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Monthly Archives: June 2008

Ice Cold in Alex

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What makes a good war film? At its best, the war movie goes beyond mere action, heroism and patriotism. It provides the opportunity to show real human drama and real human frailty under the most extreme circumstances. The small, everyday, mundane struggles between individuals, and within individuals, play against the backdrop of the larger conflict. There is also the matter of character and how its strength or weakness can shape the course of events and the direction of men’s lives. The British film industry has succeeded in producing some fine war movies, and Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is no exception. This is no epic production; it really only deals with the experiences of four people yet it touches on some very big themes, not the least of which are honour and decency.

It’s 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps are racing across North Africa, and Tobruk is about to be besieged. Captain Anson (John Mills) is a man nearing the end of his tether, both physically and mentally. The unrelenting hardship of the desert war has driven him to drink, and his dependency on the bottle, while superficially steadying his nerves, threatens to undermine his judgment. Having been ordered to take his ambulance out of Tobruk before the siege begins, he finds himself faced with an overland trek to Alexandria accompanied by the phlegmatic Sergeant Major Pugh (Harry Andrews) and two nurses (Sylvia Sims & Diane Clare). Along the way they pick up an Afrikaaner, Van Der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who proves to be an asset in a number of situations. It’s Van Der Poel’s ability to speak German which gets them out of a tricky spot when Anson panics and tries to outrun an enemy patrol. However, the incident leads to the death of one of the nurses and Anson’s subsequent pledge to lay off the liquor until they reach Alex, where he’ll buy them all an ice cold beer. 

Reaching their destination will be no easy task though. Rommel’s troops are advancing faster than expected and, as town after town falls, they must race to keep one step ahead. From this point on Anson’s war is no longer against an army; he must instead battle the hostile environment, suspicion and his own weakness. With the ambulance damaged, the water supply diminishing and the temperatures rising, he is forced into taking a route across The Depression, a vast desert quagmire, where one false step would spell disaster. Even as the little group pulls together to overcome each challenge nature throws at them, the seeds of suspicion are growing. Is Van Der Poel all that he claims to be?

John Mills - a man on the edge

Although the fate of the group ultimately depends on the calm resourcefulness of Pugh and the brute strength of Van Der Poel, it is Anson that you find yourself rooting for. It is a tribute to the skill of John Mills that the viewer feels such sympathy for what should be an unsympathetic character. After all, the man’s a drunk and his early recklessness causes the death of one of his charges. Yet, for all that, Mills manages to bring out the finer points of the man. There is a sense of real pain when he sees how his actions have led to tragedy for the unfortunate nurse. Throughout the film he’s all twitches and nerves and doubts and regrets and hopes – in short, a human being. Harry Andrews is all square-jawed grit and resolve; if you found yourself in a tight spot you’d love to have this guy by your side. Anthony Quayle also fits his role perfectly as the ebullient Afrikaaner who relishes every opportunity to show off his physical powers. Yet, all the while, those piggy little eyes dart around and you wonder what’s going on behind them. Sylvia Sims is the epitome of sweetness and practicality as she falls for Mills and, more importantly, believes in him and encourages him to believe in himself. J. Lee Thompson does his usual professional job in the director’s chair and makes good use of the North African locations. He manages to generate real suspense in some set piece scenes such as the navigation of the minefield and the nightmarish struggle in the quicksand. He also gets across the sense of dry, dusty heat and you feel the same relief as the characters do when John Mills sits on the bar stool in Alexandria and eyes that famous glass of Carlsberg.

Ice Cold in Alex is available on DVD in R2 from Optimum as part of their War Collection line. It’s a very nice anamorphic transfer in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. It’s a barebones affair as usual from Optimum but the quality of the film itself is enough to sell it, and it can normally be picked up cheaply. This is no action packed affair, it’s more of a character study and an excellent example of the British war film at its best. It succeeds in delivering a deeply satisfying ending and one that serves to reinforce the basic decency of man. And who better to portray that decency than John Mills.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2008 in 1950s, J Lee Thompson, John Mills, War

 

