly known for his comic relief supporting performances. Lonely Wives gave him a rare opportunity for a starring role and it’s an opportunity he grabs with both hands.

Horton plays two roles, and this being classic farce much of the humour will come from the resulting instances of mistaken identity.

Lonely Wives (1931)

Richard ‘Dickie’ Smith (Horton) is a successful lawyer who is the soul of probity and clean living, devoted to his work. Until 8 o’clock each evening. At that hour we’re told he “blooms.” His mother-in-law Mrs Mantel tries to keep him on a short leash, especially at the moment when his wife is out of town. When he “blooms” he develops a taste for feminine company, not always of the most respectable kind.

The arrival of a new secretary will be the first temptation put in his way. Minty Minter (Patsy Ruth Miller) is the sort of girl that Smith’s mother-in-law strongly disapproves of. She particularly disapproves of the way Minty walks. When we see Minty walking we can see that she has a point. It’s the sort of walk that is conducive to unclean thoughts.

Lonely Wives (1931)

Minty sees an opportunity for her friend Diane O’Dare (Laura La Plante) to get the divorce she’s after, probably at no cost. Well no financial cost anyway. When Richard Smith blooms he is unlikely to be able to resist Diane’s charms. Diane wants a divorce because her husband goes out most evenings. If he went out every evening she wouldn’t be concerned, but it’s the uncertainty she objects to. Such unpredictability can be inconvenient for a high-spirited girl like Diane. It can disrupt her social life.

With the chance of having a night on the town with not one but two attractive young ladies Smith is understandably anxious to slip way for the evening. But how to evade that mother-in-law? Then a piece of good fortune comes his way. A vaudeville entertainer known as Felix the Great Zero, whose act is based on impersonations of prominent people, wants to incorporate an impersonation of Smith into his act. This entertainer (also played by Horton) does in fact bear a striking resemblance to the lawyer. Smith agrees to Felix’s proposal on the condition that Felix take his place in his home that evening, so that his mother-in-law won’t realise he’s slipped out.

Lonely Wives (1931)

Of course it all soon becomes hopelessly complicated, especially when Smith’s wife arrives home unexpectedly while Felix’s wife also become involved (and unfortunately for Smith he isn’t aware of the identity of Felix’s wife). Everyone seems to be getting mixed up with the wrong husband or the wrong wife. Most confused of all is Smith’s butler, whose permanent state of intoxication does nothing to clarify matters.

Maude Eburne as Mrs Mantel is extremely irritating but the other supporting players are generally very good. What really matters is that Edward Everett Horton is in scintillating form and is good enough to make this a delightful entertainment.

Lonely Wives (1931)

The dialogue is exceptionally risque. There’s scarcely a line or a situation that doesn’t have a sexual connotation. Most importantly, it’s both naughty and funny. It’s all great fun.

Print quality is more or less what you expect from Mill Creek but it’s quite watchable.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Decoy (1946)

Decoy is an outrageous film noir potboiler that truly has to be seen to be believed.

It has the basic noir trademarks - the flashback, the femme fatale, the basically decent hero led astray by the aforementioned femme fatale, the atmosphere of seediness and despair. What it does with those ingredients is something else, something that explodes the boundaries of the genre. The result is not a great movie, not even a particularly good movie by conventional standards, but certainly a memorable one.

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) has a problem. Her boyfriend is bank robber Frank Olins. He has $400,000 from his last robbery stashed away somewhere but he won’t tell anyone where. And he’s on Death Row after killing a bank guard. He wanted the money so they could have a life together but if he’s going to die he doesn’t want to take the chance that someone else will get his money and his girl. So he’s decided the whereabouts of the loot will die with him.

Decoy (1946)

Margot and her other boyfriend, Jim Vincent, need to come up with a plan. The traditional solution would be to try to break him out of prison but they have a much better scheme than that. They’ve discovered there’s a drug called Methylene Blue that is an antidote to cyanide poisoning. And cyanide is the gas used in executions in the state of California. All they need to do is to get hold of Frank’s body after the execution, administer the antidote and then fool the revived bank robber into telling them where the money is.

To do this they’ll need the assistance of the prison doctor, Dr Lloyd Craig. That shouldn’t be a problem. He’s a man, and Margot can get any man dancing to her tune. So the plan seems fool-proof. Trouble is, Frank is a very suspicious guy so all he’ll agree to do is to draw her a map, and then give her half the map while keeping the other half himself. Frank is right to be suspicious but he has no idea just how ruthless Margot is. She’s not into the concept of sharing. Not at all. And if people get in her way she kills them.

