Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Calamity Jane (1953)

Having become quite a fan of Doris Day in other movie genres I thought it was about time for me to bite the bullet and attempt one of her musicals. Calamity Jane, made at Warner Brothers in 1953, seemed like as good a place as any to start.

Calamity Jane was an actual historical figure but don’t panic - this movie is not going to bother with anything as tiresome as historical accuracy. And in any case it appears that the real Calamity Jane was not exactly a sticker for accuracy when it came to recounting her adventures.

As the movie opens Calamity is saving a stage coach under attack from a Sioux war party. The stage coach is on its way to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory. Calamity’s account of the attack is embellished a little in the telling but it seems that the people of Deadwood are used to this. Wild Bill Hickok is particularly sceptical, which doesn’t prevent him from being a close and devoted friend to Calamity.

There is trouble brewing in Deadwood. The manager of the town’s only theatre has announced, with much ballyhoo, that he was importing a famous (and glamorous) actress from New York City. Unfortunately there was some confusion on the subject of gender and the actress who arrives is in fact an actor. The townsfolk (almost all of them men and exceptionally starved of female company) are most displeased and are about to trash the theatre when Calamity steps in. She will go to Chicago and bring back a real actress, a major star, the famous Adelaid Adams.

Calamity is not the most feminine of women and she’s a bit of a rough diamond. And her knowledge of the theatre is non-existent. She mistakes the great actress’s maid for the actress herself. The maid, Katie Brown, has always nourished the dream of a career on the stage and now sees her opportunity. She neglects to tell Calamity that she isn’t the great star.

As you might expect, her theatrical debut in Deadwood is somewhat eventful. The audience is initially pleased, Katie being an actual female and a fairly attractive one. When she tries to sing in the style of Adelaid Adams it becomes evident that she is an impostor. Once again Calamity comes to the rescue and when Kate is persuaded to simply be herself she becomes a surprise hit.

Katie and Calamity set up housekeeping together but there are complications. Both women are madly in love with a handsome young lieutenant. Of course you know that somehow or other true love is going to triumph.

Allyn McLerie, an actress I’d never heard of, is extremely good as Katie. Howard Keel is Wild Bill Hickok, and I’m afraid I’m not a fan of either his singing or his acting.

Doris Day on the other hand is a delight. She’s funny, she’s feisty, she’s convincingly butch  as the tomboy Calamity.

The movie has a very very artificial feel to it, which I like. It looks like it was filmed entirely on a sound stage and that gives it a very appealing unreal feeling. You don’t want anything as tedious as realism in a musical. It’s amusing, the sings are a bit uneven but they have their moments, it’s outrageously romantic and it’s just generally fun.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m a convert to 50s Hollywood musicals but I’ve now come across a couple that I’ve liked a good deal. Calamity Jane is recommended.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Viva Las Vegas is a pretty lightweight movie. Which is OK. It’s an Elvis Presley movie so you’e not going to be expecting Citizen Kane. The important thing is that it’s a great deal of fun. And unlike some of Elvis’s movies, it’s well-made stylish fun.

The plot is thin, and that’s putting it mildly. Lucky Jackson (Elvis) is an up-and-coming race-car river who heads off to Las Vegas to win enough money to buy a new engine for his race car so he can enter the Las Vegas Grand Prix. He wins the money at the gaming tables, and loses it in bizarre circumstances (well maybe not so bizarre since he was pursuing a young lady at the time). Now he’s forced to work as a waiter but the upside is that he’s met Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret) and he’s pretty sure that she’s the girl he’s been looking for all his life.

He has a rival both romantically and on the race-track, a suave Italian count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). The count is actually a pretty nice guy but you might think twice about  trusting him with your car or your girl.

Rusty falls for Lucky just as hard as he falls for her but there’s a snag. She’s worried about his driving. She doesn’t want to be the widow of a race-car driver. Lucky is equally determined not to give up his dream of success on the race-track.

Lucky’s immediate problem is how to find the money for that engine he needs but at the same time he’s not going to give up on Rusty. That’s pretty much it for the plot, and for the type of movie this is it’s perfectly adequate. There’s the right mix of humour and romance. The humour isn’t overdone. The temptation to resort to overly broad comedy or slapstick is resisted, and quite rightly.

However slight it might be plot-wise and thematically this movie has several very big things in its favour. Firstly there’s Elvis. It’s not a demanding rôle (he was a decent actor and could handle more ambitious parts) and mostly what he has to do is to be charming, likeable, sexy and charismatic. All of which he manages with ease.

Secondly there’s Ann-Margret. She’s the perfect leading lady for him. She can match him charisma for charisma and star quality for star quality and she seems like exactly the sort of gal that a character played by Elvis would fall in love with. She gets to do several songs including a showstopper Las Vegas-style big production number. Her acting is more than adequate, she makes Rusty feisty but cute and she looks stunning. And she gets a memorable entrance that lets us know we’re in the presence of a star.

