Monday, January 29, 2018

The Vicious Circle (1957)

Directed by Gerald Thomas; produced by Peter Rogers

No one in the movies seemed to be entrapped by circumstances as often as John Mills. Sometimes he’s at a disadvantage due to emotional trauma, as in the thriller The October Man; sometimes, he’s foolish enough to become involved with the wrong crowd, as in the excellent The Long Memory. In The Vicious Circle, he does nothing wrong himself, but is caught in a tightening noose nonetheless.

Howard Latimer (Mills) is a successful doctor who receives a telephone call from a friend asking for a favour. He agrees to escort a visiting German actress from London Airport to her hotel. That simple task becomes the first step in a maddening descent when he finds the woman in his apartment, dead. Investigating the homicide is a dogged Scotland Yard detective (Roland Culver), while hovering in the background is a sinister alleged reporter (Lionel Jeffries) and a possible blackmailer (Wilfred Hyde-White).

Initially, The Vicious Circle has the feel of a minor but satisfying thriller. The ordinary man, minding his own business, is quickly swept up in mystery and danger. The elements are there and they are decently handled. There is an aspect, however, of British movies of this sort that is different than in their American counterparts. In the latter, the police are almost always fooled into believing the protagonist is guilty, guilty of something. The British police are usually given more credit and, at the least, are often sceptical of the evidence pointing to the innocent man, evidence that seems too neat and convenient. This aspect frequently provides an entertaining secondary character, the police investigator, who keeps popping up.

In The Vicious Circle, this aspect is carried to an extreme. The police are almost omniscient, ubiquitous. There comes a point when the viewer realises that Mills is not in any real danger from the law. This drops the suspense to nearly nil. It does not ruin the film, but it does change it. It moves from what may have been a Hitchcockian movie (which I don’t believe was the producer’s intention) to something akin to a lighter Agatha Christie crime adventure, like one of her early stories which doesn’t feature her regular detectives. In this vein, The Vicious Circle is a good evening’s entertainment, but if the viewer is expecting something different, an expectation perhaps created by the first third or half, then there is room for disappointment.

The best feature is the puzzle of who is who and what is what. The script does keep the viewer guessing as to who may be trusted, and makes even the characters with straightforward identities doubtful. But it goes too far in some respects. Hyde-White’s character, for instance, behaves in a mysterious fashion when he need not do so at all.

John Mills’s increasingly desperate attempts to pull himself out of a trap into which he’s fallen are always watchable, and the story in this case is certainly intriguing, even if it does become less and less credible. So, while The Vicious Circle isn’t as good as it could have been, it’s enjoyable, if you just let it take you to its inevitable conclusion.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Man Between (1953)

Directed and produced by Carol Reed

The Man Between has certain similarities (aside from ‘man’ being in all the titles) to director Reed’s other, better known, films The Third Man and Odd Man Out. James Mason plays the male lead in the latter, and former takes place in a divided city at the beginnings of the Cold War, as does The Man Between. But unlike its older sibling, The Man Between goes farther into the tense confrontation between the free West and the Communist east, and the latent battle between the two forces is more prominent.

The plot concerns a young woman (Claire Bloom) visiting her brother (Geoffrey Toone), a British Army doctor, and his wife (Hildegard Knef), who live in Berlin. It’s her first time in the city, now split in two, but not yet sliced by the notorious wall, which would be built ten years later. People - refugees, officials, criminals and spies - cross the border with enough facility to make a journey easy, and with enough scrutiny to make it exciting. Bloom meets Mason, a German with a shady past who is somehow connected to her sister-in-law, and who would become involved much more with Bloom herself.

I can see why The Man Between is not as popular as the other Reed movies mentioned. It is not based on a famous novel, the story is not straightforward, even the atmosphere veers somewhat from thriller to crime-story to light-hearted adventure. But there is much to recommend it.

