Thursday, September 29, 2022

Jubal (1956)

Jubal is a 1956 western directed by Delmer Daves who also co-wrote the screenplay with Russell S. Hughes.

The classic way to start a western is to have a mysterious stranger ride into town. That’s more or less the way Jubal starts except that it’s an isolated cattle ranch rather than a town and the mysterious stranger, Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford), arrives on foot having lost his horse.

The ranch belongs to Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine). When he discovers that Jubal is a cattleman he takes him on as a ranch hand. For some reason this really displeases one of the other hands, a guy named Pinkum although everybody calls him Pinky (played by Rod Steiger). We will soon discover why Pinky immediately sees Jubal as a threat.

Shep Horgan is a bit of a rough diamond but he’s a decent guy and he takes a liking to Jubal. Jubal is a good cattleman and Shep has decided he’s a man who can be trusted. Jubal also takes a liking to Shep. In a way Shep becomes a kind of father figure and we will later find out why Jubal is looking for a father figure.

Pretty soon Shep makes Jubal the ranch foreman, which upsets Pinky even more.

Shep has a pretty young wife, Mae (Valerie French). It’s a lonely life for a woman. There doesn’t appear to be another woman in the entire district or in the neighbouring one-horse town (which is not even a town since the saloon seems to be the only building in the town). Some women may be cut out for the pioneer life in the wilderness but Mae is not one of those women. She’s obviously not very happy in her marriage. That’s what starts the trouble.

The entire plot revolves around Shep Horgan’s marriage and Mae’s dissatisfaction with that marriage.

It doesn’t take long before Mae starts to put the moves on Jubal. Jubal is determined not to get involved with her, partly because he has his own reasons for wanting to avoid any trouble and partly because of his loyalty to Shep. It is however obvious that he’s not entirely indifferent to Mae’s feminine charms.

It slowly becomes clear that there had at one time been something between Mae and Pinky. Now she despises him but Pinky is determined to have her. Pinky sees Jubal as a dangerous rival who must be disposed of somehow and Pinky seems to have some plan in mind for gaining possession of Shep’s wife and Shep’s ranch as well.

There’s a slight complication in the form of Naomi, a girl from a travelling religious sectarian group to whom Jubal is clearly attracted (and the attraction is mutual).

There’s obviously a bit of Iago in Pinky. Pinky clearly resents the fact that Shep has a ranch (and it’s apparently a pretty prosperous ranch) and a young and pretty wife. The parallels with Othello are fairly clear.

Jubal will find himself in a very sticky situation indeed. One of the things I really like about the script is that Jubal lands himself in so much trouble that it’s hard to imagine how on earth the writers are going to get him out of it. He seems to be comprehensively trapped. I found myself desperately hoping that the writers wouldn’t mess things up at the end. In fact I think the ending works fine.

While Jubal is ostensibly the hero the four main characters - Jubal, Shep, Mae and Pinky - are all equally important and all four characters are reasonably well developed. We get enough of a backstory for Jubal and Mae to understand why they act the way they do and the motivations of Shep and Pinky make sense as well.

Jubal clearly intends to be a grown-up western with a willingness to confront grown-up subjects such as female sexuality. It’s female sexuality, in this case Mae’s sexuality, that really drives the plot.

Jubal was made during the Production Code era when grown-up treatment of sex was just about impossible. As far as the Production Code was concerned any woman who had sexual feelings was automatically a wicked woman who would have to be subjected to savage punishment. The Production Code also allowed no flexibility at all when it came to storytelling. The plot had to end with virtue triumphant and the wicked punished.

It’s obvious that this movie could have been a great deal more interesting had it not been constrained by the straitjacket of the Production Code. Having said that, within those constraints it manages to be reasonably successful.

And the characters have real complexity. Shep is a good man and he’s fundamentally kind. He just has no idea about women. He loves Mae and he tries to treat her well. The ranch house, by the standards of ranch houses in the middle of the wilderness, is quite comfortable and cosy. He buys Mae pretty dresses. He really does want to make her happy. Unfortunately he thinks that patting Mae on the bottom in public is a normal way to express husbandly affection, Mae of course finds it humiliating. And Shep just cannot see that Mae feels no sexual attraction towards him (and the movie is pretty open about that). Shep just doesn’t suspect that Mae might try to satisfy her sexual urges elsewhere.

While the movie obviously cannot condone Mae’s actions it does at least make them very comprehensible. Her marriage to Shep was a mistake. She’s a woman with strong sexual feelings and we can see why she finds Jubal irresistible - he’s kind and gentle but at the same time very masculine. We can also see why she made the mistake of having an affair with Pinky (and it’s made quite clear that they did sleep together). Pinky is a pig but he would certainly be more sexually attractive to a woman than Shep would be. We can see why she fell for his sexy bad boy persona. The movie doesn’t demonise Mae quite as much as you’d expect.

Valerie French does the femme fatale thing quite well. Glenn Ford was always a solid reliable actor. Ernest Borgnine is perfectly cast and manages to convey to us the fact that Shep is a good-natured oaf where women are concerned, but Borgnine does it without making Shep seem pathetic. Rod Steiger as usual displays all the weaknesses of Method acting - he’s too hammy and much too stagey in his performance.

