Thursday, October 31, 2013

Murder by Contract (1958)

Many books on the subject will tell you that film noir was all but dead by the mid-50s and that Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil represented noir’s last gasp. That hasn’t stopped various corporations from releasing a lot of late 50s movies on DVD under the noir banner in recent years. Some of these movies are at best only marginally noir but many are nonetheless quite interesting. Murder by Contract, released by Columbia in 1958 and included in the Columbia Film Noir Classics I boxed set, is a pertinent example and it’s a very interesting film indeed.

Claude (Vince Edwards) has a good steady job but he’s a young man in a hurry. If he waits he will get the things he wants but he doesn’t want to wait and he think that guys who are prepared to wait are suckers. Vince isn’t going to be that kind of sucker. He’s going to have what he wants now. So he makes a career change. He decides to become a hitman.

At first he does pretty well. He gains a reputation as something of an eccentric - he dislikes having anything to do with guns. But he also gains a reputation for success. Claude is a careful planner and he takes an innovative and imaginative approach to the job.

Then comes the Williams job. If Claude had been told the details he would never have accepted to contract. The target is a woman and Claude isn’t happy about that. It should be noted that his unhappiness about the job has nothing to do with chivalry. Claude considers women to be too unpredictable. To carry out a contract you have to get to know the target’s habits, you have to be able to anticipate their actions, and that’s much too difficult with women.

In fact Claude has a decidedly odd attitude towards women. He dislikes them because he doesn’t understand them. Claude is an orderly man and women offend his sense of order.

The Williams job takes Claude to LA. His contacts there are George (Herschel Bernardi) and Marc (Phillip Pine). Billie Williams is a nightclub singer who had been the girlfriend of a top mobster and now she’s been persuaded to testify against him. Her testimony promises to be devastating which is why she’s had a contract taken out on her. George and Marc are key henchmen of the gangster in question and if he goes down they go down, so they have a personal interest in this contract.

George and Marc are mystified by Claude’s leisurely and eccentric approach to the hit. Since Claude likes to take his time and since George and Marc are not going to let him out of their sight until the job is completed these three men will get to know each other rather well, and while they’re getting to know each other the audience is getting to know a great deal about all three. Marc doesn’t really trust Claude right from the beginning. He thinks he’s a screwball. George is inclined to agree about this but he is also inclined to believe that Claude is a genius. The uneasy relationship between these three men becomes one of the key elements in this movie.

The tone of the movie is somewhat odd. At times it seems to veer ever so slightly into the realm of black comedy with an existentialist flavour to it. At times it also seems to have a certain absurdist quality to it. It’s all done with admirable understatement but these elements seem to me to be clearly there. A modern film-maker would have bludgeoned the audience with these things but director Irving Lerner and screenwriter Ben Simcoe prefer to rely on subtlety. In fact there is so much in his movie that would have been ruined by the more obvious approach in vogue today.

Visually this movie is all California sunshine, and in this case and given the movie’s subtle oddness it’s a more appropriate choice than noir shadows. You can still meet a film noir fate in bright sunshine. Lucien Ballard was responsible for the cinematography and he and director Lerner make all the right choices.

On a superficial level Claude might not seem a typical noir protagonist but in fact he does fulfill many of the requirements of such a protagonist. He seems to lack the necessary desperation and fatalism but in his own way he’s a noir loser. He’s doomed by excessive self-confidence and ambition rather than lust for a femme fatale but his less obvious character flaws lead him to make the bad decisions we expect from a noir character. He thinks he is ideally qualified to be a hitman but he’s wrong.

It possibly could be argued that there was a distinctive “late noir protagonist” and that Claude in this movie and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success are representative of the type. Those who like to take a particular political view of the world, the view that is so very popular in film schools and academia in general today, will doubtless try to argue that Claude is a victim of the American Dream. In fact Claude is a victim of his own ambition. There always have been and always will be men who think they can take a shortcut to success and that’s merely a common human weakness, a reflection of human nature rather than of society. If there’s one thing that unites film noir protagonists it’s an unwillingness to take responsibility for their own dumb decisions.

