Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Girls’ Apartment (L'appartement des filles, 1963)

The Girls’ Apartment (L'appartement des filles) is a lightweight 1963 French romantic comedy combined with crime thriller. French comedy is something that I consider to be an acquired taste but this one’s not too bad.

Tibère (Sami Frey) is a good looking and very personable young man and as the film begins he is hanging about the airport in Paris. He needs an airline stewardess. He needs an airline stewardess very badly. Not for the reasons you might think, but because he has a job lined up for which a stewardess would be peculiarly suited. Tibère is a gold smuggler. He’s a good-natured and charming gold smuggler, but he is a criminal nonetheless.

He finds Eléna (Sylva Koscina). He smooth talks his way back to her apartment where he discovers that he’s found the mother lode. In this apartment live no less than three stewardesses. It’s just a matter of deciding which one to pick. Tibère is sure this will no problem. He has sublime confidence in his ability to persuade girls to do things.

Eléna is a sweet girl but quite crazy, in an adorably feminine way. The other two girls, Lolotte (Renate Ewert) and Mélanie (Mylène Demongeot), are just as crazy and just as adorable.

All three girls have boyfriends but of course they don’t let such details interfere with their love lives (this is Paris after all).

When the girls discover that Tibère is a gangster they are delighted. Gangsters are so sexy. All three would be thrilled to do some gold smuggling. Tibère eventually settles on Mélanie, or rather Mélanie convinces him that he has chosen her. In fact Mélanie has her own reasons for doing this and Tibère is likely to be less than pleased when he finds out what her reasons are.

Before the gold smuggling plot really kicks in we get the usual series of romantic misunderstandings and misadventures as Tibère tries to bed all three girls none of whom seem likely to put up much resistance, although the boyfriends do cramp their style just a little.

Once the crime sub-plot takes over there’s a bit of excitement but it’s all handled in a very light-hearted way. We have no doubts whatsoever that no-one is actually going to get hurt and we are equally confident that love will triumph. We have a pretty fair idea that when love does triumph it will involve Mélanie and Tibère.

This was 1963 so while it’s trying to be slightly naughty it’s really all very innocent. There is absolutely no nudity and the sex scenes are what you used to get in 1940s movies, in other words there are aren’t any but you do know when the camera cuts away that something is going to happen. The movie’s mildly risque but actually rather innocent tone is quite appealing. The risque elements come from the situations. There’s virtually no sexual innuendo in the dialogue.

In fact the dialogue might have benefited from having just a bit more bite to it. The plot is thin but it’s enough to sustain what is after all basically a very light romantic comedy. As to the comedy, it’s more of the amusing variety rather than the laugh-out-loud variety but it has a few good moments.

Sami Frey makes a convincing charming rogue. The three girls are delightful. Mylène Demongeot is not as well-known in English-speaking countries as she is on the Continent but she makes a wonderful and very likeable leading lady. Sylva Koscina (another actress much better known in Europe) is even more engaging as the gloriously ditzy and incredibly cute Eléna.

This was one of many collaborations between director Michel Deville and screenwriter Nina Companeez, collaborations that included movies like The Bear and the Doll. They made romantic comedies that may not have been brilliant but were at least quite entertaining.

This is very much a feel good movie. The main reason for watching is the joy of seeing the three lead actresses putting everything they’ve got into their performances and looking lovely while doing so. It’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable of spending a bit under an hour and a half. The Girls’ Apartment is worth a look if you don’t set your expectations too high.

This movie is available as part of a very expensive Michel Deville DVD boxed set but that sadly appears to be its only appearance on DVD.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

Charlie Chan in Panama is a 1940 entry in 20th Century-Fox’s prolific Charlie Chan B-movie series. It stars Sidney Toler as Chan.

This is a spy mystery rather than a straight murder mystery although of course there will be murder as well.

Charlie Chan is working undercover in Panama City (although why he should be involved in counter-espionage work is never explained). The city is full of spies and the US fleet is about to pass through the Canal. Those spies are certain to try to sabotage the fleet!

