The Charlatan (1929)
When Florence Talbot (Margaret Livingston) has a reading with the fashionable psychic, Count Merlin (Holmes Herbert), she gets more than she bargained for. Merlin addresses her as “Florence Dwight”, describes her past as a circus performer, and recounts the events of a long-ago night when she ran off with her lover, abandoning her husband but taking their young daughter with her. Of course, there is a good reason “Count Merlin” should know these things… Despite this, Florence is persuaded to invite Merlin to perform his magic act at her party. He agrees, though he knows that the District Attorney, Frank Deering (Crauford Kent), will be amongst the guests, and only too eager to expose him as a fraud: he considers the risk is worth it for the chance to see again the daughter he lost so many years earlier. In fact, the party is cover for Florence’s plan to elope with her married lover, Dr Walter Paynter (Philo McCullough); but the evening comes to an even more shocking conclusion when, after assisting with Merlin’s disappearing-woman act, Florence collapses and dies: she has been poisoned… The Charlatan is very much a transition film. Produced in 1929, it was made as both a silent movie and as a part-talkie; and its staging points forward to the Universal horrors of the 1930s without daring to cross the line, in a manner which resembles that of its contemporary, Paul Leni’s The Last Warning. Though self-evidently based on a play and rather creaky as a consequence, and although “Count Merlin” becomes annoyingly sanctimonious once he reveals himself as Peter Dwight, this is an entertaining little film that manages a number of surprises—not least the way it abruptly morphs from a phony-psychic drama into a full-blooded murder mystery. Masquerading under a false identity, with a long-standing grudge against Florence, and having been overheard threatening her by Ann (Dorothy Gould), who does not know she speaks against her real father, Dwight finds himself in a perilous position when Florence is murdered. Realising that the only way he can clear himself is by exposing the real killer, he therefore undertakes an even more audacious masquerade, which he carries out with the assistance of his three devoted performer-colleagues—and it is one of this film’s delightful touches that the characters who, in any other film, would be “the suspicious foreigners” are actually the good guys! The Charlatan was directed by George Melford and shot by George Robinson, who two years later would team up again on the Spanish-language version of Dracula. Francis Ford has a bit-part as a detective.
The Hole In The Wall (1929)
Fake mediums were evidently all the rage in 1929. Madame Mystera (Nellie Savage) uses her “powers” to lure from society women the nature and whereabouts of their jewellery—information which she passes on to “The Fox” (Edward G. Robinson) and the rest of his criminal gang. When “the Madame” (as her associates call her) is killed in a train crash, The Fox declares regretfully that they’ll have to fold the operation—until chance intervenes. A young woman called Jean Oliver (Claudette Colbert), fresh out of prison, approaches The Fox looking for work – of any kind – and agrees to take on the role of Madame Mystera. In exchange, however, she wants the gang to help her kidnap the young granddaughter of the wealthy Mrs Ramsay (Louise Closser Hale), who framed Jean to break up a budding romance between her and Mrs Ramsay’s son. It is Jean’s intention not to demand ransom, but to bring the child up to be a professional criminal—and then let Mrs Ramsay know what she has done, and why… Though the film is not very good, the early stages of The Hole In The Wall are certainly interesting—particularly the typical pre-Code non-judgemental attitude to the crooks’ activities, including the kidnapping. (The young Miss Ramsay is a sweetheart, and amusingly the crooks fall over themselves being nice to her.) Unfortunately, two bits of monumental stupidity then derail the film as thoroughly as “the Madame’s” train was derailed: a sequence charmingly if not exactly convincingly staged using toy trains. First, after her new friends have gone to the trouble of faking her death, Jean sends a letter to Mrs Ramsay using her own name, and in her own handwriting; and second, it turns out that when the crooks identified the Madame’s dead body as Jean and claimed it, they gave their real address!? After that, we hardly blink at the revelation that crusading crime reporter, Gordon Grant (David Newell), who has noticed that several of the robbery victims visited Madame Mystera shortly before, just happens to have grown up with Jean Oliver, and just happens to remember her handwriting, because it just happens they were once sweet on each other… Even at this early stage of the game, Claudette Colbert’s star power is evident (though her plump cheeks hardly support Jean’s story of starvation and struggle); Edward G. Robinson’s, not so much: it is obvious that Paramount didn’t really know what to do with him, though we note his automatic assignment to a criminal role. The Hole In The Wall is creaky and awkward, as many of these early sound films were, and director Robert Florey doesn’t do much with his material. On the other hand, the art deco set decoration (unfortunately uncredited) is arresting, if largely inappropriate.
Wild Boys Of The Road (1933)
The comfortable, normal life of young Eddie (Frankie Darro) is shattered when his father loses his job and cannot get another. Eddie’s best friend, Tommy (Edwin Phillips), is already living on the edge, his widowed mother just scraping by, by taking in lodgers. The two boys make the drastic decision to leave home, so as to no longer be a burden to their parents, and to head east in the hope of work. They leave Washington State riding the rails—falling in almost immediately with Grace (Rochelle Hudson), who travels disguised as a boy, and who hopes her aunt in Chicago will take her in. As the trains proceed east, the numbers of riders them grow, and grow, and grow…but the hoped-for refuges and work do not materialise, and, increasingly, the towns in which the young people try to rest turn violently upon them… William Wellman’s famous drama about homeless adolescents during the Depression is an angry, provocative, socially critical film—exactly the kind of thing the Production Code was designed to put a stop to, which duly happened. There is a weird dissonance about the film, which is shocking as it stands, infinitely more so when you consider what the reality must have been. Wellman emphasises two points again and again: that far from being, as was often claimed in order to justify the violence used against them by civil authorities, a roving band of criminals, moving cross-country in search of new victims, many of the homeless were from what would be considered “good” homes, ending up on the road either through the pressure of circumstance or by trying to do the right thing; and that, whatever their background and whatever their behaviour, these were children. Many of the film’s most moving scenes show the wanderers forming a de facto family, caring for one another and sharing their meagre spoils, and finding safety in numbers. (The second female member of the gang is raped the moment she is separated from the pack; her “family” dispenses summary justice.) But it is their very numbers that induce fear—leading to a shocking sequence when, after the travellers make a shanty town for themselves in a field of abandoned sewer-pipes (left, we infer, from a construction project where the money ran out), the local police are sent in with fire-hoses to destroy their shelter and drive them away. Wild Boys Of The Road is such a bleak, painful film that we cannot blame William Wellman for contriving a happy ending for his three protagonists (while finding some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the coming of the New Deal); but at the same time, while hope is held out to Eddie, Tommy and Grace—what of the hundreds, thousands of others? The film’s three young stars are very good, while the relationship between the two boys – indomitable Eddie, and shy, perpetual victim Tommy – is deeply touching in its unspoken emotion and mutual support. However, it is perhaps the courageously pugnacious yet caring Grace we most remember, with Rochelle Hudson luminous in spite of her boys’ clothes. (William Wellman must have thought so: he married her.)
