Thursday, December 29, 2016

Headline (1943)

Headline is a 1943 British crime film set against the backdrop of a big city news room. 

David Farrar is “Brookie” Brooks, ace crime reporter for The Sun. He’s under pressure from his news editor, the hardbitten L.B. Ellington (John Stuart), since Dell (a rather young-looking William Hartnell) of The Daily Record seems to keep beating him to scoops. Now a juicy murder story seems to offer Brookie the chance to steal a march on his rival but Brookie uncovers a piece of evidence that puts him in a difficult dilemma.

We know who the murderer is right from the start, and right from the start we also know that the Mystery Woman spotted at the scene of the crime is Ellington’s wife Margaret (Antoinette Cellier) so this is a suspense film rather than a mystery film.

The audience knows what is going on but most of the major characters don’t. For Brookie it’s just another story and at first it seems like Dell is going to come out on top yet again but Dell makes a fatal error. Arthur Jones (Richard Goolden) is a scatter-brained eccentric who likes to play at being an amateur sleuth. Every time a murder is committed he has a theory that will solve the case, but of course none of his theories actually work. Dell decides to play a bit of a joke on his rival by suggesting that Jones take his latest theory to Brookie at The Sun. This is a mistake because this time Jones really does have the solution.

While Brookie and Dell are frantically trying to out-scoop each other they’re not neglecting their love lives. Brookie’s girlfriend is Sun newspaperwoman Anne (Anne Crawford) but their romance faces one major obstacle - Brookie is already married, to his job, and he thinks it would be unfair to ask any woman to marry a reporter.

The romance angle and the rivalry between Brookie and Dell are treated in a breezy light-hearted manner and both these elements provide a certain amount of comic relief (comic relief being something William Hartnell was often called on to provide in his early film career).

There is however a more serious side to this movie and the suspense story is pretty effective with a nice twist at the end. There’s also a surprisingly serious and subtle treatment of newspaper ethics and it takes a slightly jaundiced view of the newspaper game.

David Farrar does the brash pushy reporter thing well and still manages to be a reasonably sympathetic character. William Hartnell (best remembered of course as the first Doctor Who) is delightfully unscrupulous and doesn’t overdo the comedic moments. Anne Crawford is charming and likeable. Antoinette Cellier is quite good also - Margaret Ellington is not exactly a femme fatale but there are perhaps hints of the femme fatale to her character. And she has the right touch of glamour.

John Harlow’s career as a director was far from glittering but he does a solid enough job here and there are one or two fairly atmospheric moments.

The script is very competent and the balance of humour, romance and suspense is just about right.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is typical of this company’s releases - there’s virtually nothing in the way of extras but the transfer is good and the price is reasonable.

Headline is basically a B-movie and it’s really rather lightweight but the well-executed and suspenseful ending makes it worthwhile and as a bonus the climactic action scene takes place on a train. You just can’t go wrong with train thrillers. On the whole this is an entertaining little movie, especially if you enjoy newspaper crime thrillers. Highly recommended. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Western Union (1941)

Western Union, made at 20th Century-Fox in 1941, was Fritz Lang’s second western. Lang, rather surprisingly, actually liked westerns a good deal. While his movies in this genre don’t attract the same critical plaudits as his exercises in film noir like Scarlet Street and The Big Heat they do tend to be interesting. Western Union is not as eccentric as Rancho Notorious but it’s a little unusual.

In 1861 Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line. It was an epic tale of adventure and danger. Well actually it wasn’t apparently, it was fairly uneventful, but  screenwriter Robert Carson took care of that little problem.

The movie opens with a chance meeting between Western Union’s chief engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) and Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott). Shaw is a bank robber on the run and he steals Creighton’s horse but just as he’s about to make his getaway successfully he realises that Creighton is badly injured. So he takes Creighton with him to seek medical help. 

Creighton owes Shaw his life and he soon gets a chance to repay his debt. Although he knows Shaw is an outlaw he gives him a job with the company as scout. It’s a vital job since the telegraph is going to be laid through some mighty hostile country. Trusting Shaw is a gamble, but will it pay off?

