Sunday, December 29, 2019

Cash on Demand (1961)

Directed by Quentin Lawrence; produced by Anthony Nelson-Keys (associate producer)

Just before Christmas, the manager (Peter Cushing) of a small provincial bank arrives at work to begin another day. He criticizes his staff – something he frequently does – threatens to sack his chief clerk (Richard Vernon) and must deal with a man (Andre Morell) sent by the company that insures the bank, come to examine its security. But the bureaucrat from London is not what he seems. He explains that his accomplices will murder the manager’s wife and son if he doesn’t help rob his own bank. Within minutes, an ordinary day has become a matter of life and death.

Produced by Hammer Films on a very limited budget, Cash on Demand looks like what it really is: a filmed teleplay with only two or three sets. But don’t let that fool you. Just as Morell’s announced identity is a disguise for the rogue he really is, this film’s appearances are deceiving. With good writing, sharp direction and, above all, excellent acting, Cash on Demand becomes a taut, involving thriller – not the sort for which Hammer was famous, but thrilling even so.

The front men for this exciting little movie are the lead actors. Cushing is probably best known for horror and monster films, mostly from Hammer and often co-starring his friend, Christopher Lee. His character here is Harry Fordyce, a fastidious, seemingly cold man, whose principal concern is the efficiency of his bank, though integrity, both personal and professional, is also important. The slightest error draws his wrath upon his staff; punctuality is of huge significance, and the bank’s reputation and dignity of great concern. Yet even as we meet him, we see that there is something else about him: the merest glimpse of his wife and son’s photographs are enough to cause an impromptu if brief smile. Cushing is well-cast, even to his lean face and thin physique, suggesting an unbending, hard man.

Morell is Cushing’s equal (they had played, respectively Watson and Holmes in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles). Initially exuding bluster and bonhomie, his Colonel Gore-Hepburn quickly demonstrates his unflinching ruthlessness, yet never loses his charm, even his concern for others. In the criminal, Fordyce has met his match in efficiency and fastidiousness, though these qualities are to be used now for larceny. Mention should be made of Vernon, who nicely gives the impression of an easy-going but decent duffer.

The writing doesn’t bother with lines that aren’t to some purpose, making sure that each word shows character, drives the plot, or both, though this doesn’t mean there aren’t quick flashes of humour. (Usually ironic, these are offered mostly by Morell, as he speaks to the bank’s staff as the insurance examiner, his statements having different meanings for them than for Cushing, forced to play along.)

The direction seems straightforward until it combines with the script and acting in the last quarter for some truly edge-of-the-seat moments. There is no overt violence, no car chases, no villains leaping out of closets to the accompaniment of loud music. But Cash on Demand ably demonstrates that nerves can be stretched with nothing more than talent, before and behind the camera.

A perfect example of a British B-film, cheaply produced in black-and-white, Cash on Demand is better than most star-pocked caper movies, and with a finale that will keep you guessing which way it will turn until the last minutes.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Ink (2009)

Directed by Jamin Winans; produced by Jamin Winans and Kiowa K. Winans

Beyond the world we see, a battle is waged between Storytellers, who protect the innocent and bring good dreams, and Incubi, evil entities who thrive on misery and self-loathing. Into this war is drawn a man (Chris Kelly) and his little daughter (Quinn Hunchar), whose soul is kidnapped by a mysterious rag-clad creature. The race is on to rescue the child and discover for what purpose she was taken.

Having watched Ink previously, I did not go into it with that sense of wonder and anticipation one has at not knowing what to expect. Nonetheless, I marvelled at how well even the expected entertained me. Ink’s story is, in some ways, simply an adaptation of the ‘stolen child’ motif from mythology, but the script into which it is placed is original. A background-world is devised but not entirely revealed, leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. The script is not linear, making liberal use of shifts in time and place, and may cause confusion; most is made clear at the end. Ink’s script also has a message, not really subtle but not overpowering, either. It’s made clear in the line uttered by a Storyteller who, in response to a character’s comment on his situation, says, “…I choose to see you for what you were intended to be, not what you've become.”

The acting, by unknowns, is very good, especially by Hunchar; if the child had come across as annoying or unbelievable, the movie would have suffered irrevocably. Kelly’s histrionics may be seen as over-acting, though I disagree; his character is under much pressure and, as in many commendable performances, it is the quiet moments that show the most, both in story and talent.

