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Edge of Hell

Haas has a certain something
Writer-director-star Haas, an expatriate, was an interesting multi-faceted figure within B movies, whose 20-odd films (notably those several starring bad-blonde Cleo Moore) await proper rediscovery and reassessment. His later works are united by an avuncular presence before and in front of the camera, as well as themes common to many of them which, a la Hitchcock, often feature blondes. His work is often casually sneered at or derided. While he is certainly no Ulmer, let alone Welles (one of the few other directors who share his ambitious mantle of creative titles) when seen as a group his films make for an interesting study of bargain-basement cinema while nearly all his work has interesting moments.

Take EDGE OF HELL. This one is the most disneyesque that I have yet seen of his (forget the grotesquely inappropriate title), largely avoiding the bathos which it's plot invites. Haas plays Valentine, a down-at-heel dog owner living in a basement,, whose animal's tricks provide him with his principal source of revenue. Apart from a couple of other tenants of the building, his friends mainly include tramps even less fortunate than he. A chance to entertain at a children's party brings a temporary change in circumstances, which he shares with everyone. Such happiness is short-lived however as the viewer might expect, although the old gentleman remains unembittered and steadfast to his canine companion to the end. Haas' achievement is to entirely humanize and empathise with the lower orders he presents. The basement feast, which brings beggars with Beethoven, is in one respect the central scene of the film: a bitter-sweet representation of life and dance that is in accord with the european humanistic culture and traditions from which the uprooted director sprang,

The film is also concerned to draw a distinction between performance and life (in one remarkable moment the one-time actor Valentine regales his listeners, and us with an effective, if ultimately false, account of personal tragedy, while his dog's tricks before audiences are another reminder that reality can be manipulated.) In UMBERTO D fashion, in which we find some echoes in this film, Valentine's dog is at the centre of his world. As Valentine's troubles grow, a processes made more intense by some fine close ups, we know that his woes and those of others are not fiction or just a trick, but a reality; one which can grind people down until their health suffers or they are left sleeping under arches - something that not even the occasional gift of vodka, cake and cigars from the happily well-off in better districts can permanently assuage. Only the very ending tips over into the bathos I mentioned as largely avoided otherwise,but anyone who knows MIRACLE IN MILAN will know where the sympathies of this poverty row auteur lay. In short this is not a masterpiece, but not something to be written off so readily especially when seen as part of the interesting output of a decent man making his way in ambitious fashion in a strange land.

Life in Danger

Choose 'Life'
Another Derren Nesbitt sleeper. Not so good as The Man In the Back Seat maybe, but this is still a reasonably taut British thriller which grows in stature as it goes along. Nesbitt plays the suspected maniac on the loose, eventually cornered in a hayloft after befriending children (shades of Whistle Down the Wind here) What makes this film interesting, besides Nesbitt's presence in a starring role, is the way in which the narrative plays with our genre expectations, eventually forming a critique of 'respectable' society rather than providing the predictable portrait of a loser on the run. Both Nesbitt and Julie Hopkins (in one of her few screen roles) do a good job, while the film does a subtle job of juxtaposing the world of the pub with the freedom represented by the barn. It is the gradual rediscovery of low budget efforts like these, directed by a small and often overlooked cadre of second or third-rankers, often with a cast of familiar faces, which puts the lie to the idea that for much of this time Britain was a land without cinema. Maybe it was just not the cinema that some critics were looking for, since this sort of unassuming film these days gives more immediate pleasure than some of the stuffy quality productions of the time, If this and its ilk were in French no doubt we would be hearing more about them.

The Highwaymen

A great duo in pursuit of a bad pair
In this latest Netflix offering, a paunchy Kevin Costner and a grizzled Woody Harrelson (the latter after a previous investigative two-hander in True Detective) play a couple of reinstated Texas Rangers at first doubtful as to their effectiveness away from their heyday, brought to hunt down Bonnie & Clyde and end a murderous rampage out of control. Unlike previous tellings of the these events, we see only glimpses of the criminals up until the final shootout, leaving the film concentrating on the changing, and often deprecating, relationship between old lawmen buddies: whether their time on the road, scornful of new developments in police procedures, or in hunting Bonnie & Clyde down. Fortunately the pairing is, as one might expect, a good one, with Costner and Harrelson enjoying a suitably world-weary rapport, renewing respect for each other, which makes any general longeurs incidental. Director John Lee Hancock, whose previous two efforts were Saving Mr Banks and The Founder, builds the period atmosphere and there's a good soundtrack by Thomas Newman. The overall story and its denouement maybe well known (certainly the climactic scenes can't quite escape the shadow of Arthur Penn's seminal work of decades back) but this is a fresh approach, the end result enjoyable.

