Berlin Express

Post-war Europe was an excellent setting for a noir picture – the bombed out ruins and a displaced, despairing population provided a near perfect backdrop for such films. Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) is a mix of spy story, noir and propaganda piece. That latter element is the one thing that knocks it down a peg and damages its noir credentials slightly; those repeated attempts to inject a kind of brave new world optimism into what should be a fatalistic film really work against it in the end.

The movie opens in the documentary style that was popular at the time, complete with the “voice of God” narration to set the scene and introduce the main players. Normally, I’m not averse to a good voiceover but the somewhat strident, Mark Hellinger-style commentary employed here does start to grate pretty fast. Fortunately, it doesn’t dominate things for too long and, once it’s been established that we’re following a group of international travellers on the military express bound for Berlin, regular cinema storytelling techniques kick in. Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan) is an American agriculturalist on his way to take up a position with the occupying forces, and the plot unfolds through his eyes. His companions are an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian – representing the four powers. Apart from military personnel, there are also a number of German nationals on board – one of whom is in mortal danger. The gentleman in question is a diplomat with a noble plan for peaceful coexistence in Europe. When a makeshift bomb kills his decoy, his identity is revealed to the audience but the danger remains. No sooner has the train deposited its passengers in the ruins of Berlin than the eminent diplomat is abducted. So, the four just men, bowing to pressure from the captive’s secretary (Merle Oberon), take on the role of amateur sleuths and the chase is on. Their hunt leads them through the rubble and backstreet dives of the fallen capital, and leads the audience into the best segment of the movie. This is a twilight world, full of people driven to the very brink – scrambling for discarded cigarette butts, scanning the ever present lists of missing persons, and hanging around stations pathetically trying to hawk their meagre possessions. As Lindley and his companions grope their way through this decaying world the speechmaking and in-your-face social comment is mercifully kept to a minimum, letting the visuals make the point much more eloquently.

Robert Ryan plays a role here that is very much that of the everyman bumbling his way into a situation that is over his head. His craggy careworn features were well utilized over the years in countless noirs and westerns, and I always regard his presence in any film as a big recommendation. Merle Oberon, on the other hand was an actress that I could take or leave. Having said that, she does well enough as the French secretary determined to track down her kidnapped boss. For me though, the real stars of the movie were director Tourneur and cameraman Lucien Ballard. Together they manage to turn a middling spy story into a visual treat. The location work helps enormously of course, but there’s no end to the interesting angles and memorable shots served up – low angles, overheads, reflections etc. Tourneur also handles the various set pieces beautifully; from the cabaret scene (reminiscent of the Mr. Memory sequence in Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps) and the confrontation in the abandoned brewery, to the tense climax aboard the train once more. Only the happy ever after coda rings false, hindsight allowing us to see that forty years of conflict and subterfuge would be the order of the day rather than the spirit of cheerful comradeship and cooperation that the film alludes to.

Berlin Express was an RKO production and a few years ago that would have meant that there was always the possibility of a shiny new transfer on the cards from Warners in R1. Unfortunately, those days are now gone and this film is on its way to the dreaded Archive. However, there is an alternative in the shape of a R2 release from French company Montparnasse. The R2 disc is typical of the company’s fare, in that it’s neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally poor. The transfer is adequate, there’s no serious print damage but, equally, there’s no evidence of any restoration and it looks to be interlaced. Still, the Archive offering is unlikely to be any improvement and the pricing, suspect media and restricted availability weigh heavily against it. Berlin Express is a film that flirts around the boundaries of noir, but I feel that there’s enough in the story, cinematography and direction to warrant its inclusion in the category. While it may not be up there with the greats of dark cinema it should be a welcome addition to anyone’s collection.

The Stalking Moon


Thanks to the suggestion of a fellow blogger, le0pard13, I decided to dig out and rewatch Robert Mulligan’s 1968 suspense western The Stalking Moon. Although the film contains its fair share of action, it is essentially a slow burning mood picture which builds tension almost imperceptibly yet inexorably towards a conclusion that is both nerve-wracking and satisfying. A good part of its strength comes from the fact that it can be approached from a variety of angles; as the standard chase picture, an examination of race relations, a love story, a tale of friendship, and it even has a suggestion of the supernatural.

Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) is an army scout on the verge of retirement, having already bought a ranch in New Mexico. His last job for the army, helping bring a band of Apaches in to the reservation, leads to the rescue of a white woman who has been held captive for ten years. This woman, Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), has a young half- breed son in tow and manages to persuade Varner to escort her to the nearest coach stop and help her on her way. At first, her eagerness to distance herself from her rescuers might appear to be rooted in some sense of shame at having given herself to the Apache – an idea reinforced by an uncomfortable stopover at a remote swing station. However, it soon becomes apparent that her desire to be on the move is based on an altogether more serious threat. It turns out that her boy is the son of Salvaje, a renegade Apache with a fearsome reputation. So begins a relentless pursuit that leads to Varner’s ranch and, eventually, a one man siege of the log cabin that seems to grow smaller by the second. All the while, the spectral presence of Salvaje lurks in the shadows or flits from rock to rock and the viewer starts to wonder if this man is indeed human. The film’s masterstroke is keeping Salvaje off the screen for so long; he remains a cipher, a kind of bogeyman who is spoken of in hushed tones but never seen. Even when he does appear, we are only given a fleeting glimpse of him before he vanishes again like some terrible force of nature leaving death and chaos in his wake.


