Monday, June 29, 2015

They Were So Young (1954)

They Were So Young (originally titled Mannequins für Rio) is a slightly odd inclusion in VCI’s Forgotten Noir DVD set. Although released under the Lippert Pictures banner it’s a 1954 West German production and to call it noir is stretching things quite a bit. However it’s not entirely without interest.

We start with the arrival in Rio of a group of girls from various parts of Europe. They have all been attracted by advertisements promising glittering careers as fashion models. Among the girls is Eve Ullmann (Johanna Matz), an attractive 20-year-old from Düsseldorf. 

Eve is innocent and a bit naïve but she’s not a complete fool. It doesn’t take her long to figure out what’s really going on at Madame Lansowa’s glamorous modeling agency in Rio - it’s a cover for white slavery!

Dutch girl Connie Voorhees (Ingrid Stenn) has figured things out as well. Eve and Connie decide to go to the police but the police either don’t or won’t believe Eve’s story. Then Eve remembers a handsome young American, Richard Lanning (Scott Brady), to whom she’d been introduced after her first fashion show. He’d tried to pick her up but in spite of that he’d seemed like a kind and decent young man and besides Eve knows from watching movies that handsome young Americans are always willing to help damsels in distress.

For once she gets lucky. Lanning really is a knight in shining armour. The trouble is that this white slaving gang is well-organised and has the support of some wealthy and powerful people. Eventually Eve and Lanning realise that these people might include Jaime Coltos (Raymond Burr), who happens to own the mine at which Lanning is employed as an engineer.

Rescuing Eve is obviously going to be quite a challenge, especially when she and Lanning  are stuck in the middle of the Brazilian jungle.

I suppose the atmosphere of corruption and the idea that Eve and Lanning aren’t sure who they can trust might give this movie some very very tenuous film noir credentials. Mostly though it’s a potboiler with some major exploitation elements.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer a certain amount of enjoyment. The setting gives it a certain sleazy exotic glamour. Even though it relies mostly on stock footage to persuade us we’re in Rio it does just about succeed in convincing us. The fashion model angle and the exquisite clothes the girls get to wear add even more glamour. 

Of course this being 1954 the exploitation elements are handled with caution but in some ways that makes them all the more effective, and we’re certainly not left in any doubt as to the fate in store for the unlucky girls.

The highlight of the movie is Raymond Burr’s silkily menacing performance - he really was one of the most effective movie villains of the early 50s. Scott Brady does the noble hero thing fairly well, Johanna Matz is appealing and quite competent as Eve. Gisella Fackeldey  is delightfully evil as Madame Lansowa and Gert Fröbe also makes an appearance. One of the advantages of making a cheap B-movie in Germany in the 50s was that these were the only movies being made so you could get some pretty impressive actors who were grateful for any film work they could get.

Director Kurt Neumann was born in Germany but worked mostly in Hollywood, mostly in low-budget movies which included some minor sci-fi classics such as Rocketship X-M and The Fly. Within the obvious budgetary constraints of this film he does a very competent job.

VCI’s DVD offers a pretty good anamorphic transfer. Their Forgotten Noir Series 1 DVD set represents excellent value. Most of the six movies are reasonably entertaining with the George Raft feature Loan Shark being the standout. Portland Exposé is also not bad, and Arson Inc. is well worth a look.

They Were So Young is no masterpiece but it does offer a nice mix of sleaze and glamour, of romance and suspense, and Raymond Burr’s presence is a very big plus. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ring of Spies (1964)

Ring of Spies (also known as Ring of Treason) is a very low-key but effective little British espionage thriller. It was released at a time when the Bond movies were revolutionising the spy movie genre but this movie is about as far removed from the world of James Bond as one could possibly imagine.

Ring of Spies is based on the true story of the notorious Portland spy ring which was broken by MI5 in 1961. The film sticks surprisingly close to the facts, with one exception. The Portland spy ring was broken when the CIA was tipped off by a mole in the Polish intelligence service. The CIA passed the information on to the British Security Service (MI5) and the members of the ring were arrested by Special Branch officers in January 1961. At the time the film was made the source of the information that led to the arrests would of course have been top secret. In the movie the ring is uncovered by pure chance, which actually works better dramatically.

