Friday, March 29, 2013

Party Husband (1931)

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Party Husband is a 1931 First National Pictures comedy/melodrama about modern marriage.

Jay (James Rennie) and Laura (Dorothy Mackaill) are going to have a very up-to-date marriage. They’re going to be completely independent and free. Marriage is not going to be a trap for them. Laura will get a job. They will not be jealous of each other.

Of course their ideas turn out to be ludicrously unworkable. As soon as Laura starts to work back late with her publisher boss Horace Purcell (Donald Cook) Jay gets jealous. When Jay starts night-clubbing with glamorous radio personality Bee Canfield (Mary Duran) Laura gets jealous. But they’re both too stubborn to admit that their ideas are juvenile and impractical and their behaviour becomes steadily more infantile.

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They’re both trying to make each other more jealous, and they’re both succeeding. Of course they’re actually in love with each other but they still refuse to admit that what they actually want is a proper old-fashioned marriage. Jay gets more involved with Bee Canfield and Laura goes off on a business trip with Purcell. Then Laura’s old friend Kate (Dorothy Peterson) gets mixed up in their affairs. She’s in love with Jay but she realises that Jay is still in love with Laura.

The expected complications ensue, and the cast handles the material very adroitly. Most of these actors are long-forgotten, familiar faces in the pre-code days whose careers faded away by the late 1930s. Mackaill is finally being rediscovered by pre-code fans, a rediscovery that is long overdue.

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This movie is rather typical of pre-code movies, presenting us with the dilemmas of modern marriage while eventually coming down on the side of the traditional family on the grounds that the traditional family works while these new-fangled ideas on open marriage sound great in theory but fall apart in reality when they’re confronted by the way people actually feel.

There’s plenty of dissipation here. Lots of bathtub gin gets consumed as the characters try desperately hard to be wicked, but as Laura’s mother points out to her they don’t have enough substance to be genuinely wicked so they’re better off not trying.

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Director Clarence G. Badger had a prolific career in the early days of the film industry but quit the business in 1936 and moved to Australia where he made a handful of movies. Pre-code movies aren’t renowned for their visual boldness and Badger’s direction is solid if uninspired. As is usual with pre-codes the movie relies on the sets and the costumes for its visual style.

The screenplay doesn’t exactly sparkle but it does provide some amusement. One can’t help sharing Laura’s mother’s frustration with these rather vacuous self-obsessed characters.

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The Warner Archive double-feature DVD pairs this one with the equally lightweight but amusing Office Wife. The transfer is very grainy but it’s acceptable. Sound quality is adequate. This movie really could have used some restoration but I suppose we should be grateful we’re getting to see such movies at all.

Party Husband is certainly not essential viewing but if you enjoy pre-code movies it’s worth a look, mostly for Mackaill’s performance.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rope of Sand (1949)


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Paramount’s 1949 production Rope of Sand belongs to the sub-genre that I like to think of as tropical noir. Scorching heat and tropical madness take the place of rainswept city streets that the motivations of the characters are still recognisably noir.

Casablanca, The Bribe and Macau are the best-known American representatives of this sub-genre, although Julien Duvivier's 1937 French noir Pépé le Moko can perhaps be seen as the daddy of them all.

Rope of Sand introduces us to Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster), a big game hunter whose client, an Englishman named Ingram, wandered into the forbidden diamond zone, rigidly policed by the Colonial Diamond Company. Davis found Ingram in delirium, clutching a handful of diamonds he had found by pure luck. It was not good luck though, it was very bad luck. As Peter Lorre remarks at several points in the film, diamonds have an unfortunate effect of the human soul. Ingram would not live to enjoy his haul, and Davis would endure a savage beating from the company’s security chief, the viciously sadistic Commandant Vogel (Paul Henreid). Davis was eventually released, having refused to reveal the location of the diamonds. In fact he had buried the diamonds where he found Ingram. Davis does not believe in taking things that are not his.

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Two years later Davis is back in Diamantstadt. And his attitude has changed. He was beaten even though he hadn’t stolen the diamonds. Now he wants those diamonds. And he knows where they are. The problem is how to get into the Forbidden Area and then out again, alive.

