The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.

The Sherlock Holmes character has come to the screen (both big and small) in many shapes and forms over the years and almost everyone has their own favorite incarnation. As often happens, the first version I saw or at least have a memory of has become my preferred choice. For me, the evening television screenings of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies cemented them in my consciousness to the point where I automatically see their faces first when the characters of Holmes and Watson are mentioned. The interpretations, adaptations and settings were far from what a purist might find acceptable, but I don’t care about any of that. These performers and their films carry me back almost 40 years and will always occupy a special place in my affections.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) wasn’t an adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s stories, although the estate is credited, presumably for the use of the characters themselves. The script instead claims to be derived from the stage play by William Gillette. It opens with the dismissal of a murder case against arch-criminal Professor Moriarty (George Zucco), just as Holmes (Basil Rathbone)dramatically bursts into the courtroom with evidence he maintains will shoot the alibi of his adversary to pieces. With the verdict already in, he’s too late of course and there follows a neat little scene with the two rivals sharing a Hansom cab that spirits them away amid a torrential downpour. It’s at this point that Moriarty makes the little speech I used at the top of this piece, setting up the plan for revenge which dominates the remainder of the picture. I won’t go into too much detail here as much of the pleasure of the movie is to be had from watching the slow unfolding of two ingenious plot strands simultaneously. The lion’s share of the running time is taken up with the grotesque and macabre stalking experienced by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) and her ill-fated relatives.

1939 is often referred to as the golden year of cinema’s Golden Age due to the sheer number of successful and high quality pictures produced and released during those twelve months. This is something I wouldn’t want to argue with as even a cursory glance reveals the depth and breadth of the quality projected onto the silver screen in that year – from award-wooing prestige vehicles to crowd-pleasing genre pieces, just about every possible taste was catered to and it would be a mean-spirited film fan indeed who failed to hit on something to captivate him or her. Last time I was highlighting a tightly budgeted western shot by Alfred Werker, this time it’s the same director but the money men were a little more generous. Fox had already scored a success with Rathbone and Bruce in their wonderfully atmospheric version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and this was their follow-up. Werker had the resources of the studio backing him up in this moodily impressive effort, the sets looking rich and classy and Leon Shamroy displaying his photographic talents as cinematographer. There’s been some conversation on here of late relating to the relative merits of set based film production after I looked at a movie where I felt the backdrops were less than satisfactory. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, presents us with the flip side of the coin, where much of the enjoyment of the movie stems directly from the marvelous artistry involved in creating those fogbound and gas-lit cobble streets down which hacks chase their cabs speeding their fares to or from the scene of mystery and intrigue.

The two films made by Fox had Holmes and Watson fighting crime in the Victorian surroundings in which their creator had originally placed them. Subsequent tales of mystery and detection undertaken by Rathbone and Bruce would be produced on a smaller budget for Universal (my friend and regular contributor to discussion on this site, Sergio, is in the process of going through that series here, and others like 100 Films in a Year have done so too) with the characters operating in a contemporary setting. Purists may rail against such liberties but they never concerned me particularly. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes retains the era of Conan Doyle’s literary detective yet it will no doubt displease some as a result of the way certain central characters are portrayed.

Is there a definitive screen Holmes? Plenty of people would argue that Jeremy Brett nailed it on television. Having gone back and revisited a number of episodes of the Brett series, I’d say there’s a strong case to be made for this assertion and I wouldn’t seek to dissuade anyone from holding this opinion. And still I find I return to Rathbone, for those reasons I mentioned above; I’ve since read the novels and short stories and seen other interpretations that may have gotten closer to the sleuth on the printed page, but Rathbone was the one I came across first and thus will always be my Holmes. There’s a terrific energy and restlessness about the man and it contrasts nicely with the moody abruptness which can bubble up to the surface on occasion. Nigel Bruce’s Watson tends to come in for a fair bit of stick and derision for the bumbling and clowning, and I can quite understand how that must grate for those familiar with the capable and competent figure of the books. Sure there’s something of the overgrown child about Bruce’s performance, even so I like it fine and there’s good chemistry between him and Rathbone – I think the affection the characters have for each other is quite apparent and nicely illustrated by the little exchange right at the end of the movie. As Moriarty, George Zucco is delightfully creepy and dangerous. He would reappear in the Universal film Sherlock Holmes in Washington, though playing a different role. A young Ida Lupino was just seeing her career take off at this point and I think she does well as the girl whose family appears to be cursed in some way and haunted by dark South American secrets. In support, we have E E Clive, Henry Stephenson, Alan Marshal, series regular Mary Gordon, and Terry Kilburn.

