A Lady Of Chance (1928)
Dolly Morgan (Norma Shearer) is using her position as switchboard operator in a fancy hotel to draw in new “marks”. A spoke is thrust in Dolly’s wheels when two former associates, Bradley (Lowell Sherman) and Gwen (Gwen Lee), spot her and insist on being cut in. A staged hotel-room scene involving a jealous “husband” nets the three $10,000, and Dolly thwarts the others’ attempt to cheat her, escaping with the entire haul. Next trying her luck on the convention circuit, Dolly draws in naive businessman Steve Crandall (Johnny Mack Brown), luring him into a hasty marriage. The two depart for Crandall’s home in the South—where the horrified Dolly realises that she has entirely misinterpreted her new husband’s remarks about his income and his house… This silent movie is an excellent example of the outrageous things Norma Shearer got up to before Irving Thalberg came along and ruined everything. Shearer plays Dolly Morgan, aka “Angel Face”, a professional con-artist with a criminal record and jail time behind her, who makes her living preying on wealthy but foolish men, and who has no qualms about resorting to extortion if simple sex appeal won’t work. Dressed to the nines, simpering and fluttering her eyelashes and generally playing the ingenue – when she isn’t rolling her eyes in contempt at her victims behind their backs – Norma is a treat here. (And, nota bene, we are under no obligation to feel bad for Steve, not with all of his wistful remarks about “the darkies on the plantation”.) Alas, about halfway through A Lady Of Chance gives up its amusing cynicism for unconvincing romance, as Dolly finds herself falling for the gormless Steve, in spite of finding herself doomed to a life of borderline poverty and housewifery, instead of the luxury she was expecting. Crisis-point is reached when Bradley and Gwen track Dolly down—just as Steve’s ship comes in, and he secures a business contract that will indeed make him wealthy. As Bradley sets to work, Dolly realises that the only way she can save Steve is by telling him the whole truth about herself…
Evelyn Prentice (1934)
John Prentice (William Powell), a leading criminal attorney, devotes the majority of his time to his clients, neglecting his wife, Evelyn (Myrna Loy), and young daughter, Dorothy (Cora Sue Collins). Though she believes that John loves her as much as ever, Evelyn is lonely and frustrated; finally, she begins building a social life of her own, separate from John. She attracts Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens), an aspiring poet, whose attentions soothe and amuse her. When Evelyn comes to believe that John is having an affair with one of his clients, the much gossiped about Nancy Harrison (Rosalind Russell), she begins to contemplate paying him back in kind. She draws back, however—only to discover that Kennard is a career blackmailer, intent on using an indiscreet letter against her. An encounter between the two leaves Kennard dead—and another woman, Judith Wilson (Isabel Jewell), Kennard’s common-law wife, under arrest… Evelyn Prentice is the “Sea Of Grass” of the Powell-Loy movies: sure, it’s a well-mounted drama; but who wants to see Bill and Myrna miserable and cheating on each other?…almost. (I wonder how much influence the newly imposed Production Code had on this aspect of the film, with both characters teetering on the brink of adultery but not falling?) The first half of this film is frustrating, but it picks up steam after the death of Lawrence Kennard when, although she cannot bring herself to confess either her connection with the dead man or her involvement in his death, Evelyn cannot sit back and let an innocent woman take the rap for her, either. Instead—she persuades John to undertake Judith Wilson’s defence, knowing that if anyone can save her, it is surely he. But there are some cases that not even the great John Prentice can win… Powell and Loy are both excellent in Evelyn Prentice – even granting that we spend most of the film wanting to clout one or both of them upside the head – and they are well supported by Una Merkel, who is subdued but very sweet as Evelyn’s best friend, Amy. Rosalind Russell made her film debut as the notorious Mrs Harrison, who is absolutely determined to, ahem, express her gratitude to John after he gets her cleared of vehicular manslaughter.
The Three Musketeers (1935)
A young Gascon, D’Artagnan (Walter Abel), leaves home inadequately supplied with everything except courage, hoping to become one of the Musketeers of King Louis XIII (Miles Mander). On the road to Paris, he interferes in what he mistakenly thinks is an abduction attempt, earning the amused gratitude of Lady de Winter (Margot Grahame) and the enmity of the dangerous Duc de Rochefort (Ian Keith). In Paris, accepted as a cadet, D’Artagnan is taken under the wing of Athos (Paul Lukas), Porthos (Moroni Olsen) and Aramis (Onslow Stevens), a trio of brave but rackety Musketeers. D’Artagnan finds rooms in the home of M. Bernajou (Murray Kinnell), whose ward, Constance (Heather Angel), is lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne (Rosamond Pinchot). Not knowing of D’Artagnan’s presence in the house, Constance uses the premises to arrange a secret meeting between the Queen and the English ambassador, the Duke of Buckingham (Ralph Forbes). Though the two are in love, the Queen insists that each must hold to their honour, and exacts from Buckingham a pledge that he will do everything he can to prevent war between England and France. As a token of this agreement, she gives him a piece of diamond jewellery. However, D’Artagnan is not the only witness to this meeting. Bernajou carries his news to de Rochefort, who is trying to bring about war so that he may seize the throne of France. The Duc persuades the King to hold a grand ball, at which the Queen must wear her diamonds. With time against them, D’Artagnan and the Musketeers set off on a desperate mission to retrieve the compromising article, fighting all the way against dangers and traps placed in their way by de Rochefort and his fellow conspirator, Lady de Winter… This version of Dumas’ classic novel tends to get overshadowed by its 1948 and 1973 successors, and with good reason: I don’t know about you, but when I think “swashbuckling adventure”, the names that come to mind are not Walter Abel, Paul Lukas, Moroni Olsen and Onslow Stevens; with matters further undermined by Lukas’ German accent, and Abel’s Americanisms (“Oh, yeah!?” jeers D’Artagnan from time to time.) Walter Abel was a fine character actor, but he is painfully miscast here, and drags the film down with him. Onslow Stevens as Aramis at least manages to look the part of a dashing Musketeer, so of course we see the least of him. Story-wise, however, this is a reasonably accurate rendering of the novel, albeit that it prunes away a bit too much back-story and with it, people’s motivations: Milady’s machinations, in particular, end up very murky. The highlight of this version may in fact be the almost throwaway moment when an exasperated Louis XIII points out to his Musketeers that they’d be a much stronger fighting force if they could refrain from killing each other in duels. (They can’t.) The film’s main virtue is the black-and-white cinematography by J. Peverell Marley; while Max Steiner wrote the score, including the Musketeers’ theme-song (“All for one…one for all!”) Lucille Ball has a tiny uncredited role as another lady-in-waiting.
