Monday 27 June 2011

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was envisaged as the first of a cycle of movies based on the Doc Savage pulp novels. Sadly the rest of the series never materialised.

George Pal, the legendary producer of 1950s and 1960s science fiction films, co-wrote the screenplay as well as producing. It was in fact his last completed film.

It was based on the first of the Doc Savage books. Clark Savage Jr, known as Doc Savage, returns to New York to find that his father,the famous adventurer and philanthropist, has died. The cause of death was reported as a tropical disease contracted on an expedition to Central America. When a mysterious assassin makes an attempt on Doc’s life and his father’s papers are destroyed in a deliberately lit fire Doc starts to suspect that Clark Savage Sr was the victim of foul play.

The would-be assassin is an Indian, a member of a tribe believed to no longer exist. Doc and his five faithful companions set off to the Central American republic of Hidalgo to try to pick up the trail, surviving another assassination attempt on the way.

They become suspicious of the activities of a certain Captain Seas whose luxury yacht is in the harbour at Hidalgo. With the help of the beautiful Mona they eventually find the fabled Valley of the Vanished. This land had been bequeathed to Doc by his father. The deeds had been stolen and it’s soon clear why someone didn’t want Doc to take possession. There is gold there. Lots of it. The villains, led by the sinister Captain Seas, are mercilessly exploiting the locals. Doc and his friends are determined not just to gain his inheritance but to save the tribespeople of the valley.

The difficulty with this sort of movie is knowing just how camp to make it. This may well have been the reason for this particular movie’s commercial failure. It was perhaps too comp for serious Doc Savage fans but not camp enough to satisfy those hoping for a pure spoof.

1975 saw the commercial failure of another movie based on a series of immensely successful cult novels, a movie that was also intended to be the first of a movie series -Royal Flash, based on the Flashman novels. I suspect it failed for the same reason - adventure film fans weren’t really prepared for a film that approached the genre in such a tongue-in-cheek manner, but it didn’t go far enough to succeed as a comedy. I happen to like Royal Flash, and I like Doc Savage as well.

The use of John Philip Sousa’s martial music in Doc Savage, with lyrics socially added, works quite well.

Ron Ely, better known from the 1960s Tarzan TV series, make a fine Doc Savage. There’s no problem with the rest of the cast but a slight weakness is that Doc has too may sidekicks. This works well enough in the books where each of his followers manages to contribute something to the plot by making use of their special skills - one is a great chemist, one an electrical wizard, one an engineer, etc. The movie doesn’t make much use of these special abilities so that while Monk, the archeologist Johnny and the lawyer Ham are reasonably memorable characters, and well (if rather broadly) acted, the other two sidekicks are completely forgettable.

The best decision made by the producers, in my view, was keeping the 1930s setting. The early scenes in New York look fabulous. They look more like a comic-book vision of New York in the 30s than the reality but that’s a major plus and gives these scenes a wonderful flavour. Overall the the movie is very impressive visually. The telephone answering machine using vinyl disks is a very cool touch!

The balance between adventure and camp is well maintained, and the tongue-in-cheek element never becomes annoying. This is a hugely enjoyable movie.

It’s been issued on DVD-R in the Warner Archive series. Picture quality is extremely good. Well worth picking up.

Friday 24 June 2011

Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973)

Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (La morte negli occhi del gatto) isn’t quite certain if it wants to be a gothic horror film or a giallo or a psychological thriller, but whatever it is it’s kind of fun.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Antonio Margheriti as a director. He doesn’t command the kind of adulation that people like Fulci command but he’s actually better than a lot of the more fancied Italian genre directors of his era.

I’m not quite clear as to exactly when the events in this movie are meant to take place, but it’s definitely meant to be in Scotland. The MacGrieff family have attracted a few slightly unsavoury local legends and they have more than their fair share of skeletons in the family closet. The current nominal head of the family is the young Lord James MacGrieff. He mostly stays in his bedroom and is reputed to be mad. He does not get on with his mother, Lady Mary.

Lady Mary is short of money and the upkeep on their castle is expensive. She’s hoping to get some money out of her sister who is currently paying a visit along with her oddly named daughter Corringa (Jane Birkin). Corringa has just returned from her convent school from which she was in fact expelled although the family don’t know that. Despite this she’s a rather innocent soul.

