Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Sleepers West (1941)

Directed by Eugene Forde; produced by Sol M Wurtzel

Private detective Mike Shayne (Lloyd Nolan) has what should be a simple assignment: escorting a trial-witness by train from Denver to San Francisco. But the witness (Mary Beth Hughes) is barely co-operative, Shayne’s old girlfriend (Lynn Bari) is aboard with her fiancĂ© and newswoman’s instinct, and certain parties are interested in keeping the witness from testifying. Needless to say, it will likely be a sleepless night for Shayne.

This is the second of seven films, shot and released quickly over three years, starring Nolan as the investigator, Michael Shayne. I haven’t seen the others but, if Sleepers West is typical of the series, they were competently if inexpensively produced, decently written and well-performed.

Nolan was already a veteran of many movies by the time he was cast as the lead here, and his natural, almost diffident manner makes it easy to see why. His fellow performers are all good supporting actors, most with credits as numerous as Nolan’s, though mostly in small bits. Even so, they are all capable.

The writing is a surprise, as it delves rather deeply into the personalities of two supporting characters, who threaten to eclipse the leads. A minor but significant sub-plot features the train’s driver who has a schedule to keep, regardless of safety. Detective Shayne is depicted as tough, but far from hard-boiled. In fact, he seems as much determined to win back his former love as he is to succeed in his assignment. He has a fine sense of humour, which, fortunately, the script was able to display (it’s a dismal feature of many movies to be told that a character is this or that, only to have no evidence shown to support the claim) and the reporter/girlfriend is able to match him.

The plot is quite simple. There is no actual detection done here; this is a more or less straightforward action/adventure yarn. This is of course acceptable if other elements make up for the deficiency, and in Sleepers West they do. The movie isn’t a classic, of course, but as a light-weight (and light-hearted), entertaining crime story, it does what it no doubt intended to do.

(Another poster to note here. This one has a kind of art deco train and three people, only one of whom looks like the actors involved. In fact, the man seems to me to resemble George Raft more than Lloyd Nolan...)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

Directed by Robert Wise; produced by Robert Bassler

After spending six years in a German concentration camp, a Polish woman (Valentina Cortese) takes a desperate gamble. She impersonates her recently deceased friend in order to start a new life in the United States. Vowing to take care of her late friend’s child - too young when parted from his mother to remember her - the refugee begins to enjoys the wealth, prosperity and happiness her new persona brings, until she suspects that something is wrong, even dangerous, in her surroundings.

Viewers may see The House on Telegraph Hill as derivative of both Rebecca and Suspicion. Certainly, it has elements of both, and if one hasn’t seen either of the earlier films, this one will be gripping and intriguing. But even if one is familiar with the two Hitchcock movies, The House on Telegraph Hill will hold its own. I believe its climax is more thrilling than Suspicion’s (and truer to the atmosphere and characters of the film), though you may have just as difficult a time determining who is up to what.

The direction cannot be faulted. Wise creates a tense feeling inside the title house, a house which is not really that frightening (unlike the one in his later The Haunting). This was, pardon the pun, wise, as the house in this movie is not the home of ghosts, but is seen as a welcoming place by the heroine. When she feels something is amiss, it is clear the problem lies with the people, though which ones may be tough to guess until the end. There is also a good scene in which a car’s brakes fail on the precipitous streets of San Francisco; it will cause more than one viewer to hold his breath.

The story is a good one. Cortese may be seen as a schemer but, I imagine, half a decade in Belsen would make anyone jump at a chance for security and happiness, especially if, as she believes, no one will be hurt by it. She is, however, a decent person, and tries her best both to fit and be a good member of her new family. The clues to a sinister plot in the background are well-laid, and the plot doesn’t point to anyone in particular for some time. When the revelation comes, it comes with a casualness which is both intended and startling. The principal complaint with the storyline is with the coincidence of the U.S. Army refugee placement officer (William Lundigan) re-appearing as a long-time acquaintance of Cortese’s husband.

The acting is most satisfactory. Richard Basehart gives his usual strong characterization as a lawyer who swiftly falls in love with the immigrant he at first questions, then befriends. Fay Baker’s performance is strong but perhaps too reminiscent of Judith Anderson’s housekeeper in Rebecca, though her motives are quite different. Lundigan may seem to be a routine love interest, but he may be perceived as too flippant, the way an unlikely suspect is in a mystery, though this has more to do with the directing and writing than his acting.

