The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

While literary adaptations come up for discussion on this site all the time, remakes of earlier movies are less common. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) is both an adaptation of the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and a remake of the silent film directed by Rex Ingram and starring Rudolph Valentino. In the interests of full disclosure, allow me to get it out of the way from the get go that I have neither read the novel nor have I seen Ingram’s movie. As such, I won’t be indulging in any comparisons here, which is something I try to avoid where possible anyway. After all, a work ought to be assessed on its own merits, to do otherwise is to rob it of its integrity.

This is a tale of family, war and division yet, in the final analysis, I think it is also a film about unity. The opening is celebratory, packed with dancing, music and, above all, color. It is 1938 in Argentina and Madariaga (Lee J Cobb), in a brazen repudiation of his years, is reveling in life, for its own sake and also in anticipation of the coming together of the two branches of his family. Madariaga has two daughters, one married to Karl (Paul Lukas), a German, and the other to Marcelo (Charles Boyer), a Frenchman.  The offspring of these two couples will all be present after a long absence, so it should be an occasion for joy. However, it is, as has been noted, 1938 and joy is about to take a long vacation. During the course of the evening, Karl’s son Heinrich (Karl Boehm) comes clean about his involvement in the Nazi cause, provoking outrage in his grandfather. To the accompaniment of elemental furies within and without, the old man has visions of the horsemen of the title, representing conquest, war, pestilence and death, charging across a lightning ripped sky. And then he dies. The story moves to Paris, seen largely through the eyes of Julio (Glenn Ford), the dissipated and pleasure-seeking son of Marcelo. That storm which toppled the head of the family half a world away has followed and has lost none of its strength on the long journey. Julio is a self-absorbed wastrel, quick to seduce the wife (Ingrid Thulin) of one of his father’s friends, complacent and secure in the apathy afforded by his neutral status. When the war finally breaks out and engulfs everyone, he gradually learns the value of love, of loyalty, of sacrifice and, crucially, of what it means to be part of a family, even a divided one.

War, love and hate, but family above all. We follow the fate of the two conflicting branches of the family, one half seduced by darkness and the other coddled by decadence. The war cleaves them, tearing the younger generation in particular apart and setting them at each other’s throats. Yet by the end, when the horsemen have done their worst, the intangible and eternal core of the family remains intact, in spirit if nothing else. That finale, with those lords of chaos riding triumphantly across the sky, has an unquestionably grim quality, an ancient malignancy pressing on in a relentless continuum. Still, there is a grain of hope there too – there are, it seems, two slightly different endings and it’s possible the viewer’s perceptions may shift depending on which one is seen – hinting at the ultimate resilience of the concept of family. Both sides of Madariaga’s clan have been devastated yet even in the moment of their greatest loss those who remain have been drawn back together. Perhaps that is the message running through it all, that family in its broadest possible sense, that of society of which we are all members, still endures. The rampaging horsemen may be forever with us, but so too are those unshakeable familial bonds that hold everything in place.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was poorly received on release, with a disappointing box office and a critical drubbing. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who never seems to have met a picture he liked, kicked the movie good and hard. Opinions are always varied and no more than an individual’s reaction to what is offered up, and of course there’s no getting away from the fact that I am simply presenting my own take here, but it is generally both poor form and somehow worthless to criticize a work for what it is not as opposed to what it is. Should anyone feel like seeking out Mr Crowther’s hatchet job on the film, it will be clear that he appeared most offended by a remake and adaptation not being a carbon copy of what came before. That type of criticism feels utterly redundant. However, what struck me as even more wrong-headed were the barbs aimed at Vincente Minnelli’s direction. To quote from that review:

“…most of it reeks of the sound stages and the painted sets of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio These, on wide screen in color and lighted like a musical show, convey no more illusion of actuality than did “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”That much is the fault of the screen play, garbled grossly by Robert Ardrey and John Gay, and the staging of Mr. Minnelli, who should have looked at a couple of neo-realist films.”

That comment indicates to me that the writer either ignored or fundamentally misunderstood the director and his intentions. The artist is concerned with truth first and foremost. In order to address this, he searches for, he explores, and if he is truly fortunate, he finds himself in a position to present that truth via his chosen medium. Minnelli was an artist. For him, the quest for truth took precedence over any thoughts of adherence to realism. Cinema allows for the incorporation of a broad range of techniques and approaches, and there are those who try to reconcile artistic truth and realism. Minnelli, on the other hand, sought to achieve a separation, happily sacrificing the illusion of realism – and excepting documentaries, what appears on the screen can never be anything other than illusion – in order to break down those barriers which would stifle artistic expression.

