Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Brighton Strangler (1945)

OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but there was this actor who played a murderer in a long-running play and he developed this strange compulsion to act out these murderous impulses in real life. Well that’s basically the plot of RKO’s 1945 programmer The Brighton Strangler. The movie is however rather better (and a good deal more entertaining) than it sounds.

Reginald Parker (John Loder) has achieved stardom on the London stage playing the lead in the hit play The Brighton Strangler. He’s about to marry Dorothy Kent (Rose Hobart), the author of the play. Things are generally looking very good indeed for him. And then a bomb drops on him. Literally. This all takes place during the Blitz and when a bomb hits the theatre Reginald Parker gets a very nasty hit on the head. And it’s that blow on the head that causes all the trouble.

Parker doesn’t remember his name or where he comes from or what he was doing before the bomb hit. He does remember other things though, but unfortunately he can’t distinguish between actual memories and theatrical memories. He has some very vivid memories, and those memories are of strangling people.

He wanders into Victoria Station and there’s a young woman, a WAAF named April Manby, buying a ticket to Brighton. His memory tells him that Brighton means something and that this chance meeting means something - this young woman is like the woman in the play. They get to know each other on the train journey (just like in the play) and he meets her family and is invited over for dinner.

These coincidences make the play seem more and more like reality to him. He remembers the name of the protagonist in the play, Edward Grey, and he is convinced that he is Edward Grey. And there are things he must do. There are wrongs that must be righted. Those who have done great injustices to Edward Grey in the past must be punished. The first to be punished must be the mayor.

It’s unfortunate that Chief Inspector Allison (Miles Mander) is not a fan of the theatre and so he doesn’t notice anything odd about the fact that there’s a hit play about stranglings in Brighton and now he finds himself investigating murders by strangling in that very place.

Meanwhile Edward Grey has other scores he has to settle.

When it comes to movies dealing with psychiatry or abnormal psychology or amnesia or similar topics I’m strongly of the view that the sillier the treatment of the idea the better. When such ideas are dealt with seriously they don’t work terribly well. When they’re dealt with in an outrageous and completely ludicrous manner they tend to be enormous fun. Best of all is when a movie tries to deal with these subjects seriously but the results turn out to be totally unbelievable (a good example being Hitchcock’s Spellbound). The Brighton Strangler takes its premise at least moderately seriously but luckily it all becomes totally absurd and unlikely. That’s what I like about this movie. It cheerfully stretches credibility way beyond breaking point and it keeps on stretching it and it does it with a straight face, and the more it does so the more fun it is.

John Loder is excellent. He very wisely underplays slightly which makes the madness of his actions much more creepy. Even when he’s totally off his rocker he seems quite calm and sane. June Duprez as April is a more than adequate leading lady. Miles Mander was one of those reliable English character actors who could make minor characters such as Chief Inspector Allison so delightful.

The temptation with this kind of story is to throw in lots of dream sequences (as in Spellbound). There are a couple of very such sequences to give us the idea that poor old Reginald Parker’s mind has slipped its moorings but they’re kept to a minimum (which is probably wise on a tight budget).

Max Nosseck was a competent B-movie director and he gets the job done although perhaps a slightly less pedestrian approach might have paid dividends. The air raid scene is admittedly pretty well done.

A couple of years later the same basic idea was used, with some considerable success, in a Ronald Colman vehicle called A Double Life.

The Brighton Strangler was released on DVD in Spain but doesn’t seem to be available elsewhere. I caught this one on TV.

The less seriously you take The Brighton Strangler the more you’ll enjoy it. Recommended.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sea Wife (1957)

Sea Wife is one of those odd little movies that just doesn’t get made these days. It’s not easy to categorise this 1957 British movie - it’s a romance, a war thriller and an adventure film.

As the film opens a man known as Biscuit (played by Richard Burton) is desperately trying to contact a woman he knows only as Sea Wife. The main story is then told in flashback.

In 1942 a cargo ship packed with a miscellaneous assortment of passengers, all intent on escaping the approaching Japanese Army, leaves Singapore. Shortly afterwards the ship is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Four passengers find themselves in a rubber dinghy. There’s Biscuit, there’s a rather aggressive slightly Colonel Blimp-ish middle-aged Englishman who becomes known as Bulldog, there’s the ship’s purser who is christened Number Four and then there’s Sea Wife (Joan Collins). The purser gives her this name, which refers to a kind of mermaid. Sea Wife is in fact a nun, a fact known to the purser, but for some reason she decides not to inform the other two of this fact.

