Thursday, December 28, 2023

Warning Shot (1966)

Warning Shot is an all but forgotten 1966 crime thriller that really does not deserve to be forgotten. It’s not a masterpiece, it wasn’t ground-breaking, but it’s a well-crafted movie with the feel of a good B-movie. Although it’s a stretch (and quite a big stretch) I guess you could just about get away with seeing this movie as having a very slight hint of film noir. Very slight.

David Janssen (a huge star at the time thanks to The Fugitive) headlines and the supporting cast is extraordinary - Stefanie Powers, Ed Begley, Joan Collins, Keenan Wynn, George Sanders, Lillian Gish, Eleanor Parker, Carroll O’Connor, Walter Pidgeon.

The basic setup is hardly dazzlingly original. Janssen is Detective Sergeant Tom Valens. He’s staking out an apartment building (trying to catch a psycho killer) on a very foggy night. A guy leaves the apartment house. He’s acting furtively and when he sees Valens he runs, Valens gives chase, the guy draws a gun and Valens shoots him dead. It would be an open-and-shut case of a cop shooting in self-defence except for one thing. The guy’s gun cannot be found, leading to the suspicion that there was no gun. Now Tom Valens is facing a manslaughter charge.

What makes things really sticky for Valens is that the guy he shot turns out to have been not just a doctor, but a doctor with a reputation for being just about a living saint. The public and the press are baying for Valens’ blood. The icing on the cake is that the D.A. has a personal dislike for Tom Valens.

As invariably happens in such stories Valens decides that the only way to save his career is to find out what really happened that night. He’s on suspension but he’s going to investigate the case anyway.

He has a suspicion that maybe the doctor wasn’t such a saint after all. He comes up with a couple of theories that might explain the doctor’s suspicious behaviour (the most obvious being that he was visiting his mistress).

These theories don’t quite pan out but Valens has to keep digging.

So in its essentials it’s a routine story. That doesn’t matter. What matters is not the originality of a story but how well it is told, and in this case it’s told pretty well.

Tom Valens makes a good hero. He’s sympathetic without being too sympathetic, he’s smart but not too smart, he’s a good cop but not a perfect one. He makes mistakes. He follows the wrong leads. But he keeps trying. Janssen was good at playing imperfect heroes and he does a fine job.

He makes mistakes in his personal life as well. His divorce from his wife Joanie (Joan Collins) is about to become final. Joanie is still willing to try to save the marriage. She’s a nice lady. She loves him. He’d be a fool to push her away. But he does.

Those extraordinary supporting players mostly get limited screen time but Lillian Gish and Eleanor Parker make the most of their opportunities. Joan Collins is good and looks stunning.

The plot setup is standard but there are some nice twists.

The most significant thing about this movie is the timing. It came out in 1966. A year later Bonnie and Clyde was released. The tone and the style of crime movies changed dramatically overnight. The tone and style of movies in general changed at that time. 1967 was a pivotal year. As far as crime movies are concerned 1967 also saw the release of Point Blank but it was Bonnie and Clyde that had the biggest impact. Almost overnight movies like Warning Shot seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. And were quickly forgotten.

Seeing it now it’s Warning Shot’s old-fashioned vibe that gives it its appeal. It’s like a classic 1950s crime B-movie.

Another movie that suffered the same fate as Warning Shot and was also unfairly forgotten is The Money Trap from 1965 which is an actual classic film noir, not a neo-noir.

Warning Shot is extremely well-crafted (and superbly shot with some great atmosphere)

in the classical Hollywood style and that classical style has a lot to be said for it. I personally prefer it to the new style that emerged post-1967. This is a thoroughly entertaining movie and it’s highly recommended.

The Kino Lorber release offers a very good transfer and there’s an audio commentary.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Spider and the Fly (1949)

The Spider and the Fly is a 1949 British crime thriller directed by Robert Hamer.

The setting is France in 1913, the last days of La Belle Epoque. Fernand Maubert (Eric Portman) is a senior police detective and he’s a man wth an obsession. That obsession is Philippe de Ledocq (Guy Rolfe), a brilliant criminal. Maubert is convinced that Philippe has been behind a series of daring robberies but somehow Philippe always has an unbreakable alibi.

