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.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Mandarin Mystery (1936)

The Mandarin Mystery is a 1936 murder mystery made by Republic Pictures and based on  the Ellery Queen detective novel The Chinese Orange Mystery

The screenplay is a very loose adaptation indeed of the novel. In fact, sadly, it has almost nothing to do with the novel.

A young woman named Josephine Temple arrives in New York with a stamp which she hopes to sell to noted philatelist Dr Kirk. The stamp, the famed Chinese Mandarin, just happens to be the most valuable stamp in the world, so valuable that the sale will set up Miss Temple and her parents for the rest of their lives.

Of course the stamp gets stolen, and by a stroke of good fortune crime novelist and amateur detective Ellery Queen is already on the scene. In fact he’s at the hotel and already has his eye on Miss Temple, for romantic rather than detectival reasons. Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department, is soon on hand as well.

The stamp gets stolen a few more times and there are a couple of murders. The first corpse is found with his coat on back-to-front, just like the fellow on the famous stamp (the explanation of the back-to-front clothing on the figure on the stamp is one of the more unconvincing elements in the screenplay).

The stamp is the key to the mystery, but the stamp is the only one of its kind in existence so it would be very difficult to sell. Why would anyone steal it? The explanation of this is another rather unconvincing element.

The novel has a wildly original and brilliantly conceived plot. So if you’re going to make a film from such a story what’s the first thing you do? Why of course you eliminate everything that is original and brilliant and substitute a predictable piece of third-rate hack work. That’s exactly the course that was followed in this case. Even worse, they kept a few of the clever ideas but changed them around so they were no longer clever and no longer made any sense.

Why does Hollywood so often insist on taking a perfectly good story and ruining it? Perhaps the theory is that if the source material was a very popular novel (as it was in this case) then many members of the audience would already have read the book and would therefore know the solution. So changing the plot out of all recognition would avoid this danger. On the other hand the audience for books has always been pretty small compared to the audience for movies so I don’t see such a strategy would be necessary.

I’m inclined to think it’s just the way Hollywood works. Too many people taking a hand in things and they all want to justify their involvement and the best way to do that is to change something even if it doesn’t need changing. There were four writers involved in this movie and that’s always an ominous sign.

Director Ralph Staub spent most of his career making shorts with only a handful of features in his résumé. Judging by this effort he should have stuck to shorts.

The movie is played for comedy and romance rather than being a serious murder mystery movie. Eddie Quillan plays Ellery Queen as an irritating loud-mouthed comic character rather than the slightly foppish upper-class aesthete that he is in the early Ellery Queen books. I guess it was figured that brash motor-mouths were more popular with the movie-going public.

Wade Boteler is OK as Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, although he’s a bit too big and beefy and obviously cop-like for my tastes (the character in the novels isn’t quite a stereotypical New York homicide cop). Franklin Pangborn contributes a typical Franklin Pangborn performance as the rather effete hotel manager. The other cast members are instantly forgettable.

The film is in the public domain and my copy comes from one of the Mill Creek 50-movie public domain sets (the Dark Crimes set which is actually quite worthwhile if you can find it for a good price). The image quality is poor and washed out and the sound quality is very iffy, but on the other hand at the price I paid for the set it worked out at about 26 cents a movie so I can’t complain. And it is watchable. It’s also been issued by Alpha Video but I suspect their release is every bit as bad - if you were contemplating paying $6 for the Alpha Video DVD you’d be better off paying $13 for the Mill Creek set and that way you get 49 other movies as well!

This is one of those movies that is much easier to enjoy if you haven’t read the book. If you fall into that category you’ll find this is just a stodgy uninspired second-rate B-feature. If you’ve read the book then the movie is an abomination. The Mandarin Mystery is not really particularly worth bothering with. The Mill Creek Dark Crimes DVD set is worth getting though - at 26 cents a movie it’s hard to beat for value if you don’t mind the fact that these are public domain films and the transfers are pretty rough. Actually 26 cents is about what The Mandarin Mystery is worth.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Salute the Toff (1952)

There were two British mystery thrillers made in the early 50s based on John Creasey’s popular Toff novels (reviewed here). Both were thought for many years to be lost films but a few years back Renown Pictures found prints of both films. The first Toff film, Salute the Toff, was originally released in early 1952 to be followed by Hammer the Toff later the same year.

