Friday, February 23, 2018

Sea of Sand (a.k.a. Desert Patrol) (1958)

Directed by Guy Green; produced by Robert S Baker and Monty Berman

On the eve of the Battle of El Alamein, a unit of the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group undertakes a mission to destroy a German fuel dump. The target is 500 miles behind enemy lines and even if the team destroys it, returning may be the tougher part of the mission.

The conflict in Sea of Sand is not just between the British and the Germans. In fact, the principal foe appears to be the desert itself. Actual combat occupies much less time than does crossing the desert. Though there is excitement in the battle scenes, especially in an attack by a lone German armoured car, the tension that arises from having to survive the environment is greater.

There is also conflict between the team’s commander (Michael Craig) and the Royal Engineer captain (John Gregson) attached for the clearing of a minefield, but this part of the film is predictable. The unit is made up of the usual diverse soldiers (including Richard Attenborough, Barry Foster and Ray McAnally) but the script, though it treats each individually, eschews (or perhaps simply pre-dates) the later convention of making them all misfits. An interesting feature of the ensemble is that, though they argue and get on each other’s nerves, there is a true sense of camaraderie among the team, some of whom have known each other since the beginning of the desert war.

For me, much of the entertainment came from the details, some explicit (such as using cocoa powder to blacken the face for night raids; desert dirt caused skin-sores, a fact probably learned by the real-life soldiers through experience) and some implicit (such as the unspoken acceptance of unconventional dress and headgear; whatever each man finds works for him in an unforgiving environment.)

Sea of Sand illustrates, for me, my belief that the war movie, at least in Britain, reached a peak of realism in the fifteen or twenty years following the Second World War. During the war, it was too greatly influenced by the need for propaganda, and then, after a couple of decades, came fanciful storylines, which, embellished by the gritty cynicism of the 1960s and ‘70s, were nonetheless often fairy-tales compared to those of the immediate post-war years.

I think this was caused by the fact that following the second world war, most of the people participating in films, both before and behind the camera, were also participants in the war. And in Britain, more than in North America, those watching the films had also felt the direct effects of combat. So anything unauthentic would have been noticed right away and treated with scorn and derision. Some melodrama or poetic licence in plot and characters was permitted, but nothing too fantastic, as everyone in the audience would have known the sort of people portrayed on the screen, in one form or another.

This perhaps explains why the British excelled in what later came to be called ‘docudramas’ (or ‘dramadocs’), films that combined the factual background or details of real-life with the fictional story-telling of films. It may also be why, with the rise of a new generation in the 1960s, they died out at the beginning of that decade.

While some may find Sea of Sand too slow for a satisfying action flick, it is a good example of the interesting and well, if inexpensively, made war films from Britain in the 1950s.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Scene of the Crime (1949)

Directed by Roy Rowland; produced by Harry Rapf

This movie’s title, and the opening sequence, seen behind the credits, suggest that Scene of the Crime deals largely with forensic science. In fact, it’s the story of an old-fashioned police investigation, with plenty of leg-work, questions and background-checking. While that may sound dull, the story the inquiry uncovers by simple, dogged detective work is complicated and hard-boiled. Not a film noir, Scene of the Crime is in instead an interesting and involving police-procedural - though you may lose track of who is doing what to whom at some point.

Van Johnson heads the cast as the lead investigator, with John McIntire as his aging partner. (McIntire always seemed to look old in films; though only forty-two at the time of this one, he appeared and acted older.) Tom Drake is the new detective on the team. The two leading ladies (Arlene Dahl and Gloria DeHaven) share about equal time on screen, and DeHaven, in particular, gets to show her talent.

The writing appealed to me most about Scene of the Crime. The script made much of the different characters. Each is quite distinct from the others, whether cop or crook. There is a plethora of supporting roles, from informers to petty hoods, from veteran detectives to tyros. The performances of the character actors stand out, and they do what their fellows often do, elevate a film as a whole through their work. The main characters are well formed, too, and well-acted, but the secondary roles are the more memorable.

The plot, as I implied, is complicated, but not quite unnecessarily so. The script includes a great deal of slang, some shared by the police and the criminals, due to their common milieu. We hear of ‘lobos’ and ‘gungs’, and learn that the verb ‘to hang’ meant the same in the late 1940s U.S. as it does now: a certain coffee shop is where thieves and robbers ‘hang’. ‘To nick’ someone meant to arrest him; interestingly, the same as it did in Britain, at least into the 1980s. It has faded from American criminal slang, however.

