One Fatal Hour (1936)
Also known as Two Against The World, this re-make of Edward G. Robinson’s 1931 film Five Star Final has Humphrey Bogart stepping into EGR’s shoes. Bogart stars as Sherry Scott, the manager of a radio station who, out of fear of losing his job, goes along with station owner Bertram Reynolds’ (Robert Middlemass) insistence on pitching their material at an ever-lower common denominator. (Accused of thinking too much “above” the station’s audience, Scott growls, “You could sit on a toadstool and be above ours.”) In pursuit of a sensationalist attraction, Reynolds has “Dr” Martin Leavenworth (Harry Hayden) dig up a twenty-year-old murder case and turn it into a, ahem, “morality play”. The woman tried for killing her husband, former chorus-girl Grace Pembroke, is now Mrs Carstairs (Helen McKellar), whose daughter, Edith (Linda Perry), unaware of her mother’s past, is on the eve of marriage to Malcolm Sims Jr (Carlyle Moore Jr), the son of a steel magnate. The announcement of the radio station’s plans lands like a bomb in the middle of the family’s wedding-plans, and Edith’s parents fight desperately to prevent the serial going ahead, all the while trying to keep their secret from their daughter. In doing so, they inadvertently reveal it instead to the man most eager to exploit it… It would be nice to be able to say that One Fatal Hour has no relevance to modern audiences, but— While this film isn’t up to the standard of the original version, it still manages, despite running under an hour, to get in any number of blows aimed at the ethics, or lack thereof, of those who control our major media outlets. The increasing desperation of the Carstairs, stone-walled by the utter refusal of anyone connected with the planned radio play to take ultimate responsibility for it and its consequences, builds finally to a shocking but inevitable tragedy; the distribution of blame, and the acceptance of responsibility, come, as usual, far too late. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this film, a plot point introduced most off-handedly about two-thirds of the way through, is that Grace Pembroke was actually acquitted…a fact that evidently means nothing to anybody. She is referred to as “the murderess” in the radio station’s advertising, and that is the word that Malcolm Sims’ parents use, too, when they barge in to announce that their son’s engagement is off. (That Malcolm Jr has his own ideas on that subject is the one tiny glimmer of hope anywhere in this grim tale.) Still finding his professional niche, Bogart is interesting here, although it isn’t one of his better performances, possibly because Scott is given too much room to move in, morally speaking; the film would be stronger if he were more actively culpable, rather than guilty-by-passivity. Nor is Beverly Roberts given enough to do as Alma, Scott’s secretary-cum-conscience. The film’s stand-out performance, however, comes from Harry Hayden as the radio station’s sanctimonious poison-pen; and the accompanying implication, that “Dr” Leavenworth is in fact a former man of the cloth, puts a seal of disgust on this whole sorry story.
(An extra point of interest for modern audiences comes in the mock-argument between Edith and Malcolm over whether the word “obey” should be included in the marriage ceremony. We never get an answer and, alas, before much longer that’s the least of their problems.)
The Perils Of Pauline (1933, 12 chapters)
American Bob Warde (William Desmond), at work in China, is left at a loose end when the outbreak of a revolution puts paid to his engineering job. As the city is evacuated, Bob encounters Professor Hargraves (James Durkin) and his daughter, Pauline (Evalyn Knapp), who are searching for a sacred disc that has inscribed upon it the formula for a poison gas that, in the wrong hands, could destroy humanity. They are opposed by Dr Bashan (John Davidson), a Eurasian who wants the gas for evil purposes. Almost at the cost of their lives, the Professor and Pauline locate their object in a local temple, but learn that the sacred disc was divided into pieces and hidden all over the world, to reduce its danger. Joining forces, the Professor, Pauline and Bob embark upon a world-wide search, dogged every step of the way by the deadly and obsessed Dr Bashan… In many ways, The Perils Of Pauline is the definitive serial. Its story takes us all over the world, from China to Borneo – a detour highlighted by stock footage of hippos and zebras – to Singapore to India to southern Africa to Egypt to New York City; during this journey, the serial makes use of newsreel footage of the promotional around-the-world flight of the German flying boat, the Do X, at the time the largest and most luxurious plane in the world. Inevitably, however, the story suffers from all the usual assumptions of the time, chief amongst them being that white people have a God-given right to wander into temples all over the world and help themselves to whatever they like – and if the locals get in the way, well, we know how to deal with them, right? And then there’s the fact that Pauline’s perils are, for the most part, her own damn fault: for some reason, her father keeps entrusting her with valuable artefacts, and she keeps responding by standing near open doors and windows and reassuring him that, “IT’S QUITE SAFE, FATHER. I’VE HIDDEN IT IN MY LUGGAGE. NO, NOT THE SUITCASE, THE LITTLE CARRY-CASE. THE ONE WITH THE KEY THAT I KEEP IN THE TOP LEFT-HAND DRAWER OF MY DRESSER”…and then looking surprised when she’s robbed. And, also inevitably, there is – sigh – the Odious Comic Relief, in the shape of Professor Hargraves’ shrieking cowardly secretary, Willie Dodge (Sonny Ray). The way this character [sic.] is used is truly odd. In most cases, no matter how unbearable we find the OCR, the other characters find him funny; here, everyone else is as tortured by Dodge’s behaviour as we are…and yet they keep him around!? However, the demerits of The Perils Of Pauline are more than compensated for by its deliciously over-the-top Bad Guy, Dr Bashan: we know what to think of him as soon as he’s described in the first episode as “the Eurasian”. It’s just as well we do, too, because the script never bothers to explain just who or what he is. He’s referred to a few times as “a religious fanatic”, and it is implied that he’s some kind of high priest, but who exactly he’s representing is left to our imaginations. All we know is, he has limitless resources, and some pretty impressive connections, for a Bad Guy. (Entering the US, Bashan briefly falls foul of Immigration. Not to worry. He simply phones a local big-wig and gets himself released!!!!) Bashan’s ability instantly to summon up crews of henchmen no matter where he is in the world is remarkable, too – although best of all is his Number One Henchman, Fang (Frank Lackteen), who is one of those beyond-all-reason guys who for some reason stay loyal no matter how badly they’re treated. In one hilarious sequence, as Fang is trying to steal the MacGuffin, he is menaced by a python, mauled by a leopard, and captured by the good guys. To avoid being made to talk, he throws himself into a crocodile-infested river and outswims the crocs, then staggers about ten miles through the jungle to reach Bashan. Bashan’s greeting? “YOU HAVE FAILED!!” For the rest, two sequences stand out. First, near the beginning, the Professor and Pauline attempt to locate the first piece of the disc inside a temple while it is being shelled. This episode includes a shot of a statue outside the temple, with a shell exploding right next to it…a shot that is repeated about twenty times. <Steve Martin> “They hate that statue!” </Steve Martin> The other, my absolute favourite, naturally, comes when the story reaches Singapore, and our characters find themselves in a hotel that features an unfenced shark pool out in the garden: you can’t help wondering how many inebriated guests never actually found their way back to their rooms over the years. And of course, this episode culminates in a fist-fight staged on the astonishingly flimsy balcony of our heroine’s room, which just happens to be directly over the pool…
The Phantom Of The West (1931, 10 chapters)
After serving fifteen years in jail, Francisco Cortez (Frank Lanning) escapes. His desperate flight across the desert leads him to the ranch of Jim Lester (Tom Tyler), whose father Cortez was convicted of murdering. Cortez swears his innocence, insisting that seven men in the nearby town of Rawdon know the truth, and that one of them is the real killer. Lester begins his own investigation, during which he enters into an uneasy alliance with a girl known locally as Mary Smith. In actuality she is Cortez’s daughter, Mona (Dorothy Gulliver), and has sworn to prove her father’s innocence. Meanwhile, Jim’s investigation is hampered, and his life threatened, by a mysterious figure known as “The Phantom”… This Mascot production is severely hampered by its cripplingly low budget, even to the point of not being a “real” western at all. Try figuring out when it’s meant to be set: it’s got cowboys and posses and shoot-outs and claim-jumping, all right, but it’s also got telephones; and while the men all wear chaps and ten-gallon hats, secondary female lead Ruby Blair (Hallie Sullivan) swans around in knee-length drop-waist dresses and high heels. It’s also fatally obscure about some of its plot-points: for example, it’s not until the final episode that it is made clear that there are in fact two almost identical gangs of mysterious riders operating here, and that we’re not just watching the Phantom’s men riding pointlessly back and forth all the time after all. (The Phantom’s men are known locally as “the Night-Riders”, even though they invariably operate in broad daylight; and while they spend all of their considerable spare time between criminal enterprises camped just outside of town, no-one makes the slightest attempt to, you know, arrest them or anything.) The best thing about The Phantom Of The West is Dorothy Gulliver’s Mona Cortez, who is a likeably spunky heroine – even if they do have her go into an improbably protracted “faint” whenever it is convenient. Serials work best with an active heroine, and the scenario of a girl trying to clear her father’s name seems to work best of all: she’s allowed a lot more freedom of action than most of her sisters, even to the extent of occasionally thwarting the hero. The Phantom Of The West was widely advertised at the time of its release as “an all-talking serial”, but that’s a mixed blessing at best. This serial is afflicted with an Odious Comic Relief in the form of Tom Dugan’s Oscar, who – merciful heavens, spare us! – stutters. Good God, did anyone ever think that was actually funny!? If so, I’ve got the cure for them right here. They tone it down a bit in the later episodes, thankfully, but early on there’s a sequence of, I swear, five straight minutes of Oscar “comically” stuttering to himself. While this serial may be “all-talking”, most of the action scenes here were clearly shot without sound, and many of them play that way. The exception is a fight between two horses, which is dubbed over with hilariously fake horsey noises – “Whhee-hhee-hhee-hhee-hhee!!” – and unless I’m very much mistaken, the person responsible for this dubious voice work was Dorothy Gulliver. I hope they gave her a bonus.
