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Category Archives: Mystery/Thriller

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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Charade

The term Hitchcockian is one that has become familiar to most film fans. Such movies are defined by Wikipedia as “those made with the styles and themes similar to those of Alfred Hitchcock’s films” – few directors have had the honor of seeing a subset of movies named after them, Ford and Welles do spring to mind though. Charade (1963) slots neatly into this category, and has actually been referred to as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. It’s easy to see why of course: the casting, the locations, the shooting style, the twisty plot and the presence of the MacGuffin. While these labels clearly attest to the quality of the film, I reckon they’re also a bit of a backhanded compliment to director/producer Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone. Nevertheless, whatever way you approach it, Charade stands out as a terrifically entertaining piece of 60s cinema.

I love films which grab my attention right away, and Charade certainly does that. As a train speeds through a misty European landscape, an object is tossed from it. We get only the briefest glimpse confirming that it’s the body of a man before the screen dissolves into Maurice Binder’s hypnotic credits and Henry Mancini’s mysterious and romantic theme. Cut to a ski resort where Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), a bored society wife, is contemplating divorce and flirting playfully with Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a fellow holidaymaker. It’s all quips and witty one-liners, until Regina returns to Paris and gets some shocking news. The man who made an unscheduled exit from that train at the beginning was her husband, Charles, and she finds that not only is she a sudden widow, but her apartment has been emptied and everything sold off at auction. It had been assumed that Charles was a wealthy man, but in this movie it’s unwise to assume anything. There’s no sign of the proceeds of the sale, and there’s worse to come. Charles was a man with a past, many pasts perhaps as the police point out that he was the owner of a variety of passports. What becomes clear is that Charles was involved in criminal activities stretching back to the war, had stolen a fortune and taken on a new identity. However, that fortune is now being sought by his old accomplices (James Coburn, Ned Glass & George Kennedy), and they don’t much care what they have to do to get their hands on it. Regina finds herself all at sea in a world where her old certainties have been turned upside-down. Even so, it seems there are those prepared to offer assistance: a CIA employee (Walter Matthau) and Peter Joshua, who turns up in Paris too. And yet, nothing is so simple; names and identities are adopted and cast aside with the abandon of a vaudeville quick-change artist. Neither Regina nor the viewer can be sure who’s telling the truth at any given moment, while motives and loyalties shift from one scene to the next.

I guess it’s impossible for any film to exist, be it a work of serious intent or an unashamed piece of escapist entertainment, outside of the zeitgeist of the era in which it’s made. A film like Charade was made at a time when the world was poised on the cusp of hope and despair; huge changes were taking place and such an environment is by definition uncertain. Now I don’t want to make any pretentious claim that Charade was trying to be a statement about the upheaval taking place all round. Rather it’s just an observation that even the lightest pieces of entertainment can’t help but reflect to some extent the state of flux at that time. It’s this sense of never feeling confident about what may happen next, of how the plot may develop, that is one of the film’s great strengths. As viewers, we’re invited to follow proceedings through Regina’s eyes, and share in the confusion and trepidation she feels. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on who’s who and what’s what, the rug is yanked away from beneath us and the merry-go-round of doubt and suspicion whirls away once more.

It’s not hard to see how the comparisons with Hitchcock are made. The casting of Grant in a glamorous, light-hearted thriller immediately evokes memories of movies like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. Made at a time when Hitchcock himself was struggling with tone and mood, Charade has the kind of polished assurance which recalled his strongest cinematic period. Add in the locations, the suspenseful plotting, the smooth shooting style and the MacGuffin (in this case, the stolen money) and all the elements are in place. For all that, I think Stanley Donen and Peter Stone deserve more credit than to simply refer to the movie as a successful pastiche. Ultimately, it’s a different beast, never touching on (and to be fair, I don’t believe it was ever the intention to do so anyway) the darker places that even the frothiest Hitchcock fare contained. No, despite the superficial similarities, Charade should be judged on its own terms and goes its own way, even borrowing a little from Poe with the notion of the coveted fortune hiding in plain view. If anything, it might prove more fruitful to look at the movie in relation to Arabesque, where the writer and director tried, not quite so effectively, to emulate their achievement here.

Charade veers continuously between thrills, comedy and romance, a delicate balancing act for any script and the casting of such a movie is critical in determining whether or not it all comes off. In this instance, the choices are positively inspired. Grant was 59 years old and fast closing in on retirement. Much of his career had been spent honing the sophisticated, urbane persona he so successfully projected. He could, when necessary, play it dark and Hitchcock handed him a corker of a role in the rather wonderful Notorious, but it’s his later collaborations with that director which are closest to his role in Charade. Like the character of Regina Lampert, the viewer can’t be fully sure of what to make of Peter Joshua – his identity and allegiance constantly switch and every time we feel we have his measure he deceives us yet again. Grant’s performance is a marvelously relaxed affair, adjusting the tone with a deftness that’s a real pleasure to watch. He played well off Hepburn too, and the significant discrepancy in their ages is never glossed over in the script – in fact, this aspect is frequently the basis for some terrific, witty dialogue. Hepburn herself was the very personification of chic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the part of the slightly dizzy and vulnerable Regina quite so believably.

While Grant and Hepburn are the undoubted stars of the film, the support cast is strong and deep. Walter Matthau is deliciously unctuous, exuding a vague air of seediness. And then there’s the terrible threesome of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. Their first appearance during the funeral of Charles Lampert emphasizes the sinister humor that is always present whenever they are on screen. Coburn sneers expansively throughout, all swaggering menace and teeth. Glass is a barely contained package of neuroses while Kennedy snarls and sulks and stomps around like a petulant school bully. A word too for Jacques Marin as the Parisian policeman growing ever more morose as his investigation spins out of control under the weight of all the bizarre developments.

Charade was one of those films that suffered from a succession of frankly rotten public domain video releases. Gradually, things improved as official versions came on the market and allowed the movie to be seen in better quality. I still have my old DVD put out by Universal in the UK some years ago. It presents the movie quite well in anamorphic widescreen and a clean, attractive transfer. Since then of course Charade has become available in both the UK and the US on Blu-ray and I can see myself upgrading at some point. The movie is a fine example of slick 60s filmmaking, blending and balancing  the thriller, comedy and romantic aspects of the story to best effect. It’s a great favorite of mine, as elegant, smooth and stylish as its stars. It’s funny, exciting and timeless – even when the twists and hoaxes are familiar, the charm and panache just sweep you along. If you’ve never seen it, then you really ought to make a point of tracking it down.

