Sunday, October 27, 2019

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt was a somewhat ground-breaking movie at the time of its release in 1968. This fact is less obvious today simply because just about every cop movie made since 1968 has been influenced, consciously or unconsciously by Bullitt.

It was not of course the first movie to feature a car chase but it was the first to have a car chase as its centrepiece and its main selling point. It marks a crucial step in the development of the modern action movie. It was the first Hollywood cop movie to be done in an uncompromising gritty and realistic style. It was also unusual for its time in being shot entirely on location.

It’s also the ultimate Steve McQueen movie. If you want to know why McQueen was a very big deal this is the film you need to watch.

McQueen had seen an obscure 1965 British movie called Robbery and had been extremely impressed. Impressed enough to insist on having that film’s director, Peter Yates, direct Bullitt. It was a lucky break for Yates in more ways than one. McQueen wanted Yates to have pretty much complete artistic control and McQueen had enough clout in Hollywood in 1968 to ensure that this happened.

There are, as director Peter Yates explains in his audio commentary, two plot strands and it’s the secondary one that is the important one. The main plot concerns Chicago hoodlum Johnny Ross who is about to testify before a Senate enquiry and of course the Mob is determined he’s not going to live long enough to do that. The secondary plot concerns the cop, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen), assigned the job of keeping Ross alive until Monday morning. The real focus of the film is on Bullitt’s story rather than Ross’s.

Right from the start Bullitt clashes with the ambitious, oily, ruthless D.A. Chalmers (Robert Vaugn) for whom Ross is going to be a star witness at the enquiry. Bullitt is not quite a stereotyped maverick cop. On the whole he’s happy enough to follow the rules but he’s increasingly forced into the maverick cop rôle by his own stubborn refusal to compromise (a bit like the hero of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat).

Acting as bodyguard for Ross turns out not to be so simple. In fact it all starts to go very wrong. Bullitt has the suspicion that it may have been a setup but untangling the details is going to mean putting his career on the line.

There have been plenty of actors who have encapsulated coolness, but none did so to quite the same extent as McQueen. This is a guy who can play a scene wearing a cardigan and still seem cool and dangerous. McQueen was very much a minimalist actor and it works to his advantage here. He doesn’t seem to be doing very much but what he does do invariably works.

Robert Vaughn gives the performance of his career as Chalmers. Chalmers is evil but it’s not a melodrama villain sort of evil. This is the evil of men who take short cuts, who start making compromises and then can’t stop, who cannot resist the siren song of ambition. Vaughn, like McQueen, deliberately underplays his rôle and the quiet intensity of these two men who despise each other gives the movie its edge.

There are great supporting performances from Don Gordon as Bullitt’s sergeant, Delgetti, and Simon Oakland as his boss, Captain Bennet. Bennet has his own career to consider but he’ll back Bullitt as far as he dares.

Jacqueline Bisset as Bullitt’s girlfriend Cathy is there to humanise the hero a bit. We need to see that Bullitt is not a single-minded machine, that he does care about people. It’s a thankless rôle for Bisset since the focus is entirely on Bullitt and she really doesn’t have much to do. That’s unfortunate for her as an actress but had her character been more fully developed the movie would have lost focus.

The location shooting is quite superb. The hospital proves to be an incredibly effective location, as does the airport. The action finale at the airport is perhaps even better than the famous car chase.

As for the car chase, I love the way it starts very low-key with Bullitt just shadowing the bad guys’ car with the music building up the tension then as soon as the chase itself starts the music stops. The engine sounds are the only soundtrack needed for the chase.

Whether McQueen did all his own driving is a matter of dispute. He certainly seems to have done most of it.

The famous car chase was not filmed, as you might expect, by the second unit. Peter Yates wanted to direct it himself and of course since much of the stunt driving was being done by the star it was a logical enough decision. Maybe later movie car chases are more spectacular but this one still holds up pretty well.

The Special Edition DVD includes plenty of extras. Peter Yates provides an extremely informative audio commentary, there’s a documentary on McQueen and one on film editing plus a contemporary featurette on the making of the movie.

Bullitt redefined the action cop thriller so it has considerable historical importance. It doesn't feel at all dated and it’s great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Assignment: Paris (1952)

Assignment: Paris is a 1952 Cold War spy thriller from Columbia.

Dana Andrews stars as ace New York Herald Tribune reporter Jimmy Race. He’s covering the trial of an American named Anderson convicted of espionage in Hungary. The newspaper’s Paris bureau chief Nick Strang (George Sanders) wants to tread carefully. He has the crazy old-fashioned idea that newspapers should stick to the facts. There’s no evidence that Anderson was wrongly convicted so it would be wrong to make such a claim. Jimmy Race has no time for outdated ideas like journalistic ethics. He doesn’t really care if Anderson is guilty or not. Jimmy just wants to lead an anti-communist crusade. It’s fairly clear that the viewer is expected to be on Jimmy’s side.

