Friday, October 14, 2016

The Teckman Mystery (1954)

The Teckman Mystery is a 1954 British crime thriller with a hint of espionage as well.

Philip Chance (John Justin) is a novelist who is being pressured by his publisher Maurice MIller (Raymond Huntley) to try his hand at writing a biography. The subject Maurice has in mind is test pilot Martin Teckman who was killed six months earlier when a highly advanced experimental aircraft disintegrated in midair. While this might sound like an interesting project to many writers Philip is not interested at all. Or at least he is not interested until he remembers meeting Teckman’s sister on a plane. Helen Teckman is young, attractive and vivacious and in researching her brother’s life he’s likely to have to spend some time with her. So maybe the biography is not such a bad idea after all.

Curiously enough another writer had been offered the assignment to write the biography but she was badly injured in a car accident immediately after accepting the offer.

It seems that certain people are rather anxious to stop Philip Chance from writing this book as well. When one of Martin Teckman’s former colleagues winds up dead in Philip’s flat the biography starts to sound like a surprisingly perilous undertaking.

There are plenty of plot twists in store as Philip finds himself drawn into a drama that involves subversive political organisations and foreign powers. Philip is too deeply involved to back out now and in any case he thinks that Helen Teckman is in danger and he’s determined to save her.

Philip is happy enough to bring the police into the matter but there seem to be other agencies interested as well, probably from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Philip will find himself being used as bait to bring some of these parties into the open, a rather risky proposition as several people have already been killed as a result of prying into the Teckman mystery.

Francis Durbridge co-wrote the screenplay and anything Durbridge was mixed up in is generally going to be pretty entertaining. This is no exception. Wendy Toye directed. She had a fairly brief career as a director but she handles matters competently enough in this film.

Durbridge liked to make his heroes (such as his most famous creation, Paul Temple) crime writers so it’s no surprise that the hero here is a writer. While Paul Temple is a keen amateur sleuth Philip Chance is a more reluctant hero. This story belongs firmly to the sub-genre in which some poor chump gets mixed up in something horribly dangerous and his survival then depends of seeing it through.

The acting helps a good deal. John Justin as Philip is a charming enough hero although in truth he’s a fairly unheroic hero. He’s hopelessly out of his depth but he’s persistent and he means well. Margaret Leighton has a slightly odd but intriguing manner which makes Helen seem just a little exotic, which works quite well.

There’s the usual array of fine character actors in supporting parts. Roland Culver is good as always as Major Harris, who might give the impression of being a policeman but is obviously Special Branch or more probably MI5. Raymond Huntley (who plays Philip’s publisher) is one of those familiar cinematic faces one can never put a name to but who always give reliable performances. George Coulouris is fun as the dipsomaniac former aircraft designer who gives Philip the first clue to Teckman’s vanishing act.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent transfer, with not much in the way of extras, at a reasonable price.

The Teckman Mystery is a well-crafted and enjoyable spy thriller even if the plot is a little over-complicated at times. Margaret Leighton’s performance is the highlight. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The War Lord (1965)

The War Lord marked a new departure for historical costume epics. This 1965 Universal production starring Charlton Heston took a much grittier and more realistic look at the Middle Ages.

Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) is a Norman knight who has just arrived to take possession of his newly granted lands on the Normandy coast. It’s a bleak depressing place but Chrysagon doesn’t care. It’s his and that’s all that matters. His father lost all his lands, having been captured and forced to sell everything he had to pay the ransom. Chrysagon has served the Duke of Normandy well and his new lands are his reward. If he holds them successfully he may perhaps eventually be given a more attractive reward.

He soon makes a very disturbing discovery. Christianity has not much headway here. The people are still firmly in the grip of pagan superstitions. Chrysagon, who is a reasonably devout Christian, does not approve.

He has other problems. His lands are subject to regular sea-borne raids from Frisians. Protecting his new possessions and his people will present serious challenges. 

Chrysagon is determined to treat the locals fairly and kindly. Unfortunately another problem presents itself. He has become obsessed with a girl from the nearby village, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Bronwyn is betrothed to the son of the village headman. 

At this point the film, sadly, resorts to the hoary old myth of the droit de seigneur - the supposed right of a feudal lord to have sex with a girl on her wedding night. There is no evidence that any such right existed in medieval Europe but I guess it makes a good story. In fairness the film does explain this right as a pagan custom and does point out that the Church firmly opposes it.

