Saturday 30 June 2007

Fatty's New Role (1915) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

This time out Fatty is a amiable tramp and of course it's not difficult to make him look the part. He sleeps in a barn and tries to get himself a free breakfast and drink at Schnitz's Bar but gets thrown out. He's long gone but when the 'friends' of the owner read in the paper that a man has been causing havoc in bars after being thrown out, they play a jape on him that would land them in a secret CIA jail nowadays. They cook up a fake terrorist plot suggesting that his bar will be visited by a bomb at three o'clock.

Needless to say Fatty returns arrives back at three o'clock with a little money and chaos ensues. Talk about changing times! This is a film that not only couldn't be made today, if it was tried it would get the term 'plot device' banned. It certainly wouldn't be seen as comedy, but an anti-American attempt to throw scorn on the country's record on handling domestic terror threats.

As a film it isn't bad and is actually enjoyable for its lack of pace. The usual suspects are all here, with their outrageous facial hair: Mack Swain as Ambrose Schnitz, the bar owner, Edgar Kennedy, Slim Summerville and many of the rentacops of the era like Al St John. None of them get to kick anyone else's ass, literally or figuratively, and that seems like a real treat. I'm just sorry I missed Luke the Dog, as he was apparently in there somewhere, and he would have been my favourite actor in the film.

Mabel and Fatty's Married Life (1915) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

I've seen quite a few of the films that Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle made around the time that Charlie Chaplin was starting out, and redefining comedy in the process, in 1914. I still can't quite work it out from a progression standpoint but the only one I thought was any good wasn't from 1914 or 1915, but earlier, in 1913: Fatty Joins the Force. This one's from later, in 1915, and stars him opposite frequent screen wife Mabel Normand.

It starts off pretty well with an edge of danger as Fatty gets into trouble with an organ grinder whose monkey is a little too friendly. Then he leaves his wife at home alone, but when he returns for papers that he's forgotten, she thinks he's one of the band of foreign robbers apparently in the neighbourhood. She's an excitable sort an so gets to shoot Fatty a lot with one of those Hollywood guns that fires too many bullets and never actually hurts anyone. Naturally the organ grinder and his monkey make another appearance to liven up the action.

This one feels a litle better than most I've seen, and part of that may be the fact that there's appropriate music to work as a soundtrack. I've been getting used to cheap copies on cheap DVDs that tend to run the same music for every film, not caring if it actually has any relevance to what it's the soundtrack for. It does make a pleasant change, and probably helps no end, to have a real soundtrack written by someone deliberately for this film. Other than that, it feels like an easy way to pass ten minutes.

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944) Phil Rosen

I don't have a good background in Charlie Chan films but I'm aware that, like most series, it deteriorated over time. In this case the heyday is seen as the Warner Oland era for Fox in the thirties, with the Sidney Toler films gradually getting worse as the films moved from Fox to MGM to Monogram, where they reached their nadir with Roland Winters as Chan. Fortunately, if we're looking at a declining quality curve, this one was made before the last one I saw, but unfortunately it's still from the Sidney Toler Monogram era.

The story is an investigation into the death, presumably murder, of George Melton, an inventor important to the government's war effort as he's been researching a means of ridding the country of the German U-boat threat. He walks downstairs, leaving his presidential bodyguard behind, and drops dead, with his secret plans mysteriously missing. Chan is called in to investigate what turns out to be a too short mystery, the world being reduced effectively to a single house and its occupants so that we can investigate along with Chan, but none of whom get adequate background or screen time.

I've watched a lot of early twentieth century films featuring supposedly oriental characters played by quite obviously not oriental actors. The quality is highly varied and I'm starting to see the extremes being Peter Lorre as Mr Moto at the good end and Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan at the bad end. It isn't just the standard stereotypes, it's the fact that I can't help but have the impression that Toler can't even talk, let alone talk in a broken form of English, or see or walk or act or anything else.

It's hard to call a film racist when the Chinese character played by a non-Chinese actor can't live up to his potential, but the Chinese characters played by actors of Chinese descent transcend their sucky parts. Even though he's supposedly the bright Chinese detective hero, Toler comes across as stupid, quite unlike his supposedly dumber son and daughter who come across at least as completely articulate, merely not great detectives. I don't know if it's just me, but I tend to dismiss Sidney Toler and enjoy Benson Fong and Marianne Quon instead.

The real racism to me is the blatant stereotyping of black chauffeur Birmingham Brown, which is acutely embarrassing. Actor Mantan Moreland is obviously far more talented than many of his cohorts, from Toler to Gene Roth, who does a bad Kirk Douglas impression as Luis Philipe Vega, a hulk of a man apparently of Hispanic descent but really German. He isn't believable as any of them and the rest of the cast and the story aren't much better. At least it's better than the last one I saw.

Friday 29 June 2007

Murder Most Foul (1946) George Pollock

As the title of the source novel would suggest, Mrs McGinty's Dead. She has been hanged in a house opposite the Hangman's Rest pub. Constable Wells was having a drink outside the pub at the time and so was very quickly onto the scene, catching a man red handed. However, given that Miss Marple is on the jury, we're obviously going to be caught up in a very English version of 12 Angry Men and sure enough, she is the sole jury member holding out for the accused's innocence. Unlike Henry Fonda's version though, she can't persuade her colleagues, so the case is temporarily put aside for a retrial and Miss Marple investigates herself.

After going undercover as a rag and bone woman, she soon comes up with the theory that Mrs McGinty was a blackmailer and uncovers evidence to suggest that she was blackmailing a member of the Cosgood Players, a theatrical troupe who put on a presentation of nothing less than Agatha Christie's Murder She Said at the Theatre Royal in Milchester. Naturally Miss Marple, a theatrical sort herself, joins the troupe to snoop into who the killer might be.

The cast is a solid one, populated not just by Margaret Rutherford, Charles Tingwell and the inevitable Stringer Davis, but by Ron Moody, Dennis Price and a whole slew of names I know well from sitcoms on English TV. The first person we see is Terry Scott from Terry and June as Constable Wells, and there's also Windsor Davies from It Ain't Half Hot, Mum and James Bolam from Only When I Laugh. Moody and Price come from higher calibre material, not that these were bad sitcoms but it's hard to compare them with Oliver Twist and Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Now I'm back on Miss Marple territory, The Alphabet Murders seems even more like a misguided step. This is another Hercule Poirot novel with Poirot torn out and Miss Marple inserted in his place, so it's hardly a particularly faithful adaptation. However it is firmly a mystery movie with comedy, where The Alphabet Murders was a comedy movie with mystery and Agatha Christie was hardly known as the Queen of Comedy. Fortunately for us, this one is firmly rooted in the mystery and it's the best of the bunch so far.

Thursday 28 June 2007

Gilda (1946) Charles Vidor

As you'd expect from the title this film is all about Gilda, one of the most blatant exhibitions of sexual charisma on the screen in the forties. We meet the other two central characters first though: Johnny Farrell, a small time but still highly skilful gambler earning money in Buenos Aires by playing with his own dice, and Ballin Mundson, the owner of a casino outside of the city where gambling is still legal. Mundson apparently saves Farrell's life, though there's doubt as to whether it actually needed saving, and points him towards the casino. Soon he's Mundson's right hand man and everything looks promising for the both of them.

During the hiring process, Mundson points out to Farrell that women and gambling don't mix, and you really don't need two guesses to find out where Gilda comes in. She arrives as Mundson's ravishing new wife and of course she's part of the past that Farrell has kept quiet and hidden, and we realise that all these people have pasts kept quiet and hidden and there's going to be a story or three hiding in there that will come out and bite people.

There's a lot going on here and the script is very clever indeed to make it all keep going on while getting passed by the Production Code. I didn't see a lot of the gay overtones to Zombie Island that were raised before its showing on TCM as part of the Screened Out festival, but the intriguing love triangle here isn't too easy to miss. I've seen a few Glenn Ford movies and he's certainly putting on a lot of effeminate characteristics here that I've never seen him put on before. The director may not have intended a bisexual love triangle but I'm pretty sure that Glenn Ford did and so did Jo Eisinger who adpted E A Ellington's story for the screen.

It's tightly plotted and full of intrigue, deceit and acutely biting dialogue. Rita Hayworth's Gilda is ascerbic, knowing and very deliberate in everything she does. She does an awesome job here but she's well aided by the script. Eisinger wrote for Hayworth again, twice in the sixties, but never for Lauren Bacall and that's a shame. That combination could have been a killer during the film noir era, especially if you added Bogie into the mix. I'll certainly look out for another highly rated film noir written by Eisinger: Night and the City, directed by Jules Dassin in 1950 with Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney.

What else I'll look out for is this one, again. While it's obvious that both Hayworth and Ford are superb, there's so much going on that I really get the impression that it's a film to come back to and grow with. I'm sure I'll see different things next time and maybe different things the one afer that too. The perspectives are likely to change and how I read the characters is likely to change too. In other words, it's a great one but I have no clue how great on the basis of a single viewing.

Wednesday 27 June 2007

The Alphabet Murders (1965) Frank Tashlin

I honestly can't remember exactly how Hercule Poirot appeared in the original books by Agatha Christie, but I was pretty sure Tony Randall was overplaying the part horrendously before the titles ran and it got rapidly worse from there. Watch this with the expectation of a detective film and you're going to be extremely disappointed and probably more than a little embarrassed. Randall plays Poirot here like a cross between Salvador Dali and John Waters and the plot plays out like a less fun but no less fanciful take on the episode of The Prisoner called The Girl Who Was Death.

Someone is killing people on the basis of their initials: first Albert Aachen, then Betty Barnard, then Sir Carmichael Clarke and so on. For some reason Poirot is in London and investigating, when not being locked up by the police for upsetting young ladies, and he's being harrassed by a young mental patient called Amanda Beatrice Cross or ABC. She's played by Anita Ekberg, Miss Sweden fifteen years earlier and still a striking presence, even though she's hardly acting in the slightest. There's also Robert Morley as a bumbling secret service agent attempting ineptly to protect Poirot and many other regulars of English cinema like Maurice Denham, Julian Glover and Patrick Newell. There's even Windsor Davies though I couldn't find him.

