Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Pearl of Death (1944)

The Pearl of Death is one of the most admired of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes movies, and rightly so. It was released in 1944, and produced and directed by Roy William Neill.

It was based, very very loosely indeed, on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Six Napoleons.

The Pearl of Death begins with Sherlock Holmes giving an impressive demonstration of his genius as a detective. This is, alas, immediately followed by one of the biggest blunders of his career, one that threatens to tarnish his reputation in the eyes of the nation. The blunders is the direct result of Holmes’ overwhelming ego.

The subject of this embarrassing mistake is the famed Borgia Pearl, fabulously valuable but with a very evil reputation. Holmes is certain that criminal mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander) is behind the theft. Conover is certainly a worthy opponent for Holmes - he is clever and he is exceptionally ruthless.

The ruthlessness soon becomes evident with the first in what will be a series of horrifying murders. The victims have had their backs broken. Not surprisingly Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is totally at sea and is not even prepared to admit that the first murder really is a murder. Holmes however already has a shrewd idea how the murders were committed but the motives remain completely opaque. Nonetheless there are certain indications that lead the Great Detective to believe that the murders are linked to the theft of the notorious pearl.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are in sparkling form. Rathbone gets to sport a number of disguises. In fact disguise plays a particularly crucial role in this story with the villains making very effective use of the technique. This gives the studio’s resident make-up genius Jack Pierce plenty of useful employment.

The most notable of the trio of evildoers is Miles Mander as Conover. Conover might not be quite in the Professor Moriarty class but he’s still a fine villain, convincingly intellectual and also convincingly (but subtly) depraved, and oddly seedy as well. Rondo Hatton, who built a brief film career on personal misfortune (he was horribly disfigured by acromegaly), makes a brief but terrifying appearance as the dreaded Creeper. The third member of the criminal triumvirate  is, perhaps surprisingly, Universal’s popular scream queen Evelyn Ankers as the clever and dangerous Naomi Drake. Ankers handles the role reasonably well.

Dennis Hoey is even more blustering, and even more ineffectual, than usual as Inspector Lestrade.

As is usual in the case of the best movies in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes cycle there’s some low-key but effective spooky atmosphere especially when the Creeper puts in his appearance. Cinematographer Virgil Miler was quite adept at this sort of thing while by now director Roy William Neill knew exactly what the studio required of him and he knew how to deliver the goods.

The comic relief is kept to a minimum this time although Nigel Bruce still gets a few amusing moments and Basil Rathbone gets to mock poor Lestrade rather unmercifully.

The transfer (in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection DVD boxed set) is excellent and there are a few extras, including production notes courtesy of Richard Valley.

The Scarlet Claw is usually considered to be the best of all the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies with The Pearl of Death being the second best. From my memories of seeing The Scarlet Claw some years back (I really do need to watch it again) I’d tend to go along with that. The Pearl of Death certainly has no difficulty in living up to its glowing reputation. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Mr Moto’s Gamble (1938)

Mr Moto’s Gamble is the weakest of the Mr Moto films but it does have an interesting story behind, a story that does a great deal to explain why this movie doesn’t quite work.

Mr Moto’s Gamble started life as an entry in Fox’s hugely successful Charlie Chan series. It was going to be a boxing mystery entitled Charlie Chan at the Ringside. Unfortunately by this time the star of the Chan series, Warner Oland, was beginning to have a few problems. He was drinking and his marriage was breaking up. He was forgetting his lines and he was becoming temperamental. On the first day of shooting in January 1938 he walked off the set. Having been persuaded to continue the film, he walked off the set again. He insisted that production be moved to a different sound stage. Finally he walked off the set for a third time, never to return. This was, sadly, to be the end of his career (in August of that year he passed away).

Oland’s departure left Fox with a problem. They had a script that everybody was happy with. They had the sets ready to go. Some footage had already been shot. The studio was reluctant simply to scrap the film. The solution they came up with was to turn Charlie Chan at the Ringside into a Mr Moto film. They had already made two Mr Moto movies which had been extremely successful. It all seemed like a good idea.

