Sunday, February 24, 2019

Arabian Nights (1942)

Arabian Nights was Universal’s first attempt at a blockbuster movie made using the three-strip Technicolor process. It was a major hit on release in 1942 and it spawned several follow-ups set in the world of Islam. Of course a Universal blockbuster was not going to have the budget of an MGM blockbuster but Universal were very good at making cheap movies look classy and visually arresting.

To say it’s based on the classic tales of The Thousand Nights and One Night is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Inspired by these tales might be closer to it. Loosely inspired. In fact producer Walter Wanger cheerfully admitted that it was to a large extent a western with camels. That’s true up to a point, but it has the atmosphere and exoticism of the East and that atmosphere was a major factor in its success.

John Rawlins directed. He was a competent B-movie director and this is one of his few really major productions.

The Caliph Haroun-Al-Raschid (Jon Hall) has put down a revolt by his wicked brother Kamar (Leif Erickson). Kamar wanted his throne but more than that he wanted the dancing girl Scheherazade (Maria Montez). And Scheherazade (listed incorrectly in the credits as Sherezade) does not want to a dancing girl. She wants to be a queen. Kamar was captured but escapes and Haroun-Al-Raschid, badly wounded, is saved from death by the acrobat Ali ben Ali (Sabu). He is nursed back to health by Scheherazade.

Now Haroun-Al-Raschid has to find a way to survive and eventually regain his throne, and of course he has now fallen in love with Scheherazade. They both end up being captured by slavers and have the usual adventures. Kamar is determined to find Scheherazade and he’s willing to go to any lengths to do so. There’s lots of palace treachery, and Haroun-Al-Raschid Scheherazade have lots of narrow escapes. The faithful Ali and a motley assortment of carnival types prove to be vital allies.

Maria Montez was already carving out a niche for herself as a B-movie queen when Arabian Nights turned her into a bona fide star. Montez was a Spanish actress (although born in the Dominican Republic) and her exotic beauty was her major asset. Some might be unkind enough to say it was her only asset but while she was no great actress she was quite adequate for the kinds of rôles she played. In fact she was absolutely perfect for such rôles.

Jon Hall was a bit exotic as well, being half-Tahitian. He was pretty much a male version of Maria Montez - very limited as an actor but a competent adventure movie leading man.

Sabu was the first Indian actor to become a major movie star in the West. And he became a very big star indeed, initially in big budget adventure films for Alexander Korda in England and then in Hollywood. Sabu’s major asset was that he was not only remarkably athletic, he could also act.

The supporting cast has its share of exotics as well, including the Viennese-born half-Turkish half-Jewish Turhan Bey, another actor ideally suited to these sorts of pictures.

The cinematography by Milton R. Krasner (who later won an Oscar and photographed  some pretty spectacular epics) is a definite bonus. The art direction is also excellent. I love the pool in the harem - it looks like a kind of fantasy Club Med.

Of course this being the 40s there has to comic relief, which is provided by Aladdin (constantly looking for his lost lamp) and Sinbad (constantly boring people with his stories of his adventures as a sailor). Casting Shemp Howard (of the Three Stooges) as Sinbad the Sailor is something that could only happen in Hollywood. Since this is clearly a movie intended to appeal to family audiences one can’t complain too much about the comedy.

The Universal Cinema Classics DVD looks splendid. The only extra is an introduction by Robert Osbourne.

Arabian Nights is a B-picture with a bigger budget than usual and that’s why it succeeds. It has the charm of an adventure B-picture but it looks fairly impressive. It’s quite content to provide spectacle and harmless entertainment. It’s not trying to tell us anything profound about the human condition. As well as being commercially successful it picked up four Oscar nominations.

Arabian Nights is a entertaining blend of action, comedy and romance in a romantic fairytale setting. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Manhattan Night of Murder (1965)

The Jerry Cotton novels were a popular and immensely prolific series of German pulp crime novels dealing with FBI agent Jerry Cotton and his battles against racketeers in New York City. They began publication in 1954 and were still going strong in the early 21st century.

Inevitably the series spawned a series of film adaptations. The first of the eight Jerry Cotton movies was Manhattan Night of Murder (Mordnacht in Manhattan) which was released in 1965.

They’re fun for many of the same reasons that the German Edgar Wallace krimi movies of the 60s are fun. Those movies gave us a delightfully odd German view of how Scotland Yard operates. The Jerry Cotton movies give us an equally off-kilter German view of the FBI and American organised crime. They are however much more hardboiled than the Edgar Wallace movies, with some obvious film noir influences (which is amusing since American film noir was itself heavily influenced by German movies of the 20s and early 30s).

American actor George Nader plays Jerry Cotton. Heinz Weiss plays his sidekick, Phil Dekker.

Manhattan Night of Murder deals with a protection racket run by a gang known as the Hundred Dollar Gang. One of their victims is Giuseppe, who runs an Italian restaurant. In the course of a heated exchange with members of the Hundred Dollar Gang Giuseppe is shot and killed but there’s some doubt as to who pulled the trigger.

The only witness to the murder is a young boy. Unfortunately this circumstance is known to the gang so obviously the boy is likely to a target.

There’s also a charming young lady named Sophie who runs a gas station. Jerry thinks he can use her to set a trap for the hoodlums.