I have all the Rathbone/Bruce series on the UK set issued some years ago by Optimum and the transfers sourced from the UCLA restorations are very good. There’s some damage to the prints of course but nothing major. Among the extra features on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a commentary track by Holmes writer David Stuart Davies. It’s worth noting here that there are various Blu-ray editions of these films available both in the US and in Europe – I’ve yet to pick one up but the quality is excellent by all accounts. As for this movie, it’s a fine tale with bags of creepy atmosphere and ought to satisfy fans of Holmes and the wider mystery genre too. It would serve as a good introduction to the Rathbone/Bruce take on Holmes and Watson and the brisk pacing is such that it never outstays its welcome.

Ceiling Zero


If you spend any time watching, discussing, reading or writing about movies, then the auteur theory is one which will inevitably cross your mind. I was first exposed to this concept in my teenage years, and it’s a notion which I first embraced and then rejected. Over time I’ve shifted my position on the matter frequently, mainly due to my acceptance of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process. I’ve now become more comfortable with the label, no longer seeing it as inherently pejorative towards the collective efforts of the other people involved. The fact is it’s hard to ignore the idea of the auteur when you look at the body of work of the most significant directors. Howard Hawks provides a good example of what I’m talking about; his films are remarkable for the frequency with which they return to a broadly comparable milieu, setting and theme. Ceiling Zero (1936) is the kind of film I think it would be impossible to view without thinking: yes, this is clearly a Hawks movie.

The title refers to the kind of weather conditions that were the bane of aviation pioneers, the sky right down on your nose and visibility all but non-existent, compelling them to rely on a combination of fickle instrumentation and gut instinct to see them through. The story takes place in a Newark airfield, and the focus is on a group of pilots and ground crew responsible for the mail run. Jake Lee (Pat O’Brien) is the superintendent, a former pilot himself who’s now the de facto boss, hiring, firing and calling the shots in the day-to-day running of the outfit. He’s a disciplined man, secure in his professionalism and apparently unsentimental. And yet that’s not entirely true, for there is a chink in his armor, a blind spot. Jake’s dedication to his job is superseded only by his loyalty to old buddies and former comrades in arms. It’s there to be seen in his easy friendship with veteran flyer Texas Clark (Stuart Erwin) and also his quiet concern for the welfare of an ex-pilot brain-damaged as the result of an accident and now reduced to the status of janitor/cleaner. However, it’s the arrival of another old pal, Dizzy Davis (James Cagney), which underlines this aspect of his character. Dizzy arrives at the airfield in spectacular fashion, indulging in plenty of fancy aerial acrobatics before touching down. It’s immediately obvious that Dizzy is a reckless individual, hard-living and wholly self-absorbed. His reputation as one of the flying greats precedes him, and he plays up to it shamelessly. What we’re watching here is, essentially, the final act in the life of a man who’s a victim of his own legend, coasting along on the reminiscences and indulgence of others. However, times change and a man can only subsist on his past glories for so long. With the job of the pilot moving relentlessly towards a more serious place, a guy like Dizzy is fast becoming a walking relic, a throwback to a devil-may-care era of swashbucklers. The crunch arrives when his selfishness and carousing brings tragedy to the tight-knit airfield, and puts both his character and his friendship with Jake under the microscope. But, as is the case with all the best movies, even those who have squandered the chances life offered before have the opportunity to achieve a salvation of sorts.

Frank Wead adapted Ceiling Zero for the screen from his own stage play and its theatrical roots are clear to see. The action is largely confined to one set, the airfield’s nerve center, where the human drama is played out. As such, it’s an ideal vehicle for Howard Hawks. His signature was always a focus on small groups, isolated in one way or another, and held together by their sense of professionalism. The characters here seem to exist within their own little world, a self-supporting community of like-minded individuals fiercely protective of each other and suspicious of the occasional incursions by those from the outside. A typical Hawks movie could be characterized as one where the characters’ interactions reign supreme, and the settings are merely cosmetic backdrops to facilitate the drama. Only Angels Have Wings (which bears some resemblance to this film) takes place in South America, Rio Bravo in the Old West, Hatari in Africa, The Thing from Another World at a polar research station. Yet in all those cases the location used is of much less importance than the dynamic between the people occupying them. And so it is with Ceiling Zero, where the whole thing revolves around the relationship between Dizzy and Jake.