The Prisoner Of Shark Island (1936)
John Ford’s account of the trial, imprisonment and eventual redemption of Dr Samuel A. Mudd (Warner Baxter) for his supposed involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is fine drama but probably poor history. This version of the story presents Mudd as an innocent bystander, who unknowingly treats John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg and then finds himself a victim of the bloody scapegoating that followed the assassination and the killing of Booth two weeks later. This white-washing of Mudd – who certainly knew Booth, and who certainly lied to the investigators – places The Prisoner Of Shark Island amongst a curious subset of American films that, while paying lip-service to those theoretical ideals we all hear so much about, seems to have surprisingly little faith in them in practice. (Rail-roading and vigilantism are only really wrong, these films seem to imply, if the person on the receiving end is really innocent.) But be Mudd’s innocence or guilt what it was, the section of this film dealing with the operation of the Military Commission and the execution of Mudd’s alleged fellow conspirators is absolutely chilling. (Prior to the trial, the Secretary of War instructs the commissioners not to let their judgement be troubled by “trifling technicalities of law” or “pedantic regard for the rules of evidence”, and not to be swayed by “that obnoxious creation of legal nonsense”, reasonable doubt.) Escaping execution by a single vote, Mudd is exiled to Fort Jefferson in the Florida Keys, the “Shark Island” of the title. The film then follows him through his imprisonment, his persecution by one of the garrison, his attempted escape and solitary confinement, and finally his pardoning due to his conduct during the yellow fever epidemic that swept the island prison. Warner Baxter is fine as Mudd, who he depicts as well-meaning but possibly a little dim, and Gloria Stuart lends good support as Mudd’s loyal wife. The film is completely stolen, however, by John Carradine, who is nothing short of terrifying as Sergeant Rankin, who dedicates himself to making Mudd’s imprisonment as miserable as possible. (The film is perhaps a little unjust to Rankin, never making it quite clear that he was fanatically devoted to Lincoln, and not just a random sadist. In any case, the character’s late film volte-face is entirely unconvincing.) Harry Carey, the star of a string of John Ford-helmed silent westerns, plays the Fort Jefferson C.O. in his only sound performance for the director. Francis Ford also appears.
Project: Kill (1976)
Girdler! Nielsen! Lockwood! Kwan! Diaz! My friends, I do believe I have reached the point where I can say without irony, Don’t you miss the seventies? This first collaboration between long-time buddies William Girdler and Leslie Nielsen sees the latter cast as John Trevor, the head of a covert government operation that, between training and drugs, churns out robotic killers, ostensibly as body-guards, but in fact, as Trevor belatedly accepts, as assassins. Unable to take any more, Trevor threatens to blow the lid on the operation and then flees to Manila, hoping that some old friends, also government operation casualties, will be able to help him avoid his manifest destiny. Meanwhile, Trevor’s second-in-command, Frank Lassiter (Gary Lockwood), is ordered to stop him—one way or the other… Project: Kill is a painfully uneven effort that never quite reaches the heights of hilarity that we might have expected, given its premise and its Leslie-Nielsen-dead-straight component. Still, it has its moments, and in that inimitable seventies way, it reeks of paranoia and cynicism. The combined clumsiness of the screenplay and some of the performances is both the film’s nemesis and its saving grace. Flubbed lines abound, most deliriously, Leslie Nielsen’s early film declaration that his students will learn to make a deadly weapon out of anything, “From toenail-clippings to a briefcase”. No, really: I listened twice, and he definitely says –ings, not –ers. Co-star Gary Lockwood does in fact beat somebody up with a briefcase later on but, alas, the film never makes good on the other half of that implicit promise. (Cue mental images of Monty Python’s “Self-Defence Against Fresh Fruit” sketch.) Flanked by the Filipino police, who are fed a line of bull about stolen treasury plates to secure their co-operation, and some supposedly Chinese mobsters, who want the secret of the drugs that the US government uses to produce its killers, Trevor and Lassiter close in on one another, each leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. The film’s climax is their inevitable showdown. One can only gaze in awe at a film that dares to cast a couple of pudgy white guys as the world’s deadliest hands-on killers; but when those pudgy white guys, clad in the height of seventies anti-fashion, face off in the slowest, most awkwardly staged kung-fu fight imaginable, well, it’s a sight to make the heart soar. For what it’s worth, Nielsen was in better shape than Lockwood, although both men have prominent love-handles. Lockwood also comes accessorised by what looks like history’s worst toupee, but given that he punctuates any dramatic declaration or action by violently flipping his hair back, I guess it can’t have been. Nancy Kwan, one of this film’s pre-production selling points, is pretty much wasted as the woman who embarks on a doomed love affair with Trevor. The head of the, ahem, Chinese mob is played by Vic Diaz – obviously. There was a statute on the books at that time making it illegal to produce any film in the Philippines without casting Vic Diaz, wasn’t there? Intended for an international cinema release, Project: Kill went missing-in-action for many years after its intended distributor became the victim of a mob-style hit.
