Monday, February 27, 2012

Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady is a movie that is quite special to me because it’s one of the movies that got me hooked on film noir. It still stands up extremely well.

Of course now I can see that this 1944 Universal film is not really film noir, it’s more of a Hitchcock-style wrong man movie. Stylistically however it’s very film noir, and good film noir.

A man (Scott Henderson, played by Alan Curtis) meets a woman in a bar. They’re both down in the dumps. He has two tickets to the theatre but as he explains he’s been stood up. She agrees to spend the evening with him on the condition that they don’t reveal their names. They’re just two unhappy people who will be companions for the evening.

Phantom Lady (1944)

When he arrives home later that evening the nightmare begins. His wife has been murdered. Their marriage was on the rocks and they’d quarreled about a divorce. The circumstantial evidence against him is strong, but luckily he has an alibi. Or he thought he did. Unfortunately no-one now remembers seeing him with the mystery woman. And of course he has no idea who she is or how to find her.

That unsatisfactory and unconvincing alibi helps to get him convicted of murder. One person still believes in him however - his secretary Carol (Ella Raines). She’s been in love with him for as long as she’s worked for him and she knows the man she loves could not be a murderer. Despite the odds she intends to prove that he is innocent and save him.

Phantom Lady (1944)

That damn-fool alibi has been worrying Detective-Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez). Why would a guilty man concoct such a stupid alibi and then stubbornly stick to it like that? The more he thinks about it the more it worries him. So Carol finds herself with an ally. She soon finds herself with another ally - Scott’s best buddy Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone). He’s not such a reliable ally. She has no reason to doubt him but the audience has very strong reasons to think he’s not playing with a full deck.

The usual formula for such movies is that the man accused of a crime he doesn’t commit has to escape from custody and prove his innocence. This movie doesn’t follow that formula. Scott spends virtually the entire movie behind bars. As a result it’s up to Carol to prove his innocence. That makes Carol the central character, and it means that the movie stands or falls on Ella Raines’ performance. Fortunately she’s more than equal to the task. She’s superb. Carol is a sweet kid from Kansas but she’s also a resourceful, intelligent and very determined young woman.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Franchot Tone made a lot of movies but rarely got good roles. This time he has to do some serious acting and he relishes the opportunity.

Elisha Cook Jr gets one of his meatiest supporting roles. He plays a drummer in the theatre where Scott took the mystery lady. He’s a key witness and the famous jam session as seduction/foreplay scene is one of the most memorable, and one of the most erotic, in all of film noir.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Alan Curtis has little to do but he’s solid and Thomas Gomez is good as Detective-Inspector Burgess, a man who has no personal feelings one way or the other about Scott Henderson but he does have a stubborn sense of duty and and it’s his duty to send guilty men to the chair, not innocent men.

Director Robert Siodmak and his cinematographer Elwood Bredell demonstrate a mastery of the visual iconography of film noir. The movie was based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and Woolrich’s dark and twisted novels always adapt superbly to film.

Phantom Lady (1944)

The Region 4 DVD seems to be the only one available apart from a Spanish release. It’s barebones but quite acceptable.

A terrific and very stylish noirish thriller, and highly recommended.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

7 Men From Now (1956)

7 Men From Now was the first of a series of westerns starring Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher. These westerns are the movies on which the director’s considerable cult reputation rests.

The movie was made in 1956 by John Wayne’s production company, Batjac. A few years earlier Wayne had produced Bullfighter and the Lady which gave Boetticher his major break as a director. Wayne was unavailable to play the lead in 7 Men From Now (he was doing The Searchers for John Ford at the time) but suggested Randolph Scott. It was a momentous suggestion for the careers of both Boetticher and Scott.

Boetticher was not a man who could have worked easily within the strict confines of the studio system but making a modestly budgeted production for Batjac gave him the artistic freedom he craved.

Boetticher’s approach to the western genre was simple and rather austere. He was uninterested in big stories and he was equally uninterested in taking a flashy approach to the job. With a story (by Burt Kennedy) that appealed to him, with a handful of strong characters and a very fine cast, he crafted a deceptively straightforward but immensely powerful film.

