Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Rage at Dawn (1955)

Directed by Tim Whelan; produced by Nat Holt

In 1866 Indiana, the Reno brothers take advantage of the upheaval of the late Civil War to go on a crime spree, robbing banks and treasury offices with impunity, protected by corrupt officials in their town and county. Along with neighbouring law enforcement officials, a national detective agency has become involved, sending one of its top operators (Kenneth Tobey) to the scene, along with a new man, a former Confederate States intelligence agent (Randolph Scott). It doesn’t take long before their investigation turns violent.

Rage at Dawn is a bit of a departure for Randolph Scott, in several ways. Firstly, it is based on real people and events. Though highly fictionalised, this is a true story. The action is condensed and the time-line re-written drastically. Secondly, Scott does not appear for some while, the setting and situation being laid out before the viewer initially. Thirdly, its conclusion is not the normal one for a western.

Unfortunately, these novel elements don’t make for a superior film. Scott is as dependable a western star as John Wayne, and more likeable. He is, however, let down by the writing  and the production here.

The story is set in southern Indiana, an unusual location for a western (in this case, it may be termed a ‘mid-western’) but the movie was filmed in California (in an early scene, the latter’s flag may be viewed on a flag-pole in the background). Consequently, though the scenery is rather different than in many westerns - a more treed and less barren landscape - it does not look anything like southern Indiana. Most of the Renos met their fates before the end of the 1860s, yet the firearms used are those of the 1870s and ‘80s.

The story is adequate, but hardly delves deeply into the subject. For instance, who hired the ‘Peterson’ (read ‘Pinkerton’) Detective Agency to gather evidence against the Renos? The company would hardly have expended lives and money on their own account. Why were the Renos criminals? What made them turn to robbery and murder? Motivation in the film is light.

The action is decent, and the acting is good, especially among the minor players. But these aren’t enough to compensate for average writing and what must be termed lazy production. Scott is better served in the several movies he made with Budd Boetticher in the director’s chair, with Burt Kennedy writing the script. Check out one of these in preference to Rage at Dawn.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

Directed by Robert Siodmak; produced by Hal B Wallis

An assistant district attorney (Wendell Corey), drunk and feeling sorry for himself because of his marital woes, meets a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) seeking help in protecting her aunt’s jewels. Despite an inauspicious beginning, the two hit it off and begin an affair. Risky at first, it doesn’t grow smoother when there is a robbery and murder.

There is a feeling to The File on Thelma Jordon that those involved were looking to make another Double Indeminity. The only connection among the cast and crew between the two films is the female lead, and though Stanwyck is usually enough to fill any cinematic requirement, there is no comparison. The File on Thelma Jordon doesn’t have the story, the suspense or the characters of the earlier movie. Nor does it have enough to be successful on its own merits.

As mentioned, one of the problems is the story. While the script is good, the plot itself doesn’t produce any surprises. What happens is pretty easy to guess, and, though the finale’s detail may differ from expectations, most viewers will arrive at the conclusion before the movie does. This is ironic considering the crime’s commission in Double Indemnity is explicit, but not shown here, yet the earlier film produces more suspense.

Another problem is the casting. Wendell Corey is meant to portray an ‘everyman’, caught up in intrigue and felony. But he is also meant to be someone whom two quite different women can’t live without. His performance does not convey that in the least. There is, in fact, nothing very appealing to his character; there is nothing repellent, either. He is a pretty mundane individual. Corey is very good at portraying the latter. This is no reflection upon his ability (check out his psychopathic murderer in 1956’s The Killer is Loose) but The File on Thelma Jordon demonstrates why he rarely appeared as a movie’s lead, and was usually cast in a supporting role.

Even Stanwyck does not make her character convincingly bewitching. The attraction between her and Corey and is not persuasive; at no point did I believe they were crazy in love with each other. I found Corey’s wife (Joan Tetzel) to be more alluring, physically and emotionally, than Stanwyck.

The File on Thelma Jordon was a missed opportunity, though it may have needed fundamental reconstruction before it became effective.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Drums in the Deep South (1951)

Directed by William Cameron Menzies; produced by Frank King and Maurice King

The beginning of the American Civil War divides two friends (James Craig, Guy Madison), the latter joining the Union army, the former the Confederate. It also ruins the chance Craig has to persuade a friend’s wife (Barbara Payton) - and previous love - to go away with him. Three years later, Craig is assigned the mission of slowing a Northern field army by occupying an impregnable mountain and bombarding the only available railway. Madison, by coincidence, is given the duty of dislodging the Confederates from the fastness.

