Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Criss Cross (1949)

Criss Cross is a 1949 Universal International film noir directed by Robert Siodmak. The screenplay by Daniel Fuchs was based on Don Tracy’s 1934 novel of the same name. Criss Cross isn’t just a film noir. It’s one of the great classic noirs (and one of several superb noirs directed by Siodmak). It’s also a heist movie.

Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) works for an armoured car company. We know from the start that he’s involved in a heist and if we weren’t told we’d know anyway. When you’ve got a guy who drives an armoured car for a living you can figure that there’s going to be a heist.

This movie makes use of narrative techniques that would later be seen as defining characteristics of film noir - flashbacks and voiceover narration.

What we don’t know is how Steve Thompson comes to be involved in a robbery. He’s a regular guy. He’s a bit hot-headed but he’s a nice guy. Nice, but not too bright. He thinks he has his life under control but in fact it’s totally out of control. He’s a classic noir protagonist - a decent guy who allows himself to be drawn into a world of betrayals, a basically honest guy who ends up mixed up in crime.

How did Steve’s life get so mixed up? If you’re guessing there’s a girl involved then you’re spot on the money. The girl is Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). Anna is Steve’s ex-wife. Their tempestuous marriage ended in divorce but he’s never been able to get her out of his system. Steve had enough sense to leave town after the divorce and get as far away from Anna as possible, but he doesn’t have enough sense to stay away. He has to come back. He tells himself he just wants to see his family again but he knows quite well that he’s come back because he can’t stay away from Anna.

Maybe Anna’s no good. Everybody tells him that she’s no good. He doesn’t care. She’s in his blood.

There’s another guy obsessed with her and unfortunately that other guy is Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Slim is a bad ’un. He’s a gangster with a mean ruthless streak.

The fact that Steve is mixed up in a heist has a lot to do with Anna and with Slim Dundee but not in an entirely straightforward way.

The heist comes fairly late in the movie. For most of the movie we have no idea why and how Steve got involved but thanks to the use of flashbacks we know it’s coming and it provides the necessary sense of doom lurking in the background. When a nice guy gets involved in a heist we expect that it won’t turn out too well for him.

Dan Duryea gives one of his trademark menacing performances. He’s in fine form but he isn’t the main focus. The focus here is entirely on Steve and Anna and the success or failure of the movie depends to a large extent on the performances of Lancaster and De Carlo, both playing extremely complex characters. Fortunately they come through with flying colours.

Burt Lancaster is not a favourite actor of mine but he’s excellent here - he’s like a stick of dynamite with the fuse slowly burning. In a film noir the protagonist can be led to disaster by fate or by his own character flaws but in this case it’s something much more deadly - love. His love for Anna is both romantic and sexual. He wants all of her - her body, her heart, her soul. For Steve Anna is like a drug. He knows he’s an addict but he can’t kick the habit. On more than one occasion he has tried to go cold turkey but the craving just won’t go away.

The problem is that his obsession with her blinds him to everything. Maybe he’s not in love with Anna the flesh-and-blood woman. Maybe he’s in love with an Anna who only exists in his fever dream. He cannot imagine any future that doesn’t revolve around her.

I’m a major Yvonne De Carlo fan and this is possibly her greatest performance. We can see why Steve is crazy about Anna. Any man would be. She’s gorgeous and sexy. She’s a hell of a drug. She has all the hallmarks of a femme fatale but we can’t be sure that she really is a femme fatale. Maybe she’s like Steve. Maybe she’s just let her life get out of control. Maybe she’s a nice girl at heart, more of a victim than a villainess. Maybe she’s a scheming spider woman. Or maybe she’s like the rest of us - neither good nor evil. Maybe she’s half angel and half demon. What makes this a truly great noir rather than a merely good one is that right up until the end we have no idea which way Anna will jump. There’s a possibility that she doesn’t know herself.

We also have to bear in mind that we’re mostly seeing her through Steve’s eyes.

This is a beautifully shot movie. There’s not as much emphasis on night scenes and shadows as you generally find in noir but Siodmak makes the California sunshine incredibly oppressive.

Siodmak was one of the grand masters of film noir. He made a lot of terrific noir movies but overall Criss Cross is the most complex and the most satisfying. It’s certainly one of the half dozen greatest noirs of the classic era. Very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed the 1934 source novel, Don Tracy’s Criss Cross. The novel is excellent and the movie is surprisingly faithful not just to the plot but more importantly to the mood and the flavour and the spirit of the novel.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

I, the Jury (1953)

I, the Jury was the first movie adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel. It’s a movie with a less than stellar reputation and it does have its problems. It also has some very real virtues.

It starts with the murder of a guy named Jack. Jack and Mike Hammer had been buddies in the army. Jack had saved Hammer’s life. Hammer doesn’t forget stuff like that. He’s going to avenge Jack’s murder no matter what the price. This is typical Spillane stuff - giving Hammer a personal stake in a case. Hammer is a dangerous guy anyway but when he has a personal grudge to settle he’s extra dangerous.