After seeing how the film progressed through the first ten minutes, I tried to ignore the whole mystery angle because it obviously wasn't the point. Then again Hollywood just as obviously wasn't interested in realistic translations of the original source stories. There had already been two Hercule Poirot books filmed but both were bizarrely rewritten as Miss Marple stories instead. At least this one has Poirot as Poirot, but that's about it. It's a comedy film, pure and simple, and there's simply nothing else here except humour.

Unfortunately it's not particularly successful humour: far more embarrassing than successful. I spent more time enjoying the radical camera positioning, rapid fire point of view shifts and wild dolly shots. I get the impression that the people actually tasked with making the movie weren't really interested in the story at all, left Tony Randall to go hog wild with the pantomime character acting and concentrated instead on making the film look different. To my mind that's the only real success of the film because the rest was a waste of time. I enjoyed the Miss Marple/Mr Stringer cameo more than Poirot's entire act.

Tuesday 26 June 2007

The Harder They Fall (1956) Mark Robson

The dynamic soundtrack really hammers home from moment one that we're watching something powerful here and that's hardly surprising, with Rod Steiger as a shady boxing promoter and Humphrey Bogart as a world weary sports writer. It's black and white, of course, and Bogie's in his last film role: less than a year later he would be dead fron cancer at the early age of 58. Steiger is Nick Benko, and he hires Eddie Willis, Bogie's character, to publicise a giant that he's just imported in from Argentina along with Ricardo Montalban's brother Carlos as his manager.

The catch is that Toro Moreno, the boxer, may be big but he can't box to save his life. As Bogie says, he has 'a powderpuff punch and a glass jaw', but he does look the part. He's played by the 6' 8" 275lb Mike Lane, better known in 1956 as professional wrestler Tarzan Mike. They push him on the California circuit where they'll buy into freaks winning rigged fights. Everything is a complete con and only Moreno doesn't know it, happily strung along on promises, thinking he's as good as the advertising and ready to fight the champ. Willis goes along with it all, lying through his teeth, entirely because he needs his ten percent of the big guy.

There are two strains of note to the film to my eyes. One is the realism of having real boxers playing boxers, and good ones too, like Pat Comiskey, Jersey Joe Walcott and world heavyweight champion Max Baer. Mike Lane can hardly box at all, but he improves believably as the film progresses. It's interesting to see that Comiskey, who plays the champion who loses his title to Baer, was a promising heavyweight in real life who lost his chance at the title when Baer knocked him out in one round. It's also interesting to see that the character of Toro Moreno is based somewhat on Primo Carnera, who also lost to Baer for the championship.

The other is the realism of the corruption, which is sickening. Bogart was always a great cynic but he has a field day here showing his weariness at the industry he's caught up in and the scam he's involved in running. His pain at it all is obvious, though to be fair that's about the only thing dying of cancer can ever possibly help with. I'm sure he was in physical pain and it isn't difficult to be sickened by the blatant hypocrisy of the characters his character gets to deal with.

Rod Steiger does a great job too, though Bogie thought he was overacting. The thing is that he does a great job of being utter slime without ever really overdoing it. Sure, he's alive and always moving but it's the complete and utter lack of any sense of morality, and the believable way he carries it, that makes him slime. This isn't an Al Pacino Scarface or Nicolas Cage overacting job, it's a confidently and quietly despicable routine, and the thing is that as much as I can appreciate the talent with which this film is put together, on many levels, it's very hard indeed to enjoy it.

It's excellent, it really is, but the whole thing leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I've heard of feelgood movies, but this is a feelbad movie and it carries a kick. It's not going to be easily forgotten.

Monday 25 June 2007

Moonstruck (1987) Norman Jewison

I've heard a lot of good things about Moonstruck and hey, it's directed by Norman Jewison, it stars an Oscar winning Cher and there are people like Danny Aiello, Vincent Gardenia and John Mahoney in the cast. How bad could it be? It's also apparently a bright romantic comedy full of decent character development and films like that are worth their weight in gold. Well catches are individual and this one has a huge catch as far as I'm concerned.

It's not just set in New York so that everyone has Brooklyn accents, but it's full of Italians so everyone has Italian Brooklyn accents. The words 'nails' and 'blackboard' spring to mind. It also means that everyone's going to be arguing all the time and that gets so incredibly tired. I realise that some directors have an uncontrollable urge to explore American Italian culture in New York, but it bores me to tears. I usually end up wishing that Joe Pesci would come in and kill everyone just to shut them all up.

Well it starts off pretty well. Danny Aiello is Johnny Cammareri and Cher is Loretta Castorini and he proposes to her in a restaurant where they're both regulars. While they do argue all the way through the proposal, it's still a joyous occasion. They get to argue on the way to the airport so that Johnny can fly back to Sicily to visit his dying mother, but at least there's humour in it. There's even humour when she gets home to tell her father and he complains about everything and they argue and, well you can imagine the rest of the script. I'm sure there's an Italian American somewhere in New York City who doesn't argue about everything under the sun and I'd sure love to see a movie about him.

Anyway, Loretta starts off doing taxes at Nucciarone Funeral Home and that's about as cheerful as she gets and the best thing about the movie is the soundtrack. Of course before long Nicolas Cage turns up as Johnny's brother and he's as annoying as Nicolas Cage usually is. He has a wooden hand and in a fit of outrageous overacting blames every one of his misfortunes on his brother. One day I'll see a movie in which I don't want to slap Nicolas Cage silly but I haven't found it yet. At least I had the pleasure of watching Cher do it here. Yet because she's going to marry his brother and he's a nutjob, they find themselves in bed together in no time flat and everything gets complicated.

What makes this so good is that after all of these heartfelt and concerted efforts to make this the least likely film for me to even last through let alone enjoy, somehow the cleverness of the writing, the combination of a great soundtrack with cleverly loose direction, along with the excellent acting from Cher and the entire supporting cast wins through. There are some truly great scenes where the moon takes over, everyone stops bitching for a minute or two and the magic kicks in. When the sun comes out suddenly we're in a different film where I actually wanted to carry on watching.

It's not Cage, that's for sure, but somehow I could look past him and the rest of the annoyingly stereotypical Italian American crap and see something more. Puccini's La Boheme at the Met can't hurt either. Cher is superb but she's far from alone in that. There isn't a soul in the supporting cast who isn't less than excellent: Vincent Gardenia and Olympia Dukakis especially, but also John Mahoney, Louis Guss and Julie Bovasso. It's not surprising that a bunch of them won a bunch of awards, not least an Oscar for Dukakis.

Outside the standard awards, the ones this film won are telling: the Casting Society of America honoured casting director Howard Feuer and the Writers Guild of America honoured screenwriter John Patrick Shanley. It's not difficult to understand why. I forgot I was watching Italian Americans argue about everything and that's a damn fine achievement.

Sunday 24 June 2007

By the Sun's Rays (1914)

Lon Chaney made eight (edit: eleven) films in all for director Tod Browning and it would have been more, had he lived longer, because Browning had cast him as Count Dracula in the role that ended up with Bela Lugosi. So far, The Unknown is my favourite but I've only seen half of them, if you can count what's left of London After Midnight as a complete film. As a stills reconstruction it's fascinating, but it isn't enough to even rate as a movie. By the Sun's Rays does still exist, thankfully, even though it was their first collaboration and was made in 1914, no less than thirteen years before London After Midnight. As such it's a historic piece of film, no doubt about it.

In fact this is so far back that Chaney isn't even top billed. M J MacQuarrie, whoever he is, has the starring role as 'John Murdock, the Detective'. Chaney has to settle for second on the bill, as 'Frank Lawler, the Clerk', but he stamps his authority on the film in about half a second flat, shifting around in character like a chameleon while everyone else is just there. Lawler is obviously a bad man, leaving the Deep River Mining Co offices to orchestrate a robbery of their departing gold shipment.

Unfortunately for M J MacQuarrie, there are only two reasons to watch this film. Chaney is one and Chaney and Browning together is the other. By the time detective John Murdock arrives to look into how the bandits are getting their information, it's already Chaney's film, literally as well as figuratively as we're five minutes into a film that only has a ten minute running time. MacQuarrie seems perfectly adequate in the part until Chaney walks onto screen at which point we simply forget who he is or why he's there. Chaney may be a little too much of the silent era villain but he's still amazing to watch.

For Browning's part, I get the impression that there's more going on here than was the norm at the time. To be fair, I'm not really well versed in anything except slapstick from 1914 but this is still a notch or two above what I expected. Beyond the focal characters, there are plenty of others doing a lot more than just sitting around taking up screen space, for a start. It's also hardly the most detailed and deep plot ever put on screen, even in a ten minute short, but it compares well to things like the low budget westerns John Wayne was churning out in the thirties before he became a star. Given that it was made a couple of decades earlier in the year Charlie Chaplin made his first film, that's saying something.

Faces of Children (1925) Jacques Feyder

We're in Saint-Luc, a picturesque village in the Upper Valais, and everyone is heading to the Mayor's house to commiserate with him as he mourns the death of his wife. The mayor is Pierre Amsler, played by Victor Vina, but the real lead is his young son Jean, portrayed by Jean Forest. Forest had debuted three years earlier in Crainquebille, a decent expose also directed by Feyder who had apparently discovered Forest on the streets of Paris. By this time though, he's a full twelve years old and with four films behind him, so almost an old hand in the business!

His character is old enough to know something about death and what it means, but his younger sister doesn't have a clue. He walks with his father behind the coffin to see her buried, grieves for her and watches his father's tears with sympathy, while young Pierrette plays with her cat and whatever else she can find. Forest is very good here, all young pillar of strength until he collapses at the graveside, but he's ably assisted by some rapid fire montage work by the editors. This was originally released in 1925 so I wonder if it was before or after Battleship Potemkin with its groundbreaking sequence on the Odessa Steps.

Jean is obviously very attached to his mother, to the degree that he visits her grave every Sunday and sees her portrait come to life and smile at him. However his father feels bad that in the absence of a wife his house and children are being neglected, so he marries again, his new wife being Jeanne Dutois, a young widow who can't pay her rent. This impacts Jean not just because he has a stepmother but because he acquires in the process a stepsister, Arlette, and that leads to plenty of conflict.

