Saturday, March 27, 2021

The October Man (1947)

The October Man is a 1947 British crime thriller with perhaps some very slight claims to being a film noir. Very slight indeed.

Jim Ackland (John Mills) suffered a fractured skull and brain injuries in a bus crash. A little girl, the daughter of friends of Jim’s, was killed in the crash. Jim was not in any way responsible, he wasn’t driving the bus and the crash was purely an accident anyway, but he feels vaguely and irrationally guilty.

His recovery is slow, not so much from the physical injuries as from the psychological shock. His recovery has been punctuated by a couple of suicide attempts. He’s now well enough to leave the hospital but he still gets headaches and he’s still a bit jumpy.

He has returned to London, hoping to resume his career as an industrial chemist, and has taken rooms in a reasonably comfortable and respectable hotel.

Things are gradually getting back to normal, he’s settling into his job and he’s met a rather charming young woman and romance is starting to blossom.

And then there’s a murder. The victim, a woman, was known to Jim. They really weren’t much more than acquaintances. Jim has no alibi and there is some circumstantial evidence that points to him. The police get very excited when they discover that Jim had been in a mental hospital. The evidence against him really is absurdly slim but the police want to make an arrest and he seems like a good prospect. There are other very plausible suspects but why bother following up other leads when you already have a perfectly good suspect?

Jim really has more or less recovered but now he’s under extreme stress and everybody seems convinced that he’s guilty.

Joan Greenwood is good as Jim’s girlfriend Jenny and there are some fine performances by the supporting players with Felix Aylmer being wonderful as always as Jim’s doctor.

But the movie belongs to John Mills. John Mills is not the first name that would spring to mind if someone raised the subject of British film noir but he did make a number of somewhat dark crime movies that do hold some interest for noir fans - The Long Memory (1953), Vicious Circle (1957) and Mr Denning Drives North (1952) being notable examples. There’s also the extremely interesting 1937 proto-noir The Green Cockatoo.

Mills was surprisingly effective in complex darker rôles and he gives an excellent and rather subtle performance here. He resists the temptation to overdo Jim’s jumpiness and confusion.

Any movie with an Eric Ambler connection is also likely to be worth checking out if you’re a film noir fan. In this case the movie was not only based on an Ambler novel, Ambler produced the film and wrote the screenplay as well.

There are only three likely suspects, including Jim (given his mental state he’s not certain that he’s not the murderer and the viewer can’t be entirely certain either), but the mystery and the suspense are well maintained. The other wild card of course is that we know that Jim has been suicidal in the past, so whether he’s guilty or not and whether he’s arrested or not he might try suicide again so that adds further suspense as the pressure mounts on him.

The October Man
is also noteworthy for being Roy Ward Baker’s first film as a director (and he does an excellent job). It’s also worth pointing out that both Roy Ward Baker and Eric Ambler’s wife had worked with Hitchcock.

Kino Lorber have included The October Man in the first of their five-film British Noir boxed sets. The transfer is quite acceptable. It’s fullframe of course (which is quite correct). The film was shot in black-and-white.

The October Man might not be authentically noir (although at times it does have a noirish look) but it’s a fine mystery/suspense film. To be honest the script isn’t that dazzling and the success of the film is mainly due to Roy Ward Baker’s stylish handling of the material and the terrific performance of John Mills. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Manuela (1957)

Manuela (released in the US as Stowaway Girl) is an odd little 1957 British film, directed by Guy Hamilton, that is a kind of unconventional romance and maritime adventure drama combined. It also has an extremely interesting cast - Trevor Howard, Donald Pleasence, Elsa Martinelli, Pedro Armendáriz and Warren Mitchell (plus Roger Delgado in a very small rôle).

James Prothero (Trevor Howards) is the captain of the tramp steamer Conway Castle. He’s bad-tempered and he drinks too much and he’s been too long at sea. He’s also, although he has never admitted to himself, an incurable romantic.

The Conway Castle has to put in to the small South American port of San Luis. The crew have to bury their chief engineer. Finding a properly qualified replacement in San Luis is impossible so, with some misgivings, he promotes Mario Contanza (Pedro Armendáriz) to the post.

In San Luis he unwittingly picks up a stowaway, the beautiful fiery 17-year-old Manuela (Elsa Martinelli).

