Friday, November 21, 2014

Harriet Craig (1950)

Joan Crawford made Harriet Craig at Columbia in 1950 at a time when she was really at the top of her game. Crawford’s 1940s output tended to inhabit the borderland between film noir and melodrama with some movies tending more towards one than the other. Harriet Craig is more or less pure melodrama but with some interest for film noir fans.

Walter Craig (Wendell Corey) and his wife Harriet (Crawford) have the perfect marriage. As Harriet explains to her cousin Clare (K.T. Stevens) this is no accident. Harriet works hard to make sure the marriage stays perfect. Any woman who thinks that a happy marriage just happens is a fool. Marriages have to be managed, just like businesses. Naturally that requires one person to do the managing. That person of course is Harriet. As Harriet remarks, “No man's born ready for marriage; he has to be trained.”

Harriet doesn’t just manage her marriage. She does so to an obsessive degree. Everything has its place - furniture, servants, husbands - and it had better stay in its place if it knows what’s good for it. Walter doesn’t mind all this, for the very good reason that he has no idea it is happening.

The problem with Harriet’s style of perfect marriage is that if just one thing deviates from its proper place the whole structure is likely to collapse like a house of cards. That collapse begins in a small way when Harriet is away for a week visiting her sick mother. On her return she discovers that Walter has been engaging in unauthorised activities. He has had friends over for an evening of poker, without first gaining Harriet’s permission (which she would naturally have refused for his own good). Harriet is not pleased and she makes her displeasure known. She does not lose her temper or anything like that. She is not such a fool as that. She knows how to make a husband see he has done the wrong thing, in the smoothest and silkiest way. By now the audience has started to realise that there’s an iron fist hidden beneath the velvet glove but poor Walter still has no idea. 

Harriet is also facing possible rebellion on the part of her cousin Clare. Clare lives in with the Craigs, acting as a sort of general-purpose assistant, secretary and companion to Harriet. Clare is in fact a servant, although she doesn’t know it. Now Clare has fallen in love and is thinking seriously about marriage. This does not suit Harriet at all. Where is she going to find another unpaid servant as useful as Clare? The marriage must of course be stopped.

There are bigger problems in store, when Walter is offered a promotion which will entail spending three months in Japan without Harriet. Harriet does not even want to think about what might happen were Walter to be left unsupervised for three months. This is another potential rebellion that must be nipped in the bud.

Inevitably Harriet’s control starts to slip. Or rather it remains as tight as ever but she is having more and more trouble in exercising her control without those she is controlling becoming uncomfortably aware that they are merely puppets dancing to her tune. If they realise they are being controlled disaster must follow.

This is melodrama, but leavened by a considerable amount of humour. The humour is perhaps of the black comedy variety but it is certainly there. 

Harriet is a monster but there’s some subtlety to Crawford’s performance. Bette Davis could play monsters but they were usually inhuman monsters. Crawford gives us a very human monster. Harriet is still a monster but while we find it difficult to feel sympathy for her Crawford does at least make us understand where she’s coming from. And where she’s coming from is fear. Harriet must maintain her iron grip because she believes the alternative is chaos, the chaos she witnessed in her parents’ marriage. There is no in-between for Harriet. A woman either has total control or she faces chaos, dissolution, oblivion. This gives the movie a touch of tragedy. It also gives Harriet a certain dignity, albeit a monstrous dignity, that prevents the movie from collapsing entirely into high camp excess. There is high camp excess here, but there’s a little more than that. Crawford is in fine form.

Walter might seem superficially to be the innocent victim but he has contributed to the mess in his own way. Fears of the emasculation of American men were rife in this period (see Rebel Without a Cause) and that’s certainly the issue here. Walter has abandoned his masculinity and has voluntarily turned himself into a doormat. In doing so he has not only lost control of his life he has also forfeited any chance of winning Harriet’s respect. Wendell Corey is impressive - an actor who has never received the recognition he deserves.

Crawford wrote some of her own dialogue, including a speech late in the picture which will provide plenty of fuel for those who like to interpret her movies in terms of her own life.

Those who like to view the movies of the past through the distorting lens of 21st century ideologies will find a great deal to enrage them in this movie. The movie certainly comes down on the side of traditional views of marriage and sex roles.

