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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Ending the year on a high.

Well, having just moved to a new home, it’s always nice to receive a housewarming gift. That’s precisely what I got when fellow blogger le0pard13 over at It Rains…You Get Wet presented me with my new site’s first award. Recognition from other bloggers, as anyone who indulges in this pastime will tell you, is most welcome. And since this guy has offered lots of support and encouragement over the years, I want to say a big thank you. Of course, these things come with conditions, and this one is especially tough as it demands some self-analysis – something I’m not sure I’m so good at. The conditions are as follows:

    1. Tell everyone something that no one else knows about.
    2. Link to one of my posts that I personally think best fits the following categories:
      1. Most Beautiful Piece
      2. Most Helpful Piece
      3. Most Popular Piece
      4. Most Controversial Piece
      5. Most Surprisingly Successful Piece
      6. Most Underrated Piece
      7. Most Pride-worthy Piece
    3. Pass this award on to seven other bloggers.

1. Okay, one of my earliest ambitions was to be an actor. There. I said it. I don’t know if this has influenced my lifelong love for movies or vice versa, but there’s probably some connection on some level. I did some amateur stuff when I was very young, and was told I had promise, but my teens came along and somehow it all got pushed off to the side. Maybe that was all for the best – I work in education now, and that pretty much involves putting on a one man show throughout the working day anyway!

2. Now for the tough part!

i. My Most Beautiful Piece – Jeez! I don’t know, I’m going to say The Big Country just because I feel I covered every aspect of the movie I set out to, and as well as I think I could.

ii. My Most Helpful Piece – Ok, this is maybe a bit of a cheat but I’m going to say The Last Hard Men. I wrote this way back when my blog was in its infancy and I had yet to find my feet. It’s short and far from the best thing I’ve written, but it drew some attention to my blog and was helpful to me as it gave me some much-needed confidence.

iii. My Most Popular Piece – Easy, Tombstone. For one reason or another, it drew more hits than any post.

iv. My Most Controversial Piece – I don’t think I’ve written anything that’s especially controversial. However, I’m going to nominate Odd Man Out, the logic being that anything deals with the Northern Ireland conflict is probably controversial in someone’s eyes somewhere.

v. My Most Surprisingly Successful PieceThe Law and Jake Wade. I didn’t expect much but this post drew more comment than any other.

vi. My Most Underrated PieceThe Long Memory.

vii. My Most Pride-worthy PiecePat Garrett and Billy the Kid. A difficult film to do justice to, but I gave it my best shot.

3. And my seven nominations are:

100 Films in a Year

50 Westerns from the 50s

The Grim Cellar

Tipping My Fedora

Speakeasy

Twenty Four Frames

Cinema Station

So, that’s my lot. The only thing that remains is to wish everyone a happy and healthy year in 2012.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

No Name on the Bullet

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I’ve been watching a lot of short, stripped down movies lately, and enjoying them very much. Apart from the pacing, I’m also fond of the tighter storytelling techniques that shorter running times necessitate. These movies impose a discipline on both writers and directors that often seems to stimulate creativity and artistry rather than restrict them. In a way, the elimination of flab tends to focus the minds of those behind the cameras and, when there is a natural talent present, result in a more vibrant picture. Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959) is a low budget sprinter of a movie that provides its lead with maybe his very best role, tells the audience an absorbing tale, and offers plenty of food for thought.

The story is one of fear – a fear ostensibly sparked by an outside force but, in reality, having its true origin within a community and, more specifically, within the hearts and collective conscience of the residents. When a sombre stranger rides into town the effect on the locals is both remarkable and rapid. What starts out as a kind of smouldering dread soon deepens into panic and, later, outright terror. You see, the stranger in the midst of these fearful townsfolk is one John Gant (Audie Murphy), a hired assassin whose notoriety has taken on near mythical proportions. He is known to get his man without fail, and with sufficient cunning to ensure that no criminal charges can be brought against him. Without doubt, this is a fearsome reputation in itself, but what provokes the atmosphere of unbearable tension is the mystery surrounding the identity of Gant’s intended target. As the shadow of the gunman casts a dark pall over the town the locals’ fevered imaginations take possession of them and, one by one, their dark pasts and guilty secrets start to emerge. The growing sense of terror, and their apparent inability to rid themselves of Gant’s presence, eventually turns the residents upon each other, and the body count rises accordingly. Amid all the mayhem and psychological torment Gant sits inscrutable and unperturbed, while the viewer is left wondering not only who the next victim will be but also whether or not this grim angel of death is the hero or the villain of the piece.

Picking targets - Audie Murphy in No Name on the Bullet.

Jack Arnold is best known for his 50s sci-fi work and he brings the paranoia that was such a strong element of the era and genre to the western in No Name on the Bullet. The film is a set-bound affair, confined for the majority of its running time to the centre of the small town. Obviously, budgetary constraints played a significant part in the decision to shoot it thus, but it ends up being one of the strong points. While most westerns benefit from location shooting and evocative landscapes, the fact that the action here rarely leaves the streets of the backlot serves to enhance the feeling of the residents being trapped by fate. If Arnold’s direction creates the pressure cooker atmosphere the man with his hand firmly clamped on the lid is Audie Murphy. At one point, one of the characters tells him he speaks more like a preacher than a gunman. And that’s indeed the impression he conveys throughout; his expression remains dour and judgmental, and even his clothes have a puritan-like severity. Moreover, it’s entirely in keeping with the notion that Gant is the embodiment of retribution, a seemingly indestructible instrument of justice. Murphy’s baby face features and soft voice, as he sits endlessly sipping coffee and surveying everyone and everything like some malign deity, accentuate the character’s menace – even more so when one considers the real man’s war record. In a way, Gant represents a higher law, the local variety being weak (wounded and ineffectual) when faced with a crisis, eliciting the deeply harboured guilty feelings of all and dispensing punishment to the deserving. Normally, an overt absence of character development would be viewed as a minus, but having Gant remain essentially a cipher feels somehow appropriate – other characters speculate about his past but Gant himself reveals nothing. Murphy’s low key performance is both subtle and powerful, arguably his greatest. By way of conclusion, and I guess this constitutes a mild spoiler, it’s worth noting that this allegedly deadly killer never actually takes a life at any point.

