Saturday, July 2, 2022

Coast Of Skeletons (1965)

Coast Of Skeletons is a 1965 potboiler produced by Harry Alan Towers. Towers also co-wrote the screenplay. The movies Harry Alan Towers was associated with were usually modestly budgeted, with no artistic pretensions but generally with fairly high entertainment value.

Coast Of Skeletons claims to be based on Edgar Wallace’s famous 1911 collection of African adventure stories Sanders of the River. In fact what it does is to take the Sanders character as a very vague starting point.

In the movie Harry Sanders (Richard Todd) is a colonial policeman in one of Britain’s African colonies. He’s good at his job and he loves Africa. But times are changing. The governments of the newly independent African states do not necessarily want reminders of the colonial past hanging about. Sanders finds himself back in England, unemployed.

Harry Sanders is not the sort of chap to waste time feeling sorry for himself. He finds work as a kind of freelance investigator for a firm of solicitors. They want the business affairs of a certain A.J. Magnus (Dale Robertson) looked into. It’s not that they think Magnus is a crook. It’s more that he’s the kind of businessman inclined to take risks and the people whose money he is risking can get just a little nervous. Magnus also tends to be involved in businesses that are just a little unconventional. Such as his offshore diamond dredging project in West Africa.

Sanders is keen to take on this investigative assignment and he’s even happier when he’s told he can take his old colonial police colleague Tom Hamilton (Derek Nimmo) along with him. It will be just like old times.

The first thing the movie has to do is to convince us that Harry Sanders is a very very tough hombre. Within the first few minutes of the film he’s been involved in two all-in brawls and we’re prepared to accept that yes, he is a tough guy.

Magnus owns a freighter which is used in the diamond dredging operations. It’s skippered by a German named Von Koltze, a former U-boat captain and war hero. The original plan was that a whole party, including Magnus and Sanders, would travel to West Africa on the ship. The party would include Captain Von Koltze’s glamorous new wife Elizabeth (Elga Anderson) and Elizabeth’s sister-in-law Helga (Marianne Koch). Helga is a photographer and she seems like she’s going to take an interest in Sanders. There’s a change in plan and it’s now arranged that the entire party will fly to Africa. That immediately causes tension between Captain Von Koltze and his wife.

In fact there’s quite a bit of tension between Von Koltze and his wife. Elizabeth is spoilt and she’s bored being a sea captain’s wife. She wants money and glamour and excitement. When a man has a beautiful younger wife and he can’t provide her with the things she wants he can be tempted by the prospect of quick riches, even riches that are not strictly legal.

Captain Von Koltze isn’t necessarily the only one whose plans for getting rich are not entirely legal. There’s some question about this whole diamond dredging business, and the mysterious sinking of Magnus’s first dredge, and the subsequent insurance payout. There’s also the question of Magnus’s former business partner who shot himself. And some of Magnus’s current employees seem rather disreputable.

There are secrets here, in fact there are secrets that go back twenty years, and there’s the potential also for multiple double-crosses.

Richard Todd makes a effective hero in the very correct British style. Harry Sanders is not a man who could ever be tempted to do anything dishonourable. It’s enormous fun seeing Derek Nimmo playing a tough ex-colonial policeman. The other cast members are all effective.

The location shooting (in Namibia) adds considerable interest. It’s not the kind of African location shooting you expect - no herds of elephants, no lions, none of the clichés. What we get instead is forbidding desert and the desolate coastline known as the Coast of Skeletons because it’s littered by the wrecks of so many ships. Only one thing can lure a man to this coast - the thought of easy money. And easy money seems to be there for the taking.

The setting is definitely one of the movie’s major assets. The shoreline is retreating on this part of the coast so many of the wrecks are now high and dry, scattered up and down the beach, slowly rotting away.

There are a few low-key action scenes (including some underwater action) but mostly this is a film that relies on suspense, and on a brooding atmosphere of jealousy, betrayal and suspicion.

Robert Lynn directed two similar movies for Harry Alan Towers in the mid-60s, Code 7, Victim 5 (1964) and Mozambique (1964). They’re both worth a look as well.

Network’s DVD release is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is very nice.

Coast Of Skeletons is a modest unassuming but perfectly competent thriller. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus was the fourth of the six movies Josef von Sternberg made for Paramount starring Marlene Dietrich (and the fifth movie they’d made together). It's not a movie that von Strenberg was all that fond of.

Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren wrote the screenplay but the starting point was a story by Marlene Dietrich.

And just as a reminder that this really is a pre-code movie we start with a nude scene. With not one naked woman, but six. It’s somewhere in Germany and they’re actresses and they’re skinny-dipping when a party of young (male) American tourists happens upon them. One of the nude frauleins is Helen (Marlene Dietrich). It’s a fairly coy nude scene but the girls are quite clearly naked. There’s quite a bit more pre-code naughtiness to come.

