Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936)

I have a very unhappy history wth Frank Capra. Frank and I just don’t get on. Well of course I’ve never meant Capra so I’m referring to his movies. It’s his movies I have a difficult relationship. Maybe it’s partly my fault and maybe it’s partly Frank’s fault. There are times when it has seemed that we’re going to reach an understanding. It Happened One Night wasn’t too painful to endure, in fact it was rather pleasant. After seeing that movie I had a feeling we were going to get on just fine. And then along came Arsenic and Old Lace  and things got very unpleasant. I thought Lost Horizon might be the breakthrough movie that finally put our cinematic relationship on terms of firm friendship. I came so close to liking Lost Horizon. It’s the kind of idea that I love. It has wonderful moments. But then just as we were getting along swell it all fell apart. But I’m not one to nurse grudges so here I am sitting down to watch one of Capra’s best-known movies, Mr Deeds Goes To Town.

When you mention Capra the first word that will spring into many people’s mind is corn. And Mr Deeds Goes To Town certainly has an extraordinarily cornball opening. One of the wealthiest men in America, Martin Semple, has died and he has left his vast fortune to a very obscure nephew. The nephew is so obscure that the lawyers handling the Semple have great difficulty find him him. He is finally located in the sleepy little town of Mandrake Falls in Vermont. And here’s the first sign that maybe this movie is going to be interesting. It’s almost impossible for Hollywood types to deal with small town America without sneering. This movie seems to be at the very least poking gentle fun at the rustic inhabitants of Mandrake Falls. But that’s not quite what’s happening. The simple folk of Mandrake Falls have an amazing kind of self-confidence in their rural lifestyle. You sense that they feel rather sorry for people who come from New York. It must be awful for them not living in a civilised place like Mandrake Falls but one should treat them with kindness.

Capra is taking sides, in a very gentle way, but he’s not taking the side that just about everybody else in Hollywood would take.

Mr Longfellow Deeds, now a very very rich man indeed, finds himself in the big city and all the people who had been bleeding his uncle dry assume they‘re going to be able to do the same thing with the nephew. The lawyers, who for some reason are incredibly anxious that no-one should take a close look at the books, naturally assume that they’re going to have no trouble at all with this yokel from the sticks. Now of course we know it’s not going to be that simple. We assume that Mr Deeds will prove to have enough down-home wisdom to get the better of them eventually. Again Capra surprises them. Mr Deeds is certainly a hayseed but he has more than homespun common sense. He’s actually in some ways as sharp as a tack. The head of the legal firm that has been managing the Semple estate is a crook and this is something that Mr Deeds has been aware of right from the start. Mr Deeds might be innocent in some ways but he isn’t stupid. He doesn’t see things the way most big city people see them but that’s because his perspective is different, it’s not that he’s dumb.

Mr Deeds naturally attracts the interests of the reptiles of the press and in particular he attracts the attention of Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), a reporter with the ethics of a rattlesnake. She befriends Mr Deeds without telling him she’s a reporter and it’s easy for her to write articles making him look foolish. It’s the way she makes her loathsome living. But things get complicated. Babe has never actually met a man like Mr Deeds. It’s not just that he is decent and honest (although that’s rare enough in the circles Babe is used to moving in) he’s also wonderfully masculine in a very old-fashioned way. If a guy does the dirty on him Mr Deeds’ natural reaction is to slug him. On the other hand Mr Deeds displays a hopelessly outdated chivalry towards women. He really is a man from another world and another era but maybe he’s what the cynical Babe Bennett has been looking for.

Mr Deeds soon figures out that he doesn’t need twenty million dollars and it’s also clear to him that having that amount of money isn’t going to make him any happier than he was back in Mandrake Falls. The obvious solution is to give away most of the money but to do it in a way that will do some good. He comes up with a scheme for taking unemployed men and setting them up on family farms. This is too much for his crooked lawyers who try to have him declared insane.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town is a movie that is obviously going to be interpreted in a political manner and there’s really no way of avoiding that. What’s interesting though is that the political stance of this movie is not at all obvious and it’s not at all what one would expect in a 1930s Hollywood movie and it’s not what you might expect from Frank Capra if you believe most of what you’ve read about him. The first important point that is very easily overlooked is that the movie clearly tells us that Longfellow Deeds inherited a fortune a $20 million and it clearly tells us that his farm distribution plan is going to cost $18 million. So it’s equally clear that Mr Deeds intends to hang on to a couple of million, and in 1936 a couple of million dollars was enough to make you very very rich. Mr Deeds intends to give away the surplus money that he doesn’t need but he’s not such a blockhead as to give away his entire fortune.