(Mind you— Speaking of forgotten thirties’ versions of this story, 1939 produced a comedy version, with Don Ameche as D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers displaced by the Ritz Brothers! While my first impulse is to run away in horror, it should be noted that the film also features Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Gloria Stuart and Binnie Barnes, so…maybe…)
Government Girl (1942)
Aviation engineer Ed Browne (Sonny Tufts) is called to Washington to take over the production of bombers for the air force. Browne is lost amongst the red tape and manoeuvring of D.C., and would be helpless without the guidance of his shrewd, hard-working secretary, Elizabeth “Smokey” Allard (Olivia de Haviland). Smokey does what she can for her boss, steering him through the shoals and running interference whenever there is the danger of negative publicity; but she cannot always rein in her boss’s bull-in-a-china-shop way of getting things done. No-one can argue with Browne’s results – bomber production is far ahead of schedule – but when an ambitious young lawyer, Dana McGuire (Jess Parker), who is looking to build a political career, latches onto Browne’s unconventional methods rather than their outcome and has him hauled before a Senate Committee, it is up to Smokey to once again save the day—even though McGuire is her fiancé… So what genius decided that Sonny Tufts was a fitting onscreen partner for Olivia de Haviland!? Poor Olivia! Always the consummate professional, she does her best to support her co-star and to pitch her performance to match his—but since Tufts’ “acting” consists chiefly of furrowing his brow and shouting, the results are painful to behold; while the gear-shift that occurs when, mercifully, Olivia has scenes opposite a good actor in Paul Stewart is almost enough to rip a hole in the space-time continuum. Government Girl offers an interesting picture of wartime Washington – the chronic overcrowding and lack of accommodation is a running joke – but the film wavers confusedly between praise of government and criticising its methods—celebrating Browne’s slashing of the red tape one moment, and the next explaining why red tape is necessary. It unabashedly supports the Roosevelt administration, however: Browne’s boss (Emory Parnell) keeps a framed photograph of the President on his desk, while McGuire’s willingness to attack the administration for political gain is the first indication of the complete stinker he will turn out to be. Anne Shirley and James Dunn are the film’s second bananas, who spend the whole film desperately searching for a room in which to have their wedding night. Appearing in supporting roles are Harry Davenport as a Senator, Agnes Moorhead as a snobbish socialite, Sig Ruman as an ambassador, and Una O’Connor as a landlady; while Lawrence Tierney, Barbara Hale and Rita Corday all have uncredited bit parts.
Grand Central Murder (1942)
Gold-digging Broadway star Misa King (Patricia Dane) receives a phone-call from escaped prisoner “Turk” (Stephen McNally), accusing her of framing him for murder and threatening her. Terrified, Mida walks out on her show, much to the fury of her producer, Frankie Ciro (Tom Conway, and makes plans to elope with her society fiancé, David Henderson (Mark Daniels). Mida takes refuge in a private train-car at Grand Central Station—where her dead body is later discovered… Based upon a novel by Sue MacVeigh, this is a reasonably entertaining whodunit, albeit that it exhibits many of the all-too-common faults of American crime stories of this era, in particular impossibly stupid policemen conducting an investigation an impossibly stupid way, and a ridiculous “tricking the killer into confessing” scene. (Nor, if you think about it, does the murder method tie up with the crime scene; although perhaps we’re supposed to be distracted from that by Mida being found naked—though this being 1942, this detail is amusingly danced around.) Meanwhile, a wisecracking private detective gets away with murder—not literally, although Rocky Custer (Van Heflin) does end up a suspect, and takes over the investigation from the choleric Inspector Gunther (Sam Levene) in order to clear both himself and his client, Turk, who also swears that he was innocent of the murder for which he was convicted on Mida’s testimony. Mida’s gold-digging ways and ruthless using of men made her many enemies, while she was also known to carry large sums of money with her: which was the motive for her murder? In addition to Turk and Rocky, the suspects include Frankie Ciro, who may have committed the murder for which Turk was convicted; David Henderson, who had discovered the truth about Mida; Connie Furness (Cecilia Parker), David’s ex-fiancée, and her resentful father, Roger Furness (Samuel S. Hinds); Mida’s dresser, Pearl Delroy (Connie Gilchrist), and her daughter, “Baby” (Betty Wells), who knew about the money; and Mida’s step-father, phony psychic Ramon (Roman Bohnen), who drops dead in the middle of the investigation. Heart failure—or something else? The investigation moves from Gunther’s office to the Broadway theatre to Mida’s private train-car as Rocky sifts the evidence and dissects all the conflicting statements in his hunt for the killer…
Obliging Young Lady (1942)
Reporter “Red” Reddy (Edmond O’Brien), just back from the Far East, catches sight of Linda Norton (Ruth Warrick) at a railway station and immediately falls for her. Linda works for lawyer John Markham (Pierre Watkin), who is involved in a high-society divorce case, with Mira (Marjorie Gateson) and George (John Miljan) Potter involved in a bitter custody dispute over their young daughter, Bridget (Joan Carroll). When the judge, exasperated with both selfish parents, awards temporary custody of the girl to Markham, he asks Linda to take Bridget away to an isolated resort where they can avoid the press. Posing as sisters, Linda and Bridget head for the Mohawk Lodge, not knowing that Red, who has quit his job, is on the same train—hoping to find the peace and quiet that will allow him to write The Great American Novel. When a detective tracks Bridget to the Lodge, she denies her identity and claims Red and Linda as her parents—much to the dismay of Linda, the disbelief of the detective, and the jealous exasperation of Linda’s fiancé… Bad comedy + precocious kid = DEEP HURTING. This strained would-be comedy wears out its welcome within its first few minutes, with Red’s behaviour escalating from in-love-for-no-reason to stalker-level-obsession in a matter of moments, and adorable Bridget demonstrating her adorable-ness by putting tacks on everyone’s chair. The only vaguely interesting thing here is to find an American film of this era taking such a facetious attitude to divorce and child custody—but it isn’t hard to predict that this foreshadows the Potters being one big happy family by the end (completely unconvincingly so, mind you, but at least the Hays Office was placated). Even troupers like Eve Arden and Franklin Pangborn can’t raise a smile in this one.
