Friday, April 21, 2017

Valley of the Kings (1954)

A square-jawed action hero who is also an archaeologist, and he’s searching for the fabled tomb of the Pharaoh Ra-Hotep but can he stay alive long enough to find it? This might sound like the plot of a lost Indiana Jones movie but in fact it predates Indy by more than twenty years. The movie is MGM’s big-budget 1954 adventure romp Valley of the Kings and it’s great stuff.

Mark Brandon (Robert Taylor) is a tough guy who worked as a labourer in some very rough places until he found employment on the Suez Canal project, which indirectly led to his discovery of his hitherto unsuspected passion for unearthing the treasures of the past. He transformed himself from a macho hardbitten labourer into a macho hardbitten archaeologist.

The year is 1900 and a meeting with Ann Barclay Mercedes (Eleanor Parker) is about to change Mark Brandon’s life forever. Ann is the daughter of a legendary archaeologist, now deceased. Her father believed that if the tomb of Ra-Hotep could be found it would contain evidence that support the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt and might possibly provide evidence that the Pharaoh in question was a secret monotheist.

For Ann it’s an opportunity to prove that her father’s theory wasn’t a crackpot idea and as she’s a devout Christian it’s also a way to promote her faith. For Mark Brandon there’s the remote chance that the tomb might actually be found, plus he’ll go along with most ideas if they’re likely to bring him into close contact with a beautiful young woman, although he cools a little on the scheme when he finds out that she’s married.

Her husband is Philip Mercedes (Carlos Thompson), a handsome but idle cosmopolitan dandy to whom Brandon takes an immediate dislike.

Ann’s father had come across some kind of clue to the location of the tomb and the plan adopted by our ill-matched threesome of treasure-seekers is to retrace the old man’s footsteps in his final journeyings before he died. This plan leads them to a remote Christian monastery, and to an important clue.

It soon becomes evident that people who take a keen interest in the location of Ra-Hotep’s  tomb have a habit of disappearing or turning up dead. In this instance it’s not some kind of course associated with the tomb - it seems far more likely to be a case of modern tomb-robbers wanting to keep a source of wealth to themselves. In any case it’s obvious that the search for the tomb is going to be hazardous in the extreme. Ann Mercedes and Mark Brandon are both immensely stubborn in their own very different ways and the dangers are not going to deter therm.

Adventures movies of the 50s have a reputation for leisurely placing (by modern standards) but that accusation can’t really be leveled at this movie. There’s plenty of action  and it doesn’t take long for that action to get going.

MGM spent a lot of money on this film, with a good deal of location shooting in Egypt. It was worth the trouble and the expense. The movie has a feeling of grandeur and majesty to it that fits in well with the themes of the story.

By 1954 Robert Taylor was no longer the young pretty-boy leading man of the 30s and 40s. He was starting to play darker more hardboiled roles in movies like Rogue Cop and his acting had improved markedly. Here he is ideally cast a fundamentally decent guy who is still rather rough around the edges. Eleanor Parker is excellent also. Ann is a strong woman but in a mostly very traditional way - she has genuine depth and strength of character rather than being a stereotypical movie tough cookie. The two leads have the right chemistry as well and that always helps.

Carlos Thompson was a very underrated Argentinian actor best known for the whimsical British 1963 action-adventure TV series The Sentimental Agent. As Philip Mercedes he’s all charm but perhaps not the sort of man to be wholly trusted.

This movie is available in the Warner Archive series. The print is acceptable but it’s far from pristine. In an ideal world a fine movie like this would get a full-scale restoration but alas we live in a far from perfect world. It’s a pity because the film was shot widescreen and in colour and with the wonderful Egyptian settings a restoration would pay spectacular dividends.

