Sunday, May 21, 2017

Street of Shadows (1953)

Street of Shadows is one of the more interesting examples of the British film noir. It’s a B-movie and it really does tick most of the noir boxes.

Luigi (Cesar Romero) runs a pin-table saloon. It appears that such establishments really were a thing. It’s basically a bar laid out like an amusement arcade where patrons can play arcade games whilst indulging in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It’s a thriving establishment and Luigi is reasonably wealthy. He’s also reasonably respectable. Luigi’s might be a bar but it’s a legitimate business. He makes sure there is no trouble and his relations with the local police are cordial.

Luigi’s character is established from the outset. He’s easy going and generous and kind but he’s also shrewd and determined and when the occasion calls for it he’s a tough guy. He’s a popular guy because he’s a decent guy and he’s easy to like.

Limpy (Victor Maddern) acts as a kind of personal assistant and general-purpose dogsbody to Luigi. As his name suggests he is a cripple with a severe limp. His loyalty to Luigi is total. For his part Luigi has a great affection for his assistant and is careful to treat him always with respect. Unfortunately not everyone in this imperfect world has Luigi’s manners and Limpy does find himself made the butt of cruel jokes from time to time.

There’s also a girl. Angele Abbé (Simone Silva) had been Luigi’s girlfriend until he discovered that she was being too friendly with other men. Much too friendly, and to too many other men. Luigi, hardly surprisingly, dumped her. Angele has continued on her self-chosen downward spiral and is held together by alcohol, self-pity and the belief that somehow she can persuade Luigi to take her back. Which is not going to happen. Apart from anything else Luigi is the kind of guy who sticks to decisions once he’s made them. Angele has a great deal of pity for herself but none for other people and her behaviour towards Limpy is shocking in its casual cruelty. At the moment Angele has got herself involved with a rather nasty bad boy sailor.

There’s also another girl. Through a series of chance events Luigi makes the acquaintance  of Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall). Barbara is charming and classy but she always seems to be ill at ease. We soon find out why. She has fallen in with a very bad crowd and one of them is her husband. These are bad people and just how willing she is to go along with their nefarious schemes is open to question.

There’s an immediate attraction between Luigi and Barbara. In fact Luigi, being an old-fashioned romantic, has fallen for her hard.

It’s obvious that there’s plenty of potential here for things to get complicated and messy. In fact it’s the kind of situation that has been known to end in murder. And in this case there is indeed murder, but both the identity of the victim and the circumstances are not quite what we might have expected.

There’s a certain sense of inevitability in evidence here. We’re dealing with a number of characters who seem like they’re destined to get themselves into trouble, and they seem like the sorts of people who having got themselves into a hole will contrive to keep digging the hole deeper and deeper.

This seems to be the only film made by writer-director Richard Vernon (although he does have a few producing credits). There wasn’t very much money spent on this movie but what was spent was spent pretty well. There’s some authentic noir atmospheric to the visuals and Luigi’s pin-table saloon makes a great setting - sinister laughing clowns add a definite noir flavour. The script, based on a novel by Laurence Meynell, is perfectly serviceable.

Cesar Romero gives a breezy and charming performance as a man who thinks he has life under control, until he finds out that he hasn’t. Kay Kendall has plenty of style and the two of them haver the right chemistry. Edward Underdown makes a rather brusque Scotland Yard inspector. It’s Victor Maddern as the crippled Limpy who really steals the picture though. It’s a performance that is sympathetic but without sentimentality and it has a definite edge to it.

Street of Shadows was released in a shortened version in the US as Shadow Man. The original British version forms part of VCI’s Forgotten Noir DVD series. The transfer is nothing special but it’s quite acceptable for a budget DVD release.

Street of Shadows is a cheap but well-crafted B-movie with a distinctively English noir feel. The fine performances make this one well worth seeing. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Never Back Losers (1961)

Crooked dealings on the racetrack provide the background to Never Back Losers, a 1961 entry in the Merton Park Studios cycle of ultra-cheap British Edgar Wallace potboilers.

