Monday, November 26, 2018
Norman Conquest was a bit like a poor man’s Simon Templar. The first of the Norman Conquest novels appeared in 1937 and was very obviously heavily inspired by Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels. Norman Conquest had the same devil-may-care attitude, he was also young and debonair and handsome, he had a similar schoolboy sense of humour, he had the same lack of respect for the forces of law enforcement, he had the same manic energy. He belonged to the school of dashing rogue heroes that produced not only Simon Templar but also the Baron, the Toff and Blackshirt. Compared to the dazzling stylistic pyrotechnics of Leslie Charteris Berkeley Gray was a bit more obvious and as bit more overtly trashy and pulpy. Having said that, the best of the Norman Conquest novels such as Miss Dynamite are a great deal of fun.
Bringing Norman Conquest to the big screen was a sound idea. The casting of the hero was always going to be crucial. In the event Tom Conway was chosen and while I’m generally quite a fan of Conway’s work he was unfortunately the wrong choice. At 49 years of age he was at least fifteen years too old. For the character to work he has to have the insane over-confidence of youth and he has to be essentially an overgrown schoolboy. Tom Conway looks much too old and tired.
What he finds in Room 605 of the Park Plaza Hotel is a glamorous foreign blonde. He doesn’t remember much after that since said blonde shoots him with a gun that shoots a knockout drug. When he awakes he finds his old acquaintance Superintendent Williams (Sid James) who gives him the less than welcome news that he is now a murder suspect. The victim either fell or was pushed from the window and the superintendent is inclined to believe the latter.
So far it seems like a spy thriller with a bunch of eastern bloc trade officials wanting to defect rather than waiting to be shot. But then we find it has something to do with diamonds and something to do with Nazis. There are multiple double-crosses. Conquest demonstrates a remarkable ability to get himself knocked on the head or drugged or captured and if it’s not Conquest getting captured by the bad guys it’s his wife Pixie.
Eva Bartok is terrific as the mystery woman/femme fatale. She’s by far the best thing in the movie. She’s glamorous and sexy and wicked but also child-like and appealing and she’s amusing as well.
Before achieving fame as a comic actor Sid James was a busy and quite reliable character actor and he does an excellent job here. Superintendent Williams fulfils the same function in the Norman Conquest stories as Claud Eustace Teal in the Saint stories - the long-suffering copper who dreams of nailing the smart aleck young upstart on some serious charge but we know it will never happen.
As for the movie’s sexual politics, just remember that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there and you’ll probably find it as amusing as I did (I like the fact that old movies reflect the times in which they were made).
As far as I know this movie is only obtainable as a DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. The image quality is not fantastic but it’s acceptable (with some slight print damage) and sound quality is mostly OK (with some occasional but not too serious crackling).
Norman Conquest is a lightweight B-movie. It’s meant to be fun and it is fun. Recommended.
Monday, November 19, 2018
The first surprise is that Lang opens his movie in exactly the same way. The opening of Renoir’s movie is a visual tour-de-force, an extended dialogue-free sequence involving trains and railway tracks and setting up the relationship of the hero to the trains he loves so much. The images are magnificent, and for Lang to open his film in exactly the same way was a very brave thing to do. While it’s not quite as impressive, Lang gets away with it.
The stories in the two films run mostly in parallel until the ending. Jeff (Glenn Ford) has returned from the Korean War to his job as a train engineer. He becomes involved with the wife (Gloria Grahame) of the assistant yard manager, and a witness to what appears to be a murder.
The biggest change is in the personality of the hero. Jean Gabin as Lantier has a darkness within him, but Lang admitted he was forced to make Jeff a much more conventional hero. Glenn Ford is no Jean Gabin anyway, but he has little to work with. In some ways that perhaps suited Lang’s purpose. It makes Jeff a complete victim of fate.
Fortunately Grahame is equal to the task. Her performance is so good that the viewer, like Jeff, is never quite sure how much of what she’s telling him is the complete truth, an embellished version of the truth, or complete fabrication. The frustrating thing for us, and for him, is that there is certainly a considerable element of truth in her story.
Lang’s movie though is Lang’s movie, not Renoir’s, it reflects Lang’s concerns, and if you’re prepared to judge it on its own merits it’s a fine example of late American film noir. Highly recommended.
Saturday, November 10, 2018
In fact it probably qualifies as a quota quickie, quota quickies being very cheap movies that took advantage of British government legislation that forced exhibitors to show a quota of British-made movies. These movies are often unfairly despised. Some were terrible but many were good entertaining films.
Sexton Blake was a kind of pulp version of Sherlock Holmes (he even lived in Baker Street). He made his first appearance in 1893, in a story by Harry Blyth. Countless further stories followed (possibly as many as four thousand) and were published in a variety of cheap British magazines. The stories were written by many different writers (including some like John Creasey and Peter Cheyney who later became fairy well known). Blake has a youthful assistant named Tinker. The Sexton Blake stories range from very very good to very very bad.
