Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

A Study in Scarlet (1933)The 1933 movie version of Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet stars Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes. This was his only performance in the role and he does a very decent job.

A mysterious apparent suicide on a train is followed by further deaths, some being obviously murder while others also appear at first to be suicides. The widow of the first victim engages Sherlock Holmes when she finds herself left without a penny although her husband was a wealthy man with considerable expectations.

Holmes finds himself drawn into a mystery involving a syndicate known as the Scarlet Ring. The members of the ring are to share in the proceeds of a certain venture which of course turns out to be a spectacular crime. The conditions governing the Scarlet Ring are that when the proceeds of this crime finally come to be shared out they will be distributed amongst the surviving members. This is an obvious enticement for one or more members of the ring who are even more dishonest than the others to thin out the numbers in order to maximise their share. In fact if only one member remains alive he will collect the lot. 

Holmes suspects the involvement of a shady lawyer named Thaddeus Merrydew, an unscrupulous blackmailer.

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

The daughter of the first victim has been invited to join the Scarlet Ring. She has no idea of the nefarious criminal activities this group is mixed up in and her husband-to-be believes her to be in great danger, an opinion shared by Sherlock Holmes.

If the movie has one major fault it is that it gives away rather too much of the plot rather too early.

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

Warburton Gamble is a dull and colourless Dr Watson. Anna May Wong as Mrs Pyke, the widow of one of the murdered members of the conspiracy, is  the most impressive member of the cast although Reginald Owen makes a pretty fair Sherlock Holmes.

The most bizarre thing is that Holmes’ address in this movie is 221A Baker Street. The plot takes considerable liberties with Conan Doyle’s novel. 

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

It’s in the public domain and the edition I saw (in a Mill Creek boxed set) suffered from poor picture quality and atrocious sound quality.  

The movie is perhaps a little on the stodgy side but it’s reasonable entertainment.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon is essentially a women’s picture made in a film noir style. Made at Fox in 1947, this is also a superb example of Preminger’s film-making at its best. Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is a successful New York commercial artist. She is having an affair with a married man, high-flying lawyer Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). Dan’s marriage is obviously an unhappy one - his wife Lucille (Ruth Warrick) would have been described in the 1940s as neurotic and she takes out her frustrations on their two daughters. Daisy Kenyon (1947) She is also dating a troubled veteran, Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda). All the main characters are damaged in some way. Peter is still getting over the war and the death of his first wife. Dan is aware that he has been a bad husband and father. He longs for a satisfying relationship with a woman but lacks the courage to either rebuild his marriage or make a clean break. Daisy is lonely and longs for love. Lucille is bitter and jealous and resentful. All four characters need to make decisions about their lives. Daisy does make her choice, but then she seems to regret it. She remains torn between the two men, unable to let go of either. The tension builds as all four people start to unravel and there seems to be a real chance that violence or some other tragedy will be the result. Daisy Kenyon (1947) Daisy, Dan and Peter are all well-rounded characters with their own strengths and their own flaw. Even Lucille, the most minor and least-developed of the four, is not entirely unsympathetic. Preminger was famous for his “objectivity” - his refusal to manipulate the audience into making judgments on the characters. He wants the audience to weigh up the evidence and then make their own judgment without being told what that judgment should be. Preminger trained as a lawyer and admired the US legal system and wanted his audience to be as impartial as a jury. Daisy Kenyon (1947) It’s also an essential part of Preminger’s approach that his films contain very few simple villains. He preferred stories with complex characters who were a mixture of good and bad and he was careful to show both sides of his characters and to give them a fair hearing. He encouraged the actors to look at things from the point of view of the characters they were playing and to understand that the characters had their own reasons even for actions that might appear to others to be destructive. This is very obvious in Daisy Kenyon - this is a very even-handed film. Preminger is, as always, cool and controlled. This is a strange approach to melodrama but it works. This is melodrama played seriously. The characters are all out of control in their own lives which contrasts nicely with the controlled feel of the film. The viewer is never pushed into taking sides. When Preminger made genre films he never made the mistake of despising such films and in this case he treats the women’s melodrama with respect. We are never made to feel that these people’s lives or their problems are trivial. It’s a movie about love, marriage and families and Preminger understands that these are not trivial subjects. Preminger always took the problems of his women characters seriously. There are no token girlfriend characters in a Preminger movie. Daisy Kenyon (1947) Crawford was a decade too old to play Daisy but was very keen and convinced Darryl F. Zanuck she could do it. Whether Preminger was happy about this is uncertain but he gets a fine performance from her, managing to tone down her excesses. Crawford is controlled and she’s excellent. Dana Andrews was always good in Preminger’s movies and he’s superb here. Actors have won Oscars for lesser performances. Henry Fonda is the big surprise - he’s terrific. Both Andrews and Fonda underplay their roles, which is exactly the right approach. The performances are unemotional, but the emotions are suggested subtly. Preminger always trusted the American movie audience to have the intelligence not to need to be spoon-fed and Andrews and Fonda (and Crawford to a great extent as well) give him the sorts of nuanced performances that he valued. Ruth Warrick on the other hand is all barely suppressed hysteria, but again the fact that she’s trying to keep a lid on the cauldron of her emotions adds to the emotional depth of the film. Suppressed emotions are always more disturbing than overt emotionalism. Daisy Kenyon (1947) The DVD is typical of Fox’s film noir releases - a glorious print and packed with high-quality extras. Foster Hirsch’s commentary track is well worth the listen and there are two documentaries, one on the movie itself and one on Preminger’s career at 20th Century-Fox. This is what all DVD releases would be like if we lived in an ideal world and Fox are to be congratulated for treating a fine film with the respect it deserves. The DVD era has seen Preminger’s reputation not merely rehabilitated but growing by leaps and bounds. This is only just. This is a superbly crafted movie by a master film-maker. One of the best of all the hybrid women’s noirs of the 40s, and one of Joan Crawford’s best pictures.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rusty Knife (1958)