All in all, The House on Telegraph Hill is an atmospheric, well-executed thriller, taking full benefit of the directing and the leads’ talent.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Kedi (2016)

Directed by Ceyda Torun; produced by Ceyda Torun and Charlie Wuppermann

Cats have been an integral part of Istanbul’s population for thousands of years, long before the city was given its present name, and probably since before it was Turkish. A huge number live as ferals or, more correctly, community cats (since most seem to be friendly, or at least tolerant, of humans.) This documentary tells some of their stories through the lives of several felines, and the people who know and love them.

I did not know what to expect from Kedi, though I had heard of it, and of its glowing reviews. This is not, unfortunately, one of the latter. Despite not knowing much about the film, I was disappointed in it.

I found the trouble with Kedi was that it didn’t really succeed in its objective which, I think, was to relate how much a part of Istanbul cats are. Certainly, it told the tales of a number of the animals and their relationships with humans, some of the latter their care-givers and some merely friends or acquaintances. The stories are, by and large, interesting, but the truth is that I could imagine exactly the same stories being told of other large cities, of their cats, and of their humans. I can’t claim any knowledge on feline populations, but I suspect that London, New York, Beijing, Paris or Moscow might have served equally well for the setting. I am sure that the film-makers believed that Turkey’s biggest city had a unique perspective, but if so, it was not made clear.

The photography was excellent, and showed aspects of Istanbul probably not seen by many; the city is hardly as well known as others, despite having been the centre of the world for hundreds of years, and its fulcrum for a thousand. The cats profiled each seemed to have a different neighbourhood, a different milieu in which to live: a harbour cat, a restaurant cat, a new mother-cat, etc, but again, these could have been found anywhere. The opening text on the screen suggested that it was Istanbul and its cats that were special. What made them special was not successfully explained.

The subject of the movie may not seem to affect the review, yet I think it does. As a cat-fancier, I found it disheartening that for all the stories of the city’s cats, for all the affection many human residents clearly felt for them, there appeared to be little practical care for them. We are shown a few people who feed community cats, a mother and daughter for instance cooking chicken every day for the animals. A couple of men are shown at different times tending to the medical needs of sick kittens. But the only mention of spaying and neutering is when one cat is talked of as not being fixed. As most involved in cat-rescue know, thousands of unspayed and unneutered cats is a problem, and most of the results of that problem will die unknown and unpleasant deaths.

What Istanbul does about this problem, if anything, is ignored by the film. Indeed, since it is not even raised as a subject, it may not be seen as a problem at all, by either the film-makers or the population at large. It may have been too argumentative a view to take in the movie, it may have obscured what was meant to be a heart-warming tale; if, however, a film-maker were to document the thousands of homeless refugees chronically flooding a town which is friendly to them but largely apathetic of their needs, yet ignore how they actually survive – or don’t – his documentary would be rated incomplete. That is how I felt about Kedi.

Kedi is indeed sweet and uplifting in many places, the cats adorable and those people who love them nice to meet. But its two problems are major. Like a costume drama in which the characters are basically modern personalities in period dress, this story could have been placed anywhere; the fact that it was set in Istanbul appears more due to the director’s nationality than to the city’s uniqueness. And it does not tell the whole story of the cats; perhaps those connected with Kedi thought they had told it all. That would be sad.

I am not one who needs to be informed about the ugly side of life in every movie. If I watch a film about the building of an aristocrat’s mansion, it would be beside the point to stress that many people are going without food while wealth is spent on decoration that few will ever see. But if the film is about that same aristocrat who prides himself on being a friend of the common man, then I would expect to learn what he is doing for them. By the end of Kedi, I realised that I had been shown only half the story, however pleasant and enjoyable that half may have been.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Tremors (1990)

Directed by Ron Underwood; produced by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson

In the desert community of Perfection, Earl and Valentine (Fred Ward, Kevin Bacon) are two friends with an amiable but ephemeral existence as handymen. Tired of hauling garbage and pounding fence-posts for a bare living, they determine to re-locate to the near by town of Bixby where, apparently, prospects for two enterprising businessmen are much better. That’s when they make the startling discovery that they and their fellow villagers are under attack by huge, carnivorous monsters that can drill through soil as a fish swims through water. As Earl observes, they decided to leave Perfection one day too late.

