Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Wicked Lady (1945)

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England’s Gainsborough Studios enjoyed enormous success in the 1940s with a series of daring melodramas, mostly featuring Margaret Lockwood, the most famous (and the most shameless) being The Wicked Lady in 1945.

Anyone who thinks of 1940s British cinema as being a trifle on the staid side clearly has not seen The Wicked Lady. By the standards of its era it’s totally outrageous. It’s not just melodrama taken to the extreme, it’s extraordinarily sexy. It is very unlikely that any Hollywood movie could have gotten away with the salacious sexual subject matter and the risque dialogue of this movie. How it got past the usually severe British censors remains a mystery.

It is England in the 1680s and Caroline (Patricia Roc) is about to marry Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones), the most eligible (and most wealthy) young bachelor in the county. They’re not exactly madly in love but it’s a very suitable match for both of them and while passion may be somewhat lacking between them they are very fond of one another. They get along very well. All in all they expect to be quite happy. And then Caroline’s cousin Barbara (Margaret Lockwood) comes to stay.

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Caroline is a practical sort of girl and she’s kind and sensitive, and she’s also very attractive. Barbara is very different. Barbara is the sort of girl men lose their heads over. She’s the sort of girl men kill for, and shoot themselves over. She is wildly impractical and immensely exciting. She’s the kind of woman your mother warned you about.

Barbara is accustomed to getting what she wants. Often her beauty and her rather obvious sexuality are enough to get her what she wants, but if they aren’t enough she’s quite willing to lie, cheat and scheme. In fact, as we will see, she’s quite willing to do a great deal more than that. What Barbara wants is usually something than another woman has. Like a man. In this case she decides she wants Sir Ralph Skelton. This proves to be as easy as taking candy from a baby. When her uncle asks her if she loves Ralph she replies,  “How could you not love a man as rich as that?”

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Barbara marries Ralph but county life proves to be rather a bore. Barbara pines for the excitement of London. She soon finds, to her surprise, that it is actually possible to find excitement in the country. An imaginative woman can find things to do. Like taking up highway robbery. Barbara becomes a highwayman (or highwaywoman if you prefer). This is a dangerous profession but it provides the thrills she craves. Given that we have been told that she and Ralph now sleep in separate beds it’s pretty obvious that there’s a considerable sexual element in her thrill-seeking. It’s a good substitute for sex but pretty soon she finds she can have sex as well, when in the course of one of her robberies she encounters the notorious highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson (James Mason).

Barbara and Jackson are soon partners. They’re a good team, both on the road and in bed.

Some major complications soon arise, complications that throw the lives of all the characters into turmoil. Barbara discovers a new man, a handsome young architect named Kit Locksby (Michael Rennie). Kit can’t decide if he loves Barbara or Caroline. Ralph decides that he loves Caroline. And when Barbara is unable to get away from the house (using the secret passageway conveniently provided by the builders of the Skelton country house) for a few days Captain Jackson finds a new bed partner. Whether Barbara loves the dashing outlaw or not is immaterial - she will not tolerate another woman taking a man who belongs to her. It’s all going to get very messy. Dangerously messy. Maybe even fatally messy for some.

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Leslie Arliss’s screenplay might not be very subtle but it’s deliciously overripe and deliriously melodramatic. Arliss also directed, with considerable panache. He was obviously a film-maker who took to melodrama like a duck to water. The dialogue is sparkling and witty and packed with sexual innuendos. Even the virtuous characters in this movie don’t see adultery as much of a big deal.

In the opinions of most British film critics of the time the Gainsborough melodramas were pure trash. And The Wicked Lady absolutely glories in its own trashiness. This trash, but it’s trash with style and energy to burn.

