Friday, January 12, 2018

Split Second (1953)

Dick Powell had a pretty interesting career. He started as a juvenile lead in musicals for Warner Brothers in the 1930s. In the 1940s he re-invented himself as a tough guy actor in a series of excellent film noir roles in movies like Cornered, Cry Danger, Pitfall and Murder, My Sweet. Then in the 50s he re-invented himself once again as a producer and director. His first movie as director was Split Second. His directing career (which included the classic war movie The Enemy Below) was cut short by his untimely death in 1963.

Split Second is an odd and interesting kind of hybrid thriller. The main plot is standard hardboiled crime movie fare. Convicted killer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) has broken out of prison along with Bart Moore (Paul Kelly). Moore has a bullet in him, courtesy of a prison guard, and he needs a doctor real bad. After meeting up with another hoodlum pal they hijack a car and they decide to take the two occupants of the car, Kay Garven (Alexis Smith) and Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige) with them as hostages.

So it’s all very standard stuff, except that this is all happening right in the middle of an atomic bomb testing site. And since the movie opens by making a big deal of the evacuation of everybody from the test area we can be fairly confident that this is going to become a key plot point. The hoodlums have been so focused on their prison break and trying to keep a step ahead of the law that they haven’t been keeping up with current events in general, such as the latest nuclear tests.

There’s another interesting twist. Kay Garven is a married woman, but she isn’t married to Arthur Ashton. She might not be married to him but she sure does seem to be mighty friendly with him. She’s actually married to a doctor. This gives Sam Hurley a bright idea. He rings up Dr Garven (Richard Egan) and tells him to meet them at a spot he has chosen out in the desert where the doctor can patch up Bart Moore’s bullet wound. If he doesn’t turn up to the rendezvous Hurley will kill his wife. This will lead to another interesting plot twist.

Along the way they pick up (against their will) reporter Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) and dancer Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling) and they all end up in the secret hideout Hurley has cunningly arranged, in a ghost town known as Last Hope City. A ghost town that just happens to be more or less Ground Zero for the atom bomb test. They are going to have to be out of Last Hope City before 6 am or they’re going to be reduced to radioactive ash.

One more character is added to the mix when grizzled old prospector Asa Tremaine (Athur Hunnicut) shows up.

It’s naturally a more than slightly tense atmosphere at the hideout and to make things more complicated Kay Garven suddenly decides that she thinks bad boys like Sam Hurley are incredibly sexy.

The atmosphere just keeps on getting more tense. Time is running out, the clock is ticking on that big ole atom bomb, but Hurley can’t go anywhere without his buddy Bart (the only true friend he’s ever had) and Bart isn’t going anywhere unless he gets medical attention real soon and Dr Garven still hasn’t shown up.

Everyone is getting jumpy and the hostages are wondering whether Sam Hurley has any intention of allowing them to leave the place alive. So they start thinking about their options. Those options are very very limited but if they don’t do something their prospects are even grimmer. It now becomes a psychological thriller as we find out just how these people will behave under extreme stress. Some will behave bravely. Some will behave foolishly. Some will behave cynically. Some will behave very badly indeed.

While there’s plenty of suspense as the clock keeps ticking this is mostly a character-driven piece. Fortunately it has a good cast and they all do well. There’s some overacting but this is a very melodramatic so that works out just fine and when they overact they do it well. Alexis Smith in particular does some powerhouse scenery-chewing.

Given the setup, with an atomic bomb about to explode, the challenge was to make the ending exciting enough to justify the buildup. That challenge is met very effectively and very neatly.

Odeon Entertainment’s all-region DVD is barebones (apart from a trailer) but it’s cheap and it provides a very good transfer. The film has also been released in the Warner Archive made-on-demand series.

Split Second is a bit of an oddity and its claims to being film noir are a little shaky but it’s a nifty little movie and it’s highly recommended.

Friday, January 5, 2018

First Love (1939)

Deanna Durbin was already a very big star indeed when she made First Love for Universal in 1939. In fact she was so big a star that she was practically keeping Universal afloat single-handedly. Robert Stack on the other hand was making his film debut and this movie would make him a star.