Captain Buck Oliver (Randolph Scott), who has spent a year in Britain as an observer, insists that low-altitude bombing controlled by the pilot is the best approach, but Major Chick Davis (Pat O’Brien) puts his faith in the US army’s new bombsight, which allows high-altitude, precision bombing. A head-to-head between the two proves the superiority of the bombsight, and an existing air-field is leased and converted into a flight and training school. The former Hughes Airfield is owned by Burton Hughes (Anne Shirley), whose grandfather was a general in the Air Corps, and whose brother, Tom (Eddie Albert), is one of the first bombardier recruits. Davis is dismayed to find the air-field offices staffed by women, but gradually concedes their efficiency; while “Burt”, as she is known, becomes his trusted right-hand. As training commences, Davis and Oliver continue to clash over the relative importance of pilots and bombardiers, with the need for commissioned pilots to take orders from the non-com bombardiers emerging as a sticking point. With the support and assistance of Burt, Davis fights to have his bombardiers graduated as officers. The training program is brutal, and not everyone makes it through; but Davis’s first graduates are ready when news breaks of the attack on Pearl Harbour… ENOUGH WITH THE PAT O’BRIEN ALREADY!!!! And now that that’s off my chest— This war drama would make an interesting double-bill with the similarly-themed Dive Bomber; although it is a better, or anyway far less annoying, film. Though the names have been changed, Bombardier is the true story of the establishment of the US army’s first bombardier training program. Filmed on location at the Kirtland Army Air Field in New Mexico, the real site of the program, it follows the first recruits through the difficulties of their theoretical training, and the dangers to be encountered in the air. Numerous stumbling-blocks must be overcome, with the cadets afflicted by air-sickness, fears of various kinds, and spiritual doubts over their work (and alas, this film has one of those creepy “Mass slaughter is part of God’s Great Plan!” scenes); while on the ground, Davis must fight for respect and acceptance for his men, while dealing with the threat of espionage. With all this going on, we hardly need a romance subplot; but Bombardier gives us one anyway: a love quadrangle, with Davis and Oliver both pursuing Burt, who only has eyes for Cadet Jim Carter (Walter Reed), her brother’s best friend. For the most part this is a pleasingly low-key film, which goes easy on the flag-waving and speechifying…at least, up until the final sequence, wherein the new recruits fly their first mission—at which point the jingoism and stereotypes emerge in full force. Oh, well. Produced by RKO, Bombardier boasts cinematography by Nicholas Murascura and Joseph P. Biroc and was edited by Robert Wise, with Robert Aldrich acting as assistant director to Richard Wallace. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for its special effects. Barton MacLane has a supporting role as Davis’s hard-headed sergeant, and Robert Ryan appears as one of the cadets. Brigadier-General Eugene L. Eubank, who led the first bombing raid depicted at the end of the film, provides an onscreen introduction; while the production’s access to real military equipment means it offers extensive footage of the era’s training aircraft and bombers.
China Sky (1945)
A small town in the mountains of China stores and supplies ammunition to the guerrilla forces led by Chen-ta (Anthony Quinn), which protect from Japanese attack the caves to which China’s arms manufacturing have been moved. The frequent bombing raids sent against the town also threaten the hospital that is currently under the control of Dr Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), while its head and founder, Dr Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott), is in America raising funds for new equipment. When Chen-ta brings to the hospital a wounded Japanese officer, Colonel Yasada (Richard Loo), demanding that he be made fit for trial, it sets off a chain reaction of complications. Chen-ta falls in love with head nurse Ming Sui-mei (Carol Thurston), who has already been promised by her father to Dr Kim (Philip Ahn). Resentful of being subordinate to two foreigners, one of them a woman, and now seeing his betrothed turn to another man, Dr Kim becomes an easy target for the persuasions of Yasada, who has also guessed his closely-guarded secret: that while his mother was Korean, Dr Kim’s father was Japanese. When Gray returns to the hospital, he brings with him not only the new equipment, but a new wife, Louise (Ellen Drew). However, it is soon apparent that Louise hasn’t the courage to face the dangers of her new life; while she, in turn, quickly sees what Gray has never noticed: that Sara is in love with him… Based upon a novel by Pearl Buck, China Sky is sufficiently entertaining for what it is—which is a piece of low-budget wartime propaganda from Republic, full of racial impersonation, and with the Chinese mountains played by Bronson Canyon. And even if you can swallow all of that, you still have to get over the monumental stupidity of the film’s leading man, who manages to work shoulder-to-shoulder with an attractive, intelligent, courageous woman for years without giving her a single romantic thought, and then falls instead for a vapid, selfish, mink-draped puppet. And if that’s not enough, he carries said mink-draped puppet into a war-zone—and then looks surprised when his marriage blows up in his face. The female hand behind the story shows itself less in this situation, however, than in the way in which the various male characters sort themselves into “good” and “bad” according to their attitude to women: for example, Dr Kim keeps demanding that Sui-mei be properly humble towards him, while Chen-ta admires her spunky independence. The film’s handling of Sara Durand is its most enjoyable aspect, however, with her medical skill and her ability to run the hospital no cause for wonder, but simply taken for granted. Best of all, it is she who gets China Sky‘s “hill of beans” speech, responding to the romantic fretting of Gray with a sharp reminder about the imperative nature of their work. The complete lack of subtlety in the way that the film sets up its central triangle is amusing (Ellen Drew is hilariously crass as Louise, forever donning her mink coat before retreating to the air-raid shelters), as is the triangle’s echo amongst the Asian – or “Asian” – characters. Far less amusing is poor Richard Loo in full-on “bucktoothed Japanese” stereotype mode as Yasada, whispering poison into the ears of Dr Kim. Yasada convinces Kim that, were Gray to leave the hospital permanently, Sara would not be able to maintain her authority, and he could take charge. Kim persuades Louise to send a coded message – unchecked by the authorities because it is signed with Gray’s name – which he tells her will bring a plane on which she and Gray can leave. Kim’s understanding is that Yasada will also be secretly on board—but when the plane comes, it isn’t to take people out, but to bring them in…
Pink String And Sealing Wax (1945)
