Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a gritty extremely bleak neo-noir crime drama directed by Peter Yates and released in 1973. It was based on the novel by George V. Higgins. It gives Robert Mitchum one of his best rôles of that decade (comparable to his superb performance in Farewell, My Lovely two years later).

Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) is a small-time Boston gangster with a problem. The problem is that he’s facing three to five years in New Hampshire for driving a truck filled with stolen goods and he can’t face the prospect of going inside again. The only way out is to turn informer. If he does that then maybe he can cut a deal and escape prison. Cop Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) hasn’t exactly promised him that but he has promised to do what he can. But only if Eddie can give him some really worthwhile information. The trick for Eddie is to give Foley enough to get a deal without getting himself killed by the people on whom he’s informing.

Eddie’s main line of work at the moment is buying the guns that are getting used in a series of bank robberies.

Eddie could definitely get a deal if he offered Foley the bank robbery gang but he doesn’t want to do that. That would mean informing on his friends. Maybe he can offer Foley Jackie Brown (Steven Keats). That’s the guy he gets the guns from. Jackie Brown is not a friend so informing on him would be OK.

Eddie isn’t the only one acting as an informer. This is an incredibly bleak and cynical look at the world of crime. Everybody will sell everybody else out if they have to. There’s no honour among thieves here. It’s just a matter of making sure you’re careful so you don’t pay the price of informing. That’s Eddie’s challenge. He doesn’t want to go to prison but he doesn’t want to get killed either.

There’s an overwhelming sense of futility in this film. These criminals really are losers. They’re not big-time gangsters. They’re not making enough money to live in mansions. They’re not living glamorous lives. Their lives are seedy and squalid. The guy selling the guns makes a deal to sell some machine-gins, which carries a mandatory life sentence if you get caught. And he’s getting two thousand dollars for the guns. He’s maybe making $1,500 profit. Not much money for which to risk a life sentence.

The bank robbery gang offers the same sense of futility, which offers an interesting contrast to the robbers in Yates’s celebrated 1967 British crime drama Robbery. In that film the criminals were going for a huge score which would have set them up for life. The bank robbers in The Friends of Eddie Coyle are robbing small suburban banks and they have to keep robbing them and sooner or later something will go wrong and they’ll get caught. Their jobs are just not all that well-planned. They’re just not that smart. When something does go wrong it’s entirely predictable. These guys are chronic under-achievers.

The job that Eddie did in New Hampshire that caused all his present woes was similarly futile. Eddie’s in his fifties, he knows he’s too old to do any more time, but he got mixed up in a job that just didn’t offer a big enough payoff to make it worthwhile. He didn’t make enough money to spend the rest of his life sitting on a beach in Rio. With the money he’s making from crime Eddie is just barely keeping his head above water financially.

All of these criminals seem to know that eventually they’re going to get caught, and they seem to just accept that. You wonder why they bother. They just seem to be too dumb to figure it out. They just accept their fates.

This may be the most unglamorous and most relentlessly downbeat crime picture ever made. It’s also unusual for a 1970s crime drama in featuring very little action and very little violence. We think there’s going to be a car chase but it doesn’t eventuate. As a result of all this it bombed at the box office. Which in retrospect is sad but unsurprising. Audiences wanted action or glamour or preferably both. They wanted car chases and shoot-outs. What they got in The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a depressing look at the sordid reality of small-time crime. Not only does crime pay very poorly for these guys it isn’t exciting. It’s just a boring dead-end job.

Mitchum gives a superb but very understated performance completely at odds with his tough guy persona. Eddie Coyle is an incredibly passive character. He just drifts along from minor disaster to minor disaster and seems resigned to being a failure.

Peter Boyle is excellent as Eddie’s friend Dillon. Dillon runs a bar and he’s a small-time crook and an informer as well. Eddie doesn’t know Dillon is an informer and Dillon doesn’t know that Eddie is an informer. Richard Jordan as Foley and Steven Keats as Jackie Brown are also impressive.

Eddie’s friends are a sorry lot. And the cops aren’t much better. Foley is as cynical as they are and uses people without a hint of remorse.

The Eureka Masters of Cinema offers the film on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The extras include a very sharp appreciation of the film by critic Glenn Kenny, a lengthy interview with Peter Yates and a 44-page booklet that includes an essay on the film.

Most successful neo-noirs deliberately avoid going for classic noir visuals because the noir visual style is just about impossible to achieve in colour. This film (along with Farewell, My Lovely) demonstrates that it can be done. The Friends of Eddie Coyle might just be the greatest of all neo-noirs.

Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Hot Enough for June (Agent 8¾, 1964)

Hot Enough for June (also released as Agent 8¾) is a 1964 British spy spoof and it’s an amusing if rather low-key one.

Nicholas Whistler (Dirk Bogarde) is a writer. In other words he’s unemployed and unemployable. Or at least he was until the day he walked into the Labour Exchange and, to his amazement and horror, they offered him a job. As a junior executive in a glass-making firm. But actually he’s being offered a very different kind of job. As a spy. You see one of MI6’s top agents (a fellow with the codename 007) has unfortunately passed way and a replacement is needed. Whistler of course has no qualifications for a job as a secret agent except for one thing - he speaks Czech and MI6 desperately needs someone who speaks Czech for a mission to Prague.

Actually he’s not quite intended to step into 007’s shoes. The job is very routine. Just a courier job really.

And MI6 spymaster Colonel Cunliffe (Robert Morley) doesn’t bother to tell Whistler that he’s been recruited as a spy. The poor fellow thinks he’s just on a business trip to see the latest developments at the State Glassmaking Works in Prague. He’s told that for political reasons he’ll have to be discreet. He’ll have to have the right password when he makes his contact, the password being “hot enough for June” but he doesn’t know who his contact is so he ends up saying “hot enough for June” to everyone he meets.

Whistler is a nice chap but rather naïve - he genuinely has no idea he is acting as a spy. Being a writer he has no experience of the real world so he figures that maybe the world of international business really is rather secretive. He does suspect that he may be involved in industrial espionage.

The Czech government has assigned him a driver to take him around Prague. Vlasta Simoneva (Sylva Koscina) is young and pretty so that part of his assignment is quite pleasant.

In fact Vlasta works for the secret police and her father (played by Leo McKern) is the head of the secret police. And they’re on to Whistler right from the start.

Whistler of course is a total washout as a spy and finds himself on the run. He may not be a good spy but he is a survivor and he manages to keep one step ahead of the secret police. But if he’s ever going to see England again he’s going to have to reach the British Embassy and that will be more of a challenge. Much depends on whether he can trust Vlasta. They’ve fallen in love (naturally) but she doesn’t want to betray her country and he doesn’t want to betray his.

While this movie was obviously cashing in on the Bond movie craze it isn’t really a Bond spoof. It’s more a spoof of the older style of spy thriller. There are no gadgets and no spectacular action sequences. The comedy 9and this movie is definitely intended as a comedy) is mostly sly and witty and gently satirical rather than outrageous. But it is funny.

The elder Simoneva and Colonel Cunliffe are enemies but they’re also good friends. For both of them the spy business is a kind of game. They’re unscrupulous but not ruthless. This is a spy movie in which nobody gets killed, or even badly hurt.

We never do find out what was in the secret document that Whistler was supposed to bring back and that’s part of the point of the movie. It simply doesn’t matter. It’s just a game.

Rather surprisingly Dirk Bogarde made quite a few spy movies, including the very underrated and hard-to-find Sebastian in 1968 and the notorious Modesty Blaise in 1966. Bogarde was superb at this kind of light comedy. He plays Nicholas Whistler as a naïve but basically thoroughly decent sort of chap, a self-confessed coward but very likeable.

Sylva Koscina was one of the classic eurobabes of the 60s and she’s charming.

The byplay between Robert Morley and Leo McKern as the opposing spymasters is a major highlight - two wonderful actors having a great time with their rôles.

The supporting cast is an absolute galaxy of terrific actors - John le Mesurier, Roger Delgado, Derek Nimmo, Leo Mc Kern, Noel Harrison (who of course went on to star in the TV spy series The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), Derek Fowlds (from Yes, Minister), Eric Pohlmann and Richard Vernon.

Along with Carry On Spying (released in the same year) this is one of the better spy comedies of its era.

Network’s DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer. The only extras are some image galleries.

Hot Enough for June is fine entertainment. It might be low-key but it’s consistently amusing. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Santiago (1956)

Santiago is a 1956 Warner Brothers adventure movie starring Alan Ladd. It has a pretty poor reputation. Whether it’s really that bad remains to be seen.

The movie is set in 1898 with the Cuban revolution against the Spanish providing the historical background. Cash Adams (Ladd) is a former US Army officer who was dishonourably discharged. He now makes his living as a gun runner. He’s being paid to deliver a consignment of guns to Tampa where Cuban revolutionaries will be waiting with $100,000 for him.

The job is much more complicated than he expected. Firstly he and his men are attacked by hijackers before they even reach Tampa and then he discovers that the deal has been changed - he has to deliver the guns all the way to Cuba. The Cubans do agree to double his price which is some consolation.

