Friday, June 28, 2019

Do You Know This Voice? (1964)

Do You Know This Voice? is a 1964 British crime thriller that attracted my attention because it was directed by Frank Nesbitt with a screenplay by Neil McCallum, the same team responsible for the excellent Walk a Tightrope made in the same year. And both these films star Dan Duryea, another equally compelling reason for me to seek this one out.

Do You Know This Voice? opens with a shocking crime. A small boy is kidnapped and murdered. A ransom call was made and initially that’s the only evidence that Superintendent Hume (Peter Madden) has to go on. And the telephone call was taped. Then it seems like the police have got a real break. There is a witness - someone who saw the telephone call being made. But she actually saw nothing. Or did she?

And more importantly, does the killer know that the witness saw nothing?

Rather daringly the movie reveals the identity of the killer very early on. In fact it reveals all the details of the mystery. Which doesn’t matter since although this movie seems at first to be a mystery that’s not actually what it’s about at all.

Once the answers to the mysteries are revealed it becomes a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Can the killer afford to leave the witness alive? But on the other hand can the killer afford to try to kill the witness, given that such an attempt is probably exactly what the police are hoping for.

So it’s a suspense movie, with the killer stalking the witness and the police stalking the killer, but it’s not quite a conventional suspense movie. For one thing, it’s not actually the killer that the witness saw, or didn’t see. It was a guilty party, but not the guilty party. And it almost veers into Hitchcock black comedy territory, as the killer’s attempts to eliminate the witness are frustrated by an endless series of miscalculations and bad luck. If it’s intended to be black comedy then it’s very black indeed (but then Hitchcock’s black comedy could be very very black so I still think that this is what this movie is trying for).

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Mr Hopta (Dan Duryea) is the killer and his wife (played by Gwen Watford) is his accomplice. The witness is his next door neighbour, Mrs Marotta (Ida Miranda). This is all laid out at a very early stage. Apart from the suspense the real core of the movie is the relationship between Hopta and his wife. Are they reluctant killers? Even accidental killers? Were they driven by desperation? Did they really think they could pull off their scheme without anybody getting hurt?

And now that they’re in it up to their necks what are they going to do? Are they going to stick together? Do they have the coolness and the smarts to somehow get out of the mess they’re in? And can they get out of the mess by killing Mrs Marotta?

You would think that there is no way a child killer could possibly be a sympathetic protagonist. But Hopta is so utterly hopeless at everything he does that maybe he really did have no intention at all of harming the child. Maybe it was just a tragic accident. Or maybe it’s the kind of tragic accident that happens to someone who has gone through life in a state of childish irresponsibility. And what do you do if you’re married to such a man and you really love him?

So it’s a movie that tries to be more than just a suspense movie. I guess it’s a kind of dark psychological thriller in which we see what happens to a guy who really sees to be a nice guy but with a very serious character flaw. So there’s a definite film noir angle here.

By 1964 Dan Duryea wasn’t exactly being deluged with good rôles but when a good rôle like this did come along there’s no doubt that he could still deliver the goods. Isa Miranda had a long and busy career. She had been a major star in Europe. She does a very fine job as Mrs Marotta. Gwen Watford is excellent as Mrs Hopta. These are really the only three characters who matter in the movie and they’re all rather interesting. They’re all people who have a lot going on beneath the surface. These three very fine performances are the keys to the movie’s success.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but boasts an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Do You Know This Voice? is intriguing and slightly offbeat and it’s highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Bombay Waterfront (1950)

Bombay Waterfront (AKA Paul Temple Returns) was the fourth and last of the Paul Temple movies made between 1946 and 1952 based on the extremely popular radio series and novels written by Francis Durbridge. Jon Bentley reprises his rôle as Paul Temple while this time his wife and fellow crime-solver Steve is played by Patricia Dainton.

A series of odd murders has caused something of a flap at Scotland Yard. The murders were apparently all carried out by a mysterious individual known as the Marquis but the links between the slayings are rather obscure. The one clue is a note mentioning Bombay SW. This is obviously a reference to the Bombay Restaurant located in the SW district of London, except that it isn’t. Temple knows that it refers to the Bombay Wharf and to a petty criminal by the name of Sammy Wren.

Inspector Ross has come to the same conclusion but Sammy Wren has become the latest victim of the Marquis. Paul Temple however has unearthed another clue which leads him to the renowned Egyptologist Sir Felix Raybourne. Raybourne has just returned from an expedition in the course of which he supposedly discovered something really startling, and not just to the world of Egyptology.