A US government agent is murdered just as he is about to give Charlie vital information. The agent had just flown in and the circumstances make it almost certain that the killer was a passenger on that sea-plane.

The passengers include stuffy Englishman Cliveden Compton (Lionel Atwill), a prim middle-aged schoolteacher who is terribly excited by the wickedness of Panama City, smooth-talking cabaret proprietor Manolo (Jack La Rue), a mysterious Egyptian, a pretty young Czech refugee named Kathi Lenesch (Jean Rogers), a rather nondescript clean-cut American guy and a stereotypically teutonic professor from Vienna.

Everyone in Panama City is in the grip of spy fever. And anyone expressing even the mildest interest in the comings and goings of the American fleet can find himself very quickly arrested as a spy - and this includes not just Charlie Chan but his exasperating offspring Jimmy Chan as well!

What the authorities do know is that a notorious German spy is at work in the city. He’s not actually identified as German (that would have been a bit naughty since the US wasn’t at war with Germany in 1940) but he has a very German name and the audience presumably would have had no doubts as to his nationality. The problem is that no-one knows what this spy looks like. Being a spy he is undoubtedly incredibly cunning and a master of disguise!

The only way Charlie can trap the spy is to set a trap for him, but he will have to use himself and all the other suspects as live bait.

The identity of the master spy seems obvious right from the start but to their credit screenwriters John Francis Larkin and Lester Ziffren do manage to spring a surprise on us in the last reel.

This movie is pure wartime propaganda. The fact that the United States wasn’t actually at war at the time didn’t diminish Hollywood’s war fever in the slightest. The propaganda gets a bit heavy-handed at times. On the other hand the spy paranoia does add some interest and some glamour to the story, and some danger - the enemy agents have plans involving not just bombs but bubonic plague.

Sidney Toler is in fine form. The support cast is pretty good, with Lionel Atwill being enigmatic and possibly sinister and Jean Rogers making a fairly effective European Woman of Mystery while being rather sweet and helpless as well. Victor Sen Young’s comic relief is bearable.

This is one of no less than seven movies in Fox’s Charlie Chan volume 5 boxed set. Charlie Chan in Panama gets an excellent transfer. Unlike some of the earlier Chan releases this one does not have very much at all in the way of extras - just a trailer and an image gallery. But when you’re getting seven movies in one set it’s a bit churlish to complain about the paucity of extras.

Charlie Chan in Panama is a solid enough entry in the Chan cycle, with a touch of exotic glamour (naturally all done in the studio or the backlot) and some excitement. Recommended.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Queen Bee (1955)

Queen Bee, released by Columbia in 1955, is an outrageously overheated but wonderfully entertaining melodrama with Joan Crawford delivering one of her most memorable performances.

The Phillips family are southern aristocracy, wealthy mill-owners with immense pride. Avery Phillips (Barry Sullivan) is the nominal head of the family. The actual head of the family is his wife Eva. Eva is no southern belle. She’s a Yankee, a fact that will turn out to be quite important.

Eva’s cousin Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) is the penniless poor relation who has been invited to stay. Eva’s explanation for this move is that she is lonely. We might be sceptical, but it might be true. Jennifer is a nice girl but hopelessly innocent and naïve. She is overwhelmed by Eva’s apparent kindness, and by her charm and glamour.

Nonetheless it soon becomes evident that all is not well in the Phillips household. Eva’s children have nightmares. Avery’s sister Carol is engaged to be married but is too scared to tell Eva. Avery is drunk most of the time. The man Carol is to marry is Judson Prentiss (John Ireland) and for a man soon to be married he seems irritable and morose.

Jennifer is naïve but she isn’t stupid and slowly she puts the pieces together. Carol had told her that Eva is like a queen bee who stings all her rivals to death and Jennifer begins to realise how true this is. Eva’s manipulations are breathtakingly blatant but they work because she knows what she wants and she will use any methods, any methods at all, to achieve her ends. At the moment her project is to prevent Carol’s marriage. Eva hopes to rekindle an old romance with Jud Prentiss. Whether she really wants Jud or whether she just wants him because Carol wants him is never made clear but given Eva’s personality both possibilities are plausible. And Eva has stolen other women’s men before. She likes doing that. It reassures her that she is irresistible to men. Especially now that the years are creeping up on her.