The scene immediately shifts to America a few years later. Helen is now married to one of those American tourists. He is Ned Faraday, he is a scientist and he is dying. He has been exposed to too much radium in the course of his work. There is one chance for him. A brilliant doctor in Germany, Professor Holzapfel, may be able to cure him.

The cure will be expensive. Ned can no longer work full-time and they have a small son. Money is tight.

The treatment will cost $1,500. Ned doesn’t need the full amount all at once but he needs $300 upfront. Now $300 is a trivial sum today but in 1932 it was a vast sum of money. Helen persuades Ned that she will have to go back to the stage.

Under the name the Blonde Venus she is an immediate success (and when we see that Hot Voodoo number we can see why she would be a hit).

She attracts the attention of up-and-coming tycoon Nick Townsend (Cary Grant).

After a couple of weeks she is able to give Ned the three hundred dollars. Had Ned been less of an innocent he might have wondered how on earth a woman could earn so much money so quickly. But the thought never enters his head. He packs his bags and sets off to Germany for his medical treatment which is expected to take six months.

Nick instals Helen in a swanky apartment as his mistress. Helen is able to send Ned the rest of the money he needs.

There’s nothing very startling in any of this. In the pre-code era when movies were made for grown-ups most people would figure that while Helen is certainly being unfaithful she’s doing it for the best of motives, to save her husband’s life.

But there’s a complication. Nick is no Boy Scout but he’s no sleazebag. He’s pretty nice. He treats Helen (and her son) extremely well. He’s awfully good-looking and very charming. Helen is only human. In such a situation it isn’t very surprising that a woman would fall in love with a man like Nick. And he’s genuinely crazy about her.

Things are going to be awkward when Ned gets back to America.

After 1934 the Hollywood Production Code would not even have allowed this movie to be made, or if it were made then obviously it would have to be made clear that Helen is a very wicked woman who must be punished for her sin. Under the Production Code the standard punishment for a woman who commits adultery was the death penalty. Only by dying could she be grudgingly forgiven. But this was 1932, and in Blonde Venus it’s made clear that Nick and Helen are just human beings who cannot help the fact that they’ve fallen in love.

The movie dares to do something that would become totally impossible after 1934 - sympathetically treating an adulterous woman who at no point in the story apologises for anything she’s done and who does not believe that she has to destroy herself to wipe out her sins. Of course she really has no reason to apologise - she was unfaithful in order to save her husband’s life. But she does not try to manipulate Ned into forgiving her for this reason. She accepts what she has done and if he won’t forgive her then she’s not going to beg. Equally daring is the unsympathetic portrayal of the wronged husband.

Dietrich called her original story Mother Love and that’s to a large extent what the movie is about. She will make significant sacrifices for her husband, but she is prepared to make any sacrifice for her child.

The ending is a bit contrived but the nice thing is that Helen still does not beg for forgiveness. She still will not apologise for anything she’s done. Whether Ned will in fact forgive her is something she leaves up to him (and I’m not going to spoil the film by telling you whether he does forgive her or whether the film ends happily or unhappily).

It’s pure melodrama, but that’s OK, I have no problems with melodrama. The movie certainly shows conventional morality in a poor light but it would be a mistake to see this as a political film or a feminist film. It’s simply a movie about people who do things that real people do, rather than what moralisers would like them to do. Helen does things that she considers necessary, not out of a desire to rebel against a restrictive moral code but simply because those things appear to her to be necessary. No judgment is made on Nick. He merely had an affair that turned out to be more serious than he expected. He also offers no apologies for any of his actions. To the extent that that you find any message in this movie (and von Sternberg had no interest in making movies with messages) it’s just that life gets complicated and grown-ups have to deal with that.

It’s not a movie that rejects morality, it merely points out the limitations of rigid conventional morality. Helen always put the welfare of her son first, and would have been content to go back to being a good wife if Ned had been capable of understanding why she did what she did and wasn’t so blinded by self-pity.

The plot has its problems but on the plus side is its sophisticated approach to sex and relationships. Helen uses sex as a tool when she feels she has no viable alternative because what else can she do?

The show-stopping moment in the film is of course Dietrich’s famous Hot Voodoo musical number, a deliriously overheated and outrageous extended mix of jazz and sex. You get to see Marlene in a gorilla suit which is not something you see every day. When she removes the gorilla suit things heat up. Today the fun police would ban this number for a whole grab-bag of reasons but in the more enlightened atmosphere of 1932 people were able simply to enjoy it.

Dietrich is in top form. Cary Grant is starting to show glimpses of his star quality. Herbert Marshall has a thankless job, playing a character who really is contemptible.

