Thursday, October 29, 2020

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is the sixth of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson (and the fourth to be made by Universal). It was released in 1943 and is based (loosely) on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.

The Rathbone/Bruce series began with 20th Century-Fox in 1939. For complicated reasons only two movies were made. In the early 40s Universal acquired the rights and very wisely decided to stick with the winning combination of Rathbone and Bruce. They also made the very unfortunate decision to try to update Sherlock Holmes by pitting him against the Nazis in a contemporary setting. After three such efforts sanity finally prevailed and the next film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, was a classic Holmesian adventure. While it still had a contemporary setting the story could just as easily have taken place in the 1890s as the 1940s. The war is relegated very much to the background and plays no part in the story. In fact this film (and the remainder of the Universal Sherlock Holmes cycle) really takes place in a self-contained fog-shrouded universe in which Holmes has always had rooms at 221b Baker Street and always will have.

This film also represents a very sharp, and very welcome, turn towards a gothic feel. This is of course something that Universal could do very very well. They even re-use sets built for Dracula.

Dr Watson is staying at Musgrave Manor, a gloomy 16th century pile in Northumberland. The house is being used as a temporary hospital for convalescent officers, with Dr Watson in charge of their care. Alarmed by the attempted murder of his assistant, Dr Bob Sexton, Watson asks his old friend Sherlock Holmes for help. Given that Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) has been assigned to the case it’s just as well that Holmes will be on hand. Lestrade, as usual, is bungling the case hopelessly. He arrests an American officer, based on some very flimsy circumstantial evidence.

The murders begin immediately after the arrival of Holmes. Holmes suspects they have some connexion with the enigmatic Musgrave Ritual, performed for over 400 years on the occasion of the death of the current head of the family.

No-one in the family knows the meaning of the Musgrave Ritual. Sally Musgrave (Hillary Brooke) has to recite the ritual without having the slightest idea what it means. In fact the members of the famiy assume it has no meaning. Holmes does not accept this.

The murders and the ritual give Holmes puzzles to solve. He gets to do some real detective work and Bertram Millhauser provides a script that puts those puzzles at centre stage.

The chess scene and the reading of the Ritual are impressive set-pieces.

The previous film in the series, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, had been a flop. The decision to change direction and make Sherlock Holmes Faces Death a classic whodunit proved to be an excellent one. It was a major success with the public, and critics generally liked it as well. Perhaps wartime audiences didn’t want endless movies about Nazi spies. It seems that they actually wanted pure entertainment to take their minds off the war. And they wanted the real Sherlock Holmes, using his genius to solve baffling crimes.

Reverting to a traditional detective story format also makes the central characters, and the performances of the two leads, work much more effectively. Hunting Nazi spies made Sherlock Holmes seem like a fish out of water but here he is in his element.

Roy William Neill directed all but one of the Rathbone-Bruce films and he really was the perfect choice. He was essentially a B-feature director but he had an excellent visual sense and that, combined with Charles Van Enger’s marvellous black-and-white cinematography, gives the Holmes film their distinctive slightly gothic feel.

Bertram Millhauser’s screenplay utilises various elements of the original short story but most importantly it feels like a Sherlock Holmes story.

This movie is not perfect. While the climatic showdown between Holmes and the murderer is excellent it’s the film’s only real suspense scene. In particular it was a mistake not to make the audience feel that Sally Musgrave was in real danger.

Whether Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett (in the 1980s-1990s Granda TV series) was the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes is an unanswerable question. Both gave very different interpretations of the rôle but in both cases there was ample support in Conan Doyle’s stories for those interpretations. They simply emphasised different facets of the  personality of a complex character whose enduring popularity is based largely on the fact that he was so complex. Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson is more controversial but on the hole the decision to make him a semi-comic character was probably justified. The films were dark enough that some comic relief was actually welcome. And in this film Watson is amusing without being a fool.

