Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Woman in Green (1945)

The Woman in Green was the eleventh of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies. It was released by Universal in 1945. It’s an original story but like many of the films in this series it borrows elements from several of Conan Doyle’s stories.

London is in the grip of terror caused by a series of grisly murders. The victims are all young women and after murdering them the killer has neatly removed one of their fingers. Scotland Yard is baffled. In desperation Inspector Gregson (Matthew Boulton) asks Sherlock Holmes for help.

Of course the obvious conclusion is that the murders are the work of a Jack the Ripper copycat but Holmes has his doubts. There are puzzling indications that suggest that these slayings are not the work of a homicidal maniac.

Holmes gets his first solid lead when the daughter of a very prominent man, Sir George Fenwick, consults him about her father. The night before she saw him wandering in his garden, trying to bury something - a severed human finger!

There is a diabolical plot afoot and Holmes has other problems - someone has tried to kill him.

There is, as the title suggests, a mysterious woman involved in this case. Could there also be a fiendish criminal mastermind pulling the strings behind the scenes?

Although this is a late entry in the cycle it’s a very good one. It boasts a nicely twisted little plot courtesy of screenwriter Bertram Millhauser. In the original version of the script the murder victims were children. The Production Code Authority, quite rightly, vetoed this. 

The screenplay has been criticised for supposed plot holes, such as the failure to explain the motivations for the four earlier murders. Personally I don’t agree. I think it’s extremely clear that all five murders were carried out with the same intentions and had the same results and there was no reason to explain something so obvious to the audience. The use of an innocent man as the would-be assassin of Sherlock Homes has also been criticised as being simply a lazy way to offer Holmes an important clue. Again I disagree. I think the choice of assassin was exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to Moriarty.

Rathbone and Bruce are in good form. Bruce as usual delivers the comic relief but in this case it’s subtle and gently amusing. Bruce also gets at least a few opportunities to demonstrate his ability to be serious and sensitive.

Henry Daniell is a marvelously cold-blooded Moriarty. Hillary Brooke provides both glamour and danger as the mysterious woman and does so to very good effect. Like most actresses she thoroughly enjoyed playing the femme fatale.

Like most of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies The Woman in Green was directed by Roy William Neill. Neill was a cut above most of the directors employed by Universal on B-movies in the 1940s. His style is not ostentatious but it’s effective. He makes nicely subtle use of low-angle shots to highlight the menace of Professor Moriarty (yes of course Moriarty makes an appearance). He throws in a few Dutch angles as well but again they’re used sparingly and only when needed. They’re appropriate here, given one of the key plot elements (which happens to be oner of my favourite plot devices but I won’t spoil things by revealing what it is). There’s also some good special effects work by the studio’s resident expert in such matters John P. Fulton. This is actually a rather stylish movie.

The Woman in Green does not have the overt gothic elements that appear in several of the movies in this series. On the other hand it does have a surprisingly dark edge to it and there is a real sense of evil.

The Sherlock Holmes movies were in fact among the best of Universal’s 40s B-pictures. They’re all very well-crafted and quite atmospheric.

My copy of this movie came from Optimum’s Sherlock Holmes - The Definitive Collection DVD boxed set. The transfer is superb and there’s a swag of extras including an audio commentary by David Stuart Davies.

The Woman in Green is a worthy entry in Universal’s Sherlock Homes cycle even if it’s not quite up to the standard of The Scarlet Claw or The Pearl of Death or The Spider Woman. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)

My write-up on Universal's Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) at my cult movie blog might be of interest to people here as well.

Here's the link to my review.

It's a worthy follow-up to the superb 1936 Flash Gordon serial and it's enormous fun. Fans of the great age of movie serials might also be interested in my thoughts on some of the other classic serials such as Buck Rogers and Spy Smasher.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945)

She Wouldn’t Say Yes, released by Columbia in 1945, is a rather late entry in the screwball comedy genre.

Rosalind Russell is psychiatrist Dr Susan Lane who has been treating shell-shock patients at an army hospital, with a great deal of success. She is a woman who believes she is always in total control of her life. Fellow psychiatrist Colonel Brady tells her that she must have some massive inner self-doubt to explain her extraordinary strength but of course she doesn’t believe him.

Then she encounters Michael Kent (Lee Bowman). He is a soldier but he is also a cartoonist, famous for creating a character called the Nixie. The Nixie is a magical fairy-like creature who encourages people to cast off inhibitions and give in to their secret impulses. Needless to say Dr Lane does not approve of such reckless behaviour. 

Michael falls for Dr Lane right away but not only does not approve of the Nixie, she also does not approve of Michael Kent. She is therefore rather disturbed to encounter him again on the train to Chicago, and even more disturbed when in order to get her a seat in the club car he pretends they are married and that she is pregnant. Even worse is to follow when she discovers they are both booked for the same sleeping berth.

