Ace Drummond (1936, 13 episodes)
An attempt to build an international airport and bring air traffic through Inner Mongolia is thwarted by the machinations of a criminal known as “The Dragon”. The point of contention is a mountain of jade discovered nearby by archaeologist Dr Trainor (C. Montague Shaw); wanting this treasure for himself, The Dragon sets about destroying all incoming flights via a device that causes planes to explode when the radio is used. Ace Drummond (John “Dusty” King) – “the singing G-Man of the air” – arrives from Washington to investigate, and to expose the mysterious criminal… Based upon the comic strip by WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Ace Drummond is another wonderful slice of serial absurdity, with California scrubland standing in for “Inner Mongolia”, poor Jean Rogers wearing the same gleaming white outfit and high heels throughout all 13 episodes, a secret passage that they will not block up, despite the fact that someone is attacked or kidnapped through it in every other episode, and Our Hero walking away unharmed from no less than three plane crashes. Nor does it help that the only character with any brains is the eleven year old son of the airline chief, or that the “Singing G-Man Of The Air” has a repertoire of precisely one – count ’em, one – song. Noah Beery Jr plays Ace’s slow-witted, quick-fisted offsider, Lon Chaney Jr is wasted in another pointless henchman role, and Jackie Morrow gets props as the surprisingly un-annoying Billy Meredith. There’s a certain amount of casual racism here, but it’s certainly less offensive than The New Adventures Of Tarzan; its Asian characters are as likely to be good guys as villains…although don’t hold your breath while looking for any actual Asians amongst the residents of “Inner Mongolia”. Which reminds me:
Things I Learned From Watching This SerialTM: Being brought up amongst Asian people will turn you Asian.
(NB: If you haven’t seen this, avoid its IMDb entry at all cost: it tells you who The Dragon is!!)
Air Hawks (1935)
Barry Eldon (Ralph Bellamy), pilot and designer, is the head of a small aviation company that is offering the big boys some serious competition. Facing the threat of a lucrative mail run contract being won by Eldon and his people, and with his own airline’s future hanging by a thread, Martin Drewen (Robert Middlemass) allows his silent partner, Victor Arnold (Douglas Dumbrille), to pursuade him into a deadly response: to hire disgraced scientist Professor Schulter (Edward Van Sloan) and his “death ray”, a device capable of destroying a plane’s engine in mid-flight…. This almost-science-fiction film is an odd little offering indeed, highlighted by a dash of mad science, and a large serving of a most peculiar movie morality. We know, for instance, that one of Barry Eldon’s pilots is dead meat from the moment we meet his loving wife and his adorable little daughter; it hardly needs the topper of the pilot buying “a dolly” for his kid. (And yes, of course we get a post-crash shot of the doll lying by the wreckage). Conversely, another of the pilots has the sense to take out a life insurance policy: he takes his dog up with him, subsequently becoming the only person to survive a brush with the death ray; and while he himself is badly injured in the crash, the film takes pains to reassure us that the dog wasn’t hurt. Speaking of morality, what are we to make of the head of an airline whose response, when offered a death ray with which to take out his competition, is not, “I’m not a murderer!” but, “I build planes, I don’t blow them up!” Mind you, when Barry Eldon finally figures out what’s going on and tracks Schulter and Arnold to their secret bunker, well, it’s mortars away and no questions asked. For a short little B-film, Air Hawks has one heck of a body count. Ralph Bellamy must have enjoyed this, a rare heroic role, where he gets to fly and fight and romance in nightclubs; but it is an unnerving Edward Van Sloan who steals the show as Schulter who, despite his lament / boast that he has “the governments of three countries” spying on him, never gives the impression that he has any political axe to grind: he just really, really, really wants to try out his death ray…
Atlantic Flight (1937)
This one was a real disappointment. It starts out looking like a disaster movie, with pilot Dick Bennett (real-life aviator Dick Merrill) flying through a dangerous storm in order to make sure a critically-ill child passenger reaches medical assistance in time—and it also ends like a disaster movie, with a trans-Atlantic race against time to deliver a life-saving serum. In between, though—yee-ouch! The bulk of this film is taken up with a story of pilots competing for contracts by winning various match races, and with the rivalry-cum-romance between aviation-company heads Bill Edwards (Weldon Heyburn) and Gail Strong (Paula Stone). Hey! – you know that obnoxious “romantic” convention that insists that the best preparation for marriage is a man and woman being completely hateful to one another? It’s older than you think. Atlantic Flight not only uses it, it spells it out in words of one syllable, after our, ahem, lovebirds have a public spat:
Observer #1: “How long has this been going on?”
Observer #2: “Second round.”
Observer #1: “They’re practically engaged!”
The perverse attraction of this film is just how bad the performance of Dick Merrill is—something he was well aware of himself, and which makes the viewer realise how much talent is involved in putting together even a low-budget B-movie. When the film was made, Merrill was celebrated for various record-breaking flights, and actual newsreel footage of his exploits is used in this film. As an actor, however, Merrill was a great pilot: the film-makers dance around his shortcomings by giving him as little dialogue as possible; he spends most of the film standing rigid and silent, visibly praying for a call of, “CUT!”, while the rest of the cast play out their dialogue scenes around him.
In an effort to end a lengthy siege, King Telektos of Thenes (Andreas Filippides) sends out a proposition to the tyrant Proximates (Frank Wolff): the issue will be decided by a fight to the death between the local champion, Telektos’ son, Prince Indros (Christos Exarchos), and a challenger of Proximates’ choosing. While he has no intention of abiding by the terms of Telektos’ offer, Proximates agrees, asking ten days to withdraw and find his challenger – a period that just happens to coincide with the Olympic Games. In company with his mistress, former High Priestess Candia (Barboura Morris), and his philosopher-for-hire, Garnis (Walter Maslow), Proximates watches the reigning wrestling champion defeated by an unknown young man called Atlas (Michael Forest). When Proximates’ attempt to recruit the young man to his cause fails, he sends Candia to seduce him. Atlas finally agrees to become Proximates’ champion, although he insists he will kill no-one. He and Candia begin to fall in love. In his duel with Indros, Atlas is triumphant. However, true to his word, he spares his opponent, much to Proximates’ disgust. Proximates and his troops occupy Thenes, declaring a new era of friendship begun. But that night, a troop of Proximates’ men, disguised as Thenens, stage a mock-uprising, giving the tyrant an excuse to slaughter the local population… Still more history! – Corman’s only peplum, made at the peak of the genre’s brief but hugely fecund existence. Atlas was shot on location in Greece, but sadly, available prints are both poor quality and badly pan-and-scanned, so that the benefit of its setting is lost. The main sense of this film is that Corman had bitten off much more than he could chew, although that wasn’t entirely his fault: on the day when the battle scenes were to be shot, only fifty of the five hundred Greek soldiers hired as extras showed up; a situation that forced some desperate recruitment on the director’s part, with Dick Miller (just there on vacation), screenwriter Charles B. Griffith and Corman himself pressed into service. Sharp eyes will spot the same very limited troops being marched back and forth before the camera, while the “battles” are all shot in extreeeeme close-up. (Hey, if it was good enough for Kenneth Branagh…) When, after the “rebellion”, Proximates declares that eight hundred people are dead, it is hard to suppress a guffaw. Still, if you can overlook its budgetary woes, Atlas isn’t without interest – and unusually for a peplum, chiefly at story level, with the film’s hero allied with the bad guys for much of the time and, after declaring himself a thinker and observer only, and declining to involve himself in the events unfolding around him – and indeed, trying to run away from them – finally being compelled to take a stand. Charlie Griffith’s screenplay is an odd mix of the erudite and the anachronistic, with correct historical references and topical jokes rubbing shoulders with moments like the one when Garnis warns Candia that if they don’t behave, they’ll both be, “Off the payroll”. Likewise, there is no attempt to disguise American accents (some of the locals are dubbed), nor is the language “archaic-ed up”, which is sometimes jarring, sometimes quite refreshing. The performances here draw heavily upon the MGM production of Quo Vadis? (probably a reflection of Corman’s unfamiliarity with the genre), with Frank Wolff doing his best to look and act like Peter Ustinov, and Walter Maslow’s tame philosopher likewise owing much to Leo Genn’s characterisation. Frank Wolff and Michael Forest are two of the less acknowledged Corman alumni, both men appearing in several other productions for the director prior to co-headlining in this. For the former, Atlas was a turning point: Frank Wolff subsequently remained in Europe and had a highly successful career that lasted until his sadly premature death. Michael Forest returned to America and spent the rest of the sixties working in television (including the Star Trek episode, Who Mourns For Adonais?), before returning to Europe as both an actor and a dubber, then finding permanent employment as an anime voice actor. As for those reluctant “extras”, I can’t say that I spotted Charlie Griffith, but we are given a good look at Dick Miller playing one of the Thenens during the final battle scene (he gets a sword across the back of his neck – owie!). And yes, that is our Roger in a man-skirt as one of Proximates’ captains: he’s the one with his helmet pulled right down over his face…
At Sword’s Point (1952)
In 1648, the evil Duc de Lavalle (Robert Douglas) uses his private army to become de facto ruler of France, planning to consolidate his position by marrying the Princess Henriette (Nancy Gates) and then murdering her brother, the young King Louis XIV (Peter Miles). An ill and aged Queen Anne (Gladys Cooper) sends a desperate secret message to the men who were once her Musketeers, their organisation having been disbanded by the Duc. The message reaches not the original Musketeers, but their sons: D’Artagnan (Cornel Wilde), Aramis (Dan O’Herlihy) and Porthos (Alan Hale Jr). The three meet at an inn, their fathers’ old haunt, where they are joined by someone claiming to be the son of Athos – but whose violent objection to the cosy sleeping arrangements soon reveals her secret… At Sword’s Point is tremendous fun, a throwback to the swashbucklers of the 1930s, with sword-fights, kidnappings, chases, impersonations and hairsbreadth escapes as far as the eye can see. The real surprise here is the way the film handles “Claire, the daughter of Athos”, as she laboriously calls herself, who refreshingly is allowed to be just as good a swordsperson as her three comrades, and to stand up where women in films are generally “supposed” to display their femininity by caving in. (Lavalle tortures D’Artagnan in front of Claire to make her reveal the whereabouts of the king; although in love with him, she doggedly stays silent.) The notion that anyone, ever, even for a second, could mistake Maureen O’Hara for a boy is absurd, of course, but that’s just part of the joke. The action is non-stop, the bad guys eminently hissable, the costumes gorgeous and the Technicolor spectacular. Recommended.
