Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Hindenburg (1975)

The 1970s was the decade of the disaster movie so it was probably inevitable that sooner or later someone would make a movie about the Hindenburg disaster. Robert Wise got the job and The Hindenburg came out in 1975.

It posed a few challenges. Movies like Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure dealt with disasters that unfold over a long time period. A lot of the running time of those movies was taken up by the disasters. The Hindenburg disaster took minutes. So how do you fill a two-hour running time? The obvious answer was to turn it into a suspense movie by introducing the idea of a possible plot to blow up the giant airship. Most of the movie can then be occupied by efforts to uncover and foil the plot.

The second problem was the same one that faces anyone making a movie about the Titanic. The audience knows how the story is going to end, they know that disaster cannot be averted. The Hindenburg solves that problem by focusing not on the disaster itself but on the why and the how. The central character is German Air Force intelligence officer Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) who has been given the job of security officer. His job is the make sure that the Hindenburg’s voyage is completed safely.

The third problem is that the story will have to be told mostly from the German viewpoint. Therefore the movie goes to elaborate lengths to convince us that Colonel Ritter is a Good German who hates the Nazis. The movie covers itself even more thoroughly by persuading us that the Zeppelin company who built the Hindenburg is also run by Good Germans who hate the Nazis.

Richard Levinson and William Link provided the story. These were the men responsible for the superb 1970s Ellery Queen TV series, and Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. They should have been capable of coming up with a decent plot, and in fact the core plot is reasonably good.

The Hindenburg is about to take off on a flight from Frankfurt to New York. An anonymous letter is received, claiming that the zeppelin is going to be blown up. For prestige reasons the flight can’t be cancelled but elaborate precautions are taken. The airship is searched thoroughly and as well as Ritter there is a Gestapo man assigned to help his investigations during the flight.

With a saboteur loose on board there was the potential for mystery, suspense and action but the potential isn’t realised. The identity of the saboteur is revealed too early and is in fact blindingly obvious right from the start - nobody else has a motive.

This makes the other passengers rather uninteresting since we know they’re not involved in the conspiracy. They’re just there to play out subplots to pad out the running time. And at 125 minutes this movie is much much too long. These other characters are also very poorly developed. There’s a pianist who is only there so he can sing an anti-Hitler song in a musical interlude with is embarrassing, heavy-handed and out-of-place. It belongs in a Mel Brooks movie. Some of the other characters serve even less purpose.

The one character who should have been interesting is the German countess played by Anne Bancroft. She and Ritter have a history. There should have been some romantic tension between them, but it doesn’t happen. It’s a pity. Bancroft is very good (probably the best thing in the movie) but the script doesn’t give her enough to work with. We really need Ritter and the Countess to care about each other, to give the movie at least some emotional content.

There are some good character actors here (including Gig Young and Burgess Meredith) but the only one who impresses is Charles Durning as the captain of the Hindenburg, largely because he’s the only character with a slight amount of depth.

Roy Thinnes is OK as the movie’s token Nazi, Gestapo agent Martin Vogel, but the character is just a standard movie Nazi.

Wise makes the odd decision to switch to black-and-white once disaster strikes. This was so he could intercut actual newsreel footage with new footage. It’s jarring and it totally destroys the suspension of disbelief. The viewer loses interest because the movie no longer seems real. The disaster, rather than being the climax of the movie, becomes a sort of epilogue.

The special effects are mostly good. It’s a handsome-looking movie. The zeppelin model looks great. The shots of the Zeppelin’s interior are effective and atmospheric.

Nothing could have saved the Hindenburg but the movie could have been saved. The script just needed a lot more work. The minor characters needed to be fleshed out just a little. The major characters needed to be more fully developed. And a bit of action here and there wouldn’t have hurt - surely the hunt for a saboteur could have generated at least one action sequence. A bit more urgency was needed. The basic plot idea was however perfectly sound.

The Hindenburg really is strictly for disaster movie completists.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Island of Doomed Men (1940)

Island of Doomed Men is a 1940 Columbia B-feature notable mainly for its star, Peter Lorre.

Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcox) has just started work as an undercover agent for the U.S. government. He is now Agent 64 and his first assignment is to work with Agent 46 on what is proving to be a difficult case. Agent 46 just has time to tell Sheldon that their target is a man named Stephen Danel (we will soon find out that Danel is played by Peter Lorre) and and that Danel is working some mysterious new racket. Having imparted this scanty information Agent 46 is shot dead through a window by an unknown gunman.