Optimum Releasing’s Region 2 DVD offers a superb transfer and some nice extras an including an audio commentary by noted Sherlockian David Stuart Davies.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a vast improvement on the three earlier Universal films. With this production Universal had found the correct formula. It’s by no means the best entry in the cycle but it’s still highly recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nancy Drew...Reporter (1939)

Nancy Drew…Reporter, released early in 1939, is the second of four B-movies made by Warner Brothers featuring the popular fictional girl detective. Nancy Drew had made her first appearance in print in 1930. Amazingly, new Nancy Drew books are still appearing ninety years later. The books were written by various writers, all using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Both the fans and the writers of the books had mixed feelings about the films since Nancy’s character was changed somewhat (and apparently livened up a little).

Nancy Drew…Reporter starts with hardbitten city editor named Bostwick who discovers, to his horror, that he has been enveigled into giving temporary work experience jobs to half a dozen teenaged would-be reporters. He fobs them off with assignments to cover the most trivial stories he can think of. Unfortunately for Bostwick his ace reporter Tracy, who is supposed to be covering a sensational coroner’s inquest, is nowhere to be found. Bostwick leaves the assignment on Tracy’s desk. Even more unfortunately for Bostwick one of the teenaged aspiring reporters, Nancy Drew, spots the assignment and pockets it and sets off to cover the inquest.

Eula Denning is facing a murder charge over the death of an elderly lady. The evidence against her is pretty strong but Nancy knows she’s innocent because, well just because ul seems really nice. And Nancy thinks she might be able to find the vital piece of evidence the police couldn’t find. Of course it’s crazy for Nancy to try to find the evidence on her own since the real killer is going to be searching for it as well but Nancy doesn’t stop to think about the danger.

Nancy also manipulates her father, a top-flight attorney, into defending Eula Denning. Nancy manipulates everybody but nobody really minds because that’s just what she does and she’s pretty transparent about it. She’s just the sort of girl you can’t stay mad at for very long. Young Ted Nickerson, who lives next door and is not exactly her boyfriend but they are maybe just a little sweet on each other, gets manipulated by Nancy a lot. He knows that she manipulates him but he still falls for it every time. Teenaged boys tend to do that where cute teenaged girls are concerned.

There are some genuinely clever moments. Poor Ted finds himself having to go three rounds with a prize-fighter and fully expects to get beaten to a pulp. This is of course the result of another of Nancy’s bright ideas. There’s also an odd but amusing scene in a Chinese restaurant. Ted and Nancy can’t pay the bill but instead of being forced to wash dishes they have to provide some musical entertainment for the patrons. This one isn’t Nancy’s fault, it’s the fault of Ted’s bratty kid sister and her pal. Ted and Nancy’s escape from the hotel later on is also fairly ingenious. These scenes are a bit more inspired than you expect from a run-of-the-mill B-feature.

Bonita Granville was just fifteen when this movie was shot although she was already a film veteran with an Oscar nomination to her credit. Her hyper-energetic performance works and she manages to be pushy without being obnoxious. With the wrong performance Nancy could have been extremely irritating but Granville gets it just right. Frankie Thomas is pretty good as Ted Nickerson. Nancy leads him around by the nose but somehow Thomas is able to make Ted not seem like a complete fool.

What’s really nice about it is that we laugh with Nancy and Ted rather than at them. They’re a bit naïve and inexperienced but they’re not just dumb kids. They’re smart and resourceful and Nancy has the stubborn doggedness that makes a good detective. Nancy and Ted are characters that the target audience would certainly have been able to relate to and to admire. It doesn’t condescend to its audience.

When judging a movie like this you really have to take account of what it’s trying to, and what it’s trying to do is to appeal to an adolescent audience (and probably primarily adolescent girls). The ingredients were chosen accordingly - there’s a not-too-complicated mystery, a feisty but likeable young heroine, a fair amount of comedy and just a hint of (suitably chaste) romance. It’s a formula that the target audience would have been expected to lap up (and they did). Even adolescent boys would have tolerated it and maybe even enjoyed it because it has a juicy murder, a car chase, plenty of comedy and all that hardboiled newspaper reporter stuff.