The third of the movie’s stars is Robert Young who plays a dapper tenderfoot from the East named Richard Blake who’s not quite such a helpless fool as he first appears.

The film’s love interest is provided by Virginia Gilmore as Creighton’s sister Sue who soon finds herself with two ardent suitors in the persons of Blake and Shaw.

John Carradine plays a supporting role as the company’s genial but cynical doctor and he steals every scene he’s in.

The screenplay throws in a few unexpected twists. Attacks by hostile Indians provide the biggest hazard faced by the crew building the telegraph line, although that’s what appears to be going on but in fact things are not at all what they seem.

The movie was supposedly based on a novel by Zane Grey but in fact it has little in common with the novel beyond the title.

The movie was shot in Technicolor and it really does have an epic feel. There are two action climaxes coming one on top of another at the end and both are impressive. Opinions seem to vary quite a bit on the final action sequence with some people believing that Lang made a hash of it whilst others believe he handled it perfectly. I fall into the second camp. It works for me.

Opinions on the film as a whole also diverge sharply. It’s a movie that changes gears dramatically in the last half-hour. The first hour is quite light-hearted but then the mood darkens significantly, and becomes quite overtly Langian. I think that makes the latter part of the film more effective - it comes as a shock when we realise just how completely trapped the hero is.

While I mentioned the three main stars earlier in actual fact the movie belongs totally to Randolph Scott. By 1941 he had already perfected his minimalist approach to acting and it serves him very well. Robert Young is, surprisingly, quite good. Dean Jagger drew the short straw and got the least interesting of the three main roles but he’s solid enough. Virginia Gilmore is charming.

This is the story of a great feat of engineering, and it’s a love triangle, but the only real plot strand that matters is the one involving Vance Shaw and it’s handled well enough to qualify this as one of the first great classic westerns.

Western Union is a fine movie, visually very impressive, and is highly recommended.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Black Camel (1931)

Made by the Fox Film Corporation in 1931 The Black Camel is apparently the earliest of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies to survive (although it’s not the earliest surviving Charlie Chan movie). It’s also interesting as being one of the few Charlie Chan films to be set in the famous detective’s home town, Honolulu, and one of the few in which we get to see Charlie’s entire family.

Movie star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) is in Hawaii to shoot a picture. She’s also just about to marry the rich and handsome Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr). She hasn’t actually said yes to him yet - first she has to consult her psychic advisor Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi). There may be a reason why she can’t marry her young man.

Also on the island at this time is Shelah’s first husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi). She’s arranged to meet him, for reasons unknown.

Shelah’s friend Julie (Sally Eilers) seems to have some idea as to the reason Shelah may not be able to marry Alan Jaynes). She knows that Shelah has a secret from the past.

Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police is already on the scene. He’s also interested in events in the past but soon he’s going to be distracted by events in the present when a murder takes place.

Apart from the characters already mentioned there are several other possible suspects including a down-and-out artist, a sinister butler, a mysterious maid and a couple of pompous movie people.

Yet another unusual feature of this movie is that it’s based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ actual Charlie Chan novels (although I have no idea how much resemblance it has to the novel apart from the title). It’s a decent moderately complicated murder mystery plot with a few good twists.

I’m rather fond of mystery plots involving show business or the world of movies and this one has the nice combination of Hollywood glamour (and a little decadence) with the exotic location. 

This is of course the Honolulu of 1931, still a true unspoilt tropical paradise, a far cry from the Honolulu of today. And there’s actual location footage, actually shot in Hawaii. 

This was in fact a more expensive and more ambitious film than the later Chan films made after Fox became part of 20th Century-Fox. It’s also visually quite impressive overall, with the fortune-telling scene between Tarneverro and Shelah being very moody and very atmospheric.

