Sunday, July 29, 2012

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

There’s Always Tomorrow is one of Douglas Sirk’s lesser-known melodramas but it’s still typical of the 1950s Sirk style.

It was made at Universal in 1956, with Ross Hunter as producer. As such you’d expect it to be in Technicolor but on occasions Sirk reverted to black-and-white and did so very effectively.

Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) has everything he ever wanted. He wanted to marry Marion (Joan Bennett) and he married her. He lover her and she loves him. He has a comfortable home and three healthy kids. He runs a successful toy-making business which is clearly something of a labour of love. That’s what he wanted - stability, prosperity, a job he loves, marriage and children.

So why isn’t he happier? It’s not that he’s aware of being overtly unhappy. There just seems to be something missing. He has a feeling of disappointment, of emptiness.

The fact is that Clifford Groves feels under-appreciated. He has devoted his life to being a good husband and a good father but sometimes it’s nice to be told you’re appreciated. It’s not that Clifford’s wife and children don’t love him but he’s become just part of the furniture. He doesn’t feel that he’s central in their lives. He fees that he is being taken for granted.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

He plans a special night out for his wife’s birthday but she cancels out on him. So then he plans a romantic weekend getaway for just the two of them and she cancels out again. He’s trying his best and he feels hurt. He’s a nice guy and he’s a very decent man but this is all too typical of his life. No matter how hard he tries he seems to just fade into the background. Which is one reason the decision to shoot the movie in black-and-white was the correct one. Clifford Groves’ life isn’t black; it’s a sort of dull grey.

And then he meets Norma again. Norma (Barbara Stanwyck) helped him to set up his toy business twenty years earlier and they dated for a while. Nothing serious ever came of it but they were fond of each other. Norma has been in New York for the last twenty years and now has a successful fashion designing business. She just happens to be in LA and she looks him up. And suddenly Clifford’s world isn’t so grey any more.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

Norma is vibrant and fun. They enjoy being together. They meet up again at a desert resort and they have a wonderful time, doing all the things that Clifford used to enjoy doing but has given up because he has no-one to do these things with. It’s all quite innocent - just two lonely middle-aged people enjoying one another’s company. It’s so innocent that Clifford makes no secret of it. He tell his wife all about Norma. Marion isn’t jealous at all. She even invites Norma over for dinner. And that perhaps is a symptom of where their marriage has gone wrong - Norma is glamorous and exciting and Marion should be jealous but she takes Clifford so much for granted that the idea that he might have an affair doesn’t even occur to her.

Not that he and Norma have any intention of having an affair. He’s not the sort of man who chases other women. But Norma makes him feel alive again and it’s a dangerous situation. If Marion had actually become jealous everything would probably have worked out harmlessly - at least if she’d become jealous Clifford would have known that she was still interested in him and that would probably have been enough to make him realise he wasn’t interested in an affair. Now things are really starting to get dangerous.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

Norma’s motivations are a little obscure, which is not a fault with the movie but rather it’s one of its strengths. Norma herself possibly was not aware of the reasons she suddenly decided to look Clifford up after all these years. Or was she? Did she have some vague notion about starting up their relationship again? It’s obvious that twenty years earlier she was a lot more serious about it than Clifford was, and although she was later briefly married it appears that she never quite got Clifford out of her system. It’s not that she had any conscious intention of having an affair with him but again it contributes to the dangerousness of the situation. Her old love for Clifford could very easily be rekindled into a blazing fire. And given the way Clifford feels about being under-appreciated he could easily find himself falling for Norma in a big way.

To complicate matters his son Vinnie spotted them at the resort and has convinced himself that they’re already having a tempestuous love affair. Now Vinnie is making life very difficult.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

This is the sort of material that Sirk always handled well. While critics like to talk about Sirk’s irony his sensitivity towards characters who are vulnerable or lonely is sometimes not noticed as much as it should be. Sirk’s 1950s movies were often dismissed at the time as soap operas and while they are unashamed melodramas they’re melodrama approached seriously. His characters might seem like soap opera characters but they feel real pain. Their dramas are real to them.

Sirk is helped considerably in this one by the faultless casting and the extremely fine performances. Fred MacMurray, a very underrated actor, makes Clifford into a very sympathetic character. He’s a character who could easily be made to look merely pathetic but MacMurray gives him dignity which helps to soften the edges of Sirk’s irony (which is certainly present in this movie). Stanwyck plays Norma with intelligent ambiguity. Marion could easily have become a mere unsympathetic uncaring wife stereotype as well but Joan Bennett doesn’t allow that to happen. Just as Stanwyck resists the temptation to make Norma conniving Bennett resists the temptation to make Marion shrewish. Marion has hurt Clifford but she has done so without realising it and without malice. So we’re never quite sure which way Clifford will jump, and we’re never quite sure which way we want him to jump.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

This is another Sirk tale of the perfect American life gone wrong, the American dream that has not turned out to be the fairy tale it appears to be on the surface, but the irony is less savage than usual this time around.

