Friday, March 29, 2019

Beau Ideal (1931)

The 1924 novel Beau Geste by P.C. Wren (1875-1941) had been made into a very successful 1926 Paramount silent movie directed by Herbert Brenon. Wren wrote a couple of sequels to his bestselling novel and it seemed to RKO to be a logical move to get Brenon to direct a sound version of one of these books. For some odd reason the first sequel, Beau Sabreur, was ignored and the second sequel, Beau Ideal (published in 1928), was chosen. The results did not please everybody.

Most of the film is occupied by a series of flashbacks. First we go back fifteen years, to the childhood games of Beau Geste and his band - his brothers and a young American named Otis Madison (Lester Vail). Otis and John Geste are jousting to determine who will win the hand of the fair Isobel Brandon.

We then go forward quite a few years. Otis returns to England to ask for the hand of Isobel (played as an adult by Loretta Young). He learns that John Geste (Ralph Forbes) is still his rival but misfortunate has hit the Gestes and all the brothers have joined the French Foreign Legion. John is in a penal battalion somewhere in Africa. In a quixotic gesture Otis decides he will find John and bring him home.

To do this Otis has to find a way to get into the penal battalion. But how? He can’t do anything dishonourable. That would be unthinkable. Fortunately fate steps in.

Naturally there has to be a beautiful but bad woman mixed up in the story somewhere. Zuleika (Leni Stengel) is half-French and half-Arab, a dancer known as the Angel of Death for all the men she has lured to their dooms. Now she is involved in a particularly nefarious plot.

One reviewer described the climactic battle scene as politically incorrect. This shows an extraordinary ability to miss the point. The whole film is politically incorrect. It is a film about a bunch of mercenaries (which is essentially what the Foreign Legion was) enforcing French colonial rule on people who had no particular desire to be part of the France’s empire. Unless you’re prepared to challenge the whole colonial concept (which this film is certainly not going to do) it’s very hard to make a politically correct movie about the French Foreign Legion!

Interestingly enough, given the extent to which the Legion so often gets glamourised, this movie portrays it as extremely brutal and rather incompetent. So it’s also a movie to offend French patriots!

Part of the reason this film didn’t set the box office alight may be the extraordinarily grim beginning.

Criticisms of this film usually focus on the dialogue. In many respects it’s a creature of its time. Early talkies did tend to be a bit clunky due to technical limitations of the early sound cameras and the dialogue was often stilted (partly because the actors were often ill-at-ease due to the aforementioned technical problems). A year after this movie was made those problems had been ironed out.

It also suffers from a less than brilliant cast. Ralph Forbes and Lester Vail lack charisma and the chief villains aren’t colourful enough.

Modern audiences will also find Otis’s motivations distinctly puzzling. It’s not just that he has a strict code of honour, he also has a deliberately self-sacrificing streak that may annoy some viewers. In 1931 it would have made sense.

Beau Ideal does have its good points. It’s visually quite impressive. The Legionnaires lost in the desert in the sandstorm is a frightening scene, the photography is good and the climactic action scenes work extremely well.

This movie is in the public domain. I have the Alpha Video version (which is pretty much your only choice) and it’s what you’d expect. It’s not good but it’s viewable.The sound quality is quite uneven although the dialogue is understandable.

Beau Ideal is by no means as bad as it’s often made out to be. It’s an average if slightly clunky movie of its type but it’s watchable if you’re in an undemanding mood. However, given the iffy Alpha Video transfer, I’d hesitate to recommend a purchase (I got it for a dollar in a bargain bin so I’m not complaining). Maybe worth a rental.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Black Glove (1954)

The Black Glove, a 1954 release, is one of the movies released by VCI/Kit Parker Films in their Hammer Noir series. In truth most of Hammer’s early 50s crime movies were at best marginally noir but on the other hand they were often quite decent B-features.

