Wednesday, August 30, 2017
The story begins in 1919. Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert), a young convent girl in Florence, is raped. She seems to to recover well enough from the experience and her father arranges a marriage for her. Her husband is Guiseppe (John Stuart), a very kindly Italian nobleman. The marriage is a great success. A couple of decades later their daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) who has been at school in England travels across Europe to rejoin her parents. Angela is a very modern girl. She thinks nothing of traveling alone across Europe with a young man. Maddalena, who is pious and conservative, is deeply shocked.
Maddalena herself is not however all that she seems to be. She has a secret and it’s far more shocking than anything Angela could dream up. Maddalena is two women, each unaware of the other ’s existence. The movie amusingly assures at the beginning that this stuff really happens! Of course psychiatry in the 1930s was almost as primitive as it is today so audiences might well have bought the story.
Two different women means two different men and the two men in Maddalena’s life are definitely poles apart. Guiseppe is kindly, civilised and urbane. Nino (Stewart Granger) is a thief from the gutters of Florence. A handsome thief of course, but with a violent temper and insanely jealous and possessive. In fact the sort of charismatic adventurous rogue you expect in a melodrama.
How Maddalena combines two incompatible lives does stretch credibility but this is melodrama so you just have to go with it.
Matters come to a head when Maddalena does one of her regular disappearing acts but this time Angela is determined to unravel the mystery. In doing so she places herself in considerable danger, danger to which she is (with the over-confidence of youth) utterly oblivious.
There’s some gloriously delicious psychobabble here. The story is ludicrous but it’s told with style and it’s sheer outrageousness wins us over. We believe because we want to believe because the idea is just so much fun.
Phyllis Calvert throws herself into her roles with enthusiasm, as the ultra-respectable Roman matron and as her alter-ego, the fiery and very passionate peasant girl.
Patricia Roc is enjoyable as the high-spirited Angela.
Of course Gainsborough’s melodramas were notorious for pushing the edge of the censorship envelope. This ones pushes it farther than most. There’s just no way of avoiding the fact that Maddalena is having a sexual relationship, and a rather steamy one, with Nino. And the movie doesn’t even try to pretend otherwise. It positively wallows in the sexual titillation of Maddalena’s adultery. There are also hints of white slavery (which seems to be Sandro’s plan for Angela), not to mention Patricia Roc swanning about in some breathtakingly revealing underwear (in the kind of totally gratuitous scene that only Gainsborough seemed to be able to get away with). And while the opening rape scene is mostly implied we’re not left in the slightest doubt as to what has happened.
The nature of the story meant that the plot could only be resolved in one way and it’s a way that modern audiences will disapprove of, although in fact it works.
Madonna of the Seven Moons is available on Region 2 DVD in an excellent inexpensive edition. It’s also been released in Region 1 as part of Criterion’s overpriced Eclipse series, in a Gainsborough melodrama boxed set that includes The Man in Grey and The Wicked Lady (both truly wonderful melodramas as well).
Madonna of the Seven Moons is bizarre and over-the-top and outrageously excessive and it’s a delight from start to finish. This movie is pure sinful indulgence. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
, dating from 1961, is another of the B-movies based on Edgar Wallace’s stories made on a kind of production line by Britain’s Merton Park Studios at the beginning of the 1960s. It was based on Wallace’s 1929 novel The Lone House Mystery. It’s a fairly routine murder mystery B-picture.
Someone is trying to kill middle-aged businessman Frank Weyman (Richard Pearson). Weyman is a ruthless business operator (having made a fortune out of selling war surplus goods) so he certainly has enemies. He also has a jealous and embittered wife who refuses to give him a divorce so he can marry his secretary Elisabeth Gray (Patricia Mort).
Fraser seems to have been up to something illegal or at least unsavoury. There’s way too much money in his bank account for a man on his income. It’s also apparent that Fraser’s new employer Mr Elliott (J.G. Devlin) has good reason to dislike Weyman but Elliott is confined to a wheelchair which seems to disqualify him as a suspect. Murder does soon strike, but not in the way that might have been expected.
These were low-budget movies but they were made by people who knew their business. These films were cheap but not shoddy. Director Royston Morley worked mainly in television, and 1950s live television is probably not a bad background if you’re going to make inexpensive B-features.
Attempt to Kill doesn’t have much action, apart from a reasonably effective set-piece involving a speedboat.
Edgar Wallace’s stories, and the movies based on them, were often delightfully outrageous but this is a rather straightforward detective tale.
With a running time just short of an hour and with little time wasted on unnecessary distractions there’s not much danger of boredom.