 

 

 

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The House of the Seven Hawks

The House of the Seven Hawks (1959) has a potentially interesting premise. There’s an American charter boat skipper with a laid-back approach to the law operating out of a foreign port, which straight away recalls Harry Morgan in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. There’s a trio of shadowy figures – a fat man, an effete and prissy assistant, and a none too smart bodyguard – plotting on the periphery, so it’s hard not to be reminded of Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Naturally, we also have a brace of females whose motives and loyalties are difficult to pin down. Such a setup promises much, but the movie itself delivers only sporadically.

John Nordley is scratching out a living on the English coast, hiring out his boat for charter. Despite not having clearance to leave British waters, his latest client – an elderly Dutchman going by the name of Anselme (Gerard Heinz) – promises a fat reward if Nordley will run him as far as the Netherlands. Bearing in mind the money involved, Nordley reckons it’s worth the risk and agrees. Unfortunately, just as the vessel is in sight of its destination, Nordley finds that his passenger has passed away in his cabin. A quick search reveals that Anselme had a kind of crude map overlay taped to his body. Sensing it could be important, Nordley appropriates the document, and his suspicions are borne out when a young woman in a motor launch (Linda Christian) turns up purporting to be the deceased’s daughter. Not finding the document, she quickly takes off, and events move pretty fast at this point. It turns out that the dead man was in reality a member of the Dutch police traveling incognito and the document is sought by those on both sides of the law. As such, Nordley has stumbled into a murky situation where everyone seems to know a whole lot more than he does, yet his cooperation, or at least his apparent knowledge of the whereabouts of the map key, is in great demand. What it all boils down to is a hunt for missing Nazi loot, and Nordley has his hands full trying to stay one step ahead of the police, criminals and duplicitous women.

Adapted from a Victor Canning novel, The House of the Seven Hawks flatters to deceive. As I mentioned above, all the ingredients would seem to be in place for an intriguing little thriller. And yet it never really sparks into life. Richard Thorpe’s direction is passable enough, and the location work in the Netherlands is attractive. Still, with the exception of a handful of scenes it all looks a bit nondescript. This kind of tale cries out for some moody or interesting visuals to generate or accentuate the suspense and mystery elements, but that rarely happens. However, a bigger problem is the script. I haven’t read Canning’s novel so I can’t say whether the fault lies with the source material or Jo Eisinger’s adaptation. Either way, the fact remains that the pace fades once the action moves to the Netherlands. The movie runs for around 90 minutes and I think it could have been a better piece if a bit of trimming had been done. There’s too much talk and a lot of it’s pretty dull to boot.

What kept my interest in the movie alive was mainly the presence of Robert Taylor. He’d had a great run in the movies throughout the 50s and had some first-rate work under his belt. His role here as the skipper with a fondness for bending the rules when the price was right seems like a good piece of casting. In truth, he doesn’t disappoint, although the part fails to offer the depth or complexity that played to his strengths as a performer. It’s Taylor’s sardonic and cynical delivery of some pretty banal dialogue that just about keeps the whole thing afloat though. At first, I thought that Linda Christian’s femme fatale was going to provide the movie with a much needed lift, but she’s given far too little to do and disappears far too soon. Which means that there’s more screen time for Nicole Maurey, but her character is a lot less interesting. As it happens, I recently watched Ms Maurey in Robert Hamer’s The Scapegoat, where she was handed a far better role. Eric Pohlmann and David Kossoff played the principal villains, the latter adding a touch of quirky humor, but it has to be said they don’t manage to create the necessary degree of menace; there’s never the feeling that Taylor won’t be able to handle this pair. The other supporting roles of note are filled by Donald Wolfit and Philo Hauser.

The House of the Seven Hawks is a film I’d never seen until I picked up the DVD a while back. It’s available in the US as part of the Warner Archive and as a pressed disc in Italy. I have that Italian release and I have to say it presents the film nicely. The image is 1.78:1 and generally looks fine, without any noticeable print damage and it’s pretty sharp throughout. There’s the option to watch the film in English either with or without Italian subtitles and an Italian dub is also available. Extras consist of the trailer and a gallery. So, how does the movie stack up overall? Personally, I have a soft spot for thrillers of this era and anything with Robert Taylor is always welcome. Having said that, there’s no getting away from the fact that the movie doesn’t represent the best of either. In all honesty, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done elsewhere, and done better.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2014 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Robert Taylor

 

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The Black Book

Recently, I’ve been watching a fair bit of film noir, and indeed mulling over and discussing exactly what does or does not constitute noir. And that brings me to a borderline case, a movie that flirts with the notion of film noir, has some of its recognizable characteristics, yet stops short of fully satisfying the criteria. The Black Book (1949) was among the handful of movies Anthony Mann made just before he embarked on his influential and complex cycle of westerns. The film is a historical piece, a mystery/espionage thriller whose visual style is pure noir but whose theme lacks the ambiguity to allow me to comfortably place it in that category.

1794 – France is gripped by revolutionary fervor and the Reign of Terror, presided over by Robespierre (Richard Basehart), is at its zenith. The series of bloody purges have led to an atmosphere of distrust, insecurity and instability. With Robespierre on the verge of absolute power, plans are afoot to overthrow him while there’s still time. But that time is short; within days Robespierre will have maneuvered himself into an unassailable position and the opportunity will have passed. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), an agent acting on behalf of the exiled and imprisoned Lafayette. D’Aubigny’s mission is to infiltrate Robespierre’s inner circle, by means of impersonation, and see that the voices of dissent are provided with the means to remove the would-be tyrant before he has them silenced forever. This task is both aided and complicated by two unexpected factors. Firstly, there’s the presence of Madelon (Arlene Dahl), D’Aubigny’s former lover and his principal contact with the anti-Robespierre faction. And then there’s the black book of the title: Robespierre’s death list, a sinister little volume containing the names of those marked down for execution as and when the whim strikes him. It’s this book which forms the basis of Robespierre’s power, it’s impossible to be sure whether one’s name is included and that uncertainty weakens any potential opposition. However, the book has gone missing and the hunt is on to retrieve it before a critical meeting of the ruling Convention. Whoever gains possession of the black book holds the balance of power – able to install Robespierre as absolute dictator or to destroy him completely.

