Friday, November 25, 2022

The Strange Woman (1946)

The Strange Woman is a 1946 melodrama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. It sometimes gets described as a film noir which is a bit of a stretch although it can be considered to belong to that odd sub-genre sometimes known as gaslight noir - period melodramas with a touch of film noir in both content and style.

In the early 1930s Ulmer had been well on the way to establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s top directors until an affair with the wife of a producer got him blackballed from all the top studios. He ended up at PRC, the lowliest of the Poverty Row studios and the absolute bottom of the Hollywood food chain. But in 1946 he had a stroke of luck. Hedy Lamarr had bought the rights to a novel called The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams and she hired her childhood friend Ulmer to direct. This gave Ulmer a luxury he hardly ever enjoyed - the chance to work with big name stars who actually knew how to act.

Ben Ames Williams who also wrote the novel Leave Her To Heaven (the basis of the magnificent film of the same name).

Lamarr knew what she was doing when she bought this property. She knew that the role of Jenny Hager would give her the chance to demonstrate her acting chops and she makes the most of that opportunity.

Jenny Hager is a young girl growing up in the seaport of Bangor in Maine. Jenny is ambitious. She wants money and luxury and she knows that the way to get those things is through a rich man. And she knows that the way to land a rich man is by using her very considerable sex appeal. Jenny is gorgeous and she oozes sex.

Her father Tim Hager is a self-pitying drunk who beats Jenny regularly. He beats her once too often. He over-exerts himself and drops dead of a heart attack. It’s a rather daring scene for 1946 since there are definite hints that the beatings have sexual overtones.

Jenny schemes her way into marriage with the rich middle-aged Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart). To be fair to her she really does try to be a good and loving wife. Things start to spiral out of control when Isaiah’s son Ephraim (Louis Hayward) returns from Cambridge Massachusetts where he has just qualified as an architect. Jenny and Ephraim has been childhood friends, even childhood sweethearts. There’s a key scene in which Jenny, still a small child, throws Ephraim into the river where, unable to swim, he almost drowns. Ephraim’s cowardice enrages Jenny. It’s a scene which makes some of her later actions more comprehensible. She despises cowardice in men.

Jenny and Ephraim soon decide that they’re in love but Jenny is married to Ephraim’s father Isaiah. If only Isaiah were out of the way Jenny and Ephraim could be happy.

After a complicated series of events Jenny ends up married to Isaiah’s right-hand man John Evered (George Sanders). John had been engaged to Jenny’s girlhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke) but Jenny soon takes care of that obstacle.

But this is melodrama and there are further complications in store, and further tragedies.

The Strange Woman
’s claims to being film noir are very very thin. Those claims rest entirely on the notion that Jenny is a femme fatale but I think that’s a misunderstanding. She is a character straight out of melodrama. And this movie is pure melodrama. It’s full-blown deliriously overheated overcooked melodrama. And that’s the best kind of melodrama. It is also very much a women’s picture as that term was understood in the 40s. The terms melodrama and women’s picture have always tended to bring out the snarkiness in reviewers but melodrama is a perfectly legitimate genre and it’s a genre of which I’m very fond.

Jenny is certainly a schemer but that judgment has to be qualified. Given her nightmarish childhood and the appalling situation in which she finds herself after her father’s final beating her decision to use sex to get herself out of that situation is entirely understandable. In the mid-19th century a woman in her position would have had no other option unless she wanted to end up as a menial servant.

And while Jenny does wicked things her motivation is always love. In that respect she bears a very close resemblance to Ellen in Leave Her To Heaven. You could say that they’re both women driven to a kind of madness by their need for love. And given Jenny’s relationship with her father she has more excuse than Ellen for being consumed by the need for love.

Hedy Lamarr gives what some consider to be her career-best performance. And they may well be right. She’s terrific. Jenny is a complex woman. There’s bad in her but there’s good as well. Her motivations are not always straightforward. It’s likely that she doesn’t always understand her own motivations.

As far as morality is concerned it’s worth pointing out that Ephraim does at one point admits to Jenny that during his time in Cambridge his leisure hours were occupied with drink and prostitutes. There’s a considerable amount of moralistic hypocrisy in the attitudes of the good folk of Bangor.

George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart and Dennis Hoey (as Jenny’s father) are all good. George Sanders was perhaps oddly cast here but he manages pretty well. This is however a movie that is entirely focused on Jenny and it’s Hedy Lamarr’s performance that matters and she delivers the goods.

When making judgments on the outrageous plot you always have to keep in mind that this is melodrama, a genre with its own conventions. It’s a fine melodrama plot.

This is a movie about a woman who makes certain choices of which viewers in the 1940s would certainly have disapproved but it’s also a movie about love, about romantic obsession. It’s also, by the standards of 1946, surprisingly frank about sexual desire and surprisingly erotic.

