Monday, May 21, 2018

The Black Book (a.k.a. Reign of Terror) (1949)

Directed by Anthony Mann; produced by William Cameron Menzies

In 1794, Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart) aims at gathering absolute power to himself in order to complete the French Revolution. Part of this goal is to be achieved by the destruction of his enemies by any means, usually death, and a list of them, and why he wants them dead, is written in a book. It has disappeared and, since it contains the names of even his supposed friends whom he plans to send to the guillotine, he needs it recovered. For this purpose, he summons an ally to Paris. That ally is killed by Robespierre’s foes, however, and an imposter (Robert Cummings) put in his place. The stage is set for a Byzantine game of treachery, murder and blackmail.

This is one of the most interesting of movies directed by Mann, known principally for his westerns. The interest lies not in the plot, which is actually a sub-standard mystery, with an almost half-hearted romance thrown in. I can’t imagine that these aspects of the story received much thought.
What entertains in The Black Book is the direction, photography and acting, and they certainly make the film worth seeing. Mann gives the movie a nightmarish quality, with extreme close-ups of enraged faces, images distorted by light and shadows, claustrophobic sets with low ceilings and pressing crowds. In several pivotal scenes, the ugly bloodlust of the mob is influential. The Black Book is rather like a sub-conscious version of the actual Reign of Terror.

The actors portray their characters well. Basehart, a year after playing a psychopath in He Walks By Night, is a stand-out as the fanatical Robespierre, a man who believes only he can lead the people to a better life, and that that path must lead through rivers of blood. (How often has history thrown up that sort of leader?) There is no corruption to Basehart’s Robespierre, though; his fanaticism is pure, as is his devotion to the Revolution. That makes him scarier than any authoritarian just out to feather his nest. There is a scene near the end when Robespierre’s words work to turn the mob to his own advantage. This is fictional, as is most of the film, but is probably indicative of the man’s oratorical skill; it certainly was indicative of Basehart’s.

The other actors do as well. Cummings, in an atypical role, plays essentially a film noir tough guy in lace and a cut-away coat. Arlene Dahl is good as the femme fatale, though no one would believe her in the disguise she adopts as a peasant farmer’s wife. Arnold Moss is suitably Machiavellian as Fouché, later the head of Napoleon’s secret police (and, historically, much more monstrous than Robespierre). Minor roles are filled by actors who went on to long careers: Charles McGraw as the slovenly thug who does Robespierre’s bidding, Russ Tamblyn as a country boy, Dabbs Greer as an easy-going guard at a bridge, and Shepperd Strudwick as the voice of Napoleon.

Another interesting aspect of The Black Book is that few of the characters, even those on the ‘right’ side of the struggle appear to be attractive people. Even Barras (Richard Hart), the “honest man” hoping to save France, seems opportunistic, and most of those involved in fighting Robespierre are as ready to kill as their enemies. Cummings and Dahl are the most appealing, but the viewer cares less about their appearances in the film than he does about others’.

Simplistic plot aside, The Black Book is worth an evening’s viewing. Bogart would have been badly miscast in it, but it is nevertheless his style of movie, a blood-brother to The Maltese Falcon, with muskets and knee-breeches.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Silverado (1985)

Directed and produced by Lawrence Kasdan

After defeating an attempt by four men to kill him, a cowboy (Scott Glenn) saves a stranger (Kevin Kline) left to die in the desert. Headed in the same direction, the pair meet up with Glen’s brother (Kevin Costner) and a fourth man (Danny Glover), who was run out of a town. It isn’t long before the quartet find that they each have a quarrel in the making at their destination, and only by working together can they come out alive.

This is the third time I’ve seen Silverado, so I must like it. Indeed, I find it an enjoyable film, and a good one - though not a very good one. Why do I like it and why is it not very good?

The story here is decent, though it doesn’t offer anything new. That’s all right; I don’t demand that a movie ‘push the envelope’, as the saying goes. It needn’t even buy postage or be put in a mailbox. A simple movie has its advantages. But Silverado comes close to being simplistic. It is a straightforward good-guys-versus-bad-guys tale. With one exception, every character is exactly what you think he is from almost the moment you meet him. Kline and Glenn are cowboys who have experienced much, both having served sentences for crimes, both still decent at heart, though Kline wants to avoid trouble to the point of seeming apathetic to others’ troubles. Costner is a little boy in a man’s body; Glover has suffered discrimination and hardship. The villains are also plain to see. Dennehy is suitably menacing from the start; Jeff Fahey is borderline-crazy, etc.