Sheldon is caught by the police leaving the scene and is arrested, charged with the murder and convicted. He is sent to prison. His first case has ended in disaster and the government doesn’t lift a finger to help him out.

There is someone who is willing to help Mark Sheldon. Stephen Danel is a noted philanthropist. He helps a lot of convicts. He arranges parole for them. They are released into his custody. They are then taken to his private island. There they will be offered good honest work in pleasant conditions, free from any temptation to return to crime.

At least that’s what the Parole Board thinks. In reality Danel’s private island is a slave island. The parolees are kept in appalling conditions and worked until they die. Discipline is brutal, enforced by Captain Cort (Charles Middleton, yes the Emperor Ming himself from the Flash Gordon serials).

Danel’s wife Lorraine (Rochelle Hudson) is more or less a prisoner as well, albeit a prisoner kept in luxury. She married Danel because she wanted security and a comfortable life, and she has had three years in which to regret her decision.

Lorraine only met Sheldon briefly when he arrived on the island but she’s become rather obsessed by him. Maybe it’s love at first sight, or maybe she just thinks Sheldon can help her to escape.

Sheldon still takes his government agent job seriously. He still has plans to bring Danel to justice but he can’t do that as a prisoner. He has concluded that the only way to escape is by fomenting a rebellion amongst the slave parolees.

Robert Wilcox is a somewhat colourless hero. Rochelle Hudson as Lorraine is unfortunately dull and lifeless. Charles Middleton on the other hand is excellent as the cynical sadistic captain Cort.

Peter Lorre is of course the reason to watch this movie. He’s in fine form as the sinister diabolical criminal mastermind Danel. Lorre is smart enough not to overdo things. He knows he can make Danel much more terrifying by making him a man who is always rigidly under control, a man confident of his absolute power. Lorre is aiming for subtle menace and he achieves it.

What makes Lorre’s performance more effectively creepy is that he knows Lorraine hates him, he knows he can only keep her by making her more or less a prisoner, but he doesn’t care. She belongs to him and he intends to retain possession of her. This aspect of the movie, the suggestion that Danel wants submission rather than love, adds just a slight hint of kinkiness.

The plot has some decent twists but you really don’t want to think too much about this plot. Is it really credible that a government agency would recruit an agent and then let him be convicted of a crime and rot in prison? I’d have thought that treating your agents this way would led to serious morale problems. It’s also questionable whether there was ever enough evidence for a successful murder prosecution. And does the Parole Board really do nothing to check up on parolees? But there’s nothing more boring than an excessive concern about plot coherence.

This was 1940, with the Production Code at its strictest, so the sadism of Danel and Cort is severely muted which robs the movie of some of the impact it should have had.

Island of Doomed Men isn’t great but it’s a fun B-movie and Peter Lorre’s performance is sufficient reason to see it. Recommended.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Detour (1945)

According to legend Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour was made for peanuts (some claim the budget was as low as $30,000) and shot in around six days. In reality it had an average sort of budget for a Poverty Row feature (just under $120,000) and was shot in fourteen days. Be that as it may Detour remains of the greatest noirs of them all. And one of the finest American movies of the 40s.

Detour ticks just about every noir box there is. We get voiceover narration (from the protagonist, Al), flashbacks, a femme fatale, night shot, shadows, fog, seediness, paranoia and despair.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is hitchhiking to LA. Al plays piano in a small club (more of a dive really) in New York. It’s not much of a career for a man who once had ambitions but Sue makes it bearable. Sue sings in the club. Al and Sue are going to get married. Al is crazy about Sue. Then Sue decides to head for Hollywood in the hope of finding stardom.

Al sticks it out on his own for a while but he can’t stand it. He has to go to LA to be with Sue. He has no money so he has to hitchhike. He knows about the annoyances and hazards of hitchhiking but he has no choice.

He will soon discover some hazards of hitchhiking that he didn’t know about. It all begins when he gets a lucky break. He gets picked up in Arizona by a guy named Haskell. Haskell is going all the way to LA and he’d be glad of the company.

Being picked up by Haskell turns out to have been not so lucky after all.

And then he meets Vera (Ann Savage) and she gets him out of one jam and into a much bigger one. There’s nothing he can do about it. She holds the whip hand.

