Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Prince of Foxes (1949)

Prince of Foxes is a 1949 20th Century-Fox historical epic that doesn’t deliver quite the kind of swashbuckling thrills that Tyrone Power’s presence in the leading role might lead one to expect. Fortunately the movie has other virtues, most notably Orson Welles in full flight as Cesare Borgia.

The setting is Italy around 1500. Cesare Borgia is doing what you’d expect Cesare Borgia to be doing - hatching nefarious plots to extend his power. His latest idea is to marry his sister Lucrezia to Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia is already married but that obstacle is easily disposed of. That particular husband has served his purpose and has met the fate that usually met those who were no longer of use to the Borgias. To arrange the marriage of Lucrezia to Alfonso Cesare dispatches one of his most useful followers, Andrea Orsini (Tyrone Power). Orsini is exactly the right sort of man for such a mission - young, handsome, charming, cunning and utterly without any moral scruples. Orsini is ambitious, an ambition fueled by a well-kept secret. He is not the nobleman he pretends to be but a peasant who initially hoped to study to be a painter. Finding that there were other more lucrative careers open to a man with an agile mind, a ready wit and a willingness to advance himself he had re-invented himself as Andrea Orsini.

Before reaching Ferrara he almost falls victim to an assassin employed by the Duke of Ferrara, Mario Belli (Everett Sloane). Orsini could easily have killed Belli but he takes a liking to his would-be murderer, recognising Belli as a kindred spirit, an unscrupulous adventurer but a man likely to be a useful ally.

His mission successfully completed he is given another similar task. The almost impregnable castle of Città del Monte blocks the route to be taken his armies on his next campaign. The elderly count of Città del Monte (played by Felix Aylmer) needs to be persuaded to agree to this, or disposed of if he refuses. The count has a young and pretty wife, Camilla (Wandra Hendrix), who has already caught Orsini’s eye.

At this point Orsini starts to undergo a sea change. He falls in love with Camilla (something he has never done before) and he comes to like and admire the elderly count. Orsini begins to realise that maybe ambition isn’t everything, that perhaps honour is something worthwhile. It had never occurred to Orsini that he might have finer feelings but now he discovers that he has them to an extent that is going to cause him to re-evaluate his willingness to serve Cesare Borgia. The difficulty with that is that men who betray Cesare Borgia tend to have rather short life expectancies.

Prince of Foxes is a little slow-moving, or at least the first half of the film is. There are some fine battle scenes but the movie gives Tyrone Power fewer opportunities to strut his swashbuckling stuff than you might expect.

As I indicated earlier there are compensations. The movie was filmed in Italy and there’s a great deal of very impressive location shooting. Power tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Zanuck to make the movie in Technicolor. The black-and-white cinematography by Leon Shamroy is however exceptionally beautiful.

Henry King was the kind of director who made the golden age of Hollywood golden, a fine craftsman who could be relied upon to turn out well-made good-looking and thoroughly entertaining movies such as this.

Tyrone Power was particularly good at playing complex heroes and does a fine job. Everett Sloane is enormous fun as the amiable rogue Belli. Felix Aylmer, as always, is able to convey dignity without any hint of dullness. Wandra Hendrix looks stunning and makes an acceptable heroine.

The real drawcard here is Orson Welles. Welles is in magnificent form delivering a bravura performance that exquisitely combines charm, menace, sadism, black humour and megalomania. His Cesare Borgia has the fascination of a cobra, with fewer moral scruples.

This is one of five movies included in Fox’s Tyrone Power Collection. This set is an absolute must-have for swashbuckler fans. Prince of Foxes boasts a very handsome transfer.

Prince of Foxes might have benefited from giving Tyrone Power a few more sword-fights but this movie still has plenty going for it - gorgeous locations, lovely cinematography, some fine battle scenes and most of all an outrageously extravagant villain played by Orson Welles at full throttle. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Scene of the Crime (1949)

Scene of the Crime is more police procedural than film noir, although it does certainly have a dark edge to it. It was made by MGM in 1949 and is slightly grittier than you’d expect from that studio.

Mike Conovan (Van Johnson) is a homicide cop investigating the murder of a detective. The circumstances of the murder suggest that the dead cop may not have been squeaky clean. Conovan knew the slain detective and can’t believe he was crooked.

