Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Woman in Question (1950)

In the early 1950s a film appeared that took a revolutionary approach to narrative. It was a crime story, with the same events told from several different (and often contradictory) points of view. No, the film I’m talking about isn’t Kurosawa’s Rashomon, it’s Anthony Asquith’s 1950 British crime thriller The Woman in Question which (by a slight margin) predates Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

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.

In Mrs Finch’s account Mrs Houston was a most respectable woman, unlike that hussy of a sister of hers. Mrs Finch also paints a very unflattering portrait of young Bob Baker. She also hints at the possibility that Catherine may have been on excessively friendly terms with Agnes Houston’s husband, who is now dying.

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.

There are three other witnesses. There’s Mr Pollard, the mild-mannered middle-aged gentleman who runs the pet shop across the road from Mrs Houston’s house. His account makes it clear that he had hopes of marrying Agnes Houston after her husband’s death, but while this might be possible Superintendent Lodge also has to consider the possibility that the romance was strictly one-way, and if Pollard had finally realised that she had no interest in him other than in using him to do odd jobs and lend her money then he could conceivably be a suspect.

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.

Superintendent Lodge believes that the only way to solve the case is to solve the mystery of Agnes Houston herself. Each witness has presented a different view of her, but which of those versions was the real woman? If they know that they will know who killed her. And, interestingly enough, both Superintendent Lodge and the audience do eventually get a fairly clear picture of her.

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.

One of the big pluses of the multiple-perspective approach is that it gives the actors the chance to play the same roles, and the same scenes, in five different ways. They certainly seem to relish this chance. Jean Kent as Mrs Houston gets to be very prim and proper, and also to play her role as a slovenly drunk and as a shrewd and ruthless schemer. Dirk Bogarde gets to be a romantic hero, and to be a sinister bad boy as well.

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

The Man with a Cloak (1951)

The Man with a Cloak is an interesting idea that doesn’t quite come off but this 1951 MGM period crime melodrama is worth watching for some glorious acting.

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.

Lorna and Martin are clever and ruthless and the naïve Madeleine might seem to be completely outclassed by such seasoned conspirators but she has acquired an unlikely (although possibly not entirely reliable) ally in the person of a drunken poet named Dupin (Joseph Cotten). Dupin is perpetually penniless and drunk but he’s no fool and Lorna immediately recognises him as a dangerous enemy. Being the sort of woman she is she sets out to neutralise the threat by enticing Dupin with the prospect of either a share of the loot or a chance to enjoy her physical charms.

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.

It’s the acting that carries this movie. Stanwyck is in full-on spider woman mode and she’s magnificent. There’s some subtlety here too. Lorna Bounty is scheming, unscrupulous and very deadly but she’s oddly sympathetic at times. She’s villainous but only up to a point. She’s prepared to do what she has to do to get that money but in a perverse way she’s honest and open about her scheming. Old Thevenet has always known what the score was. And her ruthlessness has limits - she has no interest in cruelty for its own sake.

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.

Leslie Caron is the problem. We’re meant to regard Madeleine as the idealistic heroine but oddly enough she comes across as being more of a hypocrite than the supposed villains. She also comes across as insipid and irritating.

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 some neat little ideas in it. There’s plenty of scheming but what’s going on is not always as obvious as it seems and there are some nice ironic touches. At times it gets a bit too clever for its own good but it’s always entertaining. The performances, especially those by Stanwyck and Calhern, are more than sufficient reason to see it. This is an absolute must-see movie for Barbara Stanwyck fans.

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

Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957)

Tip on a Dead Jockey is a 1957 crime thriller with a definite noirish tinge and an aviation background, which certainly sounds rather promising.

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.

It doesn’t take long for us to find out what the problem is. He can’t fly any more. He’s lost his nerve. That obviously limits his career prospects (flying is what he’s trained to do and after the war he’d been an airline pilot) but it does more than that. As his buddy Jimmy Heldon (Jack Lord) remarks, when a flyer can’t fly any more there are other things he can’t do either. This is clearly something that is eating away at Lloyd’s soul.

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.