All of those elements which have been pointed out as flaws or weaknesses are deliberate choices on the part of the director.  While Minnelli might have had some reservations with regard to aspects of the script and casting, the staging and presentation feel very characteristic of his work. He was a very visual director, making bold choices when it came to color and that balletic sense he brought to set piece scenes: the debauched Parisian parties, the Latin nightclub, the riot that leads to the initial arrest of Yvette Mimieux. There is a oneiric quality to all of this, heightened sensations brought to life on the screen in order to stimulate the viewer’s emotions. The striking colors are very effective too; the predominance of red is notable, from the drenched and saturated newsreel footage, suggesting danger and violence, to the decor of Glenn Ford’s apartment. The contrast of red and grey is marked in that set, and also in the costuming in one key scene. The color scheme of the apartment is reflected in the intense, passionate red of Ford’s smoking jacket and the cooler, more practical grey of Ingrid Thulin’s suit, mirroring their contrasting characters when they reluctantly acknowledge that circumstances have left them no alternative but to part.

In terms of casting, the most widespread complaint seems to relate to that of Glenn Ford, mainly due to his age. Admittedly, he is old for the part, in his mid-40s at the time. The early scenes in Argentina, and also pre-war Paris, where Ford is supposed to be gliding along fueled by youthful hedonism, feel a bit forced. However, the role of Julio is one which requires the character to mature fast as the war takes an increasingly heavy personal toll and the option of simply sitting on the fence becomes no option at all. It is here that Ford grows into the role, or it could be said the role grows around him. Either way, that internalized dissatisfaction which the actor was able to exploit so well in his classic western and noir roles in the preceding decades serve him well. As the character of Julio begins to live a double life, so Ford gets the requisite psychological squirming across. Minnelli is said to have initially wanted Alain Delon for the part and it’s interesting, if not especially productive, to speculate on how he would have handled the part. Ingrid Thulin (dubbed by Angela Lansbury) has a certain Scandinavian aloofness about her – Ava Gardner is said to have been the first choice for the role – but she plays well off Ford and their relationship feels credible.

Charles Boyer’s turn as the head of the French side of the family is nicely judged. He is as suave as one would expect of a man in his position, but there is discomfort too, and it comes out in two scenes with Ford, one where he confesses to the cowardice which has hounded him all his life, and then on a rain-soaked Parisian bridge, racked with grief after the death of his daughter, as he begs his son to be a braver and better man than he had ever been himself. Boyer also shares a poignant moment with Paul Lukas, where both men are screaming at each other in bewilderment as the horror of their personal tragedies mounts. Paul Henreid is simultaneously chilling and stoic as the hero of the resistance, slowly being destroyed, physically by the attention of the Gestapo and mentally by  the loss of his wife’s love. As for the others, Yvette Mimieux is fine as the impassioned younger child of Boyer, while Karl Boehm is a textbook Nazi. Finally, Lee J Cobb plays it large in the  opening scenes. Is it all too affected? Well, that is something the viewer will have to decide. For me, in a movie where many aspects are heightened and intensified with the aim of raising the dramatic temperature, Cobb’s performance can be considered to be just another dab of color.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can be found on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive, and editions are available in France, Italy and Spain. This is a film I came to relatively recently and one which I quite like. It has its flaws and it drifts in places but there are enough of Minnelli’s characteristic flourishes to draw me in, and Glenn Ford is someone I can always watch. It is not perfect but the pluses outweigh the negatives for me and I reckon it is a good deal better than some of the criticism leveled at it would have us believe.

Strangers When We Meet

This is a story about building a house. Is that too glib? Perhaps it sounds like it is, but it’s not meant to be. Would it be better if I said it’s about lack of fulfillment? Well, that’s true too; it’s a movie about both, and at  heart it’s a movie about people in love. All of these elements converge in Strangers When We Meet (1960), separate and unconnected when they initially come together, just as the title itself suggests, fuse and then diverge again at the close. Still, that climactic separation is not quite as clean or as complete as one might expect – after all, nobody and nothing can remain unchanged and unaffected by their experiences.

The post-war suburban idyll, that’s the image we’re first presented with. A peaceful and prosperous looking street gradually filling up with chattering parents and children bustling along to the bus stop. They gossip and exchange small talk, bid a temporary farewell to the kids and then start to drift apart again, off to resume their day as the strangers they had been a few minutes before. But not all of them; architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) lets his gaze linger a touch longer on the demure yet voluptuous Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), and she discreetly returns that slow-eyed appraisal. So there we have it, those tiny hairline cracks in the veneer of prim middle-class respectability are suddenly exposed to the glare of the early morning sun. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to go into huge detail regarding the plot here. Suffice to say that Larry and Maggie are both less than satisfied in their lives; she is married to a stiff and undemonstrative man while he feels suffocated by the twin pressure of unrealized professional potential and a wife (Barbara Rush) he blames for stifling his creativity. Therefore, we have two people struggling with what they think are unfulfilled lives, ripe for romance and risk. The trigger for it all, what tips the balance, is the aforementioned house. Larry has been given a commission by a bestselling novelist (Ernie Kovacs)  to construct his dream home – something he seizes onto hopefully, as a drowning man will snatch at anything buoyant. It’s this that actually brings Maggie and Larry together, the building of the house proceeds alongside the blossoming of their illicit relationship, with its completion resulting in… Well, watch it yourself and see.