This is melodrama but it’s very superior melodrama and the performances anchor it in reality so that we never forget that these are real people who can experience real suffering, even in a perfect suburban home. Highly recommended.

Eureka’s Region 2 DVD is a superb widescreen presentation and the movie looks as stunning as a Sirk movie should look.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)

Chase a Crooked Shadow is an excellent little 1958 British mystery thriller directed by Michael Anderson. It was made by Associated British Pictures and produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Anderson had a very long and fairly interesting career as a director in a variety of genres.

Chase a Crooked Shadow is set in Spain. Wealthy young socialite Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter) has a villa there. She is seeking seclusion after a series of family tragedies the year before - her father committed suicide and her brother Ward was killed in a car accident. Her quest for peace and tranquility comes to an end when her dead brother (played by Richard Todd) arrives on the doorstep.

The idea of someone claiming to be a long-lost relative suddenly turning up, usually to claim a share of the family fortune, is an old one but this time there’s a major twist. In most such plots the long-lost relative has been lost for so long that no-one is really sure if the new arrival is the person he claims to be. In this one both the sister and the audience know quite well he is a fraud. In a brief prologue we see him planning the deception with his accomplice.

So given that Kimberley identified Ward’s dead body after the car accident, how does this impostor hope to get away with his plan? There are two factors in his favour. Firstly, Kimberley is in a foreign country isolated from the rest of her family so she has no-one to back her up. And secondly she had a mental breakdown after her father’s death so the fake Ward can claim that she is still unstable. He manages to convince Police Commissar Vargas (Herbert Lom) that Kimberley is slightly unbalanced mentally and is playing a joke on him by pretending not to recognise him. Since the fake Ward’s papers are all in order it proves quite easy to convince Vargas.

Since we know this man is not her brother the mystery in this film comes from our uncertainty as to his intentions and as to how Kimberley will extricate herself from this dangerous situation.

And the movie has some nifty plot twists still up its sleeve.

Kimberley’s father had been a wealthy diamond magnate but when the company struck difficult times it was discovered than ten million pounds’ worth of diamonds had disappeared from the company safe. The diamonds have not been seen since.

Kimberley’s discomfort is increased by the fact that her supposed brother has dismissed all her servants and installed his own in the villa so now there is nobody at all to back her up. Mostly what makes her uneasy is that she has no idea what this man wants. Does he want what’s left of the Prescott fortune? Does he have some idea of finding those missing diamonds? Is he just trying to send her mad? She appeals to Commissar Vargas again but he insists there is nothing he can do. There is no evidence of a crime. Vargas is a very easy-going fellow who dislikes trouble but he is still a cop and he’s much less of a fool than he appears to be. In fact he’s no fool at all and his policeman’s instinct tell him that there is something strange going on here, something that perhaps he should look into a little more deeply.

So far the movie has given us no indication of exactly where it’s going and the mystery will deepen as those plot twists kick in. The atmosphere of unease and mystery will deepen. Anderson’s skillful direction keeps the mystery bubbling along. It’s also quite stylish in an unobtrusive way - he uses strange camera angles at times but he uses them sparingly and he always uses them for a reason.

Anne Baxter is very good, never succumbing to the temptation to push her performance into the realms of hysteria but still managing to convey Kimberley’s growing fears. Richard Todd is charming but sinister. Herbert Lom, one of the great character actors, makes Vargas a frustratingly sympathetic character. He is suspicious but reluctant to act. We know he’s smart enough to figure out that something is amiss but we keep waiting for him to do something about it.

This was the golden age of the British mystery thriller and this is a very good example of the genre. It becomes more and more a psychological thriller as Kimberley’s sanity starts to teeter on the edge of giving way.

Optimum’s Region 2 DVD is a beautiful transfer. It’s in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Safe in Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell (1931)Safe in Hell is one of the more notorious of pre-code movies and this 1931 First National production certainly lives up to its sleazy reputation.

Gilda Erickson (Dorothy Mackaill) is a call girl in New Orleans. One of her clients turns out to be an old flame of hers turns up one day, a man named Piet van Saal. Piet is a small-time hoodlum and Gilda wants nothing to do with him. They have an argument and Piet ends up dead and the building sort of accidentally catches fire and burns down.

Unfortunately Gilda was spotted going into the building and now she’s wanted for murder. Now another old flame of hers turns up. Carl (Donald Cook) is a sailor and he’s actually a nice guy and he’s crazy about her. He gets a bit upset when he finds out she’s been working as a prostitute but now she’s in trouble and Carl is going to help her out. He smuggles her on board his ship and drops her off on the Caribbean island of Tortuga. Tortuga is not a signatory to any extradition treaties so she’s in no danger of being sent back to the US to face trial.

