Friday, March 24, 2017

OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965)

In 1942, British Intelligence gets reports that Germany is working on long-range rocket bombs (what became the V-1 and V-2) which could be devastating to England, and, if rumors are true, even to the United States. Though some are skeptical, Richard Johnson is assigned to head up an investigation of intelligence material, and soon photographic evidence is found of rocket launching sites behind enemy lines. Unfortunately, even though the Allies can bomb them, they can be rebuilt quickly, so a small squad of three agents are parachuted in to pose as engineers from occupied countries—as they are crucial to the German effort—and help sabotage the rocket project. The men (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay and Jeremy Kemp) infiltrate the factory using IDs of dead engineers, but face constant danger of being unmasked, especially when the wife of the man Peppard is impersonating (Sophia Loren) shows up at his boarding house. This is an underrated spy thriller with a nice balance of talk and action, and even a little bit of historical accuracy; the Richard Johnson character, Duncan Sandys was real, as was Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Reuting), the German pilot who helped test the rockets, and of course, the rockets were real, and did real damage. Churchill is a character, and though the actual operation seems to be fictional, it is true that some of the rocket factories were destroyed by Allied bombers, as happens in the climax to the film. There's not exactly an all-star cast—Sophia Loren, the biggest name, has an important but small role—but Peppard (pictured) provides a handsome face and solid leading-man heroics. There is strong support from Johnson, Courtenay and Kemp, and from John Mills, Trevor Howard, Lilli Palmer, Paul Henried and Helmut Dantine. The action and suspense sequences are handled well by director Michael Anderson. Recommended. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

DELUGE (1933)

Scientists Samuel S. Hinds and Edward Van Sloan are mystified by the strange weather being experienced all over the globe—strong storms, an unexpected eclipse, rapidly dropping barometers, earthquakes. Ships and planes are grounded, and people are warned to take shelter. The end of the world is predicted; soon, the entire west coast of the USA collapses, as does Louisiana, and the Arctic Ocean floods into the Great Lakes. Even New York City isn't spared; between quakes and floods, Manhattan is basically washed away. We focus on one family:  lawyer Sidney Blackmer, his wife (Lois Wilson), and their two young children, who live outside of New York. As the winds and quakes hit his neighborhood, Blackmer takes his family to the relative safety of a nearby stone quarry, but he is washed away from them and wakes up the next morning in a post-apocalyptic landscape and assumes they are dead. Meanwhile, champion swimmer Peggy Shannon washes up unconscious and nearly naked and is found by two ruffians who are just barely surviving in a shack. Both men (Fred Kohler and Ralfe Harolde) seem to have lust on their minds, but they take her unmolested to their shack where she recovers. Eventually, Harolde attempts to rape Shannon and Kohler attacks and kills him, not out of any noble instinct, but because he wants Shannon for himself. She escapes, collapses, is found by Blackmer who takes her in, and they slowly fall in love and consider themselves "married."

Not far from Blackmer's retreat, two groups of people are struggling to survive. Kohler falls in with a ragged group of thugs who use physical force to get what they want, but a more civilized community is trying to rebuild, and we discover that Wilson and her two children are recovering here. Matt Moore, who has been Wilson's caretaker, tells her that in these new conditions she must marry someone when she gets healthy (I assume to build up the population and discourage unbridled male lust) and of course he hopes it will be him. But she holds out hope that Blackmer is still alive. Moore's men are after Kohler's gang, and soon Kohler manages to kidnap Shannon. A three-way confrontation is in store between Kohler's men, Moore’s men and Blackmer, leading to the destruction of the thugs and the assimilation of Blackmer and Shannon in Moore's group. But when Blackmer and Shannon find each other alive, more tension brews.

