Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Paid To Kill (1954)

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Paid To Kill (released in the US as Five Days) is one of the many crime B-movie collaborations between producer Robert L. Lippert and Hammer Films. Like most of these movies it’s an unassuming and competent production with a very definite touch of film noir.

Dane Clark (who starred in three of these co-productions) is James Nevill, a successful American businessman in post-war Britain. He is about to pull off the deal of his life with eccentric entrepreneur-explorer Cyrus McGowan (Howard Marion-Crawford) when he gets a telephone call from McGowan (who is leading an archaeological expedition in Mexico) telling him the deal is off. Nevill is now facing financial ruin. His one thought is how to provide for his wife Andrea (Thea Gregory). He comes up with an ingenious plan. He will pay someone to kill him so that Andrea will get the insurance money.

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He picks on his old buddy Paul Kirby (Paul Carpenter) to do the killing. Kirby and Nevill both had a disreputable and wild youth. Nevill made good; Kirby didn’t. Kirby is an alcoholic loser who depends on handouts from Nevill. Surely he’d be happy to make a thousand pounds by killing his old friend?

The deal is made and Nevill has only to wait. While he’s waiting to be killed McGowan suddenly returns to England and tells him the deal is now very definitely on. That’s good news - there’s no longer any reason for Nevill to want to die. The bad news is that he can’t contact Kirby to tell him the deal is off. So now he knows he’s being stalked by a killer that
he paid.

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The plot soon becomes more complicated and Nevill discovers that he has more to worry about than just having Paul Kirby trying to kill him.

The basic plot idea is hardly original but screenwriter Paul Tabori throws in enough twists to keep it reasonably interesting.

Montgomery Tully was a solid journeyman director and while his work was rarely startling it was always competent and he does pull off a fairly effective visual set-piece in a rain-soaked laneway. The movie has a fairly effective noir look to it and it has atmosphere.

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Its biggest asset is Brooklyn-born Dane Clark. His career never took off in a big way in the States but he was an ideal actor for this sort of role. He could play a thrusting go-getter while still remaining sympathetic. He had the kind of crumpled look that lends itself to noir and he has the ability to make Nevill a three-dimensional character. The supporting cast is good and the presence of one of my favourite British character actors, Howard Marion-Crawford, is a definite bonus. He has great fun as the blustering blundering but well-meaning Cyrus McGowan.

At just over 70 minutes this movie is well-paced and there’s no danger of boredom setting in. James Nevill finds himself in a classic noir situation where events spin out of his control and he finds himself facing a danger that is not the danger he thinks he’s facing. He can’t go to the police without implicating himself in what was after all an attempted insurance fraud and he soon finds himself wondering if there’s anyone he can really trust. Nevill is a decent guy but his one mistake could cost him dearly.

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VCI’s DVD release (another of their Hammer Noir double features) boasts an acceptable transfer and the pairing of this movie with the odd but very interesting The Glass Tomb combined with the very low price makes this disc a top value purchase for noir and B-movie fans.

Paid To Kill is not an ambitious film. It’s content to be a very entertaining noirish thriller. That’s all it is, and that’s all it needs to be. A fine piece of British movie-making. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sin Takes a Holiday (1930)

Sin Takes a Holiday2 Sin Takes a Holiday belongs to that very peculiar genre, the pre-code romantic comedy. What’s peculiar about the movies of this genre is that they rely much more on being risque than on being actually funny. In that respect the Production Code did Hollywood a big favour by forcing writers to work harder to make their scripts funny rather than shocking.

As this genre goes Sin Takes a Holiday, released in 1930, isn’t too bad. It is at least gently amusing at times and it certainly benefits from some fine performances.

Wealthy young New York attorney Gaylord Stanton (Kenneth MacKenna) finds himself in an extremely perilous situation. You see he’s unmarried and his mistress Grace (Rita La Roy) wants to get married. Given that he’s unmarried there’s a very real danger he could end up marrying her. And that would interfere dreadfully with his carefree and cheerfully immoral lifestyle.