There is plenty of von Sternberg style here but it’s not as all-pervasive as it is in movies like The Scarlet Empress or The Devil is a Woman. Blonde Venus is a top-quality pre-code melodrama. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Quiet Woman (1951)

The Quiet Woman is an early crime film from Tempean Films, written and directed by John Gilling, for whom I have a great admiration. The Quiet Woman has perhaps just a slight film noir tinge as I’ll explain later.

Jane Foster (Jane Hylton) has just taken over as proprietress of The Quiet Woman, a pub in a seaside town. She’s disturbed to discover that local painter and smuggler Duncan McLeod (Derek Bond) and his pal Lefty (Michael Balfour) have been accustomed to using her pub to store contraband liquor. She puts a stop to that immediately.

Duncan takes this setback with good humour. He’s already taken a bit of a shine to Jane. She strongly disapproves of him but he’s a charming rogue and she’s a woman and she’s clearly, if reluctantly, attracted to him.

It’s obvious that Jane has some secret and that she’s terrified that she will be recognised and her secret discovered.

Duncan is busy with his painting and he has a model set down from London to pose for him. He gets an unpleasant shock when the model turns out to be Helen (Dianne Foster). In the past Helen was not only his model but his girlfriend. They broke up but Helen has never accepted this. She still loves Duncan and still means to have him.

Duncan then does just about the dumbest thing any man could do. He decides to do a painting of Helen as a mermaid, not a nude but a kind of semi-nude, but unbeknownst to Helen (he won’t let her see the painting until it’s finished) he’s given the mermaid in the painting Jane’s face. You can just imagine how any woman would react to having her picture painted but having the picture given the face of her hated rival.

That secret of Jane’s past comes back to haunt her. Worst of all, Helen finds out the secret. And decides to make use of it.

Both Jane and Duncan are in danger of being drawn into an illegal act. They don’t want to do it but they don’t see any other way out.

This is a very low-key crime film. It’s not the crimes that matter but the responses of the various characters to the situation as it unfolds, and what those responses reveal about those characters. There’s a touch of film noir to Jane’s situation. You can, although it’s maybe a bit of a stretch, see her as the noir protagonist. She’s not a criminal but her past is not entirely blameless and she has succumbed to certain weaknesses in the past and she will be tempted to succumb again, by a man who could be seen as a homme fatale. Jane Hylton is quietly effective in the role.

There’s maybe even similar tinge to Duncan’s story. He is a criminal, but a petty criminal who has found ways to justify his actions to himself. Now he may be drawn deeper into the world of crime. Derek Bond was a good reliable actor and playing a charming rogue was right up his alley.

Helen looks like she might have femme fatale potential. She’s ruthless and scheming, she’s beautiful, we can assume that she has used her physical charms to considerable advantage and she’s passionate and insanely jealous.

The peaceful coastal setting is put to good use, lulling us into thinking that nothing bad can happen here.

The sea plays a major role. Duncan’s love of the sea may be his undoing.

Gilling’s script is subtle and almost entirely character-driven.

This movie is included in Renown Pictures’ ten-movie Crime Collection Volume 2 boxed set. The transfer is clearly unrestored but acceptable. There are no extras, but you do get ten movies in the set.

The Quiet Woman is an unassuming very low-key crime B-picture that isn’t going to knock your socks off but it’s a decent reasonably involving story and it’s a movie that has just a bit more to it than most such B-movies. Anything that John Gilling was involved with is usually worth a look and this is no exception. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Beyond the Curtain (1960)

Beyond the Curtain is a 1960 British spy movie and a very obscure one.

Captain Jim Kyle (Richard Greene) is an English pilot working for an American airline in West Germany. His girlfriend Karin (Eva Bartok) is a stewardess. They are intending to marry. Karin is East German. She ran away to the West six years earlier. Now she’s flying the Frankfurt-Berlin route which means flying through the air corridor established by agreement between East and West.

Her latest flight ends in disaster. The aircraft drifts off-course into East German air space and is forced down in East Germany. A few hours later the plane is allowed to take off again, but without Karin.

Karin expects to be imprisoned or at least punished in some way and she’s surprised when the East German authorities allow her to return to her mother’s home in Dresden. They won’t allow her to return to the West but otherwise she’s free to do whatever she likes.

Of course the evil commies have a dastardly motive for all this. They intend to use Karin as bait, to trap her brother (an anti-communist political agitator). Karin doesn’t know this yet.

While this is happening Jim Kyle is hatching a plan to rescue Karin. He travels to East Germany under a false name and is surprised to find that Karin doesn’t appear to want to return to the West. She has her reasons.

It all gets complicated as Jim Kyle tries to find a way to get Karin, her brother and perhaps even her elderly mother to the western zone. He’s going to have to come up with something before the East Germans close the net on Karin’s brother.

