Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Fourth Square (1961)

The Fourth Square is one of the forty-seven low-budget British mystery thrillers based on the stories of Edgar Wallace and made at Merton Park Studios for Anglo-Amalgamated in late the 50s and the early 60s. Although they received theatrical releases in Britain in the US they were screened in edited form as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. The Fourth Square was made in 1961.

Solicitor Bill Lawrence (Conrad Phillips) is asked by a wealthy woman to investigate the theft of a valuable item of jewellery. This is an odd request to make of a solicitor but he agrees to do so. Even odder is the fact that the lady claims to know who committed the theft.

Bill discovers that matters are a little more complicated than that. This was one of a series of similar robberies. There is definitely a connecting link but that link just seems to make the case more puzzling. 

The thief leaves little squares taped to the wall at the scenes of the robberies, hence the movie’s title.

Jewel robberies are one thing but Bill starts to feel a bit out of his depth when they lead to murder. He is however determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Most of Edgar Wallace’s novels are very much worth reading. This one may not have been one of his better efforts, or perhaps James Eastwood’s screenplay simply doesn’t do it justice. The mystery is not quite twisted enough and there aren’t enough hints of the bizarre to qualify this as a classic Wallace adaptation.

The acting is competent enough is not exactly sparkling. Conrad Phillips is an amiable enough hero and he doesn’t try to make Bill Lawrence overly heroic. He is after all just a very ordinary solicitor, with a certain streak of stubbornness, a fairly cool head and reasonable intelligence. Miriam Karlin has a certain amount of fun as French dancer and magician Josette.

Allan Davis had a very brief career as a director and doesn’t bring much inspiration to this film although he did quite well with a couple of the other movies in this series such as Clue of the New Pin and The Clue of the Twisted Candle. Of course there’s only so much you can do on a very low budget and these were very low budget features indeed.

The movie looks low budget but not excessively cheap. Of course there aren’t a great many sets and there are no spectacular action set-pieces. There aren’t even any unspectacular action set-pieces. 

Network DVD have done their usual decent job with the transfer. This is not a movie on which anybody is going to spend a fortune on a high definition restoration. Picture and sound quality are both fine. The Fourth Square is included in the first of Network’s Edgar Wallace boxed sets.

One thing you have to say for Network. At least they haven’t tried to sell these Edgar Wallace B-movies as film noir. Which is exactly what many other companies would have done. 

The Fourth Square is a cheap B-movie but with a running time of less than an hour it doesn’t have time to wear out its welcome. It’s a harmless and reasonably diverting time-killer. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

On the Avenue (1937)

On the Avenue is a bright and breezy 1937 20th Century-Fox musical that combines romance, laughs, a couple of impressive production numbers and some fine tunes courtesy of Irving Berlin.

Even by the standards of movie musicals the plot is thin, to say the least. Broadway star Gary Blake (Dick Powell) has a new hit stage production. The highlight of the show is a sendup of the home life of America’s richest girl. The troubler is that America’s richest girl, Mimi Caraway (Madeleine Carroll), is in the audience and she is not amused. Nor is her father, Commodore Caraway (George Barbier). Nor is her intended husband, famed polar explorer Frederick Sims (Alan Mowbray). They were targets of the satire as well. The Commodore wants to sue but his lawyer advises him that he has no grounds for doing so. Mimi Caraway has her own ideas on settling the score with Gary Blake.

Of course you know that Gary and Mimi will end up falling in love. And of course there has to be a complication - Gary’s co-star Mona Merrick (Alice Faye) is in love with him as well.

But this is a Hollywood musical so who cares about the plot? It might be thin but it provides plenty of opportunities for romance, comic relief and songs and being a species of backstage musical there’s an excuse for staging some fairly spectacular production numbers. In true Hollywood musical style these production numbers could not possibly actually be accommodated on a stage but thanks to the magic of the movies we accept them anyway.

Dick Powell had plenty of experience in musicals by this time. He’s particularly likeable in this one and he gets to show a few flashes of the real acting talent that he would develop in his very different 1940s movies. Madeleine Carroll couldn’t sing so she doesn’t but she still makes a satisfactory leading lady and handles the comedy side with ease. Mimi Caraway is supposed to a spoilt rich girl and Carroll conveys this effectively without becoming obnoxious.