On the train she also encounters Bolivian blonde bombshell Allura (Adele Jergens). Allura has decided to kill herself by leaping from the train, having become convinced that she is responsible for the death of every man who has ever loved her. Dr Lane immediately decides that Allura is a fascinating case and persuades her to enter therapy.

Dr Lane has the brainwave of trying to set up Allura with Michael Kent. This will cure Allura of her neurosis and get Michael out of Dr Lane’s life. Of course this cunning ploy fails to work smoothly as Dr Lane had hoped and things get more complicated when her father decides to interfere - her father thinks Dr Lane should get married and he thinks Michael Kent would make an ideal husband.

The screwball comedy elements take a while to start really kicking in in this film but eventually the obligatory misunderstandings and ploys and counter-ploys do come together and the craziness levels that the genre requires are achieved.

One of the common conventions of this genre is that the two lead characters should not only be initially antagonistic they should also represent opposing views on life. In this case Dr Lane stands for logic and staying rigidly in control while Michael Kent’s approach to life is impetuous and emotional and risk-taking.

The setup is certainly ideal screwball comedy material. Rosalind Russell was the right sort of actress for this type of movie. Director Alexander Hall made several notable screwball comedies, My Sister Eileen being the best known although The Doctor Takes a Wife is just as good, so he knew his way around the genre. 

And yet the movie doesn’t quite make the grade. So what went wrong?

Part of the problem is that the screenplay (by Virginia Van Upp, John Jacoby and Sarett Tobias) lacks any real zest. It’s not enough to put the characters in potentially funny situations. To make comedy (any sort of comedy) work you have to have actual gags and lots of them. This screenplay just doesn’t have quite enough gags. 

Lee Bowman is also not quite the right leading man. He’s not particularly funny but a bigger problem is that the chemistry is not there between the two leads. You have to be able to imagine that the two protagonists in a romantic comedy might actually end up together and it’s impossible to imagine these two as a couple. The final resolution isn’t entirely convincing - it’s too much like a rabbit pulled out of a hat.

That’s not to say the movie is a total failure. After a very slow start it does pick up steam and it starts to become reasonably diverting. It’s never laugh-out-loud funny but it ends up being mildly amusing.

The supporting cast is solid enough. Adele Jergens makes a suitably outrageous blonde bombshell. One highlights is the brief appearance by Arthur Q. Bryan, an actor best remembered as the voice of Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. He not only sounds exactly like Elmer Fudd, he even looks like Elmer Fudd!

She Wouldn’t Say Yes is one of the four Columbia comedies in the Icons of Screwball Comedy, volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is fine. Since it also includes the bona fide classics If You Could Only Cook and My Sister Eileen this set is an absolute must-buy for screwball comedy fans.

She Wouldn’t Say Yes is not in the top rank of screwball comedies but it’s harmless enough and at least moderately entertaining. If you’re buying the set anyway it’s worth a look.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The House in the Woods (1957)

The House in the Woods is a quirky low-budget 1957 British thriller about a couple who dream of getting away from the rat race of the city and finding solitude in the countryside. They find a charming cottage near a wood that is just what they were hoping for and it’s very inexpensive as well. Of course when you find something that seems almost too good to be true, sometimes it is too good to be true.

Geoff Carter (Michael Gough) is a writer but he cannot write unless he can find peace and quiet. His wife Carol (Patricia Roc) sometimes thinks that he may have too much of a taste for solitude. The cottage is being rented out by Spencer Rowland (Ronald Howard), a painter who no longer paints. Spencer lost his wife a few years earlier so probably he just needs a little longer to get over it.

It will take a week for the lease to be finalised and Spencer suggests that the Carters should move in right away, if they don’t mind sharing the house with him for a week while the paperwork is being processed. In fact he suggests they move in right this minute - they should drive back to their old flat and collect their things this very night. After all if they want solitude there’s no time like the present.

And solitude they will have. As Spencer points out, the nearest house is five miles away, there is no telephone and nobody knows the Carters are even here since they left no forwarding address. In fact Spencer seems quite interested in this point. Of course the Carters will have to write to their previous landlord giving notice but that’s no problem - Spencer will post the letter for them.

Spencer seems like a decent fellow although somewhat inclined to melancholy. Carol thinks it’s a good sign when he asks her to sit for a portrait - surely getting back into painting again will be good for him.

