Thursday, February 28, 2013

I’ve Got Your Number (1934)


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I don’t think it’s possible for a pre-code movie to be much more lightweight than I’ve Got Your Number, but it’s still not without its charms.

This 1934 Warner Brothers production is a comedy-drama centred around a telephone company. Terry Riley (Pat O’Brien) and Johnny (Allen Jenkins) are telephone repairmen-linesmen. For the first 20 minutes we just see an assortment of adventures that they get into, mostly involving Terry chatting up blondes. Then the main plot kicks in.

This central plot involves Marie (Joan Blondell). Marie is a switchboard operator at the Hotel Eden. Terry has been pursuing her for quite a while. Marie has another admirer, Nicky (Gordon Westcott). Marie is no fool - she knows Nicky is no good. But she doesn’t realise just how no good he is.

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Nicky manages top cost Marie her job, but Terry rides to the rescue and gets her another job as switchboard operator and receptionist to wealthy investment banker John P. Schuyler (Henry O’Neill). Schuyler owes Terry a favour - Terry saved his life during a fire. Terry might be regarded with some suspicion by his supervisor Joe Flood (Eugene Pallette) but to the telephone company he’s a hero. And John P. Schuyler is not a man to forget a favour.

Unfortunately Nicky steps in again and soon Marie is facing not just losing her new job, but possibly being an accessory to grand larceny. She seems to be sunk, but Terry knows Marie would not have been involved in anything shady and he and Johnny are determined to save her.

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The movie than becomes a sort of lighthearted crime thriller, but instead of having a cop or private detective as the hero it has a telephone repairman as the hero. Terry might not pack a rod but he does have an intimate knowledge of the telephone system and this know-how will help him to save Marie, although before he can do that he needs to be saved himself.

Luckily Joe Flood steps in at this point. He’s never had much time for Terry but when one of his repairmen is in trouble it’s a different story. Telephone company people stick together in a crisis. He rounds up the phone company boys and they go riding off to rescue Terry. And the bad guys find that a mob of irate phone company employees can be a formidable challenge even to a gang of criminals.

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The mood is kept light throughout. Veteran director Ray Enright doesn’t let the pace flag and the fairly short 69-minute running time helps. The big pluses in this movie though are the players. Joan Blondell is of course wonderful as always. Allen Jenkins is one of my favourite character actors of this period, equally at home playing heavies or in light comedic roles. His performance is perfect for the mood of the movie. Pat O’Brien does well in a role that could easily have been irritating and he makes Terry a likeable if unlikely hero. Eugene Pallette is a delight as Terry’s boss.

There’s not much pre-code content here, apart from a few gay jokes that they might not have got away with after the Code.

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This movie is presented as part of a one-disc two-movie pack in the Warner Archive series, paired with the equally entertaining Havana Widows. The transfers are both very good.

I’ve Got Your Number doesn’t try to do anything else but entertain, and it succeeds admirably. This set is really a must-have for any self-respecting pre-code fan. How can you possibly go wrong with two Joan Blondell movies? You can’t, so this one can certainly be recommended. It’s 1930s Hollywood light comedy at its best.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Seventh Commandment (1961)

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The Seventh Commandment is included in Something Weird’s Weird Noir DVD boxed set, and weird this one most certainly is.

Ted Mathews (Jonathan Kidd) has just graduated from business college and he sets off with his girlfriend Terry (Lyn Statten) to celebrate. They are involved in a collision with another car. Ted is relatively unhurt and is relieved to find that Terry has survived as well, but when he goes to take a look at the other car it’s obvious that the other driver hasn’t fared so well. Ted takes one look at him and realises he’s dead. He returns to his own car to find that Terry is dead as well. At this point Ted’s head starts to spin and he suddenly develops amnesia. He wanders away from the scene of the accident and goes to sleep under a tree. The next day he is found by a travelling revivalist preacher, the Reverend Noah Turnbull (Frank Arvidson). Noah assures him that when God wants him to remember his previous life he will. They join together in prayer and Ted undergoes a sudden conversion.

Noah tries to help him to at least remember his name and suggests several possibilities based on the initial T. M. engraved on his watch. The Christian name Tad seems to ring a bell, as does the surname Morgan. So now Ted Mathews becomes Tad Morgan.

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Within a fairly short space of time he is the Reverend Tad Morgan, a spectacularly successful revivalist preacher. Noah is now his assistant. Tad is an inspiring speaker and his healing services are remarkably successful. Tad seems to be well and truly imbued with the Holy Spirit. He builds up a huge following, and the money comes pouring in.