In any case Chrysagon is determined to avail himself of this right. He does however only intend to do so if Bronwyn is willing. In fact Bronwyn is very willing indeed. She has fallen in love with him, as he has with her. The villagers are perfectly happy about the arrangement as long as it is for one night only after which she will return to her husband. Bronwn has no intention of doing so and Chrysagon has no intention of giving her up. This not only precipitates a revolt - the villagers ally themselves with the Frisians and Chrysagon now has a full-scale war on his hands.

There is yet another complication. Chrysagon’s Normans captured a young Frisian boy after defeating an earlier raid. The boy is the son of the Frisian prince and the Frisians want him back. Chrysagon’s small force of Normans, ensconced in their forbidding but not very defensible tower, will now have to withstand a determined siege. Chrysagon also has problems with his ambitious younger brother Draco (Guy Stockwell).

The movie devotes a great deal of time to the Chrysagon-Bronwyn love story but luckily there’s also plenty of time for some marvellous action sequences. The Frisians come up with some very impressive-looking siege engines which provide exciting battle scenes as the Normans have to try to destroy these siege engines before the Frisians are able to use them to destroy Chrysagon’s tower.

Visually this film offers superb spectacle as well as atmosphere. The War Lord is a long way from the romanticised idealised vision of the MIddle Ages seen in earlier Hollywood epics such as The Knights of the Round Table (although it’s not quite as gloomy or as squalid as many later period films). One thing I certainly appreciated is that these Norman knights actually look like Norman knights of around the 11th century - they aren’t wearing the anachronistic 15th century full plate armour that appears in virtually every earlier Hollywood film about the Middle Ages.

Charlton Heston gives one of the best performances of his career as the complex and haunted Chrysagon - he’s just as good as he was in Anthony Mann’s magnificent El Cid a few years earlier. Rosemary Forsyth is adequate but rather insipid. Richard Boone is splendid as Chrysagon’s faithful retainer Bors. Guy Stockwell is suitably cynical as the untrustworthy Draco. It’s great to see the underrated Henry Wilcoxon, the star of so many of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics, giving a fine spirited performance as the Frisian prince.

Eureka’s Region DVD is barebones but offers a pretty satisfactory transfer in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I believe there is now a Blu-Ray release.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner was trying to make an emotionally nuanced and intelligent costume epic and he succeeds fairly well. He certainly handles the action scenes with a great deal of confidence and gusto. The War Lord might be more pessimistic and morally ambiguous than most previous films of its type but thankfully it doesn’t succumb entirely to the fashionable nihilism of the 60s. Highly recommended and Charlton Heston’s performance is a very major plus. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Underworld Story (1950)

The Underworld Story is a 1950 crime thriller directed by Cy Endfield. Some people regard this as a film noir although I have no idea why. It’s more of an overheated melodrama.

Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) is a newspaper reporter with a bad reputation (and to get a bad reputation in that line of business you really have to work hard at it). His links with gangster  Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva) eventually get him fired. He finds he can’t get a job as a reporter anywhere in the city. In desperation he buys a half interest in a small town newspaper. His new partner is Cathy Harris (Gale Storm).

Cathy quickly finds out just what a louse Mike Reese is. She’s just about to give him his marching orders when the biggest story in the Lakeville Sentinel’s history breaks. The daughter-in-law of fabulously wealthy press mogul E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall) has just been murdered, in Lakeville! Mike manages to persuade Cathy that this is a story that she has to let him run with.

We know from the start that Diane Stanton was murdered by her disturbed and neurotic husband Clark Stanton (Gar Moore). Clark however has no trouble persuading his father to cover up the crime for him. As luck would have it Diane’s black maid Molly (Mary Anderson) vanished at the time of the murder so it’s easy to pin the murder on her.

Mike now sees his chance. He decides to use the Sentinel to crusade on Molly’s behalf, having discovered that the nice warm friendly people of Lakeville all like her and believe she is probably innocent. Mike launches a fund to raise money to pay a hot-shot trial lawyer to defend her.

In fact Mike is simply using the case for his own purposes, to boost the Sentinel’s circulation and to line his own pockets. He and the shady lawyer intend to split the money fifty-fifty.

Then E.J. Stanton goes into action, turning the townspeople against Mike’s campaign and threatening the Sentinel’s survival. It now turns out that the nice warm friendly people of Lakeville were actually hate-filled bigots all along and they turn against Molly completely.

By this time it has been established that Mike Reese is a lying conniving crooked journalist who would sell his own mother for a story. And now, suddenly and for no reason whatsoever, he magically turns into a genuine crusading journalist who cares only for truth and justice.

This is an all-too-typical feature of the ham-fisted screenplay by Henry Blankfort. Nothing seems to matter except using the film as an excuse for some very heavy-handed preaching. The characters are threadbare caricatures whose personalities can be entirely reversed in a heartbeat. The plot is melodramatic and emotionally manipulative.