Thirdly there’s the fact that MGM spent some serious money here and they hired some very competent people. Screenwriter Sally Benson had written Shadow of a Doubt for Hitchcock and she wrote the screenplay for Anna and the King of Siam. Director George Sidney had helmed a string of classic musicals such as Anchors Aweigh, The Harvey Girls, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat. Viva Las Vegas is a slick, polished well-crafted musical and Elvis’s performance of the title tune in the talent contest is a highlight.

And lastly there’s the other major star of the movie - Las Vegas itself. There’s quite a bit of location shooting, in places like the Flamingo Hotel and the car race through the city. This was the old Vegas - brash, vulgar and pulsating with life and excitement.

This is also a very good-natured movie. There’s no villain. Count Elmo will try his darnedest to win Rusty but he won’t cheat to do it and he won’t cheat to win the Grand Prix either. He’s a sportsman. His rivalry with Lucky is a friendly rivalry.

Then there are the songs and on the whole they’re pretty good.

The Deluxe Edition DVD offers a very good 16:9 enhanced transfer, an audio commentary and an excellent documentary on Elvis in Vegas.

Viva Las Vegas is immense fun. Very highly recommended.

You might also be interested in my review of Jailhouse Rock.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949, is generally recognised as not just one of the greats of film noir but as one of the greatest movies of all time. I’ve seen it a couple of times and it would make my top ten list. Now I’m about to revisit it. Will I be as impressed this time as I was last time? We will see.

Despite the international cast The Third Man was a British production. The location shooting (of which there’s a great deal by the standards of 1949) was done in Vienna. Although there was not only a second unit but a third as well Reed in fact directed almost everything himself.

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a popular American writer of westerns, arrives in Vienna shortly after the end of the Second World War. The city is occupied by the armies of the British, the Americans, the French and the Russians. Holly is broke but his old friend Harry Lime has tempted him to Vienna with the promise of work. Unfortunately by the time Holly arrives Harry Lime is dead, run over by a truck.

There were several witnesses to the accident but they all tell slightly different stories. Harry was killed instantly. He lived for just a short time. He lived long enough to pass on an important message. Holly has a bit of an over-active imagination and this combined with the odd discrepancies in accounts of the incident arouses his suspicion. British military policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) advises him to leave Vienna but Holly is now determined to find out what really happened. Two men carried Harry’s body to the side of the road after the accident, but some accounts mention a mysterious third man. Holly is particularly keen to find this third man.

Holly tracks down Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Harry’s doctor and several of the witnesses, none of whom are very coöperative. He begins to suspect that Harry was actually murdered. Holly is right about the accident not being what it seemed to be but his theory as to what happened is quite wrong. Holly will find out the truth, but do we always want to know the truth? Does it actually help us?

When Greene was hired to write the screenplay he first wrote the story out as a novella which was later published (and the novella differs from the movie in several key points). This was one of the three collaborations between Greene and Carol Reed (the others being The Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana) and those three movies are close to being Reed’s best work. Greene was quite lucky when it came to move adaptations of his stories. Apart from the lamentable 1958 version of The Quiet American most have been pretty good and several have been superb (not just the three films with Reed but also Brighton Rock and This Gun For Hire). Greene was a naturally cinematic writer, possibly the first great novelist to have a natural affinity for movies.

The Third Man has three huge claims to cinematic greatness. Firstly there’s the story. The screenplay was written by Graham Greene from one of his own stories. With Greene as the writer you know you’re going to get a tale that is literate and intelligent with a dash of black humour, deliciously twisted, and highly entertaining. There are plenty of typical Graham Greene obsessions in this tale. Betrayal of course. Not just betrayal of love, but betrayal of illusions. The idea that knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily make a person better off.

Its second claim to greatness is the cast. There’s Orson Welles, at the peak of his powers and in the rôle of his career. But he’s not directing so his performance is more disciplined that usual. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, a good actor who is well cast and gives his career-best performance. And then there’s Trevor Howard, again perfectly cast and in top form. Alida Valli is excellent as Harry’s girlfriend. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with Bernard Lee especially good as Calloway’s sergeant. And there’s an aded bonus - the always delightful Wilfred Hyde-White.

Its third claim to greatness is its stylistic brilliance. It’s so stylish that there have been rumours that Welles took a hand in the directing. No-one familiar with Carol Reed’s career as a director would believe this for a moment. Style was Carol Reed’s middle name. And if you compare it to other notable Reed films such as Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana you will see exactly the same visual flourishes that you see in The Third Man. Carol Reed didn’t need anyone’s help to direct a masterpiece. And in The Third Man he’s on fire. Reed used visual tricks when they were needed. This was a movie that lent itself to a bravura approach. This is the world of Harry Lime and nothing is straightforward.

Apart from the absurd claim that Welles had a hand in the directing there’s the equally nonsensical claim that he contributed in a major way to the script. In fact he contributed one line. These silly claims seem to have originated with Welles. Welles’ career as a director ended up amounting to virtually nothing and his one really memorable acting performance, in The Third Man, was a supporting rôle in someone else’s movie. This must have rankled with him and may have led him to make these ridiculous wildly exaggerated claims.

