Saturday, April 14, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday, April 8, 2018
It was based on a very minor novel (The Luck of Barry Lyndon) by Thackeray and again this is almost certainly a deliberate choice on Kubrick’s part. Had he chosen to adapt a better known Victorian novel there’s the danger that the audience might have been familiar with the book and might therefore already have formed an opinion about it. It suits Kubrick’s purposes to choose a novel that very few people have read.
Thackeray was the inventor of the so-called "novel without a hero” and this is indeed a movie without a hero. Thackeray’s much more famous novel Vanity Fair would have suited Kubrick’s purposes equally well except that it’s too widely known and the audience would have preconceptions about it.
Barry Lyndon is not even a real anti-hero. An anti-hero is someone about whom we have some feelings even if they’re mainly negative. Barry is simply a non-hero. We don’t care enough about him to dislike him and the whole movie is so detached that it’s difficult even to work up disapproval for Barry.
There’s only one character in the movie who could potentially function as a hero, and that’s the young Lord Bullingdon, but he’s almost as unsympathetic as Barry and definitely not the stuff heroes are made of.
Barry’s fortunes prosper when he teams up with the Chevalier du Balibari (Patrick Magee), a professional gambler and amateur libertine. It has taken a series of betrayals to get Barry into this favourable situation but betrayal comes very easily to him. By the halfway stage of the movie Barry’s lack of morals, his eye for the main chance and a certain amount of luck have propelled him to the top of the social heap. He marries a fabulously wealthy widow. He has everything he ever desired. He has done little to deserve it. In the second half it all starts to fall apart for him, partly through his own flaws and partly through bad luck.
Much nonsense has been written about the supposed miscasting of Ryan O’Neal in the title role. In fact O’Neal is perfectly cast in every way. Barry Lyndon is a man with considerable ambitions and with a talent for opportunism but he has no morality and no beliefs and no personality to speak of. He takes on the colouring of his surroundings. O’Neal’s performance has just the right quality of complete emotional detachment but then in the rare moments that Barry has to display genuine emotion O’Neal rises to the occasion. It’s a perfectly judged performance and it’s obviously exactly what Kubrick wanted.
Hardy Krüger of course can act and he does a fine job as the Prussian Captain Potzdorf who manages to get the better of Barry for a while but is eventually betrayed by him.
Patrick Magee was a Kubrick favourite and he gives another outrageous but wonderful performance as the deplorable Chevalier du Balibari.
It’s often been remarked that almost every scene in this movie looks like a painting. There’s considerable truth to this. It’s a movie that is more a series of striking visual images than a conventional movie. There is a straightforward narrative here but it’s of little importance. No-one could possibly care what Barry’s ultimate fate is going to be. The images don’t serve the story. The story serves the images. Kubrick gets away with it because the images are so incredibly gorgeous. If there’s ever been a more beautiful movie than Barry Lyndon then I’ve yet to see it.
Barry Lyndon is a movie that is worth seeing for its intoxicating images alone. In fact they’re enough to make it a must-see movie. It’s interesting as an epic without a trace of heroism. Like most of Kubrick’s better movies it’s just not like other people’s movies.
It’s an amazing technical achievement but was it really a worthwhile exercise? Was it a movie that was actually worth making? The answer to that pretty much depends on how you feel about Kubrick. If you’re a Kubrick sceptic then Barry Lyndon will probably confirm all your doubts about him. If you’re a Kubrick fan you’ll be overjoyed because this movie is the concentrated essence of Kubrickian film-making. It’s not a movie with anything profound to say. The protagonist sacrifices anyone and anything to achieve his ambitions and then finds that maybe it wasn’t worthwhile after all. Not exactly dazzlingly original. What is profound and original is the way it’s done - the extreme lack of any trace of heroism, the uncompromising refusal to manipulate the audience’s emotional responses or moral judgments and the unique style. I think it’s enough to justify the movie.
And I’m going to highly recommend this one because even if you end up not liking it it’s still one of those movies you have to see at least once.
Monday, April 2, 2018
Fields usually played either a henpecked husband or a swindler (and in my view he was funniest as a swindler). In this case he’s a carny huckster and all-round con-man but Professor Eustace P. McGargle is a rogue with definite charm.
His travelling companion and partner-in-crime is his beautiful daughter Poppy (Rochelle Hudson).
Arriving in yet another small town and looking for easy pickings the Professor stumbles across what could be the biggest and most lucrative con of his entire career - passing off his daughter as an heiress. Poppy on the other hand has found true love but can she really expect a respectable young man with prospects to marry a carnival girl?
