Sunday, April 29, 2018

Night Must Fall (1937)

Night Must Fall was based on a hit play by Emlyn Williams, and that is a large part of the problem. This 1937 MGM movie never really escapes from its stage origins.

It has a classic traditional murder mystery setup. Mrs Bransom (Dame May Whitty) is a wealthy old lady who lives in a fairly isolated house in the country. She is an invalid, although it seems obvious that he is an invalid by choice rather than force of circumstances. Being an invalid makes it that much easier for her to tyrannise her household staff. That staff includes her long-suffering niece Olivia (Rosalind Russell). Olivia is an odd girl, perhaps too imaginative for her own good.

There’s been some excitement in the district, with the police searching for a woman who has gone missing. It’s clear that the police have reason to suspect that the woman has met with foul play.

The latest addition to Mrs Bransom’s household is a plausible young man named Danny (Robert Montgomery). He has talked his way into a job. Danny is a young man who fancies he can talk his way into anything. His methods are extremely crude but nonetheless effective - lots of flattery and shameless appeals to sentimentality. These methods prove to be spectacularly successful wth the old lady.

Danny has less success with Olivia. She is convinced right from the start that Danny is no good and a fraud and generally bad news, and it has to be admitted that anyone with any sense would see though him as easily as Olivia does.

Olivia not only suspects Danny of being no good. She even suspects he may be a murderer.

The plot unfolds at a pace that can only be described as glacial. The characters talk. And they talk and they talk and they talk. They never stop talking. The talking does nothing to advance the plot - the direction the story is going to take is obvious from the start. The talking does nothing to flesh out the characters. We know what kinds of people these are within the first five minutes, and our initial impressions turn out to be perfectly accurate. It’s just talking for the sake of talking.

That would be bad enough, but there’s also Robert Montgomery’s excruciatingly stagey performance. Rosalind Russell is rather better. She still talks too much but at least she understands that she’s not on stage. Dame May Whitty’s character is embarrassing.

John van Druten wrote the script. At least half of the dialogue should have gone straight into the wastepaper basket.

Richard Thorpe was already in 1937 an extremely experienced director but for some reason he is content to shoot this movie pretty much as a filmed play.

There’s no mystery at all. There’s also no effective suspense. On the rare occasions when there might have been just a little suspense it is ruined by interminable unnecessary dialogue.

Even the sets are rather dull.

I caught this movie on TCM. It’s available on DVD in the Warner Archive Collection.

Night Must Fall is an object lesson in how not to adapt a stage play, and how not to make a mystery thriller. Every mistake that it is possible to make was made by the makers of this movie.

This is a movie to avoid.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Act of Violence (1948)

The 1948 MGM film noir Act of Violence belongs to the sub-genre of crazy WW2 vet noirs. It gets off to a very impressive start. A rather rumpled and rather surly guy with a bad limp (played by Robert Ryan) is stalking Frank Enley (Van Heflin). The limping man has a gun and it’s pretty obvious that he intends to kill Enley, but we have no idea why. The fact that we don’t know why adds considerably to the suspense and the brooding feel of menace.

We do have a few clues. Enley is a World War 2 vet and he was an officer. Given that the movie was made in 1948 it’s reasonable to surmise that the limping man served under Enley during the war and has a grudge against him, and he believes it’s a big enough grudge to be worth killing for.

Enley is seriously spooked so we can further surmise that he’s convinced the limping man really does intend to kill him.

It’s a nicely effective rather minimalist opening sequence and director Fred Zinnemann is in no hurry to give us a full explanation, preferring to slowly build up the backstory by indirect means. We’re nearly halfway through the film before we get the explanation and even then we can’t be entirely sure what happened - we have two accounts of the crucial events during the war but neither account could be said to be coming from an impartial witness.

I’m being deliberately very vague about the plot because one of the things I like about this movie is that the two protagonists are introduced at the start and we draw certain conclusions about their respective characters. And then we find out things that force us to totally rethink how we feel about these two men. My feeling is that the less you know about the plot going into the film the more effectively this technique works.

We are definitely in noir territory. Take a guy who’s a fairly regular guy but kind of weak morally or psychologically, the kind who’s likely to make one bad mistake because he’s trying to find the easy way out, then tighten the screws on him and watch him sink into the noir quicksand. I’m not going to tell you which of the lead characters this applies to but this guy really is sinking into that quicksand.

