Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Desperate Hours (1955)

The Desperate Hours was one of Humphrey Bogart’s last films and his performance is an intriguing throwback to The Petrified Forest which had given his first major break back in 1936. The movie itself is caught uneasily between two different eras of film-making but it succeeds because it has the right cast and a great director in William Wyler.

Bogart is one of three criminals on the run after a prison beak-out. They need to find somewhere to hide out and Bogart picks the Hilliard house because there’s a child’s bicycle on the front lawn. People with kids are easier to threaten because they have more to lose and are less likely to take risks like going to the cops.

Glenn Griffin (Bogart), his kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and a psychopathic halfwit named Sam Kobish (Robert Middleton) are the three criminals who take the Hilliard family hostage. Daniel Hilliard (Fredric March), his wife Ellie (Martha Scott), teenage daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) and ten-year-old Ralphie (Richard Eyer) are terrified but beneath their terror they have a resilience that puzzles and enrages the hoodlums.

Glenn is waiting for his girlfriend to arrive with the money they need to make their escape but it turns out to be a very long wait. The state of siege lasts for 48 hours and the pressure starts to tell on both the criminals and their hostages. The question is whether the criminals or the family will break first.

Story-wise there’s nothing startlingly original here but the movie is remarkably well-crafted.

This is a home invasion movie but to a large extent it’s about a whole way of life under threat. In that respect it has some similarities to Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat which dealt with  crime as a mortal threat to ordinary family life.

The tension is enhanced by the fact that the Hilliards have to go about their daily lives, dealing with people coming to the house and even having to go to work and then come home again without being able to reveal the drama taking place in the house. Whenever one of them leaves the house they cannot go to the police because the other family members are still being held hostage. The scenes of ordinary daily life taking place in the street serve to emphasise the tension.

This is a movie about a clash between two different styles of masculinity. Glenn Griffin is the obvious tough guy, the kind of tough guy who relies on violence or the threat of violence. Daniel Hilliard seems like the meek and mild type but he proves to have a psychological toughness that gives him a surprising edge over Griffin. Griffin’s original calculation that a guy with kids would prove easy to overawe is turned on its head. Hilliard’s determination to save his family is a source of strength, not weakness. While the three criminals turn on each other the Hilliard family sticks together.

The three jail-birds in this film seem slightly out of place in the mid-50s. New and much nastier kinds of villains were starting to populate the crime movies of this era and these three by comparison seem somewhat tame. Bogart is playing the kind of role he had played so many times earlier in his career. He is a 1940s-style bad guy. Fortunately he has the acting chops to pull it off and he gives the character the kind of complexity that makes him more than a cardboard bad guy. At times we actually feel sorry for him because we sense that beneath the tough guy exterior there is a great deal of weakness. As the story progresses he seems less formidable while Daniel Hilliard seems to become progressively more formidable. And Griffin also seems aware that the balance of power is gradually shifting against him. This complexity and emotional weakness in Glenn Griffin is the movie’s main claim to being film noir.

Fredric March matches Bogart’s complexity with some complexity of his own. He knows that one mistake could cost him his life and his family but he is determined not to make that mistake. At the end he is prepared to gamble but it’s a carefully thought-out gamble, a gamble from a position of psychological strength rather than weakness.

The supporting players are uniformly good, with Arthur Kennedy being very effective as the cautious sheriff’s deputy Jesse Bard who adopts what the British police of a later era would call a softly, softly approach. All the other cops want to go in with guns blazing but Bard and FBI agent Carson (Whit Bissell) favour a watch-and-wait approach. This provides another instance of the tension between differing styles of masculinity. Bard and Carson are more interested in winning than in demonstrating their tough guy credentials.

William Wyler is at the top of his game, keeping the tensions finely balanced and throwing in a few nice directorial touches like the opening tracking shot.

Paramount’s DVD release is barebones but the transfer is exquisite. At the very low price being asked this one represents excellent value.

