Friday, April 29, 2016

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

The Fall of the Roman Empire was the second of Anthony Mann’s historical epics. El Cid had been a huge hit; The Fall of the Roman Empire was destined to be a major box-office failure. Both films were exceedingly risky ventures since both dealt with subject matter that  would have been unfamiliar to the average cinema-goer. Sometimes such risks pay off and sometimes they don’t. These two films remain two of the most interesting of all movie epics.

Both El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire were filmed in Spain under the auspices of the mercurial but notorious producer Samuel Bronston. Whatever his faults Bronston had no qualms about spending money. If he was going to make an epic he was not going to cut any corners. These were very very expensive movies. Unfortunately while much of the money was well spent a great deal seems to have been wasted or, even worse, simply disappeared into the pockets of some of Bronston’s less scrupulous associates. The commercial failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire led directly to the fall of the Bronston movie empire.

As the voiceover at the beginning of the film reminds us the fall of the Roman Empire was not a single event. It was a prolonged process that took centuries and it was an exceedingly complex process. The story that the movie tells is merely one episode in this process, albeit an important one. 

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is ageing and ill. He is well aware that he has not long to live. One of the chief problems facing the Roman Empire was that there was never a clear-cut method for determining the succession. The immediate predecessors of Marcus Aurelius had solved this problem by choosing a capable successor, adopting him as a son and naming him as successor well before they died. This was the period of the so-called Five Good Emperors, a period of stability and wise government. Marcus Aurelius unfortunately did not adopt the very sensible practice of his predecessors. He allowed himself to be swayed by his fondness for his son Commodus (played in the film by Christopher Plummer). He appointed Commodus co-emperor and successor. It proved to be a catastrophic error.

In the movie Marcus Aurelius realises too late that he is making a mistake and tries to make Gaius Metellus Livius (Stephen Boyd) his successor. The rivalry thus set up provides the major dramatic theme of the film.

Marcus Aurelius has been at war with the German tribes for seventeen years. He dislikes war and his one great hope is that he can achieve a lasting peace and that these tribes can be successfully integrated into the Roman Empire. What Marcus Aurelius needs more than anything else is time. Her needs time to achieve peace and time to solve the pressing succession problem, but time is the one thing he does not have.

Anthony Mann’s reputation as a director rests on a series of celebrated film noir efforts made in the late 40s and an equally celebrated cycle of 1950s westerns starring James Stewart. Mann’s forays into the epic genre in some ways represented a surprising movie by the director. Perhaps not so surprising really though. After all a successful film noir and a successful western require a certain flair for atmosphere, a quality that is equally necessary in a successful epic. The western genre itself has a certain mythic quality which would also be a requirement for an epic. 

On the other hand an epic requires something that very very few directors possess - an ability to paint not only on a very large canvas indeed but on a complex canvas as well. This is an ability that probably cannot be acquired. You either have it or you don’t. Cecil B. DeMille had it and it was in evidence from his very first attempts a the genre. Making a good epic requires one more thing - an ability to keep control over a staggeringly complex production. No-one could really have predicted whether Mann would possess these two attributes. Fortunately it turned out that he possessed them to an incredibly high degree. And no-one could fill a Cinemascope frame more splendidly than Anthony Mann.

Epics require acting on a suitably epic scale. That was no problem in the case of El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the lead role. It is a problem with The Fall of the Roman Empire. Stephen Boyd simply does not have the star power or the charisma that his central role demands. His performance is competent but competent is not quite good enough. He cannot convince us that Livius could ever have been a serious rival to Commodus, and he cannot carry the audience through a very long movie the way Charlton Heston could.

Christopher Plummer’s performance is interesting. In the early part of the story he plays Commodus quite sympathetically. He is obviously ambitious and somewhat vain, and irresponsible. There seems to be no real malice in him however. He is a man who simply does not possess the qualities needed to be emperor and his tragedy is that he does not understand this, nor does he understand why his father believes him to be an unsuitable successor. This approach on Plummer’s part works quite well since it makes the gradual worsening of Commodus’s character plausible - we can see that he resents his father’s lack of faith in him and he resents Livius because Livius does have the qualities to be a good emperor. We can understand, up to a point, that Commodus’s bitterness would cause him to want to undo everything that his father had painstakingly achieved. Plummer’s powerhouse performance dominates the movie entirely. That’s OK, but Commodus is after all the villain and the fact that the hero is so colourless and dull leaves the movie badly unbalanced.

