Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Bulldog Drummond Escapes was the first of eight Bulldog Drummond movies made by Paramount in the late 30s.

The Bulldog Drummond novels by Herman C. McNeile (“Sapper”) are highly enjoyable thrillers but sadly none of the many adaptations really capture their spirit. The two mid-60s British films are great fun spoofs but turn the hero into a kind of James Bond clone while the Paramount films make him a bit too smooth. In the novels the character is certainly a gentleman, but he’s a tough guy as well and rather edgy with a strong streak of ruthlessness mixed with chivalry and reckless bravery.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Ray Milland payed Drummond in Bulldog Drummond Escapes but in the later films John Howard takes over the role.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes with Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond returning back home to England. On a misty country road he is flagged down by a young woman who then proceeds to steal his car. The lady left her bag in the car and when he has retrieved his car he drives to Greystone Manor to return it. He is informed that the young lady is suffering from a persecution complex but the doctor who is treating her, along with the middle-aged man an his sister who are caring for her, seem to Drummond to be behaving just a little suspiciously.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Drummond immediately senses that adventure may be afoot. And there’s nothing he likes better. His sense of chivalry also helps in convincing him that this unfortunate young woman is a damsel in distress and in need of rescuing. Inspector Nielson of Scotland Yard warns him off the case which naturally makes him even keener.

His pal Algy Longworth is axiouusly awaiting the birth of his first child but Hugh ropes him in anyway. Hugh finds a letter that confirms his suspicions. He still lacks hard evidence but he feels he needs to act even if it puts him (temporarily) on the wrong side of the law.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

The movie suffers a little from the problem that afflicts so many American B-movies of that era - too much emphasis on jokiness and not enough on suspense. Algy is played purely as a comic relief character which becomes just a little irritating. Of course if you haven’t read the books this might not worry you so much, but if you have read them you’ll find yourself wishing they’d been more faithful to the tone of the source material. Not that the books are overly serious - they’re essentially just adventure yarns (and very good ones) but without the quite unnecessary comic relief.

Ray Milland is an actor whose work I enjoy enormously. While he’s a lot more polished than McNeile’s original creation he’s charming enough to get away with it. The support cast is adequate enough.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Bulldog Drummond Escapes is reasonable lightweight entertainment and it’s worth a look.

My copy comes from one of the MiIl Creek public domain boxed sets. DVD picture quality is awful but watchable and the sound quality is absolutely deplorable. The best thing that can be said about it is that the dialogue is at least understandable.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dancing Lady (1933)

MGM’s 1933 musical Dancing Lady can be seen as an attempt by the studio to do something in the style of Warner Brothers’ 1932 hit 42nd Street. MGM couldn’t capture the hardboiled atmosphere that made 42nd Street so distinctive and they didn’t have Busby Berkeley but they did have plenty of money and they did have two great stars in Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. The result is lightweight but a lot of fun.

Its main claim to fame though is probably that it launched the film career of Fred Astaire. It’s an often overlooked fact that Fred Astaire’s first dancing partner in the movies was not Ginger Rogers but was in fact Joan Crawford.

Dancing Lady (1933)

Even back in 1933 the plot was already hackneyed. Burlesque artiste Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) will do just about anything to get her break as a dancer. Her opportunity comes when she meets rich dissolute playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). He pulls strings to get her an audition with renowned Broadway producer Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable). Gallagher is tired of having wealthy backers trying to get their girlfriends into his show and tells his assistant to give her the brush-off but the assistant finally persuades him to take a look at her. He can see at once that she has potential, so now she’s got a job in the chorus line.

Tod isn’t really interested in furthering her theatrical career. He’s more interested in getting her into the bedroom than onto the stage, but she’s so single-minded about dancing that he figures that getting her into the chorus line will keep her interested and then when she realises how tough Broadway is she’ll be more inclined to accept her attentions. At last that’s his initial plan, but he soon realises that actually he wants to marry her.

Dancing Lady (1933)

While Janie is kept busy fending off Tod’s attentions Patch has had second thoughts about his new find. He’s decided that she really is something social, that she just might have what it takes to become a star, and that he should take a big chance and put her into the lead role. She’ll be dancing opposite a well-established Broadway star named Fred Astaire. Naturally things aren’t going to work out that smoothly or that simply, the show faces cancellation and Janie faces the even more unpleasant fate of marriage to Tod, that being the only alternative she’s left with.

Of course it can’t end that way and somehow Patch will find a way to save the show, and Janie will get her chance.