Universal’s UK DVD of No Name on the Bullet is a very basic affair without any extras whatsoever, unless you count the array of language and subtitle options. However, and this is what matters most anyway, the image is excellent. The film has a strong anamorphic scope transfer with honestly negligible print damage on view. For me, the movie is a wonderful example of what a talented director and star can achieve on a budget. All in all, a memorable film with the guts and integrity to avoid any artificially happy ending, and I strongly recommend it.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Audie Murphy, Jack Arnold, Westerns

 

The Law and Jake Wade

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A brief forum discussion the other day on the critical reputation, or lack of it, of John Sturges prompted me to have another look at one of his films that doesn’t usually come in for a great deal of attention. The Law and Jake Wade (1958) was produced in the middle of the director’s most successful period, and the fact that it’s sandwiched between a number of his other better known movies may be partly responsible for its apparent lesser status. On viewing it again, I think it deserves better; it’s beautifully paced, visually arresting, and has a strong central conflict. It’s also one of those sub-90 minute films that I feel suited Sturges so well. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have an epic feel to them, both in terms of casting and running time, and although those two movies feature high among my favourites, I’m still of the opinion that Sturges did his best work when the scale was smaller and the material leaner.

It all starts with a jailbreak, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) riding into a quiet town to set Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) free. On the surface, it looks like an outlaw doing right by one of his own. As the story progresses though it becomes clear that there’s more to it. Firstly, Wade’s a lawman, a marshal in another town, and a highly respected one at that. Furthermore, there’s a complex history between the two men; they once rode together, initially as brothers in arms and later as partners in crime, before parting on bad terms. The source of antagonism between Wade and Hollister lies in the latter’s belief that his old friend betrayed him and made off with their takings. Wade doesn’t see it that way though – he’d merely grown weary of his lawless existence and, prompted by a tragic event he holds himself responsible for, decided on a clean break. So he buried the loot and forged ahead with a new life. As far as Hollister’s concerned, Wade crossed him, stole his money and ran out. As such, he wants closure (the jailbreak simply wipes off an old debt in his view), namely the money and a reckoning with Wade. To this end, he tracks down Wade, abducts him and his fiancee (Patricia Owens), and uses the woman as leverage to achieve his ends. I’m not giving too much away as all this happens early on in the movie, the bulk of the story being concerned with the long trek to the ghost town where Wade stashed the money. Along the way, we learn more details about both Wade and Hollister and their soured friendship. The background of the two leads, former border raiders in the Civil War who carried on with their mayhem after the surrender, carries some suggestion of the Jesse James story, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Wade symbolically buried his past with the cash, but Hollister continues to nurse his bitterness and resentment. There’s also a kind of inadequacy needling Hollister, he knows Wade is the better man but he suspects he’s maybe the better gunman too. While he harps on the betrayal that he claims hurt him, what Hollister really yearns for is the opportunity to pit himself against Wade in classic western fashion.

Raking up the past - Richard Widmark & Robert Taylor in The Law and Jake Wade.

Of all John Sturges’ westerns, The Law and Jake Wade comes closest to the look and feel of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films. The majority of the action takes place outside in the desert wilderness (including Lone Pine), featuring a small cast of characters whom we get to know and sympathize with. Wade has a murky past and carries around a deep personal pain while his nemesis, Hollister, has a charming quality that belies his own flaws. And then there’s the secondary characters – the gritty woman who can take the hard going, and the henchmen who are a mixture of the dangerous and the personable. Sturges, as I’ve remarked in the past, was something of an artist with the wide lens and this movie, with its heavy reliance on location work, highlights his skill. The outdoors shots with the peaks of the Sierras forming the backdrop create a sense of vast space, while the interiors (especially when the gang is holed up and under siege in the ghost town) emphasise the stifling and tense atmosphere. Moreover, the Comanche raid on the town is a showcase for his action credentials, where shooting, editing and spatial awareness all play a part in ensuring that the scene remains exciting without losing any of its visual coherence. As for the cast, Richard Widmark was very good in these kinds of roles, his manner suggesting a brittle psychology masked by a cynical sense of humour. This type of villain is always much more interesting than pure, one dimensional evil as there’s usually some sneaking sense of admiration that the viewer feels. In a way, it’s helpful to the hero too, by shouldering some of the burden of satisfying the audience it frees up the lead a little. Robert Taylor was maturing nicely by this time and his experience in westerns meant he had acquired an easy confidence within the genre. His take on Wade is a deceptively laid back one, appearing cool and at ease despite the fact he’s working his wits overtime in an effort to find some way of wriggling out of his predicament. The two most notable supporting turns come from Henry Silva and Robert Middleton, the former as a dangerous psychotic and the latter as the one reasonable and humane member of Widmark’s gang – quite a contrast to his terrifying oaf in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours.

The US DVD of The Law and Jake Wade from Warners isn’t really all that it could be. The image, despite being anamorphic scope, is just too soft and short on detail. It’s not exactly what I’d term a bad transfer but it ought to look better, and the stunning scenery and camerawork on view deserves something better and sharper. The only extra offered is the theatrical trailer – this movie was issued in the Western Classics box shortly before the Archive programme took off and points towards the pared down releases that Warners were moving towards. As such, I now tend to think I should be grateful this film got as good a release as it did, considering how many fine Robert Taylor movies have been shunted into the MOD line. I really like this film; it features good work from both Widmark and Taylor, has a tight script, an even and serious tone, and (thanks to both Sturges and cameraman Robert Surtees) looks wonderful. An easy recommendation, and a strong candidate for reassessment.

