Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)

Released in 1938, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars was the second of the three Flash Gordon serials made by Universal. The original 1936 Flash Gordon serial was one of the best of its breed and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is a fairly worthy successor.

Flash (Larry “Buster” Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr Zarkov (Frank Shannon) have returned in triumph to Earth after their successful struggle against the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) on the planet Mongo. All is not well on Earth. The Earth is being slowly destroyed by a ray from space which is draining all the nitron from the atmosphere. Dr Zarkov believes the ray originates from Mongo. In fact, as Flash and his pals soon find out, the actual source of the ray is the planet Mars.

Which doesn’t mean that Ming is not involved. He is very much involved. Ming has forged an alliance with the Martian queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts) whose magical powers make her a formidable adversary in her own right. Ming has offered to assist Azura in her war with the Clay People.

For this adventure Flash, Dale and Dr Zarkov are joined by a stowaway, a pushy but reasonably amiable newspaper reporter, Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr). Hapgood serves no real purpose other than to provide some comic relief. Fortunately he’s not excessively irritating.

The potential problem with all serials was the difficulty in maintaining the excitement over so many installments without too many dull patches and without too many episodes that fail to advance the plot. This problem does not afflict Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars to any great degree. The action is fairly constant, the cliffhangers are exciting and the plot does move along. On occasions the serial does resort to some of the expected cliffhanger clichés but not to an excessive degree.

Apart from Ming and his minions and Azura and her minions there are two main alien races. The Clay People shamble about and look fairly sinister and have the unnerving habit of disappearing into the rock walls in their underground wall. They may not be as sinister as they first appear although they’re certainly dangerous. There is a secret to the origin of the Clay People, a secret that will be revealed as the serial progresses. The Forest People are creepier and they’re pretty creepy although not as impressive as the Clay People.

Azura’s magic makes this serial more science fantasy than science fiction but then Flash Gordon serials are hardly serious science fiction to begin with. The trouble with introducing magic is that it can make a character a bit too powerful but fortunately Azura’s magic has its limitations.

There’s the usual array of delightfully silly pseudoscientific ideas. The giant nitron lamp that is draining the Earth’s atmosphere looks cool and is a nifty idea. 

The spaceships in these 1930s serials are wonderfully silly although in their own way the designs are quite interesting. Of course the special effects are incredibly crude, the miniatures look like kids’ toys and the spaceships in flight are ludicrously unconvincing. All of which just makes me love these serials even more.

The budgets of these Universal serials were, by serial standards, reasonably generous. The sets look fantastic and the costumes are great (if often bizarre).

The acting is bad but it’s bad in a very entertaining way. Buster Crabbe makes a terrific square-jawed action hero, Jean Rogers does little more than look glamourous while Beatrice Roberts does her best to appear as diabolical as she possibly can. Of course the highlight is as always Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless, a superb melodrama villain just oozing evilness from every pore.

The plotting is tighter than you might expect - each episode actually does advance the main story line without to many irrelevant digressions.

The Madacy boxed set includes all three Flash Gordon serials at a very reasonable price indeed. The transfers are not stellar but they’re more than acceptable. 

You might want to watch the original 1936 Flash Gordon serial first - Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars assumes you already know the backstories of the major characters. After watching the original you’ll be keen to watch Flash’s second adventure.

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars has everything that a fan of 1930s movie serials could wish for. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Carry On Constable (1960)

Carry On Constable was the fourth film of the Carry On series. After the enormous commercial success of Carry On Nurse in 1959 it was obvious the series was going to be a consistent money-spinner and producer Peter Rogers was anxious to maintain a stock company of regular cast members. By the time Carry On Constable was released in 1960 that had more or less been achieved. Most of the stars who would become so familiar to audiences had been assembled - Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey and Sid James (who made his Carry On debut in this film).

Norman Hudis wrote the scripts for the first six films after which Talbot Rothwell took over and wrote most of the remaining films. The Norman Hudis Carry On movies have a rather different flavour compared to the later movies. The acting is much less excessive. Even Kenneth Williams is quite restrained. The actors are making an attempt at playing actual characters in a film rather than playing directly to the audience. There’s not quite as much of a madcap quality.

Whether you prefer these earlier films or the later Talbot Rothwell-scripted ones is a matter of taste. Personally I prefer the Talbot Rothwell films but the early films do have their charm.

Carry On Constable doesn’t have a great deal in the way of plot. A flu epidemic has caused a major manpower shortage in the police force and the station run by Inspector Mills (Eric Barker) has been hit particularly hard. Mills is understandably relieved when three replacement officers arrive. His relief soon turns to dismay. The three are fresh out of police school and Constable Benson (Kenneth Williams), Constable Charlie Constable (Kenneth Connor) and Constable Tom Potter (Leslie Phillips) are a trio of bumbling incompetents. Even worse Mills has had to resort to putting Special Constable Timothy Gorse (Charles Hawtrey) onto full-time duties.