Dancing Lady (1933)

The unoriginality of the plot doesn’t matter in the least in a movie like this. What does matter is the charisma of the leads and the quality of the musical numbers. In both those respects Dancing Lady is on firm ground. They may not have had Busby Berkeley but the music is good and the production numbers are spectacular. At times surreal and even verging on the bizarre, but impressive nonetheless.

Crawford and Gable are both terrific and as always they have tremendous chemistry. As a dancer Crawford might not have been Ginger Rogers but she was still a pretty good hoofer. Her dance duets with Astaire are not as elaborate as the ones he would later do with Rogers but Crawford acquits herself extremely well.

Dancing Lady (1933)

There’s a strong and rather varied supporting cast. Franchot Tone is reasonably good as the smooth but somewhat sleazy Tod. Astaire only appears in the dance routines. Robert Benchley is amusing as a slightly scatter-brained gossip columnist. There’s also the first movie appearance of Nelson Eddy. Plus there’s comic relief courtesy of the Three Stooges, a very strange touch that works better than you’d expect.

Robert Z. Leonard is one of those often overlooked directors. He was no auteur but he was a capable craftsman who could handle just about any genre, the kind of director who was the backbone of Hollywood in the days of the studio system. He does his usual competent job here.

Dancing Lady (1933)

There’s not a huge amount of pre-code sex and sin here, but there is some. Janie does after all start her career as a strip-tease artiste, and there are a few risque moments scattered through the film.

This is not perhaps one of the great musicals of the 30s but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and it features Gable and Crawford at their most charming and likeable. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Letter (1940)

The Letter, directed by William Wyler for Warner Brothers in 1940, contains what may well be Bette Davis’s finest performance. And it’s a great film.

It’s hard to go wrong when adapting a Somerset Maugham story for the screen. For some reason his stories just work perfectly as movies.

The setting is a rubber plantation in Malaya, some time during the 1930s (the war is never mentioned so it’s clearly some time before 1939).

The Letter (1940)

The famous opening sequence is one of the best you’re ever going to see, with Bette Davis emptying a revolver into a man. We have no idea who he is or why she shot him, or why she kept on shooting him after long after he was obviously dead.

The District Officer and her lawyer are sent for and Leslie Crosbie (Davis) tell her story. The man she shot was Peter Hammond, another planter. He had made unwanted advances to her, there had been a struggle, she had grabbed her husband’s revolver and being so upset she hadn’t realised that she had just kept on pulling the trigger. Everyone is very sympathetic. Her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) arrives shortly afterwards and he is very sympathetic as well. Clearly she had had no choice.

The Letter (1940)

Of course the District Officer has no choice but to arrest her and she will have to stand trial for murder in Singapore but no-one has the slightest doubt she will be acquitted. Until her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), receives information that a letter exists. A Very compromising letter. A letter written by Leslie to the deceased, begging him to come to her while her husband was away. Apart from being very damaging in itself, suggesting n intimate relationship between her and Hammond and casting extreme doubt on her story of being suddenly attacked for no reason, its existence also flatly contradicts the statement she made that she had had no contact of any kind with Hammond for many weeks and that he was no more than a casual acquaintance.

The existence of the letter makes it more than likely that Leslie will be convicted and hanged. Howard Joyce is an honourable man but against his better judgment he is persuaded to try to buy the letter. At the very least this could end his career and he might well face criminal charges for attempting to pervert the course of justice.

The Letter (1940)

The letter is in the hands of Hammond’s widow, a Eurasian woman. She insists she will not sell the letter unless Leslie comes to her personally and at their meeting her hatred for Leslie is all too apparent. But she sells the letter.

It would seem that Leslie is now out of the woods but the killing has had consequences for everyone concerned, for Leslie, for her husband and for Howard Joyce. It may well end by destroying all their lives.

William Wyler was renowned for being a perfectionist who was capable of forcing an actor to do take after take after take and as a result many actors hated working for him. Bette Davis was one of the few who appreciated that Wyler’s methods worked and he got extraordinary performances from her. In a role which could easily have become histrionic and excessively mannered Davis turns in a subtle and controlled performance.

The Letter (1940)

Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson are also superb. While Leslie dominates the film both Robert and Howard Joyce are complex characters thrown into emotional turmoil and not always entirely certain of their own motivations. They are in fact more complex than the self-centred and selfish Leslie.

The visual style certainly has affinities with film noir, although film noir would not truly arrive on the scene for another year or two. The use of shadows and moonlight and in particular the use of light broken up by slatted blinds suggest that The Letter might well have been a major influence on the noir style.