The Barbarian (1933)
Sometimes a film comes out of nowhere and just…blindsides you. Ramon Novarro stars as Jamil, “the best dragoman in Cairo”, who in fact earns his living playing gigolo to footloose female tourists, and whose sights become set upon Diana Standing (Myrna Loy), who has come to Egypt to marry Gerald Hume (Reginald Denny), an Englishman in charge of a local engineering project. The Barbarian starts out looking like a typical pre-Code effort, with Jamil courting Diana right under her stuffy fiancé’s nose; and while it’s not particularly funny, it’s certainly risqué enough to hold the attention (we see most of Myrna’s left breast while Diana is dressing, and there’s an amazingly explicit bathing scene). Then, about halfway through, we take an abrupt turn into a replay of The Sheik, only without the Valentino-coloured glasses. Jamil is revealed to be the prince of the local Bedouin tribe, whose sons are sent to the city as a rite of passage to earn a living in trade – except that Jamil chose to be a prostitute instead (okay, he doesn’t use that word). We have already heard a great deal from Jamil about “Occidental women” and their “preferences” (for the record, they are “incapable of admitting their feelings” and therefore like to be “compelled”), and he acts on his beliefs when Diana allows him to kiss her and then strikes him out of disgust with herself. His first act is to deliver Diana into the hands of Achmed Pasha (Edward Arnold!!), who also desires her; but then he decides he’s going to punish her himself. In short order, Diana is kidnapped, force-marched across the desert, taught the local pecking order (“First the horse drinks, then the man, then the woman!”), and finally raped. Jamil follows this up with a proposal of marriage, which Diana accepts in order to humiliate him by walking out in the middle of the ceremony. Jamil responds by taking a bull-whip to her. If you’ve guessed that all this ends in passionate love and marriage, give yourself a gold star. This film is amazing. Every time you think it can’t possibly get any more offensive, it finds a way – like the “concern” shown by Gerald’s mother over what public charge is to be brought against Jamil when the police catch up with him: she relaxes once she’s told “piracy”. I’m inclined to think, however, that the real rock bottom is hit with the care taken to let us know that Diana’s mother was Egyptian, the inference apparently being that all this is okay: she isn’t really one of us, she’s one of them. I’ll say this for The Barbarian, though: it keeps it up right to the very last exchange of dialogue. (She: “Did you know that my mother was Egyptian?” He: “I wouldn’t care if she was Chinese!”) Unbelievable.
The Battle Of Britain (1969)
“If we lose now,” comments Hermann Goering as the cream of the Luftwaffe flies overhead, “we deserve to have our arses kicked out.” This big-budget reproduction of the critical air battles of 1940 that helped turn the tide of WWII was not a success at the time of its release, but it is consistently interesting, and was certainly influential, beginning the trend of more factual, documentary-style war films. The film follows the conflicts of the British and German air forces from the devastating German bombing of British airfields through to the crucial overreach, the bombing of London, which allowed the RAF to regain the strategic advantage. In respect of tone, this is a very English movie: sarcasm and cynicism abound, personal tragedy is met with stoicism, flag-waving is kept to a minimum – Sir Winston’s indelible words, and the British Ambassador’s dismissal of his German counterpart, aside – and it certainly isn’t afraid to be critical. It highlights, for instance, the stubborn bigotry that delayed the RAF’s deployment of the Polish and Czechoslovakian pilots at their disposal, despite the desperate need: a point underscored in the scene where the English squadron leader snottily reproves his new recruits for their “Polish chatter”, without bothering to look over his shoulder and see what they’re chattering about. (Although, in this regard, the film doesn’t really go far enough: the Italian squadron that also played an important part in events is never mentioned, nor is the roll-call of nationalities at the end complete.) On the other hand, there are certainly some major missteps here, notably the amount of screentime given to the marital woes of Colin (Christopher Plummer) and Maggie Harvey (Susannah York). The intention is pure, as it sets up a subplot about the difficulties of both servicemen and civilians in the early days of reconstructive surgery, but we don’t like either Harvey enough to care as we should what happens to them. (Colin, in particular, seems to regard the war as something arranged purely to inconvenience him.) In the final wash, however, The Battle Of Britain achieves what it set out to do, which is to emphasise the inequity of the two forces at the outset (the British were outnumbered four-to-one), to pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of those involved, and to leave us shaking our heads in mystification as to how the hell the Brits ever got out of that one. As for the cast, well, it would probably be simpler, and quicker, to provide a list of who isn’t in this film: there’s hardly a prominent British (or at least, colonial) actor of the time who doesn’t put in an appearance. Let’s see: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Michael Redgrave, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Edward Fox, Kenneth More, Patrick Wymark, Robert Flemyng, Barry Foster, Nigel Patrick, Ian McShane, Susannah York— Shall I go on? Fortunately, this star-heaviness is not nearly as distracting as it could have been, due to that mysterious ability of British actors to disappear into their roles. Compare this with, say, The Longest Day, where you never for a moment forget you’re looking at John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. And speaking of which, the only two obvious omissions from the cast of The Battle Of Britain – Richard Burton and Sean Connery – were both in that.
Beneath The 12 Mile Reef (1953)
A Greek sponge-diving community in the Gulf of Mexico struggles as the sponge supply begins to dry up. A good crop is to be had by the dangerous 12 Mile Reef, but the Petrakis family considers this area off-limits after the eldest son was killed there in an accident. Instead, Mike Petrakis (Gilbert Roland) and his younger son, Tony (Robert Wagner), venture into the Glades off Key West, traditionally the diving grounds of the local Anglo-American population. Mike brings on board a good haul, only to have it pirated by Thomas Rhys (Richard Boone), his sons, and his right-hand man, Arnold Dix (Peter Graves); the crew can only stand by helpless, as Dix threatens Mike’s airline with an axe. Refusing to take the incident lying down, Mike and his crew follow Rhys and his men into Key West, where Mike takes some physical revenge upon Arnold Dix, and Tony sparks a romance with Gwyneth Rhys (Terry Moore), Dix’s almost-fiancé… Romeo and Juliet in Florida. Not that the film entirely follows its model: the Montagues have no problem with Juliet; Capulet turns out to be a fairly decent guy; it’s Tybalt, a right bastard, who causes all the trouble; and anyway, the film contrives a happy ending for its young lovers. Beneath The 12 Mile Reef was an early “combat television” film, and exists primarily to show off its technology: this was one of the very first productions to be shot in Cinemascope, and Edward Cronjager’s Technicolor cinematography won an Academy Award. The underwater photography is very nice, which is just as well, because there’s a lot of it. The acting is nothing to write home about, though, and the plethora of distinctly non-Greek “Greeks” becomes increasingly hard to take, particularly Robert Wagner with his hair dyed black and all bouffant, trying desperately to look “ethnic”. Dramatically, the film is slow-going at the outset, but picks up the pace once the clash between the Montagues and the Capulets has become a blood-feud. What’s more, the climax has Tony Petrakis, on his first deep dive, battling a honking big octopus, and as we all know, there’s no film that isn’t improved by the inclusion of a honking big octopus. A few molluscs become stew over the course of the film, but otherwise there are no underwater casualties.
Best Of The Badmen (1951)
Yet another take on America’s most notorious outlaws. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Union officer Jeff Clanton (Robert Ryan) and his men corner the remnants of Quantrill’s Raiders, a gang that includes both Frank (Tom Tyler) and Jesse James (Lawrence Tierney), and the three Younger brothers (Bruce Cabot, Robert J. Wilke, Jack Buetel). Clanton offers the outlaws immunity in exchange for an Oath of Allegiance. Left with little option, they agree, over the violent objections of Culry Ringo (John Archer), who despises Clanton as a “traitorous” Missourian. Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), the head of a “detective agency” that has strongarmed its way into de facto government of the region, plans to turn the outlaws in for the reward – and the notoriety – but Clanton defies him, administering the Oath and releasing the former outlaws. Clanton then learns that his discharge was granted some time back – and that the Oath he administered was therefore invalid, and his shooting of one of Fowler’s deputies in the violent struggle, murder. Rapidly tried and convicted, Clanton is helped to escape from jail by a mysterious woman who turns out to be Fowler’s estranged wife, Lily (Claire Trevor). Now a wanted outlaw himself, Clanton joins up with the men he released, and soon a new “Quantrill’s Raiders” is waging war on Matthew Fowler and his organisation… Best Of The Badmen is only fair as a western, but is certainly worth watching for its remarkable cast: besides those already mentioned, it also stars Walter Brennan and Barton MacLane. The film suffers, unusually, from a bit too much going on, and it loses focus over the course of its story. Robert Preston makes a thoroughly hateful villain, though – even if they do chicken out and pull that thing where he is accidentally killed by one of his own men during the climactic fight with Jeff Clanton. Jack Buetel shows that despite the evidence of The Outlaw, he could act; while Walter Brennan steals the show – surprise! – as a “collector of bridles”…which sometimes just happen to have horses attached. Poor Claire Trevor takes an awful beating, as usual, although the script does grant her a happy ending. Of a sort. And only if you have more faith in the justice system of the time than this film gives us any reason to.