Warner Oland had already played Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On (one of several Chan movies that are tragically now lost). While I’m quite fond of the Sidney Toler Chan films it has to be admitted that Oland is overall the best of the many actors to play the great Chinese detective. In general Toler’s slightly harder-edged performance is perhaps closer to the Chan of Earl Derr Biggers’ novels so it’s interesting that in this film Oland gives us a Chan who is spikier and more forceful and more cop-like compared to his performances in later movies in the series.

Of course there has to be some comic relief and it comes in the form of Charlie’s Japanese side-kick Kashimo (Otto Kamaoka), an insanely energetic and enthusiastic  if not overly competent Honolulu PD junior detective. The good news is that he’s actually funny. It’s a performance you could never get away with today, but then you could never get away with making the Charlie Chan movies today either.

The supporting cast is solid with Robert Young as Julie’s boyfriend Jimmy being marginally less hyperactive than usual.

Bela Lugosi is perfectly cast as the enigmatic psychic Tarneverro. It’s a fairly restrained performance by Lugosi but a very effective one.

20th Century-Fox spent a lot of money restoring the Chan films for their DVD boxed set releases and it was money well spent. The Black Camel looks pretty good. There are a number of extras including an audio commentary track with film critic Ken Hanke and film historian John Cork.

The Black Camel is fine B-movie entertainment with the added bonus of a slight hint (a very slight hint) of the supernatural. In fact it’s definitely one of the very best of the Chan movies. And you get Bela Lugosi as well. Very highly recommended.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Third Alibi (1961)

The Third Alibi is a rather obscure little 1961 low-budget British murder mystery. It’s always a joy when a movie like this turns out to be a lot more special than one would expect. This one is in fact a neglected gem.

Composer Norman Martell (Laurence Payne) is married to Helen (Patricia Dainton) but he’s having an affair with Helen’s half-sister Peggy (Jane Griffiths). Peggy is putting a lot of pressure on Norman to ask Helen for a divorce. Peggy is determined that Norman is going to marry her. Unfortunately (for Norman) Helen absolutely refuses to consider giving him a divorce. As so often happens in crime movies it occurs to the adulterous couple that murdering Helen would solve all their problems. Norman has cooked up an elaborate plan for the perfect murder. He has gone into the matter in painstaking detail. Both he and Peggy will have rock-solid unbreakable alibis. Two alibis that will guarantee success.

Of course if every perfect murder went according to plan there wouldn’t be any murder mystery movies. Something will go wrong and to the film’s credit the plan goes awry in an interesting and original manner. This provides the first of the movie’s nasty little twists. It’s the third alibi that provides the really vicious sting in the tail and it’s very clever indeed.

Maurice J. Wilson and Montgomery Tully wrote the screenplay and it’s a very fine piece of work, intricately constructed and with a very neat symmetry as the third major plot twist kicks in at the end.

Tully also directed. He was responsible for numerous low-budget features and his directing style is unostentatious but quietly effective.

The cast is equally impressive. Patricia Dainton is excellent as Helen, giving a subtle performance that becomes more and impressive as the movie progresses. Laurence Payne is equally as good as Norman, a selfish man and a weak one and there’s nothing more dangerous (and pathetic) than a weak man who tries to be forceful and decisive. Jane Griffiths is also very solid as Peggy, a woman who is in her own way every bit as reprehensible and conniving as Norman. Norman and Peggy are very unsympathetic characters but that actually works to the film’s advantage - they’re awful people but they’re awful in a way that keeps us engrossed.

John Arnatt is quite splendid as the quietly spoken Superintendent Ross, a man who does his job without fuss but with thoroughness and efficiency.

Look out for brief cameos by Cleo Laine and Dudley Moore (playing the piano).

This is a low-budget movie but the great thing about crime pictures is that they don’t need big budgets. It was obviously shot mostly (or even possibly almost entirely) in the studio but it doesn’t look cheap or shoddy. Production values are perfectly adequate. It’s the writing and the performances that matter and there are no problems in those departments.

Running time is 68 minutes and there’s not a wasted minute in the movie.

