Monday, August 13, 2018

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Directed by Mark Robson; produced by Val Lewton

A schoolgirl (Kim Hunter) learns that authorities haven’t heard from her sister (Jean Brooks) in some time. Worried, the girl journeys to New York to find some clue to her sibling’s whereabouts. There, she finds that the mystery is not just about her sister’s current location, but why she is in hiding, and from whom she is hiding.

An intriguing premise begins this movie, which combines drama with psychological horror. Everything here depends on atmosphere, created not just by the director and cinematographer, but by the actors, producer and writers. For the most part, The Seventh Victim is a success, though it is let down by what I would call an incomplete script - as opposed to the story - and, possibly, too much editing.

Hunter, in her film debut, has to anchor the cast, and, though a neophyte, does a good job. Her character is fittingly innocent and puzzled, but also intelligent and intuitive. The young actress holds her own among the more experienced players. Included in that category is Tom Conway, whose resemblance to his brother George Sanders is more than physical: he plays the sort of casual cynic that we are used to seeing from Sanders. Brooks’s performance was perhaps the most difficult to render, and the most subtle to interpret. She had to convey both fear of, and indifference to, death, simultaneously, and succeeds.

The performances are assisted by the writing. In terms of character, it is very good. These are not two dimensional people. The friendship between Conway’s Doctor Judd and Erford Gage’s Jason Hoag, a poet, is a case in point. One a scientist, the other a dreamer, their relationship seems to consist of disdain and distrust, yet the viewer can see an alliance of sorts, especially at the end, when they show a surprising solidarity in their stand against the villains. But, much of the time, one is never sure of Judd’s loyalties, and the atmosphere is such that one can never really be confident even of a poet.

The atmosphere is key here. The use of shadows, camera angles and lighting creates scenes that are suspicious and tense. One of the earliest moments characteristic of this quality comes when Hunter and a private investigator (Lou Lubin) break into a building to examine a locked room. Confronted by the darkness at the end of a corridor, neither wants to venture into it. We are suddenly in a situation similar to children facing a monster in a closet at night, and the results are effective.

This very quality is one that would turn some viewers off. This is not a horror movie with monsters leaping from behind doors, or blood splashed on walls. The Seventh Victim aims to frighten, not startle or shock. But there is a certain truncated quality to the film, as if there was more that should have been written, more story left untold. Practically, an example may be the kidnapping of one of the characters: we are never told how the villains knew where she would be.

But for all its flaws, The Seventh Victim is worth watching, especially by a lover of movie technique. It must have been a contrast to the usual fare in cinemas at the time. Not only does it not mention the Second World War, then raging (indeed, Gage would enlist in the U.S. Army before the year was out, and be killed in battle in 1945), but its choice of villains - a cult of Satan-worshippers - must have been unique. Even here, the story avoids the easy way: the Satanists are ordinary people, but all the more sinister for that. And I was surprised the ending avoided censorship under the Production Code of the time. An atypical movie, both for its era and in general, The Seventh Victim is not excellent but is worth a viewer’s time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Sea Chase (1955)

Directed and produced by John Farrow

At the start of the Second World War, a German merchant marine captain (John Wayne) finds himself in Sydney Harbour, and facing internment for the duration of the conflict. He resolves to take his ship and crew surreptitiously out to sea, hoping to avoid British warships, and make his way back home. But his task is complicated by a spy (Lana Turner) he is ordered to take with him, and a first officer (Lyle Bettger) with an agenda of his own.

This is both a different and similar sort of movie for Wayne. He has certainly played the same sort of person before: tough but fair, single-minded but tolerant, dedicated to a cause and to an ideal. But, except for his ill-advised role as Genghis Khan in the unlamented The Conqueror, this is, I believe, the only instance of Wayne portraying a non-American. I found it strange that, just ten years after the war, he was playing a German. His character is an anti-Nazi - he had been dismissed the German Navy due to his political views - but he is a patriot, determined to do his duty for his country. As if this were not strange enough for Wayne, his character retains a fondness for the old German Empire - or at least its Kriegsmarine - and has the imperial navy’s battle-flag framed on his cabin’s wall. I wonder how this role was sold to Wayne.

Fortunately, neither he nor any of the others playing Germans adopt accents. (This doesn’t bother me; I assume that foreigners in movies talking amongst themselves are speaking their own language, and it is being ‘translated’ for the viewer.) This, in fact, helps make Wayne and the others’ performances more credible.

