Thursday, December 31, 2020

best classic movies I saw in 2020

These were the classic movies I enjoyed most during 2020. They’re listed in order of release date.

The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg). The most gloriously excessive and uncompromising of von Sternberg. Style, style and more style.

The Fallen Idol (1948, Carol Reed). Scripted by Graham Greene. Intelligent, complex drama about human frailties.

The Small Voice (1948, Fergus McDonell). A gripping British crime thriller.

Naked Alibi (1954, Jerry Hopper). Superb film noir with an awesome cast - Gloria Grahame, Sterling Hayden and Gene Barry.

Une Parisienne (1957, Michel Boisrond). Charming French romantic comedy. What can I say? I adore Brigitte Bardot.

Room 43 (1958, Alvin Rakoff). Diana Dors in fine form in a steamy sleazy slightest noirish drama.

Man in the Back Seat (1961, Vernon Sewell). Absolutely top-notch offbeat British film noir.

Candidate for Murder (1962, David Villiers). A British Edgar Wallace thriller and a great example of what can be done on a limited budget.

Robbery (1967, Peter Yates). Brilliant British crime thriller from the director of Bullitt.

The posts that have been most popular with readers this year have been the very slightly noirish private eye mystery Twenty Plus Two (1961, Joseph M. Newman), the mildly disreputable and slightly trashy Girls in Prison (1956, Edward L. Cahn), the fine Brigitte Bardot romantic melodrama Futures Vedettes (1955, Marc Allégret), and the steamy crime potboiler The Girl in Black Stockings (1957, Howard W. Koch).

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Son of Monte Cristo (1940)

The Son of Monte Cristo is a 1940 second-tier swashbuckler. You take some ideas borrowed from The Count of Monte Cristo, The Mark of Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda and combine them in a blender and this is what you get. It’s all good clean fun.

The setting is the tiny Balkan principality of Lichtenburg in 1865 (very much like the mythical Ruritania of The Prisoner of Zenda). Lichtenburg is ruled by the young and beautiful, and much-loved, Grand Duchess Zona (Joan Bennett) but the real power is in the hands of the unscrupulous and brutal General Gurko Lanen (George Sanders). The Grand Duchess’s loyal prime minister sends her on a desperate mission to Paris to seek aid from the Emperor Napoleon III (a sensible idea since Napoleon III was much addicted to getting France involved in crazy foreign adventures). Unfortunately Gurko Lanen gets wind of the mission and is determined to prevent Zona from reaching Paris.

Just when Zona is desperately in need of a swashbuckling hero to rescue her, lo and behold, such a hero appears on the scene. He is Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo (not the famous one but apparently his son). The Count (played by Louis Hayward) is the kind of guy who spends most of his life just waiting for the opportunity to save damsels in distress and of course he is a great hater of tyrants.

Sadly he has, initially, mixed success in his rescue attempts and Zona ends up back in the clutches of Gurko Lanen. And she discovers, to her horror, that he has plans to force her into marrying him. She is horrified. It’s bad enough that he’s a ruthless tyrant, but he’s also a commoner. In fact, a former peasant.

Naturally Dantes gets mixed up in the resistance movement. Their objective is to free the Grand Duchess from Gurko Lanen’s influence but first they will have to free the imprisoned prime minister. Someone will have to get into the palace. Dantes feels he can easily do this since he happens to be a very rich banker with whom Gurko Lanen has been trying to negotiate a loan (yes, this movie does rely rather a lot on lucky coincidences). If he plays the fool as well no-one will suspect what he is up to.

The plot has some pleasing twists and there are times when you really think that the hero can’t possibly get out of the mess he’s landed himself in.

Of course any 1940 Hollywood movie dealing with tyrannies would have been made with a strong political subtext. Fortunately in this case the point isn’t laboured too much and can be safely ignored and the viewer can just get on with enjoying the movie.

Director Rowland V. Lee had a particular talent for making swashbuckling adventure films and it’s no surprise that he handles this directing assignment extremely well. Screenwriter George Bruce also did plenty of movies in this genre. Even if this one is just ideas from other swashbucklers cobbled together the ideas are at least cobbled together reasonably coherently and entertainingly.

