Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Night Won’t Talk (1952)

The murder of glamorous artist’s model Stella Smith is the starting point for The Night Won’t Talk, a fairly typical example of the 1950s British crime B-movie (in this case dating from 1952).

Stella Smith was popular with the artists for whom she posed, and not necessarily because of her virtues as a model. In fact virtue is not the first word that would come to mind when describing Stella. She was also rather ruthless in her pursuit of men, a quality that did not endear her to some of the other models. The list of people with a grudge against Stella Smith is rather a long one (it includes just about everyone who knew her). The problem for Inspector West (Ballard Berkeley) is deciding precisely where to start.

There are three male painters and one lady painter for whom Stella posed regularly. They are all members of the Portrait Club of which Martin Soames (Elwyn Brook-Jones) is the president. Soames certainly knew Stella very well indeed. So did Clayton Hawkes (John Bailey), in fact he and Stella were engaged to be married although the engagement was not exactly going smoothly due to Stella’s excessive friendliness towards a number of other men. Clayton’s big problem is that as a result of an injury sustained during the war he suffers from blackouts so he actually has no idea if he murdered Stella or not.

Kenneth Wills is another artist who might have had a reason to kill Stella. Kenneth thinks he’s a ladies’ man, an opinion which the ladies unfortunately do not share. Martin Soames might perhaps have had a reason to murder Stella, a reason with its roots in the past. There is no obvious reason why lady artist Theo Castle (Hy Hazell) would have wanted Stella dead, except that pretty much everyone seems to have wanted Stella dead. Model Hazel Carr (Mary Germaine) had excellent reasons to hate Stella as well.

The script, by the prolific Brock Williams, might not rate high for originality but it’s solid enough to keep us in doubt and to keep us interested. Director Daniel Birt did not have a spectacular career but he’s competent enough and there are no causes for complaint with the job he does here.

As so often with 50s British B-movies the cast contains lots of familiar faces and lots of very capable actors. Hy Hazell gets top billing as the elegant and slightly mysterious Theo Castle and she’s all that we expect a lady artist to be. Elwyn Brook-Jones is deliciously oily as Soames. Mary Germaine is fairly impressive as Hazel, a girl we might not be quite sure of at first - she might be a bit of a schemer or she might be a nice girl who has just decided that Clayton is the man she wants and now she’s going to make sure she gets him.

Playing Inspector West’s dour pipe-smoking Scottish sergeant is Duncan Lamont and this would not be the first or the last time he played such roles (and he does it pretty well). Ballard Berkeley makes a fine movie policeman, in this case one with just a slight edge of callousness. John Bailey wisely does not go too far over-the-top in his performance as the somewhat unstable Hawkes.

The murder of models was a popular subject for murder mysteries at the time, offering opportunities for glamour and some very mild titillation. And of course since artists and models are all eccentric, socially inept and at least slightly wicked the art world provides an absolutely splendid background for murder and mayhem.

The blackout angle involving Clayton Hawkes adds some amusing melodrama.

Network’s Region 2 DVD gives us, as usual, an excellent transfer without any extras but at a very reasonable price.

Crime movies are easy to make on limited budgets and were therefore an extremely popular B-movie genre on both sides of the Atlantic. The British film industry developed an extraordinary capacity for churning them out in large numbers whilst still maintaining a consistently high standard. The Night Won’t Talk is an unassuming but very enjoyable example that ticks all the right boxes and doesn’t really put a foot wrong during the course of its modest 61-minute running time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Girls’ Apartment (L'appartement des filles, 1963)

The Girls’ Apartment (L'appartement des filles) is a lightweight 1963 French romantic comedy combined with crime thriller. French comedy is something that I consider to be an acquired taste but this one’s not too bad.

Tibère (Sami Frey) is a good looking and very personable young man and as the film begins he is hanging about the airport in Paris. He needs an airline stewardess. He needs an airline stewardess very badly. Not for the reasons you might think, but because he has a job lined up for which a stewardess would be peculiarly suited. Tibère is a gold smuggler. He’s a good-natured and charming gold smuggler, but he is a criminal nonetheless.

He finds Eléna (Sylva Koscina). He smooth talks his way back to her apartment where he discovers that he’s found the mother lode. In this apartment live no less than three stewardesses. It’s just a matter of deciding which one to pick. Tibère is sure this will no problem. He has sublime confidence in his ability to persuade girls to do things.

