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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Cry Terror!

Hostage dramas usually represent good value as they tend to focus on the trials experienced by the kind of ordinary, everyday people an audience can identify with. Director Andrew L Stone had already explored this theme with The Night Holds Terror, but in Cry Terror! (1958) he mixed in elements of a terrorist/extortion racket too. It’s this aspect which provides the motivation for the whole captive scenario of course, yet it’s also the least plausible part of the story. Thus the whole basis of the drama has a flaw at its heart. Still, the film generally holds together, mainly as a result of an especially strong cast and a couple of extremely well-handled sequences.

Things start off in semi-documentary fashion, detailing a warning delivered to an airline that one of their planes is carrying a bomb on board. This is all seen through the eyes of the airline executives, the FBI and the media before the focus shifts to a television set reporting the breaking story. Jim Molner (James Mason) is watching the broadcast in the shop where he works, and his combined fascination and shock at what he’s hearing makes it abundantly clear that this man has a personal interest in the story. Well, maybe he knew someone travelling on the threatened flight, his frantic dash back home being consistent with that theory. However, his arrival there and the sense of alarm his wife, Joan (Inger Stevens), detects leads to a revelation – Molner was the man who designed and built the sophisticated, high-explosive device. The thing is, Molner is no terrorist or blackmailer; he was suckered into this by Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger), who intimated that a government position might be available to the designer. Now at this early stage – we’re really only a matter of minutes into the film here – my credibility was stretched. I mean, despite being told of Molner’s military experience, we’re asked to believe that a guy working in a store would be approached out of the blue by a man he once knew in the army with a proposition to build a bomb on this basis alone. Others may not be fazed by this, but I was left scratching my head. Anyway, it’s here that the plot starts to take shape, with the arrival on the scene of Hoplin and his three associates (Angie Dickinson, Jack Klugman and Neville Brand), and the news that another device has been put in place. Having already thrown down the gauntlet, Hoplin intends to extort money from the airline while holding Molner and his family hostage both to ensure his identity remains a secret and to force one of them to act as his courier. So, Molner, his wife and little girl face a twin dilemma: how to wriggle out of the clutches of Hoplin unscathed while averting a disaster. As the Molners cast around for an opportunity to be free of their tormentors, the Feds are painstakingly building up a profile of the criminals from the few scraps of evidence available to them.

As writer and director, Andrew L Stone must take responsibility for both the good and bad parts of the movie. I’ve already mentioned the early strain placed on logic by the script, and there are other instances throughout. There’s also an issue with the tone and focus of the picture: Stone can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants it to be a documentary style police procedural or something more personal, and the emphasis is continually shifting. Additionally, there are two separate voiceovers used at various points (both Molner and Joan) depending on which character is dominating the scene. All of this has a slightly disorienting effect as it’s difficult to get a fix on any one person for a significant period of time. Leaving aside the duelling voiceovers, the scenes involving James Mason and Inger Stevens are easily the most successful. While I acknowledge that this may be no more than a stylistic prejudice on my part, I found the sections with Kenneth Tobey’s dogged Feds a bit tedious – rather like a 50s version of CSI. Instead of adding to the tension of the story, these parts actively drain it away. It’s only when we cut back to the hostages and their tribulations that the movie finds it feet again. The best sequence involves Inger Stevens in a race against time, having just taken receipt of the ransom money. This is a wonderfully realized piece of filmmaking, where the increasingly distraught woman finds herself mired in New York traffic as the seconds tick away and her husband and child’s lives hang in the balance. Although I was yearning for a release from the suspense another part of me was so taken with the skillful execution of the scene that I wanted it to go on a little longer. While it’s not in quite the same class, Mason also gets to play out a tense escape attempt in a perilous elevator shaft.