This is a very ruthless gang. If one of them is identified by the cops the others kill him. The beautiful but dangerous Wilma de Loy (Sylvie Solar) seems to be one of the key figures in the gang. She runs the Goldfish Club, a night spot whose gimmick is a tank full of rather attractive mermaids (who can be persuaded to get friendly with the customers). A very cold  hard character named Alec seems to be giving the orders but the FBI is sure he’s not the real brains behind the outfit.

This is very much what you expect from the German film industry at this period - it’s a B-movie with lots of energy and a great deal of style. If you enjoy the Edgar Wallace krimis or the Dr Mabuse movies you’ll know what to expect. Mercifully this one has none of the comic relief that is such an unfortunate feature of many of the Wallace flicks. There are explosions and lots of general mayhem, cool car chases, a getaway biplane (so much better than a getaway car) and plenty of fight scenes (the one amongst the cardboard boxes is quite clever as is the one at the coal processing plant).

It has to be said that George Nader isn’t the world’s most exciting actor but he’s quite adequate. That’s probably a fair summation of the cast in general. Slobodan Dimitrijevic does make an effectively chilling heavy and Sylvie Solar makes a fairly reasonably bad girl.

All the action takes place in New York and of course it was entirely filmed in Germany. It’s not ever going to convince you that you’re actually in New York but the unconvincingness of the setting adds to the movie’s charm. The Germans just didn’t care. If they wanted a movie set in London or New York they’d happily shoot it in Hamburg. Add some rear projection and some stock footage and you’re fine. They just got on with the job of making the movie and making it as entertaining as possible.

As far as I know the Sinister Cinema DVD-R is the only way to get to see this movie if you don’t speak German. Their release is OK. Image quality is fair with a bit of minor print damage at times. Sound quality is OK. The English dubbed version is of course the only option offered.

Manhattan Night of Murder isn’t great cinema. It’s low-budget pulp cinema. The plot is slightly crazy at times and doesn’t always make too much sense (which is typical of German movies of the 60s). It does however have a certain distinctive flavour and it is rather enjoyable. Recommended, especially if you have a taste for mildly quirky European crime thrillers.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Girl in the News (1940)

Girl in the News is a fairly early British Carol Reed crime thriller, released in 1940.

Margaret Lockwood stars as Nurse Graham, a young lady with a very unfortunate employment history. She had been employed as nurse to an elderly lady who died of an overdose of sleeping tablets. Nurse Graham was a beneficiary under the old lady’s will. Nurse Graham is charged with murder. She is defended by up-and-coming barrister Stephen Farringdon (Barry K. Barnes). The case against her is purely circumstantial and more than a little flimsy. Farringdon has no great difficulty in securing her acquittal.
This is all very satisfactory since we, the audience, already know that she is innocent.

A nurse who has been accused of murdering one of her patients, even if acquitted, is going to have trouble finding another position. Nurse Graham does eventually get get another job, by giving her name as Lovell. It is a position as nurse to an invalid, Edward Bentley.

Edward Bentley is a rich invalid with a young wife. After a short time Bentley dies, of poisoning, in circumstances that are extraordinarily similar to that earlier case. It’s no great surprise that Nurse Graham finds herself on trial for murder yet again.

Stephen Farringdon has become more than a little fond of Nurse Graham and he is convinced of her innocence. Once again he defends her, at her second trial for murder. The similarity of the two cases obviously suggests that she is guilty. It certainly convinces his friend Bill Mather (Roger Livesey) at Scotland Yard that she is guilty. Farringdon however has the idea that it’s the very similarity of the two cases that proves that Nurse Graham is innocent.

The centrepiece of the movie is the courtroom scene of the second trial. Extended courtroom scenes are a risk. By their very nature they’re talky and static. It helps if you have some charismatic acting. The acting here is perhaps not quite charismatic solid enough but it’s solid enough. It’s also essential to have the defence counsel pull some kind of legal rabbit out of the hat to provide the major courtroom shock. This movie definitely delivers the goods on that count.

Margaret Lockwood was probably the biggest female star in British movies of the 40s. She was particularly good as a bad girl (in movies like The Wicked Lady) or at least as an ambiguous heroine (in movies like The Man in Grey). She gives a good performance here although her character is more passive than the characters Lockwood usually played.

Barry K. Barnes makes a pretty good hero. He’s besotted by Nurse Graham but he’s no fool. When he defended her the first time he was fairly sure she was innocent, but not entirely sure. He ends up believing her to be totally innocent but his belief is by no means purely emotional.

There are plenty of fine British character actors on hand, including Felix Aylmer (one of my favourites). Roger Livesey is outrageous but entertaining, as usual.

Carol Reed’s genius had not yet blossomed to its full effect and while it’s well-made this movie lacks the assurances and the style of later masterpieces like Odd Man Out and Fallen Idol (and of course The Third Man).

This is one of six movies in VCI’s British Cinema Classic B Film Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer of Girl in the News is quite acceptable although it’s certainly not pristine. These are very obscure movies so we should be grateful that they’re available at all, and at a very reasonable price.

Girl in the News is a neat little murder mystery/courtroom thriller. While the identity of the criminal is probably not going to come as any great surprise the plot does have some other interesting features.

Definitely of interest to Carol Reed fans. Highly recommended.