Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938)

Bulldog Drummond's Peril, a B-picture released by Paramount Pictures in 1938, was one of the many films adapted (sometimes rather loosely) from the series of thrillers written by H. C. McNeile under the pen-name Sapper. This film stars John Howard as Bulldog Drummond. He was the ninth of thirteen actors to play the role (and he played it in no less than seven films). 

Bulldog Drummond's Peril was based on The Third Round, the third of the Bulldog Drummond novels in which the hero faces off against the brilliant diabolical criminal mastermind Carl Petersen.

The movie starts with the marriage of Hugh Drummond to Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell). The wedding festivities are interrupted by murder. 

Drummond suspects the murder may be connected with the disappearance of one of the wedding gifts, a very fine diamond. There is a curious story behind the diamond - it’s a real diamond and yet it isn’t. An eccentric professor named Goodman has found a way to manufacture fake diamonds that are in every way identical to the real thing. Not everyone is happy about the possible ramifications of this discovery.

The problem of course is that if it is possible to produce perfect diamonds in unlimited quantities then diamonds will cease to have any value. That means the discovery is in some senses quite useless. On the other hand it also means that it is worth a great deal of money to certain to keep this discovery quiet. The secret of Professor Goodman’s process is very much worth possessing.

It looks like Drummond is about to embark on another of his adventures, something that does not go down well with the new Mrs Drummond. Before their marriage he made her a solemn vow to give up such escapades but the lure of excitement is of course too much for him.

Watching this movie immediately after reading one of McNeile’s original novels offers a salutary reminder of just how wrong the movies managed to get Bulldog Drummond’s character. Not one of the actors who played the role was even remotely suitable. Captain Hugh Drummond should be a very big man, quite ugly, very loud, very boisterous, with a distinctly low-brow sense of humour and a general air of extreme heartiness. John Howard is not sufficiently physically imposing, he’s too conventionally good-looking and much too charming and debonair. Of course the makers of a movie are free to change whatever they like when they adapt a story for the screen but in the case of Hugh Drummond they managed to eliminate every single quality that made him such a memorable and oddly endearing hero. They turned him into a generic upper-class British hero.

It’s not that John Howard is a terrible actor or that his performance is bad - he simply bears no resemblance whatsoever to the character in the books. The problem is that the character in the books is a whole lot more interesting than the movie’s version of him.

John Barrymore plays Colonel Neilson of Scotland Yard (as he did in two of the other Bulldog Drummond movies). Although decidedly a supporting role Barrymore actually gets top billing. It’s a typically manic Barrymore performance. Reginald Denny plays the irritatingly dense Algy Longworth who acts as Drummond’s sidekick and provides feeble comic relief. E. E. Clive is more amusing as Drummond’s faithful servant who plays a rather active role in his master’s crime-fighting activities.

This movie has its problems but it’s not all bad. It’s frenetically fast-moving and energetic. James P. Hogan was one of those directors who never managed to break out of the B-movie ghetto but could be relied on to get the job done with reasonable efficiency. Stuart Palmer wrote the screenplay. Palmer was a popular writer of detective stories who achieved reasonable success as a screen writer as well. You might not expect penguins to play a significant role in a Bulldog Drummond story but Palmer had a thing for penguins so he manages to shoehorn one into the movie!

The plot’s twists and turns are at times somewhat predictable but they come so thick and fast that the movie is able to maintain the viewer’s interest without too much trouble. There’s also a notable motorcycle chase that provides some added excitement.

Bulldog Drummond's Peril is in the public domain and is very easy to get hold of. Most if not all of the available editions are pretty rough - if there’s been a really good DVD release I haven’t heard of it. The copy I have comes from one of the Mill Creek 50-movie packs. The transfer is fairly poor but since the cost of the movies in the set averages out at 37 cents per movie I guess I shouldn’t be complaining.

It’s a great pity that no-one ever bothered to make a real Bulldog Drummond movie. If you can put that to one side and simply take it on its own merits then Bulldog Drummond's Peril is enjoyable B-movie fare. Not as good as the excellent 1937 Bulldog Drummond Comes Back but still recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Born To Kill (1947)

Born To Kill is a 1947 film noir released by RKO and based on James Gunn’s strange, overheated and disturbing 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male.

The movie opens with a murder. The murder is important but it’s not absolutely central to the plot apart from the fact that it tells us something about the murderer. And the murderer is definitely central to the plot. We know the identity of the murderer but that’s just the beginning of the story.

Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is in Reno getting a divorce. Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) has killed a man and a woman at the rooming house in which Helen is staying. Helen has no connection with the murder although she does discover the bodies. She does not call the police since she witnessed nothing important, has no idea who the murderer is and has no wish to become involved. 