Everything is going great and Tad is happy and fulfilled. Until the day he recognises a familiar face among his congregation - Terry’s face. Terry is not dead at all, but life has not been kind to her since the accident. The police assumed she was the driver and she was sent to prison for drunk driving. She is now an alcoholic loser and she’s shacked up with Pete (John Harmon). Pete is not just an alcoholic loser, he’s violent as well. They make a perfect couple. Pete rolls drunks in order to finance their drinking binges.

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And then Terry sees Ted Mathews’ picture in the newspaper and discovers that not only is he now the Reverend Tad Morgan, he is also rich. This gives Terry an idea - she can blackmail Tad. Which she does. She not only threatens Tad with exposure, she also neglects to tell him one very important fact relating to the accident, a fact that will give the subsequent events of the movie a tragically ironic twist.

Terry and Pete run through the thousand dollars in blackmail money very quickly, and then Terry gets an even better inspiration. Why blackmail Tad for money, when she could blackmail him into marrying her? Then she and Pete would have enough money to stay drunk for the rest of their lives.

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Terry forces Tad to meet with her, and at this point Tad succumbs to evil temptations. He is soon on the road to ruin but there are still some important plot twists left to go.

This very low budget movie was directed by Irvin Berwick from a screenplay by Berwick and Jack Kevan. If you haven’t heard of these people I’m not surprised. Their film careers were less than distinguished and certainly The Seventh Commandment is no cinematic masterpiece. Berwick’s directing style isn’t going to sweep you off your feet. On the other hand this is an interesting movie, combining a rather clichéd idea (amnesia) with a more unusual religious theme. This may in fact be the most obvious example of the very rare sub-genre of religious noir. Redemption is certainly a concept that is not uncommon in films noirs, but spiritual salvation is pretty rare. Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once and John Boulting’s Brighton Rock are the only other noirs I can think of that confront such issues, being respectively the products of a Catholic director and a Catholic writer. It’s a movie that could have played out as merely a combination of film noir and exploitation movie but The Seventh Commandment does appear to take its religious themes seriously.

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The acting is not as bad as you’d expect in an early 60s low-budget movie. Lyn Statten pulls out all the stops in making Terry one of the most vicious of femmes fatales and at the same time one of the most pathetic. She’s not a great actress but she’s giving it all she’s got. And Jonathan Kidd as Tad/Ted does project a certain presence, enough to make him fairly convincing as a charismatic preacher. John Harmon projects an extraordinary degree of sheer spiteful malice. The performances might be on the cartoonish side but they’re effective enough.

Something Weird’s DVD transfer is as good as you could expect given the extreme obscurity of the movie and the likelihood that the original negative is long since lost.

If you like your noir with a touch of weirdness then The Seventh Commandment is worth a look.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Dark Mirror (1946)

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I’ve spoken often of my love for classic Hollywood movies dealing with psychiatry.  The Dark Mirror is another prime example of this genre.

Scripted by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Robert Siodmak, this 1946 movie also deals with another subject that fascinated Hollywood in the 40s, the double. Especially the feminine double. Movies like A Stolen Life and No Man of Her Own gave us women who had assumed different identities. In The Dark Mirror, as in A Stolen Life, the women are sisters, in this case identical twins.

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When a doctor is murdered it seems like an open-and-shut case. The police have three eyewitnesses who swear they can identify a woman seen fleeing from the doctor’s apartment. But three other witnesses will swear they saw the same woman four miles away. The explanation is that Terry and Ruth Collins (both played by Olivia de Havilland) are identical twins. One twin was leaving the doctor’s apartment while the other twin was walking in a park four miles away, but the witnesses can’t tell which twin they saw. And the sisters aren’t saying. The police can’t get an indictment because they don’t know whose name to put on it. It’s the perfect crime, and if there’s one thing Detective-Lieutenant Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) hates it’s the idea of a perfect crime.

Stevenson persuades psychologist Dr Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) to help him crack the case. Dr Elliott is an expert on twins. The Collins twins become part of his study on twins. Dr Elliott soon realises that one of the twins is dangerously insane, but which one is it? He thinks he knows, but does he really? To complicate matters further, Dr Elliott falls in love with one of the twins. How will the insane twin react to this, since both twins are in love with Dr Elliott?

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Terry and Ruth have always been romantic rivals but with the doctor’s murder it’s now apparent that the rivalry has taken on deadly overtones. Lieutenant Stevenson fears for the safety of both Dr Elliott and the sane twin.

