Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Hypnotist (1957)

The Hypnotist (later re-released as Scotland Yard Dragnet) is a 1957 psychological thriller from Britain’s Merton Park Studios. Like most of the studio’s output it’s a low budget production and like most of their output it’s better than you might expect.

In this case it’s also a bit stranger than you might expect.

It starts with test pilot Val Neal (Paul Carpenter) almost being killed when a test flight goes wrong. Against all the odds he escapes with only very minor injuries and he quickly makes a full recovery. Except that it’s not quite a complete recovery. He has these attacks. He becomes very breathless and suffers agonising chest pains. Since there is absolutely nothing physically wrong with him it looks like it’s a case for the psychiatrists, and his fiancée Mary (Patricia Roc) manages to persuade a very eminent man in that field, Dr Francis Pelham (Roland Culver) to take Val on as a private patient.

The therapy seems to make little progress. Since as everyone knows all mental problems can be explained by a repressed childhood memory Mary decides to take a pro-active approach - instead of waiting for Dr Pelham to uncover this repressed memory she’ll do a bit of digging into Val’s past and maybe she’ll find the answer that way.

While she’s doing this Val has a little adventure. While under hypnosis he runs off and after wandering the streets, not even being able to remember his own name, he meets a rather charming young lady in a jazz club. The following morning he remembers his name and returns home.

So far the film seems to be an odd and slightly overwrought psychological melodrama but after nearly an hour it suddenly changes gears and the main plot, a murder mystery plot,  kicks in. The slow buildup could be seen as a flaw but I think it works. It’s a movie that leads us up the garden path and the sudden unexpected act of violence comes as a shock.

Movies from the 40s and 50s dealing with psychiatry and hypnosis are always fun. There’s the delightful child-like faith that people had in such things back then, and the way psychiatrists were regarded almost as magicians. This movie is a particularly good example of the psychiatry-as-magic genre. All you have to do is to find that one crucial memory from the patient’s childhood and he will be instantly cured. And hypnosis is incredibly powerful and you can’t fight against it.

The oddness in this movie doesn’t come from the plot (which is not dazzlingly original) but more from the delightfully sensationalistic and rather outrageous treatment of the hypnosis theme.

Roland Culver is marvellous as always, playing his role with a twinkle in his eyes. It’s a nicely judged performance - Dr Pelham seems like a dedicated and kindly doctor but can we be sure he is what he seems to be?

Paul Carpenter is quite effective as Val, playing him as mostly an easy-going likeable kind of guy but also as a guy who could certainly have some dark secrets and perhaps the potential to lose control completely. As is the case with Dr Pelham we’re uncertain whether to take Val at face value or not.

Writer-director Montgomery Tully was an artisan rather than an artist but his films, particularly in the B-movie crime genre, are usually solid and quite watchable.

Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. The black-and-white image looks great. Extras are pretty much non-existent - a trailer and a stills gallery (which is more than you usually get from Network).

The Hypnotist is perfectly enjoyable and the psychobabble adds extra entertainment value. Recommended.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Ace Drummond (serial, 1936)

Ace Drummond is a 1936 aviation adventure serial from Universal, and it’s one of the best of the early Universal serials.

This serial is based on Eddie Rickenbacker’s comic strip of the same name. Rickenbacker himself was a colourful and larger-than-life character. He was the highest scoring American air ace of the First World War, a racing car driver, the founder of an automobile manufacturing company and an airline executive as well as being a bitter enemy of President Franklin Roosevelt.

International Airways is trying to establish an international network of air services and of course Mongolia is the key to this. So they need to establish an air field there. They have suffered a series of disasters which appear to be the work of a master criminal known as the Dragon, the intention being presumably to close down the airline’s operations in Mongolia.

In desperation the directors of the airline have called on the services of the G-Man of the Air, the famous Ace Drummond. Drummond very narrowly escapes death on his way to Bai-Tal Field, the Mongolian headquarters of International Airways.

There's another mystery to be dealt with as well. Eminent archaeologist, Dr Trainor, who claimed to have discovered a mountain of jade, has disappeared. His daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) has arrived in Mongolia to try to find some trace of her father.

Both Ace and Peggy suspect that the Dragon is behind Dr Trainor's kidnapping.

Singing cowboys were amazingly popular in 1930s Hollywood. Ace Drummond is a variation on the theme - he’s a singing aviator. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion. I did get a little tired of hearing the one song over and over again.

John King as Drummond is an effective square-jawed hero while Jean Rogers as Peggy Trainor makes a fine heroine. Noah Beery Jr gives a scene-stealing performance as aircraft mechanic and part-time hero’s sidekick Jerry. Jerry could easily have been made into a comic relief character but he isn’t. He’s a sidekick who is resourceful and actually useful, and quite heroic in his own right.

