Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Killing (1956)

The film noir/heist movie The Killing was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film. That’s if you count Fear and Desire (1953). Kubrick didn’t. He didn’t want it ever to be seen again. So Kubrick would have regarded The Killing as his second real feature, following Killer’s Kiss (1955).

The Killing was based on Lionel White’s excellent noir novel Clean Break which I’ve reviewed elsewhere.

The Killing has been hailed for its innovative approach to narrative but in fact most of the innovations were already present in the novel.

For The Killing Kubrick had an extremely strong cast. Not huge stars, but very fine people perfectly cast.

This is a complex and intricate heist story. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has been serving five years in prison. Now he’s out and he plans to rob the racetrack. It can’t be done. There’s just too much security. But Johnny thinks he’s found a fool-proof way to do it. And it really is a very clever plan. There’s just one minor weakness. The plan is fiendishly complicated and relies on split-second timing. One small unexpected event could throw the plan into chaos. There’s a reason Johnny was in prison. He’s clever, but not quite as clever as he thinks he is.

Johnny has decided that it’s a mistake to use professional criminals on a job like this. They’re too easy for the police to trace. He’s using amateurs, and he can rely on them because they all want money really really bad. And this robbery could net them two million dollars. Two million dollars in 1956 was an almost inconceivably huge amount of money. Enough to finance a life of ease and luxury for everyone involved.

Cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) is a key player. He’s not a crooked cop but he’s a gambler and he’s heavily in debt. Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) will provide the money needed to set things up. Bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) will be needed for one crucial moment during the robbery, as will racetrack cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.).

George needs the money because without money his wife Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor) will leave him. Sherry is no good but George is crazy about her. He just can’t think straight where Sherry is concerned.

The robbery itself is presented to us from the viewpoint of various characters, with the narrative constantly jumping back and forth in both place and time. That’s more or less how the novel is structured but doing this in a movie in 1956 was very very daring indeed, and the way Kubrick does it seems more radical than the way it’s done in the book.

It’s this unconventional narrative that makes The Killing such an important and striking movie. This was Kubrick, still inexperienced and still in his twenties, serving notice that he was going to start breaking cinematic rules in a big way. In The Killing he manages to break the rules whilst still giving us an exciting heist movie that is perfectly coherent and easy to follow. Kubrick trusted his audience to pick up on what he was doing.

Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook Jr. give what are close to career-best performances. Hayden is very low-key because that’s the kind of guy Johnny is. He’s the kind of criminal who just loves sitting and planning crimes. Johnny should have become a crime writer instead of a criminal. The problem with real crimes is that you have to put them into execution and that’s when your ingenious plans start to go wrong. Johnny never loses his cool. Elisha Cook Jr. is all nervous energy and anxiety and thwarted love. He’s a loser but we feel sorry for him.

Jay C. Flippen is always worth watching. Marie Windsor gives us a memorable femme fatale in Sherry. She’s a schemer and a tramp and she knows it but she still manages to justify it to herself. Vincent Edwards is good as Val. I can’t tell you what part he plays in the story without revealing spoilers.

The heist itself is filmed in an intricate and methodical way as the pieces slowly slot together. We can see lots of things that might go wrong but we don’t know exactly which of those things will go awry.

Kubrick sticks very closely to White’s novel, except for the ending. I don’t think the ending was changed due to censorship problems or even studio interference. I just think Kubrick thought his ending was a bit more cinematic. The endings of both book and movie work extremely well.

Now we have to confront one of the most controversial questions in movie history - the aspect ratios of Kubrick’s movies. It’s a fiendishly complicated subject and people get very heated about it. As far as I can make out Kubrick not only shot but composed most (but not all) his movies in the 1.37:1 ratio, the old “Academy” ratio. When shown in theatres they were usually cropped to make them appear to be in widescreen ratios. Kubrick had no control over this. When it came time to release his films on DVD Kubrick made it very clear that he wanted them to be seen in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio because that was the closest to his original intentions when he made the movies. Kubrick’s wishes were respected.

When his movies started to be released on Blu-Ray his wishes were ignored and most of his movies were cropped to make them fit widescreen aspect ratios.

