Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Callan (1974)

The television series Callan was a sensation when it first started screening in Britain in 1967. The public loved it and the critics loved it just as much. It is still widely regarded as the finest television spy drama series ever made. Callan ran until the early 70s and in 1974 a feature film followed.

Despite its popularity this was a series that was going to be tricky to do as a movie. Much of the success of the series was due to its brooding claustrophobic atmosphere. Obviously it had to be opened up a bit for a movie release and it was going to need a bit more action. In fact the movie works quite well. Even though it has a car chase (something quite unthinkable in the TV version) it still retains much of the necessary stifling atmosphere.

The other big problem was casting. Fortunately Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter were available and they were the two actors who would have utterly irreplaceable. On the other hand the key roles of Hunter and Meres had to be recast, with mixed success.

The movie is an expanded version of the original pilot episode, A Magnum for Schneider,  screened as part of Thames TV’s Armchair Theatre in 1967.

David Callan (Edward Woodward) was the top agent for a branch of the British security services known only as The Section. He has been more or less pensioned off. This is partly due to his drinking but mostly because as a counter-spy he has one very serious flaw - he has a conscience. That’s a problem because of the specialised nature of The Section’s activities. Their job is to get rid of people who are considered to be so dangerous that extreme measures are justified. These measures can include blackmail or intimidation but they can also involve assassination. Callan was The Section’s top assassin. An assassin with a conscience is however more a liability than an asset.

Now the head of The Section, Hunter (Eric Porter), has decided he wants Callan back. He needs him for a particularly tricky assignment. But can Callan be trusted? And can Callan trust Hunter?

Adding to the tenseness of the situation is that Callan again finds himself working with The Section’s number two agent, Toby Meres (Peter Egan). There are a whole series of reasons why Callan and Meres should dislike working together. Callan has a conscience, something that Meres conspicuously lacks. Meres is ambitious and wants Callan’s job as the top agent. Callan is working class, Meres is distinctly upper class. Meres also happens to be a cold-blooded sadist.

Callan will also need the assistance of his disreputable friend Lonely. Lonely is an outcast and he smells bad but he does possess certain talents - he is a skilled burglar and there is nobody better at tailing people without being seen than Lonely.

Callan’s target is Schneider, a successful German-born businessman in the export-import trade. Callan has no idea why Hunter wants Schneider dead and although it is strictly against orders he is determined to find out. What exactly is it that Schneider imports and exports?

Schneider shares Callan’s passion for wargaming and that proves to be a very useful way of making contact. It’s also a way for the two men to test each other out.

Edward Woodward is superb as always as Callan. Russell Hunter is equally good as Lonely. Carl Möhner as Schneider and Catherine Schell as his wife are both fine. Eric Porter makes a good Hunter, charming but ruthless. The problem is Peter Egan as Meres. Actually the real problem is that Anthony Valentine was so superb in this role in the TV series that nobody else was likely to match his performance. Valentine added so many nuances to the part and he had a gift for sardonic humour that made the character both more human and more inhuman. Peter Egan just isn’t in the same class and as a result his  Toby Meres is a mere sadistic thug. This is a pity since the interplay between Callan and Meres had been one of the highlights of the TV series.

Don Sharp was a very competent action thriller director. The TV series had been intensely character-driven with action and violence used sparingly but effectively. The movie had to have more action but Sharp still retains the essential feel of the series and its focus on character.

Umbrella Entertainment’s Region 4 DVD release offers a reasonably decent if not brilliant transfer and it includes a rather good interview with star Woodward.

This movie version is more successful than might have been anticipated. It’s not quite as strong as the Callan TV series but it’s still a fine spy thriller very much in the gritty realist mode, with plenty of cynicism and moral ambiguity. Highly recommended.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Indestructible Man (1956)

Indestructible Man is one of those low-budget 1950s science fiction potboilers that turns out to be a whole lot better than you might expect.

Butcher Benton (Lon Chaney Jr) is in San Quentin about to be executed for one of his many crimes. Butcher is a hardened criminal and he accepts his fate but he still wants revenge - revenge on those who betrayed him. Most notably he blames his lawyer Paul Lowe (Ross Elliott). The one thing Butcher won’t do is to reveal where he’s hidden the money from his last robbery - he especially doesn’t want Lowe to know where the money is. Butcher wants the money to go to burlesque dancer Eva Martin (Marian Carr).

