Wednesday, September 24, 2014

S.O.S. Iceberg (1933)

S.O.S. Iceberg (S.O.S. Eisberg) is a 1933 German adventure movie starring the notorious Leni Riefenstahl. The movie was a joint production with Universal and two versions were made, one in German and one in English. The English version was not just a dubbed version - many scenes were entirely reshot.

The 1930s saw the rise of an odd and peculiarly German movie genre, the mountain films (or bergfilme). These were adventure movies, usually with a hint of romance, in alpine settings. The emphasis was often more on the splendours of nature than on the actual story. The Germans had developed an obsession with nature in the early 20th century and these movies were immensely popular. Arnold Fanck was responsible for the most popular of these movies. S.O.S. Eisberg, written and directed by Fanck, is essentially a mountain film but with the Arctic taking the place of the mountains.

Leni Riefenstahl had made her reputation as an actress in these mountain films, and had gone on to direct one herself, The Blue LightThat movie had established Riefenstahl as a visual stylist of genius, a talent that came to its full flowering in her celebrated if controversial documentary films The Triumph of the Will and Olympia (the official movie of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games).

S.O.S. Eisberg is a story of survival and of an extraordinary rescue effort. The famed polar explorer Dr Lorenz had gone missing on an expedition into the interior of Greenland. A search was mounted but with no result and it was assumed that the explorer had perished. A year later a new expedition sets out, their objective being to find Dr Lorenz’s diaries. They discover, much to their surprise, that Dr Lorenz is still alive. Unfortunately by this time the rescue party is stranded as well, trapped on drifting ice floes which are slowly being carried out to sea. They have however managed to transmit a radio message and now fresh rescue efforts are mounted to save the survivors of the two expeditions.

Dr Lorenz’s wife Hella (Leni Riefenstahl) happens to be a pilot. She sets off in an aircraft and eventually locates the survivors but cracks up her plane in a difficult landing. Now she will need to be rescued as well. And she will not be the last would-be rescuer to find herself in this position. The fact that so many of the rescue attempts come to grief seems to be more than just a plot device to add excitement (although obviously it succeeds in doing this as well). The mountain films were very much concerned with contrasting mankind’s precarious but courageous attempts to survive in difficult an dangerous country with the awesome power of nature, so the failed rescue attempts serve the purpose of emphasising nature’s ability to mock human strivings.

This is not a conventional adventure film in which nature simply provides the backdrops - nature is at the centre of the film and it often becomes more of an ode to the grandeur of nature than a straightforward narrative film.

There’s really not very much to the plot but that doesn’t matter. The whole point of these movies was to feature spectacular cinematography and magnificent locations. S.O.S. Eisberg looks just as impressive today as it did in 1933, perhaps even more so when you consider the number of incredibly dangerous stunts it includes, all done for real. Arnold Fanck expected his actors to do their own stunts and Leni Riefenstahl suffered injuries in all the movies she did for him.

Riefenstahl was a capable actress and she has a very definite presence. One very clever move by the producers was the casting of Ernst Udet as the expedition’s aviator who later undertakes yet another aerial rescue mission. Udet was the second highest-scoring German fighter ace of the First World War and became a famous stunt pilot in the 1920s, so he knew a thing or two about flying. He doesn’t get to do much acting but he has a great deal of charm and charisma and it’s a pity his rôle wasn’t beefed up a little. Udet, like Riefenstahl, would become a controversial figure. He became a Nazi and was one of the architects of Goering’s Luftwaffe.

Kino’s DVD includes both the German (with sub-titles) and American versions. They obviously have not been fully restored but fortunately the German version is in pretty good shape, allowing the viewer to appreciate some truly magnificent photography.

S.O.S. Eisberg delivers its share of excitement and the superb visuals are more than enough to compensate for the thin plot. A movie of immense historical interest, and entertaining as well. Recommended.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scarlet Street (1945)

Although Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street has long been recognised as one of the key movies in the American film noir cycle it had the misfortune for many years to be seen only in very poor quality DVD releases. That problem has now been largely solved by Kino’s Blu-Ray release. It is now possible to see the film as it should be seen and to judge it accordingly.

Scarlet Street had an interesting history. It’s a remake of a 1931 Jean Renoir film which retains most of the plot elements of the earlier film but with some very important changes in both tone and in the nature of the relationship between the characters.