The Toff is a character with some superficial resemblances to Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar. Both are heroes with a touch of the rogue to them, both are inclined not to worry too much about the letter of the law, both have a characteristic calling card which they use to gain a psychological edge over evil-doers and both are crusaders for justice. There are some crucial differences though. Simon Templar could move in the higher social circles but he was not technically speaking a gentleman. The Toff is very much the genuine article. He is actually the Honourable Richard Rollison, the son of a nobleman.

And Simon Templar is himself (in the eyes of the law at least) a crook and a thief, even if he only steals from other criminals. The Toff is quite at home in the criminal underworld but he is not a criminal.

While Simon Templar psychs out the bad guys by using his famous Saint stick figure as a calling card the Toff employs a drawing of a top hat for the same purpose.

Salute the Toff opens with Rollison becoming involved in what seems a very routine disappearance. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s a beautiful young woman who leads Rollison into the case. Fay Gretton (Carol Marsh) is worried about her boss, a young businessman named Draycott. He’s gone missing. 

Rollison agrees to go to Draycott’s flat to find out what’s going on. This will involve a spot of house-breaking but that’s no problem for The Toff. In Draycott’s flat he finds the young man lying dead.

It gradually emerges that there’s some kind of conspiracy and it may involve wealthy businessman Mortimer Harvey, or possibly Harvey may be the victim. Harvey’s beautiful but somewhat amoral daughter Phyllis may be mixed up in it and an old criminal foe of Rollison’s, a smooth thug named Lorne, seems likely to have a hand in the conspiracy.

The plot is nothing particularly special but it’s workmanlike and has enough twists to keep things fairly interesting.

Maclean Rogers was a journeyman director of quota quickies and similar low-budget fare but he proves himself to be competent enough. There’s a bit of location shooting, the highlight being some great scenes of early 50s London street life.

It’s the cast that makes this movie work so well. John Bentley made several Paul Temple films at this time but he doesn’t give us a mere retread of those performances. He makes Rollison convincingly upper-class but he does it with skill and subtlety. It’s a lively and likeable performance. Carol Marsh makes a charming heroine. Comic relief is provided by Rollison’s faithful and surprisingly useful gentleman’s gentleman Jolly (Roddy Hughes) and  his old friend, publican and boxing trainer Bert Ebbutt (Wally Patch). They’re not just annoying comic relief characters thrown in for no good reason. They both play worthwhile parts in the lot and the humour is nicely integrated with the plot line. Jolly in particular is a delightful character.

Renown’s DVD presentation is more than acceptable. The print is not pristine but it’s pretty good and considering that we’re lucky this film has survived at all there’s no cause for complaint.

Salute the Toff is a very decent little crime thriller. The low budget is no real problem. It’s a film that never looks cheap or shoddy. John Bentley’s sparkling performance is a major asset, the comic relief is never intrusive and while it reaches no great cinematic heights it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Its status as a once lost film adds extra interest. Recommended. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

the best classic movies I watched in 2016

I’ve been lucky in my choices of classic movies in the past year. Picking a top ten list proved to be too hard so I’ve gone for a top dozen. Here they are, with links to my reviews.

The Black Camel (Hamilton MacFadden, 1931) - so far my favourite Charlie Chan movie and it’s certainly the most ambitious.

Man on the Flying Trapeze (Clyde Bruckman, W.C. Fields, 1935) -  terrific W.C. Fields comedy.

Sweethearts (W.S. Van Dyke, Robert Z. Leonard, 1938) - charming Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musical.

Nocturne (Edwin L. Marin, 1946) - great hardboiled crime thriller starring George Raft, perhaps not absolutely noir if you’re a purist but an excellent movie.

Green for Danger (Sidney Gilliat, 1946) - superb English murder mystery with a dazzling performance from Alistair Sim.

Born To Kill (Robert Wise, 1947) - absolutely classic top-notch noir and there’s not the slightest doubt that this is noir. Strange, overheated and disturbing.

Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948) - an unusual and exceptionally interesting British gothic melodrama with a slight noir flavour to it.

Wide Boy (Ken Hughes, 1952) - a fine British noir with a splendid performance from the very underrated Sydney Tafler.

You Can’t Escape (Wilfred Eades, 1956) - British suspense thriller with some nifty plot twists.

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957) - delightful frothy Fred Astaire musical.

Jet Storm (Cy Endfield, 1959) - fine British aviation disaster movie.

The Third Alibi (Montgomery Tully, 1961) - excellent British mystery thriller.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Headline (1943)

Headline is a 1943 British crime film set against the backdrop of a big city news room. 