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien became a recognizable and successful team during the 30’s and I’d rate Ceiling Zero right up there with Angels with Dirty Faces as one of their best collaborations. They both had that mercurial Irish quality that leads to some sparkling moments on the screen, their snappy waspishness colliding as the two stubborn personalities meet head on. Still, there’s the underlying affection and respect which gives it its heart – the sharp exchanges with the machine-gun delivery grab the attention yet it’s the quieter passages the two men share which reveal more. As Cagney’s bravado and vanity recede, and O’Brien’s simple humanity rises to the surface, a genuine friendship can be seen. And it’s there too in the reactions of both to the tragedies and losses they suffer – subtle, heartfelt and quite moving. While the film is really a showcase for Cagney and O’Brien – not that that’s any bad thing – there’s good support provided by Stuart Erwin, Isabel Jewell, June Travis and Barton MacLane among others.

As far as I know, Ceiling Zero has yet to make it to DVD in the US, but it has been released by Warner in France. The French disc offers a reasonable presentation of the film using a print which doesn’t display much in the way of damage but there is a softness to the image indicating a lack of restoration. French releases can have an annoying habit of forcing subtitles, although I’ve never found this to be the case with WB titles. It’s certainly not a problem with this movie – the option to watch with or without French subs is offered on the language selection menu. In my opinion, Ceiling Zero is typical Hawks, and anyone familiar with his work will need no further recommendation. Perhaps it’s not the easiest film to find but I reckon it’s well worth the effort.





I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.

The 1930s arguably represent the true golden age of Hollywood. Cinema had emerged from its infancy and stood virtually unchallenged as the premier entertainment medium. The decade conjures up a host of cinematic images: the musicals of Busby Berkeley and Astaire & Rogers, the Gothic nightmares of James Whale, the screwball comedies and the sophistication of Lubitsch, the swashbucklers of Curtiz & Flynn, and so on. But there was something else there too, something that began to drift in from Europe, gaining momentum as the decade wore on and the ranks of the refugees swelled. They brought with them a darker sensibility, partly rooted in German expressionism, and partly a result of their experiences on a continent slowly sliding into political and social turmoil. The seeds of what would grow into film noir were being planted during these years and, despite only the vaguest shoots being visible at that stage, would finally come to full fruition in the 40s. There can be little doubt that the films of Fritz Lang were a major influence on the growth of this movement, and his first feature in the US, Fury (1936), points the way towards what was to come. However this is no film noir; instead it’s a powerful piece of social commentary, a pitiless probing of the darker and less savory aspects of human nature and, ultimately, a classic morality tale.

The story concerns an ordinary guy, a guy named Joe. In this case it’s Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man struggling to get along during The Depression. Times may be tough but Joe isn’t without hopes and dreams, mainly centered on his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Sidney). Joe and Katherine are in love and naturally want to marry, but that takes money. The film opens with their last moments together, strolling along the city sidewalks and musing about their future as they gaze at the unattainable luxuries in the store windows. Joe is sending Katherine west with a view to joining her and settling down once he has made enough money. Time passes, Katherine pines, and Joe and his brothers make enough from their gas station for him to realize his dream. There’s optimism in the air as Joe sets out on the long drive west and Katherine makes plans for his arrival. Yet all this comes to an abrupt end as Joe is flagged down by a slow-witted, shotgun-wielding deputy (Walter Brennan) from a hick town. It’s at this point that the Kafkaesque nightmare that will ultimately draw in all the characters begins to develop. It turns out there’s been a kidnapping and Joe, as a stranger unable to give a satisfactory account of his movements, is pulled in for questioning as a suspect. There’s only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence but he’s held until the DA an arrive. However, the gossipy mentality of the small town soon takes over, and the Chinese whispers that ensue have a snowball effect that sees the local citizenry gradually transformed into an unreasoning and rampaging mob. First they lay siege to the jail, then storm it, set it ablaze and finally dynamite what remains. All the while Joe, an innocent man, is trapped inside and growing increasingly panicked. With the building reduced to rubble, it looks as though Joe has perished. The effects are immediate on all concerned – Kathrine, who arrived just in time to witness the final moments, suffers an emotional breakdown, Joe’s brothers are angry and devastated, while the townsfolk begin to feel the first pangs of collective guilt. However, there’s a sting in the tail. Joe survived the conflagration but has physical and, more importantly, psychological scars that are deep rooted. Stripped of his former sense of fair play, he and his brothers set in motion a plan to achieve what he sees as poetic justice.


