Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Gay Divorcee was not the first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but it was the film that really put them on the map and established the classic formula that would make them RKO’s biggest stars.

The first Astaire-Rogers movie, the 1933 release Flying Down to Rio, had the pair in supporting roles but they were so clearly the highlight of the picture that RKO drew the obvious conclusion and had them top-billed in the following year’s The Gay Divorcee.

They’re not just top-billed but they hold centre stage throughout. While most of the Astaire-Rogers movies are delightful some do suffer from pacing problems and drag just a little when the dancing stops. That is most emphatically not the case in this movie. The effervescent script, the superb performances and the sure comedic touch of all the players mean that there is really never a dull moment. The comedy sparkles and the main romance works to perfection.

The plot is ideally suited to a light-hearted feel-good musical. Dancer Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) encounters Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) as they are coming ashore at Dover. Guy instantly falls for Mimi but Mimi doesn’t want to know.

Guy’s friend Egbert 'Pinky' Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton) is a bumbling lawyer trying to handle a divorce case on his own for the first time. Mimi is his client. Egbert has everything planned, or at least he thinks he has. Mimi will go to a seaside hotel where a phony assignation has been arranged with Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes), a voluble Italian who earns his living as a professional co-respondent. Since Egbert is not entirely confident about handling the case on his own he asks Guy to accompany him. Of course Guy has no idea that it is Mimi’s divorce that Egbert is handling. He’s been desperately trying to find Mimi since their first encounter. And naturally when they meet again at the hotel there is much confusion as wires get hopelessly crossed. This all ensures that Guy and Mimi will end up together but only after a series of zany and very funny misunderstandings.

Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcee were the only pre-code Fred and Ginger musicals and The Gay Divorcee does get quite risque at times. Unlike many pre-code comedies in this case the risque humour is not only done with style and with a light touch but is genuinely funny.

A major plus is the superb supporting cast. Edward Everett Horton’s role is a substantial one and he’s in top form. He even gets to sing! Eric Blore has great fun as a waiter, sharing some gloriously amusing banter with Horton. Erik Rhodes goes way over the top as Tonetti but it works. Alice Brady provides even more humour as Mimi’s aunt Hortense, the bane of poor Egbert’s life. Look out for a very young Betty Grable in a minor supporting role.

Van Nest Polglase’s art deco-inspired art direction is always a huge asset to an Astaire-Rogers movie and this one is no exception.

The dance numbers are terrific, there are some good songs, the costumes are exquisite. Ginger Rogers gets to wear some gorgeous gowns and Fred Astaire shows just how good men used to look when they wore hats and superbly tailored clothes. The beginning of the decline of western civilisation can be dated to the time when men stopped wearing hats.

All of this would be enough to make a wonderful movie but then there’s the inspired extended musical sequence The Continental. It was intended as a spectacular show-stopper and that’s exactly what it is.

The Warner Home Video DVD release (in their Astaire-Rogers Collection volume 2) offers a fine transfer. 

The Gay Divorcee is magnificent entertainment. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

British Intelligence (1940)

British Intelligence is, rather surprisingly given the subject matter, an American production. It was made by Warner Brothers and although released in 1940 it deals with espionage in the First World War rather than the Second World War.

The British are suffering major military reverses as the result of the success of a German spy ring. In fact things are worse than they thought. If this movie is to be believed then every second person in Britain was a German spy. While the plot stretches credibility just a little in this respect it has enough twists and turns and double-crosses to keep things interesting. It also benefits from fine performances from its two leads, Boris Karloff and Margaret Lindsay.

We are introduced to Helene (Margaret Lindsay) in a British field hospital on the Western Front where she has been caring for downed airman Frank Bennett (Bruce Lester). Then we see her, with a different name, living in the household of a British Cabinet minister. She is supposedly a refugee. We are also introduced to the Cabinet minister’s butler Valdar (Boris Karloff), a Belgian refugee whose family was murdered by the Germans. Helene is not what she seems to be, and nor is Valdar. Both are spies, but for which side?

