Monday, January 25, 2016

Partners in Crime (1961)

Merton Park Studios in England was a small studio specialising in very low-budget B-pictures, mostly in the crime genre. In the early 60s they made a series of over forty Edgar Wallace adaptations. These were intended for theatrical release in Britain and were sold to American television where they were screened as The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. Partners in Crime was a 1961 entry in the series, based on Wallace’s 1918 novel The Man Who Knew.

A wealthy soft drinks tycoon is murdered. It appears to be a burglary gone wrong although Inspector Mann (Bernard Lee) has his doubts. This is one of those movies that offers very little in the way of mystery. We know almost from the start who the murderer is and how the crime was committed. The interest (such as it is) comes from watching the police unravel the mystery. Essentially it’s a police procedural.

The deceased tycoon, Harold Strickland, had built up the business with his partner Frank Merril (John Van Eyssen). They had served together during the war. Strickland had been a sergeant-major and Merril had been his commanding officer. In business the roles had been reversed with Strickland becoming the company chairman and Merril being the junior partner. Strickland was married to the glamorous Freda (Moira Redmond), a woman much younger than himself.

The key to the solving of the crime is the murder weapon, a revolver, which finds itself into the hands of a couple of young tearaways on motorcycles. They’re low-grade juvenile delinquents and their idea of selling the revolver turns out to be a rather spectacularly bad idea.

There’s no mystery so the film has to rely on suspense, which it does with moderate success. The ending is quite well executed though.

The acting is quite solid. Bernard Lee could play a police inspector in his sleep but he’s as solid as always. Moira Redmond does the femme fatale bit quite well. Gordon Boyd (who later became a minor television celebrity in Australia) is quite competent as an Australian lorry driver caught up in the plot. The minor players are all perfectly adequate.

The low budget is no real problem. British B-movies of this era, no matter how cheap they might be, always manage to avoid looking shoddy.

Director Peter Duffell spent most of his career in television. He does a passable job but the movie fails to generate much excitement. Robert Stewart’s screenplay simply does not have enough plot to keep things interesting. It’s hard to believe this was based on an Edgar Wallace novel - I find it difficult to credit that Wallace would have written anything as uninteresting as this.

British B-pictures of this period are often very much better and very much more interesting than you might expect at first glance. This particular movie is one that, sadly, never manages to be anything more than routine. 

Network have done a superb job with the transfer. It’s widescreen and anamorphic and it looks marvellous. Network really do put in some effort with their releases. This movie is included in their Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume 1 DVD boxed set, a set that is well worth buying if you’re a fan of British crime B-movies. It includes movies like The Clue of the New Pin and The Clue of the Twisted Candle that are fine B-movies and well worth seeing. It also includes October Moth, an intriguing non-series movie that has no Edgar Wallace connection but is definitely worth viewing.

Partners in Crime is a competent by-the-numbers low-budget crime thriller. It’s not one of the better movies in this series but it’s a harmless time-killer.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection is widely regarded as one of the great cop movies of the 70s. I’m ashamed to say that for some inexplicable reason I had never seen this film until now. In some ways it’s typical of 70s cop movies while in other ways it’s highly atypical. Like all of William Friedkin’s movies it’s slightly quirky and worth seeing.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) from the New York Narcotics Bureau are relaxing in a night club when they notice a group of known big time criminals. Nothing odd about that, except that there is one guy in the group who is spending an enormous amount of money and they’ve never seen him before. That definitely is odd. Doyle and Russo know all the big criminal operators in the city. Intrigued, they decide to tail the big spender. They see enough to convince them that the guy is involved in something big. Their hunch is that it’s something very big indeed, and they’re right. They have stumbled onto a huge deal to import $32 million of uncut heroin into the US from Marseilles.

After weeks of patient surveillance they are slowly building their case but their problem is that the principal in this drug smuggling deal is a very very smart operator indeed. The case proves to be frustrating and seems destined to lead nowhere. But Popeye Doyle never gives up. Never.

This is a slow-burn cop thriller. The first 65 minutes is essentially a police procedural. If you want to capture a major criminal you need to be very patient and very methodical, and that’s exactly the approach Friedkin takes with his movie. The pacing is leisurely but the approach pays off. Doyle, Russo and the other cops spend hour after hour tailing their suspects. This could be extremely boring but it isn’t. It isn’t boring partly because the details of police surveillance methods are fascinating but mostly because Friedkin is so skillful at building atmosphere and at making this kind of routine police work visually interesting. There’s a particularly good sequence in which Popeye is trying to tail a suspect on the subway. It’s tense but it’s also clever and witty.