The fury of the title can be interpreted on two levels, that of the baying mob outside the jail and also that of the man they think they have burnt alive. In both cases, Fritz Lang captured the build-up to and subsequent manifestation of this fury perfectly. The gradual spread of tittle-tattle among the townsfolk is treated in an almost comical fashion at first – the shots of chattering ladies intercut with images of cackling hens – before taking on an ever more menacing character. It all culminates in the wonderfully realized assault on the jail by the frenzied mob. Lang uses montage and lighting to great effect here, cutting rapidly between the faces of the citizens, joyously looking on with an almost religious fervor, and the alternately despairing and stricken features of Joe and Katherine. In this way Lang provokes a combination of horror, pity and moral outrage in the viewer. What we have witnessed is a great injustice, a perversion of the ideals of civilized society. It’s natural therefore to empathize with Joe and the gut reaction is to take pleasure in seeing this victim turn persecutor. However, the film is a critique of the veneer of respectability and civilization that we adopt both as individuals and as a society. As such, Lang does not take us down a morally bankrupt route, choosing instead to focus on the opportunity for personal and collective redemption. In the end the film’s message is that conscience is the real victor, punishing the guilty more effectively than any court of law and hauling a fundamentally decent man back from the brink at the eleventh hour. Again, Lang uses visuals as much as words to make his point, showing how Joe has cut himself off from humanity and the mental anguish that such actions must inevitably arouse. He cuts a poignant figure as Lang shows him alone and bitter, haunted by the voices in his mind and the images of the condemned which float in and out of his consciousness.

Beyond this the film also has some salient points to make about of the role of the law and ultimately affirms the notion of its being one of our fundamental social pillars. However, Lang first takes its weaknesses to task. The fragility of the law is demonstrated by the way the corrupt tendencies of politicians is instrumental in allowing the situation to spiral out of control in the first place. It is also implied, in the disgruntled and disparaging way the citizens of the town speak about the machinations and trickery of lawyers, that the faith of the ordinary man in the legal system has been shaken to such an extent that respect for the law itself is threatened. As is so often the case, it takes the dispassionate eye of the outsider, the immigrant Lang, to draw attention to both the flaws and strengths inherent in the system. Indeed, the point is reinforced early on when one of the minor characters, an immigrant barber, corrects a local on his misunderstanding of the terms of the constitution – his knowledge and respect for the document arising from his being obliged to learn its contents.


If one were to make a list of the greatest screen actors of all time, then Spencer Tracy would surely have to figure high up. Personally, I reckon there’s a case to be made for placing him right at the top. He was probably the greatest exponent of naturalism on screen, rarely, if ever, allowing the audience to catch him acting. As a result, Tracy brought an earnest believability to the varied roles he took on over the years. As he aged he attained something of a statesmanlike quality, becoming the very epitome of the best elements of the American character. Still, even as a younger man, he had that air of honesty and plainness about him, tempered somewhat by an underlying sense of implacability. In brief, the lead in Fury was an ideal role for Tracy, drawing on both sides of his character. He dominates the movie from beginning to end and takes the transition from down to earth guy to hate-fueled avenger smoothly in his stride. And it’s that transition that lends the film so much of its power; the progression from humble amiability through bewildered terror, and then cruel vindictiveness. His reappearance in the aftermath of the jail burning, like some kind of malignant resurrection, is a shocking moment. Not only has he become hard and driven, but there’s a different cast to his whole physical appearance – not some prosthetic alteration but a subtle shift in posture and body language.

Despite Tracy’s powerhouse performance, top billing in Fury went to Sylvia Sidney. Of course Sidney was a big star at the time, making movies for Lang, Hitchcock and Wyler before seeing her career take a downturn. While she doesn’t make the same impression as Tracy, her role is vital to the development of the story and it’s her influence that keeps her man from going over the edge. Sidney’s greatest asset was her wonderfully expressive features, especially those huge eyes. Lang made good use of this by employing frequent close-ups of her, notably as she looks on in horror at the actions of the mob and then later when a shattering realization dawns upon her. The supporting cast is full of memorable turns from a range of familiar faces. I think Bruce Cabot, Walter Brennan, Edward Ellis and Walter Abel all deserve particular attention though – they all make significant contributions as the loud-mouthed rabble-rouser, the gormless deputy, the sour but conflicted sheriff and the determined DA respectively.