This film, long considered lost, is one of the first big-scale disaster/apocalypse films, though today's viewers may not consider its scale to be very sizeable. These films tend to be judged on their effects; Richard Harland Smith, who does a fine audio commentary on the Blu-Ray, complains about people who call the effects here "primitive," but they are primitive, and it does the movie no favors to ignore that. They will seem especially unconvincing to a modern audience, but to classic movie fans, the effects (mostly model work, mattework and stock footage) are effective enough. (RKO sold some of the effects footage to Republic for use in its adventure serials.) What unbalances the movie is that all the disaster is presented at a speedy pace in the first 15 minutes. Once Blackmer wakes up to a flat and watery world (pictured), the film slows down and becomes a typical survival melodrama. In a modern disaster film, there would be some prelude and backstory early on, and the disaster spectacle would play out closer to the halfway point. The acting ranges from bland (Blackmer is not very charismatic) to very good (the little-known Peggy Shannon as the swimmer). Given the remark about Wilson having to marry, it would have been interesting to go into the philosophy behind the survivors' new way of life. As it is, no attempt is made here at discussions of religion or division of labor, just as no explanation is given for the apocalyptic deluge itself—though there is an odd opening statement which refers to God's promise to Noah not to flood the world again, explaining that this film is just playing with this idea. The tantalizing idea of a three-way relationship between the leads is brought up in the novel this film was based on, but even though this was a pre-Code film, that concept isn't even touched here. The print, the only known English language one in existence, has not been cleaned up very well, but it's watchable. An interesting find. [Blu-Ray]

Monday, March 20, 2017

DEVIL’S CARGO (1948)

Earlier in the 1940s, the Falcon series featured George Sanders as a playboy detective named Gay Lawrence; soon, the role was taken over by Sanders' real-life brother Tom Conway, playing Tom Lawrence, Gay's brother. But by 1948, the character known as the Falcon seemed to have no relation at all to the original. Here, his name is Michael Watling and he's apparently an amateur magician—no doubt because the actor playing him, John Calvert (at left), was a professional magician. This film begins with the murder of Lucky Conroy, followed by a visit from Delgado, Conroy's apparent killer, to Watling (lounging in his bathtub). Delgado confesses to the murder, saying Conroy was having an affair with his wife, and gives Watling a key for safekeeping. A lawyer named Mallon is keen to take Delgado's case, even after we discover that Delgado's wife Margo was the beneficiary of Conroy's life insurance. Soon, Delgado, while in jail, is found dead—poisoned—and a couple of people show an interest in Conroy's key. Watling lets a thug named Naga steal the key and follows him to a bowling alley where Naga opens a locker and is killed by an explosion. As is often the case in Poverty Row mysteries, the plot becomes a bit too convoluted to follow clearly, so I was left to contemplate Calvert's occasional (and rather pedestrian) magic tricks and the antics of his dog Brain Trust. Actually, this isn't a bad way to spend an hour, but it's not in the same league as the earlier Falcon movies. Calvert gives a very low-key performance which is occasionally effective, but he's no replacement for George Sanders, or even for Tom Conway. The supporting cast includes Lyle Talbot, Roscoe Karns and Rochelle Hudson. Low-key is indeed the key to the proceedings. Perhaps the most interesting thing stylistically here is that there is no dialogue for the first five minutes. [Streaming]

Thursday, March 16, 2017

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949)

In England in 1949, American Harvey Stowell (Dean Jagger) sees an antique mug in a shop window and buys it, as it reminds him of his days in England as a major in the Air Force during World War II. He then visits an empty, muddy patch of land which used to be an Air Force base, and we flashback to 1942 when he was part of the 918th Bombardment Group, the only group conducting daylight bombing raids, and consequently suffering heavy casualties. After a particularly grueling mission, General Savage (Gregory Peck) orders another mission which the group's leader, Col. Davenport, thinks is suicidal. Savage asks to have Davenport replaced because he identifies too strongly with his men, and General Pritchard agrees, installing Savage in Davenport's place. He's a hard-ass and it takes a while for him to mold the recalcitrant men—one navigator kills himself as Davenport predicted might happen. Several men ask for transfers, and Savage has Stowell delay the requests for a few days so he can work on the men, toughening them up and gaining respect. Slowly, most of the group comes around, especially when Savage begins flying some of the missions with his men. (The antique mug from the beginning of the movie crops up as a signal that a man has been assigned to a new mission.) But, also slowly, Savage begins reacting like Davenport did, over-identifying with his men, and when a couple of deaths hit him hard, he shows signs of a nervous breakdown.