Director Richard Quine had been making a succession of mostly light comedies throughout the 1950s, with a couple of films noir such Pushover and Drive a Crooked Road thrown into the mix. Bearing that in mind, a melodrama in the mold of Douglas Sirk would appear to be an odd project for him to take on. For all that, it works very well indeed, with Quine tackling the serious themes with skill, tact and sensitivity. He never allows it all to become too broad, overheated or overwrought. And visually, he paints  from an exciting and evocative palette as he and cinematographer Charles Lang Jr light, frame and color the movie beautifully – from the marvelously tinted and shadowed first “date” for the clandestine lovers to the warm autumnal mellowness of the final scene, and through it all Ms Novak’s costumes progress from brazen scarlet to virginal white later in the movie, indicating a journey back to spiritual purity. All in all, an excellent handling of cinema’s own special syntax.

So to the writing, the solid core of any piece of filmmaking and frequently the area where the most significant strengths or weaknesses lie. In this case it comes from the pen of Blackboard Jungle writer Evan Hunter ( a man I’m more familiar with for his 87th Precinct books under his other pseudonym of Ed McBain) and adapted from his own novel. As I said in the introduction, it’s a movie about building a house and as such needs a firm foundation to anchor it. Indeed the characters themselves comment on a few occasions about the precarious placement of the house, half joking that it may all come crashing down. And here the architect is seen to be really constructing his building for the woman he loves; she appears to have inspired it and even if he’s not fully aware of this himself, I think it ought to be clear enough to the viewer. The tragedy here is that he’s building this for someone else to occupy, which leads back to the accompanying theme of lack  of fulfillment – the entire premise of his love can never truly be fulfilled.

Still, it’s not quite as bleak as all that. I can only offer my own interpretation but I think  that, ultimately, Hunter wants to put across the idea that the act of loving, both the physical and the emotional, are as close to personal fulfillment as anyone can hope to arrive at. That it may not always be a success or be directed towards the right person is perhaps irrelevant. Some will be lucky, they will connect with that ideal or perfect match, but for others the knowledge that they were able to touch on a form of perfection in an imperfect situation may actually be enough, or at least be enough not to negate that love which was but briefly shared.

The last time I wrote about a movie starring Kirk Douglas was on the occasion of his 103rd birthday. Since then he has sadly left us but in doing so he also left behind a wonderful legacy of performances to be enjoyed. He was of course a front line star, a man who seemed as big as the movies themselves yet versatile enough to be wholly believable in whatever role he took on. As an increasingly embittered middle-class man drifting into dissatisfied middle age, he’s never less than credible.

There’s a nice degree of subtlety involved in Douglas’ differing interactions with both Barbara Rush and Kim Novak, as wife and mistress respectively. Both actresses bring a lot to the movie too, Novak has the bigger role with more screen time and she uses that enigmatic quality to good effect – incidentally, this was the third of four films she made for Quine – and the hesitancy and uncertainty she tapped into so well in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is in evidence again. Rush has to wait till the third act to get her big moments and handles them just fine, notably the creepy confrontation with Walter Matthau’s two-faced neighbor. Matthau himself is delightfully sleazy and oily in his role, taunting Douglas during the pivotal barbecue scene before later making his move on Rush in the literally tempestuous climax. A word also for Ernie Kovacs, someone else who was used on a number of occasions by Quine. There are only hints at his quirky comedic side as he gives us an interesting take on the self-doubting writer, a successful man who is every bit as much in search of fulfillment, primarily the artistic kind in his case, as any of the other characters. The fact is that pretty much everyone in the movie is living their own variation on the American Dream; the problem is it’s giving most of them sleepless nights.

I’m not sure if Strangers When We Meet has been released on Blu-ray – someone will no doubt set me straight on that – but it is freely available in multiple locations on DVD. I’ve had the Italian release for some time but only recently got around to it, and I’m very pleased that I did. The movie has, to my eyes anyway, been presented very well and the marvelous Scope  image is highly immersive. The fact is of course that the story itself draws you in with its touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lost people searching desperately for meaning, fulfillment and genuine love.  It really is a rich, layered and intelligent piece of filmmaking, a joy to watch and one I’ll most certainly be revisiting.

The Plunderers

A new decade heralds change, or at least that would appear to be the received wisdom. It’s tempting to see it like Janus, as a point of transition gazing both ahead and back simultaneously. And no, this isn’t going to turn into some reflection on where we find ourselves today; it’s merely a coincidence that I happened to look at a movie which also appeared at the beginning of a new decade. The Plunderers (1960) came out just as the the western was about to enter a period of significant change. Could it be termed a transitional work? Well, for my money, it has much more in common with the works which preceded it, although perhaps there is a case to be made for it taking some tentative steps towards the post-classical era.