Charles Bronson does well in a supporting rôle as as Reb, another mysterious stranger who finds work at Shep’s ranch. Felicia Farr manages to make Naomi not too insipid.

I’d seen a couple of the movies of Delmer Daves but hadn’t really thought much about him until the subject came up on the Riding the High Country blog. Jubal has also been reviewed at that blog.

Jubal succeeds pretty well as a western sex melodrama. There’s hardly any action at all but there’s excellent suspense and lots of sexual tension. Highly recommended.

Jubal has been released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in Australia in their excellent Six Shooter Classics series. It cost me just five bucks and the DVD offers a truly lovely 16:9 enhanced transfer. There’s also a hideously expensive US Blu-Ray release.

Monday, September 26, 2022

The Mysterious Mr Nicholson (1947)

The Mysterious Mr Nicholson is a very obscure 1947 British crime thriller. Very obscure indeed.

There’s a bit of a panic in the office of Brown and Waring Solicitors. One of their clients wants to change his will. And when Sir James wants something done he wants it done right now. Somehow they will have to get the will to Sir James this very evening but there’s nobody who can undertake this task. Until Miss Dundas (Lesley Osmond) volunteers to drop it off on her way home.

When she reaches the home of Sir James she runs into a man who is just leaving. And then she stumbles over the body of Sir James. He has been murdered.

The police find a note pinned to the body. The notes is signed VLS. This interests Inspector Morley (Frank Hawkins) very much. He knows of VLS. Before the war VLS had been a notorious Raffles-like thief. He is now reformed and often gives the police a helping hand. Inspector Morley happens to know that VLS is actually a man named Nicholson (Anthony Hulme) who lives quietly in Soho. VLS is like a very downmarket very dull version of Simon Templar, without the wit and the style.

The inspector contacts Nicholson who agrees to help. Morley doesn’t believe for one moment that VLS was the murderer. It’s an obvious and clumsy frame. And in any case Nicholson has a rock-solid alibi (which is a major plot weakness since it means that Nicholson is never in the slightest danger from the police).

Nicholson has helped the police indirectly behind the scenes in the past but this case will give him the chance to play at being a real private detective. Inspector Morley has even hinted that it could lead to an official position with Scotland Yard.

Nicholson suspects that an organised criminal gang, a sort of English version of Murder Inc, is involved.

Then things becomes puzzling. Miss Dundas recognises Nicholson as the man she saw leaving the scene of the crime. And she has seen the man since, entering the offices of the Seymour Employment Agency. But that can’t be. Nicholson has an alibi. It’s all very strange. It’s almost as if there are two men who look exactly alike. So yes, this is a movie about a man with a double.

This is clearly a very low-budget production. In fact it’s probably fair to describe this movie as a genuine example of the notorious quota quickie (movies made on tiny budgets to take advantage of legislation to encourage British film-making). It’s pretty creaky.

The acting isn’t overly impressive. Anthony Hulme is a bit on the wooden side. Lesley Ormond is OK as Miss Dundas. Frank Hawkins is fine as the inspector. The supporting players are pretty terrible.

Oswald Mitchell directed. In the same year he also directed Black Memory which is just as creaky.

The pacing is poor. The action scenes are rather feeble. The screenplay (by Francis Miller who had a brief undistinguished career) is full of holes and lacks any genuine ingenuity. It also doesn’t really exploit the double angle to any great extent. Worst of all the original murder is just too straightforward and uninteresting.

This movie is included in the Renown Pictures’ Crime Collection Volume 4 DVD boxed set. The transfer is reasonably satisfactory. There are no extras.

The Mysterious Mr Nicholson is proof that not all 1940s/1950s British B-movies are neglected gems.

This movie really doesn’t have anything going for it at all. There’s no real mystery, there’s no real suspense, there’s no style. With a modest running time of 78 minutes it still feels padded. I would seriously give this one a miss.

Friday, September 23, 2022

The Rough and the Smooth (1959)

The Rough and the Smooth (AKA Portrait of a Sinner) is an almost entirely forgotten 1959 British melodrama. It was directed by Robert Siodmak, and that’s what is likely to attract most people’s attention to this film. Siodmak was a great director and an extraordinary visual stylist. He made several notable entries in the film noir cycle of the 40s as well as acclaimed thrillers such as The Spiral Staircase. He also directed the best of the 1940s Universal horror movies, Son of Dracula. So Siodmak’s name in the credits is usually an indication that a movie is going to be worth a look.

Michael Thompson (Tony Britton) is an archaeologist and he has a problem. He can’t find a cab. On this particular night cabs are totally unobtainable and he needs one badly, otherwise he’ll be in hot water with his fiancée Margaret (Natasha Perry).

Then he gets a lucky break. He goes into a pub for a drink and Ila Hansen (Nadja Tiller) agrees to let him share her cab. They don’t exactly hit it off but they’re only sharing a cab and at least it means Michael won’t be in too much trouble with Margaret.