The main problem with this case is that everybody capable of providing the kind of evidence that could clinch matters gets murdered. There’s even an attempt to kill Paul and Steve. The murder methods are rather nicely varied and ingenious as well.

These weren’t big budget pictures but they don’t look like quota quickies either. There are some effective settings, including Kellaway’s Folly which seems to be one of those mock-medieval towers that wealthy 18th and 19th century noblemen liked to erect on their estates. Sir Felix’s house with its collection of Egyptian artefacts provides some good atmosphere including some very nasty hidden surprises.

Durbridge was a writer of thrillers rather than detective stories and the identity of the murderer can eventually be worked out by a process of elimination - there are only so many suspects left alive! On the other hand Durbridge was a writer of very good thrillers ideal for cinematic adaptation and this movie works very effectively with some reasonable set-pieces. There are lots of night shots as well to add a bit of creepiness.

John Bentley was an excellent Paul Temple, urbane and likeable and quietly determined. This was Patricia Dainton’s only appearance as Steve. Her performance is fine. She’s plucky and resourceful but she’s also sensible enough not to take too many crazy risks. And she’s rather charming.

This time, as an extra added bonus, you get Christopher Lee as the crazy sinister Egyptologist Raybourne. There’s an excellent supporting cast.

In creating Paul Temple Francis Durbridge must have been influenced to some extent by the early Ellery Queen novels. Like Ellery Queen Paul Temple is a crime writer who solves real-life crimes and like Ellery Queen he has the advantage of being well connected with the police, in this case through his friendship with Scotland Yard chief Sir Graham Forbes. Temple’s methods aren’t complicated, consisting mostly of being intelligent enough not to jump to obvious conclusions. And having worked semi-officially with Scotland Yard in the past he knows how the criminal underworld works.

Dan Jackson provides the comic relief as the Temples’ Burmese houseboy. Terribly  politically incorrect by today’s standards no doubt but in fact Saki is an excellent servant whose only fault is his complete inability to make decent coffee.

Renown Pictures is a British outfit who’ve released quite a few interesting British mysteries and thrillers of this era. Their Paul Temple boxed set includes all four movies (the others being Send for Paul Temple, Calling Paul Temple and Paul Temple’s Triumph) and is typical of their output. The transfers may not be pristine but they’re pretty good. All four Paul Temple movies are worth seeing and the boxed set is highly recommended.

Bombay Waterfront is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery thriller and is also highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Honolulu (1939)

Honolulu is a 1939 MGM offering that is part comedy, part romance and part musical.

The first thing that is made clear is that the plot is going to be pretty thin and not exactly dazzlingly original. Not that thin plots matter very much in this type of movie. Brooks Mason (Robert Young) is a movie star who is tired of being mobbed and almost torn to pieces by his adoring female fans. Then along comes Hawaiian plantation owner George Smith, who looks exactly like Brooks Mason (and is naturally played by Robert Young also) and manages to get himself mobbed by fans who mistake him for the movie star.

This gives Mason an idea. He’s being pressured to go to New York for six weeks of personal appearances and he’s dreading the prospect. Why not send George Smith in his place? Meanwhile Mason can take George Smith’s place in Hawaii, where there’s nothing but peace and quiet?

So George Smith masquerading as Brooks Mason sets off to New York, where he risks life and limb at the hands of the fans while Brooks Mason masquerading as George Smith sets out on what he trusts will be a peaceful ocean voyage to Honolulu.

On board the ship he meets dancer Dorothy Marsh (Eleanor Powell). It’s obvious that romance is going to blossom although he’s going to have his work cut out avoiding the attentions of Dorothy’s unbelievably annoying pal Millie de Grasse (Gracie Allen). His other problem is that Dorothy has fallen for him because she thinks he’s a regular guy, honest and down-to-earth, not like those awful Hollywood people. So clearly he’s going to have some trouble when he finally has to tell her that he’s one of those awful Hollywood types.

There are more complications. Smith’s girlfriend Cecilia is kind of expecting him to marry her and Dorothy is getting jealous of Cecilia. Worst of all, Cecilia’s father thinks George Smith absconded with $50,000 of his money and spent it on high living in Hollywood. So Mason’s challenge is to keep out of prison and avoid marrying Cecilia. Sooner or later it occurs to him that it might be a good idea to end the masquerade but that turns out to be not so easy.

