Friday, June 30, 2023

Charley Varrick (1973)

Charley Varrick
certainly sounds promising. It was produced and directed by Don Siegel which is a very good start. And it was co-written by Howard Rodman, who also co-wrote the excellent Madigan for Siegel. Rodman’s achievements in television are second to none. He was story editor on Naked City and Route 66 and created one of the best-ever TV private eye series, Harry O. So does Charley Varrick live up to its promise? The short answer is, yes it does.

Charley Varrick is a somewhat battered crop-duster pilot. Earning a living crop-dusting became almost impossible - independents like Charley couldn’t compete with the big combines. Charley started to supplement his earnings by robbing banks, on a small scale.

His latest robbery, of a bank in Tres Cruces in New Mexico, looked easy but didn’t go so smoothly, with a trail of corpses left in its wake. That’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the robbery netted three-quarters of a million dollars. That was just not possible. A small local bank in a one-horse town in New Mexico would never have even a tenth of that amount of money on hand. Something is wrong. Charley thinks he knows what it is. He is pretty sure that he has inadvertently stolen Mob money. If he and his partner lie low for a while the police will eventually give up the chase. But not the Mob. If you steal money from the Mob they will pursue you to the ends of the Earth even if it takes years.

Charley’s partner Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) worries Charley as well. Charley knows that it will not be safe to spend any of the money for at least three or four years. Harman wants to spend his share right away. Harman isn’t interested in listening to Charley’s advice - he’s a young punk and he thinks Charley is a broken-down old man who has lost his nerve.

Charley is not the only one with troubles. Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) is really worried. He’s a fairly senior Mafia guy and he’s one of only two people who knew that all that Mafia money was sitting in that bank in Tres Cruces. He knows his superiors will suspect that it was an inside job, and he knows they’re going to suspect him. He’s going to have to act fast to get that money back. He dispatches hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker) to take care of this.

Charley meanwhile is giving the whole situation a lot of thought. He thinks he may have a plan that will allow him to keep the money and stay alive.

We don’t really think Charley is going to get away with it but we admire him for trying and maybe he’ll get lucky. To find out whether he does get away with it you’ll have to watch the movie.

I had never ever seen this movie until now. The poster and the fact that the star is Walter Matthau gave me the idea that it was going to be a lighthearted semi-comic romp. In fact there’s nothing lighthearted about this movie. It’s a rollercoaster of an action movie and it’s pretty dark.

The action scene with the crop-dusting biplane is inspired. There’s plenty of suspense and Siegel keeps things humming along at a brisk pace.

Matthau proves to be excellent in a rare serious role (the only other such role in which I can recall seeing him is in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and he’s excellent in that one as well). John Vernon is very good as always. Joe Don Baker adds major creepiness as the brutal Molly.

Kino Lorber as usual have provided a very good 16:9 enhanced transfer and as usual they’ve loaded with disc with entirely worthless extras. I bailed out of Toby Roan’s audio commentary after fifteen minutes when it became clear that he was just going to continue reading out every bit player’s screen credits from the IMDb. The making-of documentary is also very dreary.

Charley Varrick is top-notch entertainment with plenty of excitement and an unlikely hero we can’t help liking. Don Siegel was on a roll at the time, having made Dirty Harry a couple of years earlier. A few years after Charley Varrick he would make the superb spy thriller Telefon.

Charley Varrick is highly recommended.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Universal’s 1931 film version of Robert E. Sherwood’s play Waterloo Bridge (there have been several others) directed by James Whale is a movie that has attracted a great deal of praise. Does it deserve that praise? We shall see.

The setting is London during the First World War.

Myra (Mae Clarke) is an American chorus girl. Unable to get theatre work she has turned to prostitution. She picks up a young Canadian soldier named Roy Cronin (Douglass Montgomery although at the time he was acting under the name Kent Douglass). Confusingly we’re told at certain points that he’s Canadian and at other times we’re told he’s an American. Given that he’s in the British Army it seems more likely that he’s Canadian.

Roy is nineteen and he’s as dumb as a rock. He has no idea he has been picked up by a prostitute. This is my first issue with this movie. OK, he’s nineteen, but he’s a soldier and it’s implied that he has already spent some time at the Front and it stretches credibility that he would be quite so innocent.

