Thursday, May 28, 2015

High Treason (1951)

High Treason is a 1951 British Cold War spy thriller directed by Roy Boulting, and it’s a fairly competent one.

In some ways this one is structured more like a police procedural than an action spy thriller. The heroes operate more like policemen than James Bond-style spies.

A dockyard explosion destroys a British arms shipment. It’s the latest in a series of similar events. Commander Robert Brennan (Liam Redmond) of Special Branch is put in charge of the investigation, assisted by Superintendent Folland (André Morell) and Major Elliott (Anthony Bushell) of the Security Service (Britain’s counter-espionage agency more popularly known as MI5). There’s a very strong suspicion, amounting to a near certainty, that these acts of sabotage are organised by Soviet agents who have access to information from someone highly placed in the British bureaucracy.

The audience knows from the start who the Soviet agents are. The suspense factor comes from the fact that some of these agents are more innocent dupes than traitors and don’t really deserve the drastic fate that seems to be in store of them. And of course the suspense also comes from knowing that the enemy agents’ latest lot is far more ambitious and far more dangerous than anything they’ve tried before. I’m not saying that the fate of civilisation is at stake, but the stakes are still quite high.

While some of these spies are deluded rather than evil there’s no question that some are very evil indeed - they are very highly placed and they understand exactly what they’re doing.

Commander Brennan has a few leads but what he doesn’t know is that he’s engaged in a race against the clock.

From the acting point of view this is not a star vehicle for any one actor. All the performers are reliable and all the performances are effective. Two players who do stand out are Anthony Nicholls as the oily MP Grant Mansfield and Mary Morris as the ideological zealot Anna Braun. These are two very different but very chilling portrayals of evil. Kenneth Griffith does well as the hapless but oddly sympathetic Jimmy Ellis, a foolish and frightened young man in way over his head.

The Soviet spies in this thriller come from all walks of life. Some are frustrated insignificant little people, others are wealthy and powerful. Some are working-class, some middle-class and some upper-class. Some are fanatics, some are misguided fools.

While there’s no doubt who the bad guys are, and the film doesn’t pull its punches in this area, it doesn’t really come across as propaganda - this is a movie about the dangers of people who believe in Causes with a capital C rather than any one cause.

Surprisingly enough this movie doesn’t really feel dated at all. There will always be fanatics whose commitment to their cause blinds them to the truth that people matter more than ideologies. There will always be people who not only want to save the world but believe that they have a foolproof plan for doing so, and that the self-evident righteousness of the ends justifies any means. There will always be cynical egoists who believe they are the natural leaders of the people and therefore should have absolute unquestioned power. And there will always be naïve well-meaning dupes to help them. The causes may vary, the methods may vary, but the psychological motivations remain the same. It’s these psychological motivations that are the main focus of Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting’s screenplay.

Most of the movie is focused on Commander Brennan’s patient and methodical investigation. The emphasis is on routine police work rather than spy tradecraft. The action-packed finale, with an abundance of gunplay and a remarkably high body count, therefore comes as a bit of a surprise. Director Boulting handles this action set-piece quite effectively, as he does the film’s violent opening sequence. Presumably the idea was to emphasise that espionage is not a gentleman’s game but a bloody business in which real people get hurt.

This is one of four forgotten but extremely fine slightly noir-flavoured suspense thrillers in Strawberry Media’s excellent Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 DVD boxed set, along with Dublin Nightmare, The Big Chance and Deadly Nightshade. The transfers of all four films are exceptionally good. Don’t expect any extras but for the absurdly low price this set represents superb value for money.

High Treason is a well-crafted thriller with a nice mix of thrills and suspense. It would make a fine addition to the collection of any spy movie fan. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952)

Has Anybody Seen My Gal is a frothy musical set in the 20s that is not quite what one expects from director Douglas Sirk. It is however utterly delightful.

Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) is fabulously rich but he’s by no means a young man. In fact he’s reached the age where he’s starting to think about where his money is going to go when he shuffles off this mortal coil. He has no family whatsoever. So he decides to leave all his money to the Blaisdell family in the sleepy little town of Hilverton. And what is his connection to the Blaisdell family? Many years earlier he had proposed marriage to a charming young lady named Millicent and she’d turned him down. As a result of her refusal he’d left Hilverton and set out to make his fortune in the world. With spectacular success. If Millicent had accepted him he’d have spent his whole life in Hilverton and he’d still be making $35 a week. So he has Millicent to thank for his success.

