The Prowler

Film noir is a look and an attitude as much as anything else. There’s the darkness, both visually and thematically, and the fatalistic tone which creeps ever nearer the doomed characters treading the fine line dividing shadow and light, hope and despair, in this cinematic moral maze. If it grew out of the bitterness nurtured by the economic hardship of the 1930s, the wounds inflicted on society were then cauterized and desensitized by the horrors experienced in WWII. And the end result? A feeling of jaded weariness, of disenchantment when the post-war promise of a brighter future for all remained tantalizingly and agonizingly just beyond the reach of some. The Prowler (1951) is a film about disappointment and dissatisfaction, and the lengths people will go to, either consciously or unwittingly, in an effort to conquer this.

The opening sees Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) reacting with shock on realizing that someone has been observing her through her unshaded bathroom window. Naturally, she calls the police to report the incident and has a visit from a squad car containing an old pro on the eve of retirement, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), and another younger man, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). It’s the latter who takes the keener interest, not so much in the case itself as the lady at the center of it. You see, Garwood is a dissatisfied soul, a man whose youth was taken up with dreams of wealth and success as a professional athlete. When circumstances didn’t allow this to come to fruition Garwood became a cop, a second-rate job in his opinion and he began to brood. Here’s a man who feels life has cheated him out of what ought to have been his due, and his nocturnal visit to the luxurious Spanish home with the vulnerable and alluring woman inside has just added to his ethical itch. While our disgruntled cop readies himself to scratch while he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, a similar sensation is beginning to come over the woman, just not quite so obviously. She’s not happy either, and you read it in her demeanor, drifting listlessly around her well-appointed but empty home, as her husband (notably absent at least in visual terms until the fateful moment) is an older, less exciting man – and it’s later revealed that he is leaving her unsatisfied in more than one way. The scene is set therefore for a drama built around betrayal, deceit and ultimately murder.

I guess what I’ve written above gives a fair indication of how the tale develops. However, I’ve deliberately left it there – what I mentioned essentially occurs in the first act, and most of it quite early on – as I think it actually moves in slightly unexpected directions, due to some good writing and a pair of strong central performances. The version of the film I watched comes with supplemental contribution from such noir experts as Eddie Muller, James Ellroy and Alan Rode who make the point of how the film is a critique of corrupt authority and how dangerous it is to put too much trust in this. I certainly don’t dispute that reading and I think it’s a major element of Dalton Trumbo’s script. Nevertheless, I found certain other elements, namely the disenchantment and disillusionment with hand dealt by life, every bit as noticeable and important. The character of Garwood has been warped and turned in upon itself by a sense of thwarted entitlement; it’s there in his words when he speaks of his lousy breaks and it’s also writ large on his face as he surveys the comfortable home occupied by Susan and her elusive husband, a marked contrast to the cramped and mean room he lives in. That post-war American Dream wasn’t delivering for Garwood.

As I said, the script was from Dalton Trumbo but this was the era of HUAC and the blacklist and so his name wouldn’t appear on the credits. Originally,  the story (by Robert Thoeren & Hans Wilhelm) was titled The Cost of Living, a phrase repeated by Susan’s husband during his radio broadcasts (voiced by Trumbo incidentally) and I reckon it’s a more apt one than the admittedly catchy The Prowler. The lead is driven by his materialism and his hunger for social status, and the constant refrain of how the cost of living is going down takes on a decidedly pointed meaning when we think how cheap life becomes in his eyes. Still and all, this isn’t some dull socioeconomic diatribe, it’s a pacy and not entirely predictable thriller, and director Joseph Losey moves his camera around with a calm fluidity – it’s never showy or self-conscious but effortlessly artistic. And the climax had me thinking of Anthony Mann and his penchant for driving his characters towards heights they struggle to scale.

Some years ago I wrote a piece on Act of Violence and remarked then on the way Van Heflin was cast somewhat against type. The Prowler takes that a step further by almost entirely subverting the typical dependability of Heflin’s persona. Having him play a policeman, a figure one associates with protection and security, serves to further heighten the shock value of seeing him as a cold and manipulative schemer. Evelyn Keyes is very good too as the suburban wife bored by her everyday isolation, flattered by the attention yet also horrified by the increasingly chaotic turn of events. While there is some interesting support work, most particularly from an earnest and likeable John Maxwell, this is very much a two-hander and a fine showcase for the talents of the leads.

