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.

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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.

The Informers

I’m going to stick with 60s crime for a bit longer, following on from the last entry. It seems safe to say that a harder edge had crept into mysteries and thrillers by the early years of the decade – of course I’m speaking in general terms here and am not for a moment suggesting that this phenomenon hadn’t made an appearance before, nor that it sprang unprovoked from nowhere. No, as with any trend in cinema, it developed gradually but it was certainly more apparent by the time The Informers (1963) came out. It’s possible that the growing permissiveness and the opportunity for greater frankness in the depiction of not only violence but also sexuality and shifting social mores spurred the filmmakers on to throw too much into the mix here. A few years before or perhaps later might have allowed a more pared down script where the focus could have been a little tighter, but that’s a minor criticism.

The title tells us what the main thrust of the story is, and right from the beginning we’re in no doubt that it’s a tale of cops, gangsters and the people who form a bridge between their converging and diverging spheres. Chief Inspector Johnnoe (Nigel Patrick) is the protagonist, a Scotland Yard man of the old school who relies on the tried and trusted methods his superior Supt. Bestwick (Harry Andrews) is keen to move away from, namely the practice of using informers and acting on “information received.” This is a dangerous game for all concerned, relying on mutual trust and extreme caution on both sides, and the possibility of a breakdown in communication, poor timing, treachery and sometimes just bad luck can toss a large and potentially fatal spanner in the works. And that’s essentially what concerns us here. In his quest to produce results in the investigation into a spate of safe-cracking jobs, Johnnoe turns to his long-time pigeon, with serious consequences for all.

I’ll have to confess that I’ve only seen a small fraction of the work of director Ken Annakin. His was a fairly long career, covering a wide range of genres so I can’t say why I’m not more familiar with him. The Informers is a strong piece of work, suggesting I should take a closer look at some of his other films though. There is an attractive blend of action, suspense and character work, not to mention the various social issues which are either woven closely into the plot or touched on more lightly. Aside from the core police yarn, we are presented with aspects of Johnnoe’s home life, strife and competition at work, the abusive relationship of one of the villains and his girl, the difficulties of single-parenthood, hints at racial tensions, and more. As I said above, that’s a lot of material to pack in, even if a lot of it is largely incidental. It does add to the richness of the script but, perhaps because of my recent diet of briefer and more direct storytelling, I still found it rather dense.

Nigel Patrick is an interesting lead, suave and coolly self-assured to start and increasingly frayed as he stumbles deeper into the criminal morass than he’d intended to. He was over 50 when The Informers was made and there’s no attempt to gloss over or hide that, something we tend to see less now where leads generally have to pretend they are almost indestructible superhero types. As the  villains he’s up against both Derren Nesbitt and Frank Finlay are excellent value, brassily flash and quietly menacing respectively. It’s pleasing too to see Colin Blakely get a nice intense part with a fair amount of screen time as a vengeful anti-heroic type. His real-life wife Margaret Whiting has a large and significant role, helping to draw together the diverse plot strands at the climax. The other female character of Johnnoe’s wife, played by Katherine Woodville, is underdeveloped though. Nevertheless, there’s an incredible supporting cast with Roy Kinnear, Allan Cuthbertson, George Sewell, Harry Andrews and John Cowley among others.

The UK DVD of The Informers looks reasonably crisp for the most part but I can’t imagine the Academy ratio presentation is correct. It’s a very enjoyable and well made crime picture, with an incident-filled plot and good performances, so it would be nice  to see it revisited in Hi-Def at some point in the future. Well, we can hope.

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.

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.

