Thursday, June 20, 2024

One Night at Susie’s (1930)

One Night at Susie’s is a 1930 First National pre-code crime/romantic melodrama.

Susie (Helen Ware) appears to be a boarding house operator but she has serious gangland connections. All of her friends are gangsters. One of those friends, Chicago Pete, got rubbed out years earlier and Susie has since raised his son Dick Rollins (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) as her own. Susie is determined not to allow Dick to get mixed in in crime, or to allow anyone else to get him involved in anything criminal.

Dick works as a press agent but yearns to be a playwright. Now he’s met the girl of his dreams, Mary Martin (Billie Dove). The problem is that Mary is a chorus girl. Susie doesn’t approve of chorus girls. They lead young men astray. Dick however has fallen for Mary in such a big way that Susie has to accept the situation, grudgingly. She still doesn’t trust Mary.

Susie’s forebodings of doom turn out to be accurate, although she’s wrong to blame Mary.

Dick ends up in prison but at least he now has time to write his plays. His plays are a springboard to stardom for Mary.

It’s not all smooth sailing for Mary. She finds out how the theatrical world works. If a producer does a girl a favour he expects a favour in return. He expects the favour to be returned in the bedroom.

There are other clouds on the horizon. They have nothing to do with the world of theatre. They’re connected to Susie’s world, the world of gangsters. Dick and Mary have never done anything criminal but it’s their misfortune that they find themselves useful pawns in gangster power plays.

This movie does have just a little of that very early talkie creakiness. The technical limitations imposed by the sound technology of 1928 to 1930 meant that camera setups tended to be a bit static and conventional. I personally don’t find it a huge problem in this film.

The acting is melodramatic but this is melodrama and I don’t mind movies that are unapologetically melodramas. Douglas Fairbanks Jr is frighteningly young (I believe he was twenty when the film was made) and he’s obviously a bit inexperienced but he’s likeable.

Billie Dove had been a huge star in the silent era but her career started to fade with the advent of sound and she retired from acting in 1932. She’s an acceptable heroine here but she lacks a certain vitality. Interestingly Billie Dove had been Douglas Fairbanks Sr’s leading lady four years earlier in The Black Pirate so she got to romance both father and son (onscreen).

Helen Ware gets the most interesting rôle. Susie means well but at times she’s blinded by her devotion to Dick Rollins. She can be judgmental and stubborn. She does consort with gangsters. She’s complicated and we’re not always sure what to think of her.

This is a very pre-code movie. The theatrical world is depicted in all its sleazy reality. If a girl wants to get ahead she has to sleep with producers. The movie also takes a flexible attitude towards marital infidelity. You can be unfaithful without actually being unfaithful. Moral rules don’t have to be followed rigidly. It also assumes that if you want justice you don’t rely on the police or the courts. It also assumes that telling the truth won’t get you anywhere with the criminal justice system. There’s also a rape. We don’t see it but it’s made pretty clear that a rape has at least been attempted. Pretty much every major plot point in this movie would have been forbidden under the Production Code.

Don’t think about the plot too much. It has more holes than a hoodlum who’s just been ventilated by a machine gun.

And don’t even try to understand the motivations of the characters. You’ll just get a headache.

The big surprise is that there are a few very nice visual set-pieces, especially the court-room scene with its surreal distorted perspectives.

One Night at Susie’s isn’t great but if you have a high tolerance for melodrama it’s worth a look.

The Warner Archive DVD offers an acceptable transfer.

Monday, June 17, 2024

The Painted Veil (1934)

The Painted Veil is a Greta Garbo romantic melodrama released by MGM in November 1934. It was directed by Richard Boleslawski. This was her first movie made under the radically changed circumstances brought about by the draconian Production Code, something that is very evident throughout the film.

Katrin (Greta Garbo) lives with her family in a town in Austria. Her younger sister is about to be married. Her parents worry that Katrin will never marry. There are suitable young men but they never seem to please her. Not being married has never worried her but now, with her sister married, she is worried by the prospect of loneliness.

That may be why she accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane (Herbert Marshall). She doesn’t love him but he’s a good man and would make a good husband. Perhaps love isn’t everything.

Then she meets diplomat Jack Townsend (George Brent). Walter is worthy but dull. No woman could be excited by Walter. Jack is a different matter. He’s amusing, cheerful, charming, handsome and a woman could very definitely be excited by him. Katrin has found love at last. She has realised that love really is everything. Unfortunately she has already married Walter.

She knows she never did love Walter. She resists the temptation offered by Jack, at least at first. This being a movie made under the Production Code it’s very coy about whether they actually sleep together. They obviously do, but this has to be conveyed obliquely. Of course under the Production Code just thinking about committing adultery was proof of moral wickedness.

