Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Strip (1951)

The Strip is an all-singing all-dancing glossy 1951 MGM film noir. If your first thought is that a film noir musical just isn’t going to work then you’d be at least partly correct. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s by no means a total loss.

It starts in classic film noir style with a guy picked up by the police as a suspect in a murder. He then tells his story in an extended flashback.

Stanley Maxton (Mickey Rooney) had cracked up during his Korean War service but he recovers to be discharged and heads off to LA hoping to resuscitate his career as a musician. Two chance encounters in cars will change his life forever.

Firstly he meets Sonny Johnson (James Craig) when Johnson’s car accidentally runs him off the road. Sonny is very apologetic and not only offers to replace Stanley’s drum kit which was smashed in the accident, he also offers him a job. An extremely well-paid job. Sonny is a businessman. His business is not exactly legal. In fact it’s totally illegal. Stanley doesn’t mind that. The pay is good and he’s anxious to earn as much money as he can as quickly as possible so he can buy a club of his own. Stanley’s willingness to accept a job that he knows is illegal is his first step on the road to ruin. He just doesn’t quite have the moral fibre to say no to easy money.

The second encounter is much more disastrous. He meets Jane Tafford (Sally Forrest). Jane is as cute as a button but this girl raises so many red flags that you have to wonder how any man with a lick of sense would get mixed up with her. Jane wants to be a movie star. That is all she wants out of life. Nothing else matters. She has tried to make it on the strength of her rather slight talents and hasn’t made it. Now she’s decided that she is going to make it, no matter what she has to do in order to do so. If it means sleeping her way to the top that’s no problem. To Jane men are just a means to an end, and the end is to make Jane Tafford a star.

Night-club owner Fluff (William Demarest) tries to warn Stanley about her but Stanley isn’t listening. He’s in love. He’s busy day-dreaming about buying a little house and enjoying married bliss with Jane and he’s wondering how many kids they should have. Jane is doing what she always does. She is deciding how useful Stanley can be to her career. The answer is, not very useful at all. Sonny on the other hand could be very useful to her.

It has to be said that Stanley is not very bright. He’s well-meaning and he’s a decent guy and he would obviously make a very good husband for some nice girl. Unfortunately Jane is not a nice girl. She’s a scheming tramp. Even though this is painfully obvious Stanley is determined not to see it.

Mickey Rooney made several forays into the film noir genre and he actually makes a very good noir protagonist. Rooney could be a fine actor when he put his mind to it, and when he was given the opportunity. Sally Forrest gets the femme fatale role but this is an MGM movie and it’s a musical so she can’t go over-the-top with the standard femme fatale stuff. She has to be a femme fatale but a wholesome femme fatale. In some ways this actually works quite well. It makes her cynicism more shocking and it makes her much more dangerous. How could a girl who looks so darned cute be a bad girl? Overall Sally Forrest does a decent job of acting here.

James Craig does well as the charming but unscrupulous Sonny, a classic noir bad guy who is menacing without being a mere thug.

So far I’ve talked about the film noir angle, but this is also a fully-fledged musical with lots of musical numbers. They’re integrated reasonably well with the main plot and after all it’s not unusual for film noir to deal with the worlds of show business, night-clubs and music so it does make some sense to have musical interludes. There are however just too many musical numbers and they slow down the plot to an extraordinary degree.

On the other hand the music is pretty good, which you’d expect when you’ve got musicians like Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden in the cast.

László Kardos directed and he was clearly hamstrung by the need to combine what were essentially two incompatible genres. It’s a problem he was unable to solve.

This movie was shot in black-and-white which helps its noir credentials a little but there’s really not much in the way of genuine noir visual styling or atmosphere. On the other hand it does capture the seedy glamorous night-club feel pretty well (with some good location shooting in actual night-clubs as well).