Five Card Stud

On a number of occasions this blog has cast a critical eye over that curious phenomenon that is the 60s western, and how it behaved as the decade wore on. Challenged from within and without, internationally by the Spaghettis and other Euro varieties, and nationally by a society in flux as well as the continued pressure from the small screen, the genre was not only threshing around in search of direction it was also seeking to redefine its very identity. While figures like Peckinpah and Hellman were exploring more radical avenues of development, others like A C Lyles’ production unit were trying (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to tap into the nostalgia market. Antone familiar with the western will attest to its malleable quality, its almost unique ability to adapt itself to changing tastes and situations and both absorb and reflect new ideas or themes. This can only come about through experimentation and although I’ve mentioned two diverging paths being followed at the time that left a center ground where other options could be explored. And it’s in that area we find a movie like Five Card Stud (1968), something of a hybrid beast where the trappings and attitudes of the western are blended with the plotting of the classic mystery. Does it work? Well, let’s see…

The title alludes to poker and so the film opens with a game of cards, and one of those tropes so common to the western – an allegation of cheating and the hot-headed response that typically prompts. While professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is away from the table trouble erupts and a stranger is accused of being a card sharp. Spurred by the vicious and vindictive Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), the other players determine to lynch the cheat. Morgan is appalled by this overreaction and sets off in pursuit, hoping to avert a tragedy. However, his protestations are ignored and he’s casually clubbed down before the vigilantes mete out their punishment. Morgan decides this shocking event signals as good a time as any to move on and see how the tables are playing elsewhere. When word reaches him of the sudden and violently gruesome deaths of two of the men involved in the hanging he finds himself drawn back. In his absence, a gold strike has attracted miners and also a new preacher, Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, but main point of interest remains the apparent determination of someone to ensure that a form of rough justice is served, and to that end those present at that fateful card game and its aftermath are being relentlessly picked off.

Revenge, retribution or a reckoning are often found at or near the heart of the western. Of course we’re usually aware of who is the instrument, the man (or woman) with his finger on the trigger. If Five Card Stud can’t quite be said to subvert this, it does at least play with it a little by bringing Christie to the frontier and inviting the audience to see if they could figure out who among the suspects and potential victims was the guilty party before there were, in fact, none. So, as I asked above – does it work? I guess the fair answer to that is to say it’s a partial success. The mystery of who is doing the killing isn’t that hard to work out in itself and while it contains something of a twist that is arguably revealed a bit too soon. As a straight western, as a whodunit, as a piece of cinema from Henry Hathaway, Five Card Stud remains essentially unremarkable. Yet I do feel it’s one of those cases where the eventual sum is actually greater than its components – the finished film is quite entertaining, almost in spite of itself. It is by no means a great western, it is not a great mystery, and it is not a great Henry Hathaway film. For all that, it adds up to a rather enjoyable mystery western directed by Hathaway.

Last time I posted here I commented on some slightly unconventional casting in westerns. And by complete coincidence I find myself continuing in a similar vein here. Roddy McDowall was an actor I always liked, he came across as a very likeable guy throughout his long career in film and television, and could generally be relied on to deliver a good performance. But he never struck me as a natural for westerns; even though he did make a handful of them he had that refined, urbane air that felt at odds with the usual frontier drama. The fact is he does cut an incongruous figure when he first appears yet, though he never completely loses this, he does grow into his role as the movie proceeds.

On the other hand, the two leads were comfortable genre fits. Mitchum, in a part that feels almost like a parody of his memorable work in The Night of the Hunter, eases his way through a setting he knew like the back of his hand. Dean Martin came to serious westerns (yes, I know he’d already spoofed the genre a few years before with Jerry Lewis) with Rio Bravo and clearly took to it. He’s arguably too relaxed in Five Card Stud but that’s no bad thing with a “big” persona like Mitchum present. In support there is strong work from Yaphet Kotto as well as smaller parts for  the likes of Denver Pyle,  Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia and John Anderson. The female roles, it has to be said, are pretty weak and less than memorable, especially the part (one of her last as it happens) handed to the tragic Inger Stevens.