Decoy (1946)

OK, so the first thing you’re probably thinking is, hang on, an antidote to cyanide poisoning is all very well but if the guy has been executed then he’s dead. This has got to be a real heavy-duty antidote if it works on dead people. This would be a flaw in most films but this one solves the problem by simply ignoring it. Everyone in the movie simply takes it for granted that reviving dead people is no big deal. It’s a breath-taking piece of effrontery but somehow this movie gets away with it.

The outrageousness of this movie doesn’t stop there. By the standards of Hollywood in 1946 this is a seriously violent, seriously sleazy film. How they managed to get so much casual violence past the Production Code Authority remains a mystery. An even bigger mystery is how they managed to get away with one particular scene, one of the most vicious and sadistic slayings you’ll see in any movie.

Decoy (1946)

Margot is not just a femme fatale. She is the ultimate femme fatale. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Jean Gillie’s performance is extraordinary in its intensity. It’s not great acting but you certainly won’t forget it in a hurry.

Mind you, none of the characters have any redeeming qualities. Even the doctor isn’t really troubled by his conscience until he figures out he’s been double-crossed. The tone of this movie is unremittingly cynical.

Decoy (1946)

For a Monogram production it’s reasonably professional. It doesn’t have the technical sloppiness you often associate with Poverty Row productions. It looks cheap but not excessively so and the cheapness adds effectively to the dinginess and atmosphere of moral squalor.

There’s a delightfully hysterical tone to this sordid tale. It’s a bizarre viewing experience but one not to be missed.

Decoy (1946)

The Warner Home Video DVD looks sensational and includes a very very brief documentary on the film plus a moderately informative commentary track.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stagecoach (1939)

In 1939 the western had been a staple of Hollywood filmmaking for two decades but it was a genre that was not taken very seriously. Westerns were low-budget potboilers cranked out mainly by Poverty Row studios. John Ford’s Stagecoach changed all that. It ushered in the epic western, westerns made as A-pictures featuring major stars and made by the top talents at the big studios.

It’s worth noting that it was not the only significant western to appear in 1939. Cecil B. DeMoIle's Union Pacific would also adopt an epic approach, and while George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again took a satirical view of the genre it was definitely a major step in the development of the western as something more than just horse operas.

Stagecoach (1939)

But it was Stagecoach that defined the new style of western. John Ford had discovered two essential ingredients that were to become trademarks of his westerns and major icons of the genre - Monument Valley as the quintessential western location and John Wayne as the quintessential western star.

The plot is simple enough. A stagecoach has to run the gauntlet of hostile Apaches while the nine passengers and crew slowly reveal the depth, or in some cases the lack of depth, of their characters. One of the passengers is the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and the journey has particular significance for him. He has broken out of prison and when he reaches his destination he will have to confront the three brothers who killed his father and his own brother. Since they’re tough hombres and he’s really just a goodnatured cowboy the probability is that this is for him a journey to his own death. At least the assumption of everyone else is that he hasn’t got a chance.

Stagecoach (1939)

If you focus on the story then you could easily conclude that Stagecoach is really nothing special. It’s somewhat corny, it’s sentimental, the characters are stock types, the social commentary is heavy-handed and obvious (the social outcasts turn out to be more virtuous than the respectable types). None of that matters. What matters is Ford’s very serious approach to this material. He treats it as the stuff of epic. He gives it a grandeur that makes it work on that level, that forces the viewer to take it as seriously as the director did.

Ford had a good cast to work with and he got the best from them. While the characters may have been stock types that in some ways adds to the epic feel. We don’t expect the heroes of myth to be fully rounded characters. That would get in the way of the myth. And the performances are memorable. There’s a chilling moment when the aristocratic southern gambler played by John Carradine shows that he really does takes his code of chivalry as seriously as he claims to, and while we’re horrified by what he’s about to do it has to be admitted that it forces us to take the character as seriously as he takes himself.

Stagecoach (1939)

Ford was a Catholic and the theme of redemption is central to the film. And there are three characters in particular need of redemption. There’s the alcoholic doctor (a role that won Thomas Mitchell an Oscar). Secondly there’s the whore, played by Claire Trevor, who manages to persuade us to believe she really is a whore with a heart of gold.

