Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ace in the Hole (1951)

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Ace in the Hole is Billy Wilder at his most vitriolic and misanthropic. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the jaw but it undeniably works. Made at Paramount in 1951, this is a full-scale frontal assault on the press. While there is technically no actual crime committed in a legal sense, or at least nothing that could easily be proved in court, there is most certainly a very serious moral crime. And the central character follows the classic film noir trajectory, making this movie (like Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard made a year earlier) an unconventional but very definite film noir.

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) was once a high-flying big city reporter. After being fired from no less than eleven newspapers, for offences ranging from drunkenness to seducing the proprietor’s wife, he arrives in New Mexico penniless. He talks his way into a job with the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. For a man who was once a star reporter it’s a very humble job indeed but he figures that a story will come along soon enough that he will be able to exploit to propel himself back into the big time. He hates everything about New Mexico. Central Park in New York is as close as he ever wants to get to the great outdoors.

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A year later he is still waiting for that lucky break. And finally he gets it. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) runs a gas station and diner in the middle of nowhere. Nearby is an ancient Indian village and burial ground, the burial ground being located in a series of deep caves in the cliff face. While looking for Indian relics to sell at his two-bit roadside diner Leo manages to get himself buried in a cave-in. Leo is still alive but his legs are trapped under a huge pile of boulders and any sudden movement could bring the whole cave system crashing down upon him.

Chuck Tatum knows an opportunity when he sees one. He and a young photographer from the Sun-Bulletin, Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), just happen to be on the scene. Chuck takes charge immediately. He intends to be in total control of the situation. This could be a very big nation-wide story and Chuck is going to make sure that he is the reporter who gets the exclusive stories. Assuming that the rescue operation will take a week or so, that’s a week of front-page stories and Chuck will have every newspaper in the country begging for his services. To ensure that no other reporters can get inside access to the story he makes a sleazy deal with Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal).

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In a week Chuck will be writing his own contract with the biggest of the New York dailies and Sheriff Kretzer will be guaranteed of re-election. The only problem is that the rescue operation is not going to take a week. It’s only going to take sixteen hours or so. Chuck and Sheriff Kretzer make sure that it will actually take a week. Sure it’s a pretty low thing to do, to keep a guy trapped in a cave for a week when he could be out within a few hours, but moral problems like that have never bothered Chuck Tatum. He’s going to get his big story, whatever he has to do to get it.

Within a few days the scene has become a media circus and thousands of sight-seers have converged on Leo Minosa’s diner. The money is rolling in for Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who intends to get as far away from New Mexico and Leo as she can, as soon as she’s made enough money to set her up. Chuck Tatum, the sheriff and Lorraine are all doing very nicely out of Leo’s predicament, but Chuck will find that events have a nasty way of getting out of control and the unexpected always happens at the worst possible moment.

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This movie’s status as a film noir rests entirely on its content, having none of the classic film noir visual signatures. But the content should be noir enough to satisfy any reasonable person.

I’ve never had much time for Kirk Douglas as an actor but this role suits him perfectly. His scenery-chewing histrionics are just what Wilder wants for this movie. Jan Sterling does well as Leo’s wife, a woman who is in her own way as cynical as Chuck Tatum. Lorraine is not a classic femme fatale and Sterling doesn’t play her that way but she has enough cynicism and enough desperation to make her a very noir character.

Ray Neal as Kretzer is the sort of sheriff that city people like Billy Wilder like to imagine all rural sheriffs are - corrupt, petty and vicious. He’s a mere two-dimensional stereotype but Neal does the job effectively. The various minor characters are all either corrupt or morally weak or stupid. Wilder doesn’t make any distinctions - he just hates everybody.

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Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and it’s a savage kick to the head. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in intensity and nervous energy. Wilder certainly knew how to hate and this script is positively dripping with loathing. His intention was clearly to do to the newspaper business exactly what he had done to Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard and it could be argued that Ace in the Hole is even more successful in the sense that the newspaper game is even more deserving of this sort of scathing treatment. Chuck Tatum is not evil; he simply has the moral sense of a rattlesnake.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers a very good transfer. The movie is in the correct 4:3 aspect ratio and the black-and-white picture is sharp with excellent contrast.