Roy falls head over heels in love with Myra. He wants to marry her. Myra likes Roy as well but Myra is so consumed with guilt about her profession that she doesn’t know whether to grab her chance of love or push him away.

Roy decides to take his new girl to meet his folks. This is when Myra realises that Roy is filthy rich. Roy’s mother very quickly figures out that her son’s intended bride is a streetwalker and tells Myra that of course a marriage would be quite impossible.

Myra continues to obsess over her guilt while Roy is just thinking about wedding bells.

Eventually Myra’s landlady tells Roy the truth about Myra. That’s as much as I can tell you about the plot with giving away spoilers.

My second issue with this movie is that I didn’t particularly like any of the performances or any of the characters. Mae Clarke is OK as Myra. I understand that yes, a woman at that time might well be afflicted with self-hatred over being a prostitute but Myra takes it so far and lashes out irrationally at so many people that she’s very difficult to like. Perhaps it was expected at the time that audiences would have enjoyed seeing a bad girl suffer so much but the movie seems torn between being sympathetic to her and seeing her as a woman deservedly destined to destruction.

Douglass Montgomery as Roy Cronin irritated me a bit. He’s just so wholesome and dumb.

What would a James Whale movie be without grotesque female characters? Mercifully we don’t get Una O’Connor but we do get two female grotesques - Doris Lloyd as Myra’s screechy pal Kitty and Ethel Griffies as her landlady Mrs Hobley.

Frederick Kerr plays Roy’s dad Major Wetherby. The major is hard of hearing and a bit dotty. That’s amusing at first but eventually it becomes very wearying.

Bette Davis makes no impact at all in a nothing rôle as Roy’s sister Janet.

Apart from Myra the characters are paper-thin stereotypes.

Whale’s background was in the theatre and I personally find his movies to be excessively theatrical, and he seemed to want very theatrical performances from his actors. Waterloo Bridge feels very stagey. I have never warmed to Whale as a movie director and this movie does nothing to change my mind.

This is an agonisingly slow movie. It also suffers from being a very predictable story. I won’t reveal the ending but it’s as predictable as everything else in the film and it’s handled crassly and clumsily.

Waterloo Bridge is both reasonably open and also strangely coy about Myra’s profession. There is no pre-code celebration of sex or female sexuality here. A prostitute might be a nice girl but prostitutes are doomed to misery and suffering.

This movie is included in the TCM Forbidden Hollywood Volume 1 pre-code DVD boxed set. It’s a two-disc set with three movies, the other two being Red-Headed Woman and Baby Face. The discs are labelled incorrectly. I had major problems playing both discs and I never did manage to get Red-Headed Woman to play.

I found Waterloo Bridge to be a bit of a chore to watch. I’d be inclined to recommend giving it a miss.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

La Ronde (Circle of Love, 1964)

Roger Vadim’s La Ronde (AKA Circle of Love) was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play Reigen, a play that provoked outraged reactions when it was published in early 20th century Germany. It was banned at one point. It was not performed until 1920 when it provoked further outrage. The play has been adapted to film several times, the best-known versions being Max Ophüls’ 1950 film and Vadim’s 1964 offering. The script for Vadim’s movie was written by Jean Anouilh.

Arthur Schnitzler also wrote the extremely interesting 1926 short novel Traumnovelle on which Stanley Kubrick’s final movie Eyes Wide Shut was based.

The structure of the play (and the movie) is a series of ten sexual encounters with each character figuring in two consecutive encounters with different people.

One of the things that really intrigues me is the extraordinary critical hostility to Roger Vadim. Critics who are prepared to gush over mediocre Hollywood directors seem to be enraged at the thought of a European director who failed to be serious-minded, pessimistic and obscure. Vadim’s output as a director was varied, interesting and always entertaining. Maybe he wasn’t overly deep, maybe he wasn’t an Ingmar Bergman, but he was inventive and fun. American critics might also be offended that Vadim treats sex lightheartedly.