In 1880s Brighton, the chemist Mr Sutton (Mervyn Johns) comes to public notice when, as the new police analyst, his testimony in a murder trial sees a woman sentenced to be hanged. At home, the puritanical and humourless Sutton rules his family absolutely, ignoring the warning of his unhappy wife (Mary Merrall) that he is making their children fear and evade him. When Sutton stops the romantic correspondence between his eldest son, David (Gordon Jackson), and a young lady, David begins to frequent ‘The Dolphin’, where he becomes infatuated with the publican’s wife, Pearl Bond (Googie Withers). Pearl is amused and flattered by the callow youth’s evident idealisation of her, but only has eyes for brash gambler, Dan Powell (John Carol); even though her pursuit of Dan provokes her drunken husband, Joe (Garry Marsh), to violent abuse. Encountering Pearl after an altercation has left her with a bad cut, a horrified David takes her into his father’s chemist shop, where he cleans and binds up her injury. In an effort to impress her, David talks about various items in the shop—including the properties of strychnine, and how strychnine poisoning may be mistaken for tetanus… This Ealing drama, based upon the play by Roland Pertwee and directed by Robert Hamer, is a beautifully mounted suspense-thriller which moves effortlessly between the stifling respectability of the Sutton household and the dog-eat-dog world of ‘The Dolphin’. The curious thing about this story is that, in spite of the progressive revelations of just how far Pearl is prepared to go in pursuit of what she wants, for most of the film it is not she, but Mr Sutton, who comes across as its true villain: a state of affairs we can credit to the equally excellent performances of Mervyn Johns and Googie Withers. Withers walks a tightrope here: Pearl is really a dreadful, vicious person, yet she retains a surface charm that beguiles the audience quite as much as it does David Sutton. (She also looks perfectly stunning in black—so much so, we wonder she didn’t dispose of Joe years earlier, just for that.) Mr Sutton, on the other hand, is hateful in his suffocating, joyless self-righteousness, thwarting his children at every turn just on principle, and coolly reminding his wife that as a wife, she has no legal rights. But whatever else he may be, Mr Sutton is a rigidly honest man—and when, frightened by police interest in the circumstances of Joe’s death, Pearl approaches him, threatening to drag David into the case unless he, as analyst, falsifies the autopsy results, she overreaches herself… In addition to its central characterisations, Pink Strings And Sealing Wax offers nice supporting performances from Gordon Jackson as David (keeping his accent in check), who ironically starts to grow a spine because of his association with Pearl, and Sally Ann Howes as younger daughter, Peggy, fretting over her father’s experimental guinea-pigs and bullying her sister, Victoria (Jean Ireland), into pursuing the singing career she desperately wants—and which, naturally, Mr Sutton has forbidden. Meanwhile, Catherine Lacey is hilarious as a most refeeened bar-fly.
The Overlanders (1946)
With Japanese attacks increasing and invasion a real possibility, a meat-packing and export plant on the north-west coast of Western Australia is ordered destroyed. When it comes to the shooting of a thousand head of cattle, however, Dan McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) – who has been rejected for active service on the grounds that “bullocks are more important than bullets” – proposes a radical alternative: to drive the cattle overland to a safer coastal port. Though the plan is considered both impractical and dangerous, Dan is finally given permission to try. Since most of the able-bodied workers at the plant have already signed up, Dan is left to recruit a team from amongst the few remaining strays and misfits, including British ex-pat and WWI veteran, “Corky” (John Fernside), and medically-discharged Welsh sailor, “Sinbad” (Peter Pagan). Dan is happy to have the help of farmer Bill Parsons (John Nugent Hayward), who has evacuated his family and burned down their coastal home, but unsure about his wife (Jean Blue) and daughters, Mary (Daphne Campbell) and Helen (Helen Grieve); he is particularly sceptical when Mary signs on as a drover, but comes to admire her hard work, courage and skill. Guided by Aboriginal stockmen, Jacky (Clyde Combo) and Nipper (Henry Murdoch), the party sets off on its trek… A most unlikely Ealing Studios production, The Overlanders is a fine drama based on true events: as the Japanese moved south in 1942, and with most of the Australian troops still in North Africa, the response of the northern Australian coast was to institute a “scorched earth” policy and to pull back—so that if the invaders came, they would find only a wasteland. The area’s cattle were, however, far too valuable to simply kill; and many of them were driven overland to Adelaide or Brisbane. The latter is the goal of Dan McAlpine and his team, a trek of some sixteen hundred miles taking nearly a year. This is necessarily an episodic film, with the drovers encountering and overcoming a series of obstacles, including a crocodile-infested billabong (where, okay, a few of the “crocodiles” are alligators). There is only one serious human injury along the way, but alas, not all of the cattle make it, and neither do all of the horses—the latter requiring the drovers to pitch camp until they can round up and break a small herd of brumbies. As The Overlanders progresses, its egalitarian attitude to its female characters becomes almost startling. Mrs Parsons is one of those mostly silent but incredibly tough women that the outback tends to produce; twenty-ish Mary quickly becomes one of the most valuable members of the team (she is only once kept out of something dangerous, and she’s not happy about that instance; although you could argue that Dan’s harsh, “You’ll do as you’re damn well told!” shows her as equal with the men); while thirteen-ish Helen confronts one dangerous situation after another without losing her cheerfulness, and is allowed to help the team out when she can. Meanwhile, the entire enterprise rests heavily upon the skills of Jacky and Nipper. (This last bit of equality was too much for Ealing, who dropped Clyde Combo and Henry Murdoch to the bottom of the credits, sigh.) It is a pity that The Overlanders wasn’t made a decade later, as this is a film that cries out for cinemascope; but as it is, the possibly over-lit cinematography captures brilliantly the harshness of the arid landscape. Of all the films made or shot in Australia, this is one of my favourites—because it is one of the very few (the only one?) with a complete lack of “tourist-stuff”. This is a story about the real Australia—a country that just wants to kill you, and has more ways of doing it than you can possibly imagine…
The Small Voice (1948)
Murray Byrne (James Donald), a playwright, and his wife, Eleanor (Valerie Hobson), seem to have both success and happiness, but in reality their marriage is crumbling under the weight of the psychological and physical trauma suffered by Murray during the war, including the loss of a leg. Unable to bear any longer Murray’s bitterness and cynicism, and his insistence on viewing himself as a “lesser” man, Eleanor makes plans to leave him—until Fate intervenes. Three escaped convicts, led by the violent Boke (Howard Keel), are involved in a car accident near the Byrnes’ house in an isolated corner of the Welsh countryside. Stopping to help, Murray and Eleanor find themselves being held hostage, their quiet home turned into a hideout, and a dangerous situation made even more difficult when the slow-witted Jim (David Greene), another of the escapees, brings to the house two children who survived the crash, one of whom is seriously ill… This suspense-drama, released in the US as The Hideout, has some interesting aspects but is never completely satisfactory—chiefly because, though his experiences during the hostage crisis and his final confrontation with Boke are supposed to illustrate Murray’s reclaiming of his courage and self-belief, he doesn’t seem much different at the end of the film than at the beginning. The resourceful and proactive Eleanor, who makes various attempts to escape and/or contact the police or a doctor, is the far more interesting character. To modern eyes, the situation of the sick child, who turns out to have meningitis, is probably the most disturbingly compelling aspect of the film, particularly his intermittent screams of pain, which play havoc with the nerves of all concerned—and raise the question of whether Boke is indeed prepared to just let the boy die… The Small Voice marked the screen debut of Howard Keel, who was cast while appearing on the London stage in Oklahoma!, and is billed using his real first name, “Harold”. Character actor Michael Balfour is the third of the escapees, while Michael Horden has a small early role as the doctor.
