Monday, March 19, 2018

A Prize of Arms (1962)

Directed by Cliff Owen; produced by George Maynard

Another heist movie, this time British, and with an unusual setting. A Prize of Arms tells the tale of three men intending to rob an army station of its payroll. The plan, devised by a disgraced former officer (Stanley Baker), and executed with precision by him and his accomplices (Helmut Schimd and Tom Bell), comes up against difficulties. Baker doesn’t expect everything to run smoothly, but will his ability to improvise be enough to guarantee success?

The interest here is a combination of the plot-line and the characters. The story is a good one: the criminals are not experts, Baker is a master-mind only in that it was he who originated the scheme. The plan is a rather simple one, complicated along the way by circumstances. There are some holes in the story. Where, for instance, did the trio find the uniforms they need for the caper? How did they come up with plastic explosives and a flame-thrower, of all things? How did they learn the lay-out of the station? These are legitimate questions and lessen the effect of the story. But clearly, writer Paul Ryder wanted the movie to begin with the heist, and we are shown very little of the actual preparations. It’s like the viewer has been invited to watch the crime, the criminals figuring he’s not interested in the background. (The screenplay is from an original story by Nicholas Roeg, better known for his later directorial work.)

Indeed, the background of the characters is kept bare. We do learn some facts about Baker, the origins of his underlying bitterness, and his anger, but of Schmidt we are told little beyond that he is a Pole, and had fought with the Free Polish forces during the Second World War. Bell is even more a mystery; Baker states simply that he is “amoral”. The three’s personalities are displayed through their actions and words as the film progresses.

We do develop sympathy for the would-be felons, especially for Baker. This fine actor, little known today except among film-fans, had the hard almost cruel face and sarcastic, sneering tone of a born-villain. Yet he did portray heroes, notably Lieutenant Chard VC, in Zulu (1964), and a police detective in Hell is a City (1960). He often gave a dangerous edge to his characters. Yet, as may be seen in A Prize of Arms  a small smile could turn him into someone you would confide in, and turn to for help.

The other actors are very good, especially Bell as the impetuous, impatient youngest member of the team. Smaller roles are filled by familiar players, such as Patrick Magee as a regimental sergeant-major, and Geoffrey Palmer, a mainstay of 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s British television, as a motorcyclist.

There is genuine tension toward the end as to whether the criminals will pull off their very clever heist, and a phrase spoken by Baker near the beginning may give a clue. But A Prize of Arms should keep you guessing until the final half-minute. And that’s a pretty good test for a heist film.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Timetable (a.k.a. Time Table) (1956)

Directed and produced by Mark Stevens

A doctor’s railway journey becomes extraordinary when he is asked to tend to a sick fellow-passenger. The would-be patient is, in fact, fraudulent, and the doctor is the protagonist of a robbery, resulting in the loss of half a million dollars. Neat, precise, well-timed, the scheme brings in the top investigator (Mark Stevens) of the company that insured the looted money, and a frequent collaborator of his, an old-time railway cop (King Calder). It turns out that this perfect crime is not quite perfect - and anything but what might be expected.

An inexpensively made film, Timetable moves from a caper to a psychological thriller at some point. This serves it well, as the story is actually about the plan behind the heist and the people involved in it. The cast is, for the most part, capable. Stevens is not an exciting or charismatic leading man, but was certainly comfortable before a camera. Calder was a veteran performer, and does a good job as a plodding but usually successful detective. Felicia Farr, the dark-eyed girlfriend of the criminal mastermind, is suitably determined and frightened, by turns. Marianne Stewart, playing Stevens’s wife, is a weak link; her performance is stilted and unconvincing. Included in small parts are some actors who would become better known, such as Jack Klugman as a luckless man caught up in the crime, John Marley as a shady night-club owner and Alan Reed, in a larger role, as a helicopter pilot. That’s him looking like Fred Flintstone, to whom Reed would give his voice, ten years later.

The script is entertaining but only after about a third of the way through, when it throws the viewer a twist. We see the crime’s investigation from both sides of the law and, though it is a good idea, it is not as forceful, or as involving, as it could be. There is a certain lack of motivation in the criminal’s actions - aside from wanting a large amount of money - though there is a clue in the first line he utters.

