Bedelia

The movie industry has always been keen to capitalize on what is perceived to be a winning formula, one glance at the franchise-heavy roster of movies that get approved these days ought to provide ample evidence of that. When Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Laura proved successful, it should not comes as any surprise that another novel by Vera Caspary with a single word title derived from a woman’s name soon caught the attention of filmmakers. So it was that Bedelia (1946) came to the screen, not via Hollywood this time though, but through Rank in the UK. It is an interesting yet not wholly successful work, partly due to the fact that inverted mysteries such as this tend to be tricky subjects at the best of times, and partly as a result of a cast that, the leading lady excepted, feels a little lackluster.

The opening plays out over a portrait of Bedelia (Margaret Lockwood), with a narrator leading the viewer into the story, placing the opening scene in pre-WWII Monte Carlo. The narrator is a man by the name of Chaney (Barry K Barnes), ostensibly a painter but it’s clear enough that this is not his real profession. He’s a hunter of sorts, I suppose, and it is apparent that the title character is his quarry. She is on her honeymoon, having just married the older and decidedly staid Charles Carrington (Ian Hunter). Chaney quietly finagles his way into making the acquaintance of this couple of newly-weds. Carrington is a man in love, starry eyed and besotted in the myopic way that only those caught up in the romance of a late spring can be. Chaney has no such illusions to trouble or dazzle him and he, as do we the viewers, sees that Bedelia has constructed an elaborate cocoon of deceit around her, a shell of deception to hide her true motives and character. I don’t think it constitutes a major spoiler if I state outright that this woman is what we would now refer to as a serial killer, one who collects well-to-do if not explicitly wealthy husbands in order to dispose of them and cash in on the insurance. Carrington has become her latest acquisition, and by the time they return to his home in England, his fate has effectively been sealed. It only remains to be seen whether, or indeed how, her scheme will succeed, or whether Chaney, her husband or those in their social circle will manage to put paid to it.

Vera Caspary’s source novel was set in the US, but the film saw the action shifted to the UK. Like all inverted mysteries, it is essentially a tale of suspense, relying on the viewer becoming absorbed in the process of following a criminal who is planning out what they hope will be an undetectable crime. The suspense arises from our being that half step ahead, knowing what the ultimate goal is, and juggling hope and frustration as we will the would-be victim to shake the sleep from their eyes, and wonder how or if the inevitable can be sidestepped. In a sense, it is hard to avoid comparing this film to Laura, although I dislike doing so in general and on principle – I reckon if a writer or filmmaker has taken the trouble to produce a work for our entertainment, then the least we can do is try to appreciate it or assess it as a discrete entity. As I say though, the temptation is there, and I feel the film comes up a little short under the circumstances. The story is good enough, Lance Comfort’s direction is smooth and suitably stylish, and Freddie Young’s cinematography contains some attractive flourishes, although it’s not difficult to see where it’s all headed.

Margaret Lockwood was one of the biggest stars of British cinema in the 1940s, courtesy of her work for Hitchcock, Carol Reed and the Gainsborough melodramas. She is fine as the title character, a deeply disturbed woman who successfully buries her greed and duplicity beneath a poised and polished exterior. We are onto her right from the beginning, those petty lies and that odd reluctance to be photographed or even have her portrait completed sending out strong signals of the presence of a wrong ‘un. Yet she displays a kittenish charm that serves to dilute the evil we know lurks beneath the surface, and adds the kind of layering to the character that allows the viewer to care about her even as we hope to see her machinations foiled. I won’t go into details here as I think that would be straying too deep into spoiler territory, but it’s worth noting that a separate and radically different ending was shot for US audiences. I’ve only seen the British ending myself, and I feel it is both appropriate and satisfying in the context of all that went before.

Ian Hunter had a long an varied career, starring in a number of early films for Hitchcock before heading to Hollywood and working with the likes of Frank Borzage and John Ford. By the mid to late 1940s he was back in Britain and Bedelia presented him with a worthwhile role. There is a good deal of high octane melodrama in this picture and his calm, slightly wounded stoicism acts as a counterweight to Lockwood’s more highly strung central performance. He grounds it all and provides the sympathetic figure the audience needs to identify with. This is all the more important as Barry K Barnes invests the character of Chaney with a rather colorless and oddly fey quality, somewhat remote and chilly. As for the others, Anne Crawford probably has the other fairly significant part yet, as with most of the supporting players, there is a sense of someone flitting in and out of proceedings without really making a lasting impression.

Bedelia was released on DVD in a very nice print from Odeon/Screenbound a few years ago, but it looks as though it has since drifted out of print. It’s a solid mystery/melodrama with a hint of film noir about it and definitely worth checking out should the opportunity arise. The inverted structure may not work for everybody and the cast, apart from Lockwood and Hunter, feel a bit anonymous. That said, it does look good and the resolution is bleakly satisfying.

