Monday 29 August 2016

Against All Flags (1952)

Against All Flags, made by Universal in 1952,  is one of Errol Flynn’s later swashbucklers. And an Errol Flynn pirate movie is always worth a watch.

This one starts with Flynn being flogged. We soon find out that the flogging is voluntary. Lieutenant Brian Hawke (Flynn) has volunteered to infiltrate the notorious nest of pirates in Madagascar. The flogging is necessary to make it seem convincing that Hawke would jump ship to join the pirates.

Hawke manages, albeit with some difficulty, to persuade the pirates that he really is a legitimate cut-throat and deserter. He is given the post of navigator on the ship of Captain Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn). Brasiliano is delighted when they encounter what promises to be a very rich prize. It’s the personal vessel of the emperor of India, the Great Moghul himself. Hawke tries to persuade him that capturing this ship would be a very very bad idea. The Honourable East India Company would devote the whole of its very considerable resources to hunting down anyone who performed such a rash act. They would have to do this to placate the Great Moghul or the whole British position in India would be in peril. In 1700, when this movie is set, India was not part of the British Empire  but was dominated commercially by a private company, the aforementioned Honourable East India Company (generally known as John Company).

In fact capturing this ship would be an even worse idea that even Hawke imagines. Among the ladies of the harem on board is Princess Patma (Alice Kelley), the daughter of the Great Moghul. If any harm were to come to her all hell would break loose. The princess has the habit of threatening to have anyone who annoys her flung into the cobra pit and she’s not kidding. She not only has the power to do this, she’d be quite wiling to do so.

Hawke manages to save the princess’s life but he can’t save her from the slave market to which Captain Brasiliano, more than a little unwisely, intends to consign all the young ladies he has captured. Hawke’s position is made more awkward by the fact that the princess has taken quite a shine to him. This is especially awkward since Hawke needs to ingratiate himself with the fiery red-headed Spitfire Stevens (Maureen O’Hara).

Spitfire is one of the infamous Captains of the Coast - the high council of the Madagascar pirates. She doesn’t actually take to the high seas as a pirate but she owns her own pirate ship and makes a very comfortable living from the proceeds of piracy. Captain Brasiliano has been pursuing her for some time, without much success. He’s naturally inclined to resent Hawke as a formidable romantic rival. Spitfire is most certainly interested in Hawke but she’s quick-tempered and ferociously jealous and is obviously going to cause Hawke some major problems.

Hawke’s task is to find a way to neutralise the formidable defences of this pirate’s nest so that a British man-of-war currently lurking just over the horizon can sail into the harbour and clean out this troublesome lair of cut-throats and desperadoes. Since he also has to find a way to rescue the princess and win the hand of Spitfire he has quite a lot on his plate.

By this time Flynn’s riotous lifestyle was starting to catch up to him. He was 43 but looked ten years older. In fact he looks just a little too old, and a little too tired, for this kind of role. There’s nothing really wrong with his performance but the sparkle and the devil-may-care nonchalance of his earlier swashbucklers like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk is no longer quite there. Fortunately Anthony Quinn and Maureen O’Hara are on hand to take up the slack, which they do with considerable style.

Quinn is deliciously over-the-top as the villainous Captain Roc Brasiliano. In fact the problem is that Quinn is just a bit too good - he totally steals the picture and even though he’s the villain we can’t help wanting him to win.

O’Hara gives a lively and rambunctious performance as the notorious Spitfire Stevens. 

Which brings us to one of the difficulties Hollywood faced when making pirate movies. Pirates are by definition criminals and the Production Code mandated that criminals could not be allowed to succeed or to escape punishment for their crimes. This meant that somehow or other the hero had to be a bold and daring pirate but at the same time be an honest law-abiding citizen. This was no problem with Captain Blood since Rafael Sabatini’s novel dealt with a legitimate hero forced very unwillingly into piracy. This was the kind of device that had to be shoe-horned into every pirate movie. The hero of Against All Flags presents no great difficulties in this respect since he’s more or less an undercover agent posing as a pirate and we know from the start that he’s on the side of law and order. It does however mean that he comes across as being possibly just a bit treacherous - he does win the trust of the pirates and then betray that trust.

