Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

The Lavender Hill Mob, made in 1951, is one of the legendary Ealing comedies starring Alec Guinness. It’s also notable as an early example of the caper movie.

Alec Guinness is Holland, a mild-mannered bank employee whose job is to supervise the shipment of gold bullion from the refinery to the bank. Holland has always nursed the dream of stealing the gold but his problem is that safely disposing of stolen bullion in England would be virtually impossible. His problem is solved when Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) movies into the same private hotel. Pendlebury manufactures souvenirs. Souvenirs cast from lead. It occurs to Holland that someone who has the means of casting lead could just as easily cast gold. His plan starts to take shape. The stolen bullion will be melted down and cast into souvenir Eiffel Tower models which Pendlebury’s form ships to Paris. This is how they will get the gold out of England.

Of course these two can’t carry out the robbery on their own. They devise an ingenious plan to recruit some professional thieves and the Lavender Hill Mob comes into being when they find burglars Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass).

While the heist itself is entertaining the real fun begins after the robbery when a series of comic misadventures befall the gang and they find themselves desperately trying to retrieve gold Eiffel Towers which have been sold by mistake to a party of English schoolgirls.

The fun really is non-stop. There are some truly inspired moments, the scenes on the Eiffel Tower (the real Eiffel Tower) being a highlight.

The gang members are just about the most likeable film crooks you’ll ever encounter. You desperately want them to get away with the robbery. They’re not exactly bumbling thieves. Their plan is a good one and they carry it out skillfully. They just have an awful lot of terribly bad luck in ways they could not possibly have anticipated. The fact that they’re not complete idiots and that they’re really quite resourceful makes the humour less obvious and more effective, and it makes the audience even more sympathetic. After all they go through surely they deserve to end up with the million pounds!

I’ve never been much of an Alec Guinness fan but he really is splendid in this one. All four gang members in fact are superb. The supporting cast members provide plenty of enjoyment, especially the two old ladies in the private hotel. Marjorie Fielding is a delight as Mrs Chalk, a keen fan of pulp detective novels whose knowledge of American underworld slang is encyclopedic. Also look out for a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by a pre-stardom Audrey Hepburn.

Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke apparently got assistance from several Bank of England employees to ensure that his idea for the heist really was workable. The effort he put into the clever and very witty script paid off handsomely - he won an Oscar for it.

Director Charles Crichton had a successful career in film before moving on to an even more successful career in television. The Lavender Hill Mob demonstrates his flair for both comedy and action. It also features a rather inspired car chase.

This movie is easily obtainable on DVD just about anywhere and is available on Blu-Ray as well.

The Lavender Hill Mob is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tiger Bay (1959)

Tiger Bay, released in 1959, marked the film debut of 12-year-old Hayley Mills and few actresses have had such an extraordinarily impressive start to a film career. This is a crime thriller but it’s also a bit more than that - it’s a film about friendship and loyalty and duty and moral dilemmas. 

A Polish sailor, Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) discovers that his girlfriend has dumped him for another man and in a moment of madness and rage he kills her. The murder is witnessed by an 11-year-old girl, Gillie (Hayley Mills). Gillie also finds the murder weapon, a revolver. Korchinsky tracks her down to find out exactly how much she knows and this marks the beginning of an odd and rather touching friendship.

Meanwhile Superintendent Graham (John Mills) has begun his investigation and it soon becomes apparent that Gillie may be a key witness. The problem is that Gillie is an inveterate (and expert) liar. Superintendent Graham has no idea how much of what she has told him is true. Apart from the fact that Gillie lies from force of habit she is also now lying to protect her friend Korchinsky.

Korchinsky and Gillie are on the run while the police are distracted by another suspect. 

All Korchinsky has to do is get a place among the crew of another ship and once the ship is beyond the 3-mile limit he is safe. He won’t have to worry about extradition since although Superintendent Graham is sure that he’s the killer the evidence against him is extremely weak. Graham has to get his man in custody before he can get away so that he can build his case. He’s hoping Gillie will provide the evidence he needs but this is far from certain since she’s about as uncooperative a witness as you could ever come across.

There might not be anything startlingly original in the mystery plot but the screenplay (by John Hawkesworth and Shelley Smith) has enough suspense to keep the audience satisfied.