Robert Ryan was of course always the perfect choice if you wanted an actor to play  someone who was psychologically tortured, damaged and dangerous. In this film he exudes menace right from the start and there’s a frightening implacability about his stalking of Elney.

Van Heflin was also pretty good at playing troubled characters and Frank Elney most definitely qualifies as troubled. And tortured. And damaged.

A very very young Janet Leigh plays Elney’s rather sweet but worried wife and her performance is quite effective. Mary Astor plays the world-weary and decidedly non-respectable Pat. I find most of Astor’s performances to be a bit odd but the strange thing is that more often than not they work.

I’ve never had a particularly high opinion of Fred Zinnemann’s work although I was very impressed by The Day of the Jackal. After seeing Act of Violence I’m inclined to think that Zinnemann was at his best doing dark moody suspense pictures. This movie starts out tense and that tension never lets up.

Cinematographer Robert Surtees provides the necessary noir visual style.

There’s lots of angst here and moral ambiguity as well. We have characters who do bad things but they don’t do them because they want to, they just can’t help themselves. So we have plenty of characteristic film noir self-pity as well.

Act of Violence was released as part of the Warner Home Video Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 and as a made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series. I caught this movie on TCM so I can’t comment on the quality of the DVD releases.

Act of Violence is an emotional roller-coaster ride and it’s a full-blooded excursion into the noir depths. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Captain Kidd (1945)

Any movie with Charles Laughton as a pirate has to be worth a look, and Captain Kidd (released in 1945) turns out to be pretty good.

William Kidd was one of the most famous of all pirates, and one of the most controversial, the controversy stemming from the fact that there is considerable doubt as to whether Kidd really was technically a pirate at all.

In the movie we’re left in no doubt that Kidd (played of course by Laughton) is a cut-throat and a remarkably devious rogue. He is also ambitious. He wants to buy his way into the aristocracy and that’s going to require a great deal of money. It’s also obviously going to require him to appear to have obtained the money by legal means. So when he sets out on   his latest voyage, armed with a letter of marque (authorising him to attack ships of enemy states) signed by the King, his intention is to engage in piracy whilst appearing to be acting within the letter of the law.

For this voyage he selects his crew with great care. They are all prisoners from Newgate Prison, all awaiting execution for piracy, and all of them guaranteed to be loyal since they’ve been promised a royal pardon if they survive the voyage.

His officers are even bigger rogues than the crew. They are pirates who have served with Kidd before. They have no scruples whatsoever.

Kidd is a man who always has some dishonest but profitable scheme in mind. He is not the only one making schemes. Orange Povy (John Carradine) has plans of his own and he knows Kidd extremely well. He believes he can match wits with him.

Jose Lorenzo (Gilbert Roland) is another of the officers with his own agenda. And then there’s Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), something of a mystery man and the object of much suspicion on the part of his fellow officers, and especially on the part of the Captain. Lorenzo and Mercy will also try to mach wits with Kidd.

Things get more complicated after Kidd’s rendezvous with the Quedagh Merchant, a ship he is supposed to escort through the pirate-infested waters near Madagascar. The Quedagh Merchant is carrying treasure of immense value, and it is also carrying the beautiful young Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton). The challenge for Kidd is to get his hands on the treasure without appearing to have committed an act of piracy. He also has plans for Lady Anne, and he’s not the only one.

Captain Kidd keeps a list of names hidden in a secret drawer in his cabin. It’s a list of people who are or have been accomplices in his schemes, and who feel themselves entitled to a share of the loot. The list is distressingly long. It seems a great pity to have to divide the loot so many ways. It would be much safer, more convenient and more profitable if that list of names could be reduced to a more manageable level. Kidd has plans to do just this.

Charles Laughton is in magnificent form. This is overacting taken to the most delightfully extreme levels. He manages to be both horrifyingly amoral and oddly likeable, and also very very amusing. Kidd’s attempts to turn himself into a gentleman provide a good deal of fun. He has hired a valet, Shadwell (Reginald Owen) to teach him the finer points of gentlemanly behaviour. This proves to be quite a challenge for Shadwell.

The supporting cast is very strong, with John Carradine being wonderfully sinister.

Rowland V. Lee was a competent director and does a solid job despite having to work with a somewhat limited budget. With Charles Laughton in full flight there’s never the slightest danger of things becoming boring. The screenplay plays fast and loose with history but it gives Laughton the kind of dialogue he can sink his teeth into. There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s enough to keep the viewer’s interest.

