Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Comedians (1967)

Graham Greene adapted his own novel for the 1967 movie The Comedians. The movie follows the novel fairly closely except for the ending.

Mr Brown (Richard Burton) has returned to Haiti after a three-month absence. Haiti was at that time under the brutal dictatorship of François Duvalier (known popularly as Papa Doc) so returning there was not a good idea but there are two things that brought him back. The first is that he owns a hotel there, and the Hotel Trianon is the only thing of substance he has ever owned in his life. The second thing is his desire to rekindle his love affair with Martha Pineda, the German wife of the ambassador of an unnamed South American country (the ambassador is played by Peter Ustinov). He has no idea if he loves Martha but he cannot keep away from her. He cannot get her out of his system.

Haiti at this time attracted no tourists at all so the ship which brought Brown back to Haiti brought only a handful of other passengers. These included Major Jones (Alec Guinness) and Mr Smith (Paul Ford) and his wife (Lillian Gish). The fates of Brown, Jones and the Smiths are going to become rather entangled.

Major Jones doesn’t even get to leave the dockside before he is arrested. He has committed a cardinal sin. He has arrived with an introduction to a senior government minister but before his arrival that minister had fallen from power. Under Papa Doc’s regime falling from power means being dead. And having an introduction to such a person is enough to get you arrested by the Tontons Macoute, Papa Doc’s much-feared secret police. Mr Smith has an introduction to the Secretary of Social Welfare, who is now lying dead in the swimming pool of the Hotel Trianon. That could cause difficulties for Mr Smith. And for Brown.

Major Jones claims to have been something of a hero during the Second World War, fighting the Japanese in Burma. Brown has his suspicions about those war stories.

Jones is in fact very familiar with the inside of jail cells. He has a sublime confidence in his own ability to talk himself out of such situations.

Mr Smith is referred to as the Presidential Candidate, on the basis of having been a minor candidate (gaining a handful of votes) in the 1948 election. But being a Presidential Candidate of any kind can be useful in Haiti. Mr and Mrs Smith plan to open a centre for vegetarianism in Haiti. They believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved by vegetarianism. They will discover that Haiti is perhaps not the ideal place for such a project.

Graham Greene was much concerned with faith and innocence. He had problems with both. He was especially afraid of the destructive consequences of innocence. As for faith, it isn’t always easy and like innocence it can lead to fatal delusions. The movie brings out these themes reasonably effectively. Mr Smith puts his faith in vegetarianism, Brown’s friend Dr Magiot (James Earl Jones) in communism, Henri Phillipot (the nephew of the deceased Secretary of Social Welfare) puts his in revolution. Brown is a man who has never been able to put his faith in anything. Maybe he could put his faith in love but an affair with a married woman might not be a wise choice.

Martha is German and that does play a part in the story. Miss Taylor attempts a slight German accent and while it comes and goes it’s reasonably convincing. She very wisely keeps it as subtle as possible. In the book Martha is an undeveloped character and that was deliberate. We only see her though Brown’s eyes and Brown is a man who just doesn’t know how to connect with other people, or how to understand what makes them tick. Martha remains a mystery to him, just as life remains a mystery to him. Of course with Elizabeth Taylor providing the star power for the movie it was necessary to flesh the character out a bit more, which the movie does with mixed success. Taylor does her best and she’s pretty good.

The point I made about Brown’s inability to connect with or empathise with other people explains Burton’s performance. A lot of people hate his performance in this movie but in fact he captures the essence of Brown perfectly. Burton is low-key, and deliberately so. Brown is a man who is a stranger to genuine emotion. Burton knows what he’s doing.

One of the problems that people have with this is the acting. When you have people like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, and James Earl Jones in the cast you expect big performances. But the title of the book refers to the fact that all the key characters are merely actors in the tragi-comedy of life. They’ve all lost the ability to genuinely participate in life. This means that the actors have to give low-key performances rather than bravura performances. Low-key performances are what they do give, and they’re right to do so, but with that cast audiences probably expected some real acting fireworks. The only actor who does give a colourful performance is Alec Guinness, and he does so because his part demands it.

