Sunday, May 26, 2019

Wrong Number (1959)

Wrong Number is a 1959 British crime thriller. Now I love mysteries and thrillers set on trains so when a movie opens with a pretty girl emerging from hiding in a laundry basket in the baggage compartment of a speeding train and said girl starts helping herself to the mail bags it’s got my attention right from the start.

Within five minutes we’ve been introduced to Maria (Lisa Gastoni) who is beautiful, glamorous, sexy and dangerous and we’ve also been introduced to sinister criminal mastermind Dr Pole (Peter Elliott). And there are hints of a romantic triangle involving the criminal mastermind, his chief henchman Angelo and Maria. So far Wrong Number is ticking all my boxes.

Unfortunately we don’t see any more of trains but we do get a simple but clever little plot. Dr Pole has been the brains behind a series of daring robberies, including that train robbery. The gang’s next job is an armoured car heist. As usual Dr Pole has come up with a sound plan but a criminal mastermind is only as good as his underlings and Dr Pole’s underlings make a right old hash of this job. Killing one of the guards is just one of their blunders. Even worse, Max (Barry Keegan) addresses Angelo by name during the robbery and the surviving guard hears him do it.

Even taking these mistakes into consideration the gang should get away with the crime. Dr Pole is careful to use underlings without criminal records. And although the robbery nets the gang eighty thousand pounds Pole is smart enough and cautious enough to insist that all the five pound notes included in the haul should be destroyed - fivers are just too easy for the police to trace. That leaves forty thousand but forty thousand quid was a great deal of money in 1959 and it’s a safe forty thousand.

But there is one misfortune that Dr Pole didn’t count on. Part of the plan was for Angelo to telephone Maria after the robbery to let her know that everything went smoothly. Unfortunately an eccentric old lady named Miss Crystal (Olive Sloane) is very worried about her beloved little dog that night and decides to ring the local vet. She gets a wrong number - she rings Dr Pole’s house by mistake and Maria answers the ’phone and since she assumes it is Angelo she uses his name.

This wouldn’t matter except that Miss Crystal is an avid reader of the crime news in the newspapers and the account of the heist mentions that one of the gang members is named Angelo. After discussing the matter with her dog Miss Crystal feels it is her civic duty to notify the police of that odd telephone call.

Sadly Superintendent Blake has to break the bad news to Miss Crystal that her evidence is of no use - there is no way to trace a wrong number if the number was dialled through an automatic telephone exchange, as this call was.

In fact that telephone call will turn out to be vital after all, and in a way that is simple but quite clever and effective.

The plot is driven to a large extent by mistakes on the part of the thieves and some very bad luck but the mistakes and the bad luck are quite plausible - even the major plot twist turns out to be entirely plausible.

This movie is typical of the cheapies churned out by Merton Park Studios at this time. In other words it’s a lot better than you might expect and everything about it is very competent. Vernon Sewell was the kind of guy who could be relied on to direct this type of movie briskly and efficiently (he also directed the rather good Spin a Dark Web). James Eastwood’s screenplay is not fancy but it is effective (Eastwood also wrote the excellent The Counterfeit Plan).

And the acting is top-notch. Paul Whitsun-Jones is very good as the easily panicked gang member Cyril. Peter Elliott does a fine job as Dr Pole, described rather neatly by a member of his gang as a clever man, but not quite clever enough. He’s also an interesting mix of menace and weakness. Peter Reynolds is fine as Angelo. Olive Sloane overacts outrageously as the delightfully dotty Miss Crystal, which is absolutely the correct approach. The acting standout though is Italian bombshell Lisa Gastoni as Maria. She captures Maria’s smouldering sensuality without playing her overtly as a sexpot or a femme fatale. Maria is just one of those women who make men do crazy things. They can’t help it and she can’t help it.

The budget was obviously not going to stretch to any spectacular action set-pieces but the heist sequences are well executed.

This DVD is precisely what we expect from Network in the UK - no extras, an excellent 16:9 enhanced transfer and a reasonable price tag.

Wrong Number has a neat little plot, terrific acting and just the right amount of humour (in other words the humour is kept within very strict limits). It’s a movie that achieves its strictly limited objectives without making a fuss about it. It’s just a totally unpretentious crime B-movie. The running time of just one hour ensures that it’s unlikely to wear out its welcome. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Daredevils of the Red Circle (serial, 1939)

Daredevils of the Red Circle is a 1939 Republic serial directed by John English and William Witney. Which means it’s probably going to be very good. We shall see.

It starts off with a bang, literally. An escaped convict (played by Charles Middleton - yes, Ming the Merciless!) who goes by the name of 39013 (his prison number) is systematically destroying the business empire of a man named Granville. He’s destroying it by blowing it up, piece by piece. His current target is the Granville Amusement Park and his bomb outrage there makes him three implacable enemies - three carnival daredevils. One is a high diver, one is a strongman and one is an escape artist. All useful skills for the heroes in a serial!

