Monday, October 26, 2015

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of the hard-boiled private eye movie and it’s a spoof that actually works. Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Peter Lorre all contribute to the success of this thoroughly enjoyable picture.

Ronnie Jackson (Bob Hope) is a baby photographer awaiting execution in San Quentin. He tells his story in flashback with voiceover narration in approved private eye movie style.

Ronnie Jackson didn’t want to be a baby photographer. He wanted to be a hard-boiled private eye. His office is on the same floor as that of private eye Sam McCloud and Jackson is constantly trying to persuade McCloud to take him on as his partner. He tells McCloud that he could be a tough guy PI just like Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell. Or even Alan Ladd. The joke here being that Sam McCloud is played by Alan Ladd!

The closest Ronnie gets to his dream is answering Sam’s phone for him while he’s out of town working on a case. When a client turns up and assumes that Ronnie is Sam McCloud he sees his chance. He lets her think he really is the private eye and he takes on the case. The fact that Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) seems just like the kind of dame who would be in need of a private eye in a movie has quite a lot to do with Ronnie’s decision. 

Carlotta’s husband has disappeared. Or it may be her uncle. Her story keeps changing. Her story changes so much that Ronnie is inclined to believe that she’s crazy, and that’s what everyone seems to be trying to persuade him really is the case. But what if she’s not crazy? What if her story about a secret map, and a kidnapped uncle (or husband) and a nefarious plot to gain control of valuable mineral rights is true?

It’s all very exciting, just like in the movies. Except that when the sinister Kismet (Peter Lorre) keeps trying to kill him Ronnie’s excitement turns to abject fear. Being a tough guy isn’t so much fun when you’re likely to get hurt! But Ronnie is already in too deep, plus he’s fallen for Carlotta so he’s persuaded to press on with the case, even when both he and Carlotta find themselves locked up in a mental hospital.

The reason this movie works so well is that the screenwriters (Edmund Beloin and Jack Rose) and the director (Elliott Nugent) really do understand the private eye genre. The actors understand the genre as well. Even Bob Hope understands how to deliver hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a movie that respects the genre it is spoofing and that’s why the spoof works. 

Plus the gags really are funny.

Hope is a delight as the hapless Ronnie Jackson, desperately trying to pretend to be the tough guy that he isn’t. Dorothy Lamour has great fun vamping it up as Carlotta. Peter Lorre of course was equally adept at both comedic and sinister villainous henchmen roles and in this movie he gets to do both, with his usual effortless style. Lon Chaney Jr adds to the fun as the simple-minded sanitarium orderly Willie (clearly spoofing his own most famous role in Of Mice and Men). 

There are plenty of movie in-jokes and you won’t be surprised when Bing Crosby turns up in a brief but amusing cameo.

It all works because it has an actual plot (and a fairly serviceable one) and the plot is taken quite seriously. This makes Bob Hope’s performance all the funnier. This is not just a series of gags strung together. The humour comes from the fact that Ronnie Jackson is put in exactly the kinds of situations that the hero of a private eye movie would find himself in.

My Favorite Brunette has had numerous DVD releases. The Region 4 release from Passport offers a passably acceptable transfer but there are undoubtedly better versions available.

My Favorite Brunette is a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Golden Eye (1948)

The Golden Eye marked the fourth appearance of Roland Winters in the role of Charlie Chan. By 1948 when this film appeared the Chan series was clearly approaching the end of its run.

The early Charlie Chan movies had been made by 20th Century-Fox. When Fox lost interest in the series star Sidney Toler bought the rights himself hoping the films would be picked up by another studio. Unfortunately only Poverty Row studio Monogram was interested (or perhaps in some ways fortunately since it is unlikely any other studio would have continued the series for so long). When Toler died in 1947 Roland Winters took over for the last six films.

The Golden Eye sees Charlie Chan in an unusual setting - in Arizona surrounded by cowboys! 

Chan is investigating a series of attempts on the life of a man named Manning who owns the Golden Eye gold mine. The mine has produced very little gold for many years but  suddenly it seems to be producing gold in prodigious quantities. The latest attempt on Manning’s life has left him in a coma. Charlie Chan sets out for Arizona, accompanied by Number Two Son Tommy (which is a bit puzzling since Number Two Son was known as JImmy in earlier Chan movies) and Charlie’s faithful if somewhat cowardly chauffeur Birmingham.

San Francisco cop Lieutenant Mike Ruark is also interested in the Golden Eye mine although he’s approaching the case from a slightly different angle.

There’s really not much to the plot of this one and what there is would have seemed rather tired even back in 1948. It does however afford the opportunity to have Charlie and his assistants do a good deal of running about in mine shafts providing a certain amount of excitement.