The Desperate Hours is a fine piece of film-making with Bogart and March playing off each other superbly. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

The Divorce of Lady X is a 1938 British romantic comedy starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. It is in fact an attempt to do a British screwball comedy. The results demonstrate how very difficult it actually is to carry off a successful screwball comedy, and they also suggest that this was a genre that was perhaps better left to the Americans.

Olivier is successful young barrister Everard Logan. He is unfortunate enough to get himself caught in a London pea-souper fog. The fog is so thick that his taxi driver gives up all hope of finding his way to Logan’s home and Logan accepts the rather sensible advice of a passing policeman to spend the night in the hotel outside which his taxi currently happens to be.

A fancy dress party is in progress at the hotel and the guests now find themselves stranded and forced to spend the night sleeping on couches in the hotel lounge, all the rooms having long since been taken. Leslie Steele (Merle Oberon) has no intention of sleeping on a couch and manages, by dint of some very devious manoeuvres, to persuade Logan to give up his bed to her. The unlucky barrister spends the night on a couch in the sitting room of his suite.

Leslie refuses to reveal her name, a factor that will become a major plot point.

Logan finds Leslie to be intensely irritating and in a screwball comedy that is of course a sure indication that he will subsequently fall madly in love with her.

Logan specialises in divorce work and this is where the complications start. The following Lord Mere (Ralph Richardson) asks him to handle his divorce. Lord Mere has learnt that his wife has spent the night with a man, at the very hotel Logan spent the night. Logan (in true screwball comedy style) leaps to the conclusion that the mysterious woman who tricked him out of his comfortable hotel bed was Lord Mere’s wife. He is aghast at the effect the scandal will have on his practice but at the same time he has now convinced himself that he is in love with the mystery woman.

Of course the misunderstanding becomes more and more complicated and Logan becomes more and more frantic and more and more confused.

This brief plot outline demonstrates that the screenwriters understood the mechanics of the screwball comedy extremely well. There is however more to a good screwball comedy than the mechanics. Actual gags are required. The screenplay must not only have the right structure, it must exploit that structure to bring out the laughs. Witty dialogue is an absolute necessity, and the actors must know how to make the most of that dialogue. It is in these areas that The Divorce of Lady X doesn’t quite hit the target. It’s mildly amusing but there are very few laugh-out-loud moments.

Olivier does his best and with a stronger script he would have been excellent. Much the same applies to Merle Oberon. Ralph Richardson is much more successful, being an actor who was much more at home with comedy and having the ability to make moderately funny dialogue seem more funny than it actually is.

This movie was, rather unusually for a British production of this era, shot in Technicolor. Alexander Korda was perhaps the most ambitious producer in Britain in the 1930s and was always willing to spend serious money. The early fancy dress scenes look marvelous and one suspects that the fancy dress party was added to the script in order to justify the money spent on shooting in colour.

Despite these weaknesses it’s a likeable enough and reasonably enjoyable affair.

This movie’s Region 4 DVD release pairs it on a single disc with another early Olivier film, Q Planes, a much more interesting movie. The transfers are very good - the colours are bright and vivid in The Divorce of Lady X. It’s a double-header that represents good value.

The Divorce of Lady X doesn’t quite come off, but it’s an interesting near miss and it’s not without entertainment value. I can’t help feeling that a Hollywood director given the same material would have added a bit more bite. It’s still worth a look. Buy the two-movie set for Q Planes and consider this one as a bonus and you should be reasonably satisfied.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets, released by United Artists in 1954, is a noir-tinged police procedural with an intriguing structural twist.

FBI Agent Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) is working on three cases simultaneously, a normal enough procedure. The three cases are not connected but a connection will be formed, a connection that will lead to murder. In fact, to two murders. Fellow FBI Agent “Rip” Ripley (Broderick Crawford) will have to find the connection.

One case involves a violent criminal on the run. Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett) has a long record and it is purely by chance that the Bureau gets a lead on his possible whereabouts. That lead doesn’t work out but it seems possible that Walpo’s girlfriend, a cheap blonde named  Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer), might provide them with the break they need.