The Purple Gang

Not a purple patch
The Purple Gang was a mob of bootleggers and hijackers with predominantly Jewish members operating in Detroit, Michigan, during the 1920s. They came to be Detroit's dominant criminal gang, but ultimately excessive violence and infighting caused the gang to self-destruct in the 1930s. This Allied Artists production, leveraged by a goodly amount of footage lifted from earlier films, plays fast and loose with what was an interesting history in a production weighted by two excellent leads, Sullivan and Blake, and which contains two or three memorably violent scenes while Blake's screaming claustrophobia offers other choice moments. Ultimately not one of the genre stand outs (for that one needs to seek out such titles as AL CAPONE or the RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND etc) it is never the less a entertaining enough time waster even if it ends up feeling rather perfunctory. Sullivan's best gangster film, imho, is the appropriately named THE GANGSTER.

A Sniper's War

What's worse...
An allegedly manipulative film produced for the purposes of propaganda.. or umpteen false reviews on this site condemning it out of hand with no indication of having seen it?

Says the director: " Making this film was a challenging exercise in objectivity. Being in Donetsk felt as if I had stepped through the looking glass. On that side of the mirror the beliefs were very different from the beliefs in the U.S. It was important to stay unbiased and politically neutral and tell the story subjectively through Deki's point of view. With the help of the editor, Dmitry Khavin, I think we were able to achieve that..."

The response to this film is so vitriolic that it has made me want to watch it and make my own mind up! I suggest any sensible person will want to do the same.

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers not a broken film
The Spring Breakers, I have always felt, is fascinating since it is a shallow film - but where, as I see it, *shallowness itself* is the message and subject. In other words plenty of films prove shallow - something which, as we all know, is easy to do; this one shows vacuous culture and lifestyle, through processes of absurdity - think Franco on the bed with his firearms - no doubt aided by moments of improvisation, in a way that echoes the message. There's a human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and this film leaves the audience alone to find any, as we watch unique and bizarre individuals in a distinctly hollow subculture. By this director Harmony Konne, who also made Gummo and Kids , shows a world that is flashy and trivial (albeit with striking moments) through a crime drama with an over-the-type James Franco in party mood and, indeed, parties and party-folk everywhere. (A 'party' of course has more than one meaning) The film was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 69th Venice International Film Festival. Despite my above words, on the looking for meaning in his films Korine states, "I think people will lose the film as soon as they start trying to figure out my logic or what I'm doing or while they're watching it start to dissect metaphors... I'm not really so interested in it working on a purely cerebral level. I'm much more concerned with it on an emotional level and that you leave feeling a certain way". Either way it is well worth a watch.

The Shack

A shed load of issues
Ten Things I learnt from The Shack

Just one of a wave of pro-Christian films and proselytizing flics which have hit American cinema in the last few years, which commonly adhere to a traditionalist view of religion, regularly preaching to the converted The Shack has been received better than some, perhaps because it is based on a bestseller. Called "beautiful, profound, moving" by some and "ham-fisted and painful" by others, The Shack is the film in which a man receives a note from 'Papa' i.e. God and, as if this is not enough, apparently then encounters Himself as the Trinity, holed up in a log cabin out in the woods somewhere. Conversations with the three ensue and enlightenment naturally entails. This is all tied up with the forgiveness of a serial child killer, as well as beginning a new process of self-healing and forgiveness for the grieving principal. It all stars Sam Worthington.

Response from critics has apparently been relatively unfavourable, while orthodox theologian have also criticised the film for being, among things, 'heretical' or 'unbiblical' - but then again they always take things too seriously. As mentioned, audiences have been more enthusiastic (the film is currently a reasonable 6.4 on IMDb, for instance while audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale) and so the film has obviously resonated with some.

