Monday, December 10, 2018

Inner Sanctum (1948)

Directed by Lew Landers; produced by Samuel Rheiner and Walter Shenson

On a train, a mysterious man (Fritz Leiber) strikes up a conversation with a bored passenger (Eve Miller), and tells her a story. It’s about a man (Charles Russell) who accidentally kills his girlfriend. Panicking, he deposits the body on a departing train and hides in a boarding house in a small town, trapped there by a flood. Then, events start to close in on the inadvertent criminal, as he tries to buy time until the flood recedes and he can flee.

In a vein similar to the popular radio anthology series of the same name, Inner Sanctum may have been appealing as a later 1950s television programme. Unfortunately, this movie would have been one of its less successful episodes. The set-up is interesting with Dr Valonius, a less than creepy (actually rather benevolent) seer, who re-appears in the last couple of minutes (which constitute the best sequence of the film). The other characters are very ordinary. One, a boy (Dale Belding), starts off rather dense but becomes smarter later on, putting together clues in a way that would do justice to a professional detective.

There is some humour, which is at least entertaining, but which is misplaced in the context of the film. The dialogue is good, and the acting is competent. The story is the main culprit. One expects more of a twist to the principal story-line and, though a surprise comes at the end, it doesn’t redeem the bulk of the tale, or the movie in general. I have a suspicion that the ‘book-ends’ to the movie were the justification for the rest of it - a version of a writer or producer thinking a good premise is as satisfactory as having a good plot. The direction is pedestrian and doesn’t help matters.

While Inner Sanctum’s actors do a good job, there is nothing really here to hold the viewer after the beginning grabs him.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

British Agent (1934)

Directed by Michael Curtiz; no producer credited

In 1917 Russia, a lone representative of Britain (Leslie Howard) fights two battles, one overt and one clandestine, to keep the new Bolshevik government in the war against Germany and, if that fails, to overthrow it. His task is complicated by his rocky affair with a secretary (Kay Francis) of the Bolsheviks’ Political Committee, a woman who makes no apologies for her loyalty to the Revolution - or for her love for the Englishman.

My reaction to this film is probably unique to my movie-watching. I found it intensely interesting - but can give it only a mild recommendation.

First, I will explain the interest. British Agent is a fictionalised account of the true exploits of Robert Bruce Lockhart, as described in his memoirs, a book that I bought and read years ago. (I have a strong interest in early twentieth century espionage.)

Real people are given movie pseudonyms: Lockhart becomes Locke, Sir George Buchanan is Sir Walter Carrister, Kerensky is Kolonoff, Trotsky is easily recognizable as ‘the commissioner for war’, while the head of the Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) holds Dzerzhinsky’s position but looks like Stalin; Lenin is depicted but his name is pronounced Leneen, and the British prime minister is supposed to be Lloyd George but resembles Balfour.

Nevertheless, for a fictionalised version, the events parallel reality very closely, though with some alterations (eg. the sacking of the British Embassy in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) and the murder of the naval attaché there become the pillage of the consulate in Moscow and the murder of a diplomatic employee.)

The story is as straightforward a tale of political and intelligence operations as you’ll find; there is no editorialising, no taking sides. Locke is a patriotic Briton trying to keep Russia on his country’s side in a life-or-death struggle against a common enemy, while Elena is a dedicated revolutionary who sees Bolshevism as the answer to man’s ills. The savage nature of the Communist regime is not hidden, nor are the illegal attempts by Locke to oust it. I found this impartiality highly refreshing, and filmed entertainment probably would not see it again until the Reilly tv series, starring Sam Neill.

Even so, I cannot strongly recommend British Agent (though it would have an appeal to those devoted to history). I found the romance between the two protagonists to be a distraction. This is ironic, since it was a central feature of the real-life story. Often, in truth, there is no love affair, and it has to be added by Hollywood. Locke is repeatedly played for a fool by his girlfriend and, while this may be realistic, is rather tiresome to watch. As well, the dialogue spoken by the lovers is melodramatic and full of lines that no one but a screenwriter could imagine people uttering.