She and Carl had intended to get married but found that the island’s only clergyman had died. They perform their own marriage ceremony. It might not be legal but in their hearts they know they are married.

Not surprisingly the only hotel on the island is full of assorted crooks, including a South American general who is proud to have led no less than three successful revolutions. He fancies himself as the only gentleman on the island, and gentleman is certainly not a word one would use to describe the hotel’s other guests. They are assorted murderers, thieves and crooked lawyers. They’re all safe from extradition, but as one of them wryly puts it it, they might be safe but they’re safe in Hell.

Gilda is the only white woman on the island so naturally all the men are interested in getting to know her better, so to speak. Gilda considers herself to be a married woman and she’s determined to be true to him but finally the boredom gets the better of her and she leaves her room to party with them.

Safe in Hell (1931)

Gilda ends up with a hangover but her honour is still safe. However an event is about to occur which will throw her for a loop. Another crook on the run arrives on the island, and it turns out to be Piet. He’s not dead after all. His arrival is good news and bad news for Gilda. She’s now free to return to New Orleas but first she has to deal with Piet’s attentions, which are disturbingly determined.

Gilda has another problem. The island’s official executioner, who also doubles as the governor of the island’s prison and a sort of unofficial chief of police, takes a shine to her. He’s even more sleazy than the crooks and a lot more dangerous. Maybe Gilda isn’t safe in Hell after all.

Safe in Hell (1931)

Dorothy Mackaill is very good, managing to be both a convincing prostitute and yet strangely innocent in her love for Carl. Donald Cook is a slightly dull leading man and really doesn’t get all that much screen time. Luckily the supporting cast is strong.

The movie pulls no punches when it comes to Gilda’s profession but what really marks this as a pre-code classic is the all-pervading atmosphere of sleaziness. It’s wonderfully seedy as well. In the 40s Hollywood would glamourise the tropics but in the world of pre-code cinema the tropics usually stood for sex, sin and madness in movies like Kongo and Rain. Safe in Hell actually has quite a bit in common with  Rain - in both cases there’s the same feeling of claustrophobia and incipient craziness engendered by the boredom and heat of a tropical island. Dorothy Mackaill doesn’t make quite as good a hooker as Joan Crawford but she gives it her best shot.

Safe in Hell (1931)

William A. Wellman directed quite a few notable pre-code features and he’s in good form here.

The Warner Archive DVD-R gives us a very acceptable print of this infamous sleaze classic. Essential viewing for pre-code fans.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

A Blueprint for Murder is a rather superior 1953 20th Century-Fox murder mystery with just a dash of film noir to it. It’s well-made but it’s biggest asset is the excellent cast.

Whitney 'Cam' Cameron (Joseph Cotten) rushes to the hospital to be with his sister-in-law. His niece Polly has suddenly been stricken by a mysterious illness. She keeps screaming to the nurses not to touch her feet. She soon seems to be on the road to recovery but then has an equally unexplained relapse and dies.

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

Polly and her brother Doug were the children of Cam’s brother who died some years earlier. Their mother died many years earlier but the brother’s second wife Lynn (Jean Peters) raised the children as her own.

So far it seems like just a straightforward family tragedy and that’s what Cam assumes it to be until he starts talking to his friends Fred and Maggie Sargent. Maggie (Catherine McLeod) is a pulp writer and some time earlier she’d been doing research on poisons for a murder mystery. What bothers Maggie is that Polly’s symptoms, although they could be explained by a number of illnesses, do just happen to be the symptoms of strychnine poisoning. And Polly’s father’s symptoms just before he died were very much the same. Of course there’s probably nothing in it, but still it is odd.

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

And then Fred (Gary Merrill) mentions that he had prepared Cam’s brother’s will and that all the money was left in trust to the children. But if both children were to die Lynn would get everything. And the estate is a very substantial one indeed. So Lynn would in fact have a motive for murdering Polly, and she’d also have a motive for murdering the surviving child, Doug. Cam was very fond of both children. After their father’s death he was the closest thing they had to a father and being childless himself the two children were the closest thing he had to a family. He’s particularly fond of his nephew.

Of course they all realise that this is just wild supposition but they can’t help feeling slightly uneasy, especially when Cam mentions that Lynn was anxious to have Polly cremated although he’d managed to talk her out of it. They feel so uneasy that they persuade the police medical examiner to perform an autopsy. And sure enough, Polly is found to have died from a massive dose of strychnine.

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

The police now view the case as murder and Lynn is their prime suspect but as the homicide cops point out to Cam it’s incredibly difficult to get a conviction in a poisoning case. In fact it’s almost impossible without a confession.

Cam is now haunted by the fear that Doug will be Lynn’s next victim. But what can he do? The police believe Lynn is guilty but they don’t even have enough evidence to bring the case to trial, much less secure a conviction. Cam is almost insane with worry, to the point where a desperate plan suggests itself to him. But is Lynn really a murderess? No-one, least of all the audience, can be absolutely certain of that.