Murder By Decree

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I’ve always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes films. However, strange though it may seem, the stories and novels which inspired them never grabbed me in the same way. This may be due in part to the fact that I was first exposed to the screen Holmes rather than the literary Holmes, or it may be that my subsequent reading of Doyle’s stories left me a little underwhelmed. My earliest memories of the great detective and Dr. Watson were the films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Over the years I’ve seen many more actors take on the role, from Peter Cushing and Andre Morell through to Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. However, Rathbone and Bruce have remained the definitive screen incarnations – seems to bear out the old saying about first impressions. Murder By Decree (1978) offers Christopher Plummer in the role of Holmes and James Mason as Watson. I found them to be probably my second favorite pairing although the Cushing/Morell combination would run them pretty close.

This film has nothing to do with the Doyle stories (not always a bad thing) but simply takes his characters and transplants them into the Jack the Ripper mystery. This wasn’t the first time Holmes had been called upon to attempt to crack the famous unsolved murders on screen; that distinction belongs to A Study in Terror, made a decade before. While the earlier film was made on a more modest budget, Murder By Decree was an expensive production filled with big names. The plot has Holmes called into the case in its latter stages as a result of an anonymous tip-off. He is met with open hostility from the authorities in the form of Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle). The mysterious informants later turn out to be members of a citizens’ committee (in reality anarchist agitators) who have taken a special interest in the murders. Holmes investigation takes him through the seedy and foggy backstreets of Victorian Whitechapel, where his and Watson’s conversations with the friends of the murdered women draw him closer to an unpalatable conclusion. When he finally visits an asylum to meet an inmate called Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold), the talk he has not only confirms his suspicion but also leads that monument to logical reasoning to break down and weep. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but I will say that it will scarcely come as a surprise as it involves a fanciful theory that has been frequently expounded.

James Mason & Christopher Plummer - The game's afoot!

Christopher Plummer gives a performance as Holmes which brings out the humanity of the man better than anyone else I’ve seen. I’m not going to claim that this is Holmes as Doyle wrote him; by all accounts, Jeremy Brett managed to nail that one. Instead of the aloof character of literature we get a more rounded man and it is genuinely affecting to see him display honest emotion in the scene with Genevieve Bujold. He also gives a fine speech at the end when rails against Lord Salisbury (John Gielgud) and the hypocrisy of the powers that be. James Mason’s Watson is closer to the spirit of Doyle and not the bumbling, yet engaging, buffoon that Nigel Bruce made famous. Having said that, he does have his moments – the “You squashed my pea!” business never fails to raise a smile with me. The film is a very starry one with many good character turns: Anthony Quayle gives a wonderfully distasteful portrait of upper-class arrogance, David Hemmings is a policeman with his own private agenda, Donald Sutherland’s frightened psychic haunted by his own visions, and no Holmes film would be complete without Lestrade (Frank Finlay).

Murder By Decree is out on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the R2 from Momentum and it has a pretty good anamorphic transfer and includes the theatrical trailer. I’m not sure if the R1 from Anchor Bay tops it but I’m happy enough with what I have. All in all, I think this is a very entertaining Holmes film which positively drips atmosphere. It features some great photography and excellent acting, and successfully blends the characters into a set of real historical circumstances. The resolution doesn’t particularly convince but, given the nature of the events, that’s always going to be the case. Unless you’re expecting a movie that sticks rigidly to Doyle’s characters you shouldn’t be disappointed.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2008 in 1970s, James Mason, Mystery/Thriller

 

Hell Drivers

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The biggest problem with British thrillers of the 40s and 50s was their unfortunate tendency to water down the grimmer aspects of the stories. The result was that too many movies displayed an artificial “niceness”. Hell Drivers (1957), fortunately, avoids this trap by setting the story in a world that was far removed from middle-class respectability. Instead, it deals with men without roots risking their necks for a corrupt employer.

Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) is fresh out of prison and in need of a job to get him back on the straight and narrow. On the recommendation of a friend he approaches a haulage firm that has the reputation of paying good wages. This is a firm that takes on all manner of drifters on a no-questions-asked basis so long as they’re prepared to get the job done, even if it involves bending or breaking the law. Getting the job done means hauling as many loads of stone as possible at breakneck speed along winding provincial roads. The foreman and pacesetter is Red (Patrick McGoohan), an explosive Irish psychopath, who takes an immediate dislike to Tom. These two men’s mutual antipathy is at the heart of the film and leads first to a brutal fistfight, and later to the climactic trucking duel along the rim of a quarry. Along the way we learn the reason for the haulage firm’s insistence on speed, and there’s also a three way romance with Baker, Peggy Cummins and Herbert Lom.

The film provides a snapshot of working-class life of 1950s Britain; cheap rooming houses full of men who have no family and pasts that are perhaps best not dwelt upon. Free time is mostly spent hanging around the greasy spoon cafe, with occasional forays to the pictures or a local dance. In fact, it is in the depiction of one of these dances that we see the contrast between the world of the truckers and the more genteel society that the British film industry of the time frequently portrayed. The drivers don’t belong in this setting and the almost inevitable brawl that breaks out causes the further alienation of Baker’s character – he has to duck out on his companions since he can’t afford another run in with the law.

Patrick McGoohan, Stanley Baker and Herbert Lom

Hell Drivers is full of familiar faces: from a young Sean Connery, David McCallum and Jill Ireland to regular character actors Sid James, Wilfrid Lawson, Gordon Jackson and William Hartnell. While no-one gives a bad performance, the film really belongs to Baker, McGoohan and Lom in equal measure. Baker has an intense desperation about him as he tries to blot out his past, and assuage his guilt over the injuries he caused his younger brother, by earning an honest living. Yet he seems doomed to fail as his family spurn him and he betrays his only friend. McGoohan plays the kind of hard, aggressive Irishman I became only too familiar with myself, growing up around my father’s scrapyard in Northern Ireland. However, he takes it to a whole different level by giving us a leering psychotic barely able to control his animal instincts. Lom’s Gino is a touching and tragic figure; a former POW who dreams only of marrying Lucy (Peggy Cummins) and returning to his beloved Italy. I would hesitate to classify Hell Drivers as film noir, but these characters bring it close. There are no happy endings for any of them – even Baker’s romance appears to be built on a shaky foundation.

Hell Drivers is out on DVD in R2 from Network, and it’s an excellent anamorphic transfer. In fact it’s an excellent all-round package spread over two discs. The first disc has the film, commentary track, a Stanley Baker interview, a vintage featurette etc. Disc two holds episodes of Thriller and Danger Man, a documentary with Baker and more. There’s also a 24 page illustrated booklet in the case. This is one of the best British thrillers and it’s been treated to a deluxe presentation on shiny disc.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2008 in 1950s, Cy Endfield, Mystery/Thriller, Stanley Baker

 

Mackenna’s Gold

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Well, time to roll out one of my guilty pleasures. Mackenna’s Gold (1969) is one of those movies I saw as a youngster and which has entertained me ever since. Everyone knows that the age at which you first see a film is a major factor influencing how much you appreciate it. When I was a little boy this film seemed like the best western I’d ever seen. It had everything you could ask for: a strong hero, a roguish villain, cavalry, Mexican bandits, menacing Apaches, and lots of action. I’m a good deal older and more jaded now and I no longer think it’s a great western, but it is a great fun western. Sure, I can see all it’s shortcomings now and, if I wanted to be coldly objective, I could probably savage it. But I  don’t feel like being objective; this movie was a genuine childhood pleasure and I intend to hang on to the memory.

There’s a great opening sequence with Joe MacDonald’s camera swooping and soaring over a primal western landscape to the accompaniment of Victor Jory’s narration and Jose Feliciano’s theme song. Ancient buttes and mesas rise up from the parched desert floor before the circling camera locks onto a lone figure and zooms in on an equally ancient Indian on horseback. This old man, Prairie Dog (Eduardo Ciannelli), is carrying a map that reveals the location of a mythical canyon of gold. Before dying he passes on the map to Marshal MacKenna (Gregory Peck), but the marshal has little faith in such tall tales and promptly burns the document. When he is subsequently captured by an outlaw band led by Omar Sharif, he is forced to lead them to the canyon whose whereabouts he has memorized. As the treasure hunt progresses more people are drawn in, notably a number of the leading citizens of the nearest town. There are ambushes, Indian attacks, betrayals and more before the whole thing wraps up with a psychedelic sunrise and a massive earthquake. And let’s not forget there’s the very welcome sight of Julie (Catwoman) Newmar stripping off for a swim in among all that.