Ace in the Hole is too crude to be considered a great picture but it’s certainly entertaining in a spiteful sort of way. Recommended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Smiling Lieutenant2 The Smiling Lieutenant, released by Paramount in 1931, is a fairly typical example of the Ernst Lubitsch musical. It’s a delightful frothy concoction, which is all it tries to be and all it needs to be.

Maurice Chevalier is Niki, a lieutenant in the 1st Austrian Guards Regiment. As you’d expect in a Lubitsch musical he’s a ladies’ man. In fact Niki’s ideas of the duties of an officer begin and end with the pursuit of the fair sex.

Niki’s latest love is Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violinist with an all-girl orchestra. Franzi is something special for Niki, and he certainly doesn’t intend to ruin anything so special by proposing marriage.

Niki’s life takes an unexpected turn during a state visit by the King of Flausenthurm, a tiny neighbouring principality. As the king passes in his carriage, accompanied by his daughter the Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), Niki (whose regiment is providing the guard of honour) makes the mistake of smiling and winking at Franzi. It it a mistake since the princess thinks he was smiling and winking at her.

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A scandal erupts and Niki is hauled before the King of Flausenthurm. Niki charms the king, and he charms the princess. Soon his little indiscretion is forgotten. Niki thinks he’s had a narrow escape but he soon discovers to his horror that he is now assumed to be engaged to the Princess Anna. That’s what happens when princesses think they’ve been winked at.

Niki isn’t the marrying kind anyway and he certainly doesn’t want to marry the rather frumpish Anna. And he has no intention of giving up Franzi. Anna soon realises that her new husband isn’t the least bit interested in her. Somehow she must find a way to attract his interest and she calls on an unexpected ally.

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The world Lubitsch celebrates in his musicals had already ceased to exist when he made them. It is clear that Lubitsch regards this is as something of a tragedy. The Europe of the Belle Epoque that was swept away by the First World War was in some ways the highest point European civilisation ever reached. By 1931 it was already the stuff of legend, a vanished golden age. The magic of Hollywood, and the famous Lubitsch Touch, brought that world to life again on the screen. The results are visually dazzling.

Maurice Chevalier played the same role in all the Lubitsch musicals he appeared in. It may well have been the only role he could play but it suited these musicals perfectly. Claudette Colbert makes a charming leading lady. In 1931 she was at her most vivacious, and her sexiest. The songs in this movie require no great musical talent and Colbert carries them off with ease.

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Miriam Hopkins is less at ease with the musical numbers but apart from that she does well and her transformation from dowdy princess to smouldering sex kitten is impressive.

For a musical this movie is actually a bit light on musical numbers, and those that are included aren’t particularly memorable. That seems to me to be a weakness of the Lubitsch musicals - a lack of catchy tunes.

My other issue with this movie is with the character of Niki, and indeed with all the characters Maurice Chevalier played for Lubitsch. We’re supposed to see Niki as the personification of European sophistication but if sophistication means having the morals of an alley cat then I’m glad I’m not sophisticated. The bottom line is that Niki is not cheerfully naughty; he’s an utter swine with no redeeming qualities and I found myself detesting him. And he’s smarmy with it. Both Franzi and the princess would have been much better off without him.

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There’s certainly plenty of pre-code immorality in this film. We’re left in no doubt about the nature of Niki’s relationship with Franzi, and we’re equally left in no doubt that his marital problems with the Princess Anna are all about sex. If that’s the sort of thing that floats your boat then you’ll enjoy this movie. Personally I’m starting to find the pre-code celebration of immorality increasingly empty and tiresome.

This is one of the four movies in Criterion’s Eclipse boxed set of Lubitsch musicals. It’s a decent transfer but there are no extras.

The Smiling Lieutenant tries very hard to be fun but Maurice Chevalier is an actor whose charm all too quickly becomes irritating. The movie is worth seeing for Claudette Colbert at her sparkling best. Recommended, but only if you can endure Maurice Chevalier.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

5 Against the House (1955)

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5 Against the House was released by Columbia in 1955 and it seems to be accepted as a film noir largely because it was directed by Phil Karlson, who made so many fine noir movies.

Al (Guy Madison), Brick (Brian Keith, Roy (Alvy Moore) and Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) are Korean War veterans attending Midwestern University under the GI Bill. Al is engaged to Kay Greylek (Kim Novak), a nightclub singer. Brick saved Al’s life in Korea, but Brick has never recovered from the war. He’s a walking time bomb. Early on in the movie we see him almost kill a guy over a woman.

