Monday, December 31, 2018

favourite classic movie viewings of 2018

It's that making-lists time of the year again. So here are the ten best classic movies I saw in 2018. They’re listed in order of year of release. I’m not even going to try to rank them. I”m not even going to claim they’e all great movies. They’re just the ten movies I enjoyed most in the past year.

Here they are, with links to my reviews.

Charlie Chan’s Secret (Gordon Wiles, 1936)

First Love (Henry Koster, 1939)

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)

The Desert Hawk (Frederick De Cordova, 1950)

The Woman in Question (Anthony Asquith, 1950)

Rogue Cop (Roy Rowland, 1954)

Dames Don't Care (Bernard Borderie, 1954)

Timetable (Mark Stevens, 1956)

A motley collection covering quite a few genres. There's quite a bit of film noir, an adventure flick and a musical.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)

By the time Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum went into production at 20th Century-Fox in 1940 Sidney Toler had well and truly settled into the rôle of Charlie Chan. This was his sixth Chan film.

It starts with a dramatic courtroom scene. A hoodlum is sentenced to death, on Charlie’s evidence, vows revenge and shoots his way out of the courtroom after seizing a deputy’s gun.

Steve McBirney (Marc Lawrence) is the hoodlum in question and he doesn’t do what the police expect him to do. He doesn’t try to leave the city. Instead he takes refuge in the wax museum of Dr Cream (C. Henry Gordon). Dr Cream had another profession before opening his wax museum - he was a plastic surgeon and apparently a very good one. He also apparently did quite a few surgery jobs for members of the underworld, giving them new faces. Now McBirney wants Dr Cream to give him a new face as well.

While the police hunt unsuccessfully for McBirney Charlie accepts a challenge to a radio debate over a celebrated crime that had been a sensation a few years earlier. That crime was solved, but Charlie was never happy about it. He had a strong suspicion an innocent man may have been convicted. He also thinks there may be a connection with Steve McBirney. The fact that Dr Cream is involved with the broadcast makes this seem even more likely.

That old case was particularly convoluted. Two partners in crime who were also partners with a third man (an honest man) in a perfectly legitimate business. There was jealousy and murder, and a revenge killing, but Chan has doubts about pretty much the entirety of the established story.

The radio broadcast leads to more murder. Charlie is lucky not to have been the victim. The murder method at first seems ingenious but it turns out that actually a totally different but also ingenious method was employed. The murderer had to be one of the small number of people in the wax museum at the time of the broadcast. There’s no shortage of suspicious characters amongst them and that’s not counting the ones who were hiding and weren’t discovered until after the murder.

As you would expect from a movie with a wax museum theme this entry in the Chan cycle has a bit of a gothic tinge to it. The wax museum is not just an ordinary wax museum. It is a museum of crime, devoted entirely to gruesome and brutal murders. And of course whenever the action switches to the wax museum there seems to be a thunderstorm raging (which adds a slight Old Dark House feel).

This is a movie that is visually fairly impressive by B-movie standards. The wax museum is genuinely creepy, the sets are very good, there are some fun props (such as the mechanical chess player automaton). Director Lynn Shores keeps things lively and interesting.

The acting by the supporting cast is reasonable B-movie standard. C. Henry Gordon is subtly sinister as Dr Cream. Joan Valerie is very good as his beautiful but slightly exotic and slightly disturbing assistant Lily Latimer. Marguerite Chapman is OK as the Feisty Girl Reporter who is there because a B-movie should have a Feisty Girl Reporter. Michael Visaroff quite correctly hams it up as the forensic psychiatrist (and probably charlatan) Dr Otto Von Brom.

Sidney Toler as always plays Chan with a charming twinkle in his eye. As usual Victor Sen Young provides comic relief as Chan’s son Jimmy, an enthusiastic but not always effective amateur detective. By the standards of comic relief characters he’s not too bad since unlike most comic relief characters he’s not entirely a fool or a halfwit. He has intelligence but he lacks judgment and experience.

This movie is part of the Charlie Chan vol 5 boxed set which is very light on extras but on the other hand it does include no less than seven movies. Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum gets a very satisfactory transfer.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum has a decent mystery, it has some mild thrills, it has effective atmosphere. The comic relief is kept to a minimum and is non-irritating. It’s best not to think too much about the plot, but that’s OK because this is the kind of movie that exists in a universe in which the villains come up with insanely complicated criminal plots that would never work in real life. But this is not real life and it’s not meant to be. The world of Charlie Chan movies is in most respects preferable to real life anyway.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is a satisfying little B-picture. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

season's greetings

Season's greetings to all my readers!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Down to Earth (1947)

Down to Earth is a 1947 Columbia musical starring Rita Hayworth. It’s not usually regarded as one of her great films, but we shall see.