The animosity between the villains and the heroes has a sketchy origin. Ray Baker is the local cattle-baron whose vague objection to farmers is apparently the source of discord and violence. The real contention seems to be drawn simply from past violence: Glenn went to prison for shooting someone who was going to shoot Costner. Why was Costner’s would-be assailant going to shoot him? We don’t know. We assume it had something to do with cattle and rangeland or something or other. Jeff Goldblum plays a charming gambler, but why he ends up on the side he does is a mystery. Glover worked for years in a Chicago slaughterhouse yet is an expert with a rifle…

There is no development of story or character here. I certainly don’t seek an apology for it; many wonderful movies had lacked those characteristics. Silverado has more in common with Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea films than later westerns, and, like those, it makes up for any deficiencies with good actors, believable performances and exciting action.

The players overcome the limited personalities they are given. Kline, someone I always find entertaining, is immediately likeable, as is Glenn, in a rougher way. They come across credibly as two men who would back each other up, simply based on instinct. Costner I thought annoying, but I usually do. Dennehy, who can switch from sinister to supportive with a director’s snap of the fingers, gives a memorable and skillful performance, as is his wont. John Cleese, far out of his usual milieu, is nonetheless convincing as a decent and tough sheriff.

The gun-play is thrilling (though I always marvel at how many men in westerns are killed outright by a single shot), and the scenery is well-used. The undefined moment in the Old West during which the movie is set is realistically depicted without going too far, though I thought the script rather anachronistic.

Silverado is a good movie for a thoughtless weekend evening; there is no deep philosophy, no interpretation of events or individuals. There are, however, a fine cast, exciting fights and a feeling afterward that the viewer has watched an adventure - however often he may have seen it before.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Directed by Samuel Fuller; produced by Jules Schermer

A pickpocket (Richard Widmark) just a week out of prison targets a woman (Jean Peters) on the subway. The choice is unfortunate for a couple of reasons: she is carrying not just money but film that her boyfriend wants delivered to Russian intelligence agents, and she is under surveillance by U.S. government security officers. Now, Widmark finds himself in the midst of a complicated situation which may bring him a fortune, or an early death.

Pickup on South Street is full of smart-alec hoods, tough cops, hard dames and violence. It’s also very good. The writing is dead-on, as are the characterisations. Widmark’s confidence isn’t just bluff: this is a man who is sure of his own skills, sure of his trade and sure of his milieu. This of course makes him infuriating to the cop (Murvin Vye) on his trail, a driven detective who has put Widmark away thrice and wants to do it again - in those days, it was four strikes and the criminal was out - or, rather, in - for life. But Vye, like Widmark, plays by the rules; they aren’t quite the law, but they are rules, and everyone in this world knows them. The incomparable Thelma Ritter is part of this world, too, as an information-broker, liked and respected by both cops and crooks, and whose one goal is to save enough money for a decent burial. A scene in which she displays both defiance and mortal fear shows why she was a high point in any film of which she was part.

All the acting is excellent here. There isn’t anyone whom the viewer doesn’t believe. Widmark isn’t a hood with a heart of gold, but neither is he all bad. Richard Kiley, as the villain, is propelled by desperation rather than evil, and one can almost feel his cold sweat as pressures mount. Peters comes across initially as a shallow girl, just wanting to break free of her past, but, like the other characters, demonstrates depth as the movie progresses.

The imagery is very detailed. The extras who populate the scenes were obviously given instructions on how to look and behave; sometimes, it is distracting, but that’s how strangers on a subway or walking down a street often are. Thought was expended on minutiae; a sign, for instance, in a shop window, advertising ‘help needed’ is at an angle at which it is almost impossible to read, yet the director took the time to insert it; a man in a sandwich board advertises men’s suits; the expressions on people’s faces; all contribute to the sense of realism. (Note the soldier whose shoulder patch displays the U.S. 1st Infantry Division’s ‘big red one’ - Fuller’s erstwhile army formation and subject of a future film.)

Pickup on South Street is a cornerstone of 1950s film noir, more explicitly violent and cynical than its 1940s predecessors, but perfectly logical in its depictions. It’s a must-see movie for those who like the genre.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Smokescreen (1964)

Directed by Jim O’Connolly; produced by John I. Phillips

An unusual car-wreck brings Roper (Peter Vaughan), an insurance assessor, to Brighton, to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the event. There has been no body found, and a ₤100,000 pay-out is at stake. Mr Roper’s methods are slow and methodical, but he isn’t sure that what he is investigating is even a crime.

Smokescreen is an example of a film that should have had everything against it. The story is a pretty routine mystery, the budget is so small Ed Wood could have been the producer, and the cast mostly comprises unknowns. Yet, within its limitations, Smokescreen works.