They spend weeks in the rubber dinghy, then are washed ashore on an island which turns out to be somewhat less than a tropical paradise.

Of course there are tensions between these four people. And of course Biscuit, having no idea she is a nun, falls in love with Sea Wife. As for Sea Wife, she clearly has some feelings for Biscuit but it’s also clear that she takes being a nun rather seriously.

The plot does become rather contrived, which tends to happen with stories involving castaways and desert islands. And movies involving castaways and desert islands also have a tendency to use this setup for the purposes of social commentary. Sea Wife is no exception. Number Four is a black man, which gives the movie the opportunity to lecture us on the evils of racial prejudice. The only problem with this is that the Japanese characters are the most incredibly stereotypical evil sub-human monsters you’ll ever encounter in a movie, so the rather confused message seems to be that racial prejudice is very very wrong sometimes but it’s OK at other times.

The main focus is however on the developing romance between Biscuit and Sea Wife, which Sea Wife is determined is not going to be a romance.

The four main cast members are all quite competent. Richard Burton was never quite a conventional romantic leading man but he’s effective enough. He overacts of course, but he always did and he is playing a man who has developed a pretty serious obsession so it’s forgivable.

Joan Collins has by far the most interesting role since she’s not only playing a part for the benefit of the other passengers, she’s also playing a part for her own purposes. Whatever other reasons she may have had for not revealing that she is a nun it does give her the chance to pretend to be a civilian for a while. It’s not that she’s a scheming type of woman, on the whole she’s quite sympathetic but she does cause Biscuit a great deal of confusion and grief. I think she caries off the role quite well - she is supposed to be playing a woman who is not quite sure of her own motivations and her own feelings and she captures Sea Wife’s uncertainties and fears quite well. She also doesn’t overact anywhere near as much as the other three principals!

Basil Sydney mostly doesn’t overplay the role of Bulldog too much. He’s a arrogant kind of chap and he has fixed ideas on various subjects and he can be insensitive but he’s not a monster. The difficulty is that when he does do something terrible it’s not quite convincing. It doesn’t ring true. It’s something that feels like it has been added to make a clumsy political point and it does so in a dishonest and manipulative way. This is just plain bad writing. Cy Grant overacts but the script doesn’t really give him much choice.

Naturally there’s a great deal of overheated romantic melodrama resulting from Sea Wife’s lack of candour about her occupation, with poor Biscuit doing everything he can think of to convince her to accept his love and Sea Wife being torn apart by her own confused feelings. Burton and Collins handle all this reasonably well and they do have the right kind of slightly offbeat chemistry to carry it off.

Sea Wife was shot in Cinemascope and in colour and looks fairly impressive.

Sea Wife is, surprisingly, readily available on DVD in at least Regions 1, 2 and 4. I saw a rental copy of the Region 4 disc. There are no extras but the anamorphic transfer is very good.

Sea Wife really should not work at all. There is just so much about the plot that is so hopelessly contrived and it includes several egregious examples of one of my great pet hates - characters acting out of character just so the writer can make a political point. There’s also the difficulty that there seems to be no convincing reason for Sea Wife’s deception. The ending does work and it feels right. There are all sorts of things wrong with this movie but Richard Burton and Joan Collins are worth watching. And it’s just an odd sort of movie with a certain weird charm. Recommended, but with rather a lot of reservations.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951)

When Warner Brothers decided to bring C.S. Forester’s extremely popular Hornblower naval adventures to the big screen they certainly picked the right director. No-one could doubt Raoul Walsh’s ability to handle an action adventure movie. Their choice of actor to play Hornblower might have been a little surprising but in fact Gregory Peck is absolutely perfect.

The movie is based on the first three Hornblower novels to be published, and especially  the very first Hornblower book, The Happy Return. C.S. Forester had some involvement with the script.

