Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dishonored (1931)

Dishonored (1931)Dishonored, made at Paramount in 1931, was the third of the seven Josef von Sternberg films with Marlene Dietrich. While the subject matter of the seven films varied it’s important to remember that even to talk about the subject matter of a von Sternberg movie is to miss the point. His interest in the stories was at best marginal. What he cared about was the look, the style. It was the way the movies were shot, not what they were about, that mattered. He told Peter Bogdanovich that all of his films were abstract.

Marie Colverer is a woman of the streets in Vienna during the First World War. She picks up a man whom she assumes is just another client. He turns out to be Austria’s chief spymaster. He believes that Marie has what it takes to be a spy. So she becomes Agent X-27. She has always considered her life to be essentially worthless and for her this is a chance to do something that matters, something for her country. She is not a spy for money. She is motivated by love of country.

Espionage is a dangerous game but she likes excitement and she cares nothing about death.

Dishonored (1931)

She is a very successful counter-spy, exposing some of Russia’s most dangerous spies, men like Colonel von Hindau (Warner Oland), and she is equally adept at working behind the enemy lines. She has however one weakness. She falls in love. Something a spy should never do. Even worse, she falls in love with a Russian spy, the dashing Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen). He has no intention of betraying his country and she has no intention of betraying hers. But where does her first loyalty lie - to Austria or to love?

The title was imposed by the studio, much against von Sternbeg’s wishes. He pointed out, quite correctly, that she never is dishonored.

Dishonored (1931)

Dietrich always insisted that in these movies she had no idea what she was doing; she simply followed von Stenberg’s instructions to the letter. This may be so, but she followed his instructions superbly well. She is fabulous. Every gesture is just right. Whether the  credit belongs to Dietrich or to von Sternberg it’s a great performance.

Victor McLaglen has a good deal of fun as Colonel Kranau, a man who combines ruthlessness and whimsicality; he does his duty but always with a twinkle in his eye. 

Dishonored (1931)

This is a less extravagant movie than The Scarlet Empress or The Devil Is a Woman but the characteristic von Sternberg stye is still very much in evidence. The masked ball is a glorious visual set-piece. Dietrich is a very glamorous spy but then what other sort of spy could Marlene Dietrich be? If you want a tough gritty realistic spy thriller you’d best look elsewhere. This is another of von Sternberg’s movies celebrating his obsession with Dietrich (they were lovers off-screen). It’s all about Dietrich. Which is fine by me.

If there’s any theme here it is perhaps that being a prostitute is excellent training for being a spy. Marie is motivated by patriotism but it’s still a grubby and cruel game, a life of cheating and lies, of deception. And spies get treated no better than prostitutes.

Dishonored (1931)

Universal’s British DVD release is barebones but it’s a very decent transfer (certainly better than Criterion’s transfer of The Scarlet Empress).

It’s very much a matter of style over substance but the style is enough to make this movie highly recommended.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Race for Life (1954)

A Race for Life (1954)

One gets used to the idea after a while that most movies labelled as film noir are labelled as such for the most dubious and tenuous of reasons. A Race for Life (original British title Mask of Dust) is a particularly good example. I can’t for the life of me find anything noirish about this one but it still managed  to get released as part of VCI’s excellent Hammer Noir series.

This 1954 Hammer production, helmed by Terence Fisher, is a racing car thriller. Peter Wells (Richard Conte) had been a champion racing driver before the war. After distinguished service as a fighter pilot he returns to the track but bad luck now seems to dog his career. There is the suspicion that he has lost his edge, or even (worse still) that he has lost his nerve.

A Race for Life (1954)

Also causing difficulties is his wife Patricia. She has this thing about not wanting to be a beautiful young widow. Peter can’t explain to her that he can’t quit now. It would mean quitting as a loser, and as he explains to a friend if he did that he’d be no use to any woman. It’s one of the things Women Don’t Understand.

When his friend “Pic” Dallapiccola announces that the coming race will be his last Peter does entertain the idea of giving the game away, but he’s determined to go out a winner. Just one last victory is all he asks. Both Peter and Pic are veterans and there’s a new generation of young guns coming up, men like Guido Rosetti. Guido is Peter’s team-mate. He’s the number two driver while Peter as the number one driver gets the best car. Guido feels, not without justification, that he should now have the number one spot. He’s convinced that Peter has lost his nerve, that he’s an old man who should now step aside.

