Monday, April 29, 2024

The Famous Ferguson Case (1932)

The Famous Ferguson Case is a pre-code movie from First National Pictures that is both a murder mystery and a newspaper story.

It begins in the sleepy American town of Cornwall. Marcia Ferguson (Vivienne Osborne) is perhaps getting a bit too friendly with bank cashier Judd Brooks. They’re both married, but not to each other. Marcia Ferguson’s husband arrives back in town unexpectedly. 

That night Mr Ferguson is murdered. Mrs Ferguson is found bound and gagged. She tells the sheriff that two men broke in and killed her husband. The sheriff has a few doubts about her story but there is absolutely no solid evidence against either Mrs Ferguson or Judd Brooks.

Bruce Foster (Tom Brown) is a wet behind the ears cub reporter on the town’s newspaper, The Cornwall Courier. He does know enough to know this is a big story and he sends it off to a major New York paper. By the next day Cornwall is overrun with New York reporters.

They’re not a very inspiring lot. They’re out for a sensational story and being reporters they don’t care if the story has any truth to it as long as it will sell newspapers. If they don’t look like getting a sufficiently sensational story they’ll manufacture one. They decide that the story they want is that Mrs Ferguson and Judd Brook were the murderers. It’s a sensational story, combining sensationalism and salaciousness. They manipulate the county attorney into charging Mrs Ferguson with murder. They don’t care if she’s innocent or guilty as long as they get the story.

There’s certainly a murder mystery plot here but the main focus is on the appalling behaviour of the press. These reporters give the word cynicism a whole new meaning.

There are romantic dramas being played out as well. The most unscrupulous and unethical of the reporters is sleazy alcoholic Bob Parks (Kenneth Thomson). He’s set his sights on young Bruce’s girlfriend Toni (Adrienne Dore) who is also a reporter on The Cornwall Courier. Bob Parks already has a girlfriend, fellow reporter Maizie Dickson (Joan Blondell). That doesn’t stop him from chasing anything in a skirt. Maizie is getting fed up not just with Bob but with herself and the newspaper game. She’s jealous, but mostly she’s disgusted - especially given the fact that Toni is so naïve and is inevitably going to get hurt the way Maizie herself has been hurt.

The gentlemen of the press continue their campaign to railroad Mrs Ferguson straight to Death Row.

Joan Blondell gets top billing and she is of course very good but her character is not really the main focus of the movie. Kenneth Thomson makes a great drunken sleazebag gutter journalist. Leslie Fenton is excellent as Jim Perrin, a reporter who is even sleazier more loathsome than Bob Parks. The other cast members are all very good.

Lloyd Bacon was a more than competent director who doesn’t receive much attention from critics but he was reliable and really keeps things moving in this picture.

There’s not a huge amount of pre-code content but the story has a nicely sordid sleazy cynical edge to it. It’s also quite open about the ways in which public officials allow themselves to become the willing tools of dishonest journalists. The criminal justice system doesn’t come off too well.

Unfortunately there’s some speechifying, mostly intended to try to convince us that most reporters are ethical.

The resolution of the murder mystery is a bit too obvious but then the murder mystery is not what this movie is primarily about.

The ending is a bit of a letdown - the movie pulls its punches a bit here.

On the whole a pretty decent examination of the awfulness and cynicism of the press. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD provides a very pleasing transfer.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Joy House (1964)

René Clément’s Joy House (also released as The Love Cage, original French title Les félins) is based on Day Keene’s delightfully nasty little noir masterpiece Joy House. The movie has plenty of star power thanks to the casting of Alain Delon and Jane Fonda, Delon being a very hot property indeed in France at this time and Fonda a fast-riding star.

Marc (Alain Delon) had been living in New York but had to leave after a misunderstanding with big-time gangster McKean. Marc had seduced the gangster’s wife, after which Marc decided that New York was not a good place for him to be.

He’s back in France but Mob hitmen are after him. He ends up, penniless, in a mission which is largely supported by the eccentric widow Barbara Hill (Lola Albright). Mrs Hill is assisted in her charitable endeavours by her maid Melinda (Jane Fonda). We later find out that Melinda is not exactly her maid.

