Monday 21 November 2016

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)

Paramount’s 1929 The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu did not mark the film debut of the great super-villain. He had been featured in a series of shorts during the early 1920s but The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu was the first feature film based on Sax Rohmer’s immensely successful thrillers.

The title role is played by Warner Oland who would go on to much greater fame in the Charlie Chan movies.

This particular movie is interesting because it attempts to give us a backstory to explain Fu Manchu’s motivations. The movie opens with a sort of prologue. It is China in 1900 and the Boxer Rebellion has broken out. Europeans in Peking are under siege in the foreign legations. A small child, a girl named Lia, is sent by her British father to the house of Dr Fu Manchu. The famous scientist and physician is loved and respected by both the Europeans and the Chinese so she will be safe there. Or so her father assumes. Tragedy is however about to strike. Snipers have taken shelter in the courtyard and Fu Manchu’s house comes under artillery fire from British troops. Fu Manchu’s wife and child are killed. Fu Manchu vows to exact vengeance upon the senior officers of all the European troops involved.

Dr Fu Manchu is in fact a kindly and gentle man who has been driven to violence and hatred by his personal tragedy. It’s an intriguing idea and if it doesn’t quite make Fu Manchu a sympathetic character it at least gives us some understanding of him as a man.

On the other hand it also has the effect of making him the kind of relatively straightforward revenge murderer one might encounter in a murder mystery rather than the diabolical criminal mastermind of Rohmer’s novel’s. It also downplays the single most interesting thing about Rohmer’s villain - the fact that Fu Manchu is not actually evil but rather sees himself as fighting on behalf of civilisation. It is of course oriental civilisation on whose behalf he is fighting and he is the deadly enemy of western civilisation but he is nonetheless an idealist rather than a mere evil madman.

The movie also downplays a very important aspect of Fu Manchu’s character that Rohmer always stresses. Fu Manchu is a man of honour, a man whose word is his bond. He is as much a gentleman as his nemesis, Sir Nayland Smith. So what we get is a less complex Fu Manchu.

After the prologue in China we jump forward to London in the 1920s. Several distinguished senior military officers have been murdered in various countries, all in mysterious circumstances. What they all have in common is that they were present at the siege of the foreign legations in Peking in 1900. Now Inspector Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard has reason to believe that the elderly General Petrie will be the next victim. He also suspects that the general’s son, Sir John Petrie, and grandson, Dr Jack Petrie, may be in danger. But he has no way of knowing how and when the murderer may strike nor does he, at this stage, have any certain knowledge of the identity of the man behind these murders (although he has his suspicions).

The audience already knows that Dr Fu Manchu is behind the killings and we also know that the instrument he has chosen to carry out his revenge is the little English girl (now an attractive young woman) who had been entrusted to his care in 1900.

It goes without saying that Fu Manchu’s plans to wipe out the Petrie clan are fiendishly ingenious and imbued with a certain ironic cruelty.

The plot is pure melodrama but it’s spirited and entertaining melodrama.

Rowland V. Lee was a somewhat underrated director and he handle the material pretty well. This is of course a very early talkie and very early talkies have a reputation (only partly deserved), due to the technical problems initially posed by sound, of being terribly static and creaky. Some of the camera setups here are a little static but Lee makes sure there’s plenty going on within the frame. The slight creakiness isn’t a great problem - if anything it enhances the melodramatic nature of the tale. The sets are impressive with a hint of German Expressionism and there are some nice visual moments. The slightly static camera setups make the movie at times slightly reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies of that era.

One might have expected Warner Oland to be a bit too warm and likeable to be an effective super-villain. This is in fact a slight problem but Oland does the best he can and his performance does work - his natural warmth makes him a smooth and deceptively harmless-seeming villain. For the character of Fu Manchu to work really well he has to have both menace and dignity, the qualities which Christopher Lee the greatest of all screen Fu Manchus in movies like The Face of Fu Manchu. Warner Oland isn’t as effective  as Lee and he’s not as outlandishly megalomaniacal as Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu but he is an intriguingly different Fu Manchu.

Nayland Smith is played with the right degree of noble heroism by O.P. Heggie while a very youthful Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the Batman TV series) gets to do the romantic lead stuff as the young Dr Jack Petrie. Jean Arthur does a good job as the unfortunate Lia, the girl used as an unwitting tool by Fu Manchu.

All three of Paramount’s Warner Oland Fu Manchu movies survive but they’re not easy to find, and it’s an even bigger challenge to find a decent print of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (although you can watch an atrocious print on youtube). On the whole this is an enjoyable slice of melodramatic villainy. It’s a slightly unusual take on Fu Manchu and it’s worth a look.