Martingale (Claude Rains), who runs the operation in this area for the Colonial Diamond Company, comes up with a clever scheme. After a chance encounter with a cheap Capetown tramp named Suzanne (Corinne Calvet), who tries to blackmail him, his plan takes shape. He will use Suzanne to try to get the information about the diamonds from Mike. As an added bonus, something that adds greatly to his enjoyment of the game, Martingale is able to set Mike Davies and Paul Vogel at each other’s throats. As useful as he is, Martingale despises the brutal Vogel.

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The inevitable complication is that Suzanne genuinely falls in love with Mike. As Martingale bitterly remarks, the most corrupt women seem to have a stubborn decent streak in them that comes out at the most inopportune moments. Now Suzanne and Mike are planning to get the diamonds but their plans do not go smoothly. Mike is a noir hero. It’s not even as if he really wants the diamonds, he just wants revenge on Vogel, but he’s prepared to destroy himself in order to achieve that revenge. Suzanne knows it will end badly for Mike, but all her appeals cannot shake his stubborn resolve.

Burt Lancaster makes a fine self-destructive noir hero. He hated this film but at the time he was ambitious for meatier roles. Suzanne is the would-be femme fatale but she is betrayed from her femme fatale ways by her love. Corinne Calvet certainly has the looks and the glamour. The movie might have benefited from having a more experienced actress in such a key role, but her performance is quite adequate. Claude Rains is as suave and as subtly menacing as ever while Paul Henreid makes a memorable and very nasty villain. Same Jaffe is good in a small role as a drunken company doctor while Peter Lorre has fun with his role as a likeable crook who keeps trying to befriend Mike.

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It’s these enjoyable performances that ultimately make this movie worthwhile and allow us to forgive its faults.

William Dieterle was an accomplished and versatile director and does a solid job. Charles Lang’s cinematography is a definite asset. The movie’s major weakness is the screenplay by Walter Doniger. Doniger’s characters are stereotypes and his plotting is all too predictable.

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Olive Films’ DVD release is up to their usual high standards, but (as usual with this company) you will look in vain for any extras.

Rope of Sand is by no means a great film but for those who enjoy the combination of adventure and tropical noir and the great cast it’s worth a watch.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Mob (1951)


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The Mob might not be a film noir but this 1951 Columbia production is a very good hardboiled cop thriller with a powerful lead performance and it’s definitely worth a watch.

Broderick Crawford is Johnny Damico, a cop who makes a bad mistake. Outside a jeweller’s store at night in pouring rain he witnesses a shooting. The shooter flips him his badge and tells him he’s a police lieutenant. The badge is genuine so Damico believes him. What Damico doesn’t know is that the badge was taken off a cop who was killed two hours earlier and that the shooter is not just a cop-killer but he’s also just rubbed out an important witness right in front of him. Damico is in a lot of trouble, but he’s given a chance to get himself back into the department’s good books. He’s to go undercover investigating the waterfront rackets. He’s told he might even survive the assignment!

So the department announces that Johnny Damico has been suspended, but in reality he’s been transformed into Tim Flynn, a tough brawling dock front worker with a bad attitude.

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Damico is befriended by Tom Clancy (Richard Kiley) who teaches him the ropes. The waterfront here is entirely corrupt. The union is dominated by mobsters who have a variety of rackets going, everything from kick-backs to organised robbery. Part of each man’s daily wage goes straight into the pockets of the racketeers. If you don’t like it you don’t work. Damico also picks up snippets of information from the barman at the hotel where he lives, a man known as Smoothie.

“Tim Flynn” attracts attention right away and soon finds himself being introduced to mobster Joe Castro (Ernest Borgnine). Castro claims to be the top man but he obviously isn’t. But who is the top man? Castro has Gunner (Neville Brand) to enforce his wishes. “Tim Flynn” and Gunner clash right from the start and it’s clear that sooner or later there is going to be a reckoning between the two men.

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Damico thinks he’s getting close to finding the information the department needs to smash the waterfront rackers but the identity of the top man remains a puzzle, and the department can’t move until they have that information.

Broderick Crawford is perfectly cast. An actor known for living hard and drinking hard he was the perfect movie tough guy and he’s convincing as both a cop and in his undercover role as a longshoreman. He gets good support from Richard Kiley as Clancy. Betty Buehler as Damico’s girlfriend has little to do. Lynn Baggett as Clancy’s wife Peggy and Jean Alexander as her sister Doris get slightly more of an opportunity. Neville Brand goes close to stealing the picture as the sinister Gunner, and he gets some of the movie’s best lines.

