Monday, September 28, 2020

Three Steps North (1951)

Three Steps North is an Italian-US production filmed in Italy (in Amalfi) in 1951 with a mostly Italian cast but plot-wise it plays as a fairy typical American crime B-movie in an exotic setting. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was directed by W. Lee Wilder, Billy Wilder’s brother.

Frank Keeler (Lloyd Bridges) did his wartime military service in Italy but he spent most of that career making a bundle on the black market. With the MPs hot on his trail he buries his ill-gotten gains in a field near Amalfi. He picks an easily recognisable tree, takes three steps north and buries the money. The MPs catch him and he spends four years in a military prison, which is not fun but he can handle it because he knows that when he gets out that money is still waiting for him. As soon as he is released he heads back to Italy (serving as a crewman on a freighter) but getting his money turns out to be infinitely more complicated than he’d expected.

He had hoped not to attract any attention but in fact he attracts the attention of a whole bunch of people. There’s the local chief of police, an Italian private detective, a racketeer from Newark, a disreputable fellow crewman, his old girlfriend Elena, a mysterious character known as the Greek, cemetery caretaker Pietro and bar owner Guido. All of them figure out that Frank is up to something and all of them figure out that that something involves money, almost certainly money not legally obtained.

Frank thinks he can stay one step ahead of them but maybe he’s really one step behind. Frank is smart, but maybe not smart enough. He’s also unwilling to trust anybody. That might be wise but it has its drawbacks. Lester Fuller’s screenplay has plenty of twists and turns, some of them confusing but that works to the movie’ advantage - it adds to the atmosphere of suspicion and potential betrayal.

The ironic twist at the end works quite well.

The plot could easily have been approached as farce or black comedy but it’s mostly played pretty straight.

The Amalfi locations are used to good effect.

The guitar music used throughout the film is one of several elements suggesting that W. Lee Wilder was trying for the sort of feel Carol Reed achieved in The Third Man. The black market angle and the setting in Europe in the aftermath of the war add to my suspicions that that’s what Wilder was aiming for. He doesn’t have Carol Reed’s genius but he does manage an interesting and slightly offbeat tone.

Lloyd Bridges’ cocky performance is a major plus. Frank Keeler is not evil but he is a crook and he is selfish and his arrogance turns potential allies into enemies. He’s not a particularly nice guy and Bridges is confident enough to emphasise his unsympathetic qualities. We’re not sure if we want this particular hero to win in the end.

The other cast members are very good. Aldo Fabrizi is a delight as Pietro. Lea Padavani does well as Elena, a woman who is a bit like Frank. She’s not quite a femme fatale but she’s not quite a good girl either. Maybe she wants to win Frank back, or maybe she just wants the money. All of the characters are either shady or they have a touch of ambiguity to them. Frank doesn’t trust any of them and we can’t really blame him.

There are several public domain DVD releases of this movie. The Alpha Video version seems to be the best of a bad bunch. In an ideal world offbeat movies like this would get properly restored and get Blu-Ray releases but alas we do not live in an ideal world. Perhaps if someone could be persuaded that this is a film noir it might get a better release. It does have some very slight noir elements and movies with much more dubious claims to film noir status have been treated to high quality releases.

Three Steps North is an intriguing oddity. It’s a conventional crime story with a few engagingly distinctive elements and Lloyd Bridges really is very good. So I recommend this one, even if the available DVD editions are a bit problematic.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Flat Two (1962)

Flat Two is another of the British Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace mysteries, this one dating from 1962. It is based on a 1927 Wallace novel.

Susan (Ann Bell)  is a charming young lady with a bit of a problem. She’s lost rather a lot of money at the gambling club run by Louba (David Bauer). She owes ten thousand pounds (an immense amount of money in 1962). There’s no way she can pay the money. Louba suggests that perhaps there is another way in which she could repay him. Some services of a personal nature she could render. In fact he’s planning a trip abroad and if she were to accompany him she would have plenty of opportunities to render ten thousand pounds’ worth of personal services.

Of course Susan could ask her rich father for the money, but Daddy would be awfully cross and it would all be very tiresome. So she resigns herself to her fate.