The movie opens with Harry Houghton (Bernard Lee), a clerk in the British Embassy in Warsaw, making an ass of himself at a garden party. It seems that this is just the latest in a series  of embarrassing misdemeanours and Houghton is shipped back to England in disgrace. He is then given a job in the Records office at the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland.

Houghton is a chronic drunk and a womaniser. While at the British Embassy in Poland he has also been involved in various unsavoury activities such as black marketeering. His shambolic personal and professional life has attracted the attention of the Soviet espionage agency - he is obviously a promising target for blackmail. In fact Houghton doesn’t really need to be blackmailed into becoming a Soviet spy - he is happy to do it for the money. The problem is that Houghton doesn’t have access to top secret documents. On the other hand Elizabeth Gee (Margaret Tyzack) does have such access. Since Houghton has been trying to romance her anyway (he will romance anything in a skirt) he decides he can use her to get the documents.

The man who recruits Houghton for the Soviets is Gordon Lonsdale (William Sylvester), a smooth-talking Canadian with a taste for high living. The other key members of the ring are a middle-aged very inoffensive looking American couple, the Krogers, who are in fact long-term Soviet spies.

The spy ring is well organised but the big weakness is Houghton. He’s a drunk, he’s greedy and he’s a fool. Once he starts getting big money for his treason he starts spending up big, which of course is just the sort of thing that is going to attract the attraction of the British counterintelligence people. Low-ranking civil servants who work in a top-secret defence establishment and start living well beyond their means do tend to attract suspicion.

The movie’s approach is very low-key indeed, in some ways even veering towards a semi-documentary feel. While there’s none of the action of a Bond movie there is a great deal of focus on what spies like to call tradecraft - the techniques of espionage and counterespionage. The spies have sophisticated secret radio transmitters and coding machines, they have equipment for photographing documents and for producing microdots. The counterintelligence services make use of listening devices and around-the-clock surveillance. There’s an emphasis on the elaborate methods used to set up meetings to pass on stolen documents and on the patient and painstaking process of keeping a watch on suspected spies. This aspect is one of the film’s strengths, giving it the kind of realistic feel associated with the spy novels of John le Carré.

It’s great to see Bernard Lee get the opportunity to break away from his more usual roles. Houghton is a sad, seedy, sleazy, pathetic little man with a chip on his shoulder. He’s rarely sober, his judgment is abysmal, he pus the moves (very crudely and obviously) on every woman he encounters. He had served in the Royal Navy but was considered to be unsuitable officer material, an injustice he puts down to his not having attended the right schools. It’s more likely he was simply lacking in the necessary intelligence and application. Lee does extremely role in what really is a very unsympathetic role.

Margaret Tyzack is equally good as Elizabeth Gee, the mousy spinster seduced by the money, glamour and excitement of being a spy. American William Sylvester was a regular in British B-movies of this era, always giving solid performances. This film gives him one of his best roles and he makes the most of it.

Director Robert Tronson spent most of his long career in television. That’s possibly an advantage here - this movie’s ultra low key approach makes it seem more like a television than a cinematic production but it also gives it the the right feel of drab ordinariness. 

There is perhaps just a hint of film noir here, with Houghton and Gee being too stupid and too blinded by greed to realise just how dangerous a game they’re playing.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. There are virtually no extras but the price is very attractive.

Ring of Spies is a taut effective suspenseful spy thriller in the gritty realist mode (although without the violence often associated with that approach). These are very ordinary very realistic spies and it’s their ordinariness that makes them so dangerous. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

October Moth (1960)

October Moth is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 1 DVD boxed set. The set includes half a dozen out of the forty-seven low-budget British mystery thrillers based on Edgar Wallace stories made at Merton Park Studios for Anglo-Amalgamated at the tail end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. Edited versions of these movies were screened on American TV as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre but they were released theatrically in Britain.

