Monday, December 29, 2014

best classic movies viewed in 2014, part 2 (non film noir)

I’ve already posted my list of my favourite film noir from this year. These have been the best classic movie from other genres that I’ve watched in 2014:

The Blue Light, Leni Riefenstahl, Béla Balázs, 1932

Going Hollywood, Raoul Walsh, 1933

The Sea Hawk, Michael Curtiz, 1940

The Doctor Takes a Wife, Alexander Hall, 1940

Road to Zanzibar, Victor Schertzinger, 1941

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Edward F. Cline , 1941

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss, 1945

El Cid, Anthony Mann, 1961

Mirage, Edward Dmytryk, 1965

The Green Berets, John Wayne, Ray Kellogg, Mervyn LeRoy, 1968

Saturday, December 27, 2014

best film noir of 2014

The best film noir I watched in 2014:

Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang, 1945

Crack-Up, Irving Reis, 1946

Red Light, Roy Del Ruth, 1949

Cry Danger, Robert Parrish, 1951

Loophole, Harold D. Schuster, 1954

Pushover, Richard Quine, 1954

Violent Saturday, Richard Fleischer, 1955

Plus some interesting neo-noirs I watched this year:

Tony Rome, Gordon Douglas, 1967

Madigan, Don Siegel (1968)

Dirty Harry, Don Siegel (1971)

Death Wish, Michael Winner (1974)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas everyone

It's Christmas! I hope you all found something nice in your Christmas stocking this year. Merry Christmas everyone!

Bandolero! (1968)

Bandolero! is a slightly offbeat, slightly uneven but still extremely interesting and highly entertaining 1968 western starring James Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. I've reviewed it on my Cult Movie Reviews blog but this one might also be of interest to readers of this blog. Here's the link to my review.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cry Danger (1951)

Cry Danger is an effectively low-key film noir that works rather well without making too much fuss about it.

Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) has just been released from prison after serving five years of a life sentence for armed robbery and murder. Mulloy was innocent of the crime, although he had originally intended to be involved but backed out. Mulloy is not perhaps an entirely law-abiding citizen but he’s still rather bitter about serving five years for a job he didn’t do.

What really puzzles him is that after five years he was suddenly offered a full pardon. At his trial his alibi had failed to convince the jury. He claimed to have been drinking in a bar with a group of Marines at the time of the robbery, but he couldn’t produce any of the Marines at the trial. Now one of those Marines has come forward and confirmed his alibi. Delong (Richard Erdman) explained that he’d been serving overseas at the time of the trial and lost a leg in combat and as a result has only just returned to the States and only just heard about the case. Naturally he immediately stepped forward to clear Mulloy’s name.

This is all fine and dandy, but there’s only one problem. Mulloy has never set eyes on Delong before and he’s absolutely certain that he was not one of the Marines he was drinking with on that fateful night. In fact Delong cheerfully admits he has never set eyes on Mulloy before either. He simply assumed Mulloy was guilty and that in gratitude for getting him the pardon he would share some of the loot with him. Mulloy is rather amused by Delong’s explanation and although he points out that not having committed the crime he has no idea where the stolen $100,000 is he’s happy for Delong to tag along with him.

The odd friendship between Mulloy and Delong is typical of the wry but understated humour that lightens a movie that could have been merely grim and cynical. Neither is exactly a solid citizen but neither is exactly an out-and-out criminal either. They’re slightly shady figures on the edge of the underworld but basically they’re both fairly decent guys underneath.

Mulloy had not taken part in the robbery but since he was originally slated to be the getaway driver he knows who did pull the job. That person was Castro (William Conrad). Mulloy figures that Castro owes him for the five years he lost out of his life. The trouble is that Castro doesn’t exactly see it that way. Castro explains that he is now “60% legitimate” and a big shot and he’s not happy about giving up a share of the loot to Mulloy. Mulloy’s efforts to get what he believes he is entitled to will get him into deeper and deeper trouble and will also cause problems with Nancy Morgan. Nancy’s husband was involved in the robbery and he’s still in prison. Mulloy is hoping to find evidence to prove his pal’s innocence but the complication is that Mulloy and Nancy used to be a hot item before her marriage and it soon becomes obvious that the flames of romance are still smouldering and could easily erupt into a full-blown forest fire.

Despite the humour this is still a genuine film noir and it has the classic noir themes of betrayal and it gets pretty downbeat at times. It’s an odd mix that works surprisingly well.

Screenwriter William Bowers doesn’t make the mistake of over-complicating things. If you throw in too many cynical twists and too many betrayals then the effect of the twists and betrayals that really matter, the ones that need to have a real impact, are likely to be dissipated. Bowers is content to save his big twist until the end while doing his best to distract the audience’s attention in the meantime.

Providing an ending that would satisfy the Production Code and the studio while still remaining truthful to the material was always a difficult juggling act. The ending in this case works well and it feels right.

Dick Powell had been a popular juvenile lead in the Warner Brothers musicals of the 30s. By the 40s it was obvious that that was going to become a bit of a dead end so he set about reinventing himself as a serious actor in tough guy roles. The change of direction was fairly successful and Powell played a number of notable film noir roles including the 1944 Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet and the excellent 1948 Pitfall. Powell adopted the minimalist acting style that proved so successful for actors like Alan Ladd in the 40s. By that stage Powell had the craggy slightly ravaged looks to carry off such roles. He was never a great actor but in the right part he could be quite effective and he did the tough guy thing very convincingly. He works well for him in Cry Danger.