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Director Robert Parrish and cinematographer Joseph Walker provide plenty of atmosphere  and it’s that atmosphere that provides the movie’s very slender claims to being a film noir. William Bowers’ screenplay (from a novel by Ferguson Findley) is packed with gritty hardboiled dialogue.

The waterfront setting is skillfully utilised and there are some fun scenes where the police using their latest high-tech gadgets to trail a suspect, such as fitting a miniature transmitter to the suspect’s car. The miniature transmitter is about the size of a suitcase! They also use ultra-violet light which cools pretty cool.

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This movie forms part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics III DVD boxed set. The transfer is superb but compared to film noir releases from Fox and Warners it’s a bit light on extras,  which is disappointing given the hefty price tag.

If you like your cop movies good and tough then The Mob should hit the spot. The generally excellent performances are an added inducement. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

why people today won't watch old movies

I belong to several online movie communities. From time to time the question gets raised - why do modern audiences have such an enormous resistance to the idea of watching old movies?

The answer that was duly wheeled out the last time this question was raised was that modern viewers are alienated by the trappings of the past. The cars look different. The furniture looks like the furniture in their grandparents’ house. The clothes are different. Everything looks old-fashioned, so to modern movie-goers watching an old black-and-white movie is like visiting a museum.

I wonder if that's what is really going on? I have my doubts. Modern audiences will cheerfully watch movies and TV series set in the past. The success of movies like LA Confidential and TV series like Mad Men proves that. In fact the popularity of the BBC’s endless Jane Austen adaptations shows that modern viewers are quite happy to watch a TV series set two hundred years in the past. So why should a 1940s movie present any problems?

It obviously isn’t the clothes or the furniture or the cars. In fact if anything those elements are probably a plus to viewers of today, if we are to judge by the popularity of retro blogs. Retro fashion and retro style are big.

So what is the answer?

I think it's the values represented by old movies that confuse and frighten modern audiences.

They can't comprehend a romantic comedy where a man and a woman go out to dinner and don't end up in bed together. They can't understand characters in movies who take their marriages seriously. They don’t understand that concepts like duty used to be considered to be all-important. It’s the attitudes towards religious, moral and social beliefs that are so alienating to modern audiences.

The idea that people at one time thought differently from the way we think today, that they had beliefs and values that they took for granted that were in many ways the polar opposites of commonly held beliefs and values today, that’s an idea that is both alienating and threatening to many people.

Even worse, the characters in old movies seem to have very definite moral codes and seem to take such matters more seriously than they are taken today. The idea that you can live by such a different moral code and still be a person who is generally regarded as a good person is very unsettling.

If you look at modern movies and TV series set in the past it immediately becomes apparent that the values of our own age have been imposed on the past by the makers. They just don’t ring true. They might get the clothes and the furniture right, but the attitudes and behaviours are all wrong. They’ve been modernised to make them acceptable to modern audiences, so in fact they are completely unhistorical. That’s why modern movie-goers will watch a modern movie set in the 50s, but they won’t watch a 1950s movie. The modern movie reassures them that the way we think today is the way people have always thought. The genuine 1950s movie doesn’t offer them any such reassurance.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Over-Exposed (1956)

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Over-Exposed is included in Sony’s Bad Girls of Noir boxed set, but its claim to noir status is pretty slender, as indeed is its claim to being a Bad Girl movie. This 1956 Columbia production does have some hard-boiled elements however and noir fans might well find it to be worth a look.

Lily Krenshka (Cleo Moore) is about to be run out of town after a notorious clip joint is raided by the police. As she leaves the police station a photographer snaps her picture. She demands to get the photo back and the photographer tells her if she comes around to his place later he’ll give it to her. Lily is nothing if not cynical and she’s pretty sure she knows what he has in mind. But she agrees.

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The elderly photographer, Max West, turns out to be a nice old gentleman even if he is perhaps too fond of the bottle. He takes pity on Lily, who has two dollars to her name, and offers her the chance to earn a few bucks posing for him. No, not for those sorts of photos, these are quite innocuous bathing suit calendar shots. He tells her she could make big money as a model but Lily decides that’s a mug’s game. Once your looks start to fade you’re finished. She figures the place to be is behind the camera, not in front of it.

