Sunday, April 26, 2015

City of Fear (1959)

While Columbia’s 1959 production City of Fear is included in the Columbia Film Noir Classics II DVD boxed set and while it does certainly have affinities with film noir it really belongs to another characteristic 1950s movie, the “terror in the streets” paranoia movie.

Vince Ryker (Vince Edwards) is on his way to LA, having just escaped from San Quentin, killing a guard in the process. Ryker has however done something much cleverer than merely escaping - he has also stolen a steel flask containing a million dollars’ worth of heroin from the prison infirmary. The heroin was being used in experimental trials on prisoners. Or at least that’s what Vince thinks. In fact the flask contains Cobalt-60 in granular form. That flask isn’t going to make him rich, it’s going to make him dead, and it could make a lot of other people dead as well. In fact it could make the whole population of Los Angeles dead!

Police Chief Jensen (Lyle Talbot) isn’t quite sure where his duty lies. He feels that the people have the right to know about this threat to their safety but he’s been persuaded that this would cause the biggest panic in history. For the moment the police will concentrate on trying to find Ryker before too much damage is done.

Of course the police will need help from scientists. Dr John Wallace (Steven Ritch), who looks every inch a typical 1950s movie scientist, will provide that help. The police will also be able to call on the assistance of the Enforcement Branch of the Air Pollution Control authorities. I had no idea that such a thing even existed in 1959 but according to this movie they not only existed but had numerous patrol vehicles. These vehicles are soon cruising the streets, equipped with geiger counters.

Meanwhile Vince is looking for contacts to help him turn that (supposed) heroin into cash. His search for such contacts leads him to a shady shoe store owner, Eddie Crown (Joseph Mell), and a very sleazy street crim named Pete Hallon (Sherwood Price).

Naturally a hoodlum like Vince has a no-good dame for a girlfriend, in this case the very hardbitten June Marlowe (Patricia Blair). Lieutenant Mark Richards (John Archer), the detective in charge of the case, has very little success in persuading any of these police to help the police.

It’s a race against time. That steel flask provides no barrier to radiation and everywhere that Vince goes he leaves behind him a trail of radioactivity and a trail of people exposed to that deadly Cobalt-60.

Pretty soon Vince is a very sick boy indeed but he has no idea it’s the flask that’s making him sick and in any case he’s so convinced that he’s go his hands on a fortune that he probably wouldn’t listen to anyone who tried to persuade him that he’s signing his own death warrant by carrying the flask around with him.

Vince Edwards did a couple of extremely good late 50s noirs including the excellent Murder by Contract. He had the ability to be rather chilling and psychotic while still bringing some complexity to his characterisations. He gives a fine performance here as the deluded loser Ryker.

Patricia Blair is wonderfully hardboiled as June. June is a very unsympathetic character but she’s entertaining. The other players are generally solid and workmanlike.

Irving Lerner had a rather spotty career as a director but he does a good job here, keeping things suitably tense and exciting. Lerner had also directed the aforementioned Murder by Contract. As well as playing the scientist Dr Wallace Steven Ritch co-wrote the screenplay (and he also wrote the very fine 1957 heist movie Plunder Road). Jerry Goldsmith provides  the very dramatic music while the movie’s noir credentials are enhanced by the work of ace cinematographer Lucien Ballard. 

The ethical dilemma faced by Chief Jensen adds an extra interesting touch although the real emphasis of the movie is the race against time to find Ryker and the Cobalt-60.

The transfer is anamorphic and it’s superb. The only significant extra is a brief spiel by Christopher Nolan which provides nothing whatsoever of substance.

City of Fear is a decent and rather enjoyable little movie. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lost Horizon (1937)

Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, based on James Hilton’s bestselling novel, was the most expensive and most ambitious movie Columbia had made up to that point when it was released in 1937. It had mixed fortunes at the box office and took several years to get into the black. It’s now of course regarded as one of Capra’s most important movies.