Guy Bates Post gives a florid performance as the Grand Lama of the nearby monastery (where the monks are extremely hostile to the Foreign Devils of the Air). The monastery is not quite the haven of peace you might expect, given that it contains a room specifically designed for the purposes of torture.

There’s also a potentially annoying kid, the son of the airline president, but he turns out to be not as annoying as one might have feared.

The other notable cast member is Lon Chaney Jr as one of the henchman of the chief villain.

There’s no shortage of action in this serial, and the action sequences are imaginative and exciting. There are lots of aerial sequences and they’re pretty impressive.

The cliffhangers are mostly pretty good. As you might expect quite a few involve air crashes.

The identity of the chief villain, the Dragon, is reasonably well concealed. One interesting feature is the killing off of a heroic character, rather surprising in a serial.

This is a Universal serial so the production values are somewhat higher than you’d find in a contemporary Mascot serial. The sets are quite good, especially the monastery sets. There are some gadgets, the best by far being the use of the fans and prayer wheels and even water wheels as radio receivers for messages from the Dragon.

Ace Drummond is available on DVD from several sources. My copy was from, Alpha Video. Both the image quality and sound quality are quite good (by Alpha Video standards anyway).

Ace Drummond is a truly excellent serial. Highly recommended. There were quite a few other 1930s aviation-themed serials, such as The Mystery Squadron (which is also highly enjoyable).

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Return of Dr Fu Manchu (1930)

Paramount released three Fu Manchu movies in the early days of sound movies. All starred Warner Oland (who went on to even greater fame and notoriety as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu. The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu appeared in 1929, followed by The Return of Dr Fu Manchu in 1930 and Daughter of the Dragon in 1931. It is The Return of Dr Fu Manchu with which we are concerned at the moment.

It opens with a recap of the events of the first film. The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu had offered an explanation for Fu Manchu’s hatred of European civilisation - his wife and child had been killed by white soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion (in which Fu Manchu had been firmly on the side of the European powers) and so his crusade against white civilisation is motivated entirely by personal revenge. This is totally at odds with the character of Fu Manchu as established in Sax Rohmer’s novels and in my view it cheapens and trivialises the character. In the books Fu Manchu is motivated by grander and nobler sentiments. He believes that either western civilisation must dominate the East, or that eastern civilisation must dominate the West and being Chinese he naturally hopes that eastern civilisation will triumph. He genuinely believes that he is fighting in the cause of a superior civilisation. Reducing him to a man bent on personal revenge, like a character in a cheap B-western, makes him far less interesting.

It also makes him less of a larger-than-life character and less of a super-villain, which is unfortunate. Everything about Fu Manchu should be on the grand scale, both his evil deeds and his acts of nobility. This is lost in these early film adaptations.

But I digress. The recap of the earlier film takes place during Fu Manchu’s funeral, attended by his old foe Inspector Nayland Smith. Since the movie is just beginning and Fu Manchu is the central character I don’t think any viewer is going to be the least bit surprised that with the funeral services over Dr Fu Manchu is revealed to the audience as being very much alive.

Nayland Smith’s close friend and comrade-in-arms Dr Jack Petrie is about to marry Lia Eltham, both these young people believing they are now free from the menace of Fu Manchu. But Fu Manchu is determined the wedding will not take place. Instead there will be a funeral, Jack Petrie’s funeral. Fu Manchu has set himself the goal of murdering all the British officers responsible for the deaths of his wife and son, and he intends to murder the son of those British officers as well. Dr Jack Petrie is the last name on his list.

The movie takes on some of the attributes of the Old Dark House genre, with the wedding party more or less under siege while Fu Manchu is lurking nearby preparing to strike.

Unfortunately it takes a long time before he does strike. This movie is much too slow. Nothing really happens at all in the first half hour.

Early talkies have a reputation for being static with too much dialogue and not enough action, mainly because of technical difficulties with the early sound technology. This film definitely has that dreaded static feel to it. Rowland V. Lee was usually a competent B-movie director so I would assume that the problems here were mostly due to those technological issues.

It does improve and the second half of the film features some interesting battles of will between Smith and Fu Manchu and between Petrie and Fu Manchu. It doesn’t matter who is stronger or braver or cleverer, what really matters is who has the greater will. There is a bit of action and at least some suspense.

Warner Oland was a fine actor and he makes Fu Manchu a living breathing character but he doesn’t quite the grandeur and the arrogance and the aura of genius to really capture the essence of the character. Of the many actors who have played the rôle the only one who really nailed it was Christopher Lee. Warner Oland isn’t terrible by any means but he just isn’t Fu Manchu.