It has often been remarked that when Katharine Hepburn first arrived in Hollywood, the studios struggled to know what to do with such a unique personality. If we needed proof of the accuracy of that assertion, we have only to watch this embarrassing religious drama, based on a play by Lula Vollmer, which finds Hepburn cast as Trigger Hicks (!!), an Appalachian (!!!!) faith-healer (!!!!!!). Trigger is a simple, uneducated, back-woods girl—but her prayers, we are given to understand, are so pure and unselfish, God usually listens to them: a situation that has resulted in Trigger having something of a reputation as a healer in her isolated community; although that said, the people are equally ready to turn upon her at any moment and condemn her as a witch—something which duly happens when a baby in her care dies, after her prayers lose their selflessness… New in the district are engineers George Fleetwood (Ralph Bellamy) and John Stafford (Robert Young), who are overseeing the construction of a dam. Fleetwood, unhappily divorced, finds his faith in women being restored by the forthright honesty and simple faith of Trigger; while she, in turn, is drawn to Stafford, who doesn’t bother to tell her he’s married… The young Hepburn is radiantly lovely in this film – absurdly so, given her character’s circumstances – but the pleasure of looking at her is overborne by the pain of listening to her as she fails utterly in her struggle to assume anything like an appropriate accent. In fact, this is surely one of the most egregious pieces of miscasting in the history of Hollywood—though that said, Hepburn is the main, perhaps the only, solid reason to watch this film. Otherwise, the only two points of interest here are the subplot of the dam, foreshadowing the situation in Deliverance (the engineers know very well what the coming of the dam will mean to this isolated community, but a job is a job), and the lovely black cat that Trigger carries around with her, which I’m pleased and relieved to report survives unharmed despite its tacit role in the “witch” storyline.
Star Of Midnight (1935)
Based upon the novel by Arthur Somers Roche. Clay Dalzell (William Powell), though also wounded, is the prime suspect when reporter Tommy Tennant (Russell Hopton) is shot dead in his apartment by an assailant hiding in the next room. It is clear to Dalzell that the killer did not want Tennant to reveal his discoveries about “Mary Smith”, a Broadway star who famously appears masked, and who disappeared in the middle of a performance after being recognised by her former fiancé. Tim Winthrop (Leslie Fenton) had already asked Dalzell to help him find the missing Alice Markham, whose first disappearance was apparently linked to a murder in Chicago. Dalzell’s investigation leads him to an old girlfriend, Jerry Classon (Vivien Oakland), and her new husband, Roger Classon (Ralph Morgan), who knew both the murder victim and the man convicted of his killing. Meanwhile, Winthrop certainly isn’t telling what he knows; and how is gangster Jimmy Kinland (Paul Kelly) connected to the case? Star Of Midnight finds William Powell playing yet another high-society detective, this time lawyer turned amateur sleuth, Clay Dalzell. The resulting film lacks the charm of the “Thin Man” series, and the complexities of the Philo Vance films; but it’s reasonable entertainment. Ginger Rogers hasn’t much to do as Dalzell’s sidekick and aspiring fiancée, Donna Mantin, but she and Powell have chemistry, and both seem to be having a good time. The real strength of the film, however, lies in its supporting performances: Gene Lockhart as Swayne, Dalzell’s long-suffering manservant; J. Farrell MacDonald as Doremus, a surprisingly – in fact, given the film’s production date, astonishingly – intelligent and competent police inspector; and Paul Kelly as crime-boss Kinland, whose “business” the film treats with interesting neutrality, and who forges a mutually respectful working relationship with Dalzell. In the film’s most amusing touch, we learn that Dalzell has the goods on the gangster if he chooses to use them (or if anything happens to him, as he is careful to mention): a cheque endorsed by Kinland, which proves that he did not declare his whole previous year’s income to the IRS!
The Affairs Of Annabel (1938)
This is more or less a post-Code take on the Jean-Harlow-Lee Tracy vehicle, Bombshell; but while Jack Oakie is every bit as annoying as Lee Tracy, Lucille Ball, at least at this early point in her career, is no Jean Harlow. Ball plays Annabel Allison, movie star; Oakie is Lanny Morgan, her studio’s publicity man, whose specialty is cooking up publicity stunts that go spectacularly awry. Wanting to prove that she is “an actress”, not just “a star”, Annabel accepts a role which requires her to play a maid, and also allows herself to be persuaded into preparing for the role by working as a real maid. Barely a day on the job is enough to make Annabel want out, but matters are taken out of her hands when the house in which she is working is chosen by two kidnappers on the run as the ideal hideout… The first half of The Affairs Of Annabel is annoyingly unfunny, consisting mainly of “comical” fights and reconciliations between Annabel and Lanny, who are inevitably if inexplicably in love beneath their veneer of mutual hostility. Things improve once the gangsters appear on the scene, and Annabel indeed gets the chance to prove she’s more than just a pretty face. This film takes plenty of pot-shots along the way at the Hollywood machine, but while this is mildly amusing, there’s not much bite to it. It does, however, allow for a climax in which a Russian émigré director (Fritz Feld), who wants to make movies with, “Realism, realism!” – and has consequently been twiddling his thumbs for six months – gets to “direct” an attempted rescue of Annabel, featuring police-uniform-wearing studio extra wielding blank-loaded guns, much to the bemusement of the gangsters. The Affairs Of Annabel was successful enough to warrant a sequel later the same year, Annabel Takes A Tour.
