Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Big Knife (1955)

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Hollywood loves to hate itself, and Robert Aldrich’s 1955 melodrama The Big Knife is self-hatred at its most disgusting worst.

Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is a big movie star. But Charlie is unhappy. Why is he unhappy? Because he feels he has sold out his talent, that he should be doing something Significant and Important. Charlie wants to be an artist, to do socially relevant work, but he is trapped by his contract with the wicked Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger). It is a nightmare existence for him. All he has is fame and lots and lots of money. And it’s not enough for him, poor pet. He feels artistically stifled. The studio forces him to make successful movies and to make pots of money and to live in a luxurious mansion in Bel Air with lots of servants. Yes, I know you feel his pain as I do.

Now the wicked Stanley Hoff wants Charlie to sign another contract, a contract which will doom him to another seven years of fame and wealth. Naturally Charlie is very upset. And his estranged wife Marion (Ida Lupino) agrees with him. She hates wicked Stanley and she hates what he is doing to poor Charlie. That naturally doesn’t stop Marion from asking for more money, money which comes from the wicked Stanley Hoff.

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Charlie is desperate. In the past Charlie did something very foolish, something which could  have not only wrecked his career but landed him in prison. Stanley Hoff saved him from the consequences of his foolishness, thus ensuring that Charlie would continue to be famous, successful and very rich. Naturally Charlie hates him for this. Who wouldn’t?

Now Charlie’s past threatens to catch up with him, and he discovers just how wicked a town Hollywood really is.

Oh dear God, the self-pity! Excuse me while I vomit. And the way Jack Palance wallows in this self-pity would turn the strongest stomach.

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And giving Stanley Kramer as an example of a director with integrity! Stanley Kramer, one of the most nauseatingly self-righteous bores ever to plague Hollywood. Excuse me while I vomit again.

This is a truly stunning performance by Palance. You might think that you’re familiar with all of the ways in which an acting performance can be bad, but in this picture Palance invents whole new ways of being a bad actor. He opens up whole new vistas of thespian ghastliness.

This movie presents Rod Steiger with one of the greatest acting challenges of his career. Palance’s performance is so spectacularly awful, so cringe-inducingly embarrassing, that it is difficult to conceive of any way in which any actor could possibly do worse. But Steiger is equal to the challenge, giving one of the most excruciatingly bad performances in the history of motion pictures.

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Then there’s Shelley Winters, making this a real parade of the hams. She plays Dixie Evans, a nobody who landed a contract at the studio because she knows all about Charlie’s little secret. Winters was always inclined to go over-the-top but she still gave some very effective performances in her career. This is not one of them.

And just when you think this movie couldn’t possibly contain any characters more irritating than Charlie, Stanley or Dixie, along comes Wesley Addy as Hank Teagle. Hank is a writer. A real writers. He’s tried and failed to make it in Hollywood and now he’s going back to New York to write the Great American novel. He’s been romancing Marion. God knows that after Charlie any man would seem attractive but it’s soon obvious that Hank is just too mealy-mouthed and self-satisfied for any woman to touch with a barge pole. Luckily suffering is good for writers so Hank won’t lose on the deal.

Ida Lupino was a great actress and she manages not to embarrass herself too much in this lamentable cinematic ordeal. Marion is a smarmy hypocrite but compared to the loathsomeness of the other characters she’s almost human.

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The screenplay by James Poe was based on a play by Clifford Odets, and it shows. It’s very very stagey and everything that makes the theatre the most tedious of all dead art forms is present in this movie. Every line of dialogue is a speech, and every line of dialogue is more phony than the previous one. I can only imagine that watching this rubbish on stage would have been an even more painful ordeal than watching it on the screen.

At one point Charlie asks one of the other characters to hit him. I certainly wanted to hit him. But mostly I wanted to hit screenwriter James Poe and director Robert Aldrich. I wanted to go on hitting them until they’d experienced some of the misery they inflicted on me with this turgid reeking pile of cinematic trash.