Really the movie is mostly an excuse for Fields to strut his stuff in a series of comic set-pieces, which he does with considerable style and success. The talking dog routine gets things off to a good start. Fields’ anarchic musical performance is a particular highlight.
Lynne Overman as crooked attorney Eddie G. Whiffen and Catherine Doucet as the Countess DePuizzi provide adequate comic support although needless to say it’s Fields who gets most of the laughs.
In this movie Fields gets to deliver one of his most famous lines when he offers Poppy the only fatherly advice he can think of - “Never give a sucker an even break.”
Poppy has some good moments although the romance angle does drag a little. The movie only comes alive when Fields takes centre stage. This one is really for hardcore Fields fans. If you haven’t yet discovered the magic of W.C. Fields then there are better films to start with, with The Bank Dick being the obvious choice.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Timetable is a tricky movie to review. There’s a very big twist at the midway point and even to hint at the nature of that twist would spoil the movie and I’m certainly not going to do that. So I’m going to keep things very very vague indeed.
The film opens with an extended heist sequence which is truly excellent (and it’s on a train which is even better). The heist is meticulously planned and executed and Stevens directs this sequence with total confidence.
We then get introduced to the two men tasked with tracking down the robbers, railway cop Joe Armstrong (King Calder) and insurance investigator Charlie Norman (Mark Stevens). It looks like a perfect crime but Joe isn’t too concerned about that - he’s arrested plenty of guys who thought they’d planned the perfect crime. No matter how good the plan, sooner or later something somewhere will go wrong and it will start to unravel. The more elaborate the plan, the more things there are to go wrong. And this was certainly an elaborate heist, involving a hijacked ambulance and a stolen helicopter!
Stevens really does an assured job with this film. It’s beautifully paced, it has that great opening heist, it has a fine extended action climax and the noirness builds remorselessly. Aben Kandel’s very solid and quite literate screenplay helps a good deal. There’s some decent semi-hardboiled dialogue too.
There’s nothing startlingly new here but everything is tightly constructed and holds together perfectly.
It doesn’t go overboard with the noir visuals but there’s enough to get the right atmosphere, and the action finale is very noir.
The whole cast is extremely good. Wesley Addy is particularly good as the very smooth thief masquerading as a medico, but his smoothness is all on the surface and underneath he’s ready to fall apart under the slightest stress.
There has to be a femme fatale and Felicia Farr fulfils that role satisfactorily. Whether she’s really a true femme fatale or just a woman who happens to serve as a catalyst for trouble is debatable but that touch of ambiguity is a plus rather than a minus.
Look out for Jack Klugman giving a great performance in a very small early role.
While the focus is on Charlie all of the characters have at least some depth to them, and in their very different ways they’re all believable. They’re not just doing things because the plot requires them to do so - their actions are plausibly motivated.
Timetable is a very well-made and well-acted movie, with production values that are perhaps just a bit better than the usual B-movie standards, and most importantly this is a full-blown film noir. Highly recommended.
Stevens’ earlier Cry Vengeance is also well worth a look.
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
The Woman in Question has an apparently simple plot. The murdered body of Agnes Houston (who worked as a fortune-teller under the name Madame Astra) is found. The discovery is made by a small boy. He is the son of a neighbour, Mrs Finch (Hermione Baddeley). Agnes Houston had been heard having a violent quarrel with her sister Catherine (Susan Shaw) and with Bob Baker (Dirk Bogarde). It appears that Bob’s affections, initially directed towards Agnes, had recently been diverted towards her sister.
Superintendent Lodge (Duncan Macrae) interviews the various witnesses and suspects. Their accounts are presented to us in a series of flashback sequences.
Catherine’s version of events is very different. Far from being a paragon of respectability it now appears that Agnes was much too find of the bottle and much too fond of men, and it also appears that she had been a less than ideal wife to her late husband. Catherine and Bob were innocent young lovers, if Catherine is to be believed.
Bob is the next to be interviewed. Not surprisingly his account is very favourable to himself, and not at all favourable to the late Mrs Houston.
The fifth interview is with two girls who turned up on the night of the murder to have their fortunes told.
There’s one last possible suspect, an Irish sailor with whom Agnes Houston was very friendly indeed. He was also at her house on the fatal night, and he has his own version of the story as well.
While the narrative structure is clearly very very close to that of Kurosawa’s film the intentions of Asquith and his scriptwriter John Cresswell are rather different. While the multiple perspectives are certainly used for straightforward detective story purposes they are also used as an opportunity for a great deal of sly humour and some acute social observation. On the whole The Woman in Question has a fairly light and rather witty feel to it.