William Clemens directed all four Nancy Drew movies along with plenty of other B-movies. The secret to making a successful B-movie is to keep things moving so the audience doesn’t notice any shortcomings in the plot and Clemens certainly manages to do that. Kenneth Gamet wrote the screenplays for all four movies and while this one doesn’t have a plot that is going to offer the viewer much of a challenge it does have enough gently amusing dialogue to keep things entertaining.

As with most major studio B-movies of that era it doesn’t look like a big-budget movie but it doesn’t look cheap either. It’s polished and slick. That was perhaps the single biggest virtue of the studio system - they could make B-movies on limited budgets but with all the resources of a major studio behind them the results had real quality.

Umbrella’s Region 4 DVD offers a pretty decent transfer without any extras. All four Nancy Drew movies are also available in a boxed set in the Warner Archive series.

Nancy Drew…Reporter is very lightweight but that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. It’s light-hearted entertainment but it has charm and a certain panache and it has boundless energy. I’ve never read any of the books so I don’t know how much the character was changed but as played by Bonita Granville Nancy Drew is impossible to dislike. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro was the first of Douglas Fairbanks’ big-budget swashbucklers, appearing in 1920. He’d already made many films, but this was the movie that cemented both his popularity at the time and his enduring legend.

Perhaps not the sort of thing you’d normally think of as a cult movie, but it’s pulpy adventure fun.

And if you enjoy the swashbuckling style of adventure movies, then this is a very good example of the breed.

The story has been told many times since in movies but this was in fact the first movie version of the tale. In the inhabitants of California, still under Spanish rule in the early 19th century, and suffering under the depredations of a corrupt governor and his equally crooked cronies. The native American population is being cruelly mistreated, while the Spanish landowners are being bled dry financially by exorbitant taxation. But a hero has appeared, a hero who defends the poor and fights against the governor and his troopers.This hero is known as Zorro, his true identity hidden behind a mask.

Of course we the viewers know from the outset that Zorro is in fact Don Diego, the apparently weak, foolish, rather fey and somewhat effeminate son of a wealthy landowner.

Don Diego’s father is trying to arrange a marriage for him, with Lolita Pulido. Lolita is the daughter of a neighbouring family of noble blood whose fortunes are in sad decline thanks to the outrageous taxation demands of the governor. Don Diego is attracted to Lolita but he cannot openly romance her since this would endanger the weak-willed and foolish image he has carefully built up as a cover. So he makes a fool of himself in front of her, but he returns later as Zorro as sweeps her off her feet. She despises the foppish Don Diego but she’s madly in love with the handsome and dashing Zorro.

Zorro’s plans is to encourage all the young Spanish blue-bloods, the caballeros, to join him  in a rebellion against the governor. What’s interesting is that this is to be a purely aristocratic rebellion. While one of Zorro’s grudges against the governor is his bad treatment of the Native Americans and the poor, it never occurs to our hero that such people should have the right, or might have the capacity, to fight for their own rights. The making and breaking of unjust governments is the province of the caballeros alone.

In a Fairbanks swashbuckler you expect spectacular stunts. And in this movie you certainly get them. Fairbanks did all his own stunts, partly for his own satisfaction and partly because he was simply a better stuntman than anyone else in Hollywood. There was probably nobody else who could have done some of his stunts.

There’s plenty of action, there’s romance, there’s a stirring story of the struggle against tyranny. It’s all highly entertaining, and it has that special Fairbanks magic that makes his swashbucklers somehow just that little bit better than anyone else’s. Nobody could do the likeable swaggering rogue better than Fairbanks.

Fairbanks produced and co-wrote the movie, a practice he followed in all his great adventure movies of the silent era. The Mark of Zorro was based on The Curse of Capistrano, Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story which introduced Zorro to the world.

There have been various DVD releases. By the standards of silent movies The Mark of Zorro has survived in reasonable condition.