After a recent bank robbery Maubert did manage to detain Philippe’s accomplice, the very pretty Madeleine Saincaize (Nadia Gray). Madeleine is Philippe’s mistress. Maubert had no real evidence against her. He had hoped that she might betray Philippe but Madeleine is hopelessly in love with the master criminal.

Maubert and Philippe are on quite friendly terms. In fact the two men like each other. Maubert disapproves of criminals and is therefore determined to convict Philippe but mostly what annoys Maubert is that Philippe was born into privilege and power. Maubert cannot understand why such a man would betray his family and his upbringing and turn to crime.

Philippe likes and admires Maubert as a man but he strongly disapproves of policemen.

The first two-thirds of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game between Maubert and Philippe. Philippe is clever but Maubert is dogged.

Madeleine provides a complication. She has been Philippe’s mistress but Maubert is falling for her. Maubert is also hoping to use her in order to trap Philippe, so Maubert’s motivations are rather murky.

Then the movie switches gears and becomes a slightly different (and in my opinion less satisfactory) kind of movie but I can’t say any more without revealing spoilers.

We’re presumably expected to see Maubert as a noble dedicated policeman and that’s certainly how he sees himself. I’m afraid that to me he came across as smug and self-righteous, and not at all honourable. Maybe I’m just not so tolerant of policemen using lies and emotional manipulation to achieve their ends.

Eric Portman’s performance is solid enough but he was unable to persuade me to feel any sympathy at all for his character.

Guy Rolfe is much much better as Philippe - charming and not particularly trustworthy, a likeable rogue. Rolfe is able to make a somewhat over-the-top character fairly believable.

Nadia Gray is fine although in some respects Robert Westerby’s script did her no favours.

George Cole as a detective makes a reasonably effective sidekick to Maubert.

The surprise ending really does come as a surprise but I felt that it came out of left field and was contrived and unconvincing. It required the characters to behave in ways that seemed to me to be inconsistent with what we had earlier learnt about their personalities. But perhaps it’s an ending that would appealed to audiences in 1949. There’s also an epilogue which I detested but I imagine audiences in 1949 would have lapped it up.

Robert Hamer as director does a perfectly competent job with a couple of effective suspense scenes.

The movie was of course shot in black-and-white.

The Spider and the Fly is enjoyable enough and it’s worth a look.

This movie is a bit hard to find but there is an Italian DVD which offers the original English soundtrack as an option and the transfer is satisfactory if less than pristine.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Doll (Die Puppe, 1919)

The Doll (Die Puppe) is a 1919 German silent fantasy/comedy directed and co-written by Ernst Lubitsch.

It was based on a story by the early 19th century German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. If you haven’t read any of Hoffmann’s stories do so immediately. They’re a combination of Romantic, gothic, fantasy and weird elements and they’re exhilarating.

This is a kind of fairy tale and everything is made to look as artificial as possible - it’s like a children’s story book come to life, although it’s not really a story for children!

The Baron von Chauterelle does not want his distinguished family line to die out. His heir is his nephew Lancelot. He has decided that Lancelot must marry immediately. All the marriageable young maidens from the nearby village, forty of them in all, are instructed to present themselves at the baron’s castle so that Lancelot can pick his bride. The maidens are all desperately anxious to be chosen - marriage to Lancelot will mean wealth and a title.

There is one problem. Lancelot is terrified of women. He flees, with the maidens in hot pursuit. He takes refuge at an abbey. The monks make a big show of their poverty although in fact they live in luxury and dine in magnificent style.

The Baron von Chauterelle is devastated at the disappearance of his nephew. He makes a public offer - he will give Lancelot an immense sum of money if he marries.

The wily abbot comes up with a clever scheme. The famous dollmaker Hilarius makes lifelike life-size female dolls. The dolls are advertised as being suitable for bachelors and widowers. The dolls are operated by clockwork and can perform all kinds of lifelike action such as dancing.

Now another problem arises. Lancelot thinks these dolls are a bit too lascivious. He thinks their dancing is positively indecent. There is a solution at hand. Hilarius has just completed a new doll, made in the image of his daughter Ossi (played by Ossi Oswalda). He assures Lancelot that this doll is of good character.

