Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Gambling House (1950)

Gambling House has an opening that suggests that it’s going to be a fairly decent film noir. Within ten minutes though the awful truth becomes apparent. This is not a film noir. It’s a Social Problem Movie. And if there’s one type of movie that should be avoided at all costs it’s the 1950s Hollywood Social Problem Movie. This 1950 RKO production is a particularly dreadful example of the breed.

Marc Fury (Victor Mature) is a gambler and he has a few problems. Firstly he’s close to broke. Secondly he has a bullet in his guts. And thirdly he’s about to be made an offer that he really should not contemplate accepting.

Joe Farrow (William Bendix) owns a string of gambling joints. He’s successful but he’s inclined to do rash things. In this case he gunned down a gambler who was making trouble after figuring out that he was being fleeced. During the course of the brief gun battle Marc was shot accidentally. Now Farrow offers him $50,000 to take the rap, with the promise that his hot-shot lawyer will get him off on a plea of self-defence.

Everything seems to be working out until the immigration people decide to deport Marc. Marc had always assumed he was an American citizen but he wasn’t and since he hasn’t exactly been law-abiding there seems little chance of the deportation order being reversed. To add to his woes Farrow seems to be remarkably reluctant to hand over the fifty grand he’d promised him.

Marc isn’t completely stupid. He’s got hold of Farrow’s little black book that contains all sorts of incriminating evidence against the gambling joint owner. This is Marc’s insurance but in an awkward moment he drops the book into the coat pocket of random stranger Lynn Warren (Terry Moore) hoping that it will be easy to retrieve it later. By the kind of amazing coincidence you only encounter in really bad writing and bad movies the random stranger happens to be a girl who works for an agency that helps people with immigration problems.

At this point the main plot grinds to a halt and we get a dull love story combined with speeches about the plight of immigrants and what it means to be an American citizen plus messages about how even a guy like Marc can be saved by the Love of a Good Woman. To make things worse we also get a clumsy and irrelevant sub-plot about a Polish immigrant family. And we get more speeches. Lots of speeches.

Finally the main plot kicks in again. You might think that would be good news but it’s all so contrived and unconvincing that it actually turns out to be bad news.

This is one of those movies in which the characters do things that are totally out of character and entirely unbelievable simply because the script demands it. This makes it hard to judge the acting. Victor Mature tries hard but Marc’s actions are simply not believable and Mature is not at his best delivering inspiring speeches. I’m actually a big fan of Victor Mature as an actor but his performance in this movie just doesn’t work due to the awful script.

Terry Moore’s performance is dire but again with a script like this even the best actress would be struggling. Lynn comes across as irritating and self-righteous. William Bendix is flat and dull.

Visually there are a few good moments at the start and a few at the ending but what could have been an evocative film noir ending is ruined because we don’t for a moment believe the actions of any of the characters involved, and by that time it’s unlikely that any viewer will even care how the film ends as long as it ends soon.

Gambling House is a movie that is incredibly poorly paced and structured and it’s embarrassingly clumsy. It’s annoyingly emotionally manipulative but the manipulation backfires because the characters are so unconvincing. It’s a total waste of time. Do whatever you have to do to avoid seeing this movie.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Desert Hawk (1950)

Universal’s The Desert Hawk promises swashbuckling adventure and romance and that’s what it delivers. And it looks gorgeous.

Ignore the opening voiceover that tells you the story happened 2,000 years ago. In fact this is obviously the world of Islam. It’s a kind of Arabian Nights tale but with no supernatural elements or monsters.

The beautiful Princess Scheherazade (an obvious nod to the Arabian Nights) is betrothed to Prince Murad (George Macready). Prince Murad is a bit of a tyrant, in fact he’s an out-and-out villain and his tax collectors have been oppressing the common people. His tyranny is being challenged however, by a man known only as the Desert Hawk. No-one knows his real identity but when not adventuring he works as a humble blacksmith under the name of Omar. The Desert Hawk is very much a Robin Hood figure, which is rather appropriate since Richard Greene went on to play Robin Hood in the celebrated British TV series.

Princess Scheherazade (Yvonne de Carlo in one of her many roles in swashbuckling adventure films) is your typical princess - she’s haughty and proud and quick-tempered and she’s used to getting what she wants. Her father is the caliph and he’s a very indulgent father so she doesn’t have to marry the prince unless she wants to. Once she meets him though the matter is quickly resolved. He is handsome and dashing and very romantic and she agrees to marry him that very day. Judging by her demeanour the next morning it’s fair to assume that she found her wedding night to be more than satisfactory. She has everything a girl could want but there is one fly in the ointment. It turns out that the man she married (and with whom she spent that blissful night of love) is not Prince Murad at all. She has married the Desert Hawk!

She is more than a little displeased by this development. Her life is about to get even more complicated. There are nefarious plots afoot and the princess is kidnapped, but she swapped clothes with one of her handmaidens so the kidnappers have the wrong girl. Meanwhile Scheherazade herself, whom they assume to be merely a handmaiden, is to be sold at the slave market.