The trouble was that Charlie Chan and Mr Moto are very different characters, and the Chan and Moto movies have an entirely different flavour. Mr Moto is not a straightforward detective. In the novels by John P. Marquand (which I highly recommend) Moto is a Japanese spymaster. In the movies he becomes an Interpol agent but it’s still quite clear that Moto is a man with connections in the intelligence community (in fact he probably has connections in the intelligence communities of several different countries). Mr Moto does not investigate routine murder cases. His cases either involve espionage in some form or at the very least they have some hint of international intrigue to them. Mr Moto is a slightly mysterious figure and there’s a touch of ambiguity to his character. He is also something of an action hero, and he can be quite ruthless. In other words he’s nothing at all  like Charlie Chan and the Mr Moto movies are nothing like the Chan movies.

The problem here is that Mr Moto’s Gamble has a plot that is very much a Charlie Chan sort of plot. The whole movie still feels like a Chan movie. And Mr Moto just doesn’t quite fit in. Peter Lorre as Moto tries hard but he’s just not given enough Mr Moto type things to do and his performance falls just a little bit flat.

Another legacy of the film’s origin is the presence in the cast of Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s son Lee! This also doesn’t quite work out. When Mr Moto is on a case he is the quintessential loner. Given the types of cases he usually deals with this is understandable - he has to play his cards very close to his chest. Moto has absolutely no need whatsoever for a sidekick. In this movie he is given two. Not just Chan Junior but also a kleptomaniac ex-boxer turned trainee criminologist named Wellington (Maxie Rosenbloom). They both provide comic relief, and they provide too much of it, although Wellington’s kleptomania does at least play a role in the plot.

The plot involves a boxing match that may or may not have been rigged but that results in the death of one of the fighters. Moto immediately realises the death was no accident. It was murder. There were some huge and very suspicious bets placed on the fight, by a variety of crooked gamblers all of whom seem to be trying to double-cross each other. It’s not a bad story and would have made an excellent Chan film.

There is of course a romantic sub-plot, in fact a romantic triangle involving boxer Bill Steele (Dick Baldwin), spoilt rich girl Linda Benton (Jayne Regan) and feisty girl reporter Penny Kendall (Lynn Bari).

The supporting cast is quite strong and includes (in a very minor role) Lon Chaney Jr. Bernard Nedell impresses as a very smooth but sinister gambler.

Lynn Bari is probably the standout performer here. She’s lively and vivacious and she manages the feisty girl reporter thing without being irritating.

As I mentioned earlier Peter Lorre is hampered by the necessity of having to play Moto as if he’s Charlie Chan, and to make things worse he’s stuck with dialogue written for Chan.

The first two Mr Moto films were directed by Norman Foster. James Tinling directed Mr Moto’s Gamble and it lacks the style and pace of Foster’s efforts.

Fox’s DVD presentation is more than satisfactory. The transfer is extremely good. There’s a brief but fascinating featurette detailing the movie’s troubled production history.

Mr Moto’s Gamble is reasonably entertaining but it does not have the feel of a Moto film and hardcore Moto fans are likely to be a little disappointed. So this one is recommended, but with reservations.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Naked Truth (1957)

The Naked Truth (also known as Your Past Is Showing) is a 1957 British comedy and it’s a very good one. This one was recommended to me by a commenter to a previous post as being a particularly fine Terry-Thomas comedy, which indeed it is.

I was just a little bit put off when I discovered that Peter Sellers was also among the stars. Sellers is far from being one of my favourites. In fact he’s really not too bad in this one and luckily the rest of the cast is quite superb.

It’s a splendid idea. The smooth, charming but thoroughly unscrupulous Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price) publishes a scandalous gossip magazine but his main business is blackmail. Having dug up particularly embarrassing dirt on famous people he threatens to publish the results in his magazine, The Naked Truth. Most of his victims pay up but if they don’t it doesn’t really matter - he still makes money from them indirectly by publishing the details of their scandals in the magazine.

The scheme is cunningly organised in such a way as to make successful prosecution for blackmail almost impossible.

His latest victims include insurance executive Lord Marley (Terry-Thomas), popular television personality Wee Sonny Macgregor (Peter Sellers), detective story writer Flora Ransom (Peggy Mount) and young actress Melissa Wright (Shirley Eaton). As it happens the members of this latest crop of victims have one thing in common - they are not in a position to raise the money to pay Dennis off. Actually they have a second thing in common - they all (quite independently) decide to take drastic steps to deal with the blackmailer. All four will eventually come up with the same solution - murder.

