Friday, November 29, 2019

The Falcon in San Francisco (1945)

The Falcon in San Francisco was the eleventh of RKO’s very successful Falcon B-movies and the eighth to star Tom Conway as The Falcon. It was released in 1945.

Tom Lawrence (AKA The Falcon) and his sidekick ‘Goldie’ Locke are heading for San Francisco for a well-earned vacation, but of course when detectives go on vacation you can be sure that murder will follow them. On the train they meet a cute little girl named Annie Marshall, along with her cute little dog named Diogenes. Annie solemnly informs them that he is being kept a prisoner in her own house. Of course it’s the sort of crazy thing that eight-year-olds do say so they don’t take much notice.

And then Annie’s nurse turns up dead. Tom Lawrence has a suspicion that it might be murder. So now he’s definitely interested.

On arrival in San Francisco Tom volunteers to take Annie to her home, and is promptly arrested for kidnapping. He is bailed out by the mysterious Doreen Temple and he is then beaten up. Now Tom is very interested indeed.

He does have one promising clue to what is starting to look like an intriguing mystery. The nurse’s name was Carla Keyes and Tom finds a photo of an Abel Keyes, first mate on the S.S. Citadel, a ship with a colourful past. And there’s a connection between Annie Marshall’s sister Joan and a shipping line, Star Costal Lines, the one for which Abel Keyes works.

It’s obvious that Doreen Temple is telling lies, but then Joan Marshall isn’t telling the truth either, and neither is the shipping line’s manager, De Forrest Marshall. There’s at least one conspiracy, undoubtedly criminal, at work but there may in fact be more than one. Rather than just blundering about The Falcon sets to work to follow up all the leads. There are double-crosses and the people doing the double-crossing are also being double-crossed. It’s a pretty neat little mystery plot for a B-feature.

Surprisingly for a B-picture there’s some actual location shooting. Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to become a film noir legend as director of Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, was still learning the ropes at this stage but he’s already more than competent and there are a few typical Lewis touches.

 Perhaps not surprisingly for a Joseph H. Lewis movie there’s some effective atmosphere and even a hint of film noir in both the visuals and the tone. This is a well-crafted little film.

Tom Conway breezes through his part with his usual easy-going charm. Edward Brophy as the likeable rough among Goldie provides low-key but non-irritating comic relief. Fay Helm is a serviceable femme fatale. Sharyn Moffett as Annie is cute without being annoying. Rita Corday is fine as Annie’s sister Joan. Carl Kent is excellent as the smooth but sinister gunman Rickey. Overall the acting is very solid indeed.

All the Falcon movies are available in two made-on-demand DVD sets from the Warner Archive series. The Falcon in San Francisco is included in the second set. I saw this movie on cable TV so I cannot comment on the quality of the DVD sets although the Warner Archive releases are usually pretty good.

This is an above-average entry in the Falcon cycle (and all the Falcon films are at the very least reasonably entertaining) and it’s an above-average B-movie. It’s well-acted, well-plotted and well-made. The Falcon in San Francisco is highly recommended.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Black Rose (1950)

The Black Rose is a 1950 Technicolor swashbuckling adventure film from 20th Century-Fox. It was shot partly on location in Morocco with the studio sequences done in England. And it stars Tyrone Power, one of the greatest swashbucklers of them all.

Every country has its myths and one of England’s most enduring myths is the oppression of the noble Saxons by the cruel and wicked Norman conquerors. That’s the starting point of this movie. Young Walter of Gurnie (Tyrone Power) is a Saxon, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Lessford. His father married a Norman lady and that’s why Walter hates the Normans so much - his father’s half-Norman son inherited everything and he was left with nothing. To rub further salt into Walter’s wounds his father expressed a dying wish that Walter enter the service of the king. Since Edward I (Edward Longshanks) is a hated Norman young Walter is particularly unhappy about this. His situation is difficult enough but things get much worse when Walter joins bowman Tristan Griffin (Jack Hawkins) in freeing Saxon hostages from his villainous half-brother. After which it becomes obvious the it would be a very good idea for Walter and Tristan to get out of England.

Walter was briefly a student at Oxford and has heard of a place called Cathay, a fabulously wealthy and incredibly advanced country. That seems like a good place to head to. Having managed to get as far as the Holy Land he wangles his way into a caravan bound in the right general direction, laden with gifts for Kublai Khan who is about to conquer China. The caravan is to be escorted by the army of the renowned and much-feared Mongol general Bayan (Orson Welles). Tristan’s prowess with the longbow attracts Bayan’s attention and this combined with Walter’s ability to play a passable game of chess convinces Bayan that these two Englishmen might be of some use to him.

