Monday 30 March 2015

The Terrornauts (1967)

Amicus Productions was one of a number of companies that jumped on board the gothic horror bandwagon that Hammer Films had set rolling in the late 50s. During the 1960s Amicus made some pretty reasonable movies within that genre. Like Hammer they also tried their hands at other genres such as science fiction. Their 1967 release The Terrornauts was one of their science fiction efforts. It’s rather more interesting than its reputation might suggest.

The Terrornauts was scripted by noted science fiction author John Brunner, based on a 1960 novel by Murray Leinster.

Dr Joe Burke (Simon Oates) is an astrophysicist heading up Project Star Talk. The idea is to scan the heavens for messages from alien civilisations, using a radio telescope. As a boy Burke had had an odd experience while on a field trip with his archaeologist father. His father had found a very strange object and the object triggered a vivid dream. Burke has never been able to forget this dream, or his conviction that it was some kind of message from the stars. This dream led him to pursue a scientific career and eventually led him to establish Project Star Talk.

Just as his funding is about to be cut off Burke and his colleague, Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows), finally pick up something that seems promising. It might be a message. They do the obvious thing - they reply to the message. They get a much more spectacular result that they had expected - a spaceship arrives and carries them off to an asteroid!

In fact it carries off the whole building in which the project is housed, along with the two scientists, their assistant Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall), the project’s accountant Joshua Yellowlees (Charles Hawtrey) and the tea lady. 

Dr Burke had hoped to make contact with an extra-terrestrial civilisation. And he does, after a fashion. In fact it could be said that he makes contact of a sort with more than one alien civilisation. He also discovers that aliens can be hostile and deadly but that this is not always the case.

The special effects are very cheesy, but cheesy special effects do not necessarily equate with cheesy ideas.

And while the special effects are undeniably crude it has to be said that within the constraints of what was clearly an ultra low budget they do show some imagination. They’re cheap but they’re fun. The space battle (yes there’s a space battle) is very cheesy indeed. There is also however the obligatory friendly robot.

You might be wandering about the virgin sacrifices to the gods of a ghastly galaxy promised by the tagline. Does it deliver on this count? The answer is a qualified yes although I wouldn’t get too excited by this aspect.

Simon Oates, Stanley Meadows and Zena Marshall are all quite competent in roles that are not, to be honest, overly demanding. Max Adrian enjoys himself as the director of the radio telescope establishment who regards Project Star Talk as a ridiculous waste of money.

The presence of Charles Hawtrey in the cast is a clear indication that this movie was not intended to be taken all that seriously. Don’t be put off by this. Hawtrey does provide the expected comic relief (and being Charles Hawtrey does it fairly well) but then does not mean the movie is a spoof or an out-and-out comedy. It has some whimsical touches certainly but it also has some reasonably decent science fictional ideas.

Network DVD’s ridiculously cheap Region 2 DVD release offers two different cuts of the film. There’s the shortened re-release version which looks extremely good and there’s also the slightly longer original theatrical release with slightly lesser (although still quite acceptable) image quality.

Perhaps The Terrornauts would have benefited from a bit less in the way of comic relief. It would certainly have benefited from having a lot more money spent on it. But then again part of its charm is its cheerful cheapness and the plot might not have been quite sufficient to justify a huge budget anyway. As it stands it’s amusing and fairy entertaining and in general it’s good slightly silly fun with one or two decent ideas thrown in.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

The Giant Claw (1957)

The Giant Claw is a 1957 Sam Katzman-produced low-budget sci-fi horror monster movie so you know it’s going to be fun. And it is.

Civilian engineer Mitch MacAfee is flying a US fighter jet on a routine radar-calibration mission for the US Air Force when he spots what he take to be a UFO. Nothing shows up on radar but Mitch is adamant that he saw something - something big. Of course nobody believes him, until aircraft start getting mysteriously knocked out of the sky.

Beautiful female mathematician and radar systems analyst Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday) believes him although that might be because she thinks he’s kind of hunky and cute.