James Mason got top billing and he turns in a typically smooth and graceful performance as the man whose lack of foresight has pitched his family into a nightmare. Without criticising his playing in any way, I’d say this is not one of Mason’s most memorable roles, perhaps because he’s handed an essentially passive role until late in proceedings. The more active duties were passed to Inger Stevens, and she handled them very well. Apart from the aforementioned race against the clock, she also had a couple of decidedly uncomfortable scenes where she has to deal with the unwanted attention of Neville Brand’s Benzedrine-addicted rapist. Brand nailed his character’s sleazy creepiness perfectly and the very real threat that he represents brought out both the vulnerability and resourcefulness of Stevens’ harried suburbanite. Rod Steiger’s tendency to chew up the scenery can be a little wearing if it’s given free rein, but he keeps himself under control most of the time here. The calmer face that he displays carries far more menace, in fact I’d say he gets the chilling, calculating quality of Hoplin spot on. Angie Dickinson and Jack Klugman round out the supporting cast nicely as Steiger’s increasingly anxious cohorts.

Cry Terror! is available in the US as a DVD-R from the Warner Archives, but it’s also out as a pressed disc in Spain from Llamentol. The Spanish release boasts a nice tight anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s in pretty good shape. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and the Spanish subtitles can be switched off from the main setup menu. On the whole, the film works well enough as a suspense drama. The idea of an ordinary guy being duped into a nightmarish situation that starts to spiral out of his control strengthens its credentials as a late entry into the fading noir cycle. Plot holes and logical inconsistencies can be found in many a movie, so I can live with those. I think the biggest fault is the script’s failure to stick with the plight of the hostage family and instead take regular detours charting the progress of the FBI investigation. It upsets the balance of the picture and lessens the tension at the wrong moments. Even so, the end product is still satisfying enough. Worth checking out, especially if you can get the very reasonably priced Spanish release.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2012 in 1950s, Film Noir, James Mason

 

Hangman’s Knot

I just realized the other day that I’ve reached a small landmark as far as this site is concerned - this post will be the 100th western that I have written about. I had to think about what movie I ought to feature to mark the occasion, and it left me with something of a dilemma. My first instinct was to go for a big, important, genre defining picture, one which has stamped its authority all over the western landscape. But then I paused and thought again: is that really representative of the kind of movies I usually turn my attention to? Well not really. For the most part, I’ve written up the films that don’t always draw the attention of the critics, that don’t get ranked high in the “Best of” lists. Sure there are a few heavyweights in there, but they tend to be the exception. So in the end, I opted for something low-key, a bit of a sleeper and an imperfect work – Hangman’s Knot (1952). This might seem an offbeat choice but it reflects what I’d like to think of as the spirit of this site by being a movie from my favourite decade in cinema and featuring two of my favourite performers.

The plot concerns a dreadful mistake and its consequences for those involved. Major Stewart (Randolph Scott) is in charge of a small band of Confederate soldiers who we see setting up an ambush for a squad of Union troops. The aim is to relieve the Yankees of the gold shipment they’re guarding and thus shore up the war effort. The plan goes almost like clockwork and Stewart’s men wipe out the enemy. The sting in the tail though comes in the form of the dying words of their victims’ commanding officer – the war has been over for weeks. In that moment Stewart sees himself transformed from heroic military tactician into common criminal. A discussion with the surviving troops, and the reckless killing of the one man who could be made to testify to their innocence, leads to the decision to head home with the spoils in tow. However, gold is always a powerful draw, and it’s not long before others are on their trail. A self-appointed posse, bounty hunters in reality, have caught the scent and are in pursuit of Stewart’s little party. In desperation, a stagecoach is hijacked and the fugitives head for the temporary shelter of an isolated swing station. It’s here that the second part of the drama is played out, as Stewart and his men find themselves holed up in the stage halt and under pressure from both without and within. The posse have hemmed them in with little hope of a clean escape, while the atmosphere is growing ever more poisonous as both the hostility of the hostages and the men’s own personal differences raise tensions.

