Tomorrow at Ten

Finding myself writing about a lot of crime movies of late, I consequently find myself ruminating over what goes into making these genre pieces successful. Well of course it is a combination of writing, acting and direction, with a some additional assistance from sets, photography and music from time to time. Still those are broad terms which encompass a lot, but I think one critical element that grows out of their synergy is what we term suspense.  The best examples of the crime movie trade heavily on this, using it to hook and then captivate the audience. Tomorrow at Ten (1963) is a first-rate British crime picture that does this in superb style.

Sometimes I think that the worst crimes can inspire  the best films. Kidnapping is an especially nasty and traumatic piece of work, putting a life at risk and simultaneously exerting sadistic psychological pressure on those faced with the ransom demands. That’s in real life. However, in the fictional world of the movies the dramatic potential of such situations is practically boundless and, depending on the perspective from which the story is seen, multi-faceted too. Here we are introduced to man calling himself Marlow (Robert Shaw) who is in the process of adding the finishing touches to a meticulously planned scheme; in the secluded house he has rented, we see him happily gutting a child’s stuffed toy and snugly fitting what is clearly a device with a timer. This golly will be used superficially as a comforter for the little boy Marlow will abduct and also as a form of dreadful insurance to secure the cooperation of the victim’s father.

It’s barefaced stuff, snatching the boy and then presenting himself to the shocked parent to calmly demand money and immunity. Marlow is counting on his threats either keeping the police out of the affair or inducing the wealthy father to use his influence to neuter their efforts. But he reckons without the grim determination of DI Parnell (John Gregson), a man with a clear and uncompromising sense of justice. In the finest dramatic tradition though, even the best plans hit snags, and in this case it’s a huge one. In fact, the powerful emotions released by his actions has wholly unforeseen results for Marlow, dragging the story in a different more intense direction and raising the suspense to a completely new level.

Briefly scanning back through pieces I’ve written here in the past and I don’t believe I’ve included any films directed by Lance Comfort yet. Bearing in mind how many of his movies I have to hand, this seems like an odd omission and certainly not an intentional one. Comfort worked in a range of genres but he had a real talent for crime movies and thrillers, and he also managed to wring the very best out of some particularly spare projects. Tomorrow at Ten makes use of a small central cast, around a half dozen people and keeping the focus on Gregson and Shaw in particular. When one thinks of these British quickies there’s a tendency to expect simple and direct visual setups, but Comfort had the experience and the resultant confidence to move his camera around more imaginatively and there are a number of extraordinarily stylish shots on view. And he was a highly professional filmmaker, never losing sight of the thread of the narrative and the necessity to keep everything moving relentlessly towards the resolution.

Robert Shaw was one of the big stars of British cinema, although he had yet to make his major breakthrough – that was to come shortly with his portrayal of the cold and dangerous Red Grant in From Russia With Love.  As an exercise in frighteningly psychopathic behavior, Tomorrow at Ten provided a pretty good warm-up, allowing him to create a genuinely memorable villain – there’s something chilling about his gleeful appreciation of his own cunning. Opposing hm is the stolid and reassuring presence of John Gregson as the dogged and principled policeman. As the plot develops, it’s Gregson who gets the greater share of screen time and he brings the audience along on the emotional journey as he hunts against the clock for the clue that may vindicate his methods and, more importantly, save an innocent life.

Tomorrow at Ten was released on DVD by what was Odeon well over ten years ago. That edition appears to have gone out of print now but, as far as I can see, there should be used copies available to buy for reasonable prices online. The transfer on that DVD was in Academy ration, which is unlikely to have been correct for an early 60s film. There are also some instances of print damage to be seen but overall the presentation is perfectly watchable. The movie itself is wonderful little hidden gem, one where the suspense is increased artfully and built around a mightily absorbing tale. Highly recommended.

