Monday, November 26, 2018

Norman Conquest (1953)

Norman Conquest is a 1953 British crime thriller based on one of the books in Berkeley Gray’s long-running and very successful series of Norman Conquest adventure/crime thriller novels.

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.

The plot gets off to a nicely crazy start. Conquest finds a message on a recently deceased carrier pigeon. It sounds like the sort of message a spy or a criminal would send. Setting up an appointment in a hotel room. Conquest decides that although it is none of his business he will keep the appointment.

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.

The glamorous blonde is Nadina Rodin (Eva Bartok) and she’s part of a trade delegation from an unnamed country but the secret police are trying to arrest the members of the trade delegation and someone else seems to be stalking the secret policeman and it ends with a corpse which is the corpse that supposedly was pushed from the window.

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.

While Tom Conway was certainly too old for the rôle he does his best and he’s always a watchable actor. He very nearly pulls it off. He has most of the right attitudes to do so but those attitudes aren’t entirely convincing due to his age.

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.

Since the books were very popular at the time it was presumably assumed that everyone would know where Pixie Everard fitted into the picture. In fact it soon becomes pretty obvious anyway.

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

Human Desire (1954)

I decided to follow up Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (The Human Beast) by watching Fritz Lang’s American remake, Human Desire, released by Columbia in 1954. In this case it really is a remake, since Lang based his production on Renoir’s film, and not on Zola’s novel. In fact there’s speculation that Lang didn’t even bother to read the novel!

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.

This opening also sets up a difference between the two versions of the story. The hero of Renoir’s version, Jacques Lantier, loves his locomotive dearly and there’s something almost organic and passionate and even perhaps slightly erotic in the relationship and in the images. Renoir’s railway is connected with life. Lang’s hero, Jeff, loves his job but the railway for Lang seems to symbolise something darker and more impersonal. It’s as if Lang’s railroad tracks don’t really lead anywhere, or they simply take us wherever fate wills.

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.

Lang’s task was much more difficult than Renoir’s, hampered as he was by the demands of the Hays Office and of a studio anxious to offend nobody and to provide a straightforward and if possible happy ending.  Given those constraints Lang does a reasonably good job.

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.

It also puts more pressure on Gloria Grahame. Her character has to bear most of the burden of the moral murkiness of the movie. In fact she becomes the central character, and her relationship with her husband (played by Broderick Crawford as a pathetic but nasty drunk) becomes more central as well. Jeff becomes more of an innocent bystander caught up in events he never quite comprehends (rather like Ray Milland’s character in Lang’s earlier and underrated Ministry of Fear).

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.

The most unfortunate thing about Human Desire is that the plot does follow that of La Bête humaine rather closely so comparisons are inevitable, and it has to be said that Renoir’s is the better and more complex film.

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

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror was the third and last of the low-budget British movies made in the 1930s featuring master detective Sexton Blake.

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.

The villain is played by the legendary Tod Slaughter. Slaughter was not merely in the tradition of Victorian melodrama villains. He was a real Victorian melodrama star. OK, if you want to be pedantic his career began in 1905 so he was actually an Edwardian melodrama star but he was an authentic representative of the tradition. He made a series of deliciously outrageous low-budget movies during the 30s and 40s. Tod Slaughter in full cry makes Charles Laughton seem positively restrained. Slaughter was perhaps the hammiest movie star of all time. Most of his best movies (such as 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.

It all starts with an attempted murder somewhere in the East. Granite Grant has a narrow escape from death, but he is grievously wounded and will be unable to keep a vital appointment with Sexton Blake in London. He sends Paul Duvall in his place. Duvall is murdered and the only clue that Blake has is a message written in cipher.

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.

The story is not exactly a masterpiece of plot construction but that matters little since it’s really just an excuse for pulp thrills and for the hero to find himself in lots of perilous situations from which there seems to be no escape. In at least one case there really would have been no excuse had Mademoiselle Julie not been on hand to rescue the great detective, a favour he is later able to repay.

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 is very much in the mould of Edgar Wallace. Which from my point of view is certainly no bad thing.

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

Dames Don't Care (1954)

Dames Don't Care (original title Les Femmes s'en balancent, also released as Dames Get Along) was made in 1954 and was the third of the Lemmy Caution movies. Bernard Borderie wrote and directed this film (as he did several others in the series).

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.

Much of the action centres on the Casa Antica, a fancy bar and illegal gambling joint. Henrietta Aymes is a regular there. Lemmy is confident he’ll pick up a lead if he sticks around a place like this long enough. In the meantime there's whiskey to be drunk and poker to be played.

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.

The plot turns out to be rather intricate and it’s reasonably satisfying. Lemmy’s methods are generally not very subtle but he does have to puzzle out some actual clues this time. That still leaves plenty of time for fist-fights (some of which are pretty good). There’s also at least one decent action set-piece.

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.

The settings are interesting. None of the action takes place in major cities. It all takes place in what appear to be desert settings, with stark modernist buildings seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I suspect the film-makers, having seen so many American movies set in California or in desert settings, were trying to create that same kind of atmosphere. Especially with Lemmy driving around in his big American convertible. The Casa Antica set is rather impressive. Stylistically it’s a pretty interesting movie.

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.

Compared to 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.