Thursday 26 June 2014

Cat Girl (1957)

Cat Girl is a 1957 British horror film clearly inspired by the 1942 Val Lewton classic Cat People. It will come as no surprise that Cat Girl fails to live up to its predecessor but having said that it’s still worth a look, mostly for the performance of star Barbara Shelley.

Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) has been summoned to the lonely country house of her uncle Edmund Brandt. Leonora had been brought up by her uncle after her father’s death and she has unhappy memories of this house. She is however her uncle’s heiress and her scheming husband Richard (Jack May) is determined that Leonora should do nothing to endanger her inheritance.

That inheritance turns out to be her share in the family curse. As her uncle explains to her the Brandts have a dual nature, both human and animal. They are not quite werewolves but something similar. The animal part of their nature is physically separate from them and takes the form of a leopard, but they experience everything that the leopard experiences. And they share in its kills.

Things are already tense between Leonora and her husband. He no longer troubles to conceal the fact that he is having an affair. 

Leonora herself is in love with Dr Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayres), and has been since she was a girl. Dr Marlowe is now a successful psychiatrist and he believes he can help Leonora, who has been showing signs of increasing disturbance. She tries to explain the family curse to him, and that she is part woman and part leopard. He naturally dismisses this as a psychosis, presumably fueled by her jealousy of Dr Marlowe’s wife Dorothy and her anger towards her two-timing husband.

When Leonora’s husband is found torn to pieces, apparently by a wild animal, Leonora confesses that she was the killer. Of course no-one believes her, given that the injuries her husband suffered could only have been inflicted by an animal such as a leopard. 

Dr Marlowe persuades Leonora to admit herself to a sanitarium. After a few days he is convinced that she has overcome her unfortunate delusions and is now cured. To celebrate her cure he decides that Leonora should have a day out with Dorothy. He will meet them both later for dinner, late at night and in a lonely part of London down by the docks. You might wonder about the professional competence of a psychiatrist who thinks it’s a good idea to allow his wife to be roaming about in the middle of the night with a recently discharged mental patient who had been suffering from violent fantasies of jealous rage towards her. Dr Marlowe is however an expert and he feels no anxieties about this situation. Well not at first anyway.

This movie, like Cat People, adopts a deliberately ambiguous approach. Leonora could be a young woman who stalks and kills prey in the form of a leopard, or she could be a young woman suffering from delusions of being a leopard woman. In fact Cat Girl is marginally more effective in its efforts to avoid resolving those ambiguities. As in Cat People it is clear that sex and sexual anxiety and sexual jealousy play a very major part in explaining the human-animal dualism of the heroine.

Cat People had been filmed in a very definite film noir style and the director of Cat Girl, Alfred Shaughnessy, favours a similar approach. It goes without saying that he cannot match the moody intensity and the stylistic brilliance that Jacques Tourneur brought to Cat People, and Peter Hennessy’s cinematography is a pale shadow of Nicholas Musuraca’s stunning camerawork in the 1942 film.

Where Cat Girl does score heavily is in the casting of its leading lady. Barbara Shelley really is superb. She is extremely sexy in a very perverse and disturbing way and she conveys an extraordinary sense of menace. The audience will have no difficulty in believing that this woman is dangerous. Shelley is in fact far more effective than Simone Simon had been in Cat People. Shelley would go on to become Hammer’s leading scream queen.

Network DVD’s Region 2 release offers an exceptionally good transfer. There are no extras but the very low price makes this an attractive buy.

Cat Girl might be a poor man’s Cat People but it’s an entertaining enough horror B-movie and Barbara Shelley’s performance makes it very much worth seeing. Recommended.

Sunday 22 June 2014

The Mysterious Dr Satan (1940)

Fans of the classic movie serial will find a great deal to enjoy in The Mysterious Dr Satan. This is a 1940 Republic serial combining science fiction with crime. It has killer robots, it has a mad scientist, it has a mysterious masked crime-fighter. What more could you want?

The villain in this case is Dr Satan, a criminal mastermind and a mad scientist. He’s not really much of a scientist and relies on stealing the scientific work of others rather than on his own genius. He has invented a killer robot but to make the robot really dangerous he needs the remote control cells invented by the kindly Professor Scott. Most of the drama comes from Dr Satan’s many attempts to steal the remote control devices, to kidnap Professor Scott and to obtain certain rare ores needed to make these devices work.

Dr Satan is at heart just a gangster, albeit his ambitions are on a fairly large scale. The remote-controlled robots seem to be a means to gain unlimited wealth rather than power. His lackeys are just ordinary hoodlums inspired purely by greed.

