Monday, December 29, 2014

best classic movies viewed in 2014, part 2 (non film noir)

I’ve already posted my list of my favourite film noir from this year. These have been the best classic movie from other genres that I’ve watched in 2014:

The Blue Light, Leni Riefenstahl, Béla Balázs, 1932

Going Hollywood, Raoul Walsh, 1933

The Sea Hawk, Michael Curtiz, 1940

The Doctor Takes a Wife, Alexander Hall, 1940

Road to Zanzibar, Victor Schertzinger, 1941

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Edward F. Cline , 1941

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss, 1945

El Cid, Anthony Mann, 1961

Mirage, Edward Dmytryk, 1965

The Green Berets, John Wayne, Ray Kellogg, Mervyn LeRoy, 1968

Saturday, December 27, 2014

best film noir of 2014

The best film noir I watched in 2014:

Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang, 1945

Crack-Up, Irving Reis, 1946

Red Light, Roy Del Ruth, 1949

Cry Danger, Robert Parrish, 1951

Loophole, Harold D. Schuster, 1954

Pushover, Richard Quine, 1954

Violent Saturday, Richard Fleischer, 1955

Plus some interesting neo-noirs I watched this year:

Tony Rome, Gordon Douglas, 1967

Madigan, Don Siegel (1968)

Dirty Harry, Don Siegel (1971)

Death Wish, Michael Winner (1974)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas everyone

It's Christmas! I hope you all found something nice in your Christmas stocking this year. Merry Christmas everyone!

Bandolero! (1968)

Bandolero! is a slightly offbeat, slightly uneven but still extremely interesting and highly entertaining 1968 western starring James Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. I've reviewed it on my Cult Movie Reviews blog but this one might also be of interest to readers of this blog. Here's the link to my review.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cry Danger (1951)

Cry Danger is an effectively low-key film noir that works rather well without making too much fuss about it.

Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) has just been released from prison after serving five years of a life sentence for armed robbery and murder. Mulloy was innocent of the crime, although he had originally intended to be involved but backed out. Mulloy is not perhaps an entirely law-abiding citizen but he’s still rather bitter about serving five years for a job he didn’t do.

What really puzzles him is that after five years he was suddenly offered a full pardon. At his trial his alibi had failed to convince the jury. He claimed to have been drinking in a bar with a group of Marines at the time of the robbery, but he couldn’t produce any of the Marines at the trial. Now one of those Marines has come forward and confirmed his alibi. Delong (Richard Erdman) explained that he’d been serving overseas at the time of the trial and lost a leg in combat and as a result has only just returned to the States and only just heard about the case. Naturally he immediately stepped forward to clear Mulloy’s name.

This is all fine and dandy, but there’s only one problem. Mulloy has never set eyes on Delong before and he’s absolutely certain that he was not one of the Marines he was drinking with on that fateful night. In fact Delong cheerfully admits he has never set eyes on Mulloy before either. He simply assumed Mulloy was guilty and that in gratitude for getting him the pardon he would share some of the loot with him. Mulloy is rather amused by Delong’s explanation and although he points out that not having committed the crime he has no idea where the stolen $100,000 is he’s happy for Delong to tag along with him.

The odd friendship between Mulloy and Delong is typical of the wry but understated humour that lightens a movie that could have been merely grim and cynical. Neither is exactly a solid citizen but neither is exactly an out-and-out criminal either. They’re slightly shady figures on the edge of the underworld but basically they’re both fairly decent guys underneath.

Mulloy had not taken part in the robbery but since he was originally slated to be the getaway driver he knows who did pull the job. That person was Castro (William Conrad). Mulloy figures that Castro owes him for the five years he lost out of his life. The trouble is that Castro doesn’t exactly see it that way. Castro explains that he is now “60% legitimate” and a big shot and he’s not happy about giving up a share of the loot to Mulloy. Mulloy’s efforts to get what he believes he is entitled to will get him into deeper and deeper trouble and will also cause problems with Nancy Morgan. Nancy’s husband was involved in the robbery and he’s still in prison. Mulloy is hoping to find evidence to prove his pal’s innocence but the complication is that Mulloy and Nancy used to be a hot item before her marriage and it soon becomes obvious that the flames of romance are still smouldering and could easily erupt into a full-blown forest fire.