This horrific mess of a movie stumbles along for 111 very very long minutes. It’s been described as unwatchable and that’s very nearly true. The only thing that keeps one watching is a kind of fascinated horror. It’s like discovering something on the bottom of your shoe. You’re not sure it’s dog excrement so you have to check to make sure. In this case it really is dog excrement. The sooner you scrape this movie off the bottom of your shoe the happier you’ll be.

Monday, May 27, 2013

99 River Street (1953)

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99 River Street is a very solid 1953 film noir starring the always reliable and always underrated John Payne.

Payne is Ernie Driscoll, a prize fighter who almost made it to world champion. A cut eye cost him his title bout and it also cost him his career. He was barred from boxing on medical grounds - another punch on that eye and he could lose his sight permanently.

Now Ernie Driscoll drives cabs. It’s a long way from being almost world champion but Ernie could handle it OK if it weren’t for his wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Pauline never lets Ernie forget that he’s a failure. When she married him she thought she was marrying a future world champion, and now she’s married to a cab driver.

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Ernie tries very hard to make a bad situation bearable. He is devoted to Pauline. He has plans to open a gas station when he saves up enough money. It’s not much of an ambition but it would be enough for Ernie if only Pauline were prepared to accept it. Instead the gas station idea just makes her more bitter and more scornful. Ernie doesn’t give up though. He still thinks that things will eventually work out. The poor sap still thinks that love can conquer all.

Then Ernie’s whole world comes tumbling down on top of him. Waiting outside the florist shop where she works to pick her up he sees Pauline in the arms of another man. The situation is actually much worse than he thinks. This other man is Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter) and he’s a hoodlum. He’s not just a cheap hood - he’s a very nasty piece of work indeed.

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it’s already been a bad day for Ernie Driscoll but it’s going to get worse. First his friend Linda James (Evelyn Keyes) plays a very cruel practical joke on him. His friendship with Linda was entirely innocent. She’s an aspiring actress and he thought she was a nice kid. Now he realises that you just can’t trust anybody, especially dames.

Then comes the icing on the cake, as Ernie finds himself framed for a murder.

The only problem with this movie as a film noir is that Ernie Driscoll’s problems are not caused by some inherent weakness in his personality, nor are they the result of one bad decision. Ernie just has a spectacular run of bad breaks that could have happened to anybody.

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The movie does have a femme fatale though, in the person of Pauline Driscoll. The first time we see her we figure this dame is no good, and we’re right. Peggie Castle makes a fine femme fatale. Pauline is a real prize package. She knows Ernie’s weaknesses and she knows where to hit him so it hurts.

John Payne has never received his due as an actor. He gives a great performance. Ernie is not a classic noir loser. He is tempted by self-pity but he always snaps himself out of it. He knows that when you’re sinking under a barrage of punches that’s the time you have to show your class as a fighter and that’s the way he approaches life. As things get tougher for him he fights back harder.

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I found Evelyn Keyes to be rather irritating as Linda. She overacts and at times it seems a bit phony. Luckily the support cast is excellent, with Jay Adler being especially good as Christopher, a big-time fence who looks like a kindly grandfather but is both cunning and dangerous. Jack Lambert is fun as Christopher’s stooge Mickey, a particularly vicious character who likes nothing better than to hurt people. Brad Dexter is oily and treacherous as Rawlins, a man always only a hair trigger away from violence.

Director Phil Karlson made some superb B noirs and he demonstrates his mastery again here. This movie is tough and uncompromisingly violent and it moves with the relentlessness of a freight train. The opening fight scene is powerful and visceral. Karlson and cinematographer Franz Planer give this movie plenty of noir atmosphere and plenty of style.

MGM’s made-on-demand DVD release features a very good transfer but no extras. 99 River Street is a film noir that doesn’t pull its punches. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)

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The Falcon in Hollywood was the tenth of RKO’s successful B-movie series featuring the suave amateur sleuth The Falcon. It’s a decent little crime thriller with the Hollywood setting adding some further interest.

By this time Tom Conway had taken over the role from his brother George Sanders. Conway would star in no less than ten Falcon films.

