Sunday, July 29, 2018

Three Strangers (1946)

Three Strangers is the kind of offbeat little movie that could only have been made in Hollywood in the 40s. It’s part film noir, part melodrama and part fantasy. And perhaps part fairy tale as well.

This 1940s Warner Brothers feature was directed by Jean Negulesco from a script co-written by John Huston. Since it involves a statue with possibly mystic but definitely mythic qualities and given the Huston connection it often gets compared to The Maltese Falcon. In fact it’s a very different type of movie.

In London in 1938 an elegant woman makes eye contact with a man on a crowded street. The man (played by Sydney Greenstreet) appears to a prosperous businessman of some sort. He follows her back to her flat. He presumably thinks she’s a high-class prostitute so he’s a little disconcerted when they reach the flat to find another man already there. The woman (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald) has a proposition for both men although it’s perhaps not what they were expecting.

The woman (her name is Crystal) has a statue of a Chinese goddess and she explains to them the legend that if on the eve of Chinese New Year three strangers make a wish the goddess will grant that wish. And tonight is the the eve of Chinese New Year. There’s one catch though. The three strangers must all make the same wish. What wish could three complete strangers have in common? The answer of course is money.

All three are, in various ways, in a jam. They are victims of fate. Or at least they think they’re victims of fate. Perhaps they’re victims of fatalism rather than fate, and perhaps that’s more deadly. All three believe that money would help to extricate themselves from their respective jams.

We soon discover that these three people are a good deal less respectable than they appeared to be. They are good at maintaining a facade but not so good at keeping their lives together.

Crystal is estranged from her husband. He has now returned from Canada but instead of asking her for a reconciliation (as she had convinced herself he was going to) he asks for a divorce. He has fallen in love with another woman. But Crystal has no intention of letting him go - she knows they’re destined to be together. She will pay any price to keep him, and use any methods no matter how ruthless, no matter how cruel.

Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is a solicitor of impeccable and unblemished reputation. He is most certainly not a thief. After all it’s not stealing if you intend to pay the money back. So he didn’t really steal from a client’s trust account, in fact he was acting in the client’s best interests, if only that speculative share deal hadn’t gone sour. And it’s not as if he were acting irresponsibly - his sources had told him it as a sure thing.

Johnny West (Peter Lorre) has several weaknesses, the main one being booze. It’s not that he’s a nasty drunk. Not in the least. He’s really a very nice fellow, drunk or sober. But after a few drinks his judgment isn’t all it might be, and in any case he’s the sort of guy who allows fate to lead him where it will. Where it’s led him is into the middle of a murder case.

Arbutny’s need for money is direct. If he doesn’t have it quickly he is ruined. Crystal sees money as something that will strengthen her position with he husband, and if you’re a manipulative sort of person money always has its uses.

Johnny perhaps has less need of money than the other two, although money would be useful for buying alcohol and it would also allow him to provide for the young woman who is also mixed up in the murder case. Somewhat to his surprise he has discovered that the young lady in question is in love with him, and even more to his surprise he discovers that maybe his existence might have a purpose after all. While Johnny is a reckless but innocent chap caught up almost by accident in crime his girlfriend is an habitual criminal, but then she’s never met a man before who treated her decently and she’s not really bad.

So we have a series of characters all believing a bit too much in fate, and not really willing to break the cycle of fatalism. Can a winning sweepstakes ticket save them, or can they find something else of more value?

The plot is of course totally contrived, but it’s intended to be. This is an urban fairy tale and it doesn’t need to obey the tiresome rules of real life. The plot is unimportant - it’s what the characters can find within themselves that matters. And it works rather nicely. Of course it’s almost impossible to go wrong when you have Lorre and Greenstreet in the same movie. All three leads in fact are excellent, and Joan Lorring is equally good as Lorre’s sweet but none-too-honest girlfriend.

This is a fine example of 1940s Hollywood film-making at its best, a movie that provides a good deal of entertainment and touches some emotional chords as well. They really don’t make quirky movies like this any more, and more’s the pity. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

G Men (1935)

By 1935 the Hollywood studios had a problem. The Production Code was no longer going to allow them to make movies glorifying gangsters. This was going to be a very big problem indeed for Warner Brothers. Gangsters had been very good for Warner Brothers. The obvious answer seemed to be to switch the focus and make the cops who battled gangsters into the heroes. Thus we got movies like G Men, with James Cagney suddenly transformed into a square-jawed clean-living all-American hero. He still gets to be a tough guy but now he’s a tough guy for the US Government.

G Men was the start of another trend as well. It was the first of the great FBI propaganda movies. The FBI showed promise of being almost as profitable as gangsters.