Prom Night (1980)
One of the inadvertent consequences of the current noxious trend of PG-rated slasher movies is that films like Prom Night, which twenty years ago was an irredeemable piece of trash, now looks like a perfectly respectable piece of film-making. As slasher movies go, though, this one is pretty weak tea. It starts well enough with the traditional trauma scene, in which Robin Hammond (Tammy Bourne) is accidentally killed during a children’s game turned nasty. The other parties involved swear eternal silence – and we know how well that always turns out, right? Six years later, as Alexander Hamilton High School prepares for its prom – an event that happens to coincide with the anniversary of Robin’s death – the guilty parties begin to receive threatening phone-calls… After that opening sequence, it is a full hour until the film’s first kill – chiefly because its bare plot bones are swiped from Halloween, as well as its leading lady, and the pairing-up of a cop and a shrink, which here amounts to very little. Amusingly, however, Prom Night’s most egregious thieving is from Carrie: the prom (duh!), the high school bitch-princess plotting against the King and Queen, the involvement of the gym teacher… The majority of this is ultimately irrelevant, except as a setting. The film is overly discreet, one must say, in respect to both its violence and its nudity; and despite its hilariously matter-of-fact roll-out of a list of suspects – escaped maniac? check; creepy groundskeeper with power tool? check; suspicious hangers-on suffering various degrees of disgruntlement? check – the killer’s identity is never in much doubt. The film’s main pleasures are chiefly incidental to the action. Leslie Nielsen, top-billed as Principal Hammond, really has no more than a glorified cameo (and we know what that usually means in films like this…mwoo-ha-ha!); but we do get to see him tuxedo-ed and getting down on the dance-floor; and if that doesn’t float your boat, how about Jamie Lee Curtis in a hideously unflattering dress proving that She Is The Dancing Queen, opposite a partner in a prom suit with lapels to rival Homer Simpson’s? (Prom Night was released one month after Can’t Stop The Music; and if that monstrosity hadn’t dealt disco its death-blow, this certainly would have done. “Disco Madness”, indeed.) The film’s killings, with one exception – although, granted, that one exception is a very big exception – are neither explicit nor particularly memorable; but the killer’s identity, while not unexpected, carries with it a genuine emotional resonance, particularly given the circumstances surrounding its revelation. Actually, Prom Night is more interesting on a dramatic level than it is as a slasher – how often can you say that? – and the most interesting thing about it is its approach to sex, particularly as the representative of a sub-genre often condemned, and sometimes justly, for a reactionary “have sex and die” attitude. What Prom Night delivers is something more realistic, and considerably more level-headed; something that, in this context, is probably deserving of a closer examination…and one day, might just get one.
Read El Santo’s review of Prom Night here.
Q Planes (1939)
Death rays were everywhere during the twenties and thirties; and Q Planes posits that a device that Marconi was working on at the time of his death, capable of “stopping a car motor at twenty-five yards”, has been perfected by An Unspecified Foreign Power, who are using it to bring down planes carrying new technology, which is then appropriated. (You’d think that people who could build a death ray could develop their own technology, but never mind.) Government operative Charles Hammond (Ralph Richardson) is convinced that the disappearance of experimental planes all over the world is far from coincidental, but he has trouble convincing either his superiors or Barrett (George Merritt), the head of the British firm under threat. A plane supposedly carrying a new supercharger is sent up and, in mid-flight, has its engines and its radio cut out. Preparing to bail out, the crew is relieved to see a salvage boat on the waters below; they coast to a belly landing and wait for rescue… The disappearance of a second Barrett & Wade plane and its crew drives test pilot Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier) almost to his breaking point, particularly when he discovers that the cafeteria worker, Kay (Valerie Hobson), with whom he has been carrying out a somewhat prickly flirtation, is an undercover reporter – and Charles Hammond’s sister. Hammond, McVane and Kay join forces, with the truth about the “salvage boat” discovered just too late to stop McVane taking up a third plane, determined to learn his colleagues’ fate by offering himself as bait… Q Planes contrives an “action hero” climax for Laurence Olivier, during which half a dozen British aviators (rather improbably captured rather than killed) manage to escape and overcome the entire crew of the salvage boat – take that, Unspecified Foreign Power! – but this is Ralph Richardson’s film all the way, as he has enormous fun playing a silly duffer who really isn’t. This is, in fact, an incongruously light-hearted offering, considering not just its subject matter, but the year of its production. Still, let’s not forget that one of the most popular British films of the same year centred on a threatened German invasion of England, and yet managed to make the German spy sent to bring that invasion about the sympathetic character. Ya gotta love the British.
Rachel And The Stranger (1948)
Hunter Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum) visits the farm of his friend David Harvey (William Harvey), only to discover that David’s wife, the woman they both loved, has died, leaving him with their young son. David struggles on alone for several months, finally concluding gloomily that he needs a woman around the place, both for chores and to raise the young Davey (Gary Gray). David rides to the nearest stockade town, begging help from Parson Jackson (Tom Tully). The parson suggests that David buy bondservant Rachel (Loretta Young) from her present master – warning him, however, that he will have to marry her, as they cannot live together at the isolated farm otherwise. David reluctantly agrees, while Rachel’s opinion isn’t asked. After the hastily arranged wedding, David and Rachel return to the farm, where Rachel must struggle with the harshness of frontier life, her step-son’s hostility, and her husband’s indifference. Matters change abruptly, however, when Jim Fairways turns up without warning and invites himself for a visit. With growing resentment, David watches Jim’s attentions to Rachel, and her blossoming under them – and another romantic triangle begins to form… Rachel And The Stranger is a hard film to categorise. It isn’t a western, although it climaxes with an Indian raid. It isn’t a romance, since its central couple spend most of the film oblivious to one another. It certainly isn’t an action film, since most of its “drama” involves three people running a farm. It isn’t even historical in the usual sense, never getting away from the day-to-day life of the frontiersman-farmer, whatever might be going on in the bigger world. It does, however, draw an absorbing picture of the hard realities of the pioneer life: the quiet courage of those undertaking it; the bitter isolation of it; and the pragmatism needed to survive it. When David rides into town after numerous months, the parson greets him with an inquiry after his wife; by the end of the conversation, he’s arranging a second marriage for him. Rachel And The Stranger is perhaps most interesting in its examination of the eternal question of “what women want” – or rather, of what, in dangerous times, constitutes a desirable husband. The screenplay stresses the intelligence of both Rachel and her predecessor, then has both women make the same romantic choice: the unimaginative but dependable David over the attractive and insightful but footloose Jim. The film is most thoughtful in its handling of David. There is a certain ironic distance kept – the screenplay is entirely in sympathy with Rachel’s growing exasperation at David’s obtuseness – but it isn’t unkind, making it clear that most of his myopia stems from the simple fact that he is still mourning his wife, and that his unnecessarily brusque treatment of Rachel is due not to any innate unkindness, but from an involuntary resentment of her simply for being a woman, but not the right woman. (There’s a wonderful moment when David comes suddenly upon Rachel with her hair down and looking quite stunning. He eyes her for a moment and then says crossly, “You sure do have a lot of hair.” We infer that the late Mrs Harvey kept hers cropped.) Having firmly established David’s indifference to Rachel, the film allows itself a little discreet fun on the dreaded subject of s-e-x. After outlining Rachel’s duties with respect to the farm and the boy, David adds that there will be, “A few other things”. “Figured there would be,” responds Rachel grimly, gritting her teeth – only to have the oblivious David start talking about his late wife’s flower garden and her plans for paving stones. All this changes when Jim Fairways turns up out of the blue and, in effect, starts courting Rachel under David’s very nose – and the increasingly indignant David finds himself looking at her through Jim’s eyes. All three of this film’s stars were at the top of their game here. Loretta Young, gorgeous in colour, was fresh off her Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter, while Robert Mitchum had, over the preceding two years, earned his stardom with a series of strong performances. William Holden, at this time still making his reputation and two years away from his break-out performance in Sunset Boulevard, nevertheless holds his own against his high-powered co-stars with a shaded performance that manages to make David as sympathetic as he is frustrating.
