Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Too Many Crooks (1959)

I’m still  in the grip of my Terry-Thomas obsession. This time up it’s Too Many Crooks, released in 1959. Could this one possibly be as good as Make Mine Mink and The Naked Truth? The answer is a resounding yes.

This one has an extraordinarily good cast. Not just Terry-Thomas, but Sid James, George Cole and Bernard Bresslaw, all reliable British comedy stalwarts of the era. And in supporting roles actors of the calibre of John le Mesurier, Sidney Tafler and Terry Scott.

Fingers (George Cole) is the leader of a spectacularly unsuccessful criminal gang. The other gang members are Sid (Sid James), the huge and very simple-minded Snowdrop (Bernard Bresslaw), the nervy Whisper (Joe Melia) and glamorous sexpot Charmaine (Vera Day). They are starting to suspect that their lack of success has a lot to do with Fingers. He just doesn’t seem to be very good either at planning or executing crimes.

For his part Fingers is coming up with ever more ambitious schemes. He has decided that the gang should concentrate on wealthy financier Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Gordon is not only rich, he’s very crooked. He’s a man who is definitely not in a position to call in the police. It should be possible to relieve Gordon of a significant part of his fortune. Like most of Fingers’ plans it’s not entirely a bad idea if only he can make it work this time, but of course we know that isn’t going to happen.

Their attempt to rob Gordon’s house ends in yet another failure but now Fingers has come up with his masterstroke. They will kidnap Billy Gordon’s daughter and hold her for ransom. The only thing in the world that Billy Gordon loves more than money is his daughter.

The kidnapping is a terrific comic set-piece involving a hearse and a coffin and of course Fingers has done it again. He’s snatched Gordon’s wife rather than his daughter. And while Gordon would have paid any amount of money for the return of his daughter, he’s not prepared to pay a penny to get his wife back. He’s delighted by the idea of being free to chase women without a wife cramping his style.

So now the gang find themselves in a tricky situation but things are about to take an unexpected twist and it looks like our luckless band of incompetent crooks are about to taste success at last.

There are no dull spots at all in this movie. It hits the ground running and the laughs keep on coming. Michael Pertwee’s script is clever and witty. Mario Zampi was one of the most consistently excellent directors of comedy in Britain at that time. When you add that superb cast it should all work wonderfully well, and it does.

Billy Gordon is basically a typical Terry-Thomas cad. He’s not only a crooked financier but also an inveterate womaniser. His faithful and long-suffering wife Lucy (Brenda de Banzie) has to scrimp and save while Billy lives the high life with his lady friends. Like most Terry-Thomas cads he’s so much fun that you almost hope that he’ll come out on top and he suffers so many misfortunes that he does become vaguely sympathetic.

Fingers is rather sympathetic as well. He tries really hard but he’s just not very good at crime. He also tries very hard to be a tough guy, with equally little success. In fact this is a very good-natured gang. They don’t want to hurt anybody, they just want to make a dishonest living.

Vera Day adds a definite touch of glamour as the sexy Charmaine. She’s possibly the most competent member of the gang since at least she knows how to use her feminine wiles effectively. And she’s amusing as well as glamorous.

This film has had various DVD releases, both individually and as part of a number of boxed sets, in most regions. The Region 2 DVDs are still very easy to get hold of (and absurdly cheap) but finding this movie in Region 1 might be more of a challenge.

Too Many Crooks is simply terrific entertainment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Flying Squad (1940)

The Flying Squad is a 1940 British crime thriller based on an Edgar Wallace story. Wallace’s stories were always ideal material for cinematic adaptation and this one works pretty well.

Inspector Bradley of Scotland Yard (Sebastian Shaw) is investigating a smuggling ring. He’s had opportunities to arrest various members of the gang but that’s the last thing he wants to do. He doesn’t want the small fish, he wants the mastermind behind the whole operation. He has a pretty shrewd idea of the identity of that mastermind but so far no worthwhile evidence.

