Thursday, July 28, 2016

Houdini (1953)

Houdini may not have a great deal to do with the actual life and career of Harry Houdini but it’s wonderful entertainment nonetheless, mostly due to Tony Curtis’s dazzling performance.

We begin with the young Harry Houdini, eking out a living in carnival sideshows but with grandiose ambitions. His attempts to romance Bess (Janet Leigh) seem doomed to failure but if something seems impossible Hioudini simply sees it as a challenge to overcome. He wins Bess but he’s still a distinctly small-time magician.

And now he has a wife who would really prefer him to have a regular job. He gives in and gets a job at a safe factory but he is never going to give up his dreams. His big chance comes at a magicians’ Halloween dinner when he accepts a challenge to escape from a straitjacket. The prize being offered is quite substantial because no-one has ever succeeded in escaping from a straitjacket before. Harry of course succeeds.

Now the Great Houdinis (as the husband-and-wife act is now called) are off to Europe. Houdini’s greatest single challenge was to persuade Bess to agree to such a gamble and although he convinced her she was still less than enthusiastic.

Houdini’s career almost crashes in London when he accepts a challenge to escape from an English prison. What he doesn’t know is that this English prison has a security system quite different from an American prison. It really is escape-proof. Or at least it was escape-proof until Houdini came along.

Houdini achieves success in Europe but finds he has to start all over again when he returns to the US. By this time however he has perfected the art of the publicity stunt and he is soon an even bigger star in his home country.

Of course he has to keep coming up with ever more spectacular tricks. And ever more dangerous escapes. How long can a man keep defying death?

Whether the real Houdini was a man half in love with death is debatable but his film counterpart certainly seems to be. Of course a movie has to have some kind of theme and in this case it’s Houdini’s determination to go on taunting death.

Janet Leigh gives a fine performance in difficult circumstances - the difficulty being that the  screenplay can’t make up its mind whether Bess is to be a supportive wife or whether she is to be the kind of wife who thwarts her husband at every opportunity. As a result Leigh has to change gears constantly and we never really get a handle on what makes Bess tick.

It’s Tony Curtis’s performance that really matters and he’s superb. To be a totally convincing Houdini an actor has to have plenty of charisma and has to convey a sense of being constantly driven by ambition. Curtis certainly has the charisma and that driven quality was something he was particularly good at (see his performances in Sweet Smell of Success and Trapeze). He also has the ability to make such a character both sympathetic and likeable.

Director George Marshall doesn’t try anything fancy. He doesn’t need to do - the story is colourful enough, he has two charismatic stars and to add cinematic trickery to the magic tricks would just cheapen them. The best approach was the one Marshall chose - just point the camera at Tony Curtis and let him do his stuff. Philip Yordan’s screenplay is rather disjointed. Mostly it seems to be an excuse to string together a series of Houdini’s most celebrated magic tricks. Oddly enough it’s an approach that works quite well. The focus is mainly on Houdini’s career rather than his personal life, which is just as well because whenever the focus does switch to his personal life the movie gets a lot less interesting.

Houdini has had several DVD releases and is available on Blu-Ray from Legend Films (paired rather incongruously with Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies). The Blu-Ray transfer is not terrific but it’s acceptable.

It’s probably better to consider this as a movie inspired by the life of Houdini rather than as an attempt to give us any kind of insight into the great magician’s actual life. If you’re prepared to accept that then there’s plenty to enjoy here. Tony Curtis gives one of his career-best performances and the chemistry between Curtis and Leigh is terrific. Even if it takes extreme liberties with the truth Houdini is perhaps the right kind of movie tribute to the greatest magician of them all, magic being all about illusion after all. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Johnny Angel (1945)

Johnny Angel is an interesting little 1945 RKO film noir.

Johnny Angel (George Raft) is a sea captain, like his father. When he finds his father’s ship, the Emmaline Quincy, drifting at sea in the Gulf of Mexico, with its cargo intact but the crew (including his father) nowhere to be found, he is determined to find out what has happened. 

He puts a salvage crew aboard the Emmaline Quincy. After it docks in New Orleans a mysterious French girl is seen leaving the ship - this girl is Johnny’s only clue to the mystery. First he has to find her, then having found her he has to keep her alive. Neither task will be easy.