Much of the credit goes to the lead actor, Peter Vaughan. A supporting performer who should be very familiar to anyone who has watched British-made films or television over the past fifty years, Vaughan’s sharp, villainous face usually put him in sinister roles, though he sometimes played sympathetic characters; his talent made sure that he was as believable at one end of the spectrum as at the other. It’s telling that he is well-remembered in Britain as the frightening prison boss from the situation comedy Porridge - even though he was in a mere three episodes of its four year run. In Smokescreen, though, he is on the right side of the law - mostly - a fairly drab and anonymous insurance investigator, dogged and sharp and, while not instantly likeable, he nonetheless grows considerably on the viewer.

The script is better than the story, especially in fashioning the character of Roper. He is so tight-fisted that even his thrifty boss urges him to spend a little more, and charge it to his expense account. Roper’s constant questioning of costs and his parsimony, as well as his very minor ‘fiddling’ of his expenses (a few pennies here, a shilling there) have a purpose, however, and it adds greatly to his character.

The direction seems pedestrian, yet makes very good use of locale, taking advantage of the scenery, both urban and rural, of the south coast of England. As mentioned above, the budget was clearly small; Smokescreen has the feel of an extended television episode. But the director and producer successfully worked with what they had.

Smokescreen is a creditable effort on the part of all involved, and demonstrates why British filmed entertainment could be of decent quality regardless of obstacles.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Directed by Henry Cornelius; produced by Michael Balcon

An unexploded German bomb in a quiet lower middle class London neighbourhood is the catalyst for an unprecedented series of events when it accidentally detonates. No one is hurt but the explosion unearths a treasure trove. Along with the gold and jewels is an medieval charter that reveals the astonishing fact that the district is, in fact, an independent country. This is initially treated as a fun joke by the new ‘citizens’, but when the government becomes heavy-handed about it, sleeves are rolled up and the new nation fights back.

Passport to Pimlico is one of a series of clever comedies from the Ealing Studios, a company now famous for the comedies they produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This one is not hilarious but it is amusing and, perhaps strangely for a comedy, interesting, because of its views of the time and place. The subject is really the dissatisfaction of Britons with the way the government coped with the home-front results of World War Two: rationing, the growing bureaucracy, and the slow pace of reconstruction after the Blitz. Whether it was meant to convey it or not, the film ends up suggesting that there may not have been many better ways in which to handle the situation.

The performances are natural and easy to watch, as may be expected from the likes of Stanley Holloway, as a general merchant, Margaret Rutherford, as a professor of medieval history, and Raymond Huntley as an enterprising bank manager. Bringing their particular aridity to the humour are Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, a pair of (usually comic) actors who were teamed in several movies of the era (notably as the cricket fanatics in The Lady Vanishes); they play a pair of bemused civil servants, dealing with the ‘crisis’ of Pimlico’s independence. The neighbourhood created is shown to be tightly-knit, everyone knowing each other, rather like a tiny village in the centre of a huge city.

The script is good and takes its subject surprisingly seriously. Instead of giving the neighbourhood a fake country, it provides an historical fiction: that King Edward IV gave a manor (by the 1940s in Pimlico) to the Duke of Burgundy, to hold as part of his sovereign duchy; the neighbourhood in question then becomes the last remaining tract of independent Burgundy. How the ‘Burgundians’ deal with their new sovereignty, and with ‘foreign’ governments (Britain) becomes the focus of the story. Ironically, they must re-introduce rationing and customs duties, so blithely abolished when they first declared independence.

Also adding a touch of solemn realism is the physical background of shattered buildings and vacant lots. One of Holloway’s dreams, made possible by independence, is the creation from a bombed-out lot of a park for the local children.

While Passport to Pimlico is not full of hearty laughs, it is a whimsical and gentle satire on nationality and responsibility, perhaps more topical than other Ealing comedies, but well worth a look.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Rough Shoot (a.k.a. Shoot First) (1953)

Directed by Robert Parrish; produced by Raymond Stross

A U.S. Army colonel (Joel McCrea), stationed in England, has rented a nice bit of land for some rough shooting. Worried about poachers, he tries to scare off one of them by firing a shell of buckshot at the stranger’s posterior. McCrea is shocked minutes later to find the trespasser mortally wounded. What McCrea doesn’t realise is that another man (Marius Goring) simultaneously shot the stranger with a rifle. When ‘his’ victim dies, McCrea panics and hides the corpse. Soon, he is immersed in intrigue and danger - the dead man was pivotal in an on-going case of counter-intelligence.

I must write that I was disappointed in Rough Shoot. I enjoy a thriller in which a decent chap is inadvertently caught up in criminal adventure or international espionage. The Thirty-nine Steps, Journey into Fear, and the like, are fun evenings at the movies. The script in Rough Shoot is by a specialist in such tales, Eric Ambler, with the story from a novel by Geoffrey Household, who wrote Rogue Male. The direction is good, as is the acting. So what was wrong with it?