It is 1807 and the British frigate Lydia has been at sea for seven months. Not just at sea, but out of sight of land. This is in accordance with the Admiralty’s orders and Captain Horatio Hornblower has chosen to interpret his orders very literally indeed. The crew of the Lydia are close to breaking point. Food is running low, fresh water is running even lower, scurvy is stalking the ship and there has been not a trace of wind for a disturbingly long time. Having gone seven months without sighting land there is of course considerable doubt as to whether they are actually anywhere near the spot at which they have been ordered to make landfall. Captain Hornblower has his doubts as well but there is no way he is going to let those doubts show.

Their problems are far from over when they do reach their destination. They are carrying arms to a renegade Spanish governor and Hornblower’s orders are to give the fellow (who has named himself El Supremo) every assistance in his rebellion against the Spanish crown. Spain being at this stage a deadly enemy it naturally follows that anything that causes headaches for the Spanish is a good thing for the British. But circumstances have changed in ways that Hornblower could not have anticipated, and things are about to get very complicated and very dangerous.

There’s also the little matter of the Natividad, a Spanish ship of the line which has just arrived in the vicinity. The Lydia is hopelessly outgunned by the Natividad but somehow or other Hornblower is going to have to destroy or capture her. In fact Hornblower is going to find that the Natividad is a problem that comes back to haunt him.

Fighting sea battles against impossible odds is a challenge to which Hornblower is equal but he will find himself facing something much more terrifying when he is forced to take aboard a lady passenger. Lady Barbara Wellesley is charming and can be a most stimulating companion but the situation has the potential to be very awkward, given that Lady Barbara is engaged to an admiral and is the sister of Sir Arthur Wellesley (later to be Duke of Wellington). Lady Barbara’s family is a formidable one and Hornblower, without any powerful or influential friends or family connections, is sailing in dangerous waters.

The Hornblower of the novels is by no means a conventional hero. He is filled with self-doubts and self-recriminations and he is a man to whom command does not come easily. He has trained himself to play the part convincingly but he feels that he is a fake. He’s extraordinarily complex by the standards of adventure heroes. A slightly flawed hero who struggles, mostly successfully, to overcome his flaws. He’s also a very introverted and somewhat self-obsessed hero. He’s an admirable character, but he’s admirable in spite of himself. His slightly tense relationships with his junior officers and with the men under his command add yet another layer of complexity.

These subtleties would have translated rather uneasily to film, and very uneasily indeed to a Hollywood costume adventure epic. The movie therefore makes Hornblower much more the expected conventional hero. The supporting characters are also made much more conventional. In the novel Hornblower’s first lieutenant is at best barely competent and is totally lacking in imagination. The movie makes him a thoroughly conventional heroic sidekick.

All of this was a challenge for Gregory Peck. Hornblower was a moody introvert and the script had removed much of the interest from the character. Peck really had to work hard to make the most of what he was left with, which was basically a few idiosyncrasies. Fortunately he was up to the challenge and gives a performance that is sympathetic, occasionally slyly amusing and with at least a few suggestions of hidden depth. His Hornblower is a low-key swashbuckling hero.

I’m not sure about Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara. She’s an actress I’ve never warmed to and there’s no real chemistry between the two leads.

Look out for Christopher Lee and Stanley Baker in minor roles.

Trying to adapt three novels into one movie was perhaps a mistake. The movie has a bit of an episodic feel to it and the story gets bogged down when Hornblower returns (temporarily) to England. Hornblower is a man who is more at home fighting desperate sea battles than trying to cope with domestic situations and the movie also struggles a little whenever the action slackens.

Technically this is a very impressive movie indeed. The sea battle sequences are absolutely superb and they’re suitably thrilling. Walsh’s mastery of action film-making is very much in evidence.

Although it has a few problems Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. is still fine entertainment. Gregory Peck is surprisingly effective (and in my view he’s a better and more interesting Hornblower than Ioan Gruffudd in the late 90s TV movies) and the sea battles are magnificent. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Rogue Cop (1954)

Rogue Cop is a very classy 1954 MGM film noir dealing with a subject, police corruption, that was still rather touchy in the 50s. Robert Taylor stars and there’s a terrific supporting cast - George Raft, Janet Leigh and Anne Francis.