Director Vincent Sherman demonstrates a sure touch with melodrama and manages to avoid excessive staginess (Anne Froelich and James Gunn based their screenplay on George Kelly’s stage play). 

Sony has released this film as part of their Choice Collection. The DVD is barebones with not even a trailer - in fact not even a menu! The transfer is however extremely good.

Harriet Craig is quality melodrama. It’s a must for Crawford fans. Highly recommended

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Home at Seven (1952)

Home at Seven (released in the US as Murder on Monday) was Sir Ralph Richardson’s only outing as a director (and he was the star as well). It’s a low-key quirky little mystery thriller that would be too amiable for its own good if it wasn’t for some dark moments that crop up rather suddenly and unexpectedly.

Richardson is David Preston, a mild-mannered and very ordinary bank clerk. In fact he’s about as mild-mannered and ordinary as a man can possibly be. His life of quiet contentment is built on orderliness and routine. He arrives home from work at seven o’clock every day, without fail. Until one fateful Tuesday he arrives home at his usual time to discover that something very strange and very disturbing has happened. His wife Janet (Margaret Leighton) is in tears, owing to the fact that he didn’t come home at all on the Monday. This is very puzzling to David because he knows it is Monday and he has certainly not been out all night. The puzzle deepens after Janet manages to persuade him that it really is Tuesday and he really did not come home the day before. And she has telephoned the bank and been informed that he hasn’t been in today at all. But David distinctly remembers leaving the bank as usual, catching his train as usual, and arriving home as usual. It appears that he has somehow lost an entire day. Things like that simply do not happen to people like David Preston, and yet it appears it has happened.

The family doctor, Dr Sparling (Jack Hawkins) is called in. He can’t find any evidence of any physiological abnormality but he is convinced David is telling the truth. Dr Sparling concludes that David has suffered a memory lapse, probably brought on by some kind of shock.

This is all somewhat distressing but it becomes really worrying when it is revealed that a robbery and a murder took place on the Monday evening in question. And (in a nicely executed little twist) it appears that the mild-mannered David Preston not only had the opportunity to commit both crimes, he also had very strong motives. 

David still has no recollection of the missing day. Dr Sparling is still certain that his patient is telling the truth. Inspector Hemingway (Campbell Singer) is however far from convinced. And even Dr Sparling has to admit that the circumstantial evidence is rather strong. Most worrisome of all is that David has absolutely no alibi and absolutely no way of proving his innocence. It all looks rather grim for David Preston.

It’s a good basic idea and it’s developed quite effectively by scriptwriter Anatole de Grunwald (the script being based on a play by R. C. Sherriff). 

Richardson’s inexperience as a director inclines him to play safe and to avoid anything fancy. This movie might strike some viewers as being a little bland but Richardson’s very low-key approach is quite effective, emphasising the extreme ordinariness of the characters.

To make such a low-key approach works requires a very strong cast and fortunately that condition is fulfilled very adequately. Richardson avoids the temptation of trying to convey David’s inner turmoil through acting pyrotechnics (although he was an actor who could produce such effects when required). David Preston is not a man who puts his emotions on display and Richardson’s performance is entirely believable. Margaret Leighton adopts a similar approach which proves equally effective. Jack Hawkins does the same. These are people who are not accustomed to dealing with bizarre and sensational events and they respond with the kind of quiet dignity that rings true given their social milieu and the mores of the times.

Inspector Hemingway is just about the most sympathetic police inspector you’re ever going to encounter. Initially the viewer is tempted to see this as evidence of his cunning as a detective but by the end of the movie we realise that he really does happen to be a very sympathetic person who has been fortunate enough to find that his empathy makes him a very efficient policeman.

As for the dark moments I alluded to earlier, the most telling occurs when, just as we’ve come to believe that David must be entirely innocent, he suddenly makes a rather shocking admission which leaves us having to wonder if we’ve been entirely wrong about him. 

Home at Seven is careful to treat its characters with respect. It would have been easy to mock David Preston and his wife but faced with the alternative of chaos that threatens them we can’t help feeling that there’s something to be said for an orderly life.