Conovan and his partner Piper (John McIntire) are teaching rookie detective ‘C. C.’ Gordon the ropes. C. C. got his nickname from a reporter who described him as a carbon copy of Mike Conovan. Piper is an old hand who had once taught Conovan the ropes.

The evidence suggests that an out-of-town mob is trying to muscle into the book-making racket in LA. The out-of-town mob is known as the Royalty Gang and their trigger man has a couple of distinctive features that should make him easy to find - he has a twisted left hand and a portwine birthmark on his face. Only he turns out not to be so easy to find.

Conovan’s wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) has been pressuring him into leaving the Homicide Squad. She wants a live husband not a dead hero. This makes things rather tense and they get eve more tense when Conovan has to romance young and very attractive burlesque queen Lili (Gloria DeHaven) in order to try to find some sort of lead. Lili is the movie’s femme fatale. She’s obviously Mike Conovan’s type of dame and he’s having some trouble remembering this is supposed to be business.

There’s the usual assortment of hoodlums and informers, the most useful of the informers being the cheerful Sleeper (Norman Lloyd).

There are the usual plot twists and turns as leads seem to keep going nowhere. The trail leads to a seedy private detective, to a burlesque joint, to various small-time bookies and the only connecting thread is that most of those involved, both directly and indirectly, had been in prison together. It all leads up to a climax that is exceptionally violent for an MGM production and that must have pushed the boundaries of the Production Code. 

Van Johnson’s performance is reasonably good although he’s not quite hardboiled enough to convince as a cop who supposedly has a reputation as a hot-head. Arlene Dahl is capable in her role as the wife who wishes her husband wasn’t a cop. Gloria DeHaven has the advantage of playing the most colourful of the main characters and does the femme fatale routine with style and with subtlety. Norman Lloyd as Sleeper steals every scene he’s in.

Writer Charles Schnee had a distinguished career before his untimely death at age 46. He was equally at home with melodrama and hardboiled material and while his screenplay contains no surprises it does have enough human drama to keep things interesting. Although he did helm the excellent film noir Rogue Cop director Roy Rowland made few crime films, which is a pity because the couple he did make showed plenty of potential.

Mike Conovan is an interesting enough character and the screenplay doesn’t play down the fact that cops sometimes have to do unsavoury things to get results and they have to face situations that present ethical dilemmas. But Conovan’s methods are simply the methods that any effective detective would have to employ. He is never in any danger of being corrupted, which means his character cannot in any genuine sense be regarded as a film noir protagonist.

Being an MGM movie this movie is somewhat lacking in the shadowy grungy film noir style although it does have its moments. It relies on hardboiled content rather than style, but a little more noir style would not have gone amiss.

As for actual film noir elements, there are very few. There is a femme fatale but content-wise that’s about it.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is barebones but it’s a good print.

Scene of the Crime is nothing startling but it’s a good well-made moderately hardboiled police procedural. Recommended.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

Although he would make a few more film appearances in bit parts Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (made at Universal in 1941) was W. C. Fields’ last major movie and his last starring role. It is his most bizarre and outrageous movie and in some ways his best.

The screenplay is credited to John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin, based on an original story by Otis Criblecoblis (one of Fields’ many writing pseudonyms). Given that neither Neville nor Chaplin ever did anything else comparable to this I think it’s a fair assumption that what we see on the screen is largely the product of Fields’ own imagination. It’s certainly difficult to believe that he wasn’t responsible for most of the dialogue which has all the Fields signatures.

There is virtually no plot. It’s more like an extended comedic stream-of-consciousness that pushed the boundaries of cinematic comedy further than they’d ever been pushed before.

Fields plays a screenwriter and comic actor named W. C. Fields who is trying to get his latest screenplay accepted by producer Franklin Pangborn (played by Franklin Pangborn). At the same time he is trying to further the career of his niece Gloria Jean (played by Gloria Jean). She’s rehearsing a part in a new musical. 

A large part of the movie consists of a film-within-a-film. As Fields pitches his screenplay we see it come to life. And it’s a strange and wondrous fantasy concoction that owes more to the surrealists than to Hollywood. In the film-within-a-film Fields plays a character named W. C. Fields who along with his niece Gloria Jean (played by Gloria Jean) gets into a series of wildly absurd adventures that would have done credit to Baron Münchhausen. He falls out of an aircraft and lands on a bed on top of a mountain. This is the home of the very strange Mrs Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont) and her daughter Ouilotta Hemogloben. After having her heart broken Mrs Hemogloben retired to her mountaintop eyrie with her baby daughter Ouilotta who has lived there all her life and has never set eyes on a man.

