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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Baby Love (1969)

Baby Love, released in 1969, is an overheated domestic melodrama which is notable mostly for the extraordinary debut performance by 16-year-old Linda Hayden. It’s a performance that could fairly be described as explosive.

Luci Thompson is a poor working-class 15-year-old girl until her mother Liz (played by the great Diana Dors) commits suicide. Liz’s last action is to send a letter to wealthy London doctor Robert (Keith Barron) asking him to take care of Luci. Robert and his wife Amy agree.

The big question is, why? It’s clear that Robert and Liz Thompson had a history, and that that history was both murky and messy. Robert had been in love with Liz. But he left her. We suspect that there’s a possibility that Liz was a woman who played the field. We also suspect that there’s a possibility that Liz was a prostitute. Whatever the reason, Robert had left her. But they kept in touch. Another possibility that will of course occur to the viewer is that Robert is Luci’s father, or that he suspects that there’s a chance that he’s Luci’s father.

Having moved from a working class slum into Robert and Amy’s luxurious London home Luci is a fish out of water. She has no idea how to behave in an upper middle class environment. An added complication is that, whatever her mother’s faults may have been, Luci did love her and she’s having trouble dealing with her bereavement. A further complication. Robert and Amy have a son named Nick. He’s a bit older than Luci, he’s as girl-crazy as any normal teenaged boy and he’s almost certainly a virgin.

There’s a final complication - the marriage between Robert and Amy is very very tense indeed. There’s a scene of Robert and Amy in bed together. It’s a bed so big that two people could share it without ever coming within six feet of each other. And they seem to be putting as much distance as they can between them. There’s a pretty strong implication that Robert and Amy may have an unsatisfactory, or possibly non-existent, sex life.

It’s an explosive situation and it’s not long before Luci lights the fuse.

She teases and flirts with Nick, with Robert, with Amy, with Robert’s friends and with random strangers. If teasing and flirting don’t work she’s prepared to take more drastic steps. She doesn’t have a clear game plan, she just improvises, which makes her more dangerous.

What helps the film a great deal is that Luci is a complex character. She’s both victim and schemer. Her sexuality is starting to bloom and she has no idea how to handle this without leaving a trail of devastation behind her. She’s frightened and vulnerable, and she’s a teenage sexpot who knows how to use sex to start emotional wildfires but doesn’t know how to keep those wildfires under control once she’s started them.

Linda Hayden is simply superb, giving a performance that is astonishingly ambiguous (not easy for a 16-year-old actress in her first major rôle). Luci is playing dangerous games and she’s doing so consciously but given the awfulness of her life she really doesn’t know how else to survive. She’s aware that sex is the only weapon she’s got and she doesn’t have much choice other than to use it, but it’s not a weapon she can control. She’s playing games that she’s not emotionally equipped for.

Robert is complex as well. He’s very tightly wrapped. We feel that he behaved badly towards Luci’s mother but we also feel that he may have had what seemed to him at the time to be valid reasons for doing so. And at that time of his involvement with Liz Thompson he was obviously very young. In his own way he’s trying to put things right, but he’s also essentially selfish. He’s not a very sympathetic character but he is interesting and tortured.

Amy has some depth as well. Her marriage was probably a mistake. She likes Luci and genuinely wants to help her although her motivations may have something to do with the fact that she believes her husband had behaved badly.

It’s the fact that we can’t make definitive moral judgments on the characters that makes the film so interesting. They’re not fully in control of their own actions once Luci has caught her sexual spell over them, and they’re victims of their own past mistakes.

It sounds like a recipe for a sleazy exploitation movie but that’s not how it plays out. It takes its subject matter seriously and approaches it with sensitivity. On the other hand the exploitation elements are certainly there. This was 1969, a time when the boundary between exploitation cinema and serious cinema was being systematically undermined. In 1969 you could make a movie that was part exploitation potboiler, part serious emotional drama and even part sex comedy.

The mix works surprisingly well, with some fine comic scenes (such as Luci creating havoc in a dress shop) putting us off our guard and then we get some searing emotional drama and the it will switch again to almost unbearable sexual tension.

The film was very controversial (and very successful) at the time. Today it simply couldn’t get made.

Despite it’s incredibly lurid subject matter and a fair amount of nudity it doesn’t feel anywhere near as sleazy as you’d expect. It is a film about sex and by 1969 even British film-makers were realising that if you wanted to make an intelligent movie about sex you couldn’t pull your punches too much. The sexual heat in the movie is not gratuitous - it’s the core of the movie.