Dr Satan’s nemesis is The Copperhead. We know right from the start that The Copperhead is really Bob Wayne. Wayne’s father was the original Copperhead, a masked Wild West outlaw generally regarded as a bandit. Governor Bronson explains to Bob that his father was actually a crusader for justice and assures him that he need not be ashamed to be his son. When Governor Bronson is murdered by Dr Satan’s stooges Bob Wayne decides to bring The Copperhead back to life.

The Wild West link is important because this serial is a combination of crime thriller, science fiction and western action adventure. There are car chases and there are chases on horseback. Much of the action takes place in settings that belong more to the western genre than the crime genre. It’s an odd mixture but it works rather well.

If this serial has a weakness it’s the fact that The Copperhead’s disguise is a bit too transparent, consisting merely in a kind of chain-mail mask. It’s difficult to believe that any of the characters could actually be taken in by this. This is however an adventure serial so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to be too pedantic about such details. Dr Satan resorts to disguise successfully as well, even though his very distinctive voice should be a dead giveaway.

The love interest is provided by Professor Scott’s daughter Lois although her main function is to get herself captured at regular intervals so that The Copperhead can rescue her. The Copperhead has a side-kick as well, a reporter named Speed Martin. 

One of the best things about this serial is that there’s very little comic relief. 

Eduardo Cianelli plays Dr Satan with considerable relish as a combination of crazed scientist and Italian gangster. Robert Wilcox is rather bland as Copperhead/Bob Wayne although he’s certainly energetic, leaping through the air to get at the bad guys. C. Montague Shaw is Professor Scott, and very professorial he is too although he is also launches into fights with enthusiasm, specialising in breaking chairs over the heads of bad guys. Ella Neal as Lois Scott is an engaging heroine who manages to get herself captured again and again without becoming irritating.

The robot is very much in the mechanical tin man style. The same robot turns up in several other Republic serials. The robot is too clumsy to be really menacing and seems to rely on squeezing people to death on the rare occasions he can get close enough to them to do so.

The secret of success with the movie serial is of course the episode cliffhanger and this one comes up with an excellent cliffhanger for every one of the fifteen episodes. Directors John English and William Witney were old hands at this sort of thing and they knew what they were doing. They keep the action coming thick and fast. The roller-coaster pacing and the imaginative fight scenes combine with some good stunt work to make this serial one of the best of its breed. The miniatures work is fun as well, as various ships and planes get blown up at regular intervals. The hero gets to leap about on speeding trains and drive through walls of fire - all the things that fans love in a serial are here.

An outfit called ATI has released all fifteen parts on a single DVD. Picture quality is generally pretty good.

Fans of serials will find that this one ticks just about every box. Very enjoyable stuff and highly recommended.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

When Eight Bells Toll was scripted by Alistair MacLean from his own novel. While it failed to achieve the same success as earlier MacLean blockbusters like The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare it’s still an exciting and rather underrated action thriller.

Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a Royal Navy officer called in to help on an investigation into missing ships. Since each of the missing ships was carrying a fortune in gold bullion the British government is more than a little concerned. The investigation is put into the hands of the department run by Sir Arthur Artford Jones (Robert Morley). His department is obviously some branch of the intelligence services although we’re never told exactly which one. We’re also never told exactly what Calvert’s background is although given his proficiency at diving we can assume he was a Royal Marine Commando or something similar.

Sir Arthur, universally known as Uncle Arthur, doesn’t altogether approve of Calvert. In fact he doesn’t approve of him at all. His disapproval becomes even more marked when Calvert dares to suggest that Sir Anthony Skouras might be involved in the bullion snatches. A ridiculous idea. Sir Anthony is not merely a member of the same club as Uncle Arthur, he’s on the Wine Committee. No gentleman could possibly suggest that such a man might be involved in criminal activities, and Uncle Arthur very much fears that however competent Calvert might be at cloak-and-dagger work he is most certainly no gentleman.

Calvert and an intelligence officer named Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) are despatched to the  islands off the west coast of Scotland, the area in which the bullion ships have vanished. They quickly find evidence that dirty work is most assuredly going on at a remote and apparently peaceful fishing village, a village that soon turn out to be far from peaceful. All sorts of skullduggery seem to be afoot. Both people and small boats have been disappearing and the locals are far from friendly and appear to have something to hide. More disturbingly to Calvert and Hunslett it becomes evident that no-one has been taken in by their story that they are inoffensive marine biologists.