Cagney plays Brick Davis. Davis is an honest lawyer (OK it’s a far-fetched concept but hey it’s only a movie) and he’s starting to figure that being an honest lawyer is a good way to starve. His buddy Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey) has been trying for some time to persuade Brick to join the Bureau. Eddie makes it sound like the equivalent of enrolling in a holy crusade against wickedness. Brick isn’t really interested.

When Eddie gets rubbed out by some big-time hoodlums Brick changes his mind. Now he wants to join that holy crusade.

Seton I. Miller’s screenplay sets itself some interesting challenges. It seemed like a cool idea to make Brick a poor kid who’s made good but poor kids don’t get to go to law school so he’s been given a benefactor. Mac is a racketeer so he has plenty of spare change to send ambitious kids to law school. He’s a racketeer but he can’t be a bad guy because that would cast doubt on Brick’s status as noble selfless hero so Mac has been made into a really swell guy who really hates being a mobster (it’s such an awful life what with all that money and all those gorgeous dames and the fancy clothes and the swanky apartments and the fast cars and all the other nightmares associated with the gangster lifestyle). Mac just wants to get out of the rackets and be a regular decent guy.

Now the idea of giving the hero a gangster as his mentor and protector does add the possibility of some interesting moral ambiguity.

Veteran agent Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong) is in charge of training new agents and if there’s one thing he despises it’s law school graduates with no police experience. He and Davis clash right from the start.

These are the very early days of the FBI, when the G-men were not even allowed to carry guns and had strictly limited powers. In the movie we see some agents gunned down followed by some extraordinarily hysterical demands for the government to change the laws to give the G-men sweeping powers and lots and lots of guns.

Davis has never given up on the idea of tracking down Eddie Buchanan’s killer and when he overhears a chance reference to a gardenia he thinks the trail is getting warm. Davis has vivid memories of a certain New York hoodlum who always wore a gardenia in his buttonhole. Davis’s quest for revenge gives the story the necessary personal angle.

One thing the FBI movie did offer that attracted the studios was the high-tech scientific glamour of government laboratories using the very latest scientific crime-fighting techniques, and the 195 high-tech stuff is certainly fun.

The film’s biggest asset is Cagney. As usual he approaches the rôle with a maniacal intensity that could be off-putting but somehow he gets away with it. Cagney’s intensity seems genuine rather than contrived. He’s a fast-talking two-fisted hero and he’s at his most magnetic in this movie.

Lloyd Nolan is good in a minor role as dedicated FBI agent Hugh Farrell. Ann Dvorak adds some slightly disreputable glamour as Brick’s old flame, night-club chanteuse Jean Morgan. And Margaret Lindsay adds some more wholesome glamour as McCord’s sister Kay who immediately attracts Davis’s attention.

There are plenty of shoot-outs. The violence isn’t graphic but it’s pretty relentless. Director William Keighley keeps the story moving along like an out-of-control locomotive. If the intention was to prove that a cop-as-hero movie could be every bit as exciting as a gangster movie then that intention was achieved admirably. There are enough rounds of small arms ammunition expended to keep a small war going.

G Men has been released on DVD in Region 1. I saw the movie on TCM, and the TCM print is quite acceptable.

The screenplay is an endless succession of clichés but it’s all done with so much energy and style and Cagney has so much charisma that it doesn’t matter. G Men is a roller-coaster ride of thrills and action. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Sundown (1941)

Sundown gave Gene Tierney one of her early starring rôles and it’s an interesting mix of wartime intrigue and adventure which would have worked quite well but for a fatal flaw.

The film is set in Manieka, a minor outpost in Kenya. Although Britain is at war the British officials there are pretty casual. Things are usually quiet and peaceful and no-one worries very much about security. That all changes when Major Coombes (George Sanders) arrives to take over command. Coombes is shocked by the laxness of discipline. An Italian prisoner-of-war is allowed to wander about all over the place. Sentries are rarely posted. Coombes is determined to smarten things up. In Nairobi  the war is taken much more seriously and Coombes has been sent to investigate some very disturbing news that the Shenzi, who are described as outlaw natives, are being armed.

The Italian prisoner-of-war then outlines his crazy theory of how Africa is the key to world domination and Coombes thinks it’s a very persuasive theory.

What really unsettles things is the arrival of Zia (Gene Tierney). Zia is half-Arab and half-French, stunningly gorgeous, and is an immensely wealthy trader.

Trouble starts to build and everyone starts to get nervous, especially when the natives start confidently predicting that one of the Europeans has an appointment with death. There are in fact evil conspiracies afoot. These are dark days for the British Empire! But that means opportunities for heroic deeds.

There is tension between the District Officer, Crawford (Bruce Cabot), who is the civil commander and Coombes as military commander. Crawford is, quite honestly, a pompous bore and an extremely irritating character. Coombes is pompous as well but George Sanders can make such a character reasonably entertaining. Bruce Cabot, sadly, does not have that ability.

