Saturday, June 26, 2021

The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)

The Wreck of the Mary Deare is an Anglo-American co-production with a script by Eric Ambler based on a Hammond Innes novel. It stars Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston and Michael Redgrave and was directed by Michael Anderson (a director with a solid track record in the action/thriller genres). With all that talent involved you’d be expecting something fairly special. Whether it lives up to that promise remains to be seen.

It was also, interestingly enough, originally going to be directed by a guy named Alfred Hitchcock.

The Wreck of the Mary Deare is a nautical thriller but it’s also a character study of a flawed man caught in an impossible situation in which nobody is likely to believe his version of events, whether his account is true or not.

John Sands (Charlton Heston) and his partner are salvage operators. Steaming through the English Channel in their little salvage vessel, the Sea Witch, they encounter a steamer which appeared to be drifting and abandoned. If this is the case then they would be able to claim the salvage rights. The steamer is the Mary Deare. Sands boards her, only to discover that she hasn’t been abandoned. Not quite. One man is still aboard, Captain Gideon Patch (Gary Cooper). Patch was actually the First Officer but took command four days earlier when Captain Taggart was lost overboard.

Due to wild weather Sands is unable to return to the Sea Witch. He tells his partner he’ll see him in St Malo.

Now things start to get mysterious. Patch claims to have been attacked by a member of the crew. He is secretive and some of his actions are difficult for Sands to understand. No distress call has been sent and Patch could have asked the Sea Witch to send such a call but he didn’t. Which is strange, since the Mary Deare is in no condition to reach port without the assistance of an ocean-going tug.

The Mary Deare is headed for a treacherous reef and Captain Patch’s response is even more surprising. Sands isn’t very happy about Patch’s actions since it’s his skin that is at stake as well as Captain Patch’s.

Patch and Sands survive and Patch makes a very odd request. Sands isn’t pleased about it. Patch pleads with Sands to trust him. For reasons that he himself cannot understand Sands decides to do so, a decision that could have all sorts of consequences when the Court of Enquiry meets to investigate the loss of the Mary Deare.

At which point the movie switches gears, becoming a court-room drama. And the saga of the Mary Deare becomes even more mysterious. There is only one way in which the mystery can be cleared up but it will be a gamble.

The movie will later switch gears again, back to being a thriller.

It’s interesting to watch two legends of American acting together in this movie. Gary Cooper was very near the end of his career, and his life. But as an actor he’s still got it. Charlton Heston had had a meteoric rise in the preceding few years and was close to his peak. They work well together which is important because the strange relationship between these two men is crucial to the movie’s success. The relationship is a mixture of suspicion and reluctant trust. Patch is a complicated man with serious character flaws but Sands seems to sense a certain basic decency in the man, even if sometimes it’s well hidden. Sands has some complexity as well. He’s in the salvage business to make a buck and he hates to miss any opportunity to do so but he has a certain sense of honour as well.

The miniatures work in the early part of the film really is superb. If the movie were remade today it would rely on CGI and I very much doubt if it would look anywhere near as impressive. The first third of the movie aboard the Mary Deare really is terrific stuff. Things slow down a bit in the court-room scenes but then we get some more fine action scenes at the end.

You could almost say there’s a hint of noir to this movie. It definitely has some psychological thriller elements as Patch struggles with his inner demons.

The Warner Archive DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in colour and in the Cinemascope aspect ratio).

This is a fine reasonably intelligent thriller with great special effects, fine acting and some emotionally depth. The scenes at sea really are done extremely well. Highly recommended.

If you’re a Hammond Innes fan then Snowbound (1947) is also worth a look.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Murder Is My Business (1946)

Murder Is My Business, released early in 1946, is the first of the Mike Shayne movies made by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in the 1940s. Private detective Mike Shayne was created by Davis Dresser, writing under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. The novels were successful enough to attract the attention of Hollywood and 20th Century-Fox made seven Mike Shayne movies between 1940 and 1942, all starring Lloyd Nolan. The movie series was revived by PRC in 1946 with five films featuring Hugh Beaumont as Shayne. There would be later radio and TV incarnations as well. Mike Shayne just kept bouncing back.

It has to be said that the movie incarnations of Mike Shayne bear little resemblance to Halliday’s hardboiled creation.

Murder Is My Business
wastes no time telling us what we need to know about Mike Shayne. He’s cocky, cheerful and good-natured. The cops hate him, which amuses him greatly.

Mike has reason to be less amused when his latest case goes bad. Really bad. He was hired by a wealthy woman, Mrs Ramsey (Helen Heigh), who’s been receiving threatening letters. Mr Ramsey (Pierre Watkin) then offers Mike a thousand dollars to help him pull an insurance swindle, which of course Mike has no intention of doing. Then two people wind up dead and an old pal of Mike’s, an ex-con named Joe Darnell who’s been trying to go straight, seems to be responsible. And Mike is implicated. Mike is certain it was a setup. To clear Joe’s name (and his own) he’ll have to find the murderer and he won’t get any help from the cops.