Full Confession (1939)
As part of his prison duties, Father Loma (Joseph Calleia) takes an interest in perpetual loser, Pat McGinnis (Victor McLaglen), when he tries to get himself sent away from the comparative freedom of a work-camp and back to prison purely so that he can receive visits from his girlfriend, Molly Sullivan (Sally Eilers). Getting to know Molly and seeing what a steadying influence she is on McGinnis, Father Loma supports his application for parole. The authorities aren’t convinced of McGinnis’ reformation, however, and reject the application for at least one month more. Misreading McGinnis’ mood, some of the other prisoners sound him out about their planned escape. When, in pursuit of the required “good behaviour”, he angrily rejects them, they take steps to see that he cannot betray them. Lying close to death, McGinnis confesses to Father Loma that it was he who shot and killed a policeman—a crime for which another of the priest’s flock, family man Michael O’Keefe (Barry Fitzgerald), has been convicted and sentenced to death. An emergency transfusion – of Father Loma’s own blood – saves McGinnis’ life; and to the priest’s horror and dismay, McGinnis then retracts his confession… In a broad, overarching sense, Full Confession plays out exactly as you would expect, right down to Victor McLaglen delivering yet another riff on his Oscar-winning performance in The Informer. However (if Father Loma will forgive the expression), the devil is in the details, and on a plot level the film takes a couple of unexpected turns that elevate it above the completely predictable. Well-meaning but impulsive and not very bright, McGinnis is trying to steal a fur coat as a Christmas present for Molly when he knocks out security guard O’Keefe and takes his gun. Shooting the policeman who sees and pursues him, McGinnis discards the weapon by the body—and immediately commits a different robbery—which gives him an alibi of sorts, since the police look no further than his red-handed arrest. O’Keefe, meanwhile, fails to report the incident, fearing to lose his job— and so becomes the prime suspect in the cop-killing when a later drunk and disorderly puts his fingerprints on record. Father Loma cannot break confession to clear O’Keefe—but there is very little else that he will stick at in his determination to drive McGinnis into giving himself up—until his constant dogging of the unsuspected killer’s steps and interference in his life provoke McGinnis into another desperate act…
Seven Days’ Leave (1942)
Dear lord, how do I even begin to convey the horrors of this one!? By telling you it’s a musical-comedy starring Victor Mature? By telling you it’s the film that “introduced” Arnold Stang? By telling you it’s BOTH AT ONCE?? This is one of those weird 40s films that is essentially novelty act after novelty act, and with lots of “celebrities” playing themselves, the musical / dance / comedy routines occasionally interrupted by what passes for “the plot”. Some of the musical numbers are enjoyable (Les Brown & His Band of Renown and Freddy Martin and His Orchestra appear as themselves), but otherwise this is tortuous, unfunny comedy all the way. Private John Jacob Grey (Victor Mature) learns that he is the heir to the estate of his great-grandfather, a Union General. There’s just one catch: to inherit, he has to marry a great-granddaughter of the General’s once best friend, later mortal enemy, Confederate General Havalock-Allen. Grey’s army buddies pass the hat around to stake him to a trip to New York, while his obliging commanding officer gives him seven days’ leave—plenty of time, the smug Johnny figures, to make a girl he’s never met willing to marry him. Of course, he’s just an ordinary joe, while Terry Havalock-Allen (Lucille Ball) is Park Avenue; and they’re both engaged to somebody else; but Johnny’s not the kind of guy to let details like that stand in his way…
Went The Day Well? (1942)
Adapted from a story by Graham Greene and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, this is both a gripping war drama and an astonishing example of film-as-propaganda. Set at an undetermined point in the future, when the Germans have been defeated, but made at a time when the outcome of the war still hung in the balance and the threat of a German invasion of England was still a reality, the film depicts exactly how such an event might begin. The small, quiet village of Bramley End welcomes into its midst and arranges billeting for a troop of British soldiers—discovering almost too late that the men are German parachutists laying the groundwork for full-scale invasion. The Germans’ initial plan is to continue the masquerade until the last moment, but when small missteps begin to create suspicion in the minds of a few villagers, the soldiers take direct and brutal action instead—shooting dead the Reverend Ashton (C. V. France) when he tries to sound an alarm, and ambushing and slaughtering the local members of the Home Guard. Forced, under guard, to go through their normal routines in order to avoid arousing outside suspicion, the villagers seek desperately for ways to send a warning to the outside world, only to be repeatedly thwarted by the real enemy in their midst, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), the local squire, who is secretly a collaborator… The success of Went The Day Well? lies in its willingness to admit the failures and weaknesses of the English people: that (despite what most other propaganda might try to claim) there were English collaborators and fifth-columnists, and that people did not necessarily stop being petty, selfish and self-absorbed just because there was a war on. The need for vigilance and concentration is emphasised throughout, even as the dangerous consequences of careless behaviour are depicted. Conversely, however, this film also serves to remind the English – and warn the Germans – that when roused, those very same petty villagers can and will make formidable adversaries, willing to fight to the death to defend their country and their way of life, and with no counting of the cost. Thus, when the Germans take five children hostage, planning to execute them in retaliation for an attempted escape, the villagers agree grimly that their rescue is secondary to the need to contact the outside authorities. This is a blunt and confronting film, never shying away from the horrors of war – albeit a small war fought in a small village – with both sides of the conflict driven to the commission of shocking acts of violence. Ultimately, however, the Germans never stand a chance in what (we are told) history remembers as “The Battle Of Bramley End”: they only have soldiers on their side, while the English have women—and children—and poachers…
Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
—John Maxwell Edmonds (1918)
The Iron Major (1943)
Okay. I knew that Pat O’Brien made a pretty good living playing priests, but it wasn’t until this week that I found out he had a successful secondary career playing football coaches. Frankly, I’m not sure that on the back on College Coach was the best time to be watching The Iron Major, which is every bit as solemn and self-important as the early film is flippant. The film is a biopic, telling the story of leading college football coach and war hero, Frank Cavanaugh. Told in flashback, as the next generation of young Cavanaughs follow their late father’s example and join up to serve in WWII, the film follows Cavanaugh from his childhood in Massachusetts to his first professional coaching post, achieved before he has even graduated; his attempt to give up football and earn a living as a lawyer, when he marries; and his subsequent rise to the top of the coaching ranks. Football is then exasperatingly interrupted by war – exasperating for Cavanaugh, who cannot understand why his young men are choosing to enter a conflict not officially “theirs” – but when America calls, Cavanaugh answers in spite of his age and his numerous children, which would have excused him. Seriously wounded, Cavanaugh is invalided home, where he slowly recovers—and where, in order to provide for his family, he returns to coaching in spite of stern warnings about what the pressure and stress will mean for his deteriorating health… I’ve no doubt that the real Frank Cavanaugh did influence and guide a great many young men, but this superficial rendering of his story never gets beyond platitudes—undermining Cavanaugh’s philosophy of leadership, which demanded commitment, sacrifice and teamwork, and which he applied to both football and war. (Frankly, the scenes of young men being sent off to face machine-guns on the back of a rah-rah pep-talk struck me as rather creepy.) And while the time and purpose of the film’s production make some unsubtle flag-waving inevitable, still it is hard for the rest of us not to be annoyed by moments such as that in which Cavanaugh explains to his wife that they are able to have a home and a family, “Because we live in America.” Clearly The Iron Major was produced on a painfully low budget, and the reams of stock footage hurt it badly—though conversely, it makes the film a fascinating time capsule for anyone with an interest in the history of American football, as many scenes from real games are included. (Personally I was amused to learn that Cavanaugh’s main claim to fame is the introduction to the game of the diving tackle, which it never occurred to me would need to be “introduced”—but that’s a reflection of the kind of football I watch.) Pat O’Brien dominates the film as Cavanaugh – joltingly introduced when the character is supposed to be a very young man just entering college, when he was clearly about twenty years older – and he is supported by Ruth Warrick as Cavanaugh’s wife Florence, Robert Ryan as former student / player, future priest / biographer Father Timothy Donovan, and Leon Ames as best friend, Bob Stewart.
