Made in two parts for Italian TV and directed by Lamberto Bava, Fantaghirò is the story of the unwanted third daughter – or should that be third unwanted daughter? – of the ruler of a country (Mario Adorf) that has been at war with its neighbouring realm so long, no-one can remember what the bloody conflict was about in the first place. Growing into womanhood in her father’s stronghold, Fantaghirò lives in a state of constant rebellion against the restrictions imposed upon her sex, and finally runs away to the woods, where she meets a mysterious, shape-shifting being (Angela Molina, in various guises), learns to talk to the animals and trees, and becomes an adept at sword-fighting. Meanwhile, the old king of the neighbouring country dies, and the new King Romualdo (Kim Rossi Stuart) decides to put an end to the war by issuing a challenge to a one-on-one duel, the victor’s country to be declared winner of the war. On his way to the next kingdom, Romualdo catches a fleeting glimpse of Fantaghirò and is instantly smitten, but is convinced by the White Witch (Molina again) that what he has seen is a wood-spirit, not a human girl. Receiving Romualdo’s challenge but lacking a son, the old king finally allows himself to be persuaded to send Fantaghirò to meet it. She, disguised as a knight, rides enthusiastically into battle against Romualdo, who, to his consternation, finds the eyes that have been haunting his dreams in, apparently, the face of a boy… This Italian fairy-tale is both charming and audacious in its gender games. Poor Romualdo ends up with a serious Victor / Victoria thing going on, as he is unable to determine to his own satisfaction whether the person he is falling in love with is a boy or a girl. (In lieu of spying on Fantaghirò in the bath, Romualdo challenges her to a swimming-match, and there is an extended tease sequence as Fantaghirò must come up with reason after reason not to remove that last layer of clothing…) The lovely Alessandra Martines is a delight as Fantaghirò, who, refreshingly, is rewarded and not punished for her refusal to “behave like a girl”; and who, even when she is at length revealed to be both a woman and in love, is neither tamed nor (you should pardon the expression) emasculated. As Romualdo, Kim Rossi Stuart is perhaps a little too modern-day-pretty-boy, but his character is hearteningly progressive: he is determined to bring the war to an end, even at the cost of his own life; he genuinely doesn’t mind that the girl of his dreams can – and does – kick his ass; and when confronted by the possibility that he might be in love with another man, something he makes no attempt to conceal from his two close friends, his predominant emotion is simple bewilderment. There are plenty of enjoyable special effects on display here, and while none of them are particularly convincing, neither are they meant to be: there’s a deliberate pantomime feel to the whole enterprise. Its war kept as a distant backdrop, the story of Fantaghirò plays out in a never-never land of spirits and monsters and talking animals – most of them created by Sergio Stivaletti, never further from his bloody handiwork for the likes of Dario Argento and Michele Soavi; or, for that matter, from his other efforts for Lamberto Bava (Demoni and Demoni 2). And by the way: if you’ve ever wondered what the Italian for “uvula” is, here’s your chance to find out.
The Fast And The Furious (1955)
On her way to compete in a motor race in southern California, Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone) is car-jacked by Frank Webster (John Ireland), an ex-trucker and jail escapee wanted for murder after allegedly running another truck driver off the road. Learning that the race in which Connie intends to drive will be crossing into Mexico, Frank holds her at gunpoint and forces her to cover for him until the two of them have safely penetrated the park area where the race is to be marshalled. But the police, learning that Frank is likely to be driving a Jaguar, realise that the race area would make a perfect cover and seal off the park. Connie, coming to believe that Frank is innocent of the charges against him, pleads with him to give himself up, but Frank insists that his only chance is flight – and that he must drive in the race himself… Well, this is it, folks: history in the making! A fair little actioner, The Fast And The Furious was the film that first sealed a deal between Roger Corman and the newly-partnered James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff. To the executives of the American Releasing Corporation, the film was saleable because of its (relative) star names, and it is certainly the performances of John Ireland and Dorothy Malone that put the story over. Even though she had been making films for over a decade, in 1955 Malone was still fighting to establish herself; a year later, an Academy Award would lift her well out of Corman’s price-range, at least for a time. John Ireland, conversely, was beginning the slide down from his own Oscar nomination. His acting services were secured by a promise he could co-direct, which he did alongside the film’s editor, Edward Sampson, who was presumably responsible for shaping the film’s lengthy motor-racing sequences. Ireland’s Frank Webster is a very noir-ish anti-hero: he may not be guilty of the original charges, but by the end he has strikes against him for escaping custody, assault, car-jacking at gunpoint, and running a police road-block. We rather doubt that things are going to be as simply resolved for him as the film’s upbeat ending promises. While no-one would hold this up as a textbook example of a “Roger Corman Production”, there are a few familiar touches here, and a few familiar faces, also. Perhaps the most typically Corman aspect of the film is its broadmindedness about gender roles: not too many films of this, or any other, era have a professional racing driver as their heroine! – or declare openly that women drivers are “often the best and the fastest” – although this is somewhat undercut by the film’s view of motor-racing as a rich person’s hobby, rather than a sport or a business; and by the fact than, when the various competitors reach the race area, they learn that the track has been deemed too dangerous for lady drivers, as they insist on calling them. (None of the “ladies” are anywhere near as PO-ed about this as they should be.) Indeed, like her predecessor, Julie Blair of Monster From The Ocean Floor, Connie is more interesting in concept than in execution, although she is allowed