Monday, August 24, 2015

Cottage To Let (1941)

Cottage To Let is a light-hearted 1941 British spy thriller. It’s really as much a spoof as a genuine spy thriller although it does boast a pretty decent and rather complicated plot, and a very very strong cast.

John Barrington (Leslie Banks) is an eccentric who just happens to be vital to the British war effort. He hates bureaucrats and he insists in carrying on his researches at his home in the Scottish Highlands. That home, usually a haven of peace among the lochs, has been thrown into chaos. Barrington’s wife (Jeanne de Casalis) is in her own way just as eccentric as her husband. Eager to help the war effort she has put a cottage at the disposal of the Army for use as a military hospital. Unfortunately she has also agreed to let the cottager be used to house children evacuated from London. And at the same time she has let the cottage to a Mr Dimble (Alistair Sim). It’s now a very overcrowded cottage indeed.

As a hospital the cottage has only a single patient, Flight-Lieutenant Perry (John Mills), a Spitfire pilot whose aircraft had been forced down in the loch. Not surprisingly there are soon signs of budding romance between the glamorous fighter pilot hero and Dr Barrington’s beautiful daughter Helen (Carla Lehmann). That’s not entirely to the liking of Dr Barrington’s assistant Trently (Michael Wilding).

Meanwhile the young evacuee Ronald (16-year-old George Cole at the beginning of an incredibly long career which happily continues to this day) is creating a certain amount of havoc. He’s a good-natured lad but high-spirited and being a Sherlock Holmes fan he fancies himself as an amateur detective which tends to cause more chaos.

Among this motley assortment of misfits there is at least one German spy. And at least one  British counter-spy. Scotland Yard knows the Germans will stop at nothing to steal Dr Barrington’s latest invention but Barrington is not the sort of man who takes kindly to having policemen snooping about the place, even if they are trying to protect him. This means the Yard’s efforts to protect him have to be secret - Dr Barrington has no idea of the identity of the British counter-spy, and of course neither does the audience.

To make things more confusing just about everybody seems to be behaving suspiciously. Which of course adds to the movie’s fun.

This is not really an action-oriented spy drama although it does have a few action scenes towards the end.

Anthony Asquith had a long and quite distinguished career as a director. His approach is straightforward but effective. The challenge with this type of movie is to balance the comedy and suspense elements and this is done quite successfully. The plot has enough twists to keep us interested while the humour is sufficiently well done to keep us amused.

It’s difficult to single out any one performance. This is an ensemble piece and everyone does a fine job. Fans of Alistair Sim will certainly be happy. Child characters are always a potential problem, especially when they’re precocious and high-spirited with delusions of being Sherlock Holmes, but George Cole is really quite delightful. He gets plenty of laughs and he’s never irritating. The humour in this movie is consistently good-natured and steers well clear of slapstick. 

Since it’s important to keep the identity of the spy or spies a secret for as long as possible the actors have to avoid making these characters into stereotypical dastardly spy villains. This proves to be a good move. It also gives the movie less of a wartime propaganda movie feel than you might expect. 

The one minor quibble is that a certain member of the cast does overdo things a little in his climactic scene when his treachery is revealed.

Cottage To Let was released in the US under the accurate but rather dull title Bombsight Stolen.

Network have as usual done a very good job with their DVD. Picture and sound quality are both very acceptable.

Cottage To Let is fine lightweight entertainment. If you’re a spy fan, a mystery fan or a devotee of British comedies you should enjoy it. In fact any classic movie fan should really enjoy this one. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 17, 2015

School for Scoundrels (1960)

The wickedly witty 1960 British comedy film School for Scoundrels (subtitled How to Win Without Actually Cheating) is, interestingly enough, based on a series of non-fiction self-help books. 