The Black Glove opens as American jazz trumpeter James Bradley finishes the first set on his European tour. He’s performing in London and he should be going to be a celebratory party afterwards but he’s exhausted so catches a cab back to his hotel. On the way he gets sidetracked by jazz singer Maxine Halbard (Ann Hanslip). She offers him a home cooked meal. It seems likely that she has more than cooking dinner for him on her mind.

Bradley is a jazz musician so he’s a Cool Guy. Maxine is the female equivalent. She looks like the kind of girl who reads French existentialist novels. They hit it off pretty well.

Bradley is a bit disturbed when he wakes up the next morning to find a policeman wanting to interview him in connection with a murder.

One of the clues the police have is a record. It’s not a commercial pressing but some kind of demo record. It’s just vocals and piano and every jazz aficionado they’ve played it to assures them that the piano player has to be Jeff Colt (Arthur Lane). But Jeff Colt is adamant he had nothing to do with the record.

Bradley is following up clues of his own. All the leads involve music or musicians, or record producers, or have some connection to music.

This is very much a jazz crime thriller so it probably helps a lot if you love jazz and you think jazz musicians are ultra-cool. I don’t like jazz very much and I don’t think much of jazz musicians. On the other hand if you do like that scene and if smoky basement jazz clubs and jam sessions and night clubs appeal to you then it has to be admitted that The Black Glove does those things pretty well. This is very much a jazz murder mystery.

There’s not much in the plot that is overtly film noir but there’s a definite film noir atmosphere. The characters in this movie are the kinds of characters who inhabit the film noir world - failed singers, down on their luck musicians, unscrupulous record producers, pushy agents, lots of desperate people who are likely to do desperate things. They’re all just one lucky break away from the big time, and just one unlucky break away from skid row. And that atmosphere of desperation is done very well indeed.

The ending is very much in the tradition of the golden age detective story, with the detective (or amateur detective in this case) bringing all the suspects together to explain how the murder was carried out and to point the finger at the guilty party. Apart from being a cliché this kind of ending seems a bit wrong for this film. The problem seems to be that the movie is structurally a pretty routine murder mystery but stylistically it’s trying to be a frenetic and exciting jazz-fuelled crime thriller. The busy jazz soundtrack is actually an effective way to compensate for a low budget, and it’s also a good way to distract attention from any plot weaknesses.

Alex Nicol is a reasonably effective lead. The supporting cast is exceptionally good.

Terence Fisher would go on to be a renowned director of gothic horror films for Hammer but in the early 50s he helmed a lot of crime B-movies for them, some of which were pretty good.

This movie is released, paired with Deadly Game, as Hammer Film Noir Double Feature Volume 6. The transfer is pretty good.

The Black Glove is a solid very well-made noir-flavoured murder mystery B-feature. If you love jazz-fuelled crime thrillers then you’ll definitely want to check this one out. If you just like good crime B-movies you’ll find it quite enjoyable as well. Hammer’s early crime movies are very underrated. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Forbidden (1949)

Forbidden is a largely forgotten 1949 British crime thriller.

Jim Harding (Douglass Montgomery) had been a brilliant chemistry student. Now, retuned from the war, he’s reduced to peddling patent medicines at a fairground stall. He’s in partnership with his wartime sergeant, Dan (Ronald Shiner). He knows he made a disastrous marriage but he’s now starting to realise just how disastrous it was. It’s because of his wife Diana (Patricia Burke) that he’s in the patent medicine racket - his old job as a chemist didn’t pay enough for her liking. Now she’s trying to get back into show business by an all-too-familiar route - the casting couch. As she has no morals to speak of this doesn’t bother her.

Meanwhile Jim has met Jeannie Thompson (Hazel Court), a thoroughly charming girl who also works at the fairground. You will doubtless not be shocked when I tell you that Jim and Jeannie soon fall madly in love.

One of the more startling things about this film (it is 1949 after all) is just how blatant it is about the affair between Jim and Jeannie. He is clearly sleeping at Jeannie’s flat every night and he is clearly not sleeping on the couch.