Their attention is drawn to the Shangri-La, a yacht owned by Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins). The behaviour of Sir Anthony and his beautiful but very much younger wife Charlotte (Nathalie Delon) doesn’t quite ring true.

Much more disturbing still to the two agents is the fact that people with guns have started shooting at them.

This movie doesn’t boast the spectacular action set-pieces of a Bond movie (although the scenes in the hidden boat-house are fairly impressive). Neither does it boast grandiose sets or larger-than-life villains. It does however deliver a great deal of action, both under the water and above it. And while the villains are not megalomaniacal criminal masterminds they are quite nasty enough and sinister enough to satisfy most viewers. 

The bleak Scottish locations are used to good effect and add to the film’s grittiness.

The intention seems to have been to provide the thrills and action of a Bond movie but in a more realistic and more gritty style. On the whole it succeeds in achieving that aim.

Belgian director Etienne Périer isn’t well-known in the English-speaking world although he was responsible for the underrated Zeppelin. He keeps things moving at a satisfying pace and handles the action sequences very competently. Alistair MacLean always claimed to be a writer who wrote in a very cinematic way and in general his books work even better as movies than they do as novels.

Anthony Hopkins might not be the first actor whose name springs to mind as an action hero but he’s actually pretty convincing. He has always been an actor with the ability to be intense without having to be overly demonstrative about it. He plays Calvert as a thorough professional with a very tough streak hidden beneath a rather self-effacing exterior. He doesn’t bother trading one-liners with the bad guys, believing that it’s far more efficient just to shoot them and be done with it.

While Philip Calvert is not given to the macho posturings so popular with some film secret agents, in his own quiet way he’s possibly the most ruthless of all movie action heroes. One of the perennial dilemmas faced by an action hero/secret agent type is what do you do with the bad guys you manage to capture or overpower? If you knock them over the head there’s always the danger they’ll recover consciousness at the most inopportune time and if you tie them up they’re always liable to escape. Philip Calvert has a very simple solution to this problem. He simply kills them. Quickly and efficiently. If they happen to have fallen overboard and be floundering helplessly in the water that just makes them easier to shoot. As a result of this very prudent, economical and far-sighted policy not once during the course of this movie is Philip Calvert troubled by the inconvenient attentions of bad guys he has already had to deal with once.

Robert Morley has a great deal of fun in this movie. Uncle Arthur is not the kind of spy chief who is content just to sit behind his desk and let others do the dangerous work. He flies out to Scotland to join in the action and even brandishes a gun at one point. Morley is of course there to provide some comic relief, which he does very effectively. 

ITV Home Entertainment’s Region 2 DVD includes no extras apart from a trailer but it offers a very satisfactory 16x9 enhanced transfer.

When Eight Bells Toll suffered at the box-office because it was both too similar to, and too different from, the Bond movies. It was clearly aimed at the same action movie market but it lacks the glamour and the style of the Bond movies. On the other hand, judged on its own terms as a much grittier and more realistic action thriller with a less glamorous and far more ruthless hero it actually works extremely well. Highly recommended.

Friday 13 June 2014

The Invisible Woman (1940)

The success of The Invisible Man Returns in 1940 inspired Universal to make a second sequel later the same year, The Invisible Woman. This time the idea would be played purely for laughs, an ominous sign of the way Universal’s science fiction and horror movies would go as the decade progressed.

Millionaire playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) has been funding the researches of eccentric scientist Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore). That is, until Dick’s money ran out. Horrified by the thought that the money is about to dry up Professor Gibbs tries to convince Dick that his latest invention will be a sure-fire money-spinner. There must surely be millions in an invisibility serum. No, I don’t follow that argument either but logic is not exactly this movie’s strong suit.

All the professor needs is a willing human guinea pig, which he finds in the person of fashion model Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce). Kitty wants to become invisible so she can pay back her boss Mr Growley (Charles Lane) for making her life and that of the other girls at his fashion house a misery.

The idea of invisibility also has considerable appeal for gangster Blackie (Oscar Homolka), slowly going mad from homesickness in Mexico. If he can become invisible he can return to the States. Blackie despatches three of his stooges to steal the invisibility machine from the laboratory of Professor Gibbs. 

Of course Dick Russell falls madly in love with the invisible Kitty Carroll. Kitty and the professor get kidnapped by the mobsters but they find an invisible woman to be too much to cope with. Given how irritating Virginia Bruce’s performance is I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the mobsters. The gangsters discover that using the invisibility machine without the serum makes their voices go high-pitched and squeaky, which we’re supposed to find incredibly funny.