The British intelligence services are desperately trying to track down the master spy who controls the entire German spy ring. The Germans for their part are trying to pull off a coup that will win the war for them. Nobody can be trusted and everybody seems to be trying to double-cross everybody else.

While most viewers will anticipate most of the plot twists I very much doubt if any will spot them all. Just when you think that the final twist has been revealed another one crops up, and then another. Lee Katz’s screenplay is intricate but it does hold together without stretching credibility beyond the breaking point.

Director Terry Morse had an undistinguished career in B-movies and this movie suggests that he was never likely to break into A-pictures although he gets the job done with reasonable efficiency. The movie benefits from its short running time and with so much plot packed into a mere 61 minutes it’s never in danger of becoming dull.

Karloff gives a bravura performance. There’s no subtlety to it but this movie has little interest in subtlety anyway. Margaret Lindsay is extremely good as the enigmatic Helene. The supporting cast is adequate.

British Intelligence lays on the propaganda very thickly indeed. Every anti-German atrocity story cooked up by the tabloid press in the First World War, no matter how improbable, is shamelessly recycled. You need have no doubts whatsoever which side this film is on. The Germans are portrayed as crazed megalomaniacal butchers. There’s an outrageous amount of foreshadowing of the rise of the Nazi regime so that even the most obtuse viewer at the time must have got the patriotic message. In case they didn’t the film bludgeons them with a strident ending speech. But this was 1940 and such an approach was certainly understandable at that time.

There’s very little actual action but there’s effective suspense and there’s an impressive atmosphere of paranoia.

And this movie has zeppelins! Always a major bonus.

The British Elstree Hill region-free PAL DVD is pretty terrible but it’s also insanely cheap. You get what you pay for.

British Intelligence is a serviceable and entertaining spy thriller. Recommended.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

No Highway in the Sky (1951)

No Highway in the Sky is one of the classic aviation adventure/disaster movies of the 1950s. This 20th Century-Fox production was made in England and it does have a very British feel to it.

The hero is Dr Theodore Honey (James Stewart), an eccentric American scientist working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Eccentric is perhaps not a strong enough word. Dr Honey is completely bonkers. He also happens to be a genius. He works in the metallurgy department and his current hobby horse is metal fatigue. Dr Honey has done some calculations and he has come to the conclusion that after 1440 hours the metal in the tail section of the new Rutland Reindeer passenger aircraft will become totally brittle and the entire tail section will fall off.

His superiors are inclined to be sceptical although his immediate boss Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) can’t help feeling somewhat worried. Although he shares the general view that Dr Honey is in most areas of life as mad as a hatter he respects Honey’s scientific abilities. He’s also come to regard the eccentric scientist with a certain amount of affection. He knows that when it comes to science Dr Honey deserves to be taken seriously.

The mild concern about Dr Honey’s theory becomes slightly more serious when it is pointed out that the prototype of the Reindeer crashed in Labrador in slightly mysterious circumstances. The two worrying things about the crash were the fact that the aircraft had in fact flown almost 1440 hours at the time of the accident, and the tail section was never found. There could be several reasons why the tail section was not located, but it could be because it had fallen off before the crash just as Dr Honey’s theory has predicted.

The people at the RAE have no wish to cause a panic or to lessen public confidence in British aviation but at the same time they are keenly aware of their responsibilities to the public. The matter has to be taken seriously. Dr Honey’s tests on a Reindeer tail section, intended to simulate the effects of 1440 hours flying time, are accelerated and Dr Honey is despatched to Labrador to try to find that missing tail section.

In one of life’s little ironies the aircraft on which Dr Honey is flying is a Reindeer. He’s never flown before and he’s pretty nervous but he’s not too worried since he’s been assured that none of the Reindeer aircraft in commercial service have flown anywhere near 1440 hours. Dr Honey, rather unexpectedly, strikes up two unlikely friendships on the flight. The first is with pretty young stewardess Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns). The second is with glamorous movie star Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich). Dr Honey is the sort of man who brings out the maternal instinct in women to a rather extreme degree.

