Friday, August 30, 2013

It’s a Gift (1934)

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Made at Paramount in 1934 It’s a Gift is another delightful W. C. Fields comedy.

When W. C. Fields wasn’t playing a con-man he was usually playing a hen-pecked husband and Harold Bissonette is about as hen-pecked as a husband can be.

Harold runs a grocery store but he is prone to getting involved in outlandish get-rich-quick schemes, much to the fury of his wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard). Harold now has his heart set on buying an orange grove in California. Amelia has made it clear that she will not stand for this but Harold has learnt that the best way to deal with such situations is to tell her nothing but go on with his plans.

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Harold’s daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol) doesn’t want to go to California because that would mean leaving her boyfriend. His son Norman (Tommy Bupp) is on his side but he has a tendency to talk too much and reveal Harold’s plans.

The Bissonettes are waiting for Harold’s Uncle Bean to die and leave Harold a substantial legacy. In fact he stands to inherit enough money to buy that orange ranch, which is just what Amelia is worried about. She’s determined to keep an eye on Harold. Harold is equally determined that he’s going to grow oranges in California.

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Mildred’s boyfriend is a real estate agent and he’s the one trying to sell the orange ranch to Harold. When he finds out that the ranch is worthless he tries to tell Harold not to go through with the deal but Harold won’t listen. Sure enough when they get to California they find that Harold has bought a dilapidated shack and a patch of weed-choked wasteland. It seems that Harold has done it again, that another of his get-rich-quick schemes has ended in disaster and that this time he’s going to be in more trouble with Amelia than ever before.  But fate is about to step in, in a most unexpected way.

Fields is in splendid form. His genius consisted in the fact that he was equally strong at both verbal and visual humour and he had a knack for coming up with stories (most of his movies being based on his own stories) that displayed his comic gifts to perfection. Kathleen Howard is wonderful as the incredibly domineering and thoroughly formidable Amelia.

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This movie features some absolutely superb comic set-pieces. The sequence involving the blind man (played by Charles Sellon) creating havoc in Harold’s grocery store is superlative. There’s also a terrific scene where Harold tries to get some sleep on the porch. It’s both extremely funny and extremely clever, being shot in such a way that we see the action on all three floors of the apartment building where the Bissonettes reside.

While Harold is often the victim in this movie the humour (unlike so much of the comedy of today) never seems truly cruel. No matter how bad things get for Harold we always have the sneaking feeling that somehow he’ll come out on top. The gags come thick and fast and there’s not a minute of the 68-minute running time that doesn’t include at least one laugh.

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There are those who prefer Fields in con-man roles rather than in hen-pecked husband mode but personally I think he’s equally funny either way.

This is one of the 17 W. C. Fields movies in Universal’s sensational value-for-money W. C. Fields Movie Collection boxed set. The transfer is more than satisfactory.

It’s a Gift really is a gift - a gift for the viewer. It’s an opportunity to see one of the greatest cinematic comics of all time at the peak of his form. That’s an opportunity not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fallguy (1962)

fall-guy-movie-poster-1962-1020203773 Fallguy is an ultra low budget 1962 crime flick that’s included in Something Weird’s Weird Noir set. While the other movies in the set all possess some degree of weirdness this one really has nothing to distinguish it apart from its shoddiness.

It does at least have perhaps some very vague affinities with the world of film noir.

Ed Dugan is Sonny Martin, a harmless teenager with the usual teenage obsessions, cars and girls. After leaving the local juke joint his nifty little foreign sports car is passed by two cars. A guy leans out of the window of one car and lets rip at the other car with a shotgun. The car runs off the road and over a low cliff. Sonny, not having witnesses the shooting, stops to see if the occupants of the car are still alive. One of them is definitely alive, since he pulls a gun on the unlucky teenager. As we will learn later this was a bungled Syndicate hit and the target was mobster Dave Monarch.

Monarch may be alive but he’s in bad shape. He forces Sonny to drive him to the home of Dr Sam Johnson. Johnson is also a Syndicate member and Monarch doesn’t trust him but he’s a doctor and Monarch needs a doctor real bad. He orders Johnson to patch him up but then stumbles and falls, there is a scuffle, and now Monarch is really dead. And Sonny escapes from the house after Dr Johnson opens fire at him.

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Syndicate boss Carl Tamin (George Andre), who ordered the hit, comes up with a plan to clean up the mess that the unsuccessful hitman (a bald-headed thug known only as The Indian) has made. Since Monarch’s blood is almost certainly in Sonny Martin’s car they will shift the blame for the murder on to him. With the help of the crooked chief of detectives the plan should work.