So, what’s it about? Conflict is naturally the key element of all drama and this movie presents it on a number of levels – interpersonal, intrapersonal and generational. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of four youthful drifters arriving in a tired and washed-up town, a place where all vigor has been abandoned and where the ageing population is unprepared for any challenge to the torpid complacency. These four are restless and dissatisfied, wearied from a cattle drive and emotionally raw at the realization that they just blew all their earnings in a week of indulgence in Dodge City. Right on the cusp of manhood, these youngsters need to reassert themselves, to make people sit up and take notice of their importance, but are singularly lacking in the maturity necessary to acquire that which they most desire, the respect of others. Thus, when an initial bit of minor roguery and mischief leads to the mildest of rebukes, their bravado is further stoked. It all leads up to threats, murder and, finally, a confrontation with a one-armed veteran, provoking a spiritual awakening of sorts.

There’s a lot going on here. We have the four interlopers trying to find their place in the world, but without the structure and guidance to point them in the right direction. This appears to be a throwback to the tales of rebellious youth that abounded in the previous decade, but the crucial difference here is that those earlier examples tended to push an essentially optimistic message whereas The Plunderers has an altogether sourer vision – the generational conflict depicted promises no positive outcome. Maybe this can be seen as a reflection of the stagnation that would begin to creep into the genre and give rise to a new and more nihilistic approach.  Or from a wider sociopolitical perspective it might be seen as holding up a mirror to the waning of the somewhat detached Eisenhower era which was about to give way to the more radical and energetic Kennedy years. Then again, I may well be trying to read too much into it all.

What is certain is that the movie charts the gradual reawakening of the conscience and sense of responsibility of its leading character. Jeff Chandler puts in a fine, understated performance as the  veteran who has been scarred both physically and psychologically by his wartime experiences. The fighting robbed him of the use of an arm and left him an emotional cripple as well. His withdrawal from his community is partnered by his distancing himself from his former lover (Marsha Hunt, happily still going strong at 102), and her needling of him for his lack of guts almost constitutes an assault on his masculinity. It feels as though his passivity and apparent impotence is being weaponized in both a literal as well as a figurative sense. What finally rouses him to action is the belief of the storekeeper’s young daughter (Dolores Hart). There is the suggestion that he has lost confidence in himself as a result of his injuries yet I think it’s clear enough that his fear is not based on an absence of self-belief as much as a reluctance to revert to the violence that he earned a fearsome reputation for indulging in during the war. While the classic 50s western built towards a spiritual rebirth, I think it’s telling that The Plunderers ends on a grimmer note with its emphasis on guilt and an inner monologue that’s actually a prayer for forgiveness.

Bit by bit, I’m getting round to featuring works by a variety of filmmakers who really ought to have been represented on this site earlier. Today it’s the turn of Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director who made a number of impressive genre movies throughout the 1950s before moving on to a long a successful career on television. The Plunderers was one of his last feature efforts and I think it’s a strong one. Almost the entire picture is shot within the confines of the town, keeping our attention focused and the dramatic tension ratcheted up. It’s very obviously a low budget affair, but Pevney’s interesting camera placements, along with the layered writing, help make a virtue of this. I feel it’s also refreshing to see the climactic duel making use of knives as opposed to the more traditional quickly-drawn pistols. All told, there is little on screen violence until quite late in the story – with  the exception of two tough and rather brutal beatings – and when it does take place it’s appropriately shocking in its abruptness and tragedy.

As far as options for anyone wishing to view this movie are concerned, there’s a manufactured on demand DVD available from the US via the Warner Archive and there had until recently been a release in Germany, but the latter seems to have gone out of print now. I’m an unashamed fan of low budget movies that punch well above their weight and I actively seek these out. Sometimes they work out fine and at other times they don’t; happily on this occasion, I felt The Plunderers was a success and I recommend checking it out. In fact, I enjoyed Pevney’s work so much here that I’m of a mind to feature a few more of his movies back to back. We’ll see…

Planet of the Vampires

Impressions and influences, those are the two items on the agenda today. It wouldn’t be much of a movie that didn’t make some kind of an impression, good or bad, on viewers, and I want to focus on those which I was aware of as I watched Planet of the Vampires (1965), the Sci-Fi chiller from Mario Bava. And then there’s the question of influence, which is something of a two-way street as far as I can tell, and all part of the evolutionary chain running through cinema from its infancy right up to the present day.

Distress signals in Sci-Fi rarely bring anything good, and Planet of the Vampires certainly doesn’t challenge that truism. This is what draws the ill-fated crews of two spacecraft to the planet Aura, and ultimately dooms them. We follow events from the perspective of Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) as he becomes increasingly aware of some presence on the planet which is capable of influencing the  thoughts and actions of his crew, driving them so far as to attack and kill their own comrades. In itself, that ought to be enough to worry anyone. However, when dead crew members start to reappear looking to add to their number, and the remains of another, clearly alien spaceship, suggest something similar has happened before, well…

For me the standout feature of Planet of the Vampires is the distinctive look. The image of astronauts clad in black leather roaming across a psychedelic technicolor landscape, all the while being stalked by vampire/zombie hybrids, is a striking one. Even when the plot doesn’t always seem to make sense, when the meaningless techno-babble makes one’s head spin and the characters insist on placing themselves in needless danger time and again, those visuals are what help to keep one’s attention focused.