Gregory Peck plays another of his stoical, straight down the line characters in The Stalking Moon. In truth, it’s one of those classic western roles wherein the hero knows that the right thing to do is the unhealthy option but goes ahead with it all the same. In this case Varner has the chance to put Sarah on a train and let someone else deal with the whole mess, but his own sense of honour rules that out. As he toys with his food and gazes repeatedly at the lonely, forlorn figure sitting on the train platform it’s obvious what he’s going to do. Peck was always fine in those parts where his character had to draw on that inner steel to tough out the most hopeless of situations, and the role of Sam Varner might have been tailor made for him. Eva Marie Saint is also good in a difficult part, a woman who has become something of a stranger among her own people and little more than a misplaced possession to the mysterious Salvaje. In a movie that’s short on dialogue she has few lines to speak yet manages to convey the vulnerability of her character without diluting any of the resolve that would have been required to live the way she did. Robert Forster makes an early appearance as Peck’s half breed friend and fellow scout who proves his loyalty right to the end. The Stalking Moon was the only western made by director Robert Mulligan, and that’s something of a shame since he did an excellent job and seemed at home in the genre. He made excellent use of the locations (Nevada standing in for New Mexico) and the widescreen photography to emphasise the isolation of his characters. The open spaces of the first half of the film highlight not only the vastness of the country but also the relentless nature of Salvaje who will follow Sarah to the ends of the earth if necessary. In contrast, the second half becomes claustrophobic with Varner’s cabin, and the encroaching mountains and trees, becoming the focal point.

Warner put The Stalking Moon out on DVD last year in R1 as part of their Western Classics box and it’s also available in much of R2, though not the UK yet, as a stand alone title. It’s been given a fine anamorphic scope transfer with good colour and detail. The disc is as basic as they come without even a scene selection menu, but that seems to be par for the course with WB at the moment. Having said that, it’s a movie that does manage to sell itself on its own merits. There are those who have put forward the theory that Once Upon A Time In The West has a hint of the supernatural about it, with the possibility of Harmonica being an avenging ghost. Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider also play around with a similar idea and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to view Salvaje in The Stalking Moon in that company. Anyway, it’s a damn fine film and one that’s well worth seeing.

The Bravados

There’s something so deeply satisfying about watching 1950s westerns that I sometimes feel I could dedicate an entire blog to them and still only scratch the surface. Just about every star and director of note managed to produce, at the very least, one quality western during those few short years. While the cinematography ran from monochrome and Academy ratio to technicolor drenched scope, one feature remained constant: maturity of theme.

The Bravados (1958) opens in dramatic fashion with a silhouetted rider driving himself on through the night to the accompaniment of Lionel Newman’s pounding score while the blood red titles flash onto the screen. The rider is revealed to be Jim Douglass (Gregory Peck), a man obsessed enough to ride a hundred miles just to witness the execution of four men he’s never seen before (Stephen Boyd, Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef and Albert Salmi). Initially there’s no explanation offered for Douglass’ desire to see these men keep their date with the hangman. The only thing that’s clear is that he’s nursing a deep and bitter hatred – perfectly realized in a wordless scene in the jail as Douglass walks along outside the bars and rakes each man in turn with a look of such malice that they flinch as though a lash had been applied. It’s only after the four have escaped, taking the storekeepers daughter hostage, that the reason for Douglass’ personal vendetta is revealed. It transpires that his wife has been raped and murdered and he believes that these men are the ones responsible. What follows is a tale of pursuit, revenge, realization, and finally a kind of sour redemption. The only false note in the picture is the introduction of an unnecessary and less than believable romance between Douglass and a Mexican rancher (a woefully miscast Joan Collins). This really adds nothing whatsoever to the film and actually serves to weaken it – the final ten minutes pack a powerful emotional punch but the last shot takes a good deal of the sting out of it. I think it’s also worth mentioning that I was left wondering if The Bravados had any influence on Sergio Leone. Maybe it’s just me but I couldn’t help but notice parallels with For a Few Dollars More: the taciturn anti-hero, the watch with his dead wife’s photo that Douglass carries and shows to his victims before killing them, the grimy and sadistic villains, and the ride along the deserted street of a Mexican pueblo before a showdown.

Gregory Peck gave a remarkably intense performance in a complex role that’s basically a study of bitterness, obsession and false conviction. His playing of a man who has cast aside his soul in the pursuit of vengeance is pitch perfect. As the story progresses the viewer understands that Douglass has become no better than the criminals he is ruthlessly hunting down, but it’s his own final realization of that fact that raises the movie to a higher class. Peck does a fine job of showing the psychological disintegration of a man who has his illusions stripped away and must henceforth look at himself in a new and disturbing light. Stephen Boyd clearly had a ball portraying the chief badman and slipped from smirking charm to menacing brutishness with ease. I’ve always been a big fan of Boyd and have enjoyed his performances in everything I’ve seen him in. His best work was as the villain and when the big lead parts came along he was a touch unlucky – a poorly written role and no chemistry with Sophia Loren in Fall of the Roman Empire, almost becoming James Bond, and having production delays force him to relinquish the role of Mark Antony to Richard Burton in Cleopatra. I was prepared to write some scathing comments about the wooden acting of Joan Collins in this movie but I can’t seem to work up the enthusiasm – although how anyone ever thought it was a good idea to cast her as a Mexican cattlewoman just beggars belief.