We are plunged straight into the action. The backstory will be sketched in later with remarkable economy. A man (we will later learn he is Ben Stride, played by Randolph Scott ) takes shelter from the elements in a cave, with two men. He mentions he’s from Silver Springs, one of the two men remarks that there was a killing there, and the two men are shot.

As we will soon discover, the two men were among seven men who held up the Wells Fargo office in Silver Springs. A woman was shot and killed. She was Ben Stride’s wife. He had been the sheriff but had recently been deposed, not being the sort of man who was good at winning elections. Stride then encounters a young couple, John and Annie Greer, in a wagon heading for California. He travels with them, their journey taking them through country occupied by hostile Indians.

On the journey they encounter Masters (Lee Marvin). While Stride wants to find the robbers for motives of revenge Masters wants to find them to get the $20,000 they stole. They become temporary allies but it’s an uneasy and unstable alliance. Sooner or later they will face a showdown. Further complications arise over Annie Greer. Both Stride and Masters are interested in her while she’s obviously interested in Ben Stride.

It’s a classic western tale cut down to basics but the starkness of the plot gives it a gravity that makes it almost elemental. The subtle characterisations and the quality of the acting make it especially powerful.

Randolph Scott is perfect. Ben Stride is a bleak kind of hero, but not totally unsympathetic. His strengths are qualities that are unfashionable today - a driving sense of duty and a severe view of justice. Scott’s performance is reserved but extremely effective and contrasts nicely with Lee Marvin’s bravura performance. Masters is a complex villain, with a quirky sense of honour combined with opportunism and ruthlessness. Masters and Stride do not hate each other and they even have a sneaking regard for one another. They know that eventually one of them will have to kill the other but this is something that Ben Stride genuinely regrets. Masters was not involved in the robbery which led to Stride’s wife’s death so there’s no personal animosity.

The actual killers are more straightforward villains but they’re not the real focus of the film. In fact they could almost be seen as a McGuffin - their actions drive the actions of both Stride and Masters but they are unimportant in themselves. John and Annie Greer are more important and Walter Reed and Gail Russell give fine performances.

Boetticher’s westerns had an immense influence. When Sergio Leone met Boetticher he assured him that he had stolen all his ideas from the American director! 7 Men From Now has been described as an existential western but while there’s some truth to that it’s wise not to push the point too far. Despite its complex hero and equally complex villain there is a moral centre to the movie that is at odds with the fashionable existentialism of intellectuals of the 50s.

The DVD comes with a host of extras including a quite lengthy documentary. The movie is beautifully restored. John Wayne’s son Michael who has overseen the release of the Batjac movies on DVD insisted that if the movie was going to be released the restoration had to be done properly. The result is a fitting tribute not only to Budd Boetticher but also to the underrated achievements of John Wayne as a producer.

A great western and essential viewing.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of other Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns - Ride Lonesome (1959), Comanche Station (1960).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Frightened City (1961)

The Frightened City is a pretty decent 1961 British crime movie, with added interest by way of one of Sean Connery’s first major roles.

Herbert Lom plays Waldo Zhernikov, a wealthy and successful accountant with some slightly shady connections. For some reason that isn’t made entirely clear he decides to set himself up as a major crime lord. He’s had some dealings with Harry Foulcher (Alfred Marks) who runs a protection racket. There are a dozen or so mobs funning these rackets in London but only six that really count, that are run by professional criminals. The others are just “tearaways and teddy boys” who give crime a bad name. Waldo’s brainwave is that the six organised gangs should unite, drive out the amateurs, and put the whole enterprise on a sound business footing.

The Frightened City (1961)

They’re going to need someone with more brains and more self-control than the average thug to run the enforcement side of the business. Paddy Damion (Sean Connery) seems ideal. He was a very successful cat-burglar until his regular partner Wally was badly injured and now he needs a steady income so he can look after Wally. He’s a criminal but he has a sense of honour. He’s also a very tough guy and he’s smart enough and adaptable enough to be an asset for the new protection syndicate. He doesn’t like the idea of protection rackets but he’s assured that this one will be well organised and that the idea is to move away from mere thuggery, to tone down the rough stuff and keep things business-like.

