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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yankee Buccaneer (1952)

In 1952 during the filming of the pirate adventure Against All Flags Errol Flynn broke his ankle. This obviously meant that shooting of the film had to be put on hold. Universal decided to turn an inconvenience into an opportunity by making use of the sets built for Against All Flags to shoot a second pirate movie (this time a B-picture) whilst Flynn recovered. A script was hastily cobbled together and the result was Yankee Buccaneer. And it’s not a  bad little programmer.

This is a slightly unusual pirate movie in that the heroes are two distinguished real-life US Navy officers, Captain (Later Commodore) David Porter and Lieutenant (later Admiral David Farragut. They are sent on a secret mission by the US Navy to discover the whereabouts of a pirate flotilla infesting the Caribbean. Captain Porter’s frigate, the USS Essex, is to fly the Jolly Roger while his crew disguise themselves as a crew of cut-throat buccaneers.

Davy Farragut has served under Porter before and it was not a particularly pleasant experience. The young Lieutenant acknowledges that Porter is a fine officer and a good captain but it’s Porter’s uncompromising adherence to regulations and strict discipline that he regards with distaste. A series of mishaps, for which Farragut appears to be responsible, adds to the tension between the two men and it start to look Farragut’s future in the Navy may be bleak.

The secret mission takes a surprising turn when the Essex encounters a Portuguese ship-of-the-line. The counterfeit pirates assume they’re about to be attacked and, given that they are badly outgunned, probably sunk. When they hoist the Jolly Roger a strange thing happens. The Portuguese warship leaves them alone. Something odd is definitely going on. In fact Captain Porter and his crew are about to sail into a very tangled web of international intrigue and double-dealing.

Of course at this point you might be thinking that what’s missing in this movie is a beautiful woman to add some romance and glamour. You need not worry. Countess Margarita La Raguna is about to make her appearance, and the plot starts to get really complicated.

The main weakness of Yankee Buccaneer is that being a B-movie it doesn’t have the spectacular action scenes that a pirate movie needs to have. On the other hand quite a bit of imagination is shown in providing the kind of adventure that can be managed on a low budget and it’s enough to maintain the viewer’s interest (although the shark scene is a major disappointment since the shark is much too obviously a rubber shark). There’s a reasonable fight scene towards the end with some swordplay but sadly there are no sea battles.

The lack of major action set-pieces is counter-balanced to some extent by the impressive sets built for Against All Flags so Yankee Buccaneer is a reasonably good-looking film (and was also shot in Technicolor).

Having a competent cast helps things along. Jeff Chandler does a fine job as Captain Porter, making the character a stickler for discipline and a rather hard and inflexible man but still making him fairly sympathetic. Porter might be a martinet but he knows his job and he cares for the safety of his crew. Scott Brady is pretty good as Farragut and like Chandler is able to give his character at least a small amount of depth. Suzan Ball is convincing enough as the proud and headstrong countess. Suzan Ball was one of Hollywood’s most tragic starlets. She was just eighteen when she made this picture and sadly had just three years of life left to her.

There’s a bit of comic relief but it’s bearable and not too intrusive.

This movie is included in Universal’s four-movie Pirates of the Golden Age boxed set. There are no extras but the transfer is excellent. The set is definitely worth getting if you’re a pirate fan. So far I’ve seen three of the four films and Against All Flags, Buccaneer’s Girl and Yankee Buccaneer are all worth a watch. Strangely enough my favourite of the three is Buccaneer’s Girl, although that could have some connection with my Yvonne de Carlo infatuation.

Yankee Buccaneer is decent solid and completely harmless B-movie entertainment. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Backfire! (1962)

Backfire! is another of the British Merton Park Edgar Wallace B-movies of the early 60s and it’s a reasonably competent entry in the series.

Bernard Curzon (Oliver Johnston) is the founder of a cosmetics company, Venetia Beauty Products. The company has been very successful but as Curzon is getting on in years he had decided to take on some new partners, to revitalise the firm. Mitchell Logan (Alfred Burke) and his wife Pauline (Zena Marshall) have certainly had a dramatic effect on the company. They have all but ruined it. Sales are practically non-existent. The company cannot pay its bills. Even worse, the books are not likely to stand up to any close scrutiny. Things look hopeless, but Mitchell has a plan. The company is broke but the factory is insured for a great deal of money. If a fire were to break out then all their financial problems would disappear in a puff of smoke so to speak. It’s a foolproof plan.

Of course it turns out to be not quite so foolproof after all. Clever yes, and well executed, but there’s always the little unforeseen details, in this case a mink coat and a Hungarian wedding.

Even allowing for such minor irritations it still seems they will get away with it. All they need is a bit of luck, or at least the absence of bad luck. What they don’t need is a young insurance investigator with all the zeal and enthusiasm of youth.

And due to those little unforeseen details mentioned earlier this is not just a case of arson. It’s murder as well.

There are no great surprises in the plot but the script (by Robert Banks Stewart who had an illustrious career as a television writer) is serviceable and well constructed. Paul Almond’s direction is fairly straightforward but he knows how to build suspense and he doesn’t permit any dull moments in the film’s 61-minute running time.

The cast is the movie’s biggest strength. Before finding fame with the long-running (and excellent) Public Eye television series Alfred Burke was a familiar face in British B-movies. This movie gives him a rare starring role. He’s nicely sneaky and cold-blooded. He seems to be attempting an American accent but it comes and goes. Fortunately it doesn’t detract from his performance. Zena Marshall is good as Pauline Logan, a classy woman but rather a nasty piece of work. Suzanne Neve gets the good girl role as Curzon’s daughter and secretary Shirley and she’s a rather charming if not wildly exciting heroine. John Cazabon is creepy in a low-key but effective way as the firebug Willy Kyzer.

The fire scenes are presumably almost entirely stock footage but they’re used extremely well. The firebug enjoying himself burning model buildings is a nice touch.

The cosmetics angle allows for some touches of glamour that add a bit more interest. It’s also useful in making the arson more plausible, cosmetics factories being full of highly inflammable chemicals so that when they burn you can rely on them to burn to the ground in a conveniently short time. The low budget (and Merton Park movies were very low budget) is no great problem since the people making these Edgar Wallace potboilers were used to such things and knew what they were doing.

As usual Network have come up with an excellent anamorphic transfer. Backfire! is one of the seven movies that make up Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. There are no extras as such included with the individual movies but Network more than make up for this by throwing in at least one bonus movie in each set (and the bonus movies are often extremely good).

Backfire! is nothing more than a fairly routine B-movie but it’s a well-made one and it’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable time-killer. Recommended.