Fate steps in when Hilarius’s fifteen-year-old apprentice accidentally breaks the new doll. To save the apprentice from punishment Ossi will pretend to be the doll, until the apprentice can repair the actual doll. Ossi, pretending to be the doll, is shown to Lancelot. Lancelot is so delighted that he not only immediately buys her, he decides to take her with him on the spot. He sets off for his uncle’s castle, in a carriage drawn by two horses that are clearly men in horse costumes, which adds further to the fairy tale feel.

So we have an actress named Ossi playing the part of a girl named Ossi who is masquerading as a doll which is masquerading as a real girl. That’s the sort of movie this is - everything is multiple layers of artificiality and the artificiality is all clearly on view.

Much amusement ensues for the viewer as Ossi keeps reverting to her real self when Lancelot isn’t looking and then reverts to her masquerade as a doll when he is looking.

Much of that amusement is somewhat risqué. At times very risqué. And of course interesting things are going to happen on Lancelot’s wedding night, given that he thinks that his bride is simply a mechanical doll.

Parts of the sets are simply painted backdrops. When the sun rises it’s a cartoon sun with a smiley face. Some of the humour is broad and some is sharp and witty. Grasping monks and greedy relatives (waiting for the old baron to die) come in for some rough treatment.

The apprentice is a hoot. It’s like he’s fifteen going on thirty-five, and a cynical world-weary thirty-five. The characters are not the least bit realistic and yet weirdly we believe in them. Lancelot could have come across as a fool and a milksop but somehow he manages to engage our sympathies. Ossi Oswalda gives a bravura comic performance.

This movie is a mix of cleverness and good-natured fun. It’s bizarre, but in a good way. Unlike most fairy tale moves it does not make a single concession to realism at any point. It revels in its artificiality.

I can’t think of any other movie that pushes deliberate artificiality as far as this but it works. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Gidget (1959)

Gidget, released in 1959, was the first surfer girl movie and was so successful that it spawned several sequels and a TV series. It paved the way for the beach party movies of the early 60s and it established the existence of a major market for lighthearted teen romance comedies. It launched Sandra Dee’s career. It’s a fun movie and it was interesting in other ways as well, which we’ll get to later.

Francine (Sandra Dee) is a 16-year-old girl about to spend the summer soaking up the sun on the beach. Her friends have other things in mind apart from sun worship. As far as they’re concerned they’re on a hunt for men and they intend to bag a few trophies.

Francine is bitten by the surfing bug. She sees the guys having so much fun and she wants to join. Surprisingly the surfer guys who hang around with Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) are not overly hostile. They agree to teach her to surf. Because she’s a girl and she’s very petite they christen her Gidget (short for girl midget). The fact that Gidget is as cute as a button may have something to do with the fondness the guys feel for her but they’re rather protective of her as well.

Most of the guys just spend the summer surfing but Kahuna is a full-time surfer bum. Moondoggie (James Darren) wants to be a surfer bum as well. Kahuna might be perpetually broke but he’s free. This movie marks a very early appearance of the drop-out in Hollywood movies.

Gidget falls for Moondoggie. He’s not very interested.

Gidget of course has a plan to land her man. Naturally everything goes wrong. Gidget finds herself in a very awkward situation.

There’s plenty of amusement to be had here. There’s some very obvious rear projection which adds to the charm of the movie.

Hollywood teen movies are often mocked for featuring teenagers played by actors who were pushing 30. For Gidget Columbia decided on a radical approach. If they were making a movie about a 16-year-old girl why not get an actress who could do it convincingly? Why not cast an actual 16-year-old girl? Which is what they did. And it works. As a bonus Sandra Dee turned out to be a talented comic actress with immense amounts of charm.

Gidget was made at an incredibly interesting time in Hollywood history, the period around 1958 to1962. The Production code was staring to crumble and Hollywood was tentatively exploring the idea of making movies that dealt with sex in an open and grown-up way. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Butterfield 8 and The World of Suzie Wong all came out during this brief period. There are very slight hints of this in Gidget. There is at least an acknowledgement of the sexual nature of the interest that Gidget’s female friends have in boys.