It is very loosely a sequel to Here Comes Mr Jordan. Very very loosely. Down to Earth in turn apparently inspired the 1980 movie Xanadu (although I’ve never seen Xanadu so I don’t know how much of a connection there really is).

Here Comes Mr Jordan (based on the play Heaven Can Wait) deals with guardian angels and could rather tenuously be regarded be regarded as dealing with vaguely Christian themes. Throwing in pagan goddesses could be considered to be a daring move, or a foolhardy move (or possibly even blasphemous!) but audiences were used to Hollywood’s propensity for hopelessly jumbling up every subject it touched. It does make the plot completely absurd but it’s pretty absurd to begin with. Of course musicals have no need whatever for coherent plots so really it doesn’t matter at all.

Supernatural themes were quite popular in romantic comedies and musicals at the time. The premise of Down to Earth is that Broadway producer Danny Miller (Larry Parks) is putting on a show about the Muses and one of the actual muses, Terpsichore (Rita Hayworth), hears about it and is enraged that goddesses (or perhaps they’re actually demi-goddesses) should be treated in such a vulgar manner. She decides to come down to Earth to put a stop to this outrage.

Terpsichore manages, with great ease, to convince the show’s producer and star Danny Miller to cast her in the lead, as Terpsichore. She renames herself Kitty Pendleton and acquires kindly rather scatter-brained low-rent agent Max Corkle (James Gleason).

The problem is that Miller wants to appeal to the taste of the public (a taste that is beyond the comprehension of a goddess) while Terpsichore wants the show to be art. He wants vulgar cheerfulness while she wants seriousness and class. She manages to persuade him to completely rewrite the show and of course she then discovers that the public doesn’t want art, it wants cheerful vulgarity.

Terpsichore also arouses the hostility of Danny’s buddy and co-star Eddie (Marc Platt) although I must confess I have no idea why except that presumably it was felt that this hostility would add some spice to the story.

The songs are not all that fantastic. At best they’re adequate.

On the other hand the script does have some decent gags and the love story (I’m sure you won’t be surprised that Terpsichore and Danny fall in love) is handled reasonably well.

I’m not quite sure about Larry Parks. He’s not terrible, he’s an adequate enough leading man, he just doesn’t seem to have any real charisma. The chemistry with Hayworth is perhaps not all it could be.

Roland Culver takes over the rôle of Mr Jordan (played by Claude Rains in Here Comes Mr Jordan) and he does a fine job. Edward Everett Horton adds some fun (as he invariably does) as the ever-pessimistic heavenly messenger 7013.

The one massive selling point of this movie is Rita Hayworth. She looks gorgeous and her performance sparkles. She gets to do plenty of dancing and she gets to do some actual acting and she does both with style.

This is certainly a movie that looks good. It was shot in Technicolor and the budget was clearly fairly generous (by Columbia standards anyway). Some of the musical numbers are quite bizarre.

Down to Earth does at times get a bit ambitious, venturing into the dangerous waters of satire. It tries, in a low-key way, to satirise the vulgarity of popular culture and also the pomposity of high culture. Of course since it’s a Hollywood movie we’re never going to doubt that it will come down solidly on the side of enjoyable vulgarity.

The Region 4 DVD which I have is barebones but it’s a nice transfer with vibrant colours.

Down to Earth would have benefited from slightly better songs but overall it’s a fine effort with a touching love story and with Rita Hayworth in fine form. Harmless, lightweight but entertaining. Recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Too Late for Tears (1949)

Too Late for Tears is a 1949 film noir B-feature that may well be the ultimate bad girl movie. And since the bad girl in question is played by Lizabeth Scott you can rest assured you’re in for a wild ride. What more could you ask for in a seedy B noir? Well her co-star is Dan Duryea, so that wild ride is going to be very wild indeed.

It has a crackerjack opening. A very ordinary couple, Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy), are driving on a lonely country road. A car passes them and something is thrown the back seat of the Palmers’ car. That something is a bag. Inside the bag is money. Lots and lots of money.

Apart from being totally illegal it should be obvious that it would be incredibly stupid even to consider the idea of keeping the money. But that is what Jane Palmer intends to do. The idea of turning the money over to the police never even occurs to her.

So immediately we know several extremely important things about Jane Palmer. She is prepared to do absolutely anything for money, and she is crazy.

Alan thinks they should turn the money over to the police. Jane convinces him that they should just hold on to it for a little while. They won’t spend it and of course eventually they’ll give it to the police but surely it won’t do any harm to hide it away somewhere for a for weeks. Just to know it’s there. It’s an obviously crazy idea but Alan gives in, because there’s no point in doing anything else where Jane is concerned. She’s the kind of woman who always gets her way.

Things start to get worrying when Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea) turns up on the doorstep. He informs Jane that the money us his and he’d like it back.