The Prowler came out on DVD first via VCI in the US and that’s the edition I picked up. I was happy enough with the quality at the time and the attractive extra features I referred to earlier were welcome too. A few years later the same company put out a Blu-ray version of the movie but I it sound like a significant upgrade so I just stuck with my older SD copy, and i can’t say I’m displeased. Frankly, I feel this is a fine film noir, well cast, well shot, well written, and well worth ninety minutes of anyone’s time.

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The Naked Jungle

Some films can be difficult to classify satisfactorily, not there’s really any need for us to do so or for the film to accommodate our often arbitrary categories for that matter. Nevertheless, many of us do like  to be able to point to a given slot and pronounce that Film X has its natural home there. The Naked Jungle (1954) is one of those rarities where it’s hard to say with any degree of confidence what genre it belongs to. I guess the nearest is the broad and malleable section known as adventure. Still, that’s only part of it – it’s adventurous for sure, but there’s romance in there, some elements of fantasy, an early stab at the disaster movie, melodrama and, lurking just beneath the surface, a liberal dash of parody. Anyway, however one chooses to label it, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The opening credits inform us that the time is the beginning of the 20th century, 1901 to be precise, and the location is South America, which covers a fair bit of ground. A boat chugging its way downriver is carrying one Joanna Leiningen (Eleanor Parker), a new bride married by proxy and on her way to meet her husband for the first time. An unusual arrangement, but then the entire first act is chock full of oddness and peculiarity. Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is a cocoa plantation owner and, as we are informed, lord and master of all he surveys in the virtual kingdom he has carved out of the jungle. He came to this far-flung place still a teenager and has spent the last 15 years working, building and fighting the ever encroaching jungle. It’s clear he has wealth, luxury and near absolute power, but he lacks a woman. What could be more natural then for such a man than to send for one. What arrives though is something of a surprise to him, not least for her evident beauty and accomplishment. If Leiningen believes there must therefore be something wrong with his newly acquired bride, it also becomes clear he has some failings himself. In his own words he knows nothing of women. Nothing at all. This is the basis for a good deal of overheated melodramatics, but only the forerunner  to the real consuming passion of the movie – the vast army of soldier ants swarming its way across a continent and devouring every living organism in its path.

Mention the name of producer George Pal to a film fan and most will automatically think of Sci-Fi, add in director Byron Haskin and The War of the Worlds should almost certainly spring to mind. Well The Naked Jungle isn’t Sci-Fi but the Man vs Nature plot does make  it a type of proto-disaster movie. And yet that element, while alluded to in the background with various dark mutterings about the unusual behavior of the native wildlife and the feeling that “something” is coming, only reaches fruition in fairly spectacular fashion in the last half hour or so. Until then, we get plenty of the melodrama referred to above. This kind of thing can be difficult to manage successfully, especially the prim Edwardian variety presented here, and exacerbated by the casting of that symbol of virility that was Charlton Heston as a virginal type bewildered by the earthiness of Eleanor Parker. Perhaps wisely, the script by Ranald MacDougall and Philip Yordan (fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow) takes a sidelong view of it all and offers up the kind of ripe and arch dialogue that is hugely enjoyable.

While Heston and Parker must surely have had a  fine old time trading wisecracks about the desirability of a well-played piano and the  like, there’s also ample opportunity for them to  literally get their hands dirty in the mud and, in Heston’s case, a very close encounter with the billions of hungry ants. You’ll never hear me complain about anything where William Conrad makes an appearance and it’s good to see him in a strong supporting role as a sympathetic government official. Familiar character actor John Dierkes is also a welcome sight as a villainous rival planter, and clearly enjoys the chance to make the most of the pulpy material.

So there you have it, The Naked Jungle is one of those films we could call a “guilty pleasure”, much as I dislike that term – if one enjoys something, I can never see what there is to feel guilty about. Frankly, I think it’s a grand piece of entertainment and while the old DVD looks mostly fine, I’d like to see how it looks in Hi-Def. Either way, it’s a fun movie that’s well worth checking out.

