Sunday 27 December 2015

Black Dragons (1942)

Black Dragons, released in 1942, was the third of Bela Lugosi’s Monogram pictures produced by Sam Katzman and it’s a slightly unusual spy thriller with (of course) some sinister overtones. And it gives Lugosi the chance to play dual roles.

The story deals with a ring of Japanese Fifth Columnists in the US just after the outbreak of war. They’re not actually Japanese - they’re American traitors working for Japan. In 1942 this was just the sort of thing audiences would have gone for, Fifth Columnists being a popular subject in low-budget potboilers at the time.

Lugosi plays Dr Colomb, a mysterious figure who seems to be taking an interest in this subversive organisation, although it’s not a sympathetic interest. The members of the espionage ring start getting bumped off one by one with a Japanese dagger left at the scene of each murder.

Dr Colomb has moved himself into the home of a Dr Saunders. The doctor’s niece Alice (Joan Barclay)  isn’t quite sure what to make of him. She’s a bit frightened of him but not as frightened as you might expect.

All the murder victims were guests at a dinner party held at Dr Saunders’ home, the purpose dinner party being to advance the plans of the Fifth Columnists to wreck the US war effort. Many of their plans focus on fomenting strikes to disrupt war production although out-and-sabotage is also on the agenda.

Dick Martin (Clayton Moore) is a handsome young US counter-espionage agent assigned to investigate the case, his method being to romance Alice Saunders in order to find out exactly what is happening at the home of Dr Saunders.

Lugosi had made a big impact in White Zombie in 1932 with extreme close-ups of his eyes being used to emphasise his hypnotic powers. A similar (although slightly less effective) technique is used here. Sinister hypnotic powers were something that Lugosi was supremely good at suggesting. He also manages to convey a somewhat ambiguous tone. We assume that (being Lugosi) he’s the villain but he appears to be extreme hostility to the other villains. He’s in fine form, which is just as well since he has to carry the movie pretty much single-handedly.

The other cast members range from adequate to embarrassingly wooden although Joan Barclay isn’t too bad.

Director William Nigh was an incredibly prolific B-movie director, uninspired but competent enough and he at least keeps the pacing pleasingly taut. Writer Harvey Gates had a career that followed much the same pattern - prolific but without notable distinction. His screenplay does at least have quite a few interesting touches.

The plot takes a definite turn towards the outrageous in the latter part of the film as the unexpected truth is revealed about the spy ring, and about Dr Colomb.

The movie tries hard to convey an atmosphere of breathless excitement and succeeds reasonably well, within its B-movie limitations.

This movie is in the public domain. The Elstree Hill DVD offers a transfer that is unimpressive but watchable (and marginally better than Alpha Video standards). The sound is the big problem - it’s uneven and muffled. Alpha Video have also released this one. Black Dragons might not be a great film but it’s interesting enough to deserve better treatment on DVD.

Black Dragons is an enjoyable espionage-themed potboiler with a few definite touches of horror. If you’re a fan of sinister hypnotist movies or a Lugosi fan, or even just a fan of slightly offbeat 1940s spy B-movies, it’s worth a look. Highly recommended. 

Friday 25 December 2015

Happy Christmas everyone

Just wishing everyone a Happy Christmas.

And here's Joan Collins, getting into the spirit of Christmas.

Friday 18 December 2015

The House of Fear (1944)

The House of Fear (also known as Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear) was released in 1944 and was the eighth of the Universal movies starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson. 

It was based (albeit very loosely indeed) on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Five Orange Pips

It has a good deal of very effectively contrived gothic atmosphere and benefits from some very stylish (by B-movie standards) directing.

It is not by any means the best of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies but it is an above-average entry in the cycle and it provides wonderful entertainment. 

You can read my full review at Classic Movie Ramblings.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Red Planet Mars (1952)

Red Planet Mars, released in 1952, is one of the more notorious American science fiction films of the 50s. Almost all American movies of that era that took what could be interpreted as an anti-communist line have over the past few decades been subjected to ridicule and dismissed as crude propaganda. Red Planet Mars has suffered in this respect more than most and it’s really quite unfair. 

If such a movie were also to deal with religious themes and to treat those themes seriously then as you can imagine that movie would be the subject of even greater derision. Such a movie is Red Planet Mars.

Red Planet Mars is an ambitious and interesting film that deals with big ideas. There’s nothing wrong with science fiction that simply offers entertainment but the genre has always been at its best when it tackles big ideas. And this movie tackles very big ideas.

This is a first contact movie. A young American scientist, Dr Chris Cronyn (Peter Graves), has received radio signals from Mars. He has been broadcasting messages to Mars and now he is receiving replies. The replies are simply his own messages repeated back to him. This could of course be explained as some kind of natural phenomenon. The signals might simply be bounced back to him. There is however an objection to that theory. The signals take just over the minutes to reach Mars. If they were being bounced back he should be receiving them just over six minutes after transmitting them. But there is an unexplained time delay. Someone or something is actively transmitting the replies.

This is all very interesting from a scientific point of view but things are about to get a good deal more interesting. Suddenly the replies are more than just repeats of Dr Cronyn’s own messages. He really has made contact with an alien civilisation.

