Saturday, January 30, 2021

Girls in Chains (1943)

I’m a big fan of Edgar G. Ulmer’s movies. After a dispute with a studio boss Ulmer spent almost his entire career making ultra low budget movies including quite a few for PRC, which even by Poverty Row standards was about as far down the food chain as you could go. Somehow Ulmer still managed to make some remarkably interesting movies (and a handful of great ones like Detour). Girls in Chains, made for PRC in 1943, is obscure even for an Edgar G. Ulmer film.

It’s a Social Problem Movie, a genre to which I’m usually highly allergic. On the other hand it’s also a women-in-prison movie and they can be fun.

In this case the social problem is wayward girls. Helen Martin (Arline Judge) is the sister-in-law of racketeer Johnny Moon. That’s why she’s just lost her job as a teacher. To the respectable folk of this city anyone associated with Johnny Moon has to be a bad influence on innocent girls. In fact Helen Martin is about as respectable a woman as you could possibly find anywhere. She hates Johnny Moon with a burning white-hot loathing. She hates gangsters anyway but she also blames Johnny for corrupting her sister Jean.

The principal of the school, who was forced to fire Helen, manages to find another job for her - teaching school in a women’s prison. It’s an institution for young offenders, the sorts of young girls who get corrupted by people like Johnny Moon. Helen is sceptical but good-hearted reformist cop Frank Donovan (Roger Clark) persuades her to take the job.

Helen is also a psychologist so she has all the do-gooder qualifications.

The reformatory turns out to be a brutal institution and girls sent there, if they’re lucky enough to survive (some don’t as Helen finds out as soon as she arrives) leave the place worse than when they came in. Frank Donovan and Helen Martin want to change all that but it’s going to be an uphill battle. The superintendent is corrupt and vicious and the warders are sadistic (yes, this I definitely a women-in-prison movie). The girls aren’t just wild, they’re angry and dangerous.

It turns out that it’s actually Johnny Moon who runs the reformatory, like he runs everything else in this town. That’s why the respectable people turned on Helen - they didn’t like admitting that this is Johnny Moon’s town and that he owns them.

Now a new girl has arrived. Rita (Robin Raymond) is a waitress and she’s Johnny Moon’s latest mistress.

Helen of course tries to improve things for the girls and that gets her into trouble with the reformatory staff who are on Johnny Moon’s payroll.

Somehow Frank and Helen have to get some hard evidence against Johnny Moon. Maybe Rita will help. But then again, maybe she won’t. And Johnny is a killer so i’s a dangerous game.

The ending has a touch of German Expressionism to it and is a fine example of what a director with real talent could so with no money at all.

Making films on miscroscopically low budgets wasn’t a problem for Ulmer. The real problem was that it means working with second-rate (and sometimes third-rate) actors. The rare occasions when he had the right actors and actresses to work with (Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman, Tom Neal and Ann Savage in Detour, John Carradine in Bluebeard) tend to be his best work. The problem with Girls in Chains is that he doesn’t have much to work with at all.

Arline Judge’s career never really took off and it’s easy to see why. She’s just a bit wooden and can’t manage to bring Helen to life. Roger Clark has the same problem as Frank Donovan. Dorothy Burgess steals the picture is a minor rôle as Mrs Peters, the most dangerous and sadistic of the warders. 

This movie isn’t easy to find on DVD but there is a grey market version from Sinister Cinema in their four-movie Poverty Row Collection, PRC volume 3 pack which is cheap and also includes Jungle Siren which is a fun little jungle girl movie. And it includes another Ulmer movie, Isle of Forgotten Sins plus the odd but enjoyable musical Swing Hostess, so it’s well worth grabbing.

Girls in Chains isn’t great but it’s intriguing as an example of a Poverty Row feature which is a bit better than it has any right to be. Ulmer’s films are never less than interesting so this one is recommended.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Ride the High Country (1962)

Ride the High Country, release in 1962, was Sam Peckinpah’s second feature film as director and it was the film that put him on the map.

Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott were both legendary stars from the glory days of the western and they were both at the tail end of their careers. This would be Scott’s last movie and McCrea did very little after this film. The casting was inspired since this is a movie about two men whose glory days are long behind them.

This is one of those “last days of the Wild West” movies. In the opening sequence we see a typical Old West town but there’s a motor car in the street. We assume that the film takes place in the first few years of the 20th century. The Wild West was starting to pass into legend.