Susan does however mention the matter to her fiancé, a young architect named Frank Leamington (Jack Watling). Frank is naturally outraged that Louba is effectively blackmailing Susan into going to bed with him. He makes a bit of a scene about it and threatens to kill Louba.

Louba does get killed, but was he killed by Frank? Several people visited Louba’s flat on the fatal night. The difficult is not just that one of them is lying. For various reasons they might all be lying. When famous barrister Warden (John le Mesurier) and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard Hurley Brown (who both had business with Louba) arrive at the flat they discover the body.

One of these people who visited the flat is Charles Berry (Barry Keegan), who has a motive of his own for murdering Louba. Indeed lots of people had a motive for killing Louba, a man whose gambling club was perhaps not entirely honest and who also had a history of sexually blackmailing a whole string of young ladies.

Unfortunately from the point of view of Inspector Trainer (Bernard Archard) there’s rather a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing towards Frank and so Frank ends up standing trial for murder, with Warden defending. Luckily Warden is one of the best defence barristers in the country.

There are plenty of clues pointing towards the actual solution, hingeing not just on the times that various people visited the flat but also on a couple of pieces of physical evidence. It’s actually not that difficult to spot the solution. This is definitely a fair-play mystery.

As is the case with all the Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies the execution is skilful and professional. They were churning these films out like a production line but they managed to maintain a surprisingly high level of quality. And of course this one, like all the others, boasts a very fine cast.

Director Alan Cooke only made a couple of features but had a prolific career in television. He handles the directing duties here unobtrusively but competently. Screenwriter Lindsay Galloway had a similar career and his script here is more than serviceable.

This film is part of Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume three DVD boxed set. And as always Network gives us an excellent anamorphic transfer (these movies were all shot in black-and-white and widescreen).

Flat Two is another solid entry in this extremely enjoyable series and it’s recommended.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Homicide (1949)

Homicide is a largely forgotten1949 Warner Brothers crime B-picture.

A drifter named Clifton, not long discharged from the Navy, witnesses a murder on a farm and is persuaded that it might be real unhealthy for him unless he reports the matter as an accident - that the farmer was drunk and fell off his tractor. That’s the story the sailor tells at the inquest. A couple of days later Clifton is found hanged in a seedy hotel room. It looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide but Lieutenant Landers (Robert Douglas) is very unhappy about the knot. Whoever heard of a sailor who couldn’t tie a knot properly? It’s not much, but it’s enough (along with a couple of other minor details) to put the idea into Landers’ mind that this might not be suicide after all.

The captain of detectives doesn’t think it’s enough to keep the case open but Landers insists on taking a leave of absence to do a bit of digging around.

The clue he’s relying on is a book of matches from a desert resort hotel, the Glorietta Springs Hotel. Which is a very expensive hotel so why would a match-book from that hotel be found in a cheap seedy hotel in LA? When he gets to the Glorietta Springs Hotel first it seems at first that he’s set out on a wild goose chase but then he gets a lucky break thanks to some advice from Jo (Helen Westcott). Jo works the cigarette concession at the hotel. Apart from offering good advice she’s very pretty and very sweet and even if the case doesn’t amount to everything meeting her makes up for it. They fall for each other in a big way. They make such a charming couple that the romance sub-plot is a bonus rather than a distraction.

The bartender at the hotel, Andy (Robert Alda), seems very interested in what Landers (who is posing as an insurance investigator) is up to. Very interested indeed.

The plot is really pretty straightforward. Landers in no genius detective, he just follows up clues methodically as any trained detective would do. He doesn’t make any inspired leaps of intuition. He just does his job, which is part of the film’s appeal. He’s just a regular fairly competent cop.

It does have to be said that Landers is a bit accident-prone. He seems to just sail into dangerous situations without taking even the most basic precautions but of course if the detective hero doesn’t get himself into hot water you’re not going to have a very interesting movie. He contrives to get himself shot and beaten up as well.

Landers is quite an engaging and character - a very polite very easy-going Canadian but he’s conscientious and he’s thorough and he’s stubborn. Robert Douglas gives him a low-key but likeable personality and a certain quiet unobtrusive charm. It’s not at all difficult to see why Jo falls for him and Helen Westcott makes her so adorable that we have no trouble believing that he’s going to fall in love with her. They have just the right chemistry.

