Sunday, July 29, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Third Party Risk is a rather average spy thriller B-feature with nothing to particularly recommend it but it’s a harmless time-killer.