Saturday, April 29, 2023

Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter is one of David Lean’s most celebrated early films. I really can’t explain why I have never seen tis movie until now. It has somehow just passed me by.

It was based on a play by Noël Coward who also acted as producer of the film.

The movie opens with a man and a woman parting at a railway station somewhere in England. The woman is clearly very upset. The man will be off to Africa in a week’s time, with his wife and children.

We will soon discover that the woman is Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson). She is a happily married woman. Or at least that’s how she has always regarded herself. So why was she so upset at the railway station and who is the mystery man?

Later that night Laura imagines herself telling the story to her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). She knows she can never actually tell him the story, except in her imagination.

Her story is told with a voiceover narration. I’m not at all sure that the use of voiceover narration is ever a good idea and I’m certainly not sure it’s a good idea here. I assume the idea is to let us know what Laura’s thoughts are as the story progresses but Celia Johnson is a more than competent actress and I’m inclined to think that she could make us aware of Laura’s emotional state without having to constantly tell us what Laura is feeling. And in fact that’s what Celia Johnson does, making the voiceover narration somewhat superfluous. Mostly she doesn’t tell us anything that isn’t already perfectly obvious. The only reason I can think of for using this technique is to keep reminding us that this is Celia recounting the story in her imagination.

The mystery man is Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). They met when she got a piece of grit in her eye. Being a doctor he naturally offered to help. It was a very innocent meeting although Laura remembers thinking that he was good-looking and seemed like a very nice man.

They meet again and strike up a bit of an acquaintance, with Alec flirting very openly.

They meet several times, they enjoy each other’s company and of course they fall in love.

This movie does have its overwrought moments and modern viewers might be perplexed by the degree to which the two central characters agonise over their temptations.

Now you do have to bear in mind that this was 1945. British film censorship was in some ways less draconian and in someways more draconian than the Hollywood Production Code but there was certainly no way on earth that anyone in 1945 was going to get away with a movie that condoned adultery. And we know from the opening scene that this love affair is doomed.

The instinct to conform to society’s rules is a universal feature of human nature. It’s as strong today as it was in 1945. The exact nature of the rules changes over time. In 1945 the most important rules concerned sexual behaviour. It’s obvious that these two characters are not going to defy society’s rules. And they believe in those rules.

Since the story is told entirely in flashback we know from the beginning that their love is doomed. It’s the fact that their love is doomed and they know it and the audience knows it that gives Brief Encounter its poignancy. It’s two people having a dream of a great romantic love that can never become a reality. They never really believe that their love has a chance.

Another strength of the movie is the sheer ordinariness of the two protagonists. They’re not kids and they’re not glamorous and they’re really not very exciting people. They’re likeable because they’re so ordinary, and their ordinariness adds to the poignancy. They’re dreaming of the sort of romance that is hopelessly outside the limits of their lives.

Trevor Howard is very good. I think Celia Johnson’s performance would have been much more effective without the voiceover narration. It’s overwrought enough as it is.

One thing that is noticeable is the total lack of erotic tension. This is an amazingly chaste flirtation. Of course the censorship climate was very restrictive at the time but other British movies of this period (the Gainsborough melodramas for example) do manage to at least hint at eroticism. There’s none of that in Brief Encounter. I assume that David Lean had the final say in casting the leads (given that Celia Johnson had been in two of his previous movies that seems a reasonable assumption) and it’s almost as if Lean chose his leads deliberately for their lack of erotic appeal. I guess he was aiming at a dreamlike romanticism but even so this is an unbelievably unsexy love story.

The movie’s running time is only 86 minutes but it feels padded out, probably not surprising given that it’s based on a one-act play. It would have worked better at around 70 minutes but this was an A-picture and such a short runtime would not have been acceptable. David Lean could be rather ponderous which exacerbates the problem.