And then there’s the Ringo Kid. This is the role that made John Wayne a star. Prior to this he was regarded as a very lightweight B-western actor. This movie was not just the making of him as a star, but as an actor as well. Ford believed in him and cast him over the strong objections of producer Walter Wanger, and Wayne repaid the director’s faith handsomely. I find myself admiring John Wayne as an actor more and more. In our modern age which regards serious acting as something that should look as tortured and as difficult as possible the quiet authority of Wayne may not seem like real acting but in fact it’s far more effective than the contrived histrionics of today’s stars.

Stagecoach (1939)

In this film Ford also provided an object lesson in how to shoot an action sequence. The extended chase sequence with the stagecoach being pursued by an Apache war party is a template for just about every similar scene in every subsequent movie but while it’s been copied countless times it’s rarely been surpassed. Ford also provides a lesson in pacing and structure, with character-driven scenes and action scenes in perfect balance. Orson Welles believed that you could learn everything you needed to know about filmmaking from watching Stagecoach and he was probably right.

The first of John Ford’s great westerns, a movie with a huge reputation that lives up to that reputation.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Egyptian (1954)

A 1950s Hollywood epic set in ancient Egypt and starring Victor Mature, Gene Tierney and Jean Simmons - now that has to be fun. And The Egyptian does not disappoint.

The Egyptian of the title is a doctor named Sinuhe (played by Edmund Purdom). We see him at the beginning of the film as an old man in exile and his story is told in flashback. He was once young and idealistic, burning with a desire to bring the benefits of modern medicine (and in the 14th century BC Egyptian medicine was most definitely at the cutting edge) to the poor. His father is a doctor as well, but he’s not his real father. As a baby Sinuhe was found floating in the Nile in a small reed basket, this being a common method of disposing of unwanted babies.

Sinuhe has an unlikely friend, a rambunctious but good-natured brawler named Horemheb (Victor Mature). Horemheb’s fondest ambition is to serve in Pharaoh’s Guard but since he is merely the son of a humble cheese-maker this ambition seems unlikely to be fulfilled.

Then fate steps in. Sinuhe and Horemheb are hunting lions in their chariot when they come across what appears to be a crazed holy man. They save this unfortunate from becoming dinner for a hungry lion.

It turns out the man really is a crazed holy man, but he also happens to be the pharaoh, the notorious Akhenaten. In saving him they laid hands on him, which is a capital offence. Luckily Akhenaten takes a dim view of hallowed traditions and he not only allows them to live, he rewards them. Horemheb will indeed serve in Pharaoh’s Guard, while Sinuhe will become part-time official physician to Pharaoh’s family.

Fate however is about to step in again, in the form of a woman. Nefer is beautiful and glamorous and Sinuhe is captivated by her. He will do anything for her. Sinuhe’s judgment is very poor when it comes to women. He has a nice girl, Merit (Jean Simmons), who is crazy about him but he is obsessed by Nefer. Nefer is a courtesan but she is also a very dangerous woman who enjoys seducing and corrupting innocent young men.

And Sinuhe is well and truly corrupted. His parents will pay the price for his fatal obsession and Sinuhe himself will be reduced to despair and forced to flee Egypt.

Sinuhe travels the known world and his fame as a physician grows. He is on a quest for redemption and slowly he is rebuilding his life and his self-respect. But fate is not yet finished wit him. It will lead him back to Egypt, and his life will once more be entwined with the lives of Horemheb, Merit and Akhenaten. Akhenaten’s religious innovations and his mystical belief in the virtues of turning the other cheek will lead Egypt to the brink of ruin and Sinuhe will be faced with a terrible dilemma.

It’s all outrageously melodramatic and very camp, just as you’d expect from a 1954 Hollywood costume epic, but this movie has some surprising features. The moral dilemmas are real and they’re complex. Sinuhe is basically a good man but with serious moral weaknesses. Akhenaten is almost saintly but he is also a catastrophically bad ruler. Horemheb proves to be very ambitious indeed but his ambitions lead him on a path that will prove to be Egypt’s salvation. And Akhenaten’s sister Baketamon (Gene Tierney) is also motivated both by personal ambition and a desire to save her country from destruction.