After half a dozen aircraft have been lost the Air Force goes into full-blown panic mode and Mitch and Sally are called in by the Pentagon to try to find some answers. It’s now known that the UFO is not a UFO at all but a gigantic bird, as big as a battleship. But why does it not show up on radar? The Pentagon’s scientists think they have the answer. It’s not just a gigantic prehistoric battleship-sized killer bird, it’s an anti-matter gigantic prehistoric battleship-sized killer bird! It’s not just a monster bird, it’s a stealth monster bird!

The fact that this is an anti-matter monster might explain why cannon and machine-gun fire from Air Force fighter jets have no effect on it. While it seems that nothing can hurt the giant anti-matter bird it can certainly hurt things made from ordinary matter. It can not only knock jets from the sky - it eats the pilots when they eject from their aircraft!

If cannon and machine-gun fire can’t do any good the Air Force has a better idea - they intend to use nukes! But will even nukes achieve anything against the bird’s anti-matter shielding? It’s going to take something much cleverer to bring down this bird.

Jeff Morrow turns up in quite a few movies of this type from the 50s. He makes a good solid B-movie hero and at least he’s never earnest and dull. Mara Corday was another B-movie regular and she’s perfectly adequate. In fact Morrow and Corday make a fairly engaging hero and heroine team.

There’s some gloriously silly technobabble of the kind guaranteed to please fans of this genre. In fact this movie’s technobabble is definitely superior-grade technobabble, and there’s lots of it and it just keeps getting better and better.

The special effects are of their time but given the very low budget they’re by no means as bad as you might expect. They are bad, but they’re also insanely ambitious which makes them admirable in their combination of boldness and incompetence. Sam Katzman’s movies were cheap but were approached with a certain amount of imagination and flair. The giant bird looks quite delightfully outrageous but in its own goofy way it does look rather scary. Well, sort of scary. The miniatures work is very obvious but seeing the bird picking up toy trains and hurling them through the sky is  great fun.

There’s copious use of stock footage so don’t be surprised when a fighter jet suddenly turns into an entirely different model of fighter jet halfway through a sequence. It doesn’t really matter since all 1950s jet fighters look pretty cool.

The career of director Fred F. Sears wasn’t overly distinguished but he knew how to make entertaining B-movies and he knew enough to keep the pacing tight.

This movie is one of four included in Sony’s excellent Icons of Horror Sam Katzman Collection. The 16x9 enhanced transfer looks absolutely splendid. There are even a few extras. This DVD boxed set is superb value and an absolute must-buy for all fans of 1950s science fiction or horror movies. Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) is another terrific movie from this set.

The Giant Claw provides plenty of action and plenty of entertainment. It’s very very silly but it’s silly in an inspired way. The giant bird is just so ludicrously over-the-top, like an enraged battleship-sized turkey. There’s just so much fun in this movie. Highly recommended.

Friday 20 March 2015

Crossplot (1969)

I’m always on the lookout for movies that have been overlooked, and few movies have been as comprehensively overlooked as Crossplot. Made in 1969, it’s a Swinging 60s spy thriller starring Roger Moore. Moore was already a big star on television but it would be a few years before he found even greater fame in the Bond movies (starting with Live and Let Die in 1973). If you’re expecting Crossplot to be a kind of dress rehearsal for the Bond movies you’re going to be disappointed. Crossplot is, or at least it attempts to be, more in the style of Hitchcock’s thrillers in which some poor schmuck somehow gets mixed up in an espionage plot (North by Northwest being the most famous example. Unfortunately the director of Crosssplot, Alvin Rakoff, is no Hitchcock and Crossplot is no North by Northwest.

Gary Fenn (Roger Moore) is an irresponsible womanising advertising executive. He’s just sold a campaign to a major client. The product is cosmetics so the centrepiece of the campaign is to be a very special model. She has to be very special, and also new and exciting. Gary has found just the right girl and the client is delighted. The only problem is, as he discovers afterwards, someone has switched the photo of the model he’d picked for a photo of another model. And this other model is someone he has never set eyes on and never heard of, and he has no idea ho to find her. But somehow he has to find her, since the client has seen her photo and wants her for the campaign.

It doesn’t take Gary too long to track her down. She is a Hungarian, Marla Kugash (Claudie Lange). So everything is sweet, except that somebody is now trying to kill her, and to kill Gary as well.