It’s also a very handsome movie. Gainsborough obviously were aiming to give their melodramas the kind of gloss that Hollywood movies of that era had, and they succeeded admirably. This is a lavish movie with gorgeous sets and wonderfully over-the-top 17th century costumes, all beautifully photographed in black-and-white by veteran cinematographer Jack E. Cox. There are a few dodgy rear projection shots but aside from that it’s a great looking movie. The action scenes are pretty effective and there are plenty of thrills and a great deal of gun play. Everyone seems to have a pistol and no qualms about expending powder and shot.

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Margaret Lockwood plays the femme fatale to the hilt. She radiates sex and wickedness and exciting recklessness. James Mason provides the perfect foil to Lockwood, matching her recklessness with his own devil-may-care fatalism. Jackson is a man who expects to end his life on the gallows but he intends to enjoy every moment until then. Patricia Roc has the thankless role of the good girl up against one of the screen’s most memorable bad girls but she succeeds in making Caroline reasonably interesting. Michael Rennie is quite good. Felix Aylmer, one of my very favourite British character actors, gets to overact wonderfully as the pious old family retainer who is unlucky enough to discover Barbara’s secret life. Enid Stamp-Taylor adds some fun as the cynical and amusingly bitchy Lady Henrietta Kinsclere.

While this is not a movie with any pretensions to historically accuracy it does capture the cheerfully immoral atmosphere of Restoration England rather well.

The Region 2 DVD from ITV DVD is ridiculously cheap, is a bit light on extras but offers an excellent transfer. It’s superb value for money.

This is gloriously excessive melodrama, an unashamed bodice-ripper with lots of shooting as well. The Wicked Lady is non-stop fun and is very highly recommended.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

my new cult television blog

I’ve started a new cult TV blog.

It will be devoted to cult TV series from the 1950s up to the end of the 1970s (with very occasional forays into the early 80s) with most of the emphasis on the 60s and 70s.

Most of the series I’ll be blogging about will be from the science fiction, espionage and action/adventure genres although other genres will be included from time to time.

It will cover pretty much the same ground as my old LiveJournal cult TV community (which still survives).

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Shack Out on 101 (1955)

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Hollywood made its share of odd movies in the 1950s but few are as odd as Allied Artists’ 1955 release Shack Out on 101. Is it a spy thriller? A film noir? Or a jazz and drug-fueled piece of Beat Generation pretentious nonsense? Is it intended as a spoof? I’ve just watched the movie and I can’t answer any of those questions. All I can say is that in its own weird way it’s rather entertaining.

George (Keenan Wynn) runs a beach-side diner. He employs a cook who is known simply as Slob (Lee Marvin) and an attractive blonde waitress named Kotty (Terry Moore). George is in love with Kotty. Kotty is in love with nuclear physicist Professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy). George’s diner just happens to be a short distance away from a university involved in top-secret nuclear research.

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Slob seems to be one of life’s failures, destined to spend his life as a cook in dumps like George’s diner. But Slob has aspirations. He plans to be somebody. And how is he going to achieve this? Simple. Slob is actually a Soviet spy. George’s beach-front diner is the hub of a network of Soviet spies.

In fact George’s shack is the focus of a great deal of espionage and counter-espionage activity. It seems like at least half the people who patronise the diner are spies or counter-spies. Kotty is the one caught in the middle. She doesn’t yet realise what is going on, or who is involved, and if she finds out she may be in a good deal of danger.

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The plot seems straightforward enough. The weirdness comes in the execution. There are moments of the kind of suspense you expect in a spy thriller but they’re mixed with moments of slapstick and other moments of what could be either avant-garde absurdist artiness or high camp comedy.

The acting is generally very good but the acting styles are all over the place. It’s as if different cast members were under very different impressions as to the type of movie they were making. Frank Lovejoy and Terry Moore plays things fairly straight while Keenan Wynn and Lee Marvin seem to be making it up as they go along and playing things mostly for comedy.

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Edward and Mildred Dien wrote the screenplay. A few years later they would collaborate on a vampire B-western. After seeing Shack Out on 101 I’m not the least bit surprised that the same writing team would make a vampire western. Throwing in all sorts of wildly inconsistent elements appears to be their usual approach to screenwriting. Edward Dien directed Shack Out on 101 so one assumes that he really did intend his screenplay to be treated in such a bizarre manner.