Advertisements

The Upturned Glass

The last few entries here have focused firmly on smaller scale, low budget British movies, those with a certain modesty in terms of both production values and artistic aim. Now that’s not meant as a criticism as I feel the films are quite successful judged on the terms which their makers defined for them. Today though, I want to look at The Upturned Glass (1947), which I see as occupying a kind of middle ground – the ambitions of the main movers appear to have been slightly different, although the director is one we have mentioned here in relation to some of the more spare productions he would subsequently be involved in .

The film begins with a lecture, and for most of its 80 minute running time it essentially follows the form of a lecture. That lecture of narration is the work of a doctor, a man who tells his audience he will be recounting the story of one Michael Joyce (James Mason), although we viewers can see clearly from the outset that our narrator and his subject are one and the same. Initially, it appears to be primarily  tale of love which grows out of loneliness and a chance professional encounter. While this early section is vital in setting the scene and establishing motivations, it’s also the stuff of almost impossibly chaste romantic melodrama, painfully strained in its earnestness. However, the tone of the movie shifts all the time as the plot coils and unwinds ceaselessly, and we soon find ourselves firmly entrenched in noir territory, the shadowy world of moral uncertainty and fatalism. Joyce has been lifted out of his well-worn rut and given a glimpse of something unattainable, and now sees even that dream snatched away. The effects will be devastating for him and for those other figures playing their part in the slowly developing tragedy.

Style, theme and structure mark The Upturned Glass out as a genuine film noir – unfulfilled passion, crime in unexpected places, obsessive behavior, and a long flashback with accompanying narration are all active ingredients of this dark drama. The story came from John Monaghan and adapted for the screen by the writer in collaboration with Pamela Kellino, then the wife and ( in this picture) co-star of top-billed James Mason.  The name of director Lawrence Huntington came up in the course of some discussion here the other day and I’ll have to admit I’ve not seen a great deal of his work. That of course is one of the great benefits of the whole blogging business: getting some pointers and encouragement to explore further. I do have a few other movies by this director in my collection and both the recommendations of others and the pretty stylish work on display in The Upturned Glass makes me keen to delve a bit deeper into his catalog.

I believe The Upturned Glass was the last British film James Mason made before heading off to Hollywood and greater fame. I’ve always been a fan of his work, that unique combination of smooth polish and a hint of dangerous unpredictability led to many an interesting performance and it is ideal for the driven and obsessive character he was portraying here. Although Rosamund John played the main love interest, and did so perfectly adequately, Pamela Kellino had the meatier, much more interesting and emotionally involving role. It’s a superb bit of work; arch, shallow and self-serving, yet real enough to avoid caricature and, crucially, capable of eliciting some sympathy from the viewer and therefore adding another layer of complexity.In a small supporting role (and his last of significance before his death) Brefni O’Rorke is terrific as a cynical old GP with a caustic view of humanity in general and doctors in particular, and he gets to deliver some of the film’s sourest and most memorable lines.

The Upturned Glass was released on DVD some 10 years ago by MPI in the US as part of a package of three British thrillers (two early Michael Powell titles were also included) and it looks OK but it could probably be better served. All three films are on the same disc, which is never an ideal state of affairs. As far as I know, this movie hasn’t come out anywhere else since and I feel it is deserving of more critical appraisal and a stronger presentation. Well worth tracking down.

The Night Won’t Talk

Continuing with my trawl through British movies that have been largely neglected, I now come to The Night Won’t Talk (1952), an atmospheric little whodunit with a tempting title and another of those ever attractive one hour running times.

A good opening goes a long way with me, and The Night Won’t Talk hits the ground running with a hooded figure slipping through deserted nighttime streets, headed towards a basement flat and a victim. Right away we’re pitched into the middle of a murder case, an artist’s model having been killed in that initial sequence. Certain settings tend to work well in mysteries and an artistic milieu often provides at least an interesting set of suspects, and the kind of undisguised personal and professional competition that doesn’t need to be restrained in the way it might in more conservative circles. The murder victim is soon established as a source of jealousy for other women and also, more suggestively, a siren who sparked romantic rivalry among those men she came into contact with. The complicated web of relationships first needs to be unraveled and that task falls to the cool and detached Inspector West (Ballard Berkeley) and his equally laconic assistant (Duncan Lamont). As with many (most?) investigations, the shadow of suspicion has a habit of resting more comfortably on one particular person. In this case, it’s the victim’s fiance, unstable artist Clay Hawkes (John Bailey) but nothing is certain and there’s no shortage of alternatives for us to keep in mind.

