Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Portrait in Black (1960)

Portrait in Black is one of those gloriously overwrought melodramas produced by Ross Hunter for Universal in the 50s and 60s. Right from the start we know that this one is going to be even more overwrought than most.

Sheila Cabot (Lana Turner) is married to shipping tycoon Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan). Matthew Cabot is a control freak, he is cruel and vindictive and he enjoys humiliating those in his power. Now he is suffering from a painful and incurable illness which makes his personality even more unpleasant. Dr David Rivera (Anthony Quinn) keeps his patient’s pain under control as best he can. Matthew Cabot’s is dying. But he is dying very slowly. Much too slowly for Sheila and Dr Rivera. They’ve been having an affair. There’s no way Matthew Cabot would ever agree to a divorce and if Sheila was foolish enough to ask him she’s be setting herself up for further emotional torture, plus Matthew would certainly ruin Dr Rivera’s career. They will just have to be patient and wait for her husband to die.

Or will they? Dr Rivera is a doctor. How hard would it be for him to hasten Matthew Cabot’s departure from this vale of tears? After all his death would not exactly come as a shock. It is very unlikely that anyone would be overly suspicious. And Dr Rivera is a very clever doctor.

The plan goes very smoothly and they seem to be home free until the first letter arrives. It’s not exactly a blackmail letter, but it makes it pretty obvious that somebody has discovered their neat little scheme. What are they going to do now? They might have done better to have tried to brazen it out in the hope that the anonymous correspondent would turn out to have no actual evidence but instead they decide to take a more pro-active line and by doing so they find themselves drawn into one foolish mistake after another.

The great thing about the screenplay (by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and based on their own play) is that it’s utterly predictable. We can see each disaster coming up a mile away. And Portrait in Black being the kind of overheated melodrama that it is that predictability is a major asset. It’s what makes melodrama fun - you know what’s going to happen next and you thoroughly enjoy the anticipation.

This is classic Ross Hunter material. The high melodrama plot. The deliciously overripe dialogue. The glossiness. The excess. There’s a splendid cast and every single one of the stars knows how to overact. Lana Turner of course is in her element. She was one of the truly great bad actresses. Anthony Quinn’s histrionics would be embarrassing in most movies but in this one they’re just perfect. Richard Basehart as Matthew Cabot’s business partner Howard Mason is a painfully obvious snake in the grass. Sandra Dee is charming as Sheila Cabot’s stepdaughter Cathy but she manages to overact as well. And John Saxon is her boyfriend, a man with quite a few grudges.

The supporting players are enormous fun. There’s Ray Walston as the slightly sinister chauffeur, Anna May Wong as the slightly sinister housekeeper and Virginia Grey as Mathew Cabot’s slightly sinister secretary. And Lloyd Nolan makes a great melodrama villain as Matthew Cabot.

And of course it is all done in the Ross Hunter visual style - it’s in colour and it’s widescreen, it looks lavish, the sets and the costumes reflect a world of glamour, money, high fashion and style. Everything is glossy, everything looks expensive, everything is slightly overdone, but enjoyably overdone. There is nothing remotely gritty or realistic about the style of this movie. Visually it’s a kind of extreme anti-film noir.

There’s a definite Hitchcock influence (pretty much inevitable in a mystery/suspense movie made in 1960) and even a few hints of Hitchcockian black comedy as carefully contrived schemes start to self-destruct. Of course it lacks the genuine suspense of a Hitchcock movie. It’s like someone trying to do a Hitchcock film without understanding anything of Hitchcock’s methods. Mind you, the two-car nightmare drive in the rain is a very entertaining very elaborate set-piece that works in its own way.

This movie was released on DVD by Universal Home Video a few years back as part of a two-movie two-disc set, paired with Madame X. Portrait in Black gets a pretty decent anamorphic transfer.

Portrait in Black is gloriously melodramatic, gloriously trashy and gloriously entertaining. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Bengal and The Indian Tomb (1959)

The Tiger of Bengal (also released as The Tiger of Eschnapur which is a more faithful translation of the original German title Der Tiger von Eschnapur) is the first instalment of Fritz Lang’s so-called Indian Epic, a two-part adventure epic set in India and made in 1959 after Lang’s return to Germany. The second instalment was The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal). They are in fact a single two-part movie. The Indian Epic is based on the 1918 novel The Indian Tomb by Thea von Harbou, who was married to Lang from 1922 to 1933. She and Lang had written the screenplay for a film adaptation to be directed by Lang in the early 20s but, much to Lang’s disgust, the project was taken away from him by the producer.

The film bears only a passing resemblance to the novel. What it does retain from the novel is the strange, beautiful and sinister atmosphere of the enormous palace that is the setting for most of the action.