Mike has reason to suspect just about every member of the Ramsey household. He already knows Mr Ramsey is a crook. Mr Ramsey’s two children from a previous marriage, Ernest (David Reed) and Dorothy (Julia McMillan) are obnoxious spoilt brats. There’s also Carl Meldrum (George Meeker). He was having an affair with Mrs Ramsey and more recently he’s been romantically involved with Dorothy. All of these people want to get their hands on the Ramsey bankroll.

There’s also night-club owner Buell Renslow. Since he’s played by Lyle Talbot we know he’s up to no good.

Fred Myton’s screenplay is solid enough, providing us with numerous suspects all of whom are involved in shady dealings but shady dealings don’t necessarily add up to murder.

Sam Newfield was an incredibly prolific but reasonably competent B-picture director and he keeps the pacing satisfyingly brisk.

I’m pretty impressed by Hugh Beaumont. He’s more hardboiled than Lloyd Nolan but he has charm and he has the swagger that a private eye needs. And he knows how to trade wisecracks. Lyle Talbot is of course terrific. Cheryl Walker is fine as Mike’s faithful secretary Phyllis Hamilton, who dreams of being more than just Mike’s secretary. She’d like to play at being a private eye too. The supporting players are competent. Carol Andrews gives off the right femme fatale vibes as night-club hostess Mona. Julia McMillan had a very very brief career but I liked her as Dorothy, a girl who’s dangerous because she’s not as tough or as smart as she thinks she is.

Being a PRC production means that this was a very low budget feature but you don’t need much money to make a decent private eye flick. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, all you need is a girl and a gun.

The five PRC Shayne movies have been released on DVD (on a single disc) by Classicflix. Murder Is My Business is obviously unrestored but the transfer is decent enough.

Murder Is My Business is slightly more hardboiled than the 20th Century-Fox Shayne movies. You could describe it as mediumboiled. Fortunately there are no irritating comic relief characters. It offers a decent mystery plot and a likeable lead. There's plenty of action and lots of fistfights (and a catfight as well). It all adds up to very solid B-movie entertainment. I actually enjoyed this one more than the 20th Century-Fox movies. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed the 1945 Brett Halliday novel Murder Is My Business which appears to share nothing with this movie other than the title!

I’ve also reviewed the four 20th Century-Fox Mike Shayne movies - Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940), The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1942), Sleepers West (1941) and Blue, White and Perfect (1942).

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Embezzler (1954)

The Embezzler was written and directed by John Gilling, a very underrated British film-maker whose reputation seems to have grown quite a bit in recent years. It’s one of his fairly early films.

It’s obviously a very low budget film with just a few sets but that doesn’t matter because this is a very character-driven crime movie. It’s the unexpected relationships between the characters that draw the viewer in, along with an odd bitter-sweet tone.

Henry Paulson (Charles Victor) is, as the voiceover narration informs us, a little man. For 54 years he has led a blameless life. But not an overly happy or satisfying life.

He is entirely dominated by his shrewish wife. He is Chief Cashier at the local bank. Perhaps one day he might become manager of a branch.

And then Mr Paulson finds out that he has only a short time to live. It’s his heart. he has always daydreamed about doing something exciting, perhaps traveling to exotic places. Now that is never going to happen. Or perhaps it will. After all he now has nothing to lose. He could help himself to the contents of the bank vault, and see those exotic places after all. He might even end up in Rio. Why not?

He gets away with the robbery and then sets off on the first stage of his journey. He gets as far as Eastbourne. Eastbourne is an English seaside resort so naturally it is pouring rain when he arrives and takes up temporary residence at an hotel.

At which point the movie changes gears. It’s not really a crime film after all. Or at least, not entirely.

The residents of the hotel are the usual motley assortment. There’s a jovial middle-aged chap who can be a bit of a bore but he’s good-hearted. There’s a young doctor named Forrest (an early role for Michael Craig) and his wife (played by Zena Marshall). There’s Miss Ackroyd, a lady of a certain age who is a secret drinker. And there’s the good-natured landlady Mrs Larkin (Peggy Mount).

Then a fellow named Alec Johnson (Cyril Chamberlain) turns up. This worries Mr Paulson, who of course has reason to worry since he’s on the run. Johnson seems like he could spell trouble.

Mr Paulson has spent his life as an innocent bystander rather than active participant but now he finds himself being drawn into the lives of these people. Getting involved in other people’s lives is complicated and difficult but it’s oddly satisfying. Mr Paulson has discovered that he actually likes people. He likes them a lot. Of course the viewer might think that he should be concentrating on getting to Rio but instead he’s getting entangled in a number of interlocking human dramas.