If you haven't read them I also highly recommend Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books such as Daughter of Fu Manchu which I've reviewed at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man, released by Universal in 1957, is generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of 1950s science fiction. Director Jack Arnold made many of the most respected of 50s sci-fi flicks, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon (one of the most lyrical and sensitive of all monster movies). And there’s certainly much to like and admire in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

With a screenplay by Richard Matheson (certainly one of the greats of science fiction and horror screenplay writing for both film and TV) based on his own novel the movie achieves a genuinely epic quality. Epic not in the sense of money spent, or length, or spectacular effects, but epic in a true sense. It presents a struggle for survival that has mythic overtones.

Scott Carey is just a regular guy until a chance encounter with a radioactive cloud (this was 1957, when radioactivity explained absolutely everything) changes his life forever. He finds that he is slowly but surely getting smaller. Pretty soon he’s only three feet high. And although some clever scientist chappies manage to arrest his shrinking for a while, pretty soon he’s shrinking again. His wife has to find new housing for him - in a doll’s house! Unfortunately the family cat discovers there’s this cute little man in the doll’s house who would be such fun to chase. In the process of being chased, he falls into the cellar.

Being only a few inches high he has no means of escape. The cellar becomes his universe. He’s like a prehistoric man, alone in a vast and threatening world and forced to rely on his wits fir survival. And he has a deadly enemy. A spider. A spider that is several times bigger than he is.   

The special effects hold up remarkably well, and his war with the spider is like the struggle of a hero in a Greek myth to overcome a deadly and malignant giant. It’s played totally straight, and Jack Arnold resists any impulse to go for laughs at any stage. The approach works. Grant Williams as the hero also plays the role completely straight, and gives his character real dignity. 

This movie is nothing if not ambitious, and it’s aiming at making nothing less than a major philosophical statement about the nature of existence, our place in the universe, and the Meaning of Life. That’s where it all falls apart, for me at least. The ending had me cringing in embarrassment.  But other people like the ending, so maybe it’s just me. I have the same reaction to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I seem to be in the minority on that one as well.

Whatever you think about the ending this is a supremely well crafted film and it’s definitely worth seeing.

The Incredible Shrinking Man has had several DVD releases and is readily available in most markets.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

St Ives (1976)

J. Lee Thompson’s 1976 crime thriller St Ives is notable for featuring a fairly amiable Charles Bronson.

Bronson plays Raymond St Ives, a very successful crime reporter turned not-so-successful novelist. With an ex-wife bleeding him dry and a gambling habit to support St Ives jumps at the chance to earn $10,000. Wealthy eccentric Abner Procane (John Houseman) wants to buy back some journals that were stolen from him and he wants St Ives to act as the go-between. It seems like easy money but the exchange doesn’t go smoothly. And then people start getting killed and they keep getting killed.

Abner Procane is not quite what he seems to be and obviously those journals contain something very valuable. Something worth killing for.

The other members of Procane’s household are definitely a curious lot. Firstly there’s his live-in psychiatrist Dr Constable (Maximilian Schell). Like most psychiatrists he seems a good deal odder than his patient. And then there’s the beautiful Janet Whistler (Jacqueline Bisset). At first we assume she’s Procane’s mistress but she isn’t.

The number of corpses that seem to keep appearing wherever St Ives goes causes him a few problems with the police but they are never able to pin anything on him.

There’s a lot of money changing hands, some but not all of it directly related to those journals. There’s another much bigger crime behind all this than a simple burglary and St Ives seems likely to get caught right in the middle of it.

While there’s a bit of a film noir vibe to St Ives it’s really more of a caper movie. And despite the body count it’s a fairly lighthearted movie. This being the 1970s even what should have been a lighthearted caper movie has to have a lot of corpses.

Raymond St Ives is a tough guy but he’s a long way from the dark and brooding Bronson character of movies like Death Wish. He’s tough but only when he absolutely has to be and on the whole he’s a pretty easy-going kind of guy who regards the world with a certain degree of amusement. Bronson proves himself to be quite adept in the role, playing it with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. He was always more versatile than he was given credit for.

Jacqueline Bisset looks lovely but doesn’t quite have the acting chops to pull off a femme fatale role. She does her best and she’s OK but one can’t help thinking that a more accomplished actress could have done a lot more with this role.

John Houseman is splendid as the fundamentally gentle and romantic if not especially honest Procane. Maximilian Schell gives a gloriously overripe performance as the creepy psychiatrist. It’s always great to see Elisha Cook Jr in any movie even if his character does  spend much of the film sleeping. Look out for Jeff Goldblum in a tiny role as a hoodlum - exactly the same role he played in another Bronson flick, Death Wish, a couple of years earlier.

Thompson was an experienced and very competent director and does a fine job here.

The movie reaches its climax in a drive-in movie theatre. It’s great setting and it’s surprising that drive-ins weren’t featured more often in thrillers.

St Ives was paired with another Charles Bronson thriller, Telefon, in a double-header DVD release (with the two movies on one double-sided disc). Telefon is an excellent movie so it’s a pretty good value-for-money release.

St Ives is by no means a great movie but it’s solid entertainment and Bronson is as watchable and magnetic as ever. Buy the two-movie set for Telefon and give St Ives a watch as well.