The Odessa File

Events that can change history sometimes hang on tiny chances. If I hadn’t pulled to the curb, I wouldn’t have caught the traffic light, nor seen the ambulance, never have heard of Salomon Tauber or Eduard Roschmann. Nor got involved with the agents of Israel, or with the sinister and deadly men behind the Odessa. That night I was just a reporter with a nose for a possible story.

Those are the first lines spoken by Peter Miller (Jon Voight),  the lead character in The Odessa File (1974). I’ve mentioned fairly recently how many a film noir turns on the fickleness of fate, the way chance steals across one’s path and leads to the making of a decision, either rash or considered, thus altering the whole shape of the protagonist’s world. This is not a film noir, it’s an espionage tale but quite a dark one, where the present future and past of the lead crash together in a kind of existential pile-up, the grim past and vaguely pathetic present colliding and sending the characters on a quest to try to fit all the shattered fragments in place again.

Peter Miller is a freelance journalist, and inordinately proud of this fact, boasting of it to his girlfriend, and exotic dancer who it’s strongly suggested is bringing home the lion’s share of the money the young couple need to survive in 1960s Hamburg. This timeline is important; we’re less than twenty years on from the end of WWII; the deep wounds of that terrible conflict had not yet healed themselves, much less had the ghosts been exorcised. When chance knocks at Miller’s door it presents him with the diary of an old concentration camp inmate, a man who has just taken his own life. Reading through the journal piques Miller’s interest – the complete reason why only being revealed much later in the day – and sets him off on a course which will take him from the depravity of the death camps and Roschmann (Maximilian Schell), the commandant, right up to the contemporary world where the tentacles of the Nazi Odessa organization have taken a furtive yet firm hold.

The Odessa File is an adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel of the same name, and (based on an admittedly not always reliable memory) remains fairly faithful to that source. Director Ronald Neame and cameraman Oswald Morris shoot the flashback scenes portraying events in the Riga camp during the war in stark black & white, and the contemporary 60s action in color. The technique is effective and is successful in that it never draws attention to itself and has a seamless quality. The structure is the classic search for secrets buried in the past but still impacting on the present and it’s one which is almost always enthralling. With the worrying and apparently relentless rise of the extreme right across the western world these days, One has to wonder if the theme here of the danger of an ever vigilant extremism patiently awaiting the opportunity to seize the reins one again isn’t every bit a prescient now as it was back in the early 1970s.

Jon Voight makes for a personable and credible lead. It’s easy enough to imagine him as a driven journalist and, while there are action sequences, has the everyman quality that we see less and less of in these days of virtually superhuman leads. The journey he embarks on, both professionally and personally, is never less than fascinating and his sympathetic playing is a large part of what makes it work. Maximilian Schell is the other big name in the cast, the malign presence of his venal character haunting the picture even when he’s off screen for long stretches. And the climactic confrontation between Voight and Schell is both revelatory and satisfying. In supporting roles, there is attractive work done by Maria Schell, Derek Jacobi, Mary Tamm, and Klaus Lowitsch as a dangerous and determined assassin.

The Odessa File on Blu-ray is part of the new slate of releases from Indicator/Powerhouse and this latest limited edition gets a fine transfer from a 2K restoration. The scope transfer is smooth and tight, with that moody look often found in 70s cinema. As usual, the extra features are a significant part of the release, from the 21 page booklet containing a mix of original writing on the film and also an extract from Ronald Neame’s 2003 autobiography. On the disc there are two hour long interviews carried out at the National Film Theatre, one with Neame and the other with Oswald Morris. Also included are short filmed pieces with other crew members. This is another strong release of an entertaining movie that continues to feel relevant more than 40 years after it was made. I believe it’s well worth checking out, or revisiting, and this is a nice presentation.

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Fanatic

Pressing ahead with more Hammer, let’s step forward a few years to look at the next stage in the development of the studio’s thriller output. The influence of the early films noir could still be seen in the black and white, Jimmy Sangster scripted suspense yarns with their trademark twist in the tail. Fanatic (1965) was something of a departure, shot in color and taking an entirely different thematic tack. If the previous template had been the noir-edged Hitchcock homage, then the new version was more in line with the “crazy old lady” sub-genre popularized by Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at the beginning of the decade.

