Wednesday, September 30, 2015

No Trace (1950)

John Gilling was a talented British writer-director who had a fairly successful career in the 50s and 60s before giving up movies to concentrate on painting. No Trace is one of his early efforts and it’s a reasonably entertaining crime thriller.

This is more of an inverted detective story than a murder mystery. We know the criminal’s identity almost from the start so the emphasis is on suspense rather than mystery.

Robert Southley (Hugh Sinclair) is a successful crime novelist. He has always been rather dismissive of the crime-solving abilities of the police while his friend Inspector MacDougall (John Laurie) has been equally scornful of the efforts of amateurs like crime writers who think they could a better job than a trained professional. MacDougall has often challenged Southley to accompany him on an investigation so he can se how a real detective gets the job done. Now they are about to have an unexpected opportunity to match wits.

It should be explained that No Trace is not just the title of the movie but also the title of one of Southley’s own crime thrillers. In this film real life events will run in parallel to the plot of Southley’s current book.

Southley’s secretary Linda will also have a chance to try her hand at being a detective, and will discover that it can be a dangerous pastime.

One of the reasons Southley has been so successful as a crime writer is that he knows crime from the inside, having been a member of a notorious criminal gang in the United States when he was younger. Now that he’s a successful and respected British novelist he’s not anxious for anyone to know about his past misdeeds. This leaves him open to blackmail should any of his past accomplices suddenly show up, which is of course exactly what happens. Southley has no intention of allowing a blackmailer to disrupt his very comfortable existence and his very successful new career.

Hugh Sinclair is quite solid as Southley. He’s convincing as the respectable novelist but the ruthlessness of the tough guy Southley had once been been is clearly still there under the surface. Dinah Sheridan is unfortunately rather bland as his secretary Linda. Barry Morse is very good as Linda’s boyfriend Detective-Sergeant John Harrison, and the tension between Southley and Harrison is quite effective.

The real acting highlight though is John Laurie’s performance as Inspector MacDougall. Laurie is best remembered as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army but he had been a fine and very prolific character actor. No Trace gives him a rare and welcome chance to play a substantial rôle and he makes the most of it.

It would be an exaggeration to describe this movie as true film noir but it does have its darker moments and the theme of a man unable to escape his past does at least give it an affinity with noir, and there are occasional visual touches that are perhaps slightly noir.

Writer-director John Gilling’s career was rather varied but most of his movies are worth a look. He made several fine movies for Hammer including the excellent gothic horror chiller The Reptile. He was also responsible for The Challenge, a rather good British film noir staring Jayne Mansfield of all people. No Trace doesn’t give him a huge amount of scope for doing anything fancy but he does a very competent job and he does throw in a few rather nice touches.

The movie was produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman who later went on to become very important producers in the golden age of British television.

The Region 2 DVD from Simply Media is a little disappointing. Image quality is acceptable if decidedly less than stunning but sound quality is definitely a bit of a problem. It’s crackly and you’ll need to turn the volume up quite a bit to avoid missing the dialogue. Of course it’s highly probable that the problem originates in the state of the source print and Simply Media may well have done the best they could (and they’re to be commended for making interesting obscurities like this one available at all). It’s quite watchable though and the slight sound problems don’t really detract from enjoyment of the film.

No Trace is a decent low-budget crime thriller that never reaches any great heights but it’s enjoyable enough. Recommended, although given the slightly iffy quality of the DVD and the fact that it’s just a little pricey it might be a better prospect for a rental than a purchase.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rhythm on the Range (1936)

Bing Crosby musicals have become a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. Rhythm on the Range, a 1936 Paramount release, is a very lightweight effort but then all Bing Crosby musicals are pretty lightweight. That’s OK by me.