Despite the humour this is still a genuine film noir and it has the classic noir themes of betrayal and it gets pretty downbeat at times. It’s an odd mix that works surprisingly well.

Screenwriter William Bowers doesn’t make the mistake of over-complicating things. If you throw in too many cynical twists and too many betrayals then the effect of the twists and betrayals that really matter, the ones that need to have a real impact, are likely to be dissipated. Bowers is content to save his big twist until the end while doing his best to distract the audience’s attention in the meantime.

Providing an ending that would satisfy the Production Code and the studio while still remaining truthful to the material was always a difficult juggling act. The ending in this case works well and it feels right.

Dick Powell had been a popular juvenile lead in the Warner Brothers musicals of the 30s. By the 40s it was obvious that that was going to become a bit of a dead end so he set about reinventing himself as a serious actor in tough guy roles. The change of direction was fairly successful and Powell played a number of notable film noir roles including the 1944 Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet and the excellent 1948 Pitfall. Powell adopted the minimalist acting style that proved so successful for actors like Alan Ladd in the 40s. By that stage Powell had the craggy slightly ravaged looks to carry off such roles. He was never a great actor but in the right part he could be quite effective and he did the tough guy thing very convincingly. He works well for him in Cry Danger.

Rhonda Fleming does well enough as the woman who introduces such complications into Rocky’s life. Jean Porter provides some delightful light relief as the light-fingered but likeable good-time girl Darlene who takes a shine to Delong. William Conrad was always reliable as a heavy and his performance is a major highlight. Regis Toomey is fine as the unsentimental but basically honest cop.

Robert Parrish’s career as a director was not especially distinguished although it included some interesting oddities such as the quirky heist/caper movie Duffy (1968) and the underrated 1969 Gerry Anderson-produced science fiction movie Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun). And it also included the pretty decent 1951 gangster flick The Mob. He does a competent if not overly inspired job with Cry Danger.

Olive Films have released Cry Danger in a characteristically barebones edition on Blu-Ray. The transfer is a good one although I’m not entirely convinced the Blu-Ray release is necessary for black-and-white movies of this vintage which generally look just fine in a good quality DVD release.

Cry Danger is not quite a film noir classic but it’s a somewhat overlooked and rather satisfying example of the genre. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mirage (1965)

Mirage is a 1965 suspense thriller directed by Edward Dmytryk. Although in fact the exact genre to which this film should be assigned remains uncertain for much of its running time. It’s part psychological thriller and part crime thriller with suggestions that it might at any moment veer off in the direction of the espionage thriller, the techno-thriller or even science fiction.

Gregory Peck stars as David Stillwell. At least he believes his name is David Stillwell. That’s about the only thing he’s fairly certain of and he’s really not at all sure even about that.

David Stillwell has had a rather puzzling day. People keep greeting him as though they hadn’t seen him for a long time, even when they saw him the day before. And then there’s the girl on the stairway who is sure she knows him. He’s equally sure he’s never met her. They met on the stairway during the blackout, the blackout being another puzzling thing about David’s day. The power went off all over the building, just about the time that noted do-gooder Charles Calvin jumped from the 27th floor.

Calvin’s suicide is definitely puzzling although David is fairly sure it has nothing to do with his problems. But then, given that David cannot remember anything at all that happened prior to the last two years, and can remember precious little that has happened since, he can’t possibly say there can’t be a connection.

And did I mention the guy who pulled a gun on him in his apartment? The guy who told David he was about to take a trip to Barbados where he would meet the Major. And he was to be sure to bring his briefcase with him, although this is another puzzle because his briefcase is completely empty.