Vera isn’t the kind of femme fatale who manipulates a man with soft words and caresses. Vera is like a rattlesnake. Fate has given her power over Al and she intends to use it. It’s one of the most over-the-top performances in film history. It’s breathtaking in its excessiveness.

Which brings us to Al. With its very tight 66-minute running time this movie can’t waste any time. It has to let us know certain things quickly and economically. The first thing we notice is Al’s self-pity and we know from the flashbacks that this is a core part of his personality. He felt sorry for himself long before life started to give him a hard time. He is bitter and resentful.

The key to Detour is of course the question of whether Al is an unreliable narrator. The entire story is told from his point of view. We have some slight cause to wonder how truthful he’s being, but we have much stronger cause to wonder whether we’re basically being told the truth, but a very distorted version of the truth. We wonder how clearly Al sees the world. We certainly have doubts about how clearly he sees himself. We might even have tiny niggling doubts about his sanity.

But we don’t really know because Ulmer has no intention of making things easy for us. It’s possible that Al really is an unlucky guy who just can’t catch a break, but we’re certainly meant to regard his self-justifications with scepticism.

In 1944 Martin Goldsmith wrote a screenplay for Detour based on his own novel. It was very very different from the film that Ulmer eventually made, with lots of additional characters and two viewpoint characters. Lew Landers was given the director’s job. At a very late stage Landers was reassigned to another project and Ulmer took over as director. The final shooting script still bore very little resemblance to the completed film. It seems that at the last moment Ulmer decided the movie would be much more interesting with a single relentlessly subjective viewpoint. Anything outside Al’s direct experience was simply jettisoned from the script. Ulmer’s last-minute decision was undoubtedly correct.

Tom Neal is superb as the shifty self-pitying Al. Neal has the distinction of being one the few film noir stars to be charged with murder in real life (he shot his wife).

Ann Savage gives one of the wildest most extraordinary performances in film history. She’s positively terrifying. Of course you have to remember that we’re seeing Vera through Al’s eyes so we may be getting a totally distorted view of her. But Savage’s job as an actress was to show us Vera through Al’s eyes and that’s what she does.

The Criterion DVD (which is the edition I own) includes some extras. By far the most interesting is found in the liner note - a detailed description of the film’s production history and the many many changes the screenplay went through.

Detour is one of the three or four finest American noirs ever made. A superb movie. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Red-Headed Woman, directed by Jack Conway and released by MGM in 1932, is perhaps the most cheerfully amoral of all pre-code movies. In fact it might even be described as cheerfully immoral. It’s huge amounts of fun either way.

It’s one of Jean Harlow’s three greatest movies (the others being Red Dust and Bombshell).

Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a girl on the make. She was born on the wrong side of the tracks but she intends to get herself over onto the right side of the tracks and stay there. She has set her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre Jr (Chester Morris). He’s an up-and coming executive but more importantly his family has pots of money. And respectability. Marrying Bill would be a smart movie for Lil. There are however two minor problems. Bill is already married, and he loves his wife. Lil believes that these are very minor obstacles.

What Lil’s seduction technique lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer fanatical determination. She is simply not going to give up.

Lil achieves her objective but then finds she has some major new problems to deal with. She has made an advantageous marriage but respectable society in Renwood will not have anything to do with her. She is snubbed, in a particularly callous and cruel way. Lil is genuinely hurt and humiliated.

But you can’t keep a bad girl down. No matter how severe the setback Lil will always pick herself up and try again. Or, more usually, she will try a different strategy. She has a pretty clever strategy in mind to deal with this situation and she has prepared the groundwork already.

Lil will have plenty of further ups and downs but she will never admit defeat.

The very pre-code ending is everything one could hope for.

Harlow is in sparkling form. Lil is unscrupulous and dishonest and manipulative but one can’t help admiring her unquenchable spirit. She is also vulgar, trashy and obvious but that’s the secret to her success. Girls who are pretty, sexy and trashy are irresistible to men. And Lil oozes sex. Lil could have been a monster but Harlow manages to get the audience on Lil’s side. She’s just such a cute adorable bad girl.

Harlow of course looks gorgeous. She looks gorgeous in a cheap glitzy trashy sort of way but Harlow could always pull that off with style.

Chester Morris is pretty good as well. Where Lil is concerned Bill is torn between repulsion and attraction and Morris conveys this effectively.

