Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Buccaneer’s Girl (1950)

Buccaneer’s Girl is a bright and breezy comedy romance pirate romp from Universal with Yvonne de Carlo as a lady pirate (well, sort of a lady pirate). It's very much a B-picture and it could have used just a little more action but de Carlo is in sparkling form and there's plenty of enjoyment to be had here.

Here's the link to my full review at my Cult Movie reviews blog.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Flame of New Orleans (1941)

The Flame of New Orleans is a stylish romantic comedy set in early 19th century New Orleans with Marlene Dietrich as an adventuress torn between money and love.

Claire Ledeux (Marlene Dietrich) is a phony countess out to snare herself a rich man. She puts on a good front. She has a nice house and beautiful clothes but she no actual money. Finding a rich husband is not just something to be desired - it’s a necessity. With her beauty and her glamour that should not be a difficult task and she has set her sights on wealthy middle-aged banker Charles Giraud (Roland Young). Success seems to be at hand, in fact he has already proposed, when fate steps in. She meets handsome sea captain Robert LaTour (Bruce Cabot). He would be a most unsuitable husband. He’s certainly not penniless but he’s a long long way from being rich. Most unsuitable indeed. On the other hand he is handsome and carefree and charming. What is a girl to do?

Claire has no doubts as to what she should do. She should marry her rich banker. There is however one major obstacle. Claire has had a colourful past and it has caught up to her. She has been recognised by an old flame who knew her in St Petersburg and the fellow has, most unfortunately, revealed Claire’s past to sundry acquaintances and word has got back to Giraud. Not only is Giraud understandably shocked. There is also the problem of his very respectable family. The woman he marries has to be of irreproachable character.

This is a tricky problem but Claire thinks she has the answer. If Giraud can be convinced that the adventuress with the shady past from St Petersburg was not Claire but her wicked cousin then all should be well. The fact that she has no wicked cousin is a minor obstacle. She will simply invent one. An identical cousin.

Of course it doesn’t work out as smoothly as she had hoped and that disturbingly attractive sea captain seems to keep turning up.

The plot is little more than a succession of very old clichés. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s executed with style, charm and wit.

René Clair made only a handful of movies in Hollywood but they included several gems, most notably And Then There Were None and the delightful supernatural comedy I Married a Witch. The lightness of touch he demonstrated in the latter film  is very much in evidence in The Flame of New Orleans. The screenplay provides the players enough to work with and they make the most of it.

Dietrich could play evil scheming spider women or tough cynical women but in this case she gets to play a scheming woman who might be somewhat amoral but is also charming and likeable and generally pretty sympathetic. She’s in superb form, and she’s breathtakingly glamorous as always. And naturally she gets to wear some stunning clothes.

Bruce Cabot and Roland Young are absolutely splendid as her rival suitors. Young plays Giraud as a somewhat ridiculous and pompous figure but one can’t help rather liking him. It’s the sort of part he relished and he’s terrific. Cabot is a handsome dashing leading man with a twinkle in his eye. Theresa Harris plays Claire’s black maid Clementine with style and panache. Mischa Auer provides additional fun as the cowardly but effervescent crazy Russian Zolotov. It’s a fine cast and they’re all at the top of their game.

This was a fairly ambitious and lavish A-picture by Universal’s standards and it looks extremely good, hardly surprising given that the cinematographer was Rudolph Maté. There are some nice visual touches, especially the river scenes.

The Flame of New Orleans is included in Universal’s superb Marlene Dietrich Glamor Collection DVD boxed set. Don’t be put off by the lack of extras or the fact that the five movies come on two double-sided discs. The transfers are gorgeous and all five movies are must-sees if you’re a Dietrich fan.

The Flame of New Orleans is a frothy very amusing and totally captivating romantic comedy. This is a very lightweight movie indeed but if you’re looking for pure entertainment this movie should be just what the doctor ordered. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

more reviews from my Cult Movie Reviews blog

Some reviews from my Cult Movie Reviews blog that might interest readers of this blog as well.