I’m quite fond of these Merton Park Wallace movies. They’re like cinematic comfort food.
Attempt to Kill is enjoyable for those occasions when you’re in the mood for harmless undemanding entertainment. Recommended.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
When we first meet Phillip Davidson (Mills) he’s just been released from prison after serving a long sentence. He was innocent of the crime and he’s bitter and as we’ll soon find out he wants revenge. We then find out what actually happened in a flashback sequence. Davidson had been hoping to marry Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars). Her father, a grizzled and drunken old sea captain (actually the skipper of a broken-down old tub), is mixed up in some very shady activities with some very shady people. There is a confused confrontation and then a fire breaks out on board. A body is found and Davidson finds himself facing a murder charge. All the witnesses lie at the trial but there is one betrayal that is especially painful. Davidson is convicted. He escapes the hangman’s noose but he serves twelve years and that’s not an easy thing to forget or forgive.
Superintendent Lowther has had a tail on Davidson from the moment he left prison. Lowther was the man who arrested Davidson but the police had no reason to think, at the time, that there were any doubts as to Davidson’s guilt. He is however concerned by a report from the prison governor. Lots of convicted criminals vow to get revenge on those they blame for putting them inside but it’s unusual for them to nurse a grudge for twelve years. Lowther believes it’s very possible that Davidson may really be intending to take his revenge. Lowther is a good cop and in this case he hopes to prevent a crime. There is another reason for the Superintendent’s concern. One of the three people Davidson is looking for is the Superintendent’s wife.
We can understand Davidson’s desire for vengeance but at the same time we know that this time he could destroy his life completely and he’s basically a good man and we don’t want that to happen. Especially when, quite by chance, he stumbles onto something that could make his life worth living.
Unfortunately he has set certain events in motion and now, even if he were to change his mind, he may not be able to stop those events from unfolding in a way that could bring ruin to both the guilty and the innocent.
Robert Hamer was a very fine and justly celebrated director who contrived to wreck his own career through his weakness for the bottle. He does a fine job here.
This movie has plenty of noir credentials. There’s a plot that is a web of lies and betrayals, there’s plenty of moody cinematography and there’s a protagonist who is a decent man who has fallen into the noir abyss and given way to impulses that might well lead him to destruction. There’s a delightfully sinister villain. There’s a Femme Fatale and there’s a Good Girl character as well. The question is whether the Good Girl can save him by persuading him to accept her love.
Mills does the noir protagonist extremely well. Davidson is an embittered man driven by a slow cold anger but we do get glimpses of the basic decency underneath. He’s trying to be hard and merciless but he’s going against his own nature. Mills was always wonderful at playing very solid and very noble heroes but he had a surprising talent for much darker and more tortured characterisations, a talent that made him ideal for film noir.
Fay belongs to the Ambiguous Femme Fatale category. She’s not an evil spider woman but rather a woman who has been put in a difficult situation and has chosen the morally wrong course of action. She has certainly managed to ruin Davidson’s life just as completely as any spider woman.
The John Mills Centenary Collection II boxed set comprises seven movies and they’re a varied bunch, which is a reasonable reflection of the breadth of his talent. It includes a couple of noirish gems - Tiger Bay and The Vicious Circle. The Long Memory gets a pretty good transfer.
The Long Memory is a satisfying crime thriller. Purists may not accept it as full-blown noir but it has enough noir credentials to please most viewers and it’s very definitely entertaining. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Marissa (Milly Vitale) is just the latest in a long line of innocent girls ensnared by vice racketeer Tony Giani (John Derek) and his brother Angelo (Martin Benson). Marissa has only been in London a few days when she is offered a job as a hostess in a club. One of the patrons starts to get a bit too sleazy with her and she is rescued just in time by a handsome white knight. He will take her away from such sordid surroundings. He offers her fun and romance. He’s a terribly nice guy and of course Marissa falls for him. There’s only one slight problem. They can’t get married until his divorce comes through.
Yes, it’s the oldest line in the book and Marissa falls for it. In fact her handsome and sensitive white knight is Tony Giani and he’s a pimp. He’s persuaded her to take the bait and now he’s reeling her in.
There’s little the police can do, since it’s impossible to make any charges stick as long as the girls are unwilling to talk. It’s slightly unusual for a 1950s British crime movie to portray the police as completely impotent and not overly interested.
Tony Giani believes in taking his time before putting a girl to work. He spends weeks grooming them, sweet-talking them and making sure the fall in love with him, and then he uses some ingenious emotional manipulation to persuade them that they’re actually doing it for love. The idea is to get them to be entirely willing recruits to prostitution.