This is a movie that requires a special effort to keep in mind that in 1945 the extent to which the protagonists are crippled by guilt and the extent to which they agonise over their situation would not have seemed absurd. One can’t help wondering how viewers seeing this movie on television in the 60s and 70s, in the heyday of sexual freedom and social liberation, must have reacted to this movie. It’s a movie that comes down very strongly on the side of respectability and traditional morality and social conformity and that can be off-putting. Of course one could ask whether the message of the movie is that rigid rules are a good thing, or whether the message is that the two would-be lovers simply have no choice other than to knuckle down under those rules or face social destruction.

When watching Brief Encounter one is aware, to an even greater extent than with most films of its era, that one is visiting a different world. If you make the necessary adjustment the film still packs an emotional punch. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Ricochet (1963)

Ricochet is one of the prolific series of Edgar Wallace crime thrillers from England’s Merton Park Studios and this 1963 production is a typical entry in that cycle. In other words it’s an excellent little B-movie.

Solicitor Alan Phipps (Richard Leech) isn’t rich but his wife Yvonne (Maxie Audley) is. Alan decides to do something about this unfortunate situation. He cooks up a scheme to blackmail Yvonne.

Now obviously blackmailing his own wife isn’t something that a man can do directly. Especially if he’s going to try to blackmail her about an affair that she had. Alan will need someone else to do the blackmailing on his behalf. The obvious choice is the man with whom Yvonne had the affair.

This man, John Brodie (Alex Scott), is broke and he’s never had any moral standards so he should be ideal for the job.

When Alan explains to Brodie exactly how the scheme is to work it’s clear to the viewer that certain plot twists are very likely to occur. But screenwriter Roger Marshall has more tricks than that up his sleeve.

Alan’s scheme is a pretty good one. It’s not just straightforward blackmail. Yvonne isn’t likely to pay a huge amount of blackmail over an affair that ended several years earlier. So Alan has added an extra twist, an extra something for which Yvonne will be prepared to pay a great deal of money. She just won’t have any choice.

It all goes off very smoothly. Alan is very pleased with himself, until he tries to pick up a certain package from the Post Office. The package has to be there, but it isn’t. That’s his first inkling that something may have gone slightly awry.

And then the chap arrives on his doorstep to remind him of his country club dues. Perhaps Alan might have guessed something was wrong here, but he is so confident that his scheme is foolproof that his suspicions are not aroused.

Alan’s situation is now rather awkward, and more plot twists will soon kick in.

As is usual with these movies the acting is very competent, with no acting weak links. Patrick Magee as the detective is the standout.

Almost all of the directors and writers who worked on these Merton Park movies ended up working mostly in television, but most had good television careers because they really were talented professionals. The director of this film (and a couple of others in the same series), John Llewellyn Moxey, falls into that category. Ricochet is nicely paced and skilfully executed.

Writer Roger Marshall had a great television career, the highlight being Public Eye which he created. Public Eye may be the best TV private eye series ever made.

So it’s no surprise that Marshall’s script for Ricochet is tautly constructed and that it all comes together in a very satisfactory manner.

This is mostly a plot-driven film but there’s some character stuff. Over-confidence and greed can lead to disaster, as two of the characters here find out.

These Edgar Wallace thrillers work so well because they don’t try to be too ambitious. With very very tight budgets there’s no scope for anything fancy in the visual department. The key was to have a solid script, and most of these movies definitely have that.

They also get the tone just right. The temptation to add comic or whimsical touches is resisted. The focus is on mystery and suspense. The stories are not grim but they are taken seriously. It’s fascinating to compare these films to the German Edgar Wallace krimis made at the same time, which take a totally different approach (with humour, whimsy and plenty of outrageousness) but one that works equally well.

Ricochet is a fine B-movie. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Barbarian (1933)

MGM’s The Barbarian (AKA A Night in Cairo) is a comedy/romantic melodrama that belongs to the “beautiful American girl gets swept off her feet by dashing handsome desert sheikh” sub-genre.