Production values were obviously a lot lower on the Monogram Chan movies compared to the fairly slick Fox movies. That’s not a huge problem in this case. The old gold mine provides a decent setting for the action and suspense scenes. It’s the one moderately ambitious set they had and they made sure they got plenty of use out of it.

Director William “One-Shot” Beaudine was renowned for his ability to get low-budget movies made on time and on budget. What you expect from a Beaudine-directed movie is basic reasonably competent no frills film-making and that’s what you get here. Scott Darling’s screenplay is equally basic.

The big problem here is not the low budget, it’s the excessive level of comic relief. Do we really need three actors providing comic relief? Mantan Moreland as Birmingham is very much an acquired taste. It’s a taste that I personally have never really managed to acquire but you can’t fault his enthusiasm. With Moreland handling much of the film’s somewhat laboured comedy Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son actually gets to do a few useful and even moderately intelligent and heroic things.

The problem with Roland Winters as Chan is not his performance as such but the fact that he doesn’t look even remotely Chinese. Warner Oland (who always claimed to be part-Asian anyway) and Sidney Toler could just about get away with it but there’s no way anyone is going to be able to suspend their disbelief enough to buy Roland Winters as a Chinese. Apart from that he’s adequate enough but his Chan is less interesting than the interpretations of the role by Oland and Toler. 

At 69 minutes this movie feels like it could easily have been edited down to 59 minutes. There’s just not quite enough plot to go around.

Having said all this The Golden Eye is not a complete loss by any means. By Monogram standards it looks quite impressive. The scenes at Manning’s ranch give it a more expansive and less studiuo-bound feel than most Poverty Row B-features. It has quite a bit of action and even a surprising amount of gunplay. At times it has more of the feel of a western than a mystery but this makes it more interesting. Roland Winters might look very very caucasian indeed but he was the youngest actor to date to play Chan and he’s spry enough to participate in the action scenes.

If you’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie you would be far better off starting out with one of the excellent Fox Warner Oland movies (like Charlie Chan in Shanghai) or one of the early Fox Toler films (such as Charlie Chan in Reno). On the other hand if you’re a hardcore Charlie Chan aficionado then The Golden Eye is definitely worth a look.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mysterious Mr Moto (1938)

Mysterious Mr Moto was the fifth of the eight 20th Century-Fox Mr Moto films starring Peter Lorre as the great Japanese detective. The movies were inspired by the novels of John P. Marquand. Mysterious Mr Moto was released late in 1938.

When we first see Mr Moto he is escaping from the notorious French prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, accompanied by the smooth but sinister Paul Brissac (Leon Ames). Has Mr Moto turned to crime? Certainly not. He is working undercover for Interpol (referred to in the movie as the International Police) masquerading as a Japanese murderer. After their escape Brissac heads to London where he has important business to attend to. Moto manages to persuade him that what he will really need in London is a reliable Japanese houseboy who happens to be something of a genius at mixing cocktails.

Moto is on the trail of the infamous League of Assassins, a kind of international version of Murder Incorporated but with vague and unspecified political affiliations. The next target of the League of Assassins is to be Czech steel magnate Anton Darvak (Henry Wilcoxon). Darvak’s firm has invented a new process that is of extreme interest to various armaments manufacturers but Darvak is a pacifist who refuses to allow the process to be used for military purposes. The League intends to force his hands. Darvak has been threatened with death but being an idealistic pacifist he is unwilling to take such threats seriously.

Mr Moto obviously has to protect Darvak but it’s rather difficult to protect a man who stubbornly refuses to admit he needs protection. Moto also has to uncover the man behind the League of Assassins and smash their organisation. He can rely on one trusted associate, the beautiful Eurasian Lotus Long who is also an undercover International Police agent. It is a race against time - Darvak is scheduled to be assassinated at 3 pm on the following day.

In the books Moto is a Japanese master spy. In the films he is essentially a police detective although clearly he specialises in cases that involve international intrigue and counter-espionage. The Mr Moto of the films is also more of an action hero, being a formidable judo expert (something that is mentioned in passing in the novels). In the books it is clear that Moto comes from a noble (and presumably samurai) family. This is given less emphasis in the movies although there are hints of it. In both the books and the movies Moto is obviously a highly educated man.

One of the amusing things about this movie is the way Mr Moto usually appears to be a mild-mannered harmless little man who speaks excruciating broken English but every now and then (such as the times when he consults with Sir Charles Murchison at Scotland Yard) he lets the mask slip and we see the real Moto - a very shrewd and dangerous man who speaks excellent English. Appearing to be a rather foolish and insignificant little doormat is an essential part of Moto’s method.

