Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Stranger in Town (1957)

A Stranger in Town is a very low-key 1957 British crime picture. In fact I don’t think you could find a more low-key crime film than this one.

The movie opens with the apparent suicide of a young American composer, David Vernon, who has been living in a sleepy English village. Not long afterwards another young American arrives. John Madison (Alex Nicol) is a reporter but he’s on holiday. Vernon’s uncle had asked him to visit the village to try to piece together the last few days of his nephew’s life and perhaps find the explanation for his suicide. John Madison isn’t a cop or a private eye and he isn’t suspicious at all about the circumstances of Vernon’s death.

The usual formula in these types of mysteries is that the investigator soon comes to believe that the suicide was actually murder, and his big task is then to convince the police that his suspicions are correct. In this case though Madison remains convinced that Vernon’s death really was a suicide. He’d just like to find out what drove the young composer to take his own life.

The village is somewhat divided over the presence of this second stranger. Vicki (Anne Paige), who’d been in love with David Vernon, seems to resent Madison’s presence. Her uncle and guardian, Henry Ryland (Colin Tapley), is not sure what to think. Henry Ryland owns the village’s only hotel, its only newspaper, and in fact seems to own most of the village. His brother William (Bruce Beeby) definitely resents what he sees as Madison’s prying. William Ryland is a rather obnoxious drunk and he obviously has designs on Vicki. William’s interest in Vicki must have caused some tensions with Vernon but it’s difficult to see how this could lead to the latter’s suicide.

Madison slowly comes to realise that David Vernon wasn’t quite the innocent young American that he’d assumed, but he also comes to realise that his suicide is actually rather difficult to explain.

The village is of course a hotbed of gossip but village life is neither idealised nor demonised in this movie. Some of the villagers are surly and very unfriendly to strangers; some are open and welcoming. Some are thoroughly unpleasant people; others are very decent and very kindly.

Alex Nicol underplays his role to an extraordinary degree. In a way this works - it focuses our attention on the victim (who is after all what the story is all about) rather than the amateur investigator. Anne Paige is quite good as Vicki, a rather conflicted and confused young woman. Bruce Beeby plays William Ryland, effectively enough, as an arch-cad. 

In supporting roles the standout performers are Mona Washbourne as the delightful amateur poetess Agnes Smith and Charles Lloyd Pack as the slightly Colonel Blimp-ish Captain Nash. Despite his attempts to convey a proper military bearing Nash is rather fond of a drink and even more fond of one if someone else is paying. These two not only lighten the mood but also make the portrayal of the village more realistic - there will always be some surly types in any community but there will also always be jovial if slightly ridiculous figures as well.

Director George Pollock was best known for light-hearted romps such as the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies. With A Stranger in Town there’s no overt comedy but Pollock does display the same affection for English rural life. In fact A Stranger in Town is very much like one of the Rutherford Miss Marple movies without the comic elements. Writer Norman Hudis is best remembered for the early Carry On movies although he also wrote the script for the fine crime thriller/heist movie The Flying Scot (released in the same year as A Stranger in Town).

This movie doesn’t feel quite as studio-bound as most low-budget British crime films of its era. There’s just enough location shooting to make it less stifling and claustrophobic. Of course some crime movies benefit from being stifling and claustrophobic but this one is very much a bucolic mystery and it needs the more open feel.

Renown Pictures in the UK have released this movie as part of a three-movie all-region DVD set (the other movies being The Third Alibi and Night Was Our Friend). It’s a single-disc set but with each movie running for just over an hour there are no problems at all and the transfers are quite satisfactory, apart from some intermittent sound issues with A Stranger in Town (happily all the dialogue is still quite understandable). Although there are no extras the set is superb value for money. The Third Alibi is excellent, Night Was Our Friend is interesting and pretty good and while A Stranger in Town is the weakest of the three it’s enjoyable enough.

A Stranger in Town is an unassuming little mystery. If you buy the set for the other two movies there’s no reason not to give this one a spin as well. Recommended.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Together Again (1944)

Together Again is a moderately entertaining 1944 Columbia screwball comedy, although it definitely is not in the genre’s top rank.

