Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Fallen Idol (1948)

The Fallen Idol, released in 1948, was the first of three very successful collaborations between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. Reed had come up with the idea of doing a film based on Greene’s 1935 short story The Basement Room and asked Greene to write the screenplay.

The story had been set in the past in a large house in Belgravia but in 1948 such houses with a multitude of servants were becoming a thing of the past. Reed decided that an embassy would be the closest modern equivalent so the movie is set in the French Embassy in London. The early stages of the movie follow the short story fairly closely but towards the end it diverges from the short story in a number of very significant ways.

Phillipe (Bobby Henrey)  is a small boy growing up in the embassy. In fact he’s the son of the ambassador. His mother is away and has been for quite some time, recovering from a serious illness. His father is of course too busy to spend much time with Phillipe. The boy doesn’t mind because he has Baines (Ralph Richardson), the embassy’s English butler, whom the lad hero-worships. Phillipe believes every word of the tall stories Baines tells him of his adventures in Africa as a young man.

One thing Phillipe is learning about life is that you have to keep secrets. You especially have to keep secrets from Mrs Baines. He is afraid of Mrs Baines. Everybody is afraid of Mrs Baines, and with good reason. Phillipe has his secrets. And he discovers that Baines has a secret too. It’s about his niece. At least he tells the boy that Julie (Michèle Morgan) is his niece.

The secrets become important when tragedy strikes. Is it best to tell the truth or to tell lies? Everything Phillipe has seen of life so far suggests that lies are the best policy.

At the point where you think the story has more or less reached its finale it’s actually only just getting into top gear. Now the twists kick in. The lies multiply. There are so many lies that when someone tells the truth it sounds like a lie, and when someone tells a lie it sounds like the truth. Now we’re well and truly in Greeneland, and if you’ve seen the later Graham Greene-Carol Reed collaborations The Third Man and Our Man in Havana you know how cleverly Greene can deal with a world of deception. Once you start telling lies you just have to keep going but there’s quite an art to keeping the lies straight.

But this film not only has a superb script by Greene it also has the visual brilliance that one expects from Carol Reed. The scene with the boy on the fire escape is a typical Reed tour-de-force. This being a 1940s Carol Reed film you’ll be expecting some Dutch angles and other visual flourishes and he provides them, but with Reed the visual pyrotechnics always serve a purpose. This is a twisted world of deceit. Reed was at the top of his form in the late 40s and Greene was just starting to reach his peak.

What’s really interesting is that the lies are not told by bad people and they’re not really told for malicious purposes. Sometimes they’re told with the best of intentions. But they become a habit. Just as secrets are not necessarily a bad thing but they become a habit too. Lies and secrets can be a kindness, but they can be dangerous.

Ralph Richardson gives his finest screen performance. Michèle Morgan and young Bobby Henrey are very good and there’s a terrific supporting cast - Jack Hawkins, Bernard Lee, Sonia Dresdel, Geoffrey Keen.

There’s some definite seriousness here but this is not Greeneland at its darkest. There’s some humour and there are even touches of genuine human warmth. One thing you need to bear in mind is that this was an early short story by a writer still learning his craft. When Greene wrote the screenplay for The Fallen Idol thirteen years later he was an established writer just about at the top of his game.

The Studiocanal Region 2 DVD offers a lovely transfer and quite a few extras. There are several other DVD and Blu-Ray releases.

The Fallen Idol is a quirky film. It’s part murder mystery, part suspense film and part psychological drama. Surprisingly perhaps it was a major box office success. This is a truly great movie, one of the classics of British cinema. Very highly recommended.

My review of the original short story can be found here at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Girl in Black Stockings (1957)

The Girl in Black Stockings, released in 1957, is part of Kino Lorber’s three-movie set of steamy crime potboilers featuring the legendary blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren although she actually plays only a supporting rôle in this particular movie.