Valley of the Kings is a lavish and handsome production with well-executed action sequences and effective suspense. The standard of acting is rather better than is usual in 1950s Hollywood adventure flicks and the lead characters are at least somewhat three-dimensional. This movie is just great fun. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Smashing the Money Ring (1939)

In 1939 and 1940 Ronald Reagan starred in the four Brass Bancroft thrillers for Warner Brothers. These were enjoyable B-feature crime thrillers retailing the exploits of Secret Service agent Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft. Smashing the Money Ring was the third film in the series.

Bancroft and his partner “Gabby” Watters (Eddie Foy Jr) are on the trail of counterfeiters. A rather nasty hoodlum named Dice Matthews (Joe Downing) is running the racket and the phony money is being printed inside the state penitentiary. Dice figures it would be a swell idea to use the gambling ship operated by former mobster Steve Parker as a venue in which to pass the counterfeit greenbacks. Parker is all through with the rackets (the gambling ship is legitimate) and wants no part of it. The difficulty is that Dice Matthews is a vicious thug and his usual response to being thwarted is to have somebody rubbed out.

Parker comes up with a brilliant plan. He’ll squeal to the cops and he’ll avoid Dice’s vengeance by hiding out somewhere real safe for a month. And what could be a safer place than the state prison? Of course first he has to get himself into the prison but that’s easy - he’ll just slug a copper and get himself 30 days in the clink. The bonus here is that he’s always wanted to punch a policeman.

It all gets complicated and Brass himself has to go undercover as a convict to get himself into the penitentiary as well. Gabby is supposed to follow up leads involving the gambling ship but he spends more time pursuing Steve Parker’s attractive young daughter Peggy (Margot Stevenson). While Gabby is chasing skirt things start to get rough at the prison. More than just rough - people start getting shot which is not supposed to happen in jail.

The idea of a counterfeit racket operating inside a prison has been used in crime movies a number of times but it’s a good idea and in this case the script provides more than enough interest to maintain the viewer’s interest for the film’s very modest 57-minute running time. 

Director Terry O. Morse does a workmanlike job. He knows it’s a B-picture and his task is to get it done on time and on budget and to keep the action moving along. And there’s actually quite a lot action.

Brass Bancroft was an ideal role for the young Ronald Reagan. In this film he gets to be mostly likeable and heroic but then in the prison scenes he gets to do hardbitten tough guy stuff. And he manages it all with a certain aplomb.

The one great weakness of this series is that Eddie Foy Jr is a particularly lame and annoying comic relief actor. Luckily he gets less screen time than usual in this movie, and he’s less irritating than usual.

The supporting cast is competent and Joe Downing brings a nice mix of craziness and sadism to his role as Dice Matthews. Margot Stevenson is an adequate heroine.

One minor disappointment is that this film does not make use of the fact that Brass Bancroft is an aviator. A couple of the other Brass Bancroft films (Secret Service of the Air and Murder in the Air) feature airborne adventures.

The four Brass Bancroft movies are available on made-on-demand DVDs in the Warner Archive series in a two-disc pack. The transfers are excellent. There are no extras. All four movies are good solid crime thrillers making this pack a very worthwhile purchase for B-movie fans.

This is a better than average (and quite exciting) little programmer and Reagan gives his best performance of the series here. Smashing the Money Ring is certainly worth your time. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Vicious Circle (1957)

Vicious Circle, also released as The Circle, is a 1957 British crime thriller with a screenplay by Francis Durbridge.

When you see Francis Durbridge’s name on the credits you expect a convoluted plot, which is exactly what this film boasts. You also expect the plot to be skillfully constructed, and again that’s precisely what you get here. 

It starts in very typical Durbridge fashion. You take a very ordinary fellow and plunge him into a nightmare vortex of fear and suspicion. In this case the ordinary chap is Harley Street specialist Dr Howard Latimer (John Mills). Dr Latimer sees a patient who has a very odd story to tell - she found a dead body in a park but the body later disappeared. Still, patients with odd stories to tell are not all that unusual. On the same day he is asked by an American friend to meet a German film star at London Airport. named Geoffrey Windsor, a reporter who had wanted to interview him, offers him a lift to the airport. A busy day but nothing really special.