Vadim assembled a fascinating cast that included Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean Sorel and Maurice Ronet but the big drawcard here is provided by three wonderful actresses - Catherine Spaak, Anna Karina and Jane Fonda. Fonda, who is fluent in the language, did not need to be dubbed for the original French version.

Vadim chose to set his movie in France in 1914, in the last days of La Belle Epoque. This gives it a slight melancholy tinge - this is a world about to be swept away by war.

The various sexual encounters cross class boundaries, and cross the boundaries between the respectable and the non-respectable.

There’s also adultery (which was probably what got the original play into so much hot water).

By 1964 these things were no longer so shocking, in Europe at least.

This is a chance to see Jane Fonda at her peak as an actress. She’s delightful as the adulteress wife Sophie. I like all the actresses in this movie. I’m a huge Catherine Spaak fan (if you haven’t seen her delightful 1968 movie The Libertine then do so immediately) and I loved her here. Anna Karina is charming and amusing. I like Marie Dubois a great deal as the likeable prostitute.

I mostly like the actors as well, especially Claude Giraud as the soldier Georges and the great Maurice Ronet as Sophie’s husband. And I’ve always rather liked Jean Sorel (who plays the cynical Count).

Mention should be made of Henri Decaë’s lush cinematography and Maurice Binder’s witty and playful opening titles. I also loved Jane Fonda’s outrageous bird hat.

Vadim appeared to have no great interest in politics and perhaps that’s one of the reasons critics don’t like this movie. The opportunity was there for some biting political satire (and there is some) but Vadim was not particularly interested. Personally I’m grateful to Vadim for keeping the politics to a minimum.

Even by 1964 standards this movie is rather tame. There’s a lot of sex going on but we don’t see it and there’s a bit of almost-nudity.

A lot of people seem to prefer the 1950 Max Ophüls version. I can’t comment directly on that because I haven’t yet seen the Ophüls film although I am intending to do so in the near future.

I’ve reviewed a number of Roger Vadim’s movies over the years. The Night Heaven Fell (1958) and Love on a Pillow (1962) are both quirky intriguing offbeat movies. Barbarella (1968) of course is simply wonderful and I even have a definite soft spot for his much-reviled Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971).

The Kino DVD of La Ronde offers a very nice 16:9 enhanced transfer. The only extra of note is a brief interview with Vadim and Jane Fonda.

La Ronde is lighthearted and amusing. Recommended.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Rollercoaster (1977)

Rollercoaster (1977) is included in Universal’s Ultimate Disaster Pack DVD set but I’m not sure I’d call it a disaster movie. It has some elements we associate with that genre but I’d call it a suspense thriller.

What attracted me to this movie initially is that the screenplay was written by Richard Levinson and William Link. They’re best known for their work in television - these were the guys who created Columbo, Ellery Queen (one of my all-time favourite TV series) and Murder, She Wrote. I figured that if they were involved then Rollercoaster might turn out to be interesting.

It starts with a tragic accident at an amusement park. The rollercoaster collapsed (in a thrilling and well executed sequence) and a number of people were killed.

Harry Calder (George Segal) isn’t happy about this. He’s an inspector with the Safety and Standards department and he was the one who carried out the routine inspection on that rollercoaster a few weeks earlier. He doesn’t think this accident really was an accident.

Being a curious guy he does a bit of digging. There have been other recent amusement park accidents that seem slightly suspicious. Harry is not just a curious guy, he’s a guy who knows how to follow a trail and the trail leads him to the heads of five companies which owned the amusement parks that suffered accidents. What really interests Harry is why these five company heads are having a secret meeting in Chicago. He decides to crash their private party and that’s how he discovers that these amusement parks have been targeted by an extortionist who wants a million dollars.

Harry is not the kind of guy who hankers to be a lone wolf hero type. He immediately contacts the FBI. Special Agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark) takes over the investigation. Hoyt is a prickly character who doesn’t amateurs getting involved in his cases. Which is fine by Harry. He’s done his duty. And then comes a phone call from the extortionist. He insists that Harry should be the one who delivers the million dollars. Harry is going to be in the middle of this case whether he and Hoyt like it or not.

The money drop will be made at another amusement park. The FBI will be waiting but this extortionist isn’t easy to trap.