Firstly, Mason and Bloom’s performances are excellent, and the two of them have chemistry that works. Mason, in keeping with his looks, plays a dark, cynical man who has seen much and given up much, too much, he thinks, to worry about ‘western luxuries’ such as hope and compassion. His explanation for his current shady dealings is simple and thought-provoking: a new lawyer when the Nazis took power, he watched legality and justice disappear virtually over-night, and saw little point in observing dead letters. He represents the Germans who simply went along with the flow and did as they were told. His contempt for the excuse that he was ‘following orders’ shows how worthless such reasoning is, and how many people accept it.

Bloom is young and innocent, but is certainly no fool. The trouble she finds herself in is not of her making, and she sees through others’ schemes without much difficulty - though this doesn’t always help her. Nor is she naive: she doesn’t trust for no reason. The fact that neither her character nor Mason’s is two-dimensional creates good interaction between the pair, and makes their mutual attraction credible.

While the story’s feel is rather inconsistent, the inconsistency does follow the events, which can take a sudden turn toward fearsome as much as toward comedy (in the way real-life can be funny, rather than in a cinematic manner). The use of post-war Berlin as a setting is skillful, the city and its times becoming more of a character than is Vienna in The Third Man, I would venture. It’s interesting that official cloak-and-dagger is on the tale’s periphery; the action depends upon low-level criminals and loners, playing their own games. Aribert Wäscher plays a local gangster who is uncomfortably caught up in the mesh of east-west intrigue as much as is Bloom and Mason. Ernst Schröder is a smuggler, working for the west but on his own terms. In the twilight world of thievery, espionage and black marketeering that thrives in a half-ruined society, these characters, settings and actions strike me as more personal and believable than government spies vying for Earth-shaking stakes.

The Man Between is what many would probably think of as an ‘unknown gem’ or a ‘happy discovery’: a film over-shadowed by more famous works, skillfully directed and acted, though flawed in comparison to other films. But it stands on its own as an example of parts working together to create, if not a superb whole, then certainly a satisfying one.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Foreigner (2017)

Directed by Martin Campbell; produced by Jackie Chan

I am not a fan of martial arts films, though a good one now and then can be a fun diversion. Jackie Chan is a veteran star of the genre and, though likeable and watchable himself, those of his movies that I have seen have been plagued by bad scripts, poor production values and annoying co-stars. These qualities are not to be found in The Foreigner.

For one thing, The Foreigner is much more of a political thriller than a ‘chop-socky’ flick. It concerns a man (Chan) whose daughter is murdered in an attack on a London business by an IRA splinter-group. As is usually the case with these things in fiction, the father is a former special forces operator, who uses his skills to track down the killers. But Chan is just one individual whom the killers have antagonised. There is also a Northern Irish politician (Pierce Brosnan), a former member of the IRA himself, now trying to keep his land steering toward peace; the head of anti-terrorist activities at Scotland Yard (Ray Fearon), and a British cabinet minister (Lia Williams), wanting to nip this renewed bombing activity in the bud. The story is complicated, with double- and triple-crosses, tentative alliances and ultimata coming and going. How the characters run up against each other, now violently, now co-operatively, forms much of the tension in the movie.

While Chan is the lynch-pin of The Foreigner, much of its screen-time is occupied by Brosnan, who gives an excellent performance. His character is not quite shady (or is he?) but certainly has shades to him. Not averse to violence, and a former terrorist himself, he is attempting to keep both Ulster and his life free of the darkness in which he once lived. While our sympathy is great for Chan, Brosnan generates much for his own character.

Chan gives a performance completely different than most to which viewers are accustomed. There is no breezy, happy-go-lucky attitude here. He is a man crushed by circumstances, and the scene in which he surveys his late daughter’s bedroom and realises that there is nothing he can do, say or think to make the situation better is heart-breaking. He may come across as a one-note character, but he becomes obsessed with finding his child’s killers, and permits himself little else to think of.