The most morally challenged characters end up doing the most good while the most virtuous characters do an immense amount of mischief. Ruling a kingdom and conducting international relations require common sense and hard-headedness more than they require goodness. This kind of moral ambiguity is very unexpected in this type of movie.

Equally surprising is the very open and non-judgmental treatment of the issue of the illegitimate son of Sinuhe and Merit.

The acting tends towards the melodramatic, but that goes with the territory. Edmund Purdom is rather on the dull side. Victor Mature is enormous fun. Gene Tierney isn’t given enough to do but she does have a few great scenes and her performance is on balance the best of any of the cast members. Michael Wilding is annoyingly other-worldly and mystically woolly-headed but it’s a performance that suits the character. Jean Simmons is solid as always and even Peter Ustinov (as Sinuhe’s dishonest but faithful servant) is less irritating than usual.

Needless to say it’s visually impressive although the use of process shots and matte paintings is very obvious. Personally I don’t mind that - I think the obvious artificiality works in the movie’s favour, making it a kind of fable.

And the very idea of making a movie about the infamous heretic pharaoh is incredibly cool. Akhenaten’s religious reforms did not survive him but they’re extremely interesting. He was in effect trying to replace the established religion of the country with a new monotheistic faith. Had he succeeded he’d be known as one of the great religious leaders of history.

The Egyptian is a strange mix of melodrama and profundity and while it’s an uneasy mix it makes for one of the more intriguing Hollywood movies of the 50s. And it’s wonderfully entertaining. It’s unusual enough to qualify as a must-see movie in its own eccentric way.

Bounty’s Region 4 DVD lacks extras but it’s a lovely transfer and it’s in the proper Cinemascope aspect ratio.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Any movies that Howard Hughes was involved with tended to have troubled production histories, and such was the case with his 1930 First World War aerial epic Hell’s Angels.

It wasn’t entirely his fault. He started shooting it as a silent film then when it became obvious that talkies were the wave of the future he reshot it as a sound film. That decision made a very expensive movie even more expensive but money was never a consideration for Hughes. Hughes produced and also got the director’s credit although in fact no less than three directors had a hand in this production, including James Whale (soon to become much better known as the director of Frankenstein.

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Hughes wasn’t overly interested in the plot or the characters. For him it was all about the action sequences. Unfortunately far too much time is spent in the first half of the movie on rather aimless scenes that are meant to introduce the characters. The script and the acting are so weak that despite all this effort the characters remain cardboard cut-outs. Once the aerial sequences kick in though the movie goes into high gear.

English brothers Roy and Monte Rutledge and a young German named Karl meet at Oxford shortly before the outbreak of war. They decide to holiday in Germany. Monte, the younger brother, spends most of his time chasing the local female population. Perhaps unwisely he includes among his conquests the wife of a high-ranking Prussian officer. The officer promptly challenges him to a duel. Monte is horrified that there are people who still take adultery so seriously. He has no intention of going through with the duel. He packs his bags and flees back to England, wile Roy fights the duel for him (and surprisingly enough survives).

Hell’s Angels (1930)

This sets up the characters of the two brothers. Monte is irresponsible, selfish and cowardly, although also charming. Roy is high-minded, noble and courageous, although he’s also something of a prig. Roy is in love with a girl named Helen (Jean Harlow). He thinks she’s the sweetest and most virtuous girl in existence. Unfortunately his touching faith in her is sadly misplaced. Helen is a good time gal. Once Monte gets to meet her he realises this immediately. She invites him back to her flat, where she delivers her famous line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” No prizes for guessing what happens next.

War breaks out and of course Roy enlists immediately, in the Royal Flying Corps. Monte has no intention of enlisting but is tricked into it. Meanwhile Karl has been called up for service with the German military.

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Karl ends up as an observer in a zeppelin. This is a rather alarming occupation which involves sitting in a small one-man gondola which is lowered from the zeppelin, presumably so the zeppelin can remain above the clouds while the observer aims the bombs from below the cloud cover. This sets up the highlight of the movie - the zeppelin raid. This is a visual tour-de-force. It’s not just stunning by the standards of 1930 - it remains one of the most extraordinary action sequences ever put on film.

