Thursday 29 November 2007

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937) William Clemens

The stuttering bishop is Bishop William Mallory and he wants Perry Mason to fight for a poor woman against a millionaire on a 22 year old case of manslaughter. Beyond manslaughter having a three year statute of limitations, the bishop himself is the key to the case and will be the star witness but plans to completely disappear until then. And then he gets knocked out and the mystery gets more confusing. It doesn't help that there are detectives everywhere and yet the best detective is a lawyer.

What we have here is a highly involved plot that drives around in a lot of directions but never seems to stay on the same road. Every time we find a nice little twist, we have to wonder how the heck we got there. It doesn't help that Donald Woods plays Perry Mason like a nervous Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Ann Dvorak looks terrible as secretary Della Street and only Joseph Crehan really impresses as detective Paul Drake. Thinking about the role distribution, Woods would have been better as Drake than Mason.

There's also Tom Kennedy as Gahagan, I mean as yet another character just like Gahagan in the Torchy Blane films who just happens to be called something else (Magooney). Did he ever play a different role anywhere in his 320 film career? That's a lot of films to be inept in.

There's charm here, I won't deny it, but there's also gibberish. Lots of it. Take one novelist, one credited scriptwriter and one uncredited, mix up in a really large bowl and, well leave mixed up. Let it all unravel for 70 minutes and throw in a bunch of names and events and whatnot every now and again to shove the plot in a different direction. Complete nonsense.

Monday 26 November 2007

How to Murder Your Wife (1965) Richard Quine

As charmingly introduced to us while the credits roll by gentleman's gentleman Terry-Thomas, Stanley Ford is a character. He lives in a joyous house in New York, surrounded by chaos, and doesn't seem to want to grow up. He's a cartoonist, who acts out the adventures of his successful character Bash Brannigan, Secret Agent (syndicated in 463 newspapers), before actually drawing the strips from photos. The thing is that Ford and his man Charles are happily living the bachelor life, but while outrageously drunk at a friend's bachelor party he ends up getting married to the beautiful scantily clad young lady who clambers out of the cake.

She's Virna Lisi, in her English language debut (not that she speaks much English) and he's no less a comedic talent than Jack Lemmon. Unfortunately we're then treated to twenty minutes of predictable and mildly funny panic scenes mostly conducted in unsubtitled Italian. Eventually the new Mrs Ford starts learning English from late night TV shows and Stanley updates his strip to become The Brannigans, the adventures of a hen-pecked boob. There's fun here but not a lot.

Finally, after beautiful young Mrs Ford invades the sacrosanct turf of his club and gets him barred, Stanley has finally had enough and we finally get our real story. Now the Bash Brannigan strip changes again, this time to into a plan for him to murder his wife and thus restore the old Secret Agent persona. It all goes swimmingly, but of course the real wife sees the strip and leaves him, thus leaving everyone's interpretation open to the potential reality of it all. Now I know where Tom Sharpe got the story for Wilt.

The film gets better and better as it progresses and the best part comes towards the end. While Ford is on trial for the apparent murder of his real wife, he puts his lawyer and friend on the stand and tries to persuade him to press a chalk button that symbolises murdering his own wife and freeing himself within his imagination. It's a joy to watch, especially when watching with your wife. And beyond the performances of Jack Lemmon and Terry-Thomas and Claire Trevor, that's the greatest fun of all.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Mystery Street (1950) John Sturges

We're in a low budget rooming house in Beacon Hill, Boston, and a beautiful blonde a little the worse for wear is apparently in trouble. She works at the Grass Skirt as a professional lady of the evening of some description or other, and she hijacks a drunk's car (with the drunk in tow) to get herself all the way out to Cape Cod, not caring that his wife is in hospital after losing their baby. She's a real piece of work, leaving him out on the road when he sobers up enough to wonder where he's at, but perhaps she doesn't quite deserve getting shot in the head and dumped into the Cape.

Six months later she's a skeleton washed up on the beach, and Lt Peter Morales from the Boston PD gets to investigate. He's a young Ricardo Montalban, of all people, and he has so much trouble finding the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University that we have to wonder how great a detective he could possibly be. However he does have the help of Bruce Bennett, playing Dr McAdoo, something of a 1950 version of Bones from the TV series of the same name. Of course this being 1950, they're working with a lot lower tech. No 3D holomorphic displays here, that's for sure.

Montalban is good, much better than you'd expect for someone best known for Fantasy Island and being a thorn in Captain Kirk's side on film. He's very much the brawn here, doing the legwork that the case calls for, working through the numbers. He's not stupid at all and in fact is pretty sharp, but he's certainly overshadowed mentally by the Harvard professor. Bennett is excellent as McAdoo, defining a character who is working at the cutting edge of his science, a science that most people really don't believe in yet. Jan Sterling is spot on as the bitch of a woman who gets killed, but there's another bitch who's even more memorable.

Her landlady, Mrs Smerrling, is played by no less than Elsa Lanchester, a genius actor full of subtle touches who nonetheless knows how to scene steal. She was the title character in Bride of Frankenstein, after all. Here she's a growing presence, scuttling around early on and gradually sinking her claws into the story to wring anything she can out of it, resorting to lies, blackmail and no end of shady little tricks.

Best of all though is the script. Scriptwriter Leonard Spigelgass was Oscar nominated for his work, a real tribute for what was presumably a film noir B movie. It was well deserved though, because it's lean and mean and full of detail that seems amazing for nearly sixty years ago. I've long admired CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and watch it every week, though I've long stopped recording the spinoffs, especially the dire CSI: Miami. However much I admire the concepts that CSI plays with, I know it wasn't the first to do what it does and there are some surprising antecedents.

I grew up watching Quincy, for instance, and I was already a huge fan of the most obvious predecessor, Manhunter, the first Hannibal Lecter story to reach the screen, directed by Michael Mann and starring CSI's own William Petersen. However it's comparably recently that I've found films like Jules Dassin's The Naked City from 1948 and the Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case, made as far back as 1933. This is now a firm addition to that short list and I'd love to know what else should be on there too.

Please Believe Me (1950) Norman Taurog

Val Lewton is a name known to any connoisseur of classic horror films. He produced 14 films all told, including such classics as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Bedlam. My favourite is The Leopard Man which to my mind doesn't receive the credit it's due. However only 9 of the 14 were horror films and the other five are a little hard to track down. This is the third of the five that I've found, following the decent Mademoiselle Fifi and the dire Youth Runs Wild. Now I only have My Own True Love and Apache Drums to locate.

Some old American GI called Hank dies and leaves his 50,000 acre ranch in Texas to an English lady who treated him with kindness during the war. She's Alison Kirbe, she's played by Deborah Kerr and she heads off to the States to visit her new property, which Hank has described in such glowing terms. He apparently never looked north because it's the only direction he could see land he didn't own. What it really adds up to is a large chunk of desert with a broken down shack on it, but it doesn't stop Kirbe from falling prey to a debt ridden conman who thinks it's as valuable as she does and needs to marry a rich woman to pay back his gambling debts.

He's not the only man on the boat as there are a whole slew of them all getting caught up in the shenanigans. Terence Keath, the conman, is backed up by Vincent Maran, played by James Whitmire who looks uncannily like Spencer Tracy. Keath himself is played by Robert Walker who always looks to me like Robert Vaughn. There's also Peter Lawford as a multimillionaire called Jeremy Tayler and his lawyer friend Matthew Kinston, played by Mark Stevens. All of them are wolves and it complicates the plot nicely. Unfortunately the humour is more than a little lacking, so most of the shipboard sequences don't work at all.

At least there's Ian Wolfe, if only briefly; Spring Byington being wonderfully bitchy; and the always somehow sleazy J Carrol Naish. He's Lucky Reilly, the man unwittingly providing a lot of the finance for the con. It's his money that Keath is spending on Alison, with the full intention of marrying her, acquiring her inheritance and paying Reilly back. This complexity is the good side of the plot, but it does flounder and veer all over the place attempting to stay good and mostly it fails. It could have been so much more than it was.

Penrod's Double Trouble (1938) Lewis Seiler

Billy and Bobby, the Mauch twins, are back for another run through the confusion mill. This was the last of the three late thirties outings for Booth Tarkington's Penrod Schofield and most of the rest of the cast are back too. That includes most, if not all, of the Junior G Men Club, the dog playing Duke and Charles Halton as Mr Bitts. Unfortunately it doesn't include Frank Craven and Spring Byington as Mr and Mrs Schofield, and they're replaced by real life couple Gene and Kathleen Lockhart. Now Gene Lockhart is a great bumbler but I miss the understanding that Frank Craven brought to the part in the last film and Spring Byington was a hard act to follow.

As for story, there's more of the usual. Rodney Bitts causes more trouble, Penrod gets blamed and everything escalates from there. There's the usual shenanigans at the bank, the usual racial shenanigans with Verman and the usual shenanigans with the club. What gets added is that Penrod hides in a hot air balloon which gets let loose and so he disappears off into the beyond. We were introduced to his double Danny in Penrod and His Twin Brother, but for some reason that's all ignored here and Danny is now a completely new double with the same name as before. Yeah, believability doesn't really enter into proceedings here.

This Danny works at the same carnival from which Penrod's balloon flew off from, and when he and his colleagues realise the similarity, they embark on a scheme to claim the reward money by pretending to be the lost Penrod with amnesia. Of course the real Penrod finally turns up in New Mexico, gets locked up by the local sheriff, escapes from jail and hitches on home to spoil the pay day with help from Danny and the gang.

Somehow there's enough energy in these three Penrod films for them to be enjoyable, but they're about as complete nonsense as nonsense can get. What annoys most of all is that they pretend to be serious and clever and free of plot holes. That's the most nonsensical part of it all.

Lacombe Lucien (1974) Louis Malle

I've worked my way through most of the Louis Malle films that were shown on TCM as part of the commemorations of what would be his 75th birthday celebrations, and I'd seen a couple beforehand too. I'm now ten films into his filmography with what seem to be generally acclaimed as his two greatest achievements left on my DVR: Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir, les enfants.