Roy Huggins is most famous as the writer of some highly successful and influential television shows (including The Fugitive and The Rockford Files), but his solitary effort as a cinema director plays out like a rehearsal for the Boetticher/Scott pictures that would come later in the decade. The theme, casting, locations and structure of Hangman’s Knot all contribute to the feeling that you’re watching a kind of unpolished Budd Boetticher movie. The opening scenes of the ambush shot around Lone Pine, with their bleak, fatalistic tone, immediately evoke such thoughts. This is especially true when the gung-ho mood abruptly turns into one of horrified realisation. Then there’s the theme of greed and it’s corrupting influence that is gradually expanded upon as the story progresses. With the second act, comes a change of location – the restrictive, almost suffocating, confines of the swing station – where the pressurized atmosphere brought on by greed for gold intensifies for those trapped inside and those laying siege outside. These rising tensions are further exacerbated by the presence of Donna Reed’s Northern nurse, provoking a three-way contest for her affections between Scott, Lee Marvin’s hot-headed subordinate, and Richard Denning’s would-be fiance. This brings to the surface a sentiment that can often be detected in westerns of the period; the contrast between the essential nobility of the southerner (personified by Scott) and the base materialism of the northerner (Denning in this instance), although it’s tempered somewhat by the fact that Marvin is also thrown into the mix to represent the less savoury side of the Confederacy.

It’s hard to find fault with the casting of the movie, though the oversimplified characterization is one of the main weaknesses. I’ve already tried to draw attention to what I see as the parallels between Hangman’s Knot and Scott’s later work with Boetticher, but the reasons why the movie isn’t quite in that class need to be addressed too. One of the features that distinguished the Ranown pictures was the complexity of the characters, both the heroes and the villains. In truth, there was a blurring of the lines defining the good and bad men in those films. That’s not really the case here, where everyone’s development follows a much more traditional path. Apart from a sense of guilt over the ill-timed ambush, Scott’s character carries none of the emotional baggage that made his best roles so memorable. That’s not meant as a criticism of his performance though – an actor can only play a part as it’s written, and the script doesn’t offer much opportunity to add depth. The same problem arises with Lee Marvin; where Seven Men from Now gave him the chance to play a layered and subversively attractive villain, Hangman’s Knot demands a more straightforward, and far less interesting, portrayal. Similarly, the posse in pursuit of Stewart’s band is a collection of stereotypical figures without charm, and lacking the necessary menace too. Perhaps the most successful character is the green youth played by Claude Jarman Jr, whose innocence symbolizes hope for the future and the possibility of a new beginning. Both he and the operators of the stagecoach stop are suggestive of the idea of America as a family torn apart by the Civil War. Of course they also represent the prospect of reconciliation, the offer of “adoption” at the end emphasizing this.

The R1 Columbia/Sony DVD of Hangman’s Knot, which has been available for a long time now, presents the movie in the correct academy ratio, and the image is reasonable although there are some issues with the transfer too. Colours are generally strong throughout but there is some damage to the print. This is most obvious during the indoor scenes in the second half of the movie, the earlier exterior work looks to be in much better shape. Even so, it’s not what I’d term a major distraction at any point. It’s a fast paced film which packs a lot of story into its brisk 81 minute running time and concludes most satisfactorily. I think it’s an underrated western, but I can understand the reasons why that may be so. Still, whatever deficiencies it has, there are plenty of positive points too, not least the way it looks ahead to the Ranown cycle. In fact, and I’m going to stick my neck out here, I think it’s a better and more rewarding movie than something like Westbound – others may disagree of course. Anyway, I recommend any fans of Randolph Scott, or Budd Boetticher for that matter, check this one out if they haven’t already done so.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in 1950s, Lee Marvin, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

The Bribe

The last non-western I looked at had Ava Gardner suffering in an exotic setting. The Bribe (1949) sees the same actress back sweating it out in a far-flung place, but the results are much more satisfying this time. The film is a borderline noir that employs some of the staples of the form to excellent effect. There’s also a first-rate cast who work hard, yet it’s not a movie without some problems. It opens and closes very strongly; the issue is the overpadded mid-section which ought to have had some of its excess fat trimmed off in the editing room. Even so, the finished product is still worthwhile viewing, largely due to some highly memorable visuals and a couple of fine performances.