Millicent is no longer alive so he decides to leave his fortune to her descendants. Millicent’s daughter Harriet (Lynn Bari) is married to Charles Blaisdell (Larry Gates) who runs the drug store in Hilverton. They have a son, Howard (William Reynolds), and two daughters, Millicent (Piper Laurie) and eleven-year-old Roberta (Gigi Perreau). Fulton’s lawyer doesn’t care who the old man leaves his fortune to but he does make a suggestion - why doesn’t Fulton go to Hilverton to find out what the family is really like? Fulton is a chronic hypochondriac who is constantly convinced he’s at death’s door but surprisingly he jumps at the idea.

Fulton pretends to be an eccentric painter named John Smith and by means of various subterfuges manages to persuade the Blaisdells to take him in as a lodger. They of course have no idea that he’s a rich man. Fulton/Smith now sets out to find out if the Blaisdells deserve his money. 

Harriet Blaisdell always wanted to be rich. She secretly (or actually not so secretly) despises her husband as a failure. Harriet dreams of marrying off Millicent to Carl Pennock (Skip Homeier), simply because the Pennocks are the richest family in town. Millicent really wants to marry Dan Stebbins but since Dan is a mere assistant in the Blaisdell drug store Harriet is determined to sabotage their plans and persuade Millicent to marry the rich but obnoxious Carl.

Sam Fulton/John Smith gets himself a job as a soda jerk in the drug store. Then he puts his plan into operation. He sends the Blaisdells a cheque, anonymously, for $100,000. Suddenly the Blaisdells are even richer than the Pennocks. For Harriet it is a dream come true. She forces her husband to give up the drug store, she insists they move to the biggest house in town and she sets out to live the lifestyle of the fabulously rich. This makes Harriet happy and everyone else miserable. And Millicent still wants to marry the poor but honest and hard-working Dan. 

The Blaisdells soon discover that being rich isn’t as easy as they’d thought. This might superficially be a movie with the message that money doesn’t buy happiness but it’s a bit more subtle than that. Samuel Fulton is rich and he thoroughly enjoys it. Being rich is fine but you have to decide what you really want. If you know what you want then being rich isn’t absolutely necessary. The movie is certainly not arguing that it’s wonderful to be poor - it’s important to remember that the Blaisdells never were poor. Charles Blaisdell had a modest but fairly successful business, they had a comfortable house. They already had enough money, they just didn’t realise that it was enough. Dan isn’t a pauper - he’s a young man with reasonable prospects. He’ll never be a millionaire but he’ll do OK. If you’re a modest success don’t make yourself miserable wishing you were fabulously successful. The Blaisdell family can have happiness if only they can learn that money is only part of the answer. 

Charles Coburn was one of those wonderful character actors who helped to make the golden age of Hollywood golden. This movie gives him a rare chance to play a starring role. And make no mistake, Coburn is the star here. He makes the most of his opportunity. Samuel Fulton is a terrific character - he’s eccentric but warm-hearted, in fact he’s the millionaire with the heart of gold. Coburn makes him endearing but without getting overly sentimental about it. Lynn Bari is marvelous as Harriet, a woman blinded by her obsession with wealth and status. She’s not evil, just deluded, but she sure does a lot of harm. 

Piper Laurie has great fun playing the good-natured flapper Millicent. Gigi Perreau manages the difficult feat of being a non-irritating and genuinely likeable child star. Rock Hudson is the surprise here - it’s not quite the sort of role you expect for him. Dan is a generally sympathetic character but he’s inclined to be irritable and prickly and he’s certainly bitter about the prospect of losing his girl to the rich but feckless Carl. Hudson doesn’t do too badly. We might occasionally be annoyed by Dan but we can see he’s basically pretty decent.

If you really want to you can try to find typical Sirk themes in this movie but you’d be missing the point. This is a light-hearted bubbly romantic musical with the emphasis very much on comedy. Luckily, it really is funny. In fact it works perfectly. There are fewer musical numbers than you expect in a musical and there are no big production numbers. The music is however light and frothy and pretty enjoyable.