to score some points late in the film, finally climbing behind the wheel of a car – not to race, but to go in pursuit of Frank – and then facing down the damaged, cynical man who has become her lover. (“Who tipped off the cops?” “I did.” “How did you get out of the cabin?” “I burned it down.”) Stars aside, in the supporting cast we find Bruno VeSota as the trucker who sets the action in motion, coming on to Connie and then growing suspicious of Frank; former Keystone Cop Snub Pollard has a small role, as Chester Conklin would in The Beast With A Million Eyes; while co-screenwriter Jean Howell appears as another of the “lady drivers”. Howell was just establishing herself as an actress at this time, and would go on to have a lengthy television career. Of Corman’s personal team, both Jonathan Haze and Beast’s uncredited co-director, Lou Place, have bit parts, as does Corman himself, as a state trooper – and, evidently, as one of the other racing drivers; although like Mark McGee, I suspect that the story of Corman repeatedly refusing to let John Ireland “beat” him is urban myth. Wasteful behaviour? Our Roger? Surely not…
Fighting Father Dunne (1948)
In turn of the twentieth century St Louis, Father Peter Dunne (Pat O’Brien) devotes himself to rescuing the city’s homeless boys, many of whom eke out a living selling newspapers. Before he knows where he is, Father Dunne has more than twenty boys on his hands, and must exercise all of his ingenuity to house and feed them. Meanwhile, the newspapers continue their exploitation of their young employees as a brutal circulation war escalates; while some boys simply won’t be helped… RKO does Boys Town, only with Pat O’Brien instead of Spencer Tracy, and Darryl Hickman instead of Mickey Rooney. This was also based on a true story, so you are more or less obliged to rein in the cynicism reflex – and perhaps also to quell your knee-jerk reaction to some of the good Father’s more dubious money-raising tactics. (Did you know, for instance, that it is standard Catholic Church practice to run up huge bills you have no way of paying, and then, when the merchants ask for their money, to lay a guilt trip on them?) There is some historical interest here, in the strong-arm methods employed by the newspaper owners of the time, while the story’s denouement is, unexpectedly, a real downer. I have no idea whether the subplot concerning the fate of Matt Davis (Hickman) is true or not, but boy, oh, boy! The ultimate moral of these films seems to be, if a Catholic priest tries to help you, you’d damn well better let him.
A Chuck Norris comedy!? Gedouddahere! No, I mean it – GEDOUDDAHERE!! Chuck trying to emote is one thing; Chuck trying to be funny is an exercise in pain to be undertaken only by the most hardened bad film watcher. Another of the endless stream of Raiders Of The Lost Ark rip-offs, Firewalker stars Chuck as Max Donigan, a professional adventurer whose skill and intelligence are only matched by his sense of humour – and his sense of direction. His long-suffering partner is Leo Porter (Louis Gossett Jr), a former teacher who allows himself (for no reason that the film ever deigns to provide) to be dragged repeatedly into Max’s hair-brained treasure-seeking schemes. Their latest whacky adventure kicks off when they are hired by Patricia Goodwin (Melody Anderson) to find a hidden cache of gold that might be Aztec or Mayan or Apache or, hell, Martian, the screenplay isn’t telling. Along the way, Will Sampson, John Rhys Davies and Sonny Landham compete for the title of “Most Embarrassingly Clichéd Supporting Character” – Landham wins purely on the strength of his Amazing Teleporting Eye-Patch – while the script serves up so many cringe-inducing moments, it’s hard to single one out as the worst…although I’m tempted to nominate the pig-Latin last rites. (Don’t ask.) No mere summary could do justice to this film…so instead of trying, I’ll send you where it gets the treatment it so richly deserves:
Firewalker at Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension.
Five Guns West (1955)
In the dying days of the Civil War, five condemned criminals – Govern Sturges (John Lund), Hale Clinton (Mike Connors), J.C. Haggard (Paul Birch), and John (Bob Campbell) and Billy Candy (Jonathan Haze) – are pardoned and sworn in by the Confederate Army before being sent on a dangerous mission: to intercept a Union-escorted stagecoach carrying a former Confederate spy turned traitor, a list of secret agents’ names, and $30,000 in gold. Even before they reach the rendezvous point, a swing station by a deserted former mining town, tensions are running high between the reluctant allies, each of whom has his own ideas about how to increase his cut of the gold. Those tensions boil over when the five reach the swing station and find it under the care not just of its manager, a borderline alcoholic (James Stone), but also of his beautiful niece, Shalee (Dorothy Malone)… History again, folks, as Roger Corman’s penny-pinching ways see him save on costs by promoting himself into the director’s chair for the very first time. The result is fairly perfunctory, with the rookie director unable to overcome his film’s threadbare production values. Still, thanks to the screenplay by R. Wright Campbell (the brother of William who, as Bob Campbell, also plays the “snake-eyed” John Candy), which manages some interesting situations and a few pungent lines of dialogue, Five Guns West never wears out its welcome. The film’s scenario, criminals recruited for a dangerous war mission, is one that would appear again and again in the future, most famously in The Dirty Dozen. Campbell would write again for Corman over the years that followed, including the screenplay for The Masque Of The Red Death. Dorothy Malone evidently emerged from The Fast And The Furious with no hard feelings, as she is back as this film’s token heroine. She is not as well-served here, however: her character suggests “foolhardy” more often than “courageous”, and the romance that develops between Shalee and Govern Sturges is hardly credible. John Lund is the cast’s weak link; he seems tired, and rather dispirited; possibly he resented where his career was ending up. The rest of the actors are more enthusiastic. Mike Connors – still billed as “Touch” – is convincingly slimy, and Jonathan Haze has a substantial role as the “tetched” Billy Candy. Paul Birch, soon to be another familiar Corman face, does a fair Walter Brennan impression. James B. Sikking makes his film debut as the Captain of the doomed Union escort.