First off, the notorious Howard Hughes-produced The Conqueror (1956), with John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Generally regarded as one of the worst movies ever made but actually it’s quite entertaining in an odd sort of way. Plus it has Susan Hayward chewing the scenery, something she always did well.

Secondly, another Howard Hughes-produced John Wayne vehicle, Jet Pilot (1957). This movie also has a poor reputation but it’s very entertaining. Janet Leigh co-stars as a sexy Russian fighter pilot.

And thirdly, The Night of the Generals, but this one is strictly for masochists. If you’re a connoisseur of outrageously bad acting then Peter O’Toole’s performance might amuse you.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

Pursuit to Algiers, released in 1945, was the twelfth of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (and the tenth to be made by Universal). Leonard Lee’s original screenplay was partly inspired by one of the Conan Doyle stories, The Adventure of the Red Circle.

Dr Watson has persuaded Holmes that he what he really needs is a holiday in Scotland, but of course we know that every time a fictional detective plans a holiday an important case will come up to disrupt any such recreational activities. In this case it’s a very important case (and it’s very cleverly set up with a serious of ingenious clues leading Holmes and Watson to the rendezvous where they learn the details of the case).

The King of the fictional country of Rovinia has been assassinated and it is vital that the heir to the throne, currently being educated in England, should reach his country in safety before the conspirators who murdered his father can take over the government. Holmes accepts the task of escorting the prince (or rather the new king) to Rovinia.

The only aircraft available for this task is a three-seater which means that Dr Watson will be unable to accompany his old friend. This however gives Holmes an idea - Watson can travel to Rovinia by sea and serve as a kind of decoy.

In fact both Holmes and Watson end up spending most of the movie on board the ship headed for Algiers, where the new king will find safety. The difficulty will be to keep him alive until then, quite a challenge as there will be attempts on his life using poison, knives and even explosives. Obviously there are assassins on board the ship and Holmes will have to discover their identity, and of course he may end up becoming a victim as well.  

The Universal Sherlock Holmes movies brought the great detective into contemporary times, with many of the films dealing with specifically 1940s concerns. This particular film though feels like it could easily have been set in the 1920s, or even the 1890s for that matter. Plots involving monarchs of mythical middle European countries were a staple of late Victorian and Edwardian thrillers such as Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (and were still popular in the 20s in books like Dornford Yates’ Blood Royal). And the opening scenes of the movie have the atmosphere of the London of the original Conan Doyle stories. By the time this movie was released the war was over and Universal obviously decided it would be wise to get right away from wartime themes. Pursuit to Algiers has an old-fashioned feel for a 1945 movie but I find that to be quite refreshing. 

Unfortunately Leonard Lee’s screenplay isn’t terribly inspired. The identities of the bad guys are revealed much too early on and they’re too obvious. There’s a token attempt to set up a few red herrings but they’re unconvincing. There’s also an entirely irrelevant sub-plot concerning stolen jewels.

This movie is also weakened by the generally uninteresting villains. The one bright spot is Martin Kosleck’s performance as the sinister knife-throwing Mirko. Mirko’s attempt to murder Holmes provides one of the movie’s few highlights - a brief scene that is rather neatly executed.

Marjorie Riordan provides some glamour as an American singer to whom Watson takes a shine but her part in the movie is really just rather clumsy padding.

Luckily Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are as watchable as ever. Bruce actually gets several strong scenes, the best being the one in which he hears of the supposed death of Holmes. He also gets to sing in this movie! And he gets to tell the passengers about one of the famous unrecorded cases of Sherlock Holmes, the adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra.

Director Roy William Neill does his best to keep things interesting with plenty of night scenes, lots of fog and a few reasonably impressive visual moments.