Those who only know Vince Edwards from the long-running Ben Casey TV series will find his performance here to be a revelation. He carefully avoids the obvious clich├ęs and keeps everything low-key which makes Claude’s character quirks all the more disturbing. It really is a very effective performance. Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine are also excellent and provide perfect foils for Claude. I don’t know if Quentin Tarantino is a fan of this movie but I’d be surprised if he isn’t. The interplay between these three hoodlums is the sort of thing that would appeal to him, although of course it’s done in a much more subtle style compared to his own approach.

The strange but effective guitar score, clearly influenced by The Third Man, should also be mentioned.

The transfer (from the Columbia Film Noir Classics I boxed set) is anamorphic and it’s excellent. The only extra of note is a brief introduction by Martin Scorcese which is a pity since this movie would have provided plenty of material for a commentary track.

Murder by Contract is offbeat noir but it’s really a little gem of a movie in its own odd way. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Secret Service of the Air (1939)

Secret Service of the Air was the first of four Brass Bancroft thrillers made by Warner Brothers in 1939 and 1940. All four starred Ronald Reagan as Secret Service man Lieutenant Brass Bancroft.

This movie gets off to a flying start, literally, with some great aerial scenes. The opening sequence in the monoplane bringing illegal aliens into the United States is pure B-movie magic. I won’t spoil it by giving any hints about what happens in this sequence. Then we get some great shots of a Clipper flying boat. OK, they’re stock footage, but if you’re an early aviation geek you’re going to be in bliss over the scenes of a Martin M-130 making a landing in San Francisco Bay. Brass Bancroft is the pilot of the Oriental Express Clipper service.

All this serves to emphasise that Brass Bancroft is an aviator, and a good aviator is exactly what the Secret Service needs on this case. They need to bust an alien smuggling ring wide open. To do that Bancroft will have to be on the inside and first he needs to establish his criminal credentials. The Secret Service arranges this by arresting him on a phony counterfeiting charge. In the penitentiary he makes contact with Ace Hemrich. The Secret Service is pretty sure Hemrich is involved in the alien smuggling racket and they’re right. Bancroft discovers that being a Secret Service agent is a pretty grueling business. You get mixed up in all sorts of criminal capers and you end up getting shot at by the police and of course there’s no way of telling the cops that you’re one of the good guys!

Brass gets himself into the gang when they find themselves short of a pilot and he finds that there’s danger in the air as well. Being in the Secret Service can also play havoc with your love life - dames aren’t always that well pleased when they see you being carted off to prison and when you’re sworn to secrecy you can’t tell them you’re not a real crook.

Providing the comic relief that Hollywood studios in this era believed to be so necessary is Eddie Foyle Jr as Brass’s radio operator on the Clipper, Gabby Watters. He keeps turning up unnecessarily and annoyingly throughout the movie and he’s painfully unfunny. The love interest is provided by Ila Rhodes as Pamela Schuyler, the daughter of the head of the airline for which Brass had been working. She’s quite adequate. The same can be said  for John Litel as Saby, Brass’s controller in the Secret Service.

 Ronald Reagan is the star though and he does a fine job. He’s suitably heroic and he’s convincing in the action scenes and he comes across as the sort of likeable hero whose further adventures an audience would be happy to follow in further movies in the series.

A thriller of this type obviously has to have plenty of action and this movie has that commodity in ample supply. There’s a rather impressive (by B-movie standards) car chase, there are gunfights and fist fights, and there’s aerial adventure and stunt flying. The plot may have a few holes in it but the pace is fast enough that an audience is unlikely to have time to worry over such petty details.

Noel M. Smith was an incredibly prolific director of low-budget features and watching this movie it’s easy to see why he was in demand. There’s no time for anything fancy in B-pictures like this; you just have to get on with the job and Smith does that and does it well.

The Warner Archive Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service set has all four movies on two made-on-demand DVDs. The transfer on this first movie is extremely good.