More on this film in Spinning Newspaper Injures Printer.
Night Boat To Dublin (1946)
British Intelligence discovers that Professor Hansen (Martin Miller), a Swedish atomic scientist kidnapped and presumed dead, is alive when an intercepted communication reveals not only details of his work, but that it has progressed from the time of his disappearance. Learning that information is being passed through the Irish Free State, Captain David Grant (Robert Newton) and Captain Robert Wilson (Lawrence O’Madden) travel to Ireland; their mission costs Wilson his life, but first the two men succeed in intercepting another communique of Hansen’s work, and identifying lawyer Paul Faber (Raymond Lovell) as a spy and the key to the operation. Grant secures a position as Faber’s law clerk, and allows him to “discover” that he is an army deserter, wanted for selling military documents. Faber recruits Grant, telling him that he will be well-paid for doing various jobs—although Grant is taken aback when the first of them is to marry a young Austrian refugee, Marion Decker (Muriel Pavlow), in order to give her citizenship. Although the agreement is for the two to separate immediately, Marion soon comes to Grant for help. He finds himself drawn to her—but is she the innocent she claims or, like the rest of her family, a Nazi? I had hopes of Night Boat To Dublin at the outset, but it was soon evident that Professor Hansen and his atomic research were no more than the film’s McGuffin. It is eventually revealed that Hansen has been surrounded by Nazi-sympathising Brits, and therefore doesn’t even know he’s been kidnapped, let alone where his reports are ending up. It also turns out you can do “atomic research” in a couple of rooms in an English country house. There’s an uncomfortable tone to the film’s attitude to the atomic bomb, considering the date of its production: Grant gives a sad speech about the things that can happen with the bomb in the “wrong hands”—newsflash, pal: those things happen when the bomb is in the “right hands”, too! Overall, this is a fair but unevenly toned spy thriller, in which dumb luck (and an obligingly screenwriter) have rather more to do with the successful conclusion to Grant’s mission than skill and brains. More emphasis than needed is given to Marion’s situation, considering its lack of pay-off, no doubt to give this otherwise grim film a leavening of romance. There are some tense scenes, though, and some attractively noir-ish cinematography by Otto Heller. Herbert Lom, Marius Goring and Wilfrid Hyde-White appear in small supporting roles.
Saraband For Dead Lovers (1948)
Based upon the novel by Helen Simpson, this historical drama tells the story of the doomed love affair between Princess Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood), the unloved and reluctant wife of Duke George Louis of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Peter Bull), and Count Philip von Königsmarck (Stewart Granger). The film follows Dorothea from the ruination of her happy girlhood, when Countess Platen (Flora Robson), the mistress of the Elector of Hanover (Frederick Volk), persuades him that Dorothea’s estates and fortune are needed to shore up the prestige of his principality: the girl’s betrothal is forcibly dissolved, and she is compelled into marriage with the Elector’s son, George Louis, whom she loathes, and who humiliates her with his dissolute public behaviour. Dorothea’s only support – and very cold comfort this – is her mother-in-law, Sophia of Hanover (Françoise Rosay), who has likewise led a life of neglect and loneliness for political reasons. Sophia, however, is upheld by her long-term plan to compel England to recognise the claim of the Hanovers to a place in the succession to the English throne: a plan to which she sacrifices the life of her honourable and good-natured second son, Charles (Michael Gough), and which, regardless of George Louis’s behaviour, requires his wife to be immaculate. Sophia is confident in her schemes until the arrival of Count Königsmarck, an attractive if penniless soldier and adventurer. Badly in debt, Königsmarck allows himself to be “kept” by the much-older Countess Platen, who falls in love with him; while Königsmarck himself commits the fatal mistake of falling in love with Dorothea… While its outlines are known, history leaves enough off the record for the tragedy of Dorothea and Königsmarck to be interpreted however the story-teller chooses. Their story is known chiefly through their surviving love letters, which leave it tantalisingly uncertain whether the two were in fact lovers. What is known is that, in 1694, Königsmarck disappeared, believed murdered at the instigation of George Louis; while Dorothea was repudiated by, and legally separated from, her husband, and spent the last thirty years of her life immured in the Castle of Ahlden. As this brief outline makes clear, this film is anything but light-hearted; in fact, its main strength may be the way it captures the stifling monotony of court life, where people are bored at best, lonely and miserable at worst, and where every action has a political component. The ultimate ugly irony of this story is that the one person in it who gets everything he wants is the repulsive George Louis—better known as George I of England. Saraband For Dead Lovers is a meticulously designed and visually stunning film, and a fascinating piece of history—but expect to come away from it depressed. (This film should be compulsory viewing for the Disney Princess brigade…)
The Big Steal (1949)
Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix) of the US army has pursued to Mexico Lt ‘Duke’ Halliday (Robert Mitchum), wanted for stealing an army patrol. Halliday is likewise in pursuit of Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles), who really stole the money; while Joan Graham (Jane Greer), Fiske’s former fiancée, is also chasing him to get back the savings he swindled her out of. Halliday manages to lift Blake’s credentials, which gives him something of a head-start; and he forces himself upon the exasperated and suspicious Joan, who has a clue to Fiske’s ultimate destination; while Blake remains doggedly in pursuit. All of these people come to the attention of the Mexican police, in the form of Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Navarro) and Lt Ruiz (Don Alvarado), who sensibly enough don’t believe a word that any of the Americans say to them, but choose to keep their own watch as events unfold… This reteaming of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer two years after Out Of The Past (and likewise co-written by “Geoffrey Homes” aka Daniel Mainwaring) is nowhere near as effective, but still an entertaining thriller and a good early opportunity for director Don Siegel, who makes welcome untouristy use of the Mexican locations. It must be said, though, that as Halliday, Mitchum tends to cross the line from “tough” to “obnoxious”, particularly in his treatment of the Mexican characters; while the film’s apparent attempt to rehabilitate Greer as a “good girl” is amusingly ineffective. (When Joan is too “nice” to shoot Fiske, well, we just don’t believe it. Not with those eyes.) William Bendix is effective as the single-minded Blake, but Patric Knowles is a weak link: it’s impossible to picture his Jim Fiske either getting the better of Halliday or charming Joan out of her money. After a breakneck, even confusing, opening, The Big Steal becomes an extended chase film, with Fiske heading for his secret destination, Halliday and Joan on his tail, Blake on their tail, and Orgtega and Ruiz not too far away. It all culminates at a villa hidden away in the Mexican countryside, where the script has a surprise or two in store…
Silent Dust (1949)
Blind businessman Robert Rawley (Stephen Murray) has become obsessed with building a memorial to the memory of his only child, Simon, killed towards the end of WWII. Rawley’s prickly, hard-line personality – and his nouveau riche background – bring him into conflict with the local gentry, represented by Lord Clandon (Seymour Hicks), when the latter suggests that it would be more tactful to dedicate the memorial to all the young men of the district who fell, rather than to one person who never even lived in the area. Meanwhile, Rawley’s second wife, Joan (Beatrice Campbell), begs his widowed daughter-in-law, Angela (Sally Gray), not to reveal her intention to remarry until after the dedication. A terrible revelation is in store for all concerned, however: Simon (Nigel Patrick) is not dead at all, but on the run both as an army deserter and from the police, after he kills someone in the process of stealing their car. When he takes refuge at his father’s new country home, Joan, Angela and Maxwell Oliver (Derek Farr) – not merely Angela’s fiancé, but secretly her husband – conspire to hide him, fearful of what Simon’s exposure will mean to all of them, Rawley in particular… Adapted for the screen by Michael Pertwee from his own play, The Paragon, this noir-ishly designed and photographed film is a taut and suspenseful drama, albeit one that does not entirely succeed in hiding its stage origins. On the other hand, this adaptation is able to mount a bitterly cynical interlude wherein Simon gives Joan a deeply self-serving account of his actions, while the viewer is shown his progress – regress – from coward to deserter to thief to black-marketeer to murderer to blackmailer. The film’s most daring touch is certainly the invalid marriage of Angela and Maxwell, a scandalous situation which the despicable Simon intends to exploit to the utmost. Meanwhile, the plot wrings full value out of Rawley’s blindness, in that while he cannot see what is going on around him, his heightened senses and habitual thin skin gradually lead him to a terrible suspicion, as he begins to join the dots of his family’s strange behaviour…
The Lady With A Lamp (1951)
Based on the play by Reginald Berkeley, this biopic about Florence Nightingale is typical of the work of the husband-and-wife team, producer-director Herbert Wilcox and actress Anna Neagle, in that it is well-meaning and well-mounted, but just a little stodgy. The story follows Nightingale from the moment she decisively rejects the life of the ordinary Victorian gentlewoman, refusing a proposal of marriage and taking up a position as Superintendent of the London Hospital for Sick Gentlewomen: an appointment arranged for her by her close friend and political ally, Sidney Herbert (Michael Wilding), later Lord Herbert. The film gets itself into a tangle here because, romance-less as this story must necessarily be, it positions Sidney Herbert as its hero—yet as Minister for War, Herbert was certainly significantly culpable in the conduct of the Crimean War, where Florence Nightingale was to find her calling and her enduring fame. (And yes, of course we visit with the doomed 600, not reasoning why, but doing and dying…) Given its subject matter, The Lady With A Lamp is just a little too sanitised, just as Nightingale herself is a bit too idealised—though that was probably inevitable, and they certainly don’t go as far in that respect as they could have done. The film is at its best when dissecting out the social and sexual prejudice which Nightingale had to overcome in the first place merely to nurse, let alone take up army nursing, and laying bare the pig-headed bureaucracy – political, military and medical – that made the Crimean War what it was, and which went out of its way to place barriers between the nurses and the casualties, even as the death toll escalated nightmarishly. It also requires viewers to know their history, as the screenplay makes very little effort to explain the political and geographical landscape that brought about the Crimean War, or who and what the major players were back in England—so that viewers are largely left to make what they can of the machinations of Felix Aylmer as Lord Palmerston and Arthur Young as William Gladstone. Meanwhile, Helena Pickard and Peter Graves (not that Peter Graves) give us a rather sweet and definitely idealised Victoria and Albert.