What he doesn’t know is that he’s not the only one working in this area. He has a rival. Dr Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof) is a brilliant German scientist who was imprisoned after the war for war crimes. After being released he found employment behind the Iron Curtain. Dr Calder was in fact the man who invented the hydrogen valve which made it possible to send messages to Mars. The US government took his invention after the war and Dr Cronyn used it to build his own transmitter. Calder feels, reasonably enough from his point of view, that his invention was stolen from him. For this he hates the Americans. He hates the Soviets as well, having found that they are not exactly ideal employers. Calder has built a transmitter as well. He could use it to try to contact Mars himself, but he has a better idea, an idea that will have fateful consequences.

Dr Cronyn’s wife Linda (Andrea King) is a Christian and she’s not at all convinced that contacting Mars is a good idea. She’s not sure why the idea worries her, it’s basically a case of, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Chris Cronyn is certain that first contact with an alien civilisation can only be a good thing. If the Martians are more scientifically advanced than we are we could learn so much from them that it would usher in a golden age of progress. It turns out that things are not so simple. Sudden exposure to advanced technology causes economic chaos. The western world faces ruin. This pleases Dr Calder’s communist paymasters. It causes panic in Washington. The Pentagon’s predictable reaction to crisis is to want a start a nuclear war. It’s intriguing that in a supposedly anti-communist movie it’s the Americans who are the ones contemplating the destruction of all life on Earth.

The next messages from Mars are very different. They are religious in content and their effects are dramatic. They spark a worldwide religious revival. But this movie still has several dramatic plot twists up its sleeve which lead to a somewhat unexpected shock ending.

To see this movie as anti-communist propaganda is to misunderstand it completely. It’s as much an indictment of the materialism and hedonism and spiritual nihilism of capitalist society as it is an indictment of the brutality and inhumanity of communism. If it’s propaganda it’s religious rather than political propaganda and it’s more complex than one expects propaganda to be.

There’s some fun technobabble and some amusing gadgetry but this is the science fiction of ideas rather than the science fiction of rayguns and starships. There’s very little in the way of special effects since the story doesn’t require such things.

The script was co-written by John L. Balderston and Anthony Veiller from a play by Balderston and John Hoare. Balderston is best known for his stage adaptation of Dracula, which formed the basis for the classic 1931 Dracula movie. He wrote a number of outstanding screenplays, mostly but by no means exclusively in the horror genre. This seems to have been his only foray into science fiction, which might explain why it’s so  untypical of 50s sci-fi movies.

Peter Graves is a serviceable hero and Andrea King is reasonably good in a tricky role - LInda Cronyn could easily have become an irritatingly pious character but she mostly avoids that pitfall. Herbert Berghof gets the plum role as the evil Nazi mad scientist and he (quite rightly) goes deliciously over-the-top with it. 

Cheezy Flicks have established a reputation for releasing interesting hard-to-find movies in pretty terrible transfers. In this case the transfer is not too bad. 

Red Planet Mars is one of the few science fiction movies to attempt to explore in depth the economic, social, political and religious consequences of first contact with an alien civilisation. The conclusions it draws may be deeply unfashionable today but that makes them all the more interesting and provocative. No-one today would dare to make a movie such as this. This is not cheesy low-budget drive-in fodder. It’s an ambitious movie made on a limited budget that succeeds in its aims surprisingly well (even if some modern viewers will not approve of those aims). While you’re likely to either love it or loathe it it’s worth a look. Highly recommended simply for being It’s intriguingly different.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

Secret of the Blue Room is a low-budget Universal feature from 1933, and basically it’s a mystery tale with some hints of horror. It’s another variation on the Old Dark House theme that was insanely popular at the time.

It begins with a small party thrown by Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of his daughter Irene (Gloria Stuart). Also present are Captain Walter Brink (Paul Lukacs), reporter Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens) and young Thomas Brandt (William Janney). These three are all rivals for Irene’s affections. The conversation eventually turns to ghosts and Robert is reluctantly persuaded to tell the story of the haunted Blue Room in Castle Helldorf. Twenty years earlier Robert’s sister met her death in this room in mysterious circumstances. Two more unexplained deaths followed shortly afterwards. In all three cases the victim died at precisely one o’clock in the morning. Not surprisingly the room is no longer used and is kept locked. 

Thomas suggests a challenge. He, Frank and Walter will each spend a night in the Blue Room as a test of courage. His motive in proposing this idea is obviously to impress Irene. He further proposes that he should be the first to sleep in the Blue Room.

You will not be surprised to hear that this challenge has unfortunate consequences, indeed  fatal consequences for some.

Fearing a scandal, Robert von Helldorf is anxious to avoid involving the police but eventually he has no choice. Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold) arrives to conduct the investigation in person.

The servants provide some potentially useful information but as they appear to be not entirely truthful their evidence may be less helpful than Commissioner Forster might have hoped. It does however seem likely that the maid’s story of a mysterious stranger may well be true. There is also the curious matter of Robert von Helldorf’s car which was seen leaving the castle around the time of one of the deaths although both von Helldorf and his chauffeur are adamant that the car never left the garage.

It becomes obvious that a solution can only be found if someone else will volunteer to spend the night in the Blue Room and this plan certainly brings results.

William Hurlbut’s script provides a plot that is serviceable enough with several red herrings and an exciting climax in the bowels of the castle. Kurt Neumann was a solid journeyman director and is able to extract the right amount of suspense from the story.