Una Merkel almost steals the picture as Lil’s best friend, the delightfully ditzy Sally. Una Merkel is always fun in pre-code movies.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the screenplay but Irving Thalberg hated it. It lacked the wit and playfulness that Thalberg wanted, so he hired Anita Loos to do a complete rewrite. Loos was the right woman for the job. This is the sort of thing she did supremely well and she produced a sparkling and very playfully naughty script which delighted Thalberg.

It’s that playfulness that incensed the moral watchdogs. It’s bad enough that the movie deals with adultery but to deal with that subject flippantly and with cheerful approval was just too much. This is wickedness played for laughs. 

Even worse, when her men lose patience with her and slap her she enjoys it.

Lil has her share of temporary defeats but at no time does it ever occur to her that she is doing anything morally wrong. When things get tough for her that just means that she needs to readjust her strategy. She has never considered the option of becoming a good girl. She intends to be a rich girl. She was born without any of the advantages that would allow her to be a rich good girl, so she’ll be a rich bad girl. She never has any regrets and she never apologises for being what she is.

And the movie never apologies for being what it is. If you’re thinking that maybe somewhere along the line some hint of moral disapproval, or some hint that sin has to be paid for, will sneak its way into this picture then you’re going to be disappointed. As far as this movie is concerned sin pays.

Red-Headed Woman is one of the great pre-code movies. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Raw Deal (1948)

Raw Deal is the most admired of Anthony Mann’s 1940s films noirs, and with good reason.

Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) is doing time in the state penitentiary and he’s not enjoying it. He took the rap for Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) and Rick owes him a major favour. Now Joe’s girlfriend Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) brings him the good news. Rick is going to pay his debt. Joe is going to be busted out of prison that night.

Joe has had another female visitor. Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) has taken an interest in his case. She thinks there may be a way for to him get parole in a couple of years. She doesn’t understand that Joe isn’t prepared to wait. He wants out now.

What is Ann’s interest in Joe? Is she just a do-gooder or does she have a crush on him? We suspect the latter might be the case. Ann herself is probably not really being honest with herself about her motivations at this stage.

Throughout the movie we get a voiceover narration from Pat, a very film noir touch.

The prison break goes well at first but then little things start to go wrong. Joe and Pat need a place to hide out. They pick Ann’s apartment. Joe decides they should take Ann along - the cops will not be looking for a man accompanied by two women.

Pat is a jealous woman and she doesn’t like Ann one little bit. She also doesn’t trust her. Ann keeps trying to persuade Joe to give himself up.

The audience knows more than Joe. We know that the odds are stacked against him in ways he nows nothing about. There’s going to be a double-cross.

The fugitive trio manage to stay one step ahead of the law but they never seem able to get clear entirely. We don’t get to know a single cop by name. The police are just a sinister presence in the background, which is also very film noirish. Our sympathies are entirely with the fugitives.

There’s a powerful sense of impending doom. The odds really are heavily stacked against Joe and his two female companions (one willing and one unwilling).

There’s plenty of suspense which Mann handles with considerable skill.

Joe is a fairly classic noir hero. He’s a criminal and makes no apologies for that but he shows frequent flashes of decency. We feel that he is probably doomed but doesn’t really deserve to be doomed. Joe isn’t stupid but he has a streak of noir fatalism. Dennis O’Keefe really is excellent in this rôle. He doesn’t try to make Joe an idealised hero but he manages to make him sympathetic.

There’s no textbook femme fatale. Ann is emotionally and morally ambiguous and she makes things very complicated and she has the potential to get Joe into a lot of trouble but she’s not a consciously scheming femme fatale. She may however do a bit of unconscious scheming. It’s obvious that she is sexually and emotionally attracted to Joe even if she tries not to admit it to herself, and it’s obvious that even if she doesn’t set out to be Pat’s rival that is what she becomes in practice. Ann is a complex fascinating female character who can’t be slotted neatly into either the good girl or bad girl category. Marsha Hunt’s performance is subtle and effective.

Pat is the loyal girlfriend who knows she’s a fool for falling for a guy like Joe. For my money she is a bit overshadowed by Marsha Hunt (who has the advantage of the more interesting rôle) but I can’t fault Claire Trevor’s performance.

Raymond Burr is of course fun as the slippery Rick.