First Love is a reworking of Cinderella. Connie Harding (Durbin) is an orphan. After graduating from boarding school she is sent to New York to live with her aunt and uncle. It’s immediately obvious that the household revolves around her cousin Barbara (Helen Parrish). Barbara is not the ugly stepsister, She’s the beautiful glamorous cousin but that turns out to be just as bad if not worse. Barbara gets everything she wants. She is spoilt, vain and shallow.

Connie is not exactly made to feel wanted. Barbara ignores her unless she has some errand for Connie to run. Barbara’s mother Grace (Leatrice Joy) is not an unpleasant person, she simply isn’t interested in anything much apart from astrology and her wonderful daughter. Uncle Jim (Eugene Pallette) makes a point of never being at home at the same time as his wife and daughter. Barbara’s brother Walter (Lewis Howard) is cynical and lazy but basically harmless and with a rather realistic view of his family.

Since this is Cinderella there is of course a ball. And of course it looks like Connie won’t get to go, until her Fairy Godmother steps in. She doesn’t actually have a Fairy Godmother  but she does have the household staff who took an immediate liking to her and they turn out to be every bit as useful as an actual Fairy Godmother. She does go to the ball and she gets to dance with a handsome prince. The prince is Ted Drake (Robert Stack) and while he might not be a real prince he’s rich handsome and charming and he’s as close to a prince as you’ll find in New York City.

But of course at midnight Cinderella must leave the ball, leaving behind her only a slipper. It’s not much of a clue but Ted Drake is determined to find that slipper’s owner.

Charming is the word that seems to be most often used to describe Deanna Durbin. Maybe she wasn’t the world’s greatest actress but her performance here is more than capable. She handles the light comedy with ease and she makes Connie sympathetic without sentimentality. Connie is of course supposed to be totally overshadowed by her more beautiful more glamorous cousin and Durbin manages to convey this without making Connie dull or earnest. In fact Connie might not be a glamour queen but she is likeable and amusing.

I wouldn’t describe Durbin as a stunning beauty but she has a wholesome Girl Next Door prettiness.

Robert Stack is so unbelievably young I didn’t recognise him at first (he was all of twenty when he made this picture). He does the Prince Charming thing with a pleasing natural ease.

The supporting cast is superb. Barbara is a nasty piece of work and Helen Parrish has a great deal of fun with the role. Uncle Jim turns out to be the worm that finally turns and Eugene Pallette is delightful. Charles Coleman is very good as the loveable butler George. It’s really unfair to single anyone out though since they’re all so good.

This is not really a musical. It’s a romantic comedy with some musical interludes. The musical interludes are not necessary but since Deanna Durbin was a noted singer it would have been pretty silly not to give her the chance to sing a few songs, which she does rather nicely.

Henry Koster directed quite a few of Durbin’s films and apparently acted as the young star’s mentor. He can’t be faulted for the job he does here.

The romance is certainly there but it’s also genuinely very amusing. It follows the Cinderella story surprisingly closely and it does so with wit and style.

Simply Media’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is good. This movie is also available on DVD in Region 1 as part of Universal’s Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack boxed set.

First Love is very much a feelgood movie. It’s funny and clever and it’s insanely romantic. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 1, 2018

classic movie viewing highlights for 2017

I didn’t get to see a huge number of classic movies this year buy among those I did see these were the highlights:

Rhythm on the River. A delightful 1940 musical with Bing Crosby exercising his easy-going charm to great effect.

The Man in Grey. An outrageous 1943 British melodrama with James Mason and Margaret Lockwood in sizzling form.

Madonna of the Seven Moons. An even more outrageous and rather bizarre 1945 British melodrama.

The Long Memory. A superb noir-tinged 1953 British crime thriller with John Mills giving a very dark  and very powerful performance.

Valley of the Kings. A top-notch action adventure thriller from 1954 with Robert Taylor as a daring archaeologist.

The Vicious Circle. Highly entertaining 1957 British mystery thriller with some neat plot twists and turns.

The White Trap. Superb 1959 British crime thriller B-feature with a hint of noir.

The Naked Truth. Wonderful British comedy with Terry-Thomas in sparkling form.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Pearl of Death (1944)

The Pearl of Death is one of the most admired of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes movies, and rightly so. It was released in 1944, and produced and directed by Roy William Neill.

It was based, very very loosely indeed, on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Six Napoleons.

