Monday, October 21, 2019

Whispering Smith (1948)

Directed by Leslie Fenton; produced by Mel Epstein (associate producer)

Luke Smith (Alan Ladd), the Nebraska and Pacific Railroad’s champion investigator, is on the trail of a trio of murderous brothers. Quiet and diffident - hence his nickname - Smith’s inquiries lead him to a conspiracy of train wreckers, and he fears his old friend (Robert Preston) may be involved. It will take more than one shoot-out to rid the railroad of the villains Smith finds at work.

If there is one actor who fit the role of someone nicknamed ‘Whispering’, it’s Alan Ladd. The character is noted for his low and quiet manner of speech, and his diffidence; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film in which Ladd raised his voice, and his manner was always self-effacing, despite the fact that his handsome looks made him stand out. He does a good job here, though the performance is not exceptional.

The same may be said for most of the actors, all of whom give competent performances. One I found rather annoying was the female lead (Brenda Marshall); her character is at one point called ‘mopey’, which is a good description of her. True, her circumstances are rather disheartening, but they are not enhanced by the gloomy characterisation.

The story was initially interesting. Despite how large the railway loomed in the settlement of the American west - and here in Canada, it was one of the principal elements of unification - there have not been too many westerns that revolved around trains and their technical aspects. The first half of Whispering Smith deals centres on the railway, its management and the handling of wrecks. The salvaging scene is especially involving. But then, that aspect of the film is left behind; it’s true that the second half is about a gang of saboteurs, but it’s little different than many other stories featuring a lawman after an outlaw gang.

Another feature of the first half is the potential of a particularly wicked, squint-eyed villain (Frank Faylen, very different from his role as Ernie the taxi-driver in It’s a Wonderful Life). I expected an exciting duel of some sort between him and Ladd, but it never materialized, and Faylen’s conclusion is almost anti-climactic.

Though in attractive and relatively early colour, Whispering Smith does not take sustained advantage of its better elements and, though from 1948, has more in common with some of Ladd’s lesser efforts from the next decade.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Runaround (1946)

Directed by Charles Lamont; produced by Joseph Gershenson

The Continental Detective Agency’s star investigator, Eddie Kildane (Rod Cameron), has had enough of his thoughtless, heartless, dictatorial chief, Prentiss (Broderick Crawford), so he and partner, Wally Quayle (Frank McHugh) quit and establish their own business. Clients are hard to come by when you’re starting out, though, so they steal one from their old boss. The assignment: find the client’s run-away daughter. It won’t be easy, with the woman in question (Ella Raines) doing her best to evade capture, and a rival trying to steal his case back.

The enjoyable aspect of how I choose movies to watch - usually based on a one- or two-sentence synopsis of the plot and a few viewer reviews – is that I sometimes find rarely-seen gems, small-scale epics or under-rated entertainments, such as The Runaround. The plot is more than a little reminiscent of It Happened One Night, with a determined man trying to deliver an escaped daughter to her parents. But The Runaround stands well on its own merits, one of the chief advantages being the sub-plot (or, rather, co-plot) of Broderick constantly on Cameron’s trail, one step behind here, one step ahead there. This is while Cameron has his hands full with Raines’s attempts to elude him.

The dialogue is good, though the script is better when it comes to action, both in terms of dramatic action and of physical movement. Cameron’s character is quick-witted and clever, with a hundred tricks up his sleeve: stealing cars, framing competitors, planting decoys and get-aways in the night are all part of the story. The protagonist can also handle himself in a fist-fight, of which there are several, though he is no super-hero; he takes more than one beating.

Rod Cameron had to have been one of the busiest actors in the 1940s and ‘50s (eleven movies released in 1941; five in 1955, while also filming a television series). A Canadian (born just two hours away from where I live), he has a casual and easy manner about him in The Runaround, and he and Raines have an excellent chemistry. Raines herself manages comedy and light drama well. McHugh was often a film’s comic relief, usually of the clownish or broad type. Here, his character provides the common sense against Cameron’s adventurous, though not reckless, impetuosity.

Like It Happened One Night, filmed twelve years previously, The Runaround provides a series of vignettes of the United States of the time, with uniformed moving-men, roadside hamburger stalls and airports where security didn’t need to be considered. Though these elements were hardly included as a conscious acknowledgement of future nostalgia, they are entertaining nonetheless. Added to the cast, the writing and the acting, The Runaround is a movie worth seeing.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

Directed by Jean Negulesco; produced by Henry Blanke

While on holiday in Istanbul, a writer (Peter Lorre) learns from a Turkish police chief (Kurt Katch) about the death of a master criminal (Zachary Scott). Intrigued, the author researches the villain’s life, meeting a variety of his acquaintances, some who were allies but all, due to the treacherous nature of the man, ultimately his victims. As the exploration deepens, however, the danger the criminal poses becomes more and more real, no matter that his body has now been buried.