Al is not a complete fool. He knows that Brick is a psycho case but since Brick saved his life he feels responsible for him. Al had been an officer so he feels a double responsibility as both an officer and a friend. He thinks he can keep Brick out of trouble although so far he’s had mixed success in this endeavour.

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During the summer break the four friends head to Reno. At a big gambling joint called Harold’s (a western-themed casino) they overhear a chance remark by a cop that robbing Harold’s would be completely impossible - the security is tighter than Fort Knox. Ronnie takes that as a challenge - nothing can be impossible.

Ronnie comes up with a fool-proof plan to rob Harold’s. Not that Ronnie has any interest in being a criminal. His parents are rich and he’s doing well at college. He regards it all as a harmless prank. They will steal a million dollars from Harold’s and then give the money back. No-one will get hurt and since they are going to give the money back they won’t really be committing a crime. They can hardly be arrested if they don’t keep the money. That’s Ronnie’s theory anyway, and he convinces Roy and Brick that it’s a swell idea. College students have never been renowned for their common sense, even those who are in their 30s and should know better.

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The problem is that the plan requires four guys. That means they need Al. Al is much too sensible to have anything to do with such a hare-brained prank but Brick assures Ronnie that once they’re on the road to Reno again he will talk him around.

While Ronnie is planning the perfect crime Al and Kay are having relationship problems. Incredibly time-consuming relationship problems that pretty much chew up the whole of the first half of the movie and make this one of the slowest moving heist movies ever made. Al and Kay just never stop discussing their possible future marriage. Finally, after forty minutes of mind-numbing tedium, the actual plot starts to kick in. Even when it does kick in it still has to stop from time to time so Al and Kay can discuss their relationship problems for the ten thousandth time.

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When we do finally (and mercifully) get to the heist it’s reasonably clever and moderately exciting. While Ronnie and Roy still think it’s a harmless college prank and Al and Kay (who has come along for the ride so that she and Al can discuss their deeply fascinating relationship problems) have no idea what is being planned things have been happening inside Brick’s brain. The truth is that Brick is a screw-up and always has been a screw-up. The only thing he was ever good at was being a soldier and he wasn’t even any good at that, ending up in the psycho ward at a military hospital. Brick knows he’s never going to graduate and he’s never going to be a lawyer and that the rest of his life will be a nevee-ending saga of angst and self-pity. Ronnie’s prank robbery is his one big chance of success. Brick is a classic noir loser, although he’s even dumber than the average noir loser.

Al is kind of a noir hero as well in the sense that his misguided sense of loyalty to Brick gets him involved in a real robbery in which real people, including himself, could get killed.

The focus is not so much on the heist as on the personalities of the vets, in particular Al and Brick, and the problems they face adjusting to normal life after their experiences in Korea. This might be in some respects a film noir but it’s also one of those 1950s angst movies. In fact it’s perilously close at times to falling into that most tedious of all movie categories, the Social Problem Movie.

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Guy Madison as Al is adequate if rather bland. Kim Novak is quite good as Kay - it’s not her fault that the screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and William Bowers gets bogged down in Al and Kay’s profoundly uninteresting marital dilemmas. Alvy Moore as Roy is an irrelevant  but harmless comic relief character. Ronnie is potentially the most interesting character. If he really intends the whole thing as a prank why does he become so obsessed by it, even to the extent of spending a good deal of his own money on the preparations and risking his friends’ lives? Sadly Ronnie’s issues never do get explored and Kerwin Mathews isn’t given the chance to display his acting chops.

The central character is Brick and Brian Keith does a reasonable job. Brick is a walking disaster and it might have been interesting to find out exactly where and how he became such a mess. This was the mid-50s, a time when Hollywood was getting very excited by psychiatry, and the movie accepts the standard psychiatric view that no-one is responsible for their own actions. We’re all just children and we need to rely on psychiatrists to tell us how to live. The best thing for Brick would be to go back to the hospital and spend the rest of his life as a big baby in a nice safe padded cell.

Phil Karlson was usually a very reliable director of this type of movie but this time he gets bogged down quite badly and the movie never generates any real excitement. This may well be his worst movie.