Network’s DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer.

Baby Love is very provocative and it will shock modern viewers (who are not accustomed to sex being tackled intelligently and honestly) even more than it shocked viewers at the time but it’s a very effective and very good film. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Belle de Jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel, born in Spain, was the most notable of all surrealist film directors. Belle de Jour, released in 1967, is his most famous (and most commercially successful) movie.

Right from the start Buñuel has us wondering what on earth is going on and where this is all going to lead. We see a young couple in a carriage. The wife says something to upset the husband so he has her tied to a tree and flogged and then tells the coachman that he can do what he likes to her.

Then suddenly we see the young couple in bed together. The opening sequence was apparently just one of her sexual fantasies. OK, some people do have crazy sexual fantasies, there’s nothing startling in that idea. Then the wife seems to be getting amorous, but then she refuses to sleep with her husband. This girl obviously has a few sexual issues.

The woman is Séverine (Cathereine Deneuve). Her husband is Pierre (Jean Sorel, a successful surgeon. He obviously realises that she has some issues and he’s very patient with her.

Séverine decides to get herself a part-time job, working in an up-market brothel. She will only work afternoons so she is given the professional name Belle de Jour (Beauty of the Day). She’s nervous at first, especially when she discovers that some of her clients have certain kinks.

Working at the brothel introduces her to a street thug named Marcel, and her relationship with him is complex. It all leads to a dramatic conclusion.

Or does it? How sure can we be that any of this is real? Buñuel throws in fantasy sequences and flashbacks with no indication at all that suddenly we’re seeing one of Séverine’s fantasies or a scene from her memories. Of course her memories may or may not be true - they may be fantasies as well. We’re really not sure how much of this movie is real. Buñuel puts us into a constant state of uncertainty. There are really only two scenes which can be absolutely sure are fantasies. There are other scenes which leave us in a state of total uncertainty. We’re dealing with both the conscious and the unconscious and the unconscious may not necessarily be less real than the conscious.

It’s possible that the entire movie is one of Séverine’s fantasies. It’s possible that most of it is real. It’s possible that it’s a mixture of reality and fantasy. We have no way of knowing where reality ends and Séverine’s dreams begin. The ending gives us an answer, or maybe it doesn’t. We still can’t be sure.

Catherine Deneuve has always been good at playing odd and/or disturbing women. It’s something she does with a lot of subtlety. She doesn’t resort to histrionics, she just manages to make us feel very unsettled.

While some viewers might be tempted to read political meanings into this film I don’t think it’s a political film at all. The movie’s takes on all issues are too complex for straightforward political interpretations. Buñuel had been very left-wing in his youth but seems to have become politically ambivalent and even disinterested as he got older. This is certainly not an anti-feminist film and there’s not a trace of misogyny here but at the same time you’d have trouble seeing it as a straightforward feminist film. I think it’s futile enough to view it as a political film in a 1967 context and even more futile to try to analyse it through the lens of 21st century political obsessions.

Buñuel has some fun at the expense of the bourgeoisie but the bourgeois characters are not shown as being evil. Séverine is very bourgeois but she’s basically a sympathetic heroine. Pierre is even more bourgeois and he’s a really nice guy. Husson seems sinister at first but actually he’s ambiguous. And the nastiest character in the movie is the working-class thug Marcel. Buñuel was interested in religion but his attitude towards Catholicism (he was raised by the Jesuits) seems ambivalent. It’s not an angry movie (as all political movies are). It’s playful and amused.

It’s also not a morality play. Séverine has some sexual kinks but I don’t think the movie is telling us that she needs to give them up. Maybe she just needs to accept her nature. Séverine feels shame and guilt about being a prostitute but the movie actually doesn’t suggest there’s anything wrong with prostitution. Madame Anaïs’s brothel is a very pleasant place to work. The two most psychologically healthy characters in the movie are the two whores Mathilde and Charlotte. They’re cheerful, likeable and generally rather sweet. Madame Anaïs hires girls who enjoy their work and we get the impression that Mathilde and Charlotte really do enjoy their profession.

We also get the impression that working in a brothel is actually good for Séverine. She seems to be more relaxed, more in touch with her emotions and she even starts to thaw sexually.