The Killing
seems to have been shot and composed in 1.37:1. The original DVD releases were in this format. When Criterion released the movie on Blu-Ray they ignored Kubrick’s wishes and cropped it to make it compatible with the 16:9 format. So if you buy the Criterion Blu-Ray you’re not seeing the movie the way Kubrick wanted it seen, you’re seeing it the way the folks at Criterion have decided you’re going to see it. It was presumably a commercial decision - modern audiences prefer the widescreen formats. But that’s not what Kubrick wanted and since he was the director I assume he was in the best position to judge how his movies should be presented. Watching The Killing in 1.37:1 I have to say that it looks right.

But as I said it’s a controversial topic and no-one can claim to have a definitive answer.

The Killing has plenty of film noir credentials. The various members of the gang are mostly vaguely sympathetic, but they’re losers. They’re motivated not just by greed but by wishful thinking, which to me seems very noir. They really think they’re going to get away with it, because if they don’t they’ll have to accept being losers for the rest of their lives.

A brilliant movie by a director who was already confident enough to go his own way, and skilful enough to get away with it. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

White Savage (1943)

White Savage (also released as White Captive) is included in the new three-movie Kino Lorber Maria Montez Blu-Ray set. When this movie was released Maria Montez was at the height of her popularity.

Montez, daughter of a Spanish diplomat, had a brief but spectacular Hollywood career in the mid-1940s. Her movies were mostly lightweight adventure/romances in exotic settings but they were just what the movie-going public wanted.

You have to remember that until the 1960s overseas travel was hopelessly out of the reach of most ordinary people. The only way they ever got to see exotic places was on the movie screen, and naturally they adored movies that offered them a glimpse of places they would never get to see in real life. Of course what they got to see was a Hollywood fantasy version of faraway places but audiences didn’t mind.

White Savage
takes place in a setting that is pure Hollywood. It’s a group of islands. This imaginary island chain could be in the Caribbean, in the Pacific or in the Indian Ocean. The culture is a mishmash of just about every island culture imaginable.

The islands are ruled by Princess Tahia (Montez). She does a pretty good job. Her people are happy. There are however some lies in the ointment. The first is her worthless spoilt kid brother Tamara (Turhan Bey). His gambling threatens the survival of this island paradise since he’s prepared to gamble away the deeds to the most important island.

The second threat comes from Miller (Thomas Gomez). He wants Tahia but mostly he wants what is at the bottom of the Sacred Pool on Temple Island - a fabulous treasure in gold and jewels.

Shark fisherman Kaloe (Jon Hall) has a problem as well. He wants the shark fishing rights to the waters surrounding the Temple Island and the princess refuses to grant him those rights.

He confronts the princess. Naturally (this being that sort of movie) they clash at first but there is also a strong physical attraction between them. The princess thinks Kaloe is insufferable but rather hunky. He thinks she’s arrogant and headstrong but totally gorgeous.

We know that love is going to blossom between these two but the evil machinations of Miller put some major obstacles in their way. Miller will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get that treasure.

The screenplay (by Richard Brooks) is pretty predictable but this is a fluffy feelgood movie so that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the film (shot in Technicolor) looks exquisite and has the right mixture of adventure, romance and humour.

Maria Montez was very good at playing princesses and she’s a sympathetic heroine. Her acting range was limited but movies such as this were well within her capabilities. All she really needed to do was to be beautiful, glamorous, exotic, fiery and passionate and she had no difficulty whatsoever doing just that.

Jon Hall is a fine conventional hero, perhaps a bit of a rough diamond but with a good heart. Turhan Bey does well as the wretched loser Tamara. Sabu plays Kaloe’s good-natured but occasionally exasperating young friend Orano.

Thomas Gomez is a good villain - sinister enough but not too sinister (this is a lighthearted movie). Sidney Toler plays Wong. He’s the island’s notary public, lawyer, detective and doctor and in fact performs just about every possible function. Toler plays him exactly the way he played Charlie Chan, which is OK because he was a great Charlie Chan and his performance is a delight.

Maria Montez’s movies for Universal are occasionally described as B-movies but they’re actually A-pictures, albeit modesty budgeted ones. No movie shot in Technicolor in the mid-40s can be described as a B-picture. Universal spent enough money on the film to give it a suitably lush feel. Universal knew they really couldn’t go far wrong when they teamed Maria Montez, Jon Hallo and Sabu and they teamed them frequently.

