Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Snowbound (1948)

Snowbound is a 1948 British thriller based on the bestselling novel The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes.

Blair (Dennis Price) is working as an extra at a British film studio when the film’s director, Engles (Robert Newton), recognises him and offers him a better job. Engles had been Blair’s commanding officer during the war. Engles later worked in Intelligence.

The job is simple. Blair, accompanied by cameraman Wesson (Stanley Holloway), will stay for a few months at a ski lodge in the Alps. All Blair has to do is report back to Engles on everything that goes on at the lodge, and in particular he has to look out for a young woman named Carla (although she’s probably calling herself something else now).

This ski lodge was, curiously enough, the spot at which a certain notorious Gestapo officer met his end a few years earlier.

Blair will be posing as a scriptwriter, doing research for a possible movie. Blair has no idea what this job he’s been given is all about but he’s the sort of man who automatically assumes that if his former CO is involved it can’t be anything shady. Besides, he needs the money and it sounds like fun.

There are plenty of potentially suspicious characters staying at the ski hut. There’s a voluble Italian, Valdini. There’s an Englishman named Mayne, who seems very suspicious of Valdini. And there’s a Greek named Keramikos (Herbert Lom) who makes a rather memorable entrance.

Carla is there as well, calling herself the Contessa Forelli. She takes something of an interest in Blair although whether it’s a sincere romantic interest or whether she’s just using him remains to be seen. She’s the sort of woman who might or might not turn out to be a femme fatale.

These are all people who seem very much out of place in a rather spartan ski hut, especially when there’s a very comfortable hotel at which they could be staying. They obviously have a reason for being there, and given that they seem like a somewhat disreputable group of people (all of whom seem to have something to hide) that reason is likely to be money. A great deal of money. It seems a fair bet that the ski hut contains the key to finding something very valuable.

It becomes clear to Blair that the game that is being played is a serious one when one of the group tries to kill him, out on the mountain.

The details of the secret are revealed in a series of flashbacks and given the nature of the story flashbacks were unavoidable. The tale builds to a pretty satisfying conclusion.

The very strong cast helps. Dennis Price is a favourite of mine and he’s very good as the amiable Blair. Herbert Lom is another favourite and he gets to do some serious scenery-chewing.

The movie starts a bit slowly but once it his its stride director David MacDonald keeps the tension and the mystery going. MacDonald’s career wasn’t spectacular but he did direct the rather good swashbuckler The Moonraker a few years later.

The script provides plenty of double-crosses and attempted double-crosses.

Hammond Innes is one of those writers who enjoyed immense popularity during his lifetime only to be more or less forgotten after his death. I’ve only read one of his novels, The Blue Ice, but it’s excellent.

Snowbound is included in one of Kino Lorber’s British Noir boxed sets although its claims to being film noir are very slender indeed. It’s just a straightforward thriller.

Don’t worry about the warning regarding the quality of the transfer (the original negative of the film has long since disappeared). There’s some insignificant print damage but overall the transfer is actually very good. There are no extras.

Snowbound isn’t terribly ambitious. It just aims to be a solid entertaining thriller and for the most part it succeeds. Recommended.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

The Master of Ballantrae is a late Errol Flynn swashbuckler (released in 1953) but it’s worth a look.

Flynn plays Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae. In the 45 Rebellion the Durie family comes up with a clever plan to preserve the title and their estates. Jamie, the elder brother, will join Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender (popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) in his rebellion. His younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel) will remain at home and will remain loyal to King George II. Whether the rebellion succeeds or fails one of the Duries will be on the winning side and the family’s fortune should be secure.

It’s a good deal for Henry. If the rebellion fails he will get to be Master of Ballantrae, which is what he always wanted. He will also get to marry Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell). He always thought he would be a more suitable husband for her than Jamie.

Jamie Durie is the elder but wilder brother, a man who likes wine, women and gambling. Henry is the dull sensible one. Not surprisingly they’re not overly fond of one another.

The rebellion ends in disaster at Culloden and the English take their revenge on the Scottish rebels. The rebels are now being hunted down. Jamie hopes to escape to France on a smuggling ship along with an equally wild Irishman with whom he has hooked up, Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesy). They are betrayed to the English, Jamie blames Henry, there is a fight and somehow Jamie makes it to the ship. But his adventures and his troubles have only just begun.

Jamie has a future as a pirate but Scotland is always in his thoughts. He dreams of returning to reclaim his inheritance, and to reclaim Lady Alison. But first he must make his fortune, and piracy is a competitive business.