Pursuit to Algiers is definitely one of the lesser movies in this series. It’s hard to go wrong with mysteries and thrillers set on board trains or ships but in this case the shipboard setting is not enough to compensate for a weak script. It’s not a terrible movie and it does provide reasonable entertainment, and Rathbone and Bruce are very good as always (Bruce is particularly good), but it’s not quite up to the standard of the better Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies. Worth a look for serious fans of the series.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

China Clipper (1936)

China Clipper is a 1936 First National Pictures aviation drama inspired by the early history of Pan American Airways. The flying sequences are the highlight but it’s quite a good little movie.

Dave Logan (Pat O’Brien) had been a pilot in the First World War. He’d given up flying in order to get a respectable job with prospects (being newly married). Then he sees the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindberg and the flying bug bites him again. Dave Logan is a going into the aviation business.

Business is the operative word. Logan is not interested in being a barnstorming pilot. He wants to run an airline. A real airline, on the grand scale. He even has a visions of operating a trans-Pacific air service, even though people keep assuring him that such a thing is impossible.

Trans Ocean Airways gets off to a rocky start, with bankruptcy a constant threat. Logan’s faith in the future of aviation is however unswerving. The future of his marriage seems far less assured. 

Logan recruits a few of his old flying buddies from the First World War, including Hap Stuart (Humphrey Bogart) and Tom Collins (Ross Alexander). He also has the services of visionary aircraft designer Dad Brunn (Henry B. Walthall), who shares his faith that one day giant airliners will fly the Pacific. 

As his marriage breaks up Logan starts to change. He is even more driven (not a bad thing  in that those pioneer aviating days) but he seems to be becoming less human. He drives his people very hard indeed, perhaps too hard. Nothing matters to Logan apart from the airline.

Finally Dad Brunn comes up with an aircraft design that can make Logan’s dreams a reality - the famous China Clipper (in reality a Martin M-130 flying boat). The problem is that the airline has to make the first trans-Pacific flight before a certain date, otherwise they lose their landing rights. So it’s a race against time - and against a typhoon.

The movie balances melodrama and exciting flying sequences extremely well. Very wisely they elected to make the aircraft the real stars and we see a lot of them. Much of the footage is of the actual China Clipper (you can clearly see the Pan American markings on the aircraft even though in the movie the airline is supposed to be Trans Ocean Airways). This movie is reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ great aviation movies of the 30s like Ceiling Zero and Only Angels Have Wings - the emphasis is on the heroism of man against nature. Of course it goes without saying that the Hawks movies have a lot more depth and complexity. China Clipper is much more upbeat and optimistic.

Pat O’Brien doesn’t shout as much as usual. He seems to be aiming for subtlety here and he does a reasonable job. It would have been interesting to see what Bogart might have done with the lead role a few years later but in 1936 he didn’t yet have the acting chops for it. As it stands Bogart he’s fine as the cheerful if sometimes rebellious Hap Stuart and his performance is all the more effective for being deliberately underplayed. Hap is a brave man and he doesn’t need to make a song and dance about it. He relies on calmness, competence and efficiency.

Ross Alexander is breezy and engaging as the loyal Tom Collins. Beverly Roberts is solid as Logan’s wife Jean but the part is badly underwritten. Marie Wilson provides comic relief as the girlfriend Tom Collins just can’t get rid of. This comic relief is kept to a minimum but what there is of it is quite amusing.

Director Ray Enright’s career did not reach any great heights but he keeps things moving along briskly.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD release provides no extras but a good transfer. 

China Clipper is very much a movie for aviation fans. There are lots of cool 1920s and 1930s aircraft, especially flying boats and lots of flying. It avoids most of the expected clichés of aviation movies - the driving ambition of Dave Logan and the quiet heroism of the pilots is enough to carry the film without requiring any bad guys or conspiracies or complex sub-plots. The epic trans-Pacific flight is what this movie is all about and that’s what it concentrates on. Fine entertainment. Recommended.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Spin a Dark Web (1956)

Spin a Dark Web (the original British title was Soho Incident) is a fine example of the excellent mystery thriller B-movies the British film industry produced in such abundance from the late 40s up to the beginning of the 60s.

Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) had spent much of World War 2 in Britain while serving in the Signal Corps in the Canadian Army. Now he’s drifted back to England and hooked up with an old army buddy. The buddy thinks he can get Jim a job with Rico Francesi (Martin Benson). Francesi has a number of profitable enterprises going, none of them legal. That doesn’t bother Jim. He is tired of poverty and determined to escape from it and if that means being on the wrong side of the law that’s no a problem for him. Jim however is no thug. Criminal activities are one thing but he has no desire to get mixed up in any kind of violent crime.

The idea of having a telecommunications whizz-kid becoming involved with gangsters had been used in the excellent 1950 American film noir 711 Ocean Drive (although the storylines of the two films are otherwise quite dissimilar).

Jim’s experience in the Signal Corps gives Francesi an idea for what should turn out to be a profitable racetrack sting.

Jim has also attracted the attention of Francesi’s beautiful sister Bella (Faith Domergue). She’s not only beautiful but sophisticated and charming. And very dangerous, although Jim is not yet aware of the dangers she poses.

Everything seems to be going along rather nicely for our hero but there is a fly in the ointment. One of Francesi’s boys got a bit too enthusiastic when laying down the law to a prize fighter who had cost Francesi a lot of money by refusing to take a dive and this excess of enthusiasm had fatal results. As a consequence the police are now taking a rather close interest in Francesi’s operations.

It was quite common in the 50s for British film producers to import second-string American stars for lead roles in low-budget crime pictures. Lee Patterson does not however fall into this category. He was born in Canada but based himself in England until the end of the 50s and had quite a considerable career in the British film industry as a B-movie leading man. All his leading roles were in B-pictures but they were often remarkably good - he seemed to have a knack for landing good parts in very decent movies such as The Flying Scot and Deadly Record. Part of the reason he got pretty good roles was that he happened to be a fine actor and also happened to be absolutely perfect for mystery thrillers with a film noir tinge. He could be tough but very likeable at the same time making him ideal as a film noir-style protagonist. His performance in Spin a Dark Web is typically solid and impressive. Jim Bankley is an over-confident young man possessed of flexible ethics but he’s really a nice guy. Too nice to be getting involved with serious criminals.

American Faith Domergue had seemed destined for stardom after attracting the attention of Howard Hughes. Although the romance did not last Hughes did initially push her film career. After a couple of lead roles in movies like the underrated Where Danger Lives her career began to falter. In the mid-50s she made a couple of films in Britain - the excellent sci-fi thriller Timeslip and Spin a Dark Web. She’s an actress who should have had a much better career and in this film her performance is very effective - she’s a femme fatale but a subtle femme fatale. Bella is also a somewhat up-market femme fatale. 

Rico Francesi is an interesting villain. He’s actually not particularly evil. Certainly he’s as crooked as they come but violence is not really his line. A bit of mild strong-arm stuff might be necessary on occasions but he prefers to rely on the threat of aggravation rather than the reality. Unfortunately his employees aren’t always as subtle and as sensible, even though Francesi does his best to persuade them to avoid any excesses in that area.

Bella Francesi has fewer scruples than her brother when it comes to violence. In fact she has no scruples at all.

The screenplay is by Ian Stuart Black, who went on to a successful career as a writer for some of the more interesting television series of the 60s such as Danger Man, The Man in Room 17, Adam Adamant Lives! and The Champions. What could have been a routine plot is enlivened by a couple of unexpected touches.

Vernon Sewell was a reliable B-feature director and he does a perfectly competent job here.

Just as interesting as the story are the glimpses of the slightly seedy but slightly flashy side of London in the 50s - the fleshpots of Soho, espresso bars, the tawdry glamour of dog racing tracks. This atmospheric location shooting combines with a fair number of night scenes to give the film a very definite film noir feel.

