East Side, West Side

Crime has always acted as an effective hook to snare an audience. The reason? I guess it comes down to the challenge of being presented with a puzzle, even when it’s not an especially taxing one, that helps to draw in so many people. Even when the crime is not the principal feature of the movie it still adds a little spice, maybe broadening the overall appeal. East Side, West Side (1949) is at heart a slick melodrama, the kind that MGM was adept at making. Somewhere around the halfway mark it manages to work in a murder mystery, administering a shot in the arm to a plot which had been in danger of growing slightly listless and predictable.

The voice-over narration which introduces the movie has Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) maintaining that the New York she inhabits is nothing special really, a place where people’s lives are mapped out in much the same way as they are in less celebrated towns. Yet the New York we are subsequently drawn into is different, it’s stylish and sophisticated and sleek, with well-to-do types very obviously doing well. Jessie Bourne is the daughter is one of the great ladies of Broadway, her husband Brandon (James Mason) is a successful financier with blue blood and all the polish and accomplishment it brings. The conversation appears as bright and dazzling as the crystal and china on her mother’s supper table, and every bit as brittle. That bright glaze that surrounds the Bournes is but a thin veneer, a superficial sheen that is riven with the kind of hairline cracks that are only visible when viewed outside of the honeyed glow of pampered privilege. You see, Brandon Bourne is an incorrigible philanderer and something of a lost soul, a man floundering in a sea of temptation, ostensibly in love with his wife yet powerless to resist the lure of forbidden fruit. The most persistent interloper in the Bournes’ garden is the relentlessly sexy Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), a supreme huntress in the field of seduction. She had an affair with Brandon in the past before moving away but has now been let loose once again to prowl the streets and clubs of Manhattan. That she is stalking Brandon mercilessly is never in question, and his assertions that he’s a reformed character have a hollow ring, not least to his own ears.

Jessie Bourne’s wronged woman is on a different path though. Frustrated by her husbands serial infidelity while simultaneously paralyzed by her love for him and her inability to envisage a life without him, she appears to have reached an impasse. By a convoluted mix of coincidence and curiosity, she encounters mannequin Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse), who in turn brings her into contact with Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Dwyer is a former policeman now working in some ill-defined role as an intelligence operative in post-war Europe. His arrival on the scene has a twofold effect, affording Jessie a glimpse of how her life could be without the constant fear of abandonment by her wayward husband and then later assuming a more professional role as an impromptu investigator when murder gatecrashes this elite atmosphere.

“That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!”

Those words, spoken with passion and animation, by Ava Gardner’s character at a decisive moment go some way towards clarifying the hold she has over Brandon Bourne. It’s a superb piece of casting really, Gardner was near her peak at this stage and commands attention whenever she is on screen. It is quite impossible to take your eyes off her and it’s very easy to see how Mason’s playboy is drawn inexorably to this smouldering siren. She is earthy and forthright, candid with regard to what she wants and every bit as frank in her assessment of herself. Essentially, she is the polar opposite of Jessie’s contained refinement. Even though the main focus of the story is on Jessie’s three day trek to self-belief and her realization of her own worth as an individual, it’s not the most compelling feature. The part is well enough defined and Stanwyck’s work is up to her usual standard, but it’s a relatively straightforward one. It would be unfair, I think, to refer to it as bland but there’s a touch of inevitability to the path traced, not to mention a dearth of internal conflict.

James Mason, on the other hand, does get something meatier and more complex to sink his teeth into. This was one of his earliest Hollywood films and his suave ambiguity was well used. His character’s acknowledgment of his flaws and weaknesses invites the viewer to weigh this man up, to consider him rather than merely sit in judgement. It’s the cocktail of arrogance, insecurity and self-awareness that lends a wretched and abject aspect to the final image we have of him, a portrait of vanity bereft.

Van Heflin’s role is a little odd or contrived. It’s almost as though he is parachuted into the picture as some transient righter of wrongs, a bluff and hearty action man, ace investigator and sage with a neat sideline in homespun philosophy and cooking skills. His determination to brush off a deeply smitten Cyd Charisse for, let’s face it, some pretty spurious and unconvincing reasons is difficult to swallow. Then after assuring Stanwyck he is not in the business of wooing other men’s wives he proceeds to do just that before departing the scene again. I can’t fault Heflin’s playing but I have to scratch my head over some of the logic surrounding how his character is written. That said, I’m never displeased to see him in a movie and there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not every day you have the opportunity to see him involved in a punch up with Beverly Michaels. Married to the producer Voldemar Vetluguin and making her screen debut, Michaels arrives fairly late in the story but is pivotal in bring about the resolution. And finally, there’s some well crafted support offered by Gale Sondergaard, Nancy Reagan (still Nancy Davis at this stage) and William Conrad.