The Film Chest Restored Version DVD offers a fairly good transfer of a movie that was at one time only available in rather dire public domain versions. It would be nice to see this movie get a Blu-Ray release. The DVD is OK but a special edition Blu-Ray with some nice extras might help this overlooked movie reach a wider audience.

It’s impossible not to keep comparing this movie to Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Since they’re both based on novels by the same author it’s not surprising that there are countless thematic similarities. Both are melodramas which have wrongly been labelled film noir and both are movies about women tempted into evil by an overwhelming need for love. Both feature powerhouse performances by superb actresses. Leave Her to Heaven is one of the two or three best Hollywood movies of the 40s but The Strange Woman stands up pretty well in a comparison.

The Strange Woman is an intriguing visually stylish melodrama and it’s highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Ladies' Man (1962)

I’m a huge fan of the French Lemmy Caution movies of the 50s and early 60s. Ladies' Man (Lemmy pour les dames), directed as usual by Bernard Borderie and released in 1962, was the second last of the proper Lemmy Caution movies. Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville has its merits but I don’t count it as a real Lemmy Caution movie.

Ace FBI agent Lemmy Caution was created by English writer Peter Cheyney in the 1930s. Cheyney was immensely popular at one time, particularly in France.

The star of these movies was granite-faced gravel-voiced American actor Eddie Constantine who became a major pop culture icon in France as a result.

Ladies' Man
opens with Lemmy enjoying vacation in France but wherever Lemmy goes trouble is sure to follow. At the moment it’s not trouble that is following him but a woman. In Lemmy’s world trouble and women tend to go together. The woman seems to wan to talk and then clams up.

Lemmy soon finds himself with a murder on his hands.

Lemmy has not one but three glamorous possibly dangerous dames to deal with. Three female friends. The curious thing is that at one time there were five of them but two met with unfortunate accidents. This interests Lemmy. He has a suspicious mind.

When somebody tries to gun him down from a speedboat Lemmy becomes even more interested.

Lemmy has plenty of suspects but the big problem is figuring out a possible motive. And the motive in this case is more complicated than it seems.

The plot is serviceable enough. Lemmy is pretty sure that one of the three women is either a murderess or an accomplice to murder and both Lemmy and the audience are kept guessing as to her identity (and there’s always the slight possibility all three women are innocent).

Eddie Constantine is terrific as usual. He had exactly the right devil-may-care attitude and he had charisma to burn. And a certain rough charm.

It’s certainly a bonus having the lovely Françoise Brion as one of the three ladies. Brion’s most memorable performance was in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s strange perplexing and fascinating L’immortelle (1963). The other cast members are perfectly adequate, with Paul Mercey as the long-suffering rather cynical Inspector Boumègue and Robert Berri as Lemmy’s good-natured but not overly smart wartime buddy Dombie being quite good and adding some comic relief. Thankfully the comic relief is kept to a minimum - it’s not needed since Lemmy Caution provides more than enough amusemnt with his hardboiled one-liners.

Finding the Lemmy Caution movies in decent English-friendly versions has always been quite a challenge and without the grey market they would have been impossible to see. It would be really nice if somebody were to release a boxed set of restored versions of these films but sadly there’s still no sign of that happening.

Ladies' Man is part crime thriller and part eurospy movie. It’s a typical entry in the series. In other words it’s an immense amount of fun and highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed a couple of other Lemmy Caution movies - the excellent Poison Ivy (1953) and Women Are Like That (1960).

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Sky West and Crooked (1966) revisited

Sky West and Crooked is a movie I’ve seen quite a few times and I reviewed it here years ago. It’s a movie that strikes me slightly differently each time I see it but it always entrances me. It was released in the US under the misleading but undoubtedly more commercial title Gypsy Girl.

This was very much a Mills family project. Sir John Mills was the director (this is the only film he directed). His wife Mary Hayley Bell wrote the original story and co-wrote the screenplay. Their daughter Hayley Mills is the star.

This was a transitional movie for Hayley Mills. She was eighteen at the time and although she had certainly made grown-up movies before this this was her first really grown-up role as an actress. Or, almost grown-up. This is (among other things) a coming-of-age movie and the character she plays, Brydie White, is a seventeen-year-old girl who is a young woman but emotionally still in many ways a child.

It’s one of several movies in which Hayley Mills played girls who were either troubled or a little odd. I don’t think any other actress has ever handled such roles so skilfully.

Brydie lives in a small rather sleepy English village. There’s a reason she’s odd and that reason is explained to us in a kind of prologue. Two small children, a boy and a girl, are playing. There’s an accident and the boy is killed. We know that it was purely an accident but nobody in the village knows the exact circumstances. The girl was Brydie. She has no memory of the accident but it left her with some emotional disturbance. The consensus in the village is that she’s all sky west and crooked which is apparently a term that was at one time used in some parts of England to describe someone who is a bit touched in the head.