Anne Crandall (Irene Dunne) is the mayor of Brookhaven Vermont. Her late husband Jonathan had been mayor. In fact the Crandalls have always pretty much run the town. There’s even an impressive statue of Anne’s late husband looming over the place. At least there is until the statue is struck by lightning and decapitated. 

Anne’s father-in-law Jonathan Crandall Sr (Charles Coburn) is delighted. He sees the lightning strike as a sign that it is time for Anne to move on. He feels that rather than devoting her life to continuing her husband’s work she should live her own life, and she should remarry.

Anne decides that her husband’s statue must be replaced by a new one so she sets off for New York to offer the commission to sculptor George Corday (Charles Boyer). At which point a certain craziness starts to take over Anne’s previously orderly life. Respectable mayors do not normally get arrested for indecent exposure!

Of course George has fallen for Anne and Anne has fallen for him although it will take her a while to admit such a thing. There is a major complication, in the person of Anne’s neurotic step-daughter Diana (Mona Freeman). Diana reveres her father’s memory and she’s rather highly strung. In fact she’s very highly strung indeed. The complication comes from the fact that Anne had promised Diana that she would never remarry.

When George Corday follows her back to Brookhaven and begins work on the statue Anne’s life gets really crazy. In typical screwball comedy style wires get crossed and misunderstandings blossom and everyone seems destined to get married, but to the wrong people.

Charles Vidor was a competent director but not really a specialist in this genre, and it’s a very demanding genre. It’s very easy for a screwball comedy to fall flat and for the intended zaniness to fizzle out into mere silliness. That doesn’t happen here but at the same time it doesn’t quite have the needed spark.

The cast is excellent. Irene Dunne gives it everything she’s got and her performance works. Charles Boyer is fine although personally I found Corday to be not entirely likeable. Charles Coburn is wonderful, as always. Mona Freeman manages the difficult job of making the step-daughter suitably neurotic without being irritating.

The setup has plenty of potential and with such a strong cast this should have been a winner. Unfortunately it rubbed me up the wrong way. Brookhaven seems like a delightful little town but of course George Corday points out to Anne that actually it’s full of hypocritical small-minded bigots. He knows this because he knows that anyone who doesn’t live in New York City is automatically a hypocritical small-minded bigot. The film accepts this as a fact so obvious that it doesn’t need to be debated. There’s a certain sneering contempt here that made me uncomfortable.

Columbia have released this movie as part of their Icons of Screwball Comedy Volume 2 DVD boxed set. The four-movie set is excellent value and the transfers are extremely good.

Together Again is reasonable entertainment and fans of Irene Dunne or Charles Coburn will find plenty to enjoy. The major weakness, for me, is that for a film like this to work we have to be hoping that the two leads will end up together, whereas I found myself hoping that Anne would realise that George Corday was a pompous self-satisfied ass so for me it didn’t really work. Your mileage may vary.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Clue of the Silver Key (1961)

The Clue of the Silver Key is one of the incredibly numerous series of Edgar Wallace adaptations cranked out by Britain’s Merton Park studio around 1960-61. This particular film came out in 1961.

Superintendent Meredith (Bernard Lee) has a murder to deal with. Within a short space of time he has multiple murders to deal with. They all seem to have some connection with a gallery opening by young artist Gerry Domford (Lyndon Brook) and with elderly super-rich money-lender Harvey Lane (Finlay Currie). Dornford wants to marry Lane’s niece Mary (Jennifer Daniel) but the old man won’t hear of it and threatens to cut her off without a penny if she does marry him.

There’s also a financier named Jordan Worth but nobody seems to know anything at all about him. There’s a waiter who may be more than a waiter and a bank manager who may be less than a bank manager. And there’s Harvey Lane’s butler Binny (Patrick Cagill) whose one great ambition in life was to be a detective.

Superintendent Meredith and Detective-Sergeant Anson (Stanley Morgan) know there’s a connection but they cannot for the life of them see what it is. 