As a guide to those who wish to take away the most useful messages from the film, I list them here in lieu of a review:

1. 132 minutes can be an awfully long time. I mention this upfront since if you are going to be watching this on a pew in a church hall say, bring a cushion or park up on a prayer mat. You'll need it. 2. God is, in fact, a jovial black woman who does not care for religion. 3. It is impossible to sing in church without a faraway look on your face. 4. The Holy Spirit, rather than being incorporeal, is in fact quite a dish. But with no sense of humour. 5. A child can easily be buried in a plant bed. 6. In addition to being part of and all of the Trinity, God also has a figure called Wisdom who helps to explain things. 7. Sam Worthington was better in Wrath of the Titans and even Macbeth, where there is far more drama and more believable characterisation 8. God is a pretty good cook and even likes a drink. 9. Direct, awkward doctrinal questions are best answered by platitudes, evaded or just plain ignored. 10. It is fun to run on water. In fact Jesus prefers to run on water. We'd all like that.

I will readily admit that I am not the most likely audience to the film. In fact there are no atheists to be caricatured at all as in, say, God's Not Dead ,1 & 2. But they could have at least tried to cater for all. Instead The Shack comes across as well-produced, albeit saccharine, confection of traditional doctrine and faith - the literal and literal explication of which ironically only serves to reinforce many of the impressions of sceptics as far as popular religion is concerned. And,


...they don't even catch the darn killer; I remember reading that, in the book, they do?

Four Days

Byron - get fun free
There are three reasons to see this film, assuming that you are a fan of 1950's British B-movies, as I am. First, the cinematography and direction: even though one imagines that the production was brought in under an as-usual rushed schedule, with little time for artistic considerations, Gullermin and Elton do still manage some imaginative set ups, notably shooting from a low level and with some interesting composition within the academy frame. Secondly there is Kathleen Byron, a long way from her greatest role (in Powell and Pressburger's BLACK NARCISSUS) perhaps, but still with a face which seems to demand provocative close ups, something which happens with striking effect a couple of times here. She may be working with sub-standard material, but how she fills the screen at such moments! Finally there is the plot itself, which is absurd and entertaining at the same time, fast moving and preposterous as it is. If the film had finished at the point of the fall from the cliff, I'd suggest, then it would have been an extremely taut and powerful minor classic. As it is, the plot has to lumber on into less starkly fatalistic territory - including a scene with a doctor which is bathetically laugh-inducing and suffers for it. No matter, the results are still worth seeing. On disc, the image is good.

The Great Wall

Great Wall, average results
An action-fantasy epic with Matt Damon playing an itinerant mercenary who, with a travelling companion ends up on the Great Wall of China back in the day. The wall is bustling with defence activity organised, it quickly appears, to keep something pretty fearsome out. But what? And how can Damon, viewed with suspicion by the defending class, prove his worth? Needless the say the viewer soon discovers in a welter of CGI, most of which is pretty impressive. The idea is preposterous of course, and the story itself pretty trivial (although it apparently needed three scriptwriters to sustain it). Damon would probably not be the first choice for the hero neither although he does his best. Willem Dafoe plays a sneaky supporting character, in the main sub-plot looking to make off with gunpowder. Much of the film has the cultural style and manner of several other Asian military epics with brightly coloured-uniforms and the geometric arrangement of men and equipment. But with all this it is rarely boring, while those who remember the swarm attack in the original Starship Trooper say, or even the end of Samurai Jack's pilot trilogy come to that, will find themselves at home here. Not top tier then, but worth a rent.