Personally, I feel The Black Book functions well as an allegory for the time it was made. WWII had ended a few short years before and the memory of the terror and slaughter was still fresh in the minds of everyone. It’s no great stretch to see the film as a warning against the dangers of dictatorship; even as the world had witnessed the end of one hateful regime another has risen up to take its place. The purges and sham trials depicted in the film bring to mind the repression and fear of the Stalinist eastern bloc. However, I think too that the critique of the cult of personality and the atmosphere of betrayal and backstabbing can also be viewed as a subtle reminder that even stable democracies can be manipulated by political opportunists under certain circumstances – the paranoia accompanying the red scare of the post-war years was already rearing its head in the US.

Anthony Mann built his reputation on his crime and noir pictures and that influence was carried through to a greater or lesser extent in most of his subsequent films. Thematically, his westerns continued to be psychologically complex even though the visuals (once he began to work in color) moved in a different direction. The Black Book, photographed by John Alton, is much more straightforward when it comes to theme and characterization. The hero is simply heroic; there’s no internal conflict struggling for dominance of the character and no sense that fate has the odds stacked against him. From the viewer’s perspective it’s always very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, even if some of the motives aren’t quite so apparent. Still, the movie looks like a textbook example of film noir. Mann’s composition and Alton’s lighting create a dark and dangerous world for the characters to inhabit: high overhead shots suggestive of detachment, low angle ones bringing ceilings into focus and emphasizing a cramped, restrictive world, deep and impenetrable shadows slicing menacingly across faces or threatening to consume them totally.

Robert Cummings is generally thought of as a lightweight lead and sometimes dismissed on those grounds. I’ve always liked his crime/mystery roles though  – The Chase, Sleep, My Love, Saboteur, Dial M for Murder – and have rarely found him disappointing. If anything, I feel his natural charm lends a touch of vulnerability to his characters. I have no complaints about Cummings’ performance in The Black Book, he handles the tense, suspenseful scenes well and is convincing enough when the need for action arises. Arlene Dahl is good too as the former lover who now has to work closely with the man she once abandoned. A rekindled romance does develop but it never has that tacked on feel that can make such plot devices tiresome. That this aspect works is largely down to Dahl, her coquettish insolence is both refreshing and attractive. Richard Basehart too is very effective as Robespierre; there’s a stillness and calm about him that becomes quite unnerving, only the glittering eyes hinting at the murderous zealot lurking within. As good as the leads are, Arnold Moss steals practically every scene he appears in as Fouché, the oily, Machiavellian politician who’s naked self-interest is a wonder to behold. In support, there are nice turns delivered by Charles McGraw, Beulah Bondi and Norman Lloyd.

For a long time the only way to see The Black Book was via ropey transfers of battered prints. However, Sony put out a MOD disc in the US that seemed to far surpass all previous releases. I never picked up that disc but when Koch in Germany announced their own pressed release of the title I decided to bite. I don’t know if the Koch disc is derived from the same source as the US edition but I can certainly say that I’ve never seen the movie looking better. There are isolated speckles but the print used is in pretty good shape and shows off Alton’s photography to very good effect. Additionally, this disc has the full, uncut version of the movie (as does the US MOD edition) restoring the censored scene that was absent from many of the earlier releases. There are no subtitles offered, just the original English soundtrack and a German dub. Having suffered through some appalling transfers of this film in the past, it’s a real pleasure to be able to see it looking crisp and clean. It may not be proper film noir, but any fan of that style of cinema should get a lot out of this movie – Mann and Alton present some stunning and memorable images. Bearing in mind there’s a satisfying and exciting story here too, I have no hesitation in recommending the film.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2014 in 1940s, Anthony Mann, Mystery/Thriller

 

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The Man with a Cloak

Lots of different things draw us to movies. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Gothic mysteries, particularly those where the Hollywood majors cooked up that special atmosphere that could only exist within the carefully crafted confines of a studio set. Add in a rare adaptation of the writings of John Dickson Carr and I’m hooked. The Man with a Cloak (1951) combines both of these elements, and it was a film that had intrigued and eluded me for years. It’s been quite some time since I read Carr’s short story The Gentleman from Paris, but I remember enjoying it and was keen to see how the film version worked.

It’s 1848 in New York, the year that saw revolutions breaking out in so many parts of the world. Against this turbulent backdrop a young woman arrives in the US seeking help. She is Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron), a somewhat unlikely fundraiser for a political cause. Her mission is to seek out the assistance of her fiance’s uncle, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern), now living in dissipated and debauched exile in the wake of Napoleon’s downfall. Madeline had been expecting to be introduced to a distinguished gentleman, instead she finds a half-crippled drunkard seeing out his days in decaying splendor. Thevenet’s alcohol sodden existence is being overseen by a trio of servants and retainers under the supervision of Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck). Two things are clear right away: Madeline’s presence is unwelcome in this household, and Thevenet’s protectors are no more than vultures patiently circling their dying master. And so it all comes down to money, Thevenet’s got it and everybody else wants it. While Madeline cannot prove that Lorna and her cohorts are actively plotting to murder the old man, she knows that it’s clearly in their best interests to see that he doesn’t hang around long enough to make any changes to his will. Into this little circle of greed and deceit steps Dupin (Joseph Cotten), the mysterious poet of the title who spends his days cadging free drinks from a sympathetic barkeep. Dupin isn’t motivated by the promise of money, though he’s clearly badly in need of it, rather he’s drawn to the simple faith in life of Madeline and a desire to see an injustice averted. It’s Dupin’s arrival that forces Lorna’s hand and brings the two mysteries of the film center stage: the puzzle of Thevenet’s will, and the real identity of the enigmatic poet.

The Man with a Cloak was directed by Fletcher Markle, a man who is probably better known for his television work. There are some highly effective scenes and a handful of noteworthy visual flourishes, and yet I can’t help feeling that the potential of the story and its setting weren’t fully exploited. The film has that polished look that MGM typically brought to its productions, and the studio sets are faultless. Still, the tension is allowed to slacken too often and that’s partly down to the failure to make the most of the visual opportunities. As for the plot, it’s solid enough but it’s perhaps overly dependent on building up an aura of mystery around the character of Dupin. While it’s adapted from a reasonably entertaining Carr story, it’s not one that highlights the author’s real strengths. In short, there’s arguably too much emphasis on who Dupin actually is – the film is liberally sprinkled with clues and it shouldn’t prove all that difficult to work out for any fairly literate viewer.

