Monday, August 29, 2016

The Terror (1938)

Few authors have had more films adapted from their work than Edgar Wallace. As late as the 1960s, thirty years after his death, Wallace adaptations were still extremely common and extremely popular. The Terror, based on one of his plays, is a lively 1938 British production that owes something (in fact quite a lot) to the Old Dark House genre so popular at the time.

The story starts with a daring and brilliant gold robbery. Joe Connor (Henry Oscar) and Soapy Marx (Alastair Sim) were sent down for ten years as a result but the mysterious mastermind behind the robbery was never apprehended and the gold was never recovered. Now Connor and Marx are out of prison and they want their share of the gold.

They suspect the answer will be found in the rambling old house of Colonel Redmayne (Arthur Wontner). The Colonel is using the house as a guest house and the inhabitants are an odd lot. There’s Mrs Elvery (Iris Hoey), who claims to have psychic powers, and her mousy daughter Veronica (Lesley Wareing). There’s the Colonel’s old friend Goodman (Wilfred Lawson) and there’s habitual drunkard Ferdy Fane (Bernard Lee). There’s also the Colonel’s daughter Mary (Linden Travers). And more guests seem to keep arriving, including a slightly dotty clergyman.

Naturally murder soon follows. In fact several murders. Superintendent Halleck of Scotland Yard is on the case, assisted by Inspector Dobie (Edward Lexy). They are perplexed and at first can make no connection with the gold robbery. One thing that is apparent is that the inhabitants of the house are not necessarily all that they appear to be.

This is a lighthearted mystery romp and it has the trappings one expects from a Wallace story. The house is a former priory and of course it has its secrets. Secret passageways are suspected, there is a crypt beneath the house (now bricked up) and a spooky tomb in the grounds. Strange noises are heard and sinister monkish figures are seen lurking about. There are more modern touches as well - poison gas and dynamite.

The diabolical criminal mastermind behind it all remains shrouded in mystery. It might have been better if he’d been given more of an opportunity to strut his stuff. Mind you, once he gets going he certainly makes up for lost time.

Alastair Sim, not yet a star, has only a supporting role but being Alastair Sim he manages to steal every scene in which he appears. Bernard Lee looks impossibly young and has to appear drunk in nearly every scene, which he manages with mixed success. Linden Travers and Lesley Wareing get to do a fair amount of screaming and fainting. Wilfred Lawson makes the most of his role as well. It’s a solid and professional cast.

This is a low-budget feature but looks reasonably impressive with some suitably gothic-tinged sets. The opening robbery sequences are done quite well.

This was the start of Richard Bird’s brief career as a director (although he had a more distinguished career as a character actor). He brings enough energy to the proceedings to keep things interesting. William Freshman’s script is adequate if occasionally obscure.

There is a slightly stage-bound feel to the film but Old Dark House movies always do tend to be somewhat stagey.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is pretty good considering the movie’s age and obscurity.

The Terror is lightweight but good-natured fun. The danger with this genre is that the comedy can overwhelm the suspense but that’s not the case here. This is a thoroughly enjoyable potboiler with an excellent cast and with just a hint of horror as an added bonus. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Wide Boy (1952)

Wide Boy is a 1952 British crime melodrama with some marked affinities to film noir. Merton Park Studios specialised in cheap B-movies that often turned out to be quite decent little movies.

Benny Mercer (Sydney Tafler) is a wide boy - he’s a petty crook whose criminal activities are very trivial indeed. Things like hawking without a licence. Or selling items that may have fallen off the back of a lorry. These heinous crimes usually result in a small fine. He has never been to prison. The truth is that Benny has neither the nerve nor the imagination  to get mixed up in any kind of serious crime.

Things are not going well for Benny at the moment and then suddenly an opportunity presents itself. It’s still a fairly minor crime but it in turn offers him an opportunity to get his hands on some real money for the first time in his life.

It’s too much of a temptation to resist but the truth is that Benny is badly out of his depth. He has no experience in such matters. He certainly has no experience in crime on such a scale and he makes a very serious error of judgment. He thinks he’s buying insurance but he could be putting a noose around his neck.

It all goes terribly wrong, as tends to happen when amateurs think they can play in the big time. In a single evening Benny goes from aspiring big shot to hunted animal. Chief Inspector Carson (Ronald Howard) is a rather gentle and amiable policeman but he knows his job and time is running out for Benny. 

All Benny really wanted to do was to have enough money to buy a few nice things for himself and for his girlfriend Molly (Susan Shaw). He’s not really such a bad guy, merely weak and prone to the temptation of easy money. In normal circumstances he would have gone through life without doing any great harm to anybody. What seemed like a lucky break turned out to be very unlucky indeed. In this sense Wide Boy probably just about qualifies as film noir. Benny discovers that one mistake can be enough to damn a man. His downfall is certainly brought about by his own character flaws, combined with lousy luck.