The second case involves a car theft racket. Vince Angelino has been set up as a patsy and risks prison rather than reveal the identity of a man who hired him to a driving job. Vince’s blind wife Julie (Marisa Pavan) turns out to be a more valuable witness than most people with perfect vision.

The third is a case of extortion that could lead to kidnapping. Someone is threatening Kate Martell (Ruth Roman), demanding the insurance money her late husband left her. The threat is that her child will be killed if she doesn’t pay the money.

A shoot-out in a dark alley leads to tragedy, leaving Agent Ripley with the task of tying the threads together. It is possible that only one of the three cases is linked to the murder. A second murder seems to close off the one lead that may have provided the link.

This unusual structure, with three parallel investigations running simultaneously, could have resulted in a disjointed film but the three-strand narrative is handled quite skillfully. The action moves back and forth between the three investigations without giving the impression of being overly episodic or choppy. The screenplay by Gordon and Mildred Gordon and Bernard C. Schoenfeld gets the job done effectively. Arnold Laven directed a handful of movies before switching to a lengthy career in television. His work here is brisk and efficient.

This is a sympathetic role for Broderick Crawford. Ripley is a quietly efficient investigator who is undismayed by setbacks. It’s a solid and nicely understated performance. Ruth Roman does well and the supporting players do all that is required of them. Martha Hyer is  the standout here in the closest this movie has to a femme fatale role.

Being an FBI movie there’s a focus on scientific methods as well as the more routine style of police investigation. The most interesting aspect is the use of semantic analysis to identify the extortionist’s characteristic speech patterns. This sort of thing could have slowed the action down but that doesn’t happen - we get just enough of the scientific methods to keep us interested without feeling that we’re sitting through a lecture on forensic policing.

There are some action scenes and they’re done particularly well. They provide the most obviously noir moments of the film. The stalking of a suspect in a lonely cabin is a highlight. There’s nothing flashy about these scenes but they’re suitably tense.

One very cool feature is the use of the famous Hollywood sign for the climax. I think this may be the only film noir or crime movie of this era to make use of a setting that offers such obvious noir potential.

The made-on-demand DVD from the MGM Limited Edition series offers a good transfer although it is somewhat unfortunately presented in an open-matte format (the original aspect ratio being 1.75:1). There are no extras.

Down Three Dark Streets provides plenty of entertainment and scores extra points for carrying off its unusual structure surprisingly successfully. A fine police procedural, highly recommended.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Code of the Secret Service (1939)

Code of the Secret Service was the second of the four Brass Bancroft thrillers Ronald Reagan made at Warner Brothers in the late 1930s. They were solid and fairly entertaining little movies, well worth a look if you’re a B-movie fan.

Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft (Reagan) is a Secret Service agent. As you might expect from his job description he’s on the trail of counterfeiters. The gang has stolen genuine Treasury plates and the only thing stopping them from making perfect undetectable counterfeit bills is the need for the right paper. And they have a solution to that little problem - they have a gambling joint in Mexico that takes in paper money and only pays out in silver dollars. That way they accumulate a nice supply of small denomination bills. They bleach the small bills and then use the paper to make counterfeit $20 dollar bills.

Brass in soon on his way to Mexico to meet up with Secret Service agent Dan Crockett who has a promising lead. Unfortunately that lead gets Crockett killed so now Brass has a personal score to settle as well. 

The trail leads Brass to a Catholic mission in a remote part of Mexico. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that this is the counterfeiting gang’s headquarters but unfortunately it also doesn’t take the gang long to figure out that he’s a Secret Service man.

Ronald Reagan was in his late 20s when he made this movie so he has the energy and athleticism to carry off an action hero role without difficulty. He also has the easy-going charm to make Brass Bancroft a character the audience will have no problems empathising with. The role is not exactly a demanding one but Reagan handles it with a pleasing lightness of touch.

Of course this being 1939 the studio was convinced that Brass needed a side-kick to provide comic relief, so they saddled him with Eddie Foy Jr as his inept but enthusiastic buddy Gabby. Like almost all the comic relief side-kicks of that era he’s irritating and entirely unnecessary but the good news is that he doesn’t get enough screen time in this movie to sink it.