Rigby (Robert Taylor) is a federal agent investigating a racket involving smuggled war surplus engines. He’s first seen on the balcony of his hotel room on a steamy Central American island, one of those places where even the lethargic ceiling fans seem worn down by the oppressive heat. There’s a violent storm brewing outside while an internal one is already in the process of churning up the hero’s emotions. As Rigby sweats and smokes, his weary voiceover leads us into a flashback sequence that will occupy the first half of the picture. It all starts off with one of those earnest briefings by the Feds, so beloved of post-war noir, which establishes Rigby’s undercover role. He’s been sent to the island of Carlotta to nail a gang of smugglers and his only lead is a couple of suspects, a married couple in fact. Tug Hintten (John Hodiak) and his wife Elizabeth (Ava Gardner) are two down on their luck expatriates scratching out a living on the island; he’s an ex-pilot with a drink problem, reduced to slumming it as a bartender, while she sings in the same night club. Almost inevitably, Elizabeth is drawn to Rigby, his quiet assurance contrasting sharply with the drunken pessimism of her weak and ineffectual husband. The problem is that the feeling is mutual and Rigby slowly finds himself torn between his sense of professionalism and his desire for Elizabeth. To further complicate matters, it’s soon apparent that Hintten is not working alone. Carwood (Vincent Price) has the appearance of just another tourist but he’s awfully keen on making Rigby’s acquaintance, and Bealer (Charles Laughton) is one of those rumpled chisellers who always have an angle to pitch. Suddenly, Rigby’s life has become very complicated – he knows these four are all bound together as conspirators and he knows his duty, but his attraction to Elizabeth is skewing his judgement and is also being used by the villains as a lever to encourage him to turn a blind eye. As the storm breaks and the flashback leads us to the present, it’s clear that we’ve reach the critical moment. Rigby stands at a moral crossroads; does he take the path of honour and do his job or does he follow the call of his heart? If he’s to choose the former then he has to find some means of doing so without damning the woman he’s falling in love with. Now this is an interesting setup, but the development of the romance slows the pace of the film badly. It’s only in the second half, when matters are forced to a head, that the movie picks up speed again and coasts along towards a quite literally explosive finale amid the carnival celebrations on the island.

For a man with such an extensive filmography, Robert Z Leonard is a director whose work I’m not familiar with. A quick glance through his credits explains that though – he specialized in movies which hold little or no interest for me. However, he, along with cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, does a fine job of blending classical noir iconography with a melodramatic crime story. Even some decidedly turgid romantic moments are made all the more bearable by the clever use of shadows and light filtered through louvred doors. The fact that The Bribe was an MGM production might give one pause for though too. It may well have been the studio that best typified the heyday of Hollywood, but I wouldn’t rank it among my favourites. The house style usually demanded a kind of populist gloss that tended to preclude any notion of realism or grit. In the case of this movie though, the artificiality that marked out MGM actually works in its favour, that heightened sense of unreality adding to the exotic flavour of the setting. From a purely visual perspective, The Bribe looks splendid. The biggest issue is the way the script allows the essentially uneventful middle of the story to drag on for far too long.

I mentioned in the introduction that there are a couple of fine performances, but I’ll work up to that gradually. I found John Hodiak’s work the weakest of the five main players. His first scene where he’s supposed to be drunk felt amateurish and unconvincing, like a guy who never touched a drop doing an impression of a lush. However, he spends most of the remainder of the movie laid up in his sick-bed so there’s no opportunity to see whether he could have added another dimension to his role. It has to be said that Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner made for an extremely attractive leading couple, and they do have a certain chemistry on-screen. Gardner looks breathtakingly beautiful in some shots and it’s clear that this was a woman capable of making any man reappraise his ethics. Taylor was an actor who I think gets slated too often by critics. His looks often meant that he was underestimated, but age and maturity came to his rescue. His post-war work gets better with each passing year as his tough reserve was increasingly reflected in his features. I reckon his western roles bring out the best in him but he also made some first class noir pictures too; The Bribe may not be his finest, but it’s not bad either. Vincent Price was another who improved as the years passed, and his role as the slimy and conniving Carwood represents a step along that path. Right at the top of the heap though is Charles Laughton, giving a performance that’s slyly captivating. His perpetually unshaven Bealer is a clever combination of the sleazy and the pitiful. In a role that could easily have become deeply unattractive, his expressive features and carefully modulated voice create a character who pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of being simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic.