Rusty Knife is a Japanese film noir/crime thriller and is one of five movies presented in the Nikkatsu Noir boxed set by Criterion in their “budget” Eclipse series.

Chronologically this is the second movie in the set. All five movies represent a Japanese approach to film noir that combines plenty of classic noir elements with a uniquely Japanese flavour. This, and the fact that all were made by Nikkatsu Studios in the late 50s and early 60s, is what gives this collection of movies by a variety of directors its coherence.

Rusty Knife dates from 1958 and was directed by a man who went to become one of the studio’s most successful directors, Toshio Masuda.

A small Japanese industrial city is at the mercy of the gangster Katsumada. The police know all about his activities but no-one can be persuaded to testify against him. Then the police get a break. Five years earlier a city councillor, Nishida, committed suicide. Or so it appeared. In fact he was murdered. There were three witnesses, all criminals. They were all paid off.

Now one of the criminals, Shimabara (Jô Shishido, later to become Japanese noir’s most iconic star), has decided the huge money was not sufficient. He tries to blackmail Katsumada. He pays the price for his folly, but he was not a complete fool. He had given a letter to his girlfriend, to be delivered to the police in the event of his untimely demise. Not only does the letter reveal that Nishida’s death was murder, it also names the two other witnesses.

These two witnesses, Terada and Tachibana (Yûjirô Ishihara), now work in Tachibara’s bar. These two former yakuza have now gone straight. Five years earlier another event occurred. Tachibara’s girlfriend was raped and subsequently killed herself. Tachibara killed the rapist and served five years in prison. He is a hot-tempered but fundamentally decent man. He wants no more violence in his life, he wants no more to do with crime. Nut neither the police nor Katsumada are likely to leave him in peace.

He is a typical noir hero, an essentially good man who cannot escape his past or his one tragic violent act. Also swept into this drama is Nichida’s daughter Keiko (Mie Kitahara), now a documentary film-maker crusading against violent crime. She and Tachibana are friends but now they will be drawn together in an unexpected way, and the various plot strands will coalesce.

Tachibana is a reluctant hero but there is one piece of evidence that will cause him to question the fatal events that occurred five years earlier and persuade him to take a stand.

There’s plenty of noirish atmosphere and like most Japanese movies it’s quite stylish but without the visual extravagance of a Seijun Suzuki movie. The truck fight sequence is impressive. Yûjirô Ishihara and Mie Kitahara are both excellent.

Budget-priced has of course a different meaning to Criterion than to us regular folks, this Nikkatsu Noir boxed set being merely overpriced rather than colossally overpriced. Picture quality is very good though. And the movies are so good that the set is an absolute must-buy.

Rusty Knife is very definitely worth a look. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby was only modestly successful on its original release in 1938 but went on to become one of the best-loved of all screwball comedies. I’ve always loved this film and it still stands up as well as ever.

David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a palaeontologist. He needs one more bone to complete the four-year restoration of a brontosaurus. He also needs $1 million for his museum. Now the final bone has been located and it looks like a donor with the million dollars has been found as well. And he’s about to be married. Everything is going just swimmingly. All he needs to do is to play a pleasant round of golf with the lawyer representing the donor and everything should be all set. What could possibly go wrong in a game of golf?

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The answer is, plenty. He encounters Susan (Katharine Hepburn) on the golf course and everything becomes a nightmare of chaos. Susan is a very nice person but chaos is her constant companion. First she wrecks his car, then he finds himself aiding and abetting her to steal another car, accompanied by Baby. Baby is her leopard. He’s a very friendly leopard but David doesn’t even cope well with housecats and small dogs, much less leopards. And Susan manages to get involved in another traffic accident and that costs him $150 for the two swans that Baby subsequently eats. And the chaos has only just started.

This was Howard Hawks’ second screwball comedy, his first being the very successful Twentieth Century in 1934. Hawks proved to be one of the masters of this genre and Bringing Up Baby sees him at the top of his game.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The pacing, as always in a Hawks comedy, is relentless. There’s plenty of snappy dialogue. Most importantly there are not just crazy situations, but crazy situations that pay off in terms of laughs.

There’s an an abundance of fine character actors in supporting roles. Cary Grant had scored a major hit the year before in The Awful Truth, establishing him in the screwball comedy genre. Bringing Up Baby sees him playing a role rather different from any he’d played before as the mild-manner bespectacled scientist.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The big surprise is Katharine Hepburn. This is her most delightful role. She’s charming and likeable and as Hawks himself explained it’s a role that could have been irritating but never is. Susan is always scheming - she took one look at David and decided he was the man for her - but she’s kind of vulnerable as well in a way you don’t expect Hepburn to be. She’s also very funny.
She also seems to be quite comfortable playing scenes with the leopard! While in some scenes it’s obvious that rear projection is being used it’s also obvious in other scenes that she’s petting and playing with an actual leopard.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Hawks demonstrates the clear superiority of directors of the classical age of Hollywood over the directors of today, with technique being used to advance the plot and establish the characters rather than to show off his cleverness.

The region 4 DVD includes a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich. It’s typical of his commentaries - informative, amusing and affectionate and very enthusiastic. Bogdanovich knew Hawks and drew on interviews with the director for the commentary.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Enormous fun from start to finish. One of the three or four best screwball comedies ever made and Katharine Hepburn’s finest moment. At a time when she was was ironically regarded as being box-office poison (which may have accounted for the movie’s relative lack of success at the time) she was actually at the peak of her form. A must-see movie.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fort Apache (1948)

Fort Apache was the first movie in John Ford’s informal “cavalry trilogy” and it’s one of the great westerns. Ford had had a commercial disaster with The Fugitive in 1947 and desperately needed a hit, and Fort Apache put him back on top.

Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) had been a distinguished general in the Civil War but like most regular army officers he’d reverted to his former rank in peacetime and his career is languishing. He regards his appointment as the new commanding officer of Fort Apache in the Arizona Territory as an insult and is keen to find some way to win glory. He knows nothing about the Apaches and is unwilling to take the advice of experienced officers like Captain Kirby York (John Wayne). His first step is to counter what he sees as unpardonable slackness in his new command. Some officers don’t even wear full uniform!

Fort Apache (1948)

He was accompanied to his new posting by his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), who immediately falls in love with a handsome young lieutenant. He’s the son of the Regimental Sergeant-Major so to Thursday he’s not really one of the “officer class” and he has no desire to see his daughter marry the son of a mere NCO.

There’s trouble brewing with the Apaches. Cochise has led most of the Chiricahua Apaches over the border to Mexico in protest against the corruption of the local Indian agent who is more interested in selling Cochise’s people rotgut whiskey than blankets and decent food. Bringing Cochise and his people back to the reservation appeals to Thursday as a way of making a name for himself. Thursday’s foolishness will lead inevitably to tragedy.

Fort Apache (1948)

Ford always liked to mix romance and comedy with the drama even in his darkest films and it often worked surprisingly well, making the tragedy even more poignant. That’s certainly true in this case.

