Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Holiday (1944)

Christmas Holiday is a pretty strange title for a film noir. Even stranger, this is a film noir starring Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin. On the other hand it is directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the grand masters of noir, and it is based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s odd that more of Maugham’s stories weren’t given the film noir treatment - he was an author with the right sort of sensibility for film noir.

Maugham’s story has been Americanised but setting it in New Orleans gives it the kind of overheated slightly sinful tropical tone that is found in so much of Maugham’s work.

The film has the classic noir structure with most of the story being told through flashbacks. A young artillery officer, Lieutenant Charles Mason (Dean Harens), is heading to San Francisco on leave to marry his sweetheart. Just as he’s about to leave the catch the plane he gets a Dear John letter. He’s determined not to take this lying down and sets off for San Francisco anyway. The aircraft runs into bad weather and is diverted to New Orleans. The dirty weather has set in for quite a while. He ends up in a bar where he meets hardbitten night-club singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin). It is Christmas Eve and she asks him to take her to Midnight Mass. Afterwards she tells him her story, taking us into the first flashback.

Jackie used to be Abigail Martin and she was married to Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). Manette is the weak, self-indulgent spoilt offspring of one of the leading families in New Orleans. He’s a charming but decidedly shady character and Abigail gets her first glimpse into the noir abyss when he comes home late at night with a great deal of money and bloodstains on his clothing.

Robert and Abigail live with Robert’s mother. Mrs Manette (Gale Sondergaard) has all the strength that Robert lacks but it doesn’t do either of them much good since her strength expresses itself in over-protectiveness which simply encourages Robert’s self-indulgence and weakness of character. The relationship between mother and son is clearly not a healthy one. The second flashback tells us how Robert and Abigail met, and we get a bit more insight into that unhealthy mother-son relationship.

Abigail is just too innocent to see the obvious warning signs. Robert is a gambler with no self-control, selfish and immature but of course he promises her he’s going to give up gambling and she believes him. Sooner or later Robert is going to get himself into big trouble. Abigail isn’t strong enough or worldly enough to stop him and while his mother is aware of his character flaws he remains her blue-eyed boy and she has clearly made the mistake of rescuing him whenever he gets into trouble. He’s never had to deal with consequences and he’s never learnt responsibility. This is not going to end well but Abigail is going to go on loving him.

This is a role-reversal film noir with Gene Kelly as the pretty boy homme fatale who leads good girl Deanna Durbin into the noir nightmare world. Gene Kelly does a decent job. He’s charming enough to convince us that he could have persuaded the na├»ve Abigail to fall in love with him and he’s creepy enough to make us wish that she hadn’t fallen for him.

Deanna Durbin’s lightweight musicals were among Universal’s most reliable money spinners. She was obviously anxious to try her hand at some serious acting and she succeeds pretty well. It’s a challenging role since she has to play the same character at two different stages of her life - as the innocent kid from Vermont who fell for Robert Manette, and as the hardbitten night-club chanteuse that she is now. Wisely she doesn’t try to make Jackie too hardboiled - Durbin was no Joan Bennett but that’s OK because Jackie isn’t all that hardboiled - the sweet kid from Vermont is still there under the cynical shell that she tries to project. And naturally she gets to sing a couple of songs.

Siodmak displays his usual sure touch. This is a movie that switches between typical noir scenes (with seedy night-clubs and rainy night shooting) and bright cheerful sunlit scenes as we move between the present and Jackie’s chequered past. Woody Bredell’s cinematography is impressive (not surprising considering that he shot the classic noirs Phantom Lady and The Killers for Siodmak).

The script is perhaps just a little too predictable. Fortunately the movie has other compensating strengths - the interesting three-way dynamic between Abigail, Robert and his mother, some good atmosphere, a generally handsome look and fairly effective performances.

Special mention must be made of the contribution of the art directors, Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman. There are some wonderful multi-level partly indoor and partly outdoor sets that capture the New Orleans atmosphere very neatly.

The Region 2 DVD from Simply Media offers a reasonably satisfactory transfer although the sound quality is a little uneven at times.

Christmas Holiday is not one of Siodmak’s best efforts but it’s a worthwhile second-tier noir  made more interesting by the unusual casting. Recommended.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas to everyone

Merry Christmas to everyone. I hope you get lots of classic movie-related presents.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear (1945)

The House of Fear (or Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear as it is sometimes known) was the tenth of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (and the eighth to be made by Universal). It’s based (very loosely indeed) on Conan Doyle’s story The Five Orange Pips. It was made in 1944 and released the following year.