The other cast members give very solid performances. Robert Alda is fine as Andy.

This was one of only two features directed by Felix Jacoves which is a bit surprising since he handles things very competently.

It’s a low-budget film but manages not to look cheap or shoddy.

This movie was released in the Warner Archive series as part of a film noir double-header (paired with The House Across the Street) although I can’t for the life of me see anything even remotely noir about it. It’s a straightforward police procedural.

The plot is no more than serviceable. It’s the performances by Robert Douglas and Helen Westcott that make it just a cut above the average B-picture. The romance sub-plot is more interesting than than the main crime plot. Homicide is no masterpiece but it’s harmless undemanding entertainment. Recommended.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Too Hot to Handle (1960)

Too Hot to Handle is a 1960 British sin and sensation potboiler about Soho strip clubs, with Jayne Mansfield as the main attraction. And you get Christopher Lee as a bonus.

Johnny Solo (Leo Genn) owns the Pink Flamingo, supposedly the premier strip club in London, with some help from his manager and master of ceremonies Novak (Christopher Lee) and his star attraction and girlfriend, Midnight Franklin (Mansfield).

Reporter Robert Jouvel (Karlheinz Böhm) is doing a story of Soho, focussing on the  Pink Flamingo. He’s supposed to be French but Karlheinz Böhm, perhaps wisely, decides not to worry too much about that and just plays it with his usual slight German accent.

Jouvel becomes a bit obsessed with one of the girls, Lilliane (Danik Patisson). She’s a strange girl, obviously very bitter about all sorts of things. She makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with him but he’s already decided that really she needs him. And perhaps she does.

Johnny Solo has bigger problems. His club is under threat from a protection racket and there may be more to it than meets the eye. It may have something to do with Diamonds Dielli who runs the rival Diamond Horseshoe Club. It’s also possible that he has enemies closer to home. Johnny is not easily frightened but he’s certainly worried and Midnight really is frightened. There are also possible problems looming with a sleazy but rich customer and one of the girls.

If you’re expecting mere cheap sleaze you maybe a little surprised. This is quite a well-crafted little movie, expertly directed by Terence Young. Young was about to achieve major success directing three of the first four Bond movies. Too Hot to Handle is a mixture of seedy glamour and hardboiled crime with a hint of film noir. While this is obviously a somewhat cleaned-up version of Soho in 1960 it still provides a fascinating glimpse of London nightlife at the beginning of the ’60s.

It’s also very well acted. Karlheinz Böhm plays Jouvel as a slightly brash rather over-confident reporter type who is actually a pretty decent guy. Christopher Lee just has to appear slightly sleazy and slightly sinister, which he manages with ease. Danik Patisson is solid as Lilliane. Leo Genn is excellent as Johnny, a quietly determined low-key tough guy. I particularly liked the way the relationship between Johnny and Midnight is handled. It’s an odd sort of love that they have, maybe it’s based on mutual need but it is love just the same and in their own way they’re touchingly devoted to each other. Look out for Barbara Windsor in a small rôle as one of the girls who likes to be known as Ponytail.

But this movie belongs to Jayne Mansfield. While she enjoyed her greatest success in comedies like The Girl Can’t Help It she was actually a decent serious actress when given the chance. Here she’s perfectly cast, she has a good script to work with (by Herbert Kretzmer) and a fine director and she really shines. She also handles her sexy stage routines with plenty of style. Midnight is a tough cookie in some ways but Mansfield makes her warm and vulnerable as well. In retrospect 1960 wasn’t a bad year for Miss Mansfield - she also made the underrated British film noir The Challenge (in which she played a lady gangster and did so surprisingly effectively).

Given the time the movie was made the striptease routines are very very tame. There was obviously no way they were going to get away with actual nudity so they had to rely on style and glamour to provide the sexiness and it works pretty well.

The movie was shot widescreen and in colour but the only available version as far as I know is the Alpha Video release which is fullframe and in black-and-white. Don’t worry too much about that. It’s a good transfer and the black-and-white print enhances the seediness and the slight noirness. This might well be a very different movie in colour.

This is a movie that doesn’t quite develop the way you might expect. It’s partly a crime thriller, partly a love story, partly a sex melodrama with a bit of exploitation and a touch of film noir. The ending is unexpected but it’s nicely set up and it’s effective.