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Tom Lawrence, AKA The Falcon, is enjoying a relaxing day at the races when he unexpectedly finds himself involved in a murder case. It starts innocently enough, with a young woman taking another woman’s purse by mistake. Lawrence pursues her in a cab. The cab is driven by Billie Atkins (Veda Ann Borg), who ends up tagging along with Lawrence for the rest of the movie, assuming the role of his comic sidekick.

The cab pursuit ends in a movie studio, and in an empty sound stage where Lawrence discovers a body. The body then disappears but Lawrence knows it must be on the studio lot somewhere.

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The Falcon finds himself caught up in the production of Alec Hoffman’s latest movie at Sunset Studios. It’s a project that seems to have been born under a singularly unlucky star. Everything that could go wrong in the making of a movie has gone wrong. The producer, Martin Dwyer, is becoming increasingly desperate. And now the lead actor has been murdered. For the body that Lawrence found was that of Tom Miles, the star of the picture. There are so many jealousies and intrigues surrounding the movie that just about anybody could have been the murderer. Big-time gambler Louie Buchanan and his girlfriend Peggy Callahan, an actress, are also mixed up in the dealings surrounding the movie although The Falcon is not quite sure yet exactly where they fit in.

Tom Conway was not quite the actor his brother George Sanders was but it’s a role that suited him well and he gives his usual reliable performance. Veda Ann Borg handles her comic relief duties adroitly enough. She manages not to be irritating, which is really as much as you can ask for in that type of role.

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Barbara Hale is very good as Peggy Callahan, one of the movie’s three potential femmes fatales. Another is Lili D’Allio, an actress who lost out on the leading role in Hoffman’s picture. Rita Corday is slightly less assured in this role but she’s adequate. The third femme fatale is Tom Miles’ less-than-loving wife Roxanna (Jean Brooks). Brooks gives the role as much glamour and mystery as she’s capable of.

Director Gordon Douglas had a very long career. He was a capable journeyman director. This movie doesn’t really require anything more than that and Douglas gets the job done. The most essential thing in any B-movie is the pacing - that’s the element that is always most likely to be the weakness of a B-movie. The Falcon in Hollywood has no problems in that area, moving along at a brisk pace throughout its modest 67 minute running time.

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The Falcon in Hollywood doesn’t seem to have made it to DVD. The version I saw was screened by TCM. It was a pretty decent print.

This is a good solid little B-movie that doesn’t try to be anything more than that. If you’re a fan of 40s Hollywood crime B-movies there’s no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

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A Colt Is My Passport (Koruto wa ore no pasupoto) is one of five films included in the Criterion Eclipse Nikkatsu Noir DVD boxed set. While the other four films are excellent this one is the standout.

Jô Shishido is hitman Kamimura. He is employed by a yakuza boss to kill a rival gang boss. The job goes smoothly but things start to go badly wrong afterwards. Arrangements had been made to fly Kamimura and his partner Shun (Jerry Fujio) out of the country but they’re cancelled at the last minute. What Kamimura and Shun don’t know is that they’re about to be rather spectacularly double-crossed.

Kamimura and Shun hide out in a motel, but the net is closing around them. Every time it seems like they’re about to escape something goes wrong and the double-cross against them becomes more sinister. It all culminates in an extraordinary visual tour-de-force of an ending.

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The first thing you will notice about this movie is that the music is pure spaghetti western. As the story unfolds the spaghetti western influence becomes more and more obvious - in fact this movie could have been remade as a spaghetti western with virtually no changes to either the plot or the characters.

There is of course a film noir influence as well although the movie that approaches this one most closely in feel is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï which was released in the same year, 1967. Jô Shishido mines the same ice-cold killer territory that Alain Delon explored in Melville’s film and he manages to be almost as cool as Delon (which is no mean achievement).

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This is very much a buddy movie with the friendship between hitman Kamimura and his sidekick Shun being the emotional core of the story. Suggestions that have been made of a homoerotic element in this relationship must be dismissed as nonsense. Anyone with any experience of Japanese cinema knows that honour and loyalty are what always drives the hero (or heroine in the case of some of the best pinky violence movies of the 70s). Any Japanese movie made in 1967 is going to be influenced by both Japanese samurai movies and American westerns, and again honour and loyalty are the keys.