Network DVD have released this black-and-white film on DVD without any extras apart from a rather sparse stills gallery. The transfer is however very satisfactory and the very low price is another major plus.

Home at Seven is a product of a time when the British film industry seemed to have a practically unlimited capacity for making excellent thrillers and mysteries that combined subtlety and understatement with an appealing quirkiness. This one is definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

some books on which classic movies were based

I always find it interesting to check out the books on which some of my favourite movies were based. And since I have a book blog (Vintage Pop Fictions) as well as my movie blogs I post reviews of some of these source books. Here are some links to some of the interesting ones, plus links to my reviews of the movies in question.

Anthony Hope’s classic adventure tale The Prisoner of Zenda was filmed several times, the most notable version having been made in 1937.

Talbot Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles is another of the great adventure stories. The  1953 film version stars Tyrone Power.

Johnston McCulley's The Curse of Capistrano (later retitled The Mark of Zorro) was very entertainingly filmed as The Mark of Zorro in 1940, and there was of course a fine silent version as well. 

Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male was the source for Fritz Lang’s excellent 1941 spy thriller Man Hunt.

Horace McCoy's amazingly bleak Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye became a movie of the same name and a starring vehicle for James Cagney in 1950. It’s one of many cases of a movie being considerably better than the novel it was based on.

Eric Ambler’s superb gritty spy novel Epitaph for a Spy became a very good 1944 British spy movie under the title Hotel Reserve.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four has been filmed multiple times, including a 1932 British version.

There have been several movies of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, including the very loose 1937 adaptation.

And Rudyard Kipling’s magnificent short story The Man Who Would Be King was turned into John Huston’s greatest movie in 1975.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth seems to be almost universally regarded as the worst movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. This is absolute nonsense. I could easily name a dozen worse Best Picture winners. The Greatest Show on Earth might not be Citizen Kane but it’s fine entertainment.

DeMille was able to secure the enthusiastic co-operation of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus in the making of the movie and the results are nothing if not spectacular.

The movie covers one season in the life of the circus, focusing on the drama of the circus itself as well as the behind-the-scenes tragedies, joys and heart-breaks.

Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is a circus boss with a big problem. Times are changing and the circus faces stiff competition for the public’s entertainment dollar. The owners want  to cut down the season for the coming year to a mere ten weeks, concentrating entirely on the big cities. To them such a decision seems like a prudent way to avoid financial risk but Braden knows that circuses just can’t work that way. You can’t attract the best performers and you can’t keep such a complex organisation together if you can only offer ten weeks’ work in a year. In a desperate attempt to convince the owners to risk a full season he has taken a huge risk himelf. He has hired the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) as the circus’s number one attraction. The Great Sebastian is the greatest trapeze artist of them all but he has a reputation for being difficult and for causing chaos wherever he goes. 

He also only ever plays the main ring. That’s a problem since Brad has promised that honour to his girlfriend Holly (Bettty Hutton). Holly is a great trapeze artist herself but as he tries to explain to her the Great Sebastian is an established drawcard. For the sake of the circus he has to give Sebastian the centre ring. This establishes one of the movie’s main themes - Brad always puts the circus first, no matter what. Initially this seems to be a flaw in his character but by the end of the movie his dedication will appear in a much more favourable light.

Holly vows to win back her top spot by proving she can outperform even the Great Sebastian. The competition between the two performers proves to be great publicity for the circus and it really draws in the crowds. This is not the only competition going on - there is also a fierce romantic rivalry between Brad and Sebastian. They’re both in love with Holly and neither is the sort of guy who likes to finish second. To complicate things further Angel (Gloria Grahame) is waiting in the wings. She’s always had a thing for a Brad but she’s not the kind of girl who goes around stealing other women’s men. On the other hand if Holly were to decide to choose Sebastian then she’d be more than happy to make a play for Brad. This four-way romantic rivalry provides the movie’s central plot.

There are a couple of sub-plots, one of which will almost destroy the circus. But circuses turn out to be rather difficult to destroy.