Olivia De Havilland is not a favourite actress of mine but she’s quite effective in this film, wisely not overdoing the crazy stuff. In fact she plays both twins the same way which certainly heightens the suspense. Right up to the end we’re never quite sure which twin we’re watching. It’s a subtle performance in a role which most actresses would have approached with a much more grandiose technique but de Havilland knows what she’s doing. Lew Ayres is adequate and Thomas Mitchell is, as always, a joy to watch.

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Robert Siodmak was always a stylish director and while The Dark Mirror isn’t as visually dazzling as some of his movies he still does a fine job. Nunnally Johnson’s script has enough half-baked psychiatric nonsense in it to keep fan of psychiatry movies very happy indeed. Even Rorschach ink-blot tests, which are always good for a laugh. And Polygraph tests! The psychiatric silliness is laid on nice and thick. The script  takes its subject deadly seriously, which makes it even more fun.

While this movie is sometimes described as film noir it’s more of an over-the-top crime melodrama or a psychological thriller than a true film noir fans. Noir fans will probably enjoy it anyway.

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Mirrors of course play a key symbolic role in the story and the movie both begins and ends  with mirrors.

Conerstone Media’s Region 2 DVD release is barebones but quite cheap and picture quality is good.

Despite the half-baked psychiatric ideas, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say because of them, The Dark Mirror is a very entertaining movie. Madness, murder and psychiatry make an irresistible combination. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Gambler and the Lady (1952)

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The Gambler and the Lady is another solid Hammer film noir from the early 50s, in this case 1952. It’s by no means a great movie but it’s entertaining and that’s what Hammer were aiming for.

This is one of three movies that American actor Dane Clark made for Hammer at around that time and he proved himself to be a reliable performer for the company. American Sam Newfield helmed the picture although due to British quotas he had to share the directing credit with British director Patrick Jenkins.

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Dane Clark plays Jim Forster, an American gambler who runs a successful nightclub in London but makes his real money from his illegal gambling operations. Forster had served three years for manslaughter in the US after killing a man in a drunken rage, which is why he no longer drinks. He sounds like a tough guy, and he is, but he’s also a pretty nice guy as well. He runs a civilised gambling operation - when one of his employees roughs up a guest for welshing on a gambling debt Jim fires the employee (with fateful consequences).

What Jim really wants is to be accepted by the British upper classes. He’s a keen, indeed fanatical, Anglophile and he works very hard at it. He even employs a retired English school teacher to teach him which knife and fork to use. Unfortunately he’s still an American  street kid from the wrong side of town and no matter how hard he works at it he’s never going to make it. That’s his tragedy and that’s the weakness that will threaten him with destruction. The irony is that he’s already rich and successful and if he could just learn to accept himself he could be perfectly happy.

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Jim has two other problems. The first is his girlfriend Pat (Kathleen Byron). She’s a dancer but she’s possessive and he really wants an upper class girlfriend and he wants out of the relationship. This is not entirely selfishness on his part - Pat’s possessiveness is pathological, as we will soon see.

His other problem is the Colonna brothers, Arturo (Eric Pohlmann) and Angelo (Enzo Coticchia). They’re big-time gambling operators from the States and they want to take over gambling in London. Jim Forster is technically a criminal but he’s no hoodlum. The Colonna brothers are a whole different kettle of fish. They’re vicious and ruthless and violent.

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Then Jim meets Lady Susan Willens (Naomi Chance). While the other upper class acquaintances he meets treat him with contempt and amusement and as little more than a bad joke, Lady Susan is different. She likes Jim. He’s a refreshing change from the effete young men she usually mixes with. Jim is exciting and masculine. When he offers to take her to a boxing match she is thrilled. All that testosterone! But juggling the Colonna brothers, Pat and Lady Susan will bring Jim Forster to the edge of destruction, aided by the fatal weakness that all good noir heroes should have - his unfortunate and ill-advised attempts at social climbing.

Dane Clark is excellent in a role which could have been unfortunately comic. He makes Jim’s aspirations seem touching rather than pathetic. He does the tough guy with a sensitive streak thing quite adequately and he makes a sympathetic hero. Eric Pohlmann makes a fine heavy while Kathleen Byron is suitable shrewish in the femme fatale role, although in fact it’s the nice girl (Lady Susan) who proves to be just as dangerous to Forster as the femme fatale. Naomi Chance is reasonably good and Meredith Edwards is fun as Jim’s perpetually drunken but shrewd right-hand man.

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The VCI-Kit Parker films DVD is a double-header including this movie and Heat Wave. As with all their Hammer Noir releases the transfer is very good and it represents outstanding value for money.

This is typical Hammer film noir - a thoroughly enjoyable little B-movie with no aspirations to be anything else. Recommended.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Underworld USA (1961)

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On the surface Samuel Fuller’s 1961 gangster film Underworld USA is fairly conventional for a Sam Fuller movie. It’s much less bizarre and over-the-top than Forty Guns (1957) or Shock Corridor (1963) or The Naked Kiss (1964). But once you start looking carefully you can see that in its own much more subtle way it is, like all of Sam Fuller’s movies, very individual and quite unlike the usual run of Hollywood gangster movies, or Hollywood movies in general.

The difference lies not in the plot, which is a relatively straightforward revenge plot. The difference is in the style, and in the mood.

The style is very stripped down and direct. Fuller believed movies should be direct and forceful, and this one certainly qualifies. It’s not that it’s particularly violent, it’s more that the violence comes through not just in the action but in the cutting, in the way Fuller composes his shots, in the way that the violence just hits you when you’re not expecting it.

The mood is intense and obsessive to an extreme. In some ways it’s more like a revenge western than a revenge crime film, in the sense that this is a movie about a man who has absolutely nothing in him except for the thirst for revenge.

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When the movie opens Tolly Devlin is a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent. In theory he’s being brought up by his father; in practice he’s being raised by Sandy (Beatrice Kay). Sandy runs a bar. She’s what could best be described as a rough diamond. She’s outwardly tough and world-weary but inside she’s as sentimental as they come and she loves Tolly as if he were her own son.

Then comes the crucial moment in Tolly’s life. He and Sandy see a man being beaten to death in an alleyway behind Sandy’s bar. We don’t actually see this event - all we see are shadows on a wall, and we assume that’s what Sandy and Tolly see. After it’s over they discover that the man being beaten was Tolly’s father, and that he’s dead. At that point Tolly makes the decision to devote the rest of his life to avenging his father. The irony of course is that Tolly’s father was a worthless two-bit hoodlum, but to Tolly he was a god.

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Tolly has one clue - he recognised one of the men who killed his father. We then jump forward more than a decade. Tolly is now a burglar, and not a very successful one since he’s about to go inside for the third time in his comparatively short life. And now fate gives him what he wanted. The man he recognised as one of his father’s killers is an inmate in the same prison, dying of congestive heart failure. Before he dies Tolly tricks him into revealing the names of his three accomplices.

By the time Tolly is released these three men are now very big wheels indeed in organised crime. In fact there is only one man senior to them in the whole Syndicate hierarchy. They control the three most important criminal activities in the Syndicate’s operations - Gela controls narcotics, Gunther controls the labour unions and Smith runs prostitution. Of course there is no way that a small-time burglar like Tolly could ever get anywhere near such titans of organised crime, but this is where the movie also resembles a western - the hero seeking revenge wants to get the men who killed his father and fate arranges it so that he finds himself in a position to do so. By the standards of a normal crime movie it’s completely absurd that Tolly could get close to these three men within a very short space of time, but this is a Sam Fuller movie so logic is much less important than that the plot should allow Tolly his chance.

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In the course of tracking these killers he rescues a female hooker and junkie from a cold-blooded hitman named Gus (Richard Rust) who was about to kill her. He and Sandy more or less adopt the woman, who goes by the name of Cuddles (Dolores Dorn). She is another element in the movie that makes me think of this movie as a western, with the hardbitten hero adopting an orphan kid except that in this case she’s a good-natured whore.

Cliff Robertson plays Tolly as an adult and he brings just the right touch of intense obsession. It’s exactly the sort of performance Fuller would have wanted and it works. Richard Rust almost steals the picture as one of the most chilling hitmen in movie history. He’s the sort of one-dimensional obsessive vicious killer that you’d expect to find as the evil gunslinger in a western. He has no personality, he simply exists to kill, but somehow Rust makes this character very memorable indeed.

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Not one of the characters has any depth. They are not people so much as representations of particular ideas or states of mind. Fuller could quite easily have dispensed with giving the characters names and just called Tolly the Avenger, Gus the Killer, Cuddles the Girl and the crimes bosses Crime Boss #1, Crime Boss #2, etc. In an ordinary movie this one-dimensionality of characterisation would have been a serious weakness but it would have worked well in a spaghetti western (think Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name) and it works for Fuller. It works for Fuller because he’s not interested in giving us characterisation - he wants each character to simply represent one single idea.