Bradley’s target is handsome young man-about-town Mark McGill (Jack Hawkins). McGill is indeed the gang leader and he’s a ruthless operator. His ruthlessness is perhaps his weak point. He’s a bit too ready to have people disposed of (or even to dispose of them himself) if he so much as suspects that they might betray him, even inadvertently. He has a young fellow named Ronnie Perryman bumped off which could be awkward since Ronnie’s sister Anne (Phyllis Brooks) is part of the same fashionable social set. He spins Anne a tale and then finds that Anne wants to take Ronnie’s place in the smuggling ring.

McGill is not the only one who wants to make use of Anne. Inspector Bradley has the same idea. Anne really has no idea of what is actually going on. She thinks McGill is smuggling in face powder from France. Actual face powder. Powder is certainly what is being smuggled but it’s a different and much more valuable type of white powder.

Anne is young and high-spirited but she is perhaps just a little naïve. OK, she’s incredibly naïve. And now she’s caught in the middle of a dangerous game between a charming but utterly unscrupulous gangster and a policeman who is also not over-scrupulous and who is determined to get results at any price.

There’s no mystery element at all in this story. It’s an out-and-out thriller and (certainly by the standards of British movies of its era) it delivers a fair amount of action and mayhem. There are a number of very characteristic Wallace touches (he liked things like secret trapdoors). McGill’s riverfront secret hideout is classic Wallace stuff.

Herbert Brenon had been a very successful director during the silent era but his career went downhill rapidly in the sound era. The Flying Squad is B-movie stuff but it’s all fairly competently executed and it has more than enough plot to fill the modest 64-minute running time. It feels a bit stagey at times but the action scenes are surprisingly energetic and there’s even a car chase. The smugglers use an aircraft to bring in their contraband, and a very cool looking aircraft it is (if you love vintage biplanes).

Sebastian Shaw is a perfectly adequate if not terribly exciting hero, and he has the requisite matinee idol looks. Jack Hawkins (looking rather young) is a splendid villain of the smooth but sinister type. Hawkins wisely doesn’t overplay the role. Phyllis Brooks makes a lively and engaging leading lady.

Basil Radford provides the comic relief, and this is one of those rare films in which the comic relief is not only bearable but a positive asset. In fact Radford just about manages to steal the picture.

It’s interesting to compare this one with another British Wallace adaptation of the same period, The Terror, which puts much more emphasis on humour (and is pretty enjoyable as well).

Network’s DVD release offers a very good transfer. The only extra feature is an image gallery but at least it’s a pretty extensive image gallery.

This is basically a B-picture so don’t expect it to be in the same league as Hitchcock’s British thrillers of the period. Having said that, The Flying Squad works as fine old-fashioned entertainment and it does capture the Edgar Wallace feel very effectively. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Five Fingers (1952)

20th Century Fox’s Five Fingers is a 1952 spy thriller directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and based on the exploits of the famous real-life spy code-named Cicero. It was based on a book by L.C. Moyzisch who was in fact the man who recruited and ran Cicero. The case was a major embarrassment to the British but also, in a rather deliciously ironic manner, to the Germans as well.

The script is credited to Michael Wilson but was apparently entirely rewritten by Mankiewicz.

In March 1944 L.C. Moyzisch (Oskar Kollweis), the German Millitary Attaché at their embassy in Turkey, is approached by a rather persuasive man with an extraordinary offer. He will sell British secrets to the Germans. Not just any secrets, but incredibly important ultra-sensitive material.

The man is Ulysses Diello (James Mason) and he is the valet to the British Ambassador. A mere valet would not normally have access to top-secret documents but due to some astonishing security lapses he is able to get his hands on every important document in the British Embassy. And being a mere valet no-one suspects him of being a spy.

The problem for the Germans is that Cicero is supplying them with such high-level material that they have no means of verifying that any of it is genuine. Both Moyzisch and the Gernan Ambassador, Count Franz Von Papen (John Wengraf), are convinced the documents are genuine but the Gestapo are concerned by the possibility that Cicero is a British double agent feeding the Germans false intelligence.