Pierre’s friend Husson has chosen a life of immorality. He feels shame and remorse, and that makes his immorality much more pleasurable. For Husson it’s a formula that works.

Buñuel’s view of sadomasochism is also surprisingly nuanced. Séverine’s second customer is a masochist. He enjoys being beaten and humiliated by Charlotte, but he also insists on being in absolute control of the sexual encounter with her. Buñuel understands, as most people don’t, that in this case the masochistic partner actually calls the shots. This seems to apply to Séverine as well. She enjoys the idea of being dominated and whipped but in a relationship she wants to keep total control. When she encounters the thuggish Marcel she is clearly very sexually excited by him but she resists all his efforts to take control.

Belle de Jour is subtle surrealism. We don’t really know where the realism stops and the surrealism begins, or whether there’s any reality at all in the movie.

Belle de Jour is the kind of movie that you watch once and you think you’ve figured out what’s going on, then you watch it again and you decide that you have to rethink your interpretation completely. A fascinating brilliant movie, very highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Suspect (1944)

The Suspect is a romantic/crime melodrama with film noir overtones directed by Robert Siodmak for Universal in 1944.

It is London in 1902. Philip (Charles Laughton) is a middle-aged man who runs a very exclusive tobacconist’s shop. It’s actually a very sizeable concern catering to the gentry and Charles is decidedly prosperous. He’s also very unhappily married. His wife Cora has made his life and their son’s life a misery. There is no love in Philip’s life.

Then a very pretty young lady named Mary (Ella Raines) walks into his shop looking for a job. He has no job to offer her but shortly afterwards he passes her in the street. She is crying. We have already seen evidence that Philip is in fact a genuinely very kind man. He’s not the sort of man who can remain unmoved by a woman’s tears. He decides, correctly, that she has a problem that she needs to talk about. He takes her for a meal.

Pretty soon Philip and Mary are seeing each other regularly. They might seem mismatched but Philip is charming and gentle and Mary is a delightful and very sweet young woman. Their relationship is entirely innocent. They’re just two lonely people who find comfort in each other’s company. Of course their relationship might not seem so innocent to others.

And it’s fairly clear that love is starting to bloom. They really are perfectly suited and could very easily make each other very happy. In other circumstances it’s clear they would soon marry. But Philip is already married. And there is no way his wife is going to give him a divorce. In fact if she finds out about Mary there won’t be any point in trying to explain to her that the relationship is really quite innocent. Cora will do her best to destroy her husband and the girl he loves. And of course the relationship between Philip and Mary really is more than friendship.

If only Philip didn’t have a wife.

I think you can guess what’s going to happen next but it’s left just a little ambiguous. Maybe his wife’s fatal accident really was an accident. We cannot be entirely sure.

The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of accidental death. Inspector Huxley is not entirely satisfied. There’s no evidence at all to suggest murder but policemen have very suspicious minds.

The circumstances are sufficiently ambiguous to leave Philip open to blackmail, and when you’re vulnerable to blackmail then you can be pretty sure that a blackmailer will arrive on the scene.

Obviously there’s nothing startlingly original about the plot. It’s one of those cases in which the thing that matters is how well a rather hackneyed idea can be executed. Robert Siodmak can of course be relied upon to execute it very well indeed. This is the sort of thing at which he excelled.

Much also depends on the acting. Charles Laughton is superb. He makes Philip a very sympathetic character indeed. Philip is a truly kind man. When he says that he has never had any desire to hurt anyone we know he is telling the truth. And yet he may have killed his wife. And while Philip appears to be gentle and passive we get the feeling that there is more to him than that. He’s the sort of man who might well stop being passive if backed into a corner, or if he felt that the woman he loved might be in danger. There’s the suggestion of a strong will deeply hidden. Philip is kind and gentle because he’s always been able to be kind and gentle. That doesn’t mean he is as weak as he appears to be. Laughton gets the chance here to show that he can give a great performance that is also extremely low-key and subtle.

Ella Raines is delightful as well. Mary starts out being vulnerable and perhaps just a bit mousy but when she finds love the real Mary appears - a bright, vivacious high-spirited young woman.

Charles Laughton and Ella Raines seem an unlikely romantic pairing and it’s essential to the film’s success that we buy the idea that these two really are head-over-heels in love. And we do buy it, largely because Ella Raines does such a fine job of conveying to us what it is that motivates Mary. She is not just a woman who craves love. She desperately craves kindness and understanding. If a man shows her that kindness and understanding she is going to fall for him, even if he’s middle-aged, overweight and not good-looking. It’s also highly likely that she sees him as a father figure - a man she can trust and rely on completely. We really do believe that this is the sort of man she wants and needs. And Philip undeniably has charm as well.