A women’s body is found in the bushes at a resort hotel in Utah. The young woman apparently had a less than respectable reputation. The body is found by lawyer Dave Hewson (Lex Barker) and Beth Dixon (Anne Bancroft). The obvious suspect would be Edmund Parry (Ron Randell), the owner of the hotel and a man who thoroughly hated the dead girl (in fact he doesn’t seem overly fond of women in general). Parry is looked after by his devoted sister Julia (Marie Windsor). But Parry is completely paralysed so that pretty much eliminates him as a suspect. Fortunately (or from the sheriff’s point of view unfortunately) there are plenty of other suspects.

Pretty soon the bodies start to pile up. The sheriff knows he’s dealing with a psycho but there seem to be plenty of potential psychos among the suspects.

Apart from those mentioned above there’s a faded movie star, his blonde good time gal girlfriend Harriet (van Doren) and a local Lothario. I was pretty certain I knew what the solution was going to turn out to be but I admit I was totally wrong.

This was 1957 so while there are plenty of brutal murders the violence occurs off screen. The sexual content is obviously entirely implied as well but Mamie van Doren still manages to heat things up in her inimitable style.

For a cheapie B-budget this film boasts a pretty strong cast. Anne Bancroft and Lex Barker are the headliners but of course there’s Mamie van Doren and Marie Windsor, both B-move favourites. And in one of his most substantial rôles, as the local sheriff, there’s John Dehner and he’s one of my favourite American character actors. Ron Randell doesn’t let the fact that the character he’s playing is paralysed stop him from chewing the scenery.

All the performances are very good. The players are giving it everything they’ve got and there really aren’t any weak links among the cast. Ron Randell is the standout - he really is scary and creepy.

This is very much a B-picture but it has absolutely everything you could wish for in a B-picture. There’s some reasonably lurid subject matter, there’s glamour and there’s a well-constructed script by Richard H. Landau with some good red herrings and an effective shock ending. Director Howard W. Koch does a fine job. Given the low budget he can’t do anything too fancy but he gives us some nicely atmospheric moments and there’s certainly no reason to complain about the pacing. It’s a well-crafted little movie.

Location shooting was done at the Parry Lodge in Utah. It’s a great location which was used in countless movies and I believe it still exists.

The anamorphic transfer is excellent. The extras include a fascinating interview with Miss van Doren (who is at the time of writing still very much alive). She talks about the three movies included in the set (of which she has fond memories) and about her 1950s career in general.

The Girl in Black Stockings is a solid murder mystery with perhaps some very faint noir tinges. It’s content to be a B-movie, but it’s a good and very entertaining B-movie. Highly recommended even if Mamie van Doren doesn’t get anywhere near enough screen time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Escape in the Fog (1945)

Escape in the Fog is an odd little Columbia spy thriller B-feature released in 1945.

Nina Foch plays Eileen Carr, a military nurse who has had a crack-up and has been honourably discharged as a result. She has disturbing dreams. So do lots of people. But Eileen’s dreams come true! She dreams about a man, a man she has never seen before, being attacked on a bridge. And the next day she meets the man. The man is Barry Malcolm (William Wright) and for both of them it’s love at first. And he does get attacked on a bridge, exactly as happened in the dream.

Barry Malcolm is a Federal Agent and he’s just been assigned to a vital mission, to deliver important papers to a contact in Hong Kong. The papers concern American plans to attack Japanese forces in China. First he has to collect the papers in San Francisco.

Unfortunately a sinister Nazi spy ring has found out about the mission. They intend to get the papers. Awkwardly for both the Nazis and Barry Malcolm the papers are now at the bottom of the bay after Malcolm threw them off a bridge.

He’s told Eileen about the mission and she’s playing amateur spy with enthusiasm but with mixed results. She naturally manages to get herself captured by the Nazi spies.

It all turns out to be a very conventional by-the-numbers spy flick. Sadly the potentially really interesting angles, just as Eileen’s talent for precognition, are not developed. The story at least moves along at a good pace.

