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.

Advertisements

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)

Ranown in Hi-Def

FIVE TALL TALES: BUDD BOETTICHER & RANDOLPH SCOTT AT COLUMBIA, 1957-1960

THE TALL T (1957)
DECISION AT SUNDOWN (1957)
BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (1958)
RIDE LONESOME (1959)
COMANCHE STATION (1960)

Release date: 21 May 2018
Limited Blu-ray Edition (Blu-ray premieres)

Five classic, iconic and slyly subversive westerns collected on Blu-ray for the very first time. Containing a selection of new and archival extras – including interviews with director Budd Boetticher and an appreciation by film critic Kim Newman – this collectable five-disc box set also contains an 80-page book with newly commissioned essays, archival interviews and full credits, and is strictly limited to 6,000 units.

INDICATOR LIMITED BLU-RAY EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES:
• 2K restoration of Ride Lonesome
• HD restorations of The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone and Comanche Station
• Original mono audio
The John Player Lecture with Budd Boetticher (1969): archival audio interview conducted by Horizons West author Jim Kitses at the National Film Theatre, London
The Guardian Interview with Budd Boetticher (1994): an extensive filmed interview conducted by film historian David Meeker at the National Film Theatre, London
Budd Boetticher on the Ranown Cycle (1999): excerpts from Eckhart Schmidt’s documentary Visiting… Budd Boetticher
• Kim Newman on the Ranown Cycle (2018): an appreciation and analysis by the critic and author of Wild West Movies
The Guardian Interview with Elmore Leonard (1997): the celebrated author, and writer of the short story upon which The Tall T is based, in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre
• Original theatrical trailers
Ride Lonesome trailer commentary (2013): a short critical appreciation by filmmaker John Sayles
Comanche Station trailer commentary (2014): a short critical appreciation by screenwriter Sam Hamm
• Image galleries: extensive promotional and on-set photography, poster art and marketing materials
• Limited Edition exclusive 80-page book containing newly commissioned essays by Pamela Hutchinson, Glenn Kenny, James Oliver, Neil Sinyard and Farran Smith Nehme, archival interviews with director Budd Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, a critical anthology, and full film credits
• World Blu-ray premieres of The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone and Ride Lonesome
• UK Blu-ray premiere of Comanche Station
• Limited Edition Box Set of 6,000 numbered copies
• …AND MORE TBC
• All extras subject to change

Wonderful news about some films which cannot be praised highly enough! This set can be ordered direct from the distributor here. If anyone is unfamiliar with the films and wants a quick overview, here are some pieces I wrote after the DVD release some years ago:

The Tall T

Ride Lonesome

Comanche Station

Buchanan Rides Alone

Decision at Sundown