This is a promising development but Walter is about to get himself into hot water again, having been convinced (against his better judgment) to help rescue an English girl known as the Black Rose. She is one of the presents being sent to the great Khan. It turns out that Maryam is not exactly English but she’s keen to go to England since the is part of a miracle that has been promised to her.

Walter and Tristan enter Bayan’s service. Bayan’s ruthlessness appals the bluff honest Tristan but it doesn’t seem to bother Walter. In fact Bayan’s philosophy that it’s either conquer or be conquered appeals to the embittered dispossessed Saxon. Walter and Tristan will get to see Cathay where they will play a rather equivocal rôle, serving Bayan without being entirely convinced that that’s the right thing to do.

This is a swashbuckler that is to a surprising extent character-driven, and with characters who are not quite straightforward good guys and bad guys. Walter is a good guy but he’s motivated by irrational hatred and bitterness, his judgment is often poor and his moral compass has gone sadly astray. This is the kind of rôle in which Tyrone Power excelled - slightly ambiguous slightly flawed heroes. Power is prepared to take the risk of making Walter a character who is not always likeable.

The relationship between Walter and Bayan is the most interesting part of the movie. Bayan (played with gleeful relish by Welles) is a man not particularly troubled by moral scruples. He believes that the best way to win wars is by killing his enemies. All of them. He has no qualms about using terror as a weapon. He’s a villain of sorts, but it was a violent world and he does what he considers to be necessary. He is charming but unpredictable, intelligent and charismatic and Walter falls under his spell. Bayan is also, in his own way, genuinely fond of Walter. He likes men with spirit. Bayan is not a stock villain - he’s complicated and fascinating.

Cécile Aubry as Maryam is very odd. She was twenty-one when she made the film but looks sixteen. She’s exasperating and impossible to reason with. The romantic chemistry isn’t quite there. Aubry had a brief film career followed by a much longer and much more successful career as a writer of children’s books. Jack Hawkins is the perfect brave noble Englishman but he could get away with such stereotypical performances. Michael Rennie is hampered by the script’s insistence on portraying Edward Longshanks as a perfect king.

A major plus in this movie is Jack Cardiff’s stunning cinematography. When we think of Technicolor we think of bright glorious saturated colours but Cardiff demonstrates that it was possible to do a lot more than that with the medium - there are some wonderful atmospheric night scenes.

This is one of the five adventure movies included in the superb Tyrone Power Collection boxed set. The DVD transfer is very good. It’s full frame which is perfectly correct and the colours look fine.

This is a typical Tyrone Power swashbuckler, offering adventure and romance with some unexpected touches of moral complexity.

The Black Rose is not the best of the Tyrone Power swashbucklers but it’s still pretty good. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Miami Story (1954)

The Miami Story is a 1954 Sam Katzman production released by Columbia. It belongs to a genre very popular at that time, the crime movie done in a semi-documentary style, sometimes with slight film noir overtones.

Organised crime is out of control in Miami. A committee of concerned citizens has decided that the police are powerless so they’re going to take matters into their own hands. They’re a kind of Chamber of Commerce vigilante committee, although thy have the backing of the police. And they recruit reformed gangster Mick Flagg (Barry Sullivan) to do the active vigilante stuff.

One thing that doesn't quite make sense is that there’s no real explanation of why the police can’t take action themselves. The obvious explanation would be that they’re on the take but the film-makers don’t want to suggest such a shocking thought.

The organised crime kingpin in Miami is Tony Brill (Luther Adler). He’s just had two Cuban mobsters rubbed out (in a very good opening sequence) and a girl travelling with the Cubans, Holly Abbott (Beverly Garland), is afraid she’s going to be next although we never find out why. Mick decides she might be useful to him.

Mick’s idea is to scare Brill into thinking that he’s the new head of a Cuban gambling syndicate about to take over the Miami underworld. His reasoning seems to be that this will put pressure on Brill and maybe Brill will make a mistake. He also figures he might be able to subvert Brill’s second-in-command and chief muscle-man Teddy Delacorte (John Baer) or at least tempt him into making a move against his boss.

It’s best not to think too much about the plot. It’s serviceable but it doesn’t always quite add up. At the beginning we get a message from a state senator assuring us that there is  now no organised crime whatsoever in Miami. There was some but everything’s fine now, honestly.

Being a Sam Katzman production you expect this movie to look very very cheap but it’s not as bad as you might fear.

Fortunately there’s plenty of action and suspense. The violence is also rather strong - there are even corpses dripping with blood, rather unusual in 1954 but Katzman was at heart an exploitation producer and this movie is pretty close to being an exploitation movie. Mick Flagg might be the good guy but he slaps women around a lot.