There are plenty of people who will tell you that this movie was a big influence on Alien, which came out 15 years later, and I guess there is a strong case to be made for that. While I’ve not done  much reading up on this myself, I have a hunch it’s been well covered elsewhere so there’s not to be gained from my serving up the same stuff. What I noticed more were the influences it seemed to draw inspiration from, namely Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The whole notion of sleep bringing damnation as opposed to succour is hard to miss. Even if the message about relaxing (one’s vigilance) being potentially fatal loses some of its punch stripped of the paranoid Cold War subtext, it remains potent on an everyday level.

Anyway, there you have it, a much shorter piece than I normally like to post, with a few random musings thrown in there. It’s not down to laziness on my part, or any lack of affinity for the movie in question, but instead the pressure of demands on my time in the run up to the holidays. I doubt I’ll have time to put up anything else between now and Christmas, so I’ll use this (admittedly unseasonal) offering as an opportunity to wish a merry, peaceful and relaxing Christmas to all who stop by here.

Warning Shot

As a fan of film noir, I’m always a little saddened to think  of how it gradually faded from cinema screens. Then again, that very briefness is part of its allure, those two decades or thereabouts of slipping in and out of virtual and literal shadows, of exploring the moral ambiguities of life. Of course, the point is that it did fade as opposed to completely disappearing – it never really went away (arguably the themes have a timeless universality which precludes that possibility) and by the 1970s we were simultaneously reassessing the phenomena and witnessing the resurgence of what would come to be termed neo-noir.  This leaves us with a type of cultural no-man’s land between these two eras, one which is often a fascinating place to take a spin around. A lot of people will tell you that the classic period of film noir drew to a close with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. As such, it seems somehow appropriate to look at Warning Shot (1967), based on another Whit Masterson pulp story, as an example of one of these linking works.

A stakeout in Los Angeles on a foggy night, two weary cops sat in their car hoping to get a line on a killer, and hoping just as hard to get relieved and head home to spend the evening like regular human beings.  One of them, Sergeant Valens (David Janssen), goes for another look around and calls out a warning to a figure he glimpses exiting the apartment complex under surveillance. The figure bolts, the cop gives chase, another warning, a gun is drawn, and one fatal shot is fired. As the body is hauled out of the swimming pool it plunged into, the alarming fact that the victim was a respected doctor is revealed, not to mention the more troubling fact that no gun is turned up. Here we have a standard noir setup, a guy we have seen acting according to the rules is about to come in for a roasting by the media and, with all the available evidence suggesting his guilt, he’s on the point of seeing the law he serves focus all its attention and resources on him. His unhappy personal life and, more significantly, his previous near fatal run in with a shooter conspire to further darken his character in the public perception. With his badge suspended and his departmental favors running out, Valens is left with only one realistic option – prove that the victim was something other than the blameless philanthropist he’s been portrayed as.

The first thing to grab one’s attention as the opening credits play is the depth of the cast. David Janssen, fresh off what I continue to believe was perhaps the finest TV show ever made – The Fugitive, takes the lead and he’s a good pick for the part of the fall-guy cop. Those years spent playing Richard Kimble stood him in good stead, honing his edgy self-awareness and that trademark cautious uncertainty had become second nature by this stage. Interestingly, Ed Begley, frequently cast as loud, hectoring and unpleasant types (12 Angry Men springs readily to mind here), is instead handed a more sympathetic part as Valens’ superior.

After that the list of names is impressive indeed: Eleanor Parker, George Sanders, Lillian Gish, Sam Wanamaker, Stefanie Powers, Keenan Wynn, Joan Collins, George Grizzard, Walter Pidgeon, Carroll O’Connor. And there we have both a strength and a weakness of this movie. Frankly, it’s natural to want to see as much of these people as possible yet it doesn’t work out that way. The bulk of these performers appear in what are essentially cameos – popping in to add another piece to the puzzle Valens is racing to solve and then dropping out as abruptly, leaving the viewer wishing so many of these roles could have been expanded just a little more.

If there was a glut of talent in front of the cameras, there wasn’t exactly a shortage behind them either. Buzz Kulik may not have had a huge number of cinema credits to  boast of but his television work was extensive and his name turns up on a succession of well-known shows, not the least of which is The Twilight Zone. Some names just naturally stand out and that’s surely the case with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, whose long career stretched right back to It’s a Wonderful Life and included work in every conceivable genre. The movie can at times take on a slightly flat, TV feel but I reckon it’s down to Biroc’s skill that it rises above this as often as not. The mood of the whole piece is further enhanced by a typically classy Jerry Goldsmith score. And while we’re on the subject of notable names, it would be extraordinarily remiss not to mention veteran costume designer Edith Head’s stylish contribution.