Hollywood in those days was obsessed by the idea of beautiful mixed-race women. The idea of a woman trapped between two worlds is of course inherently rather interesting. Zia is even more interesting. She is half-Arab but also considers herself to be African.

Gene Tierney in 1941 really was incredibly lovely. This is hardly a demanding rôle but she handles it reasonably well.

Of course being a Hollywood movie made before America’s entry into the war this film is outrageous pro-British propaganda. From the first mention of illicit guns you just know that one of the characters is going to turn out to be an Evil Nazi. In this case his identity is painfully obvious right from the start.

The whole setup of this film lends itself to preaching. And Hollywood never could resist the temptation to get preachy. This movie takes the opportunity to preach to us on both political and social issues. And it does so mercilessly.

On the plus side there are a couple of surprisingly imaginative and visually interesting action sequences. In fact the movie as a whole is fairly impressive visually. Charles Lang’s black-and-white cinematography is extremely good.

Apart from the times that the plot comers to a stop for a sermon it has to be said that director Henry Hathaway handles things pretty well.

Gene Tierney doesn’t really appear until the movie is well under way but we have already seen her briefly in an introductory scene when she arrives in an aircraft. At this stage we have absolutely no idea who she is or what part she is going to play in the events of the movie and this is quite an effective technique - it establishes her rather nicely as a mysterious figure. Unfortunately once she reappears in the film the mystery is not really maintained. She turns out to be disappointingly straightforward.

Tierney was at this time probably the most beautiful star in Hollywood. In this film she’s cast as an exotic beauty and she’s put in costumes that make her look like a princess from the Arabian Nights. The obvious thing would have been to pair her with a handsome charismatic leading man. Instead she’s paired with a non-star with zero personality.

Sundown has fallen into the public domain. The copy I watched came from a St Clair Vision bargain bin boxed set. Surprisingly the transfer was reasonably good.

Sundown had the makings of a decent adventure romance movie but it’s swamped by some of the most embarrassingly ham-fisted cinematic propaganda you’ll ever encounter, and by  the endless sermonising. It’s a great pity because Sundown is visually exceptionally interesting and Hathaway’s direction of the action scenes is lively. And Gene Tierney looks great.

A movie that had promise but while it has its moments it’s difficult to recommend this one unless you’re a Gene Tierney completist.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

The Man in the Iron Mask was based, very loosely, on the final instalment of Alexander Dumas’ tales of the Three Musketeers. It was directed by James Whale.

The film opens with a happy event. The Queen of France has given birth to a son, the future Louis XIV. King Louis XIII is overjoyed to have an heir. There is one slight problem. The Queen has actually given birth to two sons, and that’s too much of a happy event. It seems obvious that twins are likely to cause problems, possibly even civil war if they were to be pitted against each other by rival factions. The sensible thing is to quietly get rid of the second child. Obviously there can be no question of harming the child - he must simply be sent away so that he can do no mischief. For this plan to work the child will have to be given to someone who can be trusted absolutely not only to care for the boy but to keep the secret. And who could be more trustworthy than the king’s old comrade-in-arms D’Artagnan? D’Artagnan is sent back to his home in Gascony where he will raise the lad, who will be given the name Philippe.

Unfortunately the secret was not kept well enough in the beginning. A particularly slimy courtier named Fouquet discovered the secret and has used his knowledge to amass a great deal of both power and wealth.

It is now 1658. The 22-year-old Louis XIV is about to be betrothed to the Spanish Infanta, Maria Theresa. Louis has a more urgent problem on his mind. He has become aware of a plot to assassinate him when he visits the cathedral to light a candle on his late father’s name-day. It’s a tradition and he cannot escape performing this duty but it may cost him his life. At this moment one of Fouquet’s little plots will have unexpected results. He has caused D’Artagnan and the Musketeers and Philippe to be arrested as traitors. The King (who knows nothing of the existence of his twin) is struck by the uncanny resemblance between himself and Philippe and he has a clever idea. Philippe can impersonate him at the cathedral, and get himself assassinated in the king’s place. In fact the assassination is avoided but the ability of Philippe to impersonate the king, and the potential usefulness of this fact, has been noted by the king and by others.

The impersonation is good enough to fool Maria Theresa who is thrown into extreme confusion when the king’s personality seems to be different every time she sees him.

Everyone in this movie is plotting. Some are plotting to ensure their own survival, some are doing so for the good of the country, and some in order to enhance their own power. King Louis plots for the sheer pleasure of indulging in intrigues and playing games with other people’s lives.