It’s also interesting that his scheme is to resettle the unemployed on family farms. This is in fact an ultra-conservative notion. It’s not an idea that would find favour with socialists or New Deal Democrats. It’s an idea that demonstrates an overwhelming desire to reject the modern world entirely, to reject socialism and capitalism in equal measure, and go back to the world of 19th century Small Town America. Mr Deeds does not see utopia in the visions pushed by politicians. He sees utopia in the simpler life of small rural communities living close to the land. This is a guy who qualifies as an out-and-out reactionary.

It has to be said that this is one of the corniest movies ever made. But it also has to be said that it doesn’t pretend otherwise. It wears its corniness on its sleeve. That can be difficult to take. You just have to accept this movie on its own terms. If you’ve grown tired of fashionable cynicism or fashionable irony then you might find this corniness oddly appealing.

I don’t think this film would have worked with anybody but Gary Cooper. He has the ability to make you believe that a guy like Longfellow Deeds really could exist. He has a totally relaxed approach to the rôle. Mr Deeds could have been unbearable smug or precious or self-righteous. There are just so many ways this character could have failed to work.

Jean Arthur is odd but her performance sort of works.

If you accept that Mr Deeds Goes To Town is a movie that has no truck whatsoever with realism and that Capra likes to do things in ways that would horrify most other directors then the corniness and the contrived plot twists become oddly enjoyable. While I detest message movies I wasn’t overly bothered by this one because the message was one that would have been anathema to both Republicans and Democrats at the time - it was like a back to the future political message.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town is a strange experience but much to my surprise I enjoyed it. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Kim (1950)

Rousing adventure movies about the British Empire were immensely popular in the 1930s and 40s. Kim was a relatively late entry in this cycle, being released by MGM in 1950. The combination of Kipling and Hollywood must have seemed like a surefire success, as it had been for Gunga Din in 1939. But adapting Kim for the screen was not as simple as it might have sounded as first.

Kim, published in 1901, was KipIing’s masterpiece and it’s a tale of the Great Game, which was the game of espionage played out between Britain and Imperial Russia in the 19th century. This was the first Cold War. That sounds like a great basis for a movie but the novel Kim was a lot more than a spy story. To dismiss Kim as a spy story would be like dismissing War and Peace as a mere war story, or dismissing Crime and Punishment as just a murder mystery. Kipling was a complex and ambitious writer and Kim is a complex and ambitious novel.

The setting is British India. Kim (played by Dean Stockwell) is a young Indian street urchin aged probably around twelve who is also, despite his tender years, a spy working unofficially for the British. Kim is intelligent and cunning and while he’s exasperating he’s also extremely likeable. Kim is actually white and he knows it but he also knows that white orphans get sent to school and that’s a hideous fate that he intends to avoid. Kim is white when it’s worth his while but mostly it’s more advantageous to be Indian. He is infinitely adaptable. These are qualities that allow him to survive on the streets with ease, and they make him an excellent spy. He works for Mahbub Ali (played by Errol Flynn), also known as the Red Beard, who is a British secret agent.

Kim’s friendship with Mahbub Ali is important but he soon develops an even more important friendship, with a holy man (played by Paul Lukas). He becomes the holy man’s disciple. He is a very useful disciple since he is an accomplished beggar, and that happens to be the most important quality required in a holy man’s disciple. Holy men are a dime a dozen in India but Kim comes to believe that his holy man is something special. And the holy man regards Kim as being rather special as well. It is a matter of destiny. It is the destiny of this holy man to search for a holy river and it is destiny that has brought him Kim as a disciple.

Kipling was an unabashed imperialist which automatically makes him anathema to many people today but Kipling was an exceptionally complex and nuanced imperialist. Kipling was a big fan of western civilisation but he was a big fan of eastern civilisation as well. Kim will discover his European heritage but that does not mean he will turn his back on his Indian heritage. And while Kim’s career as a British intelligence agent is important Kipling sees his part in the holy man’s quest as being equally important. Kim is caught between two civilisations but sees no reason why he can’t be part of both. Just as Kipling sees no reason why he should choose one or the other. Kipling’s views are deeply unfashionable but his respect for Indian culture was profound and sincere.