This is a movie that will have some modern viewers heading for the fainting couches. But then if you insist on trying to view movies made the best part of a century ago through the ideological lens of the 2020s then you’re not going to be able to enjoy any of the movies of this era. You just have to accept that things were different in 1933.

The movie opens with a dragoman named Jamil (Ramon Navarro) bidding a fond farewell to a whole series of tearful European ladies. We figure out that as well as acting as tourist guide Jamil is a rather successful gigolo.

He has already picked out his next target, a young American woman named Diana Standing (Myrna Loy). He has not the slightest doubt that he will easily be able to seduce her.

Young Diana is however no fool. She knows that Jamil is trying to entice her into a romantic dalliance which will certainly be profitable to him. She is confident that his charms will have no effect on her.

Jamil does not give up easily. Diana is outraged when he kisses her passionately. The mere idea of being kissed by a servant is horrifying, although we get the feeling that she rather enjoyed it.

Jamil has a knack for making himself useful. Diana tries to fire him but he just won’t stay fired.

This is embarrassing given that Diana’s fiancé Gerald (Reginald Denny) is more than a little suspicious of Jamil. To add to Diana’s difficulties she is also being pursued by the rich middle-aged Pasha Achmed (Edward Arnold). She has far too many men to cope with.

Then Jamil tells Diana that he is actually a prince. Whether she believes him or not is another matter.

It should perhaps be added that Diana is half-Egyptian herself.

This is a pre-code movie so get the obligatory scene of Myrna Loy in her underwear (looking remarkably hot). But she really sizzles once she gets her clothes off for the nude bathtub scene. If like me you have always thought that Claudette Colbert’s milk bath in The Sign of the Cross is the sexiest moment in pre-code cinema then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Loy out-sizzles Colbert in the nude bathing stakes.

Loy’s performance overall is excellent. Ramon Navarro is all sleazy phoney charm but he does it well. Reginald Denny is reliable as always. C. Aubrey Smith adds some comic relief.

This is a very amusing rather witty movie. The dialogue isn’t as racy as you might expect but there are plenty of situations with obvious sexual implications.

The movie changes gears halfway through and becomes more of an adventure romance, and there are even some action scenes. And it gets more and more pre-code. I haven’t mentioned the rape scene yet, or the whipping scenes. Yes, scenes. Miss Loy gets whipped twice.

Lots of modern reviewers just can’t cope with this movie at all. Even with the smelling salts within easy reach. It really is a rather outrageous movie. If you tried to make a scene-for-scene remake today then every single scene would end up being cut.

But then that’s the appeal of pre-code movies. At the time they took people out of their comfort zones and a movie like The Barbarian still does that today. Compared to the bland fare offered up these days this movie is like receiving shock treatment. Pre-code movies were meant to be provocative. They don’t provoke people today for the same reasons, but they still provoke. Perhaps sometimes we need to be exposed to provocative ideas.

I liked The Barbarian and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Madam Satan (1930)

Those who are only familiar with Cecil B. DeMille’s later films might be rather surprised by his 1930 musical sex comedy Madam Satan. If however you’re familiar with his silent films then Madam Satan is just the sort of thing you’d expect him to come up with. It’s like his sophisticated silent comedies but with musical numbers, and even more outlandish. It’s one of my favourite DeMille movies.

This movie was made during DeMille’s brief time at MGM, a very grim time for the director. He was being harassed by the IRS and made a series of box office flops. Those flops included, sadly, Madam Satan. He would return to Paramount and bounce back in a big way with the box-office smash Sign of the Cross in 1932.

The marriage of Bob Brooks (Reginald Denny) and his wife Angela (Kay Johnson) is in big trouble. Bob has been playing around. We get the feeling he’s been playing around quite a bit. His latest playmate is Trixie (Lillian Roth). He’s also been spending too much time with his charming but dissolute friend Jimmy Wade (Roland Young). When Bob and Jimmy get together there will be alcohol and girls involved.

Trixie is the last straw for Angela. Bob gets his marching orders.