Drums in the Deep South falls into the category of interesting but not really entertaining. (Yes, I surely couldn’t have created that category myself.) As a military historian, the accuracy in the film met with my approval. Firstly, the soldiers involved are principally from the arm of the artillery, which, though called the ‘king of battle’ is rather a Cinderella service in the films, behind the dashing cavalry and the more numerous infantry. The story-line follows the realistic attempts of the Northerners to beat the Southerners using various guns and means at their disposal. At one point, they resort to a frontal assault, which gunners would not have conducted - but in this case, the only troops available were those of the artillery. Items such as these appeal to me not only as an historian, but as someone who appreciates a writer who takes the trouble to know about his subject.

As a movie, though, Drums in the Deep South is not in the first grade. The acting, especially in the interpersonal drama of the initial quarter, is not expert; indeed, it strikes me as obvious and heavy-handed. It runs more smoothly once the action begins, but there is less of a demand by then upon the performers.

The direction, too, is obvious. A storm approaches at the film’s start, and breaks just as news of war reaches the characters. As well, there are loud rolls of thunder at the appropriate times when emotions run deep between the leads. It reminded me rather of the sort of skits Carol Burnett would do so well. The direction also doesn’t serve the story, in that, while the script is pretty pedestrian, it has its moments of excitement; these, however, are not utilized to full effect, probably because of the direction.

Drums in the Deep South’s potential was wasted, unfortunately, and what could have been a more rousing action film becomes an almost slight war movie.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Girl in the News (1940)

Directed by Carol Reed; produced by Edward Black and Maurice Ostrer

A nurse (Margaret Lockwood) in private practice is tried for the murder of her client, but rightly acquitted, thanks to her barrister (Barry K Barnes). After a long and frustrating search for a new situation - not many people wish to hire a nurse who was accused of homicide - she is hired to care for a semi-invalid in his quiet suburban home. When he dies, questions are asked: was it coincidence; conspiracy; suicide? History is repeating itself with frightening results.

Like the recently reviewed Take My Life, The Girl in the News is a crime story, rather than a mystery. Whatever its exact genre, however, it is an entertaining yarn. The personalities involved in its production constitute a powerful selection of British cinema names. The director is Carol Reed, still with his best years ahead of him, while the writer is Sydney Gilliat, who would add successful direction and production credits to his resumé later. The script is smart and amusing, creating real characters who use their intelligence, though it doesn’t mean they don’t stumble in their thinking. The ending, while not clever, is satisfying. Gilliat knows his legal and police procedures, though: it is only after an initial inquiry by the local constabulary that Scotland Yard is summoned.

The writing is a good example of how, in the past, imagination was exercised to include risqué dialogue, a feat hardly used today. A scene includes a discussion between a maid and a cook regarding sleeping pills. The maid, whose morals may be a bit questionable, states that she has never needed sleeping pills, as she ‘sleeps by herself’, to which the cook mutters, “I’m glad to hear that…”

The actors, though led by Lockwood and Barnes, include Emlyn Williams, later to gain fame as a playwright (probably for the best; his acting here is rather wooden) and Roger Livesey, giving a natural and droll performance as a police sergeant, and showing why he would become a leading man in his own right a few years later. Other roles are filled by Basil Radford (without Naunton Wayne) and Felix Aylmer, while the uncredited Leo Genn, Michael Hordern and Roland Culver would have long and respected careers on stage and screen. Mervyn Johns, seen in last week’s The Halfway House, has a small but pivotal role in The Girl in the News, while Kathleen Harrison, his co-star from the later Scrooge (a.k.a. A Christmas Carol) has an even smaller part, though they don’t share a scene here. (Oddly, both Johns and Livesey look older in this film than they would appear in later roles, likely a tribute to their acting.)

Another point of interestin The Girl in the News is its essential Britishness. There are a number of scenes and lines of dialogue that highlight this. The British legal system is shown in action and at one point Livesey remarks to Barnes (their characters are friends and roommates) that the latter won’t be able to think of marriage until he sits on the Woolsack (the padded seat on which the lord chancellor reposes as speaker of the House of Lords); in other words, he can’t marry until he reaches the pinnacle of his career. This line may be obscure even to modern Britons. At another point, street traffic is stopped for the ‘opening of the assizes’ (county court), which includes a procession of the judge and local notables. With the coming of the World War, this movie may have been one of the last British films produced with exclusively British audiences in mind.