Alone in Berlin

Cards dealt from the middle of the deck.
Watched this last night and while Thompson and Gleeson were excellent as the depressed couple at the centre of events, and the film was well mounted, I still felt it lacked some necessary tension. Think what a Hitchcock would have made of the suspense in placing 200-odd anti-Nazi cards in the midst of Hitler's regime, with detectives watching out and knowing what being caught would have meant! One would also have liked a little more friction and debate between the husband and wife, more justification for the eventual plan. Instead of real drama we had necessary and moving human dignity shown by the participants, even under dire circumstances; but we realise that dignity can take the viewer a certain way but then it needs something more. Also, while a satisfying demonstration of what effect even just a little gesture can have over a period of time (even though we inevitable wonder: who did retain the missing 18 cards? What did they think and do thereafter?) the ending, while no doubt providing a closing flourish, felt a-historical. Was such an extravagant gesture an accurate representation of events? Or did the makers feel the need to give the efforts and sacrifices of their heroes something of a tangible effect to live by? But even with such caveats and questions, this is a solid and enjoyable piece of work, and one which is worth a watch.

Terra Formars

Movie Madness and Entertaining Entomology
OK, here's the shocking truth: this film, which ought to have the English language title of 'Cockroach Planet', is pretty bad. In it, Miike abandons any of the art-house pretensions about which people find to argue and discuss in some of his other work, in place of lurid and batty SF fantasy. At the start it rips off 'Blade Runner' - almost shot-for- shot in a couple of places. The characters are shallow. The central idea is ludicrous. The plot is underdeveloped. The flashbacks do nothing to advance things, can be confusing and, at least once, amusingly bathetic. The CGI can be substandard. The director slips in a gratuitous Yakuza moment, and thinks it cool. There is also a token terrorist announced as a job description, and a villain who is, patently, a fashion victim. The cockroaches, who move super-fast at one moment and can fly their legions, usually stand round and stare at their victims quizzically, waiting for them to gear up before attacking slowly. The evil insects are cute, rather than menacing, and when they grin, look like they wear dentures. There are what appear to be the pyramids of Giza on Mars; I don't know why, even when explained on screen - but that's OK I guess, as we never get close. And of course the science is ridiculous.

So I watched this colourful, surreal, and jaw-dropping extravaganza marrying insects and cinematic insanity ... and was thoroughly entertained. In short, don't expect more for your money than you get from all of the above which, as you now know, is plenty: just rush to see it like I did, and be pleased. At least there is no boring John Carter and they are not talking about botany again.

In a Valley of Violence

Ti West, goes west
Writer, producer and director Ti West makes his first western (though not his first film) with this one, which for many seems to have slipped under the radar. Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a revenger with a past, whose most pressing motivation appears to have been at least partly inspired by JOHN WICK while the film also makes affectionate nod to Italian models. Other members of the cast include John Travolta, playing a Marshall with a false leg.

Straight from the pre-titles opening scene, Western fans can relax back in their saddles and say to themselves 'this is how it is done!' as Ti West finds just the right balance between homage, tension, and saying something fresh. Hawke's anti-hero is a complex creation while Travolta's idiosyncratic character works well in a film which, never the less, does occasionally veer too abruptly in tone between the light-hearted and the violent. As a western maker, a director like Tarantino could take a lesson in something which he seems to have forgotten of the merits of stripped-down B movie making, buoyed up by some interesting dialogue, from this. Critics have rightly pointed out that there are one or two weaker performers further down the cast list, but this is not a major distraction and ultimately the result gets a strong recommendation from me. Great score, too.

Trail of the Screaming Forehead

Forehead fun
So far, the American Larry Blamire has completed five features, achieving in my opinion an admirable and likable body of work, beginning with the well-received Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra (2001). Of the four I have managed to see, each has the distinctive style of its writer-director-actor: genial and humane humour, consistently amusing parody of older genres, allied with use of an increasingly familiar stock company - all of whom seem to be enjoying themselves as much as director and audience.

Blamire writes, directs and frequently acts in his own films, his careful scripts reveling in non-sequiturs and deliberate longueurs whilst eschewing coarse dialogue. The surreal Trail Of The Screaming Forehead stands the most apart from its fellows I have seen, being made in colour, perhaps more expressly silly, with increased special effects work and the inclusion of special guest players (Dick Miller and Kevin McCarthy). Perhaps because of that, whilst still very amusing, it seems a little less characteristic and considered. However, this said, I have to report that after seeing it again lately I chuckled just as much as the first time - something which is entirely in line with those who revisit Blamire's films, which have a quiet quality all of their own and which never grow stale - which is ironic, as they constantly reference dated genres.