Both Johnny and his father worked for the Gustafson Line, run by the pudgy and ineffectual George Gustafson (invariably referred to as Gusty). In reality it’s Gusty’s old nurse Miss Drumm (Margaret Wycherly), now his secretary, who runs the line. Between them Miss Drumm and Gusty’s wife Lilah (Claire Trevor) run Gusty. Gusty is the kind of man who is destined to be run by women.

Lilah is two-timing Gusty with night-club owner and gangster Sam Jewell (Lowell Gilmore) but she also has her sights set on Johnny. Lilah likes men but she also likes money. She can’t decide which she likes most.

The mystery which is slowly unravelled is rather complex. Suffice to say that gold is involved. Lots of gold. Enough gold to drive men (or women) to murder, or even more than one murder.

This movie is a relatively rare example of a film noir with a flashback and voice-over narration from the point of view of a female character. 

Steve Fisher’s screenplay hits most of the right noir notes. Edwin L. Marin was a competent director and a year later would direct George Raft in another excellent film noir, Nocturne. Marin captures the noir mood effectively in Johnny Angel, with some help from cinematographer Harry J. Wild (who also worked on Nocturne and in fact shot many notable noir films).

George Raft gives an excellent performance as the obsessed son investigating the mystery involving his father. Raft was always a very convincing heavy but he could be equally effective in more sympathetic roles. He was best of all when he got to combine the two tendencies as he does here. Johnny Angel is a very tough guy who never takes a backward step from any man but he’s also a very nice guy. I suspect that it was Raft’s sublime confidence in his own macho qualities (he was a very tough guy in real life) that allowed him to switch effortlessly from tough to gentleness and charm.

The rest of the cast is very strong. Claire Trevor does her femme fatale bit as the wife of the owner of the shopping line – she is very much in love with his money, with him not so much. It’s the sort of thing she always did extremely well. 

Signe Hasso (who was Swedish and whose slight accent is clearly and unsurprisingly Swedish) plays the enigmatic French girl and she does an effective job. Hoagy Carmichael (better known of course as a composer) is Celestial, a cab driver with a knack for being around when interesting things are happening. Naturally he also gets a chance to sing. He’s a likeable and amusing (and rather charmingly eccentric) foil for the very serious Johnny Angel. Marvin Miller is all thwarted ambition and weakness as the milksop owner of the Gustafson Line.  

The nautical background and the New Orleans settings give the film a distinctive and attractive flavour, and it’s a fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining movie.  It’s one of those lesser known noirs that is well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Father Brown (1954)

Father Brown (released in the US as The Detective) is a light-hearted 1954 British mystery based on the popular stories Father Brown detective stories by G. K. Chesterton. This was the second attempt to bring Chesterton’s priest detective to the big screen, an earlier adaptation having been made in 1934. The 1954 version stars Alec Guinness as the little priest-detective.

The movie is based on Chesterton’s story The Blue Cross, which introduced both Father Brown and Flambeau, although the story has been much expanded and embroidered.

Father Brown is a mild-mannered bumbling and apparently slightly dimwitted English Catholic priest who is also an enthusiastic amateur detective. Needless to say his dimwittedness is merely on the surface - he is in fact a very astute detective. 

A very valuable cross has to be taken to France by Father Brown for a religious conference. Scotland Yard have made elaborate security arrangements with Inspector Valentine (Bernard Lee) being placed in charge. The security is necessary since the notorious thief Flambeau is known to be intending to steal the cross. Father Brown decides that the inspector’s security arrangements are worse than useless so he ignores them. His decision backfires but while the loss of the cross will be a serious matter Father Brown is more concerned with saving Flambeau from his career of crime. Since Flambeau has no desire to be saved and thoroughly enjoys his criminal life this will be quite a challenge.

Father Brown has to recover the cross, find Flambeau and persuade him to abandon crime and he has to keep Flambeau out of the hands of the police for long enough to allow him to achieve these objectives. Most of the film is therefore a double chase, with the little priest pursuing the master criminal while they are both being pursued by the police.

I’m not a great Alec Guinness fan and my concern with this movie is that he might overdo the comedy angle. Chesterton’s stories certainly contain a great deal of humour but they are also serious detective stories and they have moral, philosophical and spiritual dimensions as well. If the stories are played purely for comedy then they will miss the point. Guinness’s performance is better than I’d expected but at least some of my fears were realised - there really is too much emphasis on comedy.