Fury came out on DVD some years ago via Warner Brothers, and it’s very well presented on disc. There is a bit of age related damage on view, but the film looks remarkably fine for its vintage. Lang’s movies were always visual treats and the lighting and use of shadows and contrast were particularly important features. The Warner Brothers DVD represents this aspect very well indeed and viewing the movie is a pleasure. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich that includes excerpts from an interview with Fritz Lang. Although Fury is now over 75 years old, the points it makes about society, the law and human nature remain relevant today. That type of timeless quality is a large part of what makes it a classic, but it’s not the whole story. Lang’s striking imagery and Tracy’s unaffected performance are major factors here too. This is one of Lang’s major works, a compelling tale that is emotionally absorbing and also engages the intellect. Definitely recommended.

Series Sleuths

Growing up in an era when the TV schedules were regularly padded out with all kinds of vintage entertainment was a great experience. It meant that my tastes became eclectic without my ever realizing it. Choice of channels was limited, but that actually meant that I was exposed to a wider range of material than can be the case in the increasingly fragmented media landscape of today. While it might appear to be a paradox, the restricted options led to a whole generation of us getting to see the kind of movies, and shows too, that we would probably never have bothered seeking out on our own initiative. The fact that almost everybody you knew saw pretty much the same stuff also resulted in a lack of any negative stigmatization based on the age or style of the movies – old, new or whatever, it was all just entertainment. And this leads me on to the detective movie series. These tended to run in seasons, either during the school holidays or sometimes in the early evening slots. Essentially, these formed cheap fillers for the schedulers, and the overall quality could be variable. Nevertheless, I developed a lifelong love of these old B movies. They were made on the cheap, often featuring distinctly hokey plots, but they usually moved at an incredibly brisk pace and always seemed to be steeped in atmosphere. I guess I’ve seen entries from all the major series but I’ll confine myself to highlighting the five which I remember enjoying the most, and of which I also saw the complete run.

Sherlock Holmes


Arguably, this was the finest series of all. Conan Doyle’s character has appeared on the screen countless times over the years and everyone will have their own favourite incarnation. For me though, nothing will ever surpass the teaming of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. They started out with two fairly lavish productions for Fox before moving to Universal, where the tighter budgets meant the stories and characters were updated and modernized. Some may object to this development, but I’ll remain forever enchanted by the intrepid duo making their way around those old abandoned Universal horror sets, which seemed to be permanently shrouded in studio fog.

Charlie Chan


The Chinese detective from Honolulu, with his impossibly large family, has to run Doyle’s immortals a very close second. Earl Derr Biggers’ creation was conceived as an antidote to the sinister Asians popularized by the fiction of Sax Rohmer among others. Chan’s wit, good manners and razor-sharp mind meant he stood out from the bumbling or villainous white characters around him. The long running series of movies originated at Fox and later moved to poverty row outfit Monogram, with Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters all playing the lead in succession between 1931 and 1949. While Oland’s characterization is probably the most sympathetic, I especially like the spooky atmosphere of the Toler films.

Mr Moto


The popularity of Chan meant there was an obvious market for heroic Asian sleuths. That void was filled by John P Marquand’s Japanese detective Moto. Between 1937 and 1939 Peter Lorre played the role in eight movies for Fox, before the political situation of the time led to the notion of a hero of Moto’s nationality falling out of fashion fast. Moto was younger and physically more dynamic than the portly Chan, so the movies tended to play up the action to a greater degree. Still and all, Lorre’s characterization is fun and the movies are marvelously entertaining.

The Falcon


I had to make my mind up  whether to include The Falcon or The Saint here. In the end, I settled on The Falcon, mainly because I feel the tone and quality of the movies are more consistent than the variable nature of The Saint entries. Those two series are inextricably linked due to RKO’s decision to launch The Falcon as a way around the difficulties it was having with Leslie Charteris’ character. There were thirteen films made between 1941 and 1946, starting out with George Sanders in the lead before he bowed out and handed over the reins to his brother Tom Conway – who played The Falcon’s brother but kept on the alias.

