Thursday, September 27, 2018

Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)

Charlie Chan’s Secret, filmed in August-September 1935 and released in January 1936, was the tenth of 20th Century-Fox’s Chan movies starring Warner Oland.

The story begins in Hawaiian waters with the sinking of the S.S. Nestor. It was believed that Alan Colby was aboard the ship. Colby had been the heir to a fortune. Seven years earlier he disappeared. He then suddenly made contact with his family, boarded the ill-fated ship and was presumed to be lost at sea.

During the time that Alan Colby had been missing his father Bernard Colby had died. Alan was the sole heir but since he was presumed dead the fortune passed to Bernard Colby’s sister Mrs Lowell. The Lowell family has been living in style on this fortune. Alan Colby’s reappearance will certainly not be welcome to the Lowells. It will also not be welcome to Professor Bowen whose psychic researches have been very generously funded by Mrs Lowell. Alan Colby is known to be an extreme sceptic when it comes to psychic phenomena and he is certain to pull the plug on these researches.

If Alan Colby is still among the living the question is whether he can stay alive. Charlie Chan has reason to believe that several attempts have already been made on the life of Colby (or on the man who claims to be Colby).

It is Mrs Lowell who has called in Charlie Chan. Charlie flies from Honolulu to the mainland to take up his investigation. It soon becomes clear that the list of people who would like Alan Colby out of the way is even longer than was first thought.

Charlie does not necessarily disbelieve entirely in the possibility of communication with the spirit world but he certainly approaches the topic with a good deal of scepticism. Especially when the psychic phenomena seem to be rather too convenient for certain people.

From the late 19th century up to around the early 1950s there was an extraordinary craze for psychic phenomena, spiritualism and associated occult beliefs. Such notions still had some slight degree of scientific respectability at that time, or at least they had not yet been definitively proven to be bogus. They also provided wonderful material for movies. Séances figure in countless movies of this period and it was inevitable that sooner or later they would make an appearance in the Charlie Chan films.

The psychic stuff is nicely combined with an ideal setting. The Colby House is honeycombed with secret passageways, and it has other hidden secrets as well.

The mystery plot is solid enough, the solution has a few amusing and clever touches and Charlie’s plan to catch the criminal is suitably bold and ingenious. One unusual element is the uneasy relationship between Inspector Morton and Chan - Chan usually gets along well with the local police when he has to work with them. Also unusual is Charlie’s readiness to draw his gun, and to use it.

The ending works well. It’s a clichéd gathering of the suspects scene but it’s not just grandstanding. Charlie knows he not only doesn’t have enough evidence to get a conviction, he also doesn’t have enough evidence to use as leverage to get a confession. So his setting up of the killer is necessary. And it’s staged with considerable style.

Quite a few actors played Charlie Chan onscreen but the two great interpreters of the rôle were unquestionably Warner Oland and Sidney Toler. Whether you prefer Oland or Toler is really a matter of personal taste. They were both terrific. Oland had perhaps a touch more warmth while Toler added a slightly but interesting edge to his performances.

The supporting performances are quite adequate by B-movie standards with Henrietta Crosman as the elderly Mrs Lowell being the standout. Herbert Mundin as her butler Baxter provides the obligatory comic relief. He isn’t funny but at least he isn’t excessively annoying. That’s not to say he isn’t annoying, it’s just that the annoyance levels are within acceptable limits for a 1930s B-feature.

Gordon Wiles had a brief and fairly obscure career as a director. He does a fairly stylish job here. He was better known as a fairly acclaimed art director which may explain why this movie is visually very impressive (with some surprisingly effective and rather cool sets). This was unfortunately his only Chan film.

20th Century-Fox really did a splendid job with the DVD releases of the Charlie Chan movies. The transfers are excellent and they came up with some pretty interesting extras. Charlie Chan’s Secret is one of five movies in the third of the DVD sets.

The numerous extras for this disc include an audio commentary and a featurette, Charlie Chan and The Rise of the Modern Detective.