Murder Without Crime

Looking at the beginning of a filmmaker’s career can be an eye-opener, either for good or bad reasons. Some directors start out with only a shadow of the confidence and assurance they would later develop, resulting in debut efforts that are clearly the work of a novice. Others hit the ground running, creating the illusion that they had been in this line of work forever. Murder Without Crime (1950) was the first feature directed by J Lee Thompson, a man whose subsequent career would be a lengthy and varied one. The movie has a great deal going for it in terms of both pacing and visuals, although there are other aspects of it which are more problematic. All told though it suggested that the man in the director’s chair had a promising future ahead of him.

Murder Without Crime is a self-contained affair following the fortunes of just four Londoners over the course of one evening. Stephen (Derek Farr) is, according to the narrator, an author of moderate success. He is married to Jan (Patricia Plunkett), but it does not appear to be a happy union. Jan suspects infidelity and Stephen doesn’t have the demeanor of an  entirely trustworthy man. They row, tempers become frayed, accusations and threats get tossed around, and Jan storms out vowing never to return. What then is a churlish and vaguely immature man supposed to do under the circumstances? Why, allow his smug and supercilious landlord Matthew (Dennis Price) to take him out on the town to drown his sorrows in a Soho night club. That then is the location where the fourth piece of the ensuing puzzle makes her appearance; Grena (Joan Dowling) is a hostess in the club and the lovelorn Stephen catches her attention. To cut to the chase, Stephen and Grena eventually end up back at his place, where he veers disconcertingly between maudlin and passionate while she is simply kittenish. Things take a nasty turn though with Grena feeling rejected and insulted before it escalates into a tussle over an antique dagger that sees Stephen shove her, causing her to fall and strike her head.

Such a turn of events would be enough to panic even the most levelheaded and self-assured individual, neither of which characteristic could be used to describe Stephen. His first thought is to conceal the deed, but he is not taking account of the suspicious and predatory nature of the ever vigilant Matthew in the flat below. The opportunity now exists to apply some pressure on the hapless Stephen, with Matthew sadistically teasing and tormenting him with allusions to his  guilt, toying with him pitilessly before blackmailing him.

J Lee Thompson had started out as a writer and one of his earliest plays went by the name of Double Error. It seems to have enjoyed some success, being performed in the West End as well as later revivals in the US. In 1950 Thompson had the chance to make his first movie and Double Error was adapted for the screen as Murder Without Crime. The stage origins are apparent in the small cast and limited locations but the cinema version has some very striking visual flourishes, with sharply canted angles and moody noir style cinematography helping to build up atmosphere and suggest a world where the mentality of the people we follow is as skewed and quirky as the imagery on the screen.

Everything moves along at a comfortable pace, scenes never drag and it all wraps up in a way that is brisk without being rushed. However, there are some weaknesses that shouldn’t be glossed over. Firstly, there is a voice-over that adds little to the proceedings and comes off as smug and smarmy where I suspect it was actually aiming for knowing sophistication. Then the score by Philip Green is one of those intrusive efforts, making its presence felt far too strongly and drawing attention to itself far too often – I have always felt a score ought to complement the visuals, enhance the mood rather than stomp all over it. Finally, there are the characters who people this drama. I don’t reckon it is necessary for audiences to be able to identify with the characters they watch but there should be someone they can at least sympathize with. The problem with Murder Without Crime is that nobody is actually all that likeable.

Dennis Price was a fixture of many British movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s, excelling at playing men at once remote and bilious. Kind Hearts and Coronets may well be his best work but there are numerous examples of delicious unpleasantness in his list of credits. As Matthew he is seedy, louche and superior, and downright mean-spirited. Up against Price is Derek Farr, in a role that really needs to have some feature we the viewers can root for. What we get, however, is a portrait of a weak and truculent type, a man who is struggling to save up to make a down payment on a chin. While Stephen surely feels sorry for himself and worries a lot about how everything will pan out, I was of the opinion that any misfortune he suffered was richly deserved.

The women fare only marginally better. Patricia Plunkett rightly walks out on Stephen at the beginning, but her resolve weakens far too quickly. When she returns it is hard to see how she is justified in helping out this man who is clearly unworthy of her. That she continues to do so even after she learns how he behaved had me scratching my head. The tragic Joan Dowling does some good work as the clinging hostess but, once again, it is difficult to like her. The fact is all four of these actors turn in good performances, but the the characters they play are for the most part distasteful.

Murder Without Crime is a modest picture, telling a simple yet twisty story economically. Network released the movie on DVD almost a decade ago and it looks like it has now gone out of print, although used copies can still be picked up at reasonable prices. That old DVD was quite strong and boasted the kind of transfer that did justice to the visuals. It is a tight little crime story from a director who was just starting out and even if it has some weaknesses (which I hope I haven’t overstated here), it still makes for an enjoyable way to spend eighty minutes of your time.