With two women fussing over him the flight could have been quite pleasant if only the flight engineer had not revealed a very worrying piece of information - this particular Reindeer is actually the second prototype and it has amassed a considerable number of flying hours in test flights. In fact it has flown approximately 1440 hours already. Which means that if Dr Honey is right that tail section could fall off at any moment. Dr Honey is a man with few social skills but underneath his dithering and helpless exterior there is a surprising degree of steely determination. He is not going to sit back and allow the plane to crash without trying to do something about it. It’s not his own life he’s particularly concerned about. He just can’t bear the thought that if the aircraft crashes Monica Teasdale will be killed. And his admiration for the actress borders on worship. He also can’t bear the idea that the pretty young stewardess who has been so kind to him would be killed. He must do something. What he eventually does so is unconventional to say the least, and not the sort of thing that mild-mannered scientists from the Royal Aircraft Establishment generally do.

This movie rather neatly balances a scientific suspense story with human drama. That the human drama angle works so well is largely due to the splendid performances. James Stewart is in full-on nutty professor mode but being James Stewart he also manages to give Dr Honey a surprising dignity. It is at times a truly funny performance but our laughs are tempered with respect and affection for this odd but rather likeable man. Marlene Dietrich combines cynical amusement with genuine warmth in a way that only Dietrich could. Dietrich could have made Monica a stereotypical glamorous movie star but she doesn’t, and instead she makes Monica just as quirky and odd in her own way as Theodore Honey. Underneath the glamour she’s a rather kind-hearted soul although she’s smart enough to realise that as a movie star she’s well advised not to let that part of her character become too obvious.

Glynis Johns is equally good, wisely eschewing sentimentality. Jack Hawkins is good but under-utilised. Especially impressive is Janette Scott as Honey’s 12-year-old daughter Elspeth. Elspeth is very bit as odd and socially challenged as her father but their mutual devotion is touching without being sentimentalised.

The relationship between Honey and the two women is handled in an interesting manner. It’s not a conventional romantic triangle although there is a romantic angle to it. The interactions between the two women are particularly interesting, The temptation to add an element of cattiness must have been overwhelming but it’s resisted. Monica and Marjorie, despite being very different women, can’t help liking and respecting each other. There’s some tension but they’re both grown-ups and they deal with it.

The fact that there is no such aircraft as a Rutland Reindeer necessitated the use of special effects for the flying sequences. On the whole they work well, apart from the take-off and landing sequences which look very iffy.

The movie was based on the bestselling novel by Nevil Shute, an author now largely forgotten but immensely popular in 1951. Henry Koster directed, and very competently.

Fox’s made-on-demand DVD offers a very satisfactory transfer without any extras.

No Highway in the Sky is, along with Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, one of the three great aviation adventure movies of the 50s. It’s great entertainment and the offbeat but excellent acting performances add additional interest. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dublin Nightmare (1958)

Dublin Nightmare is another of the four neglected low-budget British noirs that comprise Strawberry Media’s excellent Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 DVD boxed set (which also includes the unconventional spy noir Deadly Nightshade).

A bank robbery organised by IRA terrorists seems to have one off successfully. Everything went according to plan, except that the two men left holding the loot fail to show up at the rendezvous after the robbery. Then the body of Steve Lawlor (Richard Leech) is found. He had apparently been killed in a crash crash. But the money was not in the wrecked car and Danny O’Callaghan has disappeared. The IRA naturally assume that O’Callaghan has double-crossed them, murdered Lawlor and taken the money.

Steve Lawlor’s old buddy John Kevin (William Sylvester) has just arrived in Dublin, only to find himself having to identify his old friend’s body. He meets up with Lawlor’s Italian girlfriend Anna (Marla Landi). And then somebody tries to kill John Kevin. This seems very strange to him - who on Earth would anyone want him dead? He’s not involved with the IRA and in fact he doesn’t at this stage know anything about Lawlor’s involvement. All he knows is that an attempt was made on his life, and he’s both annoyed and curious.