This is one of the five movies in the Columbia Film Noir Classics I boxed set. It’s a nice anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in widescreen) but there are no extras apart from a trailer.

5 Against the House is really a bit of a yawn and cannot seriously be recommended.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Power of the Press (1943)

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The Power of the Press is included in Sony’s Samuel Fuller Collection but to call it a true Sam Fuller movie might be going a bit far. It is based on a story by Fuller so I guess it’s sort of a Sam Fuller movie. I suspect he’d have been a bit embarrassed to see this movie included in a set celebrating his work.

It deals with something that was certainly a hot issue in 1943, and it’s an issue that is extremely relevant today - the freedom of the press.

John Cleveland Carter (Minor Watson) is the publisher of the New York Gazette. The real power at this newspaper however is Howard Rankin (Otto Kruger). The Gazette has been publishing articles critical of the government. Rankin is in fact a Nazi sympathiser and his intention is to weaken the American war effort and turn the American public against the war. Rankin has brought a number of his own private goons with him to the paper. Carter has belatedly released what is going on and has tried to put a stop to it but before he can do so he is gunned down.

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Rankin now believes that he is in complete control of the Gazette. The editor, Griff Thompson (Lee Tracy), is apolitical but the paper’s anti-government campaigning has boosted circulation and that’s all he is interested in. He doesn’t share Rankin’s views but he’s a willing tool. What neither man knows is that just before he died John Cleveland Carter wrote a new will, leaving his controlling interest in the Gazette to his old buddy Ulysses Bradford (Guy Kibbee). Bradford is the publisher of a tiny small-town newspaper but he’s a decent old-fashioned newspaper man and Carter believes that Bradford is the man who can change the direction of the Gazette.

Bradford has one important ally, Edwina Stephens (Gloria Dickson). She was Carter’s secretary but she had a great influence over him and now she is Bradford’s right-hand woman.

Rankin and Thompson are determined to continue their anti-government stance and Bradford finds that stopping them is a much bigger task than he’d expected. The Gazette becomes involved in a sleazy attempt to frame an innocent man for Carter’s murder and another of their campaigns leads indirectly to the death of an honest government official.

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The irony of this movie is that it is a propaganda movie warning audiences of the dangers of propaganda! The message of the movie is that freedom of the press is only a good thing if the press can be relied upon to take the correct propaganda stance. This is of course a view that is currently very popular among politicians and even, frighteningly, among some newspaper editors and journalists. The idea that freedom of the press should be limited to those sections of the press holding the correct and acceptable opinions is a profoundly dangerous one but this movie ignores such inconvenient truths. The excuse that can be made for the movie is that it was wartime but when you consider that it was a war supposedly fought for freedom the irony becomes very uncomfortable indeed.

This Columbia production was clearly a fairly low-budget affair. The stars are actors who usually played in B-pictures or in supporting roles in A-pictures. Guy Kibbee was a very familiar face in Hollywood in the 30s but he’s not someone you expect to see in a starring role. He does a pretty fair job of it. Lee Tracy had been very popular in pre-code days but his career was very much in decline by 1943. It’s the sort of role he relished and he makes an excellent hardbitten cynical newspaper editor.

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Otto Kruger as Rankin is little more than a stock melodrama villain. You keep expecting him to start twirling his moustache whenever he contemplates some new villainy. Gloria Dickson as the feisty secretary who thinks she should be running the paper is a little too shrill and a little too self-satisfied for my liking.

Lew Landers was a very prolific director of mostly B-movies. His main positive contribution to this movie is that he keeps the pacing tight.

Robert Hardy Andrews’ screenplay isn’t exactly strong on subtlety. He uses a bludgeon rather than a rapier to make his points.

The most unpleasant thing about this movie it that it loads the dice. It makes you feel that if you doubt its conclusions you must be a Nazi sympathiser or a traitor or both. When you’ve set up one side of the argument in this way then it’s obvious that only side of the argument will get a hearing.

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This is a clumsy movie that relies too much on that old standby of lazy writers, good old coincidence. And that other egregious flaw of bad writing, too much speechifying, is sadly much in evidence as well.

The DVD included in the Samuel Fuller Collection boxed set from Sony offers an excellent transfer.