October Moth is however a bit of a ring-in - it wasn’t made at Merton Park, it wasn’t released by Anglo-Amalgamated and it isn’t based on an Edgar Wallace story. Network have for some curious reason decided to include it as an extra on this set, which was rather nice of them since it’s not a bad little movie. It’s a psychological thriller of the sort that the British did supremely well in this period, with a bit of a film noir-esque feel to it.

Polly (Lana Morris) lives on an isolated and very primitive farm with her brother Finlay (Lee Patterson). Finlay is seriously crazy but mostly he’s harmless. At least he’s harmless when he doesn’t manage to convince himself that Pa is coming back. Pa was a violent drunk who made the lives of both his wife and their children a living Hell. He’s dead now, but the trouble is that Finlay has never understood this - he still thinks Pa is likely to return at any moment. In fact in some ways he hopes that Pa does come back - if he does he intends to kill him.

Finlay has a habit of wandering about by himself after dark, and getting himself into trouble. He has a fascination with moths, and with fire. Now he’s managed to get himself into a real scrape, having accidentally caused a car accident. The woman driver is injured and Finlay brings her back to the farm. That would be fine except that he’s convinced that the woman is his mother (which of course she isn’t since his mother is dead as well). Now Polly faces a tricky situation. She has to persuade Finlay to let her get help for the woman, which Finlay is unwilling to do because he thinks his Ma is going to be taken away from him. Usually Polly can handle Finlay but in this case his delusions have taken such a firm hold that he’s quite unmanageable. And he has a loaded gun and he’s waiting for an opportunity to shoot Pa.

The arrival of Tom, a telephone linesman (played by Peter Dyneley who is better remembered as the voice of Jeff Tracy in Thunderbirds), might provide Polly with a chance to get medical treatment for the injured woman. Or it might just make a tense and dangerous situation even more explosive.

This was John Kruse’s only directing gig. Kruse had a fairly impressive career as a writer, mostly for television although he also wrote a few features including the underrated psychological thriller Revenge (1971). Kruse also wrote the original screenplay for October Moth

October Moth takes place almost entirely at night, providing the opportunity for the effective use of shadows to enhance the paranoid atmosphere. For a low-budget feature it’s visually quite impressive.

Canadian-born Lee Patterson made a lot of B-pictures in Britain in the 50s. October Moth gives him a real acting challenge and he does a fine job - he’s able to make Finlay both scary-crazy and tragic-pathetic and do it quite convincingly. Lana Morris’s career started promisingly but stardom eluded her, which is a pity as on the evidence of this film she was a fine actress.

Psychological thrillers are most likely to go off the rails when they try to offer explanations for the craziness of the protagonists. In this case the explanation is kept fairly simple and it comes across as perfectly plausible.

Despite the obscurity of this movie Network have managed to unearth an exceptionally good print. The anamorphic transfer is superb.

October Moth might be a low-key low-budget thriller but it’s certainly not lacking in psychological drama and nail-biting suspense. We know that the story is likely to end unhappily but we can’t be sure which of the characters might come to a tragic end. In the event the ending manages to pack the required punch. A fine taut atmospheric little thriller. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Timbuktu (1958)

Jacques Tourneur’s Timbuktu is an old-fashioned adventure movie, in fact it’s even a little old-fashioned by the standards of 1958. That’s probably why I liked it so much.

It’s a French Foreign Legion adventure but it’s set in 1940, against the background of the fall of France. The French colonial garrisons are being stripped in an understandable if ultimately futile attempt to shore up the military collapse in Europe. As a result Colonel Charles Dufort (George Dolenz) faces some serious problems when he takes over the command at Timbuktu. The tribes have taken advantage of the weakening of the garrisons to stage a revolt. Actually the revolt is the brainchild of the ambitious Emir Bhaki (John Dehner) - the ordinary tribesmen are merely being manipulated. The Emir dreams of recreating a mighty empire with himself (naturally) as absolute monarch. In order to unite the people behind his revolt he needs a symbol and that symbol will be the holy man Mahomet Adani. The holy man is pro-French and a man of peace and wants nothing to do with this scheme but the Emir does not intend to give him a choice.