Rosella Towne adds some glamour as an American girl who finds herself, very unwillingly, helping out the hero. She doesn’t get much chance to exercise her acting talents but she’s an adequate heroine. Moroni Olsen makes a suitably sinister villain.

Noel M. Smith was an incredibly prolific if undistinguished director whose career started in 1917 and was approaching its end in 1939 when this picture was made. He gets the job done but don’t expect anything fancy. Of course the job of a director of B-features was to bring them in on time and on budget and not to get ambitious and waste the studio’s money. 

Lee Katz and Dean Riesner’s screenplay is by-the-numbers but serviceable enough.

This movie has action to keep things interesting. Brass even manages at one point to get himself pursued, on horseback, by a troop of Mexican cavalry. Like most major studio B-movies this one looks respectable enough and not too cheap. 

The four Brass Bancroft movies have been released as a set on two made-on-demand DVDs in the Warner Archive series. The transfers are excellent making the set very good value for B-movie fans.

Code of the Secret Service is an undemanding lightweight secret agent thriller. It’s strictly B-movie stuff but it’s not trying to be anything more than not. Recommended.

You might also want to check out my review of the first Brass Bancroft movie, Secret Service of the Air.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Devil's Party (1938)

The Devil's Party is a 1938 Universal programmer about five slum kids who start out as juvenile delinquents and whose lives then take different paths. There are obvious similarities to Angels with Dirty Faces and while this movie is not quite in the same league it’s still worth a look. The lead character’s fate gives this movie a very slight claim to being a film noir precursor.

The five kids are involved in petty crimes until one of their capers almost goes tragically wrong. Marty, the leader of the gang, starts a fire as a distraction during a robbery. Fortunately no-one is injured, although the fact that someone easily could have been shocks them into the realisation that crime is no joke. Marty is the only member of the gang to be caught. He refuses to squeal on his friends and is sent to reform school.

Some years later the five are still firm friends although their lives have taken different courses. Jerry Donovan (Paul Kelly) is now a priest. Helen McCoy (Beatrice Roberts) is a nightclub singer while brothers Mike (William Gargan) and Joe (John Gallaudet) O’Mara are cops. Marty (Victor McLaglen) runs a gambling joint. Marty isn’t really a mobster and his gambling club isn’t crooked but at times his activities are close to the borderline of the law.

Things start to go wrong when Marty sends a couple of heavies to persuade a reluctant gambler to pay up. The heavies, Diamond (Joe Downing) and Sam (Frank Jenks), get a bit too enthusiastic in their persuading, with predictably tragic and fatal results. Marty is now in an awkward spot. He genuinely did not intend that things should go that far. He’s basically a good-natured sort of guy and he only wanted his strong-arm boys to put the frighteners on the gambler. Now he’s mixed up in a murder.

All that is bad enough but the two O’Mara brothers are involved in the investigation of the murder. They’re not detectives but they have ambitions to get themselves transfered to the detective branch. Diamond and Sam had tried to make the gambler’s death look like an accident but the brothers are convinced it was murder. This will lead to further tragedy.

The friendships between the five former delinquents will be tested in a variety of ways as events build towards the inevitable climax.

The plot sets up some nice dramatic tensions between the characters but its weakness is that given the conventions of late 1930s gangster movies it plays out in an overly predictable manner.

Director Ray McCarey was the brother of Leo McCarey. His career failed to reach the same heights as his brother’s and was cut short by his premature death at the age of 44. Roy Chanslor’s screenplay was based on a book by Borden Chase. Chase knew about crime from the inside, having been a chauffeur for a mobster. He was lucky to escape with his life when his employer was rubbed out by Al Capone. Chase decided that crime was a bit too dangerous for his tastes and turned to writing, with some success.