Contraband Spain (1955)
US Treasury Department Agent Lee Scott (Richard Greene) travels to Spain when his estranged younger brother, Martin (Philip Saville), is killed during the commission of a robbery—but also in pursuit of a counterfeiting ring passing fake US currency in Europe. Lee meets with Ricky Metcalfe (Michael Denison), who is working undercover for British Customs to break up a smuggling ring. Exchanging information, the two men realise that their cases may be linked, and the same criminal band involved. A photograph in Martin’s apartment leads Lee to cabaret singer Elena Vargas (Anouk Aimée), but she is wary and unhelpful. However, when one of the criminal band threatens Elena’s brother to pressure her into retrieving items that were in Martin’s possession at the time of his death – and when the blackmailer is later murdered by his own people – the frightened Elena turns to Lee for help… Contraband Spain is all but scuppered at the outset by the casting of Richard Greene as an American: Greene never bothers to disguise his accent, instead settling for uttering the very mildest of slang terms (“pal”, “guys”) as the extent of his attempt to sound American. It is horribly distracting. Otherwise, however, this British-Spanish co-production is a moderately entertaining thriller; although frankly, the glimpses we are given of the complex activities of the gang – which include, apart from robbery, smuggling and counterfeiting, buying gold artefacts from impoverished European aristocrats, paying for them with fake US dollars, and then disguising the gold as cheap souvenirs and boring items like door-handles for “export” – are more interesting than anything offered to the viewer by the good guys. The main strength of this film is its location work, with the hunt for the head of the gang leading Lee, Elena and Ricky from Barcelona through the French countryside, and then from Boulogne to Dover via the Channel ferry. The multinational cast includes the hardworking Spanish actor Conrado San Martin (still going strong as of 2015’s Vampyres, and perhaps best known to genre fans for his appearance in Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr Orloff), who appears as one of the criminal gang.
The Moonraker (1958)
In the aftermath of the Battle of Worcester, the forces of Oliver Cromwell (John le Mesurier) are doing their best to wipe out the remaining Royalists, and in particular to capture the young Charles Stuart (Gary Raymond). A constant thorn in the Roundheads’ side is the Earl of Dawlish (George Baker), nicknamed “the Moonraker” for his success in smuggling Royalists out of the country. Dawlish succeeds in carrying the royal heir as far as the coast, but there they must wait as a ship is negotiated; while danger closes in both openly, in the troops led by Colonel Beaumont (Marius Goring), and secretly, in the form of Roundhead agent Major Greg (Peter Arne) who, like Dawlish himself, has assumed a disguise. Meanwhile, another complication is the presence at the coastal inn of the lovely Ann Wyndham (Sylvia Sims), Beaumont’s fiancée… Though it benefits from its underused historical setting, this is a tepid swashbuckler, whose assumption of viewer sympathy with the Royalist cause gets increasingly annoying. (They dress so much better than the Roundheads, after all!) Obviously Dawlish is meant as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel in reverse, smuggling aristocrats from England to France, but despite his reputation it all seems a matter of his opponents’ dull-wittedness rather than his own brilliance. (If the Roundheads were this incompetent, the Civil War would never have happened.) Perversely, the early scenes of dashing around and derring-do are all very dull, whereas the film picks up when the characters, most of them in disguise, come together at the inn and can only talk. The moments when Dawlish and his nemesis, Major Greg – neither of whom knows the other by sight – unknowingly encounter one another have an amusing tension. The film – naturally – climaxes in an extended sword-fight, as Dawlish and his supporters must hold off their Roundhead antagonists long enough for the ship carrying Charles Stuart to sail away, but I don’t think Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone will be losing any sleep.
The Scarlet Blade (1963)
Apparently it was “Rescue Charles Stuart Week” and nobody told me. However, this time around we’re dealing with Charles Stuart I and therefore a lost cause—something which caused the film-makers some difficulty when it came to ending their film. In 1648, the forces of Oliver Cromwell are on the hunt for the deposed Charles I (Robert Rietty), whose supporters are attempting to smuggle him to the coast. However, the king is captured and those helping him executed—including the father of Edward Beverley (Jack Hedley). Cromwell’s soldiers soon find themselves under attack by a guerrilla band led by a man known only as “the Scarlet Blade”. The district’s commander, Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) is tasked with capturing the Scarlet Blade, who with his followers is plotting to rescue the king. Judd does not know that one of his main enemies is his own daughter, Claire (June Thorburn), a devoted Royalist, but she is unmasked by Judd’s second-in-command, Captain Tom Sylvester (Oliver Reed), who offers his help for her cause in exchange for her love… This Hammer production, written and directed by John Gilling, is a completely unbalanced film. Not for nothing are bad guys Lionel Jeffries and Oliver Reed top-billed: all the film’s complexity and interest lies with them; while Reed is so charismatic he blows putative leading-man Jack Hedley off the screen. Colonel Judd, we learn, is a former Royalist who sold out his cause for position and wealth; while Tom Sylvester offers to do the same in reverse for Claire’s sake—but only up to a point. Even when he is working for the good guys – and like The Moonraker, The Scarlet Blade takes our Royalist sympathies for granted – Sylvester’s behaviour is so ambiguous that the viewer is on edge every moment. Meanwhile, our overt heroes are completely uninteresting—while their plan to rescue the king, history tells us, is doomed to failure: an unavoidable fact which forces John Gilling into the worst of unsatisfactory endings—sure, they executed the king; but at least two boring non-entities got together!
