Sunday, January 29, 2017

Behind That Curtain (1929)

Behind That Curtain was I believe the first of the Fox Charlie Chan movies (although there had been a couple of earlier Chan movies from other companies). Released in 1929, this is also the earliest surviving Chan film.

Eve Mannering (Lois Moran) is an heiress pursued by two suitors. Colonel John Beetham (Warner Baxter) is a famous explorer and he’s the man Eve’s uncle hopes she will marry. Eve however prefers the handsome plausible cad Eric Durand (Philip Strange). Eve’s uncle has employed a private investigator in the hope that he will dig up something on Durand that will bring his niece to her senses. Eve however is totally besotted by Durand.

The private investigator is murdered. Eric Durand has an obvious motive for the murder but Colonel Beetham has a motive also. It looks like the murder is going to remain unsolved but Sir Frederick Bruce (Gilbert Emery) of Scotland Yard has a reputation for never giving up on a murder case. Sir Frederick has also been in contact with the famous Charlie Chan who has provided some very useful pointers.

Eve of course marries her handsome bounder and sets off for India with him. Predictably the marriage is not a success. As luck would have it Colonel Beetham is also in India.

Much of the action takes place in India and in the remote deserts of central Asia (the scene of Beetham’s latest expedition).

There was a witness with vital information about the murder but he has decided that blackmail would be more profitable than talking to Scotland Yard.

The identity of the murderer is actually revealed very early so the emphasis is on the suspense angle of the investigation rather than the mystery. This is of course a perfectly valid approach but in this instance it falls rather flat. The screenplay has its flaws but it’s the lifeless execution that is the real problem. And the dialogue! The dialogue is often excruciatingly bad.

The film is a very loose adaptation indeed of the novel by Earl Derr Biggers. In fact it bears only a tenuous resemblance to the book.

Very early talkies have a reputation for being very static due to various issues involved with the early sound technology. That reputation is often undeserved but this movie really does suffer in this area. The camera setups do tend at times to be rather static. Director Irving Cummings is also much too leisurely in his approach.

Warner Baxter is OK but there are problems with the rest of the cast. Lois Moran is terrible. She started her career in silent films and it’s obvious she has not yet adapted to sound films. Her performance is as a result overly melodramatic and just doesn’t ring true at all. Gilbert Emery is very dull as the indefatigable Scotland Yard man. Philip Strange has potentially the best role but does little with it. Look out for Boris Karloff in a bit part.

For Charlie Chan fans the biggest issue is going to be that Chan plays a very minor role in the film, not appearing until very late in the proceedings. Chan is played by E.L. Park who was the last actual Asian actor to play the role (although Warner Oland claimed to have some Mongolian ancestry). This was Park’s only film role. 

When Chan finally does appear he’s only in a couple of brief scenes. Obviously at this stage no-one at Fox realised that the character was capable of carrying an entire movie.

The Indian and central Asian scenes are done surprisingly well and look quite impressive. They even have proper Bactrian camels. These scenes are the highlight of the movie.

Behind That Curtain is included as an extra in the third of the Fox Charlie Chan boxed sets. While Fox spent a fortune restoring the other Chan movies (with generally excellent results) they don’t seem to have done as much on this film, or perhaps the surviving print was simply in much poorer shape. Both image and sound quality are quite acceptable.

Behind That Curtain is played more as romantic melodrama than mystery. There’s not really a great deal of actual detective work in this film. It certainly has historical interest and  if you’re a keen Charlie Chan fan you’ll want to see it for that reason. However it’s much too slow and the lack of an effective mystery plot is a fatal flaw. The fact that Charlie Chan is hardly in the movie at all is also a very definite drawback. On the other hand the boxed set is very much worth buying and since Fox has thrown in this film as an extra you’re not losing very much (except an hour-and-a-half out of your life) by giving it a spin. There’s definitely no way this one would be worth buying on its own.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Suspected Person (1942)

Suspected Person is a 1942 British crime thriller about American gangsters in London.