As partial compensation the movie does look stunning. Papa Doc had been enraged by Greene’s novel so filming in Haiti was out of the question. Dahomey in West Africa was chosen instead and the location shooting is impressive. The Hotel Trianon looks simply wonderful, and the scenes depicting Duvalierville (Papa Doc’s showcase new city, his version of Brasilia) are a memorable depiction of folly and delusion.

The ending of the movie is quite different from that of the book but I think both endings work.

I think the main problem with this film was the choice of director. Greene had written successful screenplays before and he understood movies. His three superb collaborations with director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, Our Man in Havana) provide ample proof of that. But Greene and Carol Reed were on the same wavelength and Reed was a genuinely great director. Peter Glenville’s direction here is stodgy. The movie looks great and it has some fine moments but it’s too long and too unfocused. Carol Reed could have taken this screenplay and made a great movie out of it.

It’s not a bad movie, it’s just a bit disappointing. All the ingredients are there and the cast is excellent but Glenville just didn’t seem to be able to make the story ignite the way it should have ignited.

The Comedians bombed at the box office and that’s understandable but it’s really a reasonably good movie. It just isn’t the major cinematic event that audiences would have expected considering the star power on display and considering the fact that Graham Greene’s novels were so ideally suited for cinematic adaptation.

This film has its flaws and it really is too long but it’s a much better movie than its reputation would suggest. You just have to keep in mind that the atmosphere of the movie, the atmosphere of defeat and futility, is completely faithful to Greene’s novel. I think it’s worth seeing and I’m giving it a recommended rating.

The Comedians is available in a TCM Burton-Taylor boxed set, in a pretty good anamorphic transfer with a making-of featurette as an extra.

I've also reviewed Greene's original novel.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Untamed Youth (1957)

Untamed Youth is a juvenile delinquent rock’n’roll musical melodrama starring Mamie van Doren.

Penny Lowe (van Doren) and her sister Jane (Lori Nelson) are aspiring singer/dancers on their way to LA when they get busted by a small-town sheriff for skinny-dipping and hitch-hiking. Judge Cecilia Steele (Lurene Tuttle) gives them the choice of thirty days in the county lock-up or thirty days as agricultural workers. Naturally they chose the agricultural worker option.

What they don’t know is that they’ve been caught up in a racket run by the judge, the sheriff and crooked cotton farmer Russ Tropp (John Russell). Young people get arrested by the sheriff on bogus or ridiculously trivial charges and end up picking cotton for Tropp for 75 cents a day. There’s a shortage of cotton pickers so this is a huge advantage for Tropp - the other cotton farmers in the country can’t get labourers while he’s getting virtual slave labour for peanuts. The other farmers will eventually have to sell out to him and he’ll end up filthy rich. The sheriff gets paid off and the middle-aged judge thinks she’ll end up marrying the young handsome Tropp.

Tropp is involved in all manner of crooked business dealings and the prisoners at the farm are mercilessly exploited. Tropp also sexually exploits the female prisoners (adding another exploitation movie angle) and he tries it on with Penny. When Penny rebuffs him he sets his dogs on her.

Tropp has made one miscalculation. He’s employed Judge Steele’s son Bob at the ranch. Bob is a straight arrow and he falls for Jane Lowe, and he starts digging around looking for evidence of Tropp’s shady dealings.

So that’s the melodrama angle. There’s also the exploitation angle (juvenile delinquents, Mamie van Doren in tight dresses). And within the first few minutes we get a cat-fight when Jane Lowe gets into a dispute with one of the other girls at the farm.

All of this would have made for an OK B-movie but Untamed Youth has rock’n’roll as well. The kids amuse themselves after a hard day’s cotton-picking dancing to rock’n’roll and from time to time they spontaneously burst into song in the cotton fields.

The big surprise, and it’s a very pleasant one, is that the songs are great. It helps that one of the young cotton-pickers is played by Eddie Cochran, about a year before he became a major rock’n’roll idol. Eddie Cochran gets one very good song but Mamie van Doren gets four songs and she’s terrific. Oo-Ba-La Baby (co-written by Eddie Cochran) is a show-stopper.