A Race for Life (1954)

Pic, Peter and Guido all desperately need to win this race but there can only be one winner and for Peter it’s both a race for life and a race against his old companion, Death. But death is the constant companion of all racing drivers.

There are no real villains here. Even Guido turns out to be a better man than anybody had imagined. This is I suppose a Guy Movie, a movie about friendship and heroism, about the need to face death in order to face life.

A Race for Life (1954)

There are good performances from the supporting cast and if you look closely among the extras you’ll see such notable motor racing names as Stirling Moss. Mari Aldon as Patricia is adequate but it’s Richard Conte who makes this one worth seeing. He gives a nicely understated performance. Peter Wells is a man who has learned to hide his emotions but in fact he’s a very emotional man. He runs on his emotions.

The racing sequences are exciting enough and Fisher doesn’t let the action drag. The short running time helps. Unless you’re a very keen motor racing fan you can only take so much of this although the early 50s Grand Prix racing machines have a certain appeal.

A Race for Life (1954)

A fairly slight film but reasonably enjoyable if this is a genre you happen to be fond of. Hammer’s early 50s movies were low-budget productions (low-budget even compared with their later gothic horror movies) made in association with Lippert Pictures and featuring imported American stars of the second rank who mostly (as in this case) gave fairly creditable performances. This is far from being one of their best efforts but if you accept it as a B-movie it’s not a total loss.

VCI gives us, as with all its Hammer Noir releases, gives us a very fine transfer with a few extras.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Man from Cairo (1953)

The Man from Cairo (1953)George Raft’s career was well and truly on the downslide when he signed a three-movie deal with Lippert Pictures in the early 50s. The third of these films was the British-Italian-American co-production The Man from Cairo, and it’s rather fun.

French intelligence agents investigating the disappearance of a hoard of government gold during the war keep getting murdered. Finally they assign an American detective to the case, but meanwhile American tourist Mike Canelli (George Raft) finds himself in the middle of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. It seems that everyone in Algiers wants that gold which is reputed to be somewhere in the desert (the movie should have been called The Man from Algiers but that might have led to confusion with the 1938 drama Algiers).

Needless to say Mike gets mixed up with several dangerous dames along the way. Also involved are an elderly professor, a transport tycoon, a shady night-club owner and the local police captain who may or may not be honest.

The Man from Cairo (1953)

George Raft gets to play the two-fisted tough guy that he played so well, Gianna Maria Canale makes a glamorous femme fatale and the supporting cast is generally solid.

With a collection of devious characters chasing a treasure that may or may not exist the plot will remind viewers of The Maltese Falcon, one of the many films George Raft turned down in a career notable mostly for a staggering lack of judgment (he also turned down High Sierra and liked to claim he was the first choice to play Rick in Casablance although the claim seems dubious. John Huston was apparently relieved when he bowed out of The Maltese Falcon, allowing him to go with his own choice, some guy called Humphrey Bogart.

The Man from Cairo (1953)

Raft was a major star long before Bogart but once Bogart established himself at Warner Brothers Raft would remain in his shadow for the rest of his career. I quite like Raft but he’s no Bogart. As several other reviewers have noted this movie would have worked better as a Lemmy Caution movie with the great Eddie Constantine in the lead.

Despite these caveats it’s an entertaining movie in its own right. There’s nothing particularly noir about it, but if The Maltese Falcon can be considered noir (and many people seem to think so) then there’s no reason to exclude The Man from Cairo. It definitely has the femme fatale angle covered.

The Man from Cairo (1953)

I have a weakness for noirish crime thrillers in exotic settings so that may be why I’m disposed to cut this movie some slack and recommend it.

The Man from Cairo is included in Kit Parker Films/VCI’s Forgotten Noir series 2 DVD boxed set. It’s a very good transfer and includes a brief documentary on the career of George Raft.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)They certainly don’t make movies like The Lives of a Bengal Lancer any more.  This 1935 Paramount production is the kind of movie that would simply not be permitted in our supposedly enlightened times. It’s a stirring tale of adventure, friendship, heroism, loyalty and duty, all deeply unfashionable values.