It’s not surprising that after a day like this David Stillwell should decide to see a psychiatrist. Only the psychiatrist doesn’t want to see him. David decides the next best thing would be a private detective. That’s what private detectives do for a living, isn’t it? Find out stuff about people. So a private detective should be able  to tell him who he is. Unfortunately his confidence in this particular PI, Ted Caselle(Walter Matthau), is not enhanced when Caselle tells him this is his very first case.

There is only so much even the best PI can do. Ultimately it’s up to David to remember whatever it is that he doesn’t really want to remember. It’s something that shattered all his illusions and exposed the hypocrisy of the professional do-gooders of this world. His big problem is that remembering is only going to be possible if he can stay alive long enough and there are obviously people who do not intend that he should survive. 

Gregory Peck is ideally cast here as a regular guy who responds to his extraordinary circumstances in a very ordinary way. He is scared, confused and angry. Peck has no trouble convincing us that he is one very confused guy, and being Gregory Peck he’s also a fairly likeable kind of guy so the audience is going to be on his side from the start.

Walter Matthau provides some low-key comic relief although Caselle is not played entirely for laughs. It’s not that kind of film. It’s an intense kind of film so any overt comedy would be out of place but Matthau’s brand of sly understated humour provides a welcome break in the tension.

Diane Baker as Shela has to be mysterious, which she manages well, and she also has to be a kind of low-key femme fatale (I’m using the term low-key a lot but that’s the sort of movie it is). It’s a generally effective performance.

Edward Dmytryk had plenty of experience with this type of movie (having directed film noir classics like Murder, My Sweet and psychological dramas such as The Caine Mutiny) and he’s always in full control.

Universal’s DVD release provides a rather grainy anamorphic transfer. The graininess may be inherent in the source materials and may well have been a deliberate choice. It certainly doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film.

Mirage is an effective offbeat thriller that keeps the audience guessing. We really have no idea where this movie is going until quite late in proceedings. There’s more than a hint of film noir (or possibly neo-noir, this being 1965). Highly recommended.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Deadly Nightshade (1953)

Deadly Nightshade is one of four films included in a boxed set called Great British Movies: Film Noir - Volume 2 put out by an outfit called Strawberry Media in the UK. I had some doubts about this set, half expecting that the films would have no noir content whatsoever and that the transfers might be iffy. Based on Deadly Nightshade my fears were groundless on both counts.

Deadly Nightshade is a strange genre hybrid. At first it seems like a fairly typical example of the entertaining crime thrillers the British produced in such quantity at this period. But it’s also a spy thriller. It has considerable helpings of moral ambiguity, it has a strong sense of a man whose attempt to escape his fate simply traps him more completely and it has a definite Nothing Is What It Seems To Be quality. All of which is, in my view, just about sufficient to justify the film noir label.

It was directed by John Gilling, a man who made a lot of very interesting genre movies in the 50s and early 60s including a couple of superb gothic horror films for Hammer (The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies). He also wrote and directed The Challenge (aka It Takes a Thief), a very underrated 1960 film noir starring Jayne Mansfield (whose performance in the film is quite impressive).

He was a very talented director who has never received anywhere near the attention he deserves.

Deadly Nightshade starts with the police arresting escaped convict John Barlow in a pub in a small seaside town in the West Country in England. Only it turns out that the man they’ve just arrested isn’t Barlow at all but a painter named Robert Matthews. Their mistake is understandable - Matthews is the spitting image of Barlow. The genial Inspector Clements (John Horsley) is very apologetic, Matthews accepts his apology with good grace and the two men part on good terms. 

Then Barlow turns up on Matthews’ doorstep and things start to get complicated. From this point on any mention of specific plot points is going to entail the risk of spoilers. I’m not going to take that risk, but suffice to say that the plot includes an ocean liner sunk by a German mine seven years after the end of the war, atomic scientists and murder. And none of these events are what they seem to be.