As an aside, this blog is 4 years old today. So, a big thank you to all those whose comments, visits and kindness over the years has contributed to its development.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, John Sturges, Richard Widmark, Robert Taylor, Westerns

 

This Gun for Hire

 

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The MacGuffin: a plot device that’s of the utmost importance to the characters in a film, shaping their decisions and driving them on, yet of only marginal interest to the viewer. Hitchcock used the term to refer to various objects and motives in his movies – the uranium in Notorious, the stolen money in Psycho and so on. Of course, it appears in lots of other films apart from Hitchcock’s: the letters of transit in Casablanca for example, and the espionage/blackmail letter in This Gun for Hire (1942). Just as the aforementioned movies have nothing to do with nuclear weapons, loot or visas, except on the most superficial level, neither is This Gun for Hire a spy story. Instead, it’s the tale of a sociopathic contract killer and his gradual transformation into something resembling humanity.

The strong and stylish opening introduces Raven (Alan Ladd), as a solitary and taciturn individual existing on the fringes of society. He lives alone in a beat up boarding house, avoiding human company whenever possible and barely tolerating it when necessary. His casual contempt for a slatternly chambermaid and contrasting affection for a stray cat eloquently points out where his fellow men rank in his estimation. So, if it’s not any empathy with the people around him just what is it that makes Raven tick? If anything, it’s his cool, unemotional professionalism; his whole sense of self is bound up in the way he calmly goes about dispatching those he’s been paid to kill. As he ventures out to fulfill a hit we get a fleeting glimpse of conscience. He unexpectedly runs into a disabled young girl sat alone on a flight of stairs. and pauses briefly. We’re unsure what exactly he’s thinking about this unwelcome witness to his presence, but he passes on. Having done his grisly work on the floor above, Raven again encounters the same girl on his way out. This time she asks him to retrieve a lost toy for her, and for one heart stopping moment it looks like he might just finish the girl off rather than risk identification. Ultimately he doesn’t, leaving her to her lonely games – it’s as though the weak (the cat, the crippled child) stir a feeling of kinship somewhere inside; he has a deformed wrist, the result of a childhood punishment. This suggests that, despite the passive mask he adopts, there is some decency lurking within, and it develops further when he happens to meet a girl on a train. The girl is Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a night club performer who’s travelling with a dual purpose; she’s been recruited as a federal agent in order to dig up some evidence of her new employer’s suspected espionage activities. It’s here that the tale takes on a twisting, complex quality – the girl’s employer is Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), and he also happens to be the go-between who double crossed Raven after his last job. So, both Ellen and Raven are on the trail of the same man, but for different reasons, and with different goals in mind. One wants to expose him, while the other merely wants to kill him.

Veronica Lake & Alan Ladd on their first outing in This Gun for Hire.

The opening credits “introduce” Alan Ladd, but he’d been playing small parts in movies for some time by this point. The nominal lead was Robert Preston, as Ellen’s policeman fiance, but it’s Ladd’s show all the way. In Raven he creates a memorable anti-hero, one who acts as a template for the many hitmen who have graced the screen since, and who fits in as one of Graham Greene’s tormented souls. His set features have a chilling calm to them that impart a real threat far more effectively than a more emotive performance would have done. Everything is contained within the eyes and the voice, the quick spark and slight quaver hinting at the seething emotions which he refuses to allow his expression to betray. The only time he cuts loose is in the railroad yard with Ellen when he recounts the recurring dream of an abusive childhood that haunts him. Veronica Lake, in her first (and possibly best) pairing with Ladd, is fine if unremarkable as the resourceful and faithful Ellen. She wasn’t a great actress by any means, but her work with Ladd in this movie and their subsequent collaborations show her at her best. While Ladd is the dynamo at the heart of the picture, Laird Cregar is also memorable as his squeamish paymaster. Before his untimely death, Cregar was one of those menacing “big men” who seemed to populate so many 40s movies. Unlike the tougher and brasher Sydney Greenstreet, Cregar (and maybe Raymond Burr too) could not only easily convey a threatening presence but also hint at a more vulnerable, weaker side. Director Frank Tuttle isn’t noted for his noir pictures but he captures that elusive spirit on This Gun for Hire. The film may be an early example of noir but it contains many of the characteristic visual motifs, low angles and shadows bisecting the actors’ features in particular. Of course, he’s aided enormously by the photography of John Seitz, and the Graham Greene source novel adapted by W R Burnett. The story benefits greatly from the reduced emphasis on the espionage elements in favour of focusing instead on Raven’s personal quest for vengeance. It’s also refreshing that Raven, even when he does the “right” thing, acts out of what he sees as personal obligation as opposed to falling back on anything as crass or facile as a sudden realization of patriotic duty.

This Gun for Hire was released on DVD years ago by Universal in the US as part of their film noir line. The transfer remains a top notch effort with excellent contrast and clarity. The print has no significant damage or distractions on show. The disc itself is of the very basic variety with no extras whatsoever offered – a pity when you consider the quality of the movie. This is a fine, tightly paced film with a powerful central performance by Alan Ladd and a stylish look. If that’s not enough in itself then it deserves a viewing for being the first teaming of Lake and Ladd, and the influential nature of its characterization. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1940s, Alan Ladd, Film Noir, Veronica Lake

 

Man Without a Star

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When you think of films about the passing of the old west and the shrinking of the frontier it’s examples from the late 1960s and 1970s that tend to spring to mind. As the western entered its own autumnal phase, the movies, perhaps quite naturally, turned their focus onto the gradual decline of the period they depicted. However, the sense of a way of life passing wasn’t confined to films of this time alone. Man Without a Star (1955) was made during the genre’s heyday, yet it tells the tale of a man driven ever further by the inexorable closing of the open range to seek out a place that offered the kind of freedom he once took for granted. This is a fascinating and emotive theme, and it runs throughout the film, but it’s diluted somewhat by a script that has the hero behaving in a way that, while entirely appropriate within the framework of the classic western, sees him contradicting his own personal philosophy.

Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter, as the title suggests, a man who’s lost or perhaps never had a point of reference to guide him through life. His wanderings have taken him ever further from his roots in search of an elusive idyll. He waxes lyrical about the open range that used to allow men to go wherever their fancy took them, and thinks he may have stumbled upon his goal when he finds himself hired on as a hand on an expanding ranch. But that’s not to be; the barbed wire that signals the end of the vast expanses of untamed country are never far behind. No sooner has Rae settled into this comfortable position than the neighbouring ranchers start to string wire and close off the land to protect their grazing from the encroachment of his employer. That employer is Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), a hard headed woman from the east who intends to make her fortune no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. After some initial hostility, she sees Rae as the man on whom she can depend on both a professional and personal level. And so Rae becomes Reed’s top hand, her lover, and her enforcer. That ought to be more than enough to occupy any man, but Rae has also taken on a kind of paternal role for a young man, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who has drifted north with him. It’s the arrival, with more cattle to swell Reed’s already substantial herd, of an old acquaintance of Rae’s that tips the balance though. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is a mean and dangerous figure who’s prepared to take the ruthless steps that Rae baulked at, and will force his rival onto the sidelines. Miles’ actions force Rae’s hand and he has no option but to reconsider his previous prejudices. This, naturally, is par for the course in a western but it does have the effect of making Rae’s character less focused – he smoothly crosses the line to defend those whose methods he once railed against. Here we see a man who has suffered personal loss, whose body is crossed by the scars left behind by the hated wire, yet one who is prepared to forget all that and side with his former enemies as a result of his dislike of Miles and his methods. It builds Rae up into a hero of course, but it also cops out to a degree. I can’t help feeling that the story might have panned out into something more interesting and subversive had the character of Rae been allowed to stick to his guns and go down fighting rather than yield to the advance of progress.

Kirk Douglas displaying his mean streak in Man Without a Star.

I haven’t seen a huge number of King Vidor’s films, especially not his early output. However, of those I have seen (six or seven pictures I guess), I must admit they all look great. Man Without a Star is no exception in that regard, there’s a richness to the images on show that’s extremely attractive. Clearly, having a top class cameraman like Russell Metty on hand didn’t hurt, and the result is some very well staged sequences. The climactic stampede, leading to the fight between Douglas and Boone, is a good example of this. Kirk Douglas’ performance in the movie is what I’d term a patchy one and not really up there with the best he was capable of. At times, he produces the kind of intensity that marked his more memorable roles, while at other moments he resorts to something akin to a parody of himself. In the same way that his character arc, which I mentioned before, doesn’t entirely satisfy, the jump from brooding, hair trigger moodiness to comedic mugging fails to flow naturally. In fact, the comic interludes are perhaps the least successful aspects of the film. At one appalling point, William Campbell strolls into the saloon done up in the kind of outfit that might have given Bob Hope pause for reflection in The Paleface, leading to some merciless ribbing from Douglas. The thing is though that it doesn’t actually work as it just feels forced and it jars. Scenes such as this don’t blend in with the rest of the movie and seem like they’ve been ported over from an entirely different production. What does succeed is the needling relationship between Douglas and Richard Boone, whose work generated some discussion on this site a few weeks back. Personally, I found myself yearning for more screen time for Boone and considerably less for Mr Campbell. Another positive aspect is the role played by Jeanne Crain. The traditional western template equates the feminine with domesticity, pacifism and a civilising influence. Man Without a Star, on the other hand, sees this truism overturned. Ms Crain exudes a sassy antagonism, sat on her buckboard, skirts hitched high and hat at a provocatively rakish angle. It is she, rather than the meek, male neighbouring ranchers, who takes on the role of aggressor and advocate of the open range that characterised the real wildness of the old west.

As far as I’m aware, Man Without a Star is currently available on DVD from three sources, and all of them bear some imperfections. There’s a French release that presents the movie, I believe, in a 4:3 aspect ratio and forces subtitles on the English track. There are also versions out in Germany and Australia, both of which have the movie in the correct 2:1 ratio. I’ve only seen some screencaps of the German disc but it appears that the colours have been drained and the overall result is a drab and flat looking image. I have the Australian DVD, which offers far richer colours yet looks like it may be interlaced. Despite that, the R4 version is a generally pleasing effort and I can’t say I was aware of any print damage or other distractions. The disc is completely barebones – no extras, no subtitles, not even a menu that I can locate. All in all, Man Without a Star is an imperfect film; it looks good and explores some interesting themes, but there’s an uneven quality to both the writing and lead performance that weaken it slightly. Even so, it’s an above average production that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in westerns of the period.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Kirk Douglas, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

Violent Saturday

 

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Stories about heists that invariably go wrong somewhere along the line have a kind of evergreen quality about them. I don’t think it’s anything as simple as the need to see the moral balance restored that’s the attraction, instead it’s more a kind of perverse wish fulfillment for all of us living in an imperfect world to witness even the most meticulous plans of smart guys turn pear shaped. Violent Saturday (1955) is one such movie, detailing the build-up, execution and aftermath of a bank robbery in a small town. It’s also a film which takes its time creating expectations about certain characters, only to show that those assumptions can frequently be misleading.

Essentially this is a film of two halves. The opening section is something of a darkly soapy melodrama, wherein the principal characters, and their roles in the community, are all established. The two people that are focused on most are Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the heir to the local copper mining facility, and the mine foreman Shelley Martin (Victor Mature). These men are living in the brave new world of a booming 50’s America, all shining, chrome-laden automobiles and homes filled with the latest modern conveniences. Yet, despite the trappings of material success that surround them neither man is particularly at ease with himself. Fairchild is drinking too much in an attempt to blot out the inferiority complex that comes with being the son of a self-made millionaire, and keep his mind off the numerous affairs his wife has indulged in. Martin, on the other hand, is carrying round an entirely different set of baggage; his marriage is a happy one and his success is all of his own making but he’s burdened by a sense of guilt for not having seen active service in the war, a feeling of inadequacy compounded by his failure to appear heroic in the eyes of his young son. Additionally, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of a few of the town’s other citizens – a financially pressed librarian driven to petty larceny, and the outwardly prim but repressed and voyeuristic bank manager. While these various strands of small town life are being laid before us, three strangers weave their way among them. These men (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin and J Carrol Naish) are career criminals, come to a town they see as a soft touch to raid the bank. As the citizens go about their daily lives and try to cope with their personal issues, the three newcomers calmly and deliberately plan their heist. The second part of the movie, and the most gripping, sees the paths of all the disparate characters converge on a Saturday afternoon in an explosion of physical and emotional violence.