Every single shot in this movie is exquisitely composed and photographed. There’s not a single moment that hasn’t had care and attention lavished on it. Cinematographer Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his work on this film. If it’s film noir visual style you’re after then this movie has it in abundance. In fact it’s hard to think of any movie that is more visually film noir than this one.

Mention must also be made of the famous zither soundtrack. l disliked it the first time I saw the movie but now I realise Reed was quite right in his judgment. It adds to the unique flavour of war-torn Vienna.

The StudioCanal Blu-Ray offers an excellent transfer and a host of extras. There have been many DVD releases of the film, some good and some terrible. This is one instance where, if you’re a fan of the movie, it probably is worthwhile upgrading to the Blu-Ray.

The Third Man may not be a perfect film but it’s about as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get. There’s not a single false note, not a single weakness. I said at the beginning that it would make my list of the ten greatest movies of all time and I’m now more convinced than ever of this. A truly great movie. Very very highly recommended.

You can find my review of Greene's novella The Third Man here.

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Falcon in San Francisco (1945)

The Falcon in San Francisco was the eleventh of RKO’s very successful Falcon B-movies and the eighth to star Tom Conway as The Falcon. It was released in 1945.

Tom Lawrence (AKA The Falcon) and his sidekick ‘Goldie’ Locke are heading for San Francisco for a well-earned vacation, but of course when detectives go on vacation you can be sure that murder will follow them. On the train they meet a cute little girl named Annie Marshall, along with her cute little dog named Diogenes. Annie solemnly informs them that he is being kept a prisoner in her own house. Of course it’s the sort of crazy thing that eight-year-olds do say so they don’t take much notice.

And then Annie’s nurse turns up dead. Tom Lawrence has a suspicion that it might be murder. So now he’s definitely interested.

On arrival in San Francisco Tom volunteers to take Annie to her home, and is promptly arrested for kidnapping. He is bailed out by the mysterious Doreen Temple and he is then beaten up. Now Tom is very interested indeed.

He does have one promising clue to what is starting to look like an intriguing mystery. The nurse’s name was Carla Keyes and Tom finds a photo of an Abel Keyes, first mate on the S.S. Citadel, a ship with a colourful past. And there’s a connection between Annie Marshall’s sister Joan and a shipping line, Star Costal Lines, the one for which Abel Keyes works.

It’s obvious that Doreen Temple is telling lies, but then Joan Marshall isn’t telling the truth either, and neither is the shipping line’s manager, De Forrest Marshall. There’s at least one conspiracy, undoubtedly criminal, at work but there may in fact be more than one. Rather than just blundering about The Falcon sets to work to follow up all the leads. There are double-crosses and the people doing the double-crossing are also being double-crossed. It’s a pretty neat little mystery plot for a B-feature.

Surprisingly for a B-picture there’s some actual location shooting. Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to become a film noir legend as director of Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, was still learning the ropes at this stage but he’s already more than competent and there are a few typical Lewis touches.

 Perhaps not surprisingly for a Joseph H. Lewis movie there’s some effective atmosphere and even a hint of film noir in both the visuals and the tone. This is a well-crafted little film.

Tom Conway breezes through his part with his usual easy-going charm. Edward Brophy as the likeable rough among Goldie provides low-key but non-irritating comic relief. Fay Helm is a serviceable femme fatale. Sharyn Moffett as Annie is cute without being annoying. Rita Corday is fine as Annie’s sister Joan. Carl Kent is excellent as the smooth but sinister gunman Rickey. Overall the acting is very solid indeed.

All the Falcon movies are available in two made-on-demand DVD sets from the Warner Archive series. The Falcon in San Francisco is included in the second set. I saw this movie on cable TV so I cannot comment on the quality of the DVD sets although the Warner Archive releases are usually pretty good.

This is an above-average entry in the Falcon cycle (and all the Falcon films are at the very least reasonably entertaining) and it’s an above-average B-movie. It’s well-acted, well-plotted and well-made. The Falcon in San Francisco is highly recommended.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Black Rose (1950)

The Black Rose is a 1950 Technicolor swashbuckling adventure film from 20th Century-Fox. It was shot partly on location in Morocco with the studio sequences done in England. And it stars Tyrone Power, one of the greatest swashbucklers of them all.

Every country has its myths and one of England’s most enduring myths is the oppression of the noble Saxons by the cruel and wicked Norman conquerors. That’s the starting point of this movie. Young Walter of Gurnie (Tyrone Power) is a Saxon, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Lessford. His father married a Norman lady and that’s why Walter hates the Normans so much - his father’s half-Norman son inherited everything and he was left with nothing. To rub further salt into Walter’s wounds his father expressed a dying wish that Walter enter the service of the king. Since Edward I (Edward Longshanks) is a hated Norman young Walter is particularly unhappy about this. His situation is difficult enough but things get much worse when Walter joins bowman Tristan Griffin (Jack Hawkins) in freeing Saxon hostages from his villainous half-brother. After which it becomes obvious the it would be a very good idea for Walter and Tristan to get out of England.