In the film German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) arrives in Eschnapur in India where he is to design and build schools and hospitals for the local ruler, the fabulously wealthy Maharajah Chandra (Walther Reyer). On his way to Eschnapur Berger had made the acquaintance of the dancer Seetha (Debra Paget). He is fascinated by her and she is by no means indifferent to him. Unfortunately the Maharajah is equally fascinated by Seetha. He hopes that she will take the place of his deceased maharani.

It’s obviously a very dangerous situation that is likely to lead to big trouble for all concerned. The Maharajah does not intend to abandon his attempt to win Seetha and Berger does not intend to give her up.

There’s also trouble stirring behind the scenes at the palace, with conspiracies and counter-conspiracies.

The Tiger of Bengal and its sequel, The Indian Tomb, were released several months apart in Germany but they are in fact a single film, with a total running time of something like three hours and twenty minutes. Turning a fairly short novel into a very long film obviously meant that apart from the other plot changes a lot of stuff was going to have to be added. Some of the mystery and the dreamlike quality of the novel are lost but there’s a great deal of extra action and excitement and the story is (not unnaturally) made a lot more cinematic.

The Indian Tomb continues the story where The Tiger of Bengal leaves off - in fact The Tiger of Bengal even has a classic cliffhanger ending. There is however a slight change of tone - the foreboding in the first film becomes outright menace in the second and Berger’s sister and her husband, who have arrived from Germany in search of Berger, take centre stage for a large part of The Indian Tomb, and do so in a way that those who have read the novel will find rather interesting.

The movie has often been criticised for its special effects. I have no idea why. Some are a bit iffy but on the whole they’re no worse than you’ll see in most movies, even big-budget movies, of its era. There’s some great Indian location shooting (the palace on the lake is the same one that appears much later in the best of the Roger Moore Bond films, Octopussy). The sets are superb, the costumes are gorgeous. It looks like a very expensive movie which it almost certainly wasn’t. At least not by Hollywood standards, although there was obviously some serious money spent on it. But if you want to make a great looking movie you need talent more than you need money. And Lang had the talent.

Debra Paget did not have the greatest of Hollywood careers (although she was terrific in Princess of the Nile) but she was absolutely the right choice to play Seetha. She has the right slightly exotic beauty and she knows how to make a dance suitably erotic. Seetha is supposed to be half-Indian and half-European and Paget has no trouble getting away with that. She looks right for the part and that matters more than her performance (which is in any case perfect adequate).

Paul Hubschmid is perhaps a little too passive. Walther Reyer does very well as Chandra, who is not so much a villain as a man who has been corrupted by too much unquestioned power. His motives are comprehensible and he really is justified in feeling betrayed even if his response is excessive. Chandra is a more interesting character than Berger and he is in many ways the real focus of the story.

Of course the characters are not meant to be real flesh-and-blood characters with lots of psychological complexity. It’s not that sort of story. It’s much closer to fairy tale than realistic psychological drama and we don’t expect in-depth character analysis in a fairy tale.

This is a movie that bewilders some Lang fans, mostly because they make the mistake of taking him too seriously. He was one of the greatest film-makers of all time and made plenty of complex, intelligent and provocative movies but he always understood that before anything else a movie has to be entertaining, and he liked to entertain. He also shared with Thea von Harbou an enthusiasm for pulpy popular adventure fiction. This was a movie that Lang had wanted to make for nearly forty years. It was a true labour of love. Although Werner Jörg Lüddecke gets the screenwriting credit Lang made major contributions to the script. There are lots of echoes of Metropolis (which had also been scripted by Lang and Thea von Harbou). Lang was able to make the movie the way he wanted to and it is in many ways very characteristically Langian. Even in his American period he made the underrated adventure film Moonfleet (which is interestingly more highly regarded in Europe than the U.S.). It was by no means some strange departure for Lang.

With Lang you always have to remember that he was raised as a Catholic and whether or not he was a practising Catholic or a good Catholic his outlook remained essentially Catholic throughout his life. Critics who obsess over the rôle of fate in Lang’s films miss the point. Lang believed that fate was inescapable but he also believed in free will - whatever fate has in store for us we can still choose how to deal with that fate and redemption is always possible. It always amazes me that there are critics who fail to see the importance of redemption even in a Lang film like You Only Live Once in which it is absolutely central. In the Indian Epic fate certainly plays a part but Seetha, Berger and Chandra all make choices. If you doubt any of this watch the ending of this movie closely. It’s all about redemption.

It’s also important to realise that the movie was in some ways an exercise in style. The visual impact, the atmosphere and the mood are more important than the plot.

