Friday, May 25, 2018

The Sinister Man (1961)

All of the cheap Edgar Wallace movies turned out at Merton Park Studios in the early 60s are fun. The Sinister Man, released in 1961, is not just fun but it's also quite crazy.

It begins with the discovery of a body floating in the Thames. The body is that of Oxford academic Professor Raven and he has clearly been murdered. He had been the head of an archaeological research institute and when he disappeared the Kytang Wafers disappeared as well. The Kytang Wafers are three stones that had been fused together, containing inscriptions that may prove the existence of a very early Asian civilisation. The Kytang Wafers now have political importance as well since their existence is very inconvenient for one of the powerful neighbours of the small modern-day state of Kytang. That powerful neighbour has always argued that Kytang was never more than an insignificant province which should be re-absorbed as soon as possible.

Scotland Yard is under pressure. The Kytang Embassy wants the Kytang Wafers found. The  members of the research institute seem to be the most likely suspects. Another murder follows and Superintendent Wills (John Bentley) now has another clue. It seems that both murders appear to have been committed by someone skilled in karate, the deadly forbidden form of judo. That casts suspicion on one member of the institute in particular, Johnny Choto (Ric Young). Johnny Choto is Japanese so he is probably a karate adept.

The mystery element doesn’t stay a mystery for long but that’s OK because after all this is an Edgar Wallace adaptation and Wallace was known as a writer of thrillers rather than of mysteries.

The budget was much too small for allow for any genuine action scenes but the climactic fight scene (which naturally involves karate) is enjoyable.

John Bentley was one of those reliable English actors who made a fine hero in his younger days (playing dashing figures like the Toff and Paul Temple) and made an equally fine policeman in middle age. Patrick Allen overacts enjoyably as American archaeologist Nelson Pollard (he’s a suspect because he was captured in the Korean War so he could have been brainwashed by the communists), as does John Glyn-Jones as the institute’s deputy director (he’s a suspect also since he’s a Czech and therefore could be a communist agent). William Gaunt (later better known for the TV series The Champions) as another institute member who could be a suspect since he’s involved in a romantic triangle isn’t given enough to do but he’s still very solid.

Any self-respecting research institute naturally has to include at least one beautiful young woman. In this case it’s Elsa Marlowe (Jacqueline Ellis). Her job seems to be pretty much confined to being charming and beautiful. It’s great to see a brief appearance late in the movie by the always entertaining Burt Kwouk.

Director Clive Donner had a very up-and-down career which included quite a few spectacular flops. His approach in this film is a little eccentric but it’s interesting. He comes up with some nice compositions and a few cool camera angles.

Robert Banks Stewart, later to achieve great success as a television writer, was responsible for the slightly quirky screenplay.

This movie is part of Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 2 boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent.

The Sinister Man isn’t exactly a good movie but it has plenty of energy and a few intriguingly odd moments. I found it to be strangely appealing. It’s very Edgar Wallace and it’s very B-movie. Recommended.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Soldier of Fortune (1955)

Soldier of Fortune is a movie I’d never even heard of until now, which is odd since this 1955 20th Century-Fox adventure romance seems to be a fairly big-budget production with a couple of A-list stars (Clark Gable and Susan Hayward).

Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward) arrives in Hong Kong. She is looking for her husband. He’s a photojournalist who decided there would be a great opportunity for a story in China. Unfortunately he didn’t bother to get permission to enter the People’s Republic and since he departed from Hong Kong no-one has heard anything of him. Both the British authorities in Hong Kong and the American consul have made enquiries but have hit a brick wall. Mrs Hoyt is however a woman who does not give up easily.

There is one person in Hong Kong who might have the kinds of connections that Mrs Hoyt needs to uncover the truth about her husband’s fate. That man is Hank Lee (Clark Gable). Inspector Merryweather (Michael Rennie) assures Mrs Hoyt that Hank Lee is a smuggler and in fact little more than a gangster, albeit a very successful one and one who is careful not to do anything illegal in Hong Kong itself.

Hank Lee is willing to help Jane Hoyt to get her husband out of China, but his motives are rather complicated. He’s fallen for Jane in a big way but he wants to win her fair and square which means he has to rescue her husband. Then she can choose, either Hank or her husband.