This well-respected war film is not a traditional war film—though there are a couple of battle scenes, the focus is on the relationships of the men with each other and with their commanding officers, and on the qualities that make (or might un-make) a good leader. The movie's strengths are in its relatively low-key approach to the psychological plot points, and the superb non-grandstanding performances, beginning with Peck and Jagger (pictured above; both nominated for Oscars with Jagger winning for supporting actor) and including Gary Merrill as Davenport, Hugh Marlowe (who may well do the best acting of his career here as an injured flier), Millard Mitchell, Paul Stewart and Bob Patten. This is one of the few war movies with no major female character, and no romantic complications. The tone is serious but not glum in this film which was one of the first to consider the psychological costs of war. Highly recommended. [DVD]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

SWEET ADELINE (1934)

One night in Hoboken at Schmidt's Beer Garden, Schmidt announces he has re-named his chili "liberty beans" because of the Spanish-American War (90 years before Freedom Fries!). He also fires Sid (Donald Woods), the young composer who plays piano at his establishment because Sid has defied him in continuing to date his daughter Adeline (Irene Dunne). She wants to sing and act professionally, and when Sid gets backers to stage the operetta he's writing, he tries to get his producers to replace Elysia (Wini Shaw), the star they already have, with Adeline. But complications ensue: Major Day (Louis Calhern), the main backer, starts flirting with Adeline and eventually asks her to be his mistress, leading to a fight between Day and Sid; another producer comes to suspect that Elysia is a spy; at last, during the opening performance, someone sabotages the huge swing that Adeline uses in the play, causing an onstage injury. I generally like Dunne and Woods, but they both seem to be operating at low power here. Supporting performances by Calhern, Hugh Herbert and Ned Sparks give the movie some life, as do the production numbers, particularly "When We Were Young," which was inspired by Busby Berkekely’s wild Gold Diggers numbers. A minor musical to pass the time. Pictured from left: Woods, Dunne, Calhern. [TCM]

Friday, March 10, 2017

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS (1961)

Eve heads out to the beach with good news for her swim trunks-clad scientist boyfriend Fred: they're being transferred from the barren island observatory where they work now to a better assignment someplace else. She's also happy that they will no longer be working for the cranky old man who heads the observatory, Professor Benson (Claude Rains). They celebrate this news by deciding to get married. Meanwhile, two astronomers think they have discovered signs of a strange object heading for Earth. When Fred visits the eccentric Benson in his elaborate greenhouse, Benson is already aware of the planet-sized object which he has dubbed "the Outsider." Once the public is aware, experts predict that the Outsider will collide with Earth, but Benson claims it will not. He turns out to be correct, but what it does instead is quite strange: it goes into orbit around Earth and begins shooting out flying discs aimed at our planet. We soon discover that the saucers are unmanned, and that the Outsider seems to be, rather than a planet, a vehicle for a race of aliens. The military wants to destroy it, but Benson wants to learn what it is and accompanies a small group of scientists, including Fred and Eve, to land on the Outsider. They have a short amount of time to explore before the planet will be destroyed, and of course the recalcitrant Benson puts himself in harm's way by breaking off from the others. When told he is putting himself in danger, he says, "What importance does life have if to live means not to know?"

This Italian sci-fi film has big ambitions but is hobbled by a low budget, a flawed script, and poor English language dubbing. The idea of a spaceship that looks like a planet is good and would be used in later science-fiction movies. But much of the plotting feels half-hearted or perhaps unfinished. The relationship between Eve (Maya Brent) and Fred (Umberto Orsini, in yellow at left) is given a big build-up in the first 20 minutes, but it soon sputters out to the point where they actually break up (I have no idea why—perhaps I missed a plotpoint). A sequence set on a Mars base seems designed mainly to take up time in the middle of the movie. The special effects are colorful but cheap and will certainly be disappointing to current day viewers. As the narrative approaches the climax, it gets interesting but is not really allowed to develop beyond getting to the end of the movie. What's good about it? Well, a nice eerie atmosphere is sustained throughout due to cinematography, sets and the musical score. There is quite a bit of debate about the late-career performance of Claude Rains—many critics find him hammy and unbearable, but I join those who believe that he is the movie's main saving grace. In the first part of the film, when his character holds forth in his greenhouse, he seems to be sleepwalking through the role, but by the last half-hour, he is giving a full blooded performance, even if we can tell that he thinks the proceedings are generally beneath him. This is only the second film for director Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony Dawson) who would go on to helm many low-budget films—sci-fi, horror, exploitation—and would reach his peak with a series of cheap but colorful films in the mid-60s, the best of which is WILD, WILD PLANET. This is a public domain movie so there seems to be no official video release; most of the DVDs out there are poor in quality, but the print I saw on a YouTube channel was at least presented in widescreen, even if it was a bit blurry at times. [YouTube]