Scarlet Street is in some ways a logical follow-up to Lang’s 1944 hit The Woman in the Window. That movie also starred Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea and had relaunched Bennett’s career after a hiatus due to motherhood. The success of The Woman in the Window had convinced Joan Bennett that her best hope for maintaining her career as a major star was to continue working with Lang. She felt that Lang was the director who could get the best performances out of her, and that was an entirely accurate judgment on her part. She persuaded her husband, producer Walter Wanger, that it would be an extremely good idea to join Lang in setting up an independent production company. The company would have three huge assets - Bennett’s star quality, Lang’s reputation as a director and Wanger’s established relationship with Universal which would take care of the distribution angle. Diana Productions would have a brief and turbulent history.

While Diana Productions eventually met an unhappy fate in the short term Scarlet Street fulfilled the high expectations everyone involved had for it. It was well received by the critics and it was a box-office hit.

The story comprises two intersecting romantic triangles, although perhaps romantic is the wrong word for such spectacularly perverse relationships.

Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a meek cashier whose one genuine satisfaction in life is his painting. He was unwise enough to allow loneliness to tempt him into a disastrous marriage with the shrewish Adele (Rosalind Ivan). He is the sort of man who just lets life happen to him, rather like a train wreck. His attempts to take control of his own destiny will lead him to make some disastrous mistakes that will make his life a whole lot worse. Taking control is a good idea but it helps if you have some judgment. While some people see Lang’s characters as victims of fate Chris is entirely a victim of his own poor decisions and lack of judgment. Wishful thinking is not a good plan. It’s an especially bad plan when you’re dealing with someone like Kitty March (Joan Bennett).

Chris’s paintings are very much in the style of naïve art. He has had no art training and has never mastered the technique of perspective (just as he has never mastered the technique of perspective in his own life). One of the reasons this movie works so well is that his paintings (which were done for the movie by an artist friend of Lang’s) are so very convincing. They really do look like the work of an untrained amateur, they really do look like the paintings that a man like Chris would paint, and they really do look like the kinds of paintings that trendy art critics would hail as the product of an untrained genius.

Dudley Nichols had written the screenplay for Lang’s 1941 hit Man Hunt and was anxious to work with him again. Nichols provided Lang with exactly what he needed for Scarlet Street, a strong script which allowed free rein for Lang’s visual imagination.

Lang would adapt fairly well to the changing tastes and the demands for more location shooting in the 50s but he was really at his best shooting in a studio where he could have absolute control. In this case everything comes together perfectly - Alexander Golitzen’s art direction, the sets, the costumes, the acting, Lang’s visual brilliance, all complement one another. Kitty’s studio apartment makes a perfect contrast with the sordidness of Chris’s apartment.

Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett had already proved themselves to be a very successful and dynamic pairing in The Woman in the Window. They’re even better in Scarlet Street. As terrific as Robinson is he is perhaps overshadowed by Bennett’s extraordinary (and career-best) performance. Dan Duryea does what Dan Duryea always does, and does it with style.

Kino’s Blu-Ray is the best this movie has ever looked. A company with greater resources might have provided a better transfer but this one is a huge improvement over the generally horrible previous DVD releases. On his stimulating an informative audio commentary David Kalat does make a very good point about the ending, a point Lotte Eisner made in her excellent book on the director. Chris’s fate has more to do with the fact that he has failed to win Kitty from Johnny, rather than with actual guilt for his (Chris’s) crimes.

Be warned though - his audio commentary includes major spoilers for three other Lang movies - The Woman in the Window, Fury and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. If you haven’t  yet seen those movies you might want to think about skipping the commentary from around to the 65-minute mark to around the 80-minute mark. The spoilers are absolutely crucial and will pretty much wreck your enjoyment of those three movies. I understand that he could not make certain important points in his arguments without revealing those spoilers but it’s still something to bear in mind.

Scarlet Street is not only the best of Lang’s American films, it’s the best film of his career. Yes, even better than M. Very highly recommended.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Arson Inc. (1949)

Arson Inc. is a 1949 Lippert Pictures release included in the first of VCI’s Forgotten Noir Collector’s Sets. Of course it isn’t film noir but it is a decent crime B-picture.

Film-makers at this time were trying to add some variety to their crime movies by focusing on investigative agencies other than the police. This trend produced several movies about Treasury Department agents and even a thriller about a post office investigator (Appointment with Danger). As its title would suggest Arson Inc. deals with the work of Fire Department investigators.