We're in a town called Souleillac in southwest France in June 1944. The Second World War is still being fought and France is under the Vichy government. Our lead character is Lucien Lacombe (the title reverses his name for deliberate formality) and we're shown his moral ambiguity from moment one. Even before the credits roll, he's cleaning the floors at some sort of hospital run by nuns, but pauses to kill a bird that's singing outside with his slingshot. In fact there's a lot of what could nowadays be referred to as animal cruelty, but which could also be described as everyday country life in the forties: Lucien shoots rabbits, kills chickens and helps load a dead horse onto a truck. Yet however real the reasons, there's suggestion of deliberate cruelty. Lucien kills out of rejection as well as to eat.

We soon discover that his father is a prisoner of the Germans and his mother is having an affair with a man whose son has joined the resistance, so he's not exactly accepted anywhere. He tries to sign up with the resistance himself, but they won't have him as apparently he wouldn't be a good fit and there are too many like him already. Circumstances quickly bring him to the attention of the occupation police and when they get him drunk he ends up turning in the local resistance leader. From there it's a quick slide into full collaboration and all the psychological changes that come along with that, along with the added complexity that Lucien is also coming of age.

The film unfolds subtly and ambiguously as it should, aided by the 138 minute running time. Pierre Blaise brings a powerful presence to the film as the lead character, even though (and perhaps because) he was a non-professional actor who had never appeared on film before. He made three more movies before being killed in a road accident a year later. He reminds me very much of the character of Daniel, the collaborator with the aliens in V, both as an actor and a character, but with a few extra levels of complexity.

The other two actors who stand out are the Jewish tailor and his daughter, to whom Lucien is introduced and who become more and more important as the film progresses. Holger Löwenadler is subtly powerful as Albert Horn, the tailor, and is highly reminiscent of Max von Sydow. Aurore Clément plays his daughter France, whose name can hardly be accidental, and she's superb. Rather than just follow her father's quiet acceptance and hope, she rides both sides of the morality fence: certainly one of the good guys but more open to talking with the bad guys and attending their dances and so on. This was her first film also, but she would go on to a long and distinguished career in film.

Albert Horn has a wonderful line two thirds of the way through the film. Talking to Lucien, he says 'It's very strange. Somehow I can't bring myself to completely despise you.' That's how the film treats Lucien too. It's hard to really determine whether Louis Malle and co-writer Patrick Modiano depict him as a good guy who's strayed to the dark side and is succumbing to its power, a bad guy either with potential or gradually slipping further away from the light, or some combination of both. The film's power comes from the growing realisation, begun very early on in the film, that it's the latter. We despise Lucien for many of his choices, but we sympathise with him for many of his reasons. Juggling the two emotions must have been something that the French had to do a lot of in the decades after World War II.

Saturday 24 November 2007

The Crime Doctor's Warning (1945) William Castle

Dr Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, is having his silhouette cut out at a carnival, to assist the police by hopefully identifying whether the artist is a murderer. A woman has been murdered and her silhouette was cut out of the newspaper on her table. She was stabbed with the scissors. Next day a young artist, Clive Lake, who has a studio in the vicinity visits Ordway with a story about memory lapses. Soon the body of another model is discovered in his apartment, so it looks highly likely that he's the killer but he doesn't remember a thing. Ordway naturally takes it upon himself to investigate.

This is a pretty solid example of the pretty solid nature of this series. Warner Baxter is no great actor but he's effective in the role and is believable as a psychiatrist who enjoys a good mystery and the chase. The cast he gets to work with here are similar: not great, not bad, just decent realistic actors doing decent realistic jobs. If 'workmanlike' wouldn't imply an insult to quality, I'd pick it as the definitive word for the series: they're all solid films that may or may not have anything extra to elevate them to something better.

This one does have a little something extra: a mystery that holds the interest. The director is William Castle so you'd expect something quirky and sinister and if that's what you're looking for you won't be disappointed towards the end of the film. The Crime Doctor movies all address insanity or mental disease in some way or other, and that can easily enter the realm of the sinister. Not a great film but a decent enough entry in the series, and certainly not the worst.

Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) Irvin Kershner

November 2007 was Guest Programmer Month on Turner Classic Movies. The guest programmer slots on TCM are highly varied affairs, with people often choosing boring selections of the same ol' same ol', but every now and again there's a real peach. This month was no exception: thirty days with a different guest programming four films every night. Most of them are predictable in a bad way and offer nothing much that's new, but a few of them are gems full of discovery.

One such guest programmer is James Ellroy, crime writer who wrote books like LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia. It seems that his mother was murdered in Los Angeles in 1958 and that incident, combined with a present of Jack Webb's book The Badge, sparked his fascination with crime. It would seem that he does a lot of spinning his mind back to 1958 LA and to a large degree has lived there ever since. All four of the films he picked are LA crime stories and three of them were released in 1958. The other connection is that I hadn't heard of any of them, making them real discoveries.

The story here is really tight. A pusher with a bag full of mob heroin is being arrested but the arrest goes sour. The bad guy gets killed, one of the good guys gets killed and the other hospitalised. In the middle of it all the bag goes missing, with its two pounds of pure heroin, and by the time the survivor wakes up to talk about it, it's gone. An eighteen year old kid finds it and he and his two friends think it's just women's cosmetic powder, based on the rest of the contents of the bag. They throw it away but when the papers talk about it, realise what they had and retrieve it from the city dump. Suddenly opportunity knocks, but it's a hot property with the cops and the mob both looking hard for it.

It's joyfully realistic. There's a narration that seems half Jack Webb and half Rod Serling, and it underpins the story which unfolds like an expanded stage play. What seems like all the films I've seen lately are scarily unbelievable, from 1938's Penrod and His Twin Brother to 2007's Live Free and Die Hard. In comparison, this one's very believable indeed, the only anomaly being the price of the heroin but then this was 1958. The story is tightly plotted and makes sense, the dialogue is spot on, the direction solid and the details paid major attention to. There's a lot of solid philosophy and insight here, disguised in 50s language in a film noir.

It may sound strange to say so but I especially enjoyed the scene at the city dump. If this had been in half the films I've seen lately, the can of heroin would have fallen off the garbage truck right into their hands, but here they have to leap around and search for it, rummaging in rubbish and trying frantically to find it before the bulldozer right there among them wipes it out for good. It played exactly like it would in real life and the film is so much better for it.

There's much to appreciate here. The actors are nobodies, it would seem, and I've only ever heard of one of them. However unknown they may be, they still do their job with the sort of coarse acting I remember Alex Cox talking about in episodes of Moviedrome. Allen Kramer stands out as the addict who helps the trio get their product to the street, showing us the pains and torture of addiction less graphically than Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream but no less realistically. He reminds me of Harry Dean Stanton. The trio of kids are played by Yale Wexler (Haskell Wexler's brother), Jonathan Haze (Roger Corman regular and the lead in The Little Shop of Horrors) and Morris Miller (who as Steven Marlo had a long career on TV, ending fittingly on an episode of The New Dragnet).

There's a cool 50s jazz soundtrack by Richard Markowitz and played by the Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group, that really fits with the black and white material. I can see the LPs having black and white covers too, all squares and dots and no photos. The first time director is Irvin Kershner, who also co-wrote, a first time director who would go on to make minor league numbers like The Empire Strikes Back and Never Say Never Again. He never directed much but the ratio of quality to numbers is very high indeed and it's good to say that it started very high indeed too.

Penrod and His Twin Brother (1938) William McGann

Billy Mauch, who played Booth Tarkington's Penrod in these three late 30s films, was one of a pair of twins who apparently appeared in quite a few films together, often as each other because the crew couldn't tell the difference. Given the title, I wondered how they could suddenly introduce a twin into an established series but it's the old wish fulfilment story.

After all, how much more convenient an excuse is there than to say that there's someone out there who looks exactly like you and they must have done it? Well here Penrod's dog Duke is causing some trouble, and very obviously too given that bank manager Mr Bitts and his wife are the people he's causing trouble for. So when someone who looks precisely like Penrod has a dog who looks precisely like Duke and this someone sics this dog onto young Rodney Bitts, the push is to get Duke into the pound and tested for rabies.

There are more holes in this plot than in the average pound of Swiss cheese but it's handled with a modicum of fun that outweighs at least some of it. The scriptwriters must have been shopping at Coincidences R Us and you'll need to suspend your disbelief early on. There's a subplot about a carrier pigeon that is obviously there entirely to give a way out for another subplot about bank robbers.

Films like this one are great examples to teach us how Hollywood scriptwriting works. First ask what you want the end to be, then backtrack an hour to make your film. Anything needed to make it work gets added, however unlikely or nonsensical. Given that this is 1938, you must also throw in some dubious racial content just to liven up the mix. So here we have the young black kid Verman, a dubious name to start with but miscredited as Vermin to make it even worse, talking to someone 'till he's black in the face'. I'm no politically correct prude but it does sometimes get difficult to understand how anyone would have found this funny seventy years ago.

Penrod and Sam (1937) William C McGann

There's more charm in the first five minutes of this film than there was in the entirety of 1931's The Adventures of Penrod and Sam. The characters are the same but suddenly there's depth and story and character. Penrod Schofield is still a rough and ready kid with a dog called Duke and a gang and a clubhouse. However he's no idiot this time, his gang is a bunch of Junior G-Men and the clubhouse is a large and equipped barn, if believably cheap. He still gets into fights with Rodney Bitts, the son of the bank manager Penrod's dad works for, and he still gets into trouble but at least the handling of the whole affair is believable.

Mr Schofield has his own mind and seems a good sort, though he still falls on the side of punishing his son before he finds out what actually happened. He does find out though and believes his kid, and the whole concept of making Penrod take Rodney into the club is handled believably, partly because it makes sense, partly because Mr Schofield is played by Frank Craven who knows how to act and partly because Penrod even signs him up into the Junior G-Men. In fact he even takes a leaf out of his kid's book and gets into a fight with his boss.

There's also a plot that goes well beyond throwing a bunch of kids into a few completely unrelated situations. Bank robbers hit the local bank and get away with $20,000, and get written into the plot in a number of ways. During the getaway they accidentally kill little Verman's mother, hide out in their clubhouse and take them prisoner. This plot leads to a whole slew of subplots: melodramatic adoption scenes, a tense attempt at escape, Verman seeing the bad guys and bringing in the cops, the scenes where they save the day.