But Angela doesn’t really want the marriage to end. And she realises that some of the accusations that Bob has hurled at her are true. She isn’t exactly a fun-loving girl. She’s a staid boring resectable housewife. She isn’t glamorous. And maybe she is a bit sexually cold. Maybe it isn’t surprising that Bob is bored with her.

She realises she has to do something. She doesn’t want to turn herself into a tramp like Trixie. She does however decide that she needs to be much more sexy, much more glamorous and much more exciting. She needs to be more like a mistress than a wife.

The perfect opportunity will be a masquerade ball that Jimmy Wade is throwing on board a zeppelin. Angela will put in an appearance, in the guise of Madam Satan. She makes quite an entrance.

The first half of the movie is a typical pre-code sophisticated sex comedy, and it’s very funny. The second half takes place entirely on board the zeppelin, and it’s totally mad and bizarre.

Jimmy’s party is definitely wild. The highlight is the auction. The six prettiest women take part in it. The men have to bid for them. The winning girl gets to be Belle of the Ball. The men get to dance with the women for whom they put in successful bids. Being the sort of party this is we can assume that as the evening progresses there will be more than dancing involved. Trixie has made it clear to Bob that she expects to be Belle of the Ball, no matter how much it costs him. Bob is OK with this, being totally under Trixie’s spell. At least he’s under her spell until the mysterious super-sexy Madam Satan turns up. Of course she is masked, so Bob has no idea he is being seduced by his own wife.

Then the storm hits and Madam Satan becomes a crazy disaster movie.

The visuals are what make this movie movie so memorable. The costumes worn by the women at the ball are insane. They’re wonderful, but insane.

The ball is like a Roman orgy on a zeppelin.

DeMille was fascinated by decadence, both ancient and modern. And it’s obvious he didn’t entirely disapprove of it. DeMille was no puritan. The theme of societal decadence pop up in lots of DeMille silent films and would be spectacularly showcased in Sign of the Cross and in his 1934 Cleopatra. The Jazz Age rich decadents partying while the storm approaches the zeppelin are the equivalents of the Romans indulging in orgies while Rome burns in Sign of the Cross. DeMille however was not especially interested in ensuring that those who gave themselves up to decadence were punished. DeMille’s specialty was appearing to be on the side of respectability while making it perfectly clear that he really sympathised with wicked fun-lovers.

Kay Johnson looks great as Madam Satan. Reginald Denny manages to be a charming likeable unfaithful husband. The movie is however dominated by the gloriously over-the-top performances of Roland Young and Lillian Roth.

DeMille made some seriously deranged and outrageous movies and this is visually at least the most outrageous of them all. Watching it is like an acid trip, but a good acid trip rather than a bad acid trip. This movie is a wild and delirious ride. Like the passengers on the zeppelin you might want to hold on tight to your parachute.

Madam Satan is very highly recommended.

Madam Satan is available on DVD in the Warner Archive series, with a very good transfer.

Monday, April 17, 2023

The Lady Refuses (1931)

The Lady Refuses is a rather little-known 1931 RKO pre-code melodrama.

It opens with a young woman walking the dark streets of London in the fog and she’s being shadowed by two policemen. They assume she’s one of the ladies of the night, although she seems very jumpy for a streetwalker.

Sir Gerald Courtney (Gilbert Emery) is waiting at home for the arrival of his son Russell (John Darrow). Russell is coming to dinner. Russell stays for a few minutes and then rushes off. Sir Gerald is hurt and disappointed. And worried, when he sees his son get into a car in which his latest floozy, Berthine (Margaret Livingston), is waiting.

He isn’t concerned that Russell is drinking and chasing women. Sir Gerald is a man of the world. He understands that Russell needs to sow a few wild oats. But Sir Gerald strongly disapproves of Berthine. He is sure that she is a gold digger (ands he’s right).

Then there’s a knock on the door. It’s that nervous woman we saw in the opening sequence. She tells Sir Gerald that the police are after her and begs to be allowed in. Sir Gerald doesn’t approve of the police harassing young women, even if they are streetwalkers.