Kino Lorber have provided a superb transfer. All three movies come on a single disc which is no problem since the running times for each film are around the hour-and-quarter mark.

Movies don’t come much more lightweight than White Savage but it’s romantic and it’s fun. Great escapist fare, highly recommended.

I've reviewed other Maria Montez movies - Arabian Nights (1942) and Siren of Atlantis (1949), both of which are even better.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Ride Lonesome is a 1959 Ranown Pictures Budd Boetticher western starring Randolph Scott. As was the case with most of the Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns the script is by Burt Kennedy. It has all the ingredients you expect in a Budd Boetticher western. This was the second last of the much-admired Boetticher-Scott westerns.

Randolph Scott plays bounty hunter Ben Brigade. Brigade is a man who seems to be closed off emotionally. Eventually we will find out why. Brigade is taking Billy John (James Best) to Santa Cruz where Billy will certainly be hanged. Brigade despises he thinks Billy is a coward who shot a man in the back but there’s really nothing personal in it as far as Brigade is concerned. He’s just a bounty hunter doing his job. We will of course later find out that Brigade’s motives are not as they appear to be.

On the way to Santa Cruz they reach a swing station, a coaching post which seems to be strangely deserted. The man who runs the station is nowhere to be found. The man’s pretty young wife, Mrs Carrie Lane (Karen Steele), is there alone. And then Brigade discovers there are two men there, Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn). Brigade knows the reputation of these two men, and it’s a decidedly shady reputation. They’re career criminals but Brigade has no quarrel with them. There’s no bounty on their heads. They’re not the kinds of men that Brigade would normally choose to ride with but there’s a Mescalero war party (the Mescaleros being an Apache tribe) that looks like being major trouble. Brigade has a parley with the chief of the war party. The Mescaleros want to make a peaceful trade. If Brigade gives them Mrs Lane they will give him a fine horse in exchange.

Brigade naturally isn’t prepared to trade but reaching Santa Cruz is now going to be difficult. He’s going to need the help of Boone and Whit. He knows they can’t be trusted but he has no choice. Even when he finds out that Boone intends to kill him, he still has no choice. Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) is riding to his kid brother’s rescue. Billy John is just a cowardly hot-headed punk but Frank is a different kettle of fish. He’s a really mean vicious killer and he has a gang of cut-throats riding with him.

That’s the setup, and it’s perfect for a Boetticher western. Boone and Whit have an agenda but Brigade knows all about it. Brigade’s real agenda is however something we won’t learn about until later in the movie.

Boone decides that he wants Mrs Lane. She’s not interested. She despises both Boone and Brigade as men of blood, men who kill for money. Brigade does it legally but that doesn’t make it any better in Mrs Lane’s eyes. Brigade is going to have to protect Mrs Lane from Boone even if she isn’t likely to thank him for it.

There’s quite a bit of action and there are plenty of tense moments but of course what the movie really is is a character study of Ben Brigade, a man driven by demons from the past. Randolph Scott does well. The role needed to be handled with subtlety and that’s how Scott handles it.

Pernell Roberts and James Coburn are terrific as Boone and Whit. Roberts is particularly good. Boone is not a cardboard cut-out bad guy. There’s some complexity to the character. He doesn’t want to kill Brigade. It’s just that he has to do it. Boone is perhaps an even more interesting and complex character than Brigade. 

Whit isn’t real smart but he’s loyal to Boone, and Boone is loyal to him. They’re not very admirable characters but their friendship for each other is real which makes a nice contrast to Brigade who has no friends.

Karen Steele is good as Mrs Lane, a woman who thinks she can look after herself but maybe the world is an even more dangerous place that she’d thought.

The ending is not quite what I expected but naturally I’m not going to give you any hints about that.

Being a Budd Boetticher movie Ride Lonesome looks spectacular. Charles Lawton Jr’s cinematography is one of the movie’s major assets.

This is the third Budd Boetticher western I’ve seen and I can’t really pick a favourite. He just seemed to be so consistently good. I’ve also reviewed 7 Men From Now (1956) and Comanche Station (1960).