At this point Mike Conway (Victor Mature) arrives on the scene. Conway is an American adventurer whose only loyalty is to money. He has arranged to sell arms to the Emir’s rebels. He has also arranged with the French to betray the Emir. In fact there is absolutely no way of telling which side Conway will eventually choose. He doesn’t know himself. He’s an opportunist and he will wait to see which way the wind is blowing before he makes his choice.

Conway takes a bit of a shine to Colonel Dufort’s beautiful wife Natalie (Yvonne de Carlo). She takes even more of a shine to him. Whether this will influence Conway’s decision as to which side he will betray remains to be seen.

Dufort does not have the option of simply crushing the revolt. His forces are nowhere near strong enough. He will have to rely on guile rather than force. What he really needs to do is to get that holy man out of the clutches of the Emir; if he can do that the revolt will probably collapse. The tricky part is that to rescue the holy man he will need the help of Mike Conway, not really the sort of man you would normally want to trust.

There are the usual plot twists you expect in a movie of this type. Some of the twists fall into the category of hoary old clichés of the genre but in a deliberately old-fashioned adventure movie that’s not necessarily a problem. What matters is whether the film is well executed. And with Jacques Tourneur in the director’s chair that is no problem at all. Timbuktu has plenty of action, some genuine thrills, suspense, romance and intrigue and it looks quite splendid. The action scenes are well-staged and there are some effective visual images (particularly the fate of Captain Girard’s patrol).

It also benefits from a very competent cast. Victor Mature was ideal for such a rôle. Conway is a rogue but he’s a charming rogue and it’s impossible not to like him. He’s also undeniably clever and brave. Mature has the necessary charisma and charm and his performance works extremely well. Yvonne de Carlo does well as Natalie, a woman who is not at all sure what she really wants. George Dolenz is dignified and courageous as the colonel.

It’s John Dehner as the Emir who steals the picture. Dehner relished parts like this and he plays the smooth but ruthless melodrama villain to the hilt.

This movie is notable for its very sympathetic stance towards Islam. The holy man is a courageous and sincere religious leader who happens to think that the Emir’s reckless ambitions will lead his people to disaster. The movie is equally sympathetic towards the French. It wisely avoids trying to lecture us on the evils of colonialism. The holy man expresses the dilemma of colonialism with intelligence and subtlety. Independence might be desirable in many ways but the French have brought prosperity and stability and on balance the French are a better choice than the uncertain and dangerous future offered by the Emir.

Although I’ve described it as a mere adventure film there is a little bit more to it than that, as can be seen by examining the motivations of the four key male characters. Mahomet Adani is an idealist. He’s inflexible, but it’s inflexibility of sincere conviction and he happens to be right. Colonel Dufort is an idealist as well, but he illustrates the dangers of idealism. He’s a good man but on occasions he puts ideals ahead of people. The Emir is a cynical opportunist and he creates the sort of evil and havoc that such men usually create. Mike Conway is also a cynical opportunist but he combines opportunism with a conscience. That makes him a poor opportunist but a much better man. He has at least the possibility of redemption.

MGM’s Limited Edition made-on-demand DVD offers a lovely anamorphic transfer.

Tourneur’s later movies tend to be overshadowed by his early masterpieces like Cat People and Out of the Past. His late 1950s movies such as Timbuktu and The Fearmakers are consequently quite underrated. Timbuktu might be a minor film but it’s a very well-made and thoroughly enjoyable adventure flick. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

some reviews from my other movie blog

Some reviews from my Cult Movie Reviews blog that might be of of interest to readers of this blog:

Supernatural (1933), an Old Dark House movie but with some genuine supernatural elements. It's the closest Carole Lombard ever came to doing a horror movie. And it's a lot of fun.

Fear Is the Key (1972), a fine suspense thriller based on Alistair MacLean's novel.