Special mention must be made of Henry Daniell’s delicious performance as the blackmailer.

Is it film noir? Does it fit into the period noir sub-genre? I think you can make a fairly strong case that it does. It certainly has plenty of noir visual style. Being a Universal production you could even argue that the visual style is gothic noir.

Kino Lorber’s DVD (they’ve released it on Blu-Ray as well) looks great and there’s an audio commentary by Troy Howarth.

A good tight script, excellent performances especially from Charles Laughton and Ella Raines, stylish direction by Siodmak and lots of shadows and moody black-and-white cinematography - it all adds up to a very very satisfying movie indeed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Spinout (1966)

Spinout, released in 1966, isn’t one of Elvis Presley’s most highly regarded movies and it is pretty lightweight. But lightweight isn’t necessarily bad, as we will see.

Mike McCoy (Elvis) races cars and sings rock’n’roll and does both fairly successfully. His life starts to get complicated when a beautiful girl causes him to run off the road. Then rich businessman Howard Foxhugh (Carl Betz) starts to use his money and influence to try to force Mike to do things he doesn’t want to do. Fitzhugh wants him to drive his new racing car and he wants him to sing at his daughter Cynthia’s birthday party.

Now it’s not that Mike has any real objection to driving new racing cars and singing for girls on their birthdays. But Mike is a free spirit. He only does things when he wants to do them. He hates being pushed around. He’s terrified of the prospect of living a conventional life and accepting responsibility. He’s particularly terrified of the idea of marriage.

There’s obviously going to be a battle of will between Mike and Fitzhugh and Fitzhugh’s daughter Cynthia is going to be involved as well. Cynthia by the way was the girl who caused him to crash his car.

Mike has another problem. He’s being stalked by crazy writer Diana St Clair. She writes books about snaring the perfect man and she’s decided that Mike would be absolutely the perfect husband. In fact he’d be the perfect husband for her.

Cynthia Foxhugh and Diana St Clair are not the only women making his life complicated. His cute but ditzy girl drummer Les (Deborah Walley) is hopelessly in love with him.

Fitzhugh and his daughter come up with all sorts of schemes to manipulate Mike. The romantic complications escalate. And there’s the big road race coming up.

There’s nothing more than that to the plot but the script has plenty of zing.

This is very much a feelgood movie. It has lots of songs (which are mostly quite good), it has cars, it has girls. Lots and lots of girls. There’s a bit of race car action, there’s romance and there’s humour. This is a genuinely funny movie and it’s funny in a way that is both witty and good-natured. The characters are a fine collection of eccentrics, and they’re likeable. Even Fitzhugh, who at first seems like he might be a villain, turns out to be a pretty nice guy.

The acting is excellent. The three main female characters, all determined to marry Mike, are all totally different women with sharply defined personalities which gives the actresses (Shelley Fabares as Cynthia, Diane McBain as Diana St Clair and Deborah Walley as Les) something to work with and they make the most of it. The supporting cast is good.

Elvis is in fine form, breezing through the picture with effortless charm and charisma and with a good script to help him he manages to be quite amusing.

Norman Taurog directed no less than nine of Elvis’s films and in this one he keeps things brisk and snappy. Theodore J. Flicker and George Kirgo wrote the screenplay. A year later Flicker would write and direct the superlative spy spoof/satire The President’s Analyst.

The Warner Brothers Region 4 DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. There are no extras.

Spinout might be lightweight but it has every ingredient you could ask for in a light-hearted Elvis Presley romantic comedy, and every one of those ingredients works. It’s a must-see for Elvis fans and even if you’re not particularly an Elvis fan you might well find yourself thoroughly enjoying this picture. Maybe it’s not quite as good as Viva Las Vegas but it’s still very very good. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Never Mention Murder (1965)

Never Mention Murder is another competent entry in the British Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace cycle. It was released in 1965.

Heart surgeon Philip Teasdale (Dudley Foster) hires sleazy private investigator Felix Carstairs (Brian Haines) to follow his wife Liz (Maxine Audley). Teasdale suspects she’s having an affair, and he’s right. What puzzles Carstairs is that once he’s discovered the affair Teasdale dismisses him from the case even though he hasn’t yet gathered enough evidence to justify divorce proceedings. This is a little odd and Carstairs notices odd things. You never know when odd pieces of information might be useful, or even profitable.