As a perfect example of how much better this is than the last version, there's a scene where one of the crooks has to fight off Duke and he knocks him senseless with a horseshoe. It's believable, it fits in the story and leads to more of it. In The Adventures of Penrod and Sam, Penrod comes home from a party to find that Duke got hit by a car and we don't see him again. It's all completely unrelated to anything and has no real place. By extension, that goes for pretty much everything in the entire film.

This one's no classic, that's for sure, but I enjoyed it: the story, the acting, the sentiment. It is sentimental and very dated but it's not hard way to spend an hour. In comparison, the 1931 version was painful to sit through. The only thing that one had going for it was Zasu Pitts; this one has Billy Mauch, Frank Craven and Spring Byington, plus Charles Halton and a plot. It's only average but it's so much of an improvement.

Friday 23 November 2007

Blazing Saddles (1974) Mel Brooks

Blazing Saddles is pure undistilled genius and what stuns me most is that every time I see it the more apparent that becomes. I've seen it a lot of times, I don't know how many but it's plenty; I loved it on the first viewing; and yet it gets better with every further time through. This time I got to see it on the big screen, in 35mm Panavision glory, courtesy of Midnite Movie Mamacita, and I saw things I'd never seen before. I knew those were bodies flying into the air in the explosion scene but I hadn't realised that they included horses.

There is a plot here but it's almost irrelevant because it's what hides behind the plot that's important: the social comment, the jokes and the manipulation of reality. This film (along with Dr Strangelove and Monty Python's Life of Brian) are to me the greatest three comedies of all time, for a few reasons. They don't just remain funny, which is a requirement for a comedy to be called great, but they get funnier; they broke the rules to create something truly unique; and they still stand alone in what they did even though decades have passed since their respective releases.

Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr (cue no end of Hedy Lamarr jokes) who is a ruthless villain eager to make money off anyone else's misfortune. He'll make a killing out of running the railroad through the frontier town of Rock Ridge but needs to get rid of all the townsfolk first. His master plan is to appoint a sheriff so offensive to their sensibilities that they'll leave out of disgust. That new sheriff is a black man, played by Cleavon Little, enabling Mel Brooks to have a riot with the racial attitudes of the early settlers of the west.

And beyond that, which ought to be enough for anyone, there's everything else you can imagine too. Only Mel Brooks could manage to get Adolf Hitler into a western, and beyond a black sheriff, there's Jewish indians, the Ku Klux Klan, you name it and the eventual chase through Hollywood. Characters talk to the screen, reference who they're working for, even end up in Grauman's Chinese watching the film they're appearing in.

My delving into classic cinema has helped me to understand more and more of the references here each time I see the film. I think I always knew that Madeline Kahn based her role as Lily van Schtupp on Marlene Dietrich but now I understand how and why. I know now about Richard Dix and Randolph Scott and more, as well as references to specific films like Destry Rides Again. Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens and others are all perfect in their roles, but this remains Mel Brooks's show. Amazing stuff, the stuff of genius, and even more amazing for the realisation that he made Young Frankenstein in the same year. Talk about a creative spurt!

The Adventures of Penrod and Sam (1931) William Beaudine

I hadn't heard of Penrod and Sam but TCM's showing four of their films amidst a long string of other film series, so it's about time I caught up. This was the second of five, following a silent version in 1923. It was released in 1931 with a bunch of kids led by Leon Janney and Junior Coghlan as the title characters. The last three came a few years later in 1937 and 1938 with Billy Mauch and Harry Watson. Interestingly, the third credit after Janney and Coghlan goes to Cameo who plays Duke the Dog. Someone as great as Zasu Pitts comes way down the list.

Unfortunately there's not a lot here to watch. It centres around a secret society for kids called the International Order of Infidelity, naturally run by Penrod and Sam. It's the sort of thing you'd expect, very similar to the Our Gang concept and no doubt a whole host of others: there are a bunch of wholesome white troublemakers with good hearts and innocent faces and a couple of token black kids without much grey matter between their ears.

There's the usual shenanigans, but they all seem forced and far from entertaining, making me wonder why the title includes the word 'adventures'. Penrod and Sam get into trouble, get punished, and then the cycle repeats. They go to a party, have a fight and break things. It would have been bad enough if the film ended there, but just to cheer us all up we get treated to some really depressing heartache. There's no mystery, no adventure, nothing much of anything except a bunch of kids pretending to be a bunch of adults. Cameo is the most entertaining of the lot and he's not a patch on Luke the Dog. At least he doesn't get to indulge in painfully slow dialogue with painfully inevitable pauses.

The child actors aren't that bad and actually surpass the material, which is the worst offender here. Leon Janney reminds of a child version of Jimmy Cagney and Margaret Marquis isn't bad as Margie. The adults disappoint much more than the kids. Matt Moore is especially awful as Penrod's dad, suggesting that his 219 films as an actor were far more than he ever deserved. Helen Beaudine was much better as Penrod's sister; she only made two films and she was only in them because she was the director's daughter. About the only saving grace is Zasu Pitts and there are far better places to see her talents.

Thursday 22 November 2007

I'm All Right, Jack (1959) John Boulting

'Three of England's Top Comedians... One Big Laugh Riot!' reads the tagline and that's complete nonsense. This is possibly the greatest collection of English comedic talent ever to share the same film. Beyond Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers, there's Margaret Rutherford, John Le Mesurier, Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price, Irene Handl... the list goes on.

The film has an intriguing start. Peter Sellers, who seems to always play more than one role in every movie he's in, is Sir John Kennaway, key member of every facet of establishment there is, and the narration tells us that he's on his way out. Cue the credits. England is changing. We then meet Ian Carmichael as Stanley Windrush, a young member of the establishment who wants to go into industry. He doesn't have any luck getting in anywhere as an executive, so he gets work at his uncle's missile firm 'on the other side' as a worker.

Unfortunately the workers think he's an undercover time and motion expert, so shop steward Fred Kite, (Sellers again), gets to stir everything up. There's no end of trouble, of course. There's a real time and motion expert in the form of John Le Mesurier who can get to work if only manager Terry-Thomas can find a way to make it happen without the unions knowing. Kite is trying to convert Windrush to communism, while he's more busy lusting after Kite's buxom young daughter Cynthia. Meanwhile the management has some sort of scheme going on, which somehow integrally involves young Stanley.

The story is a peach: top notch as a comedy, a drama, a social comment, you name it. It's wild and outrageous, yet it's completely real and even serves as an excellent snapshot of its time. It's acted as impeccably as you'd expect from the unparalleled cast, with especial credit going to Peter Sellers, whose restrained performance is sheer genius. What surprises most though are the slew of bare female butts at the Sunnyside Nature Camp and the fact that this classic English comedy wasn't made at Ealing. It's a British Lion production, proving yet again that regardless who made them, the best, cleverest and most astute comedies of the era were almost all British.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

The Falcon Strikes Back (1943) Edward Dmytryk

This is the first Falcon movie that Tom Conway could get his teeth into without his brother George Sanders being in the mix too. Of course he looks and sounds enough like his brother for the transition to be pretty smooth. Unfortunately for him, his character is quickly framed by a beautiful young lady so he's hardly on top of anything. It's a neat job too, taking him to a bar on false pretences where he's knocked out and dumped in his car which has just been used in a robbery. $250,000 in war bonds was stolen by person or persons unknown and left a murder victim behind to boot, candidate number one for 'person or persons unknown' being the Falcon.

It's actually a pretty cool concept, taking the suave and sophisticated Falcon and running him through the mill. We know he's the good guy but everything points to him being the bad guy and so he has to find a way to prove that to the other characters. The framework for the most part is the textbook closed set mystery with an obvious villain, so there aren't a lot of surprises but the ride is an enjoyable one.

It's more interesting watching Tom Conway, who got the chance to strut his stuff for the first time. He'd play the part another eight times after this, making nine solo outings plus The Falcon's Brother where he shared the dues with Sanders and got his introduction to the series. I have five of these eight on my DVR courtesy of TCM and while this one is hardly a great film it's a great promise to the rest of the series and I'm really looking forward to them. In many ways Conway is more fun to watch than Sanders.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

The Falcon Takes Over (1942) Irving Reis

Given that this is the third Falcon movie and all detective series of the forties deteriorated over time, the Falcon movies turned up only as Saint subtitutes because Leslie Charteris wouldn't allow any more of them, and the Saint movies weren't that great as such series go, even with George Sanders playing the sardonic lead, this one really doesn't suggest greatness. However we're star studded here for a film like this.

The first person we see is Allen Jenkins and then we get Ward Bond talking tough to him. Bond is Moose Malloy, though he isn't credited, and he's looking for an old girlfriend who he hasn't seen for five years. I'm sure you can imagine why. Anyway he's looking for Velma and to find her he fights his way into Club 13, knocks a few folks out and apparently shoots the manager who dies of a broken neck. You have to spot these details. Inspector Mike O'Hara investigating is James Gleason and he shows up with the Falcon, George Sanders himself in tow.

This may be a B-movie but a B-movie with Gleason, Jenkins and Sanders throwing witticisms at each other is hardly a minor tableau. Sanders feigning drunkenness to avoid danger at the hands of Bond is a joy to watch, and in this company he actually acts rather than just appearing on screen and relying on charisma. I can't remember the last time I saw him this alive. This is also all before we get to Turhan Bey, the Woo Woo Girl Lynn Bari and Hans Conreid, appearing in his third Falcon as a different character each time out.

It is a B-movie, as evidenced most apparently by the overacting of Anne Revere and the bizarreness of Helen Gilbert who plays Diana Kenyon like Bette Davis pretending to be Drew Barrymore. However it's certainly a fun one, zipping along so quickly that it's impossible to get bored and nigh on impossible to blink. The weird part is that this isn't a real Falcon story at all, based on the writings of Michael Arlen, it's a Raymond Chandler novel hammered into the Falcon template like a square peg into a round hole. In fact it's the first Philip Marlowe story to be filmed, based on the novel Farewell, My Lovely, beating the classic straight version, Murder, My Sweet, onto the screen by two years.