The story is solid, very much in the European vein of slow and serious stories full of character development, and that's a good thing. There's decent camerawork too, Feyder and his cinematographers also making plenty of use of the gorgeous countryside to frame his story. It's supposedly France but it was shot in the Swiss Alps and you just can't go wrong with the Swiss Alps as a cinematic background! Feyder seems to be always great when filming in crowds or in public and this film is no exception to that rule. The accompanying 2004 soundtrack by Michael Coppola is great if not awesome, and in fact there's very little bad to say.

The only downside to me was pretty minor, and that was in what seemed to be a little clumsiness in the delivery of some of the actors early on: all adults, I should add, as the children are simply superb. I'm not talking about the traditional overacting of the silent era as this would have been seen as an underplayed film on those grounds. I think it just took a half hour or so for everything to get moving properly, because the film, as you'd expect from the title, is about the kids and maybe the adults had a harder time getting into the story when there were no kids around.

I can't fault any of the scenes that have children in, whether they be between Jean and his stepsister, played by Arlette Dutois, or with adults like Henri Duval as his uncle or Rachel Devirys as his stepmother. It's only early scenes between Vina and Duval or Vina and Devirys that don't quite carry the same weight. Thankfully the children are present for almost the entire film and these scenes are hugely impressive and yet very subtle, often without the benefit (or the distraction) of title cards.

I got drawn into this one far more than into Crainquebille and, to be honest, got lost in the magic of it. By the time the end arrived, which seemed far too soon even though the film is nearly two hours long, I'd forgotten about all of that minor downside entirely. What amazed me most is that none of the three children had long careers in the ilm industry, stunning given their performances here. According to IMDb, this was Arlette Peyran's only film, and Pierrette Houyez only made three. Jean Forest, the star of this film, went on to appear in ten in all, but switched to a career in radio. What a shame!

Track of the Cat (1954) William A Wellman

The wind is roaring out in Mount Rainier National Park (we're not told where 'the valley' is but that's where it was shot) and the first snow of the winter is falling hard. Joe Sam, a freaky Indian played by Carl Switzer, best known as Alfalfa, warns the Bridges that the cat is back, as he does every year at the same time. It's a big black panther that has taken on almost mythical standing and Curt Bridges wants badly because it's already killed his dogs. Curt is Robert Mitchum, who seems to be as in charge of things as you'd believe Mitchum to be, even though he's the middle of two sons. If he was fired up to start with, he's even more fired up when it takes four of his steers and then his elder brother too.

That's a shame for us too because elder brother Arthur is played by Hedda Hopper's son William, who found fame as Paul Drake in the Perry Mason TV series. While he doesn't take charge as the elder brother presumably ought to, he does seem to be the closest thing to a stabilising factor the family has around. The third son is Harold or Hal, still young and talked down to by almost everyone, mostly because he doesn't seem to have any guts, just like his father. His girlfriend Gwen is staying with them too, and she's a catalyst for even more bickering.

Weak, alcoholic and senile Pa is all over the girlfriend attempting to rekindle his youth, Ma seems bitter about everyone and everything, sister Grace isn't far behind and cocky tough guy Curt is down on everyone, most of all young Harold. The cast are well up to it and include some major names, not least Beulah Bondi, fifteen years after she played Jimmy Stewart's mother in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and even more since the films I've usually seen her in back in the early thirties. You can always count on her to speak her piece and she gets plenty of opportunity here.

All American Tab Hunter is excellent as Harold, looking strong but acting weak, yet with hidden depths. Grace is no less a major name than Teresa Wright and she's spot on but it's Diana Lynn as Harold's girlfriend Gwen that shines most, showing us strength in ways that the rest of the characters wouldn't have understood. In fact looking back from a day when character development almost seems like a lost art, this is a superb example of what could be done back in the days when it was still an admirable quality for a film to have. the three brothers here are very different, all strong in their own ways but those ways are such that the others wouldn't have either understood or appreciated. It's all very nicely crafted indeed.

The camerawork is very nice too, with some great use of composition and perspective. The scene at Arthur's graveside is masterfully done and while it's the most obvious example it's far from the only one. Oscar winning director William A Wellman was an old hand by this point, with only four more movies in him. His Oscar was as a screenwriter but he'd directed the first Oscar winning Best Picture, Wings. He also made such classics as The Public Enemy, the original A Star is Born and The Ox-Bow Incident. There are a lot of great films with his name on them and they are all over the map as far as genre and tone and style. It's obvious from the sampling I've had that he really knew his stuff though. And the cat doesn't matter at all, it's just a McGuffin. This is a very human story.

Saturday 23 June 2007

Where Danger Lives (1950) John Farrow

The surgeon's face mask can't hide the unmistakable voice of Robert Mitchum, even back in 1950. He's a doctor called Jeff Cameron and a dedicated one too, working long hours at a general hospital but soon to head off into the world of private practice. In comes Margo Lannington, who has attempted suicide and he helps her back from the brink. Next morning she skips out leaving a false name and address, but also leaves a note for Jeff containing the real ones, promising an explanation but soon drawing him into her world.

Given that this is a film noir called Where Danger Lives, that's not quite the world he expects. He falls for and her for him, but when he confronts her father, Frederick Lannington, who is apparently going to whisk her away from him, that father turns out to be her husband. He freely admits that she married him for his money and he married her for her youth, and he admits it as well as you'd expect him to, given that he's played by Claude Rains, who is as great in a film noir as you would imagine: all charm and pleasantness but with plenty hiding behind the surface.

These are gripping scenes, written well and performed superbly, where we dance with the dynamics of it all. All in about ten minutes, Jeff finds out Margo's been lying to her, leaves, comes back to save her when she screams, finds that Frederick will let her go to be with him but wants to warn him about what he'd be taking on, when it all turns violent. Before we know it, Jeff's been hit around the head with a poker, Frederick is dead, and Margo has got a literally stunned and concussed Jeff into all sorts of trouble running away. While Frederick and Jeff both seem to be used to being in control, it's Margo who is running the show here and we don't know what she's really up to.

I didn't know Faith Domergue before this film and she's not the sort of actress I'd usually appreciate, being far more Joan Crawford than Bette Davis, but she's exactly what the part calls for, almost the definition of femme fatale. We suspect from the outset, but we're kept waiting for the tidbits of truth. The rest of the cast are fine, including Maureen O'Sullivan, Philip Van Zandt and Tol Avery.

It's a Robert Mitchum picture though and the more I see them, the more I appreciate him. He was especially good in film noir and while I may have seen the best ones, I'm rating them very highly thus far. He started out in a bit part in Hitchcock's Saboteur, which is hardly a bad place to start, and after few very busy years in mostly uncredited roles, he found his way into film noir. I tend to really dislike Vincente Minnelli's movies but Undercurrent is a peach and I obviously wasn't the first person to see that, because they keep on coming: Crossfire, Out of the Past, this one, and on to The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. I'd never even heard of this one before but that's a good hint that there may be other hidden gems in there too.

Hellboy (2004) Guillermo Del Toro

We open with a narration by John Hurt talking about what makes a man, then switch to some Scots island that looks like a deformed lizard. It's 1944 and the all American GIs are fighting the Nazis, and not just any Nazis but the Thule Occult Society, led by a freaky Nazi in a really cool gasmask. After all the Nazis always had the best uniforms. Here they also have Grigori Rasputin (yes, that one) who is using old Lovecraftian books to summon something from beyond the ruins of this Scots abbey. Of course the good guys have Trevor 'Broom' Bruttenholm, paranormal researcher.

The opening scenes are great, in a very exploitation way. No, they don't make much sense from any other standpoint, but you just can't go wrong with a weird Nazi occultist having blades extend from his arms to fight American soldiers while Rasputin gets sucked into the void. From an exploitation standpoint, you really can't do much better than that, and that's just the start of the movie. While things go through the portal to the other side, of course something comes through to this side too. That something is Hellboy, who soon grows up to be Ron Perlman. Tell me this isn't awesome.

Well I've seen this one before and I didn't. I'd seen some of director Guillermo Del Toro's work and I'd read eight or nine volumes of the Hellboy graphic novels by Mike Mignola. I loved Hellboy but I didn't love Hellboy for some reason or other. Now I've seen even more Del Toro, including the intriguing Cronos and the astounding Pan's Labyrinth and it's high time I took another look at Hellboy.

Back in the modern day, Broom is running the supposedly nonexistent Bureau for Paranormal Research, which was founded by Roosevelt and hides behind its Waste Management Services front somewhere in New Jersey. At the bureau, Hellboy is just one of the guys. He's red, he has a huge armoured right hand, filed down horns, a tail and a samurai top knot, but he's just one of the guys. So is Abe Sapien, a weird psychic fish creature with a great memory, discovered the day Lincoln was shot, and probably many more.

Ron Perlman was born to play this part and Del Toro has wanted to film him in it for a long, long time. I've read a great interview with Perlman where he talke about it, pointing out that the highly successful Blade II was, to Del Toro, nothing but a practice run and an audition for Hellboy. every movement he makes is perfect, every glimpse of character is a peach. Every line is delivered wonderfully and exactly as it should be and Hellboy may just be the most quotable performance ever seen on film. Even crossing a road is wonderfully done. I may be a huge Ron Perlman fan anyway but this part was his destiny and he's up to every moment of it.

The rest of the cast are damn fine too, even if Karel Roden plays Rasputin like Gary Oldman and Selma Blair plays the wildly talented firestarter Liz Sherman like Winona Ryder. John Hurt is wonderful as the aging and secretly sick Broom who still has a fight left in him. Doug Jones manages to instil character in Abe Sapien even though he's well hidden behind some serious creature design, just like in Pan's Labyrinth where he played the faun. Ladislav Beran isn't far off being as successful as Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, even though he doesn't get the opportunity to speak. Rupert Evans is the 'normal' guy thrown into the middle of it all, as an FBI agent reassigned to the Bureau, and he's fine.

The dry humour outstrips the effects, which are very good indeed but somehow just off perfect: some of the creatures are a little too rubber suity and some of the other effects are a little too effecty. The fantasy comic book world we're drawn into is a little overdone, well beyond any level of believability we can apply to it and not even consistent within its own framework. It's all great fun and very very cool indeed, but it's a step beyond a step beyond, and it ends on a whole slew of disappointing and cliched melodrama.