Circus Of Fear (1966)
The robbery of an armoured van goes to plan until one of the gang members, Mason (Victor Maddern), panics and shoots a guard. The robbers escape, but then turn on the frightened Mason. He is spared, however, when the unseen leader of the gang, who planned the heist, telephones orders for Mason to transport the stolen money to a certain drop-off spot. He does as ordered—only to get a knife in the back for his trouble… The investigation of Inspector Elliott (Leo Genn) eventually leads him to Barbarini’s Circus, just moved into its winter quarters. Elliott’s arrival crystallises the growing tensions among the performers, and soon the circus is plagued by a series of murders, most of them committed by throwing-knife… This Harry Alan Towers production is an uneasy melding of the British police procedural and the more extravagant German Krimi, but is entertaining just the same—not least for its parallel mixture of British stalwarts such as Leo Genn, Cecil Parker and Victor Maddern with familiar Euro-film faces including Klaus Kinski, Heinz Drache, Margaret Lee and Suzy Kendall. The dialogueless opening heist sequence, filmed on location in London, is sharply executed and very tense, but after this promising beginning Circus Of Fear gets bogged down in its own red herrings, with a hot-tempered knife-thrower mixing it up with a constantly masked lion-tamer who is in turn being tormented by a vertically-challenged blackmailer. Towers’ script (written as by “Peter Welbeck”) spends a bit too long setting up possible motives, which in turn requires Elliott to clear away a lot of debris before he gets around to exposing the gang leader via an insanely dangerous knife-throwing demonstration. The screenplay does quite a good job hiding its master-criminal, although you could reasonably argue that the individual in question doesn’t get enough screentime for this whodunit to really play fair with its audience. And speaking of not playing fair— We should note that Klaus Kinski’s minor supporting role gives him little more to do than lurk about being Klaus Kinski; while top-billed Christopher Lee doesn’t appear until halfway through the film—and then he’s masked and doing an accent as Gregor the lion-tamer. So be prepared. Circus Of Fear is supposedly based on one of the “Just Men” novels by Edgar Wallace, although it’s hard to see how. (But I’m reading the series, so I guess I’ll find out…)
Our Man In Marrakesh (1966)
Corrupt Moroccan businessman Mr Casimir (Herbert Lom) has arranged to fix votes at the United Nations in exchange for two million dollars. However, he does not know the identity of the courier bringing in the money, only that he – or she – will be arriving on an airport bus. Having found out the names of the possible couriers, Casimir further discovers that at least three of them are not who they claim to be: Arthur Fairbrother (Wlifrid Hyde-White), a salesman of “domestic sanitary fixtures”; George Lillywhite (John le Mesurier), head of a travel agency; and holidaying American oil executive Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall)—who finds himself with a corpse on his hands and on the run from the law thanks to Kyra Stanovy (Senta Berger), an attractive brunette with a lie for every occasion… Harry Alan Towers strikes again, writing and producing this Don Sharp-directed semi-comic spy thriller. Our Man In Marrakesh offers a complicated plot, lots of double-crosses and false identities, and some excellent use of locations (particularly during a chase through a crowded dyers’ market), but overall never quite gets its tone right. The very final moment, for example, serves up a wah-wah-wah exit for the hero and heroine, while in the background people are killing each other!? Moreover, Tony Randall was an odd choice for the traditional “innocent bystander gets caught up in love and danger” role—but perhaps that was the point? Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski are the bad guys (the latter with more to do than in the same year’s Circus Of Fear, but still mostly called upon to look menacing); Senta Berger warms into her role as the potentially duplicitous heroine; Terry-Thomas has a bizarre and rather uncomfortable “guest-starring” role as an Arab sheikh called El Caid (“Oily Cad” to his friends); and Margaret Lee makes her debut as Casimir’s girlfriend (who just wants to “lie down” all the time). However, the show is thoroughly stolen by Grégoire Aslan as Achmed, the world’s most helpful truck-driver.
Avalanche Express (1979)
When KGB General Marenkov (Robert Shaw) defects to the west, CIA operative Colonel Harry Wargrave (Lee Marvin) is tasked with getting him out of Europe. However, when information obtained by agent Elsa Lang (Linda Evans) reveals that the Soviets are working on a form of biological warfare, Marenkov and Wargrave concoct a plan to use the defection as bait, with Marenkov transported across Europe by train in the hope of luring spy-master Nikolai Bunin (Maximilian Schell) and his network of European agents into the open… We can be charitable and blame the failures of Avalanche Express upon the tragic deaths of director Mark Robson and star Robert Shaw, who passed away within a few days of each other before the film was completed. Realistically, however, the script is chiefly to blame. Avalanche Express is a fair actioner, but bewildering on the story level: the biological warfare subplot is a confusing McGuffin, the exposure of a mole within the American ranks is played out before we even understand who the characters are, and the train in question is half-filled with normal passengers who don’t seem to react to the periodic gun-battles that interrupt their journey; while the fake Russian accents assumed by half the cast are so impenetrable, they make it almost impossible to keep tabs on what’s supposed to be going on. (Robert Shaw was dubbed throughout, which makes things even worse.) The film’s climax also requires the viewer to understand the domestic terrorism that plagued Europe during the seventies. However—if you can swallow Linda Evans as a crack CIA operative, you shouldn’t have any difficulty swallowing the plot. The devil is in the details with this one, with Avalanche Express offering up a, shall we say, eclectic cast, including Joe Namath as one of the American agents, and David Hess as the head of a radical group that likes blowing things up. (Though they don’t seem to be very good at it.) The film’s title references a race-against-time sequence wherein the train must make it into a mountain tunnel and safety before a man-made avalanche wipes it out, which briefly though delightfully carries the film into the realm of the disaster movie. For the most part, however, Avalanche Express consists of a series confusingly staged confrontations where the only way to tell the two sides apart is who walks away at the end, and leaves the viewer with the suspicion that the Cold War would have ended very differently if anyone behind the Iron Curtain was capable of shooting straight.
The Awakening (1980)
This adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Jewel Of The Seven Stars (filmed previously by Hammer as Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb) casts Charlton Heston as archaeologist Matthew Corbeck, who is on the verge of one of the greatest historical discoveries of all time: that of a previously unknown Egyptian queen, the magnitude of whose evil was so great, an attempt was made after her death to obliterate from the record her name and even her existence. Put on the right track by an obscure document, Corbeck and his devoted assistant, Jane Turner (Susannah York), succeed in locating and opening the intact, unplundered tomb where, among a treasure trove of artefacts, they find detailed instructions on how the queen may be reincarnated. As the tomb is opened, Corbeck’s neglected wife, Anne (Jill Townsend), is overwhelmed by what she takes to be premature labour pains, and collapses in a catatonic state. As she lies unresponsive in a Cairo hospital, Corbeck leaves her to return to the investigation of the tomb. In his absence, medical staff deliver a baby girl—which is born dead. But as the sarcophagus of the queen is opened, the “dead” child begins to cry… The Awakening is one of this era’s clutch of “prestige” productions intended to demonstrate how horror films should be made—and like most of them, a failure, trying for “stately” but ending up just plain dull. The film works so hard at being oblique and ominous, it never gets around to having anything actually happen. Oh, there are a few shock deaths along the way, but delivered almost with an air of apologising for the poor taste. The screenplay is so opaque that the viewer is left with no certain idea of just what was so particularly evil about the long-dead queen, or what threat she poses to the modern world if she does manage to reincarnate. Nor is it entirely clear where Corbeck’s daughter, Margaret (played as an adult by Stephanie Zimbalist), stands in all of this—possibly possessed by the queen since birth, possibly just “marked”. This is a film full of unlikeable people, most of all Heston’s Matthew Corbeck, who is simultaneously dour, arrogant and selfish—and, on the basis of the film’s climactic scene, incredibly stupid. The Awakening marked the directing debut of Mike Newell. The production was well-supported by the Egyptian government and is a visual feast for those with an interest in Egyptology, but it offers very little for the horror fan.