Like the Wild West itself Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is a relic of the past. He was once a famous lawman. Now he’s pushing sixty, he’s no longer famous and he works as a bank guard. His job is to escort gold bullion from a mining camp to a bank in town. Six miners have already been killed trying to get their gold to the bank.

When he was offered the job he was told he would be escorting a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of gold. Now he’s told it’s only $20,000 in gold (in fact it turns out to be even less which adds a nice little touch of futility to the story). The great days of gold rushes are over as well. The frontier, with its limitless possibilities, is a thing of the past. The future belongs to businessmen and book-keepers, not cowboys and gold prospectors and frontier lawmen. As we will see in the course of the movie even the classic western outlaw is now an anachronism.

To escort the gold Judd will need some help. That help is offered by his old friend, and one-time deputy, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott). Gil suggests that his young protégé Heck Longtree might be useful to have along.

Gil and Heck are actually intending to steal the gold. Since Steve Judd is such a straight arrow that’s going to be awkward. Gil has no intention of killing Steve. He hopes to persuade him to see reason. If he points out to Steve that they’ve both faithfully served the law for decades and they have nothing to show for it then surely Steve can be persuaded to go along with their plan.

A major complication arises when they stop for a night’s lodging at Joshua Knudsen’s farm. Young Heck is hopelessly smitten by Knudsen’s daughter Elsa. Old Joshua disapproves. Old Joshua disapproves of pretty much everything except the Bible. Elsa has decided to run away but she wants to run away to the mining camp to marry miner Billy Hammond. She manages to convince Steve and Gil to take her to the mining camp. That’s where things get really complicated, Steve and his companions fall foul of the five Hammond brothers and their dispute with the brothers is destined to end bloodily. While this is going on Gil and Heck wait for their opportunity to make off with the gold.

Since this is a Peckinpah movie you expect that there will be a lot of bloodletting before the movie is over, and there is.

There’s also a complex pattern of conflicting and shifting loyalties and conflicting agendas. Steve and Gil are old comrades. Heck is Gil’s protégé, but he comes to admire Steve Judd. Heck wants the gold but he wants Elsa and he can’t have both. There are betrayals of trust but there are also new loyalties being forged.

Steve Judd and Gil Westrum are (like the hero of Peckinpah’s later Junior Bonner) adrift in time. The world they understand is vanishing and a new world is coming into existence, a world they don’t understand at all. And it’s a new world that has no use for broken-down forgotten western heroes.

There’s a melancholy tinge to the film, but without self-pity. There’s plenty of cynicism about human nature. The miners are not sturdy independent-minded pioneers. They’re moronic drunken cut-throats and they’re little better than animals, as Elsa finds out to her cost. Gil and Heck are thieves. Steve Judd is a walking anachronism. But mixed with the cynicism there’s an odd idealism as well. Friendships can be betrayed but friendship still matters. Love can be betrayed. But occasionally, when you least expect it, people behave decently and heroically.

This is cynicism but it’s not nihilism. People let you down because they’re human, not necessarily because they’re evil. Redemption is possible. Judd’s determination to do the right thing is both absurd and admirable.

Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are superb. Oddly enough McCrea was originally cast as Gil with Scott cast as Judd but they decided to swap rôles. The fact that these two actors were themselves fading legends whose careers were coming to an end adds extra poignancy. It might also explain why they’re so good - they probably both knew that these would be the last great parts they would ever get so they gave everything they had.

Warren Oates makes the first of many appearances in Peckinpah films as one of the Hammond brothers.

While this was not a major production it’s certainly not a B-movie. It was shot in colour and Cinemascope. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is impressive.

The Region 4 DVD offers a good anamorphic transfer with some extras - a Peckinpah documentary and an audio commentary by a panel of Peckinpah scholars. It’s now available on a Warner Archive Blu-Ray as well.

Ride the High Country is an intelligent grown-up western with plenty of psychological and emotional complexity, and plenty of action. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Bishop Murder Case (1929)

The Bishop Murder Case was the fourth of the movie adaptations of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mystery novels. It was released by MGM in 1929. William Powell had played Vance in the first three films but for this one his place is taken by Basil Rathbone (Powell would return to the rôle four years later for The Kennel Murder Case).

The plot is complex and the body count is very high. A young man named Robin is found murdered, shot through the heart with an arrow. The police receive a note including the text of the nursery rhyme about Cock Robin, and signed by The Bishop.