Lost world stories had been immensely popular in popular literature for many years prior to this, going back to the unbelievably successful novels of H. Rider Haggard in the 1880s. The lost world genre was ideally suited to motion pictures and the 1930s saw notable film adaptations of several of the best such stories such as Haggard’s She. James Hilton’s Lost Horizon combined the lost world and the utopian genres (the utopian genre having an even longer literary pedigree).

Capra’s film certainly hits the ground running with superbly execute scenes of terror and chaos as British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) has to try to evacuate Europeans caught in the middle of yet another war in China. It is 1935, and this was the war lord period in China, a time of extraordinary violence and anarchy.

Conway and his brother George (John Howard) make their escape in the last aircraft to leave, along with an eccentric palaeontologist named Lovitt (Edward Everett Horton), a mysterious and none-too-honest American businessman named Barnard (Thomas Mitchell) and a young American girl named Gloria (Isabel Jewell).

They think they have escaped, until they realise their aircraft is heading west rather than east, and the pilot has locked himself in the cockpit. They have in fact been kidnapped although at this stage they have no idea of the reasons or of the identity of those responsible. The plane crashes in Tibet. The passengers survive the crash but but their long-term prospects seem grim until they are rescued a party sent from a nearby lamasery.  After a harrowing journey across ice and snow and mountains they find themselves in the lamasery, located above a fertile and temperate valley. They have found Shangri-La. Or it might be more correct to say that Shangi-La has found them.

Shangri-La is entirely cut off from the world and our five reluctant adventurers soon realise that they are being kept prisoner, although in the nicest possible way. But why on earth were they brought to Shangri-La and what kind of place is it? When they find the answer to those questions they must then ask themselves if they really want to leave after all.

Of course there has to be a romance. Robert Conway falls head over heels in love with the enigmatic Sondra (Jane Wyatt) while George falls for the equally mysterious Russian girl Maria (played by Margo).

Modern audiences might expect at his point to encounter a great deal of “mysterious wisdom of the East” silliness. In fact Shangri-La is a Christian community. That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of silliness in Lost Horizon - it’s just that this is a slightly different variety of silliness.

I have to put my cards on the table here and state that the idea of utopia always awakens my latent scepticism. When someone tells me (as the High Lama tells Conway in this movie) that here is an earthly paradise where there is no greed, no lust, no violence, no anger and no jealousy my cynicism kicks into overdrive. Let’s be honest. These are universal human emotions. The only way a society can eliminate them is by force. All dissent must be crushed. All dissenters must be punished. Underneath the starry-eyed idealism there has to be a form of totalitarianism. Needless to say Capra doesn’t want to confront such unpleasant realities. Shangri-La can only be a fantasy. When we see Robert Conway swallowing the fantasy hook, line and sinker we’re seeing an apparently intelligent middle-aged man falling for something that we would expect would be somewhat unconvincing even to an over-sensitive undergraduate.

There are a couple of moments in the film that do suggest that perhaps Shangri-La is not quite so perfect. If this is indeed the earthly paradise why is Maria prepared to pay any price, no matter how high, to escape?

The one character who doesn’t buy the fantasy is George Conway. We seem to be  expected to see him as perhaps not quite the villain but certainly as the one who  threatens the chances of the others to find perfect peace and happiness in this magical fairyland. On the surface Shangri-La may seem to be all fluffy bunnies, group hugs and Kumbaya by the campfire but to George it looks like a soul-destroying nightmare. George is the character we’re supposed to disapprove of, which might be why he’s the only character for whom I felt any sympathy at all.

That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t have its virtues. It’s visually magnificent. The crew never left California but the movie manages to convince us we really are in a lost world somewhere in the Himalayas. The film uses a mixture of location shooting in California, miniatures shots, process shots and matte paintings. Many scenes were filmed in an ice warehouse to create an authentic atmosphere of extreme cold. It all works superbly. The lamasery itself is interesting. It looks like a Tibetan monastery designed by a modernist architect. If Le Corbusier had designed lamaseries they would have looked like this. This actually works quite well - after all Shangri-La is an imaginary place.