Walter was briefly a student at Oxford and has heard of a place called Cathay, a fabulously wealthy and incredibly advanced country. That seems like a good place to head to. Having managed to get as far as the Holy Land he wangles his way into a caravan bound in the right general direction, laden with gifts for Kublai Khan who is about to conquer China. The caravan is to be escorted by the army of the renowned and much-feared Mongol general Bayan (Orson Welles). Tristan’s prowess with the longbow attracts Bayan’s attention and this combined with Walter’s ability to play a passable game of chess convinces Bayan that these two Englishmen might be of some use to him.

This is a promising development but Walter is about to get himself into hot water again, having been convinced (against his better judgment) to help rescue an English girl known as the Black Rose. She is one of the presents being sent to the great Khan. It turns out that Maryam is not exactly English but she’s keen to go to England since the is part of a miracle that has been promised to her.

Walter and Tristan enter Bayan’s service. Bayan’s ruthlessness appals the bluff honest Tristan but it doesn’t seem to bother Walter. In fact Bayan’s philosophy that it’s either conquer or be conquered appeals to the embittered dispossessed Saxon. Walter and Tristan will get to see Cathay where they will play a rather equivocal rôle, serving Bayan without being entirely convinced that that’s the right thing to do.

This is a swashbuckler that is to a surprising extent character-driven, and with characters who are not quite straightforward good guys and bad guys. Walter is a good guy but he’s motivated by irrational hatred and bitterness, his judgment is often poor and his moral compass has gone sadly astray. This is the kind of rôle in which Tyrone Power excelled - slightly ambiguous slightly flawed heroes. Power is prepared to take the risk of making Walter a character who is not always likeable.

The relationship between Walter and Bayan is the most interesting part of the movie. Bayan (played with gleeful relish by Welles) is a man not particularly troubled by moral scruples. He believes that the best way to win wars is by killing his enemies. All of them. He has no qualms about using terror as a weapon. He’s a villain of sorts, but it was a violent world and he does what he considers to be necessary. He is charming but unpredictable, intelligent and charismatic and Walter falls under his spell. Bayan is also, in his own way, genuinely fond of Walter. He likes men with spirit. Bayan is not a stock villain - he’s complicated and fascinating.

Cécile Aubry as Maryam is very odd. She was twenty-one when she made the film but looks sixteen. She’s exasperating and impossible to reason with. The romantic chemistry isn’t quite there. Aubry had a brief film career followed by a much longer and much more successful career as a writer of children’s books. Jack Hawkins is the perfect brave noble Englishman but he could get away with such stereotypical performances. Michael Rennie is hampered by the script’s insistence on portraying Edward Longshanks as a perfect king.

A major plus in this movie is Jack Cardiff’s stunning cinematography. When we think of Technicolor we think of bright glorious saturated colours but Cardiff demonstrates that it was possible to do a lot more than that with the medium - there are some wonderful atmospheric night scenes.

This is one of the five adventure movies included in the superb Tyrone Power Collection boxed set. The DVD transfer is very good. It’s full frame which is perfectly correct and the colours look fine.

This is a typical Tyrone Power swashbuckler, offering adventure and romance with some unexpected touches of moral complexity.

The Black Rose is not the best of the Tyrone Power swashbucklers but it’s still pretty good. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Miami Story (1954)

The Miami Story is a 1954 Sam Katzman production released by Columbia. It belongs to a genre very popular at that time, the crime movie done in a semi-documentary style, sometimes with slight film noir overtones.

Organised crime is out of control in Miami. A committee of concerned citizens has decided that the police are powerless so they’re going to take matters into their own hands. They’re a kind of Chamber of Commerce vigilante committee, although thy have the backing of the police. And they recruit reformed gangster Mick Flagg (Barry Sullivan) to do the active vigilante stuff.

One thing that doesn't quite make sense is that there’s no real explanation of why the police can’t take action themselves. The obvious explanation would be that they’re on the take but the film-makers don’t want to suggest such a shocking thought.

The organised crime kingpin in Miami is Tony Brill (Luther Adler). He’s just had two Cuban mobsters rubbed out (in a very good opening sequence) and a girl travelling with the Cubans, Holly Abbott (Beverly Garland), is afraid she’s going to be next although we never find out why. Mick decides she might be useful to him.

Mick’s idea is to scare Brill into thinking that he’s the new head of a Cuban gambling syndicate about to take over the Miami underworld. His reasoning seems to be that this will put pressure on Brill and maybe Brill will make a mistake. He also figures he might be able to subvert Brill’s second-in-command and chief muscle-man Teddy Delacorte (John Baer) or at least tempt him into making a move against his boss.

It’s best not to think too much about the plot. It’s serviceable but it doesn’t always quite add up. At the beginning we get a message from a state senator assuring us that there is  now no organised crime whatsoever in Miami. There was some but everything’s fine now, honestly.

Being a Sam Katzman production you expect this movie to look very very cheap but it’s not as bad as you might fear.