This movie’s biggest strength though is that it looks fabulous. This was a Universal picture and Universal in the 50s seemed to have the knack of making Technicolor pictures look even more sumptuous than usual. The 1920s fashions, and the cars and the sets, all are superb. This movie is quite simply gorgeous.

Has Anybody Seen My Gal has been released as part of the five-movie Region 1 Rock Hudson Screen Legend Collection DVD set. It’s also been released individually and as part of a Douglas Sirk boxed set. My copy is the Region 4 standalone DVD, which looks pretty good. This is a movie that really needs to be released on Blu-Ray.

This is a bright and breezy and generally optimistic movie, and it’s funny. It’s quite content to offer stylish old-fashioned feel-good entertainment. Not a typical Sirk movie but if you accept it on its own terms it’s a delightful concoction. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948)

Sleeping Car to Trieste is a remake of Rome Express (1932), one of the classic suspense on a train movies. Sleeping Car to Trieste is not quite in the same league but it’s still decent entertainment.

A diary is stolen from an embassy in Paris. The contents of the diary are explosive - enough to start a revolution in a certain unnamed country.

Zurta (Albert Lieven), the man who stole the diary, is double-crossed by his accomplice. The accomplice flees and takes the Orient Express hoping to put as much distance as possible between himself and Zurta. But Zurta is on the train as well. Also on the train is Valya (Jean Kent), also an accomplice of Zurta’s

Naturally various other passengers on the train are unwittingly involved. These include George Grant (Derrick de Marney), a solicitor off for a dirty weekend with Joan Maxted (Rona Anderson). Joan thinks it’s true love but George is married.

The diary is valuable enough to kill for and it comes as no surprise when murder does indeed result. And George and Joan find themselves suspects.

As luck would have it the famous French detective Inspector Jolif (Paul Dupuis) happens to be on board the train. Unravelling the mystery is made more difficult by the fact that a number of passengers have things to hide and he is faced by conflicting testimonies from key witnesses. Some of the passengers also have their own agendas in regard to the missing diary.

There are no big stars in this picture but the cast includes plenty of solid reliable character actors. Albert Lieven makes a convincingly sinister villain. Jean Kent is a perfectly adequate vamp. Paul Dupuis is a clichéd suave French policeman but he carries it off with a certain amount of aplomb.

As you would expect in a 1940s thriller there’s a good deal of comic relief, involving everything from exasperated chefs to ladies’ hats to a typical English club bore. What’s more surprising is that most of the comic relief is actually quite amusing. David Tomlinson as the aforementioned club bore and Hugh Borden as the harassed secretary to an obnoxious millionaire with political ambitions are both particularly good. Finlay Currie is suitably insufferable as the millionaire.

The diary is as pure an example of a McGuffin as you’ll ever encounter in a movie. We never find out what’s in it, or which embassy it was stolen from, or the name of the country which it had the potential to plunge into revolution. All that matters is that one man has the diary and other people want it badly enough to commit murder. The script is serviceable and the actors are good enough to make it work fairly successfully.

John Paddy Carstairs was a perfectly competent B-movie director. There’s nothing particularly inspired about his handling of this movie but he knew how to get the job done.

The most important thing about this movie is that it’s set on a train. Trains, especially the old-fashioned variety with compartments, corridors and dining cars, are perfect settings for mysteries or thrillers. You just can’t go wrong with a train thriller and Carstairs makes the most of the Orient Express in this picture. 

Strawberry Media’s Region 0 UK DVD release is barebones but it’s what we’ve come to expect from this company - it’s pleasingly inexpensive and the transfer is excellent.

Sleeping Car to Trieste is a second-rank but quite well-made British thriller. As railway thrillers go it's not of the same clsas as The Lady Vanishes or even Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich but it delivers thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. If you’re an aficionado of train movies or vintage spy thrillers you’ll certainly want to see it. Recommended.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

The caper movie would prove to be one of the most popular film genres of the 60s. Both the British and American film industries would produce some very fine and very successful examples of the breed. One of the movies that kick-started this genre back in 1960 was The League of Gentlemen, a very big box-office success in both Britain and the US at the time.