Joe Martin (Robert Lowery) is a fireman who is offered the chance to join the Los Angeles Fire Department’s arson squad. A recent warehouse fire had raised suspicions of foul play and those suspicions cost an investigator his life. The name of an insurance underwriter named Fender seems to keep cropping up whenever there’s a suspicious fire. Joe Martin’s job is to find out a little more about Mr Fender’s activities.

Joe strikes up a friendship with Pete Purdy (Edward Brophy), a genial middle-aged man who works for Fender. Pete is a friendly sort of guy who tells Joe he always wanted to be a fireman. He failed the physical but now he takes a keen amateur interest in fires and fire-fighting. That’s the sort of information that can be guaranteed to attract the attention of a Fire Department investigator.

In order to give Joe a chance to get close to Fender the Fire Department arranges to have Joe fired. If Fender is running an arson racket then a disgruntled former fireman is just the sort of guy he’d be looking for to join his organisation. It doesn’t take too long for Joe to penetrate the organisation.

In his spare time Joe is developing a romance with Jane Jennings (Anne Gwynne), a school teacher who was doing some baby-sitting for one of Fender’s clients.

Fender is planning another warehouse fire insurance scam and Joe and Pete are to do the dirty work. That’s fine by Pete - anything that involves lighting fires is fine by Pete.

The 63-minute running time means that Maurice Tombragel’s screenplay has to be tightly focused. There’s no time for unnecessary sub-plots and Tombragel keeps things simple. Director William Berke had plenty of experience making B-movies and he keeps the focus tight.

Robert Lowery makes a very satisfactory hero. He’s likeable and he avoids tough guy posturing. He’s a fireman not a cop and the rough stuff is not in his line. So, with surprising realism, he is not portrayed as an action hero type.

Jane really doesn’t play much part in the plot other than to provide a love interest for the hero but Anne Gwynne does that quite successfully and she’s engaging enough.

The supporting players are capable by B-movie standards with Edward Brophy being particularly good as Purdy, the fire-bug who gets very excited whenever he sees a naked flame (lighting a cigarette takes him a long time since he has to stop to admire the flame of the match).

This movie is typical of the productions of Lippert Pictures. There is very little time wasted on comic relief and that’s a major bonus. Their movies were unambitious but efficient B-features.

Since it deals with arson the movie provides a reasonably exciting ending with a fire.

VCI have provided a good serviceable transfer (as they have for all the movies in this set). They have even thrown in a few extras.

Arson Inc. is a solid little crime thriller. It’s a B-movie through and through but it’s entertaining. Recommended.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Arabesque (1966)

Stanley Donen had a huge hit in 1963 with the comedy/romance/thriller Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The obvious move would have been to repeat the formula with the same stars. By 1966 however when Donen was ready to make Arabesque Cary Grant had decided to call it a day and Audrey Hepburn was unavailable so it was decided that Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren would be the next best thing. Loren was obviously ideal for this sort of romp but Peck was a less obvious choice. Nonetheless they proved to be a very successful team and Arabesque works very well.

Peck plays Oxford professor David Pollock, a bookish kind of guy who is the last person in the world who would be expected to become involved in international intrigue or spy capers. Pollock does however happen to be an expert in ancient Middle eastern languages so he is an obvious choice for anyone who needs to have an ancient Hittite inscription translated. 

It seems that quite a few people want that inscription translated. They include the prime minister of a Middle Eastern country, a general from the same country and a wealthy shipping magnate. Unfortunately for David Pollock quite a few of these people are prepared to kill in order to get that translation. And pretty soon they are trying to kill him.

Yasmin Azir, the wife of the shipping magnate, also wants the translation. It’s not at all clear whether she’s working for herself or for one of the other interested parties. Pollock is not a complete fool and he pretty soon realises that almost nothing she says can be believed but by this time he is well and truly involved in the whole mess, and he is also well and truly involved with her, for better or for worse.

The inscription is actually a cypher of some sort but what it means doesn’t matter a bit. It’s what Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin, something that only matters insofar as everyone wants to get hold of it. 

Pollock is not only caught between murderous rivals seeking the secret, he is soon on the run from the police as well, the prime suspect in a murder. That neatly solves the classic thriller problem of why the hero doesn’t simply go to the police.