Crime Doctor


While my previous four choices all had their roots in novels or short stories, Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, came to the screen via the radio. The title character had an interesting history, being a criminal with amnesia who adopted the identity of a psychiatrist. In ten films for Columbia between 1943 and 1949, Warner Baxter took the lead as the former crook now dedicated to fighting crime. These were very low budget affairs, but Baxter brought plenty of gravitas to the role, and are of interest for the way they blended the then fashionable use of cod Freudian psychoanalysis into the solutions of the problems.

So there are my five picks. I could have expanded this group and included the other sleuths that had their own series in the 30s and 40s. However, I wanted to keep it to those that remain most firmly in my memory – also, five seemed a nice, neat number. Of course that means I had to omit the likes of The Saint, The Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, The Whistler, Bulldog Drummond, and so on. My apologies if I’ve left out anyone’s particular favorites, but it’s an opportunity to stop by and tell me which one(s) I should have featured and why.

Shanghai Express


You’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.

Style over substance, that’s a term that’s often levelled at some movies as a form of criticism; however, it doesn’t always have to be taken as such. On occasion, the humdrum, the trite and the unoriginal can be elevated by the presence of stylised techniques and images. Shanghai Express (1932) is a film where this is certainly the case – the story is pure, overblown melodrama but, in the hands of Josef von Sternberg, it manages to transcend the limitations of its plot and approach art.

Events take place during the Chinese Civil War, with a rag-tag assortment of characters boarding the titular train. The main topic of conversation is the presence of a notorious prostitute called Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) who has been involved in a series of scandals up and down the Chinese coast. The reactions tend to vary from the outraged disapproval of a missionary to the more pragmatic acceptance by an American gambler and a disgraced French soldier. All the passengers know Shanghai Lily only by reputation, all but one that is. Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) is a British army surgeon travelling to Shanghai to perform an operation on a high ranking government official. Harvey and the woman were once lovers until an indiscretion on her part drove a wedge between them. From then on she embarked on a series of affairs and liaisons that earned her that colourful name. The rub is that these two people are still in love, but their pride and past histories prevent them from bridging the gap of mistrust that has grown up between them. The simmering sexual tensions are brought to a head when one of the passengers, a Eurasian by the name of Chang (Warner Oland), reveals himself as a Maoist rebel and hijacks the train. Chang’s aim is simply to hold the passengers, Harvey in particular, hostage until the government agrees to release one of his close lieutenants. In the end, it comes down to whether or not Shanghai Lily will sacrifice her new found honour to save the man she loves – and whether or not he will understand her motives. As I said, this is melodrama of the ripest and tawdriest variety. The whole thing works, and works very well, due to von Sternberg’s skill in evoking an atmosphere of decadence and exoticism that is dreamlike in its allure. The train itself is one of those inter-war extravagances that contrasts with the ramshackle station where the hostages are held. There are a number of notable sequences, but the one that made the greatest impression on me was the night-time assault on the train by Chang’s rebels. Bathed in expressionistic shadows and hissing steam, the rebels swarm over the stalled locomotive and dispose of the government troops. Those not killed immediately are rounded up and, as a heavy machine gun filmed in silhouette chatters into life, butchered on the platform. The camera angles and movements in this scene, and throughout the whole movie, are much more inventive and fluid than one normally expects in early sound pictures.



While von Sternberg clearly revelled in the theatrical oriental atmosphere, more than anything the film was an ode to Dietrich. It’s the way that Von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes lit and shot Dietrich that gives the film its power. He never misses an opportunity to zoom in on her, and Garmes’ setups are designed to accentuate that famous bone structure as the camera lingers. Her performance is nothing special in itself, but she oozes that languid, provocative sexuality that was her trademark. The dialogue that she (and all the cast members for that matter) is handed is delivered in a slow, deliberate, almost stilted fashion that actually works within the dreamy and unreal world that von Sternberg weaves. The role of Captain Harvey went to Clive Brook, and that damn near derails (sic) the whole show. He gives one of the most wooden and po-faced performances it’s been my misfortune to witness – although it could be argued, generously, that this actually serves to emphasise the priggishness of his character. Still and all, it’s hard to see how Dietrich’s character could possibly have carried a torch for this stuffed shirt for five years. The support cast led by Warner Oland and Anna May Wong are thankfully much better and help paper over the deficiencies of the leading man. Oland in particular does fine work as the charming but embittered Eurasian who compensates for his resentment of his mixed blood by indulging in torture and cruelty.