Michael doesn’t seem to be all that excited about being engaged to Margaret. Her uncle is press magnate Lord Drewell (Donald Wolfit) and Lord Drewell has agreed to finance Michael’s next expedition (a hare-brained scheme to find Noah’s Ark). Margaret has it all arranged and that’s what bothers Michael. Margaret has Michael’s life all arranged. And both Margaret and Lord Drewell make him feel dependent. He doesn’t like that at all.

Then fate steps in. The following day he runs into Ila at the same pub. Of course it would be very foolish of Michael to start flirting with her. It would be even more foolish to invite her to dinner. It would be quite incredibly foolish to invite her back to his flat afterwards. But Michael does all these things. It’s clear that his intentions are far from innocent. He’s looking to get Ila into bed.

If you’re an ambitious archaeologist totally dependent on keeping in the good books with both your fiancée and her rich uncle then Ila is the sort of young lady you should avoid at all costs. She’s young, blonde, glamorous, very sexy and she’s European. Not the sort of girl you can explain away to a jealous fiancée.

Which could be an immediate problem. At the worst possible moment Margaret arrives on his doorstep. She’s very drunk and very amorous. She insists on staying. She insists on staying the night. That could be awkward since Michael has Ila stashed away in his bedroom. And it’s obvious that Margaret does not intend to spend the night on the couch. She has the bedroom in mind. But it’s Ila who ends up sharing Michael’s bed.

Michael thinks he’s a pretty sophisticated guy. He has no idea what he’s getting into when he steps into Ila’s world. It’s a world of twisted sexuality and he simply had no idea that such things were possible.

The question is whether he can survive Ila’s world. Or find a way back to the familiar comfortable world he knew before he met her.

The acting is pretty decent. Tony Britton went on to have a reasonably successful career as a TV actor and he’s quite good here. He’s very smooth but with a touch of innocence.

Nadja Tiller makes a splendid femme fatale. She’s cool, calculating, sexy and dangerous and she makes Ila believable. She really is superb.

William Bendix is excellent as Reg. Reg is Ila’s friend. Michael is not quite sure exactly what kind of friend Reg is to Ila but he will find out.

This was promoted as a shockingly daring movie and by 1959 standards it really is. There’s plenty of what would at the time have been regarded as illicit sex.It’s obvious that Margaret is accustomed to spending the night at Michael’s flat even though they’re not married yet. In 1959 that would have been considered pretty daring but this movie goes much further. It takes us into a world of sexual perversity. Lots of men have hurt Ila. Not just emotionally but physically. Ila likes it when men hurt her. The more a man hurts her the more she likes it. Not many movies at the time would even have hinted at such things but The Rough and the Smooth is fairly open about it. And there’s more sexual perversity where that came from.

This movie was based on a novel by Robin Maugham (the nephew of W. Somerset Maugham). Robin Maugham was a big deal in the English literary world for decades although he now seems to be forgotten.

Siodmak doesn’t go overboard stylistically but it’s a well-crafted movie with plenty of atmosphere.

I have no doubt that if this movie ever gets a Blu-Ray release it will be marketed as a film noir. I guess it could at a stretch be described as a noir melodrama. It certainly has a classic femme fatale. And a protagonist who finds himself drawn into a world that he just cannot cope with.

The Rough and the Smooth is all about sex and the things that sex makes us do. It tries to deal with sexual subject matter in a grown-up way and it succeeds surprisingly well. It’s an unusual movie and it’s a pretty good movie as well. It’s definitely a much much better movie than its reputation would suggest. Most people seem to think of it as a lesser Siodmak film. It’s different from his earlier better known films but I don’t think that makes it a lesser effort. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Price of Fear (1956)

The Price of Fear is a 1956 Universal International release which we’re led to believe is going to be a film noir. We shall see.

It’s the story of a chance encounter between a man and a woman, a man and a woman whose paths would never ever be expected to cross.

Dave Barrett (Lex Barker) is the part-owner and operator of a dog track. He’s a tough guy but he’s honest and he runs an honest operation.

Jesica Warren (Merle Oberon) is a successful investment counsellor. She’s rich, ambitious and totally respectable. She has never been near a dog racing track in her life. She probably has no idea that such things exist.

Two things happen which will bring them into contact. Firstly Dave Barrett discovers, to his horror, that he has a new business partner. His old partner, Lou Belden, has sold out to gangster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens). Dave threatens to denounce Edare to the Racing Commission. Dave then realises that Edare will now be gunning for him. It might be wise to disappear for a while.

Unfortunately when he leaves the track he is shadowed by two of Edare’s goons. He figures they intend to rub him out. He leaps out of the taxi, sets off on foot, and is pursued on foot by the goons. Then has a stroke of luck. He sees a car sitting by the side of the road, with the keys in the ignition and the motor running. Now he has a chance of escape.

Meanwhile Jessica Warren has been celebrating. She has been celebrating a bit too hard and a bit unwisely and when she gets behind the wheel of her car to drive home she’s as drunk as a lord. She runs over an old man, drives off, and then stops to phone the police. She leaves her car by the side of the road, with the keys in the ignition and the motor running. It’s her car that Dave finds. He jumps in and drives off.

That’s how his nightmare begins. The twist is that he finds himself accused of two entirely separate unrelated crimes and he’s innocent on both counts. But clearing himself of one crime will put him into the frame for the other.