And it would have worked, except that Sonny tells the truth when he’s arrested and stubbornly sticks to his story. No amount of bullying or threats has any effect. If he keeps to his story when he appears before the coroner there’s a chance he may be believed. So Carl decides that an accident will have to be arranged for Sonny. He will be shot trying to escape.

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Unfortunately Carl’s gangsters are among the most inept in the history of crime. The Three Stooges would have done a better job than these guys. Sure enough the “accident” is bungled and Sonny really does escape. He has the police and Carl’s gangsters after him but he has little to fear from the latter. The Indian makes another mess of things. But surely eventually the police or the mobsters must catch Sonny, and before that happens Sonny has to find a way to prove his innocence.

There’s nothing especially wrong with the basic plot idea and there’s nothing wrong with the film-makers’ idea of trying to combine a gangster movie with a teen movie. It’s the execution of the idea that is the problem. And the acting. Especially the acting. The acting is uniformly awful, and unfortunately it’s not awful in an amusing way. It’s just plain awful. The bad acting does result in one highlight, a cat-fight between between two of Carl’s many women (his whole house seems to be filled with scantily-clad women).

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The very low budget is painfully apparent. The sets are basic and it’s obvious the film was made on a very tight shooting schedule which allowed no time for any fancy camera setups. The movie does have a dark noirish feel to it with lots of night photography although one suspects the dark feel was due more to budgetary constraints than deliberate stylistic choices. Still it works fairly well and the movie has a nicely seedy atmosphere. It has a similar feel to some of the exploitation movies of the same era, in which scenes were often filmed in the director’s own house.

Writers Richard DeLong Adams and George Mitchell don’t have much of an ear for dialogue. At least the plotting is reasonably tight. On the plus side the opening credits are very cool, and Jaime Mendoza-Nava’s jazzy score is quite good.

This was the only movie made by producer-director Donn Harling. It would be unfair to accuse him of being totally talentless. The pacing, so often a problem in very cheap movies, is no problem at all here and Harling packs plenty of plot and plenty of action into the movie’s modest 64-minute running time. He also pulls off one reasonably impressive visual set-piece, a chase sequence in an abandoned warehouse. It would have been interesting to see what this guy could have done with a more generous budget.

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This is one of the six movies featured in Something Weird Video’s Weird Noir DVD collection. Considering the obscurity of this movie the transfer isn’t too bad. This is such a low budget movie that it probably didn’t look much better than this even in 1962.

Fallguy is a pretty terrible movie but it’s fascinating in the way that zero-budget movies often are. It’s sufficiently fast-moving not to be boring and if you’re feeling in a generous mood you might get some enjoyment out of this movie.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)

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Demetrius and the Gladiators, released in 1954, was a kind of sequel to 20th Century-Fox’s first Cinemascope epic, The Robe. It has a slightly different flavour compared to that film. Demetrius and the Gladiators adds more action and it also adds a generous helping of rather perverse sexuality.

Demetrius (Victor Mature) is a Greek Christian who has been entrusted by the Apostle Peter with the keeping of the robe worn by Christ. Peter and Demetrius are careful to emphasise that the robe has a purely symbolic importance although there are others who will attribute magical powers to it.

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Claudius (Barry Jones), the uncle of the emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson), convinces the emperor that the robe holds the secret of eternal life. Claudius has probably to some extent accidentally misunderstood the significance of the robe to the Christians but he also sees it as a way to curry favour with an emperor who is increasingly unstable, capricious and vicious. Caligula, who is already halfway to convincing himself that he is a god, now wants to get hold of the robe very badly. The emperor’s desire to possess the robe will land Demetrius in hot water.

In fact it lands Demetrius in Claudius’s gladiatorial school. As the head trainer of gladiators, Strabo (Ernest Borgnine), tells the latest batch of prisoners sentenced to the arena, it is not necessarily a death sentence. Strabo himself had been sentenced to the arena and succeeded in winning his freedom. For a Christian however who takes the Ten Commandments seriously (and literally) and who is therefore unwilling to kill it certainly is little more than a death sentence.

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Demetrius makes an unlikely friend among the gladiators, the Nubian Glycon (William Marshall). As fate would have it Demetrius finds himself matched against Glycon, which means that one of them will have to die. There is but one chance - if they provide a good enough fight the emperor might be persuaded to spare the loser’s life.

The arena will change Demetrius’s life. It will bring him into contact with the notoriously debauched Messalina (Susan Hayward), the wife of Claudius. It will also lead him to question his Christian beliefs. Demetrius’s appearance in the arena will also have unexpected indirect consequences for Caligula, Claudius and Messalina.