Of course there’s a romantic complication. Nick and glamorous reporter Jeanne Moray (Märta Torén) are in love but Jimmy’s personal morals are on a par with his professional ethics so he sets out to steal Nick’s girl. Jeanne is French so naturally she was in the Resistance during the war.

Jimmy is sent to Budapest to replace the Tribune’s correspondent there. He makes contact with the Underground and he attracts some unfavourable attention from the secret police. They think he’s there as a spy and they arrest him. Of course by making contact with the Underground he really is playing at espionage and the Hungarians are therefore perfectly justified in arresting him but the movie glosses over such inconvenient details.

Now Nick and Jeanne have to find a way to get Jimmy out.

There’s not a great deal of excitement to be had here. Mostly it’s predictable and the characters are not interesting enough to persuade us to care very much what happens to them.

I like Dana Andrews as an actor but he gives a one-note performance here, playing Jimmy as a rude arrogant blowhard. Märta Torén is adequate but rather on the dull side. George Sanders is miscast as a hard-driving editor and is largely wasted anyway. Since the Hungarians are communists they’re all played as sinister cardboard cutout bad guys. There’s not a character in this movie who isn’t a cliché.

Assignment: Paris is included in the nine-movie Noir Archive Blu-Ray set from Kit Parker Films. Its claim to being film noir thematically are non-existent, and visually they’re very very thin. The attempts to make us believe we’re in Paris and Budapest are about as convincing as you'd expect in a Hollywood movie of this era. Robbert Parish directed and you can see why his career was less than stellar. Supposedly Phil Karlson also took a hand which I guess gives it a very tenuous connection to film noir.

As a spy story it’s too slow and lacking in real suspense. There are a couple of scenes that are reasonably atmospheric and competently executed, especially towards the end.

The most interesting thing in the movie is seeing the bad guys editing audio tape by hand, using scissors.

This is not so much a spy thriller as an out-and-out propaganda film, and a fairly clumsy one. The hero is meant to be noble and brave although to me he seems to be an obnoxious jerk. The other good guys are very heroic. The bad guys are totally evil but not in an interesting way. The screenplay by William Bowers is heavy-handed. A newspaper story needs to be snappy and sparkling but this one fails to ignite.

This Blu-Ray release is essentially a way to fit nine movies on just three discs. The transfer is basically DVD quality, but it’s good DVD quality. The black-and-white image quality is good. Sound quality is fine. There are no extras.

As anti-communist hysteria movies go Assignment: Paris isn’t outrageous enough to be fun. It’s fairly stodgy. Even Dana Andrews completists might want to think twice about bothering with this one.

I honestly cannot recommend this film, even as a rental.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Mystery of Mr Wong (1939)

The Mystery of Mr Wong is the second of the series starring Boris Karloff as the great Chinese detective Mr Wong. It was released in 1939.

The subject of Hollywood attitudes towards Asia and Asians from the 1920s to the 1950s is a fascinating one. There was a considerable interest in Asian subjects on the part of the American public and Hollywood saw those subjects as being good box office. In particular there was a huge vogue for Asian detectives. There was the immensely successful series of Charlie Chan films. 20th Century-Fox enjoyed comparable success with their Mr Moto crime/spy thrillers. And then there were Monogram’s Mr Wong movies.

All of these movies featured Chinese (or in the case of Mr Moto Japanese) characters as heroes. They were characters who were brilliant, brave, resourceful and noble. The other Asian characters who appeared in subsidiary rôles ran the gamut from the heroic to the entirely villainous.

These days of course the very idea of having a Chinese character portrayed by a Caucasian actor would be regarded by many as offensive in itself. But this is Karloff, a great actor, and Mr Wong is certainly not a mere stereotype. Karloff avoids any temptation to play the character for laughs or to ham it up, and in fact he underplays his performance. He also doesn’t look or sound remotely Chinese! He plays Mr Wong as an English gentleman, which given the fact that the character was supposedly educated at Oxford this is perhaps not as as bad an acting choice as you might think. And Karloff had a genius for endowing every character he ever played with dignity.

The reality was that these B-movie series rely a great deal on the charisma and star quality of the lead actors, and there was at that time no Chinese actor in Hollywood with both the ability and the box office clout to carry it off. When Karloff departed after the first five films Keye Luke took over the part but sadly he lacked the star appeal of Karloff (and he was also hampered by the fact that Karloff had stablished the character as a rather stately middle-aged man).

At least some of the supporting roles are played by Chinese actors, and none could really be regarded as stereotypes. Of course this was 1939, and growing US hostility to Japan (engaged at that time in a war with China) was going to encourage favourable attitudes towards China, so it’s possible that this political background is partly responsible for the generally sympathetic tone of the movie.

So how does it stack up simply as a murder mystery? It has an incredibly convoluted plot generously littered with red herrings, and it’s entertaining enough without being anything wildly sensational. A wealthy American collector named Edwards has obtained possession of a fabulously valuable jewel known as The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. This jewel was looted during the Japanese sack of Nanking, it has considerable cultural significance, and both the Chinese government and many Chinese-Americans are distinctly unhappy that it has been taken out of China. When the collector is murdered this could well be the motive, but it’s not by any means the sole possible motive. And to make things more interesting, the collector predicted his own slaying and left behind a letter naming his future murderer!