Actress Hy Hazell got top billing, and to be fair she does deserve it as she is a strong and attractive screen presence. Her film career was somewhat limited although I’m keen to see more of her work. I have another two  of her movies in my collection but I see I’m missing Stolen Assignment, which sounds like it might be worth a look and I’m keen to get my hands on it at some point now. There’s marvelously relaxed support from Ballard Berkeley as the policeman on the case and the film is more fun whenever he’s on view. I’ll have to admit I was less impressed with John Bailey as the main suspect; he’s good enough I guess but his nervy brand of angst didn’t fully convince me and I think it hurts the film somewhat when such a central role isn’t entirely successful.

The Night Won’t Talk was directed by Daniel Birt, but I’m not all that familiar with his other work. I have a couple of his titles to hand though – The Deadly Game and Three Steps in the Dark – and should make an effort to check those out at some stage. Birt’s direction is brisk and efficient enough but it’s also noticeable that at times the film has a look that belies what must have been a restricted budget. A quick glance at the credits shows that the art director was one Bernard Robinson (the man responsible for the distinctive and deceptively luxurious appearance of many a Hammer production) so it shouldn’t really come as any surprise.

Network give The Night Won’t Talk quite a nice transfer to DVD in its correct Academy ratio and even include a brief gallery of press clippings as a supplement. Again, it’s a solid presentation of a lesser-known British crime picture. The movie is a reasonably neat whodunit which is plotted satisfactorily and moves along at a good clip.

Wrong Number

More British cinema, and more low budget British filmmaking to be exact. The fact is I’ve been watching a lot of this material lately and enjoying it immensely. Sure the quality varies and I’m not making any particular arguments in favor of raising whatever reputation these films may have. It’s simply a matter of immersing myself in the kind of pared down affairs which I frequently find myself drawn to. Wrong Number (1959) is without question a pretty slight work, a movie with a running time of around an hour and shot on a handful of sets. However, those aspects need not be seen as negatives as there’s plenty of pleasure to be derived from such modest fare.

Wrong Number is a heist movie, and that genre variant presents opportunities for drama at different stages – the planning, the execution and the aftermath. More ambitious films may choose to exploit all of those stages, but Wrong Number is aware of its limitations and satisfies itself by working within them. The focus here is the aftermath of the robbery, the earlier elements being only briefly addressed. In brief, a mail robbery has been planned by the outwardly respectable Dr Pole (Peter Elliott) and carried out by career crooks Max and Angelo (Barry Keegan & Peter Reynolds), although far from cleanly when the latter ends up clubbing an overzealous guard to death. If a potential murder rap isn’t bad enough, Angelo and his boss are also interested in the same woman, Maria (Lisa Gastoni).

With the pressure and emotional temperature on the rise in the aftermath of the botched robbery, the titular wrong number begins to play its part. So, as the movie progresses, it alternates between a disloyalty among thieves drama and a slightly eccentric police procedural where a dippy Olive Sloane threatens the patience of investigating cop John Horsley. All of this probably sounds like an incident-packed plot and there is enough in there to keep everything chugging along. Director Vernon Sewell was something of a specialist in low budget pictures, generally making entertaining if sometimes lightweight pictures alongside some more affecting work like Strongroom.

Wrong Number was a Merton Park production and that company made some terrific features and short films throughout the 50s and 60s, not the least of which were the long running series of Edgar Wallace mysteries. There are a number of faces present who ought to be familiar to those who know British cinema even if the names may not be so readily recalled. I think it’s safe to say Irish-Italian actress Lisa Gastoni is the main attraction in this one, and she’s both comfortable on screen and easy on the eye. Actually, the women get the most interesting parts in Wrong Number, with Olive Sloane also making the most of her part as the comical busybody who holds the key to everything.