And he and Jessica are now thrown together. Of course an unlikely romance blossoms.

Dave’s buddy Sergeant Pete Carroll (Charles Drake) is convinced that Dave is innocent but he can’t see how he can prove it. The evidence is strong and Pete has to do his job.

It’s a pretty cool plot idea, with one crime providing an alibi for the other. It all seems like a very promising setup for a crime thriller.

It doesn’t quite come off. Abner Biberman was the director and there’s a reason the name Abner Biberman doesn’t come up when people talk about the great Hollywood directors. There’s also a reason why the screenwriter Robert Tallman isn’t included in anyone’s list of great movie writers. The Price of Fear just doesn’t develop the necessary suspense. We should feel like poor Dave Barrett is an animal caught in a trap fighting for survival but we don’t get the necessary sense of urgency or imminent danger. Things get explained too easily.

There’s something really important that Dave should have figured out right at the beginning but he doesn’t and it’s just not plausible that he would fail to do so. If he had figured it out the entire plot would have collapsed so we have to pretend that even though he’s a smart guy he could fail to see something that is blindingly obvious.

There’s zero chemistry between Lex Barker and Merle Oberon. Merle Oberon’s career was winding down by this point and her performance is rather lifeless. There’s also the problem that she doesn’t have the seductiveness and glamour to be a femme fatale (which is basically what Jessica is). A younger more glamorous sexier actress might have been able to persuade us to believe some of the movie’s plot implausibilities.

This movie is included in Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: Dark Side of Cinema 2 Blu-Ray boxed set. The Price of Fear has some very very slight noirish touches, the other two movies are not even remotely film noir. The boxed set is only worth getting for The Female Animal. The other two films are very disappointing.

The Price of Fear is a crime melodrama, not a film noir. It’s a really good idea that is poorly executed. It’s hard to recommend this one.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Thunder on the Hill (1951)

Thunder on the Hill (AKA Bonaventure) is a 1951 Universal International movie directed by Douglas Sirk and included in Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: Dark Side of Cinema 2 Blu-Ray boxed set. The awesome thing about this set is that not a single one of the three movies in it is even remotely film noir. They’re all pure melodramas. That’s not to say that it’s a bad set. It’s actually an interesting set and well worth buying. But noir it ain’t.

It’s not Kino Lorber’s fault. These days almost every movie made in Hollywood prior to 1960 gets labelled as film noir because the marketing people believe that it’s only viable to release old movies on Blu-Ray if they’re labelled film noir. They certainly don’t believe that it’s viable to release melodramas or women’s pictures as melodramas or women’s pictures, which I think is terribly sad. Some of the very best Hollywood movies of the 40s and 50s were seen at the time as women’s pictures but the prejudice against that genre seems to be as strong as ever.

The story takes place in a convent hospital in Norfolk. There have been severe storms and floods and the locals have all taken shelter at the convent. The nuns are barely coping with the problem of housing and feeding so many people. Things start to get interesting when three more people arrive. Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth) is a convicted murderess on her way to Norwich to be hanged the following day. She is accompanied by two guards, one male and one female. Valerie was convicted of giving her seriously ill brother a fatal overdose of his medication.

Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is troubled by guilts of her own. She feels responsible for her sister’s death eight years earlier. Sister Mary becomes convinced that Valerie Carns is innocent and she decides to play amateur detective.

The convent is now cut off from the outside world by floodwaters and the phone lines are down. There is one thing that could aid Sister Mary’s detective efforts - most of the people involved in Valerie’s trial are now in the convent.

Sister Mary manages to turn up a clue. It doesn’t prove Valerie’s innocence but it does shed a new light on the case. The really vital clue is quite clever and the way it’s discovered is quite clever.

Sister Mary manages to reach Norwich by boat, thanks to the efforts of the simple-minded, quick-tempered but good-hearted Willie (Michael Pate). She brings Valerie’s fiancé back with her. Now everyone with any connection to the case has been assembled.

Unfortunately the solution is blindingly obvious right from the start so as a whodunit this movie is a total washout. There is some decent suspense. It’s a race against time to save Valerie and the vital clues always seem to be just out of Sister Mary’s reach.

The acting is melodramatic but this is a melodrama so that can be forgiven. Claudette Colbert is good as Sister Mary, a woman with some complexity. She is convinced that she is right but she fears that that is her problem - she always thinks she’s right. Ann Blyth is quite good as Valerie. Gladys Cooper is overly obvious as the evil bitch Reverend Mother. The supporting cast no is no more than adequate although Connie Gilchrist is fun as the dotty Sister Josephine. Gavin Muir manages to be both dull and nasty as the vindictive police sergeant in charge of Valerie.

It’s interesting that all the authority figures in this movie are both vicious and two-dimensional.

Sister Mary is the only character who is even the slightest bit interesting.

The convent setting works very well.

As I hinted earlier there’s not the slightest trace of film noir in this movie. It can’t even be described as noirish or noir-tinged.