Singing cowboy movies were remarkable popular in the 30s so it seems that someone at Paramount had the bright idea of casting Bing Crosby as a singing cowboy. He plays Jeff Larabee who, along with his buddy Buck (Bob Burns), works at Penelope Ryland’s Frying Pan Ranch in Arizona. At the moment though they’re in New York for a big rodeo at Madison Square Gardens. Jeff and Larabee are hoping to win enough money to buy Cuddles. Cuddles is a bull. A very fine bull. They want the bull because they have a small ranch of their own.

Doris Halloway (Frances Farmer) is a rich girl engaged to a dull but very rich Wall Street banker. After hearing Penelope Ryland (who is I think supposed to be some kind of relation, possibly an aunt) waxing lyrical about the virtues of pioneer women in the West Doris decides that instead of marrying a dull rich man she doesn’t love she should head west to become a pioneer woman. So she hitches a ride on a freight train headed for Arizona. And she ends up sharing a boxcar with Jeff Larabee and Cuddles.

The train ride becomes something of a disaster and Doris, Jeff and Cuddles are stranded in the middle of nowhere where they have the sort of adventures that always befall people in lightweight musical romantic comedies. Their biggest problem is a gang of very disreputable hoboes who have heard that Doris’s father has posted a reward for his missing daughter and they’re determined to snare the reward money, by fair means of foul.

Meanwhile Buck is having an adventure of his own, having hooked up with the eccentric Emma (Martha Raye) on the train. Along the way Buck also invents a musical instrument which he calls a bazooka, which later gave its name to the US Army's famous WW2 anti-tank weapon.

Of course we know that Jeff and Doris are going to fall in love since this is after all a musical.

As you would expect the songs have a definite country and western flavour and Crosby handles them with his usual effortless aplomb. The songs are actually not too bad, and let’s face it Crosby could make any song sound good.

On the acting side Crosby deploys his customary easygoing charm, and he manages to do the singing cowboy stuff while still projecting his usual ultra-cool persona.

Frances Farmer is better remembered today for her troubled and tragic personal life than for her rather abbreviated film career. She makes a reasonably engaging if slightly bland heroine. Bob Burns is there for comic relief which he provides quite effectively. Personally I find that a little bit of Martha Raye goes a very long way indeed and in this instance she becomes positively irritating.

Cuddles is a remarkably good-natured bull and steals quite a few scenes. He’s certainly funnier than Martha Raye.

I imagine that one of the attractions of this movie from Paramount’s point of view is that it was a musical that did not require elaborate sets or costumes (in fact that had always been one of the attractions of the western genre - westerns were cheap to make). The rodeo scenes are quite well done though.

Director Norman Taurog had a very long career, being efficient and thoroughly reliable. This is really not a movie that makes exacting demands on either the cast or the crew but it’s a typically well-made mid-range Hollywood production.

Universal presented this movie and another Crosby musical, Rhythm on the River, on a single-disc two-movie budget DVD release. The transfer is quite satisfactory.

Rhythm on the Range has decent songs, it has romance, it has a fairly generous leavening of gentle comedy and overall it’s just thoroughly pleasant and undemanding entertainment (although it would have been better still without Martha Raye). It’s not Bing Crosby’s best musical and it’s not as good as Waikiki Wedding or Double or Nothing but if you like Crosby you should like this picture. Recommended.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940)

Forty Thousand Horsemen is perhaps the most famous of all Australian movies. Released in 1940 it’s an epic war movie dealing with the exploits of the Australian Light Horse brigades in Palestine and Mesopotamia in the First World War. A major box-office hit at the time it’s still screened regularly on television in Australia.

The fact that it came out in 1940 might suggest that this is going to be a propaganda movie. And that’s exactly what it is. It was made quite unapologetically to whip up enthusiasm for yet another war taking place thousands of miles from Australia. It was also quite obviously intended to stir up anti-German feeling. 