There was a lot of nonsense talked in the 70s about the new breed of “revisionist” westerns that supposedly did ground-breaking things like showing the Indians’ point of view and exposing the reality behind the myths of the Old West. This was utter humbug. Ford had been doing such things for decades, and he did it more intelligently and more subtly. John Ford invented the revisionist western.

Fort Apache (1948)

I’ve never liked Henry Fonda as an actor but I have to admit he’s superb here, resisting the temptation to overplay the character or to play him as a mere bumbling fool. Owen Thursday is a proud brave man who makes some disastrously foolish decisions but Fonda gives him dignity, and that’s the element that really makes this movie work. John Wayne, one of classic Hollywood’s most underrated actors, gives another fine performance. Like Thursday, Captain York is a complex character, torn between his duty of obedience as an officer and his loyalty to the army on the one hand and his belief that Colonel Thursday is tragically wrong and is leading his command to disaster. York is also a deeply honourable man. He has no great love for the Apaches but he can see their point of view and he believes the best way to deal with Cochise is to deal with him honourably.

There’s a fine supporting cast with Victor McLagen, Ward Bond and Shirley Temple all very solid. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her in an adult role and she’s quite capable.

Fort Apache (1948)

In Ford’s westerns from Stagecoach onwards the Monument Valley locations are as much the star of the films as the lead actors. In Fort Apache his director of photography, Archie Stout, used infra-red film (developed during the war for military use) to achieve startling effects. It was tedious to use, requiring special make-up for the actors, but both Ford and Stout considered (quite correctly) that the results were worth the extra trouble.

Considering Ford’s reputation for not rehearsing action sequences and for disdaining the idea of planning shots in advance the action scenes in this movie can only fill the viewer with awe. They really are magnificent, not just spectacular but deeply moving as well (especially the scenes of Thursday’s charge and its tragic consequences).

Fort Apache (1948)

Warner’s Region 1 DVD includes a brief documentary on John Ford’s Monument Valley. One of the reasons that Ford loved making movies there was that he got on very well with the local Navajo people and his films provided much-needed employment for them and pumped a great deal of money into the local community. On one occasion when they faced starvation because of an incredibly severe snow storm he used his military connections (as a former naval officer) to arrange a military air-drop of supplies for the Navajo and their animals. He’s still remembered with a great deal of affection by the Navajo. That’s why all the Indians in Ford’s westerns are played by Navajos!

A great western and a great movie.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka was Greta Garbo’s second-last film, and her first real comedy. It was a hit and could have launched her into a new phase of her career but sadly that was not to be. Her final film, the very underrated Two-Faced Woman, unfortunately failed to repeat the commercial success of Ninotchka and she decided to call it a day. She presumably felt it was better to remain a legend than to risk seeing a career slowly peter out, and perhaps she was right.

I saw Ninotchka many years ago but when I was young I was as serious and humourless as Ninotchka herself is in the early part of the film so I wasn’t able to appreciate it. I’ve put off seeing it again because of Billy Wilder’s involvement in it as co-writer - I don’t care for Wilder’s brand of comedy in general. But since it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, whom I admire, and starred Garbo, whom I adore, I felt it was time to take another look at this one.

Ninotchka (1939)

The Soviet government needs money badly so they decide to sell some of the jewels that they had stolen from aristocrats after the Revolution. In this case the jewels had belonged to a certain grand duchess (played by Ina Claire) who happens to be very much alive and living in Paris. When three Soviet apparatchiks arrive in Paris to sell her jewels she gets wind of it and launches a court case to block the sale, arguing (correctly of course) that the jewels are stolen. Her boyfriend, a shiftless and penniless but charming French count named Leon (Melvyn Douglas), offers a deal to the three hapless Soviets. Negotiations drag on and a special envoy is dispatched from Moscow to expedite matters. The envoy is Ninotchka (Greta Garbo).

Ninotchka takes life very seriously indeed. She is a dedicated communist with no time for frivolities but Leon figures that although she might be a Bolshevik she’s still a woman and his charm has never failed him yet.

Ninotchka (1939)

Both Leon and Ninotchka find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Leon finds that what started out as his usual style of self-serving flirtation is starting to turn into love. And Ninotchka discovers there’s more to life than Five Year Plans and compiling statistics on tractor production. She discovers champagne, and evening dresses, and dancing, and having fun. And she discovers that she is not immune to decadent western weaknesses like falling madly in love with feckless but handsome and charming Frenchmen.