The plot takes a while to reach top gear. There’s a lot of time spent on Mrs Hoyt’s misadventures in Hong Kong as she tries to discover the facts about her husband without Hank’s help and there a fair bit of time spent on Hank’s disreputable cronies who provide some comic relief. The romance angle between Mrs Hoyt and Hank also starts to develop. Jane really is not quite sure what she’s doing. Hank has swept her off her feet but she’s not prepared to take the step of walking away from her marriage. She wants to be loyal to her husbands but she wants Hank as well and obviously she can’t have both. Hank is just as conflicted. He really does want her but he’s determined to be honourable about it. For a crook he’s remarkably moral and he’s also a bit of a soft touch.

Finally however it is going to be necessary to take some pretty risky steps to rescue that missing husband. It’s a bit of a harebrained scheme and Inspector Merryweather is not the sort of man to get mixed up in such nonsense but nonetheless he does get mixed up in it.

Ernest K. Gann adapted the screenplay from his own novel. The screenplay seems to be the big problem. It’s unfocused and it takes too long to get to the action, and the romance doesn’t really sizzle since both Hank Lee and Jane Hoyt are holding back trying not to get too involved. So it’s an adventure romance but it doesn’t have enough adventure and it doesn’t have enough romance. The chemistry between Gable and Hayward is almost there, but not quite. The most interesting part of the movie is the uneasy friendship between Hank and Inspector Merryweather with Gable and Michael Rennie working very well together.

Gable was 54 when he made this picture, and a rather weatherbeaten 54 at that. He’s still Clark Gable though, he still has the mischievous charm and he still has the charisma.

Gene Barry plays the missing husband and unfortunately doesn’t get a great deal to do.

The Hong Kong location shooting is very impressive. The movie was shot in Cinemascope and in colour. This is certainly a very handsome movie.

For me the best thing about the movie is the evocation of a lost world. Hong Kong under British rule, the whole expatriate thing with Europeans slowly going to seed in the tropics, it’s a strange, exotic and glamorous world and it’s all gone now.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers a good anamorphic transfer.

Soldier of Fortune had plenty of potential but the surprisingly flabby script lets it down a bit and director Edward Dmytryk doesn’t quite manage to generate enough of a spark to ignite the story. It does look great and the acting is very good and it’s reasonably entertaining so it’s worth a rental.

It's interesting to compare this one with Lady of the Tropics, with similar settings and vaguely similar themes. Neither film is a complete success but both are of interest.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Lady of the Tropics (1939)

Lady of the Tropics pairs two of the most gorgeous stars of the era, Robert Taylor and Hedy Lamarr. It’s a love story with an exotic setting and it has the further advantage of the famous MGM gloss. Which may be why this 1939 romantic melodrama isn’t generally all that highly thought of. There seems to be a suspicion that it’s a movie that is pretty but somewhat empty (and it’s unfortunate and in my view somewhat unfair that both of the movie’s stars have a bit of a reputation for being pretty but somewhat empty as well). This is very much an MGM film and it has the studio’s characteristic look and feel. It really does look superb.

Bill Carey (Robert Taylor) is young, well-educated, good-looking, charming and penniless. Being penniless isn’t too much of a problem. He survives by being a kind of professional house-guest, his accomplishments ensuring him a welcome among the wealthy. There is no doubt that sooner or later he will snare himself an heiress. In fact he’s well on the way to securing such an heiress when the movie opens.

At the moment he’s not so much a house-guest as a yacht-guest. The yacht in question has called at Saigon and it is there that Bill encounters a stunningly beautiful French girl, Manon DeVargnes (Hedy Lamarr). The problem is that Manon is “not quite French” - she is half-French and half-Vietnamese. She moves uneasily between the European and Vietnamese worlds but is not at home in either world. She would very much like to be part of the European world. It is something to which she has given a great deal of thought. To become part of the European world she will need to find a husband who is both European and wealthy. Bill Carey would have been ideal if only he had not been penniless.