Of course they turn out to be rather incompetent amateurs when it comes to murder. Their plans are ingenious but tend to misfire rather badly. If any of them had chosen the simple direct approach  to murder they might have succeeded but the simple direct approach does not occur to them.

At least they are incompetent murderers as individuals, but as a team they might well do better.

They find themselves having to master other crimes as well as the plot builds to a clever climax which even manages to involve an airship!

My reservations about Peter Sellers are similar to my reservations about Alec Guinness as a comic actor. Both seem to me to be too self-conscious and to be trying too hard and they’re often very clever without being especially funny. In this case though Sellers is reasonably amusing.

Terry-Thomas on the other hand is just about my favourite British comic of this period and he’s in dazzling form. This is Terry-Thomas in well-meaning likeable bungler mode rather than dastardly villain mode and this is the Terry-Thomas I prefer.

Peggy Mount is delightfully outrageous as the crime writer who is thrilled by the idea of carrying out a real murder and she gets fine support from Joan Sims as her incredibly nervous daughter who is a very unwilling but dutiful accomplice. Shirley Eaton proves herself to be more than capable when it comes to comedy and of course she adds a touch of glamour.

Dennis Price is a terribly underrated British actor of this era. His comic style was suave and understated which contrasts nicely with the bravura performances of the other stars.

Italian-born producer-director Mario Zampi helmed quite a few classic 1950s British comedies, and did so very effectively. Michael Pertwee’s record as a comedy screenwriter was equally distinguished and his script for The Naked Truth gives the fine cast just the right material to work with.

The Region 4 DVD which I saw (part of a three-movie Peter Sellers collection) is barebones but the transfer is quite satisfactory.

The Naked Truth delivers the comedic goods in fine style. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Two Letter Alibi (1961)

Two Letter Alibi (also released as Death and the Sky Above) is a pretty routine but enjoyable 1961 British crime melodrama.

Charles Hilary (Peter Williams) is estranged from his wife Louise (Ursula Howells). He wants to marry glamorous television presenter Kathy Forrester (Petra Davies) but Louise absolutely refuses to consider giving him a divorce. While Louise is a drunk and she certainly has boyfriends she assures Charles that it would be futile for him to try to divorce her - she has been very discreet in her love affairs. Their final meeting ends in a great deal of unpleasantness.

It is therefore very unfortunate for Charles when his wife is murdered. He is very obviously going to be the prime suspect, and it’s even more unfortunate that there is a great deal of quite convincing circumstantial evidence against him.

Charles continues to protest his innocence but the shadow of the gallows is looming ever closer. The case against him is so strong as to make the verdict in his trial virtually inevitable.

His big problem is that his alibi, while it might well be genuine, is flimsy and unconvincing and is very unlikely to impress a jury (it certainly doesn’t impress the police).

The only way out is clearly to find the real killer. The police regard the matter as closed so Kathy decides she’ll have to play amateur detective. Charles decides (wrongly) that the wisest thing for him to do is to run.

The first half of the movie is well-paced and really quite good. It gets bogged down in the middle. Courtroom scenes always seem like an easy way to add drama but unless they’re handled with skill they can end up being slow and tedious, and sadly that’s the case here. Once the courtroom scenes are out of the way the plot kicks in again and things pick up.

Robert Lynn had a less than stellar career as a director in movies and television. He doesn’t quite manage to get the most out of the story. Some of the key dramatic moments don’t have the necessary impact.

Roger Marshall would go on to be one of the best television writers of the 60s and 70s and his screenplay here is more than serviceable.

The very short running time of just 57 minutes is a weakness. Some of the key plot elements, such as the alibi and the two-letter clue, really would have benefited from being fleshed out a bit and some of the dramatic scenes needed a bit more of a buildup.