Mystery Junction (1951)
Mystery writer Larry Gordon (Sydney Tafler) gets the chance to turn detective when his train journey is startlingly interrupted. Gordon is chatting with an elderly fan, Miss Owens (Christine Silver), when they hear a scream. Rapid investigation suggests that a young police officer has been murdered by an associate of criminal Steve Harding (Martin Benson), who is being transported to stand trial by Detective-Sergeant Peterson (Ewen Solon). Peterson rounds up the passengers in the carriage and forces them to disembark at a junction station—before discovering that heavy snowfall means they are all trapped there. When the lights go out, Peterson is shot dead. Harding at first believes that this is also the work of his associates—but they deny it. Gordon then suggests that it was Harding himself who was the real target, either to stop him talking at his trial or because of an old grudge. Disturbed by this suggestion, Harding orders Gordon to identify his would-be killer—or else… Mystery Junction is a reasonably entertaining thriller, though its low budget and no-name cast work against it to a degree. In particular, the film falters at the outset by throwing too many characters at the viewer too quickly, and then having half of them turn out to be someone else before there’s been time to grasp who they were supposed to be. Thus, the rapidly shifting drama is sometimes confusing rather than gripping. However, as a whole the film functions as an oddly interesting rumination on the self-defeating nature of violence: from beginning to end, nothing turns out as planned for those who try to solve their problems through force, be they “bad” or “good”. The story eventually offers a twist in the tail, but for those who have been paying attention, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Mystery Junction is well-staged on its restricted sets by writer-director Michael McCarthy, while the moody black-and-white photography by Robert LePresle is a real asset. Patricia Owens appears in a supporting role.
The Holly And The Ivy (1952)
The Gregory family prepares to gather for Christmas at the vicarage of the Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson). Relations between the minister and his now-grown children, Jenny (Celia Johnson), Margaret (Margaret Leighton) and Michael (Denholm Elliott) have always been difficult, due to a feeling that a normal parent-child relationship simply isn’t possible when the parent is a man of the cloth; and, over the years, the younger Gregorys have fallen into the habit of keeping things from their father, out of a sense that he could not cope with or even understand certain unpleasant realities. Matters come to a head when Jenny receives a proposal of marriage from engineer David Paterson (John Gregson), who must depart for South America in a month’s time and wants to take her with him. Though she longs for marriage, Jenny refuses David because she feels she cannot leave her father, for whom she keeps house, and is sure that Margaret will not give up her life in London and her career to look after him. What no-one knows, however, is that Margaret’s avoidance of her family is her way of keeping a shocking secret; and with the sudden exposure of that secret, the Gregory family will be changed forever… The Holly And The Ivy is a heartfelt British drama about family relationships, and how very little we may know of the people with whom we share our lives. Ralph Richardson is very good as Martin, depicting him as a warm and caring, if rather unworldly, individual—but at the same time making it clear why his children have always felt uncomfortable around him, and why they feel he has to be “looked after”. (We, the viewers, may however clench our teeth over Martin’s habit of telling everyone else that he would never stand in Jenny’s way, but only ever saying to Jenny herself, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”) When Michael, having had a few too many, blurts out some unwelcome truths, Martin’s dismay is genuine and deep—a sense that he has failed as both a father and a minister—but he comes into his own when Michael is also driven to reveal Margaret’s secret, and her suffering… There is a curious, contradictory tone to aspects of The Holly And The Ivy, which evinces an extraordinarily casual – not to say positive – attitude towards an illicit love affair and an illegitimate child: an attitude that sits very oddly beside the film’s contention that marriage is the only thing that can really make a woman happy; although this in turn comes hand-in-hand with a forthright insistence that parents should not be permitted to “consume” their children, and that likewise, if forced to choose, children should always choose to make their own, separate lives. (Jenny has before her the example of her lonely, bitter, constantly complaining old aunt, who was “a good daughter” and stayed at home…) The highlight of The Holly And The Ivy is its central set-piece, a scene between the sisters as they wash and dry in the kitchen, wherein Jenny’s understandable if suppressed resentment of her sister – who is, despite Jenny’s own efforts and Margaret’s sustained absence, clearly their father’s favourite: typical – bubbles to the surface, only to be swept away by Margaret’s almost emotionless recitation of her personal tragedy. Both Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton, very different styles of actresses, are given the chance to shine here.