Marla knows something about an espionage plot of some kind, but she doesn’t know that she knows. She overheard a conversation, and what she overheard is the key, if only she knew what it was or what it meant.

Pretty soon Gary and Marla are being chased about all over the countryside, with the bad guys making some remarkably ineffectual attempts to kill them. 

The movie’s rather incoherent plot eventually leads them to the stately home of Tarquin (Alexis Kanner). Tarquin is a lord but he’s also an irritating hippie peacenik and the nefarious plot has something to do with his band of unwashed flower childen.

The basic idea has some potential but the execution is rather horrid. What could have been a very entertaining chase sequence involving a vintage car and a helicopter is marred by some very poor rear projection shots. In fact there are lots of very poor rear projection shots in this movie. The chase just doesn’t generate the excitement it should, and unfortunately the same can be said for all the action set-pieces. You don’t need a dazzlingly brilliant script for a movie like this but you do need a director with a flair for action scenes and that’s where this movie falls down badly.

The budget was clearly rather limited and that doesn’t help. The 60s was a decade that saw some great action adventure laced with humour and romance movies, movies like Charade and Arabesque, but those movies had lavish budgets that permitted clever and genuinely exciting action sequences. It’s entirely possible to do this sort of thing without big money, but in that case you do need an inspired director. Crossplot has neither the money nor the inspiration. 

On the plus side it has Roger Moore. He’s certainly the right actor for this sort of thing and he throws himself into it with commendable enthusiasm. He’s charming, as always, and he does his best. Claudie Lange was a European starlet who did quite a lot of work in the 60s and 70s without ever breaking through as a star. She’s adequate at best although she looks glamorous enough. Bernard Lee is given too little to do and the supporting players are generally unexciting.

The really big problem is the lack of a memorable villain for Roger Moore to cross swords with, and to trade one-liners with. This means that Moore has to carry the movie entirely on his own.

The details of the conspiracy really needed to be revealed earlier in order to set up the race-against-time angle which might have added a bit more tension. As it is the screenplay is too muddled and too confusing to engage the viewer’s attention.

MGM’s DVD is letterboxed and the transfer is adequate. There are no extras.

Crossplot might have worked well as an episode of The Saint. In fact producer Robert S. Baker and writers Leigh Vance and John Kruse had all worked on that series and that might be why the movie comes across as an unsuccessful attempt to transfer the magic of that series to the big screen. The excruciatingly cheap special effects might have looked quite OK in a television production.

Roger Moore went on to make some of the best and most original thrillers of the 1970s, including classics of the genre like Shout at the Devil, The Wild Geese, The Sea Wolves and ffolkes. Crossplot was his first attempt to translate his TV stardom into big screen stardom. It’s a misfire. Worth a rental if you’re a Roger Moore completist.

Monday 16 March 2015

Marooned (1969)

Marooned is one of those big-budget movies that seem to have everything going for them but still manage to fail at the box office. In 1969 space exploration was generating unprecedented interest and a science fiction movie dealing directly with the US space program must have seemed like a surefire winner.

The Ironman One spacecraft is about to be launched. The three astronauts on board are to spend the next seven months living and working in the Saturn IV space station. Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna) is the mission commander, Buzz Lloyd (Gene Hackman) is the pilot and Clayton Stone (James Franciscus) is the science specialist. The launch goes off without a hitch. After five months the astronauts are showing signs of fatigue so the head of the manned space program, Charles Keith (Gregory Peck) decides to bring them down. It’s no big deal. The mission has been a success and has helped to pave the way for more ambitious future missions. Everyone is pleased and the astronauts are looking forward to seeing their families. 

And then disaster strikes. The retro rockets fail to fire. A second attempt is made on the next orbit, again unsuccessfully. On the ground technicians have been working feverishly to find some reason for the failure but they can find no explanation whatsoever.

Without the retro rockets there is no way of slowing down the spacecraft for re-entry. The three astronauts are doomed to remain in Earth orbit until the orbit finally decays (in about seven years’ time) and the spacecraft falls to Earth as a fiery meteor. The astronauts will however not have to worry about that. They will be dead long before. In fact they have enough air for only another 42 hours.

