Monday, 9 January 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was the third of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies and the first to be produced by Universal. Universal decided not only to bring Holmes into the present day but also to have him battle Nazi saboteurs. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was released in 1942, at a time when Hollywood was whipping itself up into a frenzy over the war.

The contemporary settings of the Universal films are not generally too much of a problem. The wartime background was a less successful experiment which Universal mercifully abandoned after the first few films.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was based, very loosely, on Conan Doyle’s short story His Last Bow. This 1917 story, which in my opinion is one of the weakest of all Conan Doyle’s stories, had pitted Holmes against a Germany spy during the First World War. The spy theme is the only element of the short story utilised in the screenplay by John Bright and Lynn Riggs. 

Britain is being demoralised by a series of propaganda broadcasts from Germany. The broadcasts predict acts of sabotage. What really worries the British intelligence chiefs is that the predictions are always accurate. They are so worried that they are prepared to resort to desperate measures - they have called on Sherlock Holmes for help. Holmes has one clue to work with - the dying words of one of his operatives. He also has the assistance of the dead man’s girlfriend Kitty (Evelyn Ankers) and can also count on assistance from London’s underworld after Kitty delivers a stirring patriotic speech to them. 

It is obvious that the Germans have a sophisticated espionage and sabotage operation in place in Britain and that they have access to secrets that can only come from sources in high places. They are determined to safeguard their spy ring and attempt have been made on the lives of several senior British intelligence chiefs - and on the life of Holmes as well.

Kitty will play a vital role in uncovering this network, having attracted the amorous attentions of one of the Nazi ringleaders. 

The German spy network is set to pull off its greatest coup and it appears that they have the British thoroughly bamboozled. Holmes however is not so easily fooled.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce had settled into their respective roles very well by this time. Bruce plays things fairly straight this time, as he was alway perfectly capable of doing. In fact there’s virtually no comic relief in this film. Thomas Gomez is a subtly menacing villain. The very underrated Henry Daniell provides fine support as does Reginald Denny. Evelyn Ankers shines as Kitty.

I personally have a strong dislike for wartime propaganda movies. The more hysterical the propaganda the less I like them and the tone of this film is very hysterical indeed. 

On the plus side this movie is very impressive visually. The look of the movie is reminiscent of both the great 1930s Universal gothic horror movies and the film noir style although in fact the noir style was only just beginning to emerge in 1942. Director John Rawlins is very fond of extreme close-ups which he uses to excellent effect. This was unfortunately the only Universal Sherlock Holmes movie that Rawlins directed.

There was nothing outrageous about having Sherlock Holmes hunting spies. Several of Conan Doyle’s original short stories are in fact espionage stories. Pitting the great detective against Nazis though just seems too anachronistic. The stridently propagandistic tone doesn’t help at all and there are way too many political speeches. 

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is not a complete success. Critics at the time were unenthusiastic but it did great business at the box office. The best thing about this movie is that its success ensured that there would be more Universal Sherlock Holmes movies. It marked an uncertain start to what would be one of the great B-movie series. Recommended, with reservations.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966)

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters  is a slice of classic 1960s drive-in movie cheesiness.

As so often in sci-fi/horror movies of that era the threat to humanity originates in the frozen wastes of either the Arctic or Antarctica. In this case it’s Antarctica. Plant samples from the frozen continent are being flown to a remote US Navy base at Gow Island but disaster strikes the aircraft and it has to make an emergency landing. There is only one survivor, the pilot, and he’s in no condition to tell anything of the odd events that caused the aerial mishap.

Before very long personnel at the base start to disappear and then turn up dead. Of course if you’re a horror movie fan then at this point you’ll be suspecting that those plant samples belonged to giant walking carnivorous plants. And you’d be spot on! It takes a while for the base’s resident scientists to catch on.

This particular base doesn’t seem to be especially well equipped - when the killer plants cut the wires to the generator the task of repairing the damage is quite beyond the capabilities of the personnel here. The officer in charge, Lt Charlie Brown (Anthony Eisley), eventually realises the full significance of the menace posed by these vicious plants. The only way of stopping them seems to be by using fire.

There’s the expected romantic sub-plot involving beautiful Navy nurse Nora Hall (Mamie van Doren), and there are the usual conflicts between the Navy people and the somewhat irritable civilian meteorologist. 

It’s played to a large extent for laughs, and the comic elements are rather heavy going. But this is very much standard drive-in fodder so you expect that sort of thing. On the plus side there’s plenty of enjoyably goofy technobabble. And the monsters are as cheesy as one could possibly desire.