Thunder on the Hill tries to be both a mystery and a suspense movie. It’s a failure as a mystery and a reasonable success as a suspense movie. The obviousness of the plot makes it less interesting than it should be. I wouldn’t recommend buying this one had it been a standalone release but if you’re going to buy the set it’s worth a look but don’t expect it to turn out to be a neglected gem.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

Billion Dollar Brain (1967) is a spy movie directed by Ken Russell, and that in itself is pretty interesting. Russell was a very successful TV director looking to break into movies and this seemed like the kind of obviously commercial property which would aid that project.

It’s also one of the Harry Palmer spy movies starring Michael Caine, based on Len Deighton’s unnamed spy novels, and that makes it even more interesting.

And it’s based on a particularly interesting Deighton novel. It’s rather more extravagantly plotted than the three earlier unnamed spy novels. Which is obviously why it appealed to Ken Russell. It would offer him the opportunity to show what he could do in the way of spectacular visuals.

Since it’s a Ken Russell movie (and even though in this case he was working as a director for hire he still gives the movie a certain Ken Russell flavour) it won’t surprise you to know that not everyone likes this movie. For some spy fans at the time it was a bit too over-the-top. And some Deighton fans thought it was too James Bondian and not Deighton-ish enough. In fact it’s nothing like the Bond films (which by the way I love).

But with Harry Saltzman producing and with Maurice Binder contributing the excellent opening titles I can see why some assumed this was going to be a very Bondian spy movie. In fact that may have been what the producers were hoping for. It does have Bond touches but it has its own distinctive flavour.

Former British spy Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is now working as a private detective. He’s not doing too well, in fact he’s broke, but at least he’s not working for the government any more. He considers that to be a major plus. And he’s not working for Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) any more, another plus.

But for some reason Colonel Ross wants him back. Harry isn’t interested.

Harry gets what seems to be a very simple job. All he has to do is deliver a package to Helsinki. The package is a thermos flask. Harry, being a former spy and having a suspicious mind, has the package x-rayed. It contains eggs. Odd. But two hundred pounds is two hundred pounds and Harry needs the money.

In Helsinki he discovers that Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden) is mixed up in all this. Newbigen was a CIA agent and is totally untrustworthy. If Newbigen is involved than it’s something murky. Harry also meets Newbigen’s hot young girlfriend Anya (Françoise Dorléac).

Newbigen is working for General Midwinter (Ed Begley), a crazy Texan billionaire who is conducting a personal crusade against communism.

Harry also runs into Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka). Stok is a very senior KGB officer. He and Harry are old enemies, but they’re old friends as well. Harry likes Colonel Stok a lot more than he likes his own boss, Colonel Ross.

General Midwinter is totally insane (it’s a fine scenery-chewing performance by Ed Begley) and he’s dangerous. Colonel Stok wants Harry to stop him, and Harry is also inclined to think that stopping General Midwinter would be very good idea. He’s just not sure how to do it. He’s not sure what Leo Newbigen is likely to do and he’s a bit suspicious of Anya after she tries to kill him.

It builds to an extraordinary climax on the ice.

Michael Caine is, as always, perfect as Harry Palmer. Karl Malden is great as the rogue CIA agent. Françoise Dorléac, in her final film rôle before her tragic death, is very good. Vladek Sheybal, a wonderful character actor, is excellent as a mad scientist type working for Midwinter. Look out for Donald Sutherland and Susan George in small rôles.

I can understand why when the studio execs saw the finished film they anticipated problems promoting the movie in America. After all the Soviets are the good guys while General Midwinter’s anti-communist forces are unequivocally the bad guys, determined to start World War 3. I don’t think this is the movie the studio was expecting, which probably accounts for its lack of commercial success. And it was probably just too unconventional spy movie for 1967 audiences.

It’s a movie which is ripe for rediscovery but that’s never really happened. It’s great that Kino Lorber released it on Blu-Ray (and the Blu-Ray looks fabulous) but disappointing that there are no extras. It’s a movie that really needs an audio commentary to put into the context of the careers of both Ken Russell and Len Deighton.

Billion Dollar Brain is an eccentric wildly unconventional spy movie. It’s not in the gritty style of the earlier Harry Palmer movies and it’s not in the Bond style, but it’s also not quite a spy spoof. It’s quirky and original and fascinating, and entrancing once you get into the groove of it. Very highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the first Harry Palmer movie, The Ipcress File. And I've reviewed the Len Deighton Billion Dollar Brain novel.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Ruthless (1948)

In the early 1930s Edgar G. Ulmer was rising fast until an affair with the wife of a producer ended his career as a director as far as all the top studios were concerned. He spent almost the whole of the rest of his career making very low-budget movies for outfits like PRC, the most poverty-stricken of the Poverty Row studio.

In the 1940s he did however get a couple of opportunities to make movies with reasonably generous budgets. One was The Strange Woman, which his childhood friend Hedy Lamarr hired him to direct. The second was Ruthless, in 1948.

And Ruthless really is a pretty lavish production. Ulmer had real money to play with, and plenty of it.

The parallels between Ruthless and Citizen Kane are obvious but shouldn't be pushed too far.

In 1948 Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott) is a fabulously wealthy financier about to launch an ambitious foundation dedicated to achieving world peace. Is it another cynical move, perhaps an elaborate tax dodge, or is Vendig genuinely tying to do something decent for once? His childhood friend Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) isn’t sure. Vic has turned up at the launch with his new lady love, Mallory Flagg.