John Barrymore’s career just about hit rock bottom with this movie but by this stage he would accept any part he was offered. He does his best and his hammy performance suits the mood of the movie even if it is sad to see a great actor reduced to such crude mugging. John Howard manages to be the lest annoying member of the cast. I found Virginia Bruce’s performance to be much too overdone for my tastes although to be fair she was undoubtedly giving the director what he wanted. The supporting cast, and indeed the major players as well, try very hard although (to my mind) with very little effect. Margaret Sullavan had been the studio’s choice as the female lead but having taken one look at the script she turned it down even though it meant going on suspension. She felt it was well worth the trouble to avoid making this picture, and she was right.

Director A. Edward Sutherland seems to have been most at home in the comedy genre which was presumably why he was picked for this production. He keeps the pacing very tight which is certainly one of the film’s assets. Curt Siodmak was initially responsible for the screenplay, being later replaced by Frederic I. Rinaldo and Robert Lees. Rinaldo and Lees specialised in broad comedy and that’s what Universal wanted.

The comedy here is very broad indeed and relies heavily on slapstick. It’s a type of comedy that was all too common in American movies of this era and it’s an approach that has always left me cold. If slapstick is your bag then you might get more enjoyment from this movie than I did.

On the plus side the gadgetry is quite good and the invisibility machine is rather cool. Even Universal’s lesser efforts generally looked reasonably good and this movie is no exception. Universal’s special effects maestro John P. Fulton earned an Oscar nomination for this effort and the invisibility effects do work extremely well.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones. The transfer is acceptable without being anything special.

I found The Invisible Woman to be an insufferable ordeal although as I’ve been at pains to point out this type of comedy is one to which I seem to be immune. I can’t recommend this one unless you’re very fond indeed of broad comedy in which case it might perhaps be worth a rental. Although probably not.

Saturday 7 June 2014

The Ipcress File

Fans of cult spy movies might be interested in my review of one of the best movies in that genre, The Ipcress File, on my Classic Movie Ramblings blog.

Friday 6 June 2014

The H-Man (1958)

Made by Toho Studio in 1958, The H-Man is something of an oddity among Japanese monster movies. There’s a strong hint of film noir to it and it’s clearly aimed at a more adult audience than usual. Or rather it seems at times to be unsure exactly what kind of movie it wants to be.

It starts with a drug deal gone wrong. One of the dope peddlers is killed. That isn’t unusual in itself but what is unusual is that this criminal has disappeared completely leaving only his clothes behind. The police are acting on the assumption that for some bizarre reason hoodlum has fled from the scene naked. That doesn’t make any sense but there seems to be no other explanation. Until a young scientist named Dr Masada turn up at police headquarters with an alternative theory - that the mobster was the victim of a liquid monster unleashed by H-bomb testing in the Pacific. The police dismiss Dr Masada’s theory as the ravings of a madman.

Dr Masada bases his theory on the strange story told by a group of fisherman. They had discovered a freighter apparently abandoned by its crew. When they boarded the freighter to investigate two of the fishermen were liquified by a green slime monster. The surviving fishermen have severe radiation sickness.

The monster initially takes the form of liquid slime but then coalesces into a green monster man.

The girlfriend of the liquified mobster is night-club singer Chikako Arai (Yumi Shirakawa). She now has other gangsters pursuing her (they think her boyfriend double-crossed them) plus she has the police keeping tabs on her and also Dr Masada. Dr Masada’s interest in her seems to be a bit more than just professional. When a mobster trying to attack her gets slimed the scientist thinks he has enough evidence to convince the police but they remain sceptical until he demonstrates the radioactivity creating slime monster thing in his laboratory using a couple of unfortunate frogs.

It all leads up to a rather exciting climax in the sewers of Tokyo, with a gangster holding Chikako hostage while being pursued by the H-Man (as the slime monster man has become known).

There are some obvious similarities to The Blob. As always in Japanese movies the anti-nuclear message is far from subtle. The movie also suffers a little from trying to be both a yakuza movie and a monster movie.

Ishirô Honda directed many of the classic Japanese monster movies. This is a much darker movie than one expects from this genre and he manages the film noirish atmosphere quite well. The night-club scenes are done well although Yumi Shirakawa’s musical numbers are rather clumsily dubbed into English in the Japanese version.

The acting is perfectly adequate by monster movie standards.

The special effects are a mixed bag, some being extremely effective and genuinely chilling and some being rather less successful. The best scenes involve the slime creeping around the abandoned freighter and later on slithering through the sewers. The H-Man himself is less effective.

It’s an interesting movie insofar as it avoids the usual clichés of Tokyo getting stomped and cute but annoying children.