Sunday 18 November 2007

The Saint Meets the Tiger (1943) Paul Stein

While this was the eighth Saint film to my counting, it was based on the first of Leslie Charteris's Saint novels. It's the second of two featuring Hugh Sinclair as Simon Templar, following one with Louis Hayward and five with George Sanders. It starts out as it means to go on, with a man being murdered just as he rings Templar's doorbell. It turns out to be Joe Gallo, a bookie who was caught up in a million pound robbery and leaves only tantalising hints at the mystery soon to be uncovered.

Templar heads off to the seaside village of Baycombe and embarks on a novel method of investigation, namely treading on as many toes as possible to see who'll complain. This brings him various suspicious characters along with Pat Holm, who would be his girlfriend for quite some time in the books. He also discovers a plan to 'discover' stolen gold in a South African gold mine and pass it off as something new. The story is reasonably rough but all the more real for it, just like Sinclair's performance, and there are further details still to rabbit out.

I thought it would be a difficult transition away from George Sanders, who was so definitive as Templar, but while Hugh Sinclair seemed completely out of place for a few minutes he soon became very believable indeed. He's not as slick and suave as Sanders but he's very believable indeed. He gets into fights and wins, even against strong odds, but he does at least look like he's been in a fight. He can't even wear a jacket properly but he's just as confident and he provides a grittier edge to the character that's most welcome.

The other benefit here is that the film was made in England. While it's not a powerful trip into the criminal underworld like many of the films noir that were starting to dominate in the States, it has a gritty and realistic English edge that includes many of the sort of things that couldn't be addressed under the Production Code. In the Saint books, Templar and Holm had something of a progressive relationship, sleeping together and even living together, that could only be hinted at in England but couldn't even be hinted at in the US. There are joyous hints and double entendres that really give the film life. Templar is also far from squeaky clean: while he's certainly the good guy, he's very much playing by his own rules. He's sharp with a knife, has no compunction from taking out the bad guys and not averse either to forcing Inspector Teal to lie to give him an alibi.

The cast is universally decent, even though I've hardly heard of anyone here. I don't think I've ever seen Hugh Sinclair before, or Jean Gillie or Gordon McLeod, and they're the three leads. I have seen John Salew, Clifford Evans and Wylie Watson, but I didn't know their names. The direction is solid and the story strong, and if anything the only fault I can really find is that some of the editing is a little rough. Even the comedic element, namely Templar's butler Horace being a devoted radio crime fan but rather new to experiencing it in real life, is done well. All in all, it's a far more consistent and realistic Saint movie without George Sanders. Who would have thought it?

God's Country (1986) Louis Malle

The last of the Louis Malle documentaries being shown on TCM as part of his 75th birthday celebrations is a lot more focused than Place de la république. It was made for public television and focused on a town called Glencoe in Minnesota. There's a narration by Louis Malle himself, and while it drills in to things that seem to seem strange to him like a seeming obsession for lawnmowers or cow insemination it ends up being very incisive. He's seeing a community that's rooted in tradition but changing and he gets that across in the film.

Early on everything is about farming. Everyone farms, even when they have other jobs. Everyone lives their farming and sees no end to the history that has had that tradition in place for decades. While there's dissent among some of the young people, exhibited by some awesome honesty, nobody really seems to break the tradition. They're just people within the same community doing different things and with different outlooks on life.

Later though, Malle returns after six years to find the farming community in ruins. Old women tending gardens are still tending the same gardens six years later, but the farming side of things, which is almost everything in Glencoe, is in dire straits. Farmers have seen huge losses or left entirely, and their outlook on the future is no longer optimistically static. Now they can't see the viability of their own livelihoods, let alone those of their kids. The last fifteen minutes makes this a sad story.

Malle does a good job, wringing a lot of honesty out of people. People talk about things that seem surprising for people in a small community talking to a camera, about relationships and attitudes to race and sex. One lady is surprisingly frank and what her eyes say is even more telling than what her words say. Another farmer seems to talk tolerance in the face of rising extremism but then drifts onto the Jews who run their markets, adding that he has evidence as if he knows that his words would be interpreted in a certain fashion.

I know next to nothing about Glencoe, Minnesota and the American farming communities, but this was a solid introduction to one small community. It left me more aware, while Place de la république left me more confused.

Place de la république (1974) Louis Malle

The more films I see by Louis Malle the more I realise that he was a rather unique filmmaker. It goes beyond the lack of any consistent theme or subject matter, to a completely different approach to what film is. People like Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford for instance made films in a number of genres or styles, but they contributed so much to a particular genre that they're identified by it. Malle is more like a Billy Wilder, who hopped around from genre to genre yet consistently made powerful and memorable films. However he went beyond that and didn't even restrict himself to the standard genres, delving into surrealism and documentaries.

This is a documentary but it isn't even standard for that format. Malle spent ten days with a small crew filming in a small area in the the Place de la république just asking questions of people. There's no point, no focus, no concept of where the film should go. It's simply directed by who would talk to the camera. One lady early on suggests that the lack of a plot or actors 'might work in a documentary but you'd need a commentary.' There isn't one. The most fun part for me was the lady raving about her mother-in-law who is a famous actress, not realising in the slightest that she was talking to a director who had worked with her twelve years earlier.

The problem with this film is precisely its charm. It has no focus and comprises of a whole slew of little vignettes that are fascinating to watch. Unfortunately that's not particularly easy to stay focused on for an hour and a half. In fact it's almost impossible if you're not in a theatre because there's always something else to multitask on and then you find yourself missing half the film because you're looking somewhere else.

A Song to Remember (1945) Charles Vidor

Sometimes it seems like Paul Muni never did anything except play the lead in 19th century biopics. Here though it's 1945, so rather than play Frederic Chopin in the Hollywood version of his life, he plays his teacher, Professor Joseph Elsner instead. Of course he's still the focus of our attentions for much of the film and naturally has the lead credit, even though Cornel Wilde takes the role of Frederic Chopin.

One great example is when Chopin plays at a banquet for a count. Wilde does a great job of pretending to play while sheer opulence rages around him. The Hollywood of the 30s and 40s usually did a great job of feigning opulence and it did a great job here. There's so much depth in this banquet, that goes well beyond the colours and the costumes and the food, and the abrupt ending of it. There's the fact that the table is designed in such a way that nobody can actually see the musicians and the fact that the musician's family and professor are kept in the kitchen. More than anything there's the fact that the entertainment can transition from Paganini to Chopin without the diners really noticing. Stunning. And throughout all of it Muni keeps plenty of attention on himself bumbling around trying to see through the kitchen door.

Anyway Chopin heads to Paris because he can't stay in Poland and soon encounters many names we know. There's a great scene early on where Franz Liszt starts playing some of Chopin's sheet music. On being introduced to the composer he wants to shake his hand but doesn't want to stop playing. As Chopin has joined in they trade parts so that they each have a hand free to shake. There are other set pieces too, my favourite being the one where Liszt gives a performance in the dark at the home of the Duchess of Orleans, only to secretly substitute Chopin. It's a transparent ploy to us but the way in which Merle Oberon, as George Sand, simply exposes the deception is both subtle and marvellous.

The film as a whole is a Hollywood biopic, with all the good annd bad that suggests. I'm no expert on Chopin's life but it doesn't come as a surprise that serious liberties were taken in the name of cinematic art. Either the things we watch happened in a different order or they happened to different people or just didn't happen at all.

Here Chopin grows up in a poor house in the country rather than palaces; isn't hailed as a child prodigy in Poland; only ever has one teacher; doesn't write anything that isn't for piano; doesn't go to Warsaw; doesn't play concerts in Paris; befriends Liszt but not Hiller, Berlioz, Bellini, Schumann or Mendelssohn; doesn't even become engaged; has no real hardship in Majorca; didn't have students; George Sand doesn't have children; etc etc. The final concert tour in which Chopin grows more and more seriously ill while raising money to send back to Poland doesn't seem to have happened.

The more Hollywood biopics I work my way through, the more the question becomes less about accuracy and more about effect and purpose. This one is a superbly crafted film that happens to have very little to do with Frédéric Chopin.

The Saint in Palm Springs (1941) Jack Hively

Simon Templar, the Saint, arrives back in the States to a welcoming committee of police ready to arrest him for murder at the request of Inspector Fernack. Naturally Templar outwits them and visits Fernack on his own to find out what's going on. Fernack gets him involved in a plan that involves enough that flouts legality to prevent him from helping out officially. A friend from the first great war is in major trouble in the old country because of the second one. He's managed to convert his fortune into three very valuable postage stamps which he's trying to get to his daughter, Elna Johnson, in Palm Springs, via his brother. Of course the bad guys take out Elna's Uncle Peter and the Saint must complete the job.

George Sanders was never the Saint that Leslie Charteris wrote about (apparently Roger Moore is closer to the original concept), but he was always fun to watch. He made five Saint films all told, none of which were as good as his performances in them, and this was the last one before he handed the role over to Hugh Sinclair for a couple of outings. He gets some able assistance in his work by Paul Guilfoyle, playing Clarence 'Pearly' Gates, a former pickpocket working as the hotel detective at the hotel where Elna works and everything goes down.

The story here isn't a bad one but it doesn't really surprise any and it just sort of fizzles out.

Saturday 17 November 2007

The Return of the Whistler (1948) D Ross Lederman

After only two years away, the Whistler is back. Every episode in the series up until now had featured Richard Dix, but he died in 1949 and so presumably was not well enough to appear. His last film credit was The Thirteenth Hour, made in 1937. Taking his place is Richard Duane, who was something of a regular in the film series of the 40s. He had a role in the last Whistler movie, The Secret of the Whistler, as the man who lost his model girlfriend to Dix, but I've also seen him recently in the second of the I Love a Mystery films, The Devil's Mask. Three in a week is pretty good going given that Duane only made 17 films.