What is at fault in Timetable is the direction and editing. Stevens’s work behind the camera left me thinking that his timing was off; ironic, in view of the film’s title. There are several scenes which seem to begin a second or two early, as if we caught a tiny piece of the rehearsal, and a couple in which the blocking is troublesome. A scene of an argument between Stevens and Stewart comes out of nowhere and, though its volatility was probably intentional, it does nonetheless appear unprovoked, which may have had to do with the editing. As well, the scene set on a train gave me no sensation of movement on rails, and could have been placed in a small hotel.

That written, Timetable is a flawed, not unsuccessful crime drama. It is a low budget film by people who, I believe, enjoyed what they did but, for the most part, didn’t have an abundance of talent with which to do it.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Cause for Alarm! (1951)

Directed by Tay Garnett; produced by Tom Lewis

Cause for Alarm! had a very intriguing idea. It starts with a housewife (Loretta Young) doing chores and narrating the story. Her husband (Barry Sullivan) is ill, lying in bed upstairs with a problem that is described later as a ‘heart condition’. We learn very soon that Sullivan harbours the strong suspicion that Young and his doctor (Bruce Cowling), whom he believes is in love with Young, are trying to kill him. He writes a letter to the district prosecutor making his claim, and mails it. Young frantically attempts to retrieve the letter before someone in authority reads it.

The notion is good enough for a thriller by Hitchcock. Indeed, it seemed to me that that is the sort of film that the writers and producer were attempting. There are several characters in it that provide the black comedy or every-day routine that Hitchcock often put into his films, in juxtaposition to the very serious plot-line of murder or mayhem. The trouble is that the script just wasn’t good enough for the intention.

The characters mentioned come across as more annoying than funny; their actions do not heighten the tension of the movie, but get in its way. While acted well enough (especially by Irving Bacon, as a grumbling postman), they seem more like digressions than integral parts of the story. There are several scenes between Young and a little neighbour-boy (Bradey Mora) that are like intermissions, and whether they deviated from the script or were written that way, the dialogue sounds aimless; if it was improvised, then neither Young nor Mora were good at such ad lib.

As well, while the plot could have been made into a full and lengthy movie in the hands of a more talented director and better writers, there seemed enough story here for only an hour’s episode of a tv anthology series. I wondered, while watching it, why the meat of the story wasn’t given more time, which it certainly could have. Instead, we are shown flashbacks of Young’s cheerier days. These are needless; we assume that Young and Sullivan were happier at some point, and the flashbacks did not contain any clue as to what would occur in the future, which should be a major point of such reminiscences. I thought this a particularly valid complaint in view of Sullivan’s chilling recollection of a childhood incident, an event which should have foreshadowed the trouble, both in terms of the movie and his marriage with Young.

Cause for Alarm! had ingredients of an excellent thriller: an exciting premise, very good acting from Sullivan (less so from Young) and even a clever ending. But it was let down dreadfully by the chunky writing and mediocre direction. I’m not sure who could work such plot now to great advantage, but the film’s bare idea deserves a second chance, even if the movie itself does not.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Sea of Sand (a.k.a. Desert Patrol) (1958)

Directed by Guy Green; produced by Robert S Baker and Monty Berman

On the eve of the Battle of El Alamein, a unit of the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group undertakes a mission to destroy a German fuel dump. The target is 500 miles behind enemy lines and even if the team destroys it, returning may be the tougher part of the mission.

The conflict in Sea of Sand is not just between the British and the Germans. In fact, the principal foe appears to be the desert itself. Actual combat occupies much less time than does crossing the desert. Though there is excitement in the battle scenes, especially in an attack by a lone German armoured car, the tension that arises from having to survive the environment is greater.

There is also conflict between the team’s commander (Michael Craig) and the Royal Engineer captain (John Gregson) attached for the clearing of a minefield, but this part of the film is predictable. The unit is made up of the usual diverse soldiers (including Richard Attenborough, Barry Foster and Ray McAnally) but the script, though it treats each individually, eschews (or perhaps simply pre-dates) the later convention of making them all misfits. An interesting feature of the ensemble is that, though they argue and get on each other’s nerves, there is a true sense of camaraderie among the team, some of whom have known each other since the beginning of the desert war.

