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Monthly Archives: October 2008

Pink String and Sealing Wax

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Robert Hamer may well have been the best director to work for Ealing. The man who produced  Kind Hearts and Coronets cut his teeth on one of the segments in the grandfather of all horror anthologies, Dead of Night. He also made one of the most memorable British noirs in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), featuring Googie Withers. One year before that, he used the same actress in the Victorian noir Pink String and Sealing Wax, the title of which refers to a chemist’s means of packaging his remedies. While I wouldn’t say this is the best of Hamer’s films, it is a solid enough effort hampered by an unfocused script.

Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns) is a Brighton chemist, a self-made man who has clawed his way up from humble beginnings to attain respectability as a forensic analyst. He remains, however, a thoroughly objectionable prig and domestic tyrant. Returning from court in a thundering good mood, having just seen his testimony send a woman to the gallows, he proceeds to humiliate his lovelorn son, reduce first his younger daughter to tears by informing her (on her birthday no less) that he intends using the guinea pigs she thought were a present in some unmentionable experiments, and then draw a similar reaction from the elder girl by dashing her hopes of a career in music – and all this before lunch has even been served! So it’s no surprise when the eldest son, David (Gordon Jackson), decides to go out and get hammered in the seedier part of town. He finds himself in a pub run by Pearl Bond (Withers) and her brutish, alcoholic husband. It’s this part of the story, which concentrates on Pearl and her complicated and unhappy relationships, that makes up the real substance of the film. The action moves away from the twee and slightly soapy Sutton clan to the far more colorful and vital world of the lower classes. David finds himself attracted to Pearl and the loose living world she inhabits, and slowly, unwittingly, he is drawn into her plans to relieve herself of her increasingly abusive spouse. The real pity is that the script meanders too much and this straying from the point blunts the thrust of the narrative. Far too much time is wasted on the unnecessary subplot concerning the eldest daughter’s efforts to pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. I guess the idea was to highlight the inflexible nature of Sutton senior, but in doing so much of the tension of the plot drains away and the whole picture suffers.

Googie Withers starts to think about murder.

Googie Withers plays the part of the femme fatale to the hilt and manages to capture the sympathy of the viewer as effortlessly as she captures the affections of the men around her. She puts in a really fine piece of film acting, conveying as much of her thinking and emotion through her eyes and body language as through her words. A very young Gordon Jackson is quite appealing as the poor innocent sap who finds himself in over his head before he knows it. Mervyn Johns is always watchable, although his is pretty much a one-note performance as the rigid and domineering head of the house who sees his authority come under attack. Still and all, his final confrontation with Withers, as he calmly and coldly points out the fate awaiting her, is powerfully delivered and retains a chilling quality. Hamer directs smoothly and handles both the intimate scenes and the sourer and more bitter ones with equal skill. As I said, he’s only let down by the untidy script which should have left out some of the more pointless scenes. 

Optimum’s R2 DVD is a fairly good if unspectacular affair. The print used is in reasonable condition but there does seem to be a bit of contrast and brightness boosting here and there. As usual with Optimum this is a barebones disc with no subs and just a chapter menu. All in all, Pink String and Sealing Wax is an enjoyably dark movie with some good acting and professional direction. It’s just a pity the writing couldn’t have been tightened up a bit.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2008 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Hamer

 

Tread Softly Stranger

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The last year or so has seen the release on DVD of a number of British crime pictures that I had almost given up hope of ever seeing again. Tread Softly Stranger (1958) falls into film noir territory courtesy of the shadowy photography and the focus on a three way releationship between the good-for-nothing characters. 

Johnny Mansell (George Baker) is a small time gambler who, after a run of bad luck at the racetrack, goes on the lam to save his hide. He heads back to the town in the north of England where he grew up, and where his brother still lives. The brother, Dave (Terence Morgan), works as a bookkeeper in the local foundry and has got himself involved with a night club hostess called Calico (Diana Dors). Right from the beginning Johnny takes an interest in Calico – not that anyone could blame the man for that – but holds off doing anything about it. It’s abundantly clear that Calico is more attracted to this flashier London-based brother than to the dull, bespectacled Dave. It’s also abundantly clear (Calico sports a diamond watch) that Dave’s infatuation is leading to him living beyond his means. Matters come to a head when the foundry faces an audit and Dave reveals that he’s been borrowing from the company accounts to finance his lifestyle. With only a week to make good the deficit on the books Johnny hopes to win enough at the track while Calico, still smarting from Johnny’s rejection of her advances, suggests breaking into the foundry and cleaning out the payroll. From here everything starts to go badly wrong, leading to murder, suspicion and psychological breakdown.