Rhonda Fleming does well enough as the woman who introduces such complications into Rocky’s life. Jean Porter provides some delightful light relief as the light-fingered but likeable good-time girl Darlene who takes a shine to Delong. William Conrad was always reliable as a heavy and his performance is a major highlight. Regis Toomey is fine as the unsentimental but basically honest cop.

Robert Parrish’s career as a director was not especially distinguished although it included some interesting oddities such as the quirky heist/caper movie Duffy (1968) and the underrated 1969 Gerry Anderson-produced science fiction movie Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun). And it also included the pretty decent 1951 gangster flick The Mob. He does a competent if not overly inspired job with Cry Danger.

Olive Films have released Cry Danger in a characteristically barebones edition on Blu-Ray. The transfer is a good one although I’m not entirely convinced the Blu-Ray release is necessary for black-and-white movies of this vintage which generally look just fine in a good quality DVD release.

Cry Danger is not quite a film noir classic but it’s a somewhat overlooked and rather satisfying example of the genre. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mirage (1965)

Mirage is a 1965 suspense thriller directed by Edward Dmytryk. Although in fact the exact genre to which this film should be assigned remains uncertain for much of its running time. It’s part psychological thriller and part crime thriller with suggestions that it might at any moment veer off in the direction of the espionage thriller, the techno-thriller or even science fiction.

Gregory Peck stars as David Stillwell. At least he believes his name is David Stillwell. That’s about the only thing he’s fairly certain of and he’s really not at all sure even about that.

David Stillwell has had a rather puzzling day. People keep greeting him as though they hadn’t seen him for a long time, even when they saw him the day before. And then there’s the girl on the stairway who is sure she knows him. He’s equally sure he’s never met her. They met on the stairway during the blackout, the blackout being another puzzling thing about David’s day. The power went off all over the building, just about the time that noted do-gooder Charles Calvin jumped from the 27th floor.

Calvin’s suicide is definitely puzzling although David is fairly sure it has nothing to do with his problems. But then, given that David cannot remember anything at all that happened prior to the last two years, and can remember precious little that has happened since, he can’t possibly say there can’t be a connection.

And did I mention the guy who pulled a gun on him in his apartment? The guy who told David he was about to take a trip to Barbados where he would meet the Major. And he was to be sure to bring his briefcase with him, although this is another puzzle because his briefcase is completely empty.

It’s not surprising that after a day like this David Stillwell should decide to see a psychiatrist. Only the psychiatrist doesn’t want to see him. David decides the next best thing would be a private detective. That’s what private detectives do for a living, isn’t it? Find out stuff about people. So a private detective should be able  to tell him who he is. Unfortunately his confidence in this particular PI, Ted Caselle(Walter Matthau), is not enhanced when Caselle tells him this is his very first case.

There is only so much even the best PI can do. Ultimately it’s up to David to remember whatever it is that he doesn’t really want to remember. It’s something that shattered all his illusions and exposed the hypocrisy of the professional do-gooders of this world. His big problem is that remembering is only going to be possible if he can stay alive long enough and there are obviously people who do not intend that he should survive. 

Gregory Peck is ideally cast here as a regular guy who responds to his extraordinary circumstances in a very ordinary way. He is scared, confused and angry. Peck has no trouble convincing us that he is one very confused guy, and being Gregory Peck he’s also a fairly likeable kind of guy so the audience is going to be on his side from the start.

Walter Matthau provides some low-key comic relief although Caselle is not played entirely for laughs. It’s not that kind of film. It’s an intense kind of film so any overt comedy would be out of place but Matthau’s brand of sly understated humour provides a welcome break in the tension.

Diane Baker as Shela has to be mysterious, which she manages well, and she also has to be a kind of low-key femme fatale (I’m using the term low-key a lot but that’s the sort of movie it is). It’s a generally effective performance.

Edward Dmytryk had plenty of experience with this type of movie (having directed film noir classics like Murder, My Sweet and psychological dramas such as The Caine Mutiny) and he’s always in full control.

Universal’s DVD release provides a rather grainy anamorphic transfer. The graininess may be inherent in the source materials and may well have been a deliberate choice. It certainly doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film.

Mirage is an effective offbeat thriller that keeps the audience guessing. We really have no idea where this movie is going until quite late in proceedings. There’s more than a hint of film noir (or possibly neo-noir, this being 1965). Highly recommended.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Deadly Nightshade (1953)

Deadly Nightshade is one of four films included in a boxed set called Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 put out by an outfit called Strawberry Media in the UK. I had some doubts about this set, half expecting that the films would have no noir content whatsoever and that the transfers might be iffy. Based on Deadly Nightshade my fears were groundless on both counts.

Deadly Nightshade is a strange genre hybrid. At first it seems like a fairly typical example of the entertaining crime thrillers the British produced in such quantity at this period. But it’s also a spy thriller. It has considerable helpings of moral ambiguity, it has a strong sense of a man whose attempt to escape his fate simply traps him more completely and it has a definite Nothing Is What It Seems To Be quality. All of which is, in my view, just about sufficient to justify the film noir label.