The first episode offers everything you could ask for. It has lots of action, impressive visuals, a whizz-bang cliffhanger, a touch of tragedy and a touch of mystery - we know what 39013 is up to but we don’t really know why or what his ultimate intentions are.

The mention of tragedy is important. This is a serial in which real people really can get hurt, or even killed. That’s a daring strategy for a serial but it does give the suspense a definite edge. If they’re prepared to kill off a character (and a sympathetic character) in the first chapter you know that none of the characters is entirely safe. When they seem to be in danger you really believe they are in danger.

While we know the identity of the chief villain there are lots of things we don’t know. We don’t know how many of the people working for Granville are actually working for 39013 so we don’t know if the three daredevils can or should trust any of these people. We also don’t know the identity of the Red Circle, the person who keeps feeding the daredevils vital information. So there’s plenty of material there to provide both mystery and suspense.

Willian Witney (who apparently directed most of the action scenes) had a reputation for doing extremely good cliffhanger endings. And this serial has plenty of great examples of just that. The circus fire in the opening chapter, the destruction of the mighty tunnel, the burning oil well - these are superb action set-pieces and they provide thrilling cliffhangers.

Now you might be thinking this all sounds swell but if only they’d managed to get a death ray into the story somewhere. Well don’t despair - there is indeed a death ray!

The acting is very decent. It’s no surprise that Charles Middleton makes an absolutely  splendid villain (which is not a spoiler since we know he’s a bad egg right from the start). Miles Mander has a fascinating rôle which presented some subtle acting challenges (he’s not always quite what he seems to be) and he carries it off with style and confidence. Carole Landis is a fine leading lady who adds a touch of glamour. The actors playing the three daredevils (Charles Quigley, Herman Brix and David Sharpe) may not be great actors but they’re convincingly athletic heroes and in this serial that matters a lot more than acting ability.

Carole Landis makes a perfectly fine heroine. Mention must also be made of Tuffie, the daredevils’ dog, who not only gets to do clever things but reasonably convincing clever things.

They didn’t have the budgets that Universal had for their serials (Daredevils of the Red Circle was made for just $126,000) but Republic really knew what they were doing when it came to making to getting plenty of bang for their buck. The special effects and the stunts really are excellent. The miniatures work is generally very impressive. Even the rear projection shots are done competently. There are explosions and there are some great fires. William Witney was renowned for doing terrific fight scenes and there are lots of them here.

There’s also a lot of location shooting and the locations have been very cleverly chosen (and are used with great skill). The Granville house itself is riddled with secret passageways which provide endless opportunities for thrills and surprises.

Kino Lorber’s DVD presentation offers an extremely good transfer indeed and it even includes audio commentaries (by film historian Michael Schlesinger) on several of the episodes.

Daredevils of the Red Circle is one of the best of the Republic serials, which means it’s one of the very best of all the serials of its era. It’s entertainment plus and it’s highly recommended.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Frightened Man (1952)

The Frightened Man, released in 1952, is a thoroughly unpretentious and conventional but very enjoyable British crime B-picture. It was produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman (who would enjoy great success as television producers in the 60s) and written and directed by John Gilling (who did some very underrated crime melodramas in the 50s and a couple of extremely good gothic horror flicks for Hammer in the mid-60s). The Frightened Man also has at least some claims to being a film noir.

Elderly antiques dealer Rosselli (Charles Victor) is immensely proud of his son Julius. Julius is at Oxford, studying to become an architect. Only Julius isn’t at Oxford any more, having been sent down for being a drunken violent thug. Julius is in fact pretty much entirely worthless but his doting dad just can’t see it.

Julius certainly has ambition. He intends to be a big man some day. He has no intention of actually working to achieve success. He just assumes that he’s entitled to it. His first step on the road to riches is to steal sixty quid from dear old dad to buy himself a car. He needs the car to impress Amanda (Barbara Murray). Amanda already has a boyfriend, a very decent chap named Harry, but that’s not going to stop Julius. Amanda is a nice enough girl but she has zero judgment when it comes to men. Julius is clearly the sort of man that a woman should steer clear of but she thinks he’s handsome and exciting and misunderstood.

Julius’s next step on what he thinks is his path to success is to get a job. Not a real job or an honest job of course, but something much cleverer and better than that - driving the getaway vehicle in a robbery by the Camden Mob. He proves to be a failure as a wheelman but he isn’t deterred. Through Amanda he has discovered an opportunity too good to pass up - a shipment of diamonds just begging to be stolen. And being convinced that he is a budding criminal genius he comes up with a plan to steal those rocks and he manages to sell his idea to the leader of the Camden Mob.

Of course like so many criminals before them these would-be jewel thieves have never even considered the possibility that Scotland Yard might be one step ahead of them. Actually Inspector Bligh is one step behind them but he’s a professional and he’s catching up fast. He knows a big job is going down, there are some major gaps in his knowledge (he doesn’t know the details or the identity of everyone involved) but slowly and methodically the Yard is filling in those gaps.