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Victor Mature is an actor that I find myself more and more impressed by. In epics such as this he managed to be both entertaining and sincere and his performance works very nicely. Susan Hayward has great fun (as you would expect from an actress who was never afraid of going over the top) as the wicked Messalina. Jay Robinson does well as the insane Caligula, making the emperor both creepy and menacing. Ernest Borgnine impresses as well while Barry Jones does a more than adequate job as Claudius, a man who in spite of unfavourable first impressions turns out to have more substance than expected. William Marshall has (as always) the necessary dignity for the role of Glycon, an ex-king reduced to fighting in the arena.

The weak link, as so often, is Michael Rennie. He gives a characteristic overly earnest and irritatingly smug performance as Peter.

With the competent Delmer Daves as director Demetrius and the Gladiators is surprisingly successful at combining action and spectacle with a Christian message which the movie delivers without being too heavy-handed.

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The Region 4 DVD offers a reasonably adequate transfer but no extras.

Demetrius and the Gladiators is fine entertainment. It manages to be rather more than merely an exercise in camp (although fans of high camp will certainly find much to enjoy). Recommended.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

One Girl’s Confession (1953)

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The inclusion of One Girl’s Confession in Sony’s Bad Girls of Noir set might lead you to expect that this movie is a film noir. In fact you’d have to stretch the definition of noir quite a long way to accommodate this movie. Having said that, it’s still reasonably entertaining.

Hugo Haas had been a very successful writer, director and actor in his native Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. The German invasion forced him to flee to the United States where he became a reasonably successful character actor. Haas always wanted to have complete control of his films and by the 1950s he achieved that objective, setting up his own production company and writing, directing and acting a series of moderately successful B-movies which were released by Columbia. His movies usually had lurid titles, a factor that led critics to dismiss them as little more than exploitation movies. Which is perhaps unfair. His 1953 effort, One Girl’s Confession, is hardly an exploitation movie.

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Cleo Moore plays Mary Adams, a waitress in a crummy joint run by a particularly nasty old guy named Gregory. He’d been a business associate of Mary’s father and Mary believes he cheated her father out of a large sum of money, thereby contributing to his death. When she sees Gregory receiving $25,000 from a criminal she decides this is her big chance to get even. She steals the money and then does something very strange. She immediately gives herself up to the cops and confesses.

She is sent to prison but that’s all part of her plan. She intends to serve her time and then when she’s released she will be a rich woman (she refused to reveal the whereabouts of the money to the police). She is a model prisoner and it’s not too long before she is paroled. She is planning to lie low for a while before retrieving the money from its hiding place.

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She gets a job as a waitress in a cafe run by Dragomie Damitrof (Hugo Haas). Damitrof seems to be a bit of a sleaze at first but he turns out to be harmless enough and Mary strikes up an unlikely friendship with him. Mary has also caught the eye of fisherman Johnny (Glenn Langan). He has big plans for getting a new fishing boat which he believes is a surefire way of making money. It occurs to Mary that she has the money he needs, and he has the expertise, so it might be an investment worth thinking about. But then Damitrof’s addiction to gambling changes everything for Mary.

This movie’s major asset is that the characters are not mere stereotyped villains or heroes. Mary and Damitrof are both morally ambiguous. They’re not exactly model citizens but they have their strengths to counterbalance their weaknesses.

Hugo Haas was a competent director. At least he knew enough to keep the pacing fairly tight and while there’s nothing startling about the job he does it’s quite adequate by B-movie standards.

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The weakness of Haas’s screenplay is that it’s overly contrived. He is determined to get across his point about the ironies of fate and he forces events to take a particular turn to support that point even at the price of making the plot too reliant on coincidence.

Cleo Moore’s movies were for some years difficult to see so she’s an actress who more or less slipped under the radar. As an actress her chief asset was her stunning figure. She’s not a terrible actress but it’s easy to see why she was never able to break through into A-pictures. There’s not a lot of depth to her performance.

Hugo Haas is probably the pick of the actors as the amusing, somewhat amoral but good-natured Damitrof. Glenn Langan is the weak link but this is mostly because Johnny is rather less interesting as a character than Mary or Damitrof. As a result he seems a bit on the bland side although he does have a certain amount of boyish charm.

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Ellen Stansbury adds some glamour as Damitrof’s calculating but oddly likeable girlfriend. She looks like a cheap floozy but like Mary and Damitrof she’s not a stock bad girl.