I think Blamire is an auteur to treasure, one who gives the art of parody back its name and quality - especially after the dismal, bigger-budgeted attempts of the likes of Jason Friedberg and the Wayans, directors who seem to have no affection for the films they imitate and always aim for the obvious. Their films are, arguably, hardly films at all - merely narrative clothes pegs on which to hang cheap laughs, slapdash and vulgar in equal measure, where Blamire is neither.

Speaking for myself, a sure-fire indication of a good parody is my willingness to revisit the work when the original joke has been seen and gone; this is true of most of Blamire's films, which grow more amusing and endearing upon re-acquaintance. And while the film types Blamire affectionately references have typically long since left our screen, I think his own work set around them remains fresh and original.

Lost Skeleton was the first I discovered and still has a special place in my affections; but there's not much between it and Dark And Stormy Night - the finest ensemble piece in Blamire's work. Only The Lost Skeleton Returns Again I think a slight disappointment - even though it too has its moments, if only because inevitably there's a sense of deja vu in any sequel of this sort while the narrative flow seems a little forced. (I hope to rent a copy of Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits (UK: Meet The Mobsters) soon, as that undoubtedly adds another dimension to Blamire's output albeit one far more commercial.) Although the liking, or not, of any film is always a matter of taste, I would recommend a discovery of Blamire's small but extremely likable oeuvre, filled with charming nonsense, endearing featured players, and quotable moments of dialogue, to anyone. In a world of CGI, bloated superstar egos and coarse humour passing as wit this all comes a pleasant discovery.

The Clones

Clone for the Road
What's the obvious connection between duplicating humans and controlling the weather? No, I can't quickly think of something either, although CLONES seems to think it can be made both obvious and convincing. It is as if the makers thought that cloning itself was not enough to sustain the necessary tension and interest, and so at a late stage come up with a new plot peril to sustain matters. It would perhaps have worked better if the film had dwelt on the insecurities and doubts which surround the duplication of the individual, or indeed made the cause of such events much more mysterious and enigmatic than they turn out to be, leaving things disturbing and unanswered. Instead what we have is a reasonably entertaining large middle section with a likable hero, allied with a couple of effective hunters surrounded by less impressive exposition. Any rate, this low budget film does best when it stays away from such artificial considerations of plot to play on the confusion and paranoia of confronting doppelgangers, such as we have encountered elsewhere in such films as THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF.

Despite some interesting stylisation of the opening credits, the opening minutes of CLONES are a little confusing and it is only when hero Dr Appleby leaves the laboratory, in chase of himself, do things look up a little. Due credit must be given to Michael Green for making of Appleby at least halfway sympathetic during the extended action-suspense sequences which makes up the central part of the film which, on reflection, even more impressive given the low budget of the makers.

Even with the caveats the score here is likely too low (I give proceedings at least a 5 or so) The final shoot out is well done and another reviewer is right: the last twist in the tale is unexpected.

The Todd Killings

Little known classic
Based on the real life crimes of 'The Pied Piper of Tucson' thrill-killer Charles Schmidt, Shear's second film offered a completely different, and far more salutary, view of the younger generations than his first (Wild in the Streets) - in fact, arguably rejecting any empathy with it at all. Starting in strikingly edited fashion with the hurried burial of a victim and ending with the police recovering the bodies of two others, The Todd Killings is a work whose negative view of a generation and its alienation is unrelenting, bleak and compelling. The "fictionalised dramatisation" stars Robert F Jones as 'Skipper' Todd, a charismatic 23 year-old slacker, drug dealer and would-be song writer living in the small Californian town of Darlington. Todd lives off an allowance from his mother (Barbara Bel Geddes, her last film) who runs an old people's home. Worshiped by a clique of younger females, Todd's own view of his dissipated lifestyle is characteristically cynical: "fornication isn't much (but) it's about all Darlington has to offer". It's only when he is attracted to the initially standoffish Roberta (Belinda Montgomery) that things get more complicated. At the same time Billy Roy (Richard Thomas) arrives back home in town, fresh out of reformatory, quickly rediscovers his love for an old school sweetheart and is taken under Skipper's doubtful wing.