Police Lieutenant Dick Chasen (Max Showalter) was responsible for bringing Butcher to justice. As far as the department is concerned the case is now closed but that’s not good enough for Chasen - he wants to recover the money. Butcher isn’t going to help him but Chasen is not giving up.

Butcher is executed but his story is not over yet. Scientist Professor Bradshaw is working on some advanced medical research and he needs corpses. His assistant manages to get hold of a nice fresh corpse for him - the corpse of Butcher Benton!

Professor Bradshaw puts 280,000 volts through the deceased criminal, with results that are surprising (surprising to Professor Bradshaw anyway). The deceased criminal is no longer deceased! He’s very much alive. He can’t talk, since the electric current has destroyed his vocal cords, but his brain is definitely functional. And there’s something else - the electricity has caused his cells to multiply, making him effectively indestructible. Butcher is now an unstoppable walking corpse and he still wants revenge. And being now alive, he also wants his money.

Butcher is soon on the trail of his former confederates and he has murder in his heart. Pretty soon the police discover they’re dealing with an unkillable murder machine. Dick Chasen is back on the case and he also finds time to fall for Eva Martin. Butcher meanwhile is leaving a trail of mayhem behind him. How do you stop an indestructible man?

The most interesting thing about this movie is that it’s done in a film noir style. Of course a lot of B-movies look slightly film noir but that’s just a function of their very low budgets. If you have cheap and shoddy sets then they won’t look quite so bad if you keep everything in shadow! In this case though my impression is that the movie-makers decided to make a virtue of a necessity and adopted the look as a deliberate stylistic choice. Film noir was a term that did not come into general use (except in France) until the late 60s but the style was certainly well known long before that.

It’s not just the visuals that seem film noir - the whole tone of the movie is reminiscent of hard-boiled tough-guy crime movies of the 40s. It doesn’t include any actual flashbacks but it does refer to events that happened in the past and it does feature a film noir-style voiceover narration.

Director Jack Pollexfen had a fairly lengthy career as a screenwriter and producer but only directed three movies. Considering the very low budget he had to work with he can’t be faulted for his handling of this film.

Lon Chaney Jr always had a rather tragic aura about him and that works to the movie’s advantage. Butcher is a monster but he’s also a man who has been grievously wronged and we can’t help but feel at least a little bit of grudging sympathy for him. Chaney was good in this sort of role and he does well here. He gets virtually no dialogue but he is a convincingly menacing monster. The other cast members are quite adequate for B-movie purposes. 

Indestructible Man fell into the public domain long ago and most of the DVD editions of the film are what you expect in such circumstances - watchable but a long way from pristine.

Indestructible Man has a nicely moody film noir vibe to it and while the story is far from original it’s fast-moving and exciting and all things considered this movie is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Robot Monster (1953)

In general I have a very high tolerance for 1950s science fiction movies. Even the low-budget ones. In fact especially the low-budget ones. That tolerance does not extend to the 1953 Robot Monster.

It’s not the incredibly cheesy special effects that are the problem. Even though they are cheesy beyond belief. It’s not the overall concept, even though the concept behind this one is very very silly. It’s not even the acting, awful though it is. The problem with Robot Monster is Wyott Ordung’s script, and most of all it’s the fact that it commits the One Sin That Cannot Be Forgiven, the one plot device for which I have absolutely zero patience. I can’t tell you what that is for fear of revealing spoilers although quite honestly it’s hard to see how it would be possible to spoil a movie as bad as this one.

Earth has been invaded by the Ro-Men, and their aim is to destroy all life on our planet in order to make room for their own race. Only six humans have survived and unfortunately they may be the six dumbest humans who ever lived.

Ro-Man turns out to look exactly like a guy in a gorilla suit wearing a cheap space helmet. I assume that was because the producers happened to have a gorilla suit and a cheap space helmet. Ro-Man possesses a terrifying death ray weapon but the six survivors have been treated with a miracle antibiotic and a side-effect of the antibiotic is that it makes people immune to terrifying death ray weapons.

Ro-Man also has a machine that produces bubbles. Our puny earth weapons are useless against advanced technologies such as that.

Ro-Man communicates with his superiors by means of a view screen and the view screen is the one special effect in the movie that actually doesn’t look too bad.