There's a lot of Lovecraft here, 'cyclopean' and 'tentacled' being words that spring readily to mind, but there's some solid cinematic heritage too. It isn't just the obvious Men in Black type thing, it's Foreign Correspondent, Pit and the Pendulum and The Big Red One as well and probably a few that I missed. It's obviously a labour of love for Del Toro, who is a huge comic book junkie and it's just a shame that with all his passion and his talent, he didn't do Hellboy as much justice as Robert Rodriguez did to Sin City. I upped my rating, but not much. There are still some major flaws, but I'm more and more eager for the sequel.

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Voodoo Island (1957) Reginald Le Borg

Rebroadcast on TCM as part of the Screened Out programme of films important to the depiction of gays on film, this is understandably not a gay themed film. It's a horror movie featuring Boris Karloff, a Polynesian cult and a host of carnivorous plants. It has a standard horror title and a theremin laden soundtrack by exotica composer Les Baxter and there's even a part for Adam West whose voice is unmistakable even when he's languishing without a credit.

The overtly gay character is actually a lesbian designer called Claire Winter played by Jean Engstrom who obviously got on well with Karloff as she appeared in a couple of episodes of his Thriller show on TV within a couple of years. I saw the lesbian overtones but nothing like I was expecting from the introduction, and it was notable that one of the plants got more action from Beverly Tyler's character than Winter did, latching on to one of her breasts as if it meant it.

Karloff is the lead of course. He's a debunker called Philip Knight, a sort of fifties version of James Randi, complete with a television show and a string of successes. He's sprightly for seventy but then he was 44 when fame caught up with him as the most recognisable monster ever seen on the cinema screen, way back in 1931. Here he's investigating a man named Mitchell, who has apparently been cursed and appears mostly comatose yet mildly mobile. He and his associates return him to the island on which he was first discovered.

There's some other subplot about a rich man building a hotel on the island but most of it seems to follow them exploring around the island, being herded somewhere by the natives hiding in the bushes and getting picked off slowly by the local carnivorous flora. They all have their own little stories too. Karloff is always confident that there's a scientific explanation for everything; Elisha Cook (here without the Jr) gets to be nervous as only he could be; Rhodes Reason has a past to face up to but still manages to put on a fair Han Solo grin on occasion; Beverly Tyler turns from machine into woman; and Murvyn Vye is the money man completely out of place in this environment, unable to even lend assistance when a little native girl gets swallowed up by a plant.

In fact there really isn't much to pay attention to. Karloff was worth so much more than this and the most fun thing about it is wondering just what Mystery Science Theater 3000 would do to it. The story is about as believable as native chief Friedrich von Ledebur's command of the English language. At least a year earlier as Queequeg in Moby Dick he looked the part better! The little voodoo dolls are very cute and the dialogue is terrible. Karloff gets to say things like 'they might slaughter us to death' and even 'we must stick together closer than ever tonight' when they're all tied together with string. He must have had a great time laughing about it when the cameras weren't rolling.

Monday 18 June 2007

Pit and the Pendulum (1961) Roger Corman

Francis Barnard can't get a ride all the way to the imposing manse of Don Medina, which is hardly surprising given that this is one of Roger Corman's loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and Don Medina is played by Vincent Price. He's travelled a long way for the early sixteenth century to visit the grave of his sister Elizabeth, who has died of some mysterious illness, and he's suspicious of everything. Apparently she died of fright after becoming obsessed by the torture chamber of the Don's father, Don Sebastian, a notorious inquisitor who used it regularly. Barnard doubts the cause of death but then doubts creep in as to whether she's even dead at all.

This is slow and talky, as if it was sourced not just from Poe's short story but more directly from a radio adaptation for something like The Price of Fear, Vincent Price's own slot of the macabre, but it warms up as time passes and the film picks up depth. The visuals are perfectly adequate, and in fact look great because of the sets and costumes, but none of it really directs us. It's all just eye candy to back up the stories that the characters tell. Price has precisely the voice for it, of course, and the theatricality too, but Luana Anders doesn't have the depth to back up her quiet and sincere clarity. She looks very right here as Don Medina's sister but lacks the passion she had a couple of years later in Coppola's Dementia 13.

There aren't a lot of others to make up a cast here. After all, this is a Roger Corman film and the one thing Corman will never be known for is spending money. John Kerr is Barnard and he finds his place in the role, though it takes a while. The initial scenes with him opposite Anders are not examples of great acting, and he soon specialised in television work rather than film, making only nine movies in total and only one after this. Antony Carbone is Doctor Leon who cared for Elizabeth and for Don Medina himself, and he seems remarkably too American to play what is presumably a Spanish character, given that he was born in Italy.

That leaves the other horror icon of the bunch, who plays the elusive Elizabeth. She made many horror movies over the decades but is probably still best known for the one she made before this: Black Sunday aka The Mask of Satan aka a whole slew of other English language titles given to an Italian film called La Maschera del Demonio, made by the wildly inconsistent Mario Bava. It's far too long since I've seen that film but then it's far too long since I've seen this one too! She gets a great entrance that's well worth waiting for , even though it's marred by Vincent Price hamming it up. He's always far better as the man in control than the man being scared out of it. Thankfully we get some good scenes of that side of things too!

Sure, the pit and the pendulum really don't have much to do with things but this was a Corman picture. We have Vincent Price going charismatically insane and a great ending. What else could we want?

The Mysterious Doctor (1943) Benjamin Stoloff

Dr Frederick Holmes is on a walking holiday through Cornwall, but the clouds are low and the visibility is poor. He gets a lift to The Running Horse pub at Morgan's Head from a travelling pedlar and is warned a plenty by the horseman to beware. It's not landlord Simon Tewkesbury he should beware of, even though he got his face blown off by dynamite and so wanders around in a mediaeval executioner's hood, it's the headless ghost of Black Morgan. Dr Holmes quickly gets treated to the ghost story and naturally doesn't believe it, but decides to hang around to see the mine where the original events that led to it took place. That makes him suspicious to the locals who don't like strangers at the best of times, let alone times when the country's at war and someone has parachuted into the vicinity.

I've seen a lot of films made during the Second World War. A lot of them were English and thus predominantly war films, while the Americans seemed to ignore the war entirely for a while before making up for it with a vengeance. What makes this one most enjoyable is the fact that while it's a patriotic war movie alright, with Nazi agents parachuting into Cornwall, but it's an old time horror yarn too and that's a refreshing change. Putting a decent cast and crew in charge of a movie mixing Nazi agents, haunted mines and headless ghosts just can't go wrong. Executioner's hoods, village idiots and decent accents can't hurt either.

John Loder is the lead, Sir Henry Leland, and I've already watched him earlier today in Gideon's Way, made fifteen years later. Dr Holmes is Lester Matthews, who I don't know at all, but Eleanor Parker is the leading lady and while she's hardly the most famous actress of the time, she's no minor name either with no less than three Oscar nominations to her credit, none of which were for a film she made in 1966 called The Oscar. I remember her best for The King and Four Queens in which she played opposite Clark Gable in one of his underrated later films but she's good here too, having more courage than most of the men in the village.

I'm sure the story could have ben improved with more attention and more money, but it really ought to have been Scooby Doo material and it just isn't. Instead it's a worthy little B movie that whistles along in less than an hour and kept my attention throughout, trying to work out who was the spy and who the ghost (I was half right). The village idiot could have been more consistent and the sets a little more varied, but they didn't look like plaster of paris and I've seen a lot worse. I was looking forward to a guilty pleasure here but, while this is no undying classic, it's much more of a guilt free pleasure than I expected. It does play a lot like a decent episode of a bad yet particularly patriotic serial though.

Sunday 17 June 2007

Gideon's Day (1958) John Ford

George Gideon was a very English policeman, working for Scotland Yard, as made famous in the novels by John Creasey under the pseudonym of J J Marric. He first appeared in Gideon's Day in 1955 and that's the British title of the film, it being renamed for the American audience to Gideon of Scotland Yard. Quite why that would make a difference I don't know, but there was obviously an attempt to break the American market, not least by choosing John Ford of all people as the director and probably by shearing the film down by 27 minutes to a more respectable 91 minutes.

Everything else is very English, from the admirable casting of Jack Hawkins as Gideon to the far less admirable choice of London Bridge is Falling Down as the soundtrack to the opening credits. The film follows Gideon's day, as you'd expect, more like an episode of a crime series than a standalone story, starting with his lack of ability to keep his family out of his bathroom, through suspending dirty officers to investigating the crimes of the day quick enough for him to get to his daughter's concert that evening.

There are many plot threads so none of them take a huge amount of attention or much actual investigation, but they're all treated with the respect due, just as the actors cast are of the level of quality required for the parts. Hawkins is at the peak of his game here, a year after The Bridge on the River Kwai and one before Ben-Hur, but he does a solid job of not stealing everyone else's thunder and leaving them free to do their thing. Dianne Foster's is the other name on the title screen, but it's others who shine most, all in character roles. Partly it's because she doesn't appear for over an hour but mostly it's because this is a film about little stories and hers is just one of them, if admittedly the biggest.

Cyril Cusack is a small time crook who only squeals on dope peddlers because his daughter died to drug abuse, Laurence Naismith is a compulsive sex murderer freed from hospital who hates who he is, Jack Watling is a priest seen as a sissy but in reality a former commando who doesn't want to use his heroic past to gain popularity. Most of them have small parts but they make the most of them. Andrew Ray is funniest as an committed young policeman who has a knack of giving high up cops parking tickets but who manages to get praise anyway for catching a murderer. Marjorie Rhodes is especially fine as the mother of one of that murderer's victims, because her two short scenes are starkly different: one joyous and welcoming and the other in deep shock.

I recognise some of the actors: John Le Mesurier is a prosecutor who gets a couple of lines in a short scene that serves only to highlight how much of Gideon's time is wasted, even as it's never enough to cover what he needs to do. There's a special credit introducing Anna Massey, John Ford's goddaughter, in her debut film as Gideon's daughter, but she only has a small part. At the end of the day though, it's the story that steals the show, all the many little stories that make up the big one. I have some John Creasey's in a box somewhere. I'll have to investigate them.