O.P. Heggie is a very dull Nayland Smith. Neil Hamilton (best remembered as the Commissioner in Batman) is not bad as the young Dr Petrie. Jean Arthur doesn’t make much impact as Lia. William Austin provides some excruciatingly feeble and unfunny comic relief as Petrie’s best man.

A major weakness is that we don’t see enough of Fu Manchu himself, especially in the early stages. While I have reservations about Oland’s performance there’s no question that he’s the one actor here really worth watching.

When we finally see Fu Manchu in his lair things pick up a bit. It’s quite a good set, in fact very good, and does convey a kind of oriental mad scientist vibe.

The Return of Dr Fu Manchu is at best a partial success. After a very dull start it provides some entertainment value but it fails to capture the essential spirit of Sax Rohmer’s novels.  Hardcore Fu Manchu fans will probably want to see it anyway out of curiosity.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Whispering Shadow (serial, 1933)

The Whispering Shadow is a 1933 thirteen-part Mascot serial starring Bela Lugosi. It’s a crime thriller with some elements of science fiction and of the fantastic thrown in, and with a hint of the gothic as well.

The Empire Transport and Storage Company has carved out its own market niche. It’s a trucking company but with some very high-tech features. The trucks are in constant communication with the central warehouse by radio-phone. The system seems fool-proof but unfortunately in practice it’s proving to be worryingly vulnerable. Four Empire trucks have been hijacked recently with fatal results for the drivers involved. A sinister figure knows as the Whispering Shadow is believed to be behind the hijackings. There is no real explanation as to why those particular trucks were targeted.

When another trucks is attacked and the kid brother of chief dispatcher Jack Foster (Malcolm McGregor) is killed the company decides to get serious. They hire the celebrated detective Robert Raymond (Robert Warwick) to take over security.

There’s an extraordinary amount of plot packed into the first episode, not to mention several action set-pieces. Several intriguing characters are introduced - such as jewel thief Jasper Slade and magician Professor Strang (Bela Lugosi). There are cool gadgets. There’s a shadow that speaks. There’s a wax museum. There’s a prison breakout. There’s a full-scale attack on the company’s headquarters - by autogyro! There’s a death ray! There are at least half a dozen very suspicious characters. And it’s paced like a speeding locomotive.

It all has something to do with the most fabulous of all jewel collections, the jewels of the Tsar of Russia.

The pacing doesn’t flag at all. There’s no time wasted on extended dialogue scenes. Any exposition that needs to be done is done at a run. Then it’s time for more action.

The central mystery is the identity of the Whispering Shadow and that mystery is fairly well concealed. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s going to be Bela Lugosi - he did several serials and did not always play villains. There are several other very strong suspects. There’s some fairly good misdirection in this serial with all sorts of clues that point to different suspects.

The misdirection is not just to do with the Whispering Shadow’s identity. There seem to be a lot of people after those jewels, some of whom think they have legitimate claims and some of whom are obviously merely crooks. There are political agendas and it’s not clear precisely who is working for whom. The plot twists are actually reasonably nifty.

The Whispering Shadow is a diabolical criminal mastermind with access to terrifying and murderous technologies such as television. He is also a master of radio technology which is of course invaluable for killing one’s enemies at a distance. This particular serial is a celebration of technology's potential for mayhem!

There are too many flashbacks but you have to remember that you’re supposed to watch a serial like this over a period of twelve weeks, in which case the flashbacks would probably be quite useful. Modern viewers often make the mistake of watching an entire serial over a period of just three or four nights. It doesn’t really work. I try to watch no more than one episode per night and to take a few breaks so that I usually end up watching a twelve-episode serial over a period of maybe two-and-a-half weeks. It makes it a lot more fun.

The acting is very much in the hyper-active B-movie melodrama mode but that’s as it should be in a serial. Malcolm McGregor does make a pretty fair square-jawed action hero. Viva Tattersall overacts delightfully as Professor Strange’s daughter Vera.

The Alpha Video DVD release, on two discs, is unfortunately rather poor. Sound quality is adequate but image quality is definitely not good. On the other hand the other available versions are either public domain or grey market so there’s no reason to think they’d be any better. The Alpha Video release is watchable and if you’re a fan of serials it’s worth putting up with the less-than-stellar picture quality.

If you’re not a fan of serials than The Whispering Shadow is probably not the best place to start. But if you are a fan of serials you should find plenty of enjoyment here. Recommended.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Knight Rider 2000 TV-movie (1991)

The 1991 TV-movie Knight Rider 2000 was shot as the pilot for what was hoped would be a new series based (albeit a little loosely) on the 1980s hit series Knight Rider. Knight Rider 2000 failed to capture anyone’s imagination, it was not picked up as a series and it seems to be generally disliked by fans of the original Knight Rider series.