The clue of the silver key itself is a neat touch and it really is an important clue.

Philip Mackie wrote the screenplay. Mackie went on to be a very fine television writer with a real flair for crime so it’s not surprising that the script is well-constructed with some decent twists. Mackie later created the wonderful Mr Rose, one of the best British television crime shows of the 60s and wrote several episodes of the equally splendid The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes series as well as all twelve episodes of the Raffles TV series.

Director Gerald Glaister had more success as a producer than as a director but he keeps things moving at a pleasingly rapid pace (always a crucial ingredient in the success of a low-budget movie).

British B-movies of this were usually well-acted and this one is no exception (despite the rock-bottom budgets of Merton Park productions). Bernard Lee played countless policemen and he played them all in much the same style, which happened to be a very effective and very enjoyable style. Superintendent Meredith is no genius but he’s dogged and while he’s a bit crusty he’s fundamentally decent.

Finlay Currie is the standout actor here, having great fun as the cantankerous, suspicious and miserly Harvey Lane. Patrick Cargill as Binny provides some comic relief, and thankfully the comic relief is never overdone or allowed to overwhelm the mystery elements of the story. Jennifer Daniel is personable enough as Mary Lane.

This story doesn’t have the slightly outlandish touches that many of the most entertaining Edgar Wallace tales have. It’s a relatively straightforward mystery. 

With a running time of just 59 minutes there’s not much danger of boredom.

This is one of the seven films that make up Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. The anamorphic transfer is extremely good.

The Clue of the Silver Key is an unassuming but well-made B-movie that provides perfectly harmless entertainment. Recommended for fans of British mystery thrillers of this era (a veritable golden age for such films).

Friday, February 3, 2017

Man with a Gun (1958)

Man with a Gun is one of the countless crime B-movies churned out by Britain’s Merton Park Studios in the 50s and early 60s. It’s not dazzlingly original but it’s well-made and pretty entertaining.

Mike Davies (Lee Patterson) is an insurance investigator. He’s looking into a suspicious night club fire. The club was owned by Harry Drayson (John Le Mesurier). It soon becomes obvious that there is something more going on here, that in fact the fire was part of a plan by a gang of out-of-town hoodlums to move in on the London night club scene. All this is not really part of Davies’ job but he has a personal interest - he likes Harry Drayson and he likes Harry’s niece Stella (Rona Anderson) even more.

Superintendent Wood (Cyril Chamberlain) of Scotland Yard is taking an interest in the case but there’s no hard evidence against the gang and there’s not a lot he can do. He is however quite happy for Mike to dig up anything he can that might help.

To complicate things no-one knows the identity of the leader of the gang. To complicate things still further Drayson’s brother John used to be a member of the gang and is currently serving a sentence in one of Her Majesty’s prisons as a result. John Drayson does know the gang leader’s identity but he isn’t talking.

The gang is determined to force Drayson to sell his Stardust Club for a paltry sum and their methods become steadily more ruthless. Drayson however is a stubborn man, perhaps too stubborn for his own good.

The screenplay by Michael Winner (long before he found fame as a director) is quite serviceable and if the plot is routine it’s still pretty well executed. Veteran B-movie director Montgomery Tully does his usual competent job. The Merton Park films were always very cheap but within their budgetary limitations they generally looked reasonably good. You don’t need big money to make decent crime films. This one does its best to be hard-boiled and succeeds well enough.

It’s the rather good cast that makes this movie worth watching. Canadian-born Lee Patterson made a lot of these cheap B-films in the 50s and he has just the right kind of understated tough guy charisma. He usually played likeable but tough heroes (as in The Key Man) or sympathetic villains (as in The Flying Scot) and that’s how he plays this role and he does have a certain easy-going charm. Most importantly, Patterson knows how to wear a trench-coat convincingly!