Whether simply as an enjoyable story or as a hefty block of British motion picture history, The Girl in the News is worthwhile viewing.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Halfway House (1944)

Directed by Basil Dearden; produced by Michael Balcon

In the midst of the war against Hitler, ten disparate people come to stay at a remote but snug Welsh inn. Each guest has his own reason for coming: one is a black marketeer seeking security, another a newly released convict; a dying orchestra conductor; a couple on the verge of divorce arrive with their child; another couple in love but in great disagreement and a third pair, bitter over the death of their son. What they find is nothing like what they expect, but it may be just what they need.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed a gentle but rather aimless ghost story called Beyond Tomorrow. Again, in The Halfway House, we are dealing with kindly ghosts - but the story is much more coherent and the ending far more satisfying. After the very mundane (as in ‘earth-bound’, not ‘ordinary’) introductions to the characters, we are brought to the inn, and there is no mystery as to the supernature of the innkeeper (Mervyn Johns) and his daughter (Glynis Johns): he materializes from thin air, and she casts no shadow on a sunny day. But The Halfway House isn’t a ghost story, really, and certainly not a horror film.

On one level, it is a propaganda piece, a story about different attitudes toward the World War, and the fight against tyranny. Johns, a Welshman in real-life as well as in the film, explains to a young Irish diplomatist (Pat McGrath) how national pride can’t interfere with international morality; the black marketeer (Alfred Drayton) subconsciously plans to be of use to the German invader. But, like all good propaganda work, it is effective on other levels, and thus the movie is not dated.

The Halfway House is about life, the choices we make in it, and how there is always a chance for betterment, as long as there is life. The daughter (Sally Ann Howes) of the divorcing couple (Richard Bird, Valerie White) plots to bring her parents together again, and when this goes awry, she complains to the innkeeper’s child about how horrid life is. The latter, killed as an adolescent, pauses before responding, and that hesitation is more eloquent than whole speeches about complaining of a life that isn’t, after all, so bad.

The script manages well to create an atmosphere that is eerie but not frightening. The day the guests arrive at the inn isn’t the day they think it is, and their slow realisation of where they are - and when they are - is rather suspenseful. The acting is good, except perhaps for Francoise Rosay, who portrays the woman whose son was killed. This is ‘her first English film’, as the credits read, and she may have been hampered by acting in a language not her own.

The Halfway House is an enjoyable, easy-going movie concerned with living, and with how we can affect others, even in death.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Take My Life (1947)

Directed by Ronald Neame; produced by Anthony Havelock-Allan

After the successful premier of the opera in which his wife starred, a man (Hugh Williams) is approached by a former girlfriend. Asking for his help, she gives him her address, written on a piece of paper. Though he doesn’t visit her, Williams is implicated in and later arrested for her murder. With the police investigation concluded and the trial begun, it’s up to the accused’s wife (Greta Gynt) to find out the truth.

A fairly straightforward crime drama, Take My Life doesn’t pretend to be a mystery. The murderer (Marius Goring) is known to the audience - if not to any character in the film - almost from the start. His identity and motive remain obscure for a while, but we watch him follow Williams’s trial and take precautions against his own discovery. Take My Life relies for success not on mystery but on the suspense of Gynt’s hunt for the killer. In this, the film works.

Take My Life doesn’t have the heart-beating thrills of a Hitchcock film, but the question of what will happen at the end remains open throughout. As well, there is the frustration Gynt experiences in that every lead she finds seems already to have been anticipated by the police, and leads to nothing more positive for her than it did for them.

The acting is good, especially from Gynt and Goring. Gynt is determined and, alternately, anxious and hopeful, while Goring is likely the creepiest member of his character’s profession you will see in a while. His single-mindedness is more than a little disturbing. (On a side-note, I saw for the first time, Goring’s resemblance to the late King Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor), a decidedly un-creepy man.) Williams also does a competent job, playing a gentleman who won’t give in to despair, no matter what the circumstances say about it.

All in all, Take My Life is an uncomplicated, entertaining melodrama, with a bit of twist to the ending which, though not necessary to the plot, fits it, and which I really should have seen coming.