Henry King was one of those directors that the studio system seemed to have in abundance, the skilled craftsman who could effortlessly churn out quality pictures in just about every genre. His name is hardly a familiar one today but a glance at his filmography makes for impressive reading and contains far more hits than misses. King’s work on The Bravados is aided immeasurably by Leon Shamroy’s cinematography, which mixes stunning landscape views with moody day for night shooting to great effect.

The Bravados is available on DVD from Fox and their R2 Studio Classics version (I imagine the R1 is broadly similar) is a perfectly fine anamorphic scope transfer with nice colours. There’s not an extra feature in sight (I think the R1 has a trailer) but it is cheap. This is a movie that often gets overlooked and is rarely mentioned, but if you’re a fan of westerns from this era you need to see it. Highly recommended.

5 Fingers


Much as I enjoy all the gadgetry and technology that seems to have become part and parcel of the espionage film over the years it’s refreshing nevertheless to watch something where the spy uses nothing more advanced than a pocket camera to accomplish his goal. 5 Fingers (1952) is just such a film, a slow burning suspense yarn that concentrates on character and the gradual building of tension. The fact that it’s supposedly based on a true story makes the whole, seemingly unlikely, series of events even more intriguing.

The story takes place in Ankara, Turkey during WWII and tells the story of an amazing scam carried out under the noses of the British embassy staff. Diello (James Mason) is an Albanian employed as a valet to the British ambassador, and is a man of intelligence, culture and ambition who realises the unique opportunity afforded him by his current employment. Not only is he the trusted companion of the senior diplomat, but he also has easy access to countless documents of the highest classification that routinely cross his master’s desk. To a patriotic man, or even a man of integrity, this might be regarded as a privilege but nothing more. However, Diello is neither; he is a pragmatist with two aims in life – a) to win the heart of the aristocratic widow of a former employer, and b) to have sufficient funds to emulate the life of a South American gentleman he once caught sight of in Rio. With this in mind, he approaches a German diplomat and makes an offer that’s hard to believe and even harder to turn down. He promises to ensure the delivery of a continual stream of top secret documents, but at his price and on his terms. He thus becomes a privately employed agent of the Nazis, under the code name Cicero, and the money starts to roll in. But, as I said, Diello is a very clever man, clever enough to know that he cannot keep popping around to the German embassy and hope to remain unnoticed. Needing both a partner and a safe meeting place, he strikes a bargain with an impoverished Polish countess (Danielle Darrieux) for whom he’s been carrying a torch. In return for funding her lifestyle Diello gets to use her home as a cover for meeting and carrying out transactions with a variety of high ranking Nazis. Of course such a scheme can’t last indefinitely and Diello eventually finds out that betrayal can be a double-edged sword.


5 Fingers came out a mere seven years after the end of WWII and when you bear that fact in mind it’s quite surprising that the character of Diello is one the viewer actively roots for. Although it’s made clear that Diello is spying out of a desire for money and cares nothing for political ideology, the truth is that it’s Mason who makes the character such an appealing one. Both the British and German authorities are treated with a kind of suave condescension by the man. He always appears the master of his own destiny and, even with the earth falling away beneath him, you never really doubt that he’s the one in control of the situation. I never tire of watching James Mason, and there’s real pleasure to be found here in seeing him toss out casual insults to the Nazis in a marvellously supercilious tone. Danielle Darrieux is an actress I haven’t seen much of, but her fallen Polish aristocrat is a fine mix of allure, earthy sensuality and duplicity. Her scenes with Mason carry a sense of conviction and there’s certainly some chemistry between them. Michael Rennie has a somewhat thankless role as the secret service man hunting Cicero but he does well enough in the circumstances. Joseph L Mankiewicz wasn’t the most prolific director but I’ve always enjoyed his work and he handles this material very stylishly. The use of genuine Turkish exteriors helps lend some authenticity to the film but it’s the interior sequences that have the most power. The scene that leads up to the discovery of Cicero’s identity is a masterclass in the building of suspense – the way the camera follows a cleaner round an embassy corridor, while she tries to work out the source of a power failure and we know what the consequences of her actions will be, is a piece of film-making worthy of Hitchcock himself. And that neatly allows me to point out that the movie also benefits from a score by the great Bernard Herrmann.

5 Fingers is available on DVD in R2 from Optimum in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s one of their weaker efforts with a soft transfer that also suffers from being interlaced. It’s one of the usual barebones discs from this company with no extras whatsoever and no subtitle options. However, the one thing in its favour is that it’s cheap and it’s about the only option if you want to see this title – being a Fox property the chances of a R1 release are not good at present. Anyway, it’s a very classy film that won’t disappoint, and the final scene that fades out to the accompaniment of the kind of hollow, cynical laughter that recalls John Huston is almost worth the price on its own. The Optimum disc is definitely watchable despite its shortcomings and, since the movie itself is just so entertaining, I’d have no hesitation in recommending it.