She is smuggled aboard by Constanza, who has his own ideas as to how she’s going to repay him. Manuela has no intentions of becoming Mario’s mistress but she is desperate to get to England. Her father was an Englishman, from Windsor. They have castles in Windsor and Manuela, who knows nothing about England, has all kinds of romantic girlish notions about what her life in England will be like. In any case she has very good reasons for wanting to leave San Luis.

Constanza smuggles Manuela aboard as a cabin boy. You won’t be surprised to hear that trying to pass off Elsa Martinelli as a boy is a deception that works successfully for about five minutes.

As you might expect Captain Prothero does not react well when he discovers Manuela’s presence aboard his ship. He decides to put both Manuela and Constanza ashore. Manuela responds by throwing herself overboard.

This is where Prothero’s latent romanticism kicks in. When Manuela is fished out of the water he suddenly softens. In fact he falls in love with her. And she falls in love with him.

But disaster is about to strike the Conway Castle. There is a slow fire in one of the cargo holds. Saving the ship is now the first priority. And, for Captain Prothero, perhaps saving himself from an existence that has become dissatisfying to him. He has had a glimpse of another life he could lead, another destination for which to head. He has a duty to his crew but now he finds himself thinking he has a duty to himself and to Manuela. The problem is that these duties my be mutually irreconcilable.

Trevor Howard was perfect for rôles such as this - a character who could be an obvious cliché but he adds multiple layers of emotional depth. Elsa Martinelli is utterly charming. Donald Pleasence is excellent as the ship’s First Officer, a devout Christian who is utterly devoted to his job and to his ship. And while he and Captain Prothero are wildly incompatible personalities there’s a grudging respect between the two men. Pedro Armendáriz overacts outrageously but delightfully as the passionate but unpredictable Constanza.

Guy Hamilton made some remarkably interesting movies in the 50s and 60s. There was a lot more to his career than the Bond movies. The Intruder and The Ringer are both worth seeing.

Network’s excellent DVD release includes an alternate ending. Almost everybody prefers the standard ending but they’re both reasonably satisfying in their own ways.

The surprisingly effective chemistry between Trevor Howard and Elsa Martinelli (and the fine performances they both give) makes this film work. There’s plenty of suspense when the ship is endangered but it’s basically a character study, and a sophisticated and subtle one. Very highly recommended.

I bought this movie based on a glowing review at Riding the High Country.

It’s interesting to compare this film with Sea Wife, another odd British romance/maritime adventure drama made in the same year. Manuela is by far the better film but Sea Wife is interesting in its own way.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Ringer (1952)

The Ringer is a 1952 British crime thriller directed by Guy Hamilton (in fact is was his first directing assignment) and based on one of Edgar Wallace’s more celebrated potboilers.

The Ringer is a master criminal who had been on the run from the police of various nations until his untimely death in Australia. Now Scotland Yard has reason to believe that the Ringer is alive and is in London. They’re hoping that a small-time burglar named Sam (William Hartnell) can help them to track him down, Sam is one of the few people who has seen the Ringer face-to-face and lived to tell the tale (the Ringer is known to be a master of disguise). Sam is not keen on the idea of helping the Yard but he’s not given much of a choice.

One of the reasons the police are convinced the Ringer is back is that his glamorous wife, Cora Ann (Greta Gynt), has suddenly turned up in London.

Oddly enough Scotland Yard knows the Ringer’s name. It’s Arthur Milton. But this doesn’t help them since they have no idea what he looks like.

The return of the Ringer is a matter of some concern to a very successful although perhaps not very ethical lawyer named Meister (played by Herbert Lom). He was supposed to be looking after the Ringer’s sister but she unfortunately killed herself. At Scotland Yard it is surmised that the Ringer might therefore feel he has a score to settle with the lawyer. Meister is also inclined to think that this might be a possibility.

Scotland Yard are taking the matter very seriously. Meister is given police protection. The Superintendent in charge of the case is being assisted by a professional criminologist, Dr Lomond (Donald Wolfit). Meister’s home is turned into a kind of fortress, under Sam’s supervision (being a professional burglar he is something of an expert on security).