Now Jane starts to try to work out some way in which she can string Danny along without giving him the money. Danny is obviously a hoodlum and he’s obviously extremely dangerous but Jane wants that money. What Danny doesn’t realise at first is that Jane is a whole lot crazier than he is, and she’s a whole lot more dangerous because she combines craziness with breathtaking audacity.

Things get further complicated by a little matter of murder but that’s not the sort of thing to worry Jane. What does worry her is her sister-in-law Kathy (Kristine Miller). Kathy never approved of Jane and now she’s becoming suspicious that something is going on. Alan’s old army buddy Don Blake has also turned up at a very inconvenient moment.

Things are awkward enough but then the money kind of gets misplaced. Or at least the baggage check ticket gets misplaced and without that ticket getting the money will be a challenge.

Meanwhile Jane sees other complications arising and decides they need to be dealt with. Dealt with in a drastic, and final, manner. What’s amusing is that Jane is a suburban housewife and Danny is a gangster but he’s starting to get scared of her. Not physically scared perhaps, but scared of her unpredictability and her ruthlessness. And maybe he’s a bit scared physically as well. She’s the kind of dame who would cheerfully shoot a guy if it seemed to be in her interests to do so. Danny is kind of mean and he’s definitely not a nice guy but he’s isn’t quite evil and he’s isn’t the sort who kills people without a very good reason. Jane is something he has never encountered before.

Lizabeth Scott is in dazzling form. She’s obsessed and she’s scary and she’s frighteningly manipulative. The worst thing about her is that she never gives up. She intends to have that money and she will destroy herself and everyone else around her to get it.

Dan Duryea is of course excellent in a slightly uncharacteristic rôle - right from the start Jane is in the one calling the shots and Danny just has to go along.

Is this a true film noir? It is if you think that Jane was a nice girl who succumbed to temptation and was then drawn into the whirlpool of film noir madness. That’s possible but there’s evidence that Jane was probably already well and truly corrupt. In that sense this movie is quite similar to Double Indemnity - like the two protagonists in that film Jane is a person in whom the moral corruption is already present and it’s just waiting for the right opportunity to blossom forth.

So is Jane a femme fatale? In a way she is. Even though Danny is already a criminal he’s not thoroughly evil but Jane will lead him into doing much worse things than he’s ever done before.

But them maybe film noir is mostly a matter of mood and if that’s true then Too Late For Tears qualifies without any problems.

This movie is in the public domain and some of the DVD editions out there are pretty bad. The one I saw was terrible. There is a fully restored Blu-Ray edition but alas it’s way out of my price range. If you’re independently wealthy the restored edition is probably worthwhile.  It’s certainly a good enough movie to justify a Blu-Ray release and as soon as I win the lottery I’ll be grabbing the Blu-Ray.

Too Late for Tears is a superb B noir. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 3, 2018

King Solomon’s Mines (1950)

H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines has been filmed several times, notably in 1937 and 1950. There’s also a 1985 version with Richard Chamberlain. It is the 1950 version with which we are concerned today.

In the 1880s Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) is a celebrated hunter and safari leader. Quatermain is growing tired of it all, tired of the butchery of animals, tired of the people he has to take on safari, tired of Africa and tired of himself. He is tempted to give it all up and return to England. When he is approached by Mrs Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother John Goode (Richard Carlson) to lead a safari to find Mrs Curtis’s missing husband he is not interested at all. He tells her he wouldn’t take on the job even for five hundred pounds. She then offers him five thousand pounds. He takes the job.

Her husband had been searching for a fabulous diamond mine reputed to be located in an unexplored part of Africa. He was sold a map showing the location of the mine. In fact many Europeans have been sold such maps and set off in search of riches beyond counting. Few of those Europeans have returned alive.

The expedition runs into every danger imaginable - snakes, crocodiles, lions, leopards, hostile tribesmen, cannibals, rogue white men, bushfires, stampeding wildlife, treacherous river crossings, bearers who desert, steamy jungles and scorching deserts. It’s non-stop action and it’s genuinely very exciting.

There’s also, naturally, romance. Allan Quatermain and Elizabeth Curtis hate each other at first sight, so we know there’s going to be a powerful attraction between them. Granger and Kerr handle this romance element very effectively. They have an unlikely chemistry but somehow it works.

Stewart Granger was always an extremely effective lead in adventure films and this is one of his best performances. He’s noble, generous, heroic and possessed of a steely determination but he’s also given to self-pity and stubbornness. He’s a flawed hero and he’s flawed in genuinely interesting ways. Granger is utterly convincing and sympathetic.

Deborah Kerr does a fine job as well. Hugo Haas is very good as the villainous Van Brun.

During the course of the expedition Quatermain and his party are joined by Umbopa. No-one knows where Umbopa comes from or why he wants to join the expedition. He does however have a knack for making himself useful and while Quatermain isn’t quite sure whether to trust him or not he decides that it might be safer to have Umbopa with them rather than against them.