Stephen Potter had enjoyed great success with these books, beginning in 1947 with Gamesmanship and continuing with One-Upmanship, Lifemanship and Supermanship. The idea behind them was to point out how to gain an unfair advantage in almost any situation without having to do anything that was technically illegal or against the rules. Although the intention behind the books was humorous they contained some extraordinarily penetrating insights into the ways in which some people almost invariably win while others almost invariably lose. Peter Ustinov had the idea of turning the ideas in the books into a comedy film and produced the first version of the screenplay although he does not receive a screen credit.

Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) most definitely belongs to the category of life’s losers. On the surface he has everything going for him. He’s wealthy, he owns his own company, he’s not bad looking and he’s a thoroughly decent chap. That’s the problem. Being a decent chap he is inclined to take the path of least resistance and as a result he lets people walk all over him. He is also chronically short of self-confidence. Things come to a head when he meets a lovely young woman, April Smith (Janette Scott), and falls hopelessly in love with her. Everything seems to be going fine until a dirty rotter named Raymond Delaunay (Terry-Thomas) arrives on the scene. Delaunay has boundless self-confidence and an instinctive knack for the techniques that make for winning.

Henry endures a string of humiliations until finally he determines to take drastic action. He enrolls in the College of Lifemanship run by a certain Stephen Potter (played by Alistair Sim). At the college he learns to apply the kinds of techniques that Delaunay uses instinctively but he learns to employ them in a scientific and systematic way. While Delaunay is  a mere amateur Henry becomes a skilled professional in the art of lifemanship, and amateurs are no match for professionals. Henry is soon turning the tables on Delaunay, and on everyone else who has humiliated him.

For Henry the object of the exercise is to win the hand of the fair April but while he now seems destined to do this he must face a personal dilemma - is it worth winning such a prize by unfair means?

School for Scoundrels has many things going for it, not the least of these being the presence of three of the greatest of all British comic actors in the three central roles. Ian Carmichael was always good at playing nice guys who are rather put-upon but he also had the ability to give his performances a bit of an edge when needed and he is thus equally adept at playing the hapless loser Henry of the first half of the movie and the smooth winner who graduates with a degree in lifemanship. Terry-Thomas is as usual a superb cad. Alistair Sim has great fun as the cynical Potter. And all three are in superlative form, so good that it would be impossible to choose favourites. As a bonus we get equally delightful performances by Dennis Price and Peter Jones, formidable comic talents themselves, as two oily used car salesmen. 

The script takes full advantage of the opportunities for cynical comedy. Cynical perhaps, but very very funny.

What made Potter’s books so immensely popular, and what makes the film so successful, is that the dastardly techniques of gamesmanship and lifemanship really do work. In fact Potter’s work has had considerable influence on psychologists. The books may have been intended humorously but they can be used as instruction manuals in how to become an unscrupulous winner. This is humour, but humour with a sometimes disturbing edge. It’s impossible not to rejoice as Henry Palfrey takes his revenge on those who have injured him while at the same time we can’t help feeling a tiny bit uncomfortable at the unalloyed joy he gets from doing unto others as they have done unto him. In fact even though Raymond Delaunay is a cad and a rotter we feel slightly sorry for him as he finds himself outgunned by Henry’s armoury of dirty tricks.

The Region 4 DVD from Madman (part of their Ealing Comedy Collection although this is not an Ealing film) is barebones but offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. There have been several DVD releases of this movie, some of which are anamorphic and some of which are inferior pan-and-scanned transfers, so it pays to check before you buy.

School for Scoundrels is splendid British comedy and a glorious opportunity to see some of Britain’s finest comic talents at the top of their game. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gambit (1966)

Heist movies were insanely popular during the 1960s and Gambit is not only a fine example of the breed it also adds a few distinctive touches of its own.

In 1966 Shirley MacLaine was a very big star, big enough to be given the final choice of leading man for her films. In this instance Michael Caine turned out to be absolutely the ideal choice.