Charles Keith is shaken but he has always understood the risks of space exploration and he knows that the three men in Ironman One understood those risks just as clearly. Sometimes progress has to paid for and sometimes the price is high.

Chief Astronaut Ted Dougherty (David Janssen) does not see it that way. Those three men are still alive and they cannot be allowed to die without some effort being made to rescue them. The Russians are willing to help but unfortunately their only available spacecraft is in the wrong orbit and cannot reach the men in Ironman One. Dougherty however is not giving up.

Keith tries patiently to explain that a rescue mission would take weeks to organise. Dougherty believes it could be done in 42 hours. The Air Force agrees that it would be extremely difficult but they think it could be done. There is no spacecraft available but the Air Force has an experimental craft that could be modified to do the job. Keith is finally convinced and then throws himself wholeheartedly into the rescue effort. It’s a race against time, and also a race against the weather with a hurricane heading for the Florida coast. Can the rescue mission be launched before the hurricane hits?

The major criticisms directed at this movie are that it is too slow and too dull. This is not entirely fair and seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what director John Sturges was trying to do. Sturges was something of a specialist in thrillers but his thrillers tended to be cerebral and character-driven and ideas-driven rather than just shoot ’em ups with lots of explosions. Sturges had directed the mega-hits The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven as well as the very underrated The Satan Bug and Ice Station Zebra and he would go on to helm one of the best action thrillers of the 70s, The Eagle Has Landed. This was a guy who knew what he was doing. He wanted to make a movie that would rely on tension rather than explosions and his movies tended to be fairly long. He liked the slow burn approach.

Marooned certainly has plenty of tension and Sturges maintains that tension very effectively. 

It has also been criticised for the one-dimensionality of the characters but again I disagree. We don’t learn very much about the lives of the characters although we know that all three astronauts are married and have children. We don’t need to know details. What Sturges is interested in is how these men handle the very stressful situation they’re in, and how each of them responds differently. There’s a nice little scene where the astronauts are discussing a psychologist who tested them during their training. One of his tests was to show each man a blank sheet of paper and ask them what they saw. Pruett saw a blank sheet of paper. He’s not an imaginative guy and he just likes to get on with doing stuff. Stone saw a blank sheet of paper as well but he explains that it wasn’t a lack of imagination - it was a commitment to truth. Stone is the kind of guy who accepts reality, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. Lloyd on the other hand saw a field covered in snow and he saw the growing wheat beneath the snow and he saw the snow melt. Lloyd is a man who has a great deal of imagination, which can be an advantage but it can also be a liability. He has perhaps too much imagination. The scene gives us crucial insights into what makes the three men tick and it does it economically.

Crenna, Hackman and Franciscus handle their roles well without being tempted into overacting. Gregory Peck plays a guy who has had to take responsibility for the lives of the men under his command and to do that he has to judge situations coldly and clinically. It’s not that he has no motions but making decisions based on emotions can cost people’s lives so he represses those emotions. It’s a nicely understated performance by Peck and he’s utterly believable and he isn’t concerned if the character comes across as being not overly sympathetic. David Janssen does quite well also although in a less demanding  role.

The special effects are of their time but they work pretty well. This movie was probably unlucky in coming out a year after Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards for science fiction special effects. The miniatures work in Marooned is very competent but not in the same league as the effects in 2001.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is acceptable.

Marooned does what it set out to do quite effectively. It’s closer in feel to a movie like Morning Departure (the classic movie about men trapped in a doomed submarine) than it is to Star Wars. If you accept Marooned on its own terms it’s a tense and effective movie. Recommended.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the classics of Victorian gothic fiction. There have been countless movie and television adaptations of the novella. This 1968 US-Canadian made-for-TV movie is one of the more disappointing adaptations although not entirely without interest.

Dr Henry Jekyll (Jack Palance) is a distinguished London physician whose latest researches have aroused the ire of the medical and scientific establishment. Dr Jekyll believes every man has within him two conflicting sides of his nature, one good and civilised and one savage and animal. 

Dr Jekyll naturally uses himself as the guinea pig in his research and his potion unleashes the dark side of his nature in the person of Mr Edward Hyde. Hyde lives purely for pleasure and instant gratification and resorts to violence at the slightest provocation. Even worse, he enjoys inflicting violence.

