Thursday 26 February 2015

The Italian Job (1969)

My review of the deliriously entertaining and offbeat British crime thriller/heist movie The Italian Job (1969) starring Michael Caine, Noël Coward and Benny Hill can be found at my other movie blog, Classic Movie Ramblings.

This movie is sheer fun from start to finish and of course it features one of the all-time great car chases.

Monday 23 February 2015

Carry On Sergeant (1958)

Carry On Sergeant was the movie that started the Carry On series. As is often the case with the first movie in a long-running series this one differs a little from the later Carry On movies.

For one thing it’s rather more plot-driven and the two major plot strands are taken fairly seriously rather than being just an excuse for a series of gags.

The first thing viewers will notice is that while quite a few of the Carry On regulars are here they’re mostly in secondary roles. Only Kenneth Connor has a really major role. Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques are all consigned to relatively minor roles among the supporting cast.

Sergeant Grimshawe (William Hartnell) is about to retire from the army after many years training National Servicemen. In all those years not one platoon he has trained has won the coveted Champion Platoon trophy. He is determined that his final platoon will win that honour. It’s not just the glory - he also has fifty quid riding on the outcome and fifty quid in 1958 was a lot of money.

Unfortunately the new recruits in Able Platoon are a particularly sorry lot. Private Golightly (Charles Hawtrey) is chronically unable to keep his mind focused on any soldierly duties. Private Charlie Sage (Bob Monkhouse) is too busy thinking of his beautiful new wife Mary (Shirley Eaton) to give much attention to the military virtues. Private Horace Strong (Kenneth Connor) is a hypochondriac who spends most of his time in the office of the camp doctor, Captain Clark (Hattie Jacques). Private James Bailey (Kenneth Williams) is an effete snobbish university graduate who makes no attempt to disguise his contempt for the Army. The other misfits in Able Platoon include a guitar-playing beatnik. And then there’s Private Herbert Brown (Norman Rossington) who has failed the army’s basic training course on no less than three occasions and has the reputation of being the worst soldier anyone has ever encountered.

Only Private Heywood (Terence Longdon) seems to have potential but he lacks any real interest.

The other major sub-plot concerns Private Sage’s attempts to find a way to spend his wedding night with his new bride. He had received his call-up papers on his wedding day. It’s the sort of sub-plot that would have given rise to a great deal of risqué humour in the later Carry On movies but it’s handled surprisingly delicately here. But then this was 1958 and there was only so much one could get past the censor.

Service comedies were very popular in the 1950s and this movie adheres fairly closely to the established formula with the long-suffering sergeant having to deal with totally inept recruits. Carry On Sergeant does vary the formula just a little though. You expect the sergeant to be a martinet who tries to make the lives of the recruits as miserable as they’re making his life but that doesn’t happen here. Sergeant Grimshawe might be a martinet by inclination but in his desperation to win that fifty quid he’s decided to try a completely different approach. He’s going to treat these recruits with gentleness, sensitivity and understanding. He’s going to be a kindly father figure instead of a stern authority figure. He doesn’t really think it will work but fifty quid is fifty quid and it’s worth a shot.

You might think this would diminish the comic possibilities but it doesn’t. If anything it enhances them since Grimshawe’s exasperation with their bumbling incompetence is even more amusing when he’s trying so hard to be Mr Nice Guy.

William Hartnell had appeared in ITV’s hugely successful service comedy sitcom The Army Game, which had inspired a spin-off movie made by Hammer Films, I Only Arsked. Hartnell was not in the Hammer movie but its cast did include a couple of Carry On regulars, Bernard Bresslaw and Charles Hawtrey. Carry On Sergeant was clearly an attempt to jump on what seemed to be a very popular bandwagon. It proved to have been a shrewd movie. Carry On Sergeant was a major box-office hit.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Carry On Sergeant is Kenneth Williams. The superciliousness is there, and in fact most of the elements that would make so immensely popular in the later movies of the series are there, but he had not yet learnt how to make the most of those elements. Most importantly he had not yet discovered the joys of total excessiveness. His performance is very subdued and very restrained. At times he almost seems to be trying to give a serious dramatic performance.