Grace is married herself but that is a very minor obstacle. She’s always getting married but the marriages always end in divorce within six months and she’s already filed for divorce from her current husband.

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Gaylord is terrified. There’s no surer way to social death than a successful marriage. His friends share his concern. They’re all equally aware of the hazard of marriage and some have actually succumbed. Reggie Durant (Basil Rathbone) has managed successfully to avoid marriage thus far but Sheridan (John Roche) points out that as long as a man is single the danger is always there. Sheridan is the only one who has found an answer to his problem. He is married but neither he nor his wife allow that to interfere with their love life. He tells Gaylord that the great advantage of such a sham marriage is that it protects one from the danger of a real marriage.

This gives Gaylord a splendid idea. He will avoid the impending danger of marriage to Grace by marrying someone else. He decides that his secretary Miss Brenner (Constance Bennett) is as good a choice as any. He explains to her that of course this will not be a real marriage, merely a social convenience and a wise precaution. Sylvia Brenner is sceptical but allows herself to be persuaded.

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They get married that very day and that night Gaylord ships her off to Paris. The further away a wife is the better according to Gaylord and his friends. By pure coincidence Reggie Durant just happens to be on the same ship to Paris. He is charmed by the newly married Mrs Stanton although he has entirely forgotten that they have already met. When Sylvia was a mere secretary neither Gaylord not any of his friends ever noticed her. But now Reggie Durant has most certainly noticed her.

Sylvia and Reggie enjoy a most pleasant romance in Paris. They attract the attention of the gossip columnists but Gaylord Stanton is not at all concerned. He’s happy that his new wife is enjoying herself.

Of course such a blissful situation cannot last forever, and eventually Reggie discovers, to his considerable amazement, that he is in love with Sylvia. He wants to marry her. He doesn’t want the kind of marriage she and Gaylord Stanton have. He wants an actual marriage, the kind where a man and a woman actually live under the same roof and grow old together.

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The one fly in the ointment is that Sylvia is in love with her husband and always has been, right from the time she started working for him. Now she has a man who offers her a real marriage but he’s not the man she wants. The usual and expected complications ensue while Sylvia, Gaylord and Reggie all try to figure out what they actually want.

The plot is of course entirely predictable right from the start, but that’s the way romantic comedies work. We always know that love will triumph and the right girl and the right boy will end up together. Horace Jackson’s screenplay follows this formula without adding anything of particular interest. As with the majority of pre-code romantic comedies actual laughs are extremely scarce. This might well have proved to be a fatal weakness but Constance Bennett’s charming performance just about saves the picture. She gets some help in this respect from Basil Rathbone who manages to make a potentially tedious character sympathetic and interesting. Kenneth MacKenna as Gaylord is reasonably good as well.

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Director Paul L. Stein had a lengthy and prolific career without making any appreciable impact. His handling of this picture is competent with a couple of reasonably effective sequences although one suspects that they are effective as a result of good editing by Daniel Mandell (who had a long and distinguished career as a film editor) rather than Stein’s directing.

The Alpha Video DVD release is a pleasant surprise. This is actually a fairly decent print, and it’s certainly vastly superior to Alpha Video’s usual standards.

Sin Takes a Holiday has more than its fair share of pre-code risque content and the strong cast makes the 81 minutes of this movie a fairly enjoyable experience. This is an above-average pre-code offering and the low price and the unexpectedly acceptable quality of the DVD makes it a worthwhile purchase for pre-code enthusiasts.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nowhere To Go (1958)

Nowhere To Go2 Nowhere To Go was one of the last films made by Ealing Studios, and is also possibly the most untypical of all their productions. Director Seth Holt’s aim was to make a movie that was as un-Ealing as possible and in that he certainly succeeded. Of all film genres the last you would associate with Ealing Studios is film noir, but that’s what Nowhere To Go is.

Ealing had been forced to sell their studio in 1955 but they soldiered on as a production company under the auspices of MGM for a few more years. The marriage with MGM proved to be less than successful. After a change of management at MGM Ealing found themselves out of favour and had great difficulty in getting any of their projects approved. One of the few that did get the green light from MGM was a crime film based on a novel by  Donald MacKenzie, a film that would become Nowhere To Go.