Taylor plays Detective Sergeant Christopher Kelvaney. He’s been accepting pay-offs from mobster Dan Beaumonte (George Raft) in return for doing routine favours. Now Beaumonte wants a very big favour from him. Kelvaney and his rookie cop kid brother Eddie (Steve Forrest) have arrested a rather nasty punk named Fallon for murder. It’s Eddie’s evidence that is going to convict the punk but Beaumonte wants Fallon to be allowed to walk. Fallon is very small fry but apparently he could make life uncomfortable for Beaumonte and his associates, and Beaumonte doesn’t like things that make him uncomfortable. Beaumonte isn’t an unreasonable man. Normally he’d just have an inconvenient witness like Eddie killed, but since Chris Kelvaney has been useful in the past he’s prepared to offer a special deal. He’ll buy Eddie off instead of having him rubbed out.

The problem is that Eddie is a real straight arrow. He’s also stubborn and not very bright. He’s an honest cop and he doesn’t make deals with gangsters and he’s not afraid of Beaumonte’s threats. He thinks he can look after himself. Like I said, the kid’s not too bright. Somehow Chris is going to have to persuade him to see sense and it’s not going to be easy and there’s not much time. Beaumonte and his friends already have alternative measures in place for dealing with the Eddie problem permanently.

This movie doesn’t quite follow a standard film noir template. There are women with colourful pasts but they don’t quite fit the femme fatale mould. Chris Kelvaney is not quite a classic noir protagonist - he’s already thoroughly crooked when the story opens. On the other hand while he might be corrupt he hasn’t reached rock bottom. He’s going to find out jus how much further he has to fall. He has no illusions about himself but he sees himself as a realist. It’s a corrupt world. If you try to be honest you’re a sucker. Smart guys accept reality. No-one really gets hurt. Well, nobody that matters. But now things are getting out of control. The one decent thing about Chris is that he cares about Eddie but maybe caring won’t be enough to keep his brother alive.

This was one of the darker roles Robert Taylor started to play in the 50s as his matinee idol looks started to fade and his acting skills started to blossom. He does the cynical hardbitten rather worldweary thing extremely well. Chris Kelvaney doesn’t have a high opinion of himself but he thinks that at least he’s a winner. He’s not like the suckers. Now he’s not so sure. He’s starting to feel trapped and his confidence is starting to crack.

The most impressive thing about Taylor’s performance is its unsentimentality. Chris Kelvaney is not a nice guy and Taylor doesn’t try to make him noble or heroic.

By this stage of his career George Raft had grown tired of playing mobsters and heavies but fortunately he was persuaded to accept this role. Maybe there were actors who could play these kinds of roles just as well as George Raft, but there was nobody who could play them better. Dan Beaumonte is very smooth and very self-assured but within his first thirty seconds of screen time Raft has convinced us that this is the kind of guy you don’t ever want to get on the wrong side of. Raft doesn’t need to raise his voice in order to convey purposeful menace. It’s Raft at his best, giving a chilling performance.

Anne Francis is surprisingly good (in fact excellent) as Beaumonte’s drunken girlfriend Nancy. Beaumonte doesn’t treat her too well but she loves him and she knows that without him she’d be back in the gutter. She alternates between grovelling devotion and alcohol-fuelled defiance. It’s a very effective performance. The Dan Beaumonte-Nancy relationship is one of the nastier film noir relationships. Janet Leigh is quite good as Eddie Kelvaney’s girlfriend Karen, a nice enough girl but one who hasn’t always been entirely respectable.

Visually this movie isn’t quite regulation noir. It’s an MGM movie and it looks a bit glossier than a RKO or a Warner Brothers noir. That’s not really a weakness. This movie is not about street hoodlums. It’s about big time gangsters and their world is pretty glamorous, on the surface at least.

It’s the content, and even more particularly the performances, that make it noir.

Of course this being an MGM movie you might be wondering if Rogue Cop is going to be a bit inclined to pull its punches. It’s hard to answer that question without risking spoilers. Personally I think this film is pretty satisfyingly hard-edged and I think there’s enough here to qualify it as genuine film noir. Director Roy Rowland keeps things taut and he throws in a pretty decent action finale.

Rogue Cop doesn’t seem to have made it to DVD which is a great pity. I caught this movie on TCM and the print they screened was pretty good.

Great performances by Robert Taylor, George Raft and Anne Francis and a tough unsentimental mood add up to a very underrated movie. Highly recommended.