Thursday, October 25, 2018

Thunder Road (1958)

Thunder Road was very much a personal project for Robert Mitchum. He starred in it, he produced it, he wrote the story and he even co-wrote the songs. It was released by United Artists in 1958.

Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, a Korean War veteran who makes his living running illegal whiskey. It’s a small family business but Luke is finding himself squeezed by agents of the Treasury Department on one side and big-time gangsters on the other.

The action takes place in Harlan County in Tennessee, and illegal whiskey is the main industry in the county. These are hillbillies who have been distilling moonshine, and avoiding the revenue agents, for generations. It’s not just as profitable business. It’s part of their culture.

The transporters are guys like Luke, driving specially modified cars with racing engines and 250 gallon concealed tanks for the whiskey.

Carl Kogan (James Aubuchon) is a smooth but unscrupulous operator. He aims to control the whole illegal distilling business throughout the state. He aims to turn the operation into big business. He makes the moonshiners of the valley an offer he thinks they can’t refuse but he hasn’t taken account of Luke Doolin’s bloody-mindedness and intense dislike of being pushed around.

Luke’s charisma, resourcefulness and daring has made him the de facto leader of the illegal distillers in the valley. Luke certainly has guts. The question is whether his judgment is entirely sound. He doesn’t just refuse Kogan’s offer, he goes out of his way to antagonise and humiliate him. Kogan has a reputation for ruthlessness and one might think that it would have been wiser not to push him so far. But subtlety is not Luke’s style, and he possibly figures that if he refuses Kogan’s offer then Kogan is going to try to destroy him anyway so why bother refusing him politely?

It’s clear from the start that this is a high stakes game. One whiskey runner is ambushed and killed early on. Revenue agents might be implacable enemies but they don’t do that sort of thing. It has to be Kogan. Then Luke has an encounter with a couple of hoods in a car. The encounter ends fatally for the hoods. Then things really get out of control. A Treasury agent is killed in a bungled attempt on Luke’s life. This is the one thing that everyone in Harlan County feared. If a federal agent gets killed the government tends to react in a rather extreme way. In this case they send 200 additional agents to Harlan County with orders to track down and destroy every single still.

Things are getting so grim that Luke’s Daddy decides it’s time to get out of the whiskery business, temporarily at least. Luke will make one last run and that will be it.

One of the cool things about a film noir-tinged 1958 movie is that you can’t be certain whether it’s going to have a downbeat ending or a happy ending. From the late 60s onwards movies started to become terribly predictable. You just know there’s going to be a nihilistic downbeat ending. But in 1958 there was no way to be sure which way a movie like this would go. And I’m certainly not going to tell you!

Thunder Road does have some definite claims to film noir status, and those claims rest to a large degree on Luke’s personality. Luke is the kind of guy who just cannot compromise. He’s a guy who is either going to smash his way to victory or destroy himself trying. He is wildly over-confident. He is used to winning, but now he’s facing tougher odds than ever before. He’s the kind of guy whose whole approach is likely to get him in trouble. He’s a nice guy and he’s fundamentally decent but those flaws could well be enough to make him a doomed film noir hero. He’s a man who is at least half-aware of being on a road to destruction. If Kogan doesn’t get him the Federal Government will. The smart thing to do would be to quit, but he just doesn’t know how to do that. It’s an ideal role for Mitchum, combining charisma, charm, sensitivity and fatalism.

Gene Barry (an actor I’ve always liked) plays Treasury Agent Troy Barrett. In this case Barrett doesn’t really care about Luke Doolin. It’s Carl Kogan he wants. Luke is a bit of a bad boy but Kogan is a gangster and a cold-blooded killer. Barrett’s problem is to try to persuade the moonshiners that this time he’s on their side.

Mitchum’s son James makes his film debut here as Luke’s kid brother Robin.