And then he gets back to his flat and finds a dead woman there. This body does not disappear. Latimer’s problem is that it seems that no-one is able (or willing) to back up any part of his story. Even worse it appears that some of the people he is relying on to back up his story don’t seem to exist. No newspaper in Fleet Street will admit to any knowledge of a reporter named Geoffrey Windsor. All of this naturally arouses the suspicions of Detective Inspector Dane (Roland Culver).

All of Latimer’s efforts to make sense of the mystery just leave him more confused and more desperate. To top it all off there’s a mysterious character called Brady (Wilfred Hyde-White) trying to blackmail him.

John Mills was at the top of his form in the 50s. The movies he made during this decade have mostly aged rather well, partly due to his very natural and rather laid-back style (although he could be intense when intensity was called for). His performances were always utterly convincing. Apart from MiIls this film boasts some remarkably fine actors among the supporting cast. Derek Farr as Latimer’s buddy Kenneth Palmer, Mervyn Johns as his colleague Dr Kimber and Noelle Middleton as his girlfriend Laura give fine performances. Wilfred Hyde-White is wonderful as always and Roland Culver sparkles as the remorseless but rather sympathetic Inspector Dane.

It’s the acting that to a very large degree carries this film. British film-makers really did had an extraordinary array of acting talent to draw upon at this time.

Producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas are best remembered for the Carry On comedies but in the 50s they were responsible for a number of successful thrillers. Thomas certainly can’t be faulted for the job he does here. He (perhaps wisely) doesn’t try anything too fancy.

I guess this movie could be considered to be vaguely in the Hitchcock style, although more low-key and lacking the spectacular visual set-pieces. The theme of the ordinary guy dragged into mystery and danger of which he has no clear comprehension works pretty well.

This movie is included in the Region 2 John Mills Centenary Collection DVD boxed set. It gets a very good transfer although there’s not much in the way of extras. 

Vicious Circle is a well-crafted mystery thriller, typical of the solid productions of the 1950s British film industry. A treat for Durbridge fans. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 24, 2017

On the Town (1949)

On the Town was the first directorial collaboration between Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and although it’s not quite as admired as Singin’ in the Rain it is regarded as one of the major postwar American musicals. Does it live up to its rather exalted reputation? In my view the answer is no, not quite, but it has its moments.

The plot is dead simple. Three sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin), have a 24-hour leave pass in New York City. They intend to have lots of fun, and fun will of course involve women.

Gabey falls hopelessly in love with a girl he sees on a poster in the subway. Brash lady cab driver Hildy falls for Chip while Ozzie hooks up with glamorous anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller).

The subway poster girl Ivy Smith who is this month’s Miss Turnstiles, this being some kind of promotion for the subway system. Being a small town boy who at this point in his life has never been to New York (or any big city) Gabey gets the idea into his head that Miss Turnstiles is some kind of huge celebrity. He thinks that she probably spends her time mixing with all the high society types. In fact Ivy Smith is an impoverished dance student who earns a precarious living as a cooch dancer at Coney Island. And far from being a sophisticated New Yorker she’s a small town girl from Meadowdale, Indiana (which just happens to be Gabey’s own home town).

Gabey only meets Ivy for a few brief moments, then loses her and he spends the rest of the day trying to find her again. 

My first problem with this movie is that generally speaking I really don’t like Gene Kelly. I admit he’s much less annoying than usual in this film and in fact to my surprise I found him to be actually fairly likeable. I do have a few issues with a couple of the cast members. Betty Garrett gives it her all as the sex-crazed cab driver but I quickly discovered that a little bit of Betty Garrett goes a long long way. Jules Munshin as Ozzie is exceptionally irritating. 

On the other hand Frank Sinatra is terrific as the rather shy Chip, bringing a real warmth and charm to the character. Ann Miller is of course fabulous.