While the direction and scripting of the movie are always competent, they are nothing exceptional either. What does give the film a boost though is the acting. Both Stanwyck and Cotten were seasoned professionals, capable of tackling a variety of roles. Cotten spends most of his time hovering around the borders of sobriety, and gets to deliver some witty and telling lines. His character displays a weary cynicism, a sort of metaphorical cloak for the unnamed sadness he carries within himself. Against this is ranged the steely pragmatism of Stanwyck. Her outer gentility and polish masks a barely repressed sensuality and a deep streak of bitterness – after all, we’re talking about a woman who feels she has been robbed of ten of the best years of her life. While Cotten and Stanwyck rarely put a foot wrong, Louis Calhern almost effortlessly steals just about every scene. I sometimes think that if you want to capture a visual representation of regret for a life of unfulfilled promise, then you need only watch one of Calhern’s performances from around this time. In the face of such stiff competition, Leslie Caron fades into the background most of the time. It’s not that her portrayal of a frightened and confused ingenue is especially poor, just that she lacks the presence to make her mark among these heavy hitters. It’s a rare film that doesn’t benefit from a strong supporting cast, and The Man with a Cloak is no exception. Margaret Wycherly looks like she had a ball as a cackling old crone, and Jim Backus is a delight as the Irish bartender trading philosophical jibes with Cotten.

The Man with a Cloak was until recently another of those films that I began to think I was fated never to see. However, it became available via the Warner Archive, and shortly afterwards was given a pressed disc release in Spain via Llamentol. I watched the Spanish disc the other day and, judging from some screen captures I’ve seen, it looks like a clone of the US disc. Generally, the transfer looks pretty clean and sharpness and contrast are quite acceptable. This release offers no extra features whatsoever, just the film with its original soundtrack and the option to watch it with or without Spanish subtitles. I’ve seen people allude to the film’s noir credentials before but I feel the link is tenuous at best, and it’s not a title I’d be comfortable labeling in this way. For me, The Man with a Cloak is simply a Gothic mystery with a generous dollop of melodrama added. Overall, I found this an enjoyable and entertaining movie, though it’s not without its faults. I guess the presence of some big name stars and the fact it was sourced from a John Dickson Carr tale raised my expectations perhaps a tad too high. Nevertheless, I couldn’t say I was especially disappointed. If the direction is a little flat at times, the performances do compensate. Anyone who enjoys these studio bound mysteries, likes Carr’s writing, or is a fan of Stanwyck and Cotten should find enough to satisfy them here.

Those seeking another take on the film should pop over to Paul’s place at Lasso the Movies.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2013 in 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten, Mystery/Thriller

 

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The Mask of Dimitrios

To me the most important thing to know about an assassination is not who fired the shot – but who paid for the bullet.

The passage of time can have a nasty tendency to cloud the memory, to cast a kind of nostalgic haze over things and distort reality. On occasion I’ve found this to be the case with films, where fondly remembered movies, those which have earned themselves a special place in the heart over the years, fail to live up to their promise. It’s quite a crushing disappointment to discover that a film we thought was wonderful long ago falls far short of the stellar image we’ve built up in our imagination. Happily though, that’s not always the case, and sometimes it just happens that the film we saw all those years ago really is the little gem we’ve been yearning to see again ever since. The Mask of Dimitrios  (1944) is one such movie; I caught it once on a late night TV broadcast at some point during my teenage years and it made a big impression on me. However, it never seemed to show up again no matter how carefully I scoured the TV listing pages in the papers. It also remained stubbornly absent from DVD release schedules to the point I began to despair of ever seeing it again. In the interim I’d read the Eric Ambler novel from which it had been adapted, and that actually just served to increase my frustration. Anyway, when I finally learned of its DVD release this year I experienced a rush of excitement tinged with a hint of trepidation. Fortunately, the latter feeling turned out to be misplaced as I realized my memory hadn’t been cheating me. Ah, the ups and downs of being a movie fan!

It’s 1938 and the uncertainty and upheaval of the inter-war years will soon be swept aside by the approaching conflict. In Istanbul a group of children run happily along the shores of the Bosphorus. They halt abruptly, shocked by the gruesome sight before them. The body of a murdered man has washed up and now lies carelessly on the sand. The clothing and papers identify the remains as belonging to one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a Greek national and a man not unfamiliar to the authorities. Later that evening, at a party, the Turkish security officer in charge of the investigation falls into conversation with Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a mystery writer vacationing in the Levant. The tale of the shady character now lying on a mortuary slab intrigues Leyden and piques his writer’s interest. Armed with only a handful of dates and locations, Leyden takes it upon himself to satisfy his curiosity and make a stab at tracing the movements of this notorious figure. Leyden therefore sets out on a journey that will take him first to Athens, then on to Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and finally Paris. Along the way, via a series of flashbacks narrated by an assortment of middle European types, he begins to piece together a picture of the mysterious and ruthless Dimitrios (Zachary Scott). At every turn though, Leyden’s path seems to cross that of Mr Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), a man whose interest in  Dimitrios surpasses that of the diminutive writer. It soon becomes apparent that the threat posed by men such as Dimitrios doesn’t end with death, and that his malignant influence may even extend beyond the grave.

The Mask of Dimitrios is one of those pictures that sails awfully close to the boundaries of film noir; the fates of Dimitrios’ victims certainly moves it in that direction as does the shadowy photography and multiple flashbacks employed. However, despite the presence of these persuasive factors, it’s the mystery/espionage elements that dominate for the most part. The story comes from Eric Ambler’s finest novel (high praise indeed as the man rarely wrote anything weak) and I reckon the film stands as the best adaptation of his work to date. Generally, Ambler’s stories dealt with men who found themselves drawn unwittingly into the murky world of spying and underground politics. By having the bulk of the action play out in the Balkans, that hotbed of intrigue and shifting loyalties, The Mask of Dimitrios captures the mood of betrayal for profit beautifully. Both Ambler’s writing and Jean Negulesco’s atmospheric direction leave the viewer in no doubt that we’re being taken on a tour of a world of secrets, memories and confidences cherished for emotional and material value. For me there are two standout sequences in the movie. The first is the framing story in a cheap night club in Sofia. Faye Emerson is wonderfully weary and faded as she recounts her past with Dimitrios: the air is thick with a kind of smoky decadence, Emerson’s near lifeless eyes and drawn expression speak volumes, and the band plays Perfidia in the background. The other noteworthy episode is an extended flashback to an elaborate sting in Belgrade, where a minor government official has his own weakness manipulated in order to suck him into committing treason. The combination of Dimitrios’ cold slickness and Steven Geray’s portrayal of the poor dupe whose fragile ego, thwarted ambition and desperate desire to rise in his wife’s estimation makes it quite affecting.