Caine plays Harry Dean, an English crook with very grandiose ambitions indeed. He has a plan, which he has no doubt is fool-proof, to rob the world’s richest man. Shahbandar (Herbert Lom) is an Arab oil billionaire with a fabulous art collection and Harry has set his sights on the most valuable of all Shahbandar’s artworks, a two thousand year old Chinese statue. The statue happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to the billionaire’s deceased wife and Harry thinks he can make use of this. All he needs to do is to find a girl who looks like the statue. He finds her in the person of Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine,) a small-time Eurasian dancer in a seedy bar in Hong Kong.

Harry thinks he has done his homework very thoroughly but in fact he’s made a few seriously dubious assumptions. Nonetheless the plan seems workable enough and he persuades Nicole to pay along. He persuades her by not telling her anything about the plan apart from the part she will have to play. This proves to be another slight misjudgment on Harry’s part. Nicole is not the sort of girl who likes to be deceived.

The essential framework for the heist movie is that there has to be a superbly ingenious plan that cannot possibly fail but of course in practice it doesn’t go quite so smoothly. Gambit follows this formula but with a few original twists. Unfortunately even to hint at the nature of those twists would ruin part of the enjoyment of the film so I’ll say as little as possible about the plot.

A heist movie needs more than a clever plot. It needs at least one charismatic star (two is even better), it needs sparkling dialogue, it needs to be visually impressive and ideally it needs generous side-orders of humour and romance. Gambit has all of these and they’re combined perfectly.

Ronald Neame directed. Neame doesn’t always get the attention he deserves. He made some fascinating movies in just about every genre and he demonstrates a natural flair for the heist movie. Gambit was nominated for three Oscars including best Art Direction and Best Costumes. It does indeed look terrific and Shirley MacLaine’s dresses are fabulous. Despite the exotic settings it was shot entirely in California (mostly on the backlot), with Santa Barbara standing in for the Riviera.

While MacLaine and Caine get top billing Herbert Lom’s character is every bit as important and he gets as much screen time as the two stars. This is a three-handed game and McLaine, Caine and Lom are all in scintillating form. 

While Harry is definitely a wrong ’un he’s a nice guy, and Shahbandar is a pretty nice guy as well. That makes the battle of wits between them rather interesting - we don’t really want either of them to lose. In fact we’d like to see all three of the main characters win.

Shirley MacLaine figures prominently in the action right from the start but for the first half hour she doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. This was apparently her own idea and it’s a very good one (and one that the director embraced enthusiastically). To reveal why it’s such a good idea would be to risk a spoiler - one very intriguing feature of this movie is that the really clever plot twist comes at the beginning rather than the end.

Director Ronald Neame recorded the audio commentary for the DVD shortly before his death at the age of 99 but he still remembered a good deal about the making of the film. Although at times he wanders off on tangents he has plenty of interesting anecdotes about his long and exceptionally interesting career.

This is the kind of light-hearted romp that movie-makers just don’t seem to have the style or the lightness of touch to pull off any more. In the 60s though they did know how to do this sort of thing, and do it supremely well. Gambit is witty, clever, stylish, romantic, amusing and exciting. It’s pure entertainment of the highest order. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mr Denning Drives North (1952)

Mr Denning Drives North is a top-notch and slightly offbeat British mystery thriller from 1952, made even more enjoyable by a very fine cast.

Tom Denning (John Mills) is the chairman of a major British aircraft manufacturing firm. He’s wealthy and successful, he’s happily married and he has a charming daughter. So why is Tom Denning cracking up? The truth is that he is troubled by an incident that occurred a few weeks earlier. It was only a small matter of murder but now he’s rather puzzled because, as he puts it, there should have been a sequel to that event but the sequel has not materialised. He was confident that he would not be charged for the murder but he did at least expect that there would be a police investigation. He even went to the trouble of leaving the body where it would be certain to be found.

This is a suspense thriller rather than a mystery so it doesn’t matter that we know from the start that Tom Denning is a murderer. The question is not whodunit, but whether the killer will be caught and if so how. And there are many many plot twists to come.