The Indian Epic is an adventure film but it’s also to some extent a fairy tale. It takes place in a world that is supposed to be contemporary India but looks more like an imagined version of 19th century India with hints of the Arabian Nights and other fantastic fictional worlds. There are no radios or telephones or automobiles. You might think that Lang could easily have chosen to set the movie in 19th century India but it’s significant that he did not do this. The presence of the British would have been a fatal complication - it is important for the Maharajah to be an absolute ruler with no limitations on his power. In this respect it’s very reminiscent of the world of the Arabian Nights rather than India.

Mention must be made of Seetha’s snake dance. OK, the cobra isn’t very convincing, but when you’ve got a near-nude Debra Paget doing a startlingly erotic dance I don’t think anybody is going to be looking at the cobra. It’s one the scenes that amply justifies Paget's casting.

Lang is smart enough to make few compromises with any kind of strict realism. The film takes place in its own world, which is as it should be.

The question of authorship is intriguing. Thea von Harbou wrote the original novel. She and Lang wrote the screenplay for the 1921 film which Lang had hoped to direct. There was a 1938 German remake directed by Richard Eichberg and a number of plot points from that version found their way into Lang’s 1959 version (for which Eichberg gets a writing credit in Lang’s version). Werner Jörg Lüddecke wrote the original screenplay for the 1959 version but it was very substantially rewritten by Lang.

To add some confusion the two Lang films were edited together into a single 90-minute version for U.S. - Lang hated everything about this version apart from the title Journey to the Lost City which he loved.

Lang’s Indian Epic was a huge box-office hit in Germany. It made a lot of money and it went on making money. The critics in Germany hated the film. Being mid-century film critics they wanted serious realistic politically aware miserable films. They simply could not process the idea that a lavish exotic adventure movie might be something worthwhile. They also disliked the movie because they thought it old-fashioned. Which of course was exactly what Lang was aiming for. Most of all they hated it because it was incredibly popular. Anything that the public loved had to be bad. Critics still struggle with this movie and tend to dismiss it. But Lang liked making popular movies. Unlike the critics Lang had no problem with the idea that a movie could be artistically satisfying and also entertaining and also popular. He liked making adventure movies and science fiction and thrillers and yes he also liked making westerns. He added his personal stamp to all these genres.

It’s worth adding that to appreciate this movie fully it certainly helps if you’ve seen Metropolis, and probably Moonfleet, but definitely Metropolis. There are a lot of fascinating parallels.

Eureka’s Region 2 DVD release offers superb transfers and it’s packed with extras.

The Indian Epic is visually stunning and it’s terrific entertainment. This is pure Lang. He had complete creative freedom. This is a movie he desperately wanted to make and he was able to make it exactly the way he wanted to. It’s not the movie that critics at the time wanted him to make and it’s not the movie that many modern critics wished that he had made, but it is the movie he wanted to make and I think it succeeds. Very highly recommended.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Dick Tracy (1945)

Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip was immensely popular back in the 1930s. It was inevitable that Hollywood would take an interest. Four serials were made by Republic with Ralph Byrd as Tracy and four feature films from RKO followed. Morgan Conway took over the rôle in the first two films and Ralph Byrd in the last two. The first of the RKO films was Dick Tracy, also known as Dick Tracy, Detective, was released in 1945.

I’m note sure why (given that I’m such a keen B-movie fan) but I approached this film with very low expectations. That turned out to be a mistake.

In the serials Dick Tracy is a G-Man but in the movies (as in the comic strip) he’s a cop, with the Homicide Squad.

A brutal murder shocks the city. More murders follow. The motive appears to be extortion although Dick has his doubts about that. The extortion demands were written by someone signing himself Splitface. The victims were viciously slashed to death with a knife. Now the mayor has received an extortion demand as well. He’s not the bravest man in the world so he’s putting a lot of pressure on the police to solve this crime.

The trail leads Tracy to a creepy mortician named Deathridge, a night-club owner named Steve Owen and an astrologer and occultist named Professor Linwood J. Starling. They’re certainly involved, but it’s not clear how. Dick Tracy’s girlfriend got a look at the killer so they know how he got his name - he has a very large and very ugly scar on his face.

This is obviously a kind of serial killer movie, but not in the modern sense. There’s no question of any sexual motive. On the other hand it’s plain that the killer is one very crazy guy.