John Le Mesurier was better known for comedy but he could handle serious roles without any problems, playing anything from sinister gangsters to smooth civil servants. His performance here is effortless and effective. Rona Anderson is more than adequate as the love interest for the hero while the supporting players are on the whole very solid by B-movie standards. Bill Nagy plays talent agent Joe Harris, Glen Mason is up-and-coming singer Steve Riley, Harold Lang is Drayson’s brother John and Marne Maitland is a wonderfully menacing hoodlum.

The film’s biggest fault is that it’s a bit too short and the ending seems very rushed. There’s not quite enough time spent building the suspense before the big revelation and the climax.

Network’s DVD release is as usual lacking in extras but offers an excellent anamorphic transfer and very good value for money.

Man with a Gun offers an hour of perfectly acceptable and surprisingly well-crafted entertainment. Despite the routine plot the fine performances, especially from Lee Patterson and John Le Mesurier, make this a slightly above average crime B-feature. Recommended.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Behind That Curtain (1929)

Behind That Curtain was I believe the first of the Fox Charlie Chan movies (although there had been a couple of earlier Chan movies from other companies). Released in 1929, this is also the earliest surviving Chan film.

Eve Mannering (Lois Moran) is an heiress pursued by two suitors. Colonel John Beetham (Warner Baxter) is a famous explorer and he’s the man Eve’s uncle hopes she will marry. Eve however prefers the handsome plausible cad Eric Durand (Philip Strange). Eve’s uncle has employed a private investigator in the hope that he will dig up something on Durand that will bring his niece to her senses. Eve however is totally besotted by Durand.

The private investigator is murdered. Eric Durand has an obvious motive for the murder but Colonel Beetham has a motive also. It looks like the murder is going to remain unsolved but Sir Frederick Bruce (Gilbert Emery) of Scotland Yard has a reputation for never giving up on a murder case. Sir Frederick has also been in contact with the famous Charlie Chan who has provided some very useful pointers.

Eve of course marries her handsome bounder and sets off for India with him. Predictably the marriage is not a success. As luck would have it Colonel Beetham is also in India.

Much of the action takes place in India and in the remote deserts of central Asia (the scene of Beetham’s latest expedition).

There was a witness with vital information about the murder but he has decided that blackmail would be more profitable than talking to Scotland Yard.

The identity of the murderer is actually revealed very early so the emphasis is on the suspense angle of the investigation rather than the mystery. This is of course a perfectly valid approach but in this instance it falls rather flat. The screenplay has its flaws but it’s the lifeless execution that is the real problem. And the dialogue! The dialogue is often excruciatingly bad.

The film is a very loose adaptation indeed of the novel by Earl Derr Biggers. In fact it bears only a tenuous resemblance to the book.

Very early talkies have a reputation for being very static due to various issues involved with the early sound technology. That reputation is often undeserved but this movie really does suffer in this area. The camera setups do tend at times to be rather static. Director Irving Cummings is also much too leisurely in his approach.

Warner Baxter is OK but there are problems with the rest of the cast. Lois Moran is terrible. She started her career in silent films and it’s obvious she has not yet adapted to sound films. Her performance is as a result overly melodramatic and just doesn’t ring true at all. Gilbert Emery is very dull as the indefatigable Scotland Yard man. Philip Strange has potentially the best role but does little with it. Look out for Boris Karloff in a bit part.

For Charlie Chan fans the biggest issue is going to be that Chan plays a very minor role in the film, not appearing until very late in the proceedings. Chan is played by E.L. Park who was the last actual Asian actor to play the role (although Warner Oland claimed to have some Mongolian ancestry). This was Park’s only film role. 

When Chan finally does appear he’s only in a couple of brief scenes. Obviously at this stage no-one at Fox realised that the character was capable of carrying an entire movie.

The Indian and central Asian scenes are done surprisingly well and look quite impressive. They even have proper Bactrian camels. These scenes are the highlight of the movie.

Behind That Curtain is included as an extra in the third of the Fox Charlie Chan boxed sets. While Fox spent a fortune restoring the other Chan movies (with generally excellent results) they don’t seem to have done as much on this film, or perhaps the surviving print was simply in much poorer shape. Both image and sound quality are quite acceptable.