 

Warning Shot was released on DVD in the US by Paramount years ago but seems to have gone out of print and, consequently, risen in price. I have an Italian DVD which is completely English-friendly and looks very nice; it is bright and colorful with a tight and smooth widescreen picture and no print damage I was aware of.  In terms of story and mood, I reckon this movie bridges the gap between classic film noir and its soon to be rebooted cinematic progeny. That said, it’s a flawed production overall and the attempt to pack it out with familiar faces ends up hurting it more than helping it – the succession of brief interludes stimulate the appetite like a teaser for a much-anticipated movie but you wind up feeling slightly dissatisfied when you realize that’s all you’re going to get. Generally, it’s an entertaining thriller, taking a sidelong look at mid-late 60s society, rising above its limitations in some respects but, paradoxically, finding itself bound by some others of its own making in the process.

Fanatic

Pressing ahead with more Hammer, let’s step forward a few years to look at the next stage in the development of the studio’s thriller output. The influence of the early films noir could still be seen in the black and white, Jimmy Sangster scripted suspense yarns with their trademark twist in the tail. Fanatic (1965) was something of a departure, shot in color and taking an entirely different thematic tack. If the previous template had been the noir-edged Hitchcock homage, then the new version was more in line with the “crazy old lady” sub-genre popularized by Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at the beginning of the decade.

Generally, I like to give an overview, or at least some flavor of the plot at this stage. I tend to simply touch on details as I reckon it’s poor form to drift into spoiler territory for those who may not have seen a given movie, and it’s also a lazy and slightly pointless way of writing. I’ll be brief here too but for perhaps different reasons on this occasion, namely the simplicity and directness of the plot. In essence, it concerns Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers), a young American girl who has come to England to be with her fiance, but who also has in mind a short visit to the family of a previous lover who passed away suddenly. That family is limited to the mother, Mrs Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead). At first, the old lady in her crumbling home and surrounded by the oddball help appears a mild eccentric with too little company and too many religious hangups. Later though, Patricia discovers that those convictions are of the deep-seated variety, of the fanatical type in fact. And the plan is for Patricia to spend  a lot more time in the house…

OK, I’ve a confession to make here: while I’d say I was a fan of Hammer studios and all their varied films, I’m not at all fond of this particular sub-genre. I remain adamant that the likes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is vastly overrated, and I far prefer Aldrich’s more subtle, and ultimately more affecting, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Now when it comes to Hammer, I’d rate The Nanny far above Fanatic in the “crazy old lady” stakes, and for broadly similar reasons. I think the issue for me is the level of camp involved. Films of this kind tread a fine line between grotesque farce and a more genuine brand of psychological tension. In my opinion, the greater the camp quotient, the greater the risk of tipping over into a mean parody. Fanatic starts off with what I feel is a broad and farcical tone, before plunging into deeper and darker waters. However, I think that detour towards meanness then appears magnified. Essentially, there’s too much mean – the heroine becomes objectified via her ordeal and the villains are too stylized to ever seem real.

Fanatic looks like it had been, and probably continues to be, heavily reliant on the presence of Tallulah Bankhead in the role of the demented Mrs Trefoile. Now, if I’m honest, I’ll have to say I’ve not seen much of this actress’s work. Aside from Fanatic, I’ve seen (and liked) Hitchcock’s Lifeboat but that’s it. I suspect that’s the extent of most people’s experience of Bankhead as an actress but her legend, driven by a range of professional and personal activities, is such that her name was and is a strong selling point. However, I reckon a performance should be evaluated on its own merits rather than any other influence and, on that basis, I’m going to probably go against received critical response here and say I wasn’t overly impressed. Frankly, there’s an archness and an air of aloof knowing that severely limits the credibility for me – where I longed for cool menace I got pantomime instead.

I’m guessing Stefanie Powers would have been regarded as more of a lightweight at this stage but, conversely, I found her performance more successful. It’s a difficult role – her character is driven right to the edge – but she handles it very well, going from carefree to desperate, and finally emotionally numbed with ease and confidence. Yootha Joyce is fine too as the repressed and nervy housekeeper but I feel Peter Vaughan, as her husband, is a little mannered and consequently less convincing. There’s also an early, undemanding, part for Donald Sutherland.

Fanatic is another title in the first Hammer box set released as a limited edition by Powerhouse/Indicator. Once again, I found the visual presentation to be of a typically high standard with a clean, sharp transfer and exceptionally fine-looking color and detail. The supplements are as usual a big part of what makes these releases so attractive, featuring newly filmed pieces on the movie, on Bankhead, the composer and interviews with crew members. I admit I’m not as enamored of the film itself as some will be but there’s no denying the quality of the package presented here.