Here he plays Ted Nichols who is about to get married to the lovely Alice Dupres, a French lady played by Lénore Aubert who sounds a little like Ingrid Bergman and was actually born in what is now Slovenia. They're out on the road but hit a slew of bad luck. The justice who's to perform the ceremony isn't home, their car breaks down and while Nichols spends the night at the garage where it's being fixed, his bride to be gets an expensive room that shouldn't be rented out courtesy of a dubious hotel night clerk. The mystery comes in when he goes to pick her up in the morning, because she's no longer there.

The other chief character here is Gaylord Traynor, which looks like an anagram but isn't. He's a private detective who helps Nichols try to track down Alice and he's great, like a sharp and focused version of Edward Everett Horton. He's played by Richard Lane, who was mostly known at this point in time as Inspector Farraday, traditionally inept foil to Boston Blackie, and it's good to see him completely on the ball for a change.

The story is good too and actually benefits from a lack of Richard Dix. The only thing preventing Richard Duane from being a better choice for all the other Whistler movies is the required age of the lead character. Here he doesn't have to be so old so Duane fits the role well. Everyone does their part exactly as required and there's even a happy ending. For many reasons it doesn't gel with the rest of the Whistlers but it's a good film nonetheless and probably better than most of the others.

The Secret of the Whistler (1946) George Sherman

The Curtis Monument Company gets a strange order. It's a marble memorial for a woman who hasn't died yet and it's being ordered by the 'deceased' woman herself, Edith Marie Harrison. Given that this is a Whistler movie, it's not too surprising to find that Edith is married to the character being played by Richard Dix. This time out he's Ralph Harrison, aging party boy. He's really an artist, but his money comes from his wife and his party guests only turn up so that they can work their way through his food and drink.

He does seem to care about his wife, who's having heart attacks, but manages anyway to fall for the wiles of model Kay Morrell, played by the lovely Leslie Brooks. Edith's doctor advises him to find companionship to forget about his wife's troubles, given that she becomes bedridden and can't endure much companionship herself, but young Kay takes considerable advantage of that. By the time the doctors bring in a specialist and hope springs up for a recovery for Edith, he's already fallen for Kay enough to want to do something about it.

You can see where some of the plot will go after that, but you'll also be surprised at where the scriptwriters take it. There are a number of twists to the tale that are handled very nicely and leave certain things open for additional interpretation. There's some delicious irony that is served very cold indeed, making this a pedestrian but ultimately satisfying episode in the Whistler series. It was also the last appearance by Richard Dix, who was replaced for only one further entry.

Friday 16 November 2007

Stardust (2007) Matthew Vaughn

Here's something that happens too rarely nowadays: a book that I've loved for a long while turned into a film and done right. Neil Gaiman wrote the book, which I didn't just read, I read it in entirety over an international phone line from England to my American better half to be. It's a fairy tale, but done as fairy tales ought to be done: simple and archetypal at heart, yet full of fascinating characters, fantastic situations, complex interplay, joyous comedy and that unique form of magic that lightens the soul and makes everything right with the world, just for a little while. What's so amazing is that this got transferred to the screen properly.

Charlie Cox plays Tristan Thorn, a young boy who doesn't seem entirely at home in the English village of Wall. We soon find out that only his father is English, his mother being a princess held captive by a witch in the amazing country that exists on the other side of the wall that gives the village its name. He has a crush on Victoria, who he believes to be his One True Love but he soon discovers that she's about to be married. As a last ditch attempt to win her heart he promises to bring her back a falling star that they see rocket down out of the sky, and then his adventures begin.

This film is a treat, even to me knowing the plot. I'll be honest and say that I was expecting the film to be a disappointing and pale shadow of the quality of the book, because hey most of them are, right? Yet I was thankfully surprised and quickly fell into the magic of it all. My heart skipped and my eyes teared up and I laughed and smiled and left in joy knowing that I'll see this film again. Cox is excellent, though I don't know him at all, and Claire Danes is just as excellent as Yvaine, the star that Tristan and Victoria see falling.

There's also Michelle Pfeiffer as an old witch set on regaining her youth. She's not afraid to look scarily old even though she still looks stunning without the makeup, and she's absolutely spot on for the part. Even more outstanding is Robert de Niro, as the captain of a flying ship that harvests lightning. I won't spoil his character for you but rest assured that you've never seen de Niro the way you'll see him here. There's also Peter O'Toole in a small role, Melanie Hill, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, an excellent Mark Strong, Mark Williams, Ricky Gervais and many others, plus narration from Ian McKellen and a Greek chorus of dead princes. All are superb.

Never mind my yakking, go see this film. Its lack of PR is shameful because it's absolutely top notch. It's one of those films that you will buy not just a copy for yourself but another to lend out, still more to give to friends and family and then yet another for yourself because you've worn out the first. Gaiman now has two classics on the big screen: Mirrormask and Stardust, and that bodes well for the Sandman and others. You owe it to yourself: go see this film.

Thursday 15 November 2007

Arsène Lupin Returns (1938) George Fitzmaurice

After Perry Mason and before the Lone Wolf, Warren William was Steve Emerson, G-Man supreme, for a single but memorable film. He can't fail, it seems, and thus ends up on the front page so frequently that every crook in the country knows what he looks like. He's thus out of a job and starts with the Tyrone Insurance Underwriters who have him straight to work on the de Grissac emerald case. Someone has stolen the fake substitute emerald and tied up the beautiful Lorraine de Grissac and the rest of her party. However the real emerald is apparently safe in the hotel safe.

As if in preparation for his long run as a reformed international jewel thief, Michael Lanyard, William plays an investigator fighting one here and he's no bungling cop. However certain clues lead him to conclude that the job was done by no other than Arsène Lupin, one of the most notorious reformed gentleman thieves of them all. Lupin is apparently dead, though no body was ever found, and he's really hiding under the name of Rene Farrand, pig farmer, played by Melvyn Douglas (who had played the Lone Wolf already). He's also very much interested in Lorraine, which is hardly surprising given that she looks precisely like Virginia Bruce, and that leads to a joyous battle for her affections between William and Douglas.

What happy star was shining over the MGM lot in 1938 I don't know but this is a peach of a cast strutting their stuff in a cleverly constructed plot. Third billed Warren William gets plenty of screen time, some excellent dialogue and lots to do. He plays superbly off Melvyn Douglas, which is a good thing because Emerson suspects Farrand and Farrand (and the French police) suspect him. Bruce is underused, as most women weew in the Hollywood of 1938 but she's a pleasant background to Douglas and William.

The film has far more than just three leads with first names for both their first and last. Lupin's former collaborators are played by E E Clive and Nat Pendleton, who are always worth watching, the Prefect of Police is George Zucco and there's Monty Woolley, John Halliday, Ian Wolfe, Tully Marshall, Jonathan Hale and more. All of them do exactly what they need to, but the true joy here is in watching the battle of wits between Warren William and Melvyn Douglas. There's no word for that but 'treat'. I just wish that this wasn't just a one off. Bravo!

Torchy Gets Her Man (1938) William Beaudine

After an inexplicably poor entry in the Torchy Blane series which suffered from having almost the entire regular cast missing, everyone thankfully returns for Torchy Gets Her Man. Rather than some exotic adventure involving stuffed leopards and parachuting onto moving boats, we're back on something a lot more down to earth. Torchy has been running stories on Hundred Dollar Bill Bailey, which is a bit of a tired story because he's been doing his thing for 14 years. However the federal secret service reckon he's finally made a mistake and enlist the help of Steve McBride to close in.

Naturally this being a Torchy Blane movie, we know a few things: firstly, nothing is as it seems; secondly, Torchy is hot on the case snooping into everything; and thirdly, Gahagan is the weak link in the chain giving everyone the chance to get one over on everyone else. To avoid him screwing up such a big case, the department puts him on two weeks vacation but of course he ends up in the same place as everyone else: the track, where Hundred Dollar Bill Bailey is working his racket.

It's not too difficult to work out what's really going, but how we get there is managed very nicely indeed. While merely thinking about how artificial Torchy Blane in Panama was makes this one look like Citizen Kane in comparison, it is done pretty well. Torchy has less to do than usual for half the film but she makes up for it whenever she's on screen. The jokes are mostly funny ones and even Gahagan is more enjoyable than annoying. The only weird parts are that Torchy and McBride are working completely separately and there's less actual detective work than you'd expect, merely plot progression.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

The Lone Wolf in London (1947) Leslie Goodwins

Last I saw of the Lone Wolf, Michael Lanyard, he was arriving back in the States after spending the war in Europe. That was the first of the three Gerald Mohr Lone Wolfs and this is the third, but it finds him back in London. He's apparently writing a book on the great gems of the world, a logical choice what with him being a reformed jewel thief, and his only incomplete chapter is on a pair of twin stones called the Eyes of the Nile. They're in London, after having being recovered from some German general but just as Lanyard turns up to look at them, they're stolen and of course Scotland Yard suspect him.

Enter a bunch of other characters who twirl the plot strands around and drag the Lone Wolf into subplots involving not just jewel thievery, but blackmail and murder, plus a number of crosses, double crosses and more. It really highlights just what the first of the three films Gerald Mohr made as the Lone Wolf should have been and wasn't.

This one had a lucid story that while never particularly surprising, held together well. There's much better acting than before, not just from Mohr himself but from Eric Blore as Jamison who has rarely been better and supporting actors like scream queen Evelyn Ankers. The direction was solid, the dialogue good and often funny, even the music was good. Possibly most amazing of all, especially given the opening scenes of stock footage, there was no embarrassing digs at the English. Much more like it.

Monday 12 November 2007

Black Moon (1975) Louis Malle

I've been watching all these Louis Malle films on my own, but couldn't resist waiting on this one so my lass could watch too, given that it was apparently a fantasy film with unicorns and whatnot. An adult version of Alice in Wonderland, I'd read. Well I remember Alice starting by following a rabbit down a rabbit hole, not running over a badger in her car. It appears to be wartime, as evidenced by the human corpses we soon see, as well as the sounds of gunfire in the distance and the road being blocked by some huge gun. Suddenly the comparison isn't to Alice in Wonderland but to Pan's Labyrinth, except it seems to be a pretty clearcut war between men and women and both sides seem to be as vicious as each other.