It’s very easy to focus on this movie’s flaws but if you do that you’re missing the point of it all. The plot is a bit thin for a two-and-a-half hour movie. Some of the sub-plots don’t go anywhere. The acting is rather hammy. The structure of the movie is very loose with the plot frequently coming to a complete standstill while the focus switches to a documentary style look at the circus behind the scenes, and the action also stops for lengthy performance scenes. What you have to remember though is that DeMille did not want to make a movie set in a circus, with the circus providing a colourful backdrop. The circus itself is the subject of the movie, and it’s the star of the movie as well.

And of course a circus performance doesn’t rely on plot. It’s a series of unconnected spectacles. The structure of the movie follows a similar pattern. Criticising the movie for being episodic and disjointed is like criticising a circus performance for being episodic and disjointed. 

Like a circus, what this movie lacks in tight structuring it makes up for in spectacle. And it really does deliver on the spectacle. It looks magnificent. Some process shots are used but in 1952 when movie cameras were very very heavy, especially Technicolor cameras, and Steadicams had not been thought of, it’s hard to imagine how some of the scenes could have been shot any other way. What matters is that most of the dazzling trapeze performances look very real indeed. 

As for the acting, this is not a movie about angst-ridden urban intellectuals. It’s about circus people. People expect circus people to be larger-than-life and in general the actors deliver precisely the kinds of performances that the movie requires. Betty Hutton plays Holly like a hyperactive kid suffering from a serious sugar rush. She’s bouncing off the walls but while her performance would have been a bad one in most movies in this movie it works. As for Charlton Heston, he’s playing a circus boss and it’s impossible to imagine how anyone could hold an organisation as complex and chaotic as a circus together unless he was the sort of character that Charlton Heston just happened to be very very good at playing. Cornel Wilde pulls out all the stops as the wildly extravagant and exuberant Sebastian and again it’s just exactly the right sort of performance. Gloria Grahame, being the superb actress she was, manages to make Angel very sympathetic and even to hint as a certain amount of acting subtlety while also going just as over-the-top as the other main stars.

James Stewart plays the clown Buttons, a clown with a dark secret. For certain crucial plot reasons he plays the entire movie in clown makeup, quite a challenge given that he’s the most tortured of all the characters. Stewart rises to the challenge. The criticism has been made that it’s easy to guess what his dark secret is but in my view the audience is supposed to figure it out. Because we know his secret we share his anxiety when he’s threatened with exposure.

Despite the movie’s disjointedness DeMille knows what he’s doing. He knows the movie is corny. It’s supposed to be. Circuses are corny. They’re supposed to be. You don’t approach this kind of subject matter with any attempt at subtlety. It’s not a Bergman movie. It’s a circus movie. DeMille knows what is required and that’s what he delivers. The Greatest Show on Earth is as garish as a circus and it’s just as much fun.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a reasonable transfer. This is a movie that really needs a Blu-Ray release.

If you accept this movie on its own terms it’s very enjoyable viewing and despite its length it can never be accused of dullness. Recommended.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Above Suspicion (1943)

Above Suspicion is a 1943 MGM spy thriller with a hefty dose of romance. The protagonists are not professional spies. Richard Myles (Fred MacMurray) is a slightly bookish American professor at Oxford. His new wife Frances (Joan Crawford) is also American. The fact that they are Americans and are so obviously harmless is precisely the reason they are recruited by British intelligence to carry out a delicate mission in southern Germany in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war.

They are told it will be a relatively simple mission and not especially dangerous. In fact it proves to be remarkably difficult and extremely dangerous.

The fact that they are amateurs was supposed to be an advantage. As harmless tourists they would be above suspicion. Unfortunately they soon realise that espionage is not really a game for amateurs and to be honest they really have very little idea what they’re doing.

Amateurs they may be, but they are resourceful and rather determined. Of course the reason they are so determined is that they don’t really how dangerous the game of espionage is.

Much of the plot hinges on their amateurishness. They have to make contact with British agents in Germany but they have no idea how such things are done. They have no knowledge of the profession of espionage and of course they make mistakes. They are however brave and determined and their amateur status can sometimes give them an edge, leading the Gestapo to underrate them.