Once again I find myself looking at one of Network’s sparse yet impressive DVD releases. Wrong Number is a small picture, a true B movie, but professionally made and Network provide a suitably professional presentation – widescreen and a nice, clean print. The DVD offers just the movie but that’s fair enough given the fine transfer and the nature of the film.

Catacombs

I’m in the mood for small-scale British thrillers just at the moment and am currently enjoying some new watches alongside some revisits. Last time I looked at a late 40s noir effort and have now leapt ahead almost two decades to highlight Catacombs AKA The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965), a macabre, twisty thriller which evokes some of the vibe director Gordon Hessler picked up from his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series.

The story is a highly seasoned mix of temptation, infidelity and murder which also flirts with the supernatural. Everything revolves around Raymond and Ellen Garth (Gary Merrill & Georgina Cookson) and Ellen’s niece Alice (Jane Merrow). Ellen represents the money, a hard-driving (both literally and figuratively) businesswoman who strives to have total control over everything and everyone in her life, including her husband and her health problems. As far as the former is concerned, Raymond is essentially a kept man, a weak-willed specimen who has spent his life trading on his sexuality. As for the latter, Ellen’s attacks of physical pain have led her to explore meditation techniques and as a result the ability to put herself into a trance in an effort to manage her suffering. Into this slightly unusual household comes the figure of Alice, a girl who had gone abroad to study art and has now returned as a grown woman and caught the roving eye of Raymond. What we have is a potentially explosive situation in development, one which only needs a chance spark to set it all off. Then an apparently casual suggestion by one of Ellen’s disgruntled employees (Neil McCallum) strikes just such a spark…

Catacombs is a fairly entertaining little film, not all that surprising in terms of the direction it takes but still delivering a neat and satisfying twist right at the end. Gary Merrill was the big name Hollywood name whose star was on the wane, a common enough casting technique employed by British movies of the 50s and 60s. Merrill’s role as the ageing gigolo isn’t an especially appealing one although it’s not really meant to be  attractive and the actor picks up on the venal and craven aspects of his character very well, making him quite human but not in any pleasant way. Georgina Cookson is cool and poised, maybe too cool though to be wholly credible. Jane Merrow is better as the returning ingenue, the catalyst for the turmoil which ensues. And finally, Neil McCallum has a small but pivotal part as the shifty type who brings matters to a head.

Aside from his on screen work, McCallum also had a co-producing credit alongside Jack Parsons – and incidentally Parsons also produced Walk a Tightrope, which McCallum both wrote and had a minor role in. However, the bigger influence behind the cameras appears to have been provided by the director.  Gordon Hessler spent many years working as associate producer and ultimately producer for Hitchcock for his television show. Anyone familiar with those Hitchcock episodes will recognize the mood here and the connection isn’t all that difficult to see. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve not been all that enamored with the other Hessler films I’ve seen – those horror features he made with Vincent Price – but then again I’m not a huge fan of that genre anyway. IN short, I’d say I like Catacombs quite a bit more than the director’s other work, or at least what I’ve had the opportunity to view.

Catacombs has been released on DVD in the UK in a very nice edition by Network. The widescreen transfer looks crisp and attractive but the package is, as usual, light on supplements. Still, the movie is a fun way to pass an hour and a half or so and one that fans of the Hitchcock TV shows ought to check out.

The Small Voice

It’s always nice to come upon a film one had previously been unfamiliar with and realize it’s actually a little gem. British crime and noir movies can be more of a mixed bag than their US counterparts, or at least it sometimes feels that way. Nevertheless, there are plenty of high quality examples to be found and The Small Voice (1948) is one of those. Tight, compact dramas, those which maintain a sharp pace and ensure the plot remains focused, appeal to me and I’m forever on the lookout for a new one. This ticks the boxes for me, featuring enough depth and emotional complexity to hold the attention without slowing down the development of the story.