The 41st Bengal Lancers are stationed on the Northwest Frontier of India, presumably some time early in the 20th century. There’s a reference to the King so I’d hazard a guess it’s during the reign of Edward VII.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

As usual there’s trouble brewing. Mohammed Khan is trying to unite the various tribes against the British. The commanding officer of the regiment, Colonel Stone, has to find a way to stop him without being manoeuvred into being the aggressor. Stone has a responsibility to protect the people of his district and to keep the peace. His subtle policy is misunderstood by some of his junior officers, especially the brave but impulsive Scots-Canadian Lieutenant Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper).

Two replacement subalterns have just arrived to take up their duties. One is Lt Forsythe (Franchot Tone), the other is Lt Donald Stone, the son of Col Stone. Donald Stone is fresh out of Sandhurst, enthusiastic but completely green. And the Northwest Frontier is no place for inexperienced officers.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Of course he gets himself into trouble. In fact he is constantly getting himself into trouble. Col Stone is determined to show no favouritism to his son but young Donald cannot understand his coldness. He cannot comprehend the fact that to his father duty is everything. As Mohammed Khan’s plotting matures Lt Stone’s rashness and lack of judgment will endanger everything the colonel has tried to achieve. Stone’s downfall will come through the agency of the beautiful but mysterious Tania Volkanskaya (Kathleen Burke).

Lt MacGregor is a rather crusty Scots-Canadian but he’s fundamentally good-hearted and he sees it as his responsibility to take the colonel’s son under his wing. Lt Forsythe is another thorn in his side. Forsythe is a fine officer and also fundamentally good-natured but he cannot resist playing jokes on MacGregor. Forsythe has an impish sense of fun which is lost on the dour MacGregor. Both MacGregor and Forsythe will feel compelled to rescue the impulsive Lt Stone, with fateful consequences.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Gary Cooper is a actor I’m starting to like more and more and he delivers another fine performance. C. Aubrey Smith gives a regulation C. Aubrey Smith performance as the regimental adjutant. Richard Cromwell is adequate enough as the younger Stone while Guy Standing captures the elder Stone’s strict sense of duty and the effect this has on his humanity rather well.

The big surprise is Franchot Tone, an actor I’ve always been a little dismissive of. He’s exceptionally good as Forsythe, managing to be cynical, warm-hearted and likeable. It’s not that different from a typical Franchot Tone performance but this time with some real substance behind it.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Henry Hathaway’s direction is solid and technically the movie (being a typical product of Hollywood’s golden age) cannot be faulted. There are some fine action sequences.

The sense of duty and sacrifice and honour, the demands of heroism and the conflict between duty and emotion, that motivate the characters are not things that will be easily understood by modern audiences raised in an age when duty and heroism are qualities to be sneered at. There was a time when such things were taken seriously and whatever one thinks of British policy in India there is no question of the courage and dedication of the officers and officials who administered British India.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

An old-fashioned adventure tale, and all the better for being old-fashioned. Recommended.

It was released on DVD by Universal in their excellent Gary Cooper Collection boxed set.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fingerprints Don't Lie (1951)

Fingerprints Don't Lie (1951)When a movie has a title like Fingerprints Don't Lie you can pretty much guess  that it’s going to turn out that fingerprints can indeed lie. And that is the case here. But how can fingerprints lie?

We open with artist Paul Moody (Richard Emory) on trial for the murder of a reforming mayor. The case against him seems overwhelming and the most damning evidence comes from fingerprint expert James Stover (Richard Travis). After giving his evidence a reporter asks Stover how it feels to kill a man legally since it’s his testimony that seems certain to send Moody to the gas chamber. Stover feels rather uncomfortable about this but after all what could he do? Fingerprints don’t lie. And Moody left a very clear set of prints on the murder weapon, a telephone.

Moody had been intending to marry the mayor’s daughter, Carolyn Palmer (Sheila Ryan), and the mayor was against it. That seems to supply the necessary motive.

Fingerprints Don't Lie (1951)

Moody is still loudly proclaiming his innocence and Carolyn goes to see Stover to ask him if there was any chance he’d been mistaken. Stover cannot see how that is possible but he has to admit there are one or two things worrying him. The mayor had been in the process of getting rid of corrupt city officials so there are plenty of other people with even stronger motives for murdering him. And when the mayor’s office is burgled and documents implicating corrupt officials are stolen he starts to suspect that maybe Moody is innocent after all. But there are still those fingerprints.