Getting all this into a movie was obviously just about impossible but it makes a very spirited attempt.

It’s helped by some fine acting. Errol Flynn gets top billing but Flynn knows that this time he’s a supporting player. Kim is the central figure and regardless of the billing Dean Stockwell is the star. Whether the movie succeeds or fails depends entirely on Stockwell. He is equal to the task. Kim is a character who is frighteningly precocious and he could easily become irritating but that doesn’t happen. Kim knows more about the world than any child his age should know but rather than making him insufferable it brings him the first glimmerings of wisdom. Stockwell’s performance is extraordinary.

As for Flynn, he gives a rather low-key performance but it works because he’s supposed to be a spy and if spies want to reach old age they learn that there’s something to be said for blending in. And he makes us feel that when it’s necessary Mahbub Ali can be very businesslike and very deadly. This is not the dashing romantic hero Errol Flynn of the 30s but then that’s not not what this rôle requires. What is required is that we should believe he’s an experienced secret agent and he manages that.

Paul Lukas was a Hungarian actor and while he makes a very good holy man he comes across as a Hungarian holy man rather than an Indian one which is very disconcerting!

The problem with this movie is that even if you concentrate on the spy story elements this is a rather involved story and it’s going to end up being a fairly lengthy movie (in fact it runs for 113 minutes) and it’s not going to be a non-stop action movie. It’s just not a non-stop action story. There’s also the added difficulty that there’s no romance angle at all, and there’s no way such an angle could have been introduced.

Yet another difficulty this movie faces is that it assumes you have at least a vague knowledge of the period and of the Great Game, and that you’re familiar with the hysterical Russophobia of the period.

To appreciate this movie I really think you need to have read KipIing’s novel. If you have read the novel you’ll find that this is a more successful adaptation than you might have expected. Recommended, but with the caveats already alluded to.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Winchester ’73 (1950)

I used not to be a great fan of Hollywood westerns although I have been gradually developing a resect for the genre as I get older. Anthony Mann’s westerns have a certain reputation, a very high reputation, especially this one, and his entries in the film noir genre are pretty good, so Winchester ’73 sounded like it might be worth a watch. It was made at Universal in 1950.

Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) both find themselves in Dodge City competing in a shooting competition. The prize is a Winchester Model 1873 rifle. But not just any Winchester rifle - this is a kind of Special Edition Winchester. President Ulysses S. Grant owns one of these very special Winchesters, and the Marshall of Dodge City (a guy by the name of Wyatt Earp) expresses the view that any man would give his right arm for this rifle.

Wyatt Earp has other problems on his hands - keeping Lin and Dutch Henry from killing each other. These two are obviously nursing grudges against each other of stupendous proportions. After the competition Dutch Henry steals the rifle and heads off out of Dodge City with Lin in hot pursuit.

There are a number of sub-plots involving some rather colourful characters. Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) is a saloon entertainer who is being run out of Dodge City at the time Lin arrives. Lin tries to do the gentlemanly thing and intervene to help a lady but to no avail.

Lola reappears slightly later, on her way to her new ranch with her new husband. Unfortunately the Sioux are on the warpath and having just wiped out Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn they’re in an aggressive mood. Lola and her husband are pursued by a war band and husband Steve abandons Lola to her fate. Luckily Lin and his buddy and faithful companion turn up at this moment and Lola is rescued. Well sort of. The three take refuge with a small troop of US Cavalry but this troop is about to be wiped out by an even bigger Sioux war party. But all is not lost and the cavalry now have three extra fighters (including Lola who is a feisty kind of gal and knows how to handle a gun).

The destinies of Lola and Lin seem to be strangely entwined. Soon after Lola hooks up with notorious outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea), who just happens to be planning a bank robbery with none other than Dutch Henry. In fact the fates of all the major characters will converge as events move towards the final showdown between Lin and Dutch Henry.

This was one of the earliest appearances of the dark and obsessed side to Jimmy Stewart, a side that would be used to brilliant effect by Hitchcock in Rear Window and Vertigo. Like the characters he played in those films Lin is neither a simple hero nor an actual villain, but he’s definitely dangerously obsessed. Stewart always shone in these darker roles and this is no exception. All the actors are good, with Dan Duryea being (as you’d expect) a chilling but highly entertaining bad guy.