Naturally District Attorney John F.-X. Markham asks his old friend Philo Vance to assist him in the investigation. In fact Vance takes over the case more or less completely, as he usually did.

The first murder takes place on an archery range in the grounds of the home of Professor Bertrand Dillard and the murdered man was the sweetheart of the professor’s niece Belle. It seems obvious that the murder had to be someone connected in some way with Professor Dillard.

Other murders follow, all with links to nursery rhymes and with a chess piece (a bishop) left at the scene. The murderer is either a madman obsessed with nursery rhymes or a madman obsessed with chess. Or perhaps a man who is all too sane but fiendishly clever who is just playing games with the police.

There are plenty of suspects but the ones who seem most promising keep getting murdered, much to the disgust of Sergeant Heath.

Being a 1929 release this movie suffers from many of the problems that afflict the very early talkies. The pacing is slow. There’s no music, which makes the film seem slower and less exciting. While Rathbone is fine some of the supporting players are still acting in the style of silent movies and haven’t yet learnt that extravagant gestures just don’t work in talkies.

It would be unfair to be too hard on the directors, David Burton and Nick Grinde. Everyone in Hollywood at that time was struggling to adapt to the very different challenges posed by talkies (which really were an entirely different medium requiring entirely different techniques compared to silent films) and there were lots of technical difficulties at first with the sound cameras, which tended to result in excessively static camera setups. And it has to be said that the opening sequence is excellent and visually impressive. Actually there are quite a few good visual moments in the film.

Casting Philo Vance was always a problem. The character created by Van Dine is very much an upper-class American. Vance has to have not only the upper-class American accept but that air of old money, an expensive education and breeding. Today the rôle would be impossible to cast - there just aren’t any modern actors who are going to get either the accent or the mannerisms right. Even in 1929 it was a challenge. There were still plenty of upper-class Americans in America, but not so many in Hollywood. William Powell carried it off effortlessly but the disappointing performance by the usually excellent Warren William in The Dragon Murder Case demonstrated how even a fine actor could get it wrong.

MGM came up with what must have seemed like a brilliant idea - getting an Englishman to play Vance. It works up to a point, Rathbone gets most of it right, but it doesn’t quite come off. Vance (in my view) has to be upper-class but he has to be American. On the whole I like Ratbone’s performance well enough but he just isn’t quite Philo Vance.

Roland Young is very good as the professor’s adopted son Arnesson. The other supporting cast members are less satisfactory, being either too wooden or too melodramatic.

This film is one of the six included in the Warner Archive Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. The transfer is not great but not too bad. The collection is worth getting if only for the chance of seeing six different actors playing Vance.

The Bishop Murder Case has a great plot but the execution leaves something to be desired. It’s still worth a look if you’re going to buy the boxed set anyway.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Blue, White and Perfect (1942)

Blue, White and Perfect, released in 1942, was the fourth of the seven 20th Century-Fox B-movies featuring private eye Michael Shayne and starring Lloyd Nolan. After 20th Century-Fox lost interest in the series five more films (with Hugh Beaumont in the title rôle) were made by Poverty Row studio PRC in 1946.

The character had been created by Davis Dresser, writing under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. He wrote dozens of Mike Shayne novels between 1939 and 1958 and more were later written by various ghostwriters.

In the 50s there was also a Michael Shayne TV series and a radio series.

Mike Shayne (Nolan) has just had some bad news. His girlfriend Merle (Mary Beth Hughes) is getting married, but not to him. She’s fallen for a charming Frenchman. Mike will have to do something about this. Unfortunately Merle insists that he gives up the private detective business. He agrees and gets a job as a riveter with the Thomas Aircraft Company, or at least that’s what Merle thinks, but in fact the company has hired him as an investigator.

He’ll soon have plenty to investigate. The aircraft plant is absolutely riddled with German spies! We know straight away they’re German spies because they all have heavy German accents and they behave in a really sinister manner, just like German spies in the movies. The spies have stolen some industrial diamonds, essential for the war effort.

