Sunday, August 21, 2016

Wide Boy (1952)

Wide Boy is a 1952 British crime melodrama with some marked affinities to film noir. Merton Park Studios specialised in cheap B-movies that often turned out to be quite decent little movies.

Benny Mercer (Sydney Tafler) is a wide boy - he’s a petty crook whose criminal activities are very trivial indeed. Things like hawking without a licence. Or selling items that may have fallen off the back of a lorry. These heinous crimes usually result in a small fine. He has never been to prison. The truth is that Benny has neither the nerve nor the imagination  to get mixed up in any kind of serious crime.

Things are not going well for Benny at the moment and then suddenly an opportunity presents itself. It’s still a fairly minor crime but it in turn offers him an opportunity to get his hands on some real money for the first time in his life.

It’s too much of a temptation to resist but the truth is that Benny is badly out of his depth. He has no experience in such matters. He certainly has no experience in crime on such a scale and he makes a very serious error of judgment. He thinks he’s buying insurance but he could be putting a noose around his neck.

It all goes terribly wrong, as tends to happen when amateurs think they can play in the big time. In a single evening Benny goes from aspiring big shot to hunted animal. Chief Inspector Carson (Ronald Howard) is a rather gentle and amiable policeman but he knows his job and time is running out for Benny. 

All Benny really wanted to do was to have enough money to buy a few nice things for himself and for his girlfriend Molly (Susan Shaw). He’s not really such a bad guy, merely weak and prone to the temptation of easy money. In normal circumstances he would have gone through life without doing any great harm to anybody. What seemed like a lucky break turned out to be very unlucky indeed. In this sense Wide Boy probably just about qualifies as film noir. Benny discovers that one mistake can be enough to damn a man. His downfall is certainly brought about by his own character flaws, combined with lousy luck.

Sydney Tafler was an actor who never made it stardom. Lead roles in very low-budget movies such as this one were as far as he got. In fact he was a fine actor and when well cast (as he is here) he could deliver some pretty impressive performances. 

Susan Shaw is effective as Molly. She does at times give Benny a hard time about his lack of money, and to some extent she is therefore to blame for tempting him into serious crime, but she’s not calculating enough or ruthless enough (or heartless enough) to be a femme fatale.

Ronald Howard gives a characteristically easy-going performance as Chief Inspector Carson. 

There are some definite film noir visual moments and the climactic bridge sequence is wonderfully atmospheric and doom-laden. This was the first feature film directed by Ken Hughes who went on to have an interesting if up-and-down career. Wide Boy qualifies as an impressive debut.
Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers an extremely good transfer. As usual there’s pretty much nothing in the way of extras (in fact nothing beyond a somewhat threadbare image gallery).

Despite its low budget Wide Boy is an entertaining, well-crafted and visually impressive little gem of a movie. Sydney Tafler’s superb performance is a major asset. This is an excellent low-key British film noir. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)

Harry Street (Gregory Peck) is dying. He is dying somewhere in Africa, within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro. Harry is a writer and big hame hunter and he has returned to Africa one last time, in an effort to recapture his inspiration (and to answer a riddle). Now he lies dying and he looks back on his life, a life of failure and disappointment (or that’s how it appears to Harry anyway). This is the setup for 20th Century-Fox’s lavish 1952 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Harry’s story is told in a series of flashbacks, as he lies in a state of delirium (a delirium aided by whisky).

Harry had been an idealistic young aspiring writer with ambitions to write Serious Literature. He had been encouraged in this ambition by his Uncle Bill (Leo G. Carroll). Bill had advised the young wordsmith to dump his first love, Connie, to devote himself to his Art. This would set the pattern for Harry’s life - a long series of attempts to balance his professional ambitions with his personal life with the women in his life always coming second.

Harry belongs to that school that believes that if you want to be a writer you must first first experience life. Experiencing life means traveling to exotic locations and having lots of encounters with death. Big game hunting, wars, bullfights, anything involving death is good. Anything involving nihilism or artistic self-absorption is also good and Harry finds plenty of both in the pretentious but shallow world of 1930s arty Paris.

The problem with this is that it’s a way of life that doesn’t really appeal to women and Harry can’t live without women. It was a particular problem with the great love of his life, Cynthia (Ava Gardner). Cynthia had this crazy idea that marriage meant making a life together, having a home and raising children. She soon finds out that Harry doesn’t see it that way at all.