The new syndicate thrives but Waldo has bigger ambitions. He wants to find bigger and richer victims, like construction companies. This leads to trouble with Alfie Peters, one of the six syndicate members. Alfie is an old-fashioned villain who believes it’s best to stick to the business you know and not attract the attention of Scotland Yard.

The Frightened City (1961)

In fact they’ve already attracted the attention of the Yard, in the person of Detective-Inspector Sayers (John Gregson). DI Sayers isn’t an ostentatious tough guy but looks can be deceptive. He’s a dogged policeman who is quite prepared to stretch the rules a little if he has to, and when he decides to go after a criminal he doesn’t give up.

Meanwhile Paddy Damion is living the high life and is about to trade-in his glamorous nightclub singer girlfriend Sadie for a much more glamorous and exciting nightclub singer girlfriend, the exotic Anya (Yvonne Romain).

The Frightened City (1961)

The conflict with Alfie Peters soon boils over and violence erupts. Violence with guns, which is the sort of thing that Scotland Yard strongly disapproves of. Paddy Damion finds himself in a difficult situation, caught between ambition and loyalty (Alfie Peters is an old friend).

Like a number of postwar British crime movies (such as The Blue Lamp) this film deals with the clash between two different kinds of criminals. There are the old school criminals who know the rules - no guns, very little violence. And there’s the new breed, much more violent and not playing by any rules. Whereas The Blue Lamp sees the new type of criminal as young out-of-control hoodlums with very little sense in The Frightened City we have the beginnings of a conspiracy theory - violent thugs being controlled by powerful wealthy men.

The Frightened City (1961)

Herbert Lom is wonderfully smooth and sinister. John Gregson was a solid if unspectacular actor and he’s quite adequate. Sean Connery is quite good in what is really the most complex and demanding role in the movie. There’s a fine supporting cast.

John Lemont is a very obscure British director whose career was rather brief but he’s competent enough. Competent is the best word to describe this movie - it doesn’t reach any great heights and it’s not stylistically extravagant but it’s successful enough within its modest limits.

The Frightened City (1961)

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a perfectly adequate widescreen print.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Moby Dick (1956)

By 1956 John Huston was developing a taste for risk-taking in his movie projects. Sometimes his gambles paid off and sometimes they didn’t but the results are always interesting. Moby Dick represented a very considerable gamble and while it found little favour at the time with either critics or the public it’s aged rather well.

Adapting Herman Melville’s novel to the screen presented many challenges. The narrative of the book is broken up by lengthy digressions and it’s more concerned with philosophical and spiritual questions than with telling a story. There is a great story in there though and Huston’s film makes the most of it.

Moby Dick (1956)

A young man named Ishmael (Richard Basehart) signs on to the whaling ship Pequod in 1841. Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) is not interested in making money or catching whales. He is interested in one thing - revenge. A year or so earlier he had suffered horrific injuries in an epic struggle with a gigantic white sperm whale, a whale known as Moby Dick. He intends to renew the struggle and this time it will be a fight to the death, although as he explains to his first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) it’s not Moby Dick that he hates. The great white whale is just a mask, and it’s what’s behind the mask that he hates.

Ahab is not just obsessive but also very thorough. He has studied accounts by other whalers and he has charted the movements of whales. He has developed a theory as to their movements and he believes he can accurately predict just where Moby Dick will be found. He intends to be waiting for the whale.

Moby Dick (1956)

His predictions prove to be accurate but the whale escapes. Ahab sets off in pursuit. By this time he has communicated his obsessiveness to his crew. They regard him as being almost a god and they are as keen for the final showdown as he is.

The screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury sticks reasonably close to the book although naturally much had to be omitted. They have also striven for a deliberately archaic feel to the dialogue which suits the material. It gives it a kind of Old Testament feel, combined with some of the flavour of epic poetry. The danger with this approach is that it can make movie seem too literary but in this case that’s not such a disadvantage.

Moby Dick (1956)

Huston wanted the movie to have the washed-out sepia look of old photographs whilst still being shot in colour and he and director of photography Oswald Morris came up with a complicated process to achieve this. It succeeds extremely well. A few years later Huston did something similar in Reflections in a Golden Eye - he seems to have been obsessed by the idea of getting away from a conventional colour palette in his films made in colour.