The family includes the dubious hangers-on that you expect in a horror movie. There’s a creepy doctor named Franz (played by the always wonderful Anton Diffring). And there’s Suzanne, a rather sexy French teacher although we soon have reason to suspect that she’s perhaps not entirely respectable. In fact not even the tiniest bit respectable. There’s also the newly arrived parish priest and he’s a bit odd as well.

At first Corringa thinks Lord James is a rude arrogant pig but gradually her views start to change and pretty soon she’s comprehensively in lust with him.

Naturally a series of murders begins. Old family legends about vampires surface again. Coffins are empty when they shouldn’t be. There’s a cat that seems to be on the scene whenever a murder takes place. And then of course there’s Lord James’s pet ape.

By this time you may be thinking that this movie makes absolutely no sense at all. And I’d have to agree with you. But this is the world of eurohorror where plot coherence is strictly optional. Much more important ingredients are style, weirdness, energy and sleaze and this movie has all of those elements. Does it have enough of them to compensate for the extreme silliness of the story? In my view, yes it does.

The acting is in general pretty broad but Anton Diffring and Jane Birkin add both class and competence. Birkin’s then husband Serge Gainsbourg plays a minor role as police inspector.

And did I mention that this movie features a guy in a gorilla suit? And it gets extra bonus points because the ape plays no role whatsoever in the movie. They just thought it would be cool to have a guy in a gorilla suit. I thoroughly approve. Actually just about everything in this movie is gratuitous, it’s like the writers just thought they should throw in as much cool stuff as possible.

The Blue Underground DVD looks terrific but is a bit light on extras - just a brief interview with the film’s co-writer Giovanni Simonelli (who has some interesting reminiscences about working with Antonio Margheriti).

Not exactly a classic, but entertaining in its own enjoyably muddled way.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Island at the Top of the World (1974)

What could possibly be better than a movie featuring zeppelins? How about a movie featuring zeppelins and Vikings? There is such a movie - Disney’s 1974 Island at the Top of the World.

You could describe this one as an attempt to get a Jules Verne feel although it’s not actually based on a Verne novel.

It is the first decade of the 20th century. Wealthy business Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) had quarreled with his son Donald, and Donald as a result had set off on his own to explore the world. Specifically, to explore the Arctic regions. And had promptly disappeared. Now his father is determined to find him.

He recruits a somewhat sceptical anthropologist, Professor Ivarrson (David Hartman), who had led several expeditions to the Arctic. Ivarrson explains that it’s too late in the season to set out now, but Ross assures him that’s no problem. They won’t be using dog sleds or anything primitive like that. They’ll be going by airship!

Captain Brieux is the French engineer responsible for designing and constructing the airship Hyperion, and he is also its commander and pilot. He’s initially reluctant but since Sir Anthony Ross has financed his airship research and is in fact the owner of the Hyperion he doesn’t have much choice. Of course being a Disney movie there has to be a cute animal, in this case the gallant captain’s poodle. The captain would not even consider leaving her behind.

After finding the Eskimo guide who had accompanied his son in his explorations they set out in the Hyperion for the mythical Island of the Whales, the place where the whales go to die. It appears that the island isn’t so mythical at all. It exists, and it’s a rather surprising place. It is heated by hot springs and all manner of volcanic phenomena so that in spite of being so far north it’s quite fertile. It is a true lost world. But the Hyperion’s crew were not the first to find this fabled island. The Vikings beat them to it by a thousand years. And the Vikings are still there!

The Vikings are initially friendly enough, until their high priest the Godi decides that the airship is a sign that an ancient prophecy is about to be fulfilled, that their land is to be menaced by savage invaders. The fact that the invaders comprise a middle-aged businessman, an enthusiastic but entirely harmless scientist, an eccentric French engineer and one small dog has no effect on the Godi’s certainty that these dangerous invaders must be destroyed.

Some of the Vikings are however extremely friendly, and remain so. Donald has been living peacefully with a Viking farming family and he has fallen in love with the beautiful blonde daughter of the family, Freyja.

The plot provides plenty of action, with our adventurers chased by Viking longships as well as various aerial mishaps. It’s very much a kids’ movie but it’s still highly entertaining and adults with a yen for zeppelins and Vikings will have no cause for complaint.