The movie deals indirectly with the effects of colonialism, especially the effects on the representatives of the colonial power. Boredom, despair, alcoholism and adultery are obviously the major ingredients in life in colonial Malaya.

The Letter (1940)

The temptation to give this movie a feminist reading and to treat Leslie as some kind of victim is a temptation that should be strongly resisted. She is a complete monster, thoroughly evil and manipulative. One can’t help suspecting that the signs of remorse she displays have nothing to do with genuine remorse but are merely signs of self-pity and of her frustration that she has been found out and that her elaborate lacework of lies has come unravelled. Leslie’s favourite hobby is lacework and to me the symbolism is clear enough - she constructs intricate patterns of lies and manipulations rather like a spider spinning a web of deception.

Apart from the visual elements there are some thematic similarities to film noir. I suppose you could it tropical noir. It’s a superbly crafted film and fully justifies Wyler’s methodical and perfectionist approach. A great movie.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar was released at the beginning of 1931 and it’s the movie that largely defined the gangster movie as a genre. It also made Edward G. Robinson a star.

The movie literally starts with a bang. In fact two bangs as two small-time hoodlums, Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello (Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), commit a gas station robbery and two shots are fired. Rico has no intention of staying small-time. He’s going to be a big shot. Joe on the other hand really has no taste for crime. He wants to be a dancer.

They make the move to the big city and Rico quickly establishes himself as the right-hand man of gangster Sam Vettori. Joe gets hired as a dancer in a night-club and falls in love with his dancing partner. Rico’s rise in the criminal underworld is swift but already early on in the movie we see that he has the fatal flaws that will bring him down. As we see in the robbery of the night-club where Joe Massara is now working as a dancer, he is decisive and ruthless, but his judgment is dubious and he is over-confident. He is too quick to use his gun, a mistake that will come back to haunt him.

Little Caesar (1931)

Rico continues to rise. He and Joe have lost touch, until Joe overhears plans to have Rico killed and sends a warning to Rico. Rico now decides that it’s time to bring Joe back into his organisation. He needs a reliable right-hand man. Rico’s inability to understand that Joe really is determined to have done with crime is his second fateful mistake.

Joe is pushed into a corner where he has to choose between betraying Rico or spending his whole life running. Rico’s nemesis, Detective-Sergeant Flaherty, may be able to get the break he needs to destroy Rico.

Little Caesar (1931)

Mervyn LeRoy isn’t as celebrated as Howard Hawks or William A. Wellman, who directed the other great early gangster classics Scarface and The Public Enemy but he was extremely competent. To say, as some critics have said, that the one thing that makes Little Caesar exceptional is Edward G. Robinson’s acting is a trifle unfair.

There is certainly no doubt about the greatness of Robinson’s performance however. So much has been written about it that it’s difficult to find anything to add. He’s a wound-up spring of manic energy and menace. Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s performance has been less admired. He was a fine actor but is perhaps just a little too civilised and too nice to be a convincing hoodlum, but then the key to Joe’s character is that he knows himself that he isn’t cut off for a career as a gangster. It’s also an essential plot element that Joe should be a guy who is capable of passing in both worlds, the world of the racketeer and the world of the cultured sophisticates who haunt the expensive nightclubs the gangsters use as a front.

Little Caesar (1931)

If you’re determined to see every movie through a political prism you can try to force Little Caesar into that mould and see it as the dark flipside to the American Dream or a comment on the evils of capitalism or the despair of the Depression. In reality there’s absolutely nothing in this movie to support such an interpretation. That of course won’t stop film school types from trying.

The author of the novel on which the movie is based, W. R. Burnett, described Rico as a gutter Macbeth and that is the key to what the movie is really about. It’s a kind of ironic parody of classical tragedy. Rico’s single-minded ambition will carry him to the top but the qualities that put him there will drag him back to the gutter again and to his ultimate destruction.

Little Caesar (1931)

The DVD includes a commentary track by Richard Jewell, a film historian at the University of Southern California. Unfortunately much of what he has to say is the sheerest nonsense. Being an academic he is determined to give the film the correct left-wing political spin. At one point he assures us that Rico could never have reached the very top of the criminal underworld because of the rigid class barriers in the US. One can only assume this guy has never heard of Al Capone. It’s particularly ironic to hear such poppycock from a film historian given that Hollywood itself was a classic example of an industry in which class barriers were non-existent. While a political interpretation might be valid in the case of some other Warner Brothers gangster films the fact is that Little Caesar is remarkably apolitical.