The setting is rather puzzling. Castle Helldorf looks like the sort of castle that suggests a central European locale and the fact that it belongs to a family with a name like von Helldorf strengthens that suspicion. The trouble is that the supporting players are much too obviously American and having a newspaper reporter a a major character suggests an American setting. In fact one gets the impression that no-one involved in the making of the film was quite sure whether Castle Helldorf should be a genuine central European castle or whether it should be a sham castle somewhere in the US.

Lionel Atwill gives what is by his standards a restrained but nonetheless effective performance without any trace of hamminess. Paul Lukacs does a fine job as Captain Brink although his performance suggests that he at least was quite certain that he was playing a central European military officer. Gloria Stuart, who appeared in a number of classic Universal horror and science fiction movies, is an effective and engaging heroine. Edward Arnold is very good also. All in all it’s a pretty strong cast. 

While the content of the movie places it in the mystery rather than the horror genre it is a Universal movie and it has much of the atmosphere of the classic Universal horror films, especially the scenes towards the end in the passageways beneath the castle.

This was a very low-budget movie even by Universal’s standards but one thing you have to say for Universal - they could make a cheap movie of this type look pretty impressive. 

One huge plus is the almost complete absence of the comic relief that is such an irritating feature of so many Hollywood genre movies of this period.

The made-on-demand DVD from the Universal Vault series is barebones but the transfer is a good one.

Unexplained deaths, a haunted room, a mysterious stranger, links to evil events in the past, secret passageways, dark secrets - all the ingredients are there to make a fine Old Dark House movie and in this case those ingredients are blended together with skill and assurance. The result is a very entertaining movie. Plus it has Lionel Atwill! Highly recommended.

Monday 30 November 2015

Don't Lose Your Head (1966)

Don't Lose Your Head, released in 1966, was the thirteenth of the Carry On films and the first to be distributed by Rank, Anglo-Amalgamated having dropped the series because its new managing director disliked them. Rank initially planned to drop the Carry On prefix from the titles but soon changed their minds when they discovered that the Carry On name was a major drawcard. Don't Lose Your Head was later retitled Carry On...Don’t Lose Your Head and released in the US as Carry On Pimpernel.

The film is obviously a spoof of The Scarlet Pimpernel but since he did not have the rights to Baroness Orczy’s books producer Peter Rodgers somehow managed to convince her estate that the movie had nothing whatever to do with the Scarlet Pimpernel!

The movie is set during the Terror in Paris, with French aristocrats being slaughtered en masse. The man in charge of the executions is the implacable Citizen Camembert (Kenneth Williams), assisted by the bumbling Citizen Bidet (Peter Butterworth). Two bored foppish English noblemen, Sir Rodney Ffing (Sid James) and Lord Darcy Pue (Jim Dale), decide to do something about this. Soon the Black Fingernail is rescuing French aristocrats from under the very nose of Citizen Camembert.

While rescuing the Duc de Pommfrit (Charles Hawtrey) from the guillotine Sir Rodney meets and falls in love with the beautiful Jacqueline (Dany Robin). Citizen Camembert intends to use Jacqueline as bait in a trap to capture the Black Fingernail, but first they must learn his identity. Camembert and Bidet set off for England in order to discover this essential fact, along with Camembert’s mistress Désirée Dubarry (Joan Sims). Camembert travels in disguise as a French aristocrat. While Camembert tries to trap the Black Fingernail the Black Fingernail is trying to trap him.

Having an actual plot helps things along. And being a spoof of swashbuckling adventures this movie has more action than previous Carry On films. The action scenes combine actual action with (naturally) lots of visual humour and the combination works very well. The movie ends with a long and remarkably ambitious action set-piece which is not only funny but a pretty decent swashbuckling adventure fight scene into the bargain.

The script is of course packed to overflowing with double entendres. Talbot Rothwell had by this time become the regular writer for the series and this is typical of the fine scripts he provided during this period.

The best of the Carry On movies were, in my opinion, those with historical settings. They tended to look rather more opulent than those with contemporary settings and somehow the distinctive Carry On humour seems to work best in period costume. Of course the historical Carry Ons also tended to have stronger plot lines which gave them a bit more discipline and this in turn seemed to make the outrageous acting performances even funnier.

Don't Lose Your Head is actually quite lavish visually with some attractive location shooting and (by low-budget movie standards) some truly sumptuous costumes and sets. And Alan Hume’s cinematography is impressive, especially given the very tight shooting schedule.

The genius of producer Peter Rogers was his ability to achieve fairly high production valuers while keeping budgets very low. Rogers’ financial tight-fistedness caused some tensions with cast members who felt they should have been paid more but the low budgets were essential to the success of the series since they more or less guaranteed that the films would always turn a profit.

This entry in the cycle features most of the regulars and they’re all in splendid form. It would be quite unfair to pick out any one performance as a standout - by this time the regular Carry On repertory company was functioning like a well-oiled machine and it’s the teamwork that provides the magic.

The ITV Studios Home Entertainment Carry On Complete Collection DVD boxed set includes all the Carry On movies plus the short-lived Carry On Laughing TV series. The anamorphic transfer for Don't Lose Your Head is impressive and extras include a commentary track with star Jim Dale.

Don't Lose Your Head has always been one of my favourite Carry On movies. It looks great, it’s delightfully funny and as a bonus it has some fun action scenes. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable swashbuckling romp with the characteristic cheerfully but innocently risque Carry On verbal humour. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Buccaneer’s Girl (1950)

Buccaneer’s Girl offers us Yvonne de Carlo as a lady pirate, which should have been an excellent idea. And fortunately that’s exactly what it proves to be.

