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Venetian Bird

Post-war Europe made for an ideal backdrop for tales of intrigue and mystery. Aside from the fact the Cold War was never far from the minds of contemporary audiences, the natural chaos present in a continent still in the process of healing the wounds left by six years of all-out conflict created the conditions and circumstances which lent themselves to the telling of such stories. There are numerous examples of movies exploiting this turbulent and uncertain period, some of which – The Third Man, The Man Between, Diplomatic Courier, The House of the Seven Hawks, Berlin Express – I’ve already featured on this site. Ralph Thomas’ Venetian Bird (1952) is another which fits into this grouping, mixing in the themes of political chicanery and fake identities.

Confusion frequently follows in the aftermath of war; people get lost and people disappear. Many are forgotten, existing only as memories buried beneath the rubble, but not all of them. Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) arrives in Venice in search of a man who seems to have vanished. Mercer is a detective hired by a grateful American who wants to reward an Italian for his bravery during the war. The man he’s seeking is Renzo Uccello, but it’s not just a matter of looking in the phone book. Uccello is an elusive figure, and Mercer’s efforts to track him down draws the interest of others. He’s followed to his initial point of contact and the man he hopes will offer him a lead is first assaulted and later murdered. Thus it’s clear enough that certain parties don’t want the whereabouts of Uccello known. The question of course is why. Uccello isn’t being sought for any crime, quite the opposite. Mercer’s quest means delving into the past and Uccello’s activities with the partisans of the Italian resistance. As he digs deeper he’s encouraged to believe the object of his search has died, but Mercer remains unconvinced. Not only are there clues suggesting Uccello is very much alive, but there are also indications that he’s involved in something dark and criminal. The closer Mercer comes to the truth, the greater the danger as he is gradually pulled into the murky and volatile world of post-war Italian politics. Before long he finds his role switched from that of hunter to hunted. What started off as a routine investigation develops into conspiracy, assassination and a man hunt taking in the alleys, canal and rooftops of Venice.

Films which use political machinations as their basis can flounder under the weight of their own self-importance if they’re not careful. Mercifully, Venetian Bird keeps the political aspect firmly in the background, the motivations and allegiances are blurred and of importance to the characters rather than the audience. Victor Canning’s script, adapted from his own novel, remains focused on Mercer and his search for Uccello. There’s always the sense that powerful men are manipulating the events but the viewers only concern is how this affects the protagonist, not their wider impact. The pace does flag a little here and there, a little trimming of the script wouldn’t have hurt, but director Ralph Thomas and cameraman Ernest Steward create some nice noir-style visuals and draw as much suspense as possible from the tale – the climactic chase across the rooftops is especially well filmed and quite exciting. The location shooting in Venice is a big plus and adds a touch of realism to the pulpy story. The movie is also notable for its score, provided by the highly regarded Nino Rota.

Richard Todd was in the middle of a fairly strong run of movies when he made Venetian Bird – he’d recently come off The Hasty Heart and Stage Fright, and The Dam Busters was still ahead of him. As Mercer he was a solid leading presence, although I’m not sure he really got across the ambiguity of the character – Mercer is referred to as having taken part in certain illicit activities in Italy in earlier times. Still, he was personable enough and handled the physical stuff satisfactorily. Eva Bartok’s biggest Hollywood role was in Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate, made the same year, but I’m most familiar with her from a handful of British pictures. She had a fairly substantial part in this film as the principal link to Uccello, and does quite well – we’re never 100% sure where her loyalties lie and she managed the internal conflict of the character successfully enough. George Coulouris was always a welcome face in the movies and is good value as the local police chief. The other notable roles are filled, with variable success, by John Gregson and Sid James. You wouldn’t automatically think of either of these men as first choices to play Italians, particularly if you’re familiar with their body of work in British cinema. As such, it’s hard not to be distracted by their presence. In support, there are good turns from Walter Rilla (father of director Wolf Rilla) and Margot Grahame.