There’s also an extended sequence with Gloria Jean finding herself in a fantasy Russian village. We also see Fields and Gloria Jean ascending to Mrs Hemogloben’s mountaintop home in a basket, which provides the opportunity for more comic set-pieces. There’s also a guy in a gorilla suit, a couple of monkeys and a stuffed budgerigar. Having been told that she is exceedingly rich Fields romances Mrs Hemogloben until Gloria Jean points out that even if he gets her money he’ll be getting Mrs Hemogloben as well. That brings him to his senses.

Even when we return to reality from the film-within-a-film things are just as crazy. The whole thing culminates in one of the greatest chase scenes in movie history. There’s absolutely no need whatsoever for this sequence which has no relationship to anything else in the movie. It’s there because it’s outrageous fun. Nothing in this movie has to make any sense. Fields and Gloria Jean both break the fourth wall at times to address the audience directly, which makes the movie a film-within-a-film-within-a-film.

In-jokes abound. The first scene in the movie features Field looking at a movie poster for a W. C. Fields movie. This movie is so self-referential that it makes the whole of postmodernism positively redundant.

It’s possible that Fields, then aged 61 and enjoying indifferent health, was aware that this might be his last movie. If so it can be read as an affectionate farewell to Hollywood and the magic of movies. It’s as if Fields is telling us that it’s all been fantastic fun and now he wants to go out with a blast. There are those who see this as a bitter-sweet movie but really it’s much more sweet than bitter. Fields exits the limelight at the absolute top of his form and with the most audacious movie of his career.

You don’t expect to be talking about the special effects in a W. C. Fields movie but this one is an exception. The wildly surreal nature of the movie requires some quite elaborate special effects which are executed with wit and skill.

Edward F. Cline directed several of Fields’ late movies and he knows how to handle his star - let him do whatever he wants to do. There’s no point in trying to tell a comic genius how to do comedy.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is included in the magnificent Region 2 17-movie W. C. Fields Collection boxed set. The transfer is on the whole an excellent one. The movie has also been released individually on DVD in Region 1.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is a wildly inventive surreal comic masterpiece. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tony Rome (1967)

Tony Rome was the first of two movies starring Frank Sinatra as Miami private eye Tony Rome (the second being Lady in Cement). It’s a stock-standard PI movie but on the whole it’s well executed and it works.

Tony Rome gets mixed up in what seems to be a very trivial case. The house detective of a sleazy hotel asks his old buddy to deliver a young woman back to her family. The woman is Diana Pines (Sue Lyon) and her father is millionaire construction tycoon Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland). Diana had passed out dead drunk in her hotel room. The hotel doesn’t want any trouble from the cops since they have enough of that already. It seems like a very easy way to pick up a couple of hundred bucks so Tony agrees.

The next day Diana turns up on Tony’s boat (he won it in a poker game and he lives on board) informing him that she lost an expensive diamond pin the night before and could he please get it back for her? This seems like another easy straightforward job but it soon becomes apparent that there are all kinds of dramas going on in Rudy Kosterman’s family. These dramas involve blackmail and eventually include murder as well.

The basic plot could have been lifted from any 1940s private eye movie. Tony Rome tries to adapt the classic private eye movie to the 1960s. It does this by including a great deal of sleaze and squalor. Of course by wallowing in the gutter like this the movie was simply reflecting what was going on in a society that was increasingly wallowing in the gutter. This is a world of shallow selfish self-destructive egoists, hookers, lesbians, hoodlums, dope peddlers and junkies. It’s an unpleasant world which makes for a somewhat unpleasant movie although Hollywood had not yet descended to the bottom of the cesspit. That would come within a few short years with ghastly orgies of self-indulgent misery like Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

The plot itself is reminiscent of the insanely convoluted twisting and turning plots of 40s movies like The Big Sleep

Tony Rome himself is basically a decent guy, which makes him something of an anomaly in this world. When he tries to explain the concept of ethics that prevents him from working for two clients whose interests may be in conflict his explanation is received by Diana with a stare of blank incomprehension. Tony is an inveterate gambler and he likes a drink and he’s an old-fashioned tough guy, the kind of tough guy who plays it square and doesn’t beat up women and doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for himself. He’s not exactly a Boy Scout but he stands aloof from the sexual and moral depravity of the 60s. He’s not unlike a 1960s version of Philip Marlowe. Sinatra plays the role with easy-going charm and effortless cool.