Saturday 16 June 2007

The Finger Points (1931) John Francis Dillon

One of the drawbacks of catching up with a particular actor's career is that it gets harder and harder to find a new film that has so far eluded me. When I started delving into cinematic history in 2004 I was surprised to find that I'd seen precisely zero Clark Gable movies, one of the biggest hints that I needed to delve in the first place. He was the king of Hollywood in the thirties, actually crowned such in a ceremony with Myrna Loy as the queen. Four years in and I now have 53 Clark Gable movies behind me, which is two out of every three. Of the 27 I have left to see, 11 of them are from his early silent days, 1926 and earlier, in his first attempt to crack Hollywood. So there's only 16 sound films yet to scratch off my list, and this is one of them.

He's fifth on the cast list, behind Fay Wray, Regis Toomey, Robert Elliott and the star, Richard Barthelmess, one of the most fascinating of the great precode actors and one who seems to be annoyingly hard to track down. The story is partly by John Monk Saunders, Fay Wray's husband at the time, who wrote Wings, the first Best Picture Oscar (Best Production in those days) and an Oscar for himself soon after for his work on The Dawn Patrol. He specialised in aviation stories but this one was a gangster tale, as was so common in the precode thirties, loosely based on the true story of Jake Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who was on Al Capone's payroll but who was about to spill it all to the cops.

Here the reporter is Breckenridge Lee, played by Barthelmess and known as Breck. He arrives in the big city with a glowing recommendation from the editor of the Savannah Constitution whose word is trusted by Wheeler, the man in charge of The Press, the biggest of the big city papers, with the tag of 'the world's best newspaper'. Wheeler puts him to work on the city desk, where he finds his feet working on a new press crusade against gang rule. He exposes the Sphinx Club, a new casino run by gangsters.

It's slow and clunky, in a completely different league to Gable's later work playing journalists and even when compared to other early press stories of the era like The Front Page. Barthelmess is fine, juggling mild manners and naivete with honesty and risk taking, firing the opening shots in the paper's gang fighting crusade and getting roughed up because of it. Soon the city gets to him and he changes, morphing into what he would never had expected on day one. Barthelmess is up to the task, though he underplays his toughness and cynicism. Unfortunately there's too much tame humour, too much office romance between Barthelmess and Fay Wray's character, Marcia Collins, and too little actual substance.

Gable is a hood, of course, Louis J Blanco by name. Officially he runs a novelty business but really he takes care of business wherever it needs taking care of. He figures out an angle to team up with Lee to shake down the club owners in return for immunity from press interference. It's when Gable gets involved, especially in scenes with Barthelmess, that the story comes to life. When they're not on screen, the whole thing slows down to a crawl. Much of that has to do with the lack of a soundtrack, most scenes being silent other than speech, but it would have played much better even if all they did to change it was to wind the film twice as fast.

The Cat's-Paw (1934) Sam Taylor

Harold Lloyd is Ezekiel Cobb, an intelligent and educated young man, but one that has grown up in his father's missionary village in China and so is more than a little lacking in the ways of the world. He travels back to the States to the city of Stockport to find a mother for his future children, but gets caught up instead in the grand schemes of crooks. He's come to stay with the Rev Junius Withers, whose church has financed his father's mission, but Withers has been conned into standing for mayor on the reform ticket. It's all a show to convince people that there's a real election on, when in reality it's all orchestrated by gangsters like Jake Mayo, in whom Cobb unwisely puts his trust.

Lloyd is funny here, though it's certainly a different twist on his usual naive everyman. He's dubbed terribly into Chinese for the odd scenes that call for it but his awkwardness is contagious. While he only accepts the candidacy on the basis that he'd never win, he unintentionally shifts public opinion massively in his favour in one hilarious evening in his dance hall which is a Harold Lloyd masterpiece. It's a physical scene but not one that calls for outrageous stunts.

He's ably assisted by a seriously good cast of character actors. Una Merkel, who always had a quick tongue and a wonderfully dismissive character, is a great foil for him. the cast of gangsters, including such regulars as Nat Pendleton and Grant Mitchell, are outgunned by George Barbier as Jake Mayo. He's a blustery Irishman who Cobb likes, seeing him as an honest man because he's honest about his dishonesty, and he dominates every scene he's in, only Lloyd managing to perpetually take the wind out of his sails.

It's interesting how race was used here. While there's liberal use of racial epithets like 'chink' that are considered offensive today, the Chinese culture and the philosophy of L'ing Po is treated with respect. In fact it's treated with a lot more respect than the American culture that Cobb finds himself transported to. In fact when one of the western looking characters comes to confess but apparently speaks only German, one of the dumb looking stereotypical Chinese henchmen turns out to speak German too. It's even highly noticeable that some, not all, by any means, but quite a few of the Chinese characters are played by Chinese actors.

For a little while this one looked like it was going to be embarrassing, along the same sort of lines that so many modern films attempt humour purely by means of the lead character being as big an idiot as possible. However while Cobb appears to be an idiot, he soon proves himself otherwise and the ending is as much fun as it is completely non-viable. Another entry in what seems to be a consistently decent, if not particularly outstanding, and certainly underrated sound career for possibly the most consistent of the silent comedians.

Mad About Men (1954) Ralph Thomas

Glynis Johns is back for the sequel to Miranda and this time she's in colour, a very bright Technicolor at that, which makes the makeup that shouldn't be there at all far more obvious. Johns isn't the only member of the original cast to reprise her role, Margaret Rutherford returning as Nurse Carey and continuing to steal every sceene she's ever in. The leading man though is now Donald Sinden, who is so young I didn't even recognise him until I got to hear his voice long enough. I know him as a much older man, but here he's a 31 year old actor playing a rich man called Jeff Saunders. He first meets Johns as Caroline Trewella.

Caroline is a schoolteacher who travels back to Smugglers Rest, the family home in Cornwall. It's nestled above the sea of course, and underneath Miranda and her fellow mermaid Berengaria sing songs to wake everyone up at night. Miranda persuades Caroline to let her take her place for two weeks and of course she turns everything upside down in no time flat, changing her fiancee, saving the house and causing no end of chaos. It's as much of a riot as the first film and Margaret Rutherford continues to prove that she had more fun making movies than anyone else in the history of cinema. Here she dances around like she was a young girl rather than a large woman of 62, overacting outrageously.

Mad About Men is just as much of a riot and just as much fun as the original but it's a lot more clumsy. The original was fluff, to be frank, but it transcended it's fluffiness by virtue of great performances, a hilarious script and an outrageous sense of the risque. This one is pure fluff though without any transcendence or even any real attempt to make the story believable. At least the original was consistent throughout.

This one takes a little while to get moving but ends up reasonably funny and even more risque, with whole conversations full of clever cattiness and double entendres. It even has Glynis Johns actually singing instead of being badly dubbed singing opera from the balcony of Covent Garden. However the characters, beyond Miranda herself, aren't a patch on the original film and mostly have little to do except flavour the background just a little. They don't have the depth to become anything more.

Dora Bryan, who I know from Last of the Summer Wine forty or so years later, is mostly tiresome as Berengaria as her character is merely childish. Peter Martyn is outrageously stiff as Caroline's fiancee, completely dull and obsessed with not spending money. Nicholas Phipps has fun as a moustached colonel and Anne Crawford is subtly spot on as his fiancee, two years before her unfortunate death to leukemia at 36. There's also Irene Handl, Deryck Guyler and Joan Hickson as Caroline's housekeeper, but none of them can bring depth to characters that don't have any. This one belongs almost entirely to Glynis Johns, with outrageous Margaret Rutherford a distant second and nobody else really in the running.

Friday 15 June 2007

Miranda (1948) Ken Annakin

Well to do Dr Paul Martin wants to go fishing in Cornwall but his wife doesn't want anything to do with either Cornwall or fishing. He goes anyway, relishing the concept of a bachelor holiday, but doesn't quite end up with what he expects. What seems like ten seconds after he gets there, he catches a mermaid with a huge tail (by Dunlop) called Miranda, played by Glynis Johns. Actually she catches him because she's lonely and headstrong and decides that he's the one for her. She also decides that he's the one who can take her onto land, as she's always wanted to see Buckingham Palace and Billingsgate Market and especially go to the opera.

Glynis Johns is hardly a minor name to play Miranda, and she's a good part of the reason the film succeeds, especially given that it rockets along to a speedy finish after only eighty minutes. Unlike most films that suffer from being too long, this one suffers from not being long enough. She later became immortalised in film by playing the children's mother in Mary Poppins, and in musicals through Stephen Sondheim writing Send in the Clowns especially for her. She won a Tony for that role, in A Little Night Music. She's a joy to watch here, but sh's hardly the only one.

Griffith Jones isn't bad as Dr Martin and he warms up to the role, but he's consistently outshone by all the women in the film: not just by the outrageously flirtatious nymphomaniac mermaid, but also by his haughty wife Clare, played by the highly talented Googie Withers; the eccentric nurse he hires to take care of Miranda, played by the awesome (and surprisingly thin) Margaret Rutherford; and even by the chauffeur's girlfriend Betty, also the maid, played by Yvonne Owen.

In fact the best male part goes not to the lead man but either to a dismissive fashion designer called Manell or to Charles the chauffeur, who is a sad and easily flummoxed character played by David Tomlinson, who also appeared in Mary Poppins married to Glynis Johns! Just to add to such confusion, there are a couple of real life married couples here: Margaret Rutherford's husband Stringer Davis has a bit part as a museum attendant, and John McCallum, who appears as a friend of the Martins, is in real life married to Mrs Martin, Googie Withers. He also reminds very much of Bruce Campbell.

The source of the story is a play by Peter Blackmore, who thankfully turned it into the screenplay, thus preserving the joyous humour. My guess is that the cast had to fight for their roles because it seems that most of them are trying hard and just failing to stop laughing. I get the impression that the set must have been a riot. Splash had humour but it wasn't remotely as funny or as uplifting as this. It's not a perfect film by any means, mostly due to the lack of length and the cheap rear projections, but I haven't laughed out loud so much at a film in a long, long while.

I'm also going to have a guilty pleasure for a long time wondering just how badly this would have been massacred in the Hollywood of 1948 under a Production Code which wouldn't have allowed any of this risque behaviour.

