Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Assassin for Hire (1951)

Assassin for Hire, released in 1951, is yet another cheap but surprisingly good crime B-feature from Britain’s Merton Park Studios.

Antonio Riccardi (Sydney Tafler) is a dealer in rare stamps but he actually makes his living as a hitman. He’s also devoted to his family. He loves his wife Maria (Katharine Blake) but most of all he’s devoted to his younger brother Giuseppe (John Hewer). Giuseppe is a promising violinist. To honour a promise to their dying mother six years earlier Antonio is determined to make sure that Giuseppe has a glittering musical career. That’s something that will cost a lot of cash but Antonio makes plenty of money as a professional assassin so that’s no problem.

Antonio has carried out a series of daring and successful hits. Detective Inspector Carson of Scotland Yard (Ronald Howard) knows all about Antonio but so far it has been impossible to build a case against him. Antonio always has a watertight alibi. Carson knows the alibis are phony but he has been unable to break them - Antonio has loyal friends and their loyalty is further encouraged by generous cash payments.

All Inspector Carson can do is wait and hope that Antonio will make a mistake (and Carson is a very patient man). Antonio does make a mistake, and it’s a particularly tragic mistake. It might be the break that Carson has been waiting for.

The screenplay (by Rex Rienits) is not overly complicated but it does have a powerful and effective twist to it (well actually more than one twist). Michael McCarthy’s career as a director was not exactly glittering but he proves himself to be more than capable of making a taut and emotionally satisfying crime thriller on a very low budget.

There’s a definite hint of film noir to this movie. There are some good noirish night scenes and the overall look of the production is quite noirish (lots of trench-coats and similar touches). Maybe Antonio is not a typical noir protagonist - he is after all a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he has a human and sensitive side. The story does have the element of fate leading a man remorselessly towards his doom.

This movie is an object lesson in low-budget movie-making. If you have a good story and good actors you really don’t need much else. You can get all the atmosphere you need without expensive sets or elaborate visual set-pieces. The very short running time (67 minutes) means there’s no time for unnecessary sub-plots - you have to get on with the story and that’s the approach taken here and it works.

Leading roles in cheap B-movies was as far as Sydney Tafler’s career ever progressed but  he was a fine actor who has never received his due. He’s very impressive here. Tafler would give another excellent performance a year later in the very underrated Wide Boy.

Ronald Howard gives another variation on his standard likeable police inspector performance. Inspector Carson is a quiet, gentle, unassuming man but he’s a deceptively good cop. He has patience and he has doggedness and he knows his job.

The supporting players all give solid effective performances with Ian Wallace being especially good as Antonio’s buddy Charlie.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is absolutely barebones but it’s inexpensive and the transfer is flawless.

Assassin for Hire is a fine low-key very British crime thriller with strong film noir affinities and a superb central performance by Sydney Tafler. It’s no masterpiece but if you’re a fan of B-movies you should plenty here to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Secret Mission (1942)

Secret Mission is a 1942 British wartime spy thriller. It features a good cast but it has a few problems.

A team of British agents is landed on the coast of occupied France. Another British agent had been sent earlier but nothing has been heard of him since.

The team comprises Major Garnett (Hugh Williams), Captain Red Gowan (Roland Culver), Private Nobby Clark (Michael Wilding) and a Free French officer, Raoul de Carnot (James Mason doing a very exaggerated French accent).

Eventually the British spies talk their way into the German command headquarters and get lots of photographs of maps showing German troop dispositions. Meanwhile domestic dramas are starting to arise. The village chosen for the operation was chosen because both Raoul and Nobby Clark used to live there. Raoul’s sister Michèle (Carla Lehmann) and Nobby’s wife Lulu (Betty Warren) still live there. And they don’t want their menfolk to go back to England.

Of course they must go back and do their duty and stuff upper lips are called for and all that sort of thing.

The major problem with this film is the lack of any sense of urgency or drama. The secret mission seems very vague and doesn’t seem to be overly dangerous, and we can’t help wondering if it was really important enough to justify landing a whole team of spies.

There’s a lot of time devoted to the domestic dramas and to the romantic sub-plot and also to comic relief. Too much time in fact and the movie drags quite a bit. When the action sequences do come they’re not terribly exciting.

Director Harold French just doesn’t manage to generate any real feeling of suspense or excitement.