Charles Victor is rather wonderful. He makes Paulson a very sympathetic character, We want him to get away with the robbery. He deserves a few years of happiness. He’s such a nice man. The whole cast is quite impressive.

This is a movie that could have descended into sentimentality but it doesn’t. It’s emotional certainly, but not sentimental. There’s some humour as well, and some nice little ironic touches.

I hadn’t heard of The Embezzler until it was mentioned in passing on the Riding the High Country blog.

The Embezzler really is a neat little movie. Highly recommended.

Other John Gilling films that are very much worth seeing and that I have also reviewed include the film noir No Trace and the slightly noirishy spy thriller Deadly Nightshade.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Sky Raiders (1941 serial)

Sky Raiders is a 1941 Universal serial and it belongs to a sub-genre that I’m very fond of, the aviation adventure serial. It’s also a spy thriller so that makes it even more promising.

Captain Robert Dayton (Donald Woods) had commanded an elite fighter squadron in the Great War. Now he runs Sky Raiders Inc, an aviation company that is developing a new high-tech pursuit plane. A ruthless international spymaster, Felix Lynx (Eduardo Ciannelli), is determined to get hold of the plans but there aren’t any plans - everything is in Dayton’s head! So Lynx decides to steal the plane itself. The aircraft is about to make its first test flight. Dayton is supposed to have retired from active flying but he makes the test flight himself. The flight ends disastrously.

Lynx’s next plan is more ambitious - not to steal the new pursuit plane but to kidnap its designer. His plans are of course ludicrously complicated, involving an exact double for one of the main characters. There’s also a sub-plot about a new bomb sight.

Don’t expect the cliffhanger endings to be quite as inspired as those you get in the best of the William Witney-directed Republic serials but the ones in Sky Raiders are still pretty good.

The aerial sequences are generally excellent and fairly convincing. The miniatures work is extremely well done as are the process shots and there’s a considerable amount of actual aerial stunt work. And there’s lots of aerial stuff - the emphasis is very much on the actual flying with many of the narrow escapes from danger being the result of the normal hazards of early aviation rather than the machinations of the villains. Although the villain does his best to add to those dangers.

What’s interesting is that the usual serial clich├ęs, like the bad guys kidnapping the heroine, are dispensed with. The heroine certainly finds herself in plenty of danger but in more interesting ways than was usual.

Donald Woods as Dayton makes a fine square-jawed action hero. He’s incredibly stubborn and his determination to do everything himself, including all the test flights, put him in additional danger.

Eduardo Ciannelli plays the villain Felix Lynx. He’s not as over-the-top as some serial villains but he is menacing.

Kathryn Adams is terrific as Mary Blake, Dayton’s devoted secretary who is obviously madly in love with him although of course he somehow manages not to notice. She’s a perfect serial heroine - she’s brave and resourceful but in a very feminine way. She doesn’t pack guns or anything like that but she is a skilled aviatrix which comes in handy on numerous occasions. She gives a lively and likeable performance.

Alpha Video’s DVD release is not great but it’s quite acceptable.

Sky Raiders might not be one of the more famous serials but it’s well worth seeking out. It doesn’t adhere slavishly to serial conventions and it has action, romance and great aerial sequences. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Fatal Hour (AKA Mr Wong at Headquarters, 1940)

The Fatal Hour
(also released as Mr. Wong at Headquarters) was the fourth of the six Poverty Row B-movies made by Monogram featuring Chinese sleuth Mr Wong, a character created in a series of short stories by Hugh Wiley. The movie, with Boris Karloff as Mr Wong, came out in 1940.

San Francisco cop Dan Grady is found floating in the bay. He has two slugs in him so he clearly didn’t drown. Since he and Grady were old pals Captain Street (Grant Withers) of the Homicide Squad is pretty keen to find the killer and he’s happy to get some assistance from another old pal, the famed private detective Mr Wong (Boris Karloff). 

Whether he likes it or not he’s also going to get some help from Feisty Girl Reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds).

The trail leads Wong to a notorious bar and gambling joining, the Club Neptune (run by Hardway Harry Locket), and to a jewellery store. Grady had been working on a smuggling case and in his desk in his office was found a piece of extremely valuable jade. That’s what takes Wong to Belden’s jewellery store. It normally sells cheap costume jewellery but one of Wong’s contacts in Chinatown suggests that it might deal in expensive jade as well. Jade acquired by means that are not strictly legal, such as smuggling.

There are plenty of shady characters who might be suspects, including glamorous adventuress Tanya Serova (Lita Chevret). All of the suspects are pretty plausible.

The solution is clever and makes use of the very latest technology of the time.