Hammer’s pal, Homicide Captain Pat Chambers (Preston Foster) knows this. He’s going to set things up so the killer will go after Mike. That will flush the killer out into the open. Pat doesn’t feel guilty about this. Mike knows the score. Mike wants the killer to come after him.

The only lead is a party. The murderer was probably at that party.

Mike is sure that Jack had stumbled onto something really big. A major racket.

In the course of this case Hammer encounters quite a few women. He knows how dangerous dames can be. Jack’s ex-junkie girlfriend Myrna (Frances Osborne) probably knows something. Maybe the Bellamy twins, Mary and Esther (played by real-life identical twin sisters Tani and Dran Seitz), know something. They’re very very rich and a bit on the decadent side. Mary is a nymphomaniac.

More interesting to Mike is drop-dead gorgeous lady psychoanalyst Charlotte Manning (Peggie Castle). He’s not interested in being psychoanalysed by her but he would be interested in doing other things with her. She’s quite a woman.

There’s a racketeer named Kalecki (Alan Reed) and his young college student friend Hal Kines (Bob Cunningham). There’s a crazy guy named Bobo (Elisha Cook Jr). There’s another racketeer. There’s a girl named Elaine. She’s a dance instructress. There’s the couple running the dance studio. There’s her dad, a country vet who is bitter because his daughter has gone bad. All of these people could be mixed up in whatever racket it was that Jack had uncovered.

The plot twists and turns in ways that are not always satisfactory. We’ll get back to that later. Suffice to say that if you worry too much about the plot your head will start spinning. It doesn’t matter. You can enjoy this movie if you just wallow in the atmosphere and the visuals.

I, the Jury
was shot in 3-D. I have no idea how it looks in 3-D but the flat version on Blu-Ray looks fabulous. As you would expect. The cinematography is by John Alton, possibly the greatest cinematographer of all time. And since it’s done by Alton it looks very very noir.

Biff Elliot’s performance as Mike Hammer produces sharply divided opinions. I like it. He’s very good good at getting across Hammer’s bull in a china shop approach to investigating (basically you just start throwing punches until somebody starts talking) and Hammer’s unsophisticated working-class background. Hammer is the kind of guy who likes hot dogs, drinking beer, ball games and going to the fights. He has a sensitive side but he’s very much a rough diamond.

Peggie Castle plays Dr Armstrong as a very glamorous lady who might or might not be very dangerous. As the Bellamy twins the Seitz twins ooze sex. On the whole the acting is fine.

The big problem here is the Production Code. Spillane revitalised the PI genre by adding a lot more violence, sex, sleaze and general depravity. Adapting his books whilst staying with the rigid guidelines of the Production Code was simply impossible.

And it is a real problem with this movie. Every single element that drives the plot was forbidden by the Code. As a result the plot of the movie makes zero sense. The motivations of the characters make zero sense. At one point there’s a double murder but it comes totally out of left field with no possible motive or reason. All it does is make the movie more confusing. Of course there was a reason for the double murder but the script wasn’t allowed even to offer a hint as to what the motive might be. Elaine’s father is incredibly angry and bitter about what has happened to his daughter, but when we meet the daughter she seems totally respectable and has a totally legitimate respectable job. The script wasn’t even permitted to offer a hint as to why her father thought she was a girl gone wrong.

When we get the final revelation of the nature of the major racket that is behind everything it’s simply ridiculous. We have to believe that Hammer is justified in acting as an avenging angel but the criminal activities are actually pretty innocuous and certainly not evil. We have to believe that Hammer’s desire for vengeance is justified but in fact the chief villain hasn’t really done anything particularly evil. The most unintentionally funny moment is when the cops raid the dance studio. The movie has gone to elaborate lengths to make it crystal clear that this is a totally respectable dance studio and that there is absolutely nothing illegal or immoral going on there. And then we see about thirty cops arrive to raid the place. Are they looking for people doing the tango without a licence?

Of course in the book it all makes sense. The criminal conspiracy is all about drug trafficking and prostitution. But the Production Code Authority would not allow the movie even to acknowledge that such shocking things exist.

You get the impression when watching this film that screenwriter Harry Essex was desperately trying to add subtle hints and suggestions of subtext in order to make sense of everything but that at every step he was thwarted by the Production Code Authority. This is another case of a potentially great movie wrecked by the Production Code.

There is still a lot to enjoy here. Biff Elliot’s interesting take on Hammer, Peggie Castle’s sizzling performance, Alton’s superlative cinematography, great noir atmosphere, are all reasons to watch. The fight scenes are frequent, brutal and extremely well done. I recommend this movie despite its very real flaws.

The Cult Epics Blu-Ray looks great.

I’ve reviewed Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury, the 1947 source novel. I’ve reviewed The Girl Hunters (1963), with Spillane himself playing Mike Hammer. And the surprisingly gritty Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-60) TV series.

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.