Jô Shishido is very much the star but Jerry Fujio gives him some excellent support, with Chitose Kobayashi also giving a fine performance as Mina, the love interest for the hero. Mina is a complex character, always expecting betrayal and always seeking to escape although she has no idea where to escape to.

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Director Takashi Nomura and his cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine (who had photographed Seijun Suzuki’s extraordinary and brilliant Tokyo Drifter a year earlier) don’t go for an obvious film noir look, despite shooting the film in black-and-white. They don’t go overboard with the shadows. Most scenes are brightly lit and there’s an openness combined with a brooding quality to the outdoor scenes that reinforces the western feel. Where Takashi Nomura really scores is in the flamboyant and dynamic directing of the action scenes. The ending takes place in a bleak wasteland that could be a landfill, or the end of the world, or the desert setting for the climax of a spaghetti western. I’m not going to spoil it in any way, but it’s insane and magnificent.

Nikkatsu had turned to producing mukokuseki akushun (“borderless action”) movies in the late 50s in an attempt to give the studio youth appeal. By 1967 the cycle was almost played out. After the stylistic excesses of movies like Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill and Tokyo Drifter, and indeed A Colt Is My Passport, there was probably nowhere left for the genre to go.

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The DVD is superb with the picture quality being satisfyingly crisp. The lack of extras is disappointing.

A Colt Is My Passport is one of the most stylish and exciting crime movies you’re ever going to see. An absolute must-see.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

House by the River (1950)

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House by the River is rather unusual among Fritz Lang’s American films. It’s a period thriller, set presumably sometime in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. And this is unquestionably a gothic thriller.

This was a low-budget movie, made by the Republic studio. Republic was a Poverty Row studio although they did make the occasional A-picture. They were certainly not as low down the food chain as PRC where Lang’s fellow-countryman Edgar G. Ulmer spent most of his career. House by the River doesn’t suffer too badly from its low budget. Lang had adapted surprisingly well to his lengthy sojourn in Hollywood. None of his American pictures have the lavish budgets of his early German movies but Lang by this time needn’t need big budgets. His style had become much more economical with a much greater focus on character. What he did need was a decent cast, and in this instance he has that.

Louis Hayward is Stephen Byrne, an unsuccessful writer. As we gradually discover, he’s not really much of a success at anything. His brother John (Lee Bowman) is continually rescuing him from one scrape or another. And he’s certainly not much of a husband. When he first meet him he’s trying to seduce his wife’s maid. He is as unsuccessful at this endeavour as he is in everything else, but this time with much graver consequences. He ends up strangling the maid.

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As he explains to his brother, it was an accident. It could have happened to anybody. It’s clear that nothing is ever Stephen’s fault. Life is always conspiring against him, causing publishers to reject his manuscripts, and now causing him to commit murder. Against his better judgment, John once again agrees to try to keep Stephen out of trouble.

This proves to be a very poor decision. The evidence at the inquest seems to point more towards John than Stephen, and Stephen does nothing to lessen these ill-founded suspicions against his brother. While John finds himself more and more enmeshed in a nightmare Stephen prospers. One day of course the reckoning will come for Stephen, but will it come too late for John?

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Louis Hayward does a very fine job. He gets the self-pity just right. Stephen is a boy who has never grown up, never accepted responsibility. His grip on reality is less than perfect. Much less. The whole world revolves around him. He assumes that because he wants to be a writer he must be one. It’s just those fools of publishers who can’t appreciate his talent. Now he has found a theme that will guarantee the recognition that he believes he deserves. Typically enough his choice of theme is thoroughly self-centred and selfish. He will use the murder he himself committed as material for the novel that will cement his reputation. And in fact the notoriety that surrounds the murder does establish his fame as a writer. Stephen is a nasty piece of work but he is so wrapped up in himself that he’s entirely unaware of it.

Lee Bowman does a capable job as John, while Jane Wyatt is very good as Stephen’s wife Marjorie. But it is Hayward’s performance that is crucial to the movie’s success and he  delivers the goods.