This is a film noir but it’s also a couple-on-the-run movie, an ever-popular genre, Hitchcock had already made a couple of these movies and in the same year that Raw Deal came out They Live By Night would also appear.

Raw Deal is one of those movies that challenges any assumption we might have about the auteur theory. Anthony Mann directed the movie and it’s very much an Anthony Mann movie. But it doesn’t have quite the flavour of most Anthony Mann movies. John Alton, the greatest of all noir cinematographers, was the director of photography. This movie has John Alton’s fingerprints all over it. It looks every inch like a John Alton movie.

Raw Deal
is also very much film noir. Some attempts have been made to describe the classic westerns Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart in the 50s as noir westerns. I don’t buy it. They’re serious grown-up westerns and they have some dark moments (especially Winchester ’73) but they’re not film noir. They belong wholeheartedly to the western genre.

Anthony Mann did make several noir films in the 40s. Thematically movies like the under-appreciated The Great Flamarion are very noir. But they don’t have that classic noir look that Raw Deal has. The only other Anthony Mann movie that really looks noir is the excellent T-Men, and John Alton did the cinematography for that one as well.

So is Raw Deal an Anthony Mann movie or a John Alton movie? The answer of course is that it’s both. Raw Deal is what you get when you have two very talented men collaborating.

You could also ask whether the noirness of Anthony Mann’s other 40s movies reflects Mann’s own vision or whether it reflects what was happening in Hollywood at the time. Darker themes and gloomier outcomes were fashionable and the Production Code had relaxed just enough to allow such movies to be made. Film noir was part of the zeitgeist of the 40s. As a young director trying to find his feet Mann would have been influenced by that zeitgeist. Mann’s 1950s westerns reflected the zeitgeist of the 50s. That’s not to say that directors like Mann did not have their own vision, it’s just to say that the individual visions of directors and the collective spirit of the film industry at a particular time interact on each other. Mann was always in touch with the zeitgeist of the time. His final movie in 1968 was a very very 1960s movie, a cynical morally ambiguous spy movie (the excellent A Dandy in Aspic).

Raw Deal ticks most of the noir boxes and there are very few movies that can match it when it comes to noir visual style. It’s also a gripping and entertaining movie. Very highly recommended.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Rain (1932), Blu-Ray review

Lewis Milestone’s tropical melodrama Rain (1932) was based on a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, which in turn was based on an excellent short story by W. Somerset Maugham. The story had been filmed in the silent era as Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. In 1953 would come Miss Sadie Thompson, a disastrously sanitised squeaky-clean version with Rita Hayworth.

It’s the story of a power struggle between a prostitute and a preacher man.

The steamer has just arrived in Pago Pago. The passengers include Dr Macphail and his wife and hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) and his malevolent wife. And also among the passengers is Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford). Davison and his wife were intending to leave on the following day on a schooner for a voyage to a remote island but a cholera outbreak among the schooner’s crew means they will be stuck in Pago Pago for two weeks. Sadie is leaving as soon as she can, for Apia.

It is raining. The rain is relentless and demoralising.

They are all stuck in the town’s only hotel, which is also the general store, run by the genial Joe Horn (Guy Kibbee).

Davidson and his wife are scandalised by Sadie’s behaviour. She entertains men (Marines from a nearby base) in her room. They listen to music and they dance. Even worse, they laugh. Davidson and his wife know sin when they see it.

Davidson is determined to save Sadie’s soul. If he can’t do that he intends to destroy her. Sin must be rooted out. There is an easy way to destroy her - by persuading the governor to deport her back to the United States. Sadie cannot go back to the States. We assume that she may have had an unfortunate misunderstanding with the authorities there.

At first it seems that Sadie is hopelessly outgunned. Davidson is a fanatic and he has powerful backers so he can force the governor to do his bidding.

This being a pre-code movie we can of course never be sure how the story will end. After 1934 virtue would have to triumph over vice and Sadie would have to suffer some suitable punishment (death being the preferred punishment for immoral women under the Production Code). But in a pre-code move anything can happen.

There are some good supporting performances. Guy Kibbee is as delightful as always. Beulah Bondi as Mrs Davidson gives us a creepy portrait of savage religious bigotry.

