Sunday, June 25, 2017

Urge to Kill (1960)

When the Edgar Wallace B-movies made by Britain’s Merton Park Studios between 1960 and 1962 were repackaged for television in the US (as the Edgar Wallace Theatre) a number of other B-movies with no Wallace connection were included as well. One of these was Urge to Kill, with a screenplay by James Eastwood and based on a play by Gerald Savory.

One thing that has to said for this movie - it hits the ground running with the first murder occurring before the two minute mark. It’s immediately obvious that this is going to be a psycho killer murder mystery.

The setting is a somewhat depressing English small town. Auntie B (Ruth Dunning) is an amiable soul who runs a boarding house. Her nephew Hughie (Terence Knapp) is moderately retarded although he’s friendly and good-natured. Of course we know that Hughie is going to be a suspect.

The other lodgers include Mr Forsythe, a rather prim former school master now well into middle age. It’s fun to see Wilfred Brambell, later to find fame as the grubby old man in Steptoe and Son, playing the straitlaced, pious, very proper and obviously well-educated Forsythe. Also lodging with Auntie B is Charles Ramskill (Howard Pays), a smooth young man with ambition. Auntie B’s friend Mrs Willis is trying to set Charles up with her daughter Lily (Anna Turner) but although Lily herself is keen on the idea it’s clear that Charles prefers his women to be a bit more exciting than the earnest and slightly frumpy Lily.

The murder of the daughter of the landlord at the Anchor public house causes a great deal of excitement and consternation. The evidence seems to point towards Hughie, and the townspeople are certainly convinced that he is the killer. Feelings are running high. This is one of those unpleasant movies in which rural and/or working-class people are portrayed as hateful bigots who will turn on anybody who is different.

Another murder follows. Another young woman brutally strangled. Superintendent Allen (Patrick Barr) is under pressure to make an arrest. But is Hughie really the murderer? And whoever the murderer is, will he strike again?

It’s never explicitly mentioned but the sexual nature of the crimes is made rather obvious.

Solving the mystery here is not going to stretch the mental capacities of the average viewer. It’s also fairly clear that Superintendent Allen has a pretty fair idea of the strangler’s identity. With the mystery not adding up to much the film has to rely on the suspense angle and it doesn’t really rise to any great heights in that department either.

This is also, even by Merton Park Studios standards, a very low-budget movie with minimal location shooting and pretty much everything being shot on a handful of not overly impressive sets.

If I’ve made this movie sound rather dull then I’m afraid that’s because it is rather dull. British B-pictures of this era are often surprisingly good in spite of their budgetary limitations but this one never shows any sign of being anything other than a very routine by-the-numbers B-picture.

The acting isn’t too bad. Terence Knapp is reasonably convincing as Hughie.

Network have released all the Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace B-films in a number of boxed sets and they’ve thrown in as extras some of the non-Edgar Wallace titles I alluded to earlier, including this one (in the first of their boxed sets). Image quality is extremely and the transfer is anamorphic.

Urge to Kill is harmless enough but it’s definitely along way from the top rank of British B-features of its era. If you’re going to buy the Edgar Wallace boxed set then you’re getting it as an extra which is just as well since it would certainly not be worth purchasing on its own merits. Hard to recommend this one I’m afraid.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fail-Safe (1964)

In 1964 there were two American movies due to be released both dealing the subject of an accidentally provoked nuclear war. One, and by far the better known movie, was of course Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The other was Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe. The two movies are quite different in tone, Dr. Strangelove being a black comedy while Fail-Safe is (or tries to be) a tense political thriller. The similarities in plot are however quite extraordinary. In fact the plots are so similar that Kubrick and Columbia Pictures sued for plagiarism. Having now seen both films more or less back-to-back I can well understand why Kubrick and Columbia felt justified in taking legal action.

The case was settled out of court and the terms of the settlement were that Columbia should buy Fail-Safe. They did so, and delayed the release until well after Dr. Strangelove opened. When Fail-Safe finally came out it bombed at the box office and fans of the film tend to blame this on the delayed release. In fact Columbia acted very sensibly. Dr. Strangelove was a great movie with the potential to be a huge hit (which it was). Fail-Safe is clunky and dull and was never going to set the box-office alight.