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Edward Cronjager was a more than competent cinematographer. He rarely worked in either the film noir or gothic areas but when he did do so he proved himself quite capable, his most impressive work being the very underrated 1947 Technicolor noir Desert Fury. Lang and Cronjager evoke the necessary gothic atmosphere exceptionally well considering the modest budget they had to work with. The scenes on the river are suitably moody and ominous.

Film noir and the gothic overlap quite a bit, both genres tending to focus on doom and the remorselessness of fate, and Stephen Byrne’s story has that sense of inevitability about it that one associates with both genres. The nightmare that John Byrne finds himself living has that same sense of inevitability. John will always try to rescue Stephen, and he was always going to come to grief one day as a result.

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The Kino DVD is all too typical of this company’s output. Picture quality is mostly quite acceptable but there is some print damage. It’s certainly nowhere near up to the standard that a Fritz Lang movie deserves. Lang has been both lucky and unlucky where DVDs are concerned. It’s been a positive asset to his reputation that just about all his American movies have been released on DVD and are therefore accessible, but very few have been given top quality releases.

House by the River is an unusual but unjustly neglected part of Fritz Lang’s filmography. Lang and the gothic prove to be a good match and this movie is highly recommended.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

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Peter Ibbetson is a quirky romance with a supernatural theme, or at least with a theme that can be interpreted that way. This 1935 Paramount production was helmed by Henry Hathaway as a starring vehicle for Gary Cooper.

Two English children are growing up next door to each other in Paris. They have more than their fair share of childish quarrels but they’re clearly devoted to each other. Then the young boy’s mother dies and the boy is sent to his uncle in England. Twenty years later Peter Ibbeston (Gary Cooper) is a promising up-and-coming architect. On a holiday in Paris he finds the house he grew up in and the memories come flooding back. What he doesn’t yet know is that he is destined to meet his childish sweetheart again, in very unexpected circumstances.

Peter is engaged by the Duke of Towers to supervise the rebuilding of the Duke’s stables. The Duchess, Mary (Ann Harding), is his long-lost childhood playmate, but he doesn’t know that yet. Peter and the Duchess quarrel over the plans for the stables, a quarrel which is very much like their long-ago childish quarrels. They are both people who like to get their own way.

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Peter and the Duchess make a curious discovery. They share the same dreams. Literally. They appear in each other’s dreams and the dreams are more life-like than reality. Slowly the truth dawns on them that they are indeed the two children who had been growing up together in Paris all those years ago. And another, more disturbing, truth dawns on them. They are in love, and always have been.

Unfortunately the Duke, who is much older than his Duchess, soon figures out what’s going on. There is an argument; the Duke is killed. Peter Ibbetson ends up in prison. after a beating he is lying in his cell dying, when Mary comes to him in a dream. She tells him they can be together always. And for many years afterward they are, in their dreams.

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The big problem with this movie is that the story is just too ethereal, too fanciful and too whimsical to be convincing. It stretches our credulity too far. Despite this the romance has a definite charm and Gary Cooper and Ann Harding make a perfect romantic couple. The movie has no right to work, but somehow it does work.

Cooper was always very likeable as a romantic lead and in this role he also has the stubbornness that his character requires (a quality Cooper always did convincingly). Ann Harding plays Mary as a kind of other-worldly figure, which is perfectly appropriate. Look out for a young Ida Lupino in a supporting role.

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The fact that this movie employed the services of no less than eight writers tends to indicate that the screenplay (based on a novel by George du Maurier) gave some trouble. The problems with the script were never really resolved.

Director Henry Hathaway and cinematographer Charles Lang give the movie a slightly fairy-tale look that suits the material.

Whether there is anything supernatural going on or whether it is just a case of people who are close to each other having an exceptionally vivid dream life is open to question. The movie seems to come down on the side of something fantastic actually occurring.

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Peter Ibbetson is included in the Gary Cooper Collection DVD set from Universal. Picture quality is slightly grainy but otherwise very good.