Returning to Scotland would be a dangerous thing to do. Which of course is unlikely to stop Jamie.

The years (or rather his debauched lifestyle) were starting to take their toll on Errol Flynn but he still has star quality and he can still play the swashbuckling hero. And he’s obviously well suited to playing an irresponsible but loveable rogue (being an irresponsible but loveable rogue himself). He looks dissipated but Jamie is a character who should look dissipated.

Roger Livesy gives a lively performance. Anthony Steel is suitably dour as the respectable responsible Henry.

There’s no question that the English are the bad guys in this movie. The movie expects the audience to unhesitatingly take the side of the rebels.

This Warner Brothers release was an Anglo-American production, shot in Scotland, England and Italy with a mostly British cast (and some great British character actors like Felix Aylmer). Having Jack Cardiff as the cinematographer certainly helped. Director William Keighley does a fine job as well.

This story of revenge, betrayal and adventure is based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, a man who knew a thing or two about writing tales of adventure. Stevenson is a very underrated writer and The Master of Ballantrae is one of his most celebrated novels. The movie lacks some of the complexity that Stevenson could bring to such a tale and the focus is on the straightforward revenge plot.

The film was shot in Technicolor. The Warner Archive release offers a reasonable transfer.

The Master of Ballantrae isn’t one of the great swashbucklers but like another late Flynn swashbuckler, Adventures of Don Juan, it’s better than you might expect. Flynn isn’t as energetic as he was in his heyday but he has lost none of his charisma and this movie still provides plenty of action and romance. And it looks great with some fine location shooting.

The Master of Ballantrae is an enjoyable ride and it’s recommended.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Night of Evil (1962)

Night of Evil is an American low-budget film that is part exploitation movie and part moral scare melodrama with a bit of film noir thrown in as well.

Dixie Ann Dikes (Lisa Gaye) is a sixteen-year-old girl living with foster parents in a small town. She is raped by a couple of local boys. Her foster parents blame her and she is dumped in the Holland Home for Girls. Which isn’t too bad. When she’s eighteen and leaves the home she moves in with Linda Dietrich (Lynette Bernay) who was brought up in the Holland Home as well and likes to help the girls when they have to make their way into the world. He tries to offer Dixie Ann motherly advice, which Dixie Ann sometimes listens to.

Everything goes great for Dixie Ann. Linda’s boss, an advertising exec, suggests that Dixie Ann should enter a beauty pageant. She might even become Miss America but at the very least it could be the start of a modelling career.

Dixie Ann has a boyfriend, Kent, a really nice boy who stood by her when she was raped. But when he discovers she’s entered a beauty contest he decides the townspeople must have been right about her after all. Any girl who would enter a beauty contest must be no better than a whore.

Then Dixie Ann meets charming lounge lizard Chuck Logan (William Campbell) and he sweeps her off her feet.

After a couple of dates he suggests they should get married straight away and she agrees, even though this means that technically she can’t enter any more beauty pageants (they’re only for single girls). But Chuck is so charming and handsome. How is an innocent girl like Dixie Ann supposed to know that he’s a gangster? And not just a gangster but a psycho.

Chuck gets himself involved in a kidnapping case. Kidnapping a cop is really dumb even if the cop does have a rich wife who might pay a big ransom. It’s a bad idea and with Chuck’s psychotic tendencies coming to the fore it could turn out to be a spectacularly bad idea. And it’s not just that Chuck is a hoodlum and a psycho. He’s as dumb as a rock as well.

Dixie Ann feels that her life is over. It’s not just that she’s no longer eligible for beauty contests. She how finds she’s married a hoodlum. She’s taken the first steps on the road to ruin. She might as well take the next step so she becomes a stripper. The next step after that is prostitution. She’s not prepared to do that so she looks for an alternative and she finds one that is even more disastrous.

It looks like Dixie Ann’s life is going to end in squalor and degradation but then comes the ending. Which presented writer Louis Perino with a challenge. This was 1962. Bad girls had to be seen to be punished. Usually in a movie like this the punishment was likely to be pretty drastic. But is Dixie Ann a bad girl or a victim? Is there a viable way in which justice can be done while saving her at the same time? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out if he came up with a solution or not.

On the surface this is just another good girl gone wrong movie but you have to remember that she was raped and then after that she was taken advantage of by Chuck. Any audience is going to regard her as a sympathetic character and the movie’s sympathies are with her as well. She’s been dealt a series of bad hands by fate. She hasn’t played them very well but would any eighteen-year-old small town girl have done any better? Would any of us? So it’s a movie with at least some serious intentions, suggesting that social problems can be complicated and guilt can be difficult to assign.