Stuck in the middle of this war is Lily, a young girl who doesn't seem to be interested in fighting on other side, and played by Rex Harrison's granddaughter Cathryn. Apart from the many animals we see (a herd of sheep, a praying mantis, cockroaches, you name it), she's the only one who appears to not want to be involved. That is, of course, until she sees a unicorn and follows a horse and rider to a place where naked kids are taking a pig for a run. Yes, this is an odd film indeed and it's hardly a surprise to find a relative of Luis Buñuel involved (his daughter-in-law Joyce co-wrote the story by contributing additional dialogue).

Director Louis Malle wrote the film but it could easily have come from the pen of Buñuel, especially the avant garde piano soundtrack that quickly becomes apparent as a cat walking across the keys. This is in a house that is apparently empty when Lily arrives, but in which the fire is blazing and the pot is cooking, and in which she soon discovers an old bedridden woman carrying on a gibberish conversation with some sort of rat. This is Old Lady, hardly the most politically correct credit, but an apt one. She's played by Thérèse Giehse as someone who only communicates with the world through her ham radio.

Not that anything is particularly easy to describe before that, but from then on things get even more bizarre. The old lady dies but doesn't seem to be dead, continues raving in gibberish though occasionally switches to fluent English and startling lucidity, and breastfeeds from the breast of her daughter. Or at least I think it's her daughter, one of a pair of incestuous twins, both also called Lily. She's played by Louis Malle's own companion of the time, Alexandra Stewart, and her twin is Joe Dallesandro from various Andy Warhol movies.

The connection to the real Malle himself is made even more apparent by the choice of what must be considered another member of the cast: the house itself, which was Malle's own gorgeous manor in the French countryside, called Le Coual or The Crow's Call. No wonder there are so many animals pervading the film at almost every step. And presumably Stewart lived here, along with Malle, making their commute to work a pretty quick one.

Critics seem to have alternately slated and revered the film, with almost nobody hanging around in the middle ground. I can understand that because it makes no sense and has no real story to tell (though there are so many potential allegories that go tantalisingly unconfirmed), but it's magnetic and visually stimulating. The cinematographer was Sven Nykvist, long term director of photography for Ingmar Bergman, and he does an awesome job here. I was blown away by the early scenes of Lily driving around in the warzone. The camera was presumably mounted on the side of the car, but with a steadicam so steady that it beggars belief.

This film is very strange, needless to say. It's hallucinatory in a pleasant sense but ultimately unfulfilling, and while it looks awesome there's something missing.

The Saint's Double Trouble (1940) Jack Hively

How could any B movie fan resist this one? It's a Saint movie with George Sanders not just playing the good guy but that bad guy too, and with Bela Lugosi added to the mix for good measure. We're in Cairo and Bela's trying to send a coffin through the mail. Some things never change. What's strange is that he's sending it from Simon Templar to Professor Horatio T Bitts in Philadelphia, and while Lugosi was many things, the Saint isn't one of them. Anyway, the coffin contains an age old Egyptian mummy, which goes against every rule of sending things through the mail.

Of course there's soon a murder, with Saint calling card attached, and the Saint himself appears at Inspector Fernack's hotel room, because naturally he's on holiday in Philadelphia at the time. Soon we discover that there are two people wandering around who look exactly like the Saint: one is Simon Templar and the other is the leader of a gang of international jewel smugglers called Duke Bates.

As you'd expect everything soon gets very bizarre indeed, as both Templar and Bates realise this too, so we get each playing the other, sometimes obviously so we're in on the ruse but often times not obviously at all so we're not sure exactly who we're watching. Is it Templar or Bates or Templar playing Bates or Bates playing Templar? You figure it out. Bates's hoods have a lot of difficulty, as does The Partner, Lugosi's character and everyone else in the story.

Lugosi gets very little to do, but George Sanders does. There's so much to'ing and fro'ing with Sanders trying to outdo Sanders that it really needs a couple of viewings to get everything straight. I hope he got paid twice because he really is both leads. Fascinating but confusing.

Sunday 11 November 2007

The Unknown (1946) Henry Levin

Twenty years before we start, Rachel Martin is about to leave her large family home in Kentucky with her husband of some months, but her parents don't know and are happy to ignore the whole thing and have her marry someone else. A struggle over a gun brings the accidental death of her father and the family bricks him up behind the fireplace, as led by her mother Phoebe, who is as domineering a bitch of a family matriarch as you can imagine.

Back in the present day, Rachel's daughter Nina Arnold visits the house for the first time, for the reading of her grandmother's will. She's never met her mother and her two uncles, and of course the house is not a happy one. Rachel is insane, Edward is a deaf sculptor and Ralph is an alcoholic. Luckily for Nina, she's brought along Jack Packard and Doc Long to accompany her, and they're just the folks to find their way through the shenanigans that soon begin, given that Nina must stay the night in order to be eligible for whatever might be left to her.

What we have here fits less with the previous two films and more with what I expect the original radio series to be. Its status as a serious influence on Scooby Doo is far more obvious too, with all sorts of bizarre activities going on that would be highly appropriate for the gang in the Mystery Machine to investigate: no ghosts per se, but secret panels, locked doors, crypts, the works. Of course, there's no gang, just Jack Packard and Doc Long, but that's enough to crack this case.

The Devil's Mask (1946) Henry Levin

I was surprised and very impressed by I Love a Mystery, the first of three films based on the long running radio series. Reading up on it, I'm more and more intrigued by the original radio show and now have a bunch downloaded and ready to go. It had a somewhat unique focus on seemingly supernatural mysteries that weren't so supernatural once explained and there's still a large fan base who keep its well beloved memory alive. I Love a Mystery was also apparently half of the influence for Scooby Doo, the other half being The Loves of Dobie Gillis.

We open with a crashed plane that leaves nobody dead but a number of cargo packages orphaned through their labels being burned. One contains a shrunken human head of the Jivarro Indian variety, but the only museum holding any doesn't have any missing. They're in the Mitchell collection, and as if by scary coincidence Mitchell's wife meets Jack Packard and Doc Long there at the same time it's brought to the museum's attention. Mrs Mitchell believes she's being followed by a man hired by her stepdaughter to kill her, and we soon discover that the stepdaughter believes that her father was murdered in the South American jungle.

That's a lot of subplots to juggle within a film that's only 65 minutes long, but like the last one it's very heavy on the storyline at the expense of the sort of humour and other filler material that we're used to. Sure, Doc Long is mostly there for comic relief, but he has other purposes and the southern folk witticisms don't slow down the actual storyline. And as with the first film, it's far easier to notice Barton Yarborough playing Doc than Jim Bannon playing Jack Packard, but Bannon grows in stature as the film progresses. He's almost the opposite of the modern Hollywood standard for detectives: he's intelligent and he gets the job done, but he's not flashy in the slightest. Anyone not paying attention is likely to miss half of what he does.

This one isn't as good as the first, and it's not too difficult to work out the plot twists, but it's still worthy of notice, especially for Jim Bannon's understated performance and the admirably capable writing.

Mysterious Intruder (1946) William Castle

Film number six for the Whistler (the fourth directed by William Castle), and Richard Dix is a hard boiled detective this time, Don Gale. He's hired by Edward Stillwell who runs an old music store to track down a girl he hasn't seen in years, Elora Lund. Gale is a particularly unscrupulous detective, so sends an imposter in to see him. He explains that she's rich through some 'junk' that her mother had given him to sell years ago, but which he'd kept. However before he can tell her what it was, a mysterious intruder breaks in and kills him.

Gale, sleazy but not stupid, now has the hint to a fortune but no clue as to what it is, and in tracking down the murderer incurs the unwelcome attentions of the law. Detectives Taggart and Burns are good at their jobs, quite a change for Barton MacLane who is usually either inept or merely adequate and reliant on someone like Torchy Blane to actually get a case solved. He's Taggart and Charles Lane is Burns, with his memorable miser face.

Eventually we discover exactly what this is all about. Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, apparently recorded two wax cylinders six months before she died, and they came to Stillwell via Elora Lund's mother. Now Gale has to find a way to use Elora to gain the cylinders and glean his own sizeable profit in the process. In the meantime he becomes a logical and highly sought after suspect for a growing number of murders.

These Whistler movies are a little more detail oriented than a lot of the run of the mill detective films of the time, and William Castle can always be relied on to introduce a bitter twist. However Richard Dix remains the low point, even though he's probably better here as a sleazy detective than in the previous couple of Whistler movies that I've seen.

Saturday 10 November 2007

The Deadly Spawn (1983) Douglas McKeown

I remember picking up The Deadly Spawn on VHS about twenty years ago, watching it at a friend's house and loving it to bits. It was outrageously low budget, looking like it was financed, filmed and acted by a couple of families and shot in their actual houses. Of course the acting is poor but it's honest, the effects are a number of levels above the budget, the plot nonsensical but fun and the logic gaps and plot holes numerous.

What it has is a great monster, way too big to believably a) get into the cellar, b) move around, c) get out of the cellar etc, but gloriously betoothed. It also has associated little leech like things that are obvious ripoffs of the creature from Alien. In fact this film was officially titled The Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, even though it technically has nothing to do with the Alien franchise whatsoever.

The monster comes down to earth in a meteorite, kills a couple of nosy campers, then finds its way to the basement of a house with a well stocked human food supply that it starts working through, before sending the little leech things off to attack another house just for variety. The parents are wiped out quickly, of course, leaving a couple of scientist type teenagers and a kid who lives for horror movies and obviously compiles his Christmas list from the inside cover of Fangoria magazine.

This kid can't act to save his life, but somehow he manages to depict a kid who knows monsters aren't real, can deal with one that appears in his basement and eats his parents, and yet seem completely natural in a red cape and gorilla mask. The actor is Charles George Hildebrandt, son of the fantasy artist Tim Hildebrandt who was one of the Brothers Hildebrandt. They painted the first Star Wars poster, among many other achievements. This was Charles's only film credit.