Having a non-singing leading lady means that Alice Faye gets ample opportunity to demonstrate that she most certainly could sing. All three leads deliver the goods without any problems. George Barbier has plenty of fun as the blustering but basically good-natured Commodore.

There is one fly in the ointment. To provide extra comedy we have the Ritz Brothers, surely the unfunniest comedy team in the history of movies. They’re like a very low-budget version of the Marx Brothers but entirely lacking in any talent whatsoever. Luckily they don’t get enough screen time to ruin the movie.

On the Avenue features some of Irving Berlin’s best-known songs including the classic I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm. The extended production number The Girl in the Police Gazette is a highlight for its use of so many interlocking sets. This Year's Kisses gives Alive Faye the chance to really put some emotion into a song. It’s also a highlight while another of her numbers, Let’s Go Slumming, is equally good. Faye and Powell are both in fine voice.

The music is not just good - there’s plenty of it. This is after all what musicals were all about so this is obviously a major plus.

Roy Del Ruth had a long and distinguished career as a director and proves he can handle the musical genre very competently indeed.

The screenplay (by Gene Markey and William L. Conselman) provides enough amusement to keep the audience happy in the interludes between the songs.

Fox’s Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is less than stellar. This is a somewhat neglected 30s musical. I suspect that if Fox were prepared to spend the money on a decent Blu-Ray release it might cause this one to be re-evaluated in a much more positive fashion. 

On the Avenue doesn’t get side-tracked by tedious social commentary. It has no real aim other than to provide an hour and a half of delightful entertainment and it achieves its aim in a very satisfactory fashion. With so many great Irving Berlin songs this one is really a must for classic musical fans. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back was released in 1937, part of Paramount’s extensive series of B-movies based on the immensely popular thrillers of H. C. McNeile (who used the pseudonym Sapper). 

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back was based on McNeile’s excellent 1928 novel The Female of the Species, and it adheres reasonably closely to McNeile’s story. An old enemy of Drummond’s is out for revenge and she intends to use Drummond’s wife Phyllis as the means by which to achieve this. Phyllis is kidnapped and Drummond is supplied deliberately with a series of tantalising clues, the aim being to ensure that his suffering will be as prolonged as possible.

It’s a story idea that has been used countless times but both the novel and the movie execute the idea with enough energy and imagination to keep things exciting.

Drummond’s old friend Colonel Neilson of Scotland Yard (John Barrymore) is anxious to help but Drummond knows that Phyllis’s survival depends on his willingness to keep the police out of the matter. Colonel Neilson however is determined to become involved anyway, without Drummond’s knowledge.

Captain Drummond can also rely on the willing if not always effective assistance of the faithful Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny) and the somewhat more useful assistance of his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive). 

Hugh and his pals are led a merry chase through the English countryside accumulating the needful clues. There’s more action than is usual in a thriller of this vintage and the villainess’s diabolical plot provide the opportunity for some effective suspense and some quite well-executed thrills.

It has to be said that this is one 30s B-movie that wastes no time in plunging us into the action. The brisk pacing is maintained throughout the 64-minute running time.

Director Louis King spent a lengthy career churning out competent B-features and he knows his stuff. Despite the inevitably tight B-picture budget he does a fine job. Edward T. Lowe Jr had been writing for movies since 1912 and his screenplay is tight and captures the breathless flavour of McNeile’s novels rather well. 

This movie has all the essential ingredients of a fine B-thriller - disguises, secret codes, hidden trapdoors, narrow escapes and just enough romance and humour to season the  derring-do.

No less than thirteen actors eventually attempted the rôle of Captain Hugh Drummond. The one thing they had in common was that all were quite wrong for the part. In this film John Howard plays Drummond for the second time (and would do so on five subsequent occasions). He is spectacularly wrong for the part. Drummond should be bigger, beefier, louder, more boisterous and much much uglier. Drummond’s taste for schoolboy humour is also entirely lost in the film adaptations.