In his introduction to the DVD Martin Scorcese compares this movie to the movies of the French New Wave, and there is perhaps something in that. It does have the kind of minimalist staccato feel of very early Godard and it’s not altogether surprising that Godard admired Fuller so much.

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This is the sort of movie where you could more or less ignore the plot and just enjoy the style. Scorcese makes the claim that Fuller’s movies were becoming almost abstract at this time, and it’s a valid point.

Underworld USA forms part of Columbia’s Samuel Fuller Collection and is perhaps the strongest movie in that set, certainly vastly superior to the bitterly disappointing The Crimson Kimono. The transfer is 16x9 enhanced and is superb. Scorcese’s brief but excellent introduction is the only extra included.

Underworld USA is a must-see for Sam Fuller fans.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Money Trap (1965)

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The Money Trap was made in 1965, but despite a few superficial nods to the 60s (the 60s-style house, the presence of 60s eurobabe Elke Sommer in the cast and the fact that heroin plays a part in the plot) it’s really much more of a classic film noir than a neo-noir. It is in fact one of the very last of the film noir B-movies. And that was its problem at the time - it was a type of movie whose time had passed. Looked at today though it’s a reasonably solid B-movie that is old-fashioned but in a good way.

Glenn Ford is tough middle-aged cop Joe Baron who happens to be married to a very young, very beautiful and very rich woman named Lisa (Elke Sommer). They’re both living the high life on the dividends that Lisa’s father left her. They have a fancy modern house with a swimming pool and servants, very different from the lifestyle of the average film noir cop hero.

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Then trouble strikes. The dividends dry up and they face the terrifying prospect of having to live on a cop’s salary. This idea appalls both Lisa and Joe. So now we have Joe set up to be in temptation’s way, and temptation soon comes knocking. It comes in the firm of what seems a fairly routine call. The wealthy Dr Horace Van Tilden (Joseph Cotten) has shot a burglar in self-defence. It all seems pretty straightforward until the dying burglar tells Joe that the safe contained half a million dollars. Why would even a wealthy doctor have that much money in a safe? The reason is obvious. The money comes from something illegal, something the doctor doesn’t want discovered. In fact Dr Horace Van Tilden is a Mob doctor.

The thought now occurs to Joe that if someone were to steal that money Dr Van Tilden could hardly go to the police. And if the someone that stole the money happened to be a cop the doctor would be an even more awkward position. And half a million dollars would go a long way to ensuring that Joe and Lisa can continue their luxurious lifestyle.

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Joe’s partner Pete (Ricardo Montalban) quickly figures out what Joe is planning, and he wants in.

There are complications. The burglar’s widow Rosalie (Rita Hayworth) is an old flame of Joe’s and that flame gets fanned into life again. The plan to rob Dr Van Tilden’s safe seems foolproof but Van Tilden is a step ahead of them and things go badly wrong, setting up a classic noir ending.

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Joe Cotten, Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth may have been past their prime by this time but they were all professionals and they give a good account of themselves. Hayworth in particular is very good indeed, world-weary and tired but still with a hint of the old glamour smouldering under the surface. Elke Sommers speaks seven languages fluently so the English dialogue presents no problems for her and the underrated actress gives an effective performance, playing Lisa as both a spoilt rich brat and a rather nice person at the same time. Lisa loves money, but she loves Joe more. Both Lisa and Rosalie fulfill some of the functions of the classic femme fatale without ever actually being a femme fatale.

Director Burt Kennedy does a competent if unexciting job. Walter Bernstein’s screenplay doesn’t have a lot of depth to it but it does tick most of the noir boxes and the strong cast is enough to carry the movie. The heroin and the money both act as a McGuffin, being unimportant in themselves but being vital as the catalyst for the plot. 

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The Warner Archive MOD disc is up to their usual high stands. The transfer is anamorphic, preserving the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Movies like The Money Trap had already had their day by the late 50s and making this movie in 1965 was an odd decision. When the cop film re-emerged as a major money-spinner in the 70s it was in a very different form, with big budgets and lots of graphic violence making The Money Trap seem even more of a museum piece. Don’t expect anything sensational but if you’re a noir fan and you treat it as a very late entry in the noir B-movie cycle you should enjoy this one. Recommended.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Blondie Johnson (1933)

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Blondie Johnson is a First National Pictures pre-code offering with Joan Blondell as a lady gangster. Directed by the reliable Ray Enright, this movie came out in 1933.

