Thursday, December 29, 2016

Headline (1943)

Headline is a 1943 British crime film set against the backdrop of a big city news room. 

David Farrar is “Brookie” Brooks, ace crime reporter for The Sun. He’s under pressure from his news editor, the hardbitten L.B. Ellington (John Stuart), since Dell (a rather young-looking William Hartnell) of The Daily Record seems to keep beating him to scoops. Now a juicy murder story seems to offer Brookie the chance to steal a march on his rival but Brookie uncovers a piece of evidence that puts him in a difficult dilemma.

We know who the murderer is right from the start, and right from the start we also know that the Mystery Woman spotted at the scene of the crime is Ellington’s wife Margaret (Antoinette Cellier) so this is a suspense film rather than a mystery film.

The audience knows what is going on but most of the major characters don’t. For Brookie it’s just another story and at first it seems like Dell is going to come out on top yet again but Dell makes a fatal error. Arthur Jones (Richard Goolden) is a scatter-brained eccentric who likes to play at being an amateur sleuth. Every time a murder is committed he has a theory that will solve the case, but of course none of his theories actually work. Dell decides to play a bit of a joke on his rival by suggesting that Jones take his latest theory to Brookie at The Sun. This is a mistake because this time Jones really does have the solution.

While Brookie and Dell are frantically trying to out-scoop each other they’re not neglecting their love lives. Brookie’s girlfriend is Sun newspaperwoman Anne (Anne Crawford) but their romance faces one major obstacle - Brookie is already married, to his job, and he thinks it would be unfair to ask any woman to marry a reporter.

The romance angle and the rivalry between Brookie and Dell are treated in a breezy light-hearted manner and both these elements provide a certain amount of comic relief (comic relief being something William Hartnell was often called on to provide in his early film career).

There is however a more serious side to this movie and the suspense story is pretty effective with a nice twist at the end. There’s also a surprisingly serious and subtle treatment of newspaper ethics and it takes a slightly jaundiced view of the newspaper game.

David Farrar does the brash pushy reporter thing well and still manages to be a reasonably sympathetic character. William Hartnell (best remembered of course as the first Doctor Who) is delightfully unscrupulous and doesn’t overdo the comedic moments. Anne Crawford is charming and likeable. Antoinette Cellier is quite good also - Margaret Ellington is not exactly a femme fatale but there are perhaps hints of the femme fatale to her character. And she has the right touch of glamour.

John Harlow’s career as a director was far from glittering but he does a solid enough job here and there are one or two fairly atmospheric moments.

The script is very competent and the balance of humour, romance and suspense is just about right.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is typical of this company’s releases - there’s virtually nothing in the way of extras but the transfer is good and the price is reasonable.

Headline is basically a B-movie and it’s really rather lightweight but the well-executed and suspenseful ending makes it worthwhile and as a bonus the climactic action scene takes place on a train. You just can’t go wrong with train thrillers. On the whole this is an entertaining little movie, especially if you enjoy newspaper crime thrillers. Highly recommended. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Western Union (1941)

Western Union, made at 20th Century-Fox in 1941, was Fritz Lang’s second western. Lang, rather surprisingly, actually liked westerns a good deal. While his movies in this genre don’t attract the same critical plaudits as his exercises in film noir like Scarlet Street and The Big Heat they do tend to be interesting. Western Union is not as eccentric as Rancho Notorious but it’s a little unusual.

In 1861 Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line. It was an epic tale of adventure and danger. Well actually it wasn’t apparently, it was fairly uneventful, but  screenwriter Robert Carson took care of that little problem.

The movie opens with a chance meeting between Western Union’s chief engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) and Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott). Shaw is a bank robber on the run and he steals Creighton’s horse but just as he’s about to make his getaway successfully he realises that Creighton is badly injured. So he takes Creighton with him to seek medical help. 

Creighton owes Shaw his life and he soon gets a chance to repay his debt. Although he knows Shaw is an outlaw he gives him a job with the company as scout. It’s a vital job since the telegraph is going to be laid through some mighty hostile country. Trusting Shaw is a gamble, but will it pay off?

The third of the movie’s stars is Robert Young who plays a dapper tenderfoot from the East named Richard Blake who’s not quite such a helpless fool as he first appears.

The film’s love interest is provided by Virginia Gilmore as Creighton’s sister Sue who soon finds herself with two ardent suitors in the persons of Blake and Shaw.