It was directed by John Gilling, a man who made a lot of very interesting genre movies in the 50s and early 60s including a couple of superb gothic horror films for Hammer (The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies). He also wrote and directed The Challenge (aka It Takes a Thief), a very underrated 1960 film noir starring Jayne Mansfield (whose performance in the film is quite impressive).

He was a very talented director who has never received anywhere near the attention he deserves.

Deadly Nightshade starts with the police arresting escaped convict John Barlow in a pub in a small seaside town in the West Country in England. Only it turns out that the man they’ve just arrested isn’t Barlow at all but a painter named Robert Matthews. Their mistake is understandable - Matthews is the spitting image of Barlow. The genial Inspector Clements (John Horsley) is very apologetic, Matthews accepts his apology with good grace and the two men part on good terms. 

Then Barlow turns up on Matthews’ doorstep and things start to get complicated. From this point on any mention of specific plot points is going to entail the risk of spoilers. I’m not going to take that risk, but suffice to say that the plot includes an ocean liner sunk by a German mine seven years after the end of the war, atomic scientists and murder. And none of these events are what they seem to be.

Emrys Jones plays both Matthews and Barlow and does a fine job. He conveys the sense of unease and the ambiguity of both characters subtly and economically and he makes them both convincing. Zena Marshall as the love interest of one of these men is quite solid. John Horsley is quietly understated as the affable but efficient Inspector Clements.

The movie’s biggest fault is an excessive reliance on coincidence but if you accept it as a kind of film noir then that becomes less of a problem. After all in a film noir you’re not entirely surprised to see fate taking a hand to lead a character on his way down the slippery slide to the noir nightmare world.

I don’t want to overstate my case for this movie being film noir. Stylistically it’s more in the mainstream tradition of British mysteries and thrillers of the 40s and 50s, and much of the tension comes from the contrast between the tranquil and innocent rural setting and the psychological turmoil of the characters. So you won’t find any obvious noir visual signatures here. The cinematography (by Monty Berman) is certainly competent but it’s not noir cinematography.

This movie was produced by Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker who would go on to be among the most important producers in British television in the 1960s. In the 50s they specialised in low-budget movies and Deadly Nightshade was clearly made on a rather modest budget. This imposes certain limitations - there was obviously no money for attempting ambitious action sequences. This does not prove to be a major problem - with a competently written script by Lawrence Huntington, with a talented director like Gilling and with a fairly strong cast the movie has enough going for it to compensate for a lack of big money.

The transfer is flawless and quite simply superb. The movie looks terrific. 

Deadly Nightshade is an unusual and interesting movie and it’s also rather entertaining. As a slightly noirish spy thriller it works well. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Night Train To Munich (1940)

Night Train To Munich was a fairly early directorial effort by Sir Carol Reed. Hitchcock had scored a major international hit the year before with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train To Munich is very much in the same style. It also attempts to mix comedy with suspense, and even has the comic relief provided by the same two actors - Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (and they even play the same characters).

The events of the film take place shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Czech scientist Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt) has developed a new kind of armour-plating, far in advance of anything possessed by any other country. Not surprisingly when the Germans forcibly incorporate Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich they are hoping Bomasch will work for them. Bomasch and his daughter are equally determined not to have anything to do with the Nazis. 

Bomasch’s daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is sent to a concentration camp where she meets Karl Marsen, a dissident German imprisoned for anti-Nazi activities. They make plans to escape. The complicated plot involves a number of different escapes as the action switches back and forth between England and the Continent. Anna meets various people who claim to want to help her but almost invariably they turn out not to be what they seem.

The first of the movie’s escapes is by aircraft but the later escape attempt uses a train as its setting (hence the film’s title). Trains are of course always ideal settings for suspense thrillers.

Margaret Lockwood was one of the British film industry’s biggest stars of the 1940s in movies like wonderful historical crime melodrama The Wicked Lady. She makes a fine heroine. Rex Harrison might seem an unlikely choice to play a spy but he throws himself into the part with enthusiasm, and even manages to be almost convincing as a German officer. Paul Henreid plays an important but ambiguous rôle as Karl Marsen. Marsen is a rather complex character who doesn’t always behave in the manner we expect. Rex Harrison plays his triple rôle with a fair amount of complexity as well. This refusal to conform to lazy stereotypes is one of the film’s biggest strengths.

The supporting cast includes stalwart British character actors like Roland Culver and Felix Aylmer (playing a decidedly uncharacteristic rôle in this film).

This film relies to a very large extent on miniatures work and matte paintings to represent its Central European settings. Of course it has to be admitted that in 1940 the film-makers could scarcely have contemplated doing location shooting in Czechoslovakia and Germany! The early scenes representing German bombers flying over Czech factories are fairly well done but the movie is let down by the climactic cable car scenes which are rather feeble.

Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat had previously collaborated on The Lady Vanishes which obviously goes some way to explaining the similarities between the two movies.

The Criterion Collection DVD is not exactly overloaded with extras although it does include a reasonably interesting short documentary. The transfer is more than acceptable, with perhaps just a hint of graininess. Surprisingly, for a Criterion release, this one is not particularly overpriced.