Walter is set to return to China where he’s a noble self-sacrificing doctor. He will be in the middle of a cholera epidemic. It would be madness for Katrin to accompany him and she has no intention of doing so and no reasonable person would expect her to.

Walter however has found out about her affair with Jack. He insists that Katrin accompany him to China. Katrin assumes that he intends this to be a death sentence for her and she’s undoubtedly correct.

The situation in China is chaotic. Walter has become even more noble and self-sacrificing. It is possible that for him it is a kind of deliberate suicide.

You know exactly how this tale is going to end but in fact it plays out in a manner that is not quite what you might have expected.

It is of course possible that this project was conceived prior to the Code. It does give a slight impression that it may originally have been intended to be a very different movie.

The Production Code Authority didn’t just ban certain kinds of content. They laid down strict instructions on how stories were to be told, they mandated sweeping script changes and radical changes to the ways in which characters were to be portrayed. As a result while Garbo is good she is forced to spend an inordinate amount of time wallowing in self-loathing, shame and guilt.

Herbert Marshall is awful but the problem is the way his character is written rather than any weaknesses in his acting. No actor could have made Walter anything but loathsome and self-righteous.

George Brent doesn’t get to do much apart from being charming.

Walter Oland is quite impressive as General Yu, the only character in the movie who is more than a cliché. He’s not a particularly good man but he’s not a bad man. He’s doing his best.

The movie looks good and Garbo gets to wear a couple of amazing outfits.

The Painted Veil was based on a Somerset Maugham story and adapting any of his stories during the dark days of the Production Code was a challenge. He wrote stories for grown-ups.

This movie has plenty of problems. Almost certainly as a result of the Code both Walter and Jack come across as totally unconvincing characters who do things because the Code said they had to do such things. Garbo is the reason to watch this movie. Somehow, in her inimitable and subtle way, she persuades us to believe in Katrin and to care about her. Recommended, purely because of Garbo.

The Warner Archive DVD looks reasonably good.

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate is a 1926 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler so I was always going to enjoy this one.

Fairbanks conceived the idea, he wrote the story, he produced the movie and he starred and as in all his 1920s movies he was in every way the creative driving force here. His 1920s movies are totally Douglas Fairbanks movies.

A pirate movie was an obvious choice for Fairbanks. Rafael Sabatini’s classic pirate novel Captain Blood had been published in 1922 so the idea of a pirate who is actually a hero rather than a villain was very much an idea of the moment. It suited Fairbanks perfectly. Fairbanks however wanted a totally original story, so he wrote one.

Fairbanks felt that a pirate movie needed to be shot in colour. Colour had been around for a while. The very early colour technologies had huge problems and had given colour cinematography a bad name. By 1922 Technicolor had come up with a new process that seemed promising, and by 1926 Fairbanks felt that shooting his pirate movie using this process would be viable.

The movie begins with an exceptionally brutal act of piracy, with most of the crew of the captured merchantman being slaughtered. In fact not just slaughtered, but blown to smithereens. There is one survivor. We don’t really know who this guy is but his name is Michel and he’s played by Douglas Fairbanks and he wants revenge.

He figures the best way to achieve that aim is to get himself accepted as a member of this crew of bloodthirsty cutthroats. That proves to be easy. Firstly he demonstrated that he can take on the toughest of the pirates in a sword fight and win. Then he proves that he can capture a ship single-handed. Now he’s not merely a member of the crew, he might soon be in a position to put himself forward as their leader.

Among the booty captured in their latest coup is a woman. She’s a princess and she’s played by Billie Dove. The current captain and his crew draw lots for her. The captain wins. We can imagine what her fate is going to be. Fairbanks persuades the crew that since the woman is a princess it would be smarter to hold her for ransom rather than letting the captain satisfy his lusts on her. So the stage is set for a power struggle between the current captain and Fairbanks. The stage is also set for a romance. We know that Fairbanks and the princess will fall for each other.

Movies shot in early versions of Technicolor have a very distinctive look. It was a rather crude technology that was unable to reproduce all colours successfully. Earth tones and flesh tones look good, sombre reds look good, blue and green tones look somehow wrong and it really couldn’t do yellow at all. To get reasonably good results required enormous skill. Early Technicolor could work very well in horror movies such as Mystery of the Wax Museum. It gave such movies the right kind of weird other-worldly look. The Black Pirate has an interesting look but it is rather artificial. Since the movie is a kind of fantasy it works after a fashion but the effect can be a bit distracting until you get used to it.

Fairbanks ended up being disappointed by the results and decided not to make any more movies in colour.

On the other hand this is a truly spectacular movie. The budget was generous to say the least. The full-size ship sets look great. The miniature ships used for the ocean scenes look impressive. All the sets are great.