This is a movie that doesn’t worry too much about political correctness but it doesn’t need to. It’s quite nuanced and subtle. Of the many Hollywood movies made in Africa during the 50s and 60s this version of King Solomon’s Mines is perhaps the one that is most imbued with a deep love for Africa.

There’s some great location shooting. The movie was shot in Technicolor and it looks fabulous.

Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines is one of the great adventure tales of all time. This movie certainly makes some significant changes to the plot. Hollywood obviously wanted a love story as well as an adventure story, which would probably have appalled Haggard.

The 1937 film adaptation is not without interest. It’s quite highly regarded although it’s also not overly faithful to the book and for my money the 1950 version is better.

I saw this film on cable TV so I can’t offer any opinions on the Region 1 DVD (which seems to be the only DVD edition).

The 1950 King Solomon’s Mines was made by MGM and it’s very much a big-budget A-picture with a consciously epic feel to it. It succeeds pretty well. Recommended.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Norman Conquest (1953)

Norman Conquest is a 1953 British crime thriller based on one of the books in Berkeley Gray’s long-running and very successful series of Norman Conquest adventure/crime thriller novels.

Norman Conquest was a bit like a poor man’s Simon Templar. The first of the Norman Conquest novels appeared in 1937 and was very obviously heavily inspired by Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels. Norman Conquest had the same devil-may-care attitude, he was also young and debonair and handsome, he had a similar schoolboy sense of humour, he had the same lack of respect for the forces of law enforcement, he had the same manic energy. He belonged to the school of dashing rogue heroes that produced not only Simon Templar but also the Baron, the Toff and Blackshirt. Compared to the dazzling stylistic pyrotechnics of Leslie Charteris Berkeley Gray was a bit more obvious and as bit more overtly trashy and pulpy. Having said that, the best of the Norman Conquest novels such as Miss Dynamite are a great deal of fun.

Bringing Norman Conquest to the big screen was a sound idea. The casting of the hero was always going to be crucial. In the event Tom Conway was chosen and while I’m generally quite a fan of Conway’s work he was unfortunately the wrong choice. At 49 years of age he was at least fifteen years too old. For the character to work he has to have the insane over-confidence of youth and he has to be essentially an overgrown schoolboy. Tom Conway looks much too old and tired.

The plot gets off to a nicely crazy start. Conquest finds a message on a recently deceased carrier pigeon. It sounds like the sort of message a spy or a criminal would send. Setting up an appointment in a hotel room. Conquest decides that although it is none of his business he will keep the appointment.

What he finds in Room 605 of the Park Plaza Hotel is a glamorous foreign blonde. He doesn’t remember much after that since said blonde shoots him with a gun that shoots a knockout drug. When he awakes he finds his old acquaintance Superintendent Williams (Sid James) who gives him the less than welcome news that he is now a murder suspect. The victim either fell or was pushed from the window and the superintendent is inclined to believe the latter.

The glamorous blonde is Nadina Rodin (Eva Bartok) and she’s part of a trade delegation from an unnamed country but the secret police are trying to arrest the members of the trade delegation and someone else seems to be stalking the secret policeman and it ends with a corpse which is the corpse that supposedly was pushed from the window.

So far it seems like a spy thriller with a bunch of eastern bloc trade officials wanting to defect rather than waiting to be shot. But then we find it has something to do with diamonds and something to do with Nazis. There are multiple double-crosses. Conquest demonstrates a remarkable ability to get himself knocked on the head or drugged or captured and if it’s not Conquest getting captured by the bad guys it’s his wife Pixie.

While Tom Conway was certainly too old for the rôle he does his best and he’s always a watchable actor. He very nearly pulls it off. He has most of the right attitudes to do so but those attitudes aren’t entirely convincing due to his age.

Eva Bartok is terrific as the mystery woman/femme fatale. She’s by far the best thing in the movie. She’s glamorous and sexy and wicked but also child-like and appealing and she’s amusing as well.

Before achieving fame as a comic actor Sid James was a busy and quite reliable character  actor and he does an excellent job here. Superintendent Williams fulfils the same function in the Norman Conquest stories as Claud Eustace Teal in the Saint stories - the long-suffering copper who dreams of nailing the smart aleck young upstart on some serious charge but we know it will never happen.

Since the books were very popular at the time it was presumably assumed that everyone would know where Pixie Everard fitted into the picture. In fact it soon becomes pretty obvious anyway.

As for the movie’s sexual politics, just remember that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there and you’ll probably find it as amusing as I did (I like the fact that old movies reflect the times in which they were made).

As far as I know this movie is only obtainable as a DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. The image quality is not fantastic but it’s acceptable (with some slight print damage) and sound quality is mostly OK (with some occasional but not too serious crackling).