The Strip is an odd hybrid and it’s more successful than you might anticipate. It has a decent film noir plot with a couple of good twists. It’s also closer to genuine noir than you’d expect from an MGM production. It’s interesting enough to earn a highly recommended rating.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yankee Buccaneer (1952)

In 1952 during the filming of the pirate adventure Against All Flags Errol Flynn broke his ankle. This obviously meant that shooting of the film had to be put on hold. Universal decided to turn an inconvenience into an opportunity by making use of the sets built for Against All Flags to shoot a second pirate movie (this time a B-picture) whilst Flynn recovered. A script was hastily cobbled together and the result was Yankee Buccaneer. And it’s not a  bad little programmer.

This is a slightly unusual pirate movie in that the heroes are two distinguished real-life US Navy officers, Captain (Later Commodore) David Porter and Lieutenant (later Admiral David Farragut. They are sent on a secret mission by the US Navy to discover the whereabouts of a pirate flotilla infesting the Caribbean. Captain Porter’s frigate, the USS Essex, is to fly the Jolly Roger while his crew disguise themselves as a crew of cut-throat buccaneers.

Davy Farragut has served under Porter before and it was not a particularly pleasant experience. The young Lieutenant acknowledges that Porter is a fine officer and a good captain but it’s Porter’s uncompromising adherence to regulations and strict discipline that he regards with distaste. A series of mishaps, for which Farragut appears to be responsible, adds to the tension between the two men and it start to look Farragut’s future in the Navy may be bleak.

The secret mission takes a surprising turn when the Essex encounters a Portuguese ship-of-the-line. The counterfeit pirates assume they’re about to be attacked and, given that they are badly outgunned, probably sunk. When they hoist the Jolly Roger a strange thing happens. The Portuguese warship leaves them alone. Something odd is definitely going on. In fact Captain Porter and his crew are about to sail into a very tangled web of international intrigue and double-dealing.

Of course at this point you might be thinking that what’s missing in this movie is a beautiful woman to add some romance and glamour. You need not worry. Countess Margarita La Raguna is about to make her appearance, and the plot starts to get really complicated.

The main weakness of Yankee Buccaneer is that being a B-movie it doesn’t have the spectacular action scenes that a pirate movie needs to have. On the other hand quite a bit of imagination is shown in providing the kind of adventure that can be managed on a low budget and it’s enough to maintain the viewer’s interest (although the shark scene is a major disappointment since the shark is much too obviously a rubber shark). There’s a reasonable fight scene towards the end with some swordplay but sadly there are no sea battles.

The lack of major action set-pieces is counter-balanced to some extent by the impressive sets built for Against All Flags so Yankee Buccaneer is a reasonably good-looking film (and was also shot in Technicolor).

Having a competent cast helps things along. Jeff Chandler does a fine job as Captain Porter, making the character a stickler for discipline and a rather hard and inflexible man but still making him fairly sympathetic. Porter might be a martinet but he knows his job and he cares for the safety of his crew. Scott Brady is pretty good as Farragut and like Chandler is able to give his character at least a small amount of depth. Suzan Ball is convincing enough as the proud and headstrong countess. Suzan Ball was one of Hollywood’s most tragic starlets. She was just eighteen when she made this picture and sadly had just three years of life left to her.

There’s a bit of comic relief but it’s bearable and not too intrusive.

This movie is included in Universal’s four-movie Pirates of the Golden Age boxed set. There are no extras but the transfer is excellent. The set is definitely worth getting if you’re a pirate fan. So far I’ve seen three of the four films and Against All Flags, Buccaneer’s Girl and Yankee Buccaneer are all worth a watch. Strangely enough my favourite of the three is Buccaneer’s Girl, although that could have some connection with my Yvonne de Carlo infatuation.

Yankee Buccaneer is decent solid and completely harmless B-movie entertainment. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Backfire! (1962)

Backfire! is another of the British Merton Park Edgar Wallace B-movies of the early 60s and it’s a reasonably competent entry in the series.

Bernard Curzon (Oliver Johnston) is the founder of a cosmetics company, Venetia Beauty Products. The company has been very successful but as Curzon is getting on in years he had decided to take on some new partners, to revitalise the firm. Mitchell Logan (Alfred Burke) and his wife Pauline (Zena Marshall) have certainly had a dramatic effect on the company. They have all but ruined it. Sales are practically non-existent. The company cannot pay its bills. Even worse, the books are not likely to stand up to any close scrutiny. Things look hopeless, but Mitchell has a plan. The company is broke but the factory is insured for a great deal of money. If a fire were to break out then all their financial problems would disappear in a puff of smoke so to speak. It’s a foolproof plan.