The Power of the Press is moderately entertaining when Lee Tracy gets the bit between his teeth but apart from that it has little to recommend it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Lineup (1958)

Don Siegel’s crime thriller The Lineup was based on a popular television series of the same name, and shares the TV series’ San Francisco setting. It was released by Columbia in 1958.

This is a movie that really hits the ground running. The opening sequence is violent, exciting and spectacular. In fact it’s so good you wonder if the rest of the movie will be able to maintain the same standard. The good news is that it does.

A porter throws a suitcase into the back of a cab and the crazed cab driver then proceeds to run over a cop and then crash his cab. The suitcase belongs to a passenger who has just arrived in San Francisco on an ocean liner. The suitcase is impounded as evidence and when it’s examined it proves to contain an ancient Chinese statuette packed with heroin. The owner of the suitcase certainly doesn’t fit the usual profile of a dope smuggler. Philip Dressler is prosperous and middle-aged and has a high-profile and very respectable job with the city’s opera company. He seems to be completely unaware of the surprise package hidden in the statuette. He could be telling the truth. The police decide to cut him loose and tail him in the hope that he might, either knowingly or unknowingly, lead them to the big man behind the drug smuggling.

The scene then switches to an aircraft landing at San Francisco airport. On board the aircraft are two middle-ranking members of the drug syndicate. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a vicious sociopath who wants to improve his mind; Julian (Robert Keith) looks like a kindly middle-aged uncle but in his own way he’s every bit as crazy as Dancer. The relationship between this unlikely pair of syndicate heavies is the real core of the film and is its greatest strength.

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The drug smuggling operation makes use of innocent tourists. They are sold trinkets and curios in various Asian cities. The heroin is hidden inside the curios. When these luckless tourists return Stateside their luggage will be stolen in order to retrieve the drugs. It seems like a clever operation, and the way in which it goes wrong is delightfully bizarre. So delightfully bizarre that I’m not going to tell you anything about it.

The movie switches continuously between the activities of Dancer and Julian as they criss-cross San Francisco collecting the drugs, with the wildly unstable and totally deranged Dancer leaving a trail of corpses behind him. That trail of corpses will provide the police with most of their crucial leads. At the end of the day Dancer has to deliver the drugs to the big boss, a mysterious and anonymous character known only as The Man. And if he wants to live Dancer will have to sell The Man a totally unbelievable story that happens to be entirely true.

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Don Siegel has a reputation for handling action sequences with considerable skill and that talent is seen to superlative advantage in this movie. This is one of the most adrenaline-charged crime action movies of the 50s, and compares very favourably indeed to the action movies of any decade.

Anyone who thinks irony was invented in the 90s or that Quentin Tarantino defined criminal cool will have to think again after watching this movie. The dazzling repartee of the two psychotic hitmen, combined with some very black comedy, makes Pulp Fiction seem rather redundant. And Dancer and Julian are far more interesting and complex (and disturbing) than any characters in a Tarantino movie. The two hitmen’s wheelman, Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel), provides the perfect third component of one of the most extraordinary trios of hoodlums you’ll encounter in any movie.

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The scenes showing the police investigation are done in a kind of quasi-documentary style that neatly counterpoints the surreal scenes involving dancer and Julian.

Siegel uses some classic San Francisco locations and uses them brilliantly. The aquarium scenes, the crucial sequences in the extraordinary (and gigantic) Sutro’s Museum amusement arcade, the nail-bitingly tense wait for The Man in this amusement complex, are all done with consummate skill. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is impressive throughout. This really is a great-looking movie. The scenes in the apartment of the unwitting drug courier with the woman and child being menaced by the increasingly crazy hitmen must have been deeply unsettling to audiences in the 50s. They’re steel deeply unsettling today. The whole sequence involving the doll is disturbing, paranoiac and shocking.

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To cap it all off Siegel ends the movie with a terrific car chase. Amazingly enough, even though he uses process shots, it’s a car chase that still stands up superbly today.

It’s not a perfect movie. It has a few pacing problems very early on but it’s a movie that just gets better and better as it goes, especially when the plans of Dancer and Julian start to unravel and desperation starts to creep into their actions as they realise it’s all getting hopelessly and catastrophically out of control. Siegel builds the tension relentlessly.