The six human survivors include a middle-aged scientist (we know he’s a real scientist because he has a foreign accent), his wife and three children plus his assistant Roy (George Nader). I’m amazed they have lasted this long since they make every stupid mistake anyone could possibly make when confronted by a malevolent alien armed with a terrifying death ray weapon.

The plot, such as it is, consists almost entirely of the humans trying to come up with new and imaginative ways to do stupid things to get themselves killed.

There are a couple of surprisingly dark moments but the script manages to undercut the effects of these moments. There’s also a cringe-inducing love story sub-plot involving Roy and the professor’s daughter which includes the most ludicrously inappropriate love scene in cinematic history.

Phil Tucker produced and directed this movie and he displays no talent whatsoever.

The acting is uniformly terrible but alas it’s terribly in a dull and irritating way rather than in an entertaining way. The guy playing Ro-Man does make a bit of an effort and it has to be admitted that acting while wearing a gorilla suit and a cheap space helmet does provide something of a challenge.

The sets are pretty much non-existent, most of the action taking place in a ruin, a cave or an abandoned quarry (abandoned quarries being a godsend for the makers of cheap sci-fi movies).

The space platform scenes may be the cheesiest special effect ever put on film.

There are also giant prehistoric reptiles in this movie. I have no idea why.

The Region 1 DVD from Cheezy Flicks offers an indifferent transfer without any worthwhile extras apart from a couple of trailers.

I pride myself on being able to something positive about most low-budget sci-fi movies of this era but I’m afraid there’s not much to be said in Robot Monster’s favour. If you’re in the mood you may get a few giggles from the ultra-cheesy effects. Rent it if you’re a 50s sci-fi completist and you have the ability to set your expectations very low. Otherwise it’s not really worth bothering with. If you decide to brave it you’ll need very large quantities of beer and popcorn.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Fear Is the Key (1972)

Alistair MacLean is now relatively little known but back in the 60s and 70s he was just about the most popular thriller writer in the world (his books actually outsold Ian Fleming’s Bond novels). Most of MacLean’s novels ended up being filmed, with varying degrees of success. The 1972 film version of Fear Is the Key is one of the lesser known MacLean adaptations but it’s actually pretty good.

This movie received lukewarm studio support and failed to set the box office alight, and then more or less disappeared into obscurity.

It certainly hits the ground running. We start with a cargo plane being shot down then we move on to an epic extended car chase. This was not a big-budget feature but the car chase is exciting and well-executed. 

John Talbot (Barry Newman) is on the run and as he explains to Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall) he has absolutely nothing to lose. As we will later find out, he’s not kidding. Sarah is the woman he takes hostage in a daring courtroom escape.

Talbot eventually gets caught, but not by the police. He is offered a deal by a criminal gang and he finds himself caught up in something very big indeed.

The opening car chase is difficult to top but the climax, in a bathyscaphe 1200 feet below the sea, is pretty decent as well.

This was a British production but was filmed on location in Louisiana and it takes full advantage of the setting. The special effects were done by Derek Meddings who had started his career in Gerry Anderson’s 1960s puppet science fiction TV series such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and would later work on most of the Roger Moore Bond movies.

Barry Newman is not the world’s most charismatic actor but he’s well cast as the bitter and obsessed Talbot. Perhaps a more likeable protagonist might have helped the movie commercially but the demands of the story really require Talbot to be a taciturn anti-hero and for my money his performance is fine. Suzy Kendall is a perfectly adequate heroine.

John Vernon makes a suitably chilling smooth but evil bad guy while Ben Kingsley does well as one of his psycho henchmen. Dolph Sweet (great name!) is effective as a crooked ex-cop.

The plot includes some major twists and we discover that things are not quite as they seemed to be. These twists are handled effectively and although we have our suspicions about Talbot’s real motivations we really don’t know just how far his obsessions will push him, and more importantly the other characters don’t know that either.

Director Michael Tuchner made only a couple of feature films before settling into a successful career in television. He handles the action scenes very confidently. The pacing drags just a little in the middle but on the whole the tension is maintained successfully enough.

Studiocanal’s barebones Region 2 DVD offers a superb anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in the 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio).

All in all this movie delivers plenty of action and some dark psychological thriller moments. The car chase is excellent and any movie that includes undersea action in a bathyscaphe definitely deserves bonus points. The superb use of the Louisiana locations is another major plus. 