David Farrar is “Brookie” Brooks, ace crime reporter for The Sun. He’s under pressure from his news editor, the hardbitten L.B. Ellington (John Stuart), since Dell (a rather young-looking William Hartnell) of The Daily Record seems to keep beating him to scoops. Now a juicy murder story seems to offer Brookie the chance to steal a march on his rival but Brookie uncovers a piece of evidence that puts him in a difficult dilemma.

We know who the murderer is right from the start, and right from the start we also know that the Mystery Woman spotted at the scene of the crime is Ellington’s wife Margaret (Antoinette Cellier) so this is a suspense film rather than a mystery film.

The audience knows what is going on but most of the major characters don’t. For Brookie it’s just another story and at first it seems like Dell is going to come out on top yet again but Dell makes a fatal error. Arthur Jones (Richard Goolden) is a scatter-brained eccentric who likes to play at being an amateur sleuth. Every time a murder is committed he has a theory that will solve the case, but of course none of his theories actually work. Dell decides to play a bit of a joke on his rival by suggesting that Jones take his latest theory to Brookie at The Sun. This is a mistake because this time Jones really does have the solution.

While Brookie and Dell are frantically trying to out-scoop each other they’re not neglecting their love lives. Brookie’s girlfriend is Sun newspaperwoman Anne (Anne Crawford) but their romance faces one major obstacle - Brookie is already married, to his job, and he thinks it would be unfair to ask any woman to marry a reporter.

The romance angle and the rivalry between Brookie and Dell are treated in a breezy light-hearted manner and both these elements provide a certain amount of comic relief (comic relief being something William Hartnell was often called on to provide in his early film career).

There is however a more serious side to this movie and the suspense story is pretty effective with a nice twist at the end. There’s also a surprisingly serious and subtle treatment of newspaper ethics and it takes a slightly jaundiced view of the newspaper game.

David Farrar does the brash pushy reporter thing well and still manages to be a reasonably sympathetic character. William Hartnell (best remembered of course as the first Doctor Who) is delightfully unscrupulous and doesn’t overdo the comedic moments. Anne Crawford is charming and likeable. Antoinette Cellier is quite good also - Margaret Ellington is not exactly a femme fatale but there are perhaps hints of the femme fatale to her character. And she has the right touch of glamour.

John Harlow’s career as a director was far from glittering but he does a solid enough job here and there are one or two fairly atmospheric moments.

The script is very competent and the balance of humour, romance and suspense is just about right.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is typical of this company’s releases - there’s virtually nothing in the way of extras but the transfer is good and the price is reasonable.

Headline is basically a B-movie and it’s really rather lightweight but the well-executed and suspenseful ending makes it worthwhile and as a bonus the climactic action scene takes place on a train. You just can’t go wrong with train thrillers. On the whole this is an entertaining little movie, especially if you enjoy newspaper crime thrillers. Highly recommended. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Western Union (1941)

Western Union, made at 20th Century-Fox in 1941, was Fritz Lang’s second western. Lang, rather surprisingly, actually liked westerns a good deal. While his movies in this genre don’t attract the same critical plaudits as his exercises in film noir like Scarlet Street and The Big Heat they do tend to be interesting. Western Union is not as eccentric as Rancho Notorious but it’s a little unusual.

In 1861 Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line. It was an epic tale of adventure and danger. Well actually it wasn’t apparently, it was fairly uneventful, but  screenwriter Robert Carson took care of that little problem.

The movie opens with a chance meeting between Western Union’s chief engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) and Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott). Shaw is a bank robber on the run and he steals Creighton’s horse but just as he’s about to make his getaway successfully he realises that Creighton is badly injured. So he takes Creighton with him to seek medical help. 

Creighton owes Shaw his life and he soon gets a chance to repay his debt. Although he knows Shaw is an outlaw he gives him a job with the company as scout. It’s a vital job since the telegraph is going to be laid through some mighty hostile country. Trusting Shaw is a gamble, but will it pay off?

The third of the movie’s stars is Robert Young who plays a dapper tenderfoot from the East named Richard Blake who’s not quite such a helpless fool as he first appears.

The film’s love interest is provided by Virginia Gilmore as Creighton’s sister Sue who soon finds herself with two ardent suitors in the persons of Blake and Shaw.

John Carradine plays a supporting role as the company’s genial but cynical doctor and he steals every scene he’s in.

The screenplay throws in a few unexpected twists. Attacks by hostile Indians provide the biggest hazard faced by the crew building the telegraph line, although that’s what appears to be going on but in fact things are not at all what they seem.

The movie was supposedly based on a novel by Zane Grey but in fact it has little in common with the novel beyond the title.