Hughes follows this up with another extended action sequence that is just as impressive as Roy and Monte volunteer to fly a captured German bomber to bomb a munitions dump. This represents the only way to to give a forthcoming British attack any chance of success. The downside is, once they’ve bombed the target every German fighter aircraft on the front will be after them, and if they’re captured they will be shot as spies (and quite rightly so - it would have been a very dishonourable action indeed, something the movie glosses over rather glibly). Their own fighters will try to protect them, and the resulting aerial battle scenes are spectacular. Three men were killed during the filming of these scenes.

Hell’s Angels (1930)

This movie has many problems. The pacing for the first hour is glacial. The script is weak. The characters ate stereotypes, and they’re not colourful stereotypes they’re dull stereotypes. The acting is atrocious. James Hall as Roy and Ben Lyon as Monte are truly awful. Jean Harlow would become a wonderful actress but this was her first significant role. She was still a teenager and her inexperience is all too obvious. On the other hand she is certainly sexy. Her performance is very uneven and at times rather bad there are occasional flashes of the brilliance that was to come.

The movie features a ten-minute sequence filmed in the early two-strip Technicolor process. As was always the case with this early version of Technicolor the colours don’t look quite right. In a movie like Mystery of the Wax Museum this was an asset, adding an eerie atmosphere. It’s less successful here, but it is the only chance you’ll ever have to see Jean Harlow in colour.

Hell’s Angels (1930)

There are several other scenes (including the zeppelin raid) that are tinted, a practice that was common in the silent era but very unusual in a sound picture.

There are some pre-code moments although the movie’s pre-code status is indicated mostly in the fairly graphic nature of some of the aerial combat scenes. It’s often forgotten that the Code cracked down just as hard on graphic violence as it did on sexual content.

The Region 4 DVD from Bounty is the print restored by UCLA Film School and it looks splendid.

All in all this movie is a very mixed bag. In many ways it’s a very bad movie. On the other hand if you love aircraft, zeppelins and Jean Harlow then it’s definitely worth a look. And what right-thinking person doesn’t love aircraft, zeppelins and Jean Harlow?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Crime Wave (1954)

Crime Wave is a movie that had been largely forgotten until fairly recently. This 1954 Warner Brothers production blends film noir themes with a partly documentary feel. This was a combination that was often attempted, but very rarely as successfully as this.

The story of how the movie came to be made as it was is in itself the stuff of legend. It was to have been a relatively prestigious A-picture with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner lined up to star, and with a generous 35-day shooting schedule. That was until director André de Toth informed Jack Warner he didn’t want Hollywood’s biggest star for the lead, he didn’t want any stars, he wanted Sterling Hayden. Warner decided the director was mad and told him he could forget the big budget and the 35-day shooting schedule. He’d have to do it as a cheap B-picture on a 15-day schedule. Which according to de Toth was what he wanted all along. And he proceeded to complete the picture in just 13 days.

Which was an extraordinary achievement given the amount of location shooting involved.

Crime Wave (1954)

The locations are one of the highlights. The result was one of the most realistic looking crime films of the 50s.

The plot is pretty basic, but what’s impressive is what de Toth does with it. We’re straight into the action right from the first minute, with a bungled gas station robbery. One of the three robbers is shot and wounded, a cop is killed, and all for $130. The wounded hoodlum, Morgan (Nedrick Young) makes his way to the home of a guy he was in St Quentin with.

Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) has gone straight. He has a good job as an aircraft engineer, he has a beautiful wife, and they have an apartment. It’s not a luxury apartment but it’s OK and it’s theirs and they’re happy. Now Steve will find that staying on the straight and narrow isn’t so easy.

It’s bad enough having a hoodlum turn up on their doorstep, but things get a whole lot worse when Morgan proceeds to die in their living room. Steve Lacey knows he should call the police but he decides to call his parole officer first. It’s too late. The cops have already arrived at his apartment.

Heading the investigation is Detective-Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden). Sims doesn’t like ex-cons and doesn’t have any sympathy for them. He’s chasing a cop killer and he’s not about to worry about whether poor Steve Lacey really has gone straight and really is just an innocent caught up in this whole mess. He’s also quite happy to lean on Dr Otto Hessler, a doctor who was struck off years ago and now makes a living as a vet and patching up criminals. Hessler is terrified but Sims is determined to make use of him even though it will most likely get the poor guy killed.