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

Writer-director Andrew Stone made a number of movies in the film noir and thriller genres during the 50s. He handles this one quite skillfully, slowly ratcheting up the tension as we see Cam becoming more and more convinced his nephew is going to be murdered. The final scene is particularly well done.

Joseph Cotten gives his usual reliable performance. The support cast is excellent with Gary Merrill and Catherine McLeod both excellent. But the movie belongs to Jean Peters. She’s the potential femme fatale here but she doesn’t play it that way - it’s a cool and controlled performance and Lynn really seems like a rather nice person. Despite the circumstantial evidence we find it hard to believe she could really murder anyone, and of course there’s always the possibility that she’s innocent. It’s really a superb performance.

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

This is a B-picture with an A-picture cast and with enough doubts about the outcome to keep the audience guessing right to the end. A very entertaining noirish mystery and highly recommended.

The DVD, in MGM’s Midnite Movies range (paired with  the Man in the Attic, comes with a warning that it is based on the best surviving film elements. That sounds ominous but don’t panic - it’s actually a very good print indeed.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Golden Earrings (1947)

Golden Earrings (1947)Golden Earrings, made by Paramount in 1947, is a decidedly odd little film. For one thing, given that the movie stars Ray Milland and Marlene Dietrich, you’d expect that the golden earrings of the title would be worn by Marlene Dietrich. In fact they’re worn  by Ray Milland. And thereby hangs a tale.

It is 1946 and Major-General Ralph Denistoun (Milland) is a distinguished retired soldier. He’s well-liked and well-respected but there are a couple of intriguing mysteries about him. It is said that he was involved in a hush-hush cloak-and-dagger operation in Nazi Germany just before the war and had been captured. He came back a changed man. Changed for the better. He had been very much a regular army officer, all spit-and-polish and very proper and somewhat cold. When he returned he seemed to be a much more friendly and open chap, strangely happier and much warmer.

And the other mystery is, why on Earth does a retired British army officer have pierced ears?

An American journalist who encounters him rather hesitantly asks him about the ear piercings. Denistoun smilingly tells him it never was a secret, it’s just that no-one else had ever dared to ask him for an explanation. Denistoun then tells him his story.

Golden Earrings (1947)

Just before the outbreak of war Lieutenant-Colonel Denistoun (as he then was) and a young officer named Byrd were sent to Germany to make contact with a German scientist who had been working on a new poison gas. It all went horribly wrong and both Denistoun and Byrd were quickly captured. They managed to escape and then split up, arranging to rendezvous at a certain crossroads in a few days’ time.

On the night of his escape the weary and hungry Denistoun encounters a gypsy woman, Lydia (Marlene Dietrich). Oddly enough this gypsy woman was expecting him. The river spirits had told her that that night she would meet her man. One look at Ralph Denistoun and she is convinced that this is in fact the man for her.

Golden Earrings (1947)

Denistoun thinks this is silly superstitious gypsy nonsense but at the same time he is very hungry and he’s glad of the company and pretty soon he realises he might in fact be a lot safer travelling with Lydia than on his own. She’s strange and wild and rather uncouth and deeply eccentric but she knows the country and no-one takes much notice of gypsies. So Lydia turns him into a gypsy, with gypsy clothes and with his skin stained and with a pair of golden earrings. What he doesn’t yet know is that the earrings are more than just gypsy fashion accessories. They mean that he is now Lydia’s man.

The setup might lead you to believe that this is going to be an exciting spy adventure yarn but there’s actually not very much spy adventure stuff in this movie. It is very much a love story, and a very unconventional one.

Golden Earrings (1947)

Denistoun soon finds that he’s grown rather fond of this gypsy woman, despite some of her more outré habits (such as cleaning fish in bed and smearing cod liver oil on her hair, and even more disturbingly on his hair as well). With Lydia’s help he is able to evade recapture and eventually make his contact with the German scientist. And of course he is able to return safely to England after his mission (which is not a spoiler since we have known right from the start that Denistoun made it back to England). Along the way he finds himself having to fight the chief of the gypsy band, a man named Zoltan, with the prize being Lydia. After the fight Denistoun and Zoltan find themselves the best of friends.

But what happens to Denistoun and Lydia at the end? You’ll have to watch the movie to find that out.

Golden Earrings (1947)

This very offbeat romance is really so strange that it has no right to succeed, but somehow Milland and Dietrich make it work. They’re both terrific and they have a perfect chemistry - not so much a sexual chemistry (although that’s certainly part of it) as a warm and affectionate chemistry. We really do believe that this mismatched couple could fall in love.

There’s also some gentle humour, something that both Milland and Dietrich prove themselves to be very good at.

