Tuesday, December 24, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.