Of course you couldn’t make a movie such as this at the time without utilising process shots but they generally work pretty well. The movie avoids any hint of appearing to be studio-bound while at the same time avoiding a realistic look. This is a tale that does not lend itself to a straightforward realistic approach.

Moby Dick (1956)

A major challenge was to satisfy the commercial requirements for an exciting action-packed entertaining film while preserving as much as possible of the metaphysical dimension of the novel. It has to be more than just a seafaring adventure yarn. It’s an almost impossible compromise that mostly comes off.

The biggest problem was the casting of Gregory Peck as Ahab. While it’s true that someone like Orson Welles would have been more suitable Peck is actually surprisingly effective. You just have to forget his usual screen image. Leo Genn as Starbuck is more of a problem - he’s good but a little too civilised to be convincing as the first mate of a whaling ship. The rest of the supporting is excellent with Harry Andrews particularly good as the second mate. Richard Basehart as Ishmael is fine. As the narrator he has to be a neutral sort of character but also sympathetic. Orson Welles and James Robertson Justice contribute brief but impressively scenery-chewing cameos.

Moby Dick (1956)

The special effects are excellent. Filming the epic struggle between the Pequod and the whale in those pre-CGI days was awesomely difficult but those scenes are gripping and convincing. Huston also comes up with some memorable visual images - Orson Welles preaching from the prow of a ship mounted inside a chapel in the Pequod’s home port and the typhoon scene with St Elmo’s Fire dancing on the masts are both stunning, but they also contribute to the biblical feel of the story.

The DVD presentation of Moby Dick is quite acceptable and, importantly, preserves the unusual colour scheme.

A very underrated John Huston movie - highly recommended.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s 1953 film Pickup on South Street is not a straightforward film noir, but then very few of Sam Fuller’s movies could be described as straightforward. It’s also neither a straightforward crime film nor a straightforward spy thriller but it has affinities with all these genres.

It opens with a visual tour-de-force, a lengthy dialogue-free sequence of a pickpocket robbing a woman on a New York subway. This is picking pockets as a kind of seduction. It has a disturbing twisted eroticism to it that sets the mood for the rest of the film.

Pickpocket Skip McCoy gets more than he bargained for. The woman’s purse contained a microfilm. The microfilm contains US military secrets. The woman, Candy (Jean Peters), is acting as a courier for her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). She thinks he’s involved in industrial espionage but in fact he’s a communist agent. Without the microfilm Joey will be in big trouble with his spymaster bosses.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Joey and Candy now have to find the pickpocket to get the microfilm back while the police and the FBI have to find both the microfilm and the spymaster, and in order to do that they have to find the pickpocket. These parallel chases lead them all to professional stool pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter in an Oscar-nominated performance). Skip knows Moe is a stoolie but he doesn’t hold it against her. As far as he is concerned it’s no more immoral than being a pickpocket - it’s just a living. He’s actually quite fond of her.

Candy’s position is more complex. Joey has manipulated her and she resents it and while she’s quite relaxed about being involved in criminal activities she draws the line at treason. And she’s strangely attracted to Skip. At first it’s pure lust (all the scenes between them have an intense erotic charge) but it soon develops into something deeper. She is torn between conflicting loyalties.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

The usual template for film noir is that a basically decent guy finds himself drawn into the film noir universe of corruption and damnation, and then has to struggle desperately to save himself. His downfall generally comes about because he has a weakness, or because there’s a small seed of corruption within him.

This movie offers a twist. We have a basically corrupt guy who finds himself drawn, reluctantly, into the daylight world. This happens because here’s a small seed of decency within him. He still has to struggle desperately to save himself, but he has a better chance of redemption. Of course the redemption may come at the price of his death.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

The means by which this happens is the same as in the classic noir template - a woman. She also follows a variation on the classic femme fatale pattern. She tempts him with things he’s never experienced before - loyalty and love. She wants to save him. Like most women who want to save men she’s picked a loser but maybe this time it will work out. There’s not much decency within him but there is a tiny spark buried deep down inside.