East Side, West Side was released on DVD years ago as part of a Barbara Stanwyck box set by Warner Brothers so it shouldn’t be that hard to locate. There are undoubtedly better melodramas around but it has that MGM sheen that is certainly attractive, boosted by Mervyn LeRoy’s tight direction and a Miklos Rozsa score. The crime element lifts it in the latter stages and there’s a lot to be said for any chance to spend an hour and three quarters in the company of a cast as classy and accomplished as this picture boasts.

The Upturned Glass

The last few entries here have focused firmly on smaller scale, low budget British movies, those with a certain modesty in terms of both production values and artistic aim. Now that’s not meant as a criticism as I feel the films are quite successful judged on the terms which their makers defined for them. Today though, I want to look at The Upturned Glass (1947), which I see as occupying a kind of middle ground – the ambitions of the main movers appear to have been slightly different, although the director is one we have mentioned here in relation to some of the more spare productions he would subsequently be involved in .

The film begins with a lecture, and for most of its 80 minute running time it essentially follows the form of a lecture. That lecture of narration is the work of a doctor, a man who tells his audience he will be recounting the story of one Michael Joyce (James Mason), although we viewers can see clearly from the outset that our narrator and his subject are one and the same. Initially, it appears to be primarily  tale of love which grows out of loneliness and a chance professional encounter. While this early section is vital in setting the scene and establishing motivations, it’s also the stuff of almost impossibly chaste romantic melodrama, painfully strained in its earnestness. However, the tone of the movie shifts all the time as the plot coils and unwinds ceaselessly, and we soon find ourselves firmly entrenched in noir territory, the shadowy world of moral uncertainty and fatalism. Joyce has been lifted out of his well-worn rut and given a glimpse of something unattainable, and now sees even that dream snatched away. The effects will be devastating for him and for those other figures playing their part in the slowly developing tragedy.

Style, theme and structure mark The Upturned Glass out as a genuine film noir – unfulfilled passion, crime in unexpected places, obsessive behavior, and a long flashback with accompanying narration are all active ingredients of this dark drama. The story came from John Monaghan and adapted for the screen by the writer in collaboration with Pamela Kellino, then the wife and ( in this picture) co-star of top-billed James Mason.  The name of director Lawrence Huntington came up in the course of some discussion here the other day and I’ll have to admit I’ve not seen a great deal of his work. That of course is one of the great benefits of the whole blogging business: getting some pointers and encouragement to explore further. I do have a few other movies by this director in my collection and both the recommendations of others and the pretty stylish work on display in The Upturned Glass makes me keen to delve a bit deeper into his catalog.

I believe The Upturned Glass was the last British film James Mason made before heading off to Hollywood and greater fame. I’ve always been a fan of his work, that unique combination of smooth polish and a hint of dangerous unpredictability led to many an interesting performance and it is ideal for the driven and obsessive character he was portraying here. Although Rosamund John played the main love interest, and did so perfectly adequately, Pamela Kellino had the meatier, much more interesting and emotionally involving role. It’s a superb bit of work; arch, shallow and self-serving, yet real enough to avoid caricature and, crucially, capable of eliciting some sympathy from the viewer and therefore adding another layer of complexity.In a small supporting role (and his last of significance before his death) Brefni O’Rorke is terrific as a cynical old GP with a caustic view of humanity in general and doctors in particular, and he gets to deliver some of the film’s sourest and most memorable lines.

The Upturned Glass was released on DVD some 10 years ago by MPI in the US as part of a package of three British thrillers (two early Michael Powell titles were also included) and it looks OK but it could probably be better served. All three films are on the same disc, which is never an ideal state of affairs. As far as I know, this movie hasn’t come out anywhere else since and I feel it is deserving of more critical appraisal and a stronger presentation. Well worth tracking down.

Cry Terror!

Hostage dramas usually represent good value as they tend to focus on the trials experienced by the kind of ordinary, everyday people an audience can identify with. Director Andrew L Stone had already explored this theme with The Night Holds Terror, but in Cry Terror! (1958) he mixed in elements of a terrorist/extortion racket too. It’s this aspect which provides the motivation for the whole captive scenario of course, yet it’s also the least plausible part of the story. Thus the whole basis of the drama has a flaw at its heart. Still, the film generally holds together, mainly as a result of an especially strong cast and a couple of extremely well-handled sequences.