This is the kind of spy movie that was still common in 1960. Two years later the release of the first Bond movie Dr No would make these earlier spy movies seem very stodgy. And this one really is a bit stodgy. It does however feature a pretty effective extended action finale, a tense chase through a maze of tunnels under Berlin which I imagine was inspired by the similar finale in The Third Man. Obviously there’s none of the artistry that a director like Carol Reed could bring to such a sequence but it’s still effectively atmospheric and exciting.

This movie was made at the height of Cold War hysteria and it really lays the propaganda on good and thick. The East Germans are all humourless evil soulless monsters. They’re cartoon villains.

Richard Greene was the leading man you got for an action adventure movie if you couldn’t afford a real star. He was always pretty reliable but just a bit lacking in the charisma department.

Eva Bartok is much better. A fine actress who does a good job of conveying Karin’s confusion as her emotions tug her this way and that. Marius Goring plays the enigmatic and treacherous Hans, an old family friend.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the use of the air corridor as a device to set the plot in motion. And Karin does manage to be a fairly interesting character with believable emotional conflicts.

Renown’s DVD presentation is quite OK but not fantastic. There are no extras.

Beyond the Curtain is a very 1950s-style low-key spy thriller. It doesn’t reach any great heights but it’s competently made. Worth a look if you can pick it up cheaply.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

All the Right Noises (1970)

All the Right Noises is a 1970 British movie written and directed by Gerry O’Hara. It could be described as a romantic/sex melodrama, with the emphasis on the melodrama.

Len (Tom Bell) works in the theatre as a lighting technician. He’s 32 and married with two kids. One night, after the show, he asks Val (Olivia Hussey) to the pub for a drink. Then he does the gentlemanly thing and escorts her home. They indulge in some reasonably heavy flirting on the train journey to her home. Val is lively and vivacious and very pretty and seems interested in him. He’s definitely interested in her. He intends to escort her to her door, they have to cut across a park to get there, and they stop in the park and get to know each other better. They get to know each other extremely well indeed.

Len feels a bit guilty, especially when he gets home and his actress wife Joy (Judy Carne) wants to make love.

The next day Len has a bit of a shock when he runs into Val into the street. She’s wearing her school uniform. She admits that she’s fifteen. Len realises that he’s getting into dangerous waters but Val is so cute and bubbly and he’s hooked on her. And she’s hooked on him. She doesn’t care that he is married.

This could be a tale of an unhappily married man finding love with another woman but that’s not the case here. Len’s wife Joy is very pretty, very easy to get along with, likes sex and is totally devoted to her husband. If she’s not the perfect wife then she’s as close to it as any reasonable man could ever expect to find. But Len is obsessed with Val.

When the theatre company goes on tour he knows he shouldn’t go. If he does then he and Val will continue their affair. But of course he does go.

Len comes up with a brilliant idea. While Joy is away in Majorca shooting a TV commercial he’ll move Val into their flat. Having sex with your girlfriend in the bed you share with your wife shows real class.

Of course the affair gets messy. And of course the day comes when Val announces that she’s missed her period this month.

This is essentially another in the long line of 1960s British kitchen sink dramas, with the same stifling atmosphere of seediness, despair and hopelessness. You know that if any of the characters try to bring some joy into their lives life will just kick them in the teeth. If they try to make their lives better they will fail. If, God forbid, they have sex they will pay for it. British film-makers in the 60s loved to wallow in misery, especially film-makers with pretensions to making Serious Films. If they hoped to make arty films they took care to make them even more miserable.

This movie has that air of defeat and resignation. The characters hope for very little, and usually they don’t even get that.

You have to wonder what Val sees in Len. I suppose he’s not bad looking (not being a woman I’m not qualified to judge) but he’s lazy, he has no ambitions, he’s irritable, he lacks charm, he isn’t amusing and he isn’t intelligent. He’s married with two kids and he isn’t going to leave his wife. He doesn’t have a sexy bad boy vibe. He’s not a producer so he won’t be able to help her in her career. Maybe it’s just that she’s so young that she’s flattered to have a grown-up man, any grown-up man, take an interest in her. And maybe she’s flattered that he obviously wants to go to bed with her. She’s pretty and charming and she could do a whole lot better but perhaps she doesn’t realise that.

She seems to have no actual end in view. She knows he won’t leave his wife. She knows there’s no future for their affair, but she wants him anyway. Len has never in his life given any thought to the future and in this case he can’t think beyond wanting to sleep with Val.