She’s also looking for redemption. She’s picked losers before and it’s worked out disastrously and she’s been drawn into that film noir universe herself. In fact her story follows the classic noir pattern more closely than Skip’s. She really is basically decent but she’s been involved with a male version of the femme fatale, a homme fatale if you will, in the person of Joey. He has corrupted her and she is fighting against it.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Richard Widmark is a bit of a noir icon but I find his early performances irritating. They’re all mannerisms and twitchiness and the characterisation is too obvious. By 1953 he was a much more experienced actor and he’s toned things down. He still conveys that sense of a spring that’s been wound too tightly but now he’s in control of the performance. It’s a difficult role because his change of heart has to be convincing, not just a plot contrivance. It works because Fuller’s script provides a believable motivation. Actually two believable motivations, one involving Moe and one involving Candy. Jean Peters is also impressive.

The most amusing thing about this movie is reading some of the online reviews and watching the way the reviewers twist themselves into knots trying to turn it into something they can approve of - a film that is subversive and transgressive and anti-American. Some even manage to convince themselves that the movie is really depicting the police and the FBI and the US government as the bad guys. They’re utterly unconcerned by the fact that there is nothing in the film to support such an interpretation. They believe the line that has been pushed by the film school types that a movie can only be worthwhile if it’s subversive and transgressive and attacks the American Dream.

To the extent that Fuller’s films are subversive they’re subversive in a way such people could never comprehend. They’re stylistically subversive, not politically subversive.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

In fact this movie is completely apolitical in any conventional sense. The microfilm is a McGuffin. Communism is used as a metaphor for corruption - the communist agents are evil because they use lies, manipulation and violence to control people. They differ from the straightforward criminals only in being more ruthless and more dishonest. Skip has always been a thief and Moe has always been a stool pigeon but at least they’ve never claimed to be anything else. There are degrees of corruption. Skip and Candy can only save themselves from the noir nightmare world by learning to trust and to be honest with each other, by leaving the world of lies and manipulation.

Skip, Candy and Moe are all outsiders but Fuller avoids glamourising their outsider status. While they’re all complex and to some extent sympathetic characters the criminal underworld is petty and sordid. To survive they will need to escape from that world. All are given a chance of redemption but whether they will achieve it is by no means certain.

A fascinating and stylish, and emotionally multi-layered, movie by one of the most individualistic and eccentric of all American film-makers. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Howard Hawks made many superb films, but he made few greater than Only Angels Have Wings. This 1939 aviation adventure romance has everything you expect in a great Howard Hawks movie.

Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives in the South American town of Barranca. She expects to stay only until the next day, when her ship leaves again. She immediately finds herself mixed up with Geoff Carter’s flyers. Carter (Cary Grant) runs a small airline. The airline has the contract to fly air mail over the mountains. Their aircraft cannot fly high enough to fly above the mountains so they must fly through a narrow pass at 14,000 feet, and they must do this regardless of the weather.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

It’s incredibly dangerous flying and accidents, frequently fatal, are common. As Bonnie is just about to find out. She was befriended by two of the pilots as soon as she left the ship and just a few hours later one of them, Joe, is killed. Twenty minutes after his fatal crash the other pilots are laughing and joking and when she berates them for having a good time so soon after his death the response is, “Who’s Joe?” It’s one of the most famous scenes in any Howard Hawks movie, and deservedly so. She soon discovers that their apparent callousness is not a sign that they don’t care; it’s a sign that they care too much. There is no other way they can cope.

Geoff Carter has other problems to deal with. The airline has one year to prove it can get the mail delivered on time. After that they will get a permanent contract which means a lot more money. But with several pilots and several aircraft already lost getting that permanent contract will be a real challenge. And then there’s the new pilot, McPherson (Richard Barthelmess). Only that’s not his real name, and everyone knows he’s the pilot who bailed out of a plane two years ago, leaving his mechanic to die. And the mechanic who died was the younger brother of Geoff Carter’s best friend and right hand man, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell).

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

And to add to his worries, McPherson arrived with his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth), who just happens to be an old flame of Geoff’s. Not just an old flame in fact, but the great love of his life. He doesn’t need any more problems, but he gets them. Like having to fly nitro-glycerine to a mine site. His pilots are already unhappy about having McPherson there. And what is he going to do about Bonnie? She’s obviously crazy about him but he believes flyers should never marry. He’s seen what happens to the wives when their men get killed and he’s always vowed never to do that to a woman.