The spies intend to get the diamonds out of the country on the liner Princess Nola so Mike will have to take an ocean voyage to keep tabs on them. He’ll need money for that, so he cons it out of poor Merle. On the steamer he runs into an old friend, the glamorous Helen Shaw (Helene Reynolds). He also makes a new friend, Juan Arturo O’Hara (played be George Reeves, yes Superman himself). Whether Helen and Juan are mixed up in the spy business or just innocent bystanders remans to be seen. Mike is sure he’s on the right track with the spies because people keep trying to shoot him (Mike always sees that as a positive sign).

Shayne doesn’t really solve the case. He just manages to stay alive long enough to stumble over the solution. He can’t even be given credit for the staying alive part - it’s mostly just dumb luck. Which makes him strangely likeable. You can’t help wondering what his next mistake will be.

The Fox Mike Shayne movies were very lightweight and had a tendency at times to overdo the comedic elements. That’s less of a problem with this film. The focus is more heavily on the plot and it’s at least a little bit more hardboiled (but only a little) than other entries in the series. Lloyd Nolan is also much better when, as in this film, he tones the comedy down a bit. There’s still plenty of humour and plenty of wisecracks but he comes across as a moderately believable (if not very competent) private detective.

It needs to be admitted up front that Michael Shayne as played by Lloyd Nolan bears no resemblance at all to the Michael Shayne of the novels. None whatsoever.

Mary Beth Hughes is fine as the long-suffering Merle (she appeared in several movies in this series but as different characters). Helene Reynolds is very good as the glamorous woman who may or may not turn out to be a femme fatale.

Fox released four of the Michael Shayne movies (with extremely nice transfers) in a DVD set a few years back. They even included some worthwhile extras. If you can find the set and you’re a B-movie fan and you don’t mind B-movies with strong comedic elements then it’s good value.

I’ve seen all four movies in this set and this might be the one I enjoyed most. Lightweight but recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940), The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1942) and Sleepers West (1941). You might also be interested in my review of one of the novels, Murder Is My Business.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Tattooed Stranger (1950)

The Tattooed Stranger is a 1950 RKO crime B-picture and it’s a pretty low-budget affair. It’s a police procedural and it fits it into the filmed-on-location with a semi-documentary feel sub-genre made popular by The Naked City a couple of tears earlier.

A woman’s body is found slumped in a car in a park in New York. She was killed by a shotgun blast. The police don’t know the woman’s identity, they don’t know where she was killed (although they do know she wasn’t killed where they found her), they don’t know why she was killed. Even the time of death is annoyingly imprecise. But life wasn’t meant to be easy for Homicide cops and Lieutenant Corrigan (Walter Kinsella) has been a policeman long enough to know that complaining won’t solve the case. All you have to do is be absolutely meticulous about getting every shred of physical evidence that the crime scene has to offer, then you need to start waring out shoe leather and start using your brain and your experience. He knows the drill.

He is not too happy about being partnered with Detective Frank Tobin (John Miles). Tobin is one of those college boys who used to be in the Scientific Squad and they’re OK with test tubes but are they any good at real police work? But Corrigan knows there’s no point complaining about this either, and maybe the kid will turn out not to be totally useless after all.

Now you might expect that these two mismatched cops are going to clash but this movie avoids that obvious cliché. Corrigan grumbles but he’s actually easy-going, Tobin is a friendly kind of guy and seems to know his job and they’re both professionals. They’re not prima donnas. Pretty soon they’re getting along just fine.

When a guy with a knife gets into the morgue and tries slicing up the Jane Doe’s body it becomes obvious that someone is really anxious to make it hard to identify her.

The evidence collected at the crime scene holds a couple of surprises, one involving the murder method which wasn’t as straightforward as it initially appeared, and one involving seeds that had no business being there. The seeds lead Detective Tobin to the Natural History Museum where he gets some help from a very pretty young lady botanist, Mary Mahan (Patricia Barry). She’s so cute and friendly he really doesn’t care if she provides useful information or not, he’s just happy if she smiles at him. And she does eventually provide some pretty useful help. She also adds some glamour and a hint of romance to what is otherwise a very hard-edged and quite sleazy little film.

There is of course, as the title suggests, one big clue - the murder victim had a tattoo. It’s surprising just how much a tattoo can tell a cop if he knows the right questions to ask and the right people to ask.

While Corrigan and Tobin follow up leads the killer is busily covering his tracks, and doing so with ruthless efficiency.