Meister’s secretary is a young Austrian woman named Lisa (Mai Zetterling). Lisa has had some misunderstanding with the British authorities over her visa but Meister has sorted these problems out for her. Meister is very kind to Lisa and is very fond of her, in a fatherly affection sort of way. Or perhaps his affection is a little more than fatherly? Perhaps his affections for the Ringer’s sister were a little more than fatherly as well. That, and the sister’s suicide, might explain why the Ringer has a grudge against Meister. Lisa has been patiently waiting for her fiancé Johnny (played by a very young Denholm Elliott) to be released from prison.

Now Johnny is out and they can be married, much to the delight of all although Meister’s joy at the news of Johnny’s release seems a little forced.

The suspense slowly builds. Meister is under siege is in his own home. He knows, and everybody knows, that the Ringer will strike eventually. The only question is when. And of course how.

It’s not very difficult to guess the Ringer’s identity but that just increases the suspense - how on earth is he going to kill Meister when Meister isn’t leaving his house and the house is crawling with coppers? We know that the Ringer is not the sort of criminal who commits a crime unless he is certain he can get away with it, which in this case seems like an impossibility.

It’s difficult to make a bad movie based on an Edgar Wallace thriller. His books were just so perfectly suited to film adaptation. Guy Hamilton may have been a novice director but he was a very talented novice director and both he and experienced screenwriter Val Valentine know what they’re doing.

And of course the film has Herbert Lom, always a very big plus. Meister is smooth, charming, clever, calculating and sinister - the sort of rôle Lom always relished. And he’s in top form here. William Hartnell is great fun as the likeable cockney thief Sam. The whole cast is very solid but Lom and Hartnell are the standouts.

It was based on a play but Hamilton manages to avoid a stodgy stagebound feel even though most of the action takes place on just a couple of sets.

This is a movie that could not possibly have been made in the US in 1952 - it would have fallen foul of the Production Code on numerous counts.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers a very handsome transfer. The movie is in black-and-white and is in the correct 4:3 aspect ratio.

The Ringer is wickedly delightful. It’s witty and clever, it has a great cast and a great performance by Herbert Lom. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Chu Chin Chow (1934)

Chu Chin Chow is a strange but captivating 1934 British musical based (loosely) on the Arabian Nights tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

At first it looks like it’s going to stick quite closely to the original tale. And to a surprising extent it does just that.  There are two brothers, one very rich and one very poor. Poor but honest. Well actually he’s not honest at all, which makes things more fun. Kasim Baba (Lawrence Hanray) is the rich brother. Ali Baba (George Robey) is the poor brother. At least he’s poor until he stumbles upon the treasure cave of the notorious bandit Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner). He is lucky enough to overhear the magic password “Open, O Sesame” and once inside the cave he helps himself to a fabulous fortune.

Ali Baba is now an extremely wealthy man. Kasim of course is determined to trick the secret out of him.

The script (based on a very very popular 1916 stage production) adds quite a few elements to the original story. Kasim’s wife owns a beautiful slave girl named Zahrat (Anna May Wong) but it soon transpires that Zahrat is not a nice girl at all. She’s a spy for the aforementioned bloodthirsty brigand Abu Hasan. Abu Hasan and Zahrat have a plan - Abu Hasan’s men are going to rob the rich caravan of the Chinese merchant Chu Chin Chow which is on its way to Baghdad. Much slaughter follows. This is what you might call a rather blood-drenched musical!

Abu Hasan disguises himself as Chu Chin Chow (who is to be Kasim Baba’s guest) so that he and his bandits can rob the slave bazaar at Baghdad. Zahrat is to be sold at auction and her sale will be the signal for the bandits to go into action.

Marjanah has discovered the fiendish plot but can she do anything to prevent the mayhem?

Anna May Wong gets star billing but this seems to have largely a result of her short-lived fame as a Hollywood star. Her part is actually a supporting part and she has few opportunities to do anything other than look glamorous (mind you, looking glamorous is something she did extremely well). Her performance does pick up a bit towards the end when Zahrat acquires a new motivation.

The real female lead is Pearl Argyle as slave girl Marjanah, who is in love with Ali Baba’s son Nur-al-Din Baba (John Garrick). George Robey plays Ali Baba almost purely for laughs. He goes outrageously over-the-top (he was a very famous music hall performer) but mostly this works. On the whole the cast is fairly competent. Fritz Kortner is a wonderfully melodramatic villain. It’s hard to say which of the two, Robey or Kortner, is the more outrageous.