Crime Wave (1954)

Sterling Hayden gives a trademark Sterling Hayden performance. In fact it’s the same performance he gave in every film, but it’s perfect. Charles Bronson (still known as Charles Buchinsky in 1954) is suitable menacing as one of the three bank robbers. Ted de Corsia goes close to stealing the picture as Doc Penney. He’s the brains of this particular criminal outfit, and he’s wonderfully sleazy and sweaty and generally reptilian. And then there’s Timothy Carey, adding a touch of the bizarre as a very creepy and totally insane hoodlum named Johnny. Phyllis Kirk gives a strong performance as Steve Lacey’s wife. The director’s preference for using lesser known actors rather than stars pays off handsomely.

Most scenes are shot in the locations where the action is supposed to taking place, including (according to James Ellroy and Eddie Muller on the commentary track) the actual headquarters of the detective branch of the LAPD. The street scenes in LA are extraordinary, a real time capsule.

Crime Wave (1954)

There are some process shots but many of the scenes shot in cars really were shot simply by putting a cameraman in the actual car giving the movie a very strong feel of the action being filmed as it happens out on the streets.

What this all adds up to is a triumph of style over substance, and style is something it has in spades. An absolute must-see for noir or crime movie enthusiasts in general.

Crime Wave (1954)

The Warner Home Video DVD includes a very enthusiastic commentary by James Ellroy and Eddie Muller plus a documentary on the film, and as with most of Warner’s film noir DVDs the picture quality is glorious.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

A Girl in Every Port has several claims to fame. It was one of Howard Hawks’ very early movies (released in 1928). It was his second-last silent movie. And a German director named G. W. Pabst saw it and was so impressed by the female lead he decided to cast her in his next movie. The actress was Louise Brooks, the movie he cast her in was Pandora’s Box, and thus a legend was born.

A Girl in Every Port is in fact a male buddy film. Ordinarily not my favourite kind of movie, but you expect a male buddy film made by Howard Hawks to be better than average and it is. It’s also a comedy so it provides an intriguing glimpse of one of the greatest masters of cinematic comedy learning the ropes. It’s not quite vintage Hawks comedy but you can see that the potential was already there.

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

Spike (Victor McLaglen) is a sailor and he really does have a girl in every port. Or so he thought. But now every time he reaches port he finds that all the girls in his little black book are sporting a heart and anchor tattoo. Some other seafaring Lothario has been making time with Spike’s girls. Eventually he catches up to his rival. They start to fight it out, get caught up in a full-scale bar-room brawl, and end up in the lock-up. They discover that they have something in common besides women - they like brawling. And they like each other. Soon they are fast friends and shipmates.

All goes well until Spike meets a girl who is special (the girl is of course Louise Brooks). This girl, Marie, does a high-diving act in a carnival in a French port and Spike is convinced she is the sweetest girl a man could ever meet. She’s not the kind of girl you add to your little black book. She’s the kind of girl you marry, and settle down with. Maybe buy a little farm. Spike has enough money to do this. And she seem so anxious to share his dream of rural connubial bliss that she offers to look after his money for him, so he can’t be tempted to spend it.

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

Spike’s a nice guy but he’s a bit of an innocent where women are concerned. He’s had his share of success with the ladies but he’s inclined to take a rather romantic view of the fair sex. And he’s the kind of guy who likes to think the best of people. Anyone else would have figured out that Marie was just taking him for a ride and intending to fleece him, but Spike can’t see it.

Things get more complicated when he proudly introduces his new girl (and his intended future wife) to his best buddy Bill. Bill recognises her immediately. She used to be known as Tessy when she did her diving act in Coney Island. She and Bill were pretty friendly. So friendly that (although Spike doesn’t yet know it) Marie/Tessy sports Bill’s heart and anchor tattoo on her arm. What is Bill to do? Spike is his best friend. Can he allow this girl to take Spike for every penny he has and then leave him broken-hearted?

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

The movie’s sexual politics, and its moral dilemmas, are more complex than they appear to be. Spike and Bill adopt a love ’em and leave ’em policy towards their various girlfriends but their assumption is that the kinds of girls who date sailors know the score. The movie adopts a worldly view towards sex. Marie adopts a similar attitude towards men as the men in this movie adopt towards women, although their objective is sex while hers is money. In both cases no great harm is done unless you happen to be naïve enough (as Spike is) to not realise it’s all a game.

Mostly it’s a movie about friendship. Spike and Bill are true friends, and while that friendship will be sorely tested it will prove strong enough to survive.