Fail-Safe begins with some VIPs being shown around the Strategic Air Command headquarters. An unidentified radar contact causes some mild excitement but apparently this happens all the time. It’s no big deal, probably a commercial airliner off course. This is followed by some real excitement. Six American strategic bombers, armed with hydrogen bombs, have for some completely unknown reason started heading for the Soviet border. Efforts to recall them fail and now there’s a full-blown crisis and the President (Henry Fonda) is notified.

Also present in the War Room is political scientist Dr Groeteschele (based on real-life political scientist Herman Kahn and played by Walter Matthau). Dr Groeteschele sees this as a wonderful opportunity. He advises the President to launch a full-scale nuclear attack. OK, he calculates that at least sixty million Americans will die but that’s a small price to pay  for saving the American way of life from the evils of communism. (Groeteschele appears in an odd prologue scene being picked up at a party by a woman who seems to have a nuclear war fetish).

The President for some strange reason doesn’t think that it’s a good idea to risk destroying civilisation in order to save it and frantic efforts are soon underway to recall the rogue bombers or to destroy them, or at the very least to persuade the Russians that it was all a terrible accident.

The main protagonists all play much the same role that their equivalents play in Kubrick’s film. Dr Groeteschele is as mad in his own way as Dr Strangelove. The President is well-meaning. The military chiefs are divided. 

Although Fail-Safe is played as a straight thriller rather than a comedy it’s actually a lot less tense and exciting than Dr. Strangelove.

Fail-Safe was based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler while Kubrick’s movie was based on an earlier novel by Peter George. The basic plot outline is almost identical.

Sidney Lumet had a remarkable career as a director, managing to make not a single good movie in a very long career.

Fail-Safe is not so much a movie as a political lecture - strident, dreary and clumsy. It demonstrates that Kubrick’s decision to play the same material as comedy was a very very shrewd move. The political subtext in Kubrick’s production is made much more palatable and is in any case more nuanced.

Henry Fonda is an actor I’ve never liked. In this movie he just seems to be playing Henry Fonda. Walter Matthau is ludicrously miscast and his performance is the final disaster that sinks the film. The members of the supporting cast give rather stagey performances. Look out for Larry Hagman in a fairly important role as the President’s interpreter (and he’s one of the better actors in the film).

Sony’s Region 2 DVD looks pretty good and includes a mini-documentary on the film plus a commentary track by director Lumet.

Fail-Safe doesn’t really develop the necessary level of nail-biting suspense. The story has potential but Lumet doesn’t capitalise on it. The whole affair is too self-righteous. I had the same response to this one as I’ve had to most of Lumet’s films. He often starts out with an idea that seems to have potential but he doesn’t appear to know what to do with the idea. The result, more often than not, comes across as thematically incoherent.

If you’re a student of the Cold War or a fan of Cold War movies then Fail-Safe might be worth a look if only for the contrast it makes with Kubrick’s version. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother too much tracking this one down.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

I have a considerable fondness for submarine movies. We Dive at Dawn is a very decent example of the breed. It was a wartime production, released in 1943, and so there’s an obvious propaganda element (all of the British sailors are incredibly brave) but it has some definite compensating strengths. 

The submarine HMS Sea Tiger, commanded by Lieutenant Taylor (John Mills) has just returned from an unsuccessful cruise and her crew are looking forward to seven days’ leave. They’re not going to get it. They get a single day and then they’re immediately sent off on a highly dangerous and super-secret mission - to intercept and sink the brand new German battleship Brandenburg.

The film gets off to a slow start. The first twenty minutes or so follows the various crew members ashore on their very truncated leave. One is supposed to be getting married. One is trying to put his broken marriage back together. As for the captain, he’s hoping to get to see as many of his numerous girlfriends as he possibly can. This introductory materials serves its purpose of giving us an insight into the various characters even if it drags just a little.