Of course it turns out to be not quite so foolproof after all. Clever yes, and well executed, but there’s always the little unforeseen details, in this case a mink coat and a Hungarian wedding.

Even allowing for such minor irritations it still seems they will get away with it. All they need is a bit of luck, or at least the absence of bad luck. What they don’t need is a young insurance investigator with all the zeal and enthusiasm of youth.

And due to those little unforeseen details mentioned earlier this is not just a case of arson. It’s murder as well.

There are no great surprises in the plot but the script (by Robert Banks Stewart who had an illustrious career as a television writer) is serviceable and well constructed. Paul Almond’s direction is fairly straightforward but he knows how to build suspense and he doesn’t permit any dull moments in the film’s 61-minute running time.

The cast is the movie’s biggest strength. Before finding fame with the long-running (and excellent) Public Eye television series Alfred Burke was a familiar face in British B-movies. This movie gives him a rare starring role. He’s nicely sneaky and cold-blooded. He seems to be attempting an American accent but it comes and goes. Fortunately it doesn’t detract from his performance. Zena Marshall is good as Pauline Logan, a classy woman but rather a nasty piece of work. Suzanne Neve gets the good girl role as Curzon’s daughter and secretary Shirley and she’s a rather charming if not wildly exciting heroine. John Cazabon is creepy in a low-key but effective way as the firebug Willy Kyzer.

The fire scenes are presumably almost entirely stock footage but they’re used extremely well. The firebug enjoying himself burning model buildings is a nice touch.

The cosmetics angle allows for some touches of glamour that add a bit more interest. It’s also useful in making the arson more plausible, cosmetics factories being full of highly inflammable chemicals so that when they burn you can rely on them to burn to the ground in a conveniently short time. The low budget (and Merton Park movies were very low budget) is no great problem since the people making these Edgar Wallace potboilers were used to such things and knew what they were doing.

As usual Network have come up with an excellent anamorphic transfer. Backfire! is one of the seven movies that make up Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. There are no extras as such included with the individual movies but Network more than make up for this by throwing in at least one bonus movie in each set (and the bonus movies are often extremely good).

Backfire! is nothing more than a fairly routine B-movie but it’s a well-made one and it’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable time-killer. Recommended.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938)

Bulldog Drummond in Africa is one of Paramount’s series of successful B-movie adaptations of H.C. McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond spy thrillers. It’s an excellent entry in the series.

Captain Hugh Drummond (John Howard) is hoping that finally he is going to be able to get married to his beloved Phyllis. Her main concern is that he will get mixed up in yet another of his secret agent adventures and the wedding will be postponed once again. So she has taken certain precautions. Hugh, along with his faithful butler Tenny (E.E. Clive), has been confined to his house until the wedding and forbidden any contact with the outside world (such as reading newspapers). She knows that this won’t be enough so she has also confiscated all his guns and his trousers, and to be on the safe side Tenny’s trousers as well. He can hardly get himself into any espionage or crime-fighting sprees without trousers.

All her precautions are in vain since it is Phyllis herself who gets Drummond into this particular adventure when she accidentally witnesses the kidnapping of Colonel Nielson (H.B. Warner) of Scotland Yard.

Now the chase is on to rescue the colonel and the trail leads to Morocco. The kidnappers have an aircraft so they think they’re safe from pursuit but Hugh Drummond has an aeroplane as well. Scotland Yard has absolutely forbidden Captain Drummond from becoming involved in this case. That holds him up for about five minutes.

Phyllis is sure she has seen the ringleader of the kidnapping gang before and it’s not long before Drummond realises he is up against notorious freelance international spy Richard Lane (J. Carrol Naish).