There are no big name stars but Donald Sinden rises to the occasion in splendid style and overacts his heart out. Captain Brieux is a stereotypical movie Frenchman, excitable but brave. The other cast members are quite adequate.
The special effects are extremely variable. Some are excellent, some are very iffy. It doesn’t really matter. Even the dubious effects don’t spoil the fun. And the longships and the zeppelin are terrific, and that’s what matters.

Disney’s Region 4 DVd is a little disappointing. Picture quality is not fantastic and there are zero extras.

An enjoyable adventure romp.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Thunderball (1965)

By 1965 James Bond fever was it its height. The steadily increasing commercial success of the series was destined to reach a peak with the fourth film, Thunderball. This was the third and last Bond movie to be directed by Terence Young. As he explained afterwards he had made the first Bond film (Dr No), the best of the Bond films (From Russia With Love) and the most successful (Thunderball).

And it has to be said that all the Bond films Terence Young directed are great fun. Thunderball boasted the biggest budget of the series up to that time and it’s visually impressive. Somehow though it’s not quite as much fun as Goldfinger. In Largo it has a less interesting villain than the earlier films, and although the cast includes no less than three glamorous Bond women none are quite as intriguing as Pussy Galore.

The theft of atomic bomb was one of the staples of 1960s spy movies. In this instance the bombs are stolen from a hi-jacked British Avro Vulcan bomber. The hi-jacking method is ingenious and provides probably the most visually interesting scenes in the film. As you might expect, SPECTRE is behind this dastardly plot to blackmail the British government.

As so often in this movie series 007 finds himself in the Caribbean, and surrounded by beautiful women. There’s the obligatory casino scene and there’s one of the most large-scale underwater battle scenes you’re ever going to see, a sequence that undoubtedly chewed up a very large slice of the budget. Connery did some of the underwater scenes himself.

There are some gloriously extravagant sets, with the SPECTRE headquarters being particularly impressive. Largo’s huge motor yacht, the Disco Volante, is the sort of vessel every diabolical criminal mastermind dreams of owning.

Interestingly enough the novel Thunderball, published in 1961, was originally a film treatment. Ideas from the film treatment were incorporated by Ian Fleming in the book (leading to a celebrated court case) so the novel could technically be described as a novelisation. Delays engendered by the court battle meant that this ended up as the fourth Bond film, rather than the first as was originally intended.

Sean Connery was by this time very comfortable indeed in his role as Bond. Luciana Paluzzi, Claudine Auger and Martine Beswick provide the glamour. Adolfo Celli is very god as Largo although the character doesn’t quite have the larger-than-life feel of a great Bond villain.

It might sound like I’m damning Thunderball with faint praise but it is in fact a highly entertaining movie. It’s not by any means the best of the Connery Bond movies but any Bond movie with Connery is worth seeing.

Sunday 19 June 2011

The Spy Who Came (1969)

The Spy Who Came is one of a fairly small number of 1960s American sexploitation movies that combined sexploitation with science fiction. And it’s probably the most entertaining movie in this rather specialised sub-genre. 

Harry, a hardbitten vice cop who is just a little too fond of the ladies, finds himself the victim of blackmail after he picks up a very strange blonde girl in a bar. She seems almost like a zombie but she’s extremely willing to go to bed with him. Now the cop is in the clutches of an Arab terrorist who specialises in the espionage technique of the honey trap - using sex and subsequent blackmail to recruit agents. 

What Harry doesn’t know but is about to find out is that Interpol is investigating this terorist/espionage ring and knows all about his involvement. Harry is offered a choice - turn double agent and cooperate with Interpol or face the music. 

Not surprisingly Harry agrees to the deal. When he returns to the spy ring’s headquarters he’s accompanied by an Interpol inspector. While Harry keeps the spies busy the inspector will sneak around and take photos. The inspector uncovers the whole outrageous plan whereby young women are programmed by drugs and electronic brainwashing to become willing sex slaves for the spy ring. 

The programming is supervised by the beautiful blonde lesbian Tessie. Tessie enjoys her work. Especially the parts of her job that involve naked women and the use of whips. 

The whole thing is played for laughs and is surprisingly successful. And it’s actually funny. It’s also, as you’d expect from a movie rescued from obscurity by Something Weird Video, utterly bizarre. The female sex slaves are trained by having simulated sex with department story dummies. They use the dummies to rehearse the various sex positions they will need to learn.These scenes really are wonderfully strange and rather surreal, the more so because the actresses involved play it so straight. Not particularly erotic (unless you have a department story dummy fetish) but weirdly kinky. 