Star Peter Williams doesn’t really have the charisma to carry this film although his performance is quite adequate. Petra Davies is solid enough as Kathy. Ursula Howells on the other hand gives her usual spirited performance as the spiteful wife Louise. Stratford Johns was a great character actor and he certainly knew how to play policeman (he spent most of the 60s playing them to great acclaim and with enormous success on British television) but as Superintendent Bates he’s rather subdued here and in any case he’s not given enough to do.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but it’s a nice transfer. The movie is black-and-white and in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Two Letter Alibi is one of the lesser British mystery thrillers of its era. It’s very low-key, maybe just a bit too low-key for its own good, but it’s a reasonably diverting time-killer. Worth a rental, or a purchase if you can pick it up very cheaply.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Night Won’t Talk (1952)

The murder of glamorous artist’s model Stella Smith is the starting point for The Night Won’t Talk, a fairly typical example of the 1950s British crime B-movie (in this case dating from 1952).

Stella Smith was popular with the artists for whom she posed, and not necessarily because of her virtues as a model. In fact virtue is not the first word that would come to mind when describing Stella. She was also rather ruthless in her pursuit of men, a quality that did not endear her to some of the other models. The list of people with a grudge against Stella Smith is rather a long one (it includes just about everyone who knew her). The problem for Inspector West (Ballard Berkeley) is deciding precisely where to start.

There are three male painters and one lady painter for whom Stella posed regularly. They are all members of the Portrait Club of which Martin Soames (Elwyn Brook-Jones) is the president. Soames certainly knew Stella very well indeed. So did Clayton Hawkes (John Bailey), in fact he and Stella were engaged to be married although the engagement was not exactly going smoothly due to Stella’s excessive friendliness towards a number of other men. Clayton’s big problem is that as a result of an injury sustained during the war he suffers from blackouts so he actually has no idea if he murdered Stella or not.

Kenneth Wills is another artist who might have had a reason to kill Stella. Kenneth thinks he’s a ladies’ man, an opinion which the ladies unfortunately do not share. Martin Soames might perhaps have had a reason to murder Stella, a reason with its roots in the past. There is no obvious reason why lady artist Theo Castle (Hy Hazell) would have wanted Stella dead, except that pretty much everyone seems to have wanted Stella dead. Model Hazel Carr (Mary Germaine) had excellent reasons to hate Stella as well.

The script, by the prolific Brock Williams, might not rate high for originality but it’s solid enough to keep us in doubt and to keep us interested. Director Daniel Birt did not have a spectacular career but he’s competent enough and there are no causes for complaint with the job he does here.

As so often with 50s British B-movies the cast contains lots of familiar faces and lots of very capable actors. Hy Hazell gets top billing as the elegant and slightly mysterious Theo Castle and she’s all that we expect a lady artist to be. Elwyn Brook-Jones is deliciously oily as Soames. Mary Germaine is fairly impressive as Hazel, a girl we might not be quite sure of at first - she might be a bit of a schemer or she might be a nice girl who has just decided that Clayton is the man she wants and now she’s going to make sure she gets him.

Playing Inspector West’s dour pipe-smoking Scottish sergeant is Duncan Lamont and this would not be the first or the last time he played such roles (and he does it pretty well). Ballard Berkeley makes a fine movie policeman, in this case one with just a slight edge of callousness. John Bailey wisely does not go too far over-the-top in his performance as the somewhat unstable Hawkes.

The murder of models was a popular subject for murder mysteries at the time, offering opportunities for glamour and some very mild titillation. And of course since artists and models are all eccentric, socially inept and at least slightly wicked the art world provides an absolutely splendid background for murder and mayhem.

The blackout angle involving Clayton Hawkes adds some amusing melodrama.

Network’s Region 2 DVD gives us, as usual, an excellent transfer without any extras but at a very reasonable price.

Crime movies are easy to make on limited budgets and were therefore an extremely popular B-movie genre on both sides of the Atlantic. The British film industry developed an extraordinary capacity for churning them out in large numbers whilst still maintaining a consistently high standard. The Night Won’t Talk is an unassuming but very enjoyable example that ticks all the right boxes and doesn’t really put a foot wrong during the course of its modest 61-minute running time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Girls’ Apartment (L'appartement des filles, 1963)

The Girls’ Apartment (L'appartement des filles) is a lightweight 1963 French romantic comedy combined with crime thriller. French comedy is something that I consider to be an acquired taste but this one’s not too bad.

