Friday, May 25, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.