Director Edward Montagne only made a couple of features before moving into television work. He doesn’t do anything dazzling here but he doesn’t make any obvious mistakes. Screenwriter Philip H. Reisman Jr’s career followed exactly the same trajectory. His script for The Tattooed Stranger is neatly constructed. This film captures the feel of realistic routine police work very convincingly. These cops don’t rely on brilliant flashes of insight - they know their jobs and they know that the secret is to just keep plugging away.

The acting is a bit stilted in places although Patricia Barry is quite good. The slightly stilted acting can even be seen as a plus, giving the movie more of the documentary feel that it was clearly aiming for. Look out for Jack Lord in a very small part.

The Warner Archive DVD is barebones but image quality is very good. Being a 1950 movie it was of course shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio so the fullframe transfer is correct.

This is a pure police procedural with no real claims to being film noir.

A very good story, good pacing, the occasional clever piece of dialogue, some effectively claustrophobic atmosphere (William O. Steiner’s cinematography is extremely good), competent directing and a well-executed climax would be enough to earn this one a recommended rating. It’s the superb location shooting, with its glimpses of life in the raw in some of the seediest parts of New York, that are more than enough to propel it into the highly recommended category. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s a neglected classic of its type and I liked it more than The Naked City.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Race Street (1948)

Race Street is an obscure 1948 RKO crime thriller starring George Raft and Raft’s presence is a good enough reason for me to want to watch such a movie.

Dan Gannin (Raft) is a big-time San Francisco bookie. His pal Barney Runson (William Bendix) is a police lieutenant. Dan might be a racketeer but he’s a decent guy and he’s definitely no hoodlum. Barney is an honest cop and he doesn’t approve of Dan’s operation but he doesn’t let him worry him. Maybe there are worse things than people wanting to bet on the ponies, and as long as people want to do that there are going to be bookies.

Dan is intending to retire. He’s opened a night club and he’s going to marry a swell gal named Robbie Lawrence (Marilyn Maxwell). 

Now there’s a new racket operating in the city. A protection racket. And that’s a whole different ball game. These people really are hoodlums. They’re moving on the city’s bookies. Barney would like Dan’s help but he’s not going to get it. Dan likes Barney a lot but he can’t be seen to run squealing to the cops when he’s in a jam. In Dan’s circle that is frowned upon. Dan isn’t in a jam yet, but he will be. And Dan’s best friend is already in that jam with the protection racketeers. That’s not the sort of thing Dan Gannin will hold still for. Barney know that no matter what he says Dan will insist on handling things his way and that’s going to be awkward.

It’s a straightforward plot setup but there is a twist which Dan doesn’t know about yet.

Dan and Barney are both on the track of the guy behind the protection racket ad they both intend to find him first.

Director Edward L. Marin was enjoying a successful career up until his untimely death in 1951. He does a generally decent and occasionally inspired job here. He pulls off a couple of pretty decent set-pieces, including two very different and equally tense scenes on the same staircase.

As to being a film noir, there’s really not much of the noir visual style here.

Content-wise there’s not much noirness in evidence either, except perhaps in the sense that Dan is a guy who was just about to get out of the rackets when all this aggravation descended upon him. But there’s only just enough to make it film noir. It’s just a noir-tinged tough-guy crime thriller really.

This is the sort of rôle George Raft carries off with effortless style. Raft had the ability to convince an audience that he was a seriously tough guy with a steak of ruthlessness but also a man who was fundamentally kind and generous. And that’s the sort of guy Dan Gannin is. If someone tries to push Dan around, well let’s just say he’s likely to push back,  but if you’re straight with him he’ll be the best friend you ever had. Dan is a likeable tough guy. His sensitive side is kept under wraps but Raft is good enough to make sure we know that that side is there.

William Bendix is pretty good as Barney, a very ordinary rather amiable cop who knows his job and takes it seriously.

Marilyn Maxwell, a second-string star now largely forgotten, is quite adequate as Robbie. Singer-actress-cheesecake model Gale Robbins adds some glamour as Dan’s sister Elaine, a sexy canary who headlines at Dan’s new club.

The Warner Archive release is what you expect - no extras but a very good transfer.

Race Street is minor-league stuff to be honest, with just not enough in the plot department to make it stand out. It’s the strong cast that carries it with Raft being particularly good. I like the gruff affection between Dan and Barney, guys who’ve been friends a long time.

Race Street is a competent crime melodrama. If you’re a George Raft completist like me you’ll want to buy it, otherwise it’s worth a rental. On the whole I liked it well enough.