Jim seems to imagine he can get away with it because his wife is rarely home anyway and maybe she’ll never notice that he doesn’t get home until six o’clock in the morning. And even though they’re making no effort to be discreet at the fairground maybe nobody else will notice and tell Diana. Jim is a brilliant chemist but when it comes to ordinary life he’s just a tiny bit naïve. Apart from this he’s also inclined not to think things through and to take the easy way out, or take the way that seems to offer him immediate gratification. He’s just not sufficiently grown-up to understand that actions have consequences. When he decides to take action he can’t face the idea of having to follow through on it or accept the consequences.

There is a touch of film noir here. Jim is basically a decent enough fellow but his weakness of character gets him into trouble and could get him into very big trouble indeed. In this case the irony is that it’s the Good Girl type (Jeannie) rather than the Femme Fatale type (Diana) who leads him into the abyss. Jim thinks he’s found what he’s always wanted and he’s determined to have it and have it now even though commonsense would suggest the wisdom of proceeding slowly and cautiously.

There’s also a definite hint of noir visual style with quite a few night shots and a few quite effectively moody sequences. Hone Glendinning’s black-and-white cinematography is not flashy but it’s quite impressive.

The fairground setting also (to me at least) gives an impression of noirness - cheap seedy glamour, the sense of an outsider community and of course a feeling of artificiality.

Douglass Montgomery was the sort of American actor who pops up in these late 40s/early 50s British crime films. He had seemed on the way to stardom in the 30s but by 1949 his career had pretty much spluttered out. Which meant he would work for a very modest pay cheque but still give the movie the transatlantic flavour that seemed so terribly important to the people running the British movie and TV industries in the postwar period. He’s an actor I’ve never encountered before but he does a decent job. Jim Harding is a bit of a fool and he is technically being just as immoral as his wife but Montgomery is able to convince us that he’s well-meaning and perhaps even convince us that he’s as much a victim as a villain.

Hazel Court was of course one of the great British actresses of this era and she’s terrific as always. She plays Jeannie as a woman who is a bit of an innocent, thinking that love is all that matters, and not really knowing what she’s getting herself into.

Patricia Burke as Diana is in full-on bitch mode right from the start and she does it magnificently.

There’s a slight class subtext here. Both Jim and Diana are upper middle class and educated. Jeannie is working class and uneducated. Their relationship was always going to face some difficulties even without the Diana problem.

The supporting cast is very good. Ronald Shiner as Dan is mainly a comic relief character but he’s a likeable and genuinely amusing rogue.

Network’s region 2 DVD release also includes a different cut of the film, released as Scarlet Heaven. The transfer is extremely good. Forbidden has also been released on DVD (again in Region 2) by Odeon Entertainment.

I wouldn’t go so far as to claim it’s a Neglected Gem but Forbidden is a solid crime thriller with a few touches that are likely to make it of interest to film noir fans as well as fans of British mystery thrillers of this period. The plot mostly consists of well-worn clichés but it has a couple of reasonable twists at the end. It’s nothing startling but it’s well-made and well-acted and looks good. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Rawhide (1951)

Rawhide is one of the lesser remembered westerns of the early 50s, but with Henry Hathaway directing, a script by Dudley Nichols and two major stars (Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward) this 1951 20th Century-Fox production is clearly no B-picture.

Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is learning the stagecoach business on the San Francisco to St Louis run. He doesn’t like the stagecoach business but his father is the superintendent of the western operations of the company so Tom is learning the business whether he likes it or not.

There is bad news at Rawhide Station, a remote way station. Four desperate criminals, led by convicted killer Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), have broken out of prison. They’ve already robbed one stage, killing the driver, and it’s assumed they will strike again. The news arrives just after the eastbound stage arrives. Among the passengers is a Miss Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) with a baby. Company rules don’t allow children to travel when there’s additional danger such as that posed by the escaped desperadoes. So instead of travelling on the stagecoach crewed by two armed men and with a military escort she has to spend the night at Rawhide Station where there are only two men to protect her.

