Monday, June 24, 2019

The Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

Directed by Phil Rosen; produced by Paul Malvern

An archaeological expedition to Mongolia brings back information pertaining to the fabled Eternal Fire, information to which the head of the expedition alludes during a lecture. He doesn’t tell much, however, as he dies during his talk - poisoned, as it is discovered. The death piques the interest of criminologist James Lee Wong (Keye Luke), who, aided by Captain Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco Police, hunts the killer, dodging knives, red herrings and suspicious dames along the way.

The last of the Wong series of low-budget mystery movies, The Phantom of Chinatown was the only one to feature Luke in the lead role, the others having starred Boris Karloff. Luke was younger than Karloff, which may have been the reason this entry in the series was a ‘prequel’: Wong meets his police partner, Street, for the first time, while they are already acquainted in the earlier films. Luke does very well here, showing that he was lead actor material, though I don’t believe he filled that role in any other movie. The other actors are capable, but don’t rise above the level required for such a film.

The story is simple, and simplistic. A chase after a hidden scroll, a couple of murders, the motive of one not really explained, tepid romance: none of this is very interesting, and expert knowledge in, well, anything, is lacking. Proper police procedure is of course ignored and the behaviour of the archaeologists would leave real scientists gasping in horror: when the lost tomb of a Chinese emperor is discovered, the team rush in, pulling away debris, prying open coffins and picking up artefacts without the slightest attempt to document anything. A film-maker is present, recording events on his movie-camera, but how he manages it in a cave-like mausoleum without lights is beyond me.

The script is a bit better than the over-all story. The characters of Luke and Withers are the most interesting but even the former is not well defined. We gather that Wong is educated; he is certainly intelligent and well-mannered, suave and affluent. But holes in his past and personality may have been due to the nature of the movie-series of those days. They were the equivalent of television series of decades later, and could not be expected to describe even the main character in every entry. The series would have benefitted from more episodes with Luke.

The treatment of Chinese and Chinese-Americans is almost completely modern. No one treats Wong as an inferior and, if his cook (Lee Tung Foo) is a comic foil, he is no more so than a thousand Caucasian characters in films of the time - and more capable than the idiotic police detective he captures. In a brawl, Wong uses traditional Chinese fighting methods, but is not invincible. The worst stereotype is a flowery use of (possibly pseudo-) Oriental phrases, over which even Wong smiles. There is even an acknowledgement of the Chinese point of view when, in referring to the archaeological journey, Wong mentions a ‘Chinese expedition to uncover the tomb of George Washington’; when this tongue-in-cheek statement is questioned, Wong mutters, “Well, you get the idea,” a jab that the police captain finds amusing.

Unfortunately, bright spots such as Luke, his character and the interplay with Street, are not nearly enough to float a movie with a routine plot, a merely adequate script, low-level acting and an almost child-like knowledge of its subject. The Phantom of Chinatown is for only the most undiscriminating of viewers. (And there’s no reference to or implication of a phantom; the film takes place only now and then in Chinatown…)

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Big Knife (1955)

Directed and produced by Robert Aldrich

A Hollywood actor (Jack Palance) has reached a crisis in his career. At the height of his popularity, he has sacrificed his professional integrity for fame and fortune, and now wants out. His wife (Ida Lupino) supports this decision, and will leave him if he doesn’t quit. His powerful studio boss (Rod Steiger) is pressuring him to sign a new contract, and will ruin him if he refuses. Will he stand up to one, or both, or will he crack under the strain?

This very rare example of Palance in a leading role shows both that he was competent, and that he was probably best in a supporting role. He gives a creditable performance, and is really the best thing in an otherwise sorry melodrama. It is based on a play by Clifford Odets and, despite Odets being one of the most prominent American playwrights of the twentieth century, reminded me of a university or high school work.

The script is filled with improbable lines and dialogue that would be found only on the stage. Almost every line could be spoken with half as many words and twice as much clarity. The characters were well-defined but without much subtlety.

The direction picks up where the script leaves off, and simply magnifies its problems. The comparison to a high school production becomes stronger, with yelling and crying taking the place of acting. Histrionics vie with overdone earnestness. Considering the fame and skill of the director, the placement and blocking of the actors is amateurish, Palance more than once facing away from the camera or even behind lampshades while talking.

As stated above, Palance did well, though he was badly miscast as a matinĂ©e idol. (John Garfield had filled the role during the play’s Broadway run, and would have been more credible.) The other actors are adequate in their roles, with the exception of Steiger, who gives an early example of the extreme over-acting for which he became infamous. It was like watching William Shatner on steroids. Everett Sloane, as Palance’s agent, was, in his own way, as hammy as Steiger. Lupino reacted rather than acted, though Wendell Corey, as Steiger’s henchman, did a good job.

The problem with The Big Knife stems, I think, from it being too personal. It appears, given Odets’s past, to be autobiographical in some ways. Odets had been a darling of the New York theatre crowd, the new talent, but had gone to Hollywood to write movie scripts. He imagined that he had sold out; Palance represented him in the film. Steiger was the studio boss for whom Odets worked, likely Louis B Mayer. Lupino was the wife who was almost Odets’s agent in dealings with the studio. The manifest emotions of the play may have been how Odets saw his relationship with Hollywood, or how he would have wanted it to be. He may have been too close to the subject to write a convincing, realistic depiction of the situation, and instead created a nightmarish interpretation.