But this movie belongs to Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. It’s a joy to watch these two facing off. Both had immense screen presence and charisma. There is some subtlety in the characterisation of Sadie. She has her vulnerable side. She was not the aggressor. She just wanted to be left alone. She just cannot understand the determination of Davidson and his wife to destroy her. But Crawford shows us plenty of Sadie’s fun side as well. She’s a very good-natured bad girl. Crawford’s performance is a times just a bit mannered.

Walter Huston captures the chilling quality of the pious fanatic superbly. Huston was always at his best playing driven obsessive characters with an edge of fanaticism. Mr Davidson has no redeeming qualities. He is incapable of admitting that he could ever be wrong and he is merciless when he decides that someone is a sinner who must be destroyed.

It’s interesting that at no time is Sadie actually described as a prostitute, and we never see her engaging in prostitution. We assume that she has been earning her living for most of her life as a prostitute and it’s clear that every other character in the movie makes the same assumption. But the word is not used. I’m inclined to think that this wasn’t entirely due to timidity of the part of director Lewis Milestone or writer Maxwell Anderson. It’s necessary for the audience to be totally on Sadie’s side and it’s significant that we never actually see her commit a single immoral act. The audience is therefore primed to see Sadie as being a totally innocent victim of Davidson’s persecution.

This is contrast to both the short story and the play in which Sadie is openly plying her trade as a prostitute in Pago Pago. And it gives the movie an added punch. Sadie is being punished by Mr and Mrs Davidson for sins which exist only in their fevered repressed imaginations. And these are sins that are all the more heinous because they’re imaginary.

The theme of the movie is clearly the conflict between those who wish to control other people’s lives and those who want to be free to make their own choices. There are also internal conflicts within Mr and Mrs Davidson. They not only seek to control the lives of others, they are also subjecting themselves to rigid control. They are, if you want to get Freudian, repressed. They are so obsessed by sin that they will not allow any joy into their own lives. They are horrified by sex but it goes beyond that - any kind of fun is something for which they torture themselves with guilt.

There’s a certain inevitability about the ending and it’s an ending that would have been impossible two years later under the Production Code.

There are two crucial scenes in the movie, one of which is the key to Sadie’s character arc, the other being the key to Davidson’s character arc. If a viewer doesn’t buy these scenes then the movie won’t quite work for that person. Both scenes have been criticised for coming out of the blue, without a sufficient groundwork being laid. I don’t entirely accept those criticisms, although perhaps the groundwork needed to be laid a bit more thoroughly. I can’t say any more without giving away spoilers but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll find to which scenes I’m referring. Those two scenes are also crucial when it comes to judging the performances of Crawford and Huston.

Rain is an incredibly interesting movie. Whether you think it’s a great movie depends on the extent to which you enjoy Crawford’s performance (I did enjoy it). It’s one of the must-see pre-code movies. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

The Verdict (1964)

The Verdict, released in 1964, is a fairy late entry in the Merton Park cycle of Edgar Wallace crime thrillers. Most of these are very entertaining B-movies. This one is particularly good.

This is a gangster movie, but an unusual one.

Joe Armstrong (Cec Linder) has just arrived in London by air. He is an American gangster who has just been deported from the United States. The Americans were able to do this because although Joe has been active in the rackets in America for a quarter of a century he is actually a British subject.

Scotland Yard is not happy that such a notorious gangster is now going to be calling Britain home. They decide to do some digging into Joe’s past and they discover something extremely interesting.

It’s a very minor point about the visa that Joe used when he entered the US in 1939, but that visa is the clue to an old murder case. And Superintendent Brett (Derek Francis) thinks he can nail Joe for that murder.

Joe is understandably upset. He was hoping to enjoy a pleasant retirement in England, living on the ill-gotten gains he has accumulated over the years. That retirement will be even more pleasant since he will be sharing it with Carola (Zena Marshall). Carola is the kind of girl with whom any man would be happy to spend the ret of his life.

So Joe has to beat that murder rap. With the help of his right-hand man Larry Mason (Nigel Davenport) and not-too-honest lawyer Prendergast he thinks he can do it.

Back in the States it would be easy. You just bribe the judge, or the jury. Of course you can’t do that in Britain. Or at least that’s what everyone assumes. But maybe there is a way. So a very clever scheme is hatched.

There’s another problem for Joe to worry about. London gangster Danny Thorne (Paul Stassino) assumes Joe is going to move in on his territory. Danny has a better idea - a partnership. Much safer and more profitable than a gang war. Joe isn’t interested, but Danny thinks he can find a way to persuade him. Danny has a clever scheme of his own.