Accused of Murder

Years ago I put up a short post on films noir shot in color. I included at the end a list of movies I had found online that were supposed to fit the bill. While I had seen most of those titles at that time, there were, however, a few which had eluded me. Having recently caught up with Joseph Kane’s Accused of Murder (1956), I can now say I’ve viewed all of them. I can also state that, despite my own broad and inclusive approach to such categorization, this movie falls outside of the parameters of film noir. To me, it’s a straightforward crime or mystery picture.

There are gangsters and night clubs, cops and killers, but there’s not a lot of ambiguity on display. The opening scene sees Ilona Vance (Vera Ralston) making her debut singing in a club and watched by the man who (apparently without her knowledge) has secured the job for her. He is Frank Hobart (Sidney Blackmer), and he has just made the fatal mistake of double-crossing a mobster and compounded that error by threatening the enforcer (Warren Stevens) sent to put the squeeze on him. After Hobart tries to pressure Ilona into spending the evening with him, and she declines, his body, replete with a .38 slug, is discovered round the corner from a cheap clip joint. A bad break for Hobart of course, but it’s not good news for Ilona either as she was the last person seen in his company. There is a witness, a tired and jaded hostess (Virginia Grey), who could place the scar-faced enforcer at the scene of the crime but she has her eyes on the main chance. The investigation falls to the cautious Lieutenant Hargis (David Brian) and his impulsive subordinate Sergeant Lackey (Lee Van Cleef), whose contrasting methods and views of the suspect provide the meat in the ensuing drama.

Joe Kane was a prolific filmmaker, a Republic “house director” who took charge of all kinds of movies, but is probably better known, or more highly regarded, for his westerns. In spite of the large number of films he made in the course of his long career, I have only seen a handful. Shot in Naturama, a ‘Scope format used by Republic, Accused of Murder is a very colorful affair. Some of the early scenes have a noirish look, taking place at night and featuring the kind of lighting and angles commonly associated with that style or genre. For the most part though, it has a bright and sunny appearance, and the ultra-widescreen process is only intermittently used to its best advantage.

I get the impression that the movie was aiming for the glossy and polished look of a Ross Hunter production (admittedly, the presence of Virginia Grey, who appeared in more than a few of Hunter’s films, might be influencing me here) but it doesn’t quite achieve that. I’m not sure whether it’s the exclusive use of studio sets or the art direction, but there is more of a television vibe than anything else. Kane’s sense of pace is fine, however, and the story never outstays its welcome. This is just as well as the plot is a thin one and  wouldn’t have stood up to unnecessary padding or stretching. As I said earlier, there is no real ambiguity, and even if there is an attempt to add a twist towards the end, it still plays out without any surprises. The script was by W R Burnett, adapting his own novel, and bearing in mind some of the other films from this source (High Sierra, Dark Command, The Asphalt Jungle, to name a few), one might be forgiven for hoping for something with a bit more punch.

So, here we have another Republic movie where Vera Ralston was handed the lead. Last year, I looked at The Flame, where I felt she did reasonably well without ever being the least bit memorable. Her work in  Accused of Murder is, however, weaker. Firstly, the writing does her no favors by having what feels like countless people telling us time and again how sweet and good she is;  this drains all doubt from the viewer’s mind about a role where one ought to be wondering which of the two cops on the case has a handle on her true character. Ralston does what she can with the part but she wasn’t the most expressive actress at the best of times and there is little real sense of anguish or turmoil conveyed. I think David Brian tended to be more enjoyable in villainous or less sympathetic parts, he had that kind of face, but he could and did play sympathetic types equally well. He grounds the movie as the thoughtful cop attracted to the chief suspect yet unable to entirely shake off his reservations.

Speaking of actors with a face best suited to an unsympathetic part, Lee Van Cleef surely ranks high among them. Accused of Murder afforded him the opportunity to snarl and smirk to his heart’s content, and his ultimate conversion consequently feels slightly disappointing. Warren Stevens has a ball threatening and terrorizing all who get in his way, and he is genuinely intimidating. Virginia Grey had that weary look down pat, a faded glamor that was well used in those aforementioned Ross Hunter pictures. Her would-be chiseler comes in for some rough treatment from Stevens and this adds a real edge to the movie. Smaller supporting roles are filled by Barry Kelley, Frank Puglia and a whiny, sweat-stained and unscrupulous Elisha Cook Jr.