Marc gets a break when he’s employed by Mrs Hill as a chauffeur. Mrs Hill lives in a large house with just two servants, Melinda and now Marc. Melinda is very excited by the idea of having a man about the house.

Marc is broke but he doesn’t intend to stay that way. He has no concrete plans but ideas are starting to occur to him. Marc is accustomed to taking risks. He’s confident of getting what he wants.

Mrs Hill has an interesting past, particularly insofar as it involves her late husband. She is up to something and it involves Marc. Marc suspects that something is going on in Mrs Hill’s mind but he’s not sure how it could involve him.

Melinda may have plans as well. She certainly plans on getting Marc into bed.

It seems more than possible that Marc and Mrs Hill may end up in bed together as well, although the motivations of each of them have little to do with lust.

There’s a secret concealed in Mrs Hill’s house. It may be a threat to Marc, or it could be something that he can turn to his advantage.

None of these characters could be described as straightforward and honest. There are lies and deceptions and betrayals. They’re playing dangerous games - dangerous to themselves and others. It’s also by no means certain that there are only three players in this game.

Alain Delon is, as always, insanely cool. This is exactly the kind of character he played so well - very cool, possibly sinister, definitely dangerous, very sexy and very aware of his sexual power over women.

Jane Fonda is excellent. Melinda’s motivations are especially mysterious. She probably doesn’t understand them herself. She is however becoming very aware of her sexual power over men.

Lola Albright could easily have been overshadowed by two such major stars but she isn’t. She’s playing a woman who likes to be in control but knows that perhaps she’s not as completely in control as she’d like to be. She’s calculating, but with a certain emotional vulnerability.

There’s a bit of the femme fatale in both women, and quite a bit of the homme fatale in Marc.

This movie could be seen as an early neo-noir, an anticipation of later erotic neo-noirs like Body Heat and Basic Instinct. At the same time there’s a slightly off-kilter absurdist edge to it. It’s almost noir black comedy. It’s a movie about game-playing and the movie itself is a game.

When people think of French cinema in the 60s they tend to think of Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol et al. René Clément is usually dismissed as a relic of the past, and in fact was regarded that way at the time by devotees of the Nouvelle Vague. In fact Clément made a couple of movies in the 60s that are vastly superior to anything done by those Nouvelle Vague directors, including the absolutely superb Purple Noon (Plein Soleil).

Joy House is energetic, witty, playful, sardonic, visually inventive and very stylish. It’s also a great twisted psychosexual melodrama. It’s not quite an out-and-out crime thriller in a conventional sense but there are plenty of characters with criminal intentions. Clément may have been unfashionable at the time but here he’s at the top of his game. Very highly recommended.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray offers both English and French language options. It doesn’t matter which you choose. Both Alain Delon and Jane Fonda did their own voices in both languages. I think it’s fascinating that even in French Jane Fonda sounds so very Jane Fonda.

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The Story of Temple Drake, released by Paramount in 1933, is one of the most notorious of all Hollywood pre-code movies. In 1934 the Production Code Authority ordered that the film never be re-released.

The movie is based on William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary.

This is a southern gothic melodrama. The movie’s attitude towards the South is complicated but generally rather hostile.

I have no intention of revealing the ending but it’s impossible to talk about The Story of Temple Drake without revealing quite a bit about the plot of the first two-thirds of the movie so if you’re incredibly spoiler-phobic bear that in mind.

Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is the granddaughter of Judge Drake (Guy Standing). The judge is rigid and authoritarian in the courtroom but Temple has him wrapped around her little finger.

Temple has a reputation for wildness. She runs around with a lot of men. She is most certainly a tease. She likes playing dangerous games with men. She has a definite self-destructive side and has a low opinion of herself.

Idealistic lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) wants to marry Temple but she refuses him. She gives the impression that she thinks she would ruin his life.