Plus a couple of excellent spy movies (spy movies being something I'm a bit obsessed by at the moment):

A Dandy in Aspic (1968) is slightly unusual, being told from the point of view of a Russian spy. A very underrated movie. It was Anthony Mann's last movie.

Callan (1974), based on the superb British TV spy series.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mr Wong, Detective (1938)

Mr Wong, Detective was released in 1938, at the height of the American craze for Asian detectives. This started of course in 1925 with the publication of the first of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels, The House Without a Key. Charlie Chan became even more successful on the silver screen. Inevitably he had imitators, the most notable being Mr Moto and Mr Wong. Mr Wong, Detective would be the first of six B-movies featuring Mr Wong, with Boris Karloff as the star of the first five.

Private detective James Lee Wong investigates the murder of chemical manufacturer Sam Dayton. There are multiple suspects. The most obvious would seem to be Carl Roemer who was picked up by the police in the victim’s office, with a gun on him. There’s just one problem. Dayton wasn’t shot. He was killed by poison gas! Captain Street (Grant Withers) is perplexed. He soon has reason to be glad that Mr Wong just happens to turn up at the right moment and find a clue. Unfortunately the clue seems unlikely to give any useful information but Captain Street is forgetting that chemistry is a hobby of Mr Wong’s. Mr Wong also has some helpful friends at the university and that clue may give up its secrets after all.

Meanwhile the police are faced by a plethora of suspects with very strong motives indeed. So many suspects, but so little hard evidence. It’s also by no means certain that the murderer will not kill again.

There are obvious similarities between the three great movie Asian detectives. All are brilliant and all mask their penetrating intelligences behind a veneer of self-effacing politeness. The differences are possibly more interesting. Charlie Chan is a Honolulu-born Chinese-American and a working police detective. Mr Moto is Japanese and in the books (by John P. Marquand) he’s a Japanese secret agent. In the movies he becomes a private detective although there are still hints of an interest, if not necessarily an involvement, in espionage. Mr Wong is an Oxford-educated private detective with an English accent, impeccable manners and an air of urbane benevolence.

Apparently the Mr Wong of Hugh Wiley’s short stories was a Yale man and an agent of the US Treasury Department. With Boris Karloff cast in the role it was obviously a sensible decision to make him an Oxford man instead, which allows Karloff to use his own natural speaking voice. It’s also worth noting that Mr Wong does not speak in the kind of broken English so familiar from the Charlie Chan movies - Mr Wong’s English is quite perfect. It’s also clear that Mr Wong is a man of wealth, culture and taste. In fact in some ways he’s very similar to such popular upper-class amateur detectives as Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance.

The other striking thing about all these Hollywood B-movies featuring Asian detectives is that the detectives are portrayed in an incredibly favourable light. The accusations of racism periodically directed at such movies are both irritating and absurd. Charlie Chan, Mr Moto and Mr Wong were very much heroes and were immensely popular with audiences at the time.

The Mr Wong movies were made by Monogram but don’t be put off by their Poverty Row origins. Mr Wong, Detective boasts perfectly acceptable (by B-movie standards) production values. Veteran director William Nigh helmed an extraordinary number of B-movies. He knew his business and he keeps the pacing tight. Houston Branch’s screenplay is quite competent. In general this is for Monogram a pretty well-made little movie.

A definite bonus is the very ingenious murder method, and the even more ingenious techniques Wong uses to prove his case and extract confessions. Mr Wong doesn’t seem to go in very much for intuition, relying instead on careful observation and scientific methods of investigation.

A major strength of this movie is that there is very little in the way of comic relief. It’s a murder mystery and it gets on with the job. Captain Street is obviously no match for Mr Wong as a detective but he’s not a complete fool. He’s certainly not fool enough to refuse Mr Wong’s assistance and he accepts this help with a fairly good grace.

It has to be said that Mr Wong does not seem very Chinese. On the other hand if we assume that he is a very anglicised Oxford-educated Chinese man then it’s probably quite logical that he comes across as more English than Chinese.