Opinions in the village are divided. Most people think Brydie is strange but perfectly harmless but there are others who seem to think that one day she’ll turn into an axe murderess or that she’ll come to a bad end in some other way.

Brydie is obsessed with death. She is obsessed with graveyards. She’s managed to communicate her obsession to the village children.

Her mother has no idea how to handle her and takes solace in the bottle.

Brydie is growing up and there are men in the village who are starting to notice that she’s becoming an attractive young woman. One of the men who has noticed is a young gypsy, Roibin (Ian McShane). It’s obvious that there is a strong mutual attraction between Roibin and Brydie and it’s obvious (to the horror of some of the villagers) that the attraction on both sides is strongly sexual. It’s clearly destined to be a love that is going to encounter some major obstacles.

This movie shares a lot of thematic elements with an earlier Hayley Mills movie, Whistle Down the Wind. That’s no accident. Both movies are based on stories by Mary Hayley Bell. Both movies deal in an oblique but interesting way with religious questions. I don’t think either movie could be described as a Christian movie and to be honest I’m not even entirely sure whether Mary Hayley Bell was a believer. But she was certainly interested in religious questions. In Whistle Down the Wind she explores themes of salvation and redemption while Sky West and Crooked deals with death, and the ways in which people deal with death. Both movies are perhaps more about the nature of belief than about religion as such.

There is however much more to Sky West and Crooked. There’s also a love story, and a very good one. There is the coming-of-age angle. Going from being a child to being a woman is hard enough for any girl but for Brydie it’s even harder.

It’s also a movie that to some extent deals with the way people who are seen as outsiders are treated. Roibin is a gypsy, Brydie is slightly mad, so they’re both outsiders. But there’s no strident social or political messaging in this movie. Some of the characters are narrow-minded but they’re not demonised; they are not portrayed as bad people. Their own fears and anxieties, their own shame and guilt, cause them to behave in an intolerant manner. They’re ordinary and in many ways decent people. They’re just scared, and they’re weak. They’re not evil.

It’s also clear that the anxiety the villagers feel about Brydie is at least partly a fear of Brydie’s awakening sexuality. Brydie is becoming a woman with a woman’s emotions and sexuality but she doesn’t have the normal array of repressions and unrepressed female sexuality certainly scares a lot of people.

John Mills does a fine job as director. He wisely doesn’t try anything fancy - this is a character-driven movie and he has a great cast and his main task is to let the actors shine.

Ian McShane is very good. Annette Crosbie as Brydie’s mother is superb. It’s a nicely nuanced performance. Mrs White is an alcoholic and a bit of a nervous wreck but she’s fundamentally a kind person. Geoffrey Bayldon is excellent as the slightly ineffectual but good-natured vicar, a man who is normally weak but who can be strong when he really feels there is something important at stake.

Look out for Jacqueline Pearce is a small role as a fiery gypsy girl.

Of course the movie belongs to Hayley Mills. She gives a delightfully subtle quirky sensitive performance, funny at time and occasionally slightly disturbing. I will never understand why this performance failed to gain her a Best Actress Oscar.

Sky West and Crooked is odd and quirky and although it deals with some serious themes it remains good-natured. There’s plenty of gentle humour. It’s all done with a very light touch. There’s no heavy-handed messaging and it can be enjoyed as a humorously unconventional love story. It’s the sort of offbeat movie that just doesn’t get made any more. If you’re a Hayley Mills fan it’s a must-see. Very highly recommended.

I’m on a bit of a Hayley Mills kick at the moment, having recently watched her in The Chalk Garden and Whistle Down the Wind (both of which are very much worth seeing). And I reviewed her brilliant movie debut Tiger Bay (1959) a while back as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Tip Not Included (1966)

Tip Not Included (Die Rechnung – eiskalt serviert) was the fourth of the German crime thrillers featuring George Nader as ace G-Man Jerry Cotton. It was released in 1966.

It opens with a glamorous girl singer in a nightclub, always a good way to start a movie. In the English dubbed version her name appears to be Phyllis but in the German version I believe she’s named Violet. Don’t ask me why. Jerry is at the bar and sees a young guy (we later find out his name is Tommy) getting menaced by a couple of hoods. Naturally he intervenes.

What Jerry doesn’t know yet is that he has stumbled upon a clue that could foil a spectacular hoist.

The villains are intending to steal millions of dollars in withdrawn bank notes, plus ten million dollars’ worth of diamonds.

There’s another clue. The controller who has to supervise the shipment of the cancelled currency was mugged. That worries Jerry. He can’t see a connection with the currency shipment but he has a hunch there’s a connection just the same. And of course he’s right (Jerry’s hunches usually are right).

