Sunday, October 26, 2014

Above Suspicion (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

El Cid (1961)

A Spanish-Italian-US co-production, El Cid is both very much in the tradition of grand Hollywood epics and also points to a newer style of epic. While the Hollywood epics of the 50s were (mostly) done in the studio El Cid makes very extensive use indeed of location shooting. In fact there are very very few process shots, and I can’t recall seeing a single obvious matte painting. Everything here looks real because for the most part it is real. In spirit however it’s in line with the heroic 50s Hollywood approach to epics (which is in my view no bad thing).

Director Anthony Mann had not done an epic prior to this but he had done some much-admired westerns and that experience proved to be extremely useful. There’s a great feel for the landscape an there are quite a few scenes that would not be out of place in a western. And they work extremely well in the context of the picture.

Rodrigo de Vivar, known as El Cid, is Spain’s national hero. The situation in Spain in the 11th century was exceptionally complex with a variety of Christian and Moorish kingdoms fighting among themselves and also facing the threat from the North African Almoravid empire. The movie, like most epics, plays fast and loose with history but what the story may lack in historical accuracy it makes up for in entertainment value.

The movie version of Rodrigo de Vivar (Charlton Heston) is a minor nobleman who rises to the heights of power. He frees a number of Moorish emirs after a battle and as a result finds himself accused of treason. This is awkward enough but it will lead him into greater difficulties with his bride-to-be Jimena (played by Sophia Loren), her father, and the king. To regain his honour means facing almost certain death but Rodrigo has a destiny and it proves to be inescapable. He then finds himself caught in the middle of a nasty little dynastic squabble as the old king’s two sons Sancho and Alfonso and daughter Urraca carve up the kingdom. Finally he must save Spain from the invading hordes of the fanatical Almoravid king Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom). This involves him in yet more difficulties with Alfonso, a king who seems incapable of behaving like a king but to who he has sworn his fealty.

Rodrigo does not do any of this as a result of his own ambitions, or his own desires. He keeps finding himself in situations where his honour will only allow him to do one thing, and that one thing always has the effect of bringing him a step nearer to his destiny. He will eventually have a crown for the taking but again his honour intervenes. He has a destiny but that is not always a comfortable thing to live with.

The title character has to be a larger-than-life hero with a definite mythic quality and no-one could do that sot of thing better than Charlton Heston. However the character has to be someone we can empathise with even when his motivations are foreign and unfamiliar to us, as they often are given that he is very a medieval hero and a man of his time. Heston does a pretty good job in this respect, managing to convey the idea that this is a man who does not think the way we think but at the same time making him quite sympathetic. Heston was never given to excessive emoting but he does enough to bring the character to life. And he has the stature and the charisma to make convincing hero. Heston has been seriously underrated as an actor. He had a particular style that wasn’t suited to every part or to every movie but in the right part he simply had no equal.

Sophia Loren has an equally challenging task. Jimena is a woman to whom honour is every bit as important as it is to Rodrigo and what she yearns to do as a woman often conflicts with what her honour forces her to do. Sophia Loren would probably not have been most people’s first choice for such a demanding rôle but she carries it off rather well. She never lets us forget that Jimena is a proud Spanish noblewoman but she also never lets us forget that she is a woman.

John Fraser has mostly worked in television and he also has a tough acting assignment as the weak, treacherous and cowardly Alfonso who slowly and painfully learns what it means to be a king. Geneviève Page is splendid as the dangerous and duplicitous Princess Urraca. Herbert Lom overacts outrageously and delightfully as Ben Yussuf and gives his character some real menace as well.

As an Australian I cannot neglect to mention Frank Thring’s deliciously over-ripe performance as the treacherous and villainous Al Kadir.

Anthony Mann’s considerable reputation as a director rests mainly on his early film noir work and on his classic 1950s westerns with James Stewart. The two epics he made late in his career are not generally quite so well regarded. This may well be quite unjust since El Cid demonstrates a rather consummate mastery of the historical epic genre. He handles the spectacle side of things confidently while some of the more intimate scenes are even more impressive. His compositions are inventive and accomplished and rather painterly while he and cinematographer Robert Krasker make skillful use of colour not just for magnificence but for emotional impact. The production design by Veniero Colasanti and John Moore adds further lustre. 

It’s worth pointing out that not only do the action scenes look great, they are never there purely to provide spectacle. Every action scene advances the plot and advances the trajectory of the development of the characters involved. 