OK, she’s not quite a lady pirate. Not exactly, but sort of. She’s Deborah McCoy, a stowaway on a ship that gets captured by the infamous pirate Frederic Baptiste (Philip Friend). Baptiste orders her put into the ship’s boats with the rest of the crew of the captured ship. It should be explained that as pirates go Baptiste is rather humane - when he takes a ship he ensures that the crews are given plenty of provisions to allow them to reach land in safety. Deborah however contrives to stay aboard Baptiste’s ship. She’s not an easy girl to get rid of.

Deborah does eventually reach New Orleans where she is taken in by Madame Brizar (Elsa Lanchester), who undertakes to train her to be a high-class entertainer. She is already an entertainer, but a decidedly low-class one. It’s probably reasonable to assume that Madame Brizar’s girls are courtesans rather than entertainers but this being essentially a family movie the point is left suitably vague.  

Deborah has visions of snaring the fabulously wealthy ship owner Narbonne. She seems fated however to keep running into Baptiste, who is not the person she thought he was. Of course Deborah and the dashing pirate are going to fall in love but there are many complications to be disposed of first.

There is a complicated connection between Narbonne and Baptiste, based on a desire by the pirate to settle old scores and right old injustices. Baptiste might be a pirate but he’s not a villain. 

Much of the film is is concerned with a romantic triangle and with Deborah’s adventures in New Orleans. There are some action scenes to come though and they’re quite well done. Unfortunately there really needed to be a bit more action.

Director Frederick de Cordova’s small output of modestly budgeted features included several swashbucklers. By the mid-50s he had switched (very successfully) to television. He handles Buccaneer’s Girl perfectly competently.

Philip Friend is an adequate swashbuckling hero. He’s certainly no Errol Flynn but then this movie is considerably less ambitious than Flynn’s adventure movies. Elsa Lanchester is delightful as the dotty but rather kind Madame Brizar. The supporting cast is competent.

The movie however definitely belongs to Yvonne de Carlo. It was intended as a starring vehicle for her, she’s the one who has to carry the film, and she does so with style and enthusiasm. Deborah might not be a modern-style kickass action heroine but she’s fiery and feisty, she’s resourceful, and she’s capable of looking after herself pretty well by relying on brains rather than muscle. In general she’s just the type of gal to make a perfect companion for a pirate. She also gets involved in a memorable cat-fight with Baptiste’s old girlfriend.

This was not a big budget movie but the studio backlot stands in pretty well for New Orleans and production values are reasonably high. It was shot in Technicolor and it looks good.

Deborah gets to do some singing and dancing although her numbers suggest that Madame Brizar might need to give her a bit more tutelage in that area.

The movie fizzles out a bit towards the end - in a pirate movie we feel entitled to expect a more exciting action finale. 

Buccaneer’s Girl is part of Universal’s four-movie Pirates of the Golden Age DVD boxed set (with the four movies on two discs). There are no extras but the transfer is top-notch.

This is a light-hearted romantic adventure romp with a bit of humour. Don’t expect anything in the same league as Captain Blood but this film delivers very satisfactory B-movie entertainment with Yvonne de Carlo in sparkling form. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Time Travelers (1964)

The Time Travelers is a low-budget 1964 sci-fi release from American International Pictures so you know it’s going to be lightweight goofy fun. Except that it isn’t. It’s actually a pretty decent little flick that explores some genuine science fiction ideas with a surprising amount of intelligence.

A bunch of scientists at an American university are working on a device to allow them to see into the past and the future. At least that’s what they expect the device to do but in fact it turns out they’ve done more than that. They haven’t just opened a window into other times - they’ve opened a portal.

When our four time travelers - chief scientist Dr Erik von Steiner (Preston Fostor), his junior partner Dr Steve Connors (Philip Carey), their lab assistant Carol White (Merry Anders) and maintenance man Danny McKee (Steve Franken) - go through the portal they find themselves in the year 2071, and it isn’t much fun. Nuclear war has devastated the Earth and the few survivors have taken refuge underground where they are under constant attack by bands of mutants. Now I know that so far this sounds pretty predictable and tedious and the whole “planet dying and it’s all our fault” thing is something that generally irritates me but don’t be put off. The story will take some unexpected turns and the movie gets better as it progresses. A lot better.

Our intrepid time travelers naturally would like to go back to their own time to warn of the coming catastrophe but they soon realise that would be impossible because of the time paradoxes involved. Yes, this is a low-budget 1964 sci-fi film that takes time paradoxes seriously and doesn’t resort to cheats to get around them.

The future survivors are making plans to leave Earth to start a new life on one of the planets of the Alpha Centauri system. They’ve built a starship but it’s a race against time - they have to be ready to blast off before the Earth becomes totally inhabitable and before the mutants learn to overcome their defences. At first they are quite willing to allow the time travelers to go with them to Alpha Centauri but then a rather nasty obstacle presents itself.

The leader of the humans of 2071, Varno (John Hoyt), is well disposed towards them but his second-in-command Willard (Dennis Patrick) is not friendly at all. On the other hand Reena (Delores Wells) is very friendly indeed towards Danny McKee. Romance is blossoming but can two people from different times have any chance of happiness together?

