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.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Down Three Dark Streets (a.k.a. Down 3 Dark Streets) (1954)

Directed by Arnold Laven; produced by Arthur Gardner and Jules V Levy

A typical, hard-working FBI officer (Kenneth Tobey) is involved with three cases simultaneously: those of a wanted killer, a car-theft ring and a blackmailer. During a visit to woman who claims to have information on one of these cases, the officer is shot to death, and it’s up to his superior (Broderick Crawford) to find out which of the late man’s inquiries led to his murder.

The title of Down Three Dark Streets is metaphorical, referring to the mysteries involved in the trio of cases. It makes the movie sound more of a film noir than it is. It’s actually a routine police procedural. It is interesting to see a fictional detective investigating more than one case at once; I gather that this is normal in law enforcement agencies – the idea of one policeman for every crime must be as close to paradise as most cops dare dream – but I think I’ve seen it elsewhere only on episodes of Barney Miller. In the event, though, this intriguing idea doesn’t really make Down Three Dark Streets intriguing itself. We move from one case to another as different leads are followed and, while this keeps us watching, it does little more than that.

Crawford is a bit of a tough actor for me to place. Not compelling enough to be a lead and too strong to be a supporting player, it is telling that his best role and movie was All the King’s Men, in which he shared screen-time with John Ireland, much more of a character actor. In Down Three Dark Streets, Crawford does well but his character never involved me. The other performers do better, especially Martha Hyer, as a woman with a doomed fascination for a killer; Ruth Roman, as the frightened blackmail-victim, and Marisa Pavan, as a brave and resourceful blind woman.

The real culprit in the film is the writing. This is credited to ‘The Gordons’ (Gordon Gordon (who could have been The Gordons by himself) and Mildred Gordon) and Bernard C Schoenfeld. The Gordons seemed to have been principally novelists, perhaps best known, if that can be said in this case, for the novel on which the movie That Darn Cat was based. Here, the story, or stories, are adequate, and no more. The supporting characters carry them, not the script. And the motivation for the killing of Tobey is never revealed; neither is the reason for the call to Tobey in the first place.

Even with better writing, though, Down Three Dark Streets may not have been a success. While the trio of cases give a difference to the format of the movie, they also suggest that no one component was strong or interesting enough on its own. Consequently, each becomes padding to the others. The climax has minor tension, but that is the most that may be said of it.

Down Three Dark Streets is not even an adequate time-filler, as one feels that the time could have been devoted to any number of more entertaining films.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tonight We Raid Calais (1943)

Directed by John Brahm; produced by Andre Daven

In the middle of World War Two, a young British Army officer (John Sutton) is selected to be put ashore in German-occupied France. His goal is to facilitate the destruction by the Royal Air Force of an ordnance factory. To accomplish his mission, he must rely upon the help of members of the Resistance, and keep a disaffected woman (Annabella), grieving over what the war has done to her family, from turning him in to the Nazis.

While the movie’s title gives the impression of a story about commandos, it is actually a tale of cloak and dagger (the latter featuring literally). Unfortunately, it is not an exciting story, nor even that interesting. The lead actors are not the sort to grab one’s attention; there is no presence to them. They are also rather ordinary performers. The subsidiary players are better; they include Lee J Cobb as a French farmer, with Howard Da Silva and Charles McGraw (who seem to be in every second movie I see these days) as German NCOs.

The plot relies too much on most of Sutton’s contacts being in the know, ready to connive at him taking the place of a dead Frenchman. It’s true that Annabella is unwilling to play along, but having everything in place for Sutton’s arrival feels a little too neat. As well, the Germans appear to suspect him of being a British operator almost from the beginning. There is some conflict displayed between French and English (the story took place after Vichy France had sided with Germany and fought the British), rare for the time, and, even rarer, some attempt to show the bitterness of the French in defeat, and in the British decision to carry on. But this is negated by too much speechifying.

There is little action as such, and the story might actually have been successful as a more talky stage-play than an attempt at an action drama - if the script had been refined or conceived by better writers - but that would probably have failed at the box office. In any case, this propaganda piece likely would have faced an uphill battle against the better products coming out at the same time, both from England and Hollywood.

As it is, mediocre acting, bland characters and unrealistic writing sinks Tonight We Raid Calais without any outside competition.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tell No Tales (1939)

Directed by Leslie Fenton; produced by Edward Chodorov

The tough but likeable editor (Melvyn Douglas) of a big newspaper is hit with the stunning news that its owner is shutting it down. A stroke of luck brings Douglas a clue in the story currently gripping the city. With less than a day to plumb the depth of the story and save his newspaper, Douglas follows the clue from person to person and crisis to crisis, until he becomes the person in the deadliest crisis of the day.