Nina Foch is quite adequate and very likeable as Eileen. William Wright, a now forgotten actor who died tragically young, is a perfectly serviceable hero. In fact he’s pretty good. Otto Kruger plays the enigmatic Paul Devon and does so effectively if predictably. There’s the expected conventional Nazi villain.

This was an early directorial effort by Budd Boetticher, later to gain fame as a director of westerns. This is very much a B-picture so he doesn’t get much opportunity to do anything clever but films like this were great training in getting on with a story without distracting the viewer with unnecessary padding.

There was obviously no money for spectacular action set-pieces. The title does promise fog and there’s plenty of that - always a useful way of disguising a low budget. The fog is certainly used effectively. And Malcolm’s escape plan is very clever.

While it’s been released as part of a film noir set this movie has absolutely zero claims to being a film noir. It’s just a routine spy story. It’s a pity because the story could have been a lot more interesting if there’d been time to flesh it out and explore Eileen’s psychological quirks. You have to wonder if perhaps the script was intending to do this but the demands of B-film production resulted in the more interesting bits of the story being eliminated - why introduce the dream stuff if you’re not going to explain what’s going on in her head?

This movie is included in the three-disc nine-movie Blu-Ray set Noir Archive volume 1 from Kit Parker Films. The transfer is good if you don’t mind a bit of graininess (which is actually an asset in a movie of this type). The Blu-Ray release is just a way to pack lots of movies on just three discs. The image quality is good DVD quality. The packaging of the set is unbelievably shoddy - three discs all packed into in a two-disc case and not surprisingly not all the discs are playable.

This movie was also released individually on DVD in the Sony Choice Collection series but that edition might be hard to find now.

If you’re happy to accept it for what it is, a pure B-movie potboiler, then Escape in the Fog  offers undemanding but reasonably satisfying entertainment. It’s worth a rental.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Prodigal (1955)

In 1955 the Hollywood studios were in big trouble. Television was slowly strangling them. They tried a number of gimmicks to tempt audiences back to theatres. Things like Cinemascope and 3D enjoyed some success but the studios placed much of their faith in big-budget blockbusters. Preferably costume epics. Shot, of course, in colour and Cinemascope. Some of these epics were box office bonanzas and won acclaim from critics. Some were popular with the public but disdained by the critics. And some won acclaim from neither the public nor the critics. Some films in the latter category did go on to become cult favourites for their considerable camp value.

Which brings us to MGM’s 1955 offering The Prodigal. It was a dismal failure at the box office and was regarded with contempt by critics. It hasn’t quite made it to cult favourite status but it has potential in that area - there’s certainly plenty of camp value, the premise is absurd, the script misfires badly, the acting is generally terrible. On the other hand it looks spectacular. It’s not so much high camp as high kitsch but visually it will get your attention.

And it has Lana Turner in full-on bad girl sex goddess mode, for a while at least.

It is, very very loosely, based on the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Micah (Edmund Purdom) is the younger son of the venerable and very pious Eli. Eli lives in a small sea port which is a stronghold of the strictly monotheistic followers of Jehovah. The rest of the country is dominated by polytheists worshipping a bewildering array of gods but the most significant of the pagan cults is that of the goddess Astarte. To say that the followers of Jehovah and the followers of Astarte do not get along would be a masterpiece of understatement.

Micah is to be betrothed to Ruth, the eminently respectable daughter of a neighbour. Ruth is sweet and pretty, she comes from a good family, she is pious and she is determined to be a good wife. She even assures Micah that she can cook. Since Ruth and Micah actually like each other it seems destined to be a successful marriage and Micah has every intention of making a go of it. Unfortunately the day before the betrothal Micah sets eyes on Samarra (Lana Turner). And all Micah’s good intentions go out the window. Samarra oozes sex from every pore. She is not a nice girl and she is most certainly not respectable. Whether she can cook or not we never find out but we’re pretty sure it’s not her skills in the kitchen that interest Micah.