James Raynor (Clifford Evans) has double-crossed American mobsters Franklin (Robert Beatty) and Dolan (Eric Clavering) over a bank robbery. Raynor, an Englishman, had been working as a crime reporter in New York. Now Franklin and Dolan have figured out that Raynor was the one who pulled a fast one on them and that he has the fifty grand from the bank robbery. So they’re off to London to have a little talk with him, and maybe take him for a ride.

Scotland Yard knows the gangsters are on the way to England but Detective Inspector Thompson (David Farrar) has decided to let them into the country and keep an eye on them. He has a feeling they’ll lead him to the missing money, which will be a feather in his cap and be good for the prestige of the Yard. Detective Sergeant Saunders (William Hartnell) is not quite sure about all this - he thinks his boss might be trying to be a bit too subtle.

Thompson is trying to be very subtle. He goes undercover, taking a room at the hotel run by Raynor’s sister Joan (Patricia Roc). Raynor himself is trying to be even more clever, confident he can outwit Franklin and Dolan against whom he has a personal grudge. Raynor is playing a dangerous game and he may be endangering his girlfriend, night-club singer Carol Martin (Anne Firth).

So the plot is a double chase, with the American gangsters after Raynor while Inspector Thompson is after them. 

Writer-director Lawrence Huntington had a long if rather obscure career in B-pictures before making the move to television in the late 50s. His script is routine but serviceable. His directing is rather flat-footed. This film’s major problem is that it never really develops any sense of urgency or excitement.

At one point the gangsters are pursuing Raynor on a train. It’s almost impossible to go wrong in a thriller when you have vital scenes set on a train but Huntington totally fails to take any advantage of the train setting and these scenes just don’t deliver the goods.

Another major problem is the casting. Clifford Evans is just the wrong actor for this role. He’s too genteel to be convincing as someone who worked as a New York City crime reporter and then tried to double-cross a couple of very hard-boiled American mobsters. His bland performance undermines the film’s credibility.

David Farrar does a very fine job in his supporting role as Inspector Thompson but he would really have been a much better choice to play Raynor.

Patricia Roc on the other hand is terrific as Joan Raynor - she’s pert and charming and her performance is totally convincing. She and David Farrar have the right chemistry to make their romantic sub-plot work.

William Hartnell was often used in comic relief roles but this time he plays it pretty straight. The witty interplay between Farrar and Hartnell is always delightful and in fact is the highlight of the movie.

This movie was released in mid-1942. With the US having just entered the war you'd expect a British movie made at that time to be quite pro-American but in fact the reverse is true. There are quite a few not-so-subtle digs at the corruption of the American criminal justice system and there’s a general attitude that American gangsters might think they’re tough but they’re no match for Scotland Yard, or for a quick-witted Englishman.

The British police in this movie have such contempt for American criminals that even though they have good reason for thinking that Franklin and Dolan might be armed when it comes to the final showdown they don’t even bother carrying firearms (which of course British police are quite entitled to do in such circumstances). The clear implication is that British policemen have no need to resort to such barbarisms just to deal with a couple of New York hoodlums. It’s also notable that although Inspector Thompson contacts the New York police he gets no help from them.

Network’s DVD release is stock-standard for this company - no extras apart from an image gallery but a very good transfer.

Suspected Person is not a terrible movie by any means. It’s just a very average B-movie that doesn’t quite succeed in generating any real tension. The excellent performances of David Farrar, Patricia Roc and William Hartnell are the main reasons for watching this one. Probably worth a rental.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Offbeat (1961)

Offbeat (released in the US as The Devil Inside) is a 1961 low-budget film noir-influenced British crime thriller concerning Scotland Yard’s famous Ghost Squad. This was a real-life division within Scotland Yard whose officers infiltrated criminal organisations for extended periods of time.

Layton (William Sylvester) is an MI5 man seconded to the Ghost Squad to penetrate one of the new highly organised gangs behind a series of alarming and very sophisticated robberies. He’s been provided with a false identity, that of Steve Ross, a criminal who disappeared from view a year or so earlier. First Layton/Steve Ross has to prove his bona fides to the London underworld and this provides the movie’s excellent opening sequence as he robs a bank single-handed.