The movie was based on a novel by Helen MacInnes. MacInnes is not well known today but she had a long and successful career as a writer of spy fiction. Her husband worked for MI6 so she had the advantage of inside knowledge of the world of espionage. She was somewhat in the Eric Ambler tradition, preferring protagonists who were ordinary people caught up in espionage rather than professional spies. While Ambler’s heroes were often very reluctant spies MacInnes was more interested in people who were motivated by a sense of decency.

The screenplay has enough twists to keep things interesting. Richard Thorpe was a reliable journeyman director whose approach was straightforward but efficient.

Given the fact that they are playing amateur spies the casting of Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford works fairly well. They don’t look like spies and they don’t behave like spies, which is of course the whole point of the story. MacMurray has no difficulty playing a mild-mannered professor, and he also has no difficulty in convincing us that underneath his mild exterior he has unexpected reserves of stubbornness and courage. This is a fairly light role for Crawford, playing a very sympathetic and likeable character, and she approaches it with just the right sort of breezy charm and combines this with an underlying strength. Frances Myles is no ditzy airhead, she’s a woman of genuine substance and Crawford gets the balance just right.

The danger of casting Basil Rathbone in a supporting rôle in a movie of this type is that he will proceed to steal the picture. Which he almost succeeds in doing here.

This is generally speaking a fairly lightweight spy thriller although it has a few grim moments to remind us that while espionage can seem like fun it can turn deadly. This is an A-picture with high production values although made in the style of its time, in other words shot on sound stages and the backlot. Despite this it conveys the atmosphere of a world on the brink of war quite effectively. Being an MGM picture it offers more glamour than contemporary spy thriller from other studios, but it’s a movie that aims at excitement in exotic locales rather than grimness.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a very satisfactory transfer, without any extras.

Above Suspicion is well-crafted and benefits from a fine cast. is well-crafted and benefits from a fine cast. It’s not in the same league as movies like Casablanca and Notorious but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and can be unhesitatingly recommended.

Monday, October 20, 2014

El Cid (1961)

A Spanish-Italian-US co-production, El Cid is both very much in the tradition of grand Hollywood epics and also points to a newer style of epic. While the Hollywood epics of the 50s were (mostly) done in the studio El Cid makes very extensive use indeed of location shooting. In fact there are very very few process shots, and I can’t recall seeing a single obvious matte painting. Everything here looks real because for the most part it is real. In spirit however it’s in line with the heroic 50s Hollywood approach to epics (which is in my view no bad thing).

Director Anthony Mann had not done an epic prior to this but he had done some much-admired westerns and that experience proved to be extremely useful. There’s a great feel for the landscape an there are quite a few scenes that would not be out of place in a western. And they work extremely well in the context of the picture.

Rodrigo de Vivar, known as El Cid, is Spain’s national hero. The situation in Spain in the 11th century was exceptionally complex with a variety of Christian and Moorish kingdoms fighting among themselves and also facing the threat from the North African Almoravid empire. The movie, like most epics, plays fast and loose with history but what the story may lack in historical accuracy it makes up for in entertainment value.

The movie version of Rodrigo de Vivar (Charlton Heston) is a minor nobleman who rises to the heights of power. He frees a number of Moorish emirs after a battle and as a result finds himself accused of treason. This is awkward enough but it will lead him into greater difficulties with his bride-to-be Jimena (played by Sophia Loren), her father, and the king. To regain his honour means facing almost certain death but Rodrigo has a destiny and it proves to be inescapable. He then finds himself caught in the middle of a nasty little dynastic squabble as the old king’s two sons Sancho and Alfonso and daughter Urraca carve up the kingdom. Finally he must save Spain from the invading hordes of the fanatical Almoravid king Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom). This involves him in yet more difficulties with Alfonso, a king who seems incapable of behaving like a king but to who he has sworn his fealty.

Rodrigo does not do any of this as a result of his own ambitions, or his own desires. He keeps finding himself in situations where his honour will only allow him to do one thing, and that one thing always has the effect of bringing him a step nearer to his destiny. He will eventually have a crown for the taking but again his honour intervenes. He has a destiny but that is not always a comfortable thing to live with.