Temple has been going out with a young man named Toddy Gowan (William Collier Jr). He is aimless, pleasure-loving, a drunk and relatively harmless. Their car crashes and they find themselves being taken by a man named Trigger (Jack La Rue) to a decaying old house. Temple and Toddy are not given much choice in the matter. The house belongs to the rather disreputable but also relatively harmless bootlegger Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel) but there is nothing harmless about Trigger and his pals. They’re gangsters and Trigger is a violent psycho.

The evening ends with a shooting and with Temple getting raped by Trigger. Then Temple ends up moving in with Trigger, although whether it’s by her own choice or not is left ambiguous.

That shooting is going to cause a problem. Lee Goodwin is charged with the murder. Stephen Benbow has to defend him. Stephen knows that Goodwin is innocent but he can’t prove it without Temple’s help and the trial will destroy Temple’s reputation. Both Stephen and Temple will face difficult decisions.

There’s a lot of ambiguity to this movie, most of it certainly deliberate. We know the rape happened but we don’t see it and we don’t know the exact circumstances. Whether Temple feels any sexual attraction towards Trigger is left uncertain. To what extent she chooses to be with Trigger remains ambiguous. Modern audiences accustomed to movies that make clear-cut moral judgments may be disturbed by this. This is a provocative movie.

It’s also a very strange movie. It has at times a rather trippy quality. It’s almost like a fever dream. The visuals are choppy and disturbing and disorienting. Stylistically it’s really quite unlike other Hollywood movies of its era. In the middle part of the movie we are in effect stepping inside Temple’s nightmare and the stylistic unconventionality presumably mirrors her frightened and confused state.

It would be easy to criticise Miriam Hopkins for her histrionic performance but honestly I don’t know how else she could have played this role. I think her performance is totally in tune with the overall feel of the movie.

You could say the same of most of the performances here. They’re rather artificial, but in a way that works in the context of the movie. More naturalistic performances would have been out of place. If you’re doing melodrama you need melodramatic acting.

Major changes were made to Faulkner’s original story, a story which would have been unfilmable even in the pre-code era.

The Story of Temple Drake is stylistically bizarre and it’s outrageous even by pre-code standards. It’s unlikely that it could be made today. It’s deliberately provocative but it does have a certain power. It’s highly recommended not just because it’s a good movie - it has historical importance as well.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray offers a nice transfer. The pick of the extras is the excellent interview with with film critic Mick LaSalle, a guy who really knows pre-code cinema (his book Complicated Women played a big part in turning me into a keen pre-code fan).

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Take a Girl Like You (1970)

Take a Girl Like You, based on Kingsley Amis’s famous novel of the same name, was directed by Jonathan Miller. It came out in 1970.

Jenny Bunn (Hayley Mills) is a young school teacher from the north of England where she has had an upbringing of a very traditional nature. She moves into the home of local politician Dick Thompson (John Bird) and his wife Martha (Sheila Hancock). They have two female lodgers, the other being Anna (Geraldine Sherman).

It’s not long before Jenny meets Patrick Standish (Oliver Reed), a lecturer in the local technical college. Patrick is a notorious ladies’ man. Anna was one of his previous conquests. He intends to make Jenny his next conquest.

There should be no problem. Jenny obviously likes him. The chemistry is there between them. There is however an impediment. Jenny is a virgin. She’s not just a virgin. For Jenny it’s not so much a choice as a vocation. No amount of persuasion will change her mind. She can’t really explain why she’s so determined.

It’s all rather exasperating to Patrick. On the other hand, despite his womanising, he’s a basically decent guy. He certainly has no desire to force himself on an unwilling woman. He’ll use plenty of plausible persuasion but he’s not a man to take things any further.

Patrick and Jenny make the acquaintance of Julian Ormerod (Noel Harrison), a very rich very idle upper-class chap who lives in a palatial home and devotes himself to pleasure. Being very rich and very upper-class he is of course a socialist (there is some gentle satire in both Amis’s novel and the film).

Patrick is also introduced to Julian’s current mistress, Wendy (Aimi MacDonald), a ditzy blonde minor TV personality with no sexual inhibitions at all. Wendy thinks Patrick is rather a dish.