A while back, I was on the point of ordering the Warner Archive version of The Bribe, but then noticed that the film was also available on pressed disc from Spain. So, I ended up buying the release from Absolute. From reading online comments and looking at screencaps, I think the Spanish release is broadly comparable to the R1 disc. The film hasn’t undergone any restoration and there are minor scratches and marks on the print. Still, there are no serious issues and the contrast and clarity are generally strong. Absolute provide the theatrical trailer and the English soundtrack only; the Spanish subtitles can be disabled via the setup menu. There’s also a booklet of viewing notes included, in Spanish of course, that features the original poster art and lots of attractive stills. The film is an entertaining  yet imperfect slice of noir exotica. Ultimately, the characters, with the possible exception of Carwood, revert to traditional morality and thus dilute the darkness that the script flirts with. It may not be full-blown noir and the script could use a bit of tightening but it’s well worth seeing, if only for Gardner’s beauty and Laughton’s low-life charm.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2012 in 1940s, Ava Gardner, Film Noir, Robert Taylor

 

Rough Night in Jericho

My last post looked at a superior little film scripted by Sydney Boehm, and that writer is the common thread linking into this one. Where The Raid was rich and fairly original in terms of theme, Rough Night in Jericho (1967) is an altogether simpler and, ultimately, less rewarding experience. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, just that the plot treads a more worn path and the characterization has less depth and complexity. Generally, it’s a picture with lower ambitions, aiming for entertainment as opposed to any notions of profundity. What is does have in its favour are unusual casting, some instances of striking photography, and a couple of first class set pieces.

The tale told here is a familiar one: a town which, through weakness, has allowed itself to succumb gradually to the tyranny of one man. The town is Jericho and the man is Alex Flood (Dean Martin), a former lawman who has come to realize that there’s a better percentage (51% to be precise) to be had in simply ruling the roost. Bit by bit, Flood has acquired a controlling interest in just about every enterprise of value in the town. The one business he has yet to muscle in on is the stage line run by Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), twice widowed and Flood’s former lover. Working on the principle of fighting fire with fire, Molly has taken on a couple of partners she hopes will prove capable of facing down Flood. These men are Ben Hickman (John McIntire) and Dolan (George Peppard), two ex-peacekeepers who also want to try and turn a profit. The movie opens with Flood ambushing the new stagecoach driven by his would-be rivals, and establishes the confrontational tone that runs throughout. When the two men limp into town the first view to greet them is a graphic illustration of Flood’s handiwork - the corpse of a man who crossed him strung up from the hanging tree. With Hickman laid up in bed in Molly’s house recuperating from a gunshot wound sustained in the ambush, Dolan is essentially on his own. He’s a gambler, a man who always does the arithmetic in his head before acting, and he dislikes the odds stacked against him. While he neither likes nor approves of Flood and his tactics, he can’t see that anything’s to be gained in taking him on. The first half of the film basically involves these two natural rivals circling each other warily without either one of them wanting to overtly provoke the other. The scales are finally tipped by two factors: Dolan’s inability to crack the stubborn resolve of his aging partner, and a crude assault on Molly by Flood’s henchmen. When the gauntlet is thrown down, Dolan is bound to a path than can only lead relentlessly to a final showdown with Flood.

Director Arnold Laven’s television credits far exceed his movie work, and I think that background is highlighted in certain aspects of Rough Night in Jericho. A large proportion of the action takes place within the confines of the town – particularly Molly’s home and Flood’s saloon – where both the filming and editing have a TV vibe about them. Whenever the characters venture out into the wilderness around Jericho there’s a far more cinematic atmosphere about it all, probably due to Russell Metty’s presence behind the camera. For the most part, Laven’s work on this picture is competent if not spectacular, though the final stalking scene in the brush is both overextended and clumsy in its editing. There are, however, two memorable sequences that raise the quality considerably. The first is a long, brutal fight between George Peppard and Slim Pickens with the weapons of choice ranging from a bullwhip to chains. Even now the scene carries some clout, and I can only wonder how audiences back in 1967 reacted to the savagery on display. The other notable scene comes towards the end when an exciting and well-staged shootout takes place in the saloon, John McIntire’s shotgun creating some particularly satisfying mayhem.