Black Water Gold (1970)
This made-for-TV movie, the last one I watched in my mini-odyssey of underwater films, plays very much like a cross between Treasure Of The Jamaica Reef and The Deep (see below), while pre-dating both of them. It kind of makes you wonder… While poaching tropical fish in a marine preserve off Nassau, Ray Sandage (Aron Kincaid) is witness to a startling chain of events: at the surface, a large boat destroys a smaller one; two men dive into the water and try to swim away, but are shot dead. A leather pouch sinks in the confusion. Ray claims the bag and the name-plate of the sunken boat. On shore, he finds to his astonishment that the pouch contains coral-encrusted gold artefacts. Knowing he needs expert help, Ray takes the objects to Christofer Perdeger (Keir Dullea), a marine archaeologist grounded after rupturing his eardrums in a diving accident. Needing knowledgeable help from someone who can dive, Perdeger in turn recruits Alejandro Zayas (Ricardo Montalban), a local historian who bears a grudge against Perdeger for publically dismissing his work as “amateur”. The two men are in agreement that the artefacts can only have come from a legendary Spanish galleon, the Hidalgo; they enter into a guarded partnership to search for the treasure that was on board. Meanwhile, Ray’s inquiries about the destroyed boat attract the attention of criminal millionaire Lyle Fawcett (Bradford Dillman), who is in pursuit of the Hidalgo himself, and was responsible for the murders… This is an enjoyable little movie, thankfully offering more action than most of its watery brethren – although, yes, there are plenty of scuba-diving scenes. What budget this film had was clearly spent on the location shooting in Nassau, which is attractive; its other pleasures come from its cast. Bradford Dillman is hilarious as the flamboyant Fawcett – although I honestly couldn’t tell you whether he’s just flamboyant, or, you know, flamboyant. (On in-film evidence, he may just be Bostonian.) Keir Dullea and Ricardo Montalban are both solid in their textbook opposition roles. (After much intellect-versus-heart sparring, they decide – duh! – that they need each other.) I was worried during the opening sequence that Ray the poacher was going to be sold to us as the hero, but thankfully that never comes to pass; and if Ray doesn’t exactly reform by the end of the film, at least he’s rich enough to give up poaching. Lana Wood and France Nuyen appear in supporting roles. Some small sharks also appear in minor roles, and all make it out alive. And as a final bonus, Black Water Gold also has a wonderfully unnecessary theme song (“Black waaaa-terrr, black waaaa-terrr…”).
Blondie Of The Follies (1932)
Marion Davies is “Blondie”, a rather unlikely innocent abroad; silent star Billie Dove is Lottie Callahan, aka “Lurline Cavanaugh”, who goes on the stage and ends up being kept by the wealthy and aristocratic Larry Belmont (Robert Belmont), who she loves, although he is only amusing himself with her. Circumstances force Blondie to throw in with Lottie, who invites her to move into her apartment and gets her a part in the Follies. All goes well until Blondie and Larry fall in love, prompting Lottie to confess the truth about her situation to the hither-to oblivious Blondie. Shocked but sympathetic, Blondie breaks with Larry, swearing to Lottie that she will never take him away from her, and going so far as to put herself under another man’s protection. But Larry will not give up on Blondie, while Lottie’s jealousy and unhappiness blinds her to her best friend’s sincerity… This pre-Code vehicle for Marion Davies is, ultimately, a rather peculiar meditation upon the ups and downs of female friendship. The good news is that, unlike a great many films, Blondie Of The Follies sees such friendship as fundamental and enduring; the bad news is, it chooses to illustrate its precepts by focusing on a friendship between two young women that begins with a full-on cat-fight on the stairs of their mutual tenement, and ends with one nearly crippling the other in a fit of jealous rage. In between we get some heavy doses of the usual eyebrow-raising double-standardism – the film condemns the two girls for their behaviour, but is entirely uncritical of Larry Belmont either for his keeping of Lottie or his cold-blooded dismissal of her – and one glorious comic sequence as Marion Davies and Jimmy Durante do a dead-on take-off of Greta Garbo and John Barrymore in Grand Hotel. (Given that Grand Hotel was released only ten weeks before Blondie Of The Follies, this parody is an accurate measure of the enormity of that film’s success.) James Gleason, Zasu Pitts, Sidney Toler and Douglass Dumbrille appear in supporting roles.
Adapted from the Sidney Sheldon novel. Millionaire businessman Sam Roffe falls to his death in the Alps, and his pharmaceutical empire is inherited by his estranged daughter, Elizabeth (Audrey Hepburn). The board of directors – known collectively as “the cousins”, family by birth and marriage – does its best to pressure the inexperienced Elizabeth into making the company public, but with the support of her father’s former right-hand man, Rhys Williams (Ben Gazzara), she decides to try and run things herself. Before long, however, “accidents” begin to occur, while the Swiss police discover that Sam Roffe’s death was murder… A bad adaptation of a bad novel—though that said, the film was cut significantly, and with no particular judgement, prior to its release, meaning that the endless flashback recounting Sam Roffe’s origins stayed, but the nasty serial killer – and snuff film? – subplot was pruned into incomprehensibility. Bloodline is chiefly interesting for the unjustly out-of-work actors it managed to rope into its supporting roles – and for the way it asks us to believe that Audrey Hepburn, James Mason, Irene Pappas, Omar Sharif and Romy Schneider are related to each other! Audrey Hepburn is too old for the role she’s playing, but that’s not as important as her evident discomfort with her character as this tasteless story meanders along. Dramatically, the problem here is that there’s no real mystery about the story’s mystery. Let me put it this way: Elizabeth’s new husband is behaving oh-so secretively, and all but one of the “cousins” is openly hostile towards her, while one of them is sweet as pie – who do you think the killer is? It also doesn’t help that Elizabeth, in imminent danger of her life and with the whole world to choose from, keeps going back to the same old places, so that the killer will always know just where to find her; although credit where it’s due, I did like her deliberately wrecking her room as (she thinks) the killer approaches: “Try making it look like an accident now!” The only bright spot in this mess is the performance of Gert Fröbe as Inspector Hornung, while the single real point of interest is the Interpol computer, circa 1979, which takes up an entire floor of the building…and talks. And nothing in this entire film, I may say, intrigued me so much as our very first glimpse of Elizabeth, busy cleaning dinosaur bones at the New York Museum of Natural History; a – career? hobby? – never referenced again.
Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)
Speeding through the foggy night, Captain Hugh C. “Bulldog” Drummond (Ray Milland) almost runs down a young woman, who throws herself to the ground and feigns unconsciousness as he pulls up to check on her. Drummond is placing the woman in his car when he hears a shot from the nearby marshland. He goes to investigate, and finds a dead body… Drummond tracks the girl, Phyllis Clavering (Heather Angel), to Graystone Manor, where he meets a man called Merridew (Porter Hall). He also sees a subdued Phyllis, who seems dashed when he returns the purse she left in his car, but who contrives, after leaving the room, to tuck a note into Drummond’s hat. Merridew explains to the puzzled Drummond that Phyllis has been suffering a persecution complex since the death of her brother, and is under the care of a psychiatrist, Professor Stanton (Walter Kingsford). However, when Drummond has gone, Merridew questions Phyllis angrily and, when she refuses to answer, her “psychiatrist” begins viciously twisting her arm… There were four Bulldog Drummond films made in 1937, which featured three different Drummonds. Bulldog Drummond Escapes famously stars Ray Milland in the title role, with Heather Angel as an enjoyably feisty Phyllis, who has a real talent for bonking people on the head. (In fact, this is a problem: this Phyllis is smart enough, and tough enough, that you can’t imagine her getting into, or being kept in, the situation she’s in when she and Drummond meet.) For the rest, the screenplay hardly holds together – something about a counterfeiter’s ring and a stolen inheritance…I think. Best not to worry about the plot too much, and instead just enjoy the cast. Hughs and Phyllises may have come and gone over the years – and even months – but the real anchors of the series remained reassuringly constant, in the forms of Reginald Denny as Algy, Drummond’s long-suffering, thick-headed pal, and E.E. Clive as Tenny, his imperturbable manservant. One of the other pleasant aspects of the series was, in spite of the movements in the casting, the film-to-film continuity. Thus, Bulldog Drummond Escapes has Hugh and Phyllis meeting, falling in love, and at the last getting engaged; while its running joke is poor Algy’s unavailing attempt to get in touch with the hospital where his wife is giving birth. (Modern viewers are unlikely to sympathise with Drummond’s cavalier attitude towards Algy and Gwen’s situation.) The next film in the series, Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, gives us…well, we’ll see that in a minute…
****Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)
Bulldog Drummond (John Howard) finds his past coming back to haunt him when his fiancée, Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell), is abducted by Irena Soldanis (Helen Freeman), the widow of a man who was arrested by Drummond and later executed. With Phyllis as bait, Drummond must follow clue after clue in a sick game of treasure hunt, never certain if he will find his fiancée alive at the next rendezvous point. Although Drummond has made it clear in no uncertain terms that the police must not get involved, his superior, Colonel Nielsen (John Barrymore), who is in pursuit of Mme Soldarnis and her brother and confederate, Mikhail Valdin (J. Carroll Naish), for another crime, has decided that he must take a hand, and calls on the talents of a subordinate who is skilled in the arts of make-up and disguise… Much ado about nothing might serve as a subtitle for this second 1937 instalment in the Bulldog Drummond series, which sees Drummond running literally in circles for much of its just-over-an-hour length. Even less than the previous entry is the plot important, however. This entry has Ray Milland and Heather Angel replaced by John Howard and Louise Campbell – they gave up trying to keep Hugh and Phyllis “British” pretty early on, didn’t they? – and (without being rude) more importantly, our previous Colonel Nielsen, Guy Standing, replaced by John Barrymore, who gets billing over Howard and steals the show by moving from disguise to disguise, and accent to accent. Even so, Tenny – E.E. Clive still, thankfully – turns out to be the real hero. Generous of him, really, considering that the film opens with him in gloomy anticipation of the marriage of Hugh and Phyllis, happily engaged throughout this one. Meanwhile, poor Algy dashes from place to place in growing certainty that he is going to miss his new baby’s christening…
****Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge (1937)
Colonel Nielsen (John Barrymore) learns that an attempt will be made to kidnap Sir John Huxton (Matthew Boulton), who has invented a new explosive of devastating power. Nielsen goes to Huxton and tries to warn him of the danger, but Huxton insists upon not only going to Paris with his explosive as planned, but flying his own plane with only his secretary, Draven Nogais (Frank Puglia), along, arguing that the explosive is dangerously unpredictable, and that no-one else should be exposed to the danger. Nielsen reluctantly acquiesces and the plane takes off… As Bulldog Drummond (John Howard), Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny) and Tenny (E.E. Clive) drive through the night, they see a curious sight: a suitcase descending from a small plane via parachute. As the three go to retrieve it, they are almost run down by a passing car. The next moment, at some distance, the plane crashes. Hurrying to investigate, Drummond discovers a severed arm which, curiously, is already cold… The ring, the licence, and Bulldog Drummond and his fiancée, Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell), are set to depart for their Switzerland wedding. But of course, it’s not that easy. There’s actually no reason given why the wedding should be in Switzerland, except to get Hugh and Phyllis – and poor Algy, accidentally – aboard the train and boat that are also carrying Draven Nogais and his confederate, Hardcastle (Robert Gleckler). As drama, Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge isn’t too bad, but unfortunately, far too much of its “humour” consists of Phyllis and Gwen Longworth (Nydia Westman) screaming and fainting, which is both irritating as hell, and completely out of character for the brave and level-headed Phyllis we’ve seen up to this point in the series. In compensation, though, we do get to see Draven Nogais evading his pursuers by “disguising” himself as a woman…and Frank Puglia in drag is a sight that has to be seen to be disbelieved. There is also an intriguing subplot involving Miki Morita as, clearly, a Japanese spy in Britain. “You know who and what I am?” he asks. “Of course,” responds Nielsen coolly. Equally worried about Huxton’s explosive, the two men enter into an alliance of convenience, which leads to some very interesting speeches – this is 1937, remember – about “your country” and “my country” and “friendly nations” and “the wrong hands”…
****Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (1938)
Let’s see, where were we? Well, Hugh Drummond (John Howard) and Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell) are trying to get married – again. This time they’ve made it all the way to Switzerland, where Phyllis’s Aunt Blanche (Elizabeth Patterson) is hosting the wedding at her villa. The wedding gifts pour in, including that of Algy (Reginal Denny) and Gwen Longworth (Nydia Westman), an artificial diamond of remarkable size and, even more remarkably, indistinguishable from the real thing. This stone is the work of Professor Goodman (Halliwell Hobbes), Gwen’s scientist-father. Present when the gift is received is Sir Raymond Blantyree (Matthew Boulton), the head of a major international diamond syndicate. Blantyree hurriedly summons his secretary, Roberts (Austin Fairman), warning him of the “diamond’s” existence and insisting that they must examine it – “At all cost!” The result is a missing diamond, a dead body, and Phyllis left at the altar yet again… Although the Hugh / Phyllis set-up is getting tiresome, Bulldog Drummond’s Peril redeems itself somewhat with a bizarre plunge into the world of science fiction, and with a couple of movie scientists to make your hair stand on end, Professor Goodman and his professional rival, Dr Botulian. As the movies so often insist, “scientists” here are just private citizens who work out of their home laboratories, with no employment or affiliations to be seen. (Kind of makes you wonder where that “professorship” came from, doesn’t it? Out of a cereal box?) Professor Goodman has turned to making artificial diamonds for no reason the film ever bothers to confide to us – except that he wants to show off by presenting his work to “the Royal Society” – and does so using “scientific equipment” that would make Kenneth Strickfaden weep with envy. “I could probably make these diamonds for a shilling each,” he confides to the appalled Sir Raymond, adding cheerfully that, “In a few weeks, my process will be free to everyone!” Not surprisingly, the Professor’s life is soon in danger. Someone dies – but who it is and how it was done was something that requires some considerable paying of attention. John Barrymore, Reginald Denny and E.E. Clive are back on board for this next entry in the series, along with John Howard and Louise Campbell, while Porter Hall (the baddie from Bulldog Drummond Escapes) returns as the evil Dr Botulian. Also starring a dubbed penguin in a top hat. No, really.
Quote: “You mean to say you value your name on a scientific paper more than half a million pounds in cash!?”
****Bulldog Drummond In Africa (1938)
As the wedding of Hugh Drummond (John Howard) and Phyllis Clavering (Heather Angel) draws near again, this time in England (?), their plans are disrupted by the kidnapping of Colonel Nielson (H.B. Warner) by Richard Lane (J. Carroll Naish), a decorated WWI hero turned traitor and spy. Lane’s objective is a “radio wave disintegrator”, a device intended to prevent the interception of signals by the enemy. Phyllis arrives at Graystone Manor just in time to see Nielson being hustled away. She alerts Drummond and Tenny (E.E. Clive), and soon the two men – and Algy (Reginald Denny), who shows up at just the wrong moment, and Phyllis, who stows away – are on their way to Morocco in pursuit. Meanwhile, Nielson is being subjected to a novel form of torture in an effort to get him to talk: being tied to a tree with a savage lion chained up nearby, its claws falling only inches short and its tether starting to give… One of the shorter entries in the series, and substantially padded even to get that far, Bulldog Drummond In Africa is nevertheless boosted by its cast. Some changes have been rung here. John Barrymore missed this one, being replaced by H.B. Warner, which actually works well: Warner is more convincing as the stiff upper lipped old buffer type ready to die gruesomely for his country. J. Carroll Naish is another returning villain (he was Mikhail Valdin in Bulldog Drummond Comes Back), while Anthony Quinn has a good early role as a British official who’s actually working for Lane. Importantly, though oddly, Heather Angel is back as Phyllis. I don’t know whether it’s the actress herself, or whether the writers picked up their game when she was around, but Angel makes a much better Phyllis than Louise Campbell, less whiny and better able to take care of herself. The plot is more than a little ridiculous, but the sequence with the lions is effective, as is a nasty bit of business about a bomb and a timer attached to the underside of Our Heroes’ plane. Conversely, the comedy relief is pretty appalling (I’ll spare you a word-picture of Drummond and Tenny doing a kilt dance), and there are also some odd continuity errors: wasn’t Graystone Manor Phyllis’s house? And no, Hugh and Phyllis still aren’t married by the end of this one. We – like Phyllis – keep hoping.
Bunco Squad (1950)
After the third suicide in three months of someone swindled out of their savings, detectives Steve Johnson (Robert Sterling) and Mack McManus (Douglas Fowley) of the Los Angeles “Bunco Squad” set out to put the wind up many of the local con-artists, certain that behind some of them is a major operator. They’re right: Anthony Wells (Ricardo Cortez), an expert in making a profit while letting others take the fall for him, now has his sights set on rich widow Jessica Royce (Elisabeth Risdon), exploiting her grief over the death of her son via a professional medium, “Princess Liane of the Rama Society” (Bernadene Hayes), who claims to be in contact with him. Alerted to the situation by Mrs Royce’s worried secretary, Barbara Madison (Marguerite Churchill), Johnson and McManus retaliate with a phoney medium of their own: Steve’s girlfriend, Grace Bradshaw (Joan Dixon), an aspiring actress, whose life is placed in danger when the desperate Wells, seeing Mrs Royce’s fortune slipping away from him, discovers the imposture… After so many cop shows and films depicting policemen as disgruntled failures if they are anything less than homicide detectives, this odd little crime drama benefits from the undisguised enthusiasm of its cops for their work, rooting out swindlers and con-artists of all kinds, in particular phoney fortune-tellers. Steve Johnson proves rather more likeable as a cop than as a boyfriend, though: his way of trying to convince his girlfriend to quit her job and marry him is to tell her repeatedly what a lousy actress she is! – and then he’s got the nerve to recruit her to pose as a medium for him, despite the danger of the situation! If the story of Bunco Squad is never entirely plausible, it is unusual enough, and brisk enough, to hold the interest. It may also leave you paranoid over the condition of your car: it features no less than three fatal brake-line severings in the space of sixty-four minutes!