Flight From Glory (1937)
In South America, an aviation crew consisting of disgraced pilots in sub-standard planes fly dangerous missions over the mountains, delivering supplies to a mining-camp. The man in charge, Ellis (Onslow Stevens), keeps a scrapbook of aviation mishaps and disasters, and from it recruits new employees who cannot get work anywhere else whenever an accident occurs to one of his existing crew…which is often. This tactic brings to the team a young American flyer, George Wilson (Van Heflin), who had his licence to fly revoked after crashing his plane while drunk and killing a bystander. To the horror of the veterans of the flying team, Wilson brings with him his new wife, Lee (Whitney Bourne). Soon taking the measure of his surroundings, Wilson tries to send his wife away, only to find that Ellis’s manoeuvring means that he has arrived in debt, and must work that off before he can afford Lee’s ticket home. As Lee bravely makes the best of things, she becomes the object of romantic interest of two other pilots, Smith (Chester Morris) and Hilton (Douglas Walton), even as George Wilson’s drinking spirals out of control. Meanwhile, the question of which man flies which plane becomes a deadly game of Russian roulette… This obvious fore-runner to Only Angels Have Wings is a gritty and quite suspenseful little drama, presenting the aviation camp is a kind of purgatory, with each man suffering from and being punished for his various weaknesses and guilts. Lee Wilson is the only true innocent here, and the film treats her as gently as it can under the circumstances. (This film is a lot kinder to its female lead than Only Angels Have Wings.) Onslow Stevens is unnervingly convincing as the cold-blooded Ellis – that scrapbook of disaster is a chilling touch – while Chester Morris is good as Smith, the least guilty – or rather, the most clear-sighted – of the pilots, whose bitter cynicism begins to conflict with his feelings for Lee. There is also a nice supporting performance from Douglas Walton (Percy Shelley in Bride Of Frankenstein) as the doomed romantic, Hilton; you get the feeling that had the budget been higher, it would have been Leslie Howard in this role.
Floods Of Fear (1958)
A late and extreme thaw puts the Humboldt Valley in imminent danger of flooding. As evacuations are carried out, convict labourers are brought in under guard to work on the reinforcement of the local dykes. However, the water rises too rapidly and the dyke collapses, sweeping the prisoners and their guards into the raging waters. Donovan (Howard Keel) is pulling himself to safety when he hears someone calling for help and finds Elizabeth Matthews (Anne Heyward) stranded on the roof of her car. As she cannot swim, Donovan helps her to her house, a large, two-storey wooden structure whose upper floor is above the water-line. Twice more Donovan goes to the aid of someone stranded in the water. The first is another prisoner, Peebles (Cyril Cusack); the second is an injured prison guard, Sharkey (Harry H. Corbett). Peebles’ furious reaction reveals to Elizabeth both that he is a man of instinctive violence, and that Donovan is serving a life sentence for murder. Tensions in the house escalate as the flood waters continue to rise, with Sharkey determined that neither prisoner will escape, Peebles having designs on Elizabeth, and Donovan with only one thought on his mind: to find and kill Jack Murphy (John Crawford), his former business partner, who framed him for the murder of his wife… Floods Of Fear is a strange and not entirely successful suspense film. It was a British production, made at Pinewood Studios and directed by Charles Crichton, but is set in America, its cast a mixture of Americans and British actors trying, or in some cases not trying, to put on an American accent. Meanwhile, the script attempts to reinforce the setting with constant references to the governor, the mayor, the sheriff and so on, but the results are just jarring. (Amusingly, there is also an attempt to “look American” by having numerous black actors amongst the bit players: far more than you’d find in an actual American production of this time.) Of the cast, Cyril Cusack is most memorable as the unspeakably creepy Peebles, whose small frame and unthreatening appearance hide a frightening sadistic streak. Howard Keel is fair as Donovan, but Anne Heyward becomes irritating as Elizabeth. Granted, her character is in a horrible situation, but Elizabeth is so consistently snivelly that it gets harder and harder to sympathise. Inevitably, Donovan and Elizabeth end up falling for each other in spite of everything, and she tries desperately to stop him carrying out him plan of vengeance against Jack Murphy and so becoming the killer she now believes in her heart he is not. Meanwhile, the police are closing in… Though it does not entirely work as a thriller, it is worth watching Floods Of Fear for the flood sequences, which are a mixture of well-executed studio-set and model work and stock footage, and which are never less than impressive.
