Ministry of Fear


The ‘entertainments’ of Graham Greene have provided a rich source of material for makers of Film Noir. The Third Man, This Gun for Hire and Brighton Rock have all been derived from his works and, if you want to stretch the point, a case could also be made for the inclusion of The Fallen Idol and Confidential Agent. This all goes to prove that there is enough darkness and pessimism in Greene’s writings for them to lend themselves to the shadowy world of noir. And so we come to Fritz Lang’s 1944 adaptation of Ministry of Fear, where a frightened Ray Milland blunders through the bombed out streets of wartime London in pursuit of fifth columnists.

Stephen Neale (Milland) has just been released from an asylum after having been confined for the mercy killing of his wife and, naturally, is anxious to avoid any further entanglements with the law. As he waits to catch a train to London, he wanders into a charity fete where a palmist helps him to guess the weight of a cake and win it. With this seemingly innocuous incident Neale finds himself drawn into a nightmare world of murder and espionage. It turns out that the fake spiritualist had mistaken Neale for a Nazi agent (Dan Duryea) and that the cake contained something worth killing for. Neale’s curiosity leads him to follow up the matter in London where he attends a seance in the company of, among others, the aforementioned agent. When the spy is murdered Neale is falsely accused.  He believes that due to his past conviction no one will believe him innocent of the murder and so he goes on the run. His only assistance comes from an Austrian refugee (Marjorie Reynolds), and while the pair try to seek out the truth they are all the time dogged by a shadowy figure in a bowler hat.

Ray Milland’s star was in the ascendancy at this point and he would win an Oscar for his performance in The Lost Weekend the following year. His role here allows him to get in a bit of practice in psychological anguish and the natural affability of the man means that it’s easy to sympathize with the plight of his character. Marjorie Reynolds is fine as his Girl Friday but the forced Austrian accent does begin to grate a little at times. Dan Duryea is always good value as a villain and the only complaint that could be made is that his character is not given nearly enough screen time. Indeed the same could be said for much of the support cast who seem to breeze in and out of the picture, but all leave lasting impressions. A notable feature of so many films of this period is the marvellous gallery of eccentrics that cropped up time and again. These people, whose faces are immediately recognizable yet whose names escape us, were character specialists who usually played similar parts in every movie and their presence added enormously to the enjoyment.

Fritz Lang’s background in expressionist film-making serves him well here and is most notable in the early scenes of the picture. The charity fete provides that slightly surreal quality that continues throughout the film. The parts with the fake blind man on the train and the ensuing chase over the fogbound moor are also beautifully photographed. Everything seems to have been shot on studio sets but this is no criticism as it helps heighten the unreal, otherworldly feel of the movie.

Optimum released Ministry of Fear on DVD in R2 last year. The transfer is not bad but it could use a clean up. All in all, this is a highly enjoyable mix of noir and espionage and it’s always good to see more of Fritz Lang’s movies making it out onto the market.

The Return of Frank James


It is, and always has been, common for a highly successful film to spawn a sequel. In 1939 Fox produced Jesse James and, riding on the wave of the reinvigorated western genre, found themselves with a hit on their hands. Of course, it’s a little difficult to continue a story when you have just killed off your main character. However, Hollywood rarely finds itself at a loss for long and the solution was to pick up the story where the first film left off and concentrate on the surviving brother, Frank James (Henry Fonda). The only problem was that, after Jesse’s death, Frank’s life wasn’t the stuff of dramatic, action-packed blockbusters. Therefore, the truth needed to be manipulated to present audiences with a story of revenge and redemption.