The movie’s climax comes when an another rollercoaster disaster is threatened.

The audience saw the extortionist right at the start of the movie and we soon learn that his motivation is very simple - he just wants money. So there’s no great mystery. This is a pure suspense movie.

The opening rollercoaster disaster is one of the three very long very effective suspense sequences that occupy most of the movie’s running time.

These sequences are intricate and elaborate, with the tension being ratcheted up remorselessly. They’re imaginative and superbly executed.

There’s not much focus on characterisation and this is deliberate. It’s the suspense sequence that matter. This is a suspense thriller not a psychological thriller. The only psychological angle is that the extortionist is an obsessive who goes to extraordinary lengths to make his plans fool-proof. He always has a backup plan. Since Harry makes his living as a safety inspector his mind works in much the same way. You check something, you check it again, and then you check it a third time to make sure. Harry understands how the extortionist’s mind works. He despises the extortionist as a cold-blooded killer but he respects the guy’s intelligence and attention to detail.

Harry is no tortured hero. He’s divorced but he gets on fine with his ex-wife, he gets to see his daughter regularly and he has a nice new girlfriend. George Segal’s easy-going likeable performance is a major asset. Timothy Bottoms is nicely arrogant and calculating as the unnamed extortionist.

I’ve never liked Richard Widmark much but he’s very good here as Hoyt, a cynical professional with one minor weakness - he tends to underestimate his quarry and he underestimates Harry.

The Ultimate Disaster Pack DVD set also includes The Hindenburg (which I watched recently), Airport (a movie I’ve always loved) and Earthquake (a firm favourite of mine). The DVD transfer is 16:9 enhanced and looks great. It’s a DVD set worth getting hold of.

Rollercoaster really is a superbly made rollercoaster ride of suspense and excitement. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Kona Coast (1968)

Kona Coast is a 1968 crime thriller based on John D. MacDonald’s story Bimini Gal. It’s set in Hawaii, but not the glamorous Hawaii of the tourists. It has a bit of an “adventures in the Pacific” feel to it.

Sam Moran (Richard Boone) owns a charter boat. He gets a ’phone call from a girl named Dee. She’s in trouble again. She’s the girl we saw running along the beach at the start of the movie and she’s definitely in big trouble. We don’t know why Sam is so concerned about her, but he is. Unfortunately she hangs up without telling him where is.

Shortly afterwards the police fish her body out of the water.

The only lead Sam has takes him to the fancy beach house of the arrogant decadent Kryder (Steve Ihnat) but Same can’t find any evidence that Dee was there.

Sam should leave this to the police but he has reasons for considering Dee’s fate to be a personal matter.

Someone definitely wants to discourage Sam’s interest in the case. They blow up his boat, and in the process blow up his best friend Charlie Lightfoot (Chips Rafferty).

Sam would never have left it to the police anyway He’s not that kind of guy.

We have a setup for a crime thriller here but the movie gets distracted by Sam’s personal life, and the many women with whom he gets himself involved.

Firstly there’s Kittibelle (Joan Blondell), Charlie Lightfoot’s sister. Sam finds himself part owner, with Kittibelle, of a beat-up old tub of a boat.

Secondly there’s Melissa Hyde (Vera Miles), an old flame. Maybe they want to rekindle the romance and maybe they don’t. Melissa is a drunk but she’s been drying out at the Refuge, where Kittibelle takes in assorted drunks and others of life’s victim.

Thirdly there’s a little cutie Sam rescued from an awkward situation. Sam is old enough to be Mim’s dad but apparently women of all ages are attracted to Sam.

While Sam sorts out his woman troubles the plot grinds to a bit of a halt. It’s not that these emotional interludes are entirely uninteresting but we do start to wonder when the crime thriller plot is going to kick in again.

The movie starts in Honolulu but much of the action takes place in Kona on the Big Island, which in 1968 was a long way off the tourist trail. There’s a deliberate contrast made between Honolulu (with all the problems endemic to big cities) and the simple old-fashioned lifestyle of Kona.