Fortunately there’s plenty of action and suspense. The violence is also rather strong - there are even corpses dripping with blood, rather unusual in 1954 but Katzman was at heart an exploitation producer and this movie is pretty close to being an exploitation movie. Mick Flagg might be the good guy but he slaps women around a lot.

The movie’s big strength is the very good cast. Barry Sullivan is a convincing tough guy. Luther Adler is fun as the big-talking but basically cowardly Tony Brill. Adele Jergens is very good as Holly’s big sister Gwen, definitely a Bad Girl and as hard as nails. I’ve never understood why Beverly Garland didn’t become a bigger star. She does well as Holly, the Good Girl who’d like to save her wicked sister. John Baer is nicely sinister as the smooth thug Delacorte. The Brill-Delacorte relationship is definitely creepy.

The 1954 high-tech surveillance equipment used by the cops adds some more fun.

There’s absolutely zero film noir content here, either visually or thematically.

The Miami Story was shot widescreen in black and white. It’s been released in the nine-movie Noir Archive Blu-Ray set from Kit Parker Films. The idea of the Blu-Ray release was really just a way to fit nine movies on three discs. The anamorphic transfer is DVD quality.

The Miami Story is lurid, sleazy, pulpy, violent and tawdry. And the more lurid, sleazy, pulpy, violent and tawdry it gets the better it gets. This is a fun low-budget crime melodrama with a lot of exploitation movie overtones and if that’s what you’re looking for it delivers the goods and the fairly ridiculous plot doesn’t matter. Recommended.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Carol Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959)

Graham Greene had been appalled by the 1958 film adaptation of his novel The Quiet American. He felt, quite correctly, that it entirely missed the point of his novel. If any more of his books were going to be adapted for the screen he was going to make very sure he did the job himself. So when Carol Reed directed the film version of Our Man in Havana in 1959 Greene wrote the screenplay (he would also write the screenplay for the 1967 film of his later book The Comedians).

Greene has a well-deserved reputation for being dark and pessimistic but Our Man in Havana caught him in a playful mood. It’s certainly a very cynical spy story but it’s wickedly amusing, bitingly satirical and remarkably good-natured. The tone of the movie perfectly reflects that of the book.

The setting is Cuba just before Castro’s revolution. Mr Wormold (Alec Guinness) sells vacuum cleaners in Havana. He does reasonably well but he has a daughter. Milly is a charming schoolgirl but daughters can be very expensive. And now Milly wants a horse. Mr Wormold knows how expensive horses are. They’re even more expensive than daughters.

So it seems like a stroke of good fortune when he is approached by Hawthorne (Noël Coward). Hawthorne is the Caribbean station chief for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). And MI6 needs a man in Havana. Hawthorne feels that Wormold is ideal spy material. Why he would think this is a mystery although it may have something to do with the fact that Hawthorne is a not a very competent spymaster. Wormold has no interest in being a spy but the $150 a month plus expenses (tax free) that MI6 is offering would buy a lot of horse feed so he accepts the offer. Things are definitely looking up. Mr Wormold is happy. Milly is happy. The horse is happy.

The problem is that MI6 expects Mr Wormold to supply them with actual secret  information, gathered by his sub-agents. Mr Wormold does not have any secret  information, nor does he have any sub-agents. He is worried about this until his old friend Dr Hasselbacher make an inspired suggestion. Why not just make the information up? Why not just invent the sub-agents as well? This proves to be a most inspired idea, with the added bonus that Mr Wormold can collect the pay intended for the sub-agents himself.

The real trouble starts when London, excited by the extraordinarily valuable intelligence he is supplying, sends him an assistant. So now he has to persuade this assistant, Mrs Severn (Maureen O’Hara), that he really is a spy. Worse follows. Much worse. Someone else, someone from the other side, is also convinced that he is a real and very dangerous spy and they start taking very serious steps to remove Mr Wormold and his espionage network from the scene.

The whole situation is of course farcical but the farce isn’t so funny when people start to get killed. It’s still played for comedy but now it’s black comedy.

Carol Reed was the ideal person to bring the novel to the screen. He was a stylish director and had shown a gift for combining ironic cynical espionage tales in his earlier masterpiece The Third Man which of course was also written by Graham Greene. Quite a few of the visual flourishes that gave that movie its distinctive display make a re-appearance in Our Man in Havana (lots of Dutch angles for example).

Alec Guinness is in sparkling form. I was dubious about Burl Ives as a German doctor but he carries it off rather well. Noël Coward as Hawthorne and Ralph Richardson as ‘C’ are delicious as Wormold’s self-important but ridiculously inept superiors. Comedian Ernie Kovacs is surprisingly good as the secret policeman Captain Segura, a man with an evil reputation and a cheerful disposition.

The DVD release from Sony is 16:9 enhanced (the movie was shot in the Cinemascope ratio) and the black-and-white cinematography looks great. There are alas no extras.