Fear Is the Key is a thoroughly enjoyable action thriller. It’s not quite in the same league as Where Eagles Dare but it compares favourably to other MacLean adaptations such as Puppet on a Chain, The Satan Bug and When Eight Bells Toll (all of which are well worth seeing also).

Highly recommended.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

A Dandy in Aspic (1968)

Spy movies were all the rage in the 1960s. In tone they ranged from dark, brooding and tragic all the way to outrageous light-hearted silliness. It was the success of the first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962 that really kicked the spy genre into high gear and established the essential truth that whatever the mood a spy film needed to be stylish. Of course Hitchcock  had already been making stylish spy movies for years and at the tail end of the 50s had had one of his biggest hits with North by Northwest but after Dr No spy movies became a positive craze. A Dandy in Aspic was Anthony Mann’s first attempt at the genre and it would prove to be his last film.

Alexander Eberlin (Laurence Harvey) is a British spy. Only he isn’t really Alexander Eberlin. His real name is Krasnevin and he is actually a Soviet spy. He’s a double agent but his loyalty is to the Russians, not surprising since he is a Russian. Now the British have handed him a rather awkward assignment. They want him to kill a top Russian agent, a chap by the name of Krasnevin. He himself is the man he has been ordered to kill.

It’s actually even more complicated than that. The British of course don’t know that Eberlin is Krasnevin. 

Eberlin/Krasnevin’s impossible task is made even more impossible when Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) is assigned to help him on this mission. He hates Gatiss and the feeling is mutual. Gatiss is cold-blooded and very very efficient. He enjoys killing.

To make a difficult situation even worse Eberlin/Krasnevin has met a bright, breezy and rather eccentric English girl named Caroline (Mia Farrow). The last thing he needs right now is a romantic entanglement but that’s what he’s going to get. Caroline has no idea what she is getting involved in although she’s crazy enough that she probably wouldn’t care anyway.

An even bigger problem for Eberlin/Krasnevin is that he wants to go home. Home to Russia. He is tired of being a spy, tired of having no real identity, tired of deception and tired of killing. He is a Russian and Russia is home. The Russians however do not want him to come home - he is too valuable to them where he is. When he is sent to West Berlin he thinks his opportunity has come. Everyone else is trying to escape from East Berlin. He is trying to escape to East Berlin.

Sadly Anthony Mann died during the making of the film. Laurence Harvey took over as director (having already had some experience as a director). Harvey stated at the time that his aim was to complete the film in Mann’s style without intruding any of his own style into it. It’s difficult to say how completely he succeeded since the movie was in any case a radical departure from Mann’s own previous style.

The film was not well received at the time and is generally dismissed as an unfortunate end to the career of a great director. It is a quirky film but quirky spy movies tended to do very well in the 60s. A Dandy in Aspic bears little resemblance to the Bond movies, belonging more to the dark and brooding school of spy film-making. Dark and brooding, but very stylish. In that respect it’s not dissimilar to the Harry Palmer movies such as The Ipcress File. Given that The Ipcress File did pretty well and has since gained a major cult following it’s difficult to understand why A Dandy in Aspic failed and has languished in obscurity ever since.

There’s not a great deal of action but other character and atmosphere-driven spy thrillers were successful at that time.

The film’s failure cannot be attributed to the cast. Laurence Harvey is perfect for the role of the embittered and desperate double agent. It’s a very low-key performance but given that he’s playing a man with no coherent sense of identity that works quite well. It also helps in not making the character too sympathetic - he is after a ruthless spy and a pitiless assassin. Tom Courtenay is surprisingly chilling as the ice-cold Gatiss, and manages to make him more than just a killing machine. We get a sense that he does have emotions but they’re well and truly buried and they’re seething away somewhere deep inside him. Mia Farrow is ditzy but appealing. The strong supporting cast includes such fine British character actors as Harry Andrews, Geoffrey Bayldon and Norman Bird. Look out for comic Peter Cook as a lecherous British spy.

Derek Marlowe’s screenplay was adapted from his own novel. It has plenty of twists and turns and plenty of the kind of cynicism that went down so well in the 60s. Having a Russian spy as the hero was an interesting twist. 

Sony’s Region 2 DVD release offers an extremely good anamorphic transfer.