Things start off in semi-documentary fashion, detailing a warning delivered to an airline that one of their planes is carrying a bomb on board. This is all seen through the eyes of the airline executives, the FBI and the media before the focus shifts to a television set reporting the breaking story. Jim Molner (James Mason) is watching the broadcast in the shop where he works, and his combined fascination and shock at what he’s hearing makes it abundantly clear that this man has a personal interest in the story. Well, maybe he knew someone travelling on the threatened flight, his frantic dash back home being consistent with that theory. However, his arrival there and the sense of alarm his wife, Joan (Inger Stevens), detects leads to a revelation – Molner was the man who designed and built the sophisticated, high-explosive device. The thing is, Molner is no terrorist or blackmailer; he was suckered into this by Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger), who intimated that a government position might be available to the designer. Now at this early stage – we’re really only a matter of minutes into the film here – my credibility was stretched. I mean, despite being told of Molner’s military experience, we’re asked to believe that a guy working in a store would be approached out of the blue by a man he once knew in the army with a proposition to build a bomb on this basis alone. Others may not be fazed by this, but I was left scratching my head. Anyway, it’s here that the plot starts to take shape, with the arrival on the scene of Hoplin and his three associates (Angie Dickinson, Jack Klugman and Neville Brand), and the news that another device has been put in place. Having already thrown down the gauntlet, Hoplin intends to extort money from the airline while holding Molner and his family hostage both to ensure his identity remains a secret and to force one of them to act as his courier. So, Molner, his wife and little girl face a twin dilemma: how to wriggle out of the clutches of Hoplin unscathed while averting a disaster. As the Molners cast around for an opportunity to be free of their tormentors, the Feds are painstakingly building up a profile of the criminals from the few scraps of evidence available to them.

As writer and director, Andrew L Stone must take responsibility for both the good and bad parts of the movie. I’ve already mentioned the early strain placed on logic by the script, and there are other instances throughout. There’s also an issue with the tone and focus of the picture: Stone can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants it to be a documentary style police procedural or something more personal, and the emphasis is continually shifting. Additionally, there are two separate voiceovers used at various points (both Molner and Joan) depending on which character is dominating the scene. All of this has a slightly disorienting effect as it’s difficult to get a fix on any one person for a significant period of time. Leaving aside the duelling voiceovers, the scenes involving James Mason and Inger Stevens are easily the most successful. While I acknowledge that this may be no more than a stylistic prejudice on my part, I found the sections with Kenneth Tobey’s dogged Feds a bit tedious – rather like a 50s version of CSI. Instead of adding to the tension of the story, these parts actively drain it away. It’s only when we cut back to the hostages and their tribulations that the movie finds it feet again. The best sequence involves Inger Stevens in a race against time, having just taken receipt of the ransom money. This is a wonderfully realized piece of filmmaking, where the increasingly distraught woman finds herself mired in New York traffic as the seconds tick away and her husband and child’s lives hang in the balance. Although I was yearning for a release from the suspense another part of me was so taken with the skillful execution of the scene that I wanted it to go on a little longer. While it’s not in quite the same class, Mason also gets to play out a tense escape attempt in a perilous elevator shaft.

James Mason got top billing and he turns in a typically smooth and graceful performance as the man whose lack of foresight has pitched his family into a nightmare. Without criticising his playing in any way, I’d say this is not one of Mason’s most memorable roles, perhaps because he’s handed an essentially passive role until late in proceedings. The more active duties were passed to Inger Stevens, and she handled them very well. Apart from the aforementioned race against the clock, she also had a couple of decidedly uncomfortable scenes where she has to deal with the unwanted attention of Neville Brand’s Benzedrine-addicted rapist. Brand nailed his character’s sleazy creepiness perfectly and the very real threat that he represents brought out both the vulnerability and resourcefulness of Stevens’ harried suburbanite. Rod Steiger’s tendency to chew up the scenery can be a little wearing if it’s given free rein, but he keeps himself under control most of the time here. The calmer face that he displays carries far more menace, in fact I’d say he gets the chilling, calculating quality of Hoplin spot on. Angie Dickinson and Jack Klugman round out the supporting cast nicely as Steiger’s increasingly anxious cohorts.