Sydney Tafler was an actor who never made it stardom. Lead roles in very low-budget movies such as this one were as far as he got. In fact he was a fine actor and when well cast (as he is here) he could deliver some pretty impressive performances. 

Susan Shaw is effective as Molly. She does at times give Benny a hard time about his lack of money, and to some extent she is therefore to blame for tempting him into serious crime, but she’s not calculating enough or ruthless enough (or heartless enough) to be a femme fatale.

Ronald Howard gives a characteristically easy-going performance as Chief Inspector Carson. 

There are some definite film noir visual moments and the climactic bridge sequence is wonderfully atmospheric and doom-laden. This was the first feature film directed by Ken Hughes who went on to have an interesting if up-and-down career. Wide Boy qualifies as an impressive debut.
Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers an extremely good transfer. As usual there’s pretty much nothing in the way of extras (in fact nothing beyond a somewhat threadbare image gallery).

Despite its low budget Wide Boy is an entertaining, well-crafted and visually impressive little gem of a movie. Sydney Tafler’s superb performance is a major asset. This is an excellent low-key British film noir. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)

Harry Street (Gregory Peck) is dying. He is dying somewhere in Africa, within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro. Harry is a writer and big hame hunter and he has returned to Africa one last time, in an effort to recapture his inspiration (and to answer a riddle). Now he lies dying and he looks back on his life, a life of failure and disappointment (or that’s how it appears to Harry anyway). This is the setup for 20th Century-Fox’s lavish 1952 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Harry’s story is told in a series of flashbacks, as he lies in a state of delirium (a delirium aided by whisky).

Harry had been an idealistic young aspiring writer with ambitions to write Serious Literature. He had been encouraged in this ambition by his Uncle Bill (Leo G. Carroll). Bill had advised the young wordsmith to dump his first love, Connie, to devote himself to his Art. This would set the pattern for Harry’s life - a long series of attempts to balance his professional ambitions with his personal life with the women in his life always coming second.

Harry belongs to that school that believes that if you want to be a writer you must first first experience life. Experiencing life means traveling to exotic locations and having lots of encounters with death. Big game hunting, wars, bullfights, anything involving death is good. Anything involving nihilism or artistic self-absorption is also good and Harry finds plenty of both in the pretentious but shallow world of 1930s arty Paris.

The problem with this is that it’s a way of life that doesn’t really appeal to women and Harry can’t live without women. It was a particular problem with the great love of his life, Cynthia (Ava Gardner). Cynthia had this crazy idea that marriage meant making a life together, having a home and raising children. She soon finds out that Harry doesn’t see it that way at all.

Eventually Harry ends up with Helen (Susan Hayward) although oddly enough we find out very little about their actual relationship. All that we know for certain is that Helen has always believed (undoubtedly correctly) that Harry saw her as a mere Cynthia-substitute. Helen has done everything possible to be the sort of wife Harry wants but it hasn’t worked. 

The problems with this film come down to the problems with the basic idea, which presumably means they come down to the source material. We have to buy the idea that the rich successful Harry is a failure because he has committed the one unpardonable literary sin -  he writes books that people actually want to read. We also have to buy the idea that Harry is consumed with self-loathing because people like his books. Even more, we have to accept that he is right to do so.

Along with this we must accept that Harry’s descent into alcoholism and self-pity is perfectly understandable. After all the only possible response to seeing one’s books on the best-seller lists is to start drinking oneself to death. We must further accept that Harry’s deplorable treatment of the women in his life is quite acceptable since being a writer justifies everything, even behaving like a spoilt selfish child. In fact we’re asked to go along with the idea that writers are Special and are allowed to treat other people like dirt while they wallow is self-indulgence.

Gregory Peck does his best and his performance is more successful than one might expect but one can’t get away from the unfortunate truth that he is not really the right actor for such a part. Ava Gardner, surely the most underrated actress of her era, easily steals the picture. She is magnetic and convincing. Susan Hayward tries very hard and does remarkably well  but she is hamstrung by the fact that the script gives her nothing to work with. Her part is ludicrously underwritten which is a great shame because Helen is potentially the most interesting character in the movie. Unfortunately screenwriter Casey Robinson was clearly uninterested in her.

The movie looks gorgeous. There’s some use of stock footage and copious use of rear projection but the rear projection is extraordinarily well done. The African photography is superb.

The Region 4 DVD from Fox is barebones apart from a trailer but the transfer is excellent. 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a movie about failure so it’s perhaps fitting that the movie itself is a failure. It is however visually impressive and boasts fine performances from Ava Gardner and (despite a script that offers her virtually nothing to latch onto) Susan Hayward. Worth seeing if you’re an Ava Gardner fan plus the African scenes look terrific. Probably worthy a rental.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Marriage of Convenience (1960)

Marriage of Convenience was one of the many Edgar Wallace adaptations cranked out by Britain’s Merton Park Studios at the beginning of the 60s. These were B-movies but were screened on American television as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.