The nightclub canary (played by Yvonne Monlaur) is Tommy’s girlfriend and Tommy is mixed up in the heist.

The complicating factor is that a rival gangster is taking an interest in this heist, meaning that a double-cross is a real possibility.

Jerry has his own problems. He tries to do something honourable and generous and ends up getting suspended. Of course that doesn’t mean he’s going to give up his interest in the case. He did tell Phyllis that if she found herself in trouble she should call him and now she’s in trouble and she calls him. And Jerry finds himself in trouble as well.

There are all the standard plot complications that you’d expect. It’s maybe just a little too reminiscent of the previous movie in the series (The Trap Shuts at Midnight) which was also a heist movie, and in my view a slightly better one.

The robbery itself is quite clever and is handled skilfully by director Helmuth Ashley. It’s very much the highlight of the movie although the action finale is quite good as well. Helmuth Ashley seems to have worked mainly in television although he did direct one of the Edgar Wallace krimis for Rialto.

Georg Hurdalek wrote the screenplay (and also wrote one of the krimis).

Peter Thomas contributes yet another wild crazy score which adds to the 60s vibe.

As usual there’s plenty of stock footage to try to convince us this is all taking place in the United States.

George Nader is as usual an adequate lead. Nader was supposedly headed for stardom in Hollywood in the 50s but it never happened. He was being groomed as another Rock Hudson but he notably lacks Hudson’s charisma.

Yvonne Monlaur is a perfectly fine leading lady. She’s best known to English-speaking audiences for a couple of Hammer movies in the 60s. Birke Bruck is pretty good as gangster’s moll Mary.

The transfer is reasonably good although the image is just a bit on the soft side.

All eight Jerry Cotton films (in both German-language and English dubbed versions) are included in the recent German Jerry Cotton DVD boxed set. The movie was shot widescreen in black-and-white (the series would switch to colour for the last few movies).

Tip Not Included is a solid modestly budgeted crime thriller done with a reasonable amount of style and energy. It’s worth a look.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of earlier Jerry Cotton movies - The Violin Case Murders (1965) and The Trap Shuts at Midnight (1966) which are both slightly better than this one.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Sudan (1945)

Sudan is another frothy Maria Montez/Jon Hall Technicolor adventure romance from Universal. This time they’re in ancient Egypt.

Montez plays Naila, an Egyptian princess. When her father is murdered she becomes queen and she is determined to avenge her father. Her father was murdered by the bandit followers of an escaped slave named Herua (Turhan Bey).

Naila has a habit of mingling incognito among her people. At the beginning of the movie she has disguised herself as a dancing girl and puts on a show in a wine shop. She decides that this habit of hers might be a useful way to gather the information she needs to find her father’s killers. She heads off into the desert on her way to the horse fair.

What Naila doesn’t know is that she herself is a target. Not for murder. The plan is to capture her and sell her as a slave girl. She does indeed get captured by slavers, and branded as a slave girl. She escapes, gets captured again, escapes again. She gets some help from two good-natured wandering petty criminals, Merab (Jon Hall) and Nebka (Andy Devine). She also gets help from a handsome mysterious stranger and he’s the sort of man with whom she could easily fall in love. Maybe she has fallen in love with him. What she doesn’t know is that this man is Herua, the man responsible for her father’s death.

Naila also does some horse racing. When she set off on her adventure she took with her her prize golden stallion and no horse can beat him in any kind of race. The horse race is where Herua first noticed her.

There are plenty of romantic complications, with two men hopelessly in love with the queen. There are devious plots afoot. Naila is in more danger than she realises.

It’s all rather melodramatic but this isn’t a movie you’re supposed to take seriously and the screenplay by Edmund L. Hartmann has just enough twists to keep things reasonably entertaining. John Rawlins was no more than a journeyman director but he keeps things moving at a good clip and handles the action scenes well enough (although they are very much low-budget action scenes). He also directed Maria Montez and Jon Hall in the rather wonderful Arabian Nights a few years earlier.

There’s quite a bit of rear projection and some obvious matte paintings. Since we were told in the opening voiceover that this is a fantasy tale those things don’t really matter. And the process shots are fairly well done.

There’s not too much spectacle. The budget wasn’t going to stretch that far. The sets are however pretty OK and the costumes are nice. It looks like what it was, a modestly budgeted movie that relies on some lovely Technicolor cinematography.

Maria Montez looks stunning dressed as an Egyptian queen. You can almost overlook the fact that she’s an Egyptian queen with a Spanish accent.