The title character has to be a larger-than-life hero with a definite mythic quality and no-one could do that sot of thing better than Charlton Heston. However the character has to be someone we can empathise with even when his motivations are foreign and unfamiliar to us, as they often are given that he is very a medieval hero and a man of his time. Heston does a pretty good job in this respect, managing to convey the idea that this is a man who does not think the way we think but at the same time making him quite sympathetic. Heston was never given to excessive emoting but he does enough to bring the character to life. And he has the stature and the charisma to make convincing hero. Heston has been seriously underrated as an actor. He had a particular style that wasn’t suited to every part or to every movie but in the right part he simply had no equal.

Sophia Loren has an equally challenging task. Jimena is a woman to whom honour is every bit as important as it is to Rodrigo and what she yearns to do as a woman often conflicts with what her honour forces her to do. Sophia Loren would probably not have been most people’s first choice for such a demanding rôle but she carries it off rather well. She never lets us forget that Jimena is a proud Spanish noblewoman but she also never lets us forget that she is a woman.

John Fraser has mostly worked in television and he also has a tough acting assignment as the weak, treacherous and cowardly Alfonso who slowly and painfully learns what it means to be a king. Geneviève Page is splendid as the dangerous and duplicitous Princess Urraca. Herbert Lom overacts outrageously and delightfully as Ben Yussuf and gives his character some real menace as well.

As an Australian I cannot neglect to mention Frank Thring’s deliciously over-ripe performance as the treacherous and villainous Al Kadir.

Anthony Mann’s considerable reputation as a director rests mainly on his early film noir work and on his classic 1950s westerns with James Stewart. The two epics he made late in his career are not generally quite so well regarded. This may well be quite unjust since El Cid demonstrates a rather consummate mastery of the historical epic genre. He handles the spectacle side of things confidently while some of the more intimate scenes are even more impressive. His compositions are inventive and accomplished and rather painterly while he and cinematographer Robert Krasker make skillful use of colour not just for magnificence but for emotional impact. The production design by Veniero Colasanti and John Moore adds further lustre. 

It’s worth pointing out that not only do the action scenes look great, they are never there purely to provide spectacle. Every action scene advances the plot and advances the trajectory of the development of the characters involved. 

There are so many memorable scenes in this movie but there are several that really stand out. There’s the scene with the two women rivals looking out through slatted windows, almost a film noir scene. There’s the cinematically gorgeous scene of the horsemen riding along the beach at dusk carrying torches. There’s the wonderful moment with the traitor meeting King Sancho, with the wind howling outside, and directly following that the scene of murder outside the walls. In that last scene, as so often in this film, Mann and Kranker make superb use of deep focus photography. Mann’s compositions are not only meticulous in the horizontal frame but in depth as well, a very unusual and effective feature for this type of film in 1961. Also worth mentioning is the scene with the shaft of sunlight coming through the cupola when Rodrigo and Jimena meet early in the movie.

The audio commentary by William Bronston (the son of the film’s producer) and academic Neal Rosendorf is marred by a desperate and excruciating attempt to apologise for the fact that a movie that is already very politically correct wasn’t even more politically correct. It’s frankly embarrassing to listen to. Once they get back to talking about the movie itself things pick up and they do have some worthwhile information to impart. One interesting anecdote from Rosendorf concerns an interview he did with Charlton Heston in the 1990s. Heston showed him the sword he’d used in the movie, and it was a real sword and it was very very heavy. In fact this movie is virtually unique in that everything is real. If armour was supposed to be made of metal and leather then the costumes were made of metal and leather. The attention to detail and to capturing the sense of reality was obsessive but it pays off.

Another intriguing point made in the commentary track is that Anthony Mann was very enthusiastic about the idea of making epics. You can’t make a truly satisfactory movie in any genre unless you have a respect for the genre and that’s one of the reasons this movie works - Mann did have that respect for the epic genre.

While modern audiences will be inclined to see the movie in terms of the clash of cultures between Moslem and Christian Spain Bronston and Rosendorf suggest that it can also be viewed as a Cold War parable and that Rodrigo’s struggle against the Moors can be seen as representing General Franco’s successful struggle to save Spain from the Communists during the Civil War. 

Of course the movie can also be read as a story about the nature of heroes and the challenge of living with honour.