The movie was shot in Technicolor and it really does have an epic feel. There are two action climaxes coming one on top of another at the end and both are impressive. Opinions seem to vary quite a bit on the final action sequence with some people believing that Lang made a hash of it whilst others believe he handled it perfectly. I fall into the second camp. It works for me.

Opinions on the film as a whole also diverge sharply. It’s a movie that changes gears dramatically in the last half-hour. The first hour is quite light-hearted but then the mood darkens significantly, and becomes quite overtly Langian. I think that makes the latter part of the film more effective - it comes as a shock when we realise just how completely trapped the hero is.

While I mentioned the three main stars earlier in actual fact the movie belongs totally to Randolph Scott. By 1941 he had already perfected his minimalist approach to acting and it serves him very well. Robert Young is, surprisingly, quite good. Dean Jagger drew the short straw and got the least interesting of the three main roles but he’s solid enough. Virginia Gilmore is charming.

This is the story of a great feat of engineering, and it’s a love triangle, but the only real plot strand that matters is the one involving Vance Shaw and it’s handled well enough to qualify this as one of the first great classic westerns.

Western Union is a fine movie, visually very impressive, and is highly recommended.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Black Camel (1931)

Made by the Fox Film Corporation in 1931 The Black Camel is apparently the earliest of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies to survive (although it’s not the earliest surviving Charlie Chan movie). It’s also interesting as being one of the few Charlie Chan films to be set in the famous detective’s home town, Honolulu, and one of the few in which we get to see Charlie’s entire family.

Movie star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) is in Hawaii to shoot a picture. She’s also just about to marry the rich and handsome Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr). She hasn’t actually said yes to him yet - first she has to consult her psychic advisor Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi). There may be a reason why she can’t marry her young man.

Also on the island at this time is Shelah’s first husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi). She’s arranged to meet him, for reasons unknown.

Shelah’s friend Julie (Sally Eilers) seems to have some idea as to the reason Shelah may not be able to marry Alan Jaynes). She knows that Shelah has a secret from the past.

Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police is already on the scene. He’s also interested in events in the past but soon he’s going to be distracted by events in the present when a murder takes place.

Apart from the characters already mentioned there are several other possible suspects including a down-and-out artist, a sinister butler, a mysterious maid and a couple of pompous movie people.

Yet another unusual feature of this movie is that it’s based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ actual Charlie Chan novels (although I have no idea how much resemblance it has to the novel apart from the title). It’s a decent moderately complicated murder mystery plot with a few good twists.

I’m rather fond of mystery plots involving show business or the world of movies and this one has the nice combination of Hollywood glamour (and a little decadence) with the exotic location. 

This is of course the Honolulu of 1931, still a true unspoilt tropical paradise, a far cry from the Honolulu of today. And there’s actual location footage, actually shot in Hawaii. 

This was in fact a more expensive and more ambitious film than the later Chan films made after Fox became part of 20th Century-Fox. It’s also visually quite impressive overall, with the fortune-telling scene between Tarneverro and Shelah being very moody and very atmospheric.

Warner Oland had already played Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On (one of several Chan movies that are tragically now lost). While I’m quite fond of the Sidney Toler Chan films it has to be admitted that Oland is overall the best of the many actors to play the great Chinese detective. In general Toler’s slightly harder-edged performance is perhaps closer to the Chan of Earl Derr Biggers’ novels so it’s interesting that in this film Oland gives us a Chan who is spikier and more forceful and more cop-like compared to his performances in later movies in the series.

Of course there has to be some comic relief and it comes in the form of Charlie’s Japanese side-kick Kashimo (Otto Kamaoka), an insanely energetic and enthusiastic  if not overly competent Honolulu PD junior detective. The good news is that he’s actually funny. It’s a performance you could never get away with today, but then you could never get away with making the Charlie Chan movies today either.

The supporting cast is solid with Robert Young as Julie’s boyfriend Jimmy being marginally less hyperactive than usual.

Bela Lugosi is perfectly cast as the enigmatic psychic Tarneverro. It’s a fairly restrained performance by Lugosi but a very effective one.

20th Century-Fox spent a lot of money restoring the Chan films for their DVD boxed set releases and it was money well spent. The Black Camel looks pretty good. There are a number of extras including an audio commentary track with film critic Ken Hanke and film historian John Cork.

The Black Camel is fine B-movie entertainment with the added bonus of a slight hint (a very slight hint) of the supernatural. In fact it’s definitely one of the very best of the Chan movies. And you get Bela Lugosi as well. Very highly recommended.