Richard Boone had his own distinctive personal style of charisma. He could play a fine villain or a hero. Here’s he a hero, albeit a slightly imperfect one. Sam just can’t keep out of trouble and his personal life has always been a shambles but he has absolute self-confidence. He gives an enjoyable performance. Vera Miles is a slightly dull leading lady. It’s probably not her fault. Melissa is just not a very sympathetic character.

Joan Blondell is always worth watching although she doesn’t get enough to do here. Gina Villines is fun as the good-natured brat Mim. Kent Smith almost steals the picture as the likeable Akamai, who runs the local store. Steve Ihnat is a delightfully creepy villain.

This is a very low-key thriller. In fact it’s too low-key for its own good. It loses direction badly in the middle with way too much focus on bar scenes and on the romance angle. Romance is fine but this one just isn’t all that interesting.

It finally remembers it’s supposed to be a thriller but the climactic showdown falls rather flat. Harlan Ellison was originally hired to do the screenplay but was fired. That may have been a mistake.

The film’s main selling point is the good use that is made of Hawaiian locations (it was shot entirely in Hawaii). Richard Boone lived in Kona and he was the executive producer. You can’t help feeling that he just really wanted to make a movie there.

Kona Coast had potential but the script needed to be tightened up a lot and it needed a lot more energy and focus. It’s not terrible but it’s not really a success. At 93 minutes it’s way too long. It could have made an OK episode of Hawaii Five-O. Worth a look but I wouldn’t recommend paying top dollar to see it.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Lady of the Night (1925)

Lady of the Night is a 1925 silent melodrama starring Norma Shearer, at that time a rising star. Within a few years she would become a very big star indeed.

It’s the story of two young women of the same age but from very different backgrounds. Both women are played by Norma Shearer.

Florence Banning is the daughter of a wealthy judge and banker. She has just graduated from the most exclusive girls’ school in the city.

Molly Helmer is an orphan, the daughter of a convict, and she has just left reform school. Now she will find work. It’s never actually explicitly stated but we assume she finds work as a prostitute (the title certainly implies that). In any case she is definitely not a respectable woman.

Molly is the girlfriend of 'Chunky' Dunn (George K. Arthur). His profession is never stated but we’re left to assume that he’s involved in petty crime, or he may be Molly’s pimp. He’s a nice guy, but rather awkward and a bit nerdy and he’s hopelessly in love with Molly.

The unlikely link between the two women is Chunky’s pal David Page (Malcolm McGregor). Molly has fallen for David in a big way.

David has come up with an invention which will make safe-cracking much easier. He’s hoping to sell it to a gang of crooks. Molly persuades him to sell it to bankers instead, as an anti-safecracking device. The bankers buy it with Judge Banning being particularly enthusiastic and as a result David gets to meet the judge’s daughter Florence. David and Florence fall instantly in love.

David and Florence want to get married but in the meantime Florence has met Molly and has realised that Molly is in love with David. She doesn’t want to steal David away from Molly. The romantic entanglements have become very messy.

That’s about it for the plot and it could be argued that there’s not quite enough plot even to fill the movie’s very short 70-minute running time. At the end you find yourself waiting for a third act that doesn’t materialise.

Surprisingly the very simplicity of the story becomes its strength. The focus is not on the working out of the romantic entanglements themselves but rather on the people involved. In particular the movie focuses on the two women. Despite being romantic rivals they have a certain mutual respect. Perhaps they see themselves as mirror images of each other, which then explains why it was decided to have both roles played by the same actress.

The acting is much more naturalistic than you might expect in a silent romantic melodrama. Norma Shearer’s performances are quite nuanced, and extremely effective. George K. Arthur is also very good as Chunky. He’s a character who could have been ridiculous and played strictly for laughs but he’s given a certain dignity, and his feelings are taken seriously.

All of the characters are in fact sympathetic. They’re all trying to behave honourably. They don’t really want to hurt anybody. We’d like to see them all end up happy although we wonder how that is going to be possible.

Lady of the Night
is a low-key subtle romantic drama. Real people don’t necessarily respond to romantic disappointment by becoming histrionic and there are no histrionics at all in this movie.