It presents more of a difficulty with Spitfire Stevens. She’s the heroine but she’s very much a pirate. We also know that she’s somewhat inclined to violence - she’s killed at least one man in a duel and as one of the Captains of the Coast she has undoubtedly condemned more than a few men to death. Not to mention the fact that she’s a willing participant in slave-dealing. Making her the virtuous heroine was quite a challenge and it doesn’t quite come off. By 1952 the Production Code was starting to loosen up a bit. I suspect that five years earlier Universal would have had some real problems with the Production Code Authority over this character, especially since she doesn’t display much remorse for her piratical career. Actually she doesn’t display any remorse at all.

The necessity for the criminal pirates to be shown as the bad guys also presents a problem when the chief villain, Captain Roc Brasiliano, is a lot more fun than the hero. Of course villains are often more fun than the hero but in this case he’s a fairly sympathetic villain, arguably a more sympathetic character than the hero.

This movie has had several DVD releases, most notably as part of Universal’s four-movie Pirates of the Golden Age boxed set (which also includes the rather entertaining Buccaneer’s Girl).

Against All Flags is not one of the great pirate movies, certainly not in the same league as Captain Blood, but it provides a pleasing and fairly consistently entertaining mix of action and romance. Recommended.

Sunday 21 August 2016

Code 7, Victim 5 (1964)

Given the title and the way it was promoted back in 1964 you could be forgiven for assuming that Code 7, Victim 5 is going to be yet another James Bond rip-off. Actually it’s a straightforward private eye yarn. It’s the South African setting that is the real highlight here.

This is one of the countless low-budget movies cranked out by writer-producer Harry Alan Towers. Towers liked making his movies in exotic locales - they gave a low-budget movie that touch of class and (even more importantly) they were usually ridiculously cheap filming locations.

South African mining magnate Wexler (Walter Rilla) is convinced someone is intending to kill him. Badly scared, he calls in American private eye Steve Martin (Lex Barker) even though he is already surrounded by a veritable army of security people.

Martin decides it might be wise to cooperate with the local police and Inspector Lean (Ronald Fraser) seems happy enough to go along with the idea.

The one clue that Martin has is a photograph take during the war. Wexler had been a German prisoner-of-war working on a prison farm in South Africa. There are four men in the photograph. One is now dead and one is under threat of death. Obviously it would be desirable to track down the other men in the photograph but that proves to be easier said than done.

Inspector Lean seems to be busily engaged chasing every young woman in Cape Town so Martin sets off with Wexler’s beautiful Danish secretary Helga (Ann Smyrner) to find the other two men. It soon becomes apparent that however is trying to kill Wexler would be quite happy to kill Martin as well.

The plot really is pretty routine. It’s the setting that makes things interesting. There’s a shootout in the world’s biggest subterranean cave system, there’s attempted murder on an ostrich farm (with the ostriches as the intended murder weapon) and there’s a decent climactic sequence on the slopes of Table Mountain. Most impressive of all is the opening murder sequence - a wonderful set-piece.

Robert Lynn directed a mere handful of films, spending most of his career in television. On the evidence of this movie, taking into account the very low budget he had to work with, he does pretty well. Of course it helps having the services of ace cinematographer Nicholas Roeg. 

Lex Barker is a perfectly adequate somewhat sardonic hero. Fine German character actor Walter Rilla makes Wexler a suitably enigmatic figure - a powerful man who obviously has some dark secrets. Ronald Fraser was always amusing although the idea of the entire female population of Cape Town being besotted by him does stretch credibility a very long way indeed!

Ann Smyrner as Helga and Véronique Vendell as Wexler’s adopted daughter Gina are there to add glamour which they do very successfully.

I have no idea why Blue Underground decided this film was worthy releasing on Blu-Ray. The anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope ratio) is quite satisfactory  but probably would have looked just as good on a DVD. This movie is paired with another Harry Alan Towers production, Mozambique, on a single disc.

Code 7, Victim 5 is quite enjoyable on it own terms. It moves along quickly and it looks terrific. Recommended.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Battle Beyond the Stars, made by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1980, is Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai set in space.

The planet Akira (a nod to Kurosawa) is inhabited by a people who have renounced war and violence and they are about to discover what happens when pacifists encounter someone who hasn’t renounced war and violence. They’re about to get stomped by evil space lord Sador (John Saxon) and his army of mutants. Since they can’t defend themselves they decide they will need to hire some mercenaries to do do their fighting for them. Young Shad (Richard Thomas) is despatched to bring back any such mercenaries he can find.

It turns out to be easier than expected, space apparently being full of mercenaries. 

Since this is a remake of the American remake (The Magnificent Seven) of The Seven Samurai if you’ve seen either of those movies the plot will hold no surprises for you. Not that unoriginal plots are necessarily a major problem - it’s the style with which they’re executed that matters. This one is reasonably satisfactory in that respect. There’s plenty of action and lots of explosions.

This was part of Richard Thomas’s attempt to get away from his most famous role, John-Boy Walton in the long-running TV series The Waltons. He’s actually pretty good. 

Of the various actors portraying the assorted mercenaries the most interesting are Robert Vaughn, George Peppard and Sybil Danning. Vaughn, who was in The Magnificent Seven, is rather subdued. In fact he’s essentially reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven

George Peppard on the other hand has a lot of fun as a space cowboy. Sybil Danning adds the only real touch of glamour and sex as a kind of space amazon warrior type.

John Saxon’s performance, as so often, is the highlight of the movie.

The special effects are very impressive given the fairly low budget (although by Corman standards a $2 million budget was a big budget). James Cameron started out as a humble model-maker on the film but shortly before filming was set to begin a worrying discovery was made - the movie’s art director had no idea what he was doing and none of the models or sets were ready. James Cameron suddenly found himself promoted to art director and he did a remarkably good job of it. The miniatures in particular are terrific.

Shooting the movie was a somewhat fraught experience. The process of converting a lumber yard in Venice California into a studio was nowhere near to being completed plus it was an unusually wet winter and the whole studio was ankle-deep in water much of the time. 

John Sayles wrote the screenplay. He felt very strongly that it was necessary to sharply differentiate the various mercenaries and even more important to emphasis their cultural differences. In this he succeeded very well. Apart from making the movie more interesting it gave the actors more of a challenge.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a fine example of Roger Corman’s approach to film-making, based on creative penny-pinching - making a small budget go a long long way and hiring young people with talent but who have not yet made their reputations and can therefore be hired cheaply!

I saw this one on Blu-Ray and it’s one of those rare Blu-Ray releases that is really worth the money. The transfer is excellent. Shout Factory have also been generous with extras - the highlights are two audio commentaries (one of which features Roger Corman and John Sayles), a half-dour documentary on the making of the film and an interview with Richard Thomas (who remembers the movie with great fondness).

Battle Beyond the Stars is certainly a lot less boring than The Seven Samurai. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable space opera. With the possible exception of Starcrash it’s the best of the many Star Wars clones of its era.

Sunday 7 August 2016

Duel in the Jungle (1954)

Duel in the Jungle is a 1954 British-American adventure movie that is by no means as bad as its reputation would suggest. It’s typical of its era - there’s some fine location shooting but there are also some obvious and not very convincing rear projection shots. 

Insurance investigator Scott Walters (Dana Andrews) has been sent from New York to London to look into the alarming lifestyle of wealthy businessman/adventurer Perry Henderson. Henderson has taken out a very large policy on his own life and the insurance company has been rather perturbed by reports that he’s now taken up deep-sea diving. Scott’s task is to let Perry know that his policy most definitely does not cover such insanely high-risk pastimes.

In fact Perry Henderson has already come to grief. He has disappeared. He apparently fell overboard en route to Africa on one of his own ships. Scott decides this matter definitely needs to be looked into. He’s also motivated by a considerable interest he’s taken in Perry’s fianceé Marian Taylor (Jeanne Crain).

Scott books passage on the S.S. Nigeria, the ship from which Perry vanished. Marian is also on board. She is not at all pleased by Scott’s presence having found his attentions to be rather irksome. Scott becomes considerable more suspicious when a bungled attempt is made to kill him. 

On arrival in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) further attempts are made to hamper Scott’s investigation but he’s a stubborn fellow and when Marian sets off into the bush he follows her. He’s pretty sure there’s something very fishy indeed about Perry’s apparent drowning and he has a hunch that if he keeps following Marian he’ll find out the answer.

He does find out the answer but the question is whether he’ll survive long enough to do anything about it. The jungle is a dangerous place to be, especially if you’re not sure if you have anyone upon whom you can truly rely. And this jungle seems to be astonishingly well stocked with dangers.

Dana Andrews makes a fine hero. He’s pushy but he has a certain charm and he certainly doesn’t give up once he makes up his mind about something. Jeanne Crain is an equally good leading lady. Marian is an ambiguous character - she may know more about Perry’s disappearance than she’s prepared to admit and that may or may not mean she’s involved in what may or may not be a conspiracy.

David Farrar provides very good support in a rather sinister dual role. The always delightful Wilfred Hyde-White is on hand as well. He has only a small part but naturally he steals every scene in which he appears.

