Saturday, December 29, 2012

Stark Fear (1962)

Stark Fear1Stark Fear is an odd little movie, but then I like odd little movies. Something Weird have released this one in a Weird Noir boxed set, and weird noir is probably a good description of it. Weird noir with a touch of rural horror and psychological horror.

This low-budget independent production was made in 1962, and it could also be described as sleaze noir.

Ellen Winslow (Beverly Garland) has just taken a job with successful businessman Cliff Kane (Kenneth Tobey). This sends her husband Gerry (Skip Homeier) into a rage. There are several reasons for this rage, as we will later discover. Gerry is a failure at business and Ellen has taken the job because it’s the only way to pay the bills. Gerry not only reacts with complete excessive and psychotic anger, he also demands a divorce.

Ellen ends up taking the job and it’s soon obvious that there is an attraction between her and Cliff. But Ellen can’t get over the dutiful wife thing ad when she finds out that Gerry has disappeared and is about to be fired she sets out to find him and save him. She makes several surprising discoveries. Gerry has some very disreputable friends she knew nothing about. And he didn’t come from Pennsylvania after all. He came from some two-horse town in the south somewhere.

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Ellen’s visit to Gerry’s home town proves to be a big mistake (one of many big mistakes she will make in the course of this movie). She meets Gerry’s best friend, who promptly rapes her. Before doing this he tells her about Gerry’s Mom. Gerry clearly has very big Mom issues.

She does find Gerry, and he begins a campaign to wreck her life and to psychologically torture her. It turns out that there’s a long-standing enmity between Gerry and Cliff Kane, which is yet another factor driving Gerry’s hatred.

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As if Ellen didn’t have enough problems, her best friend Ruth is a social worker. As you’d expect, Ruth’s advice is contradictory and confused. Ruth herself is bitter over an old love affair that didn’t work out.

Even though Cliff Kane is obviously a pretty nice guy and even though he obviously loves her, Ellen keeps pushing him away and keeps wanting to patch things up with Gerry. Ellen may be the dumbest noir protagonist ever. She just can’t see that Gerry is bad news. He’s not just an embittered loser - there is clearly some bad craziness going on in Gerry’s head. And Gerry’s hatred for women is so blindingly obvious that you can’t help wondering why Ellen can’t see it. Ellen just gets herself deeper and deeper into trouble.

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Beverly Garland was a pretty successful actress in the 50s, in both movies and television, and although the role is a rather thankless one (Ellen being the perennial victim) her performance is very good and she manages to keep us interested in Ellen’s fate. Skip Homeier makes a very creepy psycho indeed.

There are some very effective scenes in the Juke Museum in Gerry’s home town, scenes that give the movie a decidedly weird and even surreal ambience. All of the scenes in Gerry’s home town are genuinely terrifying. It’s a nightmare experience to rival that of the hapless school teacher in the Australian classic Wake in Fright.

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This movie is one of six in Something Weird’s weird noir DVD set. The transfer is not great, with a lot of print damage. Sound quality is generally atrocious with all kinds of extraneous noise, although the dialogue is still understandable.

Stark Fear is a combination of what might be called women’s noir but with hints of other genres including the psycho genre (it’s no coincidence that it came out two years after Hitchcock’s Psycho). It also belongs to the “when city folk find themselves in the sticks bad bad things happen to them” sub-genre. Despite its faults it’s undeniably fascinating and perversely entertaining. This one is worth a look.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Married a Witch (1942)

I Married a Witch2In 17th century England a witch and her father, a notorious sorcerer, are burnt at the stake. The witch vows revenge on the family of the man whose evidence led to her condemnation. It sounds like the set-up for a classic horror movie, but in fact I Married a Witch is a light-hearted romantic comedy. And it’s a delight from start to finish.

The witch is named Jennifer and is played by Veronica Lake. Her curse is than the men of the Wooley family will never be happy in marriage. And so it proves through the ages. Meanwhile the witch and her father are imprisoned inside an oak tree that was planted on their grave for that purpose. Then in 1941 lightning hits the oak tree and they are released. They are disembodied spirits, taking the shape of puffs of smoke. The father (played with gusto by Cecil Kellaway) casts a spell to allow her to take human form again, so she can wreak her vengeance on the latest descendant of the Wooley family, aspiring politician Wallace Wooley (Fredric March).

Wallace Wooley is running for governor. He is about to be married to Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward). Jennifer is delighted to hear this since Estelle seems like the sort of woman who would make any man’s life a nightmare. But Jennifer wants to make sure of torturing Wallace Wooley, so she gets her father to whip up a love potion so he’ll fall in love with her. Unfortunately in all the excitement of escaping from the burning building (fire being necessary to allow her to take human shape) she drinks the love potion by mistake.