Liz Teasdale is having an affair with Tony Sorbo (Michael Coles). Tony and his wife Zita (Pauline Yates) do a mind-reading act at a local hotel.

The audience will soon figure out what’s coming next. If Teasdale doesn’t want a divorce he might well be intending murder. As a betrayed husband he obviously has a motive. Teasdale in fact has come up with a very clever plan which is almost fool-proof. It’s the cleverness of his plan that is the highlight of the movie.

The only problem is that the sleazy private detective is still hanging around and has been doing some thinking. He has a devious mind and he has an idea that could net him a nice little income.

Dudley Foster’s ice-cold but intense performance is another highlight. Teasdale shows no outward emotion but Foster has no trouble convincing us that he’s actually in the grip of a very tightly controlled murderous rage.

The other cast members are extremely good with Brian Haines being delightfully oily as Carstairs.

This is a movie in which the howdunit element predominates. The whodunit part is clear from the start. It’s also a fairly effective little suspenser.

Writer Robert Banks Stewart went on to a very distinguished career in television.

This appears to be director John Nelson-Burton’s only feature film credit. As is the case with most of the directors and writers involved in these Edgar Wallace films his career was spent in television.

Like virtually all the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films this is a very low-budget effort but very well-crafted. There is one scene in which the low budget becomes very obvious indeed but it’s an adroit enough way to save some cash by not showing something that would have cost actual money.

This movie is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 6 boxed set. Network as usual have come up trumps with their anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in widescreen and black-and-white).

Never Mention Murder is an average entry in this cycle but the quality of these films is so consistently good that an average entry is still an entertaining little B-movie. Recommended.

Friday, May 6, 2022

King of the Underworld (1952)

King of the Underworld is a low budget 1952 British Tod Slaughter crime melodrama and for me that’s reason enough to watch the film. Tod Slaughter started his career on the stage in 1905 playing actual stage melodrama villains. He made a series of excellent horror-tinged film melodramas in the 1930s and his performances are as close as you’re ever going to get to seeing a genuine moustache-twirling Victorian melodrama villain on the screen. Tod Slaughter was the real deal.

King of the Underworld is a kind of blending of the 1930s Tod Slaughter melodramas with the typical 1950s British crime thriller. Tod Slaughter’s performance is as outrageous and over-ripe as ever, there’s some classic melodrama mood music but it has a contemporary setting and it’s a private eye thriller. But it really has nothing in common with other British crime films of its era.

Terence Reilly (Tod Slaughter) is a master blackmailer. His latest victim, Lady Sylvia Gray, has just tried to kill herself. Inspector Morley (Patrick Barr) has been trying for twenty years to put Reilly behind bars, since the day that Reilly murdered a young police constable. Reilly has given up murder these days, blackmail being safer and more profitable. Morley tries to convince Lady Sylvia to press charges but she is terrified that the letters Reilly has in his possession could destroy her husband’s diplomatic career. There is nothing Inspector Morley can do. As a policeman his hands are tied.

But now Morley is no longer a policeman. He’s quit and gone into business as a private enquiry agent (what Americans would call a private detective). Now he no longer has to worry quite so much about legal procedures. It isn’t specifically stated but it’s a fair assumption that his decision to retire from Scotland Yard was partly motivated by his desire to pursue his vendetta against Reilly.

Morley has a rather useful assistant in the person of Eileen (Tucker McGuire), also an ex-copper and a very resourceful lady.

Morley hatches a plot to trap Reilly but Reilly is a very slippery customer. And Reilly is as vengeful in his way as Morley. Both men are determined to destroy the other.

Reilly is involved in other business ventures besides blackmail. Such as kidnapping. He kidnaps a young woman named Susan. The price of her release will be an emerald, an emerald obtained in India (in a manner that was technically legal but perhaps morally dubious) by her uncle. Kidnapping seems to be a popular sideline for Reilly since he also kidnaps an eccentric scientist.

The plot is oddly episodic. There are three separate crimes and three separate investigations, with Reilly being the only common link. The first two investigations are inconclusive, in a way that might have perplexed audiences. The explanation is apparently that the movie is three episodes of a short-lived TV series cobbled together (which may also be the case for another Tod Slaughter movie released at this time, Murder at Scotland Yard).