Although from this summary it seems a film with two infatuations at its core, The Todd Killings is not a romantic piece. On the one hand we have Skipper, scheming and callous towards Roberta, while on the other there is Billy Roy, naive, confused and, ultimately, just as cruel towards his own girl. Neither relationships will end well. In this they are typical of the party and drug set around them, where the only real relationship is with hedonism. Others have noted the fractured and documentary style employed by the narrative, reflecting the lack of real focus in the young lives of Darlington. Only Roberta gets some real sympathy, but ironically its her will-she won't-she attitude towards Skipper and his actions which make up some of the film's less successful elements. When we first see her she seems a cut above the rest of her sex; her continued affection towards Skipper, even after the the most serious suspicions emerge and rape, considerably reduces her standing. Ultimately, even with her self-awareness and conscience, she is barely different from the others.

In the first half of the film Shear breaks up the presentation of Skipper's sometimes frantic, always shallow existence with more formal, considered shorter scenes, as the young man is interviewed in turn by police and military (he dodges the draft by pretending to be gay). At other times too, when faced by the establishment, Skipper acts the considerate, polite young man, and initially impresses Billy Roy's parents by his manner. At first he also seems to fool his former teacher, who's out trying to save local bored housewives from their own intellectual "death sentence" with reading groups of 'Moby-Dick'. At one point he recalls Skipper as one of his brightest former students, but now the young man is as dismissive of literature as of anything else. But we know that the slimy charmer is already a murderer, his secret buried out in the desert - just as his real character lays buried beneath a facade for his elders' benefit. Indeed, with one notable exception, Skipper's violence is hidden from the audience as well. It is Shear's achievement that he makes something shocking and memorable out of the coldness which remains, in an exploitation piece par excellence.

It's hard to think of another film with a heart quite as nihilist as The Todd Killings, a movie in which murders are committed just to see what it feels like, or because there's "nothing else to do", and in which a shiftless society of teenagers seem alienated from the magnitude of their actions. Other films have shown rebellious, shallow and disenchanted youth, but few are so thoroughgoing and so completely dark. For Skipper one of the most despicable emotions is pity, and his lack of empathy with others and is echoed back by his loose circle of friends whose only concern, even when the full horror of his crimes is revealed, is what to do when he's no longer around. (In fact the original shooting script was apparently called 'What Are We Going to Do Without Skipper?'). Some have compared Shear's film to (I think less bleak) River's Edge (1986), while passing similarities can also be seen in another favourite, Mean Creek (2004). A further film based on Schmidt's real life crimes, Dead Beat (1984) is not in the same league.

By turn charming, dangerous and self-centered, Jones' charismatic portrayal as the murdering misogynist is unforgettable, while The Todd Killings further benefits from an excellent supporting cast which, besides Bel Geddes, also includes Gloria Graham and Edward Asner. With hindsight, Richard Thomas' casting shortly after this as TV's John-Boy Walton, where he was to co-star in a completely different moral universe, gives his appearance here particular resonance. A pathetic figure, he is easily led in a world where nothing matters and "there's the crap, and living like you want to live." All of this is aided by some excellent cinematography as well as an outstanding, sometimes frenetic musical score by Leonard Rosenmann. Earlier in his career the composer had worked on Rebel Without a Cause. One wonders what he felt creating music for another, if later generation, equally estranged,but with a much more dangerous alienation, in which personal angst is almost entirely absent.

If you haven't seen The Todd Killings, then it may be one of the best films you've hardly heard of. If you have, then you'll surely welcome any chance to see it again.

Sergeants 3

rat pack run poorly
One of the rarer rat pack movies, and loosely based on Gunga Din, Sergeants Three was directed by no less than John Sturges. This film however is no Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the OK Coral, or Hour of the Gun. Sinatra, Martin and Lawford play the titual sergeants, with Sammy Davis Jnr in there as well as an apologetic camp follower (a role which distantly recalls that of Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai). Although partially redeemed by the excellent production values as well as the enjoyment of watching the principals do their schtick, ultimately all is sunk by a far-fetched plot, indulgent longeurs and some unconvincing dramatics - all of which only makes one want to watch Martin all over again in Rio Bravo or Sons of Katie Elder ... i.e. in 'proper' westerns. Several of Bing Crosby's relatives fill out supporting roles and Henry Silva does his mad Indian performance.