Max takes her on as his assistant and teaches her photography. Before he leaves him he offers her one last piece of advice. She’s never going to make it as Lily Krenshka - why not change her name to something more euphonious? How about Lila Crane? Thus Lila Crane is born.

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Lila discovers that making it as a professional photographer is a lot tougher than she thought. But eventually the breaks come her way. A year later Lila Crane is the hottest young photographer in the city, and very rich. She has gained a reputation not only as a great photographer but also as an exceptionally ambitious and ruthless woman. Ironically it is when she tries to do something decent that her world comes crashing down on top of her. Given her reputation for ruthlessness no-one will believe her.

Whatever slender claims this movie has to being a noir comes mostly from the fact that Lila is fundamentally decent but she has a fatal flaw in her character - her excessive love of money and her inordinate ambition. This will propel her into the noir nightmare world. In his sense she does fit the mould of the noir hero. You could even argue (although this is probably stretching a point very far indeed) that the femme fatale who brings her down is herself, or rather the Lila Crane she has created.

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Modern audiences are likely to view this movie very differently from audiences in 1956. They are likely to try to misread it by seeing Lila as a feminist heroine, a woman making it in a man’s world. They are likely to view her ambition as being entirely a good thing, but to do that destroys the movie. It’s not that Lila is portrayed as a monster. She is ruthless and she has few friends, but she is fiercely loyal to the friends she has. And while her ethics are slightly slippery she does have ethics. There are some things that Lila would never do, and it’s that loyalty and that essential decency buried beneath the hard-boiled ambitious surface that are the keys to the film.

Lila’s reporter boyfriend Russ (Richard Crenna) also presents a problem. He thinks she’s prostituting her art and that she should be working as a news photographer. In fact Lila’s career as a successful fashion photographer is a considerably more decent way of earning a living than his way. But in 1956 reporters were still seen as heroes (yes it was a very long time ago). If anyone is prostituting themselves it’s him, but that’s another pitfall that a modern viewer is likely to fall into. To appreciate the movie you have to accept its premise that reporters are decent human beings. I know it’s hard, but you have to try.

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Cleo Moore does well as Lila, presenting her as a woman torn between love and ambition, and between ambition and decency. Lila is hard-boiled and cynical but there’s enough decency within her to make a character we can care about.

The DVD presentation is 16x9 enhanced and looks great. The only extra is a trailer.

Over-Exposed is unable to escape its B-movie roots. The plot is rather contrived, sometimes too much so, and it’s no masterpiece. Cleo Moore’s performance makes it worth bothering with. Worth a rental if you don’t set your expectations too high.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

film noir - discovery or invention?

Books about film noir will usually tell you that film noir reflected a certain mood that afflicted American society in the 1940s. Postwar disillusionment and all that stuff. The problem with this is that film noir did not exist in Hollywood in the 40s. Film noir as a concept was invented by French intellectuals in the late 40s but for at least the next thirty years it remained a concept known only to a handful of French intellectuals.

Film noir did not exist in the English-speaking world until the 1970s. In that decade American film critics suddenly discovered film noir. But the key question is, did they discover film noir or did they invent it? Did they take a theory that appealed to them and then cherry-pick the vast output of American crime movies of the 40s and 50s looking for movies that they could shoe-horn into their cool new theory?

If it’s true that movies reflect the era in which they were made, it’s also true (possibly to an even greater extent) that film criticism reflects the era in which it is written. Books on film noir written during the 1990s tell us more about the cultural attitudes of 1990s intellectuals than they tell us about the cultural attitudes of 1940s film audiences. A book on film noir published in 2013 will tell you a great deal about the way the author views the world of today, but will it tell you anything about the way people in 1945 viewed the world?

Much of the disillusionment and disaffection of 1940s and 1950s film noir is actually the disillusionment and disaffection of modern intellectuals.

It’s also important to remember that one of the key sources for film noir was the hard-boiled school of crime-writing, and that this school flourished in the 20s and 30s. That school started to be mined for source material for movies in a big way in the 40s, but the cynicism and disillusionment they reflected was the cynicism and disillusionment of the 30s, not the 40s.

