Violent Saturday

Posted on November 2nd, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Lee Marvin, Victor Mature, Richard Fleischer by Colin

Poster

Stories about heists that invariably go wrong somewhere along the line have a kind of evergreen quality about them. I don’t think it’s anything as simple as the need to see the moral balance restored that’s the attraction, instead it’s more a kind of perverse wish fulfillment for all of us living in an imperfect world to witness even the most meticulous plans of smart guys turn pear shaped. Violent Saturday (1955) is one such movie, detailing the build-up, execution and aftermath of a bank robbery in a small town. It’s also a film which takes its time creating expectations about certain characters, only to show that those assumptions can frequently be misleading.

Essentially this is a film of two halves. The opening section is something of a darkly soapy melodrama, wherein the principal characters, and their roles in the community, are all established. The two people that are focused on most are Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the heir to the local copper mining facility, and the mine foreman Shelley Martin (Victor Mature). These men are living in the brave new world of a booming 50’s America, all shining, chrome-laden automobiles and homes filled with the latest modern conveniences. Yet, despite the trappings of material success that surround them neither man is particularly at ease with himself. Fairchild is drinking too much in an attempt to blot out the inferiority complex that comes with being the son of a self-made millionaire, and keep his mind off the numerous affairs his wife has indulged in. Martin, on the other hand, is carrying round an entirely different set of baggage; his marriage is a happy one and his success is all of his own making but he’s burdened by a sense of guilt for not having seen active service in the war, a feeling of inadequacy compounded by his failure to appear heroic in the eyes of his young son. Additionally, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of a few of the town’s other citizens - a financially pressed librarian driven to petty larceny, and the outwardly prim but repressed and voyeuristic bank manager. While these various strands of small town life are being laid before us, three strangers weave their way among them. These men (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin and J Carrol Naish) are career criminals, come to a town they see as a soft touch to raid the bank. As the citizens go about their daily lives and try to cope with their personal issues, the three newcomers calmly and deliberately plan their heist. The second part of the movie, and the most gripping, sees the paths of all the disparate characters converge on a Saturday afternoon in an explosion of physical and emotional violence.

Something for the weekend - Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday.

Director Richard Fleischer’s career was on an upward curve at the time Violent Saturday was made; he’d come off making a number of interesting noir movies, two of which (Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin) are especially noteworthy. While I don’t believe Violent Saturday is film noir, it does display some of the style/genre’s sensibilities - the doomed robbers and the facade of respectability concealing a darker reality. The structure of the film is clearly designed to provide a back story for the characters and flesh them out, thus heightening the impact of the abrupt intrusion of violence into their lives. As far as that goes it’s only partially successful; the introduction of the librarian and the bank manager has a dramatic potential that’s never fully explored, and in the former’s case the the plot leaves her fate dangling and neglected. The banker (Tommy Noonan) does at least play a pivotal role, albeit in a negative way. His creepy passivity undergoes a transformation in the course of the heist and he finally resolves to take some positive action in his life. It’s unfortunate, however, that his new found steel acts as the catalyst for the bloodletting that follows. Victor Mature was well cast in the role of the family man dogged by the shadow of cowardice. There was always an undercurrent of melancholy and sensitivity about him, and the film puts that to good use. He too experiences a reversal of fortune, where adversity reveals an inner strength and toughness whose existence he doubted. Having said that, the message that’s ultimately conveyed by his actions, and the reactions of others to them, isn’t one that sits entirely comfortably with me. Of the three criminals, both McNally and Naish perform competently without ever being particularly memorable. The real star is Lee Marvin. Dapper in appearance and ruthless in behaviour, he gets the better lines and makes the most of them. It says a lot for Marvin’s talents that he could take what was basically a minor supporting role and deliver the most telling performance in the whole movie. It’s also worth mentioning that Ernest Borgnine has a small, and incongruous, part as an Amish farmer who finds himself and his family drawn into the turbulent events.

To date, Violent Saturday has had three releases on DVD (in Spain, the US and Australia), none of which appear ideal. All of these discs offer the film a non-anamorphic scope transfer. The Spanish release is via Fox/Impulso and, the letterboxing aside, sees the movie looking quite nice. The lack of anamorphic enhancement does take away from the overall sharpness of the image but, on the plus side, the colours look strong and true, and the print doesn’t suffer from any significant damage. Extras, as on the majority of Fox/Impulso titles, consist of some text-based material on cast and crew along with a gallery. Subtitles on the English track can of course be disabled via the menu. The movie itself is a solid crime drama that builds nicely to a suspenseful and action-filled conclusion. It’s not quite top flight material, but it’s not too far off either. I’d rate it as a smoothly directed piece of entertainment that could have used a little extra polish on the script.

Golden Salamander

Posted on October 4th, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Ronald Neame by Colin

Poster

In the years following the war the British film industry was turning out some quality pictures. The best of them remain rightly celebrated and the poorer efforts have been all but forgotten. There is, however, a kind of murky middle ground crammed full of the kind of movies that were a cut above the average yet not quite top flight material either. I often find myself drawn to these films as there’s much to admire but, seeing as they’re largely off the radar of present day viewers, little or no critical analysis to be found. The Golden Salamander (1950) is a handsomely shot movie, well acted, engagingly plotted and filmed on location. All in all, it has a lot going for it - it should be better known but the fact is it’s something of an obscure film. If this blog has any purpose other than providing a platform for me to record my thoughts then it’s to be hoped that, from time to time, it also introduces someone, somewhere to the kind of picture they might never otherwise have heard of or thought about.