Tibère (Sami Frey) is a good looking and very personable young man and as the film begins he is hanging about the airport in Paris. He needs an airline stewardess. He needs an airline stewardess very badly. Not for the reasons you might think, but because he has a job lined up for which a stewardess would be peculiarly suited. Tibère is a gold smuggler. He’s a good-natured and charming gold smuggler, but he is a criminal nonetheless.

He finds Eléna (Sylva Koscina). He smooth talks his way back to her apartment where he discovers that he’s found the mother lode. In this apartment live no less than three stewardesses. It’s just a matter of deciding which one to pick. Tibère is sure this will no problem. He has sublime confidence in his ability to persuade girls to do things.

Eléna is a sweet girl but quite crazy, in an adorably feminine way. The other two girls, Lolotte (Renate Ewert) and Mélanie (Mylène Demongeot), are just as crazy and just as adorable.

All three girls have boyfriends but of course they don’t let such details interfere with their love lives (this is Paris after all).

When the girls discover that Tibère is a gangster they are delighted. Gangsters are so sexy. All three would be thrilled to do some gold smuggling. Tibère eventually settles on Mélanie, or rather Mélanie convinces him that he has chosen her. In fact Mélanie has her own reasons for doing this and Tibère is likely to be less than pleased when he finds out what her reasons are.

Before the gold smuggling plot really kicks in we get the usual series of romantic misunderstandings and misadventures as Tibère tries to bed all three girls none of whom seem likely to put up much resistance, although the boyfriends do cramp their style just a little.

Once the crime sub-plot takes over there’s a bit of excitement but it’s all handled in a very light-hearted way. We have no doubts whatsoever that no-one is actually going to get hurt and we are equally confident that love will triumph. We have a pretty fair idea that when love does triumph it will involve Mélanie and Tibère.

This was 1963 so while it’s trying to be slightly naughty it’s really all very innocent. There is absolutely no nudity and the sex scenes are what you used to get in 1940s movies, in other words there are aren’t any but you do know when the camera cuts away that something is going to happen. The movie’s mildly risque but actually rather innocent tone is quite appealing. The risque elements come from the situations. There’s virtually no sexual innuendo in the dialogue.

In fact the dialogue might have benefited from having just a bit more bite to it. The plot is thin but it’s enough to sustain what is after all basically a very light romantic comedy. As to the comedy, it’s more of the amusing variety rather than the laugh-out-loud variety but it has a few good moments.

Sami Frey makes a convincing charming rogue. The three girls are delightful. Mylène Demongeot is not as well-known in English-speaking countries as she is on the Continent but she makes a wonderful and very likeable leading lady. Sylva Koscina (another actress much better known in Europe) is even more engaging as the gloriously ditzy and incredibly cute Eléna.

This was one of many collaborations between director Michel Deville and screenwriter Nina Companeez, collaborations that included movies like The Bear and the Doll. They made romantic comedies that may not have been brilliant but were at least quite entertaining.

This is very much a feel good movie. The main reason for watching is the joy of seeing the three lead actresses putting everything they’ve got into their performances and looking lovely while doing so. It’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable of spending a bit under an hour and a half. The Girls’ Apartment is worth a look if you don’t set your expectations too high.

This movie is available as part of a very expensive Michel Deville DVD boxed set but that sadly appears to be its only appearance on DVD.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

Charlie Chan in Panama is a 1940 entry in 20th Century-Fox’s prolific Charlie Chan B-movie series. It stars Sidney Toler as Chan.

This is a spy mystery rather than a straight murder mystery although of course there will be murder as well.

Charlie Chan is working undercover in Panama City (although why he should be involved in counter-espionage work is never explained). The city is full of spies and the US fleet is about to pass through the Canal. Those spies are certain to try to sabotage the fleet!

A US government agent is murdered just as he is about to give Charlie vital information. The agent had just flown in and the circumstances make it almost certain that the killer was a passenger on that sea-plane.

The passengers include stuffy Englishman Cliveden Compton (Lionel Atwill), a prim middle-aged schoolteacher who is terribly excited by the wickedness of Panama City, smooth-talking cabaret proprietor Manolo (Jack La Rue), a mysterious Egyptian, a pretty young Czech refugee named Kathi Lenesch (Jean Rogers), a rather nondescript clean-cut American guy and a stereotypically teutonic professor from Vienna.