Lane is after one of Britain’s most closely guarded military secrets, the radio wave disintegrator. Rescuing the colonel is a priority but it’s even more vital to prevent Lane from obtaining the secret and selling it to the highest bidder. Lane has an important advantage - he has an agent, Fordyne (Anthony Quinn), working  in the British Consulate in Morocco. And Lane is utterly without scruples.  He also has his pet lions and they always come in handy when you’re a super villain.

This film doesn’t take long to gather momentum and thereafter it’s pretty consistent action and excitement. There’s the air chase, there are bombs, there are ravenous man-eating lions and there’s plenty of gunplay. Drummond and his pals (with Phyllis enthusiastically pitching in) have a difficult task since they have to foil Lane’s plans whilst avoiding arrest by the local authorities.

John Howard played Drummond in numerous films in this series and he does a fine job as he generally did. The only problem I’ve ever had with his casting in the role is that he is a fairly handsome fellow while in the books Hugh Drummond is a man renowned for his ugliness! Reginald Denny as Drummond’s loyal if not very bright pal Algy is less irritating than usual. Tenny is the character providing much of the comic relief but it’s not overdone this time and even manages to be mildly amusing.

Heather Angel is splendid as Phyllis. Phyllis is a bit on the feisty side but not to an excessive degree. She is brave but she is (mercifully) not one of your modern kickass action heroines. She even faints at one point. Mind you, seeing a man being eaten by a lion can be an upsetting experience for anyone. J. Carrol Naish is a delightfully smooth and sinister villain.

The plot might be a fairly stock-standard spy take of the period but the execution is energetic, there are some genuine thrills and there’s a vast amount of enjoyment to be had here. The film strikes pretty much the ideal balance. It takes itself just seriously enough but not too seriously. The emphasis is on excitement and fun.

There are plenty of public domain copies of this movie around. The image quality on the one I saw was pretty mediocre but still watchable.

Bulldog Drummond in Africa works because director Louis King is competent and keeps the pacing brisk enough that you don’t have time to worry about plot holes or anything tedious like that. The performances are good and the 1930s aircraft are very cool.

This is unashamed escapist entertainment (something of which I thoroughly approve) and it’s highly recommended.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Paul Temple's Triumph (1950)

Paul Temple's Triumph was released in 1950 and was the third of the Paul Temple films distributed by Butcher’s Film Service between 1946 and 1952. It was based on Francis Durbridge’s radio serial News of Paul Temple.

This one is a spy thriller. A British atomic scientist, Professor Hardwick, has disappeared. The authorities seem rather unconcerned, a circumstance that puzzles Paul Temple somewhat. Even his old friend, Scotland Yard Deputy Commissioner Sir Graham Forbes (Jack Lively), doesn’t seem to be taking the matter too seriously. The scientist’s daughter Celia is very worried though and Temple decides it might be worth looking into this affair.

Temple finds himself up against the mysterious and sinister Z Organisation, an unscrupulous  international freelance spy ring.

He does have a few clues. There’s a torn fragment of a map and there’s a letter. He has no idea what is in this letter but everyone seems to want to get hold of it so clearly it’s important. Important enough to kill for, as it turns out.

There are quite a few suspicious foreigners lurking about and there’s at least one glamorous and dangerous female spy.

There are thrills aplenty, with booby traps and secret passageways and some impressively imaginative techniques for murder. And there’s no shortage of murder - this one has quite a high body count.

As usual Temple gets some useful assistance from his resourceful wife Steve who doesn’t mind putting herself in danger (in fact she’s sometimes a bit too keen to do so).

John Bentley played Paul Temple in three of the four movie adaptations and he brings charm and energy to the part. Dinah Sheridan played Steve in two of the films and she makes a very decent heroine.

There’s an abundance of villains and other assorted shady customers and the villains are reasonably menacing.

Director Maclean Rogers keeps things moving at a cracking pace and gives a genuine sense of danger to the proceedings. The high body count helps since we quickly realise that even likeable characters could be killed off without hesitation.

The spy plot works effectively. The top-secret project that the missing professor was working on is pretty much a standard spy movie McGuffin but that’s as it should be. We don’t need to know how the professor’s invention works, we just need to know that bad people will kill to get their hands on it and the screenplay therefore doesn’t waste time over-explaining things.