Max Ophüls’ ode to the horrors of wish fulfilment might as well have been called Be Careful What You Pray For. Working girl Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) marries multi-millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) after a whirlwind courtship, not knowing that the dangerously unstable Ohlrig proposed merely as a way of lashing out at his psychiatrist (Art Smith), who unwisely begged him to leave the girl alone. The newspapers proclaim Leonora’s “Cinderella romance”, but a year later the girl is a near-prisoner in Ohlrig’s cavernous mansion, her life totally controlled by her erratic husband’s whims. After a final violent argument, Leonora walks out, finding a tiny apartment and a job as receptionist to two doctors. Dr Larry Quinada (James Mason) finds Leonora’s inexperience and disorganisation aggravating but, as a paediatrician, appreciates her way with children. Leonora’s new life is disrupted when Ohlrig reappears, promising reformation and begging her to return to him. She does – only to have it made bitterly clear that nothing whatsoever has changed. Returning to her working life, Leonora begins to take pleasure in her job, making herself as useful as possible to both doctors. Dr Quinada begins to take a romantic interest in her, while Leonora herself finds herself bitterly torn when she realises that she is carrying her husband’s child… Caught is never quite the film it should have been; it never seems quite to make up its mind how far we should blame Leonora for her situation; but it certainly doesn’t consider her faultless, going so far as to have Larry Quinada, the film’s voice of reason, call her bluff. “No, you didn’t,” he retorts when she insists she loved her husband. “You thought it was wrong to marry for money, therefore you told yourself you loved him.” Melodramatic this might be – and quite straight-faced about it, as Ophüls usually was – but its portrait of domestic misery is deeply unsettling, as Leonora’s dreams of “marrying well” shrivel into an airlocked existence as the mink-draped puppet of her control-freak husband. As Smith Ohlrig, Robert Ryan again proves himself one of filmdom’s most terrifying – because most believable – psychopaths, giving us a man destructive by instinct; a man both neurotically acquisitive and neurotically insecure; a man who suffers a psychosomatically-induced heart attack any time he doesn’t get his own way. Ohlrig has no hesitation in using Leonora’s pregnancy as a weapon. On the contrary, he revels in it, offering her a divorce in exchange for custody of the child. “I can’t do that,” moans Leonora. “I know you can’t,” grins her husband. (The character of Ohlrig was, evidently, intended as Max Ophüls’ revenge upon Howard Hughes, in whose employ he spent a miserable period upon first reaching Hollywood.) The third point of the uneasy triangle gave James Mason his first American role, and he fleshes out what could have been a typical movie cardboard cut-out hero role into something rougher and more interesting. Quinada is a man of wealthy background devoting himself to poor patients, but refreshingly, he’s certainly no saint: at one point he becomes so annoyed by a mother’s hypochondria-by-proxy, he almost overlooks her daughter’s serious illness; while when his partner, Dr Hoffman (Frank Ferguson, in a lovely supporting performance), diagnoses Leonora’s pregnancy, he immediately assumes that Quinada is the father. It is the emotional complexity of Caught that separates it from its lesser brethren. Indeed, extraordinarily for its era, it manages to create a situation where a woman divorcing one man and marrying another while carrying the first man’s child is the morally correct thing to do. Alas, the film loses its nerve before the end – or perhaps the studio interfered. In either case, the actual ending of the film is thoroughly disturbing – a piece of absolutely cold-blooded practicality, the likes of which we rarely see…and that’s probably a good thing.
Code Two (1953)
Three young men, Russ Hartley (Robert Horton), Harry Whenlon (Jeff Richards) and Chuck O’Flair (Ralph Meeker), attend the Police Academy in Los Angeles. After their graduation, each of the three, for reasons of his own – the pay, his personal history, a desire for excitement – elects to join the motorcycle squad… Code Two is a film of two halves, the first a look at the operation of the police academy in the early 1950s, the second devoted to the tracking down of a group of cattle thieves (no, really), who also become cop killers. Although this is a neat little B-film, these days it is certainly the first part of the film that is the most interesting. Here, as in other semi-documentary MGM productions of the same era, such as Kid Glove Killer and Mystery Street, we are given a realistic look at the functioning of the police force, in this case at how young policemen are actually trained. We follow the usual disparate trio of friends – family man Hartley, family-of-cops product Whenlon, and cocky blowhard O’Flair – and their relationship with the experienced cop, Sergeant Culdane (Keenan Wynn) – “Jumbo” to his friends – who takes them under his wing. Most of the focus is upon O’Flair, in whom Culdane takes a special interest on the traditional grounds that, “He reminds me of me” (in which case, Keenan, you used to be a real jerk). Ralph Meeker’s Chuck O’Flair is a throwback to the kind of obnoxious characters so often played by James Cagney in the 1930s, who think they know it all and never learn anything until tragedy strikes…and of course, it always strikes someone else. Unlike those earlier films, however – and most refreshingly – O’Flair’s antics do him no good at all in the romance department: when he turns his Neanderthal charms upon Jane Anderson (Elaine Stewart), Russ Hartley’s sister-in-law, she is quite repulsed, and takes up instead with the shy, good-natured Harry Whenlon. (O’Flair has more luck “charming” women who are trying to dodge traffic tickets.) Of course, in time O’Flair does prove himself, and even grows up in the process – a bit, anyway. This interesting slice of history was directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, three years before Forbidden Planet.
Commandos Strike At Dawn (1942)
For what was certainly intended as a morale-boosting piece of propaganda, this is an incredibly downbeat film. A peaceful Norwegian village suffers through the German occupation, and its inhabitants must decide when and how to make their stand. As you’d expect, there’s a fair amount of heavy-handed speech-making here, but it’s balanced by the film’s refusal to treat war as something that does, or should, come easily to people, and by its unflinching look at the terrible personal toll suffered by those who decide to take up arms: a young bride sees her husband executed for possession of a radio; a woman harbouring the killer of the German commander learns that her own grandson is one of those condemned to be shot in retaliation – and says nothing; a wife discovers that her husband is a collaborator, and hands him over to the men he was planning to betray… Where this film works best, however, is in its examination of the process of occupation, with initial uncertain compliance turning into fearful obedience, and the question of when resistance becomes not merely an option, but a necessity. Commandos Strike At Dawn is refreshingly free of big-name stars, instead employing a quality ensemble cast headed by Paul Muni as the introverted intellectual turned resistance fighter—and interestingly, the film contends that Erik is the most effective fighter because he’s a thinker; the village’s more obvious men of action fall foul of the Nazis fairly quickly. Anna Lee, Cedric Hardwicke, Alexander Knox, Lillian Gish, Ray Collins, Robert Coote and George Macready also appear.
The Company She Keeps (1951)
Convicted forger and thief Mildred Lynch (Jane Greer) is paroled and sent to start a new life in Los Angeles under the care of her parole officer, Joan Wilburn (Lizabeth Scott). Changing her name to “Diane Stuart”, Mildred is given a job and a small apartment, but chafes against the numerous restrictions of her life, while remaining hostile and suspicious of Joan and her efforts to help. The patient Joan persists, regretfully declining a proposal of marriage from businessman Larry Collins (Dennis O’Keefe) in order to fulfil her professional obligations. Mildred and Larry later meet and go out together; but what begins as act of calculation on both their parts becomes something else as they begin to develop feelings for one another. Mildred continues to struggle with her readjustment to society, beset on all sides by opportunities to lapse back into a life of crime, all the while living in fear that Larry will discover the truth about her… After the success of Caged the year before, which revealed to shocked eyes the truth about female convicts and their brutalisation by the prison system – albeit in a way that looks hilariously polite these days – director John Cromwell took his concerns a step further with this drama about the difficulties and temptations of parolees. Like its predecessor, The Company She Keeps is rather too neat and clean to be convincing, but it isn’t without interest. Where it scores points is in not making Mildred some kind of injured innocent. Yes, she’s had a lousy life, which has left her unable to trust anyone; but she’s also weak, incapable of taking responsibility for her actions, and both a little lazy and a little greedy: her crimes are those of someone unwilling to wait and work for what she wants. Her growing love for Larry Collins is probably the first sincere emotion of her life, and the one thing capable of really reforming her – but can she keep out of trouble in the meantime? In one beautifully staged scene, Mildred, sick of the cheap clothes that are all she can afford, is very nearly tempted into shoplifting herself a new outfit – not least because of her realisation of how damn easy it would be – but ultimately wins the battle against herself. Mildred may not always be likeable, but she is always understandable…even in the rotten way she treats Joan. This film provides an interestingly different role for one of the era’s best bad girls, Lizabeth Scott (when I first read its synopsis, I assumed that she was the convict), as the too-good-to-be true Joan. Well…perhaps I should try to be a little less cynical here, and say that Joan is the parole officer that everyone would love to have. Typically of when this film was made, though, Joan’s dedication and professionalism do her no good at all. The ultimate message here is that any woman who hesitates for so much as a fraction of a second to accept a proposal of marriage can expect to have her man off chasing another woman before the word “no” is well out of her mouth…and she will be the one who’s in the wrong. The Company She Keeps holds an extra point of interest these days thanks to a sequence towards the end set at Union Station, where Mildred and Larry are seated next to a harassed woman with two children, a young boy and a baby. These three are played, respectively, by Dorothy Dean Bridges, Beau Bridges and Jeff Bridges – the latter making his film debut at the ripe old age of nine months! Director John Cromwell also appears, uncredited, as a police officer.
Cone Of Silence (1960)
These days, the expression “cone of silence” has a variety of connotations, some of them comic, some of them political; some of them both. It can also refer to a refusal to discuss or acknowledge an issue; while in aviation terms, the expression originates from the early four-course radio range navigation systems, which broadcast Morse signals and allowed pilots to adjust their trajectory according to the strength and overlapping of the signals; when the signals dropped out altogether, the plane was over the transmission point. These last two meanings mesh in the film Cone Of Silence, based upon the David Beaty novel of the same name, which like No Highway In The Sky looks at an unhappy period in the early history of commercial air travel. Before the metal fatigue-related crashes of the de Haviland Comet jet airliners, there were others caused by the planes’ failure to become airborne at take-off, including the first ever fatal jet crash at Karachi Airport in Pakistan in March of 1953. These tragedies were ultimately determined to be due to a design flaw, but only after a battle that ruined reputations and cost lives, in which the crashes were blamed upon “pilot error” – and nothing but pilot error. Cone Of Silence opens with an inquiry into one such take-off failure that has killed the co-pilot of Captain George Gort (Bernard Lee), who emerges publically condemned by Sir Arnold Hobbes (George Sanders), the legal representative of the plane’s designers, and with a reprimand and a demotion on his record. After being put through a rigorous re-testing program, which he passes with perfect scores, Gort is cleared to fly again by Captain Hugh Dallas (Michael Craig); but Dallas’s judgement is called in question when Clive Judd (Peter Cushing) reports a near-miss after co-piloting for Gort, and when it becomes known that Dallas has become involved with Gort’s daughter, Charlotte (Elizabeth Seal). At Judd’s insistence, the head of the airline, Edward Manningham (André Morell) agrees to ground Gort, but his decision comes too late: filling in for another pilot taken ill, Gort is killed when his plane crashes on take-off in Pakistan. The inquiry that follows becomes a battle between Hugh Dallas and Elizabeth Gort, who are determined to clear Gort’s name, and Sir Arnold Hobbes, equally determined to defend the plane’s designers at all cost… Cone Of Silence is a very low-budget film – it shows none of its crashes, and the airport in Pakistan looks like a diorama – but is nevertheless very effective thanks to a fabulous cast (which features, as well as those already mentioned, Gordon Jackson, Noel Willman, Delphi Lawrence and ‘Bud’ Tingwell), and its sheer sincerity. Although it somewhat blurs the circumstances of the actual Comet crashes, here putting as much blame upon the prevailing conditions at take-off as upon the design of the plane (or at least, upon the combination of the two), the film is heartfelt in its open-eyed examination of the ruination of one man’s life – particularly in the twist that reveals the real cause of George Gort’s unhappy fate: like the good company man he was, he did everything “by the book”… George Sanders is perfectly cast as the unctuous Sir Arnold, smiling and smiling and being a villain; or at least, a company stooge willing to put lives at risk to protect his employers’ reputation. Noel Willman is the plane’s designer, torn between his hope that he isn’t responsible for the disasters, and the fear that he is. Peter Cushing has one of his rare unsympathetic roles as the rather spiteful Judd. It’s amazing how much more unnerving a serious drama like this is – which features, among other unwelcome sights, two pilots squabbling in the cockpit and one disobeying the other’s instructions during landing – than an actual disaster movie.