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So now Jennifer is madly in love with Wallace Wooley. Only she doesn’t want to make his life a misery; she wants to be a good wife and to make him happy. Her father is disgusted by this and plans to throw a spanner in the works, if only he can stay sober long enough to remember the words of the spells he needs to effect his purpose. But he can’t stay sober long enough to do anything.

Wallace gets lots of good publicity from apparently rescuing Jennifer from the burning hotel, but Estelle is not very pleased about the sudden appearance of this blonde bombshell. Even before the wedding she’s starting to make Wallace miserable. The wedding was mostly a pre-election publicity stunt and Wallace doesn’t seem all that much in love with her. Making Wallace love her shouldn’t be difficult for Jennifer but she doesn’t have much time, the wedding being scheduled for the next day.

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There are various complications along the way but it’s obvious that Wallace is starting to fall for Jennifer. The resulting scandal will doom his election hopes, but Jennifer assures him that she can use witchcraft to make him win the election. She’s told him that she’s a witch, but of course he doesn’t believe it. Not yet. He will soon however have ample proof.

This is essentially screwball comedy with a supernatural flavour and the combination works perfectly. I’ve never been a fan of Fredric March in comic roles (or in any roles for that matter) but I have to admit he’s not bad in this movie. Veronica Lake shows a natural flair for comedy and has plenty of fun as the lovestruck witch. March and Lake develop a pretty good romantic chemistry.

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Cecil Kellaway hams it up as her father. Susan Hayward has a thankless role with which she can do little.

In the director’s chair is René Clair and he handles proceedings with skill. The movie powers through its short 77-minute running at a frantic pace and there’s never time to be bored. He has a light touch and makes the most of an amusing screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly.

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Blackhorse Entertainment’s Region 2 lacks extras but it looks reasonably good if not spectacular.

I Married a Witch is delightful lightweight entertainment and can be highly recommended. It’s a particular treat for fans of Veronica Lake, offering her one of her best comedic roles.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

season's greetings

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Clara Bow looks like she has lots of Christmas presents, and I hope all my regular readers have just as many. Season’s greetings!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Heat Wave (1954)

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Heat Wave (the original British title was The House Across the Lake), released in 1954, was another of the early 1950s co-productions between Hammer Films and Lippert Films. All were low-budget crime movies with a hint of film noir.

Of all Hammer’s film noir output Heat Wave has perhaps the strongest claim to being pure film noir rather than a noirish crime thriller. It has flashbacks and voiceover narration, it has light filtered through venetian blinds, it has hardboiled dialogue (the hero wants to escape from “fast women and slow gin”), it has a femme fatale, it has an air of sleaze and desperation.

Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol) is an American novelist living in England. He’s not a hugely successful writer but he makes a decent enough living. He’s writing his latest novel in a house by a lake. It’s not a fabulous life but it’s all he has ever known and he’s used to it. Until he meets Carol.

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Carol Forrest (Hillary Brooke) rings him one night. She needs somebody with a boat to bring some guests to a party. And that’s how he first comes to High Wray. High Wray is owned by Carol’s husband, Beverly (Sid James). Mark doesn’t take long to figure out how it is at High Wray. Carol is the trophy wife of a rich man and she’s easily bored. When she gets bored she needs amusement. Her favoured form of amusement is men.

Beverly knows all about it. He’s not happy about it, but he doesn’t see that there’s very much he can do about it. His daughter Andrea (Susan Stephen), Carol’s step-daughter, is even less happy about the situation, but there’s not much she can do about it either.

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Carol’s latest amusement is pianist Vince. Their affair is very open, much to Mark’s disgust. Adding to his disgust is that he can’t help admitting to himself that he’s attracted to Carol. Women are his weakness. Especially blondes like Carol.

Beverly and Mark get along very well. Mark can sense Beverly’s loneliness and he likes him. He has no desire to betray his new friend, but he knows in his own mind that he will anyway. Mark has a high tolerance for self-disgust and he is helpless when faced by women like Carol.

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While Beverly is prepared to overlook Carol’s affairs and to finance her extravagant tastes while he is alive, he’s not prepared to do so after he’s dead. He intends to cut Carol out of his will almost entirely. His thoughts have turned to such matters because he knows he doesn’t have much time left. He has a heart condition and the doctors have given him a year to live if he keeps away from the booze and the cigarettes which of course he has no intention of doing.

You can see where this is leading and the plot is not exactly an original one. But film noir doesn’t requite originality; what it requires is atmosphere, and style. And this movie has enough atmosphere and enough style to get by.