This was an ambitious British production which established a template that would be followed many times - a master criminal assembles a team of crooks, all of them experts in their field, with the intention of pulling off one spectacular heist.

The twist in this movie is that the criminals are all professional soldiers. Or at least they were professional soldiers, until their military careers were abruptly terminated for assorted  crooked activities. Dishonesty comes as naturally to them as soldiering.

In this case the criminal mastermind is a retired lieutenant-colonel by the name of Hyde (Jack Hawkins). He is the only member of the team without a criminal record. He does however have a grudge against the army, having been retired against his will on what he considers to be an insultingly meagre pension.

Ex-Major Race (Nigel Patrick) acts as Hyde’s second-in-command. Ex-Captain Mycroft, a con-man who specialises in masquerading as a clergyman, will be in charge of organising the equipment needed for the robbery. Ex-Lieutenant Lexy (Richard Attenborough), a Signal Corps officer cashiered for selling military secrets, will be the communications specialist. Ex-Captain Weaver (Norman Bird), cashiered for alcoholism, will be the explosives expert. Porthill (Bryan Forbes), Stevens (Kieron Moore) and Rutland-Smith (Terence Alexander) will provide the muscle and general military expertise.

The highlight of a caper movie has to be the heist itself so ideally you need to have some preliminary action/suspense sequences to keep the audience’s interest high until the major action set-pieces which provide the climax. In this case the gang carries out a daring robbery at an army base in order to provide themselves with the weaponry they’ll need for the main robbery. This sequence neatly blends high tension and sly comedy and is superbly done.

This movie establishes another crucial part of the classic caper movie formula - the planning and rehearsal of the robbery. In this movie, given the fact that the robbery is to be carried out like a military operation, there are definite resemblances to classic British war movies. Lieutenant-Colonel Hyde’s gang are briefed for the raid in exactly the same way the heroes of a war movie are briefed before a battle. This seems to have been a deliberate choice, gently mocking the heroic stiff-upper-lip style of British war movie. 

A good caper movie should of course combine plenty of action, plenty of humour, witty dialogue and a great deal of style. The League of Gentlemen scores highly in all these categories. Bryan Forbes, who had a successful and varied career as a screenwriter, wrote the script and it ticks all the required boxes while also having some fun playing around with accepted genre conventions. Basil Dearden’s distinguished directing career included some excellent suspense thrillers and he handles matters here with his usual skill and panache. Arthur Ibbetson did the cinematography so this movie had plenty of talent behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Apart from being a great actor Jack Hawkins has just the right air of authority as the criminal mastermind Hyde. This is however very much an ensemble piece and fortunately every one of the performances is spot on. In fact it would be unfair to single out any one performance.

Cult movie fans will have fun spotting a couple of familiar faces in very small roles - Nigel Green as a lecherous truck driver and Oliver Reed as an exceedingly camp chorus boy.

While the emphasis is on fun there is a little bit more to this film. It’s clear that Colonel Hyde, and to some extent the other gang members, are the sort of men who don’t really fit  into the civilian world. Their main motivation might be the hope of easy money but they’re also looking for the sense of belonging that they’d had in the army. It’s an opportunity to relive happier times and this gives the movie just a slight touch of melancholy.

Network’s Special Edition DVD provides a lovely anamorphic transfer, an excellent audio commentary with Bryan Forbes and a variety of other extras - all at a ludicrously low price.

It's worth comparing The League of Gentlemen to Ocean’s Eleven, also released in 1960, which started the American caper movie craze 

Compared to later caper movies such as The Italian Job this is a movie that is more character-driven than action-driven and it’s noticeably lacking in graphic violence. It does however have more than enough excitement and suspense. A very well-crafted movie with a very literate script and superb performances which all adds up to terrific entertainment. It still stands up as one of the best movies of its type. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (also released as Stairway to Heaven) is a wildly ambitious and complex film but ultimately it has to be consigned to the flawed masterpiece category. There is much here to admire, and much that is merely cringe-inducing.

The initial inspiration for the movie was a real-life incident - a British airman had fallen out of his aeroplane without a parachute but had somehow survived. Powell and Pressburger have taken that incident and posed the question - what if this airman was meant to die?