Jenny won’t sleep with Patrick but she certainly doesn’t intend to let another woman have him. Jenny is kind of sort of in love with Patrick although she’s reluctant to admit it to herself.

Patrick lays siege to Jenny’s fiercely defended virginity. They have no idea that they might actually fall in love but of course they do, and they both end up having to rethink their attitudes towards both sex and love.

You do have to remember that Kingsley Amis’s novel was written in 1960. The Sexual Revolution had not yet gathered any momentum at all. By 1970 it was in full swing. So by 1970 Jenny’s obsession with virginity would have seemed perhaps less plausible than would have been the case a decade earlier.

At this stage the career of Hayley Mills was thriving and she seemed to be making a very successful transition to grown-up roles. Sadly, as the 70s progressed her career lost momentum. She was always equally adept at serious and comic roles and she’s excellent in this movie, managing to avoid making Jenny seem too prissy or too much of a calculating tease. Whether or not we agree with Jenny’s obsessive defence of her virtue we can’t help liking her.

This is a slightly unusual role for Oliver Reed but he did have a greater range as an actor than he’s usually given credit for, and he could project a great deal of charm. Like Hayley Mills he has a slightly tricky role here. Patrick is a bit of a lad but despite his inveterate womanising he has a certain basic decency. Reed is likeable and amusing here.

Noel Harrison was a very underrated actor and gives a typically charming performance as Julian, a thoroughly pleasant man with no morals whatsoever.

Sheila Hancock is also somewhat underrated and she’s very good as well. Aimi MacDonald is amusing as the vapid Wendy. The whole cast is good. Look out for Penelope Keith in a very small very early role.

All of the characters have some depth. Their motivations and emotions are often beset with contradictions and they don’t always understand their own feelings.

This was the only feature film directed by Jonathan Miller, an extraordinary figure in the late 20th century British cultural scene - he directed plays and operas, he was a writer and TV presenter and a humourist.

Take a Girl Like You is not a conventional romantic comedy but it is a comedy about romance. It’s not a sex comedy but it is a comedy about sex. While the British at that time certainly had a taste for broad comedy Take a Girl Like You is very different - it’s witty and sophisticated.

This was a time when British film-makers were starting to explore a topic that had always terrified them - sex. There was a keen desire to make movies that took an honest grown-up approach to the subject. The absurdly strict British film censorship was finally starting to loosen up just a little. Towards the close of the 60s there were countless British films tackling this subject, some of them doing so with surprising success. There were also quite a few British coming-of-age movies made around this time. In fact Hayley Mills had starred in one of the best of these, Sky West and Crooked, in 1966. The better British movies of this era dealing with sex include Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968), Baby Love (1969), I Start Counting (1969), Cool It, Carol! (1970), Age of Consent (1969), All the Right Noises (1970)

Take a Girl Like You is an offbeat mix but it has an infectious and enjoyable quirkiness. There is real chemistry between Hayley Mills and Oliver Reed which helps a great deal. Highly recommended.

The Powerhouse Indicator Blu-Ray presentation is excellent. There are a few extras including an interview with Hayley Mills (interestingly enough she has fond memories of working with Oliver Reed).

Sunday, April 14, 2024

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street, released in 1933, is of course the great backstage musical. This was the first of the great Warner Brothers musicals. There had been musicals prior to this but there had been nothing like 42nd Street. Musicals had had a brief vogue early in the sound era but faded quickly. No-one had yet worked out exactly how to make film musicals.

42nd Street is a hardboiled musical. Yes, there’s plenty of emotion and quite a bit of corniness but it has that Warner Brothers hardboiled edge that prevents it from descending into syrupy sentimentality. The characters are outrageous and larger-than-life but we believe in them. We believe that they feel things. We believe in their heartbreaks and jealousies and insecurities. It’s like a delicious cocktail but with enough hard liquor in it to give it a real kick. 42nd Street is gritty reality and fantasy combined.

It was also the first musical to feature the genius of Busby Berkeley’s extraordinary big production numbers. Musicals wold never be the same again.

It’s also a pre-code musical which gives it an extra bite that would be sadly missing from musicals once the Production Code came into force.