Maniac

Hammer and horror, it’s hard to think of one and not the other. I guess this is fair enough as the studio made its name, and maintains its own corner within popular of culture as a result of this automatic association. Late night TV screenings of the famous Gothic horrors and their spin-offs also helped cement this image in our consciousness. Still, despite being an integral and influential part of the studio’s output, it was not the exclusive focus. There were also crime movies, Sci-Fi, fantasy,  swashbucklers, and of course thrillers. The increasing number of DVD and Blu-ray releases over the years has highlighted this range with recent packages from Powerhouse/Indicator, including the set with Maniac (1963), demonstrating just how attractive these films can look.

A French schoolgirl, Annette Beynat (Liliane Brousse), is on her way home when she is forced into a car and then assaulted. This ordeal is witnessed by youngster who alerts the girl’s father. Enraged by this, he attacks the culprit and hauls him unconscious back to his workshop, where he then kills him with a welding torch. This is pretty strong stuff but, mercifully, nothing graphic is actually shown on screen, all of the shocking and grisly elements being left to the viewers’ imagination. That’s the setup. We then leap ahead four years to the bar run by Annette and her stepmother Eve (Nadia Gray), and the arrival in their midst of an American painter, Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Mathews) who has been drifting around the south of France. He represents a new source of heat in an already hot spot and arouses the interests of both the women. Soon though, he sets his sights on the more experienced Eve and embarks on a relationship which draws Annette’s ire and also leads to a plan that puts many lives in danger. Eve wants out of her marriage and her husband wants out of the asylum where he has been confined. So a plot is hatched to give everyone what, on the surface anyway, they seem to desire. Of course, in such a tale nothing and nobody is ever quite what they seem…

After the somewhat brutal opening it’s clear enough that this isn’t a Hammer Gothic, although what follows looks for a time like it intends to develop into a Southern Gothic of the Tennessee Williams variety, with a hot and sweaty Kerwin Mathews generating friction and causing the emotional temperature of the Camargue to climb. However, in a picture where the tone and ground are forever shifting, the touch of writer Jimmy Sangster soon steers the kind of convoluted course that ought to be familiar to anyone who’s seen any of his mini-Hitchcock thrillers. It reveals itself as a twisty and absorbing thriller with deception and betrayal at its core. I tend to think (with good reason given how many credits he racked up in that role) of Michael Carreras as a producer first and foremost, although he did direct a number of features too. He makes good use of the French locations in this one and the scope frame both highlights the scenery and, when employed at low angles, gives an unexpectedly claustrophobic feel to some of the interiors.

Nadia Gray is probably the pick of the performers as the passionate bar owner at the center of an increasingly complex web. Mathews is fine too as the lead, a man who thinks he knows exactly what he’s doing but we always have the idea someone is manipulating him very skillfully. Liliane Brousse is very charming and Donald Houston, especially when seen behind dark glasses, provides a hulking and threatening presence.

A word now about the presentation of the Indicator Blu-ray, currently only available as part of this limited edition box set.  The black and white scope image looks very crisp and clear, a super transfer. As usual with this company’s releases, the supplements are first-rate including specially commissioned booklets and on disc features such as a short, original documentary  on the film, another feature on Nadia Gray and yet another with reminiscences of the shooting from surviving crew members.  All told, we’re looking at a really attractive package here that gives the movie its due, and then some.

The Informers

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow at Ten

Finding myself writing about a lot of crime movies of late, I consequently find myself ruminating over what goes into making these genre pieces successful. Well of course it is a combination of writing, acting and direction, with a some additional assistance from sets, photography and music from time to time. Still those are broad terms which encompass a lot, but I think one critical element that grows out of their synergy is what we term suspense.  The best examples of the crime movie trade heavily on this, using it to hook and then captivate the audience. Tomorrow at Ten (1963) is a first-rate British crime picture that does this in superb style.

Sometimes I think that the worst crimes can inspire  the best films. Kidnapping is an especially nasty and traumatic piece of work, putting a life at risk and simultaneously exerting sadistic psychological pressure on those faced with the ransom demands. That’s in real life. However, in the fictional world of the movies the dramatic potential of such situations is practically boundless and, depending on the perspective from which the story is seen, multi-faceted too. Here we are introduced to man calling himself Marlow (Robert Shaw) who is in the process of adding the finishing touches to a meticulously planned scheme; in the secluded house he has rented, we see him happily gutting a child’s stuffed toy and snugly fitting what is clearly a device with a timer. This golly will be used superficially as a comforter for the little boy Marlow will abduct and also as a form of dreadful insurance to secure the cooperation of the victim’s father.

It’s barefaced stuff, snatching the boy and then presenting himself to the shocked parent to calmly demand money and immunity. Marlow is counting on his threats either keeping the police out of the affair or inducing the wealthy father to use his influence to neuter their efforts. But he reckons without the grim determination of DI Parnell (John Gregson), a man with a clear and uncompromising sense of justice. In the finest dramatic tradition though, even the best plans hit snags, and in this case it’s a huge one. In fact, the powerful emotions released by his actions has wholly unforeseen results for Marlow, dragging the story in a different more intense direction and raising the suspense to a completely new level.

