Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Last of Sheila (1973)

The Last of Sheila is a movie I’ve been tempted to watch at various times but I’ve always been put off by the negative things I’ve heard about it. A glowing review at The Invisible Event persuaded me to change my mind. It was described as “one of the few examples of a fair-play mystery in long format” which was more than enough to pique my interest.

It has an all-star cast of very 1970s stars some of whom I definitely regarded as unfairly underrated performers, notably Richard Benjamin, James Coburn and Raquel Welch. And it has James Mason as well, always a big plus in my book. It was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, an interesting combination. Of course both Sondheim and Perkins were notoriously gay which may or may not explain their interest in murder but it almost certainly does explain their interest in secrets and game-playing.

And this is a movie all about game-playing.

Sheila is Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Green and when the movie opens she is dead, the victim of a hit-run driver. Foul play is clearly a possibility. A year later her husband, Clinton Green (James Coburn) invites a group of people to spend a week on his yacht. These people were all present at the party which preceded Sheila’s death. Clinton explains that they will be playing games. This surprises no-one since Clinton loves games, and manipulation. So why would they agree to put themselves into a situation that is likely to be embarrassing and uncomfortable? The answer to that is simple. These are all show business people and Clinton Green is very very rich. Show business people will do anything for someone with lots of money (which is a fact with which Sondheim and Tony Perkins were doubtless very familiar).

The game is to be a game of secrets.

This is the classic setup familiar from countless mystery novels of the 1920s and 1930s - a small group of people cut off from the outside world, knowing that among them is a killer.

Each person will be given a card which contains a secret about one of the others. Every day the yacht will stop at a different port and the players will be given clues that will allow them to discover one of the secrets. It doesn’t take long for movie star Alice (Raquel Welch) to figure out that this is more than a parlour game, that the secrets are all genuine secrets which Clinton has uncovered. This is going to be a rather nasty game. But they all knew that anyway. Clinton wouldn’t be interested in a game that was lacking in cruelty. But he is very rich and all of them are languishing career-wise and they are prepared to be humiliated if there’s the possibility of a career revival. And Clinton has been talking about doing a movie about Sheila’s death, and they’re all interested in that.

I must admit that the first major plot twist took me completely by surprise.

More twists will follow and they’re pleasingly devious. They’re fairly clued but there’s enough misdirection to make it a real challenge to unravel the solution. Almost everything is a clue of some kind.

I always thought that Richard Benjamin could have been taken more seriously as an actor at this point in career if only he’d shaved off that ridiculous moustache. But it was the 70s and people didn’t know any better then. He was always good playing slightly neurotic characters and in this film he’s playing a writer whose career has tanked. He’s reduced to doing rewrites. It’s obvious casting and it works perfectly.

Dyan Cannon is very good but it has to be said that her diction is not always good - her dialogue is at times not quite understandable. James Mason is James Mason so of course he’s very good as the has-been director Philip, now reduced to making dog-food commercials.

I’m not sure that I’d call James Coburn a great actor but he really excelled at this sort of rôle. If you wanted someone to be smart, cynical, cruel and manipulative then James Coburn was your go-to guy.

I like Welch’s performance too. Welch could have given us a fun but obvious portrayal of a glamorous movie star but she makes Alice somewhat vulnerable and needy. In her first scene Alice talks airily about having just made a picture in Rome with Kirk Douglas but we immediately get the impression that she’s trying to convince herself that her career is still on track.

Raquel Welch makes the point (on the commentary track) that her wardrobe for the movie was very much an attempt to avoid a 70s look - the aim was to go for classic glamour and that was the right look for the film. While the film as a whole does unavoidably have a rather 70s look it actually does try not to overdo this - it seems to be trying to achieve a feel of timeless glamour, of taking place in exactly the kind of imaginary world of wealth and opulence which provided the setting for so many of the classic detective stories of the interwar years. So many 70s movies now seem to have such  embarrassingly dated visual styles but The Last of Sheila to a large extent avoids this.

It was a lavish production, shot in the south of France, and it looks great.

What I particularly like about this film is that it does not have the feel of being a pastiche of golden age detective fiction or of being an ironic take on the genre. In fact it’s a movie mercifully lacking in irony. It not only obeys the conventions of the genre, it also respects them. Sondheim and Perkins clearly had a deep understanding of the puzzle-plot detective story genre, According to Richard Benjamin (another interesting bit from the audio commentary) Sondheim and Perkins were quite obsessive about game-playing. And therefore they take that aspect seriously. They try to play fair with the viewer but also, very cleverly, they make it clear that Clinton is playing fair with his guests. He already knows who killed Sheila and he’s offering them the clues they need to solve the mystery. So you have the viewer invited to play the game along with the writers and also the characters playing the game ling with the game-master.