The movie kicks off strongly and initially looks like it’s going to play out like a noir picture. A car is making its way along a stretch of road in Tunisia in the middle of a violent storm. The rain is hammering down relentlessly and the darkness is closed in oppressively on all sides with only the headlights cutting a feeble path ahead. Hunched in the gloom, the driver squints through the rain-streaked windscreen and forges on. By sheer luck he avoids running slap into a landslide that’s taken out the road. As he gets out to try to discover a way round the obstruction, he comes upon a wrecked and abandoned truck. His good fortune in avoiding an accident is revealed to be one of those sneaky tricks of fate when he finds that the truck was apparently part of a gun running operation. This whole sequence takes place without a word of dialogue and the murkiness of a rotten night is only broken by the occasional flashes of lightning that draw attention to the important sights. That wonderful atmosphere is retained as the tired and muddy traveller makes his way to the nearest town, and the welcoming light of the local inn. It’s here that we learn his identity: David Redfern (Trevor Howard), a British archaeologist sent to catalogue and collect some ancient artifacts (including the golden salamander of the title) before overseeing their shipping. His close call on the washed out road has placed him in a perilous position though, with the gun runners suspecting (though at first not sure) that he’s seen something. What draws him deeper into danger is his becoming romantically involved with the young proprietress of the inn, Anna (Anouk Aimee), whose brother is part of the smuggling gang. The plot is a straight thriller that sees Redfern first wrestling with indecision before resolving to take action when a tragic turn of events forces his hand. Even then he has to face up to the fact that the town is a nest of corruption where it’s impossible to be sure who, if anyone, can be trusted.

Trevor Howard & Anouk Aimee - Golden Salamander.

The two greatest strengths of the film are the visuals and the location work. This was one of director Ronald Neame’s earliest efforts and he, along with cameraman Oswald Morris, takes turns at bathing the screen first in deep, moody shadow and then in bright sunlight. For an up and coming director Neame shows great skill in his handling of composition and framing too, drawing the eye to the pertinent and subtly altering the mood with clever placement of characters and objects. The location shooting in Tunisia adds an air of realism that’s a big asset and lends a greater sense of openness to the exterior work. So much for the positives; the weakness lies primarily in the script, as is so often the case. While I understand that the romance between Redfern and Anna is a necessary ingredient and provides the motivation for the hero to finally act decisively, it has to be said that it’s never a convincing one and, furthermore, slows the story too much in the middle. It leads to that old problem of a strong opening and climax held together by a slightly stodgy and flabby middle section. Of course, the fact that so much of this part of the story depends on the interaction between Trevor Howard and Anouk Aimee is a contributory factor too. Howard plays the role of Redfern with a slight stiffness, but in fairness I think that’s simply a part of the character and can’t really be taken as a criticism of the performance. The thing is he looked a good deal older than his years at that time and having him play off a teenage Anouk Aimee is a little disconcerting. Additionally, she was acting in only her first English language film and that does seem to have had an effect on her performance - her delivery is never natural and she looks vaguely uncomfortable throughout. Still, there are some fine supporting turns to shore matters up: Herbert Lom is first class as the main heavy, Miles Malleson downplays his comic side as the local policeman, and Wilfrid Hyde-White has a great little part as the slightly seedy pianist channeling Hoagy Carmichael.

I used to have a copy of Golden Salamander that I got as a freebie with a Greek newspaper years ago, and it was a fairly ropey transfer. However, the film has just recently been released in the UK on DVD by Odeon. The disc isn’t a perfect one, there’s a softness to the image here and there, and a few speckles. Having said that, there are also stronger sections where detail is much better defined and print damage is generally minimal. Extras are a selection of trailers for other Odeon titles, a photo gallery and a booklet of liner notes. I’m not going to claim that this movie is a classic just waiting to be rediscovered; there are the issues with scripting and structure to take into account. Still and all, it is a good mid-range effort that has more than enough plus points in its favour to earn it a recommendation.

Spellbound

Posted on April 25th, 2011 in 1940s, Mystery/Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck by Colin

Poster

I’ve heard Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) described as a tale of the lunatics taking over the asylum, and that’s actually not a bad summation. Despite sounding like a glib dismissal, it neatly encapsulates the basic premise of this movie. Exploiting the then fashionable trend for psychoanalysis, and enthusiastically supported by firm believer David O Selznick, it’s a romantic mystery served up as a kind of Freudian stew - and a very tasty one at that. Like all of Hitchcock’s films made for Selznick the producer’s fingerprints are visible everywhere, but there are plenty of instances of that familiar visual flair to ensure that you never forget who directed it.

Amnesiacs always make good protagonists in any movie, the blanked out memories that need to be recovered before any sense of order can be restored automatically generate mystery, and so it is with Spellbound. Our hero (Gregory Peck) is referred to variously as Dr Edwardes, JB, and finally as John Ballantyne (I’ll stick with JB for the purposes of this piece as that’s the moniker he carries for most of the running time) while he struggles to find out his real identity, and more crucially whether or not he’s a murderer. His arrival at a New England psychiatric hospital posing as the new director is initially taken at face value. There are a few comments passed regarding his relative youth for such a responsible position, but there are no other eyebrows raised. What it does spark though is an unsuspected passion in the emotionally repressed Dr Constance Petersen, thus providing JB with one priceless ally. Such a deception cannot hope to endure long though and, sure enough, it’s inevitably revealed that the real Dr Edwardes is in fact dead and the impostor taking his place is very likely his killer. So, still in search of who he is and what he did, JB goes on the run with Constance joining him after a short interval. It’s here that the picture comes into its own, as Constance, with the aid of her old tutor Dr Brulov (Michael Chekhov), employs Freudian psychoanalytic techniques in a race against time to probe the depths of JB’s subconscious and discover the truth. It all culminates in the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, whose interpretation lays bare all the secrets. The whole thing is pure, escapist hokum but it’s executed with such style and conviction that you’re completely drawn in. It’s a good illustration of how, apart from his technical achievements, Hitchcock was masterful at taking stories that were essentially tosh and coaxing the viewer into accepting their credibility for the duration of the movie.