As for the action, it is exciting and well-directed. Campbell directed Brosnan in Goldeneye, twenty-three years ago, and another James Bond film more recently, Casino Royale. The fight scenes are realistic and plausible. Chan, described in the film as 61 years old, is still superbly fit, clearly, but his opponents are no weaklings, and he does not emerge unscathed from every combat. He is slower, and the jumps and falls less spectacular, than in his youth but, for all that, more believable.

Chan’s background is a bit iffy: his character is reportedly a Chinese refugee who settled in South Vietnam (as a defector from Communist China?); Saigon did have a large ethnic Chinese population in the district of Cholon. There, he was trained by and fought for the U.S. - though being born in 1956, he must have been very young to participate even at the end of the American war effort. Then, he fled the Communist take-over of South Vietnam and arrived in England in 1985, becoming a British citizen. (This unnecessarily complex background is simplified somewhat in the book from which the film was adapted. In The Chinaman, the character is a former Vietnamese soldier, probably called Chinese by mistake. Here, he is Chinese, though he has a Vietnamese name, and the film’s title is inaccurate, as he is now British.) And how he retained his combat skills between the fall of Saigon and 2017 is not made clear.

This last paragraph’s subject aside, The Foreigner is an exciting action/thriller, a good weekend evening’s entertainment, and well worth a look.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Lady Eve (1941)

Directed by Preston Sturges; produced by Paul Jones

The Lady Eve was one of a string of hits by writer-director Sturges in the early 1940s, and it is easy to see why viewers loved it. The dialogue is sharp, the acting excellent and the direction on-target. Yet I found the movie merely satisfactory. Why?

The story concerns a trio of confidence tricksters (Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, Melville Cooper) who board a cruise ship with the intent of finding and fleecing a sucker. They see their victim in a reptile-expert (Henry Fonda) returning to the United States from a year up the Amazon River. Despite the very strong suspicions of his minder (William Demarest), Fonda falls quickly in love with Stanwyck and, to her surprise, vice versa. That’s when the party reaches land and complications ensue.

Sturges brought Sullivan’s Travels and The Great McGinty to the screen, so The Lady Eve has a great pedigree. Why do I think this film is a lesser cousin to them?

The cast is solid. Stanwyck is a favourite actress of mine from the ‘40s, able to play drama and comedy equally well. Her characters, like those of Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, may have their weaknesses, but they were always strong. (These were the days when screenwriters knew how to create strong women without giving them a gun or a sword.) Her performance is perfect. Fonda likewise had established his credentials before The Lady Eve, and was an audience favourite. The supporting cast is more than competent.

The writing and directing hit a fine peak during a train ride when Stanwyck is explaining to Fonda her alleged history with men, a rapidly cut scene that shows Sturges’s talent behind the camera. The scene must have come close to raising the ire of the censors, as well.

With all of these qualities, I still found the movie somewhat lacking. After consideration, I think the fault was with how Fonda’s character was handled. He gives a perfectly fine performance, but it seemed to me that the story wasn’t clear as to how he was to be perceived. The title of the film suggests sin, temptation, deception – all elements that crop up in the tale, but Fonda’s character doesn’t quite fit. Is he smart but inexperienced? Is he obtuse? I suspect that he represents Adam to Stanwyck’s Eve but this is obscured, partly with unnecessary slapstick. He keeps tripping over things and having food spilled on him, slipping in mud and bungling into drapery: the physical comedy seems tossed in. Unless it is well done, slapstick in an otherwise good movie makes me think the writers didn’t know quite what to do with a storyline or character. A scene such as the crowded cabin in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera is superb; Henry Fonda having a roast flung into his lap because servants are brawling is tiresome. As well, I could see why Fonda would be smitten with Stanwyck, a confident, intelligent, fetching woman with class and style. Her feelings for him have much less motivation. Again, he just doesn’t fit.