While not the most original, or realistic, story – a journalist, with much at stake, races to solve a mystery – Tell No Tales is nonetheless a snappy crime drama, thanks to its uncluttered direction, lean editing and lead performance. It’s running time is a mere 69 minutes. I would write that it seems longer but that would imply the film is drawn out, boring, which it is not. Instead, I should write that much is packed into little more than an hour.

Douglas (who bore a strong resemblance to the more rugged Richard Boone of the next generation) is convincing as a man who, while on the one hand, arranges a birthday party for the paper’s longest serving employee, and, on the other, lies to a witness in order to secure her co-operation. He switches identities swiftly, depending on what he needs to be, assisted by the innocent days when someone claiming to be a policeman, or a federal law agent, was believed, even without an identity card. Less compelling is the female lead (Louise Platt), who lacks the personality to match Douglas.

The story is populated with minor characters who come and go and reappear, and most are played by actors who do a fine job with the little they are given. (That’s Ian Wolfe, an actor with a career spanning most of the twentieth century, as Gene Lockhart’s Man Friday.) An interesting aspect is how Douglas’s search affects several of the people and situations he encounters. From a comical attempt to question a prospective bridegroom – already hen-pecked – to a sorrowful wake – the black people depicted here are far from the stereotypes we sometimes see in movies from this era – a few minutes suffice for a whole other tale to be told.

The actual crime at the plot’s centre is called a kidnapping – the “Roberts kidnapping” – and described as “brutal”, the perpetrators, if they are ever caught, likely “going to the chair”. This, and the fact that there is no mention of the victim still being held or missing, suggests the victim was murdered. I drew a parallel to the Lindbergh kidnapping case, though there is nothing more than implication given.

Tell No Tales doesn’t feel its age as it moves along at a good clip, and could show more than one director and screenwriter these days how to take an ordinary tale and make something entertaining. With a short running time and undoubtedly a slim budget, this film deserves a tip of the hat.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

I Capture the Castle (2003)

Directed by Tim Fywell; produced by David Parfitt, Anant Singh and David M Thompson

In the mid-1930s, the Mortmain family is living in a half-ruined castle in Suffolk, existing on the ever-dwindling royalties from the best-seller the father (Bill Nighy) wrote more than a decade before. They are behind on the rent, rarely have meat for dinner, and don’t have a way out of their predicament. Then, the two American brothers (Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas) who own the castle – and seven thousand surrounding acres – arrive to inspect the property, and the two daughters of the family (Rose Byrne, Romola Garai) find their world about to change.

A not-quite-modern Jane Austen-style story, I Capture the Castle is all about relationships and the people involved in them. Everyone’s part is well-written; even characters the viewer thinks may be two-dimensional are given depth and purpose. The main character is the younger daughter, played by Garai in an excellent performance. She is the narrator, and gives the view-point. She is usually clear-sighted, and sees herself as the normal one of the family, but as the story progresses, she realises that emotions can change perceptions, and vice versa.

One review I read called the family ‘eccentric’. It isn’t, thank goodness. Too often, eccentricity in movies is created with a dreadful self-consciousness, as if the characters were the result of a brain-storming session following the writers’ question, ‘how can we make them quirky?’ The worst eccentricity is shown by the step-mother (Tara Fitzgerald) – quite the opposite of the usual wicked step-parent – who likes to strip naked in nature. Coming from a Bohemian background, however, and given what we learn of her fears, shedding her clothes becomes an understandable release. Her husband (Nighy) chose to live in a remote castle to overcome both his past and his stifling writer’s block. The elder daughter, played by Byrne, seems a gold-digger, but her desire to marry into wealth is based on desperation. She sees a rich husband not as her own salvation but her family’s. These are well-conceived characters, not misguided attempts to make memorable and irrelevant personalities.

The story comes from a 1948 novel by Dodie Smith, better known in some circles for her children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I’m surprised I Capture the Castle was not made into a cinematic feature before this, though it was produced for British television in the 1950s. The screenplay is smart, and, while not all loose ends are tied up in the finale, they weren’t meant to be, and the conclusion fits with the rest of the tale.

This is one of the few period movies I have seen that does not rely on music to give us a sense of time. There is one song that is characteristic of the era, but it is significant to the characters’ emotions, and not to the setting. As well, period films frequently cite important world events to put the story in a larger context. Again, this is eschewed in I Capture the Castle. Reference in a domestic drama to the remilitarization of the Rhineland, or even to the Great Depression would hardly have seemed natural. We are given a sense of time and place by the clothes worn, the automobiles driven, and the characters’ attitudes – unapologetically different from today’s.

While I Capture the Castle doesn’t have quite the tidiness of a Jane Austen story, there is much to compare the two. Garai’s Cassandra is very like an Austen heroine, observing family and friends, trying to make things better for others while finding her own way. There is a secluded feeling to the Mortmain’s world, one in which London is almost alien, and largely immaterial to their lives. And there is an innocence which, while tested, is never quite shattered.

The makers of I Capture the Castle knew what they wanted to do, and succeeded.