 The most striking parts of Ink are the direction and visuals, which, though of course not identical, were in the charge of the same individual and utilised so closely together here that they should not be separated. Though filmed on a budget on $250,000, the flimsiness of the resources available to the crew are not apparent. The special effects are sparing but effective. The fight scenes are impressive, any inadequacies cleverly hidden in quick cuts and editing. The filming was in the director’s home of Denver. (When I mentioned this to an acquaintance, she, thinking I had said ‘Denmark’, asked if there were sub-titles. I said, no, but that was all right, as I could understand Coloradan.) If there are strong disadvantages to the direction, it is in the over-use of music-video style editing; it works in the fights, as previously mentioned, but becomes rather too familiar.

 The settings, trappings and costumes of the people involved imply much. The Storytellers seem to originate in a peaceful, rural environment, while the Incubi live in a sterile, hard world, their movements accompanied by the squelch of cheap plastic. The Storytellers are, further, ordinary-looking people; their opponents rather creepily hide behind screens of ever-smiling televised faces. The scene in which direction and visuals combine for the best effect is one in which a man’s slow, deliberate walk through brightly lit corridors is interwoven with the brutal battle going on around him, in a dark, sinister version of the same building.

To write these days that any movie is unique is probably inaccurate and misleading, but Ink has elements that are both imaginative and original, and if its execution is flawed in some respects, it in no way should deter anyone watching this entertaining and involving fantasy.

Monday, December 16, 2019

A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

Directed by Andrew Stone; produced by Michael Abel

Between jobs for his company, oil man Whitney Cameron (Joseph Cotten) visits his family, in time to be called to the hospital. His niece, taken violently ill, dies during the night, leaving her step-mother (Jean Peters) distraught. When speaking of the horrible event with friends (Gary Merrill, Catherine McLeod), Cameron is led to believe that his sister-in-law may have poisoned the child, and possibly her late husband, in order to inherit their money. Dubious but fearful, Cameron must determine not only how to save his nephew, now perhaps the next victim, but whether the boy even needs saving.

A movie with potential is irretrievably damaged by its mediocre treatment. The acting is not at fault; the problems lie with the direction and the writing. The latter is ordinary and mildly confusing at times. When Cotton tells Merrill of the child’s death, his reaction is to ask, “What did she have?” implying that he knew that she was ill. As far as I can recall, Cotton had not contacted Merrill prior to this, in which case it would have been more natural to think a child who has died had succumbed to an accident while playing, or while in an automobile.

The motive behind the crime is clearly given as money, yet the motivation (as opposed to motive) is not examined; after all, the cold-blooded killing of a little girl deserves a better reason than other murders, at least in fiction. As well, the death of Cotton’s brother (Peters’s husband) is strongly hinted by circumstances to be another murder, but it leads nowhere, in which case we are in doubt as to whether his death was caused by the criminal or merely suggested the possibility of wealth by the elimination of the others in the family.

The direction seems half-hearted. There are several instances, most taking place among the police, in which a scene ends as if without instruction from the director: Cotton talks to a detective and when the latter finishes, he simply returns to his paper-work, or speaks to someone else, leaving the civilian to his own devices. It’s as if the actors were not told how to end the scene and had to come up with some way on their own. This happens more than once. As well, I wondered why a police lieutenant has his own office while a captain makes do with a desk among others.

The scenes showing the police are among the better scenes but create the feel of a different film all together from the more domestic scenes of Cotton and his friends and family, as if a police-procedural had been mixed, awkwardly, with a psychological murder mystery.

The film is redeemed somewhat by the climax, a confrontation between Cotton and Peters, which is suspenseful, as the former has doubts about the latter’s guilt, even as he tries to trap her. Cotton’s acting is well displayed here: no cool, collected customer, he is so nervous about the possibilities that his hand trembles and he sweats like someone trapped in a sauna. But the scene is at the end of an unrewarding film.

Even the title of the film is a misfire, suggesting the following of a detailed and progressively complex plan, or, at the least, the involvement of an architect. Unfortunately, despite the on-screen talent, the movie built according to A Blueprint for Murder doesn’t pass inspection.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Brothers Rico (1957)

Directed by Phil Karlson; produced by William Goetz and Lewis J Rachmil

Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) has a good life: a beautiful and loving wife (Dianne Foster), a successful business, and an adoptive child on the way. Then he receives a summons from an old acquaintance, a crime boss (Larry Gates), who is looking for Eddie’s brothers, Gino (Paul Picerni) and Johnny (James Darren): they had fallen much deeper into the Mob than Eddie ever had, and now, after an assassination, were on the run. Loyalties will be tested, and Eddie will find out what family – and not just his – means.