Eventually Harry ends up with Helen (Susan Hayward) although oddly enough we find out very little about their actual relationship. All that we know for certain is that Helen has always believed (undoubtedly correctly) that Harry saw her as a mere Cynthia-substitute. Helen has done everything possible to be the sort of wife Harry wants but it hasn’t worked. 

The problems with this film come down to the problems with the basic idea, which presumably means they come down to the source material. We have to buy the idea that the rich successful Harry is a failure because he has committed the one unpardonable literary sin -  he writes books that people actually want to read. We also have to buy the idea that Harry is consumed with self-loathing because people like his books. Even more, we have to accept that he is right to do so.

Along with this we must accept that Harry’s descent into alcoholism and self-pity is perfectly understandable. After all the only possible response to seeing one’s books on the best-seller lists is to start drinking oneself to death. We must further accept that Harry’s deplorable treatment of the women in his life is quite acceptable since being a writer justifies everything, even behaving like a spoilt selfish child. In fact we’re asked to go along with the idea that writers are Special and are allowed to treat other people like dirt while they wallow is self-indulgence.

Gregory Peck does his best and his performance is more successful than one might expect but one can’t get away from the unfortunate truth that he is not really the right actor for such a part. Ava Gardner, surely the most underrated actress of her era, easily steals the picture. She is magnetic and convincing. Susan Hayward tries very hard and does remarkably well  but she is hamstrung by the fact that the script gives her nothing to work with. Her part is ludicrously underwritten which is a great shame because Helen is potentially the most interesting character in the movie. Unfortunately screenwriter Casey Robinson was clearly uninterested in her.

The movie looks gorgeous. There’s some use of stock footage and copious use of rear projection but the rear projection is extraordinarily well done. The African photography is superb.

The Region 4 DVD from Fox is barebones apart from a trailer but the transfer is excellent. 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a movie about failure so it’s perhaps fitting that the movie itself is a failure. It is however visually impressive and boasts fine performances from Ava Gardner and (despite a script that offers her virtually nothing to latch onto) Susan Hayward. Worth seeing if you’re an Ava Gardner fan plus the African scenes look terrific. Probably worthy a rental.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Marriage of Convenience (1960)

Marriage of Convenience was one of the many Edgar Wallace adaptations cranked out by Britain’s Merton Park Studios at the beginning of the 60s. These were B-movies but were screened on American television as the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.

Marriage of Convenience, released theatrically in Britain in 1960, is a fairly typical example of these films. It’s a low-key crime thriller that reaches no great heights but provides decent entertainment.

It has quite a clever opening sequence. Barbara Blair (Jennifer Daniels) arrives at the registry office to get married. Her husband-to-be arrives for the wedding in handcuffs. Larry Wilson (John Cairney) is serving a prison term for armed robbery. He’s been given permission to marry because Barbara is pregnant. 

The wedding takes an unusual turn. In fact the whole thing was an elaborate prison break scheme.

Now Larry is out but what he wants is the money that he stole from the bank. It should be no problem. His girlfriend Tina (Moira Redmond) is looking after it for him. Or at least that was the plan, but the plan has gone wrong.

Inspector Bruce (Harry H. Corbett) is on Larry’s trail and the trail will lead him (and lead Larry) to Inspector Maudle (John van Eyssen), now retired. 

Larry’s prison break scheme had also involved Barbara’s stepfather, habitual (but not very successful) criminal Sam Spencer (Russell Waters). Inspector Bruce is on Sam’s trail as well. The plot is a series of double-crosses, in typical Edgar Wallace style.

The screenplay, by Robert Banks Stewart, is not overly complex but it has just enough twists to keep things reasonably interesting. Director Clive Donner does as much as he can with what was obviously a very limited budget. He doesn’t try anything fancy but he keeps things moving.

Harry H. Corbett would become much more famous for comedy and at first it’s just a little off-putting seeing him playing things very straight. One keeps expecting him to do or say something funny but his performance is solid enough. John Cairney is pretty good as Larry, a criminal whose biggest problem is that he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. He’s just not cut out for big time crime but big time crime is where his ambitions lie.

John van Eyssen is good as the smooth ex-cop who can’t help being condescending to his former subordinate, the much more working class Inspector Bruce. Moira Redmond makes an effective would-be femme fatale while Jennifer Daniels does well as the good-natured Barbara who is (like Larry) ill-suited to a life of crime.