Louis Hayward makes a fine dashing hero and Joan Bennett is a perfectly acceptable and suitably haughty heroine. It goes without saying that the movie really belongs to George Sanders. He gives a splendid larger-than-life performance and he has the advantage of having by far the most interesting rôle in the film. Gurko Lanen is just a little bit more than a cardboard villain. As a peasant who has clawed his way to the top he has a convincing motivation for seeking power. And he is genuinely in love with Zona, and he does have reasonable grounds for thinking that her rejection of him has a lot to do with his humble birth. Even if it’s hard to actually sympathise with him we can at least understand what drives him.

The Cheezy Flicks DVD release offers a less than pristine but reasonably acceptable transfer and it is cheap.

This movie looks good (it was filmed in black-and-white) and it has some decent action scenes (and plenty of them), and of course some romance. As long as you don’t set your expectations too high The Son of Monte Cristo is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure romp and the performance of George Sanders on its own is enough reason to see this one. Swashbuckling fans should be quite satisfied. Recommended.

You might also be interested in my reviews of some of the movies that pretty obviously influenced this one, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Merry Christmas to everyone


Merry Christmas to everyone. I hope Santa brought you lots of classic movie DVDs.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Ladykillers (1955)

The Ladykillers (released in 1955) was a late entry in the cycle of Ealing comedies produced from the late 40s to the late 50s by Britain’s Ealing Studios. It is usually regarded as the last truly great film in the cycle. Like so many of the Ealing comedies it stars Alec Guinness - in fact it was these films that made him a major star.

Alexander Mackendrick directed (and he directed three other Ealing comedies as well).

Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) takes rooms at the lodgings of a sweet little old lady, Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson). The professor explains that he and his four friends are members of a string quintet and they need rooms in which to practise. Mrs Wilberforce is delighted.

In fact the professor and his friends are desperate armed robbers planning a big heist at Kings Cross Station in London. The professor has a brilliant plan to get the loot safely away - he will trick Mrs Wilberforce into picking it up from the station. The coppers will never suspect that the trunk the old dear is collecting from the station contains the stolen money.

It’s a good plan and it almost works. Unfortunately Mrs Wilberforce gets a look at the money and she is understandably distressed. The gang have to find a way to persuade her not to go to the police. Eventually they decide that they maybe they will need to get rid of her, permanently. The problem is that she’s a sweet old thing and while they’re desperadoes they’re not really murderers. Mrs Wilberforce therefore poses a major problem.

Oddly enough, given that the Ealing comedies seem so quintessentially English the screenwriter was an expatriate American, William Rose (who claimed the story was based on a dream), and director Alexander Mackendrick was born in the US as well.

This is a very black comedy. Even today it would be regarded as very black comedy and in 1955 even more so.

There are six major characters. Mrs Wilberforce, played by veteran actress Katie Johnson. There’s Professor Marcus, there’s the pompous but disreputable Major Courtney (Cecil Parker), there’s failed boxer One-Round (Danny Green), spiv Louis (Herbert Lom) and Teddy Boy Harry (Peter Sellers getting his first major film rôle). But actually there’s a seventh character every bit as important - Mrs Wilberforce’s ramshackle rather absurd lop-sided house near St Pancras Station. Alexander Mackendrick had very definite ideas about what the house had to look like and when he couldn’t find a suitable house he had one built - not just a set but a whole house.

Alec Guinness appears to be channeling Alistair Sim which is no coincidence since the part was originally earmarked for Sim (who would have had a field day with it). Guinness however had established himself as a solid box-office draw for Ealing so he was given the part. He plays the professor as a mad genius, with bizarre phony teeth. All the characters are absurd and outrageous and yet somehow rather human. They consider themselves to be hardened criminals but they’re just not as hard as they imagine themselves to be. They’re not really a match for a little old lady.