The Gunfight at Dodge City

If any decade can be said to offer the finest representation of the strengths of the western, then the 1950s has to be it. And if any one year is to be regarded as providing the purest distillation of the themes and motifs of that genre, then 1959 has to be the prime contender. Whether the effort was conscious or not is of little importance; what matters the way everything built upon foundations already laid earlier, gaining depth and gravitas as the decade wore on, to culminate in the cinematic riches of that peak year. The Gunfight at Dodge City is a fine film, a beautifully shot piece of wistfulness, a mature film for a mature star in a genre which had become a master of its own conscience.

There are certain names which have a habit of cropping up time and again in westerns – lawmen like Wyatt Earp and outlaws such as William Bonney. Bat Masterson may not be quite as well-known but it would be a close run thing and he can’t be far off most people’s radar either. The movie isn’t what you could call a biopic, it just uses a familiar western figure and weaves a story around his legend. We first encounter Masterson (Joel McCrea) as he’s about to return to civilization after a spell hunting buffalo. First though, there’s a visit from an old acquaintance Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson), warning him of the threat posed by a jealous and belligerent soldier. Right away we come face  to face with the theme that dominates the movie, violence and its consequences. Masterson tries to explain to his young and naive companion how the fear and anxiety that walk hand in hand with violence gnaw at the soul, and how the cold brutality of the consequences haunt one thereafter. We get to see it too, in order to drive home the point and the rest of the film employs the oft-used town tamer motif as a vehicle for its parable about loneliness and renewal.

The  previous year had seen director Joseph M Newman explore the ambiguities in McCrea’s character in Fort Massacre. There’s less of that quality on display here, instead we get to see more of the personal integrity typically associated with the star, and an implacability that both commands and demands respect. McCrea was then in his mid-50s, confident enough to project a cool self-awareness and accomplished in the craft of dominating the screen. If the film goes places the western had been before, it’s McCrea’s honesty and directness that keep it feeling fresh. Still, it’s a role that is uncompromising and could become almost too harsh were it not for one character player in particular. John McIntire was a marvelously versatile figure and could add a twinkle to his eye when necessary to lighten even the grimmest  situation. Julie Adams and Nancy Gates are the two women competing for McCrea’s affections, and adding subtle shades to the usual good girl/bad girl scenario.

The Gunfight at Dodge City isn’t a western of the plains or the wide open spaces, remaining confined to the back lot and interiors throughout. However, Newman’s pacy direction and careful use of angles ensures this is never a drawback. If anything, the shot selection in combination with the atmospheric lighting choices of cameraman Carl E Guthrie are used to the greatest possible effect. And then there’s the finely staged climactic duel. It’s a terrific piece of work, as McCrea hears his own words from the film’s first scene echoing in his ears, fatalistically pointing out the folly and fear of the gunman’s path. He reluctantly strides out onto a deserted street to confront an equally unwilling foe, two men fully aware of what they are undertaking yet apparently powerless to break free of the deadly code that binds them. After the iconic face-off the guns will crash and one of them will crumple in the dust, and the whole affair is executed clinically and without any veneer of glamor. This is what the western was building up to – a frank acknowledgment of the grubbiness of violence. The myth  of the west was not built on a celebration of gun play but a celebration of the quest for accommodation with one’s own soul and conscience.

The Gunfight at Dodge City has been readily available on DVD for years now, and there’s also a Blu-ray on the market. I still have the old US DVD, which presents the film quite handsomely in anamorphic ‘Scope. I imagine the Hi-Def version will show off Newman and Guthrie’s imagery to great effect but the old SD copy isn’t bad. I think this is a very strong film, a good example of the quality of work in the genre by this time – an excellent film from a year filled with highlights.