And the young woman, June (Betty Compson) is indeed a prostitute. A very inexperienced prostitute. Sir Gerald suggests that she stay to dinner and he pours out his troubles to her. June is a whore but she’s a nice girl.

Since June is a prostitute Sir Gerald tells her that he would like to put in a bid for her services. No, not the usual services. He has something else in mind. He hopes to use June to lure his son away from Berthine.

Sir Gerald sets her up in a flat in the same building as Russell, and equips her with an expensive wardrobe. The trap is set, and since June is a very attractive young lady she soon attracts Russell’s attention.

Of course when you start playing games with people’s emotions you’re going to get complications. And in this case the complications are potentially devastating.

There’s plenty of pre-code naughtiness. There are open references to prostitution, and to illicit sex. The movie also takes aim at sexual hypocrisy. And the heroine of the movie is both a really sweet girl and a hooker. Once the Production Code started to be enforced she would have had to come to an unpleasant end to pay for her sins. But this was the pre-code era and she’s the most sympathetic and morally admirable character in the movie and she doesn’t apologise for being a prostitute.

It’s also a movie that doesn’t back away from the fact that life presents genuine moral dilemmas. Sir Gerald thinks he’s doing the right thing. June thinks she’s doing the right thing. But do they really have the right to manipulate Russell the way they do?

The movie’s attitude towards sex is casual and open-minded but of course when love enters the picture things can always get awkward.

Betty Compson as June is OK but a bit melodramatic. It’s a bit in the silent movie style.

At times the acting in general is rather mannered. More so than is usual for pre-code movies.

George Archainbaud directed and his approach is not exactly inspired. A better director could have done more with the subject matter.

This was made before the Production Code put storytelling into a straitjacket and the ending reflects this.

This is one of five pre-code movies included in Kino Lorber’s RKO Classic Romances DVD boxed set. The transfer is acceptable but not startling.

The Lady Refuses is a reasonably enjoyable romantic melodrama and its pre-code credentials cannot be questioned. It’s not one of the great pre-code movies but it’s worth a look. Recommended.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Alphaville (1965) Blu-Ray review

When Jean-Luc Godard made Alphaville in 1965 he was coming to the end of the first phase of his career. This was before he became obsessed with politics.

Alphaville was certainly a surprise. No-one expected Godard to make a science fiction movie, but Godard in those days liked to surprise people.

The movie appears to be set around thirty years into the future. Secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) arrives in Alphaville. He has travelled over vast distances of space and time. By car. It’s that sort of movie. Godard wants to disorient us. And he succeeds.

Alphaville is a totalitarian dystopia run by a super-computer called Alpha 60. After freeing himself of the unwanted attentions of a level-three seductress (Lemmy can find his own women) he makes contact with another agent. He believes the key is Professor von Braun, also known as Professor Nosferatu. Lemmy meets the professor’s daughter, Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina). She’s a strange girl. But everyone in Alphaville is strange. Many words are banned, and many thought cannot be expressed. Those who express thoughts that others cannot understand are executed. It’s all for the common good.

There is talk of mutants, and superior beings.

Eventually Lemmy attracts the attention of Alpha 60. The computer is puzzled by Lemmy. He might be dangerous.

Lemmy doesn’t think much of Alphaville but he can’t just cut and run because he’s become fascinated by Natacha. He is trying to explain to her the concept of love, which confuses her a great deal.

It all leads up to an action finale, with gun battles and car chases.

Science fiction fans at the time would have found the science fictional ideas in this film to be pretty trite and hackneyed. Dystopias run by super-computers would have seemed like a very tired idea. But to the art film school, who had never demeaned themselves by watching or reading anything as crass as science fiction, the ideas would have been exciting.

Godard in his early career wasn’t too bothered by plotting anyway. The fact that the script is ponderous and pretentious doesn’t matter. It’s the way Godard handles the subject matter, the way he shoots the movie, that makes Alphaville a great movie. And a startling movie.