Briefly scanning back through pieces I’ve written here in the past and I don’t believe I’ve included any films directed by Lance Comfort yet. Bearing in mind how many of his movies I have to hand, this seems like an odd omission and certainly not an intentional one. Comfort worked in a range of genres but he had a real talent for crime movies and thrillers, and he also managed to wring the very best out of some particularly spare projects. Tomorrow at Ten makes use of a small central cast, around a half dozen people and keeping the focus on Gregson and Shaw in particular. When one thinks of these British quickies there’s a tendency to expect simple and direct visual setups, but Comfort had the experience and the resultant confidence to move his camera around more imaginatively and there are a number of extraordinarily stylish shots on view. And he was a highly professional filmmaker, never losing sight of the thread of the narrative and the necessity to keep everything moving relentlessly towards the resolution.

Robert Shaw was one of the big stars of British cinema, although he had yet to make his major breakthrough – that was to come shortly with his portrayal of the cold and dangerous Red Grant in From Russia With Love.  As an exercise in frighteningly psychopathic behavior, Tomorrow at Ten provided a pretty good warm-up, allowing him to create a genuinely memorable villain – there’s something chilling about his gleeful appreciation of his own cunning. Opposing hm is the stolid and reassuring presence of John Gregson as the dogged and principled policeman. As the plot develops, it’s Gregson who gets the greater share of screen time and he brings the audience along on the emotional journey as he hunts against the clock for the clue that may vindicate his methods and, more importantly, save an innocent life.

Tomorrow at Ten was released on DVD by what was Odeon well over ten years ago. That edition appears to have gone out of print now but, as far as I can see, there should be used copies available to buy for reasonable prices online. The transfer on that DVD was in Academy ration, which is unlikely to have been correct for an early 60s film. There are also some instances of print damage to be seen but overall the presentation is perfectly watchable. The movie itself is wonderful little hidden gem, one where the suspense is increased artfully and built around a mightily absorbing tale. Highly recommended.

Catacombs

I’m in the mood for small-scale British thrillers just at the moment and am currently enjoying some new watches alongside some revisits. Last time I looked at a late 40s noir effort and have now leapt ahead almost two decades to highlight Catacombs AKA The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965), a macabre, twisty thriller which evokes some of the vibe director Gordon Hessler picked up from his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series.

The story is a highly seasoned mix of temptation, infidelity and murder which also flirts with the supernatural. Everything revolves around Raymond and Ellen Garth (Gary Merrill & Georgina Cookson) and Ellen’s niece Alice (Jane Merrow). Ellen represents the money, a hard-driving (both literally and figuratively) businesswoman who strives to have total control over everything and everyone in her life, including her husband and her health problems. As far as the former is concerned, Raymond is essentially a kept man, a weak-willed specimen who has spent his life trading on his sexuality. As for the latter, Ellen’s attacks of physical pain have led her to explore meditation techniques and as a result the ability to put herself into a trance in an effort to manage her suffering. Into this slightly unusual household comes the figure of Alice, a girl who had gone abroad to study art and has now returned as a grown woman and caught the roving eye of Raymond. What we have is a potentially explosive situation in development, one which only needs a chance spark to set it all off. Then an apparently casual suggestion by one of Ellen’s disgruntled employees (Neil McCallum) strikes just such a spark…

Catacombs is a fairly entertaining little film, not all that surprising in terms of the direction it takes but still delivering a neat and satisfying twist right at the end. Gary Merrill was the big name Hollywood name whose star was on the wane, a common enough casting technique employed by British movies of the 50s and 60s. Merrill’s role as the ageing gigolo isn’t an especially appealing one although it’s not really meant to be  attractive and the actor picks up on the venal and craven aspects of his character very well, making him quite human but not in any pleasant way. Georgina Cookson is cool and poised, maybe too cool though to be wholly credible. Jane Merrow is better as the returning ingenue, the catalyst for the turmoil which ensues. And finally, Neil McCallum has a small but pivotal part as the shifty type who brings matters to a head.

Aside from his on screen work, McCallum also had a co-producing credit alongside Jack Parsons – and incidentally Parsons also produced Walk a Tightrope, which McCallum both wrote and had a minor role in. However, the bigger influence behind the cameras appears to have been provided by the director.  Gordon Hessler spent many years working as associate producer and ultimately producer for Hitchcock for his television show. Anyone familiar with those Hitchcock episodes will recognize the mood here and the connection isn’t all that difficult to see. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve not been all that enamored with the other Hessler films I’ve seen – those horror features he made with Vincent Price – but then again I’m not a huge fan of that genre anyway. IN short, I’d say I like Catacombs quite a bit more than the director’s other work, or at least what I’ve had the opportunity to view.

Catacombs has been released on DVD in the UK in a very nice edition by Network. The widescreen transfer looks crisp and attractive but the package is, as usual, light on supplements. Still, the movie is a fun way to pass an hour and a half or so and one that fans of the Hitchcock TV shows ought to check out.