The movie opens on a foggy evening in May 1945 with a crippled British Lancaster bomber limping back to base. Most of the crew members have baled out, leaving only Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven). Peter knows his number is up. He has no parachute, the aircraft’s landing gear is hopelessly damaged and the aircraft is barely under control. He knows he is going to die and he accepts this. He has however made contact with base, in the person of a young female American sergeant radio operator named June (Kim Hunter). Peter is quite happy to spend his last few minutes in this world chatting to a pretty and charming girl. He has already decided what he is going to do. He’s going to jump, parachute or no parachute. It’s better than going down on a burning aircraft.

Peter wakes up on a beach. He assumes he must be in Heaven since he couldn’t possibly have survived. It’s an odd sort of Heaven though. It has dogs, although Peter likes the idea of a Heaven that includes dogs. But then he spots a Mosquito light bomber flying over the beach. Dogs are one thing but surely there aren’t bombers in Heaven? He begins to suspect that he isn’t dead after all. And then he spots an American girl on a bicycle. The girl is of course June.

So it seems like a happy ending for Peter. He and June had already started to fall in love while talking on the radio and the romance quickly blossoms. He still can’t think how he managed to survive but obviously he did and now everything is rosy. Until Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) turns up. Conductor 71 is a heavenly conductor. He had been supposed to guide Peter to Heaven but he’d been unable to find him in the fog. Now he explains that a mistake has been made and suggests that Peter should accompany him to Heaven forthwith. Peter however has no intention of doing so. He’s in love and besides if the heavenly bureaucracy has made a mistake it’s hardly his fault. Heaven should simply admit its bungle and leave him to enjoy his life. Of course, as Conductor 71 explains, it’s not that simple. There are procedures to be followed. Peter can if he likes lodge an appeal but it’s not likely to be granted.

As you might imagine June is rather disturbed to find that her handsome new boyfriend talks to heavenly messengers. She’s a practical girl so she consults her friend Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey). Dr Reeves is a pioneer in a new field of medicine - neuroscience. It doesn’t take him long to make a diagnosis - Peter has brain damage as a result of a concussion he suffered a couple of years earlier. It’s the kind of brain damage that produces exactly the sorts of hallucinations that Peter is suffering from. It can be corrected by surgery but there is a complication. The mind is a complex thing. Peter believes he can only live if he wins his case in the heavenly Court of Appeal. If he loses the case then even if the surgery succeeds he will lapse into permanent madness. Dr Reeves has to convince Peter that he can win his case.

Peter’s fate now hinges on two races against time - Dr Reeves has to find a neurosurgeon who can carry out the operation while Peter has to find a defence counsel to fight his case in Heaven. Powell and Pressburger weave these two plot strands together with remarkable skill and subtlety.

So far so good. Clever ideas, intelligently developed, with just enough ambiguity. We know  the Heaven scenes are all happening in Peter’s mind - or do we? Perhaps when a man’s life hangs in the balance Heaven really does take an interest in the proceedings. And perhaps things that are only in our minds do have a certain reality. Maybe the world of the subconscious is real in some sense? Most importantly the ideas are not just clever but they have an emotional impact as well. Is love stronger than death?

The problems with this movie begin with the heavenly trial scene when a new theme is introduced (actually it’s been there all along in the background but now it moves to the foreground). This theme is Anglo-American relations, and Britain’s place in the postwar world. The Anglo-American alliance had always been somewhat more strained than anyone at the time cared to admit and it was going to get a lot more strained (culminating in Britain’s humiliation by the US in the Suez Crisis in 1956). Powell and Pressburger use the trial scene to argue for the naïve belief that the relationship could continue as a partnership of equals. The whole trial sequence is dull and unconvincing.

Even worse, the movie puts Peter Carter forward as an example of all that is best in Britain and as Britain’s hope for the future. And what is Peter Carter in civilian life? He’s a poet. If there’s one thing that a Britain facing the colossal challenge of the postwar world did not need it was poets. Peter Carter is in fact representative of the kind of over-educated over-privileged Oxbridge types who had been responsible for Britain’s long decline. He’s a Squadron Leader in the RAF and it’s fairly obvious he’s the sort of young Englishman who got to be an officer by going to the right schools. Unfortunately Powell and Pressburger really seemed to believe that poets represented the future of Britain. The trial scene which is supposed to convince us of the dynamism of postwar Britain merely succeeds in demonstrating how hopelessly stuck in a largely imaginary past the nation was.