Generally, I like to give an overview, or at least some flavor of the plot at this stage. I tend to simply touch on details as I reckon it’s poor form to drift into spoiler territory for those who may not have seen a given movie, and it’s also a lazy and slightly pointless way of writing. I’ll be brief here too but for perhaps different reasons on this occasion, namely the simplicity and directness of the plot. In essence, it concerns Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers), a young American girl who has come to England to be with her fiance, but who also has in mind a short visit to the family of a previous lover who passed away suddenly. That family is limited to the mother, Mrs Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead). At first, the old lady in her crumbling home and surrounded by the oddball help appears a mild eccentric with too little company and too many religious hangups. Later though, Patricia discovers that those convictions are of the deep-seated variety, of the fanatical type in fact. And the plan is for Patricia to spend  a lot more time in the house…

OK, I’ve a confession to make here: while I’d say I was a fan of Hammer studios and all their varied films, I’m not at all fond of this particular sub-genre. I remain adamant that the likes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is vastly overrated, and I far prefer Aldrich’s more subtle, and ultimately more affecting, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Now when it comes to Hammer, I’d rate The Nanny far above Fanatic in the “crazy old lady” stakes, and for broadly similar reasons. I think the issue for me is the level of camp involved. Films of this kind tread a fine line between grotesque farce and a more genuine brand of psychological tension. In my opinion, the greater the camp quotient, the greater the risk of tipping over into a mean parody. Fanatic starts off with what I feel is a broad and farcical tone, before plunging into deeper and darker waters. However, I think that detour towards meanness then appears magnified. Essentially, there’s too much mean – the heroine becomes objectified via her ordeal and the villains are too stylized to ever seem real.

Fanatic looks like it had been, and probably continues to be, heavily reliant on the presence of Tallulah Bankhead in the role of the demented Mrs Trefoile. Now, if I’m honest, I’ll have to say I’ve not seen much of this actress’s work. Aside from Fanatic, I’ve seen (and liked) Hitchcock’s Lifeboat but that’s it. I suspect that’s the extent of most people’s experience of Bankhead as an actress but her legend, driven by a range of professional and personal activities, is such that her name was and is a strong selling point. However, I reckon a performance should be evaluated on its own merits rather than any other influence and, on that basis, I’m going to probably go against received critical response here and say I wasn’t overly impressed. Frankly, there’s an archness and an air of aloof knowing that severely limits the credibility for me – where I longed for cool menace I got pantomime instead.

I’m guessing Stefanie Powers would have been regarded as more of a lightweight at this stage but, conversely, I found her performance more successful. It’s a difficult role – her character is driven right to the edge – but she handles it very well, going from carefree to desperate, and finally emotionally numbed with ease and confidence. Yootha Joyce is fine too as the repressed and nervy housekeeper but I feel Peter Vaughan, as her husband, is a little mannered and consequently less convincing. There’s also an early, undemanding, part for Donald Sutherland.

Fanatic is another title in the first Hammer box set released as a limited edition by Powerhouse/Indicator. Once again, I found the visual presentation to be of a typically high standard with a clean, sharp transfer and exceptionally fine-looking color and detail. The supplements are as usual a big part of what makes these releases so attractive, featuring newly filmed pieces on the movie, on Bankhead, the composer and interviews with crew members. I admit I’m not as enamored of the film itself as some will be but there’s no denying the quality of the package presented here.

Maniac

Hammer and horror, it’s hard to think of one and not the other. I guess this is fair enough as the studio made its name, and maintains its own corner within popular of culture as a result of this automatic association. Late night TV screenings of the famous Gothic horrors and their spin-offs also helped cement this image in our consciousness. Still, despite being an integral and influential part of the studio’s output, it was not the exclusive focus. There were also crime movies, Sci-Fi, fantasy,  swashbucklers, and of course thrillers. The increasing number of DVD and Blu-ray releases over the years has highlighted this range with recent packages from Powerhouse/Indicator, including the set with Maniac (1963), demonstrating just how attractive these films can look.