This movie sees Carol Reed venturing into Hitchcock territory. The results are generally satisfactory although this movie certainly cannot compare with a masterpiece of suspense like The Lady Vanishes. It’s a movie that has always been rather in the shadow of Hitchcock’s more celebrated film. The comparisons are unfortunate - after all The Lady Vanishes is one of Hitchcock’s best movies. Night Train To Munich is still thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Road to Zanzibar (1941)

Road to Zanzibar was the second of the hugely successful Road movies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Road to Singapore had been a major hit in 1940 and this follow-up movie put even more emphasis on the comedy. The Road movies were not only immensely funny - they were also genuinely witty and can even be described as ground-breaking with lots of self-referential gags and with Hope and Crosby breaking the fourth wall with wild abandon.

The plot is fairly thin but it sets up the zany situations perfectly and they are mined for their full comedic potential. And the script provides more than enough gags to keep any comedy fan happy.

Fearless Frazier (Hope) and Chuck Reardon (Crosby) are a couple of American carnival performers in Africa. Needless to say their act consists of Fearless doing various dangerous stunts that Reardon has thought up. Their latest act features Fearless as a human cannonball. The act proves to be more spectacular than intended - it ends up burning down the entire carnival. Now our two intrepid heroes are on the run from the local police. Fearless yearns to return to the US but when Reardon is despatched to buy the tickets for the ship he returns to announce that has spent all their money. He has bought a diamond mine. Fearless and Chick are con artists themselves but this time they’ve run into an even better con man in the shape of Charles Kimble (Eric Blore).

The attempts by Fearless and Chuck to get their money back land them in even bigger trouble and just when they think they’re ahead they run into two American girls, Julia (Una Merkel) and Donna (Dorothy Lamour). Julia and Donna turn out to be con artists also and Fearless and Chuck find themselves duped once again. They’re conned into leading a safari across Africa, supposedly so that Donna can be re-united with her dying father but in reality they’re taking Donna to the man she intends to marry. This causes plenty of complications because Fearless and Chuck have both fallen for Donna. The safari ends with Fearless and Chick being on the menu when they encounter a tribe of cannibals.

The laughs come thick and fast, especially in the first half hour which sets a cracking pace.  The action slows down a little in the middle with a couple of songs being thrown in but the songs are actually pretty good and with a singer of Crosby’s calibre the musical numbers become a plus rather than a minus.

What puts the Road movies into the top class of American film comedies is the interplay between Hope and Crosby. You’d expect Crosby to be the straight man but in fact Hope just as often finds himself the butt of the jokes. Crosby proves himself to be just as adept at humour as Hope and they both alternate between being the straight man and the comic. Self-referentiality would be a major feature of this and the four subsequent Road movies and this self-referentiality is done with great style and finesse.

Hope was never funnier than he was in the Road movies. He and Crosby did not get on too well in real life but they were one of the greatest of all movie comedy teams. The verbal fireworks are mixed with a liberal sprinkling of visual gags.

The Road movies are clever but most importantly they are very very funny. Dorothy Lamour as always provides fine support but The Road to Zanzibar also benefits from a superb comedic performance by Una Merkel as Julia. Eric Blore adds even more comedic depth.

Some of the humour here may be considered today to be a little on the politically incorrect side but it’s basically good-natured. The interplay between Crosby as the manipulator and Hope as his victim could have come across as rather cruel in the hands of lesser artists but in the Road movies this pitfall is on the whole successfully avoided. These are feel-good movies in the best sense of the word.

Paramount’s Region 4 DVD is a bit light on extras but it offers a very good transfer.

Road to Zanzibar is quite simply one of the best comedies of its era and it stands up remarkably well today and it still feels fresh and innovative. This is pure comedy gold. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

711 Ocean Drive (1950)

711 Ocean Drive is a rather neglected 1950 film noir gangster movie that benefits from a fine central performance by the alway reliable Edmond O’Brien.

It’s structured in classic noir style with most of the story told in a very long flashback in which the career of gangster Mal Granger slowly unfolds. Granger (Edmond O’Brien) works for the telephone company. He’s very good at his job but he doesn’t make much money. And Mal Granger likes money. In fact he likes money and women and both will play major roles in his fate.

Granger likes to bet on the horses. That makes his bookie happy but then the bookie gets an idea. Organised illegal gambling depends on the existence of the wire services that relay the necessary information from the race tracks to the bookies. The wire services themselves are technically legal but they only exist in order to make illegal gambling possible. The major wire service in California is effective enough but it’s rather primitive and it has serious technical weaknesses. Surely what it needs is a technical whizz-kid like Mal Granger to organise it properly. The bookie introduces Mal to Vince Walters, who runs the wire service, and Walters sees the possibilities immediately.

Pretty soon Granger’s improvements have increased turnover enormously and he is making big money as the chief technical organiser of the output. At this point Granger, if he’d been a sensible guy, would have been satisfied. He has plenty of money and at this stage he’s not yet heavily involved in the nastier side of the racket. 

And if it’s women he wants he could have Trudy (Dorothy Patrick). Trudy works for the wire service but like Mal she’s not mixed up in the vicious side of crime and she’s a pretty nice girl. She’s also clearly pretty keen on him. But Trudy is not the kind of girl who is overly thrilled about just being another notch on Mal Granger’s bed post. She’s quite keen on old-fashioned concepts like marriage, and Mal claims to be allergic to the very idea of marriage. While Trudy is technically a criminal she’s the woman who could make him happy if he’d let her.