Network have released all 47 of the Merton Park Edgar Walllace thrillers in a series of DVD boxed sets. Most of the sets include around seven films with usually another non-Wallace B-film included as a bonus. Marriage of Convenience gets an excellent anamorphic transfer. 

With a running time of just 58 minutes Marriage of Convenience is strictly B-movie material but it’s a harmless and fairly enjoyable little crime film as long as you don’t set your expectations too high. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Model for Murder (1959)

Model for Murder is a1959 British mystery thriller although it’s more thriller than mystery. In fact there’s no mystery here at all.

American sailor David Martens (Keith Andes) meets Sally Meadows (Hazel Court) in a London cemetery. David was visiting the grave of his brother who was killed in an accident two years earlier. David wants to find model Diana Leigh who had been engaged to marry his brother. As luck would have it Sally works for couturier Kingsley Beauchamp (Michael Gough) so she’s acquainted with Diana Leigh.

David finds himself caught up in a daring jewel robbery and a murder. Fabulously valuable diamonds have been stolen from a safe in Beauchamp’s office. The borrowed jewels were being used for a fashion shoot. David appears to be the obvious suspect although Inspector Duncan (Howard Marion-Crawford) is not such a fool as to jump blindly to obvious conclusions.

David has to find a way to clear himself and he’s going to need Sally’s help. He will also get help at a crucial moment from a siamese cat!

He’s up against people who are ruthless and desperate even if they are somewhat clumsy. The plot is your basic “wrong man accused of a crime has to find the real culprit before the police find him” story with no startling twists.

Terry Bishop and Robert Dunbar wrote the script and while it’s serviceable it’s not exactly breathtakingly original. Bishop also directed the film. His career was mostly spent in television and there’s nothing in this film to suggest that he was anything more than competent.

The fashion background adds a touch of glamour to what is otherwise a fairly routine B-movie.

Fortunately there’s no comic relief in this movie and it’s all played pretty straight. The 73-minute running time means it’s in no real danger of wearing out its welcome.

It’s obviously a low-budget production but it manages not to look shoddy or excessively cheap.

This movie’s biggest asset is its cast. Keith Andes is an acceptable if unexciting male lead with a very slightly hard-boiled flavour but Hazel Court is excellent. Michael Gough is in fine form as the smooth but reckless Kingsley Beauchamp. He doesn’t overact as much as he would in many later movies but he’s still mesmerising.

Howard Marion-Crawford is always a delight as a policeman and Alfred Burke plays a minor role as a professional safe-cracker named Podd who has been persuaded to work with a bunch of amateurs. Edwin Richfield as Beauchamp’s chauffeur Costard makes a fine heavy.

Network’s DVD release features a very pleasing anamorphic transfer. There are no extras apart from a photo gallery but it’s a reasonably inexpensive DVD so there’s no real cause for complaint.

Model for Murder is harmless and enjoyable enough and the top-flight cast is a definite bonus. Not in the top rank of 50s British thrillers, not even close, but worth a look although it might perhaps be one to rent rather than purchase.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Houdini (1953)

Houdini may not have a great deal to do with the actual life and career of Harry Houdini but it’s wonderful entertainment nonetheless, mostly due to Tony Curtis’s dazzling performance.

We begin with the young Harry Houdini, eking out a living in carnival sideshows but with grandiose ambitions. His attempts to romance Bess (Janet Leigh) seem doomed to failure but if something seems impossible Hioudini simply sees it as a challenge to overcome. He wins Bess but he’s still a distinctly small-time magician.

And now he has a wife who would really prefer him to have a regular job. He gives in and gets a job at a safe factory but he is never going to give up his dreams. His big chance comes at a magicians’ Halloween dinner when he accepts a challenge to escape from a straitjacket. The prize being offered is quite substantial because no-one has ever succeeded in escaping from a straitjacket before. Harry of course succeeds.

Now the Great Houdinis (as the husband-and-wife act is now called) are off to Europe. Houdini’s greatest single challenge was to persuade Bess to agree to such a gamble and although he convinced her she was still less than enthusiastic.

Houdini’s career almost crashes in London when he accepts a challenge to escape from an English prison. What he doesn’t know is that this English prison has a security system quite different from an American prison. It really is escape-proof. Or at least it was escape-proof until Houdini came along.