For me, much of the entertainment came from the details, some explicit (such as using cocoa powder to blacken the face for night raids; desert dirt caused skin-sores, a fact probably learned by the real-life soldiers through experience) and some implicit (such as the unspoken acceptance of unconventional dress and headgear; whatever each man finds works for him in an unforgiving environment.)

Sea of Sand illustrates, for me, my belief that the war movie, at least in Britain, reached a peak of realism in the fifteen or twenty years following the Second World War. During the war, it was too greatly influenced by the need for propaganda, and then, after a couple of decades, came fanciful storylines, which, embellished by the gritty cynicism of the 1960s and ‘70s, were nonetheless often fairy-tales compared to those of the immediate post-war years.

I think this was caused by the fact that following the second world war, most of the people participating in films, both before and behind the camera, were also participants in the war. And in Britain, more than in North America, those watching the films had also felt the direct effects of combat. So anything unauthentic would have been noticed right away and treated with scorn and derision. Some melodrama or poetic licence in plot and characters was permitted, but nothing too fantastic, as everyone in the audience would have known the sort of people portrayed on the screen, in one form or another.

This perhaps explains why the British excelled in what later came to be called ‘docudramas’ (or ‘dramadocs’), films that combined the factual background or details of real-life with the fictional story-telling of films. It may also be why, with the rise of a new generation in the 1960s, they died out at the beginning of that decade.

While some may find Sea of Sand too slow for a satisfying action flick, it is a good example of the interesting and well, if inexpensively, made war films from Britain in the 1950s.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Scene of the Crime (1949)

Directed by Roy Rowland; produced by Harry Rapf

This movie’s title, and the opening sequence, seen behind the credits, suggest that Scene of the Crime deals largely with forensic science. In fact, it’s the story of an old-fashioned police investigation, with plenty of leg-work, questions and background-checking. While that may sound dull, the story the inquiry uncovers by simple, dogged detective work is complicated and hard-boiled. Not a film noir, Scene of the Crime is in instead an interesting and involving police-procedural - though you may lose track of who is doing what to whom at some point.

Van Johnson heads the cast as the lead investigator, with John McIntire as his aging partner. (McIntire always seemed to look old in films; though only forty-two at the time of this one, he appeared and acted older.) Tom Drake is the new detective on the team. The two leading ladies (Arlene Dahl and Gloria DeHaven) share about equal time on screen, and DeHaven, in particular, gets to show her talent.

The writing appealed to me most about Scene of the Crime. The script made much of the different characters. Each is quite distinct from the others, whether cop or crook. There is a plethora of supporting roles, from informers to petty hoods, from veteran detectives to tyros. The performances of the character actors stand out, and they do what their fellows often do, elevate a film as a whole through their work. The main characters are well formed, too, and well-acted, but the secondary roles are the more memorable.

The plot, as I implied, is complicated, but not quite unnecessarily so. The script includes a great deal of slang, some shared by the police and the criminals, due to their common milieu. We hear of ‘lobos’ and ‘gungs’, and learn that the verb ‘to hang’ meant the same in the late 1940s U.S. as it does now: a certain coffee shop is where thieves and robbers ‘hang’. ‘To nick’ someone meant to arrest him; interestingly, the same as it did in Britain, at least into the 1980s. It has faded from American criminal slang, however.

The climax is violent but short, and the denouement demonstrates that even then the detectives hadn’t deduced all of the plot’s twists. But that adds another element to Scene of the Crime, a hard-edged police drama with plenty of wrong-doing to satisfy the black-and-white cops-and-robbers enthusiast.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Day of the Evil Gun (1968)

Directed and produced by Jerry Thorpe

Day of the Evil Gun has a tried and true western premise: the family of a man (Glenn Ford) has been abducted by Apache Indians and he sets out to find them. Complicating his quest is his determination to give up his violent past, and the accompaniment of another man (Arthur Kennedy) who is in love with Ford’s wife. Their uneasy partnership leads to tension with each other, as well as with the dangers they find along the way.