It seems that someone may be murdering the members of the Good Comrades Club. This is a club of well-to-do and moderately distinguished retired bachelors. Two of the seven members received envelopes containing orange pips. The first envelope contained seven pips; the second contained six. Soon afterwards both men were killed, apparently in accidents. Sherlock Holmes is not so sure these gentlemen really met their deaths accidentally. He is particularly interested in the case when he learns that one of the club members is Dr Simon Merrivale, who a few years earlier had been acquitted of murder. Also of interest is that the members of the club are heavily insured, with the beneficiaries being the surviving members. Holmes and Watson set off for the house, on the wild west coast of Scotland,  in which the Good Comrades share their comfortable bachelor existence.

Holmes and Watson may have arrived just in time - another member of the club has received a fatal envelope, this time containing five orange pips. They are however unable to prevent several more murders. It is Dr Watson who will discover the vital clue. He might not understand its full significance but he certainly realises its importance, and almost pays for his discovery with his life.

Roy Chanslor’s screenplay has very little to do with Conan Doyle’s story but it is thoroughly diverting, with secret passageways, a suggestion of a haunted house and a family curse. There’s also a definite affinity to Old Dark House movies and even a slight similarity to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Rathbone and Bruce are both in fine form. Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade shares the comic relief duties with Nigel Bruce but fortunately the comic elements are not overdone. There is plenty of amusement but the focus is on the mystery, and on the gothic possibilities of a large old house in an isolated setting.

The gothic sensibility is very strong indeed in this movie. Gothic atmosphere was something that Universal could be relied on to do supremely well in those days and director Roy William Neill pulls out all the stops. We get plenty of slightly unusual camera setups and a smattering of Dutch angles. Given that the story itself is rather gothic in tone these techniques do not come across as cheap gimmickry - they genuinely do enhance the atmosphere. This really is a very stylish movie by B-movie standards.

As is the case with the rest of the Rathbone/Bruce movies production values are high. The house and the remote location are used skillfully. This might be a B-movie but it’s a classy and very professionally made B-movie.

By this time Universal had (very wisely) decided to abandon the idea of bringing Holmes up-to-date and having him involved in World War 2 espionage plots. The time period in which The House of Fear is set is left deliberately vague. Apart from a brief appearance of a motor car it could be the 1890s, but it could still very well be the 1920s or even late Edwardian times. While the Universal Holmes movies dealing with World War 2 have their virtues the Great Detective really never seemed quite at home in the 1940s. The House of Fear feels more like a real Sherlock Holmes adventure.

The DVD transfer (in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection boxed set) is extremely good indeed. There are a few extras as well, including fairly informative production notes courtesy of Richard Valley.

The House of Fear is by no means the best of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies but it’s an above-average entry in the cycle and it provides wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Circle of Danger (1951)

Circle of Danger is a low-key British mystery thriller about a man trying to learn the truth about his brother’s death.

Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) is a diver who has made a lot of money in the salvage business. Now he’s sold his share of the business and he sets off for Britain to find out what really happened to his brother. His brother had joined the British Army in 1940 and had ended up in the Commandos. He had been killed during an operation behind enemy lines in 1944. During the war Clay, who was then serving in the US Navy, had had a chance encounter with a man named Smithers who had served alongside his brother. Smithers had told Clay something very disturbing - the bullet that killed his brother may not have been a German bullet. His brother may have been murdered.

Clay’s quest to discover the truth takes him from London to a mining town in Wales and from thence to the Highlands of Scotland. Smithers is now dead and in fact most of the men in Clay’s brother’s Commando unit are now dead as well. Finding the few survivors proves to be a frustrating business.

He eventually tracks down his brother’s commanding officer in the Scottish Highlands. Like everyone else he has managed to contact Major McArran (Hugh Sinclair) seems to be curiously reluctant to discuss the matter.

At McArran’s house Clay meets Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc), a young writer of children’s books. There’s an obvious attraction between them but it’s a romance that runs into an extraordinary number of obstacles, not the least of them being that Major McArran is clearly very interested in Elspeth as well. Clay is certainly keen on Elspeth but his obsession with uncovering the truth about his brother’s death proves to be another obstacle in the path of true love.

Philip Macdonald wrote the screenplay, based on his novel White Heather. The story relies more on suspense and the unravelling of a murder mystery than on conventional thriller elements. It’s very light on action but it is definitely nicely suspenseful. There’s some clever misdirection and some good plot twists as Clay follows up clues that don’t mean what he thinks they mean and don’t lead where he thinks they’re going to lead. The ending is unexpected and at the same time it seems like the only possible ending, which is always  the mark of a well-constructed story.

The love story has no real connection with the main plot but it does serve to lighten the mood and it slows down the plot. This is actually an advantage. This is a slow-burning suspense film and the pacing is deliberately somewhat leisurely.