Peter Finch is a surprisingly effective Flambeau, managing to be dashing and enigmatic with a hint of tragedy and also managing to be fairly convincingly Gallic. Bernard Lee played countless police inspectors during his career. He played such roles so often because he played them extremely well and his performance here is no exception. Joan Greenwood adds some glamour as an entirely unnecessary character named Lady Warren.

Director Robert Hamer had a flair for comedy (as he would demonstrate in School for Scoundrels) and his career was riding high at this time. Sadly it was not to last - alcoholism destroyed his marriage and his career and led to his early death in 1963. He handles things pretty well here. 

The screenplay does at least try to preserve some of the intriguing mixture of elements that made Chesterton’s stories classics of their genre although we’re left not entirely convinced that Father Brown is the great detective he’s supposed to be (whereas in the original stories we are left in no doubt at all on that point). 

The tone does get more serious as the movie progresses and there are some attempts to explain Flambeau’s motivations.

If you want to see how it should have been done check out the superb 1974 British Father Brown TV series with Kenneth More giving an absolutely splendid performance in the title role.

Sony’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is quite satisfactory and the price is very reasonable indeed.

For my tastes it focuses a little too much on comedy but Father Brown is still enjoyable enough and Alec Guinness fans won’t want to miss it. Recommended.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Jet Storm (1959)

Jet Storm is an aviation disaster movie but in several interesting ways it differs from most movies of this type. This British production was released in 1959.

Thirty-two passengers are about to board an airliner in London en route to New York. One of the passengers, Ernest Tilley (Richard Attenborough), seems a bit distracted. He has good reason to be. He has just spotted a man about to board the same aircraft. He has been searching for this man for two years. He knew the man would be taking this flight but now he has confirmation. The man is James Brock (George Rose) and he was responsible for the death of Ernest Tilley’s seven-year-old daughter in a hit-and-run accident.

Not long after take-off two other passengers overhear Tilley talking to his wife. What they hear disturbs them enough to cause them to inform the pilot, Captain Bardow (Stanley Baker). Tilley was telling his wife that James Brock was about to die.

After speaking to Tilley it is obvious to Bardow that Tilley, an explosives expert, has planted a bomb aboard the plane. He intends to kill James Brock, and everyone else on board. Tilley blames the whole world for the death of his daughter, his bitterness exacerbated by his belief that Brock escaped justice through bribery. Bardow’s problem is that he has no way of knowing how Tilley intends to trigger the bomb so Tilley will have to be approached very carefully. Given his expertise in explosives it is likely that Tilley has designed his bomb with a remote control detonating device and any attempt to rush him, or threaten him, is likely to result in the immediate detonation of the bomb.

This movie is a skillful exercise in slow-burning suspense. At first no-one takes Tilley seriously. They assume he is merely making empty verbal threats. It gradually dawns on the passengers and crew that Tilley is dead serious and that his threats are anything but empty.

This movie does not quite follow the usual aviation disaster movie formula. While there is plenty of nail-biting suspense the real emphasis here is on the psychological reactions of the passengers. Thirty-two people suddenly find themselves facing possible imminent death. How will they react? As it turns out some deal with the situation with courage and cheerfulness. Others react with cowardice, selfishness, stupidity and viciousness. Tilley wants to kill everyone aboard because he believes that people are worthless and that when they discover they are about to die they will reveal themselves as corrupt and vicious and cowardly. In the case of about half the passengers his assessment is spot on. The question then becomes - can those passengers who behave bravely and decently somehow convince Tilley that people are worth saving?

And can the passengers who keep their nerve prevent those who have lost theirs from doing something foolish that will result in everyone’s death?

This film also departs from the usual formula in that the crew are not heroic paragons of virtue who save the day through their incredible skill and bravery. Captain Bardow is brave and he is very competent but no amount of flying skill is going to make any difference. Any attempt by the crew, no matter how brave and self-sacrificing they might be, to take any overt action against Tilley will simply cause him to blow up the aircraft immediately.

If the airliner and those aboard are to be saved it’s going to require a more subtle and indirect approach.

Richard Attenborough made a career out of playing vulnerable and/or damaged characters  and he’s wise enough to underplay his performance, which has the effect of making Tilley much more menacing. Tilley is just the sort of quiet inoffensive little man who might blow up an aircraft. Stanley Baker is excellent, as always. The support cast is a galaxy of wonderful British character actors. They’re all good and it’s almost unfair to single anyone out although special mention must be made of Dame Sybil Thorndike and also Elizabeth Sellars’ performance as the cool and aristocratic Inez Barrington. 