One result of all these intrigues is that the king has Philippe imprisoned, with an iron mask locked onto his face. The king has the only key. Now D’Artagnan and his friends, including Louis’s one trustworthy courtier, Colbert, must plot in order to free Philippe.

There’s enough action to satisfy fans of swashbuckling adventure but it’s the acting performances that make this film notable. Louis Hayward plays both twins, Louis XIV and Philippe. Louis (according to the movie) is a vicious, spoilt, self-indulgent, degenerate sadist. Philippe is a young man of both courage and honour. Hayward plays both rôles to perfection.

Warren William might seem an odd choice to play D’Artagnan but it must be remembered that this is not the dashing headstrong young D’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers. D’Artagnan, and his musketeer comrades, are now well into middle age. Their courage and loyalty are undimmed but the years are catching up to them. The casting of Warren William actually works quite well.

Mention must be made of Joseph Schildkraut’s unbelievably oily portrayal of Fouquet. It’s a stunningly exercise in perversity and evil. Joan Bennett does well portraying the confusion and mental torture of poor Maria Theresa.

James Whale disliked making this movie and he disliked the actors and he departed from the production before the completion of filming. He seems to have done the movie for the money without taking any genuine interest in proceedings. The Man in the Iron Mask  was made on a substantial budget for its era and it looks quite impressive.

The Man in the Iron Mask  is worth seeing for some bravura acting and especially for Louis Hayward’s extraordinary performances. Overall it’s entertaining and it’s recommended.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Deadly Game (1954)

Third Party Risk (this was the original 1954 British title  although it was released in the US under the titles The Deadly Game and The Big Deadly Game) is one of those crime thrillers made by Hammer Films in the early 50s that have now been relabelled as film noir although their noir credentials are questionable at best.

As with most of Hammer’s crime films there is an imported American star. These were usually second-tier stars but mostly they gave quite decent performances. Lloyd Bridges is the star of this one and he plays American songwriter Philip Graham. He’s on holiday in Spain when he runs into Tony Roscoe, an old friend with whom he served in the R.A.F. during the war. Tony suddenly announces that Philip must drive him to the airport - he must fly back to London immediately. He persuades Philip to drive his car back to England for him. He also persuades Philip to bring with him an envelope which is apparently of absolutely crucial importance.

Things start to take a curious turn when Philip is driving back from the airport in Tony’s car. A group of toughs set upon him and beat him up.

Things get more curious when Philip arrives in London with Tony’s car. He has stumbled into a very awkward situation which includes industrial espionage, blackmail and murder.

Philip finds himself in possession of a microfilm which other people want very badly. That might be useful but what he needs is information. He needs to find out exactly what his friend Roscoe was mixed up in. He also has the added problem that Detective Inspector Goldfinch obviously considers him to be a possible suspect in murder and perhaps other crimes as well.

There’s an actress, Mitzi Molnaur (Simone Silva), who might be able to fill in the missing pieces of the jigsaw for him but Mitzi is not the sort of girl you’d be happy about having to trust. There’s another girl as well, a Spanish girl, Marina (Maureen Swanson). Philip is rather taken by Marina but she could be involved in some of the shady activities that Tony Roscoe was mixed up in.

Daniel Birt directed and co-wrote the screenplay. Birt specialised in thrillers and he does a solid if not exactly inspired job here.

The screenplay is serviceable but relies a bit too much on lucky accidents such as the hero just happening to be in the right place to overhear a vital conversation that explains key plot points.

The main problem is that it’s all fairly predictable, and the characters are pretty much stock characters. The action moves back and forth between Spain and London but to be honest the attempt to add an exotic flavour with the Spanish setting doesn’t work especially well.

Lloyd Bridges makes a satisfactory hero, even if at times his motivations are a bit of a puzzle. Simone Silva vamps it up in fine style as Mitzi and Marina is sweet and winsome as Marina. George Woodbridge steals the picture as the shambling, scruffy, rumpled and extremely jovial Inspector Goldfinch, exactly the kind of policeman that it would be very foolish to underestimate. There’s also Finlay Currie doing a kind of poor man’s Sydney Greenstreet turn as the mysterious Mr Darius.

There’s not much here to justify the film noir label. This is a straightforward crime/spy thriller and it’s fairly typical of British movies in that genre at this period. In other words it’s a competently made little movie. It’s a B-movie and visually there’s nothing to get wildly excited about, although the fight in the loft is a quite clever visual set-piece and the ending isn’t too bad.

This movie is paired with The Black Glove in the VCI/Kit Parker Films Hammer Film Noir Double Feature Volume 6. The transfer is anamorphic but it’s a bit rough and the audio quality is not all that one might hope for.

Third Party Risk is a rather average spy thriller B-feature with nothing to particularly recommend it but it’s a harmless time-killer.