Monday, September 25, 2017

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938)

Bulldog Drummond in Africa is one of Paramount’s series of successful B-movie adaptations of H.C. McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond spy thrillers. It’s an excellent entry in the series.

Captain Hugh Drummond (John Howard) is hoping that finally he is going to be able to get married to his beloved Phyllis. Her main concern is that he will get mixed up in yet another of his secret agent adventures and the wedding will be postponed once again. So she has taken certain precautions. Hugh, along with his faithful butler Tenny (E.E. Clive), has been confined to his house until the wedding and forbidden any contact with the outside world (such as reading newspapers). She knows that this won’t be enough so she has also confiscated all his guns and his trousers, and to be on the safe side Tenny’s trousers as well. He can hardly get himself into any espionage or crime-fighting sprees without trousers.

All her precautions are in vain since it is Phyllis herself who gets Drummond into this particular adventure when she accidentally witnesses the kidnapping of Colonel Nielson (H.B. Warner) of Scotland Yard.

Now the chase is on to rescue the colonel and the trail leads to Morocco. The kidnappers have an aircraft so they think they’re safe from pursuit but Hugh Drummond has an aeroplane as well. Scotland Yard has absolutely forbidden Captain Drummond from becoming involved in this case. That holds him up for about five minutes.

Phyllis is sure she has seen the ringleader of the kidnapping gang before and it’s not long before Drummond realises he is up against notorious freelance international spy Richard Lane (J. Carrol Naish).

Lane is after one of Britain’s most closely guarded military secrets, the radio wave disintegrator. Rescuing the colonel is a priority but it’s even more vital to prevent Lane from obtaining the secret and selling it to the highest bidder. Lane has an important advantage - he has an agent, Fordyne (Anthony Quinn), working  in the British Consulate in Morocco. And Lane is utterly without scruples.  He also has his pet lions and they always come in handy when you’re a super villain.

This film doesn’t take long to gather momentum and thereafter it’s pretty consistent action and excitement. There’s the air chase, there are bombs, there are ravenous man-eating lions and there’s plenty of gunplay. Drummond and his pals (with Phyllis enthusiastically pitching in) have a difficult task since they have to foil Lane’s plans whilst avoiding arrest by the local authorities.

John Howard played Drummond in numerous films in this series and he does a fine job as he generally did. The only problem I’ve ever had with his casting in the role is that he is a fairly handsome fellow while in the books Hugh Drummond is a man renowned for his ugliness! Reginald Denny as Drummond’s loyal if not very bright pal Algy is less irritating than usual. Tenny is the character providing much of the comic relief but it’s not overdone this time and even manages to be mildly amusing.

Heather Angel is splendid as Phyllis. Phyllis is a bit on the feisty side but not to an excessive degree. She is brave but she is (mercifully) not one of your modern kickass action heroines. She even faints at one point. Mind you, seeing a man being eaten by a lion can be an upsetting experience for anyone. J. Carrol Naish is a delightfully smooth and sinister villain.

The plot might be a fairly stock-standard spy take of the period but the execution is energetic, there are some genuine thrills and there’s a vast amount of enjoyment to be had here. The film strikes pretty much the ideal balance. It takes itself just seriously enough but not too seriously. The emphasis is on excitement and fun.

There are plenty of public domain copies of this movie around. The image quality on the one I saw was pretty mediocre but still watchable.

Bulldog Drummond in Africa works because director Louis King is competent and keeps the pacing brisk enough that you don’t have time to worry about plot holes or anything tedious like that. The performances are good and the 1930s aircraft are very cool.

This is unashamed escapist entertainment (something of which I thoroughly approve) and it’s highly recommended.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Paul Temple's Triumph (1950)

Paul Temple's Triumph was released in 1950 and was the third of the Paul Temple films distributed by Butcher’s Film Service between 1946 and 1952. It was based on Francis Durbridge’s radio serial News of Paul Temple.

This one is a spy thriller. A British atomic scientist, Professor Hardwick, has disappeared. The authorities seem rather unconcerned, a circumstance that puzzles Paul Temple somewhat. Even his old friend, Scotland Yard Deputy Commissioner Sir Graham Forbes (Jack Lively), doesn’t seem to be taking the matter too seriously. The scientist’s daughter Celia is very worried though and Temple decides it might be worth looking into this affair.

Temple finds himself up against the mysterious and sinister Z Organisation, an unscrupulous  international freelance spy ring.

He does have a few clues. There’s a torn fragment of a map and there’s a letter. He has no idea what is in this letter but everyone seems to want to get hold of it so clearly it’s important. Important enough to kill for, as it turns out.

There are quite a few suspicious foreigners lurking about and there’s at least one glamorous and dangerous female spy.

