Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Madame X (1966)

Madame X is a 1966 Ross Hunter melodrama so you know it’s going to be very melodramatic indeed and it’s going to be lavish with very high production values.

Rising diplomat Clay Anderson (John Forsythe) has married poor shop girl Holly (Lana Turner). They’re socially mismatched but they’re madly in love and against the odds the marriage seems quite successful and they have a son. Clay’s mother Estelle (Constance Bennett) doesn’t really approve of the marriage but she has little choice other than to accept it.

The trouble starts as Clay’s career blossoms and he has to spend an enormous amount of time away from home. Holly starts to see way too much of charming but notorious playboy Phil Benton (Ricardo Montalban in full-on Latin Lover mode). Then an accident occurs which gives Estelle the chance to get rid of Holly. Holly is presented with a stark choice - she can risk a scandal and possibly worse or she can disappear. So she chooses the option of disappearing from Clay’s life.

Estelle packs Holly off to Switzerland, ensured that he will be generously provided for financially. As you might expect Holly cracks up and is found dying in the snow by the kindly musician Christian Torben (John van Dreleen). He nurses her back to health, or at least to physical health but the emotional scars are another matter. They may never heal.

Christian wants to marry her but of course she can’t and she lives and her life goes steadily downhill. She ends up in Mexico, an alcoholic and (it is at least implied) a whore. She hooks up with grifter Dan Sullivan (Burgess Meredith) and amazingly things get even worse for her. Dan has a plan and she cannot permit him to carry it out. The plan will bring her into contact with a young lawyer (played by Keir Dullea), with mometous consequences.

Lana Turner’s performance is extremely melodramatic, but that’s Lana Turner. If you cast her in a melodrama she knew exactly what was required of her and she delivered the goods in her inimitable and outrageously over-the-top style. She was not by any stretch of the imagination a great actress but here’s she’s doing what she did best and she’s doing it well. As the movie progresses she overacts more and more and the more she overacts the better she gets (which was alway the case with Lana Turner).

The other key cast members all know what is required of them as well. Their performances might not be good by conventional standards but they’re just right for this film.

Director David Lowell Rich does a competent job but this is very much a Ross Hunter film. Ross Hunter was proof that a producer could be an auteur. It has all the Ross Hunter trademarks. It’s in Technicolor and widescreen and it looks lush and expensive. It has the Ross Hunter look, in spades.

This is pure melodrama and it’s very much what used to be described as a woman’s picture. You can criticise it for being sentimental and for being campy and for being overwrought but it’s supposed to be all those things. It’s idle to criticise a movie than in fact achieves everything it sets out to achieve. Of course it is perfectly valid to dislike it because it’s simply not your cup of tea.

Madame X has had several DVD and Blu-Ray releases. The one I have is the double-feature pack (paired with Portrait in Black) from Universal. The anamorphic transfer is very good. The only extra is the trailer.

If you’re contemplating seeing this movie there are three questions you need to ask yourself. Do you enjoy totally excessive melodramas? Do you like the Ross Hunter style? Do you like Lana Turner? If (like me) you answered yes to these questions then I recommend this film although it has to be said that there are better Ross Hunter melodramas out there.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Naked Alibi (1954)

Naked Alibi, an overlooked B-feature produced by Ross Hunter and released by Universal International  in 1954, establishes its noir credentials right from the start.

Al Willis (Gene Barry) is a baker and a very respectable church-going family man who gets himself arrested after a few too many drinks. The cops try to pin a robbery rap on him. He gets sore and takes a swing at Lieutenant Parks and makes a few wild drunken threats so the cops give Al a working over. Then they realise that they have zero evidence so they let him go.

That would be the end of story, except that the following night Lieutenant Parks is gunned down. Based on his wild threats Chief of Detectives Conroy (Sterling Hayden) is convinced that Al Willis is the killer, despite a complete absence of evidence.

Conroy is even more convinced when two more cops are murdered. Of course once again there’s zero evidence against Al but Conroy is clearly not the sort of cop who worries very much about petty details like evidence or suspect’s rights.

What’s interesting is that we really don’t know what’s going on with Conroy in the early part of the film. Is he corrupt? Is he really a thug (apparently he’s been the subject of numerous complaints)? Is he crazy? Is he cracking up? Or is he a dedicated if perhaps slightly over-zealous cop? He’s definitely not a conventional nice guy but at this stage we can’t be sure if he’s going to turn out to be the villain or the hero.

We also don’t know about Al Willis. The cops are certainly trying to railroad him, but while he appears to be a poor innocent schmuck we can’t be absolutely sure of his innocence. So either of the two main male characters could end up as the villain.

Conroy is totally obsessed and although facing the possible ruin of his career he continues remorselessly to pursue Al Willis, following to a small (and very disreputable) town on the Mexican border.

At this point the film changes gears. We find out a lot more about what really drives these two men. More importantly, Gloria Grahame makes her entrance. And it’s quite an entrance. The first we see of her is a view of her bottom on a barstool, wiggling in a remarkable enticing manner. She gets our attention, and she holds it for the rest of the movie.