The Girl Of The Golden West (1938)
Mary Robbins (Jeanette MacDonald) is the lone woman in a remote section of the California gold-fields, where she operates a saloon called The Poker. The area is plagued by bandits led by Ramirez (Nelson Eddy), an American posing as a Mexican. Sworn to capture him is the local sheriff – and professional gambler – Jack Rance (Walter Pidgeon), who is in love with Mary. Mary evades Rance’s marriage proposal and sets out for her yearly visit to Monterey, where she sings in the church belonging to Father Sienna (H.B. Warner). On the road, Mary’s carriage is held up by a masked Ramirez. Unable to forget her, he follows her to Monterey, where he courts her in the guise of a young army officer. Soon afterwards, Ramirez learns that most of the gold mined in the area is held at a local saloon. He goes to reconnoitre the situation – and to his dismay finds that Mary is the owner of the establishment he plans to rob. As she warmly welcomes “Lieutenant Johnson”, Ramirez realises he must make a grave decision, while his presence at The Poker arouses both the jealousy and the suspicions of Jack Rance… Adapted from a play by David Belasco, and an opera by Puccini, this is an overlong but quite enjoyable outing for Jeanette and Nelson, in which they play a terribly distracting game of “competing accents”. He wins, because his, ahem, “Mexican” accent is a fake, assumed as part of his disguise; while Jeanette is supposed to be genuine in her effort to sound like a grizzled 1890s prospector…consarn it. Starting out as the usual light-hearted fare, The Girl Of The Golden West takes an interesting sobering turn into a more western-like movie (although still with the occasional musical interlude), climaxing in a tense scene at Mary’s snow-bound cottage, where after trying to hide the wounded Ramirez, she offers to play cards with Jack Rance for the bandit’s life – and for her hand in marriage. Walter Pidgeon is oddly cast but effective as Rance, while the supporting performance from Buddy Ebsen as “Alabama”, the shy blacksmith also suffering from unrequited love for Mary, matches the shifting tone of the film itself, starting out perilously close to Odious Comic Relief-dom, and ending up both serious and touching. Obviously a film like this is not for all tastes, but for those who like this kind of thing, I think it’s one of J&N’s better efforts.
Gold-Diggers Of 1933 (1933)
Living under an assumed name, Boston blue blood Robert Treat Bradford (Dick Powell) tries to make it on his own as a Broadway songwriter, only to have his cover blown when he is forced to replace the “juvenile” lead of the show he’s written, who’s come down with lumbago. Outraged older brother J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and family attorney Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) come to town to try and break up Powell’s budding romance with aspiring chorine Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), but end up being taken for a ride by the real gold-diggers, Polly’s pals Carol King (Joan Blundell) and Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon)… Warners’ follow-up to the smash hit 42nd Street has certain points over its famous predecessor – there’s less of Ruby Keeler singing, for one thing – and more than its share of bizarre and unexpected touches, like Ginger Rogers singing We’re In The Money in pig-Latin, or the fact that the Pettin’ In The Park number very casually features a black couple amongst its petters; you wouldn’t get that from any studio but Warners. Also typical Warners is that this essentially frothy mixture of show tunes, cynicism and sexual innuendo proceeds to blindside its audience by climaxing in the shattering Depression era anthem, My Forgotten Man.
The Gorilla Man (1943)
During WWII, a group of British commandos carry out a daring raid in France, learning in the process German plans for an invasion of England. The leader of the men, Captain Craig Killian (John Loder), is injured in the raid, and to save time is taken to a sanatorium on the English coast. However, unknown to the authorities, the sanatorium is a front for a nest of Nazi spies headed by Dr Dorn (Paul Cavanagh) and Dr Ferris (John Abbott), along with an Englishwoman, Nurse Kruger (Mary Field), whose husband and son in Germany are being used to compel her obedience. Dr Dorn is unable to prevent Killian from passing on his information to General Devon (Lumsden Hare), but concocts an elaborate plan to discredit Killian by making it seem that his experiences have left him mentally unbalanced and violent. Soon, wherever the Captain goes, a dead body is sure to be found… This is one weird little effort – sort of a war movie, sort of a horror movie, and sort of a suspense movie. It is supposed to be about Killian’s battle to attend a meeting of the brass at General Devon’s house – and to convince his superiors of his sanity – but it is the script’s amazingly gruesome details that linger when the film is over. Most of these come courtesy of Dr Ferris, who is both a Nazi and wanted as a “psychopathic killer” in Glasgow. Inflicted with the most unnerving pair of glasses ever, Dr Ferris has a habit of experimenting on anyone unfortunate enough to be brought to the hospital…all for “the advancement of science”, you understand. (“I see,” says Dorn, when Ferris admits to working on “nerve reflexes”, “that’s why you didn’t administer an anaesthetic.”) It is also Ferris who is responsible for the bodies left in poor Killian’s wake – “Their heads almost torn from their bodies”. But the really unsettling thing about all this is—it’s just a side-plot, with these particulars tossed at the viewer in the most casual way imaginable. The film’s inappropriate title, by the way, is the newspaper nickname bestowed upon Killian in reference to his extraordinary climbing abilities (he scales a near-sheer cliff in the course of the raid). Not that gorillas are known for their climbing abilities…but I guess “The Gibbon Man” didn’t give off quite the right vibe.