It’s also worth remembering that every decade of film history has produced its crop of bleak and cynical films. Writers tend to like that sort of thing so there will always be screenplays that reflect that taste. Writers can always find something to be miserable and pessimistic about. Hollywood movies of the 40s and 50s were really no more bleak and cynical than the movies of any other decade. To the extent that film noir existed it was a tendency amongst writers and film-makers rather than being a reflection of the attitudes of American society as a whole.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

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Bell, Book and Candle is a breezy 1958 romantic comedy about witches in modern New York City.

James Stewart is publisher Shep Henderson. He’s about to be married, that is until he meets his neighbour downstairs. Gillian (Kim Novak) runs a shop specialising in primitive art. Shep thinks she’s a bit flaky but what he doesn’t know is that she’s a witch. Gillian takes one look at Shep and decides he’s the man for her. The fact that he’s going to be married the next day is a minor detail that can easily be taken care of. She is after all a witch. She casts a spell on him to make him fall in love with her.

Needless to say Shep’s wedding is soon called off and he’s hopelessly in love with Gillian.

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Gillian’s brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) is also a witch. That causes problems when Shep is persuaded to publish a book on Magic in Manhattan. Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) is a crazy drunken author who’s just written a bestseller called Magic in Mexico. Sidney knows there are lots of witches in Manhattan but he doesn’t really know anything about the city’s thriving witch subculture. That’s where Nicky steps in, offering to co-author Sidney’s new book. Nicky figures he’ll make a lot of money out of it but unfortunately he tells Sidney a little bit too much about the witch subculture.

Meanwhile Gillian is feeling guilty about snaring Shep by witchcraft because she’s started to fall genuinely in love with him. And everyone knows what happens when a witch falls in love - she loses her powers. But Gillian doesn’t care and she’s determined to tell Shep the truth about herself. Of course he doesn’t believe her but after spending some time with Nicky and with Gillian’s dotty middle-aged witch friend Bianca (Hermione Gingold) he realises it’s all true. Now Gillian is about to lose Shep.

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There are the usual romantic comedy complications, with a few new supernatural twists. Shep has broken with Gillian but he can’t get her out of his head. The truth is that his attraction for her is no longer witchcraft - he’s really in love with her. Gillian’s familiar Pyewacket (a Siamese cat) is disgusted by the whole proceeding and decides to move out. Pyewacket likes his life as a witch’s familiar and he’s not interested in staying around if Gillian is going to do daft things like fall in love with a mortal. He’s moving in with Bianca.

Gillian and her friends might be witches, but they’re harmless good-natured witches (except perhaps for Nicky but even he is chaotic and meddlesome rather than malevolent).   These are modern witches and they just want to be left alone with their congenial little subculture. The tone is strictly light-hearted.

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Jimmy Stewart is in full-on Jimmy Stewart mode, thoroughly likeable and at his ease. Jack Lemmon, one of my least favourite actors, has ruined many a movie but he can’t ruin this one and at times it’s almost possible to even enjoy his performance. The big surprise is Kim Novak. She’s an absolute delight. She’s obviously having a ball and she makes a perfect modern-day witch - slightly exotic, quite sexy, and generally adorable.

Director Richard Quine keeps things bubbling along very nicely. This is the sort of movie that probably didn’t really need to be made in widescreen and Technicolor but with the great James Wong Howe as cinematographer it all looks glorious and no-one is likely to complain.

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The Region 2 DVD provides few extras but it looks extremely good.

Bell, Book and Candle is pure fun and is certain to please even the most jaded of romantic comedy fans. Highly recommended and a must-see for one of Kim Novak’s finest performances.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Burglar (1957)

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The Burglar is a little-known 1957 film noir based on a novel by the great American crime writer David Goodis (responsible for such classics as Dark Passage). Godis wrote the screenplay for this independently produced movie distributed by Columbia which marked the feature film debut for director Paul Wendkos.

Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea), Baylock (Peter Capell), Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy) and Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) are a gang of burglars about to pull their most ambitious job yet - robbing the mansion of a religious cult leader and stealing an emerald necklace.

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The robbery goes off fairly well, except that Nat had to reveal himself to a passing cop. Nat doesn’t have a record so that doesn’t seem to be a major problem although later on it will turn out to have been a mistake. Nat is determined that the gang should sit tight after the robbery and wait for the heat to cool down before trying to get rid of the necklace. This causes tensions within the gang, particularly with Baylock. Baylock is older and is on probation and he soon gets very jumpy. He wants to do the deal with the fence and take off for Central America as soon as possible.