Jim Matthews (Jack Hedley) is a lowly clerk working for an insurance company. The work is mind-numbingly boring but there is hope. He has applied for a transfer to the Claims department which would mean much more interesting work and getting out from a desk. Much to his surprise his transfer is approved. He finds that working in Claims is perhaps more exciting than he’d bargained for. His first case may prove to be his last.

It’s a pretty routine case. A jockey named Wally Sanders was badly injured in a car crash and won’t be able to ride again. Wally had demonstrated admirable foresight in taking out an insurance policy which covered him for such eventualities. The insurance company is however not entirely happy about the claim, partly because Sanders had been involved in an incident on the racetrack which suggested he might have deliberately caused his horse, the odds on favourite, to lose. There is no proof but the stewards were just a little doubtful about his explanation. Investigating the claim will be the first assignment for Jim Matthews in his new position.

He throws himself into the case with energy and enthusiasm, although perhaps not with terribly good judgment. He discovers a few things that suggest that Wally Sanders was definitely mixed up in something crooked. In fact Jim discovers enough to earn himself a beating by a couple of hoodlums who warn him to stop nosing around. Jim is an easy-going affable sort of chap but he’s very stubborn and he’s determined to keep digging.

It seems highly likely that Ben Black (Patrick Magee) is involved in some way. Black runs a number of legitimate businesses and others that are not so legitimate.

There’s also (naturally) a pretty young woman mixed up in the affair, which may be a partial explanation for Jim’s keen interest in the case. Marion Parker (Jacqueline Ellis) is the sister of jockey Clive Parker (Larry Martyn) and he’s been hanging around with a rather unsavoury crowd lately.

This is a very low-key crime thriller. There’s only one scene at the beginning and some brief moments at the end set at an actual racetrack (and the racing footage is presumably just stock footage) which is rather disappointing but not surprising given the very low budgets these features were made on. The slightly seedy world of losers living on the borderline between legitimate employment and petty crime is evoked reasonably well. The movie is shot in a very straightforward and competent if uninspired manner. There’s not a lot of visual interest in this movie. Director Robert Tronson went on to a successful career in television.

For a film presumably based on an Edgar Wallace story the plot is decidedly lacking in fiendish plot twists. Lukas Heller’s screenplay doesn’t exactly dazzle us with its originality.

Jack Hedley makes an amiable and sympathetic hero. He doesn’t have the mind of a brilliant detective and he’s sorely lacking in experience but he has one thing going for him - he just doesn’t realise that he’s out of his depth and that he should just walk away. He’s like a big friendly dog who’s picked up a scent and he just can’t let it go.

Jacqueline Ellis is no more than competent as an actress but she’s attractive and she manages well enough in an undemanding role.

The movie’s one big asset is Patrick Magee. It’s the kind of outlandishly excessive and outrageously hammy performance that Magee specialised in and it provides some of the vitality and fun that is otherwise in short supply in this picture. Magee is simply wonderful.

Never Back Losers is one of seven films making up Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. The anamorphic transfer is extremely good. 

Never Back Losers is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. It is at best a harmless distraction. Jack Hedley’s good-natured charm and Patrick Magee’s bravura performance almost make it worthwhile. This is definitely one of the weaker movies in an otherwise very fine boxed set and if you’re going to buy the set then watching this movie will only be 61 minutes out of your life. For all its weaknesses I couldn’t bring myself to actively dislike this movie.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rhythm on the River (1940)

Rhythm on the River is a 1940 Paramount musical starring Bing Crosby and Mary Martin, and it’s harmless but thoroughly charming entertainment.

Oliver Courtney (Basil Rathbone) is Broadway’s most successful and most acclaimed songwriter. His shows are guaranteed hits. He’s on top of the world. There’s only one problem. Courtney can’t write songs any more. He hasn’t been able to write songs for several years, since he had his heart broken. Since then he’s been relying on ghost writers, for both the tunes and the lyrics.

The tunes have been provided by Bob Sommers (Bing Crosby). Bob is happy enough with the arrangement. He gets a guaranteed income and he’s really not a very ambitious guy. All he wants in life is a catboat. Courtney will give him one in order to endure that those tunes keep coming.