The murder itself is done cleverly and with great style, during a game of charades.

There are other possible motives, apart from The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. Edwards was an insanely jealous man and had quarrelled with a number of men he suspected of taking an excessive interest in his wife. He had also changed his will, providing another very strong motive. The plot is complex but satisfying.

Karloff is excellent, naturally. Grant Withers is in all the Wong movies, playing Wong’s policeman friend Captain Street. Street is a sympathetic character, a cop who does his best and is smart enough to know that it’s always a good thing to have Mr Wong’s help on a case. Dorothy Tree plays Edwards’ wife with perhaps a bit too much hysteria.

This movie series was based (very very loosely) on Hugh Wiley’s James Lee Wong stories (which I reviewed here). Wiley’s version of the character is also an educated man but he’s a Yale man rather than an Oxford man. He’s also a youngish man and he’s a special agent with the Treasury Department. The stories themselves are also much more hardboiled compared to the movies.

The Mr Wong movies have all fallen into the public domain and have had some very dubious DVD releases. All six movies have recently been released in a two-disc set from VCI and the transfers are really very good.

The Mystery of Mr Wong is a B-movie but it’s a quality B-movie, and it’s extremely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

You might also want to read my review of the next movie in the series, Mr Wong in Chinatown.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Dangerous Profession (1949)

A Dangerous Profession is a 1949 RKO film noir staring George Raft. Not everyone likes George Raft but I like him a lot. His co-star is Ella Raines and that’s another reason for me to be interested in this movie. She’s a rather underrated film noir player.

Raft is Vince Kane, an ex-cop who is now a bail bondsman. He likes it better and it pays better. A while back there was this dame by the name of Lucy Brackett and he thought maybe there might be something between them but it didn’t work out. She had a husband but he didn't know that at the time. He hasn’t forgotten her though. And there was a securities robbery and a cop who got killed and a guy named Claude Brackett that the police wanted to talk to. Brackett claimed to be innocent. Maybe he was. Either way he took a powder and that was the end of that. Until now. Now Vince’s buddy Nick Ferrone (Jim Backus), a cop, has picked up Claude Brackett. The D.A. is pretty interested in Brackett and the bail is set very high - $25,000.

Claude Brackett cannot raise that sort of money and Lucy Brackett can't either. It would be crazy for Vince to put up the money but Vince likes to gamble and he likes women and he likes Lucy and if he’d thought about it maybe he wouldn’t have done it but he does put up the money. To no-one’s surprise Claude skips out again but this time it’s more complicated and this time it ends in murder and Vince is in a bit of a spot.

There are a lot of angles to this case. There’s a less than reputable lawyer called Dawson who put up a lot of money for the bail as well even though Claude Brackett had never heard of the guy. And there’s the guy that Vince spilled coffee on. Vince is interested in that guy.

Vince is under pressure from Nick Ferrone. He’s also under pressure from his partner, Joe Farley (Pat O’Brien. Actually the odd thing is that Farley doesn’t seem too worried.

Nick Ferrone is plenty worried though, and he’s not happy about Vince and that dame.

The essence of film noir is a protagonist who isn’t evil but has a weakness and it drags him into the noir nightmare world. In this case Vince has been tempted into playing a very dangerous game with some very dangerous people. But exactly what game is it that he’s playing? Which side is he playing on? And what is he playing for? Is it the girl? Or is it the money? Is he a hero or a villain? Maybe Vince isn’t sure of the answer to that question.

This is a typical George Raft performance. Raft was an actor who played tough guys in an admirably effortless way. Raft really was a tough guy. He didn’t have to act it. But what he was really good at was playing tough guys who were kind of sympathetic, and especially tough guys who took big chances because they liked taking chances. Vince Kane takes a lot of chances. This is a case he should have steered well clear of but that was never going to happen.

Ella Raines plays Lucy Brackett and she’s not an obvious femme fatale but sometimes it’s the ones that aren’t obvious that you really have to be careful of. Lucy tells a lot of lies. Sometimes maybe she tells the truth, but you can never be sure. She’s a pretty good liar.

The supporting cast is excellent. Jim Backus is better remembered for comic rôles (he was the millionaire in Gilligan’s Island and did a lot of cartoons including Mr Magoo) but he was actually quite versatile and here he does a fine job as a hardboiled cop. Pat O’Brien is terrific as Farley.

Everyone in this movie is a bit ambiguous. It’s hard to know who’s on the level and who’s a crook and who isn’t.

Ted Tetzlaff was at best a journeyman director but he does OK here. The script has some nice twists. It’s a bit confusing at times but in a film noir that can be a feature rather than a bug.

The Warner Archive release is very decent.

A Dangerous Profession may not be top-flight noir but it’s fine entertainment. It helps if you’re a George Raft fan (which I obviously am) but even if you’re not there are fine performances from all the other cast members. Highly recommended.