The Tattered Dress

Ever wondered how films end up neglected? I was almost going to say “lost” but that’s an entirely different category; I mean movies which are viewable, accessible with a bit of effort, but neither commercially available nor presented in optimum condition. By the way, I’m not offering any answers here. I’m very bit as mystified as the next guy, and I’m really only indulging in a bit of idle musing after watching a less than perfect version of The Tattered Dress (1957). You could argue that the cast is largely peopled with actors who have drifted a little too far out of the public consciousness, although I’m not wholly convinced by that one myself. Regardless of that, the film was directed by Jack Arnold, a cult favorite if ever there was one, and yet this work remains (apparently) unrestored and stubbornly unreleased.

Cinema sometimes feels like the theater of the senses, or maybe a more sensual version of the theater. If we lose the immediacy of the live performance, we also gain something in extreme intimacy, and then in an instant we can also achieve the cool distance of an observer in a gallery. And all the while our senses are targeted and stimulated, particularly our vision and hearing. I’ve come to think that film sequences without dialogue – not silent film, just with the dialogue stripped out – come closest to pure cinema, storytelling predominantly through visuals, music and ambient sound. The Tattered Dress opens like this: with a torn frock, a breathtaking blond racing through a desert night in an open top convertible, a tense meeting with her husband, another ride and then a cool and clinical killing. And not a word spoken.

That’s the setup, a late night killing, a crime of passion by a shooter who needs a sharp lawyer to do the defending. That lawyer is James Blane (Jeff Chandler), famed for his ability to defend the indefensible and the bane of district attorneys everywhere. Blane is blunt, cocksure and beholden to one creed only, the need to win, to succeed and feed the legend of his own ego. His courtroom wizardry has seen him scale the peaks of his profession while he’s sacrificed his personal satisfaction to attain it. If his wife maintains an arm’s length relationship and his children are rarely seen, well so be it. He gets his clients off, and he gets this latest one an acquittal too, shredding the reputation of a small town sheriff on the way. However, this is only part of the story, and Blane’s moment of triumph is an imposter, disguising a comedown that will shake his faith in himself to the core. Yet perhaps he’ll learn something about himself in the process.

Jack Arnold is held in high esteem, and rightly so, for the Sci-Fi films he made in the 1950s. Those films, such as It Came from Outer Space and the excitingly cerebral The Incredible Shrinking Man, were landmarks not only for that genre but for genre filmmaking as a whole. Still, it would be a mistake, and a disservice to the man, if one were to classify him on those terms alone. Tucked in among his credits, one can find a brace of what I’m happy to assert are classy and superior examples of tight and economical western cinema – No Name on the Bullet and Red Sundown. Also, around the same time, Arnold was making (along with Jeff Chandler as it happens) Man in the Shadow where he took aim at small town corruption and racism. Here, under the guise of a slick legal thriller, he cast a sideways glance at the American Dream.

I’d like to think the desert setting, which Arnold seemed drawn to on a number of occasions, has some significance. Is it too much of a stretch to view that harsh and bleak backdrop as a kind of blank canvas upon which he felt greater freedom to explore his themes? Because he does dig under the surface of the glossy 50s American success story – the hotshot lawyer stirs urban/rural and western/eastern hostilities right from the beginning, and his idealized family unit (not to mention that of his smooth and wealthy clients) is shown to be anything but ideal. In short, there’s a nasty bit of corrosion creeping in beneath the chrome trim. The broken home and tarnished ideals of the man are the price he has paid in his ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune, elbowing such trifles as truth and justice aside in his dash for a questionable prize. So, at this point, let me make a proposal – that Arnold was every bit as concerned, all through his Sci-Fi, western and thriller work, with a critical examination of the flaws and  barely suppressed crises of the post-war American soul as the more critically acclaimed Douglas Sirk. While this is something I’ve pondered before, I’ll freely admit that this George Zuckerman scripted production hauled it all front and center for me – Zuckerman also wrote a number of screenplays for Sirk, including the perennially underrated The Tarnished Angels.