During the 1950s the classic Hollywood western became much more adult and more sophisticated, dealing with difficult ethical and emotional dilemmas. Ride Lonesome is typical of this trend. And it’s gripping entertainment as well. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Jackpot (1960)

Jackpot is a British crime movie cheapie from 1960. It’s not a particularly good movie but there are two reasons to watch it, which I’ll get to later.

Carl Stock (George Mikell) is a young German who served a prison sentence and was then deported from Britain. Now he’s back in London illegally and he sees himself as a man on a mission. Sam Hare (Eddie Byrne) owes him money. Carl intends to get that money. They pulled off a robbery together and Carl took the fall for it on the understanding there’d be plenty of money waiting for him when he got out of prison.

Carl also intends to get his wife back.

Unfortunately for Carl Sam Hare is now a big time operator. Sam has no intention of giving Carl a penny.

And Carl’s wife Kay (Betty McDowall) is now a successful model and she doesn’t have the slightest intention of going back to hm.

But Carl just can’t see any of this. As far as he’s concerned he’s entitled to the money so Sam will just have to pay up. And Kay is his wife so she’ll just have to take him back.

When it becomes obvious that Sam isn’t going to pay up voluntarily Carl decides to steal the money. There’s plenty of money in the safe in the Jackpot night-club (one of Sam’s business ventures). Carl decides he’ll persuade Lenny Lane (Michael Ripper) to crack the safe for him. Lenny is as hopeless as Carl. He’s gone straight and he’s doing OK and he has a moderately successful cafe but Carl talks him into the hare-brained scheme.

As you would expect, Carl and Lenny manage to make a total mess of the robbery.

They not only have the police closing in on them, they have Sam Hare’s goons after them as well. It took Sam about thirty seconds to work out that Carl was the one who robbed his safe but it never occurred to Carl that Sam would figure this out. And it never occurred to Carl that the police would very quickly latch onto him as the prime suspect.

Crooks just don’t come any dumber than Carl. He’s bungled everything he’s ever done. He’s a loser. Everyone knows he’s a loser. Everyone but Carl. Carl thinks he’s going to be a success. He’s never actually managed to come up with a workable plan for becoming a success. He thinks that because he wants it to happen it will happen.

Montgomery Tully was usually at the very least a competent director (and sometimes a pretty good one). He doesn’t really shine here. I suspect that he was shooting on an incredibly tight schedule (this is clearly a very very low-budget movie) with no time to do anything except make sure the camera was in focus. Visually this movie is pretty basic.

It’s a movie that has perhaps a very very slight noir flavour. There’s certainly a feeling of inevitable doom. This would have been more successful had Carl been made a slightly more interesting slightly more sympathetic character. But as it stands he’s just too dumb to make us care about him. And George Mikell’s performance is just too one-note.

But as I said earlier there are two reasons to watch this movie. The first is William Hartnell’s delightful performance as Superintendent Frawley. He’s wonderful. The second is Michael Ripper as the hapless Lenny. Michael Ripper is best remembered for his many appearances in Hammer horror movies. In Jackpot he gets a meatier rôle and he’s terrific.

The problem is the pedestrian script. It’s creaky and it’s sorely lacking in unexpected twists. It’s just not a terribly interesting script.

This is one of the ten movies in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 2 DVD boxed set. It’s an uneven set but it does include a couple of neglected gems such as The Third Alibi (1961) and Impulse (1954). The transfer for Jackpot is watchable but it’s not great and there’s quite a bit of print damage.

Jackpot is a very routine crime melodrama. If you buy the boxed set (and you should buy it) then it’s worth giving this movie a spin if you’re a fan of Hartnell or Ripper.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Crosstrap (1962)

Crosstrap is a 1962 British crime B-movie and it has a plot that has been used countless times. The basic plot had become a cliché twenty years before the film was made. It’s a plot that still gets used and it will go on getting used as long as movies are made.

A young couple, Geoff (Gary Cockrell) and Sally (Jill Adams), arrive at a cottage in the countryside where they’re going to spend a holiday. Sally finds a dead man in the bathroom and then this thug appears from nowhere. Then more bad guys turn up. There’s the leader of the gang, Duke (Laurence Payne), another henchman and a girl named Rina (Zena Marshall) who is clearly a Bad Girl. Not only that, she’s a Fiery Bad Girl. Geoff and Sally find themselves held as hostages by Duke’s gang.