Omar will have to find a way to rescue his new bride and that will be a challenge as there are multiple villains to deal with. The villains are more than willing to murder and they’re delighted by the prospect of torturing captive princesses. There’s also the slight problem that the princess, having been tricked into marriage, is sufficiently annoyed that she might well persuade her father to put Omar to death for his presumption in tricking his way into her bed.

There’s a good mix of action and romance and there’s some comedy as well. Fortunately there’s not too much of the comic relief and what there is is quite amusing. There are the obligatory narrow escapes from death.

Richard Greene certainly knew a thing or two about swashbuckling and he makes a splendid romantic hero. Yvonne de Carlo wasn’t thrilled to find herself cast in these types of films but in fact they suited her perfectly. She does the feisty proud heroine thing superbly, and she looks absolutely stunning in Arabian Nights-style costume. There’s a reasonably good romantic chemistry between the two leads, interspersed with plenty of verbal sparring.

George Macready is a fine villain. Look out for Rock Hudson is a supporting role. Had this movie been made a couple of years later he would undoubtedly have landed the lead role.

Frederick De Cordova was a solid journeyman director who had something of a flair for adventure movies. He keeps things moving along very nicely.

This was a Universal feature so the budget would have been fairly modest but it looks quite impressive and the exotic atmosphere is convincing. It was shot in Technicolor. The sets and the costumes are splendid. It might be basically a B-movie but it manages to look a bit more lavish than most such productions.

Simply Media’s Region 2 DVD release is barebones but it offers a very good transfer. The colours look terrific.

The Desert Hawk is definitely an above-average movie of its type with enough plot twists to keep things interesting and a very good cast. Swashbuckling fans and admirers of Yvonne de Carlo won’t want to miss this one. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Split Second (1953)

Dick Powell had a pretty interesting career. He started as a juvenile lead in musicals for Warner Brothers in the 1930s. In the 1940s he re-invented himself as a tough guy actor in a series of excellent film noir roles in movies like Cornered, Cry Danger, Pitfall and Murder, My Sweet. Then in the 50s he re-invented himself once again as a producer and director. His first movie as director was Split Second. His directing career (which included the classic war movie The Enemy Below) was cut short by his untimely death in 1963.

Split Second is an odd and interesting kind of hybrid thriller. The main plot is standard hardboiled crime movie fare. Convicted killer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) has broken out of prison along with Bart Moore (Paul Kelly). Moore has a bullet in him, courtesy of a prison guard, and he needs a doctor real bad. After meeting up with another hoodlum pal they hijack a car and they decide to take the two occupants of the car, Kay Garven (Alexis Smith) and Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige) with them as hostages.

So it’s all very standard stuff, except that this is all happening right in the middle of an atomic bomb testing site. And since the movie opens by making a big deal of the evacuation of everybody from the test area we can be fairly confident that this is going to become a key plot point. The hoodlums have been so focused on their prison break and trying to keep a step ahead of the law that they haven’t been keeping up with current events in general, such as the latest nuclear tests.

There’s another interesting twist. Kay Garven is a married woman, but she isn’t married to Arthur Ashton. She might not be married to him but she sure does seem to be mighty friendly with him. She’s actually married to a doctor. This gives Sam Hurley a bright idea. He rings up Dr Garven (Richard Egan) and tells him to meet them at a spot he has chosen out in the desert where the doctor can patch up Bart Moore’s bullet wound. If he doesn’t turn up to the rendezvous Hurley will kill his wife. This will lead to another interesting plot twist.

Along the way they pick up (against their will) reporter Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) and dancer Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling) and they all end up in the secret hideout Hurley has cunningly arranged, in a ghost town known as Last Hope City. A ghost town that just happens to be more or less Ground Zero for the atom bomb test. They are going to have to be out of Last Hope City before 6 am or they’re going to be reduced to radioactive ash.

One more character is added to the mix when grizzled old prospector Asa Tremaine (Athur Hunnicut) shows up.

It’s naturally a more than slightly tense atmosphere at the hideout and to make things more complicated Kay Garven suddenly decides that she thinks bad boys like Sam Hurley are incredibly sexy.

The atmosphere just keeps on getting more tense. Time is running out, the clock is ticking on that big ole atom bomb, but Hurley can’t go anywhere without his buddy Bart (the only true friend he’s ever had) and Bart isn’t going anywhere unless he gets medical attention real soon and Dr Garven still hasn’t shown up.

Everyone is getting jumpy and the hostages are wondering whether Sam Hurley has any intention of allowing them to leave the place alive. So they start thinking about their options. Those options are very very limited but if they don’t do something their prospects are even grimmer. It now becomes a psychological thriller as we find out just how these people will behave under extreme stress. Some will behave bravely. Some will behave foolishly. Some will behave cynically. Some will behave very badly indeed.

While there’s plenty of suspense as the clock keeps ticking this is mostly a character-driven piece. Fortunately it has a good cast and they all do well. There’s some overacting but this is a very melodramatic so that works out just fine and when they overact they do it well. Alexis Smith in particular does some powerhouse scenery-chewing.