Cry Terror! is available in the US as a DVD-R from the Warner Archives, but it’s also out as a pressed disc in Spain from Llamentol. The Spanish release boasts a nice tight anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s in pretty good shape. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and the Spanish subtitles can be switched off from the main setup menu. On the whole, the film works well enough as a suspense drama. The idea of an ordinary guy being duped into a nightmarish situation that starts to spiral out of his control strengthens its credentials as a late entry into the fading noir cycle. Plot holes and logical inconsistencies can be found in many a movie, so I can live with those. I think the biggest fault is the script’s failure to stick with the plight of the hostage family and instead take regular detours charting the progress of the FBI investigation. It upsets the balance of the picture and lessens the tension at the wrong moments. Even so, the end product is still satisfying enough. Worth checking out, especially if you can get the very reasonably priced Spanish release.

Odd Man Out

Today is the third birthday of Riding the High Country, and for that reason I wanted to feature a movie that occupies a special place in my affections. Belfast isn’t a city that one would normally associate with film noir. Still and all, it’s not such an outlandish setting when you actually think about it a little. It’s a city with an especially dark past (and a future that remains far from certain for that matter) that’s seen more than its fair share of death and mayhem. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) uses the shadowy post-war city as the backdrop for a story that’s a haunting mix of tragedy, love and intrigue. It’s also a very Irish tale, and perhaps that’s why it has always resonated with me and fascinated me.

It’s the story of one man’s last hours, and how this impacts on his friends, enemies and even those who are strangers. Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the OC of the IRA in Belfast (the film never specifically identifies the name or the place, referring only to “the organisation” and “a Northern Irish city”, but that’s the what and the where in any case) who’s only recently escaped from prison. He’s been laid up in a safe house and is about to emerge again to lead a robbery. Although doubts are expressed about his suitability for the task, due to his having been out of circulation for so long, he shrugs them off and insists on going ahead with the plan. The raid proves disastrous through a combination of bad luck, physical weakness on Johnny’s part, and the incompetence and cowardice of his associates. The end result is that is a man is killed, Johnny is shot and wounded, and worst of all is abandoned on the streets of Belfast. As the light begins to fade and the temperature drops, one man sets out on his final journey around the city while the police cast their net and the avenues of escape are progressively narrowed. This torturous odyssey of a dying man takes on a dreamlike quality as he stumbles through darkly hostile backstreets and decaying tenements. Along the way he crosses paths with a motley selection of characters who respond variously with charity, pity and fear – but always with an undercurrent of suspicion and self-interest at the back of it. In a sense the film offers a sneak peak at the flip side of the Irish character that all of us born on that island know about but rarely acknowledge. The complex and frankly dangerous history of Northern Ireland, which frequently left many ordinary people caught precariously in the middle, probably intensified this. The resultant attitude was born of a combination of “whatever you say, say nothing” and “but what’s in it for me”, and was maybe the only alternative if you wanted to survive. If that all sounds a little negative, there’s something altogether finer at the heart of the picture though. Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), Johnny’s girl, is driven on not by any base interest but by her love. She knows that she has no future with this doomed fugitive, but her devotion sees her scour the snowbound city for him so she can protect him and simply be with him. When the couple eventually unite on the icy docks in the shadow of the Albert clock, with the police closing in remorselessly, it’s Kathleen who takes the only option open to her to ensure they remain together. That finale has real emotional power that refuses to fade however many times it’s viewed.

Sometimes I think it’s strange that it should be a British crew, writer and leading man that managed to get so deeply into the Irish mindset. On the other hand, maybe it takes an outsider to see people as they are and thus it’s easier for them to strip away the superficial and get to the essence. Of course, author and screenwriter F L Green was married to an Irishwoman and lived in Belfast so he did have first hand knowledge to draw upon. Carol Reed’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece is The Third Man, and that film is regarded as the cornerstone of his reputation. However, over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that Odd Man Out is the better movie. Stylistically, both films use  similar techniques –  disconcertingly tilted angles, deep shadow, and a forbidding city as a backdrop. Odd Man Out is the more intimate story though and it’s plot is simpler and more emotionally involving, which gives it the edge for me. James Mason is simply immense as the dead man walking, and the role of Johnny McQueen remained the one he rated highest for the rest of his life. I also feel he gave his greatest performance in what was a very difficult part, conveying an enormous amount of pathos and emotion with only minimal dialogue. It’s heartbreaking to see this shambling figure shunted from person to person, with the only thought in most of their heads being how to get shot of this burden before disaster befalls them too. Kathleen Ryan’s work is memorable too as the only person who actually cares for Johnny. The scene in the priest’s house when she talks of her love and how it has consumed her totally is exceptionally moving and all the more effective and credible due to her understated acting. I’ve already mentioned the powerful finale and it’s worth noting that the restraint of both Mason and Ryan contributes significantly to its success. The rest of the cast is dominated by fine Irish character players with strong theatrical backgrounds. A few notable exceptions are William Hartnell as a nervy barman, and Robert Newton as a half-crazed artist bent on painting Johnny’s portrait in order to capture the truth about life as seen through the eyes of a dying man. Newton’s performance is probably the weakest part of the whole film, being far too hammy and ostentatious. The location filming in Belfast adds to the authenticity of the picture and Robert Krasker managed to capture the threatening feel of the city by night. As a footnote, it’s also worth mentioning that the Crown Bar featured in the film (although the interiors were actually a pretty accurate studio reproduction) still exists and looks the same. It’s across the street from the Europa, Europe’s most bombed hotel, and I drank there many times when I lived in Belfast as a student.