Of the half-dozen or so movies that Greenstreet and Lorre made together in the 40s, The Mask of Dimitrios was the one that gave them the greatest opportunity to shine. Something like The Maltese Falcon handed them fascinating roles, but they were still only there to provide support for Bogart and Astor. This film, on the other hand, places the two men front and center and it’s their partnership as much as anything that carries the whole thing. As Peters, Greenstreet has the more ambiguous part, and gets to indulge in his patented trick of switching from jovial bonhomie to dark menace in the blink of an eye. Lorre acts as the viewer’s guide, half leading and half stumbling his way through the twisting tale. Zachary Scott is of course the true villain of the piece, and the movie offered him one of his best parts. He always had an oily charm that could be used to strong effect when necessary, but this time that quality remains largely buried beneath a cold, calculating facade. As the story progresses the full extent of Dimitrios’ foul character is gradually revealed, and Scott manages to convey very successfully just how dangerous this man truly is.

As I said at the beginning of this short piece, The Mask of Dimitrios was a difficult film to see for a long time. Earlier this year though, it appeared on DVD via the Warner Archives. At the time I felt ambivalent about this fact; I wanted to get my hands on the film but I’ve never managed to completely overcome my aversion to buying DVD-R products. When I learned over the summer that Absolute in Spain were putting out their own pressed disc version of the movie, I decided that was the one I’d go for. Absolute can generally be relied on to produce solid, attractive releases, and this is no exception. The image doesn’t display any noticeable damage and has nice contrast levels to show off the noirish photography. As usual with this company, subtitles are no issue and can be deselected from the setup menu. Extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a booklet (in Spanish naturally) containing notes on the film and a good selection of stills. OK, so I had been a little fearful that the film wouldn’t prove as entertaining as I hoped, but it ended up being every bit as satisfying as I recalled. Personally, I think it’s a terrific example of the magic that studio bound B thrillers could conjure up when the right cast and crew were handed promising material. Do yourselves a favor folks and check this one out – it comes highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2013 in 1940s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Lorre

 

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Shake Hands with the Devil

The conflict in Ireland has provided the backdrop for a number of quality movies over the years, and I’ve covered a few of them on this site: Odd Man Out & The Gentle Gunman. Those two films dealt mainly with the smaller mid-century campaigns in Northern Ireland or around the border. Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) steps a little further back to the early 20s and the War of Independence, concentrating on the south of the country. The “Tan War”, so named after the involvement of the British irregulars recruited to strengthen the RIC, remains an emotive subject in Ireland due to the atrocities perpetrated against the civilian population. I can clearly remember people of my grandparents’ generation, who lived through those turbulent and violent times, speaking with undisguised venom about the Tans. The film under examination here reflects that hostility, but doesn’t shy away from depicting the implacable fanaticism that characterized some elements within the Irish rebel movement at that time either.

The prologue makes it clear that the Ireland of 1921 was a country in a state of war. The opening then takes place in a Dublin cemetery where a solemn funeral procession makes its way along paths lined with tombstones. Suddenly, a squad of Black and Tans appear and the cortege scatters amid the jarring sound of gunfire, leaving behind an upturned coffin spilling its load of rifles. This brief scene succinctly illustrates the nature of the war being fought: a covert organization facing off against a determined and ruthless enemy. The most interesting films dealing with the Irish conflict feature those caught somewhere in the middle, dragged into the fighting in spite of themselves. Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray) is such a man, an Irish-American studying medicine in Dublin in fulfillment of his late mother’s wishes. O’Shea happens to be visiting his parents’ grave when the Tans’ raid takes place, and he will find himself drawn deeper into the war as the story progresses. O’Shea’s father had been an old-time republican and he had fought in WWI himself; as such, we see a young man who has had his fill of killing. Still, circumstances don’t always allow a man to follow the path he would prefer – sometimes just being in the wrong place at the wrong time alters the course of a life. This is what occurs with O’Shea; he is walking along a street when an IRA ambush leads to the shooting of his friend and the subsequent leaving behind of his notebook at the scene during his flight from the violence. A direct consequence of this is the revelation that O’Shea’s lecturer and eminent surgeon Sean Lenihan (James Cagney) is a commandant in the IRA. As O’Shea, now regarded as a suspected terrorist, goes on the run, the combination of the brutality of the Black and Tans and the fact that Lenihan once saved his father convinces the young student that his place is standing shoulder to shoulder with the rebels. Yet despite O’Shea’s belief in the essential nobility of his cause, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the harsh, fanatical side of Lenihan. This feeling of unease is further strengthened when Lenihan’s customary dislike for and distrust of women is magnified after the taking of an important hostage; Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), the daughter of a high British official, is abducted in reprisal for the imprisonment of an elderly republican sympathizer. Lenihan’s near pathological hatred of the young woman, and his keenness to see her executed, may prove the ultimate test of O’Shea’s loyalty.

Politically, Shake Hands with the Devil wears its heart on its sleeve, and makes no bones about its critical appraisal of the role of the Black and Tans in Ireland. The Tans are explicitly cast as the villains of the piece, their commander being portrayed as a quasi-fascist figure with a strong sadistic streak. The way O’Shea’s interrogation and beating is photographed, in a highly subjective manner, emphasizes the cold brutality of his tormentor. However, if there is a sustained effort to romanticize the rebels – most notable in the characterizations of Cyril Cusack, Michael Redgrave and Sybil Thorndike – it needs to be pointed out that we’re not looking at a whitewash job either. The internal discipline mechanisms of the IRA are shown in all their toughness, and the unyielding aspect of what would become the anti-Treaty forces – as represented by Cagney – is one of the major themes of the film.

Michael Anderson was a director capable of great visual flair – I’ve commented in the past on the Hitchcock-style touches present in a couple of his films – and Shake Hands with the Devil offers further evidence of his eye for interesting compositions. Aside from having a knack for capturing the correct mood, he staged and shot the action sequences very fluidly.  The early part of the movie was shot on location in a mean and moody Dublin, all expressionistic shadows and dripping in noir atmosphere. Later, the action moves out of the city to Bray and the coast, and again Anderson, aided by cameraman Erwin Hillier, makes the most of the windswept seaboard. The use of the lighthouse, where the rebels have set up a makeshift headquarters, gives a nice claustrophobic feel to the scenes where Dana Wynter is held captive. Generally, the authentic locations contribute to the sense of realism and, while the script does meander a little in the middle, Anderson’s assured and inventive direction holds the attention throughout.