The movie does eventually get exciting - very exciting. And the excitement is all the more effective since we’ve had to wait for it. The legendary car chase scene (which only involves one car but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out why) lives up to the hype.

One of the cool things about the way the movie switches gears is that it’s really just a change in pacing, not a change in content. Doyle has been chasing the bad guys right through the picture. Initially it’s a slow-motion chase as he shadows the criminals through the streets of New York. Then it suddenly becomes a hyper-fast adrenaline-charged chase.

The film was based on a real-life case. Not just inspired by a real case, but based very closely on it. And Popeye Doyle and Cloudy were based on two legendary real-life New York narcotics cops, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. Director William Friedkin got to know Egan and Grosso and went out on drug busts with them. Egan and Grosso not only worked as advisers on the set, they both played roles in the movie (Egan has a fairly substantial part as Popeye’s boss and went on to have quite an acting career). The two real-life cops made sure that their movie counterparts behaved the way actual cops would have behaved.

Friedkin wanted the film to have a semi-documentary feel, even going so far as to set up scenes without telling the camera operator what the actors were going to do. If the actors moved the camera operator had to decide for himself which actor to follow.

I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Gene Hackman. He certainly seemed to be good at playing unsympathetic characters. Characters don’t come much more unsympathetic than Popeye Doyle. He’s abrasive and bad-tempered and while a good cop has to be obsessive he’s a bit too obsessive for comfort. We do however feel some empathy for his sheer doggedness. Friedkin came to have a certain admiration for both Egan and Grosso and while Doyle isn’t obviously likeable the viewer ends up developing that same sort of grudging respect for him. 

Of course in the 70s anti-heroes were fashionable and heroic cops were unfashionable. This got a bit tiresome after a while. It’s difficult to care about sociopathic anti-heroes and if you don’t care about the protagonist it’s hard to care about the film. With Popeye Doyle Hackman at times goes perilously close to losing our sympathy but on the whole he’s successful at maintaining a difficult balancing act. We’re sometimes appalled by Doyle but we can’t hate him.

Roy Scheider is solid as Russo but we don’t get to know the character so it’s hard to get too interested in him.

Fernando Rey steals the film by default. Charnier is a bit of a cardboard character but at least he has style.

The ending of the movie is certainly a problem. It’s disappointing in the way endings of 1970s movies often are disappointing.

Since the characters are not always exactly likeable the movie has to rely on action, atmosphere and style. Fortunately it has plenty of all three ingredients. The atmosphere is typical of 70s cop movies but even more so than usual - this is a very seedy, grimy, grubby and even squalid movie. This relentlessly downbeat doom-laden atmosphere is one of its main claims to being considered a neo-noir (the other being obviously the destructive and self-destructive qualities of its protagonist).

Is this a neo-noir? It probably has at least as strong a claim to neo-noir status as other 70s crime movies such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The French Connection reminds me a little of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (a movie that has been much misunderstood in my view). It raises questions about the dangers of obsessiveness but it also raises questions about the effects that uncontrolled crime can have on society and on individuals. Popeye Doyle might not be the sort of guy you’d want to invite to your house for a dinner party but when you consider the scale of the crimes he’s dealing with it’s perhaps a little unfair to complain that he doesn’t deal with such problems gently. As is the case with the protagonists of The Big Heat and Dirty Harry you could argue that if society doesn’t confront the problem of crime then society is going to need guys like Dave Bannion, Harry Callaghan and Popeye Doyle to clean up the mess.

It’s not easy to tell exactly where Friedkin stands on these issues, or whether he really intends Doyle to be a hero or anti-hero or even a villain. As long as Friedkin sticks more or less to the facts of the real case he’s on firm ground. When he departs from the real-life story (as he does quite radically in several key scenes) the movie becomes less sure-footed. Even worse, there are important elements that are likely to be missed unless you listen to his audio commentary. Friedkin wanted to address issues of high-level corruption but such issues just aren’t made effectively by the film itself.