 And now to the casting. Dean Martin is never going to lauded as a great actor, but his easy-going charm and natural affability meant he was never an unwelcome addition to any production. His portrayal of Alex Flood turns all expectations completely on their head though. Nearly all traces of the usual Dino persona are washed away as he plays Flood as a man without a shred of common decency. His actions right from the beginning – humiliating a deputy, orchestrating a lynching, sadistically beating a woman, back-shooting -  prove there can be no doubt as to his ruthlessness. While it’s certainly a shock to see him in such an unsympathetic role I think he just about carries it off. George Peppard is also effective as the reluctant hero up against Flood and his hired killers, his mostly sombre clothes and cheroot hinting at a reference to Leone and Corbucci. John McIntire was always a reliable presence in movies, especially westerns, and his cool professionalism acts as a stabilising force here. English actress Jean Simmons had already demonstrated her ability to slot comfortably into the world of the old west with her role in The Big Country, and does so again in this film. Her tough widow is the only significant female part amid all the macho posturing and she’s perfectly credible as a frontier survivor. It has to be said though that she – along with Peppard – is involved in one of the least successful scenes in the whole movie. It’s a comic interlude that sees Molly and Dolan matching one another drink for drink before collapsing into bed. The scene isn’t especially badly played or filmed, but it’s tone is completely at odds with the rest of the picture and it draws attention to itself for all the wrong reasons.

The German DVD of Rough Night in Jericho by Koch Media has the film looking wonderful in anamorphic scope. Colour and detail levels appeared acceptably high to my eyes, and I wasn’t aware of any significant print damage. The disc offers either the original English soundtrack or a German dub – there are no subtitles to worry about. Extras consist of the trailer, a gallery and an inlay card with notes in German. At this point, I ought to mention that the film is due to go in sale in the UK at the end of this month via Pegasus. If the transfer is up to the standard of the company’s other recent Universal releases then it should represent a viable (and more economical) alternative. This is a film whose plot offers nothing new or startling to western fans, who will have seen countless variations on the tale. Nevertheless, there’s a good deal of entertainment to be had along the way, and the cast all do a perfectly satisfactory job. It’s a solid and unpretentious late-60s western whose strengths and weaknesses just about balance each other out.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in 1960s, Jean Simmons, Westerns

 

The Raid

There is no conflict as dirty, socially corrosive and tragic as a civil war. Friends and neighbours, those whose similarities are every bit as pronounced as their differences, suddenly find themselves sworn enemies at one another’s throats. Any story which uses such a conflict as its backdrop automatically has an enormous amount of built-in dramatic potential. Yet despite that, there’s a hazard too – commercial success is by no means guaranteed. Movies based around the American Civil War were traditionally regarded as box office poison, and I don’t think such an aversion is some affectation confined to the United States. There are few nations which haven’t fallen victim to internal bloodletting, and the scars of these events never fully heal in the public consciousness – it’s hard to get past the essential ugliness of a country tearing itself apart from within. However, a movie can still remain compelling, and indeed worthwhile, in the face of these obstacles. The trick is to sidestep the cloying piety that can sink a script and instead focus on the real human effects of a land and people divided. The Raid (1954) is such a film.