There is a sad inevitability about the outcome and that’s one of the things that gives The Frightened Man a slightly noirish flavour - the criminals are rats about to enter a trap and you know they’re just not smart enough to realise that they’re not going to make it.

There is as I said an inevitability about the failure of this ill-advised criminal scheme but the movie does have some plot twists up its sleeve.

The acting is excellent. Dermot Walsh makes a fine arrogant but stupid and deluded bad boy who thinks he is destined for great things. Barbara Murray does well as Amanda, making her sympathetic in spite of her shallowness and folly. Charles Victor is extremely good as poor old Rosselli. The supporting players are uniformly good. I particularly liked John Blythe as the cocky but not overly bright thief Maxie and Annette Simmonds as the possessive gangster’s moll Marcella.

There’s more location shooting than you might expect in such a low-budget movie. There are no spectacularly noir visuals but Gilling achieves an effective mood of futility and inescapable failure.

With these kinds of B-movies you’re never quite sure whether you’re going to get a neatly wrapped-up happy (or at least vaguely hopeful) ending or whether it’s going to be totally downbeat. I’m not going to tell you which way this film jumps but the ending is I think quite satisfactory.

The Frightened Man is one of six films included in VCI Entertainment’s three-disc British Cinema: Classic 'B' Film Collection, Volume 1 DVD boxed set. The transfers are nothing to write home about, being television prints (and in the case of The Frightened Man the image quality is quite iffy at times). On the other hand these are six interesting movies which any self-respecting fan of B-movies in general or British mystery/thriller films will want to see.

The Frightened Man is a low-key but well-crafted and very well-acted crime melodrama with a dash of film noir. Recommended.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Jungle Book (1942)

It’s perhaps surprising that Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book was not adapted to film until 1942, although there had already been movie versions of many of his other stories. It was British producer Alexander Korda who finally brought The Jungle Book to the screen, with his brother Zoltan Korda directing. By this time, due to the war, Korda had temporarily relocated his film-making activities to Hollywood.

The publication of The Jungle Book in 1894 marked the beginnings of the jungle boy genre - tales of boys (and later sometimes girls) raised by animals in the jungle. It is therefore a kind of precursor to the equally famous creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan. Of course being a Kipling story there’s just a bit more to it than that.

The Jungle Book opens with a framing story, as an old Indian storyteller named Buldeo tells the story of Mowgli. Mowgli started life as an ordinary Indian boy but his father was killed by the tiger Shere Khan, the only one of the jungle animals who does not obey the strict code of the jungle. Mowgli is raised by wolves. Then Shere Khan returns and Mowgli takes refuge in a human village. He does not realise that the woman who takes him in is his real mother.

He is not entirely comfortable in human society but he does take a liking to Mahala (Patricia O’Rourke), the daughter of the less than trustworthy Buldeo (played by Joseph Calleia and yes it’s the same Buldeo who narrates the tale).

The trouble starts when Mowgli and Mahala discover the ruined city, and more particularly when they discover the treasure room. The old cobra who guards the treasure warns them that the treasure is death.

Mowgli and Mahala heed the cobra’s words but of course there are others who do not. Greed takes hold and brings danger to both the village and the jungle.

Mowgli is played by Sabu, by this time a very big star. Sabu had been discovered by the Kordas when they were making Elephant Boy in 1937. He went on to success in Hollywood in films such as Arabian Nights. As a confused young man who does not know to which world he belongs he’s very effective.

Compared to the now better known Disney animated version this 1942 film focuses more on Mowgli and on human dramas and less on the animals but they are still important and Mowgli can talk to them.

The most impressive thing about this movie is the spectacle. It was shot in Technicolor and Korda uses elaborate sets as well as techniques like matte painting to create not only the world of the jungle but also the vast ruined city which plays an important part in the story. The jungle looks like a real jungle and yet it doesn’t. It’s the jungle of storytelling so it’s not supposed to look quite real.

The use of real animals (mostly) rather than animation as in the Disney version works well.

The plot is simple and there’s not quite enough of it for the movie’s 108 minute running time. There’s also an almost complete absence of wit and humour. Writer Laurence Stallings possibly takes it all a bit too seriously.

While in many respects this qualifies as what used to be called family entertainment it is just a little bit grim at times, too grim (in my view) for young children. Although these days nobody seems to worry about exposing children to horrors. This is a long way from the Disney version.

Unfortunately Umbrella’s Region 4 DVD is not that great. I’m told that Network’s Region 2 release is considerably better but I’ve not seen it. It’s rather scandalous that such a visually spectacular movie has not had a Blu-Ray release (as far as I know).

The Jungle Book is not a complete success but it’s unique and extraordinary visual style is still enough to make it a must-see film.