Manon knows it would be very foolish to become involved with Bill. It cannot end well for either of them. But of course they fall in love anyway. They intend to get married and Bill will take Manon back to America with him. Things do not turn out so smoothly. Bill and Manon find themselves trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare when Manon is refused a passport.

This was a movie that was always going to have to tread carefully as far as the Production Code was concerned. Apart from being not quite French there is also the faint suspicion that Manon might not be quite respectable either. There is also a definite suggestion that rules of morality may have been slightly relaxed in the tropics. Lady of the Tropics does its best to deal sensitively with its subject matter although Ben Hecht’s screenplay does get a bit preachy, always a problem with Hollywood movies.

Modern viewers are likely to focus on the doomed inter-racial romance but the plot is actually not quite that straightforward. It’s Manon’s difficulties with the French authorities that drive the plot to its inevitable conclusion but it’s worth noting that these difficulties are caused more by the not quite respectable aspect of Manon’s character than the not quite French aspect. Whether she is actually a courtesan or has simply been the mistress of powerful men is not entirely clear. It’s also worth noting that Manon does have a habit of being economical with the truth, and even out-and-out deceitful. That’s what makes the movie a bit more interesting - Manon is not just an innocent victim of social prejudice, she has created some of her own problems and when she feels trapped her instinct is to lie. She’s a sympathetic but very much a flawed heroine.

One of the great attractions of classic movies is the way they evoke vanished worlds. The world of French Indo-China, indeed the whole world of tropical colonial outposts, is certainly a vanished world and it’s a seductive and magical world as well. And of course this is not Saigon in French Indo-China in 1939, this is Saigon in Hollywood in 1939, so it’s a vanished world that perhaps only ever existed in the imagination anyway. To me that just makes it more seductive and magical.

Robert Taylor seems to me to be a terribly underrated actor. He got a lot of lightweight roles but his performances were always more than adequate and on those occasions when he landed meatier roles he was often very impressive. This is not one of his more demanding roles, being pure melodrama, but I can’t really see how his performance can be faulted.

Hedy Lamarr often ended up in roles that required her to play the exotic beauty, probably because she was very good at doing just that. In those days Hollywood didn’t worry too much about accuracy when casting exotic roles so when they needed someone to play a half-French half-Vietnamese girl they decided that since Hedy Lamarr was Viennese and Jewish she’d be ideal! I’m inclined to think that there was a lot to be said for Hollywood’s approach. Lamarr doesn’t look Eurasian but she surely looks beautiful and she has a slightly detached slightly low-key acting approach that makes her seem like a woman who is not entirely comfortable in her own skin, and like a woman who is consciously playing a role. For me that makes her performance work and that’s all I care about.

Lady of the Tropics has been released on made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series. I caught this one on TCM so I can’t comment on the DVD transfer.

I’m always suspicious of Hollywood movies dealing with “social problems” since they’re almost invariably clumsy, obvious and heavy-handed but Lady of the Tropics is less heavy-handed than most. It is certainly overheated and melodramatic but for me those are features not bugs. It looks splendid and Lamarr’s odd but interesting performance adds interest. I think this one is worth na look. Recommended.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Night Heaven Fell (1958)

Brigitte Bardot made some decidedly quirky movies during her career, movies that often don’t fit neatly into genre pigeonholes. The Night Heaven Fell (Les bijoutiers du clair de lune) came out in 1958 and at first it seems like it’s going to be a fairly light-hearted romance. It doesn’t take long before it takes a much darker turn.

Ursula (Bardot) is an innocent young girl fresh from convent school and eager to discover love. She’s spending some time with her aunt and uncle in Spain. The uncle, Comte Miguel de Ribera (José Nieto), is something of a lecher. In fact he has just been responsible for driving one of the village girls to drown herself in the well. This has earned him the enmity of the girl’s brother Lambert (Stephen Boyd). The comte also has a sadistic streak combined with ruthlessness and a certain degree of physical cowardice.

Ursula doesn’t think much of her uncle right from the start and she thinks even less of him when he tries to ravish her.

Ursula has stumbled into a web of romantic intrigues and she’s somewhat bewildered. The rising tensions end in murder and the murder is complicated by betrayal and Lambert finds himself on the run from the police, accompanied by Ursula.