A French schoolgirl, Annette Beynat (Liliane Brousse), is on her way home when she is forced into a car and then assaulted. This ordeal is witnessed by youngster who alerts the girl’s father. Enraged by this, he attacks the culprit and hauls him unconscious back to his workshop, where he then kills him with a welding torch. This is pretty strong stuff but, mercifully, nothing graphic is actually shown on screen, all of the shocking and grisly elements being left to the viewers’ imagination. That’s the setup. We then leap ahead four years to the bar run by Annette and her stepmother Eve (Nadia Gray), and the arrival in their midst of an American painter, Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Mathews) who has been drifting around the south of France. He represents a new source of heat in an already hot spot and arouses the interests of both the women. Soon though, he sets his sights on the more experienced Eve and embarks on a relationship which draws Annette’s ire and also leads to a plan that puts many lives in danger. Eve wants out of her marriage and her husband wants out of the asylum where he has been confined. So a plot is hatched to give everyone what, on the surface anyway, they seem to desire. Of course, in such a tale nothing and nobody is ever quite what they seem…

After the somewhat brutal opening it’s clear enough that this isn’t a Hammer Gothic, although what follows looks for a time like it intends to develop into a Southern Gothic of the Tennessee Williams variety, with a hot and sweaty Kerwin Mathews generating friction and causing the emotional temperature of the Camargue to climb. However, in a picture where the tone and ground are forever shifting, the touch of writer Jimmy Sangster soon steers the kind of convoluted course that ought to be familiar to anyone who’s seen any of his mini-Hitchcock thrillers. It reveals itself as a twisty and absorbing thriller with deception and betrayal at its core. I tend to think (with good reason given how many credits he racked up in that role) of Michael Carreras as a producer first and foremost, although he did direct a number of features too. He makes good use of the French locations in this one and the scope frame both highlights the scenery and, when employed at low angles, gives an unexpectedly claustrophobic feel to some of the interiors.

Nadia Gray is probably the pick of the performers as the passionate bar owner at the center of an increasingly complex web. Mathews is fine too as the lead, a man who thinks he knows exactly what he’s doing but we always have the idea someone is manipulating him very skillfully. Liliane Brousse is very charming and Donald Houston, especially when seen behind dark glasses, provides a hulking and threatening presence.

A word now about the presentation of the Indicator Blu-ray, currently only available as part of this limited edition box set.  The black and white scope image looks very crisp and clear, a super transfer. As usual with this company’s releases, the supplements are first-rate including specially commissioned booklets and on disc features such as a short, original documentary  on the film, another feature on Nadia Gray and yet another with reminiscences of the shooting from surviving crew members.  All told, we’re looking at a really attractive package here that gives the movie its due, and then some.

Home to Danger

Somehow, without consciously having planned to do so, I’ve seen myself on a British thriller kick this summer and therefore embarked on this series of short pieces to log my thoughts and impressions as I’ve been going along. There hasn’t been any particular pattern followed but I have permitted certain films to lead me on to others, linking them up in a vague and loose form that probably makes little sense to anyone apart from myself. I appreciated Guy Rolfe in You Can’t Escape, had a fine time with Lance Comfort’s Tomorrow at Ten, and just recently enjoyed Terence Fisher’s direction of The Last Man to Hang. Those titles and the others I’ve been highlighting are all either films noir or crime/mystery pictures of one kind or another. All of this leads me to Home to Danger (1951), a film noir/whodunit hybrid starring Guy Rolfe, produced by Lance Comfort and directed by Terence Fisher.

Barbara Cummings (Rona Anderson) is the one coming home and the danger referred to lies in the stately pile she has just inherited from her late father. She’d been in Singapore and had left England under something of a cloud and so she feels a certain reticence about her arrival back in the family residence, particularly when she learns the inquest into her father’s death recorded a verdict of suicide. There’s a touch of guilt there but not too much – she knows she wasn’t responsible and no=one seems keen to attach any blame in that direction. However, it’s also clear that late changes to the old man’s will meant Barbara comes into everything of value, while some others who might have had what could be termed expectations have been either cut out at the last minute or not had the chance to be included. Although Barbara has an ally and someone to look out for her in the shape of debonair author Robert Irving (Guy Rolfe), there is a very real sense of menace following a botched attempt on her life. The question is who is behind it all, and what’s their motive?