The acting is what you expect. No-one was going to win an Oscar for a movie such as this but all the players are lively and competent. Turhan Bey gives the closest thing to a standout performance as the dashing Herua although he has some competition from George Zucco as the queen’s chief advisor Harodef. Andy Devine is there to provide comic relief but he’s a lot less annoying than usual.

is included in the new three-movie Maria Montez Blu-Ray set from Kino Lorber. The transfer is excellent.

Sudan is feelgood entertainment. We can see most of the plot twists coming. We don’t mind. We never feel that any of the sympathetic characters are in any great danger but again we don’t mind. It’s a fairy tale. It’s silly and light and fluffy. I just can’t bring myself to dislike a Maria Montez movie. She made better movies than this but it’s still recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Siren of Atlantis (1949) with is Maria Montez’s best movie by far, a movie in which she does some fairly creditable acting.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Breakout (1959)

One of the many reasons for buying the wonderful Edgar Wallace Mysteries DVD boxed sets from Network is that each set includes not just seven of the terrific Merton Park Edgar Wallace B-movies but a bonus movie as well. And the bonus movies are often the highlight of the set.

The bonus movie in Volume Three is Breakout, made by Independent Artists at Beaconsfield Studios. 

It should be pointed out that there were two British movies released in 1959 both with the title Breakout, the other being a prisoner-of-war drama.

A man named Arkwright (John Paul) has been convicted of fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison. He is very unhappy at this prospect. And he intends to do something about it. He knows a chap who can help people who would prefer not to remain in prison. The chap’s name is Chandler (William Lucas). He and his partner Steve Farrow (Terence Alexander) assure Arkwright’s wife Rita (Hazel Court) that they can help.

Chandler decides that George Munro (Lee Patterson) is the man for the job.

Munro works in the town planning department at the local council. His supervisor considers him to be good at his job, but a bit weak when it comes to details. If details are important in town planning they’re even more important in planning prison escapes.

Munro’s plan is bold yet simple. He knows that a van calls at the prison regularly, brining kitchen supplies. He intends to be driving that van.

Munro of course can’t control every single thing that goes on. He can’t for example anticipate that Farrow would start playing around with Arkwright’s wife. No matter how good your plan might be you have to rely on your accomplices not to make mistakes.

The screenplay by Peter Barnes was based on a story by Frederick Oughton. It’s a solid enough script but perhaps it needed a few more twists. The romantic sub-plot had potential but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Director Peter Graham Scott went on to have a good career in television. He does a competent job here but the movie doesn’t quite have the necessary sense of urgency. The pacing is fine but the suspense falls a bit flat.

This is very much a B-feature but it doesn’t suffer to any great extent from the lack of money. It was shot in black-and-white.

The casting is a major strength of this movie. Lee Patterson was a very competent Canadian actor who made some excellent B-movies in Britain during the 1950s. He had charm and he had the likeability factor. Whether he played a good guy or a bad guy you couldn’t help caring what happened to the characters he played. And in his laid-back way he had a certain charisma. Patterson’s performance is this movie’s single biggest plus.

The female lead is the glamorous and sexy Hazel Court but she doesn’t get enough to do. What she does she does well, as always.

Billie Whitelaw is very good as Munro’s wife, giving the character some substance.

The supporting cast is packed with the sorts of British character actors who could always be relied upon.

Network have provided a very satisfactory transfer (as usual) without any extras.

Compared to Merton Park’s Edgar Wallace crime films Breakout lacks a certain zest and style. But if you’re going to buy the set anyway (and you should) then it’s a perfectly painless way to spend an hour. It’s one of those movies that would probably not have been worth a standalone release but as a bonus movie it’s fine and it’s worth giving it a spin if you don’t set your expectations unrealistically high.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

Budd Boetticher is best known for his superb westerns but there is one thing that obsessed him above all else - bullfighting. He had spent time in Mexico and had in fact become a torero, a bullfighter. He made three movies about bullfighting, the first being Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). There are some interesting thematic similarities between this movie and a couple of the westerns he made with Randolph Scott.

The first thing that needs to be said is that if you have serious objections to bullfighting and you cannot put those feelings to one side for the duration of the film then you may be best advised not to watch this movie. You don’t have to approve of bullfighting to appreciate this movie but you do at least need to be able to accept that it is a movie about people to whom bullfighting is almost a sacred ritual.

Johnny Regan (Robert Stack) is on an extended holiday in Mexico with his friends Barney and Lisbeth Flood (John Hubbard and Virginia Grey). Johnny wants to meet the famous matador Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland). He does meet him, in a restaurant. Johnny is pushy about it but Manolo behaves with great courtesy.
An unlikely friendship develops between the two men. Johnny, a champion skeet shooter, offers to teach Manolo. In return he asks a favour. He wants Manolo to teach him to be a bullfighter.