To the best of my knowledge, Accused of Murder has not had any official release on physical media anywhere. Nevertheless, it is easy to track down online versions of the movie for viewing, and in remarkably good condition to boot. I don’t feel it is a film noir, although I should also say I find myself increasingly of the opinion that labels are of little importance. As a film, it is so-so; it holds the attention, looks attractive and features a few solid performances, yet it never rises far above mediocre. Even if I wasn’t bowled over by it, I’m certainly pleased to have seen the movie and I suspect others may get more out of it.

Moss Rose

Call a movie contrived and it immediately conjures up images of some wholly unrealistic scenario, something the hardheaded among us will insist gravely could never come to pass. And thus, with wisdom intact, we dismiss it and move on to something more credible and by inference something altogether better. Perhaps the years are encouraging me to be more contrary but I find I’m increasingly at a loss to understand why a lack of realism in any form of artistic expression  – and I’ve yet to hear a convincing answer offered as why those two concepts need to be forced into an uncomfortable marriage anyway – has to be regarded as “a bad thing” and avoided at all costs. The Gothic romance is one of those areas where the contrived situation is commonly found, and that seems to be even more apparent in the 1940s variety which frequently flirted with film noir. Moss Rose (1947) is one such movie, a murder mystery requiring the viewer to resolutely suspend disbelief and take some unlikely behavior at face value.

Edwardian London: Hansom cabs clatter over slick cobbles while tendrils of fog curl themselves seductively around softly glowing gas lamps, and our narrator breathlessly begins her tale. Belle Adair (Peggy Cummins) – it’s her stage name but it’s the one we first encounter her under so I’ll continue to use it here – is a young chorus girl who tells of a mysterious stranger she’s often spotted slipping in and out of the shadows next to the boarding house she occupies along with a number of other performers. She assumes it’s the latest conquest of one of her friends. When that same friend then turns up drugged and strangled in her room Belle is convinced the killer must be that same man and the fact she actually saw him scurrying guiltily from the scene of the crime appears to seal it. With persistence, considerable brass and a sprinkling of luck, she manages to trace the man to one of the better hotels in town. He turns out to be one Michael Drego (Victor Mature), a wealthy gent who just happens to be on the verge of wedding a well-bred beauty. To go into further details would I feel spoil it for anyone unfamiliar with the movie so I’ll confine myself to saying that Belle strikes an odd bargain with Drego, one which falls a step short of blackmail but which is every bit as risky.

Director Gregory Ratoff seems to have been one of those effortless all-rounders who could be found in classic era Hollywood, a director, actor, writer and producer. Aside from Moss Rose, I’ve only seen a couple of his movies (Intermezzo and The Corsican Brothers) and both of  those quite some time ago, although I have a copy of Black Magic with Orson Welles somewhere. Everything about his handling of the movie feels very smooth and confident, his camera seems to enjoy drinking in the rich details of the elaborate Fox sets and the melodrama at the heart of the story is fully embraced. That story is an adaptation of a Joseph Shearing novel and the script is at least partly due to Niven Busch, who was responsible for the last entry on this site Distant Drums. While that was a  somewhat flat affair, Moss Rose has a little more of the kind of off-kilter psychology one often comes across in scripts by Busch. While this doesn’t have the depth or power of some of his best writing, there is that trademark motif of a dark and disturbing past reaching out spectral fingers to toy with passions in the present.

Victor Mature took the lead in a role which was a fine fit for him, the soulful, tortured look he found so easily had served him well in many a film noir and he exploits it here to good advantage. We’re used to seeing him as a heroic figure, perhaps a pressured and hunted one but a sympathetic character nonetheless. His casting in Moss Rose as the chief suspect subverts those expectations and teases the viewer, and Ratoff’s careful shot selection, with the help of cameraman Joseph MacDonald, emphasizes this. Peggy Cummins, in her first Hollywood production, is another good pick as the vulgar ingenue straining to sample the dream she’s nurtured since her impoverished childhood. There is something touching about the frank idiocy of it and the peril she’s willing to expose herself to, although I guess it’s this aspect which those who pine for greater realism will find least appealing.

Among the many pleasures of watching movies from the major studios in this era is the depth and quality of the supporting casts. Vincent Price’s silken charm was a boon to every production he appeared in and at this stage in his career, before he’d earned the right to have the whole show to himself, my only regret is that he’s not on screen longer. The deceptively effete, flower loving, detective he plays in Moss Rose is a neat turn, and disguises the character’s cool, steely intelligence. Rhys Williams as his poker faced subordinate is the ideal foil and they make for an entertaining team every time they appear. If you had to pick one actress to project an otherworldly quality, then Ethel Barrymore would have to be among the strongest contenders. That fey persona, as of one only paying the occasional flying visit to the rest of us, is to the fore again here. Patricia Medina and Margo Woode add to the background glamor, and it has to be said that any house boasting George Zucco as the butler  should be automatically viewed with suspicion.