Raiders Of Ghost City (1944, 13 chapters)
Towards the end of the Civil War, Captain Steve Clark (Dennis Moore) of the Secret Service is sent to California to investigate the hijacking of gold shipments intended for the Union by a band of Confederates led by Captain Clay Randolph (Regis Toomey), a West Point classmate of Clark’s. Enemy agents become aware of Clark, and even before he gets near California he owes his life to one “Idaho” Jones (Joe Sawyer), a Wells Fargo detective sent west to investigate the murder of his predecessor, whose daughter, Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay), now runs the Wells Fargo office in Oro Grande. It soon transpires that the Confederates themselves are being used; that the raiders supposedly working with Clay Randolph are actually in the employ of Alex Morel (Lionel Atwill), a local saloon owner harbouring a deadly secret. Randolph discovers the truth, but is killed before he can tell Clark. His only clue a number of coins from different countries, all bearing the date 1752, Clark teams with Idaho and Cathy to thwart the gold raiders and to reveal their secret identities… This is for the most part a serviceable serial, filled with the usual gun-play, dashing back and forth and death traps. (My favourite is when Steve Clark is trapped in a wooden container that is filling with water. Do try not to notice that his mouth is still above the surface when the container starts to overflow.) However, it takes on additional interest through its integration of real historical events, sometimes outrageously inaccurately, sometimes closer to the mark. As part of the raiders’ schemes, they try to stir the local Indians to revolt; they are held in check by the promise of a personal message from “the Great White Chief”, only that message never comes: it is April, 1865. Having the characters react to Lincoln’s assassination gives an unexpected depth to the later stages of this serial, which is also put to immediate dramatic purpose: Clark needs desperately to send a telegram, but cannot get it through: the wires, coast to coast, are jammed with the dreadful news. While consistently entertaining, over its final few chapters this serial really builds up a head of steam, becoming suspenseful and exciting as the long-threatened Indian revolt finally happens, and the final showdown between the good guys and the bad guys takes place. Dennis Moore is a serviceable hero, and Wanda McKay a fair heroine (she’s more the “dashing to get help” kind than the “pitch in” kind, but at least she’s not a fainter); but no-one can compete with yet another pitch-perfect villainous performance from Lionel Atwill as Morel – although he is well-supported by Virginia Christine as Trina Dressard, a saloon singer who never gets further into a song that the first four bars. Perhaps we should be grateful. Of course these two have a terrible secret; and it is (this being made in 1944) that they are, ahem, Prussians; and that their mission is to use the stolen American gold to buy Alaska from the Russians. Cheek!
The Rains Of Ranchipur (1952)
Unhappily married and coldly promiscuous Edwina Esketh (Lana Turner) accompanies her husband, Lord Allen Esketh (Michael Rennie), to the Indian province of Ranchipur. While Allen is buying horses from the Maharani (Eugenie Leontovich), Edwina meets and embarks upon a passionate affair with the local surgeon-saint, Dr Rama Safti (Richard Burton). Obstacles arise first in human form, with violent opposition from the Maharani and Safti’s best friend, Tom Ransome (Fred MacMurray), and later as Acts of God, with flooding rain, a collapsing dam and an earthquake tearing the lovers apart. While The Rains Of Ranchipur probably comes under the general heading of “unnecessary re-make”, it isn’t completely without merit. Where this version scores points is in its refusal to shy away from the fact that Edwina is, in fact, a thoroughly nasty bit of work, a real use-’em-and-dump-’em type who bought her husband for his title and gets her kicks by humiliating him. Where it stumbles is in not spending nearly enough time – as The Rains Came, conversely, intelligently does – on the critical period between the meeting, and instant physical attraction, of Edwina and Safti, and the time when they are “in love”. Consequently, Edwina’s reformation is never really convincing. However, the film’s frankness about the nature of the relationship between the two is very daring considering when it was made: this is the earliest film I know of to depict consensual physical contact between a white woman and an Asian or a Eurasian man—even if it is Burton in brownface. As we B-Masters learned during our “So Sorry” Roundtable, the later a piece of racial impersonation comes, the more offensive it seems; and certainly Burton’s character here jars in a way that Tyrone Power’s did not. Perhaps it’s the colour photography? In truth, they don’t darken Burton too much; just enough to make his blue eyes distractingly obvious. (Speaking of racial impersonation: the white actor smothered in dark make-up and playing the local chief of police is none other than John Banner.) Also startling is Edwina’s admission that, had she succeeded in seducing Safti at the outset, he would have been just one more notch on her belt, a memory of “the one with brown skin”; and that the Maharani’s rage against Edwina, for all that she refers to Safti as “her son”, is obviously provoked by sexual jealousy. The other interesting aspect of this version is that it was a contemporary production, its events therefore taking place after India’s liberation. Thus we learn that Safti has spent time in jail as a follower of Ghandi; while the Maharani is only a figurehead, a relic of earlier days with no real power. Other updatings do not work as well, particularly not the substitution of a post-war-lost-idealist Tom Ransome for the wastrel-younger-son-packed-off-to-India Ransome of The Rains Came. The Rains Of Ranchipur is, finally, less a good film than a film of good moments. I am particularly fond of the reaction of the Christian missionary who has nursed Edwina through a near-fatal illness to the arrival of Safti at her bedside: a beaming smile and a cheerful, “She’ll be all right now that you’re here!” I do like my missionaries broadminded, don’t you? But the highlight, undoubtedly, is when the news of Edwina’s illness reaches Safti via her cuckolded husband. “In his ignorance,” says Esketh with infinite bitterness, “the messenger came to me instead of to you…”
Rancho Notorious (1952)
Fritz Lang’s third and final venture into the realm of the western is one strange film. Mild-mannered ranch hand Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) becomes another of Lang’s revenge-driven loners after his fiancée is raped and murdered. A faint trail of clues leads him to a former showgirl named Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) and a mysterious place known as Chuck-A-Luck. Learning that jailed outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) is Altar’s lover, Vern breaks him out, accompanying him to Chuck-A-Luck, which turns out to be a ranch and gambling saloon where Altar offers safe refuge to outlaws, at the price of a cut of their hauls. Posing as an outlaw himself, Vern becomes convinced that one of the men hiding out at Chuck-A-Luck is the one he seeks – but which one? At first glance, Rancho Notorious seems to sit comfortably amongst the many dark and revisionist westerns that emerged during the 1950s, which use long-established genre tropes as a means to explore the psychology of their characters; but there is a certain mocking air about this film – particular in its use of the de rigueur theme song, with William Lee warbling about “Hate! Murder! And Revenge!” at irregular intervals throughout – which suggests that Lang took his western less seriously than many of his contemporaries did theirs. This may perhaps also be seen in the fact that Vern Haskell never quite loses his grip upon his reality in the way that many of Lang’s dark protagonists tend to do. True, in posing as an outlaw, Vern begins to behave like an outlaw; and in pretending to fall for Altar, to an extent he does, even though in doing so, he sails perilously close to betraying his friendship for Frenchy. But when he comes across the evidence he needs and knows who brutalised and murdered his girl, the pieces all fall back into place. Although less emotionally exhausting than most of Lang’s films, Rancho Notorious is infused with a sense of loss and regret that makes it rather moving, particularly in its constant evoking of Destry Rides Again, and its merciless reminders of the thirteen-years-younger Marlene Dietrich. At the same time, Lang does allow an unusual (for him) degree of sympathy for his characters to emerge as their fate catches up with them. This is particularly true with regard to the central triangle: Frenchy can only look on helplessly as Altar begins to fall, not so much for Vern himself, but for the could-have-been he represents. (Go away,” Altar tells Vern in the film’s signature line, “and come back ten years ago.”) Mel Ferrer gives one of his most effective performances as Frenchy, while amongst the supporting cast, George Reeves stands out as the outlaw upon whom Vern’s suspicions fasten.