It doesn’t take long for him to make contact with the organisation run by James Dawson (Anthony Dawson), and a very well-run criminal organisation it is. It even has a pension plan! Dawson and his partner, the easy-going Johnny Hemick (John Meillon), need a man who is ice-cold under pressure and Steve Ross seems to fit the bill perfectly. Steve’s first job for the gang is a very daring robbery - a jewellery store with three-quarters of a million pounds in diamonds locked in the safe. The store is incredibly well-protected but Steve has an idea that will allow these security measures to be very neatly circumvented.

In the meantime Steve has become very friendly indeed with another member of the gang, glamorous blonde Ruth Lombard (Mai Zetterling). It would be very foolish for an undercover cop to fall in love in a situation like this but that’s exactly what seems likely to happen.

The heist itself (including the elaborate planning stages) occupies most of the film and it’s wonderfully tense and exciting as it keeps seeming that everything is about to go wrong but these are professional thieves and they have planned this robbery very well indeed.

While it’s a terrific caper movie there’s a lot more going on in this movie. Steve has made a disturbing discovery. He really likes these people. And he really enjoys being a criminal. Added to which are the charms of the lovely Ruth Lombard. Of course he’s still a cop and he has his duty to perform. It’s just that it now seems like a rather unpleasant duty - it seems uncomfortably like betrayal.

The theme of divided loyalties and betrayal and counter-betrayal provide a very definite hint of film noir. This is combined with a strong sense of moral ambiguity - these are rather honourable thieves in their own way. This of course adds further to the noir flavour. 

The suspense in this movie (and very effective suspense it is) comes not just from the usual hazards of a bold and risky heist but from our considerable uncertainty as to which way Steve Ross will finally jump. I’m obviously not going to give you any hints as to the answer. All I will say is that we’re kept guessing until the end.

William Sylvester was an American actor who was trained in Britain and become something of a fixture in low-budget British crime pictures in the 50s and early 60s (including Dublin Nightmare and the superb Portrait of Alison). He had a certain intensity about him which works very much in his favour in this film. Steve Ross is a man who seems to be in absolute control of himself but we can’t help suspecting that maybe he’s just a little too tightly wound.

Swedish-born Mai Zetterling had a modestly successful film career in Britain during the same period. She makes a fairly good female lead here. Anthony Dawson and Australian character actor John Meillon provide fine support - both Johnny Hemick and Dawson are a bit more interesting than you would usually expect from supporting characters and we care about their fate just as we care about Steve Ross and Ruth.

Director Cliff Owen had a very undistinguished career spent mostly in television but he obviously did have some real ability as he does a fine job maintaining the tension and the pacing. Writer Peter Barnes (who also worked on the excellent spy thriller Ring of Spies) provides a clever script.

Offbeat gets the standard DVD treatment from Network - a very good anamorphic transfer without any extras (apart from a photo gallery) and at a reasonable price.

Offbeat is worth the attention of noir fans and it’s a very entertaining crime suspense thriller. Highly recommended.

Scotland Yard’s Ghost Squad was also the subject of a very good early 60s British television crime series, called (naturally) Ghost Squad. It's worth a look as well.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Mandarin Mystery (1936)

The Mandarin Mystery is a 1936 murder mystery made by Republic Pictures and based on  the Ellery Queen detective novel The Chinese Orange Mystery

The screenplay is a very loose adaptation indeed of the novel. In fact, sadly, it has almost nothing to do with the novel.

A young woman named Josephine Temple arrives in New York with a stamp which she hopes to sell to noted philatelist Dr Kirk. The stamp, the famed Chinese Mandarin, just happens to be the most valuable stamp in the world, so valuable that the sale will set up Miss Temple and her parents for the rest of their lives.

Of course the stamp gets stolen, and by a stroke of good fortune crime novelist and amateur detective Ellery Queen is already on the scene. In fact he’s at the hotel and already has his eye on Miss Temple, for romantic rather than detectival reasons. Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department, is soon on hand as well.