Of course Eva’s manipulations are going to lead to tragedy. The only question is, will there be any survivors by the time Eva has finished?

It’s an extraordinary performance by Crawford. She goes way over the top but she never loses control. Crawford understood melodrama and she knew exactly how far she could push a performance. She could push it very far indeed.

What’s interesting is that although Eva is one of the screen’s most horrifying monstrous women Crawford does show us the other side to the story. Eva has always felt that as a Yankee she was never going to be accepted, and not being as blue-blooded as the Phillips family made her even more of an outsider. She is a frightened lonely woman. She is terrified by the passing of the years and terrified of losing her power over men because that’s all she has. Crawford does not exactly make her sympathetic but at least we can understand how she became a monster and that makes her more human. And human monsters are more interesting than inhuman ones.

Barry Sullivan and John Ireland are both excellent as the two men who have been Eva’s playthings. They hate the way Eva plays with them but they don’t have the strength of character to do anything about it. They are weak men, but they are perhaps not entirely spineless. We have the feeling that if Eva keeps pushing she might push them into reclaiming their pride and taking a stand. It’s not a certainty, but it’s a possibility. Avery is a hopeless drunk but he has an odd streak of stubbornness.

Ranald MacDougall wrote and directed Queen Bee. As a director he’s no more than competent but as a writer he’s top notch. The script is peppered with deliciously bitchy dialogue and he clearly understands what melodrama is all about.

Queen Bee would make a great double bill with Crawford’s slightly earlier (1950) melodrama Harriet Craig.

The Columbia DVD has no extras worth noting but it offers a fine anamorphic transfer.

Crawford’s venomous performance makes Queen Bee glorious entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Make Mine Mink (1960)

Make Mine Mink is a charming feelgood 1960 British comedy starring the great Terry-Thomas. This time he’s the leader of a gang of very unlikely crooks.

Dame Beatrice Appleby (Athene Seyler) is an elderly lady who devoted herself to charity work. Or at least she did until her money ran out. She supplements her income by taking in lodgers, and a motley collection they are. There’s Major Albert Rayne, for whom the war years were the best years of his life. Of course the war years were not all that dangerous for him, since he commanded a mobile bath unit. There’s the seriously scatterbrained Miss Pinkerton (Elspeth Duxbury), held together by regular doses of her nerve tonic. And there’s the very formidable Nanette Parry (Hattie Jacques).

Dame Beatrice can only afford one servant. Lily (Billie Whitelaw) is devoted to the old lady, as well she might be. When Lily got out of prison Dame Beatrice have her a chance.

Now Lily has got herself into trouble once again. She wanted to give Dame Beatrice a present and when a neighbour, in the midst of a furious argument with his wife, hurled an extremely valuable mink coat out of the window Lily retrieved it. So she didn’t exactly steal the coat. Not exactly. But the police might well misunderstand her actions.

There’s only one thing for Dame Beatrice and her lodgers to do. They have to return the coat. An undertaking which proves even more challenging than stealing a coat. Major Rayne realises immediately that the matter must be approached as a military operation. In actual fact it’s more like a comedy of errors but somehow they manage to pull it off.

It occurs to them that if they can return a mink coat successfully under such difficult circumstances then they could just as easily steal one. Not for gain of course. Same Beatrice’s charities always need money. So it wouldn’t really be doing anything terribly wrong. So they decide to give it a go and against all the odds they pull off a spectacular robbery.

And they discover that they like doing this sort of thing a great deal. They suddenly feel alive again.  They’re no longer a bunch of superannuated eccentrics. They’re daring thieves, but with a touch of Robin Hood. Soon they’re the most successful gang in London. They’re complete amateurs but that’s why they succeed - their methods are so outrageously bizarre that the police are baffled.