None of this is enough for Granger. He wants the really big money, he wants to be top dog, and he wants the kind of glamorous dangerous women that go for big shots.

Granger will get what he wants but he will find that it’s not as simple as he’d thought. The wire service is now so successful that it’s attracted the attention of the big boys of organised crime, the ones who control most of the illegal gambling in the east and who are now looking at Granger’s California operation as something that they really should control. Their plans to get control will have fateful consequences for Granger, bringing him into the orbit of crime kingpin Carl Stephens (Otto Kruger) but even more fatefully introducing him to Larry Mason (Don Porter) and his wife Gail (Joanne Dru). Mason is one of Stephens’ chief lieutenants and while he’s a very smooth character he is the kind of guy it would be very very unwise to cross. And that’s exactly what Mal Granger does when he and Gail Mason fall in love.

Edmond O’Brien does a fine job portraying the gradual corruption of Mal Granger. Granger is a nice enough guy but his essential moral weakness is made fairly clear. He has no sense of responsibility and he sees women as merely objects of pleasure. His desire for money is understandable enough but it’s excessive. In fact he accumulates money the way he accumulates sexual conquests - he seems to need to do both to convince himself that he really is a success, that he really is a big shot. He’s not vicious but we can’t help thinking that his greed could eventually overwhelm the positive aspects of his character. He’s a man who could be corrupted, and this of course because the film’s major theme - the transformation of an ordinary likeable guy into a hoodlum and the fact that organised crime tends to do that to people.

Gail Mason is the femme fatale of the story and Joanne Dru handles the role very adroitly. Gail is exactly the kind of woman Granger would be very well advised to avoid. She’s unhappily married to a very big-time mobster and she’s reckless, and of course Mal is going to convince himself that he can save her.

Otto Kruger’s performance is another highlight. Carl Stephens is the kind of gangster who hates getting his hands dirty. He doesn’t even like to talk about unpleasant subjects like having guys rubbed out. He just makes it clear that it would be desirable if certain guys were to be rubbed out and it just happens. Don Porter as Larry Mason is all superficial charm masking a very tough character.

Director Joseph M. Newman’s career was mostly confined to fairly minor but sometimes interesting genres films such as the science fiction classic This Island Earth and the rather good noirish crime thriller Dangerous Crossing. He does a competent job here. There’s plenty of noir atmosphere and the climactic scene on Boulder Dam is fairly well done. The opening credits make the claim (which may well be true for all I know) that the movie upset the Mob so much it had to be made under police protection 

Sony Screen Classics By Request DVD-R offers a very fine transfer. 711 Ocean Drive is a nifty little crime thriller with enough film noir flavour to satisfy fans of that genre. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Harriet Craig (1950)

Joan Crawford made Harriet Craig at Columbia in 1950 at a time when she was really at the top of her game. Crawford’s 1940s output tended to inhabit the borderland between film noir and melodrama with some movies tending more towards one than the other. Harriet Craig is more or less pure melodrama but with some interest for film noir fans.

Walter Craig (Wendell Corey) and his wife Harriet (Crawford) have the perfect marriage. As Harriet explains to her cousin Clare (K.T. Stevens) this is no accident. Harriet works hard to make sure the marriage stays perfect. Any woman who thinks that a happy marriage just happens is a fool. Marriages have to be managed, just like businesses. Naturally that requires one person to do the managing. That person of course is Harriet. As Harriet remarks, “No man's born ready for marriage; he has to be trained.”

Harriet doesn’t just manage her marriage. She does so to an obsessive degree. Everything has its place - furniture, servants, husbands - and it had better stay in its place if it knows what’s good for it. Walter doesn’t mind all this, for the very good reason that he has no idea it is happening.

The problem with Harriet’s style of perfect marriage is that if just one thing deviates from its proper place the whole structure is likely to collapse like a house of cards. That collapse begins in a small way when Harriet is away for a week visiting her sick mother. On her return she discovers that Walter has been engaging in unauthorised activities. He has had friends over for an evening of poker, without first gaining Harriet’s permission (which she would naturally have refused for his own good). Harriet is not pleased and she makes her displeasure known. She does not lose her temper or anything like that. She is not such a fool as that. She knows how to make a husband see he has done the wrong thing, in the smoothest and silkiest way. By now the audience has started to realise that there’s an iron fist hidden beneath the velvet glove but poor Walter still has no idea. 

Harriet is also facing possible rebellion on the part of her cousin Clare. Clare lives in with the Craigs, acting as a sort of general-purpose assistant, secretary and companion to Harriet. Clare is in fact a servant, although she doesn’t know it. Now Clare has fallen in love and is thinking seriously about marriage. This does not suit Harriet at all. Where is she going to find another unpaid servant as useful as Clare? The marriage must of course be stopped.

There are bigger problems in store, when Walter is offered a promotion which will entail spending three months in Japan without Harriet. Harriet does not even want to think about what might happen were Walter to be left unsupervised for three months. This is another potential rebellion that must be nipped in the bud.

Inevitably Harriet’s control starts to slip. Or rather it remains as tight as ever but she is having more and more trouble in exercising her control without those she is controlling becoming uncomfortably aware that they are merely puppets dancing to her tune. If they realise they are being controlled disaster must follow.