In the aftermath of the ill-fated raid on the Northfield bank Frank James had gone to ground. We find him living under an assumed name and it would seem that he has renounced his outlaw ways. On receiving news of the death of his brother he is content to let the law run its course, believing that Bob and Charlie Ford will be tried and duly hanged for the murder. It is only when he learns that, despite their conviction, the Fords have been granted a full pardon that he decides to take matters into his own hands and straps on his guns again. There follows a pursuit across the country to Colorado as Frank attempts to track down the Fords and mete out the justice he feels the courts have denied him. By the end of the film all the loose ends have been tied up and we get a traditionally happy ending. The problem with this is that the production code of the time dictated that a killer should not be presented as the hero – or at the very least that he should be punished for his deeds. The way around that issue was to present Frank James as an essentially honorable man hounded into infamy by circumstances and big business. So while the Fords get their comeuppance it is not Frank who is shown to kill them (which is historically true at least). In fact, the film is at pains to point out the innocence and decency of our hero throughout – even having one of the characters declare indignantly that Frank James never killed anyone. All of this is vaguely unsatisfactory since a man setting out on a mission of vengeance should, to my mind, be allowed to achieve some measure of it directly.

A grim Frank James (Henry Fonda) watches Bob Ford re-enact the murder of his brother.

As I said, Henry Fonda plays the lead very much in the style of the classic romantic hero. Throughout his long career Fonda was most frequently cast as the everyman who was the very epitome of human virtue. Almost thirty years later Sergio Leone would give Fonda the opportunity to finally play a character (also named Frank, as it happens) of pure evil in Once Upon A Time In The West. Gene Tierney (in her debut role) provides some eye-candy and romantic interest as a newspaper reporter, but not much else. Much of the rest of the cast is filled out with actors from the previous film, with John Carradine reprising his part as Bob Ford. Once again, Donald Meek is the conniving railroad boss and Henry Hull chews up every piece of scenery in sight as the editor of the local paper and friend of the family. Hull’s best scenes come towards the end of the film in a flamboyant courtroom defence of Frank on a charge of murder. This scene mirrors reality, where Frank James stood trial for robbery and murder and whose character was attested to by an old Confederate officer. In truth, the film spends a good deal of time on the lingering animosity between north and south in the years following the Civil War. All in all, director Fritz Lang’s first foray into the western genre is a pleasant and entertaining one.

Fox’s DVD release of The Return of Frank James is an improvement on the transfer of Jesse James, but not by much. The image is a good deal more consistent here but darker scenes are still quite murky and washed out. Generally, the outdoor scenes fare the best with stronger colour and sharpness. 

Jesse James


Having recently seen The Assassination of Jesse James, and having enjoyed it immensely, it occurred to me to go back and revisit some of the other movies based on the legendary outlaw. Along with William Bonney the name Jesse James has become an integral part of the myth of the west. For both of these men, questions of who and what they were and why they acted as they did have been endlessly explored and no truly satisfactory answers have emerged. But does that really matter? To me it doesn’t since the movies are and were, at heart, an entertainment and storytelling medium. It seems naive in the extreme to seek the whole truth in a dramatic form – if you want the real facts you need to look elsewhere. Henry King’s 1939 version of Jesse James certainly bends the truth more than a little, but that doesn’t mean the film is a poor one.

This movie opens in the years following the Civil War and portrays Jesse (Tyrone Power) and brother Frank (Henry Fonda) as peace loving farmers in Missouri. That’s the first of many inaccuracies, for the truth is that the brothers had already strayed into lawlessness during the war – Frank riding with Quantrill and Jesse with another group of guerrilla raiders. There is no doubt, right from the beginning, that the true villain here is the railroad and more specifically it’s representatives. The railroad, as in many westerns, is shown to be the product of the greedy and corrupt east. It is the actions of one of the railroad agents (Brian Donlevy) that causes the James bothers to turn their backs on the law. From this point on their fates are mapped out for them and further dissembling on the part of the big businessmen serves only to provide more justification for the brother’s criminal activities.

The movie is full of some fine set pieces such as the early train robbery with Jesse riding up to the rear, hauling himself aboard, and then proceeding along the roof for the whole length of the locomotive until he reaches the engine. The famous raid on the bank in Northfield could have been given more time but it does contain some great action shots – Jesse and Frank riding their horses through a store window to escape and then following that up with a dive off a cliff into a river below.