The big problem is that the ghost writer who was providing Courtney’s lyrics has very inconveniently died. That problem seems to have been overcome when Courtney and his faithful musical assistant Billy Starbuck (Oscar Levant) find Cherry Lane (Mary Martin). She seems like the ideal lyricist and she’s willing to accept the arrangement. Of course we know that there are going to be complications.

Bob and Cherry keep bumping into each other but each of them is unaware that the other is also ghost-writing for Courtney. 

Cherry’s having difficulties writing her lyrics since a six-piece hot jazz combo moved into the apartment next door to hers. She needs peace and quiet but owing to the kinds of coincidences that you expect in a musical she ends up seeking out that peace and quiet at Nobody’s Inn, a little place that just happens to be owned by Bob’s uncle.

Obviously their secrets are going to come out eventually but where will that leave them all?  Bob and Cherry can’t sell their own songs - they’re unknown songwriters and there are thousands of unknown songwriters in New York. Oliver Courtney has the name that automatically sells songs but he can’t write any. They’re all likely to end up in a pickle.

Backstage musicals and musicals about the songwriting business are a dime a dozen but this picture has something that you very rarely encounter in a musical - a plot with some genuine originality. In fact it has a very clever plot (and at this point it should be noted that one of the writers was a fellow by the name of Billy Wilder).

It also has a terrific cast. Bing Crosby gives a performance that is laid-back even by Bing Crosby standards but his easy-going charm works its magic. Mary Martin is an excellent female lead and she and Crosby have the right chemistry. Basil Rathbone takes what could have been an unsympathetic part and makes Oliver Courtney rather likeable. He might be living off other people’s talent but it’s not by choice and he’s not relly a cynical exploiter. Oscar Levant basically plays himself, wise-cracking and cynical and very amusing. Rathbone and Levant make a surprisingly good comedy team.

This is a musical that doesn’t have to rely entirely on the music. There’s a decent story, reasonably three-dimensional characters and some sparkling dialogue. And the music is very good with some very fine songs.

The jam session in the pawnbroker’s shop is a highlight.

Rhythm on the River is available on DVD paired on a single disc with another Bing Crosby musical, Rhythm on the Range. Rhythm on the Range isn’t quite as good but it’s not bad and this pleasingly cheap double-header DVD really is a must-buy for Crosby fans. The transfer is very good as well.

Rhythm on the River is a bit of a mystery. It’s one of Bing Crosby’s best musicals and yet it seems to be one of those chronically overlooked and underrated movies. It has wit, style, romance, humour and great songs. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)

Sidney Toler had settled very comfortably into the role of Charlie Chan by the time Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise appeared in 1940 (one of no less than four Chan movies released that year by 20th Century-Fox). And, as the title suggests, it really does involve murder on the high seas.

The action starts in Hawaii when Lieutenant Chan of the Honolulu Police Department gets a visit from an old friend, Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard. A world cruise organised by Dr Suderman (Lionel Atwill) has been marred by murder. In fact more than one of the wealthy participants in the cruise has been murdered, slain by a brutal strangler. Charlie is of course happy to offer his help but he takes a much more personal interest in the case when Inspector Duff becomes the strangler’s latest victim.

Charlie joins the cruise and it becomes a race against time. The cruise will end in San Francisco so Charlie will need to discover the identity of the killer before the ship reaches that port. He expected to be working alone but he soon finds he has a not entirely welcome assistant - Number Two Son Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) has stowed away on the cruise liner.

The shipboard setting serves the tried and tested purpose of confining suspicions to a small group of suspects. Among the cruise passengers there’s no shortage of rather suspicious characters.

Sidney Toler is in splendid form. Victor Sen Yung as usual provides the comic relief, and does so fairly competently and with causing under annoyance. In this movie he actually gets to do a few vaguely useful things as well.

The cast is impressive. Lionel Atwill overacts less than usual this time but he’s still as enjoyable as ever to watch. Leo G. Carroll manages to look potentially sinister as one of the cruise passengers, an archaeologist whose field of study is China. Robert Lowery is a young lawyer with a plausible motive while Marjorie Weaver as his intended bride Paula Drake has a strong motive as well. They make a good romantic couple who might perhaps dabble in murder. And then there’s Ross, played with verve by Don Beddoe, whose languid manner might well conceal murderous impulses.