Ronald Colman tries hard and is a charming as ever but he never quite convinces me that the hard-headed diplomat who hopes to be Foreign Secretary one day could actually fall for all this universal brotherhood stuff. The performance just doesn’t quite ring true. John Howard doesn’t really have the acting chops to pull off his role as Conway’s brother. Jane Wyatt looks lovely but Sondra still comes across as an irritatingly na├»ve teenager with all the ignorance and arrogance of youth. Sam Jaffe is truly cringe-inducing as the High Lama. He’s trying to convey idealism and spirituality but to me he seems merely foolish and sanctimonious. Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell are there to provide comic relief but they end up being the best things about the movie.

My fairly old (late 1990s) DVD copy offers an almost complete print of a movie that had been hacked to pieces by the studio for re-release in the 40s. Image quality is extremely variable, this print being assembled from various sources. There are however plenty of quality extras. 

Lost Horizon is worth seeing for the very impressive visuals. Whether you actually enjoy the story is a matter of taste. It’s a well-made movie but it’s definitely not my cup of tea.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird (released in the US as The Assassin) is a taut private eye/spy thriller with just a dash of film noir to add a little extra flavour. This 1952 British production is typical of the superb thrillers made in quantity by the British film industry in that period.

Richard Todd plays Edward Mercer, an English private detective doing a routine job for a French legal firm. He’s looking for a man named Renzo Uccello, a man who was last heard of during the war. It’s not a very important job but it does take Mercer to Venice and that suits him - he’s the sort of man who finds it hard to settle down in peacetime. During the war he’d been a British agent operating in Italy and his work had involved, among other things, assassination. His wartime career will later prove to be important in plot terms.

He follows the usual methods employed in trying to find people. He places advertisements in the local newspapers offering a reward for anyone who comes forward with information as to Uccello’s present whereabouts. A man answers the ad and Mercer arranges to meet him. The following day the man is found floating dead in one of the canals. This certainly seems to suggest that this case might not be quite as routine as it appeared.

The trail leads Mercer to Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok), a rather classy and glamorous woman who works for a leading art gallery, designing tapestries. These are high art tapestries and very expensive. The gallery is owned by the wealthy and powerful Count Boria (Walter Rilla). Mercer is not sure what the connection with Uccello might be but he is pretty sure there is one.

Chief of Police Spadoni (George Coulouris) takes a considerable interest in Mercer’s activities. He is aware of Mercer’s wartime record. He is also aware of certain facts about Renzo Uccello. The combination of these two circumstances suggests to Spadoni that it would be advisable for him to keep a very close watch on Mercer’s investigation. He assigns one of his undercover men (played by John Gregson) to do just that.

Mercer soon makes his own rather startling discoveries about Renzo Uccello. There is a great deal at stake - in fact the very future of Italian democracy. And, inevitably, Mercer starts to fall in love with Adriana.

Richard Todd was always a reliable actor. This particular role possibly needed someone who was a bit more of an obvious tough guy but Todd does succeed in making Mercer convincingly dogged and he makes him a sympathetic hero. Eva Bartok and John Gregson are also very solid, as they usually were. George Coulouris is excellent as Spadoni, a hardheaded but essentially decent cop faced with a case that is very much bigger than anything he’s ever had to deal with before. Sid James is fun as an Italian mortician. Since this is Sid James and he’s playing a mortician you might expect him to be there for comic relief but in the early part of his career he played a lot of straight dramatic roles. He does however play the part with a twinkle in his eye and he has the opportunity to ham it up just a little.

Director Ralph Thomas had a lengthy, successful and extremely varied career. He was the sort of director best described as a highly skilled artisan, being able to handle just about any genre. He’s in complete control here, keeping things tight and nicely suspenseful and stylish in an unassuming and non-intrusive way. He’d helmed another superb thriller, The Clouded Yellow, a couple of years earlier so he knew his way around the thriller genre.

There’s a limited use of stock footage but also some actual location shooting in Venice and the movie makes very good use of its exotic setting. Even the process shots are very well done. 

While there’s a political conspiracy at the centre of the story it’s used as an engine to drive the plot and mercifully the audience is not bludgeoned with clumsy political propaganda.

The Region 2 DVD is typical of the releases from Strawberry Media - no extras but a superb transfer and at a very reasonable price. 