There’s more weird kinkiness in Tessie’s training sessions with the girls. Tessie certainly has a few issues she needs to work through. 

While there’s a huge amount of nudity none of it is very explicit. This is the type of sexploitation movie where women have sex without taking their panties off. It’s actually a great example of the art of sexploitation movie-making - there’s all kinds of implied kinkiness but very little is actually shown. As far as what is actually seen is concerned it would barely merit more than a PG rating today, but it still manages to feel delightfully sleazy and dirty. 

The acting is incredibly wooden but the science fiction/spy plot and the general weirdness make this more of an asset than a liability. If you have people who can’t act, have them play the roles of people who’ve been zombie-fied! And it adds nicely to the bizarrerie. The actress who plays Tessie is particularly bad but in a truly wonderful way. She’s just a total hoot. 

Something Weird have come up with a very fine print of this movie (as they generally manage to do). It’s a double-header with another spy/science fiction/sexploitation feature, The Electronic Lover, which is even stranger although not quite as entertaining. 

With Something Weird's usual array of extras this qualifies as a terrific two-movie set for fans of wacked-out 1960s movie oddities.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Chandu the Magician (1932)

The Chandu the Magician radio serial had been a massive success in 1932 and it was inevitable that a movie version would follow. In fact Fox had the Chandu the Magician movie in theatres before the end of that year.

Chandu (Edmund Lowe) is in fact Frank Chandler, an American who has been training as a yogi in the Mysterious East. Having completed his studies and become a master of the mystic arts he has taken the name of Chandu. Chandu will soon need all of his magical powers as he battles an evil conspiracy by the villainous Roxor (Bela Lugosi).

Roxor has kidnapped Chandu’s old friend Robert Regent. Regent is a scientist and inventor of genius, a kindly family man who seeks only to further the cause of human happiness who has devoted his life to building a death ray of awesome destructive capabilities. Why this paragon of virtue thinks that the best way to serve humanity is by constructing a death ray is never explained!

Roxor of course is determined to get his hands on the death ray. When he cannot persuade Regent to give him the secret he kidnaps his family. He believes he has a sure method of persuading the reluctant scientist - when Regent sees his beautiful teenage daughter Betty Lou (played by the 15-year-old June Lang) being auctioned off as a sex slave he will surely agree to cooperate. But the scientist would prefer to see his daughter shipped off to a life in a harem than betray the human race by revealing the secret of the death ray. Fortunately for Betty Lou’s virtue Chandu is at hand to effect a daring rescue.

Also drawn into the battle against Roxor is the Egyptian Princess Nadji, who happens to be Chandu’s girlfriend. Nadji is both beautiful and a useful ally.

The plot progresses from one cliffhanger to another and packs a tremendous amount of excitement into its brief 71-minute running time.

Edmund Lowe plays Chandu as pure-hearted noble hero but he’s just a little dull. Curiously enough when Chandu returned to the screen in the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu Lugosi played Chandu rather than the villain. It was a rare opportunity for him to play a hero. While Edmund Lowe is quite OK there’s no question that Lugosi was a far batter Chandu.

On the other hand Lugosi as Roxor made a splendid villain. Lugosi always tried his best even when given relatively poor roles in lacklustre movies. Given a great role like this one in an excellent movie he really pulls out all the stops.

Irene Ware as Princess Nadji is pretty good, and June Lang provides some glamour as the good scientist’s blonde bombshell daughter. The only fly in the ointment is the comic relief, in this case provided by English comic Herbert Mundin as Chandu’s servant Miggles.

The big pluses this movie has going for it are ace cinematographer James Wong Howe and director William Cameron Menzies. Howe was one of the greats and does a great job, as always. Menzies was a prioduction designer of genus as well as being a fine director and designed many of the miniatures used in the film. Between them Howe and Menzies make this movie look absolutely superb.

The obvious movie with which to compare Chandu the Magician is MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu which appeared in the same year. Both are immensely entertaining and joyously camp entertainments although Chandu was aimed more at what today would be called a family audience (although it certainly had its moments of pre-code lasciviousness such as the slave auction mentioned earlier). The Mask of Fu Manchu was much kinkier, with Myrna Loy’s character being described (very accurately) by one contemporary reviewer as a sadistic sex fiend. The Mask of Fu Manchu is the better movie but Chandu the Magician is enormous fun as well.