Hand Of Death (1976)
During the Qing Dynasty, betrayal from within their own ranks sees the disciples of the Shaolin Monastery and their master slaughtered and the few survivors scattered through the land. Yun Fei (Tan Tao-liang) is given the mission of killing the treacherous Shih Shao-feng (James Tien Chung), who has made himself master of a strategically located town and surrounded himself with both Manchu officers under the leadership of Tu Ching (Sammo Hung Kam-po) and a personal bodyguard of eight fighters, each skilled in a particular style of deadly combat… Hand Of Death is one of those films that gains importance retrospectively. It was one of the period martial arts films made early in his career by John Woo, and unites him for the only time with both Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan (who, this early in his career, is billed as Chen Yuang-long). Jackie has a supporting good guy role as a woodsman who has “played dumb” for three years while waiting for a chance to avenge his elder brother, killed by Shih’s men; while Sammo, dressed in less than flattering Manchu robes and afflicted with the scariest set of fake teeth you ever will see, is Shih’s chief flunky and a right bastard. John Woo himself plays Chang Yi, the leader of a local revolt whom Yun Fei must escort to safety. Hand Of Death is, frankly, a fairly clunky effort, particularly during the early martial arts scenes, which look more like blocking exercises than the real deal. (It doesn’t help that the print I saw is heavily overdubbed, with every arm movement, sword passage and spear thrust accompanied by thunderous WHOOOMP WHOOMP noises.) Things improve as the film goes on, thankfully, and the two major battles between Tan Tao-liang and James Tien Chung are both very enjoyable. Despite its age and setting, Hand Of Death is a typical John Woo film, with men finding redemption, women nearly non-existent, and most of the likeable characters dead by the end. For myself, the highlight of the film is when Yun Fei, having been left hanging upside-down and bound hand and foot after being beaten by Shih’s guards, manages to free himself by undoing the ropes around his feet with his teeth. Damn. I wish I had abs like that…
The Heavenly Body (1944)
Astronomer William S. Whitley (William Powell) is at the peak of his professional success, after discovering a comet and predicting its collision with the moon. Whitley’s night-work puts a strain upon his marriage to Vicki (Hedy Lamarr), who despite her husband’s certain disapproval allows her neighbour Nancy Potter (Spring Byington) to take her to astrologer Madame Sybil (Fay Bainter). To Whitley’s horror, Vicki soon becomes an unshakable devotee of astrology – going so far, when Mme Sybil predicts a new love in her life, to start planning the divorce… Ugh! This “comedy” is so painful in so many different ways, it’s hard to pick which is the worst. We can start, though, with how plain unlikeable all the characters are. For a start, William S. Whitley is a condescending know-it-all. At the same time, Vicki is an annoying idiot. So far, they deserve each other. When James Craig shows up as the answer to Mme Sybil’s prediction, foreign correspondent turned air raid warden Lloyd Hunter, you feel rather sorry for him getting caught between these two…only then he turns out to be just as obnoxious as they are. (He’s the kind who, having travelled in other countries, thinks he knows more about them than the people who live there – and likes to correct them.) The film never bothers to explain Vicki’s sudden devotion to astrology; there’s not even any real implication that this is her passive-aggressive way of hitting back at her constantly absent husband. In the worst Bad Comedy way, her abrupt conversion is just ’coz. The curious thing about all this is that despite Whitley’s, and by extension the film’s, rude and jeering dismissal of astrology, as far as we learn Mme Sybil is generally correct in her predictions. As if realising belatedly that it has written itself into a corner in this respect, the script’s way of dismissing her is via an odd double-play: she is exposed not as a cheat, but as – gasp! – a hoarder. Yes, this was a war-time film, although you’d never guess it from the calm opulence of the characters’ lives; I suppose you’d call it “escapism”. The Heavenly Body does liven up for about five minutes during its home run, with the otherwise pointless introduction of a dozen vodka-swilling Russians and one disgustingly cute dog, but by then it’s far too little, far too late.
Hedda Gabler (1981)
Like the curate’s egg, it’s good in parts… Diana Rigg is Hedda, dwindling into marriage with professorial hopeful George Tesman (Dennis Lill), allowing him to devote his life to making her happy, and imagining she is conferring a great favour on him by so doing. Already bored and disgusted with her oblivious husband, faced with a future of provincial visits and dinners, Hedda longs for “power over someone’s destiny”. Opportunity presents itself when she becomes the confidante of an old school acquaintance, Thea Elvsted (Elizabeth Bell). Thea has left her husband, discreetly, while she searches for her new love, Eilert Lǿvborg (Philip Bond), who is both Hedda’s former lover and Tesman’s professional rival. Having long wasted his talent in alcoholism, Lǿvborg has sobered up under Thea’s influence and produced a work of astonishing originality and power. Resenting Thea’s power over Lǿvborg, resenting even more her own comparative impotence, Hedda makes up her mind to play a significant role in the fates of these two people. A stag party at the house of Judge Brack (Alan Dobie) leads to a shameful relapse for Lǿvborg and, as Hedda sees her chance to strike, to disaster, scandal and death… While never beginning to get at the ambiguities and mysteries of the play, this version of Hedda Gabler is just good enough to frustrate the hell out of you by not being better. It pulls off some scenes but not others; brings the characters to life at times, but not always. For example, Elizabeth Bell and Philip Bond are fine in their scenes together; but as Thea, Bell never manages to suggest the kind of desperation that could lead her to trust in Hedda, who she knows from bitter experience is manipulative and a bully and, frankly, not to be trusted. Similarly, Diana Rigg and Alan Dobie strike sparks as Hedda spars with the judge, mistakenly believing herself in charge of the situation; but at the same time, Dobie never really succeeds in conveying the selfish malevolance underlying the surface bonhomie of this petty power-broker. Still, the wreck of lives that comprises the final acts of the play cannot help but affect the viewer, whatever one makes of Hedda in general, and this Hedda in particular. A nice bonus in this version is a supporting performance by Kathleen Byron, as Tesman’s devoted Aunt Juliana—and while good manners prompts a reference to Black Narcissus here, honesty provokes a cry of, “Ooh, Twins Of Evil!”