Mitchell Leisen directed and while he’s not perhaps the most visually inspired of directors it’s difficult to fault the job he does here. The screenplay, by Abraham Polonsky, Helen Deutsch and Frank Butler, is warm-hearted and amusing.

Golden Earrings (1947)

This movie is available on DVD as part of Universal’s superb Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection boxed set and the transfer is faultless.

Not a great movie perhaps but a thoroughly enjoyable and quirky love story that offers Dietrich the opportunity to have a wonderful time overacting outrageously but very entertainingly. Recommended.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Midnight (1939)

Midnight (1939)Midnight, a 1939 Paramount production, has to be one of more underrated screwball comedies of the 30s, directed by Mitchell Leisen who is arguably one of the more underrated Hollywood directors of that era.

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) is an American chorus girl from a small town somewhere in the MIdwest who arrives in Paris without a cent (or rather without a sou) to her name. She needs to find a job. To find a job she needs a taxi to take her to the various clubs, but to afford a taxi she first needs a job. She explains her dilemma to taxi driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) and offers him a deal. If he’ll drive her around for nothing then if she does land a job she’ll pay him double the fare. Surprisingly enough he agrees.

Several hours later she still hasn’t won a job but she has won something else - the heart of  Tibor Czerny (who it turns out is a hopeless romantic at heart).

But Eve is not interested in poor taxi drivers. She is after richer fish.

Midnight (1939)

She cons her way into a high-class musical evening. She is invited into a bridge game where she manages to lose several thousand francs she doesn’t have. Eve now realises she’s in very big trouble indeed, until she glances into her purse and finds it stuffed with thousand-franc notes.

Her mysterious benefactor is the fabulously wealthy Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore). He spotted her deception straight away but he has plans for Eve. No, not those sorts of plans. You see Georges has a problem. His wife Helene (Mary Astor) is in love with the dashing (although not very bright) Jacques Picot. Georges wants his wife back and he figures the best way to do this is to get Jacques interested in someone else. That shouldn’t be too difficult. Jacques is interested in all rich beautiful women and Eve is certainly beautiful enough.

Midnight (1939)

But first Georges has to transform Eve into a woman of the right sort - a high-class society woman (Jacques definitely likes his women rich). So Eve becomes the mysterious Hungarian Baroness Czerny. She becomes something of an overnight sensation in Parisian society.

Of course the kinds of complications that you expect in a screwball comedy soon ensue.

Midnight (1939)

This movie benefits from a very strong cast. Claudette Colbert is delightful as always. Don Ameche is very good although at times he’s in danger of being overshadowed by Barrymore. Barrymore is in fine form and actually restrains himself from being too hammy. Mary Astor provides excellent support.

Midnight (1939)

It’s hard to fault Mitchell Leisen’s direction. Despite the screenplay being written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder there’s very little of the trademark Wilder cynicism and misanthropy in this movie. Which is definitely a good thing.

This is a lightweight but thoroughly charming movie with the right mix of laughs and romance. Paramount was a studio with a knack for producing good screwball comedies (and for choosing the right people to make them) so it’s hardly surprising that this effort is completely successful.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

House of Strangers (1949)

House of Strangers (1949)There are many movies that are nowadays labelled as film noir that turn out on closer examination not to be. Most are in fact regular crime films (in some cases very good ones). But House of Strangers is something else again. It’s not really film noir but nor is it really a crime film either.

It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Fox in 1949. It certainly starts out with most of the noir trademarks in evidence.

Max Monetti (Richard Conte) has just been released from prison after serving seven years.  At this stage we don’t know why he was in prison and we will not find out until much later. What is clear is that he has a grudge against his three brothers, Joe (Luther Adler), Pietro (Paul Valentine) and Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and that it has something to do with his prison sentence.

Max’s three brothers are bankers, and very successful and very prosperous bankers. They offer Max money but he contemptuously rejects it. Money doesn’t bring back seven years of a man’s life. At this stage it looks like a straightforward film noir revenge drama

We have even more reason to think we’re in for a film noir when, just before the flashback, we’re introduced to Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward). She sure looks like a femme fatale, and they obviously have a history and it’s obviously a complicated history. Whatever that history was it was also clearly passionate and seems to bring back bitter memories, confirming our feeling that Irene is going to be the femme fatale.

House of Strangers (1949)

When the movie switches to a very lengthy flashback (which actually consumes most of the movie) the suspicion that this is a film noir seems to be confirmed. So far it’s ticked all the boxes.

Seven years earlier Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) had run the Monetti bank. He ran it in his own highly individualistic way, and he ran his family in the same individualistic and very autocratic style. Joe, Tony and Pietro all worked in the bank, all of them for derisory salaries, but none of them dared to complain since they knew the bank would be theirs when Gino died. The fourth brother, Max, was the odd man out. He is a lawyer and although his office was in the bank building he was, unlike his brothers, independent. He made his own money and was his own boss. He was also clearly the favourite son. As we will later found out his favoured status had a great deal to do with the fact that he had his own career and was not just waiting around for the old man to die.