Moss Rose came out on DVD some years ago as part of the Fox MOD line and subsequently popped up in Europe. The copy I viewed is in reasonably good condition, perhaps the contrast is a little too harsh here and there but it looked solid enough overall. I enjoy these gaslight Gothic thrillers with a hint of noir in the background but I acknowledge they may not be everyone’s bag. As I said at the start, stories such as this have a tendency to rely heavily on contrived situations and that can present a problem for some viewers. If, on the other hand, you’re happy to take the movie on its own terms, there is a great deal of pleasure to be had viewing Moss Rose.

The Two Mrs Carrolls

Every once in a while it’s good to indulge oneself in something which is not overly taxing, which is largely escapist and, in this guy’s opinion anyway, with enough entertaining features to diminish the concomitant flaws. In short, I’m talking about the type of movie to take one’s mind of “stuff” in general. And let’s be honest, current events are leaving all of us in need of a bit of distraction. With that in mind I turned to The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947) the other night. My impression is that this movie  doesn’t enjoy a great reputation but for one reason or another, which I’ll have a go at articulating later, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it.

The relationship between art and commerce has always been an uneasy one and it feels somehow apt that Hollywood, home to many a tempestuous real-life marriage itself, should train a glass on this dichotomy. Maybe it’s down to a familiarity with the inherent duality within itself that has led the film industry to occasionally cast a dubious glance in the direction of artists in general. Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) is certainly a case in point; before the first scene has ended the audience is left in no doubt whatsoever that here is a man who is a clear stranger to emotional stability. He’s been romancing his latest muse Sally (Barbara Stanwyck) while, initially unbeknownst to her, trying to figure out a way to extricate himself from his marriage. In short order we learn that he achieves that by the simple expedient of popping a dose of poison into his unwanted spouse’s milk. This leaves him free to marry the conveniently wealthy Sally. You might imagine that a new life in idyllic surroundings for himself and his young daughter (Ann Carter) would have chased away the demons. However, it becomes clear that the creative juices are drying up again, and then an attractive socialite (Alexis Smith) arrives on the scene…

As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t believe The Two Mrs Carrolls is regarded all that well. In fairness, there are problematic areas, the script and direction allows the story to sag a little in the middle, and both tone and performances can be uneven. On the other hand, the film is, for me anyway, an enjoyable slice of domestic suspense/melodrama. What’s more, it has that attractive visual aspect that I’ve noticed before in the work of director  Peter Godfrey (who has a cameo role as a racetrack chiseler) – both Christmas in Connecticut and Cry Wolf have a visual aesthetic which really appeals to me – and this boosts the pictures stock considerably. Allied to this is that studio recreation/imagining of a kind of fairy tale England (and Scotland in the brief opening scene) which either works for you or doesn’t. Personally, I’m a big fan of the artistry that goes into conjuring up that kind of illusion.

A final reason for my own fondness for the movie, and one I will freely admit is wholly dependent on the individual, relates to the time it is first seen. While I can’t put my finger on the exact time, it would have been somewhere in the mid-1980s when I came across this picture on TV. I would have been in the process of broadening my experiences of cinema (something which I can happily say continues to this day) and was on the lookout for as many Bogart features as I could find. The point is I caught this one at a time when it just clicked for me, and that feeling has never really deserted me ever since.

The Two Mrs Carrolls appears in the middle of an especially strong run of post-war movies starring Bogart. Looked at in comparison to some very strong and memorable work for Hawks, Huston and Daves, it’s perhaps not surprising that the movie is seen less favorably. That said, the star’s performance is inconsistent; the romantic interludes are handled just fine, as are the handful of incidences of hard-boiled insolence, while the manifestations of instability are seriously overcooked. Stanwyck, who rarely gave a sub-par performance at any point in her career,  fares better overall and handles the melodrama with greater assurance.

Alexis Smith had already played opposite Bogart in Conflict and vamps attractively here, trading barbs effectively in a memorable introductory scene. I guess most movie fans will recall Ann Carter chiefly, and quite rightly too, for her excellent playing in the haunting and rather touching Val Lewton/Robert Wise picture The Curse of the Cat People. She’s very good again in The Two Mrs Carrolls and her calm composure offers a neat contrast to some of the adults around her. Irish actors Pat O’Moore and Anita Sharp-Bolster are solid (and amusing) in support, and of course few performers ever bumbled quite so endearingly as Nigel Bruce.

The Two Mrs Carrolls was given a DVD release in the US via the Warner Archive, and clones later appeared  on the European market. As far as I’m aware it’s not been given the Blu-ray treatment as  yet, and I’m not sure  it has a high enough profile to warrant that anyway. Generally, it looks fairly strong in standard definition and I’m pleased just to have it and be able to watch it. Objectively speaking, it’s not one of Bogart’s or Stanwyck’s best movies and I’m not about to sell it as such. It does have its positives though, as is true for almost anything with these stars. Frankly, it’s a welcome piece of cinematic fluff at any time, and especially so at the moment.