Venetian Bird is a well-crafted and very polished thriller. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Double or Nothing (1937)

Paramount’s 1937 Bing Crosby musical Double or Nothing is all froth and bubble but it’s delightful froth and bubble.

Eccentric millionaire Axel Clark dies, having made a rather bizarre will. Alex and his cynical  grasping brother Jonathan had always disagreed on human nature. Axel insisted that most people are fundamentally honest and fairly smart. Jonathan always insisted that most people are crooks and fools. Axel’s will is designed to put this question to the test and settle the matter once and for all. His lawyers are instructed to leave twenty-five wallets lying on the streets, each wallet containing a hundred dollar bill. The wallet contains the address of Axel’s lawyers. Anyone who is honest, on finding one of the wallets, will naturally return it to the lawyers. Out of the twenty-five people who find the wallets four are honest enough to show up at the lawyers’ office. These four are aspiring singer Lefty Boylan (Bing Crosby), small-time shady businessman John Pederson (William Frawley), former burlesque artiste Liza Lou Lane (Martha Raye) and harmless deadbeat Half Pint (Andy Devine).

When they get to the lawyers’ office they are presented with a reward of $5,000 each and a proposal. They have 30 days in which to double the $5,000. The first one of them to do so will inherit the whole of Axel’s estate, amounting to around a million dollars. If none of them succeed in doing so then Jonathan Clark will inherit the estate. The only proviso is that they must double the money honestly.

At this point Pederson comes up with a plan - the four of them should work together and if any of them is able to double their $5,000 the four of them will split the estate evenly. The lawyers agree that there is nothing in the will to prevent their working together in this way.

Needless to say Axel Clark’s greedy relatives are not too pleased by this. Led by Jonathan they plan to sabotage the quartet’s efforts.

Of course there has to be a romance angle, which is provided by Jonathan Clark’s daughter Vicki (Mary Carlisle). Left falls hopelessly in love with Vicki, not knowing that she is working against him and his partners.

Lefty, Half Pint, Liza Lou and Pederson all come up with ingenious if half-baked ideas for doubling their money. Pederson buys a gold mine which naturally tuns out to be worthless. Liza Lou buys a rowing boat concession. Her idea is that people will pay to be rowed about the lake by beautiful girls (her former chums from the burlesque world). he figures this will be very popular with sailors and that when the fleet is in she will clean up. This might have worked except for one weakness of Liza Lou’s - whenever she hears a certain piece of music she has a flashback to her burlesque days and starts doing a strip-tease. In public. Which of course gets her arrested.

Half Pint buys a golf range. His idea is to put up most of his money ($4,000) as prize money. People can buy three shots for a dollar and anyone who gets a hole-in-one wins the $4,000. If he’s unlucky someone will succeed in doing so and he’ll be ruined but if he’s lucky he just might turn his $5,000 into the necessary $10,000. Surprisingly enough Half Pint’s idea looks like it might succeed.

Lefty puts his money into a night-club. All he has to do is to put on a good enough show and showbiz entrepreneur Nick Praxitales will sink $10,000 into the business, which will qualify Lefty to inherit the estate. Lefty will discover that a night-club can be just as risky an investment as gold mines, golf ranges and girl-crewed rowing boats. And such risky investments are even riskier when there is someone as conniving behind the scenes as Jonathan Clark, constantly working on ways to sabotage their efforts.

Musicals can usually get away with rather slight plots. In this case the plot is more than adequate to sustain the movie as long as the other ingredients are there - reasonable musical numbers, likeable characters and a sufficient quantity of laughs. Double or Nothing has no problems in any of these areas.

Bing Crosby deploys his usual effortless cool combined with charm, and of course he was always quite adept at light comedy. Martha Raye can be a bit excessive but here she’s quite funny. Andy Devine plays himself, as likeably as he always did. Crosby, Raye and Devine shoulder most of the load as far as comedy is concerned and they are more than equal to the challenge. Mary Carlisle is a little on the bland side but perfectly adequate. William Frawley is solid although he doesn’t get much to do. Samuel S. Hinds as Jonathan is a villain the audience will love to hate.