This is melodrama, but leavened by a considerable amount of humour. The humour is perhaps of the black comedy variety but it is certainly there. 

Harriet is a monster but there’s some subtlety to Crawford’s performance. Bette Davis could play monsters but they were usually inhuman monsters. Crawford gives us a very human monster. Harriet is still a monster but while we find it difficult to feel sympathy for her Crawford does at least make us understand where she’s coming from. And where she’s coming from is fear. Harriet must maintain her iron grip because she believes the alternative is chaos, the chaos she witnessed in her parents’ marriage. There is no in-between for Harriet. A woman either has total control or she faces chaos, dissolution, oblivion. This gives the movie a touch of tragedy. It also gives Harriet a certain dignity, albeit a monstrous dignity, that prevents the movie from collapsing entirely into high camp excess. There is high camp excess here, but there’s a little more than that. Crawford is in fine form.

Walter might seem superficially to be the innocent victim but he has contributed to the mess in his own way. Fears of the emasculation of American men were rife in this period (see Rebel Without a Cause) and that’s certainly the issue here. Walter has abandoned his masculinity and has voluntarily turned himself into a doormat. In doing so he has not only lost control of his life he has also forfeited any chance of winning Harriet’s respect. Wendell Corey is impressive - an actor who has never received the recognition he deserves.

Crawford wrote some of her own dialogue, including a speech late in the picture which will provide plenty of fuel for those who like to interpret her movies in terms of her own life.

Those who like to view the movies of the past through the distorting lens of 21st century ideologies will find a great deal to enrage them in this movie. The movie certainly comes down on the side of traditional views of marriage and sex roles.

Director Vincent Sherman demonstrates a sure touch with melodrama and manages to avoid excessive staginess (Anne Froelich and James Gunn based their screenplay on George Kelly’s stage play). 

Sony has released this film as part of their Choice Collection. The DVD is barebones with not even a trailer - in fact not even a menu! The transfer is however extremely good.

Harriet Craig is quality melodrama. It’s a must for Crawford fans. Highly recommended

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Home at Seven (1952)

Home at Seven (released in the US as Murder on Monday) was Sir Ralph Richardson’s only outing as a director (and he was the star as well). It’s a low-key quirky little mystery thriller that would be too amiable for its own good if it wasn’t for some dark moments that crop up rather suddenly and unexpectedly.

Richardson is David Preston, a mild-mannered and very ordinary bank clerk. In fact he’s about as mild-mannered and ordinary as a man can possibly be. His life of quiet contentment is built on orderliness and routine. He arrives home from work at seven o’clock every day, without fail. Until one fateful Tuesday he arrives home at his usual time to discover that something very strange and very disturbing has happened. His wife Janet (Margaret Leighton) is in tears, owing to the fact that he didn’t come home at all on the Monday. This is very puzzling to David because he knows it is Monday and he has certainly not been out all night. The puzzle deepens after Janet manages to persuade him that it really is Tuesday and he really did not come home the day before. And she has telephoned the bank and been informed that he hasn’t been in today at all. But David distinctly remembers leaving the bank as usual, catching his train as usual, and arriving home as usual. It appears that he has somehow lost an entire day. Things like that simply do not happen to people like David Preston, and yet it appears it has happened.

The family doctor, Dr Sparling (Jack Hawkins) is called in. He can’t find any evidence of any physiological abnormality but he is convinced David is telling the truth. Dr Sparling concludes that David has suffered a memory lapse, probably brought on by some kind of shock.

This is all somewhat distressing but it becomes really worrying when it is revealed that a robbery and a murder took place on the Monday evening in question. And (in a nicely executed little twist) it appears that the mild-mannered David Preston not only had the opportunity to commit both crimes, he also had very strong motives. 

David still has no recollection of the missing day. Dr Sparling is still certain that his patient is telling the truth. Inspector Hemingway (Campbell Singer) is however far from convinced. And even Dr Sparling has to admit that the circumstantial evidence is rather strong. Most worrisome of all is that David has absolutely no alibi and absolutely no way of proving his innocence. It all looks rather grim for David Preston.

It’s a good basic idea and it’s developed quite effectively by scriptwriter Anatole de Grunwald (the script being based on a play by R. C. Sherriff). 

Richardson’s inexperience as a director inclines him to play safe and to avoid anything fancy. This movie might strike some viewers as being a little bland but Richardson’s very low-key approach is quite effective, emphasising the extreme ordinariness of the characters.

To make such a low-key approach works requires a very strong cast and fortunately that condition is fulfilled very adequately. Richardson avoids the temptation of trying to convey David’s inner turmoil through acting pyrotechnics (although he was an actor who could produce such effects when required). David Preston is not a man who puts his emotions on display and Richardson’s performance is entirely believable. Margaret Leighton adopts a similar approach which proves equally effective. Jack Hawkins does the same. These are people who are not accustomed to dealing with bizarre and sensational events and they respond with the kind of quiet dignity that rings true given their social milieu and the mores of the times.

Inspector Hemingway is just about the most sympathetic police inspector you’re ever going to encounter. Initially the viewer is tempted to see this as evidence of his cunning as a detective but by the end of the movie we realise that he really does happen to be a very sympathetic person who has been fortunate enough to find that his empathy makes him a very efficient policeman.