Samarra is the high priestess of Astarte. Like all the priestesses of Astarte she is a temple prostitute. To the followers of Astarte it’s a religious ritual and they consider it to be perfectly normal but the fact remains that her religious duties involve selling her sexual favours for money. She might not be a common woman of the streets but she is certainly technically a prostitute. Surprisingly enough the movie is very explicit about this. There’s no hedging about, no nonsense about her being a dancing girl or anything like that. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, a whore. I have no idea how MGM got away with this in 1955.

In fact the movie goes even further than this. Temple prostitution is at least a religious obligation but in one early scene the high priest is negotiating a very large loan from a money-lender and throws in Samarra’s sexual favours to sweeten the deal (which doesn’t seem to bother Samarra in the least). So Samarra is apparently quite willing to sell her sexual services in any circumstance in which it might be advantageous to do so.

I’m also not sure how they got away with having a character like Yasmin. She’s a ten-year-old girl in training to be the next high priestess and given what we know about the high priestess’s duties that might be considered slightly disturbing.

There are several sub-plots, one involving a scheme by the high priest to enrich himself by starving the people. From time to time the film cuts back to life in Micah’s home town where we’re treated to some boring interludes with his sanctimonious father and brother. Of course the only thing the audience is going to care about is whether Micah can be persuaded to pay the price demanded to gain access to Samarra’s bed and whether Samarra will succeed in corrupting our innocent farm boy.

This movie relies very heavily on the sex and sin angle. In fact it relies on this almost entirely.

There’s plenty of decadence here. There’s the party in Damascus (apparent the Sin Capital of the region) with girls being auctioned off, there’s the card game with a girl as the stake. This is a wicked world in which everything is for sale and the most valuable currency is female flesh. Samarra as high priestess of Astarte clearly has skills beyond compare when it comes to the art of love, or so she assures Micah in order to torture the poor boy. And of course there’s the forecourt of the temple of Astarte, which is plainly and unequivocally a brothel where the temple priestesses/prostitutes service their clients.

The movie’s biggest asset is Lana Turner. I’m not going to try to convince you that Miss Turner was a great actress. She wasn’t. She wasn’t even a very good one. But she was a star. Once she makes her first spectacular appearance she dominates the movie completely. You’re watching her and you don’t care what else is happening. It’s not sexual allures (although she has plenty of that). It’s charisma. It’s old-fashioned star quality. And when she plays a bad girl she’s like a very beautiful very deadly package of pure sex.

Edmund Purdom is pretty awful. The film didn’t need a great actor as male lead but it did need one with the kind of charisma that Miss Turner had. It also needed a male lead who could convincingly attract Samarra’s lust. Someone like Victor Mature would have had great fun with a rôle like this. Turner and Purdom also simply don’t have any chemistry.

Could anything have been done to save this movie? Perhaps. One major problem is the character of Samarra. For the first half of the movie she’s a dangerous and wicked man-eater. Then the screenwriters seemed to lose their nerve. They tried to make her more sympathetic. Maybe she might even be Redeemed By Love. This was a mistake. Firstly, Lana Turner is a lot more fun when she’s being wicked. Secondly, it shifts the focus away from the Micah-Samarra relationship and onto Micah as Hero. And Micah isn’t a very exciting hero. Had they kept Samarra as scheming evil temptress the movie might have maintained its momentum more successfully. The first half, with Samarra as the queen of sex and sin, is fun. The second half drags badly.

There’s also the problem that Micah is not only dull, he’s thoroughly detestable. If you had any sympathy for him I guarantee that the ending will leave you hating him.

Warner Brothers have released this film as an individual DVD and as part of a camp classics set. The transfer is superb and there’s an audio commentary.

This is unquestionably a bad movie but the first half is visually lush thoroughly enjoyable slightly risqué nonsense (and at times very risqué). Lana Turner fans will certainly not want to miss this one. You have to be in the mood for The Prodigal. If you are in that mood it’s recommended.