Fox’s DVD release (in their Horror Classics volume 2 boxed set) is superb and includes some nice extras. Given that the other two movies in the set (Dr Renault's Secret and Dragonwyck) are also terrific this must rank as one of the best cult movie boxed sets ever.

Monday 13 June 2011

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

In 1959 the British horror boom was getting into full swing and Anglo-Amalgamated was one of many companies only too happy to climb board the bandwagon. Horrors of the Black Museum is however a million miles away from the gothic horrors of Hammer Films that had launched the boom. This is contemporary urban horror, it’s cheap, sleazy and exploitative and far more graphic.

But than I happen to enjoy cheap, sleazy and exploitative horror films so I’m not complaining! This one was quite controversial in its day and was considered to have pushed the envelope as far as graphic violence was concerned.

London has been terrorised by a series of brutal murders of young women. It appears that the murders have been inspired by the Black Museum, Scotland Yard’s infamous collection of memorabilia of murder and crime. To add to their woes the police are being taunted for their failures by crime journalist Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough).

Bancroft has an interest in crime that might be termed unhealthily obsessive. He has his own Black Museum, and it’s bigger than Scotland Yard’s. His museum also includes a computer - his interest in crime is scientific as well as historical. His assistant Rick is slightly worrying as well. He seems a bit too eager to obey Bancroft’s every instruction.

The murders continue, while Bancroft’s doctor has noticed that after every murder Bancroft is in a dangerously excited state.

Michael Gough gives the kind of deliciously over-the-top performance that made him so beloved by cult movie fans. He completely dominates the movie. The other actors are perfectly adequate.

The script is fairly silly although in this kind of movie that’s not a major problem. What matters is that it’s well-paced and it delivers the horror goods. Which it does. Interestingly enough when producer Herman Cohen originally showed the film to the British censor without the music it was passed without comment (to Cohen’s considerable surprise). When the censor saw the final version with Gerard Schurmann’s music he demanded cuts, especially to the notorious murder-by-binoculars scene.

One area in which the movie definitely shows the Hammer influence lies in the fact that it was shot in colour and in Cinemascope.

VCI’s DVD presentation is reasonably good and includes quite a few extras.

A thoroughly enjoyable trashy horror movie.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Trader Hornee (1970)

Trader Hornee, released in 1970, is fairly typical of the sexploitation movies David F. Friedman was making around that time. A mix of silly but oddly engaging humour and copious nudity and with a suitably outlandish plot holding it all together.

Hamilton Hornee (pronounced Horn as the e’s are silent) is a private eye, and business is not exactly thriving. He’s prepared to take any job that’s offered and jumps at an assignment to go to Africa to look for a missing heiress. She’s been missing for about twenty years, along with her missionary parents.

Hamilton and his faithful assistant and girlfriend Jane set off into the steamy jungles.

They are accompanied by two of the missing girl’s relatives, Max and Doris Matthews (whose main interest is to make sure the young woman isn’t found so they’ll inherit her fortune instead), a scientist named Stanley Livingston who hopes to find the legendary white gorilla known as Nabucco, and a slightly oversexed journalist named Tender Lee. They have as their guide the less-than-intrepid Kenya Adler.

They hear rumours of a beautiful white princess. Could this be the missing girl?

It’s all pretty tame, and must have been so at the time. But it’s actually a rather good-natured movie and it’s amusingly non-PC. Deek Sills, in her one and only film role, makes a suitably bodacious white princess. The acting is over-the-top which is really the only way to approach this sort of material. Julie Conners is particularly good as Jane.

There’s lots of stock footage of course and that’s the only footage that remotely resembles Africa. Again it just adds to the fun.

Dave Friedman wrote the script for this one as well as producing (and even acts in a cameo role). Friedman was one of the great characters of the exploitation movie business and his immensely entertaining autobiography A Youth in Babylon is essential reading.

Hardly a classic but if you’re in the mood you’ll get a giggle out of it.

Rather surprisingly this movie actually got a Region 4 DVD release.

Friday 10 June 2011

The Monster of London City (1964)

While connoisseurs of the genre generally seem to prefer the Rialto productions some of the German Edgar Wallace krimis made by rival studio CCC are quite entertaining as well. The Monster of London City (Das Ungeheuer von London City) is not a great krimi but it’s worth a look.