Secret Service of the Air is a particularly fine example of the 1930s Hollywood B-movie - well-crafted, fast-paced, action-packed unpretentious fun with a likeable hero. What’s not to like here? Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Sniper (1952)

The Sniper forms part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics I DVD boxed set. Whether this movie really belongs in a film noir collection at all might well be a matter for doubt. One thing that is not in doubt is that this is an extremely bad movie, albeit a fairly well-made bad movie.

The first worrying sign comes in the opening credits - the dreaded words A Stanley Kramer Production. If you’re anything like me your response to this will be to mutter under your breath, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” It’s a perfectly understandable response and the movie goes on to provide ample proof that sometimes prejudices are actually perfectly valid. And prejudices against Stanley Kramer movies are very valid indeed.

Edward Dmytryk directed this film in 1952. It’s an early example of the Hollywood obsession with serial killers, an obsession that would become more and more tedious with every passing year.

Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) is a disturbed young man. He hates women. And he has a rifle. He likes to find a nice secluded spot where he can’t be seen and aim his rifle at women and pretend to pull the trigger. Eddie knows he has a problem. He has tried to telephone the psychiatrist who was treating him in prison but the doctor is on holidays. So he deliberately burns his hand. When he goes to the Emergency Room maybe he will get the help he needs. Surely they will recognise his act as a cry for help? Unfortunately they’re too busy in the Emergency Room treating sick people. It never occurs to Eddie that maybe the best way to get help might be to tell the doctor at the Emergency Room about his problem.

Pretty soon Eddie goes beyond just pretending to pull the trigger. He kills his first victim. Eddie is really upset about this. Can’t people see that he needs help? He sends an anonymous note to the police asking them to stop him. And he keeps killing.

Lieutenant Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) is a grizzled veteran on the Homicide Squad. He knows he’s dealing with a psycho but psychos are a bit out of his line. Luckily he can call on the police psychiatrist, Dr James Kent (Richard Kiley). Dr Kent is an Expert. Dr Kent knows the police are going about this all wrong and his frustration brings on the first of the movie’s speeches (there will be plenty more to follow). The gist of Dr Kiley’s long-winded speechifying is that this is a problem that could be solved if only the government could be made to realise what has to be done. If only more laws could be passed. If only governments were given greater powers. If only psychiatrists were given greater powers. Much greater powers. If only lots and lots of government was spent and the country could then be turned into one gigantic mental hospital with the right people in charge. The right people being, naturally, psychiatrists like Dr Kent.

You keep waiting for Dr Kent to tell us that the killer isn’t really the guilty one, that society is to blame. And sure enough that’s exactly what he tells us.

Meanwhile Eddie keeps killing, and Dr Kent keeps giving speeches. Sometimes he gets tired so then Lt Kafka takes over the speech-making. Kafka knows instinctively that Dr Kent is right. After all Dr Kent is a psychiatrist.

This is a movie that certainly has that Stanley Kramer signature. It reeks of Stanley Kramer. For Kramer this subject is just perfect for a Social Problem Movie. I’m inclined to suspect that Kramer rather than director Dmytryk was responsible for the faults of this movie. They’re the same faults you find in every other movie Kramer was involved with. The pacing is rather leaden but there again Kramer may have been more guilty than Dmytryk of wanting to pad the movie out with speeches. Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt who wrote the story and scriptwriter Harry Brown must take some responsibility as well although they may simply have been giving Kramer what he wanted.

The acting doesn’t help either. Arthur Franz tries to put as much angst as he can into the role. He does a lot of grimacing, which apparently means he’s suffering badly. It’s a slightly embarrassing performance. Adolphe Menjou seems rather subdued which may indicate that he was aware of just how bad the movie was going to be. Richard Kiley is extraordinarily pompous and irritating as the psychiatrist who wants to save the world if only someone would give him the sweeping and absolute powers he so clearly craves. It’s perhaps not fair to be too hard on Kiley. The dialogue he is given would have defeated a much better actor.

Just in case we haven’t yet got the message the ending pulls out all the stops to emphasise that Eddie is just a Victim Of An Uncaring Society. I imagine we’re supposed to be shedding tears although in my case it was more likely to induce vomiting.