This movie is one of four included in Sony’s Bad Girls of Noir volume 2 DVD set. It’s a very good transfer.

One Girl’s Confession is by no means as bad as its reputation suggests. It’s reasonable lightweight entertainment although film noir fans might feel that this movie’s claim to be a film noir is based on fairly slender evidence. If you decide to buy the boxed set you’ll find this movie to be a painless timekiller.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Old Fashioned Way (1934)

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The Old Fashioned Way, released by Paramount in 1934, sees W. C. Fields perfectly cast as The Great McGonigle, the actor-manager of a travelling theatre troupe. The troupe is always just one step ahead of its creditors but McGonigle knows a thousand ways to avoid paying his bills.

The troupe arrives in a small town where McGonigle discovers that the Widow Pepperday (Jan Duggan) is the town’s richest inhabitant. And she’s stage-struck. This is too good an opportunity to miss so McGonigle romances her and promises to put her in the play. But first she has to sing for him thus setting up one of the film’s funniest scenes (suffice to say that Cleopatra Pepperday’s enthusiasm for music far outweighs her talent).

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McGonigle’s daughter Betty (Judith Allen) has problems of her own, with the lovesick young Wally Livingston following her (and the troupe) from town to town. Wally is both lovesick and stage-struck. His father is a wealthy and very respectable businessman who certainly doesn’t want his son throwing away his future by going on the stage. Wally however is determined to be an actor and is equally determined to win Betty’s heart. His father arrives on the scene and his expected confrontation with Betty McGonigle has an unexpected conclusion.

The Great McGonigle is kept busy rehearsing his troupe while trying to stay out of the clutches of the town’s sheriff (who loves Cleopatra Pepperday and thinks McGonigle is trying to steal his girl) and also trying to avoid the attentions of the sheriff of the town the troupe has just left (who wants McGonigle to pay the debts he ran up there).

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Fields provided the story himself (which was turned into a screenplay by Garnett Weston and Jack Cunningham) and it undoubtedly draws on his own experiences as a travelling performer. Fields even gets to do his juggling act, including the cigar box-juggling routine from his own vaudeville days, and this is one of the film’s highlights.

Fields is delightfully funny, of course, but towards the end he gets a chance to show his serious acting chops as well in some surprisingly moving scenes. He gets good support from the rest of the cast with Cleopatra Pepperday’s apparently never-ending rendition of The Seashell Song being another comic highlight.

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Fields was always at his best playing a con artist of some kind or other and The Great McGonigle is one of his best creations. He’s as dishonest as they come and we love him for it.

Director William "One-Shot" Beaudine got his nickname from his extreme reluctance to do retakes and his ability to crank out B-pictures at an astonishing rate (he has 371 directing credits on the IMDb). When you’ve got W. C. Fields in full flight the last thing you need is a director trying to be clever. All you need to do is point the camera at Fields and keep it in focus. Beaudine was certainly capable of doing that.

The movie includes a play-within-a-movie as The Great McGonigle and his troupe stage an outrageous melodrama for the locals. The play, The Drunkard, gives Fields the opportunity to strut his stuff as a melodrama villain.

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This is one of 17 (yes, 17!) W. C. Fields movies included in Universal’s outstanding value-for-money W. C. Fields Movie Collection boxed set. The transfer is quite satisfactory.

The Old Fashioned Way is not just a treat for fans of this outstanding comic genius but also a joy for anyone who loves movie homages to the great lost days of show business. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Born To Be Bad (1950)

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Nicholas Ray’s 1950 RKO feature Born To Be Bad is often categorised as a film noir. It does include some definite noir elements but really it’s a fully fledged melodrama. That’s quite OK with me since I happen to be extremely fond of melodramas. And this is a very good melodrama indeed.

Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) is penniless but ambitious. She is an orphan who has been living with her aunt and uncle but now she’s moved to the big city to share an apartment with her cousin Donna (Joan Leslie). Donna is engaged to the fabulously wealthy Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott).

On her arrival Christabel encounters Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan). He’s an aspiring novelist and to say that he’s a forceful character would be an understatement of epic proportions. It is both love and lust at first sight for both Christabel and Nick. Nick however has one major flaw in Christabel’s eyes. He is not fabulously wealthy, and she intends to marry a man who has that important qualification. Curtis Carey would be quite suitable for her purposes. The fact that Curtis is engaged to Donna is a minor detail in Christabel’s eyes. It is a detail she can soon take care of. But getting rid of Nick Bradley will be a problem.