Diana Dors - Hubba Hubba

Diana Dors’ femme fatale is easily the best thing in this movie, oozing sex appeal as she wiggles and pouts her way round the sets, driving both the brothers up the walls with desire. The two male leads are just about adequate, but never completely convincing. George Baker can’t quite nail the charming scoundrel bit, while Terence Morgan overdoes it as the nervy brother with the cork too tight in the bottle. One of the pleasures of British films of this period is the selection of support players available. This is especially important here, given the shortcomings of both Baker and Morgan. Joseph Tomelty brings a paternal warmth to his role as a doomed watchman. And Patrick Allen is fine as Tomelty’s son, and the brothers’ childhood friend, whose suspicions and snooping create the tension of the latter half of the film. There’s also a nice, offbeat little cameo from Wilfrid Lawson, whose distinctive voice makes his affection for his pet rabbits all the more startlingly macabre. Gordon Parry does a competent job of directing and moves the camera nicely to set up some interesting shots. He is ably supported by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s atmospheric shooting of the shadows and smog enveloping the northern town.

Tread Softly Stranger is available on DVD in R2 from Odeon in a fair enough transfer. For the most part  the print used is in reasonable condition, although there is a significant scratch which shows up around the half way mark and lingers for a few minutes. I don’t feel the need to be too critical of Odeon for not cleaning this print up more as the film is a pretty obscure title, and I can’t imagine it shifting enough  copies to justify costly restoration. These kinds of titles are purely niche material and I’m just happy to see the likes of it available at all. There’s also a version out in R1 from VCI in a box of British B titles. I have only seen a few small screencaps of the R1 so can’t really comment other than to say it looked a bit hazy and with a greenish tint compared to Odeon’s release. I’d recommend this release to anyone who enjoys British crime/noir pictures of the period – not a great movie but a highly enjoyable one nonetheless.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2008 in 1950s, Diana Dors, Film Noir

 

Desert Fury

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Can a technicolor movie be considered a film noir? I think so. Sure, the form lends itself better to the harshness of black and white photography where the light and shadows can be more skilfully manipulated. Having said that, film noir is more than just a photographic style – it’s a style of film making. To me, noir is a combination of many elements (theme, character, time, location, photography etc.) and the more boxes we can check, the closer we come to defining it. Photography is, undoubtedly, one of the major elements that needs to be present – I just feel that photographic style rather than color vs B&W is the clincher. As such, I feel Desert Fury (1947) is most definitely noir. Although the movie is shot in blinding technicolor, the themes and characterization place it firmly in the realm of dark cinema.

Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott) returns to Chuckawalla, the small desert town where she was raised by her widowed mother Fritzi (Mary Astor). Paula is shown to be an outsider right from the off, snubbed by the locals due to her mother’s ownership of the town’s gambling joint. The only friend she has is Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), a former cowboy now working as town deputy after an accident put an end to his former career. Paula’s arrival back home coincides with the reappearance of a shady character called Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), whose wife died years earlier in a mysterious road accident. When Paula falls for Bendix a whole hornet’s nest of passion is stirred up as Fritzi, Hanson, and Bendix’s partner Johnny (Wendell Corey) all, for their own reasons, try to keep them apart. What tilts this into noir, rather than straight melodrama, is the twisted nature of the relationships involved. Paula is said to bear a strong resemblance to Bendix’s late wife; Fritzi and Bendix were formerly lovers; there’s more than a hint of jealous competition between the two female leads; and there are strong suggestions that the relationship of Bendix and Johnny might be the kind to frighten the horses – heady stuff indeed for 1947. There’s also a nice cyclical form to the movie, which both opens and closes with characters staring over the rails of a bridge at the site of a fatal crash.