The story is based on a real event during the Civil War - one of those peripheral actions that occur in most conflicts. It opens with a small band of Confederate POWs staging a breakout from a Union prison close to the Canadian border. The aim of the fugitives, under the command of Major Benton (Van Heflin), is to cross into neutral territory and reorganise themselves there. Benton has in mind using the neighbouring country as a springboard to attack the North. His plan is to marshal his forces and unexpectedly raid the border towns, both as an act of revenge for Sherman’s pillage of the South and as a means of drawing vital troops away from the front line and thus relieving the pressure on Lee. The target for the first of these incursions is St Albans, Vermont. Benton arrives in town posing as a Canadian businessman looking to invest in local property, but really scouting the lay of the land and paving the way for his comrades to join him. The basic plan is to clean out the banks, providing much needed funds for buying munitions, and then to torch the town and cause as much havoc as possible before beating a hasty retreat back across the border. On paper, this sounds like a viable proposition but complications inevitably arise. There are three troublesome flies in Benton’s jar of ointment: Katy Bishop (Anne Bancroft), the young widow running the boarding house where Benton’s lodging; Captain Foster (Richard Boone), the one-armed veteran in charge of St Albans’ small military force; and Lieutenant Keating (Lee Marvin), whose bitter hatred of the North means he’s something of a loose cannon among Benton’s otherwise highly disciplined force. These three people, and Benton, are a perfect illustration of the effects of civil warfare. All of them have been damaged, either physically or emotionally, by the war and all represent different aspects of the mindset it has created - Keating’s volatile sadism, Katy’s dignified struggle against loneliness, Foster’s self-loathing, and Benton’s juggling of professionalism and sentiment. One key scene highlights the moral dilemma faced by a man in Benton’s peculiar and precarious position. Having just saved the townsfolk from mortal danger (and himself too, as it happens), he returns to his lodgings only to be confronted with that which he least expected – the gratitude and acceptance of the local community. A combination of shock, humility, and horror at his own duplicity briefly flit across Benton’s features. In this moment, everything we need to know about how this kind of war divides loyalties, even internally, is deftly expressed. Still, Benton is a man of principle and, despite any moral qualms he may be experiencing, he forges ahead towards his objective. By the time the actual raid occurs the viewers have been granted a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those from both sides of the divide, making the climax all the more tense and charged.

Argentine director Hugo Fregonese came to Hollywood in 1949 and made a number of films that have largely been forgotten outside of film buff circles. There may not be any masterpieces among his credits but he displayed a very strong visual sense and his work remains interesting at the very least. Apache Drums, produced by Val Lewton, is a little neglected gem that’s ripe for rediscovery, while Saddle Tramp and Harry Black and the Tiger have points in their favour too. The Raid is one of his best efforts, looking handsome and maintaining suspense throughout. The reenactment of the titular raid (a bit of research indicates that the real event resulted in considerably less damage) makes for an exciting climax and it’s well staged by Fregonese and his cameraman, Lucien Ballard. Van Heflin does very well as Major Benton, looking tough and authoritative enough to be believable as the commander of the raiders, and also showing the right degree of sensitivity when necessary. He hadn’t the looks to make a career as a romantic lead but his understated performances generally had a very attractive human quality. Once again, Richard Boone seems to get right into the character he’s playing; the gruffness of Foster initially seems to stem from his bitterness over his war injury but, as the story progresses, it’s apparent that his reserved demeanour has a deeper psychological root. Both actors bring quite subtle nuances to their respective characterizations and there’s nothing one-dimensional about either of them. Personally, I found it refreshing that Anne Bancroft’s widow was used as a softening influence on both Boone and Heflin, and wasn’t there merely to provide an excuse for some superfluous romance. Her presence is integral to the development of the plot and the shifting emotions of the two men staying under her roof, but not as a stereotypical Hollywood siren. Heading up an especially strong supporting cast, Lee Marvin turns in another memorable performance as the vengeful and dangerous Keating. His “bull in a china shop” approach acts as a counterweight to Van Heflin’s measured caution and helps to up the tension.

To the best of my knowledge, the only DVD release of The Raid is the Spanish edition from Impulso/Fox. Generally, whilst apparently unrestored, the disc is one of their reasonable efforts. The film may have been 1.66:1 originally, but this transfer presents it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) – if it’s open-matte it may be slightly zoomed as the framing looks a little tight to my eyes on occasion. However, I wouldn’t say it was seriously compromised. The colour and detail levels are quite strong, and it’s pleasing to look at. The extras are the usual gallery and text items, and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. The film approaches its subject matter intelligently and avoids forcing judgements on the viewer. The combination of a strong, capable cast, a tight script and professional direction adds up to a pacy and entertaining look at an intriguing episode from the Civil War. Recommended.