Despite all the oddness there is still a spy thriller plot in there somewhere, and it’s entertaining enough in a trashy B-movie way.

Lovejoy and Moore get top billing but while they’re both solid enough they are completely overshadowed by the bravura performances of Marvin and Wynn. One of the movie’s more amusing features is that Marvin, the toughest of Hollywood tough-guy actors, plays Slob as a mixture of wimp and hug, of villain and buffoon. Or perhaps that’s not so surprising; Marvin was always a delightful unpredictable actor.

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The Olive Films DVD is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is excellent.

Shack Out on 101 ends up being immensely enjoyable. It has plenty of energy and anyone with a taste for high camp could not fail to be pleased by this one. It’s a movie that is not quite like any other movie I’ve ever seen but it’s fun. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Sea Hawk (1940)

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The Sea Hawk is deservedly one of Errol Flynn’s most famous swashbucklers. Made by Warner Brothers in 1940 it should be noted that it is not a remake of the 1924 silent film of the same name, although both deal with pirates and the 1924 movie is a classic swashbuckler in its own right. But it’s the much better-known 1940 version we’re concerned with.

Flynn was already a huge star and putting him in another pirate adventure movie was always going to be a smart move. And getting Michael Curtiz on board, Curtiz having  directed Flynn in his 1935 smash hit Captain Blood and in several other action adventure films, was another shrewd move. Curtiz certainly knew how to do this kind of movie supremely well.

This movie hits the ground running and the pace never slackens. It opens with a superb extended sea fight in which a Spanish galleass is caught and boarded by the English ship The Albatross. All we know about Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) at this stage is that he is obviously the captain of The Albatross. And this extended action sequence tells us all we need to know about him without the necessity for any tedious introductory scenes. Thorpe is clearly a brilliant seaman and a born leader, he has the unquestioned respect of his crew, and while he can be ruthless he can be chivalrous as well. And when he encounters the beautiful Spanish lady Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall), who had been travelling to England on the galleass   Thorpe has just captured, we learn that while Thorpe is fearless in the face of danger he is somewhat helpless when faced by a pretty woman.

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This opening sequence also introduces us to Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains), the newly appointed Spanish ambassador to England, who is also now an unwilling passenger on board The Albatross. But Doña Maria and Don José are certainly not prisoners. Thorpe might be a pirate but he’s a gentleman and he intends to convey his Spanish guests safely to England, which is where they were headed anyway.

Technically Thorpe is not actually a pirate. He is a privateer, a privateer being a private citizen licensed by his government to prey on the shipping of that government’s enemies. Although given that England and Spain are not actually at war, not yet anyway, the legal status of the English privateers who plundered Spanish shipping in the late 16th century was somewhat ambiguous. Queen Elizabeth is aware that this is a dangerous game she is playing but she needs the considerable income she derives from the privateers to augment her rather inadequate treasury.

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This dangerous game is about to become more dangerous still when the queen, unofficially, authorises Thorpe to conduct a daring raid on a Spanish treasure shipment crossing the isthmus of Panama. This raid will have fateful consequences for Captain Thorpe and his men but will also indirectly put Thorpe in a position to render his Queen his most valuable service yet.

There is enough action in this movie to satisfy anyone but there is also a good deal of intrigue, with nefarious Spanish plots and treason and intricate power struggles within Elizabeth’s court between pro- and anti-Spanish factions. There is also of course a romantic sub-plot, with a love affair between Thorpe and Doña Maria.

This romance is the movie’s one weak link, with Brenda Marshall as Doña Maria being rather too bland to be a completely convincing object of the affections of a sea hawk like
Geoffrey Thorpe.

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Having said that, Curtiz manages to integrate the romance and the political machinations into the main action plot with considerable skill, and without the pacing of the movie ever threatening to drag. Curtiz really keeps things moving along.