The cottage is near a disused airfield and Duke and his gang are awaiting the arrival of an aircraft in ten hours’ time. That’s how they’re going to make their getaway with half a million pounds’ worth of stolen jewellery.

The problem for Duke’s gang is that there are now two witnesses. The smart move would obviously be to get rid of those witnesses.

So we have a very familiar setup here but Philip Wrestler’s screenplay (based on John Newton Chance’s novel The Last Seven Hours) does add a few twists. Geoff and Sally think that the dead man in the bathroom was killed by Duke’s gang. But he wasn’t. The question is, who killed him?

There’s not one gang, but two. And they’re bitter enemies.

And there are two women in the story and Duke is attracted to both of them. Rina is not likely to take kindly to the idea of Duke trying to get together with Sally. Duke’s big weakness is women. He’s cool and calculating when it comes to crime but impulsive when it comes to women.

You expect double-crosses, and yet get them, but what you also get in this story are shifting alliances and temporary alliances.

You also get non-stop action. If your idea of a fun movie is one in which hundreds of rounds of small arms ammunition get expended you’ll like this movie. In most British B-movies of this era there would be at most one shoot-out. This movie offers one extended gun battle after another. This particular corner of the pleasant English countryside starts to resemble a war zone. There are even explosions. Well, one explosion, but that’s one more than you’ll get in most British movies of this type.

It’s almost like a western, with Duke and his gang hiding out in the isolated cottage surrounded by the rival gangsters.

Every single character in the movie carries a gun at some stage, and uses it. Including both the women.

As you’d expect there’s a fairly high body count.

There’s plenty of romantic and sexual tension as well, as Duke becomes more obsessed with Sally and Rina seethes.

Laurence Payne as Duke and Zena Marshall as Rina are the standouts in the cast. Duke is also the most interesting character. He’s no mere thug, he’s smooth and sophisticated and while we’re not likely to be tempted to sympathise with him we do start to understand what makes him tick.

The other players are adequate enough, although in the case of Gary Cockrell as Geoff I’d modify that to barely adequate.

Crosstrap is included in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 2 DVD boxed set (which includes ten feature films making it excellent value). The transfer is not great on this movie but it’s OK.

This is not a great movie and it’s not even a particularly good one but in its way it’s enjoyable and exciting. It’s worth a look.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

At least five directors (including Michael Powell) worked on the 1940 British production The Thief of Bagdad but this movie is like Gone With the Wind - it’s an example of a movie made by a producer as auteur. The producer in this case being Alexander Korda, and there was no more colourful and ambitious figure in the British film industry than the Hungarian-born Korda.

This movie is of course an Arabian Nights adventure/fantasy/romance.

We start with events that offer hints of strangeness and that leave us a little uneasy. A woman from the imperial palace is talking to a man about a princess, a princess who sleeps. We get the impression that this sleep is not a natural one. The woman is Halima (Mary Morris). The man is Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) and we will soon learn that he is the Grand Vizier. Halima invites a blind beggar to accompany her to the palace.

The blind beggar tells his story in flashback. He was not always a beggar. Once he was a king. And his faithful dog was not always a dog, but a small boy and an inveterate thief. The boy’s name was Abu.

The beggar had been King Ahmad, and he ruled Bagdad. He was served by his Grand Vizier Jaffar, but he was not well served by him. Jaffar in fact was the real ruler. It was a brutal unpopular rule but the people blamed King Ahmad rather than Jaffar.

Jaffar devised a fiendish plot to get Ahmad out of the way but it was more than just a power grab. There is also a princess, the daughter of the Sultan of Basra. Ahmad and Jaffar both love the princess. The princess of course loves Ahmad. There are three magical spells at work. One spell has put the princess to sleep. She can only be awakened by the man she loves. The other spell, cast by Jaffar, robs Ahmad of his eyesight. His sight will be restored when Jaffar holds the princess in his arms. Ahmad does not want his sight restored if that will be the price. The third spell turned Abu into a dog.