The acting is exactly what you expect in a low-budget drive-in movie. Oddly enough Mamie van Doren isn’t given to many opportunities to show off the spectacularly voluptuous figure that made her a B-movie queen. As an actress her abilities are strictly limited but they’re more than adequate for his role.

Of course you know that sooner or later someone will decide to all in an air strike by Navy bombers to pulverise those rampaging killer shrubs, or in this case to zap them with napalm. Half a dozen aircraft duly arrive, and in each shot they strangely metamorphose into entirely different types of aircraft. That sort of thing is one of the great joys of low-budget sci-fi movies. 

It’s not overly scary but even at the time the picture was released it was essentially an exercise in campy silly fun and on that level it works admirably. I certainly enjoyed it.

The Region 1 DVD comes to us from an outfit called Cheezy Flicks. They don’t seem to have done a great deal in the way of restoration but these days we have to be grateful that such obscurities are being released on DVD at all. 

If you’re in the mood for a popcorn movie you could do a lot worse than The Navy vs. the Night Monsters. Recommended.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Mozambique (1964)

Mozambique is a 1964 low-budget crime thriller from writer-producer Harry Alan Towers employing his successful and profitable formula of shooting in exotic but very cheap locations. 

Brad Webster (Steve Cochran) is an American pilot in Lisbon and he’s down on his luck. After a plane crash no-one wants to hire him. Finally he is offered employment by a certain Colonel Valdez, to fly aircraft in East Africa (specifically Mozambique). For some reason the Portuguese police are very anxious that he should accept this job. In fact Inspector Cammaro (Paul Hubschmid) insists, and he is a very persuasive man.

On the flight to Lourenço Marques he meets beautiful blonde Danish singer Christina (Vivi Bach). She’s also been offered a job and a one-way plane ticket by Colonel Valdez.

On arrival he discovers that Colonel Valdez has passed away, to the regret of absolutely nobody. His extensive wealth and business interests (some legal and some illegal) are now up for grabs and his former business manager, the smooth but sinister Da Silva (Martin Benson), wants to make sure that he gets his share. Or, preferably, considerably more than his share. Valdez’s former business rival Henderson (Dietmar Schönherr) also hopes to profit from the sad demise of the colonel.

Brad just wanted a flying job but he’s drawn into a web of corruption, smuggling and murder. Not to mention white slavery. He can’t escape from the web because the chief Portuguese police investigator Cammaro won’t let him (and Cammaro has a number of charges that he is holding over Brad’s head) but he also can’t escape because he’s fallen for Christina and she’s landed herself in deep trouble having wandered unwittingly into the white slavery racket mentioned earlier.

It’s a reasonably solid plot and there is perhaps just a very slight tinge of film noir to Mozambique. In fact it can be seen as falling into the fascinating sub-genre of tropical noir, a sub-genre that flourished in the 40s and early 50s and included movies like Singapore.

Steve Cochran was a very fine actor who should have had a better career. His best movies were in the film noir mould (movies such as the superb Highway 301 and the amazingly bleak Private Hell 36). By the time he made this film his drinking and womanising was clearly taking its toll and in fact he died (in scandalous circumstances) before the movie was released. Nonetheless he gives an excellent performance. Cochran was always good at playing bad boys. This time he’s a bit of a bad boy but underneath he’s a decent guy who just isn’t getting the breaks. 

Hildegard Knef is just as good - mysterious, sultry and obviously dangerous. She’s the femme fatale and she does it well.

Vivi Bach is quite adequate as the naïve but charming Christina. Martin Benson makes an effective villain. Dietmar Schönherr is excellent as the devious Henderson.

Hildegard Knef had by this time begun a second very successful career as a singer and she gets to sing in this film (and she really is pretty good with that deep sultry voice). Vivi Bach also gets to sing, in a very different style - a light frothy 60s pop song that is kind of fun.

The visuals are a definite strength. The film was shot in Mozambique and Towers found some great locations. There’s some very nice colonial-era architecture. And if you’re looking for a place to shoot an exciting action climax you can’t do much better than the bridge over Victoria Falls.

A major highlight is the glimpse into a now vanished world. Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony in 1964. Whatever one thinks of colonialism there’s no question that it provided great backgrounds for adventure films and thrillers. This is a world of seedy sometimes desperate European expatriates, all on the make. It’s a world tailor-made for danger, romance and intrigue.