Murray Byrne (James Donald) is a writer, and an apparently successful one. However, this success doesn’t seem to bring much joy as our first view of him as he’s riding a train back home indicates. He is gruff and brusque with an old school friend he happens to encounter and then continues in a similar vein with his wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson), who is also the leading lady in his latest play. In short, Byrne is an embittered man, carrying the physical scars of his wartime experiences,, and clearly suffering from a sense of inadequacy which has spilled over into his private life. The marriage is teetering on the brink with Eleanor having essentially decided she can no longer continue, and then they come upon the scene of car accident. Three court-martialed soldiers have escaped from Dartmoor, their violent break for freedom having claimed a number of victims, and it’s this  unhappy couple’s misfortune to cross their path.

The Small Voice, the title referring to the human conscience, is all about a gradual heightening of suspense, the tension growing as the character’s room for both physical and emotional maneuver is increasingly restricted. The meandering paths followed by the protagonists converge on a deserted rural road late at night, their various attempts to reach freedom (either real or imagined) in essence coming to an end as their immediate concern with safety draws them back to the Byrne home. And so begins the waiting game that will fray the nerves of all concerned, yet which will also hold out the eventual hope of redemption, albeit of the backhanded variety in one case, and perhaps the beginning of a kind of personal rapprochement.

The film was the debut of Howard Keel (billed as Harold Keel) and he makes a strong impression as the leader of the fugitive trio, playing it tough and dominant throughout. Now that’s fine in itself, but Keel had something more about him – one can’t have a career which lasted as long as his without that of course – and imbued his role with an extra dimension, lifting it above that of  the standard heavy. James Donald’s character refers to Keel on a number of occasions as “interesting”, which is an apt enough description of the role and the performance. Donald too is solid as the writer uncomfortable with himself and insecure in his marriage and masculinity. His buttoned up quality works well in this situation and his character’s  journey is again an absorbing one. Valerie Hobson will probably always be remembered for her role in James Whale’s impish horror Bride of Frankenstein, but she was a class act in whatever part she played. She gets ample opportunity to show off her strength of character and also her depth and range as she tries to hold both her marriage and her very existence together.

The Small Voice is the type of film which tended to get shown on TV in afternoon filler slots in the past, and then often drifted into obscurity in subsequent years. There was a time when these one-time staples of the schedules appeared more or less lost but have gained a most welcome new lease of life due to DVD releases by the likes of Network and Renown in the UK. The Network disc of the movie is a typically stripped down affair but has the film itself looking particularly well, and that’s surely the most important consideration. Personally, I had a very good time with this film can see myself returning to it periodically.  It’s well made, atmospheric and brisk – I recommend giving it a look.

Manhandled

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself looking a movie that seems to have been marketed as a film noir, or at least as a hard-boiled crime yarn in the days before filmmakers and critics had acquainted themselves with French terminology. I’ve also made the point before that I think of myself as inclusive in my own attitude to what precisely constitutes an entry in this somewhat nebulous category. At a glance, Manhandled (1949) looks like it’s earned its place in the lineup, but the truth is it’s more of a decoy than the genuine article. However, that’s not necessarily any bad thing, just so long as one knows what the score is going in.

Everything begins furtively, the camera hugging the ground and slinking  cat-like around the shadows, revealing only the legs of characters whose voices indicate a jealous, insecure man waiting up for the woman he fears may be cheating on him. They meet, there’s a confrontation, and then a killing. It’s looks stylish and gripping, and the sudden knowledge that it was all a dream recounted by an anxious writer (Alan Napier) to his analyst (Harold Vermilyea) only adds to the noir trappings. When it then looks as if the dream were in fact an omen of the tragedy to come, well one would be forgiven for believing we’re firmly entrenched in cinema’s darker corner. Yet, it’s at this point that the tone alters, despite the presence of noir regulars Dan Duryea and Sterling Hayden, to head off (for the most part) down a lighter path more in keeping with a whodunit murder mystery with a hint of a 30 s or early 40s series picture about it.