It’s up to the experienced Sergeant Wilkins (Sid James) to whip these hapless recruits into shape. Sergeant Wilkins has his own problems - Inspector Mills is trying to get rid of him.

What follows is more like a series of comic episodes with only the thinnest of connecting narratives. The three new constables manage to make a mess of just about every situation in which they find themselves. There’s a great deal of slapstick humour. There are of course plenty of double entendres but not quite as many as in the later Carry On movies. It’s mostly gently amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny but it has its moments and it’s good-natured fun.

This was the third Carry On movie for Leslie Phillips. Peter Rogers was anxious for Phillips to continue as a regular but although Phillips enjoyed making these movies he decided enough was enough and didn’t want to become part of a permanent comic team. Phillips was a fine comic actor and he does well as the skirt-chasing rather aristocratic playboy Potter. 

Sid James had started his career as a serious actor and he plays Sergeant Wilkins surprisingly straight. Kenneth Williams might be more restrained than in the later films but there are signs of the inspired comic madness that was to come. Hattie Jacques as Sergeant Laura Moon (who has a bit of a thing for Sergeant Wilkins) is as delightful as ever. Kenneth Connor is quite over-the-top as the insanely superstitious Constable Constable who falls hopelessly in love with WPC Gloria Passworthy (Joan Sims). Shirley Eaton makes one of her several Carry On appearances in this movie. There’s a galaxy of British comic talent in minor roles.

Although filmed mostly at Pinewood Studios there’s a surprising amount of location shooting in this film.

The ITV Studios DVD (part of their Carry On Ultimate Collection boxed set) offers a fine anamorphic transfer and includes an audio commentary featuring Leslie Phillips, who has some truly outrageous anecdotes to tell about the making of the movie.

My own view is that the series was at its peak from about 1962 to 1971 with Carry On Henry being the last of the great Carry On movies. Carry On Constable can’t really compare with classics like Carry On Spying, Carry On Cleo or Don’t Lose Your HeadCarry On Constable might not be one of the best of the Carry On movies but it’s amusing and enjoyable. Recommended.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942)

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is a 1942 Universal horror thriller that has all the ingredients for a terrific movie of that type. It has a mad scientist, it has Lionel Atwill and it has a guy in a gorilla suit. What could go wrong?

In fact everything goes wrong. The result is a tribute to Universal’s ability in the 1940s to make dreary and irritating movies out of even the most promising material.

The mysterious Doctor Rx is murdering notorious criminals. These criminals have all been acquitted of their crimes, despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. Doctor Rx seems to be a kind of crazed vigilante determined to see justice done when the system fails.

Captain Hurd (Edmund MacDonald) of New York’s Homicide Squad is at his wit’s end. He appeals to his friend Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) for help. Church is a famed private detective and if anyone can discover the identity of Doctor Rx it’s Jerry Church. Unfortunate Jerry has just married Feisty Girl Reporter Kit Logan (Anne Gwynne) and Kit has decided she’d rather have Jerry as a live husband than a dead hero. She doesn’t want him to end up like Detective Barney Scott. Barney Scott was a vigorous young detective determined to solve this case but after an encounter with Doctor Rx he is now a virtual vegetable. And his hair tuned white overnight from sheer fright! So Jerry turns the case down.

Of course we know that eventually Jerry will have to get involved whether he wants to or not. Getting kidnapped convinces him that he really needs to do something about the Doctor Rx situation.

What follows is a moderately interesting mystery potboiler, which is OK as far as it goes but this movie has some very big problems. 

The first problem is that all those cool ingredients I mentioned earlier take up only a few minutes of screen time. The mad scientist element is an afterthought that really doesn’t go anywhere. Lionel Atwill might as well have not bothered- he’s hardly in the picture at all. And even the brief appearance of the guy in the gorilla suit isn’t enough to make things interesting.

The second problem is the comic relief. Comic relief is the factor that ruined, or at best went close to ruining, dozens of potentially excellent 1930s and 1940s Hollywood B-movies. In this case the comic relief is so persistent, so intrusive and so irritating that it’s impossible to ignore and it really does sink the movie. Mantan Morland is bad enough but he’s comparatively innocuous compared to Shemp Howard. Yes, Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame. Shemp Howard may well be the unfunniest comic in the history of cinema. His contributions are cringe-inducingly lame.

The third problem is the romantic sub-plot between Jerry and Kit that takes up too much time and isn’t very interesting, and isn’t even particularly romantic.

Apparently the script was unfinished when shooting started and much of the dialogue was ad-libbed, which is unfortunate because clearly none of the cast members are really capable of effective improvisation.

Patric Knowles makes a so-so hero. By B-movies standards he’s adequate. Adequate is also a reasonable description of Anne Gwynne’s performance. Lionel Atwill’s appearance is not much more than a cameo and he is given no opportunity to give the kind of Lionel Atwill performance that this movie desperately needs.