Jill St John is one of the best things about this movie. She plays Ann Archer, a girl who is a bit like Tony Rome. She’s no Girl Scout but she does have at least a vague concept of morality.

Rudy Kosterman is a man who is bewildered by the machinations of those round him. He’s a nice guy and he’s trying his best to be a good husband and a good father.

If the movie has an over-arching theme it’s the conflict between the pre-1960s morality of guys like Tony Rome and Rudy Kosterman and the total lack of morality of the 1960s generation. The movie comes down on the side of pre-1960s morality which would have made it seem like a throwback in 1967 although seen today it’s rather refreshing to encounter a movie that has some characters who are motivated by emotions other than selfishness and hedonism.

There’s something of a film noir quality to this movie, despite all the Florida sunshine. In fact that Florida sunshine neatly counterpoints the sleaze and degradation. Gordon Douglas was a good workmanlike director and he handles proceedings with quiet competence.

Fox’s Region 2 DVD release is barebones apart from a trailer but it boasts a good 16x9 enhanced transfer and it’s ludicrously cheap.

Tony Rome is a movie that is both of its time and not of its time, a movie that uneasily tries to confront the problems of a society taking its first baby steps on the road to narcissistic nihilism and self-destruction. It manages to do this without losing sight of its prime objective which is to deliver solid entertainment. It’s one of the better movies in Frank Sinatra’s later career. Recommended.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Crack-Up (1946)

Crack-Up is a 1946 RKO production that combines the worlds of film noir and fine art, an unusual combination that works surprisingly well.

George Steele (Pat O’Brien) gives lectures on art at the Manhattan Museum. His lectures are very popular but he has a tendency to tread on the toes of the art establishment. He is particularly scathing on the subject of modernist art (something that made me immediately warm to him). It appears that his enemies in the art world (a world far more vicious than the world of hoodlums) are about to get him fired. But before that can happen he finds himself with much more immediate problems.

Steele is arrested after breaking into the museum, apparently in a drunken rage. A medical  examination suggests that he was not drunk but was suffering from some kind of mental derangement. His story of how he came to be in the museum (told in classic noir flashback style) is a strange one. He had caught a train to visit his mother after receiving a telephone call telling him that she had suddenly been taken very ill. The train was wrecked and he remembers nothing else until he found himself in the museum. The problem with his story is that there was no train wreck, and there is no record of a telephone call from his mother.

Lieutenant Cochrane (Wallace Ford) is a no-nonsense cop but he is persuaded that the best thing to do is to drop all charges against Steele. An Englishman named Traybin (Herbert Marshall), who seems to be some kind of high-powered member of the art world, is particularly keen that Steele should be left at liberty. We will later discover Traybin’s reasons for urging that Steele be released.

Steele is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and to prove that he isn’t a dangerous psycho. Pretty soon he finds himself also having to prove that he isn’t a murderer. The murder victim was a man from the museum who had told Steele that he had discovered something very important.

During the war George Steele had played an important role in identifying forgeries among art works looted by the Nazis. Steele is an authority on art forgery and he starts to suspect that the mysterious events that have plunged his life into danger and confusion have something to do with forged Old Masters. There may also be a link to a recent case involving a forged Gainsborough that was destroyed in a shipboard fire. Art forgery is a big-money racket and it soon becomes evident that art racketeers are just as ruthless as any other kind of racketeer.

Steele has several potential allies but at the moment he’s not inclined to trust anybody. Not even his girlfriend Terry (Claire Trevor). Terry has become a bit too friendly with this mysterious Traybin character and Steele definitely doesn’t trust Traybin. He figures that anybody who is as anxious to help him as Traybin is can’t possibly to up to any good. George Steele is starting to develop the kind of paranoia that we expect from a film noir protagonist but sometimes paranoia can be a healthy way of thinking. And George Steele certainly has some real enemies.

The art forgeries are in a sense a McGuffin but they do give this movie a distinctive flavour. The movie has none of the usual film noir trappings - there are no cheap hoodlums, no hardbitten dames, no sleazy night-clubs and gambling joints. This is a world of high-class well-bred dames, expensive restaurants, well-heeled patrons of the arts and good taste. The crooks are more likely to be found in the Social Register than in the mug shots down at Police Headquarters. But cultured crooks can play just as rough as street thugs. And arty society dames can play the femme fatale game as well as any night-club floozies. The movie creates an entirely convincing noir atmosphere without any of the standard noir clichés.