Power and Fonda play the brothers as essentially romantic and heroic figures, but the film is not above pointing out the less honorable aspects of Jesse’s character. At one point Randolph Scott’s sympathetic lawman makes it clear that Jesse’s initial justification has been superceded by simple, inexcusable criminality. Another scene, on the eve of the Northfield raid, shows Jesse to be a man on the verge of losing control and only the efforts of his more rational brother haul him back. Scott’s supporting role doesn’t offer much and I get the feeling that it was only included to show that all authority figures are not scheming back-stabbers. The notorious Bob Ford is played by John Carradine as a craven scoundrel with whom the viewer can feel no sympathy whatsoever. As a portrait of cowardly betrayal it’s well done but, as with all the villainous parts, remains one dimensional.

Fox issued the movie on DVD last year and the presentation is a good deal less than might have been hoped for. Frankly, the print is in poor condition and this is particularly evident for the first half hour or so where the age of the film becomes painfully obvious. Things do improve as it goes on but issues with the colour occasionally arise. The film clearly needs restoration work but, despite it’s shortcomings, I’m still very happy to at least have it in my collection.


The Blue Dahlia


The Blue Dahlia (1946) was the third film that Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake had made together. While their two previous collaborations had been based on novels (This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene and The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett) this one was from an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Anyone who has read anything by Chandler will know that plot always took second place to dialogue in his writing, and that’s certainly the case with this film. For me, the holes in the plot make this a less satisfactory affair than the earlier Ladd/Lake movies – I can’t comment on their last one Saigon since I have yet to see it.

The story concerns Johnny Morrison (Ladd), a navy veteran, returning from the war in the Pacific theatre. Arriving back in L.A. in the company of two of his former crew (William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont) he goes to meet his wife. Their reunion is not a happy one as his unannounced arrival finds her in the middle of throwing a party. Not only that, but he finds her to be having an affair with the shady owner of a night club, the titular Blue Dahlia. Unsurprisingly, he packs up and leaves. Later, the wife will be discovered shot dead with Johnny’s automatic and the suspicion naturally falls on him. The rest of the movie deals with his efforts to evade capture while trying to run down the real killer. The list of suspects is a long one, with just about every major character having either the motive or opportunity to have done the deed.

The performances are generally good and Ladd is convincing enough as the tough hero. Lake is not so good playing the estranged wife of the night club owner, although that may have something to do with the allegedly sour relationship between her and Chandler. Still, her screen chemistry with Ladd remains and they share some good scenes. The real standout turn, though, comes from William Bendix as the shell-shocked buddy with a steel plate in his head and a violent aversion to what he refers to as ‘monkey music’. The movie fits nicely into the noir category due largely to the trappings – clubs, cheap hotels and cheaper people, a neon lit L.A. and so on. As I said above, the dialogue was Chandler’s strong suit and helps to paper over the cracks and outrageous coincidences in the plot. The biggest problem of all is the ending. Chandler had originally written a different climax to that seen on screen but was forced to change it as a result of outside pressures. What we are left with doesn’t really work at all, for it makes a nonsense of much of what went before – it just comes across as weak and contrived.

The Blue Dahlia, whatever it’s weaknesses, was a title long desired on DVD by fans of noir, and Universal duly obliged with a release in R2 last year. However, the fact that it has been made available is about the only good thing I can say. The movie has not had any restoration work done and looks quite soft, worse than that is the ghosting which plagues the last half. So, I don’t think this is the best of the Ladd/Lake vehicles but it is stylish and fun – just not all that logical.




Robert Aldrich made one of many people’s favorite war movies in The Dirty Dozen. In fact he made all kinds of great movies encompassing almost every genre. By 1956 he had turned out a handful of fine pictures, including Kiss Me Deadly and Vera Cruz. That year he turned his hand to the war movie and came up with the superior and intense Attack. This came at a time when the war film was transitioning from the flag-waving efforts of the forties to more bitter and realistic portrayals of combat.