Behind That Curtain is played more as romantic melodrama than mystery. There’s not really a great deal of actual detective work in this film. It certainly has historical interest and  if you’re a keen Charlie Chan fan you’ll want to see it for that reason. However it’s much too slow and the lack of an effective mystery plot is a fatal flaw. The fact that Charlie Chan is hardly in the movie at all is also a very definite drawback. On the other hand the boxed set is very much worth buying and since Fox has thrown in this film as an extra you’re not losing very much (except an hour-and-a-half out of your life) by giving it a spin. There’s definitely no way this one would be worth buying on its own.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Suspected Person (1942)

Suspected Person is a 1942 British crime thriller about American gangsters in London.

James Raynor (Clifford Evans) has double-crossed American mobsters Franklin (Robert Beatty) and Dolan (Eric Clavering) over a bank robbery. Raynor, an Englishman, had been working as a crime reporter in New York. Now Franklin and Dolan have figured out that Raynor was the one who pulled a fast one on them and that he has the fifty grand from the bank robbery. So they’re off to London to have a little talk with him, and maybe take him for a ride.

Scotland Yard knows the gangsters are on the way to England but Detective Inspector Thompson (David Farrar) has decided to let them into the country and keep an eye on them. He has a feeling they’ll lead him to the missing money, which will be a feather in his cap and be good for the prestige of the Yard. Detective Sergeant Saunders (William Hartnell) is not quite sure about all this - he thinks his boss might be trying to be a bit too subtle.

Thompson is trying to be very subtle. He goes undercover, taking a room at the hotel run by Raynor’s sister Joan (Patricia Roc). Raynor himself is trying to be even more clever, confident he can outwit Franklin and Dolan against whom he has a personal grudge. Raynor is playing a dangerous game and he may be endangering his girlfriend, night-club singer Carol Martin (Anne Firth).

So the plot is a double chase, with the American gangsters after Raynor while Inspector Thompson is after them. 

Writer-director Lawrence Huntington had a long if rather obscure career in B-pictures before making the move to television in the late 50s. His script is routine but serviceable. His directing is rather flat-footed. This film’s major problem is that it never really develops any sense of urgency or excitement.

At one point the gangsters are pursuing Raynor on a train. It’s almost impossible to go wrong in a thriller when you have vital scenes set on a train but Huntington totally fails to take any advantage of the train setting and these scenes just don’t deliver the goods.

Another major problem is the casting. Clifford Evans is just the wrong actor for this role. He’s too genteel to be convincing as someone who worked as a New York City crime reporter and then tried to double-cross a couple of very hard-boiled American mobsters. His bland performance undermines the film’s credibility.

David Farrar does a very fine job in his supporting role as Inspector Thompson but he would really have been a much better choice to play Raynor.

Patricia Roc on the other hand is terrific as Joan Raynor - she’s pert and charming and her performance is totally convincing. She and David Farrar have the right chemistry to make their romantic sub-plot work.

William Hartnell was often used in comic relief roles but this time he plays it pretty straight. The witty interplay between Farrar and Hartnell is always delightful and in fact is the highlight of the movie.

This movie was released in mid-1942. With the US having just entered the war you'd expect a British movie made at that time to be quite pro-American but in fact the reverse is true. There are quite a few not-so-subtle digs at the corruption of the American criminal justice system and there’s a general attitude that American gangsters might think they’re tough but they’re no match for Scotland Yard, or for a quick-witted Englishman.

The British police in this movie have such contempt for American criminals that even though they have good reason for thinking that Franklin and Dolan might be armed when it comes to the final showdown they don’t even bother carrying firearms (which of course British police are quite entitled to do in such circumstances). The clear implication is that British policemen have no need to resort to such barbarisms just to deal with a couple of New York hoodlums. It’s also notable that although Inspector Thompson contacts the New York police he gets no help from them.

Network’s DVD release is stock-standard for this company - no extras apart from an image gallery but a very good transfer.