As she so often did Shelley Winters goes very close to stealing the picture from Stewart. And like Stewart’s character Lola is rather ambiguous. She seems to be a woman of dubious moral reputation but she has considerable strength of character. She’s no shrinking violet but she’s no mere femme fatale either.

The Winchester rifle itself becomes a character in the movie, changing hands many times and somehow leading everyone who possesses it to their destiny, for good or ill.

Anthony Mann directs with the energy and flair that he brought to his best movies in the film noir genre.

Winchester ’73 is a classic revenge western with some twists, superbly acted and it’s worth a look even if you’re not a big western fan. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Poison Ivy (1953)

Eddie Constantine is today best-known for his role as Special Agent Lemmy Caution in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. In fact he played FBI agent Lemmy Caution is a long series of French action thrillers in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the earliest of these films, dating from 1953, is Poison Ivy (original French title La Môme vert-de-gris).

Lemmy Caution was created by Peter Cheyney who was unusual among English crime novelists in being an adherent of the hardboiled style, although it was actually a wildly over-the-top and exaggerated version of that style. Cheyney's books (such as I'll Say She Does and Never a Dull Moment) were extremely popular in Britain and even more popular on the Continent.

The very successful series of Lemmy Caution movies made in France in the 50s made gravel-voiced American-born Eddie Constantine a major European film star.

Poison Ivy opens with some punk meeting with an accident (an accident of the fatal kind) in a bar in Casablanca. Before he croaks he talks about two million dollars in gold and something about a place called Mayberry.

This information filters its way to Washington and it interests the FBI very much. The Mayberry is a ship and it is indeed carrying two million dollars worth of gold bullion en route to an African country. Special Agent Lemmy Caution is soon on his way to Casablanca.

His hunt for the gang of bullion thieves takes him to exotic locations such as Casablanca and Tangiers, and to various seedy waterfront dives and bars. Lemmy has no problem with that. He is always happy to have a whisky, just to be sociable. Or even several whiskies. In fact as many whiskies as it takes.

In these bars he meets lots of hardboiled no-good dames, which is OK because Lemmy rather likes hardboiled no-good dames. And the dames like the craggy-featured tough guy Lemmy as well. Lemmy’s old mother used to tell him that there ere two types of women in the world, the ones who wanted to save men and the ones who wanted to ruin men. Lemmy definitely prefers the latter.

In between drinking whisky and chasing dames and getting into fist fights Lemmy manages to get himself captured by the gang, led by the smooth-talking Rudy Saltierra (played delightfully by Swiss-born cult movie icon Howard Vernon).

Lemmy has no real doubt about the identity of the bad guy. His problem is that he has three corpses to account for and although he knows the murders are connected he doesn’t know what the connections are. And he knows the bullion is the target but he has no idea how the gang are intending to cary out the heist.

The movie features a classic film noir femme fatale in the person of the glamorous night-club singer Carlotta de la Rue. She is played by Dominique Wilms, an odd but fascinating exotic beauty who was born to play dangerous bad girls. It’s something she does with a good deal of style. Her performance is a definite highlight and she has great chemistry with Eddie Constantine. She also appears in several other Eddie Constantine movies.

As for Eddie Constantine, no-one would claim that he’s a good actor in a conventional sense but he’s perfect for this kind of rôle, he knows exactly what is expected of him and he delivers the goods.

Poison Ivy is clearly inspired by American film noir and hardboiled private eye movies, but it’s also influenced by comic-books and, I suspect, by movie serials as well. In fact it’s inspired by all the many varieties of deliciously trashy American pulp culture that the French adore so much. This is an outrageously pulpy movie, and it has a very slight camp sensibility (and being a French movie I’m inclined to think that this is deliberate rather than accidental).

While this is a B-movie in spirit it it was presumably made on a reasonably generous budget since it includes some nice North African location shooting.

There are lots of clichés in the plot but that’s the point of the plot. The fun comes from knowing that the movie is going to follow the conventions of the genre. We look forward to these familiar elements. There is for example the scene in which the bad guy, instead of just killing the hero as a sensible villain would do, proceeds to explain his whole criminal scheme to the hero in intricate detail. It’s a cliché but it’s what you expect in a movie serial or a B-movie. Writer-director Bernard Borderie clearly has a deep understanding of the hardboiled private eye genre.