His friends grow increasing worried about Henry Jekyll. Dr Lanyon (Leo Genn) had misgivings about Jekyll’s experiments right from the start. Jekyll’s solicitor and friend George Devlin (Denholm Elliott) stands by him despite his concerns.

Mr Hyde acquires a mistress, Gwyn (Billie Whitelaw), a dancer and singer in a very low-class music hall. He sets her up in a flat in Greek Street. Gwyn was initially attracted by Hyde’s wildness but soon the violence becomes too much for her. Escaping from Hyde is however no easy matter. She is aware that he has already committed several murders. The police are on Hyde’s trail but he seems to have the ability to vanish without trace.

Jekyll knows that Hyde is becoming uncontrollable but his own life is increasingly difficult and he finds that he can use Hyde to solve some of these difficulties.

Of course Dr Jekyll eventually discovers that Hyde is entirely out of control and events move to their inevitable conclusion.

There have been so many screen versions of the story that even by 1968 another adaptation could scarcely be justified unless it added something significant or took a fresh new approach to the material. This TV-movie does this to a limited extent. Of course by 1968 horror movies were becoming obsessed by sex and so making the mainspring of the action Dr Jekyll’s repressed sexual longings, something that seemed fresh and exciting at that time, now seems rather hackneyed. This production takes the line that not only does Hyde represent Jekyll’s repressed sexuality, this sexual obsession also (at least partly) explains why  Hyde is eventually able to become the dominant part of his personality.

A more interesting twist is that far from being a kindly dedicated scientist led astray by scientific hubris Dr Jekyll is portrayed as being very much responsible for his own downfall. He deliberately and consciously uses Hyde to commit crimes that he wants to commit but that he lacks the courage to execute himself. He is in his own way as evil as Hyde (a point made explicit by George Devlin late in the film).

This slightly novel approach is aided by the choice of Jack Palance to play the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde. Palance makes Dr Jekyll a somewhat sinister character. He is short-tempered, arrogant, selfish and even vindictive, qualities that he just barely manages to conceal. The downside of this is that it makes Dr Jekyll a thoroughly unsympathetic character and weakens the tragic element in the story. There is also a very real problem with Palance’s acting as he is entirely unable to convey and good qualities that Dr Jekyll might possess. As a result Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde becomes not a character split between good and evil but a character split between a very evil side and a lesser evil side.

Even as Jekyll Palance is histrionic but once he becomes Hyde his performances crosses the line into full-blown hysteria. The idea of emphasising that the evil of Hyde is inherent in Jekyll is a good one but it needed a better more controlled actor to make it work.

The supporting case is adequate with Denholm Elliott being as reliable as ever. Billie Whitelaw gives a shrill rather one-note performance which makes it impossible to feel much sympathy for her, which means the audience is left without anyone to care about apart from the faithful Devlin.

This is very much a made-for-TV movie, visually uninteresting and rather slow. Director Charles Jarrott spent most of his career in television. He made a few features in the late 60s and early 70s only to disappear back into relative obscurity. There’s nothing in this fairly pedestrian production to suggest that he had any great ability.

The makeup effects are wisely not overdone and Hyde looks human (although his eyebrows are a bit Star Trek-ish). This is a definite point in the movie’s favour.

Rod Serling was to have been the screenwriter but departed from the production at an early stage (to be replaced by Ian McLennan Hunter), and the lack of the trademark Serling preachiness is another point in the movie’s favour. Dan Curtis was the producer and it does have a rather Dan Curtis look to it.

I personally think the 1920 silent version with John Barrymore is the best adaptation of Stevenson’s novella. I think the 1932 Fredric March version is overrated. Hammer did two versions of the story, the underrated Terence Fisher-directed The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960) and the unconventional and extremely interesting 1971 Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Walerian Borowczyk’s bizarre 1981 Dr Jekyll and his Women also emphasises Jekyll’s complicity in Hyde’s evil and is worth a look (and it does have Udo Kier which is always a plus).

On the whole a rather disappointing movie that might have worked with a better lead actor. Possibly worth a rental if you have a greater tolerance for Jack Palance than I have.