His elder brother is played by Tom DeFranco, who did return to the big screen for Alien Nation, Dr Alien and a couple of others. You can imagine who he is just by looking at the plot keywords on his IMDb page: 'Alien', 'Hit In Crotch', 'Teen'. Oh, the 80s! I lost track of everyone else, because really this is entirely about the aliens themselves and the effects. I remembered the scene at grandma's house with the little leech thing running riot, but how could I have forgotten the pizza face ripping scene early on? For me, this is nostalgia and it was welcome fun for a Friday night big screen round midnight presentation.

Friday 9 November 2007

Inframan (1975) Shan Hua

Oh, this one is going to become a huge favourite. I'd never even heard of Inframan before, but I got the privilege of seeing this one on the big screen in 35mm, courtesy of Midnite Movie Mamacita. It was gloriously widescreen but dubbed, both very well (as far as synchronisation) and joyfully badly (the dialogue, the names). I'll have to pick up the DVD to experience it in its original language and see how outrageous the subtitles are. It's possibly the most fun superhero ever made, while remaining one of the most nonsensical.

The delectable Terry Liu plays a supervillain with possibly the best supervillain name of all time: Princess Dragon Mom. She's a remnant of a previous age, frozen in the geological crust for eons but newly thawed out with her monsters and minions. Inexplicably, she also has all the latest technology and speaks the modern language fluently, but still wanders around in an outrageous bikini costume with a long whip. Naturally, she wants to take over the world and so goes head to head with Professor Chang and his new creation, Inframan. I don't know why they didn't let her. It would be a very different place if we were all slaves to Princess Dragon Mom!

Inframan is a complete ripoff of Ultraman, and is played here by no less than Danny Lee, well known cop in Hong Kong movies, up to and including John Woo's masterful The Killer. Here he gets to perform a lot of gymnastic manoevres, indulge in enthusiastic Shaw Brothers kung fu with actors in bizarre rubber suits, grow to giant size for a single battle, fire off his thunderball fists and have no end of fun on truly awesome sets. He's also an instantly established hero. I loved the bit where we watched him get created from nothing, then fly out of the building only for people to look at him and know exactly who he is. Yeah, Inframan!

What makes this film succeed is that it doesn't let up for a moment. It plays like the greatest episode of Power Rangers ever, with something new happening all the time. The sets are outrageous and awesome, from the supervillain lair on Mount Demon with all its fancy skeletons to the good guy HQ with its seventies flashing lights and its dome on which someone seems to be playing Tetris. The good guy technicians are all dressed like Evil Knievel, except Inframan who has his cool red suit; the bad guy minions are dressed up like skeletons with masks that don't want to stay put.

And the monsters don't quit. I think they were designed by Frank Zappa or someone with as wicked a sense of humour. They're all of the rubber suit sort, but these costumes are worn by actors with no lack of energy, bouncing around and kung fu fighting with a vengeance. One looks like an octopus but is really some sort of plant monster, another looks like a giant turd with teeth and continually growls at us like the Tasmanian Devil. There are two robot men with detachable heads and hands that bounce outward on springs. There's a traditional Chinese demon sort with huge white hair and another that looks like a Terracotta warrior type but with a handlebar moustache. My favourite of course has to be She Demon, who's a little chunky but still gorgeous under her flimsy bikini costume.

While it's impossible not to laugh, it's also nigh on impossible not to be entertained by this hyperkinetic Hong Kong take on a very Japanese genre. What a gem.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Calcutta (1969) Louis Malle

Edited down from thirty hours of footage of India generally, this became a hundred minutes or so of one city only, Calcutta. The focus came from editor Suzanne Baron but the footage was Louis Malle's. He travelled to India without any real specific goal in mind, just to experience the country and get something of it down on film.
We start in the water, where the Hooghly river empties into the ocean, where men wash themselves, their clothes and even their teeth in the muddy water. It's February 1968, so it's long after India had gained its independence, yet long before the resurgence of Calcutta as a city in the 21st century. Louis Malle himself provides a little narration and even acts as human subtitles on occasion, but mostly this is a visual film only.

We see animals everywhere: cows sleeping it off on street corners, herds of goats or water buffaloes driven down the road, people washing elephants. Wherever there aren't animals, there are people as Calcutta demonstrates how it's one of the most overcrowded cities on the planet. People are everywhere, the homeless sleeping in boxes on the street, the crippled sitting or sleeping in the middle of the road for cars to swerve round, begging for a living if they're even awake.

The human suffering in this film is palpable, and all the more obvious because it's commonplace. What we see in one of Mother Theresa's 'dying rooms' is less startling when we realise that it's nothing much out of the ordinary for Calcutta. There's a city within the city though, that works at the other end of the economic scale. The remnants of the British Raj persist through the Victoria Memorial, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club and other such locations that look English, sound English and pretty much are English, even though most of the people there are Indian.

Back in the lower end of things, it's still fascinating to see how everything is done so low tech. People transport goods by piling them on the heads, even down to women and bricks. They're good enough to stack them four or five high and not even hold on. Buildings are built by hand. Rickshaws are commonplace. People travel by train but often just by sitting on the roof, ducking every time they go under a low bridge.

I've talked about how this is a very visual film, but there's plenty to listen to even if we have no concept of the language (or languages) being used. There's a lot of music, not found to add to the soundtrack but as the background or foreground noise of what we're watching. Some is performed music, some mass chanting, plenty just crowd noise that happens to approximate music. There's plenty of other cultural miscellany too, the third quarter of the film at the weekly mass meetings on large open ground being fascinating.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

I Love a Mystery (1945) Henry Levin

Another radio series turned film series, I Love a Mystery featured detectives Jack Packard and Doc Long, who ran the Triple A-1 Detective Agency with a colleague called Reggie York. Reading up on the series, I discover that it's highly regarded and it mixed the expected mystery theme with a frequent supernatural element. The writer was Carlton E Morse, one of the most respected radio writers of the era, and the series ran from 1939 to 1952.

For this film transition, the first of three and the only one to reuse a story from the radio series, we start at the San Francisco morgue where Jefferson Monk has arrived DOA, without a head. Over at the Silver Samovar they're mourning him an hour after closing, and we see our story in their flashback. Three days earlier he was there in the club, explaining why he's been condemned to death by persons unknown and why he'll be dead in three days. A mysterious peg legged man has been following him with a valise, specially prepared for his head.

Monk is a socialite played by solid old George Macready, who is married to beautiful young Nina Foch, playing Ellen Monk, though she's paralysed from the waist down. In a flashback in a flashback we discover that Monk was offered $10,000 for his head, by an ancient Oriental secret society. Apparently he is the mirror image of the founder of the society, whose embalmed head is deteriorating after a thousand years and they need a replacement. They also let him know that he only has a year left to live, a year which is now almost up.

The first time we meet Packard and Long, they don't seem particularly interesting, astute or memorable, but as time moves on they prove to be fascinating. Packard is the real detective of the bunch, knowledgeable and insightful even though he doesn't look like he ought to be. Doc Long is nothing compared to Packard, as evidenced stereotypically by his southern accent, but he's no bumbling idiot sidekick. The pair of them get to work their way through many twists and turns of plot, but Packard seems to be a step ahead of the game. Definitely a B movie but fascinating.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Voice of the Whistler (1945) William Castle

John Sinclair was an early industrialist, making it big soon after the end of World War I and progressing upward and onward from here. We even get to see a short film about him, which ironically ends with the Sinclair company winning a $25m patent infringement case against the Turner Company, given that I'm watching this as a recording from TCM. Everything looks rosy, but he's been overdoing it for years and is now at the literal point of collapse. His doctors make him take a vacation away from work to recover, but there's nobody to take with him as he has absolutely no personal life whatsoever to fall back on.

He's not well on his holiday either and falls ill in the cab of Ernie Sparrow, former boxing champion of England, who helps him out by getting him to a clinic. It turns out that Ernie was once in the same spot: highly successful but with no real friends at all, and Ernie becomes his first friend. It's at the clinic that he meets another: Joan Martin, his nurse who's been engaged to the clinic's intern for years. It's to Joan that he offers a proposal, literally, to marry him and be his companion for the few months he has left to live. In return she'll receive his entire considerable fortune when he dies.

She accepts and the three of them (John, Ernie and Joan) move to a lighthouse where Sinclair fails to die. In fact he seems to get better and actually falls in love with her, which makes the whole love triangle more apparent. Then comes the inevitable murder plot which has a few quirks to it. It's a pretty good story, all told, and done pretty well too. Lynn Merrick, who plays Joan, looks awesome and it's completely believable that two completely different men could fall in love with her. Rhys Williams is wasted as Ernie Sparrow, but Richard Dix is fine for this role: solid but not particularly emotionally deep. And that sums up the film, really.

Monday 5 November 2007

The Power of the Whistler (1945) Lew Landers

Third in the Whistler series, this one finds Richard Dix as William Everest, a man who is almost hit by a car at the beginning of the film. He stumbles into the Salt Shaker in Greenwich Village where Jean Lang tells his fortune from a distance, twice in fact, and the cards come up both times that he'll die within 24 hours. Lang is played by Janis Carter, who I last saw playing Michael Lanyard's girlfriend in The Notorious Lone Wolf. She's certainly pleasing on the eyes but can't be to Everest, as he meets her as she tells him he's about to die.

He's also managed to lose his memory, unable to remember even who he is. Lang helps him out, acting as his wits given that he seems to have lost his along with his memory, but the more leads they follow the more confusing everything gets. He seems to have bought a ballerina flowers but she doesn't recognise him and the flowers came from her fiance. He also has a prescription from a doctor but the doctor's address turns out to be a bookstore and the doctor himself was the author of a book on poison, dead fifty years. He also seems to be a really nice guy, but animals turn up dead in his vicinity.

It plays out pretty well but maybe for a little too long. It's only seven minutes longer than The Whistler, but it feels like half an hour. When everything's in doubt, it keeps us rivetted to find out exactly who William Everest is; but when we discover who he is and the tension switches to Lang finding him out, it isn't as effective. It's fascinating to watch the femme fatale concept reversed: Janis Carter would be an awesome femme fatale but she's entirely the good girl here who gets caught up in her own good deeds. This one misses somehow but it's hard to really detail why.