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Floating around on the periphery is struggling artist Gabriel Broome (Mel Ferrer), whose portrait of Christabel seems a similar purpose to the portrait of the title character in Laura. One of the movie’s lighter moments is devoted to ridiculing the modernist rubbish that Gabriel paints. Gabriel is in some ways a more innocuous version of Christabel. He’s also on the make and he’s also a phony but at least he is open about it. He’s contemptible but harmless.

Christabel wants everything. She can’t have both Curtis’s money and Nick but that is exactly what she is determined to have. Whether she actually loves Nick is debatable. Whether Christabel could ever truly love anyone but Christabel is debatable. Her self-centredness is truly awesome to behold. Christabel can make any ordinary man do whatever she wants him to do, but as she will find out, Nick is not exactly an ordinary man.

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If you’re dubious about the idea of Joan Fontaine playing a femme fatale then think again. She is not only a great femme fatale, she qualifies as one of the all-time most dangerous examples of the breed. What makes Christabel so dangerous is that she seems so self-effacing and meek and apologetic. That’s all part of her technique. She has well and truly mastered the arts of passive-aggressiveness and manipulation. This is not the way any other actress would approach a femme fatale role but Fontaine knows exactly what she’s doing. Christabel is the evil twin of the meek heroines she usually played. As Christabel gets closer to her goal she slowly but surely throws off the assumed meekness. She is still as manipulative as ever but she has less need to hide it. She can now control people much more openly. Fontaine handles this gradual change with consummate skill. It’s a stunning performance.

Robert Ryan is the perfect complement to Fontaine. While Christabel is all calculation and ice-cold Nick Bradley is all emotion and passion and fire. In lesser hands Nick could have turned out to be obnoxious but Ryan is in full command of his performance and avoids that pitfall. He has charm, but it’s a frighteningly intense and passionate charm, if you can imagine such a thing. Ryan is constantly simmering with an animal sexuality that he makes no attempt to conceal.

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Joan Leslie is very good but she is totally overwhelmed by Joan Fontaine’s performance.

There’s a memorable scene between Christabel and Donna when Donna unsheathes her claws, while Christabel parries the thrust with her supreme command of the arts of self-pity and passive aggressiveness. That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Zachary Scott is effective as Curtis, a well-meaning rather pleasant man who never had a chance once he got caught up in Christabel’s web.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Nicholas Ray as a director of film noir but this movie demonstrates that melodrama was his real forte. Nick Musuraca doesn’t get the opportunity to display his mastery of noir-style cinematography - this is not the sort of film that requires that kind of approach.

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Odeon Entertainment’s Region 2 DVD is without extras (apart from a gallery of stills) but it’s a very good transfer and the price is very reasonable.

Born To Be Bad is melodrama at its best, played for real and not for laughs, and it’s immensely entertaining. It’s worth seeing for Joan Fontaine’s breath-taking perrformance but it’s worth seeing for plenty of other reasons as well. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Moonraker (1958)

Moonraker1958_1 The Moonraker is a 1958 British swashbuckler with George Baker as a Royalist rebel in Cromwell’s England. In 1651 Cromwell routed the Royalist army at the Battle of Worcester and Charles II found himself a fugitive. Luckily the Moonraker is on hand to help him escape the country. The Moonraker (who is in fact the Earl of Dawlish) is an unrepentant Royalist who had vowed to kill a Roundhead every month as revenge for the execution of King Charles I. So far he has kept his promise. There is a price on his head but he has led the Parliamentarian armies a merry dance and despite their best efforts he remains at large, a constant thorn in Cromwell’s side. Cromwell increases the price of his head but the Moonraker merely takes this as a compliment. TheMoonraker1 As the movie opens Charles II, accompanied by the Moonraker and one of his supporters, is just one step ahead of Cromwell’s New Model Army. The Moonraker has arranged for a ship to take the King to safety. Cromwell is determined to prevent the King from reaching that ship. It’s all just an excuse for a series of adventures, and the movie provides all the action required of the genre. There is swordplay aplenty and an abundance of narrow escapes. Of course anyone who knows their history knows that Charles II is unlikely to fall into Cromwell’s hands. The movie is clearly pro-Royalist but the focus is on adventure rather than politics and the viewer is spared any tedious speechifying. The Moonraker’s Roundhead enemies are portrayed as rather serious men with little sense of humour but the movie avoids making them outright villains. TheMoonraker2 Scottish director David MacDonald had a long if not terribly distinguished career. On the other hand he learnt his stuff serving as a production assistant to Cecil B. DeMille so it’s not surprising that he approaches his task quite confidently. He makes good use of some nice locations. The budget was by no means lavish but it was enough to get the period look fairly effectively. Mutz Greenbaum’s cinematography is suitably lush. George Baker went on to become a familiar face in British television but before that he had a brief career as a romantic leading man. He’s no Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn but he gives an enthusiastic and energetic performance which comes off quite well, and as usual he gives the role considerable warmth. TheMoonraker3 Marius Goring does well as Colonel Beaumont, whose job is to catch the fugitive King and the Moonraker. John le Mesurier was an unusual choice to play Cromwell but he gets away with it. Look out for Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who) as a Roundhead captain. Paul Whitsun-Jones goes close to stealing the movie as the bumptious but engaging Parfitt who makes his Royalist sympathies all too plain without any heed for the consequences. Peter Arne, an actor who specialised in villains, does good work as an itinerant Puritan preacher who is not quite what he seems to be, as does Sylvia Sims as the very pro-Parliament Anne Wyndham who finds herself torn between love and what she conceives to be her duty. TheMoonraker4 Optimum’s Region 2 DVD offers a splendid transfer, but without extras. The movie was shot in Technicolor and the transfer preserves the gorgeous colours extremely well. At the reasonable price being asked it represents good value. The Moonraker is an entertaining and high-spirited swashbuckling adventure and fans of that genre (and I certainly number myself among that company) will have little to complain of. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Ship That Died of Shame (1955)