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Alex Nicol does the noir hero thing quite well. Like any good noir hero he is tempted by the femme fatale and he succumbs to the temptation, and like any good noir hero his personality is a mixture of weakness, self-pity and self-loathing. Hillary Brooke plays the femme fatale role like a pro. Both Nicol and Brooke were American, giving this movie even more of a transatlantic flavour than most Hammer noirs.

Sid James, as so often in his early movies, plays the supporting role and steals the picture. This is a good meaty role for him and he relishes it, demonstrating that his talents extended well beyond comedy. He makes it impossible not to like Beverly and he carefully avoids self-pity. Despite the betrayals of his wife and his friend we can’t being ourselves to despise Beverly. He’s a decent man and he faces life’s sick little jokes with stoicism. And with whisky.

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Ken Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own novel and also directed. Walter J. Harvey was responsible for the cinematography and both he and Hughes were clearly influenced by the style of American crime movie that we now refer to as film noir. The movie has the accepted noir look and the accepted noir feel. The whole thing has a very American feel to it.

VCI’s DVD is typical of all their Hammer Film Noir releases - not much in the way of extras but you get two films both presented in fairly good transfers. VCI certainly deliver value for money with this series. They’re absurdly cheap and they offer the opportunity of a quick introduction to the very interesting world of British 1950s crime B-movies.

If you’re prepared to accept Heat Wave as an unpretentious B-movie that isn’t trying to be anything else then there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Swing High, Swing Low (1937)

Swing High Swing LowI’ve enjoyed all the Carole Lombard-Fred MacMurray screwball comedies that I’ve seen (and I've seen most of them) but I must confess that Swing High, Swing Low came as something of a surprise. This is not a standard screwball comedy but an odd mix of genres. It’s not a complete success but it’s certainly not without interest.

Released by Paramount in 1937 the movie certainly starts out in screwball comedy territory. Maggie King (Carole Lombard) is on a ship passing through the Panama Canal, on her way to meet her future husband. She meets Skid Johnson, a soldier and part-time trumpet player. In true romantic comedy fashion she dislikes him at first. And she hates the trumpet. The trumpet can never be romantic. Skid takes this as a challenge and proceeds to prove to her that the trumpet can indeed by romantic, and in the process he wins her heart. Unfortunately he also gets her mixed up in a bar-room brawl and as a result she misses her ship. She’s now stranded in Panama.

Skid’s pal Harry (Charles Butterworth) assures that that there’s no problem. She can move in with them. She can have the bedroom; they’ll bed down in the living room. Their living quarters betray the fact that this is the abode of two bachelors. Maggie sets about cleaning up the place. She also sets about changing Skid’s life. She persuades him to get a job (he’s now left the army) playing trumpet in Murphy’s Bar. They turn out to be a very successful double act. She’s not the world’s greatest singer but Skid is a dynamite trumpet player.

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The only fly in the ointment is an old girlfriend of Skid’s, Anita Alvarez (Dorothy Lamour). Nonetheless Skid and Maggie are soon married and everything is going great. That is until Skid’s success throws a spanner into the works. He is offered a job playing at the prestigious El Greco club in New York. His new agent tells her that they only want Skid, but not to worry, he’ll go to New York alone and send for her later.

Up till now it’s been classic screwball comedy all the way, with Lombard and MacMurray delightful as always and getting some fine support from Charles Butterworth (one of those wonderful character actors who enlivens any film he appears in). But now the movie changes gears abruptly and dramatically.

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From this point on there will be no more laughs as the movie heads into romantic melodrama territory. Skid is a big success in New York but he achieves his success as part of a double act with Anita Alvarez. Alvarez’s scheming is intended to break up Skid’s marriage and it doesn’t take long for her efforts to succeed. Maggie is forgotten as Skid and Anita live the high life in the Big Apple. Finally Maggie can stand it no longer and she heads off for New York.

What she finds will shatter her dreams. She rings Anita’s hotel room in the middle of the night and Skid answers the phone. She draws the obvious conclusion and files for divorce.

Skid hadn’t really meant to abandon Maggie, but he’s a rather weak character and having a wife just sort of slipped his mind.

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Maggie’s filing for divorce hits Skid hard and he turns to the bottle. He goes from the top of the pile to the bottom. Soon he’s a hopeless alcoholic, broke and out of work and wishing only for oblivion. He has one last chance, a radio broadcast that had been arranged weeks earlier. No-one believes that this down-and-out drunk will even be able to stand up much less play the trumpet. Only one thing can save him, and that’s Maggie. But will she give him another chance?

The switch from light-hearted romantic comedy to tragic romantic melodrama is very abrupt, perhaps too abrupt. Lombard and MacMurray excelled at comedy but neither was known for their abilities as dramatic performers (although MacMurray would of course go on to play dramatic roles with considerable success in the 40s). They handle the change of pace surprisingly well, in fact well enough to save the movie from disaster. The movie’s biggest asset proves to be the excellent cast.