The Blu-Ray release raises some problems. Image quality is wildly variable and is often barely VHS quality. Partly this is because of the way the film was originally shot - on location and using natural light which means that some of the night scenes are very dark and very murky. It also seems that for the Blu-Ray release Friedkin tinkered with the colour with the result that the film doesn’t look the same now as it did when originally released. 

On the plus side there’s an incredibly interesting and informative director’s commentary by Friedkin.

The French Connection almost lives up to its glowing reputation. Of the three outstanding American neo-noir crime films of the 70s (the others being Dirty Harry and Death Wish) The French Connection is the least satisfactory. Having said that it’s still an impressive movie and I still highly recommend it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

You Can’t Escape (1956)

You Can’t Escape is a 1956 British suspense thriller released by Associated British-Pathé that takes what could have been a routine story idea and gives it a couple of interesting and original twists. The result is quite entertaining. I won’t spoil the movie by revealing these twists or giving any clues as to how it all plays out.

Peter Darwin (Robert Urquhart) is a successful novelist who saves the life of heiress Kay March (Noelle Middleton) when her plane cracks up on landing. Peter is a charming well-educated young man and it isn’t long before romance is blossoming. Everything is going just swimmingly until Peter’s old flame Claire Segar shows up and gives Peter the good news that he’s about to become a dad. Only Peter doesn’t see this as good news at all. His engagement to Kay March has already been announced and Peter has no desire to see his future happiness thwarted by an old discarded girlfriend. They quarrel and Claire is killed.

Claire’s death is an accident. Obviously the sensible thing to do would be to notify the police. It would be inconvenient and the inquest might be embarrassing but it was after all an accident. Of course if characters in suspense movies did the sensible thing in such situations we’d have very few suspense movies. Peter does what any self-respecting character in a movie would do. He buries the body and hopes it will never be discovered.

Surprisingly Kay gets herself involved in this mess very early on and although she knows it’s stupid she is persuaded to do something very foolish.

Of course we know that Peter’s foolproof plan for hiding the body is going to come unstuck and that he’s going to find himself in all sorts of difficulties. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong.

To add a further complication there’s an old friend of Claire’s, a Dr Anstruther (Guy Rolfe), who seems likely to cause some problems. There’s also Rodney Nixon (Peter Reynolds), a rather disreputable freelance journalist with a nose for scandal. Then there’s the local archaeological society, who decide to do a dig in a spot that could prove slightly awkward for Peter. Not to mention poachers and village policemen who seem to keep turning up in distressingly inconvenient places.

Apart from the plot twists what makes this movie more interesting than most is that Peter is  an intriguingly complex character who doesn’t behave the way the initial setup would lead us to believe he will. 

There’s also a very slight resemblance to Hitchcock’s Suspicion - we have a heroine who isn’t quite sure how far she should believe the hero. Peter Darwin is charming and likeable and seems like the sort of young man who would make an ideal husband - but is he really all he seems to be? The relationship between Peter and Kay doesn’t quite follow the pattern we might expect either.

Fine performances from all the principals make a major contribution to the movie’s success. Robert Urquhart as Peter is nicely ambiguous, Peter Reynolds is deliciously smooth and mercenary as the journalist and Noelle Middleton is an effectively sympathetic emotionally torn heroine. Guy Rolfe gets top billing although he’s really a supporting player but he’s very solid.

Director Wilfred Eades had a very short career in film (in fact just two directing credits) followed by a rather short career in television. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the job he does here. Robert Hall and Doreen Montgomery provide a clever well-constructed screenplay. 

Like most British thrillers and mysteries of this era this is a very well-made movie that turns out to be better than we expect it to be.

The correct aspect aspect ratio of this film is open to debate. It was shot in 1.33:1 but distributed in two versions - one in that aspect ratio and another matted to 1.66:1 for cinemas equipped for widescreen exhibition. In other words both aspect ratios can be considered to be perfectly correct representations of the original theatrical release. Network have solved this problem for their DVD release by offering both versions. Since the widescreen version involves a loss of some picture information I elected to watch the 1.33:1 version but really it’s a matter of personal taste. What matters is that the transfers are extremely good.

You Can’t Escape is an absorbing and well-crafted suspense thriller that provides fine entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Carefree (1938)

Carefree, released in 1938, was the second-to-last of the RKO Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. It’s more or less a screwball comedy with musical numbers (courtesy of Irving Berlin), and it’s a combination that works superbly.