He does, to his credit, admit that the gay interpretation that many have tried to give the film doesn’t really hold water. The gay interpretation is based on scenes such as the one in which Rico is trying on his first dinner jacket and preening himself in front of a mirror. That scene is clearly meant to show us one of the flaws that will bring Rico undone - his overwhelming vanity. That vanity, and the fact that Rico doesn’t have the cool judgment or the intelligence to back up his incredibly high opinion of himself, is stressed again and again in the movie.

Little Caesar (1931)

As for the relationship between Rico and Joe Massara it always amazes me that so many people today are incapable of comprehending the idea of a relationship between men that isn’t sexual. W. R. Burnett apparently felt the movie could be seen as suggesting that Rico was homosexual and was annoyed by this but I really think he was equally mistaken. The fact that Rico has no involvement with women simply stresses his isolation from his fellow creatures, an isolation that makes him vulnerable in the case of Joe Massara because Joe is the only person who truly likes Rico and shows any genuine loyalty to him.

The friendship between Rico and Joe serves to underline just how twisted Rico’s view of humanity is. While Joe understands real friendship Rico uses Joe the same way he uses everyone else. He wants Joe to be his loyal lieutenant because he needs simple he can trust not to betray him, and someone who can act as a useful front man. It doesn’t occur to Rico to consider Joe’s wishes. In the most crucial scene of the movie, when he realises he will have to kill Joe, Rico gets his first glimpse of what true friendship might mean. Even a man as evil as Rico still has some tiny shred of human decency deep within him but it is too late for Rico.

Little Caesar (1931)

Just as significant as the absence of women in Rico’s life is the absence of family, again stressing his aloneness.

Rather than taking a political stance the film puts the focus squarely on Rico, on the strengths that allow his rapid rise (his self-confidence, his decisiveness, his ruthlessness) and the weaknesses that cause his equally rapid descent (his isolation and his vanity). There is no mention of the Depression or of Prohibition, no mention of impoverished childhoods, no social context whatsoever. This is the film’s great strength. It makes it a timeless story with universal significance rather than a topical political tract. This makes it very unusual for a 1930s Warner Brothers film.

There had been gangster movies before this film and there would be many more afterwards but Little Caesar remains the greatest of them all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Challenge (1960)

The Challenge (released in the US as It Takes a Thief) is a Jayne Mansfield film noir. That might seem a pretty unlikely concept so you’re probably sceptical at this stage. It does co-star Anthony Quayle and it does have a pretty good director in John Gilling and those two facts were enough to persuade me to give it a chance.

Gilling was responsible for some of Hammer’s best horror movies of the 60s (such as The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies) so there’s no question about his ability to create a sinister atmosphere.

Mansfield plays Billie, leader of a criminal gang in London. She has a plan to pull off a daring bullion robbery and she involves Jim (Anthony Quayle) in the venture. Her exact intentions towards Jim remain ambiguous. They’re lovers but whether she really loves him is uncertain and whether she intends to double-cross him remains equally obscure.

The problem is that Billie’s control over her gang is far from complete. Kristy (Carl Möhner) takes orders from her reluctantly, partly because he resents Jim (he wants Billie for himself) and partly because he simply wants to run the gang himself.

Jim is the chump. He’s a nice guy battling to raise a 6-year-old son after his wife’s death. He doesn’t want anything to do with crime but he’s under Billie’s spell and she promised him it would be just one job and then they’d buy a farm together. His job is not to take part in the actual robbery but to take the loot and hide it after the robbery. Kristy clearly intends that Jim should be the fall-guy.

Whether Billie intends this or not is uncertain but either ay he does become the fall-guy and serves five years in prison. Wen he’s released he’s determined to go straight but the money is still hidden somewhere and the gang wants it. The police have him under surveillance, hoping he’ll lead them to the money or to his accomplices.

Billie meanwhile has been doing very well. After pulling off a series of successful robberies she’s now running a strip club. Her control over her gang has however become even less sure. They’re determined to get the money from the bullion robbery no matter how they have to do it while Billie wants the money but she doesn’t want any harm to come to Jim. She’s a criminal but she hates violence and she clearly has some feelings towards Jim even if she herself is probably not really aware how strong those feelings might be.

Kristy is untroubled by any such scruples and without telling BiIlie he has Jim’s son kidnapped to put pressure on him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Jim has to find a way to get his son back which is not going to be easy with the police watching him. The power struggle between Billie and Kristy meanwhile comes to a head.

The classic B noir was pretty much dead in Hollywood by 1960 but the British were still making moody atmospheric low-budget crime films, and doing a very good job of it. The Challenge is a fine example. The plot is nothing special but Gilling’s stylish and energetic directing propels it along in a very entertaining manner. In the early stages in particular there’s plenty of very noirish black-and-white cinematography.