So what we have in effect are two movies in one. One movie is brilliantly imaginative and daring and quite superb; the other is dull and turgid and rather cringe-inducing.

On the plus side, like all Powell-Pressburger movies A Matter of Life and Death is visually sumptuous and magnificently inventive. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is superb and the technique of shooting the earth-bound scenes in Technicolor and the heavenly scenes in black-and-white works surprisingly well. One particularly good moment comes as Dr Reeves surveys the village with his camera obscura - it’s the sort of visual tour-de-force that Powell was so good at.

David Niven and Kim Hunter are very strong in the lead roles. The other performances are slightly odd and a bit mannered but given the unconventional nature of the film they work well enough. 

This movie was released in a two-movie DVD set paired with Powell’s much later (and very uneven) Australian movie Age of Consent. The transfers are excellent. A Matter of Life and Death comes with a brief but very astute introduction by Martin Scorcese (a huge Powell-Presburger fan) and an audio commentary.

A Matter of Life and Death has some huge flaws but on the whole the good outweighs the bad, and the good is very good indeed. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Portrait of Alison (1955)

Portrait of Alison (released in the US as Postmark for Danger) is a fine example of the mystery thrillers that were a staple of the British film industry in the 1950s.

Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty) is an artist. Not a hugely successful artist - he mostly makes his living doing commercial art. He’s content enough. At the beginning of the movie he’s completing a painting for an advertising agency. His model is Jill Stewart (Josephine Griffin) and there’s a suggestion of a minor romantic involvement that is unlikely to go anywhere, mainly because Jill is determined to marry serious money. She seems likely to achieve that objective in the person of the rich if slightly dull and slightly over-serious Henry Carmichael (Allan Cuthbertson).

Tim’s brother Dave (William Sylvester) arrives with bad news. Their brother Lewis has been killed in a car accident in Italy.

This is upsetting enough but worse is to come. The police seem very interested in the case, more interested than one might expect in what was after all just an accidental death. And then Tim receives a mysterious commission - to paint a portrait (from a photograph) of the girl who was killed in the accident with his brother. To help with the portrait her father lends Tim her favourite dress which he sets up on a dressmaker’s dummy. Things get really strange when the portrait is vandalised and the photograph and the dress are stolen. Worse still, Tim finds himself a murder suspect.

Clearly Lewis Forrester was mixed up in something dangerous in Italy and it appears to be connected with a postcard Lewis sent. The trouble is that no-one is sure what the postcard meant or where it is now.

The screenplay by Guy Green and Ken Hughes throws in plenty of twists and succeeds fairly well in keeping the audience guessing. Guy Green directed as well and with considerable panache. 

The strong cast is a major plus. Both Robert Beatty and William Sylvester are very solid and Terry Moore and Josephine Griffin are extremely good as the two women who complicate Tim Forrester’s life. The supporting cast includes such reliable stalwarts of British cinema as Geoffrey Keen (playing a policeman as he so often did) and Allan Cuthbertson. All the performances are nicely judged.

This is not film noir but it does have the occasional noirish visual moment and on the whole it’s a movie that film noir fans are likely to enjoy. The key role played by the portrait does suggest some affinity with the noir classic Laura.

There’s a bit more action than you generally get in British mysteries of this era with a couple of fairly good fight scenes. It was obviously not a big-budget effort but the production values are quite adequate - this movie never looks cheap or shoddy.

One interesting feature is that this is a very rare example of a thriller in which the protagonist mostly behaves quite sensibly, rather than making the series of dumb mistakes  that you expect movie heroes to make in order to drive the plot.

Network DVD have done an admirable job here. The widescreen anamorphic transfer is excellent.

Portrait of Alison might not be in the very top rank of British mystery thrillers but overall it’s a well-crafted movie that delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 4, 2015

reviews from my cult movie blog

The trouble with having two movie blogs, one for cult movies and one for classic movies, is that some movies don’t fit neatly into either category. Or rather they fit into both categories, so sometimes I’m not sure which blog is most appropriate for posting a review. So here are some links to recent reviews I’ve posted on my Cult Movie Reviews blog which might be of interest to readers of this blog.