Home to Danger is one of those slightly unusual amalgams of the country house whodunit and an urban film noir. The former characteristics are to the fore in the earlier stages following the new heiress’ return home. Terence Fisher gets good mileage from the manor house surroundings, and moves his camera around atmospherically, also creating some memorable and noteworthy visuals during the shooting of the exteriors. The action then switches back to town for a time in the course of the investigation into extremely dubious shooting. Again, Fisher is to be commended for altering the style appropriately and presenting different, but equally effective, imagery. The plot is entertaining and engaging enough and the director ensures, with the aid of those shifts back and forth in location, that the hour or so running time is full of incident.

Rona Anderson and Guy Rolf make for an attractive leading couple. Anderson has vigor and guts, and a quality which makes one want to root for her. Alongside her is the suave and assured Rolfe, winning viewer sympathy every bit as effortlessly. The likes of Francis Lister and Alan Wheatley drift in and out of the shadows and keep us guessing as to their real aims. A little further down the cast list is a young Stanley Baker, making the most of his smallish but vital role as a faithful and simple servant, hinting at the great things still to come later in his career.

Home to Danger should be easy enough to locate. It is available on DVD as part of a double bill with Montgomery Tully’s Master Spy in the UK via Renown. As far as I know, it’s also been released in the US as part of a set of British thrillers from a few years back. The transfer is mostly OK; although there is some weird shimmering effect that I noticed early on, it seems to settle down as the film progresses. The movie itself is a modest enough affair which, nevertheless, manages to pull off all it sets out to do. It tells a good crime story efficiently in a little over an hour, with an attractive cast and professional and stylish direction by Terence Fisher.

 

The Last Man to Hang

The whole notion of justice is a marvelously complex area. The entire history of civilization could be seen as an attempt to define exactly what that word means, what it is and how it is applied in practical terms. It underpins our understanding of the law and its purpose, and of course the law in all its forms is integral to many a piece of drama. Within this is the sub-genre of the legal or courtroom thriller, which brings me to The Last Man to Hang (1956). The title alludes to contemporary shifts in attitude in relation to the death penalty but that aspect, while mentioned and acknowledged, is very much subordinated to the central question of whether the man referenced is to be found guilty or not.

The plot revolves around Sir Roderick Strood (Tom Conway), a music critic who is arrested and charged with the murder of his wife Daphne (Elizabeth Sellars). A good deal of the story is recounted via flashback as Strood  briefs his QC (David Horne) on the events leading up to the fateful evening. Essentially, the film is constructed of three parts – the preparation for the trial, the trial itself, and then the deliberations and verdict reached by the jury. The first section sees the accumulation of a significant amount of circumstantial evidence not helped by the damaging fact that Strood was conducting an extramarital affair with a singer (Eunice Gayson) and building up a lot of ill-will from his wife’s vindictive maid (Freda Jackson).

Then comes the trial at the Old Bailey, where counsel for the defense and the prosecution elegantly present the facts, and interpretations, they hope will swing the case their way. And finally, it’s passed on to the jury, the dozen men and women handed the responsibility for sifting these facts and ultimately deciding whether the man before them is to live or die.

The Last Man to Hang was adapted from The Jury, a novel by Gerald Bullett. I recently picked up a copy of that book, heavily influenced by the great looking cover art of Pan books of that era, and although I have yet to read it I was keen to see how the movie version was. Actually, I wonder now whether the book tells its story in exactly the same way – the film presents the viewer with a vital fact early on (which I’m not revealing here) and I’m not quite sure if that was the best approach or whether it serves to increase or reduce the tension. In my mind, the jury is still out (apologies for that dreadful pun) on that score but it may concern others less. The director for this film was Terence Fisher, and while The Last Man to Hang wasn’t a Hammer production  it’s difficult not to think of him as the studio’s principal shot caller now and therefore unconsciously make comparisons. With that in mind, I think it’s fair to say Fisher’s direct and economical shooting style is apparent all the way through.