Norman Conquest is a lightweight B-movie. It’s meant to be fun and it is fun. Recommended.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Human Desire (1954)

I decided to follow up Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (The Human Beast) by watching Fritz Lang’s American remake, Human Desire, released by Columbia in 1954. In this case it really is a remake, since Lang based his production on Renoir’s film, and not on Zola’s novel. In fact there’s speculation that Lang didn’t even bother to read the novel!

The first surprise is that Lang opens his movie in exactly the same way. The opening of Renoir’s movie is a visual tour-de-force, an extended dialogue-free sequence involving  trains and railway tracks and setting up the relationship of the hero to the trains he loves so much. The images are magnificent, and for Lang to open his film in exactly the same way was a very brave thing to do. While it’s not quite as impressive, Lang gets away with it.

This opening also sets up a difference between the two versions of the story. The hero of Renoir’s version, Jacques Lantier, loves his locomotive dearly and there’s something almost organic and passionate and even perhaps slightly erotic in the relationship and in the images. Renoir’s railway is connected with life. Lang’s hero, Jeff, loves his job but the railway for Lang seems to symbolise something darker and more impersonal. It’s as if Lang’s railroad tracks don’t really lead anywhere, or they simply take us wherever fate wills.

The stories in the two films run mostly in parallel until the ending. Jeff (Glenn Ford) has returned from the Korean War to his job as a train engineer. He becomes involved with the wife (Gloria Grahame) of the assistant yard manager, and a witness to what appears to be a murder.

Lang’s task was much more difficult than Renoir’s, hampered as he was by the demands of the Hays Office and of a studio anxious to offend nobody and to provide a straightforward and if possible happy ending.  Given those constraints Lang does a reasonably good job.

The biggest change is in the personality of the hero. Jean Gabin as Lantier has a darkness within him, but Lang admitted he was forced to make Jeff a much more conventional hero. Glenn Ford is no Jean Gabin anyway, but he has little to work with. In some ways that perhaps suited Lang’s purpose. It makes Jeff a complete victim of fate.

It also puts more pressure on Gloria Grahame. Her character has to bear most of the burden of the moral murkiness of the movie. In fact she becomes the central character, and her relationship with her husband (played by Broderick Crawford as a pathetic but nasty drunk) becomes more central as well. Jeff becomes more of an innocent bystander caught up in events he never quite comprehends (rather like Ray Milland’s character in Lang’s earlier and underrated Ministry of Fear).

Fortunately Grahame is  equal to the task. Her performance is so good that the viewer, like Jeff, is never quite sure how much of what she’s telling him is the complete truth, an embellished version of the truth, or complete fabrication. The frustrating thing for us, and for him, is that there is certainly a considerable element of truth in her story.

The most unfortunate thing about Human Desire is that the plot does follow that of La Bête humaine rather closely so comparisons are inevitable, and it has to be said that Renoir’s is the better and more complex film.

Lang’s movie though is Lang’s movie, not Renoir’s, it reflects Lang’s concerns, and if you’re prepared to judge it on its own merits it’s a fine example of late American film noir. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror was the third and last of the low-budget British movies made in the 1930s featuring master detective Sexton Blake.

In fact it probably qualifies as a quota quickie, quota quickies being very cheap movies that took advantage of British government legislation that forced exhibitors to show a quota of British-made movies. These movies are often unfairly despised. Some were terrible but many were good entertaining films.

Sexton Blake was a kind of pulp version of Sherlock Holmes (he even lived in Baker Street). He made his first appearance in 1893, in a story by Harry Blyth. Countless further stories followed (possibly as many as four thousand) and were published in a variety of cheap British magazines. The stories were written by many different writers (including some like John Creasey and Peter Cheyney who later became fairy well known). Blake has a youthful assistant named Tinker. The Sexton Blake stories range from very very good to very very bad.

One key difference between the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Sexton Blake stories is that the latter usually pitted the detective against one of a number of colourful diabolical criminal masterminds.

George Curzon plays Blake in this particular movie. He’s suave enough although he’s not going to convince anybody that he’s an action hero. As played by Curzon Blake has more of an air of a debonair man-about-town than Holmes, and he’s definitely much less neurotic.

The villain is played by the legendary Tod Slaughter. Slaughter was not merely in the tradition of Victorian melodrama villains. He was a real Victorian melodrama star. OK, if you want to be pedantic his career began in 1905 so he was actually an Edwardian melodrama star but he was an authentic representative of the tradition. He made a series of deliciously outrageous low-budget movies during the 30s and 40s. Tod Slaughter in full cry makes Charles Laughton seem positively restrained. Slaughter was perhaps the hammiest movie star of all time. Most of his best movies (such as Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) were adaptations of Victorian melodramas.

In Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror he plays diabolical criminal mastermind Michael Larron. By ordinary standards it’s an over-the-top exercise in hamminess but by Tod Slaughter standards this is a very subdued and subtle performance.

Tony Sympson plays Tinker. You might expect Tinker to be a comic relief character but he isn’t. He’s a reasonably competent and resourceful assistant.

It all starts with an attempted murder somewhere in the East. Granite Grant has a narrow escape from death, but he is grievously wounded and will be unable to keep a vital appointment with Sexton Blake in London. He sends Paul Duvall in his place. Duvall is murdered and the only clue that Blake has is a message written in cipher.

Grant was apparently on the track of the master criminal known as the Snake, believed to be the head of the dreaded organised crime gang the Black Quorum, a gang responsible for most of the really big crimes in Europe and Britain. There’s an obvious parallel here to the criminal organisation run by Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Blake’s first encounter with the Snake is at a stamp auction. Sexton Blake is a keen philatelist, as is the villainous Michael Larron. At the auction Blake renews his acquaintanceship with the glamorous Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt). Mademoiselle Julie seems to be in the same line of business as Sexton Blake, working sometimes as a freelancer and sometimes for the Sûreté.

The story is not exactly a masterpiece of plot construction but that matters little since it’s really just an excuse for pulp thrills and for the hero to find himself in lots of perilous situations from which there seems to be no escape. In at least one case there really would have been no excuse had Mademoiselle Julie not been on hand to rescue the great detective, a favour he is later able to repay.

There are some nice visual touches, such as the scene that awaits Blake in the gambling salon. The atmosphere is very pulpy and there’s every old-fashioned thriller cliché you could hope for, from deadly blow guns to doped cigars to concealed trap-doors.

This is very much in the mould of Edgar Wallace. Which from my point of view is certainly no bad thing.

This movie is one of six in VCI’s British Cinema Classic B Film Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is acceptable although far from pristine. The source material was obviously a TV print. These are very obscure movies so we’re lucky they’re available at all, and at a very reasonable price.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror is obviously a must-see for Tod Slaughter fans but anyone with a taste for outrageous pulpy fun should find plenty here to enjoy. It’s outrageous fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Dames Don't Care (1954)

Dames Don't Care (original title Les Femmes s'en balancent, also released as Dames Get Along) was made in 1954 and was the third of the Lemmy Caution movies. Bernard Borderie wrote and directed this film (as he did several others in the series).

Lemmy Caution was created by English novelist Peter Cheyney. The books were particularly popular in Europe and the first of the long series of French Lemmy Caution movies, Poison Ivy, appeared in 1953. The movies are on the whole better than the books.

Only one actor has ever played Lemmy Caution - American-born Eddie Constantine. Constantine had established himself as a fairly popular singer in France but the Lemmy Caution movies made him not just a movie star but a minor cultural icon.

Lemmy Caution is an FBI agent but all his cases seem to take him to Europe. It seems like he spends very little time in the United States. This case takes him to Italy.

The very clever opening sequence shows Caution making contact with another FBI agent. The case involves a very large amount of counterfeit U.S. currency which first came to the attention of the Italian authorities when the glamorous Henrietta Aymes (Nadia Gray) tried changing one of the forged notes at a bank in Rome. Henrietta’s husband Granworth committed suicide at about this time, or at least it looked like suicide at the time. When the eyewitness, a night watchman, changed his story it started to look a lot less like suicide.

Much of the action centres on the Casa Antica, a fancy bar and illegal gambling joint. Henrietta Aymes is a regular there. Lemmy is confident he’ll pick up a lead if he sticks around a place like this long enough. In the meantime there's whiskey to be drunk and poker to be played.

Henrietta Aymes is obviously a classic femme fatale but she’s not the only one. Paulette (Dominique Wilms) is femme fatale number two. And they’re both terrific sexy bad girls. Both have plausible motives for murdering Granworth Aymes. There’s a complex, twisted and dangerous web of romantic and criminal relationships involving Henrietta and her husband and Pauline and her husband.

The plot turns out to be rather intricate and it’s reasonably satisfying. Lemmy’s methods are generally not very subtle but he does have to puzzle out some actual clues this time. That still leaves plenty of time for fist-fights (some of which are pretty good). There’s also at least one decent action set-piece.

This movie is very much in the style of the classic American hardboiled private eye movies of the 40s. And it captures that flavour perfectly. There’s a leavening of humour but mostly it’s played fairly straight. The late Lemmy Caution movies, beginning with Godard’s Alphaville, may have been busily trying to deconstruct the genre but that’s definitely not the case with the early movies made between 1953 and 1963. This was a period when the French were still totally in love with American pop culture.