I guess Tom Bell’s surly performance as Len is what the director wanted. Olivia Hussey is rather charming as Val. She was a bit older than the character she plays but she was still a teenager and she’s convincingly naïve and impulsive and we can’t help liking her. Judy Carne is good as Joy. She was a fine and underrated actress but Joy is a badly underwritten character who doesn’t offer an actress much to work with. The whole relationship between Len and Joy is undeveloped. There’s nothing obviously wrong with their marriage on the surface and we don’t really know why Len wants to play round. Perhaps the hole point of the movie is that Len is such a hopeless loser that he doesn’t know the answer to that question himself.

In case we’re not depressed enough already we get to meet Len’s father, a broken-down alcoholic loser who ruined his wife’s life. I guess we’re expected to see the old man as a glimpse of Len twenty years down the track.

Although the subject matter is adultery this is definitely not an exploitation movie. There’s no nudity. Well, Joy does get a nude scene but it’s shot in total darkness to make sure that British cinema-goers were not exposed to the horrors of the sight of a naked woman. The sex scenes would get a G rating today.

One major problem is that there’s no sexual heat at all in the Len-Val relationship. We just don’t buy the idea that they’re motivated by sexual obsession but there’s absolutely nothing else to their relationship and there’s no romantic fire either so it all seems a bit mysterious. Perhaps, given Val’s age, it was felt that the sex angle needed to be downplayed but it’s downplayed so much that the movie seems a bit pointless.

The BFI DVD/Blu-Ray combo offers a reasonable but far from stunning transfer.

All the Right Noises is, like the lives of the characters it portrays, a rather disappointing and depressing experience.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Man Between (1953)

Carol Reed’s 1953 thriller The Man Between is sometimes seen as a kind of companion piece to his earlier masterpiece The Third Man, with both films dealing with war-torn central European cities and the aftermath of the war. It won’t do to push the comparison too far however. Carol Reed was not the man to make the same film twice. James Mason (who’d given a fine performance for Reed in Odd Man Out) stars.

Susanne (played by a very young Claire Bloom) arrives in Berlin to stay for a few days with her brother Martin, a British officer, and Martin’s wife Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Martin and Bettina live in a large house surrounded by rubble, not far from the frontier with the Eastern Sector. Bettina is obviously very ill at ease and she seems to be hiding something. Martin seems completely oblivious to this. Susanne however has certainly noticed.

Reed starts building the suspense right from the start. Nothing has actually happened but we feel certain that something mysterious and dangerous is going on and the fact that we have no idea what it might be makes it all the more unsettling.

Susanne meets Bettina’s friend Ivo (James Mason). Ivo is German, an East Berliner who spends much of his time in the British and American sectors (travel between the western and eastern sectors being no particular difficulty in 1953). Ivo is charming but there’s an edge to his charm, and he’s clearly a man who is involved in activities of a slightly questionable nature. Is he a Harry Lime character, essentially a crook? Or is he political? Both explanations seem plausible. If he’s political, where do his loyalties lie?

And who is the small boy on the bicycle who keeps popping up everywhere in a rather furtive manner?

Susanne hears Ivo and Bettina arguing frequently but since Susanne speaks no German she has no idea what they are arguing about. Ivo tells Susanne that he and Bettina have been having a bit of a romantic dalliance but that he intends to put an end to it before it becomes serious. Susanne is innocent but not quite innocent enough to be convinced by that story.

Ivo is certainly involved in something political but that does not imply that he has any political loyalties or convictions. Perhaps he does. Perhaps he simply sees opportunities.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because I think it’s better for Ivo’s actions to remain mysterious and for the viewer to put the pieces together gradually the way Susanne does. Suffice to say that the core of the movie is a series of extended chase scenes in East Berlin as circumstances continually thwart every attempt to escape from the eastern sector.

James Mason is excellent as always. He really makes us work trying to figure out what makes Ivo tick. We don’t know whether or not to like Ivo, whether or not to trust him, whether or not to approve of him. It’s the sort of ambiguous rôle Mason always played supremely well.

Hildegard Knef, a very fine actress, plays Bettina as a woman who is just as ambiguous as Ivo. She’s a sympathetic character but we’re not sure we can trust her and we’re definitely not sure that Susanne should trust her. Berlin is a complicated place (just as Vienna was a complicated place in The Third Man) and one needs to be careful and flexible in order to survive. Getting into trouble is very easy.

Claire Bloom is very good as the naïve but far from stupid Susanne. She and Mason certainly have the right chemistry.

Carol Reed directs this movie is a less flamboyant manner than The Third Man but there’s still plenty of style and plenty of beautifully framed shots. And yes, there are plenty of tilted camera angles. The suspense builds and builds as the two escapees find one escape route after another closed off to them. I don’t think any other director could have improved on these sequences. Despite the brilliance of the chase sequences this is also very much a love story and it’s a love complicated by questions of loyalty and betrayal, and deception.