Adapted from a story by Georges Simenon, The Brothers Rico is a pretty straightforward tale of trust and betrayal, but well-told and well-directed. The script is good in that it creates suspense from the inevitable; it makes the viewer hope against hope that an outcome will be different than expected.

The bulk of the movie features Eddie’s cross-country search for his brothers, gone to ground after a murder for which they think they will be the scapegoats. The omnipresence of the Mob seems a bit exaggerated, but nonetheless is an element in the successful generation of suspense. The weakest link is the last: the ending seems rather too easy, too simple. But, while this is a disappointment, it is likely to disappoint writers, rather than viewers.

The acting is good. Conte is always strong when thrown into sudden family turmoil, and his anguish when he learns who he shouldn’t have trusted is credible, even though most viewers will regard him as a fool for his blind faith. (Such blindness is realistic, as well, and a reason why criminals and dictators get away with their actions.) Gates does is fine as the smooth and friendly crime czar, and a very young James Darren is convincing as a man who knows his desperate situation. As an interesting note, the brothers’ mother is portrayed by Argentina Brunetti, while her character’s mother is played by her own real-life mother, Mimi Aguglia, the daughter of a famous actress herself.

While The Brothers Rico is neither very imaginative nor original, it benefits from a cast and crew who are good at their jobs, and who show how to devise a small but entertaining film from less than promising material.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

Directed by Joseph H Lewis; produced by Wallace MacDonald

A young woman (Nina Foch), searching for a job, is hired as a secretary by an elderly woman (May Whitty), who has her new employee come to live with her and her son (George Macready). When she wakes after what she thinks is one night, the woman finds herself in a country house, having lost a day and being called a completely different name. Her identity stolen, a prisoner, and fearing the worst, she doesn’t have long to find a way out of her deadly predicament.

A short (65 minutes) ‘B’ picture, My Name is Julia Ross is almost ruined by the story; how much of it came from the novel The Woman in Red by the famous crime-writer Anthony Gilbert, I don’t know. As may be guessed from my first paragraph, the nefarious intentions of those who hire Foch are not long kept from the viewer, so I give nothing away in describing them. They are, in fact, revealed within minutes of Whitty and Macready appearing on the screen. Thus, one of the plot devices of similar movies – the doubt the audience, and the protagonist, have regarding somebody’s sanity – is immediately discarded. Foch seems to have been lately ill - her ‘recovery’ is mentioned, as is someone else’s appendix removal – but her mental or emotional state, other than anxiety over trying to find a job, is not in question. Indeed, that she herself believes the masquerade over her new identity is unimportant to her enemies.

Since the story deliberately does away with a possibly central cause of tension in the movie, it is up to other elements to create a successful film. Fortunately, they are up to the task. The script, while not particularly imaginative, creates a smart and sympathetic main character. At no point does Foch think that she is losing her mind. She knows something wicked is afoot, and she devotes her considerable intelligence to thwarting it. That numerous schemes for escape fail is due to bad luck and the nearly equal brains of her captors. That little time or effort is given to filling out her character detracts a little.

The acting also contributes. Foch, at the beginning of a long and varied entertainment career, is convincing as the heroine, someone thrown by circumstances upon her own resources; that she probably had to rely on them most of her young life is implied. May Whitty (credited as ‘Dame May Whitty’, having been made a dame of the Order of the British Empire for her charitable work in the Great War) gives a rare performance as a villainess. Even at eighty, she is lively and believable in her role. Macready’s performance, if not well-known, will be remembered once seen. His slightly goggle-eyed stare and calm demeanour, ready to vanish in a paradoxically emotionless rage, is chilling. And his nearly normal praise of the sea’s ability to keep silent indicates where his previous victim was deposited. (As a footnote, the heroine’s love-interest is played by Roland Varno. Coincidentally, he was born Dutch, as was Foch, and, like her, had a strong connection with the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia).)

While not in the first rank of thrillers, My Name is Julia Ross is a good entry in the Gothic/psychological melodrama sub-genre, thanks to the acting and characters. And, with its short running time, a viewer needs only an hour to be given an evening’s entertainment.