Houdini achieves success in Europe but finds he has to start all over again when he returns to the US. By this time however he has perfected the art of the publicity stunt and he is soon an even bigger star in his home country.

Of course he has to keep coming up with ever more spectacular tricks. And ever more dangerous escapes. How long can a man keep defying death?

Whether the real Houdini was a man half in love with death is debatable but his film counterpart certainly seems to be. Of course a movie has to have some kind of theme and in this case it’s Houdini’s determination to go on taunting death.

Janet Leigh gives a fine performance in difficult circumstances - the difficulty being that the  screenplay can’t make up its mind whether Bess is to be a supportive wife or whether she is to be the kind of wife who thwarts her husband at every opportunity. As a result Leigh has to change gears constantly and we never really get a handle on what makes Bess tick.

It’s Tony Curtis’s performance that really matters and he’s superb. To be a totally convincing Houdini an actor has to have plenty of charisma and has to convey a sense of being constantly driven by ambition. Curtis certainly has the charisma and that driven quality was something he was particularly good at (see his performances in Sweet Smell of Success and Trapeze). He also has the ability to make such a character both sympathetic and likeable.

Director George Marshall doesn’t try anything fancy. He doesn’t need to do - the story is colourful enough, he has two charismatic stars and to add cinematic trickery to the magic tricks would just cheapen them. The best approach was the one Marshall chose - just point the camera at Tony Curtis and let him do his stuff. Philip Yordan’s screenplay is rather disjointed. Mostly it seems to be an excuse to string together a series of Houdini’s most celebrated magic tricks. Oddly enough it’s an approach that works quite well. The focus is mainly on Houdini’s career rather than his personal life, which is just as well because whenever the focus does switch to his personal life the movie gets a lot less interesting.

Houdini has had several DVD releases and is available on Blu-Ray from Legend Films (paired rather incongruously with Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies). The Blu-Ray transfer is not terrific but it’s acceptable.

It’s probably better to consider this as a movie inspired by the life of Houdini rather than as an attempt to give us any kind of insight into the great magician’s actual life. If you’re prepared to accept that then there’s plenty to enjoy here. Tony Curtis gives one of his career-best performances and the chemistry between Curtis and Leigh is terrific. Even if it takes extreme liberties with the truth Houdini is perhaps the right kind of movie tribute to the greatest magician of them all, magic being all about illusion after all. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Johnny Angel (1945)

Johnny Angel is an interesting little 1945 RKO film noir.

Johnny Angel (George Raft) is a sea captain, like his father. When he finds his father’s ship, the Emmaline Quincy, drifting at sea in the Gulf of Mexico, with its cargo intact but the crew (including his father) nowhere to be found, he is determined to find out what has happened. 

He puts a salvage crew aboard the Emmaline Quincy. After it docks in New Orleans a mysterious French girl is seen leaving the ship - this girl is Johnny’s only clue to the mystery. First he has to find her, then having found her he has to keep her alive. Neither task will be easy.

Both Johnny and his father worked for the Gustafson Line, run by the pudgy and ineffectual George Gustafson (invariably referred to as Gusty). In reality it’s Gusty’s old nurse Miss Drumm (Margaret Wycherly), now his secretary, who runs the line. Between them Miss Drumm and Gusty’s wife Lilah (Claire Trevor) run Gusty. Gusty is the kind of man who is destined to be run by women.

Lilah is two-timing Gusty with night-club owner and gangster Sam Jewell (Lowell Gilmore) but she also has her sights set on Johnny. Lilah likes men but she also likes money. She can’t decide which she likes most.

The mystery which is slowly unravelled is rather complex. Suffice to say that gold is involved. Lots of gold. Enough gold to drive men (or women) to murder, or even more than one murder.

This movie is a relatively rare example of a film noir with a flashback and voice-over narration from the point of view of a female character. 

Steve Fisher’s screenplay hits most of the right noir notes. Edwin L. Marin was a competent director and a year later would direct George Raft in another excellent film noir, Nocturne. Marin captures the noir mood effectively in Johnny Angel, with some help from cinematographer Harry J. Wild (who also worked on Nocturne and in fact shot many notable noir films).