The protagonist of this movie is a Canadian expatriate named Paul Gregory (George Nader). Gregory is one of life’s champion losers only he doesn’t know it yet. In fact he thinks he’s a pretty smart guy. A chance encounter with a wealthy middle-aged woman gives him a very bright idea. She owns a very valuable coin collection. It belonged to her late husband and she is anxious to sell it. Gregory offers to help her out by introducing her to a friend of his who happens to be a well-respected coin dealer. This friend is Sloane (Bernard Lee), although as we will find out he goes by several other names.

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Sloane is of course a crook as well. The plan cooked up by Sloane and Gregory seems fool-proof. An unusual feature of the plan is that Gregory intends to get caught. He figures he’ll get no more than five years and with good behaviour will be out in less than four, and he will leave prison a rich man. This seems to him to be a worthwhile price to pay. Unfortunately he hadn’t counted on a judge who thinks the best place for criminals is prison and who therefore hands down a sentence of ten years. Gregory has no intention of serving ten years so he and Sloane engineer an escape.

The escape sequence is an impressively noirish visual tour-de-force which serves as the opening sequence of the movie, after which we get a typically noirish flashback.

Of course Gregory’s escape from prison involves a lot of complications he hadn’t counted on and he soon finds himself a desperate hunted man. The only person he can turn out to is a rather strange girl he met under unusual circumstances. This strange girl is Bridget Howard (Maggie Smith in her film debut). But Gregory is fast running out of options and ideas.

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The screenplay was written by Kenneth Tynan, a very surprising person to be working for Ealing. Tynan had made a reputation for himself as a drama critic, championing the irritating and self-important sludge churned out by the so-called Angry Young Men of British theatre. Tynan’s entire career was chiefly notable for his genius for self-publicity and his annoyingly adolescent obsession with offending people but his screenplay for Nowhere To Go shows that he could write well on occasions.

As director Seth Holt proves himself to be very much in tune with the world of film noir. He achieves the right feel without ever being gimmicky. This is a stylish and moody film that makes excellent and innovative use of its jazz score by Dizzy Reece, perfectly complementing the noirish visuals.

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Maggie Smith makes the most of her first film role. The good-natured but lonely female who gets sucked in by the glamorous and charming hoodlum is a standard noir cliché but Smith manages to make it seem fresh and interesting. George Nader is less successful in the leading role. He is convincing in the early part of the film as the smooth-talking con man but his performance doesn’t really have enough depth when things start getting rough for Gregory.

Bernard Lee seems to be enjoying himself as Sloane. He was probably overjoyed to be cast for once as something other than a police inspector. In British crime films of the 50s police inspector roles seemed to be alternated between Bernard Lee and Geoffrey Keen. This time it was Geoffrey Keen’s turn. Look out for fine performances in small roles by the always delightful Howard Marion-Crawford and by Harry H. Corbett.

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Studiocanal’s Region 2 DVD presents this movie for the first time in its original uncut form. It’s a splendid anamorphic transfer and there’s a brief documentary about the movie.

This movie was an impressive debut for director Seth Holt, who had been a highly respected editor at Ealing for some years. His subsequent career was sporadic but all of his handful of movies are interesting and worth seeing. Unfortunately MGM failed to get behind Nowhere To Go and it was butchered and eventually released as the bottom half of a double feature, a sad fate for an Ealing film and a fate this fine movie certainly did not deserve. An excellent example of British film noir. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Monte Carlo (1930)

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Monte Carlo is the second of the four Ernst Lubitsch musicals included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals boxed set. Made at Paramount in 1930 this one doesn’t quite compare to the delights of Lubitsch’s The Love Parade but it’s still highly enjoyable.

Jeanette MacDonald stars once again but this time she’s paired with Jack Buchanan.