Warner Brothers knew that they had a winner and three more great musicals followed in quick succession - Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames - but after that the Production Code exercised its dismal effect and the golden age of Warner Brothers musicals came to a close.

The plot has been recycled many times but in 1933 it was still fresh.

Genius producer Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a new Broadway musical comedy show, Pretty Lady. Despite his string of hits he’s broke (he lost everything in the Wall Street Crash) and his health is breaking down. Pretty Lady has to be a hit. He has established star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) as the headliner. Tycoon Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is putting up the money because Dorothy Brock is his mistress.

For young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) this is her first show. She’s only a chorus girl but it’s a start. She doesn’t know it yet but this show is going to make her a star, by pure accident.

The movie was based on a novel of the same name by Bradford Ropes, a novel that was sleazy and scandalous. So sleazy and scandalous that Warner Brothers simply had to buy the rights.

This movie features a galaxy of acting talent all playing outrageous characters. There are just so many wonderful performances. There’s Una Merkel as cute but ditzy chorus girl Lorraine, there’s Ginger Rogers demonstrating her comic skills as the adorable Anytime Annie (the girl who never said no). Guy Kibbee gives one of his trademark performances as the ludicrous Abner Dillon. George Brent is solid as the man Dorothy really loves. Dick Powell is charming as the show’s juvenile lead.

Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh is like a force of nature. He’s hardbitten and cynical but while he’d hate to admit it he loves show business. It’s in his blood. Bebe Daniels is extremely good. Ruby Keeler is ridiculously adorable.

But the real star is Busby Berkeley. Lloyd Bacon is the director of the movie (and he does a fine job) but Berkeley directed the musical production numbers. What makes those numbers so great, and what makes this movie so great, is that these numbers are supposed to be taking place on a stage in a theatre but they’re pure cinema. They’re staged in such a way that they can only be appreciated when seen through the camera’s eye. Berkeley’s genius was that he understood that this is the way to do it. He understood that he was working in film, not on stage.

I love the final shot in this movie. It’s not what you expect in a musical but in this film it works.

42nd Street is a good example of the inherent aesthetic superiority of black-and-white. Shot in colour it would have looked tacky. Shot in black-and-white it looks all class and style. It’s also a movie that would never have worked in a widescreen format. If you have real talent you don’t need colour or widescreen.

42nd Street was not just the first great movie musical. It remains the greatest of all movie musicals. Very highly recommended.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray offers a lovely transfer and quite a few extras.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

My Past (1931)

My Past is a 1931 Warner Brothers pre-code romantic melodrama.

John Thornley (Lewis Stone) is a wealthy middle-aged industrialist. He leaves the running of the business to his much younger workaholic partner, Bob Byrne (Ben Lyon). John prefers to spend his time lazing about on his yacht and chasing actresses.

For six years he’s been chasing musical comedy star Doree Macy (Bebe Daniels). He thinks that eventually he’ll catch her.

Then Bob meets Doree and becomes smitten with her. He’s a married man but he assures her that his wife Consuelo (Natalie Moorhead) is in Paris getting a divorce. You’d think an actress would be worldly enough not to fall for the oldest line in the book, but she falls for it.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Bob’s wife had no intention of divorcing him.

So now there’s a kind of romantic quadrangle, with Bob and John both chasing Doree while Doree and Consuelo compete for Bob. That’s it for the plot.

I do have some issues with this movie, primarily relating to character motivations. I just don’t buy John’s pathetic self-sacrificing emotional masochism. I don’t buy the idea that he’d spend six years chasing Doree without getting anything in return. It doesn’t gel with his hedonistic outlook. After a few months he would simply start chasing another actress, but he doesn’t. It’s totally at odds with everything else we know about him. It doesn’t ring true. I have a problem with characters who do things that are wildly out of character just because the script says so. It’s a sign of lazy writing. In this case it also leads us to despise the man, which weakens the movie’s emotional impact.

I also just didn’t like the heroine. She’s believable, but she’s a heartless manipulative woman. If she’d been meant as a calculating vamp that would have been fine but I get the impression that we’re actually meant to like her.