I have a hunch there are those who will dismiss this movie for not being a true noir, or perhaps for strongly hinting that it is and then delivering something rather different. I can understand that; the film does appear unsure of exactly what it wants to be and the tone can veer radically from scene to scene, and even within a scene. Frankly, I’m happy to regard it as a mystery which flirts with the trappings of noir without ever fully committing. On that level, it works fine and the jokey, vaguely bumbling cops (Art Smith & Irving Bacon) don’t feel out of place in such a world. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot in this case as I think any discussion of a film which is essentially a whodunit should steer as far away from spoiler territory as possible, out of respect for any reader who is unfamiliar with the material. Suffice to say, Dan Duryea has a field day trading on his characteristic fake bonhomie, acting as a role model for aspiring chiselers everywhere. Dorothy Lamour does distress well and only Sterling Hayden is a tad disappointing, his typical gruff abruptness not really suiting his role here.

That opening sequence where cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and director Lewis R Foster pull out all the stops is a wonderful hook but, at the same time, it’s perhaps setting up a different picture to what they were planning to present. Ultimately, I have no issue with a film not being as dark as it promises – I like noir a lot but wouldn’t want to see every crime or mystery movie forced to conform to its requirements. As a mystery, Manhandled works well enough, sprinkling suspects and red herrings around to maintain interest. Still, it misses the mark to some extent due to the shifting and uncertain tone.

As with a lot of Pine – Thomas movies, availability can be tricky. I watched this online recently but there has been a DVD released in Italy – I haven’t seen it so can’t make any comment on its quality. So to get down to brass tacks, would I recommend it? Well, I’d have to answer with a qualified yes. The quality of the cast should speak for itself and the mystery at the heart of the story is solid enough to hold one’s interest. Yet that variability in the script has to be noted – if you can accept that and take the film on its own occasionally muddled terms, then there’s fun to be had with it.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa

Last time I had a look at a political thriller and noted how the politics, in the classic style of the Hitchcockian McGuffin, acts as a powerful motivation for the characters inside the drama while remaining nothing more than a plot device in the eyes of the audience. The classic western rarely went down the overtly political route and tended to reserve its commentary for broader sociological and philosophical issues. Even in those cases, messages were, as often as not, delivered via implication and with the kind of subtlety which left it up to the viewer to decide how much or how little attention to give them. More direct political points could be said to appear in films set on the Mexican side of the border, and in particular those which make explicit reference to the revolution. The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955) plays out in such an environment, a number of the characters being clearly driven by their convictions and stating that fact on a few occasions, but this really isn’t the main focus of the movie, neither from the perspective of the figures on screen nor we who watch them.

The post-credits caption places the events in 1915, right in the middle of the revolution. Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) and Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland) are under siege in wilderness and taking a breath, ruefully commenting on their fabulous wealth as the Federales creep ever nearer. Somewhat paradoxically, we find ourselves beginning at the end of the tale as follows on from his point is delivered via flashback. The machine-gun wielding Bryan is the classic mercenary figure, tough and bluntly proud of his own love for cash and corresponding disinterest in ideals. He’s introduced providing the firepower to facilitate the raids necessary to secure the finances Villa needs to stay in the revolutionary business. Despite professing a desire to retire and enjoy the profits of his toil, he finds himself drawn back into one more caper – all in the name of friendship. Castro is one of Villa’s colonels and Bryan’s fiend, and it’s hard to say no to an old friend when he asks you to help take a gold-laden troop train and then transport the spoils overland. Initially, the American seems to have been swayed principally by the rewards promised, but the presence of an idealistic woman (Shelley Winters), also from the US, and a shifty bandit (Joseph Calleia) who has a score to settle with Castro play an increasingly important role.

I can’t get enough of George Sherman’s work, particularly those films made in the 1950s. I find it addictive and entertaining, becoming progressively stronger and more complex as the decade wore on and building towards such beautifully realized pieces as The Last of the Fast Guns. I mention that movie here because not only is it arguably Sherman’s finest and most accomplished, but it also shares some features whose roots can be seen in The Treasure of Pancho Villa. The setting is, of course, the obvious link and a number of locations appear in both productions. There’s even something on the costuming of the leads – Calhoun is clad predominantly in black with Roland largely favoring white, which seems to be foreshadowing the completely black/white outfits adopted by Mahoney and (again) Roland in the later film. Still and all, it’s that theme of redemption which never ran far below the surface of any 50s western that draws the attention more. Sure there are some noble words on freedom and justice voiced by the characters (mainly Winters) but such proselytizing is rarely interesting or effective in my opinion, and I get the impression that neither Sherman nor screenwriter Niven Busch were all that enthused themselves. Instead, greater emphasis is given over to more personal motifs – loyalty, friendship and the discovery of something deeper and more meaningful within oneself.