Too Hot to Handle is a bit of an oddity but it’s an enjoyable one and it’s highly recommended.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress is the fifth of the six Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich movies made at Paramount. These movies were so heavily influenced by the personal relationship between director and star that without Dietrich they would probably never have been made, or if they had been made they would have been entirely different films, so it’s reasonable to refer to them as the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies.

The Scarlet Empress was a box office failure and while it’s a truly great movie it’s not hard to see why it failed commercially. This is a very extreme movie. Von Sternberg himself described it as “a relentless excursion into style” and he wasn’t kidding. It’s difficult to think of any Hollywood movie of that era that is so obsessively concerned with style rather than substance. The style is the substance. That’s the secret of its greatness but it’s taken to an extreme that undoubtedly alienated contemporary audiences.

Sophie Friederike Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst (Marlene Dietrich) is betrothed to the heir presumptive to the Russian throne, the Grand Duke Peter. In 1744 the young German princess arrives at the court of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. The dashing Count Alexei (John Lodge), who had been sent to Prussia to fetch Sophie, had led her to believe that her prospective husband was a paragon of handsome masculinity so Sophie had been very enthusiastic about her marriage. She is appalled to discover that Peter is actually a misshapen half-wit who plays with toy soldiers.

Sophie, now renamed Catherine at the empress’s insistence, goes ahead with the marriage (the marriage ceremony giving von Sternberg the opportunity to indulge his taste for aesthetic excess). The marriage is hardly a success. Peter has his toy soldiers and his mistress and he hates Catherine. Catherine has her lovers and she disposes Peter. The big problem is what will happen when Elizabeth dies. Will Peter get rid of Catherine before she gets rid of him?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the plot merely exists in order to prove von Sternberg with the opportunity to give us one outrageous visual set-piece after another, and to some extent you’d be right. But those visuals are unbelievable. The sets are grotesque. At the Russian court the chairs are like gigantic gargoyles swallowing people up. The doors in the palace look like they were designed for giants and require half a dozen people to open them. Everything is surreal and wildly exaggerated. It’s like a fairy tale that has turned into a drug-induced nightmare. It’s impossible to list all the strange and wonderful and disturbing visual moments. It’s just one visual tour-de-force after another.

Everything is suffused with eroticism, mostly perverse eroticism. The Production Code started to be enforced in 1934 but The Scarlet Empress either got in just in time to avoid trouble or perhaps the Production Code Authority just missed the bizarre sexual imagery and incredibly risqué dialogue. Maybe the sadomasochism and perversity simply baffled them. There’s also a kind of dream sequence when the young Sophie is having stories read to her which contain quite bit of nudity. There’s even a nudie cuckoo clock.

Dietrich of course looks stunning. Her performance is strange and mesmerising but it would have seriously alienated viewers at the time. They would have been bewildered by the countless layers of irony and the emotional detachment. Catherine is not a heroine but she’s not a villainess. She’s not a monster, nor is she a victim. She is all of these things, and none. She may be an innocent with the soul of a libertine or a libertine with the soul of an innocent. She may be incapable of love or she may love too deeply. There’s nothing for an audience to get a handle on. And audiences do not react well to that. It’s all quite deliberate. She’s giving von Sternberg the performance he wants and she knows what she’s doing but it’s not going to sell at the box office.

Sam Jaffe as Peter and Louise Dresser as Elizabeth give outlandish over-the-top performances. John Lodge plays Count Alexei as the type of arrogant bad boy we could well believe has broken scores of female hearts.

There’s nothing even remotely conventional about this movie. By 1934 Hollywood standards it’s unique and bizarre. By today’s standards it’s unique and bizarre. This is von Sternberg being totally uncompromising. It wrecked his career but with this film and the following one, The Devil is a Woman, he got to make two final extraordinary masterpieces and perhaps after that there would have been nowhere left for his career to go.

The Criterion Collection DVD release is very disappointing and should be avoided. It’s incredibly grainy and it’s rather flat. The liner notes are also pompous and worthless. I believe there’s a far superior more recent UK DVD release.

The Scarlet Empress is an intoxicating blend of irony and delirious aestheticism. You might love it or hate it but you have to see it. I loved it. Very highly recommended.