Astaire is psychiatrist Dr Tony Flagg. He agrees to help out his pal Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy). Stephen is engaged to Amanda Cooper (Ginger Rogers) but she keeps breaking off their engagement. Dr Flagg is confident that by psychoanalysing Amanda he can find out what the problem is.

The usual pattern in an Astaire-Rogers movie is that they start out hating each other before discovering that they’re actually in love. This one is slightly different. They do clash at first but very quickly Amanda falls for Tony. The difficulty is that she can’t tell him. After all he is her doctor. Not to mention that she’s supposed to be engaged to his best friend. Then Tony makes the mistake of putting her under anaesthetic as part of his treatment and the truth comes out. He makes an even bigger mistake by hypnotising her which, among other things, leads her to her going after him with a double-barreled shotgun.

While she’s under the effect of the anaesthetic she also manages to create a great deal of mayhem and get herself arrested.

The hypnosis has Amanda switching back and forth between thinking she’s in love with Stephen and thinking she’s in love with Tony, which gives the plot the necessary screwball comedy elements.

The very short 83-minute running time makes this film pleasingly fast-paced and snappy (as a good screwball comedy should be). Some of the Astaire-Rogers pictures drag just a little in the middle but that’s certainly not the case here.

Having Astaire play a psychoanalyst offers the opportunity for a dream sequence which is wisely not overdone and works rather well. It also offers the opportunity for a lot of humour at the expense of the psychiatric profession, an aspect that I personally find very enjoyable.

The casting in this film is absolutely perfect. You might wonder about casting Astaire as a psychiatrist but since the role is played for comedy it works extremely well. Astaire’s characterisations could be just a trifle pushy at times but in this movie he’s all easy-going charm. Rogers is as splendid as ever. Ralph Bellamy makes a fine second lead and demonstrates his fine comic skills. Luella Gear, a major Broadway star who made few films, has great fun as Amanda’s fun-loving Aunt Cora. 

There’s plenty of visual inventiveness on display here with Astaire’s solo golfing dance routine being a highlight.

This was the last of the five Fred and Ginger musicals directed by Mark Sandrich and by this time he certainly knew a thing or two about directing musicals.

RKO originally intended to shoot this movie, or at the very least part of it, in colour. The idea was shelved due to the cost considerations. One of the musical numbers was in fact shot in colour but the quality was unsatisfactory and it was reshot in black-and-white.

If there’s a weakness to this picture it’s that there’s not quite as much dancing as you might expect, although what there is is pretty good. That means it has to rely on the comedy. Fortunately the comedy is genuinely funny so it isn’t a problem. Rogers in particular gets to show off her very considerable talents as a comic actress. 

For some reason this movie is not generally well thought of even by ardent Astaire-Rogers fans. Part of the reason for that may be the relative scarcity of the musical numbers. And comedy is of course very subjective. I found this movie to be very funny indeed but perhaps that’s just me.

The Warner Home Video DVD (from the second of their Astaire-Rogers boxed sets) offers an excellent transfer.

Carefree is probably the most underrated of the Fred and Ginger musicals. It’s a good screwball comedy with the musical numbers being a bonus. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 1, 2016

best classic movies seen in 2015

I watched 69 classic movies in 2015 - dramatically fewer than in past years. On the other hand the overall standard was so high that picking my ten favourites was a real challenge. Here’s my top ten, in order of release date (I can’t pick an overall favourite).

White Woman (Stuart Walker, 1933) - a gloriously over-ripe tropical melodrama with bravura performances by Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred L. Werker, 1939) - one of the two 20th Century-Fox Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies made before the move to Universal.

Singapore (John Brahm, 1947) - fine tropical noir with Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner

Morning Departure (Roy Ward Baker, 1950) - the best submarine movie ever although it’s not a war movie.

Murder Without Crime (J. Lee Thompson, 1950) - top-notch British mystery B-movie.

No Highway in the Sky (Henry Koster, 1951) - one of the great aviation movies.

Mr Denning Drives North (Anthony Kimmins, 1952) - brilliantly twisted inverted murder mystery with a superb lead performance by John Mills.

The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1960) - the first of the great British caper movies.

Ocean’s Eleven (Lewis Milestone, 1960) - the first of the great American caper movies.

A Dandy in Aspic (Anthony Mann, Laurence Harvey, 1968) - an underrated and very dark spy tale.