The plot itself certainly leans towards noir, with Jim Bankley being a man who discovers that being a fairly nice guy with flexible ethical standards can get you into a lot of trouble, and getting emotionally involved with a gangster’s sister can get you into even worse hot water.

Spin a Dark Web is available as a made-on-demand DVD in Sony’s Choice Collection. The transfer is anamorphic and very satisfactory. There are no extras.

Spin a Dark Web is very much a B-picture but it has genuine film noir atmosphere, good performances and a serviceable if not wildly original plot. This all adds up to a pretty entertaining package. Recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2015

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of the hard-boiled private eye movie and it’s a spoof that actually works. Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Peter Lorre all contribute to the success of this thoroughly enjoyable picture.

Ronnie Jackson (Bob Hope) is a baby photographer awaiting execution in San Quentin. He tells his story in flashback with voiceover narration in approved private eye movie style.

Ronnie Jackson didn’t want to be a baby photographer. He wanted to be a hard-boiled private eye. His office is on the same floor as that of private eye Sam McCloud and Jackson is constantly trying to persuade McCloud to take him on as his partner. He tells McCloud that he could be a tough guy PI just like Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell. Or even Alan Ladd. The joke here being that Sam McCloud is played by Alan Ladd!

The closest Ronnie gets to his dream is answering Sam’s phone for him while he’s out of town working on a case. When a client turns up and assumes that Ronnie is Sam McCloud he sees his chance. He lets her think he really is the private eye and he takes on the case. The fact that Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) seems just like the kind of dame who would be in need of a private eye in a movie has quite a lot to do with Ronnie’s decision. 

Carlotta’s husband has disappeared. Or it may be her uncle. Her story keeps changing. Her story changes so much that Ronnie is inclined to believe that she’s crazy, and that’s what everyone seems to be trying to persuade him really is the case. But what if she’s not crazy? What if her story about a secret map, and a kidnapped uncle (or husband) and a nefarious plot to gain control of valuable mineral rights is true?

It’s all very exciting, just like in the movies. Except that when the sinister Kismet (Peter Lorre) keeps trying to kill him Ronnie’s excitement turns to abject fear. Being a tough guy isn’t so much fun when you’re likely to get hurt! But Ronnie is already in too deep, plus he’s fallen for Carlotta so he’s persuaded to press on with the case, even when both he and Carlotta find themselves locked up in a mental hospital.

The reason this movie works so well is that the screenwriters (Edmund Beloin and Jack Rose) and the director (Elliott Nugent) really do understand the private eye genre. The actors understand the genre as well. Even Bob Hope understands how to deliver hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a movie that respects the genre it is spoofing and that’s why the spoof works. 

Plus the gags really are funny.

Hope is a delight as the hapless Ronnie Jackson, desperately trying to pretend to be the tough guy that he isn’t. Dorothy Lamour has great fun vamping it up as Carlotta. Peter Lorre of course was equally adept at both comedic and sinister villainous henchmen roles and in this movie he gets to do both, with his usual effortless style. Lon Chaney Jr adds to the fun as the simple-minded sanitarium orderly Willie (clearly spoofing his own most famous role in Of Mice and Men). 

There are plenty of movie in-jokes and you won’t be surprised when Bing Crosby turns up in a brief but amusing cameo.

It all works because it has an actual plot (and a fairly serviceable one) and the plot is taken quite seriously. This makes Bob Hope’s performance all the funnier. This is not just a series of gags strung together. The humour comes from the fact that Ronnie Jackson is put in exactly the kinds of situations that the hero of a private eye movie would find himself in.

My Favorite Brunette has had numerous DVD releases. The Region 4 release from Passport offers a passably acceptable transfer but there are undoubtedly better versions available.

My Favorite Brunette is a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended.