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.