Emrys Jones plays both Matthews and Barlow and does a fine job. He conveys the sense of unease and the ambiguity of both characters subtly and economically and he makes them both convincing. Zena Marshall as the love interest of one of these men is quite solid. John Horsley is quietly understated as the affable but efficient Inspector Clements.

The movie’s biggest fault is an excessive reliance on coincidence but if you accept it as a kind of film noir then that becomes less of a problem. After all in a film noir you’re not entirely surprised to see fate taking a hand to lead a character on his way down the slippery slide to the noir nightmare world.

I don’t want to overstate my case for this movie being film noir. Stylistically it’s more in the mainstream tradition of British mysteries and thrillers of the 40s and 50s, and much of the tension comes from the contrast between the tranquil and innocent rural setting and the psychological turmoil of the characters. So you won’t find any obvious noir visual signatures here. The cinematography (by Monty Berman) is certainly competent but it’s not noir cinematography.

This movie was produced by Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker who would go on to be among the most important producers in British television in the 1960s. In the 50s they specialised in low-budget movies and Deadly Nightshade was clearly made on a rather modest budget. This imposes certain limitations - there was obviously no money for attempting ambitious action sequences. This does not prove to be a major problem - with a competently written script by Lawrence Huntington, with a talented director like Gilling and with a fairly strong cast the movie has enough going for it to compensate for a lack of big money.

The transfer is flawless and quite simply superb. The movie looks terrific. 

Deadly Nightshade is an unusual and interesting movie and it’s also rather entertaining. As a slightly noirish spy thriller it works well. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Night Train To Munich (1940)

Night Train To Munich was a fairly early directorial effort by Sir Carol Reed. Hitchcock had scored a major international hit the year before with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train To Munich is very much in the same style. It also attempts to mix comedy with suspense, and even has the comic relief provided by the same two actors - Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (and they even play the same characters).

The events of the film take place shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Czech scientist Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt) has developed a new kind of armour-plating, far in advance of anything possessed by any other country. Not surprisingly when the Germans forcibly incorporate Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich they are hoping Bomasch will work for them. Bomasch and his daughter are equally determined not to have anything to do with the Nazis. 

Bomasch’s daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is sent to a concentration camp where she meets Karl Marsen, a dissident German imprisoned for anti-Nazi activities. They make plans to escape. The complicated plot involves a number of different escapes as the action switches back and forth between England and the Continent. Anna meets various people who claim to want to help her but almost invariably they turn out not to be what they seem.

The first of the movie’s escapes is by aircraft but the later escape attempt uses a train as its setting (hence the film’s title). Trains are of course always ideal settings for suspense thrillers.

Margaret Lockwood was one of the British film industry’s biggest stars of the 1940s in movies like wonderful historical crime melodrama The Wicked Lady. She makes a fine heroine. Rex Harrison might seem an unlikely choice to play a spy but he throws himself into the part with enthusiasm, and even manages to be almost convincing as a German officer. Paul Henreid plays an important but ambiguous rôle as Karl Marsen. Marsen is a rather complex character who doesn’t always behave in the manner we expect. Rex Harrison plays his triple rôle with a fair amount of complexity as well. This refusal to conform to lazy stereotypes is one of the film’s biggest strengths.

The supporting cast includes stalwart British character actors like Roland Culver and Felix Aylmer (playing a decidedly uncharacteristic rôle in this film).

This film relies to a very large extent on miniatures work and matte paintings to represent its Central European settings. Of course it has to be admitted that in 1940 the film-makers could scarcely have contemplated doing location shooting in Czechoslovakia and Germany! The early scenes representing German bombers flying over Czech factories are fairly well done but the movie is let down by the climactic cable car scenes which are rather feeble.

Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat had previously collaborated on The Lady Vanishes which obviously goes some way to explaining the similarities between the two movies.