The stuff that dreams are made of - Spellbound.

I mentioned earlier Selznick’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, and I’d say that’s directly responsible for the film’s biggest weakness. Such was the producer’s zeal that he insisted on the involvement of an adviser on all things psychoanalytical. The result is an overly pious attitude towards the science depicted, from the cloyingly reverential foreword to the kind of mangled dialogue that even Ben Hecht was hard pressed to shape into something presentable. The contrast between the kind of clumsy exposition that Selznick wanted and Hitchcock’s talent for economical storytelling is clear to see in one scene near the end. In the space of a thirty second montage, consisting only of close-ups of Ingrid Bergman’s increasingly desperate features and a few imploring lines, the the trial, conviction and sentencing of JB is dealt with fully. Similarly, the whole, lengthy sequence at Brulov’s house could have proven intolerable in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, through the combination of a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance by Michael Chekhov, Hitchcock’s arresting visual style and the scoring of Miklos Rozsa (alternating between lush romanticism and the unnerving strains of the theremin), it stands as the strongest section of the entire film. Of course, in other places, some of the bravura touches could be said to serve no better purpose than to draw attention to their own inventiveness: the revolver discharged directly into the camera at the end springs to mind, but that’s such a memorable shot that it feels uncharitable and unnecessarily sniffy to complain about it.

It’s said that Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for the lead, and Peck’s performance has been criticised for being a touch too aloof. I can understand where that’s coming from, Peck had yet to find his feet fully in cinema, although I also feel he was actually right for the part. Had Grant been cast I have a hunch he would have brought too much of himself, that innate self-confidence, to the role and thus rendered it less believable. As it stands, Peck had just the right measure of insecurity about him to get across the edginess of a man who doesn’t even know his own name let alone whether or not he’s a criminal. Whatever reservations anyone may have about Peck, it’s hard to fault Ingrid Bergman’s Constance Petersen. She brings real charm and innocence to the part of the slightly uptight academic who gradually learns that there’s a vast gulf between theory and practice when it comes to matters of the heart. There’s nothing the least bit goofy about her, she’s clearly a highly intelligent and capable woman but there’s also a touching vulnerability as a result of her sheltered lifestyle. Aside from the principal performers, there are a couple of excellent cameos in the mix too - the middle-aged cop and his partner discussing the issues he’s having with his mother who are in some ways reminiscent of the travelling salesmen in The 39 Steps, and Wallace Ford as the persistent pest in the hotel lobby - these don’t add anything at all to the narrative but they do enrich the whole experience.

Spellbound has had a variety of releases on DVD in different territories; my copy is the old Pearson release from the UK, which I think has been repackaged and subsequently issued by Prism. I guess there may be better versions out there but that old UK disc is pretty good to my eyes. There aren’t any problems with the transfer, which is clean, sharp and free from damage. There are a range of extras, from text bios and trivia to a gallery and a few clips of Hitchcock interviews etc - I’m pretty sure the latter is replicated on the other Hitchcock titles from Pearson. The movie itself is one of Hitch’s better than average 40s offerings, not as good as Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt but still technically accomplished and very entertaining. There are the familiar motifs (the wrong man on the run and the blonde Girl Friday) and the psychoanalysis angle is quite enjoyable. Like most of the director’s films, it has a high rewatch value regardless of how familiar the plot may be - recommended.

Diplomatic Courier

Posted on April 18th, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Henry Hathaway, Tyrone Power by Colin

Poster

In the past I’ve done a few write-ups on those thrillers that take advantage of the devastated world of post-war Europe. The uncertainty evoked by time and place, the dreams of a better future coupled with the knowledge that the dangers of the past are no further away than a glance over the shoulder, is a strong foundation on which to build tales of intrigue and deception. In the late 40s and early 50s, as the chill of the Cold War was spreading, there was an abundance of such movies. I think the appeal of these pictures, despite the patriotic trappings required by the contemporary political climate and the inevitable loss of immediacy with the passage of time, lies in their ability to tune into the despair and disillusionment of those displaced and damaged by war and the subsequent carving up of a continent. Diplomatic Courier (1952) is one of the lesser known examples of this sub-genre, despite its boasting a strong cast. This film is not without its flaws but, taken as a whole, it remains a slick and atmospheric espionage thriller.

It starts off with one of those voice-of-God narrations, extolling the virtues of dedicated government agencies, which I tend to find irritating but quickly settles down to telling the story in a more traditional way. In short, a coded document originating in Romania needs to be passed to a courier in Salzburg for transportation back to the US. Sounds simple enough in itself, and thus our courier, Mike Kells (Tyrone Power), is promptly dispatched to do the business. Of course, things don’t quite run according to plan and Kells’ contact winds up dead on the railway line outside the city, without having completed the exchange. The circumstances leading to the murder aren’t clear as they were preceded by a series of cat and mouse shenanigans aboard the train involving a couple of heavies (one of whom is Charles Bronson in a blink and you miss him role) and an unidentified blonde. Kells now finds himself high and dry, and his only lead is the blonde, a Czech refugee called Janine Betki (Hildegard Knef), on her way to Trieste. His only option is to travel to the Italian city, track down Janine, and hope that she can lead him to the missing document. Again, the errand seems uncomplicated yet Trieste is a nest of spies and assassins, with danger lurking and ready to pounce within its ruins and darkened courtyards. Trying to run down one female in an unfamiliar and hostile locale ought to be problem enough, but Kells faces the added complication dealing with the attentions of an amorous American pleasure seeker, Joan Ross (Patricia Neal), who he met after falling asleep on her mink clad shoulder en route to Salzburg. What emerges is that both these women have a central role to play in the mystery, the question though is which one, if either, can be trusted.