With this movie Fairbanks established the template for the swashbuckling action movie. The 1940 version with Tyrone Power is pretty good as well but the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro is historically important as well as being outrageously entertaining. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Beat Generation (1959)

The Beat Generation is a sleazy little 1959 crime thriller (with a hint of noir) masquerading as an exploitation movie, or an exploitation movie masquerading as a sleazy crime thriller. Either way it’s interesting.

Produced by Albert Zugsmith it boasts an interesting cast - film noir icon Steve Cochran, Mamie van Doren, Jackie Coogan, James Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s eldest son and looking uncannily like his dad), Vampira and Irish McCalla (yes, Sheena Queen of the Jungle herself). And oh yes, there’s Louis Armstrong to provide some cool jazz sounds.

Bitter cop Dave Culloran (Steve Cochran) and his partner Jake Baron (Jackie Coogan) are hunting a serial rapist nicknamed the Aspirin Kid because he wins his victims’ trust by pretending to need a glass of water to take an aspirin. The hunt will take Culloran and Baron into the word of the Beat Generation. The rapist calls himself Arthur Garrett but we will discover that his name is really Stan Hess.

The Aspirin Kid’s latest victim has provided a description. It’s not enough to lead the police to the perpetrator but it does take them a lot closer than they realise.

Then Culloran’s wife Francee becomes one of Hess’ victims. This puts a strain on their marriage, and on Culloran. The case becomes a personal obsession. It also allows the movie to focus on a subject that was far more controversial at the time than rape - abortion. Which, it has to be said, it handles carefully but sensitively.

Hess is a beatnik, or at least he hangs around with beatniks and he certainly has the nihilism popularly associated with the beats.

Now a 1959 Hollywood movie focusing on the world of the beatniks sounds like it’s going to be an exercise in camp, which it is up to a point, but mostly this is a gritty nasty and at times very dark crime flick. A particularly nasty touch is that Hess also leaves evidence at the scene of his crimes that suggests that the women (and he only targets married women) may have been willing. He likes playing with people’s minds.

With Albert Zugsmith producing you might be entitled to expect this movie to be complete nonsense but there was some real talent involved. Talent such as Richard Matheson, who co-wrote the screenplay. The movie does have a point to it. Hess hates women and rapes them to express his hatred. But Dave Culloran’s attitude towards women is also troubling. Even before the rape Francee had accused Culloran of treating her the way he’d treat a suspect. He doesn’t ask her questions, he interrogates her. In fact his treatment of the first rape victim is a kind of rape (well that’s the impression the screenplay seems to be trying to give).

Since this was 1959 we obviously see the lead-up to the rapes but nothing of the actual rapes. But we hear enough to make the rape scenes genuinely harrowing. Charles F. Haas didn’t have much of a career as a feature film director but it has to be said that he handles these scenes very effectively indeed.

Steve Cochran is excellent. It’s a tough rôle. Dave Culloran isn’t the most likeable guy and he has to be played as a not very likeable guy. At the same time he isn’t a bad guy. He just has an unfortunate way of dealing with people. He’s a cop. Being a cop is all he knows. Underneath his prickly exterior he loves Francee.

Fay Spain is very good as Francee. Ray Danton is suitably creepy as Hess. Once you’ve seen Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family it’s had to take him seriously in anything else but he’s quite good as well.

And then there’s blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren as Georgia Altera, who almost becomes one of the Aspirin Kid’s victims, or maybe she doesn’t. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that van Doren looks great.

The depiction of beat culture is about what you’d expect from Hollywood. The beatniks really were ridiculously easy to mock, and this film doesn’t miss an opportunity to do so. This leads to an interesting weirdly discordant feel, veering from absurdist farce to social commentary to a surprisingly hard-edged film noir tone. This mixture could have been disastrous but for some odd reason it isn’t.

Olive Films have released this one on DVD and Blu-Ray. The DVD, reviewed here, boasts an excellent anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio).