Everyone in Panama City is in the grip of spy fever. And anyone expressing even the mildest interest in the comings and goings of the American fleet can find himself very quickly arrested as a spy - and this includes not just Charlie Chan but his exasperating offspring Jimmy Chan as well!

What the authorities do know is that a notorious German spy is at work in the city. He’s not actually identified as German (that would have been a bit naughty since the US wasn’t at war with Germany in 1940) but he has a very German name and the audience presumably would have had no doubts as to his nationality. The problem is that no-one knows what this spy looks like. Being a spy he is undoubtedly incredibly cunning and a master of disguise!

The only way Charlie can trap the spy is to set a trap for him, but he will have to use himself and all the other suspects as live bait.

The identity of the master spy seems obvious right from the start but to their credit screenwriters John Francis Larkin and Lester Ziffren do manage to spring a surprise on us in the last reel.

This movie is pure wartime propaganda. The fact that the United States wasn’t actually at war at the time didn’t diminish Hollywood’s war fever in the slightest. The propaganda gets a bit heavy-handed at times. On the other hand the spy paranoia does add some interest and some glamour to the story, and some danger - the enemy agents have plans involving not just bombs but bubonic plague.

Sidney Toler is in fine form. The support cast is pretty good, with Lionel Atwill being enigmatic and possibly sinister and Jean Rogers making a fairly effective European Woman of Mystery while being rather sweet and helpless as well. Victor Sen Young’s comic relief is bearable.

This is one of no less than seven movies in Fox’s Charlie Chan volume 5 boxed set. Charlie Chan in Panama gets an excellent transfer. Unlike some of the earlier Chan releases this one does not have very much at all in the way of extras - just a trailer and an image gallery. But when you’re getting seven movies in one set it’s a bit churlish to complain about the paucity of extras.

Charlie Chan in Panama is a solid enough entry in the Chan cycle, with a touch of exotic glamour (naturally all done in the studio or the backlot) and some excitement. Recommended.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Queen Bee (1955)

Queen Bee, released by Columbia in 1955, is an outrageously overheated but wonderfully entertaining melodrama with Joan Crawford delivering one of her most memorable performances.

The Phillips family are southern aristocracy, wealthy mill-owners with immense pride. Avery Phillips (Barry Sullivan) is the nominal head of the family. The actual head of the family is his wife Eva. Eva is no southern belle. She’s a Yankee, a fact that will turn out to be quite important.

Eva’s cousin Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) is the penniless poor relation who has been invited to stay. Eva’s explanation for this move is that she is lonely. We might be sceptical, but it might be true. Jennifer is a nice girl but hopelessly innocent and naïve. She is overwhelmed by Eva’s apparent kindness, and by her charm and glamour.

Nonetheless it soon becomes evident that all is not well in the Phillips household. Eva’s children have nightmares. Avery’s sister Carol is engaged to be married but is too scared to tell Eva. Avery is drunk most of the time. The man Carol is to marry is Judson Prentiss (John Ireland) and for a man soon to be married he seems irritable and morose.

Jennifer is naïve but she isn’t stupid and slowly she puts the pieces together. Carol had told her that Eva is like a queen bee who stings all her rivals to death and Jennifer begins to realise how true this is. Eva’s manipulations are breathtakingly blatant but they work because she knows what she wants and she will use any methods, any methods at all, to achieve her ends. At the moment her project is to prevent Carol’s marriage. Eva hopes to rekindle an old romance with Jud Prentiss. Whether she really wants Jud or whether she just wants him because Carol wants him is never made clear but given Eva’s personality both possibilities are plausible. And Eva has stolen other women’s men before. She likes doing that. It reassures her that she is irresistible to men. Especially now that the years are creeping up on her.

Of course Eva’s manipulations are going to lead to tragedy. The only question is, will there be any survivors by the time Eva has finished?

It’s an extraordinary performance by Crawford. She goes way over the top but she never loses control. Crawford understood melodrama and she knew exactly how far she could push a performance. She could push it very far indeed.

What’s interesting is that although Eva is one of the screen’s most horrifying monstrous women Crawford does show us the other side to the story. Eva has always felt that as a Yankee she was never going to be accepted, and not being as blue-blooded as the Phillips family made her even more of an outsider. She is a frightened lonely woman. She is terrified by the passing of the years and terrified of losing her power over men because that’s all she has. Crawford does not exactly make her sympathetic but at least we can understand how she became a monster and that makes her more human. And human monsters are more interesting than inhuman ones.