Man Without a Star

Star still shines brightly
Kirk Douglas is in his prime in this excellent, subversive epic, directed by King Vidor. Douglas plays a drifter who hooks up with a young traveler (William Campbell) and then starts work on a ranch with a new, strong-willed female boss (a marvelously foxy Jeanne Crane). What gives this movie most interest to modern eyes are some gay undertones, as well as later moments of more overtly suggestive heterosexual dialogue between the randy Douglas and his new employer - reminding this viewer a little of Bogart and Bacall's wordplay in The Big Sleep. A young Richard Boone plays a more conventional heavy brought in to supervise the impending rage war, but even his menacing presence is largely sidelined by the real attentions of the film laying elsewhere. While Douglas' character is outwardly defined by his hatred of any barbed wire enclosing the open range (previous experience of which he has etched across his torso, rather like marks of passion), it is clear that Man Without a Star is more about freedom of the libido to range as it will, constrained only by the various explicit and implicit passions between the principal characters. Claire Trevor, playing Douglas' old flame, is part of a strong support cast which also includes Jay C Flippen. Douglas gets to sing and is a dynamo on screen. Script co-written by Borden Chase.

Night Passage

Night passage more than passingly good
Apparently no less a director than Anthony Mann left this project after the star, James Stewart, insisted on including accordion playing as part of his main character or perhaps of views he held about the script. The helm was instead taken eventually by James Neilson, most of whose career was spent in television. The film itself, together perhaps with Two Rode Together (1961), is seen as something of disappointment when seen alongside other great Stewart westerns of the 50's.

Stewart plays a disgraced railroad man, reduced to playing music for nickels and dimes to help ends meet, until he is called back into action by his old boss to help solve some robberies. Chief among the suspects are his younger brother, The Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) now embroiled with an outlaw gang led by the unbalanced Whitey (Dan Duryea). Despite the variable reputation of this film I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because of the plotting by Borden Chase and the excellent and large supporting case which also included Jack Elam, Paul Fix, Dianne Foster and Jay C Flippen. There's a part too for a now slightly older Brandon de Wilde, most famous for his role as the hero-worshiping youngster in Shane. After watching Audie Murphy just previously in the disappointing, much lower budgeted late vehicle Apache Rifles (1964), suddenly with this film the range seemed aright again. Murphy does an excellent turn as the conflicted younger brother, holding his screen presence well against the as always excellent Stewart, who, by this time, works his central role effortlessly. In fact Murphy's characteristic, taciturn, screen persona actually does the other main co-star Duryea a disservice, by emphasising some scenery-chewing elsewhere by the actor no doubt intent on showing Whitey's instability.

Stewart gets to play his beloved accordion three or four times - although it must be admitted that, by the time it gets burnt in the climactic confrontation, one grows little tired of hearing his repertoire of, mostly, 'You Won't Get Far Without the Railroad'. Most obviously, the longish opening Mclintock-esque scene, one suspects, was inserted principally to showcase Stewart's playing, although his charm always carries such musical longeurs along. Away from the star's turn, the otherwise excellent composer Dimitri Tiomkin is hard put to incorporate the music meaningfully into the rest of the score. With the cheerful and interruptive accordion one looks in vain too for the wheezing ominousness which marks out, say, Harmonica's instrumental playing in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Stewart's accordion does, however, play a final a part later in filling out an element of Murphy's moral character in what, one must admit, is a very effective, subtle scene. But overall it's a minor, idiosyncratic, element in a film which is still excellent viewing, a production taking full advantage of a big budget and good sized cast, and one thoroughly recommended. An obvious question remains: why is it called 'Night Passage' when there is hardly any day-for-night work, and no significant travel made in the dark?