Whether or not this view is accurate, The Big Knife is at different moments tiresome, annoying and unbelievable, but always unsatisfying.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Killers (1946)

Directed by Robert Siodmak; produced by Mark Hellinger

Two strangers (Willian Conrad, Charles McGraw) come to a small town and take the staff and patron of a diner prisoner with the expressed intention of ambushing and killing a resident of the town. When the man (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t show up, they go to find him. Despite being warned, the victim neither flees nor defends himself, and accepts his fate. The insurance investigator (Edmund O’Brien) on the case can’t fathom the dead man’s apathy and, digging further, finds an intricate web of robbery, deceit, obsession and betrayal.

One of the best crime movies from an era that produced the best of that genre, The Killers has everything going for it. Inspired by (rather than based on) the Hemingway story of the same name, the tale is largely told in flashback, the plot laid out for the viewer as O’Brien and Sam Levene, as a police officer interested in the case, uncover it. It is a complex plot, with twists and surprises, and a conclusion rooted in both reason and emotion, as film noir often is. Caper film, mystery, psychological drama; The Killers  works in every way.

The characters are key to the story, especially Lancaster’s; his psyche is important to the story. But everyone’s role is strong and rewarding. O’Brien’s cocksure investigator becomes more likeable as he delves deeper into the mystery, and his team-work with Levene is smooth and enjoyable. Ava Gardner, as the female lead, is fittingly enigmatic, and Albert Dekker is almost sympathetic as the soft-talking villain. Stand-outs, in small roles, are the assassins themselves, Conrad and McGraw: two men who would murder from annoyance as much as for money, and whose frightfulness comes from being so creepily casual in their evil.

The direction is dead on and the cinematography is superb. Check out the opening sequence as the gunmen converge on the diner, arriving at two entrances simultaneously, anonymous (but uncaring if they may be identified to the police). The lighting and pacing is so well conceived that merely walking becomes a sinister premonition of violence and death. The movie demonstrates why film noir worked best in black-and-white.

The acting could of course have ruined everything else, but The Killers excels in this category, as well. It’s hard to believe that this film was Lancaster’s first. He is not on the screen as much as is O’Brien or even Levene, but he dominates every scene he is in. His acceptance of his imminent demise is not unmitigated; the tension and fear he feels, mixed with his motivation, had to be conveyed right; the rest of the movie depended on it. But no one in the cast is unconvincing.

The Killers starts off on a high note and doesn’t drop in quality appreciably at any point during its 103 minutes. Whether a student of the cinema, amateur movie buff, or just someone who likes an excellent time watching film, The Killers will not disappoint.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Murphy's Romance (1985)

Directed by Martin Ritt; produced by Laura Ziskin

Emma Moriarty (Sally Field) moves with her son, Jake (Corey Haim), to a small town in Arizona, hoping a different location and her own business venture - horse-boarding - will give them the fresh start they need. Soon, she begins to meet the locals, one of whom is the older, thoughful and forthright pharmacist, Murphy Jones (James Garner). As they come to know each other, interest grows between them that is more than friendship and less than love - but that soon changes.

While it is accurate to categorise this film as a romantic comedy, the inference some may draw from that term would not be quite right. Though I like the genre, most romantic comedies are rather silly affairs, filled with contrivance and forced situations, not to mention forced laughs. Murphy’s Romance is different. It is an adult romantic comedy. By that, I do not mean there is sex, violence and profanity. There is no nudity and though an obscenity is uttered, Murphy makes it plain that he doesn’t care for the word or its use.

No, this is an adult movie because the principals behave like adults and have a grown-up approach to falling in love. Emma and Murphy are mature people who have experienced easy times and tough times, as have we all, and act like they’ve learned from them. It’s clear that Murphy’s feelings for Emma are clearer to him than Emma’s feelings for Murphy are clear to her, and they are clearer sooner. But he is cautious, neither foolish nor timid, while she is gun-shy about love.

The leads’ age difference is a good example of the script’s maturity. Though Murphy’s lengthy collection of years is mentioned, usually as the butt of a good-natured joke, its place in any relationship is not a concern. The age difference is treated as if Emma and Murphy have taken it into account as part of their over-all personalities; they weigh its effect as they would any other aspect of their characters. This lack of hand-wringing angst over something that isn’t much of a problem in the first place makes for a realistic but easy-going movie

Despite the title, Field is rightly given top billing. She is very winning as a woman who is both strong and vulnerable, and her good relationship with her son is as refreshing as is her romantic maturity. Garner is a very watchable but not versatile actor; most of his parts are similar: a steady, dependable, likeable man, tolerant of foibles but hard on folly. Here, the characterization is perfect. He is sensible and funny, the sort of man any woman would want as a partner and any man would want as a friend.

The script wisely avoids populating the film with ‘quirky’ townspeople, the artificial bane of many a comedy. The closest the movie comes is with the community’s oldest resident (Charles Lane), a curmudgeon whose appearance is used to illustrate Garner’s character more than his own.

Murphy’s Romance has been described as a ‘chick flick’ that men would enjoy. I agree with this, but it may be considered a film for women really only because the main character is female. This enjoyable and entertaining movie is for both genders and most ages simply because…it’s an enjoyable and entertaining movie.