Shanghai Express was released a couple of years back in a 6-disc Dietrich boxset in the UK, although it’s since been made available individually. Universal have presented the film well considering its age, there are speckles and such, and some moments of softness, but it generally looks very good. Detail is quite strong at times and contrast is always good, the latter being especially important for a movie like this. The disc itself is completely barebones, which is a little disappointing but at least it can be bought for next to nothing. For a pre-code film it does seem a little coy in not coming right out and stating exactly how Shanghai Lily earns her keep, but it doesn’t exactly hide the fact either. Although the story is not going to blow anyone away, the intoxicating atmosphere is a real visual treat. Also, considering the weakness of the leading man, it’s a testament to the abilities of Dietrich, Garmes and von Sternberg that the end product is so good. I give it a big thumbs up.

Crime and Punishment


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

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

Peter Lorre ponders his fate.

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

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

Dodge City


OK, time for a new series. Over the coming weeks I’m going to be covering the westerns of Errol Flynn. He made a total of eight oaters between 1939 and 1950, and I’ll be looking at each in turn. Flynn may not have been the most natural choice as a western hero but he managed to adapt to the genre reasonably successfully. While some of these films are undeniable classics, others are more mediocre. However, they all remain entertaining and this is due, in no small part, to the presence of Flynn. His first venture into the west was Dodge City (1939), when he was still at the top of his game, and his name was box-office gold. This, of course, was the year when the western was making its comeback as an entertainment for adults. It seemed like every big Hollywood star was heading for the frontier, and so it’s only natural that Flynn should follow suit.

The film begins in the expansionist, nation-building years that came after the Civil War. Wade Hatton (Flynn) has been earning a living as a buffalo hunter in the employ of the railroad. The opening scenes highlight the unstoppable drive towards progress as the new steam locomotive races, and beats, the overland stage into Kansas. When the iron horse pounds its way into the fledgling Dodge City it signals a new and dangerous future. The railhead will allow Dodge to grow into a major hub for the shipment of cattle. However, the boundaries of civilisation will always be home to those who hope to make a quick profit and take advantage of the fact that the law invariably trails along as a distant second in the wake of a sprinting capitalism. So, while Dodge City becomes a thriving commercial centre, it also gains the reputation of being an anarchic, ungovernable place. The lawless element of the town is represented by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his hired gun Yancey (Victor Jory). These men have all the illegal activities sewn up and have no hesitation in removing anybody who threatens their interests. Although Hatton and Surrett clash early on, it’s not until the rampant disregard for the law causes the death of a child that matters come to a head. Hatton accepts the position of sheriff and is set on a collision course with Surrett. Along the way, the hero finds the time to romance Abbie Irving (Olivia De Havilland), although it’s a relationship that gets off to a bad start when her wastrel brother dies in an accident after fighting with Hatton.

Dodge City is a movie where the action never lets up and it moves along at such a brisk pace that it rewards repeat viewings. So many of the themes and elements that would later become staples of the western genre are given their first exposure here. The massive and memorable bar room brawl that forms the centrepiece of the picture is the template for just about every cowboy scrap that followed. Director Michael Curtiz handles this sequence masterfully, the scale of the fight is always obvious and it’s so well choreographed that the viewer is never left feeling confused or lost. In fact, it’s almost an object lesson in how to film a big action set-piece with excitement and still retain clarity. Curtiz was nothing if not versatile, and was at home with pretty much every setting and style of film making. Throughout Dodge City he manages to move effortlessly from comedy to drama, to action, and on to romance, without once missing a beat – a model of smooth, professional direction.

One of the biggest obstacles for Errol Flynn when he started playing western roles was the fact that he didn’t sound like cowboy. However, Hollywood was always clever at circumventing such inconveniences, and the writers got around the issue by providing a backstory for Hatton’s character and making him an Irish adventurer who’d travelled extensively. Anyway, as I said, the story moves along at such a lick that minor inconsistencies are soon forgotten as you get drawn into the plot. Flynn manages reasonably well and the man’s natural charm helps a lot. Olivia de Havilland was certainly the finest leading lady Flynn ever had, and the films they made together were always worth watching for their on-screen chemistry. I couldn’t honestly fault any of the performances in Dodge City; Cabot and Jory make a fine pair of villains, and there’s the inevitable comic relief from Alan Hale, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Frank McHugh. One of the nice things about the movie is the way more serious points manage to get slipped in amid the humour. For example, Hale and Williams’ clowning around and bemoaning of the fact that Hatton’s brand of law and order is turning Dodge into a genteel, sissy town, and their consequent need to push on deeper into the west, makes the point about the feminine nature of civilization as eloquently as many a more serious and heavy-handed film.