This movie has the kind of feel that I always associate with Gene Kelly. It tries desperately hard to be clever. The dance sequences are certainly technically impressive. At times it’s more clever than enjoyable. Towards the end we get the kind of slightly pretentious ballet sequence that always appealed to Gene Kelly. 

The highlights are definitely the dances involving Ann Miller.

The music, by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens, is noisy and energetic but mostly rather forgettable.

The movie’s biggest strength is that the romance between Gabey and Ivy is quite touching.  It’s also pleasing that while they’re both small town innocents at large in the big city both characters are treated with respect. Gabey’s belief that Ivy must be a big celebrity betrays his naïvete, and Ivy’s desperate attempts to convince him that she really does move in the most exalted social circles are somewhat childish, but in both cases it’s made clear that this sort of innocence is not necessarily such a terrible thing.

In fact overall it’s a good-natured film about people who are essentially pretty decent. Even when Chip gets set up on a blind date with Hildy’s painfully plain buck-toothed flatmate he’s too nice a guy not to treat her respectfully.

On the Town is a bit of a mixed bag. Its main faults are that it tries too hard and the music is not great but the characters are sympathetic and appealing, it has some very amusing moments and it has both energy and some surprising charm. The delightful performances by Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller are major pluses. Recommended.

Monday, March 20, 2017

sci-fi classics - Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey

I've reviewed two classic science fiction  movies on my Cult Movie Reviews blog. Forbidden Planet is arguably the most admired sci-fi movies of the 1950s while Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is almost certainly the most admired of 1960s sci-fi films, providing a good opportunity for a back-to-back comparison. This is especially so since both movies are available on Blu-Ray and they're movies that really need to be seen in that format.

Here are the links to my reviews - Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943)

The Falcon and the Co-eds was the seventh of the sixteen RKO Falcon movies. Tom Conway starred as the debonair sleuth Tom Lawrence (known as the Falcon) and the result is eminently satisfactory B-movie entertainment.

Jane Harris, a pupil at the exclusive Blue Cliff Seminary for Girls, contacts the Falcon with a story that one of the teachers there has been murdered. The Falcon doesn’t take her story seriously but when she takes extreme measures to get his attention (by stealing his car) he decides that perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm to do a little investigating. 

The teacher supposedly died of heart failure but the Falcon is prepared to admit at least the possibility that there might have been more to it.

The initial clue that led Jane Harris to suspect murder came from another student, Marguerita Serena (Rita Corday). Marguerita is widely believed by to be clairvoyant and she had predicted that there would be a murder. Marguerita has other issues apart from her psychic powers. Her father was rumoured to have been insane and to have committed suicide and Margeurita is haunted by the fear of madness.

The Falcon discovers that several of the staff members of the college have things they wish to hide. There is some doubt as to whether Dr Anatole Graelich, who teaches psychology at Blue Cliff, entered the country legally. The behaviour of Vicky Gaines (Jean Brooks) is somewhat suspicious, as is the behaviour of music teacher Mary Phoebus (Isabel Jewell).

And Marguerita has predicted that another murder is about to be committed.

It all leads up to a tense and exciting cliff-top finale.

The hints of the supernatural, or the paranormal, are not allowed to overwhelm the story but they do add some interestingly spooky atmosphere.

Writer Ardel Wray provides a good solid mystery plot. William Clemens does a more than capable job directing and keep things moving along at a brisk pace. J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography, given the B-movie budgetary limitations, is quite impressive.

Tom Conway as the Falcon is suave and charming and has the necessary charisma. The supporting cast is quite strong and all the performances are effective.

Comic relief is a regrettable but inescapable fact of life in Hollywood B-features of this era. In this film the comic relief is provided by the blustering Inspector Timothy Donovan (Cliff Clark) and his bumbling subordinate Detective Bates (Edward Gargan) and they’re reasonaby amusing. Additional comic elements are contributed by the three daughters of the college’s caretaker. The three girls are known collectively as the Three Ughs and they’re a delight (and genuinely funny).

