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Category Archives: Ronald Neame

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

 

Gambit

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I’m not sure if the caper movie could be referred to as a genre in itself. It’s basically an offshoot of the heist movie, which in turn has its origins in the world of thrillers. To me a caper should be a humorous take on a criminal enterprise and it should have a certain gloss or stylishness about it. As such, the 1960s were arguably the ideal period for these films, and I’m of the opinion that the best examples are to be found in that decade. Gambit (1966) checks all the boxes as far as I’m concerned: it’s got a couple of glamorous stars in the lead roles, a slightly convoluted plot that never takes itself too seriously, pretty locations, and an abundance of charm and style.

The structure of the film is one of its major assets, with the first half hour showing Harry Dean (Michael Caine) meticulously setting up the perfect crime before everything falls to pieces. Our hero has his sights on a priceless sculpture owned by a reclusive billionaire, Ahmad Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), and has planned what he thinks is a foolproof method of snatching it. For the final pieces of his scheme to fall into place he needs a woman to play the part of his wife. Of course it can’t be just any woman, he needs someone who closely resembles Shahbandar’s late wife. Enter Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), an exotic dancer of Eurasian stock who just happens to be a ringer for the former Mrs Shahbandar. This is the leverage Harry hopes to use to get near enough to both the billionaire and his precious artifact. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen this, so I’ll stick to saying that the humour and suspense come not only from watching how the best laid plans come unstuck but how they can be pasted back together again.

Shirley MacLaine & Michael Caine 

Michael Caine had just done Alfie and The Ipcress File before this movie and had pretty much cornered the market for mouthy cockneys. It’s a lot of fun watching his Harry Dean go from the assured, smooth operator of the opening to the increasingly flustered and shouty blunderer of the rest of the film. Shirley MacLaine is probably even better as the would-be pawn who ends up bailing Harry out of a succession of uncomfortable situations. When one remembers that the actress doesn’t even open her mouth for the first half hour or so it just proves what a classy performer she is. Herbert Lom was another piece of great casting and always gave a memorable performance in every thing I’ve seen him in. He more or less plays two roles in this film and does so with the greatest of ease. Ronald Neame directed fluidly and kept the pace tight throughout. He also handled the combination of humour and suspense with a deft touch, maintaining a nice balance all the way. It’s also worth mentioning that this gentleman celebrated his 98th birthday last year since he’s one of the few remaining links to the golden age of cinema – here’s hoping he gets to celebrate many more.

Gambit is on DVD in the UK via Second Sight and they’ve done an excellent job on the presentation. The anamorphic scope transfer looks fantastic with strong, bright colours and a clean, sharp image. The disc has the added bonus of carrying a commentary track with the director, something I always appreciate on the rare occasion it’s available for older movies. This film is also now available in the US via Universal’s burn on demand programme – currently exclusive to Amazon. I have no idea how the editions stack up against each other but I will say that I managed to pick up my R2 on sale before Christmas for an absolute pittance. It remains to be seen whether the R1 counterpart will drop significantly in price. All told, I enjoyed the film enormously. It’s a delightful and fun piece right from the start, and I can’t say it disappoints on any level. The perfect tonic for those bleak evenings in the depths of winter – highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1960s, Michael Caine, Ronald Neame, Shirley MacLaine

 
 
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