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong are likeable as the two seafaring buddies. Louise Brooks doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she certainly makes the most of what she does get. Her image is already well in place here, as the glamorous femme fatale - it’s obvious why Pabst was so impressed. And of course the camera adores her. Her acting style is not at all what you expect in silent comedy - it’s very understated and very subtle. She is most definitely not a slapstick comedienne. Brooks always admired actors (such as Leslie Howard) who understood the virtues of underacting.

But of course this is a comedy, so the question is, is it funny? The answer is yes, although not in a rolling-on-the-floor kind of way. It’s a cheerful amusing and engagingly amoral little picture, and being a Howard Hawks movie it’s comedy with an edge of intelligence and sophistication.

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

If you’re a Louise Brooks fan then it’s absolutely essential viewing of course.

Unfortunately this movie is not available in an official DVD release and those prints that are floating about are not in great condition. Most of the silent movies that Louise Brooks made in Hollywood before her departure for Germany survive but despite her huge cult following for some reason they have never enjoyed a proper DVD release.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cloak and Dagger (1946)

Cloak and Dagger is not generally regarded as one of Fritz Lang’s more important American films but it’s actually an underrated and very successful production.

Made in 1946, just after the end of the war, it’s the fourth and last of Lang’s American espionage thrillers.

The movie hits the ground running with the opening sequence showing Allied agents in occupied Europe being gunned down in the middle of despatching a vital radio message to their controllers. This establishes the mood of the whole film - heroism juxtaposed with brutality and tragedy. This will be a rather dark spy film, although it’s dark without being cynical. The heroism is as real as the brutality.

The partial message is enough to indicate that the Nazis are fairly well advanced in a program to develop nuclear weapons, but just how advanced remains unclear. The Allies obviously need to find out and the American spy service, the OSS, enlists the help of a mild-mannered nuclear physicist working at a quiet midwestern university. But while Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) might indeed be mild-mannered, in fact almost the archetypal slightly dotty and very unworldly scientists with his head in the clouds, he’s actually working on the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the American atomic bomb. He hates the very idea of such a weapon, but he consoles himself with the thought that if such a weapon is to exist it had better be developed by the Allies rather than the Axis powers.

Now he finds himself with even more important work to do. A leading German physicist, Katerin Loder, has defected to Switzerland. Jesper is persuaded to join the OSS and to make contact with her, to discover how close the Germans are to success and if possible to find a way to get her out of Switzerland.

It all goes horribly and tragically wrong. The inexperienced Jesper makes some basic errors in spycraft and falls for the charms of a beautiful expatriate American who is in fact a Gestapo agent. Jesper learns his lesson and finds within himself a determination he had not realised he possessed. Without being conscious of the fact he has become a quiet unassuming hero. He comes up with a new plan, to contact a brilliant Italian physicist who is working on the German A-bomb. He gambles that Professor Polda is almost certainly doing this work against his will, which turns out to be quite true. Polda’s daughter is being held as a hostage to ensure his coöperation. Al Jesper now conceives an even more daring plan - to get both Polda and his daughter safely to England.

Among the Italian partisan fighters with whom he works to achieve his aim is the beautiful Gina (Lilli Palmer). The main action now breaks off while the focus shifts to the blossoming romance between Al Jesper and Gina but this is not merely a romantic interlude inserted to provide some sort of obligatory love interest for the hero. This episode is crucial to the film. Gina is brave and resourceful but her dangerous work has left her emotionally scarred. She has nightmares, she is developing symptoms of paranoia, she is becoming cynical and embittered and she is starting to forget that people can be kind and decent and that tenderness and love still exist.

Lang handles this romance with both sensitivity and economy. A stray cat and a child’s carousel provide poignant and effective symbols of the growing understanding between these two characters.

When we get back to the main espionage narrative we see once more heroism mingled with tragedy. The original ending was apparently changed by the studio but the existing ending works extremely well. Lang intended to strengthen the message about the dangers of atomic weapons but that original ending might have somewhat dated the film. The ending as it stands is ambiguously hopeful, certainly not a simplistic happy ending. The message is that the good guys can win but they pay a high price for doing so. Love might triumph as well, but there are no guarantees. Fate could still step in, the world is still a dangerous place and the triumph of love is fragile.