The subject matter made that a bit tricky. After all the Light Horse fought the Ottoman Turks, not the Germans. And Australian troops who fought in the First World War came back home with a considerable respect for the Turks as gallant, skillful and honourable adversaries. There was no way Australian audiences in 1940 were going to buy the idea of the Turks as villains. The obvious solution was to emphasise, and perhaps exaggerate, the role of the Ottoman Empire’s German military advisers. That way the Germans could be depicted as the villains, and the Turks as more-or-less innocent dupes of the evil machinations of the German war machine. That’s the solution that the film does adopt and it has to be said that it goes a bit overboard with it. It’s difficult to think of too many movies that are quite so extreme in their anti-German sentiments.

The movie follows a handful of young Australian soldiers facing the unforgiving realities of war in the desert. The climax of the movie is the spectacularly successful charge of the Light Horse at the Battle of Beersheba in 1917, one of the last successful cavalry charges in history.

Of course there has to be a romantic sub-plot. In this case it deals with a French girl, Juliet Rouget (Betty Bryant), who works as a spy for the British. She disguises herself (remarkably unconvincingly) as an Arab boy. Naturally she falls in love with a dashing young Australian, Red Gallagher (Grant Taylor).

There’s also some comic relief, largely provided  by Chips Rafferty in a role that made him Australia’s most iconic actor.

Director Charles Chauvel knows however that it‘s the action sequences that really count and there are plenty of them. This is not one of those war movies that takes three-quarters of the movie to get to the action scenes. Despite the limited resources available to him Chauvel handle the battle scenes with tremendous energy, immediacy and vitality. He also manages quite effectively to convey the impression of large scale battles. The climactic charge at the Battle of Beersheba is generally regarded, quite justly, as one of the great cinematic cavalry charges.

Forty Thousand Horsemen is a bit rough around the edges at times but if anything this is an asset, contributing to the feel of the chaos and mayhem of war.

The acting is variable but on the whole not too bad. Grant Taylor is solid as the hero while Chips Rafferty and Pat Twohill provide solid support as his loyal pals. Betty Bryant is adequate as the female lead. Harvey Adams is suitably dastardly as the sinister German von Hausen.

The movie was shot entirely in Australia but it’s fairly successful in evoking the Middle Eastern setting.

While the Germans are uniformly depicted as monsters the movie’s portrayal of both Turks and Arabs is remarkably sympathetic and even respectful.

Umbrella’s DVD release is a little disappointing. The film is in reasonable condition but clearly it’s in need of a proper restoration. Given that this is an historical epic Forty Thousand Horsemen really needs a better presentation, ideally on Blu-Ray, to do justice to Chauvel’s fine action scenes. The DVD does however include a long and interesting documentary on the fuln-making career of Charles Chauvel.

It’s difficult for an Australian like myself to be evenhanded about this movie or its subject matter. Expecting an Australian to be unemotional about the exploits of the Light Horse would be like expecting an Englishman to be unemotional about the Battle of Britain, and the movie itself has become an integral part of Australian historical mythology. I still think it’s a fine stirring war movie and the propaganda elements are no more extreme than those to be found in just about every American or British war movie made during the Second World War. 

Forty Thousand Horsemen still stands up pretty well. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is a big spectacular adventure comedy about an air race and it succeeds admirably as both spectacle and comedy. It was a major box office hit for 20th Century-Fox, coming at a time when they desperately needed some box-office successes to offset their huge losses on Cleopatra.

It was an entirely British production and considering its epic scale and the astounding technical challenges it presented the budget was by no means outrageously high. It cost only half as much to make as the similarly-themed and exactly contemporary The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines made a good deal more money.

It success had a good deal to do with the boldness of the idea - rather than a car race movie this would be an air race movie, set in 1910. The problem of course is where do you find 1910-vintage aeroplanes in 1965? The obvious solution would have been to use miniatures but writer-director Ken Annakin was adamant that he was not going to do that. He wanted actual aircraft. That meant they would have to be built for the film. And they were. The aircraft were accurate replicas of real 1910-era aircraft (and several of the replica aircraft are still flying today). 

The basic idea provided the bare bones of the plot which were fleshed out with a romantic-triangle sub-plot, rivalries between the competing aviators and some dastardly dirty tricks by a villainous competitor.