Five Card Stud was put out on DVD many years ago by Paramount and the transfer looks a bit aged now. The film is presented 16:9 and looks reasonably clean but it also appears quite faded and insipid in places. While it could stand an upgrade, I’m not sure how much of a market there is for it and therefore whether the expense would be justified. This is another of those 60s westerns which doesn’t fully satisfy – still, it avoids the pessimism that was a significant flaw in some of its contemporaries and at least has the confidence to try something different. There’s enough in the casting and plotting to hold the attention of both western and mystery fans but it’s unlikely to win any converts. As such, I think it just about earns itself a qualified recommendation.

The Earth Dies Screaming

Continuing with the theme of lower budget British movies that I’ve been exploring of late, let’s move away from the crime and noir genres featured so far and look at an area where it could be argued that a more frugal approach is likely to be more harmful. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Sci-Fi is hurt when the cash is in short supply, that the effects suffer and the cheese factor rises proportionately. Well once again, this conventional wisdom may be no more than prejudice wearing the mask of critical conformity. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is a film which was clearly made on the cheap, using a very small cast and with a running times which comes in at just over an hour.

A short running time means we need to cut to the chase at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s precisely how this movie begins. Vehicles go catastrophically out of control and derail,crash or drop out of the sky, people die abruptly and dramatically. As the title suggest, the Earth is dying, just not with a scream. Although we don’t know why this is happening it’s enough to know that it is, that we’re witnessing an apparently inexplicable cataclysm. Yet there is a natural curiosity, a need to understand and try to make some kind of sense. And there’s a feeling that this knowledge will come our way when we see Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), grim-faced but comfortingly calm and driving along with an air of purpose. As he searches around the desolate village for a means of communication, anything which might raise a living voice anywhere, we get a taste of the enormity of his situation. For a time it looks like he might actually be the last man alive but there’s only a limited amount of dramatic potential in such a setup. No, we need other people to interact with and provide the conflict without which no dramatic situation can truly exist. Enter Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price) and his traveling companion, Peggy (Virginia Field), representing treachery and romance respectively. Others also come on the scene – Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell to bring some pathos, while David Spenser and Anna Palk are a simultaneously surly and hopeful vision of the future. So, as this small, disparate group gathers in the village inn to plan their next move, we get a hint of what may have happened and who (or perhaps what) was behind it.

The name of Terence Fisher must surely be familiar to even a casual fan of British cult cinema. It’s hard not to think of Fisher without Hammer coming to mind, such was his intimate association with the studio. From the early crime and noir pictures of the early to mid 1950s right through to 1970s Fisher’s name regularly popped up in the credits as director, frequently taking charge of some of their most famous and influential movies. The fact The Earth Dies Screaming was also produced by Lippert Films (one of the company’s last titles), another recognizable collaborator with Hammer ties in with this feeling. However, that’s all it is – a feeling – as the famous old British studio didn’t have a hand in this one and had by this time gradually moved away from Sci-Fi, tending to favor (with the odd notable exception) their trademark Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers. Fisher’s flair for and experience of handling pulpy, genre material such as this is evident throughout. There’s a smoothness and confidence to the storytelling and it moves at a very comfortable pace. It’s difficult not to make a comparison with Target Earth, which had been made in the US a decade earlier. That film had used a very similar premise but, in my opinion at least, nowhere near as successfully. The Earth Dies Screaming uses its limited locations to maximum effect and avoids looking any cheaper than absolutely necessary. More importantly though, there is no attempt to move beyond the small, tight-knit cast. This means the focus remains where it should, cuts out any superfluous distractions, and allows the viewer to become better acquainted with these people – all crucial factors in an hour-long feature.

In a film like this, where you have a frankly fantastic storyline, it’s advisable to cast the kind of people who are capable of grounding it all, of keeping the histrionics to a minimum and ensuring that the notionally unbelievable attains a degree of credibility. Willard Parker had that careworn solidity about him, an aura of competence and cool dependability. The Earth Dies Screaming came near the end (he retired from the business after making only two more movies) of what had been a long and varied career for Parker. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that he was the most exciting screen presence but, as I noted, that’s not the quality this production called for. His wife Virginia Field was making her only cinema appearance opposite him – although a bit of research indicates the couple had appeared together in a number of television shows  in the 50s – and also provides a collected and reassuring face. When our attention is on a beleaguered and bewildered group as is the case here, the dynamic works best when there is at lest one disreputable or dangerous member to stoke additional conflict. And it’s difficult to think of anyone who fit the bill better than Dennis Price, a man who practically had a full-time job playing louche wastrels. The rest  of the pared down cast perform admirably – Thorley Walters never disappoints anyway and only David Spenser comes across as mildly irritating, although I suspect that was part of his remit.

