Wednesday, November 26, 2014

711 Ocean Drive (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Harriet Craig (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Home at Seven (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

some books on which classic movies were based

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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