So this is now definitely a couple on the run movie, but it’s not the kind of couple on the run movie that you would get from a Hollywood film-maker (or even a British film-maker for that matter). There’s no action. There’s a growing sense of entrapment though - we feel that Lambert and Ursula are unlikely to escape in the long run. The odds just seem to be stacked against them.

The Night Heaven Fell is a million miles away from film noir in style but when it comes to the content there is a definite film noir feel. Lambert is not a bad man and he doesn’t deserve to be hunted down like an animal. He makes some poor decisions and fate is against him and he’s not a strong enough character to resist his fate. Ursula cannot avoid her fate either - she has chosen to pursue love even if it leads her to destruction.

The film also has a certain affinity to the western genre, which may perhaps be due more to the scenery than anything else.

By the time Roger Vadim directed this film he and Bardot had already divorced although they would go on to make several further movies together.

Almost nobody has a good word to say about Roger Vadim as a director. One can’t help feeling that many critics disapprove of Vadim himself so much that there is no way they are ever going to be able to view his movies in an unprejudiced manner. And why is Vadim so disapproved of? Partly because he was essentially a non-political film-maker in an era in which critics were increasingly besotted by political film-makers. He made movies that looked gorgeous, in an era that increasingly worshipped ugliness and squalor. He made movies that took an unashamed joy in female beauty, in an era in which sex and nudity were considered by critics to be fine as long as they were treated in a suitably sleazy manner. Vadim seemed like a dinosaur, and even worse a dinosaur who believed in beauty and romance.

Vadim’s movies are certainly uneven but they’re often odd and interesting, such as the rather wonderful Please, Not Now (1961) and the intriguing psycho-sexual melodrama Love on a Pillow (1962). Both of which incidentally starred Bardot.

The Night Heaven Fell benefits from some gorgeous location work in Spain. This is quite a stunning movie. The Spanish setting not only looks great but it works.

I have a definite soft spot for Brigitte Bardot. She was at her best in romantic comedies but was willing to take on more serious roles. Her quirky performances tend to be most successful in films that are themselves slightly quirky.

Alida Valli adds the right touch of thwarted passion as the aunt. Stephen Boyd is quite good - he’s often dismissed as wooden but his detached performance conveys the essential fatalism of his character.

I personally enjoyed The Night Heaven Fell quite a bit but it’s a movie that I’m hesitant to recommend. Vadim is an acquired taste and this movie is very much one that you’re either going to love or hate, and I’d have to be honest and admit that most people will hate it. There’s a kind of existential emotional detachment to it which will annoy many viewers. It’s also a movie that can be (and has been) lambasted for its lack of realism. I’m inclined to think that the unrealistic feel is deliberate - that it’s aiming at a mythic or even a fairy tale quality. This is most assuredly not a conventional action-packed couple on the run thriller - it’s a man and a woman lost in the wilderness with a donkey and a pet piglet. There is unquestionably quite a bit of religious symbolism in this story. I think it’s an extremely interesting movie but your mileage might vary very considerably!

The Night Heaven Fell was released on DVD in Region 1 but the disc seems to be a bit hard to find these days. I can’t comment on the disc quality since I caught this movie on television (luckily in a rather nice letterboxed print).

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Night Must Fall (1937)

Night Must Fall was based on a hit play by Emlyn Williams, and that is a large part of the problem. This 1937 MGM movie never really escapes from its stage origins.

It has a classic traditional murder mystery setup. Mrs Bransom (Dame May Whitty) is a wealthy old lady who lives in a fairly isolated house in the country. She is an invalid, although it seems obvious that he is an invalid by choice rather than force of circumstances. Being an invalid makes it that much easier for her to tyrannise her household staff. That staff includes her long-suffering niece Olivia (Rosalind Russell). Olivia is an odd girl, perhaps too imaginative for her own good.

There’s been some excitement in the district, with the police searching for a woman who has gone missing. It’s clear that the police have reason to suspect that the woman has met with foul play.

The latest addition to Mrs Bransom’s household is a plausible young man named Danny (Robert Montgomery). He has talked his way into a job. Danny is a young man who fancies he can talk his way into anything. His methods are extremely crude but nonetheless effective - lots of flattery and shameless appeals to sentimentality. These methods prove to be spectacularly successful wth the old lady.

