Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Tall Man Riding (1955)

Directed by Lesley Selander; produced by David Weisbart

After five years away, a cowboy (Randolph Scott) returns to the town from which he was driven by the rancher father of the woman (Dorothy Malone) he loved. He has vowed to destroy the cattle baron (Robert Barrat), and has found a particularly galling way to do it. But his basic decency and circumstances that he couldn’t have foreseen have the cowboy wondering if revenge is worth it.

The first half of Tall Man Riding is rather more complex than the story-lines of most westerns. There is a rivalry between cattle-men and settlers that is often seen in the genre, but in this case, the latter seem to be as murderous as the former. But the settlers are taking their lead from a ruthless saloon-owner (John Baragrey), with an agenda of his own, while the rancher is allied with people who are honourable. The plot simplifies itself in the second half, but that is the nature of complicated stories, as they explain themselves. I found the double-dealing and shifting alliances abnormal in a western.

Scott plays the stalwart character he often plays, but with a bitterness and angry violence that isn’t usual in his movies. With him, the viewer always knows what he is getting, but there is always a sympathy that he builds with his audience. He is more likeable than John Wayne in westerns, I think, but that may have to do with the unpleasantness in some of the latter's characters, such as in Red River and The Searchers. Scott offers few surprises, but pretty steady entertainment.

It’s interesting that westerns frequently offer strong female characters who, despite being socially subservient to the men in their worlds, are quick-minded and strong-willed. While Malone shows some of that in her character, the more watchable is Peggie Castle (whom Scarlett Johansson rather resembles) as the saloon-owner’s girl. She is playing a double game in more ways than one.

While the action is pretty routine, despite a good fistfight scene, the movie benefits from the story and from the performances. If you don’t like westerns, Tall Man Riding won’t convert you; if you do, you’ll like it more than many.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

I Love You Again (1940)

Directed by W. S. Van Dyke II; produced by Lawrence Weingarten.

A boring, tight-fisted Pennsylvanian businessman (William Powell) inadvertently rescues a man (Frank McHugh) at sea; an injury during the episode cures Powell of what has been a nine-year bout of amnesia. He wakes up as the con-man he was, almost a decade before. Quickly reverting to his old self, he ponders the possibilities of his assumed identity, both financial and romantic - since his alter ego has been married to a woman (Myrna Loy) who now wants a divorce.

This silly but promising premise starts a lively comedy with two of the most prolific and enjoyable movie couples in history. Powell and Loy worked together in more than a dozen films, most notably the Thin Man series, but also in happily light and fun pictures as this. Powell usually has the snappier lines and faster delivery, though he necessarily often plays the straight-man to Loy’s smart and often dry retorts. Their chemistry isn’t even something the pair have to work at, and every moment they are together on the screen is bright.

But the two leads aren’t the only advantage of I Love You Again. McHugh plays more than just the usual dumb sidekick. His character, no stranger to running a confidence trick or two, cheerfully agrees to go along with Powell in this latest venture, and is almost as sharp a crook. He is never far behind in catching on to Powell’s ideas. He contributes more than low-brow humour. The other cast-members, including Edmund Lowe, and Jason Robards Senior (in a bit part as one of Powell’s underlings at a pottery plant), are all capable.

The script is not as sharp as other Powell / Loy projects but the stars make him hum along, though there is a segment with a Boy Scout troupe that drags somewhat, possibly because it has little to do with the plot or characters. There is good development in Powell’s personality, as he finds himself drawn both to Loy and the situation in which he could live.

This ‘taming of the con’ is predictable but carried through with charm, as is most of what Powell does. There’s a moment when he finds out how he proposed to Loy - the memory now lost, since his recovery from amnesia - and realises how disappointing he must have been to her. That one or two second reaction shows what Powell can do with an almost wordless opportunity. But comedy and laughter are the principal ingredients of I Love You Again, and in this, the viewer won’t be let down. In particular, I commend the minutes that follow the failed burglary.

A mostly smooth and fun movie, I Love You Again shows what good actors should also be: fine entertainers.

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.