This is a rather dreamy and sentimental romance that works better than you might expect. It’s an interesting oddity in Gary Cooper’s filmography. Worth a look provide you have a fairly high tolerance for sentimentality.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Algiers (1938)

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Algiers is customarily described as being an inferior Hollywood remake of Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko. Duvivier's 1937 movie is widely regarded as being one of the finest examples of the French poetic realism style of the 30s (a style the French sometimes referred to as film noir). In fact Algiers does not deserve to be dismissed so lightly.

It is certainly a very faithful remake indeed, but given the aversion that American audiences have always harboured towards movies in languages other than English it made very good sense to do a remake. The story was too good to allow American audiences to miss out on it. And given that John Cromwell was a perfectly competent director, that he had the services of a very great cinematographer (James Wong Howe) and a very strong cast it would have been surprising if he had been unable to make a good movie from such material.

Pépé le Moko (Charles Boyer) is a renowned jewel thief. He is wanted by most of the police forces of Europe, and most especially by the police authorities in Paris. Pépé now resides in Algiers. When a senior police officer arrives from Paris he is astounded that the local police have not yet managed to arrest Pépé. He is even more aghast when he discovers that Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia) knows exactly where Pépé is and in fact sees him regularly on a social basis. With great patience Inspector Slimane and the head of the Algiers police try to explain to the Paris policeman that arresting Pépé le Moko is much more difficult than it seems.

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Pépé is hiding out in the Casbah, the native quarter of the city. The Casbah is a bewildering labyrinth of narrow alleyways, and even worse it is very easy to pass from the roof of one building to another. In such a maze it is exceptionally difficult to find someone who does not want to be found. More importantly, while it would be possible to arrest Pépé it would not be possible to get him out of the Casbah. The inhabitants of the Casbah might on occasion tolerate the presence of the police but they certainly would not tolerate them if they were unwise enough to arrest somebody there.

In spite of all this Inspector Slimane is confident that he will eventually arrest Pépé, but he must be allowed to do so in his own time and in his own way. The Casbah is a safe refuge for a criminal like Pépé, but it is also in its own way a prison. If Pépé were to leave the Casbah even for a moment he would instantly be apprehended.

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Pépé is very much aware of his situation, and he is not happy about it. He misses Paris. He misses Paris even more when he meets Gaby (Hedy Lamarr). Gaby is spending a vacation in Algiers with her very rich but somewhat elderly fiancé. Gaby is both beautiful and fascinating. She is the sort of woman who is, in the opinion of Pépé le Moko, worthy of a man like Pépé le Moko. And Gaby is equally fascinated by the notorious thief.

The problem for Pépé is that he cannot leave the Casbah, and Gaby is not the sort of woman who would be prepared to live in such a place. This presents Pépé with a very annoying problem, and it presents Inspector Slimane with an opportunity.

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As much as I admire Jean Gabin and as much as I like his performance in Duvivier's original film, it has to be said that Charles Boyer makes an excellent Pépé le Moko. And there is the required chemistry - and plenty of it - between Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr is excellent - aloof and amused and slightly mysterious, and vaguely exotic. She’s one major reason for seeing this film.

Joseph Calleia as Inspector Slimane goes close to stealing the picture. I know we’re supposed to see Pépé as the hero but there’s no escaping the fact that he’s a criminal and he treats his girlfriend Ines (Sigrid Gurie) abominably. I couldn’t help empathising more with the clever and determined Slimane. Alan Hale is amusing as Pépé’s friend Grandpere, a crooked Casbah jewel dealer.

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James Wong Howe’s cinematography is, as always, gorgeous. He and director John Cromwell do a fine job of conveying not just the sense of mystery and intrigue of the Casbah but also the fact that it is Pépé’s prison. It always feels claustrophobic. It might be a haven from the police, but it’s not freedom.

Alpha Video’s DVD is not good but it’s better than you usually get from this company.

If Duvivier's Pépé le Moko can be film noir then there’s no reason why Cromwell’s 1938 movie should not also considered as film noir. Either way Algiers is fine entertainment. Recommended.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Johnny Eager (1941)

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Johnny Eager is a 1941 MGM gangster movie that can, at a stretch, be seen as a proto-noir.