While the later Carry On regulars in this film are mostly in supporting roles it’s easy to see why they would soon be promoted to bigger roles in subsequent movies in the series. They’re the best things in this movie.

Despite a few mis-steps and a few slow moments this is still a very enjoyable movie and it has plenty of genuine laughs. It’s also a remarkably good-natured movie. The ending has a touch of sentimentality to it that you certainly don’t expect in the irreverent world of the Carry On movie. The series had not yet hit its stride but this was a promising start. Recommended.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Unearthly Stranger (1963)

Unearthly Stranger is a modestly budgeted but quietly creepy little 1963 British science fiction movie.

Project TP91 is a top-secret British research project investigating the possibility of a revolutionary method of space travel. The idea is to harness mental energies to enable a kind of high-tech astral travelling. This would allow someone to make a psychic voyage to another planet and then to physically materialise on the distant planet. It might be a nutty idea but it’s certainly intriguing and original and Rex Carlton’s screenplay develops the idea rather cleverly. The outlandishness of the idea makes the movie rather reminiscent of the classic 1960s science fiction television series The Outer Limits.

The story is told in an extended flashback. The opening sequence shows us an obviously terrified man through darkened streets, but what is he running from? The man is scientist Dr Mark Davidson and when he reaches his office he recounts his extraordinary story in the form of a tape recording.

Professor Geoffrey Munro (Warren Mitchell) had been the man in charge of Project TP91, until he met his untimely death. Officially he died of a heart attack. Major Clark (Patrick Newell) from the Security Service knows it was no heart attack. Dr Davidson takes over as head of Project TP91 and pretty soon both he and his boss Professor John Lancaster (Philip Stone), the director of the space research establishment, also know it was not a heart attack that killed Munro.

Major Clark has some other concerns about Project TP91. He is rather worried about Dr Davidson’s new young wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi). He has done a background check on her and it seems that no such person exists, or ever has existed.

Mark Davidson is also puzzled by his wife. She does appear to blink and she also does not appear to have a pulse. He met her just a few weeks earlier in Switzerland and they married after a whirlwind romance. He actually knows nothing whatever about her.

Dr Davidson believes he is close to a breakthrough on the project. In fact he is closer than he thinks to finding an answer but it’s not the answer he  expects, or wants.

Apart from the nifty central idea the movie’s biggest strength is the very fine acting from all the principals. John Neville does well as the increasingly harassed and concerned Dr Davidson. Patrick Newell is a delight as the jovial but shrewd security chief. Philip Stone is excellent as Davidson’s sympathetic but worried boss. Gabriella Licudi is suitably mysterious as Julie while Jean Marsh (a very fine actress) makes the most of a fairly minor role as Davidson’s secretary. 

Director John Krish had a lengthy if not terribly distinguished career. He does a fine job here, wisely opting for an unobtrusive approach that allows the weirdness of the material to tell its on story although he does make occasional and judicious use of techniques such as Dutch angles.

This is science fiction with a dash of horror, but horror done in a moody low-key way.

It’s also the kind of science fiction that works very well on a low budget, where the material is chosen in such a way as to allow intelligent science fictional themes to be pursued without the necessity for elaborate special effects. In fact this film employs no actual special effects at all, because they are not needed. This kind of budgetary constraint can (and in this case certainly does) work in a movie’s favour, encouraging imagination, atmosphere and intelligence rather than spectacle.

The movie was shot widescreen and in black-and-white. 

Both stylistically and thematically it’s slightly reminiscent of Wolf Rilla’s superb 1960 John Wyndham adaptation Village of the Damned. In fact the story itself has some affinities with Wyndham’s work.

Network’s Blu-Ray presentation is  pretty good although I’m not totally convinced that older black-and-white movies really need to be released on Blu-Ray - they usually look just as good on a high quality DVD release. Nonetheless Network are to be commended for making this interesting oddity available to us.