Chasing shadows - Tyrone Power and Karl Malden in Diplomatic Courier.

The whole thing moves along at a brisk pace under Henry Hathaway’s direction, but I do feel the script could have used some tightening to cut down on the kind of disposable dialogue that just serves to slow the momentum. Also, there are a few too many convenient arrivals at crucial moments. Having said that, Hathaway, aided by cameraman Lucien Ballard, creates some nice images and takes full advantage of the European locations. The best scenes are those with Kells blundering around Trieste following up clues that frequently leave him even more confused than ever. By this time, Tyrone Power had left his swashbuckling days behind him and was exploring more varied roles. I thought he was pretty good as the messenger boy thrown in at the deep end and unsure of who’s really on his side, apart from a faithful but hyperactive Karl Malden. Both Patricia Neal and Hildegard Knef gave strong but very different performances - the former oozing a kind of feline sexuality, while the latter tapped into a credible blend of vulnerability and grit. Of the two, I’d say Knef produced the the better work, probably due to her character benefiting form greater depth. I mentioned earlier a fleeting appearance by Charles Bronson, and it’s also worth pointing out that’s there’s a small part for Lee Marvin in there too.

Diplomatic Courier is available on DVD from Fox in Spain - the only release of the movie anywhere that I know of - in a pretty good edition. The print is quite clean and crisp, but there is a fair bit of grain in evidence early on. Actually, I can’t work out if it’s genuine film grain or some kind of digital noise; I have a hunch it’s the latter but I’m not expert enough to call it for sure one way or the other. Whatever, it fades after the first ten minutes or so. The Spanish subs are removable via the set up menu, and the extras are limited to a gallery and some text based cast and crew info. This was my first viewing of the film, a total blind buy, and I enjoyed it a lot. I did have some issues with the script, but the acting is good overall and the direction and location photography are very stylish. Yet another picture that deserves a wider audience.

So Long at the Fair

Posted on April 14th, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Dirk Bogarde, Terence Fisher, Jean Simmons by Colin

Poster

We spend a lot of time these days bemoaning the lack of originality in cinema, citing the number of remakes and the fondness for rehashing plots and concepts. However, the truth is that this isn’t an especially new phenomenon; it’s been going on for almost as long as people have been going to the movies. So Long at the Fair (1950) is an example of a film that’s based on a hoary old tale, an urban myth if you like, which has been used in a number of productions - The Lady Vanishes (1938), Dangerous Crossing (1953), and an early episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to name a few, have all borrowed to a greater or lesser extent from the same basic idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that a perceived lack of innovation in the central plot theme is not necessarily always a bad thing - the real test is in the execution of the script. Even the most familiar of stories can still grip the viewer as long as they are presented in an interesting way.

Events in the film revolve around the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and a young brother and sister, Johnny and Vicky Barton (David Tomlinson and Jean Simmons), who happen to be visiting the capital. Thinking themselves lucky to have secured accommodation when all the city is awash with tourists, they proceed to enjoy their first night out on the town. The bustling, thronged atmosphere is nicely conveyed through scenes of cafe life on the pavements of Montmartre, and later at the Moulin Rouge. These two young people, having sampled the cosmopolitan night life, return exhausted to their hotel to get some rest and prepare for further excitement the next day. However, that’s not to be. When Vicky awakes she finds herself confronted with a situation that at first arouses puzzlement, but soon descends into despair and fear. What has happened is that Johnny has disappeared, but that’s only the half of it. As soon as Vicky starts to ask questions she’s presented with the even more perplexing problem that not only does nobody seem to remember seeing her brother but they insist, to a man, that he was never there in the first place. As if that’s not bad enough, there’s the downright chilling discovery that the room Vicky remembers her brother occupying doesn’t even exist, despite her having visited him in it. The unfolding of this nightmare scenario is nicely handled, with each new shock being added incrementally and the girl’s panic growing accordingly. Finding no solace at the hotel, Vicky turns to the authorities, the consulate and the police, who both display sympathy but also a healthy, and understandable, dose of scepticism. While the distraught girl witnesses one possible avenue of inquiry after another relentlessly closed to her, and her belief in her own sanity being stretched to the limit, the viewer is made subtly aware that something dark and inexplicable is taking place behind the scenes. Enter George Hathaway (Dirk Bogarde), an artist struggling to make a go of his new-fangled impressionist works and an unlikely but welcome ally for the increasingly desperate Vicky. With the backing of someone who’s willing to take her story at face value our heroine now has the opportunity to get to the heart of the mystery. The solution, when it comes, may seem a little contrived but it is logical and ties up all the loose ends in a very satisfactory manner. Added to that, and perhaps most importantly, the whole thing is achieved both stylishly and without any relaxation of the tension.

Jean Simmons becoming part of the masquerade that is So Long at the Fair. 