Robert Taylor was a major star at the time but he was thought of as being something of a lightweight, a pretty boy who was fine as a romantic lead but without much substance. Taylor would later develop into a very fine actor in rather dark roles in film noirs such as Rogue Cop and The Bribe. Johnny Eager can be seen as one of his first attempts to demonstrate that his acting really did have some depth.

Johnny Eager had been a notorious gangster before he was sent to prison. Now he’s out on parole and doing his best to go straight. He has a job as a cab driver and he is now a model citizen. His parole officer Mr Verne (Henry O’Neill) considers Johnny to be one of his greatest successes, a living proof that even hardened criminals can be successfully rehabilitated.

Unfortunately for the well-meaning Mr Verne, it’s all a lie. Johnny Eager is still running his criminal empire while putting on a remarkably convincing act. He maintains a cheap apartment in a poor neighbourhood as a front, but he only inhabits it when he gets a tip-off that his parole officer will be paying him a visit.

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Johnny is the big boss of the city’s gambling rackets. His current project is to open up a dog-racing track. Apart from being a big money-spinner this will also be a convenient front and a useful place for laundering money. He has the politicians paid off but there is one major obstacle in his way, John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the city’s incorruptible DA, and incidentally the man who sent Johnny to prison.

Everything is running fairly smoothly for Johnny until his parole officer arrives with two young female sociology students in tow. Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner) is immediately attracted to Johnny and their paths are destined to cross again. Johnny is tiring of his current excessively needy girlfriend and Lisbeth soon takes her place. There are two problems associated with this romance. The first is that Lisbeth is the daughter of John Benson Farrell. The second is that Lisbeth falls in love with Johnny.

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Johnny thinks the first problem can be easily dealt with. He sets Lisbeth up in such a way as to give him something big to hold over Farrell’s head, something that he can use to remove Farrell as an obstacle to his criminal activities. The second problem is more difficult. Johnny doesn’t take his relationships with women very seriously. His girlfriends come and go and he assumes that they understand that, and that they won’t become clingy. Unfortunately Lisbeth doesn’t work that way. Lisbeth doesn’t care that Johnny is a gangster, but she does care when he tries to give her the brush-off. This sets events in motion that will threaten the destruction of Johnny’s criminal empire and Johnny himself.

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Robert Taylor is superb, as he always was when he was given a demanding role that allowed him to explore the darker side of human nature. Johnny Eager is both charmingly naïve (his knowledge of any subjects not related to crime is almost zero) and ruthless. He really knows very little about what makes people tick and his understanding of women is non-existent. He might be an anti-hero and a gangster but he’s difficult to dislike. Johnny Eager certainly has charisma.

Van Heflin, not yet a major star, is excellent as Johnny’s perpetually drunken sidekick Jeff Hartnett. Hartnett is a writer and an intellectual and seems on the surface of it to be an unlikely person to be mixed up with gangsters (although intellectuals do tend to be fascinated by criminals). Johnny claims that he doesn’t know why he lets Hartnett stay around him, but in fact Hartnett is his only true friend, the only person who doesn’t want something from Johnny. Hartnett always tells Johnny the truth. Those with the tedious habit of looking for gay subtexts may be tempted to look for one here. I personally find it rather irritating when any friendship between men is interpreted this way. I think the friendship between Johnny and Jeff Hartnett is more interesting without the gay subtext.

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Lana Turner is surprisingly just a little on the bland side as Lisbeth. Or possibly she’s simply overshadowed by the very fine performances by Taylor and Heflin.

This movie was helmed by Mervyn LeRoy, always a reliable director of this sort of material.  Harold Rosson was in charge of the cinematography. They give the movie a definite atmosphere, and the noir feel is enhanced by Robert Taylor’s interestingly complex performance.

Johnny Eager is available as a made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series. It’s an excellent transfer.

Johnny Eager is either an intriguing proto-noir or perhaps just a very early example of outright film noir. Either way it’s a very good movie and is highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Ten Commandments (1956)

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The Ten Commandments, released by Paramount in 1956, was Cecil B. DeMille’s last film. At $13.2 million it was one of the most expensive movies made to that point in time, and it was one of the biggest box-office successes in history, pulling in $64 million on its first release. Adjusting for inflation and taking into account re-releases it remains one of the most successful movies ever made.