Based on an Eric Ambler novel, The Mask of Dimitrios is less a drama or mystery than a study of one man’s villainy, and its effect on his associates. Disguised as a thriller, the movie is nonetheless compelling, for a number of reasons. The story, despite not having much of a plot, is interesting, telling how Dimitrios moved from place to place, crime to crime. Uninterested in building an empire or organisation, ready to betray or use anyone, he makes evil look effortless. A weakness is that Dimitrios’s motivation is never divulged, or even discussed; it was perhaps better understood in the 1940s that malice is simply natural in some people.

A benefit, especially for an history fan such as myself, is the use of real countries and situations. Often, fictional countries will be substituted for genuine nations or, worse, unnamed locations will be used. This was especially prevalent in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the Soviet Union was meant but disguised as an ‘eastern power’ or ‘our strong neighbour’. In The Mask of Dimitrios, an assassination is planned in Bulgaria, tensions are mentioned between Yugoslavia and Italy over the Adriatic Sea; these citations lend verisimilitude that cannot be synthesised.

The acting is very good, very natural. Though Sydney Greenstreet is given top billing for his memorable performance as a vengeful but charming smuggler, Peter Lorre is the lead, and does very well. He is an ordinary man, curious, timid but, despite his fascination with Dimitrios, possessed of strong morals. A scene when, overcome by righteous indignation, he physically attacks a villain, is credible, despite Lorre’s unprepossessing stature.

Scott is also good as the criminal though, as mentioned above, the origins of his evil are never known. Scott is appropriately smooth and companionable when it suits him, contemptuous of life and reputation at other times; very believable. Smaller roles are filled with competent performers; for instance, Faye Emerson, as a former girlfriend of Scott’s, and Katch, as the ruthless but dedicated Turk. (His character, Colonel Haki, appears, played by Orson Welles, in another adaptation of an Ambler book, Journey into Fear, released the year before The Mask of Dimitrios.)

If the viewer is seeking an intricate storyline, a mystery scattered with clues, or an action film, The Mask of Dimitrios will not satisfy. But as a character study, a believable slice of inter-war intrigue and crime, the movie is highly recommended.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Ronin (1998)

Directed by John Frankenheimer; produced by Frank Mancuso Jr

A team of five mercenaries (Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgård, Skipp Sudduth) is recruited by an Irishwoman (Natascha McElhone) to steal a briefcase from whom she describes as men determined to prevent just such an occurrence. Though the team works well together, they find that their actual objective may be the easiest part of the assignment, as they face betrayal, murder, deceit and divided loyalties at every turn.

Ronin is a straightforward action film, with a few twists to the plot that add to the excitement but don’t really complicate the story. The direction is excellent; Frankenheimer’s best movies involve less gunplay and fights, and more political or personal conflict, but he is nonetheless in fine form here. There are a couple of thrilling car-chases - the second in particularly puts the viewer on the edge of his seat. Ronin is a violent movie and no mistake, though not gory or bloody, but bullets fly in every direction and fast cars become battering rams. This should satisfy the viewer who likes battles with more realism than he would find in a Rambo flick.

Characters are not neglected here, though it is principally those of DeNiro and Reno that are developed. These two form a friendship and trust based on their own kind of honour and professionalism, and that provides some decency in the story amid the shifting alliances and uncertain devotion of practically everyone.

The lack of concern among the mercenaries for the safety of by-standers is rather off-putting - Skarsgård is so amoral even his former colleagues in the KGB are aghast at his behaviour - but it is also, I suppose, to be expected. The cast is well-chosen: the mercenary group is what one would probably find in real-life, men who look like anything but hardened warriors. DeNiro could be a businessman, Reno a bureaucrat; overweight Sudduth and bespectacled Skarsgård hardly fit the image of hired soldiers.

The writing is neither good nor bad, but adequate, and the contents of the mysterious case are never important, as the movie is about the chase - the journey, rather than the destination. In the end, it will be the thrills and excitement that will be remembered in any event. Ronin won’t tax the intellect but it will stimulate the nerves.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Albuquerque (1948)

Directed by Ray Enright; produced by William H Pine and William C Thomas

A Texas cowboy (Randolph Scott) travels to the title town in the New Mexico Territory to take up a job offered by his uncle (George Cleveland). Very quickly, however, his eagerness and delight at his new prospects are disappointed by the discovery that his relative is a ruthless and criminal businessman, intent on using whatever means required to maintain and expand his power. In short order, the newcomer switches sides and throws his support behind his uncle’s rivals (Catherine Craig, Russell Hayden).

Though the basic story Albuquerque is fairly routine, it is enlivened by some interesting novelty in the script and a few exciting scenes. Before the inevitable gun-battle at the climax, there is a struggle between the two factions in the town, under-handed and covert tactics distinguishing this conflict from more obvious ones in some other westerns.

The characters are not particularly deep. Scott travels by stage-coach almost three hundred miles to accept from an uncle he hasn’t seen in decades an indefinite job; one suspects that in the book from which the movie is adapted, more of the protagonist’s history is revealed. Unfortunately, such an aspect, if it existed, was not elaborated upon here. It’s telling when the comic relief, portrayed by George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, is one of the more interesting characters.