Ship That Died of Shame2 The Ship That Died of Shame is a rather untypical 1955 production from Ealing Studios. It was released in the US under the ludicrously inappropriate and misleading title PT Raiders. This movie is not quite a war thriller and not quite a crime thriller. It would be a bit of a stretch to describe it as a film noir but if you’re prepared to define noir loosely enough you could probably make a case for it as a rare example of maritime noir (and it certainly has more claims to being a film noir than many of the movies that get released under that banner these days).

The Ship That Died of Shame was based on a short story by Nicholas Monsarrat. Monsarrat was an extremely popular writer at the time although he is now all but forgotten. His best-known book was The Cruel Sea and like much of his fiction, including The Ship That Died of Shame, it was inspired by his wartime service in the Royal Navy.

George Baker plays Bill Randall, the commander of MGB (Motor Gun Boat) 1087. An MGB was very similar to an MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat, the kind of vessel the US Navy referred to as PT Boat). MGB 1087 has a very successful wartime career, thanks in large part to her skillful handling by Randall and his First Lieutenant, George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough). MGB 1087 is much-loved by her crew and admired for her fine seakeeping qualities and her reliability, to the extent that they are almost inclined to regard her with the kind of affection that one would feel for a living creature.

Then comes the end of the war. That might have been good news for most people but it’s not really much cause for celebration for Lieutenant Randall. The war has taken from him everything he loved, apart from MGB 1087. And then she is taken away as well, withdrawn from service and presumably destined for the scrapyard.

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That’s pretty much the way Randall feels as well, that he is no longer of much use. And then he runs into his old wartime comrade George Hoskins.

Hoskins has prospered since the war ended although he’s a little vague about what he actually does for a living. In any case he’s come up with an idea that might appeal to his old commanding officer. He has heard that MGB 1087 is up for sale. She’ll need a little work but with her powerful engines, her very high speed, her utter mechanical reliability and her superb seakeeping qualities she’ll be ideal for what Hoskins has in mind.

What Hoskins has in mind is smuggling. Randall is not too happy about the idea but Hoskins assures him it’s really quite innocuous. What harm is there in smuggling a few cases of brandy and other luxury items? What with postwar shortages and rationing and the generally miserable economic circumstances brought about by an incompetent government the little scheme cooked up by Hoskins is practically a public service. What sways Randall though is the prospect of getting back to the sea he loves in the ship he loves.

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Initially it all seems to be working out rather well and Hoskins and Randall, along with MGB 1087’s wartime coxswain Birdie (Bill Owen), are doing very well out of their illegal but relatively harmless business venture. Then Hoskins starts to get ambitious. He joins forces with Major Fordyce (Roland Culver), another wartime officer who has found peacetime dull and unrewarding and has turned to the more exciting and much more prosperous arena of crime. Randall and Hoskins find themselves involved in smuggling of a kind that is rather more difficult to square with their consciences. Actually Hoskins seems to be very little troubled by his conscience but Randall is more and more unhappy and guilt-ridden.

The matter comes to a head when they are hired to smuggle a cargo that Randall just cannot in any way justify to himself. And even MGB 1087 seems to feel the same way. The ship is increasingly plagued by engine trouble and responds very sluggishly to her helm. Oddly enough this only seems to happen when contraband of a very dubious nature is aboard her. As soon as the goods are taken ashore she’s her old self again, as reliable and responsive as ever. But how long can this go on? How long can Bill Randall continue to justify to himself the increasingly immoral activities he is involved in? And how long will MGB 1087 continue to ply this unsavoury trade?