Man Hunt


Popular wisdom holds that when a film is adapted from a novel the original source material is inevitably superior. I’m not sure how true that really is though. I suspect that this maxim has come to be as a result of the disappointment felt by a loyal readership when filmmakers have had to alter the material to make it work on the screen. We all naturally form a mental picture of characters and places when we read about them, but when others place their interpretation in front of us it can be an underwhelming and perplexing experience. Man Hunt (1941) is Fritz Lang’s interpretation of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male. Since I saw the movie first, many moons ago, and only later read the novel, my own preference is for the film version. In truth, I found the book to be a bit of a letdown – not that it’s actually bad or anything, but just because it lacks Lang’s little stylistic touches and the character interaction that helps the film pack a greater emotional punch.

The movie is basically a chase story which utilises that old chestnut of the hunter becoming the hunted. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is a big game hunter of some renown who has grown weary of the traditional prey. In Germany, on the eve of WWII, he finds himself closing in on the “most dangerous game” – man. And not just any man at that. Perched high on a hilltop, he focuses the cross-hairs of his hunting rifle on one Adolf Hitler. With a live round in the chamber, he has only to touch the trigger to forever alter the course of world history. However, for Thorndike this is merely a sporting stalk – an attempt to get close enough to the prey to make the kill itself a purely technical issue, for he has lost his taste for the taking of lives. But fate has other plans for Thorndike; such a simple and unexpected thing as a leaf falling across his telescopic sight causes him to twitch at the wrong moment and thus be discovered by a passing sentry. He is hauled away to be interrogated, tortured and presented with an ultimatum – his life in exchange for a signed confession that he was acting under orders from the British government to effect the assassination of Hitler. Realising the consequences of any such confession, Thorndike refuses and finds himself sentenced to death. Chance, and the natural world, once again comes into play when the faked accident that is supposed to claim his life doesn’t quite come off. From here on Thorndike must run for his life, first to a freighter and then to an England that is positively hiving with Nazi agents and fifth columnists all directed by the suave and sinister Quive-Smith (George Sanders).


Fritz Lang brought a very noirish atmosphere to what is a fairly standard adventure thriller. The sets that represent London are bathed in deep, dark shadows that promise danger and death for the unwary. He has his hero ruthlessly driven further and further underground, his world shrinking by the minute, until he finally finds himself walled up within the very bowels of the earth. Walter Pidgeon performs well as Thorndike and effortlessly handles the character shift from a man who has achieved a degree of mastery over nature itself to one who becomes desperate, friendless and riddled with guilt. George Sanders made a career out of playing sophisticated and detached villains so the part of Quive-Smith was one he could manage with his eyes closed, but that’s not to take anything away from his performance. Joan Bennett would eventually make three films with Lang, of which Man Hunt was the first. Her role as the prostitute (never explicitly stated but clear enough all the same) who helps Thorndike and falls for him is a large part of what makes the film work, adding much needed humanity and a genuinely touching quality to a very dark tale. John Carradine also deserves a mention for his turn as the cadaverous assassin hounding Thorndike and leading to an excellently filmed confrontation within the London Underground system.

Man Hunt was long absent on DVD until Fox finally released it in R1 last month. The disc is up to the usual high standard from that company, sporting a sharp, clear image with wonderful contrast. There’s a commentary included by Patrick McGilligan along with a short featurette and advertising galleries. The only bad thing to say is that this title looks like it may well be the last classic release we’re going to see from Fox for some time, and that’s all the more galling given the high quality of their product. All told, Man Hunt is a fine film, first rate Lang, and a title that I’m just glad was able to make it out before Fox decided to shut up shop.

The Gentle Gunman


The Irish “Troubles” have gone through many stages of development, and most of those stages have been represented on film down the years. That little island on the periphery of Europe which, despite long absences, I still call home seems to exist in a permanent state of conflict. Although there are sporadic outbreaks of peace, one always feels that it’s only a matter of time before we retreat behind our respective barricades once again. The Gentle Gunman (1952) is set in the border country during WWII, a period of relative calm when compared to the frenzied blood-lust that overtook us in the 70s and 80s, and deals with those themes that go to the very heart of the Irish character – loyalty, betrayal and identity. I suppose it could be said that the film simplifies things a little, but that’s a criticism that can be levelled at a lot of movies. In fact, I always think it’s a bit unfair to fault filmmakers too much in that regard since trying to explain or understand the complexity of the conflict in Ireland, even for those of us who lived through the worst of the horrors, is an almost impossible task. The Gentle Gunman, by boiling the politics down to its essentials and focusing on two brothers, does a fair enough job.