Hero And The Terror (1988)
A Chuck Norris film with emotional depth!? Gedouddahere! In this one Chuck is Danny O’Brien, a cop unimaginatively nicknamed “Hero” after single-handedly taking down serial killer Simon Moon (Jack O’Halloran) – even more unimaginatively nicknamed “The Terror” – who killed twenty-two women, keeping their bodies hidden in order to “play with them”. As Moon serves out his time in a psychiatric facility, O’Brien must undergo therapy, unable to shake the memories and suffering recurrent nightmares over his discovery of Moon’s lair. Three years later, O’Brien’s life seems in order. His pregnant girlfriend, Kay (Brynn Thayer) – formally his therapist – moves into his apartment, and O’Brien proposes marriage. But then comes word that Moon has escaped. The van he was driving crashes into a river, and although his body isn’t found, he is presumed dead. But O’Brien knows better… This was Chuck’s last collaboration with the Go-Go Boys, and it’s kind of an uneven send-off. There is less action than normal, and an uncertain air pervades the touchy-comic tone of the relationship between O’Brien and Kay; but the straightforward attempt to give this story more heart that usual is unexpected and interesting, if not always successful. However, there are parts of it I like, particularly its admission – and in a Chuck Norris film, too! – that experiences like Danny O’Brien’s are not just shrugged off with a laugh and a beer, but take a brutal toll. The high point of Hero And The Terror comes when O’Brien literally finds himself inside his nightmare, as he stumbles into Moon’s new lair; while the final chase / confrontation is quite tensely staged. I also like the heavily pregnant Kay’s restaurant meltdown, in which she declares herself to be “old, and fat, and ugly”, and has a cold-feet attack encompassing everything from the baby to her moving in with O’Brien to the sabbatical she’s taken from work. Of course, there are groan-inducing moments, too – plenty of them – like O’Brien fainting when Kay goes into labour, and the demise of O’Brien’s partner (Steve James). It’s not like the white hero’s black partner has to work all that hard to get himself killed in films like these, even under normal circumstances; but here Danny has Bill spend the night alone at the restored theatre that he’s pretty certain is the killer’s new hideout – and then Bill rushes to meet his manifest destiny by taking off his gun and leaving it lying on a seat while he works out by running laps of the auditorium. Where this film really crosses the line, though, is its absolutely shameless theft of four of the most famous chords in horror movie history: Simon Moon’s scenes are all underscored by the unmistakable sound of Harry Manfredini’s chh-chh-chh-chh. They don’t even pretend they aren’t doing it! – and it completely punctures the film’s efforts to be taken seriously. Still – points for trying.
The Heroes Of Telemark (1965)
Anthony Mann’s penultimate film as director is an account of the Norwegian underground’s attempts to destroy the German production of deuterium oxide, “heavy water”, needed in the creation of the atomic bomb. This compressed account of events, a year and a half’s conflict whittled down to three onscreen months, opens with resistance fighter Knud Straud (Richard Harris) coming into possession of microfilm detailing operations within the German-controlled Vemork plant near the town of Rjukan. Insufficiently knowledgeable himself, Straud takes the film to physics professor Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) who, despite his lack of interest in the resistance movement, recognises the grim significance of the film’s content and allows Straud to recruit him. The two men lead a band that commandeers a ferry, making a perilous journey to England. Their information is examined, and sent to America – to Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein – for final confirmation. Joining forces, the British and the Norwegian resistance plan a raid to destroy the plant. Disaster strikes when the gliders carrying the British commandoes crash when landing. The Norwegians go ahead anyway and by torturous effort, scale the unguarded cliff faces at one side of the plant, infiltrate it, and blow up the heavy water production room. But the Germans have contingency plans; and within two weeks production has resumed. As time passes and the heavy water accumulates, the Allies must consider ever more desperate alternatives… The Heroes Of Telemark is an uneven film, suffering particularly from some clumsy scripting and insufficiently detailed characterisations. (And while this may be petty, it also suffers from Kirk Douglas’s accent. With Douglas surrounded predominantly by Brits and Scandinavians – and even the occasional authentic German, most notably Anton Diffring, being all steely-eyed and threatening as usual – his New York-bred tones are like the proverbial sore thumb.) Still, the film is not without its merits, and the subject matter certainly deserves attention – even if history now argues with some of the events depicted. (The documentary The True Heroes Of Telemark has much to say about the film’s inaccuracies – which, it might be pointed out, include occasionally playing down rather than exaggerating the facts: the film has the British paratroopers all killed in the glider crash, when in fact some of them were captured, tortured and executed.) The film was shot on location in Norway, at the actual site of events, and although the result is spectacular, it is also a mixed blessing, dramatically speaking, as the sheer grandeur of the story’s setting threatens to overwhelm its characters. One extraordinary sequence is an in-action ski-pursuit, achieved by hiring the Norwegian Olympic ski coach and putting him in charge of the camera; while the cliff-face assault upon the plant is depicted with tense and painful realism. Ultimately, however, the film’s primary virtue is its detached depiction of the shifting personal moralities of the main characters; its recognition of the difference between recognising the need for action, and taking action; and its investigation of where, in war time, a line can be drawn – or whether it can be drawn at all. Rolf Pedersen is at first quite cynically passive, content to ride out the Occupation without rocking the boat; his initial response to Knud’s attempt to recruit him is to point out that the main outcome of Knud’s own activities is a lot of shot hostages – a charge the film never refutes, by the way. But Pedersen far more than the others understands the magnitude of the danger; and over time it is he who becomes the truly ruthless one, set upon destroying the heavy water at any cost; while Knud and Anna (Ulla Jacobsson), Rolf’s ex-wife and another resistance fighter, begin to question the necessity of the mission, unable to accept either the civilian casualties that must inevitably result from pursuing it, or Rolf’s word-picture of a world where Germany has the bomb. The final attack upon the heavy water requires the bombing of the ferry on which it is being transported – and upon which two of the local passengers are the widow of the one man killed during the original raid on the plant, and her new baby. Even Rolf, it turns out, has his limits…