Unfortunately the solution to the puzzle, although ingenious, isn’t too hard to guess (in outline at least). And the identity of the real murderer is blindingly obvious.

Fingerprints Don't Lie (1951)

There’s some gee-whizz forensic science stuff although the movie is hampered in this area by the very low budget. They couldn’t even afford a microscope for Dr Stover but luckily they were able to send one of the crew to the five-and-dime to pick up a Junior Private Eye Magnifying Glass. And that’s pretty much the extent of Stover’s scientific apparatus.

The acting is strictly B-movie standard but there is the bonus of Lyle Talbot (a familiar face to any B-movie fan) as Police Lieutenant Grayson.

Fingerprints Don't Lie (1951)

As a director Sam Newfield’s greatest asset was his ability to churn out low-budget quickies at a very rapid pace and to bring them in within budget. And the budget for this 1951 effort was obviously minuscule (as you’d expect from any movie that Lippert Pictures was associated with). One thing that has to be said in their favour is that their movies were often better than you’d expect from such ultra-low budget productions.

Even within a running time of rather less than one hour the movie seems very slow and there is a great deal of obvious padding, including some excruciating comic relief from Sid Melton as an inept press photographer.

Fingerprints Don't Lie (1951)

Although it’s included in Kit Parker Films/VCI’s Forgotten Noir series 2 DVD boxed set there’s very little that’s noir about this film. Still, it’s a fairly good transfer and there’s even a commentary track so the presentation is probably considerably better than the movie deserves.

At best only moderately entertaining, it would be difficult to recommend Fingerprints Don't Lie as a standalone release but the set includes six movies for a very low price and if you’re a hardcore B-movie fan (although really this is at the bottom end of the B-movie market) the set is worth grabbing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

did movie-makers lift their game in response to the Code?

It’s often asserted that the combination of the Hollywood Production Code and the studios’ preference for happy endings had an adverse effect of movie-making. But did these things really have a negative impact or did they in fact improve the quality of movie-making?

I was intrigued by something Foster Hirsch said on a commentary track to one of Fox’s Film Noir releases, that even though you’re aware that there can only be one ending, an ending that is pretty much mandated by the Code, a good screenwriter and a good director (helped by intelligent and subtle acting performances) can still make the viewer doubt the outcome.

In fact the response of good movie-makers to the Code was the same as their response to the restrictions on the depiction of sexuality and violence - they lifted their game. Working within tight restrictions can be inspiring to a creative artist. It sets a challenge.

Look at Hitchcock’s movies. In most cases you know how they will end. The hero will win through, the heroine will be saved. And Hitchcock’s own preference was always for suspense rather than mystery. Suspense requires that the audience should know the answer to the puzzle. The audience knows from the start what is really going on, but Hitchcock could still have them on the edge of their seats. Hitchcock didn’t like the Production Code but he made most of his masterpieces while working within narrow limits. .

A classic case is Suspicion, which as Fran├žois Truffaut perceptively noted in his book on Hitchcock was actually made more psychologically interesting by the restrictions imposed by the Code and by the studio. Truffaut claims, quite rightly in my view, that the ending as it stands is more powerful than the ending Hitchcock himself had favoured but had not been allowed to film. By making things harder for the director they ended up forcing him to make a better film.

The result of forcing directors to portray violence indirectly was often to give the violence a greater impact. As any good horror film-maker knows, what you don’t see is more horrifying than what you do see. It lets the audience’s imagination take over.

It’s the same with sex. Sexual tension is sexier than portrayals of actual sex. And Hollywood movies of the Production Code era are packed with sexual tension.  I suspect that most of the stars of the classical period of film-making understood that their sexual mystique was heightened by the fact that they didn’t take their clothes off. Just as strip-tease artistes understood that the tease was  more important than the strip.

Freedom can be liberating, but it can also lead to lazy and obvious film-making.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Desk Set (1957)

Desk Set has always been by far my favourite among the Tracy-Hepburn comedies. Seeing it again merely confirms my affection for this movie.

The Research Department of the Federal Broadcasting Corporation is a happy little all-female enclave run in a rather eccentric manner by Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn). Their job is to make sure the network gets the facts right. This was in the old days when newspapers and television networks actually cared about such things. The Research Department provides the answers on questions ranging from the annual cost to American forestry of the spruce-bud worm to the names of Santa’s reindeers. If the answer involves poetry Bunny will spontaneously start reciting the entire poem.