Things pick up once they’re at sea and on the trail of the Brandenburg. The plan goes awry but rather than giving up Lieutenant Taylor comes up with an even more daring and dangerous plan - to break through into the Baltic, running the gauntlet of anti-submarine nets, minefields, the Luftwaffe and most of the German Navy. They do catch up to the German battleship, but whether they can succeed in sinking it or not is another matter.

Things gets even better in the final half-hour. The Sea Tiger’s fuel is exhausted and surrender seems to be the only option but instead a much bolder and much crazier idea occurs to our submariners - why not raid a port in German-occupied Denmark and steal the fuel they need? The movie now becomes an action-packed shoot ’em up extravaganza as they end up taking on half the German Army. The whole film is well made but this final segment is particularly well done.

The Royal Navy, seeing the obvious propaganda potential, lent its enthusiastic support and as a result this is a film that looks and feels surprisingly realistic with a lot of emphasis on how a submarine works and how submarine attacks are carried out.

Of course there are all the usual things you expect in a submarine movie - the tense moments under depth charge attack, the efforts to save the damaged submarine, the cunning plan adopted by her skipper to fool the Germans, etc. These are standard elements in a submarine movie but they’re handled skillfully. 

The tone is of course hyper-heroic. Nobody cracks up under pressure because these are British sailors and Britannia rules the waves. The Germans, perhaps surprisingly, are not portrayed as monsters but as fairly ordinary guys doing their job even if they’re no match for our British heroes.

You can’t go wrong casting John Mills as a British officer. Eric Portman (who shares top billing with Mills) is excellent as the hydrophone operator whose personal life is collapsing about his ears.

It looks pretty good on DVD. The image quality might not be be dazzling but it’s more than acceptable. The Region 2 DVD lacks extras but is fairly inexpensive. 

We Dive at Dawn is perhaps just a bit too heroic and just a bit too sentimental but it’s well-crafted and has some genuinely exciting moments. Recommended, and for submarine movie fans it’s a must-see.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dr Strangelove (1964)

My review of Stanley Kubrick's classic 1964 nuclear war black comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, posted at Cult Movie Reviews, might be of interest to readers of this blog as well. Here's the link to my review.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Saint in London (1939)

The Saint in London was the second of RKO’s very popular B-movies to star George Sanders as Leslie Charteris’s debonair thief turned crime-fighter.

This film was based on Charteris’s story The Million Pound Day.

One thing you have to say about this movie - it doesn’t waste any time. It plunges straight into the action. For anyone not familiar with the character it also very quickly establishes Simon Templar’s personality as a quixotic hero who is chivalrous, determined and not very concerned about legal niceties when it comes to hunting down the ungodly.

Simon gets a tip-off from an old pal that a smooth operator by the name of Bruno Lang is up to something sinister. Simon decides, in typical Saintly fashion, that the best way to find out more about what Lang is up to is to burgle his house and take a look at the contents of his safe. What he finds whets his interest, and he’s even more intrigued when he gets shot at as a result. People who do that sort of thing probably have something interesting to hide.

The plot begins to thicken when Simon rescues an old fellow who is being pursued by a very nasty looking thug. Simon and Penny (Sally Gray) find that they have stumbled onto some kind of currency fraud. Penny being a young lady who has appointed herself as Simon’s assistant crime-fighter. Young ladies tend to do that sort of thing to Simon.

The villains are quite prepared to resort to murder and kidnapping but as far as Simon is concerned the more dangerous a case turns out to be the more fun he has.

Simon’s old adversary Inspector Claud Teal of Scotland Yard (Gordon McLeod) is on the case as well and this time he’s easily persuaded that it would be better to work with Templar rather than against him.

Simon has acquired another assistant as well, a rough diamond American ex-con named Dugan (David Burns).

There’s really not a wasted minute in this movie. The plot has the requisite number of satisfying twists and the script offers Sanders plenty of opportunities to display his charm and wit.