Does it have a pre-code flavour? Up to a point it does. It’s fairly explicit about the fact that Bob and his wife have a sexless marriage. It certainly implies that Bob and Doree sleep together. It tries to be daring in treating adultery casually but at times it’s a bit too coy. It does let Doree off lightly for trying to steal another woman’s husband. It wants to be naughty, but it pulls its punches a bit.

There’s a slightly nasty vibe to this movie. The message seems to be that lying and manipulating will get you everything you want while if you behave honourably you’ll wind up with nothing. The only really decent character in the movie is the one who ends up getting it in the neck.

I’m all for pre-code openness and pre-code lack of moral judgments on characters for minor indiscretions but I’m a bit uncomfortable with a movie that lets a louse like Bob off so lightly.

The acting is mostly fine. It’s not the fault of the players that the characters are badly written.

Ben Lyon is dull. Lewis Stone is fun. Bebe Daniels is good. Joan Blondell once again finds herself playing the heroine’s best friend and once again she steals every scene she’s in.

Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels were married in real life which makes the total lack of onscreen chemistry between them rather puzzling.

My Past just didn’t work for me. The script is very weak. Doree and Bob are simply awful people that I didn’t care about. This might have worked if the movie had been played as a cynical comedy. My Past is not a terribly movie but it’s disappointing and it’s hard to recommend, even with Bebe Daniels and Joan Blondell in the cast.

The Warner Archive DVD is barebones as usual but it’s a nice transfer.

Monday, April 8, 2024

The Last Flight (1931)

The Last Flight, released by First National Pictures in 1931, is a fascinating pre-code exercise in post-war angst and existential despair.

It was written by John Monk Saunders, whose writing credits encompass most of the classic World War I aviation movies of the 20s and 30s including Wings (1927) and the original 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol. He had been an army flight instructor during the war. His job was to teach men to kill, and die, in the air. It had an effect. Saunders committed suicide in 1940 at the age of forty-five.

The Last Flight begins with two buddies, Lieutenants Cary Lockwood (Richard Barthelmess) and Shep Lambert (David Manners), in the midst of their final dogfight over France in 1918. They survive the crash of their plane.

They are among the lucky ones who returned from the war alive. Or are they lucky? When you send young men off to war, even if they come back alive they haven’t really survived. Cary and Shep are all broken inside. Not physically, but mentally and spiritually and emotionally. They are the walking dead.

They head to Paris when peace comes. They only know how to fly and to kill, not useful peacetime skills. And they can’t fly any more. Their nerves are shattered. There is however one thing they can do. They can drink. They decide to devote their lives to drinking.

There’s lots of Lost Generation stuff in this movie. This was 1931. The new American literary superstars were writers like Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, chroniclers of that Lost Generation.

Cary and Shep hang around with other American WW1 vets, all of them broken in some way by the war and all living lives devoted to empty despairing hedonism.

Then they meet a very strange girl. Her name is Nikki (Helen Chandler). To say that she’s eccentric would be putting it mildly. She’s totally mad. She’s also charming, pretty, likeable and weirdly fascinating. Soon she is surrounded by half a dozen drunken admirers, all broken-down ex-flyers. She recognises flyers immediately. They have a certain look in their eyes. She doesn’t actually say this but I think it’s fair to surmise that she can see in their eyes that they have looked upon the face of death.

There’s more than a tinge of existentialism. These young men, and this young woman, have freedom but they have no idea what to do with it. They have their pleasures, but their pleasures leave them feeling empty. The war has destroyed their faith in the old values. They have found no new values in which to believe. Being drunk makes them cheerful, but it’s a despairing kind of forced cheerfulness. They’re going nowhere and they’re in a hurry.

In this very year, 1931, David Manners and Helen Chandler would be paired in a much more famous movie, Dracula. Considering how dull they were in Dracula their performances in The Last Flight come as quite a surprise. David Manners is quite good. Helen Chandler’s performance is bizarre but it’s bizarre in just the right way and it works perfectly. Nikki is a Lost Girl. Like the men she just drifts through life without actually living.