Technically it’s quite impressive, especially when both characters played by Norma Shearer are onscreen at the same time. Which was quite tricky in 1925. In some scenes a double is used for Norma Shearer - an unknown young actress by the name of Joan Crawford.

The ending is not what I expected but it works. Highly recommended, especially if you’ve always wondered why Norma Shearer was such a big deal.

The Warner Archive DVD release offers a good transfer and (pleasingly) it uses a proper tinted print. Not everybody likes the way tinting was used in silent movies but I do like it.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Search for Beauty (1934)

Search for Beauty is a 1934 Paramount pre-code offering directed by Erle C. Kenton. It’s trashy, sleazy, exploitative and smutty. In other words it’s everything you could ask for in a movie.

Larry Williams (Robert Armstrong) and Jean Strange (Gertrude Michael) are a couple of con artists just out of prison. Larry has come up with a racket that he is sure will be a winner, and best of all they won’t have to worry about the cops because it’s technically legal. Larry’s idea is to buy up a magazine called Health and Exercise. It was a magazine genuinely devoted to those topics but Larry has big plans for magazine. A health and exercise magazine can quite justifiably run lots of photos of healthy young male and female physical specimens, not wearing too much in the clothing department. In other words what the magazine will be selling is not health and fitness but sex. It might still be called Health and Exercise but what it will be about is sex and salaciousness.

They’re going to need a couple of squeaky clean kids as editors, to provide a respectable front. Larry decides on two Gold Medal winners from the 1932 Olympics, English high diver Barbara Hilton (Ida Lupino) and American swimmer Don Jackson (Buster Crabbe). They’re nice kids and they’re pretty innocent so they’re not going to realise what’s going on. Larry needs another con man, Dan Healy (James Gleason), to front up the money to finance the purchase of the magazine. Dan isn’t interested until he finds out that there’s a sweetener in the deal for him - Barbara’s hot blonde cousin Sally (Toby Wing) will be his secretary.

Larry, Jean and Dan turn the magazine into a huge success but the salaciousness shocks Dan and Barbara. The stage is set for a power struggle and then Larry gets a bright idea. When they bought the magazine a run-down health farm called Health Acres was included in the deal. The farm is really run-down but if they can convince Don and Barbara that they could turn that farm into the health capital of the world they might be able to persuade them to give up their interest in the magazine in exchange for total control of Health Acres. Then they’ll have the two squeaky clean kids off their hands.

The deal is done and then Larry realises, too late, that Health Acres might actually turn out to be a gold mine. Which means Larry and Jean will have to do some more plotting.

There’s also a romantic triangle in the offing. Barbara is hopelessly in love with Don but she thinks he’s much too interested in Jean (and she’s right).

The re-opening of Health Acres leads to a showdown between the puritanical Don and Barbara and those who want to turn the place into a pleasure place. The forces of puritanism win but in true pre-code style I’m not at all sure the movie wants us to celebrate that victory, as Don and Barbara turn Health Acres into a nightmarish slave camp.

Interestingly enough the movie was inspired by a 1932 Paramount publicity stunt (also called the Search for Beauty) in which they scoured the globe for perfect young bodies, with the 30 finalists all getting roles in the movie. In the process they discovered Ann Sheridan.

This is a movie that lots of people at the time (and some people today) would have found shockingly offensive but it neatly pulls the rug from under would-be critics. It shamelessly exploits the female body for the titillation of male viewers but it just as shamelessly exploits the male body for the titillation of women viewers (there’s a wonderful scene in which Jean is watching Don in his swimming trunks and immediately lowers her gaze to get a really good look at his crotch). It’s self-consciously and deliberately exploitative. It mocks itself for this, and it mocks those who would take offence. It doesn’t even try to hide its exploitative nature. It revels in it. The movie’s message is, if you’re offended that’s just too bad.

The movie benefits from a fine cast. Robert Armstrong as Larry is delightfully sleazy, Gertrude Michael as Jean Strange is suitably scheming and James Gleason as Dan is as much fun as he always was. Buster Crabbe is very good as the pure all-American athlete, managing to make Don likeable rather than irritating. It’s worth noting that in real life Buster Crabbe really did win the 400-metres freestyle gold medal at the 1932 Olympics. Ida Lupino was just fifteen when she made this movie but this was her eighth movie so she wasn’t really inexperienced and she handles her role just fine. Toby Wing’s career never took off but she’s fun here.