Gary Cooper isn’t everyone’s favourite actor but he’s really quite superb here. He has the difficult task of convincing us that he’s both a nuclear physicist and a heroic spy, and at the same time a very ordinary man who wants nothing more than a quiet life. Cooper carries this off with ease and grace. A very underrated and surprising versatile actor who is ideal for Lang’s purposes in this movie. Lilli Palmer is excellent as well. There’s no sizzling sexual chemistry between these two but there’s a very real and much deeper emotional chemistry.

Lang is in complete control in this film. While admitting the brilliance of his early German movies it has to be said that Lang’s Hollywood movies are much more disciplined. There are no wasted scenes. Lang makes his points about the dangers of nuclear weaponry and the evil of totalitarianism while still managing to make a very effective and very tense commercial spy thriller and at the same time making a movie that is very much a Fritz Lang movie. These are compromises certainly, but Lang demonstrates his ability to make intelligent and thoughtful compromises and that;s what the movie business is all about.

There are two scenes that deserve special mention. There’s a clever reference to Lang’s German masterpiece M in a scene where we see a child’s toy ball bouncing down a staircase to land at the feet of a dead Italian secret policeman, and this immediately follows the graphic and brutal fight scene in which Al Jesper kills the policeman, a scene in which he discovers that killing a man is messy, difficult and extremely unpleasant, a scene that clearly influenced a similar scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

Palladium’s all-region PAL DVD release is acceptable enough and relatively inexpensive but it highlights the need for Lang’s American movies to get the special edition treatment on DVD or Blu-Ray. It’s appalling that such excellent movies by such an important film-maker are only available in at best adequate DVD releases.

Friday, October 14, 2011

King Solomon's Mines (1937)

H. Rider Haggard’s wonderful Victorian tales of adventure have been adapted often for film, but the adaptations have been invariably fairly loose. The 1937 British movie version of King Solomon's Mines by Gaumont British Pictures is no exception.

The movie introduces us to two characters who don’t appear in the book, a feckless Irishman named Patrick O’Brien and his beautiful and very feisty daughter. They have been drawn to South Africa in the 1880s by the lure of the diamond fields, but their quest for easy riches has been conspicuously unsuccessful. The daughter, Kathy (played by Anna Lee), has decided on a desperate expedient - she intends to head for the coast in search of honest work. In order to get there they manage to prevail upon the famous big-game hunter Allan Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke) to give them a lift in his wagon. Quatermain is engaged to take two Englishmen up-country. They are the young and handsome Sir Henry Curtis (John Loder) and a retired naval officer, Commander John Good (Roland Young).

Destiny now steps in. They encounter another wagon, and two strangers who will have a fateful influence on all their lives - an insane English explorer and his African companion, Umbopa (Paul Robeson). The explorer dies almost immediately, but he has a map with him, a map that falls into the possession of Patrick O’Brien. The map is the key to the fables mines of King Solomon and their fabulous riches in diamonds. O’Brien sets off into the desert alone, heading towards King Solomon’s Mountains. The lure of King Solomon's Mines is too strong for him to resist.

Kathy now announces her intention to set off in pursuit of her father. The hard-headed and rather gruff Quatermain assures her it’s madness and informs her he wants no part of it. Sir Henry and Commander Good are however both suckers for an attractive young woman in distress. They agree to accompany her. Quatermain still thinks it’s insanity but despite his gruffness he’s an honourable man. He agrees to go along as well.

Their guide is the mysterious Umbopa. Whoever he is he’s no servant. He carries himself as if he were royalty. Our travellers will discover that there is a reason for this. They will find King Solomon's Mines, and rather more adventure than they bargained for as they are caught up in a power struggle in a remote African kingdom.

There’s some great location photography in this film, along with other scenes that are clearly shot in a studio. While it has little in common with Haggard’s novel it’s undeniably strong on adventure. Paul Robeson gets top billing, surely the first time a black actor achieved this in a major studio production. He displays a distressing tendency to sing at the slightest provocation but that was expected of any movie in which he appeared. As an actor he’s reasonably good.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke is too stuffy to make a convincing Allan Quatermain. Roland Young provides comic relief, and he actually is quite amusing. John Loder is an adequate if not terribly exciting romantic hero. Anna Lee effortlessly steals the picture as Kathy.

The Region 4 DVD release is barebones but quite acceptable as far as picture quality is concerned.

So far I don’t think there’s been a truly great adaptation of a Rider Haggard novel. This one is OK. Worth a look if you can pick up it up cheaply enough.