John Carradine plays a supporting role as the company’s genial but cynical doctor and he steals every scene he’s in.

The screenplay throws in a few unexpected twists. Attacks by hostile Indians provide the biggest hazard faced by the crew building the telegraph line, although that’s what appears to be going on but in fact things are not at all what they seem.

The movie was supposedly based on a novel by Zane Grey but in fact it has little in common with the novel beyond the title.

The movie was shot in Technicolor and it really does have an epic feel. There are two action climaxes coming one on top of another at the end and both are impressive. Opinions seem to vary quite a bit on the final action sequence with some people believing that Lang made a hash of it whilst others believe he handled it perfectly. I fall into the second camp. It works for me.

Opinions on the film as a whole also diverge sharply. It’s a movie that changes gears dramatically in the last half-hour. The first hour is quite light-hearted but then the mood darkens significantly, and becomes quite overtly Langian. I think that makes the latter part of the film more effective - it comes as a shock when we realise just how completely trapped the hero is.

While I mentioned the three main stars earlier in actual fact the movie belongs totally to Randolph Scott. By 1941 he had already perfected his minimalist approach to acting and it serves him very well. Robert Young is, surprisingly, quite good. Dean Jagger drew the short straw and got the least interesting of the three main roles but he’s solid enough. Virginia Gilmore is charming.

This is the story of a great feat of engineering, and it’s a love triangle, but the only real plot strand that matters is the one involving Vance Shaw and it’s handled well enough to qualify this as one of the first great classic westerns.

Western Union is a fine movie, visually very impressive, and is highly recommended.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Black Camel (1931)

Made by the Fox Film Corporation in 1931 The Black Camel is apparently the earliest of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies to survive (although it’s not the earliest surviving Charlie Chan movie). It’s also interesting as being one of the few Charlie Chan films to be set in the famous detective’s home town, Honolulu, and one of the few in which we get to see Charlie’s entire family.

Movie star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) is in Hawaii to shoot a picture. She’s also just about to marry the rich and handsome Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr). She hasn’t actually said yes to him yet - first she has to consult her psychic advisor Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi). There may be a reason why she can’t marry her young man.

Also on the island at this time is Shelah’s first husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi). She’s arranged to meet him, for reasons unknown.

Shelah’s friend Julie (Sally Eilers) seems to have some idea as to the reason Shelah may not be able to marry Alan Jaynes). She knows that Shelah has a secret from the past.

Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police is already on the scene. He’s also interested in events in the past but soon he’s going to be distracted by events in the present when a murder takes place.

Apart from the characters already mentioned there are several other possible suspects including a down-and-out artist, a sinister butler, a mysterious maid and a couple of pompous movie people.

Yet another unusual feature of this movie is that it’s based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ actual Charlie Chan novels (although I have no idea how much resemblance it has to the novel apart from the title). It’s a decent moderately complicated murder mystery plot with a few good twists.

I’m rather fond of mystery plots involving show business or the world of movies and this one has the nice combination of Hollywood glamour (and a little decadence) with the exotic location. 

This is of course the Honolulu of 1931, still a true unspoilt tropical paradise, a far cry from the Honolulu of today. And there’s actual location footage, actually shot in Hawaii. 

This was in fact a more expensive and more ambitious film than the later Chan films made after Fox became part of 20th Century-Fox. It’s also visually quite impressive overall, with the fortune-telling scene between Tarneverro and Shelah being very moody and very atmospheric.

Warner Oland had already played Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On (one of several Chan movies that are tragically now lost). While I’m quite fond of the Sidney Toler Chan films it has to be admitted that Oland is overall the best of the many actors to play the great Chinese detective. In general Toler’s slightly harder-edged performance is perhaps closer to the Chan of Earl Derr Biggers’ novels so it’s interesting that in this film Oland gives us a Chan who is spikier and more forceful and more cop-like compared to his performances in later movies in the series.

Of course there has to be some comic relief and it comes in the form of Charlie’s Japanese side-kick Kashimo (Otto Kamaoka), an insanely energetic and enthusiastic  if not overly competent Honolulu PD junior detective. The good news is that he’s actually funny. It’s a performance you could never get away with today, but then you could never get away with making the Charlie Chan movies today either.

The supporting cast is solid with Robert Young as Julie’s boyfriend Jimmy being marginally less hyperactive than usual.

Bela Lugosi is perfectly cast as the enigmatic psychic Tarneverro. It’s a fairly restrained performance by Lugosi but a very effective one.