Terry Sullivan (John Mills) is an IRA man who has been living in London for some time. When rumours start to drift back to the old country that Terry may have turned, his younger brother Matt (Dirk Bogarde) decides to pay him a visit and see if such slights on the family honour are justified. To his horror, Matt discovers that what he’s been hearing may well be true – Terry is no longer trusted and, in the aftermath of a botched bombing, seems to have become (that lowest of words in the Irish vocabulary) an informer. The arrest of two gang members is too much for Matt, and he warns his brother that if he values his life he’ll not set foot across the Irish Sea. However, Terry wouldn’t be much of an Irishman if weren’t stubborn and contrary, so he comes back to the land of his birth and the not so welcoming arms of former friends and relations. The roads and lanes along the Irish border have seen more than their fair share of death. The usual outcome of a charge of informing was a brief inquiry and a sentence handed down by a kangaroo court, before a man was taken for his last walk down a lonely road at dawn to get a bullet in the head and be dumped in a ditch. Why, therefore, would anyone take such a risk? The answer in this case is the bond of kinship. Terry sees that his younger brother is being groomed for a life on the run by local commander Shinto (Robert Beatty) and his own former fiancee, the fanatically patriotic Maureen (Elizabeth Sellars). The question is whether Terry can haul his brother back from the brink and prove his own innocence before his comrades in arms decide to dispose of him.

John Mills was at his peak when this film was made and it seemed he couldn’t put a foot wrong. He’d reached the age where he was perfect for the kind of roles that called for an idealism that had been tempered by bitter experience. The ability to convey much while seeming to do very little has always been the mark of the best actors and Mills had it in spades. At his best he was wonderful to watch, the cast of his eye or the fleeting shadow of a smile or a grimace saying so much more than pages of dialogue ever could. His Terry Sullivan is a first class combination of bravado and nervy unease that’s entirely appropriate for a man walking the tightrope of self doubt and political duplicity. Dirk Bogarde, here at the height of his matinee idol period, is less satisfactory as the young man torn between loyalty to his brother and the idealism that has always formed the cornerstone of his existence. In short, he’s a bit wet but that’s as much a criticism of the script as Bogarde’s performance. That same year, Elizabeth Sellars appeared with Mills (again as a former lover as it happens) in The Long Memory, and I was less than complimentary about her. I think her limitations work in her favour here though, her immobile features fitting the character of a woman more in love with an idea than with any man. When Maureen (who’s clearly spent far too much time poring over the writings of Padraig Pearce) speaks with passion of the near sacred act of bloodletting, the only truly apt word to describe her is terrible. As usual in films of this period, the supporting cast does a sterling job. Robert Beatty is very believable as the tough OC with an unshakable self-belief. Joseph Tomelty is just great as the rural doctor dispensing wisdom while he carries on an amicable war of words with his old friend Gilbert Harding. These two add a touch of light humour and get to deliver a great last line that’s pure blarney.

Basil Dearden does fine work as director, moving the camera around enough to help disguise the fact that this is an adaptation of a stage play. The opening scenes in London have a noirish quality with lots of deep shadow and uncomfortable angles. He also handles the attempted Tube bombing well and cranks up the suspense by having a group of kids dart innocently around Dirk Bogarde’s lethal, explosive-laden suitcase – although he does use essentially the same device again during the later ambush in Belfast. For the most part though, the action is confined to the lonely border garage which doubles as the IRA HQ. Instead of letting this be an encumbrance, Dearden turns it to his advantage by using the limited space and some clever lighting to focus on the claustrophobic atmosphere and ratchet up the tension.

The Gentle Gunman has been released on DVD in the UK by Optimum only as part of the John Mills – Screen Icons set. Optimum can be variable in the quality of their transfers, but this is one of their better ones. It’s presented in its correct academy ratio and, despite some speckles and light damage, is mostly clear and crisp with excellent blacks and contrast levels. I’m not sure how much resonance this film would have with viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter. I think it does a good job of telling a very human story and the performances and visuals are hard to fault. Given my own Northern Irish background, I’m probably a little biased in my judgement – but I loved it. There’s a lot of honesty in this little film, and a lot of themes that still hold true over fifty years later. As such, I give it a big thumbs up and recommend it wholeheartedly.


The Hound of the Baskervilles


The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be the most familiar and famous Sherlock Holmes story of all. With its mixture of mystery and horror elements, and consequent crossover appeal, it’s easy to see why Doyle’s story has attracted so many filmmakers down through the years. My own favourite adaptation of the story remains the Rathbone and Bruce effort from 1939, but Hammer’s 1959 production does come very close to being its equal. There are a number of liberties taken transferring this classic story from the page to film, but I think I’ve said before that this never especially bothered me since I often feel that, for all their classic status, there are aspects of Doyle’s original writings that can be a little tedious. Hammer certainly tweaked the material here and there but the essence of the story remains and, when all’s said and done, that’s as much as anyone should reasonably expect from a literary adaptation.