This film was rather unusual in being based (according to the credits anyway) on an actual Charlie Chan story by Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan Carries On, although I have no idea how faithful the adaptation is. The script is however pretty solid with the necessary plot twists being handled skillfully. 

Eugene Forde helmed a number of Chan movies as well as plenty of other similar mystery B-features so he knows what he’s doing and he gets on with the job with his usual competence.

Fox have provided an excellent transfer for this movie, although the disc is rather light on extras. There are no less than seven films in their Charlie Chan Collection Volume 5 boxed set making it a very desirable purchase for B-movie buffs. 

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise ticks the right boxes for this type of B-movie - it has the charismatic great detective, just enough comic relief to add seasoning without overwhelming the dish, a pretty well-constructed plot and a fine supporting cast. A shipboard setting is always a bonus for a mystery film. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Valley of the Kings (1954)

A square-jawed action hero who is also an archaeologist, and he’s searching for the fabled tomb of the Pharaoh Ra-Hotep but can he stay alive long enough to find it? This might sound like the plot of a lost Indiana Jones movie but in fact it predates Indy by more than twenty years. The movie is MGM’s big-budget 1954 adventure romp Valley of the Kings and it’s great stuff.

Mark Brandon (Robert Taylor) is a tough guy who worked as a labourer in some very rough places until he found employment on the Suez Canal project, which indirectly led to his discovery of his hitherto unsuspected passion for unearthing the treasures of the past. He transformed himself from a macho hardbitten labourer into a macho hardbitten archaeologist.

The year is 1900 and a meeting with Ann Barclay Mercedes (Eleanor Parker) is about to change Mark Brandon’s life forever. Ann is the daughter of a legendary archaeologist, now deceased. Her father believed that if the tomb of Ra-Hotep could be found it would contain evidence that support the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt and might possibly provide evidence that the Pharaoh in question was a secret monotheist.

For Ann it’s an opportunity to prove that her father’s theory wasn’t a crackpot idea and as she’s a devout Christian it’s also a way to promote her faith. For Mark Brandon there’s the remote chance that the tomb might actually be found, plus he’ll go along with most ideas if they’re likely to bring him into close contact with a beautiful young woman, although he cools a little on the scheme when he finds out that she’s married.

Her husband is Philip Mercedes (Carlos Thompson), a handsome but idle cosmopolitan dandy to whom Brandon takes an immediate dislike.

Ann’s father had come across some kind of clue to the location of the tomb and the plan adopted by our ill-matched threesome of treasure-seekers is to retrace the old man’s footsteps in his final journeyings before he died. This plan leads them to a remote Christian monastery, and to an important clue.

It soon becomes evident that people who take a keen interest in the location of Ra-Hotep’s  tomb have a habit of disappearing or turning up dead. In this instance it’s not some kind of course associated with the tomb - it seems far more likely to be a case of modern tomb-robbers wanting to keep a source of wealth to themselves. In any case it’s obvious that the search for the tomb is going to be hazardous in the extreme. Ann Mercedes and Mark Brandon are both immensely stubborn in their own very different ways and the dangers are not going to deter therm.

Adventures movies of the 50s have a reputation for leisurely placing (by modern standards) but that accusation can’t really be leveled at this movie. There’s plenty of action  and it doesn’t take long for that action to get going.

MGM spent a lot of money on this film, with a good deal of location shooting in Egypt. It was worth the trouble and the expense. The movie has a feeling of grandeur and majesty to it that fits in well with the themes of the story.

By 1954 Robert Taylor was no longer the young pretty-boy leading man of the 30s and 40s. He was starting to play darker more hardboiled roles in movies like Rogue Cop and his acting had improved markedly. Here he is ideally cast a fundamentally decent guy who is still rather rough around the edges. Eleanor Parker is excellent also. Ann is a strong woman but in a mostly very traditional way - she has genuine depth and strength of character rather than being a stereotypical movie tough cookie. The two leads have the right chemistry as well and that always helps.