This is a movie that is not quite sure if it’s a lighthearted romance, an exotic musical, an action-adventure film or an orgy of bloodshed.

In some ways of course this makes it closer in spirit to the original tale from the Arabian Nights (in which the stories mixed romance, comedy, adventure, sex and violence).

There’s at least one very impressive musical production number in which a magician performs an array of spectacular tricks with water fountains. The number even includes water fountain juggling. You do have to remember that this was a 1916 stage musical so the music is quite different from what you get in 1930s Hollywood musicals - it’s more in the operetta style.

This was an immensely expensive production. Not just by the standards of the British film industry in the 1930s - even by Hollywood standards it would have been a very big-budget film. Some sources say the budget was half a million pounds which would have been at least a couple of million US dollars. A lot of money in 1934. Ernö Metzner’s art direction is very impressive and obviously influenced by German Expressionism (not surprising since he got his start in the German film industry in the 1920s). The sets are lavish, the costumes are extravagant. The musical set-pieces are on an epic scale.

I saw this movie on the strength of the review at Michael’s Moviepalace.

The Special Edition DVD from VCI is quite a surprise - it’s a three disc set which includes the original British cut, the recut American release (entitled Ali Baba Nights) and a complete bonus feature film (Abdul the Damned, a British 1935 historical melodrama which I’ve wanted to see for years) plus there’s even an audio commentary. In fact everything but the kitchen sink.

Chu Chin Chow is a movie oddity but I like movie oddities. It’s a movie that is excessive and totally unlike any other musical I’ve ever seen. It’s not just odd - it’s very entertaining in its own distinctive way and it’s visually stunning with lots of Expressionist touches. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

King Creole (1958)

King Creole is a 1958 Elvis Presley musical drama. The movie was a major box-office hit and was well received by critics. Like several of his early films this one gives Presley a chance to prove himself as an actor and it was his favourite film rôle.

The movie was based on a 1952 book by Harold Robbins.

It opens in New Orleans. Danny Fisher (Presley) is about to graduate from high school. He lives with his sister and his father. His father (played by Dean Jagger) has fallen on hard times. He just gave up on life when his wife died. Danny loves his father but he despises him as well. Danny hates to see a man crawl and his father has spent his whole life crawling. Danny has to work before school and after school. At his job sweeping floors in a bar he encounters a girl named Ronnie (Carolyn Jones) who’s with a bunch of rich drunks. He rescues her but he’s late for school and when he gets to school he gets into a fight which means he won’t graduate.

Danny is basically a decent kid but he’s a little embittered by a life that seems to be going nowhere fast and he’s getting fed up. He gets in with a juvenile delinquent gang led by Shark (played by Vic Morrow who specialised in such rôles although by this time he was ridiculously old to be a juvenile delinquent).

Danny also has a run-in with a big-time hoodlum named Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau). Ronnie is Maxie’s girl and Maxie gets real jealous.

Danny gets forced to sing one night and it turns out he’s a great singer, which attracts the attention of honest club-owner Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart) and Maxie. Danny’s singing career starts to take off at Charlie’s King Creole club but his problem is Maxie - Maxie doesn’t like the idea of there being anything good in the world unless he owns it. Maxie intends to own Danny Fisher. And Danny does not intend to be owned.

So Danny, who really doesn’t mean any harm to anyone, seems to be drifting inexorably towards big trouble. He just makes a few mistakes but when you’re dealing with a guy like Maxie one mistake is all it takes. Once he gets his claws into you he doesn’t let go, which is something that both Danny and Ronnie find out the hard way.

Danny has major woman problems, or rather the problem is that he’s caught between two women. Nellie (Dolores Hart) is a sweet kid but she wants marriage and babies. But there’s Ronnie as well. He’s not sure what Ronnie wants and maybe Ronnie isn’t sure either. But Ronnie is likely to get him into big trouble with Maxie.

Elvis was a competent actor but as his movie career progressed he was given fewer and fewer chances to show his skills. In this movie however he has to do real acting and he handles the challenge pretty well. He'd shown real promise as an actor in Jailhouse Rock and he's even better in this movie. Naturally he gets to sing as well, and naturally his singing is terrific (and he gets some very good songs).