Pat O’Brien is perfectly cast, managing to be a convincing art expert while still having enough of a tough guy persona to be a plausible hero. And he’s a sympathetic hero even when his paranoia threatens to cloud his judgment. Claire Trevor is very good, as always. Herbert Marshall plays the sort of polite Englishman that he usually played but with a slightly harder edge than usual. Wallace Ford plays it very straight as the tough but decent Lieutenant Cochrane. The very fine performances by all the major players contribute considerably towards this movie’s success.

Irving Reis’s career as a director was cut short by his untimely death. He does a fine job here with some subtle but imaginative touches. The train sequences are tense and moody and very effective.

The transfer on the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is not quite up to the usual very high standard maintained by this series but it’s still more than acceptable.

Crack-Up is a very good film noir that manages to tick all the right boxes without being able to resort to the standard noir tropes. This is an unassuming but very entertaining noir that has been unfairly neglected. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1942)

The Man Who Wouldn't Die, released in 1942, was the fifth of seven 20th Century-Fox crime B-movies featuring Lloyd Nolan as PI Mike Shayne. Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne novels were among the the best of the hardboiled PI novels of the 40s but unfortunately the movies are anything but hardboiled. In fact they’re played more for comedy than mystery and end up being very routine B-features.

The Man Who Wouldn't Die was not not based on a Mike Shayne novel but on one of Clayton Rawson’s mysteries featuring stage magician The Great Merlini.

The movie opens promisingly enough, and moodily enough, with a clandestine burial of a corpse at night. 

We then switch scenes and see Mike Shayne agreeing to take on a case for Catherine Wolff, the daughter of millionaire Dudley Wolff. Catherine wants Mike to pretend to be her husband in order to investigate some strange goings-on. Catherine was shot at by what appeared to be a ghost. Things get more interesting when Mike discovers a genuine (and rather impressive) mad scientist’s laboratory in the basement of the Wolff mansion. The laboratory is used by Dr Haggard (Henry Wilcoxon). Dr Haggard has been employed by Wolff to find ways to extend his life. Sadly, the mad scientist angle is not pursued.

There are several apparent attempts to break into the mansion, some more gunplay, a corpse that won’t stay dead and a plot that is a bit too convoluted for its own good. Mike gets some assistance from his old pal, magician The Great Merlini.

Lloyd Nolan is likeable enough although it’s a pity the hardboiled elements are reduced to virtual non-existence since Nolan could do the hardboiled thing quite well. In this movie Mike Shayne is reduced to a comic character. Marjorie Weaver is much too bubbly as Catherine Wolff. The only member of the cast to impress is Helene Reynolds as Catherine’s step-mother Anna. Given a better script she could have made quite a good femme fatale.

The script is a real problem. It’s trying to be a murder mystery, a mad scientist movie, a horror movie and a comedy all at the same time and it fails to succeed in any of these endeavours. Perhaps Fox would have done better to have emphasised the horror elements a bit more since they’re by far the most interesting parts of the movie.

Director Herbert I. Leeds made quite a few B-movies before moving into television in the early 50s. His movie career was undistinguished and his approach in this movie is fairly pedestrian.

I guess my main problem with this movie is that it’s just too lightweight for my tastes. Mike Shayne could have provided the material for a series of excellent B noirs but Fox seemed unable to decide what to do with the character. It’s possible that had these movies been made a few years later they might have been given more of a noir feel. As it is they’re more reminiscent of the very light murder mysteries of the 30s than of the darker tone of 40s film noir.

The Man Who Wouldn't Die is included in the Mike Shayne Mysteries boxed set. The transfer is a very good one. The extras include a very short documentary on Robert McGinnis, who did the cover art for most of the Mike Shayne paperbacks. McGinnis is one of the great book cover illustrators and this short doco is actually more interesting than the movie. 

The Man Who Wouldn't Die is interesting as a kind of murder mystery/horror crossover and if you’re prepared to accept that it’s aiming at nothing more than than very lightweight entertainment it’s moderately enjoyable.

I've reviewed two of the other Mike Shayne movies, Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940) and Sleepers West (1941).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951)

I Was a Communist for the FBI, made by Warner Brothers in 1951, is one of those movies that tends to be treated rather dismissively because its politics are no longer fashionable. It’s actually a fairly well-made and effective thriller with a definite film noir flavour.