Rough Shoot

Hitchcockian is a word that ought to be reasonably common for anyone familiar with the movie reviewing/commentary world. Mind you, time was the term got recycled regularly in relation to new cinema releases, although my impression is that this hasn’t been  happening so often of late. This might be down to recent films not fitting the bill, a gradual waning in the influence of the great man, a lack of awareness (conscious or unconscious) among reviewers. Or maybe I’m just mistaken and it’s as widely used as ever. Whatever. Today’s  film for consideration, Rough Shoot (1953), feels Hitchcockian to me, or perhaps it might be more accurate to talk a Hitchcockian throwback. By the 50s, Hitchcock himself was shifting ever deeper into more complex and layered thrillers. Rough Shoot, with its wrong man mix ups and well-judged combination of jauntiness and suspense feels closer in tone to some of the earlier, pre-Hollywood British thrillers.

Colonel Taine (Joel McCrea) is a US artillery specialist cooperating with the British military and therefore living in Britain. Actually, it appears to be an idyllic existence at the beginning, as Taine chats with the crusty old type he’s letting some land from before wandering off with warnings to watch out for poachers, black marketeers and other interlopers still ringing in his ears. Right on cue, he spots an unknown man trespassing on his property and thus plans to send a blast of buckshot in his direction to discourage him. However, this is no poacher someone else (Marius Goring) has the sights of a rifle trained on him, someone planning to do more than merely throw a scare into him. Two shots coincide and the result is a dead man, and an appalled Taine convinced that he is responsible. Logically, one ought to report the accident immediately yet dramas such as this depend on protagonists suffering from panic and sudden rushes of blood to the head. And so it follows that Taine attempts to conceal the body temporarily, but the actual shooter is keen to take care of matters himself. At this point the tale looks to be drifting determinedly towards film noir territory, with Taine fretting and haunted by guilt while his wife (Evelyn Keyes) is growing increasingly suspicious. And then, in that 1930s Hitchcock style, the tone shifts smoothly towards something a bit lighter with the arrival on the scene of a vain Polish spy (Herbert Lom) and his MI5 boss (Roland Culver). From here the pace picks up considerably, with spies coming and going, a race from the countryside to London to reveal the McGuffin before everything winds up in explosive fashion atop Madame Tussauds.

The writing is always important in the success or otherwise of movies and Rough Shoot comes with a strong pedigree. The source material is a novel by Geoffrey Household of Rogue Male fame. There is some of the rural menace of that noted work on show here but I think it’s fair to say that the adaptation by the great Eric Ambler only strengthens the finished product. I’m of the opinion that Ambler was the finest espionage/thriller writer of the mid-20th century, a superb craftsman and if his screenwriting didn’t quite match the heights attained in his novels, it was still of a high standard indeed.

Robert Parrish moved from a successful stint in the editing department in the 40s to become a director in the 50s. That decade saw him produce some excellent films, from the noir of Cry Danger at the beginning  to a couple of first rate westerns, Saddle the Wind and The Wonderful Country, right at the end. By the 1960s Parrish had seen his best days behind him but Rough Shoot appeared when he was on top of his game. He keeps the pace up and handles the tonal shifts very deftly, never allowing any jarring moments. He moves the camera around well too, making the most of the British locations as well as lining up some effective and atmospheric interior shots, capably assisted by Stanley (Pink String and Sealing Wax) Pavey.

Joel McCrea epitomizes understated dignity for me, he had that old-school decency down pat and watching him ease his way confidently across the screen invariably evokes a sense of reassurance. These qualities made him one of the great western stars but it translated equally well to other genres too. Rough Shoot presented him in one of his rare non-western roles in the post-war years and the largely rural setting could be seen as a comfortable compromise, particularly so as the film was made not only outside of the west but outside of the US too.  Marius Goring was one of the stalwarts of British cinema, appearing in some of the most notable movies. I think he makes a fine villain, cold steel draped in silk and posing a genuine threat every time he’s on view. In contrast to this icy menace is the knowing charm of Herbert Lom, and there’s equally delightful work from Roland Culver. The main female role fell to Evelyn Keyes – she wasn’t given a huge amount to do but does her supportive and resourceful stuff perfectly well. The other female parts are extremely limited  – the striking looking Patricia Laffan (I always think of her as Poppaea to Peter Ustinov’s Nero in Quo Vadis) seemed to be set for something more substantial and interesting but disappears too soon.