The Moto series gave Peter Lorre a rare chance not just to play a hero but to play a genuine action hero. He clearly relished this opportunity and he does a marvellous job. Lorre’s slight build and air of physical lassitude combine to make the action sequences a kind of in-joke - by now the viewers who have watched the four previous films know that anyone who dismisses Moto as a joke is likely to have an unpleasant surprise when he calmly and methodically takes them apart with his judo. Lorre plays Moto as a quiet gentle but very intelligent man who is capable of killing very efficiently should the need arise.

Unlike the other celebrated B-movie series with an Asian hero, Charlie Chan, the Mr Moto movies belong more to the thriller genre. Moto is closer to being a secret agent than a mere detective. Most of the movies deal at least indirectly with international affairs and conspiracies. Moto is more of a precursor to the heroes of later spy adventure movies (and like James Bond he has a taste for elegant and sophisticated living).

Norman Foster directed and co-wrote most of Mr Moto films as well as directing several of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies. He had the ability to bring movies in on time and on budget which is course the prime requirement for a director of B-movies but Foster always added a bit of extra style and panache. His shot compositions are always very sound. His B-pictures were definitely a cut above the routine standard of such productions. Mysterious Mr Moto is also pleasingly fast-paced.

Mysterious Mr Moto is included in the first of the two Mr Moto boxed sets. Fox have done their usual fine job with the film getting a lovely transfer. The one significant extra is a rather interesting brief documentary on the intriguing career of director Norman Foster from Mr Moto to Disney via Mexico and Orson Welles.

I should add in passing that Marquand’s Mr Moto novels such as Your Turn, Mr Moto are not only very much worth reading but also provide an interesting contrast with Mr Moto being a rather different character compared to his film incarnations.

Mysterious Mr Moto is splendid entertainment. Moto himself is a fascinating blend of the cerebral master detective and the secret agent action hero. Lorre is as compulsively watchable as always. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Dick Barton at Bay (1950)

Dick Barton at Bay was the second of the three Dick Barton spy thrillers made by Hammer in the late 40s (although it ended up being the last of the three to be released). It’s not great but it’s certainly a huge improvement on the astoundingly awful Dick Barton, Special Agent.

The Dick Barton character had featured in an extremely popular radio series and Hammer assumed that a series of low-budget Dick Barton movies would be guaranteed money-spinners. Their assumption turned out to be entirely correct. The movie series was tragically cut short when star Don Stannard was killed in a car accident following the completion of the third film.

These movies were “quota quickies” - very cheap films made to take advantage of British government policies to protect the British film industry. Quota quickies are often despised, sometimes for good reason, but they provided much-needed work for British actors and crews and some were quite decent pictures.

Dick Barton at Bay pits its hero against perfidious master-spy Serge Volkoff (Meinhart Maur) who has kidnapped a leading British scientist, Professor Mitchell. To judge by the movies of the time being a leading British scientist was a dangerous occupation. What Volkoff really wants is a death ray that Mitchell has invented, a ray that can knock aircraft out of the sky at will. The British know the invention works because the professor has demonstrated its ability to disintegrate a small model aeroplane at a range of several feet - clearly a most formidable weapon! If a certain unnamed foreign power gets its hands on the death ray the consequences could be unthinkable.

In order to persuade Professor Mitchell to co-operate Volkoff has also kidnapped his daughter (taking advantage of the well-known fact that scientists always have beautiful daughters). Volkoff does face one major hurdle though - he knows that the British intelligence services have assigned their top man to the case. Their top man is of course the famous Dick Barton, although you might well wonder how a secret agent comes to be a celebrity.

There is only one option open to Volkoff - Dick Barton must die! Luckily Volkoff has the ideal man for the job - the sinister assassin Chang (Yoshihide Yanai). Volkoff’s other main henchman is the taciturn Fingers (Paddy Ryan). Fingers has one finger missing, a bit of a problem for a spy since it makes him distressingly easy to identify!

Don Stannard is not the most dynamic of actors but he conforms to the early 1950s idea of what a daring British secret agent would look like. Barton is assisted, as usual, by the faithful Snowey White (George Ford). In the first film in the series Barton’s pals were there mainly to provide excruciatingly unfunny comic relief. Fortunately the second film largely dispenses with the comic relief. Meinhart Maur makes Volkoff suitably fiendish and menacing. Some of the supporting players are alas rather wooden, although Tamara Desni gets into the spirit of things as the obligatory glamorous but dangerous female spy. Look out for a young Patrick Macnee in a bit part. 