It starts off with the sort of socially conscious bleeding heart nonsense you expect from the  studio, with a wicked landlord and an uncaring society driving the mother of Blondie Johnson (Blondell) to her death. So of course it’s not Blondie’s fault that she becomes a gangster.

Having got that silliness out of the way the movie settles down into an entertaining tale of a girl who claws her way to the top by using her brains rather than her body. Blondie is making a reasonable living as a con artist until she cons big-time gangster Danny Jones (Chester Morris). Danny takes an immediate liking to this fresh dame and figures she has a big career in crime ahead of her. His judgment turns out to be spectacularly correct.

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Danny’s pal Louis (Allen Jenkins) is facing a murder rap. The big boss, Max Wagner, decides to let Louis take the fall. Blondie persuades Danny that that’s no way to treat a pal. If he won’t help Louis then he’s as yellow as Max. Danny is convinced, Louis beats the rap, and Danny becomes head of the organisation. Their specialty is the protection racket, to which they add some ingenious new twists. With Blondie providing the brains the organisation is soon thriving.

Danny is obviously sweet on Blondie. Blondie likes him but she wants to keep things on a business-like footing. That all changes when Danny gets married and decides to leave Blondie out in the cold. What he hadn’t counted on was that the boys are now loyal to Blondie, not to him. They knows she’s the brains behind the outfit, they know she always looks after a pal and they know she’ll never turn yellow. So Blondie becomes the big boss, and it’s Danny who’s left out in the cold.

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Blondie’s tangled relationship with Danny is however still left unresolved and sooner or later she’s going to have to make a difficult choice.

Joan Blondell, so often relegated to playing the heroine’s best friend, relishes the opportunity to play the lead role. Blondie might be a gangster but she’s not without human feelings. As much as she tries to think of herself as a tough dame she’s still a woman and those feelings still get in the way. Blondell is superb - tough but still very likeable. Chester Morris is very good as well and the supporting players are excellent, especially Allen Jenkins. He’s one of my favourite character actors from this era. He always played essentially the same role, but he played it very well indeed. Sterling Holloway is amusing as a wry cab driver who helps Blondie when she’s starting her career as a con woman. Japanese-born Toshia Mori is great as Blondie’s glamorous pal Lulu.

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Blondie Johnson isn’t really a hardboiled crime picture. The criminals are all nice people and the mood is generally fairly light-hearted although Blondell does get a few opportunities to show off her abilities as a serious actress. At 67 minutes this is a fast-paced fun ride.

Apart from a generally amoral tone there’s not a lot to distinguish this movie as a pre-code movie. The dialogue is however sharp and entertaining in typical 30s style.

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The Warner Archive made-on-demand disc features a reasonably acceptable print.

Blondie Johnson is thoroughly enjoyable in undemanding viewing and is worth a look, especially for fans of Joan Blondell.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Drive a Crooked Road (1954)

Drive a Crooked Road3If you’re only familiar with Mickey Rooney from the Andy Hardy movies or his 1940s musicals then his 1950s movies in the film noir style will come as quite a surprise. These types of movies really brought out the best in him and Drive a Crooked Road, made at Columbia in 1954, is one of the finest he made.

Rooney is Eddie Shannon, a gifted mechanic who is also a promising racing car driver. He dreams of going to Europe to race in the big time at places like Le Mans. He also dreams of finding love. When he meets Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster) he thinks he has a shot of achieving both his dreams but his fantasy is destined to be shattered.

Barbara is setting him up for her boyfriend Steve. Steve (Kevin McCarthy) and his pal Harold (Jack Kelly) are planning a bank robbery and they need a getaway driver. And this driver has to be very very good. Someone who is a racing car driver would ideal. So they hatch a plan to make Eddie think Barbara is in love with him in order to get him involved.

This movie is a bit of a slow burner but that proves to an asset. We get plenty of time to get to know (and to like) Eddie. He’s a nice guy who just happens to be very innocent where women are concerned. It’s amusing to see the eight-times married Rooney playing someone who knows nothing about women! Rooney doesn’t just fall for Barbara, he falls for her in a very big way indeed.

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Barbara is of course the femme fatale here, but she’s not quite the completely evil spider woman. She does have a conscience although it’s sleeping most of the time. She doesn’t really want to hurt Eddie but of course she will. And she will discover that what seemed like easy work, suckering Eddie into a crime he never wanted any part of, will have a high price, and not just for Eddie.