Dangerous Corner (1934)
The publishing firm of Chatfield-Whitehouse is rocked to its foundation when the disappearance of a valuable bond from a safe is followed by the suicide of junior partner Martin Chatfield (Ian Keith). A year later, Robert (Conrad Nagel) and Freda Chatfield (Erin O’Brien-Moore), Gordon (Henry Wadsworth) and Betty Whitehouse (Betty Furness), Ann Beale (Virginia Bruce) and Charles Stanton (Melvyn Douglas) gather to farewell author Maude Mockridge (Doris Lloyd), who is returning to England. The conversation turns to Maude’s latest book, The Sleeping Dog, and the implications of its title. Robert declares a belief in the need for absolute truth; Ann demurs, saying that absolute truth is impossible, and that half-truths are more dangerous than lies. Strangely compelled, those gathered begin to dissect the circumstances of Martin’s death and the apparent theft that preceded it; and over the course of the night, the formerly tightly-knit circle of family and friends is devastated by revelations of unhappy marriage, unrequited love, infidelity, gambling debts, robbery – and a suicide that wasn’t… Based upon a play by J.B. Priestly, this film takes the position that honesty isn’t always the best policy. How viewers react to the film overall will certainly be determined by their response to—well, it isn’t fair to call it a twist ending, or even a cheat ending; the film tells us at the outset what its game is; it’s just likely that by the time the critical moment arrives, we’ve forgotten all about that opening title card. A bigger problem is that, despite shocking revelation piled upon shocking revelation, the screenplay makes no effort to disguise its stage origin, serving up an awful lot of talk and very little action. The moral dilemmas are intriguing, though; and it is very probable that you will come away sympathising with the sinners, and wanting to slap the sanctimonious. The best part of the film comes after the twist, when we are confronted again by characters we thought we knew.
Death Flies East (1935)
Jailed as an accessory to the murder for which her employer, Dr Moffat (George Irving), was wrongly convicted, Evelyn Vail (Florence Rice) is allowed to work as a nurse in the prison infirmary where her kindness wins her many friends, and her conduct an early parole. When a grateful inmate tips her off to the fact that the real killer has been convicted of a different murder in New York and is scheduled for execution, Evelyn takes the drastic step of breaking parole and flying east under a false identity, hoping against hope that the convicted man might be persuaded to confess to the earlier crime. However, when a murder is committed mid-flight, Evelyn’s secret is revealed. Her only hope – and Dr Moffat’s – is a fellow passenger who decides to play amateur detective… Certainly not a disaster movie, Death Flies East is an entertaining albeit highly improbable little comedy-thriller, which pulls a rabbit from its hat in the shape of an absent-minded professor who emerges as both the film’s romantic lead and its detective. And while we might deplore his hassle-her-until-she-gives-in-out-of-sheer-weariness style of courtship, and while we might likewise consider he should be paying a bit more attention to the “vitally important” mission which has him flying east in the first place, it’s just as well for Evelyn that Professor John Robinson Gordon (Conrad Nagel) turns out to be better at his hobby than he is at his job. Having taken a shine to his pretty fellow-traveller, and correctly interpreted her nervousness and inept attempts to disguise herself, Gordon nevertheless becomes convinced that Evelyn is guilty neither of the crime of which she was convicted, nor those of which she now stands accused—the in-flight poisoning of two of the other passengers, one of whom survives and is left behind in a hospital, the other – who turns out to be a police lieutenant on a case – dies… For a film of its brief running-time, approximately 65 minutes, Death Flies East is overloaded with Odious Comic Relief in the dual forms of deaf passenger Mrs Madison (Irene Franklin) and Evans (Raymond Walburn), the world’s pushiest insurance salesman. However, it compensates for these painful missteps by springing a most surprising denouement to its subplot involving what looks like an attempt by Japanese spies to get their hands on the papers that Gordon is carrying to Washington, but which turns out to be something entirely different…
Death In The Air (1936) [aka Pilot X aka Pilot X: Murder In The Sky]
The country is shocked by a series of air crashes, all in the same area. Three of the five crashes involve planes designed and built by the Goering-Gage Aviation Corporation. Henry Goering (Henry Hall) and his son, Carl (Leon Ames), are certain that no defect in the planes themselves is to blame, but worry that their company will nevertheless be irreparably damaged. When Goering-Gage comes to the notice of the government investigator, Gallagher (Willard Kent), Henry Goering gives him free reign, sending up test pilot Jerry Blackwood (John Carroll) in one of the same models of plane to prove that there is nothing structurally wrong. The wreckage of the fifth crash is found—and a survivor who lives long enough to reveal that they were shot down by another plane with large black X-s on its wings. An eminent psychiatrist, Dr Norris (John Elliott), contends that “Pilot X” is reliving some trauma from WWI, and has become fixated upon killing in the air. He suggests rounding up all the possible suspects, that is, WWI flying veterans living in the area, under the guise of asking for their help, and trying to identify the guilty party while they are all under the same roof. Invited to Goering’s country house are Captain Roland Saunders (Pat Somerset), Lt Douglas Thompson (Wheeler Oakman), Lt John Ives (Reed Howes), Lt. Baron Otto von Guttard (Hans Joby) and Lt. Rene La Rue (Gaston Glass), along with Jerry Blackwood, who is a part of the plan and acting as flying detective. Eventually Jerry identifies Pilot X—but not before more lives are lost… This is a weirdly gruesome little film, obviously shot on a miniscule budget, and even more obviously with every available penny going into the stunt-flying. It does, however, have a blackly humorous, almost-science-fiction subplot, with Dr Norris skulking in a secret room surrounded by electronic equipment that allows him to spy on the collected suspects; not that it does anyone any good, least of all him. Speaking of the suspects, what were the odds of such an international group – an Englishman, a Frenchman and a German amongst them – settling in the same small area of mid-west America? The introductions scene, with a horribly over-made-up Helen Gage (Lona Andre) literally batting her false eyelashes at the line-up of chop-licking pilots, is hilarious…though it’s Jerry she finally zeroes in on, despite being “almost engaged” to Carl Goering. (That’s right, folks!—it’s a love-triangle—aren’t you astonished!?) The hunt for Pilot X turns out to involve the list of suspects being whittled down, if you catch my drift; so in the end there’s not much deducing left for Jerry Blackwood to do. But while most of this film is absurd nonsense, albeit absurd nonsense with a continually escalating body count, Death In The Air does achieve one genuinely affecting sequence, wherein Pilot X paints the wings of another pilot’s plane with his own trademark black X-s, and so tricks Jerry Blackwood into blasting one of his own friends out of the sky…
(Death In The Air offers the viewer a selection of mock-up newspapers, which have been reproduced over in Spinning Newspaper Injures Printer.)
Death On The Diamond (1934)
“Pop” Clark (David Landau), manager of the St Louis Cardinals, puts himself into debt to sign cocky young pitcher Larry Kelly (Robert Young), all too well aware that if his team does not win the pennant, he will be forced to sell the franchise to bitter rival Henry Ainley (John Hyams). Kelly’s arrival does indeed turn the team’s fortunes around, something that sits well with neither Ainley nor professional gambler Joseph Karnes (C. Henry Gordon), both of whom face substantial losses if the Cardinals win. As the season draws to a close with the Cardinals moving ever closer to the pennant, a series of accidents begins to plague the team – “accidents” that ultimately prove fatal… Death On The Diamond is both a satisfactory mystery story – although the explanation is a little, you should pardon the expression, out of left field – and an amazing time-capsule, a snapshot of the entirely different world that was professional baseball in the early thirties. (From the point of historical interest, this would make a fascinating double-bill with Angels In The Outfield.) In a sense this film is greater than the sum of its parts, featuring a remarkable number of soon-to-be familiar faces at the outset of their careers: not just Robert Young, but Mickey Rooney, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond and Bruce Bennett, all in look-fast roles, as well as bits from long-haul character actors like Dennis O’Keefe, James Ellison and Fred Graham, who actually got his start as a ball player. The relationship that develops between Kelly and Frances Clark (Madge Evans), Pop’s daughter and the club’s secretary, is credible (Kelly: “Am I in the right place?” Frances: “I’ll tell you at the end of the season.”), while the running-joke scrapping between Nat Pendleton as slugger “Truck” Hogan and Ted Healy as umpire “Crawfish” O’Toole has an unexpectedly emotional pay-off.