Renown Pictures have released this movie as part of a three-movie DVD set (the other movies being A Stranger in Town and Night Was Our Friend). It’s a single-disc set but since each movie only runs for a bit over an hour there are no problems at all with this method and the transfers are quite satisfactory. There are no extras but the set is still excellent value for money. Of the other two movies Night Was Our Friend is also pretty good. I haven’t had a chance to watch A Stranger in Town. It’s a UK DVD but the good news is that it’s all-region.

The Third Alibi is a very nifty little movie with a clever plot and and excellent performances. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

recent reviews from my other movie blog

Some recent reviews from my Cult Movie Reviews blog that might be of interest -

Duel in the Jungle (1954) is a lightweight but fun Anglo-American adventure romp with Dana Andrews.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is one of the most notorious of all pre-code movies and it’s also quite possibly the best-ever Tarzan movie.

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) was the first of the Paramount Fu Manchu movies with Warner Oland (better-known as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu. And it’s quite entertaining.

Against All Flags (1952) was one of Errol Flynn’s later swashbucklers. Not in the same league as the great Flynn adventure films but it’s worth it for Anthony Quinn’s gloriously over-the-top supporting performance.

Carry On Cleo (1964) was the best movie of the entire Carry On series. And, very surprisingly for a Carry On movie, the production values are remarkably high.

The Night Has Eyes (1942), a British thriller with a very strong admixture of the gothic. One of James Mason’s early starring roles.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

The Lavender Hill Mob, made in 1951, is one of the legendary Ealing comedies starring Alec Guinness. It’s also notable as an early example of the caper movie.

Alec Guinness is Holland, a mild-mannered bank employee whose job is to supervise the shipment of gold bullion from the refinery to the bank. Holland has always nursed the dream of stealing the gold but his problem is that safely disposing of stolen bullion in England would be virtually impossible. His problem is solved when Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) movies into the same private hotel. Pendlebury manufactures souvenirs. Souvenirs cast from lead. It occurs to Holland that someone who has the means of casting lead could just as easily cast gold. His plan starts to take shape. The stolen bullion will be melted down and cast into souvenir Eiffel Tower models which Pendlebury’s form ships to Paris. This is how they will get the gold out of England.

Of course these two can’t carry out the robbery on their own. They devise an ingenious plan to recruit some professional thieves and the Lavender Hill Mob comes into being when they find burglars Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass).

While the heist itself is entertaining the real fun begins after the robbery when a series of comic misadventures befall the gang and they find themselves desperately trying to retrieve gold Eiffel Towers which have been sold by mistake to a party of English schoolgirls.

The fun really is non-stop. There are some truly inspired moments, the scenes on the Eiffel Tower (the real Eiffel Tower) being a highlight.

The gang members are just about the most likeable film crooks you’ll ever encounter. You desperately want them to get away with the robbery. They’re not exactly bumbling thieves. Their plan is a good one and they carry it out skillfully. They just have an awful lot of terribly bad luck in ways they could not possibly have anticipated. The fact that they’re not complete idiots and that they’re really quite resourceful makes the humour less obvious and more effective, and it makes the audience even more sympathetic. After all they go through surely they deserve to end up with the million pounds!

I’ve never been much of an Alec Guinness fan but he really is splendid in this one. All four gang members in fact are superb. The supporting cast members provide plenty of enjoyment, especially the two old ladies in the private hotel. Marjorie Fielding is a delight as Mrs Chalk, a keen fan of pulp detective novels whose knowledge of American underworld slang is encyclopedic. Also look out for a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by a pre-stardom Audrey Hepburn.

Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke apparently got assistance from several Bank of England employees to ensure that his idea for the heist really was workable. The effort he put into the clever and very witty script paid off handsomely - he won an Oscar for it.

Director Charles Crichton had a successful career in film before moving on to an even more successful career in television. The Lavender Hill Mob demonstrates his flair for both comedy and action. It also features a rather inspired car chase.

This movie is easily obtainable on DVD just about anywhere and is available on Blu-Ray as well.