Flynn was at the height of his powers and he’s a superb action hero. Thorpe is a man who leads men through sheer charisma and if there’s one quality Flynn possessed in abundance it was charisma. Flynn radiates vitality. Even when he isn’t doing anything he always seems like he’s just about to spring into action.

Flora Robson’s performance as Queen Elizabeth is one of the more interesting features of this movie. This is a very different interpretation compared to the way other actresses have approached this role. This is a softer, more feminine Elizabeth, at times playful, often coquettish, often humorous. And at times perhaps a little uncertain. England was in a very dangerous situation in the 1580s and on occasion she seems just a little unsure how far she can push her luck. But Robson still convinces us that this is a monarch capable of ruling when necessary, and capable of demanding, and getting, obedience. She simply prefers to lead by persuasion rather than force. Whether it’s a historically accurate performance or not is a moot question but it’s certainly a refreshingly different performance.

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Claude Rains was a fine actor but inclined to overact if not kept on a short leash. And Curtiz seems to have realised this, getting a very effective performance from him by restraining the actor’s tendency to overdo things. I’m inclined to give Curtiz the credit for this since he got a similarly restrained, and equally effective, performance from Rains a couple of years later in Casablanca. The supporting cast is excellent with Alan Hale being particularly good (and also more restrained than usual) as Thorpe’s faithful first mate.

Michael Curtiz is often seen as the antithesis of the auteur film-maker, a director who was exceptionally competent but without having any real personal style. Which is more or less true. Curtiz tended to allow the subject matter to dictate the style of his movies rather than trying to impose a personal style. One thing that is not in doubt though is that he was a remarkably effective director. Watching a movie like The Sea Hawk it’s obvious that Curtiz was no mere hack. The movie has too much energy, too much vitality, too much sparkle, to be the work of a hack. The action scenes in particular are magnificent. There’s also one very ambitious shot looking down onto the deck of Thorpe’s ship, just to prove that Curtiz was quite capable of inspiration when needed. The significant thing about this shot is that it serves a purpose, it’s not just done to show us what a clever chap the director is. The use of tinting in the Panama scenes is an unusual feature for a 1940 movie but it works quite well.

The Sea Hawk is sheer unadulterated fun from start to finish, a dazzling example of how to an action adventure movie the right way. Very highly recommended.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Southside 1-1000 (1950)

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Southside 1-1000 is yet another movie released on DVD as film noir that isn’t film noir, except in a very marginal way. It’s a crime thriller, but it’s a pretty good one.

When Poverty Row studio Monogram decided to start making movies that were rather more ambitious than their usual run of B-pictures, pictures they described as B-plus pictures, they adopted the name Allied Artists. Southside 1-1000, with its reasonably high production values, is fairly typical.

The movie begins with a prologue explaining the importance of the work of the United States Secret Service in tracking down counterfeiters. This sets the pseudo-documentary tone of the movie, as does the voiceover narration that continues throughout the film.

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Eugene Deane is serving a long prison sentence for counterfeiting. He is one of the most skillful counterfeiters the Treasure Department has ever had to deal with. And being in prison hasn’t stopped him. He is still engraving plates for counterfeit money and still smuggling them out of the prison. The authorities have found out about this but the problem for the T-Men is that his latest set of plates has already left the prison and is already being used to print counterfeit bills and Deane refuses to reveal any information that would help them.

Secret Service agent John Riggs (Don DeFore) and his boss Hugh Pringle have little to go on until they get a lucky break. A pickpocket is arrested at the racetrack and he’s holding a wad of counterfeit notes. He didn’t know they were counterfeit when he lifted them. With his help the T-Men discover the identity of one member of the gang. He is put under surveillance but just when things seem to be starting to move they hit a brick wall. Riggs will now have to go undercover in the hope of infiltrating the gang.

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During the course of the undercover assignment Riggs becomes involved with hotel manager Nora Craig (Andrea King) who functions (in a vague sort of way) as the movie’s femme fatale.