This is a movie with lots of magical elements and they’re handled in an interesting way. The princess’s father, a kindly but foolish old man, loves mechanical toys. He has a huge collection of amazingly clever toys. They’re so clever you could easily mistake them for magic. Jaffar is a genuine sorcerer and his specialty is creating mechanical toys that are actually magical rather than mechanical. Such as an amazing flying horse. And a much more devious toy which he will employ in a very sinister manner.

Ahmad is determined to save the princess from a fate worse than death (marriage to Jaffar) but he’s not really sure how to go about it. He and Abu tend to blunder about, but fate lends a hand. There is a prophecy. Of course the prophecy can’t possibly have anything to do with a mere young ragamuffin of a thief like Abu, or can it? And Abu has a stroke of luck. He discovers a bottle washed up on the beach, a bottle that contains a genie. Discovering a genie can be very good luck but you have to be very very careful with genies. The genie does offer to help Abu steal the All-Seeing Eye from a gigantic statue of a goddess, and that will certainly help.

And naturally there’s a magic carpet.

This is a movie that is very special effects-driven, which was still pretty unusual in 1940. Some of the effects work superbly, others not so well, but what Korda was attempting with this movie was something very ambitious indeed, in fact more ambitious than anything done in movies up to that point. Even when the effects are a bit iffy they’re still fun.

The settings, the props, the costumes, are all spectacular. It looks like a very very expensive movie which is exactly what it was. Alexander Korda was always prepared to spend real money on his movies.

John Justin as Ahmad is the ostensible hero of the movie with June Duprez as the princess being the leading lady but in fact it’s Conrad Veidt as the villain and Sabu as the hero’s sidekick who get top billing. Which is absolutely just. The movie belongs to them. Conrad Veidt is a marvellous villain. He’s suitably ruthless and sinister but he is also human. He is motivated by the desire for power but most of all he is motivated by love. His love for the princess is genuine. It’s the kind of love that could redeem a man, but the princess does not reciprocate his love. Jaffar is perhaps to some extent a tragic villain. He gains everything that he thought he wanted but without the love of the princess it ends up meaning nothing.

Sabu is bursting with vitality without ever becoming irritating. You can see how a genuine friendship developed between Ahmad and Abu.

This is not just a remake of the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks movie of the same name. Both are great movies, both are visually stupendous, but each can stand on its own merits.

The 1940 Korda version combines adventure, fantasy, humour, romance and even horror (the giant spider) and it gets the mix just right. You can find holes in the plot, some of the special effects don’t quite come off, but there’s so much movie magic here that minor flaws can be overlooked. It’s a movie with energy and charm, and heart.

The 1940 version has had a number of DVD releases (my copy is the Region 4 release from Madman) and Network in the UK have released it on Blu-Ray.

The Thief of Bagdad is a real feelgood movie. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)

School comedies were quite a staple of the British film industry in the 50s and The Happiest Days of Your Life is one of the best of the breed.

Nutbourne College is a not-very-prestigious boys’ boarding school somewhere in England. The headmaster, Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim), is desperately keen to move on to greener pastures and is hoping to secure an appointment as headmaster of the much more up-market Harlingham School. His staff at Nutbourne College are not overly dedicated. Any idealism they have have had about the teaching profession has well and truly dissipated. They greet the advent of a new term with resignation, little knowing the catastrophe that is about to break upon their heads.

The Ministry is still sorting out the muddle caused by wartime evacuations of schools. It is necessary, as a temporary measure, for some schools to share premises. Unfortunately some pen-pusher at the Ministry has decided that Nutbourne College is going to have to share its premises with St Swithin’s. This would be a minor nightmare in itself for Wetherby Pond and his staff, having to find accommodation for an extra hundred boys in addition to the normal complement of 117 boys. What causes it to become a major nightmare is that St Swithin’s is a girls’ boarding school, so instead of a hundred extra boys they have to cope with a hundred girls.

You do have to remember that this was 1950, a time when the idea of co-educational schools was still considered to be dangerous lunacy.

Wetherby Pond fondly imagines that he can somehow prevent his school from being overrun by the girls but he has reckoned without the formidable headmistress of St Swithin’s, Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford).

The entire Nutbourne kitchen staff walks off the job. Miss Whitchurch feels that this should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a disaster. It will be a chance for the advanced cookery girls to show what they can do. Unfortunately it turns out that the girls’ cookery skills do not extend to cooking edible meals.