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Lombard did her own singing in this movie and she proves herself to be reasonably capable. The duet she does with MacMurray on trumpet, I Hear a Call To Arms, is in many ways the core of the movie expressing as it does their love in good times and in bad. As well as being a comedy and a drama this is also a musical and the musical numbers are pretty good, Dorothy Lamour’s spirited rendition of Panamania being a highlight. The musical content should come as no great surprise since the screenplay was co-written by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II.

Mitchell Leisen directs with his customary assurance.

Swing High, Swing Low has fallen into the public domain and although it’s easy enough to find copies finding a decent print is virtually impossible. This is an odd but interesting little movie and it really deserves to be rescued from this neglect and given a good DVD release. Despite its schizophrenic nature this movie is definitely worth a look.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Scarface Mob (1959)

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In 1959 Desilu launched its new TV series The Untouchables with a two-part episode The Scarface Mob. The two parts were later combined for a theatrical release so it’s an appropriate subject for a classic movie blog. It can in fact be judged, and judged quite favourably, as film noir. The episode was directed by Phil Karlson, a man who needs no introduction to film noir fans, being responsible for noir classics like Kansas City Confidential.

The Scarface Mob deals with Eliot Ness’s battle to destroy the criminal empire of Al Capone. It was based on the book by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley and it appears that  while Ness’s contribution was accurate enough Fraley fictionalised the final book quite a bit. Nonetheless it’s a gripping documentary-style account of crime-fighting in the days of Prohibition. Eliot Ness was a Prohibition agent who assembled a small team of honest Federal agents who could be relied upon to to be immune from bribery. The Federal government pursued a double campaign against Capone. While they collected evidence to convict the famed mobster on income tax evasion charges Ness and his men would conduct a campaign of harassment, raiding Capone’s breweries and distilleries and cutting deep into his revenues.

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This production has a rather dark tone with the Federal agents facing many setbacks and often paying a high price for their successes. Even the ending is slightly downbeat, emphasising that the battle against organised crime was far from won. In fact it has very much the feel of film noir, with its emphasis on corruption and with a major character (and a very likeable one) being killed off (a risk you certainly don’t expect to see taken in a 1950s American TV program). Both writer Paul Monash and director Phil Karlson approach the material in a manner that seems much closer to 1940s and 1950s crime movies than to television.

It’s also rather violent for a TV production with many shootouts filmed in a fairly brutal style. It’s interesting to compare this production with earlier gangster movies that had dealt with Capone. Capone here is a vicious thug and there’s no attempt at all to humanise him.

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Eliot Ness would have been an ideal subject for a film noir. He was scrupulously honest but he managed to make a tragic mess of his life, ironically (given that he’d been a Prohibition agent) due to his fondness for the booze. That weakness is not touched on here but Ness does come across as a surprisingly vulnerable hero and he’s certainly no superman - he loses as many battles against Capone as he wins. Robert Stack’s performance became rather iconic as the series progressed and established itself as a television classic and in this opening episode he makes an effective hero with a fair degree of complexity. He’s obsessed and when he loses it hurts.

Keenan Wynn provides fine support as an ex-con turned crime-fighter who becomes Ness’s only really close friend. Barbara Nichols goes delightfully over-the-top as stripper Brandy LaFrance (and some of the scenes of her act are remarkably risque for 1959).

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This is no glamourised view of the Jazz Age. This is a world of corruption and violence. It’s very much a film noir world and the style is gritty, violent and sleazy. Tragedy and death stalk this world and even Ness’s famous Untouchables can’t always protect you from this world. It’s a world in which crime often does pay handsomely and in which there is no guarantee that justice will prevail.

The sets and costumes look great and the production looks far more expensive than you’d expect from a television series. Desilu obviously had high hopes for this series and they pulled out all the stops to make it look impressive.

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This opening episode is included on the first disc of the Region 4 Untouchables boxed set and includes introductions to the two parts of the episode by Walter Winchell and Desi Arnaz (head honcho of Desilu). Picture and sound quality are both very good.

Don’t expect historical accuracy but with that minor caveat this is really a must-see for film noir fans as well as fans of classic American television at its best. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Silk Stockings (1957)

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Silk Stockings marks the end of an era. It is one of the very last of the great MGM musicals, made in 1957 at a time when the studio system as it had existed since the silent era was already collapsing. It was one of the last productions of the famed Arthur Freed musical unit at MGM (Freed’s last production would be Gigi in 1958), and marks the swan song of the great musical star of them all, Fred Astaire (Astaire would make many more pictures, but no more musicals).