Danny has less success with Olivia. She is convinced right from the start that Danny is no good and a fraud and generally bad news, and it has to be admitted that anyone with any sense would see though him as easily as Olivia does.

Olivia not only suspects Danny of being no good. She even suspects he may be a murderer.

The plot unfolds at a pace that can only be described as glacial. The characters talk. And they talk and they talk and they talk. They never stop talking. The talking does nothing to advance the plot - the direction the story is going to take is obvious from the start. The talking does nothing to flesh out the characters. We know what kinds of people these are within the first five minutes, and our initial impressions turn out to be perfectly accurate. It’s just talking for the sake of talking.

That would be bad enough, but there’s also Robert Montgomery’s excruciatingly stagey performance. Rosalind Russell is rather better. She still talks too much but at least she understands that she’s not on stage. Dame May Whitty’s character is embarrassing.

John van Druten wrote the script. At least half of the dialogue should have gone straight into the wastepaper basket.

Richard Thorpe was already in 1937 an extremely experienced director but for some reason he is content to shoot this movie pretty much as a filmed play.

There’s no mystery at all. There’s also no effective suspense. On the rare occasions when there might have been just a little suspense it is ruined by interminable unnecessary dialogue.

Even the sets are rather dull.

I caught this movie on TCM. It’s available on DVD in the Warner Archive Collection.

Night Must Fall is an object lesson in how not to adapt a stage play, and how not to make a mystery thriller. Every mistake that it is possible to make was made by the makers of this movie.

This is a movie to avoid.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Act of Violence (1948)

The 1948 MGM film noir Act of Violence belongs to the sub-genre of crazy WW2 vet noirs. It gets off to a very impressive start. A rather rumpled and rather surly guy with a bad limp (played by Robert Ryan) is stalking Frank Enley (Van Heflin). The limping man has a gun and it’s pretty obvious that he intends to kill Enley, but we have no idea why. The fact that we don’t know why adds considerably to the suspense and the brooding feel of menace.

We do have a few clues. Enley is a World War 2 vet and he was an officer. Given that the movie was made in 1948 it’s reasonable to surmise that the limping man served under Enley during the war and has a grudge against him, and he believes it’s a big enough grudge to be worth killing for.

Enley is seriously spooked so we can further surmise that he’s convinced the limping man really does intend to kill him.

It’s a nicely effective rather minimalist opening sequence and director Fred Zinnemann is in no hurry to give us a full explanation, preferring to slowly build up the backstory by indirect means. We’re nearly halfway through the film before we get the explanation and even then we can’t be entirely sure what happened - we have two accounts of the crucial events during the war but neither account could be said to be coming from an impartial witness.

I’m being deliberately very vague about the plot because one of the things I like about this movie is that the two protagonists are introduced at the start and we draw certain conclusions about their respective characters. And then we find out things that force us to totally rethink how we feel about these two men. My feeling is that the less you know about the plot going into the film the more effectively this technique works.

We are definitely in noir territory. Take a guy who’s a fairly regular guy but kind of weak morally or psychologically, the kind who’s likely to make one bad mistake because he’s trying to find the easy way out, then tighten the screws on him and watch him sink into the noir quicksand. I’m not going to tell you which of the lead characters this applies to but this guy really is sinking into that quicksand.

Robert Ryan was of course always the perfect choice if you wanted an actor to play  someone who was psychologically tortured, damaged and dangerous. In this film he exudes menace right from the start and there’s a frightening implacability about his stalking of Elney.

Van Heflin was also pretty good at playing troubled characters and Frank Elney most definitely qualifies as troubled. And tortured. And damaged.

A very very young Janet Leigh plays Elney’s rather sweet but worried wife and her performance is quite effective. Mary Astor plays the world-weary and decidedly non-respectable Pat. I find most of Astor’s performances to be a bit odd but the strange thing is that more often than not they work.

I’ve never had a particularly high opinion of Fred Zinnemann’s work although I was very impressed by The Day of the Jackal. After seeing Act of Violence I’m inclined to think that Zinnemann was at his best doing dark moody suspense pictures. This movie starts out tense and that tension never lets up.