Now the crime thriller and romance sub-plots start to intertwine, and they do so surprisingly effectively. Lloyd allows both his fear of flying and his confused emotional life to persuade him to do something that is more than just dishonourable and cowardly. He then retreats into self-pity. This is starting to move towards real film noir territory, with a flawed hero tempted his own weaknesses into taking the first step towards ruin and degradation.

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.

By the late 1940s Robert Taylor was starting to look just a little weather-beaten which might explain why he started to get offered some slightly darker roles, often in movies that were at least borderline film noir. These roles turned out to suit him perfectly. He could do the hardboiled thing, he could play tortured characters but most of all what he was particularly good at was conveying world-weariness. Not exactly cynical world-weariness, but world-weariness with a touch of pessimism and a touch of fatalism. That’s exactly what his part in Tip on a Dead Jockey requires and he’s superb.

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.

The single most surprising thing about this movie is that Robert Taylor sings! He does a duet with Dorothy Malone, and it’s a song with lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, not quite what you expect in a movie such as this. It’s only a single musical number but it does achieve its purpose in letting us know something about how Lloyd and Phyllis really feel about each other.

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.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Spanish Main (1945)

I’m quite a fan of pirate movies but RKO’s 1945 The Spanish Main, directed by Frank Borzage, is not exactly one of the classics of the genre.

Pious Dutchman Captain Laurent Van Horn (Paul Henreid) is sailing to the New World to start a new life but he falls into the hands of the wicked Spanish when his ship runs aground near Cartagena. The wicked Spanish viceroy Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak) throws him into prison. Vam Horm escapes and becomes the dreaded pirate known as the Barracuda.

A beautiful Spanish contessa (played by Maureen O’Hara) is one her way to Cartagena to become the Alvarado’s bride. Her ship is captured by the Barracuda and she is forced to marry the pirate. She has already been acquainted with him and is oddly attracted to him. Whether she has really married him against her will is a moot point.

Of course the Contessa Francesca and the Barracuda hate each other at first before realising that they’re actually madly in love.

Van Horn’s motives for marrying the Contessa soon become clear. He wants revenge against Don Alvarado and plans to use her as bait in his plan to destroy the wicked Spanish tyrant. Of course he eventually realises that he truly loves her.

There are complicated and tedious plots and counter-plots by Van Horn and Alvarado as they seek to destroy each other, while Van Horn’s schemes cause much dissension among the Brethren of the Coast (a sort of pirates’ trade-union). It all ends with the expected showdown between the Barracuda and Don Alvarado.

This movie starts with some pretty decent action scenes including a full-scale sea battle. There are some lesser but still reasonably good action moments later on. This was RKO’s first Technicolor production, the cinematography is excellent and by RKO standards it’s quite lavish.

The Spanish are always cast as the villains in pirate movies set in this era but this has to be just about the most hysterically anti-Spanish movie I’ve ever seen. The Spanish are depicted as cruel, treacherous, bloodthirsty monsters but they’re also depicted as incompetent buffoons. The pirates on the other hand appear to be a mixture of courageous freedom fighters and priggish social workers. OK, it’s just a pirate movie, but even by pirate movie standards this is juvenile and unconvincing nonsense and it makes the movie tiresome.

The big problem is the casting. The movie was apparently Paul Henreid’s pet project and he was the one who sold RKO on the project. Unfortunately he just doesn’t have the charisma or the personality to be swashbuckling hero. He seems more like a country parson than a pirate. He may be the dullest swashbuckling hero in cinematic history and he pretty much sinks the whole film.

Maureen O’Hara made quite a few swashbucklers and her performance is as spirited as usual although the plodding and rather feeble script by Herman Mankiewicz and George Worthing Yates doesn’t give her much to work with.

The supporting cast is mostly dull.

The one bright spot is Walter Slezak as Don Alvarado. He’s a cartoon villain but Slezak’s performance is sparkling and witty and immensely entertaining. He’s the bad guy but I was rooting for him to win and hoping that at the end he’d get to hang those sanctimonious pirates.

The whole movie is the usual collection of clichés, executed with a noticeable lack of energy and style. With a decent swashbuckling hero, an Errol Flynn or a Tyrone Power, it might still have worked. With Paul Henreid as the hero it all falls terribly flat. The Spanish Main looks good but even Walter Slezak’s wonderful performance can’t keep this one afloat. Not recommended.

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.