The key to the movie is that in the world of espionage no-one can ever be sure they are not being double-crossed. The Germans have no way of being sure that Cicero is not really a British agent but on the other hand they have no way of being sure he isn’t exactly what he seems to be, a traitor selling genuine secrets. So they now have a treasure trove of vital British secrets which may be genuine or may be fake. It is dangerous to be too trusting but it is equally dangerous to be too suspicious.

Diello has an arrangement with a beautiful Polish exile, Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux). He needs her as a cover and she needs the money that he gives her. It’s a professional relationship but with the possibility of becoming something more personal. He may be in love with her and she may be in love with him but in the world of the spy no-one can really be sure of anything.

The British eventually figure out that have a very serious security leak and counter-intelligence man Colin Travers (Michael Rennie) is dispatched to the embassy at Ankara to find that leak and the German spy responsible for it but he is not convinced that there really is a spy. There never are any certainties in the world of espionage.

The Germans have also sent a senior intelligence man to Ankara to investigate Cicero’s bona fides. Colonel von Richter of the Gestapo (Herbert Berghof) is suspicious of Cicero right from the start. So Cicero is a spy being investigated by both his friends and his enemies, although of course a spy really has no friends.

The supporting players are uniformly excellent but this picture belongs to James Mason. His performance is crucial. Diello is a traitor and he’s turned traitor for money but somehow Mason has to make him sympathetic enough for the audience to want him to be caught and at the same time to want him to get away with it. Mason does this with ease. His Diello is treacherous and unscrupulous but he’s also brave and daring and charming and witty.

This is a very low-key spy thriller. Mankiewicz was not exactly renowned as an action director and his style is straightforward and perhaps a little prosaic. There’s no question that a Hitchcock given this material would have produced a much more exciting and stylish action thriller. But to be fair to Mankiewicz, that’s not the sort of film he was trying to make. He was more interested in making a slightly cerebral and witty spy thriller with an emphasis on the paranoid psychology of the world of spies. And judged by those criteria Five Fingers works very well indeed. And the ending gives us a whole series of delicious ironic twists. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Gambling House (1950)

Gambling House has an opening that suggests that it’s going to be a fairly decent film noir. Within ten minutes though the awful truth becomes apparent. This is not a film noir. It’s a Social Problem Movie. And if there’s one type of movie that should be avoided at all costs it’s the 1950s Hollywood Social Problem Movie. This 1950 RKO production is a particularly dreadful example of the breed.

Marc Fury (Victor Mature) is a gambler and he has a few problems. Firstly he’s close to broke. Secondly he has a bullet in his guts. And thirdly he’s about to be made an offer that he really should not contemplate accepting.

Joe Farrow (William Bendix) owns a string of gambling joints. He’s successful but he’s inclined to do rash things. In this case he gunned down a gambler who was making trouble after figuring out that he was being fleeced. During the course of the brief gun battle Marc was shot accidentally. Now Farrow offers him $50,000 to take the rap, with the promise that his hot-shot lawyer will get him off on a plea of self-defence.

Everything seems to be working out until the immigration people decide to deport Marc. Marc had always assumed he was an American citizen but he wasn’t and since he hasn’t exactly been law-abiding there seems little chance of the deportation order being reversed. To add to his woes Farrow seems to be remarkably reluctant to hand over the fifty grand he’d promised him.

Marc isn’t completely stupid. He’s got hold of Farrow’s little black book that contains all sorts of incriminating evidence against the gambling joint owner. This is Marc’s insurance but in an awkward moment he drops the book into the coat pocket of random stranger Lynn Warren (Terry Moore) hoping that it will be easy to retrieve it later. By the kind of amazing coincidence you only encounter in really bad writing and bad movies the random stranger happens to be a girl who works for an agency that helps people with immigration problems.

At this point the main plot grinds to a halt and we get a dull love story combined with speeches about the plight of immigrants and what it means to be an American citizen plus messages about how even a guy like Marc can be saved by the Love of a Good Woman. To make things worse we also get a clumsy and irrelevant sub-plot about a Polish immigrant family. And we get more speeches. Lots of speeches.