The guns have to be loaded on board an old paddle-wheel riverboat which will take them (along with Cash Adams and his confederates) to Haiti, then on to Cuba.

I don’t claim to know much about nautical matters but I have to say that the riverboat really doesn’t look like it would last five minutes in the open sea.

The second complication is that the riverboat will be taking a second consignment of guns, along with rival gun runner Clay Pike (Lloyd Nolan) and his cohorts. Cash and Pike have hated each other for years so neither man is happy with this development.

There’s yet another complication - they have to deliver a Cuban revolutionary to Cuba as well. The revolutionary is the young and beautiful Doña Isabella (Rossana Podestà).

The riverboat has to run the gauntlet of Spanish gunboats and then when they reach the Cuban coast they run into yet another obstacle - a Spanish artillery position that they will have to find a way to neutralise.

As you might expect Cash Adams and Pike clash numerous times during the voyage, culminating in a couple of all-in fist-fights. Their clashes have something to do with their pasts but also quite a bit to do with the fact that they both take a shine to Doña Isabella.

And new obstacles just keep on appearing. The gun runners start to wonder just how much they’re going to have to go through to get their money, and whether they’ll live to collect it.

Alan Ladd is pretty good as Cash Adams, a somewhat tortured soul. He’s tortured by shame about the ignominious end to his military career. And while he claims that now he cares only about money we get the distinct impression that he’s not entirely comfortable with his new career as a gun runner. In fact we get the impression that he might be a man in search of redemption.

Lloyd Nolan is of course marvellous as the thoroughly amoral Pike. Rossana Podestà may have been a bit miscast here but she’s OK. Chill Wills is fun as the riverboat captain who seems to have spent the whole of an adventurous life on the losing side. I liked Paul Fix as Cash’s old army buddy Trasker.

Gordon Douglas directed. Douglas had a varied career which included some pretty interesting movies including a couple of very good private eye thrillers with Frank Sinatra (Tony Rome and The Lady in Cement), the spy spoof In Like Flint and the sci-fi classic Them! Martin Rackin wrote the screenplay (his other credits include the underrated noirish crime thriller A Dangerous Profession).

All the right ingredients are here. The story is pretty decent. The setting is unusual and interesting (even though we know that the crew never left the studio backlot). The two lead actors are very good. The film was shot widescreen and in Warnercolor and it looks terrific. So what went wrong? Well, to be honest not all that much did go wrong. It’s really not such a bad movie. Its poor reputation may stem from the perception that with all those desirable ingredients it should have been a classic adventure thriller when in fact it’s a merely competent one.

What’s interesting is that rather than idealists fighting for a good cause what we have here are bad men fighting (rather reluctantly) for a good cause.

The Warner Archive presentation is extremely good with a fine anamorphic transfer.

Santiago isn’t that bad. It doesn’t quite catch fire the way it should but it looks great. It’s worth seeing if you’re an Alan Ladd or a Lloyd Nolan fan. It’s not one of the adventure classics but it’s reasonable entertainment.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

The Man in the White Suit, released in 1951, is one of the best-known of the Ealing comedies. It’s unusual in that it is also a science fiction film.

Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is a brilliant young scientist with a special interest in textiles. He works in a textile mill. Well, he doesn’t exactly work there, he’s just bluffed his way into getting access to the mill’s laboratory. Everyone just assumes he’s one of the scientists working in the laboratory.

Now he’s made an amazing discovery. He has invented a new artificial fabric with some interesting properties. It never wears out and it never gets dirty. It actively repels dirt. Sidney believes it will revolutionise the textile industry and he’s convinced the owner of the mill, Mr Birnley (Cecil Parker) of that as well.

There is one small detail that Sidney and Mr Birnley have overlooked. A fabric that never wears out will not revolutionise the textile industry, it will destroy it. Nobody will ever need to replace their clothes. One suit could last a man for a lifetime.

It doesn’t take long for Birnley’s competitors, and the trade unions, to figure out just exactly how devastating Sidney’s invention will be. They decide that he must be stopped. They try to buy him off but it doesn’t work.

But somehow Sidney Stratton must be stopped.

Sidney is brilliant but he doesn’t really understand how the real world works. He is a dreamer. He really thinks his invention will be a boon for the whole world. He’s an interesting variation on the mad scientist. He’s not the slightest bit mad and he’s not the slightest bit evil. He’s just a brilliant innocent. Alec Guinness is marvellous in the rôle. He plays Sidney as a very likeable young man but there is something very subtly disturbing about him - he is a loveable eccentric but he’s an obsessive and his innocence is positively terrifying and causes mayhem.