Of course there’s also a message that girls are allowed to have sexual feelings as long as they don’t do anything abut it. The Sexual Revolution was on the way but it wasn’t there yet.

There’s also a message about growing up. Growing up means giving up your dreams and giving up silly ideas about freedom. Who needs those things? I’m afraid that the happy ending to this movie left me incredibly depressed.

The acting is pretty good. Cliff Robertson is fun as Kahuna, a man who isn’t as sure of himself as he thought he was. There are early appearances by people who would go on to achieve at least a measure of stardom. There’s Doug McClure, Yvonne Craig and Tom Laughlin. And of course James Darren who later starred in one of my favourite 60s TV series, The Time Tunnel. In Gidget he even sings. He makes a fine leading man for Sandra Dee.

The movie’s biggest strength is Sandra Dee. She’s delightful and she’s very funny. It’s a great pity that this was to be her only appearance as Gidget. She has great chemistry wth James Darren.

Apart from my reservations about the ending Gidget is lightweight amusing romantic fun. Sandra Dee’s performance is enough to warrant a highly recommended rating.

Via Vision in Australia have released the three Gidget movies plus the 1972 TV-movie Gidget Gets Married in both DVD and Blu-Ray boxed sets (both very reasonably priced). Gidget gets an excellent anamorphic transfer, with no extras.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Sumurun (1920)

Sumurun is an early (1920) Ernst Lubitsch film. He was the director and co-writer. It’s included in Eureka’s Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set.

These very early Lubitsch movies will surprise people who only know his later Hollywood work. Lubitsch’s early interest was very much in fantasy. Some of the movies in this boxed set are quite bizarre, with an exaggeratedly artificial storybook style. Sumurun is a slightly more conventional Arabian Nights-style fantasy/adventure/romance.

It was based on a six-act pantomime by Friedrich Freksa.

Sumurun (Jenny Hasselqvist) is the favourite of the old sheikh’s harem women but she’s fallen in love with a handsome merchant. The shiekh is very cross with her. He’s even considering separating her head from her shoulders.

Meanwhile a group of minstrels is on its way to the city. The troupe includes a dancer named Yannaia (Pola Negri). They encounter a famous slave trader who thinks that the spirited girl dancer would make a fine addition to the sheikh’s harem.

On arrival in the city Yannaia attracts the attention of the sheikh’s vain but good-natured son.

Lots of plot complications and romantic intrigues ensue. It’s difficult to keep up with the number of romantic triangles that intersect with each other. Romantic and sexual triangles - sex is a major driving force in this movie.

The leader of the minstrel troupe is a hunchback who nourishes an unrequited love for Yannaia. The hunchback is played by Lubitsch himself.

There are all sorts of ruses used to gain entry to the harem. The slave trader wants to sell Yannaia to the sheikh and she’s maybe not entirely averse to the idea of being a harem girl (they do live lives of fabulous luxury) although she’d prefer to share the bed of the sheikh’s son rather than that of the old sheikh.

The movie takes its title from Sumurun but Sumurun as a character is rather overshadowed by Yannaia, and although Jenny Hasselqvist is very good she’s certainly overshadowed by Pola Negri’s bravura performance. But then almost any actress would have found herself overshadowed by Pola Negri. She’s in fine sexy form here and she’s playing the seductress with every man in sight.

Paul Wegener is suitably cruel and forbidding as the old sheikh.

The tone is all over the place. At times this is tragedy, at other times cheerful bedroom farce. The tragic tone is not quite what you expect from Lubitsch, and then suddenly the movie switches to broad comedy.

This movie is perhaps less experimental than other films in this set such as The Doll and The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze). It takes place in what is obviously a totally imaginary fairy tale world but it doesn’t draw attention to its own artificiality to the same extent. Lubitsch was playing around with different approaches from one film to another, looking for just the right approach for his purposes.