Johnny’s motivations are a little obscure. Partly he wants to impress Anita (Joy Page). Partly it is perhaps a desire to show off. There is however a bit more to it than that. Johnny admires Manolo, and not just for his prowess in the bullring. Manolo is the kind of man Johnny would like to be. Perhaps if he learns bullfighting he will acquire the qualities he admires in Manolo.

The quality that Manolo has is called stature in Mexico.

Johnny is quick to learn the technical skills of bullfighting but it will take him a much longer time to learn that bullfighting is about much more than technical skills and physical courage. Bullfighting is something almost religious. The torero has to have respect - respect for the art and the ritual of bullfighting, respect for the courage of the bull and respect for the dangers involve. There is no arrogance in Manolo’s supreme self-confidence. There is however a lot of hubris in Johnny’s growing self-confidence.

The budding romance between Johnny and Anita, the other major theme of the movie, encounters major obstacles.

The major theme of the movie is made explicit early on in the discussion of that Mexican concept of stature, a concept that includes physical courage, but while physical courage is necessary it is only one aspect of stature. Stature also requires moral courage - knowing what the right course of action is and taking that action. It also includes grace and good manners and it includes a self-confidence without arrogance. And it includes honour.

It is clear at their first meeting that Manolo has stature and Johnny does not. Manolo has self-control and effortless self-confidence and he always knows how to behave correctly and honourably. Johnny by contrast is pushy and gauche and his pushiness betrays a lack of true self-confidence. And Johnny clearly has some awareness that Manolo has qualities that he would like to have. Johnny sees Manolo as an ideal to which to aspire.

There’s an interesting parallel to this among the female characters. Chelo has stature. Anita does not quite have it, although she’s much closer to achieving it than Johnny. She makes mistakes and leaps to conclusions and judges people too harshly. It’s noticeable that Manolo and Chelo do not judge people harshly. One of the other toreros, Pepe, made a mistake which cost his own brother his life but Manolo does not judge him for it. Both Johnny and Anita need to acquire stature.

Boetticher’s original cut of the movie ran for 124 minutes. John Wayne, who was the producer, insisted that it could not be released unless that running time was trimmed considerable. An agreement was reached that John Ford would recut the movie. Ford’s version, the version eventually released, ran for just 87 minutes. The movie became more of an action/adventure/romance with most of Boetticher’s painstaking philosophical investigation of bullfighting being left on the cutting room floor.

Robert Stack gives what may be the performance of his career. He brings out the nuances in Johnny’s character. Johnny’s motivations are complex and it’s likely that Johny himself does not fully understand them. Johnny isn’t a likeable character but he’s very human and he never entirely loses our sympathy.

There’s a crucial scene in which Johnny meets an American writer named Jamison who has been writing a book on bullfighting. Jamison intended that the book would answer the question - why do men take the risks involved in bullfighting? He has never been able to complete the book because he has never been able to find the answer to that question. It’s a question that the movie itself raises. It’s perhaps reasonable to assume that Boetticher was also trying to analyse his own obsession with bullfighting.

Gilbert Roland is absolutely superb as Manolo. The whole cast is good.

Bullfighter and the Lady is not just a great movie about bullfighting. It’s a movie about Johnny’s painful journey of self-discovery and it’s a movie that explored the cultural significance of bullfighting. Bullfighting is not a sport. It’s a central component of an entire culture and the movie succeeds in giving the viewer at least a glimmering of understanding of a totally different set of cultural values. It’s a movie that tries to work on multiple levels and it works on all those levels. Very highly recommended.

Indicator’s Blu-Ray has perhaps too many extras - it’s a bit bewildering. You just don’t know to start. It also includes the hacked to pieces original theatrical cut.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

Whistle Down the Wind is an odd and touching movie. In a very broad sense it’s a crime thriller with some film noir overtones but mostly it’s a movie about childhood and religious faith. It’s certainly about Christianity but it deals with the subject in a complex way. At the end is Kathy’s faith vindicated or is it shown to be empty and futile? The question is left open. This might be a movie about kids but it’s very much a movie for grownups.

This was the first movie directed by Bryan Forbes who went on to have an interesting career which included the very offbeat Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and the very underrated The Stepford Wives (1975).

Whistle Down the Wind stars Hayley Mills. She was about fourteen when she made this film but was already an established international star. It was based on a novel by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell (who also wrote Hayley’s greatest movie Sky West and Crooked).

Whistle Down the Wind gave Alan Bates his first starring role. It launched him into stardom. It also gave Bernard Lee one of his meatier roles.

Kathy Bostock (Hayley Mills) lives on a Lancashire farm with her younger sister Nan, her little brother Charles and her father (played by Bernard Lee). The children are being raised by their aunt Dottie. The children are certainly aware of the harshness and cruelty of life. As the film opens Eddie (Norman Bird), their father’s farm labourer, is drowning kittens in a sack.

