Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Too Many Crooks (1959)

I’m still  in the grip of my Terry-Thomas obsession. This time up it’s Too Many Crooks, released in 1959. Could this one possibly be as good as Make Mine Mink and The Naked Truth? The answer is a resounding yes.

This one has an extraordinarily good cast. Not just Terry-Thomas, but Sid James, George Cole and Bernard Bresslaw, all reliable British comedy stalwarts of the era. And in supporting roles actors of the calibre of John le Mesurier, Sidney Tafler and Terry Scott.

Fingers (George Cole) is the leader of a spectacularly unsuccessful criminal gang. The other gang members are Sid (Sid James), the huge and very simple-minded Snowdrop (Bernard Bresslaw), the nervy Whisper (Joe Melia) and glamorous sexpot Charmaine (Vera Day). They are starting to suspect that their lack of success has a lot to do with Fingers. He just doesn’t seem to be very good either at planning or executing crimes.

For his part Fingers is coming up with ever more ambitious schemes. He has decided that the gang should concentrate on wealthy financier Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Gordon is not only rich, he’s very crooked. He’s a man who is definitely not in a position to call in the police. It should be possible to relieve Gordon of a significant part of his fortune. Like most of Fingers’ plans it’s not entirely a bad idea if only he can make it work this time, but of course we know that isn’t going to happen.

Their attempt to rob Gordon’s house ends in yet another failure but now Fingers has come up with his masterstroke. They will kidnap Billy Gordon’s daughter and hold her for ransom. The only thing in the world that Billy Gordon loves more than money is his daughter.

The kidnapping is a terrific comic set-piece involving a hearse and a coffin and of course Fingers has done it again. He’s snatched Gordon’s wife rather than his daughter. And while Gordon would have paid any amount of money for the return of his daughter, he’s not prepared to pay a penny to get his wife back. He’s delighted by the idea of being free to chase women without a wife cramping his style.

So now the gang find themselves in a tricky situation but things are about to take an unexpected twist and it looks like our luckless band of incompetent crooks are about to taste success at last.

There are no dull spots at all in this movie. It hits the ground running and the laughs keep on coming. Michael Pertwee’s script is clever and witty. Mario Zampi was one of the most consistently excellent directors of comedy in Britain at that time. When you add that superb cast it should all work wonderfully well, and it does.

Billy Gordon is basically a typical Terry-Thomas cad. He’s not only a crooked financier but also an inveterate womaniser. His faithful and long-suffering wife Lucy (Brenda de Banzie) has to scrimp and save while Billy lives the high life with his lady friends. Like most Terry-Thomas cads he’s so much fun that you almost hope that he’ll come out on top and he suffers so many misfortunes that he does become vaguely sympathetic.

Fingers is rather sympathetic as well. He tries really hard but he’s just not very good at crime. He also tries very hard to be a tough guy, with equally little success. In fact this is a very good-natured gang. They don’t want to hurt anybody, they just want to make a dishonest living.

Vera Day adds a definite touch of glamour as the sexy Charmaine. She’s possibly the most competent member of the gang since at least she knows how to use her feminine wiles effectively. And she’s amusing as well as glamorous.

This film has had various DVD releases, both individually and as part of a number of boxed sets, in most regions. The Region 2 DVDs are still very easy to get hold of (and absurdly cheap) but finding this movie in Region 1 might be more of a challenge.

Too Many Crooks is simply terrific entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Flying Squad (1940)

The Flying Squad is a 1940 British crime thriller based on an Edgar Wallace story. Wallace’s stories were always ideal material for cinematic adaptation and this one works pretty well.

Inspector Bradley of Scotland Yard (Sebastian Shaw) is investigating a smuggling ring. He’s had opportunities to arrest various members of the gang but that’s the last thing he wants to do. He doesn’t want the small fish, he wants the mastermind behind the whole operation. He has a pretty shrewd idea of the identity of that mastermind but so far no worthwhile evidence.

Bradley’s target is handsome young man-about-town Mark McGill (Jack Hawkins). McGill is indeed the gang leader and he’s a ruthless operator. His ruthlessness is perhaps his weak point. He’s a bit too ready to have people disposed of (or even to dispose of them himself) if he so much as suspects that they might betray him, even inadvertently. He has a young fellow named Ronnie Perryman bumped off which could be awkward since Ronnie’s sister Anne (Phyllis Brooks) is part of the same fashionable social set. He spins Anne a tale and then finds that Anne wants to take Ronnie’s place in the smuggling ring.

McGill is not the only one who wants to make use of Anne. Inspector Bradley has the same idea. Anne really has no idea of what is actually going on. She thinks McGill is smuggling in face powder from France. Actual face powder. Powder is certainly what is being smuggled but it’s a different and much more valuable type of white powder.

Anne is young and high-spirited but she is perhaps just a little naïve. OK, she’s incredibly naïve. And now she’s caught in the middle of a dangerous game between a charming but utterly unscrupulous gangster and a policeman who is also not over-scrupulous and who is determined to get results at any price.