The Earth Dies Screaming has been available on a very nice-looking DVD from MGM in the US for a good many years and has recently made an appearance on Blu-ray too. While I’ve no doubt the BD will look excellent I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the old DVD and therefore haven’t bothered to think about an upgrade. That disc has a clean and sharp print presented in the 1.66:1 ratio, and I have no complaints about it. I feel it’s a marvelous little movie, of a type which challenges the idea of Sci-Fi requiring large amounts of money and jaw-dropping effects to be successful. If you haven’t seen it, look out for it and give it a go.

The Shakedown

One criticism sometimes leveled at British crime or noir films is that they were too genteel, seemed too preoccupied with the concerns of middle class protagonists and, consequently, lacked that edge that frequently set apart and elevated their US counterparts. However, like a lot of generalizations and blanket statements it’s not necessarily true; sure examples can be found where this is so but, by the same token, plenty of exceptions to this supposed rule also exist. The Shakedown (1960) is a surprisingly effective British noir that pulls few punches, isn’t overburdened with wholesome characters and looks ahead to the franker approach to social issues that movies in the new decade would increasingly embrace.

Augie Cortona (Terence Morgan) is an angry young man, and one who happens to be spending his last night in prison having served a sentence for running a prostitution racket. Prowling back and forth , full of pent-up energy and resentment, he impresses upon his cellmate (Bill Owen) how he intends to regain his former position of prominence in the underworld. On release, that’s exactly what he sets about doing, despite the warnings from Inspector Jarvis (Robert Beatty) that his every move will be tracked. And obstacles do lie before him, his old operations being taken over by rival hood Gollar (Harry H Corbett) and old friends in no great hurry to renew their relationship. Still, even when it looks like all doors will remain closed to him, he has a chance meeting in a pub with Jessel (Donald Pleasence), a down on his luck photographer. From this he senses an opportunity to strike out in a new direction. All he needs is the money to set himself up and the dubious rewards of a murky blackmail scheme await.

The Shakedown is essentially a classic gangster noir picture, a British variation on the type Hollywood had been turning out on and off since the 30s, a rise and fall saga of crime and criminals. It appears I spend a lot of time on here debating what might or might not constitute film noir, and what can be said to characterize it in any case. This is tricky enough when dealing with the classic American variety but gets tougher still when we move across the Atlantic. There are some instances of the traditional high contrast imagery in this movie but they don’t dominate. Overall, I’d say The Shakedown has more of a flat look, but visuals aren’t the only means of categorizing noir. The tone and mood have to be taken into consideration and are just as important. If director John Lemont merely flirts with shadowy imagery, he and fellow writer Leigh Vance indulge themselves more noticeably when it comes to the theme. The whole thing is seen from the perspective of Augie, a grasping thug with no redeeming features beyond an oily and superficial charm. This is where the real darkness of the picture lies, in the brazen and ruthless manipulation practised by the central character, in his self-serving attitude and in the (for the time) harsh language employed.

As was the case with a lot of British crime movies of the era, and there were a huge number of them, the budget was limited. I’ve noted previously how I don’t necessarily regard such matters as failings and it’s not a major issue here, although it is clear to see. Location work and exterior shots are kept to an absolute minimum and the action is largely restricted to the inside of a handful of buildings. But, as I sad, that doesn’t make the end product less effective. One of the best sequences in the film is the sting Augie arranges to relieve his rival of his ill-gotten gains and thus get himself back in business. It plays out almost exclusively in an elevator and on a landing yet the way it’s shot and edited together means it holds the attention throughout. And that basically sums up the movie – the tension is carefully maintained and the story is solid enough to keep us from paying undue heed to any other shortcomings.