Much more interesting is the odd friendship between Korchinsky and Gillie. They’re both somewhat adrift emotionally. Korchinsky’s girlfriend betrayed him while Gillie’s parents are dead. There’s nothing creepy about the friendship. To Gillie Korchinsky is perhaps a combination of father figure, big brother figure and (given that Korchinsky is himself a bit child-like) idealised best friend. One assumes that Korchinsky sees Gillie as representing the daughter he might have had if things had worked out for him. It’s an oddly touching friendship and a tragic one since we know it’s unlikely to have a happy ending.

There’s a definite touch of film noir to Tiger Bay. Korchinsky is a nice guy whose whole world suddenly collapsed on him and a split second of madness completed his ruin. 

His friendship with Gillie seems to offer him a possible path to redemption but we have our doubts as to whether there can be any escape for him. He and Gillie have found friendship but it’s a kind of childish fantasy and reality is remorselessly closing in on them.

Eric Cross’s moody black-and-white cinematography adds to the noir feel.

Mention should also be made of the wonderful locations in Cardiff’s docklands, sadly all now demolished and replaced by soulless modern horrors.

J. Lee Thompson had an inconsistent career but he directed a handful of bona fide masterpieces and this is one of them. He’s in complete command, the pacing is tight and the overall atmosphere is an interesting but effective mix of noir bleakness and bucolic idyll. 

John Mills is very solid in a not terribly demanding role. Horst Buchholz, a kind of German James Dean (although a much better actor than Dean), is superb. He plays Korchinsky as a kind of innocent and it works. 

The movie however belongs to Hayley Mills. Her performance is extraordinarily confident and accomplished. Gillie could have been an irritating stereotype but she comes across as likeable, believable and sympathetic. In the original screenplay the character was a boy. This changed when John Mills was cast and it suddenly occurred to J. Lee Thompson that the character could just as easily be a girl and that the actor’s daughter Hayley might well be ideal for the role. 

The movie’s greatest strength is its ability to deal with its subject matter without resorting to cheap sentimentality or crude emotional manipulation.

Tiger Bay offers a good thriller plot, great acting, inspired direction and an intelligent and sensitive treatment of the dilemmas of friendship and loyalty. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Man at the Carlton Tower (1961)

Man at the Carlton Tower is one of the many B-movies based on Edgar Wallace stories that were cranked out by Britain’s Merton Park Studios in the early 1960s. Man at the Carlton Tower is a pretty decent entry in the series.

The story gets going right from the start with a daring robbery from a jeweller’s store in London. A policeman is shot dead trying to apprehend the thief. Detective Superintendent Cowley (Allan Cuthbertson) has only one possible clue to give him hope - the method used by the thief to crack the jeweller’s safe was rather distinctive. Superintendent Cowley decides to ask his old friend Tim Jordan (Lee Montague) for help.

Tim Jordan is an ex-Scotland Yard man who retired after coming into a great deal of money. He had also spent some time as a colonial policeman in Rhodesia and he remembers a celebrated robbery in Salisbury a couple of years earlier - the method used was the same as in the recent London robbery. Tim was certain of the identity of the Salisbury thief - a man named Lew Daney - but could not find the evidence to get a conviction. It was the biggest failure of his police career and it still rankles. He persuades Superintendent Cowley to put him on the case as a temporary unpaid Scotland Yard man.

Tim Jordan has another lead that he thinks might be useful - on the very day that Cowley contacted him he ran into Harry Stone (Alfred Burke) in a London hotel. Harry Stone had been an accomplice of Lew Daney’s in Rhodesia.

Lew Daney’s wife Lydia (Maxine Audley) might also be worth investigating. Lydia seems like a rather classy lady to be married to a criminal, in fact classy enough to arouse a more than professional interest in Tim Jordan. The smooth but shady Johnny Time (Terence Alexander) also knows more than he’s prepared to talk about.

Tim and Superintendent Cowley feel that they have most of the pieces needed to solve the jigsaw puzzle but they’re increasingly inclined to suspect that they’ve been putting the pieces together in entirely the wrong way. 

It’s a very serviceable plot with enough to keep the viewer interested for the film’s modest 57-minute running time. Philip Mackie, who went on to become a very fine and very successful television writer, wrote the screenplay. Director Robert Tronson had a very distinguished career as a television director and given the meagre budget he had to work with here he does a very competent job and keeps the pacing pleasingly tight.