For most of the movie the plot unfolds in the way you’d expect in a 60s sci-fi movie but towards the end it starts to kick into high gear and takes a darker turn and starts throw in unexpected twists which culminate in the surprise (and very effective) ending.

The acting is reasonably solid. Preston Foster makes a fine movie scientist, complete with goatee and monocle. Look out for a cameo from legendary science fiction uber-fan Forrest J. Ackerman. There is alas a comic relief character in the person of Danny McKee but thankfully he’s not too irritating and he certainly doesn’t ruin the movie.

The special effects are, considering the budget, quite effective. The androids that play a large role in the world of 2071 could have looked meekly goofy but actually they work quite well - they’re a good example of imagination triumphing over lack of money.

Writer-director Ib Melchior was responsible for a number of rather interesting low-budget science fiction films that were usually slightly better than the general run of such movies. His Journey to the Seventh Planet is worth seeing. The Time Travelers is perhaps his most impressive effort. The script is above average and as director he comes up with a few quite striking images (especially the destruction of some of the androids towards the end). Having future Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond doing the cinematography certainly helps.

Pacing is the factor that all too often shipwrecks low-budget movies but that’s not the case here. Melchior knows what he’s doing. The action does slow down a little in the middle of the movie but that simply makes it all the more effective when things really start to happen in the later stages.

It’s the ending that really marks out this movie as being something special. It’s unexpected and it packs quite a punch. 

This film is one of four in Shout! Factory/Timeless Media’s Movies 4 You - Sci Fi Classics set. The transfer is pretty good and the colours are pleasingly vibrant (which is important since the movie has that classic 1960s futuristic sci-fi movie look). Overall this DVD set (which presents all four movies on one disc but at a very cheap price) is excellent value and is worth grabbing.

The Time Travelers is a very pleasant surprise indeed. This is one science fiction movie of its era that can be enjoyed as a classy thoughtful exploration of nifty ideas rather than having to be seen as a campfest (which it most certainly isn’t). Highly recommended.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

reviews from my Classic Movie Ramblings blog

A few reviews from my Classic Movie Ramblings blog that might have some interest to readers of this blog.

First off, Mysterious Mr Moto (1938), one of the wonderful Mr Moto series starring Peter Lorre as the Japanese master detective.

Secondly, Dick Barton at Bay (1950), a British quota quickie spy movie that is actually not bad in a Boys’ Own Paper kind of way.

Thirdly, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the second of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies made by 20th Century-Fox before the series moved to Universal. It’s great to see Basil Rathbone as Holmes in a movie set in the 1890s rather than the contemporary settings used in the Universal films. And it’s a great movie.

And lastly Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939), the third of the Charlie Chan movies starring Sidney Toler as the great Chinese detective.  Rightly regarded as being one of the very best of the Chan movies.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Jet Pilot (1957)

Jet Pilot was one of the pet projects of Howard Hughes and like most of his personal projects it has a rather poor reputation. It’s actually a good deal of fun.

Shooting began as early as 1949 but the movie was not completed until 1953 and was not released until 1957, mostly because Hughes (as he so often did) wanted to keep tinkering with it.

Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) is a US Air Force fighter pilot. There’s considerable excitement at the air base when US radar tracks a Soviet fighter jet leaving Soviet airspace and heading their way. Colonel Shannon is determined that the Russian aircraft should not be shot down but forced to land. That proves to be easy as the Russian pilot obviously has every intention of landing.

The pilot has presumably defected but there’s another surprise in store for the Americans when he opens the cockpit and climbs out. The pilot is a beautiful young woman, Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh).

She wants political asylum. She explains that she defected because her life was in danger  but she insists she is no traitor. She has no intention of revealing any Soviet military secrets.

Colonel Shannon is assigned to keep an eye on her. She seemed to take a bit of a shine to him and it’s hoped that if he romances her he may be able to persuade her to be a bit more co-operative. In fact the romance does blossom but with unintended consequences.

Jet Pilot was an excuse for Hughes to indulge his passion for aviation and it is to a large extent a string of aerial sequences tied together with a rather thin plot. Josef von Sternberg was hired to direct but inevitably clashed with Hughes. Some accounts indicate that parts of the were directed by the film’s screenwriter Jules Furthman and possibly by several other hands while some of the aerial scenes were certainly directed by Howard Hughes himself. Despite this von Sternberg did manage to put his stamp on the movie and there are a number of scenes that quite clearly could not have been directed by anyone else.

The plot has some obvious superficial similarities to Lubitsch’s classic comedy Ninotchka but it would be inaccurate to describe it as Ninotchka with aeroplanes. Ninotchka starts out as an ultra-serious, humourless, ice-cold doctrinaire communist who slowly thaws. Anna Marladovna in Jet Pilot on the other hand, even if she does spout communist slogans, is right from the start warm, playful and very feminine and has a sly sense of humour. Having her a warmhearted likeable character to begin with might sound like a less interesting idea than Ninotchka but there are a few plot twists that keep things interesting and unpredictable.

Reviews of Howard Hughes’ movies almost always label them hysterically anti-communist. That’s really only true of Jet Pilot to a limited extent. The Americans are trying just as hard to double-cross the Soviets as the Soviets are trying to double-cross them and both sides employ cynical emotional manipulation. And if the movie has a message it’s that if a communist and a capitalist fall in love then love will conquer all. I really couldn’t see any hysteria in this movie.