There are also some very decent action sequences, especially the scene with Billie (who was the driver for the gang as well as being the mastermind behind their plans) leading the police on a fairly spectacular (by the standards of 1960) car chase. There’s plenty of tension as well as Jim races to save his son from the psychopathic Buddy.

Whether it’s a true film noir is debatable but it certainly has a femme fatale and it has an ordinary man caught drawn into murky and dangerous waters but he’s not a true noir protagonist because he’s never in danger of being corrupted by the noir underworld. It’s more a Hitchcock-style thriller with noir overtones and a dash of sleaze.

Anthony Quayle is very good, as always. The key character though is Billie and that’s where the movie potentially has a problem. It’s the sort of role that would have been tailor-made for Diana Dors who would have pulled it off effortlessly but Jayne Mansfield (who was a fine comic actress) isn’t in the Diana Dors class as a serious actress and doesn’t really have the acting chops for such a complex role. But she gives it her best shot and she’s a lot better than one might have expected.

This is very much a B-movie but it’s consistently entertaining and well worth a look for fans of gritty crime movies. Renown Productions’ UK region-free PAL DVD release lacks extras but it’s a very nice transfer of a little-known and underrated movie.

You also get to see Jayne Mansfield wearing one of the most bizarre dresses ever worn by an actress. She looks little Little Bo Peep, if Little Bo Peep had decided to forget the sheep (which keep getting lost anyway) and head to the big city to take up a career as an exotic dancer. If I’d been her I’d have asked for extra money for wearing that dress.

The Challenge isn't perfect but it's worth seeing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Beau Geste (1939)

I have a real soft spot for Gary Cooper. I know he’s not everyone’s favourite, that many people consider him wooden, but I’m finding that I like him more and more. In particular I think he’s very underrated as a comic actor. Beau Geste gives him some opportunities to display this side of his talent but mostly it’s an old-fashioned adventure film. And a very very good one.

The three Geste brothers are orphans who’ve been raised by the kindly Lady Patricia Brandon, along with the mildly obnoxious heir to the Brandon fortune, Augustus Brandon. The eldest of the Geste boys is Michael, known as Beau (Gary Cooper). The youngest, John Geste (Ray Miland), is in love with Lady Patricia’s daughter (played by a very young Susan Hayward).

Beau Geste (1939)

Unfortunately much of this fortune has been gambled away by Lady Patricia’s dissolute husband, Sir Hector Brandon. In fact only one real treasure remains to the estate is the fabulous sapphire, the Blue Water. Until the days comes when that too must be sold. Except that it is mysteriously stolen, and Beau just as mysteriously disappears. His brother Digby (Robert Preston) soon departs as well, followed by John.

Needless to say the general assumption is that on of the Geste boys has stolen the sapphire. And where have the three brothers gone? They’ve gone to join the Foreign Legion.

Beau Geste (1939)

There they find themselves exposed to the none-too-tender mercies of the brutal Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). He’s as avaricious as he is brutal and he soon gets and of the fact that one of the Geste brothers almost certainly has the Blue water sapphire. And he wants it.

He also wants command. The actual commander of Fort Zinderneuf is Lieutenant Martin but when he falls ill of fever Markoff sees his chance. If Martin dies, which seem certain, he will assume temporary command, but if he can do something incredibly heroic and impressive he would have an excellent chance of getting a commission. Something like putting down a mutiny would do just fine. If there’s no mutiny in the offing, he can always manufacture one. All he has to do is push the men hard enough.

Beau Geste (1939)

After their experience of Markoff’s sadistic command style most of the soldiers are ready to give him the mutiny he wants. Except for the Geste brothers, Beau and John (Digby has been posted elsewhere), and a handful of others. At this moment a horde of Tuaregs arrives on the scene and mutiny has to take a back seat to survival. For Markoff it’s another opportunity - a heroic defence of the fort will do just as well to earn him his commission. And whatever his failings, Markoff is an able soldier.

The epic defence of the fort provides some spectacular action scenes, ably handled by director Wiliam A. Wellman. We already know the final result since the opening scene of the movie showed us the arrival of the relief column and the shocking discovery they made when they entered the fort. The rest of the movie is essentially one long flashback which will provide the explanation of their discovery.

Beau Geste (1939)

The cast is uniformly superb. Brian Donlevy goes close to sealing the picture but really everyone plays their parts to perfection.