The trick with a movie like this is to retain enough of the comic-strip flavour that it doesn’t become just a generic crime B-movie but not so much that it becomes too silly or implausible. This movie manages that trick remarkably well. It’s generally realistic but it’s a kind of heightened or subtly warped realism. The villain is outrageously villainous but still just about believable. The plot is just slightly outlandish but again it doesn’t stretch credibility to breaking point. Dick Tracy is a square-jawed action hero but we can buy him as a hardboiled cop. This is not quite real life but it’s not quite out-and-out fantasy. The gadgets (like the famous wristwatch radio) have been dropped because they would have given it a slight science fiction feel and in a non-science fiction film they would have undermined believability too much.

This is a surprisingly violent movie and the violence is quite brutal by 40s standards. And the violence isn’t comic-strip violence. Overall the movie has quite a dark edge. Visually it’s very film noir with just the faintest hint of gothic and perhaps even a touch of German Expressionism. Director William Berke doesn’t try to get too gimmicky but he uses both low-angle and high-angle shots on occasion to add to the sinister mood. This is a very well-made movie.

Morgan Conway doesn’t look quite right as Dick Tracy but his performance more than makes up for this. He captures the feel of the character perfectly. Anne Jeffreys is excellent as Tracy’s likeable but jealous girlfriend Tess Trueheart. Mickey Kuhn manages to be completely non-irritating as Junior. Even when he gets himself involved n the case we don’t mind since this is a comic-strip movie. Mike Mazurki is wonderfully sinister and Trevor Bardette is both fun and slightly bizarre as Professor Starling. Jane Greer is wasted as Owen’s daughter Judith, a sadly underwritten part.

There’s no irritating comic relief character. There is some humour but it’s organic to the plot. And it’s effective.

If you’re expecting anything remotely resembling the comic-strip and comic-book movies and TV series of later eras you might be disappointed. There is not a trace of high camp. There is one brief hint of the paranormal but it can be explained away quite rationally. There are no gadgets. It’s basically the standard crime B-movie formula with a few key differences but those differences give it a unique flavour. It’s also insanely entertaining. Highly recommended.

Since I own a couple of the other RKO Dick Tracy movies you can expect further Dick Tracy reviews from me.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942)

Saboteur isn’t numbered among Alfred Hitchcock’s great films, and it’s not difficult to see why. This 1942 wartime thriller has some terrific moments and some superb visual set-pieces, but it just doesn’t quite come together. The biggest problem lies in the casting, and in the fact that it’s a virtual remake of his classic The 39 Steps.

The basic premise - an innocent man on the run after being wrongly accused of a crime - is a theme Hitchcock returned to again and again. In this case we have an act of sabotage in an aircraft factory, and a young and rather naïve worker (Barry Kane, played by Robert Cummings) finds himself the chief suspect. He encounters the inevitable blonde (played by Priscilla Lane) and gets into a series of scrapes and narrow escapes from both the law and the real saboteurs.

Unfortunately Robert Cummings, while being likeable enough, lacks the combination of charm and that slight edge of ruthlessness that made Robert Donat such a compelling hero in The 39 Steps. And Priscilla Lane makes a very bland heroine in comparison to Madeleine Carroll. There’s also a complete lack of romantic chemistry between the two leads. The supporting players are much more impressive - Norman Lloyd is nicely sinister as the real saboteur, Alan Baxter is wonderfully twisted as a quietly spoken but very disturbing killer, and Otto Kruger is perfectly oily as the leader of the saboteurs.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is the nature of the people that Kane accidentally encounters along the way. They’re all misfits or outsiders in some way. The characters who seem like the most upright and decent all-American solid citizens turn out out to be murderers and traitors, while the misfits and outsiders turn out to be the decent people who genuinely do the right thing. He comes across a kindly blind man whose mistrust of the officers of the law seems almost as extreme as Hitchcock’s own notorious dislike of the police, but the blind man’s insight into human nature is sound and leads him to do the correct thing even though it means lying to the police.

A collection of circus freaks gives a compelling lesson in the real meaning of democracy and justice. And a jovial truck driver with no love for the police either acts from an instinctive understanding of the requirements of humanity.

One can’t help feeling that the Production Code Administration must have been taken in by  the movie’s apparent patriotic message and that they failed to notice that the movie is actually quite sceptical of patriotism when it’s combined with unthinking zeal and unreasoning suspicion.

The movie ends with two spectacular set-pieces. There’s a real shootout in Radio City Music Hall that occurs while a make-believe shootout occurs on the screen, and there’s the famous climax on the Statue of Liberty. Both are superbly executed, and they’re sufficient reason on their own to make this movie worthwhile.

Despite its undoubted flaws Saboteur has plenty of other skilfully rendered moments of suspense as well, and it’s undeniably entertaining. While it's not in the same league as the best of his 1940s movies such as Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious, even a Hitchcock movie of the second rank is still very much worth seeing.