And it is a great musical. Re-uniting the very successful team of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and with music by Cole Porter it would prove to be both a critical and a commercial hit.

It is of course a musical version of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 hit Ninotchka, and the basic plot and the characters are very much the same, although reworked somewhat to give it a more contemporary feel. The saddest thing of all is that the brutal regime satirised in Ninotchka eighteen years earlier was still around even if it was trying to brush up its image (these desperate efforts to make the regime look good are very successfully satirised in Silk Stockings).

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A Russian composer, Peter Boroff (Win Sonneveld) has been performing in Paris but it is now time for him to return to Moscow. Only he’s not too keen to return to the Worker’s Paradise. He likes Paris and he’s developed a dangerous taste for freedom, and he’s also been offered big money to write the music for a Hollywood movie to be shot in Paris by producer Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire). Three commissars have been despatched to bring him back to the Soviet Union.

The three commissars are soon seduced by the delights of the decadent capitalist west, and they’re even more reluctant than he is to return to the Soviet Union. Canfield has been treating them to the high life in Paris and they like it. They like it a lot. It’s time to bring out the big guns. A particularly zealous and politically reliable special envoy named Nina Yoschenko is sent to Paris with orders to bring back both Boroff and the three errant commissars.

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Nina (Ninotchka to her friends) is very serious-minded indeed. Her idea of a good time in Paris is to inspect the municipal works, the Renault car factory and the sewerage system. Canfield determines to show her that Paris has a little more than that to offer. It takes a while but eventually Ninotchka discovers that life has more to offer - things like having fun, dancing, drinking champagne, saying whatever you want to say and falling in love. But Steve and Ninotchka’s love will face quite a few obstacles yet.

There’s little one can say about Astaire that hasn’t already been said. At 57 he was too old to be playing romantic leads but he still has the Astaire class and that minor problem is (mostly) soon forgotten. Cyd Charisse faced a formidable challenge - playing a part that had been played by Garbo. As an actress she’s not in the same league and she’s not as funny as Garbo but she gives it her best shot and she’s pretty good.

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In a rather bold piece of casting Peter Lorre plays one of the three errant commissars. There aren’t many movies where you’ll see Peter Lorre singing and dancing but in this movie that’s what he does. He was of course immensely gifted at comedy so that part of the role presents no problems and he has a great time. Jules Munshin and Joseph Buloff as the other commissars are almost as good.

Janis Paige goes close to stealing the picture as Peggy Dayton, the star of the movie that Steve Canfield is producing. She also gets some of the best musical numbers, including the wonderful Satin and Silk.

The movie ran into major problems with the Production Code Authority over Cyd Charisse’s very sexy dance in her underwear which MGM was determined to keep.

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This is a true 50s MGM musical - it looks spectacular and no expense has been spared. It all looks like it was shot in the studio, and that’s the way it should be. The one major weakness is the Cinemascope aspect ratio which was entirely wrong for a dance musical. Director Rouben Mamoulian detested Cinemascope (he thought it was the ugliest shape ever devised for motion pictures) and it seems he wasn’t alone - Cole Porter even contributed a song to the movie sending up Cinemascope and the other silly gimmicks that the studios had turned to in desperation in the early 50s. The screen is just too wide and it doesn’t work, leaving the dancers looking like they’re isolated in a huge empty room. It’s a tribute to the creative personnel involved that the movie itself does work despite this limitation.

Mamoulian’s previous attempt at an MGM musical had been a costly failure but he repaid Arthur Freed’s faith in him, bringing the picture in on time and under budget (it still cost $1.85 million but it turned a handsome profit). Mamoulian in general does a fine job even if he does at times seem at a loss as to how to fill that absurdly wide screen.

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The screenplay satirises communism very successfully and with style and subtlety. It’s consistently amusing and there are some wickedly funny lines.

As enjoyable as this movie is one can’t help feeling a certain sadness about it. Everything that the movie encapsulates, and celebrates, is now gone forever. The MGM musical, the magic of Astaire, the studio system, indeed the whole world (a vibrant, colourful, confident and civilised world) that it celebrates - all gone.

The Warner Home Video DVD presents the movie in a superb 16x9 enhanced print that looks fabulous and includes a host of extras. Both the movie and the DVD are highly recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shockproof (1949)

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Shockproof was directed by Douglas Sirk from a screenplay by Samuel Fuller. The studio didn’t like the ending and got producer Helen Deutsch to rewrite. In Sirk’s opinion the changes ruined the film and it’s impossible not to agree with him. Nonetheless the movie is still not without interest.

Made by Columbia in 1949, it’s a movie that would certainly have qualified as a film noir had the ending not been changed.