Terence Morgan was a good choice in the lead. Just a few years before he had co-starred in Tread Softly Stranger, another enjoyable British noir, and he was just OK in that one. His role here suited him better as it allowed him to play up the suave nastiness without the need for any nervy introspection. Regardless of the fact we see most of the events from his point of view, no-one can realistically be expected to root for such a mean good for nothing type. Donald Pleasence garners some sympathy, as the photographer who gets duped and exploited but, for all his class and talent, he was never cast as anything other than a supporting character, and isn’t on screen enough, sadly. The person we get behind is Hazel Court as the trainee model, her part develops nicely as the story progresses and a bit more depth is added. Ms Court should of course be familiar to cult movie fans for her work first on a few classic Hammer titles and then later in Roger Corman’s AIP Gothic horrors. The support cast is packed with faces that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen much British film or television – Bill Owen, Robert Beatty (whose talents have been lauded by a few commenters here in recent days), Eddie Byrne, Harry H Corbett (a guy I usually have trouble taking seriously in straight roles), Georgina Cookson, and an especially strong bit of work by John Salew as a blackmail victim.

The Shakedown has been released on DVD by UK outfit Renown and it’s a moderate looking effort. By and large, the image is clean and acceptably sharp, but the aspect ratio can’t be right – it’s presented in Academy ratio and some kind of wide process must surely have been used by 1960. Still, it’s not horribly compromised and I’d imagine it’s as good as the film is going to get. The film is entertaining from start to finish and is one of those that retains a foot in both camps, holding onto a touch of the reserve of the previous decade while also nudging towards the more permissive style that the 60s would become associated with.

Bullet for a Badman

Predictability tends to be the scourge of good storytelling. You know the feeling, when you can tell right from the beginning exactly where a writer is heading, how the story is going to develop and what the characters will do. That’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be derived from such situations, but it’s awfully hard to get enthused about the questionable allure of the familiar. So, having no doubt whetted everyone’s appetite with an opening hook like that, I’d like to say how much a pleasure it is when the promise of the humdrum is swept away and the potentially trite  is actually revealed as an impostor. This is kind of how I feel about Bullet for a Badman (1964), where the opening suggests we’re going to be served up one of those vaguely dispiriting mid-60s efforts, the type of western that highlights the weariness which had crept into the genre during those years. Well if you shouldn’t set too much store by the cover of a book, then I guess this movie goes some way towards bearing out the parallel truism about not judging a film too harshly on the basis of its opening.

Bullet for a Badman starts off with two men setting out on paths  that are soon to converge on the town of Griffin. Sam Ward (Darren McGavin) is an outlaw, his status as a genuine badman established by the cold-blooded killing of an informer, and he’s finalizing his plans to rob the bank in town and then pay a most unwelcome visit on someone he once knew. That someone is Logan Keliher (Audie Murphy), who’s preparing to ride into Griffin with his boy to negotiate financing for his land. The first quarter of an hour or thereabouts play out much as you might expect given the build up I’ve sketched in above. Anyone who has seen even a handful of westerns would most likely be nodding with a sense of uninspired expectation at about this point – the stereotypical characters and circumstances are lined up just the way we anticipate, but then they change tack. The relationships aren’t quite as we’d been led to believe, there’s a complex back story governing the actions and reactions of these people, and what we thought we knew is only the half of it. The revelation of the nature of the connection between Keliher and Ward comes fast and immediately adds a significant amount of meat to the bones of what had looked for all the world like a pretty clapped out tale. Furthermore, once the narrative carries us out of Griffin into the wilderness in the company of the fugitive Ward and the pursuing posse we run into some more previously unsuspected twists. The preconceptions we were actively encouraged to foster in the opening section are whipped away and replaced by a challenge – if the badman we were shown in the early stages isn’t quite excused, then it is at least suggested that we look at those on his trail and ask ourselves whether they are really much better.