Now, a brief word on the performances. Jeff Chandler’s early death robbed the cinema of one of the most promising talents of the era. It has also led to an under-appreciation of his talents and abilities, but a look at any of his best roles quickly highlights his powerful screen presence. Plenty of actors, especially leading men in their prime,  are and were loath to accept what might be perceived as unsympathetic roles. Chandler, however, seemed comfortable enough taking on less than wholesome parts. The lawyer here is not a nice man, he’s a grasping and ruthless type who has lost his way, and yet Chandler embraces this negativity and offers a welcome three-dimensional portrait of ambition colliding with a hunger for personal fulfillment. Facing off against him is Jack Carson, the butt of plenty of jokes as a character player. His bulky joviality is nicely subverted here and his cool undermining of Chandler is very memorable. Jeanne Crain is the estranged wife, still in love with Chandler but proud enough to hold herself back until he rediscovers his humanity. And finally, there’s Gail Russell, that fragile beauty in the middle of a temporary comeback that was destined to be short-lived.

To finish this piece, which has ended up running slightly longer than my other recent postings, let me just reiterate that The Tattered Dress is a classy melodrama/thriller with a fine cast and on-form director. That it remains unreleased on any current home video format is something I struggle to understand. There are many films we can safely say are deserving of a high quality digital release – this is most assuredly one of them. I can only hope someone sets about rectifying this oversight soon.

The Halliday Brand

When I started this blog a good many years ago my motivation was to talk about movies, in particular westerns. At the time I felt the genre was somewhat neglected in comparison to others, and that what we might refer to as the medium efforts were passed over with depressing regularity. Films such as The Halliday Brand (1957) were what I had in mind, where a strong cast and crew worked on a project that only a smattering of people seemed to be aware of. This is a movie where the final result isn’t quite up to the level of the filmmakers’ ambition, where you have to admire the stylish execution even as you experience a touch of regret for a promising scenario which doesn’t quite gel.

The opening makes it clear that the Halliday family is a troubled one, Clay (Bill Williams) attempting to coax his brother Daniel (Joseph Cotten) back to the homestead at the point of a gun. The reason is Dan senior (Ward Bond), local lawman and hardheaded pioneer, is on his deathbed and keen to see his estranged son while he still has time. Now this is an especially dark tale of familial strife, bordering on film noir in its intensity and tragedy, and it’s therefore only appropriate that its telling should be largely undertaken via flashback. It’s here that we learn how the elder Halliday is so consumed with an unpleasant combination of racial prejudice and stubborn pride that he’s prepared to ignore the advice of his sons and his own inner voice. His inflexibility leads to a lynching that breaks his daughter’s heart, and then a pointless confrontation which drives a powerful wedge between himself and the son who bears his name. And at the center of this emotional maelstrom sits the mystically serene enigma that is Aleta (Viveca Lindfors), the half-Indian girl who has captured the hearts of both Halliday brothers.

I have to say I really like the films of Joseph H Lewis; they may not always be wholly successful but there is an artistic drive and strong visual sensibility at their heart which is hard to resist. The Halliday Brand sets itself up as a classical tragedy played out against a frontier backdrop, which is a noble enough intention and one which has paid off in other productions. Here I think it works only up to a point as it feels as though there are too many themes (or too many facets of themes) competing for the viewer’s attention over its reasonably brief running time. The essence of it all is the Halliday brand of the title – the literal one is the symbol of the buried tomahawk, of conflicts resolved through strength, while the figurative one is the harsh implacability represented by Halliday senior and the barely acknowledged version of the same to be found in the younger generation. One could draw inferences from the casting of arch-conservative Ward Bond as the in such a role but it’s (in my opinion) an optional exercise and the movie still works without doing so – it’s the human drama at the center of it all that counts for more but the layered structure facilitates different levels of appreciation if desired.

Bond is as impressive as ever in his role here, mean and manipulative to the end and an imposing, authentic physical presence. Joseph Cotten is less effective I feel, his natural reserve fits the quieter and more introspective side of his character but his performance feels somewhat mannered at times and could have used a bit more raw passion. Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors sounds like an odd choice to play a half-Indian girl but her striking beauty, photographed with superb skill by Ray Rennahan, works in her favor and I found her credible in the role. In support there is good solid work done by Bill Williams, Jay C Flippen and a virtually unrecognizable Jeanette Nolan.

The Halliday Brand is available on DVD from the US via the MGM Manufacture on demand line. It looks like an older television master was utilized, meaning an acceptable if unspectacular image in terms of clarity and contrast. However, bearing in mind this is a 1957 production, it’s almost impossible to see how the Academy ratio presented on the disc could be correct. That aside, the film is a moderately successful example of western noir – the classical aspirations don’t all hit the mark but the attempt remains a stylish and entertaining one.