Far be it for me to suggest that Preston Sturges, of all people, needed to provide one last re-write, but, well, that is indeed what I am suggesting. Most viewers have found no fault with The Lady Eve and, while good Sturges is better than none at all, I think this movie is good, not very good.

Monday, January 8, 2018

House of Strangers (1949)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; produced by Sol C. Siegel

Though there is crime in House of Strangers, this is a pretty straightforward drama of a family in conflict. Like several movies I have watched lately, it is told in flashback. Max Monetti (Richard Conte) has just returned to New York City from, we infer - and later learn for certain - prison, where he had spent the prior seven years. He visits his three brothers, who run the family bank, on the edge of their old neighbourhood. Despite smiles and handshakes, Max is not welcome. It’s clear that he holds a grudge against his siblings, and it’s almost as clear that he has good reason for it. This sets the stage for the exposition that forms the bulk of movie.

I don’t watch too many straight dramas, and dysfunctional families don’t interest me much. But House of Strangers was well-acted - not much melodrama - and the main characters aren’t obvious. Max seems a smooth operator, a lawyer who handles cases for the money and doesn’t worry about ethics overly much. But when he does break the law, he’s reluctant to do so, and it’s plain that he has respect for people who respect themselves too much to follow his example.

His love-interest is Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), someone different than he usually meets, someone sharp-witted and sharp-tongued. Their repartée is entertaining, though their use of double entendre goes on a bit too long. Even so, their dialogue shows the writing at its best.

Gino (Edward G Robinson) is the patriarch, who is seen initially as an eccentric man who makes the most of his humble past and prosperous present. Max is his favourite son. One suspects that this is due to Max having blazed his own trail; his office is in the bank, it’s true, but he has no interest in the family business, and doesn’t depend on his father. Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest brother, is kept as a teller, though he wants to be more; Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) has no goals, while Pietro (Paul Valentine) wants to be a boxer, but isn’t good at it. These three Gino treats badly and, while he gives his reasons at one point,  these are just excuses, and we see that he bullies his children because that’s the way he is.

As in most movies of this genre, it is by the characters that the film drives or stalls, and House of Strangers is well-served by the characters and the people who portray them.

The script incorporates a climax which may not have been in the original book from which the movie is adapted. I generally dislike the addition of such episodes, but in this case, there is genuine tension created and, while not necessary, does provide closure to the story.

Something that is inexplicable about House of Strangers, however, is the way in which the time-setting is manifested. The film’s principal action takes place in 1932, according to Conte’s dialogue; possibly, the events continue into 1933. The ‘bookending’ scenes, which support the flashback, occur seven years later, in 1939 or ’40. But at no time do the clothes or hairstyles reflect those eras. Everything looks as if it were in 1949, the year the film was produced. There is no sense of time, or of time passing. The initial scene in Joe’s office at the bank shows what I think, probably correctly, is a bust of Mussolini (indicative, as it turns out, of Joe’s personality). I couldn’t understand why he would have such an open display of the Fascist leader in 1949. I later discovered that this was ten years earlier, and had to keep reminding myself that the main story transpired seven years before that. While not fatal to the movie, this failure does confuse at times. The use of 1930s automobiles and the single instance of a contemporary tune (which I recognized as “Honey”) doesn’t convince.

That oddity aside, House of Strangers is an entertaining tale of family and other relationships, well-acted, cleverly-written (if at times overly clever) and effectively directed.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

My previous review was of a movie which made heavy use of flashbacks. So it is this time, as well, and the flashbacks are used for a similar reason: to explain the development of a character. But this movie isn’t as well known as A Christmas Carol, and that’s a shame.

In Britain during the late 1930s and the 1940s, one of the most popular and successful political cartoonists was David Low. Among his creations was Colonel Blimp, the epitome of the blow-hard, unthinking, arch-conservative that Low and many others felt was responsible for the sorry state of Britain, especially in her military preparedness. While many of the latter problems were due to politicians, Blimp came to represent the unreasoning backwardness of many people, whether in the army or not. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (“The Archers”) had the ingenious notion of a story that told how this personality evolved, and they told it in their inimitable style.