It looks great. The spectacular sets are very Arabian Nights in influence but they lack the engagingly bizarre fascination of the sets in other early Lubitsch movies. It’s all done on the grand scale and looks like a great deal of money was spent on it. On the whole it was money well spent.

doesn’t quite come off. The tonal shifts are too extreme and too sudden. But these early Lubitsch films are undeniably fascinating. He was prepared to try anything. And he tried some things that very very few directors since have dared to try. That’s enough reason for me to give Sumurun a highly recommended rating.

Eureka’s DVD transfer is tinted and this is a movie that absolutely has to be seen in a tinted print. The tinting in silent movies takes a bit of getting used to. It was a unique aesthetic of its own, totally different from either colour or black-and-white cinematography. I believe there’s now a Blu-Ray version of this set.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Innocents With Dirty Hands (1975)

Innocents With Dirty Hands (Les innocents aux mains sales) is a 1975 Claude Chabrol thriller.

The setup is so conventional and chichéd that we never seriously doubt that this is deliberate and that Chabrol has some surprises up his sleeve.

Julie (Romy Schneider) is married to Louis Wormser (Rod Steiger). He’s much older than her, he’s a self-pitying drunk and he can’t perform in the bedroom any more. Julie meets Jeff Marlo (Paolo Giusti), a handsome young aspiring writer. Julie reveals her unhappiness and sexual frustration to Jeff. Jeff takes immediate steps to solve her sexual frustration problems. Julie tells Jeff how very unhappy she is. She has to remain married to Louis because he’s rich but she’s very tired of him. If only some solution could be found to her problems.

You know where this is leading, and indeed pretty soon Julie and Jeff are planning a little accident for Louis. It’s basically The Postman Always Rings Twice but set among the decadent bourgeoisie. And of course the basic story has been done countless other times.

The night set for Louis’ accident arrives. They have decided that it would be wise for Jeff to slip over the border to Italy for a few days.

The police think they have a pretty good murder case. There are however some odd gaps in the police case, and the viewer will certainly notice these odd gaps. Certain things are assumed to have happened, but there’s no real proof. We start to suspect that there’s quite a lot that we don’t know.

Julie also starts to realise that there were some very important things that she didn’t know. And still doesn’t know.

The big plot twist at the midway point isn’t going to surprise anybody and I don’t think it was intended to. It’s the only possible explanation for certain events. I don’t think Chabrol was overly interested in the plot twists anyway. He was more interested in the psychological consequences of the plot twists. It’s the emotional twists that matter, not the narrative twists.

And Chabrol is much more interested in what happens after that major plot twist - it’s the actions that the characters take in response to the revelation that makes the movie start to become much more engrossing.

There’s a certain detachment to this movie. Chabrol isn’t trying to present us with a hero or a heroine with whom we’re going to empathise. He views their actions dispassionately. Audience members will have to decide if the actions of the characters are justified, and whether justice ever gets done. The police and the examining magistrate and Julie’s lawyer aren’t really sure either how justice would best be served and the law doesn’t care much either way.

Julie’s lawyer doesn’t think it makes much difference if she’s telling the truth or not. She’s beautiful so she’ll be believed anyway. And truth is whatever people happen to believe.

Romy Schneider is perhaps the movie’s biggest asset. She gives a complex performance. Julie is a woman whose motivations tend to shift, depending on her emotions and her sexual desires.

Rod Steiger is less hammy than usual.

Sex is pretty important in this movie. Not just sex as sex, but sex as it affects the mind and the heart as well as the body. The two main characters struggle to deal with sexual desires with which they’re not always comfortable. Love and sex make us do things we don’t want to do.

This isn’t an action-packed thrill-a-minute kind of thriller. It’s much more cerebral. What keeps us interested is that we never know for sure what the two central characters will do next, probably because they also don’t know what they’re going to do next.

If this is the kind of thriller you enjoy then you’ll be happy with this psychological study of love, hate, sex, murder, revenge, forgiveness and jealousy. Innocents With Dirty Hands turns out to be not at all the movie that it initially promised to be. It turns out to be a lot more interesting and it’s recommended.

The old Pathfinder Pictures DVD (from 2003) is letterboxed. The transfer is not dazzling but it’s acceptable and if you want to see this movie then it seems to be the only English-friendly option.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Wildcat (1921)

The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) is a 1921 Ernst Lubitsch silent comedy/romance. If you only know Lubitsch from his later Hollywood movies his early German movies will totally blow your mind. This is wild crazy stuff.