Sophia Loren’s role as Marcus Aurelius’s daughter Lucilla is less interesting than her role in El Cid. For most of the film she is a peripheral character. Towards the end she finally gets the chance to do some real acting (and does so to good effect) but again there’s a problem of balance with the heroine being sidelined for most of the story. James Mason is wonderful early on as the old emperor’s shrewd and trusted adviser Timonides but as the tale progress Timonides becomes irritatingly preachy. Anthony Quayle has some fun as the brutal gladiator Verulus, one of Commodus’s boon companions and a thoroughly bad influence on a man destined to be emperor, but his part is badly underwritten. Omar Sharif is entirely wasted in what is little more than a cameo as the Armenian king to whom Lucilla is unwillingly betrothed - a pity since it’s a part that Sharif could have done something with.

Marcus Aurelius was, in addition to being emperor, an important philosopher of the Stoic school so Alec Guinness was a reasonable choice for the role. He does a pretty fair job of conveying the essential message that this is a man who would have preferred to spend his life discussing philosophy but also a man who (as a Stoic) accepts the hand that fate has dealt him. The trouble is that Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius is too good to be true and adds to the movie’s preachiness. This performance is almost a dry run for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars - I keep expecting him to say, “Use the Force, Livius.”

The biggest problem of all is the screenplay. No-one objects to a few historical inaccuracies in a movie like this but blatantly distorting history to make political points is another matter. This is very much a Message Movie and screenwriter Ben Barzman bludgeons us with that message in an embarrassingly clumsy and tedious manner. Long rambling speeches in which characters mouth embarrassing platitudes do not make for entertainment. There’s no real focus to the narrative and there’s only one memorable character, and he’s the villain. The good guys are bland, lifeless and irritating. While Stephen Boyd’s dullness was always going to be a problem much of the blame for the ineffectiveness of the other actors must be laid at the door of the awful script. Mind you, Anthony Mann should have realised there were enormous problems with the script and should have taken steps - the best step he could have taken would have been to eliminate the incessant speechifying. It’s also possible that Samuel Bronston was at fault here - perhaps he wanted the speeches and the sledgehammer messages.

On the plus side this is truly one of the most visually magnificent movies you will ever see. In that respect it is vastly superior to any subsequent movie epics. Everything looks real because everything is real. The Roman Forum set is not so much a set as a complete reproduction of the real thing. The buildings are not façades. They’re complete buildings. It’s the single most lavish set in motion picture history. And visually it’s all astonishingly  accurate.  

Anchor Bay’s Region B Blu-Ray release offers a magnificent transfer and includes a second disc well supplied with extras. This is, like El Cid, a movie that really needs to be seen on the big screen but if you have a good large-screen TV this Blu-Ray release is certainly the next best thing.

As an historical film The Fall of the Roman Empire is laughably inept. This is fantasy, not history. There are far too many dull stretches and the script is a complete trainwreck. The positives are the breathtaking visuals and Christopher Plummer’s performance and they’re enough to make the movie worth seeing in spite of its egregious faults. Recommended, with those reservations kept clearly in mind.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939)

Nick Carter, Master Detective was made in 1939 and was the first of three Nick Carter B-pictures made by MGM with Walter Pidgeon in the starring role. 

Nick Carter had started as a detective hero in dime novels in the 1880s and subsequently featured in several thousand stories over the course of more than a century. The character underwent several metamorphoses, being at times a Sherlock Holmes-style detective, a pulp superhero, a hard-boiled detective and eventually the hero of several hundred spy novels. This movie has chosen to make him a fairly routine private detective. 

Nick Carter has been assigned to investigate industrial espionage at an aircraft plant and since the plant is producing the prototype for a highly advanced new fighter it’s possible that this is more than just routine industrial espionage-foreign spies may be at work. Security at the aircraft factory is so tight that there is no way that blueprints could possibly be smuggled out, but they are being smuggled out.

Aircraft play a major part throughout the story and in fact the movie kicks off with an excellent aerial action sequence which ends with plucky stewardess Lou Farnsby (Rita Johnson) taking over the controls of the airliner. She will provide the movie’s love interest but Nick suspects she may actually be involved in the spy ring. But then Nick is inclined to suspect everybody.