House of Strangers (1949)

Max is engaged to a nice Italian girl, the daughter of an old friend of the family. Max’s life was pretty good but it was about to get complicated. The complication appeared in the form of spoilt rich girl Irene Bennett. She wanted him to take on a case, but clearly what she really wanted was Max. And what Irene wants Irene generally gets.

Gino has even bigger problems. The New York state government has passed a new Banking Act and it contains all kinds of rules, not one of which Gino has ever conformed to. Even worse, they want to see his books. That’s rather inconvenient since Gino has never believed in keeping books. He wouldn’t know how to if he wanted to. He conducts his business informally according to his own rules. It’s not that he is really a crook, but when a banker has no books to produce the authorities are bound to take that sort of thing the wrong way. And even if he hasn’t done anything that he would consider to be morally wrong his entire way of running the bank is technically illegal. Now he’s facing twenty-two felony charges.

House of Strangers (1949)

Max is a shrewd lawyer and he thinks he’s found a way to get the old man off the hook but it will require his three brothers to take some responsibility and some risks. Now Gino will pay the price for his autocratic style as a father. Joe, Pietro and Tony are not interested in taking any risks to help a father they believe has never treated them with the respect they deserve (although in fact not one of the three has ever done anything in his life to earn any respect). Max thinks there may be another way to save Gino, but it’s even more risky, and he’s the one who will have to run all the risks.

When the flashback ends we seem to be back in revenge territory but the plot now takes an unexpected twist, and then a further unexpected twist as Max finds that the past has a way of catching up with people.

House of Strangers (1949)

It all sounds pretty much a classic noir but the reason I believe it isn’t is that the intentions of Mankiewicz (and presumably also to some extent of screenwriter Philip Yordan) are very different. He’s not interested in making a crime movie. What interests him are the family dynamics. The hatreds, the jealousies, the resentments, the betrayals and most of all the power dynamics of the Monetti family are Mankeiwicz’s primary concerns. Power dynamics are what the Monetti family is all about. Gino had all the power, and he exercised it ruthlessly. It’s not that he was an evil man as such. He simply failed to realise that power has its price and it’s a price that is paid by those with the power and by those without. Without realising it he became a monster.

Three years earlier in 1946 Mankiewicz had directed Somewhere in the Night which is definitely a film noir but House of Strangers actually has more in common with the film he was to make the following year in 1950, All About Eve. While it has enough features to justify calling it a film noir House of Strangers is really a savage family melodrama. Which was probably much more to Mankiewicz’s tastes than making a straight crime movie.

House of Strangers (1949)

Edward G. Robinson pulls out all the stops and threatens to act everyone else off the screen. He can’t act Richard Conte off the screen though. Conte (who seems to be in every movie I watch these days) is perfectly cast, it’s a good role, he knows it and he’s determined to make the most of it. His superbly controlled performance contrasts beautifully with Robinson’s theatrical fireworks. Susan Hayward is also excellent in a part that doesn’t play out in quite the way we expect.

Mankiewicz’s direction might not be overly stylish but he’s good at directing actors and he’s in his element in this kind of melodrama (and I don’t use the word melodrama in any kind of pejorative sense here). This is an intelligent and thoughtful dissection of power and loyalty within what would today certainly be regarded as a spectacularly dysfunctional family. Highly recommended, and film noir fans should not be disappointed either.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a good transfer.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, made in 1949, was the second film in John Ford’s famous cavalry trilogy and it nicely encapsulates all that was best in Ford’s film-making style.

It is just after the disaster that befell George Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876. The Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho and the Comanches are all on the warpath. It is an uneasy time, with no-one knowing where the next blow might fall. It is an especially uneasy time for Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne). He has given his whole life to the army and now they’re putting him out to pasture. In six days’ time he retires. His next mission will be his last.

The commanding officer of the fort has decided to send the women east to safety. That will make Captain Brittles’ job even more difficult, with a wagon and two women accompanying his troop on patrol.

The unease mounts as a large party of Arapaho is sighted. They make no hostile move and Brittles (who has no intention of starting trouble if it’s not necessary) decides to bypass them. This will delay his patrol, with fateful consequences.

More signs of trouble soon follow. The Paradise River patrol is attacked and because of the delay caused earlier they barely escape to rejoin Brittles’ troop, with one badly wounded man. He will need an immediate operation which will delay the troop even further. And they need to get to a nearby outpost in time ti get the women safely on the stagecoach. But they are too late, and they are too late for the people at the outpost. It seems that Nathan Brittles’ career has ended with an ignominious failure.

He leaves a rear guard to defend a ford and heads back to the fort where he will ride off to an uncertain future in civilian life. It seems a strange ending to the movie, with the lead character about to be written out of the picture. But this movie is not over yet, and nor is Nathan Brittles’ story.