Emile Meyer makes a wonderful bull-necked hardbitten detective. Robert Keith is superb as Julian. At first Julian seems to be the sane partner, the one in control, but as the movie progresses we realise he’s a full-blown psycho as well. Eli Wallach delivers a magnificent sucker-punch of a performance.

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This movie is one of five in the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I boxed set. It’s an excellent anamorphic transfer (the movie was filmed in widescreen format) and the extras include one of the most bizarre commentary tracks ever recorded with Eddie Muller and a totally deranged James Ellroy.

Whether The Lineup can be considered true film noir or not could be debated. It doesn’t really have the required plot elements or the right visual style but it does have the right feel. And while the visual style might not be pure noir it’s undeniably stunning. This is a turbocharged roller-coaster of a thriller and is very highly recommended.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)

Fox’s Charlie Chan series was well into its stride when Charlie Chan in Egypt appeared in 1935. This could have been an entertaining entry in the series if only Fox hadn’t insisted on ruining it with some of the worst comic relief you’ll see in any movie of that era (and given the awfulness of the comic relief in most 1930s and 1940s Hollywood movies that’s quite an achievement).

The Charlie Chan movies were immensely profitable and played a major role in keeping Fox afloat in the 30s and in general they’re among the most entertaining B-features of that era. Earl Derr Biggers only wrote a handful of novels featuring the character so by the time this movie was made they were having to rely on original screenplays (in this instance by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan) rather than adaptations of the novels. The movies have a slightly different feel compared to the books but both the books and the movies are highly entertaining.

Charlie Chan is in Egypt on behalf of a French museum that has been funding the archaeological excavations of a Dr Arnold. All artifacts found by the expedition were supposed to go to the museum but some pieces have been turning up in rival museums and private collections. Dr Arnold has now disappeared. He had set off in search of another tomb but he hasn’t been heard from and his daughter Carol (Pat Paterson) is starting to get concerned. Professor John Thurston (Frank Conroy) is temporarily in charge while Dr arnold is absent and he assures Charlie that no artifacts could possibly have gone missing - the ones that have turned up in other collections must be fakes. Charlie is far from convinced.


Charlie finds that not only has there been some dishonest dealing in artifacts, he also has a murder to deal with. One murder to start with, with more to follow. Dr Arnold’s son, who had been crippled in an accident in one of the tombs, believes that a curse is pursuing everyone involved in the excavations.

I’m very fond of movies dealing with Egypt, and particularly movies dealing with archaeological expeditions. The tomb scenes were most likely left over from earlier A-pictures, this being a fairly standard practice with B-movies of the 30s and 40s. They look reasonably impressive and they offer opportunities for additional thrills with secret passageways and hidden rooms.


Warner Oland made Charlie Chan a somewhat more genial and warm character than the Charlie Chan of the novels by Earl Derr Biggers. The character had been played, with little success, by several other actors in the late 20s and early 30s but once Oland took over the role the Chinese detective from Honolulu became one of the best-loved characters in American movies.

Unfortunately for this outing Fox decided to add even more comic relief than usual, and even worse the comic relief was assigned to Stepin Fetchit, an African-American actor who may well be the most irritating actor on the history of motion pictures. With the curse of the mummy claiming so many victims I kept praying that he would be next, but to no avail. I’d have felt immense gratitude to any murderer who could have removed this character from the movie. This ill-advised and excruciatingly unfunny comic relief continues throughout the picture and pretty much destroys any enjoyment of an otherwise quite decent movie.


The other supporting actors are quite adequate. Look out for Rita Hayworth in a very early and very small role.

The politically correct crowd would like us to believe that Charlie Chan’s excessive geniality and politeness, his quoting of Confucius and his slightly mangled English were all examples of wicked racial stereotyping. This is of course utter nonsense. Charlie Chan belongs to the distinguished line of detectives (Columbo being a prime example) whose eccentricities and apparent simpleness serve the purpose of persuading suspects to take him less seriously than they should. Chan has a razor-sharp mind but this is something that murderers usually find out too late.

Director Louis King had a long if not brilliant career. Like most B-movies made by major studios the production values are quite high and in fact the budgets for the early Charlie Chan movies were reasonably generous.