There’s a great supporting cast - Cecil Parker as Birnley, Michael Gough as rival mill owner Michael Corland, Howard Marion-Crawford as another mill owner and Vida Hope as good-natured union activist Bertha. Joan Greenwood plays Birnley’s daughter who is in love with Corland but plays an important part in launching Sidney’s ill-fated career.

Alexander Mackendrick directed no less than five of the Ealing comedies, including the superb The Ladykillers. He then went to Hollywood where he directed Sweet Smell of Success. It’s now recognised as a truly great movie and one of the most impressive late entries in the American film noir cycle but at the time it bombed at the box office and pretty much ruined Mackendrick’s career. Mackendrick seemed to like making comedies with a bit of bite to them. This film confronts some important issues - progress is a good thing but it can come at a terrible price, sometimes the status quo really should be maintained, innocence can be more dangerous than cynicism, good intentions can lead to disaster. But The Man in the White Suit never falls into the trap of becoming preachy or didactic - it remains sparkling light-hearted fun.

This is a real science fiction film and it deals with some of the enduring themes of the genre - scientific progress as a two-edged sword, the dangers of worshipping science.

Like most of the Ealing comedies it’s visually impressive as well. The laboratory scenes are delightful, there’s a great chase scene at the end, there are numerous fine comic visual set-pieces. There’s also the characteristic Ealing mix of visual and verbal humour.

This is clever intelligent satirical filmmaking and it’s consistently funny. At times the comedy has an edge to it but it’s much too good-natured to be considered a black comedy. We can’t help liking Sidney but sometimes we just want to slap some sense into him.

Everything in The Man in the White Suit just works. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Double (1963)

The Double is one of the British Merton Park Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, in this case dating from 1963.

John Cleeve (Alan MacNaughtan) is a middle-aged man with a past but he doesn’t know what that past is. He has no memories at all, apart from the fact that he murdered his business partner. Cleeve was found wandering in Nairobi. He is now in the care of pretty young nurse Jane Winston (Jane Griffiths) who is convinced that she can help him to recover his memories.

Apart from his amnesia John Cleeve is also unable to walk, although the doctors can’t explain why this should be so.

The odd thing is that not only has the body of the business partner he killed never been found, the police are not even entirely convinced that such a man ever existed.

Official records of Cleeve himself are rather sparse. He seems to have dropped completely out of sight for a long period. He does however have a criminal record for fraud. Private detectives have been hired to find out whether the business partner existed but have only been able to come up with one man who might fit the bill. Unfortunately, while Derreck Alwyn was in Africa at the right time he was not in the right part of Africa.

Derreck Alwyn (Basil Henson) is very much alive, a rising stockbroker and about to marry the very glamorous Selena Osmonde. When shown a photograph of Alwyn all Cleeve can say is that he might be the same man he was in business with but he can’t be completely sure.

Having nursed him for so long Jane Winston has grown rather attached to Cleeve. She can’t really believe he could ever have done anything really wrong. She also refuses to entertain the possibility that he might be faking his amnesia, or that he might have some dishonourable motive for doing so. He seems like such a nice man. Jane isn’t a fool but she’s a nice girl who likes to think the best about people.

Jane and her sister Mary (Jeanette Sterke) have cooked up a little scheme to uncover the truth about Derreck Alwyn. Mary will take a temporary position as Alwyn’s secretary. It’s a bit devious but if Alwyn actually has something to hide he’s not likely to admit it under direct questioning, and since there’s no evidence whatsoever that Alwyn has been involved in anything criminal the police would not have any grounds for questioning him.

Of course there is a mystery here and it’s going to get complicated. And dangerous.

Lionel Harris did quite a bit of work in television but this seems to be his one and only feature film directing credit. There’s nothing particularly wrong about the job he does here.

The screenplay is by Lindsay Galloway and John Roddick both of whom were mainly television writers. Both contributed to other films in the Merton Park Edgar Wallace cycle.

The cast doesn’t include any well-known names but they’re all the kinds of solid reliable performers who were in plentiful supply in Britain at the time.

The plot is decent enough although most of it becomes pretty clear by about the halfway stage. Somehow this one doesn’t quite have the tension or the intricate twists of the better movies in this series. There’s just something missing.

The Double is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 5 DVD boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent.

This is reasonably enjoyable undemanding fare. Even that these Network boxed sets are such outstanding value for money (seven movies plus a bonus movie and in this case the bonus movie The Man in the Back Seat is quite superb) one can’t really complain too much if one or two, such as The Double, are lesser efforts. And The Double is still worth a look if you’re buying the boxed set anyway.