This is not the kind of movie that should ever be seen on television in butchered pan-and-scan prints. It probably really needs to be seen at a cinema but Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray presentation is the next best thing. And it really is superb. It’s not just the spectacle that is important in this movie. Just as important is the use of colour, at times very bright colour, at other times very subdued. This Blu-Ray presents the movie in all its glory and the transfer is just about flawless. Anchor Bay have also included a host of extras on a second disc. Considering the very reasonable price this two-disc set is great value.

El Cid, a huge box-office hit in its day, is a complex multi-layered film and a visually stunning epic. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Captive City (1952)

The Captive City is an unassuming but efficient crime B-movie directed by the always reliable Robert Wise.

This film belongs to a type that became very popular in the 50s - exposés of organised crime in small-town settings, with the message that the tentacles of mobsterism can reach into even the most seemingly idyllic small town. 

Jim Austin (John Forsythe) is the publisher and editor of the Kennington Journal. There’s really not a lot of opportunity for doing hard news stories in a sleepy and peaceful town of 36,000 souls like Kennington. When a big story falls into his lap he doesn’t recognise it for what it is. A down-at-heel private investigator comes to him with a story of corruption and gangsterism but Jim Austin just can’t believe that such things could happen in his town. When the private investigator is murdered Jim realises how naïve he’d been. 

Jim Austin is not by nature the sort of guy who would ever set out to be a crusader but his basic decency won’t allow him to let the story go, and in his own quiet way he can be remarkably stubborn.

The movie uses a few classic film noir techniques, like flash-backs and voiceover narration. In fact almost the entire film is a single flash-back as Jim Austin dictates his story into a tape-recorder, believing he may be murdered at any time.

The problem in Kennington is gambling. The city authorities have taken a soft approach to gambling, the assumption being that small-scale gambling is pretty harmless. The trouble is that gambling attracts racketeers and the book-making racket in Kennington is now in the hands of big-time mobsters from out of town.

Jim Austin’s problem is that he just can’t convince anyone that this represents a serious menace. Even the honest folk in Kennington would prefer him to let sleeping dogs lie. They have persuaded themselves that crime will never impact on them personally. The more Jim Austin digs the more evidence he finds but it’s not enough to convict anyone in a court of law and he faces steadily mounting opposition. He has to find real evidence, and then he has to find a way to stay alive long enough to do something with that evidence.

John Forsythe’s low-key acting style suits the material rather well. Jim Austin really is a very ordinary guy. He’s no storybook hero and he’s certainly no two-fisted gun-toting action hero, and Forsythe wisely doesn’t try to be hard-boiled. His very ordinariness makes us empathise with him. The other players are competent although the lack of a memorable villain may be seen as a drawback.

If there’s a weakness in this movie it’s paradoxically the flipside of its biggest strength. The whole point of the movie is that gangsterism can be lurking behind an innocent façade of white picket fences and well-manicured lawns, but the concentration on the peaceful surface of Kennington means that the menace remains somewhat muted. On the other hand it does mean that the violence, which is employed sparingly, has an impact when it does occur.

Robert Wise was never a particularly ostentatious director which can mean that his considerable technical skills are sometimes overlooked. He knew his stuff and in this movie he had the services of ace cinematographer Lee Garmes. Wise and Garmes make great use of compositions in depth, with the camera getting in really tight on the hero while the real action is happening in the background. This has the advantage of emphasising the fact that Austin is man who has always been rather detached from the seamy side of life.

Having been an editor (and a very good one) Wise knows how to pace a movie and he has no difficulty keeping the audience’s interest focused. His forays into film noir were not extensive but they were very impressive with The Set-Up being particularly noteworthy. 

Wise also knows how to build tension, and how to do it subtly. Jim Austin finds himself shadowed by dark cars. They’re not doing anything overtly threatening, just hanging back but making sure he sees them. Maybe they’re not even following him, but they could be and he becomes more and more convinced that they are.

The movie’s claims to noir status are not especially strong although the theme of hidden corruption does lend a somewhat noir aspect to the movie.

The Captive City has been released in the MGM Limited Edition series. The transfer is quite satisfactory. There are no extras.

The Captive City is a fairly routine story but Robert Wise’s craftsman ship shines through and makes it just a little more than a run-of-the-mill crime B-picture. Recommended.