The idea of doing a science fiction movie in film noir style is a good one. And giving the movie a hardboiled tough guy hero straight out of pulp fiction was inspired.

Of course Godard loved Hollywood crime B-movies, and those were the movies that inspired the French Lemmy Caution movies in the 50s and early 60s. And I think it’s obvious that Godard wanted an art movie that was pulpy and hardboiled, or maybe he wanted to make a hardboiled pulpy movie that was arty.

The approach works and gives Alphaville a totally distinctive feel.

Godard had no money for lavish sets so he just used modernist buildings in Paris to represent the soulless mechanistic world of Alphaville. It works.

Eddie Constantine’s performance is quite unlike the performances he gave in the actual Lemmy Caution movies. There’s very little of the wise-cracking which was his signature in those movies. In Alphaville he’s serious, grim and determined. And he’s excellent.

Anna Karina gives a nicely enigmatic performance. Howard Vernon as Professor von Braun doesn’t get much to do but he makes the professor weird and sinister (and more sinister because he probably really does think he’s doing the right thing), which is what was required.

A dystopia is just what you always get when you try to create a utopia and the movie gets that across effectively.

I saw this movie years ago but that was on a very early Criterion DVD release and Criterion in those days had massive quality control problems. That DVD was truly terrible. The Australian Blu-Ray from Umbrella on the other hand is extremely good. The only extra is an interview with Anna Karina. She has some interesting things to say about cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s despair when he discovered how Godard wanted the movie shot. Godard of course turned out to be right.

I highly recommend checking out the earlier Lemmy Caution movies such as Poison Ivy (La Môme vert-de-gris, 1953) and Women Are Like That (1960). They have little to do with Alphaville but they will give you some insight into why Godard knew that he had to have Eddie Constantine in this movie.

Alphaville is a strange little movie that isn’t quite like any other movie. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Grease (1978)

Until now Grease is a movie that I had overlooked completely. It’s not that I’ve tried to avoid it, it’s just one of those movies I never got around to seeing. I approached it with certain expectations, and those expectations turned out to be spectacularly off-base.

I had expected a nostalgia-laden affectionate homage to 1950s America. In fact Grease has absolutely zero to do with the 1950s. There is not the slightest attempt to capture any of the spirit of 1950s music, movies, fashion or any aspect of 1950s pop culture. Grease is pure 1970s, all the way though.

But it is set in the 1950s. The fact that it bears no resemblance to the real 1950s, and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the 1950s of 1950s pop culture, makes it rather interesting. It also bears very little resemblance to the actual 1970s. Grease takes place in an alternative universe which has been constructed by throwing together random bits of pop culture from the previous 50 years. It’s a weird mishmash. It’s like a drug-induced fever dream.

One of the amusing perennial features of teen movies is that they usually do not include a single actual teenager. Grease takes this to extremes. We have 30-year-old Olivia Newton-John playing an innocent teenage girl, and we have 34-year-old (!) Stockard Channing as a teenage. This should have been enough to sink the movie but it just adds to the weird slightly surreal fantasy vibe.

We can dispose of the plot pretty quickly. An Australian girl named Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) has a chaste holiday romance with a nice boy named Danny (John Travolta). It comes to an end, as all holiday romances, come to an end. Sandy is going home to Australia.

But the story doesn’t end there. When Danny goes back to school at Rydell High School he is more than a little surprised to meet the new girl at school - yes, it’s Sandy. She didn’t go back to Australia after all. The attraction between them is still there but Sandy is shocked to discover that Danny is actually a bad boy. And she’s a good girl. Can a good girl find happiness with a bad boy?

There are various other sub-plots going on, involving the T-Birds (Danny’s gang) and the Pink Ladies (not exactly a female gang but they hang around with the T-Birds).

Despite not looking remotely like teenagers all the cast members are good, with Stockard Channing being outstanding and giving the only really nuanced performance in the movie.

In the final analysis however Grease was always going to stand or fall on the performances of the two leads. They come through with flying colours. Travolta has real charm. Olivia Newton-John is adorable. And when she cuts loose at the end, surprisingly sexy.

I’m not totally convinced about the job done by director Randal Kleiser. The movie is certainly colourful but the staging of the musical numbers is a bit uninspired. It was a long wait to hear the movie’s big hit, You’re the One That I Want, and it deserved a more stylish treatment. On the whole the actual songs however are pretty good. The songs are very much 70s songs.

Another delightfully weird thing in this movie is Sandy’s outfit at the end. She decides to transform herself into the kind of girl she thinks Danny wants. You might expect her to come out looking like a 1950s female juvenile delinquent, or a 1950s movie starlet. But in fact she looks like she’s auditioning for an S&M bondage video. It’s like a disco version of fetish gear. It is kind of sexy, but it’s unexpected to say the least.

Grease is a remarkably vulgar movie in every sense of the word. It revels in its bad taste. That’s part of its weird charm. It’s not ugly vulgarity. It’s cheerful bright and breezy vulgarity.

This is a movie that really is all about sex. The kids in this movie certainly want to find love, but they consider sex to be an essential ingredient in love.

What I was expecting was a light fluffy feelgood musical romance. What I got was more of a bizarre psychotronic movie. It’s a movie that exists in its own universe which slightly resembles the 1950s, but only slightly. It’s not that it’s a fantasy movie as such. It’s just slightly detached from any actual reality.

It’s not what I expected, but it’s more interesting than I expected.

Grease is fun in its own distinctive way. I enjoyed it.

The 40th anniversary DVD includes lots of extras and the transfer is fine.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Ride Clear of Diablo (1954)

What’s better than an Audie Murphy western? How about an Audie Murphy western with Dan Duryea thrown in as a bonus? That’s what Universal-International’s 1954 Ride Clear of Diablo offers.

It starts with cattle rustling, which leaves a rancher named O’Mara and his son dead. O’Mara’s other son Clay (Audie Murphy) arrives from Denver to find the men who killed his family.

Clay persuades the local sheriff to deputise him. Clay wants to do some investigating. What he doesn’t know is that he’s being set up. He’s been advised to ride to Diablo to talk to a man named Whitey Kincade (Dan Duryea). In fact he’s been told to arrest Kincade on a murder charge.

The idea of the setup is that Whitey Kincade, a noted gunslinger, will surely kill Clay. The sheriff and the O’Mara family lawyer want Clay out of the way.

It should have been a fool-proof plan. Clay is an innocent youngster. He comes across as someone more suited to teaching Sunday school than taking on hardened gunmen. There’s just one flaw to the plan. Clay really is an innocent, but he’s also the fastest gun you ever saw and he’s one tough hombre when it comes to fistfights. Clay has no problem bringing in Whitey, much to the consternation of the sheriff and his accomplices.

Whitey is a bad guy and he’s a killer but he’s likeable. He takes a liking to Clay, and Clay gradually decides that Whitey isn’t so bad after all.

The plot of the movie is mostly concerned with Clay’s fruitless attempts to find his family’s killers. The attempts are fruitless because people he trusts keep feeding him false information.

People he trusts also keep trying to arrange to have him killed.

The audience knows from the beginning what is going on, and knows the identity of the killers. The suspense comes from the fact that Clay has no idea what’s going on and as a result he’s in constant danger.

Dan Duryea steals every scene he’s in. It’s am amusing totally over-the-top performance, even by Dan Duryea standards. Whitey is the most interesting character in the movie because he’s the only ambiguous character. He might turn out to be one of the good guys or one of the bad guys.

Audie Murphy is, as usual, very good.

Susan Cabot is reasonably good as the sheriff’s niece. She’s the love interest for Clay, with the complication that her uncle wants Clay dead although Clay hasn’t figured that out. Abbe Lane is fun as saloon girl Kate. She’s a bad girl, but she’s not evil.

Audie Murphy and Dan Duryea work beautifully together, with Murphy very understated while Duryea chews every piece of scenery he can get his hands on. They manage to make an unlikely friendship seem believable.

The supporting cast is adequate but this movie really badly needed a more memorable villain. All the villains are a bit on the colourless side.

Director Jesse Hibbs ended up working mostly in television but he did helm a later Audie Murphy movie, the excellent Ride a Crooked Trail. Ride Clear of Diablo isn’t quite as good. Don’t expect any spectacular visuals.

The 101 Films DVD is barebones but the transfer is pretty decent. The colours look OK.

Ride Clear of Diablo is really just a stock-standard competently made B-western with a revenge theme but Murphy and Duryea make it worth watching. It moves along quickly and there are some decent action scenes. Recommended for western fans.

Monday, April 3, 2023

The Common Law (1931)

The Common Law is a 1931 RKO pre-code romance directed by Paul L. Stein and it’s a movie that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention.

Valerie West (Constance Bennett) travels to Paris after deciding to break with the wealthy Dick Carmedon (Lew Cody) who has been keeping her for some time. Valerie applies for a job as an artist’s model. John Neville (Joel McCrea) is an American trying to make a name for himself as an artist, against the opposition of his wealthy blue-blood family.

At first Valerie is just a little nervous about posing nude, but she soon gets over that. John is delighted with her - she becomes his muse as well as his model. Initially Valerie is not expecting to get personally involved with John, but romance inevitably starts to blossom. Soon John and Valerie are sleeping together.

John has some old-fashioned ideas. He wants to marry Valerie. At least he wants to marry her until he finds out about her previous relationship with Dick Carmedon. He is horrified to discover that his intended bride wasn’t an innocent virgin until he came along. The wedding is most definitely called off.

John indulges himself in self-pity. He can no longer paint. Valerie turns to pleasure-seeking but it doesn’t satisfy her.

Their paths will cross again. The question is whether John can accept that maybe a woman like Valerie might be worth marrying.

There are other obstacles in the way of this romance, the biggest being John’s interfering bitch of a sister, Clare (played by Hedda Hopper, later to become the notorious gossip columnist).

This being a pre-code movie you can’t be quite sure how it will end. That’s one of the many joys of pre-code movies.

Constance Bennett was a very major star in the pre-code era and she’s excellent. Joel McCrea is equally good in a fairly tough rôle - he has to make John a sympathetic character even though he’s a prig and a fool. McCrea makes use of his considerable charm and pulls it off reasonably well.

The supporting cast is fine, with Lew Cody playing Dick Carmedon as a likeable fellow who simply ignores the social conventions. Hedda Hopper really is smoothly sinister as the manipulative Clare.

Are we in genuine pre-code territory with this movie? The answer is definitely in the affirmative. It’s made clear that at the beginning of the story Valerie is a kept woman. It’s made crystal clear that John and Valerie are sleeping together even though they have no firm plans for marriage. Valerie poses nude. And yet, in spite of all these grievous sins, she’s an entirely sympathetic character. She’s a really nice girl. And these sins have not led her to a life of misery in the gutter. The movie is typically pre-code in the sense that it’s not attacking marriage, merely suggesting that maybe having sex outside of marriage isn’t a big deal. And it suggests that posing nude is a perfectly reasonable way for a girl to make a living. Maybe women like Valerie don’t deserve to be punished. After 1934 the Production Code would have insisted that she be shown to be severely punished.

To put its pre-code credentials beyond doubt there’s even a fleeting nude scene.

This film is included in Pre-Code RKO, a five-movie DVD boxed set from Manga Films. It’s a Spanish release but all five movies are in English with removable Spanish subtitles. The transfer of The Common Law is more than acceptable. This boxed set is pretty much a must-buy if you’re a pre-code fan.

The Common Law is a rather delightful romance. I have no idea why it isn’t better known since it has most of the ingredients that pre-code fans crave. Highly recommended.