Blue Underground have released Mozambique on Blu-Ray, paired with another Harry Alan Towers production, Code 7, Victim 5, on a single disc. The anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope ratio and in Technicolor) is very satisfactory. There are no extras but both movies are fun making this a good value for money double-header package.

Don’t expect an enormous amount of excitement. This is a crime suspense movie rather than an adventure romp but the suspense is done fairly well. The script is workmanlike and the acting is generally exceptionally good - much better than one would normally expect in such a movie. Mozambique is thoroughly enjoyable if you have a taste for the old-fashioned style of thriller. There’s also the tropical noir flavour alluded to earlier. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate is one of the most notorious of all Hollywood pre-code movies. In fact it was considered so brazen and shameless at the time of its release in 1934 that it became one of the main reasons for the tightening up  of the Production Code. Until fairly recent times it’s only been available in a savagely cut version, with all that pre-code naughtiness removed.

It’s also possibly the best of all the Tarzan movies, and one of the greatest of all jungle adventure films. You could almost say it’s the Citizen Kane of jungle adventure films! Even now it still seems remarkably fast-paced and action-filled. There’s a considerable reliance on stock footage (in fact quite a lot of the footage is from an earlier MGM movie, Trader Horn) and on rear-projection. The process shots don’t seem very realistic today, but back in 1934 this movie offered spell-binding excitement. In fact even today it’s pretty exciting.

The plot is somewhat involved for a jungle movie, with an old flame of Jane’s setting out on an expedition to find the fabled elephants’ graveyard and the enormous cache of ivory it contains. He wants the ivory, but the real prize that he seeks is Jane. Harry is a decent sort of chap really but his partner is another matter. He’s motivated purely by greed, but disguises these base motives under an exterior of charm and affability. To reach the elephants’ graveyard these two mismatched explorers will need the help of Tarzan.

Johnny Weissmuller gives his standard performance as Tarzan, and it works. While he can’t really act he does manage to convey a certain sense of fun which makes Jane’s decision to share his jungle life reasonably understandable.

The supporting cast is quite adequate. Neil Hamilton is very good as Harry, a decent fellow really but we know that he’s not likely to be able to win Jane away from Tarzan. Paul Cavanagh as Harry’s partner Martin makes an effective, very sneaky and very caddish, villain.

The real highlight though is Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. Wearing very little clothing (one of the reasons the movie is so controversial) she’s feisty and sexy and charming and bubbly and generally adorable.   

There’s a staggering amount of sexual innuendo in this movie. The combination of Maureen O'Sullivan’s overtly sexy performance as Jane and the extraordinary skimpiness of her costumes this would have been enough to get the moral watchdogs of the day in a lather. And then there’s the infamous nude swimming scene. As Jane dives into the water, her dress catches on a branch and is ripped off. There’s an extended underwater sequence in which none of Jane’s charms are left to the imagination (although in fact a body double was used).  If you don’t think 1930s American movies can be erotic then you haven’t seen this one. White it is erotic, it’s also playful and oddly innocent.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the movie is not quite as immoral as it seems. It’s made quite explicit that Tarzan and Jane consider themselves to be married.

It’s also an exceptionally violent movie, at some points quite disturbingly so. 

Tarzan the Ape Man had made an enormous amount of money for MGM in 1932 and for the follow-up movie, Tarzan and His Mate, the studio was prepared to be very lavish in the budgetary department. The action scenes are quite spectacular. The climax, with Jane along with Harry and Martin facing an entire army of lions, is certainly memorable. The elephants’ graveyard is another visually impressive sequence.

I caught this one on cable TV here in Australia but there have been several DVD releases.

If you’re only ever going to see one Tarzan movie, this is the one to see. It remains highly entertaining, and its notoriety makes it a must-see. Highly recommended.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)

Paramount’s 1929 The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu did not mark the film debut of the great super-villain. He had been featured in a series of shorts during the early 1920s but The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu was the first feature film based on Sax Rohmer’s immensely successful thrillers.

The title role is played by Warner Oland who would go on to much greater fame in the Charlie Chan movies.

This particular movie is interesting because it attempts to give us a backstory to explain Fu Manchu’s motivations. The movie opens with a sort of prologue. It is China in 1900 and the Boxer Rebellion has broken out. Europeans in Peking are under siege in the foreign legations. A small child, a girl named Lia, is sent by her British father to the house of Dr Fu Manchu. The famous scientist and physician is loved and respected by both the Europeans and the Chinese so she will be safe there. Or so her father assumes. Tragedy is however about to strike. Snipers have taken shelter in the courtyard and Fu Manchu’s house comes under artillery fire from British troops. Fu Manchu’s wife and child are killed. Fu Manchu vows to exact vengeance upon the senior officers of all the European troops involved.