Omar Sharif, Keenan Wynn, Gregory Peck, and some other guy.

The acting tends to come second in a piece of fluff like this, and that’s pretty much the case here. Gregory Peck is as stoic (those who wish to be unkind might say wooden) as usual in a part that doesn’t call for much more than that. Leaving aside the Egyptian cowboy and the Italian Indian, the best bits come from the starry citizenry of the town (Lee J. Cobb, Edward G. Robinson, Anthony Quayle, Burgess Meredith, Raymond Massey and Eli Wallach) although they have little more than cameo roles and don’t last too long before being massacred. Telly Savalas was generally worth watching when he got to play a villainous part and he’s not bad as a greed fuelled cavalry sergeant.

The direction of J. Lee Thompson, and Carl Foreman’s script keep things moving along fast enough to paper over many of the plot holes and gaps in logic. The action scenes are well filmed, but then you would expect that from Thompson. There’s also some fantastic location photography from veteran cinematographer Joe MacDonald but, despite that, there’s too much reliance on obvious back projection. The only real complaint I have is one shockingly bad effects shot which involves a rope bridge and what looks like an Action Man tied to a toy horse. 

OK, this is no masterpiece of cinema but, as I said, it is a movie that I have fond memories of and I’m willing to overlook or forgive many of its faults. Perhaps others who came to it later in life would not be so generous. Sony’s DVD of Mackenna’s Gold is a reasonable transfer. I have the R2 which is anamorphic scope (I have heard that the R1 may be a pan and scan effort – if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me) and it is generally clear but the process shots do stick out like a sore thumb.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2008 in 1960s, Gregory Peck, J Lee Thompson, Westerns

 

The Revengers

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The Revengers (1972) is a movie that I picked up some time ago and then just left it sitting on the shelf. I can remember seeing it offered for a bargain price and thinking that anything which had Bill Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Woody Strode in it must be worth at least a look. How very wrong I was. Having just had the misfortune of sitting through this turkey, my dearest wish is that I had let it alone on the shelf or, better yet, had never parted with cash for it in the first place. I think I’m usually fairly generous in my assessment of movies and can find something positive to take away from most of them. With The Revengers, I really tried to find something – anything – of worth, but ultimately, struck out.

I had a bad feeling right from the off, when the credits appeared to the accompaniment of the kind of theme music that screams “made-for-television” movie. However, one can’t judge a film on the basis of its title sequence and I just wrote this off as a particularly pungent slice of early 70s cheese. For a time (about a half hour or so), I thought this might turn out to be a moderately entertaining little flick – something I’m happy to settle for any day. The plot didn’t promise anything original – the family of Civil War hero John Benedict (Holden) are massacred by a bunch of comancheros during a raid on his ranch and he sets off in search of revenge – but I was okay with that. In order to assist in the pursuit of the killers he recruits a band of six ne’er-do-wells (Borgnine and Strode among them) from a Mexican prison. The fact that there are seven gunmen on a mission south of the border, and the casting, automatically evokes thoughts of both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch. But there’s nothing remotely magnificent about the events that follow. The main problem is that the comanchero camp gets attacked too early and leaves the movie thrashing around in need of direction and drive. None of the characters behave in a rational manner and their motivations are weak in the extreme. There’s an interlude in the plot where the wounded Benedict rests up in the home of an Irish nurse (Susan Hayward) that, while kind of sweet, serves only as padding. I suppose I could go into the script’s twists and turns in more detail but I honestly can’t be bothered; it’s just too dispiriting. As for the ending, the less said about that the better.

William Holden, probably wondering how he got talked into doing this movie.