Vendig’s story is then told in flashback.

He had a pretty miserable childhood, with an irresponsible gambler father and an embittered mother who blamed the boy for all her troubles. Then young Horace Vendig got a lucky break. He was out canoeing with Vic and a little girl named Martha. Martha went overboard and almost drowned but Horace saved her. Martha’s parents were so grateful they more or less adopted Horace (which was possible since his mother was keen to get rid of him) and Martha’s dad paid for the lad to go to Harvard. One assumes that the point of the childhood flashback is to explain why Horace Wendig grows up believing that the only way to get what you want is to take it regardless of the consequences and without being constrained by any moral qualms.

The young Wendig also learns how to manipulate women. He and Vic both fall in Martha but there’s never any doubt that if Wendig wants her he’ll get her. Given the appalling way his mother treats him perhaps it’s not surprising that he treats women very badly.

Wendig rises fast in the world of high finance. He tramples a lot of people on his way to the top. He’s clever and unscrupulous and willing to take risks but he also knows how to make use of women in order to destroy men who get in his way.

Wendig approaches relationships with women the way he approaches business. He takes what he wants and when the women is no longer useful to him he discards her, in the same way he would dispose of an unprofitable shareholding. He uses the glamorous Susan Duane (Martha Vickers) as his entreé into New York high society. He uses Christa, the wife of financier Buck Mansfield, as a weapon against her husband.

Vic remains loyal to his boyhood friend for years, refusing to admit to himself that Wendig is a monster. In fact Vic can never quite shake the belief that maybe there’s some good in Wendig.

Alvah Bessie, who co-wrote the screenplay, was a communist and I think it’s fair to say that the screenplay was intended to be a highly political attack on capitalism. I get the impression that Ulmer wasn’t interested in overt political themes and the movie is more of a case study of greed and the lust for power. Mercifully we don’t get a single political speech.

Like The Strange Woman this movie is sometimes mislabelled as film noir. It isn’t film noir at all.

Louis Hayward as Vic is very impressive in what was a rather tricky role. Vic spends years refusing to face the truth about Wendig but somehow Hayward has to convince us that Vic isn’t a fool. He also has to be careful not to allow Vic to come across as a prig. Hayward succeeds on both counts.

Sydney Greenstreet is fine as Mansfield, a very sharp ruthless operator who discovers to his cost that Wendig is just a little bit sharper and more ruthless. Martha Vickers as Susan, Lucille Bremer as Christa and Diana Lynn (in a dual role as Martha and Mallory) are all good. Raymond Burr is fun in a small part as Wendig’s dad.

It is however Zachary Scott’s movie. It’s a bravura performance but there is some subtlety to it. Wendig is almost a conscienceless monster but perhaps not quite. There are moments when he sees himself clearly and isn’t sure he likes what he sees. That doesn’t mean that he acts on these twinges of conscience. He represses them and he seems able to do so very successfully.

When he finally gets to the top of the heap does he suddenly realise that the pursuit of money has left him an empty shell as a human being? Does he suddenly feel the need to make amends, or to seek redemption? That would be a conventional Hollywood approach but one of the things that makes Ruthless such an interesting movie is that Wendig remains an enigma. Is his peace foundation a genuine attempt at redemption? Was inviting all the people he’d trampled to the launch an indication that he felt real remorse about the way he’d treated them? These things are left rather ambiguous. Personally I feel he’s as monstrous as ever and that he’s just added a couple of layers of hypocrisy and self-glorification but others might interpret the ending very differently.

The actual ending comes as a surprise which I won’t spoil. Whether you think it works or not is up to you.

Olive Films released this movie as a barebones Blu-Ray and the transfer is very very good indeed.

Edgar G. Ulmer could make great movies on budgets of almost nothing. Ruthless demonstrates that with a generous budget he could make movies as polished as anyone in Hollywood. Highly recommended.

I watched this movie after reading the fine review at Riding the High Country.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

The Tall T (1956)

The Tall T is an early entry in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown cycle, a series of seven westerns all starring Randolph Scott. These are Boetticher’s most admired movies, and with good reason. The Tall T was based on an Elmore Leonard story and the screenplay was written by Burt Kennedy (who wrote most of the films in the Ranown cycle).

The early part of The Tall T establishes an almost idyllic mood. Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) is a former ranch foreman who now has a spread of his own. It’s not much of a spread, he can’t even afford to hire a single ranch hand, but it’s his own place and he’s happy. He’s confident that he can make a go of it. Brennan is a quiet sort of guy but he’s not by any means a bitter loser or a misanthrope and he’s entirely devoid of self-pity. He’s pretty easy-going and mostly he gets along with people just fine.

Even when he loses his horse and has to walk the fifteen miles to get back home he remains cheerful. It turns out he won’t have to walk. His friend Rintoon gives him a lift. Rintoon drives the stage coach that serves this part of the territory. It’s not a scheduled stage run. A smarmy bookkeeper named Willard Mimms has hired the stage to take himself and his new bride Doretta to a neighbouring town for their honeymoon.