The R1 DVD (and I guess also the R2) of Dodge City from Warners is generally a pleasing transfer, but it’s not without its problems. There’s no damage to speak of, but there are technicolor registration issues which cause a blurry image with some fringing from time to time. Having said that, the problem is not one that should spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film. There are a number of extras including Warners Night at the Movies and a short featurette on the film. All told, Dodge City may not be Errol Flynn’s finest western performance but it is still a fine western. Next up – Virginia City.


Frontier Marshal


Wyatt Earp was and is one of the most enduring figures in the mythology of the Old West. I’ve always enjoyed seeing how such people were represented on film, how those representations have evolved over time, and how that evolution reflects changes in the western itself. I’d been planning on running a series of pieces on the various movie incarnations of Wyatt Earp – so here goes. I’m going to look at as many of the screen portrayals of the man as possible; both those that have the famous lawman as the main character, and those that only feature him incidentally. I don’t say that this will be an exhaustive list but it will deal with all the major films chronologically.

1939 was something of a defining year for the western, a turning point – the year the genre started to grow up. After the box office failure of The Big Trail (1930) the western found itself relegated to B movie status. Studios were unwilling to lavish money on what they saw as a bad risk, and so the western would languish on the bottom half of the bill for the remainder of the decade. 1939 was to change all that. John Ford’s Stagecoach, De Mille’s Union Pacific, and Henry King’s Jesse James showed that there was still gold to be found in ‘them thar hills’, and the western returned to A list respectability. Along with those illustrious titles came Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal.

I suppose I should start by saying that if you’re one of those who are sticklers for historical accuracy, then this is not the film for you. This adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s book has a character called Wyatt Earp, who was a lawman in Tombstone – and that’s about as close to the real facts as it gets. In fact, the movie might just as well have been about any marshal in any burgeoning frontier town. There’s a nice little montage sequence at the beginning that establishes the birth and growth of Tombstone, before introducing Earp (Randolph Scott). It’s made abundantly clear that Tombstone is a wide open town where pretty much anything goes. Earp finds himself reluctantly roped into the job of marshal and, by extension, into conflict with the town’s less savoury elements – outlaw Curly Bill Brocius (Joe Sawyer) and his saloon-keeping ally Ben Carter (John Carradine). He also meets the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday (Cesar Romero), although for some unfathomable reason the script chooses to refer to him as ‘Halliday’. Together, the two heroes take on the might of the criminals in an effort to bring law and order to the streets of Tombstone, culminating in the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral. This scene is pure fantasy since the only relationship to the truth here is that it involves Wyatt Earp and has some people getting shot.

Randolph Scott plays Earp as an arrow straight hero. It’s not a bad performance and more or less par for the course for the era. In later years, Scott would show his ability to play much more complex characters but he was rarely given the opportunity to do so at this stage in his career. Cesar Romero is surprisingly good as the guilt-ridden Doc, though it has to be said that the part has afforded the chance to shine to every actor who ever played the role. The outlaws are portrayed as the standard cardboard cutout villains, although John Carradine always lends a touch of class to any part. Some time I must do a count of how many films I own that feature Carradine, for he seems to turn up everywhere. And while I’m talking about ubiquitous actors, there are parts also for Ward Bond and Lon Chaney Jr. Binnie Barnes is the tough saloon singer in love with Doc, and competes for his affections with the more refined Nancy Kelly. One other interesting piece of casting has Eddie Foy Jr playing his own father, who was supposed to have been performing in Tombstone when the gunfight at the OK Corral took place.

Generally, this is a pretty decent western, and only fails if you expect to learn something about the real Wyatt Earp. There are no Clanton’s, no McLaury’s, and no Virgil or Morgan Earp. If you view it as simply another western about a marshal cleaning up the town, it works well enough. The film  is now available as a bonus feature on the recent R1 ‘Ford at Fox’ release of My Darling Clementine. While it is included in the smaller sub-set it is missing from the full box, but there was a mail-in to allow those who missed out on it to receive the film. The presentation of what is essentially just an extra is excellent, with a very nice, clean transfer. There’s even a trailer and stills gallery included – another fine piece of work from Fox.


Jesse James


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

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

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

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

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