As America’s involvement in WWI escalates, the military suffers severe losses of their transports due to the enemy’s interception of their secret codes. A search is under way for the author of the definitive text on encryption and decryption, in the hope that his recruitment will allow the creation of an unbreakable code; but the government has no luck in finding the book’s pseudonymous author until Bill Gordon (William Powell), a former international correspondent newly inducted into the army, confides a secret to the girl he is falling in love with, Joel Carter (Rosalind Russell) – whose Uncle John (Samuel S. Hinds) just happens to be the Assistant Secretary of War. On the verge of his departure for France, a furious Bill is co-opted into the War Department, where he finds himself in a desperate race to crack the enemy’s codes and unearth a spy ring based in Washington, before more troop transports can be torpedoed… Rendezvous is a fair spy thriller almost ruined by an astonishingly unfunny performance from Rosalind Russell, here playing one of the most unbearable characters ever passed off as a film’s “heroine”. Of course, this was 1935; a few years later, no American film would have dreamed of finding humour in a girl pulling strings to get her boyfriend kept from active war duty, nor indeed in her interfering in his work at every opportunity, when any delay in his cracking the enemy’s code will mean the death of thousands of young Americans. Truthfully, it is unlikely whether Joel’s blinkered and selfish obsession with Bill Gordon would have been funny at any time, but in context it is quite horrifying. One wonders how grafting (alleged) screwball humour onto a story about the sinking of troop ships could ever have seemed like a good idea. However, when Joel is out of the picture and the film concentrates on its dramatic content, it remains engaging, particularly the extended game of cat-and-mouse between Bill and a charming lady spy, Olivia Karloff (Binnie Barnes); the tension being significantly heightened by the fact that neither of the combatants knows quite as much about the other as they think they do. Rendezvous is also bolstered by a fine supporting cast, including Lionel Atwill and a very young and dashing Cesar Romero.
The Return Of Doctor X (1939)
“Interesting stuff, blood.” Rookie reporter Walt Garrett (Wayne Morris) is sent to interview stage actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys), but finds her stabbed to death – although strangely, there is no blood. Intent on establishing himself professionally, Garrett breaks the story in his paper before alerting the police, and when they do belatedly investigate, the body is gone. Not just gone: the next morning, Garrett and his editor are confronted with an ill-looking but definitely alive Angela Merrova, who threatens a lawsuit. The bewildered Garrett takes his case to his friend, Dr Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan). Their investigation leads them to a second murder, where the blood at the scene isn’t blood, and to researcher Dr Flegg, whose oddly pallid assistant bears a strange resemblance to a man executed for murder some years previously… The Return Of Doctor X gets badmouthed a lot, but I find it both hilarious and fascinating: fascinating, because of what it reveals of the state of medicine at the time, with blood groups “1, 2, 3 and 4”, and professional blood donors, on call to be present during operations, because no-one had figured out how to store blood for transfusion. And hilarious because of, well, everything else! Like all Warners horror films, this one is acutely uncomfortable about being a horror film in the first place, and for the most part plays out like a straight mystery, with a puzzled reporter trying to make sense of things. But the reveal, when it comes, makes it all worthwhile: mad science, artificial blood, the living dead, and Humphrey Bogart in his only horror role! And never, my friends, never will you see any actor more embarrassed in a part than Bogart is here, with his deathly (heh!) white face, a skunk stripe in his hair, and a bunny rabbit to cuddle. John Litel is the mad scientist (doctor, actually) who brings Marshall Quesne, aka Maurice Xavier, aka Doctor X, back from the dead so that he can have access to his brilliant scientific theories…and never mind that in life, those theories led Doctor X to starve a number of children to death! Despite its title, The Return Of Doctor X has to connection to Doctor X. On the other hand, in his makeup here, Humphrey Bogart bears an unmistakeable resemblance to one of the characters in the serial Dick Tracy, made two years earlier.
Ride Lonesome (1959)
A good way to start an argument amongst western buffs is to ask, “Which is the best of the Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher films?” This tense psychological drama is the one for my money. Bounty hunter Scott is escorting callow killer James Best to Santa Cruz for hanging, knowing that his vengeful elder brother Lee Van Cleef is on their heels. Along the way, Scott enters into an uneasy alliance with former outlaws Pernell Roberts and James Coburn, who can win an amnesty for their crimes if they are the ones to deliver Best. The screenplay (by Burt Kennedy) then proceeds to trap its characters, and the viewer, in a moral quagmire, offering up a villain who has committed one of the vilest acts imaginable…only it was a long time ago, and it kind of slipped his mind; a “hero” who hunts men for a living, and who is so consumed by schemes of revenge that he has lost sight of all ethical considerations; and an honourable outlaw who wants nothing more than to go straight and settle down – and if he has to kill a friend to achieve that goal, well, that’s just too bad… We know what to anticipate from Scott and Van Cleef; the unexpected pleasure of Ride Lonesome is the work of its supporting cast, with James Coburn (in his debut) a delight as the loyal but thick-headed Wiley, and a remarkably fine and nuanced performance from Pernell Roberts. At only 73 minutes, Ride Lonesome is a masterpiece of efficiency in story-telling, and a perfect riposte to those people who say they dislike westerns because they’re “simplistic”.
Ring Of Fire (1961)
Two deputies in a small Oregon town arrest three young adults wanted over a gas station hold-up. On the road to the sheriff’s station, the female of the trio, Bobbie Anderson (Joyce Taylor), manages to slip a concealed gun to Frank Henderson (Frank Gorshin). Steve Walsh (David Janssen) offers himself as a hostage on condition that his partner, who is married with children, is released. As the local sheriff (Ron Myron) gathers a posse consisting of the local loggers, the criminals and their hostage abandon their car and proceed on foot ever deeper into the woods. The tension of the situation continues to escalate, due to Roy Anderson’s (James Johnson) drinking and temper, Bobbie’s teasing advances to Steve, and Frank’s insistence on smoking, at the height of the driest summer the area has ever known… Ring Of Fire is an uneven but interesting action / adventure film. It suffers particularly from its dialogue – way too many “Daddy-O”-s and such – but it is consistently interesting, and the climactic fire sequence is spectacular and frightening. After several feints – the hostage situation, the hijacking of a car, the near shooting of a motorcycle cop, the uneasy relationship between kidnappers and hostage, the former reliant upon the latter’s woodcraft for their survival – the story begins to focus upon the intriguing but worrying relationship that develops between Steve and Bobbie, the latter of whom taunts and ridicules Steve, but twice saves his life from her trigger-tempered and far more hardened criminal associates. (It all starts when Bobbie sneers at Steve for not searching her. He tells her that it’s policy not to search females. “In spite of the risk?” “Because of the risk.”) Despite his profession, Steve has evidently led a fairly sheltered life; he is appalled by the grim details that Bobbie casually reveals about herself. She, in turn, hardly knows how to respond to someone who is, all too obviously, the first decent man she’s ever met. (It is implied – pretty clearly, considering when this was made – that Bobbie has no idea how to relate to a man other than sexually.) Steve, on the other hand, knows very well that he’s being played, but wants very much to believe that Bobbie isn’t as bad as she seems. At the critical moment we get a fade to black. We know what that usually means, of course – but here it takes on a whole new importance when the newly re-arrested Frank takes revenge on Steve by revealing that Bobbie is only seventeen and accusing him of statutory rape. All of this, however, and a great deal more, becomes essentially irrelevant when Frank’s discarded cigarette sets off a tinder-box in the woods, forcing the entire population of a town to be evacuated. The only way out is a train belonging to a logging company, which is forced to travel over a rickety wooden bridge, around which the flames are already growing… There are some good performances here, particularly from David Janssen and Frank Gorshin; although from my point of view the most interesting thing about this film is how much more likeable Joyce Taylor is playing a bad girl here than she was playing the heroine of Atlantis, The Lost Continent the same year. The location photography is very beautiful – this was partially set and shot in Olympic National Park – and, evidently, the remains of the train and the bridge from the climax still lie at the bottom of a gorge along the Wynoochee River in Washington State.