Bertram Millhauser’s screnplay provides the film with a pretty decent plot and the method by which the spy ring operates is quite clever. The tone is fairly light-hearted but mostly it avoids the danger of descending into silliness and it stays fairly tightly focused on the espionage plot. The dialogue doesn’t always have quite the zest one might have hoped for but it does have some amusing moments and on the whole the script serves the film fairly well.

One of the more notable things about these MGM programmers was that the first two were helmed by Jacques Tourneur. There are only a few signs of Tourneur’s later distinctiveness in Nick Carter, Master Detective but it’s already obvious that he was much more than just a competent director of B-pictures. The action sequences are very ambitious by B-movie standards and extremely well executed. They include some fine aerial action scenes. Process shots were obviously employed but they’re done very well. We don’t get any car chases but we do get chases involving aircraft, a speedboat and a large ship.

There are none of the classic night scenes of 1940s Tourneur movies but he does make very good use of fog, not just for atmosphere but to add mystery and excitement to the action scenes. It also has to be said that this film is remarkably well paced.

The fact that the literary versions of Nick Carter had been churned out by many different hack writers and that the character had undergone various changes means that unlike other heroes of B-picture series he did not really have a clearly established personality. This becomes a slight problem in the movie in that the hero does seem a bit generic. The most successful B-film mystery series were the ones that featured a colourful hero with a truly distinctive style - The Saint, Charlie Chan, Mr Moto, Sherlock Holmes and so on. MGM were clearly hoping to make Nick Carter an urbane Simon Templar-style hero but he lacks the wit and devil-may-care charm of The Saint and to be honest Walter Pidgeon just does not have the charisma of a George Sanders. Pidgeon’s performance is quite good and at times amusingly languid but it doesn’t quite have enough of a definite flavour.

Comic relief is provided by Donald Meek as Bartholomew the Bee Man. He’s not Carter’s sidekick but a beekeeper and would-be amateur detective. Carter has no desire whatsoever to have Bartholomew’s assistance but  he just keeps turning up and on occasions his bumbling efforts actually do help. As comic relief characters go he’s one of the best you’ll come across in B-pictures of this era and he is actually funny, and manages to be genuinely crazy rather than just foolish.

Rita Johnson is a competent female lead and the supporting cast is solid. Look out for Martin Kosleck, naturally playing a sinister foreigner who just has to be a spy! The chief bad guy is not an over-the-top villain but it’s his very calm and matter-of-fact evilness that makes him scary.

All three Nick Carter movies are included on a single disc in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD series. Nick Carter, Master Detective gets a very good transfer.

Nick Carter, Master Detective is an above-average B-movie of its era. It has a well-constructed plot, acceptable acting, more action scenes than was usual in such productions and in general it’s well-made and makes very enjoyable viewing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face was Audrey Hepburn’s first musical and it was one of Fred Astaire’s last. A romantic pairing between the 28-year-old Hepburn and the 58-year-old Astaire might seem a little incongruous but it works. In fact everything in this movie works. It’s scrumptious from beginning to end.

Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), the editor of a fashion magazine called Quality, is looking for a model who can be the Quality Woman - the model that represents what the magazine stands for. She thinks she’s found her in the person of Marion (played by real-life supermodel Dovima) but she’s wrong. Photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) knows that she’s wrong. The Quality Woman has to be not only new and fresh, she has to be intellectual. Maybe if he photographs Marion in a bookstore he can make her seem intellectual. It doesn’t work. But Dick has found the right model - the mousy bookstore clerk  Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn). She seems like an unlikely star model but Dick knows that she’ll be perfect.

Unfortunately Jo is more interested in philosophy than fashion. She doesn’t really approve of superficial things like fashion. Convincing her otherwise will be a daunting task but there is one thing that might persuade her to try the modeling idea - a trip to Paris. That way she could get to meet her hero, Professor Emil Flostre, the philosopher who founded the Empathicalist school of philosophy.

Of course we know that Dick and Jo will fall in love. This romance gets established quite early on but there will be obstacles to overcome. The plot is wafer-thin but that’s actually an asset - this movie has so much going for it in other areas that too much plot would have been a distraction. When you’re enjoying a luscious dessert you shouldn’t be worried about whether it has any nutritional value. Just concentrate on enjoying it.