Interestingly enough the airliner portrayed in the film is a Russian Tupolev Tu-104. At the time the film was made the only other jet airliner in service was the British de Havilland Comet but given the series of well-publicised and disastrous crashes suffered by the British aircraft the producers might have thought that using a Comet for the film would be in poor taste.

Writer-director Cy Endfield went on to achieve huge success a few years later with Zulu. There are in fact intriguing parallels between the two movies - in both cases you have a potentially disastrous situation in which courage alone is not enough to save the day. Courage is certainly required, but it has to be combined with coolness and discipline. 

Jet Storm is not just one of the best aviation disaster movies it’s also a complex and engrossing psychological drama. Very entertaining and highly recommended.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

Corridor of Mirrors is a fascinating 1948 British gothic melodrama with perhaps just the faintest hint of film noir (enough to get it included in the 14th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival in 2016 anyway).

Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney) has a wonderful husband and two lovely children and she is certainly not lacking for money. She seems to be very happily married. So why is she setting off to London to see her lover? It’s a complicated story, told mostly in flashback. She does meet her lover, at Madame Tussaud's wax museum, but she doesn’t meet him in the way you might expect. He’s one of the exhibits.

Seven years earlier Mifanwy was a high-spirited girl and a fixture in the night club scene. She and her friends belong to the infamous set known as the Bright Young Things. They live for pleasure and for parties and most of all they enjoy thumbing their noses at their parents.

It’s probably inevitable that her path will eventually cross that of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). Mangin is an artist, fabulously rich and notoriously eccentric. Mifanwy thinks this will be a harmless romantic diversion, another way to deal with boredom. Mangin however seems to be fascinated by her to the point of obsession.

Mangin claims to have been born 400 years too late. He should have been born 400 years earlier. He should have lived in the Italy of the Borgias. It’s not all that uncommon to feel that way but Paul Mangin takes the idea very seriously indeed. In fact he does live in the Italy of the Borgias - he has recreated the past in his palatial home.

Mifanwy is the woman he has been waiting for. He has been waiting for her all his life. Women expect men to say such things but Mifanwy begins to suspect that in this case it is literally true. Mifanwy still thinks she can keep things on the level of a casual love affair but it is clear that to Paul there is nothing remotely casual about it.

There are plenty of bizarre plot twists to come and I won’t spoil the movie by revealing any more. Suffice to say that this is a movie that likes to surprise us and it throws plenty of ideas at us.

Star Edana Romney co-wrote the ambitious screenplay, based on a novel by Christopher Massie. 

This was the first feature film directed by Terence Young. Young went on to considerable success in the 60s helming three Bond movies (including the best of them all, From Russia with Love). 

The style of Corridor of Mirrors is unapologetically arty. This might irritate some viewers but there was probably no other way to handle this material. The story flirts with gothic horror and also with fantasy and the danger with this is that it could have subsided into whimsy or jokiness - in this case the artiness certainly works far better than whimsy or comedy would have. It also gives Young and cinematographer AndrĂ© Thomas the opportunity to indulge themselves in all manner of arty effects. Although it’s a British film it was for some reason shot in a French studio. 

Edana Romney looks striking and exotic and this is essential. The film could not have worked otherwise. As for her acting, she never really manages to make Mifanwy sympathetic and at times her character’s motivations are rather obscure. Fortunately this doesn’t really matter - what does matter is that despite his obsessiveness we should feel some sympathy for Paul Mangin and Eric Portman has no difficulty in achieving this. He also performs the more difficult feat of making Mangin seem like a man who might be mad without ever making him absurd. Had he seemed ridiculous for even a moment the entire film would have collapsed. 

The DVD cover artwork proudly tells us that this was Christopher Lee’s film debut. And so it was. But don’t get too excited - he has no more than a bit part. 

Simply Media’s DVD offers a good transfer. Image quality is excellent; sound quality is acceptable.

Corridor of Mirrors is a bewildering mishmash of genres and influences. It’s easy to point to the movie’s flaws but they don’t really matter. This is a breathtakingly ambitious and wildly strange movie that takes risks and if the risks don’t always come off the wonder of it is that more often than not they do come off. Very highly recommended.