The cinematography was promising during the opening shot, depicting a vast panorama of desert and mountains, but this is not followed through in the movie itself. Much of the action takes place in a standard ‘western’-style town, except for an exciting wagon ride without brakes down a steep incline. This uses matte-paintings but the direction is capable and makes for a tense moment.

Albuquerque is pretty standard fare, as far as a western film goes, though it has enough to lift it a bit above the average. Scott is always dependable in the lead, and there are some decent scenes and plot twists to propel the story. While I cannot write that it is one of then better examples of its genre - or even one of the better Randolph Scott movies - it will provide a mildly entertaining evening.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Silent Partner (1978)

Directed by Daryl Duke; produced by Joel B Michaels and Stephen Young

A nondescript bank teller (Elliott Gould) accidentally learns that his bank is going to be robbed and, later, by whom. Anticipating the crime, he steals $50,000 from the bank himself and, when the robber (Christopher Plummer) makes his move, surrenders only a pittance. Though he thinks he has gotten away with his action, the banker is soon faced with the murderous robber, a sadist who will stop at nothing to retrieve what he thinks he should have had in the first place.

In the 1970s, the Canadian film industry was still very small. It had great potential, but any actor who wanted to expand their career, actors such as Plummer, and Donald Sutherland, had to work in Britain or the United States (or France, if they were from Quebec) to do so – though they often continued to remain professionally true to their homeland, as well. To someone such as myself, though a youngster at the time, Canadian movies seemed made for art rather than for entertainment. While laudable, this thinking guaranteed a very limited audience and a thin future.

The Silent Partner was very different. On a par with some of the best bank-robbery films, its story is original, its characters three dimensional and its direction sharp. Gould gives an excellent performance as a likeable man who sees his one chance “to start over”, and takes it, finding then that the consequences are far different than what he had expected. Unusually, his character develops noticeably and realistically during the story. While this may, in less capable scripts, have been ascribed simply to having sudden wealth ($50,000 was a lot more in 1978 than it is now), Gould’s personality realises its potential seemingly through the ordeal of having to outwit, if he can, the not unintelligent – and limitlessly ruthless – Plummer. He finds his strength as he goes along.

Plummer, for his part, is not just a generic crazy criminal. He brings true menace to his character. He doesn’t kill whenever he feels like it; he knows he cannot get away with everything. His temper is explosive, but he is cunning, and has patience; he even admires what he sees as similar qualities in Gould. His is a believable creation, and thus frightening.

The supporting characters, Susannah York and Céline Lomez as women who become a part of the drama, are strong, too, though with less opportunity to show it. They grow as well, thanks to Gould’s predicament, though their growth is not always beneficial to them.

The script is smart and the direction produces true tension, notably in a confrontation conducted by telephone, a brutal fight in Gould’s apartment, and the climax, the end of which most viewers likely will not expect.

While nudity and expletives give The Silent Partner a 1970s gloss, the movie could have come straight from the golden age of film noir, and, in black and white, had perhaps Dana Andrews in the lead, and a villain a la Richard Widmark, in Kiss of Death. The Silent Partner deserves to be ranked with some of the best of the genre.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Directed by Terence Fisher; produced by Anthony Nelson Keys

Two friends, the Duc de Richleau and Rex van Ryn (Christopher Lee, Leon Greene), meet after an absence and discover that a third acquaintance, Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), has become involved in a satanic cult. Though Ryn is sceptical, Richleau is aghast, knowing that the power of the devil-worshippers is not just superstition. They embark upon a two-days’ adventure of danger and death, in which the souls of all concerned are at stake.

Based on the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name, and scripted by Richard Matheson, The Devil Rides Out benefits first of all from an excellent script. There is no tongue in the cheek here (which would have been fatal) and the characters behave realistically within the context of the story. They are well-written, and, while Greene’s part may be seen as a dull but dependable sidekick whose main purpose is to have things explained to him, he also provides a more sobre angle, keeping the story grounded.

The movie is not frightening; it should not be seen as a horror film. Indeed, the original novel (one of a series involving the same characters) was intended as a thriller; so is the movie. In this, it succeeds. The action is fast, alleviated by moments of expostulation, and at times quite suspenseful. The climax, in which the forces of righteousness must defend themselves within a protective circle, is tense.

The acting is commendable, and it was refreshing to see Lee playing a good guy. He has played a few in his time but his Richleau is probably the most sympathetic: definitely someone you want on your side. It can hardly be claimed that his career would have been bettered by more such roles, but they would have been fun to see. Charles Grey is as excellent playing the villain. His smug confidence and slimy evil makes the viewer want to chuck him down a flight of stairs - which is an indication of his skill. The supporting performers, except for Greene, have less to do, or less range in which to do it, but all enhance the film. Paul Eddington, soon to become a much-loved staple of situation-comedies, has a dramatic role here.

A straightforward tale of good versus evil, with some doubt as to who will survive and how it will all end, The Devil Rides Out is an entertaining movie, the sort that would have been ruined in the twenty-first century by excessive gore or sex. As it is, it is a minor classic of its kind.