There are thrills aplenty, with booby traps and secret passageways and some impressively imaginative techniques for murder. And there’s no shortage of murder - this one has quite a high body count.

As usual Temple gets some useful assistance from his resourceful wife Steve who doesn’t mind putting herself in danger (in fact she’s sometimes a bit too keen to do so).

John Bentley played Paul Temple in three of the four movie adaptations and he brings charm and energy to the part. Dinah Sheridan played Steve in two of the films and she makes a very decent heroine.

There’s an abundance of villains and other assorted shady customers and the villains are reasonably menacing.

Director Maclean Rogers keeps things moving at a cracking pace and gives a genuine sense of danger to the proceedings. The high body count helps since we quickly realise that even likeable characters could be killed off without hesitation.

The spy plot works effectively. The top-secret project that the missing professor was working on is pretty much a standard spy movie McGuffin but that’s as it should be. We don’t need to know how the professor’s invention works, we just need to know that bad people will kill to get their hands on it and the screenplay therefore doesn’t waste time over-explaining things.

Fortunately there’s also no time squandered on unnecessary comic relief.

Paul Temple is a very happily married man so there’s no scope for him to become entangled in romantic intrigues. The affectionate relationship with his wife does however provide at least a touch of emotional involvement (and of course we know that Steve will get herself into at least one tight spot and have to be rescued).

The timing of this movie was interesting. The war was over so there was no point in having evil Nazis. On the other hand the Cold War was only just beginning so the Soviets were not quite yet ready to step into their shoes as the standard spy movie villains. The decision to make the bad guys freelance spies was actually quite sound and makes the movie less dated that it would otherwise have been.

The transfer for this film provided in the Renown Pictures Paul Temple boxed set is acceptable but it has a few minor problems. The set includes all four Paul Temple movies and represents excellent value for money.

Paul Temple's Triumph is a solid example of the British spy movie of its era. Lively and entertaining, and highly recommended.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Solitary Child (1958)

The Solitary Child is a 1958 British murder mystery which begins some time after the murder has taken place. If indeed it was murder. There is some doubt on that score.

Captain James Random (Philip Friend) brings his new wife Harriet (Barbara Shelley) back to Random Farm. Captain Random had been accused of murdering his first wife but had been acquitted. Harriet isn’t worried, being convinced that Random’s first wife’s death was an accident. Soon however she begins to have her doubts. There seem to have been rather a lot of secrets at Random Farm. Everyone seems to know something about Eva Random’s death and, disturbingly, these include things that had not been mentioned at all at the trial.

James Random had been, and still is, surrounded by women. And by feminine intrigues, some harmless enough but others perhaps more dangerous. His sister Ann (Sarah Lawson) owns a half share of the farm and has been spending an inordinate amount of time deciding whether or not to marry local vet Cyril (Jack Watling). There seems no reason for her not to marry him. He’s a thoroughly amiable fellow and she obviously loves him. But the wedding never seems to happen. Jean (Rona Anderson) is a Devlin and the Devlins used to own Random Farm. Jean’s mother is not merely an awful snob but a thoroughly malicious gossip. Then there’s Random’s daughter Maggie (Julia Lockwood), a rather troubled and slightly scary teenager.

Eva Random had been carrying on a notorious affair with Jean’s young and very disreputable brother. James Random obviously had a motive for murder but he was far from alone in that.

Now it seems that someone wants Harriet out of the way. Quite possibly they want her dead. There are several mysterious accidents and soon rumours are sweeping the village. Harriet is determined to untangle the mystery of Eva Random’s death since her own life might depend on it. Everyone is getting increasingly rattled, Harriet is getting quite scared and James Random is becoming even more withdrawn and morose than usual.

This is a solid enough little plot with enough red herrings to keep things interesting. The tension builds inexorably. Can Harriet stay alive long enough to solve the puzzle?

Director Gerald Thomas was better known for the Carry On comedies but he proves himself to be a perfectly competent practitioner in the murder genre. Robert Dunbar’s script, based on Nina Bawden’s novel, hits all the right notes.

The acting is uniformly good with no-one being too obvious. All the characters have things to hide but they could have quite legitimate reasons for wanting to keep their secrets. Julia Lockwood does a fine job as Maggie. Maggie is a troubled and disturbing child but she’s in a situation in which a girl might well be troubled.

Barbara Shelley is at her most ravishing and she delivers a very effective performance, with just enough hysteria but combined with a certain amount of courage and determination. She was one of Britain’s best actresses of the 50s and she’s in top form here.

Network’s DVD is absolutely barebones but it offers a lovely anamorphic transfer and (as usual with Network) at a very reasonable price.

The Solitary Child is an engaging and very well-crafted low-key murder mystery with a fine cast and a stellar performance by Barbara Shelley. Highly recommended.