Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Black Windmill (1974)

Michael Caine starring in a Don Siegel-directed spy thriller sounds quite promising. With Donald Pleasence in the cast as well The Black Windmill should have been a surefire winner. In fact this 1974 British-made film flopped, and the reason it flopped is that it’s just not all that good.

Caine plays Major John Tarrant, an MI6 operative trying to infiltrate a gun-running racket. His son is kidnapped and the ransom is just over half a million pounds, in uncut diamonds. The exact amount happens to be precisely equal to the value of uncut diamonds that Tarrant’s boss Harper (Donald Pleasence) has just bought. Those diamonds were to be used as bait to catch the gun-runners. It’s obvious there has been a very very serious security leak.

John Tarrant doesn’t give a damn about the security leak, he just cares about his son.

When Tarrant figuresout that the government is not going to pay the ransom he goes rogue. He’s going to get his kid back even if he has to steal the diamonds from MI6 headquarters, which is exactly what he does. He sets off on a one-man rescue mission.

Tarrant also figures out that he’s been well and truly set up to look like a traitor anyway, so there’s no reason for him to worry about breaking a few more laws. This is a bit of a weakness in the movie - there’s no inner conflict in this character at all. We never have any doubt as to what he’s going to do next and we never have causeto question his motives or his loyalty. In fact there’s no real psychological conflict of any kind in this movie. It’s a Boys’ Own Paper spy story.

Tarrant is an ice-cold professional who appears to have no emotions whatsoever. That might have made him an interesting protagonist in a certain type of cynical spy drama but it doesn’t come off in this film which is really an utterly conventional thriller, which needs a hero the audience can care about. Michael Caine was capable of more than this but the script gives him nothing to work with and he pretty much phones in his performance (which he was inclined to do if a movie didn’t grab his interest). The movie has none of the cleverness and wit and slightly offbeat quality of Caine’s Harry Palmer spy movies and his performance here lacks the magic that he brought to Harry Palmer.

When Tarrant finally does show some emotion it isn’t convincing because it just comes out of the blue.

Donald Pleasence is good as the emotionally crippled Harper, a man who sees his agents as little more than disposable pawns.

The supporting cast does quite well. John Vernon makes a stylish heavy. Delphine Seyrig is good as the scheming woman who sets Tarrant up and Catherine Schell has fun as the sex-crazed alcoholic wife of the director of MI6.

Siegel’s direction is rather flat. He is unable to overcome the predictability of the plot to inject any real suspense and even the action set-pieces are not overly exciting.

There are a lot of missed opportunities. At one point Tarrant makes an escape from an awkward predicament by sneaking aboard the cross-channel hovercraft and you’re expecting an acton sequence to take advantage of the interesting setting but it doesn’t happen.

There’s one very brief nude scene but this is overall a remarkably sexless movie. There’s also no interesting romantic angle. There’s very little humour. That means it has to rely on action or style and it doesn’t have enough going for it in those areas either.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers an acceptable anamorphic transfer.

The Black Windmill is not a terrible movie. It’s a competent spy thriller but it’s just a bit of an under-achiever in every department. There’s nothing to make it memorable. Maybe worth a rental if you’re a Michael Caine or Don Siegel completist.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Midnight Story (1957)

The Midnight Story (AKA Appointment with a Shadow) is a 1957 crime drama (with film noir overtones) released by Universal in 1957 and starring Tony Curtis.

Tony Curtis had a successful career but to him it was also a disappointing career. He always felt that he had the makings of a real actor, and a good one, but producers preferred not to take risks and kept casting him in lightweight rôles (which he happened to very good at). On the rare occasions that he landed a really meaty part (in films like Sweet Smell of Success) he invariably delivered the goods, but then he’d find himself back in those lightweight rôles again. The Midnight Story is one of those movies that demonstrates that Curtis wasn’t deluded - he really could act.

The movie opens with the brutal murder of a priest,  Father Tomasino, in San Francisco. Everybody loved Father Tomasino. Or at least almost everybody loved him - obviously there was one person who didn’t. The circumstances of the murder leave no doubt that the priest was deliberately targeted.

Officer Joe Martini (Tony Curtis) is hit particularly hard. Martini grew up in an orphanage. Father Tomasino was father, big brother and mentor to Joe. Joe wants to help in the investigation but he’s just a lowly motorcycle cop and he’s told in no uncertain terms to stick to traffic offences and keep out of Homicide’s way.

Maybe Joe would have heeded this advice but at the priest’s funeral he spots something that he thinks may be a lead. The Homicide lieutenant in charge of the case still isn’t interested. So Joe Martini quits the force to carry out his own single-handed investigation. That lead that he thinks he has is actually nothing more than a hunch but he just can’t let it go.

