Friday, March 24, 2017

On the Town (1949)

On the Town was the first directorial collaboration between Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and although it’s not quite as admired as Singin’ in the Rain it is regarded as one of the major postwar American musicals. Does it live up to its rather exalted reputation? In my view the answer is no, not quite, but it has its moments.

The plot is dead simple. Three sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin), have a 24-hour leave pass in New York City. They intend to have lots of fun, and fun will of course involve women.

Gabey falls hopelessly in love with a girl he sees on a poster in the subway. Brash lady cab driver Hildy falls for Chip while Ozzie hooks up with glamorous anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller).

The subway poster girl Ivy Smith who is this month’s Miss Turnstiles, this being some kind of promotion for the subway system. Being a small town boy who at this point in his life has never been to New York (or any big city) Gabey gets the idea into his head that Miss Turnstiles is some kind of huge celebrity. He thinks that she probably spends her time mixing with all the high society types. In fact Ivy Smith is an impoverished dance student who earns a precarious living as a cooch dancer at Coney Island. And far from being a sophisticated New Yorker she’s a small town girl from Meadowdale, Indiana (which just happens to be Gabey’s own home town).

Gabey only meets Ivy for a few brief moments, then loses her and he spends the rest of the day trying to find her again. 

My first problem with this movie is that generally speaking I really don’t like Gene Kelly. I admit he’s much less annoying than usual in this film and in fact to my surprise I found him to be actually fairly likeable. I do have a few issues with a couple of the cast members. Betty Garrett gives it her all as the sex-crazed cab driver but I quickly discovered that a little bit of Betty Garrett goes a long long way. Jules Munshin as Ozzie is exceptionally irritating. 

On the other hand Frank Sinatra is terrific as the rather shy Chip, bringing a real warmth and charm to the character. Ann Miller is of course fabulous.

This movie has the kind of feel that I always associate with Gene Kelly. It tries desperately hard to be clever. The dance sequences are certainly technically impressive. At times it’s more clever than enjoyable. Towards the end we get the kind of slightly pretentious ballet sequence that always appealed to Gene Kelly. 

The highlights are definitely the dances involving Ann Miller.

The music, by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens, is noisy and energetic but mostly rather forgettable.

The movie’s biggest strength is that the romance between Gabey and Ivy is quite touching.  It’s also pleasing that while they’re both small town innocents at large in the big city both characters are treated with respect. Gabey’s belief that Ivy must be a big celebrity betrays his naïvete, and Ivy’s desperate attempts to convince him that she really does move in the most exalted social circles are somewhat childish, but in both cases it’s made clear that this sort of innocence is not necessarily such a terrible thing.

In fact overall it’s a good-natured film about people who are essentially pretty decent. Even when Chip gets set up on a blind date with Hildy’s painfully plain buck-toothed flatmate he’s too nice a guy not to treat her respectfully.

On the Town is a bit of a mixed bag. Its main faults are that it tries too hard and the music is not great but the characters are sympathetic and appealing, it has some very amusing moments and it has both energy and some surprising charm. The delightful performances by Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller are major pluses. Recommended.

Monday, March 20, 2017

sci-fi classics - Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey

I've reviewed two classic science fiction  movies on my Cult Movie Reviews blog. Forbidden Planet is arguably the most admired sci-fi movies of the 1950s while Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is almost certainly the most admired of 1960s sci-fi films, providing a good opportunity for a back-to-back comparison. This is especially so since both movies are available on Blu-Ray and they're movies that really need to be seen in that format.

Here are the links to my reviews - Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943)

The Falcon and the Co-eds was the seventh of the sixteen RKO Falcon movies. Tom Conway starred as the debonair sleuth Tom Lawrence (known as the Falcon) and the result is eminently satisfactory B-movie entertainment.

Jane Harris, a pupil at the exclusive Blue Cliff Seminary for Girls, contacts the Falcon with a story that one of the teachers there has been murdered. The Falcon doesn’t take her story seriously but when she takes extreme measures to get his attention (by stealing his car) he decides that perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm to do a little investigating. 

The teacher supposedly died of heart failure but the Falcon is prepared to admit at least the possibility that there might have been more to it.

The initial clue that led Jane Harris to suspect murder came from another student, Marguerita Serena (Rita Corday). Marguerita is widely believed by to be clairvoyant and she had predicted that there would be a murder. Marguerita has other issues apart from her psychic powers. Her father was rumoured to have been insane and to have committed suicide and Margeurita is haunted by the fear of madness.

The Falcon discovers that several of the staff members of the college have things they wish to hide. There is some doubt as to whether Dr Anatole Graelich, who teaches psychology at Blue Cliff, entered the country legally. The behaviour of Vicky Gaines (Jean Brooks) is somewhat suspicious, as is the behaviour of music teacher Mary Phoebus (Isabel Jewell).