That’s not to say that John Howard’s performance is bad. He’s quite adequate but much too smooth and polished. He just isn’t Bulldog Drummond.

I do like the scene in which Drummond summons Tenny not by any of the normal methods for communication with a servant but by firing his revolver into the ceiling. That at least is an authentic Bulldog Drummond touch. 

Algy and Tenny both provide some comic relief but unusually for a 1930s B-movie the comic relief is genuinely amusing and it’s kept strictly within bounds. Helen Freeman brings a suitably sinister glamour to her performance as the evil Irena Soldanis. John Barrymore has plenty of fun as Colonel Neilson.

My copy of this movie comes from Mill Creek’s 50-movie Mystery Boxed set. The transfer is adequate by the standards of cheap public domain sets.

While Ray Milland, who played Drummond in Bulldog Drummond Escapes, was a considerably better actor than John Howard Bulldog Drummond Comes Back is overall a better and more satisfying movie. It’s an excellent example of just how good 1930s B-thrillers could be. It’s fast-paced and exciting and hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Date with the Falcon (1942)

A Date with the Falcon, released at the beginning of 1942, was the second film in RKO’s successful Falcon B-movie series. The studio had had considerable success with their cycle of B-movies based on Leslie Charteris’s The Saint, with George Sanders playing the hero Simon Templar. The problem was that Charteris wasn’t happy with the movies and pulled the plug on them. RKO promptly bought the rights to another remarkably similar character, The Falcon, and proceeded to make a series of Falcon movies. The Falcon series was effectively a continuation of the Saint series, with Sanders again playing the lead, and was in fact so similar that Leslie Charteris sued them for plagiarism.

The Falcon had been created by Michael Arlen in a 1940 short story. In the story the hero’s name is Gay Falcon. For the movies he was renamed Gay Laurence with The Falcon being a nickname. He was a wealthy playboy adventurer and part-time crime fighter. It’s really not difficult to see why Charteris felt so annoyed. 

Sanders went on to make four Falcon movies after which his brother Tom Conway took over the rôle (some of the Tom Conway movies, such as The Falcon in Hollywood, are pretty good).

A Date with the Falcon begins with Gay Laurence intending to give up his life of adventure. He is going to get married and settle down with Helen Reed (Wendy Barrie). Of course it’s not going to be as simple as this. The Falcon is drawn, reluctantly (or perhaps not really so reluctantly), into a case involving the disappearance of a scientist who has perfected a method of producing perfect artificial diamonds. Considering the profits to be made from the diamond trade it’s not surprising that not everyone is pleased by his new invention. It seems that someone is displeased enough to resort to kidnapping, perhaps even to murder.

The Falcon also finds himself getting mixed up with the glamorous Rita Mara (Mona Maris), and this is something that does not please his bride-to-be Helen one little bit. Sorting things out with Helen may be more difficult than solving the actual crime!

There’s really just enough plot here for the 63-minute running time, with just enough twists to keep things interesting even if those twists are not overly original. The Falcon plays a double game and could easily find himself caught between the bad guys and the police but luckily he’s used to this sort of thing and can usually stay just one step ahead.

This movie suffers a little from that very common problem of 1930s/1940s Hollywood B-movies - there’s just a bit too much comic relief. Much of the comedy is courtesy of The Falcon’s unlikely wise-cracking sidekick Goldy (played by Allen Jenkins) although Helen Reed also provides even more comic relief. The comic parts are not excruciatingly awful, there are just too many of them and they slow things down. On the other hand it has to be admitted that there are some genuinely amusing gags and the window ledge scene is quite inspired.

Sanders by this time had vast experience in this type of part and he’s as smooth and charming as ever. Argentinian-born Mona Maris makes a very fine femme fatale with a touch of the exotic. James Gleason goes gleefully over-the-top as the hardbitten but sympathetic Inspector Mike O’Hara. 

Director Irving Reis does a generally competent if not exciting job. The movie gets off to a fairly slow start but the pace gradually picks up. In fact this is a movie that definitely gets better as it goes. 

RKO B-features of the 40s usually look pretty good with just a hint of the visual style soon to become indelibly associated with film noir. That’s not to say that there’s anything remotely film noir in any meaningful sense about this production, but it at least has a trace of visual grittiness at times.