 

Singapore

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to categorize a movie; it may have certain familiar and identifiable features that one associates with a particular genre, yet either fails to capitalize on these or mixes in the traits of another type of movie. Of course that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and a touch of the unexpected can enliven a stale formula. But not always. Singapore (1947) has many of the trappings that are associated with film noir: dark, shadowy imagery, a flashback, a voiceover narration, a slightly unscrupulous protagonist, a mysterious woman. Still, it’s not a noir picture; there’s too much melodramatic romance and half-hearted adventure tossed in there. Ultimately, it’s a movie that flirts with a handful of genres and suffers a bit of an identity crisis as a result. Besides that, it’s just not very good.

Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray) is a pearl smuggler – we learn this when he’s pulled in to the custom’s office the moment his plane touches down in Singapore. With the war over, he’s returning to his old haunts and the authorities suspect that he’s likely to return to his old trade too. As Gordon wanders through the hotel where he formerly resided, he’s suddenly assailed by memories. A flashback sequence sees him in the days leading up to the Japanese attack and introduces the old lover whose loss still preys on his mind. Gordon and Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner) had one of those whirlwind romances that are often found in wartime movies. Just as the couple are about to tie the knot the bombing raids commence, and he races back to his hotel to recover the fortune in pearls he has stashed there. Failing to recover his treasure, he returns to find the chapel in ruins and Linda missing presumed dead. And so we’re up to speed – Gordon has come back to Singapore hoping his pearls may still be retrievable. As he awaits the opportunity to check out his old quarters and see if the loot is still there, he spies Linda. The woman he thought had perished in the bombed out chapel is alive and well, but has no recollection of who he is. Amnesia – we’re back in noir territory, right? Wrong. Loss of memory can serve as a great plot device when it involves blanking out secrets that carry a threat or danger. In Singapore, that’s not the case at all and the story becomes bogged down in a soapy love triangle that really only has two sides. Sure, there’s an attempt to milk some suspense and intrigue from the secondary business of two cartoon villains (Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd) also seeking the elusive pearls, but again the absence of any real threat hamstrings that element.

Casablanca struck gold when it placed its two eternal lovers in an exotic locale, but a movie needs more than that to succeed. Lots of films have tried to tap into that vibe (Macao, Calcutta, Saigon etc.) but the results have been variable at best. For me, Singapore fails on two levels; the central romance and half-hearted mystery just aren’t engaging, and the leads don’t have any spark together. Although both MacMurray and Gardner are good enough in their respective roles they have no chemistry whatsoever, and that’s a major issue when the script revolves around an apparent grand passion. As if that weren’t enough, the chief stumbling block preventing the couple from picking up where they left off – Gardner’s post-amnesia marriage to a planter – rings hollow and utterly fails to convince. As the villain, Thomas Gomez is surprisingly toothless and his character’s borderline incompetence means that we never seriously doubt MacMurray’s ability to get the upper hand. Director John Brahm made a number of noir-tinged melodramas that have much to recommend them, but Singapore is certainly among his weaker efforts. I’m generally a fan of his work and he does his best to inject some style into this humdrum production. The angles are varied and the sets are cleverly lit to enhance the atmosphere as far as possible. Still, apart from a short sequence which sees MacMurray struggling to extract his hidden pearls while avoiding the attentions of the law next door, there’s precious little tension on view.

As far as I’m aware, the only current commercial release of Singapore is the recent DVD from Universal in France. Generally, the film has been presented well; the transfer does exhibit some dirt and speckles but this is really only noticeable right at the beginning. The image is satisfactorily sharp and contrast is consistent throughout. There are no extra features offered and the French subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu – burnt-in captions do appear though on a handful of occasions when text is displayed, but this is too rare and minor to be regarded as a black mark. I guess I’ve made it clear enough that this isn’t an especially good or memorable movie. Singapore was later remade as the Errol Flynn vehicle Istanbul and while that’s no great shakes either, it’s arguably a stronger film. This one is attractively shot and Ava Gardner looks wonderful as always, but that’s about it. I can’t say I got much out of the movie and it’s not one I’d recommend tracking down.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in 1940s, Ava Gardner, Fred MacMurray, John Brahm

 
 
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