What can one say about James Cagney? From gangster to song and dance man, and just about everything in between, he was and remains one of the greatest Hollywood stars ever. Shake Hands with the Devil was one of his last films before entering a retirement that he refused to be persuaded out of for over twenty years. The film saw him surrounded by top class performers and expert scene stealers, yet it’s Cagney who carries it and he’s the one who sticks in your mind. The tough little New York Irish pug had been strutting and swaggering across the screen for thirty years by that time and his presence was such that it positively demanded you sit up and pay attention. He was always an actor capable of great intensity, although there was always a liberal sprinkling of charm and humor just below the surface too, and he honed and perfected that quality over the years. The part of Sean Lenihan gave Cagney a chance to flex his not inconsiderable acting muscles; it’s a complex role where the character alternates between a sympathetic, gutsy figure and a dangerous obsessive with deep and dark personal issues.

Cagney was certainly the name at the top of the bill, but there was a long list of talented and big name performers filling the other roles. Michael Redgrave was credited simply as The General, a character who seems to have been based on the real life Michael Collins. Aside from a moment of ruthlessness, Redgrave imbues this man with a sense of dignity, nobility, and just the appropriate touch of tragedy. There’s also an excellent turn from Cyril Cusack as the poet turned revolutionary who befriends the lead; it’s a thoughtful performance and a pivotal one, anchoring the film and acting as a bridge between the driven Cagney and the more reluctant Murray. Frankly, Don Murray was handed something of a thankless task when he had to square off against such a battery of talent. Having said that, Murray is good enough and, while he wasn’t in quite the same class as some of his co-stars, acquits himself well enough. Richard Harris would of course go on to great things and his part as one of the more thuggish and self-absorbed rebels was an early opportunity to show what he was capable of. As for the women, Glynis Johns and Dana Wynter have the meatiest parts. Johns was the loose and brassy barmaid while Wynter was the demure and well-bred gentlewoman. Both actresses were convincing and quite touching in these contrasting roles, coaxing the best and worst from the male characters. As has already been stated, the supporting players in this movie makes for impressive reading: Sybil Thorndike, Niall MacGinnis, Harry H Corbett, William Hartnell, Ray McAnally, John Le Mesurier, Allan Cuthbertson and Noel Purcell.

Shake Hands with the Devil is available on DVD in the UK via Metrodome. The film is presented in Academy ratio, which can’t be right for a 1959 production. I did try zooming to around 1.66:1 at a number of points and the image generally looked fine so I guess we’re looking at an open matte transfer here. Leaving aside the matter of the aspect ratio, the transfer isn’t bad in other respects – print damage is minimal and contrast levels and sharpness all look acceptable. The only extra features on the disc are a handful of trailers for other Metrodome releases. Regular visitors to this site will be aware that I try to highlight movies that aren’t always widely acclaimed. Naturally, some are of better quality than others and I feel comfortable in asserting that Shake Hands with the Devil really is something of a forgotten gem. It’s an interesting film from a historical perspective, focusing on a conflict and period that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Michael Anderson’s smooth direction is very attractive with the imagery frequently reminiscent of film noir. Add in some excellent acting and complex characterization, especially from Cagney, and we’re talking about a first-rate thriller.

 

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High Treason

There’s a tendency to view the Red Scare of the 1950s, as represented in the movies, as a purely American phenomenon. The whole HUAC affair and the subsequent blacklist encourage us to view this as something unique to Hollywood, and there can be no doubt that the paranoia reached its zenith there. However, this offshoot of the Cold War spread elsewhere, albeit in a diluted form. High Treason (1951) provides an example of the British film industry tackling the matter of reds under the bed at the same time. The result is a well made espionage thriller that catches the mood of the period, but also one that contains overtones that can come across as a little unpleasant when you stop and think about them; I’ll address those aspects later.

It’s the early days of the Cold War and the lines between what in official wartime parlance would be referred to as fifth columnists and the kind of spies and double agents that would become a staple of the genre are not yet clearly defined. High Treason affords a glance into the lives and activities of a handful of subversive operatives who straddle those lines. The opening has an apparently meek civil servant, Ward (Charles Lloyd Pack), returning home to his flat, admonishing some boisterous kids along the way, feeding the cat, and then sitting down to transcribe a munitions manifest which will be handed on to a group of saboteurs. This is the stuff of the typical spy story, the outwardly harmless apparatchik beavering away unobtrusively in the service of his foreign paymasters. However, the film then moves to the men of action, the agents who actually put the information to use in spectacular and violent fashion. A wave of sabotage has been sweeping the country, taking lives and creating instability. There’s a dramatic depiction of the bombing of the ship carrying those munitions Ward had told his confederates about. In the aftermath of the carnage and destruction we’re introduced to the men charged with putting an end to this internal terrorism: Commander Brennan (Liam Redmond) and Supt. Folland (Andre Morell) of Special Branch and Major Elliott (Anthony Bushell) of MI5. The film follows their investigation, detailing the meticulous nature of the surveillance of known suspects, the lucky breaks that are needed to crack such cases, and the trail of corruption and ambition that leads to betrayal at the very heart of government. Police procedural stories, even those as intricate and involved as this, can be a dry affair at the best of times. There’s a tendency to pass over or lose touch with the human aspects that are the necessary ingredients of good drama. However, High Treason avoids falling into this trap by alternating between the men from the ministry and their investigation and the daily agonies suffered by a reluctant member of the spy ring, Jimmy Ellis (Kenneth Griffith), and his immediate family. As gripping as the investigation and the gradual closing of the net is, it’s the focus on Ellis’ doubts and fears that adds real punch to the tale.

The terrific Seven Days to Noon came out a year earlier and Roy Boulting followed up that suspenseful Cold War nightmare with this tale of spies, sabotage and spooks. Boulting carried over a similar sense of pace and atmosphere to High Treason. The two films benefited enormously from the use of authentic London locations, and both also featured the character of Supt. Folland. However, there are some important differences: while Seven Days to Noon achieved a timeless quality that still resonates today, High Treason is more dated by being firmly rooted in the politics and concerns of its time. Which leads me on to the criticism that I alluded to in the introduction. The foreign power for which the spy ring is working is never explicitly named yet, through the frequent use of ominous newspaper headlines and other pointers, it’s clear enough that it is the Soviet Union. Fair enough, Cold War thrillers naturally used the eastern bloc as the bogeyman villain and to expect anything else, or criticize that practice, would be naive in the extreme. Having said that, I did raise an eyebrow at the way the script seems determined to hammer home the point that artistic types and intellectuals were easy prey for communist propaganda – that those with even a vaguely liberal bent were at best foolish dupes and at worst dangerous fanatics obsessed with undermining their own country. Despite that criticism, there’s a whole lot to admire in the movie. It acts as a wonderful snapshot of a Britain that has long disappeared, where heavy industry was an integral part of the economy and the threat of blackouts shutting it down, even for a time, would have spelt chaos. Aside from the historical and sociological insights offered, High Treason is a tightly plotted thriller that grips you from the opening right through to the excitingly shot climactic battle within Battersea power station.