The action climax includes underwater scenes and is clever and crazy and great fun.

Fairbanks is of course excellent. When you watch his stunts, which would do credit to an Olympic athlete, bear in mind that he was a 43-year-old chain-smoker. And he really did do the stunts himself. He also has that distinctive Fairbanks mischievous charm.

Billie Dove doesn’t have to do much apart from looking frightened and looking like a princess but she does both those things successfully.

There’s a memorable evil scheming villain.

There are also some quite brutal moments, such as a pirate casually wandering up to a bound prisoner and running him through with a sword just for the the pleasure of killing. This was of course long before such horrors as the Production Code were even thought of. It’s also made crystal clear that, if Michel cannot intervene successfully, the princess is to become a sexual plaything for the pirates.

The Black Pirate
is a fine swashbuckler. It’s a genre that Fairbanks largely invented and it suited him perfectly. There were other good silent pirate movies and later sound films such as Captain Blood would surpass The Black Pirate but this was an important pioneering effort that is still hugely entertaining today. Highly recommended.

The Cohen Films Blu-Ray looks terrific. Don’t be put off by the colours - early Technicolor is supposed to look like this. The audio commentary offers some genuinely fascinating details not just about the production but also about cool stuff like the history of colour in early feature films and the evolution of movie sword-fighting. Other extras include outtakes. It’s an excellent Blu-Ray presentation.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Play Misty For Me (1971)

Play Misty For Me, released in 1971, was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut. And a very impressive debut it was.

This is a stalker movie, but it’s a man being stalked by a woman. It's also a psychological thriller. Dave (Clint Eastwood) is a DJ. He plays requests. A woman keeps ringing, asking him to play Errol Garner’s Misty. She rings constantly. Then Dave sees a woman in a bar. She looks like she’d be worth picking up. He picks her up. He finds out her name is Evelyn. She’s the Misty lady. That should perhaps have been the first red flag, the fact that she’s some kind of obsessed fan should have been the first indication that maybe she can be a bit obsessive.

Dave isn’t thinking that far ahead. He just wants a simple one night stand with no complications and Evelyn assures him that that’s all she wants.

The next day she turns up on his doorstep. His nightmare has begun. There is simply no way to convince her that this was never anything but a casual hook-up. She is convinced that he’s madly in love with her. When he tries to make it clear that he has zero interest in any kind of relationship she takes it badly. Really badly. And when Evelyn takes things badly the results tend to be spectacularly messy.

Dave isn’t scared yet, just exasperated, but the terror is about to begin.

Dave has a girlfriend, Tobie (Donna Mills). He’s in love with Tobie. But Dave has this problem with women - he just can’t keep away from them. Dave is no Boy Scout, but on the other hand his relationship with Tobie hasn’t really reached the committed relationship stage. Tobie knows he sleeps with other women. She hasn’t really made a commitment either. It’s not like having a one night stand with Evelyn is some heinous moral crime.

Everything would be fine, except that for Evelyn it’s not a one night stand. It’s not even an affair. It’s true love, of the totally obsessive variety. As Jessica Walters puts it in an interview included as an extra, as far as Evelyn is concerned she has to have this man or she will die. Evelyn has a very tenuous grip on reality. She believes what she wants to believe and she hears what she wants to hear. She’s unstable, with the potential to go right off the rails, but Dave can’t foresee any of that.

Adrian Lyne’s 1987 Fatal Attraction is more or less a remake of Play Misty For Me. Play Misty For Me is by far the better film for a variety of reasons. Clint Eastwood is a much better director than Adrian Lyne. As an actor he’s much better cast than Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. He’s a much more sympathetic hero and we need to be on his side. Michael Douglas could be extraordinary in the right role but playing a basically decent regular guy was not within his range.

And Jessica Walters gives a vastly better performance than Glenn Close - she manages to be both more terrifying and more sympathetic. Evelyn is a deranged psycho but Walters gives her an odd vulnerability. Her performance is both more over-the-top and at the same time more subtle and more believable. It’s a great performance.

Eastwood’s own performance is also excellent. Dave is no macho action hero type. He’s an easy-going rather laid-back guy. He’s totally out of his depth in this situation. And he’s frightened. He feels like a trapped animal which is pretty much what he is. It’s an effective low-key performance.

Look out for Don Siegel, who directed Eastwood in some of his most famous roles, in a small acting part as a bartender.

This being Eastwood’s first movie as a director he was given a very small budget. He wasn’t bothered by this. As far as he was concerned what mattered was that he was going to be allowed to direct it. He knew the lady (Jo Heims) who had written the original treatment and it was something he really wanted to direct. He does a very assured job.