Richard Mays (James Fox) is a Guards officer and keen aviation enthusiast who has built an aeroplane with some help from his girlfriend Patricia (Sarah Miles). They manage to persuade her father, the fabulously wealthy newspaper proprietor Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), to organise and finance an air race from London to Paris, with a very generous prize for the winner. The race attracts competitors from all over the globe.

Among those attracted by the prize money is Arizona cowboy and flyer Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman). Newton will soon become a rival for the affections of Patricia, thus setting up the obligatory romantic triangle. 

National rivalries soon erupt, particularly between the French entrant Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and the German military aviation contingent led by Colonel Manfred Von Holstein (Gert Fröbe). This culminates in an outlandish duel with the weapons being balloons and blunderbusses.

Despite these tensions the pilots are all brave and honourable men. Well, almost all. Sir Percy Ware-Armitage is not especially brave and he is not in the least honourable. In fact he is an unmitigated bounder and cad and he intends to cheat and to cheat outrageously, even stooping to sabotaging his rivals’ machines. Or at least he gets his manservant Courtney (Eric Sykes) to sabotage them - Ware-Armitage doesn’t care to take the risks involved himself.

The plot doesn’t have a great deal to it but that matters not at all. There are plenty of gags including a good deal of slapstick. I’ve never been a fan of slapstick but the slapstick in this movie is based on clever stunts involving aircraft, cars, motorcycles and fire engines rather than pratfalls and pie fights and I must admit I found it to be rather funny. The romantic triangle works quite well. The period detail is superb - the costumes are gorgeous, the sets are impressive, the aircraft look terrific, there’s some luscious photography and most importantly the aerial sequences are absolutely superb.

Those aerial sequences were achieved with a great deal of real flying skillfully mixed with remarkably well-executed process shots and with scenes shot using some extraordinarily elaborate machines designed by special effects wizard Dick Parker that allowed the real aircraft to be suspended from wires. The flying scenes looked mightily impressive in 1965, and they look mightily impressive today.

The cast is another major bonus. The various characters are all national stereotypes but the stereotyping is done in a fun and rather affectionate manner without any malice. Even the ridiculously pompous Colonel Manfred Von Holstein is a brave man trying to do his duty. James Fox plays his character as an English upper-class stuffed shirt but there’s a basic generosity of spirit underneath that stuffed shirt. When he has to do the right thing he not only does so unhesitatingly, he does so cheerfully. Jean-Pierre Cassel as the Frenchman Dubois has a passion for the ladies and Alberto Sordi as the Italian Count Emilio Ponticelli is passionate and volatile but they are good-natured and they are daring and courageous airmen. Yûjirô Ishihara as the Japanese entrant Yamamato speaks more like an educated Englishman than any educated Englishman. Some of the leading players (such as Jean-Pierre Cassel and Sarah Miles) had virtually no experience in comedy but they handled the challenge with enthusiasm and success.

There are fine performances in minor roles by some superb English comics - there’s Tony Hancock as a mad aircraft designer, Will Rushton as Lord Rawnsley’s chief flunkey and Benny Hill as a fire chief.

Of course Terry-Thomas steals the picture. He always did. The interplay between his character and that played by Eric Sykes is a major highlight. Having said that, there’s not a single bad performance. Gert Fröbe is superb and gets the single best line in the movie.

20th Century-Fox chief Daryll F. Zanuck imposed numerous changes on the picture. Ken Annakin resented this at the time but later admitted that Zanuck’s instincts were correct and that the changes were beneficial. Annakin had seen the movie as a straight mixture of comedy and spectacular flying sequences. Zanuck wanted to broaden the film’s appeal by beefing up the romance angle. He wanted it to appeal to everybody and the end result was a movie that really did please just about everybody.

This movie involved so much technical complexity that inevitably it started to run over budget, to the point where the front office ordered the production shut down. Director Ken Annakin simply ignored them and went on shooting and completed the picture. Fortunately once the studio execs saw the final result they realised they had a winner on their hands and all was forgiven.