Perhaps Mamie van Doren isn’t the world’s greatest actress but she has presence and charisma and this rôle is well within her acting range and she acquits herself well. She’s smokin’ hot, she has the right moves when she dances and her songs are good. This was one of her favourite rôles and it’s easy to see why.

Lori Nelson is very good although she’s overshadowed by Mamie van Doren. But everyone in this movie is overshadowed by Mamie van Doren. Lurene Tuttle is reasonably good. John Russell as Tropp is memorably slimy. The other cast members are quite adequate. It’s not as if any of the characters are complex or well-developed. They’re not meant to be. This is a lightweight B-movie.

Untamed Youth
has been released on DVD is the Warner Archive series, with a good anamorphic transfer and no extras.

Untamed Youth is not a movie to be taken at all seriously. It’s not a good movie in a conventional sense but it is a very good cult movie. It has juvenile delinquents, rock’n’roll and Mamie van Doren. And it’s fun. That’s enough to keep me happy. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several other Mamie van Doren movies in the past year or so - The Girl in Black Stockings, Vice Raid and the wonderful Guns, Girls and Gangsters.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Share Out (1962)

The Share Out is a 1962 entry in the Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace cycle and it’s based on an intriguing idea.

The Calderwood Property Group is a very successful company with all the trappings of commercial success. The chairman is Colonel Calderwood (Alexander Knox). They have board meetings like any other company, to discuss business matters. But the business of the Calderwood Property Group is blackmail. Blackmail of an unusual kind. They gather, by various means (usually unsavoury and dishonest private enquiry agents), incriminating material - photos, documents and the like - on wealthy individuals and companies. They then force those individuals and companies to sell them properties for a fraction of their value. It’s a very successful racket and it allows Colonel Calderwood and his fellow board members to maintain the appearance of prosperous respectability. And since the blackmail method does not involve cash payments it’s not all that easy for the police to prove that blackmail has in fact been involved. 

Detective Superintendent Meredith (Bernard Lee) has been trying for three years to break this racket but none of the victims (who fear that court proceedings would reveal their dirty little secrets) will co-operate. Now Meredith thinks he’s got a break but it’s a question of whether he or Colonel Calderwood can move most quickly. And Calderwood moves very quickly indeed, and very ruthlessly.

The Calderwood Property Group has amassed a great deal of money and at least one board member, John Crewe (Richard Vernon) feels that it’s time to share out the loot. The Colonel disagrees. He feels that they can accumulate a lot more without taking any undue risks. Monet (John Gabriel) and Diana Marsh (Moira Redmond), the other board members, are willing to go along with Calderwood. The problem of course is that once they share out the loot there’s nothing to stop any of the four from taking his or her share and then turning the others in to the police. So the share out, when it comes, will present difficulties.

So it’s all a matter of who’s going to stab whom in the back, and which of them will strike first, and what alliances may be made, and how trustworthy such alliances might be. And murder makes it rather more urgent that these questions be cleared up. There are only a handful of suspects but the movie is reasonably successful at keeping us guessing as to the truth. 

Blackmail is an inherently sordid crime but blackmail by well-heeled upper-class types provides an interesting flavour. 

There are also romantic complications as Mike Stafford and Diana Marsh fall for each other but is it love or manipulation?

This movie benefits from a fine cast. Bernard Lee could play this sort of rôle with his eyes shut. He was just born to play Scotland Yard detectives. Alexander Knox is smooth and sinister as Calderwood. Richard Vernon is always a delight. William Russell (best known for The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and as one of the very early companions in Doctor Who) plays cheerfully amoral private enquiry agent Mike Stafford (who works for Calderwood but may or may not be inclined to sell him out to Superintendent Meredith. Moira Redmond makes a good evil female conspirator/femme fatale.

Director Gerard Glaister had a distinguished career in television (mainly as a producer) and helmed four of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films. He does a very competent job here. Philip Mackie’s screenplay is typically clever - Mackie was one of the best television writers of the ’60s and ’70s and he wrote no less than eight of the Edgar Wallace films. 

Network, as usual, have provided an excellent anamorphic transfer. There are no extras but these Edgar Wallace sets are such outstanding value for money that it would be churlish to complain.