Burt Lancaster & Lizabeth Scott

This is a picture that’s dominated by the performances of the women. Mary Astor is near perfect casting as the worldly and tough dame who rules the roost in a man’s world, yet struggles to tame the impulses of her headstrong daughter. Lizabeth Scott was born to star in films noir, and she does the business here as the troubled heroine with the whiskey voice who has to learn a few hard lessons. Burt Lancaster’s role is a bit of a thankless one; he seems to do little more than cruise up and down the desert highway, hoping to run into Scott on her return from Hodiak’s rented pad. Hodiak himself gives an interesting performance as man who’s clearly not all he seems. His initial detachment and suppressed aggression hint at some dark secret, and he gradually descends further into a kind of manic vindictiveness until his flaws and weakness are finally exposed by the sly and knowing Corey. Director Lewis Allen makes sure everything moves along smoothly and makes excellent use of the harshly beautiful locations. A word also for cinematographer Charles Lang, who makes those same desolate landscapes positively pop off the screen.  

Desert Fury is available on DVD in R4 from a company called DV1. Their disc looks fantastic with strong color and detail, although there are some speckles and damage marks here and there. It is, however, totally barebones with not even subs offered. On the plus side there are some interesting liner notes  printed on the reverse of the cover – and it should be available cheaply. For me, this was pretty much a blind buy and I ended up enjoying it a lot. Recommended. 

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2008 in 1940s, Burt Lancaster, Film Noir

 

Ride, Vaquero

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Ride, Vaquero (1953) was one of those films that always seemed to elude me. I’d read about it and heard about it often but, somehow, could never manage to see it. Well, I’ve finally got around to it. Robert Taylor wouldn’t be the first actor most people would think of as a western character but the fact is he made a good number of oaters in his time. I’ve been watching quite a few of his westerns recently (the ones in the R1 westerns set, and a TV broadcast of The Hangman) and this would probably be my favourite.

Rio (Taylor) is the right hand man for bandit chief Jose Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), operating along the Texas/Mexico border in the aftermath of the Civil War. The end of the war has thrown up new challenges for these men, namely the arrival of new settlers and the renewed interest of the army and the federal government. Esqueda understands that such developments will spell the end of his reign as the undisputed master of his territory. His preferred course of action is a simple one; drive out the settlers before they have had a chance to put down permanent roots. The toughest proposition Esqueda has yet to face comes in the form of King Cameron (Howard Keel), who has come west with his wife (Ava Gardner) to build a new life. An abortive raid on the Cameron ranch leads to the capture of Rio. Instead of handing him over to the law, Cameron offers Rio the opportunity to switch allegiances and become his partner. He accepts, but the question remains whether his decision is based on a desire to embrace a more lawful lifestyle, or just a desire to embrace Camerons wife.

Anthony Quinn

Director John Farrow manages to throw a number of big themes into the mix – the old ways vs progress, loyalty and betrayal, and a man’s need to hold onto what he has won. Taylor gives a good performance as a man who’s in search of his place in the world. He may seem cold and aloof, but that’s surely an essential part of the character. His precise relationship with Esqueda is not fully revealed until the end, and it goes a long way towards explaining the alienation his character feels. Anthony Quinn gives the lusty, larger-than-life treatment to his role of the bandit king, and it’s very enjoyable. Ava Gardner naturally looks great and brings a credibility to her part as the rancher’s wife with the wandering eye. Howard Keel is just about adequate but, since I believe this was his first non-musical role, I won’t be too harsh on him. There are also small yet memorable parts for Jack Elam and Ted De Corsia. 

Ride, Vaquero has recently been released on DVD by Warners in France. The disc is a barebones affair with removable French subs and, unfortunately, boasts a weak transfer. The image doesn’t seem to have undergone any restoration and looks soft throughout. The biggest problem though is the colour, which has faded badly. The film was shot using the cheap Anscocolor process and if you’ve seen the recent R1 of Escape form Fort Bravo you’ll have some idea of what to expect. That said, the film is well worth 90 minutes of anybody’s time and I’d recommend it, if you can get past the deficiencies in the DVD transfer.

 
 
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