Wednesday 13 June 2007

Murder at the Gallop (1963) George Pollock

Miss Marple was a justly famous fictional detective who sprang from the pen of Dame Agatha Christie and it's only natural that Hollywood would pay attention and turn some of the stories into movies. Unfortunately Hollywood wasn't very good at translating books into films and sometimes indulged in the most bizarre behaviour that could only lead us to wonder what planet some studio executives lived on.

As a great example, by the time they got to this, the second Miss Marple film, they decided to base it instead on After the Funeral, an Hercule Poirot novel, a completely different yet equally famous fictional detective from Christie's pen. While massacring Miss Marple's character for the filmgoing public and probably upsetting every one of the millions of Christie fans worldwide in the process, they indulged in the ultimate irony of having Miss Marple herself come out with a line like 'Agatha Christie should be compulsory reading for the police force.' Stunning.

While collecting money for the Reformed Criminals Assistance League, Miss Marple knocks on the door of old Mr Enderby, notorious curmudgeon. The door is open and old Enderby promptly falls down the stairs in front of them, ending up dead. While taking a look, possibly the worst leaping cat I've ever seen on film leaps out and points out in no uncertain terms to Miss Marple that he was murdered, because she naturally knows that the notoriously reclusive old Enderby is morbidly afraid of cats and has a bad heart. Just as naturally Inspector Craddock doesn't believe a word of it so there's nothing to it but for Miss Marple to investigate herself.

It's a testament to the talent of Margaret Rutherford, with occasional help from her real life husband Stringer Davis as sidekick Mr Stringer, that this is huge fun. Otherwise it would seem to be a cross between heresy and a poor attempt at humour, though thrown on top of a pretty decent mystery. Rutherford is completely not Miss Marple anyway, even when the Miss Marple story she's in is really based on a real Miss Marple story, like this one's predecessor, Murder She Said. One of the other actors in that film, Joan Hickson, later played Miss Marple on television and played her far closer to how she should have been played. To be fair, Christie herself enjoyed Rutherford's characterisation and even dedicated a novel to her, and to be brutally honest it's nigh on impossible not to enjoy anything Margaret Rutherford ever did.

Here she has another great English institution as a co-star, though Robert Morley seems to be far more interested in playing a statue than anything else for a while. He sounds awesome and becomes truly alive the moment horseriding comes into a conversation. Putting Rutherford and Morley into the same film guarantees at least plenty to enjoy, however poor the rest of the film might be. Katya Douglas, James Villers and Robert Urquhart are perfectly fine as some of old Enderby's beneficiaries, Morley and a quickly deceased sister being the others. Flora Robson is also admirably good as that sister's companion. One of them, of course, is the murderer.

It was never ever going to be really possible to notice anyone but Rutherford and Morley though. They both shine, Rutherford especially in what was a seriously good year for her. She started it out appearing in The Mouse on the Moon and ended it with a Best Supporting Oscar for her work in The VIPs. This film can't be fairly discussed in the same breath but it's so much fun watching her that it can't be dismissed outright.

Monday 11 June 2007

The Desperate Hours (1955) William Wyler

The Hilliards are a pretty realistic and well adjusted family. Young Ralphie wants to be called Ralph because he thinks he's all grown up now, Cindy wants to get married but her beau hasn't asked yet, and Dan and Ellie are your typical fifties suburban married couple. Unfortunately their domestic peace is invaded by an escaped gangster called Glenn Griffin and his cronies. Given that Griffin is an ageing Humphrey Bogart in his last tough guy role, you can imagine the terror that they bring into the Hillards' world.

There are a lot of very cool touches to the relationship between the three hoods. Griffin is looking old and tired but he does his best to keep control and dominate everyone around him. His brother Hal, played by Dewey Martin, is younger and more sympathetic; he initially seems content to play along but really carries a resentment in him of his more powerful brother. The third of the trio is the wild card. Robert Middleton plays Sam Kobish as half child, abrupt and quick to temper, and resentful of being the only one of them without a gun. There are dynamics going on between all three of them and we get to enjoy watching them unfold.

The Hilliards have just as many. Ralphie wants to play it tough and either take them on or escape to get help, but his dad is tough in a very different way. He's afraid and not afraid to admit he's afraid but there are things he won't stand for, regardless of the consequences. He gets a few opportunities to try things but he's very careful as to what he might be able to get away with. Ellie and Cindy are defiant in very feminine ways. Again there are dynamics between the four of them and we get to enjoy them too. This is definitely a clever script, one to pay attention to. Rather than watch and think how awful the situation is for the Hilliards, we're watching and thinking what we would do in their place.

Bogie is excellent, though it's a little hard believing him in such a tough role given his obvious age and condition. Within two years he'd be dead from cancer. Opposing him as Dan Hilliard is Fredric March, nine years older than I've ever seen him before so that he looks more like George C Scott than Fredric March. I know him as a young man far better than an old one, but he lost none of his power in the 24 years since his first Oscar playing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde back in the early precode era. He has a difficult role here, certainly the most difficult in the film, and the film and the tension build along with his performance.

Nobody lets the side down though, not the actors, from young Richard Eyer as Ralphie to those playing his family, the escaped convicts or the police. Director William Wyler never seemed to warrant any easy descriptions of his career and 'solid' is the closest I can come up with. He does a good job here, well away from the sort of movies I've seen him direct in the past. He knew both Bogart (from Dead End) and Fredric March (from The Best Years of Their Lives for which they both won Oscars). He does well with both of them here, much later in all of their careers.

The Fireman (1916) Charles Chaplin

There was a bizarre genre back in the twenties called the silent musical, in which you'd see everything you'd expect to see in a musical, just without the songs in the song and dance routines. This appeared to be an early example for a while, like Busby Berkeley choreographing the Keystone Kops, but then it turned into an effects film instead.

Chaplin had worked out the humorous possibilities in showing film backwards and the technique gets used well here. Unfortunately every two or three seconds for the first half of the film, someone's ass gets kicked, usually Charlie's, and that got tired very quickly indeed. In fact that got tired quite a few films before this one.

There is a subplot though. Charlie works for the fire crew, rather than being a tramp for a change, and while he fights with Eric Campbell, the foreman, Campbell puts the wheels in motion for a new fight. A rich man, played by prolific director Lloyd Bacon, promises him his daughter Edna Purviance's hand if he'll only let his house burn down so that he can claim on the insurance.
Naturally things don't go quite as they were planned, with Charlie getting in the midst of exactly what you'd expect. This has its moments but it's more of a throwback to his 1915 level of humour rather than what he was beginning to achieve in 1916.

The Floorwalker (1916) Charles Chaplin

'Chapter 3: The dynamic manager of The Floorwalker' reads the highly confusing title card. Could this really be part of a much longer film? Well, the box set I'm watching all these Chaplin films from keeps listing his shorts from this period at around 30 minutes in length but they all seem to be more round twenty, so I'm sure there's missing material, but apparently this was yet another short with the feature length films yet to come.

Something is defintiely going on at some unnamed department store. The manager is upset and the boss, identifiable of course through having more outrageous facial hair than anyone else, is livid. Then in walks Charlie and starts destroying the place through apparent clumsiness and well timed slapstick. Given that it's 1916 a lot of it isn't particularly funny but it's well done for its type and there's what is apparently the first example of an escalator in film. Chaplin naturally has a field day with it, in exactly the way you'd expect if you'd seen him fail to navigate stairs that don't move in previous films.

Soon we discover the real issue. Every customer seems to be a shoplifter and half the contents of the store quickly vanish. Doing the same thing on an even larger scale are the men in charge, and given that the floor manager is the spitting image of Charlie, we get to play a great comedy of errors. The coherence here disappears quickly but in its place comes such a riot of gags that some are bound to work. In short, it's sheer anarchy and I'm sure that the Marx Brothers were paying attention. I've certainly seen some of these routines in their movies too.

Saturday 9 June 2007

Sea of Love (1989) Harold Becker

Al Pacino is Detective Frank Keller, celebrating twenty years with New York City's finest by running a sting to catch a bunch of hoods by inviting them to meet the Yankees. One of them, surprisingly, is a young but entirely recognisable Samuel L Jackson, credited simply as 'Black Guy'. Keller has a good soul though, but he also has all the stereotypical issues that veteran cops tend to have: an ex-wife (who's now married to his partner of all people), a cigarette in his mouth while in bed and a bottle of Jack Daniels on the bedside table.

He's also realistically good, far from infallible but full of insight and committed to his work, much like Pacino himself, showing us here just why he's commonly regarded as one of the greatest actors of today. I personally find his work often overdone, usually in his highest rated films like Scarface and Serpico. I much prefer him the way he is here or in something unjustly overlooked like Glengarry Glen Ross. Here he's a joy to watch, never overacting, never supercop, just a good one who knows his job and works hard to get results. He's good drunk, he's good tired and he's good when he realises that he's just made a mistake. That's good acting.

Anyway, Keller is investigating a murder when another detective, played by John Goodman, lets him know that he's been working a similar case in Queens. Detectives Keller and Sherman team up and become a great double act tracking down the killer, who seems to be female and apparently picking her victims from the poetry the victims write in lonelyhearts ads.

Beyond Pacino and Goodman, who are both superb, there are a number of other excellent actors here who don't disappoint. William Hickey is always going to be known as the old don in Prizzi's Honor, a part he was truly unforgettable in, but I'm rapidly finding that he's just as good whatever part he's playing. Here he's Pacino's dad, the one that provides the poem for his fake lonelyhearts ad. Michael Rooker is great, as he always is. I know Patricia Barry, formerly Patricia White, and I know Christine Estabrook. Most of all I know Ellen Barkin who Keller gets tangled up with, even though she's a suspect and rapidly becoming a strong one.

I've been an Ellen Barkin fan for years, not least because she has a unique and unconventional beauty that made her one of the most sensual women to appear in film, certainly in colour. Here she's both at the peak of her charms in her mid thirties and adorned with long blonde hair and a red leather jacket which can't fail. She looks just as good in a business suit though and the way she moves her mouth still makes me melt. She was awesome in The Big Easy in 1987, both as far as looks and talent, in Switch in 1991 and in Man Trouble in 1992. The only one from that era that let me down was Siesta in 1987, but everything about that film let me down. I'm happy to find that this one's probably the best of the bunch, though The Big Easy, which is less serious, less deep and less substantial, is probably always going to be my favourite.