More on this film in Moments.
Blood On Her Hands (1998)
Married to wealthy venture capitalist, Stewart Collins (John O’Hurley), Isabelle Collins (Susan Lucci) is having an affair with self-made yacht-broker Richard Davis (Philip Casnoff), who falls desperately in love with her. Already convinced that Collins is abusive, when someone cuts the brake-line of Isabelle’s car Davis decides that the only way she can be safe and the two of them can be together is if Collins is dead. Davis hires a hit-man, Doggett (Nicholas Campbell), who kills Collins and makes it look like robbery-homicide. Isabelle and Davis are married—but behind the scenes, the police have been busy; and soon Davis finds himself standing trial, with only high-powered attorney Gavin Kendrick (Kamar de los Reyes) standing between him and life in prison. But although they have Davis, the police aren’t convinced he’s the only guilty party… Soap opera queen Susan Lucci doesn’t exactly extend her range in this rather absurd “fatal temptress” drama. The whole thing plays out too languidly to be really engaging, but there’s still some fun to be had watching Lucci and her fellow soap alumni going through their paces, as Isabelle works her wiles on what we can only regard as some very, very stupid men. As for the ultimately stupidity—well, I don’t know: Davis hiring a hit-man over a woman he’s known three months? Said hit-man pawning the world’s most recognisable watch? Isabelle and Davis getting married only three months after the murder? Kendrick sampling Susan’s wares while he’s defending her second husband on a charge of murdering her first husband? Hey, it’s all good… Actually, I think my favourite absurdity here is the scenes between Isabelle and her young daughter, Ruby (Lauren Collins), who she is grooming to be Just Like Mummy. I also love what this film serves up by way of a happy ending…
Eye Of The Beast (2007)
Marine biologist Dan Leland (James Van Der Beek) is sent to an isolated fishing community in Canada to investigate why the commercial stocks have vanished from the local waters. He finds a town buckling under the combination of economic pressure and internal fighting, particularly between the white fishermen and their indigenous counterparts, each blaming the other for the situation. Trying valiantly to hold things together is fisheries officer, Katrina Tomas (Alexandra Castillo), who is filling in for the recently and suddenly deceased sheriff, and whose mixed blood gives her sympathies with both sides of the conflict—but equally makes her suspect by both. Kat has her hands full: a tourist has gone missing; so too a local girl, after a boat-ride with her boyfriend. The latter is found drifting amongst debris, and has only time to mutter about a monster before he dies of hypothermia. This is taken as delusional ranting by all but Kat, who has been ridiculed all her life since claiming as a child that a monster killed her father… This was actually a re-watch for me, but that penny didn’t drop until the appearance of the film’s embarrassingly needy heroine and her desperate-to-be-a-grandma mother—what does it say about a monster movie that THAT is what I remembered? I have enough experience by now of the productions of the Halmis, Robert Sr and Robert Jr, not to expect too much of Eye Of The Beast—least of all a reasonable explanation for its monster, the omission of which is a Halmi trademark—though just the same, I admit to being somewhat taken aback by the concept of a freshwater giant squid. This is a painless time-waster, as long as you don’t demand more by way of a monster than a few random tentacle effects. (I particularly enjoy the tourist’s death scene, wherein (i) a giant squid is somehow hiding in two feet of calm water, and (ii) the tourist is facing the water but somehow fails to see the enormous tentacle reaching for him.) The creature does show itself in toto just once, at the climax; and its speaks volumes for the unconvincing nature of the special effects overall that even I wasn’t bothered by the eye-violence inherent in the film’s title, and duly dished out. Kat’s romantic over-eagerness is cringeworthy, but the film earns points for letting her kill the monster, exorcising her childhood demons in the process—even if she needs a Heroine’s Death Battle Exemption first. (And even if the film then feels compelled to give Dan Leland a pointless “hero” moment, to make up for his general uselessness.) Eye Of The Beast was shot on location on the coast of Manitoba, and the resulting visuals are its strongest point.
When Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abbie (Vera Farmiga) Cairn bring home their infant daughter, Lilly, their lives begin to implode: after being a model child for the first month, Lilly begins screaming non-stop; Abbie, who has a history of psychiatric problems, slumps into a state of exhausted depression; Brad begins to struggle at work; tensions grow between the irreligious Cairns and Brad’s evangelical mother, Hazel (Celia Weston); even the family dog dies. But what could these events have to do with the Cairns’ older child, the quiet, well-behaved, highly intelligent, nine-year-old Joshua (Jacob Kogan)? This film was ill-served by the subtitle tacked on in some territories, “The Devil’s Child”, which gives entirely the wrong impression of its horrors, which are predominantly emotional and psychological, with nary a touch of the supernatural—though it is none the less disturbing for that, particularly given the constant image of the threatened baby. (It also has a high animal body-count—nothing graphic, but it added acutely to this viewer’s distress.) At the same time, there is a streak of pitch-black humour about Joshua, which seems to be a response to the old saw about how you can’t pick your family: Joshua Cairn would beg to disagree, and the film follows him as he rearranges his life more to his own liking, manipulating the adults around him with terrifying ease and eliminating those he deems unnecessary and/or antithetical to his comfort. Overall, the film takes a bit too long to get where it’s going, in particular with regard to the dragging out of Abbie’s collapse, but it is still an effective thriller. Joshua‘s main strength is the way it builds sympathy for the boy over its early stages (he had me from the moment he deliberately got out early at dodge-ball, so that he could sit and read instead), showing him clearly as an outsider in his own home even before his baby sister arrives: the lingering sense of identification adds to the viewer’s discomfort when it becomes clear what his agenda is. This was Jacob Kogan’s film debut, and he is very good as the preternaturally intelligent but coolly detached Joshua, always a few emotional beats behind where he should be, and fully aware of himself as “different” long before we feel the full weight of his sociopathy. “You don’t have to love me,” he tells his father gravely, in one of the film’s saddest moments; Brad’s involuntary flinch speaks for itself.