Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Jigsaw (1949)

Directed by Fletcher Markle; produced by Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger

After two murders, including that of a friend, are linked to an extremist political group, an assistant district attorney (Franchot Tone) in New York City pushes for an investigation. This doesn’t sit well with the people behind the crimes, people who stand to make a great deal of money.

This is what movie reviewers, both professional and amateur, call a ‘bad movie’. The premise provided a good set-up but nothing that followed was of high quality. The story veered away from exciting possibilities almost immediately, the writing was mundane (with the exception of a brief discussion of how ‘ignorance is big business’), the acting was below average.

Tone was a good actor, but here, possibly under uninspiring directing, his emotions are half-hearted or misaimed, his timing is off and his credibility flawed. Other actors, with the exception of Winifred Lenihan (who seemed to contribute nothing more to motion pictures than this performance) and Marc Lawrence as a political fixer, are wooden, overly dramatic and unbelievable. Jean Wallace and Betty Harper (later known as Doe Avedon), Tone’s two love interests, are dreadful.

Tone’s character was at least interesting, though not, I suspect, in the way the writers hoped. He was almost amoral, rather than righteous (quite a difference). He not only blithely cheats on his fiancĂ©e, but accepts backdoor help from dubious sources to gain a position as a special prosecutor. And when a woman with whom he was romantically involved is found dead a few feet from where Tone was knocked unconscious, he, after being told of the death, doesn’t even bother to check for a pulse, but immediately calls his office to arrange for a crime-scene team to be despatched - he, on the other hand, is off to follow another lead. In fairness to Tone’s character, I think this was simply sloppy writing.

The story was set up to pit Tone against what sounds like a neo-Nazi group (complete with uniforms), but it quickly turns into a crime-racket tale, with the powers behind the would-be extremists simply looking to make money. Any risky narrative about racism and discrimination is quickly forgotten. The actual dialogue ranges from forgettable to laughable. I lost count how many times Wallace answered a question with a question. It reminded me of an episode of the old Bob Newhart Show, when, for some reason, both Bob and Emily would repeatedly reply to each other’s statements with “Do you, Bob/Emily, do you really?” That was funny. Then again, so was the similar tactic in Jigsaw. It just wasn’t deliberately amusing.

The finale involves a shoot-out, which isn’t badly handled, but why a couple of the gunmen even participated, when they could have escaped unnoticed, is beyond me.

The strangest aspect of this movie has to be the inclusion of high-powered personalities in cameo spots. Henry Fonda has a line as a waiter; John Garfield appears for a few seconds; actors Burgess Meredith, Everett Sloane and Marsha Hunt all contribute minutely, while real-life society columnist Leonard Lyons shows up, too. Marlene Dietrich has a moment that actually makes sense (at least in terms of the result of her appearance, even if it doesn’t explain the reason): she is shown leaving in disdain a night club which has the gall to call itself The Blue Angel.

The cameos and the beginning of the story suggest that someone meant Jigsaw to be an important indictment of growing intolerance in Hollywood and the United States, just a few years after the practical lesson of such hatred was given by Nazi Germany. What resulted, however, was an ordinary movie, executed in a sub-ordinary fashion.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Please Murder Me! (1956)

Directed by Peter Godfrey; produced by Donald Hyde

An attorney (Raymond Burr) buys a revolver, loads it and goes to his office, where he slips the weapon into a desk drawer and starts dictating a narrative into a tape-recorder. He begins with the startling claim that in 55 minutes, he would be murdered. He then explains how he arrived at this point; how, six months before, he had told his best friend (Dick Foran) that he was in love with that friend’s wife (Angela Lansbury); how he had defended his new love in court, when she was charged with his friend’s killing. And then we learn why he thinks he himself will be murdered.

This is one tense and intriguing little movie. Initially, it seems straightforward, even though, when Foran ends up dead and Lansbury is charged with homicide, the viewer knows things are not what they appear. But the storyline soon changes direction, and the simple crime drama becomes a psychological thriller, a game between two people, with the highest stakes at risk. Please Murder Me! also presents what I think must be a unique kind of suicide, as far as motion pictures are concerned; perhaps not in its execution, but in its motive and detailed planning.

The acting is excellent. Burr could play villains, such as the disarmingly charming killer in Red Light, or the colder courtyard resident in Rear Window. Here, he gets the chance to play a man of decency and loyalty, whose devotion to justice and friendship invites death. And he is utterly credible in both extremes. Similarly capable is Lansbury, whose career spanned the big and small screens, with the stage almost as prominent. In Please Murder Me!, she is able to show her versatility, as well as a villainy that is more subtle than one would expect. Just as good is support from Foran and Lamont Johnson, who later made a long career for himself as a director.

Direction in Please Murder Me! is strong, especially in its second half (in fact, while good in its first, it is in its second half that everything in the film rises beyond merely ‘watchable’). The climax really had me wondering if the killer would get away with the crimes committed. It could have gone either way. That’s a sign of suspense in a movie, and is not easily achieved.

The writing is the weakest partner in the triumvirate it forms with acting and directing, but with the quality of the others, this is forgivable. It is smart enough to make characters’ motivations discernible only after more is learned about them. And there is the imaginative murder/suicide (not the usual definition of the phrase, either) on the credit side of the story.