George Marshall was already a veteran director when he made this one - in fact his directing career started in 1916 and would continue until 1972. He does a solid job. He can’t be blamed for flaws like unconvincing rear projection shots - that was simply the way movies were made in 1954. He keeps the action moving along pretty nicely.

It’s the visuals that really carry this film. The movie was shot in Technicolor and the African photography is terrific. 

The climax throws in everything but the kitchen sink and it certainly delivers the promised thrills.

Network’s DVD release boasts a very fine anamorphic transfer. The colours look great. Extras are limited to a not very extensive image gallery. Two versions of the film are however included, full-frame and widescreen (I’m guessing the movie was shot full-frame and later matted for widescreen release).

Duel in the Jungle is lightweight but it’s fine adventure fun with a bit of romance and just a touch of comic relief. Recommended.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

The Night Has Eyes (1942)

The Night Has Eyes is a 1942 British thriller with a very strong admixture of the gothic. It’s notable for offering James Mason an early starring role, and it’s the type of role he would come to do very well.

Marian Ives (Joyce Howard) and Doris (Tucker McGuire), two young schoolteachers from an exclusive girls’ school, decide to spend their holiday on the Yorkshire moors. An odd choice for a holiday but Marian Ives (Joyce Howard) has her reasons. Her friend Evelyn died on the moors a year earlier, in mysterious circumstances. All very Wuthering Heights. Marian has the idea that she may be able to discover how Evelyn died. 

The village police constable warns the two not to go wandering on the moors - the weather is threatening and they could easily get lost and possibly fall into a bog and never be found. Of course they disregard his advice and of course they get lost and Doris does indeed fall into a bog, fortunately without fatal consequences. They come across the kind of isolated house you expect to find on the Yorkshire moors. Living in the house is a handsome but morose young composer, Stephen Deremid (James Mason). Stephen fought on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War and it’s left him bitter and self-pitying and he’s given up composing. He’s not exactly thrilled by the idea of having company but he can’t very well turn the two girls away in the middle of a storm.

The Wuthering Heights atmosphere becomes more and more pronounced and the gothic elements are very much in evidence.

Stephen denies having ever heard of Evelyn but it soon becomes apparent that he most certainly did met her. In fact she had stayed in his house. Stephen is a troubled man but is there more to it than that? Why does he fear the full moon? Why does he seem at times to be attracted to Marian and then he pushes her away? Does the house in fact contain a secret room? Are there other secrets hidden here? 

It might be a good idea for Marian and Doris to leave as soon as possible but the rains have caused the river to break its banks and the house is now cut off from the outside world.

Writer-director Leslie Arliss showed considerable promise in the 1940s, including major box-office hits like The Wicked Lady and The Man in Grey (both starring James Mason), but by the 50s his career was in decline. Melodrama mixed with gothic was his clearly his forte and he does a fine job here.

The plot is contrived and melodramatic but that’s the sort of movie this is. It’s supposed to be melodrama.

Joyce Howard is pleasant but just a little insipid. Marian is an annoyingly brainless heroine who behaves like a lovestruck schoolgirl. Tucker McGuire’s task as Doris is to add some comic relief which she does without being excessively irritating. Just to make sure we get enough comic relief we also have Wilfred Lawson as the lecherous odd-job man and a pet monkey as well. Mary Clare is OK as the good-hearted housekeeper who knows a lot more about Stephen than she lets on.

It’s James Mason who is largely left to carry the picture. His star quality is already clearly evident. Stephen Deremid feels too sorry for himself to be entirely sympathetic but Mason makes him suitably ambiguous, tortured and tragic.

The scenes on the moors have a very obvious shot-on-a-soundstage look to them but that works to the film’s advantage, giving it more of a subtly other-worldly feel. The gothic atmosphere is laid on very thickly indeed. The isolated house with its solitary inhabitant sunk in melancholy and self-pity is obviously very Brontë-esque. There are also hints of the Old Dark House genre especially when Stephen reveals that the house contains at least one secret room. Günther Krampf’s cinematography is effective. 

Network’s DVD presentation is standard for this company - it’s barebones but the transfer is excellent.

The Night Has Eyes is not an out-and-out horror movie by any means but it has a few real scares and enough hints of the gothic (and even a very faint of the supernatural) to make it of interest to horror fans. It certainly will have plenty of appeal to melodrama fans and it has a decent enough mystery plot. It also has James Mason going somewhat over-the-top but demonstrating the charisma that would quickly make him a major star. Recommended.