On the train to San Francisco she meets Sam Wild. Unlike the audience she does not know he is a murderer. She does know that he is a very attractive man. He is clearly dangerous, has no respect for social rules and is little more than a well-dressed thug. To Helen that makes him very attractive. 

Sam more or less invites himself to the Brent house in San Francisco. Helen lives with her sister Georgia (Audrey Long). Actually they’re foster sisters. Georgia is fabulously wealthy. Helen is penniless and lives on Georgia’s charity. Once Sam figures out which sister has the money he loses interest in Helen and sets his sights on Georgia. Helen is more than a little conflicted about all of this. She loves Georgia but she resents her wealth. She is attracted to Sam but it’s pure lust - Helen is not dumb enough to consider even for a second marrying a man like Sam, but Georgia lacks Helen’s very extensive experience with men.

The main interest in the plot is in trying to untangle Helen’s incredibly twisted motivations. Sam is psychotic, violent and paranoid and suffers from delusions of grandeur but Helen is possibly even scarier. She has zero moral sense, she’s a practised and plausible liar and her whole life has been based on combining deception with selfishness. This would have made her an unpleasant enough person but the combination of Helen with Sam is clearly going to be exceptionally unfortunate. Helen will discover whole new depths of depravity.

The excellent screenplay by Eve Greene and Richard Macauley follows the novel fairly closely.

Robert Wise made a couple of surprisingly grim and pessimistic noirs, with The Set-Up (1949) being just as dark and perhaps more brooding than Born To Kill. When given the opportunity he really could plumb the depths of human misery although whether he really had a natural flair for this sort of material is debatable. Wise however had the ability to adapt himself to just about any genre.

Val Lewton, running RKO’s B-unit, had given him the chance to direct but Born To Kill was his first real A-picture for the studio. He clearly had absorbed a good deal of Lewton’s approach to film-making. Wise knew he had a good script and a good cast. He doesn’t go overboard with the noirish visuals, although with subject matter as noir as this he really didn’t need to. He does manage to ratchet up the tension very effectively as we wonder just how far Helen will go, and just how far she will allow Sam to go. Wise does a flawless job.

Lawrence Tierney missed out on genuine stardom (largely due to the fact that he had a reputation for being incredibly difficult to work with and somewhat unstable plus his liking for the bottle) but he is an authentic noir icon. He’s superb as the frighteningly intense and clearly insane Sam. Claire Trevor is just as good as a woman who is a mass of complicated and conflicting passions, none of them very admirable. 

With this movie you know you’re watching a real film noir because Elisha Cook Jr is in it. He plays Sam’s friend Marty and it’s quite a meaty role. It’s another little gem of a performance. Walter Slezak is fun as the not-too-honest but surprisingly efficient private detective Arnett. Esther Howard as Mrs Kraft, a friend of the woman murdered in Reno, is outrageously but enjoyably excessive.

Born To Kill is available on DVD in Region 1 and Region 2. The transfer is fine and there’s an audio commentary track featuring Eddie Muller with snippets from an interview with Robert Wise.

With some movies one can enter into a lengthy debate on their claims to film noir status. There is absolutely no need for any of that with Born To Kill. This movie is the real deal. This is hardcore noir. Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney deliver performances that are arguably the best of their respective careers. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Crusades (1935)

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades is one of those wonderful Hollywood historical epics that has almost nothing to do with actual history. As a movie, though, it’s hugely entertaining. 

Released by Paramount in 1935 and costing $1.42 million (DeMille uncharacteristically running over budget and behind schedule) the movie was one of DeMille’s biggest commercial flops. DeMille was mystified by its failure and always believed it was a good movie. 

Ostensibly The Crusades deals with Richard I of England and his involvement in the Third Crusade, although mostly it focuses on the relationship between Richard and his bride, Berengaria of Navarre. It incorporates certain incidents and characters from earlier Crusades and mixes real history with a good deal of extravagantly imaginary material.

In real life the disastrous defeat of the Crusader army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 and the subsequent capture of Jerusalem by Saladin provided the impetus for the Third Crusade.

The subject matter was well chosen given that the Third Crusade pitted the greatest and most celebrated Muslim leader, Saladin, against the greatest and most celebrated Christian leader of the era, King Richard I (Richard Lionheart) of England. Both Saladin and Richard are heroes not just of history but of legend and romance and both certain qualify as larger-than-life characters.

In the film Richard’s motivation is joining the Crusade is rather odd - it is the only way he can be released from his betrothal to Alys, sister of Philip II of France. Unfortunately by the time Richard’s army reaches Marseilles he’s run out of money and his army has run of food. King Sancho of Navarre comes to his rescue, supplying Richard with all the supplies he needs. There’s just one condition - Richard must marry Sancho’s daughter Berengaria (Loretta Young). Richard agrees but there will be trouble as a result, given that Alys has decided to accompany him on Crusade.