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The central idea is perhaps rather far-fetched, although it should be noted that it’s never entirely certain that the ship itself is responsible for the troubles that seem to be plaguing her crew. That is certainly implied but it is possible to conclude that what is really happening is that her crew, especially Randall and Birdie, are starting to become careless and unskillful as they become more and more disillusioned and ashamed. In any case the story can be regarded as a sort of seafaring fable rather than a rigorously realistic story. It’s perhaps significant that Nicholas Monsarrat was fascinated by maritime legends such as that of the Flying Dutchman.

Director (and co-writer) Basil Dearden had a long and distinguished career and this movie is another example of his considerable skill. There are some exciting sea sequences, the pacing is taut and Dearden and veteran cinematographer Gordon Dines are able to capture a rather film noirish atmosphere of seediness, moral corruption and tension with shadowy shots mirroring the increasingly shadowy world that Bill Randall is being drawn into. The first half of the film takes place almost exclusively in daylight while the second half is dominated by night scenes and by shadows and fog. It’s all done quite subtly and very effectively, which was always Dearden’s signature.

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This was George Baker’s first major film role and he handles it very confidently. Richard Attenborough was always at his best playing characters with some kind of psychological weakness or failing and he’s in fine form in this movie. Roland Culver is just right for the morass of moral squalor that is Major Fordyce’s personality. Bernard Lee is as solid as ever as a suspicious Customs officer.

The relationship between Randall and Hoskins is a crucial aspect of this movie, with Randall being confidently in command at the beginning but falling more and more into a subordinate position. Randall is basically a decent sort of chap who makes one small false step and finds that he is now on a slippery slide into despair and corruption from which it will be difficult if not impossible to escape.

Optimum’s Region 2 DVD is bereft of extras but looks superb.

The Ship That Died of Shame is not what you would normally expect from Ealing Studios but it’s an original and intriguing story turned into an entertaining and exceptionally well-crafted movie. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dark Waters (1944)

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Dark Waters is a 1944 United Artists release that could be described as an exercise in southern gothic film noir.

Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) and her family were trapped in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies when the Japanese invaded. They managed to get aboard a cargo steamer bound for New Orleans but the ship sank. There were only four survivors, including Leslie. Her parents both perished. As the film opens she is in a hospital in New Orleans. She is physically recovered but psychologically she is still extremely fragile. Her only surviving family comprises an uncle and an aunt whom she has never met. They are contacted but it seems they have just moved to Louisiana to take possession of a family plantation in the bayou country. Leslie had expected them to meet her at the railway station but for some reason they do not show up, and overcome by depression and loneliness she passes out. Luckily the kindly Dr George Grover (Franchot Tone) happens to be at hand.

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Dr Grover drives her out to the plantation, Rossignol. Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter) and Uncle Norbert (John Qualen) seem friendly but slightly distracted. An old family friend who lives at Rossignol, Mr Sydney (Thomas Mitchell), appears to be the one giving the orders. Also present is the estate manager, Cleeve (Elisha Cook Jr). The atmosphere is definitely strained. Mr Sydney is all affability on the surface but he clearly expects everyone to do as he tells them.

Romance blossoms between Leslie and Dr Grover but for some unexplained reason no-one at Rossignol seems entirely happy about this. Also curious is the fact that even though they know about Leslie’s horrific experiences in an open boat after her ship was torpedoed they seem to keep making unfortunate references to the sea or to disturbing subjects involving water (such as the fact that not long before a woman had been claimed by the quicksands in the bayous).

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Leslie is convinced she is losing her her mind. She keeps hearing voices. Then a chance encounter with an old family retainer who had been dismissed from Rossignol by Mr Sydney makes it clear to her that she is threatened by something far more sinister than madness. But is there anybody she can trust? Dr Grover seems to be the only one but even he is sceptical of the story she tells. Somehow she must convince somebody that she is not crazy but is in imminent danger.

Merle Oberon does pretty well in the leading role, conveying Leslie’s fears without resorting too much to hysterics. Franchot Tone gives a solid and likeable performance as Dr Grover. He underplays the role nicely. Elisha Cook Jr gives one of his best performances (and he was always good) as the creepy and distinctly over-friendly Cleeve. it is Thomas Mitchell however who steals the picture. He is delightful sinister as Mr Sydney. He is able to inject an extraordinary menace into Mr Sydney’s affability.