There are so many memorable scenes in this movie but there are several that really stand out. There’s the scene with the two women rivals looking out through slatted windows, almost a film noir scene. There’s the cinematically gorgeous scene of the horsemen riding along the beach at dusk carrying torches. There’s the wonderful moment with the traitor meeting King Sancho, with the wind howling outside, and directly following that the scene of murder outside the walls. In that last scene, as so often in this film, Mann and Kranker make superb use of deep focus photography. Mann’s compositions are not only meticulous in the horizontal frame but in depth as well, a very unusual and effective feature for this type of film in 1961. Also worth mentioning is the scene with the shaft of sunlight coming through the cupola when Rodrigo and Jimena meet early in the movie.

The audio commentary by William Bronston (the son of the film’s producer) and academic Neal Rosendorf is marred by a desperate and excruciating attempt to apologise for the fact that a movie that is already very politically correct wasn’t even more politically correct. It’s frankly embarrassing to listen to. Once they get back to talking about the movie itself things pick up and they do have some worthwhile information to impart. One interesting anecdote from Rosendorf concerns an interview he did with Charlton Heston in the 1990s. Heston showed him the sword he’d used in the movie, and it was a real sword and it was very very heavy. In fact this movie is virtually unique in that everything is real. If armour was supposed to be made of metal and leather then the costumes were made of metal and leather. The attention to detail and to capturing the sense of reality was obsessive but it pays off.

Another intriguing point made in the commentary track is that Anthony Mann was very enthusiastic about the idea of making epics. You can’t make a truly satisfactory movie in any genre unless you have a respect for the genre and that’s one of the reasons this movie works - Mann did have that respect for the epic genre.

While modern audiences will be inclined to see the movie in terms of the clash of cultures between Moslem and Christian Spain Bronston and Rosendorf suggest that it can also be viewed as a Cold War parable and that Rodrigo’s struggle against the Moors can be seen as representing General Franco’s successful struggle to save Spain from the Communists during the Civil War. 

Of course the movie can also be read as a story about the nature of heroes and the challenge of living with honour.

This is not the kind of movie that should ever be seen on television in butchered pan-and-scan prints. It probably really needs to be seen at a cinema but Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray presentation is the next best thing. And it really is superb. It’s not just the spectacle that is important in this movie. Just as important is the use of colour, at times very bright colour, at other times very subdued. This Blu-Ray presents the movie in all its glory and the transfer is just about flawless. Anchor Bay have also included a host of extras on a second disc. Considering the very reasonable price this two-disc set is great value.

El Cid, a huge box-office hit in its day, is a complex multi-layered film and a visually stunning epic. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Captive City (1952)

The Captive City is an unassuming but efficient crime B-movie directed by the always reliable Robert Wise.

This film belongs to a type that became very popular in the 50s - exposés of organised crime in small-town settings, with the message that the tentacles of mobsterism can reach into even the most seemingly idyllic small town. 

Jim Austin (John Forsythe) is the publisher and editor of the Kennington Journal. There’s really not a lot of opportunity for doing hard news stories in a sleepy and peaceful town of 36,000 souls like Kennington. When a big story falls into his lap he doesn’t recognise it for what it is. A down-at-heel private investigator comes to him with a story of corruption and gangsterism but Jim Austin just can’t believe that such things could happen in his town. When the private investigator is murdered Jim realises how naïve he’d been. 

Jim Austin is not by nature the sort of guy who would ever set out to be a crusader but his basic decency won’t allow him to let the story go, and in his own quiet way he can be remarkably stubborn.

The movie uses a few classic film noir techniques, like flash-backs and voiceover narration. In fact almost the entire film is a single flash-back as Jim Austin dictates his story into a tape-recorder, believing he may be murdered at any time.

The problem in Kennington is gambling. The city authorities have taken a soft approach to gambling, the assumption being that small-scale gambling is pretty harmless. The trouble is that gambling attracts racketeers and the book-making racket in Kennington is now in the hands of big-time mobsters from out of town.

Jim Austin’s problem is that he just can’t convince anyone that this represents a serious menace. Even the honest folk in Kennington would prefer him to let sleeping dogs lie. They have persuaded themselves that crime will never impact on them personally. The more Jim Austin digs the more evidence he finds but it’s not enough to convict anyone in a court of law and he faces steadily mounting opposition. He has to find real evidence, and then he has to find a way to stay alive long enough to do something with that evidence.

John Forsythe’s low-key acting style suits the material rather well. Jim Austin really is a very ordinary guy. He’s no storybook hero and he’s certainly no two-fisted gun-toting action hero, and Forsythe wisely doesn’t try to be hard-boiled. His very ordinariness makes us empathise with him. The other players are competent although the lack of a memorable villain may be seen as a drawback.