The Beat Generation is a much better movie than it has any right to be. Underneath its campy beatnik exterior it’s a tough little crime movie. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Futures Vedettes (1955)

Futures Vedettes (AKA School for Love and Sweet Sixteen) is one of Brigitte Bardot’s early films, released in 1955. It was directed by Marc Allégret. Bardot was just starting to attract some attention at this time. A year later And God Created Woman would make her an international star and a cinematic icon.

Futures Vedettes (which means future stars) is a romantic melodrama with a few comic touches but it’s always romance that takes centre stage. It can also be seen as a coming-of-age movie. It focuses on the girls studying music and dance at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. More specifically it focuses on their relationship with their singing teacher, famed tenor Eric Walter (Jean Marais). He is a good teacher but a hard taskmaster. The girls are not only learning to be singers and dancers, they are learning to be women, which means they are learning about love. Eric is quite happy to give them lessons in this subject as well.

Pretty much all the girls are in love with him. There is a rumour that he used to beat his wife, with a belt. This excites the girls a good deal. What a man! So passionate!

Eric is separated from his wife Marie (Denise Noël). He is still obsessed with her. He just cannot forget her or get her out of his system. That does not stop him from having numerous affairs. This year the two students who have caught his eye are Sophie Dimater (Bardot) and Elis Petersen (Isabelle Pia). Both are very talented but there is quite a contrast between them. Sophie is outgoing, confident, determined and somewhat fiery. She knows she is going to be a star. She is also very aware of her feminine charms and the effect they have on men. Elis is shy and totally lacking in confidence. Both girls are hopelessly in love with Eric, both get involved with him and both sleep with him. Despite his reputation for womanising both are convinced that with them it will be different. He will fall in love with them. Perhaps, in his own selfish way, he does. But for Eric there is always Marie.

Obviously hearts are going to be broken, the question is which of the three women will be the ones to suffer. Eric is rather cold-blooded about this. If you want to be a great singer you have to learn about suffering so even if he breaks a girl’s heart at least it will make her a better artist. If he’s not quite a cad he’s pretty close to it but this makes him more sexy and more desirable. As you may have gathered by now this is not a movie that could get made today. Its political incorrectness levels are almost off the scale.

Bardot’s then-husband Roger Vadim, soon to play a very important rôle in her career, was one of the writers. Marc Allégret would direct Bardot again in 1956, in Mam'selle Striptease.

The main reason for seeing this movie today is of course Bardot. It’s not one of her greatest movies but she is impressive. The fact that she was stunningly gorgeous and wiling to take her clothes off led to her being underrated as an actress (and she’s still underrated by critics today). She was very good at light comedy (her early romantic comedies are charming) but she could handle serious dramatic rôles when given the chance to do so.

You might be wondering if Bardot takes her clothes off. The answer is yes. She has a discreet moderately revealing nude scene. It’s restrained but it’s certainly infinitely more daring than anything that would be seen in American movies at the time, or for a decade or so to come. It has to be said that it’s tasteful and playful and it actually does serve a plot function.

Isabelle Pia might have been overshadowed by Bardot but she gives a strong performance as Elis. It’s quite a demanding part since she has to make Elis timid and mousy but at the same time sympathetic and likeable.

Both Sophie and Elis are perhaps naïve but they are supposed to be young, just beginners at the game of love, so we can forgive them and sympathise with their hopes and their heartbreaks. We can’t help liking them both. They’re rivals but neither could be described as scheming or manipulative.

Yves Robert is very good as Eric’s assistant Clément who has been unfortunate enough to fall in love with Elis even though he knows he has no chance with her. Robert manages to make Clément seem not too pathetic. Mischa Auer has some fun as Eric’s manservant Berger.

Cinetrove International’s Blu-Ray release (which includes the movie on DVD as well) is superb. The black-and-white cinematography looks terrific. The only significant extra is a brief featurette on Bardot.

If you enjoy romantic melodramas then Futures Vedettes should satisfy you, and if you’re a Bardot fan you’ll definitely want this one. Highly recommended.