Desk Set (1957)

Everything is fine and dandy until the arrival of methods engineer Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). He is there to study the workings of the department but the real reason for his presence is to introduce a computer system called EMERAC (which he designed himself) to do their jobs. EMERAC is like an early version of wikipedia except that EMERAC actually gives the correct answers.

The sparks start flying immediately between Bunny and Richard. Bunny is resentful of the idea of an electronic brain that has the temerity to presume to do her job but at the same time there’s a definite mutual attraction. They’re both in their own ways nerdy eccentrics and the audience knows straight away they’re made for each other.

Desk Set (1957)

Bunny already has a boyfriend of sorts, her boss Mike Cutler (Gig Young as always playing the romantic rival doomed not to get the girl).

Part of the reason it works so well is Spencer Tracy. He’s an actor I’ve never liked but by this time he’d mellowed somewhat and in Desk Set he’s actually rather endearing.

Desk Set (1957)

Modern audiences accustomed to the idea that romantic comedies are always about the young and the beautiful will have to overcome the obstacle of the characters’ ages. Tracy at 57 (and not a well-preserved 57) may seem too old for such a role but he displays sufficient crusty charm to make such objections irrelevant.

Hepburn always tended towards being abrasive but she’s funny here and the presence of Joan Blondell in the cast as her best friend Peg helps considerably. Blondell was always likable and always funny and giving Hepburn someone she can interact with in a genuinely arm and affectionate manner takes some of the edge off her abrasiveness.

Desk Set (1957)

Shooting the movie in Cinemascope and colour proved to be, surprisingly, a good decision. It suits the style of the movie quite well. Special mention must be made of the wonderful two-level set representing the Research Department. It not only looks great but it has exactly the right rather whimsical feel.

The Region 4 DVD is an acceptable transfer and preserves the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)

Most accounts I’ve read of Seijun Suzuki's career suggest that after making a series of very successful crime thrillers for Nikkatsu he fell out of favour when he developed his own idiosyncratic, outrageous and somewhat surreal personal style in movies like Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). Which may be so, but that personal style (in a less developed form) is already clearly present as early as 1960 in Take Aim at the Police Van.

Take Aim at the Police Van is immediately recognisable as a Seijun Suzuki film. It’s not as visually extravagant as his later movies but it is visually very imaginative and provocative. And very very stylish.

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)


As in most Seijun Suzuki films the plot is less important than the style, but then it’s probably true of most film noir (and Suzuki is certainly widely regarded as an exponent of the Japanese brand of film noir) that plotting is less important than style and mood.

The movie’s bravura opening sequence sees a prison van being ambushed by a sharpshooter, with two prisoners being shot dead. It’s something of a puzzle for the police since it appeared to be an execution rather than an attempted prison break.

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)


It’s a puzzle that prison guard Daijiro Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is determined to solve. He was in charge of the prison van and was suspended for six months as a result of the attack. Not that he was suspected of any involvement, but the safety of the prisoners was his responsibility, hence the suspension. What it means is that he now has time for his own investigation.

This investigation leads him to a series of women all of whom have some connection with the prisoners in the prison van at the time of the attack. The women include Yuko Hamashima (Misako Watanabe), who runs the Hamaju Agency. They provide female entertainers. The entertainment includes private strip shows in spa resorts. Yuko also happens to be an expert archer, a act that assumes some interest when one of the girls Tamon wants to talk to is killed by an arrow! This is definitely a Seijun Suzuki movie.

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)


Yuko will play the femme fatale role although she’s really a more ambiguous character than the usual femme fatale. Tamon is hardly a typical noir hero however. He’s a straightforward hero, albeit an unconventional one, being middle-aged and a less than obvious choice as an action hero. The attraction between Tamon and Yuki soon becomes obvious although it’s perhaps one of the less believable elements in this movie, Tamon being a sympathetic but far from romantic hero. Mizushima and Watanabe both give fine performances though.

The plot hinges on the identity of a man known only as Akiba who heads a prostitution racket. Akiba remains in the shadows while his goons do his dirty work for him, the goons including the slightly edgy marksman and other assorted yakuza thugs.

ake Aim at the Police Van (1960)


There are plenty of action set-pieces, handled with flair and a touch of black humour
dream sequences. There are a couple of dream sequences that offer a glimpse of the more outrageous and delirious approach that would characterise the director’s mid-60s offerings. The movie was shot in a 2.45:1 aspect ratio that Suzuki utilises with considerable skill. Suzuki makes equally skillful use of locations, especially for the lengthy climactic sequence in the railway yards.