The story focuses on the strains within a WWII company of US soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The company is under the command of Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert), a privileged man who joined the army to satisfy the wishes of his father. However, Cooney is an undisguised coward whose position only remains tenable due to his friendship with Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), the battalion commander. The situation in the company has reached crisis point after Cooney’s inaction has caused the death of a squad of Lt. Costa’s (Jack Palance) men. When orders come through that a small town must be taken and held, Costa delivers an ultimatum to his superior – if he fouls up again then Costa will kill him.

Jack Palance reaches the breaking point

The film was adapted from a stage play and, as is often the case, is a real actor’s movie. Both Palance and Albert hold centre stage and the focus is on the duel between these two. Palance’s performance is raw and painful to watch as his endurance is fully tested. The latter part of the movie, when betrayal and the pointless slaughter drive him to the edge of reason, is something to behold. Eddie Albert gives him a good run for his money, forcing the viewer to both pity and despise Capt. Cooney. Lee Marvin’s colonel is at once cunning, ambitious, cynical, and the absolute epitome of cool machismo. Of the support cast, Buddy Ebson, Robert Strauss and Richard Jaeckel all give entertaining turns.

This is one of the finest war movies of the fifties and bears comparison to the best of Sam Fuller. It is probably one of Aldrich’s least known films but deserves a much wider recognition. It is on DVD in R1 and R2 from MGM and the full screen image looks very good. Being an MGM release the only supplement is a trailer. However, a movie as good as this should have a place in any self-respecting war collection.

The Reckless Moment


You live in a small close-knit community where everyone knows you and yours. Your family is all around, both depending on you and making endless demands on your time. You are also the victim of a blackmailer. What do you do and who do you turn to? That’s the problem at the centre of the 1949 film noir thriller from Max Ophuls, The Reckless Moment.

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) lives in a small California town. She is married with two teenage children, has a housekeeper and a large comfortable home. On the surface everything appears idyllic, but chaos is looming. The film opens with Lucia driving to Los Angeles to meet a man called Ted Darby. Darby (Sheppard Strudwick) has been dating the daughter of the family and Lucia means to put an end to it. She fails to do so and Darby comes secretly to the house later that night. The daughter (Geraldine Brooks) meets him in the adjacent boathouse and, after a quarrel, Darby stumbles off the landing to skewer himself on an anchor below. Lucia discovers the body the next morning and, with her husband traveling on business in Europe and she wanting to protect her daughter, decides to dump the corpse and cover everything up. It looks like she might pull it off until Martin Donnelly (James Mason) turns up with some compromising letters and proposes blackmail.


Joan Bennett will be familiar to any fan of noir due to her work with Fritz Lang on a number of pictures, most notably Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. There’s no femme fatale style vamping here though, instead she’s the competent, protective mother driven to near despair as the situation spins out of her control. Her measured underplaying is one of the factors which keeps the movie rooted in noir territory and saves it from straying into melodrama. The other factor is James Mason. Two years earlier Mason had given a blinding performance in Carol Reed’s beautiful and masterful Odd Man Out. Here he’s playing another doomed Irishman, albeit one with more dubious motives. He’s very believable in the role and there’s nothing that seems phony as we witness his self-doubts transform him.

The film is well directed by Ophuls and excellently photographed by Burnett Guffey. The location work adds to the realism and the interiors of the big open-plan house seem, paradoxically, to heighten the sense of domestic claustrophobia. It’s almost impossible to hold a private conversation anywhere as family members bustle in and out, cheerfully oblivious to the treachery that threatens them all.

The movie is available in R2 from Second Sight and it’s a great looking, clean transfer. The disc also has decent enough extras with a commentary, a good introduction and a stills gallery. Definitely recommended.

Western Union


If you mention Fritz Lang’s name to most film fans they are most likely to think of expressionism, thrillers, and films such as M and Metropolis. It is not so typical to associate the German director’s name with classic Hollywood westerns but he did make a handful of these. To be exact, he made three westerns: The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952). I think it would be fair to say that Western Union is the least known of them, but perhaps it deserves better. It is quite representative of 1940s westerns in that it tries to avoid some of the more juvenile aspects of the previous decade’s output but lacks the psychological depth that would come in the 50s. Although it may not bear the hallmarks of classic Lang, it does contain those of the classic western.