Cornel Wilde is Griff Marat, a parole officer who’s about to get assigned to a case that will drag him down into the noir nightmare world. The case involves paroled murderess Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight). Jenny killed a man for the sake of her lover, the incredibly slimy Harry Wesson (John Baragrey). Jenny spins Griff the usual sob story about her terrible childhood  and tells him that Harry is the only man who’s ever cared for her. To Griff it’s obvious that Harry is responsible for all Jenny’s problems and he warns her that if she ever sees him again she will be breaking the terms of her parle and will go straight back to prison.

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But of course Jenny will see Harry again. Jenny is stubborn, has a bad case of self-pity and very poor judgment where men are concerned. Griff’s judgment is also pretty questionable, especially where attractive blonde parolees are concerned. He convinces himself that Jenny is basically good and that if he can only keep her away from Harry she’ll go straight. Griff lives with his blind mother and his kid brother and now decides to employ Jenny as a live-in housekeeper/nurse for his mother. This is obviously a spectacularly bad idea, not to mention that it’s almost certainly against the rules for a parole officer to be living under the same roof as one of his parolees, especially when the parolee is an attractive member of the opposite sex.

The inevitable happens and Griff falls in love with Jenny. But is Jenny in love with him? Or is she still in love with the worthless Harry Wesson? And even if she is in love with Griff is she strong enough to keep Harry our of her life?

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Predictably Griff soon finds himself in an unholy mess as the second half of Shockproof becomes a couple-on-the-run movie after Harry appears on the scene again.

Despite being somewhat implausible it’s basically a good story, at least until we reach the hopelessly contrived ending.

Sirk does his usual stylish job. The movie looks more like a Sirk melodrama than a film noir and there are some good visual set-pieces, especially in the mining village in the latter part of the movie. Sirk and his director of photography Charles Lawton Jr also make Patricia Knight look very glamorous, which works well for the story.

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Cornel Wilde plays Griff as a nice guy who wants to do the right thing but who can’t help himself where women are concerned. Griff admits he’d never been in love before, a fact which is painfully apparent. It’s a good performance although Griff is perhaps not quite tough enough to be a convincing parole officer.

Patricia Knight is very good indeed. She makes Jenny a very ambiguous character. We’re never sure to what extent Griff can trust her or what her exact motivations are. She makes Jenny sympathetic, but not too sympathetic. The audience has to doubt her. She’s a mixture of innocence and calculation.

John Baragrey is extraordinarily creepy as Harry Wesson, a classic crime movie bad guy. He’s not a heavy. He relies on his oily charm rather than on his fists.

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This movie is part of the Samuel Fuller Collection DVD boxed set, an interesting set since it includes not just movies that Fuller directed but also quite a few for which he wrote the screenplay before turning to directing, and even includes a movie with which he had no direct involvement but which was based on one of his novels. All the movies in the set were Columbia productions. The transfer of Shockproof is exceptionally good.

Despite the contrived ending this movie is worth seeing. It features an interesting and complex femme fatale and was made with the style we expect from Douglas Sirk. Recommended.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Letter (1929)

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The 1940 William Wyler version of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Letter is so well-known (and so good) that one can’t help approaching the 1929 version with some trepidation. In fact it’s very much inferior to the 1940 version but it’s not without interest, both for its pre-code treatment of the same story and for the bizarre performance of its star.

Jeanne Eagels was a Broadway legend who made a handful of films, few of which survive.   She died of a drug overdose (possibly of heroin or more likely a combination of drugs plus alcohol) a few months after completing The Letter. The rarity of her movies (The Letter was unavailable to audiences for many decades) and the squalid tragedy of her private life made her a legend.

Unfortunately in this movie she looks like a junkie and she acts like a junkie. Even worse, she gives a very stagey performance that suggests that she was quite unable to adapt her acting style (which was probably very effective on stage) to the demands of the movies. While it’s not a good performance it does undeniably have a certain raw power and it’s so over-the-top that you can’t help but be fascinated. She makes Bette Davis seem positively restrained.

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Eagels plays Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a rubber planter in Malaya. Her husband Robert (Reginald Owen) is kind but dull and Leslie is bored. She has tried to keep the boredom at bay by having an affair with Geoffrey Hammond (played by Herbert Marshall who went on to play the role of the husband in the 1940 film). Now Geoffrey is tired of her and has taken a Chinese mistress named Li-Ti, and this double insult is too much for Leslie who empties the contents of a revolver into him.

In the courtroom she spins a convincing story of attempted rape and seems certain to be acquitted until Geoffrey’s Chinese mistress reveals that she has in her possession a letter from Leslie to Geoffrey that would be more than sufficient to hang Leslie. She now wants $10,000 dollars for the letter. Actually what she really wants is revenge; she wants to humiliate Leslie by forcing her to beg for the letter.