Decision Against Time (1957)
John Mitchell (Jack Hawkins) is a test pilot for an aeronautical manufacturing company whose survival depends upon the winning of a contract for its newly designed cargo plane. During a final test flight, one of the plane’s engines catches fire. The rest of the crew parachutes to safety, and Mitchell is ordered by company head Reginald Conway (Walter Fitzgerald) to ditch the plane and bail out. But with the company, its employees, his own career and his sense of self-worth on the line, Mitchell decides to try and bring the plane in… This proto-disaster film was produced by Ealing Studios and directed by Charles Crichton, but is about as far from the other films emanating from those two sources as possible. Decision Against Time is quite a simple film, but well and sincerely executed. Prior to his dangerous landing attempt, Mitchell is ordered to empty some of the plane’s tanks. To achieve this, he must fly laps of the aerodrome for a full twenty-five minutes, while below, the employees of the company – including its owner, who is staring bankruptcy in the face but has no thought for anything but Mitchell’s safety; Peter Hook (John Stratton), Mitchell’s best friend and co-pilot, who bailed out only because Mitchell promised he would too; and Maine (Ernest Clark), who designed and built the engine that failed – can only stand and stare and wait. This sequence plays out in real time, and generates a remarkable amount of suspense just by, necessarily, doing nothing. It is interesting to compare this film to its American counterparts, in both attitude and execution; and it is fair to say, I think, that it comes to a very British conclusion. My favourite subplot here involves the reporter who will only get published and paid if the plane crashes (good news is no news); my favourite dramatic touch, that we never find out what is in the letter that Mitchell writes mid-air to his wife, Mary (Elizabeth Sellars). Jack Hawkins must carry this film, and does a good job; but he is well-supported by, in particular, Walter Fitzgerald, and Eddie Byrnes as the representative of the company that may or may not be buying the cargo plane. I am also delighted to report that Donald Pleasence has a small role as a most reluctant parachuter.
The Deep (1977)
David Sanders (Nick Nolte) and Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset) are on a dive holiday in Bermuda when they come across a wreck not listed in the guidebooks and decide to investigate. Both come away with a souvenir: David recovers what appears to be a silver coin possibly centuries old, while Gail finds a glass ampoule containing a brown liquid. When they return their diving gear, the two are told to stay away from the wreck, which is of the Goliath, a military transport containing munitions and the site of several fatal accidents; it is not in the guidebooks for that reason. Unable to identify the coin, David and Gail take their find to renowned treasure-hunter Romer Treece (Robert Shaw), who is also puzzled by it, as the Spanish fleet on which it must have been transported is recorded as having sunk near Cuba. Treece can, however, identify Gail’s ampoule: the Goliath was notoriously carrying nearly 100,000 vials of morphine, none of which were ever recovered. Word of this find leaks out, and David and Gail find themselves targeted by Haitian drug lord Henri Cloche (Louis Gosset Jr). Treece strikes a deal with Cloche, offering to recover the morphine for payment; in reality, using this dive as cover for a search for the Spanish treasure that he comes to believe is buried at the same site. But spies are everywhere… Some people watch it for Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt; I watch it for the moray eel. Lightning conspicuously fails to strike twice in this filming of Peter Benchley’s literary follow-up to Jaws. Like most scuba-diving films, The Deep is being pretty slow going, and not helped by the characters constantly shouting at each other underwater in an effort to communicate. (A failed effort, I’m inclined to add, but that might just be my print.) The biggest problem, though, is the lack of sympathetic characters, or even a sympathetic quest; I’m sure we’re supposed to be dazzled by those jewels, but the willingness of David and Gail to go on risking their lives, particularly after the attack upon Gail, just makes the pair of them seem greedy and rather stupid. However, a reasonable amount of tension is built during the climactic sequence, with fuses burning down, and various people being deprived of their oxygen supply at different points; and there are a few other bright spots amongst the slog, as well – primarily, of course, “The biggest moray eel I’ve ever seen!” The Deep tells just as many lies about moray eels as its predecessor did about sharks but failed to have the same detrimental effect on their worldwide population, so I am able to forgive it. I find the shark sequence here, in which Cloche’s henchmen chum the water while the treasure-hunters are down below, one of the film’s highlights, chiefly because it is so screamingly obvious that no-one is in any real danger for as much as a moment; this would be “danger” as an Informed Attribute©, I guess. The voodoo attack on Gail is diverting (if completely gratuitous), and the cricket interlude was also welcome. The Deep was later re-made as Into The Blue but without a moray eel as Deus ex machina, so really, what was the point?
Devil Winds (2003)
This thing was in my rental queue so long – “short wait”, my butt – that by the time it arrived, I’d forgotten whether it was a horror movie (emphasis on “devil”) or a disaster movie (emphasis on “winds”). It turns out to be the latter, with Oklahoma taking yet another pounding; Oklahoma being to tornado-themed disaster movies what New York is to every other kind. (And yes, yes, I’m very well aware of NYC: Tornado Terror, so don’t bother bringing it up.) Devil Winds begins with a feint to make us think we’re in estranged couple territory, à la Twister, but then offs the female half in its opening scene, leaving the newly widowed Pete Bensen (Joe Lando) suffering tornado-trauma…à la Twister. Pete was, of course, a tornado-chaser, and was out in the field when the twister turned towards his own home town, leaving him with the usual burden of guilt. He responds by running off to Portland (where he “becomes” a police detective, somehow), and we cut forward ten years to Pete reluctantly returning home for his daughter’s college graduation: the film tries to bluff us into thinking that the young Kara has died as well as her mother, but come on. The obligatory estrangement is consequently father-daughter. Kara (Erica Durance) is a scientist, working at an environmental disease control centre built upon the remnants of the tornado-destroyed town…in a building that her fiancé, Dr John Tedesco (Brad Turner), has just discovered wasn’t built to code. Back home again after so many years, Pete finds himself falling back into his old routine, including going tornado-chasing with his former partner, Robert Booker (Peter Graham-Gaudreau). On one of these missions, Pete recognises the same danger signs that were in the air ten years earlier – and this time the twister is heading for a building harbouring stores of deadly bacteria… A scientific disaster move!? Ooo-OOO-oooh!! Not that Devil Winds is really anything to get worked up about, except that if you’ve seen as many of these things as I have, any tweaking of the material is welcome. (Tornado disaster films seem even more hamstrung by their tropes than most other kinds.) This is acceptable made-for-TV fare. No-one is terrible, and the cast features a number of genre faces in the supporting roles; while you can tell the film’s pedigree by the actors’ mutual TV credits, Supernatural, Smallville and Stargate: Atlantis being particularly prevalent. (Also, although it isn’t kind of me to mention it, Brad Turner was in Alone In The Dark, and Erica Durance was in House Of The Dead.) The CGI twisters are never remotely credible, but I guess they’re an improvement over Tornado!’s tactic of just fading to black at the critical moment. The laboratory scenes were filmed in a real lab in Vancouver, so at least they look right; but unfortunately no-one involved knew anything about the right behaviour. The script’s notion of the storage of bacterial samples is hilarious, as is the fact that this enormous lab keeps all of its samples together in a couple of smallish canisters. (Isn’t anybody working with those?) However, my favourite touch when they try to convey Kara’s dedication by having her wear her lab-coat every single moment she’s at work…and thus violating any number of regulations by wearing it out of the bacteriology lab and into the general office area. Ah, well…
Dick Tracy (1937, 15 episodes)
A syndicate led by The Spider – also known as “The Lame One” because of his clubfoot – unleashes a crime wave. Federal Agent Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) leads the investigation, all the while suffering due to the mysterious disappearance of his younger brother, Gordon (Richard Beach, Carleton Young). Unbeknownst to Dick, Gordon has been captured by The Spider, who has his assistant, Moloch (John Picorri), perform brain surgery upon him, in order to remove his sense of right and wrong. The surgery leaves Gordon so disfigured, his brother is later unable to recognise him. The Spider and his gang, Gordon included, continue their reign of terror, only to be thwarted at every turn by Tracy and his assistants… Dick Tracy is probably one of the most famous of all serials, but truthfully, it isn’t very good. Part of the problem – and this is something that, I am learning, afflicts a great many serials – is that it cannot live up to its absolutely frenetic opening episode, which features a car crash, a kidnapping, two murders, some brain surgery, an adoption, a puppet-show, the revelation of “The Wing” (a flying machine capable of reaching the stratosphere), and an attempt to destroy the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which was completed the year before this was made. After this, the serial settles down into a pattern of one attempted heist, one thwarting per episode. (Although we never do find out what, if anything, all this is supposed to achieve.) Weaknesses and annoyances abound. The good guys discover three of the bad guys’ hang-outs during the early episodes – an abandoned power station, a waterfront dive and a particular dock – but not only do they never raid or guard them, they are astonished when they discover during the later episodes that they’re still hanging out there! In addition, this serial inflicts upon us one of the most odious of all Odious Comic Reliefs, in the shape of federal agent [*cough*] Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette), who is moronic and unfunny to a squirm-with-embarrassment degree. (Oh – and don’t even ask who “Oscar and Elmer” are. Trust me, you don’t want to know.) Fortunately, Tracy does get some help from “Junior” (Lee Van Atta), the orphan he picks up rather casually in the first episode – adoption was apparently a lot simpler back then – and from Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes), who is Tracy’s lab assistant, secretary, telephonist and all-purpose girl Friday, as circumstances demand. In fact, Gwen gets the serial’s most exquisite moment when, upon one of the bad guys leaving an incriminating footprint behind, she whips a test tube out of her pocket, performs “a test” and announces, “It’s sesame oil!” There are some other enjoyable things here, like the enemy agent who chooses to travel inconspicuously – by dirigible – and The Wing, which is simply fabulous. But the best part of Dick Tracy is undoubtedly Moloch, who in a piece of efficiency rarely witnessed, is both the mad doctor and the hunchbacked assistant! John Picorri, with his perpetual grinning and tittering and hand-rubbing and eye-rolling, and with a black cat clutched in his arms all the while he isn’t operating – or rubbing his hands – is just marvellous in the role. It is his operation – “a simple altering of the glands” – that makes the newly amoral Gordon Tracy his brother’s implacable enemy; although we never do find out why a brain operation should leave you with a scar on your cheek and a skunk stripe in your hair. On the side of light, Ralph Byrd’s performance as Dick Tracy is perhaps best described as enthusiastic. He runs, he jumps, he dodges, he leaps, he waves his arms around – whether it is called for or not. Indeed, at times he begins to channel John Cleese. Unfortunately – and now, halfway through the same year’s SOS Coast Guard, I can state this with some authority – Ralph Byrd is one of the worst fake fighters ever, simply flailing his arms about and never bothering to close his fists. After the first one hundred and sixty two fist fights, it does get a bit ridiculous…