The Share Out is a good solid entry in the series. The most impressive thing about these Edgar Wallace films is that they didn’t just keep repeating themselves. You’re never quite sure what to expect when you put one of these discs in your DVD player. The lesser movies in the series are good and the better ones are very good indeed. The Share Out is recommended.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Passport To Treason (1956)

Passport To Treason is an obviously low-budget 1956 British spy/private eye movie.

Mike O’Kelly (Rod Cameron) is an American private eye living in London. He often does work for Ben Conner’s enquiry agency. Mike has been asked to help on a case that Ben thinks is too big to handle alone. On his way to Conner’s office, in heavy fog, Mike encounters a number of men obviously in an extreme hurry either to go somewhere or get away from something. One of them drops a passport, in the name of Amedeo Sacchi.

When Mike arrives at Conner’s office he finds Conner dead, and the office has been rifled. Mike decides to needs to know more about Amedeo Sacchi.

He searches Amedeo’s flat and is interrupted by a very jumpy young man with a gun. Mike has no problem dealing with the guy and now he’s getting more and more interested.

He gets even more interested when he meets Orlando Syms (Clifford Evans). Syms runs a group called the International League for World Peace (and writes spy thrillers in his spare time). Syms has been informed that the league has been infiltrated by a secret group. Syms had hired Ben Conner to uncover the truth about this secret group. Now he wants Mike O’Kelly to continue the investigation.

Not everybody in the League is happy about the investigation. Arrogant Harley Street specialist Dr Randolph (Douglas Wilmer) is dead set against it.

It soon becomes apparent that there are quite a few people who want O’Kelly off the case. Including Diane Boyd (Lois Maxwell). O’Kelly isn’t sure which side Miss Boyd is on. She says she’s trying to warn him off for his own protection.

And there have now been two murders. O’Kelly knows he’s onto something big but he’s about to realise, in a very painful manner, just how nasty the people he’s up against really are. They have more ingenious methods than mere crude violence for dealing with meddling private enquiry agents.

O’Kelly is in possession of a vital clue, if only he knew what it meant. It would also help if he had some idea what this secret group within the league was all about but that’s something else he doesn’t know.

Passport To Treason
was produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, with Baker directing and Berman doing the cinematography. Baker and Berman went on to great success in television in the 60s, notably as producers of The Saint and Gideon’s Way.

Kenneth R. Hayles and Norman Hudis wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Irish spy fiction writer Paddy Manning O’Brine (who was rumoured to be a former British spy).

Craggy-faced Canadian Rod Cameron later starred in the short-lived but rather interesting American private eye series Coronado 9 in which he plays a character not unlike Mike O’Kelly - a big shambling gruff tough guy (in fact very tough) but kind of likeable in his own way.

Lois Maxwell as Diane Boyd makes a pretty good femme fatale type.

The whole cast is quite strong, with John Colicos being nicely sinister.

There are some noirish visual touches - lots of fog and shadows and some good night scenes. While there’s nothing particularly noir about the story there is plenty of paranoia.

Passport To Treason is one of the nine feature films in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set (an excellent value-for-money set). The transfer is reasonably good.

Passport To Treason is a very decent little spy thriller of the pre-Bond films era. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Interrupted Journey (1949)

The Interrupted Journey, a 1949 British crime thriller directed by Daniel Birt, has a rather intriguing premise involving trains and infidelity.

John North (Richard Todd) and Susan Wilding (Christine Norden) are running away together. They’re both married, but not to each other. John North is an aspiring writer and he’s leaving his wife Carol because she wants him to give up this writing nonsense and get a proper job. John and Susan catch an express train from Paddington Station but then John has second thoughts about leaving his wife. It occurs to him that Susan may have no more patience with his dreams of being a writer than his wife. He decides he has to get off the train.

John’s change of mind has momentous consequences.

He finds himself in a very awkward situation and has some explaining to do, and not just to his wife. He will also have to explain certain things to Clayton, the man from the railways investigation branch.

I don’t want to say any more about the plot because it has some ingenious elements. The twists start early and it’s better not to risk spoiling any of them.

John North is not an easy character to have much sympathy for. He’s not a bad man but he is rather weak and rather unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. Even when those actions led to disaster he seems to be more afflicted by self-pity than remorse. Richard Todd was a solid if unspectacular actor and his performance is reasonably effective - he makes us have mixed feelings about the character and that’s necessary if the film is to work.