Given the setup, with an atomic bomb about to explode, the challenge was to make the ending exciting enough to justify the buildup. That challenge is met very effectively and very neatly.

Odeon Entertainment’s all-region DVD is barebones (apart from a trailer) but it’s cheap and it provides a very good transfer. The film has also been released in the Warner Archive made-on-demand series.

Split Second is a bit of an oddity and its claims to being film noir are a little shaky but it’s a nifty little movie and it’s highly recommended.

Friday, January 5, 2018

First Love (1939)

Deanna Durbin was already a very big star indeed when she made First Love for Universal in 1939. In fact she was so big a star that she was practically keeping Universal afloat single-handedly. Robert Stack on the other hand was making his film debut and this movie would make him a star.

First Love is a reworking of Cinderella. Connie Harding (Durbin) is an orphan. After graduating from boarding school she is sent to New York to live with her aunt and uncle. It’s immediately obvious that the household revolves around her cousin Barbara (Helen Parrish). Barbara is not the ugly stepsister, She’s the beautiful glamorous cousin but that turns out to be just as bad if not worse. Barbara gets everything she wants. She is spoilt, vain and shallow.

Connie is not exactly made to feel wanted. Barbara ignores her unless she has some errand for Connie to run. Barbara’s mother Grace (Leatrice Joy) is not an unpleasant person, she simply isn’t interested in anything much apart from astrology and her wonderful daughter. Uncle Jim (Eugene Pallette) makes a point of never being at home at the same time as his wife and daughter. Barbara’s brother Walter (Lewis Howard) is cynical and lazy but basically harmless and with a rather realistic view of his family.

Since this is Cinderella there is of course a ball. And of course it looks like Connie won’t get to go, until her Fairy Godmother steps in. She doesn’t actually have a Fairy Godmother  but she does have the household staff who took an immediate liking to her and they turn out to be every bit as useful as an actual Fairy Godmother. She does go to the ball and she gets to dance with a handsome prince. The prince is Ted Drake (Robert Stack) and while he might not be a real prince he’s rich handsome and charming and he’s as close to a prince as you’ll find in New York City.

But of course at midnight Cinderella must leave the ball, leaving behind her only a slipper. It’s not much of a clue but Ted Drake is determined to find that slipper’s owner.

Charming is the word that seems to be most often used to describe Deanna Durbin. Maybe she wasn’t the world’s greatest actress but her performance here is more than capable. She handles the light comedy with ease and she makes Connie sympathetic without sentimentality. Connie is of course supposed to be totally overshadowed by her more beautiful more glamorous cousin and Durbin manages to convey this without making Connie dull or earnest. In fact Connie might not be a glamour queen but she is likeable and amusing.

I wouldn’t describe Durbin as a stunning beauty but she has a wholesome Girl Next Door prettiness.

Robert Stack is so unbelievably young I didn’t recognise him at first (he was all of twenty when he made this picture). He does the Prince Charming thing with a pleasing natural ease.

The supporting cast is superb. Barbara is a nasty piece of work and Helen Parrish has a great deal of fun with the role. Uncle Jim turns out to be the worm that finally turns and Eugene Pallette is delightful. Charles Coleman is very good as the loveable butler George. It’s really unfair to single anyone out though since they’re all so good.

This is not really a musical. It’s a romantic comedy with some musical interludes. The musical interludes are not necessary but since Deanna Durbin was a noted singer it would have been pretty silly not to give her the chance to sing a few songs, which she does rather nicely.

Henry Koster directed quite a few of Durbin’s films and apparently acted as the young star’s mentor. He can’t be faulted for the job he does here.

The romance is certainly there but it’s also genuinely very amusing. It follows the Cinderella story surprisingly closely and it does so with wit and style.

Simply Media’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is good. This movie is also available on DVD in Region 1 as part of Universal’s Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack boxed set.

First Love is very much a feelgood movie. It’s funny and clever and it’s insanely romantic. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 1, 2018

classic movie viewing highlights for 2017

I didn’t get to see a huge number of classic movies this year buy among those I did see these were the highlights:

Rhythm on the River. A delightful 1940 musical with Bing Crosby exercising his easy-going charm to great effect.

The Man in Grey. An outrageous 1943 British melodrama with James Mason and Margaret Lockwood in sizzling form.

Madonna of the Seven Moons. An even more outrageous and rather bizarre 1945 British melodrama.

The Long Memory. A superb noir-tinged 1953 British crime thriller with John Mills giving a very dark  and very powerful performance.

Valley of the Kings. A top-notch action adventure thriller from 1954 with Robert Taylor as a daring archaeologist.

The Vicious Circle. Highly entertaining 1957 British mystery thriller with some neat plot twists and turns.

The White Trap. Superb 1959 British crime thriller B-feature with a hint of noir.

The Naked Truth. Wonderful British comedy with Terry-Thomas in sparkling form.