The children rescue the kittens but they’re very much aware that those kittens are under sentence of death if they’re discovered by the grownups. Grownups in this movie are more often than not either cruel, stupid or ineffectual. Their father does his best but he’s rather distant.

The events of the movie stem from a series of innocent irrelevant remarks to which the children (as children do) attach extraordinary significance. Kathy remarks that Jesus is dead. Her sister Nan assures her that Jesus will come to get her for that. In the barn where the kittens are hidden Kathy discovers a rather scruffy sleeping man (played by Alan Bates). When he awakes she asks him who he is. Half-asleep and suddenly seeing this girl staring at him he reacts in shock and mutters Jesus Christ. Kathy takes the words literally. This man must indeed be Jesus.

The children know that the last time Jesus was on Earth the grownups treated him pretty badly so they decide they have to protect him.

Jesus turns out not to be quite what they expected.

The man is in fact a murderer on the run.

They assume that Jesus can answer all the important questions, such as why does God let people and animals die. He has no answers. Kathy decides to ask the vicar but quickly decides that he has no answers at all. Kathy’s faith remains unshaken but little Charles has his doubts. Charles asked Jesus to look after his kitten and Jesus let the kitten die. Charles doesn’t think much of a Jesus who would do that.

Throughout the story the faith of the children is tested. There’s plenty of religious allegory here, all of it ambiguous.

At the end, like the Jesus in the barn, the movie offers no clearcut answers. This Jesus hasn’t saved anybody.

The movie deals not just with faith in God but in more general terms with belief - how we come to believe things, how we cling to our beliefs, how insignificant events can be the foundations of myth.

I don’t see this movie as taking either a definite stance either for or against religious belief. It’s more interested in the mechanism of belief than in the truth or falsity of such beliefs.

Most of the child actors were compete amateurs but they’re marvellous. Diane Holgate as Nan and Alan Barnes as Charles are particularly good.

Alan Bates gives a subtle complex and enigmatic performance. Bernard Lee is excellent. He must have been delighted when he discovered that this time he wasn’t going to be playing a policeman.

Hayley Mills gives one of the two greatest performances of her career (the other being in Sky West and Crooked). She’s totally convincing as a child approaching adulthood who still sees the world very much through the eyes of a child. She also succeeds in conveying Kathy’s conflicted feelings. She feels fairly sure that the man in the barn is Jesus but she isn’t stupid and she can see that some things just don’t add up.

Whistle Down the Wind is a unique and enigmatic film, the sort of film you might see several times and come to entirely different conclusions about it each time. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight (1966)

The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight (Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu) was the third of the West German Jerry Cotton crime thrillers. The Jerry Cotton movies were not wildly dissimilar in style to the hugely popular Rialto Edgar Wallace krimis but were more action-oriented and had a harder edge. The Jerry Cotton movies were set in the United States and were obviously influenced to some extent by American crime thrillers.

The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight gives the viewer a sense of excitement right from the start. The opening titles are stylish and accompanied by wild crazy music, then it cuts to a huge explosion and then to a truck with warnings plastered all over it that it contains explosives. It doesn’t just contain explosives, it contains enough nitro-glycerine to blow up half a city.

The truck is ordered to turn back, to get away as fast as possible from a raging fire in a chemical plant. Then the truck gets hijacked. Why would anyone want to steal nitro-glycerine? We will soon find out.

It’s all part of a plan for a very clever heist, a spectacular jewel robbery. That’s a problem for the New York Police Department but they’re more worried about that huge shipment of nitro-glycerine which has now disappeared. The F.B.I. is called in.

Ace G-Man Jerry Cotton (George Nader) is assigned to the case. To add to the Bureau’s headaches there’s race against time aspect. The nitro is frozen. When it thaws it will become highly unstable and it’s almost certain to explode. It could take half of Manhattan with it. And if the news gets out there will be a panic which could be more dangerous than nitro-glycerine.

The heist had been planned by a small-time gang with ambitions but now a big-time gangster, the very nasty very crazy Larry Link (Horst Frank) has involved himself.

There’s also a dangerous blonde, naturally. She’s Maureen (Dominique Wilms), she was part of the gang that pulled off the heist but now she has plans of her own.

It’s not just a race against time, it’s a race between the F.B.I. and Larry Link to get hold of of that nitro-glycerine. It’s not clear what he would do with it if he did gain possession of it but it’s bound to be bad news.

It’s a fun ride with plenty of action along the way.

There’s definitely an attempt to capture a gritty feel but combined with an outrageous almost comic-book style plot and 1960s pacing and freneticism.

The nitro counter on the wall in F.B.I. headquarters slowly counting down the hours until the nitro blows is a nice touch.