MacDonald is the Countess Helene Mara. As the movie opens she’s just walked out on her planned wedding to Prince Otto von Liebenheim. Prince Otto is a pompous and rather ridiculous figure so we’re not entirely surprised but it does leave the countess with a problem. She is almost penniless. On a whim she heads to Monte Carlo with grandiose plans to make a killing at the casino and to convert her last 10,000 francs into a fortune.

Meanwhile she has caught the eye of the handsome, debonair but over-confident Count Rudolph Falliere (Jack Buchanan). Count Rudolph considers himself to be an expert where women are concerned but all his efforts to make the acquaintance of Countess Helene end in failure. He then strikes up a conversation with the countess’s hairdresser and this gives him a brilliant idea. He will pose as a hairdresser in order to get near the countess, who will of course then fall madly in love with him. What could go wrong?

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While the countess is obviously attracted to her new hairdresser it turns out that Count Rudolph has made a miscalculation. Countesses do not fall in love with hairdressers. Not even penniless countesses. And penniless is what she now is, her plans for instant riches at the casino having failed spectacularly.

Count Rudolph presses his suit as energetically as he can but whenever it seems that the countess really has fallen for him she seems to change her mind. Of course he is not deterred and we have little doubt he will eventually succeed.

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Even for a musical it’s a rather thin plot. Unfortunately there are other problems as well. While Maurice Chevalier proved to be an ideal leading man for Jeanette MacDonald in The Love Parade Jack Buchanan is unable to kindle the same chemistry with her. His performance as a whole is just not quite right for the Lubitsch style of musical. Lubitsch’s musicals do have a somewhat European feel to them and a brash American leading man who might have been perfect in a typical Hollywood musical isn’t quite what is required here.

MacDonald though is excellent and almost manages to carry the movie on her own. Which is just as well since that’s pretty much what she has to do. She does get some good support from Zasu Pitts as her maid. Claud Allister provides most of the movie’s laughs as the absurd Prince Otto.

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The music compares rather unfavourably with The Love Parade although Blue Horizon is a great song and the telephone duet between Countess Helene and Rudolph is a clever idea executed extremely well.

The opening scene in the rain is the best in the movie with Lubitsch wittily demonstrating his magic. The spinning umbrellas are a lovely touch.

Since most of the action takes place in the countess’s hotel rooms we don’t get to see much in the way of lavish sets and Lubitsch is not given the opportunity to stage any big production numbers (and I think all musicals need at least one big production number).

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At 90 minutes this movie does drag a little at times. The plot is too thin to keep us interested. That shouldn’t matter in a musical but the best musical moments in this movie come early on and the later songs aren’t memorable enough to compensate for the threadbare plot.

The DVD transfer is not exceptional but it’s mostly acceptable although it’s very grainy at times. There are no extras.

My advice would be not to watch Monte Carlo directly after watching The Love Parade. Comparisons are inevitable and they’re all in the favour of The Love Parade. Having said that Monte Carlo is still enjoyable enough.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Highway 301 (1950)

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Highway 301 might not be a film noir but it’s as hardboiled as they come. Made by Warner Brothers in 1950 it’s a combination of a police procedural and a hoods on the run movie.

The movie combines a pseudo-documentary account of the police hunt for a vicious gang of bank robbers with a film noir-flavoured account of the gang’s activities.

The Tri-State Gang has been given that name by the police because all that is known of them is that they have pulled heists in three different states - Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. And they are a particularly ruthless gang. Most recently they held up a bank in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The gang is led by George Legenza (Steve Cochran). He might be the brains of the outfit but he’s also in some respects the weak link owing to his excessive fondness for killing people. Legenza doesn’t believe in leaving any witnesses alive, and if in doubt he shoots first. So far that has made it difficult to track the gang down but it’s also increased the determination of the police, and it’s led to a massive multi-state police operation. Sooner or later Legenza’s trigger-happy methods are going to catch up with the gang, and then they’re all going to find themselves facing more than just armed robbery charges.