You’d think the poor guy already had more than enough to worry about, and then Bonnie goes and shoots him. Now he’s only got one arm that works, one of his other pilots is in the same boat, and he’s had to ground The Kid because his eyesight is failing. They still have one mail run to go before they get that contract, the weather is closing in, they have a new untested Ford Tri-Motor and if the mail doesn’t go through that’s the end of the airline.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings boasts some great aerial sequences (and some spectacular crashes). Apart from the flying sequences everything has a shot-in-the-studio feel which works to the film’s advantage. You feel like these people are in a little universe of their own where they have to work out their own problem and their own salvation.

Hawks was fascinated by what Hemingway referred to as "grace under pressure" - men facing danger and death with dignity and good humour, because how else can you face it? It’s a movie about old-fashioned virtues like friendship and courage, and overcoming fear and failure. It’s the sort of thing Hawks did supremely well. It could have been corny and contrived and conventional but it isn’t.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Cary Grant gives one of his finest dramatic performances. It’s a difficult and complex role. Carter is a cynical tough guy but he has to. He has to live with the knowledge that every time he sends a man on the mail run he may be signing his death warrant. When the weather is so bad that he can’t send anyone up he makes the flight himself. Thomas Mitchell, a wonderful character actor, is in fine form. Rita Hayworth wasn’t yet a star but she shows flashes of star quality. Jean Arthur is solid. Richard Barthelmess is splendid as a man being eaten alive by shame but determined to overcome it even if it costs him his life.

The characters are almost stereotypes, and in the hands of a lesser film-maker that’s what they would have remained. In the hands of Hawks they become much more. There’s not a bad performance in the movie. The flyers are men who know that each flight might be their last but this is the life they’ve chosen and they wouldn’t give it up for anyone.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

This is Hawks at his best, a wonderful movie that manages to be both tragic and positive, and a movie entirely lacking in self-pity.

Columbia’s Region DVD release is extremely good despite the lack of extras.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hell Drivers (1957)

Hell Drivers, released by Rank in 1957, is the type of gritty thriller the British film industry used to do so well back in the 50s. On the surface it’s an exciting macho action movie but great writing and superb performances make it so much more.

This movie could without stretching definitions too far be described as an example of British film noir. There’s a hero haunted by mistakes in his past that he may not be able to escape, there’s corruption, there’s a femme fatale, there’s a sense of impending tragedy and a tense brooding fatalistic atmosphere. It’s not a crime movie as such but it does feature an ex-con and there are illegal goings-on.

Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) applies for a job as a short-haul lorry driver. He has a few problems with the interview. He can’t produce references because as he explains he’s been abroad. As we find out later he’s actually been in prison. Nevertheless he is given a test run and he gets the job.

It’s dangerous and demanding work. The drivers must make at least twelve runs a day, their trucks loaded with ballast, over roads that are both rough and narrow. And it is impossible to meet that quota without taking risks. Big risks. The drivers are a rough lot. They refer to themselves as hell drivers and they’re not kidding. But Tom has few employment options and the money is good.

The number one driver and road foreman for this firm is Red (Patrick McGoohan). He’s even rougher than the other drivers, a violent and reckless individual who is determined to stay number one and will use any methods necessary to do so. Tom and Red take an instant dislike to one another. In fact the only driver Tom likes is an Italian known as Gino (Herbert Lom).

Gino is hopelessly in love with the firm’s secretary, Lucy (Peggy Cummins, best-known for her extraordinary performance in Gun Crazy). Lucy likes Gino but he’s not in love with him. She doesn’t exactly lead him on but she just can’t find a way to explain things to him. As soon as Tom and Lucy set eyes on each other the sexual sparks start to fly. This is awkward for Tom. Despite his criminal record and his somewhat surly nature he’s a decent guy, the sort of man who thinks there’s nothing lower than stealing another man’s girlfriend. And he likes Gino a lot.

There’s a kind of competition going among the drivers to complete the most runs in a day, with the prize being a very expensive gold cigarette case. It’s more a matter of prestige than the actual prize though. So far no-one has been able to beat Red’s record. Tom is determined to do so. The tensions between Red and Tom continue to mount for a variety of reasons and their rivalry becomes more and more intense and more and more dangerous. It finally becomes absolutely poisonous and potentially deadly.