Technically Tom Denning is guilty of manslaughter rather than murder and he did have very good reasons for his actions. Tom is not a bad man. He’s a thoroughly decent fellow, which is why he committed the killing in question. The problem is that having failed to report the incident to the police at the time it’s now going to look like a cleverly premeditated murder rather than manslaughter.

Now Tom Denning finds himself driving north once again, as he had done on that fatal night several ten weeks earlier. In fact he will find himself driving north of several further occasions. The old legend that murderers always return to the scene of their crime proves to be most prophetic in Mr Denning’s case. There just doesn’t seem to be any way he can avoid doing so.

Tom Denning’s daughter Liz is engaged to a rather pleasant young American patent lawyer named Chick Eddowes. The increasingly confused situation leads Chick to try his hand at criminal law. He has been called to the English Bar so he is entitled to do so but by the end of the story he wishes he’d stuck to patent law. He also wishes he’d never become involved with gypsies (gypsies play quite a crucial part in the plot).

Alec Coppel adapted the screenplay from his own (extremely good) novel of the same name. Director Anthony Kimmins had an uneven career but this film is a very fine effort indeed. There’s a hint of black comedy to the proceedings but both writer and director wisely keep this element as subtle as possible. The result is a gripping suspense film with major psychological thriller overtones. The slight touch of black comedy serves as a seasoning rather than overwhelming the dish.

The pacing is faultless (even if it seems to start just a little slowly this is time well spent in establishing Tom Denning’s state of mind). Making the lead character an aircraft manufacturer offers the opportunity of throwing in a few aerial sequences which add a bit more visual interest (and at least one suspenseful scene).

John Mills was rather good at playing sympathetic characters with a certain amount of depth and he’s in fine form. He gets solid support from Phyllis Calvert as Denning’s wife Kay and Sam Wanamaker as the good-natured but increasingly frazzled Chick. Herbert Lom is at his smooth but oily best as the unscrupulous and sinister Mados, the man who had hoped to marry Denning’s daughter. Bernard Lee plays (inevitably) a police inspector. Wilfrid Hyde-White goes close to stealing the picture (as he usually did) as the mortuary attendant whose memory is not as faultless as he thinks it is.

The movie was shot in black-and-white (always an advantage in this genre). The budget was clearly reasonably generous and there’s quite a bit of location shooting, making the movie look a bit more expansive than most British mystery thrillers of its era.

Network’s DVD release offers a superb transfer. The only extra is an image gallery.

Mr Denning Drives North is an exquisitely crafted suspense film filled with clever plot ideas and enlivened by some delightful performances. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Fourth Square (1961)

The Fourth Square is one of the forty-seven low-budget British mystery thrillers based on the stories of Edgar Wallace and made at Merton Park Studios for Anglo-Amalgamated in late the 50s and the early 60s. Although they received theatrical releases in Britain in the US they were screened in edited form as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. The Fourth Square was made in 1961.

Solicitor Bill Lawrence (Conrad Phillips) is asked by a wealthy woman to investigate the theft of a valuable item of jewellery. This is an odd request to make of a solicitor but he agrees to do so. Even odder is the fact that the lady claims to know who committed the theft.

Bill discovers that matters are a little more complicated than that. This was one of a series of similar robberies. There is definitely a connecting link but that link just seems to make the case more puzzling. 

The thief leaves little squares taped to the wall at the scenes of the robberies, hence the movie’s title.

Jewel robberies are one thing but Bill starts to feel a bit out of his depth when they lead to murder. He is however determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Most of Edgar Wallace’s novels are very much worth reading. This one may not have been one of his better efforts, or perhaps James Eastwood’s screenplay simply doesn’t do it justice. The mystery is not quite twisted enough and there aren’t enough hints of the bizarre to qualify this as a classic Wallace adaptation.