One thing that might be seen as stretching credibility a little is the US Air Force’s willingness to allow this Soviet defector to fly their very latest fighter jet, the F-86 Sabre. In fact she seems to be allowed to fly it whenever she wishes.

John Wayne gives a free-and-easy performance as Jim Shannon. It’s not a role that was ever going to tax his acting abilities and he disliked the film but he’s likeable and effective. Janet Leigh is remarkably good, giving a playful and witty performance. She’s also quite extraordinarily sexy. She positively smoulders. There’s also a surprising amount of rather risque dialogue between Leigh and Wayne, some of which must have raised eyebrows at the time.

The plot has some gaping holes in it and the motivations of the two lead characters become very confused and tangled and the story verges on incoherence at times. It tries to be a romance, a light comedy, an aviation adventure film and a spy thriller. The mixture does become a little muddled.

What this movie is really all about is the flying. The plot being thin and creaky the whole movie must stand or fall on the quality of the aerial sequences. Fortunately they are truly superb. If there’s one thing Howard Hughes certainly understood it was how to make flying sequences look impressive and in this area his perfectionism most definitely paid off. It doesn’t hurt when you have the legendary Chuck Yeager doing some of your stunt flying. Hardcore aviation geeks will be delighted to spot Northrop F-89 Scorpions, a Convair B-36 bomber and a Bell X-1 experimental rocket aircraft (the aircraft in which Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier). Even better, Hughes was anxious to avoid the use of stock footage so most if not all of the aerial stuff was shot specifically for the movie (with a great deal of co-operation from the US Air Force).

Despite its considerable plot weaknesses Jet Pilot manages surprisingly enough to be very entertaining. The two leads are compulsively watchable, the flying sequences are great and the improbabilities and inconsistencies of the plot actually add a great deal of slightly silly fun. It all ends up being thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Where the Spies Are (1966)

Where the Spies Are is a lighthearted British spy film that doesn’t seem quite sure just how seriously it wants to be taken. With David Niven as the star you’re likely to be expect this one to be a bit more of a spoof than it actually is.

A British spy named Rosser has disappeared in Beirut. Fearing the worst the chief of MI6, MacGillivray (John le Mesurier), knows he has to send out someone to find out what has happened to his vanished agent. The problem is that with budget cut-backs he simply doesn’t have a real agent available. He is going to have to send someone from the B List - non-professionals who have from time to time done small jobs for British intelligence agencies. Since there’s a malaria conference about to take place in Beirut a doctor would be ideal (he’d have a fairly convincing cover story) and there just happens to be a doctor on that B List. He’s Dr Jason Love (David Niven), a country GP with a passion for 1930s American Cord automobiles (he already owns a supercharged 1937 Cord 812). Dr Love had helped MacGillivray on a case way back in 1943 but these days he has no interest in playing spy games. 

There is only one thing that might tempt him - he has a burning desire to own a Cord LeBaron. And MacGillivray offers to find one for him, if he will just do this very simple task for MI6.

Dr Love manages to find his contact in Rome, a fashion model named Vikki (Françoise Dorléac), and Dr Love starts to think this espionage business might be quite fun after all. That is, until he realises someone is trying to kill him.

Rosser had obviously stumbled upon a sinister conspiracy and now Dr Jason Love is caught in the middle of it. Due to the budget cut-backs at MI6 alluded to earlier he has only one agent to assist him. Parkington (Nigel Davenport) is willing enough to help but he’s tired and in poor health and to tell the truth he’s not exactly what you might call a secret agent of the top grade. Dr Love does however have one other ally - Farouk (Eric Pohlmann), who happens to be a fellow member of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Car Club, in fact he’s the Lebanon’s only member of the club. Farouk is certainly willing to take a few risks to help a man who owns a 1937 Cord 812.

At 56 David Niven was perhaps a little too old for this type of movie but his charm and his inimitable sense of style carries him through without too much trouble. Françoise Dorléac makes a suitably glamorous lady spy. The very strong supporting cast of veteran British character actors helps a good deal.

There is a bit of a problem though with the romance angle, with the 24-year-old Françoise Dorléac being a somewhat incongruous romantic partner for the 56-year-old Niven.

Exotic locations were obligatory for 1960s spy movies and location shooting was done in Beirut (at that time considered to be one of the more cosmopolitan and glamorous parts of the Middle East). The budget didn’t run to the sorts of spectacular stunts that you get in a Bond movie so it has to rely more on wit and charm.

The problem is that this is not quite a full-blown spoof. At times it seems to be heading into fairly serious dark spy movie territory while at other times the tone is much lighter. The biggest problem is that while the plot is perfectly decent it just isn’t outrageous enough.

This film has little in common with spy spoofs like the Matt Helm and Derek Flint movies or the British mid-60s Bulldog Drummond films. The tone is closer to the more subtle and gentle mildly tongue-in-cheek humour of a movie like North by Northwest (although unfortunately it isn’t anywhere near in the same league as Hitchcock’s movie).

Director and co-writer Val Guest proved himself to be pretty competent in most genres but this film possibly could have worked better with a more extravagant approach.

Where the Spies Are was based on the first of James Leasor’s Dr Jason Love spy thrillers, Passport to Oblivion. Leasor was also the author of The Boarding Party which provided the basis for the wonderful 1980 action adventure movie The Sea Wolves (which coincidentally also starred David Niven).