Sanders is in top form and he gets good support from the other cast members. Sally Gray makes a delightful heroine, always trying to get herself more involved than she should but in such a charming way that the Saint can hardly object. The villains are clever and ruthless and they’re more than just cheap hoods - they’re just the sorts of evil-doers the Saint enjoys matching his wits against.

The Saint stories are light-hearted and witty enough in themselves to make any additional heavy-handed comic relief superfluous and fortunately in this instance RKO were smart enough to figure that out. There is humour here but it flows naturally from the story and the characters.

The British all-region DVD release from Odeon provides a good transfer without any extras.

Even Leslie Charteris liked this movie and he was notoriously difficult to please when it came to movie and TV adaptations of his work. The Saint in London is a well-crafted B-movie thriller. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Street of Shadows (1953)

Street of Shadows is one of the more interesting examples of the British film noir. It’s a B-movie and it really does tick most of the noir boxes.

Luigi (Cesar Romero) runs a pin-table saloon. It appears that such establishments really were a thing. It’s basically a bar laid out like an amusement arcade where patrons can play arcade games whilst indulging in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It’s a thriving establishment and Luigi is reasonably wealthy. He’s also reasonably respectable. Luigi’s might be a bar but it’s a legitimate business. He makes sure there is no trouble and his relations with the local police are cordial.

Luigi’s character is established from the outset. He’s easy going and generous and kind but he’s also shrewd and determined and when the occasion calls for it he’s a tough guy. He’s a popular guy because he’s a decent guy and he’s easy to like.

Limpy (Victor Maddern) acts as a kind of personal assistant and general-purpose dogsbody to Luigi. As his name suggests he is a cripple with a severe limp. His loyalty to Luigi is total. For his part Luigi has a great affection for his assistant and is careful to treat him always with respect. Unfortunately not everyone in this imperfect world has Luigi’s manners and Limpy does find himself made the butt of cruel jokes from time to time.

There’s also a girl. Angele AbbĂ© (Simone Silva) had been Luigi’s girlfriend until he discovered that she was being too friendly with other men. Much too friendly, and to too many other men. Luigi, hardly surprisingly, dumped her. Angele has continued on her self-chosen downward spiral and is held together by alcohol, self-pity and the belief that somehow she can persuade Luigi to take her back. Which is not going to happen. Apart from anything else Luigi is the kind of guy who sticks to decisions once he’s made them. Angele has a great deal of pity for herself but none for other people and her behaviour towards Limpy is shocking in its casual cruelty. At the moment Angele has got herself involved with a rather nasty bad boy sailor.

There’s also another girl. Through a series of chance events Luigi makes the acquaintance  of Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall). Barbara is charming and classy but she always seems to be ill at ease. We soon find out why. She has fallen in with a very bad crowd and one of them is her husband. These are bad people and just how willing she is to go along with their nefarious schemes is open to question.

There’s an immediate attraction between Luigi and Barbara. In fact Luigi, being an old-fashioned romantic, has fallen for her hard.

It’s obvious that there’s plenty of potential here for things to get complicated and messy. In fact it’s the kind of situation that has been known to end in murder. And in this case there is indeed murder, but both the identity of the victim and the circumstances are not quite what we might have expected.

There’s a certain sense of inevitability in evidence here. We’re dealing with a number of characters who seem like they’re destined to get themselves into trouble, and they seem like the sorts of people who having got themselves into a hole will contrive to keep digging the hole deeper and deeper.

This seems to be the only film made by writer-director Richard Vernon (although he does have a few producing credits). There wasn’t very much money spent on this movie but what was spent was spent pretty well. There’s some authentic noir atmospheric to the visuals and Luigi’s pin-table saloon makes a great setting - sinister laughing clowns add a definite noir flavour. The script, based on a novel by Laurence Meynell, is perfectly serviceable.

Cesar Romero gives a breezy and charming performance as a man who thinks he has life under control, until he finds out that he hasn’t. Kay Kendall has plenty of style and the two of them haver the right chemistry. Edward Underdown makes a rather brusque Scotland Yard inspector. It’s Victor Maddern as the crippled Limpy who really steals the picture though. It’s a performance that is sympathetic but without sentimentality and it has a definite edge to it.