The songs are generally quite good and Crosby is in fine voice.

The most pleasant surprise is that this movie is really quite funny. Maybe not rolling in the aisles funny but still consistently amusing. 

Double or Nothing is included in Universal’s five-movie Bing Crosby Screen Legend DVD boxed set. There are no extras but the transfer is excellent and the set itself is great value (this set also includes the rather charming Waikiki Wedding).

This is a feelgood movie but it’s feelgood without resorting to sentimentality. The whole thing is executed with a very pleasing lightness of touch. The result is an unassuming but thoroughly delightful movie. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Murder Without Crime (1950)

Murder Without Crime, released in 1950, was J. Lee Thompson’s first directing assignment. He wrote the screenplay as well, based on his own stage play, and it’s a top-notch little British B noir.

Derek Farr plays Stephen, a moderately successful writer. Stephen and his wife Jan (Patricia Plunkett) live in a rather swanky flat. Their landlord Matthew (Dennis Price) lives downstairs. Stephen and Jan have just had a fight, with Jan suspecting that Stephen has been chasing other women. Jan walks out and Stephen heads for a night club to drown his sorrows. He and Matthew head for Matthew’s favourite hangout, the Tenerife. Matthew introduces Stephen to Grena (Joan Dowling), one thing leads to another and Stephen accompanies her back to her flat. Stephen is feeling sorry for himself but he still loves Jan and he doesn’t really want to be unfaithful but Grena proves to be hard to get rid of. In fact she follows him back to his own flat and that’s where Stephen’s nightmare begins.

After a drunken scuffle Stephen finds himself with a corpse on his hands. Of course he could call the police. The worst he could expect would be a manslaughter charge and in fact there’s a reasonably good chance a coroner’s jury would accept the matter as an accidental death. But of course characters in film noir always manage to convince themselves that “nobody would believe me” and they always make the mistake of trying to  cover up their crime. The problem is that Matthew, being a suspicious sort of fellow, has a pretty fair idea of what happened so Stephen’s hopes of quietly disposing of the body are quickly dashed.

The core of the film is the ensuing battle of wits between Stephen and Matthew, with Matthew not quite concern he has the goods on Stephen and Stephen not quite certain how much Matthew knows. Thompson throws in some clever and rather nasty little plot turns and the result is a fascinating psychological thriller with some very string film noir overtones.

There are some obvious similarities, in both style and content, to Hitchcock’s Rope although Thompson’s original play predates Hitchcock’s movie by a decade. Murder Without Crime is, not surprisingly considering its stage play source, very stagey. That is often a bad thing in a film but sometimes it can be an asset, as it is here. It gives the film an effectively claustrophobic feel. It’s all very dialogue-heavy but that works in its favour as well. It is after all essentially a battle of wits and wills.

It works in large measure because the performances of Derek Farr and Dennis Price make it work. Farr’s Stephen is all passive-aggressive self-pity. Even though he got himself into the mess by fooling around behind his wife’s back he still convinces himself he’s the innocent victim of pure bad luck. Matthew is languid, dissolute and cynical with a definite sadistic edge combined with a touch of masochism and a self-pity equal to Stephen’s. It’s the sort of role one could imagine George Sanders having fun with but to be honest I doubt that even Sanders could have topped Dennis Price’s performance.

Joan Dowling does the femme fatale bit, and does it well, but the focus is very much on Stephen and Matthew.

The one false note is struck by an intrusive voiceover narration which seems to be intended to give the movie a black comedy feel but serves only to irritate.

This was not a big budget movie but the sets are quite impressive, adding a touch of both glamour and decadence. Lots of low-angle shots and Dutch angles contribute to the fel of a situation spinning more and more out of control.

Network DVD’s region 2 DVD release offers an extremely good transfer. The DVD is barebones but pleasingly inexpensive.

Murder Without Crime is hugely enjoyable. Dennis Price is an actor who deserves a lot more recognition than he gets and this is a chance to see him at the top of his game. A first-class British crime thriller. Highly recommended.