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The gang’s other weak link is the fondness of the gang members for women. They like their girlfriends to travel with them but not all their women are happy about the increasing violence of the gang’s operations. Being the girlfriend of a glamorous bank robber with plenty of money to throw around is one thing, facing possible arraignment as an accessory to murder is quite another. Needless to say Legenza has his own methods of dealing with dames who look like developing a tendency to squeal, and his methods are direct and rather final.

The girlfriend problem becomes acute when gang member Bill Phillips (Robert Webber) hooks up with a French-Canadian broad named Lee (Gaby André). Phillips has really fallen for this dame in a big way. Unfortunately Lee is not at all happy to discover that her new boyfriend is not only a hoodlum but has been involved in murder. Lee’s obvious displeasure is going to cause tensions between Phillips and Legenza.

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The gang’s latest heist is going to be their biggest yet. In fact it’s going to be the ultimate big score, the one all criminals dream about. The job that will net them so much dough that they won’t even need to rob banks any more. But the best-laid plans of mice and men, and hoodlums, have a way of going sour. This job goes sour in a very big way. And it’s a job that persuades the police to redouble their efforts since it’s provided them with their first real break.

The gang are on the run and the heat is on. Legenza figures he has it all under control but it turns out he doesn’t understand dames as well as he thinks he does. And it’s a dame that will lead the gang into the biggest trouble they’ve ever had.

There’s nothing very noir about the plot but the style of the movie is plenty noir. Writer-director Andrew Stone was extremely good at tense thrillers that rely on putting characters under extreme pressure rather than just relying on action. He really knew how to put the screws on his characters. Both as writer and director he does a top-notch job, and with the help of cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie he captures the shadowy world of noir very expertly. The movie ends with a very fine action set-piece.

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The acting is delightfully hardboiled. Steve Cochran made something of a specialty of playing characters who were wound up way too tight for their own good. He’s ideally cast and he delivers the goods with a very menacing performance. George Legenza’s personality dominates the gang and Cochran’s performance dominates the movie. Legenza isn’t the kind of guy who enjoys killing. It simply doesn’t affect him one way or the other. If he thinks it’s necessary he does it with as little thought and as little emotion as most of us would put into swatting a fly.

The rest of the players do a fine job as well. This was a production by a major studio in the days of the studio system so Stone was able to assemble a talented cast for the supporting roles.

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This is by the standards of 1950 a fairly brutal film, not in the sense of being graphic but in the very casual manner in which Legenza disposes of anyone he thinks might cause him a problem.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a very nice transfer indeed.

Highway 301 is a very well-crafted thriller from a talented and somewhat under-valued film-maker. It’s taut and exciting and very very hardboiled. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Bank Dick (1940)

Bank Dick1 The Bank Dick, released by Universal in 1940, is perhaps surprisingly the first W. C. Fields feature film that I’ve seen. After this I will certainly be wanting to watch others!

Field wrote the screenplay himself (under the delightful pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves). You might expect that he’d keep all the good lines for himself but in fact he’s quite generous, allowing the other players to have their moments.

Fields is Egbert Sousè (he and his family are always insisting on that accent on the “e”) and his philosophy in life seems to be centred on the avoidance of work. It’s not that he doesn’t wish to provide for his family. He simply doesn’t want to resort to such a desperate measure as work. When he accidentally captures (or appears to capture) a dangerous bank robber he finds himself with a job - as a bank detective. It seems likely to involve very little work and Sousè certainly intends to make sure of that.

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Sousè’s eldest daughter Myrtle (Una Merkel) wants to marry the amiable if less than brilliant bank employee Og Oggilby. Sousè manages to persuade Og to “borrow” five hundred dollars from the bank in order to buy shares in a beefsteak mine. Unfortunately the bank examiner picks this time to make a surprise visit to the bank. That will mean prison for Og, but Sousè has plans to prevent the bank examiner from setting eyes on the books. There will also be another bank robbery but that’s pretty much it for the plot. It’s more than enough.

There is a brief subplot early on that sees Sousè landing a job as a movie director. This affords Fields the opportunity for some inspired craziness.