The movie was based on the real-life exploits of Matt Cvetic, who spent nine years undercover working for the FBI as a member of the US Communist Party. He paid a high personal toll for his actions, an aspect of the case that the movie focuses on quite strongly.  Just how important Cvetic was has been much disputed, especially by those who like to believe the communist threat in the 50s was all right-wing propaganda.

The movie focuses on the last stages of Cvetic’s undercover operation. Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy) has become a senior man in the party’s Pittsburgh branch, fomenting union unrest in the steel industry. He has been disowned by his family who of course do not know that he is really working for the FBI. The pressure is starting to tell on him. The necessity to live a double life, reviled by his neighbours and by his family and constantly in fear of betrayal, provides the movie’s main claims to being part of the film noir cycle. 

The party has assigned communist schoolteacher Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart) to keep an eye on Cvetic. It’s not that they particularly distrust him - they don’t trust anybody at all. Having everybody spying on everybody else was of course always standing operating procedure in communist parties everywhere. The problem here is that Eve uncovers evidence that Cvetic is not the loyal party member he claims to be but she has grown to like him and to respect him. Her own faith in her chosen cause is starting to become shaky. This comes to a head during a violent strike when she is sickened by the brutal methods employed by party bully-boys.

Eve could have been played as a standard noir femme fatale but for some reason Crane Wilbur’s screenplay fails to develop the relationship between Eve and Cvetic. In fact it fails to develop her character in general or to focus on her own soul-searchings about her commitment to a cause that she has come to regard as evil.

The tension starts to build when Eve falls under suspicion by the party and Cvetic is placed in an exceptionally awkward position. He has to try to rescue Eve from the party’s goons without revealing himself as an undercover agent. The sequences dealing with Eve’s attempted escape provide the movie’s dramatic highlight and are genuinely suspenseful and exciting. Cvetic now finds that he could be next on the party’s hit list.

Frank Lovejoy gives an effective enough performance. Dorothy Hart is solid although as mentioned earlier the script doesn’t really give her sufficient opportunity to really show her acting chops. The supporting cast is more of a problem. The villains would have been more genuinely menacing had they been made a little more three-dimensional and a little less like cheap hoodlums. It’s hard to imagine these cardboard cutouts actually converting anyone to their cause. Real-life American communists were more likely to be well-intentioned fools than hoodlums, although doubtless they would have had their quota of strong-arm bullies.

Gordon Douglas was an amazingly prolific director and is arguably somewhat under-appreciated. His filmography includes a number of interesting films including Them!, the outrageously camp 1965 Harlow with Carroll Baker, the equally camp In Like Flint (1967)  and the underrated 1968 crime thriller The Lady in Cement with Frank Sinatra and Raquel Welch. Douglas shows himself to be quite proficient with I Was a Communist for the FBI, with the railway tunnel chase scene being a well-handled visual set-piece.

When watching this movie you have to resist the temptation to dismiss the subject matter as ridiculous or hysterical. In 1951 the idea that the threat of communism was largely illusory would have been regarded as clearly absurd. There was nothing illusory about the fact that the whole of eastern Europe plus China were now under communist control and there was nothing illusory about the North Korean army that poured across the frontier of South Korea in 1950. There was also nothing illusory about communist infiltration of governments and unions in the West. In my own lifetime I can still recall being a member of a trade union in Australia rigidly controlled by Stalinists. 

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is another fine release from this series, offering a very satisfactory transfer.

Whatever one’s views on the movie’s ideological stance I Was a Communist for the FBI works quite well as a noirish thriller. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Blue Light (1932)

The bergfilme or mountain film enjoyed enormous popularity in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. These were adventure movies in mountain settings, often with mystical overtones and imbued with a fascination for, and a reverence for, both mountain landscapes and the way of life of mountain dwellers. One of the most successful of these movies was The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht), which marked the directorial debut of Leni Riefenstahl, soon to become one of the most controversial film-makers of all time.

Riefenstahl wrote, produced and directed the movie and played the starring role. It’s a kind of fairy tale, not surprising in view of Riefenstahl’s fondness for fairy tales.

Junta (Riefenstahl) is an outcast in her mountain village, reviled as a witch. This is because she is the only person who can climb to the top of the nearby mountain, to a grotto near the summit. On certain nights a strange blue light can be seen emanating from the grotto. The blue light is what attracts Junta, but it also attracts the young men of the village, invariably leading them to their deaths.