Captain Kidd is in the public domain and there are therefore a number of DVD releases of varying quality. I can’t comment on these discs since I caught this movie on broadcast television (with the print being in reasonable condition).

This would have been a pretty enjoyable pirate adventure anyway, with plenty of nasty plot twists and a gallery of colourful rogues. It’s Charles Laughton’s performance that lifts it to a higher level. For Laughton fans, or for pirate movie fans, it’s pretty much a must-see movie. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon was released in 1975 and is in every way a typical Stanley Kubrick film. It’s visually breathtaking. It’s also entirely lacking in emotion, but deliberately so. Kubrick does not want us to care about any of the characters in the film. He wants us to regard them in the same dispassionate way that he views them. It’s a movie you may or may not enjoy but in its own way it’s an extraordinary movie.

It was based on a very minor novel (The Luck of Barry Lyndon) by Thackeray and again this is almost certainly a deliberate choice on Kubrick’s part. Had he chosen to adapt a better known Victorian novel there’s the danger that the audience might have been familiar with the book and might therefore already have formed an opinion about it. It suits Kubrick’s purposes to choose a novel that very few people have read.

Thackeray was the inventor of the so-called "novel without a hero” and this is indeed a movie without a hero. Thackeray’s much more famous novel Vanity Fair would have suited Kubrick’s purposes equally well except that it’s too widely known and the audience would have preconceptions about it.

Barry Lyndon is not even a real anti-hero. An anti-hero is someone about whom we have some feelings even if they’re mainly negative. Barry is simply a non-hero. We don’t care enough about him to dislike him and the whole movie is so detached that it’s difficult even to work up disapproval for Barry.

There’s only one character in the movie who could potentially function as a hero, and that’s the young Lord Bullingdon, but he’s almost as unsympathetic as Barry and definitely not the stuff heroes are made of.

The protagonist (played by Ryan O’Neal) starts life as Redmond Barry, an Irishman born into modest respectability but penniless due to the untimely death of his father in a duel. Another duel will be the crucial event that launches Barry on his career (and a third duel will have equally momentous consequences). Barry suffers misfortunes and joins the British army and participates in the Seven Years War (an extraordinary cynical and senseless war brought about by the breathtaking amorality of Frederick the Great and which therefore serves as the ideal background to the story). Barry deserts and ends up in the Prussian service (a byword for brutality). Barry has no intention of remaining a humble soldier. He waits patiently for his chance of escape (he is a man who does not make things happen but he is extremely adept at recognising opportunities when they fall into his lap).

Barry’s fortunes prosper when he teams up with the Chevalier du Balibari (Patrick Magee), a professional gambler and amateur libertine. It has taken a series of betrayals to get Barry into this favourable situation but betrayal comes very easily to him. By the halfway stage of the movie Barry’s lack of morals, his eye for the main chance and a certain amount of luck have propelled him to the top of the social heap. He marries a fabulously wealthy widow. He has everything he ever desired. He has done little to deserve it. In the second half it all starts to fall apart for him, partly through his own flaws and partly through bad luck.

Much nonsense has been written about the supposed miscasting of Ryan O’Neal in the title role. In fact O’Neal is perfectly cast in every way. Barry Lyndon is a man with considerable ambitions and with a talent for opportunism but he has no morality and no beliefs and no personality to speak of. He takes on the colouring of his surroundings. O’Neal’s performance has just the right quality of complete emotional detachment but then in the rare moments that Barry has to display genuine emotion O’Neal rises to the occasion. It’s a perfectly judged performance and it’s obviously exactly what Kubrick wanted.

Marisa Berenson can’t act but that doesn’t matter since her role is more a modelling assignment than an acting job - her task is to look right and she does. She’s part of the decor really.

Hardy Krüger of course can act and he does a fine job as the Prussian Captain Potzdorf who manages to get the better of Barry for a while but is eventually betrayed by him.

Patrick Magee was a Kubrick favourite and he gives another outrageous but wonderful performance as the deplorable Chevalier du Balibari.

It’s often been remarked that almost every scene in this movie looks like a painting. There’s considerable truth to this. It’s a movie that is more a series of striking visual images than a conventional movie. There is a straightforward narrative here but it’s of little importance. No-one could possibly care what Barry’s ultimate fate is going to be. The images don’t serve the story. The story serves the images. Kubrick gets away with it because the images are so incredibly gorgeous. If there’s ever been a more beautiful movie than Barry Lyndon then I’ve yet to see it.