Fortunately there’s also no time squandered on unnecessary comic relief.

Paul Temple is a very happily married man so there’s no scope for him to become entangled in romantic intrigues. The affectionate relationship with his wife does however provide at least a touch of emotional involvement (and of course we know that Steve will get herself into at least one tight spot and have to be rescued).

The timing of this movie was interesting. The war was over so there was no point in having evil Nazis. On the other hand the Cold War was only just beginning so the Soviets were not quite yet ready to step into their shoes as the standard spy movie villains. The decision to make the bad guys freelance spies was actually quite sound and makes the movie less dated that it would otherwise have been.

The transfer for this film provided in the Renown Pictures Paul Temple boxed set is acceptable but it has a few minor problems. The set includes all four Paul Temple movies and represents excellent value for money.

Paul Temple's Triumph is a solid example of the British spy movie of its era. Lively and entertaining, and highly recommended.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Solitary Child (1958)

The Solitary Child is a 1958 British murder mystery which begins some time after the murder has taken place. If indeed it was murder. There is some doubt on that score.

Captain James Random (Philip Friend) brings his new wife Harriet (Barbara Shelley) back to Random Farm. Captain Random had been accused of murdering his first wife but had been acquitted. Harriet isn’t worried, being convinced that Random’s first wife’s death was an accident. Soon however she begins to have her doubts. There seem to have been rather a lot of secrets at Random Farm. Everyone seems to know something about Eva Random’s death and, disturbingly, these include things that had not been mentioned at all at the trial.

James Random had been, and still is, surrounded by women. And by feminine intrigues, some harmless enough but others perhaps more dangerous. His sister Ann (Sarah Lawson) owns a half share of the farm and has been spending an inordinate amount of time deciding whether or not to marry local vet Cyril (Jack Watling). There seems no reason for her not to marry him. He’s a thoroughly amiable fellow and she obviously loves him. But the wedding never seems to happen. Jean (Rona Anderson) is a Devlin and the Devlins used to own Random Farm. Jean’s mother is not merely an awful snob but a thoroughly malicious gossip. Then there’s Random’s daughter Maggie (Julia Lockwood), a rather troubled and slightly scary teenager.

Eva Random had been carrying on a notorious affair with Jean’s young and very disreputable brother. James Random obviously had a motive for murder but he was far from alone in that.

Now it seems that someone wants Harriet out of the way. Quite possibly they want her dead. There are several mysterious accidents and soon rumours are sweeping the village. Harriet is determined to untangle the mystery of Eva Random’s death since her own life might depend on it. Everyone is getting increasingly rattled, Harriet is getting quite scared and James Random is becoming even more withdrawn and morose than usual.

This is a solid enough little plot with enough red herrings to keep things interesting. The tension builds inexorably. Can Harriet stay alive long enough to solve the puzzle?

Director Gerald Thomas was better known for the Carry On comedies but he proves himself to be a perfectly competent practitioner in the murder genre. Robert Dunbar’s script, based on Nina Bawden’s novel, hits all the right notes.

The acting is uniformly good with no-one being too obvious. All the characters have things to hide but they could have quite legitimate reasons for wanting to keep their secrets. Julia Lockwood does a fine job as Maggie. Maggie is a troubled and disturbing child but she’s in a situation in which a girl might well be troubled.

Barbara Shelley is at her most ravishing and she delivers a very effective performance, with just enough hysteria but combined with a certain amount of courage and determination. She was one of Britain’s best actresses of the 50s and she’s in top form here.

Network’s DVD is absolutely barebones but it offers a lovely anamorphic transfer and (as usual with Network) at a very reasonable price.

The Solitary Child is an engaging and very well-crafted low-key murder mystery with a fine cast and a stellar performance by Barbara Shelley. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)

Madonna of the Seven Moons is a 1945 British melodrama  from Gainsborough Pictures, but melodrama is hardly an adequate word to describe this truly bizarre film. This is beyond mere melodrama.