The Falcon and the Co-eds has been released as part of a Warner Archive Falcon boxed set. I caught this one on TCM. The TCM print is quite acceptable.

The Falcon and the Co-eds is a very worthy entry in the Falcon movie cycle. The balance between the mystery and the more light-hearted elements is just right and the whole thing is bright and breezy and thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The White Trap (1959)

The White Trap is a 1959 British crime thriller and while it’s very much a B-movie it’s a very very good B-movie that turns out to be not quite what was expected. And there is perhaps just a hint of film noir here.

Lee Patterson stars as Paul Langley, a man serving a prison sentence for a crime he claims he did not commit. Actually he isn’t spending much time serving his sentence - he keeps escaping. During his wartime service he made a number of daring escapes from German POW camps, and became quite a hero as a result. Escaping from plain ordinary British prisons is child’s play for Langley. It’s a game and he thoroughly enjoys it. Langley is most definitely not a violent prisoner and he’s always careful to make sure no-one gets hurt. The authorities are exasperated by his antics but even the prison governor can’t help feeling a certain sympathy for him.

Now Langley has a real reason to want to escape - his wife (to whom he is devoted) is about to have a baby and it’s likely to be a difficult and dangerous birth.

Escaping is easy. The hard part will be getting into the hospital to see his wife. Inspector Walters (Michael Goodliffe) is absolutely sure Langley will try to see his wife and he intends to be ready - he has men posted at various strategic points in the hospital. He has set a trap for Langley and he knows that Langley will have no choice other than to walk into it.

His sergeant is not convinced that Walters’ plan will work. Sergeant Morrison (Conrad Phillips) does not believe that Langley would be such a fool as to walk straight into a trap. This disagreement leads to a certain amount of tension between Inspector Walters and Sergeant Morrison.

Of course we know that Langley will try to get into the hospital, and despite all Inspector Walters’ elaborate precautions Langley is a slippery customer and it’s by no means certain who will come out on top in this game.

This is really as much of a prison escape movie as a conventional crime movie, and with Langley being a former war hero and a generally nice guy it really belongs in the daring escape against the odds genre (or at least it appears to at first).

To make things more interesting (and less predictable) both Inspector Walters and Sergeant Morrison are sympathetic characters as well.

Obviously a low budget movie can’t provide spectacular action escape set-pieces but Langley’s escapes are generally clever and well executed.

Sidney Hayers became a very prolific and very successful television director. He directed only a relative handful of feature films but that handful included some exceptionally interesting films. He does a fine job here, keeping the excitement level consistently high. The script, by Peter Barnes, is more than adequate.

Canadian-born Lee Patterson starred in an impressive number of British B-pictures during this period. It’s not difficult to see why he was a popular choice for these types of movies - he was good-looking, he had charm and he was a very competent actor. He’s excellent in this role - he seems like exactly the sort of guy who would have the bravado and the insane self-confidence to pull off so many escapes and we desperately want him to get away with it. 

Michael Goodliffe was one of those very solid character actors who was ideal for playing policemen, and could play such roles either very sympathetically or quite unsympathetically as occasion demanded. Conrad Phillips is equally good as the ambitious and somewhat frustrated Sergeant Morrison.

Although The White Trap has no Edgar Wallace connection whatsoever Network have included it as an extra in their Edgar Wallace Mysteries volume 2 DVD boxed set, and a very welcome extra it is. The transfer is anamorphic and extremely good.

The White Trap is a very well-crafted thriller with fine performances by Lee Patterson, Michael Goodliffe and Conrad Phillips, and it has the emotional hook of a living husband desperately trying to see his ailing wife. Langley is not just a man in a trap - he is a man who must place himself in a trap. Being the man he is, there is nothing else he can do. This gives the movie its slight film noir flavour. In fact you could even argue that Inspector Walters is trapped as well - trapped not by his emotions but by his remorseless sense of duty. This is really an excellent little movie. Very highly recommended.