Count The Hours (1953)
When a well-respected farmer and his housekeeper are murdered, apparently having interrupted a robbery, suspicion immediately fastens on George Braden (John Craven), an itinerant worker recently hired by the dead man as a handyman. When the police search uncovers a box of ammunition of the same calibre as that used in the murders, Ellen Braden (Teresa Wright) panics and throws her husband’s gun into the river—only to realise too late she has thrown away the main piece of evidence in his favour. Both Braden and Ellen are subjected to the third degree, until Braden confesses in exchange for Ellen – who is pregnant – being left alone. With the town’s usual public defender ill, District Attorney Jim Gillespie (Edgar Barrier) asks lawyer Doug Madison (Macdonald Carey) to defend Braden. Assuming on the basis of what he has been told and Braden’s confession that he is guilty, Madison is disgusted when Braden claims innocence and decides he wants nothing to do with the case—until he sees Ellen desperately diving the river where the police divers found nothing and have already given up. When word spreads that Madison will be defending Braden, he finds himself the most hated man in town—and, due to his defence of Ellen against death threats and harassment, the subject of vicious talk that begins to hurt his relationship with his fiancée, Paula (Dolores Moran)… Tautly directed by Don Siegel and brilliantly shot by John Alton, for about two-thirds of its running-time Count The Hours is a suspenseful and disturbing crime drama. Though George Braden ends up on death-row, with the hours of his life slipping inexorably away, the film’s focus remains on Ellen: alone, pregnant, broke, subject to appalling abuse—and knowing that her action has helped to put her husband where he is. Meanwhile, Madison’s conscientious defence of his client ruins him both professionally and personally—since no-one expected him really to defend Braden… Then, having gone so far in its simultaneous exposure of the dark underbellies of small-town life and the criminal justice system, Count The Hours slams on the brakes and starts frantically backpedalling on everything it has been saying: oh, of course the District Attorney’s office wants the right man convicted, not just any poor sucker; oh, of course the police investigated that alternative suspect thoroughly, we just didn’t see it; oh, of course the court-appointed psychiatrist is an upstanding professional, not a smarmy quack… I can only suppose that the censors got to Count The Hours, or that the studio got cold feet. Pity. But despite the square-peg feel of the film’s conclusion, it’s still a worthwhile drama, with the missteps of the run home somewhat compensated for by the introduction of Jack Elam as George Braden’s handyman-predecessor, who has a habit of confessing to anything, and Adele Mara as (there’s really no other way of putting it) a shanty-tramp; while Dolores Fuller has an uncredited bit as a reporter. The film’s score features an amusingly intrusive theremin.
The Stranger’s Hand (1954)
Young Roger Court (Richard O’Sullivan) is delivered to the airport by his aunt, on his way to Venice to meet up with his father, Major Court (Trevor Howard), an MI5 operative. Roger makes it safely to his hotel, but is greatly relieved when his father telephones to say that his train has just arrived, and that he will be arriving at the hotel by water-bus in twenty minutes. Roger rushes to his balcony to watch the landing-point—but his father does not come… Based upon a story by Graham Greene, this British-Italian co-production offers a lot visually due to its location shooting in Venice, but is ultimately a rather unbelievable and frustrating film. The Stranger’s Hand turns out to be an espionage drama, with Major Court and another European operative, Peskovich (Giorgio Constantini), kidnaped in order to be handed over to the Russians. (We assume: the “unnamed nation” bit gets very irritating.) The film never bothers to make it clear, however, why the Venetian gang headed by Dr Vivaldi (Eduardo Ciannelli) is doing what it’s doing, nor whether Court’s recognition of Peskovich as he is being transported by the gang was deliberately set-up or just – from the gang’s point of view – a happy accident. Either way, we end up with a pretty poor opinion of Court, as he goes charging off into the night, leaving his small son waiting for him alone in a city where he doesn’t speak the language. As far as The Stranger’s Hand works, it is because of the increasingly isolated and dangerous situation of young Roger Court, who can’t get anyone in authority to listen to him or even believe his story. Watching this child being passed from indifferent adult to indifferent adult, or wandering the streets of Venice on his own, is bad enough; in addition we have the twin facts, under which the boy writhes on numerous occasions, that he doesn’t know where his mother is (but if Court got custody despite his occupation, good grief!), and that he can’t describe his father because he hasn’t seen him for three years. In the end, it is not The Authorities, but other dispossessed and unwanted individuals like himself who come to Roger’s assistance, with Russian (again: we think) refugee Roberta Gleukovitch (Alida Valli) and her American boyfriend, Jim Hamstringer (Richard Basehart), a Naval wash-out (yet again: we think) drawn into his dilemma. The film’s climactic sequence, wherein the belatedly convinced Venetian authorities must think of an excuse to board the Russian (you know…) ship on which the kidnapees are being held before it leaves their waters, builds some welcome suspense; but in the end, everything turns on a coincidence just too big to swallow: that while aimlessly wandering the streets of Venice, Roger very nearly found his father—was prevented from doing so only because he attracted the attention of a certain Dr Vivaldi…
Spaced Invaders (1990)
Widower Sam Hoxly (Douglas Barr) moves with his young daughter, Kathy (Ariana Richards), to the small farming community of Big Bean, Illinois, where he takes up the position of sheriff. Sam is hoping for a quiet life, but unfortunately for those plans, five Martians on a passing spaceship catch part of the town’s Halloween broadcast of The War Of The Worlds and rush to Earth to take part in what they believe is a successful invasion. Crashing on the property of Mr Wrenchmuller (Royal Dano), who is about to lose his farm to obnoxious developer, Klembecker (Gregg Palmer), four of the Martians leave their pilot to repair the ship, while they set out to claim Big Bean in the name of Mars—but on Halloween, who’s going to pay attention to, or even notice, a handful of pint-sized space invaders? Patrick Read Johnson’s science fiction-comedy is a wholehearted effort, but it doesn’t completely work. There are some funny moments here, and some cute ones, and some simply inexplicable ones (each of the five Martians has a distinct personality and voice; one of them is doing a bad Cary Grant); but overall, the story just gets dragged out for too long. This is also one of those films where important details tend to get lost beneath the shouting and explosions, so it isn’t always clear what’s happening. Still, if you stick with it, something to enjoy pops up at regular intervals. Despite its aliens and gadgets, the strongest aspect of Spaced Invaders may be the friendship that develops between the lonely Kathy and a local kid, Brian (J. J. Anderson): the scenes of these two wandering the streets of Big Bean, Kathy in her killer ‘Alien’ costume, courtesy of an uncle who works in Hollywood, and Brian in a duck costume made by his mother, are both sweet and funny. There are some good lines, too: like Sam lamenting in the face of a Martian invasion that he moved to the country to “get away from this sort of thing”, only for his bemused deputy to wonder, “This happens a lot in Chicago?”; or Mr Wrenchmuller reflecting to his dog that as far as he can see, the two of them represent the Earth’s only hope. “That’s kind of sad,” he adds after a moment’s silent reflection. However—the fact that none of my favourite moments have anything to do with the Martians perhaps illustrates where this film falls down: their funniness / cuteness is too much taken for granted. Of course, the “invasion” is a bust, and then it becomes instead a matter of getting the Martians off the planet and back into space before their ship explodes and creates a black hole: a goal made all the more difficult by the intervention of the Martians’ assigned “killer drone”, a robot programmed to intervene when any Martian deviates from strict command orders—and by “intervene” we mean “terminate with extreme prejudice”…