Arabesque is an effective and entertaining blend of mystery, adventure, romance and light comedy. As far as content is concerned it’s very much in the tradition of Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest, with an innocent bystander caught up in terrifying events with seemingly everybody intent on killing him. Stylistically it combines the influence of Hitchcock with that of the Bond movies. The producers even got Maurice Binder to do the opening titles, Binder being the man who performed that rôle for so many of the Bond movies. The combination of influences works superbly. If Hitchcock had made a Bond movie it would have looked like this.

The chief villain, Beshraavi (Alan Badel), could have stepped straight out of a Bond movie. He has the perfect mix of perverse menace and megalomaniacal obsessiveness and he has a whole suite of sinister mannerisms. Kieron Moore is totally unconvincing as the Arab fanatic Yussef Kasim but he’s unconvincing in an amusing way.

Gregory Peck seems to relish the opportunity to play a light-hearted rôle as the somewhat bumbling and very unlikely hero. He proves quite adept with the wisecracks and his earnestness, which could so often be irritating, is played very effectively here for comic effect.

Loren is perfectly cast as the beautiful, exotic but totally untrustworthy heroine. We can understand why Pollock is prepared to throw in his lot with her even when he knows he can’t trust her an inch. Loren was superb at comedy but here she makes a thoroughly convincing schemer as well. Peck and Loren quickly establish the right chemistry, obviously an essential ingredient in a comedy thriller romp.

Stanley Donen pulls out all the stops. He uses every camera trick known and he invents a few new ones. This sort of thing can be annoying but in this type of movie it works perfectly. The scene shot through the reflection of a TV screen is a very nice touch and its typical of the manic inventiveness of the movie’s visuals. Donen made his name directing musicals in the 50s but in the 60s he proved himself to have a remarkable talent for spectacular light-hearted action romps. 

Arabesque lacks the gadgetry of the Bond movies but Donen pulls off some fine and very witty action set-pieces. The fight at the zoo and the attempted murder by crane are highlights.

Univeral’s Region 2/Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a lovely anamorphic transfer with the colours looking gorgeously vivid. Arabesque was shot in Technicolor and the visuals make most movies of today look embarrassingly drab and dull. 

Arabesque has all the right ingredients combined to perfection. It’s impossible not to have a wonderful time watching this movie. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Appointment with Danger (1951)

Appointment with Danger is a movie about a tough two-fisted postal inspector. By 1951 movie-makers were worried that audiences might be growing tired of tough two-fisted FBI agents and Treasury Men so they figured that a tough two-fisted postal inspector would make a nice change.

The film was directed by Lewis Allen for Paramount. Alan Ladd had long been the studio’s resident tough guy actor having played a string of fairly notable film noir roles for them in the 40s. And of course he would go on to star as the reluctant gunslinger in Shane, unquestionably one of the ten greatest westerns ever made. So by 1951 Ladd had plenty of experience playing movie tough guys. He knew how to wear a trench coat. He was only a little guy but then so many of the great movie tough guys were short. I guess being short gives you the right attitude to deliver hardboiled dialogue. And this movie has one of the classic lines of hardboiled dialogue. One of the other Post Office special agents tells him he doesn’t know what a love affair is. Ladd replies, “Sure I do. It's what goes on between a man and a .45 that won't jam.”

Ladd is Post Office Inspector Al Goddard. He’s investigating the murder of another Post Office Inspector, a guy named Gruber. He doesn’t know why Gruber was killed or what he was working on. The only lead is a nun, Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert), who may be able to identify one of the killers. If she can tell Goddard who killed Gruber that might give him a lead on why he was killed.

This rather sketchy trail is enough to point investigators towards a major mail robbery involving a shipment of a million dollars in cash. Against instructions Goddard decides to try to infiltrate the gang. He believes this is the only way even if it is risky. It might also be the only one to prevent their one and only witness from being murdered and Goddard has come to admire Sister Augustine’s quiet courage and good humour. 

On the whole this is a standard undercover cop trying to foil a heist movie but it’s well executed and has a few interesting features.

The cast is a major plus. I’ve always liked Ladd’s minimalist approach to acting and it works particularly well here. Goddard is a hardbitten guy with a low opinion of the human race but under Sister Augustine’s influence he slowly begins to lighten up, and to admit that maybe people may have their good points after all. As his partner tells him, if he works real hard at it he might even qualify to join the human race. The gradual change in Goddard’s outlook is not entirely due to his new-found habit of socialising with nuns - he also gets a surprise in the behaviour of another key character who does something unexpectedly decent, although that character’s motivations are not entirely altruistic.