This is a thrilling combination of action, romance, adventure, old-fashioned heroism and high drama, the sort of things movies were all about back in the days when Hollywood made great movies.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Where Danger Lives (1950)

Australian director John Farrow made only a handful of movies that could be described as film noir but the ones he did make are exceptionally interesting, and the best of them may well be his 1950 production for RKO, Where Danger Lives.

This is a somewhat underrated entry in the noir cycle and it’s rather odd that it hasn’t received more attention. It was an A-picture with some big name stars (Robert Mitchum and Claude Rains) made by a well-respected director and it not only ticks most of the noir boxes it also has some interesting features of its own.

Mitchum plays a dedicated young doctor named Jeff Cameron. He loves his work, he’s highly thought of and he’s engaged to be married to an equally dedicated nurse (Julie, played by Maureen O’Sullivan). Life is good and it promises to get better. Then fate steps in. Just as he’s about to leave the hospital to go on a date with Julie he’s called back to attend an emergency, an attempted suicide.

The attempted suicide is Margo (Faith Domergue). She’s not in any real danger but she seem a little evasive, and the guy who brought her in seems even more evasive. The following morning when Jeff goes to check on her he discovers she’s given a false address and has discharged herself. Then he gets a cable from her, asking him to meet her at a night-club.

He’s instantly smitten by her. She’s sexy and glamorous and (given the fact that she’s just tried to kill herself) she’s obviously emotionally disturbed. He’s a sensitive man who’s devoted his life to helping people (we discover as the movie progresses that he really is a man who chose medicine as a career for the highest motives and is relatively indifferent to money). A man like that really doesn’t stand a chance - here’s a chance to save somebody who also happens to be sex on legs. Pretty soon they’re dating.

She tells him her sad story. She lives with her father, an elderly man with not long to live who is something of a control freak. He could, and would, cut her off without a penny (and he’s a wealthy man) if she wanted to mary a man he didn’t approve of. And it sounds like he’s a man who’s unlikely to approve of a penniless young doctor who doesn’t even have a practice of his own. Of course she loves Jeff and wants to marry him but she tells him it’s going to be tricky handling her father. Jeff doesn’t care about her father’s money. He just wants to marry her. After having a few too many drinks he turns up at her house with the intention of trying to talk the old boy around and he quickly discovers that nothing that Margo told him was true. Most importantly, Mr Lannington (Claude Rains) is not her father.

Things get out of control rapidly, there’s a struggle and Mr Lannington attacks him with a poker. Jeff punches him and Lannington is knocked out cold. Jeff had received a very nasty blow on the head and he’s extremely groggy but everything is OK, he’ll just get some water and bring Lannington around and then he can leave and go back to his decent ordinary everyday life. He just needs to put his head under some cold water to clear it a bit. When he returns from the bathroom he finds that everything is not OK and he’s not ever going to be able to go back to the daylight world. He’s trapped in the noir nightmare world and there’s no escape. Margo announces that Lannington is dead.

Jeff still thinks everything is not lost. After all it was a clear case of self-defence. But he’s very groggy and he just can’t think straight and Margo tells him nobody will believe him but it’s OK because she has two plane tickets booked for Nassau and they should just head for the airport. Jeff isn’t sure that’s a good idea, they should just call the police and explain everything, but his head is swimming and maybe Margo is right. The airport turns out to be a bad idea and pretty soon they’re in her car heading for the Mexican border and the noir nightmare world has claimed them well and truly.

Jeff is not your typical noir protagonist. He’s not a chump. He’s not the kind of guy who would normally be caught in this kind of nightmare. He’s not a Walter Neff, with the seeds of corruption already inside him just waiting to blossom. It’s the blow on the head that dooms him. All the evidence he needs to work out what is really going on is there before him and normally he’d work it out in quick time but his head just keeps spinning and he can’t put his thoughts together.

Mitchum is terrific, as always. Faith Domergue is the big surprise. She’s not particularly well thought of as an actress (she got her contract with Howard Hughes for the usual reasons) but she’s perfectly cast and does a fine job in a difficult role. Margo isn’t quite the typical femme fatale -she’s clearly not playing with a full deck and we’re never quite sure just how conscious she is of what she is doing and the effects it has on others. The ambiguity is never fully resolved, one of the features that make this movie slightly unusual as 40s Hollywood movies go.

John Farrow shows himself to be a master craftsman. His framing of the scenes involving Mr Lannington, Jeff and Margo is constantly shifting reflecting the unstable dynamics between the three of them, with Jeff and Margo seeming to be drawn together at one moment only to be split apart the next. At times Lannington recedes into the background and seems insignificant only to be suddenly brought into the foreground as the power shifts. The scenes between Margo and Jeff show the instability and ambiguity of their relationship. One moment they seem to be synchronised and then we realise they’re not in tune at all. It’s all done with subtle manipulation of the framing.