Her three Soviet comrades have discovered the joys of Paris as well. They’ve installed themselves in the Royal Suite in a fashionable hotel and are enjoying the capitalist high life. Instead of negotiating for the sale of the jewels they’re getting drunk and chasing pretty Parisian girls.

Ninotchka (1939)

The grand duchess not only wants her jewels back, she also wants her French toyboy back. She wants to see Ninotchka back in Moscow, as soon as possible. Especially since Leon seems intent on marrying his beautiful Bolshevik sweetheart.

The humour is perhaps not as subtle as you might expect from Lubitsch, but this is a very funny film. Much of the humour comes from the antics of the three hapless but good-natured comrades who are finding that capitalism is much more fun than communism, and that being able to say what you like without the fear of being shipped off to a labour camp in Siberia is rather appealling as well.

Ninotchka (1939)

Melvyn Douglas is very good but the success of the movie depends on Garbo and she proves to be a gifted comedienne (as she demonstrated again in Two-Faced Woman). It’s a slyly self-mocking performance and it’s a delight. I’d venture to say that this movie is much funnier if you’re familiar with her earlier movies and with her established image as the perennially tragic doomed woman who sacrifices everything for love. Garbo was cast very much against type in this movie and she has a great time making fun of her very serious image.

Look out for Bela Lugosi’s cameo as a particularly dour commissar.

This movie makes an interesting contrast with the screwball comedies that were so popular at the time. The Lubitsch approach to comedy was far more sophisticated and this is definitely not screwball comedy (in contrast to Two-Faced Woman which is pure screwball comedy).

Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka is also a biting satire on communism, and it finds its target with unerring accuracy. The humour is at times quite black, such as Ninotchka’s remark that the show trials are going very well in Moscow and there will soon be fewer but better Russians. The humourlessness of Marxism is mocked but the movie also very effectively pinpoints the dehumanising effects of political terror. It is a plea for humanity and for love and for fun as being far more important than blind adherence to ideology. As a political satire it is infinitely superior to Charlie Chaplin’s grossly overrated The Great Dictator made a year later. It’s also far more courageous, given the appeal of leftist ideologies in Hollywood. It was banned in Russia, which simply serves to demonstrate that the comrades really were as humourless as the movie shows them to be.

Ninotchka is highly recommended and the Warner Home Video DVD looks terrific.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

Think Fast, Mr. Moto was the first of the nine Mr Moto movies made by 20th Century-Fox in the late 30s featuring Peter Lorre as the great Japanese detective. They were B-movies, but well-made B-movies.

While the Mr Moto of the first of John P. Marquand’s novels is a spymaster in the film he becomes an amateur detective. In the movie he also acquires martial arts skills. Lorre was attracted to the role because he had grown tired of playing psychopathic crazies and liked the idea playing a hero for a change. And not just a hero, but an action hero!

Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

Mr Moto is on the trail of smugglers, a trail that leads him from San Francisco’s Chinatown to Shanghai. The case involves murder as well as smuggling. Mr Moto, a master of disguise, has picked up some useful leads by going undercover as a disreputable diamond smuggler. On board the ship he befriends Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck) a young American who is the son of the steamship line.

Hitchings has fallen for Gloria Danton, a glamorous young woman who has a secret. She is a White Russian, a woman without a country, travelling on a forged passport. The plot gathers steam when the travellers arrive in Shanghai and Mr Moto starts to close in on the leaders of the smuggling ring.

Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

While it’s regarded as politically incorrect these days to have European actors playing Asian characters Think Fast, Mr. Moto cannot be accused of racist stereotyping. Mr Moto is no inscrutable Oriental. He is a brave, honourable and capable man who uses a mixture of intelligence and ju-jitsu to bring bad guys to justice but he carries a gun as well and he’s quite willing to use it. There are no two-dimensional Oriental villains in this movie and the Chinese police are portrayed as being efficient and honest.

Shanghai in the 20s and early 30s was one of the world’s most fascinating cities - dangerous, sophisticated and decadent - and is an ideal setting for a crime story with a hint of international intrigue. You could find any kind of entertainment in Shanghai and the movies makes the most of this with night-club and gambling club scenes and a generally exotic atmosphere, created quite effectively for a B-movie made entirely in Hollywood.

Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

Lorre eventually grew bored with the Mr Moto movies, inevitable considering that he made no less than nine of them, but he clearly liked the character and he makes Mr Moto one of the most interesting of movie detectives. The support cast is quite adequate. Within the constraints of the limited budget director Norman Foster handles his task very professionally and doesn’t allow the pace to flag.

Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)

This is a very solid crime B-movie and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

The Fox DVD (included in the first of the Mr Moto boxed sets) is a superb transfer and includes an interview with stuntman Harvey Perry who was Peter Lorre’s stunt double and has very fond memories of working with Lorre.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Favorite Wife (1940)

My Favorite Wife is a thoroughly delightful 1940 example of the screwball comedy. With Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as the stars you’re already on a winner.

Ellen Ardin (Irene Dunne) is the wife of Nick Arden (Cary Grant) but she’s dead. Well, sort of. Several years earlier she was lost at sea. She was seen disappearing beneath the waves after her lifeboat was swamped and since a number of years have passed it seem safe to conclude that she really is dead. The judge regards it as an open-and-shut case and declares her legally dead, allowing Nick to marry Bianca (Gail Patrick). So it comes as quite a shock to poor Nick when they get to the hotel where they’re to spend their honeymoon and who should he spot in the foyer but his deceased first wife.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

Ellen is very much alive. She has spent the last seven years marooned on an island, until finally she was picked up by a Portuguese freighter. Now Nick has one wife too many. That’s embarrassing enough, but which wife does he actually want? Since Irene Dunne is the star you get no prizes for guessing he wants Ellen. Or at least he’s pretty sure he does. He’s fond of both of his wives. After all if you marry a woman it generally means you’re fond of her.

If he’s going to pick up where he left off with Ellen, what is he going to tell Bianca? After all, it’s not exactly the sort of thing a woman wants to be told when she’s only been married for a few hours.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

You might think this was enough of a problem for one man to deal with but there’s worse to come. It transpires that Ellen wasn’t alone on the island. There were two survivors stranded on that island, and the second survivor was a man. A rather good-looking man named Steve Burkett (Randolph Scott). Just the two of them, alone together on an island for seven years. What could they possibly have found to do? Nick has a pretty shrewd idea.

It’s a good basis for a screwball comedy, offering opportunities for the wild confusions and misunderstandings so characteristic of the genre, and for the kinds of progressively escalating craziness equally associated with this type of film. A good set-up is not however enough to make a good screwball comedy. The situations need to be truly funny as well as crazy. Happily My Favorite Wife scores very heavily on this count as well with a sparkling screenplay that gives Grant and Dunne ample opportunities to demonstrate their considerable skills at this sort of comedy.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

With a very capable supporting cast it all comes together perfectly. Randolph Scott is particularly good. Gail Patrick is the one weak link. Not that her performance is bad - she just doesn’t get the good lines.

Leo McCarey (who directed Grant and Dunne in the wonderful The Awful Truth) was to have directed but was hospitalised after a car crash. Garson Kanin took over and did a serviceable job, although had McCarey been at the helm it might well have been an even better picture.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

I picked this one up on a Cary Grant double feature Region 4 DVD. Picture and sound quality were truly atrocious, so there are clearly some bad versions of this movie floating around. The movie itself, although not quite in the top rank of screwball comedies, is thoroughly enjoyable.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Payroll (1961)

Payroll is a 1961 British crime thriller with no real claims to be a film noir but it does have some interesting features. It can be seen as a heist movie (and a very good one) but it can also be seen as a revenge movie. Unusually for 1961, it has a woman as the righteous avenging angel.

Johnny Mellors (Michael Craig) and his gang are planning a payroll robbery. They have a man on the inside, Dennis Pearson (William Lucas), who works in the payroll department. The firm involved is about to introduce a new high-tech armoured car on to the run. Most of the gang members assume the job will now be off but to Johnny this is is merely a challenge, and he has a plan.

Most heist movies present a fool-proof robbery plan which nonetheless goes wrong. In this case things start going wrong well before the robbery. No-one but Johnny thinks they can get away with it. Of course things do go badly wrong in the actual robbery and a two men killed, including one member of the gang. Now they all face the prospect of the gallows.

Johnny has more problems than he realises. The widow of the murdered security guard sets out on a private campaign of vengeance. Most of the movie revolves around the increasing tensions within the gang as the gang members turn against each other, and on the widow’s increasingly successful efforts at revenge.