Highly Dangerous (1950)
British entomologist Frances Grey (Margaret Lockwood) is contacted by government official Hedgerley (Naunton Wayne) and asked to undertake a dangerous mission into Eastern Europe, where reports indicate a new form of biological warfare is under development, using a particular strain of insect. After some hesitation, Frances agrees, and sets out posing as a travel agent investigating tourism in the area. Almost immediately, however, she attracts the attention of Commandant Anton Razinski (Marius Goring), the head of the local police. When Frances reaches her destination, her contact is not there to meet her; unbeknownst to Frances, he has already met a grim fate. Instead, Frances falls in with American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark), who has been banished to this gloomy region by his editor as punishment for a politically unwise article. Recognising Frances from a magazine article, Bill decides, to her frustration, to stick with her, scenting a story that will put an end to his exile. Things take a bleak turn when Frances falls into the hands of Razinski and must suffer through imprisonment and interrogation. Having stood up to the treatment, Frances responds not by running away with her tail between her legs, but swearing that she will carry out her mission – to the horror of the bewildered Bill, who rapidly finds himself in way over his head… Yet another spy thriller about amateurs outdoing a literal army of professionals, Highly Dangerous is ridiculous, of course, but still quite a lot of fun – not least because, let’s face it, how many films do you know where the hero is a female entomologist?? Anyway, we’re certainly not meant to take any of this seriously. The film signals its intentions early on by treating us to an episode of a radio serial to which Frances’s young nephew is devoted, featuring the adventures of, “Frank Conway and his sidekick, Rusty”…and later has Frances masquerading under the name “Frances Conway”. (Bill is understandably puzzled when she starts calling him “Rusty”.) Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark make a likeable couple, while Marious Goring is both sinister and charming as Razinski. Naunton Wayne and Wilfrid Hyde-White are the British officials mixed up in all this, both of them so very proper in the midst of all the scheming and violence. Highly Dangerous is worth watching purely for the sequence in which Frances, having withstood interrogation, is drugged – presumably with sodium pentathol – in order, as Razinski puts it, “To plum the very depths of your mind”….only for the startled police officer to discover that the depths of a female entomologist’s mind can be a very scary place indeed…
Hitler’s Children (1943)
In pre-war Germany, Professor “Nicky” Nichols (Kent Smith) runs the American Colony School, which is next door to a German school. To Nicky’s growing worry, his students and the German youth fall ever more frequently into fights. Particularly hostile – at least at first – are the German boy Karl Bruner (Tim Holt) and the American girl Anna Miller (Bonita Granville). Attracted to each other against their will, the two become friends and spend much of their time together; but it is not long before their ideological differences drive them apart. Years later, while Anna is working as a teacher at the school, she is claimed by the Nazis as a German citizen by birth, despite her American breeding, and sent to an indoctrination camp. As Nicky works feverishly to win her release, he discovers to his horror that Karl is now a Gestapo officer. Reminded of his past, Karl must fight his feelings for Anna, while the girl’s rebellion against Nazism puts her life in dire danger… It’s hard to know how to react to these mid-war propaganda pieces. On one hand, we know now that the various horrors depicted are not only true, but grossly understated. On the other, such films still come across as uncomfortably exploitative and, somehow, dishonest. It’s probably the selective vision that makes them seem this way: Hitler’s Children is desperately concerned for the American Anna, but hasn’t too many thoughts to spare for the “undesirables” – non-Germans – taken at the same time as her. Concentration camps rate a mention only in passing – at this time, American films were still propagating the notion that these were just a more severe kind of labour camp – while the J-word is never used, of course. Another problem is the indiscriminate nature of the film’s moral outrage: it is just as horrified by the thought of a girl having an illegitimate baby as it is by a state-run program of enforced sterilisation as punishment for “incorrect political thought”. The plot, such as it is, is undermined by its own contrivances. Why on earth Anna’s German-born parents, safe in New York, don’t get her the hell out of there years earlier is a mystery that is never addressed. Nor is Karl’s own American birth, which is brought up at the beginning, ever mentioned again: given the wavering of his commitment to Nazism, you’d think his superiors would be using this “flaw” as a stick to beat him with. The film’s ending is also absurd, but absurd in a way very popular with screenwriters of the time (see This Land Is Mine for another example of it). Tim Holt and Bonita Granville are quite good as the film’s Romeo and Juliet. The ubiquitous Kent Smith has another thankless “everyman” role; Otto Kruger really lays it on as Karl’s Gestapo boss; and H.B. Warner has a moving cameo as a Christian bishop who makes a fatal stand. Made for only $200,000, Hitler’s Children was a surprise smash hit for RKO, grossing well over $3,000,000. (Just to put that in context – it out-grossed King Kong!!)