Dr Fu Manchu is in fact a kindly and gentle man who has been driven to violence and hatred by his personal tragedy. It’s an intriguing idea and if it doesn’t quite make Fu Manchu a sympathetic character it at least gives us some understanding of him as a man.

On the other hand it also has the effect of making him the kind of relatively straightforward revenge murderer one might encounter in a murder mystery rather than the diabolical criminal mastermind of Rohmer’s novel’s. It also downplays the single most interesting thing about Rohmer’s villain - the fact that Fu Manchu is not actually evil but rather sees himself as fighting on behalf of civilisation. It is of course oriental civilisation on whose behalf he is fighting and he is the deadly enemy of western civilisation but he is nonetheless an idealist rather than a mere evil madman.

The movie also downplays a very important aspect of Fu Manchu’s character that Rohmer always stresses. Fu Manchu is a man of honour, a man whose word is his bond. He is as much a gentleman as his nemesis, Sir Nayland Smith. So what we get is a less complex Fu Manchu.

After the prologue in China we jump forward to London in the 1920s. Several distinguished senior military officers have been murdered in various countries, all in mysterious circumstances. What they all have in common is that they were present at the siege of the foreign legations in Peking in 1900. Now Inspector Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard has reason to believe that the elderly General Petrie will be the next victim. He also suspects that the general’s son, Sir John Petrie, and grandson, Dr Jack Petrie, may be in danger. But he has no way of knowing how and when the murderer may strike nor does he, at this stage, have any certain knowledge of the identity of the man behind these murders (although he has his suspicions).

The audience already knows that Dr Fu Manchu is behind the killings and we also know that the instrument he has chosen to carry out his revenge is the little English girl (now an attractive young woman) who had been entrusted to his care in 1900.

It goes without saying that Fu Manchu’s plans to wipe out the Petrie clan are fiendishly ingenious and imbued with a certain ironic cruelty.

The plot is pure melodrama but it’s spirited and entertaining melodrama.

Rowland V. Lee was a somewhat underrated director and he handle the material pretty well. This is of course a very early talkie and very early talkies have a reputation (only partly deserved), due to the technical problems initially posed by sound, of being terribly static and creaky. Some of the camera setups here are a little static but Lee makes sure there’s plenty going on within the frame. The slight creakiness isn’t a great problem - if anything it enhances the melodramatic nature of the tale. The sets are impressive with a hint of German Expressionism and there are some nice visual moments. The slightly static camera setups make the movie at times slightly reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies of that era.

One might have expected Warner Oland to be a bit too warm and likeable to be an effective super-villain. This is in fact a slight problem but Oland does the best he can and his performance does work - his natural warmth makes him a smooth and deceptively harmless-seeming villain. For the character of Fu Manchu to work really well he has to have both menace and dignity, the qualities which Christopher Lee the greatest of all screen Fu Manchus in movies like The Face of Fu Manchu. Warner Oland isn’t as effective  as Lee and he’s not as outlandishly megalomaniacal as Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu but he is an intriguingly different Fu Manchu.

Nayland Smith is played with the right degree of noble heroism by O.P. Heggie while a very youthful Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the Batman TV series) gets to do the romantic lead stuff as the young Dr Jack Petrie. Jean Arthur does a good job as the unfortunate Lia, the girl used as an unwitting tool by Fu Manchu.

All three of Paramount’s Warner Oland Fu Manchu movies survive but they’re not easy to find, and it’s an even bigger challenge to find a decent print of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (although you can watch an atrocious print on youtube). On the whole this is an enjoyable slice of melodramatic villainy. It’s a slightly unusual take on Fu Manchu and it’s worth a look.

If you haven't read them I also highly recommend Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books such as Daughter of Fu Manchu which I've reviewed at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man, released by Universal in 1957, is generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of 1950s science fiction. Director Jack Arnold made many of the most respected of 50s sci-fi flicks, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon (one of the most lyrical and sensitive of all monster movies). And there’s certainly much to like and admire in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

With a screenplay by Richard Matheson (certainly one of the greats of science fiction and horror screenplay writing for both film and TV) based on his own novel the movie achieves a genuinely epic quality. Epic not in the sense of money spent, or length, or spectacular effects, but epic in a true sense. It presents a struggle for survival that has mythic overtones.