Being an inquisitive sort of person Kevin starts to take an interest in his old friend’s death. Perhaps it wasn’t an accident? Anna seems to have her doubts as well. At this point Kevin doesn’t know anything about the IRA angle but he soon learns of their interest in the “accident” that killed Lawlor. Kevin has no interest in their cause and no desire to help them but since they’re equally suspicious of the circumstances of Lawlor’s death he hopes to extract some information from them, and they certainly hope to get some information from him.

Anna certainly knows more than she’s prepared to tell Kevin. But what exactly is her agenda?

This was one of the infamous “quota quickies” - very low-budget movies made as second features and intended to take advantage of British government legislation that required British cinemas to share a certain quota of British-made films. Like many other quota quickies it was made at the now defunct Twickenham Studio.

This movie was John Pomeroy’s only film as director, which is surprising since he does quite a competent job. Pomeroy and veteran cinematographer manage to achieve a definite film noir atmosphere. The very low budget did not stretch far enough to allow for location shooting in Ireland but the Dublin setting is fairly convincing (at least it’s convincing for someone like me who has never been to Dublin).

The shadowy noir atmosphere may have been due more to the low budget than a conscious desire to achieve a film noir style (shadows can be very handy for hiding cheap sets and disguising the fact that a film supposed to be set in Dublin isn’t actually shot there). But whether conscious or otherwise it does nonetheless have at least some noirish-looking shots.

William Sylvester gives a very solid performance as John Kevin, a good-humoured and likeable sort of chap who hides a very determined nature under his affable exterior. Richard Leech is excellent while Marla Landi does well as Anna. William Sherwood makes a rather jovial if somewhat deluded IRA boss while Harry Hutchinson is an unlikely ageing IRA killer.

For a British-made movie of the 1950s Dublin Nightmare presents the IRA in a surprisingly sympathetic light although their obsession with their cause is portrayed as being slightly ridiculous. 

As with the other movies in this set Dublin Nightmare gets a very good transfer. It is presented in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is sharp and contrast is good.

Dublin Nightmare is quite entertaining in an unassuming B-movie sort of way. As long as you don’t approach it with unrealistically high expectations you should enjoy it. Recommended.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Trapeze (1956)

Trapeze is one of the classic circus movies. Although this 1956 film is an American production it was made by one of Britain’s top directors (Sir Carol Reed), shot in Paris and features an Italian co-star.

Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) had been one of the greatest of trapeze artists until he misjudged a triple aerial somersault. Now he has a crippled leg and works at the Cirque d’Hiver as a rigger. His career as an aerialist is over. Or so he thinks, and then Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) shows up one day. Orsini belongs to a circus family and his father has told him that he has already taught him everything he knows. The only man who can teach him more is Mike Ribble.

Ribble isn’t interested until he discovers that Orsini has real talent. Very great talent. With Ribble to teach him he could be one of the greats. And with Ribble as his catcher they could be a great team.

Everything is going smoothly. Ribble and Orsini get along well and they work well together. That situation is about to change, thanks to Lola (Gina Lollobrigida). Lola has her own acrobatic act but the circus manager, Bouglione (Thomas Gomez), can’t find room on the bill for Lola and her three partners. Lola has no intention of being squeezed out. If her own act is a washout she will muscle in on someone else’s. She will persuade Ribble and Orsini to include her in their act. They don’t want her but Lola is a very persuasive girl and her feminine charms are even more persuasive. She fails to seduce Ribble but she succeeds effortlessly with Orsini. Now it’s a three-person act but the inevitable romantic triangle ensures that this new partnership is going to be very stormy, to say the least.

Lola already has a bad reputation for doing this sort of thing. She is ambitious and ruthless and manipulative and she is quite willing to use her body to get what she wants.

There’s a minor sub-plot involving Mike Ribble’s old flame Rosa (Katy Jurado) but the main focus is on the explosive Ribble-Orsini-Lola triangle. Lola has manipulated poor Tino into falling hopelessly in love with her but she has meanwhile fallen in love with Ribble. This is clearly going to end rather messily.