The UK DVD of Odd Man Out from Network is a wonderful presentation. It sports one of the best B&W transfers out there with deep, rich blacks and excellent contrast. It’s also loaded with quality extras including a documentary on Mason, an archive interview with the star, the script and a gallery. There’s also a 24 page booklet by Steve Rogers which is very detailed and full of great stills and advertising material. This title was also available as part of Optimum’s James Mason Collection, but I have no idea how that disc stacks up, and anyway it looks as though the Optimum set has gone or is about to go out of print. This film is one of my all-time favourites and I can’t praise it highly enough. Apart from the startling visuals and heartfelt performances, it’s notable that this picture succeeds in rising above the political minefield of its setting to tell a marvellously human story that’s not afraid of probing the darkness before ending on a note of hopeful tragedy…and that’s about as Irish a paradox as you can get. If you haven’t seen this film yet then you’ve been missing out on a piece of cinema that is exceptionally fine.


The Man Between

Having successfully treated audiences to the story of an innocent abroad in a war ravaged European city in The Third Man, director Carol Reed attempted to recapture some of that magic four years later with The Man Between (1953). That he didn’t quite manage to do so shouldn’t be seen as too harsh a criticism; while this film never achieves the consistency of style or suspense of his earlier work it still rates as a very fine movie.

Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom) arrives in a devastated post-war Berlin to visit her brother Martin, a British army officer, and his new German wife Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Right from the beginning there is a sense that something is not quite right in this relationship, although the overworked husband appears blissfully unaware of any problems. With Bettina receiving mysterious telephone calls and messages Susanne’s suspicions are aroused. When the two women take in a visit to the Eastern zone (this was in the days before the wall went up), and just happen to run into an old acquaintance of Bettina’s, Susanne becomes convinced that her sister in law is having an affair. Ivo Kern (James Mason) is a charming yet ambiguous figure who has emerged from Bettina’s past and threatens to sabotage her future. However, despite early indications, the story is not some hackneyed love triangle with Ivo as the man between Bettina and her husband. That somewhat slow and predictable build-up is swept aside when the altogether more stylish second half of the film reveals itself to be a tense Cold War thriller that had merely been lurking in the shadows. As we learn who and what Ivo really is the movie develops into a cat and mouse chase through a bleak and menacing East Berlin.

Carol Reed had just made two bona fide masterpieces in Odd Man Out and The Third Man prior to The Man Between. The fact that this film featured the star of the former and a theme and setting similar to the latter often lead to its being judged more harshly than might normally be the case. Placed next to those two great works it does pale, but then most movies would. However, taken on its own terms, this film has much to recommend it. All the way through there is the distinctive visual style of Reed – tilted angles and deep shadow. The second half in particular takes the viewer on a tour of the city at night, a dark, dangerous place where friends are few and those deceptively close border crossings are always just out of reach. What saves the film from growing moribund in the first half, and adds to the tension and poignancy of the second half, are the performances of the two leads. Mason was a pastmaster at playing flawed and tarnished heroes, and his Ivo Kern is a fine creation. He is a man caught between past and present, East and West, self interest and honour. Claire Bloom, in a very early role, takes a character who starts out as a portrait of middle class primness and gradually develops her into a young woman on the cusp of maturity, learning bit by bit that her preconceptions about both herself and the world around her might not be as clear cut as they first appear. I’d also like to give a mention to the frankly excellent score by John Addison; it has a melancholy romanticism that lingers long in the memory.