I’ve mentioned how the plot, and consequently the characterization, shifts gear after the preliminaries are taken care of and the film moves away from the town of Griffin. Well as that takes place the visual style of the movie naturally alters too. At the beginning there is that flat look that you see in some TV productions of the era, lighting that’s a little too solid and uniform, an over-reliance on sets and mock-ups – the result is not just an artificial appearance, which certainly has its merits, but a cheap one.  Cameraman Joseph F Biroc had an impressive list of credits in both television and cinema but it’s not till we get out among the Utah locations that the best of his talents become apparent. Generally, location shooting has the effect of opening things up, of making a movie feel bigger. That’s the case with Bullet for a Badman, where the film is given the opportunity to breathe away from the backlot. Director R G Springsteen did a lot of TV work, so much that anyone with an interest in the small screen of the period must surely have seen some of his work. Prior to that he made a lot of budget westerns and, to an extent, one could say he was returning to his roots with this, the elusive Showdown also with Murphy, and a handful of A C Lyles pictures. I found his direction here satisfactory overall, but he does let the pace lag a bit in the second act.

I spoke a bit about Audie Murphy’s growing assurance as an actor last year when I wrote a piece on Apache Rifles, a film which was made around the same time as this. Without wishing to go over the same ground repeatedly, let me just reiterate that the abilities which were always there were put to ever more effective use by Murphy as he grew older and grew into the movies; the more complex the role, the more of himself he seemed to put into it. The script by Mary and Willard Willingham, adapted from a Marvin H Albert novel, had protagonist and antagonist as former comrades in the Texas Rangers now cast as rivals by their love of the same woman. There’s plenty of scope for juicy drama in a situation like that, but it needs someone strong to take the part of the antagonist. Here it’s Darren McGavin, another guy I associate primarily with television. I guess many people will think of him as Carl Kolchak from the 70s series and the two reportedly superior TV movies (which I still haven’t seen!), although I’ve also gotten used to him as the 50s version of Mike Hammer. But is he the real villain of the piece? I’ll let each person decide for themselves on that one – suffice to say Skip Homeier, George Tobias, and even Alan Hale Jr have the chance to explore the less savory side of their characters. As for the women, Beverley Owen has a fairly straightforward and typical part as the object of McGavin and Murphy’s affections, while Ruta Lee got more screen time along with a showier if no more original role.

The UK DVD of Bullet for a Badman contains a good print of the movie transferred attractively but economically to disc. There are no supplements at all but the film looks very good, particularly the aforementioned location shooting. The movie itself is one which starts in a frankly pedestrian manner and threatens to become mired in the doldrums. However, it does shake off those routine constraints to become something much more fulfilling. While it does tap into some of the redemptive themes and the richer qualities to be found in the better 50s productions, I don’t want to oversell it either. That opening section is decidedly trite and there are occasional lapses in that direction as it goes along, but I feel that it builds sufficient momentum to keep it fresh for the most part.

The Money Trap

It isn’t the money, it never is. It’s people, the things they want…and the thing’s they’ll do to get it.

While the consensus is that film noir, weakened and wounded by a shifting media and social landscape, shuffled off into the shadows at the tail end of the 1950s, it occasionally lurched back out of the alley and onto the slick, neon-lit main streets. Wherever tough luck and the fickleness of fate hang out the dark cinema is never far off, and sightings were reported at various times throughout the 60s. The Money Trap (1965) is one of those later versions of the classic form and, to my mind, quite an effective one too.