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a good anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio). The colours look reasonably impressive.

Where the Spies Are is modestly entertaining although it’s certainly one of the lesser 1960s spy movies. If you’re a keen David Niven fan or a 60s spy film completist it’s worth a rental.

Friday 30 October 2015

The Night of the Generals (1967)

Movies that try to mix genres and do several things at once often succeed on one level and fail on another. The Night of the Generals is an ambitious film that tries to do lots of things, and it fails on every level.

The story begins in Warsaw in December 1942. A polish prostitute is murdered. Apart from being a prostitute she also happened to be an agent for German Military Intelligence. A man was seen leaving the apartment house in which the murder took place. The witness however did not see the man’s face. All he saw was the uniform, and it was the uniform of a German general.

Intelligence officer Major Grau (Omar Sharif) undertakes the investigation of the murder. There were a lot of German generals in Warsaw at the time but only three who had no alibi - General von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), General Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence) and General Tanz (Peter O’Toole). With a war going on in which millions of people were dying the murder of a prostitute might seem to be a trivial matter but that’s not how Major Grau sees it. Murder is still murder. And to Major Grau it makes no difference if the murder was committed by a general. As he remarks to his aide, “If it is a German general…we shall have to hang him.”

Not surprisingly Grau’s investigation makes little progress. Generals are in a position to frustrate attempts by junior officers to investigate them. In this case getting Grau out of the way is extremely simple. He finds himself promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and transferred to Paris.

A year and a half later another murder is committed, in Paris. The victim is a prostitute and the killing bears a remarkable similarity to that Warsaw murder. As it happens all three generals who were the suspects in the Warsaw slaying just happened to be in Paris at the time. And of course Major Grau is still in Paris. Grau is the sort of detective who just never gives up and he re-opens the investigation, and this time he has the assistance of Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret) of the Paris police. 

The second murder takes place on July 19th 1944, the day before the most famous of the many attempts by the German Army to assassinate Hitler. Both General von Seidlitz-Gabler and General Kahlenberge are involved in the plot.

General von Seidlitz-Gabler’s daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet) has been having an affair with Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a member of the general’s staff. Corporal Hartmann is assigned as General Tanz’s driver. Tanz is not involved in the plot to kill Hitler and von Seidlitz-Gabler and Kahlenberge are anxious to have him out of the way on the day of the assassination attempt so Tanz is ordered to take a couple of day’s leave, which he spends seeing the sights of Paris.

Major Grau believes he may be getting close to solving his case but July 20th 1944 turns out to be a bad day on which to try to arrest a general, with everything in a state of confusion after the abortive assassination attempt.

These wartime events are intercut (in a rather ham-fisted fashion) with events that occur twenty years later in Hamburg, when yet another prostitute is murdered.

The sad thing about this movie is that the central idea is a very good one and could have made an excellent story. Unfortunately the various sub-plots are only connected together in a tenuous and clumsy manner and the sub-plots slow things down very badly. At 148 minutes this is a very long film. Much too long, especially when it’s padded out to that length by completely irrelevant sub-plots. 

The movie was based on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst and a story by James Hadley Chase. The screenplay, by Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn, is poorly structured and unfocused. The main plot is a mystery plot and it had the potential to be a very interesting one but it’s ruined by its incredibly clumsy obviousness. The identity of the killer is revealed too soon but this hardly matters because I doubt that there would be a single viewer of this movie who would not have correctly guessed the identity of the killer within the first 20 minutes. 

Major Grau might be an admirably determined fellow but we don’t see him doing any actual investigating. He simply keeps turning up trying to interview the generals without succeeding in doing so. There is absolutely no attempt made to develop the mystery plot. 

The plot against Hitler sub-plot isn’t terribly exciting since everyone already knows that it failed. The romance sub-plot between Corporal Hartmann and Ulrike is uninteresting and irrelevant.

The film’s biggest flaw however is that we learn virtually nothing about the three generals. We know that von Seidlitz-Gabler is an ambitious political general and that he likes women. We know that General Kahlenberge is a pretty decent fellow. We know that General Tanz is a fanatic and a psychotic and is utterly ruthless in carrying out orders regardless of civilian casualties. The trouble is that we know nothing about their private lives or their motivations. We are told nothing that might suggest why one of these men might be a murderer.

The performances are all over the place. Omar Sharif is surprisingly good as Major Grau. Casting an Egyptian actor as a German officer was an odd choice but Sharif just about gets away with it. Unfortunately he does not get enough screen time. Charles Gray is extremely good. It’s strange seeing Donald Pleasence playing a kindly sort of chap but he does a reasonable job and he’s very effective in portraying a man slowly becoming more and more disillusioned and yet still trying to conform to his moral principles. 

Major Grau, General von Seidlitz-Gabler and General Kahlenberge are all potentially fascinating characters but their personalities are not explored in any depth and the actors are not given the opportunity to make them fully rounded characters.

The supporting characters, of whom there are far too many, are mere ciphers. Tom Courtenay and Joanna Pettet make no impact at all. Philippe Noiret plays Inspector Morand as a tedious stereotypical French Resistance hero. It’s a clumsy attempt to show us the contrast between the brave noble French and the dastardly Germans.

Peter O’Toole’s bizarre and absurd performance would have been enough on its own to sink this movie, if it hadn’t already been sunk by the incoherent script. This may be O’Toole’s worst ever performance, which is saying quite a lot. 