Burt Lancaster was ideal casting for this movie. Being an ex-circus acrobat obviously helped. Lancaster could at times be overly intense but in this film he manages to be both intense and sympathetic. It’s a fine performance, in fact one of his best. Tony Curtis is just as good. Curtis is very underrated as an actor and he combines a certain sexual naïvete (poor Tino is hopelessly out of his depth with the unscrupulous and manipulative Lola) with a youthful arrogance that never becomes irritating.  

Gina Lollobrigida actually has the trickiest rôle. While we are appalled by Lola’s scheming she is not entirely an unsympathetic character. She is a woman who has always used sex and love to get what she wants from men but now that talent has backfired on her as she loses control of her emotions. Lola has fallen in love. Lollobrigida handles the rôle very effectively and the chemistry between her and Lancaster is sizzling. Lollobrigida’s performance is fiery but it’s not without subtlety.

Trapeze makes a fascinating comparison with that other great 1950s circus movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. The material might be more or less identical but DeMille and Reed handle it in radically different ways. The circus itself is the star and the central character in DeMille’s movie. Reed on the other hand is mainly interested in the emotional triangle. The circus itself only matters insofar as it matters to the characters. The Greatest Show on Earth is a magnificent spectacle and it’s enormous fun but it’s unashamedly hokey, and deliberately so (DeMille never did anything that wasn’t deliberate). Trapeze is a human drama. Trapeze is the better movie, which is not to take anything away from The Greatest Show on Earth.

Trapeze certainly has its share of spectacle as well, with plenty of impressive stunt work and plenty of rich circus atmosphere.

MGM’s Region 2 DVD release of Trapeze boasts an anamorphic transfer which is quite acceptable. It is however obvious that no full-scale restoration has been attempted. The colours are not as vibrant as they might be and there is minor print damage. This is a movie that really deserves a proper restoration and a Blu-Ray release.

Trapeze succeeds as both circus movie and human drama. Superb performances by all three leads (they all quite rightly get equal billing) and Reed’s masterful but unobtrusive direction make this movie very much worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Big Chance (1957)

The Big Chance is one of the four rather obscure low-budget British noirs included in Strawberry Media’s Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 DVD boxed set. It’s a fairly lightweight little movie but it does have some genuine noir credentials and it’s worth a look.

William Russell plays Bill Anderson, a young man who has found life rather a disappointment. What he really wanted to do with his life was to travel to exotic places and his fondest wish was to buy a schooner and set himself up as a trader in the South Seas. That might sound like a rather old-fashioned aspiration for a young man in 1957 but it’s typical of the way Bill’s mind works. He thought that if he could get a job in a travel agency he’d be well on the way to realising his ambitions. Unfortunately it turned out that working in a travel agency is just like any other office job. You spend your time organising foreign travel for other people but you don’t earn enough to do any travelling yourself.

Bill has also found his marriage to be a disappointment. His wife does not share his fantasies about travel or the South Seas. She’s just an ordinary woman who wants a nice home and a steady reliable husband. Bill doesn’t hate her for this. He’s a good-natured soul who really couldn’t hate anybody. He just feels trapped and misunderstood and disappointed.

Then fate steps in (as it tends to do in the world of film noir). Bill finds himself alone in the office. The safe is full of money. He has the combination to the safe. It’s Friday so if the money happened to disappear no-one would know about it for two days. Sitting on his desk there’s a passport belonging to a client that even an amateur like Bill could easily doctor - as luck would have it he has a photo of himself with the Foreign Office stamp in exactly the right place so that it could easily take the place of the real owner’s photo. And he has an air ticket to Panama in the client’s name. Panama! Just the place to buy a schooner and set oneself up as a Pacific island trader. It really does seem like a once in a lifetime opportunity. The temptation proves to be impossible to resist.

Bill has a plan for getting through Customs and Immigration with the stolen money and surprisingly it all goes perfectly. Except for one thing. The flight is delayed for 24 hours because of fog so he’ll have to go through the whole process again the next day.