Aside from the novelty of Wayne taking on the guise of a former American enemy - and making him sympathetic - The Sea Chase does not, unfortunately, have a great deal to recommend it. The story is standard fare. The romance between Wayne and Turner is predictable and lacklustre; there is no real chemistry between the two actors and there is no persuasive reason why their characters should find each other attractive, never mind fall in love.

The story does not have much action, considering it is a John Wayne movie. I don’t need non-stop battle scenes to enjoy an adventure film but The Sea Chase was, at times, even boring. A good portion of the story is taken up on an uninhabited island where the ship’s crew must harvest wood as fuel, as they have no access to coal. This island is made the scene for personal conflict, but that isn’t exciting, either.

The rest of the cast is capable but no one stretches their talents here. James Arness has a moderately significant role as a crewman, while a young - and blond - Claude Akins plays another sailor. David Farrar is the stalwart Royal Navy officer pursuing Wayne, his former friend, but, except for the opening conversations, his scenes may have been deleted all together without loss.

Starting out with promise, The Sea Chase becomes almost mundane soon enough, and is for good reason not one of Wayne’s more memorable efforts, despite the unusual character he plays.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Directed by Peter Yates; produced by Paul Monash

Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is a life-long criminal. He’s not of high rank in the underworld’s hierarchy; he buys firearms, delivers contraband, runs errands. He’s not even a particularly capable crook; he once suffered the punishment of busted knuckles due to purchasing guns that were eventually traced, landing an important mob boss in prison. And now he’s facing at least two years in jail himself for transporting stolen goods. He’s contemplating informing on his colleagues as a means of reducing his prospective sentence. Considering his record of success, this may not be a good idea.

A number of popular actors reach a point in their careers when the demands of fame relax, and they need not take the roles that once were expected from them. In some cases, this leads to a certain artistic freedom - and marvellous performances. By the 1970s, Mitchum was no longer the box-office draw he had been, and he could portray characters different than he had. Thus, he became Eddie Coyle. Coyle is a decent man - for a criminal - a family man, a caring father and loving husband. It is his concern for his family that leads him to consider ratting on his colleagues. Coyle is also a loser, and though he is tough, he is at no point in control of events, however much he tries to be. It is this quality that creates the tragedy that forms the plot.

The title is justified in that we see much of Coyle’s associates, though they are friends in a rather loose manner. All the performances are very good, in particular Peter Boyle, as a bar-owner with hidden skills, and Steven Keats as a gun-seller. The latter actor, in a stand-out movie debut, does an excellent job of making an amoral weapons-dealer into a likeable man. As well, Richard Jordan gives a fine job as a young federal law agent, whose cynical manipulation of the criminals is both infuriating and fitting. (As an aside, Mitchum and Jordan would re-team, after a fashion, fifteen years later as recurring characters in the tv series The Equalizer, filling in for star Edward Woodward, following the latter’s heart attack; I don’t believe Mitchum and Jordan had scenes together in the series, however.)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle’s script is first-rate, unflinching and unsentimental in its portrayal of the ruthless and precarious world of the habitual criminal. The dialogue is natural. I have read criticisms of the casual use of a certain racial slur. That murderers, robbers, blackmailers and kidnappers should upset an audience by calling someone a bad name suggests the skewed times in which we live. But, more importantly, this was how things were. Irish-Americans of that time, especially in Boston and New York, referred to blacks in this manner, and not to use it or, worse, to use a euphemism, would be historically inaccurate and artistically dishonest. This was the milieu in which Mitchum’s character lived.

The movie had the direction it needed, slow and talky in one scene, then anxious and tense in another. Two scenes in particular, the first robbery, and a nocturnal gun deal, are very suspenseful. Director Yates could handle action (eg. Bullitt), drama (eg. The Dresser) and adventure (eg. The Deep), and doesn’t miss a step here. There is limited action, but what there is, is to the point.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an adult film. There is no nudity or sex, and the obscenities are rare - in keeping with the era. But it deals with real characters, people as complex and simple as people genuinely are. I remember dismissing this film (without watching it) as a young man, because it just didn’t seem my type of movie. As I aged, I realised that all types of movies are my type, if they are as good as this one.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Q Planes (a.k.a. Clouds Over Europe) (1939)

Directed by Tim Whelan; produced by Irving Asher

The newest aeroplanes with the latest equipment are disappearing all over the world. They vanish mysteriously and without a trace. On the case is Major Hammond (Ralph Richardson), an eccentric Secret Service operator, aided by test-pilot Tony McVane (Laurence Olivier) and abetted by his own sister, Kay (Valerie Hobson). Sorting through the clues, the corpses and the cops, the three find danger, romance and humour - not necessarily in that order.