If there’s a weakness in this movie it’s paradoxically the flipside of its biggest strength. The whole point of the movie is that gangsterism can be lurking behind an innocent façade of white picket fences and well-manicured lawns, but the concentration on the peaceful surface of Kennington means that the menace remains somewhat muted. On the other hand it does mean that the violence, which is employed sparingly, has an impact when it does occur.

Robert Wise was never a particularly ostentatious director which can mean that his considerable technical skills are sometimes overlooked. He knew his stuff and in this movie he had the services of ace cinematographer Lee Garmes. Wise and Garmes make great use of compositions in depth, with the camera getting in really tight on the hero while the real action is happening in the background. This has the advantage of emphasising the fact that Austin is man who has always been rather detached from the seamy side of life.

Having been an editor (and a very good one) Wise knows how to pace a movie and he has no difficulty keeping the audience’s interest focused. His forays into film noir were not extensive but they were very impressive with The Set-Up being particularly noteworthy. 

Wise also knows how to build tension, and how to do it subtly. Jim Austin finds himself shadowed by dark cars. They’re not doing anything overtly threatening, just hanging back but making sure he sees them. Maybe they’re not even following him, but they could be and he becomes more and more convinced that they are.

The movie’s claims to noir status are not especially strong although the theme of hidden corruption does lend a somewhat noir aspect to the movie.

The Captive City has been released in the MGM Limited Edition series. The transfer is quite satisfactory. There are no extras.

The Captive City is a fairly routine story but Robert Wise’s craftsman ship shines through and makes it just a little more than a run-of-the-mill crime B-picture. Recommended.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Murder with Pictures (1936)

Murder with Pictures is a 1936 murder mystery which (as was customary in Hollywood at that time) mixes the mystery with a dash of comedy.

It was based on a story by George Harmon Coxe. In the 1930s Coxe had written a series of crime stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask featuring news photographer Flashgun Casey who spends as much time solving crimes as taking photos. Coxe also wrote a series of novels featuring Kent Murdock, essentially a smoother slightly more up-market and slightly toned-down version of Flashgun Casey. Murder with Pictures was the first of the Kent Murdock books and Paramount’s film version quickly followed. Coxe co-wrote the screenplay with Sidney Salkow.

Nate Girard (Onslow Stevens) is a shady businessman who has made a lot of money from oil and he’s also a mobster. He’s just been acquitted on a murder charge. His businessman partner, a shyster lawyer named Redfield, got him off but no-one really believes he was innocent. Kent Murdock (Lew Ayres) finds himself involved when a girl named Meg Archer (Gail Patrick) persuades him to hide her in his hotel room. Meg is the number one suspect in a new murder, that of Redfield. It just so happens that Murdock’s assistant Doane spanned a picture that showed the actual murder and Mudock, who has convinced himself that Meg is innocent, believes that picture will clear her. The trouble is that everyone wants to get hold of that picture.

The plot complications accumulate at a frenetic pace. Everyone seems to be trying to double-cross everyone else and those who want that picture are wiling to kill it to get hold of it. Murdock has to try to keep Meg out of the hands of the police while also keeping her, and himself, alive.

Murdock has other problems. Under the influence of a few too many highballs he had proposed marriage to bubble-dancer Hester Boone (Joyce Compton) and now she is trying  to fleece him.

Nate Girard and Redfield had cheated Meg Archer and her father out of their lucrative oil business so Meg has a motive for murder and while Murdock still thinks she’s innocent (possibly because he’s fallen for he) there are times when he has his doubts.

The plot is not always easy to follow but the movie’s brisk pacing keeps things entertaining  even when things get pretty confused.

Lew Ayres is a typically fast-talking newspaper man. He plays Murdock just a little too much for laughs for my tastes but he’s reasonably likeable and not entirely unconvincing. Gail Patrick is an engaging and fairly feisty heroine. Joyce Compton provides some fairly amusing comic relief. The supporting cast comprises solid B-movie players. 

Director Charles Barton directed. He did a lot of B-movies and he does a workmanlike job and keeps things moving along. There’s enough action to keep things interesting.

This is a movie that has fallen into the public domain. The Mill Creek DVD I watched was not too bad by that company admittedly very low standards. Picture quality is quite acceptable but there are a few sound issues which is unfortunate because the complex plot becomes harder to follow when you find yourself missing some of the dialogue.