It’s not for nothing that the building of the railroad has figured so prominently in so many great westerns, from Ford’s The Iron Horse through to Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. It was this massive undertaking that at once opened up the west and also signalled the closing of the frontier way of life. For some film-makers it represented the advance of law, order and civil society; for others it stood only for the gradual encroachment of the corrupt influences of the east. Western Union deals not with the railroad but that other piece of progress that would drag America into the modern world and relegate the Old West to the realm of mythology – the laying of the transcontinental telegraph wire.

The film opens with outlaw Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) attempting to outrun a posse and happening upon telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger). Creighton has been injured and is barely able to move with a busted ribcage. Shaw is desperate to evade capture and is on the point of taking Creighton’s horse and leaving the stricken man to his fate. However, his conscience pricks at him and he decides to take a risk and bring the helpless man along. That proves to be the turning point for Shaw, for when he later finds employment with the telegraph company as a scout it is Creighton who offers him the chance to go respectable. The other main character is the dandified easterner, Blake (Robert Young). Blake has come west to work for the telegraph, and soon enters into a rivalry with Shaw over Creighton’s sister. The movie, like the characters themselves, has a lot of ground to cover and is played out against the back-story of the Civil War. It includes a well-staged battle with some drunken Indians and a confrontation with a gang of renegade confederate raiders led by Shaw’s own brother.


Randolph Scott is excellent as a man torn between a lingering loyalty to his brother and the old ways, and a desire to turn over a new leaf. If you’re under the impression that Scott would not come into his own until a decade later in the films of Budd Boetticher then think again – this is definitely one of his better performances. Dean Jagger’s part doesn’t call for much more than stoic determination and he does that just fine. As for Robert Young, he’s never been an actor that I’ve cared much for and this showing did little to change my opinion. The support cast features some great and familiar faces, not least Barton MacLane (who seemed to appear everywhere in the thirties and forties) as Scott’s thoroughly good-for-nothing brother. Add in an impossibly young looking Chill Wills as a tobacco-chewing (and spitting) telegraph man, and John Carradine as the company doctor and there’s not much to complain about. As I said above, there isn’t much to distinguish this as a Fritz Lang film, but he still delivers a polished, professional picture and does include a few typically dark moments – particularly the ‘shock’ climax.

The film is out on DVD in R2 from Optimum in their Western Classics line. The transfer is mediocre at best and has clearly undergone no restoration, with the colours looking quite washed out. Having said that, the movie is worth seeking out, but I can’t help wishing that Fox would see their way to releasing it in R1 with an improved transfer.


Plunder of the Sun


It is notoriously difficult to pin down what exactly constitutes Film Noir. Everybody seems to have their own list of titles that will variously include or omit a number of marginal entries. This 1953 movie would seem a likely candidate since it has a number of noir characteristics. The action, for the most part, takes place in Mexico, the lead is a down on his luck type drawn into intrigue, and the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to The Maltese Falcon. Furthermore, the director (John Farrow) had a fair noir pedigree, having overseen the likes of Where Danger Lives, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and The Big Clock. So, does it qualify? I’m inclined to think not, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. The upbeat ending crossed my mind, but I don’t really buy into the theory that the style of everything gone before can be negated by the last few minutes – that would rule something like The Woman in the Window out of consideration as noir. Well, let’s just say that I don’t feel comfortable calling it noir – maybe someone else can offer a definitive answer.