Meanwhile Geoff is starting work on a novel. It will be a murder mystery about a man who kills his wife. A murder that takes place in an isolated cottage in the woods. He finds that the ideas are coming to him quickly. A cigarette butt found in the woods will be a clue. A cigarette butt just like the one he found in the woods a moment ago, a butt belonging to the particular brand that Spencer smokes. Which is odd, since Spencer was quite adamant that he hates the woods and never ventures there. Still, curious little incidents like that can be quite inspiring for a writer. Geoff is getting all sorts of inspiration for his novel from Spencer’s slightly odd behaviour. 

There’s a certain growing tension between Geoff and Spencer, and between Geoff and Carol. There’s a certain piece of music that Spencer is always playing that is beginning to get on Geoff’s nerves. Carol is happy that Geoff is writing but worries that he may be becoming a bit obsessed by his story. Fiction and real life are two separate things and it wouldn’t do to start blurring the lines between the two. When you start to write a murder mystery you can easily imagine murder mysteries everywhere. Especially in isolated cottages in the woods.

Maxwell Munden directed the film and wrote the screenplay based on a story by Walter C. Brown. Munden is one of the more obscure British film directors of this era but it’s difficult to fault his work here. It’s a low-budget movie but it’s well executed. The screenplay is tightly constructed. We’re given just enough information to arouse our suspicions but those suspicions could point to several quite different conclusions and we’re not really sure whether we’re being led up the garden path or not.

The cast is one of the film’s major assets. Michael Gough is always a delight. He doesn’t overact as much as usual but there’s still that suggestion of mania just below the surface. Patricia Roc is excellent. Ronald Howard was a very underrated actor and he gives a splendid performance. He’s not entirely an unsympathetic character but he certainly makes us slightly uneasy. His views about artists and their right to pursue their creative ambitions regardless of the consequences are decidedly unsettling.

Most of the movie takes place in the cottage, obviously an advantage for a low-budget movie since not many sets are required. The scenes in the woods are well done. Munden doesn’t go overboard here - the woods are creepy but in a subtle way that suggests that their creepiness may be more in the minds of the characters than in the woods themselves.

The novel Geoff Carter is working on is a psychological crime story and the movie itself is a psychological crime story although we have to be careful not to assume that the parallels are necessarily exact.

The transfer is perhaps not quite up to the standard we expect from Network but it’s priced very reasonably indeed and in fact it’s really not that bad at all. The sound is just a little crackly in places but it’s not enough to worry too much about and mostly not enough to be distracting. The picture quality is not pristine and there’s a very small amount of print damage but it’s more than acceptable. 

The House in the Woods is a good low-key suspense thriller. It’s very much a B-movie but it’s well-crafted and benefits from fine performances from the three leads. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Send for Paul Temple (1946)

The Paul Temple character originated in 1938 in a BBC radio series written by Francis Durbridge. It was followed by further radio series, a number of novels, a comic strip and a successful 1969 BBC television series. Four Paul Temple movies were made in the late 1940s, beginning in 1946 with Send for Paul Temple (retitled The Green Finger in the US).

The four Paul Temple movies were released by Butcher’s Film Service. Send for Paul Temple is a B-movie although whether it can be dismissed as a quota quickie is arguable (and in any case many quota quickies were quite decent B-pictures).

Paul Temple makes his living as a popular crime novelist but he seems to keep getting mixed up in real crimes as well, which he solves with some help from his wife.

Scotland Yard is baffled by a series of daring smash-and-grab raids carried out by a gang in the Midlands. That’s  bad enough but when a night watchman is killed by the gang the pressure mounts on the police. The press are asking the question - should the Yard send for Paul Temple?

Temple has helped the police solve a number of well-publicised cases. Chief Inspector Harvey is certainly not too proud to ask Temple for advice. Things start to get complicated when Temple finds himself having to investigate a murder rather close to home, and the complications just keep on increasing.

The one clue the police have is the dying words of the night watchmen - the Green Finger. Paul Temple will get some unexpected assistance from an elderly lady, Miss Amilia Marchment, who happens to have a vast knowledge of old English inns - and old English inns play a vital role in the story.

Further assistance is rendered by feisty girl reporter Steve Trent (Joy Shelton). Steve, like so many characters in this tale, has a secret. Many of these secrets have their origins in the past, many in South Africa (where a previous series of robberies had baffled the police in Capetown). Pigeons, and a penguin will also play a part.

There’s a mystery to be solved but this is more a thriller than a mystery. This movie was adapted by Durbridge from the first of his Paul Temple novels, Send for Paul Temple, published in 1938. The novel is very much in the style of British thriller fiction of the interwar years, with fairly outrageous plotting and lots of breathless excitement (and it’s great fun too). The movie is very much in the same spirit. 

Needless to say the feisty girl reporter gets kidnapped by the bad guys at one point, while the body count mounts at an alarming rate. Behind all these crimes is a sinister criminal mastermind but even the bad guys have no idea of his true identity.