Something for the weekend - Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday.

Director Richard Fleischer’s career was on an upward curve at the time Violent Saturday was made; he’d come off making a number of interesting noir movies, two of which (Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin) are especially noteworthy. While I don’t believe Violent Saturday is film noir, it does display some of the style/genre’s sensibilities – the doomed robbers and the facade of respectability concealing a darker reality. The structure of the film is clearly designed to provide a back story for the characters and flesh them out, thus heightening the impact of the abrupt intrusion of violence into their lives. As far as that goes it’s only partially successful; the introduction of the librarian and the bank manager has a dramatic potential that’s never fully explored, and in the former’s case the the plot leaves her fate dangling and neglected. The banker (Tommy Noonan) does at least play a pivotal role, albeit in a negative way. His creepy passivity undergoes a transformation in the course of the heist and he finally resolves to take some positive action in his life. It’s unfortunate, however, that his new found steel acts as the catalyst for the bloodletting that follows. Victor Mature was well cast in the role of the family man dogged by the shadow of cowardice. There was always an undercurrent of melancholy and sensitivity about him, and the film puts that to good use. He too experiences a reversal of fortune, where adversity reveals an inner strength and toughness whose existence he doubted. Having said that, the message that’s ultimately conveyed by his actions, and the reactions of others to them, isn’t one that sits entirely comfortably with me. Of the three criminals, both McNally and Naish perform competently without ever being particularly memorable. The real star is Lee Marvin. Dapper in appearance and ruthless in behaviour, he gets the better lines and makes the most of them. It says a lot for Marvin’s talents that he could take what was basically a minor supporting role and deliver the most telling performance in the whole movie. It’s also worth mentioning that Ernest Borgnine has a small, and incongruous, part as an Amish farmer who finds himself and his family drawn into the turbulent events.

To date, Violent Saturday has had three releases on DVD (in Spain, the US and Australia), none of which appear ideal. All of these discs offer the film a non-anamorphic scope transfer. The Spanish release is via Fox/Impulso and, the letterboxing aside, sees the movie looking quite nice. The lack of anamorphic enhancement does take away from the overall sharpness of the image but, on the plus side, the colours look strong and true, and the print doesn’t suffer from any significant damage. Extras, as on the majority of Fox/Impulso titles, consist of some text-based material on cast and crew along with a gallery. Subtitles on the English track can of course be disabled via the menu. The movie itself is a solid crime drama that builds nicely to a suspenseful and action-filled conclusion. It’s not quite top flight material, but it’s not too far off either. I’d rate it as a smoothly directed piece of entertainment that could have used a little extra polish on the script.

 

The Leopard Man

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Seeing as Halloween is only a matter of days away I thought I’d feature something with a seasonal flavour to mark the occasion. A casual glance would suggest that The Leopard Man (1943) ought to be a slice of classic horror. Bearing in mind the title, and the fact it was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, one might expect to get another anthropomorphic chiller along the lines of Cat People. However, it’s the source material, a story by Cornell Woolrich, that dictates the kind of movie that’s ultimately delivered. Woolrich wasn’t a horror writer, though his darkly fatalistic tales do border on the macabre at times, instead he concentrated on bleak and pessimistic crime stories. So, the combination of director, producer and writer here results in a moody crime picture that bears the trappings, atmosphere and feel of a horror movie.

This compact thriller takes place in a border town in New Mexico and, like a good deal of Woolrich’s material, sees a tragic train of events set in motion by a foolish mishap. In this case the event in question is brought about when a night club performer, Kiki (Jean Brooks), goes along with the suggestion of her manager/publicist, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), that she should make a dramatic entrance with a black leopard on a leash. The idea is to draw the spotlight and simultaneously upstage her rival, flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo). Not a bad plan, as far as it goes. The trouble arises when Clo-Clo, in a fit of pique, startles the beast with the clacking of her castanets, causing it to bolt and and slip away into the shadowy streets of the town. This leads to one of the most celebrated sequences in producer Lewton’s movies. A young girl, a bit of a dreamer and slacker if the truth be known, is sent on a shopping errand by an impatient and exasperated mother. The girl tries to beg off, citing her fear of the wild animal roaming the surrounding countryside, but the mother is having none of it. To her, her daughter has too fanciful an imagination and too little sense of responsibility. The girl’s trip to the only store open at such a late hour, and more especially the return, is an exercise in how to draw tension tight through the use of suggestion and shadowy visuals. What makes this succeed is the fact that the growing panic and dread of the girl match perfectly what the viewers feel as we accompany her on her journey. The tragic outcome, playing on the old fable of the boy who cried wolf, is all the more effective as a result of our experiencing the same emotions as the girl. Suddenly, this sleepy backwater is transformed into a community stalked by fear and suspicion as the apparent victims of the escaped cat start to mount up. As I said in the introduction, this is not a real horror movie in the true sense of the word. There is nothing of the supernatural involved, unless you count Isabel Jewell’s gypsy fortune teller, yet the sense of menace is palpable throughout.

Suspicion and threatening shadows - Jean Brooks in The Leopard Man.