One key difference between the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Sexton Blake stories is that the latter usually pitted the detective against one of a number of colourful diabolical criminal masterminds.
George Curzon plays Blake in this particular movie. He’s suave enough although he’s not going to convince anybody that he’s an action hero. As played by Curzon Blake has more of an air of a debonair man-about-town than Holmes, and he’s definitely much less neurotic.
Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) were adaptations of Victorian melodramas.
In Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror he plays diabolical criminal mastermind Michael Larron. By ordinary standards it’s an over-the-top exercise in hamminess but by Tod Slaughter standards this is a very subdued and subtle performance.
Tony Sympson plays Tinker. You might expect Tinker to be a comic relief character but he isn’t. He’s a reasonably competent and resourceful assistant.
Grant was apparently on the track of the master criminal known as the Snake, believed to be the head of the dreaded organised crime gang the Black Quorum, a gang responsible for most of the really big crimes in Europe and Britain. There’s an obvious parallel here to the criminal organisation run by Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty.
Blake’s first encounter with the Snake is at a stamp auction. Sexton Blake is a keen philatelist, as is the villainous Michael Larron. At the auction Blake renews his acquaintanceship with the glamorous Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt). Mademoiselle Julie seems to be in the same line of business as Sexton Blake, working sometimes as a freelancer and sometimes for the Sûreté.
There are some nice visual touches, such as the scene that awaits Blake in the gambling salon. The atmosphere is very pulpy and there’s every old-fashioned thriller cliché you could hope for, from deadly blow guns to doped cigars to concealed trap-doors.
This movie is one of six in VCI’s British Cinema Classic B Film Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is acceptable although far from pristine. The source material was obviously a TV print. These are very obscure movies so we’re lucky they’re available at all, and at a very reasonable price.
Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror is obviously a must-see for Tod Slaughter fans but anyone with a taste for outrageous pulpy fun should find plenty here to enjoy. It’s outrageous fun. Highly recommended.
Friday, November 2, 2018
Lemmy Caution was created by English novelist Peter Cheyney. The books were particularly popular in Europe and the first of the long series of French Lemmy Caution movies, Poison Ivy, appeared in 1953. The movies are on the whole better than the books.
Only one actor has ever played Lemmy Caution - American-born Eddie Constantine. Constantine had established himself as a fairly popular singer in France but the Lemmy Caution movies made him not just a movie star but a minor cultural icon.
Lemmy Caution is an FBI agent but all his cases seem to take him to Europe. It seems like he spends very little time in the United States. This case takes him to Italy.
The very clever opening sequence shows Caution making contact with another FBI agent. The case involves a very large amount of counterfeit U.S. currency which first came to the attention of the Italian authorities when the glamorous Henrietta Aymes (Nadia Gray) tried changing one of the forged notes at a bank in Rome. Henrietta’s husband Granworth committed suicide at about this time, or at least it looked like suicide at the time. When the eyewitness, a night watchman, changed his story it started to look a lot less like suicide.
Henrietta Aymes is obviously a classic femme fatale but she’s not the only one. Paulette (Dominique Wilms) is femme fatale number two. And they’re both terrific sexy bad girls. Both have plausible motives for murdering Granworth Aymes. There’s a complex, twisted and dangerous web of romantic and criminal relationships involving Henrietta and her husband and Pauline and her husband.
This movie is very much in the style of the classic American hardboiled private eye movies of the 40s. And it captures that flavour perfectly. There’s a leavening of humour but mostly it’s played fairly straight. The late Lemmy Caution movies, beginning with Godard’s Alphaville, may have been busily trying to deconstruct the genre but that’s definitely not the case with the early movies made between 1953 and 1963. This was a period when the French were still totally in love with American pop culture.
If you’re the sort of person who is put off by dubbed movies you don’t have to worry about this one. The English language dubbing is excellent, and the English version includes some truly wonderful hardboiled dialogue.
Poison Ivy, made a year earlier, Dames Don't Care is a bit more polished and Eddie Constantine is now entirely comfortable in the rôle and he’s superb. Constantine’s Lemmy Caution is one of the screen’s classic wise-cracking hardboiled tough guys.
Nadia Gray and Dominique Wilms (who had also appeared in Poison Ivy) do the femme fatale thing and they both do it extremely well.
As far as I am aware the only way to get the Lemmy Caution movies is on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. In the case of this film the image quality is quite OK. Sound quality is not so good with a fair bit of hiss but fortunately the dialogue is all perfectly understandable.
Dames Don't Care is stylish entertainment with generous helpings of both wit and action. Highly recommended.