Joe strikes up a friendship with Sylvio Malatesta (Gilbert Roland), who owns a seafood restaurant and a fishing boat. Sylvio lives with his mother, his kid brother and his cousin. Sylvio invites Joe over for dinner and when he realises that there’s an attraction between his cousin Anna (for whom he’s been desperately trying to find a husband) he suggests that Joe should move in to the spare room. The bulk of the movie is taken up by the complex relationships between Joe and Sylvio and between Joe and Anna. But Joe has not given up on finding Father Tomasino’s killer. He still has that lead. Sometimes he thinks it’s a false lead and sometimes he thinks it really will lead him to the killer.

While there’s definitely a crime thriller plot this movie is mainly a psychological drama as Joe has to deal with conflicting loyalties and with emotions that are quite new to him. For the first time in his life he has found a home, he has found real friendship and he has found love but can he hang on to any of them?

Curtis’s performance is subtle and powerful. Joe Santini is a man who has never learnt to deal with his emotions and while he maintains an outward calm Curtis has no trouble convincing us of the turbulence of the feelings he has bottled up inside. If you need to be convinced that Tony Curtis could act this movie will do just that.

Gilbert Roland is very good as the loud, boisterous, generous Sylvio. Marisa Pavan is excellent as Anna. Like Joe she has spent her life repressing her emotions and now they’re almost too much for her to deal with. She knows she’s found the man she wants but she just cannot bring herself to believe that he loves her.

Russell Metty’s excellent cinematography is another plus. There’s plenty of San Francisco location shooting.

Screenbound’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in  the 2.35:1 aspect ratio). As far as I know this movie has never had a Region 1 release.

Is it film noir? Kind of, in an indirect way, but I can’t say any more without risking spoilers. There is a mystery to be solved but this is mostly a psychological melodrama and a love story between two troubled but very likeable people with the odds stacked against them. The DVD cover shows Tony Curtis holding a gun, and Joe Santini does have a revolver, but he never gets to shoot it. This is just not that kind of movie.

The Midnight Story is one of those terrific little movies that made little impact at the time and quickly vanished into obscurity. It’s a movie that deserves rediscovery. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

The Devil is a Woman is the last of the six Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich movies made at Paramount. It’s reasonable to refer to them as the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies. She was his collaborator, his muse and his lover. These movies would quite simply have been unthinkable without her and without her von Sternberg would certainly not have made them. Fittingly, The Devil is a Woman is a film about sexual obsession, and the price of such obsession.

It’s also of course, like the other five movies, an expression of von Sternberg’s particular aesthetic principles. He described the previous film, The Scarlet Empress, as “a relentless excursion into style” and that pretty accurately describes all the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies. While Dietrich was a fine actress she was not in these movies to act - she was there simply to be Marlene Dietrich, to be the centrepiece of a visual extragavanza.

The Devil is a Woman was based on the 1898 novel The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs. Louÿs was a product of the fin de siècle Decadence and one of the great French writers of erotic literature. It’s certainly not difficult to see why von Sternberg would have been attracted to his work.

The movie takes place in southern Spain during Carnival. Young revolutionary Antonio (Cesar Romero) has met a fascinating woman. He then runs into his old friend Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill), a middle-aged army officer. Don Pasqual knows this fascinating woman as well. She ruined his life. She really is a devil in the form of a woman. Don Pasqual warns Antonio to keep well clear of her but as we will see no man who falls under the spell of Concha Perez (for that is the lady’s name and she is of course played by Marlene Dietrich) can resist her. The more she hurts them, the more devoted they become.

Don Pasqual tells the story of his own involvement with her in a series of flashbacks. His masochistic longing for her is all the more tragic since he is a man of the world and he knows that she will play with him for a while and then cast him aside. But he keeps going back for more. He is not the first man to suffer at Concha’s hands, and as we will also see he will not be the last.

This story could have been approached as an outrageous sex comedy. While there is plenty of humour this is not quite a comedy. It’s not quite a tragedy either. Perhaps that’s the point. Sexual desire can make us clowns or tragic heroes, and sometimes it can make us both at the same time. It’s a farcical melodrama, or a melodramatic farce.

Concha is both pure evil and at the same time an adorable sex kitten. Dietrich plays the rôle superbly. She also looks absolutely stunning and her costumes are astounding. Lionel Atwill gives one of his finest performances (it may even be his best performance), managing to make Don Pasqual both dignified and ridiculous. Cesar Romero is also excellent. Edward Everett Horton plays the governor, another of Concha’s victims, and while he usually provided comic relief there is a serious edge to his performance here as well.

These are very flawed characters but it’s difficult to judge them too harshly. It’s even difficult to be too harsh on Concha. She is what she is. To disapprove of her would be to disapprove of sexual desire - it’s just in the nature of that desire that it brings joy and destruction. Her victims offer themselves willingly to be emotionally tortured.