A Dandy in Aspic is a tense stylish spy thriller which deserves to be rediscovered. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

cult movie reviews from my classic movie blog

There's a slight problem with having two movie blogs, one for cult movie reviews and one for classic movies. There are movies that don’t quite fit neatly into either category. Or rather they could easily fit into both categories, so sometimes it's difficult to be sure which blog is most appropriate for posting a review.

So here are a few links to recent reviews I’ve posted on my Classic Movie Ramblings blog which might be of interest to readers of this blog.

First cab off the rank is 55 Days at Peking (1963), an uneven but entertaining adventure epic staring Charlton Heston.

Secondly there’s White Woman (1933), a deliriously overheated and overripe pre-code jungle melodrama with Charles Laughton going completely over-the-top. Also stars Carole Lombard. Lots of fun!

Then there’s British Intelligence (1940), a fairly nifty little spy thriller set in the First World War and starring Boris Karloff.

Plus the slightly disappointing but visually interesting Steve McQueen thriller The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

And lastly Frank Capra’s fantasy epic Lost Horizon (1937).

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Santo contra los zombies (Santo vs The Zombies, 1962)

Although Mexican wrestling star and pop culture icon had appeared in a couple of earlier movies it was Santo contra los zombies (Santo vs The Zombies) that really started the Santo movie craze. Santo would eventually appear in 52 luchador (wrestling hero) films.

Santo was actually Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta (1917-1984) and he played a large role in making professional wrestling into a major sport in Mexico.

The Santo movies all follow pretty much the same formula. Santo is a legendary masked wrestler who in his spare time is a daring masked crime-fighter. He fights not only criminal gangs but monsters, vampires, invaders from outer space and in this particular film, zombies.

The plot can be disposed of fairly quickly - if you’re watching a Santo movie for the plot then you’re missing the point. A professor has disappeared mysteriously. He had an interest in the subject of voodoo and zombies. As it happens zombies are being employed in a series of robberies. There is of course a diabolical criminal mastermind at the back of all this.

The police are baffled. The police chief decide it’s time to call on Santo’s help. Fortunately he has a direct radio-television link from his office to Santo’s headquarters. The professor’s daughter and her boyfriend are also involved in trying to find her missing father.

The zombie bad guys make an attempt to kidnap children from an orphanage, the children presumably to be used in experiments on zombification. The diabolical criminal mastermind knows that Santo is on his trail because he has a special television viewer that allows him to keep an eye on anything that he might need to know about.

It’s all just an excuse for lots of action. As in all Santo movies the action includes quite a lot of wrestling scenes but in this case at least one of the wrestling matches does serve an important plot purpose as Santo has to fight a zombified wrestler.

Needless to say at some point the bad guys kidnap the missing professor’s beautiful daughter, intending to turn her into a lady zombie. Can Santo find her in time to save her from this awful fate?

The feel of the movie is very close to that of Hollywood serials of the 30s and 40s and in fact the plot could have been lifted from one of those serials. Given the worldwide popularity of the Hollywood serials and the love of Mexican audiences for action adventure stories it’s fair to assume that those serials were very popular in Mexico and that this movie is very consciously modeling itself on them. And it does so very successfully.

The acting is of passable B-movie standard. Santo may not have been much of an actor but he has plenty of physical presence and enough superhero-type charisma to carry him through.

Director Benito Alazraki doesn’t try to get too clever (he would have had neither the time nor the money to do so) but he knows how to keep the action moving long nicely. and he does throw in a couple of dutch angles late in the film. This is obviously a low-budget film but the sets are quite serviceable, there’s some fun silly scientific paraphernalia in the mad scientist’s laboratory and the remote viewing televisions are handled quite well.

The Mexican film industry was always pretty good at achieving spooky atmosphere on very low budgets and Santo contra los zombies has some quite effectively moody scenes.

The Cinematográfica Rodríguez Region 1 and 4 DVD offers a very decent transfer, in Spanish with English subtitles.

Santo contra los zombies has no ambitions to do anything other than offer great fun-filled entertainment and it succeeds superbly in doing just that. This film is pure enjoyment. If you’re never seen a Santo movie this is as good a place as any to start and if you’re a confirmed fan you’ll certainly love this one. Tragically only a small proportion of the Santo movies are available in English-friendly editions but among those that are you’ll certainly want to check out Santo in the Wax Museum (1963), Santo Versus the Martian Invasion (1967) and Santo and Blue Demon vs. Doctor Frankenstein (1974).

Highly recommended.