Tremors has almost everything going for it, and it would be difficult to pick one element that contributes more to its success than another. For one, the writing is superior. A bane of watching a monster movie is the stupid character, the man or woman who is included either to provide an easy victim or to propel the story by doing something nobody would really do, but which is needed by lazy writers to get from one point to another in the tale. While some of Tremors’ characters are annoying, and others not particularly bright, none is artificially dumb. In fact, most contribute to the fight against the creatures, and all appear to be thinking.

The principal characters, Earl and Val, are rough, sometimes crude, men, but decent, and –albeit reluctantly - willing to put themselves in danger to help others. The importance of likeable characters is sometimes overlooked by writers; if the viewer doesn’t care about the main personalities in a plot, care about the plot – and the movie itself – diminishes.

The script here is also funny, providing plenty of humour, especially in the characters of a couple of survivalists (Michael Gross, Reba McEntire), and in the interaction of Val and Earl. Significantly, the humour never descends to self-satire, and is perfectly reasonable within the context of the story. A smug, knowing deprecation on the part of the film would have been deadly.

The acting is very good, especially among the leads. The cast is small, as befits a film that is almost, and ironically, claustrophobic, despite being set in the wide open Nevada desert. This was director Underwood’s first feature film, though you wouldn’t think so; he handles every shot well. Something to be appreciated was the placement of almost all the action in daylight, so the fight against the creatures – and the creatures themselves – may be seen.

In many ways, Tremors may be paired with The Thing from Another World (1951), another smart, funny, fun and well-written monster movie, also set in an isolated community. There may be a few others that were produced between the two, but it is a sad commentary that such enjoyable films appear to come along only once every forty years or so. On the other hand, that means we may be soon due for another.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Somewhere in the Night (1946)

Directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz; produced by Anderson Lawler

A severely wounded U.S. marine (John Hodiak) wakes with horrible facial injuries and no memories. Documents record him as George Taylor, but he doesn’t believe it. When he finds a disturbing letter among his belongings, however, he pretends to go along with the identity, scared that even worse would be uncovered if the authorities placed this George Taylor in his old life. Nonetheless, the amnesiac determines to find out who he is, with his only clue a letter from Larry Cravat, an old friend. The very mention of Cravat’s name, though, causes anger, fear or anxiety to almost everyone who hears it, and Taylor soon wishes he had never heard it himself.

As I wrote in my review of The Bourne Identity (1988), amnesia stories are often disappointing when the plot resolves itself. The Bourne Identity is an exception to this pattern, and so is Somewhere in the Night. Though viewers may arrive at the solution sooner than they should, this is still an entertaining and complex mystery. Numerous characters know of Cravat or have heard of him, and appear and vanish in the story, only to re-appear, as leads turn up, seemingly going nowhere but to more dead ends for Taylor.

The cast is headed by lesser known names - Hodiak as the lead, and Nancy Guild as the inevitable girl who assists the hero – but is supported by more seasoned performers, such as Richard Conte as a helpful night-club owner, and Lloyd Nolan as a contemplative cop. Fritz Kortner is enjoyable as a shamelessly amoral crook, and Josephine Hutchinson wrings the heart as a spinster by-passed by happiness. Familiar faces, including Whit Bissell, Harry Morgan and Jeff Corey, pop up; Sheldon Leonard has no bigger a part than any of those three but must have been already of note, for his amusing cameo brings him billing in the opening credits. A few players are below these actors’ grade – Margo Woode, as a would-be femme fatale, for instance – but by and large the cast is more than capable.

Some big names are involved behind the scenes, Joseph L Mankiewicz not only directing but co-writing the script; Lee Strasberg adapted the original story (Somerset Maugham also seems to have been involved but uncredited.)

Though Hodiak is appropriately grim much of the time, the script and direction provides some fun, as in Leonard’s scene as an exasperated husband, and when Hodiak and a criminal meet a second time, both turning to run. The dialogue provides some of the double entendres sometimes found in older movies (Woode understanding a point: “I get it.” Guild’s response: “If it’s around, I’m sure you will.”)

The atmosphere is as inviting to the viewer as it is forbidding to Taylor. Most of the scenes are nocturnal, as befits the movie’s title, and it’s hard to believe that so much could occur in such a short space of story-time. In fact, there are several moments when, if you think about the story too much, it will begin to crumble, but Somewhere in the Night shouldn’t cause too much examination.

Though loaded with angst, violence, fraud and murder, it is nonetheless a light-hearted film noir, as films noir go. Looked at in such a way, this movie will be a hit with most viewers.