Victor McLaglen dominates the movie, giving a nuanced performance as a man who finds that when you start skating close to the edge of crime it’s easy to fall over the edge. He’s essentially a decent guy but one bad break is enough to set him on the downward spiral into what could (even if it’s a bit of a stretch) be described as a film noir nightmare world. It’s impossible not to like him and we want him to escape his fate but we have serious doubts that he’ll be able to do so.

The other players are less impressive although William Gargan is solid enough. Joe Downing is entertaining as the smooth but vicious Diamond. Paul Kelly is too earnest and too stiff as the priest Jerry Donovan. Mercifully there’s little of the comic relief that usually infests crime B-movies of its era.

The interactions between the characters, especially those between Marty and Mike O’Mara and between Marty and Father Donovan are more complex than you expect from a B-picture. Combined with McLagen’s lively performance the end result is a cut above the average 1930s programmer.

The Devil's Party is included in Mill Creek’s Dark Crimes boxed set. Being a public domain movie the print is a bit rough but it’s quite watchable. Had this movie not fallen into the public domain and had it been given a good DVD release it might now have a better reputation.

The Devil's Party might be a bit of a poor man’s Angels with Dirty Faces but it’s worth seeing if you enjoy Hollywood crime B-pictures. Film noir fans will find it of some interest as a kind of proto-noir. Recommended.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Ipcress File (1965)

The Ipcress File was the first and best of the movie adaptations of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer spy novels (although the character is never actually named in the books). It also gave Michael Caine his first starring role.

The idea was to make a kind of anti-Bond spy movie, something which caused problems with producer Harry Saltzman who was of course the producer of the Bond films. Len Deighton, along with John le Carré, had been responsible for launching spy fiction in a new, more cynical, direction and the movie captures the Deighton feel rather well.

Harry Palmer, with his glasses and Cockney accent, was a very different sort of movie spy, a spy of a type that would soon become as much of a cliché as Bond but in 1965 the idea was still fresh and exciting. 

The movie starts as so many spy stories start, with the inexplicable disappearance of a top scientist. Since he is the seventeenth top scientist either to disappear or to mysteriously become unproductive, the British intelligence services are rather worried. Palmer’s boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), has just transferred him to the very secret section run by Major Dalby (Nigel Green) and Palmer finds himself working with several other agents on the case. Harry is the one who makes the breakthrough, managing to make contact with the smooth but sinister Grantby, the man believed to be behind the vanishing scientists mystery. Harry doesn’t find the scientist but he does find a strip of magnetic recording tape filled with strange electronic noises and bearing the enigmatic label Ipcress.

Harry lands himself in trouble when he accidently kills a CIA agent, and in even more trouble when he is captured by Grantby. Being captured proves to be very unpleasant but it does provide him with the clue as to who exactly is double-crossing whom.

Harry is not the easiest of agents to control, having a reputation for being not merely insolent but having definite criminal tendencies. Those criminal tendencies almost landed him in a military prison, a fate he escaped due to the intervention of Colonel Ross who felt that such deviousness would be very useful in a spy. This is another element that would later become a standard spy movie cliché but Michael Caine makes the character much more than a stereotypical maverick insubordinate spy hero. Caine’s performance is right on target. He has the ability to make even the most hackneyed dialogue seem delightfully fresh and original. 

He is well supported by a plethora of superb character actors, with Guy Doleman and Nigel Green being particularly outstanding. Sue Lloyd is the obligatory glamorous female spy, albeit a more interesting example of the species than most.

Harry Saltzman was a great producer but with an intense suspicion of fancy film-making stylistics, which was slightly unfortunate given that director Sidney J. Furie was much addicted to exactly those kinds of fancy film-making stylistics. At one point editor Peter Hunt (who went on to direct the best of the Bond movies, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) had to intervene to stop Saltzman from firing his director. Furie really does indulge himself. He had a particular fondness for Dutch angles and for shooting scenes through objects - through grilles, through doorways, through windows, through car windscreens, even through a parking meter. When he wasn’t shooting through something he was shooting reflections in eye-glasses. This could easily have come across as mere gimmickry but it doesn’t. It works and it adds to the atmosphere on unease and suspicion and betrayal. Cinematographer Otto Heller does wonders, often filming in very difficult situation with less than ideal lighting conditions.