The first half of the movie focuses almost entirely on Richard’s complicated marital difficulties and the plots hatched against him by jealous rivals among the many kings and princelings taking part in the Crusade.

The action finally kicks in when Richard besieges the city of Acre, held by Saladin. From that point on there’s a great deal of action, interspersed with an extremely fanciful romantic triangle involving Richard, Saladin and Berengaria. Richard has vowed to take Jerusalem and Saladin has vowed to stop him and neither man has any intention of backing down. The ending, about which I propose to say nothing, is likely to come as a considerable surprise.

Henry Wilcoxon is surprisingly good as Richard – he’s terribly heroic of course, but he does bring also bring out his fundamental irresponsibility and hot-headedness, and his somewhat shabby treatment of Berengaria, so there is more to the characterisation than you might expect. The only thing wrong with Wilcoxon is that he doesn’t quite have the charisma that a hero of an epic needs. Ian Keith is very good as Saladin, although again it’s a performance that lacks that vital spark of charisma. 

Both Richard and Saladin begin the story as ambitious and arrogant men of violence (although tempered in both cases by a sense of honour). As the tale progresses they become more human and eventually they develop a mutual respect. It’s perhaps a little surprising to encounter actual character development in a movie like this.

As Berengaria Loretta Young is very pretty and outrageously noble and self-sacrificing. Most of the supporting players are adequate, although C. Aubrey Smith is perhaps just a little hammy (as he always was) as a Christian holy man. DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine DeMiIle is delightfully spiteful as Alys.

Visually this movie has all of DeMille’s many strengths as a director. His framing of shots is exquisite and imaginative. DeMille was not a great believer in moving the camera unless he really needed to do and mostly he didn’t since he was a master of the art of creating a sense of movement and dynamism within a static frame. As always the more complex his shots and the more extras he has involved in them the more impressive DeMille’s skills become.The siege of Acre in this film is one of his great cinematic achievements. 

The sets are magnificent of course. 

The most interesting thing about the movie is the message it conveys. For a movie about war it’s actually very pro-peace. And for a movie about a clash between religions it’s actually a plea for religious tolerance. DeMille hired Harold Lamb, an historian and a fine writer of historical fiction, as a technical advisor on the film. Lamb’s historical fiction is notable for its even-handedness towards other cultures and his influence can I think be seen in the script. 

The Crusades is a movie about war, love and religious faith. On the whole, despite the liberties it takes with history, it’s remarkably successful and it looks magnificent. A very underrated movie by a great director. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Green for Danger (1946)

Green for Danger is a 1946 British film adaptation of Christianna Brand’s 1944 novel of the same name, widely regarded as something of a minor masterpiece in the detective fiction genre.

The setting is a temporary emergency hospital in England in August 1944. Most of the casualties seem to be victims of the V-1 attacks that were reaching their height at this time. At the beginning we are introduced to the surgeon, Mr Eden (Leo Genn), his anaesthetist Dr Barnes (Trevor Howard) and a collection of nurses and the voiceover informs us that within 24 hours two of these people will be dead, and one will be a murderer.

There’s clearly plenty of potential for romantic tensions. Dr Barnes and his nurse fiancĂ©e have just broken off their engagement while Mr Eden definitely has a roving eye. And Mr Eden has an emotional entanglement of his own to sort out.

A very minor very routine operation goes tragically wrong. There was absolutely no reason why the patient should have died but nonetheless he did.

There will have to be an inquest of course but at this stage it seems to be just a tragedy. Until an accusation of murder is unexpectedly raised, and another death follows. This time there is no room for doubt - this was quite clearly murder.

Inspector Cockrill (Alistair Sim) now makes his appearance. Not altogether surprisingly this leads to a slight change of tone, with Sim injecting some witty banter and even whimsicality into the proceedings. This change of tone is a little jarring and from this point on the movie shuttles uneasily between taut mystery thriller and cynical acerbic comedy.

Cockrill’s whimsicality is knocked out of him a little when the murderer strikes again. There aren’t very many suspects left - as Cockrill had already pointed out only a handful of people could possibly have been in the right place to commit the first two murders. Despite the limited pool of suspects the identity of the murderer remains as mysterious as ever. The climax is in the gloriously melodramatic style beloved of golden age mystery writers.

This film boasts a fine cast. Trevor Howard and Leo Genn are excellent as the two doctors who dislike each other intensely. Sally Gray is pretty good as the good-natured but faithless Nurse Linley. 

Naturally once he makes his belated entry Alistair Sim proceeds to totally steal the movie. He’s in fine form as the unconventional, perpetually amused but deceptively sharp policeman.