Godfrey Grayson was a prolific director for Hammer at this period when the company specialised in cheap crime thrillers. He handles matters competently enough. Despite the very tight budget the film does have a certain amount of atmosphere. The pacing is quite satisfactory (pacing being an absolutely essential ingredient for low-budget thrillers). The sets are very basic indeed and the secret weapon that foreign powers are prepared to kill for looks slightly less sophisticated than the average radio set. The professor’s laboratory must surely be one of the cheapest and shabbiest ever seen on film.

The special effects budget must have been miniscule indeed but while they’re definitely on the shoddy side of shoddy they don’t detract from the enjoyment too much. Rather wisely Grayson elected to keep them to an absolute minimum. The music is often wildly (if amusingly) inappropriate.

All three movies are included in Icon Home Entertainment’s Dick Barton boxed set, which actually comprises a single disc. The transfer is acceptable but image quality is very grainy and a bit muddy. Sound quality is OK but not great. Dick Barton at Bay is sadly in much poorer shape than the other two films.

Dick Barton at Bay is a moderately entertaining very low-budget thriller but it’s light years ahead of the first Dick Barton film. Dick Barton, Special Agent had been played mostly (and with a resounding lack of success) for laughs. Dick Barton at Bay tries to be a relatively serious spy adventure but with a definite Boys’ Own Paper feel to it. It’s enjoyable as long as you don’t go into it with unrealistically high expectations. Worth a look.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Calling Paul Temple (1948)

Paul Temple first appeared in a BBC radio series written by Francis Durbridge in 1938. More radio series followed, as well as novels, a comic strip and in 1969 a successful BBC TV series. There were also four Paul Temple movies in the late 1940s, the second of these being Calling Paul Temple which appeared in 1948.

Anthony Hulme played Temple in the first movie, with John Bentley taking over the part for the last three films. Calling Paul Temple saw the first of two appearances by Dinah Sheridan as Temple’s wife Steve.

Paul Temple is a popular crime novelist but he finds time to solve real crimes as well, ably assisted by Steve.

This movie hits the ground running with a murder on a train. It’s the third murder committed by the mysterious Rex who always leaves a calling card of some sort at the crime scene. Sir Graham Forbes, Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, is happy to have Temple’s help which he’s found in the past to be invaluable. 

He’s going to need all the help he can get - by the time we’re ten minutes into the film there’s been yet another murder.

There are plenty of clues and plenty of red herrings. And plenty of suspects. There’s Mr Davies of the Quick Boil Kettle Company, who happened to be in the next compartment of the train where one murder took place and who seems to keep popping up. There’s Dr Kohima (Abraham Sofaer), the eminent Egyptian psychiatrist who was treating several of the murder victims. There’s his secretary Mrs Trevellyan who seems to know more than she should. There’s Edward Lathom (Alan Wheatley), an old acquaintance of Temple’s who has something to hide. And there’s the missing witness, the enigmatic Lady in Grey. That’s not to mention several other characters who are not who they seem to be.

The plot is nicely convoluted but more importantly the pacing is extremely brisk. It’s all breathless excitement! There seems to be another murder always about to happen, and it usually does.

Director Maclean Rogers spent his career making low budget movies but while he’s not overly inspired he’s undoubtedly efficient. Surprisingly there’s quite a bit of actual location shooting with some very good use of creepy gothic friaries in Canterbury. Butcher’s Film Service specialised in low budget movies and potboilers like the Paul Temple movies were just the sort of thing the company was looking for.

John Bentley is breezily likeable as Paul Temple. Personally I think Francis Matthews, who played the role in the much latter BBC TV series, was a better Paul Temple but Bentley is fine. Dinah Sheridan gives a lively and engaging performance as Steve Temple. The supporting cast is perfectly adequate, with Abraham Sofaer being particularly good.

The world of Paul Temple is a glamorous world of night spots, expensive restaurants and fine clothes. Not that easy to achieve on a small budget but this film does it fairly well. In the Britain of 1948, with rationing still in force, glamour would certainly have been welcome to film audiences.

This is a murder mystery but in tone it’s closer to the thriller genre, with quite a few fight scenes and some narrow escapes from certain death. In fact it perhaps has more in common with the American style of B-thriller than with the classic English mystery.

 This movie was based on Francis Durbridge’s radio serial Paul Temple and the Canterbury Case.

Renown Pictures have issued all four Paul Temple movies in a four-disc DVD boxed set. They claim that the movies have been digitally restored. Given that they’re a budget label I was sceptical but the transfer of Calling Paul Temple is reasonably impressive.

If you’re a fan of the B-movies of this era then Calling Paul Temple should not disappoint. It also involves hypnotism, always a bonus in a B-movie. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.