The main character is not only rather dim, but also a bit of a wet noodle. Please excuse my language. Firstly, he shoots someone with a shotgun, but, upon examining the body (he initially thinks the man hit his head when he fell), he doesn’t seem to note the difference between a wound of buckshot pellets and that from a .303 rifle. (We learn later that McCrea hit the stranger ‘where he was intending’ - in the bum.) One assumes the rifle round struck a vital organ, since the man died of it. McCrea’s character wears the shoulder flash of an armoured division; maybe he knows more about the effects of tank guns than shotguns.

Then, he ‘panics’. While this emotion may assail anyone, even professional soldiers, it does not make for a good adventure hero. Though we may sympathise, we want someone a bit more resourceful, someone who keeps his head. Robert Donat, in The Thirty-nine Steps, or even Gene Wilder, in The Silver Streak, come to mind. McCrea’s wife (Evelyn Keyes) comes across as much more level-headed and able. She knows something is amiss as soon as her husband returns from his shooting.

This leads to McCrea’s third problem: he is not an interesting character. He is quite bland. The other characters are much more entertaining. In particular, Herbert Lom, as an expatriate Polish army officer, now working for the British government, is the sort of man who makes a film enjoyable, and Roland Culver, as an MI5 officer, says and does all the right things. But these two merely highlight McCrea’s incapacity. Oh, and that’s Joan Hickson, much later to be the world’s best Miss Marple, as the announcer at the railway station.

As well, there is an old-fashioned feeling about Rough Shoot. Produced in 1953, it conveys more a sensation of the 1930s in its involvement of the amateur. The Second World War created a greater and deeper professionalism in intelligence work - for good in real-life, but for ill as regards fiction. While the innocent victim can still become caught up in a mystery, it seems unlikely that the authorities would encourage it, at least under these circumstances. This is not a great fault of Rough Shoot, but it does make it feel slightly anachronistic.

The real problem is, as mentioned, the central personality. Much may be forgiven an adventure story, but when the main character is too flawed for us to imagine ourselves in his place, it creates a problem that cannot be overcome. I like Joel McCrea as an actor. He is excellent in Foreign Correspondent - also a spy thriller - and Sullivan’s Travels, and he may be my favourite western star, next to Randolph Scott. But here, the personality given his character lets him down; he has nothing into which to sink his teeth.

While passable, Rough Shoot is a rather mixed bag.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Directed by Cavalcanti; produced by Michael Balcon

It’s Whit Sunday, 1942, and the little English village of Bramley End is about to experience the Second World War first-hand. A unit of British soldiers arrives to conduct an exercise; the officers and troops are billeted among the villagers, strike up conversations, develop friendships. Little do the people know that these soldiers are Germans, intent on securing landing and drop zones for the vanguard of an invasion. Soon isolated by their enemies, shop-keepers, tradesmen and housewives must fight like soldiers themselves to save their country.

While undeniably a propaganda piece, Went the Day Well? is a superior example of the genre. It gives an initial impression of unoriginality: the characters are village types, the dialogue is what one would expect to hear in a film about a small rural community (compare it to the realistic but imaginative dialogue in A Canterbury Tale). But from this uninspiring start, the movie evolves into something exciting and involving.

An interesting feature is that there is no surprise about who the soldiers really are. We are told by a villager (Mervyn Johns), speaking to the camera at the start, what will happen. The fact that the preamble takes place after the war ends (at some fictional future, since the film was made in 1942), allows us to see that all ends well. But there is suspense nonetheless. Numerous attempts by the villagers to summon help, once they realise who is in their community, come to naught, and the viewer is left hoping that the next try will succeed.

Though the Germans are treated as vicious caricatures, the script redeems itself with the handling of the English characters. They become people the viewer quickly comes to care about. Bramley End itself is something the viewers likes and wants to see kept safe. There are scenes of countryside and rural tranquility, sounds of birds, and children playing; all evocatively handled.

But the writers (the screenplay is from an original story by Graham Greene) and director do not shrink from destruction. The movie wants to display just what war means - or, more to the point, just what must be sacrificed to keep one’s home free. The body-count is high, and not just among soldiers. This too was deliberate: the fight for freedom costs, as the monument observed on the church wall to the dead from the First World War testifies. We today may scoff at the idea of a curate with a sub-machine gun, or a young bride shooting at attacking Germans, but the truth was not much different: millions of uniforms were filled by bakers and lawyers, farmers and lords of manors.

The actors are largely unknown today. Johns is perhaps the most recognisable; Leslie Banks plays a fifth columnist (again, I give little away here) and Thora Hird, later a very popular fixture in British television, is a  Land Girl. (Her daughter, Janette Scott, was the female lead in the recently reviewed Crack in the World). But each is well fitted to his role.

A film whose stature has grown since it was first released, Went the Day Well? is a remarkable and successful low-budget crowd-pleaser, and should please the lone viewer, as well.