Rough Shoot is another of those movies that almost inexplicably remains unreleased for home viewing. The quality of the cast and crew, not to mention the entertaining story, would suggest this title should have been put on the market before now – many lesser works have been long available, after all. I can only think that there must be some difficulties or confusion over the rights which are holding this up. If so, I fervently hope they can be resolved some time soon. I’m of the opinion that this movie, Hotel Reserve and State Secret are the three British films most urgently in need of proper, official home video releases. Let’s hope somebody manages to do something about this. In the meantime, Rough Shoot can be be viewed online quite easily – hardly a satisfactory situation, but it’s the only option at present.

For another take on the movie, you can check out Laura’s thoughts 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.

The Tattered Dress

Ever wondered how films end up neglected? I was almost going to say “lost” but that’s an entirely different category; I mean movies which are viewable, accessible with a bit of effort, but neither commercially available nor presented in optimum condition. By the way, I’m not offering any answers here. I’m very bit as mystified as the next guy, and I’m really only indulging in a bit of idle musing after watching a less than perfect version of The Tattered Dress (1957). You could argue that the cast is largely peopled with actors who have drifted a little too far out of the public consciousness, although I’m not wholly convinced by that one myself. Regardless of that, the film was directed by Jack Arnold, a cult favorite if ever there was one, and yet this work remains (apparently) unrestored and stubbornly unreleased.

Cinema sometimes feels like the theater of the senses, or maybe a more sensual version of the theater. If we lose the immediacy of the live performance, we also gain something in extreme intimacy, and then in an instant we can also achieve the cool distance of an observer in a gallery. And all the while our senses are targeted and stimulated, particularly our vision and hearing. I’ve come to think that film sequences without dialogue – not silent film, just with the dialogue stripped out – come closest to pure cinema, storytelling predominantly through visuals, music and ambient sound. The Tattered Dress opens like this: with a torn frock, a breathtaking blond racing through a desert night in an open top convertible, a tense meeting with her husband, another ride and then a cool and clinical killing. And not a word spoken.

That’s the setup, a late night killing, a crime of passion by a shooter who needs a sharp lawyer to do the defending. That lawyer is James Blane (Jeff Chandler), famed for his ability to defend the indefensible and the bane of district attorneys everywhere. Blane is blunt, cocksure and beholden to one creed only, the need to win, to succeed and feed the legend of his own ego. His courtroom wizardry has seen him scale the peaks of his profession while he’s sacrificed his personal satisfaction to attain it. If his wife maintains an arm’s length relationship and his children are rarely seen, well so be it. He gets his clients off, and he gets this latest one an acquittal too, shredding the reputation of a small town sheriff on the way. However, this is only part of the story, and Blane’s moment of triumph is an imposter, disguising a comedown that will shake his faith in himself to the core. Yet perhaps he’ll learn something about himself in the process.

Jack Arnold is held in high esteem, and rightly so, for the Sci-Fi films he made in the 1950s. Those films, such as It Came from Outer Space and the excitingly cerebral The Incredible Shrinking Man, were landmarks not only for that genre but for genre filmmaking as a whole. Still, it would be a mistake, and a disservice to the man, if one were to classify him on those terms alone. Tucked in among his credits, one can find a brace of what I’m happy to assert are classy and superior examples of tight and economical western cinema – No Name on the Bullet and Red Sundown. Also, around the same time, Arnold was making (along with Jeff Chandler as it happens) Man in the Shadow where he took aim at small town corruption and racism. Here, under the guise of a slick legal thriller, he cast a sideways glance at the American Dream.

I’d like to think the desert setting, which Arnold seemed drawn to on a number of occasions, has some significance. Is it too much of a stretch to view that harsh and bleak backdrop as a kind of blank canvas upon which he felt greater freedom to explore his themes? Because he does dig under the surface of the glossy 50s American success story – the hotshot lawyer stirs urban/rural and western/eastern hostilities right from the beginning, and his idealized family unit (not to mention that of his smooth and wealthy clients) is shown to be anything but ideal. In short, there’s a nasty bit of corrosion creeping in beneath the chrome trim. The broken home and tarnished ideals of the man are the price he has paid in his ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune, elbowing such trifles as truth and justice aside in his dash for a questionable prize. So, at this point, let me make a proposal – that Arnold was every bit as concerned, all through his Sci-Fi, western and thriller work, with a critical examination of the flaws and  barely suppressed crises of the post-war American soul as the more critically acclaimed Douglas Sirk. While this is something I’ve pondered before, I’ll freely admit that this George Zuckerman scripted production hauled it all front and center for me – Zuckerman also wrote a number of screenplays for Sirk, including the perennially underrated The Tarnished Angels.