The Lavender Hill Mob is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tiger Bay (1959)

Tiger Bay, released in 1959, marked the film debut of 12-year-old Hayley Mills and few actresses have had such an extraordinarily impressive start to a film career. This is a crime thriller but it’s also a bit more than that - it’s a film about friendship and loyalty and duty and moral dilemmas. 

A Polish sailor, Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) discovers that his girlfriend has dumped him for another man and in a moment of madness and rage he kills her. The murder is witnessed by an 11-year-old girl, Gillie (Hayley Mills). Gillie also finds the murder weapon, a revolver. Korchinsky tracks her down to find out exactly how much she knows and this marks the beginning of an odd and rather touching friendship.

Meanwhile Superintendent Graham (John Mills) has begun his investigation and it soon becomes apparent that Gillie may be a key witness. The problem is that Gillie is an inveterate (and expert) liar. Superintendent Graham has no idea how much of what she has told him is true. Apart from the fact that Gillie lies from force of habit she is also now lying to protect her friend Korchinsky.

Korchinsky and Gillie are on the run while the police are distracted by another suspect. 

All Korchinsky has to do is get a place among the crew of another ship and once the ship is beyond the 3-mile limit he is safe. He won’t have to worry about extradition since although Superintendent Graham is sure that he’s the killer the evidence against him is extremely weak. Graham has to get his man in custody before he can get away so that he can build his case. He’s hoping Gillie will provide the evidence he needs but this is far from certain since she’s about as uncooperative a witness as you could ever come across.

There might not be anything startlingly original in the mystery plot but the screenplay (by John Hawkesworth and Shelley Smith) has enough suspense to keep the audience satisfied.

Much more interesting is the odd friendship between Korchinsky and Gillie. They’re both somewhat adrift emotionally. Korchinsky’s girlfriend betrayed him while Gillie’s parents are dead. There’s nothing creepy about the friendship. To Gillie Korchinsky is perhaps a combination of father figure, big brother figure and (given that Korchinsky is himself a bit child-like) idealised best friend. One assumes that Korchinsky sees Gillie as representing the daughter he might have had if things had worked out for him. It’s an oddly touching friendship and a tragic one since we know it’s unlikely to have a happy ending.

There’s a definite touch of film noir to Tiger Bay. Korchinsky is a nice guy whose whole world suddenly collapsed on him and a split second of madness completed his ruin. 

His friendship with Gillie seems to offer him a possible path to redemption but we have our doubts as to whether there can be any escape for him. He and Gillie have found friendship but it’s a kind of childish fantasy and reality is remorselessly closing in on them.

Eric Cross’s moody black-and-white cinematography adds to the noir feel.

Mention should also be made of the wonderful locations in Cardiff’s docklands, sadly all now demolished and replaced by soulless modern horrors.

J. Lee Thompson had an inconsistent career but he directed a handful of bona fide masterpieces and this is one of them. He’s in complete command, the pacing is tight and the overall atmosphere is an interesting but effective mix of noir bleakness and bucolic idyll. 

John Mills is very solid in a not terribly demanding role. Horst Buchholz, a kind of German James Dean (although a much better actor than Dean), is superb. He plays Korchinsky as a kind of innocent and it works. 

The movie however belongs to Hayley Mills. Her performance is extraordinarily confident and accomplished. Gillie could have been an irritating stereotype but she comes across as likeable, believable and sympathetic. In the original screenplay the character was a boy. This changed when John Mills was cast and it suddenly occurred to J. Lee Thompson that the character could just as easily be a girl and that the actor’s daughter Hayley might well be ideal for the role. 

The movie’s greatest strength is its ability to deal with its subject matter without resorting to cheap sentimentality or crude emotional manipulation.

Tiger Bay offers a good thriller plot, great acting, inspired direction and an intelligent and sensitive treatment of the dilemmas of friendship and loyalty. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Man at the Carlton Tower (1961)

Man at the Carlton Tower is one of the many B-movies based on Edgar Wallace stories that were cranked out by Britain’s Merton Park Studios in the early 1960s. Man at the Carlton Tower is a pretty decent entry in the series.