Being a John Ford movie there is comic relief as well, mostly provided by Victor McLaglen as a feisty old top sergeant who also happens to be one of Brittles’ oldest friend. He is also about to be retired. In this case the comic relief works well, lightening the mood for a moment before the dramatic climax.

There is also romance. Olivia Dandridge has been enthusiastically courted by both Lieutenant Flint Cohill (who will take over command of the trop when Brittles retires) and 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell. The other woman in the picture is the wife of the commanding officer, known affectionately as Old Iron Pants. She is more army than any of the men.

There is action as well, and Ford’s method was always the same with action scenes. He loathed the idea of rehearsing an action scene - he preferred the chaos and spontaneity of simply rolling the cameras and as usual the method works superbly. It is of course a method that only a master film-maker could get away with.

John Wayne gives his usual apparently effortless performance as the ageing Captain Brittles. Of course this kind of apparent effortlessness can only be achieved by an actor with vast experience and who has learnt his craft perfectly. It’s one of Wayne’s finest and subtlest roles.

He gets good support from John Agar as Lieutenant Cohill and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree (a former Confederate officer), and from Joanne Dru as Olivia.

Ford was never cynical about heroism but that didn’t stop him from examining the phenomenon with intelligence and a critical eye. Heroism in a John Ford movie is not a simple or an obvious thing. Nathan Brittles is a doughty fighter but that doesn’t mean he likes fighting. He won’t run away from a necessary battle but he won’t provoke an unnecessary one. As in Fort Apache we see the John Wayne character trying to avoid a fight with the Indians and showing that he regards them with respect. Brittles and his old friend, the equally ageing Chief Pony That Walks, do their best to avoid a fight but again as in Fort Apache circumstances are against them. Younger and more hot-headed men want war.

The Warner Brothers DVD presents the superb Technicolor in all its glory (Winton C. Hoch won an Oscar for his Technicolor cinematography on this picture, and deservedly so. It’s magnificent).

Another intelligent and subtle western from the master of the genre. Anyone who doesn’t take Hollywood westerns seriously has clearly never seen a John Ford western (and I’d further suggest that anyone who doesn’t take John Wayne seriously as an actor has never seen the westerns he made with John Ford). A great movie, and a very entertaining one. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Green Glove (1952)

The Green Glove (1952)Although the IMDb lists The Green Glove as a film noir its claims to that status are more than usually dubious. This Franco-American co-production directed by Rudolph Maté is more an attempt at a Hitchcock-style thriller, and not a very successful attempt.

Lieutenant Mike Blake (Glenn Ford) is an American paratrooper who gets cut off behind enemy lines during the liberation of southern France in August 1944. He meets a Polish nobleman, Count Rona (George Macready) who is working for the Germans as a war correspondent. In fact Rona is working for nobody’s interests but his own.

In peacetime Rona was an art dealer and he has made a major find - a green jewel-encrusted gauntlet that had belonged to a warrior saint who had won a famous victory over the Moors. The gauntlet has been in the local church for centuries. Now Rona has it, but soon Mike Blake has it. Blake deposits it in his knapsack which he leaves with a French family for safe-keeping.

The Green Glove (1952)

After the war Blake falls on hard times and becomes embittered. He decides to retrieve the  green gauntlet and sell it to a dealer in an attempt to restore his fortunes. He soon finds that others are on the trail of the gauntlet as well. Count Rona has not forgotten his wartime encounter with Blake.

When he realises he’s being followed he enlists the aid of an American tour guide named Chris Kenneth (Geraldine Brooks) to give his tail the slip. When Blake receives a visit from a police inspector about the small matter of a dead man who has been found in his hotel room Christine finds she is potentially an accessory to murder.

The Green Glove (1952)

She’s not really sure what Blake’s intentions are or if he’s actually a criminal but she decides (rather oddly) to tag along with him until matters resolve themselves. Now they’re both being pursued by the police and by Count Rona’s henchmen.

Blake is really a decent guy, he’s just had a few bad breaks. He’s not by nature a criminal and he finds himself having second thoughts about the gauntlet. He’s also fallen for Chris and she’s not the sort of girl who would marry a criminal. So he’s torn between his desire for the money (the gauntlet is worth a very great deal of money) and his desire to marry Chris and try to make it as a law-abiding citizen.

The Green Glove (1952)

Blake’s tangled and contradictory motivations provide the most interesting element of the film (and also its only real claim to noir status) but while Glenn Ford does his best he’s hampered by a rather lifeless screenplay by Charles Bennett that doesn’t really develop this aspect of the story to the degree it should. Glenn Ford and Geraldine Brooks are both very good and their performances are the best things in the movie. George Macready makes a good smooth villain.