As far as I know the Lemmy Caution movies are only available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. In this case the picture quality is perfectly acceptable although the sound leaves just a little to be desired at times.

Poison Ivy is highly recommended to anyone who loves two-fisted square-jawed wise-cracking heroes and glamorous no-good dames.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

The Night My Number Came Up is a 1955 Ealing Studios production and it’s one of those odd little movies that they don’t make nowadays (and more’s the pity). It’s a kind of semi-paranormal vaguely supernatural psychological suspense aviation thriller.

Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) and his aide Flight Lieutenant McKenzie (Denholm Elliott) have just flown in to Hong Kong in an R.A.F. Dakota. A Naval officer, Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern), was on the flight as well. Hardie and McKenzie are to fly on to Tokyo on the following morning.

Commander Lindsay had had a disturbing and very vivid dream on the previous night. In the dream the Dakota carrying the Air Marshal became lost in fog and crashed. Commander Lindsay wasn’t aboard the aircraft in the dream.

Of course it’s all nonsense. The dream involved a Dakota but the Air Marshal is actually continuing his journey to Japan on board a Liberator. And there will only be two passengers - in the dream there were eight passengers. So of course the dream is nothing at all to worry about. All a lot of silly superstitious rot.

The night before the flight to Tokyo diplomat Owen Robertson (Alexander Knox) is informed that his presence is required in Tokyo immediately, along with diplomatic bigwig Lord Wainwright and his staff. And they won’t be flying in a Liberator after all. They’ll be flying in a Dakota. Just like the one in the dream. But there will only be six passengers. Until at the very last moment two more passengers are added. Now there are eight passengers. And one of them is an attractive young woman. It’s all exactly as in the dream.

The lead-up is done is a nicely low-key way. No-one is at all worried by the dream. If you start believing in dreams soon you’ll be believing in all manner of superstitious tommy rot. Englishmen in the 20th century don’t put any store by superstition. It’s all just a coincidence. Mr Robertson isn’t really worried at all, even if he does order a large brandy just before take-off.

To increase the tension there are actually two flights. The Dakota will fly first to Okinawa and then refuel and fly on to Tokyo on the following day. This split journey gives the passengers lots of time to worry and to brood. Which they do.

This is a slow-burning suspense movie and while we’re waiting for the fatal flight (or the flight that might be fatal if the dream is true) the main interest is provided by watching the effect the dream has on the passengers, and the effects that the passengers then have on each other. Long before the aircraft is due to take off everyone who is going to be making the flight knows all about the dream and they’ve had a long night to think about it.

The one thing Air Marshal Hardie is grateful for is that nobody told the pilot about the dream. If you tell a pilot something like that it can have a very bad effect in a crisis. He can start to think that his number’s up and there’s nothing he can do about it. But as long as the pilot doesn’t know about the dream it’s alright. Except that someone did tell the pilot.

The build-up is slow and deliberate and intentionally so. And it’s very effective. And when things do start to get scary and exciting they do so in a big way.

This movie certainly has a very strong cast. All the cast members perform splendidly and all are careful to keep their performances on the low-key side. Lots of stuff upper lips disguising lots of inner turmoil.

Owen Robertson is already starting to fall apart. He’s terrified of flying at the best of times and now he’s well and truly spooked. Flight Lieutenant McKenzie is not in the best of shape either. He had been a notable fighter ace in the Battle of Britain but had had a major nervous breakdown and had to be taken off flying duties. He recovered from the breakdown, but he has perhaps been left with slightly shaky nerves. Those nerves are getting shakier as the time for take-off gets nearer. Air Marshal Hardie is adamant that he is not worried at all but we have reason to suspect that he’s whistling in the dark.

Nobody wants to believe in the dream because really it’s all so silly but what can’t be denied is the uncanniness with which events seem to conspire to bring about precisely the situation of Commander Lindsay’s dream. Even the most rational person can start thinking along superstitious lines given the right stimulus.

There are obviously lots of flying sequences and they’re exceptionally well done and quite convincing.

The Studiocanal Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is extremely good (the movie is in black-and-white and in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

The Night My Number Came Up is an offbeat but very tense little thriller which achieves a very effective sense of the uncanny. An excellent film. Highly recommended.