This movie is obviously trying to tell us something profound about the nature of evil and about the evil of the Nazis, although exactly what it’s trying to tell us I’m not sure. It also tries to show us that Germans weren’t all evil but it does so by presenting us with stereotyped Good Germans (who all hate the war and hate Hitler) and stereotyped Bad Germans (who all love the war and love Hitler).

This is a train wreck of a movie but while train wrecks can often be morbidly fascinating this one does not even have that going for it. 

Columbia’s Region 2 DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer with no extras.

A potentially excellent idea, entirely wasted. A chaotic mess of a film. Connoisseurs of spectacularly bad acting might want to see it for O’Toole’s outlandishly awful performance. A movie to avoid.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Murders in the Zoo is a 1933 Paramount horror film that is neither supernatural horror nor an Old Dark House movie. In fact you could argue that it’s closer in feel to some of the delightfully lurid tropical melodramas of that era like Kongo and White Woman.

The opening sequence is one of the most startling in horror movie history and still packs quite a punch. The scene is Indo-China and Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is an animal collector who has a rather extreme but undeniably effective means of dealing with men who think they can steal his beautiful young wife away from him.

We know right away that Gorman is mad and dangerous and this is further reinforced on the sea voyage back to the United States. His problem is that his wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) really is very young and very beautiful and she attracts feckless young men the way a flame attracts moths. Eric Gorman is clearly pathologically jealous, and with good reason. Evelyn is not the sort of woman who pays much attention to trifles like her marriage vows, especially when hunky young men cross her path. And they just keep on crossing her path. Her latest interest is Roger Hewitt (John Lodge) - young, handsome, rich and with morals every bit as flexible as Evelyn’s.

So far so good. This seems like a story with tremendous potential and when it becomes clear that most of the movie is going to take place in a zoo our expectations are raised even higher. 

Unfortunately at this point the comic relief starts to kick in, in the person of Charles Ruggles. Ruggles was actually not too bad in actual comedies but he’s out of place here and he gets way too much screen time. He plays Peter Yates, an alcoholic journalist who wangles his way into a job as the zoo’s press agent.

Yates comes up with a splendid idea to gain desperately needed publicity for the zoo - a fund-raising dinner to which the cream of the city’s high society and moneyed classes will be invited. They will enjoy their expensive meal in the zoo’s Carnivore House, surrounded by lions, tigers and leopards.

Evelyn and Hewitt have been getting very friendly indeed and Hewitt has persuaded her to run away with him. Before that happens they will both be guests at the dinner at the Carnivore House and Eric Gorman decides this would be a fine opportunity to demonstrate  another of his methods for dealing with wife-stealers.

The unhappy outcome of the publicity dinner leads Evelyn to the conclusion that she’s going to need some help. She turns to Dr Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott), a brilliant young biologist working at the zoo, and Woodford’s girlfriend Jerry (Gail Patrick). She sets off for the zoo after closing time and this sets up one of the movie’s major horror set-pieces.

By this time the terror isn’t limited to Evelyn’s paramours. A deadly green mamba is on the loose - a snake whose venom kills in five minutes and for which there is no antivenom. The stage is set for a climax of mayhem and horror.

This movie’s biggest problem is that there is much too much focus on the irritating Peter Yates and not enough on Eric Gorman, a character with the potential to be oner of the great human monsters of horror cinema.

This movie has a few flaws but don’t despair - it has plenty of strengths as well. The key horror scenes are effective and shocking and they’re also very original (and surprisingly this movie has a couple of very cool horror ideas that I can’t recall seeing in any subsequent horror flicks). Zoos make great settings for horror movies and it’s odd that relatively few horror film-makers have taken advantage of this.

Murders in the Zoo also has plenty of the lurid melodrama I made reference to earlier, and it’s spiced with some very pre-code moments. There are a couple of scenes between Eric Gorman and his wife that would certainly have been cut in the post-code days and might raise a few eyebrows even today. Evelyn is clearly repulsed by and terrified of her husband and it’s plain that this excites him very much. Very much indeed.

Lionel Atwill gets to play a variation on the mad scientist roles he did so well. It would have been nice if the movie had found time to develop his character a bit more - a bit of exploration of the roots of the consuming jealousy that has driven him insane would not have gone amiss. It would have given Atwill the chance to make his villain a bit more complex. Having said this Atwill’s performance is still splendid and he gets the chance to do some very enjoyable overacting - made more enjoyable by the fact that Atwill doesn’t push things too far so that he remains a plausible villain. 

Kathleen Burke does well as his straying wife. Randolph Scott does the stalwart hero thing  with a bit of subtlety.

Murders in the Zoo was banned in many countries and when later screened on American television was severely cut.

This is one of the five horror B-movies included in TCM’s Universal Cult Horror Collection (a set which is slightly misleadingly named since it includes movies from other studios besides Universal). The DVD transfer is superb and there are a few extras. This very worthwhile boxed set also includes the Lionel Atwill mad scientist film The Mad Doctor of Market Street.

Murders in the Zoo has a few unusual features, it has some genuine chills, a couple of fine horror set-pieces, some perverse sexuality and some deliciously overheated melodrama. Plus it has Lionel Atwill, deadly venomous snakes and rampaging lions and tigers. These virtues are more than enough to offset its flaws. Highly recommended.