Graham Greene, having been an actual MI6 agent himself, understood the absurdities and the deceptions (and self-deceptions) of the game of espionage. This movie adaptation of Our Man in Havana is a delight. It’s witty and lively and combines a light-hearted tone with some truly savage satire. The superb cast certainly helps. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt was a somewhat ground-breaking movie at the time of its release in 1968. This fact is less obvious today simply because just about every cop movie made since 1968 has been influenced, consciously or unconsciously by Bullitt.

It was not of course the first movie to feature a car chase but it was the first to have a car chase as its centrepiece and its main selling point. It marks a crucial step in the development of the modern action movie. It was the first Hollywood cop movie to be done in an uncompromising gritty and realistic style. It was also unusual for its time in being shot entirely on location.

It’s also the ultimate Steve McQueen movie. If you want to know why McQueen was a very big deal this is the film you need to watch.

McQueen had seen an obscure 1965 British movie called Robbery and had been extremely impressed. Impressed enough to insist on having that film’s director, Peter Yates, direct Bullitt. It was a lucky break for Yates in more ways than one. McQueen wanted Yates to have pretty much complete artistic control and McQueen had enough clout in Hollywood in 1968 to ensure that this happened.

There are, as director Peter Yates explains in his audio commentary, two plot strands and it’s the secondary one that is the important one. The main plot concerns Chicago hoodlum Johnny Ross who is about to testify before a Senate enquiry and of course the Mob is determined he’s not going to live long enough to do that. The secondary plot concerns the cop, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen), assigned the job of keeping Ross alive until Monday morning. The real focus of the film is on Bullitt’s story rather than Ross’s.

Right from the start Bullitt clashes with the ambitious, oily, ruthless D.A. Chalmers (Robert Vaugn) for whom Ross is going to be a star witness at the enquiry. Bullitt is not quite a stereotyped maverick cop. On the whole he’s happy enough to follow the rules but he’s increasingly forced into the maverick cop rôle by his own stubborn refusal to compromise (a bit like the hero of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat).

Acting as bodyguard for Ross turns out not to be so simple. In fact it all starts to go very wrong. Bullitt has the suspicion that it may have been a setup but untangling the details is going to mean putting his career on the line.

There have been plenty of actors who have encapsulated coolness, but none did so to quite the same extent as McQueen. This is a guy who can play a scene wearing a cardigan and still seem cool and dangerous. McQueen was very much a minimalist actor and it works to his advantage here. He doesn’t seem to be doing very much but what he does do invariably works.

Robert Vaughn gives the performance of his career as Chalmers. Chalmers is evil but it’s not a melodrama villain sort of evil. This is the evil of men who take short cuts, who start making compromises and then can’t stop, who cannot resist the siren song of ambition. Vaughn, like McQueen, deliberately underplays his rôle and the quiet intensity of these two men who despise each other gives the movie its edge.

There are great supporting performances from Don Gordon as Bullitt’s sergeant, Delgetti, and Simon Oakland as his boss, Captain Bennet. Bennet has his own career to consider but he’ll back Bullitt as far as he dares.

Jacqueline Bisset as Bullitt’s girlfriend Cathy is there to humanise the hero a bit. We need to see that Bullitt is not a single-minded machine, that he does care about people. It’s a thankless rôle for Bisset since the focus is entirely on Bullitt and she really doesn’t have much to do. That’s unfortunate for her as an actress but had her character been more fully developed the movie would have lost focus.

The location shooting is quite superb. The hospital proves to be an incredibly effective location, as does the airport. The action finale at the airport is perhaps even better than the famous car chase.

As for the car chase, I love the way it starts very low-key with Bullitt just shadowing the bad guys’ car with the music building up the tension then as soon as the chase itself starts the music stops. The engine sounds are the only soundtrack needed for the chase.

Whether McQueen did all his own driving is a matter of dispute. He certainly seems to have done most of it.

The famous car chase was not filmed, as you might expect, by the second unit. Peter Yates wanted to direct it himself and of course since much of the stunt driving was being done by the star it was a logical enough decision. Maybe later movie car chases are more spectacular but this one still holds up pretty well.

The Special Edition DVD includes plenty of extras. Peter Yates provides an extremely informative audio commentary, there’s a documentary on McQueen and one on film editing plus a contemporary featurette on the making of the movie.

Bullitt redefined the action cop thriller so it has considerable historical importance. It doesn't feel at all dated and it’s great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Assignment: Paris (1952)

Assignment: Paris is a 1952 Cold War spy thriller from Columbia.

Dana Andrews stars as ace New York Herald Tribune reporter Jimmy Race. He’s covering the trial of an American named Anderson convicted of espionage in Hungary. The newspaper’s Paris bureau chief Nick Strang (George Sanders) wants to tread carefully. He has the crazy old-fashioned idea that newspapers should stick to the facts. There’s no evidence that Anderson was wrongly convicted so it would be wrong to make such a claim. Jimmy Race has no time for outdated ideas like journalistic ethics. He doesn’t really care if Anderson is guilty or not. Jimmy just wants to lead an anti-communist crusade. It’s fairly clear that the viewer is expected to be on Jimmy’s side.