The illegal whiskey business isn’t just a criminal enterprise. For the people of communities like Harlan County it’s a kind of symbol. A symbol of resistance to intrusive governments. A symbol of a man’s freedom to live his life in his own way. A symbol of the right not to be a wage slave. And also a symbol of a traditional way of life. Apart from being in the illegal whiskey trade the people of Harlan County are law-abiding God-fearing folk. They just want to be left alone. But of course being left alone is not going to be an option.

Thunder Road is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 and there’s a U.S. Blu-Ray release as well. I caught the movie on cable TV so I can’t comment on the quality of those releases.

Thunder Road has no shortage of action. It was just about the first Hollywood move in which car chases were the main focus of the action, and those car chases are extremely well done. The film also benefits from lots of location shooting. This is a very entertaining mix of film noir and action movie, with some of the flavour of an exploitation movie as well. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mr Wong in Chinatown (1939)

Mr Wong in Chinatown was released in 1939 and was the third of the Monogram Mr Wong movies. The character had been created by American writer Hugh Wiley and appeared in twelve stories published in Colliers Magazine between 1934 and 1938. Boris Karloff played Mr Wong in the first five movies while Keye Luke played the character in the final movie. In the original stories Mr Wong is a Chinese-American. In the movies Mr Wong had spent quite a considerable time in England which allowed Karloff to play the character with an educated English accent. I’m told the stories are rather deliciously pulpy.

Mr Wong lives in San Francisco and often helps the San Francisco Police on important and difficult cases. His relations with the police are exceptionally cordial. The movie starts with a murder committed in Mr Wong’s own home.

A Chinese woman has called at Wong’s house. By the time Wong makes his way from his laboratory to the sitting room the woman is dead, killed apparently by a fiendishly ingenious Chinese sleeve gun that fires poisoned darts. The woman was obviously a person of wealth and high social class and she has left a tantalising dying clue - the words ‘Captain J’ scrawled on a card.

The woman is in fact the Princess Lin Hwa. She is visiting the United States to buy arms.

Mr Wong will need assistance from San Francisco’s Chinese community and he obtains it, from one of the tongs.

Mr Wong is working closely with his old friend Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco PD. They are both also working closely with Feisty Girl Reporter Bobby Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), not by choice but because there seems to be no way to prevent her from involving herself. As Feisty Girl Reporters go she is at least not overly annoying.

Comic relief has been kept to a minimum. There’s some mild comic interplay between Bobby Logan and Captain Street but it’s very low-key and quite amusing and it even advances the plot. Given the fact that ill-advised and painfully unfunny comic relief sank a lot of otherwise promising B-movies of the 30s (including quite a few Monogram pictures) this is quite refreshing.

The plot is fairly interesting. It’s clear that the princess’s arms buying led either directly or indirectly to her murder but the script keeps us in doubt as to the exact identity of the killers. It’s also interesting that she’s buying arms in the late 30s but although China and Japan had been at war since 1937 it’s implied that the princess is acting on behalf of a local warlord and the Japanese are never mentioned. Presumably the intention was to avoid giving offence to a nation that was still at that time at peace with the United States.

Boris Karloff of course does not really look all that convincingly Chinese but for an actor of Karloff’s quality that’s a minor problem. He still manages to sell us on his performance.

What’s fascinating about the three very popular 1930s Hollywood B-movie series involving Asian detectives is that the detectives were all quite distinctive. The success of the Charlie Chan movies obviously made both the Mr Moto and Mr Wong series possible but Moto and Wong are in no sense mere Charlie Chan clones. In the original books Mr Moto was a Japanese spymaster. The films made him a detective working for an early incarnation of Interpol but it’s still clear that Moto has certain connections. And he’s much of an action hero than Charlie Chan. Mr Wong is much more upper-class than Chan. He is a man of considerable education and taste.

The acting overall is surprisingly good for a Monogram feature. Grant Withers is pretty good as tough cop Bill Street. Marjorie Reynolds gives a spirited and generally engaging performance as Bobby Logan.

After a successful career as a silent director William Nigh found himself relegated to helming B-movies for Poverty Row studios, a task he accomplished with reasonable efficiency. He directed the first five Mr Wong movies.