High Treason isn’t the kind of film that could be described as a star vehicle. Essentially, it’s an ensemble piece but, even so, there are a few noteworthy performances that stand out. Irish actor Liam Redmond was a character specialist, looking a good deal older than the 38 years old he was at the time. He brought a quiet, whimsical intelligence to the part of Brennan, and it’s his doggedness that draws together all the disparate strands of the complex investigation. Andre Morell reprises the role of Folland that he played in Seven Days to Noon with his customary charm and urbanity. It’s not a showy part by any means, deferring to Redmond’s authority, yet it’s a typically classy piece of work by Morell. Probably most memorable of all though is Kenneth Griffith as the tortured wireless man who sees his dreams of a better world twisted and subverted by his cynical and opportunistic companions. Griffith gave a very real, honest performance where the agonies of conscience he endures never appear the least bit affected. I was also quite impressed by the work of Mary Morris, in one of the few female roles in the film, as the dedicated and driven spy with few scruples. There’s also strong support on view from Geoffrey Keen, Joan Hickson and Anthony Nicholls.

High Treason was a film that was difficult to see for a long time but is now available on DVD in the UK from Spirit. The film is correctly presented in academy ratio and the transfer is quite good. There is the odd speckle here and there but the print used is generally in good condition with nice contrast levels to show off Gilbert Taylor’s moody cinematography. There are no extra features whatsoever on the disc. The movie represents a welcome companion piece / follow-up to Seven Days to Noon, and although it’s not as good as the earlier production it still has enough going on to recommend it. As a stand alone film it works perfectly well on its own terms, and really ought to be judged as such. I’ll admit I’m not crazy about certain aspects of the subtext, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the film or rate it any lower as a consequence. Whatever way you approach it, High Treason is an effective, satisfying and exciting espionage movie.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2013 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller

 

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Eyewitness

British attempts at producing noir thrillers have tended to be a hit and miss affair, the greatest stumbling block generally being an inability to strike the right tone. The nuts and bolts are easy enough to put in place: the city setting, the night, the shadows and key lights, some criminal enterprise to provide a framework. However, British movies of the classic noir period (the 40s and 50s) struggle to escape the rigid class structures that remained firmly in place at the time. American films benefited enormously from the more flexible social structure of the country, which allowed filmmakers to blend in characters from a variety of backgrounds. Despite its best efforts, British noir tends to be forever trapped in a middle-class world and, consequently, loses something of the edge of danger that helped elevate pictures from across the Atlantic.

Eyewitness (1956) opens in these typically middle-class surroundings, with a minor domestic spat involving a young couple.  Jay (Michael Craig) and Lucy (Muriel Pavlow) are two young suburbanites who have run into a bit of a crisis in their marriage. Jay is a guy who wants to live better than his income allows and has been accumulating a bit of debt buying stuff on credit. His latest acquisition, a brand new TV set, proves to be the straw that breaks the camels back though. Lucy is not at all impressed, such apparent profligacy failure to think of tomorrow going against the grain with her. In a foul temper, and threatening to leave for good, Lucy stalks out of the house to try to cool off.

While Jay sits home, toying with his new purchase and reflecting on the injustices of married life, Lucy’s wanderings take her to a movie theater. And it’s at this point the story starts to take shape. Jay’s feelings of frustration drive him out in search of a drink and some sympathetic male company, just at the moment Lucy’s conscience pricks at her and she decides to call him up. Getting no answer on the phone, Lucy is making her way through the theater when she chances upon a robbery in progress.

It’s Lucy’s misfortune to witness two men, Wade (Donald Sinden) & Barney (Nigel Stock), in the process of cracking the safe and roughing up the manager. Barney sets off in pursuit of the panic-stricken woman as Wade goes about settling matters with the ill-fated manager. Lucy’s terrified flight takes her out of the cinema, onto the street, and straight into the path of an oncoming bus. The situation leaves Wade and Barney in a quandary; is the unexpected witness going to live? And if she does, how much will she recall?

Wade reveals himself to be not only a cool customer, but a nasty piece of work to boot. His primary concern is his own self-preservation, and he coerces the meek Barney into falling in with his schemes. Wade has no intention of leaving any loose strands that may, in time, weave themselves into a noose to hang him. Following the ambulance that carries the comatose Lucy to a local hospital, Wade has in mind to dispose of this potential threat. Despite Barney’s protests, Wade takes it upon himself to stalk the now helpless Lucy and ensure nothing can be traced back to him. And so the bulk of the movie involves Wade’s attempts to gain entry to the communal ward where Lucy is taken. The suspense of the film derives from Wade’s determination, and increasing frustration, to silence this inconvenient witness. All the while, the net draws closer, time is running short and the opportunities grow fewer. Everything builds relentlessly towards a dramatic finale in a deserted and vaguely sinister operating theater.

Muriel Box was one of those rarities in classic era cinema, a female director. After writing some strong British movies – The Seventh Veil (1945) and The Brothers (1947) – she began directing in 1949. However, her career was closely linked to her husband, producer Sydney Box, and the break up of their marriage also signaled an end to her time behind the camera. Eyewitness sees Box making good use of the inherent suspense generated by the setting. A hospital at night is full of dramatic potential, the random comings and goings, the relative anonymity, that sense of disquiet aroused by the sight of mask-wearing professionals silently padding along starkly lit corridors. As the story progresses, Box ensures the tension grows in increments and the visuals reflect the increasing darkness of what we’re watching.

I think the biggest weakness stems from a basic flaw in the script. The success of pretty much any film, and especially a thriller, depends on having if not a hero then a recognizable figure that the viewer can identify with or root for. Eyewitness suffers in this respect; since it’s clearly intended that we should side with Lucy. However, she spends the bulk of the running time either unconscious or semi-conscious, effectively taking her out of the equation. There’s a similar problem with Barney, another whose presence ought to draw sympathy, but who ends up sidelined much of the time. In the end, we see things predominantly from Wade’s point of view, and he’s such a thoroughly bad lot, without a single redeeming feature, that it’s impossible to view him even in an anti-heroic light When it comes to the performances, Donald Sinden is pretty good as the twitchy killer with a slightly manic air. Still, the best work is probably done by Nigel Stock as the deaf safe-cracker whose dream of moving to New Zealand has seen him roped into a scheme that’s a whole lot more than he bargained for. Pavlow and Craig are so-so as the young couple whose marital tiff pitches them into a perilous situation, but there’s no great depth to their characterization.