This is one of the four movies in the first of Fox’s Charlie Chan DVD boxed sets. The Charlie Chan movies were in terrible condition before Fox spent a small fortune restoring them. Even after the restoration there are still some minor problems with the picture quality. This movie is extremely grainy but it’s still quite watchable. Fox has loaded all its Charlie DVDs with a variety of extras, in the case of this movie the main extra being a short documentary on real-life Chinese-Hawaiian detective Chang Apana. Many people believed he was the model for Charlie Chan. That’s a somewhat doubtful claim but he was a colourful character in his own right and this brief doco is worth watching.

If you can ignore Stepin Fetchit then Charlie Chan in Egypt is an entertaining enough mystery. It’s not one of the best of the Charlie Chan movies but the Egyptian setting adds a touch of the exotic that makes up for some of its other deficiencies.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Money Madness (1948)

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Money Madness is a forgotten 1948 B-movie from Sigmund Neufeld Productions. It’s an interesting example of a reverse noir. By that I mean that the noir hero role is taken by a woman with a man playing the role usually expected of a femme fatale, becoming a sort of homme fatale.

The story, in time-honoured noir style, is told entirely in flashback. Julie (Frances Rafferty) lives with her elderly and very demanding aunt. Aunt Cora is something of a nightmare but Julie is the only family she has. Julie resents her aunt but she can’t bring herself to walk out on her. She knows that Aunt Cora is lonely and unhappy and that that’s the reason for her constant neediness. If only Aunt Cora would be just a little bit more understanding of Julie’s need to get out occasionally.

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Then comes a fateful meeting. Julie has been out on a date with a creepy drunk who won’t take no for an answer. She is rescued from this predicament by cab driver Steve Clark (Hugh Beaumont). Steve seems like a really nice guy, so different from most other men. Steve really is different from most other men, but not in the way Julie thinks. In fact he’s a bank robber with $200,000 sitting in a safety deposit box. Steve has cooked up an ingenious plan. Most crooks get caught when they start spending the money they’ve stolen. Their problem is that they can’t find a way to make their ill-gotten gains look legitimate. Steve’s plan takes care of that problem. He will marry Julie and then hide the money in Aunt Cora’s house. When Aunt Cora dies he and Julie will pretend to find the money hidden in a trunk. Since Aunt Cora is just the kind of eccentric old person who might have large sums of money stashed away in unlikely places there should be no difficulty in getting people to believe their story. And Julie is Aunt Cora’s heir so the money will then be hers, Or rather it will belong to her and her husband.

Of course there is one potential obstacle. What if Aunt Cora doesn’t die? Steve has a answer to that as well.

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Julie is horrified when she discovers what her new husband has been up to. Her first instinct is to go straight to the police, but Steve convinces her that she has now made herself an accessory, and besides a wife can’t testify against her husband. This is a classic example of an irritating flaw that crops up time and time again in crime movies. If Julie went to the police she’d have no difficulty in persuading them to believe her story and the very fact that she was coming forward would convince them that she was never anything but an unwilling dupe. But if Julie did the sort of sensible thing that any sane person would do we’d have no movie. So Julie doesn’t go to the police.

Of course Steve’s plan does hit a couple of very nasty snags and meanwhile Julie is being dragged more and more into his crazed criminal scheming. It’s all going to end in tears but Julie, again like the typical noir hero, seems unable to break out of the net. She has adopted the characteristic noir fatalism that has doomed so many noir heroes.

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Steve Clark is of course quite mad. He’s so crazy that it never occurs to him that he might not get away with it. Hugh Beaumont gives a wonderfully chilling performance that is the one thing that makes an otherwise routine B noir into a minor noir classic.

Frances Rafferty is reasonably good as well. Julie has been ensnared the way so many male noir protagonists have been ensnared. She has fallen for a good-looking charming man who turns out to be no good, and worse than that he turns out to be dangerously and scarily psychotic.

Aside from Beaumont’s bravura performance this is a competently made well-paced B-movie that has no difficulty in keeping the viewer’s interest throughout its modest 73-minute running time.

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Alpha Video’s DVD release is exactly what you expect from this company. The picture is dark and murky, contrast is extremely poor, there’s a lot of graininess and there’s some print damage. On the other hand it’s cheap and it’s the only way you’re ever likely to see this movie.

And Money Madness is definitely worth seeing. It’s an above-average and highly entertaining B-movie with genuine film noir credentials. Despite the indifferent quality of the DVD this one is worth buying. Highly recommended.