There’s no mystery element at all in this story. It’s an out-and-out thriller and (certainly by the standards of British movies of its era) it delivers a fair amount of action and mayhem. There are a number of very characteristic Wallace touches (he liked things like secret trapdoors). McGill’s riverfront secret hideout is classic Wallace stuff.

Herbert Brenon had been a very successful director during the silent era but his career went downhill rapidly in the sound era. The Flying Squad is B-movie stuff but it’s all fairly competently executed and it has more than enough plot to fill the modest 64-minute running time. It feels a bit stagey at times but the action scenes are surprisingly energetic and there’s even a car chase. The smugglers use an aircraft to bring in their contraband, and a very cool looking aircraft it is (if you love vintage biplanes).

Sebastian Shaw is a perfectly adequate if not terribly exciting hero, and he has the requisite matinee idol looks. Jack Hawkins (looking rather young) is a splendid villain of the smooth but sinister type. Hawkins wisely doesn’t overplay the role. Phyllis Brooks makes a lively and engaging leading lady.

Basil Radford provides the comic relief, and this is one of those rare films in which the comic relief is not only bearable but a positive asset. In fact Radford just about manages to steal the picture.

It’s interesting to compare this one with another British Wallace adaptation of the same period, The Terror, which puts much more emphasis on humour (and is pretty enjoyable as well).

Network’s DVD release offers a very good transfer. The only extra feature is an image gallery but at least it’s a pretty extensive image gallery.

This is basically a B-picture so don’t expect it to be in the same league as Hitchcock’s British thrillers of the period. Having said that, The Flying Squad works as fine old-fashioned entertainment and it does capture the Edgar Wallace feel very effectively. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Five Fingers (1952)

20th Century Fox’s Five Fingers is a 1952 spy thriller directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and based on the exploits of the famous real-life spy code-named Cicero. It was based on a book by L.C. Moyzisch who was in fact the man who recruited and ran Cicero. The case was a major embarrassment to the British but also, in a rather deliciously ironic manner, to the Germans as well.

The script is credited to Michael Wilson but was apparently entirely rewritten by Mankiewicz.

In March 1944 L.C. Moyzisch (Oskar Kollweis), the German Millitary Attaché at their embassy in Turkey, is approached by a rather persuasive man with an extraordinary offer. He will sell British secrets to the Germans. Not just any secrets, but incredibly important ultra-sensitive material.

The man is Ulysses Diello (James Mason) and he is the valet to the British Ambassador. A mere valet would not normally have access to top-secret documents but due to some astonishing security lapses he is able to get his hands on every important document in the British Embassy. And being a mere valet no-one suspects him of being a spy.

The problem for the Germans is that Cicero is supplying them with such high-level material that they have no means of verifying that any of it is genuine. Both Moyzisch and the Gernan Ambassador, Count Franz Von Papen (John Wengraf), are convinced the documents are genuine but the Gestapo are concerned by the possibility that Cicero is a British double agent feeding the Germans false intelligence.

The key to the movie is that in the world of espionage no-one can ever be sure they are not being double-crossed. The Germans have no way of being sure that Cicero is not really a British agent but on the other hand they have no way of being sure he isn’t exactly what he seems to be, a traitor selling genuine secrets. So they now have a treasure trove of vital British secrets which may be genuine or may be fake. It is dangerous to be too trusting but it is equally dangerous to be too suspicious.

Diello has an arrangement with a beautiful Polish exile, Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux). He needs her as a cover and she needs the money that he gives her. It’s a professional relationship but with the possibility of becoming something more personal. He may be in love with her and she may be in love with him but in the world of the spy no-one can really be sure of anything.

The British eventually figure out that have a very serious security leak and counter-intelligence man Colin Travers (Michael Rennie) is dispatched to the embassy at Ankara to find that leak and the German spy responsible for it but he is not convinced that there really is a spy. There never are any certainties in the world of espionage.

The Germans have also sent a senior intelligence man to Ankara to investigate Cicero’s bona fides. Colonel von Richter of the Gestapo (Herbert Berghof) is suspicious of Cicero right from the start. So Cicero is a spy being investigated by both his friends and his enemies, although of course a spy really has no friends.

The supporting players are uniformly excellent but this picture belongs to James Mason. His performance is crucial. Diello is a traitor and he’s turned traitor for money but somehow Mason has to make him sympathetic enough for the audience to want him to be caught and at the same time to want him to get away with it. Mason does this with ease. His Diello is treacherous and unscrupulous but he’s also brave and daring and charming and witty.

This is a very low-key spy thriller. Mankiewicz was not exactly renowned as an action director and his style is straightforward and perhaps a little prosaic. There’s no question that a Hitchcock given this material would have produced a much more exciting and stylish action thriller. But to be fair to Mankiewicz, that’s not the sort of film he was trying to make. He was more interested in making a slightly cerebral and witty spy thriller with an emphasis on the paranoid psychology of the world of spies. And judged by those criteria Five Fingers works very well indeed. And the ending gives us a whole series of delicious ironic twists. Highly recommended.