Charlie Chan’s Secret is a very good entry, in fact one of the very best, in the Chan cycle. It has a strong plot, some mildly spooky atmosphere and a great deal of energy. This one is very highly recommended for B-movie fans.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Falcon Out West (1944)

The 1940s was the great era for B-movie crime series, like The Saint and The Falcon movies. There were also the Boston Blackie movies, although so far I have never managed to track down any of them. The Falcon Out West, dating from 1944, was my first exposure to a Falcon movie, and it was a generally painless experience.

The Falcon series started out with George Sanders as the title character, but his brother Tom Conway later took over the role. Poor Tom Conway, who really never did escape his reputation as the poor man’s George Sanders.

The Falcon is, like The Saint, one of those mysterious amateur crime-fighters with an ambiguous relationship with the police. Not a private eye exactly, more of an amateur who solves crime as a sort of hobby.

In this case a wealthy Texan rancher (named Tex apparently on the assumption that all Texans are probably named Tex) is killed by a rattlesnake bite. Not overly surprising you might think, but dying of a rattlesnake bite in a swanky 1940s New York night-club is definitely unusual. Murder seems the obvious explanation. There are of course several obvious suspects. There’s Vanessa Drake, the young woman he was about to marry. He’d just signed most of his fortune over to her as a wedding present. And she does have a reputation as being a bit of a good-time gal.

There’s also the embittered ex-wife. And the equally bitter business partner, with whom Tex had been quarreling for years. And the former business partner’s beautiful daughter. So The Falcon, more at home in the bright lights of the big city, finds himself on a Texas ranch as he tries to unravel the mystery. There are various hazards - hostile Comanches (yes this is 1944 so hostile Comanches do seem a bit odd), angry cowboys, rattlesnake, wild horses, and of course no-good dames. This being a 1940s American crime movie we realise immediately that the no-good dames are going to be the biggest danger. Fortunately the Falcon has plenty of experience in this area.

The movie’s greatest strength is that it knows it’s a B-movie and has no pretensions whatsoever to being anything else. It has one goal, which is to provide just over an hour of reasonable entertainment. It does this pretty successfully, with the tried and tested formula of murder, complicated conspiracies involving inheritances, a bit of action, a hint of romance, and of course the aforementioned beautiful dangerous women. And this one has no less than three beautiful dangerous women!

Although comic relief is a inescapable but unpleasant fact of life in American genre movies of the 30s and 40s at least in this film it isn’t overdone and it isn’t too annoying.

Tom Conway is charming and debonair, makes the police look like fools, and of course solves the mystery. Its one departure from formula is that it throws in some western cliches as well as the standard crime movie cliches. Director William Clemens isn't tempted to try anything fancy but he keeps things moving along at a good pace.

It’s harmless lightweight fun and as long as you’re not expecting anything ground-breaking or profound it should provide sufficient enjoyment to keep crime B-movie fans happy. The Falcon Out West is recommended.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man is definitely not a typical Alfred Hitchcock film. There are very few visual flourishes. This 1956 Warner Brothers production is a very stark movie, filmed in black-and-white and looking a little like a documentary or a neo-realist film. In fact of course every image is as calculated and controlled as every other image in Hitchcock’s movies – the spontaneity and the element of chance that are the essence of documentary and neo-realism were anathema to Hitchcock. But it has the look of neo-realism and that look works for this film.

The Wrong Man is the story of a musician (Manny Balestrero, played by Henry Fonda) who is falsely accused of a series of robberies. Coming from Hitchcock you might therefore expect something along the lines of The 39 Steps, though, with the protagonist dashing off across the countryside in pursuit of the real criminal with the police hard on his heels. What you get is something quite different. There is no action at all. No chases. The first half hour simply follows Manny’s life an establishes him as the archetypal regular guy – quiet, sober, a devoted husband and father, a man so law-abiding and inoffensive that he’s probably never even had a parking ticket.

The next half hour shows Manny’s world coming into collision with the nightmare world of crime and the legal system. He finds that the system is not interested in him as a human being – he is simply processed through the system. It’s not as if the cops are brutal and dishonest – they’re too indifferent for that, they simply don’t see him as an individual, and they simply don’t care.