The acting is mostly poor. Gar Moore is quite embarrassing as Clark Stanton. He didn’t have much of a career and it’s easy to see why. Gale Storm is harmless enough.Herbert Marshall tries hard but it’s obvious he doesn’t believe in the character he’s playing.

Dan Duryea tries to save the movie with a typically energetic performance combining sleaziness and breeziness and he is at least entertaining to watch. The fact that his character isn’t convincing is the fault of the screenwriter, not Duryea.

This is a great movie to watch if you enjoy movies about evil cigar-chomping rich people persecuting  the poor oppressed masses. The evil rich people are of course all degenerate as well as evil. You get some half-baked Freudianism as well.

On the plus side there’s some great noirish cinematography in the early sections. The opening sequence is superbly done.

I caught The Underworld Story on cable. It’s available on made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series but I wouldn’t recommend buying this one unless you’re a very keen Dan Duryea completist.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Assassin for Hire (1951)

Assassin for Hire, released in 1951, is yet another cheap but surprisingly good crime B-feature from Britain’s Merton Park Studios.

Antonio Riccardi (Sydney Tafler) is a dealer in rare stamps but he actually makes his living as a hitman. He’s also devoted to his family. He loves his wife Maria (Katharine Blake) but most of all he’s devoted to his younger brother Giuseppe (John Hewer). Giuseppe is a promising violinist. To honour a promise to their dying mother six years earlier Antonio is determined to make sure that Giuseppe has a glittering musical career. That’s something that will cost a lot of cash but Antonio makes plenty of money as a professional assassin so that’s no problem.

Antonio has carried out a series of daring and successful hits. Detective Inspector Carson of Scotland Yard (Ronald Howard) knows all about Antonio but so far it has been impossible to build a case against him. Antonio always has a watertight alibi. Carson knows the alibis are phony but he has been unable to break them - Antonio has loyal friends and their loyalty is further encouraged by generous cash payments.

All Inspector Carson can do is wait and hope that Antonio will make a mistake (and Carson is a very patient man). Antonio does make a mistake, and it’s a particularly tragic mistake. It might be the break that Carson has been waiting for.

The screenplay (by Rex Rienits) is not overly complicated but it does have a powerful and effective twist to it (well actually more than one twist). Michael McCarthy’s career as a director was not exactly glittering but he proves himself to be more than capable of making a taut and emotionally satisfying crime thriller on a very low budget.

There’s a definite hint of film noir to this movie. There are some good noirish night scenes and the overall look of the production is quite noirish (lots of trench-coats and similar touches). Maybe Antonio is not a typical noir protagonist - he is after all a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he has a human and sensitive side. The story does have the element of fate leading a man remorselessly towards his doom.

This movie is an object lesson in low-budget movie-making. If you have a good story and good actors you really don’t need much else. You can get all the atmosphere you need without expensive sets or elaborate visual set-pieces. The very short running time (67 minutes) means there’s no time for unnecessary sub-plots - you have to get on with the story and that’s the approach taken here and it works.

Leading roles in cheap B-movies was as far as Sydney Tafler’s career ever progressed but  he was a fine actor who has never received his due. He’s very impressive here. Tafler would give another excellent performance a year later in the very underrated Wide Boy.

Ronald Howard gives another variation on his standard likeable police inspector performance. Inspector Carson is a quiet, gentle, unassuming man but he’s a deceptively good cop. He has patience and he has doggedness and he knows his job.

The supporting players all give solid effective performances with Ian Wallace being especially good as Antonio’s buddy Charlie.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is absolutely barebones but it’s inexpensive and the transfer is flawless.

Assassin for Hire is a fine low-key very British crime thriller with strong film noir affinities and a superb central performance by Sydney Tafler. It’s no masterpiece but if you’re a fan of B-movies you should plenty here to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Secret Mission (1942)

Secret Mission is a 1942 British wartime spy thriller. It features a good cast but it has a few problems.

A team of British agents is landed on the coast of occupied France. Another British agent had been sent earlier but nothing has been heard of him since.

The team comprises Major Garnett (Hugh Williams), Captain Red Gowan (Roland Culver), Private Nobby Clark (Michael Wilding) and a Free French officer, Raoul de Carnot (James Mason doing a very exaggerated French accent).

Eventually the British spies talk their way into the German command headquarters and get lots of photographs of maps showing German troop dispositions. Meanwhile domestic dramas are starting to arise. The village chosen for the operation was chosen because both Raoul and Nobby Clark used to live there. Raoul’s sister Michèle (Carla Lehmann) and Nobby’s wife Lulu (Betty Warren) still live there. And they don’t want their menfolk to go back to England.