Carlos Thompson was a very underrated Argentinian actor best known for the whimsical British 1963 action-adventure TV series The Sentimental Agent. As Philip Mercedes he’s all charm but perhaps not the sort of man to be wholly trusted.

This movie is available in the Warner Archive series. The print is acceptable but it’s far from pristine. In an ideal world a fine movie like this would get a full-scale restoration but alas we live in a far from perfect world. It’s a pity because the film was shot widescreen and in colour and with the wonderful Egyptian settings a restoration would pay spectacular dividends.

Valley of the Kings is a lavish and handsome production with well-executed action sequences and effective suspense. The standard of acting is rather better than is usual in 1950s Hollywood adventure flicks and the lead characters are at least somewhat three-dimensional. This movie is just great fun. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Smashing the Money Ring (1939)

In 1939 and 1940 Ronald Reagan starred in the four Brass Bancroft thrillers for Warner Brothers. These were enjoyable B-feature crime thrillers retailing the exploits of Secret Service agent Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft. Smashing the Money Ring was the third film in the series.

Bancroft and his partner “Gabby” Watters (Eddie Foy Jr) are on the trail of counterfeiters. A rather nasty hoodlum named Dice Matthews (Joe Downing) is running the racket and the phony money is being printed inside the state penitentiary. Dice figures it would be a swell idea to use the gambling ship operated by former mobster Steve Parker as a venue in which to pass the counterfeit greenbacks. Parker is all through with the rackets (the gambling ship is legitimate) and wants no part of it. The difficulty is that Dice Matthews is a vicious thug and his usual response to being thwarted is to have somebody rubbed out.

Parker comes up with a brilliant plan. He’ll squeal to the cops and he’ll avoid Dice’s vengeance by hiding out somewhere real safe for a month. And what could be a safer place than the state prison? Of course first he has to get himself into the prison but that’s easy - he’ll just slug a copper and get himself 30 days in the clink. The bonus here is that he’s always wanted to punch a policeman.

It all gets complicated and Brass himself has to go undercover as a convict to get himself into the penitentiary as well. Gabby is supposed to follow up leads involving the gambling ship but he spends more time pursuing Steve Parker’s attractive young daughter Peggy (Margot Stevenson). While Gabby is chasing skirt things start to get rough at the prison. More than just rough - people start getting shot which is not supposed to happen in jail.

The idea of a counterfeit racket operating inside a prison has been used in crime movies a number of times but it’s a good idea and in this case the script provides more than enough interest to maintain the viewer’s interest for the film’s very modest 57-minute running time. 

Director Terry O. Morse does a workmanlike job. He knows it’s a B-picture and his task is to get it done on time and on budget and to keep the action moving along. And there’s actually quite a lot action.

Brass Bancroft was an ideal role for the young Ronald Reagan. In this film he gets to be mostly likeable and heroic but then in the prison scenes he gets to do hardbitten tough guy stuff. And he manages it all with a certain aplomb.

The one great weakness of this series is that Eddie Foy Jr is a particularly lame and annoying comic relief actor. Luckily he gets less screen time than usual in this movie, and he’s less irritating than usual.

The supporting cast is competent and Joe Downing brings a nice mix of craziness and sadism to his role as Dice Matthews. Margot Stevenson is an adequate heroine.

One minor disappointment is that this film does not make use of the fact that Brass Bancroft is an aviator. A couple of the other Brass Bancroft films (Secret Service of the Air and Murder in the Air) feature airborne adventures.

The four Brass Bancroft movies are available on made-on-demand DVDs in the Warner Archive series in a two-disc pack. The transfers are excellent. There are no extras. All four movies are good solid crime thrillers making this pack a very worthwhile purchase for B-movie fans.

This is a better than average (and quite exciting) little programmer and Reagan gives his best performance of the series here. Smashing the Money Ring is certainly worth your time. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Vicious Circle (1957)

Vicious Circle, also released as The Circle, is a 1957 British crime thriller with a screenplay by Francis Durbridge.

When you see Francis Durbridge’s name on the credits you expect a convoluted plot, which is exactly what this film boasts. You also expect the plot to be skillfully constructed, and again that’s precisely what you get here. 