The story, for those unfamiliar with it, concerns the legend of a curse on the aristocratic Baskerville family, wherein the male heirs are doomed to meet a grisly fate visited upon them by the mythical hound from hell. When the penultimate holder of the title dies alone under mysterious circumstances on the bleak moors, the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), returns to his ancestral home. Fearing for the safety of the new occupant of Baskerville Hall, a local physician, Dr Mortimer (Francis De Wolff), calls on the world’s greatest consulting detective (Peter Cushing) for advice. Mortimer’s account of the origin of the curse is told in flashback and forms the prologue of the film, setting things off at a storming pace that rarely lets up. The only slackness that occurs, and it’s very slight at that, is when Holmes sends Watson (Andre Morell) off alone to play nursemaid to Sir Henry. At this point Holmes is absent from the screen and the film suffers a little for it. However, this is a feature of the source material that can’t be avoided – anyway it offers the opportunity to see Watson acting on his own initiative for a change, and that alone means that it doesn’t deserve to be criticised too harshly. The scenes on the moors at night have an eerie, supernatural quality (lashings of mist and a soft green glow emanating from ruined buildings) that were the stock in trade of Hammer films and house director Terence Fisher. When Holmes eventually returns to the screen the film immediately gets a new lease of life, with Cushing lending a sense of urgency and energy. The final denouement takes place among the same spooky ruins that provided the backdrop for the opening, and this is the point where the movie disappoints a little. Until then the hound itself had never been as much as glimpsed, the characters only referring to it in hushed and fearful tones and it’s unearthly howls being heard echoing across the moors. Given the anticipation that such a build-up encourages, it’s hardly surprising that the beast struggles to live up to it in the flesh.


The Hound of the Baskervilles is credited as being the first Holmes film in colour, and Hammer certainly did it proud. The opening is a riot of rich, vivid hues that look as pretty as anything the studio ever produced. James Bernard’s typically powerful score adds to the melodramatic atmosphere and Fisher’s direction is suspenseful and pacy (something which he’s occasionally been accused of neglecting in favour of atmosphere). Cushing and Morell were inspired casting, with the former providing one of the finest portrayals of the great detective on screen. He comes as close as anyone ever has to capturing the essence of the character, combining athleticism with erudition, waspish arrogance, and a sly humour. Morell moves Watson away from the bumbling foolishness of Nigel Bruce to offer a more serious sounding board for the wits of Holmes. Lee gives his usual professional performance as the last of the Baskervilles who falls for the sexy and feral Marla Landi, although he does succumb to a bout of the Elmer Fudds at one point (Come on now. Why did you wun away?). The support cast is as good as one would expect from a Hammer picture, with Miles Malleson doing a nice comic turn as a spider-loving clergyman while John Le Mesurier, Ewen Solon and Francis De Wolff lurk menacingly.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of MGM’s catalogue DVDs, and that means it’s just about adequate. The studio rarely seemed to consider it necessary to give their 1.66:1 titles an anamorphic transfer, and this release follows that pattern. There are also a variety of damage marks but none of them are seriously distracting. The R2 carries no extras save the theatrical trailer. Generally, this is an excellent Holmes film and, since it’s also one of Hammer’s best, it’s a pity the studio never followed it up and turned it into one of their series. Cushing and Morell had the makings of a fine team and it’s tempting to wonder what they could have done with the characters had they been given an extended run, but I understand the film just didn’t turn a big enough profit for Hammer to keep it going. However, they did leave us with a strong movie that holds up well to repeated viewings.

Phantom Lady


Most people are aware that revisiting a movie can be either a rewarding or a disappointing experience. For myself, subsequent viewings have more often than not proved to be positive. That may say something about me, or it may be a result of the kind of movies I tend to gravitate towards. Phantom Lady (1944) was a film I’d seen a good few years ago and one which, at the time, I thought was OK but nothing special. Anyway, having recently bought the DVD I decided to give it another go. I thought it was fantastic, like watching a completely different film – everything just seemed to click into place. I have a hunch that a large part of the reason behind this reappraisal is due to the use of one major plot device which bugged me on my first viewing. Naturally, I knew what was coming this time around, so it didn’t bother me in the least – in fact, I found it to be one of the film’s better ideas and, lo and behold, the whole thing worked for me.

The film begins much like a standard murder mystery. Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is an engineer with marital problems. After an argument with his wife he heads to a bar to drown his sorrows, and finds himself seated next to a woman with a big hat and her own troubles. Since he’s got a couple of theatre tickets and nothing better to do, he takes her along to the show. The lady in question sets just one condition – no names and no details. At the end of the night the two of them bid each other farewell, and that ought to be the end of that. However, on returning home Henderson finds his wife murdered and the police anxious to learn how he’s spent his evening. The woman who could furnish him with an alibi would seem to be an easy one to trace, after all she had drawn the attention of a number of people. But no, no-one remembers her, or if they do they’re not saying. So Henderson is tried and convicted of murder. Just when all seems lost, however, Henderson gets a lifeline. His loyal secretary (Ella Raines), his best friend (Franchot Tone) and a sympathetic cop (Thomas Gomez) take it upon themselves to try and find the mysterious Phantom Lady.