Lieutenant Alexis is an officer stationed in a large town located somewhere in a typical early Lubitsch fairy tale world. The lieutenant has been causing some disciplinary problems so as punishment he’s been sent to a remote fortress commanded by a crazy general with the most impressive moustache in movie history. It was considered necessary to remove Lieutenant Alexis from the temptations of town life.

This is devastating news for the female population of the town. When he departs hundreds and hundreds of women turn out to bid him farewell. They all have good reason to have fond remembrances of Lieutenant Alexis. Dozens of children turn out to bid farewell to him as well, waving as they say goodbye to Daddy. We now have some idea why all those women have such fond memories of Lieutenant Alexis. They are expressing their gratitude for the many services the lieutenant has performed for them. Services that he has performed cheerfully and with a great deal of diligence. He has clearly gone above and beyond the call of duty.

On his arrival at the remote fortress Lieutenant Alexis makes a favourable impression on the commanding general, who decides that the lieutenant would be a suitable husband for his daughter. The daughter is pleasant enough but Alexis is not keen on marriage.

The fortress is being menaced by a band of cut-throats and robbers. During his journey Lieutenant Alexis has already made the acquaintance of the daughter of the chief of the bandits. The young lady in question is Rischka (Pola Negri). She’s the wildcat referred to in the film’s title and wildcat is an apt description.

Rischka is wild but she is a woman and she is immediately rather smitten by the dashing woman-chasing lieutenant. She feels that he is the man she has been waiting for.

So in addition to several hundred women back in the town Lieutenant Alexis now has two women who have set their sights on him. He seems to be not unaware of Rischka’s wild charms.

Of course there is the question of whether any man can tame this female wildcat, but there’s another question. Can any woman tame the skirt-chasing lieutenant, and turn him into a one-woman man?

It’s all played for fun and there’s very much a farcical quality to the movie. It’s most definitely played for laughs. The humour is occasionally a little risqué, there are moments that approach slapstick and it’s always absurd and outrageous.

There’s a tendency to focus too much on Expressionism when discussing German movies of the silent era. The fact is that there was an extraordinary amount of visual inventiveness in these German movies and Expressionism in the strict sense was just one facet of this. Lubitsch’s early movies cannot be described as Expressionist, but there’s the same disdain for realism and the same amazing soaring feats of visual imagination.

Early Lubitsch (in movies such as The Doll as well as this one) have an uncompromising non-realist feel. They take part in a world that resembles a fairy tale world but it goes beyond this. Lubitsch’s early films are like storybooks with moving pictures and the artificiality is emphasised at every opportunity. There’s also the feel of having actually entered the artificial world of a storybook.

The sets are stunning, witty and exaggerated to an extreme degree. They look fabulous. The costumes are outrageous.

The performances are deliberately in a kind of pantomime style. These are not supposed to be real people. They’re storybook characters.

To describe Pola Negri’s performance as lively and energetic just doesn’t do her justice. She’s like a firecracker. She’s a delight.

Paul Heidemann is terrific as the vain womanising Lieutenant Alexis. He manages to make the lieutenant a loveable rogue.

Lubitsch really goes overboard with the masking of frames. Every frame seems to be a different shape. It adds to the playfulness.

There’s a battle scene between the soldiers and the robbers but of course no-one gets hurt. The worst that anyone is likely to suffer in this combat is being hit by a snowball.

This is a lighthearted candy-flavoured concoction which could easily have ended up being too sweet or too silly but its sheer exuberance carries it through.

The Eureka DVD provides a pretty decent transfer. This movie is part of their Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set (there’s now a Blu-Ray version as well). Most of the movies in this set are tinted but this one isn’t. English translations are provided for the intertitles.

These movies from so early in Lubitsch’s career have a totally unique feel. There have been plenty of fairy tale movies but none done with the same visual extravagance and style. The Wildcat is wild and crazy and very romantic. It’s a reminder of just how much visual style and flamboyance and imagination movies lost with the advent of sound. The Wildcat is highly recommended.