Terence Fisher shared the directing credits with Antony Darnborough, and the sumptuous and stylised sets bring to mind the look of the Hammer films that the former would go on to make his name in. Despite a number of outdoor scenes, there’s a real sense of claustrophobia to the whole production that emphasises the shortage of options open to Vicky. When the action returns to the ornate, overdecorated interior of the hotel this stifling feeling is heightened even further - the intricacy of the decor being highly suggestive of unpalatable secrets that need to be disguised by an opulent exterior. There are also two fine set pieces that grab the attention, the first being a horrific accident that befalls a hot air balloon carrying the one person who may be capable of corroborating Vicky’s unlikely story. The other is an extended sequence that sees Hathaway stealing through the hotel by night in an effort to secure evidence that will convince the authorities to act. Fisher really piles on the suspense as the young artist slips in and out of shadow along corridors and staircases, narrowly avoiding the staff as they go about their regular nightly rituals, to get his hands on the tell-tale receipt books. Jean Simmons was asked to carry the picture for long stretches, and she brought it off very well. She had that doe-eyed innocence that almost guarantees sympathy and used it to maximum effect. However, there’s more to her performance than mere pouting for the camera; her mounting feeling of hopelessness as one door after another slams shut in her face is always believable. Dirk Bogarde’s role was a good deal more straightforward, but he too played it to perfection. There’s a nice mix of the gauche and the determined in his portrayal of an unexpected knight in shining armour. As for the supporting cast, there are welcome turns from familiar faces such as Felix Aylmer, Andre Morell and a young Honor Blackman. The strongest work though is done by Cathleen Nesbitt as the forbidding hotel manageress, whose sour features are perfect for conveying a very subtle menace.

So Long at the Fair has just recently been released on DVD in the UK by new label Spirit, although they are an affiliate of ITV/Granada. The transfer is a reasonable one without being especially remarkable. The film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration and there are the usual age related artifacts to be seen, but they’re never particularly distracting. If anything, the image is a little too soft but I wouldn’t call it a fatal flaw either. The disc itself is completely barebones, no trailer, no subtitles, just the movie. Despite that, I think the film is very entertaining; even if the plot is one that you’re largely familiar with it still holds the attention throughout. For those who have no acquaintance whatsoever with the story it ought to prove even more gripping. In brief, there’s a genuine puzzle plot, fine performances, and tight, smooth direction. I give it my recommendation.

Seven Days to Noon

Posted on March 18th, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller by Colin

Poster

Tales of terrorists holding civilization to ransom with the threat of weapons of mass destruction have become two a penny. But it wasn’t always so; back in the early days of the Cold War such a concept hadn’t yet been milked for all it was worth. The idea, at that point, was still fresh and perhaps even more terrifying given that the notion of worldwide holocaust was one that people were only gradually coming to terms with. Seven Days to Noon (1950) is a slow burning little picture that adopts a semi-documentary approach, neatly sidestepping gaudy sensationalism in favour of relentlessly rising tension.

The low-key mood is struck from the very beginning, with a postman calmly doing his Monday morning rounds and dropping the day’s correspondence through the mailbox of 10 Downing Street. Among the various items addressed to the Prime Minister is a simple envelope sent by a Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones), and containing an ultimatum that could be either an unpleasant hoax or the stuff of nightmares. The letter in question is passed in due course to the police for further investigation. The man given responsibility for looking into the matter is Superintendent Folland (Andre Morell), and a few simple calls by him establish that this is no leg pulling exercise. Professor Willingdon, the government’s chief atomic research scientist, has disappeared along with a powerful nuclear device. The aforementioned letter lays out his terms: either the government abandons its atomic weapons research or he will detonate the bomb at noon in seven days time, taking half of London with him. That little scene is effectively done with the easy banter between the top policeman and his assistant offering a sense of reassurance, before cutting smoothly but quickly to a close-up of Folland’s suddenly sharpened features as the full import of the words coming down the telephone line dawn on him. With all doubts about Willingdon’s intentions now cleared up, the narrative focus moves to the nondescript little scientist and his trek around the capital. His efforts to remain inconspicuous as the authorities try desperately to locate him make up the bulk of the movie’s running time, intercut with scenes of government departments implementing emergency procedures as discreetly as possible. As Willingdon moves from one seedy lodging to another, all the while agonising over the course of action he’s decided on, there’s a gradual mobilisation underway. The government is in crisis and suspicion is creeping into the minds of a populace still bearing the scars of the recent war. Before panic takes hold the PM addresses the spellbound nation via the radio, and lays the ugly facts before them. It’s interesting that Willingdon finds himself in a museum at the very moment when the government announcement comes. As the PM’s ominous words are broadcast to the grim faced listeners, the little professor stands amid the displays of dinosaur bones - it’s hard to decide whether those old fossils are meant to represent the unyielding determination of the state or the increasingly outmoded humanitarian principles of the troubled scientist pitted against it. The eventual evacuation of the city, as the clock ticks inexorably towards the appointed hour, is an affair of organised chaos, and contrasts with the calm tension of Willingdon as he watches it all in a detached manner with the hapless, tragi-comic woman (Olive Sloane) he’s taken hostage to prevent discovery.

Seeking guidance - Barry Jones in Seven Days to Noon.

The matter of fact tone of direction adopted by John and Roy Boulting is hard to fault. Even as the situation on screen grows more and more desperate the depiction of it remains steady and never descends into hysteria. The evacuation sequence could easily have fallen victim to an overwrought approach, but instead the cool way it’s shown (with only a few minor concessions to mild panic) adds both urgency and potency. The night scenes of the abandoned city are especially effective; the probing beams of searchlights and the tramping of heavy army boots are the only accompaniment to Willingdon’s final flight across London, dodging down darkened alleys and ducking into shadowy doorways. It’s also a snapshot of a now disappeared world, where crowds gather around communal radio sets to hear the latest government pronouncement and massive wanted posters of the fugitive scientist are plastered everywhere. It reminds us that there was an age before rolling news coverage and instant tweets and texts when panic could be held in check for a time rather than openly encouraged. If aspects of the film hark back to an earlier period, then others remain stubbornly prescient. The moral conundrum at the heart of the picture is every bit as relevant today as it was sixty years ago, and questions about the price of progress are still unresolved. Barry Jones was a fine piece of casting as the figure at the centre of the storm, his gentle features indicating an essentially good man driven to the brink of madness by the colossal responsibility he’s borne, the isolation imposed by that responsibility and the moral uncertainties he feels. He’s no wild-eyed fanatic with a grudge but a man with a conscience who’s allowed his sense of balance and proportion to slip. Similarly, Andre Morell, as the policeman tracking Willingdon, is no two-fisted superhero. Instead, we get an assured and competent professional who knows full well the extent of the threat he’s facing. There’s a wonderful economy to his movements that highlights the pressure he’s under and his features have a controlled expressiveness that get the tension across far more succinctly than any amount of histrionic hamming.