The H-Man is one of three movies in the Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection. The DVD includes both the English dubbed version (which is slightly cut) and the Japanese version (which is uncut). It’s a reasonable anamorphic transfer which has the major plus of allowing viewers to see the movie in its correct Tohoscope aspect ratio.

The H-Man is not a complete success but it’s unusual enough in its blending of monster movie an film noir elements to make it worth seeing. Recommended.

Monday 2 June 2014

Capricorn One (1977)

The 1970s was a golden age of silly conspiracy theory movies and they don’t come much sillier than Capricorn One.

This is a movie I’ve always avoided. I had a feeling I was going to dislike it, but I actually found myself disliking it even more strongly than I’d expected to. More on that later.

The first manned mission to Mars is about to be launched, but in fact it never happens. Budget cuts had made the mission impossible to achieve but if the mission doesn’t happen  the program is likely to be shot down altogether. So what is the answer to this dilemma? Why not fake the whole mission? So that’s what happens. Television pictures of the astronauts landing on Mars are broadcast from a studio on Earth with a mockup of the Mars lander sitting on fake Martian terrain. Of course the conspiracy theory will turn out to be even more far-reaching and more sinister than that.

Would it really be possible to get away with such an elaborate fraud? Of course not. And indeed cracks soon start to appear in this intricate deception. Technicians notice small details that don’t make sense, and pretty soon one of those pesky investigative reporter types starts sticking his nose in.

The audience knows all about the deception almost from the beginning, the movie concentrating on the attempts to keep the cover-up secret, and the parallel attempts by the journalist to uncover the truth, complicated by the fact that he doesn’t know what that truth is.

Maybe it’s just me, but this strikes me as being a very mean-spirited nasty sort of movie. The sort of movie that delights in thinking the worst of people, and in thinking the worst of its own society. It is of course a movie that very much reflects the zeitgeist of the 70s, or at least the zeitgeist of Hollywood in the 70s, the zeitgeist Hollywood was trying to impose on us. I’m afraid it’s something that doesn’t appeal to me very much. It’s a movie that says to its audience that everything they believe in is worthless. Hollywood people thought that sort of thing was clever. They still do. Maybe this movie is really no more cynical and no more infected by fashionable pessimism and mockery than many other movies of its era, but given the pride that people had (quite justifiably) taken in the space program it seems to be particularly spiteful.

The late 70s was the high-water mark of the whole investigative reporter as noble hero thing. From the perspective of today journalists as crusaders for truth may strike many viewers as being even more far-fetched than the notion of faking a space flight.

Elliott Gould plays the investigative reporter hero Robert Caulfield. Gould is an actor who could at times be somewhat irritating. Or perhaps it would be more just to say he was rather good (possibly too good) at playing irritating characters. In this film he’s less annoying than usual and it is even possible almost to like his character. To be fair he could also play sympathetic characters reasonably well, as he does here.

James Brolin plays astronaut Charles Brubaker, the mission commander for the fake mission. He’s an actor I’ve never cared for and his bland performance here does nothing to change my opinion of him. The other two astronauts are played by a very young Sam Waterston and by O.J. Simpson. Waterston is OK. It’s difficult to watch Simpson without recalling certain notorious real-life events but his performance is generally as bland as Brolin’s.

Hal Holbrook gets the much more interesting role of the very ambiguous Dr Kellaway, the scientist behind the whole deception. Is he a sinister and willing agent of some giant conspiracy or a poor well-meaning but naïve scientist dragged into a deception that has spun out of control? Holbrook judiciously downplays his performance, making it all the more effective.

Karen Black and Telly Savalas both appear in subordinate roles and make the most of them. Telly Savalas is the best thing about this movie, joyously over-the-top as a crazy crop-duster pilot and effortlessly stealing all his scenes.

David Huddleston is even better as an outrageous congressman who is an enthusiastic supporter of the space program. He provides great entertainment but it’s somewhat unfortunate that his character is built up in a way that suggests he’s going to play some crucial role in the plot but he ends up playing no part in it whatsoever. Possibly the scenes that explained his role were cut and no-one noticed that that whole sub-plot went nowhere.

The Australian Blu-Ray release looks superb and is a vast improvement over the earlier very poor full-frame Region 4 DVD release.

Capricorn One is all very silly and is a perfect examplar, for better or for worse, of Hollywood in its most dismal decade. It has some entertainment value if you don’t take it seriously. Worth seeing for the aerial sequences towards the end, featuring the black helicopters, and for Telly Savalas.