There’s a definite film noir element, with Dixie Ann as the noir protagonist brought to degradation partly by bad luck and partly by understandable errors of judgment due to youth and naïvete. Chuck Logan is the femme fatale equivalent, the good-looking charmer who leads her on to disaster.

Of course it’s an exploitation movie as well, which makes for an interesting combination of sensationalism and sensitivity.

Much depends on Lisa Gaye’s performance which is pretty good. She plays Dixie Ann as a confused character for whom life is just much too complicated and that’s the right way to play it. She’s also attractive enough to be a convincing beauty queen. The other performances are also better than you expect in a Z-grade cheapie.

The Alpha Video DVD is OK by Alpha Video standards. Image quality is mostly quite good. Sound quality is mostly OK.

I don’t want to sell this movie too highly. It’s a low-budget flick and it’s melodramatic and contrived at times. It is however a much better movie than it has any right to be.

Night of Evil is no masterpiece but it combines noir and exploitation extremely well and it works surprisingly well. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Comanche Station (1960)

Comanche Station was the last entry in the Ranown cycle of Budd Boetticher-directed westerns starring Randolph Scott. Connoisseurs of westerns rate these films very highly indeed. I’d previously only seen 7 Men From Now which I loved. Comanche Station was released in 1960.

The movie starts with Jefferson Cody (Randolph Scott) riding into a Comanche village to trade. What he’s trading for is a woman, a Mrs Low (Nancy Gates). We lear later that many years before Cody’s wife had been taken by Comanches and that he’s still obsessively looking for her. Every time he hears a rumour that the Comanches have taken another white woman he sets out to get her back.

Cody and Nancy Low make it to Comanche Station, a coach stop, before the Comanches attack. Cody fights them off, with some help from Ben Lane (Claude Akins) and Lane’s two followers, Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust). In some ways it’s help Cody could have done without. He knows Ben Lane. He got Lane drummed out of the army years before. He knows that Lane is is totally untrustworthy and unscrupulous. And there’s worse news. Mrs Low’s husband has posted a reward of $5,000 for the return of his wife. $5,000 is likely to be a mighty big temptation for a man like Lane.

What Cody doesn’t know is that Mrs Low’s husband has offered the reward for her return, dead or alive.

It’s a long way to the next town and they’re going to be shadowed night and day by the Comanches.

The stage is set for a suspense-filled movie but there’s plenty of character interest as well. Cody is one of those tortured 1950s western heroes, an obsessive man haunted by memories. Lane is a memorable villain but Lane’s two henchmen are more interesting. Especially Dobie. Dobie is not cut out to be a villain. He’s fundamentally a decent enough young man who’s lost his way. Maybe he could still find redemption. Maybe.

The plot really is very simple. Probably deliberately so. The focus is on the visual splendour of the landscape and the struggle between two obsessive men - one obsessed by the search for his long-vanished wife, a search that even he knows is hopeless, while the other’s obsession with money. Both obsessions might well be equally destructive.

Randolph Scott gave consistently excellent performances for Boetticher and he’s terrific here. Complex westerns such as this and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country certainly brought out the best in Randolph Scott. And the older Scott got the better he got, bringing a nice sense of world-weariness to his rôles. Jefferson Cody is a good man but there’s a certain emptiness to him - his obsession is all he has in life.

Westerns were changing in the 1950s, becoming more complex, more ambiguous and more grown-up. Comanche Station reflects this. There are some “adult themes” which wouldn’t have been dealt with so openly a decade earlier. It’s not actually stated but it is strongly implied that Mrs Low was raped by the Comanches. It’s also strongly implied that when a woman is taken by the Comanches and escapes or is returned to her husband in some other way the husband doesn’t always want her back, for this very reason. The fact that Nancy Low’s husband has offered the reward for her dead or alive suggests that he assumes that she will have given herself sexually, willingly or unwillingly, to the Comanches.

Or of course it could suggest other motivations. The matter is left ambiguous until the end.

Nancy Gates gives a solid performance but Mrs Low is a somewhat underwritten character. She’s just there to add some sexual tension and to make the stakes higher in the struggle between Cody and Lane.

Umbrella’s Region 4 DVD is totally barebones but it’s dirt cheap and it offers a good 16:9 enhanced transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio). There are various other DVD and Blu-Ray releases available.