The Pearl of Death begins with Sherlock Holmes giving an impressive demonstration of his genius as a detective. This is, alas, immediately followed by one of the biggest blunders of his career, one that threatens to tarnish his reputation in the eyes of the nation. The blunders is the direct result of Holmes’ overwhelming ego.

The subject of this embarrassing mistake is the famed Borgia Pearl, fabulously valuable but with a very evil reputation. Holmes is certain that criminal mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander) is behind the theft. Conover is certainly a worthy opponent for Holmes - he is clever and he is exceptionally ruthless.

The ruthlessness soon becomes evident with the first in what will be a series of horrifying murders. The victims have had their backs broken. Not surprisingly Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is totally at sea and is not even prepared to admit that the first murder really is a murder. Holmes however already has a shrewd idea how the murders were committed but the motives remain completely opaque. Nonetheless there are certain indications that lead the Great Detective to believe that the murders are linked to the theft of the notorious pearl.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are in sparkling form. Rathbone gets to sport a number of disguises. In fact disguise plays a particularly crucial role in this story with the villains making very effective use of the technique. This gives the studio’s resident make-up genius Jack Pierce plenty of useful employment.

The most notable of the trio of evildoers is Miles Mander as Conover. Conover might not be quite in the Professor Moriarty class but he’s still a fine villain, convincingly intellectual and also convincingly (but subtly) depraved, and oddly seedy as well. Rondo Hatton, who built a brief film career on personal misfortune (he was horribly disfigured by acromegaly), makes a brief but terrifying appearance as the dreaded Creeper. The third member of the criminal triumvirate  is, perhaps surprisingly, Universal’s popular scream queen Evelyn Ankers as the clever and dangerous Naomi Drake. Ankers handles the role reasonably well.

Dennis Hoey is even more blustering, and even more ineffectual, than usual as Inspector Lestrade.

As is usual in the case of the best movies in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes cycle there’s some low-key but effective spooky atmosphere especially when the Creeper puts in his appearance. Cinematographer Virgil Miler was quite adept at this sort of thing while by now director Roy William Neill knew exactly what the studio required of him and he knew how to deliver the goods.

The comic relief is kept to a minimum this time although Nigel Bruce still gets a few amusing moments and Basil Rathbone gets to mock poor Lestrade rather unmercifully.

The transfer (in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection DVD boxed set) is excellent and there are a few extras, including production notes courtesy of Richard Valley.

The Scarlet Claw is usually considered to be the best of all the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies with The Pearl of Death being the second best. From my memories of seeing The Scarlet Claw some years back (I really do need to watch it again) I’d tend to go along with that. The Pearl of Death certainly has no difficulty in living up to its glowing reputation. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Mr Moto’s Gamble (1938)

Mr Moto’s Gamble is the weakest of the Mr Moto films but it does have an interesting story behind, a story that does a great deal to explain why this movie doesn’t quite work.

Mr Moto’s Gamble started life as an entry in Fox’s hugely successful Charlie Chan series. It was going to be a boxing mystery entitled Charlie Chan at the Ringside. Unfortunately by this time the star of the Chan series, Warner Oland, was beginning to have a few problems. He was drinking and his marriage was breaking up. He was forgetting his lines and he was becoming temperamental. On the first day of shooting in January 1938 he walked off the set. Having been persuaded to continue the film, he walked off the set again. He insisted that production be moved to a different sound stage. Finally he walked off the set for a third time, never to return. This was, sadly, to be the end of his career (in August of that year he passed away).

Oland’s departure left Fox with a problem. They had a script that everybody was happy with. They had the sets ready to go. Some footage had already been shot. The studio was reluctant simply to scrap the film. The solution they came up with was to turn Charlie Chan at the Ringside into a Mr Moto film. They had already made two Mr Moto movies which had been extremely successful. It all seemed like a good idea.

The trouble was that Charlie Chan and Mr Moto are very different characters, and the Chan and Moto movies have an entirely different flavour. Mr Moto is not a straightforward detective. In the novels by John P. Marquand (which I highly recommend) Moto is a Japanese spymaster. In the movies he becomes an Interpol agent but it’s still quite clear that Moto is a man with connections in the intelligence community (in fact he probably has connections in the intelligence communities of several different countries). Mr Moto does not investigate routine murder cases. His cases either involve espionage in some form or at the very least they have some hint of international intrigue to them. Mr Moto is a slightly mysterious figure and there’s a touch of ambiguity to his character. He is also something of an action hero, and he can be quite ruthless. In other words he’s nothing at all  like Charlie Chan and the Mr Moto movies are nothing like the Chan movies.