Top-billed Tom Conway was an actor whose career was on the downward curve by this stage. In the 1940s, even if he never reached quite as high as his bother George Sanders, he had done good things in three of the best Val Lewton films, a handful of nifty films noir (including one for Anthony Mann),  and had also taken the lead in the long running The Falcon series of B mysteries. He was making a number of movies in the UK at around this time – the other two or three I’ve seen being reasonably entertaining – and about to move towards more television work. His role as the adulterous and conscience-stricken defendant is a large one, giving him plenty of screen time and he is his usual suave self. There’s a restraint there (some might say too much) but I think it works and suits the self-critical reserve of his character.

Aside from Conway, the cast of The Last Man to Hang is deep and impressive. The three major female roles are all well handled. Elizabeth Sellars gets the moody obsessiveness of her character spot on and you can clearly see the frustration she inspires both in her husband and in herself. Freda Jackson, a familiar face in British cinema, is wonderfully malicious and spiteful as the maid whose twisted devotion plays such a pivotal part in the plot. And future Bond girl Eunice Gayson, who just recently passed away, is quietly effective and indeed affecting in her small but vital role. In the courtroom scenes, David Horne and Raymond Huntley battle with distinction while judge Walter Hudd looks on. Of the jury members, Victor Maddern stands out as the stubborn type who could have given Henry Fonda a run for his money in 12 Angry Men.

Sadly, The Last Man to Hang has yet to be released on DVD anywhere. However, it does turn up on TV, in what is probably a cropped 4:3 version, and has done so recently, which is how I managed to catch up with it. The movie was distributed theatrically by Columbia so the rights may still reside with the studio. This is an absorbing courtroom tale, examining the concept of justice in both  criminal and personal terms and is well enough made with a memorable cast to attract an audience still. I’d hope some company might find a way to get this on the market at some stage.

Paid to Kill

Previously I made the assertion that instances of bad luck and, let’s say, poor choices when it comes to decision-making were major ingredients of film noir. I suppose rash decisions can and often do count as poor, so this fatal combination makes another appearance in Paid to Kill (1954), an early Hammer production which followed the formula adhered to by the studio back then of using a slightly faded US star in the lead to add greater marketing appeal outside of the UK.

Jim Nevill (Dane Clark) is a businessman and the head of Amalgamated Industries – I’m not sure if the exact nature of the industries is ever mentioned and if it is, I’ve no memory of it. Anyway, the point is that, despite surface indications, Nevill and his company is in trouble. A deal he had been depending on seems to have fallen through and he’s faced with the prospect of professional and personal ruin. This is an unattractive prospect but it’s made even more unpalatable by the fact that Nevill is desperate to ensure his wife, Andrea (Thea Gregory), is not dragged down with him. This is where we come to the rash decision referred to above – he hires (blackmails actually) an old acquaintance with a shady past to kill him so his wife will benefit from a generous insurance payout. Quite aside from the matter of pushing nobility and altruism to the extreme, Nevill has miscalculated badly. What happens when a man who convinced himself he had nothing to live for then discovers that the opposite is the case after those grinding wheels of fate have been set in relentless motion? What do you do when the man you’ve paid to take your life looks like he’s not only determined to fulfill his side of the bargain but has also dropped completely out of sight?

The Hammer name is best known for the horror movies the studio specialized in from the last 1950s onward but the studio was making a lot of these modest little crime movies in the earlier part of the decade. When it came to marketing them for DVD release some years ago they were labeled as noir, although that didn’t really fit in all cases. Having said that, Paid to Kill does live up to the billing and the whole premise of the movie, along with the tone and look, is pure noir. The focus of this site has remained firmly on British crime of late and certain directors have almost inevitably been featured. Montgomery Tully hasn’t been included until now but his output during the 50s and 60s was such that it would be difficult to run through any short series of articles on this theme without coming to him eventually. His work on Paid to Kill is quietly impressive, maintaining a good pace and an attractively dark look.