The Warner Archive DVD-R offers a very fine transfer and also, a pleasant surprise for this series, an excellent audio commentary track featuring Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch.

The Last of Sheila is an unusual movie. There wasn’t thing else quite like it at the time and even though it was successful there hasn’t really been anything since either. For me it works admirable. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Blue Gardenia (1953)

The early 50s had been slightly difficult for Fritz Lang but 1953 saw him make an impressive comeback with The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat. The Big Heat is of course one of Lang’s masterpieces. The Blue Gardenia doesn’t get as much attention but it’s still a fine film.

Three girls work as telephone operators and share an apartment. Norah (Anne Baxter) has a boyfriend who is currently fighting in Korea. Norah is rather a romantic soul. It’s her birthday and she’s going to spend it with her boyfriend, even though he can’t be there. She’s going to pretend he’s there. She’s cooked a special dinner and she’s bought champagne. She’s had a letter from hi but she’s been saving that up to read after she’s opened the champagne. Maybe it’s just as well she had that champagne since the letter is to give her the good news that her boyfriend has met a fabulous hot nurse named Angela  in Korea and they’re madly in love and they’re going to get married so he’s dumping Norah but he wishes her all the best. Norah is pretty cut up about this and she does something very uncharacteristic - she accepts a date with Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr).

Prebble is an artist. He’s the kind of artist who does pictures of pretty girls in skimpy clothing. He’s a notorious womaniser. He’s also terribly obvious. Any girl who goes out with Harry Prebble knows what to expect. Norah however is not exactly thinking straight. She just knows she wants to go out and have fun and forget that awful letter. Harry is a sleaze but he’s fun if a girl is in the mood for that sort of thing and Norah is in the mood for anything to dull the pain. And after the first half dozen formidably strong cocktails she’s not feeling any pain at all.

Norah has an impressive hangover the next day. She has no idea what happened the night before. She’s more than a little disturbed when she finds out that what happened the night before is that Harry Prebble got murdered. The unknown blonde with whom  he was seen dining at the Blue Gardenia Cafe is the prime suspect. The unknown blonde is of course Norah.

The story is all very straightforward and obvious. Sooner or later some girl was going to put up a fight to defend her virtue and Harry was going to get clobbered with a poker. It’s the kind of thing that happens every day. Which of course immediately makes us suspicious. If the case was really that straightforward Fritz Lang would never have bothered to make the damned movie so there has to be more to it.

Columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) doesn’t know yet if the case is clear-cut or not but one thing he does know - this is the sort of story that sells newspapers. Glamour, sex, murder. And there’s the vital clue - the blue gardenia found at the murder scene. That gives him the hook that will make this a really big story - he christens the unknown murderess the Blue Gardenia. In his column he tells this unknown murderess that he and his newspaper will help her if she goes to them rather than the cops.

Richard Conte was one of those actors who could play a chilling villain or a very likeable hero with equal facility. That’s useful in a film like this, where things seem obvious on the surface but maybe they aren’t so obvious. Casey Mayo is a likeable kind of guy but he’s a newspaper reporter so he has no morals whatsoever.

This is a pretty disillusioned little film. The guy who seems like he’s being cast in the hero rôle would sell his soul for a good story. His handling of the Blue Gardenia story is crass and cynical. And the public laps it up. The cops don’t like it but if it helps to find the killer it’s OK by them - it’s not like they actually care about people.

Anne Baxter made a very big splash in All About Eve but of course Bette Davis made an even bigger splash in that movie. Baxter’s career overall didn’t amount to as much as one might have expected.

In 1953 Raymond Burr was still almost exclusively playing heavies and villains and doing so with enormous success. He’s delightfully sleazy here.

George Reeves (TV’s Superman) is OK as the cop in charge of the case. Ann Sothern is also good as Norah’s good-natured room-mate Crystal.

A lot of people will violently disagree with me but I think Fritz Lang’s American movies are better than his German movies. The German movies have brilliance and were clearly made by a man touched with greatness but he’d been allowed to do pretty much anything he wanted to and they’re also undisciplined and a little on the self-indulgent side. You couldn’t get away with that in Hollywood in those days. Lang was smart and he was a fast learner and he was adaptable. He adapted very quickly. His Hollywood movies are very tight and very disciplined. They’re very focused. Lang may not have liked submitting to that kind of discipline but it actually worked in his favour. The Blue Gardenia is typical. There are no wasted scenes.