The gang leader Earl Boettiger is played by Paul Stewart who excelled in these kinds of roles. On this occasion he gets to play a hoodlum who is a little more complex than usual. The two principal hoods are played by Jack Webb and Harry Morgan who would later team up in the long-running and iconic TV series Dragnet. Webb is particularly entertaining as the psycho Joe Regas.

Jan Sterling plays the movie’s femme fatale Dodie, a femme fatale with an interesting twist.

Veteran cinematographer John F. Seitz provides some fine atmospheric scenes that are the movie’s main claims to consideration as a film noir, or at least a crime thriller done in a film noir style. Director Lewis Allen keeps things taut and tense especially towards the end where two plot strands intersect quite effectively. The climax is not particularly spectacular but it’s satisfying enough.

There are a couple of moments where the screenplay by Richard L. Breen and Warren Duff avoids the obvious and has criminals acting like real people rather than movie characters, figuring the angles the way real criminals would figure them.

Olive Films have come up with an impressive transfer although as usual with this company there are no extras.

Appointment with Danger is not a film noir classic but it is a solid well-crafted crime thriller with some fine performances. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Little Chickadee (1940)

Universal must have thought they had a surefire winner on their hands with their 1940 comedy My Little Chickadee. Bringing together two outrageous comic talents in the larger-than-life persons of Mae West and W. C. Fields - what could go wrong? In fact it worked spectacularly well for them at the time - the movie was a box-office bonanza for the studio. Despite its contemporary success My Little Chickadee seems to be regarded with mixed feelings these days, even among fans of the two stars.

Mae West was responsible for the screenplay, with Fields adding a couple of scenes and much of his own dialogue. The problem of course was that unsurprisingly Mae West saw the film as a Mae West film, while equally unsurprisingly Fields saw it as a W. C. Fields film. In spite of its success the two stars never worked together again. This was to be West’s last successful movie. The career of W. C. Fields was also drawing to a close although he followed up My Little Chickadee with what is probably his greatest film, The Bank Dick.

The setting is the Wild West. This suited Mae West who always preferred the fashions of the 19th century. She plays Flower Belle Lee, who has just been run out of town by the local guardians of morality. Her troubles are partly the fault of the infamous Masked Bandit, with whom she has been seen in compromising circumstances.

On the train taking her out of town she runs into Cuthbert J. Twillie (W. C. Fields). She forms the totally mistaken impression that he is a wealthy man so she agrees to marry him. It’s more than a whirlwind romance - they are married there and then, by a preacher who just happens to be on hand. What Twillie doesn’t know is that the preacher is no preacher at all. 

On arrival in Greasewood City Flower Belle attracts the romantic attentions of the town’s leading citizen, Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia). He might be the leading citizen but he’s far from respectable, in fact he’s quite a rogue but that’s the kind of man Flower Belle likes. Cuthbert J. Twillie has meanwhile been made Sheriff of Greasewood City, thanks to his boastful accounts of his heroic role in defending the train from the attacks of hordes of Indians. 

The plot offers both West and Field ample opportunities to strut their stuff and mostly it allows them both to concentrate on doing what they do best.

The Production Code cramped West’s style quite a bit although she still manages to get away with a certain amount of trademark Mae West outrageousness. Fields displays his ability to combine superb visual humour with delightfully acerbic verbal gags.

This movie is perhaps just a trifle too long at 83 minutes but in general it keeps the gags coming at a respectable pace. 

I personally find that a little bit of Mae West goes a long way so the fact that she has to share her screen time with Fields doesn’t bother me. I’m much more of a fan of W. C. Fields and to my way of thinking this movie is at its best in the scenes dominated by Fields. It’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as Fields’ best movies but he still has some great moments.

If you haven’t yet experienced the delights of the comedy of W. C. Fields this film is probably not the best place to start - The Bank Dick, The Old Fashioned Way, It’s a Gift and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break are all better and funnier films. And it’s certainly not Mae West’s best movie. 

Those who demand political correctness from their movie entertainment will be in serious danger of apoplexy while watching this movie. 

My Little Chickadee is available on DVD individually, in the Mae West Glamour Collection boxed sets and in several boxed sets devoted to the movies of W. C. Fields. My copy was included in the wonderful 17-movie Region 2 W. C. Fields boxed set. The transfer is very good but there are no extras.

My Little Chickadee is a long way from being the best of the movies of W. C. Fields but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable and far better than its modern reputation would suggest. Recommended.