In the final analysis, Eyewitness is a mid-range British crime thriller. The story is gripping enough but the lack of a sympathetic central character does damage it somewhat. The movie is available on DVD in the UK as part of a Donald Sinden box set from ITV. It’s a reasonably good transfer, presented in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio, though without anamorphic enhancement for widescreen TVs.

Note: I originally published an edited version of this piece as a Noir of the Week for The Blackboard.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2013 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller

 

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Robbery

Films centered around heists generally fall into two categories – those which take a light-hearted, comedic approach such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job or Gambit, and the darker morality tales to be found in film noir like The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing and others. Peter Yates’ Robbery (1967) takes an entirely different tack, and tells its tale in a semi-documentary style. The movie is inspired by (and I use that term deliberately rather than saying it’s based on real events) the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Yates’ film uses the famous crime as a template but it shouldn’t be seen as an exact reconstruction of what happened. The style of storytelling used is probably the strength of the production, but I think it’s fair to say that it also accounts for its main weakness.

The bulk of the running time concentrates on the planning and execution of the raid on the mail train, and merely touches on its aftermath right at the end. The first quarter-hour sets the exciting yet impersonal tone of what is to follow by detailing a daring diamond snatch in central London. The purpose is to secure sufficient funds to set everything in motion, and it’s a terrific piece of filmmaking. The highlight is the intensely shot car chase that takes place after the diamonds have been grabbed. The whole idea of a car chase is one that has been used, and arguably overused to the point of cliché, in countless thrillers over the years. There are, however, instances where this standard element has been shot and employed to great effect, and Robbery is certainly one of those. After this heart-pounding sequence, the pace relaxes somewhat as we watch Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker), a recently released convict, begin to piece together the team of underworld types he needs to pull off the one big score that will allow him to bow out and retire. However, such things never run entirely to plan and little obstacles and issues arise right from the beginning. Taken in isolation, none of these flaws or setbacks amount to much in themselves; however, the cumulative effect as the story develops is what ultimately counts. While we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of all the principals involved, most of the action plays out from the perspective of Clifton and the policeman, Langdon (James Booth), who is on his trail from early on. The robbery itself is carried out in the style of a military operation, with everyone having their roles clearly defined and the timing judged to the second. As viewers, we’re just as aware as the protagonists of the importance of all the details falling into place and the risks inherent in any deviation from the plan. This knowledge, and the script’s focus on it, is what creates the tension on which the story relies. Nevertheless, despite the most meticulous preparation, such things inevitably start to unravel. As I mentioned before, there are numerous weaknesses in the plan that build up and become magnified over the course of the movie, and it’s impossible to identify any one as the most critical. I found the ending of the film quite satisfactory – it has the kind of moral ambiguity that both fits the era in which it was made and also acts as a truer reflection of real life.

I guess Peter Yates really made his name as a director when he took charge of Bullitt. That film featured an iconic car chase sequence through San Francisco, and it appears that his work directing the opening chase in Robbery played an important part in securing his participation in the McQueen movie. In terms of visuals and pacing, it’s hard to fault Yates – the film has a gritty and realistic feel and moves smoothly along. The main set piece, the actually taking of the mail train, is superbly filmed and cut together to heighten the sense of urgency of the gang. The same can also be said of the subsequent sorting and dividing up of the takings in the bunkers below a disused air force base; the claustrophobic set is used to good effect to emphasize the isolation of the gang and their distance, emotionally at least, from the dragnet that has been cast. Generally, the film does a good job of capturing the flavor of that late 60s era, not the swinging, carefree one which seems to be the popular perception now, but the grim and tough one that was familiar to most working-class people. I said in the introduction that one of the picture’s strengths, perhaps its greatest, was the brisk, documentary tone which simultaneously, and paradoxically, weakens it too. The point is that by concentrating on the nuts and bolts aspects of the robbery a lot of the human drama is absent. We don’t really learn a great deal about the characters involved, aside from their role within the gang, and this means we never get the opportunity to feel strongly for them. I don’t think this is a failing of Yates really as some of his subsequent work, especially The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is basically character driven.

Robbery features a strong line up of British actors, although the focus is mainly on Stanley Baker and James Booth (both of whom, coincidentally, starred in producer Joseph E Levine’s earlier movie Zulu) and they dominate proceedings. Booth is pretty good as the man from the Flying Squad who cottons on to what may be happening before anyone else. Having said that though, the script allows for no sense of who this man is beyond his job – he’s just a cop, albeit a likeable one. Baker does get a little more back story to help flesh out his character, but again this is strictly limited. Baker was a fine actor, one of the best Britain produced, yet he’s handed a fairly one-dimensional part here. We do learn that he’s desperate to avoid a return to prison, and the scenes between him and his wife (a very attractive Joanna Pettet) give at least a glimpse of the private man. Still, by and large, Baker spends most of his time playing it strong, silent and tough. I guess the most rounded character is to be found among the supporting players – Frank Finlay is excellent as the timid banker, an embezzler who finds himself drawn into Baker’s scheme. Finlay gives a very sensitive portrayal of a man torn by personal guilt and his longing to contact his wife, even for the briefest moment, is quite touching. Barry Foster is underused as one of the senior gang members, although William Marlowe gets a slightly meatier part as Baker’s right hand man.

A few years ago, Robbery was released on DVD in the UK by Optimum. Despite its faults, it’s a movie I’ve always liked a lot and so I was keen to pick it up. However, I was disappointed to find that Optimum’s disc had a full frame, open-matte presentation of the film. Anyway, I had to make do with that compromised edition since there didn’t appear to be any other option available. Recently though, I noticed that Regia Films in Spain had put out a disc, and I decided to take a chance and see if it was any improvement. I was pleasantly surprised to find an excellent transfer of the film that presented it in the 1.66:1 ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The disc has no extra features whatsoever, but the subtitles don’t cause any problems and can be switched off from the setup menu. The fact that the movie is now available in anamorphic widescreen is the most important advance as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think the film is a perfect one, but it does have a fine cast and shows off Yates’ flair for action and tense situations. Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend this title to anyone keen on British crime pictures, or just crime movies in general.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2013 in 1960s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Yates, Stanley Baker

 

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