As the release date would suggest this is very much a propaganda film. The British spies are all terribly brave and noble. The Germans are either cruel sadists or fools. Mostly they’re portrayed as fools. Amusingly their most sadistic action is to have an armoured car driving through the village playing Wagner very loudly through a loudspeaker. The French are all very brave and very patriotic and are united by a passionate desire for freedom.

There is one interesting element though and that’s Michèle de Carnot’s equivocal
attitude towards the British spies. She says that since France has signed an armistice with Germany the activities of the Resistance are quite illegal (and she has a point) and are causing needless suffering to the civilian population. In fact she’d prefer the British spies to leave at once. On the other hand she is devoted to Raoul, she does dislike the German occupation and she has taken a shine to Major Garnett. Throughout the movie she wavers between her disapproval of spies and her attraction to the handsome English spy.

The acting is at best adequate. This was one of James Mason’s early roles before he found stardom. I imagine that in later life he must have been horribly embarrassed by his cartoonish performance in this movie. Hugh Williams lacks the charisma needed for his role as the principal hero. Michael Wilding is there mainly for comic relief purposes which he performs well enough. Carla Lehmann as Michèle has by far the most interesting role and she plays it pretty well.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a thriller or a comic romp. It doesn’t completely succeed in either objective. The pacing is poor and the screenplay is vague and meandering. The end result is a thriller that falls rather flat. Maybe the idea was to raise morale by portraying the Germans as a bunch of incompetent oafs.

On the plus side the German secret headquarters is fairly spectacular and the ancient armoured car that blasts Wagner at the unfortunate French population is quite amusing.

This movie is available on DVD in Region 2 and Region 4 - I’m not sure of the situation in Region 1. The Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is not particularly great.

Secret Mission has some mildly amusing moments but on the whole it’s dull and stodgy and unfortunately lacking in excitement or tension. I can’t recommend this one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969)

Director Ken Annakin had scored a major hit in 1965 with the delightful comedy/adventure romp Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (originally titled Monte Carlo or Bust!) was a kind of belated follow-up and follows the same formula, albeit not quite so successfully. This time Annakin acted as both producer and director and once again he and Jack Davies co-wrote the screenplay.

This time the subject is not an air race but a motor rally in the 1920s. The earlier film spent a lot of time giving us the backstories of the various competitors while this one jumps pretty much straight into the action. As a result the characters are less developed. The style of comedy is slightly broader as well. This might possibly be due to the subject matter - a 1920s car race must have seemed like an obvious opportunity to throw in plenty of the slapstick comedy that had been such a feature of 1920s silent cinema. It may also be that by 1969 it was felt that audiences would demand much more frantic pacing.

Once again, as in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, we get a multi-national cast playing a multi-national field of competitors. From Britain there’s pompous Indian Army officer Major Dawlish (Peter Cook) and his sycophantic sidekick Lieutenant Barrington (Dudley Moore) plus there’s the dastardly upper-class cad Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas) and his long-suffering minion Perkins (Eric Sykes). There are Italians Marcello (Landa Buzzanca) and Angelo (Walter Chiari) and a team of young and beautiful lady doctors. From Germany there’s Gert Fröbe as Horst Müller who is using the rally as a cover for a diamond-smuggling operation. And from the USA there’s the brash Chester Schofield (Tony Curtis) who soon hooks up with the aristocrat but ditzy Betty (Susan Hampshire). There are some other noteworthy faces to be seen, including the great Hattie Jacques and British screen legend Jack Hawkins.

Naturally there are plenty of fairly spectacular sequences combining action with comedy and Annakin, as you would expect, handles them with energy and zest. There’s a lot of obvious rear projection but on the whole these scenes hold up extremely well.

Tony Curtis and Susan Hampshire provide the obligatory romance sub-plot. This slows the action down a little but fortunately not too much.

The major weakness as compared to Annakin’s earlier film has already been alluded to - we don’t get to learn enough about any of the characters to care very much about them. This makes the film a bit too reliant on fast-paced slapstick but even slapstick works better if we have sympathy for the characters. 

With a running time of just over two hours this movie is also perhaps just a little too long, and it’s a little disjointed as well.

Tony Curtis is OK but he doesn’t seem to be really engaged with his character. This may be more the fault of the screenplay which doesn’t give him enough opportunities. Susan Hampshire is charming and convincingly dotty.