The stamp gets stolen a few more times and there are a couple of murders. The first corpse is found with his coat on back-to-front, just like the fellow on the famous stamp (the explanation of the back-to-front clothing on the figure on the stamp is one of the more unconvincing elements in the screenplay).

The stamp is the key to the mystery, but the stamp is the only one of its kind in existence so it would be very difficult to sell. Why would anyone steal it? The explanation of this is another rather unconvincing element.

The novel has a wildly original and brilliantly conceived plot. So if you’re going to make a film from such a story what’s the first thing you do? Why of course you eliminate everything that is original and brilliant and substitute a predictable piece of third-rate hack work. That’s exactly the course that was followed in this case. Even worse, they kept a few of the clever ideas but changed them around so they were no longer clever and no longer made any sense.

Why does Hollywood so often insist on taking a perfectly good story and ruining it? Perhaps the theory is that if the source material was a very popular novel (as it was in this case) then many members of the audience would already have read the book and would therefore know the solution. So changing the plot out of all recognition would avoid this danger. On the other hand the audience for books has always been pretty small compared to the audience for movies so I don’t see such a strategy would be necessary.

I’m inclined to think it’s just the way Hollywood works. Too many people taking a hand in things and they all want to justify their involvement and the best way to do that is to change something even if it doesn’t need changing. There were four writers involved in this movie and that’s always an ominous sign.

Director Ralph Staub spent most of his career making shorts with only a handful of features in his résumé. Judging by this effort he should have stuck to shorts.

The movie is played for comedy and romance rather than being a serious murder mystery movie. Eddie Quillan plays Ellery Queen as an irritating loud-mouthed comic character rather than the slightly foppish upper-class aesthete that he is in the early Ellery Queen books. I guess it was figured that brash motor-mouths were more popular with the movie-going public.

Wade Boteler is OK as Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, although he’s a bit too big and beefy and obviously cop-like for my tastes (the character in the novels isn’t quite a stereotypical New York homicide cop). Franklin Pangborn contributes a typical Franklin Pangborn performance as the rather effete hotel manager. The other cast members are instantly forgettable.

The film is in the public domain and my copy comes from one of the Mill Creek 50-movie public domain sets (the Dark Crimes set which is actually quite worthwhile if you can find it for a good price). The image quality is poor and washed out and the sound quality is very iffy, but on the other hand at the price I paid for the set it worked out at about 26 cents a movie so I can’t complain. And it is watchable. It’s also been issued by Alpha Video but I suspect their release is every bit as bad - if you were contemplating paying $6 for the Alpha Video DVD you’d be better off paying $13 for the Mill Creek set and that way you get 49 other movies as well!

This is one of those movies that is much easier to enjoy if you haven’t read the book. If you fall into that category you’ll find this is just a stodgy uninspired second-rate B-feature. If you’ve read the book then the movie is an abomination. The Mandarin Mystery is not really particularly worth bothering with. The Mill Creek Dark Crimes DVD set is worth getting though - at 26 cents a movie it’s hard to beat for value if you don’t mind the fact that these are public domain films and the transfers are pretty rough. Actually 26 cents is about what The Mandarin Mystery is worth.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Salute the Toff (1952)

There were two British mystery thrillers made in the early 50s based on John Creasey’s popular Toff novels (reviewed here). Both were thought for many years to be lost films but a few years back Renown Pictures found prints of both films. The first Toff film, Salute the Toff, was originally released in early 1952 to be followed by Hammer the Toff later the same year.

The Toff is a character with some superficial resemblances to Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar. Both are heroes with a touch of the rogue to them, both are inclined not to worry too much about the letter of the law, both have a characteristic calling card which they use to gain a psychological edge over evil-doers and both are crusaders for justice. There are some crucial differences though. Simon Templar could move in the higher social circles but he was not technically speaking a gentleman. The Toff is very much the genuine article. He is actually the Honourable Richard Rollison, the son of a nobleman.