Scott Carey is just a regular guy until a chance encounter with a radioactive cloud (this was 1957, when radioactivity explained absolutely everything) changes his life forever. He finds that he is slowly but surely getting smaller. Pretty soon he’s only three feet high. And although some clever scientist chappies manage to arrest his shrinking for a while, pretty soon he’s shrinking again. His wife has to find new housing for him - in a doll’s house! Unfortunately the family cat discovers there’s this cute little man in the doll’s house who would be such fun to chase. In the process of being chased, he falls into the cellar.

Being only a few inches high he has no means of escape. The cellar becomes his universe. He’s like a prehistoric man, alone in a vast and threatening world and forced to rely on his wits fir survival. And he has a deadly enemy. A spider. A spider that is several times bigger than he is.   

The special effects hold up remarkably well, and his war with the spider is like the struggle of a hero in a Greek myth to overcome a deadly and malignant giant. It’s played totally straight, and Jack Arnold resists any impulse to go for laughs at any stage. The approach works. Grant Williams as the hero also plays the role completely straight, and gives his character real dignity. 

This movie is nothing if not ambitious, and it’s aiming at making nothing less than a major philosophical statement about the nature of existence, our place in the universe, and the Meaning of Life. That’s where it all falls apart, for me at least. The ending had me cringing in embarrassment.  But other people like the ending, so maybe it’s just me. I have the same reaction to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I seem to be in the minority on that one as well.

Whatever you think about the ending this is a supremely well crafted film and it’s definitely worth seeing.

The Incredible Shrinking Man has had several DVD releases and is readily available in most markets.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

St Ives (1976)

J. Lee Thompson’s 1976 crime thriller St Ives is notable for featuring a fairly amiable Charles Bronson.

Bronson plays Raymond St Ives, a very successful crime reporter turned not-so-successful novelist. With an ex-wife bleeding him dry and a gambling habit to support St Ives jumps at the chance to earn $10,000. Wealthy eccentric Abner Procane (John Houseman) wants to buy back some journals that were stolen from him and he wants St Ives to act as the go-between. It seems like easy money but the exchange doesn’t go smoothly. And then people start getting killed and they keep getting killed.

Abner Procane is not quite what he seems to be and obviously those journals contain something very valuable. Something worth killing for.

The other members of Procane’s household are definitely a curious lot. Firstly there’s his live-in psychiatrist Dr Constable (Maximilian Schell). Like most psychiatrists he seems a good deal odder than his patient. And then there’s the beautiful Janet Whistler (Jacqueline Bisset). At first we assume she’s Procane’s mistress but she isn’t.

The number of corpses that seem to keep appearing wherever St Ives goes causes him a few problems with the police but they are never able to pin anything on him.

There’s a lot of money changing hands, some but not all of it directly related to those journals. There’s another much bigger crime behind all this than a simple burglary and St Ives seems likely to get caught right in the middle of it.

While there’s a bit of a film noir vibe to St Ives it’s really more of a caper movie. And despite the body count it’s a fairly lighthearted movie. This being the 1970s even what should have been a lighthearted caper movie has to have a lot of corpses.

Raymond St Ives is a tough guy but he’s a long way from the dark and brooding Bronson character of movies like Death Wish. He’s tough but only when he absolutely has to be and on the whole he’s a pretty easy-going kind of guy who regards the world with a certain degree of amusement. Bronson proves himself to be quite adept in the role, playing it with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. He was always more versatile than he was given credit for.

Jacqueline Bisset looks lovely but doesn’t quite have the acting chops to pull off a femme fatale role. She does her best and she’s OK but one can’t help thinking that a more accomplished actress could have done a lot more with this role.

John Houseman is splendid as the fundamentally gentle and romantic if not especially honest Procane. Maximilian Schell gives a gloriously overripe performance as the creepy psychiatrist. It’s always great to see Elisha Cook Jr in any movie even if his character does  spend much of the film sleeping. Look out for Jeff Goldblum in a tiny role as a hoodlum - exactly the same role he played in another Bronson flick, Death Wish, a couple of years earlier.

Thompson was an experienced and very competent director and does a fine job here.

The movie reaches its climax in a drive-in movie theatre. It’s great setting and it’s surprising that drive-ins weren’t featured more often in thrillers.

St Ives was paired with another Charles Bronson thriller, Telefon, in a double-header DVD release (with the two movies on one double-sided disc). Telefon is an excellent movie so it’s a pretty good value-for-money release.

St Ives is by no means a great movie but it’s solid entertainment and Bronson is as watchable and magnetic as ever. Buy the two-movie set for Telefon and give St Ives a watch as well.