This is a stylish if not overly noirish crime thriller with a dash of sleaze, marked by Suzuki’s  characteristic visual flair. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

ake Aim at the Police Van (1960)

 
This is part of the Nikkatsu Noir DVD boxed set released by Criterion in their Eclipse “budget” series. It’s a terrific widescreen print but lacking in extras apart from the brief but reasonably interesting liner notes. Movies like this really would benefit from a commentary track given that many viewers probably know little or nothing about Japanese cinema in general and Japanese film noir in particular.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Nothing Sacred (1937)

Nothing Sacred (1937)Nothing Sacred is a screwball comedy with a big problem. And it’s very easy to pinpoint the problem. The problem is Fredric March. There’s a reason Fredric March is not remembered as a great comic actor. He wasn’t even a mediocre comic actor. He wasn’t a comic actor at all.

This 1937 Selznick International film has another problem. It’s not a screwball comedy at all. It’s a satire, and it’s a very leaden one. March’s dull as dishwater performance doesn’t quite kill this film but it goes close. Which is a pity since the Nothing Sacred had a lot of potential.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

The basic idea is very promising. Wally Cook (March) is a New York newspaper reporter whose latest stunt has backfired badly. The rich sultan he’s been building up as a patron of the arts has been exposed as a fraud - he’s really a guy who runs a shoe-shine stand in Manhattan. Now Cook needs another big story and he needs it fast. He thinks he’s found it.

Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) is a young woman from a small town in Vermont called Warsaw. She’s dying of radium poisoning as a result of working in the town’s only industry, a watch factory. Taking Hazel to New York to spend her last weeks of this earth living the high life sounds like a sure-fire circulation booster and Cook’s editor agrees. The only problem is, Hazel isn’t dying of radium poisoning. She isn’t dying of anything. She’s as fit as a fiddle.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

Her shonky doctor made a mistake and now he sees a way of getting even with the paper for not naming him the winner of a contest years earlier. Hazel just sees it as a way of getting out of Warsaw, Vermont. Of course the secret, that there’s nothing wrong with Hazel, can’t be kept indefinitely. And of course Wally Cook and Hazel fall in love.

Ben Hecht’s screenplay is another newspaper satire along the lines of his much-adapted play The Front Page. It has some of the wit of that earlier effort but at times it seems heavy-handed. Yes we know that newspaper editors and reporters are cynical and we know that the public is gullible but while the screenplay makes its point it really doesn’t have enough actual laughs. A big problem is that any good lines that are given to Fredric March are pretty much wasted so Lombard has to carry the comedy on her own. And no matter how gifted a comedienne she was (and she was very gifted indeed) even the funniest actress needs someone to strike sparks off and playing opposite Fredric March she might as well be playing opposite a showroom dummy.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

You can’t help wondering just how good this movie might have been with a Cary Grant, or even a Fred MacMurray, as the male lead. March is not just boring, he’s entirely unconvincing as a reporter. He’s too strait-laced, too serious, too stodgy and too unfunny.

Lombard almost manages to save the movie, but every time Fredric March shows up the laughs dry up. You also can’t help wondering if William A. Wellman was the right director. Like March he takes things a bit too seriously.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

For some utterly inexplicable reason the movie was shot in Technicolor. This is particularly unfortunate since the movie has fallen into the public domain and most prints floating around are terrible, and the dull faded colours just make the movie look more lifeless.

Despite its problems Nothing Sacred is by no means a total loss. Lombard is very good and once she hits her stride things pick up. It’s a moderately amusing movie but it’s certainly the classic of screwball comedy that its reputation would suggest.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Window (1949)

The Window (1949)

I’ve always maintained that if you’re a halfway competent film-maker you can’t make a bad film from a Cornell Woolrich story. RKO’s 1949 thriller The Window, directed by Ted Tetzlaff, tends to support that theory.