The sudden ending comes via a deus ex machina that definitely is straight out of the world of fiction, and does not reflect real events, which resolved themselves in a rather unsatisfactory way over a lengthy period of time. The fateful decision, made by Lenin, that clears up the problems at the finale was definitely not one which he would have made.

These are not small problems, and hurt the film. But its involving plot, set in a tumultuous and chaotic time, and its clean-cut portrayal of events, give British Agent an attraction to some that is out of proportion to its other qualities. But those who will be pleased with it will, I think, be a minority in its audience.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Too Late for Tears (1949)

Directed by Byron Haskin; produced by Hunt Stromberg

While driving one evening to a party, a young couple (Lizabeth Scott, Arthur Kennedy) are shocked when the driver of a passing car tosses a satchel of money into their convertible. Scott wants to keep their windfall, though Kennedy wants to turn it in to the police. To give his wife time to realise the money can bring no good, he agrees to store it away for a week. The next day, a sleazy crook (Dan Duryea) shows up, claiming the money as his, but it’s an open question as to whether he or Scott are more determined to have the cash. And that’s when things become complex - for everyone.

An excellent crime drama, Too Late for Tears showcases a career-making performance by Scott, as one of cinema’s hardest-hearted femme fatales. Her machinations are intricate and ambitious, but realistic. Propelled by the obsession to avoid the shabby lower middle-class life of her youth, Scott won’t let anything stand in her way.

Most of the other actors are fine in their roles. Kennedy plays Scott’s husband as decent and understanding - though not understanding enough - and while Duryea’s part may be seen as the sort he could have played in his sleep, it has depth to it, especially as he begins to comprehend that he, a life-time criminal, has more of a conscience than the housewife with whom he’s become entangled. Kristine Miller, as Kennedy’s sister, is the weak link in the cast; her acting is passable, but not up to the level of the others.

The plot is not simple, and the viewer never knows who has the upper hand from one scene to the next; neither do the characters. Don DeFore shows up in the movie’s second reel, claiming an acquaintance with Kennedy, but what he is really after keeps the audience guessing.

There are a few flaws, such as a police detective (Barry Kelley) who seems quite competent, but who becomes conveniently thick-headed with regard to some evidence, principally so the amateurs looking into the affair have to go it alone. Aside from a few excusable elements that could have been better handled, the story is satisfying.

The direction, script and cinematography are all good, without being very good. Too Late for Tears is, in fact, a film with many average qualities, elevated by the acting and the story. It was probably filmed on a slim budget, but should be remembered after more expensive movies are forgotten. It’s an example of what one or two factors can do for an otherwise normal work.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Ramrod (1947)

Directed by Andre de Both; produced by Harry Sherman

A former drunk (Joel McCrea) hires on with a would-be sheep-rancher (Ian MacDonald) and his fiancée (Veronica Lake), who intend to challenge the strangle-hold the local boss (Preston Foster) has on the district. After MacDonald bows to intimidation and flees, his stronger girlfriend decides to continue the struggle, and McCrea, no stranger to Foster’s bullying, agrees to help.

Ramrod has the feel of an intended epic, set in the old American west. Certainly the talent is there: McCrea and Lake re-team several years after the delightful Sullivan’s Travels, Foster is a dependable heavy, and Donald Crisp is cast as a veteran lawman. Andre de Toth was well-seasoned as a director by then. But the movie has a curious listlessness, and the budget seemed less than it should have been. Wondrous things have been done for small amounts, but not in this case.

As capable a director as de Toth was, Ramrod has the odd characteristic of several key action scenes occurring just off-camera, or the camera catching them just a little too late. One man is shot, falls and, though the last we see of him is his struggle to lift his revolver, the following dialogue proves that he was killed. In a shoot-out in the village street, a man is gunned down; we see the shooter fire, then the victim tumble, but we do not see his face. It may be a little complaint but the action made it seem as though the death was important, but not the identity. This may be a criticism better directed at the editing than the directing, but a number of the film’s events appear to occur off-screen, as it were.