The settings are interesting. None of the action takes place in major cities. It all takes place in what appear to be desert settings, with stark modernist buildings seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I suspect the film-makers, having seen so many American movies set in California or in desert settings, were trying to create that same kind of atmosphere. Especially with Lemmy driving around in his big American convertible. The Casa Antica set is rather impressive. Stylistically it’s a pretty interesting movie.

If you’re the sort of person who is put off by dubbed movies you don’t have to worry about this one. The English language dubbing is excellent, and the English version includes some truly wonderful hardboiled dialogue.

Compared to Poison Ivy, made a year earlier, Dames Don't Care is a bit more polished and Eddie Constantine is now entirely comfortable in the rôle and he’s superb. Constantine’s Lemmy Caution is one of the screen’s classic wise-cracking hardboiled tough guys.

Nadia Gray and Dominique Wilms (who had also appeared in Poison Ivy) do the femme fatale thing and they both do it extremely well.

As far as I am aware the only way to get the Lemmy Caution movies is on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. In the case of this film the image quality is quite OK. Sound quality is not so good with a fair bit of hiss but fortunately the dialogue is all perfectly understandable.

Dames Don't Care is stylish entertainment with generous helpings of both wit and action. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Thunder Road (1958)

Thunder Road was very much a personal project for Robert Mitchum. He starred in it, he produced it, he wrote the story and he even co-wrote the songs. It was released by United Artists in 1958.

Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, a Korean War veteran who makes his living running illegal whiskey. It’s a small family business but Luke is finding himself squeezed by agents of the Treasury Department on one side and big-time gangsters on the other.

The action takes place in Harlan County in Tennessee, and illegal whiskey is the main industry in the county. These are hillbillies who have been distilling moonshine, and avoiding the revenue agents, for generations. It’s not just as profitable business. It’s part of their culture.

The transporters are guys like Luke, driving specially modified cars with racing engines and 250 gallon concealed tanks for the whiskey.

Carl Kogan (James Aubuchon) is a smooth but unscrupulous operator. He aims to control the whole illegal distilling business throughout the state. He aims to turn the operation into big business. He makes the moonshiners of the valley an offer he thinks they can’t refuse but he hasn’t taken account of Luke Doolin’s bloody-mindedness and intense dislike of being pushed around.

Luke’s charisma, resourcefulness and daring has made him the de facto leader of the illegal distillers in the valley. Luke certainly has guts. The question is whether his judgment is entirely sound. He doesn’t just refuse Kogan’s offer, he goes out of his way to antagonise and humiliate him. Kogan has a reputation for ruthlessness and one might think that it would have been wiser not to push him so far. But subtlety is not Luke’s style, and he possibly figures that if he refuses Kogan’s offer then Kogan is going to try to destroy him anyway so why bother refusing him politely?

It’s clear from the start that this is a high stakes game. One whiskey runner is ambushed and killed early on. Revenue agents might be implacable enemies but they don’t do that sort of thing. It has to be Kogan. Then Luke has an encounter with a couple of hoods in a car. The encounter ends fatally for the hoods. Then things really get out of control. A Treasury agent is killed in a bungled attempt on Luke’s life. This is the one thing that everyone in Harlan County feared. If a federal agent gets killed the government tends to react in a rather extreme way. In this case they send 200 additional agents to Harlan County with orders to track down and destroy every single still.

Things are getting so grim that Luke’s Daddy decides it’s time to get out of the whiskery business, temporarily at least. Luke will make one last run and that will be it.

One of the cool things about a film noir-tinged 1958 movie is that you can’t be certain whether it’s going to have a downbeat ending or a happy ending. From the late 60s onwards movies started to become terribly predictable. You just know there’s going to be a nihilistic downbeat ending. But in 1958 there was no way to be sure which way a movie like this would go. And I’m certainly not going to tell you!

Thunder Road does have some definite claims to film noir status, and those claims rest to a large degree on Luke’s personality. Luke is the kind of guy who just cannot compromise. He’s a guy who is either going to smash his way to victory or destroy himself trying. He is wildly over-confident. He is used to winning, but now he’s facing tougher odds than ever before. He’s the kind of guy whose whole approach is likely to get him in trouble. He’s a nice guy and he’s fundamentally decent but those flaws could well be enough to make him a doomed film noir hero. He’s a man who is at least half-aware of being on a road to destruction. If Kogan doesn’t get him the Federal Government will. The smart thing to do would be to quit, but he just doesn’t know how to do that. It’s an ideal role for Mitchum, combining charisma, charm, sensitivity and fatalism.

Gene Barry (an actor I’ve always liked) plays Treasury Agent Troy Barrett. In this case Barrett doesn’t really care about Luke Doolin. It’s Carl Kogan he wants. Luke is a bit of a bad boy but Kogan is a gangster and a cold-blooded killer. Barrett’s problem is to try to persuade the moonshiners that this time he’s on their side.