And Marguerita has predicted that another murder is about to be committed.

It all leads up to a tense and exciting cliff-top finale.

The hints of the supernatural, or the paranormal, are not allowed to overwhelm the story but they do add some interestingly spooky atmosphere.

Writer Ardel Wray provides a good solid mystery plot. William Clemens does a more than capable job directing and keep things moving along at a brisk pace. J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography, given the B-movie budgetary limitations, is quite impressive.

Tom Conway as the Falcon is suave and charming and has the necessary charisma. The supporting cast is quite strong and all the performances are effective.

Comic relief is a regrettable but inescapable fact of life in Hollywood B-features of this era. In this film the comic relief is provided by the blustering Inspector Timothy Donovan (Cliff Clark) and his bumbling subordinate Detective Bates (Edward Gargan) and they’re reasonaby amusing. Additional comic elements are contributed by the three daughters of the college’s caretaker. The three girls are known collectively as the Three Ughs and they’re a delight (and genuinely funny).

The Falcon and the Co-eds has been released as part of a Warner Archive Falcon boxed set. I caught this one on TCM. The TCM print is quite acceptable.

The Falcon and the Co-eds is a very worthy entry in the Falcon movie cycle. The balance between the mystery and the more light-hearted elements is just right and the whole thing is bright and breezy and thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The White Trap (1959)

The White Trap is a 1959 British crime thriller and while it’s very much a B-movie it’s a very very good B-movie that turns out to be not quite what was expected. And there is perhaps just a hint of film noir here.

Lee Patterson stars as Paul Langley, a man serving a prison sentence for a crime he claims he did not commit. Actually he isn’t spending much time serving his sentence - he keeps escaping. During his wartime service he made a number of daring escapes from German POW camps, and became quite a hero as a result. Escaping from plain ordinary British prisons is child’s play for Langley. It’s a game and he thoroughly enjoys it. Langley is most definitely not a violent prisoner and he’s always careful to make sure no-one gets hurt. The authorities are exasperated by his antics but even the prison governor can’t help feeling a certain sympathy for him.

Now Langley has a real reason to want to escape - his wife (to whom he is devoted) is about to have a baby and it’s likely to be a difficult and dangerous birth.

Escaping is easy. The hard part will be getting into the hospital to see his wife. Inspector Walters (Michael Goodliffe) is absolutely sure Langley will try to see his wife and he intends to be ready - he has men posted at various strategic points in the hospital. He has set a trap for Langley and he knows that Langley will have no choice other than to walk into it.

His sergeant is not convinced that Walters’ plan will work. Sergeant Morrison (Conrad Phillips) does not believe that Langley would be such a fool as to walk straight into a trap. This disagreement leads to a certain amount of tension between Inspector Walters and Sergeant Morrison.

Of course we know that Langley will try to get into the hospital, and despite all Inspector Walters’ elaborate precautions Langley is a slippery customer and it’s by no means certain who will come out on top in this game.

This is really as much of a prison escape movie as a conventional crime movie, and with Langley being a former war hero and a generally nice guy it really belongs in the daring escape against the odds genre (or at least it appears to at first).

To make things more interesting (and less predictable) both Inspector Walters and Sergeant Morrison are sympathetic characters as well.

Obviously a low budget movie can’t provide spectacular action escape set-pieces but Langley’s escapes are generally clever and well executed.

Sidney Hayers became a very prolific and very successful television director. He directed only a relative handful of feature films but that handful included some exceptionally interesting films. He does a fine job here, keeping the excitement level consistently high. The script, by Peter Barnes, is more than adequate.

Canadian-born Lee Patterson starred in an impressive number of British B-pictures during this period. It’s not difficult to see why he was a popular choice for these types of movies - he was good-looking, he had charm and he was a very competent actor. He’s excellent in this role - he seems like exactly the sort of guy who would have the bravado and the insane self-confidence to pull off so many escapes and we desperately want him to get away with it. 

Michael Goodliffe was one of those very solid character actors who was ideal for playing policemen, and could play such roles either very sympathetically or quite unsympathetically as occasion demanded. Conrad Phillips is equally good as the ambitious and somewhat frustrated Sergeant Morrison.

Although The White Trap has no Edgar Wallace connection whatsoever Network have included it as an extra in their Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume 2 DVD boxed set, and a very welcome extra it is. The transfer is anamorphic and extremely good.

The White Trap is a very well-crafted thriller with fine performances by Lee Patterson, Michael Goodliffe and Conrad Phillips, and it has the emotional hook of a living husband desperately trying to see his ailing wife. Langley is not just a man in a trap - he is a man who must place himself in a trap. Being the man he is, there is nothing else he can do. This gives the movie its slight film noir flavour. In fact you could even argue that Inspector Walters is trapped as well - trapped not by his emotions but by his remorseless sense of duty. This is really an excellent little movie. Very highly recommended.