The problem is Lily. She’s the only actual criminal (or ex-criminal) in the household and she takes a very old-fashioned view of such things. She actually thinks stealing is wrong. She also understands that the police tend to take a dim view of thieving, even for good causes. To make things more awkward Lily is dating a policeman.

It’s a recipe for non-stop fun and that’s what this movie delivers. There’s a nice mix of verbal and visual humour. There are a few mildly risque gags, but they’re actually funny. The robberies are inspired lunacy. Everything always goes wrong but somehow this gang always seems to get away with it. The scene in which the Major tries to fence for their stolen goods is a wonderful comic set-piece.

Terry-Thomas is best-remembered for roles as dastardly villains and shameless cads but he was equally adept at playing well-meaning sympathetic bumblers and that’s how he plays Major Rayne. In fact all of the characters are both sympathetic and interesting. We genuinely care what happens to them, although this movie is very careful to avoid any hints of mawkish sentimentality. And the characters are played by a galaxy of British comic talent. Hattie Jacques shines, as always. Look out for Kenneth Williams in a minor part as a very up-market fence. Billie Whitelaw is essentially the straight-woman, playing the only sane member of the household, and she manages to do it in an oddly sexy way.

Make Mine Mink is absolutely delightful. Sheer joy from start to finish. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Strip (1951)

The Strip is an all-singing all-dancing glossy 1951 MGM film noir. If your first thought is that a film noir musical just isn’t going to work then you’d be at least partly correct. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s by no means a total loss.

It starts in classic film noir style with a guy picked up by the police as a suspect in a murder. He then tells his story in an extended flashback.

Stanley Maxton (Mickey Rooney) had cracked up during his Korean War service but he recovers to be discharged and heads off to LA hoping to resuscitate his career as a musician. Two chance encounters in cars will change his life forever.

Firstly he meets Sonny Johnson (James Craig) when Johnson’s car accidentally runs him off the road. Sonny is very apologetic and not only offers to replace Stanley’s drum kit which was smashed in the accident, he also offers him a job. An extremely well-paid job. Sonny is a businessman. His business is not exactly legal. In fact it’s totally illegal. Stanley doesn’t mind that. The pay is good and he’s anxious to earn as much money as he can as quickly as possible so he can buy a club of his own. Stanley’s willingness to accept a job that he knows is illegal is his first step on the road to ruin. He just doesn’t quite have the moral fibre to say no to easy money.

The second encounter is much more disastrous. He meets Jane Tafford (Sally Forrest). Jane is as cute as a button but this girl raises so many red flags that you have to wonder how any man with a lick of sense would get mixed up with her. Jane wants to be a movie star. That is all she wants out of life. Nothing else matters. She has tried to make it on the strength of her rather slight talents and hasn’t made it. Now she’s decided that she is going to make it, no matter what she has to do in order to do so. If it means sleeping her way to the top that’s no problem. To Jane men are just a means to an end, and the end is to make Jane Tafford a star.

Night-club owner Fluff (William Demarest) tries to warn Stanley about her but Stanley isn’t listening. He’s in love. He’s busy day-dreaming about buying a little house and enjoying married bliss with Jane and he’s wondering how many kids they should have. Jane is doing what she always does. She is deciding how useful Stanley can be to her career. The answer is, not very useful at all. Sonny on the other hand could be very useful to her.

It has to be said that Stanley is not very bright. He’s well-meaning and he’s a decent guy and he would obviously make a very good husband for some nice girl. Unfortunately Jane is not a nice girl. She’s a scheming tramp. Even though this is painfully obvious Stanley is determined not to see it.

Mickey Rooney made several forays into the film noir genre and he actually makes a very good noir protagonist. Rooney could be a fine actor when he put his mind to it, and when he was given the opportunity. Sally Forrest gets the femme fatale role but this is an MGM movie and it’s a musical so she can’t go over-the-top with the standard femme fatale stuff. She has to be a femme fatale but a wholesome femme fatale. In some ways this actually works quite well. It makes her cynicism more shocking and it makes her much more dangerous. How could a girl who looks so darned cute be a bad girl? Overall Sally Forrest does a decent job of acting here.