Seven Days to Noon is available on DVD in the UK from Optimum. The film was initially issued in a false widescreen transfer (an impossibility for a production of this vintage) but later withdrawn and replaced with a corrected version presenting the image at 1.33:1, as it should be. The transfer is a clean, sharp affair with good contrast and minimal damage. The disc is, however, totally barebones with only the main menu and scene selection offered. Still, it can be had for a very good price and the film is strong enough to speak for itself. It’s a tight little thriller with an intelligent script, solid central performances and offers an attractive combination of the quaint and the timeless. If you’re looking for some food for thought along with your entertainment then this is recommended.

Cash on Demand

Posted on December 9th, 2010 in 1960s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Cushing by Colin

Poster

Well it’s almost that time of year again. Therefore, it’s also time to feature a few films that in one way or another relate to Christmas. Aside from the big, traditional crowd pleasers it’s always nice to give a bit of attention to those other movies that can sometimes get lost in the mix. Cash on Demand (1961) is a good example - an obscure little Hammer production whose reputation ought to rise now that it’s finally available to view on DVD. It’s a tight and incredibly suspenseful little thriller that skilfully weaves a seasonal message into the tense plot and leaves the viewer feeling satisfied.   

It’s December 23rd and a small provincial bank is opening up and preparing to welcome the first customers of a wintry day. The staff arrive one by one and greet each other in the familiar and informal way of those long accustomed to working together. Thoughts run to the upcoming staff party and the atmosphere is warm and cosy. However, the arrival of the branch manager, Fordyce (Peter Cushing), causes a definite chill to settle over the establishment. Fordyce is a fastidious and uptight man, almost to the point of caricature. His overwhelming sense of propriety not only dampens the pre-Christmas humour of his subordinates, but leaves them feeling both threatened and vulnerable. A minor error on the part of one of the staff is latched onto and blown out of all proportion. Fordyce even goes so far as to declare that he’ll have to seriously consider the future of this long serving employee. The whole dynamic changes, however, with the unexpected arrival of an insurance company representative, Colonel Gore Hepburn (Andre Morell). Hepburn explains he is on a tour of the banks covered by his company in order to inspect their security arrangements due to the increased risk of robberies. In fact, Hepburn is not all he claims to be, and it soon transpires that he is merely using this cover story as a means to gain access to the bank and carry out a raid on the well stocked vault that is both audacious and ruthless in its execution. From this point on the story turns into a psychological duel between Fordyce and Hepburn, with the latter rarely relinquishing the upper hand. This all plays out both as a straight thriller and a new spin on the Scrooge story, with Hepburn’s tormenting of Fordyce serving the dual purpose of facilitating his co-operation while also teaching the fussy branch manager an object lesson in the importance of charity towards his fellow man. It could be argued that the ending cops out, but I’d say that were it not to finish up the way it does then the story’s whole point would be lost - and with it much of the magic that distinguishes the movie from countless other heist pictures.

A spanner in the works - Peter Cushing and Andre Morell in Cash on Demand.

Although director Quentin Lawrence made a handful of cinema features the bulk of his work was in TV, and that background actually serves him well here. The tighter pacing and limited sets common to the small screen are to the fore in this movie. The action (which is essentially played out in real time) is for the most part confined to the bank, and particularly Fordyce’s office and the underground vault. While I wouldn’t exactly call it claustrophobic, it does have the effect of focusing the attention on the actors. Not wishing to take anything away from the support cast, but this is basically a two-hander between Cushing and Morell. The pair had formed a successful partnership two years earlier in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and this film gave them the opportunity to team up again, albeit in very different roles. Cushing’s portrayal of Fordyce is really spot on, all icy efficiency and repressed emotion at the beginning but gradually cracking under the enormous pressure to reveal a lonely soul who elicits genuine sympathy. There’s nothing fake about the transformation in Fordyce’s character, the change of perception coming about slowly and convincingly as Hepburn mercilessly strips away the veneer to expose the true man. If anything Andre Morell just about trumps Cushing’s work in this one. He plays Hepburn as suave, smart, hearty, calculating, ruthless and wry - often all within a single short scene, and always with absolute conviction. The result of all this is that the viewer’s sympathy is continually being toyed with to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to decide who you’re really rooting for. It’s a treat to watch these two old pros holding the floor for virtually the whole movie, and doing so in such a mesmerizing fashion.

Currently, Cash on Demand is only available on DVD as part of the Hammer- Icons of Suspense set from Sony in the US. The film has been transferred at 1.66:1 anamorphic, and it’s very clean, sharp and detailed. Since all the titles in the set come two to a disc it may be that the bit rate suffers a little, but that’s not an issue that I can say I noticed when I watched it. There are no extra features at all, although the highly attractive price and the fact that the whole set offers six extremely rare Hammer thrillers offsets any complaints on that score. This is a film that I first saw at least twenty years ago when it got a TV showing, and then not again until I picked up this set. It’s one of those unusual movies that sticks in the mind once viewed, and it was high up on my list of wants for a long time. The Icons set is one of my favourite releases from 2010 and the presence of Cash on Demand is a large part of the reason. It’s well worth tracking this one down.