The idea of an innocent man pitched into a nightmare world where no-one believes him is a staple of noir, and Phantom Lady has an excellent pedigree as it originates from the pen of Cornell Woolrich (although this novel was written under his William Irish pseudonym). The plot device which I alluded to above is the revelation of the killer’s identity about halfway into the film. This has the effect of transforming the story from a straightforward mystery into a taut suspense picture, and it’s all the better for it. Since the viewer now knows more than the characters do, he is free to concentrate on other aspects of the film – and there’s much to admire here. The lengthy sequence where Kansas (Raines) mercilessly stalks a tight-lipped bartender is masterfully shot. From the long shot of her mask-like countenance staring at him down the length of the bar, along the slick and rainy sidewalks, on a deserted platform, to his final demise under the wheels of a truck, you can feel the tension rise and the man’s fear become palpable. This neatly reverses the roles one expects to see in a movie of this vintage, and has the effect of putting a fresh spin on a potentially trite situation. In fact, Phantom Lady is ahead of its time in a number of ways, not least the atmosphere of sexual tension it creates. Another memorable scene takes place in a back street jazz club, where a bunch of stoned and liquored up musicians do a little after hours improvisation. The edge here comes from the sight of Kansas, looking cheap and provocative, driving an ill-fated drummer (professional squirt Elisha Cook Jr) half crazy with lust. The close-up of the expression on his face as his drumming grows more and more frenzied is pure gold, and must have raised a few eyebrows at the Hays Office.


Despite being billed second, the real star of the show is Ella Raines. Her part as Kansas (at the time it was a kind of fashion to hand nicknames to female leads in movies: Lauren Bacall becoming Slim in To Have and Have Not and Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning getting saddled with Mike!) is the most substantial one in the movie and offered her ample opportunity to show what she could do. I’ve already mentioned a couple of scenes above but she holds the attention throughout, displaying a tough, almost masculine, determination without ever being anything less than a woman. Franchot Tone, who received star billing, does well enough even though the nature of his role was one that encouraged a touch of overacting. Alan Curtis generally gets overlooked or dismissed by critics of the film, but I feel that’s a little unfair as he doesn’t get the opportunity to do much in the second half. When he is on screen he performs capably and believably enough – he’s no standout but he is acceptable. Thomas Gomez and Elisha Cook Jr were fine character players in many films and their presence adds some more class to proceedings. Phantom Lady was Robert Siodmak’s first in a series of excellent noir pictures throughout the 40s. All of his films made fine use of atmosphere, imagery and lighting, and this was no exception. There are countless examples I could cite, including the weird, tortured sculptures dotted around the killer’s apartment. However, aside from those already mentioned, there’s a marvellously shot scene where the killer lectures one of his victims on the ways a man can use his hands for both good and evil. As he talks the camera concentrates on his own hands, picked out stark white by a spot, while the man himself blends into the background shadows.

For some reason Phantom Lady has yet to be given a DVD release in R1 by Universal. However, it is readily available in R2 (France & Spain) and R4 and, although I can’t be sure of this, I have a feeling all these versions are sourced from the same print. I watched the R4 from Aztec (licensed from Universal) and the transfer is a good one. There hasn’t been any work done on it, evidenced by the presence of some scratches and speckles and a fine vertical line that appears on the right of the screen at one point for six minutes or so, but it is very sharp and has strong contrast. The R4 comes on a barebones, single layered disc but the relatively short running time means it doesn’t appear to be over-compressed. I don’t believe I’ve seen a poor film noir from Robert Siodmak yet and my repeat viewing of Phantom Lady has elevated its value in my opinion. This is a movie I can see myself returning to fairly often and I would certainly recommend any noir fans pick up a copy.

Hard Times


There’s something marvellously reassuring about sitting down to watch a Charles Bronson movie. You pretty much know what you’re going to get, and during his early-mid 70s peak that usually translated into an uncomplicated and entertaining film. Most of his work falls into the action category but the best of it managed to be a cut above the standard thick ear fare. Hard Times (1975) has long been a favourite of mine due to the simple yet engrossing story, the powerful fight scenes, the star pairing of Bronson and Coburn, and the presence of Walter Hill behind the camera. This is very much a man’s film, something that we rarely see nowadays – it’s tough, gritty and violent without ever becoming gratuitous or allowing the characters to lose touch with their humanity.

The story takes place in 1930s New Orleans and perfectly captures the spirit of the depression era. Chaney (Bronson) is a professional bare-knuckle streetfighter who roams the US, moving from one drab city to another making his living the hard way. Speed (James Coburn) is a chiseling promoter with a big mouth and a gambling habit, always on the make and always on the lookout for a likely prospect. There’s no backstory provided for these men, no clue offered as to how they arrived at this place in life – they just are. When Speed first sees Chaney in action, felling a much younger opponent with one devastating punch, he knows he’s found the fighter he’s been looking for. The taciturn hitter and the garrulous wide boy form a partnership and set about making some real money. However, to make money you have to have money so Speed borrows enough from a local loan shark to set up the first of a series of fights. The first half of the movie deals with the development of the releationship between Chaney and Speed as they seek out the funds necessary to permit a showdown with a local champ and his shady boss. There’s also the diversion of a romance for Chaney with a woman (Jill Ireland) he picks up in a low rent diner. One might imagine the aforementioned showdown would form the climax of the story, but it doesn’t. When Speed squanders the winnings, and thus places his life in danger with the mobsters he borrowed from, Chaney has to decide if he will risk all he has fought for to save the skin of a man who doesn’t deserve it.

Charles Bronson - would you want to argue with this man?