The 1920s and ‘30s were the golden age of detective fiction, and not just in books. The pages in Punch magazine from those decades are filled with reviews of crime capers in print, on stage and on the big screen - though they seemed to switch to movies only after sound allowed complex dialogue. Q Planes may seem to be a spoof of the genre, but it fits very neatly within it, since the category encompassed both dark and light stories. Indeed, humour and levity were qualities often found in detective stories of the era, and that includes spy tales. Q Planes definitely takes the fun road.

The script is good, keeping away from anything too serious, except when Olivier talks about the missing air crews and their families, and a couple of references to the World War are sombre (Olivier compares waiting to fly on a dangerous mission to “going over the top” in the trenches of the the Western Front). For the most part, the dialogue is snappy and clever, veering hazardously close to self-parody (as when John Laurie, as an harassed newspaper editor, demands, “Less enthusiasm, please - this is Britain!”) but never reaching that point.

The real assets to the movie are the actors, especially Richardson. His breezy, happy-go-lucky yet dedicated character could easily have been the centre of a movie series, had not Richardson been fully occupied in other media. His eccentricity too could have fallen into caricature, but it never does, due to the seriousness that we see underneath the light-heartedness. While making what must be a thoroughly inedible stew, he continues to be obsessed with the missing aeroplanes; searching a wardrobe of identical hats and uniform umbrellas for just the right pair, only to choose the ones he is already using, suggests a man compulsive about his clothes, but no less realistic than Columbo and his raincoat. (There was an episode in which Mrs Columbo bought her husband a new coat; the result was not good for the case.)

Richardson has always given the impression, especially in his comedic roles, that he is thoroughly enjoying himself, and it is no different here. Olivier goes along happily, alternately moody and cheerful, as might be the case with a man who is falling in love with a girl he may not actually like. Hobson is annoying at times but without regret: she too has a job to do with regard to the missing aircraft, and resents any attempt by her brother to keep her out of it. The supporting players are mostly non-entities, except for Barrett (George Merritt), the aircraft manufacturer, whose delivery of lines suggests a heart attack is in his near future.

The plot itself is simple, and pretty much straight out of Bulldog Drummond, involving sinister foreign powers, secret weapons and an actionful and surprisingly violent climax. But the story is subsidiary to the characters, their fast-paced talk and the entertainment they give. Q Planes is a superior example of what must have been common fare at one time: a satisfying crime adventure, with plenty of fun.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Midnight Story (1957)

Directed by Joseph Pevney; produced by Robert Arthur

The murder of a well-loved San Francisco priest shocks the city. One young man, a traffic policeman (Tony Curtis), an orphan who idolised the clergyman, wants in on the hunt for his killer. He thinks he has a lead after he sees a distraught mourner (Gilbert Roland) at the funeral. When his superiors dismiss his admittedly tenuous suspicions, Curtis goes undercover to meet Roland. His swift inclusion in the man’s close and warm-hearted family creates a conflict in the young cop which may endanger more than just his investigation.

Though ostensibly a mystery, The Midnight Story is more a character study, a drama revolving around several people. With this aspect, the mystery actually takes second place, providing a reason for the story, rather than the story itself. In fact, it is the crime, with its revelation of a weak motive in the finale, which drags the movie down.

The acting and the writing are good. Curtis quickly grows to care for the family into which he has been welcomed. He seems to alternate between suspecting Roland and defending him and, while this might be seen as a fault of the script, it actually reflects the callowness of the young policeman, and his earnest but inexperienced desire for justice. His romance with Roland’s strong-willed but susceptible cousin (Marisa Pavan) is believable, though Pavan herself doesn’t really suit the role of a girl much sought after by the neighbourhood Lotharios.

For that matter, the casting of Roland is a bit strange. He is too old for the role. He was in his fifties when the film was made, and I thought initially that his charcater’s mother (Argentina Brunetti) was his wife - calling her “Mama” is not out of keeping with what some long-married couples call each other. Brunetti herself was junior to Roland, and certainly didn’t look older. The mother’s younger son (Richard Monda) was played by a teenager, which accentuated the oddity of Roland’s casting. It changes the relationship of Curtis and Roland from friend/brother to mentor/father. All of this is incidental, however. Roland is easily capable enough to make his performance credible.