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The comedy is a mixture of slapstick and verbal comedy. Ordinarily I don’t much enjoy slapstick but I have to admit that I loved all the comedy in this film, both the physical and the verbal kind.

Franklin Pangborn as the determined bank examiner who finds himself Sousè’s victim and Grady Sutton as Og Oggilby provide Fields with very able comic support.

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Of course much of the humour comes from Fields playing the well-established Fields comic persona. Interestingly, Fields is as often the butt of the jokes as the instigator. It’s impossible not to love W. C. Fields and he really is in full flight in this movie. If you don’t happen to love Fields then unfortunately this movie is not for you. But if you do enjoy his humour then you’ll find this movie utter bliss.

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The Metrodome Region 2 DVD provides a very acceptable transfer and is ludicrously cheap. There is also a Region 1 DVD from Criterion which is ludicrously expensive.

Humour is a very personal thing but I found this to be one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Steel Trap (1952)

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The Steel Trap is a gripping race-against-time film noir thriller that actually delivers the thrills that it promises.

Joseph Cotten is Jim Osborne, assistant manager of an important Los Angeles bank. Osborne has a steady job with a future, he has a lovely wife to whom he’s devoted, a great daughter and a comfortable house. He should be content. And he thought he was content, until one day one of the bank tellers made a chance remark that put a terrifying but very tempting thought into his mind. The teller had remarked on how simple the procedure was for securing the money in the safes inside the vault. Osborne realises that the procedure is so simple it would be child’s play for him to rob the bank. Robbing the bank is an idea that has occurred to him before, as the kind of daydream we all have at times. He would never really rob the bank. And yet, it really would be so simple.

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Osborne starts to think the idea through. If he cleaned out the vault on a Friday afternoon no-one would discover the theft until Monday morning. Of course he’d have to get out of the country, but that would be no good. The US government would extradite him. Of course if there was a country that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the US that would be a different matter. To satisfy his curiosity more than anything else he looks into the matter and finds that Brazil has no extradition treaty with the US. Brazil is a nice place with plenty of sunshine and it’s not so very far away. In fact it’s close enough to reach in 48 hours, which is how much time he would have.

By this time Jim Osborne has realised that he’s really going to rob the bank. His problem is that in a week’s time the bank will start opening on Saturday mornings as it always does at this time of year. So if he’s going to do it he will have to do it this weekend. That’s going to leave very little time for obtaining passports and visas. But by now the idea has implanted itself so firmly in his mind that he ignores all obstacles. He tells his wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) that the bank is sending him to Rio de Janeiro to negotiate an important deal, and that he’s going to take her with him. It will be like a vacation.

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Osborne, being strictly an amateur at bank robbery, has overlooked all the dozens of things that might go wrong, that might delay his leaving the country. And every one of those things that could go wrong does go wrong. Every step of the way frustrating things happen that delay him. The Brazilian Consulate is closed when he gets there and he has to frantically search for someone who works there who can give him back their passports (which had to go to the Consulate to get the visas stamped). He cannot get a direct flight to Rio and has to catch three connecting flights. Every plane seems to be delayed. Every trip to airports finds him stuck in traffic. Time is always running out on him.

The tension builds steadily. Obstacles are raised, he finds ways to overcome them, and then new obstacles appear.

Joseph Cotten is ideal casting as a respectable and very ordinary man who has succumbed to temptation. He’s a classic noir hero who has never done anything go wrong before and now just once he’s succumbed to temptation and every minute it seems like it’s all going to come crashing down on him. The focus of the movie is entirely on Jim Osborne. Teresa Wright’s role as his wife is very much a subsidiary role but she handles it well.

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Writer-director Andrew L. Stone was responsible for several bona fide noir classics and he displays a very sure touch here. He keeps building the tension, then relaxes it for a moment only to start building it again. The pacing is relentless.