Mitchum’s son James makes his film debut here as Luke’s kid brother Robin.

The illegal whiskey business isn’t just a criminal enterprise. For the people of communities like Harlan County it’s a kind of symbol. A symbol of resistance to intrusive governments. A symbol of a man’s freedom to live his life in his own way. A symbol of the right not to be a wage slave. And also a symbol of a traditional way of life. Apart from being in the illegal whiskey trade the people of Harlan County are law-abiding God-fearing folk. They just want to be left alone. But of course being left alone is not going to be an option.

Thunder Road is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 and there’s a U.S. Blu-Ray release as well. I caught the movie on cable TV so I can’t comment on the quality of those releases.

Thunder Road has no shortage of action. It was just about the first Hollywood move in which car chases were the main focus of the action, and those car chases are extremely well done. The film also benefits from lots of location shooting. This is a very entertaining mix of film noir and action movie, with some of the flavour of an exploitation movie as well. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mr Wong in Chinatown (1939)

Mr Wong in Chinatown was released in 1939 and was the third of the Monogram Mr Wong movies. The character had been created by American writer Hugh Wiley and appeared in twelve stories published in Colliers Magazine between 1934 and 1938. Boris Karloff played Mr Wong in the first five movies while Keye Luke played the character in the final movie. In the original stories Mr Wong is a Chinese-American. In the movies Mr Wong had spent quite a considerable time in England which allowed Karloff to play the character with an educated English accent. I’m told the stories are rather deliciously pulpy.

Mr Wong lives in San Francisco and often helps the San Francisco Police on important and difficult cases. His relations with the police are exceptionally cordial. The movie starts with a murder committed in Mr Wong’s own home.

A Chinese woman has called at Wong’s house. By the time Wong makes his way from his laboratory to the sitting room the woman is dead, killed apparently by a fiendishly ingenious Chinese sleeve gun that fires poisoned darts. The woman was obviously a person of wealth and high social class and she has left a tantalising dying clue - the words ‘Captain J’ scrawled on a card.

The woman is in fact the Princess Lin Hwa. She is visiting the United States to buy arms.

Mr Wong will need assistance from San Francisco’s Chinese community and he obtains it, from one of the tongs.

Mr Wong is working closely with his old friend Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco PD. They are both also working closely with Feisty Girl Reporter Bobby Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), not by choice but because there seems to be no way to prevent her from involving herself. As Feisty Girl Reporters go she is at least not overly annoying.

Comic relief has been kept to a minimum. There’s some mild comic interplay between Bobby Logan and Captain Street but it’s very low-key and quite amusing and it even advances the plot. Given the fact that ill-advised and painfully unfunny comic relief sank a lot of otherwise promising B-movies of the 30s (including quite a few Monogram pictures) this is quite refreshing.

The plot is fairly interesting. It’s clear that the princess’s arms buying led either directly or indirectly to her murder but the script keeps us in doubt as to the exact identity of the killers. It’s also interesting that she’s buying arms in the late 30s but although China and Japan had been at war since 1937 it’s implied that the princess is acting on behalf of a local warlord and the Japanese are never mentioned. Presumably the intention was to avoid giving offence to a nation that was still at that time at peace with the United States.

Boris Karloff of course does not really look all that convincingly Chinese but for an actor of Karloff’s quality that’s a minor problem. He still manages to sell us on his performance.

What’s fascinating about the three very popular 1930s Hollywood B-movie series involving Asian detectives is that the detectives were all quite distinctive. The success of the Charlie Chan movies obviously made both the Mr Moto and Mr Wong series possible but Moto and Wong are in no sense mere Charlie Chan clones. In the original books Mr Moto was a Japanese spymaster. The films made him a detective working for an early incarnation of Interpol but it’s still clear that Moto has certain connections. And he’s much of an action hero than Charlie Chan. Mr Wong is much more upper-class than Chan. He is a man of considerable education and taste.

The acting overall is surprisingly good for a Monogram feature. Grant Withers is pretty good as tough cop Bill Street. Marjorie Reynolds gives a spirited and generally engaging performance as Bobby Logan.

After a successful career as a silent director William Nigh found himself relegated to helming B-movies for Poverty Row studios, a task he accomplished with reasonable efficiency. He directed the first five Mr Wong movies.

The production values are roughly what you expect from Monogram with a fairly limited array of sets but the picture doesn’t really look cheap or shoddy.

The Mr Wong movies are in the public domain and have had various rather questionable DVD releases. All six movies have been released in a two-disc set from VCI and it has to be said that the transfers are pretty good. In fact the transfer of this particular movie is very good.

Mr Wong in Chinatown is bright and breezy and it’s fine B-movie entertainment with Karloff impressive as always. Highly recommended.

The first movie in the Mr Wong cycle, Mr Wong, Detective, is also well worth seeing.