Jacques Tourneur directed the film and while it’s a lesser effort from a man who is one of the most underrated American directors of his era it’s still a very fine and very well-crafted movie with some very effective use of locations.

Clay Douglas is a man who is dogged in pursuit of anything he decides to go after but Ray Milland plays him as a sympathetic character albeit with just the slightest touch of disturbing obsessiveness. Patricia Roc makes an engaging leading lady. Hugh Sinclair is solid as McArran and the supporting performances are all effective. Marius Goring pretty much steals the picture as Sholto Lewis, a ballet dancer who gives the impression of being the last person you would expect to be a very tough ex-Commando officer but appearances can be deceptive. 

Network’s DVD is typical of the company - it offers virtually nothing in the way of extras but it offers an extremely good transfer at a very reasonable price.

Circle of Danger is a subtle movie that offers few thrills but does offer effective suspense and a good mystery story. It’s a well-made well-acted film that achieves what it sets out to achieve. The location shooting and Marius Goring’s performance are major bonuses. The result is excellent entertainment. Not quite in the same league as Tourneur’s best films but still highly recommended.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Guilt Is My Shadow (1950)

Guilt Is My Shadow is a low-key 1950 crime drama from Associated British Pictures.

The movie opens dramatically enough with a bank robbery gone wrong. The getaway driver is the only member of the gang to escape. The driver is a young man named Jamie (Peter Reynolds) and deciding that it would be advisable to make himself scarce for a while he hides out on his uncle’s farm.

Jamie’s uncle is Kit (Patrick Holt) and he’s a bit of a recluse. The farm is fairly isolated and that’s how he likes it. Kit is not overly enthusiastic about having his nephew staying with him but family is family and there’s not much he can do. Kit is also a little suspicious of his nephew, which suggests (although it isn’t actually stated) that Jamie has perhaps been a somewhat wild young man.

Jamie is not exactly cut out for the rural life. He makes no secret of his contempt for the farm, for the inhabitants of the nearby village and for everything associated with life in the countryside. He has a certain facile charm but it is soon apparent that he is a practised liar and a thief, and in general is totally selfish and amoral. Her and Kit do not hit it off but free board and lodging is free board and lodging and Jamie seems inclined to stay.

He gets himself a job in the local garage where he unashamedly cheats the customers.

All is going well for Jamie until his wife Linda (Elizabeth Sellars) suddenly arrives. It’s obvious that the marriage is not a successful one and it’s equally obvious that Jamie is not pleased by Linda’s arrival. He doesn’t let her presence cramp his style though and he is soon in pursuit of Betty (Lana Morris). Betty is the sort of girl who likes charming bad boys.

To complicate things it’s clear that Kit is growing very fond indeed of Linda and it’s also clear that she reciprocates his feelings.

Of course this tense situation becomes a powder keg waiting to explode and eventually it does explode, with fatal consequences for one of the parties involved.

It seems that this unfortunate outcome might never come to light but while you may be able to conceal guilt from the police you cannot conceal it from yourself. Sooner or later you discover that guilt really is your shadow.

The opening sequence might lead you to expect a gritty urban crime thriller but what you get is more of a rural psychological melodrama.

This is a fairly well acted film. The standout performance comes from Elizabeth Sellars as Linda but both Patrick Holt and Peter Reynolds are very good. Linda is a pleasant young woman who is clearly wounded by her husband’s indifference to her. Jamie is clearly a wrong ’un from the start but Reynolds doesn’t overdo it. He plays Jamie as a thoughtless self-centred  personality who has never wasted a single moment considering anyone else’s feelings or interests. He’s not evil; he’s simply indifferent to other human beings.

Director Roy Kellino had an undistinguished career in movies before moving into television but he does a capable job here. He has a good eye for composition and he shows some imagination without being in the least gimmicky. The screenplay, by Kellino, Ivan Foxwell and John Gilling (whom I’ve written about quite a lot recently), is solid if somewhat less than startlingly original. It was based on a novel by Norah Lofts.

The location shooting (in Devon) is impressive and quite atmospheric and a pleasant surprise in a low-budget 1950s British movie. The dream sequences are a good example of what you achieve with very little money if you know what you’re doing. They’re effective and subtle.

This is as I said earlier a low-key crime film. In fact many modern viewers might find it to be a bit too low-key. There is suspense but it never really builds to nail-biting levels. The pacing for the first half of the movie is quite leisurely. It’s a story that probably could have been done quite successfully as a one-hour television drama. At 86 minutes it’s definitely just a touch overlong.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent transfer.

Guilt Is My Shadow is an understated little movie that works quite well. Recommended.