The acting is competent enough is not exactly sparkling. Conrad Phillips is an amiable enough hero and he doesn’t try to make Bill Lawrence overly heroic. He is after all just a very ordinary solicitor, with a certain streak of stubbornness, a fairly cool head and reasonable intelligence. Miriam Karlin has a certain amount of fun as French dancer and magician Josette.

Allan Davis had a very brief career as a director and doesn’t bring much inspiration to this film although he did quite well with a couple of the other movies in this series such as Clue of the New Pin and The Clue of the Twisted Candle. Of course there’s only so much you can do on a very low budget and these were very low budget features indeed.

The movie looks low budget but not excessively cheap. Of course there aren’t a great many sets and there are no spectacular action set-pieces. There aren’t even any unspectacular action set-pieces. 

Network DVD have done their usual decent job with the transfer. This is not a movie on which anybody is going to spend a fortune on a high definition restoration. Picture and sound quality are both fine. The Fourth Square is included in the first of Network’s Edgar Wallace boxed sets.

One thing you have to say for Network. At least they haven’t tried to sell these Edgar Wallace B-movies as film noir. Which is exactly what many other companies would have done. 

The Fourth Square is a cheap B-movie but with a running time of less than an hour it doesn’t have time to wear out its welcome. It’s a harmless and reasonably diverting time-killer. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

On the Avenue (1937)

On the Avenue is a bright and breezy 1937 20th Century-Fox musical that combines romance, laughs, a couple of impressive production numbers and some fine tunes courtesy of Irving Berlin.

Even by the standards of movie musicals the plot is thin, to say the least. Broadway star Gary Blake (Dick Powell) has a new hit stage production. The highlight of the show is a sendup of the home life of America’s richest girl. The troubler is that America’s richest girl, Mimi Caraway (Madeleine Carroll), is in the audience and she is not amused. Nor is her father, Commodore Caraway (George Barbier). Nor is her intended husband, famed polar explorer Frederick Sims (Alan Mowbray). They were targets of the satire as well. The Commodore wants to sue but his lawyer advises him that he has no grounds for doing so. Mimi Caraway has her own ideas on settling the score with Gary Blake.

Of course you know that Gary and Mimi will end up falling in love. And of course there has to be a complication - Gary’s co-star Mona Merrick (Alice Faye) is in love with him as well.

But this is a Hollywood musical so who cares about the plot? It might be thin but it provides plenty of opportunities for romance, comic relief and songs and being a species of backstage musical there’s an excuse for staging some fairly spectacular production numbers. In true Hollywood musical style these production numbers could not possibly actually be accommodated on a stage but thanks to the magic of the movies we accept them anyway.

Dick Powell had plenty of experience in musicals by this time. He’s particularly likeable in this one and he gets to show a few flashes of the real acting talent that he would develop in his very different 1940s movies. Madeleine Carroll couldn’t sing so she doesn’t but she still makes a satisfactory leading lady and handles the comedy side with ease. Mimi Caraway is supposed to a spoilt rich girl and Carroll conveys this effectively without becoming obnoxious.

Having a non-singing leading lady means that Alice Faye gets ample opportunity to demonstrate that she most certainly could sing. All three leads deliver the goods without any problems. George Barbier has plenty of fun as the blustering but basically good-natured Commodore.

There is one fly in the ointment. To provide extra comedy we have the Ritz Brothers, surely the unfunniest comedy team in the history of movies. They’re like a very low-budget version of the Marx Brothers but entirely lacking in any talent whatsoever. Luckily they don’t get enough screen time to ruin the movie.

On the Avenue features some of Irving Berlin’s best-known songs including the classic I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm. The extended production number The Girl in the Police Gazette is a highlight for its use of so many interlocking sets. This Year's Kisses gives Alive Faye the chance to really put some emotion into a song. It’s also a highlight while another of her numbers, Let’s Go Slumming, is equally good. Faye and Powell are both in fine voice.

The music is not just good - there’s plenty of it. This is after all what musicals were all about so this is obviously a major plus.

Roy Del Ruth had a long and distinguished career as a director and proves he can handle the musical genre very competently indeed.