At first Mrs Wilberforce seems like character from a different movie. But that’s exactly the point. She really does come from a different universe. She proudly tells the crooks that her late husband (a sea captain) went down with his ship in a typhoon, giving the salute on the bridge, having first ensured that his beloved parrots were safely settled in a lifeboat. It’s a perfect mixture of Victorian sentimentality and heroism and that’s the world Mrs Wilberforce still lives in.

Even with Alec Guinness going superbly over the top it would be unfair to single out one of the six stars - all the performances work splendidly and all the performers work together splendidly. As an added bonus there’s the great Frankie Howerd in a minor rôle.

And then there’s the wonderful twist right at the end when the police are informed. I’m not going to spoil it for you but it’s a lovely ironic-comic touch.

The movie was shot in the old three-strip Technicolor process, somewhat to Mackendrick’s dismay. He preferred black-and-white and he wanted a sombre grim look which was almost impossible to achieve with three-strip Technicolor. Somehow Mackendrick and his cinematographer Otto Heller managed to do it and it works.

The StudioCanal Blu-Ray offers plenty of extras, the highlights being an introduction by Terry Gilliam (a huge fan of the film) and an extremely informative audio commentary by Phil Kemp. There are also several interviews and a documentary on Ealing Studios. StudioCanal have also released this movie on DVD.

Apart from being funny and very dark The Ladykillers also has a delightfully grotesque feel to it. It’s even at times quite macabre. Professor Marcus could almost have stepped out of a gothic horror movie and Mrs Wilberforce’s house would have been a perfect setting for such a film.

The Ladykillers is a wickedly delicious black comedy. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Playback (1962)

Playback is a 1962 entry in the prolific Merton Park Studio cycle of Edgar Wallace potboilers.

Dave Hollis (Barry Foster) is a young police constable hoping for a transfer to CID. Like so many young policemen he thinks being a detective would be much more glamorous than walking a beat. His troubles begin one night when he helps a young German woman named Lisa (played by Margit Saad) break into her own house - she locked her keys inside. He cuts his hand and she insists on bandaging it, and then she insists that he have a cop of coffee and then they start chatting. It’s all quite innocent and it’s just bad luck that while he’s supposed to be walking his beat a robbery occurs and he covers up by telling his sergeant a few white lies.

It is of course the first step on the road to ruin.

Lisa really is charming, and very attractive, but she’s married. Obviously the sensible thing for Dave to do is to forget the whole incident but it’s not easy to be sensible about charming attractive young women and he starts to see her regularly. Unluckily for Dave they pick a gambling club for their meetings and he starts losing heavily.

She’s not exactly happily married. She’s thought about leaving her husband Simon (George Pravda) but then she wouldn’t have any money. She’s not the sort of girl who likes the idea of not having any money. She tells Dave all her troubles. If only there was a way for them to get hold of a large amount of money they could go away together and be happy. And her husband has a great deal of money. A very great deal. Maybe there is a way?

So there’s a bit of a film noir vibe here. Hollis is a nice guy but his character is a bit weak, he’s a bit self-indulgent and his judgment is not too good. He’s also inclined to be led astray by beautiful women. These might not in normal circumstances be serious character flaws but if you add a femme fatale to the mix they’re enough to set him on the slippery slide into the noir nightmare world. In fact there’s quite a lot of film noir in this one.

Playback is a bit like a low-rent Double Indemnity - a man and a woman who are both just waiting to be corrupted and when brought together their potential corruption blossoms.

It’s told entirely in flashback but although we know at the start that Dave has landed himself in real trouble we don’t as yet know any of the details. These are gradually revealed but more importantly the motivations are gradually revealed as well. And it’s the motivations that are the real focus of the film.

It doesn’t take too long to figure out what is likely to happen but there are still plenty of nasty little plot twists waiting for us.

Barry Foster gives one of his best performances. There’s plenty of nuance. Dave is likeable enough on the surface but we quickly become aware of his character flaws. We feel some sympathy for him but we also feel that he’s chosen his fate. We can’t quite bring ourselves to feel too much respect for him.

Margit Saad is also excellent as the femme fatale Lisa. She’s not too obvious a femme fatale. We can see how Dave convinces himself that she’s a charming but unhappy woman, a victim of a loveless marriage, but we’re also a little suspicious of her.

Adding to our enjoyment is the wonderful Nigel Green as the owner of the gambling club. Dinsdale Landen is good as Dave’s pal Joe, another young policeman but one with a great deal more sense.

The screenplay (and it’s a very satisfying screenplay) is by Robert Banks Stewart who went on to have an extraordinarily successful career as a television writer. Director Quentin Lawrence spent most of his career in television as well but the handful of features he made included the excellent Cash on Demand for Hammer in 1961. Both that film and this one demonstrated that he could do suspense fairly well.

This one is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 3 boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is extremely good.

Playback is a quite a nifty little example of the British film noir. And it really does tick most of the noir boxes - the protagonist brought down by his own weaknesses, the femme fatale, flashbacks, even some voiceover narration by the protagonist at the start.

Playback is highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

I Saw What You Did (1965)

I Saw What You Did is a 1965 potboiler from the legendary low-budget horror schlockmeister William Castle but it’s a crime thriller rather than an out-and-out horror flick. It belongs to an interesting sub-genre - the telephone thriller.

Libby’s parents are going to be away overnight so she invites her friend Kit over. Libby lives just out of town. Her parents have a kind of hobby farm. It’s a nice place but it’s isolated and Libby gets a bit bored and lonely.

Libby and Kit amuse themselves by making prank phone calls. They pick a number and when someone answers they say, “I saw what you did. I know who you are.” It’s a game that affords them endless entertainment, especially if the person answering has got something to feel guilty about, like playing around with his secretary. But then they ring someone who has done something really wrong and really bad. He’s just committed a murder. And now he thinks there was a witness.

The opening sequences have already established that Libby and Kit are actually nice girls. They’re just young (they’re around fifteen or so) and indulging in harmless girlish pranks. This was 1965 and making prank phone calls was about as wicked as the average fifteen-year-old girl was likely to get (or at least that’s what Hollywood would have had us believe). They’re not girls who would ever intentionally hurt anybody. They could never imagine that anything bad could result from their pranks. Maybe they deserve to be grounded for a week. But now they could be in big trouble. Really big trouble. And they could be about to unwittingly get themselves in much deeper.

Of course they don’t yet know how much trouble they could get into. Being teenage girls they’re kinda boy-crazy but still pretty innocent. Since they picked the number out of the telephone book they really do know where the people they’re calling live and they think it would be tremendous fun to drive by his house to check him out - his voice sounds so sexy! Libby wonders whether she might even be able to find a way to meet him. Kit isn’t sure this is a good idea. But of course it’s all just a game. 

The killer is Steve (John Ireland), he’s just killed his young wife Judith and he’s emotionally entangled with his next-door neighbour Amy (Joan Crawford). He’s on the edge of violence most of the time and he’s the kind of guy who would certainly think nothing of killing an inconvenient witness., Of course there’s no way he could find out where Libby and Kit are, or could he?

To complicate matters the girls are baby-sitting Libby’s kid sister Tess, who has a habit of wandering off at the worst possible moments.

The suspense is pretty effective. William Castle wasn’t a very subtle film-maker but by this time he had plenty of experience in scaring audiences.

The screenplay is by William P. McGivern, a pretty good crime novelist (he wrote The Big Heat), and while it might seem a bit far-fetched it comes across as quite plausible.

Joan Crawford of course gets top billing and she’s in fine form but hers is really more of a supporting part. John Ireland is reasonably solid.  But the real stars are the two girls, Andi Garrett (who plays Libby) and Sara Lane (who plays Kit). The movie stands or falls on their performances and they’re both terrific. Sadly neither went on to have real careers. Libby and Kit are believable. They’re almost grown up, but not quite. They think they’re ready to be treated as adults but they’re still a bit child-like in their inability to think through the consequences of their actions.

This is a William Castle film so it’s actually nowhere near as dark as the subject matter might suggest. He wants to give the audience some thrills and maybe a real scare or two (and he usually managed to do so) but mostly he wants us to have harmless fun. Those were the days when people actually made thrillers (and even horror movies) that were not meant to be harrowing exercises in depravity and degradation and misery. Castle was an old-fashioned showman with a love for gimmicks.

The movie was shot widescreen and in black-and-white and it’s one of those movies that benefits from being in black-and-white.

Universal’s DVD release is barebones but the transfer is very good.

This is good old-fashioned entertainment. You’re not meant to take it too seriously, you’re just meant to sit back and enjoy it. On that basis it works very well.

I Saw What You Did is highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Smart Blonde (1937)

Smart Blonde, which came out in 1937, was the first of nine Warner Brothers B-movies featuring the Morning Herald’s ace girl reporter Torchy Blane. Glenda Farrell played the title rôle in all but two of these films. And in all but two films Barton MacLane played her partner in crime-solving, Lieutenant Steve McBride.

Fitz Mularkey (Addison Richards) is a sports promoter who also owns a night club. Surprisingly he has a reputation for honesty. Now he’s decided to sell all these enterprises to his old friend Tiny Torgenson (Joseph Crehan), who is also regarded as an honest man. Obviously there’s not much of a story here for an ace girl reporter to get her teeth into. That all changes when Tiny Torgenson gets gunned down in broad daylight. Now it looks like there could be a swell story in this after all.

Torchy’s pal (well actually her boyfriend) Homicide Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) is the investigating officer but Torchy intends to be in on the case as well. McBride doesn’t really mind and he doesn’t have a choice anyway. He’s smart enough to know that there’s no stopping Torchy when she smells a big story.

The obvious suspect is Fitz’s right-hand man Chuck Cannon (Max Wagner). Chuck packs a rod and he’s hot-headed and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want Fitz to sell out. But it soon appears that Fitz might be a suspect as well. Or there’s torch singer Dolly Ireland (Winifred Shaw), who’s in love with Fitz and isn’t pleased that he intends to marry socialite Marcia Friel. His proposed marriage to Marcia is the reason he’s selling up, so Dolly could have a motive. And then there’s a bunch of hoodlums who want to take over Fitz’s sporting interests.

Steve McBride has his theories. Torchy thinks he has no chance of cracking the case without her help, but then she doesn’t think he could solve any case without her. And naturally she’s right. Of course if McBride had any sense he’d just marry her. Torchy has plans to make that happen. She just can’t help loving the big palooka.

The source material was a series of short stories by pulp writer Frederick Nebel (who wrote hardboiled crime and also some great aviation adventure stories featuring very disreputable adventurers Gales and McGill). In Nebel’s original stories McBride was the hero and he had a male sidekick. Turning the sidekick into a woman and making her the central character works pretty well.

Glenda Farrell plays Torchy as fast-talking and moderately hardboiled (in a feminine sort of way), in fact Torchy is exactly what you expect a feisty girl reporter to be. Farrell manages this without making her obnoxious or irritating. Farrell was a rising star in the 30s and she’s terrific. Barton MacLane as McBride makes an effective foil for her. They never stop arguing. That’s how you can tell they’re in love.

Jane Wyman as ditzy hat-check girl Dixie adds some surprisingly effective comic relief.

The story is suitably convoluted with multiple twists. Maybe the twists aren’t that difficult to figure out but they come at you so thick and fast that the plot works better than it has any right to. Director Frank McDonald knew how to make B-movies - if there’s a chance the audience might have time to think too much about whether things make sense or not, have someone pull a gun.

All nine films in the series are included in the Warner Archive Torchy Blane DVD set. There’s a very small amount of print damage evident in Smart Blonde and it’s just a tiny bit grainy at times. Personally I think a touch of graininess enhances a black-and-white B-movie. Otherwise the transfer is very good with good contrast. Sound quality is fine.

Smart Blonde is like Torchy Blane herself - fast-talking, brassy, hyperactive, just hardboiled enough, with a knack for wisecracks and fun to spend some time with. It’s no masterpiece, it’s just a B-movie, but it’s an enjoyable B-movie. Recommended, and if you like B-pictures about feisty girl reporters you can upgrade that to highly recommended.