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The story is basically the same as the 1940 movie apart from the ending which marks this unmistakably as a pre-code movie.

The other obvious difference in the film itself compared to the 1940 version is that the famous shooting seen that opens the 1940 picture does not take place until we’re a quarter of the way through the 1929 version.

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Reginald Owen is dull as the husband. His performance compares very unfavourably with Herbert Marshall’s in the 1940 version; Marshall makes Robert a more complex and more sympathetic character. In this movie Marshall is superb as the lover, a man who copes with life in the tropics by devoting himself to pleasure and all-round dissipation. It’s a delightfully decadent performance.

Eagels’ performance is all over the place. It’s very good in parts but clearly she was hanging on by a thread by this time and her acting is as out of control as her life.

This movie has many of the faults of early sound films - the technical problems caused by the introduction of sound technology lead to very static camera setups and director Jean de Limur lacks the skill necessary to compensate for these deficiencies.

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The only surviving print lacks sound in many of the non-dialogue scenes which unfortunately makes the movie seem more stilted than it really was.

The racial tensions in the story are crucial and this 1929 version is in some ways more honest about such matters than Wyler’s film. The racism of the British characters is obvious, but so too is the racism of the Chinese characters. Li-Ti’s humiliation of Leslie is clearly motivated not just by her anger at her lover’s murder but also by her contempt for white people. Li-Ti’s arrogance is breath-taking. The Chinese lawyer assisting Leslie’s attorney displays the same kind of contempt. Wyler tried to make his film more culturally sensitive by making the Chinese characters more sympathetic but like all such attempts it ends up feeling rather dishonest. The mutual incomprehension with which the two races viewed each other is nicely captured.

There’s plenty of pre-code sex and sin here, with Hammond openly keeping a mistress and with Li-Ti running a brothel. The nature of the relationship between Leslie and Hammond is also crystal clear.

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The print screened on TCM is less than pristine but that’s hardly their fault as it appears that this somewhat damaged print is all that survives of this movie. It’s still quite watchable and the sound quality (apart from those sections of the film where the sound is missing) is good enough to make the dialogue easily understandable.

Not a great movie, not even a particularly good movie, but Eagels’ performance is so bizarre that one can’t help being compelled to watch. Whatever her true stature as an actress might have been Eagels is enough of a legend to make it worth taking a look at this one.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Paid (1930)

Paid1Paid looks and feels like a Warner Brothers socially conscious hardboiled picture but this 1930 production was actually made by MGM.

Joan Crawford is Mary Turner, and as the movie opens she is about to start a three-year prison sentence for grand larceny. She was accused of stealing from the department store where she worked but she is innocent and department store owner Edward Gilder (Purnell Pratt) knows she’s innocent but doesn’t care. Before she is led from the court she vows to get her revenge.

Three years later she’s out of prison and is introduced to Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong) by her cellmate Agnes Lynch (Marie Prevost). Joe is a crook and he thinks Mary has potential but she springs a surprise on him. In prison she’d studied law and now she has big plans for making money dishonestly but quite legally.

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Joe and Agnes are running a blackmailing racket but Mary’s idea is that instead of setting up elderly gentlemen for blackmail as they’d been doing they should set them up for a breach of promise suit. That way they can shake them down for money while still staying technically within the law.

This proves to be a surefire money spinner and Mary soon has other rackets going as well, all of them technically legal. Mary and the other members of Joe’s gang are prospering, much to the disgust of Detective-Sergeant Cassidy (Robert Emmett O’Connor) and his boss, Inspector Burke (John Miljan). Burke is determined to send Mary back to prison but she always seems to stay one step ahead of him, and she knows how to use the law to her advantage. Every time he thinks he’s close to nailing her he gets hit with a restraining order.

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Meanwhile Mary hasn’t forgotten the man who sent her to prison. She hits on a particularly devious method of taking her revenge - she romances and marries Gilder’s son Bob (Douglass Montgomery). This turns out to be more complicated than she expected. Bob really is in love with her and she ends up regretting that she’s hurt him. She loves Joe Garson but she’s fond of Bob as well. Then things start to get really complicated for her when Joe is tempted back into real crime and it ends in murder.

The role of Mary Turner is perfectly suited to Joan Crawford’s talents. Mary is a bad girl but she’s not all bad. Life has given her some tough breaks and she never intended to become a criminal, but since that’s the way the cards fell she’s playing her hand as well as she can. She’s ferociously loyal to people who have helped her. She knows Joe is really a liability, being too hot-headed to be a reliable partner, but he helped her out when she needed it and she’s not going to forget that. She’s blinded by her desire for revenge but when she realises how badly she’s hurt Bob she is genuinely remorseful. It’s a complex and demanding role and Crawford gives one of her most powerful performances from this stage of her career.