The characters are, for the most part, only adequate. McCrea, usually very watchable, is quite humdrum here, and doesn’t generate the interest that he should. Don DeFore stands out as a ne’er-do-well whose loyalty is nonetheless rock-solid. But it is Lake who gives the best performance, creating a character who is strong and determined, but whose single-minded ambition to break her enemy leads her to use whatever method she needs, and exploit whomever comes under her hand. A not unsympathetic portrait, it is a tragic character, in a minor way.

Ramrod’s scenery is excellent, but outside close-ups, for example a night-time duel when the villains are stalking their victims through the brush, are often filmed on a stage, and while the cinematography has impressive instances, these are few. The film just doesn’t give them their moments.

Ramrod could have been much better than it was; everything was in place. But through effortlessness or lack of funds or less than stellar post-production work, it turns out simply average.

Monday, November 12, 2018

It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

Directed by René Clair; produced by Arnold Pressburger

A reporter (Dick Powell), during a night of conviviality celebrating his promotion, wishes that he could learn of events beforehand. Despite the friendly warning of the newspaper’s archivist (John Philliber), Powell presses his wish, only to have the archivist deliver him the next day’s edition of their newspaper that night. Astonished, frightened and confused, Powell nonetheless uses the paper, and subsequent deliveries, to enhance his professional reputation and advance his personal life. But he soon learns that being able to see the future doesn’t mean knowing everything that will happen.

Some may recall the late 1990s tv series Early Edition. It was based on an identical premise as It Happened Tomorrow, and must have been inspired by the film. The movie itself is based on a play by Lord Dunsany, and is a very entertaining comedy fantasy, with a little bit of wisdom regarding the dangers of too much knowledge.

Powell was noted at this time for acting in comedies and musicals, though this would soon change drastically when he switched into the crime and film noir genre. It Happened Tomorrow was not quite his last light-hearted role; if he was tired of being cast in them, it doesn’t show here. His performance is spot on, as his character goes through the various stages that we all might experience in such fantastic circumstances. Linda Darnell plays his love interest, whom he meets, significantly, without the future newspaper’s help. Jack Oakie is close to being over the top as Darnell’s uncle, with whom she performs a fake psychic act, but instead, his style works. Veteran director Clair uses Oakie’s exuberance well by completely suppressing it at certain moments.

The setting is the 1890s and the story benefits from the era. The manners and mores of the characters are true to the decade, and they lead to some funny scenes (I chuckled aloud at the sight of the feet under Darnell’s bed). The writing is clever in how it arranges for the newspaper’s ‘predictions’ to come true (eg. the twist on Powell’s claim that he would ‘give ten years’ of his life to know the future), keeping the viewer guessing, and the actionful climax – with Powell’s comical initial belief in his invulnerability – is funny and exciting.

The only incongruous element in It Happened Tomorrow are the ‘book-ends’, which take place fifty years after the main story. Not only is this element unnecessary (though perhaps it was because film-goers at the time were as disconnected from the past as are their present counterparts), but it seems to take place in the future. Philliber, as the newspaper’s archivist, gestures toward the few bound copies of the journal that represent the twentieth century. This would place the ‘book-ends’ in at least 1950; the film was released in 1944. It may have been a further joke, to play with time in this fashion.

On the subject of time, It Happened Tomorrow is a movie that could be enjoyed by any era; a minor classic and timeless comedy, well-written, well-acted, well-directed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Incredibles 2 (2018)

Directed by Brad Bird; produced by Nicole Paradis Grindle and John Walker

This sequel to the successful animated feature The Incredibles (for some reason, this second film discards the definite article in the title) takes up at the moment the first movie ends. The failure of the super-hero family to capture the villainous Underminer (voice of John Ratzenberger) is the final straw for the authorities, who institute a ban on super-heroes. This is secretly challenged, however, by a billionaire brother and sister (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who recruit Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to revive super-heroes’ tarnished image and make them legal again.

It’s rare that a sequel is as good as the original, but Incredibles 2 comes very close; the only reason it doesn’t match the first movie is that it isn’t as innovative as the first - because of its nature as a sequel. But the writing and direction are good, the acting very good and the artwork excellent.