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The screenplay went through numerous hands (including those of John Huston). An unusual feature is that although Hollywood movies normally liked to tie things up neatly at the end this script makes no attempt to explain fully the criminal conspiracy at the heart of the plot. Director AndrĂ© De Toth (who helmed some fine movies in the film noir canon) wisely doesn’t let this worry him and concentrates on building the brooding and malevolent atmosphere. De Toth, a fine and rather underrated director, always relished slightly offbeat material.

The bayou country setting is used with considerable skill and there is a definite southern gothic ambience to this picture. The swamps seem alive with menace and evil and one false step can land you in the quicksands. The rather gothic house fits in very nicely with the general tone. The people are as worrisome as the settings. The more charming a person is the more reason you have to fear them.

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The Region 1 DVD from an outfit called Mr FAT-W Video is truly terrible. Even the scenes filmed in bright sunlight look like they were filmed in the middle of the night. Everything looks dark and muddy and there is considerable print damage. Sound quality is barely acceptable. It’s also expensive so you’re getting rock-bottom budget quality at a premium price. Amazon claims this DVD comes from Image Entertainment but their name is found nowhere on either the disc or the packaging. This movie deserves much better treatment on DVD.

Dark Waters is an unusual and exceptionally interesting blend of terror, mystery and suspense. An excellent movie and worth grabbing even if the DVD is not up to scratch. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Clue of the Twisted Candle (1960)

Clue of the Twisted Candle1 The Clue of the Twisted Candle was one of an extensive series of very low-budget B crime films based on Edgar Wallace mysteries made at Merton Park Studios in the early 60s. Oddly enough the production of these movies coincided with the German Edgar Wallace boom that produced so many wildly entertaining movies in the “krimi” genre.

Like the German movies the Merton Park B-features updated Wallace’s stories to contemporary times, mostly because this helped keep the budgets down. The British movies were true B-movies, intended to fill the bottom spot on double bills. They were later screened on American television as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.

The German Edgar Wallace movies were more outrageous, which made them more in keeping with the flavour of Wallace’s stories which belonged at the more outrageous end of the mystery thriller genre. By comparison The Clue of the Twisted Candle is more of a straight crime thriller although it does capture at least some of the authentic Wallace spirit.

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Wallace’s novels were immensely popular but were always regarded with a certain amount of derision by the literary establishment, even more so than the average crime novels of the period (Wallace published his last novel shortly before his death in 1932). The fact that they were considered to be slightly disreputable makes it appropriate that the movie versions should belong to the similarly slightly disreputable world of the B-movie.

The Clue of the Twisted Candle was based on a 1918 Wallace novel. A sinister and mysterious foreigner, Ramon Karadis (Francis de Wolff), has been attracting the attention of Scotland Yard. A young friend of Karadis’s, John Lexman (David Knight), has been the victim of blackmail. Lexman meets with the blackmailer, there is an argument, and the blackmailer is dead of a gunshot wound. Lexman claims, quite accurately, that it was self-defence but unfortunately the blackmailer’s gun is nowhere to be found. That makes things rather grim for Lexman.

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Lexman’s story is that the gun he was carrying was lent to him by Ramon Karadis. Unfortunately Karadis now denies this. In spite of the evidence against Lexman Superintendent Meredith (Bernard Lee) is inclined to think that the young man was set up by Karadis. But proving this will be difficult.

There’s also a mysterious Dr Griswold who seems to have some connection with Karadis although the nature of the connection is not clear to the police.

Bernard Lee makes a very satisfactory detective. As always his performance is understated and unruffled. The detectives in the German Wallace films tended to be somewhat more in the action hero mould but Lee’s Supt. Meredith seems more like an authentic British policeman.

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Francis de Wolff is nicely sinister as Karadis. His performance isn’t excessively over-the-top and this makes him seem more genuinely threatening. The elaborate iron door to his study is a nice touch. The supporting cast is perfectly adequate.

Director Allan Davis had a rather brief career in television and in B-features. He keeps things fairly simple, the low budget not really allowing for anything fancy. Philip Mackie’s screenplay, like Davis’s directing, gets the job done. The very short running time of 61 minutes ensures that the action does not drag.

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Network DVD have released all the Merton Park Wallace movies in a series of boxed set. The transfer is quite decent.

I personally find the German Edgar Wallace movies to be more fun but The Clue of the Twisted Candle is reasonably entertaining in its own unassuming way. As long as you don’t set your expectations too high and keep in mind that this is a very low-budget movie there’s no reason not to enjoy it.