Another nice touch is gang boss Larry Link’s apartment, with a wading pool with an office chair sitting in the middle of the pool. Larry sits in the pool and plays with his toy boats. It’s the kind of thing you could only get in a 1960s movie.

George Nader makes a fine square-jawed hero. Dominique Wilms plays Maureen as a bit of a femme fatale and she does a fine job. It’s Horst Frank however who steals the movie as Larry Link - charming, sadistic and totally deranged.

Peter Thomas was responsible for the music. It’s over-the-top insane and sometimes completely appropriate but I liked it - it gives the movie even more of a 60s vibe.

There’s a lot of rear projection and some use of stock footage but that was par for the course in 1966 and unavoidable in a modestly budgeted movie. And it’s done quite well.

The action scenes are effective.

The recent German DVD boxed set contains all eight Jerry Cotton films and the English dubbed versions are included for all of them. The 16:9 enhanced transfer for The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight is acceptable but not great. The movie was shot widescreen in black-and-white although the last few movies in the series were filmed in colour.

The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight is a treat for fans of 1960s German pop cinema. And 1960s German pop cinema really is tremendous stylish occasionally crazy fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 28, 2022

The Secret Ways (1961)

The Secret Ways is a 1961 Cold War spy movie based on Alistair MacLean’s 1959 novel The Last Frontier (which also appeared under the title The Secret Ways). Richard Widmark stars and also produced the picture.

It has to be said that the novel and the movie have little in common. All the elements that made the novel such an interesting and surprising spy novel for its time have been removed. All the elements that made the hero such an interesting protagonist have been removed as well. What we’re left with is a grindingly conventional Cold War spy thriller.

It is however visually very impressive. It’s done in pure film noir style. The film noir style and the spy movie are of course perfectly compatible so this was by no means a bad idea.

A two bit American hoodlum and total loser named Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark) is employed to get a man called Jansci out of Hungary. In the novel Reynolds is British and a professional spy and that dramatic change is an immediate signal to the viewer that this movie is going to bear no resemblance to the novel.

Reynolds first has to find a young woman named Julia. She’s Jansci’s daughter and she will be the bait to persuade Jansci to leave Hungary.

Reynolds travels to Hungary with Julia. He finds Jansci, he and Jansci are captured by the secret police and tortured. They all have various narrow escapes and we get a very conventional ending. There’s no need to say any more about the very dull plot.

Jean Hazlewood wrote the screenplay. She takes MacLean’s clever intelligent plot with its unexpected psychological twists and turns it into a totally predictable stock-standard spy plot. She eliminates one of the key characters (the scientist Jennings) but unfortunately without that character the plot not only becomes a lot less interesting, it becomes entirely pointless. There’s simply no reason for any of the characters to do any of the things they do.

She also eliminates all of the provocative intelligent aspects of the book - the moral ambiguity, the way the protagonists is forced to re-evaluate his whole life, the complicated conflicts of loyalty. In fact her screenplay eliminates all of the motivations of all of the characters.

We never find out who it is who wants to get Jansci out of Hungary or why.

Hazlewood really was a genius of sorts, because she also manages to eliminate most of the suspense. The suspense in the novel stems from our uncertainty as to exactly how the various characters will react. Their reactions depend on conflicted motivations and are therefore not perfectly predictable.

I can now see why MacLean started writing the screenplays for adaptations of his movies. He was clearly determined not to have any more of his books butchered by third-rate hacks like Jean Hazlewood. This was Hazlewood’s only screenwriting credit and I’m not surprised. Based on this movie I wouldn’t have hired her to write a shopping list. Hazlewood was at the time married to Richard Widmark which obviously explains how she got to write the script.

Richard Widmark could be effective in the right part but he was entirely incapable of subtlety. In this case it doesn’t matter because this is a movie totally lacking in subtlety.

The acting overall is rather flat and lifeless but that could be because the screenplay makes the characters so extraordinarily uninteresting.

On the plus side the movie looks terrific. It has the film noir look in spades. Director Phil Karlson knew how to do film noir and he knew how to shoot action. The movie benefits from the fine cinematography of Mutz Greenbaum. They are also obviously trying for some of the feel of Carol Reed’s spy/suspense movies such as The Third Man and The Man Between, and visually they do succeed to a considerable extent. They’re definitely going for a very European vibe.

Kino Lorber have released this movie on DVD and Blu-Ray. The transfer is excellent and there’s an audio commentary.

The Secret Ways looks good and it’s a beautifully crafted movie. The problem is that the story isn’t at all interesting and the characters are not at all interesting. The relationships between the characters are uninteresting. It had potential but the lacklustre script sinks it. It isn’t terrible but it’s just a very routine spy movie. Maybe worth seeing for the visuals.

I’ve reviewed the superb Alistair MacLean novel on which the film is based, The Last Frontier, on Vintage Pop Fictions.