I’m not one of those people who gets all disapproving at the idea of non-Asian actors playing Asian characters but there is a problem with Karloff’s performance, especially in this film. There’s nothing even remotely Chinese about Mr Wong. It’s not Karloff’s appearance that is the trouble but he just comes across as a nice respectable middle-aged English gentleman. In Wiley’s short stories Wong is a highly educated highly assimilated Chinese-American but at least you get the idea that his Chinese heritage is a part of him. It’s not that Karloff’s acting is bad. It’s excellent. He just doesn’t make any attempt at all to make the character Chinese.

A bit more of a Chinatown angle would have helped in this respect.

The other cast members are reasonable enough if not exactly brilliant. Grant Withers can best be described as stolid. Marjorie Reynolds is quite good as Bobbie Logan. She’s there to add glamour and a lighter touch and she does that successfully. Lita Chevret isn’t dazzling but she manages to convince us that she’s a mysterious exotic femme fatale type.

William Nigh directed the first five Mr Wong films (all the Karloff ones in other words). Making B-movies is what he did and he did it a lot, and competently enough. Scott Darling’s screenplay is pretty good and for a B-movie this one has sufficient plot complexity to keep things interesting.

For hardcore golden age detective fiction fans there’s plenty of misdirection and a neat unbreakable alibi angle. And Mr Wong does do some real detecting and gets to demonstrate why he’s such a famous detective.

The Mr Wong movies are in the public domain and some of the DVD releases are not too good. All six movies are available in a two-disc set from VCI, with quite acceptable transfers. If you’re a B-movie fan you’ll want to consider picking up this set.

The Fatal Hour is fine B-movie entertainment and a cut above what you expect from Monogram Pictures. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed The Mystery of Mr Wong, Mr Wong in Chinatown and Mr Wong, Detective.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Golden Blade (1953)

The Golden Blade is a 1953 Universal swashbuckler starring Rock Hudson. It’s one of the many swashbucklers of that era inspired by the tales of the Arabian Nights.

Basra and Bagdhad are engaged in a bitter territorial dispute. Harun (Rock Hudson) is the son of a merchant of Basra. His father is killed during a raid and Harun vows to take vengeance on the men responsible. He has a clue - a medallion dropped by one of his father’s killers.

Not long afterwards Harun comes across a sword in a merchant’s shop. The sword turns out to be a truly remarkable weapon, but only in the hands of the right man. It appears that Destiny has decided that Harun is that man.

He also encounters a girl. The girl is in the middle of inciting a riot. What he doesn’t know is that the girl (played by Piper Laurie) is the Princess Khairuzan. And their paths will cross again.

The Caliph has problems of which he is as yet not fully aware. His vizier, Jafar (George Macready) is plotting to seize his throne (or rather to seize the throne for his son Hadi with Jafar of course to be the real power behind the throne). It is in pursuit of this aim that Jafar has been stirring up trouble between Baghdad and Basra. In further pursuit of this objective Jafar is hoping to marry his son Hadi to Khairuzan. To say that Khairuzan is displeased when she hears about this marriage plan would be an understatement. She is furious.

Harun is focused totally on revenge, or at least he was. But now he has the magic sword and according to the inscription on it it is the key to a kingdom. In fact it serves a similar story purpose to the sword in the stone in the King Arthur legends. Now Harun has the possibility of a throne to motivate him, and he has another motivation as well - to win the hand of Khairuzan. And to save her from having to marry Hadi, and to foil the schemes of Jafar.

The magic sword could have presented some story problems. It makes its wielder invulnerable and invincible which would make things too easy for the hero so for most of the story he doesn’t actually have the sword. The sword is really just a symbol anyway - it is Harun’s own skill, courage and honour that makes him a worthy hero and he manages pretty well without it.

I like Rock Hudson in swashbucklers. OK, he’s not Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power but he does the handsome brave adventure hero thing pretty well and with just a hint of a twinkle in his eye. Piper Laurie makes an amusing feisty heroine. George Macready is a fine villain.

Nathan Juran was a capable director of usually fairly modestly-budgeted adventure and science fiction films. He keeps things moving along at a nice clip. John Rich wrote the screenplay.

The plot is pretty much a stock-standard story of its type.

The Harun in the story is supposed to be the famous Caliph Harun al-Rashid although of course the story has little to do with the historical Harun al-Rashid. Harun al-Rashid was a bit like King Arthur, with countless fanciful tales being told about him (some of which are included in the Arabian Nights).

My copy of this film comes from the five-movie Rock Hudson Screen Legend boxed set (which offers a very good transfer) but it’s also been released on Blu-Ray.

I bought this movie on the strength of a glowing review at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.

The Golden Blade might be somewhat formulaic but it’s extremely well-made, the plotting is solid enough, it looks great, the cast is excellent and it has the right mix of action, adventure and romance with some dashes of humour. It all adds up to terrific entertainment. Highly recommended.