Gladden also causes tensions with both Baylock and Dohmer. It’s not long before the gang is tearing itself apart and Nat decides it would be best if Gladden disappeared somewhere for a while. He packs her off to Atlantic City. This will prove to be his second big mistake. Meanwhile Nat is picked up in a bar by Della (Martha Vickers), and that’s mistake number three.

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Nat’s encounter with Della triggers off several clever plot twists that will eventually lead Nat  to Atlantic City, and to an exciting finale in a funhouse.

The real core of the movie is Nat’s strange relationship with Gladden which is handled sensitively. Dan Duryea is superb as always in a role that requires much more emotional involvement than most of his roles. Jayne Mansfield, a very underrated actress, is also very good as Gladden. In fact she’s the best thing in this movie, delivering a subtle and very moving performance.

This movie was actually made in 1955 but not released until 1957, making it Mansfield’s first major leading role although by the time the movie came out she had already achieved stardom. It’s one of two noir films that she made, the other being the 1960 British production The Challenge (AKA It Takes a Thief) in which she is also extremely good.

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This movie was an impressive debut for Paul Wendkos who pulls off some nice set-pieces and displays a rather stylish touch. Cinematographer Don Malkames gives the movie the necessary noirish look.

Wendkos really ratchets up the tensions in the heist scene, while the climactic scenes on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City are gripping and nerve-wracking as well as being visually stunning.

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The Burglar is available on DVD in the Columbia Film Noir Classics III set. The 16x9 enhanced widescreen transfer is excellent and the extras include a brief but enthusiastic introduction by Martin Scorcese.

An overlooked noir gem that is highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mask of the Dragon (1951)

Mask of the Dragon1Lippert Pictures made some pretty decent crime B-movies in the early 50s. Their 1951 offering Mask of the Dragon is not one of them. It also has very very slender claims indeed to being a film noir.

It has the right ingredients - a mysterious jade dragon, international smuggling, an innocent GI duped into becoming involved in crooked dealings and the exotic Chinatown settings. But having the right ingredients is sometimes not enough.

An American soldier stationed in Korea, Lieutenant Daniel Oliver (Richard Emory), is about to be sent home. He gets an offer from a local dealer in oriental antiquities. All he has to do is to transport a jade dragon back to the US and deliver it to a collector in Los Angeles, a Professor Kim Ho, and he can make himself a couple of hundred bucks. The lieutenant had apparently worked in Military Intelligence during the war. All I can say is that Military Intelligence must have been hard up at the time because this young officer is definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

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Even more worrying is that Oliver works as a private eye during peacetime, which makes it even more surprising that he’d fall for such an obvious routine. Of course the jade dragon is not what it seems, and Professor Kim Ho most definitely is not what he seems. In fact he’s a master criminal. The jade dragon is evidently worth killing for because eventually two people are murdered for it.

Oliver’s partner Phil Ramsey (Richard Travis) has to untangle the clues to solve the mystery, a mystery that would be unlikely to tax the brainpower of a moderately intelligent five-year-old child. He has help from his girlfriend who works in the scientific section of the LA Police Department. His most promising lead is a blonde who works for a small television station.

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We get treated to some of the highlights of the station’s programming. I can only assume this was intended as satire, television being not exactly popular among movie-makers in the early 50s, although perhaps live TV programming in 1951 really was as dire as this. We even get to hear not one but two songs by a truly awful western singing trio known as The Trailsmen.

Even though the movie’s running time is very short indeed (just 53 minutes) there’s really only enough plot for a half-hour episode of a TV series so there’s quite a lot of padding and the pacing is painfully slow.

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Even worse there’s way too much comic relief, provided by the incredibly irritating Sid Melton. Any amount of Sid Melton would to too much, and there’s a lot of him in this movie.  The acting is mostly fairly awful, with some very bad Chinese accents, although Lyle Talbot is fun (as always) as the head of the Homicide Squad.

Sam Newfield had a prolific career as a director of B-movies, some of which were quite decent. With a dull screenplay by Orville Hampton and a threadbare plot there’s not much he can do here.

The incredibly corny organ soundtrack makes this movie seem even more cheesy than it already is. This really is a terrible movie, and I say this as a fan of low-budget Hollywood B-pictures.