Romance In Manhattan (1935)
Karel Novak (Francis Lederer) arrives at Ellis Island to be greeted by the news that while he was in transit, the American authorities raised the sum necessary for an immigrant to enter the country from $50 to $200. Faced with being sent back to Czechoslovakia, the desperate Novak jumps overboard, swimming ashore in New York but losing his money in the process. At first too overwhelmed by his surroundings to worry about his circumstances, hunger finally drives Novak to steal the leftovers from a meal put out for the cast of a Broadway show. Caught by chorus girl Sylvia Dennis (Ginger Rogers), Novak convinces her of both his need and his sincerity. Sylvia takes Novak home with her, lending him blankets so that he can sleep on the roof of her apartment building. Novak sets about earning the $200 he needs to stay in the country; while Sylvia has problems of her own, as she is threatened with losing custody of her young brother, Frankie (Jimmy Butler), who plays truant from school in order to earn money as a news-boy. Novak and Sylvia begin to fall in love, as the authorities begin to close in on them both… Romance In Manhattan is a charming yet rather curious little film. At first glance one of the many “American rapture” movies that proliferated at the time, at closer inspection the film is more clear-eyed and critical than you might anticipate. For example, Karel Novak’s constant acclamation of his new home is cruelly undercut by a subplot involving a shyster who cleans him out and then turns him in to Immigration. There are also some points that probably look different in retrospect than they did at the time. Novak finds employment as a cab-driver; when a strike is called, he immediately hires himself out as scab labour, an act interpreted only as a praiseworthy willingness to work. No thought that unionism and striking might be among the American freedoms that Novak has been eulogising ever intrudes. This interlude is rather at odds with the “one for all” feel that otherwise permeates this Depression-era production, as Novak, Sylvia and Frankie pitch in to help one another out. But neither Novak nor Sylvia can evade their respective nemeses forever; and it takes an unlikely Deus ex machina in the shape of the nicest, friendliest, most corrupt group of New York cops ever to save the day. This was one of Ginger Rogers’ most important early roles, and the shifting moods of the story allow her to show her range. Francis Lederer, an underrated actor, is very appealing as Novak. Lederer’s own range would allow him, over the course of a long career, to move from romantic and comedic parts, as here, to convincing horror movie roles in films such as The Return Of Dracula and Terror Is A Man…although his most frightening performance would come in Jean Renoir’s version of Diary Of A Chambermaid.
Rome Express (1932)
The eponymous train speeds between Paris and Rome with a motley collection of travellers on board, among them the perpetrator of a startling art theft (Donald Calthrop). Unfortunately for him, the two confederates that he is betraying (Conrad Veidt and Hugh Williams) are also on the train…and unfortunately for all three of them, the mild-mannered, fussy, eccentric entomologist down the carriage (Frank Vosper) turns out to be one of the leading detectives from the Sûreté… Drawn into the conflict are a number of the other passengers, all of whom have something to hide, including the movie star with a dark past (Esther Ralston), the adulterous wife who’s having second thoughts (Joan Barry), and the avaricious, cold-blooded “philanthropist” (Cedric Hardwicke) and his worm-may-turn secretary (Eliot Makeham). This is the great grand-daddy of all train thrillers and, for screenwriter Sidney Gilliat, a dry run for The Lady Vanishes six years later, which takes everything but its central situation from this film. (Train-ophile Gilliat also worked on the first version of The Ghost Train and the comedy thriller Seven Sinners.) The film is also important for initiating the British career of Conrad Veidt, who exudes menacing charm as the leader of the criminal gang. Great fun.
Scene Of The Crime (1949)
Off-duty detective Edward Monigan (G. Pat Collins) is shot and killed, apparently while guarding an illegal bookie shop. The discovery of a roll of cash on the body seems to confirm that Monigan was a cop gone bad. Monigan’s former partner, Mike Conovan (Van Johnson), is put in charge of the investigation, along with his current partner, Fred Piper (John McIntire), and rookie detective C.C. Gordon (Tom Drake). The investigation sees Conovan caught in the middle of a dangerous street war, a situation that puts intolerable pressure upon his marriage to Gloria (Arlene Dahl), a model; pressure increased still more when Conovan is forced by circumstances to pretend to romance Lili (Gloria DeHaven), the exotic dancer-girlfriend of one of his suspects… Emanating from the same MGM B-unit that gave us Kid Glove Killer and Mystery Street, Scene Of The Crime maintains the gritty, noir-ish feel of its companion films but trades in forensic science for the police procedural. There is some difficulty about accepting Van Johnson as a tough-talking, two-fisted homicide detective; but the biggest problem here is that – good old MGM! – the film so gosh-darn polite, giving us a strip club where no-one takes their clothes off (Gloria DeHaven’s Lili actually has more on by the end of her act!), and some truly ludicrous “street language”: when a stoolie known as The Sleeper (Norman Lloyd) uses the word “stinkin’” in front of Gloria Conovan, he feels compelled to apologise for it. Still, while the specifics of the film seem horribly clichéd these days – truthfully, this is to Police Squad as Zero Hour! is to Flying High – there are plenty of memorable moments in this that, for good or ill, keep you watching. The best, perhaps, is a throwaway remark from aggrieved private eye P.J. Pontiac (Robert Gist), after Conovan and Piper rescue him from the most recent in a line of beatings, blaming his professional woes on Humphrey Bogart: “He takes a punch and comes up smiling; I take a punch and come up pickled.” On the other hand, what on earth are we to make of a line of dialogue like, “Careful, Mr. Wiggly, or you’ll have thirteen fish to fry and no little wormies to catch them with”? Whatever else it is, Scene Of The Crime is a fascinating look back at old-school policing: at the time when there was no such thing as that pesky “probable cause”; when breaking and entering was all in a day’s work; when an uncooperative suspect could be “persuaded” to talk by a scalding cup of coffee in the face. (To be fair, Conovan doesn’t actually do that; but by the way The Sleeper recoils when the detective picks up his coffee, we see clearly that he, at least, has been down that road before.) Yet for all its clichés, this film is unexpectedly progressive in its depiction of the Conovan marriage. Of course, all the usual problems and conflicts are there, and towards the end Gloria does decide (briefly) that she can’t take it any more; but underneath, the details are fascinating. Mike and Gloria have been married for four years, yet Gloria is still working, and is never criticised for doing so. She’s a model, and certainly earning more than Mike, a point that never comes up; nor do we ever catch the faintest hint of wounded male ego from Mike. An ex-boyfriend of Gloria’s, a millionaire businessman, is still hanging around on the fringes; his presence annoys Mike, but it never occurs to him to be jealous, or to doubt Gloria. Matching her man, Gloria’s trust in Mike is absolute – even when he cancels on her to take Lili out nightclubbing – and he, in turn, proves entirely worthy of that trust. This is one of the most interesting, and heartening, marriages to be found in a film of this era, a real partnership of equals. The rest of Scene Of The Crime might be by-the-book stuff, but here it makes a worthy effort to break a little new ground.
Shadow On The Wall (1950)
David Starrling (Zachary Scott) begins to suspect that his second wife, Celia (Kristine Miller), is involved with another man, Crane Wymouth (Tom Helmore), who is the fiancé of her sister, Dell Faring (Ann Sothern). Finding evidence of an affair, David threatens Celia with a gun. She lashes out at him with a silver hand-mirror and knocks him unconscious. At that moment, Dell returns to the apartment to confront her sister over Crane – and ends up shooting Celia dead with David’s gun. As Dell slips away, David’s young daughter, Susan (Gigi Perreau), hidden in the shadows, screams and screams… David is convicted of Celia’s murder and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, the traumatised Susan is placed under the care of child psychologist Dr Caroline Cranford (Nancy Davis), who begins to suspect that the girl saw something on the night of the murder that, could she be brought to remember it, might prove David’s innocence. Dr Cranford confides her suspicions to the girl’s one remaining relative—Dell Faring… This is an effective and often disturbing little thriller. Its strongest point is the shifting character of Dell. At the outset sympathetic despite her impulsive killing of Celia, and even when she cannot find the courage to confess after David’s conviction, once Dell realises that Susan may be able to finger her as the real killer – and makes up her mind to do something about silencing her – this film moves into some unusually dark territory. This was an uncharacteristic role for the usually bubbly Sothern, and you get the feeling that she appreciated the change of pace. Gigi Perreau, aged only nine, is effective as the beleaguered Susan, particularly in the scene when she is taken to visit her father – and displays a complete lack of emotion. Jimmy Hunt also has a small role as a fellow patient of Susan’s, who very nearly becomes the accidental victim of one of Dell’s murderous schemes. Apart from its thriller aspects, Shadow On The Wall is another of the numerous post-war “justification of psychiatry” films, with Nancy Davis scoring as the dedicated Dr Cranford. It’s interesting how often in these films the psychiatrist is a woman. Of course, from a modern standpoint, the scariest thing about this film is the circumstances of David’s conviction and near-execution: these days, five minutes in the apartment for any halfway decent CSI team is all it would take to blow the entire “David” theory out of the water. C’est la morte.