The movie was shot in black-and-white and in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This movie doesn’t have the obvious noir visual signatures. This was 1953 and that obvious style was going out of fashion in favour of location shooting and a self-consciously “realist” style. Nicholas Musuraca was the cinematographer so it still looks very impressive.

When analysing Lang’s movies it’s always worth bearing in mind his Catholicism. He can be dark but the idea of life being meaningless was anathema to Lang. Lang also believed very strongly in free will and the possibility of redemption. Whether his films offer a happy ending or a downbeat ending (and I’m not going to tell you if this film has a happy ending or not) the apparent meaning of the ending of a Lang film is not always the real meaning. Lang was one of the masters of film noir but the paradox is that film noir is fundamentally pessimistic and Lang was fundamentally optimistic, although not in a naïve manner.

The Blue Gardenia is generally regarded as minor Lang but it’s actually a very well-crafted little movie. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949)

Dick Barton – Special Agent was a popular BBC spy thriller radio series which was broadcast from 1946 to 1951. In 1948 Hammer Films made the first of what was destined to be a series of three Dick Barton films. The films were low-budget features but were very successful. A fourth film was planned but the tragic death of star Don Stannard in a car crash caused Hammer to call a premature halt to the series.

The first of the films, Dick Barton: Special Agent, was spectacularly awful. Surprisingly Dick Barton at Bay was reasonably good. Which leaves us with the third film, Dick Barton Strikes Back. This was actually the second movie to be made but was released after Dick Barton at Bay.

Dick Barton Strikes Back begins with the murder of a British secret agent name Creston. Fellow secret agent Dick Barton and the faithful Snowy White are determined to find the killer.

Creston had told Barton that he was on to something bigger than the atomic bomb and he wasn’t kidding. This is something that could mean not just ruin for Britain but the End of Civilisation.

The clever part of the movie is that the evil conspiracy is on a scale that would delight even a Bond villain but it doesn’t require any expensive special effects. It doesn’t require any special effects at all, but it’s still chillingly effective. The conspiracy is in fact very Bond villain-ish. It was made before the first of the Bond novels was published so it’s fair to say that it was inspired by the thrillers of Dennis Wheatley and Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu stories (both of which heavily influenced Bond creator Ian Fleming).

The only clues are a tune and a poster for a travelling fair, and a beautiful but dangerous female.

Despite the outlandishness of the plot it’s all played fairly straight (especially compared to the deliberate silliness of the first Dick Barton movie). The decision to resist the temptation to make a lighthearted spoof was I think the correct one.

Dick Barton is one of those heroes who gets by on bravery and determination. His judgment is pretty awful and he has an amazing propensity for walking straight into obvious traps. It’s not that he’s stupid. He’s good at figuring things out. He’s just foolhardy. Which of course allows for lots of narrow escapes from certain death.

Don Stannard is a fine plucky hero. My great fear was that his sidekick Snowy would be an irritating comic relief character but fortunately the comic stuff is kept at an absolute minimum. One amusing thing is that they’re both secret agents but when Barton is invited for dinner to Lord Armadale’s house Snowy eats in the kitchen with the servants. I guess that Barton is the secret agent equivalent of an officer while Snowy is strictly an enlisted man and therefore of course not a gentleman, even if he shares all the risks with Barton.

Dick Barton Strikes Back benefits greatly from having a terrific villain in the person of the sinister mater spy Fouracada, played with maniacal relish by Sebastian Cabot. Cabot is almost forgotten now but he was a popular television star in the 1960s (notably in the excellent American private eye series Checkmate) and he was always a delightful larger-than-life presence.

The opening credits make the bold claim that the film was shot mostly on location, which is certainly unusual in a low-budget 1949 film. And it really does seem to feature a lot more location shooting than you’d expect, and the locations are used quite well. The scenes in London Zoo and the completely dialogue-free climactic sequence in the tower are done very well.

Hammer’s movies of this era were always cheap but never shoddy. They spent very little on their films but what they did spend was spent wisely. This particular movie is visually quite impressive for a low-budget production. This was Godfrey Grayson’s first effort as  director. He didn’t have much of a career but he certainly does a competent job here.

Icon Home Entertainment released all three Dick Barton movies on a single DVD. The transfer are not stellar but they’re satisfactory. They’re fullframe which is of course quite correct.

Dick Barton Strikes Back is by no means a serious spy thriller. It’s an unashamed  potboiler (with a slight mad scientist element) but it never descends into mere silliness. It’s the best of the three Dick Barton films. It’s harmless but enjoyable. Highly recommended.