I would count myself a fan of Bill Holden and I’ve enjoyed about every performance I’ve seen him give. He could usually be depended on to provide some grit and world-weary realism but in The Revengers he just looks old and tired, although not as old and tired as I felt at the end of it. You might have thought that The Wild Bunch would have resulted in his landing more plum roles but it wasn’t to be – at least not until Network came along a few years later. Ernest Borgnine basically just chews up the scenery and Woody Strode shows his customary quiet dignity in what is a bit of a non-role. Susan Hayward’s part is a small one and, as I already mentioned, doesn’t add a hell of a lot to the story; if it weren’t for the fact that this was her last cinematic appearance it would hardly be worth noting. Whatever talents director Daniel Mann possessed, they didn’t lie in the western genre and it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that this was the only one he made. 

The Revengers is available on DVD in R2 in continental Europe but not in the UK. The transfer of this Paramount release is merely passable, and is presented in its correct scope ratio but without anamorphic enhancement. I believe the movie can be obtained in R4 on an anamorphic disc, however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to seek it out as the enhanced picture isn’t going to make an essentially lousy film any more pleasurable. Not recommended.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2008 in 1970s, Westerns, William Holden

 

Broken Arrow

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The 1950s were the heyday of the western. You can look at almost any other decade and find plenty of examples of exceptional westerns, but none can compare to the 50s in terms of the sheer number of intelligent, high quality productions. Broken Arrow (1950) was, to the best of my knowledge, the first western to portray the Indians as more than simple caricatures. This film doesn’t demonise them, nor does it present them as the mystical, tree-hugging hippies that our increasingly politically correct world seems to insist on. Instead it presents a people with their own way of life and their own system of values.

Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is a former army scout who stumbles upon a wounded Apache boy and nurses him back to health. In doing so, he starts to regard the Apache as real people who think and feel, and who are not just inhuman killing machines that must be eliminated at all costs. When he is subsequently captured by a raiding party, his act of kindness, though viewed with suspicion, leads to his being spared. However, he is forced to witness three survivors of an ambush tortured to death; this is a war of attrition with no quarter given or asked for from either side. The point is made that these are a people with a strong sense of honor but there is no shying away from their capacity for brutality. Jeffords’ return to white society gives an insight into the cruelty and brutality on both sides, as the town’s residents display  both  shock and incredulity on hearing that he failed to take the opportunity to kill a wounded Apache. Sickened by the endless cycle of tit-for-tat violence, Jeffords takes it upon himself to seek out a meeting with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) in order to try to find some middle ground. The meeting does produce some limited results, and also brings him into contact with a young Apache maiden (Debra Paget). As Jeffords finds himself falling in love, so he seeks to broker a peace deal between Cochise and the army. The racism prevalent on both sides is shown clearly and the film, to its credit, doesn’t try to lecture the viewer on who was right and who was wrong. It assumes that adults are capable of making up their own minds – seems such an odd concept these days, doesn’t it?

James Stewart gave one of his usual solid performances, and by the end of the movie you can see director Delmer Daves draw on some of the disillusioned bitterness that Anthony Mann would later exploit so successfully. Jeff Chandler’s portrayal of Cochise earned him an Oscar nomination (eventually losing out to George Sanders), and he is convincing in the role. Generally, the acting is fine all round with good work from Paget, Will Geer, and Jay (Tonto) Silverheels as Geronimo. Delmer Daves is a director who seems to be very underrated these days, but I feel he turned out some great movies (especially in the western genre) in the 50s. One criticism that could be levelled at him is that his endings were frequently a bit of a cop out, however, I don’t feel that it applies in this case.

James Stewart

Broken Arrow is a great example of a 1950s western and, if you have even a passing interest in the genre, it deserves a place in your collection. I watched the R2 DVD from Optimum which is far from a perfect disc. The colors vary from faded to strong and the image is generally soft. Having said that though, it’s by no means a terrible presentation and is certainly watchable throughout. There is a R1 release from Fox but I don’t own this and can’t comment on the transfer.

If anyone has been wondering where I’ve been, I just decided to take a little break from posting. As others have mentioned, you can reach the point where you post so often that it starts to feel like an obligation rather than a pleasure. As such, I’ve decided to post when I feel like it rather than try to fulfill some notional quota I’ve set myself. So, until the next time…

 
 
 
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