The Whistler (1944) William Castle

The Whistler ran from 1942 until 1955 on radio, 692 episodes in all, and was hugely popular, being the most popular show originating on the west coast for years. Inevitably it made the transition to the screen in 1944, with Richard Dix taking the lead role in seven out of the eight films (the exception being the last, The Return of the Whistler). What made it unique was that he didn't play a consistent character, instead taking a different role in each film, making this more akin to a Tales of the Unexpected or an Inner Sanctum than a detective series. He isn't even the Whistler, that role being voice acting only for Otto Forrest.

Here Dix plays Earl C Conrad, a businessman who is seriously depressed because he talked his wife into taking a trip, on which she died. It's three years later and he's finally reached the point of suicide, but he finds that he just can't do it. Therefore he does the next best thing, hiring a hitman to do the job for him. Unfortunately the hitman is quickly killed by the cops, leaving Conrad with no way to cancel the hit once his wife miraculously turns up alive.

Until now I've only know Richard Dix from over a decade earlier, from films like The Lost Squadron and Cimarron. He appeared like a chiseled tough guy type. He still retained some of that here, looking from the side like a plastic surgery reconstruction case, but with eyes that move like Robert Vaughn's and a voice like Gregory Peck. He's still far from impressive to my eyes, but is better here than back in the early talkies.

It's the story that's key here though, with William Castle a perfect candidate for the director's chair. There are no gimmicks but plenty of twists, making this something of a noir delight. Dix is fine but J Carrol Naish is better, being perfect for anything remotely dark and sleazy, and Joan Woodbury is superb as the hitman's wife. The other name I recognise is Gloria Stuart, here a pretty 34 year old playing Conrad's secretary who is secretly in love with him. I know her far better six films and 33 years later as the old Rose in Titanic.

All this bodes well for the Whistler and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. Castle directed half of them and he's always well worth watching. If he can keep the calibre of this one up, they'll be fascinating viewing.

Blondes at Work (1938) Frank McDonald

Marvin Spencer, proprietor of the Bon Ton department stores, disappears. Luckily for Torchy Blane, ace reporter for the Star, he got into a cab right in front of where she was getting a parking ticket, and she enlists a cop's aid to track him down. She finds him registered in a hotel under a false name, and stabbed to death as well, but she has her leads to follow to investigate his murder. She even leads the cops to the obvious suspect, but she doesn't believe that he's guilty.

Of course her fiance Lt Steve McBride has to investigate too, but his boss, Inspector McTavish, wants to ensure that he doesn't let anything slip to Torchy. This time out they have to do their investigating separately, though of course Torchy finds ways and means to bypass that process every opportunity she gets. What makes this so much fun is that McBride is far from an idiot, yet Torchy gets to trump him at every step and he has to flounder around trying to work out where the leak is.

The early Torchy Blanes seem to be very well written affairs, B movies certainly but ones that speed along with decent plots and witty dialogue. What makes the series really unique is that the late Torchy Blanes seem to have the same going for them too, and there are nine films from first to last. Given that Torchy is very much a hero here, she breaks a lot of ethical boundaries here from breaking into cop cars to scooping jury decisions from the supply closet.

It's hilarious stuff but very dubious indeed, way more dubious than the mock Chinese conversation she has with a laundryman. There aren't too many films I can think of that end with the heroine in jail!

Sunday 4 November 2007

Mr Wu (1927) William Nigh

I'll take any opportunity I can to see a Lon Chaney film, Lon Chaney senior that is, and here's a new one on me: 1927's Chinese themed Mr Wu, in which he plays two roles. In fact there's an extra title card after the one showing the main credits that tells us that 'the characters of Grandfather Wu and Mandarin Wu are both played by Mr Chaney', just in case we wouldn't believe it otherwise.

We start in the palace of Wu, where Mandarin Wu stutters around with a very strange gait, a cool staff and almost inevitable long fingernails. He also asks Mr James Muir, an Englishman, to take his young son and teach him the ways of the west, as the west is coming to the east. As always Chaney is unrecognisable but having great fun playing with the part and teasing his young son about the fact that his wife has just been born. Needless to say he doesn't play the young Wu, who must be less than ten at this point.

Then we jump forward a few decades and we see Chaney change again. Now the young Wu meets his bride and the elderly Wu lives to see it. He's much more recognisable as the grown up young Wu but truly awesome as the even more elderly grandfather. I have no clue how he made his face look like that, but then this is Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, and that name was given him for a reason. He came up with no end of incredible tricks, that often involved self-torture, to gain the effects he desired, but they died with him. At least we're blessed that some of them still remain to be viewed on film today. This part goes well beyond the makeup though, to some truly wonderful movements that highlight just how great an actor Chaney really was.

Anyway, we leap forward yet again. Now the elder Wu is dead and the younger Wu's wife too, but their daughter is all grown up and ready to be married herself. She's played by Renée Adorée, who looks almost acceptable when viewed full frontal but otherwise looks terrible, more like Shirley Maclaine than a full blooded young Chinese lady. Given that Anna May Wong was in the cast, the choice to cast Adorée instead is lamentable to posterity. She was still riding high on the silent screen though, after The Big Parade, La Boheme and The Show, so it's understandable at least.

She falls for an Englishman, Basil Gregory, thus prompting the great tragedy of the plot. Not only is Gregory's father a racist who wouldn't 'drink tea with a Chink', young Wu Nang Ping is expected to marry the son of another Mandarin and their 'marriage moon is near'. It doesn't help that actor Ralph Forbes looks like a cross between James Cagney and Dwight Frye, but the key thing is that his character has got his lady love pregnant. There's only one real way out for Mandarin Wu, given the strict traditions of his race, and that's not a pleasant one for anyone concerned.

Chaney is great, though his elder role dies off early and he doesn't get much chance to show what he can do as the younger Wu until late in the film. He does finally get scenes he can work with though, tortured internally at what he must do, and Chaney was always awesome at those, even when acting through such layers of makeup involved overdone eye flaring. The elder Wu would have been a great Chaney role, the younger Wu is merely a good one.

However Renée Adorée is awful in almost every respect, to the degree that some of her bad acting rubbed off on Anna May Wong, who I've seen and respected elsewhere as a fine actor in her own right, both in silents like Old San Francisco and Piccadilly to sound films like Shanghai Express. The sets are great, especially the outdoor ones: I can only dream of having a garden like the one the Wu's have. The direction isn't bad as William Nigh was a pretty good director of silents. He couldn't really take that through into the world of sound though, ending up solidly in the B movie world.

The Miracle Woman (1931) Frank R Capra

I'm finding that Frank Capra's early films are even more fascinating than his later ones, those that are seem to be universally regarded as classics. They may not be as good as the ones everybody knows but they're from an honest age when things could be said that people didn't necessarily want to hear. Three years later the Production Code hit and that honesty vanished for a while.

The opening of this film is highly appropriate in that context. Barbara Stanwyck is Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher who dies after being fired by his rich congregation. She takes his pulpit and rips that congregation a new one, calling them all hypocrites for doing everything the bible rails against for six days a week and then pretending to be the most devout on the seventh. Of course they all walk out on her, except for Bob Hornsby who wasn't one of them anyway. He's just travelling through but recognises a talent in her and plans to use it all he can.

He sets her up as Florence 'Faith' Fallon, taking her on the road as a hell and brimstone preacher with her own radio show. It's a really ostentatious production, beginning with her walking straight into the lion's den, literally, with a whole bunch of them on the road with her, but it ends up impacting people anyway. The act calls for a volunteer to join her with the lions but he's a paid stooge who gets drunk and falls asleep. Luckily for Sister Fallon, her previous broadcast reached John Carson, a blind war veteran who was about to commit suicide. Changing his mind through her words, he turns up to the show and joins her in the cage.

Capra had two reasons to tell this story. One was to give Barbara Stanwyck the chance of the Oscar nomination that she didn't get a year earlier for Ladies of Leisure. She didn't get it for this either but she certainly gives a believable showing, even though she's notably more wooden than she'd remain for long. She was one of the few precode names to survive into the codes, because she was so believable in any role that called for a level of sleaze, yet could play innocent too. She gets to work on a number of levels here, from bitter to empassioned to tender, from wild to controlled to swamped. The powerful depth to her story comes from her being the real thing playing at being a fake through embittered circumstance, but having her faith restored anyway.

The other reason was to tell the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, a major evangelist during the depression who ran into a massive scandal in 1926. She ran a huge production that incorporated all the usual suspects: speaking in tongues, faith healing and such. She had notable reported successes to her credit and was the first woman to both receive a broadcast license from the FCC and to broadcast a sermon on the air. However in 1926 she disappeared for five weeks, finally reappearing in the Arizona desert with a story of being kidnapped, drugged, tortured, held for ransom, and from which she finally escaped. The best explanation to be had is that she was on a tryst with her married radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston with whom she was having an affair. Two people died in the search for her.

By 1931 Aimee Semple McPherson was working through fresh new scandal after fresh new scandal, but actor David Manners was on a roll. This film fits in the middle of a bunch of wonderful films: not just the justly famous Dracula but also the unjustly obscure George Arliss movie, The Millionaire, and John Monk Saunders's The Last Flight with Richard Barthelmess. This one makes four out of five for 1931 for him and that's a major handful indeed. It's a shame for us that he retired from the screen in 1936, bored with Hollywood and a life that he didn't agree with.

This one also contains quite possibly his best performance of the bunch, as a blind aviator with a number of talents, not least ventriloquism. He plays a blind man superbly and I'm convinced he did the ventriloquism himself as his lips move oh so subtly at points suggesting that he was really good but not quite perfect. The more I see David Manners, the more I want to see more. Incidentally, Carson's dummy Al's full name is Aloysius K Eucalyptus, and I'm sure I've received spam from him in my time.

It'll be interesting to read up on how accurate this is, as McPherson refused to let Capra film her real story, he filmed a fictional one instead. Certainly she seems like a massively interesting character of the day. I'll be reading up on her and David Manners both, as it seems they both have stories to tell. Capra had one to tell here too and while this was no commercial hit it was a critically acclaimed success and I can see why.