If you’re looking to find The Man Between on DVD there are two choices available at the moment. I have the German edition from Kinowelt and it provides a very good transfer with optional subs that are removable via the main menu. The print is in fine condition with good contrast and blacks and no noticeable damage. The film is presented in Academy ratio and, although I’m certainly no expert on such matters, that looks correct to me. I mention this because the other option is the edition available in the UK from Optimum in their James Mason Icons set. While I don’t own that disc I do know that it presents the film in widescreen format, and I’m not convinced that that’s how it should be seen. It is notoriously difficult to pin down the correct aspect ratio for British films of this vintage as the UK wasn’t quite up to speed with the US in adopting widescreen. Apart from that, the framing on the German DVD just looks right, with no apparent cropping at the sides and no extraneous space at the top or bottom. Looked at in context, The Man Between is lesser Reed but, if you can put aside comparisons with his more celebrated works, it still makes for entertaining and rewarding viewing.

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.

Murder By Decree


I’ve always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes films. However, strange though it may seem, the stories and novels which inspired them never grabbed me in the same way. This may be due in part to the fact that I was first exposed to the screen Holmes rather than the literary Holmes, or it may be that my subsequent reading of Doyle’s stories left me a little underwhelmed. My earliest memories of the great detective and Dr. Watson were the films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Over the years I’ve seen many more actors take on the role, from Peter Cushing and Andre Morell through to Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. However, Rathbone and Bruce have remained the definitive screen incarnations – seems to bear out the old saying about first impressions. Murder By Decree (1978) offers Christopher Plummer in the role of Holmes and James Mason as Watson. I found them to be probably my second favorite pairing although the Cushing/Morell combination would run them pretty close.

This film has nothing to do with the Doyle stories (not always a bad thing) but simply takes his characters and transplants them into the Jack the Ripper mystery. This wasn’t the first time Holmes had been called upon to attempt to crack the famous unsolved murders on screen; that distinction belongs to A Study in Terror, made a decade before. While the earlier film was made on a more modest budget, Murder By Decree was an expensive production filled with big names. The plot has Holmes called into the case in its latter stages as a result of an anonymous tip-off. He is met with open hostility from the authorities in the form of Sir Charles Warren (Anthony Quayle). The mysterious informants later turn out to be members of a citizens’ committee (in reality anarchist agitators) who have taken a special interest in the murders. Holmes investigation takes him through the seedy and foggy backstreets of Victorian Whitechapel, where his and Watson’s conversations with the friends of the murdered women draw him closer to an unpalatable conclusion. When he finally visits an asylum to meet an inmate called Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold), the talk he has not only confirms his suspicion but also leads that monument to logical reasoning to break down and weep. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but I will say that it will scarcely come as a surprise as it involves a fanciful theory that has been frequently expounded.

James Mason & Christopher Plummer - The game's afoot!

Christopher Plummer gives a performance as Holmes which brings out the humanity of the man better than anyone else I’ve seen. I’m not going to claim that this is Holmes as Doyle wrote him; by all accounts, Jeremy Brett managed to nail that one. Instead of the aloof character of literature we get a more rounded man and it is genuinely affecting to see him display honest emotion in the scene with Genevieve Bujold. He also gives a fine speech at the end when rails against Lord Salisbury (John Gielgud) and the hypocrisy of the powers that be. James Mason’s Watson is closer to the spirit of Doyle and not the bumbling, yet engaging, buffoon that Nigel Bruce made famous. Having said that, he does have his moments – the “You squashed my pea!” business never fails to raise a smile with me. The film is a very starry one with many good character turns: Anthony Quayle gives a wonderfully distasteful portrait of upper-class arrogance, David Hemmings is a policeman with his own private agenda, Donald Sutherland’s frightened psychic haunted by his own visions, and no Holmes film would be complete without Lestrade (Frank Finlay).

Murder By Decree is out on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the R2 from Momentum and it has a pretty good anamorphic transfer and includes the theatrical trailer. I’m not sure if the R1 from Anchor Bay tops it but I’m happy enough with what I have. All in all, I think this is a very entertaining Holmes film which positively drips atmosphere. It features some great photography and excellent acting, and successfully blends the characters into a set of real historical circumstances. The resolution doesn’t particularly convince but, given the nature of the events, that’s always going to be the case. Unless you’re expecting a movie that sticks rigidly to Doyle’s characters you shouldn’t be disappointed.

The Reckless Moment


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

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


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

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

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

The Deadly Affair


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

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

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

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

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