Kubrick was insistent that he wanted to use only natural light. If a scene took place by candlelight then the lighting for that scene would be provided entirely by candlelight. Special lenses and very fast film made it possible to do this and there’s no question that the film not only looks superb, it looks superb in a very distinctive way. It has a look that is quite different from any previous historical epic. Cinematographer John Alcott, set designer Ken Adam and costume designers Ulla-Britt Söderlund and Milena Canonero all won richly deserved Oscars for this movie.

Barry Lyndon is a movie that is worth seeing for its intoxicating images alone. In fact they’re enough to make it a must-see movie. It’s interesting as an epic without a trace of heroism. Like most of Kubrick’s better movies it’s just not like other people’s movies.

It’s an amazing technical achievement but was it really a worthwhile exercise? Was it a movie that was actually worth making? The answer to that pretty much depends on how you feel about Kubrick. If you’re a Kubrick sceptic then Barry Lyndon will probably confirm all your doubts about him. If you’re a Kubrick fan you’ll be overjoyed because this movie is the concentrated essence of Kubrickian film-making. It’s not a movie with anything profound to say. The protagonist sacrifices anyone and anything to achieve his ambitions and then finds that maybe it wasn’t worthwhile after all. Not exactly dazzlingly original. What is profound and original is the way it’s done - the extreme lack of any trace of heroism, the uncompromising refusal to manipulate the audience’s emotional responses or moral judgments and the unique style. I think it’s enough to justify the movie.

And I’m going to highly recommend this one because even if you end up not liking it it’s still one of those movies you have to see at least once.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Poppy (1936)

For my money W.C. Fields was the supreme comic genius of American cinema. Poppy, made at Paramount in 1936, is not quite in the same league as masterpieces like The Bank Dick but it’s still quite entertaining.

Fields usually played either a henpecked husband or a swindler (and in my view he was funniest as a swindler). In this case he’s a carny huckster and all-round con-man but Professor Eustace P. McGargle is a rogue with definite charm.

His travelling companion and partner-in-crime is his beautiful daughter Poppy (Rochelle Hudson).

Arriving in yet another small town and looking for easy pickings the Professor stumbles across what could be the biggest and most lucrative con of his entire career - passing off his daughter as an heiress. Poppy on the other hand has found true love but can she really expect a respectable young man with prospects to marry a carnival girl?

That’s the sum total of the plot. The romantic melodrama part of the story is exceedingly threadbare and threatens to slow things down unnecessarily but it’s made bearable by Rochelle Hudson’s charm and spirit and by the genuine and surprising affection between father and daughter.

Really the movie is mostly an excuse for Fields to strut his stuff in a series of comic set-pieces, which he does with considerable style and success. The talking dog routine gets things off to a good start. Fields’ anarchic musical performance is a particular highlight.

Eustace P. McGargle is a terrific character, perfectly suited to Fields’ style of comedy. He’s not just a rogue - he enjoys being a rogue. You can’t help wondering if he manages to pull off his big coup whether he could ever really be happy living in comfortable respectability. It seems unlikely. Swindling is in his blood and he loves the challenge.

Lynne Overman as crooked attorney Eddie G. Whiffen and Catherine Doucet as the Countess DePuizzi provide adequate comic support although needless to say it’s Fields who gets most of the laughs.

Poppy started life as a Broadway musical. Fields was the star and his performance provided the basic template for so many of his later great performances. Poppy was filmed twice. The 1925 silent version, Sally of the Sawdust, was directed by D.W. Griffith. The 1936 sound version was helmed by A. Edward Sutherland. Fields starred in both movie versions so Professor McGargle must count as being just about his most enduring role.

In this movie Fields gets to deliver one of his most famous lines when he offers Poppy the only fatherly advice he can think of - “Never give a sucker an even break.”

Poppy is one of no less than seventeen movies in Universal’s superb Region 2 W.C. Fields Collection boxed set, which includes pretty much all of his great feature films. A must-have set for Fields fans. Poppy gets a very satisfactory transfer.

Poppy has some good moments although the romance angle does drag a little. The movie only comes alive when Fields takes centre stage. This one is really for hardcore Fields fans. If you haven’t yet discovered the magic of W.C. Fields then there are better films to start with, with The Bank Dick being the obvious choice.