In all honesty, the plot of The Leopard Man is fairly unremarkable, and the mystery story it’s built around isn’t so difficult to figure out. The strength of the movie derives from the mood evoked by the tale, and maybe more importantly, the way Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur go about presenting it. What they put on screen is every bit as morbid as the best of Poe. Lewton and Tourneur’s shadowy, expressionistic style play a significant part in creating the sense of doom and fatalism that seems to dog the characters. The flamenco dancer played by Margo is superficially in love with life, and her jaunty sashaying through the town streets, castanets always at the ready, appears to reinforce this. Yet, her thoughts are never far from darker matters, borne out by her near obsessive need to consult the fortune teller at every opportunity, despite the latter’s repeated discovery of death in the cards. Aside from the sequence with the girl on her late night errand that I already referred to, there are two other especially noteworthy passages. The first involves a lovelorn girl who visits a cemetary on her birthday to keep a date with her beau. Surely it’s only in a Lewton film where two youthful lovers would think it appropriate to pick a graveyard as the backdrop for a romantic assignation. This scene heightens the melancholic, oneiric quality that permeates the movie and comes close to the idea of horror being essentially a fairy tale for adults. The second takes place during the climax, where the real killer is pursued and finally cornered amid the hooded and solemn members of an historical/religious procession. All of these sequences serve as something of a definition of the characteristics of horror moviemaking. Cinematic horror is not so much about gore or actually scaring the audience – that has a limited, juvenile impact which rarely stands the test of time – as instilling a sense of dread and foreboding. After all, it’s the moody atmospheric stuff that lingers in the memory long after the cheaper shocks have worn off or been superseded by something more daring.

In the US Val Lewton collection form Warners The Leopard Man shares space on a disc with The Ghost Ship. The film has a reasonably good transfer, although there are certainly a number of speckles and scratches on show. The image is acceptably sharp and the contrast is good enough – particularly important in a movie such as this. Extras consist of a commentary by William Friedkin and the theatrical trailer. As I said, this is a crime story – with a noir sensibility, it should be added - dressed up as a horror film. I think it may be this hybrid quality that’s led to it’s being less celebrated than some of Lewton’s (or Tourneur’s for that matter) other pictures. Regardless, it remains a classy chiller that works well on both levels, and is a fine example of how to make a good movie on a shoestring budget.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1940s, Jacques Tourneur

 

Rio Conchos

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I’ve always enjoyed looking at the way the western evolved over the years. There’s a, fairly common, misconception that the spaghetti western just kind of exploded onto the scene in a genre busting blaze of immorality and violence. However, that’s a superficial reading of things; the foundations were being laid a decade before and the progression isn’t that hard to follow. Anyway, the consensus seems to hold that the spaghettis gave the traditional western a much needed jolt to shake it out of the doldrums it was in danger of slipping into. That’s hard to argue with, but I’m not sure the Hollywood western wasn’t heading in more or less the same direction of its own accord regardless of outside pressure. When you look at some examples of genre pieces from the mid-60s there are already indications of their straddling the two, seemingly irreconcilable, eras. Rio Conchos (1964) makes for interesting viewing in this context, having the trappings and look of the traditional oater but displaying an attitude and sensibility closer to the emerging European westerns.

At the heart of Rio Conchos lies revenge – there’s essentially no nobility on show, nor very much in the way of finer feelings of any kind. The main character is Lassiter (Richard Boone), a former confederate Major who’s almost totally consumed with a killing rage sparked by the torture and murder of his wife and child by the Apache. This man hunts down and disposes of his enemy with a ruthless precision. The opening shots are of Lassiter calmly massacring an Apache burial party, before heading back to the ruins of his former home to get drunk amid the personal and physical devastation. He would appear content to spend the remainder of his existence extracting his pound of flesh every time the opportunity arose. But that’s not to be, as he finds himself coerced into participating in an army plan to recover a shipment of stolen rifles thought to be over the border in Mexico and soon to be sold to an eager Apache warlord, Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta). Lassiter’s motivation, apart from a desire to get out of the army guardhouse, is the chance to even his personal score with Bloodshirt and he has no particular sympathy for the two cavalrymen, Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sergeant Franklyn (Jim Brown), that he’s guiding. Haven’s on a mission of vengeance too, being the man in charge of the original arms shipment that’s gone missing. His quest may be dressed up in the guise of duty, but there’s no hiding the fact that he too is seeking some form of recompense for the slight to his reputation. The party is completed by a Mexican rogue, Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), whose involvement is quite simple: he’s out to avoid the hangman’s rope and hopefully line his pockets in the process. In the more traditional scenario, this ill-assorted group bound together by a common objective would include at least one member driven by some higher moral sense. Not in this case though; all (with the possible exception of the cipher-like Franklyn) are pandering to their own base instincts. Everything builds towards a surreal climax on the banks of the titular river, where a demented Colonel (Edmond O’Brien) twisted by the bitterness of defeat in the Civil War plots merciless retribution for his conquerors.

Stuart Whitman & Richard Boone in Rio Conchos.

Director Gordon Douglas made a lot of so-so films but he had it in him to produce something of real quality when the conditions were right. Rio Conchos is among his best movies (and Only the Valiant is another little dark gem tucked away in his filmography) due largely to the tough and cynical script and an uncompromising performance by Richard Boone. To Douglas’ credit, the action scenes are extremely well staged and, along with cameraman Joe MacDonald, he really makes the most of the rugged Utah locations. Still, it’s Boone that carries it all along, playing a mere shell of a man subsisting on hatred and bitterness. His craggy, lived-in features were ideal for westerns, from his iconic Paladin in TV’s Have Gun – Will Travel to a couple of memorable appearances as the villain in two John Wayne pictures, to name just a few. I’ve seen it written that his performance is a bit one note, but I don’t think that’s being entirely fair. One sequence in particular has him showing two vastly different sides to his character within minutes. I’m referring to the scene where the travellers come upon a burned out house containing what one assumes is a tortured and/or violated woman, moaning in agony on her deathbed, while her infant lies neglected in a cot alongside. We can see a series of emotions playing across Boone’s face, but the predominant one is a deep hurt as the terrible vision obviously brings back memories of the fate of his own wife and child. As he puts the woman out of her misery he is close to breaking down totally, the mask of toughness slipping momentarily in the now deserted room. When the raiding party returns to harry the trapped men though, Boone reverts to type almost instantaneously. There is something terrible in his primal joy, the gales of malicious laughter he expels when watching a downed Apache burning to death before his eyes. It could be argued that Lassiter undergoes a change of heart as the quest progresses, seeing that the army mission has some worth in itself that supersedes his own desire for vengeance. Again, I don’t read it that way. The confrontation with Rodriguez seems to me not so much a realization that there are higher issues at stake but more a necessary way of ensuring that his own ambitions are not thwarted.