Of course they must go back and do their duty and stuff upper lips are called for and all that sort of thing.

The major problem with this film is the lack of any sense of urgency or drama. The secret mission seems very vague and doesn’t seem to be overly dangerous, and we can’t help wondering if it was really important enough to justify landing a whole team of spies.

There’s a lot of time devoted to the domestic dramas and to the romantic sub-plot and also to comic relief. Too much time in fact and the movie drags quite a bit. When the action sequences do come they’re not terribly exciting.

Director Harold French just doesn’t manage to generate any real feeling of suspense or excitement.

As the release date would suggest this is very much a propaganda film. The British spies are all terribly brave and noble. The Germans are either cruel sadists or fools. Mostly they’re portrayed as fools. Amusingly their most sadistic action is to have an armoured car driving through the village playing Wagner very loudly through a loudspeaker. The French are all very brave and very patriotic and are united by a passionate desire for freedom.

There is one interesting element though and that’s Michèle de Carnot’s equivocal
attitude towards the British spies. She says that since France has signed an armistice with Germany the activities of the Resistance are quite illegal (and she has a point) and are causing needless suffering to the civilian population. In fact she’d prefer the British spies to leave at once. On the other hand she is devoted to Raoul, she does dislike the German occupation and she has taken a shine to Major Garnett. Throughout the movie she wavers between her disapproval of spies and her attraction to the handsome English spy.

The acting is at best adequate. This was one of James Mason’s early roles before he found stardom. I imagine that in later life he must have been horribly embarrassed by his cartoonish performance in this movie. Hugh Williams lacks the charisma needed for his role as the principal hero. Michael Wilding is there mainly for comic relief purposes which he performs well enough. Carla Lehmann as Michèle has by far the most interesting role and she plays it pretty well.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a thriller or a comic romp. It doesn’t completely succeed in either objective. The pacing is poor and the screenplay is vague and meandering. The end result is a thriller that falls rather flat. Maybe the idea was to raise morale by portraying the Germans as a bunch of incompetent oafs.

On the plus side the German secret headquarters is fairly spectacular and the ancient armoured car that blasts Wagner at the unfortunate French population is quite amusing.

This movie is available on DVD in Region 2 and Region 4 - I’m not sure of the situation in Region 1. The Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is not particularly great.

Secret Mission has some mildly amusing moments but on the whole it’s dull and stodgy and unfortunately lacking in excitement or tension. I can’t recommend this one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969)

Director Ken Annakin had scored a major hit in 1965 with the delightful comedy/adventure romp Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (originally titled Monte Carlo or Bust!) was a kind of belated follow-up and follows the same formula, albeit not quite so successfully. This time Annakin acted as both producer and director and once again he and Jack Davies co-wrote the screenplay.

This time the subject is not an air race but a motor rally in the 1920s. The earlier film spent a lot of time giving us the backstories of the various competitors while this one jumps pretty much straight into the action. As a result the characters are less developed. The style of comedy is slightly broader as well. This might possibly be due to the subject matter - a 1920s car race must have seemed like an obvious opportunity to throw in plenty of the slapstick comedy that had been such a feature of 1920s silent cinema. It may also be that by 1969 it was felt that audiences would demand much more frantic pacing.

Once again, as in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, we get a multi-national cast playing a multi-national field of competitors. From Britain there’s pompous Indian Army officer Major Dawlish (Peter Cook) and his sycophantic sidekick Lieutenant Barrington (Dudley Moore) plus there’s the dastardly upper-class cad Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas) and his long-suffering minion Perkins (Eric Sykes). There are Italians Marcello (Landa Buzzanca) and Angelo (Walter Chiari) and a team of young and beautiful lady doctors. From Germany there’s Gert Fröbe as Horst Müller who is using the rally as a cover for a diamond-smuggling operation. And from the USA there’s the brash Chester Schofield (Tony Curtis) who soon hooks up with the aristocrat but ditzy Betty (Susan Hampshire). There are some other noteworthy faces to be seen, including the great Hattie Jacques and British screen legend Jack Hawkins.

Naturally there are plenty of fairly spectacular sequences combining action with comedy and Annakin, as you would expect, handles them with energy and zest. There’s a lot of obvious rear projection but on the whole these scenes hold up extremely well.

Tony Curtis and Susan Hampshire provide the obligatory romance sub-plot. This slows the action down a little but fortunately not too much.

The major weakness as compared to Annakin’s earlier film has already been alluded to - we don’t get to learn enough about any of the characters to care very much about them. This makes the film a bit too reliant on fast-paced slapstick but even slapstick works better if we have sympathy for the characters. 