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Marie Prevost is very amusing, and the humour she adds is necessary in a movie that is otherwise rather serious and even bleak for a pre-code film. Robert Armstrong and Douglass Montgomery (billed as Kent Douglass in this his film debut) provide good support as the two men in Mary’s life.

Stylistically this is an unusual MGM film, with director Sam Wood and cinematographer going for a look that would later be more typical of film noir. In fact this movie can be seen as a kind of forerunner of American noir, with a morally ambiguous heroine and with an ambivalent attitude towards its criminal characters. The screenplay by Lucien Hubbard and Charles MacArthur was based on a successful play that had already been filmed twice during the silent era. The script is uncharacteristically hardboiled for an MGM picture, while also managing to be literate and convincing.

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Paid has been released as a single-movie made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series. There’s some print damage but mostly both sound and picture quality are reasonably good and certainly more than acceptable.

This is a fine crime melodrama that should appeal to both pre-code fans and film noir fans and will certainly please admirers of Joan Crawford. A movie that deserves to get more attention that it’s received up to date. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Office Wife (1930)

Office Wife1Romantic triangles that pit a successful man’s secretary against his wife were not exactly new even in 1930 but The Office Wife gives the story a very pre-code twist and it works.

Made by Warner Brothers and directed by Lloyd Bacon, the picture stars Dorothy Mackaill as the secretary and the focus is very much on her. All the characters are cheerfully amoral and all are sympathetically portrayed.

Big-time publisher Lawrence Fellowes has just lost his private secretary, Miss Andrews. He had told Miss Andrews the good news that he was about to get married and she promptly fainted and had to be sent home. She’d been in love with him and now she can’t go on being his secretary knowing that her love can never be returned.

Anne Murdock (Dorothy Mackaill) steps into Miss Andrews’ shoes but she’s determined not to make the same mistake. Not that she intends to avoid romantic entanglements with the boss - not at all. She’s a hardheaded gold digger and she intends to get what she wants without getting hurt.

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Her sister Katherine (Joan Blondell) encourages her. Katherine has a similarly hardheaded attitude towards men. She thinks Anne is a sap for going around with newspaperman Ted (Walter Merrill). He’s never going to be rich, so what sort of future does that offer a girl?

Unfortunately Anne’s resolution not to let her heart get broken is doomed to failure. She falls in love with Lawrence Fellowes. And he falls in love with her. And now Anne realises that she is not cut out to be a gold digger. She will resign her position so as not to come between Fellowes and his wife. What she doesn’t know is that Fellowes’ marriage is on the rocks and his wife has been playing around with other men.

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Dorothy Mackaill was one of a number of actresses whose career went belly-up when the Code started to be enforced in 1934. She’d specialised in racy parts in racy pictures and couldn’t make the transition to the new squeaky clean Hollywood. But in 1930 she was still a major name and she was one of the quintessential pre-code stars. Entirely forgotten for many decades, her movies are now being rediscovered and her reputation is on the upswing in quite a big way. She gives a fine performance. She’s careful not to play the role too brazenly or to appear too brassy and she is able to hold and keep the audience’s sympathy. Her acting style was ideal for these types of movies that combined comedy with melodrama.

Joan Blondell was only just starting to make a name for herself but her pre-code persona was already in place. She’s not a bit worried about her performance being too brazen. And of course she takes her clothes off, and she nearly always did in her pre-code pictures. This time she’s not only running about in her underwear, she’s also doing a bathtub nude scene. It’s a pre-code nude scene - you don’t see anything and it’s all tease but even for the pre-code era it’s fairly risque. Blondell is, as always, a delight.

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Lewis Stone plays Lawrence Fellowes. Stone made the transition into the post-Code era very successfully, playing sympathetic father figures, but he has fun here as an ageing Lothario.

An additional pre-code touch here is that there’s a sort of framing story, with Fellowes hiring a woman writer to do a serial on wives vs secretaries, the exact situation he will soon find himself in. The writer in question, Miss Halsey (Blanche Friderici), is very mannish, wears men’s suits and smokes cigars. She’s basically a lesbian stereotype and it’s done so blatantly that even in 1930 nobody could miss the implication.

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This is typical pre-code cinema, a movie cranked out quickly and cheaply without worrying too much about style. Director Lloyd Bacon was reliable and efficient and he handles things here more than competently.

This picture is paired with Party Husband (which I haven’t yet watched and which also stars Mackaill) in one of Warner’s excellent pre-code made-on-demand double-headers. The print might not be restored but it is in pretty good shape and generally looks very good.

The Office Wife is good pre-code naughty fun and is recommended.