The Woman in Question is an innovative and skilful piece of film-making. It’s also a clever and inventive murder mystery and an amusing and witty exploration of the various faces that we present to the world, and how the world sees us. Very highly recommended.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Madeleine Minot (Leslie Caron) is a young French girl who arrives in New York in 1848 in search of the ageing and very disreputable Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern). Thevenet had been one of Napoleon’s generals and remains an enthusiastic Bonapartist. His loyalty to Bonaparte has been equalled only by his devotion to women and dissipation. Madeleine on the other hand is a Republican but for some reason she has convinced herself that she can persuade the old man to leave his fortune to his grandson in Paris. She is in love with the grandson. Once they get the old boy’s money they will use it for the cause of Republicanism (or at least they’ve convinced themselves that they only want Thevenet’s money for that idealistic purpose). 1848 was of course the year that saw the establishment of the short-lived Second Republic in France, which was soon swept away by Napoleon III.
Madeleine and her lover are not the only ones after Thevenet’s money. His mistress Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck) and his butler Martin (Joe de Santis) have spent years waiting for Thevenet to die so they can get his fortune. It has even crossed their minds that it might be possible to hasten the old man’s demise.
What follows is a battle of wits and wills between Dupin and Lorna.
The plot (based on a story by John Dickson Carr) is absurdly melodramatic and overwrought but it has its moments. There are times however when it threatens to collapse under the weight of its own self-conscious cleverness.
Dupin is supposed to be a mystery man with his true identity only revealed as a surprise twist at the end although in fact his identity is blindingly obvious right from the start. Fortunately it doesn’t really matter since it’s only a literary in-joke and actually the movie might have worked better had that whole idea been ditched.
Joseph Cotten is pretty good too. He has no pride but he has charm. He’s a likeable rogue.
Louis Calhern is excellent, making Thevenet a thorough reprobate but a rather good-natured one. He’s selfish and self-indulgent but he’s never pretended to be a saint.
Jim Backus as the good-hearted Irish innkeeper who allows Dupin to remain permanently drunk on permanent credit is the best of the supporting players.
The period details are impressive. This is an MGM movie so it looks like it’s had a lot of money spent on it, and well spent too.
The Man with a Cloak has been released in the made-on-demand Warner Archive series. I can’t comment on the quality of that disc since I caught this movie on TCM.
Very melodramatic but despite a few flaws it’s thoroughly enjoyable and definitely recommended.
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Phyllis Tredman (Dorothy Malone) goes to Reno, for the usual reason, but finds it’s not as easy as she imagined since she seems to have no valid grounds for a divorce. In fact when she thinks about it she realises she has no idea why she is getting divorced. All she knows is that her husband Lloyd wrote to her from Madrid (where he has been living apart from her for nearly two years) asking her to divorce him and he gave no reason. So she decides that perhaps she should go to Madrid and find out what is going on. What she discovers is not quite what she expected.
Lloyd Tredman (Robert Taylor) seems like a pretty nice guy but there is something that is not quite right about him. He’d been a flyer, and a very good one, in both World War 2 and the Korean War. Now he seems to be drifting. His life seems too irresponsible and precarious for a middle-aged man.
And now Lloyd is in trouble. He’s in big money trouble. He’s been making his living mostly from gambling and he’s had some bad luck (although it’s possible that luck actually had nothing to do with it). There is a way out. He’s been offered an enormous amount of money to do a very simple job. It’s not exactly legal but it appears to be almost risk-free and it also appears to be not really immoral. The problem is that it involves flying.
It’s all very promising but then it starts to pull its punches a bit. Of course it’s always worth remembering that no-one in Hollywood in the 40s or 50s was consciously making film noir. In retrospect we read film noir themes into many of the crime films of the era but at the time the film-makers were just making crime movies. If you accept this movie simply as a crime movie it works quite well with the darker moments being a bonus for modern film noir fans.
Dorothy Malone gives a fine performance as the sympathetic wife trying her best to understand the struggle her husband is having with his private demons. Jack Lord is pretty solid as Lloyd’s buddy Jimmy.
Tip on a Dead Jockey was made in Cinemascope and gives the impression of having had a fairly decent budget, and it’s an MGM production so it certainly doesn’t look cheap. Robert Taylor was still a fairly big star. This all suggests that the movie was either a cheap A-picture or at the more expensive end of the B-picture spectrum. Content-wise however this is pure B-movie stuff.
Which is fine, I like B-movies. There are some decent aerial sequences, Robert Taylor is extremely good, there’s some suspense and some romance. It’s not a great movie but it deliver perfectly adequate entertainment. Recommended.