Terry-Thomas gives us a retread of his performance in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines but he’s so good at playing bounders you don’t mind. Eric Sykes as his reluctant underling who actually despises him is marvellous, as always. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are in top form in the kinds of roles they always relished. They also have the advantage the many insane and useless inventions with which Major Dawlish has equipped his car - these wacky inventions provide some of the film’s best visual moments. These four deliver the standout performances and the movie is at its best when they’re onscreen.

Legend Films have released this film on a double-header two-disc Blu-Ray set with another Tony Curtis film, Houdini. Houdini is an excellent and extremely interesting movie and is good enough on its own to justify the purchase of the set. Making it even more tempting is the very reasonable price and the fact that the Blu-Ray transfers for both movies are pretty good - in fact very very good when you consider that this is really a budget set.

Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies fails to recapture the magic of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines but while it’s far from being a great movie it’s reasonably enjoyable fluff. Terry-Thomas, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are the main drawcards here and they’re always worth watching. It’s probably not worth buying this one on its own but the Blu-Ray set pairing it with Houdini is definitely worth getting and if you look at Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies as a fairly entertaining bonus film the set becomes a very attractive proposition indeed. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Dead Lucky (1960)

Dead Lucky is a 1960 British crime B-movie. British B-movies of this era, made on meagre budgets, are often surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately Dead Lucky is far from excellent - in fact it misses the target rather badly.

Ace reporter Mike Billings (Vincent Ball) has been doing a series of articles exposing the Mayfair gambling party racket. The gambling racketeers hire private houses on a one-off basis, taking advantage of Britain’s excessively complex and contradictory gaming laws. The police find it almost impossible to prove that this is actually organised gambling rather than the private gatherings that the organisers claim. Inspector Corcoran (John le Mesurier) is under a lot of pressure, particularly after a ruined gambler commits suicide, but he just can’t come up with the evidence he needs to make a case that would stand up in court.

Mike Billings is under pressure as well. His articles so far have been pure fabrication - he actually knows nothing concrete about these so-called gambling parties. His editor, Percy Simpson (Michael Ripper), is getting increasingly restive. Finally Mike gets a break. Small-time crook Knocker Parsons (Alfred Burke) gets him into one of the parties, with Mike posing as a waiter.

Mike’s girlfriend, Feisty Girl Reporter Jenny Drew (Betty McDowall), has also found a way to infiltrate the same gambling party.

This party ends in murder, with Jenny as a suspect. Inspector Corcoran now has a murder case on his hands and his anxiety to make an arrest is matched only by his lack of any real evidence. Both Mike and Corcoran are now desperate for a lead but which one of them will manage to break the case first?

The plot is a bit on the thin side but the real problem is that this movie seems to be trying to be a comedy and a mystery. It ends up being neither fish nor fowl. It’s just not funny enough to work as a comedy but the attempt to play it for laughs fatally weakens the mystery and suspense elements.

Vincent Ball is an uninspiring star while Betty McDowall is somewhat irritating. Even the usually reliable and professional John le Mesurier seems all at sea. He was certainly adept at comedy but here he’s the one actor trying to play things straight. It’s quite possible he just gave up in despair and decided to get things over as painlessly as possible and collect his pay cheque and go home. I can’t blame him. Alfred Burke and Michael Ripper try very hard indeed but with such an indifferent script there’s little they can do except to look as enthusiastic as possible.

Montgomery Tully was a competent journeyman director but in this film he’s just going through the motions.

The DVD cover tries to convince us this movie is “noir-influenced” - while noir and gambling do tend to go well together I could detect no genuine noir influence here at all.

Since the 1930s film producers had been seduced by the idea of combining the murder mystery or crime thriller with comedy. Sometimes it does work but more often than not it doesn’t. To make it work you need a script with real sparkle and with decent gags. If you don’t have those ingredients you’re better off just making a straightforward murder mystery, or at the very least keeping the comedic elements to an absolute minimum.

Network’s DVD is barebones but the transfer is pretty good.

Dead Lucky (the title is a pun and turns out to be the only mildly amusing thing about the movie) just doesn’t make the grade. As a murder mystery it falls flat. It’s hoping to be lightweight fun. It succeeds in being lightweight but it fails to deliver on the fun front. 

To be honest I don’t think this one is even worth a rental.