It starts, as it ends, with the aftermath of a killing. The camera is high, observing with cool detachment, the familiar urban setting of streetlights reflecting off wet asphalt. A squad car pulls up to the curb and two detectives alight, crossing swiftly to the ramshackle tenement where the night’s latest offering awaits. Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) and Pete Delanos (Ricardo Montalban) are confronted with the dead body of a young Latino woman, lynched in a bordello by her enraged husband. Although this turns out to be no more than an incidental plot strand, it serves to introduce the seedy and morally skewed world – an “honor killing” such as this is spoken of as being at least partially understandable – where we’ll be spending the next hour and a half. We then move on to see how Baron is living an extremely luxurious existence, far beyond that which a cop’s salary could be expected to pay for. And of course it’s no such a surprise when we learn how the finances are actually down to a rich young wife, Lisa (Elke Sommer), but that supply of cash may not be unlimited. So the need for money is our hook, the line is provided by the main investigation – a burglar shot under slightly dubious circumstances by a well-off doctor (Joseph Cotten) – while the sinker will come in the form of a mini-heist that’s doomed from inception. As it all unfolds Baron, who has been treading a variety of fine lines, runs across Rosalie (Rita Hayworth), an old flame and a reminder of simpler times, and something begins to worry his conscience.

The film has two big themes at work on two levels. In a narrower and more personal sense, there is a yearning for some kind of return to innocence, a desire on Baron’s part to regain some of the purity and promise he once possessed. This plays out in the way he’s drawn repeatedly to seek out Rosalie, yet she’s been bruised and broken by the years and we (and I think the same is true of Baron too) know that he’s really just chasing rainbows on that score. The wider picture is all about front and facade, the flash appearances that ensure nothing is quite as it seems and thus nothing can be depended on. Everybody in the movie is carrying secrets and consequently tell lies to conceal them – policemen are corrupt, wives are potentially faithless, friends may be enemies in waiting and the more respectable the surface, the rottener the core. There are angles everywhere and none of them clean. Should we read something into the fact the one man who speaks of integrity and honesty is a police captain (an uncredited Ted de Corsia) who is only seen  in the morgue?

Burt Kennedy’s great strength was as a writer, especially in those films where he worked with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher – even if he had never done anything else outside of those films his cinematic legacy would have been considerable. Nevertheless, Kennedy also worked as a director, albeit with less satisfying results. In that capacity his work tended to be what we might term entertaining without being all that distinguished. A lot of his films have a certain flatness to the visuals, something of the made-for-TV look, although this doesn’t apply to all of them. The Money Trap does suffer from this a little but cameraman Paul Vogel had a sound enough pedigree in classic era noir (High Wall, Dial 1119, Black Hand, A Lady Without Passport, Lady in the Lake etc.) to ensure the right kind of mood was struck when required. Still, I feel there’s some indecisiveness in the overall style of the movie, it’s not a fatal flaw or anything but it is noticeable.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth made five films together, with Gilda probably being the most famous of those. Naturally, both stars had aged in the two decades which had passed but Ford was in better shape, his features reflecting a man with a bit of living behind him and about the appropriate level of weariness for a man who sees the less savory side of life on a daily basis. Hayworth was playing a woman worn down by years of bad luck and booze, and she looked like she knew the feeling only too well. I understand she had something of a drink problem in reality and there’s a degree of authenticity in her performance.

Joseph Cotten could move easily between heroic and villainous parts; he always had a bit of stiffness about him, a distance or remoteness, which lent itself well to darker or more ambiguous roles as the years went by. As such, he was a fine fit for the doctor with connections and he looked like he was enjoying himself as his character slowly reveals himself. Ricardo Montalban had appeared in a couple of quality films noir before this – Border Incident and Mystery Street – and he brought abundant experience to the table as Ford’s partner on the lookout for any get-rich-quick opportunities. And rounding out the principal cast is  Elke Sommer, always easy on the eye and playing a role that has a touch more depth than initially looks like being the case. In fact, it’s Sommer who makes a major contribution to the resolution, which at least hints at something more positive than the build-up might suggest.

The Money Trap is available as a Warner Archive MOD disc, and there are also copies on sale in other territories. The image is generally quite pleasing, black and white CinemaScope usually is and particularly when the print used has no glaring faults. Anyway, I found this an enjoyable piece of post-noir cinema, well acted and, for the most part, nicely shot.