This is the kind of movie that makes the weaknesses of the auteur theory very obvious. There’s no question that Stanley Donen was a very stylish director and he does a superb job but to describe this as Stanley Donen’s Funny Face would be quite misleading. The songs (by George and Ira Gershwin) contribute just as much as Donen’s direction - this is one musical that is not let down by the songs. The art direction (by George W. Davis and Hal Pereira) is just as important. As are Edith Head’s costumes. Not to mention the gowns that famed couturier Hubert de Givenchy designed for Audrey Hepburn specifically for the movie. While this is not a pure dancing musical Fred Astaire’s choreography is, as always, a major asset. Ray June’s glorious Technicolor cinematography is crucial. And without the delightful performances of Audrey Hepburn and Astaire (ant not forgetting Kay Thompson) it just wouldn’t be the movie it is. It’s a movie that works because it’s a collaboration between so many talented people, all of them at the top of their game.

The character of Dick Avery was inspired by Richard Avedon, one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time. Avedon acted as a consultant on the picture and was responsible for the wonderful opening title images.

If you love the style of the 50s (as I do) then you’ll be in seventh heaven. Everything looks fantastic. Even aviation geeks don’t miss out - you get some footage of a Lockheed Constellation, surely one of the classiest airliners of all time. The clothes were wonderful. The cars were wonderful. The interior design was wonderful. This movie captures the 50s style at its best.

Now to be brutally honest Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn may not have been the greatest singers of all time. It doesn’t matter. Their voices are pleasant and they deliver the songs with a great deal of warmth and charm. The only problem with Hepburn is that early on when she’s supposed to be the ugly duckling she still looks fabulous. But then that doesn’t matter either - after all we have to believe that Dick can see the potential she has to be a great model.

Astaire and Hepburn have the right chemistry. Maybe it’s hard to buy the idea of a great passion between them but we can readily believe that they take to each other immediately. He represents everything that’s missing from her life - glamour, sophistication and style. She represents everything that’s missing from his life - freshness, spontaneity, innocence. They like each other and that’s really what their love is based on - warmth and affection and a simple pleasure in each other’s company. It works.

Kay Thompson is superb. Why she made only a handful of films is a mystery.

Paramount’s Region 4 DVD offers an anamorphic transfer which looks pretty good.

Funny Face is magnificent entertainment. It’s light and frothy and it has style, style and more style. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Falcon’s Brother (1942)

RKO had enjoyed considerable success in the early 40s with three B-movies starring George Sanders as Gay Lawrence, wealthy playboy and amateur crime-fighter. These movies were effectively a continuation of the very successful Saint B-pictures in which Sanders also starred. By 1942 Sanders was hoping for better things than lead roles in B-pictures and announced his departure from the Falcon movie series. The actor chosen to replace him was his real-life brother Tom Conway. Someone got the bright idea that instead of having Conway take over the role of Gay Lawrence why not introduce him as Gay’s brother Tom? And RKO persuaded Sanders to make one more Falcon movie, The Falcon’s Brother, in which both brothers would appear. 

Since Tom Lawrence obviously shares his brother’s interests - glamorous women, high living, adventure and crime-solving - it makes perfect sense that he would take over his brother’s career as the famous Falcon.

Given all this the movie offers an intriguing opening - a corpse is found in a stateroom on board a ship. The man has been murdered. And the man is - not Gay Lawrence, but Tom Lawrence! Has the Falcon’s brother already been slain before he makes his first appearance in the film? Needless to say things are not quite what they seem to be.

The movie came out in 1942 and with Hollywood war fever at its height it’s not surprising that the war figures prominently. There’s a spy ring although I must confess to being a little unclear as to exactly what they were up to. The Falcon’s world however is a world of glamour so the plot also involves high fashion and beautiful models. Although we are assured that their gowns have been designed within the limits of wartime government regulations!

Of course a 1940s Hollywood B-picture has to have comic relief. This time the comic relief is handled by the Falcon’s sidekick Lefty (Don Barclay), his valet Jerry (Keye Luke) and a couple of bumbling detectives who are always one step behind the Falcon (or in this case one step behind both Falcons). Luckily the comic relief isn’t intrusive and is at times even genuinely amusing.