The script by Leo Townsend and Boris Ingster contains few real surprises but it’s serviceable enough. Ingster also directed. This was one of only three movies he directed but those three movies include Stranger on the Third Floor, a 1940 movie starring Peter Lorre that has considerable importance as possibly the first real American film noir. It also happens to be an excellent movie and so it’s no great surprise that Ingster handles his directorial duties on Southside 1-1000 very confidently.

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There’s a quite impressive visual set-piece involving a bridge late in the movie that is perhaps this movie’s most convincing claim to being film noir. While the overall mood is not noir it is tense and occasionally menacing.

Don Defore makes a fine hero, handling Riggs’ transformation (for his undercover assignment) into smooth-talking racketeer Nick Starnes extremely well. Andrea King gets to do the femme fatale routine and does it very well. Capable character actor George Tobias makes a fine hoodlum.

There’s some good location shooting and while it’s obviously not a big-budget movie it never looks cheap or shoddy. In fact the visuals are impressive throughout.

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The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers the excellent transfer we have come to expect from this series. There are of course no extras.

Southside 1-1000 is no masterpiece but it’s a well-crafted crime thriller that delivers solid entertainment. Film noir fans might be disappointed by the lack of true noir elements but should still find the movie itself enjoyable. This one is definitely worth a look for any fan of 1940s Hollywood crime movies. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)

In 1938 20th Century-Fox had a big problem. The Charlie Chan movies starring Warner Oland had been immensely successful and had been a major factor in keeping the studio profitable during the 30s. But Warner Oland was having serious personal and health problems and in August 1938 he passed away. Warner Oland was dead but the studio was determined that Charlie Chan should live on. At least 35 actors were tested for the rôle but finally a relatively little-known actor, Sidney Toler, was chosen.

Fox had failed to pick up Keye Luke’s contract and in any case Luke was not keen to continue playing the crucial rôle on Number One Son without his friend Warner Oland. So the Chan series would have just not a new lead actor but a new sidekick as well.

For the first of the Sidney Toler Chan films, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, the studio decided to do something rather unusual - set the film in Chan’s home town, Honolulu. In fact the movie opens in Charlie’s home on Punchbowl Hill.


These were sound enough decisions, helping to ground the new actor in the part. Sadly Charlie Chan in Honolulu is an almost complete failure. Sidney Toler had not yet settled into the part and unfortunately he is reduced to what is almost a supporting rôle. The story is rather weak and rather confusing. The biggest problem however is that the movie is entirely dominated by the comic relief. It’s almost all comic relief. Comic relief is the single most irritating feature of Hollywood B-pictures of the 30s and 40s and with the comic relief taking centre stage this is by far the most irritating of all the Chan movies. Not only is there way too much comic relief, what there is is uniformly awful.

The problems are compounded by the fact that Chan’s new sidekick, Number Two Son, is played by Yen Sung and he compares very unfavourably with Keye Luke.

The plot, what little there is of it, concerns a murder on a cargo ship bound for Honolulu. The motive appears to be robbery. A young woman had been carrying $300,000 in cash for her employer in Shanghai, the money to be handed over to the man who turns out to be the murder victim.


The other passengers include a mysterious woman, an escaped convict escorted by the San Francisco cop who has recaptured him, and an eccentric psychiatrist named Dr Cardigan (George Zucco). There is also a veritable menagerie of wildlife bound for a zoo in San Francisco and accompanied by their keeper, played by the unbelieving annoying and unfunny Eddie Collins. In an age when Hollywood had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of irritatingly unfunny actors specialising in comic relief rôles Collins stands out as one of the most tedious of all.

The movie’s one real asset is George Zucco as Dr Cardigan. He is both sinister and oddly likeable as a mad scientist who travels with an artificially preserved live human brain in a suitcase. Zucco wisely chooses not to go over-the-top despite the obvious temptation to do so and as a result he becomes a genuinely fascinating character, Zucco’s underplaying making him much more effectively sinister and mysterious.