Valerie Hobson is good as Carol, the wife who really doesn’t quite know what to do with this husband of hers.

The British film industry in the 40s and 50s had an endless supply of fine character actors who were remarkably good at playing policemen. Tom Walls fulfils that function here and does so very competently, playing Clayton as an avuncular type but with an obviously sharp mind.

Michael Pertwee, elder brother of actor Jon Pertwee, wrote the script.

Daniel Birt’s career was cut short by his premature death in 1955. His relatively few films included the very decent 1952 crime B-movie The Night Won’t Talk.

Everything is moving along nicely until we get to the ending, and then it’s a case of a perfectly good movie being completely and utterly ruined. The ending isn’t just disappointing, it’s catastrophically bad. I have seen it argued that the ending isn’t a complete surprise, and there is some substance to that argument, but even taking that into account for me it was still catastrophic.

The Interrupted Journey
is included in Kino Lorber’s British Noir II boxed set. Does it have any actual claims to being film noir? Possibly. John North is a man whose personal failings lead him to make small mistakes which plunge him into a world of darkness. So it’s marginally noir although the ending makes it difficult to classify it as actual noir.

The Interrupted Journey has some very good ideas but ultimately it’s a bitter disappointment. At the end of this journey I wanted my money back and I wanted that 80 minutes of my life back. Not recommended.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Penguin Pool Murder (1932)

The Penguin Pool Murder, released in 1932, was the first of RKO’s six Hildegarde Withers mystery films. Miss Hildegarde Withers is a spinster and a schoolteacher but she dabbles in crime. Or rather, she dabbles in crime-solving. The character was created by Stuart Palmer in a successful series of detective novels. Hildegarde Withers was played by Edna May Oliver in the first three films.

The film series went rapidly downhill after her departure. Attempts were made to revive it on television in the 50s and as a TV movie in the early 70s, with a noticeable lack of success. There was just no way to make the formula work without Edna May Oliver.

The Penguin Pool Murder
begins with a murder. Stockbroker Gerald Harper is discovered floating in the penguin pool in the New York Aquarium. His wife Gwen (Mae Clarke) and her friend Philip Seymour (Donald Cook) are obvious suspects. She was planning to leave her husband and go off with Seymour and they were both at the aquarium at the time. And Seymour had slugged Harper.

To Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) it all seems straightforward. Miss Withers is not so sure. She was the one who first spotted the body. She was at the aquarium with her class and had already done some crime-fighting, having apprehended a pickpocket. The pickpocket has Harper’s watch in his pocket so he could be a suspect. Bertrand B. Hemingway, the director of the aquarium, might also be a suspect - he blamed Harper for ruining him. Even Hildegarde is a suspect at one point. But Gwen and Seymour seem to be Inspector Piper’s favoured suspects. Gwen’s lawyer Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong) hopes Miss Withers can clear her.

Inspector Piper soon realises that Miss Withers is going to be collaborating with him on this case whether he likes it or not. At first he’s irritated but they grow on each other.

Hildegarde also gets some help from the aquarium’s penguin. He finds a vital clue.

To be honest the mystery plot, while serviceable, isn’t particularly outstanding. Most of the success of the movie is due to the performances of James Gleason and (especially) Edna May Oliver, and the fine comic repartee between the two of them. The other performances are all solid. Plus it has penguin cuteness.

George Archainbaud had a long if not especially distinguished career as a director, starting in 1917 and finishing with television work. He was something of a specialist in westerns.

I haven’t read Stuart Palmer’s novel so I can’t say how well it compares to the movie. I’ve only read one Hildegarde Withers novel, The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, which (like this movie) combines comedy and mystery but with the mystery elements being just a little weak.

All six movies in the series have been released in the Warner Archive Hildegarde Withers Murder Collection boxed set. The Penguin Pool Murder gets an acceptable transfer although the sound isn’t always all that great.

The Penguin Pool Murder would have been a fairly average mystery movie but the two wonderful leads are enough reason to give it a recommended rating. Lightweight fun but nowhere near as good as the contemporary Charlie Chan mysteries.