The two men are Tom Owens and the grizzled and grumpy Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan). As you might expect Miss Holt and the baby would have been a whole lot safer on that stagecoach. Zimmerman and his gang turn up and Tom and Miss Holt are held captive while the gang awaits the arrival next day of an eastbound stagecoach carrying a fortune in gold.

Tom Owens and Vinnie Holt pretty much take an instant dislike to each other. In fact they clash so badly that we naturally assume they will end up falling in love (I’m not going to tell you if that actually happens or not). Vinnie is the kind of gal you might reasonably describe as fiery. She’s already in a bad mood and that mood gets steadily worse although eventually she is forced to accept that like it or not she’s going to have to rely on Tom Owens and she’d better get used to it.

Vinnie and Tom have also come to the inescapable conclusion that Zimmerman is not going to be able to let them go after robbing the stagecoach. They’ve become witnesses to murder and he’ll have to kill them. So they’re going to have to come up with a plan for survival.

Tom Owens is not a natural born hero. He’s certainly no coward but gunfighting is right outside his field of expertise. He’s really just a tenderfoot from the east and he’s pretty appalled at suddenly finding himself having to act the hero. Especially as he has absolutely no idea what a real hero would do in such a parlous situation. Casting Tyrone Power was a good move. He’s not at all in the mould of typical western stars and he’s convincing as an ordinary kind of guy who has to cope as best he can. He knows he’s no hero but he’s now responsible for the lives of a woman and a baby and he can’t escape that responsibility. And maybe that’s what a real hero is - a man who has no choice and is somehow going to have to prevail or die in the attempt. It’s a subtle performance from a chronically underrated actor.

Susan Hayward as a spitfire is the kind of casting that just can’t fail. She was a showy actress who tended to overact (and do so very well) and she makes an interesting contrast to the much more low-key Power. While there’s the usual Hayward feistiness here her performance is actually a lot more nuanced than usual.

Rafe Zimmerman is a killer but he’s no mere hoodlum. He’s an intelligent educated killer, from a good family. It was a woman who proved to be his downfall and she was the reason he was originally sentenced to hang. He’ll kill without hesitation if he needs to, but he kills like a gentleman. Hugh Marlowe is excellent. There’s none of the western villain clichés about his complex performance. There’s perhaps even a slight touch of film noir here - it’s obvious that Zimmerman was once a very decent and very civilised man, until the wrong woman (obviously a classic femme fatale) came along. The decency is still there but he’s made a fatal mistake and is now doomed. You know that even if he isn’t killed at Rawhide Station he’ll end his life on the end of a rope or being gunned down like a dog somewhere or other. Once you fall into the noir abyss there’s no escape.

These three key characters are all equally interesting and all have quite a bit of depth. All are, in their own ways, trapped by fate (we find that this applies to Vinnie as well once we find out how she managed to get saddled with that baby). So again there’s that hint of film noir - these are people who have become the playthings of fate.

The other members of the gang are not at all like Zimmerman and he has nothing but contempt for them. Gratz (George Tobias) and Yancy (Dean Jagger) are petty criminals of extremely limited intelligence. Tevas (played with gusto by Jack Elam) is a neurotic sadistic thug who likes to kill.

There’s not a lot of action in Rawhide. It’s not that type of movie. It’s a suspense movie and Henry Hathaway keeps the tension at the highest possible level throughout. The plot is on the surface a standard western plot but screenwriter Dudley Nichols does clever and interesting thing with a straightforward story framework. Most of all the film gives us characters interesting enough that we develop an emotional investment in their fates.

The Region 4 DVD from Bounty is barebones but the transfer is quite good.

Rawhide is a great western and a great suspense movie with intriguing film noirish elements. Very highly recommended.