And Simon Templar is himself (in the eyes of the law at least) a crook and a thief, even if he only steals from other criminals. The Toff is quite at home in the criminal underworld but he is not a criminal.

While Simon Templar psychs out the bad guys by using his famous Saint stick figure as a calling card the Toff employs a drawing of a top hat for the same purpose.

Salute the Toff opens with Rollison becoming involved in what seems a very routine disappearance. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s a beautiful young woman who leads Rollison into the case. Fay Gretton (Carol Marsh) is worried about her boss, a young businessman named Draycott. He’s gone missing. 

Rollison agrees to go to Draycott’s flat to find out what’s going on. This will involve a spot of house-breaking but that’s no problem for The Toff. In Draycott’s flat he finds the young man lying dead.

It gradually emerges that there’s some kind of conspiracy and it may involve wealthy businessman Mortimer Harvey, or possibly Harvey may be the victim. Harvey’s beautiful but somewhat amoral daughter Phyllis may be mixed up in it and an old criminal foe of Rollison’s, a smooth thug named Lorne, seems likely to have a hand in the conspiracy.

The plot is nothing particularly special but it’s workmanlike and has enough twists to keep things fairly interesting.

Maclean Rogers was a journeyman director of quota quickies and similar low-budget fare but he proves himself to be competent enough. There’s a bit of location shooting, the highlight being some great scenes of early 50s London street life.

It’s the cast that makes this movie work so well. John Bentley made several Paul Temple films at this time but he doesn’t give us a mere retread of those performances. He makes Rollison convincingly upper-class but he does it with skill and subtlety. It’s a lively and likeable performance. Carol Marsh makes a charming heroine. Comic relief is provided by Rollison’s faithful and surprisingly useful gentleman’s gentleman Jolly (Roddy Hughes) and  his old friend, publican and boxing trainer Bert Ebbutt (Wally Patch). They’re not just annoying comic relief characters thrown in for no good reason. They both play worthwhile parts in the lot and the humour is nicely integrated with the plot line. Jolly in particular is a delightful character.

Renown’s DVD presentation is more than acceptable. The print is not pristine but it’s pretty good and considering that we’re lucky this film has survived at all there’s no cause for complaint.

Salute the Toff is a very decent little crime thriller. The low budget is no real problem. It’s a film that never looks cheap or shoddy. John Bentley’s sparkling performance is a major asset, the comic relief is never intrusive and while it reaches no great cinematic heights it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Its status as a once lost film adds extra interest. Recommended. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

the best classic movies I watched in 2016

I’ve been lucky in my choices of classic movies in the past year. Picking a top ten list proved to be too hard so I’ve gone for a top dozen. Here they are, with links to my reviews.

The Black Camel (Hamilton MacFadden, 1931) - so far my favourite Charlie Chan movie and it’s certainly the most ambitious.

Man on the Flying Trapeze (Clyde Bruckman, W.C. Fields, 1935) -  terrific W.C. Fields comedy.

Sweethearts (W.S. Van Dyke, Robert Z. Leonard, 1938) - charming Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musical.

Nocturne (Edwin L. Marin, 1946) - great hardboiled crime thriller starring George Raft, perhaps not absolutely noir if you’re a purist but an excellent movie.

Green for Danger (Sidney Gilliat, 1946) - superb English murder mystery with a dazzling performance from Alistair Sim.

Born To Kill (Robert Wise, 1947) - absolutely classic top-notch noir and there’s not the slightest doubt that this is noir. Strange, overheated and disturbing.

Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948) - an unusual and exceptionally interesting British gothic melodrama with a slight noir flavour to it.

Wide Boy (Ken Hughes, 1952) - a fine British noir with a splendid performance from the very underrated Sydney Tafler.

You Can’t Escape (Wilfred Eades, 1956) - British suspense thriller with some nifty plot twists.

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957) - delightful frothy Fred Astaire musical.

Jet Storm (Cy Endfield, 1959) - fine British aviation disaster movie.

The Third Alibi (Montgomery Tully, 1961) - excellent British mystery thriller.