Johnny has other problems with women as well, from a completely unexpected quarter. At one point he tells his accomplices the newspapers will soon lose interest in the story because there’s no sex angle, but he will soon discover that there very definitely is a sex angle. Director Sidney Hayer handles the heist sequences extremely well. Payroll (1961) The whole film is typical of the excellent British thrillers of this vintage. Nothing overly fancy, but a very well-crafted movie. Shot in widescreen and black-and-white it looks great.

Michael Craig wisely underplays the psychotic Johnny Mellors so when he does erupt into violence it comes as a shock. Billie Whitelaw, Françoise Prévost, Kenneth Griffith and Tom Bell provide fine support. A very good crime thriller worth seeking out. Optimum’s Region 2 DVD is excellent.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Please Murder Me (1956)

Please Murder Me (1956)

Please Murder Me is an ingenious little 1956 murder mystery with noir overtones and a clever plot gimmick.

Raymond Burr is attorney Craig Carlson who has fallen in love with the wife of an old army buddy. In fact Joe Leeds isn’t just an old army buddy, he’s Carlson’s closest friend. Carlson is a straightforward up-front sort of guy so he explains the situation to Joe. He and Myra Leeds (Angel Lansbury) want to get married so it would be kind of cool if Joe would give Myra a divorce.

Joe isn’t overly pleased of course. He’s kind of stunned, as you would be. He tells Carlson he’ll have to think things through. So far it hasn’t gone quite as badly as Carlson feared. He really hates to having to hurt poor Joe that way. Then poor Joe gets shot. Myra is found next to the body with a gun in her hand but she claims it was self-defence. Joe just suddenly attacked her and she had no choice. That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.

Please Murder Me (1956)

Carlson naturally believes her but the cops don’t buy it. She is charged with murder and Carson will be her defence attorney.

At this point I have to say that one of my movie pet peeves is movies where lawyers defend people they’re personally involved with or related to. Is that really considered to be ethical? I’d have thought not, but I’m not a lawyer so maybe it’s actually quite normal. Sometimes though it is unavoidable and in this case the entire plot hinges on that point, and since it’s a clever plot I’m prepared to make allowances. And it’s by no means the only egregiously unethical thing that happens in the trial scene.

Please Murder Me (1956)

With the trial Carlson’s problems have only just begun. He gets hold of a letter that Joe Leeds wrote on the day of his death, a letter that puts a rather different complexion on the whole case. Has Carlson been played for a fool? Is there a way out for him?

So far nothing I’ve told you really constitutes a spoiler. This all happens fairly early on before the plot twists start to kick in, and the flashback structure and certain other hints make most of the plot points up to this stage fairly obvious. It’s Carlson’s response to these events that constitutes the core of the plot and the heart of the movie.

Please Murder Me (1956)

The screenplay is certainly contrived and stretches the limits of credibility but you expect that in a murder mystery and it’s sufficiently well-executed that despite the contrivances it works. Director Peter Godfrey made some pretty good movies but by the mid-50s his career was on the downward slide and he was reduced to doing television work and Poverty Row productions like this one. He does a sound job.

Raymond Burr hadn’t yet found fame as Perry Mason but he’d done some great film noir supporting roles making quite a name for himself as a heavy. This film gives him the opportunity to be a hero. A hero of sorts anyway, He was better as a bad guy but he’s solid enough. Angela Lansbury starts off being a little on the insipid side but once Myra starts to develop her spider woman tendencies her performance really starts to blossom, in a nicely poisonous way.

Please Murder Me (1956)

This is very much a low-budget movie so it’s hard to tell if the rather seedy and claustrophobic feel was intentional or merely the result of the budgetary limitations. The poor quality of the print may also have added to the seedy atmosphere.

Is it really film noir? Is has lengthy flashback sequences and it definitely has a femme fatale, and it has a hero who is a poor schmuck who gets his life ruined and gets dragged into a waking nightmare, so I think it has enough noir credentials to qualify.

Please Murder Me (1956)

It can be difficult to judge a movie fairly when you only get to see an extremely bad print. Poor picture quality can make a movie appear more stodgy than it really is and lousy picture and sound quality can make performances seem flatter than they really are. I think it’s a pretty decent little movie anyway but the public domain print I saw is truly awful and it’s quite possible I’d have liked this one even more had I had the opportunity to see a good print.

A respectable B noir and worth looking out for.