There are some thrilling driving scenes as Eddie (who of course allows himself to be persuaded to participate in the bank robbery) drives the getaway car at very high speed over an extremely bad and treacherous road.

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Director Richard Quine does a fine job. He doesn’t show us the actual robbery at all - it’s Eddie’s part in the crime that he wants to keep the focus on and it’s a smart movie. Blake Edwards wrote the screenplay. Although better known for his comedies Edwards did quite a bit of work on crime stories for both movies and television early in his career and his screenplay is taut and exciting as well as emotionally effective.

Rooney gives one of his best and most moving performances in this movie. He’s utterly convincing and always in control of his performance, never overplaying but always able to bring out the emotional pain that Eddie feels. Dianne Foster is an effective femme fatale.

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Kevin McCarthy and Jack Kelly are very smooth villains, especially McCarthy. Steve is a charming and likeable guy but the menace is there under the surface. The menace is closer to the surface in Kelly’s performance. They are genuinely frightening villains because they seem so much like regular guys - not at all the stereotypical movie hoodlums. Sometimes evil looks very innocent indeed.

This is classic film noir with a decent guy slowly drawn into a web of crime and deceit, a web from which there seems to be no escape. Pursuing your dreams can be an expensive business.

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This movie is included in the Columbia Film Noir Classics III DVD boxed set and the transfer is superb. There’s a brief introduction by Martin Scorcese. I’ve never liked Scorcese’s own movies but I do enjoy hearing him talk about old movies. There are a few other extras as well.

Drive a Crooked Road is an excellent and unjustly neglected film noir and is highly recommended.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Cobweb (1955)

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Hollywood in the 40s and 50s made many attempts to deal with the subject of psychiatry. One of the most entertaining is MGM’s 1955 effort, The Cobweb.

Vincente Minnelli directed. Minnelli is (quite rightly) revered as one of the masters of the musical genre but he deserves to be equally well remembered for his melodramas. And The Cobweb is mostly certainly a melodrama.

The Cobweb deals with one of the most important challenges faced by psychiatry in the 1950s - interior design. Yes folks, this is the epic Battle of the Drapes.

Dr Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark) is the head doctor at an exclusive mental hospital, Castle House. McIver believes passionately in patient self-government. The patients, through the Patients’ Committee, should make as many of the their own decisions as possible. And no decision could be more vital than the choice of the new curtains for the library.

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The activities director, Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) comes up with a brilliant plan - the patients will make the drapes themselves. One of the patients, Stevie, is an artist who’s had a nervous breakdown and thinks his work is futile. If they can get him to design the drapes it will help to snap him out of his mood of hopelessness.

Unfortunately the hospital’s financial manager, Victoria Inch (Lillian Gish), has already decided to order the curtains from a local company. She’s just interested in getting the cheapest deal. Meanwhile Dr McIver’s wife Karen (Gloria Grahame) has become involved in the drama as well - she wants to order fancy drapes from Chicago.

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The drama of the drapes triggers off huge power struggles within the hospital. The medical director, Dr Devanal (Charles Boyer), supports Miss Inch. He has given up most of his responsibilities to Dr McIver. He signed a contract with McIver that gave McIver most of the powers he had previously wielded. Devanal was once a brilliant young psychiatrist. Now he’s burnt out and spends his time drinking and chasing women. The Battle of the Drapes will give him his last chance to reassert his authority and put Dr McIver in his place.

The curtains become a symbol for whatever it is that everyone in the hospital wants. For Dr Devanal it’s a chance to regain his power. For Dr McIver it’s a chance to show that his theory of patient self-government is viable. For Miss Inch it’s an opportunity to assert her own power. For Karen McIver it’s the opportunity to revitalise her flagging marriage.  For Meg Rinehart it’s part of reconnecting with people again, after the loss of her husband and son in a car accident.

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For the patients it’s a symbol as well. For Mr Holcomb it’s the chance to assert his position as chairman of the Patients’ Committee. For Stevie it’s the chance to revive his career as an artist. For Mr Capp (Oscar Levant) the whole drama reinforces his cynicism about life. For agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg) it’s the chance to help Stevie, with whom she’s fallen in love.

In any battle there are casualties, and the Battle of the Drapes is no exception. This is a battle in which no quarter will be given. To the victors will go the spoils; for the losers there is only the bitterness of defeat.