Richard Barthelmess was, briefly, a very big star. He’s very good here. All the performances are nicely judged, with the right amount of disconnectedness.

What makes this a pre-code movie is not the sexual content (there is very little to speak of) but its cynicism about military glory and the military in general, and its overall pessimism. I don’t think the Production Code Authority would have tolerated such a negative view of the military.

The plot takes some very unexpected turns towards the end. There are events that come out of the blue, but given the way these people live you can’t help feeling that something like this was bound to happen. I like the way the shocks are not foreshadowed.

The Last Flight is one of the more successful attempts to capture existentialism on film. It’s a fascinating movie and because it’s a pre-code movie it’s pleasingly unpredictable. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a very good transfer. It’s barebones. That’s perhaps a pity since this movie is probably easier to appreciate if you know a bit about the intellectual currents of the time.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Squeaker (Der Zinker, 1963)

The Squeaker (the original German title is Der Zinker) is a 1963 entry in the West German Edgar Wallace krimi cycle made by Rialto studios. This one was directed by Alfred Vohrer and that’s usually a good sign. Vohrer really understood the genre. His krimis have that little extra something.

This one was based on Wallace’s 1927 novel The Squeaker (which had already been filmed three times back in the 1930s).

The story concerns a super-criminal and informer known as the Snake. His latest victim has been bitten by an actual deadly snake, a black mamba. At least that’s how it looks.

We’ve already seen a black mamba removed from its cage in the headquarters of Mulford’s, a firm that trades in exotic wild animals for zoos and circuses. Since the man who removed the black mamba was played by Klaus Kinski we suspect he might be the murderer, or might belong to the murderer’s gang, but in a krimi you don’t want to jump to conclusions.

Inspector Bill Elford of Scotland Yard (Heinz Drache) is on the case.

The press is on the case as well. Star girl reporter Jos always seem to get the scoops but Joshua Harras (Eddi Arent) who works for a rival newspaper is determined to change that.

There are those in the criminal underworld who seek to bring the Snake’s career to an end. They plan an elaborate trap involving a fake robbery.

The Snake always seems to be one step ahead of everybody.

Other murders follow. The murder methods are ingenious and invariably involve snakes. In the case of one of the murders three different murder methods appear to have been used.

The girl reporter mentioned earlier is actually Beryl Stedman (Barbara Rütting), the niece of old Mrs Mulford who owns the animal trading business. Beryl writes sensational thrillers in her spare time (thrillers packed with murders).

There’s a romantic triangle involving Beryl, Mrs Mulford’s business partner Frankie Sutton (Günter Pfitzmann) and Sutton’s secretary Millie.

There are the expected red herrings. The Snake could be almost anybody. The plot is convoluted, but in a good way, with lots of Edgar Wallace outrageousness.

The warehouse complex housing the animals is the setting for much of the action and a great setting it is. The animals do of course play a part. Snakes are not the only animals used as murder weapons. There are even secret passageways, an essential Wallace ingredient. And a few gadgets.

Heinz Drache makes a fun likeable cop hero. Klaus Kinski is as crazed as ever. Eddi Arent provides comic relief. To appreciate Eddi Arent you have to see these movies in German with English subtitles - in the English dubbed versions he’s irritating, in the German version he’s genuinely amusing and you realise why he was considered such an asset by Rialto. The supporting players are all extremely good. These movies had the cream of German acting talent at their disposal.

There’s an impressive visual set-piece which provides an exciting finale.

This was the first Rialto krimi shot in Ultrascope, a German version of Cinemascope. The combination of black-and-white cinematography and the ’Scope ratio always works well.

Style matters in a krimi and this film has the characteristic krimi style which goes so well with Wallace’s stories. Realism doesn’t matter very much - these movies exist in their own universe which isn’t Germany and it isn’t England and it doesn’t really coincide with anything in the real world but it’s a fun and intoxicating place to visit.

The Squeaker is a fine example of an early period krimi and it’s highly recommended.

The Tobis DVD presentation offers both English and German language options, with English subtitles for the German version. The transfer is up to their usual very high standards.