Friday 6 March 2015

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, released in 1959, was notable as being one of the few attempts to bring Tarzan to the screen in a form that was reasonably faithful to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ conception of the character as delineated in his novels beginning with Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. Burroughs’ Tarzan was not a wild man who could barely speak intelligible English. He was literate and although his education was spotty he was certainly not an uneducated man. He was genuinely a man caught between two worlds but the key to understanding the character was that he was quite capable of existing in both worlds. His understanding of the jungle was profound but he understood the ways of civilisation perfectly well.

In some ways this makes the rôle more of a challenge to an actor since he has to make both sides of Tarzan convincing. Gordon Scott does a very creditable job of doing just that.

This movie is also noteworthy for its very strong cast overall with Anthony Quayle being being particularly good as the sinister Slade. A pre-James Bond Sean Connery is quite entertaining as the ruffian O’Bannion.

There is no Jane in this movie but Tarzan does acquire (much against his will) a sort of female side-kick in the person of the glamorous but cynical Angie (Sara Shane).

The movie starts with a robbery by a group of what appear to be natives (although we will soon discover that they are in fact white men). The robbery ends with a couple of brutal murders and this sets the tone for the film - this is to be no light-hearted jungle adventure romp.

Slade (Anthony Quayle) and his villainous cohorts carried out the robbery, their object being explosives. They will need the explosives when they reach the diamond mine which is their real objective. Kruger (Niall McGinnis) is a somewhat sleazy German who may or may not be an ex-Nazi. Slade needs him because although he doesn’t know too much about mining but he does know about diamonds and he knows how to cut the stones. Dino (Al Mulock) provided the boat, an essential requirement if they are to reach the mine. O’Bannion (Sean Connery) is there to provide muscle. The fifth member of the party is Slade’s girlfriend Toni (Scilla Gabel). 

Tarzan and Slade have encountered each other before. Tarzan’s objective is to bring the murderers to justice but he has a personal motivation as well, having experience of Slade’s treachery and viciousness. Slade is well aware that Tarzan is a very dangerous enemy. It’s four men against one but Slade realises that those odds may not be enough when dealing with Tarzan.

While Slade’s party sets off upriver to reach the mine Slade knows that they are the quarry and Tarzan is the hunter.

Tarzan acquires a companion when daredevil pilot Angie, who was amusing herself by showing off her flying skills while Tarzan paddled his canoe, gets a bit too clever for her own good and crashes her aircraft. There’s no time to take her back to civilisation so Tarzan reluctantly accepts that she will have to accompany him.

Another very unusual feature for a Tarzan film is that it was shot partly on location in Kenya. This adds verisimilitude and while the scenes on the river necessarily involved quite a few process shots they’re very well done. It might not have been a very big budget movie but it looks impressive. 

There’s no shortage of action either. British director John Guillermin had a lengthy and fairly interesting career which included one of the best air war movies ever made, the criminally underrated The Blue MaxHe would also helm a much later jungle adventure movie, the enjoyably camp Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. Guillermin handles the action scenes well. Not having a huge budget made it difficult to stage spectacular action set-pieces so Guillermin instead relies largely on the tension inherent in Tarzan’s hunting of his deadly human quarry (who is also trying to hunt him).

There’s a pleasing absence of comic relief. Guillermin keeps things focused and he keeps the pacing tight.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is more than satisfactory, providing a fine anamorphic transfer. Image quality is generally reasonably crisp and the colours are pleasingly vibrant without being excessive. 

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure offers us a much more interesting than usual Tarzan. There’s  some terrific acting from Anthony Quayle (an actor who could play heroes or villains with equal effectiveness and in this instance gives us a very nasty villain with a bit of depth). While Gordon Scott is good as Tarzan he’s overshadowed a little by Quayle, who has the advantage of being the villain (it’s always easier to play an entertaining villain than an entertaining hero) and of course Quayle was a very experienced and very distinguished actor. The supporting players are all very competent. The story is pretty basic but it’s very well executed and there’s plenty of excitement. Highly recommended.