By the time the climax rolls round, the obsessive nature of Lassiter’s rage seems tame and reasonable when compared to the schemes of the deluded Colonel played by Edmond O’Brien. He only appears late on in the film but he makes a deep and lasting impression. At the outset, O’Brien’s character seems merely eccentric. However, when he opens the door to his reproduction plantation mansion and invites Lassiter to step inside the full extent of his madness is revealed. This castle in the desert is little more than a facade, a half-constructed monument to a world that’s passed away yet he struts around like he’s entertaining company back in Virginia. O’Brien wisely tones down the histrionics and lets his words and outlandish surroundings convey the imbalance of his mind instead. The ending, though it might be termed abrupt and somewhat inconclusive, is a wonderful exercise in nihilism. It’s this, rather than the violent tone of the movie, that persuades me that the Hollywood western was already moving in the direction of the spaghettis. The classic era of the Hollywood western told stories that invariably held out the promise of redemption for one or more of the lead characters. What sets the likes of Rio Conchos apart is the total lack of concern for any kind spiritual salvation. In the end, nobody really triumphs and no higher purpose is achieved – none of the characters, whether living or dead by this point, have advanced much from the stage they were at when we saw them initially. 

The German DVD of Rio Conchos from Koch Media treats the film very well. There’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer with rich colours, especially evident in the red clay of the locations. There is no damage worth mentioning present on the print used and detail is again strong. The English soundtrack (with subs that are removable via the main menu) is a nice stereo mix that does justice to the frequent heavy gunshots, and also to Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful, driving score. The disc is nicely packaged in an attractive digibook format with notes (in German) and supplements the trailer and gallery that are provided as extras. The film may not qualify as one of the true greats of the genre, but it’s still a high quality production that marks an important stage in the evolution of the western. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend seeking it out.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1960s, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

Gun for a Coward

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The western is arguably the most masculine genre around, celebrating toughness and highlighting the virtues of honour, pride, independence and courage. As such, it’s ideally suited to the exploration and analysis of what we consider manhood to be. The 1950s, with the predominance of what’s referred to as the psychological western, mined this theme extensively. Gun for a Coward (1957) attempts to nail down the essence of what makes a man and how his courage, or lack of it, defines him. I say “attempts” because I’m not sure it succeeds entirely in what it sets out to do, settling for the easy option at the end and not quite satisfying as a result.

The story centres around the Keough family, their struggle to build up a ranch and the dynamic between three very different brothers. Since the death of their father the paternal role has been adopted by Will (Fred MacMurray), the eldest of the three and a man who’s seen youth pass him by as the burdens of being the head of the family took priority. Still, he’s a man who’s held onto his dreams and hopes to marry the daughter of a neighbouring rancher now that financial success is within his grasp. Of the two other siblings, Hade (Dean Stockwell) is the youngest and the most aggressively reckless. In the middle, and at the heart of the story itself, is Bless (Jeffrey Hunter), the most sensitive of the trio and their mother’s favourite. Bless is the son who’s character is closest to that of his mother; he’s cautious, passive and non-confrontational. The thing is, these are not the traits that garner respect in the rough and tumble world of the west. Bless has earned a reputation as a physical coward, a man who will always back down rather than meet things head on. Later, we learn that the roots of this lie in the past and relate to the fate of his father – although I’m not sure the explanation we get really stands up to a great deal of scrutiny. Matters come to a head during a cattle drive to Abilene, when a series of events all combine to expose Bless to one physical and moral challenge after another. The upshot is that all those around: friends and workers, the other Keough brothers and, most crucially, Bless himself come to question what kind of man he really is. The resolution, when it comes around, conveniently affirms Bless’ physical bravery, but I don’t believe that was ever in serious doubt in the first place. While the perceptions of others may have branded Bless as one who was afraid to go head to head with another in a physical confrontation, the viewer is aware that his evasiveness is based more on a kind of innate knowledge that such grandstanding is ultimately futile. The real issue is Bless’ moral cowardice: his sidestepping a showdown with his mother when she is bent on moving east to take him away from the dangers and hardships of life on the frontier; his failure to do the right thing by the girl he loves; and, related to the previous, his inability to lay the facts on the table with Will. All of these matters are resolved at one point or another, though Bless never really picks up the reins and forces things himself.

Sibling rivalry - Dean Stockwell, Jeffrey Hunter and Fred MacMurray in Gun for a Coward.

Actor-turned-director Abner Biberman worked mostly in television and I think it’s fair to say his handling of his directorial duties on Gun for a Coward are unspectacular. I don’t mean to say that his work is bad, just that it’s fairly anonymous. He knew how to compose a shot and shoot an action scene, yet there’s nothing especially memorable about any of it. What raises this movie up, and it is a good movie, is the script and the acting. The writing is layered and has a great deal of depth (even if it’s not as fully explored as it could be), slotting itself comfortably into place among the many examinations of human complexity that the decade’s western has to offer. Fred MacMurray, as was the case with a number of aging stars, drifted into the western in the 50s and found a degree of success there. He plays the stable, rock-like character, the voice of reason and the point of reference for the viewer. While he may have been a little old for the role of Will (especially when it’s borne in mind that Josephine Hutchinson, as his mother, was only something like five years older) the part does call for a degree of maturity, and MacMurray also had a knack for conveying the necessary quality of quietly wounded dignity. Dean Stockwell’s young hothead is something of a caricature and there’s more than a hint of a James Dean impersonation in there. The honours really belong to Jeffrey Hunter though, who managed to get inside the skin of Bless and create a completely believable figure. Hunter could project a certain vulnerability when called upon to do so, and in Bless he becomes that man who is aware of his own weaknesses and, consequently, has come to question his stature within both his family and the wider community. Of the supporting players I want to single out Chill Wills, not just for his part in this movie but for his all round contribution to the genre. His was one of those immediately recognizable faces and voices that seemed to turn up in every other western, and invariably enriched the viewing experience.