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

THE RAKE’S PROGRESS (1945)

aka THE NOTORIOUS GENTLEMAN

In WWII, a British tank faces a bridge that might be mined. Despite being warned, the commander insists on heading over. Next we see a headline that officer Vivian Kenway (Rex Harrison) has been reported missing. We then flashback to see highlights in the life of Kenway. During the Armistice parades of 1918, young Kenway sneaks out of bed to join the celebrations and is given a shiny pin and told not to forget the "common man" soldiers. [Spoiler: he keeps the pin but rather forgets about the common man.] At Oxford in 1931, Kenway is a bit of a cut-up, putting a chamber pot on a beloved statue, and a bit of a cad, going on a date with Jill knowing that she's seeing his best friend Sandy (Griffith Jones). Sandy warns him to change his ways, but sure enough, Kenway is expelled. His family insists he make something of himself and is sent off to a South American coffee plantation, but that doesn't last long, and Kenway is able to return home and eke out a playboy existence on family money for a while. He meets up with his college buddy Sandy, who is now married to Jill, and he beings an affair with her which goes nowhere, except to a fistfight with Sandy (pictured). When his share of the family money dries up, he takes up race car driving but gets stranded in Vienna where Rikki (Lilli Palmer), a rich Jewish heiress running from the Nazis, helps him out; he also helps her out by marrying her and getting her out of Austria. But back in London, he has an affair and she tries to kill herself. Kenway continues his downward slide, becoming a door-to-door salesman and then a dancing companion (when he's criticized for his lack of ability, he says, "What do they expect for a bob—Fred Astaire?"). Finally, he aims for redemption by joining the Army in WWII and he works his way up to tank commander—and we're back to the beginning of the film. This life story of a useless fellow was loosely inspired by the famous series of paintings by Hogarth. Despite the melodramatic plot twists, the film retains a fairly light tone and Harrison does a nice job of keeping the unlikable title character charming enough that we care what happens to him. Palmer, Harrison’s real-life wife at the time, is very good as is the always appealing Griffin Jones. The rest of the actors don't really stand out, mostly because of their limited screen time, except for Godfrey Tearle as the father. [TCM]

Monday, March 06, 2017

THE SAINT MEETS THE TIGER (1943)

The Saint is Simon Templar, a Robin Hood-like criminal who now mostly works for the side of the law. In the run of Saint movies in the 30s and 40s, George Sanders played him most often, though Louis Hayward originated the role, and in the last two films—of which this is the final one—the part went to British B-movie actor Hugh Sinclair. Though he has none of Sanders' flair or snarky charm, Sinclair is likable enough in a laid-back way. The film begins with Templar getting a phone call from someone offering him a million pounds. But when the fellow shows up at Templar's door, he's been stabbed in the back; his dying words are "Tiger" and "Baycombe." Inspector Teal identifies the man as Joe Gallo, a bookie who was suspected of being part of a gang that pulled off the recent robbery of a million pounds in gold. Soon arriving in the quaint seaside village of Baycombe are Templar and his trusty butler Horace, where they meet some locals, including a nosy reporter named Tidemarsh; Pat Holm, a wealthy young woman, and her Aunt Agatha; banker and leading town citizen Lionel Bentley and his associate Bittle; and a visiting geologist named Karn who turns out to be Inspector Teal in disguise. Despite still having a healthy suspicion of Templar, Teal works with him to figure out who's who and what's what. The plot involves the gang attempting to smuggle the stolen gold out to a busted gold mine in South Africa owned by Pat, and though we learn fairly quickly that Bentley is one of the crooks, the rest of the trickery is best left unspoiled. Even though, as noted above, Sinclair is no Sanders, he goes through the paces in a pleasing fashion, making the character his own. Wylie Watson is no Eric Blore (one of the best screen butlers ever though he did not appear in any Saint movies) but he makes a fine sidekick, with a more pronounced sense of adventure than many a detective's butler. Gordon McLeod is fine as the inspector. Clifford Evans is Tidemarsh, who may be more than he appears, Jean Gillie (pictured with Sinclair) is so-so as Pat, and Louise Hampton is fine as Aunt Agatha, who may have a secret or two of her own. There is a nice double-cross twist near the end and the final conflict is exciting. Worth catching. [TCM]