The River’s Edge

Posted on April 10th, 2010 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Allan Dwan, Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn by Colin

Poster

Some movies are especially difficult to define or categorize. Allan Dwan’s The River’s Edge (1957) is certainly such a film; it’s a blend of modern western, noirish thriller, and lush and lusty 50s melodrama. While it’s possible to argue over which one of those labels comes closest to summing it up, it’s clear enough that this is a B movie which was given the glossy treatment. As such, this is an impressive piece of budget film production, dealing with those classic themes of money, greed, jealousy, love, and there’s a level of casual brutality not usually found in films of the period.

The story concerns three people: Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn), his new wife Meg (Debra Paget), and Meg’s former lover Nardo Denning (Ray Milland). Right away we can see that Cameron’s relationship with his wife is not all it should be; she’s tottering around his ramshackle ranch house in high heeled slippers, struggling with the lack of modern conveniences, while he’s struggling with steers outside. The thing is Meg is a city girl, actually she’s con artist on the lam, while Cameron is a salt of the earth type whose greatest ambition is to make something out of his fledgling ranch. These two have hooked up together and are trying to make a go of it, but it’s starting to come unravelled. At the critical moment, who should turn up at Cameron’s door but his wife’s old flame Denning, apparently looking to hire a guide to take him on a hunting trip into Mexico. Meg takes off with Denning, at least as far as the nearest motel, and it’s unclear at this point whether she truly means to leave her husband for good. At any rate, she never gets to fully decide as a car ride results in Denning killing a border patrol man in a fairly shocking manner. With Meg now implicated in the crime, and with the knowledge that Denning is carrying a suitcase stuffed full of cash, Cameron has a change of heart and decides that he’ll take the two former partners over the border to safety. The rest of the film charts the shifting nature of the characters’ relationships and motives. At the begining none of them act out of anything but naked self interest: Denning just wants an out and doesn’t especially care who he has to buy or kill to achieve it, Meg wants to escape from the drudgery and dullness of the remote ranch, and Cameron has his hungry eyes on the cash. Everything is complicated by the fact that both men are still love with Meg, and she has no qualms about playing one off against the other and flitting back and forth between them. The real turning point, for her character at least, comes after she gets a serious infection from a cut arm. When Cameron hacks away the poisoned flesh in a storm ravaged cave it’s as though some of the poison also drains away from Meg’s heart. From then on, the positions are clearly defined and the only question remaining is who will survive the hazards of the wilderness and walk away with the money.

More dangerous than a rattlesnake? Milland, Quinn and Paget in The River's Edge

In the latter years of a very long career Allan Dwan specialised in churning out slick little B movies on a budget, and The River’s Edge is a good example of this work. He packs a whole lot of story into less than 90 minutes and makes it all look a good deal more expensive than it has any right to. The combination of location shooting and studio sets blends together well and the use of colour is stunning in places. He also displays what might be termed a more modern approach to violence and death than was normally the case at the time; the three killings which take place, although not graphic in the current sense, occur with an abruptness that retain the ability to shock. The three leads are very professional and do their level best to lift the movie above its pulp roots. Ray Milland was of course in his twilight years as a leading man but just about pulls it off, his charming sadist who may yet have a small grain of decency buried deep is effective enough to distract you from the fact that he was probably too old for the part. Debra Paget (with a flaming red hairdo) is a fine femme fatale who’s by turns calculating, ruthless and affectionate. Her character arguably goes through the greatest arc of the three, and she handles the move from a scheming bitch to a woman who’s regained some sense of honour quite capably. Anthony Quinn starts off as a basically weak loser who can’t even summon up the will to hang onto his woman, but by the end he comes good and redeems himself somewhat. I say somewhat because there’s still an element of doubt and a shadow of greed hanging over him.   

The River’s Edge came out on DVD in the US a few years ago from Fox in a very attractive edition. The transfer is anamorphic scope and the print used is very clean and colourful. The disc has a commentary track from James Ursini and Alain Silver, and a few trailers and a gallery. This is the kind of movie that probably wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a DVD release in the current climate, all the more reason to appreciate its availability. There is no way that The River’s Edge could ever be termed a classic movie, but it is a tight and entertaining little thriller given a highly professional polish. Everything moves along at a lick and there are far worse ways of spending an hour and a half. All in all, it serves as a pretty good introduction to the later works of Allan Dwan. 

The Black Windmill

Posted on April 7th, 2010 in 1970s, Mystery/Thriller, Don Siegel, Michael Caine by Colin

Poster

When a film gets panned by critics there can be a number of reasons why; it may just be a bad movie, or it may simply be a step down from the director’s/actor’s previous work. I’d say the latter is certainly the case with The Black Windmill (1974). Don Siegel had just come off a run of high quality films and this slow burning espionage thriller didn’t quite match up. In truth it’s not a bad film, it has moments of real style, but there is a flatness about it that’s hard to explain.

John Tarrant (Michael Caine) is a former army officer who’s now in the employ of MI6, and is shown to be involved in setting up a sting operation to net some international arms dealers. It’s clear that something else is taking shape in the background though - the opening sequence has just shown the kidnapping of two schoolboys by those allegedly involved in the gun running. One of these boys turns out to be the son of Tarrant, and it quickly becomes apparent that the abduction is being used as leverage to extort money from British Intelligence. It’s also clear that those behind the abduction have the kind of inside knowledge (the nature of the ransom demanded) that suggests the presence of a mole. Tarrant’s superior, Harper (Donald Pleasence), suspects that he may even have orchestrated the whole thing himself, while his estranged wife (Janet Suzman) blames him and his job. Thus Tarrant finds himself in the unenviable position of having to cope with both the suspicions of his bosses and the recriminations of his wife as he struggles to retain the composure and coolness needed to effect the release of his son. When it dawns on him that Harper has no intention of meeting the kidnappers’ demands Tarrant chooses the only option that remains open to him - going “rogue” and risking the wrath of his own people.