Venetian Bird was a Rank production and wasn’t the easiest movie to see for a long time. I used to own a promo DVD which came free with a Greek newspaper some years ago but the transfer was a poor one with a pronounced green hue. It’s recently been released in the UK by Strawberry Media (AKA Spirit) who distribute certain Rank/ITV titles. The disc is a vanilla affair containing just the movie and no extras whatsoever. The print used is in pretty good condition with no serious damage on view. Contrast seems to be set at the right level with nighttime scenes looking suitably inky and atmospheric. It has to be said that this company isn’t always the most reliable when it comes to aspect ratios but that’s obviously not an issue here with a 1952 movie. I’m not going to try making a case that Venetian Bird is a top British thriller but it is a solid and entertaining mid-range effort that’s professionally made. Overall, I think it’s an unpretentious film which flirts round the boundaries of noir. I always enjoy British movies of this period and the location shooting is a nice bonus. While it’s no lost classic, it’s worth checking out and it’s not at all a bad way to pass an hour and a half.

 

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Richard Todd

 

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Chase a Crooked Shadow

Poster

Throughout the 60s Hammer produced a smattering of what have come to be referred to as “mini-Hitchcocks”, due to the acknowledged influence of Psycho. Broadly speaking, these movies usually featured a damsel-in-distress plot where all was not quite as it seemed at first glance. While it’s undeniable that Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker played a significant part in bringing about these films it seems to me that they also owe something to Michael Anderson’s 1958 suspenser Chase a Crooked Shadow: there’s a small cast, an isolated and endangered woman with a question mark over her psychological state, and men whose motives and loyalties are not always clear.

Kim Prescott (Anne Baxter) is a wealthy heiress living in a sprawling villa in Spain. Her father was a victim of suicide and her brother has perished in a road accident in South Africa – or so it would appear. After a late night gathering at the villa, when all the guests have departed, a stranger turns up claiming to be the brother back from the dead. Ward Prescott (Richard Todd) alleges that he was turned over by a guy he gave a lift to, and that the thief was the one who died in the smash-up. Kim remains unconvinced, determinedly so in fact, and calls in the police. Vargas (Herbert Lom), the local police chief, can find nothing wrong with Ward’s credentials and is powerless to do anything. Within a disconcertingly short period of time, Ward has taken up residence in the villa, hired his own new staff, and is causing Kim to question her mental state. She maintains both her hostility and her disbelief yet is unable to convince anyone else that this man in her house is an impostor. The viewer is left to wonder who is telling the truth and, if Ward is indeed merely an impersonator, what the purpose of the subterfuge and masquerade is. There are plenty of clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout, but it’s not until the very end that everything is revealed – all I’ll just say is that it’s unwise to jump to any premature conclusions. 

Hot rocks - Richard Todd in Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Director Michael Anderson brings Chase a Crooked Shadow in at a tight 84 minutes and judges the pace well. The plot never has a chance to sag and there are some nicely staged sequences – in particular, there’s a well shot and hair-raising scene involving a high speed race around a picturesque mountain road with precipitous drops flashing into view. Anderson does indulge in a bit of flashiness here and there: low angle shots and some slightly self-conscious focusing on foreground objects (like the screencap above), but they generally serve to add to the suspense and feeling of unease. Aside from the twisty plotting, the film depends heavily on the performances of the three leads, and they hold up well. Both Richard Todd and Anne Baxter bring an ambiguous quality to their respective characters which this kind of “is he or isn’t he” drama calls for. Baxter is just brittle enough as the woman under pressure and avoids descending into hammy histrionics. The recently deceased Richard Todd was always a solid performer and his inherent reserve is used to good effect to keep the viewer guessing. In contrast, Herbert Lom’s policeman plays the anchor role in a movie where no one else can really be trusted. It’s not a showy part in any way, but it is a vital one as it helps provide a necessary point of reference.  

Chase a Crooked Shadow is available on DVD in the UK via Optimum, and it’s not a bad transfer. The image is 1.33:1, although 1.66:1 would seem a more likely ratio for British movies of the period, and is quite clear and detailed. There are vertical lines and scratches that appear intermittently all the way through, and the blacks could be a little blacker at times. However, none of this is seriously distracting and shouldn’t count heavily against the transfer. Once again Optimum have added nothing to the disc, no subs and no trailer but it can be bought very cheap. This is the kind of movie that’s very appealing to those who enjoy tense British thrillers and it’s a highly competent production. Anyone familiar with the Hammer movies I alluded to at the beginning will recognise the parallels – but that’s no bad thing.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1950s, Michael Anderson, Mystery/Thriller, Richard Todd

 
 
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