The climax is violent but short, and the denouement demonstrates that even then the detectives hadn’t deduced all of the plot’s twists. But that adds another element to Scene of the Crime, a hard-edged police drama with plenty of wrong-doing to satisfy the black-and-white cops-and-robbers enthusiast.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Day of the Evil Gun (1968)

Directed and produced by Jerry Thorpe

Day of the Evil Gun has a tried and true western premise: the family of a man (Glenn Ford) has been abducted by Apache Indians and he sets out to find them. Complicating his quest is his determination to give up his violent past, and the accompaniment of another man (Arthur Kennedy) who is in love with Ford’s wife. Their uneasy partnership leads to tension with each other, as well as with the dangers they find along the way.

This movie made me think it a 1960s version of The Searchers, dirtier, more cynical, slower and with much less to say. Ford and Kennedy were excellent actors, and are capable in this. But we learn little about them. Ford was a successful gun-fighter who now eschews gunplay. He has been away for a long time, and thought dead by his wife. We can guess that he left his home to ‘find himself’, in a manner of speaking, to shed his past persona, but we are not told for certain, nor do we know where he went or why he chose to abandon his family. Kennedy’s character seems only bitter and resentful. All other people we encounter are no more than sketched in, though John Anderson, as a soldier with his own agenda, has a good role to play. A very young Harry Dean Stanton (credited without the ‘Harry’) and an even younger Barbara Babcock have small roles.

There is action, and some good tension, though the the climax isn’t that climactic. The finale is, I think, meant to be ironic, but loses much due to the introduction of a key character in only the last few minutes. If he had appeared at the beginning as well, to provide ‘bookends’ to the story, what he says and does would have been more fitting, and the title would have had more significance.

The direction is mediocre, with a number of techniques that I have found common in 1960s movies, such as the slow zoom. The film reminded me of television films of the 1970s. To be fair, this was the era when tv was becoming more sophisticated in its technology and methods, so it was ‘catching up’ to the cinema in many ways, and a number of tv movies of that period were very good. But in its production values, story, direction and scope, Day of the Evil Gun was probably wasted on the big screen.

While much of the film was perfectly watchable, its worst aspect was the fact that neither of the main characters is likeable; neither gained the viewer’s sympathy. I didn’t care what happened to either of them, though I was interested enough in how they would solve their problems to see the movie to the end. But, in truth, the end of Day of the Evil Gun wasn’t worth waiting for.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Allied (2016)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; produced by Robert Zemeckis, Graham King and Steve Starkey

Brad Pitt has quite the cinematic connection with Canada. In Legends of the Fall, his character joined the Canadian Army to fight in the Great War. In Twelve Years a Slave, he portrays a Canadian carpenter. In Allied, he again is born north of the 49th parallel, and is an RCAF officer attached to the Special Operations Executive, fighting secret missions in Nazi-occupied territory in World War Two.

I had hopes for this film, as I do for any historical drama, but I was also wary, as there is in such movies these days, quite a bit of what I view as wilful re-writing of history, as opposed to mere ignorance. Allied falls somewhere in between. The acting is very good, and Pitt and leading lady Marion Cotillard have excellent chemistry. The action scenes are well-directed, and the look of the movie is colourful and interesting.

What lets Allied down is not the story so much as the script; it’s in the details that it fails. While the look of the film conveys 1943, the feel of it is quite different. There is a party scene that comes straight out of the 1970s, rather than the ‘40s, and some of the characters would not have been at home even in the later decade.

There are explanations and actions that are silly if one knows a little about genuine intelligence organizations and operations, or if one just thinks about what is happening. For instance, we are told that there is a rule in British Intelligence that, if an operator is emotionally involved with someone who is discovered to be an enemy agent, the operator must kill the spy. There is no mention of ‘turning’ the enemy agent to give false information to their chiefs (something the British mastered in their Double Cross System), or of lengthy interrogation to learn of his contacts, targets, methods, origins, etc. Real espionage agencies do not waste opportunities for counter-intelligence by killing opponents. And then there’s the notion that being romantically attached to an enemy agent is so common that there is a rule about it…

At one point, a field operator flies to France, apparently without authorization, and raids a town jail. This involves the participation of local Resistance fighters, who seemed not to need to know why they were being pressed into service, nor care that their participation would expose their identities and their organisation to the enemy.