Barry Sullivan and John Ireland are both excellent as the two men who have been Eva’s playthings. They hate the way Eva plays with them but they don’t have the strength of character to do anything about it. They are weak men, but they are perhaps not entirely spineless. We have the feeling that if Eva keeps pushing she might push them into reclaiming their pride and taking a stand. It’s not a certainty, but it’s a possibility. Avery is a hopeless drunk but he has an odd streak of stubbornness.

Ranald MacDougall wrote and directed Queen Bee. As a director he’s no more than competent but as a writer he’s top notch. The script is peppered with deliciously bitchy dialogue and he clearly understands what melodrama is all about.

Queen Bee would make a great double bill with Crawford’s slightly earlier (1950) melodrama Harriet Craig.

The Columbia DVD has no extras worth noting but it offers a fine anamorphic transfer.

Crawford’s venomous performance makes Queen Bee glorious entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Make Mine Mink (1960)

Make Mine Mink is a charming feelgood 1960 British comedy starring the great Terry-Thomas. This time he’s the leader of a gang of very unlikely crooks.

Dame Beatrice Appleby (Athene Seyler) is an elderly lady who devoted herself to charity work. Or at least she did until her money ran out. She supplements her income by taking in lodgers, and a motley collection they are. There’s Major Albert Rayne, for whom the war years were the best years of his life. Of course the war years were not all that dangerous for him, since he commanded a mobile bath unit. There’s the seriously scatterbrained Miss Pinkerton (Elspeth Duxbury), held together by regular doses of her nerve tonic. And there’s the very formidable Nanette Parry (Hattie Jacques).

Dame Beatrice can only afford one servant. Lily (Billie Whitelaw) is devoted to the old lady, as well she might be. When Lily got out of prison Dame Beatrice have her a chance.

Now Lily has got herself into trouble once again. She wanted to give Dame Beatrice a present and when a neighbour, in the midst of a furious argument with his wife, hurled an extremely valuable mink coat out of the window Lily retrieved it. So she didn’t exactly steal the coat. Not exactly. But the police might well misunderstand her actions.

There’s only one thing for Dame Beatrice and her lodgers to do. They have to return the coat. An undertaking which proves even more challenging than stealing a coat. Major Rayne realises immediately that the matter must be approached as a military operation. In actual fact it’s more like a comedy of errors but somehow they manage to pull it off.

It occurs to them that if they can return a mink coat successfully under such difficult circumstances then they could just as easily steal one. Not for gain of course. Same Beatrice’s charities always need money. So it wouldn’t really be doing anything terribly wrong. So they decide to give it a go and against all the odds they pull off a spectacular robbery.

And they discover that they like doing this sort of thing a great deal. They suddenly feel alive again.  They’re no longer a bunch of superannuated eccentrics. They’re daring thieves, but with a touch of Robin Hood. Soon they’re the most successful gang in London. They’re complete amateurs but that’s why they succeed - their methods are so outrageously bizarre that the police are baffled.

The problem is Lily. She’s the only actual criminal (or ex-criminal) in the household and she takes a very old-fashioned view of such things. She actually thinks stealing is wrong. She also understands that the police tend to take a dim view of thieving, even for good causes. To make things more awkward Lily is dating a policeman.

It’s a recipe for non-stop fun and that’s what this movie delivers. There’s a nice mix of verbal and visual humour. There are a few mildly risque gags, but they’re actually funny. The robberies are inspired lunacy. Everything always goes wrong but somehow this gang always seems to get away with it. The scene in which the Major tries to fence for their stolen goods is a wonderful comic set-piece.

Terry-Thomas is best-remembered for roles as dastardly villains and shameless cads but he was equally adept at playing well-meaning sympathetic bumblers and that’s how he plays Major Rayne. In fact all of the characters are both sympathetic and interesting. We genuinely care what happens to them, although this movie is very careful to avoid any hints of mawkish sentimentality. And the characters are played by a galaxy of British comic talent. Hattie Jacques shines, as always. Look out for Kenneth Williams in a minor part as a very up-market fence. Billie Whitelaw is essentially the straight-woman, playing the only sane member of the household, and she manages to do it in an oddly sexy way.