Quote: “Sometimes I’m tempted to try another experiment: transplanting the brain of a cat into a human…”
Dick Tracy (1945)
Although it apparently had Chester Gould’s approval, I can’t say that I ever “got” the casting of Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy; nor do the films that star him have much resemblance to their comic strip model, being instead essentially indistinguishable from any of their low-budget crime movie brethren. A series of vicious murders has the police force baffled, since the victims are both men and women, rich and poor, with no apparent connection. Moreover, each of the victims was also the target of an extortion bid prior to their deaths. The perpetrator is (although invented for this movie) a typical Tracy villain, “Splitface”…or is it? It takes Tracy, of course, to realise that there is a connection between the victims, and that the police are investigating not one crime spree, but two… Dick Tracy is a serviceable enough little thriller bolstered by a solid mystery story and a couple of memorable supporting performances. On the debit side, Anne Jeffreys’ Tess Trueheart is even more unnecessary than usual as the “good girl”, and Tracy’s adopted son “Junior” is along to make us flinch with annoyance. (Although to give the devil his due, the kid does play an important part in the story’s climax.) On the plus, this film has some nice, noir-ish touches; the killings are uncommonly brutal; Jane Greer shows up in a supporting role; and Mike Mazurki gets a lot more screentime than usual as Splitface. The show is thoroughly stolen, however, by Milton Parsons as the world’s creepiest mortician – and yes, I know that’s a big statement; I stand by it – and by Trevor Bardette as Professor Linwood J. Starling, star-gazer, crystal-reader, hypnotist, philosopher, jailbird…and genuine psychic, if only he realised it in time…
****Dick Tracy Vs Cueball (1946)
Gem courier Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette) is confronted in his liner stateroom by Harry Lake, aka “Cueball” (Dick Wessel), who demands the diamonds Abbott is carrying – and strangles him when he fights back… Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) finds on the body a card that leads him to a local jeweller’s business, where he meets proprietor Jules Sparkle (Harry Chesire) and becomes suspicious of Sparkle’s cutter, Simon Little (Byron Foulger), and his secretary, Mona Clyde (Rita Corday). These two are in fact part of a conspiracy with antique dealer Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton). The three are using Cueball to get the diamonds, imagining they can buy him off cheaply. However, Cueball has come to suspect that his collaborators are trying to double-cross him; and when he gets double-crossed, he gets mad; and when he gets mad, well… This second entry in the series, which was directed by Gordon Douglas, is not as good a film as Dick Tracy, but it is a better representation of the bizarre Chester Gould universe, with characters like – groan – “Jules Sparkle”, and much of the action taking place at the delightfully named “Dripping Dagger”, a dive owned by one “Filthy Flora” (Esther Howard). Cueball himself is about as sharp as the anatomical feature he’s named for – his idea of a cunning disguise is to put on a hat – but his penchant for solving every difficulty by whipping the leather band off that hat at least ensures that there’s plenty of action. Viewers should be warned, though, that this time around Tracy has no less than four sidekicks: Pat Patton, who gets knocked unconscious about eight times (it isn’t nearly enough); Tess Trueheart, who after spending the entire previous film trying to get Tracy to dinner, spends all of this one trying to get him to attend his own birthday party, ha-ha; Junior, here chiefly so that his buddy from next door can provide Tracy with a vital clue (and what a clue!); and Vitamin Flintheart, who actually does something useful in between popping vitamin pills. (Actually, I was confused by this characterisation. I’m certainly no expert on the Dick Tracy strip, but wasn’t Flintheart a Villain? Or at least, someone of Dubious Character?) To be fair, Tess is a bit less useless here, offering herself as bait for the jewel thieves when Tracy needs “a society dame” and is unable to find a policewoman without a Brooklyn accent. As usual, most of the fun comes via the supporting cast. Someone must have agreed with me about the contributions of Milton Parsons and Trevor Bardette being a highlight of Dick Tracy, because they are both back in action here – however briefly that may be true in the case of the latter. The astonishing Skelton Knaggs is also featured. Finally, those of you for whom the highlight of Plan 9 From Outer Space is the declaration, “Inspector Clay’s dead – murdered – and someone’s responsible!” will probably get a kick out of Tracy’s brilliant detective work upon examining the first corpse: “Well, it’s quite obviously death by strangulation.” Dick Tracy Vs Cueball was included in the Medveds’ 50 Worst Movies Of All Time, which is patently absurd.
****Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)
Criminal “Gruesome” (Boris Karloff) is no sooner out of jail – for “good behaviour”, heh, heh, heh – than he has his pal “Melody” Fiske (Tony Barrett) cut him in on a big deal. The following day, making a phone-call while at the bank, Tess Trueheart (Anne Gwynne) witnesses an astonishing thing: the bank fills with gas from a small bomb, and everyone there becomes completely immobilised. While they are so, Tess, protected by her sealed phone-booth, watches in disbelief as two men – who have not bothered to disguise themselves – rob the bank. Tess manages to call Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd), but the robbers get away, with Melody killing a guard outside in the process. A police chemist analyses the remains of the bomb and declares its content to be an unknown substance. Tracy suggests taking it to Dr A. Tomic (Milton Parsons), a university physicist who earlier contacted the police seeking protection after what he believed to be two attempts on his life. However, when Tracy reaches the university, he learns that Dr Tomic has disappeared… Now, this is more like it! Poor Morgan Conway: public opinion was allowed to have its way in 1947, and Conway was replaced as Dick Tracy by Ralph Byrd, who had played him in half a dozen hugely successful serials during the 1930s. Byrd made two Tracy films during the year. Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, the second of them, features Boris Karloff as the titular criminal, and his mere presence lifts this modest little film to a whole different level of fun; there is something quite irresistible about listening to Boris – in that voice – spit dialogue that sounds like it was written for Bogart about ten years earlier. Ralph Byrd was physically a much better choice for the role of Dick Tracy, and the script makes more of an effort to conjure up the Gould universe…although this time the inevitable downtown dive isn’t “The Dripping Dagger”, it’s “The Hangmans Knot”. (You can tell it’s owned by criminals: no apostrophe!!) There is less comedy than usual, too, and less side-kickery; Tess is useful as the witness, then isn’t seen much more. The fate of several of the characters, and the near fate of Tracy, is also, well, pretty gruesome. But of course, what endears this film to me is the SCIENCE!! Four scientists amongst the major characters – one of them, played by Skelton Knaggs (!!), is “a disgraced doctor of science”, no less – mysterious experimental gases, physicists doing chemistry, guinea-pigs in cages everywhere…oh, be still, my heart! And as usual, the devil is in the details; that is, in the supporting cast. Milton Parsons – yay! – is back again as Dr Tomic; Skelton Knaggs gets promoted into one of his most substantial roles, and actually manages to steal a scene or two from Boris. Those with sharp eyes will also spot Jason Robards Sr as a bank official, future Tarzan Lex Barker as an ambulance driver, and future Hideous Sun Demon Robert Clarke as the police chemist.
Quote: “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff.”
The second film to be inspired by the misadventures of Umberto Nobile, Frank Capra’s Dirigible, is a technological improvement over The Lost Zeppelin but not actually all that much better; featuring as it does yet another love triangle and even more boring character stuff, as buddies become rivals in love and, if not war, at least hardware—a plot lifted from Capra’s own Flight, right down to re-casting two of the three same actors. Jack Bradon (Jack Holt) is the steady, reliable one; ‘Frisky’ Pierce (Ralph Graves) is the reckless, devil-may-care one, who has married Helen (Fay Wray), the girl they both love. Two years on, however, Helen is beginning to think she made a mistake, as she is repeatedly forced to play second fiddle to Frisky’s passion for aviation – and the limelight. Bradon is head of the navy’s airship division; Pierce is an advocate for fixed-wing planes. A French explorer, Louis Rondelle (Hobart Bosworth), proposes to the navy an expedition to the South Pole, by whatever means of transport the navy deems best. Bradon seizes the opportunity to show what his airships can do, and is put in charge of the expedition. But part of “what an airship can do” is carry, release and recover a fixed-wing plane: Helen goes secretly to Bradon and begs him not to take Pierce on the expedition; Bradon finds an excuse to ground Pierce, shattering the men’s friendship. However, the attempt to fly south by the dirigible is a failure: the airship breaks up and crashes into the sea, with the survivors rescued by an aircraft carrier. The next attempt to reach the South Pole is by plane, under Pierce’s command, and is a success. The plan is to fly over only, but Pierce insists he can land safely on the ice. However, the plane flips, stranding the survivors in the Antarctic wilderness. Immediately, Bradon mounts a rescue mission by dirigible… As with The Lost Zeppelin, what is worthwhile in Dirigible is historical and visual, not dramatic. The film is a vivid snapshot of a particular period in America’s aviation history, and cleverly blends stock footage with material shot specifically for the film with the permission of the navy. In particular, there are lengthy sequences featuring the real dirigible, USS Los Angeles, including shots of its actual fixed-wing plane launch / recovery tests, as well as scenes featuring the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (which would be damaged and scuttled during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942). However, the interest of the technological side of Dirigible is somewhat offset by the fact that the airship footage was shot around the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey—fated to be the site of the crash of the Hindenberg six years later.