Fading into the shadows - Michael Caine and Janet Suzman.  

Don Siegel made a lot of different kinds of movies but the espionage thriller wasn’t really his strong suit and he struggled to leave his mark on The Black Windmill. A couple of years later he would return to the genre with greater success in the more action driven Telefon, which remains more consistently entertaining. It’s really in the latter half of this movie that you actually become aware of the fact that you’re watching a Siegel picture. The chase through the London Underground and the escape sequence in Paris are well filmed and add a much needed sense of urgency as events build towards the violent climax at the titular windmill. In contrast, the first half unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace as characters are introduced and the groundwork is laid. There’s also a tongue in cheek aspect to these earlier scenes; one inspired moment during an MI6 briefing has a room of stunned bigwigs informed that one of the enemy agents is Sean Connery! There’s another nod to Bond in a scene where Tarrant and Harper watch a demonstration of an exploding briefcase carried out by a Q clone. Much of the film’s humour derives from the performance of Donald Pleasence as the fussy and prissy head of MI6. Michael Caine, on the other hand, plays it straight all the way through and is good enough as the agent who has to keep his emotions under tight control. When he finally gives vent to his frustration at the bureaucratic caution that might lead to his son’s death it comes across as more powerful given the detached facade he’s been presenting up to that point. Janet Suzman is limited to bouts of anxiety and bitterness at the beginning but gets to show off her resourcefulness as the story progresses. The two main villains of the piece are John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig - they’re both suitably ruthless but their characters are ultimately one dimensional.

Universal’s UK DVD presents the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is very clean and smooth. This is another fairly basic disc, no extras offered at all, but the the image is pleasing enough and anyway it’s not one of Siegel’s or Caine’s better known movies. All told, The Black Windmill is a middling film; it’s not the best of the director, star or even the genre but it’s still reasonably entertaining. If you make it through the slightly plodding beginning it does pick up the pace and gets better as it goes along. I’d give it a cautious recommendation if you’re into spy thrillers, but those expecting a typical Don Siegel movie would likely be disappointed.

Chase a Crooked Shadow

Posted on March 16th, 2010 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Richard Todd, Michael Anderson by Colin

Poster

Throughout the 60s Hammer produced a smattering of what have come to be referred to as “mini-Hitchcocks”, due to the acknowledged influence of Psycho. Broadly speaking, these movies usually featured a damsel-in-distress plot where all was not quite as it seemed at first glance. While it’s undeniable that Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker played a significant part in bringing about these films it seems to me that they also owe something to Michael Anderson’s 1958 suspenser Chase a Crooked Shadow: there’s a small cast, an isolated and endangered woman with a question mark over her psychological state, and men whose motives and loyalties are not always clear.

Kim Prescott (Anne Baxter) is a wealthy heiress living in a sprawling villa in Spain. Her father was a victim of suicide and her brother has perished in a road accident in South Africa - or so it would appear. After a late night gathering at the villa, when all the guests have departed, a stranger turns up claiming to be the brother back from the dead. Ward Prescott (Richard Todd) alleges that he was turned over by a guy he gave a lift to, and that the thief was the one who died in the smash-up. Kim remains unconvinced, determinedly so in fact, and calls in the police. Vargas (Herbert Lom), the local police chief, can find nothing wrong with Ward’s credentials and is powerless to do anything. Within a disconcertingly short period of time, Ward has taken up residence in the villa, hired his own new staff, and is causing Kim to question her mental state. She maintains both her hostility and her disbelief yet is unable to convince anyone else that this man in her house is an impostor. The viewer is left to wonder who is telling the truth and, if Ward is indeed merely an impersonator, what the purpose of the subterfuge and masquerade is. There are plenty of clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout, but it’s not until the very end that everything is revealed - all I’ll just say is that it’s unwise to jump to any premature conclusions. 

Hot rocks - Richard Todd in Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Director Michael Anderson brings Chase a Crooked Shadow in at a tight 84 minutes and judges the pace well. The plot never has a chance to sag and there are some nicely staged sequences - in particular, there’s a well shot and hair-raising scene involving a high speed race around a picturesque mountain road with precipitous drops flashing into view. Anderson does indulge in a bit of flashiness here and there: low angle shots and some slightly self-conscious focusing on foreground objects (like the screencap above), but they generally serve to add to the suspense and feeling of unease. Aside from the twisty plotting, the film depends heavily on the performances of the three leads, and they hold up well. Both Richard Todd and Anne Baxter bring an ambiguous quality to their respective characters which this kind of “is he or isn’t he” drama calls for. Baxter is just brittle enough as the woman under pressure and avoids descending into hammy histrionics. The recently deceased Richard Todd was always a solid performer and his inherent reserve is used to good effect to keep the viewer guessing. In contrast, Herbert Lom’s policeman plays the anchor role in a movie where no one else can really be trusted. It’s not a showy part in any way, but it is a vital one as it helps provide a necessary point of reference.  

Chase a Crooked Shadow is available on DVD in the UK via Optimum, and it’s not a bad transfer. The image is 1.33:1, although 1.66:1 would seem a more likely ratio for British movies of the period, and is quite clear and detailed. There are vertical lines and scratches that appear intermittently all the way through, and the blacks could be a little blacker at times. However, none of this is seriously distracting and shouldn’t count heavily against the transfer. Once again Optimum have added nothing to the disc, no subs and no trailer but it can be bought very cheap. This is the kind of movie that’s very appealing to those who enjoy tense British thrillers and it’s a highly competent production. Anyone familiar with the Hammer movies I alluded to at the beginning will recognise the parallels - but that’s no bad thing. 

Next Page »