Finally the main plot kicks in again. You might think that would be good news but it’s all so contrived and unconvincing that it actually turns out to be bad news.

This is one of those movies in which the characters do things that are totally out of character and entirely unbelievable simply because the script demands it. This makes it hard to judge the acting. Victor Mature tries hard but Marc’s actions are simply not believable and Mature is not at his best delivering inspiring speeches. I’m actually a big fan of Victor Mature as an actor but his performance in this movie just doesn’t work due to the awful script.

Terry Moore’s performance is dire but again with a script like this even the best actress would be struggling. Lynn comes across as irritating and self-righteous. William Bendix is flat and dull.

Visually there are a few good moments at the start and a few at the ending but what could have been an evocative film noir ending is ruined because we don’t for a moment believe the actions of any of the characters involved, and by that time it’s unlikely that any viewer will even care how the film ends as long as it ends soon.

Gambling House is a movie that is incredibly poorly paced and structured and it’s embarrassingly clumsy. It’s annoyingly emotionally manipulative but the manipulation backfires because the characters are so unconvincing. It’s a total waste of time. Do whatever you have to do to avoid seeing this movie.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Desert Hawk (1950)

Universal’s The Desert Hawk promises swashbuckling adventure and romance and that’s what it delivers. And it looks gorgeous.

Ignore the opening voiceover that tells you the story happened 2,000 years ago. In fact this is obviously the world of Islam. It’s a kind of Arabian Nights tale but with no supernatural elements or monsters.

The beautiful Princess Scheherazade (an obvious nod to the Arabian Nights) is betrothed to Prince Murad (George Macready). Prince Murad is a bit of a tyrant, in fact he’s an out-and-out villain and his tax collectors have been oppressing the common people. His tyranny is being challenged however, by a man known only as the Desert Hawk. No-one knows his real identity but when not adventuring he works as a humble blacksmith under the name of Omar. The Desert Hawk is very much a Robin Hood figure, which is rather appropriate since Richard Greene went on to play Robin Hood in the celebrated British TV series.

Princess Scheherazade (Yvonne de Carlo in one of her many roles in swashbuckling adventure films) is your typical princess - she’s haughty and proud and quick-tempered and she’s used to getting what she wants. Her father is the caliph and he’s a very indulgent father so she doesn’t have to marry the prince unless she wants to. Once she meets him though the matter is quickly resolved. He is handsome and dashing and very romantic and she agrees to marry him that very day. Judging by her demeanour the next morning it’s fair to assume that she found her wedding night to be more than satisfactory. She has everything a girl could want but there is one fly in the ointment. It turns out that the man she married (and with whom she spent that blissful night of love) is not Prince Murad at all. She has married the Desert Hawk!

She is more than a little displeased by this development. Her life is about to get even more complicated. There are nefarious plots afoot and the princess is kidnapped, but she swapped clothes with one of her handmaidens so the kidnappers have the wrong girl. Meanwhile Scheherazade herself, whom they assume to be merely a handmaiden, is to be sold at the slave market.

Omar will have to find a way to rescue his new bride and that will be a challenge as there are multiple villains to deal with. The villains are more than willing to murder and they’re delighted by the prospect of torturing captive princesses. There’s also the slight problem that the princess, having been tricked into marriage, is sufficiently annoyed that she might well persuade her father to put Omar to death for his presumption in tricking his way into her bed.

There’s a good mix of action and romance and there’s some comedy as well. Fortunately there’s not too much of the comic relief and what there is is quite amusing. There are the obligatory narrow escapes from death.

Richard Greene certainly knew a thing or two about swashbuckling and he makes a splendid romantic hero. Yvonne de Carlo wasn’t thrilled to find herself cast in these types of films but in fact they suited her perfectly. She does the feisty proud heroine thing superbly, and she looks absolutely stunning in Arabian Nights-style costume. There’s a reasonably good romantic chemistry between the two leads, interspersed with plenty of verbal sparring.