This film forms part of TCM’s five-movie Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. The transfer is excellent and there are at least a few token extras. The movies in this boxed set are certainly a very mixed bag.

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx was never going to be much more than mediocre but the comic elements are so dismally unamusing and annoying that there’s really no reason at all to bother watching this one. Not recommended.

Friday, 11 March 2016

reviews from my other movie blog

Some recent reviews from my other movie blog, Classic Movie Ramblings, that might be of interest:

Another Man’s Poison (1951) - if you enjoy seeing Bette Davis going completely over-the-top.

The Mirror Crack'd (1980) - Angela Lansbury makes a fine Miss Marple but the real highlights are the high camp performances by Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak.

The French Connection (1971) - one of the classic 70s cop movies.

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

The Day of the Jackal is a very different kind of 1970s action movie. This big-budget Anglo-French co-production might be unconventional but it’s also a very fine movie.

The end of the Algerian War and the granting of independence to Algeria by France’s President de Gaulle angered a lot of people within the French military. It angered them enough that they refused to accept this outcome. Disgruntled and embittered officers and ex-officers formed the Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS) which carried out terrorist attacks and tried to assassinate de Gaulle. The movie opens with an extended action set-piece based on an actual OAS assassination attempt in 1962. 

The failure of this attempt was a major setback to the OAS. At this point fiction takes over. With their organisation riddled with police informers the surviving leadership of the OAS decides that their only hope is to employ an outsider, a professional hitman, to kill the President. This new attempt will be absolutely secret. Only the four top members of the organisation will know anything about it. The hitman they select is an Englishman, known by the code-name Jackal.

The Jackal (played by Edward Fox) is a very cool customer. He explains that after a job this big he will never be able to work again and therefore his fee will be extremely fee. Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter), the head of the OAS, agrees. The Jackal will work alone and will carry out the assassination at a time of his own choosing.

Much of the movie is concerned with the Jackal’s elaborate preparations - the procuring of false passports, the ordering of a very special gun, the careful planning that leaves nothing to chance. Running in parallel to this is the story of the efforts of the French security agencies (with assistance from Scotland Yard’s Special Branch) to track down the assassin.

The problem for the French is that de Gaulle refuses to take any special precautions or to cancel any public engagements and insists that the investigation be carried out in absolute secrecy. Inspector Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is in charge of the case. Lebel has the reputation of being a brilliant detective who is also possessed of infinite patience. Slowly and painstakingly he begins the process of hunting the Jackal.

There are several things which make this movie an oddity in the genre. Apart from the opening sequence referred to earlier there is practically no actual action. The emphasis is on suspense. There is however a difficulty here - we know who the assassin is, we know what the crime will be, and we know the attempt will fail. We know that de Gaulle was not assassinated. Therefore the suspense must come from those things we don’t know - we don’t know how the assassination will fail and we don’t know how Lebel will catch the Jackal. In fact even though we know that de Gaulle will not be killed we can’t be sure the Jackal will be caught. We also don’t know exactly who the Jackal is - we know only his code-name.

In some ways this movie is an inverted mystery, where the interest comes from the manner in which the criminal is hunted down. It is also in some respects a police procedural with the focus on following the investigation in meticulous detail.

Kenneth Ross’s screenplay is quite faithful to the approach that Frederick Forsyth took in his excellent best-selling novel (which I warmly recommend). The wealth of detail could become tedious but in fact it’s fascinating.

Fred Zinnemann was a much-praised but somewhat overrated director but he does a splendid job here. This is a long film but while the pacing is unhurried the suspense is built very effectively.

Zinnemann chose Edward Fox to play the Jackal because he wanted an actor who seemed a different as possible from the stereotype of a hitman. It was an inspired choice. Fox plays the Jackal as an educated and cultured (and very polite) upper-class Englishman but he also succeeds in making him chillingly cold-blooded.

The support cast is exceptionally strong. Michael Lonsdale as Lebel provides a superb contrast to Fox’s Jackal - Lebel might be a superb detective but he is temperamentally a very ordinary policeman, and compared to the rather aristocratic Jackal he is something of a plebian. Lebel and the Jackal are worlds apart but both are in their very different ways thorough professionals who know their jobs very very well.

The movie is wonderfully evocative of the world of the early 1960s, a world that was already a vanished world when the movie was made in 1973.

The Region 2 DVD is widescreen but not 16x09 enhanced and has very little in the way of extras. On the other hand it can be picked up very inexpensively.

The Day of the Jackal might not please action movie fans who expect car chases and spectacular stunts. This is a more cerebral kind of thriller and a rather old-fashioned one. It is however a well-crafted piece of work and if you are prepared to accept it on its own terms it’s a tense and engrossing suspense film with a great lead performance by the under-appreciated Edward Fox. Highly recommended.