Gun for a Coward is now available from a number of sources on DVD – a US MOD disc, and reportedly less than satisfactory editions in France and Spain. However, when I saw that it was out on pressed disc in Australia from a company called Visual Entertainment Group (who seem to have licensed a number of Universal and Fox titles) I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say that this R4 release presents the film very nicely – it’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer that’s clean and consistent. The only weak section I noticed was a brief insert that appears during the drive to Abilene, and since that looks a lot like a piece of stock footage it’s not really the fault of the DVD presentation. The disc is very basic with no extras whatsoever. Still, the movie itself is presented handsomely, and the cover pleasingly reproduces the original poster art. All in all, I’d rate Gun for a Coward as a respectable entry among the westerns of the 1950s. When you bear in mind that the decade in question is practically bursting at the seams with classics of the genre I don’t think I’m being mean in my assessment. I certainly recommend checking this one out.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Fred MacMurray, Westerns

 

Golden Salamander

 

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In the years following the war the British film industry was turning out some quality pictures. The best of them remain rightly celebrated and the poorer efforts have been all but forgotten. There is, however, a kind of murky middle ground crammed full of the kind of movies that were a cut above the average yet not quite top flight material either. I often find myself drawn to these films as there’s much to admire but, seeing as they’re largely off the radar of present day viewers, little or no critical analysis to be found. The Golden Salamander (1950) is a handsomely shot movie, well acted, engagingly plotted and filmed on location. All in all, it has a lot going for it – it should be better known but the fact is it’s something of an obscure film. If this blog has any purpose other than providing a platform for me to record my thoughts then it’s to be hoped that, from time to time, it also introduces someone, somewhere to the kind of picture they might never otherwise have heard of or thought about.

The movie kicks off strongly and initially looks like it’s going to play out like a noir picture. A car is making its way along a stretch of road in Tunisia in the middle of a violent storm. The rain is hammering down relentlessly and the darkness is closed in oppressively on all sides with only the headlights cutting a feeble path ahead. Hunched in the gloom, the driver squints through the rain-streaked windscreen and forges on. By sheer luck he avoids running slap into a landslide that’s taken out the road. As he gets out to try to discover a way round the obstruction, he comes upon a wrecked and abandoned truck. His good fortune in avoiding an accident is revealed to be one of those sneaky tricks of fate when he finds that the truck was apparently part of a gun running operation. This whole sequence takes place without a word of dialogue and the murkiness of a rotten night is only broken by the occasional flashes of lightning that draw attention to the important sights. That wonderful atmosphere is retained as the tired and muddy traveller makes his way to the nearest town, and the welcoming light of the local inn. It’s here that we learn his identity: David Redfern (Trevor Howard), a British archaeologist sent to catalogue and collect some ancient artifacts (including the golden salamander of the title) before overseeing their shipping. His close call on the washed out road has placed him in a perilous position though, with the gun runners suspecting (though at first not sure) that he’s seen something. What draws him deeper into danger is his becoming romantically involved with the young proprietress of the inn, Anna (Anouk Aimee), whose brother is part of the smuggling gang. The plot is a straight thriller that sees Redfern first wrestling with indecision before resolving to take action when a tragic turn of events forces his hand. Even then he has to face up to the fact that the town is a nest of corruption where it’s impossible to be sure who, if anyone, can be trusted.

Trevor Howard & Anouk Aimee - Golden Salamander.

The two greatest strengths of the film are the visuals and the location work. This was one of director Ronald Neame’s earliest efforts and he, along with cameraman Oswald Morris, takes turns at bathing the screen first in deep, moody shadow and then in bright sunlight. For an up and coming director Neame shows great skill in his handling of composition and framing too, drawing the eye to the pertinent and subtly altering the mood with clever placement of characters and objects. The location shooting in Tunisia adds an air of realism that’s a big asset and lends a greater sense of openness to the exterior work. So much for the positives; the weakness lies primarily in the script, as is so often the case. While I understand that the romance between Redfern and Anna is a necessary ingredient and provides the motivation for the hero to finally act decisively, it has to be said that it’s never a convincing one and, furthermore, slows the story too much in the middle. It leads to that old problem of a strong opening and climax held together by a slightly stodgy and flabby middle section. Of course, the fact that so much of this part of the story depends on the interaction between Trevor Howard and Anouk Aimee is a contributory factor too. Howard plays the role of Redfern with a slight stiffness, but in fairness I think that’s simply a part of the character and can’t really be taken as a criticism of the performance. The thing is he looked a good deal older than his years at that time and having him play off a teenage Anouk Aimee is a little disconcerting. Additionally, she was acting in only her first English language film and that does seem to have had an effect on her performance – her delivery is never natural and she looks vaguely uncomfortable throughout. Still, there are some fine supporting turns to shore matters up: Herbert Lom is first class as the main heavy, Miles Malleson downplays his comic side as the local policeman, and Wilfrid Hyde-White has a great little part as the slightly seedy pianist channeling Hoagy Carmichael.

I used to have a copy of Golden Salamander that I got as a freebie with a Greek newspaper years ago, and it was a fairly ropey transfer. However, the film has just recently been released in the UK on DVD by Odeon. The disc isn’t a perfect one, there’s a softness to the image here and there, and a few speckles. Having said that, there are also stronger sections where detail is much better defined and print damage is generally minimal. Extras are a selection of trailers for other Odeon titles, a photo gallery and a booklet of liner notes. I’m not going to claim that this movie is a classic just waiting to be rediscovered; there are the issues with scripting and structure to take into account. Still and all, it is a good mid-range effort that has more than enough plus points in its favour to earn it a recommendation.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Ronald Neame

 
 
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