Unearthly Stranger is a quirky little gem of a movie. It’s a very weird idea that is approached with subtlety and restraint and that approach makes it all the more effectively eerie. Highly recommended.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Countess Dracula (1971)

Countess Dracula was Peter Sasdy’s second Hammer horror film, the company having been quite pleased with his initial effort, Taste the Blood of Dracula. In fact Hammer were so pleased they allowed the Hungarian-born director to choose the next project he did for them. This was to be a movie based on the infamous real-life Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory, generally believed to be the most horrific female serial killer in history. Báthory was accused of the murder of hundreds of young girls and the legend grew up that she bathed in their blood in order to keep her youthful good looks. Erzsébet Báthory is likely to have been one of the main inspirations for central European legends of the vampire.

This was obviously a perfect subject for a horror movie. Sasdy and producer Alexander Paal came up with a treatment which Hammer liked and Jeremy Paul was given the task of writing the screenplay.

Sasdy had done a lot of television work for the BBC including quite a number of successful  adaptations of literary classics. He brought with them a number of key people with whom he had worked at the BBC, including costume designer Raymond Hughes and production designer Philip Harrison. Having worked on very tight BBC budgets they knew how to make a production look lavish without spending very much money. As a result Countess Dracula looks more expensive and more sumptuous than the average Hammer production even though it was made on the usual very parsimonious Hammer budget.

Sasdy brought a rather different and fresh approach to the Hammer gothic horror film and Countess Dracula has a distinctive feel compared to the other Hammer female vampire movies of the 70s. 

The actual facts of Erzsébet Báthory’s life and crimes will never be known with certainty but this movie tries to take a fairly serious historical approach to the subject. In the movie the countess (played by Ingrid Pitt) is an ageing woman who discovers quite by accident that the blood of young girls can restore her youthful appearance. She is a woman who is unwilling to accept the idea of growing old gracefully and once she discovers this secret she is determined to remain youthful forever. Unfortunately the effects of the treatment are only temporary, which means she is going to need a constant supply of virgins (the girls must be virgins or the treatment will not work). To ensure her supply of virgins she enlists the somewhat reluctant help of her steward (and old lover) Captain Dobi (Nigel Green).

The countess is determined to stay young because she has found a new lover, a dashing young hussar officer, Lieutenant Imre Toth (Sandor Elès). This of course does not please Captain Dobi but he is so hopelessly in love with her that she has no difficulty persuading him to aid her.

A possible complication is the imminent arrival of the countess’s daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down). To Erzsébet Báthory her daughter is merely a potential rival so she has to be removed from the scene. Of course it will eventually be impossible to hide the fact that so many young women have been disappearing without trace, and the tensions between the countess, Captain Dobi and Lieutenant Toth are also bound to come to a head.

Ingrid Pitt has to play the countess as both an old woman and a young woman and she does a fine job. The makeup effects work well although Pitt felt (with some justification) that the young countess should have been made to took more convincingly 17th century. Hammer however clearly wanted Pitt to look as glamorous as possible and in box-office terms they were no doubt correct.

Nigel Green was an actor whose self-destructiveness prevented him from achieving the major stardom that his talents deserved. He gives a wonderfully entertaining bravura performance but he also brings out the subtle nuances of Dobi’s emotional and sexual enslavement to the evil countess. Maurice Denham is a delight as the elderly scholar Master Fabio who knows what the countess is up to but whose own motivations are rather murky. The supporting cast is extremely strong and this adds to the feel of quality that this movie possesses.

The sets are magnificent. This is probably the best-looking Hammer movie of the 70s, and it not only looks good it also looks authentically exotic and middle European. The costumes are superb - Nigel Green really does look splendidly imposing in his Hungarian uniform.

Synapse have done a fine job with their Blu-Ray/DVD combo release of this film. The transfer is excellent, there’s a terrific audio commentary featuring director Peter Sasdy, star Ingrid Pitt and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, a documentary on Ingrid Pitt’s career and an audio interview with the iconic horror star.

In the early 70s Hammer tried to breathe new life into their gothic horror cycle with some extremely interesting movies that broke free of the rigid Hammer formula. And they did so rather successfully, in artistic terms at least. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Hands of the Ripper, The Vampire Lovers and Vampire Circus were all splendid movies and Countess Dracula is one of their most successful efforts from this period. Highly recommended.

Friday 6 February 2015

The Naked Venus (1959)

The Naked Venus is something of an oddity. It’s a nudist camp movie but it’s also an Edgar G. Ulmer movie. It bears some similarity to the nudie-cutie genre that would explode in the wake of the release of Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr Teas, but it’s not a nudie-cutie. It’s a romantic melodrama with nudity. It’s really in a sub-genre of its very own.