H. Bruce Humberstone had a reputation for being a solid B-movie director but he totally loses control of this movie. The 67-minute running time seems like an eternity.

Charlie Chan in Honolulu is very much a transitional Chan movie. 20th Century-Fox were less than happy with it and for the next Chan movie they would make major changes, changes that would put not only put the series back on its feet but usher in a new and very fruitful era for Charlie Chan. The only reason to see this movie is to see Sidney Toler’s first, slightly hesitant, attempt at the rôle. Happily Toler would gain in confidence and grow into the part very successfully. It’s already evident in this movie that Toler doesn’t have the warmth that Warner Oland brought to the part but with more experience under his belt Toler would make the slighter harder-edged Chan distinctively his own and make a virtue of what had initially appeared to be a weakness.


Fox’s DVD release offers an excellent transfer and a variety of extras, including short featurettes on both this movie and on Sidney Toler. In this case, with the start of a new era for Charlie Chan, the extras prove to be extremely worthwhile. In fact they’re more interesting than the movie itself.

Charlie Chan in Honolulu is very much a lesser Charlie Chan movie but it is historically significant as the beginning of the Sidney Toler era so hardcore Chan fans will find it worthwhile viewing. More casual fans of the series can safely give this one a miss.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Plunder Road (1957)

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Plunder Road was made by Regal Films in 1957 and released by 20th Century-Fox. It has few genuine claims to being a film noir but it’s an exciting and entertaining heist movie.

The focus is entirely on the heist and the getaway. We see everything from the point of view of the gang, our only clues to the course of the police investigations coming when the  bandits encounter a road-block or pick up snippets of information from a police scanner.

The heist itself is a train robbery, in fact the most ambitious train robbery ever, the plan being to lift ten million dollars’ worth of gold bullion on the way to the San Francisco Depository from the US Mint. The plan is intricate, requiring split second timing, and dangerous, involving the use of nitro-glycerine which must somehow be kept from exploding prematurely while being transported in a truck over rough roads in torrential rain. The explosives expert of the gang, Skeets Jonas (Elisha Cook Jr), has devised a complex piece of apparatus to prevent the bandits from being blown sky-high before the robbery.

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The plan also involves the use of a crane truck, and gas to incapacitate the guards. The robbery goes off like clockwork but now comes the difficult part. The gang has to transport the stolen gold 900 miles. This will involve the use of multiple trucks which are changed several times.

One interesting feature of the movie is that we learn very little about the five members of the gang. We know that this is the first job ever pulled off by the gang’s leader, Eddie (Gene Raymond). We learn that Skeets has been in and out of prison all his life, and that one of the other gang members had been a race car driver. But we know very little about what makes these men tick.

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That could have been a weakness, but it isn’t. By avoiding complex and lengthy backstories the movie focuses on the action, and on the tensions of the cross-country chase. We might not know the details of these men’s lives but we do see how they react to stress. Some react well, others less well. We also see how the interactions between the gang members emphasise their strengths and weaknesses.

Director Hubert Cornfield had a brief and undistinguished career but he handles this movie like a pro. Steven Ritch, who plays the ex-race car driver Frankie, wrote the very tight and effective screenplay.

While it’s only marginally noir it’s worth pointing out that the robbery scenes which take place at night and in driving rain do have a definite noir feel.

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The movie’s great strength is its very tight focus. It hits the ground running and the action and the tension don’t let up at any stage during its 72-minute running time. The extended heist sequence is one of the best of its kind with plenty of action and with at least some of the gadgetry that would later become a standard feature of heist movies.

This is one of those “perfect crime” movies, and while the crime is certainly well planned and executed the prisons are full of guys who thought they had devised similarly perfect crimes. Even the best plans are vulnerable to human error and to plain dumb bad luck.

The acting is generally good with (not surprisingly) Elisha Cook Jr giving the standout performance.