Monday 2 March 2015

Black Magic (1949)

The Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (1743-1795) is a fascinating historical figure. An occultist, a Freemason, an accomplished charlatan, a swindler and adventurer, he was certainly no count and was probably born Giuseppe Balsamo. His colourful life naturally attracted the attention of writers of fiction. Alexandre Dumas, père featured Cagliostro in two of his novels in the 1840s and the 1949 Italian-US movie Black Magic takes Dumas’ stories as its starting point.

Cagliostro’s involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, a scandal which did much to damage the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette and to set the stage for the French Revolution, provides the main thrust of Charles Bennett’s screenplay. The movie plays fast and loose with history although not having read Dumas’ novel I can’t say whether the historical inaccuracies were the fault of Dumas or Bennett. 

The movie begins with the execution of two gypsies for sorcery. Their son Joseph Balsamo witnesses their executions and is flogged. He was sentenced to be blinded as well but is rescued by the gypsies. Balsamo grows up determined to exact vengeance from the Viscount de Montagne, the man who ordered his parents’ execution.

Grown to manhood, Balsamo (Orson Welles) makes his living as a carnival illusionist and purveyor of patent medicines. Balsamo’s ability to convince a woman who is in great pain that she is actually experiencing no pain at all attracts the attention of Franz Anton Mesmer, the scientist who was the first to describe the the phenomenon of hypnosis (which he called animal magnetism). Mesmer realises that Balsamo has an extraordinary natural gift that could make him a great healer. Balsamo is more interested in using his gift to turn a profit for himself.

Before long Balsamo has metamorphosed into the Count di Cagliostro and has used his abilities to gain fame and fortune. A chance encounter with a young woman named Lorenza (Nancy Guild) will have fateful consequences. Lorenza just happens to be the spitting image of the Princess Marie Antoinette and this resemblance has attracted the notice of none other than Cagliostro’s old enemy the Viscount de Montagne who is involved in an elaborate plot with King Louis XV’s official mistress Madame du Barry (Margot Grahame) to discredit Marie Antoinette. Cagliostro senses the opportunity to enrich himself and to gain his revenge on the Viscount de Montagne. What he hasn’t counted on is falling in love with Lorenza, a love which becomes an obsession and a love which the lady most emphatically does not reciprocate. 

Cagliostro’s plottings rely on his ability to bend people to his will. Mesmer’s theories of animal magnetism were rather more occult than the modern science of hypnosis and the movie credits Cagliostro with powers that are closer to outright mind control than to modern notions of hypnosis. Cagliostro can force people to do just about anything, even things they very much do not wish to do.

It’s all very melodramatic and far-fetched but then the career of the real life Cagliostro was very melodramatic and far-fetched. Producer-director Gregory Ratoff handles the material with a certain amount of panache. This is one of the many movies in which Orson Welles is not credited as director but probably did have a hand in the directing and some of the more over-the-top sequences do seem to have a certain Wellesian touch to them.

The movie’s biggest asset though is Welles as actor, delivering a typically bravura performance that is enough to compensate for the movie’s occasional false steps. Nancy Guild was a competent actress but playing dual roles in a movie like this was probably a little outside of her range. She’s actually quite good as Marie Antoinette but as Lorenza she seems rather unsure of herself. In fairness to her the part of Lorenza is badly underwritten and would have given any actress very little to work with.

Akim Tamiroff has fun as Gitano, Cagliostro’s faithful gypsy side-kick. Valentina Cortese goes nicely over-the-top as Zoraida, the gypsy woman who loves Cagliostro. 

The best scene in the movie has Cagliostro very cleverly turning the tables on a cable of doctors trying to discredit him.

There’s also a scene in which Cagliostro fires at least three shots from a single-shot pistol without reloading and then tells his adversary he still has one bullet left. Now that’s real magic. 

This was probably not a very big-budget movie but it certainly looks lavish with some magnificent sets and some stunning costumes.

The Region 1 DVD from Henstooth Video is slightly problematical. There’s quite a bit of print damage although fortunately none it very serious and some scenes do look a bit washed-out. On the whole it’s an acceptable if less than stellar transfer but perhaps a little overpriced for what is clearly an unrestored print. 

Black Magic is silly spirited fun and Orson Welles as Cagliostro is more than sufficient reason for seeing this movie. Recommended.