The screenplay (by Gene Markey and William L. Conselman) provides enough amusement to keep the audience happy in the interludes between the songs.

Fox’s Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is less than stellar. This is a somewhat neglected 30s musical. I suspect that if Fox were prepared to spend the money on a decent Blu-Ray release it might cause this one to be re-evaluated in a much more positive fashion. 

On the Avenue doesn’t get side-tracked by tedious social commentary. It has no real aim other than to provide an hour and a half of delightful entertainment and it achieves its aim in a very satisfactory fashion. With so many great Irving Berlin songs this one is really a must for classic musical fans. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back was released in 1937, part of Paramount’s extensive series of B-movies based on the immensely popular thrillers of H. C. McNeile (who used the pseudonym Sapper). 

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back was based on McNeile’s excellent 1928 novel The Female of the Species, and it adheres reasonably closely to McNeile’s story. An old enemy of Drummond’s is out for revenge and she intends to use Drummond’s wife Phyllis as the means by which to achieve this. Phyllis is kidnapped and Drummond is supplied deliberately with a series of tantalising clues, the aim being to ensure that his suffering will be as prolonged as possible.

It’s a story idea that has been used countless times but both the novel and the movie execute the idea with enough energy and imagination to keep things exciting.

Drummond’s old friend Colonel Neilson of Scotland Yard (John Barrymore) is anxious to help but Drummond knows that Phyllis’s survival depends on his willingness to keep the police out of the matter. Colonel Neilson however is determined to become involved anyway, without Drummond’s knowledge.

Captain Drummond can also rely on the willing if not always effective assistance of the faithful Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny) and the somewhat more useful assistance of his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive). 

Hugh and his pals are led a merry chase through the English countryside accumulating the needful clues. There’s more action than is usual in a thriller of this vintage and the villainess’s diabolical plot provide the opportunity for some effective suspense and some quite well-executed thrills.

It has to be said that this is one 30s B-movie that wastes no time in plunging us into the action. The brisk pacing is maintained throughout the 64-minute running time.

Director Louis King spent a lengthy career churning out competent B-features and he knows his stuff. Despite the inevitably tight B-picture budget he does a fine job. Edward T. Lowe Jr had been writing for movies since 1912 and his screenplay is tight and captures the breathless flavour of McNeile’s novels rather well. 

This movie has all the essential ingredients of a fine B-thriller - disguises, secret codes, hidden trapdoors, narrow escapes and just enough romance and humour to season the  derring-do.

No less than thirteen actors eventually attempted the rĂ´le of Captain Hugh Drummond. The one thing they had in common was that all were quite wrong for the part. In this film John Howard plays Drummond for the second time (and would do so on five subsequent occasions). He is spectacularly wrong for the part. Drummond should be bigger, beefier, louder, more boisterous and much much uglier. Drummond’s taste for schoolboy humour is also entirely lost in the film adaptations.

That’s not to say that John Howard’s performance is bad. He’s quite adequate but much too smooth and polished. He just isn’t Bulldog Drummond.

I do like the scene in which Drummond summons Tenny not by any of the normal methods for communication with a servant but by firing his revolver into the ceiling. That at least is an authentic Bulldog Drummond touch. 

Algy and Tenny both provide some comic relief but unusually for a 1930s B-movie the comic relief is genuinely amusing and it’s kept strictly within bounds. Helen Freeman brings a suitably sinister glamour to her performance as the evil Irena Soldanis. John Barrymore has plenty of fun as Colonel Neilson.

My copy of this movie comes from Mill Creek’s 50-movie Mystery Boxed set. The transfer is adequate by the standards of cheap public domain sets.

While Ray Milland, who played Drummond in Bulldog Drummond Escapes, was a considerably better actor than John Howard Bulldog Drummond Comes Back is overall a better and more satisfying movie. It’s an excellent example of just how good 1930s B-thrillers could be. It’s fast-paced and exciting and hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.