Eastwood understands the basic technique of suspense. We, the audience, know what Evelyn is going to do next but the other characters don’t. The other characters, not just Dave but the cops as well, continually underestimate the dangers. They just don’t realise how crazy she is. The audience however knows that she really is incredibly dangerous and incredibly crazy.

One thing I love about this movie is that we get no backstory at all on Evelyn. No half-baked Freudian explanations for her behaviour, no stuff about childhood traumas. That kind of thing always ends up being unconvincing and phoney. We have to judge Evelyn entirely on what she does and says in the course of the story. I like that.

This is a good solid suspense thriller. Jessica Walters is extraordinary. Highly recommended.

Universal’s Blu-Ray looks terrific and there are some very decent extras.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

We Shall See (1964)

We Shall See is a 1964 entry in the British Merton Park cycle of Edgar Wallace thrillers.

Evan Collins (Maurice Kaufmann) is an ex-RAF officer and now an airline pilot. His marriage to Alva (Faith Brook) is stormy to say the least. She is determined to persuade him to give up flying and she taunts him as a failure. There’s lots of tension between them.

They live in a house in the country. The staff comprises Ludo (Alec Mango), an old family retainer, and Ludo’s pretty young niece Jirina (Talitha Pol).

Alva has a brother, Greg (Alex MacIntosh). There’s tension between brother and sister. Alva cheated Greg out of an inheritance. Greg still has hopes of getting his share.

Alva is an evil, bad-tempered, childish, manipulative, selfish and cruel woman. She’s also crazy and paranoid. Seriously crazy. She’s spent time in a mental hospital but Evan doesn’t know this.

Greg is having an affair with Jirina. That’s their business, except that Alva would like to make it her business. She’d like to wreck things for them out of sheer mean-spiritedness.

Things get more tense when Evan has a car accident. He will recover but it will take time. Alva becomes convinced that Evan is having an affair with Rosemary (Bridget Armstrong), a pretty nurse at the hospital. Alva is out to get Rosemary.

Alva sees conspiracies everywhere. She thinks everybody hates her. In fact she has given everybody who comes in contact with her plenty of reasons to hate her.

That car accident has led to a minor court case for careless driving but Alva sees her opportunity to wreck Evan’s career by claiming he was drunk. That would cost him his job at the airline.

Alva is also out to get Ludo. She wants him evicted. He has lived in that house for decades. It is his home. Again Alva’s motive is sheer nastiness. Ludo keeps bees. Alva hates bees. Therefore Alva hates Ludo.

There’s clearly plenty of potential here for real trouble, such as murder. There are plenty of people with motives that might well lead them to commit murder.

Naturally trouble does come, but it comes with an unexpected twist. We have a pretty fair idea of what’s happened and how and why it happened but the identity of the person responsible remains uncertain.

The actual solution is something of a surprise. There were plenty of obvious endings that would have been in tune with audience expectations in 1964 but scriptwriter Donal Giltinan rather daringly goes for something less obvious that the audience would not have expected.

In fact all the way through Giltinan takes a subtly unconventional approach. The screenplay includes many of the clichés of the genre but they don’t play out in clichéd ways.

There are no big stars here but all of the performances are very solid. Faith Brooks overacts outrageously as Alva but it’s a part that demands an over-the-top approach. It’s a tricky rôle - Alva is evil but she’s also insane and we have to feel at least some pity for her.

Everything revolves around Alva so it’s appropriate that Brooks’ performance should dominate the movie. The other characters are puppets dancing to her tune so it’s also appropriate that the other performances should be much more low-key.

Like most of the directors of films in this series Quentin Lawrence spent most of his career in television. He might be an inspired director but he keeps the action moving along.

We Shall See is an unassuming low-key little movie that turns out to be more interesting than the viewer would have expected. I enjoyed it. It’s just quirky enough to earn a highly recommended rating.

This movie is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 6 DVD boxed set. There are no extras but the transfer (the film was shot widescreen and black-and-white) is excellent.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

Day of the Outlaw is a 1959 western directed by André De Toth and it’s an example of the fine intelligent complex westerns of the 50s.

The basic plot is set up neatly and economically before the opening credits are even over. Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) is a rancher and he’s involved in a bitter dispute with farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal). Crane wants to enclose the land; Starrett needs it to be left open. Starrett is also having an affair with Crane’s wife Helen (Tina Louise). Starrett has two reasons to kill Crane and that’s obviously what he intends to do.

It’s a very typical western plot with ranchers pitted against farmers plus a romantic triangle.

The twist is that this is not the plot of the movie at all. Fairly early on an event occurs which introduces a whole new entirely different plot which becomes the central plot. It becomes almost a different movie, a movie about survival in a bleak unforgiving landscape, although as the story unfolds the viewer will see that there are thematic connections.

It’s a very daring and clever piece of screenwriting by the great Philip Yordan.

A band of outlaws arrives in town (it’s a tiny township named Bitters). They’re vicious degenerate thugs, led by disgraced former army officer Captain Bruhn (Burl Ives).

Bruhn has his men under control, but only just. If he loses control the gang will unquestionably go on a rampage of murder and destruction and the outlook for the women of Bitters will be very grim indeed. As long as Bruhn is alive and healthy his men will obey him but he may not remain alive and healthy for very long. He has a bullet in him. The wound is extremely serious. There’s no doctor in Bitters but there is a vet and he will have to keep Bruhn alive.

It’s not surprising that squabbles between ranchers and farmers and romantic triangles now seem rather unimportant.

The townspeople have all been disarmed and in any case Starrett is the only one who would be any use in a fight. They’re up against seven very hard men all armed to the teeth. The power balance is entirely on the side of Bruhn and his men. Somehow Starrett has to find a way to upset that balance.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Bruhn and Starrett are deadly enemies but there is one thing on which they agree - Bruhn’s thugs have to be kept under control. Bruhn might be a bad man but he doesn’t want the townspeople slaughtered and he doesn’t want the women harmed. He is also knows that once he loses control over his men he will never regain it. Bruhn and Starrett are enemies but in that one curious way they are almost uneasy allies. Almost.

This movie treats power relationships as complex and constantly shifting.

It’s also a movie with complex conflicted characters. Starrett is a good man with a very dark side. Bruhn is a very bad man, with perhaps something of good still left in him.

Redemption is a common enough theme in westerns but in this movie it gets complicated. There are at least five characters (not all of them men) who could be seen as being in need of redemption. Perhaps all of us are need of redemption.

There are outright evil characters in this film but among the key characters there are a lot of shades of grey.

It’s a movie that could only have worked with a high quality cast but luckily that’s exactly what André De Toth had. Robert Ryan gives an extremely subtle and superb performance. Starrett is a man of blood. He has never been an outlaw but when he arrived in Bitters the town was controlled by outlaws. Starrett and his pal Dan cleaned up the town. Some killing was required. Starrett has killed, without any regrets. At the start of the movie he intends to kill again. He is a seasoned gunfighter and Hal Crane has never fired a gun in anger. If Starrett provokes Crane into a gunfight it will be, morally, murder. But despite this Starrett is the hero of the story. He is not the villain.

Bruhn has done terrible things and he is the villain, but he is a complex villain and Burl Ives gives one of his finest performances.

Helen is the heroine, but she has a dark side as well. Tina Louise is extremely good. Also surprisingly good is David Nelson (Ricky Nelson’s brother) as the youngest member of the gang, not yet totally corrupted. Venetia Stevenson is good as his love interest. Jack Lambert gives us a masterclass is how to convey pure evil and terrifying menace.

This movie has a stark austere beauty. This is a remote land of snow and ice, a hostile but beautiful world capable of killing. De Toth had to fight to be allowed to shoot it in black-and-white but it was the right decision.

There is suspense and terror and some action but this is a rather cerebral psychological western for grown-ups. It’s structurally bold and it has a lot of depth and nuance. It’s a truly great movie and is very highly recommended.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray offers an exquisite transfer Lus there’s an excellent audio commentary.

You might also want to check out the review at the excellent Riding the High County blog.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

The Golden Arrow (1962)

The Golden Arrow is a 1962 Italian Arabian Nights adventure/romance directed by the usually reliable Antonio Margheriti.

I guess, given the release date, that I was expecting something with more of the flavour of the wonderful Italian peplums. What you actually get is something rather blander and more wholesome. It’s like freshly baked bread, if you like freshly baked bread.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is that the plot seems very familiar indeed. That’s because the plot is essentially that of the magnificent 1924 Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad with a few bits from the very very fine 1940 British remake as well. Both those movies are a whole lot better than this one.

Hassan (Tab Hunter) is the leader of a band of thieves. Their latest caper is the kidnapping of the beautiful princess of Damascus, Jamila (Rossana Podestà). She will bring a rich ransom. In the course of the kidnapping Hassan finds himself competing in a contest. Jamila is the heiress to the principality - the man who marries her will become sultan of Damascus. The various suitors for Jamila’s hand must each try to draw a golden bow and fire a golden arrow. The man who can do this is destined to marry Jamila and become sultan. Hassan claims to be an obscure foreign prince. He succeeds in firing the arrow but he is disqualified when it is discovered he is a mere thief rather than a prince. The golden arrow disappears.

Hassan carries Jamila off but he’s too much of a nice guy to stick to the plan. He is overwhelmed by her beauty and sweetness and returns her unharmed, without the ransom.

Jamila has three main suitors, none of whom please her. She stalls for time by setting them a new contest. They must each bring her an extraordinary gift. She agrees that she will marry the man who brings the finest gift.

The three suitors set off in search of rare magical items.

Meanwhile Hassan has acquired three strange comrades who literally just appeared out of thin air. Perhaps they are djinns or celestial messengers. They want him to find that golden arrow and marry the princess because it is his Destiny - he is in fact the rightful sultan.

This movie certainly looks sumptuous and expensive. It may not have been that expensive but the Italians could make a modest amount of money go a long long way. Some of the special effects are pretty decent. The flying carpet looks reasonably convincing. Others are not so good. The sets look terrific. The movie was shot in Technicolor and in the ’scope aspect ratio. The location shooting is very impressive.

Tab Hunter does seem a bit out of place, a bit too all-American. I guess it’s plausible that the princess could be swept off her feet by his blond California surfer guy good looks. His voice was dubbed in both the Italian and English language versions so his performance is difficult to judge but it is obvious that he lacks the charisma and the loveable rogue quality that Fairbanks brought to the role. Rossana Podestà is very pretty and looks the part of a sweet good girl princess.

The chief villain is the vizier Baktiar (Mario Feliciani) who wants to keep power in his own hands. He’s the movie’s major weak link - he just isn’t sufficiently sinister and menacing and he’s pretty dull.

This movie has a Disney family movie wholesomeness and tries to be too whimsical. That is perhaps an unfair judgment since it does give the impression of being aimed at a young audience. There’s nothing here to upset the kiddies. Hassan’s pursuit of Jamila is very chaste. The violence is very very mild indeed.

There are some fine visual moments but a bit more action and excitement would not have gone amiss. This is the kind of movie that offers a full-scale battle scene in which nobody actually gets hurt.

Sadly this movie lacks the craziness and inspiration that Antonio Margheriti brought to his best movies. There’s too much lame comic relief. The chemistry isn’t quite there between the two leads, mostly because Rossana Podestà looks like an Arabian Nights princess and Tab Hunter looks like a refugee from an AIP beach party movie.

We don’t get enough of a sense that the princess is ever in any real danger.

It’s not terrible and it’s reasonable undemanding entertainment and if you treat it as a kids’ movie it’s not bad. But it looks lovely so it’s recommended, with reservations.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is of course barebones but the transfer is excellent.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Las Vegas Story (1952)

The Las Vegas Story is a 1952 RKO crime picture with some film noir flavouring.

I don’t know about you but personally I find the idea of Victor Mature, Jane Russell and Vincent Price together in anything noirish very attractive.

I love movies about Las Vegas, probably because I’ve never been there. For me Vegas is a city of the imagination. I’m sure it never was quite the way it’s depicted in movies but I don’t care. For me the Vegas of the movies and of my imagination is the real Vegas. Who needs reality?

Lloyd Rollins (Vincent Price) and his wife Linda (Jane Russell) have just arrived in Vegas. Lloyd is looking forward to some serious gambling. He’s a bit of a high roller. He can afford it. He’s extremely rich. Linda has a really nice necklace, a gift from her husband. It’s worth 150 grand. He’s extremely rich indeed.

Except that very early on Linda reads a wire addressed to her husband which suggests that maybe his financial position is not quite so secure.

Lloyd and Linda seem happy enough but something happened in the past that still casts its shadow over their marriage. It happened in Vegas, at the Last Chance, where Linda used to sing.

It involved Dave (Victor Mature). Dave was in the army then. Linda was his girl. Dave has always thought that she ran out on him. Perhaps she did. Dave is still in Vegas. Now he’s a detective lieutenant in the sheriff’s department. Naturally Linda runs into Dave. It’s a tense meeting. Dave hasn’t forgiven her. He’s very bitter. Maybe he’s still in love with her. Maybe she did love him and maybe she still does. It’s not easy to escape the past.

There’s plenty of potential here for some twisted romantic dramas.

Lloyd is losing lots of money at the gaming tables, money which he may not be able to afford to lose. That necklace becomes important again.

This is a crime movie and there will indeed be a crime. That crime will have consequences for Lloyd, Linda and Dave. And yes, once again the necklace is involved.

The crime could possibly involve several other people, like the former owner of the Last Chance and a smooth slimy insurance investigator. There are potentially quite a few suspects.

Victor Mature is such an underrated actor and he’s in fine form here. He plays Dave as an embittered man but a sympathetic character as well. He’s a decent guy but he got hurt real bad. It’s a fine nuanced performance.

Vincent Price was always superb in these kinds of movies. Lloyd might be a louse or he might be a loser or he might be a guy who’s just managed to get himself in a jam. He might be fundamentally decent. We can’t be sure. Price gives a wonderfully ambiguous performance.

Jane Russell was always good in noirish melodramas. Linda is another character with a bit of complexity. She doesn’t seen like a femme fatale, but she does seem like she might be a dangerous dame to know. She’s too beautiful and glamorous not to be dangerous. She’s not quite hardboiled but there is an edge to her. She’s a girl who thought she knew what she wanted but when she got it she wasn’t so sure.

Hoagy Carmichael makes an appearance and doesn’t just sing and play the piano but acts as well.

The black-and-white cinematography is not especially noirish but it does capture the seductive dangerous glamour of Vegas pretty well. There’s some nice hardboiled dialogue.

This is not really a film noir at all. Not even close. It is however a fairly enjoyable crime/romance melodrama. The Vegas setting and the three lead performances make it worth seeing.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a very nice transfer.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Marlowe (1969)

Marlowe is a 1969 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, with James Garner as Philip Marlowe. Stirling Silliphant wrote the screenplay and he obviously had the right credentials. It was directed by Paul Bogart, a guy with a very undistinguished career spent mainly in television.

What’s odd about Chandler is that there weren’t a huge number of adaptations of his novels back in the 40s but between 1969 and 1978 there were no less than four, varying wildly in both style and quality. They covered the spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous (I’m afraid I’m not a fan of Robert Altman’s eccentric The Long Goodbye).

The Little Sister just happens to be my favourite Chandler novel.

These later adaptations all faced one problem - whether to go for a period setting or whether to put Marlowe in a contemporary setting. The 1975 Farewell, My Lovely was the only one that went for a period setting and it’s the best of the four. The 1969 Marlowe goes for a contemporary setting so early on we have Marlowe encountering hippies. There’s plenty of late 60s California decadence as Marlowe finds himself encountering the world of television.

James Garner was a pretty obvious choice to play Marlowe. Obviously Robert Mitchum would have been better but Mitchum had to wait until 1975 by which time he had to play an ageing Marlowe (which he did to perfection). But Garner did have the charisma and the role was well within his range.

Philip Marlowe is working on a very trivial case. A small-town girl from Kansas, Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), wants her missing brother Orrin to be found. Marlowe has a lead but then there’s a corpse with an ice-pick in it and Marlowe isn’t keen on those kinds of cases so he wants to drop it.

Unfortunately there’s soon a second corpse, and a second ice-pick.

There are also some photographs, of the sort usually described as compromising. There’s obviously some blackmail going on. The photographs lead Marlowe to TV sitcom star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt). Marlowe figures she’s in a jam and would like to hire a private detective to get her out of the mess but she’s not interested.

Someone else wants Marlowe off the case and hires a king fu expert (played by Bruce Lee in an odd, out-of-place but amusing cameo) to persuade him to back off.

The ice picks worry Marlowe. Rubbing guys out in that manner is a trademark of big-time gangster Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wynant).

Marlowe has a lot of women to deal with in this case and they’re all probably lying to him and they’re all potentially dangerous. There’s Mavis, there’s her stripper best friend Dolores (Rita Moreno) and there’s Orfamay. The connections between these women may not be what they seem to be. None are played as conventional femmes fatales which is refreshing. Marlowe also has a gangster to worry about, and a doctor with a possibly dubious past. And there’s missing brother Orrin who was mixed up in something shady. There are half a dozen quite convincing murder suspects so it’s no wonder Marlowe is bewildered.

The tone is somewhat erratic. The opening scene with the hippies comes across as a desperate attempt to pander to a youth audience. Chandler was not really a writer of noir fiction (although a lot of people think he was) and the only Chandler adaptation that comes close to being genuinely film noir is the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler was however decidedly hardboiled (which is not the same thing) and Marlowe just doesn’t achieve that feel. In fact at times it seems like it’s trying to be tongue-in-cheek. Chandler could be very witty and amusing so that approach isn’t entirely wrong but this movie pushes it a bit too far.

We do have to address the question of plotting. There’s a popular perception that Chandler didn’t care about plotting. That simply isn’t true. Chandler saw himself as a writer of detective fiction and that’s a genre that requires a reasonably effective plot. Chandler put a lot of effort into his plots but they do tend to be very complicated and convoluted and sometimes confusing. That problem shows up in this movie as well. It’s not at all easy to keep track of what’s going on.

I don’t think that’s a major problem. Marlowe is supposed to be mystified and it doesn’t hurt if the audience is as well. As Marlowe slowly starts to make sense of the case we do as well, and we make the same wrong assumptions that Marlowe makes.

James Garner had huge success on television but was never a top-tier movie star. I suspect that’s because he made acting look easy. Critics like actors who make acting look hard. Critics also admire actors who seem to be having a miserable time. Critics are rather sad people. I’m quite OK with Garner’s easy-going performance here.

The other players are all pretty solid. Carroll O’Connor overacts less than usual as Homicide cop Lieutenant Christy French, who is (surprisingly) almost a nice guy. That’s something I like about this movie - the characters are not the stereotypes you’re expecting. Rita Moreno just about steals the picture with her very steamy strip-tease routine.

As director Paul Bogart does a perfectly competent job.

I have a few minor quibbles with Marlowe but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a very nice transfer. It would be nice to see this movie get a Blu-Ray release - it’s worthy of re-evaluation.

I’ve reviewed the two Robert Mitchum Marlowe movies, the superb Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and the much less successful but still rather interesting The Big Sleep (1978).

Friday, May 24, 2024

Pickup Alley (1957)

Pickup Alley is a 1957 British crime thriller directed by John Gilling. It’s a movie that has, quite unfairly, fallen through the cracks.

Gilling wrote and directed a huge number of modestly budgeted crime pictures in the 50s and then made a lot of movies for Hammer in the 60s. All of his 50s movies (in fact all of his movies) are worth seeing and some are very good indeed. Like this movie Gilling has been very unfairly neglected. He knew how to make consistently enjoyable movies.

Part of Pickup Alley’s problem may be the title which might lead the unwary to assume it’s going to be film noir. It isn’t. There’s also the fact that it has at times been released under a bewildering variety of tiles - Dope, Half Past Hell, The Most Wanted Woman and Interpol. Interpol was the original British title and has the advantage of telling us what the movie is actually all about.

Pickup Alley is a crime thriller that goes to great lengths to achieve an international feel. It moves from the U.S. to London to Lisbon to Naples to Athens. The multi-national cast also helps - the three leads include an American (Victor Mature), a Briton (Trevor Howard) and a Swede (Anita Ekberg). The international feel is achieved quite successfully and manages to persuade us that we really are in a series of exotic locations (and there obviously was some location shooting). I just have to mention that Gina travels to Lisbon by flying boat - I just love seeing flying boats in movies!

Charles Sturgis (Victor Mature) works for the American Bureau of Narcotics. His kid sister was murdered by an international dope peddler named McNally (Trevor Howard). McNally is a mystery man - nobody even knows what he looks like or what name he might now be using. Nonetheless there is a tenuous lead and Sturgis jets off to Europe to follow it up.

There’s another important murder early on. A sleazy criminal is shot to death by Gina Broger (Anita Ekberg). Gina is involved in McNally’s rackets and McNally assures her she doesn’t need to worry that the murder might be traced to her as long as she’s a good girl and does what he tells her. What he wants her to do now is to deliver a package to Lisbon.

Unfortunately for Gina Scotland Yard is not totally incompetent, and she left some fingerprints behind at the murder scene. Gina is now Sturgis’s best chance of tracking down McNally.

Unfortunately for Sturgis McNally isn’t totally stupid either, and Sturgis has been marked for elimination if he starts to get too close.

This is very much a police procedural, and a good one, with quite a bit of action thrown in as well. Gilling’s early films were well-crafted but low-budget and rather low-key. This movie offered him the chance to do something a bit more expansive and try his hand at action scenes (which he handles very skilfully). It was also an opportunity for him to demonstrate his ability to make a movie that looks much more expensive than it actually was.

This was a Warwick Films picture so it really did have a reasonable budget.

Victor Mature is excellent as the embittered and rather impetuous Sturgis. Mature has slowly gained some respect as an actor in recent years but he deserves even more. Anita Ekberg is very good and certainly adds glamour as the femme fatale-ish Gina. The movie however belongs to Trevor Howard. He’s dazzling - by turns charming, calculating, menacing and cruel. McNally is a great and extremely colourful villain.

Also helping things along is the presence of some of my favourite British character actors such as André Morell, Eric Pohlmann, Sydney Tafler and Sid James (yes, that Sid James, who was a fine character actor before achieving fame as a comic genius).

Pickup Alley is typical John Gilling - very well-made and very entertaining. Highly recommended.

The Arrow Academy Blu-Ray offers a lovely 16:9 enhanced transfer (the movie was shot in the ’scope ratio) and shows off the impressive black-and-white cinematography.

I’ve reviewed a stack of John Gilling’s movies, including the excellent crime film The Embezzler (1954), the underrated and somewhat noirish The Challenge (AKA It Takes a Thief, 1960) and the solid spy thriller Deadly Nightshade (1953). I’ve also reviewed what are arguably his best movies, his two 1966 gothic horror movies for Hammer, The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Reptile (1966).