I found this movie in one of Mill Creek’s multi-movie collections. The transfer is better than the usual Mill Creek standard. Picture quality is quite good. Sound quality is more dubious with some hisses and crackles but the dialogue is always understandable. Given that the movies in this set average out at around 40 cents a movie I certainly have no cause for complaints!

B-movie fans will enjoy comparing Karloff’s performance with those of Warner Oland in Charlie Chan in Paris and Sidney Toler in Charlie Chan in Reno, and Peter Lorre in Think Fast, Mr. Moto

Mr Wong, Detective is a thoroughly competent and very entertaining mystery B-movie, enlivened by Karloff’s charming and sparkling performance. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

The heist movie would prove to be one of the most reliable money-spinners of the 60s. The genre started with two movies released in 1960, the British production The League of Gentlemen and the American Ocean’s Eleven (or Ocean’s 11 as it’s sometimes rendered). Coincidentally both dealt with heists carried out by ex-military personnel. Ocean’s Eleven also had the distinction of being the ultimate Rat Pack movie.

Playboy Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) has been living on his mother’s money for years. Now he’d like to have some of his own. He’s been sold on a plan by Spyros Acebos (Akim Tamiroff). Acebos has a talent for coming up with ideas for robberies. Very good ideas. He doesn’t have the ability (or the inclination) to carry them out but that’s where Jimmy Foster comes in. Foster has recruited a bunch of old army buddies, all of whom served in the elite 82nd Airborne Division in World War 2. They will carry out the plan. And a very ambitious plan it is. To rob one Las Vegas casino would be ambitious enough - they’re going to rob five all at once. It will have to be carried out with the precision of a military operation. Ex-paratroopers are obviously ideal for such a caper.

Foster’s old army pals include Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra), Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) and Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr). And since this is a Rat Pack movie some of the female Rat Packers naturally had to be involved. Angie Dickinson plays Danny Ocean’s wife while Shirley MacLaine pops up in an amusing cameo.

The plan will need a couple of demolition experts. That’s no problem - the 82nd Airborne had guys like that. It will also need a master electrician. As luck would have it the ideal choice for this role, Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte) has just been released from San Quentin.

As would become standard in heist movies a good deal of time is spent on the elaborate preparations. The robbery itself lacks the spectacle of some of the later movies of this type although it makes up for it to some extent with sheer complexity.

The script gives the players plenty of the right sort of dialogue. The presence of veteran cinematographer William H. Daniels behind the camera is an asset, as always. Special mention should be made of Nelson Riddle’s wonderful score and Saul Bass’s brilliant main titles. Director Lewis Milestone knew his job and handles it will his usual skill.

I think The League of Gentlemen makes cleverer use of the idea of ex-soldiers carrying out a robbery but Ocean’s Eleven earns bonus points for the ending - a very nice little sting in the tail indeed.

Sinatra was a fine if rather lazy actor, his major strength being his ability to project effortless cool which he does here to wonderful effect. Dean Martin could also be a superb actor on the rare occasions when he really extended himself (as in Howards Hawks’ Rio Bravo). Most of the time Martin just treated acting as fun but in a light-hearted movie such as this that approach worked just fine. Richard Conte by contrast took acting very seriously so it’s not surprising that Tony Bergdorf ends up being the most complex character in the movie. Cesar Romero enjoys himself as Jimmy Foster’s shady but very rich prospective father-in-law. Angie Dickinson has little to do except look glamorous but she does that very nicely. Look out for a neat little cameo from George Raft.

Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr both get to sing. Oddly enough Sinatra doesn’t.

This is very much a Vegas movie, the mood of the film reflecting the mood of the city. This is of course the Las Vegas of 1960, very different from the Las Vegas of today. In that sense the movie is a wonderful time capsule, a feature enhanced by the fact that so much of the filming was actually done in the Las Vegas hotels of the day.

The Region 4 DVD offers a very impressive anamorphic transfer and includes a number of extras including a commentary track with Frank Sinatra Jr. and Angie Dickinson.

Ocean’s Eleven is high-spirited witty entertainment done with a great deal of style. Highly recommended.