It’s aspects such as these that render Allied little more than a Rambo movie in fancy dress, and remove it from the likes of, say, Master and Commander, with its accurate depiction of the times and, moreover, the sensibilities of the people who lived then. It gives me greater regard for war films from the actual war years, which, though often of a propagandist nature, nonetheless conveyed an atmosphere or feeling of the era. I think the simple fact is that director Zemeckis had little respect for authenticity, aside from the look of his movie. When a film’s creators don’t care about certain features of their work, why should viewers?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Red Light (1949)

Directed and produced by Roy Del Ruth

George Raft was one of those actors who pretty much played the same sort of character in all of his movies, though it served him in good stead. In Red Light, he gives the usual performance, as a man hunting those responsible for his brother’s murder.

The story begins with a convict (Raymond Burr) brooding over how he blames his former boss (Raft) for being incarcerated for embezzlement. He learns that Raft’s brother (Arthur Franz), a Catholic priest, has recently returned from five years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and realises the affection Raft feels for his younger sibling is a means for revenge. He hires another felon (Henry Morgan) to kill the brother. Raft’s only clue in his search is Franz’s dying words, referring to what is written in a Gideon Bible, later stolen from the hotel room where the attack took place.

Red Light is a pretty standard crime story, with a few attractive elements but too many disadvtanges to work. The story is interesting in that in involves a religious element not often found in such tales. It is refreshing to see a movie, in which a clergyman plays a significant part, making use of his beliefs and principles. Normally, priests, ministers and rabbis are used for gentle comic relief or to utter aphorisms that sound as though they came from fortune-cookies.

There is also Raymond Burr, the most interesting member of the cast. His villain is soft-spoken and evil, sadistic and eaten by resentment. Yet there are moments when we see that he is capable of almost child-like charm. It’s no wonder that Burr was able to go on from many villainous cinematic roles to championing justice in the tv series Perry Mason and Ironside. As well, several very minor characters add liveliness to the film.

However, too many other aspects of Red Light are poorly conceived or executed. Virginia Mayo as the leading lady was a capable actress but here she is not at her best. The title is meaningless, and as misleading as the poster. The name of the story from which the movie was adapted referred to the Gideon Bible that plays such an important part.

The direction is adequate and, in a scene in which Burr is stalking a victim, creates real tension. The footfalls of killer and victim are, though, so loud and out of place that they detract from the otherwise successful sequence. It may have been a failed attempt to use the sound to heighten the excitement.

Much of the story depends on unlikely coincidences that are not explained. Raft determines to track down everyone who was in his brother’s hotel room the week after the murder, as among those men and women may be the person who took the Bible. He finds Mayo this way and, strangely, her brother served in the same army unit in which Raft’s brother served; there is no reason for this connection except to serve as an unfair red herring. We see Burr at another hotel where Raft questions a bookie, though there is no purpose to Burr being there. Morgan meets Burr at Raft’s work-place, while there is no way he could have known Burr was there at the time.

Despite several points in its favour, Red Light is a mere time-filler, ordinary but no more.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Vicious Circle (1957)

Directed by Gerald Thomas; produced by Peter Rogers

No one in the movies seemed to be entrapped by circumstances as often as John Mills. Sometimes he’s at a disadvantage due to emotional trauma, as in the thriller The October Man; sometimes, he’s foolish enough to become involved with the wrong crowd, as in the excellent The Long Memory. In The Vicious Circle, he does nothing wrong himself, but is caught in a tightening noose nonetheless.

Howard Latimer (Mills) is a successful doctor who receives a telephone call from a friend asking for a favour. He agrees to escort a visiting German actress from London Airport to her hotel. That simple task becomes the first step in a maddening descent when he finds the woman in his apartment, dead. Investigating the homicide is a dogged Scotland Yard detective (Roland Culver), while hovering in the background is a sinister alleged reporter (Lionel Jeffries) and a possible blackmailer (Wilfred Hyde-White).

Initially, The Vicious Circle has the feel of a minor but satisfying thriller. The ordinary man, minding his own business, is quickly swept up in mystery and danger. The elements are there and they are decently handled. There is an aspect, however, of British movies of this sort that is different than in their American counterparts. In the latter, the police are almost always fooled into believing the protagonist is guilty, guilty of something. The British police are usually given more credit and, at the least, are often sceptical of the evidence pointing to the innocent man, evidence that seems too neat and convenient. This aspect frequently provides an entertaining secondary character, the police investigator, who keeps popping up.