With a running time of just over two hours this movie is also perhaps just a little too long, and it’s a little disjointed as well.

Tony Curtis is OK but he doesn’t seem to be really engaged with his character. This may be more the fault of the screenplay which doesn’t give him enough opportunities. Susan Hampshire is charming and convincingly dotty.

Terry-Thomas gives us a retread of his performance in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines but he’s so good at playing bounders you don’t mind. Eric Sykes as his reluctant underling who actually despises him is marvellous, as always. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are in top form in the kinds of roles they always relished. They also have the advantage the many insane and useless inventions with which Major Dawlish has equipped his car - these wacky inventions provide some of the film’s best visual moments. These four deliver the standout performances and the movie is at its best when they’re onscreen.

Legend Films have released this film on a double-header two-disc Blu-Ray set with another Tony Curtis film, Houdini. Houdini is an excellent and extremely interesting movie and is good enough on its own to justify the purchase of the set. Making it even more tempting is the very reasonable price and the fact that the Blu-Ray transfers for both movies are pretty good - in fact very very good when you consider that this is really a budget set.

Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies fails to recapture the magic of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines but while it’s far from being a great movie it’s reasonably enjoyable fluff. Terry-Thomas, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are the main drawcards here and they’re always worth watching. It’s probably not worth buying this one on its own but the Blu-Ray set pairing it with Houdini is definitely worth getting and if you look at Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies as a fairly entertaining bonus film the set becomes a very attractive proposition indeed. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Dead Lucky (1960)

Dead Lucky is a 1960 British crime B-movie. British B-movies of this era, made on meagre budgets, are often surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately Dead Lucky is far from excellent - in fact it misses the target rather badly.

Ace reporter Mike Billings (Vincent Ball) has been doing a series of articles exposing the Mayfair gambling party racket. The gambling racketeers hire private houses on a one-off basis, taking advantage of Britain’s excessively complex and contradictory gaming laws. The police find it almost impossible to prove that this is actually organised gambling rather than the private gatherings that the organisers claim. Inspector Corcoran (John le Mesurier) is under a lot of pressure, particularly after a ruined gambler commits suicide, but he just can’t come up with the evidence he needs to make a case that would stand up in court.

Mike Billings is under pressure as well. His articles so far have been pure fabrication - he actually knows nothing concrete about these so-called gambling parties. His editor, Percy Simpson (Michael Ripper), is getting increasingly restive. Finally Mike gets a break. Small-time crook Knocker Parsons (Alfred Burke) gets him into one of the parties, with Mike posing as a waiter.

Mike’s girlfriend, Feisty Girl Reporter Jenny Drew (Betty McDowall), has also found a way to infiltrate the same gambling party.

This party ends in murder, with Jenny as a suspect. Inspector Corcoran now has a murder case on his hands and his anxiety to make an arrest is matched only by his lack of any real evidence. Both Mike and Corcoran are now desperate for a lead but which one of them will manage to break the case first?

The plot is a bit on the thin side but the real problem is that this movie seems to be trying to be a comedy and a mystery. It ends up being neither fish nor fowl. It’s just not funny enough to work as a comedy but the attempt to play it for laughs fatally weakens the mystery and suspense elements.

Vincent Ball is an uninspiring star while Betty McDowall is somewhat irritating. Even the usually reliable and professional John le Mesurier seems all at sea. He was certainly adept at comedy but here he’s the one actor trying to play things straight. It’s quite possible he just gave up in despair and decided to get things over as painlessly as possible and collect his pay cheque and go home. I can’t blame him. Alfred Burke and Michael Ripper try very hard indeed but with such an indifferent script there’s little they can do except to look as enthusiastic as possible.

Montgomery Tully was a competent journeyman director but in this film he’s just going through the motions.

The DVD cover tries to convince us this movie is “noir-influenced” - while noir and gambling do tend to go well together I could detect no genuine noir influence here at all.

Since the 1930s film producers had been seduced by the idea of combining the murder mystery or crime thriller with comedy. Sometimes it does work but more often than not it doesn’t. To make it work you need a script with real sparkle and with decent gags. If you don’t have those ingredients you’re better off just making a straightforward murder mystery, or at the very least keeping the comedic elements to an absolute minimum.

Network’s DVD is barebones but the transfer is pretty good.

Dead Lucky (the title is a pun and turns out to be the only mildly amusing thing about the movie) just doesn’t make the grade. As a murder mystery it falls flat. It’s hoping to be lightweight fun. It succeeds in being lightweight but it fails to deliver on the fun front. 

To be honest I don’t think this one is even worth a rental.