Farrow makes extensive use of long takes. One vital scene is done in a single shot, seven minutes without a single cut. Farrow was apparently a prickly character and even more than most directors he detested having his work interfered with. Perhaps long takes were his way of preventing studio interference. When you do your most crucial scenes in very long takes there’s not much the studio can do - they can’t eliminate the scene or shorten it or recut it. Either way it’s a technique that requires not only great skill and self-confidence from a director but also enormous confidence in his actors, and Mitchum and Domergue are equal to the challenge.

Farrow has the advantage in this film of having the great Nick Musuraca as his cinematographer. That, combined with an intelligent and literate script by Charles Bennett, superior acting performances and a director who is in complete command of his craft, makes Where Danger Lives an object lesson in just how good classical Hollywood film-making could be. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

Douglas Sirk’s 1946 film A Scandal in Paris (Thieves' Holiday) is a fictionalised account of the extraordinary career of François Eugène Vidocq, a famous criminal who became an even more famous policeman.

Vidocq’s misspent youth was very misspent indeed. He allegedly killed a fencing instructor at the age of 14, joined the army several times and was cashiered just as many times, fought many duels, was a professional gambler, a thief, a forger and a pirate. After which he became a police spy and went on to found the French criminal investigation department of the Paris police, the Sûreté. He was one of the pioneers of modern police methods, especially the use of undercover operations and was renowned as a master of disguise

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

When I say the film fictionalises his life it should be noted that most of what is known about Vidocq comes from his own accounts of his life and is most likely highly unreliable. Either way he was obviously perfect material for a movie, and who better to play a charming rogue than George Sanders?

In the movie version Vidocq is as notorious for his pursuit of the ladies as for his pursuit of dishonest money, and ideally prefers to combine both. Stealing the ruby-studded garter of the girlfriend of the chief of the Paris police is one of his more colourful exploits, although it’s one that will come back to haunt him.

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

Vidocq actually starts the movie in prison. He escapes along with his cell-mate, Emile Vernet (Akim Tamiroff). He gets a job, posing as a model for an equestrian painting of St George and the dragon, and promptly steals both horse and costume. A chance encounter in a graveyard brings him into contact with the family of the Minister of Police. He naturally takes the opportunity to rob their house. And then an idea occurs to him. The Minister has fired his Chief of Police for being unable to solve the crime - if Vidocq could present him with the solution, and the stolen jewels, the Minister might be persuaded to appoint him as Chief of Police. Just imagine the possibilities that might open up for criminal activities on a scale he has not previously even been able to contemplate.

There is a complication however. The beautiful daughter of the Minister, Therese (Signe Hasso), has fallen in love with the man in the painting of St George, who is of course Vidocq. When she meets the actual Vidocq she discovers he really is the man she wants, but she’s a virtuous young woman and could never marry a thief. In fact she wants to save him from his life of wickedness. Will he choose love or crime?

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

This movie is a delight from start to finish. It’s a complete romp, and makes no concessions to anything as boring as realism. Vidocq’s biography is outrageous and fanciful and the movie takes its cue from that. The dialogue sparkles. The sets and costumes are extravagant. The tone is light-hearted, sophisticated and good-natured. The scene on the Chinese carousel is a nice touch.

George Sanders is of course superb in a role that allows him full scope for his talents. He gets fine support from Gene Lockhart as Richet, the former Chief of Police, and Carole Landis as Richet’s wife.

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

This movie is total entertainment and I can’t recommend it too highly. Absolute joy.

Odeon’s all-region UK DVD release boasts no extras but sound and picture quality are generally good.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Sign of Four (1932)

It’s almost impossible to count the number of actors who have played Sherlock Holmes on either the big screen or the small screen. One of the more successful, although now largely forgotten, was Arthur Wontner.

Wontner played the great detective in five British films between 1931 and 1937 (one of which is sadly now lost). The third of the Wontner Sherlock Holmes movies was The Sign of Four, in 1932. It’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name.

The Sign of Four (1932)

The most interesting change is that whereas in the novel the mystery is revealed at the end (as you’d expect in a mystery novel) in the film it’s revealed at the beginning. The movie is therefore not so much concerned with the mystery as such, as with the way in which Sherlock Holmes solves it. It’s a perfectly valid technique and one that has been used with success by some very notable mystery writers. I’ll try to reveal as little as few plot details as possible in this review.