The Criterion Collection DVD is not exactly overloaded with extras although it does include a reasonably interesting short documentary. The transfer is more than acceptable, with perhaps just a hint of graininess. Surprisingly, for a Criterion release, this one is not particularly overpriced.

This movie sees Carol Reed venturing into Hitchcock territory. The results are generally satisfactory although this movie certainly cannot compare with a masterpiece of suspense like The Lady Vanishes. It’s a movie that has always been rather in the shadow of Hitchcock’s more celebrated film. The comparisons are unfortunate - after all The Lady Vanishes is one of Hitchcock’s best movies. Night Train To Munich is still thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Road to Zanzibar (1941)

Road to Zanzibar was the second of the hugely successful Road movies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Road to Singapore had been a major hit in 1940 and this follow-up movie put even more emphasis on the comedy. The Road movies were not only immensely funny - they were also genuinely witty and can even be described as ground-breaking with lots of self-referential gags and with Hope and Crosby breaking the fourth wall with wild abandon.

The plot is fairly thin but it sets up the zany situations perfectly and they are mined for their full comedic potential. And the script provides more than enough gags to keep any comedy fan happy.

Fearless Frazier (Hope) and Chuck Reardon (Crosby) are a couple of American carnival performers in Africa. Needless to say their act consists of Fearless doing various dangerous stunts that Reardon has thought up. Their latest act features Fearless as a human cannonball. The act proves to be more spectacular than intended - it ends up burning down the entire carnival. Now our two intrepid heroes are on the run from the local police. Fearless yearns to return to the US but when Reardon is despatched to buy the tickets for the ship he returns to announce that has spent all their money. He has bought a diamond mine. Fearless and Chick are con artists themselves but this time they’ve run into an even better con man in the shape of Charles Kimble (Eric Blore).

The attempts by Fearless and Chuck to get their money back land them in even bigger trouble and just when they think they’re ahead they run into two American girls, Julia (Una Merkel) and Donna (Dorothy Lamour). Julia and Donna turn out to be con artists also and Fearless and Chuck find themselves duped once again. They’re conned into leading a safari across Africa, supposedly so that Donna can be re-united with her dying father but in reality they’re taking Donna to the man she intends to marry. This causes plenty of complications because Fearless and Chuck have both fallen for Donna. The safari ends with Fearless and Chick being on the menu when they encounter a tribe of cannibals.

The laughs come thick and fast, especially in the first half hour which sets a cracking pace.  The action slows down a little in the middle with a couple of songs being thrown in but the songs are actually pretty good and with a singer of Crosby’s calibre the musical numbers become a plus rather than a minus.

What puts the Road movies into the top class of American film comedies is the interplay between Hope and Crosby. You’d expect Crosby to be the straight man but in fact Hope just as often finds himself the butt of the jokes. Crosby proves himself to be just as adept at humour as Hope and they both alternate between being the straight man and the comic. Self-referentiality would be a major feature of this and the four subsequent Road movies and this self-referentiality is done with great style and finesse.

Hope was never funnier than he was in the Road movies. He and Crosby did not get on too well in real life but they were one of the greatest of all movie comedy teams. The verbal fireworks are mixed with a liberal sprinkling of visual gags.

The Road movies are clever but most importantly they are very very funny. Dorothy Lamour as always provides fine support but The Road to Zanzibar also benefits from a superb comedic performance by Una Merkel as Julia. Eric Blore adds even more comedic depth.

Some of the humour here may be considered today to be a little on the politically incorrect side but it’s basically good-natured. The interplay between Crosby as the manipulator and Hope as his victim could have come across as rather cruel in the hands of lesser artists but in the Road movies this pitfall is on the whole successfully avoided. These are feel-good movies in the best sense of the word.

Paramount’s Region 4 DVD is a bit light on extras but it offers a very good transfer.

Road to Zanzibar is quite simply one of the best comedies of its era and it stands up remarkably well today and it still feels fresh and innovative. This is pure comedy gold. Very highly recommended.