Calhoun had a terrific run in westerns in the 50s and this film offered him an excellent showcase for his talents. The hard-boiled mercenary with one eye ever on the main chance  was the type he could carry off in his sleep, and the way that role then develops and becomes more textured as the story progresses shows that he had sufficient depth when called upon. I’m struggling to think of a part played by Gilbert Roland that I didn’t enjoy – the energy he invested in his characters is quite infectious and it’s easy to be swept along by his charm. Any film that saw him handed an expanded part is invariably worthwhile. On the other hand, I’ve rarely been all that taken with Shelley Winters – too often she was assigned needy and, ultimately, irritating roles. While that’s not the case  in The Treasure of Pancho Villa, she’s asked to play the kind of starchy and self-righteous woman who again fails to elicit a lot of sympathy. This is a weakness in the film for sure, however, everything is handily shored up by a great bit of villainy and duplicity from the typically excellent Joseph Calleia.

Generally, where possible, I like to make some comment about the availability of films which are featured on this site, not least because people often wonder about the relative merits of what copies are currently on the market. In the case of The Treasure of Pancho Villa, there is a DVD which has been released in Spain (also, I think there’s an Italian version – possibly the same print –  too) but the quality is frankly poor and it’s not a disc I’d be happy to recommend to anyone. I’ve heard rumors before that Warner Brothers in the US is working on a restored version of the title and I’d like to think that is true – this is a fine movie and it deserves to be seen in far better quality that what is out there right now. The setting in revolutionary Mexico almost immediately conjures up images of spaghetti westerns, and in turn the image of the lead with a machine-gun might well make you think of the likes of Django. Nevertheless, this is very definitely a western out of the classic mold, with all the sensibilities that implies – very enjoyable and highly recommended.

State Secret

Political thrillers can be a bore; long-winded affairs that can be equally long on sanctimony have a tendency to turn me off. For me, anything which is given this designation works best when the political aspects are sidelined as far as possible and the thriller elements are brought unashamedly to the fore. Even better is the film were the politics are of the entirely make-believe variety, serving only as a light frame upon which to drape a tale of intrigue. In 1938 Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat turned out such a screenplay and in the process played a significant role in shaping the success of The Lady Vanishes, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British movies. A dozen years later would see Gilliat both contributing to the script of and directing another British “political” thriller called State Secret (1950) – a neglected piece of hokum which remains highly entertaining.

Middle Europe and non-existent countries (and in this particular case featuring what appears to be a specially created language that is used throughout the film) are the kind of ingredients which effortlessly draw me in. In this case it’s Vosnia, the undisputed realm of one General Niva (Walter Rilla). Frankly, I find it hugely refreshing that there is a deliberate vagueness about the leanings of this dictatorship; whether Niva is a leftist or rightist demagogue is never addressed, and the simple fact is it’s of no relevance whatsoever. When eminent surgeon John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is persuaded to travel to Vosnia to demonstrate his pioneering new technique, it’s not important to know the color of intolerance and repression that holds sway within its borders – both the hero and the viewers are off on a pacy adventure, where the only thing that matters is the threat and not the philosophy supposedly driving it.