DeMille’s share of the profits was huge but he gave half of it away to be distributed amongst the crew, an unprecedented gesture.

DeMille took an enormous risk with this movie. Paramount were very nervous about the whole project. Had DeMille not been involved they certainly would not have proceeded with it. DeMille had to be very careful not to offend either Christians or Jews, and considering the fact that the movie fictionalises a good deal of the life of Moses it was no easy task to come up with a screenplay that would not upset somebody. DeMille insisted that the screenwriters could not just make it up as they went along when it came to filling in the gaps of Moses’ life. Everything had to be at least vaguely plausible and the script drew on the work of various Biblical scholars as well as the works of ancient historians like Josephus.

The location shooting in Egypt undoubtedly shortened DeMille’s life. He suffered a massive heart attack. The doctors told him that if he rested in bed for four weeks with oxygen he would make a full recovery. He told them, “Forget it gentlemen. I’m going to the set in the morning.” And he did. He intended to finish the picture even if it cost him his life.

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The story of course is essentially an expansion upon the Biblical story of Moses, of the infant Moses being found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket on the Nile, of his early life as an Egyptian prince and of his deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from bondage. Needless to say, this being a DeMille movie, it also includes a love story, plenty of sex and plenty of action. There might not be any actual battle scenes but DeMille has no trouble in turning this story into an exciting adventure yarn filled with spectacle.

There was no way of doing spectacular scenes like the parting of the Red Sea using existing special effects technology. The production team and the crew had to invent their own special effects. They did this so well that Steven Spielberg has described the parting of the Red Sea as the greatest special effect in movie history.

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Even by DeMille standards this is a big movie. Officially some scenes utilised the services of no less than eight thousand extras although people who were there believe the true number may have been closer to twelve thousand. And in scenes on that scale DeMille would fuss over the placement of a single extra. Much to the horror of star Charlton Heston. But Heston admitted that DeMille was right in taking such pains. No-one ever had the same feeling for crowd scenes that DeMille had. DeMille did not believe in the concept of extras. As far as he was concerned everybody who appeared on screen was an actor. They should know what the director was trying to achieve, they should know what the scene was about and they should know what part they were to pay in the scene.

DeMille was fiercely loyal to the people he had worked with in the silent era. H. B. Warner, who had played Jesus in DeMille’s 1927 King of Kings, was brought out of a nursing home to play one last role.

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After considering half a dozen other actors DeMille finally decided on Yul Brynner in the role of the Pharaoh Rameses. The danger of putting Brynner in such a role was that he was likely to overshadow the real star, the actor playing Moses. Fortunately with Charlton Heston as Moses there was absolutely no danger of that happening. Both Rameses and Moses are played as truly epic larger-than-life characters, which is as it should be.

Yvonne de Carlo brings a surprising (and entirely appropriate) dignity to the role of Moses’ wife Sephora. Anne Baxter gives one of her better performances as Nefretiri, the woman for whose affections Rameses and Moses are bitter rivals. Vincent Price has great fun with the role of the master builder Baka while John Carradine chews up the scenery as Aaron. For Edward G. Robinson the role of the Hebrew slave master Dathan was a career-saving role. Despite their political differences Robinson had immense respect for DeMille. I’ve always thought Cedric Hardwicke was rather overrated but he does well as the old Pharaoh Sethi.

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The movie had to be ready for a November 1956 release and unfortunately the consequent haste is evident in a few scenes. Some of the blue screen shots certainly could have used more work. What is extraordinary though is just how well the important scenes hold up. Every scene that really matters works superbly.

This movie is an odd mix of outrageous entertainment and piety. DeMille saw no conflict between the two. This is a rare example of a deeply religious movie that is also enormously enjoyable as entertainment.

The Region 4 DVD release spreads the movie over two discs, which presents no problems since the movie has an intermission. The transfer is an excellent one.

It is unlikely that anyone but Cecil B. DeMille could have made a movie such as The Ten Commandments work. This film is an extraordinary achievement. It’s one of those movies you just have to see.