Meanwhile George Smith has spent most of his time in New York in hospital, recovering from the attentions of Brooks Mason’s fans. In fact he’s now a virtual prisoner in the hospital.

Honolulu should be a light-hearted breezy and thoroughly enjoyable affair and it would be except for one very very big problem. That problem is Gracie Allen. The fact that she’s completely unfunny is bad enough but she’s also actively and aggressively irritating. She’s so bad that she’s almost enough to sink the picture. George Burns isn’t so bad - he’s just unfunny.

On the plus side the romantic farce plot works pretty well. Robert Young and Eleanor Powell are likeable and energetic leads.

The film’s biggest asset though is Eleanor Powell’s dancing. Her Hawaiian dance routines including her celebrated hula are terrific. She’s amazingly athletic, and she’s pretty sexy as well. Powell was famous as a tap-dancer and somehow she manages to make a Hawaiian tap-dancing routine work. Her showstopper dances are all solo affairs. That seems to have been her specialty. Of course that did mean that there was no need to giver her a dancing leading man.

Don’t expect to see any spectacular Hawaiian location shooting. There’s some stock footage but Honolulu was made entirely in the studio. There’s perhaps not as much evidence of the MGM gloss as you might expect. This seems to have been pretty much a B-picture.

Honolulu is not one of the great romantic comedies and it’s not one of the great musicals. Really it’s notable only for Eleanor Powell’s dancing. However if you do really like dancing then you might find that to be more than enough to make this picture worth seeing. If you’re an Eleanor Powell fan I guess this one is a must-see. If you’re not then it’s still worth a look despite Gracie Allen.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Sky Murder (1940)

Sky Murder, released in 1940, is the last of the three Nick Carter B-movies made by MGM beginning in 1939. All starred Walter Pidgeon as the famous private detective from the dime novels.

This time Nick Carter is on the trail of spies. And there are spies everywhere! They are murdering people and planting bombs all over the place. It’s absolute carnage.

The action starts with a murder on board an aircraft. There’s a very strong suspect but then somebody tries to kill all the passengers and Nick draws the obvious conclusion that there’s a large-scale conspiracy at work here. And the conspirators don’t care how many bodies they leave behind.

Nick’s job is made more difficult by the fact that he’s not only saddled (as always) with bumbling would-be private eye Bartholomew (Donald Meek) but also by ditzy blonde lady private detective Christine Cross (Joyce Compton). He also has six pretty girls he has to protect. They’re models. The only real purpose they serve in the movie is to add some glamour. And the final factor complicating Nick’s task is that apparently every second person in the United States in 1940 was a German spy. That causes problems for the movie because it lessens the suspense - after a while I found myself just assuming that every single character apart from Nick Carter was a German spy. And I wasn’t even too sure about him!

The biggest fault however is the amount of screen time given to the two very feeble comic relief players. They get whole sub-plots devoted to them, sub-plots that do nothing but slow down an already slow movie.

Yet another flaw is that, unless I missed something, we’re never really told what the nefarious German plan actually is. This means there’s no real suspense at all, no sense of urgency. We just know they’re up to no good.

Walter Pidgeon is good as the suave and unflappable hero. The best of the supporting players is Tom Conway but he’s criminally under-utilised. Kaaren Verne is a very dull leading lady. It’s easy to see why the career of this German-born actress fizzled out rather quickly. Donald Meek and Joyce Compton are simply irritating.

There are too many miscellaneous villains when what a good B-movie needs is one memorable arch-villain.

The first two Nick Carter movies were directed by Jacques Tourneur so as you would expect they’re rather better than the average B-picture. In fact they’re extremely good. George B. Seitz took over the directing duties for the third entry in the series and sadly it lacks the style and pace of Tourneur’s efforts.

The history books will tell you that the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941 but Hollywood had already declared war at least two years earlier. Sky Murder is a full-on war propaganda movie, a genre I have little liking for as a rule.

The Warner Archive has released all three Nick Carter movies on a single disc. They look pretty good.

Sky Murder is a spy thriller that never really gets off the ground. It’s unfocused and the plot meanders. Walter Pidgeon is left to try to carry the entire movie on his own. I love spy movies but I find myself horribly bored by movies about the Second World War so that may party explain my rather negative reaction.

I wouldn’t recommend this movie but I do highly recommend the Nick Carter three-movie set because the two earlier movies, Nick Carter, Master Detective and Phantom Raiders really are excellent.