Thursday, March 02, 2017

24 HOURS (1931)

It's 11 p.m. on a snowy night in New York—each time the narrative moves forward, we get a shot of a skyscraper clock—when we see a delivery of bootleg brandy arriving at a party at which the atmosphere feels a bit tense. Clive Brook is getting drunk and his wife Kay Francis is disgruntled; Brook leaves early, walks off in the snow, and stops for a nightcap at a late-night diner (where there is blood in the snow outside because someone was gunned down on the street and dragged into the back room). Later, he heads to a nightclub and leaves with his mistress, club singer Miriam Hopkins—who says about herself, "I'm good leather, but I just ain't polished." They go to her place and he promptly passes out, and when her estranged husband (Regis Toomey), who has a reputation as a "hophead," arrives in the middle of the night to beg forgiveness, Hopkins throws him out. Meanwhile, Francis leaves the party with her lover (Minor Watson) but she cuts things off with him and goes home alone.  The next morning, Hopkins is dead and Brook is arrested as the most likely suspect.

This bleak pre-Code movie is more interesting than compelling, partly because despite the emphasis on "immoral" behavior, the plots follow predictable paths to redemption—for most of the characters at least. The frame of a 24-hour period and the wintry backdrop both make the film a little different, and some of the performances, especially from Hopkins and Toomey, are quite good. The director, Marion Gehring, gives the film a nice visual style, anticipating film noir a bit, but the gloomy tone and slow pace end up working against it. Still, a must for fans of pre-Code cinema and/or Kay Francis. Pictured are Hopkins and Brook. [YouTube]

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

THE LAST COMMAND (1928)

Lev Andreyev (William Powell) is an expatriate Russian film director who, while flipping through a book of photos of extras, comes across a familiar face: Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings, pictured at left) whom he recognizes as a former Czarist general. Andreyev, whom we discover was a revolutionary back in Russia, hires Alexander as an extra to play, what else, a Czarist general. But Alexander seems to be a damaged man; he's a recluse and has a head-nodding tic, and is reluctant to take the role, but he does. As Alexander applies his make-up, he flashes back to 1917 when, as a high-living officer, he confronts Andreyev and his fellow spy Natascha (Evelyn Brent); he whips Andreyev across the face and arrests him as a spy, but takes Natashca as a mistress. She is assigned to murder the general, but when she witnesses him calling off a staged battle for a royal visit, saying he won’t "sacrifice men for the entertainment of the Czar," she softens toward him. Later, however, during an armed rebellion at a train station, Alexander is attacked and forced to shovel coal, a degrading experience which, along with Natashca's seeming indifference, breaks him, bringing on his head tic. In the present, getting back into uniform may be the thing that will break him for good.

German actor Emil Jannings is best known for playing the pathetic college professor in thrall to Marlene Dietrich in THE BLUE ANGEL, but during his brief time in Hollywood in the late 20s, he won an Oscar for best actor for two 1928 movies, this and THE WAY OF ALL FLESH. Jannings is very good here, which makes it especially sad that FLESH is a lost film. He is absolutely convincing as both an arrogant upper-class general and as a doddering and broken old man, and he alone is a good enough reason to see this silent movie. Powell is also very good in a role quite different from the sly charmers he played in the 30s. Josef Von Sternberg directed and his movies are almost always worth seeing for their visual style. [TCM]