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The DVD is exactly what you expect from Olive Films - it’s barebones but the 16x9 enhance transfer (the movie was shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio) is superb.

Plunder Road is a thoroughly enjoyable action suspense crime thriller with a few hints of noir. An obscure movie than can nevertheless be highly recommended.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Black Shield of Falworth (1954)

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The Black Shield of Falworth is a visually gorgeous medieval romp, released by Universal in 1954. It was Universal’s first CinemaScope feature.

The plot is pretty standard for this kind of movie. A peasant boy and his sister are really of noble birth but for some reason that fact has to to remain hidden. The boy, Myles (Tony Curtis), is sent to Mackworth Castle to be trained as a squire. The Earl of Mackworth (Herbert Marshall) obviously knows something of Myles’ secret. Myles soon proves himself to be quarrelsome and impetuous but a born fighter. Much to his surprise he finds himself being trained for knighthood.

Of course Myles has an enemy at Mackworth Castle, in the person of Walter Blunt (Patrick O’Neal), the arrogant younger brother of the Earl of Alban (David Farrar). It soon becomes obvious that the Earl of Alban himself is really the major villain. The Earl has some kind of hold over King Henry IV and it is he rather than the king who is the real power in the land. Prince Hal (Daniel O’Herlihy) suspects that the Earl has even more sinister designs in mind and pretends to be a drunken buffoon in order to ensure his own survival.

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Of course Myles falls in love, with the Earl of Mackworth’s daughter, the Lady Anne (Janet Leigh). And of course their love is impossible, Myles being (apparently) just an obscure farm boy.

As the plotting of the Earl of Alban continues Myles’ danger increases. He will however unexpectedly find himself at the centre of great events in the course of which the mystery of his birth will be revealed.

The relative thinness of the plot doesn’t really matter. It’s all just an excuse for lots of sumptuous photography (by Irving Glassberg), spectacular sets, beautiful costumes and the inevitable action climax.

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That climax, when it does come, proves to be worth the wait.

OK, so Tony Curtis does at times sound like a Jewish kid from the Bronx. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he makes a perfectly fine romantic action hero. And he does not say, “Yondah lies da castle of my foddah.” He does not say it in this film, nor in any other film.

Janet Leigh’s acting capabilities are not exactly stretched to the full but she does get to wear some ravishing costumes (although I doubt that a lady in the early 15th century would have sported very bright red lipstick). Herbert Marshall at least sounds English, because he was. The supporting cast are all quite adequate with Torin Thatcher being the standout as the gruff but honourable Sir James who puts Myles through some very tough knightly training.

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The movie was helmed by Rudolph Maté, an outstanding cinematographer turned director.  He certainly knew that his job wasn’t to make a masterpiece of the cinematic art, it was to make a fun movie while taking the maximum advantage of the CinemaScope aspect ratio and the Technicolor photography, and he does this very competently indeed.

It goes without saying that any resemblance between this movie and historical fact is very slight indeed. And that’s the way it should be. It’s not a history lesson, it’s just a movie.

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Eureka’s UK DVD release sports a superb anamorphic transfer. The colours are absolutely luscious. There are no extras but the very reasonable price tag makes this a good buy for fans of this type of movie.

The Black Shield of Falworth is somewhat campy but thoroughly entertaining cinematic fluff. I enjoyed every minute of it. As long as you’re not tempted to take it at all seriously there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy it just as much. It’s good clean harmless fun. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Woman on Pier 13 (1949)

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The Woman on Pier 13 is notorious as being (under its original title I Married a Communist) the movie Howard Hughes allegedly used to test the political reliability of RKO employees. The popular story is that if someone refused to work on the film they were finished at the studio. It makes a good story even if it probably isn’t true. People want to believe it. One story that people don’t want to believe is that The Woman on Pier 13 is actually a pretty good little movie. It’s also a classic film noir.