The tale opens in 1943 and our Blimp - real name: Major General Clive Wynne-Candy, VC, DSO - has just been humiliated by a forward-thinking, eager young officer. In his rage, Candy bellows, “You make fun of my belly, but you don’t know how I got it. You make fun of my moustache, but you don’t know why I grew it.” And this sets the stage for the flashbacks, which begin in 1902, and we are introduced to Candy, a young subaltern just returned from the Boer War.

As is usually the case with a production by the Archers (see my earlier review of A Canterbury Tale), the success of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp relies not on one aspect of the film, but on many, perhaps all. Most noticeable are the actors and their performances. Roger Livesey, used more than once by the Archers, is a stand-out as the main character, aging forty years in the story’s course, and having to portray the same man at different periods. We hear the voice deepen, the traits grow more pronounced and the gait become more exaggerated. Even so, the verve of the young man is preserved in the old, though in the form that most of us have seen in energetic older fellows.

That Livesey’s role is just one of three important parts is seen by the fact that he actually receives third billing, though he has the most scenes. Significant in Candy’s development is his friendship with a German Army officer, portrayed by Anton Walbrook. His character changes, too, but more sharply than Candy’s. This is the result of the dramatic forces shaping a German gentleman in the first four decades of the twentieth century, forces greater and more violent than those acting on an Englishman. He is not just a foil for Candy’s intransigence, but is his own character, and a reminder of how things can create change whether we want it or not.

The third important role is actually three in itself. Deborah Kerr plays a trio of different women who have a profound effect on Candy’s life. In a way, hers is a difficult series of roles, as her characters aren’t just individual people but are representations of different decades. Kerr portrays these ‘typical women’ splendidly, each having her own personality yet also encapsulating their eras. And she must give her portrayals with less time on-screen (for each of her characters) than the two men.

The script is very good. It has few memorable lines, but creates drama, humour, pathos: feelings, rather than moments. Candy, who could have been a cardboard character, the object of the viewers’ ridicule, is treated sympathetically. Powell and Pressburger rarely make fun of a person for its own sake, and their characters are rarely only two-dimensional, even when we are meant to dislike them (which is itself rare). We see and understand why Candy became the person he did. We see his weaknesses and his strengths. Indeed, the subtlety of the writing is such that some of these are not even mentioned, but implied. For instance, can a man be so inured to change if he accepts and respects women from three eras so contrasting as the 1900s, the 1920s and the 1940s?

The directors display not just their talent for what we see in the foreground, but the detail for which they were famous. The arrangement of the duel is an example: true and accurate, but also interesting. When we see the office of an attaché of the British Embassy in Berlin, we observe, very briefly, a tall stove in the corner; German houses often used these rather than fireplaces before central heating - but how many directors would think to include such a minor item?

The photography is, simply, beautiful. The colour is vibrant and clear. Even in the stills included in this review, one can note the brilliance and detail. It is a pleasure to watch such scenes even if the movie’s subject matter bears no interest. Also to be praised is the make-up. I haven’t seen such convincing ‘old man’ make-up in another movie. It compliments the acting to create a very persuasive illusion of age.

One of a collection of high-quality films from the Archers, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is among my favourite from this talented duo, though the choice is a hard one. A word of warning, though: if you see this film, watch the 163-minute, original edition. There are shorter versions, including one 150 minutes long, which eliminates the framework of the flashback (and thus damages the whole point of the story) and - horrors! - a 90-minute cut. I will leave to your imagination what hacking a 163-minute film down to an hour and a half would accomplish.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a study of - indeed, a tribute to - a flawed but essentially admirable human being, brought to the screen in an affectionate, sympathetic manner. That, after all, is perhaps how we should view all people; this movie, a plea for understanding, demonstrates that there is more to people, and to their development, than might be easily dismissed.