Eléna is a sweet girl but quite crazy, in an adorably feminine way. The other two girls, Lolotte (Renate Ewert) and Mélanie (Mylène Demongeot), are just as crazy and just as adorable.

All three girls have boyfriends but of course they don’t let such details interfere with their love lives (this is Paris after all).

When the girls discover that Tibère is a gangster they are delighted. Gangsters are so sexy. All three would be thrilled to do some gold smuggling. Tibère eventually settles on Mélanie, or rather Mélanie convinces him that he has chosen her. In fact Mélanie has her own reasons for doing this and Tibère is likely to be less than pleased when he finds out what her reasons are.

Before the gold smuggling plot really kicks in we get the usual series of romantic misunderstandings and misadventures as Tibère tries to bed all three girls none of whom seem likely to put up much resistance, although the boyfriends do cramp their style just a little.

Once the crime sub-plot takes over there’s a bit of excitement but it’s all handled in a very light-hearted way. We have no doubts whatsoever that no-one is actually going to get hurt and we are equally confident that love will triumph. We have a pretty fair idea that when love does triumph it will involve Mélanie and Tibère.

This was 1963 so while it’s trying to be slightly naughty it’s really all very innocent. There is absolutely no nudity and the sex scenes are what you used to get in 1940s movies, in other words there are aren’t any but you do know when the camera cuts away that something is going to happen. The movie’s mildly risque but actually rather innocent tone is quite appealing. The risque elements come from the situations. There’s virtually no sexual innuendo in the dialogue.

In fact the dialogue might have benefited from having just a bit more bite to it. The plot is thin but it’s enough to sustain what is after all basically a very light romantic comedy. As to the comedy, it’s more of the amusing variety rather than the laugh-out-loud variety but it has a few good moments.

Sami Frey makes a convincing charming rogue. The three girls are delightful. Mylène Demongeot is not as well-known in English-speaking countries as she is on the Continent but she makes a wonderful and very likeable leading lady. Sylva Koscina (another actress much better known in Europe) is even more engaging as the gloriously ditzy and incredibly cute Eléna.

This was one of many collaborations between director Michel Deville and screenwriter Nina Companeez, collaborations that included movies like The Bear and the Doll. They made romantic comedies that may not have been brilliant but were at least quite entertaining.

This is very much a feel good movie. The main reason for watching is the joy of seeing the three lead actresses putting everything they’ve got into their performances and looking lovely while doing so. It’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable of spending a bit under an hour and a half. The Girls’ Apartment is worth a look if you don’t set your expectations too high.

This movie is available as part of a very expensive Michel Deville DVD boxed set but that sadly appears to be its only appearance on DVD.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

Charlie Chan in Panama is a 1940 entry in 20th Century-Fox’s prolific Charlie Chan B-movie series. It stars Sidney Toler as Chan.

This is a spy mystery rather than a straight murder mystery although of course there will be murder as well.

Charlie Chan is working undercover in Panama City (although why he should be involved in counter-espionage work is never explained). The city is full of spies and the US fleet is about to pass through the Canal. Those spies are certain to try to sabotage the fleet!

A US government agent is murdered just as he is about to give Charlie vital information. The agent had just flown in and the circumstances make it almost certain that the killer was a passenger on that sea-plane.

The passengers include stuffy Englishman Cliveden Compton (Lionel Atwill), a prim middle-aged schoolteacher who is terribly excited by the wickedness of Panama City, smooth-talking cabaret proprietor Manolo (Jack La Rue), a mysterious Egyptian, a pretty young Czech refugee named Kathi Lenesch (Jean Rogers), a rather nondescript clean-cut American guy and a stereotypically teutonic professor from Vienna.

Everyone in Panama City is in the grip of spy fever. And anyone expressing even the mildest interest in the comings and goings of the American fleet can find himself very quickly arrested as a spy - and this includes not just Charlie Chan but his exasperating offspring Jimmy Chan as well!

What the authorities do know is that a notorious German spy is at work in the city. He’s not actually identified as German (that would have been a bit naughty since the US wasn’t at war with Germany in 1940) but he has a very German name and the audience presumably would have had no doubts as to his nationality. The problem is that no-one knows what this spy looks like. Being a spy he is undoubtedly incredibly cunning and a master of disguise!

The only way Charlie can trap the spy is to set a trap for him, but he will have to use himself and all the other suspects as live bait.

The identity of the master spy seems obvious right from the start but to their credit screenwriters John Francis Larkin and Lester Ziffren do manage to spring a surprise on us in the last reel.