Make Mine Mink is absolutely delightful. Sheer joy from start to finish. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Strip (1951)

The Strip is an all-singing all-dancing glossy 1951 MGM film noir. If your first thought is that a film noir musical just isn’t going to work then you’d be at least partly correct. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s by no means a total loss.

It starts in classic film noir style with a guy picked up by the police as a suspect in a murder. He then tells his story in an extended flashback.

Stanley Maxton (Mickey Rooney) had cracked up during his Korean War service but he recovers to be discharged and heads off to LA hoping to resuscitate his career as a musician. Two chance encounters in cars will change his life forever.

Firstly he meets Sonny Johnson (James Craig) when Johnson’s car accidentally runs him off the road. Sonny is very apologetic and not only offers to replace Stanley’s drum kit which was smashed in the accident, he also offers him a job. An extremely well-paid job. Sonny is a businessman. His business is not exactly legal. In fact it’s totally illegal. Stanley doesn’t mind that. The pay is good and he’s anxious to earn as much money as he can as quickly as possible so he can buy a club of his own. Stanley’s willingness to accept a job that he knows is illegal is his first step on the road to ruin. He just doesn’t quite have the moral fibre to say no to easy money.

The second encounter is much more disastrous. He meets Jane Tafford (Sally Forrest). Jane is as cute as a button but this girl raises so many red flags that you have to wonder how any man with a lick of sense would get mixed up with her. Jane wants to be a movie star. That is all she wants out of life. Nothing else matters. She has tried to make it on the strength of her rather slight talents and hasn’t made it. Now she’s decided that she is going to make it, no matter what she has to do in order to do so. If it means sleeping her way to the top that’s no problem. To Jane men are just a means to an end, and the end is to make Jane Tafford a star.

Night-club owner Fluff (William Demarest) tries to warn Stanley about her but Stanley isn’t listening. He’s in love. He’s busy day-dreaming about buying a little house and enjoying married bliss with Jane and he’s wondering how many kids they should have. Jane is doing what she always does. She is deciding how useful Stanley can be to her career. The answer is, not very useful at all. Sonny on the other hand could be very useful to her.

It has to be said that Stanley is not very bright. He’s well-meaning and he’s a decent guy and he would obviously make a very good husband for some nice girl. Unfortunately Jane is not a nice girl. She’s a scheming tramp. Even though this is painfully obvious Stanley is determined not to see it.

Mickey Rooney made several forays into the film noir genre and he actually makes a very good noir protagonist. Rooney could be a fine actor when he put his mind to it, and when he was given the opportunity. Sally Forrest gets the femme fatale role but this is an MGM movie and it’s a musical so she can’t go over-the-top with the standard femme fatale stuff. She has to be a femme fatale but a wholesome femme fatale. In some ways this actually works quite well. It makes her cynicism more shocking and it makes her much more dangerous. How could a girl who looks so darned cute be a bad girl? Overall Sally Forrest does a decent job of acting here.

James Craig does well as the charming but unscrupulous Sonny, a classic noir bad guy who is menacing without being a mere thug.

So far I’ve talked about the film noir angle, but this is also a fully-fledged musical with lots of musical numbers. They’re integrated reasonably well with the main plot and after all it’s not unusual for film noir to deal with the worlds of show business, night-clubs and music so it does make some sense to have musical interludes. There are however just too many musical numbers and they slow down the plot to an extraordinary degree.

On the other hand the music is pretty good, which you’d expect when you’ve got musicians like Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden in the cast.

László Kardos directed and he was clearly hamstrung by the need to combine what were essentially two incompatible genres. It’s a problem he was unable to solve.

This movie was shot in black-and-white which helps its noir credentials a little but there’s really not much in the way of genuine noir visual styling or atmosphere. On the other hand it does capture the seedy glamorous night-club feel pretty well (with some good location shooting in actual night-clubs as well).

The Strip is an odd hybrid and it’s more successful than you might anticipate. It has a decent film noir plot with a couple of good twists. It’s also closer to genuine noir than you’d expect from an MGM production. It’s interesting enough to earn a highly recommended rating.