And then the movie switches gears very dramatically indeed, and the idyllic mood gives way to terror and brutality. Outlaw Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his two goons had been intending to rob the stage coach but when they discover that Doretta Mimms is the daughter of the richest man in the territory a better idea presents itself. They will hold Doretta for ransom. They decide to hold Pat Brennan as a hostage as well.

Brennan has no illusions about his prospects. Usher and his trigger-happy sidekicks Billy Jack (Skip Homeier) and Chink (Henry Silva) have killed four people within the space of 24 hours. Whether that ransom is paid or not it’s a certainty that the gang will kill Brennan and Doretta Mimms. Frank Usher doesn’t believe in leaving any witnesses alive. Usher rides off to collect the ransom money, leaving Chink and Billy Jack to guard the hostages. Brennan figures that he is simply going to have to come up with a way out of this before Usher gets back.

Randolph Scott is excellent as usual. Here he’s playing a nice guy who has to become a reluctant hero and he’s going to need to play it smart and cool and luckily he’s the kind of guy who can do that.

Richard Boone as Frank Usher is perhaps even more interesting as a character. Usher is a bad man but he wasn’t always a bad man and maybe he’s not totally comfortable being a ruthless outlaw. An intriguing relationship develops between Brennan and Usher. At times they almost like one another.

The Brennan-Usher relationship is the core of the movie. There are of course huge differences between the two men but perhaps some similarities. They’re both to some extent loners and outsiders. Maybe Brennan is the man Usher could have been if only he’d had a few breaks. And maybe Brennan is the man Usher would like to be. And Brennan sees Usher as a man who didn’t need to go bad.

Maureen O’Sullivan makes Doretta Mimms an interesting character as well. Doretta is supposed to be dowdy and unattractive, the sort of woman who would be sufficiently lonely and desperate to marry a man she despised. Maureen O’Sullivan had of course been a major glamour babe in the 30s, especially playing Jane in half a dozen Tarzan movies.

The plots of Boetticher’s westerns are not overly complicated. A good story doesn’t need to be complicated. What matters is that Burt Kennedy’s script is tightly constructed and it provides the necessary emotional punches.

Boetticher’s visual style is also never unnecessarily complicated. His compositions are always superb but his visuals are never fussy or gimmicky. Both the script and the visuals are simple and austere and very very effective.

The Powerhouse Indicator Blu-Ray (which I believe is region-free) provides a pretty decent transfer. The extras include an audio commentary by Jeanie Basinger and a brief but excellent introduction by Martin Scorcese. Scorcese makes the point that Budd Boetticher was an obsessive bullfight fan and that his westerns were like bullfights - ritualised formalised combats conducted according to rules and a code of honour. I suspect that Scorcese is correct in seeing this as the key to understanding Boetticher’s westerns. There’s also a radio interview with Elmore Leonard (who liked the movie quite a bit).

The Tall T is quite simply a great western. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several other Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns - Ride Lonesome (1959), Comanche Station (1960) and 7 Men From Now (1956).

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Female Animal (1958)

The Female Animal was Hedy Lamarr’s last movie. And it’s not at all a bad way for her career to end. She has a really juicy part and she makes the most of it and it’s a very entertaining movie.

Lamarr plays movie star Vanessa Windsor. Miss Windsor deals with the stresses of stardom by having the occasional little drink. And you know how it is. Before you know it you’ve had quite a few little drinks. She’s also just a little bit temperamental. She doesn’t throw tantrums but if she doesn’t feel like doing a retake the retake doesn’t get done. She’s a star and she gets what she wants.

Then comes an accident on the sound stage,. She is almost killed by a falling spotlight. Luckily handsome extra Chris Farley pushes her out of the way, saving her life. The next thing Chris knows he’s on the front page of the newspapers - the man who saved the life of a big-time movie star. It’s all a bit bewildering to him and he’s even more bewildered when he finds himself escorting Vanessa Windsor to a film premiere. After the premiere she invites him to her beach house. She suggests they have a night-time swim but clearly she has other forms of recreation in mind as well.

Vanessa Windsor has fallen head over heels in lust.

Vanessa then realises she needs someone to look after her beach house. A sort of caretaker. She thinks Chris would be ideal. So Chris is now living in a luxury beach house in Malibu. It will be convenient for him, and it will be convenient for Vanessa.

At this point it’s important to stress that Vanessa is not a conniving scheming woman. She’s not a spider woman. Sure she’s set Chris up as a kept man but it’s not like he’s some innocent farmboy who just got off the bus from Iowa. He’s in his mid-thirties and he works in the film business. He knows the score. And Vanessa knows that he knows the score. He’s not the first man to be a paid stud for a female movie star and he and Vanessa are genuinely quite fond of each other. They’re both grown-ups and it’s a peasant setup for both of them. And Vanesa is still a very beautiful glamorous woman. Keeping her happy is likely to be rather a pleasant task. There’s no reason that anyone should get hurt. As long as they don’t actually fall in love, and of course Vanessa does just that.

