Sunday, April 29, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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 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.