There are some jaw-dropping moments. The Symphony of Health is supposed to be a physical fitness demonstration but it’s more like a cross between a mutated Busby Berkeley musical production number and a creepy military parade.

The movie has its cake and eats it too, presenting the health fanatics as the good guys while at the same time clearly mocking the puritanical healthy fanaticism.

Erle C. Kenton is probably best known as the director of the outrageous Island of Lost Souls.

There’s plenty of amusement to be had here. Search for Beauty is a wonderful slice of pre-code craziness, outrageousness and excess Plus you get to see both Toby Wing and Ida Lupino dancing on a table. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle was based on W.R. Burnett’s novel of the same name and released by MGM in 1950.

Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison and he’s planning a big caper. It’s a fool-proof plan to knock over a jewellery story and steal a million dollars in jewels.

He needs someone to put up fifty grand for operating expenses. Using bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) as an intermediary he approaches crooked lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern).

Meanwhile small-time stick-up man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) needs $2300 badly to pay a gambling debt. His pal Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) can advance him a grand and persuades Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) to find the rest of the money.

Gus, Louis and Dix are recruited to help carry out the robbery.

We have indications very early on that this heist is likely to run into trouble. There are warning signs, in fact we’re pretty sure that a major double-cross is going to go down.

That’s bad enough, but bad luck takes a hand as well. You can plan a robbery in intricate detail but you just can’t predict the trivial little things that are are likely to go wrong, and that’s how guys end up in the penitentiary.

Our sense that things are going to go badly wrong turns out to be correct. It’s then a question of whether there’s still a chance of getting clear before the cops close in.

The police are a slightly sinister presence in this movie. Our sympathies are with the criminals. They’re crooks but they’re not evil. They all have at least one major weakness (women, liquor, gambling or in the case of Louis a desire for money to provide for his wife and son). But these crooks all have redeeming qualities as well. They’re a lot more sympathetic than the cops. And a lot more likeable.

Dix resembles Roy Earle from High Sierra, another W.R. Burnett story. Both have a yearning to return to the past, to their rural boyhoods, and the past is wildly romanticised in their minds. There’s a lot decency in Dix. He can’t bring himself to treat Doll badly. Doll is a hooker and she’s crazy about Dix. He thinks she’s a nuisance but cruelty is just not in his nature.

Sterling Hayden’s reputation as a film noir icon rests mainly on this movie. There’s no question that very few actors ever looked more like film noir icons than Hayden. He gives a typically understated but effective performance.

Louis Calhern as Emmerich, Sam Jaffe as Riedenschneider and James Whitmore as Gus are all very good. This is a movie that focuses more on the characters, and the interactions between the characters, than on plot (although the plot is actually very solid).

Don’t get too excited by the prominence given to Marilyn Monroe on the re-release posters. Hers is strictly a bit part, although it has to be said that she’s fun as Emmerich’s ditzy mistress Angela.

John Huston and Ben Maddow co-wrote the screenplay. They retain much of Burnett’s original dialogue, which is fine since Burnett’s dialogue is terrific. This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of the novel. The heist is made slightly more elaborate in order to make it more cinematic but there are no significant changes at all to the story. The ending is unchanged, although it’s also handled in a more cinematic way (which actually improves it).

This is film noir but there’s no femme fatale. Doll is perhaps a sad character but she’s goodhearted and devoted Dix. Angela isn’t really a femme fatale. Her attraction to Emmerich is clearly based entirely on his money but she’s pretty open about it and she’s sweet and good-natured.

The Asphalt Jungle is top-notch entertainment.

I’ve also reviewed W.R. Burnett’s novel, on Vintage Pop Fictions.

Friday, June 2, 2023

The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis, 1960)

The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis, 1960) was the second of the West German Edgar Wallace krimis made by Rialto.

Not as outrageous as the later krimis but it's stylish, well-crafted, well-paced and wildly and deliriously entertaining.

My full review can be found at Cult Movie Reviews.