Like many of these krimis this one is actually based on a book by Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace. I haven’t read any of his books so I don’t know how they compare with his father’s but one can’t help suspecting that producers just wanted the Wallace name.

In 1960s London a play based on the criminal career of Jack the Ripper is packing the crowds in. The play gains a great deal of notoriety from the fact that the beginning of its run coincided with the first of a series of real-life Jack the Ripper-style murders.

For no really obvious reason the actor who plays Jack in the play, Richard Sand (Hansjörg Felmy), becomes a suspect. He’s in love with Ann (Marianne Koch), who lives with her uncle and guardian who happens to be a member of parliament. Ann had been going out with Richard’s best friend Michael (Dietmar Schönherr), a doctor. Ann has some suspicions of her own - her uncle seems to be living something of a secret life, disappearing at night on mysterious errands hat seem to coincide with the murders.

The Scotland Yard detective in charge of the investigation and Ann’s uncle the MP have one thing in common - they both violently disapprove of the play and blame it for the murders. The producer of the play isn’t worried as the murders have been great publicity and have boosted the box-office. Richard is starting the feel the pressure however and talks of abandoning the role. Meanwhile the murders just keep happening.

As is usual with these krimis the plot hangs together rather precariously but the shaky plots are part of the fun. Of course there has to be comic relief, in this instance in the form of a bungling private detective and his girlfriend. The comic relief is annoying but thankfully not overly intrusive.

The acting is solid enough without reaching any great heights. The Jack the Ripper make-up is overdone but adds to the weirdness (and a good krimi always has at least some weirdness).

Edwin Zbonek does a competent job as director. The most impressive scenes are the murders - they’re done with a great deal of visual flair and very impressive use of ominous shadows. And fog. Always fog.

These German Edgar Wallace krimis have a particular flavour all their own. They’re almost always set in London but filmed entirely in Germany so it’s a kind of imaginary London which gives them a slightly surreal quality. This is London, Germany. They’re also (at least the early ones) shot in a wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white style that owes a good deal to both gothic and film noir.

There are some brief moments of nudity. The violence is moderately graphic for its era.

Retromedia’s DVD presentation preserves the correct Cinemascope (or the German equivalent of Cinemascope) aspect ratio. Only the English dubbed version is included. The dubbing isn’t very good but it does add to the amusement value. One day I’m going to have to track down some of the German DVD releases of these films.

Not one of the best krimis but still an enjoyable enough movie if you’re a fan of this genre, which I most certainly am.

Monday 6 June 2011

From the Orient with Fury (1965)

1965 is slap bang in the middle of the golden age of the eurospy movie, and From the Orient with Fury (Agente 077 dall'oriente con furore) is a pretty typical, and also a pretty entertaining, example of the breed.

Like most such movies it uses the basic template established by the early James Bond movies - fiendish plots by diabolical criminal masterminds, exotic settings, the world of the international jet set (there always has to be at least one scene in an expensive gambling casino), beautiful women and a dashing sexy secret agent hero.

In this case the secret agent hero is Dick Malloy, Agent 077. He is called back urgently from vacation to take on a vital case. A top scientist has been murdered, except that the medical examination has cast doubt on the identity of the corpse. It seems likely that Professor Kurtz has in fact been kidnapped. He was working on a new top secret disintegrating ray so it’s crucial that Malloy find both the vanished scientist and the plans for the disintegrating ray.

Any scientist worth his salt naturally must have a beautiful daughter and Professor Kurtz is no exception. Romy Kurtz is also understandably anxious to find her missing father. What Dick Malloy doesn’t yet know is that there are two sets of bad guys on the trail of the disintegrating ray. There will be multiple double-crosses before this case is solved.

With only a fraction of the budget available to the producers of the Bond movies eurospy directors had to be masters of the art of making cheap movies look glamorous and expensive and Sergio Grieco (who was involved with all three Dick Malloy movies) does this fairly well. Of course the spectacular stunts and sets of the Bond movies were out of the question but there’s plenty of action here and the pace is maintained throughout.

Istanbul had been a popular setting for spy stories for decades and it became equally popular with European exploitation film-makers in the 60s and 70s. It works well in this case as well.

Agent 077 is played by Ken Clark. Clark’s career failed to take off in the US but in the 60s if you were an American actor with the right rugged square-jawed hunky action hero look you could always get work in Europe and Clark was kept busy in Italian movies throughout the decade. He’s a perfect eurospy hero.