The story gets going right from the start with a daring robbery from a jeweller’s store in London. A policeman is shot dead trying to apprehend the thief. Detective Superintendent Cowley (Allan Cuthbertson) has only one possible clue to give him hope - the method used by the thief to crack the jeweller’s safe was rather distinctive. Superintendent Cowley decides to ask his old friend Tim Jordan (Lee Montague) for help.

Tim Jordan is an ex-Scotland Yard man who retired after coming into a great deal of money. He had also spent some time as a colonial policeman in Rhodesia and he remembers a celebrated robbery in Salisbury a couple of years earlier - the method used was the same as in the recent London robbery. Tim was certain of the identity of the Salisbury thief - a man named Lew Daney - but could not find the evidence to get a conviction. It was the biggest failure of his police career and it still rankles. He persuades Superintendent Cowley to put him on the case as a temporary unpaid Scotland Yard man.

Tim Jordan has another lead that he thinks might be useful - on the very day that Cowley contacted him he ran into Harry Stone (Alfred Burke) in a London hotel. Harry Stone had been an accomplice of Lew Daney’s in Rhodesia.

Lew Daney’s wife Lydia (Maxine Audley) might also be worth investigating. Lydia seems like a rather classy lady to be married to a criminal, in fact classy enough to arouse a more than professional interest in Tim Jordan. The smooth but shady Johnny Time (Terence Alexander) also knows more than he’s prepared to talk about.

Tim and Superintendent Cowley feel that they have most of the pieces needed to solve the jigsaw puzzle but they’re increasingly inclined to suspect that they’ve been putting the pieces together in entirely the wrong way. 

It’s a very serviceable plot with enough to keep the viewer interested for the film’s modest 57-minute running time. Philip Mackie, who went on to become a very fine and very successful television writer, wrote the screenplay. Director Robert Tronson had a very distinguished career as a television director and given the meagre budget he had to work with here he does a very competent job and keeps the pacing pleasingly tight.

The film’s biggest plus is the excellent cast which includes some truly marvellous British character actors getting the opportunity to play more substantial roles than usual. Allan Cuthbertson is very good as the harassed but determined Superintendent Cowley. Maxine Audley is excellent as the possibly not entirely trustworthy Lydia Daney. Alfred Burke and Nigel Green, two of my all-time favourite actors, have a wonderful time as the two villains Harry Stone and Lew Daney. 

Lee Montague proves to be a likeable lead as Tim Jordan, the amiable ex-cop who is much cleverer than he seems to be.

Man at the Carlton Tower is one of the seven movies included in Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. The anamorphic transfer is extremely good.

Man at the Carlton Tower is a good solid B-movie mystery. It doesn’t do anything ground-breaking but it delivers reasonable entertainment with the strong cast being a bonus. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Phantom Raiders (1940)

Phantom Raiders, made in 1940, was the second of MGM’s three Nick Carter B-movies starring Walter Pidgeon. The first two films in this series were both directed by Jacques Tourneur and they’re both reasonably entertaining.

Nick Carter was a famous detective hero from the dime novel days but in this MGM series he’s updated into a fairly generic contemporary private eye. Walter Pidgeon might seem odd casting for such a role, particularly as this version of Nick Carter is a carefree hedonistic skirt-chasing and rather lazy private detective. In other words he’s very much in the Simon Templar mould. Casting Pidgeon against type actually works out fairly well. 

The plot is quite clever. I’m not giving away any spoilers by revealing all this - the whole scheme is explained in detail right at the beginning of the film. This is a suspense rather than a mystery film. 

A group of shady businessmen are taking advantage of the war to turn a tidy but very dishonest profit. They’re heavily insuring ships that are ageing rust-buckets and they’re insuring the cargoes even more heavily. Then, when the ships are sunk by a mysterious German raider, they claim the insurance money for the lost ships and cargoes. Only there isn’t any German raider - the mastermind of this conspiracy is sinking the ships himself by remote control. And there aren’t any cargoes - the ships are carrying nothing but sand. It’s a very lucrative racket, and a very evil one - already it has cost the lives of many innocent sailors.