The Messengers (2007)
The Solomon family relocates from Chicago to an isolated farm in North Dakota, hoping for a fresh start; father Roy (Dermott McDermott) grew up in the area and believes he can make a go of growing sunflowers, even though the Rollins family that previously occupied the farm simply left when their crop failed. Meanwhile, tensions remain high between Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) and teenager Jess (Kristen Stewart), who was responsible for a car accident in which her young brother, toddler Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner), was injured. Strange occurrences soon begin to plague Jess; although she is not certain what is happening around her until she realises that, while their parents are oblivious, Ben can see and hear things too. However, due to Jess’s track record, even when she is hurt in a supernatural attack, Roy and Denise believe that her injuries are self-inflicted. Can Jess make them understand that they are all in danger before it is too late…? Directed by the Pang brothers, The Messengers is pretty weak tea. (The ultimate condemnation: it failed the “Made me reluctant to walk up my dark staircase” test.) There are several different issues here which make this a disappointment. The scares are overly familiar, for one thing: telegraphed jump-moments; clutching hands; jerky, scuttling figures; blank-eyed, black-mouthed demons that lurch into shot; something spectral passing close to the camera while the soundtrack goes “vvvvrrrruuUUMMMM!!”; and of course, the inevitable REALLY!! LOUD!! NOISE!! Meanwhile, I found the scenes of various characters being Tippi Hedren-ed by a literal murder of crows pretty hilarious, which I’m sure wasn’t the reaction desired; although the funniest moment is a Hero’s Death Battle Exemption that has to be seen to be disbelieved. (Did you know you can shrug off a pitchfork in the back??) Nevertheless—if you like this kind of film, all of this can certainly still be enjoyed. A more serious problem is that the film makes very little sense on a story level—not with respect to the behaviour of the Solomons, nor that of drifter Burwell (John Corbett), and least of all when it comes to the entities inhabiting the house. If they just want to hurt people, why do they leave the Solomons alone for what seems to be several months? – or if they want what the end of the film suggests, why do they hurt the Solomons at all? But there are a few positives here. The setting is certainly different (do they have sunflower farms in North Dakota? – I honestly don’t know; though I gather from the credits that “North Dakota” is played by somewhere in Canada), and the Pangs manage to create some impressive visuals via the contrast between the spooky interiors of the house and its beautiful surroundings. I must also make mention of the fact that the film has two teenage characters, and I didn’t particularly want to see either of them die a horrible death (and one of them is played by Kristen Stewart!). However, most of The Messengers‘ best scenes revolve around young Ben, mute for plot purposes, and therefore unable to support his sister’s claims of ghosts. But he has his uses in other ways—like when Jess carries him around the house, using him as a “ghost-spotter”. My favourite moment, though, is when oblivious mother Denise, thinking he’s playing games, asks him what he sees?—and he responds by pulling a hideous face at her… (In other words, the real star of this film is one Brenda Campbell, somewhat worryingly listed in the credits as the “trainer” of the twins who alternate playing Ben.) To its credit, The Messengers manages to eschew the kicker ending, which in my book means an automatic extra half-star…although now that I come to think about it, I still don’t know whether the “messengers” of the title are supposed to be the spooks or the crows or the kids, so maybe I’ll take that half-star away again…
Though they seem to live an idyllic existence with their two young daughters, Megan (Shyann McClure) and Bridgette (Courtney Taylor Burness), the marriage of Jim (Julian McMahon) and Lucy Hansen (Sandra Bullock) has fallen into a rut, with the two drifting apart. After Jim leaves town on a business trip, Lucy finds a message from him on their answering machine, in which he insists that “he meant what he said in front of the kids”—a conversation Lucy doesn’t remember having. But these details are swept away by the devastating news, broken to Lucy by Sheriff Reilly (Marc Macaulay), that Jim was killed in a car accident the day before… When Lucy wakes the next morning, however, she finds Jim downstairs and assumes after the initial shock that she has suffered an unusually vivid nightmare—especially after an encounter with the sheriff, who shows no sign of recognising her. But more strange events happen, of which Lucy has no memory; while Jim continues to come and go in her life. Finally Lucy realises that she is experiencing the week surrounding the day of Jim’s death out-of-order—and that there is a chance that she may use her knowledge of the past and future to prevent the accident that killed him… Time paradox stories are always fun, of course, and on that superficial level Premonition is an engaging bit of nonsense, as the understandably bewildered and frustrated Lucy Hansen shifts backwards and forwards around the pivot-point of her husband’s death. On all other levels, however— Premonition is one of those films that makes me fear that I’m A Very Bad Person Indeed. At least, I’m pretty sure the filmmakers didn’t intend their romantic tragedy to be received with involuntary giggles, but that was my main reaction to this time-shifty would-be thriller; while by the time we arrived at the long-delayed trauma scene, I was laughing like a loon. (And for heaven’s sake don’t mention the casket, or you’ll set me off again…) In my defence, though, my first burst of laughter was purely sympathetic, as Lucy whips out a big sheet of paper and tries to “solve” her situation like a logic problem: I could imagine myself doing exactly that! However, the unfortunate consequence of Lucy’s approach to her nightmare situation is that it tends to highlight the plot-holes in the script, which in turn undermine the film’s po-faced attempts to say something meaningful about life and love. Possibly these inconsistencies are supposed to be alterations to the timeline brought about by Lucy’s foreknowledge, but that reading clashes with the puzzling fact that Lucy seems to spend most of her time bringing about the very events that will lead to Jim’s death…assuming that isn’t the conclusion we’re supposed to take away from this film. In fact, I can’t come up with an interpretation of Premonition that isn’t completely horrifying in its implications – particularly for poor Jim – despite the belated and gratuitous eruption into the narrative of Lucy’s lost religious faith. Speaking of which, I’m sure the film’s closing moments are supposed to be all romantic and life-affirming and miraculous, but they only succeeded in provoking me to another burst of laughter—and a cry of, “Just as well he TRIPLED THE DEATH BENEFIT!!”