She plays Mariana, a night club singer who is also Al Willis’s girlfriend. Willis is of course a married man. This is a movie that tries to be as salacious as possible, and by 1954 standards it certainly succeeds. Now we get the three main characters drawn together in a web of suspicion and betrayal. It might not be a dazzlingly original plot but it’s executed with a great deal of skill and style.

Director Jerry Hopper started his career as an editor, always good training for a future director. His pacing is relentless. This is a movie that never stops to draw breath. Hopper’s career as a film director was eclipsed by his later much more successful career in television. Lawrence Roman’s screenplay is very solid with some interesting twists. Within the limitations of a B-movie budget there’s enough noir visual style to satisfy any reasonable person (the cinematographer was the great Russell Metty).

Sterling Hayden and Gene Barry are both excellent. Barry is particularly good. He really pulls out all the stops. As good as they are they’re both overshadowed by Gloria Grahame. She truly sizzles (aided by a very sexy wardrobe) but she was an actress who could ooze sex whilst still delivering a nicely nuanced performance, in this case as a troubled young woman trapped in a situation she doesn’t fully comprehend.

The movie has plenty of moral ambiguity, and plenty of sexual tension. The promotional material promised sex, sin and melodrama and it delivers.

Why is the movie called Naked Alibi? Because it’s a cool title and it has the word naked in it. That’s the sort of movie this is. It’s an unashamedly lurid potboiler of a B-picture and if that’s what you like then this is a very very good example of the type. It’s also surprisingly subtle and complex (helped the superb acting of the three leads) with a bit of an edge to it and it’s immensely enjoyable, so this is a superior B-movie. An absolute must-see for Gloria Grahame fans. Very highly recommended.

Kino Lorber’s DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer (the movie is in widescreen and black-and-white). There’s an audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger. I’ve never heard of her but she knows her noir stuff and she’s enthusiastic and she clearly loves this film.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Small Voice (1948)

The Small Voice (AKA The Hideout) is a 1948 British crime thriller that is a bit more complex than the usual run of such films.

Playwright Murray Byrne (James Donald) and his wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson) are quarrelling. Which is what they do most of the time. It’s not that they’re no longer in love. They just can’t seem to live together. Murray lost a leg during the war and he’s never quite recovered his confidence. He feels like half a man, all that sort of thing. And Eleanor has a lot of male admirers. She’s an actress and a glamorous one. Male admirers come with the territory. She has no intention of being unfaithful but she can’t convince Murray of that. And eventually Murray’s self-pity will drive her into the arms of another man. Eleanor wants to get out before that happens. She’s decided to leave him. Things are pretty tense as they drive home from the railway station.

They’re about to get a lot tenser. Murray and Eleanor are about to encounter three desperate armed fugitives who killed a policeman. Now their car has crashed and they need a place to hide out.

Boke (Howard Keel) is the ringleader who masterminded an escape from a military prison, along with Frankie and the slightly simple-minded Jim. The three fugitives hold the Byrnes hostage in the Byrne’s cottage but there’s a complication. In the other car involved in the accident were two small children. Frankie and Jim decided to bring them along to the cottage. They might be desperadoes but they’re not callous enough to leave two terrified children behind, and they’re certainly not cold-blooded enough to kill the children. And one of the kids is sick. Real sick.

Now the battle of wills starts. Murray thinks that being a playwright specialising in plays about crime he can break Boke’s spirit. Boke thinks he can break Murray’s spirit. Eleanor thinks she can uncover some basic humanity in Boke and persuade him to save the sick boy. It all works because of the nicely understated performances, and because of the well-crafted script.

But the hostage drama is only part of what’s going on. There’s also the marriage between Murray and Eleanor, a marriage that is not merely headed for the rocks but has already hit them. Now they’re going to have to depend on each other for a while at least. Eleanor is not sure if she can depend on Murray, and Murray is not sure about that either. But it’s not just their own lives on the line but a child’s as well.

Of course there’s tension between the fugitives as well. A policeman was killed. Someone is going to hang for that, but it was Boke who pulled the trigger so why should the other two swing for it as well? And there’s the race against time element. The boy has meningitis. Without treatment his chances of survival are very slim and if he dies then Boke’s accomplices can be quite certain of keeping an appointment with the hangman.

James Donald’s natural seriousness as an actor stands him in good stead here. Murray is a humourless prickly kind of character. He’s a character we grow to respect, rather than one we like immediately. Valerie Hobson has the right combination of glamour and strength of character to make Eleanor convincing. Howard Keel, in a rare non-singing rĂ´le, brings a brooding intensity to Boke.

There’s some interesting subtle sexual tension between Boke and Eleanor. The relationship between Murray and Eleanor is always believable. They both behave unreasonably at times but no matter how exasperated they are with each other they’re also obviously still in love even if their chances of repairing their marriage seem hopeless.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is full frame (the movie was shot in the (4:3 aspect ratio). As usual there are no extras and as usual the transfer is extremely good.

So we have here a taut suspense thriller laced with emotional drama and both elements work very successfully. Like so many British crime films of this era it’s a very well-made little film. Is it good enough to qualify for neglected gem status? I think it is. Therefore The Small Voice is highly recommended.