The story begins in 1919. Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert), a young convent girl in Florence, is raped. She seems to to recover well enough from the experience and her father arranges a marriage for her. Her husband is Guiseppe (John Stuart), a very kindly Italian nobleman. The marriage is a great success. A couple of decades later their daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) who has been at school in England travels across Europe to rejoin her parents. Angela is a very modern girl. She thinks nothing of traveling alone across Europe with a young man. Maddalena, who is pious and conservative, is deeply shocked.

Maddalena herself is not however all that she seems to be. She has a secret and it’s far more shocking than anything Angela could dream up. Maddalena is two women, each unaware of the other ’s existence. The movie amusingly assures at the beginning that this stuff really happens! Of course psychiatry in the 1930s was almost as primitive as it is today so audiences might well have bought the story.

Phyllis Calvert certainly does her best to sell the story. It’s a very challenging double role and she manages to not only behave but also to look like two different women.

Two different women means two different men and the two men in Maddalena’s life are definitely poles apart. Guiseppe is kindly, civilised and urbane. Nino (Stewart Granger) is a thief from the gutters of Florence. A handsome thief of course, but with a violent temper and insanely jealous and possessive. In fact the sort of charismatic adventurous rogue you expect in a melodrama.

How Maddalena combines two incompatible lives does stretch credibility but this is melodrama so you just have to go with it.

Matters come to a head when Maddalena does one of her regular disappearing acts but this time Angela is determined to unravel the mystery. In doing so she places herself in considerable danger, danger to which she is (with the over-confidence of youth) utterly oblivious.

It’s not only Maddalena’s happiness that is at stake. There are also her two men. Nino is a scoundrel but he’s crazy in love with her. There’s also Nino’s smooth and unscrupulous brother, Sandro (Peter Glenville) not to mention Angela’s young man (who’s actually a respectable and thoroughly nice young fellow). And there’s Nino’s other woman, who keeps his bed warm during Maddalena’s disappearances.

There’s some gloriously delicious psychobabble here. The story is ludicrous but it’s told with style and it’s sheer outrageousness wins us over. We believe because we want to believe because the idea is just so much fun.

Phyllis Calvert throws herself into her roles with enthusiasm, as the ultra-respectable Roman matron and as her alter-ego, the fiery and very passionate peasant girl.

If you can buy her performance there’s no reason not to buy Stewart Granger as the handsome and dangerous criminal Nino. James Mason was usually Gainsborough’s go-to guy for these roles but I guess they figured that he might have had trouble convincing as an Italian bravo. Stewart Granger has the dark good looks to just about get away with it.

Patricia Roc is enjoyable as the high-spirited Angela.

Of course Gainsborough’s melodramas were notorious for pushing the edge of the censorship envelope. This ones pushes it farther than most. There’s just no way of avoiding the fact that Maddalena is having a sexual relationship, and a rather steamy one, with Nino. And the movie doesn’t even try to pretend otherwise. It positively wallows in the sexual titillation of Maddalena’s adultery. There are also hints of white slavery (which seems to be Sandro’s plan for Angela), not to mention Patricia Roc swanning about in some breathtakingly revealing underwear (in the kind of totally gratuitous scene that only Gainsborough seemed to be able to get away with). And while the opening rape scene is mostly implied we’re not left in the slightest doubt as to what has happened.

There’s also some obvious gothic content. This is not a horror film but it will certainly appeal to gothic horror fans, and it’s actually stronger stuff than any British horror movie would go near until Hammer’s forays into the genre in the mid-50s. There’s also illicit and perverse sexual content here that would also have terrified most British film-makers of that era.

The nature of the story meant that the plot could only be resolved in one way and it’s a way that modern audiences will disapprove of, although in fact it works.

Madonna of the Seven Moons is available on Region 2 DVD in an excellent inexpensive edition. It’s also been released in Region 1 as part of Criterion’s overpriced Eclipse series, in a Gainsborough melodrama boxed set that includes The Man in Grey and The Wicked Lady (both truly wonderful melodramas as well).

Madonna of the Seven Moons is bizarre and over-the-top and outrageously excessive and it’s a delight from start to finish. This movie is pure sinful indulgence. Highly recommended.