20th Century-Fox spent a lot of money restoring the Chan films for their DVD boxed set releases and it was money well spent. The Black Camel looks pretty good. There are a number of extras including an audio commentary track with film critic Ken Hanke and film historian John Cork.

The Black Camel is fine B-movie entertainment with the added bonus of a slight hint (a very slight hint) of the supernatural. In fact it’s definitely one of the very best of the Chan movies. And you get Bela Lugosi as well. Very highly recommended.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Third Alibi (1961)

The Third Alibi is a rather obscure little 1961 low-budget British murder mystery. It’s always a joy when a movie like this turns out to be a lot more special than one would expect. This one is in fact a neglected gem.

Composer Norman Martell (Laurence Payne) is married to Helen (Patricia Dainton) but he’s having an affair with Helen’s half-sister Peggy (Jane Griffiths). Peggy is putting a lot of pressure on Norman to ask Helen for a divorce. Peggy is determined that Norman is going to marry her. Unfortunately (for Norman) Helen absolutely refuses to consider giving him a divorce. As so often happens in crime movies it occurs to the adulterous couple that murdering Helen would solve all their problems. Norman has cooked up an elaborate plan for the perfect murder. He has gone into the matter in painstaking detail. Both he and Peggy will have rock-solid unbreakable alibis. Two alibis that will guarantee success.

Of course if every perfect murder went according to plan there wouldn’t be any murder mystery movies. Something will go wrong and to the film’s credit the plan goes awry in an interesting and original manner. This provides the first of the movie’s nasty little twists. It’s the third alibi that provides the really vicious sting in the tail and it’s very clever indeed.

Maurice J. Wilson and Montgomery Tully wrote the screenplay and it’s a very fine piece of work, intricately constructed and with a very neat symmetry as the third major plot twist kicks in at the end.

Tully also directed. He was responsible for numerous low-budget features and his directing style is unostentatious but quietly effective.

The cast is equally impressive. Patricia Dainton is excellent as Helen, giving a subtle performance that becomes more and impressive as the movie progresses. Laurence Payne is equally as good as Norman, a selfish man and a weak one and there’s nothing more dangerous (and pathetic) than a weak man who tries to be forceful and decisive. Jane Griffiths is also very solid as Peggy, a woman who is in her own way every bit as reprehensible and conniving as Norman. Norman and Peggy are very unsympathetic characters but that actually works to the film’s advantage - they’re awful people but they’re awful in a way that keeps us engrossed.

John Arnatt is quite splendid as the quietly spoken Superintendent Ross, a man who does his job without fuss but with thoroughness and efficiency.

Look out for brief cameos by Cleo Laine and Dudley Moore (playing the piano).

This is a low-budget movie but the great thing about crime pictures is that they don’t need big budgets. It was obviously shot mostly (or even possibly almost entirely) in the studio but it doesn’t look cheap or shoddy. Production values are perfectly adequate. It’s the writing and the performances that matter and there are no problems in those departments.

Running time is 68 minutes and there’s not a wasted minute in the movie.

Renown Pictures have released this movie as part of a three-movie DVD set (the other movies being A Stranger in Town and Night Was Our Friend). It’s a single-disc set but since each movie only runs for a bit over an hour there are no problems at all with this method and the transfers are quite satisfactory. There are no extras but the set is still excellent value for money. Of the other two movies Night Was Our Friend is also pretty good. I haven’t had a chance to watch A Stranger in Town. It’s a UK DVD but the good news is that it’s all-region.

The Third Alibi is a very nifty little movie with a clever plot and and excellent performances. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

recent reviews from my other movie blog

Some recent reviews from my Cult Movie Reviews blog that might be of interest -

Duel in the Jungle (1954) is a lightweight but fun Anglo-American adventure romp with Dana Andrews.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is one of the most notorious of all pre-code movies and it’s also quite possibly the best-ever Tarzan movie.

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) was the first of the Paramount Fu Manchu movies with Warner Oland (better-known as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu. And it’s quite entertaining.

Against All Flags (1952) was one of Errol Flynn’s later swashbucklers. Not in the same league as the great Flynn adventure films but it’s worth it for Anthony Quinn’s gloriously over-the-top supporting performance.

Carry On Cleo (1964) was the best movie of the entire Carry On series. And, very surprisingly for a Carry On movie, the production values are remarkably high.

The Night Has Eyes (1942), a British thriller with a very strong admixture of the gothic. One of James Mason’s early starring roles.