I guess it’s true—I am A Very Bad Person Indeed…
Tom Noonan (Peter Weller), an engineer in charge of a dam construction project in South Africa, has tried to turn his time in the country into a bonding holiday for himself, his new wife, Amy (Bridget Moynahan), and the children from his first marriage, Jessica (Carly Schroeder) and David (Connor Dowds). However, while David is willing to be friends with Amy, Jessica is miserable and resentful of her father’s remarriage and determined that neither she nor anyone else will enjoy their holiday. When Tom has to be onsite for a whole day, he arranges for the others to take a private wildlife drive. Jessica’s hostility to Amy and complaints about the drive prompt the driver, Brian (Marius Roberts), to go off-road in search of more wildlife. David then begs for a pit-stop; Brian escorts him out of the jeep to some nearby bushes—only to realise that a hungry pair of lions lurk nearby. In the terrifying chase that follows, David makes it back to the safety of the jeep; Brian is not so lucky. Overcome by the horror of his bloody death, the others then realise he had the keys to the jeep with him—and that the lions aren’t going anywhere… You know—I can deal with what we might call Framework-A of the killer animal genre, “estranged couple realise they love each other after all while fighting a killer whatever” – I can, really – but I’d strike a medal for anyone willing to put a bullet between the eyes of Framework-B, “step-parent wins over reluctant step-children by saving them from a killer whatever”—particularly when it comes accessorised with that most nerve-shredding of cinematic constructs, the Whiny Teen. Such is the hell in which we find ourselves with Prey, which is basically Cujo in Africa—although I imagine it was conceived as yet another spin on the story of the Tsavo lions. For the first half of the film, the sulky and petulant Jessica is so abhorrent that surely no-one (and by “no-one” I mean her father and brother, not just the viewer) would have blamed Amy if she had thrown her to the lions in order to create a diversion. Or for some other reason. All that said, Prey actually uses this set-up quite well, with Amy and Jessica realising that they’re going to have to work together if they and David are to have any hope of survival. The film also goes in a few unexpected directions—or rather, declines to go in the expected directions. Peter Weller is top-billed, but he is off-screen much of the time; this is really Bridget Moynahan’s film, while Connor Dowds is likeable as David. Prey was shot on location in South Africa, and I must say that the country looks strangely barren and unattractive here: perhaps we’re supposed to infer that the lions have been “driven” to hunt humans by drought and a lack of game. Otherwise, we can only conclude that no-one connected with this production knew anything about lion behaviour. It should also be pointed out that, in the end, as many lions die here as humans, and that is NOT what I signed up for…
The Reaping (2007)
Losing her faith after her husband and daughter are murdered, former ordained minister Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) now spends her time debunking “miracles”, while also holding a teaching post at Louisiana State University. Katherine is approached by Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey), from the small, isolated town of Haven, who asks her to investigate a river running red, apparently with blood. She is reluctant, but agrees when Doug explains that a young girl, Loren McConnell (AnnaSophia Robb), is in danger, with the townspeople blaming her for both her brother’s death and for bringing down upon Haven what is believed to be the beginning of the Biblical plagues. Katherine and her assistant, Ben (Idris Elba), travel to Haven and begin taking samples at the river, which is choked with dead fish. While photographing the area, Katherine encounters Loren and has a strange vision of the girl filling the river with blood. Meanwhile, Ben is a witness as frogs begin to fall from the skies… What hath God wrought?, indeed…although in justice the blame for this sanctimonious mess should be placed squarely at the feet of screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes, who serve up an astonishing mixture of offensive stereotypes in their depiction of Chile, Africa and Louisiana—although naturally enough what caught most of my attention was Katherine herself who – now that she calls herself a scientist – displays both a strident, know-it-all attitude and a mind not merely closed, but hermetically sealed. Three guesses how this is going to end? In the meantime, however, we may amuse ourselves with Katherine’s back-story, wherein after losing her family and her faith in the Sudan, she somehow managed, within the space of five years, to secure first a teaching post and then a professorship at LSU (no hint of what she’s teaching, of course), while travelling the world debunking miracles at a rate of roughly one a month—which you wouldn’t think wouldn’t leave much time for her students. Katherine is basically the female version of Mel Gibson’s character in Signs, however; and even as all it took for him to regain his faith was an alien invasion, all she needs is to witness the rapid manifestation of the ten Biblical plagues. It’s as simple as that, people! Of course, the fact that we are dealing with the plagues means The Reaping features a lot of dead animals, which didn’t do much for my goodwill towards it. (The plague of locusts is fun, though.) This is also one of those annoying films where critical information is conveyed via a garbled phone conversation, making it almost possible to absorb all the necessary details. (Stephen Rea as Father Michael Costigan, Katherine’s fellow missionary in the Sudan – where the two of them must have done a bang-up job, by the way – gets one of the film’s funnier death scenes, which is saying something.) The Reaping offers some striking visuals and a few mild scares, while its climax turns upon a nice irony; but the film’s reliance upon flashbacks and visions is annoying. Its kicker ending is also unintentionally hilarious, both in its blithe assumption that people would want a sequel to this silly film, and for its failure to recognise, or at least admit, that there’s a pretty straightforward way for Katherine to deal with the situation presented. But not in this world, I guess…