Street of Shadows was released in a shortened version in the US as Shadow Man. The original British version forms part of VCI’s Forgotten Noir DVD series. The transfer is nothing special but it’s quite acceptable for a budget DVD release.

Street of Shadows is a cheap but well-crafted B-movie with a distinctively English noir feel. The fine performances make this one well worth seeing. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Never Back Losers (1961)

Crooked dealings on the racetrack provide the background to Never Back Losers, a 1961 entry in the Merton Park Studios cycle of ultra-cheap British Edgar Wallace potboilers.

Jim Matthews (Jack Hedley) is a lowly clerk working for an insurance company. The work is mind-numbingly boring but there is hope. He has applied for a transfer to the Claims department which would mean much more interesting work and getting out from a desk. Much to his surprise his transfer is approved. He finds that working in Claims is perhaps more exciting than he’d bargained for. His first case may prove to be his last.

It’s a pretty routine case. A jockey named Wally Sanders was badly injured in a car crash and won’t be able to ride again. Wally had demonstrated admirable foresight in taking out an insurance policy which covered him for such eventualities. The insurance company is however not entirely happy about the claim, partly because Sanders had been involved in an incident on the racetrack which suggested he might have deliberately caused his horse, the odds on favourite, to lose. There is no proof but the stewards were just a little doubtful about his explanation. Investigating the claim will be the first assignment for Jim Matthews in his new position.

He throws himself into the case with energy and enthusiasm, although perhaps not with terribly good judgment. He discovers a few things that suggest that Wally Sanders was definitely mixed up in something crooked. In fact Jim discovers enough to earn himself a beating by a couple of hoodlums who warn him to stop nosing around. Jim is an easy-going affable sort of chap but he’s very stubborn and he’s determined to keep digging.

It seems highly likely that Ben Black (Patrick Magee) is involved in some way. Black runs a number of legitimate businesses and others that are not so legitimate.

There’s also (naturally) a pretty young woman mixed up in the affair, which may be a partial explanation for Jim’s keen interest in the case. Marion Parker (Jacqueline Ellis) is the sister of jockey Clive Parker (Larry Martyn) and he’s been hanging around with a rather unsavoury crowd lately.

This is a very low-key crime thriller. There’s only one scene at the beginning and some brief moments at the end set at an actual racetrack (and the racing footage is presumably just stock footage) which is rather disappointing but not surprising given the very low budgets these features were made on. The slightly seedy world of losers living on the borderline between legitimate employment and petty crime is evoked reasonably well. The movie is shot in a very straightforward and competent if uninspired manner. There’s not a lot of visual interest in this movie. Director Robert Tronson went on to a successful career in television.

For a film presumably based on an Edgar Wallace story the plot is decidedly lacking in fiendish plot twists. Lukas Heller’s screenplay doesn’t exactly dazzle us with its originality.

Jack Hedley makes an amiable and sympathetic hero. He doesn’t have the mind of a brilliant detective and he’s sorely lacking in experience but he has one thing going for him - he just doesn’t realise that he’s out of his depth and that he should just walk away. He’s like a big friendly dog who’s picked up a scent and he just can’t let it go.

Jacqueline Ellis is no more than competent as an actress but she’s attractive and she manages well enough in an undemanding role.

The movie’s one big asset is Patrick Magee. It’s the kind of outlandishly excessive and outrageously hammy performance that Magee specialised in and it provides some of the vitality and fun that is otherwise in short supply in this picture. Magee is simply wonderful.

Never Back Losers is one of seven films making up Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. The anamorphic transfer is extremely good. 

Never Back Losers is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. It is at best a harmless distraction. Jack Hedley’s good-natured charm and Patrick Magee’s bravura performance almost make it worthwhile. This is definitely one of the weaker movies in an otherwise very fine boxed set and if you’re going to buy the set then watching this movie will only be 61 minutes out of your life. For all its weaknesses I couldn’t bring myself to actively dislike this movie.