It seems like everybody who was anybody in the British film industry is in this movie. Apart from the stars already mentioned the supporting cast includes William Hartnell (best-known as the first Doctor Who), Gordon Jackson, David McCallum (soon to achieve TV stardom in the Man from UNCLE), Sid James (of Carry On fame), Jill Ireland and an up-and-coming Scottish actor by the name of Sean Connery.

Patrick McGoohan chews the scenery with great abandon and his approach proves to be the ideal counterpoint to Stanley Baker’s slow-burning tightly wound performance. Herbert Lom is entertaining as always. Peggy Cummins is dangerously sexy, a quality she was exceptionally good at conveying. Without exception the acting is superb.

The action sequences are riveting and realistic. The realism was achieved at some risk. The actors did their own driving and the epic fight scene between Red and Tom was one for real. Both actors had been amateur boxers and both ended up with a collection of bruises and loose teeth. This gives the action scenes a very immediate quality and combined with Cy Endfield’s skillful direction they’re the most impressive element in the film. The driving scenes are truly hair-raising.

The one false note is the subplot towards the end involving the wicked capitalist boss defrauding the noble down-trodden working-class. It gives the impression of being tacked on in an ill-advised attempt to add a political message, always a bad idea. It’s clumsy and quite unnecessary since the rest of the movie has already provided ample motivation for the characters’ actions.

Aside from one minor quibble this is a superb example of 1950s British film-making at its best.

The Region 4 DVD from Madman is a good widescreen print and includes a contemporary making-of documentary and an interview with Stanley Baker filmed in the late 50s. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

If You Could Only Cook (1935)

If You Could Only Cook is an obscure 1935 Columbia screwball comedy that starts a bit slowly but ends up being good lightweight entertainment.

Herbert Marshall is automobile magnate James Buchanan, owner of Buchanan Motors, and also their chief designer. He’s rich and successful and he’s about to get married. So I guess he’s pretty happy, right? Well he isn’t. You see his board of directors have turned down his designs for a revolutionary new line of cars.

And then there’s the marriage thing. It’ all very sensible - he has the money, she has the family connections. But there’s no zing to it. No romance. James Buchanan didn’t realise he was a romantic sort of chap but it turns out that he is.

Buchanan heads to the park and sits on a bench to have a think about all this. He happens to sit next to attractive blonde Joan (Jean Arthur). She has her troubles as well. She can’t find a job and her landlady is about to kick her out. She assumes that Buchanan is down on his luck as well, since he seems a bit glum. Joan has noticed that there are actually plenty of job openings for married couples. There’s one in that day’s paper, for a cook and butler. Buchanan remarks whimsically that if only she could cook she could apply for the cook’s job.

Now Joan is in fact an excellent cook and she now gets a brilliant idea. If they pretend to be married then with her cooking skills they’d be sure to get the position. Since this is a Hollywood movie he decides that being a butler might be more fun than running a car factory and he agrees.

Their employer is Mike Rossini. He lives in a big house with his buddy, a guy named Flash. Rossini is a cheerful sort of guy and he’s rather a gourmet. In fact good food is his passion. He’s mightily impressed by Joan’s culinary skills.

Flash seems a bit rough around the edges but he’s friendly enough. All goes well until Buchanan discovers that Rossini is a big-time racketeer and Flash is his chief henchman.

Now when I say Mike Rossini is a gangster I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. He’s a pretty nice guy. OK, from time to time he has to have someone rubbed out when they step out of line and Flash has to organise it but that’s just business. In his personal life he’s charming and generous and rather kindly. And Flash isn’t a bad guy either.

Rossini takes a bit of a shine to Joan and when he finds out that his presumably married cook and butler don’t share a bed he figures maybe they’re not really married so he makes a move on her. You see Mike’s idea of the perfect woman is someone who can cook the way Joan cooks. If they’re pretty and blonde as well that’s a bonus but really it’s all about the cooking.