There are touches in this movie, such as the use of disguise, that would have seemed very Victorian to a 1950s audience. And the scientist kidnapped by Reilly was working on a secret formula which could have implications for world peace. This movie really does seem very anachronistic for 1952 and Tod Slaughter’s performance is very anachronistic also. But that’s exactly what makes it so appealing. There was simply no-one else in the movie world like him. He was a total original. He may have been the hammiest actor who ever lived but it’s enormous fun to see him in full flight.

Director Victor M. Gover had a very very obscure career. He gives no indication of having any great talent but he lets Slaughter do his thing unhindered and that’s what counts.

This movie is a real obscurity but it’s readily available on DVD, being one of the nine feature films in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is a bit rough around the edges at times but on the whole it’s pretty good and perfectly watchable. The sound quality is a bit iffy at times but there’s never any problem following the dialogue.

King of the Underworld is also a real oddity. The only reason to watch it is its extraordinary star but that’s reason enough. If you enjoy melodrama and hammy acting then it’s highly recommended. If you prefer a realistic approach you’ll hate it.

I strongly urge you to check out Tod Slaughter’s gothic melodramas such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn (1935) and Never Too Late To Mend (1937).

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Impulse (1954)

Impulse is the story of Alan Curtis (Arthur Kennedy), an American real estate agent in a rural English village called Ashmore. He’s starting to feel that his life is in a rut. He decides that maybe a weekend in Paris would blow the cobwebs away. He tries to persuade his wife Elizabeth (Joy Shelton) to join him but she refuses. She wants to visit her mother instead.

While his wife is away he sees a girl in a bar. She’s the kind of girl a man would notice anyway but her slightly odd behaviour intrigues him. Two men seem to be taking a great interest in her. Later that night he passes a car broken down by the side of the road. The driver is the same girl. He can’t get her car started and it’s pouring with rain so he takes her back to his place so he can arrange to have her car towed to a garage. At the garage the two men turn up and tell him that they’re police officers.

The girl is a night-club singer named Lila (Constance Smith) and she has an explanation for being followed by the cops. She claims that the police are really after her brother. It’s not the sort of story a man would normally believe but when it’s a pretty girl telling the story then a man is going to believe every word of it. While he does believe her story he doesn’t want to get mixed up in her dramas, but she is a pretty girl so he gets mixed up in them anyway.

Alan Curtis is a very ordinary sort of guy, honest and respectable and happily married. He’s not the sort of man who has adventures with strange women, but of course when the strange woman is young and beautiful then any man can become that sort of man. And his motivations are honourable. He’s just trying to help a very charming young lady. What kind of man would refuse to help a lady in that situation?

We’ve had a glimpse of a man who seems to be up to no good. We have no idea who he is but we suspect Lila knows him. Perhaps he’s her brother, if she really has a brother. Then we encounter another sinister male character. It seems like he plays a part in Lila’s life as well.

The fact that Curtis is such a very ordinary guy who slowly gets drawn into a web of danger and deceit gives this movie a slight film noir flavour. This is strengthened by the character of Lila, who could very well turn out to be a femme fatale.

It’s also film noirish in the sense that Curtis is not entirely blameless. He behaves foolishly. Getting involved with a woman who has the police on her trail is not smart but he does it anyway. He knows that it would be a seriously bad idea to sleep with Lila but he sleeps with her anyway. His judgment is poor. Lila is clearly bad news but she’s exciting and sexy.

There’s nothing noirish about the visuals, so it’s best to regard this movie as borderline film noir.

This movie was produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman for their company Tempean Films which did a lot of interesting B-movies in the 50s. In the 60s Baker and Berman went on to much greater success in television as producers of The Saint.

American director Cy Endfield had relocated to Britain after falling afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. His most interesting British movie was Hell Drivers although his biggest hit was Zulu.

Arthur Kennedy is pretty solid in the lead role. He does the regular guy out of his depth thing well. Constance Smith is suitably enigmatic, and she’s certainly glamorous.

Impulse is included in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 2 DVD boxed set (a good value set which includes ten feature films). The transfer is very good.

Impulse is a fine well-crafted B-movie mystery with very strong hints of noir and just enough character complexity and ambiguity to keep things interesting. It’s thoroughly enjoyable. An unfairly overlooked movie. Highly recommended.