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This movie is included in the VCI/Kit Parker Films Forgotten Noir DVD boxed set. The transfer is quite reasonable.

Mask of the Dragon is proof that sometimes forgotten movies are forgotten for a very good reason. Avoid this one.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Night Editor (1946)


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Night Editor is a slightly misleading title for this 1946 Columbia film noir. It’s not really a newspaper story, it’s a cop story. The newspaper angle merely provides the framing story.

The night staff of the New York Star are sitting around playing cards when young reporter Johnny arrives, badly hungover. Johnny is a married man but he’s been playing around and he’s been boozing. The night editor starts to tell a story, a story that will have particular relevance to Johnny. It’s the story of Tony Cochrane, a good cop gone bad. As the night editor says, a man makes one mistake and a mountain falls on him. And a mountain certainly fell on Tony Cochrane. Tony’s story is told in a flashback that occupies most of the movie.

It was back in the days of Prohibition. Tony (William Gargan) is a homicide cop. He is married, with a nice wife and a nice kid. But he’s fooling around with a married woman. He knows it’s wrong and he hates himself, and he knows that Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) is no good. She is more than no good. As Tony tells her, “You’re worse than blood poisoning. You're rotten through and through. Like something they serve at the Ritz, only it’s been laying out in the sun too long...You’re a sickness.” Tony tries to tell her it’s all over but Jill’s not buying it. She knows he’s helpless. She has him hooked.

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Tony and Jill are packed in a nice quiet secluded little spot while they’re having this conversation when suddenly a convertible pulls up nearby. The convertible is driven by a woman and there’s a male passenger. Then the male passenger starts beating the woman viciously with a tyre iron. The assailant runs off and Tony gives chase. Tony has the guy lined up in his sights ready to plug him when Jill tells him not to do it. If he shoots the guy their affair will become public. Tony will lose his job (since he’s been canoodling with Jill when he’s supposed to be working) and he will lose his wife and son. Tony hesitates, then lowers his gun. The assailant escapes. Tony and Jill drive and Tony doesn’t report the matter. Of course the next morning the body of the woman is found.

Tony knows this is all going to be awkward when the investigation gets under way. The woman in the convertible is dead, and she’s not just any woman. She’s Elaine Blanchard, the daughter of a very big wheel. This is going to be a major murder case, top priority. When Tony and the rest of the Homicide Squad arrive next morning Tony realises just how awkward things are going to be. There are two very distinct sets of tyre tracks, and one of them (made of course by Tony’s car) is going to be easy to identify because there’s a cut on the tyre.

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Tony’s nightmare has just begun. It gets even worse when it turns out that Jill Merrill knew the murdered woman and that she knows a lot more than she’s telling him. It gets worse still when an arrest is made. Tony is in an impossible situation. He thinks he sees a way out, but then the ground opens up beneath his feet and he is falling deep, deep into the noir nightmare world.

This is classic film noir. Tony is basically a decent guy. If he hadn’t listened to Jill and he’d shot the murderer things would have been unpleasant for him but he might still have had a chance to put things right with his family and he might even have been able to keep his job. He’d have been rapped over the knuckles, but probably nothing worse. But he did listen to Jill and now he’s the typical noir protagonist, trapped like a fly in a spider’s web.

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And Jill Merrill is some spider. She’s not just your average femme fatale. She’s the femme fatale to end all femmes fatales. She has no redeeming qualities, she’s simply evil through and through. Janis Carter does a fine job in the role, bringing out the viciousness in Jill but still making us understand why she has such a hold over Tony. William Gargan makes a good noir protagonist, playing Tony as a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.

During his lengthy career Henry Levin directed a lot of movies and it’s difficult to find fault with the job he does here. Harold Jacob Smith provides a very noirish screenplay laced with some choice hardboiled dialogue. The film was based on a radio series of the same name. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey was responsible for lensing many fine movies in this genre and he provides the necessary atmosphere in abundance.

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This movie is one of four in Columbia’s Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 2 boxed set. The transfer is excellent and the extras on disc one include an episode of a television series from the same era. I haven’t watched it yet but its inclusion suggests it may have some noirish elements.

With Janis Carter’s bravura performance as the queen of the spider women and a general atmosphere of sleaze, guilt and sin Night Editor is a splendid little B film noir and is highly recommended.