The insurers are taking heavy losses and they’re starting to become just a little suspicious so they think it’s time they called in the famous private detective Nick Carter. Nick is on vacation and it’s not easy to convince him to give up a vacation (especially when there are lots of pretty women to chase). 

In this case Nick will be up against an old friend, or rather an old foe, Al Taurez (Joseph Schildkraut). Al Taurez is a charming and debonair but utterly amoral crook who has been involved in just about every racket at some time during his career. A movie like this needs an effectively menacing villain and Al Taurez fulfills that function admirably. He’s intelligent, he’s as smooth as silk and as deadly as a cobra. Schildkraut gives a wonderful performance.

Of course a 1940 Hollywood B-movie has to have comic relief. The most unusual feature of the Nick Carter movies is that the comic relief is genuinely very funny and very clever. Most of it is provided by Bartholomew the Bee-Man (Donald Meek). Bartholomew has appointed himself as Nick’s unofficial sidekick. While he initially appears to be as bumbling and incompetent as you’d expect a comic relief sidekick to be Bartholomew does have a few tricks up his sleeve. He can turn out to be surprisingly useful and inventive in a crisis. His biggest asset is his craziness which can be very disconcerting to the bad guys since he can give the impression of not only being crazy but being crazy in a scary dangerous way. He’s actually a perfect foil for Pidgeon’s very laid-back Nick Carter.

In this film there’s even more humour, provided by the glamorous Dolores (Steffi Duna) who knows countless English phrases but doesn’t know what any of them mean, and by the blustering, combative but essentially good-natured Gunboat Jacklin (Nat Pendleton) who is crazy about Dolores but is constantly fighting off suspected rivals. 

And all of this comedy actually works without being irritating and without distracting too much from the plot.

The previous film in the series, Nick Carter, Master Detective, was visually a bit more ambitious. In Phantom Raiders director Tourneur doesn’t really get the opportunity to attempt anything very fancy although there are some rather effective scenes (such as Nick Carter setting up a hoodlum as a target for Al Taurez’s knife). 

The three MGM Nick Carter movies are included on a single disc in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD series as the Nick Carter Mysteries Triple Feature. The transfers are extremely good.

Phantom Raiders is an enjoyable well-crafted above-average programmer that strikes just the right balance between humour, suspense and thrills. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

Man on the Flying Trapeze is a delightful 1935 W.C. Fields comedy from Paramount. Any W.C. Fields movie is a treat and this one is particularly good.

Fields could play shady characters with a great deal of aplomb but he was equally good as sorely set-upon losers. In this film he’s henpecked husband Ambrose Wolfinger. His life has been an endless series of disappointments and indignities since his ill-advised second marriage to Leona (Kathleen Howard). He only married her for the sake of his daughter Hope (Mary Brian) but the marriage was a very unfortunate mistake. Leona is the wife from Hell and her mother, Mrs Neselrode (who lives with them), is an even worse horror. Mrs Neselrode hates Ambrose with a burning passion and devotes her life to making him as miserable as she possibly can. Completing Ambrose’s catalogue of woes is his smarmy, vindictive layabout brother-in-law Claude who also lives with them.

Ambrose is a memory expert working for a film of woolen merchants. His job is to collate information on the firm’s clients and to feed this information to the notoriously forgetful Mr Malloy (Oscar Apfel).

On this particular day all Ambrose wants to do is to go to a wrestling match. He has a ticket for a front-row seat but somehow he has to persuade Mr Malloy to give him the afternoon off. He manages this by telling Malloy that his mother-in-law Mrs Neselrode has passed away and that he has to attend the funeral. It’s a rather innocent deception, especially given that he hasn’t taken a day off in the twenty-five years he’s worked for the company. An innocent deception it might be but fate will conspire to make him pay for it, and make him pay over and over again. Every possible misfortune that could occur does occur for poor Ambrose.