Bob Dixon (Don Roberts) is a young American painter living and working in Paris. He’s just beginning to earn a reputation as an artist with the success of his painting The Naked Venus. He is married, apparently very happily, to Yvonne (Patricia Conelle) and they have a small daughter. Yvonne had been an artist’s model. Bob’s father has just does and he announces that his mother now needs him so they must move to California.

This is where the problems start. Bob’s domineering mother takes an immediate dislike to Yvonne. This dislike intensifies when she discovers that Yvonne had not only been an artist’s model but had posed nude. She is determined to sabotage her son’s marriage.

Eventually Bob and Yvonne become involved in a bitter divorce and custody battle. The odds seem to be stacked against Yvonne - not only was she a nude model she was (and still is) a practising nudist. These are not things likely to count in her favour in court. Even worse, after fleeing from the palatial Dixon family home she has taken refuge in a nudist camp, along with her daughter.

The plot provides ample opportunities for showing nudity and the movie takes full advantage of these opportunities. Nudist camp movies tend to be a bit dull, since not much happens in a nudist camp apart from naked volleyball and one can only take so much naked volleyball. It does help if the nudist camp happens to be full of women who are not only nude but pretty and in this case the women are most certainly pretty. And it has to be said that Patricia Conelle looks very good naked.

Courtroom scenes are generally even duller than naked volleyball but fortunately in this case they’re handled reasonably well.

This was Patricia Conelle’s only movie role and while her willingness to disrobe for the cameras was undoubtedly the major factor in her casting she’s quite adequate. Don Roberts is quite good in a very unsympathetic role while Wynn Gregory drips venom as the scheming and destructive mother-in-law from Hell. It’s Ulmer’s daughter Arianne Ulmer however who walks off with the acting honours, giving a spirited performance as Yvonne’s young but determined lawyer Lynn Wingate.

As you would expect the major theme of the movie is that nudity is not immoral and that being a nudist does not disqualify a woman from being a good mother. Luckily there are some secondary themes that are much more interesting.

There was considerable concern during the 1950s abut the decline in masculinity among American men and about what was seen as the increasing feminisation of American society. This is a theme that appears in quite a few juvenile delinquent movies but it also pops up in some major productions such as Harriet Craig, Rebel without a Cause and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Naked Venus tackles this concern with intelligence and sensitivity. Bob Dixon is definitely a young man with a severe masculinity deficit. Lynn Wingate makes it clear that she despises weak men like Bob and one has to admit that she has a point. Bob has a devoted and beautiful wife but unless he can escape his mother’s dominance he will never be a man and he will never be of any use to Yvonne as a husband.

In the 1950s American exploitation film-makers operated entirely outside the Hollywood system. They were not members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), they were not bound by the Production Code and they had their own distribution systems. Edgar G. Ulmer had mostly worked for Poverty Row studios that were members of the MPAA but clearly The Naked Venus had no chance of getting a Production Code Seal of Approval and it was in fact produced and distributed as an exploitation movie. On the other hand it was certainly not made as an exploitation movie. Production values are modest but higher than you expect from as an exploitation movie and Ulmer approached the project the way he would have approached any other movie.

While it cannot really be regarded as in any way a typical sexploitation movie it needs to be said that it does contain quite a substantial amount of nudity. Of course given that this is an Edgar G. Ulmer movie the nudist camp scenes are rather professionally shot.

Something Weird Video have paired this movie with a Doris Wishman nudie-cutie (Diary of a Nudist) and it’s a pairing that makes some sense. While nobody in their wildest dreams would suggest that Doris Wishman was in the same class as Edgar G. Ulmer they were both in their very different ways highly individualistic film-makers and both were examples of the opportunities that low-budget movies of that era offered for eccentric and idiosyncratic movie-makers. The transfer of The Naked Venus is quite superb for such a cinematic obscurity.

The Naked Venus works quite well as a melodrama, it makes some pertinent observations on the state of American society (and American manhood) in its day, and it has naked people. It’s really more entertaining than it has any right to be. Recommended.