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.

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.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa

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

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

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

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

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

Ivy

Film noir has been featured pretty regularly on this site over the years, and anyone who has visited here will likely be aware that I tend towards a reasonably flexible interpretation of the criteria used for inclusion in that category. I wouldn’t dream of trying to persuade those with more purist tastes to come round to my way of thinking, instead I prefer to just present what titles I feel belong according to my personal  (and wholly unscientific) checklist. As such, I’ve always been content to list westerns, color productions and period pieces. It’s to that latter variety that I want to turn our attention today, the relatively small selection of films sometimes referred to as gaslight noir. Ivy (1947) is a title which eluded me for many years so I was pleased to get my hands on a copy recently to see how it fared.

The film opens with a foretaste of what will follow, in fact it involves the title character played by Joan Fontaine stealing surreptitiously along an Edwardian terrace to have her fortune told. That sense of the illicit, of things that “nice” people should not do is further heightened when the seer (a typically eccentric Una O’Connor) alludes to the lady’s unfaithful behavior, and then mutters darkly about the tragedy to come after she departs. This is all very melodramatic stuff, but that’s the nature of the tale being told. It’s soon made clear that Ivy is in an unhappy place in life, married to a jobless milquetoast, Jervis (Richard Ney), and living in correspondingly straitened circumstances while also keeping her options open by toying with the affections of Doctor Gretorex (Patric Knowles). Of course Ivy is nothing if not ambitious, and when an encounter with the extremely wealthy Miles Rushworth (Herbert Marshall) offers the opportunity for even greater riches, well you can probably see where this is all headed. It’s only a matter of time before Ivy realizes her hopes of a comfortable existence would be better served if certain figures were removed from her life. The only question that remains is how best to manipulate people and events to achieve this end.

Ivy is an adaptation (by Charles Bennett) of a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, who is probably best know as the writer of The Lodger. The story unfolds during 1909, established by the fact that Bleriot’s successful flight across the Channel is woven into the narrative early on, and that means we get one of those idealized Hollywood imaginings of London in bygone days – a piece of pure fantasy to be sure but one featuring the kind of sets and art direction that just ooze atmosphere. We’re still firmly in the studio era here and Universal-International always had a knack  for conjuring up these kinds of cinematic neverlands. Sam Woods directed smoothly but the fact the film was produced by William Cameron Menzies and shot by Russell Metty surely accounts for that characteristically attractive look.

I tend to think of Joan Fontaine as an actress best suited to less proactive roles, probably stemming from my first seeing her in Rebecca and Suspicion, the two films she made for Hitchcock. I remember not being especially impressed by her work as an unsympathetic character in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad, but she is much more effective in this one and is genuinely convincing as a scheming and two-faced woman determined to clamber over anyone to get what she wants. In fact, she’s easily the most dominant  figure throughout – Ney’s character is the epitome of weakness, Knowles is mainly about pained nobility and repressed emotions, while Marshall (easily the most talented one) has limited screen time but does make an impact whenever he is on view. As ever in productions from this period, the supporting cast is a pleasure in itself. Cedric Hardwicke is quietly engaging as the Scotland Yard man whose tenacity and calm thoroughness acts as a stabilizing influence, and there are familiar faces such as Sara Allgood and Paul Cavanagh appearing in key roles.

Ivy was, in my experience anyway, a difficult film to see for many years but I recently came across a DVD release in Italy which not only makes the movie available but also has it looking quite well. The picture quality is generally strong and the image looks crisp and sharp for the most part. However, I had the impression the sound might be slightly out of sync at the beginning, but it seems to improve later – of course it may be that I simply became accustomed to it. The film itself is a very entertaining period noir with that polished studio appearance that can be a real draw when done properly. The cast, especially the leading lady, is more than competent and the only issue I had was that I thought the opening – setting the scene and establishing the complex relationships – perhaps ran longer than was strictly necessary. Having said that, it’s a solid film and one I’m pleased to have finally gotten round to seeing.