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This is a melodrama but it is also a black comedy, and a very funny one. And it’s also a satire on psychiatry. The psychiatrists claim to be able to cure others but they can’t even get their own lives in order. At one point Stevie tells Karen McIver that he can’t tell the patients from the doctors in this madhouse. Karen tells him that it’s easy - the patients get better.

Richard Widmark is surprisingly good as the well-intentioned Dr McIver. Charles Boyer is effective as a man who has lost everything but his pride and he is about to lose that as well. This was Oscar Levant’s last film and this performance was a high note on which to go out. John Kerr is also good as Stevie. Lauren Bacall gives a moving performance as a woman who desperately needs to rejoin the human race and open herself up to her feelings again. Unfortunately when her emotions are reawakened she chooses an inappropriate object, Dr McIver. Look our for Fay Wray in a small role.

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The outstanding performance, as so often, comes from Gloria Grahame. She’s all frustrated emotions and even more frustrated sexuality. In almost every scene she is hot and sweaty and behaves like a female cat on heat. This has an effect on almost every male except her husband.

The Cobweb is a wild ride through the madhouse of psychiatry. It’s very funny, very camp and generally enormous fun. Minnelli always approached melodrama seriously. No matter how crazy these people are, both the patients and the doctors, their problems are real to them. The situations are crazy, with people getting outrageously worked up over curtains, but do get obsessed with things as silly as this. There are no villains in this film. People behave badly, but they have their reasons and they are not motivated by malice. As usually happens in real life, chaos is caused by people who are pursuing ends that seem quite reasonable to them even if they appear bizarre to outsiders. The Cobweb is enormous fun and is very highly recommended.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD provides an excellent 16x9 enhanced transfer preserving the original Cinemascope aspect ratio.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

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The Columbia Film Noir Classic III boxed set includes five movies. The first of these movies is Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross, made in 1945. I haven’t the faintest idea why this movie has ever been considered to  be a film noir. These isn’t a single element of film noir present in the movie. My Name is Julia Ross is a gothic melodrama, and it’s a very good one.

This movie has much more in common with other gothic melodramas of the 1940s, such as Dragonwyck, Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Unfortunately film noir is very fashionable and very marketable, while gothic melodrama is not. Melodrama remains a despised genre, for no good reason.

Like other directors of the period Lewis made movies in the style that seemed to suit the material. The script for My Name is Julia Ross was clearly in the established genre of gothic melodrama, and Lewis showed himself to be perfectly adept in using the required style.

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Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is desperate for a job. She accepts a position as secretary to an elderly lady in London but she gets more than she bargained for. After accepting an innocent cup of tea she wakes up 48 hours later in a very gothic house in Cornwall to find that everybody calls her Mrs Hughes. She is apparently married to Ralph Hughes (George Macready), which seems rather strange to her since she’s never met the man.

She finds herself imprisoned in this remote house and since all the villagers have been told that Mrs Hughes is mad nobody will believe her story. The old lady (played by Dame May Whitty) seems kind enough but clearly she is involved in this strange plot. And Ralph Hughes is very worrying indeed. He is obviously mad, and violently so. Julia has the strong feeling that these people mean her no ghood at all, and she’s right.

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If only she could get a message to her boyfriend, Dennis Bruce (Ronald Varno). But even getting a letter out of this house seems as impossible as escape. And escape, as she soon finds out, is very definitely impossible.

Thanks to the household cat she finds a secret passageway, and there she learns what her fate will be. Ralph has murdered his real wife by hurling into the sea and now he and his mother need a substitute wife they can bury. Julia is to be murdered as well. And there seems to be no way she can avoid this fate.

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Nina Foch is very good as the heroine. Dame May Whitty gives a marvelously devious performance as the deranged mother while George Macready is all menace as Ralph Hughes. Ralph is a time-bomb just waiting to go off.

Lewis demonstrates a complete mastery of the gothic style. He was given twelve days to complete the picture and rapidly fell behind schedule. He was offered a bonus, a bonus he desperately needed since he was broke, if he could bring the picture in on time. Instead he informed the studio that he expected to fall even further behind schedule, which he did. He was in big trouble until the movie was sneak-previewed. The sneak preview convinced Columbia that they had a surprise hit on their hands (which proved to be the case) and Harry Cohn gave instructions that in future Lewis was to be allowed to make pictures his way.

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The DVD transfer is a very handsome one and does full justice to Lewis’s stylish direction. The DVD includes a few extras.

If you enjoy the gothic melodrama genre then you should find My Name is Julia Ross to be very satisfactory entertainment indeed. It has all the gothic trappings anyone could wish for. Highly recommended.