Of course to a large extent it’s an opportunity for von Sternberg to indulge is aesthetic excess, which he does to extraordinary effect.

Not only do have characters wearing masks, we have whole scenes that take place behind visual barriers - lattice-work screens, iron grilles, fences, screens of trees and in some cases sheets of rain. This gives the movie a certain detachment which was clearly deliberate.

This movie was released on DVD as part of the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection five-movie set (and a great set it is) and it looks superb.

The Devil is a Woman was not a success at the box office. It was just too odd for audiences at the time, being neither a straightforward melodrama or romance or comedy but instead being all those things at the same time. Concha derives too much enjoyment from her cruelties, and her victims submit too willingly, for audiences at the time to approve of any of the characters. And it’s a movie that is just too wildly different from conventional Hollywood movies. It is however, in its own way, a masterpiece and is very highly recommended. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Naked Road (1959)

The Naked Road, made in 1959, is featured in Something Weird Video’s Weird Noir boxed set. It’s a very low budget production and it really is weird. Weird in a bad movie way but weird in an interesting and entertaining way as well.

The movie opens with sleazy advertising man Bob Walker (Paul Judson) and model Gay Andrews (Jeanne Rainer) necking in his Cadillac. Bob then makes what seems to him to be the perfectly reasonable suggestion that they should head for a motel where they’ll be more comfortable. Gay is outraged. She’s not that sort of girl. Bob is annoyed. After all, he did get Gay some modelling jobs and he just expects some gratitude. If she’s going to make a federal case out of it he might as well go home to his wife. The mention of his wife upsets Gay even more. She had no idea she was necking with a married man!

Bob, really annoyed, agrees to drive her home but gets pulled over for speeding. Unfortunately they’re in a rural area, the kind of place in which the local authorities prey on unwary city slickers. Bob gets dragged before a Justice of the Peace and hit with a hundred-dollar fine, he doesn’t have the cash on him, but he says he can get the money that night. While he’s off getting the money Gay will be held in custody. 

It looks like poor Gay will be spending the night in custody but then she gets a break A very nice man, a Mr Wayne Jackson (Ronald Long), agrees to pay the fine. He offers to drive her home. He even stops off on the way so she can have a cup of coffee. But Gay doesn’t know that he’s drugged the coffee.

Gay wakes up in Jackson’s apartment, rather confused, with a sore head and (curiously) a sore left arm. Jackson offers her a job, doing public relations. Gay doesn’t know anything about public relations but he tells her it’s easy - all she has to do is go out with a client, have dinner and take in a show, and then show him a good time afterwards. Now the truth begins to dawn on Gay - she’s fallen into the hands of a while slavery racket!

Of course Gay is a good girl and refuses to go along. It is explained to her that if she doesn’t co-operate they’ll give her the Full Treatment - they’ll get her hooked on drugs. So we get the drug racket and white slavery in this movie.

Meanwhile Jackson is having problems with one of his other girls and she may have to be disposed of. That will be a job for Mark (Art Koullias), Jackson’s secretary and henchman.

The acting is pretty bad, but it’s bad in a good way. Ronald Long plays Mr Jackson like a melodrama villain. Jeanne Rainer is very pretty and her performance is so amateurish that it’s deliciously entertaining.

The budget was clearly absolutely rock bottom. The movie looks like it was shot in somebody’s house, which it probably was, with the office of the Justice of the Peace looking like someone’s living room with a picture of George Washington on the wall to make it seem vaguely official.

Producer-director-writer William Martin had a very brief career and it’s easy to see why. He knows nothing of the mysteries of pacing or creating dramatic tension. He just gets his cast together and starts filming. 

This is really more of an exploitation movie than a crime movie or a film noir. It has the same wonderful vibe as 50s exploitation classics such as Girl Gang, The Violent Years or Ed Wood’s Jail Bait. You just can’t stop watching because you have no idea what they’ll come up with next.

While the subject matter is sensational it’s treated in a rather coy manner. There’s no nudity, no bad language and practically no violence, apart from one scene which, like everything else in the movie, is handled oddly. It relies on the idea of the terrible things that are going to happen to Gay but we never see any of them.

The climax does give us some action and a chase scene, oddly staged of course.

Something Weird’s Weird Noir boxed set (which is rather cool and great value-for-money)  also includes such gems as the psychiatry noir Fear No More, the odd women’s noir/psycho thriller Stark Fear and the truly bizarre carny noir Girl on the Run.

Something Weird’s Mike Vraney had an amazing knack for finding good prints (or even the negatives) of incredibly obscure movies. The Naked Road actually looks pretty good. Given the ultra low budget, it probably didn’t look much better when it was originally released. It’s not like William Martin was the kind of guy to spend time getting the lighting just right when shooting a scene. He was happy if the camera was in focus. 