Cinematographer Robert Surtees provides the necessary noir visual style.

There’s lots of angst here and moral ambiguity as well. We have characters who do bad things but they don’t do them because they want to, they just can’t help themselves. So we have plenty of characteristic film noir self-pity as well.

Act of Violence was released as part of the Warner Home Video Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 and as a made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series. I caught this movie on TCM so I can’t comment on the quality of the DVD releases.

Act of Violence is an emotional roller-coaster ride and it’s a full-blooded excursion into the noir depths. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Captain Kidd (1945)

Any movie with Charles Laughton as a pirate has to be worth a look, and Captain Kidd (released in 1945) turns out to be pretty good.

William Kidd was one of the most famous of all pirates, and one of the most controversial, the controversy stemming from the fact that there is considerable doubt as to whether Kidd really was technically a pirate at all.

In the movie we’re left in no doubt that Kidd (played of course by Laughton) is a cut-throat and a remarkably devious rogue. He is also ambitious. He wants to buy his way into the aristocracy and that’s going to require a great deal of money. It’s also obviously going to require him to appear to have obtained the money by legal means. So when he sets out on   his latest voyage, armed with a letter of marque (authorising him to attack ships of enemy states) signed by the King, his intention is to engage in piracy whilst appearing to be acting within the letter of the law.

For this voyage he selects his crew with great care. They are all prisoners from Newgate Prison, all awaiting execution for piracy, and all of them guaranteed to be loyal since they’ve been promised a royal pardon if they survive the voyage.

His officers are even bigger rogues than the crew. They are pirates who have served with Kidd before. They have no scruples whatsoever.

Kidd is a man who always has some dishonest but profitable scheme in mind. He is not the only one making schemes. Orange Povy (John Carradine) has plans of his own and he knows Kidd extremely well. He believes he can match wits with him.

Jose Lorenzo (Gilbert Roland) is another of the officers with his own agenda. And then there’s Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), something of a mystery man and the object of much suspicion on the part of his fellow officers, and especially on the part of the Captain. Lorenzo and Mercy will also try to mach wits with Kidd.

Things get more complicated after Kidd’s rendezvous with the Quedagh Merchant, a ship he is supposed to escort through the pirate-infested waters near Madagascar. The Quedagh Merchant is carrying treasure of immense value, and it is also carrying the beautiful young Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton). The challenge for Kidd is to get his hands on the treasure without appearing to have committed an act of piracy. He also has plans for Lady Anne, and he’s not the only one.

Captain Kidd keeps a list of names hidden in a secret drawer in his cabin. It’s a list of people who are or have been accomplices in his schemes, and who feel themselves entitled to a share of the loot. The list is distressingly long. It seems a great pity to have to divide the loot so many ways. It would be much safer, more convenient and more profitable if that list of names could be reduced to a more manageable level. Kidd has plans to do just this.

Charles Laughton is in magnificent form. This is overacting taken to the most delightfully extreme levels. He manages to be both horrifyingly amoral and oddly likeable, and also very very amusing. Kidd’s attempts to turn himself into a gentleman provide a good deal of fun. He has hired a valet, Shadwell (Reginald Owen) to teach him the finer points of gentlemanly behaviour. This proves to be quite a challenge for Shadwell.

The supporting cast is very strong, with John Carradine being wonderfully sinister.

Rowland V. Lee was a competent director and does a solid job despite having to work with a somewhat limited budget. With Charles Laughton in full flight there’s never the slightest danger of things becoming boring. The screenplay plays fast and loose with history but it gives Laughton the kind of dialogue he can sink his teeth into. There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s enough to keep the viewer’s interest.

Captain Kidd is in the public domain and there are therefore a number of DVD releases of varying quality. I can’t comment on these discs since I caught this movie on broadcast television (with the print being in reasonable condition).

This would have been a pretty enjoyable pirate adventure anyway, with plenty of nasty plot twists and a gallery of colourful rogues. It’s Charles Laughton’s performance that lifts it to a higher level. For Laughton fans, or for pirate movie fans, it’s pretty much a must-see movie. Highly recommended.