Director Furie was so unhappy with the script that the movie had to be shot in sequence since the script was being rewritten as it was filmed. 

Despite these problems it all comes together perfectly. Furie’s idiosyncratic style results in a movie that feels radically different from any previous spy movie. His style is complemented by John Barry’s equally unconventional score.

The Ipcress File is dark and cynical but wisely avoids being too cynical (a flaw that is all too apparent in many later spy films). Harry Palmer isn’t a conventional spy hero but he is a hero. There are plenty of double-crosses and the good guys do resort to some nasty tricks, but they are still the good guys. It’s a difficult balancing act and here it is performed immaculately.

This is a movie that can only be appreciated in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Even more than most movies The Ipcress File is simply not going to work when pan-and-scanned. Happily the Region 4 DVD presents the film in a good 16x9 enhanced transfer. In the past I’d only seen pan-and-scanned versions and seeing it presented properly is a revelation. There’s also an excellent commentary track featuring director Sidney J. Furie and editor Peter Hunt.

The Ipcress File is certainly quirky and takes stylistic risks but the end result is one of the best spy movies ever made. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Q Planes (1939)

Q Planes (released in the US as Clouds Over Europe) is an uneasy but highly diverting 1939 British mixture of spy thriller, science fiction and comedy.

It’s not all that surprising when one top-secret advanced experimental aircraft disappears but when half a dozen vanish in quick succession Major Hammond (Ralph Richardson) of the British intelligence agency DI5 smells a rat. The trouble is he can’t convince his superiors that something suspicious is going on. He also can’t convince aeroplane manufacturer Barrett (George Merritt) that he might have a security problem.

Barrett’s top test pilot Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier) doesn’t need much convincing, especially when his best friend disappears along with yet another top-secret aircraft.

McVane suspects that the new waitress at the works canteen, Kay Lawrence (Valerie Hobson), may be involved. In fact she’s just a reporter looking for a story. She also happens to be Major Hammond’s sister.

Kay and McVane clash angrily over her intrusive reporting. In a romantic comedy that of course means that they will eventually realise they’re madly in love, after the obligatory sequence of misunderstandings and arguments.

Major Hammond has no doubt that someone at the aircraft factory is involved in the vanishing planes mystery but finding the evidence isn’t easy. He has a few leads but they seem to lead nowhere until he discovers some curious coincidences relating to a salvage ship. The next test flight is imminent and this time Tony McVane, with whom he has struck up a friendship, will be the pilot.

The science fiction angle in the film comes from the method the spy ring is using to make the aircraft vanish - they are using a death ray! Well not quite a death ray, but something rather similar. That there is a spy ring will come as no surprise. 1939 being a rather tense historical moment the spies are not actually identified as Nazis but the audience will have few doubts that they are in fact Nazis.

The plot provides the makings of a fun spy thriller but at times it’s played that way and at other times it’s played purely for comedy value. Fortunately Ralph Richardson’s considerable comic gifts allow him to move easily between the comic elements and the thriller elements. Laurence Olivier seems slightly less comfortable, slightly less sure how to play his role.

Valerie Hobson makes an engaging heroine, feisty without being irritating.

Q Planes has enough action, and enough aerial sequences, to keep things interesting. The shipboard mad scientist’s laboratory is a major highlight. For a generally lightweight movie the body count is surprisingly high especially when Olivier cuts loose with a Vickers medium machine-gun.

The comic elements are sometimes a little jarring and do tend to interrupt the action a little but the important thing is that they do provide some genuine laughs, thanks largely to Ralph Richardson.

The Region 4 DVD pairs this movie with another Laurence Olivier comedy, The divorce of Lady X. The transfer for Q Planes looks pretty good. There are no extras but you do get two movies on the disc so it represents excellent value.

Q Planes is a fun romp of a movie in its own light-hearted way. Highly recommended.