The film’s biggest plus is the excellent cast which includes some truly marvellous British character actors getting the opportunity to play more substantial roles than usual. Allan Cuthbertson is very good as the harassed but determined Superintendent Cowley. Maxine Audley is excellent as the possibly not entirely trustworthy Lydia Daney. Alfred Burke and Nigel Green, two of my all-time favourite actors, have a wonderful time as the two villains Harry Stone and Lew Daney. 

Lee Montague proves to be a likeable lead as Tim Jordan, the amiable ex-cop who is much cleverer than he seems to be.

Man at the Carlton Tower is one of the seven movies included in Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. The anamorphic transfer is extremely good.

Man at the Carlton Tower is a good solid B-movie mystery. It doesn’t do anything ground-breaking but it delivers reasonable entertainment with the strong cast being a bonus. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Phantom Raiders (1940)

Phantom Raiders, made in 1940, was the second of MGM’s three Nick Carter B-movies starring Walter Pidgeon. The first two films in this series were both directed by Jacques Tourneur and they’re both reasonably entertaining.

Nick Carter was a famous detective hero from the dime novel days but in this MGM series he’s updated into a fairly generic contemporary private eye. Walter Pidgeon might seem odd casting for such a role, particularly as this version of Nick Carter is a carefree hedonistic skirt-chasing and rather lazy private detective. In other words he’s very much in the Simon Templar mould. Casting Pidgeon against type actually works out fairly well. 

The plot is quite clever. I’m not giving away any spoilers by revealing all this - the whole scheme is explained in detail right at the beginning of the film. This is a suspense rather than a mystery film. 

A group of shady businessmen are taking advantage of the war to turn a tidy but very dishonest profit. They’re heavily insuring ships that are ageing rust-buckets and they’re insuring the cargoes even more heavily. Then, when the ships are sunk by a mysterious German raider, they claim the insurance money for the lost ships and cargoes. Only there isn’t any German raider - the mastermind of this conspiracy is sinking the ships himself by remote control. And there aren’t any cargoes - the ships are carrying nothing but sand. It’s a very lucrative racket, and a very evil one - already it has cost the lives of many innocent sailors.

The insurers are taking heavy losses and they’re starting to become just a little suspicious so they think it’s time they called in the famous private detective Nick Carter. Nick is on vacation and it’s not easy to convince him to give up a vacation (especially when there are lots of pretty women to chase). 

In this case Nick will be up against an old friend, or rather an old foe, Al Taurez (Joseph Schildkraut). Al Taurez is a charming and debonair but utterly amoral crook who has been involved in just about every racket at some time during his career. A movie like this needs an effectively menacing villain and Al Taurez fulfills that function admirably. He’s intelligent, he’s as smooth as silk and as deadly as a cobra. Schildkraut gives a wonderful performance.

Of course a 1940 Hollywood B-movie has to have comic relief. The most unusual feature of the Nick Carter movies is that the comic relief is genuinely very funny and very clever. Most of it is provided by Bartholomew the Bee-Man (Donald Meek). Bartholomew has appointed himself as Nick’s unofficial sidekick. While he initially appears to be as bumbling and incompetent as you’d expect a comic relief sidekick to be Bartholomew does have a few tricks up his sleeve. He can turn out to be surprisingly useful and inventive in a crisis. His biggest asset is his craziness which can be very disconcerting to the bad guys since he can give the impression of not only being crazy but being crazy in a scary dangerous way. He’s actually a perfect foil for Pidgeon’s very laid-back Nick Carter.

In this film there’s even more humour, provided by the glamorous Dolores (Steffi Duna) who knows countless English phrases but doesn’t know what any of them mean, and by the blustering, combative but essentially good-natured Gunboat Jacklin (Nat Pendleton) who is crazy about Dolores but is constantly fighting off suspected rivals. 

And all of this comedy actually works without being irritating and without distracting too much from the plot.

The previous film in the series, Nick Carter, Master Detective, was visually a bit more ambitious. In Phantom Raiders director Tourneur doesn’t really get the opportunity to attempt anything very fancy although there are some rather effective scenes (such as Nick Carter setting up a hoodlum as a target for Al Taurez’s knife). 

The three MGM Nick Carter movies are included on a single disc in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD series as the Nick Carter Mysteries Triple Feature. The transfers are extremely good.

Phantom Raiders is an enjoyable well-crafted above-average programmer that strikes just the right balance between humour, suspense and thrills. Highly recommended.