It starts in very typical Durbridge fashion. You take a very ordinary fellow and plunge him into a nightmare vortex of fear and suspicion. In this case the ordinary chap is Harley Street specialist Dr Howard Latimer (John Mills). Dr Latimer sees a patient who has a very odd story to tell - she found a dead body in a park but the body later disappeared. Still, patients with odd stories to tell are not all that unusual. On the same day he is asked by an American friend to meet a German film star at London Airport. named Geoffrey Windsor, a reporter who had wanted to interview him, offers him a lift to the airport. A busy day but nothing really special.

And then he gets back to his flat and finds a dead woman there. This body does not disappear. Latimer’s problem is that it seems that no-one is able (or willing) to back up any part of his story. Even worse it appears that some of the people he is relying on to back up his story don’t seem to exist. No newspaper in Fleet Street will admit to any knowledge of a reporter named Geoffrey Windsor. All of this naturally arouses the suspicions of Detective Inspector Dane (Roland Culver).

All of Latimer’s efforts to make sense of the mystery just leave him more confused and more desperate. To top it all off there’s a mysterious character called Brady (Wilfred Hyde-White) trying to blackmail him.

John Mills was at the top of his form in the 50s. The movies he made during this decade have mostly aged rather well, partly due to his very natural and rather laid-back style (although he could be intense when intensity was called for). His performances were always utterly convincing. Apart from MiIls this film boasts some remarkably fine actors among the supporting cast. Derek Farr as Latimer’s buddy Kenneth Palmer, Mervyn Johns as his colleague Dr Kimber and Noelle Middleton as his girlfriend Laura give fine performances. Wilfred Hyde-White is wonderful as always and Roland Culver sparkles as the remorseless but rather sympathetic Inspector Dane.

It’s the acting that to a very large degree carries this film. British film-makers really did had an extraordinary array of acting talent to draw upon at this time.

Producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas are best remembered for the Carry On comedies but in the 50s they were responsible for a number of successful thrillers. Thomas certainly can’t be faulted for the job he does here. He (perhaps wisely) doesn’t try anything too fancy.

I guess this movie could be considered to be vaguely in the Hitchcock style, although more low-key and lacking the spectacular visual set-pieces. The theme of the ordinary guy dragged into mystery and danger of which he has no clear comprehension works pretty well.

This movie is included in the Region 2 John Mills Centenary Collection DVD boxed set. It gets a very good transfer although there’s not much in the way of extras. 

Vicious Circle is a well-crafted mystery thriller, typical of the solid productions of the 1950s British film industry. A treat for Durbridge fans. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 24, 2017

On the Town (1949)

On the Town was the first directorial collaboration between Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and although it’s not quite as admired as Singin’ in the Rain it is regarded as one of the major postwar American musicals. Does it live up to its rather exalted reputation? In my view the answer is no, not quite, but it has its moments.

The plot is dead simple. Three sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin), have a 24-hour leave pass in New York City. They intend to have lots of fun, and fun will of course involve women.

Gabey falls hopelessly in love with a girl he sees on a poster in the subway. Brash lady cab driver Hildy falls for Chip while Ozzie hooks up with glamorous anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller).

The subway poster girl Ivy Smith who is this month’s Miss Turnstiles, this being some kind of promotion for the subway system. Being a small town boy who at this point in his life has never been to New York (or any big city) Gabey gets the idea into his head that Miss Turnstiles is some kind of huge celebrity. He thinks that she probably spends her time mixing with all the high society types. In fact Ivy Smith is an impoverished dance student who earns a precarious living as a cooch dancer at Coney Island. And far from being a sophisticated New Yorker she’s a small town girl from Meadowdale, Indiana (which just happens to be Gabey’s own home town).

Gabey only meets Ivy for a few brief moments, then loses her and he spends the rest of the day trying to find her again. 

My first problem with this movie is that generally speaking I really don’t like Gene Kelly. I admit he’s much less annoying than usual in this film and in fact to my surprise I found him to be actually fairly likeable. I do have a few issues with a couple of the cast members. Betty Garrett gives it her all as the sex-crazed cab driver but I quickly discovered that a little bit of Betty Garrett goes a long long way. Jules Munshin as Ozzie is exceptionally irritating. 