Even a little more than The Incredibles, the sequel’s central issue is one that youngsters wouldn’t easily understand. The first film dealt with identity, both in terms of a ‘secret’ identity and in terms of trying to find out who you are and remain true to it. This time, the issue is more complex - or, perhaps, simply less clear. The super-heroes are fighting not just evil masterminds but for the right to be who they are. This may be seen as a message, in view of the political climate in the United States, but I don’t like to read such things into movies. If a film doesn’t succeed on its own merits, making itself part of a greater argument won’t help.

Taking the elements of the plot as no more than part of a movie - with no message - makes the film more enjoyable. Baby Jack-Jack highlights the principal story-line when his own super-powers manifest themselves overtly; we saw a violent hint of his powers at the end of The Incredibles. He becomes a part of his family’s crime-fighting team, in a random, sometimes uncontrolled manner.

The other children also have bigger parts to play, and here the writing becomes superior. The personalities of Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) are more defined, and are representative of their ages. The boy wants to fight crime because it’s fun, while the girl wants to fight crime because it’s an adult thing to do.

The characters of the super-heroes’ benefactors are also well conceived, and have issues of their own, stemming from the murders of their parents. The brother and sister have different views of what and who are to blame for the tragedy, and this affects their relationships with other characters.

Assisting the script’s treatment of the characters is the art-work. Though animation almost always treats its people as caricatures, to varying degrees, the caricatures in this case are highly realistic; the viewer can imagine meeting these people or perhaps has already met people who resemble them. The pairing of the images with the actors was very well done - though it’s fun to note that while Dash is voiced by a ten year old child, his adolescent sister is given a voice by a 49 year old woman.

But what propels the movie is the animation, and Incredibles 2 cannot be faulted in that field. The exciting action is well handled not only by the illustrators but by the director. With a competent story and fine voice-work, the animation makes the film entertaining, and its two-hour running time fly by.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Breaking Point (1950)

Directed by Michael Curtis; produced by Jerry Wald

A navy veteran (John Garfield), running a boat-charter company, finds himself in ever-deepening financial waters. Business is slow, too slow to allow him to keep up the payments on his boat, and even household expenses are proving a strain on his bank balance. Tempted by the promise of a swift return on his investment, he agrees - against his morals and reasoning - to co-operate in a human-trafficking scheme, which of course is just the beginning of his troubles.

This is the second of three cinematic adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, this one and the first (a Humphrey Bogart movie released under the story’s title) being so different in plot and characters as to be unrecognizable as coming from the same source. (I experienced the this phenomenon again watching different versions of films purportedly coming from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, each film being very distinct in plot.) The Bogart film is more actionful and, simply put, more fun. Garfield’s version is more dramatic and realistic.

Interestingly, I could see Bogart filling this role, too, though Garfield is a bit more domesticated than Bogart’s characters usually are. Garfield’s home life is a normal one, with a wife (Phyllis Thaxter) and two daughters. His relationship with his employee is a friendly one.

His actions and motivations are likewise reasonable: becoming involved in crime may not be something all of us would do, but, under the right circumstances, many of us would at least consider it. The protagonist's unease through the entire operation - and afterward - is convincing. The viewer understands that this is a decent man who just wants to do his job, something he normally enjoys, and live a comfortable life with his family.

A second complication in Garfield’s life is a femme fatale (Patricia Neal). This character was the least satisfactory element in the story, and really need not have been in it at all. Neal gave a very good performance, but seemed almost an artificial problem, thrown in to cause marital strife. Though we suspect the movie will not end well for Garfield, we are nonetheless in suspense over how badly he will fare and how he will minimise the damage of his decisions. There is no such tension with regard to his relationship with Neal.

The Breaking Point is a good movie about an ordinary man driven to desperate measures and trying to deal with them in a manner with which many of us could sympathise. Garfield, who may have been seen early on by studio bosses as a mere handsome face, became more than that during his relatively short career. His countenance here is a bit weathered, and his build has the extra pounds one naturally gains as one ages (though he does look rather older than his 37 years; his heart was never robust, and probably aged him somewhat.) He carries the film, and is its centre. Good drama, decent suspense and an ending that is not quite free of uncertainty (and with a heart-breaking final image), make The Breaking Point a worthy viewing experience.