The plot is prime noir territory. A man wants to put his shameful past behind him but finds that the past casts a very long shadow. A shadow from which escape may well be impossible. In this case the man is Bradley Collins (Robert Ryan), a successful shipping executive with a bright future ahead of him and with a charming new wife, Nan (Laraine Day). Only Bradley Collins wasn’t always Bradley Collins. There was a time when he was Frank Johnson, a very active Communist Party agitator and a faithful party bully-boy. Frank Johnson believed that if a few heads had to be broken, and a few people killed, then that was a small price for establishing a worker’s paradise in the US. At that time, when he was young and stupid, it hadn’t occurred to him that an earthly paradise that had to be forced upon people by violence and intimidation might not be a paradise at all. Now he’s grown up. He’s put all that behind him.

Or at least he thought he’d put it all behind him. That was before Christine Norman (Janis Carter) walked back into his life.

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They’d been lovers back in the days when they were going to save the world, but Christine hasn’t grown up. She still believes in the party, and even worse she cannot accept that Frank Johnson outgrew her. Thanks to Christine the party gets its hooks back into Bradley Collins. He wants nothing to do with them but they have some very incriminating evidence on his past life, including a death that may have been murder and that Collins/Johnson was involved in, although whether he had or had not actually committed murder is a question the movie rather interestingly leaves open. Either way the evidence is damaging enough, and Collins is informed that he can now consider himself to be once again an active party member and he can start by helping the party to cause trouble on the waterfront.

This is where the movie’s noirness starts to kick in. Collins is certainly in a difficult situation, but realistically the worst way to deal with blackmail is to pay up. That way you just keep on paying. But not paying up requires strength of character. Bradley Collins is a classic noir protagonist. He is not a bad man but he is a weak man. He knows if he goes along with the party’s demands he will never escape their clutches but he lacks the courage to resist. He believes he can keep things under control, but Christine Norman hasn’t finished with him yet.

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Christine Norman is the classic noir femme fatale, and if she can’t get Collins back she can certainly get revenge. She can do this through Collins’ brother-in-law Don Lowry (John Agar), a likeable enough young man but unfortunately a young man who is as naïve about women as he is about politics. Christine will discover that even when you’re a femme fatale and you think you’ve got everything under control events can still get away from you and even the most cunning schemes can blow up in your face.

The movie’s very overt anti-communism will make this movie deeply unfashionable today. Unfortunately it has led a lot of people to simply dismiss the movie. In fact the plot would have worked equally well if Bradley Collins had been a former Mob stooge who had tried to put his mobster past behind him. If the movie had been made with that slight alteration (and it would have required only very minor changes) it would now be praised as a gritty hard-hitting noir classic. The fact is that either way it is a gritty hard-hitting noir classic.

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Director Robert Stevenson had a very successful career, even earning a Best Director Oscar nomination in later years, and he does a thoroughly competent job. He has the considerable advantage in this movie of having Nicholas Musuraca, one of the true noir greats, as his cinematographer. Musuraca gives this film the full noir treatment. The climactic warehouse scenes are expertly done and highly effective, and genuinely thrilling.

Robert Ryan rarely, if ever, gave a bad performance. Here he’s playing a weaker character than usual but Ryan was always good at playing flawed characters and he does a fine job. Janis Carter doesn’t quite pull off her rôle. She does the femme fatale thing just fine, in fact extremely well, but she isn’t quite convincing as a fanatical ideologue. She’s still a memorable spider woman. Laraine Day is solid but it’s the supporting players who really shine. Thomas Gomez makes a superbly ruthless and menacing villain while William Talman is terrific as a very creepy hitman (a rôle he would play just as effectively in a number of subsequent movies).

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The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is absolutely barebones, lacking even a trailer,   but it offers an exceptionally fine transfer.

Film noir has always had an affinity with melodrama and this movie succeeds as both noir and melodrama. It’s both gritty and surprisingly bleak. If you’re put off by the film’s politics just imagine it as a mobster movie and you may find yourself enjoying it quite a bit. Highly recommended.