Anthony Hulme plays Temple in this first movie, although he was replaced by John Bentley for the other three films starting with Calling Paul Temple. The definitive Paul Temple is Francis Matthews in the much later BBC TV series but Hulme does a very acceptable job in the role. Joy Shelton is fine as Steve Trent. The supporting cast is quite adequate. Tamara Desni adds some glamour as the beautiful but deadly Diana Thornley. The nature of the story means the chief villain (whose identity is unknown until the end) does not get much of a opportunity to be really villainous.

John Argyle had a very limited career as a director but he keeps the action moving along, which is always the secret to making a low-budget movie work.

Renown Pictures have released the four Paul Temple movies on DVD individually and as part of a four-disc boxed set. Send for Paul Temple gets a pretty good transfer - not quite pristine but quite satisfactory. 

Send for Paul Temple is a good solid little thriller with plenty of plot twists plus some added bonuses like secret passageways - and any movie featuring secret passageways has a head start in my book. It’s very much a B-picture but it has all the virtues of good B-pictures - it’s fast-moving, slightly but enjoyably silly and thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Key Man (1957)

Another day, another B-movie. The Key Man is a 1957 British effort released by Anglo-Amalgamated. It was made at Merton Park Studios so you know it’s going to be very low-budget but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In 1945, just after VE-Day, Arthur John Smithers is arrested for the murder of Nick Domigo. Domigo had supposedly been making advances to Smithers’ wife. Smithers is convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison.

That’s the prologue. We then move forward in time to the present day (1957 that is). Lionel Hulme (Lee Patterson) is a radio broadcaster who does a regular true crime show. He’s certain that there was a lot more to the Smithers case that didn’t come out at the trial. He thinks Smithers pulled a bank job with Domigo and that Domigo’s slaying was a falling out among thieves, possibly connected with a double cross. The money (and it’s a good deal of money) from the robbery in question has never been recovered. Lionel thinks he can solve this mystery and thereby come up with a great story for his radio show, with the prospect of a nice little bonus if his executive producer Larry Parr (Colin Gordon) is sufficiently pleased with the story.

That nice little bonus would come in handy. Lionel is broke and is being sued by his landlord for arrears of rent. His marriage to Pauline (Paula Byrne) is also not doing too well. Pauline is not the most understanding of women and she doesn’t think much of Lionel’s career choices.

Lionel’s first task is to track down Smithers. Smithers was released from prison in 1954 and subsequently disappeared. There are those who say he is dead. There are those who say he’s very much alive. There are those who say that he had a key and if that key could be found it would open a lock and that’s where the money is. If you could find the key, and the lock. There are those who say that Smithers’ wife Eva may well have the key, or know where it is.

Finding Eva (who is now night club singer Gaby) promises to be easier than finding Smithers although persuading her to co√∂perate might be more difficult. Gaby (Hy Hazell) is one tough cookie and she’s the sort of blonde who always spells trouble.

A more pressing problem is that a mysterious someone does not want Lionel Hulme to find Smithers or to continue his investigations. Lionel has been warned off but that’s not going to stop him from pursuing a story as good as this.

In fact someone is very determined indeed to put a stop to Lionel’s nosing about in the Smithers case. They’re prepared to take drastic action to stop him.

The whole affair seems like it could be insanely dangerous but apart from the thought of that bonus there’s also the little matter of the generous reward being offered for the recover of the stolen money.

Lee Patterson was a Canadian actor who became a fairly popular B-movie leading man in Britain in the 50s. He was perfect for low-budget crime films. He had the right persona to play the kinds of heroes you find in film noir - likeable losers or smart guts who are usually not quite as smart as they think they are. He could play heroes quite successfully as well and he could do the hard-boiled thing reasonably well. I’ve now seen quite a few of his British movies (such as The Flying Scot and Deadly Record) and so far I haven’t come across a bad performance by him.

Hy Hazell is the blonde who is clearly destined to play the femme fatale role and she shows she can be very hard-boiled. There’s a solid enough lineup of supporting players, certainly more than adequate by B-movie standards.

Director Montgomery Tully worked almost entirely in B-features and was always competent. In this movie he gets a bit ambitious - there’s an excellent fight scene lit only by a flashing neon sign (or at least it’s filmed to make it appear that it’s lit only by the neon sign) which is really quite impressive stuff for a low-budget movie. There’s also a decent car chase which unlike so many movie car chases of this era is not spoilt by shoddy rear projection.

As far as the visuals are concerned there’s a definite film noir ambience.

This is a typical Network DVD release. Virtually no extras (just the spoiler-laden theatrical trailer and an image gallery) but an excellent transfer and at an affordable price. 

The Key Man is a well-crafted above-average and very satisfactory B-movie crime thriller. Highly recommended.