The problem here is that Mr Moto’s Gamble has a plot that is very much a Charlie Chan sort of plot. The whole movie still feels like a Chan movie. And Mr Moto just doesn’t quite fit in. Peter Lorre as Moto tries hard but he’s just not given enough Mr Moto type things to do and his performance falls just a little bit flat.

Another legacy of the film’s origin is the presence in the cast of Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s son Lee! This also doesn’t quite work out. When Mr Moto is on a case he is the quintessential loner. Given the types of cases he usually deals with this is understandable - he has to play his cards very close to his chest. Moto has absolutely no need whatsoever for a sidekick. In this movie he is given two. Not just Chan Junior but also a kleptomaniac ex-boxer turned trainee criminologist named Wellington (Maxie Rosenbloom). They both provide comic relief, and they provide too much of it, although Wellington’s kleptomania does at least play a role in the plot.

The plot involves a boxing match that may or may not have been rigged but that results in the death of one of the fighters. Moto immediately realises the death was no accident. It was murder. There were some huge and very suspicious bets placed on the fight, by a variety of crooked gamblers all of whom seem to be trying to double-cross each other. It’s not a bad story and would have made an excellent Chan film.

There is of course a romantic sub-plot, in fact a romantic triangle involving boxer Bill Steele (Dick Baldwin), spoilt rich girl Linda Benton (Jayne Regan) and feisty girl reporter Penny Kendall (Lynn Bari).

The supporting cast is quite strong and includes (in a very minor role) Lon Chaney Jr. Bernard Nedell impresses as a very smooth but sinister gambler.

Lynn Bari is probably the standout performer here. She’s lively and vivacious and she manages the feisty girl reporter thing without being irritating.

As I mentioned earlier Peter Lorre is hampered by the necessity of having to play Moto as if he’s Charlie Chan, and to make things worse he’s stuck with dialogue written for Chan.

The first two Mr Moto films were directed by Norman Foster. James Tinling directed Mr Moto’s Gamble and it lacks the style and pace of Foster’s efforts.

Fox’s DVD presentation is more than satisfactory. The transfer is extremely good. There’s a brief but fascinating featurette detailing the movie’s troubled production history.

Mr Moto’s Gamble is reasonably entertaining but it does not have the feel of a Moto film and hardcore Moto fans are likely to be a little disappointed. So this one is recommended, but with reservations.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Naked Truth (1957)

The Naked Truth (also known as Your Past Is Showing) is a 1957 British comedy and it’s a very good one. This one was recommended to me by a commenter to a previous post as being a particularly fine Terry-Thomas comedy, which indeed it is.

I was just a little bit put off when I discovered that Peter Sellers was also among the stars. Sellers is far from being one of my favourites. In fact he’s really not too bad in this one and luckily the rest of the cast is quite superb.

It’s a splendid idea. The smooth, charming but thoroughly unscrupulous Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price) publishes a scandalous gossip magazine but his main business is blackmail. Having dug up particularly embarrassing dirt on famous people he threatens to publish the results in his magazine, The Naked Truth. Most of his victims pay up but if they don’t it doesn’t really matter - he still makes money from them indirectly by publishing the details of their scandals in the magazine.

The scheme is cunningly organised in such a way as to make successful prosecution for blackmail almost impossible.

His latest victims include insurance executive Lord Marley (Terry-Thomas), popular television personality Wee Sonny Macgregor (Peter Sellers), detective story writer Flora Ransom (Peggy Mount) and young actress Melissa Wright (Shirley Eaton). As it happens the members of this latest crop of victims have one thing in common - they are not in a position to raise the money to pay Dennis off. Actually they have a second thing in common - they all (quite independently) decide to take drastic steps to deal with the blackmailer. All four will eventually come up with the same solution - murder.

Of course they turn out to be rather incompetent amateurs when it comes to murder. Their plans are ingenious but tend to misfire rather badly. If any of them had chosen the simple direct approach  to murder they might have succeeded but the simple direct approach does not occur to them.