Walter Matthau as Maxie surprisingly makes a reasonably effective slimy villain. The whole supporting cast is pretty good. Dolores Hart’s problem is the problem that most of Evlis’s leading ladies had - Elvis just had so much charisma that (apart from Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas) that they tended to get completely overshadowed. Carolyn Jones is a better match for Elvis in that respect. In fact she’s excellent. She’s not quite a femme fatale but she’s about as close as you’ll get to one in an Elvis Presley movie.

King Creole
was directed by Michael Curtiz. Curtiz managed to make good movies in just about every genre going. Curtiz was maybe an artisan rather than an artist but he was an extraordinary skilled artisan.

King Creole looks great in an anamorphic widescreen transfer on DVD. The film was shot in black-and-white (which for some reason really seems to work for films set in New Orleans).

This is a musical but it’s not a frothy musical by any means. It’s quite hard-edged and almost qualifies as a noir musical. Maybe you could call it a noir musical melodrama. It is definitely melodrama but that’s OK because I like melodrama. Whatever you call it it’s an excellent movie with Presley in good form in both the singing and acting departments. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Death Goes to School (1953)

Death Goes to School is an obviously very low-budget 1953 British mystery (made by Independent Artists and shot at Merton Park Studios) about a murder at an exclusive girls’s school. The victim is one of the teachers, Miss Cooper.

The police have reason to believe that the murder must have been committed by a member of the staff. Since there are only seven staff members, the headmistress and six teachers (all women), and one of the teachers is now dead that limits the number of suspects.

Inspector Campbell of Scotland Yard (Gordon Jackson) believes that in such an environment there will be plenty of motives for murder. And he’s right.

Every member of the staff had reason to dislike Miss Coper, and to dislike her intensely. She clearly had an abrasive personality and a knack for treading on people’s toes and humiliating them. Not one of the teachers has what you could call a solid alibi and Inspector Campbell is certain that every one of them has lied to him.

The most promising clues are a footprint and a scarf found at the scene of the crime. The scarf was the murder weapon (Miss Cooper was strangled) while the footprint is pretty obviously the murderer’s.

While the fact that all the suspects have told at least one lie under questioning makes things difficult for the Inspector there is plenty of gossip to provide him with useful information.

To add to his difficulties one of the other teachers then disappears.

There are lots of flashbacks as the various suspects reveal their reasons for hating Miss Cooper. There’s also a voiceover narration by one of the teachers who decides to try her hand at being an amateur detective. So we have the classic setup of a professional and an amateur detective both coöperating and competing to solve the crime. She’s intelligent and he’s a good solid detective so we’re not sure which of them will find the answer first.

This movie has a few problems. It is a bit talky and a bit stagey (probably mainly due to the low budget which meant very few sets). The plot isn’t dazzling and the script isn’t exactly sparkling. I’m not much of a fan of voiceover narration and this movie would have worked better without it.

The most interesting thing about the film is the hothouse atmosphere of the school staff room and the all-female environment in which the murder occurs, and the fact that as a result the motive is likely to be a characteristically female motive. Which it turns out to be.

There are several elements that would have caused problems with the Production Code in an American movie of this period, especially the ending and also the very subtle hint of a lesbian infatuation.

This was Stephen Clarkson’s only feature film as a director. With a running time of just 64 minutes he has to keep the plot moving along, which he does, even if he doesn’t display much inspiration. Clarkson co-wrote the screenplay with Maisie Sharman, who wrote the novel on which it is based.

Gordon Jackson (who of course went on to have a very successful television career) gets one of his few feature film lead rôles. Barbara Murray shares top billing as one of the teachers, Miss Shepherd. There’s no hint of romance between the Inspector and Miss Shepherd but there is a certain affectionate regard that springs up between them which works quite well.

Sam Kydd (for some reason uncredited) is quite good as Campbell’s rather cheerful sergeant.

The good news is that this obscure movie is readily available on DVD since it’s one of the films in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set (a value-for-money set which includes nine feature films plus a short (31-minute) film. The transfer is quite good.

Death Goes to School is a routine mystery but the hothouse atmosphere and all-female roster of suspects adds a bit of interest. If you don’t set your expectations too high it’s worth a look.