Murder with Pictures is a fairly solid mystery in the 1930s B-movie style. The idea of the crucial piece of evidence being a photographic plate which everyone is trying to steal is quite clever (and was very much a George Harmon Coxe trademark). Recommended.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Madigan (1968)

Don Siegel’s 1968 cop thriller Madigan has most of the strengths one associates with the director but it’s also an intriguingly schizophrenic film.

It was based on a 1962 book called The Commissioner, which as its title suggests dealt mainly with a police commissioner. For the movie the decision was made to add a new character, Detective Daniel Madigan, and to shift the focus to this new character.

Commissioner Anthony X. Russell (Henry Fonda) is very much a do-it-by-the-book sort of cop, scrupulously honest to an almost pathological degree and a great believer in the idea that police officers have to maintain the highest possible standards of ethics. 

Detective Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark) is a very different sort of cop. Madigan doesn’t even know there is a book to go by and even if he did know he wouldn’t read it. He’s a street cop. Everything he knows about being a cop he’s learnt on the streets. Madigan has rather flexible ethics. He’s quite happy to accept freebies and in fact can see no problem if people want to do favours for cops. That’s the sort of behaviour that Commissioner Russell instinctively mistrusts - he sees it as dangerously close to corruption. Madigan doesn’t see it that way. He knows where to draw the line. He would never actually act corruptly but he can’t see any reason why a cop needs to be obsessive about such things.

Commissioner Russell used to be Madigan’s captain back in the days when Madigan was a rookie detective. There has always been tension between the two men, based on their wildly different attitudes and personalities.

Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) is Russell’s oldest and closest friend, but Kane has become involved in some dealings that could be interpreted as unethical.

Detective Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) is Madigan’s partner.

The structure of the movie is rather interesting. There is a central plot but it’s not very important. Mostly the movie simply takes a look at a few days in the lives of four very different New York cops, following them though both professional and personal crises. These crises are really just everyday life to a policeman. The interest comes from seeing how four very different men approach the job and how they try to juggle the life of a cop with some sort of personal life.

All four men are, despite their radical differences in temperament and style, good cops. They represent different ideas of what it means to be a good cop and the differences between their ideas lead to inevitable clashes.

As for the main plot, it concerns a hoodlum named Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnat). Benesch is a dangerously unstable and violent individual and the problems start when Madigan and Bonaro try to pick him up and he escapes from custody in circumstances which are rather embarrassing to the two harassed detectives. They thought it was a fairly routine matter but it transpires that Benesch is wanted for murder. It’s made fairly clear to the two detectives that if they hope to continue their careers in the NYPD they had better find Barney Benesch, and find him quickly.

Madigan is married but his marriage is not running all that smoothly. Julie Madigan (Inger Stevens) is fed up being a cop’s wife. She wants a real husband, not a guy who is married to the job. Commissioner Russell has his own domestic problems caused by his affair with a married woman.

Given the film’s structure the performances are crucial, and all the leading players deliver the goods. Fonda has the most thankless part, Russell being a very distant sort of man who has repressed his emotions almost completely. Fonda plays the part very effectively but Russell’s cold-fish personality means that he is almost inevitably overshadowed by Widmark and Whitmore who play much more larger-than-life characters.

Whitmore was a fine reliable character actor and makes Chief Inspector Kane colourful while just managing to avoid making him a loveable Irish cop stereotype.

Widmark has the most demanding rôle, Madigan being a naturally abrasive character. The challenge was to keep the abrasiveness whilst also making him sympathetic. Widmark succeeds pretty well in doing this. Madigan is a guy trying his best. He wants to be a good cop and he’d also like to be a good husband. He just hasn’t figured out how to do both at the same time.

What makes this an odd film is that by the standards of 1968 it’s both very modern and very old-fashioned. It’s modern in its emphasis on the men behind the badges and in its very loose narrative structure. But it looks very old-fashioned. Visually it could have been made ten or even twenty years earlier. Seeing this movie you would never know that the 60s had ever happened. You would never know that rock’n’roll had ever happened, or that the previous year had been the Summer of Love or that Woodstock was just around the corner. The detectives still wear hats and could have stepped right out of a 1940s crime movie. Even though it’s in colour everything is grey and very 1940s film noir. 

It’s fascinating to compare this movie with Dirty Harry, which Siegel made just three years later. They look like they were made decades apart. This is especially interesting because the two movies have definite thematic affinities, both dealing with cops close to the edge.

Siegel had done quite a bit of television work and Madigan, despite being shot in Cinemascope and despite the location shooting in New York, has something of the enclosed look of a TV cop show. Dirty Harry on the other hand has a much more cinematic feel.

Madigan is a tough but intelligent cop movie from a director who did that sort of thing particularly well. Highly recommended.