Margaret Lee and Evi Marandi provide the necessary glamour. Evi Marandi was a classic eurobabe who pops up in lots of movies of this period (such as Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires).

While other European exploitation genres have been very well represented on DVD, often in superb presentations, the same cannot be said of the eurospy movies. In most cases fans are grateful to see them at all. Dorado Films has done a reasonable job with From the Orient with Fury. It’s in its correct aspect ratio and picture quality is acceptable although hardly stunning. Only the English dubbed version is included. Considering that most eurospy films are only available in very shoddy pan-and-scanned fullframe transfers even a mediocre transfer is a bonus!

There were three Dick Malloy/Agent 077 movies. This is not quite as good as Special Mission Lady Chaplin (it doesn't have nuns with submachine guns for one thing) but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. I haven't yet tracked down a copy of the very hard-to-find Special Mission Bloody Mary.

Friday 3 June 2011

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was Walt Disney’s first attempt at a big-budget live action feature film. It was a triumph at the time, and a triumph it remains.

It was certainly an ambitious venture. There had been big-budget science fiction movies before this, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Woman in the Moon back in the 20s, but this was really the first time the idea had been tried in Hollywood. And the budget was enormous. It was in fact the most expensive movie ever made up to that time. But then Walt Disney was always willing to back his judgment and take a risk and his judgment proved to be sound. The film was a major hit and established Disney as a force to be reckoned with in the world of non-animated movies.

Jules Verne’s rather rambling novel is condensed into an exciting two hour adventure. French scientist Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are on board a US warship that is searching for a mysterious sea monster than has been menacing shipping. Many ships have been lost. They will soon discover that this is no monster. It is a submarine, and the warship becomes its latest victim. The Professor and Conseil along with square-jawed sailor Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) survive and are taken aboard the submarine.

The submarine, the Nautilus, is commanded by Captain Nemo (James Mason). His family having been killed in a war Nemo has turned against humanity and is conducting a kind of one-man war against the world. After various adventures the career of Nemo climaxes in a final showdown with the world’s navies.

If you’re expecting a simple kids’ movie or a heart-warming family movie you’ll be in for something of a surprise. It’s unexpectedly dark. Captain Nemo is an anti-hero, a man of genius and a visionary but also a man of violence. Hate is his motivation. He’s also a complex character. He’s not a mere villain, he’s more a hero who has taken a wrong turning. The movie does not try to gloss over Nemo’s violence - this is a man who has been responsible for countless deaths.

James Mason was a superb choice for the role of Nemo, giving the character not just depth but gravity and dignity.

This movie is certainly not perfect. Its biggest weakness is Kirk Douglas’s overblown and hammy performance, while Peter Lorre is sadly under-utilised. The addition of comic elements is perhaps forgivable but the decision to have Kirk Douglas sing is completely unforgivable. Adding a loveable trained seal to the cast is less of a problem. At least the seal doesn’t sing, and its performance is more convincing and less annoying than Douglas’s.

Where the movie really scores is in the visuals. It’s not just spectacular by 1954 standards, it’s spectacular by any standards. The special effects still work. The miniatures work remains breath-taking. There are images that pack a remarkable emotional resonance, such as the underwater funeral. The sets are magnificent. The Nautilus, designed by Harper Goff, is one of the most memorable technical creations in movie history.

That’s really staggering is that this movie created the steampunk aesthetic. It might have taken decades before it became fashionable but the entire steampunk aesthetic is here in this 1954 film. The production team realised that if you blended futuristic with retro the result would be unbelievably cool. And it is. The Nautilus is gloriously Victorian, but just like the latest 1950s cars it has tail fins!

In the book the Nautilus was powered by electricity, this being the latest marvel of the age in 1869. In the movie it is also powered by electricity, but the electricity is generated by what is clearly an 1869-vintage nuclear reactor. Again the mixing of retro and futuristic works.

Disney’s DVD looks stunning and includes a swag of extras, and there’s also a two-disc special edition with even more extras. Disney obviously realise this movie is one of their jewels.

The concept of family entertainment has become rather depressing but in 1954 Disney knew how to do it properly. This is a movie that doesn’t insult its audience’s intelligence and it doesn’t talk down to them. It’s a movie you can see when you’re 12 years old and you’ll love it and you can see it again 30 years later and you’ll still love it.