The only thing that could make things worse would be for the parents to descend upon the school en masse, and this of course is what is about to happen. Actually there’s one other thing needed to complete the nightmare - the governors of Harlingham School pay a surprise visit to check up on Pond’s suitability for the job at Harlingham. So both groups are simultaneously inspecting the school and the Harlingham people have to be

Somehow the Harlingham people have to be prevented from seeing any of the St Swithin’s girls and the St Swithin’s parents have to be kept unaware of the presence of the Nutbourne boys.

Surprisingly the children and the teachers all agree to pull together to make the deception work.

While the tone of this movie is not dissimilar to that of the St Trinian’s movies there is a difference. While the girls of St Trinian’s are savages and hardened criminals both the girls and boys in The Happiest Days of Your Life really are trying to be on their best behaviour.

The end result is chaos, and very funny chaos. This is pure farce, done superbly.

This is a Sidney Gilliat-Frank Launder production with Launder directing and co-writing the script. Gilliat and Launder were aiming to take on Ealing Studios at their own game, comedy, and they did so with considerable success. Apart from the St Trinian’s movies Gilliat and Launder wrote the outstanding 1956 Alistair Sim comedy The Green Man.

It goes without saying that Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim, both perfectly cast, are in dazzling form. Equally good are Joyce Grenfell as the love-starved St Swithin’s sports mistress and Richard Wattis as the cynical Nutbourne mathematics master.

The Studiocanal DVD offers a fine transfer and some extras - an interview with Margaret Rutherford’s biographer, an appreciation of cartoonist Ronald Searle (who did the opening titles) and a brief appreciation of the film.

The Happiest Days of Your Life is obviously a must-see for Margaret Rutherford and Alistair Sim fans. It’s good-natured and very very funny. Highly recommended.

And if you're in the mood for more glorious school mayhem check out my review of the equally delightful Sidney Gilliat-Frank Launder production The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954).

Saturday, July 9, 2022

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

There were fifteen movie adaptations of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance murder mysteries, although the last three films have little or nothing to do with the novels. That still leaves us with an even dozen adaptations made between 1929 and 1940, a tribute to the popularity of the Philo Vance books at that time. One of the best of the books is The Kennel Murder Case, and it was turned into the best of all the Philo Vance movies.

William Powell played Vance in four of the movies and he’s vastly better in the role than any of the other actors who attempted it. Powell was born to play Philo Vance.

Not everyone likes Philo Vance. Some readers find the character in the novels to be too obviously affected and American upper class, and some are annoyed by Vance’s extraordinary knowledge of so many esoteric subjects. Personally I like Vance a lot. Those who do have trouble connecting with the character will find Powell’s interpretation of the role more congenial - he makes Vance charming and likeable without sacrificing any of the essential characteristics that go to make up the character.

The Kennel Murder Case
was released by Warner Brothers in 1933.

Financier Archer Coe is found dead in his bedroom. It was suicide. That’s obvious to everyone but Philo Vance. Vance has a hunch, and both District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and Sergeant Heath of Homicide (Eugene Pallette) have learnt from experience to listen when Vance has a hunch.

And there are a number of people with plausible motives for murdering Archer Coe. One of the motives is a dog. The dog was definitely murdered, and it was not just a much-loved do, it was a show champion. Those Chinese antiquities could be a motive as well. There are others with more personal motives.

And that’s just the first murder.

Michael Curtiz directed and as a result it’s a fast-moving very professionally made movie with a few nice little visual touches.

The cast is solid. Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath provides comic relief but it’s not excessively intrusive or irritating. William Powell is of course simply wonderful and he’s the biggest reason to see this movie.

The plot is complicated although hardcore fans of golden age detective fiction might solve the puzzle before Vance does. This is a locked-room mystery, although not a terribly elaborate one. It turns out to be pretty basic. Fortunately that’s not the main focus of the plot - the big puzzle is the murder method. Or methods. The victim seems to have been killed three times in three different ways.

This is a murder that appears to have been intricately planned and yet it went badly wrong. The attempt to make it look like suicide was crude and unconvincing and Vance can’t help wondering why the murderer would go to so much trouble when there was no hope that the police would accept the suicide explanation.