The problem for Reed at this stage of his career is that he’d made three masterpieces in a vey short space of time - Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. People expected his subsequent movies to be masterpieces as well. The Man Between is a fine film but it’s not quite a masterpiece and as such it has been somewhat dismissed. The fact that it sounded superficially similar to The Third Man only made things worse. The setting is similar and Berlin is used just as effectively as a backdrop as Vienna in The Third Man (with some great location shooting) but it’s not The Third Man. The Man Between can stand up very well on its own merits and needs to be judged as such.

Kino Lorber’s DVD offers an excellent transfer. There are numerous extras including an audio commentary.

The Man Between is a taut tense Cold War spy thriller combined with a troubled love story. It’s not top-tier Carol Reed but those chase sequences and the performances of Mason and Bloom are enough to earn it a highly recommended rating.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Downfall (1964)

Downfall is a 1964 British crime potboiler, one of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films. It was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey from a script by Robert Banks Stewart.

Driving instructor Martin Somers (T.P. McKenna) has just been cleared of a murder charge, largely due to the brilliance of barrister Sir Harold Crossley (Maurice Denham). His acquittal might also have partly due to the fact that Somers is very much a ladies’ man and that women (including women jurors) seem to find him irresistible.

The inspector in charge of the case (Inspector Royd) and the psychiatrist called by the prosecution are horrified. They are convinced that Somers is a homicidal maniac. Somers had been accused of murdering a woman and they fear he will kill again.

Sir Harold has woman troubles. He has a wife named Suzanne. A young, glamorous, sexy wife who is not at all faithful to him and no longer bothers to hide her love affairs. There’s nothing Sir Harold can do. He can’t divorce her. Not only would it be a scandal that would damage his career, it would be humiliating. People would say that he’d been a fool to marry her. The situation is intolerable but he’s trapped.

But perhaps there is a way out.

Sir Harold decides to employ a chauffeur/valet and he decides that Martin Somers would be ideal for the job. Apart from chauffeuring Sir Harold Somers could also drive Lady Crossley around (she doesn’t have a driver’s licence).

Sir Harold thinks that putting his young wife, with her voracious appetite for men, together with the womanising Somers could produce interesting results that might be to his advantage.

It’s not difficult to deduce that Sir Harold is up to something devilish but the nice thing about this movie is that it’s not so easy to anticipate exactly what the results will be. Especially given that we have no idea whether Somers really did commit that murder or not. There’s going to be a game involving three players but only one of them knows exactly what the game is and there’s no certainty that he can control the game once he’s set it in motion.

There’s also a subplot involving Sir Harold’s attractive female junior counsel and that subplot will eventually connect to the main plot in a rather neat way.

This is a good example of a movie that takes a setup that has nothing dazzlingly original about but still manages to keep us guessing as to exactly how it will play out. We expect plot twists at the end but there are several ways the story could be resolved and we can’t predict which way it will go. It also very effectively keeps us guessing about Somers right till the end. Sometimes he behaves in a way that makes us think he’s a killer and sometimes he behaves exactly the way an ordinary innocent man would behave.

This movie benefits from fine performances by the three leads. Maurice Denham plays Sir Harold as a wily old fox who expects to win in the courtroom, and expects to win everywhere else as well. A barrister has to be a little flexible in his moral principles and that’s certainly true of Sir Harold.

T.P. McKenna is as magnetic as always and gives a superbly ambiguous performance.

Yugoslav-born Nadja Regin oozes glamour and sex as Suzanne Crossley.

With B-movies rapidly becoming a thing of the past in the early 60s director John Llewellyn Moxey and writer Robert Banks Stewart both made the inevitable move into television where they enjoyed considerable success.

Downfall is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume 6 boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent (like all the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films it’s in black-and-white and widescreen).

Downfall is a thoroughly enjoyable little low-key mystery thriller that works very neatly indeed. Definitely highly recommended.

Friday, June 3, 2022

A Woman's Vengeance (1948)

A Woman's Vengeance was adapted for the screen by Aldous Huxley from his own short story The Gioconda Smile (which he later turned into a successful stage play). The movie, directed by Zoltan Korda, was released by Universal International in 1948.

Henry Maurier (Charles Boyer) is married, and very unhappily. His wife Emily (Rachel Kempson) is an invalid who claims that the only thing that keeps her alive is her joy in making her husband’s life a misery.

Janet Spence (Jessica Tandy) is a friend of the family although it’s fairly obvious that there was at some stage some kind of romantic attachment between Emily and Henry. We surmise that Janet is still in love with Henry.

Henry has a charming young mistress, Doris Mead (Ann Blyth).

Unfortunately he also has a brother-in-law, Robert Lester (Hugh French). Robert is a worthless layabout and sponger who lives off his sister, Emily Maurier. Even more unfortunately Robert finds out about Henry’s little affair with Doris and turns to blackmail.