George Macready is a fine villain. Look out for Rock Hudson is a supporting role. Had this movie been made a couple of years later he would undoubtedly have landed the lead role.

Frederick De Cordova was a solid journeyman director who had something of a flair for adventure movies. He keeps things moving along very nicely.

This was a Universal feature so the budget would have been fairly modest but it looks quite impressive and the exotic atmosphere is convincing. It was shot in Technicolor. The sets and the costumes are splendid. It might be basically a B-movie but it manages to look a bit more lavish than most such productions.

Simply Media’s Region 2 DVD release is barebones but it offers a very good transfer. The colours look terrific.

The Desert Hawk is definitely an above-average movie of its type with enough plot twists to keep things interesting and a very good cast. Swashbuckling fans and admirers of Yvonne de Carlo won’t want to miss this one. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Split Second (1953)

Dick Powell had a pretty interesting career. He started as a juvenile lead in musicals for Warner Brothers in the 1930s. In the 1940s he re-invented himself as a tough guy actor in a series of excellent film noir roles in movies like Cornered, Cry Danger, Pitfall and Murder, My Sweet. Then in the 50s he re-invented himself once again as a producer and director. His first movie as director was Split Second. His directing career (which included the classic war movie The Enemy Below) was cut short by his untimely death in 1963.

Split Second is an odd and interesting kind of hybrid thriller. The main plot is standard hardboiled crime movie fare. Convicted killer Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) has broken out of prison along with Bart Moore (Paul Kelly). Moore has a bullet in him, courtesy of a prison guard, and he needs a doctor real bad. After meeting up with another hoodlum pal they hijack a car and they decide to take the two occupants of the car, Kay Garven (Alexis Smith) and Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige) with them as hostages.

So it’s all very standard stuff, except that this is all happening right in the middle of an atomic bomb testing site. And since the movie opens by making a big deal of the evacuation of everybody from the test area we can be fairly confident that this is going to become a key plot point. The hoodlums have been so focused on their prison break and trying to keep a step ahead of the law that they haven’t been keeping up with current events in general, such as the latest nuclear tests.

There’s another interesting twist. Kay Garven is a married woman, but she isn’t married to Arthur Ashton. She might not be married to him but she sure does seem to be mighty friendly with him. She’s actually married to a doctor. This gives Sam Hurley a bright idea. He rings up Dr Garven (Richard Egan) and tells him to meet them at a spot he has chosen out in the desert where the doctor can patch up Bart Moore’s bullet wound. If he doesn’t turn up to the rendezvous Hurley will kill his wife. This will lead to another interesting plot twist.

Along the way they pick up (against their will) reporter Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) and dancer Dottie Vail (Jan Sterling) and they all end up in the secret hideout Hurley has cunningly arranged, in a ghost town known as Last Hope City. A ghost town that just happens to be more or less Ground Zero for the atom bomb test. They are going to have to be out of Last Hope City before 6 am or they’re going to be reduced to radioactive ash.

One more character is added to the mix when grizzled old prospector Asa Tremaine (Athur Hunnicut) shows up.

It’s naturally a more than slightly tense atmosphere at the hideout and to make things more complicated Kay Garven suddenly decides that she thinks bad boys like Sam Hurley are incredibly sexy.

The atmosphere just keeps on getting more tense. Time is running out, the clock is ticking on that big ole atom bomb, but Hurley can’t go anywhere without his buddy Bart (the only true friend he’s ever had) and Bart isn’t going anywhere unless he gets medical attention real soon and Dr Garven still hasn’t shown up.

Everyone is getting jumpy and the hostages are wondering whether Sam Hurley has any intention of allowing them to leave the place alive. So they start thinking about their options. Those options are very very limited but if they don’t do something their prospects are even grimmer. It now becomes a psychological thriller as we find out just how these people will behave under extreme stress. Some will behave bravely. Some will behave foolishly. Some will behave cynically. Some will behave very badly indeed.

While there’s plenty of suspense as the clock keeps ticking this is mostly a character-driven piece. Fortunately it has a good cast and they all do well. There’s some overacting but this is a very melodramatic so that works out just fine and when they overact they do it well. Alexis Smith in particular does some powerhouse scenery-chewing.