The rest of the film follows the progress of Manny’s case, which has been taken on by lawyer Frank O’Connor (played by Anthony Quayle), and it also follows the gradual mental breakdown of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) under the strain.

This movie is, visually, very film noirish – lots of shadows, and lots of high-contrast shots, lots of shots down hallways and stairways, high-angle shots, everything that is conducive to making a film that is uncomfortable and unsettling and paranoid. Even the scenes of Manny’s home life are rather stark. Hitchcock is determined to create an uncomfortable atmosphere and to sustain it relentlessly.

There’s no comedy at all in this movie. Just as Manny and Rose find no escape from the remorselessness with which fate seems determined to crush them, so the viewer gets no escape either.

Bernard Herrmann’s music also contributes to the paranoid atmosphere – it’s rather jagged and edgy.

Vera Miles is superb as Rose – she never pushes her performance too far.  Henry Fonda (an actor I’m afraid I’ve never liked) is about as perfectly cast as it’s possible for an actor to be.

This is one of the few movies in which Hitchcock deals directly with his Catholic faith, but the religious elements certainly don’t overpower the story.

Given Hitchcock’s own loathing of the police it’s reasonable to surmise that this was a rather personal film for him!

The Wrong Man is a somewhat gruelling film to watch, but it works extremely well. It makes its point about the ease with which an innocent person can have his life completely shattered by a false accusation, and can find himself overwhelmed by a nightmare half-world of crime that he was scarcely aware even existed.  t’s not really a suspense film – it’s more concerned with the effect of the events on those involved.

The Wrong Man is one of Hitchcock’s more underrated films. It’s a very compelling and very powerful film. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes To Washington is very very similar to his 1936 Mr Deeds Goes To Town. The plot is incredibly similar, the main difference is that this time Capra gets explicitly political. But as with Mr Deeds Goes To Town what is really interesting is that he deals heads-on with the failures of the political system and the failures of democracy without actually committing himself politically. You can watch this movie and at the end of it not be sure whether it’s a movie made by someone who is a registered Democrat or a registered Republican (in fact Capra was a lifelong registered Republican).

It’s a movie that exposes Washington as a cesspit of lies and corruption but it’s pretty obvious that as far as this movie is concerned it doesn’t matter which party they belong to, they’re all crooks.

It starts with the death of a U.S. Senator. A replacement needs to be found. The entire political machine of the state in question is corrupt and the only question is whether the deceased senator should be replaced by an obvious crook or by an incompetent time-server who can be trusted not to ask questions. Then the governor gets a brainwave. Why not appoint a man with popular appeal but who is so dumb that he can be manipulated with ease? He has a man in mind, the leader of a youth organisation called the Boy Rangers.

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is the man in question and he’s almost a carbon copy of Mr Deeds. He’s incredibly naïve and he actually believes everything he was taught at school about freedom and democracy and the Constitution and he’s so innocent that he thinks the U.S. Senate is a body of honourable men serving their country. But he’s like Mr Deeds in that his innocence is balanced by a certain clear-eyed common sense. When Jefferson Smith thinks he’s been lied to he starts to ask awkward questions and to think awkward thoughts. He puts two and two together and even when his senior colleague and mentor Senator Paine (Claude Rains) assures him that it makes five (and that it would be very much to his advantage to believe that it makes five) he knows it makes four and it’s always made four.

Senator Jefferson Smith has no ideological barrow to push, he has no ambitions, as the junior senator from his state he really is content just to do what the senior senator, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), tells him to do. Senator Paine and Jefferson’s dad had been crusading newspapermen years ago and Jefferson hero-worships Paine.

To keep Smith happy he is given a bill of his own to present. It’s a thoroughly harmless bill to set aside a very small amount of money to establish boys’ camps, this being one of Smith’s harmless obsessions. The bill is so innocuous and so unimportant that no-one would ever have noticed it except for one unfortunate accident - the boys’ camps are to be established on land that has been earmarked by Senator Paine and his crooked cronies for a dam that will divert a large amount of taxpayers’ money into their own pockets.

Suddenly Senator Jefferson Smith is a very real danger that must be eliminated. He’s such an innocent chump that destroying him politically should be child’s play, except that Smith has a useful ally in his private secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) who happens to be a shrewd political operator. However the main reason Smith is so hard to destroy is that he’s absurdly determined and doesn’t know when he’s beaten.

The scenes in the senate, with Smith facing removal from office, are an exact parallel to the sanity hearing endured by Mr Deeds in Mr Deeds Goes To Town. Once again it’s the underdog fighting for survival against overwhelming odds.

One of the things that is intriguing about Capra is that according to his son (as related on the audio commentary to Mr Deeds Goes To Town) he was obsessed with editing and with what he saw as the excessively slow pacing of American movies. This is intriguing because the pacing of Capra’s movies is atrocious. They are much much too long and scenes just go on and on and on. Frank Capra Jr does make the point that his father was not interested in the established rules of film-making and preferred to make his own rules. This can be a dangerous practice. Sometimes the rules exist for a reason. If you ignore the rules you can fall prey to self-indulgence and Frank Capra was perhaps the most self-indulgent of all the major directors of golden age Hollywood (although he was self-indulgent in an interesting and even fruitful way). The senate scenes are very effective but the effect is dissipated a little since they go too long. Overall there’s not really enough plot to just a running time of 129 minutes.

Capra’s idea in both Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr Smith Goes To Washington was to combine good-natured comedy with social commentary. This was hardly an original idea but what makes it interesting is that Capra’s social commentary has unexpected oddities and subtleties.

In Mr Deeds he has a hero who is a rich man and he’s also the only truly virtuous man in a corrupt town. There’s nothing startling about hero-worshipping the rich but in an American film you’d expect the rich man to be a self-made man, one who earned his wealth in a manner demonstrating the truth of the American Dream. But Mr Deeds did nothing whatever to deserve his wealth. He represents inherited wealth. He also represents the virtuous man as a paternalistic figure. This is pretty much anathema to true believers in the American Dream.

Capra does something very similar in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Senator Smith is the honest folksy down-home hero who takes on the task of confronting corruption in Washington. This should surely play out as a triumphant vindication of American democracy. There’s just one little problem. Senator Smith was not democratically elected. He was not elected at all. He was simply chosen by a thoroughly crooked state political machine to fill a casual vacancy. The senator who really was elected democratically, Senator Paine, is the crook. So the movie can just as easily be seen as suggesting that democracy simply doesn’t work.

What makes it intriguing of course is that Capra did believe in democracy. But he obviously didn't believe in it in a naïve way. In this movie the people chose wrongly in choosing Senator Paine. The people were hoodwinked by the press. The manipulation of public opinion by the media is a major theme of the film. When ruthless cliques control the media and corrupt machine control the electoral process democracy can be in really big trouble. When the movie came out the Washington press corps was enraged. Many powerful political figures were enraged as well. This is clearly a movie that successfully hit its targets.

The trouble with political movies is that almost invariably they try to bludgeon the viewer into accepting a particular political program or political ideology. That’s what makes Mr Smith Goes To Washington so refreshing. It isn’t trying to convert the viewer to a political position, it’s simply trying to provoke the viewer into thinking about weaknesses in the system.

Capra was a director who had zero interest in making realistic movies. The plots are contrived and they’re deliberately contrived and that’s the only way the outrageous stories could work. In spite of this though his movies are very very realistic in portraying the psychological realities of power, or corruption, of ambition and of avarice. While you’re not going to believe for one second that a man like Jefferson Smith could exist and could get to Washington, he’s more an allegorical figure than a human being, you will believe absolutely that this is the way political corruption works, this is the way ideals get corroded, this is the way once honest men get compromised.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington is a movie that even someone like myself, with an absolutely deadly loathing for message films, can enjoy. It’s a strange movie by one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors but it’s fascinating and entertaining and it’s highly recommended.