Emily dies of a heart attack, which given her state of health is not all that great a shock.

Then we get an amazingly impressive scene, played out in a darkened room with an electrical storm raging outside the window. Janet is exultant. She assumes that Henry shares her joy. After all they can now be married. At which point Henry drops a bombshell. He’s just come back from Cornwall where he married Doris.

Then Emily’s nurse goes to the police, accusing Henry of murdering his wife. Unfortunately there’s a mountain of circumstantial evidence against him and he is charged with the murder. We don’t believe for one moment that he did it and in fact I think it’s a certainty that the viewer will have figured out the identity of the actual murderer. I’m not going to reveal it of course but I suspect that both Huxley and Korda assume that the viewer knows who the murderer is. In fact I’m sure that they want us to know since that knowledge adds a delightfully twisted edge to what follows.

Huxley and Korda are not really interested in the mystery plot. What interests them is the psychological drama, the suspense as time is running out for Henry, and some philosophical musings about life and death and accepting reality. Huxley was no crime writer, this is in fact his only crime story and I don’t think he ever had visions of becoming a master of the art of detective story writing.

He was however a penetrating student of human psychology and the movie works a treat as a psychological thriller.

Korda, having given us that magnificent declaration of unrequited love in a storm scene earlier will later offer us another equally impressive visual tour-de-force, the extraordinary prison visit scene.

Charles Boyer is very solid here, Ann Blyth is good and Cedric Hardwicke as the family doctor who is convinced of Henry’s innocence is excellent. But this movie belongs to Jessica Tandy. It’s a powerhouse performance of emotional intensity and emotional derangement.

Universal’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but offers an excellent transfer (the movie is in black-and-white and in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio) of a movie that had slipped into undeserved obscurity.

If you approach A Woman's Vengeance as a psychological study of revenge, guilt, love and death rather than as a mystery you’ll find it extremely rewarding. Don’t worry about the plot, just sit back and enjoy the very impressive visuals and that incredible performance by Jessica Tandy. An unconventional crime film but still highly recommended.

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Flame of Araby (1951)

The Flame of Araby is a 1951 swashbuckler from Universal starring Maureen O’Hara and Jeff Chandler. It’s pretty much a stock-standard representative of that genre but that’s no bad thing. Even the second-tier Hollywood swashbucklers of that era were usually decent entertainment. This one definitely is second-tier but it’s competently executed.

Jeff Chandler is Tamerlane, a Bedouin horse trader who has become obsessed by the idea of capturing a mighty black stallion that is leading a herd of wild horses. He almost succeeds but a woman on horseback gets in the way. Tamerlane is annoyed and gives her bottom a good spanking. This was actually a risky thing to do since the woman turns out to be the Princess Tanya. Princesses have been known to have men’s heads removed from their shoulders for subjecting them to such indignities. On the other hand if the stranger is well-built and good-looking then sometimes princesses don’t mind having their bottoms spanked. Princess Tanya doesn’t seem to mind at all.

Tamerlane and his sidekick are on their way to Tunis to sell a valuable mare. Princess Tanya soon discovers that she has big problems to face (much bigger problems than being spanked by a handsome Bedouin), Her father, the King of Tunis, has been suddenly taken ill and is dying. The King suspects that he has been poisoned.

The King makes his brother and heir Prince Medina promise to look after Princess Tanya but we know this is not going to happen because we only need one look at Medina to know he’s a bad ’un. Our fears prove to be well-founded. Medina intends to give Tanya in marriage to one of the very unpleasant cut-throat Barbarossa corsair lords of whom he is rather afraid. Medina is a villain motivated more by cowardice than ambition.

Tamerlane immediately gets on the wrong side of the pirates when he kills one of them in a quarrel over a wench. He didn’t even particularly want the wench in question. Now the pirates are after him.

Tanya is trying to find a way of getting out of the marriage Medina is planning for her. She will have to choose one of the two Barbarossa brothers and she’s horrified by the thought either way. Her plan is to tell them she’ll marry whichever of them wins a horse race. That’s a foolish plan since Barbarossa brothers own the two swiftest horses in the kingdom but Tanya is not a fool and there’s a bit more to her plan. The important thing is to persuade the brothers to accept her proposal, and they do accept.

From very early on you can predict everything that is going to happen in this movie. The script by Gerald Drayson Adams contains no surprises. That’s not necessarily a huge problem. A predictable plot well executed can make for a very entertaining swashbuckler. And this one is fairly well executed (technically at least) by director Charles Lamont.