Then fate steps in. Fate, as so often, comes in the shape of a young woman (played by Jane Powell). Chris sees her in a bar. She’s blind drunk. It’s nothing to do with him but then the guy she’s with turns nasty so Chris has to do the knight in shining armour thing. In the course of the unpleasantness the girl ended up in the gutter and her dress is covered in mud. Like a good knight in shining armour Chris takes her back to the beach house. His intentions really are entirely honourable and nothing dishonourable happens. He cleans the girl up and put her in a cab and sends her home. Everything would be OK except for one little detail that Chris is unaware of. The girl is Vanessa’s adopted daughter Penny.

This really complicates things. Especially when an obvious attraction develops between Penny and Chris. Vanessa knows something is going on with Chris but she doesn’t know about Chris and Penny.

Chris is also starting to feel unhappy about his kept man status. It’s not that Vanesa ever treats him as a mere gigolo. Vanessa has her faults but she would never do anything gratuitously cruel. It’s just an unfortunate fact that Vanessa has lots and lots of money and Chris has none and in the 1950s a man in Chris’s position was going to attract a certain amount of contempt for allowing himself to be kept by a rich woman. It’s something Chris just can’t deal with.

It all leads up to an ending which caught me by surprise.

This movie dates from a time when the studios were starting to find the Production Code to be frustratingly stifling. The studios felt (correctly) that they needed to make movies that were more grown-up. They wanted to be able to tell grown-up stories without the Production Code ripping the guts out of such stories. They wanted to deal with sex in a more adult way. The Female Animal is a prime example of the sort of grown-up movie the studios now wanted to make, and were starting to insist on making whether the Production Code Authority liked it or not. It’s remarkably open about female sexuality. We’re left in no doubt that Vanessa’s initial attraction towards Chris is entirely sexual. It later becomes a deeper and more complex emotion but at the beginning it’s pure sex. And the sexual nature of the relationship between Vanessa and Chris is made very clear.

It’s also surprising that the film is not particularly judgmental about this. Vanesa has sexual needs and she satisfies those needs. It’s not her sexual desires that cause the problems that the various characters have to face. It’s her failure to understand that Chris feels humiliated that causes much bigger problems (Vanessa has a tendency to avoid seeing things she doesn’t want to see) and the biggest problems are caused by Chris’s inability to swallow his pride. And of course it’s the developing romantic triangle that brings things to a head.

Vanessa is a sympathetic character. She has her flaws and she makes mistakes but she’s never malicious. She’s just a human being tying to cope the best way she knows how and she really does genuinely try to make things work with Chris.

I’m not quite sure about Jane Powell as Penny. She chews the scenery a it too much which can be effective in a melodrama but it contrasts unfavourably with Lamarr’s far more subtle performance. Modern audiences will probably feel less sympathetic towards Chris than audiences in the 50s. George Nader’s performance is OK although he does lack star power. Jan Sterling is fun as Lily Frayne, a star whose lustre has faded. Lily has had a string of kept men but unlike Vanessa Lily teats her men as mere sexual playthings.

This movie however belongs to Hedy Lamarr. Her career may have been winding down but her talent was undimmed. She gives one of her best and most nuanced performances. It helps that she was still capable of being very glamorous and very sexy. Vanessa is a fascinating character, made more fascinating by the fact that she doesn’t really understand herself.

The Female Animal also falls into the sub-category of movies that look at Hollywood’s darker side. It’s not a scathing indictment of Hollywood by any means and the occasional moments of satire are subtle. It’s not the wickedness of Hollywood that the movie focuses on, but the air on unreality. Both Vanessa and Penny have lived artificial lives and have had problems when faced with real life.

The movie does have some weaknesses. The major weakness is Penny. Jane Powell was much too old to be playing Hedy Lamarr’s daughter, she was miscast and the part is badly underwritten. Crucially we never find out why Penny is so bitter towards her mother. Vanessa seems to be a caring mother. Perhaps Penny is just a spoilt brat but we still needed to know more about why Penny is so messed-up.

Criticism of this movie are often based on a misunderstanding of the film. One such criticism is that Hedy Lamarr at 43 was too young, too beautiful and too sexy to be a convincing faded star. But this is not Sunset Boulevard. Vanessa is not Norma Desmond. We’re not meant to despise her or pity her. Vanessa is supposed to be a star at the top. There’s also the criticism that Vanessa doesn’t look like she’d need to rely on gigolos. But there are plausible reasons to explain this. With a daughter like Penny to deal with she would have problems forming relationships with men. Vanesa is also a woman who likes to be in control. With her toy boys she’s in control. It also makes the Chris-Vanessa relationship more interesting. Vanessa knows that men don’t have to pretend to be sexually attracted to her so she really doesn’t feel she’s exploiting Chris.

Jan Sterling on the other hand was too young to play Lily Frayne. She does her best but we don’t buy her as a faded has-been (and Lily really is supposed to be a has-been).

This movie has been released in one of Kino Lorber’s film noir Blu-Ray boxed sets. The Female Animal is not film noir. It’s a melodrama. There is no reason to apologise for that. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama. It’s like every other genre. It can be done well or it can be done badly. Here it’s done reasonably well.

The Female Animal is very entertaining grown-up melodrama, even with its flaws. It would be worth seeing anyway but Hedy Lamarr’s performance lifts it into the recommended class.