At least they are incompetent murderers as individuals, but as a team they might well do better.

They find themselves having to master other crimes as well as the plot builds to a clever climax which even manages to involve an airship!

My reservations about Peter Sellers are similar to my reservations about Alec Guinness as a comic actor. Both seem to me to be too self-conscious and to be trying too hard and they’re often very clever without being especially funny. In this case though Sellers is reasonably amusing.

Terry-Thomas on the other hand is just about my favourite British comic of this period and he’s in dazzling form. This is Terry-Thomas in well-meaning likeable bungler mode rather than dastardly villain mode and this is the Terry-Thomas I prefer.

Peggy Mount is delightfully outrageous as the crime writer who is thrilled by the idea of carrying out a real murder and she gets fine support from Joan Sims as her incredibly nervous daughter who is a very unwilling but dutiful accomplice. Shirley Eaton proves herself to be more than capable when it comes to comedy and of course she adds a touch of glamour.

Dennis Price is a terribly underrated British actor of this era. His comic style was suave and understated which contrasts nicely with the bravura performances of the other stars.

Italian-born producer-director Mario Zampi helmed quite a few classic 1950s British comedies, and did so very effectively. Michael Pertwee’s record as a comedy screenwriter was equally distinguished and his script for The Naked Truth gives the fine cast just the right material to work with.

The Region 4 DVD which I saw (part of a three-movie Peter Sellers collection) is barebones but the transfer is quite satisfactory.

The Naked Truth delivers the comedic goods in fine style. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Two Letter Alibi (1961)

Two Letter Alibi (also released as Death and the Sky Above) is a pretty routine but enjoyable 1961 British crime melodrama.

Charles Hilary (Peter Williams) is estranged from his wife Louise (Ursula Howells). He wants to marry glamorous television presenter Kathy Forrester (Petra Davies) but Louise absolutely refuses to consider giving him a divorce. While Louise is a drunk and she certainly has boyfriends she assures Charles that it would be futile for him to try to divorce her - she has been very discreet in her love affairs. Their final meeting ends in a great deal of unpleasantness.

It is therefore very unfortunate for Charles when his wife is murdered. He is very obviously going to be the prime suspect, and it’s even more unfortunate that there is a great deal of quite convincing circumstantial evidence against him.

Charles continues to protest his innocence but the shadow of the gallows is looming ever closer. The case against him is so strong as to make the verdict in his trial virtually inevitable.

His big problem is that his alibi, while it might well be genuine, is flimsy and unconvincing and is very unlikely to impress a jury (it certainly doesn’t impress the police).

The only way out is clearly to find the real killer. The police regard the matter as closed so Kathy decides she’ll have to play amateur detective. Charles decides (wrongly) that the wisest thing for him to do is to run.

The first half of the movie is well-paced and really quite good. It gets bogged down in the middle. Courtroom scenes always seem like an easy to add drama but unless they’re handled with skill they can end up being slow and tedious, and sadly that’s the case here. Once the courtroom scenes are out of the way the plot kicks in again and things pick up.

Robert Lynn had a less than stellar career as a director in movies and television. He doesn’t quite manage to get the most out of the story. Some of the key dramatic moments don’t have the necessary impact.

Roger Marshall would go on to be one of the best television writers of the 60s and 70s and his screenplay here is more than serviceable.

The very short running time of just 57 minutes is a weakness. Some of the key plot elements, such as the alibi and the two-letter clue, really would have benefited from being fleshed out a bit and some of the dramatic scenes needed a bit more of a buildup.

Star Peter Williams doesn’t really have the charisma to carry this film although his performance is quite adequate. Petra Davies is solid enough as Kathy. Ursula Howells on the other hand gives her usual spirited performance as the spiteful wife Louise. Stratford Johns was a great character actor and he certainly knew how to play policeman (he spent most of the 60s playing them to great acclaim and with enormous success on British television) but as Superintendent Bates he’s rather subdued here and in any case he’s not given enough to do.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but it’s a nice transfer. The movie is black-and-white and in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Two Letter Alibi is one of the lesser British mystery thrillers of its era. It’s very low-key, maybe just a bit too low-key for its own good, but it’s a reasonably diverting time-killer. Worth a rental, or a purchase if you can pick it up very cheaply.