Judged by any kind of conventional standards The Naked Road is a terrible movie but it’s fascinating in the way that only 1950s low-budget American movies can be when they’re trying desperately to be shocking and sensationalistic. For all its faults I must confess I enjoyed it. Recommended, if you have a taste for amusingly bad Z-grade movies.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Highway Dragnet (1954)

Highway Dragnet is a 1954 low-budget crime thriller with film noir overtones, released by Allied Artists. Roger Corman was both a co-producer and co-writer on the project. Nathan Juran directed.

Jim Henry (Richard Conte) is an ex-Marine sergeant just demobilised after the Korean War. He’s headed for Vegas. He meets a blonde in a bar. There’s some mild flirtation but she’s seriously drunk and they have a very minor altercation. No big deal. Except that the blonde winds up dead and the cops arrest Henry. There’s some circumstantial evidence against him but luckily he has an alibi. He was at the Sunset Hotel with a buddy, an ex-Army captain. Except it isn’t lucky after all. The buddy is on some hush-hush government security job and was staying at the hotel under a different name, and Jim Henry doesn’t know what name the buddy was using. So when the cops check his alibi it looks like he hasn’t got one. Which makes the cops think Henry must be guilty. And they don’t seem interested in hearing his side of the story.

Of course we don’t actually know what transpired after the meeting in the bar so we can’t entirely discount the possibility that Jim is guilty.

Jim Henry figures he’s in pretty big trouble so when he sees a chance of escape he takes it.

Now you might think that’s a bit of a sucker move but look at it from Henry’s point of view.  He’s just minding his own business when suddenly out of nowhere he’s picked up on a murder charge, the circumstantial evidence is of a type that could be made to sound fairly damning and it looks like he’s tried to give a phoney alibi. And the cops give the very strong impression that they don’t much care if he’s innocent or not, they’re going to pin the murder on him anyway. Maybe that’s an unfair view of the cops but Jim doesn’t have the luxury of having time to think about what he should do.

He steals a police car but has to ditch that quickly and then he has some luck. Photographer Mrs Cummings (Joan Bennett) and her young model Susan (Wanda Hendrix) have broken down. Henry gets their car started so they give him a ride.

Of course there’s a huge manhunt in progress and Jim has two women in tow who aren’t exactly thrilled by the situation when they find out they’re sharing a car with a murder suspect. The odds are stacked against Jim but he’s resourceful and determined and he’s desperate and he proves surprisingly difficult to catch. In fact almost impossible to catch as he evades one trap after another.

The odds are heavily stacked against Jim but he does one chance and that’s what he’s relying on. He just needs to buy some time. 

The weakness of the plot is that it relies on one very big coincidence but aside from that the script is solid. While there’s plenty of interest in Jim’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the law there’s even more interest in the uneasy three-way relationship between Jim and the two women. Mrs Cummings figures he’s guilty. Susan isn’t so sure, but that may be because she thinks Jim is kinda cute and kinda nice and could a guy who’s cute and nice really be a murderer?

The very strong performances by the three leads are a major asset. Richard Conte could play heroes or villains, winners or losers, and could make them seem human. Jim Henry at times seems to fit into all four categories. He’s basically a decent guy but he’s a cornered animal determined to survive at all costs and that makes him ruthless and dangerous. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone but he has no intention of being captured. It’s the sort of complex nuanced performance that Conte always seemed to be able to produce. 

Joan Bennett as Mrs Cummings isn’t overly sympathetic but she’s a woman with valid reasons to be prickly and difficult. 

Wanda Hendrix manages to make Susan seem a bit more than just a naïve young woman. Susan is genuinely confused about her loyalties and rally doesn’t know which way to jump. The movie also doesn’t disguise the fact that Susan’s initial attraction to Jim is very much sexual. It’s a fine performance.  

Nathan Juran was a competent journeyman director and does a fine job here, skilfully maintaining the tension levels.

Jim Henry’s flight from Nevada to California takes him into the desert and the desert setting is used effectively. The location shooting is terrific and and I loved the slightly offbeat climax on the Salton Sea.

Reel Vault’s DVD release offers an acceptable anamorphic transfer (slightly surprisingly for a 1954 B-feature the film was shot in widescreen black-and-white).

Is this film noir? I‘d say only marginally. Jim Henry has some character flaws (he’s impulsive and suspicious of authority figures) but they’re not enough to qualify him as a true noir protagonist and neither of the women could be said to be a classic femme fatale. The police are not corrupt, just a bit over-zealous. 

Highway Dragnet is an entertaining unpretentious B-picture. You can criticise the plot for being just a tad contrived but the movie moves along so quickly and entertainingly that a few minor weaknesses can be overlooked.

The acting performances are what earns it a highly recommended rating.