The Region 4 DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer and comes with some very worthwhile extras. These include a director’s commentary track and an image gallery that not only features photographs of the replica aircraft, historical photos and technical drawings of the aircraft of the era, but also photos of Dick Parker’s remarkable flying rig (incorporating huge cranes with wires slung between them carrying a trolley that supported the aircraft for simulated flying shots).

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is simply magnificent entertainment. It’s a family movie that really should please every member of the family. It’s also one of the most visually impressive flying movies ever made. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

When we think of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies we’re usually thinking of the twelve films the pair made for Universal in the 40s. Before this however they made two Sherlock Holmes films for 20th Century-Fox. These differed from the Universal films in being set in the 1890s. The second of the 20th Century-Fox movies was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which was released in 1939.

The movie opens with Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) in the dock, accused of murder. Moriarty’s criminal career is however far from over. Sherlock Holmes arrives to late with the evidence which would convict him - Moriarty is acquitted and is now a free man again - free to continue his nefarious plottings. And Moriarty’s latest plot is his most ambitious yet, but first he sets in motion a subsidiary plot to throw Holmes off the scent.

Holmes of course knows nothing of the Professor’s plans although he certainly expects further trouble from that quarter. At the moment his priority is the case submitted to him by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino). Miss Brandon is convinced that her brother is going to be murdered, just as her father was murdered years earlier in South America. The behaviour of her fiancé Jerrold Hunter is also troubling her. He dismisses the threats against her brother as a mere prank but Holmes thinks otherwise. He is sure the matter is both urgent and terribly serious, so serious that he has little time to devote to another case - he has been asked to help protect a priceless emerald that has been added to the Crown Jewels.

Rathbone has already settled comfortably into his role in this film. This is a Holmes possessed of steely determination but with a certain gruff kindliness. He makes some rather unkind remarks about Dr Watson’s competence, at one point describing him as an inveterate bungler, but it’s always with a twinkle in his eye and he always makes sure that Watson does not take his chaffing too seriously.

Nigel Bruce’s performances as Watson have always excited a certain amount of controversy with fans about equally divided between those who find his Watson to be too much of a bumbling fool played purely for laughs and those who enjoy Bruce’s undoubted comic skills and his good-natured likeability. Personally I think he pushes things a little too far in some of the films but the odd chemistry between the two leads mostly works rather well. Bruce is nothing like the Dr Watson of Conan Doyle’s stories but while turning Watson into a comic relief character annoys many people he is at least genuinely amusing and the banter between Holmes and Watson is delightful.

George Zucco is a suitably sinister but very smooth and cultured Moriarty. Zucco goes for subtle menace in his performance, to very good effect. He’s clearly dangerous and perverse but he’s also a very controlled character which makes him a convincingly formidable adversary. Ida Lupino, not yet a star, is a charming and appealing heroine.

It’s fun to see Rathbone and Bruce in period costume and the movie throws in all the elements one associates with the 1890s London of Sherlock Holmes - cobblestones, hansom cabs and of course fogs. Plenty of fogs. On the whole it’s a visually impressive movie with fairly high production values.

Alfred L. Werker’s career as a director wasn’t particularly distinguished although he did make a couple of very fine film noir offerings. Werker does a very solid job indeed with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

While it’s now very highly regarded this film did not please everyone at the time and it incurred the displeasure of the Conan Doyle Estate which led to Fox abandoning plans to continue the series.

The screenplay by William Absalom Drake and Edwin Blum was supposedly based on William Gillette’s 1899 play rather than directly on any of Conan Doyle’s stories but in fact the film ended up bearing no resemblance to the play. The final screenplay explained a number of puzzling plot points in further detail (such as Moriarty’s extraordinary means of providing himself with an alibi for the murder for which he stands trial at the beginning of the film). These explanations required a certain amount of expository dialogue so the decision to cut them was on balance quite sensible.