Marriage of Convenience, released theatrically in Britain in 1960, is a fairly typical example of these films. It’s a low-key crime thriller that reaches no great heights but provides decent entertainment.

It has quite a clever opening sequence. Barbara Blair (Jennifer Daniels) arrives at the registry office to get married. Her husband-to-be arrives for the wedding in handcuffs. Larry Wilson (John Cairney) is serving a prison term for armed robbery. He’s been given permission to marry because Barbara is pregnant. 

The wedding takes an unusual turn. In fact the whole thing was an elaborate prison break scheme.

Now Larry is out but what he wants is the money that he stole from the bank. It should be no problem. His girlfriend Tina (Moira Redmond) is looking after it for him. Or at least that was the plan, but the plan has gone wrong.

Inspector Bruce (Harry H. Corbett) is on Larry’s trail and the trail will lead him (and lead Larry) to Inspector Maudle (John van Eyssen), now retired. 

Larry’s prison break scheme had also involved Barbara’s stepfather, habitual (but not very successful) criminal Sam Spencer (Russell Waters). Inspector Bruce is on Sam’s trail as well. The plot is a series of double-crosses, in typical Edgar Wallace style.

The screenplay, by Robert Banks Stewart, is not overly complex but it has just enough twists to keep things reasonably interesting. Director Clive Donner does as much as he can with what was obviously a very limited budget. He doesn’t try anything fancy but he keeps things moving.

Harry H. Corbett would become much more famous for comedy and at first it’s just a little off-putting seeing him playing things very straight. One keeps expecting him to do or say something funny but his performance is solid enough. John Cairney is pretty good as Larry, a criminal whose biggest problem is that he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. He’s just not cut out for big time crime but big time crime is where his ambitions lie.

John van Eyssen is good as the smooth ex-cop who can’t help being condescending to his former subordinate, the much more working class Inspector Bruce. Moira Redmond makes an effective would-be femme fatale while Jennifer Daniels does well as the good-natured Barbara who is (like Larry) ill-suited to a life of crime.

Network have released all 47 of the Merton Park Edgar Walllace thrillers in a series of DVD boxed sets. Most of the sets include around seven films with usually another non-Wallace B-film included as a bonus. Marriage of Convenience gets an excellent anamorphic transfer. 

With a running time of just 58 minutes Marriage of Convenience is strictly B-movie material but it’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable little crime film as long as you don’t set your expectations too high. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Model for Murder (1959)

Model for Murder is a1959 British mystery thriller although it’s more thriller than mystery. In fact there’s no mystery here at all.

American sailor David Martens (Keith Andes) meets Sally Meadows (Hazel Court) in a London cemetery. David was visiting the grave of his brother who was killed in an accident two years earlier. David wants to find model Diana Leigh who had been engaged to marry his brother. As luck would have it Sally works for couturier Kingsley Beauchamp (Michael Gough) so she’s acquainted with Diana Leigh.

David finds himself caught up in a daring jewel robbery and a murder. Fabulously valuable diamonds have been stolen from a safe in Beauchamp’s office. The borrowed jewels were being used for a fashion shoot. David appears to be the obvious suspect although Inspector Duncan (Howard Marion-Crawford) is not such a fool as to jump blindly to obvious conclusions.

David has to find a way to clear himself and he’s going to need Sally’s help. He will also get help at a crucial moment from a siamese cat!

He’s up against people who are ruthless and desperate even if they are somewhat clumsy. The plot is your basic “wrong man accused of a crime has to find the real culprit before the police find him” story with no startling twists.

Terry Bishop and Robert Dunbar wrote the script and while it’s serviceable it’s not exactly breathtakingly original. Bishop also directed the film. His career was mostly spent in television and there’s nothing in this film to suggest that he was anything more than competent.

The fashion background adds a touch of glamour to what is otherwise a fairly routine B-movie.

Fortunately there’s no comic relief in this movie and it’s all played pretty straight. The 73-minute running time means it’s in no real danger of wearing out its welcome.

It’s obviously a low-budget production but it manages not to look shoddy or excessively cheap.

This movie’s biggest asset is its cast. Keith Andes is an acceptable if unexciting male lead with a very slightly hard-boiled flavour but Hazel Court is excellent. Michael Gough is in fine form as the smooth but reckless Kingsley Beauchamp. He doesn’t overact as much as he would in many later movies but he’s still mesmerising.

Howard Marion-Crawford is always a delight as a policeman and Alfred Burke plays a minor role as a professional safe-cracker named Podd who has been persuaded to work with a bunch of amateurs. Edwin Richfield as Beauchamp’s chauffeur Costard makes a fine heavy.

Network’s DVD release features a very pleasing anamorphic transfer. There are no extras apart from a photo gallery but it’s a reasonably inexpensive DVD so there’s no real cause for complaint.

Model for Murder is harmless and enjoyable enough and the top-flight cast is a definite bonus. Not in the top rank of 50s British thrillers, not even close, but worth a look although it might perhaps be one to rent rather than purchase.