First up is Black Magic (1949), a fun fantasy adventure potboiler based loosely on the career of the notorious Count Cagliostro. It stars Orson Welles as Cagliostro and it’s a must-see for fans of evil hypnotist movies.

Also possibly of interest is The War of the Worlds (1953), one of the great 1950s science fiction movies.

There’s also Juggernaut (1974), one of the best of the 1970s disaster movies although it’[s really more a stylish action/suspense thriller.

And lastly, Carnival of Souls (1962), one of the best horror movies ever made. This is subtle, moody, intelligent horror - definitely not a run-of-the-mil blood-and-gore exercise.

Friday, May 1, 2015

His Private Secretary (1933)

His Private Secretary is a 1933 romantic comedy starring John Wayne. Which is not such an outrageous idea - Wayne was always quite adept at light comedy. His Private Secretary is bright and breezy and reasonably entertaining.

Dick Wallace (John Wayne) is the son of a crusty millionaire businessman. Crusty is perhaps not quite an adequate term - Mr Wallace (Reginald Barlow) is a mean-spirited irritable cantankerous old curmudgeon. Mind you, he has plenty to be cantankerous about. Dick Wallace is lazy, pleasure-loving and an inveterate womaniser. Mr Wallace decides he’s had enough - he’ll give Dick one last chance to shape up. He puts him in charge of the debt collecting side of the business.

Dick’s first debt collecting assignment takes him to the tiny town of Somerville. Of course Dick manages to pick up a woman on the way, by persuading her that the bus to Somerville has broken down. Marion Hall (Evalyn Knapp) is not the kind of woman Dick is used to. She’s feisty but thoroughly respectable. In fact she’s the daughter of a clergyman, the Rev Hall (Alec B. Francis), and the kindly old clergyman is the man from whom Dick is supposed to collect the debt. Dick might be an irresponsible hedonist but he’s a arm-hearted guy underneath it and when he realises that the minister has spent the money helping people he gives him an unlimited extension on the loan. And promptly gets himself fired by his dad for not collecting.

Dick isn’t too worried by this since he’s fallen had over heels in love with Marion. He’s also decided to turn over a new leaf. Now he’s found the right girl he’s ready to get married and settle down. Persuading his father to accept his new bride is however going to prove quite a challenge. Marion has her own plan to win the old boy over - he gets herself a job as his private secretary.

His Private Secretary is fairly typical of pre-code comedies. It has a promising setup and it has an engaging charm but it’s rather light on gags. It’s an odd thing but Hollywood in the pe-code era never quite seemed to get the idea that comedy requires gags - lots of gags.

While it doesn’t provide too many laugh-out-loud moments it does at least manage to be gently amusing. Even with its very short running time (just 60 minutes) the pacing is a little on the slow side.

On the plus side John Wayne and Evalyn Knapp are likeable enough leads.

There are a few of the mildly risque (in his case very mildly risque) moments that pre-code fans tend to enjoy. On the other hand it’s also a movie that comes down firmly on the side of marriage, fidelity and taking responsibility. Dick is an irresponsible wastrel early on but he learns his lesson. Dick and Marion go through a few rough patches but they get through them because they realise they’re on the same side, and that that’s what marriage means. Fortunately the movie is really only interested in offering entertainment so don’t be worried that you’re going to be preached to.

Phil Whitman’s direction is workmanlike if uninspired (again fairly typical for pre-code comedies which were generally turned out rather cheaply). The script definitely needed more actual comedy but the plot is adequate enough for this type of film.

I picked this movie up as part of a two-movie public domain set. As one tends to accept with public domain releases image quality is fairly poor (although in this case quite watchable). Sound quality is more of a problem but at least the dialogue is understandable.

This movie doesn’t reach any great heights but it has a certain charm and it’s interesting to see John Wayne as a contemporary urban professional with not a horse or a six-gun in sight. His Private Secretary is harmless lightweight fluff. Worth a rental, and possibly worth a purchase if you find it in the bargain bin.