Holiday Affair (1949)
War widow Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), working as a comparison shopper to support her young son, Timothy (Gordon Gebert), inadvertently gets toy salesman Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) fired. Feeling guilty, Connie agrees to have lunch with Steve – hotdogs and peanuts at Central Park Zoo – and as she spends time with him, finds herself beginning to be torn between her growing feeling for him, her almost-commitment to long-time beau, lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), and her memories of her tragically brief marriage… This is a rather sweet example of one of the oldest tropes in romantic comedy film-making, the woman meeting her “soul mate” after becoming engaged to Mr Steady. Where it scores points over most of its competition – and I can think of quite a few recent films that could have learnt a lot from this one – is in playing entirely fair by all of its characters. This is particularly true in the case of Carl Davis. Instead of taking the soft option of making Carl obviously the wrong man for Connie, he’s an attractive marital prospect: nice, and smart, and genuinely attached to Timothy. He just…isn’t the right guy. The casting of Wendell Corey is interesting here. Corey could be terribly dull on screen, but they don’t even play that card: instead, the screenplay generously pitches to his delicious way with a sardonic line of dialogue; a talent not exploited nearly enough over the actor’s career. Holiday Affair is highlighted by two marvellous set-pieces, first what ought to be, but miraculously isn’t, the world’s most uncomfortable Christmas dinner – attended by Connie, her son, the two men who want to marry her, and her late husband’s parents – and secondly, a scene at a police station after Steve is mistakenly arrested as a mugger, a sequence stolen by Harry Morgan as the desk sergeant who has to sort the whole mess out. There is never really much doubt about how the various relationships in Holiday Affair are going to work themselves out, but the journey is a lot of fun.
Hotel Reserve (1944)
In 1938, French-Austrian medical student Peter Vardassy (James Mason) is on the verge of obtaining his French citizenship when his holiday is abruptly interrupted, and he finds himself accused of espionage. The bewildered Peter is interrogated by intelligence officer Michel Beghin (Julien Mitchell), and learns to his horror that on the roll of film he put in for development were photographs of French military installations. Peter is initially relieved to learn that he is not the real suspect, but that, as Beghin knows, his camera was somehow swapped with that of the real spy, who is one of Peter’s fellow guests at the Hotel Reserve. However, Peter’s relief turns to dismay when Beghin compels him to act as his inside man, threatening him with deportation back to Austria if he refuses… Based on an Eric Ambler novel, Hotel Reserve is an uneven effort that can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s a light-hearted or serious spy thriller, and vacillates fatally between the two attitudes. There’s certainly nothing funny about the threat used by Beghin to coerce Peter into co-operation – “First jail, then deportation, then the Gestapo” – or about the subplot involving a hotel guest who turns out to be living under a false name; but for the most part this is a fairly trivial exercise following Peter’s blundering efforts at playing spy, and the “colourful characters” who make up the rest of the hotel’s guests. Moreover, the real spy turns out to be exactly who you expect, and the ending is one of those annoying set-ups where there are a dozen professionals around, but only the amateur hero manages to catch the bad guy.
The Hurricane (1937)
Here’s an observation, and something worth looking into more closely, for those of us interested in the roots of the disaster movie—in the late 1930s, Hollywood produced four “almost disaster” movies, one after the other, all in black-and-white, all done with practical effects—San Francisco (1936), The Hurricane (1937), In Old Chicago (1938) and The Rains Came (1939). Then WWII began, after which, presumably, disaster-for-entertainment was considered inappropriate. Pity. Each of these four films contains an extraordinary disaster sequence, yet none of them is a disaster movie by my simplest definition of the genre—that is, in none of these four cases is the disaster what the film is about. The Hurricane, one of John Ford’s least well-known films, is set in a French colony in the Pacific Islands. Raymond Massey plays Eugene DeLaage, the governor of the colony, whose devotion to “the law”, administered without compassion, alienates him from both the people he is governing and from his wife, Germaine (Mary Astor), whom he passionately loves. His refusal to see things from the islanders’ point of view likewise puts him at loggerheads with Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith), the Catholic priest who is in charge of the local mission, and Dr Hersaint (Thomas Mitchell). In fact, the more the others oppose him, the more rigidly DeLaage clings to the letter of the law. A crisis is reached when Terangi (Jon Hall), a native employed as an officer by a local shipping firm, is provoked into a fight while in Tahiti. As a native, Terangi is automatically jailed to “teach him a lesson”, even though everyone agrees that a white man in the same situation would never have been punished. Terangi’s imprisonment is doubly tragic in that he has only just been married to Marama (Dorothy Lamour), his childhood sweetheart. Despite the pressure and pleading of those closest to him, Governor DeLaage refuses to intervene on Terangi’s behalf—while he, unable to bear imprisonment, undergoes a cycle of attempted escapes and recaptures that only increase his sentence from months to endless years. At last he succeeds in escaping, but in the process accidentally kills a guard. Terangi makes it back to his home and is reunited with Marama and the daughter he has never seen before, but word of his escape soon reaches DeLaage, who is determined to re-capture the fugitive. Before he can take action, however, the island is hit by a devastating hurricane… They can spend as many millions of dollars as they like on CGI effects these days, but in my opinion the disaster sequences in these black-and-white dramas of the 30s have never been surpassed; though, mind you, it helps when a director has a complete disregard for the safety of his cast and crew, as John Ford evidently did. I stand by my ruling that The Hurricane is not a disaster movie, but it nevertheless contains one of the most breathtaking disaster sequences ever captured on film. It is stunning to watch the hair-raising twenty-minute hurricane scene that climaxes this film and realise that, yes, that was Jon Hall, Mary Astor, Dorothy Lamour and C. Aubrey Smith being put in what looks like – and almost certainly was – real physical danger.