She-Gods Of Shark Reef (1958)
Lee Johnston (Don Durant) – not his real name – flees the scene of a botched arms theft and the killing of a security guard and heads for the home of his brother, Christy (Bill Cord), on the far side of the Big Island, The two make a run for it in Christy’s boat, but a hurricane drives them onto a reef, where the two become entangled in kelp and almost drowned. Their lives are saved by the inhabitants of a small island, who pull them from the water. The two men discover that this island is the base of a pearl-diving operation, and that the female divers and their supervisor, Pua (Jeanne Gerson), are the only inhabitants. The brothers learn that in ten days, a boat from the company will be visiting the island. Lee divides his time between searching for another way off the island, in order to evade capture, and obsessing over the cache of pearls he knows is in Pua’s office, while Christy is attracted to one of the young divers, Mahia (Lisa Montell). Meanwhile, the ocean storms continue and the pearl yield drops; and Pua begins to consider ways of placating Tangaroa, the angry shark-god who lives near the reef… In which Roger Corman takes a holiday in Hawaii, and the rest of us pay for it. After filming Naked Paradise, Corman & Co. stuck around for another few days and slapped together this tepid pseudo-adventure film. In a good print that would show off the scenery, She-Gods Of Shark Reef might be an acceptable time-waster, but as things are, it’s a real slog. Nothing much happens, and no-one is very interesting or likeable; even the usual compensating Corman marginalia is largely absent, although I did find myself increasingly intrigued by the workings of the mysterious “Company”, and the question of whether they deposited these women on this island in the first place, or whether they just removed all the men. As usual when sharks are being offered up as the Big Bad, they come out of it a lot worse than the people do (a knifing scene that I’m hoping was faked; the footage was certainly re-used, so I can give them that); the one on-screen shark attack, which is supposed to be our dramatic climax, is pretty ridiculous . There are a few other amusing touches along the way here – like the single flag semaphore system, and the stone head supposed to represent Tangaroa the shark-god – but they’re hardly worth it.
See El Santo’s full review here.
The Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw (1958)
Here’s an embarrassing confession: I love this film! About equidistant between Destry Rides Again and Blazing Saddles sits this good-natured fish-out-of-water comedy, which sees mild-mannered Englishman Kenneth More venturing into the wild, wild west in order to bolster the sales of his family’s long-founded but failing gunsmiths firm, and in the course of a few eventful days, earning himself a reputation as a deadly shot, being appointed sheriff of a frontier town, settling a range war, making peace with and being adopted into the local Indian tribe, and romancing saloon owner Jayne Mansfield – all of it more or less accidentally. Good support is given by Robert Morley, Henry Hull, Bruce Cabot, William Campbell and – as More’s “father” – Chief Jonas Applegarth; while the freakazoid romantic pairing of More and Mansfield works far better than it has any right to – much like the film itself. (“I couldn’t fall for a local idiot,” fumes Mansfield at one point. “I had to go for the international kind.”) No doubt director Raoul Walsh had made enough westerns by this stage in his career to thoroughly enjoy skewering their clichés…but there’s no feeling of contempt for such films here, just a sense of fun. And without wanting to spoil things for anyone, I may say that the closing exchange between More and Mansfield has been a running joke in my household for years.
SOS Coast Guard (1937, 12 chapters)
When the S.S. Carfax is driven onto rocks in a violent storm, decorated Coast Guard Lieutenant Terry Kent (Ralph Byrd) is put in charge of the rescue; his younger brother, Jim (Thomas Carr), is also involved. Reporter Jean Norman (Maxine Doyle), covering the story, recognises one of the rescued passengers as Boroff (Bela Lugosi), an international criminal previously believed dead. Boroff was on his way to the country of Morovania with a secret cache of the radioactive element, amatite, the main component of a deadly “disintegrating gas”. When Boroff flees, Jim Kent pursues him, and is shot dead. An anguished Terry swears to bring Boroff to justice, and to prevent the disintegrating gas falling into the wrong hands… SOS Coast Guard is one of my favourite serials, a lively effort that piles absurdity on top of absurdity, and in the end becomes a battle between the good guys and the bad guys to determine which of them is the more incompetent. (The bad guys win, but only just.) Of course, any serial with Bela as chief bad guy has a good head start – although truthfully we don’t see as much of him as we’d like. (By the way— “Boroff”? The Carfax? Cute.) Still, there are any number of bizarrely twisted plot points here that hold the attention even in Bela’s absence. Take, for instance, Thorg (Richard Alexander), Boroff’s devoted, bald, mute, lobotomised henchman, who spends most of the story stripping off to his swimmers and trying to drown people – mostly Terry Kent, and mostly unsuccessfully. (There’s an underling bad guy whose primary duty seems to be collecting Thorg’s discarded clothing.) It is, of course, revealed that Boroff was the one who lobotomised Thorg in the first place…guess how that relationship ends? Recognised in the first episode, Boroff reacts by adopting a cunning disguise: he shaves off his goatee. “Those fools will never penetrate my disguise!” he later declares, apparently in all seriousness. The absolutely highlight of this serial, however, is the cover adopted by Boroff and his men as they try to salvage the amatite from the sunken ship: they pose as kelp farmers…and this in spite of the fact that none of Boroff’s goons ever wear anything but the standard issue thirties suit, tie and hat. Somehow seeing through this cunning disguise, Terry and Jean visit the dockside warehouse where the “kelp farmers” work, on the pretext of Jean writing a story about kelp farming for her paper. (Alas, we are not privileged to listen in to that interview. I wonder what on earth she asked?) But apart from all these marvels, there is something else that makes SOS Coast Guard stand out from its brethren. There’s an Odious Comic Relief here, of course – of course. It’s Jean’s bumbling photographer, Snapper McGee (Lee Ford), whose schtick consists primarily of his inability ever to get his camera and tripod set up at the right time and right place, complete with much tripping over and falling off places as he backs away to get his shot. None of this is remotely funny, of course – of course. And yet…when Snapper isn’t failing miserably at being amusing, he’s actually, well, useful. Mostly it’s accidental, like when he reveals the whereabouts of the hidden amatite, or discovers how the disintegrating gas is being smuggled out of the country; but sometimes it is actually intentional. For instance, at the end of the first episode, when he and Jean become trapped on the sinking Carfax, Snapper quickly lets off some distress flares. Several other times he either sends for help or helps out himself, putting himself in considerable danger. Anyway, you can imagine my bemusement when, about midway through the third episode, I found myself verbally standing up for the Odious Comic Relief. Loudly. Emphatically. It will be some time before I recover from the shock of it, believe you me… I guess the lesson here is that, even as in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, in a story where everyone is an idiot, the Idiot Savant can come out of it looking okay. As for the others, Ralph Byrd makes an energetic hero, and courageously did his own stunts – although my opinion of him as the worst fake fighter ever is certainly confirmed. Jean Norman is one of those reporters who never actually goes to work (she just follows Terry around: more press agent than reporter); also, she has a brother who’s a scientist, and who naturally contributes much hilarity. (Maxine Doyle would later marry the serial’s co-director, William Whitney.) The bonus for me, though, was the reappearance of John Piccori, the unforgettable Moloch of the serial Dick Tracy. Here he’s Rackerby, a weak-willed scientist pressed into Boroff’s service, and as entertaining as ever. All in all, highly recommended.