Despite all these flaws The Sniper does have some redeeming qualities. The movie was largely shot on location and Dmytryk makes superb use of the San Francisco locations and while cinematographer Burnett Guffey avoids the usual noir techniques he gives us some memorable visual moments and the claustrophobic feel of noir is certainly there. Dmytryk is generally very strong when it comes to using images to counterpoint the plot points, and he pulls off some impressive visual set-pieces. This was an A-picture and it has A-picture production values.

If you’re prepared to buy the movie’s line that poor Eddie is a victim of a wicked and callous society then you might feel it qualifies as film noir. If you’re like me and you see him as a vicious loser than you might be more sceptical of its noir credentials.

The DVD transfer is excellent. The extras include a commentary track from Eddie Muller. Muller has some interesting points to make about this movie and he does his best to sell it to us. He also once again takes the opportunity to browbeat us about the blacklist, a subject that really has been done to death by this point.

The Sniper is an object lesson in how to make a bad movie even when you have at least some of the right ingredients. It tries to bludgeon the viewer into agreeing with it whilst failing to deliver enough in the way of suspense. I suffered through the 88 tedious minutes of this movie but there’s no reason why others should suffer as I did. Take my advice and avoid this one.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Saint in Palm Springs (1941)

The Saint in Palm Springs was the sixth of RKO’s Saint movies and the fifth and last to star George Sanders. Like all the George Sanders Saint movies it’s a good deal of fun.

Simon Templar, alias the Saint, arrives back in the United States to find the police waiting to arrest him for murder. Or at least the police are going to attempt to arrest him. Needless to say they don’t succeed and in any case it all a ruse on the part of Inspector Henry Fernack (Jonathan Hale). Fernack wanted to get Templar’s attention and when he mentions three rare postage stamps, valued at $65,000 each, he certainly has that attention. An old friend of Fernack’s is bringing them into the country. They’re intended for this friend’s daughter but several attempts have already been made to steal the stamps and Fernack needs some reliable but strictly unofficial assistance.

The Saint soon discovers that whoever is trying to steal the stamps is very determined indeed, and will not hesitate to commit murder to get them.

The daughter, Elna Johnson (Wendy Barrie) is in Palm Springs so that’s where Simon Templar is now headed.

The stamps will change hands a number of times as they get stolen and re-stolen and things get more complicated when Templar finds that there are more people after the stamps than he’d thought. The house detective at the hotel in Palm Springs, Clarence “Pearly” Gates (Paul Guilfoyle), is an old acquaintance of Simon’s. It might stretch credibility a little to imagine that a hotel would apply a convicted pickpocket as the house dick but then I guess it actually makes sense. No-one knows more about thieving than a former professional thief. Pearly’s skills prove to be rather useful to the Saint.

The plot is just complicated enough to keep the reader interested.

Jack Hively had a fairly brief career as a director of programmers like this and taking budgetary constraints into consideration he was quite adequate. Jerome Cady’s screenplay was claimed to be based on an actual Leslie Charteris story.

The movie was obviously shot entirely in the studio, presumably on a rather tight shooting schedule. It won’t convince anyone that it was actually filmed in Palm Springs but you don’t expect location shooting in a 1940s B-movie. Those who enjoy obviously-faked scenes using rear projection will be delighted by the horse-riding scene which is so obviously phony it could almost be intended as parody. Personally I find this sort of thing to be all part of the fun of the movies of this era.

This movie gives Simon Templar a sidekick in the person of “Pearly” Gates. Gates’ main reason for being in the movie is to provide the obligatory and completely unnecessary comic relief, which he manages to do without being excessively irritating, but at least he does serve some purpose in plot terms. The other supporting players are as competent as you’d expect in a B-movie by a major studio.

The main attraction is of course George Sanders. He is perhaps not quite athletic enough but apart from that he is absolutely perfect for the role and he carries it off with his usual effortless ease. The Saint’s dubious early career as a criminal is downplayed somewhat but the movie does retain the suggestion that he has not always been on the correct side of the law. Sanders make the character more debonair and more cynical than the original and these subtle changes constitute, if anything, an improvement.