Now, a brief word on the performances. Jeff Chandler’s early death robbed the cinema of one of the most promising talents of the era. It has also led to an under-appreciation of his talents and abilities, but a look at any of his best roles quickly highlights his powerful screen presence. Plenty of actors, especially leading men in their prime,  are and were loath to accept what might be perceived as unsympathetic roles. Chandler, however, seemed comfortable enough taking on less than wholesome parts. The lawyer here is not a nice man, he’s a grasping and ruthless type who has lost his way, and yet Chandler embraces this negativity and offers a welcome three-dimensional portrait of ambition colliding with a hunger for personal fulfillment. Facing off against him is Jack Carson, the butt of plenty of jokes as a character player. His bulky joviality is nicely subverted here and his cool undermining of Chandler is very memorable. Jeanne Crain is the estranged wife, still in love with Chandler but proud enough to hold herself back until he rediscovers his humanity. And finally, there’s Gail Russell, that fragile beauty in the middle of a temporary comeback that was destined to be short-lived.

To finish this piece, which has ended up running slightly longer than my other recent postings, let me just reiterate that The Tattered Dress is a classy melodrama/thriller with a fine cast and on-form director. That it remains unreleased on any current home video format is something I struggle to understand. There are many films we can safely say are deserving of a high quality digital release – this is most assuredly one of them. I can only hope someone sets about rectifying this oversight soon.

The Odessa File

Events that can change history sometimes hang on tiny chances. If I hadn’t pulled to the curb, I wouldn’t have caught the traffic light, nor seen the ambulance, never have heard of Salomon Tauber or Eduard Roschmann. Nor got involved with the agents of Israel, or with the sinister and deadly men behind the Odessa. That night I was just a reporter with a nose for a possible story.

Those are the first lines spoken by Peter Miller (Jon Voight),  the lead character in The Odessa File (1974). I’ve mentioned fairly recently how many a film noir turns on the fickleness of fate, the way chance steals across one’s path and leads to the making of a decision, either rash or considered, thus altering the whole shape of the protagonist’s world. This is not a film noir, it’s an espionage tale but quite a dark one, where the present future and past of the lead crash together in a kind of existential pile-up, the grim past and vaguely pathetic present colliding and sending the characters on a quest to try to fit all the shattered fragments in place again.

Peter Miller is a freelance journalist, and inordinately proud of this fact, boasting of it to his girlfriend, and exotic dancer who it’s strongly suggested is bringing home the lion’s share of the money the young couple need to survive in 1960s Hamburg. This timeline is important; we’re less than twenty years on from the end of WWII; the deep wounds of that terrible conflict had not yet healed themselves, much less had the ghosts been exorcised. When chance knocks at Miller’s door it presents him with the diary of an old concentration camp inmate, a man who has just taken his own life. Reading through the journal piques Miller’s interest – the complete reason why only being revealed much later in the day – and sets him off on a course which will take him from the depravity of the death camps and Roschmann (Maximilian Schell), the commandant, right up to the contemporary world where the tentacles of the Nazi Odessa organization have taken a furtive yet firm hold.

The Odessa File is an adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel of the same name, and (based on an admittedly not always reliable memory) remains fairly faithful to that source. Director Ronald Neame and cameraman Oswald Morris shoot the flashback scenes portraying events in the Riga camp during the war in stark black & white, and the contemporary 60s action in color. The technique is effective and is successful in that it never draws attention to itself and has a seamless quality. The structure is the classic search for secrets buried in the past but still impacting on the present and it’s one which is almost always enthralling. With the worrying and apparently relentless rise of the extreme right across the western world these days, One has to wonder if the theme here of the danger of an ever vigilant extremism patiently awaiting the opportunity to seize the reins one again isn’t every bit a prescient now as it was back in the early 1970s.

Jon Voight makes for a personable and credible lead. It’s easy enough to imagine him as a driven journalist and, while there are action sequences, has the everyman quality that we see less and less of in these days of virtually superhuman leads. The journey he embarks on, both professionally and personally, is never less than fascinating and his sympathetic playing is a large part of what makes it work. Maximilian Schell is the other big name in the cast, the malign presence of his venal character haunting the picture even when he’s off screen for long stretches. And the climactic confrontation between Voight and Schell is both revelatory and satisfying. In supporting roles, there is attractive work done by Maria Schell, Derek Jacobi, Mary Tamm, and Klaus Lowitsch as a dangerous and determined assassin.

The Odessa File on Blu-ray is part of the new slate of releases from Indicator/Powerhouse and this latest limited edition gets a fine transfer from a 2K restoration. The scope transfer is smooth and tight, with that moody look often found in 70s cinema. As usual, the extra features are a significant part of the release, from the 21 page booklet containing a mix of original writing on the film and also an extract from Ronald Neame’s 2003 autobiography. On the disc there are two hour long interviews carried out at the National Film Theatre, one with Neame and the other with Oswald Morris. Also included are short filmed pieces with other crew members. This is another strong release of an entertaining movie that continues to feel relevant more than 40 years after it was made. I believe it’s well worth checking out, or revisiting, and this is a nice presentation.

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.