This movie is pure wartime propaganda. The fact that the United States wasn’t actually at war at the time didn’t diminish Hollywood’s war fever in the slightest. The propaganda gets a bit heavy-handed at times. On the other hand the spy paranoia does add some interest and some glamour to the story, and some danger - the enemy agents have plans involving not just bombs but bubonic plague.

Sidney Toler is in fine form. The support cast is pretty good, with Lionel Atwill being enigmatic and possibly sinister and Jean Rogers making a fairly effective European Woman of Mystery while being rather sweet and helpless as well. Victor Sen Young’s comic relief is bearable.

This is one of no less than seven movies in Fox’s Charlie Chan volume 5 boxed set. Charlie Chan in Panama gets an excellent transfer. Unlike some of the earlier Chan releases this one does not have very much at all in the way of extras - just a trailer and an image gallery. But when you’re getting seven movies in one set it’s a bit churlish to complain about the paucity of extras.

Charlie Chan in Panama is a solid enough entry in the Chan cycle, with a touch of exotic glamour (naturally all done in the studio or the backlot) and some excitement. Recommended.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Queen Bee (1955)

Queen Bee, released by Columbia in 1955, is an outrageously overheated but wonderfully entertaining melodrama with Joan Crawford delivering one of her most memorable performances.

The Phillips family are southern aristocracy, wealthy mill-owners with immense pride. Avery Phillips (Barry Sullivan) is the nominal head of the family. The actual head of the family is his wife Eva. Eva is no southern belle. She’s a Yankee, a fact that will turn out to be quite important.

Eva’s cousin Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) is the penniless poor relation who has been invited to stay. Eva’s explanation for this move is that she is lonely. We might be sceptical, but it might be true. Jennifer is a nice girl but hopelessly innocent and naïve. She is overwhelmed by Eva’s apparent kindness, and by her charm and glamour.

Nonetheless it soon becomes evident that all is not well in the Phillips household. Eva’s children have nightmares. Avery’s sister Carol is engaged to be married but is too scared to tell Eva. Avery is drunk most of the time. The man Carol is to marry is Judson Prentiss (John Ireland) and for a man soon to be married he seems irritable and morose.

Jennifer is naïve but she isn’t stupid and slowly she puts the pieces together. Carol had told her that Eva is like a queen bee who stings all her rivals to death and Jennifer begins to realise how true this is. Eva’s manipulations are breathtakingly blatant but they work because she knows what she wants and she will use any methods, any methods at all, to achieve her ends. At the moment her project is to prevent Carol’s marriage. Eva hopes to rekindle an old romance with Jud Prentiss. Whether she really wants Jud or whether she just wants him because Carol wants him is never made clear but given Eva’s personality both possibilities are plausible. And Eva has stolen other women’s men before. She likes doing that. It reassures her that she is irresistible to men. Especially now that the years are creeping up on her.

Of course Eva’s manipulations are going to lead to tragedy. The only question is, will there be any survivors by the time Eva has finished?

It’s an extraordinary performance by Crawford. She goes way over the top but she never loses control. Crawford understood melodrama and she knew exactly how far she could push a performance. She could push it very far indeed.

What’s interesting is that although Eva is one of the screen’s most horrifying monstrous women Crawford does show us the other side to the story. Eva has always felt that as a Yankee she was never going to be accepted, and not being as blue-blooded as the Phillips family made her even more of an outsider. She is a frightened lonely woman. She is terrified by the passing of the years and terrified of losing her power over men because that’s all she has. Crawford does not exactly make her sympathetic but at least we can understand how she became a monster and that makes her more human. And human monsters are more interesting than inhuman ones.

Barry Sullivan and John Ireland are both excellent as the two men who have been Eva’s playthings. They hate the way Eva plays with them but they don’t have the strength of character to do anything about it. They are weak men, but they are perhaps not entirely spineless. We have the feeling that if Eva keeps pushing she might push them into reclaiming their pride and taking a stand. It’s not a certainty, but it’s a possibility. Avery is a hopeless drunk but he has an odd streak of stubbornness.

Ranald MacDougall wrote and directed Queen Bee. As a director he’s no more than competent but as a writer he’s top notch. The script is peppered with deliciously bitchy dialogue and he clearly understands what melodrama is all about.

Queen Bee would make a great double bill with Crawford’s slightly earlier (1950) melodrama Harriet Craig.

The Columbia DVD has no extras worth noting but it offers a fine anamorphic transfer.

Crawford’s venomous performance makes Queen Bee glorious entertainment. Highly recommended.