The Falcon movies are available on made-on-demand DVD in two multi-movie sets in the Warner Archive series although I caught this one on TCM.

A Date with the Falcon is a good solid mystery thriller B-picture that fans of such movies should find quite enjoyable. Recommended.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Enemy Below (1957)

The Enemy Below is one of the classic submarine movies. It tells the story of a duel between an American destroyer and a German U-boat in the South Atlantic during World War 2. Dick Powell produced and directed the film which was based on a bestselling novel by Commander D. A. Rayner.

The U.S.S. Haynes has had an uneventful war and while it’s an efficient ship and morale is quite high the crew members are rather sceptical about their new skipper, Lieutenant Commander Murrell (Robert Mitchum). Murrell is not regular navy and his previous command was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat. There’s some speculation that he may not know his business and that, even worse, he may have lost his nerve. 

The ship’s uneventful war is about to become very eventful indeed. They pick up a radar contact and Murrell is convinced it’s a U-boat. The closest supporting Allied ships are a long way away so it’s destined to be a one-on-one duel between the Haynes and the submarine. As Murrell admits, on paper the odds are slightly in favour of the submarine. Nonetheless Murrell is determined to to accept the odds.

It soon becomes obvious that the crew needn’t have worried about their new captain. Murrell does know his business. Unfortunately the U-boat’s commander, Kapitan von Stolberg (Curd Jürgens), is equally competent.

What follows is a tense cat-and-mouse game, with the difference that this mouse has teeth that are every bit as sharp as the cat’s.

This is a movie that doesn’t waste too much time giving us the backstories of the characters. We learn just enough about Murrell to know that he has good cause to be very determined to win this duel, and we learn enough about von Stolberg to know that he is an old-school German officer who regards the Nazis with contempt. While the “good German” can be a bit of a cliché in this case it’s absolutely necessary. This particular story can only work if the audience has equal sympathy with both sides. In fact that’s the whole point of the story - war might be unpleasant but it is possible to wage it with courage and honour and, paradoxically, war can forge unexpected bonds between enemies. Both Murrell and von Stolberg are brave and skillful officers and as their duel progresses they develop a healthy respect for one another. The crews of both the American destroyer escort and the German U-boat are also courageous and highly professional. They’re all men trying to do their duty as best they can. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this movie is that it is a 1957 war movie in which not a single character expresses genuine overt hatred for the enemy.

In order to succeed this movie also needed not just good actors as the two opposing captains but actors with a great deal of charisma. Mitchum and Jürgens were ideal choices, and as well as charisma they are able to bring genuine humanity to their performances. The supporting players are less important but Theodore Bikel as von Stolberg's second-in-command 'Heinie' Schwaffer and David Hedison (in those days still going by the name Al Hedison) as the Executive Officer of the Haynes both do well. Look out for an impossibly young Doug McClure as a junior officer on the Haynes.

Dick Powell demonstrates considerable skill and judgment as director. This is a movie that wastes very little time in getting to the action. And once the hunt is joined the suspense is maintained relentlessly. There’s also plenty of action. The action scenes are exceptionally well done. 

The special effects are mostly impressive and the underwater sequences are convincing.

Not everyone will approve of the ending but I think that once you grasp the movie’s major theme it becomes obvious that it’s the right ending.

In 1966 The Enemy Below was remade (surprisingly well) as an episode of Star Trek, Balance of Terror. Even more surprisingly that episode preserves not just the basic structure of the story but the tone as well.

The Enemy Below has had a number of DVD releases including the one I bought - a double-movie pack from Fox which pairs it with an equally good British naval war movie, Sink the Bismarck. The movie was shot in colour and Cinemascope and the anamorphic transfer looks great.

The Enemy Below avoids the obvious temptation of pushing a simplistic anti-war message.  That’s not to say that it glorifies war but it has a more subtle message, that the experience of war can lead to mutual respect and even sympathy between enemies. This is an intelligent war movie that is also tense, exciting and thoroughly entertaining. In fact I rate is one of the best war movies ever made. Very highly recommended.