The production values are roughly what you expect from Monogram with a fairly limited array of sets but the picture doesn’t really look cheap or shoddy.

The Mr Wong movies are in the public domain and have had various rather questionable DVD releases. All six movies have been released in a two-disc set from VCI and it has to be said that the transfers are pretty good. In fact the transfer of this particular movie is very good.

Mr Wong in Chinatown is bright and breezy and it’s fine B-movie entertainment with Karloff impressive as always. Highly recommended.

The first movie in the Mr Wong cycle, Mr Wong, Detective, is also well worth seeing.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

I’m a great fan of Robert Siodmak’s films noirs such as Phantom Lady, and I loved his wonderfully southern gothic Son of Dracula. I remember liking The Spiral Staircase, made in 1946, and it seems like one of those movies that is worth a second look. In fact it’s worth seeing just for Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography which is, as always, stunning. The combination of Musuraca’s film noirish lighting and the sumptuous Edwardian sets (the movie is set in 1916) gives the movie a decidedly gothic feel.

The situation of two step brothers living in the shadow of their dead father, a father who despised them, plus the bed-ridden matriarch of the family (played by Ethel Barrymore) enhances the gothic sensibility. The past cannot be escaped. Professor Warren (George Brent) and Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver) are both weaklings in their own ways and they dislike each other intensely.

A series of murders has terrorised the district. The victims have all been women and all with some form of weakness or affliction. Dr Parry (Kent Smith) is naturally concerned for Helen (Dorothy McGuire) who is mute, apparently as a result of some trauma in the distant past. Dr Parry has the idea he can cure her, and he’s obviously in love with her. Dr Parry has been called in to treat old Mrs Warren, a challenge for any doctor. The old lady keeps telling Helen to leave, to get away, that she is in danger. Is the killer outside trying to get in, or is he already inside?

To be honest I don’t think most people will find the mystery to be all that difficult to penetrate. In any case I think it’s an advantage in a suspense movie to know who the bad guy is, or at least to have a very strong suspicion. It makes the audience more anxious for the heroine’s safety (and this is definitely a Woman In Peril film). Of course it all depends on whether you’re trying to make a mystery film or a suspense film. This particular film seems to be trying to be both (which is also very much true of the source novel).

The actual plot is secondary to the atmosphere that Siodmak creates, a very unhealthy atmosphere. It’s the way Siodmak tells the story that matters, and he tells it with some marvellous visual touches. At this point in time there was probably no better cinematographer in Hollywood than Nicholas Musuraca. He knows when to go over the top visually but he also knows when to build the gothic atmosphere gradually and subtly.

The very solid cast certainly helps. Dorothy McGuire does very  well in a part that obviously doesn’t allow her to speak. George Brent was always likeable and sympathetic even when, as here, he played weak or morally dubious characters. Ethel Barrymore, being a Barrymore, overacts. But being a Barrymore she does it well.

Elsa Lanchester is great fun as the good-natured but eccentric housekeeper who likes a drop or two of brandy when she can get it.

There’s a decidedly diseased ambience to the Warren household and it’s not at all difficult to imagine that the crazed killer might be a member of this household.

The Spiral Staircase was based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch and it’s a fine example of the ability of a great film-maker to take a very mediocre novel and turn it into a great movie. Overly melodramatic plotlines tend to work a lot better on film than in books and the whole “it was a dark and stormy night” thing seems a hoary old cliché on the printed page. In a movie it’s still a cliché but it can still be made to work.

Ethel Lina White was a representative of the Had I But Known school of crime fiction which is excruciating in print but can make for a very successful suspense film.

Mel Dinelli wrote the screenplay which fixes the major faults in White’s original story. Dinelli did some fine things as a writer about this time, most notably The Reckless Moment and House by the River but also Beware, My Lovely which I think is rather underrated.

The DVD release includes no extras at all, but is fairly inexpensive and the movie looks superb. If you have a taste for film noir or gothic movies you need to see this movie. The Spiral Staircase is highly recommended.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

You Can't Take It With You won both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Frank Capra in 1938.