The story opens in Oaxaca, Mexico and – via flashback and a noirish voice-over narration – takes us to Havana to introduce the main character, Al Colby (Glenn Ford), as a man on the bum and desperate to find the means to pay his debts and get back to the States. His hopes seem to be answered when he’s approached in a bar by a girl (Patricia Medina) in the employ of a crippled collector of artifacts (Francis L. Sullivan). Colby accepts the offer to book passage on a ship bound for Mexico with the aim of smuggling in a small package containing an old parchment. On board he meets the other main players, a spoiled rich girl (Diana Lynn) and a sinister archaeologist (Sean McClory). From there the action moves to Mexico and a treasure hunt ensues. So, there’s a race to possess a fortune, some dubious history, a fat man and a pair of duplicitous females – like I said, it all sounds like a cousin of The Maltese Falcon.

Glenn Ford is always an enjoyable actor to watch and he handles his fairly undemanding part well enough. Irish character actor Sean McClory looks a little startling with bleached blond hair and sunglasses, but his disbarred archaeologist (can an archaeologist be disbarred?), alternating between between charm and menace, is probably the best thing in the movie. Patricia Medina looks exotic and seductive and certainly fares better than the other female star, Diana Lynn, who has little more to do than impersonate Gloria Grahame.

Much of the film was shot on location in and around Oaxaca and makes good use of the ancient Zapotec ruins and pyramids. Paramount put this out on DVD a while back (before they decided to completely ignore their back catalogue) as part of the Batjac line. It looks very good and boasts a fine selection of extras, including a commentary,  featurettes on Sean McClory and the Zapotec locations, trailer etc. Bearing in mind that the movie clocks in at around 80 minutes, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the time.


The Deadly Affair


The 1960s were the heyday of the spy thriller with the market flooded in the wake of the success of Bond. Now most of these films fall into two broad categories – the glossy, gadget-laden Helm/Flint kind and the more pessimistic, downbeat Le Carre/Deighton kind. For one reason or another my own preferences lean towards the latter. The Deadly Affair is an adaptation of an early John Le Carre novel, and in no way attempts to glamorize the world of espionage. Instead, it focuses on petty betrayals and the slightly dingy suburban surroundings of the protagonists.

The story, as with many of this type, deals with the investigation of a possible mole in British Intelligence. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs (in the novel it’s George Smiley – I suppose the change of name is understandable enough given how little the character has to smile about here) who is charged with the task of investigating a civil servant. MI5 has received an anonymous letter concerning said civil servant and questions must, therefore, be answered. Dobbs appears satisfied that the letter is nothing more than a hoax, but the apparent suicide of the suspect seems inconsistent. It is the questions raised by this death that drive the rest of the  story along. There is also the secondary plot concerning Dobbs’ tortured domestic life with his nymphomaniac wife (played by Swedish actress Harriet Andersson) and the two strands are woven together successfully enough.

The film was directed by Sidney Lumet and has some nice location work around the vaguely depressing urban and suburban settings. Lumet’s style has never been the most exciting but that fits well enough with the mood – lots of grey skies and rain. Quincy Jones scored the picture and it’s one of the best things about it. The langourous, wistful jazzy music both evokes the mid-60s and reflects the emotional longings of the central characters.

The acting is a mixed bag, with the male characters coming off the best by far. James Mason is excellent and manages to convey the combination of determination, weariness, hopeless romanticism and pathos that the role requires – no mean feat that. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mason give a bad performance on screen and he ranks right up there as one of my favorite actors. There’s good support from Harry Andrews as a tough old retired policeman, and Roy Kinnear excels in a small role as a seedy, bigamous used car dealer. Maximilian Schell is adequate enough playing Dobbs’ old friend and former colleague, but nothing more. The female characters, however, are where the film falls down somewhat. Simone Signoret’s widow is too detached, although that may well be what the part of a concentration camp survivor demanded. The biggest problem, though, is Harriet Andersson. She gives one of the weakest performances I’ve seen in a long time. Given her role, you would have thought that some passion should be on display; but no, she’s ice-cold and blank throughout.

Overall, The Deadly Affair is a satisfying, if unspectacular movie. Currently, it’s available in R2 from Sony in a reasonable 1.85:1 transfer. The disc is a totally bare-bones one – literally. There isn’t even a real menu screen. While I’m grateful that the film is available, it has to be said that the cheap presentation of the disc is quite insulting.