If Tamerlane captures that stallion he’s going to have to tame it. And if he captures Princess Tanya he’s going to have to tame her as well. Of course it’s possible that she has plans to tame him, but she won’t want to tame him too much. Winning her will be a test of his manhood and Tanya clearly likes her men to be bold and masculine. That’s really what the entire story comes down to.

The biggest problem is that there’s a certain lack of spectacle. There is some spectacle but not quite enough. Mostly the movie looks like a B western. It looks like a handsome B western, not surprising with Russell Metty doing the cinematography. There’s perhaps also not quite enough action.

Maureen O’Hara was always solid in roles such as this, as long as you can accept an Irish redhead as an Arab princess. Jeff Chandler is an adequate hero.

You might think I became a bit obsessed by the spanking scene but in fact it’s the movie that is obsessed with it. It’s referred to over and over again throughout the movie. You could say it’s the core of the movie because that’s the point at which Tanya realises that Tamerlane is her kind of man, and he realises that she is his kind of woman. This is a very politically incorrect movie.

The Universal Vault Series DVD is fullframe which is quite correct.

I have a few problems with this movie. It’s really just a western rather than a swashbuckler and it lacks visual inspiration. It just isn’t in the same league as other similar swashbucklers of its era such as The Golden Blade or the excellent The Desert Hawk.

Maybe worth a rental if you’re a keen Maureen O’Hara fan.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Face of a Stranger (1964)

Face of a Stranger is another of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace thrillers of which I’m so very fond.

Vince (Jeremy Kemp) and Johnny Bell (Philip Locke) are cell-mates in prison. They’re both due to be released in a few days. Then there’s a spot of bother regarding a knife and Johnny has to serve an extra three months. He’s very upset because he’s anxious to get back to his wife Mary (Rosemary Leach). While he’s been in prison Mary has gone blind. He’s been able to write letters to her, since a helpful local gamekeeper reads them for her. For some reason Johnny imagines the gamekeeper to be a kindly elderly man.

Mary has rented a little cottage in the country and has been making a home for Johnny to return to. What with going blind and all that Johnny is worried she won’t cope with having to wait an extra three months to see him. So he hits on a bright idea. When Vince is released he can go and see her, to explain things. That will make things easier for her.

Now you might think that asking another man to visit your wife while you’re in prison is not a very smart thing to do, but if Johnny was smart he wouldn’t have ended up in prison, would he? 

Vince has also been looking forward to seeing his wife again. Unfortunately he doesn’t get a very friendly reception from her, and he gets an even less friendly reception from her live-in lover. Vince, rather miffed, sets off for Mary Bell’s little cottage. Mary is a bit too excited by the prospect of her husband’s return and when she hears Vince’s footsteps she runs out into the road, in front of an oncoming car. Vince makes a desperate effort to save her.

And he does save her. Vince is slightly injured and knocked unconscious but Mary looks after him. So it all ends happily. Well, not quite.

When Vince recovers consciousness he’s rather surprised by the warmth and affection that Mary displays towards him. Especially by the big kiss he gets. Then he realises what is going on. Mary thinks that he is Johnny.

Now at this point you might have a bit of a suspension of disbelief problem here. Johnny and Mary were only married for a short time before he went to prison but even so it’s a bit hard to believe that a woman can’t recognise that this man’s voice isn’t her husband’s. You have to wonder what sort of marriage they had. And after a few weeks, during which time they have been living as husband and wife, she still hasn’t figured out that this man is not her husband.

Of course while Vince is enjoying married life with Mary there are eventually going to be difficulties. Johnny will be out of prison in a couple of months. He and Vince were good pals but when he finds out that Vince has been sharing his wife’s bed he might not be terribly impressed. There’s also the question of the money. The money from the robbery Johnny committed that got him sent to prison. Johnny has it stashed away. Maybe Mary knows where it is.

And then there’s the gamekeeper problem.

There’s going to have to be a twist of course, and while it’s maybe not a totally surprising twist it’s very well executed.

You don’t want to think too hard about the plot of this one because if you do you’ll find some holes, or at least you’ll find a couple of things that maybe aren’t explained entirely convincingly. But if it’s a well-made little movie and for the most part the plot hangs together.

The most interesting thing about it is the ambiguity about Vince’s motivations. Does he want Johnny’s money or does he want Johnny’s wife? Is he falling in love with Mary?

The focus is mostly on Vince and Mary and that means that the performances of Jeremy Kemp and Rosemary Leach are crucial, and they both have slightly tricky roles to play. Their performances work pretty well.

Like most of the directors of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace flicks John Llewellyn Moxey spent most of his career in television. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the job he does here although there’s nothing fantastically inspired about it either. Jimmy Sangster wrote the screenplay.

If you can get over the suspension of disbelief problem mentioned earlier Face of a Stranger is a pretty enjoyable little movie. Recommended.