The mystery in this case revolves around a fabulous Indian treasure and an assortment of people who believe they have some claim on it although they’re all in fact thieves.

The Sign of Four (1932)

The mystery begins with the daughter of a British Indian Army officer who inexplicably starts to receive gifts of extremely valuable pearls. She receives a letter explaining merely that the gifts are to right a wrong that has been done to her, and she suspects it has something to do with the mysterious death of her father. He had been stationed in the penal colony in the Andaman Islands. A plan of a fortress with four names on it (the sign of four of the title) will provide another clue.

Wontner makes a pretty good Holmes. There are even those who have claimed that he is the definitive Holmes. I don’t agree (I regard Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett as the two greatest interpreters of the role) but Wontner is perfectly acceptable. Ian Hunter is an adequate Watson.

The Sign of Four (1932)

Director Graham Cutts was a major player in the early days of the British film industry, being a co-founder of Gainsborough Studios. He was apparently somewhat difficult to get along with and his career declined after the introduction of sound. His subsequent reputation has suffered due to the fact many of his movies have either not survived or are difficult to see. On the evidence of this film he was a talented director. For a 1930s British movie it features some rather bold stylistic flourishes, it’s well-paced and it’s exciting with a surprising number of action sequences (and includes an impressive speedboat chase).

If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan this one is well worth watching.

The Sign of Four (1932)

One of the chief obstacles to the enjoyment of this movie is the very poor quality of the public domain prints that are available. Both sound and picture are terrible. It’s a pity because it’s by no means a bad movie.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)

Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) is a movie that does not seem to be highly regarded today either by Greta Garbo’s fans or by Clark Gable’s. In fact this 1931 MGM movie doesn’t seem to be highly regarded by anyone which is a pity. Perhaps the problem is that it’s pure melodrama and we live in an age that finds melodrama unsettling without a hefty dose of irony. The opening sequences are an object lesson in succinct story-telling.

A woman in a very conservative Swedish immigrant community in the US dies giving birth to a illegitimate child. The child, Helga (Greta Garbo), is raised by her brother-in-law. He does his duty by her but cannot show her any love, being ashamed of the circumstances of her birth. He arranges a marriage for her but, repelled by the drunken advances of a man she does not love, she runs away before the marriage.

She ends up hiding out in the barn of a neighbour in the middle of a rainstorm. He’s an engineer named Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable) and he’s like no-one she has met before. He’s cheerful, good-natured and kind and it’s obvious they’re going to fall madly in love. But fate steps in. Rodney has to go to Chicago and while he’s away her brother-in-law and he intended husband turn up. She flees, and ends up joining a travelling carnival (I warned you this was pure melodrama).

Rodney sets off in search of her but unfortunately she’s spent the night with the manager of the carnival. She didn’t really have a choice as her husband-to-be turned up again and it was the only way to persuade the manager to hide her but Rodney isn’t very understanding and their relationship seems to have encountered an insurmountable obstacle.

Helga decides that if Rodney thinks she’s a whore then she’ll be a whore. A very successful one. She re-invents herself as Susan Lenox and becomes a wealthy and sought-after courtesan. She is destined to cross paths with Rodney again however and it’s obvious that their love is a strong as ever even if it’s turned to hate. They realise too late that the strength of their hate is simply a measure of the strength of their love. Rodney embarks on a course of self-destruction, but Helga/Susan cannot forget him. Somehow she will find him again, even if she has to scour every low waterfront dive in the country. You cannot fight a love like this.

Garbo and Gable, unexpectedly, generate a very real if unconventional chemistry. They’re both stubborn but sympathetic characters. Gable has plenty of boyish charm and although it’s a little odd to see Gable as a champion of the old-fashioned virtues of fidelity his performance is quite successful.

Garbo plays a typical Garbo heroine, a woman for whom nothing matters except love. Even while selling herself to other men she never forgets Rodney. 

Robert Z. Leonard isn’t renowned as the most stylish of directors but he and cinematographer William H. Daniels (who photographed most of Garbo’s movies) do a fine job with the use of light and shadow especially in the early stages of the film. Telling the story of Helga’s childhood entirely as a kind of shadowplay is a nice touch, reinforcing the idea that she has never had her own life.

You have to accept that this movie obeys the rules of melodrama, so criticising the use of coincidence and the fact that a travelling carnival just happens to come along right when the heroine needs one is missing the point. It’s all gloriously romantic, a product of an age that still understood such things.

Highly recommended. The Warner Archive DVD-R is a rather nice transfer.