In the meantime he has met Diana (Adrienne Corri). Diana is running away as well. She’s running away from her elderly but very rich husband. It’s not that he treats her badly. He’s actually kind and indulgent. It’s not that she hates him. Improbable as it may seem she was in love with him when she married him and while she’s not in love with him now she can’t bring herself to hate him. Whatever her faults (and as we will discover she has quite a few) she is not the kind of woman who can hate a man who has done her no actual wrong.

Bill and Diana set off in her car to look for a hotel, they get lost in the fog and end up having to break into an empty house to find shelter. It’s all rather an exciting adventure and it’s quite romantic and they’re both young and of course nature takes its course. 

Writer-director Peter Graham Scott’s screenplay still has plenty of twists in store for them as their plans keep on miscarrying. One of the strengths of this movie is that it packs plenty of plot into its 59-minute running time so that although the budget didn’t allow for any spectacular visual set-pieces there’s still very little chance of the audience becoming bored.

The Big Chance has a genuine noir protagonist, a man who is basically a very decent fellow but who succumbs to temptation just once in his life and finds that once you’ve taken the first step it’s very hard not to keep plunging deeper into the abyss. It also has a femme fatale. And it has quite a few night scenes combined with fog so even the visuals are at least vaguely film noir. It might not tick all the noir boxes but it ticks enough of them to justify Strawberry Media’s inclusion of it in a film noir set.

That the movie works quite well has a lot to do with the two stars. Adrienne Corri is impressive as Diana. Diana is a particular type of femme fatale - she’s not evil, merely irresponsible and manipulative. That of course makes a femme fatale even more dangerous. Diana is not a bad woman. She’s not a woman at all. She’s in her mid-twenties but emotionally she’s about fifteen. She admits to having Daddy Issues and we can believe her. She’s used to having men treat her like a special princess. Corri conveys all this with commendable subtlety. Diana is a character we could despise but we find it difficult to do so. She does the things she does because she doesn’t know any better.

William Russell has had a 70-year (!) acting career, mostly in television (most notably in the early years of Doctor Who). He’s one of those actors who is never out of work but never quite makes it as a star. He gives an effective understated performance. Bill’s problem is very like Diana’s - he’s never grown up. Let’s face it, in 1957 wanting to run away to sea and become a trader in the South Seas is the sort of thing boys read about in story books or saw in adventure films. It’s not exactly a grown-up ambition. Bill is also very definitely not cut out to be a criminal. On the few occasions when he is faced by the threat of violence or when decisive action is required he is hopelessly out of his depth. Russell gets this across very adroitly. Like Diana Bill is a character we could have regarded some derision but we can’t. He’s just not quite ready for the grown-up world.

The two leads have the right chemistry and most importantly their characters mesh perfectly. Bill is exactly the sort of man Diana would go for. She’s a woman who is either going to go for a much older man (like her husband) who will treat her like a pampered daughter or she’s going to go for a man as emotionally immature as she is. Either way she will be looking for a man to manipulate rather than for an adult relationship. And Diana is most certainly the sort of woman Bill would fall for. She gives the impression of being a sophisticated woman of the world (it’s amazing what expensive clothes will do for a woman) even though she isn’t but Bill doesn’t have enough experience to know that. And she seems to him to be a whole lot sexier than his very suburban wife. Bill is also sure that Diana is also exactly the sort of woman who would just love to spend her life on a schooner cruising the South Seas. That Bill actually believes this shows how naïve and juvenile his dreams are. Both William Russell and Adrienne Corri succeed admirably in making the relationship convincing.

The DVD transfer is faultless.

The Big Chance is a very low-key little movie but as long as you don’t approach it with unrealistic expectations it’s quite entertaining and it does have at least something of a film noir flavour. Recommended.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Airport (1970) review

My review of Airport (1970) might be of interest to readers of this blog. This is the movie that started the disaster movie craze although in some ways it's more of a lush Ross Hunter 1950s melodrama than a typical disaster movie. And it has to be said that this movie offers plenty of star power and a great deal of old-fashioned entertainment value.