Rudolph Maté’s rather pedestrian direction doesn’t help matters. The story has plenty of potential to be an exciting and interesting thriller but somehow it just falls rather flat. There are some good action sequences towards the end but the suspense isn’t built up as it should be. Considering that Maté started his career as a cinematographer it doesn’t really develop much in the way of visual interest although the locations are excellent.

The Green Glove (1952)

This one’s in the public domain but the Mill Creek DVD (from one of their 50-movie packs) is surprisingly not all that bad.

This one is perhaps worth a rental if you’re a major Glenn Ford fan but otherwise it’s difficult to recommend this movie. The plot promises to be a cross between The 39 Steps and The Maltese Falcon but it’s badly outclassed in a comparison with those classics.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Souls for Sale (1923)

Souls for Sale (1923)

Despite its lurid title Souls for Sale is not an exploitation movie. This 1923 Samuel Goldwyn production is a light-hearted comedy/romantic melodrama which may be of most interest to modern audiences for its many glimpses behind the scenes of Hollywood in the 1920s.

Remember Steddon (Eleanor Boardman) is a small-town girl who has married a big city charmer. As they set off on the train to Los Angeles on their honeymoon she has second thoughts about the marriage (and as we will discover later her second thoughts are more than justified) and she jumps off the train in the middle of the desert. She is rescued by a handsome Arab Sheikh, but of course he’s not really a sheikh, he’s an actor playing the part of a sheikh. She has stumbled upon a location shoot for a movie.

The movie people are kind to her and they even get her a job as an extra on the movie. Remember then tries to get a respectable job at a hotel (her father is a clergyman who considers Hollywood to be a cesspit of sin) but when the hotel closes down for the winter she finds herself out of work. She drifts to Los Angeles and decides to make a serious attempt to break into the world she has already had a glimpse of, the world of movies.

Souls for Sale (1923)

She gets a few jobs as extras but when the production crew that she had encountered in the desert returns to Hollywood after completing location shooting on their latest movie she makes a desperate job effort to land a role in their picture. She gets a screen test. She is awful, but both the director (Frank Claymore, played by Richard Dix) and the star (Tom Holby, played by Frank Mayo) had become fond of her and the director decides he’ll make her an actress “if he has to break her heart and every bone in her body.”

She learns the ropes and eventually learns to be a real actress. She gets some minor parts and is regarded as something of a rising starlet. She has been warned that an actress must at all costs avoid scandal (the movie was made two years after the infamous Fatty Arbuckle scandal rocked Tinsel Town) and what she doesn’t realise is that scandal is stalking her.

Souls for Sale (1923)

Her husband, the one she ran away from, is in fact a notorious crook who marries women, takes out large insurance policies on their lives, and then murders them. On the track of his latest victim (who proves to be a bigger and smarter scoundrel than he is) he wanders into a cinema in Cairo and sees his wife up on the silver screen. He then heads for Hollywood. His motivations are somewhat mixed. Blackmail is certainly on his mind but now that Remember (known as Mem to her friends) is a rising star he decides he wants her, and this time not for the purposes of murder. His arrival in Hollywood will be a major threat to Mem’s burgeoning career.

And although she doesn’t know it Mem is about to get her big break. The star of Claymore’s latest picture, in which Mem has a supporting role, is Robina Teele. Robina is badly injured in an accident and it seems impossible that the picture can be completed. It’s a circus movie, and four rival studios have circus pictures in production. Frank Claymore decides to take a gamble - he will give Mem the starring role (which shows that the plot of the classic 1932 musical 42nd Street  was already an established Hollywood cliché).

Souls for Sale (1923)

When it comes to shooting the climactic scenes under the Big Top a storm hits and creates chaos, and also creates a situation that will resolve all the elements of the plot since Mem’s criminal husband is in the audience.

While this movie has fun poking gentle fun at Hollywood this is not a cynical hate-letter to Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie. In fact quite the opposite - it’s an unashamed love-letter to Hollywood. Hollywood can steal people’s souls but it can also give them opportunities they could never have had otherwise. For Mem Holywood represents not damnation (as her father thinks) but salvation. And Hollywood people might be hard-boiled on the surface but they can also be kind and friendly and welcoming, and they can be decent and loyal.

Souls for Sale (1923)

A major highlight of the movie is provided by the cameos by many of the most famous stars and directors of the time, including Zazu Pitts, Charles Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim. There are also some intriguing looks at the film-making methods of the day.

The movie was not one of the classics of the silent era but was very popular at the time of its release. It’s obviously made on a fairly generous budget and features players who were quite big names in the 20s.

Souls for Sale (1923)

The existing print shows considerable print damage but it does preserve the tinting which was such a distinctive feature of silent films. The Warner Archive DVD-R release is quite watchable despite the flaws in the print.

This is not a great movie but it’s entertaining and it provides a look at the type of movie that the audience of the 1920s enjoyed with a mix of romance, comedy and spectacle. Worth a look.