Packing much into just 78 minutes, Please Murder Me! shows another trait of the successful movie in making its running time seem no more nor less than it needs to be. Entertaining and tense, this is one of those forgotten little gems which deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

I Bury the Living (1958)

Directed by Albert Band; produced by Albert Band and Louis Garfinkle

A businessman (Richard Boone), as part of his duties as chairman of a cemetery company, must put in a token few hours a month at the graveyard. The caretaker (Theodore Bikel), about to retire, finds that it is a peaceful place, and Boone, for his part, has little to do. Included in that little, however, is updating the cemetery map: replacing white pins, representing burial plots purchased but not yet filled, with black pins, symbolising someone’s imminent interment. Inadvertently, he finds that when he accidentally places a black pin instead of a white, someone dies. When it happens several times, Boone knows something is terribly amiss.

This is one of those very near misses that makes one hang one’s head at lost opportunities. The majority of the movie is very good. What I enjoyed particularly was the intelligence of Boone’s character. When he realises that he may have an influence on mortality, he tries to plumb the problem, telling his friends and associates about it, and even risking ridicule to talk to the police. This is something rarely seen in thrillers of this sort, in which stupidity is the usual quality in characters. The supporting characters are likewise smart. They try to dissuade Boone’s belief and, when confronted with growing evidence, all do not continue to reject possibilities.

Needless to write, if the acting were not competent, such characterisations would be for naught. Fortunately, the performances are uniformly good, mostly by unknown actors (it’s the horde of minor players in Hollywood that often makes a movie memorable.)

The direction is good, and the writing also more than capable. The atmosphere, building slowly, gives a feeling of growing dread to the situation.

It is the story’s resolution which causes the whole edifice to collapse. The tale was well on its way to becoming much more than a superior Twilight Zone episode (that series was, of course, almost always of high quality), and there is a point at which Boone has a realisation about the potential of his power that may have thrown the movie in a new and intriguing direction. Instead, that point is used as a break with everything good that came before, and drops it to the nature of the mundane. The explanation of the deaths, and Boone’s influence over them, is nonsensical. Indeed, the very nature of some of the deaths makes the explanation unreasonable.

Alas, I Bury the Living was only three quarters of an excellent film. It is a rarity, a film that would benefit from a re-make, and - something I usually detest - a little fiddling with the original script.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

I’ll Never Forget You (a.k.a. The House in the Square; a.k.a. Man of Two Worlds) (1951)

Directed by Roy Baker; produced by Sol C Siegel

An atomic physicist (Tyrone Power) needs time off from his work. Dissatisfied with life in the mid-twentieth century, he would like nothing more than to have lived two hundred years before. One day, he gets his wish. Through unknown means, he travels back to the past, to the very era of which he is enamoured - but finds all is not what he expected.

This movie is an adaptation of the play Berkeley Square, which had been previously (1933) made into a film of the same name, starring Leslie Howard. I cannot comment on the stage version (nor on the first movie), but I found the 1951 edition unsatisfying.

Firstly, there is little story to it. I don’t know if much of the play was cut for the screen, or if it too was shallow on plot, but little really happens in I’ll Never Forget You. This is demonstrated by the lengthy prologue, set in modern times, which acts as nothing more than padding. We see Power and his colleague (Michael Rennie) conducting experiments with radioactive material. This may have been meant to imply the method by which the protagonist travelled through time but, if so, it was pointlessly demonstrative.

What does happen in the movie seems curiously superficial. The script blends Power’s disappointment with the past with a love story, neither of which parts are entirely convincing. The poverty, child-labour, ignorance and unsanitary conditions of London in the 1780s proves disillusioning to Power, yet when speaking of his own time, he mentions the terrible and wondrous things that have been achieved. Having just come through an horrific world war, in which atomic energy was unleashed on the planet, should have given him perspective with which to treat the past’s flaws with leniency (though the 1950s was still a time when nuclear power was seen as much more good than bad.)

As well, the love affair Power has with a lady (Ann Blyth) he meets in the past does not seem credible. Certainly the two leads are likeable enough, but they have little chemistry together. It may be that the movie was edited in different ways for different audiences, one version emphasising romance over adventure, another vice versa, as evinced by the multiplicity of titles the film has had.

The ending does not fulfill its potential. There were possibilities of a twist that would have rounded out the plot much better than it was, especially given that Blyth of the past has a replica in the present, an inexplicable development that leads no where.

There are points in I’ll Never Forget You’s favour. One aspect of time travel I’ve not seen displayed elsewhere is shown when Power meets the Duchess of Devonshire, a real-life personality renowned in her time for her beauty and wit. Though he is initially charming, Power eventually unnerves the lady; in an anachronistic phrase - and I think I can use one in writing about time travel - she becomes ‘freaked out’. His manner of complimenting her suggests to the Duchess that she is ‘already dead’. Our hero can, in effect, imitate a man of the times, but cannot impersonate him. Also, Power’s attempts to convince others of his origins leads at best to sympathy, at worst to fear and the possibility of incarceration. Power is greatly disappointed in the Age of Reason - yet how would we react to a man’s tales of time-travel?

The actual means of journeying back and forth through the centuries is never elucidated. This doesn’t other me, as the story is a fantasy, rather than science fiction. What hurt this movie was not an absence of physics, but a lack of depth and direction. If I do remember I’ll Never Forget You, it won’t be for the right reasons.