George Raft gives an excellent performance as the obsessed son investigating the mystery involving his father. Raft was always a very convincing heavy but he could be equally effective in more sympathetic roles. He was best of all when he got to combine the two tendencies as he does here. Johnny Angel is a very tough guy who never takes a backward step from any man but he’s also a very nice guy. I suspect that it was Raft’s sublime confidence in his own macho qualities (he was a very tough guy in real life) that allowed him to switch effortlessly from tough to gentleness and charm.

The rest of the cast is very strong. Claire Trevor does her femme fatale bit as the wife of the owner of the shopping line – she is very much in love with his money, with him not so much. It’s the sort of thing she always did extremely well. 

Signe Hasso (who was Swedish and whose slight accent is clearly and unsurprisingly Swedish) plays the enigmatic French girl and she does an effective job. Hoagy Carmichael (better known of course as a composer) is Celestial, a cab driver with a knack for being around when interesting things are happening. Naturally he also gets a chance to sing. He’s a likeable and amusing (and rather charmingly eccentric) foil for the very serious Johnny Angel. Marvin Miller is all thwarted ambition and weakness as the milksop owner of the Gustafson Line.  

The nautical background and the New Orleans settings give the film a distinctive and attractive flavour, and it’s a fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining movie.  It’s one of those lesser known noirs that is well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Father Brown (1954)

Father Brown (released in the US as The Detective) is a light-hearted 1954 British mystery based on the popular stories Father Brown detective stories by G. K. Chesterton. This was the second attempt to bring Chesterton’s priest detective to the big screen, an earlier adaptation having been made in 1934. The 1954 version stars Alec Guinness as the little priest-detective.

The movie is based on Chesterton’s story The Blue Cross, which introduced both Father Brown and Flambeau, although the story has been much expanded and embroidered.

Father Brown is a mild-mannered bumbling and apparently slightly dimwitted English Catholic priest who is also an enthusiastic amateur detective. Needless to say his dimwittedness is merely on the surface - he is in fact a very astute detective. 

A very valuable cross has to be taken to France by Father Brown for a religious conference. Scotland Yard have made elaborate security arrangements with Inspector Valentine (Bernard Lee) being placed in charge. The security is necessary since the notorious thief Flambeau is known to be intending to steal the cross. Father Brown decides that the inspector’s security arrangements are worse than useless so he ignores them. His decision backfires but while the loss of the cross will be a serious matter Father Brown is more concerned with saving Flambeau from his career of crime. Since Flambeau has no desire to be saved and thoroughly enjoys his criminal life this will be quite a challenge.

Father Brown has to recover the cross, find Flambeau and persuade him to abandon crime and he has to keep Flambeau out of the hands of the police for long enough to allow him to achieve these objectives. Most of the film is therefore a double chase, with the little priest pursuing the master criminal while they are both being pursued by the police.

I’m not a great Alec Guinness fan and my concern with this movie is that he might overdo the comedy angle. Chesterton’s stories certainly contain a great deal of humour but they are also serious detective stories and they have moral, philosophical and spiritual dimensions as well. If the stories are played purely for comedy then they will miss the point. Guinness’s performance is better than I’d expected but at least some of my fears were realised - there really is too much emphasis on comedy.

Peter Finch is a surprisingly effective Flambeau, managing to be dashing and enigmatic with a hint of tragedy and also managing to be fairly convincingly Gallic. Bernard Lee played countless police inspectors during his career. He played such roles so often because he played them extremely well and his performance here is no exception. Joan Greenwood adds some glamour as an entirely unnecessary character named Lady Warren.

Director Robert Hamer had a flair for comedy (as he would demonstrate in School for Scoundrels) and his career was riding high at this time. Sadly it was not to last - alcoholism destroyed his marriage and his career and led to his early death in 1963. He handles things pretty well here. 

The screenplay does at least try to preserve some of the intriguing mixture of elements that made Chesterton’s stories classics of their genre although we’re left not entirely convinced that Father Brown is the great detective he’s supposed to be (whereas in the original stories we are left in no doubt at all on that point). 

The tone does get more serious as the movie progresses and there are some attempts to explain Flambeau’s motivations.

If you want to see how it should have been done check out the superb 1974 British Father Brown TV series with Kenneth More giving an absolutely splendid performance in the title role.

Sony’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is quite satisfactory and the price is very reasonable indeed.

For my tastes it focuses a little too much on comedy but Father Brown is still enjoyable enough and Alec Guinness fans won’t want to miss it. Recommended.