As for the dark moments I alluded to earlier, the most telling occurs when, just as we’ve come to believe that David must be entirely innocent, he suddenly makes a rather shocking admission which leaves us having to wonder if we’ve been entirely wrong about him. 

Home at Seven is careful to treat its characters with respect. It would have been easy to mock David Preston and his wife but faced with the alternative of chaos that threatens them we can’t help feeling that there’s something to be said for an orderly life.

Network DVD have released this black-and-white film on DVD without any extras apart from a rather sparse stills gallery. The transfer is however very satisfactory and the very low price is another major plus.

Home at Seven is a product of a time when the British film industry seemed to have a practically unlimited capacity for making excellent thrillers and mysteries that combined subtlety and understatement with an appealing quirkiness. This one is definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

some books on which classic movies were based

I always find it interesting to check out the books on which some of my favourite movies were based. And since I have a book blog (Vintage Pop Fictions) as well as my movie blogs I post reviews of some of these source books. Here are some links to some of the interesting ones, plus links to my reviews of the movies in question.

Anthony Hope’s classic adventure tale The Prisoner of Zenda was filmed several times, the most notable version having been made in 1937.

Talbot Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles is another of the great adventure stories. The  1953 film version stars Tyrone Power.

Johnston McCulley's The Curse of Capistrano (later retitled The Mark of Zorro) was very entertainingly filmed as The Mark of Zorro in 1940, and there was of course a fine silent version as well. 

Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male was the source for Fritz Lang’s excellent 1941 spy thriller Man Hunt.

Horace McCoy's amazingly bleak Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye became a movie of the same name and a starring vehicle for James Cagney in 1950. It’s one of many cases of a movie being considerably better than the novel it was based on.

Eric Ambler’s superb gritty spy novel Epitaph for a Spy became a very good 1944 British spy movie under the title Hotel Reserve.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four has been filmed multiple times, including a 1932 British version.

There have been several movies of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, including the very loose 1937 adaptation.

And Rudyard Kipling’s magnificent short story The Man Who Would Be King was turned into John Huston’s greatest movie in 1975.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth seems to be almost universally regarded as the worst movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. This is absolute nonsense. I could easily name a dozen worse Best Picture winners. The Greatest Show on Earth might not be Citizen Kane but it’s fine entertainment.

DeMille was able to secure the enthusiastic co-operation of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus in the making of the movie and the results are nothing if not spectacular.

The movie covers one season in the life of the circus, focusing on the drama of the circus itself as well as the behind-the-scenes tragedies, joys and heart-breaks.

Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is a circus boss with a big problem. Times are changing and the circus faces stiff competition for the public’s entertainment dollar. The owners want  to cut down the season for the coming year to a mere ten weeks, concentrating entirely on the big cities. To them such a decision seems like a prudent way to avoid financial risk but Braden knows that circuses just can’t work that way. You can’t attract the best performers and you can’t keep such a complex organisation together if you can only offer ten weeks’ work in a year. In a desperate attempt to convince the owners to risk a full season he has taken a huge risk himelf. He has hired the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) as the circus’s number one attraction. The Great Sebastian is the greatest trapeze artist of them all but he has a reputation for being difficult and for causing chaos wherever he goes. 

He also only ever plays the main ring. That’s a problem since Brad has promised that honour to his girlfriend Holly (Bettty Hutton). Holly is a great trapeze artist herself but as he tries to explain to her the Great Sebastian is an established drawcard. For the sake of the circus he has to give Sebastian the centre ring. This establishes one of the movie’s main themes - Brad always puts the circus first, no matter what. Initially this seems to be a flaw in his character but by the end of the movie his dedication will appear in a much more favourable light.

Holly vows to win back her top spot by proving she can outperform even the Great Sebastian. The competition between the two performers proves to be great publicity for the circus and it really draws in the crowds. This is not the only competition going on - there is also a fierce romantic rivalry between Brad and Sebastian. They’re both in love with Holly and neither is the sort of guy who likes to finish second. To complicate things further Angel (Gloria Grahame) is waiting in the wings. She’s always had a thing for a Brad but she’s not the kind of girl who goes around stealing other women’s men. On the other hand if Holly were to decide to choose Sebastian then she’d be more than happy to make a play for Brad. This four-way romantic rivalry provides the movie’s central plot.

There are a couple of sub-plots, one of which will almost destroy the circus. But circuses turn out to be rather difficult to destroy.

It’s very easy to focus on this movie’s flaws but if you do that you’re missing the point of it all. The plot is a bit thin for a two-and-a-half hour movie. Some of the sub-plots don’t go anywhere. The acting is rather hammy. The structure of the movie is very loose with the plot frequently coming to a complete standstill while the focus switches to a documentary style look at the circus behind the scenes, and the action also stops for lengthy performance scenes. What you have to remember though is that DeMille did not want to make a movie set in a circus, with the circus providing a colourful backdrop. The circus itself is the subject of the movie, and it’s the star of the movie as well.

And of course a circus performance doesn’t rely on plot. It’s a series of unconnected spectacles. The structure of the movie follows a similar pattern. Criticising the movie for being episodic and disjointed is like criticising a circus performance for being episodic and disjointed. 