She gently rebuffs him. He doesn’t take offence. Like I said, he’s a nice guy and he’s a gentleman. Of course pretty soon things start to get confused and crazy in standard screwball comedy style. There are stolen car designs, Joan gets arrested, James Buchanan nearly gets rubbed out, his society wedding turns into a kidnapping and everyone gets their wires crossed. And of course James Buchanan and Joan realise they’re in love.

It’s all good-natured silliness and despite its slow start it does get more and more amusing and more and more fun. Don’t expect to be rolling on the floor with laughter but it’s still very enjoyable. Herbert Marshall is impossible to dislike, as is Jean Arthur, and they make a pretty good team. Leo Carillo as Mike Rossini and Lionel Stander as Flash are both terrific and they get the bulk of the laughs.

This movie is part of the first volume of the Icons of Screwball Comedy series. Each of the two boxed sets contains four Columbia screwball comedies and the nice thing is they’re all movies that have previously been difficult if not impossible to find on DVD. In fact I don’t think any of them have been released on DVD prior to this. They’re decent transfers and both sets are superb value for money.

If You Could Only Cook is certainly recommended. It’s not in the same league as the best of the Carole Lombard screwball comedies or masterpieces of the genre like It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby but it’s still warmly recommended.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Blue Lamp (1950)

The Blue Lamp, made at Ealing Studios in 1950, is in some ways a British version of The Naked City - an early example of the police procedural shot in a pseudo-documentary style.

It’s a style that would later become very popular in British crime television series, and in fact one of the lead characters went on to become the central character of one of the most successful and long-running of all British TV cop shows, Dixon of Dock Green.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

While it’s not film noir it does have some affinities to noir, most notably in the way it portrays the sense of postwar disillusionment and anxiety, elements often seen as playing a major role in American film noir. There’s also a background of a society beginning the long slow process of unravelling, a feature of this movie that is usually overlooked.

In this case the principal anxiety is juvenile delinquency. At this period if you were making a British movie dealing with such a subject you had two casting choices - Richard Attenborough or Dirk Bogarde. Two of the greatest of all British actors, and arguably no actors have ever conveyed the sense of menace and of youth dangerously out of control, combined with a sense of vulnerability and hopelessness, as these two stars. In The Blue Lamp the main juvenile delinquent is Dirk Bogarde.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

This was in fact the movie that established Bogarde as a major star. It was one of three great crime thrillers he made that year, the other two being So Long at the Fair and The Woman in Question.

The movie is intended to be focused primarily on the police but Bogarde’s twitchy and disturbing presence completely dominates the movie.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) is your archetypal loveable English bobby. He’s close to retirement when young PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) arrives at Paddington Green Police Station. Dixon takes Mitchell under his wing.

The police are facing a major challenge - a new breed of young criminal who refuses to play by the established rules. This is one of the major themes of the movie - the divide between the old-school professional criminals who detest violence and this new breed who are vicious violent hoodlums, made even more dangerous by their youthful incompetence. Two such hoodlums are Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) and Spud (Patric Doonan). They have teamed up with a young runaway, Diana Lewis (Peggy Evans). The three of them plan to rob a theatre but of course it all goes horribly wrong and there is a shooting. If the victim dies this will become a murder case.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

This bungled robbery will have momentous consequences for both PC Dixon and PC Mitchell, in very different ways.

Detective-Inspector Cherry (Bernard Lee) is in charge of the investigation and leads are hard to come by until one of the three young criminals makes a fatal error.

This is a film that couldn’t be made today. Modern audiences would refuse to accept the idea of police officers as decent dedicated men and women. It is a very idealised view of the police, but perhaps we have become so cynical that we cannot even comprehend such concepts. Modern audiences would also be mystified by the sharp divide between the old and breeds of criminal, a gap so wide that the old-school criminals are willing to help the police catch the young hoodlums.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

The biggest problem this movie has is the acting. Dirk Bogarde is of course superb but everyone else is too stiff, too formal, too lifeless. The script doesn’t help, relying too much on stereotypical stock characters. The police officers in particular manage to be both dull and mildly irritating.

The movie does have compensating strengths though. Basil Dearden was a fine director and his approach is lively and stylish. There’s some splendid location photography and some excellent set-pieces.

Stilted at times and a little too idealistic in its depiction of police work, it’s still worth a look.