Tom Conway’s acting style was not dissimilar to his brother’s. The Falcon was a role that suited them both extremely well. George Sanders was the better actor but Conway was more than adequate as a B-movie lead. Jane Randolph plays a Feisty Girl Reporter and does so more than competently. The support cast is solid enough by B-picture standards with Keye Luke having quite a bit of fun swapping back and forth between pidgin English and a very educated accent.

Stanley Logan’s directing career was very brief and there’s nothing here to suggest that he should have had a longer career. The Falcon’s Brother doesn’t quite have the flair of some of the better movies in the series.

Interestingly enough Craig Rice, who co-wrote the screenplay (and was of course a woman), later ghost-wrote a very successful mystery novel which was published under George Sanders’ name - although Sanders may well have contributed to the writing. 

The Falcon movies are available on made-on-demand DVD in two boxed sets from the Warner Archive series. 

This is, to be honest, a fairly routine entry in the Falcon cycle. It does however offer two Falcons for the price of one and it does offer the rare opportunity to see George Sanders and Tom Conway together. Of the Tom Conway Falcon movies I think The Falcon in Hollywood is rather better and The Falcon Out West is more fun.

The Falcon’s Brother is decent enough entertainment. Recommended for 1940s B-movie fans.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Man Who Was Nobody (1960)

The Man Who Was Nobody was one of the series of very low-budget crime B-movies based on Edgar Wallace potboilers that were made at Merton Park Studios in the early 1960s, strangely enough coinciding with the German Edgar Wallace craze that gave us so many wildly entertaining movies in the “krimi” genre. The German movies were crazier and more fun but these British movies have their own charm as well.

To help keep the budgets at rock bottom the Merton Park B-features updated Wallace’s stories to contemporary times. These were produced as true B-movies, intended to fill the bottom spot on double bills although they were later screened on American television as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.

Hazel Court stars as private eye Marjorie Stedman. She might not look much like a private eye but then not looking like a private eye can be an advantage. She’s been hired to find a young man named James Tynewood. Tynewood bought a diamond for his bride-to-be. The diamond cost a great deal of money but unfortunately Tynewood’s cheque bounced. Tynewood then vanished leaving a lot of other unpaid debts behind him. Lawyer Vance (Robert Dorning) wants Marjorie to find Tynewood before the police do. Vance wants her to give Tynewood a message - that South Africa Smith is in the way!

Marjorie pursues a promising lead - a would-be actress named Alma Weston who posed as Tynewood’s fiancée. The trail will also lead her to a murder, to gambling dens, to London’s beatniks and to the mysterious South Africa Smith.

The plot has enough twists to keep things reasonably interesting for the film’s very modest 58-minute running time. There’s a bit of action, a decent enough mystery and some suspense. Director Montgomery Tully churned out countless ultra-low budget B-pictures, all of them workmanlike and effective.

Hazel Court makes a very glamorous and classy private detective, perhaps just a little too classy for such an occupation but then she is supposed to be a up-market private detective. She’s not quite so convincing when she has to pose as a beatnik but I get the feeling that the beatniks were a bit of a mystery to the people who made this movie. On the whole though she does a competent job. She is an English private eye and they do tend to be a little more genteel than their transatlantic cousins.

John Crawford is fine as the enigmatic South Africa Smith who persuades Marjorie to trust him even though she has her doubts about him (doubts that the viewer will share). As so often in his early career Paul Eddington plays a sinister character, a criminal who seems to be involved in all manner of illicit activities. Lisa Daniely gives a solid supporting performance as the hapless Alma Weston who keeps seeing things in mirrors that she wishes she didn’t see.

The movie tries to establish an atmosphere of big-time illegal gambling and within the limits of the budget succeeds well enough although the sets are as you might expect a bit on the basic side.

The Man Who Was Nobody is included in the first of Network’s Edgar Wallace DVD boxed sets. It’s a very acceptable anamorphic transfer.

The Man Who Was Nobody is an enjoyable lightweight mystery thriller that manages to preserve at least some of the characteristic Edgar Wallace atmosphere. You don’t want to set your expectations too high for this one. It’s a quota quickie but it’s decent enough entertainment and having Hazel Court as a private eye is certainly a bonus.