Joe’s plan is progressing smoothly. And now the plot twists start to kick in.

Arthur La Bern’s screenplay provides plenty of very devious plot twists. The high quality of the script should be no real surprise. La Bern also wrote another of the truly excellent Merton Park Wallace thrillers, Time to Remember (1962), and later went on to write Frenzy for Alfred Hitchcock. Time to Remember and The Verdict have very different plots but a slightly similar feel.

This seems to be the only movie in the cycle directed by David Eady. It’s hard to fault the job he does here.

The acting is top-notch. Cec Linder and Paul Stassino make fine rival gangsters. Nigel Davenport is terrific.

It is however Zena Marshall who steals the picture as Carola. She plays her as a very likeable girl with no morals whatever, a girl who comes across as a bit of an airhead but is really a smart cookie.

Network have as is customary given this movie an extremely good anamorphic transfer.

The Verdict is fast-moving, witty and clever and the intricate plot holds together without any problems.

The Verdict is wonderful entertainment. It belongs in the front rank of the movies in this consistently enjoyable cycle. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Great Flamarion (1945)

The Great Flamarion is an early (1945) film noir directed by Anthony Mann. It belongs to the fairly small sub-genre of noirs with a theatrical setting. The theatrical setting proves to be tailor-made for film noir.

Mann had directed a few movies before this and he was only a couple of years away from making his first really notable movies, T-Men and Raw Deal.

The Great Flamarion is certainly a genuine noir. The story is told in flashback. Flamarion is an authentic noir protagonist, a basically good if unhappy man with one major weakness, a weakness with the potential to lead him to ruin. And this movie most certainly has a full-fledged femme fatale, and a very memorable one too. It also has that characteristic noir sense of impending doom, and it has it in a big way.

It opens in Mexico City in 1936 with a shooting in a theatre, followed by some pretty impressive shots of a man seeking to escape in the scaffolding high above the stage.

We then get that flashback. It all began a few years earlier in Pittsburgh, with the Great Flamarion (Erich von Stroheim) as the headline act in a variety theatre. His act is an elaborate trick-shooting act done as a kind of mini-play. Flamarion is a marksman of uncanny skill. His two assistants, Connie Wallace (Mary Beth Hughes) and her husband Al (Dan Duryea), dice with death at every performance but they have absolute faith in Flamarion.

Al has a drinking problem and his marriage to Connie is not going well. There’s plenty of resentment on both sides. They’re trapped together.

Then Connie goes to Flamarion and confesses that she is in love with him. Flamarion is in general no fool but he is vulnerable when it comes to women. He has had nothing to do with the female sex for fifteen years. He is a lonely man. And Connie is young and beautiful. Flamarion allows himself to be convinced that she really is in love with him.

You can no doubt imagine where this story is leading, and the opening scene is a kind of prologue that gives us a fair idea of where the story is going to end up. Which doesn’t really matter. A film noir doesn’t need a dazzling plot. What it needs is atmosphere and mood, and a sense that the characters cannot escape their fate. It also needs us to care about the fate of the protagonist. It’s an advantage if we know where the plot is going. It reinforces the feeling of creeping doom. In all these areas this movie scores highly.

The three lead cast members are superb. Erich von Stroheim gives a restrained sensitive performance. Flamarion is a curmudgeon but we feel a considerable sympathy for him. Dan Duryea gives a typical Dan Duryea performance. In other words he’s excellent as Al, a man dangerously close to the edge. He also makes us feel that Connie is not being unreasonable in being somewhat afraid of him.

Mary Beth Hughes is a magnificent femme fatale. It’s difficult to imagine any man being able to avoid her snares. She really is the classic spider woman. One can’t help feeling that Mary Beth Hughes should have had a much more distinguished career. In the same year she made The Great Flamarion she had a starring role in The Lady Confesses (and she’s extremely good in that role) but that was a bottom-of-the-barrel PRC cheapie. On the evidence of The Great Flamarion she had a star potential that was never realised.

Mann pulls off a couple of nice set-pieces. The cinematography (by James S. Brown Jr) doesn’t offer full-blown noir night and shadows but that’s compensated to some extent by the seedy glamorous theatrical atmosphere.