Like a circus, what this movie lacks in tight structuring it makes up for in spectacle. And it really does deliver on the spectacle. It looks magnificent. Some process shots are used but in 1952 when movie cameras were very very heavy, especially Technicolor cameras, and Steadicams had not been thought of, it’s hard to imagine how some of the scenes could have been shot any other way. What matters is that most of the dazzling trapeze performances look very real indeed. 

As for the acting, this is not a movie about angst-ridden urban intellectuals. It’s about circus people. People expect circus people to be larger-than-life and in general the actors deliver precisely the kinds of performances that the movie requires. Betty Hutton plays Holly like a hyperactive kid suffering from a serious sugar rush. She’s bouncing off the walls but while her performance would have been a bad one in most movies in this movie it works. As for Charlton Heston, he’s playing a circus boss and it’s impossible to imagine how anyone could hold an organisation as complex and chaotic as a circus together unless he was the sort of character that Charlton Heston just happened to be very very good at playing. Cornel Wilde pulls out all the stops as the wildly extravagant and exuberant Sebastian and again it’s just exactly the right sort of performance. Gloria Grahame, being the superb actress she was, manages to make Angel very sympathetic and even to hint as a certain amount of acting subtlety while also going just as over-the-top as the other main stars.

James Stewart plays the clown Buttons, a clown with a dark secret. For certain crucial plot reasons he plays the entire movie in clown makeup, quite a challenge given that he’s the most tortured of all the characters. Stewart rises to the challenge. The criticism has been made that it’s easy to guess what his dark secret is but in my view the audience is supposed to figure it out. Because we know his secret we share his anxiety when he’s threatened with exposure.

Despite the movie’s disjointedness DeMille knows what he’s doing. He knows the movie is corny. It’s supposed to be. Circuses are corny. They’re supposed to be. You don’t approach this kind of subject matter with any attempt at subtlety. It’s not a Bergman movie. It’s a circus movie. DeMille knows what is required and that’s what he delivers. The Greatest Show on Earth is as garish as a circus and it’s just as much fun.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a reasonable transfer. This is a movie that really needs a Blu-Ray release.

If you accept this movie on its own terms it’s very enjoyable viewing and despite its length it can never be accused of dullness. Recommended.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Above Suspicion (1943)

Above Suspicion is a 1943 MGM spy thriller with a hefty dose of romance. The protagonists are not professional spies. Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) is a slightly bookish American professor at Oxford. His new wife Frances (Joan Crawford) is also American. The fact that they are Americans and are so obviously harmless is precisely the reason they are recruited by British intelligence to carry out a delicate mission in southern Germany in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war.

They are told it will be a relatively simple mission and not especially dangerous. In fact it proves to be remarkably difficult and extremely dangerous.

The fact that they are amateurs was supposed to be an advantage. As harmless tourists they would be above suspicion. Unfortunately they soon realise that espionage is not really a game for amateurs and to be honest they really have very little idea what they’re doing.

Amateurs they may be, but they are resourceful and rather determined. Of course the reason they are so determined is that they don’t really how dangerous the game of espionage is.

Much of the plot hinges on their amateurishness. They have to make contact with British agents in Germany but they have no idea how such things are done. They have no knowledge of the profession of espionage and of course they make mistakes. They are however brave and determined and their amateur status can sometimes give them an edge, leading the Gestapo to underrate them.

The movie was based on a novel by Helen MacInnes. MacInnes is not well known today but she had a long and successful career as a writer of spy fiction. Her husband worked for MI6 so she had the advantage of inside knowledge of the world of espionage. She was somewhat in the Eric Ambler tradition, preferring protagonists who were ordinary people caught up in espionage rather than professional spies. While Ambler’s heroes were often very reluctant spies MacInnes was more interested in people who were motivated by a sense of decency.

The screenplay has enough twists to keep things interesting. Richard Thorpe was a reliable journeyman director whose approach was straightforward but efficient.

Given the fact that they are playing amateur spies the casting of Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford works fairly well. They don’t look like spies and they don’t behave like spies, which is of course the whole point of the story. MacMurray has no difficulty playing a mild-mannered professor, and he also has no difficulty in convincing us that underneath his mild exterior he has unexpected reserves of stubbornness and courage. This is a fairly light role for Crawford, playing a very sympathetic and likeable character, and she approaches it with just the right sort of breezy charm and combines this with an underlying strength. Frances Myles is no ditzy airhead, she’s a woman of genuine substance and Crawford gets the balance just right.

The danger of casting Basil Rathbone in a supporting rôle in a movie of this type is that he will proceed to steal the picture. Which he almost succeeds in doing here.

This is generally speaking a fairly lightweight spy thriller although it has a few grim moments to remind us that while espionage can seem like fun it can turn deadly. This is an A-picture with high production values although made in the style of its time, in other words shot on sound stages and the backlot. Despite this it conveys the atmosphere of a world on the brink of war quite effectively. Being an MGM picture it offers more glamour than contemporary spy thriller from other studios, but it’s a movie that aims at excitement in exotic locales rather than grimness.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a very satisfactory transfer, without any extras.

Above Suspicion is well-crafted and benefits from a fine cast. is well-crafted and benefits from a fine cast. It’s not in the same league as movies like Casablanca and Notorious but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and can be unhesitatingly recommended.