Despite this it does have some limited interest for cult movie fans and it is a bit more overtly science fictional than the original television series, with a futuristic rather than a contemporary setting.

For what it's worth here’s the link to my review of Knight Rider 2000 at Cult TV Lounge.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Green Archer (1961)

The West German film industry was largely kept afloat from the late 50s to the end of the 60s by the extraordinary popularity of the Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, known as krimis. These were made in vast numbers. They were made by several studios but it is generally considered that the best of the krimis were the ones made by Rialto Studios.

The Green Archer (Der grüne Bogenschütze), made by Rialto in 1961, is one of the best known films in the series. It was the only Edgar Wallace krimi directed by Jürgen Roland.

Edgar Wallace had been an incredibly popular writer in the early decades of the 20th century but for some reason he was particularly favoured by German readers, and film adaptations of his works were particularly favoured by German movie audiences. German thriller fans just could not get enough of Wallace’s outrageous and lurid style and his and convoluted multi-layered plots.

The Green Archer is classic Edgar Wallace. A rich American, Abel Bellamy (Gert Fröbe), owns a castle in England. Naturally the castle has a ghost, but this ghost is more interesting than most. The Green Archer had been a notorious medieval outlaw but although he is long dead his ghost remains very active.

Abel Bellamy apparently has a very colourful past which he is not anxious to talk about. He is particularly anxious not to discuss his past with his new neighbours, the Howetts. This is awkward since Valerie Howett (Karin Dor) would very much like to discuss Bellamy’s past with him. Bellamy claims to have no family but this is most certainly untrue.

There are other plot strands that initially appear to have no connection with each other. These other plot strands include the activities of the Green Archer himself, and all seem to lead directly or indirectly back to Abel Bellamy.

This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation there are of course secret passageways and hidden doorways. In fact there’s a veritable secret world beneath Abel Bellamy’s castle. It’s not easy gaining access to this world. Getting out again is even more difficult.

There are plenty of colourful characters and quite a few very delightfully sinister figures, especially the extremely creepy Coldharbour Smith.

The action keeps rolling along and the climax is suitably outrageous and overblown and thoroughly enjoyable.

Despite the complications of the plot Jürgen Roland does a fine job holding things together. At times the movie threatens to collapse under the weight of its own complexity but it doesn’t.

Gert Fröbe is best known to English-speaking audiences as Goldfinger in the film of the same name. He was a terrific actor and he is in splendid form here. He’s definitely the star act here.

Karin Dor makes a fine determined (and very attractive) heroine. Eddi Arendt as usual provides comic relief as television reporter Spike Holland, who finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. Eddi Arendt in an acquired taste but he was a fixture in these films and he’s really rather restrained and quite good in this movie.

Klausjürgen Wussow is the ostensible hero although it takes us a while to figure that out.

Like all the German Edgar Wallace krimis The Green Archer is supposedly set in England. The English locations are totally unconvincing but that doesn’t mater. I like to think that these movies take place in their own alternate reality. It’s an England of the imagination.

One thing you learn when you become a fan of these movies is that it’s best to give up any fantasies you might have of seeing them presented beautifully restored and in anamorphic transfers. It’s not going to happen. As with other European cult movies (such as peplums and eurospy movies) you learn to be grateful to see them at all. While the Sinister Cinema edition of The Green Archer is fullframe it is at least a pretty good print and the chances of a better English-friendly version ever seeing the light of day are just about zero. This is as good as it’s going to get and luckily it’s quite acceptable.

The Green Archer is total insanity and it’s great fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

my favourite movie serials

It’s been suggested that I should do a post on my favourite movie serials. So here goes. I’m not going to try to rank them - the serials I’m listing here were all good and all enormous fun. I've provided links here to my full reviews.

King of the Wild (1931), an absolutely outrageous and wonderfully fast-paced Mascot serial with Boris Karloff, guys in gorilla suits, exotic settings in Darkest Africa and the Mysterious East and unbelievable amounts of inspired lunacy. Unbelievably political incorrect.

Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), an excellent Republic serial and a treat for fans of diabolical criminal masterminds bent on wold domination and yes it’s also unbelievably political incorrect.

Flash Gordon (1936), probably the most expensive serial ever made. The Universal science fiction serials were all good but this is the best of them. And in Ming the Merciless it has one of the great screen villains.

Spy Smasher (1942). If it’s a Republic serial directed by William Witney you know you’re in for a treat. Made on a much more modest budget than Universal’s serials but it manages to look very impressive. Incredibly entertaining.

The Mysterious Dr Satan (1940). Another Republic serial. This one has killer robots, a mad scientist and a mysterious masked crime-fighter. Lots of enjoyment to be had here.