There are a lot of potential suspects. Vance has some ideas but his solutions always seem to leave at least one clue unexplained.

The story does involve dogs, although from memory our canine friends played a more significant role in the novel. They do provide a couple of clues.

And we discover that Vance is a very serious dog lover. His Scotch Terrier, Captain McTavish, manages to uncover one of those clues.

This is one of six movies included in the Warner Archive Philo Vance Murder Case collection on DVD. The Kennel Murder Case has always been easy to find but in rather poor public domain releases. It’s great to finally have a worthy release of this film. Unfortunately quite a few of the William Powell Philo Vance movies are still unavailable.

This is the only film in the set wth Powell in the lead role. While the other actors all fail to deliver really satisfactory performances it is at least interesting to watch some talented actors (like Basil Rathbone) making the attempt.

The Kennel Murder Case is definitely an above-average 1930s murder mystery and it’s highly recommended.

I've also reviewed The Dragon Murder Case, The Casino Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case from the boxed set.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Who was Maddox? (1964)

Another Merton Park Edgar Wallace thriller, this one scripted by Roger Marshall. Who was Maddox? was released in 1964.

Jack Heath (Jack Watling) is a young company director, in the business empire controlled by his uncle, Alec Campbell (Finlay Currie). Uncle Alec is a cantankerous old tyrant and Jack doesn’t get on with him. Jack is married to glamorous ex-fashion model Diane (Suzanne Lloyd).

The Heaths are burgled and valuable jewels belonging to Diane are stolen.

Then late at night Jack gets a telephone call from the police, from an Inspector Maddox, to say that his uncle is dead. He rushes round to the uncle’s house to find the old boy still very much alive.

What’s much more disturbing is that the next day Superintendent Meredith (Bernard Lee) arrives on the doorstep to inform him that his uncle really has been murdered. Unfortunately for Jack the time of death roughly coincides with his late-night visit to Alec Campbell’s house. Since Jack disliked his uncle and since he stands to gain a great deal from the old man’s death (Diane is the heiress to Alec’s fortune) Jack is now the prime suspect for the murder. And he has no viable alibi.

It’s also unfortunate that there is no such person as Inspector Maddox.

There’s an odd thing about that burglary. Some of Diane’s supposedly stolen jewels were offered for sale a day before the robbery.

It turns out that there is a Maddox but he’s not a policeman. He’s a society columnist (played by Richard Gale) who specialises in scandal of a very nasty variety. This Maddox has been blackmailing Diane with nude photos supposedly dating from her modelling days. The photos are faked but given that Jack’s most important client is a church group those photos provide very effective blackmail ammunition. That church group is likely to be only too willing to believe that the photos are real.

We don’t really believe Jack is guilty and it’s fairly evident that Superintendent Meredith is not entirely convinced either. There are other possible suspects.

The main interest is the way the murder and blackmail angles tie together, since obviously there must be some kind of connection.

Bernard Lee could play a policeman in his sleep but he always puts in a solid performance anyway. Superintendent Meredith is a sympathetic policeman. He’s not the type to want to see an innocent man convicted, assuming that Jack is indeed innocent.

Jack Watling is likeable as Jack, a somewhat aimless character who mostly just lets events carry him along. That’s a slight weakness in the script. He’s a hero who doesn’t take an active role in his own story.

Diane is more interesting. She sets up as a possible femme fatale and Suzanne Lloyd has the looks and the personality to carry off such a role. Is she a loyal wife or is she having an affair, or perhaps she has been manoeuvred into something nefarious. Lloyd’s performance is entertaining.

Richard Gale as Maddox is the most colourful character. He’s a real prize swine and he likes being a swine.

Like most of the directors of these Edgar Wallace films Geoffrey Nethercott spent almost his whole career in television. On the evidence of this movie he was at best competent.

Roger Marshall went on to a splendid career in television. This is not one of his best scripts (it doesn’t have quite enough urgency or tension) but it’s effective enough.

As usual Network have provided a fine anamorphic transfer (all these Edgar Wallace movies were shot widescreen) without any extras. There are three movies on this particular disc but since they all have running times of an hour or less that’s not an issue.

Not one of the best movies in the series but decent entertainment.

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.