Writer-director Sidney Gilliat was a major figure in the British film industry throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. His screenplay (co-written with Claude Guerney) offers the right mix of mystery, suspense, romance and humour.

The setting is used exceptionally well. The makeshift and temporary nature of the hospital, hastily converted from a picturesque Elizabethan country house, gives the film an interesting atmosphere. With V-1 buzz-bombs flying over and exploding randomly at various points throughout the movie it also emphasises the temporary and fragile nature of wartime relationships. It was shot at Pinewood and is a fine example of just how good a movie shot entirely in the studio can look.

This movie combines two sub-genres I’m usually not overly fond of - the medical drama and the wartime mystery - but it combines them very well indeed. The movie is reasonably faithful to the book insofar as plot is concerned but has a quite different feel, much more cynical and darkly humorous. This is entirely the result of the casting of Alistair Sim, but while he threatens at times to unbalance the film he’s so much fun to watch that it’s impossible to object. and somehow the two discordant halves of the film hang together.

Green for Danger offers an excellent mystery plot, an interesting setting and Alistair Sim at the top of his game. This all adds up to tremendous entertainment. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943)

Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case was the second of Columbia’s ten Crime Doctor B-movies made between 1943 and 1949. Crime Doctor originated as a popular radio series. Warner Baxter starred in all ten films.

Crime Doctor is psychiatrist Dr Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter). Apparently there’s a strange backstory about Dr Ordway suffering from amnesia but this isn’t mentioned at all in this particular film. Actually there’s a good deal more weirdness to the backstory than that but I’m reluctant to say more since it might reveal spoilers for the first film in the series. In addition to his psychiatric practice Dr Ordway is a keen amateur crime-solver.

Jimmy Trotter (Lloyd Bridges) is an old patient who comes to ask Dr Ordway’s advice about his upcoming marriage to Ellen (Lynn Merrick). Dr Ordway advises them not to get married yet, at least until Jimmy gets a more suitable job. The job he has at the moment, as secretary to wealthy businessman Walter Burns, is a bit too similar to the job he had when his previous employer died of poisoning. Jimmy had been accused of murder in that case. Dr Ordway had been instrumental in obtaining Jimmy’s acquittal and perhaps Dr Ordway thinks that it is tempting fate for Jimmy to hold exactly the same sort of position again.

Dr Ordway’s misgivings turn out to be well founded. The Crime Doctor’s skills as amateur sleuth will be needed again, in another poisoning murder case with Jimmy caught in the middle.

There’s actually no shortage of suspects although the police naturally focus on Jimmy. There are plenty of tensions in the Burns household and to further muddy the waters there’s a cook who isn’t a cook at all and there’s the elderly Miss Patricia and her disturbing nightmares. Miss Patricia soon becomes another of Dr Ordway’s patients.

There’s a dream sequence that can be seen as an anticipation of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, although it’s obviously much less ambitious and visually bold. It’s still not bad for a B-picture. The movie makes use of flashbacks, also fairly bold since film noir had not yet made this technique so all-pervasive in crime movies.

Warner Baxter had been a big star in the 30s but by the 40s his career was looking slightly shaky and a recurring role in a B-movie series was more than welcome. Baxter was starting to look just a little battered but his performance is enthusiastic enough.

Lloyd Bridges (looking very young indeed) gives a hyperactive performance that verges on hysteria at times but then his character does seem to have a knack for landing himself in trouble. Quite a few of the performances are slightly odd. Or perhaps it’s the script that’s slightly odd, or the actors were just doing what director Eugene Forde wanted. Dr Ordway’s nurse seems jumpy and highly strung to say the least (I’m not sure of the identity of the actress but I think it’s Constance Worth). Ellen is a slightly strange character as well.

The whole mood of the film is rather uncertain, as if the intention had been been to aim for a somewhat whimsical feel but the whimsy ends up being unevenly distributed and sometimes jarring. Eugene Forde was a reliable and competent B-movie director so perhaps it was Eric Taylor’s screenplay that was responsible for the mood swings.

The Crime Doctor movies were quite popular (you don’t make ten movies in a series unless you’re reaching some kind of audience). The central idea is certainly interesting. Personally I love movies of this era that deal with psychiatry - they’re nearly always enjoyably bizarre.

There is a Crime Doctor DVD set that includes all ten movies but I’m not certain if it’s an official release or a grey market release. I haven’t seen it so I can’t tell you anything about the quality. I caught this movie on TCM. Their print is quite acceptable. 

This is very much a B-movie but despite its occasional oddness of tone it’s entertaining. I’m not sure I’d rush out and buy the boxed set but Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case is worth a look if it pops up on cable TV or if you can find it as a rental. Fans of B-movies of this period should enjoy it.