The day had already started badly, as we see in the film’s inspired opening sequence, with burglars singing in the cellar. This sets up a series of gags that are milked to the limit but still manage to keep on getting funnier.

This is pretty much the way this film works. It’s a series of lengthy extended comic routines, extended so much that they might easily have run out of steam without a comic genius like Fields with the ability to find and exploit to the maximum every possible opportunity to keep the laughs coming. The fact that Fields is equally brilliant at verbal and physical humour also helps.

Ambrose Wolfinger’s life is such a series of disasters that the danger here is that the movie could end up being more sad than funny. That danger is neatly avoided by Fields. Every insult that life throws at Ambrose is shrugged off. His response to misfortune is sublime indifference. He’s not really a loser because he refuses to even notice, much less acknowledge, defeat. And of course we suspect that eventually his luck will change, as it does.

Fields is at the absolute top of his game here. He gets some fine support from the rest of the cast. Grady Sutton is particularly effective as the oily sponger Claude.

As usual Fields takes his co-writing credit under an assumed name, in this case Charles Bogle. While Clyde Bruckman gets the directing credit Fields apparently took over the directing of the film midway through.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is not quite as screamingly funny as Fields’ later masterpiece The Bank Dick nor does it have the magnificently surreal quality of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break but it’s still a consistently very funny movie.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is included in the Region 2 17-movie W. C. Fields Collection boxed set - a superb set that offers outstanding value for money. The transfer is extremely good.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Charlie Chan in City in Darkness (1939)

Charlie Chan in City in Darkness was the fourth of the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan movies made after Sidney Toler took over the role from Warner Oland. It was released towards the end of 1939.

The movie opens in Paris in September 1938, with Europe in crisis over Czechoslovakia. The city is in a state of high anxiety with war expected to break out at any moment. Charlie Chan has been attending a reunion of intelligence officers from the Great War. He soon finds himself assisting in a murder investigation. The Prefect of Police is busy with the preparations for war so the case is left in the hands of his bumbling protégé Marcel (Harold Huber) and he will needs as much help as he can get from Charlie.

The murder is connected with a conspiracy by foreign agents to ship arms to the enemies of France. The convoluted (and almost incomprehensible) plot also involves a young man falsely accused of embezzlement and the efforts of his wife Marie (Lynn Bari) to get him out of the country. There’s a great deal of aimless running about and a sad lack of any real detective work.

Charlie Chan is relegated almost to the status of a minor character with Harold Huber’s character taking centre stage. That’s the movie’s first big problem since Marcel is one of the most irritating and least funny comic characters in cinema history.

The second major problem is that this is essentially a wartime propaganda movie (it was released shortly after the actual outbreak of war in 1939) and this is a genre that I dislike intensely. The whole thing is, like most propaganda movies, preachy and heavy-handed. 

It’s also, considering the fact that it deals with espionage, surprisingly dull. The plot is too contrived to work as a mystery and too clumsy to work as a thriller.

Setting the movie against the background of the Czechoslovakian crisis might have been interesting but there’s way too much leaden comedy to allow for any real tension.

It all ends with Charlie delivering a patriotic speech, always a bad way to end a movie.

Sidney Toler was a fine Charlie Chan but he seems unusually subdued here. I can’t help wondering if he was somewhat resentful that Charlie Chan was being pushed into the shadows and decided to just concentrate on thinking about his pay cheque.

Lynn Bari, a rather underrated actress, is one of the few good things in the film. The other supporting players are mostly adequate.

None of Charlie’s sons appear in this one which unfortunately contributes even further to the film’s lack of a genuine Charlie Chan movie feel.

Herbert I. Leeds directs, with a notable lack of either energy or inspiration. 

The DVD includes a number of extras and they’re as disappointing as the movie itself. There’s a mini-documentary on the making of the movie that tells us nothing about the making of the movie but mostly focuses on giving us some trite and rather historically inaccurate historical background. The transfer is at least reasonably good.

This is one of the worst of all the Charlie Chan movies. Even if you’re a keen Charlie Chan fan you should do your best to avoid this one.