The DVD transfer in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection boxed set is pretty good. There are a few very fine speckles but the image is clear and sharp with good contrast. And there are plenty of extras including an excellent audio commentary.

This movie is so good that one can’t help regretting that the Fox series was cut short. It would have been wonderful to see more of Rathbone as Holmes in authentic late Victorian settings (although of course the Universal movies which followed have their own distinctive charm). The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, released by 20th Century-Fox in 1939, was the third of the Charlie Chan movies starring Sidney Toler who took over the rôle after the death of Warner Oland. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is usually regarded as being one of the very best of the Chan movies, an opinion I share.

The movie opens on board the famous China Clipper flying boat and any movie that features flying boats has won me over right away. Charlie Chan and Number Two Son Jimmy Chan are flying from Honolulu to San Francisco. Also on board is Charlie’s old friend Paul Essex, a well-known mystery writer. Essex is destined never to reach San Francisco alive.

Essex’s death is initially attributed to heart failure but Charlie’s suspicions are aroused by a mysterious cablegram Essex received shortly before his death. Charlie is sufficiently concerned to put pressure on another old friend, Deputy Police Chief J.J. Kilvaine, to request an autopsy. The autopsy does not prove murder but it certainly points to murder as a possibility.

The cablegram made enigmatic references to the Zodiac. In San Francisco Charlie makes the acquaintance of successful stage magician the Great Rhadini (Cesar Romero) who is an enthusiastic debunker of phony psychics. As it happens Rhadini is particularly keen to expose a psychic known as Dr Zodiac. It seems to Charlie that the Zodiac connection might well be very significant indeed. Dr Zodiac has a large number of clients and this number includes Eve Cairo (Pauline Moore), a mind reader protege of Rhadini’s.

Charlie is sure that Paul Essex’s death was linked to a gigantic criminal operation involving fake psychics and blackmail but getting the evidence to prove his theory won’t be so easy.

This movie benefits from a good supporting cast with the standout performer being Cesar Romero as the extravagant and charming Rhadini. 

In my view Sidney Toler was a very worthy successor to Warner Oland and as much as I love Oland’s performances as Charlie Chan I think I slightly prefer Toler who gives Chan a bit more of an edge. Victor Sen Yung not only manages not to be irritating as Jimmy Chan, he’s actually likeable and reasonably amusing without pushing the comic elements too far. He is basically a comic relief character but he’s not allowed to overwhelm the film. In fact in general the comedy elements here are rather downplayed by the standards of Hollywood B-movies of this era, and to me that seems to be a very good thing indeed. What’s even more pleasing is that the comic relief moments that are there are actually funny.

One of the greatest things about the old studio system was that it allowed the studios to make B-pictures on modest budgets but with very high production values. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is a fine example. It never looks cheap or shoddy. The importance of stage illusions and psychic phenomena require some fairly ambitious (by B-picture standards) visual set-pieces and they don’t disappoint.

Norman Foster directed many of the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan movies for Fox and always did a fine job. He does particularly well here. The theatre scenes involving stage magic are very skillfully executed. Foster is a very underrated director who added a definite sense of style and atmosphere to his B-pictures. 

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is one of four films in the Fox’s Charlie Chan Volume 4 boxed set. The transfer is excellent and there are a host of extras. Not many B-pictures are treated with this much respect when it comes to DVD releases and Fox are to be commended for giving this movie the luxury treatment.

I can’t really find any significant flaw in this movie. It has a decent mystery plot set against an interesting background (the 1939 World Exposition on San Francisco's Treasure Island) and fine acting, it’s well-crafted and looks good and it’s fun. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island really is terrific entertainment. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Hannibal (1959)

I've posted a review of Edgar G. Ulmer's fascinating biopic Hannibal (1959) over at my Cult Movie Reviews blog. It's a movie that is well worth a watch if you're an Ulmer fan or you enjoy historical epics, sword and sandal movies and the movies of Victor Mature.

Here's the link to my review.