Bronson was in his mid 50s when he made Hard Times but, aside from his weathered facial features, you’d never guess it. He moves through the brutal fights with a kind of graceful, measured confidence. Unlike many more modern films where the hero appears to be an unbreakable superman, Bronson looks like a man who can and has been physically hurt. Those weary, hard-bitten features and his economy with words are perfect for the role – I’d say this may well be his finest hour. In contrast, Coburn’s Speed is a boastful, grinning wastrel who thinks nothing of using everyone around him. His performance here is a broad one and can grate a little at times. He’s an actor that I have a lot of time for and who I’ve admired in many roles, but he did have a tendency to overcook it on occasion and I think he does so here. Strother Martin is great, as always, in a supporting role as the medic with an opium habit. The only really false note comes from Jill Ireland, an actress who never fails to disappoint. Mercifully, her part is not a major one so her wooden performance doesn’t detract from an otherwise excellent film. Hard Times was Walter Hill’s debut as a director and it’s a classy start to a career. He has a real feel for the period and the characters and creates a very believable sense of time and place. He chose to shoot much of the film in old warehouses and dingy nightspots which positively drip atmosphere. The staging of the fights is especially noteworthy and I’d rank them among the most realistic and exciting examples ever put on film.

The transfer on the R2 DVD is a fine one from Sony. The image is anamorphic scope and is strong and true, good colours and sharpness with no noticeable damage. Extras consist of a trailer and brief text biographies for Bronson, Coburn and Hill. Hard Times is a great film with a great cast and a director who’s one of my personal favourites. It’s a movie that tells a simple, straightforward story without resort to sentimentality or sensationalism. Highly recommended.

Crime and Punishment


Dostoyevsky’s story has been filmed a number of times, but I have to confess I was not familiar with any of the versions until I viewed this 1935 film. It’s almost impossible to think of Josef von Sternberg without also thinking of Marlene Dietrich, so closely connected were their 30s careers in Hollywood. Crime and Punishment was only the second American picture von Sternberg made without his leading lady, and his best period was already behind him. This was a very low budget affair, made for Columbia, yet he still managed to turn out a film that remains visually interesting. Of course it didn’t hurt to have two up and coming talents involved, namely star Peter Lorre and cinematographer Lucien Ballard.

Basically, what we have is a tale of desperation. Raskolnikov (Lorre) is a brilliant young student of criminology, a man of great potential. Before long, however, we can see that this potential is not to be fulfilled. Both Raskolnikov and his family have fallen on hard times and he finds himself facing the threat of eviction. But Raskolnikov is a man of great pride, considering himself morally and intellectually superior to others. This pride, bordering on pomposity, is tested to the limit when he receives a visit from his mother and sister. The very real prospect of his sister allowing herself to be forced into a clearly unsuitable marriage purely out of financial necessity spurs him to act. A visit to a parasitic pawnbroker results in murder for profit, yet this great intellectual finds himself not much better off. Panicked into flight with only a fraction of the loot, his self-doubt and guilt quickly assail him. Having acted rashly due to desperation, he soon finds that a new variety of desperation awaits him. Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) is the ever-smiling, unctuous figure that appears on the scene, apparently grateful for any assistance the brilliant young student of crime can offer. The truth is the policeman is never really taken in, and it’s only a question of whether he can wheedle a confession out of Raskolnikov or whether the young man’s mounting guilt and paranoia will do the job for him.

Peter Lorre ponders his fate.

Peter Lorre was in his pomp when this film was made, riding high on a wave of critical success following Lang’s M and Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much. He had the kind of face that was ideal for expressing fear, despair, self-loathing, anger and swaggering confidence, and all in quick succession. You can almost taste the terror as he shrinks back into the shadows when he’s on the point of being discovered at the scene of the crime, his round features bathed in cold sweat. Conversely, there’s real arrogance to the way he later struts into Porfiry’s office, casually putting his feet on the furniture, while he taunts the policeman. Edward Arnold was the perfect foil here (Sydney Greenstreet would fulfill a similar function a few years later) for Lorre’s emotional grandstanding. His ebullient Porfiry is like a great, fat spider spinning a web around, and toying with Lorre’s bug-eyed and hopelessly trapped fly. The scenes between these two, as they indulge in an intellectual duel, are the best parts of the film. The budget was obviously tight as the whole movie is studio bound and the cast is minimal, but von Sternberg never lets it look cheap. There are plenty of expressionistic shadows and the limited sets are all well photographed by a very young Lucien Ballard.

Crime and Punishment is a pretty rare film, but it has been given a DVD release in R2 in continental Europe. I picked it up purely on a whim when I noticed it on the shelf for a low price, and I’m very happy I did. Sony have provided a spiffy looking transfer that has clearly been cleaned up and really does justice to a film that’s almost 75 years old. There are a plethora of subtitles and dubs available but no other extras. There were rumours of a Peter Lorre box in R1 from Sony, and judging from the handsome look of this title I’d expect it to turn up there sooner rather than later. I don’t think Crime and Punishment is one of the lost greats, but with the high class talent involved both in front of and behind the camera it’s a movie I’m very happy to have in my collection.