So, Marlowe finds himself enjoying the kind of luxurious hospitality only the best totalitarian regimes can offer while he shows off his new procedure and collects what he’s been told is a prestigious award. Naturally, in a movie of this type, the whole scenario  is merely a blind, an elaborate charade designed to conceal the fact Marlowe is actually operating on the seriously ill head of state. Perhaps a wiser man might have considered this possibility, and certainly would have made sure  any suspicions he may have had were kept strictly to himself. But Marlowe isn’t such a man, and of course if he were, we wouldn’t have a film to enjoy. As it is, he makes a point of finding out who his patient is, and then finds that countries like Vosnia have a host of other feature to offer when patients whose identity it really would be better not to know don’t survive the procedure. What follows is a relentless pursuit across an alien landscape as Marlowe, with the initially reluctant assistance of showgirl Lisa (Glynis Johns), tries to elude the urbane but deadly Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) and all the forces at his command.

With location shooting in Italy, State Secret is an attractive looking British thriller, a fast-moving and exciting thriller which owes a debt to the writer/director’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. The concept of the regular guy on the run, pursued across the country by shady types in the employ of a ruthless foe, is a familiar trope. And, in addition, there are scenes, such as the attempt to seek sanctuary in a theater and hide oneself among a crowd as the enemy closes in, all of which recall the likes of The 39 Steps and Saboteur, and also look ahead to North by Northwest and Torn Curtain. Gilliat’s script here is adapted from a novel by Roy Huggins (of The Fugitive fame), which I have yet to track down and read so I can’t say how much derives from that source.

Fairbanks makes for a personable and sympathetic hero in State Secret, making me wish he’d done more of this kind of stuff. His was a rich and varied life and it seems sometimes that acting was only a small part of it all – he’ll probably remain best known, and probably deservedly so, for his roles as the amoral Rupert of Hentzau in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda and also as a soldier in Gunga Din two years later. Personally, I’d love to be able to see another of his movies, Green Hell, made available at some point as I remember it as being quite a lot of fun. Glynis Johns, daughter of Mervyn Johns, was in the middle of a productive run of work at this point and is an appealing and credible partner for Fairbanks. Jack Hawkins was one of the greats of British cinema; equally at home as either hero or villain, or any variation floating between, he lent class to any film he appeared in and here (bearing in mind the caliber of his co-stars) he consolidates an already distinguished cast. If I had a complaint to make, it would be that we don’t get to see more of Hawkins, and the same could be said for the always accomplished Herbert Lom.

In the same year, Richard Brooks would make the similarly themed Crisis – with Cary Grant finding himself pressured into operating on a dictator and running the attendant risks – but that’s a slower, duller picture that tries harder to make a philosophical point but ends up losing its way as a piece of cinema. State Secret, on the other hand, is upfront about its aims as a piece of entertainment first and foremost and winds up being a better film as a result. Sadly, there don’t appear to be any strong versions of the movie available to buy. I have a Spanish DVD which is just about acceptable in terms of quality, but I couldn’t really endorse it. There’s also an Italian disc on the market and I suspect it’s probably from a comparable source. As such, all I can say is I hope the film gets a release somewhere that does it justice. Anyway, it’s a fine British thriller that is worth keeping one’s eyes open for – and perhaps it will come in for the treatment and attention it deserves.

I Walk Alone – coming soon

A recent viewing and post on Kiss the Blood Off My Hands reminded me that the only major Burt Lancaster noir title still unavailable in a decent edition was 1948’s I Walk Alone. Happily though, Kino Lorber in the US have just posted on Facebook that the title is due out on DVD and Blu-ray in the summer:

• Coming this Summer!
• First Time on DVD and Blu-ray!
• Brand New HD Master – From a 4K Scan of the 35mm Safety Dupe Negative by Paramount Pictures Archive!
• First Film Co-starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (The Gunfight at O.K. Corral, The Devil’s Advocate, Seven Days in May, Tough Guys)

I Walk Alone (1947) Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, Kristine Miller, Marc Lawrence and Mike Mazurki – Shot by Leo Tover (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dead Reckoning) – Music by Victor Young (Johnny Guitar, Around the World in Eighty Days) – Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt (Sunset Boulevard, The Blue Dahlia) – Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) – Screenplay by Charles Schnee (The Bad and the Beautiful, They Live by Night) – Adaptation by Robert Smith (Sudden Fear, Quicksand) and John Bright (Public Enemy, She Done Him Wrong) – Directed by Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, Too Late for Tears)