Things I Learned From Watching This SerialTM:
1. It sucks to be Ralph Byrd’s brother.
2. In 1937, the Coast Guard was the pre-eminent American law enforcement agency.
3. In 1937, the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction included Hawaii and inland Canada.
4. If boats do not respond to being hailed, it is perfectly legal for the Coast Guard to shell them and blow them and their occupants out of the water.
5. Kelp farmers RULE!!
Quote: “You might as well surrender, Boroff! You can’t get away from the Coast Guard!”
Split Second (1992)
WTF!? “Confusing” barely begins to describe this muddled science fiction outing, which actually challenges The Dark for its sheer inability to make up its mind what it’s about and what its monster is. We know how The Dark got the way it is; Lord knows who was responsible for this mess. It’s “The Future” – and global warming has had its way with the world, resulting in a London that’s flooded, polluted, rat-infested and rife with disease. (This may indeed be one of the earliest examples of the environmental warning sub-genre, but this stuff is only there to look kewl in a distinctly sub-Blade Runner sort of way.) A killer is on the loose, ripping out the hearts of his victims; and apparently in the believe that it takes a psychopath to catch a psychopath, chocolate-munching, caffeine-guzzling, heavy ordnance-toting Harley Stone (Rutger Hauer) is brought back from suspension and teamed up with suit-wearing, university-educated, health food nibbling Dick Durkin (Neil Duncan). They’re the original odd couple! And together, they fight crime! Apparently operating under the delusion that this isn’t quite enough clichés for us to be going on with, the film opens with Stone visiting a strip club. Then we learn that Stone’s partner was killed before his eyes by the same killer. And that Stone was having an affair with his partner’s wife. And that Stone is somehow in psychic contact with the killer. You following all this? Pay attention, I’ll be asking questions. After teasing us with everything from a giant rat to an actual satanic manifestation, the film proceeds to serve up a monster so unabashedly copied from Alien, you almost have to admire its chutzpah. Lost in this mess are Michael J. Pollard, playing exactly the same role after all these years; Pete Postlethwaite; and the late, great Ian Dury. Also, Kim Cattrall shows up in her Undiscovered Country ’do and flashes her boobs in a textbook example of the Gratuitous Shower Scene. Look, I’m not saying that Split Second isn’t entertaining. Just don’t try to make sense of it. Your head might explode.
The Storm (1938)
Close, but no cigar. Had the climax of this film occupied more of its running-time, or if it had not just cut to “afterwards” without resolving anything, I might have made a ruling in the other direction, but as it is I can’t really call this a disaster movie. What it is, unfortunately, is one of those films where the alleged “hero” behaves like a complete arsehole from start to finish, and yet we’re supposed to sympathise with him. Bob Roberts (Charles Bickford), wireless operator for the Globe Steamship Line, is good enough at his job that his employers turn a blind eye to the fact that he is also a drinking, brawling, womanising, completely obnoxious jerk. In England, Roberts catches up with old friend Jack Stacey (Preston Foster) who, since they last met, has married and had a child, and is soon to transfer to a land job. Stacey’s settling down makes Roberts ponder his own footloose existence and his future. The friends’ ships both get caught in fog near a dangerous ice-drift. Captain Kelly (Samuel S, Hinds) takes all precautions in spite of his perishable cargo; but Captain Cogswell (Barton MacLane) presses ahead with disastrous consequences. The Astoria goes to the rescue of the Capricorn, collecting the entire crew from three life-boats—all except Stacey. Cogswell insists that he was killed on board, but Roberts knows from the time of Stacey’s last radio message that Cogswell left him behind… Considering his loss, Roberts is granted a furlough. However, his visit home is marred by the revelation that his kid brother, Jim (Tom Brown), has qualified as a wireless operator and intends to follow in his footsteps. Furthermore, Jim is engaged to Peggy (Nan Grey), a nurse on the Global Line, who, because of a misunderstanding, Roberts believes is a chippy taking advantage of Jim and treats accordingly. Roberts suffers another terrible blow when the Astoria is destroyed in an explosion, just after he transfers off. The final straw is his discovery that Jim and Peggy have both obtained postings on the Orion, and plan to be married at the end of their passage. Roberts arranges a post on the Orion for himself, discovering too late that the captain is Cogswell. Peggy is worried about Jim’s health and tries to persuade him not to sail, but the boy allows Roberts’ jeering to bait him into staying on the job. It is a decision all three will bitterly regret. Jim collapses with acute appendicitis, there is no doctor on board, and the Orion is heading into a savage storm… See? See? But—no, it just doesn’t feel right, in the end; not even when The Storm sets up a scenario of Peggy having to drain Jim’s infected appendix during the storm, via medical advice from shore, with the radio-tower hit by lightning just as she is about to make her incision… The film is worth watching just for this sequence, but be warned: the majority of its running-time is devoted to the thoroughly unlikeable Roberts and his rude, stupid, drunken, violent behaviour.
Surviving The Game (1994)
I’m not sure the world really needed yet another riff on The Most Dangerous Game, but this one benefits from an absurdly good cast: Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, F. Murray Abraham, Charles S. Dutton, and Ice-T as the “prey”. Taking a cue from the previous year’s Hard Target, Surviving The Game has homeless men being sent into the wilderness on the pretext of being hired as hunting guides, only to learn too late that the job description wasn’t entirely accurate. (Although how anyone could find themselves in the middle of nowhere with Rutger Hauer and Gary Busey and not immediately intuit that they’re in deep doo-doo is beyond me.) There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, but of all the versions of The Most Dangerous Game, this is probably the one where you most want to see the hunters get theirs. Anyway, even if you don’t like it, you can at least enjoy the stunning location photography: this is the rare film that has Washington State played by Washington State, and not by British Columbia. (Understand, this is from someone who watches First Blood for the scenery.) And hey! – Charles S. Dutton dies! Aren’t you astonished?
Sword Of The Valiant (1982)
At a Christmas gathering, an old and crusty King Arthur (Trevor Howard) berates his knights for growing lazy and complacent. The festivities are further interrupted by the Green Knight (Sean Connery), who proposes a game: one of those present will strike at him with an axe. If they succeed in decapitating him with one blow, they win; otherwise, he will get one strike back. To the disgust of both Arthur and the Knight, no-one speaks – until Gawain (Miles O’Keeffe), a mere squire, steps forward. After being knighted by the king, Gawain strikes at the Green Knight and severs his head at a blow – then looks on in horrified disbelief as the body picks the head up and re-attaches it. Impressed by Gawain’s courage, the Green Knight stays his hand, giving the young knight a riddle and a year in which to solve it – and a warning that if he fails, the fate deferred will be meted out… Released in the wake of successful fantasy productions such as Excalibur and Conan The Barbarian, Sword Of The Valiant is a pretty minor effort. (It’s a Golan-Globus, which speaks for itself.) A definite product of the “one damn thing after another” school of story-telling, the film suffers badly from the fact that, well, Gawain’s adventures just aren’t that interesting. It’s also badly paced – there’s no sense of time passing, or of Gawain’s gruesome fate drawing ever nearer – and we are given no particular reason to care about Gawain and Linet, whose love story is resolved (sort of) with comical abruptness. Cursed with the worst wig in the history of film-making, and wearing a puffy shirt that could make your eyeballs bleed, Miles O’Keeffe turns Gawain into a “hero” to weep for. His first two acts out in the big wide world are to attempt to kill a unicorn for food (!!), and to realise that he should have asked for instructions on how to “relieve himself” before he put the armour on. It goes downhill from there. The film brightens up a bit with the arrival of Brian Vosper as a criminally inclined friar and John Rhys-Davies (of course) as the evil Baron Fortinbras – a graduate, evidently, of the Brian Blessed School of Bluster – but Peter Cushing is criminally wasted as Fortinbras’ chancellor. Trevor Howard gives us an interesting Arthur, though, and the film is probably worth watching just for the chance to see Sean Connery in green face-paint and spangles. (Of course, those of you who have seen him in a nappy might disagree.)