This Sporting Life (1963) Lindsay Anderson

My mother used to loathe the kitchen sink dramas of the fifties and sities and this is a great example. Far from the traditional manor houses and landed gentry, it's a tale of miners and rugby league players, and it's set up north in Yorkshire rather than the south east of England. It seems strange that a film so rooted in the lower classes and the grim realities of life should start out with a mildly avant garde Roberto Gerhard soundtrack, but everything else is as down and dirty as it can be.

The key player is Frank Machin, a temperamental young miner who plays rugby league well enough to try out for the City team. He's also a tough guy who doesn't hold back for anyone or anything, taking his revenge on an opposing player who tries it on in a headstrong but calculating manner. He's tough on the field but he's tough off it too, following the paths that need to be followed, regardless of what hardships may be found on the way. One of those paths is getting closer to his landlady, Mrs Hammond, who was widowed a year earlier and refuses to have any fun at all. As Machin says, 'she put up the shutters and stopped living'.

Machin is played powerfully by Richard Harris, a notorious hell raiser in real life so a natural for the half suppressed rage that Machin seems to thrive on. I know Harris, but apparently mostly from later years and I didn't even recognise him here. He looks far more like Marlon Brando than Richard Harris and his performance reminds far more of Brando's early roles than anything else I've seen. Given that warmed up to this one by playing third fiddle to Brando and Trevor Howard in Mutiny on the Bounty, maybe that shouldn't be too surprising. Brando seemed to have a knack for changing the perspectives of others.

Backing him up in This Sporting Life are a whole slew of people I know from British TV, most notably William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who, but also Colin Blakely, Arthur Lowe and Leonard Rossiter. I didn't even recognise Frank Windsor, but then I know him from shows far later in life than the ones he was famous for in 1967. Mrs Hammond is Rachel Roberts, who I don't know at all. I have seen her before, but given that the only time may well have been in Murder on the Orient Express, in which she was the least famous of a huge cast of stars, it probably isn't that surprising that I don't remember her. She has some great presence here though and there's some magic in the odd moments that she allows life to creep into her features.

She's obviously Welsh though, and given that Harris is Irish and his accent slips out occasionally, they make a strange pair to be playing in a thoroughly Yorkshire story. The other problems are also with the approach: the soundtrack doesn't always seem to fit and the non linear way we're given the story jars a little with the blatant 'go out and get it' honesty of the characters and the situations. The acting is flawless though and the film has a serious power to it that is undeniable.

Friday 8 June 2007

Cronos (1993) Guillermo Del Toro

In 1536 an alchemist, obsessed with finding the secret of immortality and he may just have done it. He invented the Cronos device and four hundred years later was found in the rubble of a collapsed building with a pierced chest. He was the colour of marble but was still alive, at least that far, and when the contents of his house were sold at auction, the Cronos device was never mentioned. It turns up again, of course, in the antique shop of Jesús Gris, hidden inside the statue of an archangel. Angel de la Guardia picks it up for his dying uncle who is in possession of the alchemist's manuscripts. He's been buying up every archangel he could find because he knows that somewhere inside one of them is the Cronos device.

Given that Angel is being played by the unique Ron Perlman, it's a mysterious purchase. Perlman has a ball here, working well in both languages in this English and Spanish production. He seems a little out of place but he relishes in it and is funny as hell instilling character into the role. This is far a comedy but it has more than a little humour in it, appropriate and otherwise, while breathing life into the old vampire story. Federico Luppi is a fine lead, Claudio Brook and Margarita Isabel are also decent, and young Tamara Shanath is only lacking in direct comparison to young Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth, but it's Perlman's show all the way. No wonder he ended up in so many of Guillermo Del Toro's movies!

What Angel doesn't end up with after recovering the archangel is the Cronos device itself, which after being wound sprouts clawed feet and tears a hole in Jesús's hand. With a little trial and error he discovers how it works and soon also discovers its rejuvenating powers even before the de la Guardias trash his store and make its value obvious. From then on it becomes even more bizarre, as they persevere in recovering it to save Dieter de la Guardia's life and Jesús perseveres in blocking them, at no small cost to himself.

This is the most recent entry in a list called 100 Best Movies of the Cinema of Mexico, published in 1994 by a Mexican magazine called Somos. It wouldn't be the most recent in a newer list but it serves well as the future of a nation's cinema. Guillermo Del Toro has proved himself to be an innovative and versatile filmmaker, along with other more recent names like Alfonso Cuarón and the future of Mexican film looks bright, whatever language its filmmakers choose to use. I've seen three previous entries, all made by the then Spanish expatriot Luis Buñuel and as much as I'm a confirmed Buñuel fan, it's good to widen my Mexican horizons, especially as I live in West Phoenix and have no real excuse not to!

There's a nod to Chinatown again, just as in Pan's Labyrinth, but there are other influences too, Highlander being the most obvious. Del Toro reused some of his concepts in the later film too, from the use of insects to the way he transitions from one location to another and even to the way that he shoots a death scenes. The way the vampirism is treated is completely unique though, with the vampire being a sympathetic character in a very different way. Cronos isn't as great as I was hoping but it's still great and I look forward to a revisit sometime not too far away.

Thursday 7 June 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo Del Toro

At some point in time Princess Moanna, the princess of an underworld realm, escaped to the surface but the sun wiped her memory and she died, unaware even of who she was. Her father, the king, knows that, even though she's dead, one day she will return. In the Spain of 1944 with the Fascists fighting the guerrillas in the mountains, a young girl called Ofelia has the magic in her to fulfil the king's expectations at last.

She's a reader, for a start, of fairy tales too, even though her mother seemingly doesn't understand the concept, and she follows her heart and a strangely cool bug that seems to have taken an interest in her. She has plenty to escape from too. Her father, a simple tailor, died in the war and her mother has married again, this time to a brutal and sadistic captain who is eager on her bearing him a son. The bug, which is perhaps some kind of fairy, leads her at night to a faun who opens her life up to huge possibility: she must fulfil three tasks and she'll be able once more to return to her palace.

The power here is initially in the story, which obviously plans to take us places we haven't been before. Guillermo Del Toro, not just the director but the writer too, wants to tell a fairy tale, but one for adults. This isn't just a happy, pretty story, it's dark and deliberately so to show us things that we've never seen, both of light and dark. There are things here that we can't unsee. But acting out this story aren't just really cool creature designs in sets full of wonder, however down and dirty they get, there are real actors too and good ones, even though I've not heard of a single one.

Ofelia is played by the twelve year old Ivana Baquero, making a serious impact in only her fourth film. I wonder what she thought watching herself accompanied by some seriously twisted creature effects! Sergi López is devastating as Capitán Vidal, truly someone to be afraid of and there aren't many of those in film, from any country. Apparently he's highly versatile but has made a career out of playing sadistic villains, to the degree that a serious paper has been written about him and the subject. Ariadna Gil, playing Ofelia's mother Carmen, is excellent but most impressive of all is Maribel Verdú, who as Mercedes is outwardly the Capitán's devoted servant but inwardly a key player in the fight against the fascists. She seems to have a serious career behind her and a serious heritage to boot, being related to a number of notable actors. She is absolutely believable in her role, giving the impression that she knows.

Del Toro knows too, because he isn't messing around here in the slightest. This isn't a sanitised kiddie story, telling something about life and death but with the death cut out of it. It's not even a translation of life and death into surrealism, like an Alice in Wonderland. It's life and death, in all its joy and pain, its danger and its reward, its black and its white. It has moments of horror, moments of real fear and moments of pure genius. It isn't unprecedented: there are references here back to fantasies as diverse as Alice, Beetlejuice and Spirited Away, probably it's closest real comparison, even a nod to Chinatown. There's so much here though that's completely new to justify its powerful reputation. It's very special and it's certainly the best film I've seen from last year thus far.

The only actor that I've seen before is one that I would never have recognised, partly because this isn't the first time that he's worn such an outrageous costume, whether fabricated or CGI. The faun that Ofelia meets, the Pan of the title, is Doug Jones, who has worked for Del Toro before, as the water dwelling alien Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I've seen him elsewhere too, a lot, in Tank Girl, Batman Returns, Men in Black II, Doom, Monkeybone and Mystery Men. They haven't always been large parts but I'll be damned if I can remember what he looks like in any of them. He would seem to be a solid choice to have played Cesare in the recent remake of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and he'll look completely different again as the Silver Surfer in the new Fantastic Four movie.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Silk Stockings (1957) Rouben Mamoulian

I feel almost guilty watching a movie called Silk Stockings while my better half is elsewhere on babysitting duty. After all, with a title like Silk Stockings it has to be a porn film, right? Well, in 2004 it was but this is the 1957 musical version of Ninotchka, starring Fred Astaire and Peter Lorre. Now it may be a musical but that's a strange combination of stars and story and not one that's easily ignored.

Astaire is an American movie producer called Steve Canfield, who is in Paris to work with a Russian composer, Peter Boroff. He wants Boroff to write the score for his new movie, to star the world famous musical swimming star Peggy Dayton. Unfortunately the Russians want him to come back to Moscow, because this is the era of Lenin and the Soviet Union and it's just unthinkable that he should be involved in such a capitalistic project. So they send three commisars to return him to Russia, but they're notably inept and soon fall for Canfield's charms. French mademoiselles and an opulent suite is all it takes, but the Russian response is yet another envoy. This one is Ninotchka Yoschenko, a cute little battleaxe of a woman who will not be so easy to win over, but naturally Canfield is more than willing to try.

My first impression was that Fred Astaire was getting old. After all this is the same year as Funny Face and two before On the Beach. My second impression was that Peter Lorre seems very out of place, not in comedy but just in this film, doing half hearted Cossack dances between a chair and a table while his fellow commisars tumble over the couch with beautiful young ladies. Cyd Charisse does a fair Garbo impression and Janis Paige isn't bad at all pretending to be Ginger Rogers. She also gets the first song to grab my attention, a clever Cole Porter duet called Stereophonic Sound that points out that nobody wold care nowadays to go to see any of the classic stars unless they could experience them in 'glorious technicolor, breathtaking cinemascope and stereophonic sound'.