James Craig does well as the charming but unscrupulous Sonny, a classic noir bad guy who is menacing without being a mere thug.

So far I’ve talked about the film noir angle, but this is also a fully-fledged musical with lots of musical numbers. They’re integrated reasonably well with the main plot and after all it’s not unusual for film noir to deal with the worlds of show business, night-clubs and music so it does make some sense to have musical interludes. There are however just too many musical numbers and they slow down the plot to an extraordinary degree.

On the other hand the music is pretty good, which you’d expect when you’ve got musicians like Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden in the cast.

László Kardos directed and he was clearly hamstrung by the need to combine what were essentially two incompatible genres. It’s a problem he was unable to solve.

This movie was shot in black-and-white which helps its noir credentials a little but there’s really not much in the way of genuine noir visual styling or atmosphere. On the other hand it does capture the seedy glamorous night-club feel pretty well (with some good location shooting in actual night-clubs as well).

The Strip is an odd hybrid and it’s more successful than you might anticipate. It has a decent film noir plot with a couple of good twists. It’s also closer to genuine noir than you’d expect from an MGM production. It’s interesting enough to earn a highly recommended rating.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yankee Buccaneer (1952)

In 1952 during the filming of the pirate adventure Against All Flags Errol Flynn broke his ankle. This obviously meant that shooting of the film had to be put on hold. Universal decided to turn an inconvenience into an opportunity by making use of the sets built for Against All Flags to shoot a second pirate movie (this time a B-picture) whilst Flynn recovered. A script was hastily cobbled together and the result was Yankee Buccaneer. And it’s not a  bad little programmer.

This is a slightly unusual pirate movie in that the heroes are two distinguished real-life US Navy officers, Captain (Later Commodore) David Porter and Lieutenant (later Admiral David Farragut. They are sent on a secret mission by the US Navy to discover the whereabouts of a pirate flotilla infesting the Caribbean. Captain Porter’s frigate, the USS Essex, is to fly the Jolly Roger while his crew disguise themselves as a crew of cut-throat buccaneers.

Davy Farragut has served under Porter before and it was not a particularly pleasant experience. The young Lieutenant acknowledges that Porter is a fine officer and a good captain but it’s Porter’s uncompromising adherence to regulations and strict discipline that he regards with distaste. A series of mishaps, for which Farragut appears to be responsible, adds to the tension between the two men and it start to look Farragut’s future in the Navy may be bleak.

The secret mission takes a surprising turn when the Essex encounters a Portuguese ship-of-the-line. The counterfeit pirates assume they’re about to be attacked and, given that they are badly outgunned, probably sunk. When they hoist the Jolly Roger a strange thing happens. The Portuguese warship leaves them alone. Something odd is definitely going on. In fact Captain Porter and his crew are about to sail into a very tangled web of international intrigue and double-dealing.

Of course at this point you might be thinking that what’s missing in this movie is a beautiful woman to add some romance and glamour. You need not worry. Countess Margarita La Raguna is about to make her appearance, and the plot starts to get really complicated.

The main weakness of Yankee Buccaneer is that being a B-movie it doesn’t have the spectacular action scenes that a pirate movie needs to have. On the other hand quite a bit of imagination is shown in providing the kind of adventure that can be managed on a low budget and it’s enough to maintain the viewer’s interest (although the shark scene is a major disappointment since the shark is much too obviously a rubber shark). There’s a reasonable fight scene towards the end with some swordplay but sadly there are no sea battles.

The lack of major action set-pieces is counter-balanced to some extent by the impressive sets built for Against All Flags so Yankee Buccaneer is a reasonably good-looking film (and was also shot in Technicolor).