What makes it interesting is that you expect the protagonist in a race-against-time movie to be constantly moving. But in this case Osborne spends a great deal of time not moving. Only the hands on the clock are moving, and that’s where the tension comes from. Stone keeps putting poor Osborne in slow-moving queues, or waiting with desperate impatience for delayed planes to finally take off. The technique is in some ways even more effective than having him constantly moving. And of course every official or airline employee that Osborne encounters is in no hurry at all. Whenever Osborne tries to get things moving he inevitably attracts attention, and that’s not exactly what you want when you’re carrying a suitcase with a million stolen dollars in it. In 1952 offering a cab driver a hundred dollar tip to get to an airport in time was a sure-fire way to get yourself noticed, but of course Osborne has no choice. Those minutes just keep ticking away. You don’t need car chases to generate thrills.

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This movie offers few opportunities for classic noir cinematography. Jim Osborne’s world is not the dark and seedy sleazy-glamorous world of film noir. It’s a world of sunshine and neat lawns. Don’t expect any noirish shadows here. The noir quality of this movie lies entirely in the plot and in Joseph Cotten’s performance as the increasingly desperate and increasingly jittery Jim Osborne, but these qualities are enough to make it genuine noir.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD provides a very fine transfer with no extras. The movie was shot in black-and-white in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The Steel Trap is a remarkably tense and thrilling movie that provides great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Virgin Queen (1955)

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You might expect that The Virgin Queen will tell the story of Queen Elizabeth I of England. In fact it tells the story of Sir Walter Raleigh, but Raleigh’s story can hardly be told without making the queen a very central character indeed, and with Bette Davis playing Elizabeth it’s not surprising that it’s the queen who dominates the movie.

This is a lavish production by 20th Century-Fox but the focus is on the characters rather than the spectacle.

Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) makes use of a chance encounter with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Herbert Marshall) to have himself presented at court. Raleigh is ambitious but his ambitions go beyond becoming a mere courtier. He wants to lead an expedition of three ships to the New World and to return with enough treasure not only to make his own fortune but also to win the queen’s undying gratitude. He hopes to ingratiate himself to a sufficient extent with Elizabeth that she will not only agree to approve his project but will also provide the ships.

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Winning the queen’s favour turns out to be a daunting and complex task. It is complicated by the all-too-obvious circumstance that the queen’s affections for him are romantic in nature, and by the fact that he has fallen in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins). Eventually he is given not three ships but only one. It’s a fine ship though and Raleigh is given permission to modify her to his own specifications. However, his difficulties with the queen are far from over. His glorious career may be ended prematurely by the headsman’s axe.

Queen Elizabeth as portrayed by Bette Davis in this film is a horror from Hell - capricious, cruel, spiteful, vain and selfish. She is a spider woman surrounded by courtiers who are as vicious as they are spineless. She is a foolish absurd old lady who expects groveling obedience. The suffocating and poisonous atmosphere of her court is the most memorable thing in the movie.

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Whether any of this has the remotest connection with history is another matter, but this is after all a movie not a documentary. What can be said with certainty is that no other actress has ever had the courage to make herself so hideous for a role, or to portray Elizabeth I in such an unsympathetic manner. Considering that Elizabeth Tudor has generally been treated by historians with fawning admiration it’s interesting to see such a contrary point of view made so forcibly.

While the movie is highly unsympathetic to Elizabeth it lets Sir Walter Raleigh off rather lightly. Historically he seems to have been something of an opportunist but in this film he is a spirited and wholly admirable hero, a man prepared to stand up even to the queen. Richard Todd plays him as a swashbuckling romantic hero and it has to be said that he does it well.

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Joan Collins is impressive as Raleigh’s secret wife Beth Throgmorton, a woman who rather unluckily finds herself the victim of the queen’s insane jealousy. Collins makes Beth an intelligent and very spirited character, which makes it wholly convincing that the dashing Raleigh would have fallen for her.

Herbert Marshall is as reliable as ever. Robert Douglas is entertaining as the slimily malevolent courtier Sir Christopher Hatton.

German-born director Henry Koster does an adequate if less than inspired job.

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I picked up Fox’s Region 4 DVD in a bargain bin for a couple of dollars. My hopes were as a result not very high but in fact it’s quite a superb anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in Cinemascope) and the colours are dazzling.