Odeon’s Region 2 DVD release is barebones but it’s a very acceptable transfer.

The Saint movies are a must for any fan of 40s Hollywood crime B-movies and The Saint in Palm Springs is a good example of the breed. It’s highly diverting if rather lightweight entertainment and it affords an opportunity for George Sanders to shine in a part that suited him so ideally that it could have been written specifically for him. Recommended.

Based on one of the novellas in The Saint Goes West.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

The Case of the Frightened Lady (also released under the shortened title of The Frightened Lady) is an Edgar Wallace adaptation released by British Lion Films in 1940. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with Edgar Wallace. His stories adapt remarkably well to film or television, and this particular movie hits all the right notes.

Lord Lebanon (Marius Goring) is the last of his line. His family goes back a thousand years or so, to before the Conquest. Not surprisingly he feels himself to be under a lot of pressure to marry and produce an heir and his mother does nothing to lessen that pressure. The dowager Lady Lebanon (Helen Haye) is very big indeed on family and tradition. She was herself a member of the family even before her marriage, being a direct descendant of the fourth baron and therefore a distant cousin to her husband.

Lady Lebanon’s young secretary Isla Crane (Penelope Dudey-Ward) is another distant cousin. She has no money of her own but the fact that she is of the blood is what matters to Lady Lebanon. Lady Lebanon hopes to persuade her son to marry Isla.

The young Lord Lebanon carries out his duties as well as he can.  His forebears may have been doughty warriors but he would really much rather be a jazz musician.

Isla is the frightened lady of the title. But what is it that is frightening her? Partly it seems to be two of the footmen. Gilder (Roy Emerton) and Brooks (George Hayes) don’t really behave like footmen. They don’t really behave like servants at all. They look more like ex-prizefighters and they seem very much out of place in Monk’s Priory, the ancient residence of the Lebanon family.

Isla also seems somewhat frightened of the mysterious Dr Amersham (Felix Aylmer). Where Dr Amersham fits in is not at all clear. In fact nothing is very clear about Dr Amersham, except that he had been in India and that the Lebanon family chauffeur Studd (John Warwick) knew him in India and more to the point knows something that Dr Amersham is very keen not to have revealed.

Also on the scene is a young architect named Richard Ferraby (Patrick Barr), employed by Lady Lebanon to do some much-needed restoration work at Monk’s Priory. Ferraby and Isla take a liking to each other, something that Lady Lebanon most certainly does not approve of.

During a charity ball Studd is murdered - strangled by an Indian silk scarf. The obvious suspect is the gamekeeper Tilling (Torin Thatcher). Detective Chief Inspector Tanner (George Merritt) is not convinced that Tilling was the murderer. He is sure that there is a great deal going on at the Lebanon residence that he would like to know about before attempting to solve this murder.

As with any Edgar Wallace story there will be much more mayhem to come.

Wallace’s stories work best on the screen when they’re not taken too seriously and when the actors are given the chance to do some serious scenery-chewing. Both Marius Goring and Felix Aylmer (one of my favourite character actors) are willing to oblige and the results are most satisfactory. Helen Haye also goes well over the top as Lady Lebanon, with similarly pleasing results. George Merritt makes a good policeman who is smarter than he appears to be.

It seems to be a rule in Edgar Wallace adaptations that comedy relief must be provided by a junior Scotland Yard officer, in this case Detective-Sergeant Totty (Ronald Shiner). The comic relief is not needed and the movie would be more fun without him but thankfully he does not succeed in ruining the movie.

George King directed several of the wonderful Tod Slaughter melodramas of the 30s and he therefore knows exactly how to handle this kind of material. He captures the right atmosphere and is helped considerably by some very good sets that lend themselves well to mysterious shadows, creaking staircases, hidden rooms and secret passageways.

Odeon’s Region 2 DVD includes no extras apart from numerous trailers for other films in their Best of British DVD series. The transfer is excellent.

The Case of the Frightened Lady is fine entertainment. The 1940s and 1950s would be a golden age of British thrillers and this movie is a worthy if perhaps not quite outstanding member of that honourable pantheon. Recommended.