The movie’s big strength is the very good cast. Barry Sullivan is a convincing tough guy. Luther Adler is fun as the big-talking but basically cowardly Tony Brill. Adele Jergens is very good as Holly’s big sister Gwen, definitely a Bad Girl and as hard as nails. I’ve never understood why Beverly Garland didn’t become a bigger star. She does well as Holly, the Good Girl who’d like to save her wicked sister. John Baer is nicely sinister as the smooth thug Delacorte. The Brill-Delacorte relationship is definitely creepy.

The 1954 high-tech surveillance equipment used by the cops adds some more fun.

There’s absolutely zero film noir content here, either visually or thematically.

The Miami Story was shot widescreen in black and white. It’s been released in the nine-movie Noir Archive Blu-Ray set from Kit Parker Films. The idea of the Blu-Ray release was really just a way to fit nine movies on three discs. The anamorphic transfer is DVD quality.

The Miami Story is lurid, sleazy, pulpy, violent and tawdry. And the more lurid, sleazy, pulpy, violent and tawdry it gets the better it gets. This is a fun low-budget crime melodrama with a lot of exploitation movie overtones and if that’s what you’re looking for it delivers the goods and the fairly ridiculous plot doesn’t matter. Recommended.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Carol Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959)

Graham Greene had been appalled by the 1958 film adaptation of his novel The Quiet American. He felt, quite correctly, that it entirely missed the point of his novel. If any more of his books were going to be adapted for the screen he was going to make very sure he did the job himself. So when Carol Reed directed the film version of Our Man in Havana in 1959 Greene wrote the screenplay (he would also write the screenplay for the 1967 film of his later book The Comedians).

Greene has a well-deserved reputation for being dark and pessimistic but Our Man in Havana caught him in a playful mood. It’s certainly a very cynical spy story but it’s wickedly amusing, bitingly satirical and remarkably good-natured. The tone of the movie perfectly reflects that of the book.

The setting is Cuba just before Castro’s revolution. Mr Wormold (Alec Guinness) sells vacuum cleaners in Havana. He does reasonably well but he has a daughter. Milly is a charming schoolgirl but daughters can be very expensive. And now Milly wants a horse. Mr Wormold knows how expensive horses are. They’re even more expensive than daughters.

So it seems like a stroke of good fortune when he is approached by Hawthorne (Noël Coward). Hawthorne is the Caribbean station chief for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). And MI6 needs a man in Havana. Hawthorne feels that Wormold is ideal spy material. Why he would think this is a mystery although it may have something to do with the fact that Hawthorne is a not a very competent spymaster. Wormold has no interest in being a spy but the $150 a month plus expenses (tax free) that MI6 is offering would buy a lot of horse feed so he accepts the offer. Things are definitely looking up. Mr Wormold is happy. Milly is happy. The horse is happy.

The problem is that MI6 expects Mr Wormold to supply them with actual secret  information, gathered by his sub-agents. Mr Wormold does not have any secret  information, nor does he have any sub-agents. He is worried about this until his old friend Dr Hasselbacher make an inspired suggestion. Why not just make the information up? Why not just invent the sub-agents as well? This proves to be a most inspired idea, with the added bonus that Mr Wormold can collect the pay intended for the sub-agents himself.

The real trouble starts when London, excited by the extraordinarily valuable intelligence he is supplying, sends him an assistant. So now he has to persuade this assistant, Mrs Severn (Maureen O’Hara), that he really is a spy. Worse follows. Much worse. Someone else, someone from the other side, is also convinced that he is a real and very dangerous spy and they start taking very serious steps to remove Mr Wormold and his espionage network from the scene.

The whole situation is of course farcical but the farce isn’t so funny when people start to get killed. It’s still played for comedy but now it’s black comedy.

Carol Reed was the ideal person to bring the novel to the screen. He was a stylish director and had shown a gift for combining ironic cynical espionage tales in his earlier masterpiece The Third Man which of course was also written by Graham Greene. Quite a few of the visual flourishes that gave that movie its distinctive display make a re-appearance in Our Man in Havana (lots of Dutch angles for example).

Alec Guinness is in sparkling form. I was dubious about Burl Ives as a German doctor but he carries it off rather well. Noël Coward as Hawthorne and Ralph Richardson as ‘C’ are delicious as Wormold’s self-important but ridiculously inept superiors. Comedian Ernie Kovacs is surprisingly good as the secret policeman Captain Segura, a man with an evil reputation and a cheerful disposition.

The DVD release from Sony is 16:9 enhanced (the movie was shot in the Cinemascope ratio) and the black-and-white cinematography looks great. There are alas no extras.

Graham Greene, having been an actual MI6 agent himself, understood the absurdities and the deceptions (and self-deceptions) of the game of espionage. This movie adaptation of Our Man in Havana is a delight. It’s witty and lively and combines a light-hearted tone with some truly savage satire. The superb cast certainly helps. Highly recommended.