The Virgin Queen is not a complete success. It seems uncertain whether it wants to be a swashbuckling adventure or a romance. In some ways it’s a pity it didn’t go more for the adventure angle - Richard Todd could have been a rather successful swashbuckler. It is however a fascinatingly different and rather perverse portrait of a monarch corrupted by power. Forget history. This is a Hollywood movie. And an entertaining one. A must-see for Bette Davis fans.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Shed No Tears (1948)

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Shed No Tears was until recently considered a lost film noir. Then a 16mm print surfaced and a DVD release followed. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the DVD release was from Alpha Video. But in this case the good news outweighs the bad.  Shed No Tears is a neat little film noir and while Alpha Video’s release isn’t great it’s certainly acceptable.

This 1948 B  noir certainly hits the ground running and it wastes no time establishing its noir credentials. Within the first five minutes we get arson, a possible murder, a double-cross, a romantic triangle and a clever get-rich-quick scheme. We also get introduced to a classic noir femme fatale, and a classic noir patsy. It’s a superb example of setting up a story with the maximum of economy combined with the maximum of impact.

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The opening sequence is a fatal hotel fire. Pudgy middle-aged used car salesman Sam Grover (Wallace Ford) is apparently burnt to death. Only Sam isn’t dead at all.

Sam has a young, glamorous blonde wife, Edna (June Vincent). Edna thought that Sam was rich. That’s why she married him. Then she found out that he’d spent all the money he had impressing her before they were married. He’s really just a two-bit used car salesman. Edna is pretty sore about this and she made it clear to Sam that unless he could lay his hands on lots of money she was heading out the door. Sam comes up with a desperate plan, a plan that just might work with a bit of luck. The hotel fire opening sequence was the first stage in Sam’s plan.

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The trouble is that Edna doesn’t want Sam even if he is rich. She wants flashy bad boy Ray Belden (Mark Roberts). She always intended to double-cross Sam.

None of his information constitutes spoilers. We find out all this stuff within the first five minutes of the movie.

The plan seems like it is going to work out from Edna’s point of view. The police are satisfied that Sam’s death was accidental. Even the insurance company is convinced. Then Sam’s son Tom shows up and throws a spanner in the works. He isn’t satisfied at all with the verdict of accidental death. He hires private detective Huntington Stewart to investigate the matter. This is where things start to get complicated. Huntington Stewart is a rather effete gentleman detective with a reputation for eccentricity but he’s actually shrewd and unscrupulous and he has his own agenda. From now on the double-crosses come thick and fast.

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Wallace Ford plays his role very straight and very dark and he makes a very effective noir protagonist. He knows he is lost but then he probably always figured he was the kind of guy who never gets the breaks. It’s a good role and Ford makes the most of it. June Vincent pulls out all the stops as the noir spider woman. There’s nothing subtle about her performance but it works. Johnstone White is delightfully corrupt and decadent as the crooked but lazy private eye.

Jean Yarbrough was typical of the sorts of directors who made their careers in B-movies. He was fast and efficient. He wasn’t interested in doing anything fancy. The budgets and the shooting schedules for B-movies didn’t allow for anything ambitious and his concern was simply to get the job done. He was competent enough to keep the action moving along quickly, and that’s a considerable virtue in a B-movie director. It’s easy to despise such directors as mere hacks but they had a talent for turning out good solid, fast-moving and entertaining movies with an efficiency that few modern directors could even come close to emulating.

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The screenplay by Brown Homes and Virginia M. Cooke (from a novel by Don Martin) has enough cynicism and enough nasty little twists to keep noir aficionados happy.

Alpha Video’s DVD is grainy, there’s a lot of minor print damage and contrast is rather poor. But this is at least slightly above the average quality we expect from this company and it’s quite watchable.

When supposedly lost movies finally turn up they sometimes prove to be slightly disappointing. You need have no fears on that score with this movie. Shed No Tears is a terrific little B noir. Highly recommended.