On the other hand Frank Sinatra is terrific as the rather shy Chip, bringing a real warmth and charm to the character. Ann Miller is of course fabulous.

This movie has the kind of feel that I always associate with Gene Kelly. It tries desperately hard to be clever. The dance sequences are certainly technically impressive. At times it’s more clever than enjoyable. Towards the end we get the kind of slightly pretentious ballet sequence that always appealed to Gene Kelly. 

The highlights are definitely the dances involving Ann Miller.

The music, by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens, is noisy and energetic but mostly rather forgettable.

The movie’s biggest strength is that the romance between Gabey and Ivy is quite touching.  It’s also pleasing that while they’re both small town innocents at large in the big city both characters are treated with respect. Gabey’s belief that Ivy must be a big celebrity betrays his naïvete, and Ivy’s desperate attempts to convince him that she really does move in the most exalted social circles are somewhat childish, but in both cases it’s made clear that this sort of innocence is not necessarily such a terrible thing.

In fact overall it’s a good-natured film about people who are essentially pretty decent. Even when Chip gets set up on a blind date with Hildy’s painfully plain buck-toothed flatmate he’s too nice a guy not to treat her respectfully.

On the Town is a bit of a mixed bag. Its main faults are that it tries too hard and the music is not great but the characters are sympathetic and appealing, it has some very amusing moments and it has both energy and some surprising charm. The delightful performances by Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller are major pluses. Recommended.

Monday, March 20, 2017

sci-fi classics - Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey

I've reviewed two classic science fiction  movies on my Cult Movie Reviews blog. Forbidden Planet is arguably the most admired sci-fi movies of the 1950s while Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is almost certainly the most admired of 1960s sci-fi films, providing a good opportunity for a back-to-back comparison. This is especially so since both movies are available on Blu-Ray and they're movies that really need to be seen in that format.

Here are the links to my reviews - Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943)

The Falcon and the Co-eds was the seventh of the sixteen RKO Falcon movies. Tom Conway starred as the debonair sleuth Tom Lawrence (known as the Falcon) and the result is eminently satisfactory B-movie entertainment.

Jane Harris, a pupil at the exclusive Blue Cliff Seminary for Girls, contacts the Falcon with a story that one of the teachers there has been murdered. The Falcon doesn’t take her story seriously but when she takes extreme measures to get his attention (by stealing his car) he decides that perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm to do a little investigating. 

The teacher supposedly died of heart failure but the Falcon is prepared to admit at least the possibility that there might have been more to it.

The initial clue that led Jane Harris to suspect murder came from another student, Marguerita Serena (Rita Corday). Marguerita is widely believed by to be clairvoyant and she had predicted that there would be a murder. Marguerita has other issues apart from her psychic powers. Her father was rumoured to have been insane and to have committed suicide and Margeurita is haunted by the fear of madness.

The Falcon discovers that several of the staff members of the college have things they wish to hide. There is some doubt as to whether Dr Anatole Graelich, who teaches psychology at Blue Cliff, entered the country legally. The behaviour of Vicky Gaines (Jean Brooks) is somewhat suspicious, as is the behaviour of music teacher Mary Phoebus (Isabel Jewell).

And Marguerita has predicted that another murder is about to be committed.

It all leads up to a tense and exciting cliff-top finale.

The hints of the supernatural, or the paranormal, are not allowed to overwhelm the story but they do add some interestingly spooky atmosphere.

Writer Ardel Wray provides a good solid mystery plot. William Clemens does a more than capable job directing and keep things moving along at a brisk pace. J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography, given the B-movie budgetary limitations, is quite impressive.

Tom Conway as the Falcon is suave and charming and has the necessary charisma. The supporting cast is quite strong and all the performances are effective.