This movie made me think it a 1960s version of The Searchers, dirtier, more cynical, slower and with much less to say. Ford and Kennedy were excellent actors, and are capable in this. But we learn little about them. Ford was a successful gun-fighter who now eschews gunplay. He has been away for a long time, and thought dead by his wife. We can guess that he left his home to ‘find himself’, in a manner of speaking, to shed his past persona, but we are not told for certain, nor do we know where he went or why he chose to abandon his family. Kennedy’s character seems only bitter and resentful. All other people we encounter are no more than sketched in, though John Anderson, as a soldier with his own agenda, has a good role to play. A very young Harry Dean Stanton (credited without the ‘Harry’) and an even younger Barbara Babcock have small roles.

There is action, and some good tension, though the the climax isn’t that climactic. The finale is, I think, meant to be ironic, but loses much due to the introduction of a key character in only the last few minutes. If he had appeared at the beginning as well, to provide ‘bookends’ to the story, what he says and does would have been more fitting, and the title would have had more significance.

The direction is mediocre, with a number of techniques that I have found common in 1960s movies, such as the slow zoom. The film reminded me of television films of the 1970s. To be fair, this was the era when tv was becoming more sophisticated in its technology and methods, so it was ‘catching up’ to the cinema in many ways, and a number of tv movies of that period were very good. But in its production values, story, direction and scope, Day of the Evil Gun was probably wasted on the big screen.

While much of the film was perfectly watchable, its worst aspect was the fact that neither of the main characters is likeable; neither gained the viewer’s sympathy. I didn’t care what happened to either of them, though I was interested enough in how they would solve their problems to see the movie to the end. But, in truth, the end of Day of the Evil Gun wasn’t worth waiting for.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Allied (2016)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; produced by Robert Zemeckis, Graham King and Steve Starkey

Brad Pitt has quite the cinematic connection with Canada. In Legends of the Fall, his character joined the Canadian Army to fight in the Great War. In Twelve Years a Slave, he portrays a Canadian carpenter. In Allied, he again is born north of the 49th parallel, and is an RCAF officer attached to the Special Operations Executive, fighting secret missions in Nazi-occupied territory in World War Two.

I had hopes for this film, as I do for any historical drama, but I was also wary, as there is in such movies these days, quite a bit of what I view as wilful re-writing of history, as opposed to mere ignorance. Allied falls somewhere in between. The acting is very good, and Pitt and leading lady Marion Cotillard have excellent chemistry. The action scenes are well-directed, and the look of the movie is colourful and interesting.

What lets Allied down is not the story so much as the script; it’s in the details that it fails. While the look of the film conveys 1943, the feel of it is quite different. There is a party scene that comes straight out of the 1970s, rather than the ‘40s, and some of the characters would not have been at home even in the later decade.

There are explanations and actions that are silly if one knows a little about genuine intelligence organizations and operations, or if one just thinks about what is happening. For instance, we are told that there is a rule in British Intelligence that, if an operator is emotionally involved with someone who is discovered to be an enemy agent, the operator must kill the spy. There is no mention of ‘turning’ the enemy agent to give false information to their chiefs (something the British mastered in their Double Cross System), or of lengthy interrogation to learn of his contacts, targets, methods, origins, etc. Real espionage agencies do not waste opportunities for counter-intelligence by killing opponents. And then there’s the notion that being romantically attached to an enemy agent is so common that there is a rule about it…

At one point, a field operator flies to France, apparently without authorization, and raids a town jail. This involves the participation of local Resistance fighters, who seemed not to need to know why they were being pressed into service, nor care that their participation would expose their identities and their organisation to the enemy.

It’s aspects such as these that render Allied little more than a Rambo movie in fancy dress, and remove it from the likes of, say, Master and Commander, with its accurate depiction of the times and, moreover, the sensibilities of the people who lived then. It gives me greater regard for war films from the actual war years, which, though often of a propagandist nature, nonetheless conveyed an atmosphere or feeling of the era. I think the simple fact is that director Zemeckis had little respect for authenticity, aside from the look of his movie. When a film’s creators don’t care about certain features of their work, why should viewers?