In other words it’s a bit like so many of those awful American social problem movies of the same era, presenting a simplistic good vs evil view and emotionally manipulating the viewer into accepting that simplistic view.
John Derek as Tony is the movie’s saving grace. He really is incredibly charming and incredibly sinister and slimy all at the same time. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable performance and although he’s the chief villain he’s a lot of fun.
The other characters are all clichés. There’s Freda Jackson as Trixie, the whore with a heart of gold. There’s Angelo, a generic gangster figure. There’s Shirley Ann Field as Susan, another of the girls who is almost as unbelievably dumb as Marissa.
This is a message movie and that’s always a red flag. It’s trying so hard to be hard-hitting and sensitive and non-sensationalistic. Actually if they’d made it as an out-and-out exploitation movie it would probably have had more impact.
Although there’s no nudity or actual sex scenes the fact that it’s absolutely up-front about the fact that Giani’s girls are prostitutes gave it considerable shock value at the time and it was a major hit.
The Flesh is Weak has been released on an all-region DVD by Odeon Entertainment in the UK. It’s a pretty good transfer.
I was decidedly underwhelmed by The Flesh is Weak. I can’t really recommend this one.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
The Man in Grey was the first of a series of wildly successful women’s melodramas made by Britain’s Gainsborough studio in the 1940s. These movies were quite unapologetically targeted at a female audience. They were costume pictures so as well as featuring gloriously overheated melodramatic plots, forbidden love and forbidden sex, jealousies, betrayals, sexy bad boys and sexy bad girls you also get some fairly lavish period sets and gorgeous costumes. The Man in Grey makes no attempt to be art. It’s a steamy Regency romance and it was a massive box office hit in Britain.
There’s a framing story set in 1940s England which I personally thought was a bit unnecessary but it does add even more romance and that’s what this movie is all about. The actual story takes place in Regency England. A new pupil arrives at an exclusive girls’ school. The other girls are all from rich families but Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood) is a penniless orphan who has only been accepted because the headmistress owed her mother a favour. Hesther is very aware of her poverty. She is proud and resentful. She also has some definite long term plans to escape from poverty.
The most eligible bachelor of the time is the young and handsome Lord Rohan (James Mason). Lord Rohan does not have a very good reputation. He devotes his life to pleasures of a frankly sensual nature and he is gloomy and moody. On the other hand he has a very distinguished title and oodles of money. In other words he’s the type of man to set female hearts a-flutter. Rohan has no interest in marriage but he does need to produce an heir so he will have to marry someone and Clarissa Marr seems as suitable as anyone. Clarissa, who is as naïve as she is sweet, accepts his proposal.
Of course things are going to get very complicated. Rokeby, who is actually the owner of an estate in Jamaica that has been overrun by rebellious slaves, gets a job as librarian to Lord Rohan and soon he and Clarissa have fallen madly in love and are having an affair. Meanwhile Hesther has achieved her first major goal and has become Lord Rohan’s mistress. It sounds like a workable arrangement. Clarissa doesn’t care if her husband sleeps with other women - as long as he doesn’t want to sleep with her she’s happy. And Rohan has no objection at all to Clarissa sleeping with anyone she likes as long as she’s discreet.
As you may have gathered there’s a great deal of implied sex and most of it is very definitely illicit, if not perverse as well. And the film is pretty open about it all. It raised some eyebrows at the time and there are moments that still seem pretty damned steamy even today. Much of this is due to the casting. James Mason is of course perfectly suited to the role of the slightly dissipated, somewhat cruel and generally dangerous nobleman. Margaret Lockwood was one of the screen’s all-time great bad girls. She and Mason would team up again in The Wicked Lady and together they’re sexual dynamite. Phyllis Calvert has a difficult role since she has to make Clarissa convincingly naïve without making her seem stupid and she has to make her sweet and good-natured without being cloying. On the whole she manages it fairly well. Stewart Granger makes a wonderful reckless romantic hero (it turns out he’s really a nobleman as well but the slaves took over his estate in the West Indies).
There’s a good deal of political incorrectness in this film. If it shocked audiences in the 40s it’s quite likely to shock modern audiences although for different reasons.
Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers a fairly good transfer and, unusually for this company, some extras including a documentary on James Mason’s career. This movie has also been released in Region 1 in a boxed set in Criterion’s Eclipse series.
This is a movie that packs as much twisted romance and illicit sexuality into its running time as it can. It’s a women’s picture, a chick flick if you like, so if you’re male you have been warned. It’s an out-and-out melodrama and it’s an unashamed bodice ripper but it’s a stylish and well-made example of both breeds and if that’s what you’re looking for then it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.