While the family drama portion of The Midnight Story is carried well, the mystery half is badly supported, so a whole-hearted endorsement cannot be given. The film works, but only modestly, a small movie that uses a crime to illustrate a domestic drama; certainly not a bad device, but not entirely successful. And the title has nothing to do with the tale - nothing occurs at midnight, not even the murder.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

How to Steal a Million (1966)

Directed by William Wyler; produced by Fred Kohlmar

A talented artist (Hugh Griffith) has become rich forging paintings he alleges to be by renowned masters. He sells only to the rich, so he laughs off the concerns of his daughter (Audrey Hepburn). When he loans a statue, alleged to be by Cellini, to a museum, however, her worries become real: a simple test, required by insurance, will reveal the statue to be a fake. Hepburn sees an escape for her father’s impending imprisonment when she catches a burglar (Peter O’Toole) in her house: she asks him to steal her father’s statue from the museum.

Escapist and fun, How to Steal a Million relies on the chemistry of the two stars to carry it, and they don’t disappoint. That’s not to claim that another pair would not have succeeded as well as Hepburn and O’Toole; the claim is that as decent as the script is, and as capable as the direction, it is the interaction between the main characters that makes the movie. I am one of those viewers who thinks Hepburn adds class to any film she is in. Her role as the caring daughter and intelligent working girl (though we never learn exactly what her job is) is undemanding, and something she could have done in her sleep. O’Toole, in one of his rare comedies, is suitably suave but periodically bemused by Hepburn and unnerved by his attraction for her. He gently slips into the spirit of the story; there is none of the intensity he demonstrates in other roles.

Griffith is excellent as the painter who has been having the time of his life forging masterpieces, enjoying the resulting wealth but energised simply by creating what others could have. Eli Wallach, like O’Toole, usually to be found in tougher parts, has a good role, but not really a necessary one. His character is a rather nice man, an industrialist obsessed with the ‘Cellini’ statue, and enamoured of Hepburn.

The script, as mentioned, is decent. There are some good lines (“You don’t think I’d steal anything that didn’t belong to me, do you?”) and the story provides a simple heist scheme dressed up with some complications. There are no surprises. The direction by Wyler, the artist who directed many great films,  doesn’t break new ground, and was probably easily achieved.

From the review so far, it may seem that How to Steal a Million is damned with faint praise. On the contrary, it is something that is rare: a light, fun, romantic adventure film, offering nothing much more than a couple of hours of enjoyable movie-watching. Envelopes were not pushed, boundaries were not tested, innovation was not created – thank goodness. What we have instead are two unique actors – real stars – directed by a master craftsman and working with capable supporting players, on attractive sets, likely having as good a time making the movie as we have in watching it.

If I see other films as fun as How to Steal a Million, I would be surprised, but pleased.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Strongroom (1962)

Directed by Vernon Sewell; produced by Guido Coen

A trio of robbers (Derren Nesbitt, Keith Faulkner, Morgan Sheppard) plan to rob a bank after it has been vacated for a long holiday weekend. The extra days with no one in the bank will provide more time between the robbery and its discovery. But no plan is perfect, and they find that the manager (Colin Gordon) and his secretary (Ann Lynn) have remained behind to finish some paper-work. The robbers lock them in the air-tight vault and escape, intending to let the police know about the pair, long before they run out of air. But that scheme too hits a snag, and criminals and victims find themselves on separate sides of the same life-and-death struggle.

Another largely unknown British movie, well-acted, well-directed and well-scripted, Strongroom creates real tension with just a few characters and a limited budget. The acting is the most noticeably successful element of the film, with excellent performances given by players who were all unknown to me, except for Sheppard, a character actor who has appeared in as many American productions by now as British. The three criminals create personalities that are rare in films these days: ordinary, essentially decent men who want to make money fast but who don’t fancy themselves master-minds; neither are they ruthless and cruel. They don’t want to hurt anyone, and certainly don’t want to go to prison for murder. Their dilemma - to save the lives of their unexpected prisoners yet remain free - is the principal crisis of the film. Equally believable are the prisoners in the strong-room.

The credibility of the characters is enhanced by what we learn of them. They develop as they go through stages of frustration, panic, despair and anger. The writing allows some digression from the crisis at hand, but it is always hanging over the people involved. The script and the direction combine to make compelling situations that make the viewer want to urge minor characters to hurry up and quit wasting time - many of them don’t know that lives are at stake.

Strongroom could very well be adapted for the stage, as the real action is in the behaviour and dialogue of the characters. There are no villains here, just normal people doing what they oughtn’t, and others caught where they shouldn’t be.