Of course there’s a romantic complication. Nick and glamorous reporter Jeanne Moray (Märta Torén) are in love but Jimmy’s personal morals are on a par with his professional ethics so he sets out to steal Nick’s girl. Jeanne is French so naturally she was in the Resistance during the war.

Jimmy is sent to Budapest to replace the Tribune’s correspondent there. He makes contact with the Underground and he attracts some unfavourable attention from the secret police. They think he’s there as a spy and they arrest him. Of course by making contact with the Underground he really is playing at espionage and the Hungarians are therefore perfectly justified in arresting him but the movie glosses over such inconvenient details.

Now Nick and Jeanne have to find a way to get Jimmy out.

There’s not a great deal of excitement to be had here. Mostly it’s predictable and the characters are not interesting enough to persuade us to care very much what happens to them.

I like Dana Andrews as an actor but he gives a one-note performance here, playing Jimmy as a rude arrogant blowhard. Märta Torén is adequate but rather on the dull side. George Sanders is miscast as a hard-driving editor and is largely wasted anyway. Since the Hungarians are communists they’re all played as sinister cardboard cutout bad guys. There’s not a character in this movie who isn’t a cliché.

Assignment: Paris is included in the nine-movie Noir Archive Blu-Ray set from Kit Parker Films. Its claim to being film noir thematically are non-existent, and visually they’re very very thin. The attempts to make us believe we’re in Paris and Budapest are about as convincing as you'd expect in a Hollywood movie of this era. Robbert Parish directed and you can see why his career was less than stellar. Supposedly Phil Karlson also took a hand which I guess gives it a very tenuous connection to film noir.

As a spy story it’s too slow and lacking in real suspense. There are a couple of scenes that are reasonably atmospheric and competently executed, especially towards the end.

The most interesting thing in the movie is seeing the bad guys editing audio tape by hand, using scissors.

This is not so much a spy thriller as an out-and-out propaganda film, and a fairly clumsy one. The hero is meant to be noble and brave although to me he seems to be an obnoxious jerk. The other good guys are very heroic. The bad guys are totally evil but not in an interesting way. The screenplay by William Bowers is heavy-handed. A newspaper story needs to be snappy and sparkling but this one fails to ignite.

This Blu-Ray release is essentially a way to fit nine movies on just three discs. The transfer is basically DVD quality, but it’s good DVD quality. The black-and-white image quality is good. Sound quality is fine. There are no extras.

As anti-communist hysteria movies go Assignment: Paris isn’t outrageous enough to be fun. It’s fairly stodgy. Even Dana Andrews completists might want to think twice about bothering with this one.

I honestly cannot recommend this film, even as a rental.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Mystery of Mr Wong (1939)

The Mystery of Mr Wong is the second of the series starring Boris Karloff as the great Chinese detective Mr Wong. It was released in 1939.

The subject of Hollywood attitudes towards Asia and Asians from the 1920s to the 1950s is a fascinating one. There was a considerable interest in Asian subjects on the part of the American public and Hollywood saw those subjects as being good box office. In particular there was a huge vogue for Asian detectives. There was the immensely successful series of Charlie Chan films. 20th Century-Fox enjoyed comparable success with their Mr Moto crime/spy thrillers. And then there were Monogram’s Mr Wong movies.

All of these movies featured Chinese (or in the case of Mr Moto Japanese) characters as heroes. They were characters who were brilliant, brave, resourceful and noble. The other Asian characters who appeared in subsidiary rôles ran the gamut from the heroic to the entirely villainous.

These days of course the very idea of having a Chinese character portrayed by a Caucasian actor would be regarded by many as offensive in itself. But this is Karloff, a great actor, and Mr Wong is certainly not a mere stereotype. Karloff avoids any temptation to play the character for laughs or to ham it up, and in fact he underplays his performance. He also doesn’t look or sound remotely Chinese! He plays Mr Wong as an English gentleman, which given the fact that the character was supposedly educated at Oxford this is perhaps not as as bad an acting choice as you might think. And Karloff had a genius for endowing every character he ever played with dignity.

The reality was that these B-movie series rely a great deal on the charisma and star quality of the lead actors, and there was at that time no Chinese actor in Hollywood with both the ability and the box office clout to carry it off. When Karloff departed after the first five films Keye Luke took over the part but sadly he lacked the star appeal of Karloff (and he was also hampered by the fact that Karloff had stablished the character as a rather stately middle-aged man).

At least some of the supporting roles are played by Chinese actors, and none could really be regarded as stereotypes. Of course this was 1939, and growing US hostility to Japan (engaged at that time in a war with China) was going to encourage favourable attitudes towards China, so it’s possible that this political background is partly responsible for the generally sympathetic tone of the movie.

So how does it stack up simply as a murder mystery? It has an incredibly convoluted plot generously littered with red herrings, and it’s entertaining enough without being anything wildly sensational. A wealthy American collector named Edwards has obtained possession of a fabulously valuable jewel known as The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. This jewel was looted during the Japanese sack of Nanking, it has considerable cultural significance, and both the Chinese government and many Chinese-Americans are distinctly unhappy that it has been taken out of China. When the collector is murdered this could well be the motive, but it’s not by any means the sole possible motive. And to make things more interesting, the collector predicted his own slaying and left behind a letter naming his future murderer!