The blue light is given off by crystals and the villagers have a fair idea that the grotto is a natural treasure house. Junta is attracted purely by the beauty of the blue light while the young men are attracted by a combination of greed and a sense of adventure.

Junta attracts the attention of a man named Vigo (Mathias Wieman). He is fascinated by her, by the beauty of the mountains, and by the blue light. Vigo will eventually discover the secret of the grotto, which he learns by following Junta. Vigo hopes that be reaching the grotto he can bring prosperity to the village and persuade the villagers to cease their persecution of Junta.

Junta lives in a hut high up on the mountain with a young shepherd boy. It is an idyllic life. Vigo’s arrival initially seems to promise Junta happiness, but the secret of the blue light is a dangerous one.

One thing that is immediately apparent is that this is a film by the same person who made Olympia, the official movie of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. This becomes obvious within the first few minutes. The Riefenstahl trademarks are unmistakable. 

Judged purely as a visual stylist Riefenstahl was one of the towering geniuses of the cinema. Her sense of composition is extraordinary, but what makes it extraordinary is the movement. There is always movement. There is hardly a shot in the film that doesn’t contain movement of some sort. In the very rare cases when there is no movement there is a sense that movement is about to happen. Riefenstahl doesn’t show us pictures of mountains. There is always something else in the frame, something moving. It might be a waterfall, it might be the clouds, it might be a young woman running, it might be the light itself that is moving. You cannot judge Riefenstahl’s artistry by looking at still images from her films. Without the movement they just don’t work. Or rather they do still work as striking images, but it is the movement adds the touch of genius.
The Blue Light is a movie filled with a pulsating sense of life and energy that is almost organic. 

Of course you cannot discuss a Leni Riefenstahl film without mentioning her two most infamous films, The Triumph of the Will (her documentary of the Nazi Nuremberg Rally of 1934) and Olympia (her documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games). Because of these movies Riefenstahl has never been able to be judged as a mere film-maker. Her assumed complicity in the rise of National Socialism will always be there in the background. Riefenstahl later claimed that she had no inkling of what the Nazis were planning. This is of course to a large extent true. No-one can be held accountable for the horrific events of the 1940s on the basis of a movie they made in 1934. 

It is obvious however that there was a great deal in National Socialism that struck a chord in Riefenstahl - the worship of Nature, the idea of a mystical union with the landscape, the vaguely pagan pantheism, the idea of traditional communities having an organic link with the land. All of these elements formed part of the ideology of National Socialism and all of these elements are present, or at the very least implicit, in The Blue Light. These elements are also of course by no means sinister in themselves. In fact they’re part of the fabric of a great deal of modern thought and are possibly even more popular today than they were in Nazi Germany. They do not prove that Riefenstahl was a convinced Nazi; in some ways they merely explain why she was drawn to certain currents in National Socialist ideology. Riefenstahl’s obsession with nature, so obvious in The Blue Light, later led her to join Greenpeace.

The fact that The Triumph of the Will and Olympia were such strikingly effective films, judged purely in visual terms, merely proves that Riefenstahl was an exceptionally brilliant film-maker. The horrors of the Second World War and of The Holocaust occurred as a result of Hitler’s decision to invade Poland, not as a result of Riefenstahl’s films.

Whatever the truth about Riefenstahl there is no doubt about her talent. Of course you need more than just visual brilliance to be a good film-maker. The plot is fairly thin but it has just enough substance to keep the viewer interested and the story’s fairy tale quality makes it rather fascinating. In the hands of any other film-maker it would not be enough to sustain a feature film but the visuals are so breath-taking that they more than compensate for the thinness of the plot.

Riefenstahl proves herself to be a capable actress as well, giving Junta a strange innocent mystical quality.

Riefenstahl made extensive use of filters and and also used infra-red film stock for some scenes and she achieves some magnificent effects.

Pathfinder Home Entertainment’s DVD release includes the original German version plus the shortened silent version made for the export market. Picture quality for the German version is poor while the silent version is in even worse shape. This is a movie that really deserves better treatment. Its visual splendours would seemingly make it an ideal subject for a full restoration.

The Blue Light is an odd little movie, from an odd little genre, but it’s worth seeing for its extraordinary cinematography and for its historical interest. Highly recommended.