Hitchcock based one of his greatest movies, Rear Window, on a Woolrich story. Although Hitchcock’s and Tetzlaff’s movies were based on different Woolrich stories there are superficial similarities - both involve a murder (or an apparent murder) witnessed through a window. While Tetzlaff’s movie is not in the same class as Hitchcock’s it’s still a fine and rather underrated little thriller. There’s another connection with Hitchcock - Tetzlaff was the director of photography on another Hitchcock masterpiece, Notorious.

The Window (1949)

The Window is a Boy Who Cried Wolf story. Ten-year-old Tommy Woodry is always making up outrageous stories about crimes he’s supposedly witnessed so when he’s sleeping out on the fire escape on a hot night and witnesses a real murder he understandably has trouble convincing anyone that this time he’s telling the truth.

Unfortunately for Tommy the only people who believe he really saw something are the murderers. Now he not only has to find a way to make someone believe him, he has to do it before the murderers can stop him.

The Window (1949)

Oscar-winning cild star Bobby Driscoll (whose tragic life came to a sordid end in 1968 when he was buried in a pauper’s grave after a life of drug addiction) gives an excellent performance as Tommy.

I’ve never been an Arthur Kennedy fan but he gives a good restrained performance as Tommy’s father, a sympathetic character who just can’t convince himself that this time his son might be telling the truth. Barbara Hale is solid as Tommy’s mother. Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman are fine villains with Roman providing the necessary femme fatale ingredient. Roman goes close to stealing the picture, providing a subtly chilling performance.

The Window (1949)

Robert De Grasse and William O. Steiner share the cinematography credit and contribute some effective noir images with plenty of shadows and the obligatory noir device of characters’ faces seen through slatted light sources suggestive of bars.

The movie uses the classic suspense formula - tell the audience exactly what is going on and then let them sweat as they watch the characters struggling to unravel the mystery and avoid their fate. Director Ted Tetzlaff proves himself more than competent. The scene with the key is particularly clever. The plot is tightly constructed and the tension is built up very effectively. The climax is perhaps a little predictable but it’s handled with style and works extremely well.

The Window (1949)

The Warner Archive DVD-R offers a superb print. I’m more and more impressed by this series of DVD-R releases.

A good taut well-made B-movie thriller. Content-wise it’s not very noir, apart from the fact that everything Cornell Woolrich wrote has a kind of twisted perversity that is very noir and which the movie captures quite effectively, but visually it ticks all the noir boxes. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business (1952) The screwball comedy genre was more or less played out by the early 40s but Howard Hawks never really gave up on the genre. He made two attempts to revive it, the first being Monkey Business in 1952, the second being the excellent and criminally underrated Man’s Favorite Sport? in 1964. It is with the first of these that we are concerned today. In Monkey Business brilliant but absent-minded chemist Dr Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) is trying to find a formula that will eliminate some of the symptoms of ageing. He doesn’t succeed but one of the chimpanzees he’s using in his experiments finds the formula by accident. Monkey Business (1952) The chimpanzee puts the mixture into the water cooler. Barnaby drinks it and the middle-aged scientist finds himself thinking he’s thirty years younger. He buys an MG sports car and has a bit of an adventure with his boss’s luscious but ditzy secretary Miss Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). His wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) is the next to inadvertently sample the formula. She becomes an amorous teenager and wants to relive their honeymoon, which has unfortunate results for poor Barnaby. Monkey Business (1952) Even more mayhem ensues when they both take a larger dose - they both think they’re ten years old! Barnaby has always suspected that their lawyer Hank had designs in Edwina, so he enlists the help of a group of children playing Cowboys and Indians, dons war-paint and decides to scalp Hank. Of course you know that eventually everybody will sample the formula and there will be a great deal of inspired craziness. Monkey Business (1952) Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers really let themselves go and they’re both terrific. Charles Coburn is amusing as Barnaby’s boss. Marilyn Monroe doesn’t get much to do but she’s good and she impressed Hawks enough to lead him to cast her in his next movie, the wonderful Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monkey Business (1952) The movie starts a little slowly but the pace soon picks up and it becomes classic Hawks screwball comedy. It’s all good-natured fun with perhaps more sexual innuendo than you expect in a Hawks movie. The Region 4 DVD is without extras but it’s a decent transfer. The DVD cover gives the impression this is a Marilyn Monroe movie but she is strictly a minor player here. Monkey Business (1952) A good cast, plenty of the ludicrous situations that characterise this genre and plenty of laughs - there’s really no reason not to enjoy this movie.