Having a competent cast helps things along. Jeff Chandler does a fine job as Captain Porter, making the character a stickler for discipline and a rather hard and inflexible man but still making him fairly sympathetic. Porter might be a martinet but he knows his job and he cares for the safety of his crew. Scott Brady is pretty good as Farragut and like Chandler is able to give his character at least a small amount of depth. Suzan Ball is convincing enough as the proud and headstrong countess. Suzan Ball was one of Hollywood’s most tragic starlets. She was just eighteen when she made this picture and sadly had just three years of life left to her.

There’s a bit of comic relief but it’s bearable and not too intrusive.

This movie is included in Universal’s four-movie Pirates of the Golden Age boxed set. There are no extras but the transfer is excellent. The set is definitely worth getting if you’re a pirate fan. So far I’ve seen three of the four films and Against All Flags, Buccaneer’s Girl and Yankee Buccaneer are all worth a watch. Strangely enough my favourite of the three is Buccaneer’s Girl, although that could have some connection with my Yvonne de Carlo infatuation.

Yankee Buccaneer is decent solid and completely harmless B-movie entertainment. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Backfire! (1962)

Backfire! is another of the British Merton Park Edgar Wallace B-movies of the early 60s and it’s a reasonably competent entry in the series.

Bernard Curzon (Oliver Johnston) is the founder of a cosmetics company, Venetia Beauty Products. The company has been very successful but as Curzon is getting on in years he had decided to take on some new partners, to revitalise the firm. Mitchell Logan (Alfred Burke) and his wife Pauline (Zena Marshall) have certainly had a dramatic effect on the company. They have all but ruined it. Sales are practically non-existent. The company cannot pay its bills. Even worse, the books are not likely to stand up to any close scrutiny. Things look hopeless, but Mitchell has a plan. The company is broke but the factory is insured for a great deal of money. If a fire were to break out then all their financial problems would disappear in a puff of smoke so to speak. It’s a foolproof plan.

Of course it turns out to be not quite so foolproof after all. Clever yes, and well executed, but there’s always the little unforeseen details, in this case a mink coat and a Hungarian wedding.

Even allowing for such minor irritations it still seems they will get away with it. All they need is a bit of luck, or at least the absence of bad luck. What they don’t need is a young insurance investigator with all the zeal and enthusiasm of youth.

And due to those little unforeseen details mentioned earlier this is not just a case of arson. It’s murder as well.

There are no great surprises in the plot but the script (by Robert Banks Stewart who had an illustrious career as a television writer) is serviceable and well constructed. Paul Almond’s direction is fairly straightforward but he knows how to build suspense and he doesn’t permit any dull moments in the film’s 61-minute running time.

The cast is the movie’s biggest strength. Before finding fame with the long-running (and excellent) Public Eye television series Alfred Burke was a familiar face in British B-movies. This movie gives him a rare starring role. He’s nicely sneaky and cold-blooded. He seems to be attempting an American accent but it comes and goes. Fortunately it doesn’t detract from his performance. Zena Marshall is good as Pauline Logan, a classy woman but rather a nasty piece of work. Suzanne Neve gets the good girl role as Curzon’s daughter and secretary Shirley and she’s a rather charming if not wildly exciting heroine. John Cazabon is creepy in a low-key but effective way as the firebug Willy Kyzer.

The fire scenes are presumably almost entirely stock footage but they’re used extremely well. The firebug enjoying himself burning model buildings is a nice touch.

The cosmetics angle allows for some touches of glamour that add a bit more interest. It’s also useful in making the arson more plausible, cosmetics factories being full of highly inflammable chemicals so that when they burn you can rely on them to burn to the ground in a conveniently short time. The low budget (and Merton Park movies were very low budget) is no great problem since the people making these Edgar Wallace potboilers were used to such things and knew what they were doing.

As usual Network have come up with an excellent anamorphic transfer. Backfire! is one of the seven movies that make up Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. There are no extras as such included with the individual movies but Network more than make up for this by throwing in at least one bonus movie in each set (and the bonus movies are often extremely good).

Backfire! is nothing more than a fairly routine B-movie but it’s a well-made one and it’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable time-killer. Recommended.