My last major impression was that a lot of what made me hate Funny Face so much was still present here in Silk Stockings. I'm all for getting Ninotchka to loosen up, put the interests of the state behind her every once in a while and actually enjoy life. I just see enjoyment beyond French poodles, hairdressing and diamonds. Astaire is also still as creepy making overtures to Cyd Charisse as he was to Audrey Hepburn. He was 58 in 1957, however well he could move, while Hepburn was 28 and Charisse was 36. At least he didn't force Charisse into anything. He tried though.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Head (1968) Bob Rafelson

It's been a couple of decades since I saw Head and I don't remember much about it, except that beyond the Monkees, there was Frank Zappa and a mule and not a lot of sense. Now I see a lot more but it's deliberately surreal and so doesn't make any sense. It starts out with Micky apparently committing suicide off a bridge that someone's trying to open but that's apparently not the case, because after the mermaids save him we realise that he's just being kissed by some groupie who's working her way through the whole band.

The whole point seems to be jump around from one expectation to another to confuse the crap out of us while somehow never letting us get bored, mostly through the benefit of innovative linking devices. Maybe Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson just created the script through a game of word association. It's a surreal and psychedelic fantasy by design and it works pretty well. I'm mostly surprised at how dark it all looks now, with so many images of death. The Monkees Mondo Movie? There would be an interesting concept.

What this really is is an attempt to document the blatant commercialism of the time. It begins with the deconstruction of the Monkees themselves, who begin by admitting that they're a manufactured product and work onward from there, blistering us with soundbites, jingles and sales pitches, all with an attention span shorter than this sentence. In many ways it plays like a commercial break between halves of a tv show like their own. Blink and you're on a different product with its own thirty second story. Even better, it's what you get if you channel surf through a hundred channels in an hour and a half. The message is that what you see isn't always the truth.

There are crucial names here to highlight the attack on popular culture. Beyond the band themselves, there's Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa as a critic, a recurring Victor Mature who at point gets to watch himself on tv, Timothy Carey with a rope round his neck, stripper Carol Doda, even then Governor of California Ronald Reagan in archive footage, along with Lugosi, Laughton, Karloff and others. I could swear that I saw George 'The Animal' Steele too. Behind the camera (mostly) are Jack Nicholson as co-writer and co-producer, Toni Basil as choreographer, even Monte Hellman as an editor.

Surreal and powerful stuff that doesn't make any logical sense but was obviously highly influential. I can see a lot of scenes that got used later by other people, in famous films too. Oh, and it wasn't a mule, it was a bull.

Monday 4 June 2007

Mary of Scotland (1936) John Ford

Here's Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March and what must be the longest list of supporting credits I think I've ever seen at the beginning of a film: no less than forty of them running down in font size, in a film that I'm almost doomed to hate with a passion. It's the story of Mary Stuart, known as the Queen of Scots and the Mary of Scotland of the title, and Hollywood always took the side of the Scots or the Welsh or especially the Irish against the English, and guess what, I'm English. Elizabeth I was a stout hearted queen to we English and we don't give a monkey's about what the rest of Europe felt about her legitimacy.

Beyond the politics of it though, it's a John Ford film. Now Ford was already a major director and was rightly acclaimed for his work but when you look back at the body of it you see the history of America, through many different wars and even through the odd moment of peace. You don't see Scotland in the slightest. In fact you'd associate John Ford with Scotland in about the same breath you'd associate Katharine Hepburn with Scotland, and given that I remember her atrocious accent in The Little Minister two years earlier, that's not a good association.

Well the good news is that she didn't even attempt a Scots accent this time but the bad news is, well, that she didn't even attempt a Scots accent. The educated east coast American accent isn't any more appropriate. Hepburn is powerful on occasion here, let's be plain, but she's not Scots. It's scary when someone with the truest Mormon name of them all, Moroni Olsen, is a far better Scot than she is, as John Knox. Then again John Carradine is playing an Italian and what sounds like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are playing Scots peasants, so we really shouldn't be looking for realism here in the slightest. Olsen and leading man Fredric March are about all you'll find.

To be fair, March's wife Florence Eldridge is far from a bad Elizabeth I, but she has a sensuality that seems out of place, far more Barbara Stanwyck than Bette Davis who was only three years away from stamping her authority on the role in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, for which she'd would have been Oscar nominated had she not been nominated instead for Jezebel, for which she won. Hepburn gives Mary, Queen of Scots a lot more humanity, all light and life, though with some guts underneath to back it all up. Only some, because next to March as her true love, the Earl of Bothwell, she's nothing but a silly woman.

Mary of Scotland is far better than I was expecting it to be. It turns out not to be a bad film, per se, just a colossal bore. There's a hamfisted love story, some sort of excuse for a political drama and the most underwhelming revolution on film. The costumes are great, the sets are terrible. Dudley Nichols, certainly no slouch in the writing department, can't do anything with the material and neither can anyone else, least of all John Ford who proves himself a long way off his territory. The only time the film shows any life is when Bothwell rides in with his triumphant pipers. Douglas Walton is supposed to be weak and unsure as Lord Darnley, but the rest of the cast don't have his justification. A good deal of them come across like they're rehearsing.

Algie, the Miner (1912) Alice Guy

Algie Allmore has a year to prove himself a man, and if he does so he can have the hand of the daughter of Harry Lyons in marriage. So reads the note, signed by Harry Lyons himself, so it should be a pretty easy task. Well, Harry's daughter is actually pretty safe, because Algie is what was known at the time as a pansy. There are plenty of other descriptions you could come up with too, especially as it takes him about ten seconds after climbing off the train on the ride west to kiss no less than two much bigger and much tougher westerners.

Algie, presumably played by Billy Quirk who is the only name listed at IMDb, starts out by indulging in every gay stereotype you could imagine. He flounces around so well that we don't just hear his high pitched voice but smell his perfume too. Of course he's not really gay, because he's looking forward to claiming his girl, but he's an easterner and they all turn out as lily livered as Algie. After he heads west and gets to learn how to pull his pistol and save Big Jim, his huge gold hunting partner with the inevitable scary false facial hair, he brings him back east to see him claim his girl.

I find it interesting to see the suggested parity between 'gay' and 'easterner', in a similar way in which you might see a parity today between 'gay' and 'from San Francisco'. It's also interesting to me to see that the director, uncredited of course for 1912, was a woman, Alice Guy. There's some attraction between men and lesbians on the one side, and women and gay men on the other, that must have something to do with a lack of feeling threatened, because it's pervasive. There has to be some reason why slash fiction, or gay fan fiction, is apparently written primarily by women, while the heterosexual guys fantasise about lesbians.

As for the film, it's short and doesn't have a lot going on, but it's not that bad at all. It starts, it continues, it finishes, all logically and with a consistent linear structure. It's not much of a story but it is a story, and that's more than I can say for a good deal of the rest of the films I've seen from this early on in Hollywood's history.

Sunday 3 June 2007

Where Eagles Dare (1968) Brian G Hutton

This is exactly the sort of action film I grew up watching because we only had three channels on TV and no Blockbuster round the corner. It's also an Alistair MacLean novel and we had the whole slew of those in the house too, prompting us to pay attention when a film version of one of them came onto TV, whether it be the famous ones like The Guns of Navarone or lesser entries like The Satan Bug or Bear Island. The genres would shuffle around but they were really all better defined with an encompassing genre that doesn't really exist any more: the thriller.

I was surprised when I looked this one up. I'd seen it before, but a long time ago, and I only had vague memories of it. There's Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and, well no other real stars, so I presume my recollections are merging it with The Guns of Navarone or The Dirty Dozen or whichever thrillers of the era happened also to be war movies. There are people like Michael Hordern, Patrick Wymark, Anton Diffring, Robert Beatty and Derrin Nesbitt but however great they are as supporting actors, they're hardly stars. I knew all of them but only one of them by name. Diffring is the one who looks like a cross between Col Decker from The A-Team and Frank Sinatra (Burton, as my lass points out, being a cross between Rod Steiger and Bill Murray.

There's another actor here of note too: Ingrid Pitt, in her most prominent film role to date and the one that brought her to the attention of Hammer Films who cast her in The Vampire Lovers. From then on, even though she's only made 22 films to date, across four decades, she was known as a sexy vampire. The title role in Countess Dracula merely cemented that reputation. What surprises here is that Ingrid Pitt was not always Ingrid Pitt: she was born Ingoushka Petrov in Poland and spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp. I wonder how she felt appearing in a Second World film set in the heart of Nazi territory.

The story is a good one because it has plenty of depth. We're quickly told what's going on but realise that it isn't enough to know what's really going on. The outline is that General Carnaby has been captured by the Nazis and he's a prisoner that can't remain one for a very good reason: he's a key coordinator of the allied plan to move into Europe on a second front and if the Germans can get him to talk, there may just not be a second front. To make matters worse, he crashed ten miles away from the Schloss Adler, the HQ of the German secret service in southern Bavaria, so it's pretty obvious where he's going to be, and the Fortress of Eagles is well named.

So a group of soldiers are brought together and sent in on a particularly suicidal mission. The man in charge is Major Smith, played by Burton, and his second in command is a lieutenant in the American rangers, Lt Schaffer, played by Eastwood. There are others, all able men fluent in German and varied techniques of killing people. However something is going on that we and most of them aren't necessarily privy to. There's a double agent in the mix, for a start, as one of the men died in the parachute drop but not through any accidental means. Also only the Major seems to know that his girlfriend parachuted in near to everyone else, let alone why she did so and why he's keeping her existence a secret from his men.

It's all handled very well indeed. The stuntwork is excellent, as you'd expect with a name like Yakima Canutt running the second unit, though the rear projection shots are often a little too obvious. There are shootings a plenty and explosions galore, all realistic sizes exept the big one at the Schloss which I was waiting for with anticipation only to find myself a little let down. The acting is uniformly spot on though Eastwood was still finding his own screen persona. Perhaps that's the best time to see him, though, as it's not practiced enough yet.

Best of all is the story though. The bluff and double bluff is excellently handled and the big scene when Burton gets to confuse everyone into trying to work out whose side everyone is on is a peach. Burton has the perfect stone face for the job and Eastwood, a great stone face himself in his time, is just as great here with the face of patient confusion. MacLean outdid himself here, both as the writer of the source novel and of the screenplay. He's the biggest star here of them all.