In The Vicious Circle, this aspect is carried to an extreme. The police are almost omniscient, ubiquitous. There comes a point when the viewer realises that Mills is not in any real danger from the law. This drops the suspense to nearly nil. It does not ruin the film, but it does change it. It moves from what may have been a Hitchcockian movie (which I don’t believe was the producer’s intention) to something akin to a lighter Agatha Christie crime adventure, like one of her early stories which doesn’t feature her regular detectives. In this vein, The Vicious Circle is a good evening’s entertainment, but if the viewer is expecting something different, an expectation perhaps created by the first third or half, then there is room for disappointment.

The best feature is the puzzle of who is who and what is what. The script does keep the viewer guessing as to who may be trusted, and makes even the characters with straightforward identities doubtful. But it goes too far in some respects. Hyde-White’s character, for instance, behaves in a mysterious fashion when he need not do so at all.

John Mills’s increasingly desperate attempts to pull himself out of a trap into which he’s fallen are always watchable, and the story in this case is certainly intriguing, even if it does become less and less credible. So, while The Vicious Circle isn’t as good as it could have been, it’s enjoyable, if you just let it take you to its inevitable conclusion.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Man Between (1953)

Directed and produced by Carol Reed

The Man Between has certain similarities (aside from ‘man’ being in all the titles) to director Reed’s other, better known, films The Third Man and Odd Man Out. James Mason plays the male lead in the latter, and former takes place in a divided city at the beginnings of the Cold War, as does The Man Between. But unlike its older sibling, The Man Between goes farther into the tense confrontation between the free West and the Communist east, and the latent battle between the two forces is more prominent.

The plot concerns a young woman (Claire Bloom) visiting her brother (Geoffrey Toone), a British Army doctor, and his wife (Hildegard Knef), who live in Berlin. It’s her first time in the city, now split in two, but not yet sliced by the notorious wall, which would be built ten years later. People - refugees, officials, criminals and spies - cross the border with enough facility to make a journey easy, and with enough scrutiny to make it exciting. Bloom meets Mason, a German with a shady past who is somehow connected to her sister-in-law, and who would become involved much more with Bloom herself.

I can see why The Man Between is not as popular as the other Reed movies mentioned. It is not based on a famous novel, the story is not straightforward, even the atmosphere veers somewhat from thriller to crime-story to light-hearted adventure. But there is much to recommend it.

Firstly, Mason and Bloom’s performances are excellent, and the two of them have chemistry that works. Mason, in keeping with his looks, plays a dark, cynical man who has seen much and given up much, too much, he thinks, to worry about ‘western luxuries’ such as hope and compassion. His explanation for his current shady dealings is simple and thought-provoking: a new lawyer when the Nazis took power, he watched legality and justice disappear virtually over-night, and saw little point in observing dead letters. He represents the Germans who simply went along with the flow and did as they were told. His contempt for the excuse that he was ‘following orders’ shows how worthless such reasoning is, and how many people accept it.

Bloom is young and innocent, but is certainly no fool. The trouble she finds herself in is not of her making, and she sees through others’ schemes without much difficulty - though this doesn’t always help her. Nor is she naive: she doesn’t trust for no reason. The fact that neither her character nor Mason’s is two-dimensional creates good interaction between the pair, and makes their mutual attraction credible.

While the story’s feel is rather inconsistent, the inconsistency does follow the events, which can take a sudden turn toward fearsome as much as toward comedy (in the way real-life can be funny, rather than in a cinematic manner). The use of post-war Berlin as a setting is skillful, the city and its times becoming more of a character than is Vienna in The Third Man, I would venture. It’s interesting that official cloak-and-dagger is on the tale’s periphery; the action depends upon low-level criminals and loners, playing their own games. Aribert Wäscher plays a local gangster who is uncomfortably caught up in the mesh of east-west intrigue as much as is Bloom and Mason. Ernst Schröder is a smuggler, working for the west but on his own terms. In the twilight world of thievery, espionage and black marketeering that thrives in a half-ruined society, these characters, settings and actions strike me as more personal and believable than government spies vying for Earth-shaking stakes.

The Man Between is what many would probably think of as an ‘unknown gem’ or a ‘happy discovery’: a film over-shadowed by more famous works, skillfully directed and acted, though flawed in comparison to other films. But it stands on its own as an example of parts working together to create, if not a superb whole, then certainly a satisfying one.