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Thursday, 3 December 2009

Isle of Fury (1936)

Director: Frank McDonald
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Margaret Lindsay and Donald Woods
TCM's star of the month for Dec 2009 is Humphrey Bogart, to celebrate what would have been his 110th birthday on 25 Dec, at least according to Warner Brothers.
Before he became the hard boiled screen icon of The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Big Sleep, Warner Brothers really didn't know what to do with Humphrey Bogart. He was obviously a man of talent and presence but he was generally stuck in supporting roles, this being a rare example of a film where he led the cast but it's hardly the leading role he must have wanted. It's only an hour in length so was obviously hardly intended to be the big hit of October 1936 and it has less substance than your average TV commercial. Bogie isn't miscast here the way he was in films like The Return of Dr X or Swing Your Lady, but he's still saddled with a truly awful moustache, more like a third eyebrow floating above his top lip, and a terrible script that apparently originates in a Somerset Maugham novel, which was presumably better than this.

He's Val Stevens, the Val being for Valentine, and he's busy getting married to a girl called Lucille when the film opens, fortunately for him given that she's played by Margaret Lindsay and hastily as there's a ferocious storm raging outside and a ship hitting the nearby reef. They're in the South Seas, on a little island east of Fiji called Tankana where Stevens runs a pearl diving business. Life seems to be pretty good for Stevens and his new wife but of course we join their story when it's being all shaken up. His workers won't dive because they're scared of something under the water and Eric Blake, a man Stevens rescues from the floundering ship, is a powerful unknown factor, suspicious in a number of ways that aren't concrete.

And if that's all that we had to deal with perhaps this would be a better film but unfortunately we're saddled with something of a mess. We've already been told that the island has no radio station, no police and no tourists, thus making it an ideal place to hide, but there's no real attempt made to build suspense for some sort of intrigue, that side of things being obscured by some wonderful evasion by the local doctor, Doc Hardy. He's by the far the most interesting character here, played like a crossword puzzle by E E Clive, who I know best as 'Tenny' Tennison, gentleman's gentleman to Bulldog Drummond. He reminds of Churchill's description of Russian foreign policy, 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma', not in who he is but in what he knows and what his plans are.

Instead of suspense we get some cheap pulp thrills. Stevens takes on the octopus, which is what this 'devil fish' turns out to be, and of course once you've seen one man fighting an octopus you've seen them all. Otar, his foreman, tries to steal all the pearls for himself, which ends up in the death of the unfortunately named Oh Kay, who kills his accomplice then stands conveniently inside the doorway to be shot. We get the expected budding romance between Blake and the new Mrs Stevens, given that she only married Bogie because he's the only other eligible bachelor on the island from her own race. That doesn't bode well for the future gene pool: three generations later this would be Innsmouth and the octopus would be one of their descendants.

When we do get to the unfolding of hidden knowledge it's a good question as to whether we really care or not, because there's so little character development here that even at a meagre sixty minutes running time we get timewasting tricks and use of stock footage. We even get a title card at one point, as though this wasn't 1936 but a decade earlier without the benefit of hearing people tell us what's going on. It's something of a waste, given the names involved. Bogart does try to invoke some real acting at points but he just doesn't have the material to work with. Margaret Lindsay is wasted on a mild attempt at making her the love interest for two men and Donald Woods never establishes himself as Eric Blake, again probably through little fault of his own. This is definitely one for completists only. No wonder it took so long for Bogie to finally make it as a star if this is what he got given as a lead.

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