It’s possible that The Great Flamarion has been largely ignored even by admirers of Anthony Mann’s work because it fell into the public domain years ago. This is a movie that probably needs a luxury Blu-Ray release in order to raise its profile. It’s more deserving of a Blu-Ray release than many of the movies that have received that treatment recently. This is a very fine Anthony Mann movie with some great acting and it’s highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo is a 1955 film noir released by Allied Artists. Allied Artists was the successor company to Monogram and they specialised in B+ pictures - movies budgeted midway between B-pictures and A-pictures, with better production values than the typical B-movie.

The Big Combo is certainly a lot more visually impressive than most B-features. That’s party due to having an imaginative director in the person of Joseph H. Lewis (who had made one of the greatest B-movies of all time, Gun Crazy, a few years earlier). But mostly it’s due to the work of genius cinematographer John Alton. Alton took the noir visual style and took it to a whole different level. No-one has ever understood light the way Alton understood it. The Big Combo’s claims to being a major entry in the noir canon rest as much on Alton’s contribution as on Lewis’s.

This is an obsessive cop story. The obsessive cop in this case is Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). He is consumed by his desire to nail big-time gangster Mr Brown (Richard Conte). His obsession has already landed him in trouble with the Police Department but he won’t let up.

What makes things more interesting (and more noirish) is that Diamond isn’t just a dedicated cop. He has a personal grudge against Mr Brown. That grudge is connected with Brown’s girlfriend Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace). Diamond is in love with Susan.

Susan takes too many pills one night and ends up in hospital. She is heard muttering the word Alicia. Diamond is convinced that that word is the key to breaking Brown. Diamond has no idea what the word’s significance might be, but his gut instincts tell him that it means more to Brown than it does to Susan, and that it represents something he has never been able to find - a weakness in Brown’s armour.

Finding out what the name signifies will be a formidable task. Diamond has nothing to go on. But he is a man obsessed and eventually he discovers something. Maybe it’s that key he’s been looking for.

Brown of course is taking action to cover his tracks, and the body count slowly rises.

There’s plenty of conflict between loyalty and betrayal in this movie. Diamond is going to have to find someone willing to betray Mr Brown. And Mr Brown has to be sure that he has taken watertight precautions to avoid betrayal in his own ranks, betrayal being an occupational hazard to gangsters. Brown knows all about betrayal - about being betrayed and betraying others.

Philip Yordan’s screenplay provides a very solid mystery plot.

This is however a movie that is impressive for its style rather than its substance. And it has a great deal of style. It has plenty of noir atmosphere as well.

It lacks some of the film noir trademarks. There’s no voiceover narration, there are no flashbacks, there is no femme fatale. Susan does not qualify as a true femme fatale. Her actions are not always wholly admirable but she’s in a tight spot and she’s just doing what she needs to do to survive. She has no interest in trying to corrupt or manipulate the hero. She never wanted him to fall for her and she never uses his feelings for her against him. She’s not a straightforward bad girl either. The worst thing she can be accused of is having made a mistake when she fell in love with Mr Brown. One thing that is interesting is the suggestion that her attraction to Brown is mostly sexual, and the very faint suggestion that she gets off on playing the submissive role. The erotic heat between Brown and Susan was rather daring for 1955.

Rita, a burlesque dancer with whom Diamond has had some kind of romantic entanglement, is no femme fatale either.

I’m not quite sure that Diamond is a classic noir protagonist either. His obsessiveness is taken to extremes and he is to some extent twisted up as a result. Perhaps Cornel Wilde just didn’t have the acting chops to show us the extent to which Diamond is in danger of running right off the rails.

Mr Brown is your basic gangster bad guy. He’s bad at the beginning of the story and he stays bad.

This is a movie that looks and feels like full-blooded film noir, in fact there are very few movies that look more noirish than this one, but thematically it’s a straightforward crime thriller albeit a fairly hard-edged one.

Cornel Wilde’s performance is very competent but not very inspired. Richard Conte is in wonderfully chilling form. Brian Donlevy is superb as Brown’s chief lieutenant, Joe McClure, a man who is both weak and ambitious. Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman are terrific as Brown’s two chief enforcers. They’re not very bright but they’re dangerous enough.

This is a really fine movie that edges its way into greatness by virtue of John Alton’s stunning cinematography and Lewis’s ability to create memorable visual set-pieces. The Big Combo is highly recommended.