Suspected Person is not a terrible movie by any means. It’s just a very average B-movie that doesn’t quite succeed in generating any real tension. The excellent performances of David Farrar, Patricia Roc and William Hartnell are the main reasons for watching this one. Probably worth a rental.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Offbeat (1961)

Offbeat (released in the US as The Devil Inside) is a 1961 low-budget film noir-influenced British crime thriller concerning Scotland Yard’s famous Ghost Squad. This was a real-life division within Scotland Yard whose officers infiltrated criminal organisations for extended periods of time.

Layton (William Sylvester) is an MI5 man seconded to the Ghost Squad to penetrate one of the new highly organised gangs behind a series of alarming and very sophisticated robberies. He’s been provided with a false identity, that of Steve Ross, a criminal who disappeared from view a year or so earlier. First Layton/Steve Ross has to prove his bona fides to the London underworld and this provides the movie’s excellent opening sequence as he robs a bank single-handed.

It doesn’t take long for him to make contact with the organisation run by James Dawson (Anthony Dawson), and a very well-run criminal organisation it is. It even has a pension plan! Dawson and his partner, the easy-going Johnny Hemick (John Meillon), need a man who is ice-cold under pressure and Steve Ross seems to fit the bill perfectly. Steve’s first job for the gang is a very daring robbery - a jewellery store with three-quarters of a million pounds in diamonds locked in the safe. The store is incredibly well-protected but Steve has an idea that will allow these security measures to be very neatly circumvented.

In the meantime Steve has become very friendly indeed with another member of the gang, glamorous blonde Ruth Lombard (Mai Zetterling). It would be very foolish for an undercover cop to fall in love in a situation like this but that’s exactly what seems likely to happen.

The heist itself (including the elaborate planning stages) occupies most of the film and it’s wonderfully tense and exciting as it keeps seeming that everything is about to go wrong but these are professional thieves and they have planned this robbery very well indeed.

While it’s a terrific caper movie there’s a lot more going on in this movie. Steve has made a disturbing discovery. He really likes these people. And he really enjoys being a criminal. Added to which are the charms of the lovely Ruth Lombard. Of course he’s still a cop and he has his duty to perform. It’s just that it now seems like a rather unpleasant duty - it seems uncomfortably like betrayal.

The theme of divided loyalties and betrayal and counter-betrayal provide a very definite hint of film noir. This is combined with a strong sense of moral ambiguity - these are rather honourable thieves in their own way. This of course adds further to the noir flavour. 

The suspense in this movie (and very effective suspense it is) comes not just from the usual hazards of a bold and risky heist but from our considerable uncertainty as to which way Steve Ross will finally jump. I’m obviously not going to give you any hints as to the answer. All I will say is that we’re kept guessing until the end.

William Sylvester was an American actor who was trained in Britain and become something of a fixture in low-budget British crime pictures in the 50s and early 60s (including Dublin Nightmare and the superb Portrait of Alison). He had a certain intensity about him which works very much in his favour in this film. Steve Ross is a man who seems to be in absolute control of himself but we can’t help suspecting that maybe he’s just a little too tightly wound.

Swedish-born Mai Zetterling had a modestly successful film career in Britain during the same period. She makes a fairly good female lead here. Anthony Dawson and Australian character actor John Meillon provide fine support - both Johnny Hemick and Dawson are a bit more interesting than you would usually expect from supporting characters and we care about their fate just as we care about Steve Ross and Ruth.

Director Cliff Owen had a very undistinguished career spent mostly in television but he obviously did have some real ability as he does a fine job maintaining the tension and the pacing. Writer Peter Barnes (who also worked on the excellent spy thriller Ring of Spies) provides a clever script.

Offbeat gets the standard DVD treatment from Network - a very good anamorphic transfer without any extras (apart from a photo gallery) and at a reasonable price.

Offbeat is worth the attention of noir fans and it’s a very entertaining crime suspense thriller. Highly recommended.

Scotland Yard’s Ghost Squad was also the subject of a very good early 60s British television crime series, called (naturally) Ghost Squad. It's worth a look as well.