It’s an odd film, but it’s a Capra film so you expect that.

James Stewart plays Tony Kirby, the heir to the vast Kirby banking fortune. The Kirby fortune is based on a monopoly that has been achieved by the time-honoured methods of American business - by buying enough Congressmen and Senators to ensure the the company can do what it likes. So, typically for Capra, we immediately get a political angle. This is however not really the main focus of the film.

Tony Kirby wants to marry his secretary Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) but his parents disapprove very strongly indeed. So we have a story of love that must overcome obstacles but that’s not really the main focus of the film either.

The core of the film is the story of two very different families. The Kirby family likes money and power. That’s pretty much all they are interested in.

Alice’s family are proto-hippies. They live in the house belonging to the family patriarch, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Vanderhof is a wealthy retired businessman. His house is filled to the rafters with assorted relations and assorted hangers-on. Some of them work occasionally in a desultory fashion but mostly they live off old man Vanderhof. They are free spirits who believe in creativity. In other words they’re unemployable. They don’t care very much about money. So the contrast is between the Kirbys who worship money and are therefore bad and unhappy and the Sycamore clan who are satisfied with just enough to live on and are therefore virtuous and happy.

OK, so undoubtedly there’s some truth to the idea that too much concern for money is unhealthy and that people who are satisfied with less are better off but the problem is that the movie assumes that having just enough is simply a matter of finding a wealthy benefactor like Vanderhof who likes having people sponging off him.

This is where this movie crashes and burns. Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr Smith Goes To Washington took Capraesque idealistic heroes and forced them to confront the unpleasant nature of the real world. This confrontation proved to be fruitful and it strengthened the heroes. It also forced them to examine their own idealism and to hone it to a razor sharp edge.

You Can't Take It With You takes place in a fantasy world in which idealistic heroes are able to rely on wishful thinking to create magical answers to problems.

We’re meant to see Vanderhof’s household as a collection of loveable eccentrics who are expressing their creativity but they’re not loveable, they’re just irritating. They’re also not believable, which makes them more irritating. They’re fake. They’re feeble one-joke characters and we get bludgeoned with that one joke over and over again.

Eventually Alice decides it would be a swell idea for Tony’s folks to meet her folks. Of course the evening quickly degenerates into chaos. The movie is trying so hard to be zany and crazy and fun but it’s just too contrived. The chaos is just chaos. It isn’t entertaining chaos.

There’s a court-room scene which will bring to mind the sanity hearing scene in Mr Deeds Goes to Town and the Senate scenes in Mr Smith Goes To Washington but the equivalent scene here just doesn’t have the same impact. There’s nothing much at stake. It’s a definite deficiency in Robert Riskin’s script. This big dramatic scene amounts to nothing more than a lovers’ spat.

Jean Arthur is a definite problem. She had a very distinct screen persona. I find it to be extremely annoying. And then there’s Lionel Barrymore, Hollywood’s greatest ham, being tedious and ingratiating. Being ingratiating is the big problem with this movie in general.

This movie lacks any real bite or focus. Devoting too much attention to making money is bad but it doesn’t suggest viable alternatives apart from the juvenile self-indulgence that would eventually culminate in the vacuousness of the counter-culture.

It also lacks a genuine hero. James Stewart is OK but Tony Kirby is a nonentity. Alice isn’t a character with much substance either. Edward Arnold as his mogul father Anthony P. Kirby and Lionel Barrymore as Vanderhof are really the central characters but that leaves the film without a viable hero figure. Kirby is a walking cliché until his sudden completely inexplicable and totally unconvincing character change. Vanderhof is just so jam-packed with folksy down-home wisdom that you want to cringe.

The Columbia Tristar DVD presentation is simply awful. The sound quality is so bad that it almost makes the film unwatchable.

I am now convinced that Frank Capra could and did make some remarkable, interesting and powerful films. You Can't Take It With You is not one of them. You Can't Take It With You is a complete cinematic turkey.