Given the setup, with an atomic bomb about to explode, the challenge was to make the ending exciting enough to justify the buildup. That challenge is met very effectively and very neatly.

Odeon Entertainment’s all-region DVD is barebones (apart from a trailer) but it’s cheap and it provides a very good transfer. The film has also been released in the Warner Archive made-on-demand series.

Split Second is a bit of an oddity and its claims to being film noir are a little shaky but it’s a nifty little movie and it’s highly recommended.

Friday, January 5, 2018

First Love (1939)

Deanna Durbin was already a very big star indeed when she made First Love for Universal in 1939. In fact she was so big a star that she was practically keeping Universal afloat single-handedly. Robert Stack on the other hand was making his film debut and this movie would make him a star.

First Love is a reworking of Cinderella. Connie Harding (Durbin) is an orphan. After graduating from boarding school she is sent to New York to live with her aunt and uncle. It’s immediately obvious that the household revolves around her cousin Barbara (Helen Parrish). Barbara is not the ugly stepsister, She’s the beautiful glamorous cousin but that turns out to be just as bad if not worse. Barbara gets everything she wants. She is spoilt, vain and shallow.

Connie is not exactly made to feel wanted. Barbara ignores her unless she has some errand for Connie to run. Barbara’s mother Grace (Leatrice Joy) is not an unpleasant person, she simply isn’t interested in anything much apart from astrology and her wonderful daughter. Uncle Jim (Eugene Pallette) makes a point of never being at home at the same time as his wife and daughter. Barbara’s brother Walter (Lewis Howard) is cynical and lazy but basically harmless and with a rather realistic view of his family.

Since this is Cinderella there is of course a ball. And of course it looks like Connie won’t get to go, until her Fairy Godmother steps in. She doesn’t actually have a Fairy Godmother  but she does have the household staff who took an immediate liking to her and they turn out to be every bit as useful as an actual Fairy Godmother. She does go to the ball and she gets to dance with a handsome prince. The prince is Ted Drake (Robert Stack) and while he might not be a real prince he’s rich handsome and charming and he’s as close to a prince as you’ll find in New York City.

But of course at midnight Cinderella must leave the ball, leaving behind her only a slipper. It’s not much of a clue but Ted Drake is determined to find that slipper’s owner.

Charming is the word that seems to be most often used to describe Deanna Durbin. Maybe she wasn’t the world’s greatest actress but her performance here is more than capable. She handles the light comedy with ease and she makes Connie sympathetic without sentimentality. Connie is of course supposed to be totally overshadowed by her more beautiful more glamorous cousin and Durbin manages to convey this without making Connie dull or earnest. In fact Connie might not be a glamour queen but she is likeable and amusing.

I wouldn’t describe Durbin as a stunning beauty but she has a wholesome Girl Next Door prettiness.

Robert Stack is so unbelievably young I didn’t recognise him at first (he was all of twenty when he made this picture). He does the Prince Charming thing with a pleasing natural ease.

The supporting cast is superb. Barbara is a nasty piece of work and Helen Parrish has a great deal of fun with the role. Uncle Jim turns out to be the worm that finally turns and Eugene Pallette is delightful. Charles Coleman is very good as the loveable butler George. It’s really unfair to single anyone out though since they’re all so good.

This is not really a musical. It’s a romantic comedy with some musical interludes. The musical interludes are not necessary but since Deanna Durbin was a noted singer it would have been pretty silly not to give her the chance to sing a few songs, which she does rather nicely.

Henry Koster directed quite a few of Durbin’s films and apparently acted as the young star’s mentor. He can’t be faulted for the job he does here.

The romance is certainly there but it’s also genuinely very amusing. It follows the Cinderella story surprisingly closely and it does so with wit and style.

Simply Media’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is good. This movie is also available on DVD in Region 1 as part of Universal’s Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack boxed set.

First Love is very much a feelgood movie. It’s funny and clever and it’s insanely romantic. Highly recommended.