Comanche Station is a simple rather poetic film with a definite mythic overtone. Cody could be the hero of a Greek tragedy, doomed to wander endlessly looking for something hopelessly and irretrievably lost. He doesn’t want the $5,000 and he doesn’t want Nancy Low. What he wants is something he can never find and he will never stop looking. Ben Lane can win if he can kill Cody, but even if Cody succeeds in killing Lane first he can’t really win.

Comanche Station is highly recommended.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express, released in 1932, was the fourth of the movies made by Josef von Sternberg starring Marlene Dietrich (and the third to be made at Paramount).

It is 1931 and the Shanghai Express is about to depart from Peking (as it was in those days) but whether it will reach Shanghai in three days without incident is another matter. The country is in the grip of civil war (the film was based on an actual incident that occurred in 1923, during the Warlord Era).

Among the passengers is the glamorous but notorious Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). She is described as a “coaster” - a woman who survives by her wits on the coastal fringes of China. She is of course a courtesan. She is sharing a compartment with the equally glamorous Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a Chinese woman who is also, we assume, a prostitute (although making too many assumptions about characters can be dangerous in this film).

Also among the passengers is Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), a British Army doctor. He knew Shanghai Lily several years before, when her name was Madeleine. She tells him she has changed her name. He asks if that means she is now married, to which she replies that no she isn’t - “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” It’s been five years but Donald Harvey has not forgotten her. She is not the sort of woman a man forgets. She has also not forgotten him. Could it be that Shanghai Lily once had her own heart broken?

The other western passengers include a German coal merchant, an American gambler, a French officer, a half-Chinese man named Chang (played by Warner Oland, yes Charlie Chan) an elderly hyper-respectable American lady with her little dog and a missionary. The elderly American lady and the missionary are shocked by the presence of immoral women like Shanghai Lily and Hui Fei on the train. Most of the passengers have some secret which eventually they will be forced to reveal.

The train is hijacked by a man claiming to be a revolutionary general although he is probably little more than a petty warlord. He is looking for a hostage important enough to be exchanged for one of his key lieutenants who has been captured by the Government. There’s not much more to the plot than this.

It’s almost superfluous to say that Dietrich looks ravishing. Her movies with von Sternberg were very much celebrations of her beauty, and her exotic allure. Her performance is excellent but it’s her status as a visual icon that matters.

Clive Brook is OK although perhaps a bit too stiff for us to believe that Shanghai Lily could have once lost her heart to him. Anna May Wong is very good as the rather mysterious Hui Fei.

Warner Oland is extremely good, good enough to have stolen the picture except that nobody could steal this picture from Marlene Dietrich.

You have to be very wary of reading reviews of this movie. Von Sternberg’s approach was very extreme and it’s an approach that alienates a lot of people. I read one review that complained that Shanghai Express was a movie that emphasised form over content. But that’s exactly what von Sternberg was aiming for. That’s the entire point of all of the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies. The style is the message. The content is of little importance. You either approve of that approach or you don’t. If you’re not in sympathy with movies that privilege style over content then you’re probably not going to like any of the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies.

There is certainly a thriller plot here and had this movie been made by anyone else that would have been the core of the movie. But this is a von Sternberg movie and the thriller plot is merely incidental. It only matters insofar as it tells us something very important about Shanghai Lily. This is a love story. That is the only plot element that matters at all. The preacher at one stage remarks that love without faith is like religion without faith — worthless. That’s all you need to know to understand the movie.

Lee Garmes won the Best Cinematography Oscar for this film although Dietrich claimed that the movie’s look was entirely the work of von Sternberg. It’s a truly gorgeous film.

Universal’s DVD release offers an extremely good transfer without any extras.

I’ve also recently reviewed two more of the von Sternberg-Dietrich movies, The Devil is a Woman and The Scarlet Empress.

Shanghai Express was a major commercial success. Although both critics and audiences would later turn against von Sternberg his films became ever more extreme exercises in style at this stage the von Sternberg-Dietrich partnership was riding high. If you haven’t seen any of these movies Shanghai Express is probably the best place to start. It’s still very much a movie that is all about style but it has a slightly stronger plot than the others and it has some suspense and even some action. 

Do not however make the mistake of thinking this is another thriller-on-a-train movie. If you do you’ll be perplexed by the movie’s structure. That’s not what this movie is about. Don’t worry about the plot. It’s totally unimportant. It’s the visual brilliance of von Sternberg and the iconic presence of Marlene Dietrich that make this movie a masterpiece. Very highly recommended.