Comic relief is a regrettable but inescapable fact of life in Hollywood B-features of this era. In this film the comic relief is provided by the blustering Inspector Timothy Donovan (Cliff Clark) and his bumbling subordinate Detective Bates (Edward Gargan) and they’re reasonaby amusing. Additional comic elements are contributed by the three daughters of the college’s caretaker. The three girls are known collectively as the Three Ughs and they’re a delight (and genuinely funny).

The Falcon and the Co-eds has been released as part of a Warner Archive Falcon boxed set. I caught this one on TCM. The TCM print is quite acceptable.

The Falcon and the Co-eds is a very worthy entry in the Falcon movie cycle. The balance between the mystery and the more light-hearted elements is just right and the whole thing is bright and breezy and thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The White Trap (1959)

The White Trap is a 1959 British crime thriller and while it’s very much a B-movie it’s a very very good B-movie that turns out to be not quite what was expected. And there is perhaps just a hint of film noir here.

Lee Patterson stars as Paul Langley, a man serving a prison sentence for a crime he claims he did not commit. Actually he isn’t spending much time serving his sentence - he keeps escaping. During his wartime service he made a number of daring escapes from German POW camps, and became quite a hero as a result. Escaping from plain ordinary British prisons is child’s play for Langley. It’s a game and he thoroughly enjoys it. Langley is most definitely not a violent prisoner and he’s always careful to make sure no-one gets hurt. The authorities are exasperated by his antics but even the prison governor can’t help feeling a certain sympathy for him.

Now Langley has a real reason to want to escape - his wife (to whom he is devoted) is about to have a baby and it’s likely to be a difficult and dangerous birth.

Escaping is easy. The hard part will be getting into the hospital to see his wife. Inspector Walters (Michael Goodliffe) is absolutely sure Langley will try to see his wife and he intends to be ready - he has men posted at various strategic points in the hospital. He has set a trap for Langley and he knows that Langley will have no choice other than to walk into it.

His sergeant is not convinced that Walters’ plan will work. Sergeant Morrison (Conrad Phillips) does not believe that Langley would be such a fool as to walk straight into a trap. This disagreement leads to a certain amount of tension between Inspector Walters and Sergeant Morrison.

Of course we know that Langley will try to get into the hospital, and despite all Inspector Walters’ elaborate precautions Langley is a slippery customer and it’s by no means certain who will come out on top in this game.

This is really as much of a prison escape movie as a conventional crime movie, and with Langley being a former war hero and a generally nice guy it really belongs in the daring escape against the odds genre (or at least it appears to at first).

To make things more interesting (and less predictable) both Inspector Walters and Sergeant Morrison are sympathetic characters as well.

Obviously a low budget movie can’t provide spectacular action escape set-pieces but Langley’s escapes are generally clever and well executed.

Sidney Hayers became a very prolific and very successful television director. He directed only a relative handful of feature films but that handful included some exceptionally interesting films. He does a fine job here, keeping the excitement level consistently high. The script, by Peter Barnes, is more than adequate.

Canadian-born Lee Patterson starred in an impressive number of British B-pictures during this period. It’s not difficult to see why he was a popular choice for these types of movies - he was good-looking, he had charm and he was a very competent actor. He’s excellent in this role - he seems like exactly the sort of guy who would have the bravado and the insane self-confidence to pull off so many escapes and we desperately want him to get away with it. 

Michael Goodliffe was one of those very solid character actors who was ideal for playing policemen, and could play such roles either very sympathetically or quite unsympathetically as occasion demanded. Conrad Phillips is equally good as the ambitious and somewhat frustrated Sergeant Morrison.

Although The White Trap has no Edgar Wallace connection whatsoever Network have included it as an extra in their Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume 2 DVD boxed set, and a very welcome extra it is. The transfer is anamorphic and extremely good.

The White Trap is a very well-crafted thriller with fine performances by Lee Patterson, Michael Goodliffe and Conrad Phillips, and it has the emotional hook of a living husband desperately trying to see his ailing wife. Langley is not just a man in a trap - he is a man who must place himself in a trap. Being the man he is, there is nothing else he can do. This gives the movie its slight film noir flavour. In fact you could even argue that Inspector Walters is trapped as well - trapped not by his emotions but by his remorseless sense of duty. This is really an excellent little movie. Very highly recommended.