Overall, I like this film – the story is melodramatic but in a good way, and the direction has a smooth efficiency – but it would be remiss of me if I were to gloss over the deficiencies. To begin with the positive, I feel Dane Clark did well as the lead, hunted and subdued for the most part but also bouncy and pugnacious when the twists of the plot required it. While he’s not an actor I’ve ever warmed to in particular, I’m happy to acknowledge how important he is to the production here. Yet that’s about it as far as the praise for the acting goes. With the notable and laudable exception of Clark, we’re treated to a succession of overly broad, flat or, in a few cases, outright wooden performances. Disappointing.

Paid to Kill was released on DVD by VCI, paired up on the same disc with another Montgomery Tully effort The Glass Tomb. There’s some print damage to be seen throughout and it’s clear that no restoration was attempted. Still, the image isn’t displeasing and that damage isn’t too distracting. OK, I’ve been quite dismissive of many of the performances but Clark is fine and his work, alongside Tully’s direction and the fatalistic plot, more or less compensates. It’s a neat and compact British noir and a good example of early Hammer.

You Can’t Escape

Aside from the visual motifs, film noir leans heavily on the presence of certain thematic elements. Betrayal and suspicion figure strongly, and crime of some form is usually involved, but perhaps the most important ingredient of all is the product of the ill-starred marriage of bad luck and stupid decision-making. It’s difficult to get away from the fact that many (maybe even all) of the hopeless predicaments the characters in the noir world seem to blunder into time and again are essentially situations which could and indeed should have been avoided with the application of a little rational thought. You Can’t Escape (1957) offers a convenient illustration of this very point.

Peter Darwin (Robert Urquhart) is a successful author and a man with a quiet and easy charm. The beginning of the film suggests he’s a lucky guy too, happening to be on the scene to rescue  wealthy and eligible heiress Kay March (Noelle Middleton) and thus embarking on a relationship. Still, Darwin’s smoothness is of the superficial variety, and a late night call from another woman, one who is still in love with him initiates our noir-tinged series of events. Things are looking bad for Darwin – the girl is pregnant and wants him back, so his dreams of marriage and a comfortable future begin to recede rapidly. From here the situation turns increasingly grim as that poor luck results in an accident which sees the girl dead, and then the rotten decisions start to kick in – so begins the descent that is integral to film noir.

You Can’t Escape has no especially big names to draw an audience, at least no names that modern audiences will be all that familiar with. Robert Urquhart,  in the same year as he was starring in The Curse of Frankenstein for Hammer, was and remains probably the most recognizable face for most. He turns in a pretty solid and increasingly repugnant performance as the grasping writer who has plenty of charm but uses it to conceal a hard yet brittle core. He does very good work gradually revealing just how venal and manipulative his character is, a fine piece of villainy. Noelle Middleton is fine too as the woman who covers up for him at first and then slowly sees the error she has made, the monster she has been protecting and appalling way in which her love and loyalty has been misplaced. A good noir should have some kind of triangle and in You Can’t Escape the third arm is provided by the upright and self-effacing Guy Rolfe. Maybe he’s a little too upstanding and noble, and then again maybe he just appears so in relation to Urquhart’s craven chancer. And heading up the supporting cast is a sly Peter Reynolds as a grating journalist with an eye for a story and a penchant for blackmail.

You Can’t Escape has a strong noir look with some very well-lit shots and setups, the kind of thing many a Hollywood major would have been proud of a few years earlier. The man who directed this was one Wilfred Eades. His list f credits as director is a short one and I don’t believe I’ve seen anything else he shot. Mind you, I have seen one picture where he is credited as the writer, the 1958 swashbuckler The Moonraker, and that’s quite an entertaining little movie.

For a fairly obscure slice of Brit noir, Network made a welcome effort with the DVD presentation of You Can’t Escape. The film is offered in both widescreen and Academy ratios, the former is surely the correct one and the print used is in pleasing condition too. As for supplements, we get a trailer and also a gallery. All told, this is a neat example of British film noir and it’s certainly worth a look.