The murder itself is done cleverly and with great style, during a game of charades.

There are other possible motives, apart from The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. Edwards was an insanely jealous man and had quarrelled with a number of men he suspected of taking an excessive interest in his wife. He had also changed his will, providing another very strong motive. The plot is complex but satisfying.

Karloff is excellent, naturally. Grant Withers is in all the Wong movies, playing Wong’s policeman friend Captain Street. Street is a sympathetic character, a cop who does his best and is smart enough to know that it’s always a good thing to have Mr Wong’s help on a case. Dorothy Tree plays Edwards’ wife with perhaps a bit too much hysteria.

This movie series was based (very very loosely) on Hugh Wiley’s James Lee Wong stories (which I reviewed here). Wiley’s version of the character is also an educated man but he’s a Yale man rather than an Oxford man. He’s also a youngish man and he’s a special agent with the Treasury Department. The stories themselves are also much more hardboiled compared to the movies.

The Mr Wong movies have all fallen into the public domain and have had some very dubious DVD releases. All six movies have recently been released in a two-disc set from VCI and the transfers are really very good.

The Mystery of Mr Wong is a B-movie but it’s a quality B-movie, and it’s extremely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

You might also want to read my review of the next movie in the series, Mr Wong in Chinatown.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Dangerous Profession (1949)

A Dangerous Profession is a 1949 RKO film noir staring George Raft. Not everyone likes George Raft but I like him a lot. His co-star is Ella Raines and that’s another reason for me to be interested in this movie. She’s a rather underrated film noir player.

Raft is Vince Kane, an ex-cop who is now a bail bondsman. He likes it better and it pays better. A while back there was this dame by the name of Lucy Brackett and he thought maybe there might be something between them but it didn’t work out. She had a husband but he didn't know that at the time. He hasn’t forgotten her though. And there was a securities robbery and a cop who got killed and a guy named Claude Brackett that the police wanted to talk to. Brackett claimed to be innocent. Maybe he was. Either way he took a powder and that was the end of that. Until now. Now Vince’s buddy Nick Ferrone (Jim Backus), a cop, has picked up Claude Brackett. The D.A. is pretty interested in Brackett and the bail is set very high - $25,000.

Claude Brackett cannot raise that sort of money and Lucy Brackett can't either. It would be crazy for Vince to put up the money but Vince likes to gamble and he likes women and he likes Lucy and if he’d thought about it maybe he wouldn’t have done it but he does put up the money. To no-one’s surprise Claude skips out again but this time it’s more complicated and this time it ends in murder and Vince is in a bit of a spot.

There are a lot of angles to this case. There’s a less than reputable lawyer called Dawson who put up a lot of money for the bail as well even though Claude Brackett had never heard of the guy. And there’s the guy that Vince spilled coffee on. Vince is interested in that guy.

Vince is under pressure from Nick Ferrone. He’s also under pressure from his partner, Joe Farley (Pat O’Brien. Actually the odd thing is that Farley doesn’t seem too worried.

Nick Ferrone is plenty worried though, and he’s not happy about Vince and that dame.

The essence of film noir is a protagonist who isn’t evil but has a weakness and it drags him into the noir nightmare world. In this case Vince has been tempted into playing a very dangerous game with some very dangerous people. But exactly what game is it that he’s playing? Which side is he playing on? And what is he playing for? Is it the girl? Or is it the money? Is he a hero or a villain? Maybe Vince isn’t sure of the answer to that question.

This is a typical George Raft performance. Raft was an actor who played tough guys in an admirably effortless way. Raft really was a tough guy. He didn’t have to act it. But what he was really good at was playing tough guys who were kind of sympathetic, and especially tough guys who took big chances because they liked taking chances. Vince Kane takes a lot of chances. This is a case he should have steered well clear of but that was never going to happen.

Ella Raines plays Lucy Brackett and she’s not an obvious femme fatale but sometimes it’s the ones that aren’t obvious that you really have to be careful of. Lucy tells a lot of lies. Sometimes maybe she tells the truth, but you can never be sure. She’s a pretty good liar.

The supporting cast is excellent. Jim Backus is better remembered for comic rôles (he was the millionaire in Gilligan’s Island and did a lot of cartoons including Mr Magoo) but he was actually quite versatile and here he does a fine job as a hardboiled cop. Pat O’Brien is terrific as Farley.

Everyone in this movie is a bit ambiguous. It’s hard to know who’s on the level and who’s a crook and who isn’t.

Ted Tetzlaff was at best a journeyman director but he does OK here. The script has some nice twists. It’s a bit confusing at times but in a film noir that can be a feature rather than a bug.

The Warner Archive release is very decent.

A Dangerous Profession may not be top-flight noir but it’s fine entertainment. It helps if you’re a George Raft fan (which I obviously am) but even if you’re not there are fine performances from all the other cast members. Highly recommended.