Nevada Smith

Nevada Smith
A box office smash for it's time Nevada Smith is a long, episodic film directed by Henry Hathaway starring the charismatic Steve McQueen. Interestingly McQueen's character actually only uses the Nevada Smith moniker once (as a temporary alias in the movie), the rest of the time using his 'real' name of Max Sand. Sand is a half breed whose parents are killed by outlaws - the outstanding trio of Martin Landau, Karl Malden and Arthur Kennedy a group of class heavies that's worth the price of admission alone - and then who resolutely sets out to track the murderers down one by one, after taking on board some life instruction from gun trader Brian Keith. The moments with Keith reminded me of the great Spaghetti Day of Anger made a year later - another film in which an experienced older gunfighter teaches an innocent the way to get through travails: with gun skills and a bit of frontier philosophy. It's a fairly traditional plot, albeit given resonance by a quality cast and production value.

Nevada Smith benefits greatly from Hathaway's leisurely outdoor directorial style, familiar from such personal favourites as The Sons of Katie Elder and North to Alaska as well as some excellent mise en scene cinematography by the great Lucien Ballard. Some critics such as Phil Hardy have sniffed a little at the film, and it's contemporary popularity, but I found it engrossing throughout, although admittedly it might have benefited from a little trimming. The mid-section, in which McQueen finds himself doing hard labour, then escaping, from a swamp-surrounded, brutalising prison camp reminded me of the (I think) weaker Papillion.

The real weakness to the film appears in the last section, when Sand/Smith is rescued from Malden's gang by a priest to be then reminded, by way of belated balance to Keith's earlier lessons, of the virtues of forgiveness and Christian forbearance. To a modern viewer this moral lesson seems a little laboured, and does little to make the final scene of the film psychologically convincing, ultimately leaving the principal character redeemed without purpose. Such considerations are striking given moments elsewhere, when the viewer can see the influence of the cynicism and violence of the genre which flowered elsewhere during the mid-sixties.

However if you haven't caught this yet I do recommend it, especially in the fine widescreen DVD edition now available. It's short on extras but the image and condition of the print is fine.

Neither the Sea Nor the Sand

Neither the Sea not the Sand nor much interest
A terrible film, in which the love of Susan Hampshire turns a man into a zombie. Taken from a novel by Gordon Honeycombe, a mistake was made in allowing the author to provide the screenplay as in the event it proves a lugubrious affair, aiming (and completely missing) any profound statement about love and death, replacing it with platitudes and hackneyed emotions. It's the sort of thing that was done with far more atmosphere, eroticism and the necessary morbidity by the Italian horror directors at around the same time like Bava. Those who live on the channel island of Jersey will no doubt enjoy the location work, but others will struggle to stay patient with a tale that includes in its small cast veteran actor Frank Finlay, who no doubt wished he was back on TV in Casanova. The print is fine with good colour photography in the seventies' style. There's some fleeting nudity, and even mild interest in seeing the normally fridge-like Hampshire attempting a couple of bed scenes but, by the end of a long 90 minutes, the viewer will probably end up as numb as her unfortunate lover.

Something in the City

'Mr Pastry' the movie
For those old enough to remember the UK's 'Mr Pastry' TV series of the late 50's-early 60's, this film will come as a welcome surprise and a reminder of a once popular star of British family culture. Richard Hearne, star of that long-vanished show here plays Richard Ningle, a mild-mannered family man pretending to work in an office all day while in fact he is an 'art dealer' each day - out begging on the side of a busy London thoroughfare. Complications ensue when his daughter announces her engagement to a snooty couple's son, the father of whom promptly dispatches an investigative reporter to check out the status of Ningle.

None of this is of very much import: what matters here is the physical comedy and treasured screen presence of Hearne whose structured physical comedy (as opposed to the musical-hall slapstick variety more common elsewhere in British cinema) is a delight. Hearne's droopy, pale 'tache is arguably as much a signature of his persona as Harold Lloyd's glasses or Chaplin's cane, and at the moment when it appears in the film (to usher in Ningle's alter-ego 'Artie') this watcher, at least, enjoyed a small frisson which must have also been enjoyed more strongly by contemporary audiences.

A good deal of the running time of Something in The City is Taken up with physical comedy, as Ningle or 'Artie' escape from various pursuers, and for the most part this is successful. Indeed Hearne's natural grace and movement, his use of props and situations, avoidance of cheap laughs and his lack of bumbling through the various narrative mishaps occasionally reminded this viewer of Buster Keaton. There's plenty of comic support too, notably a very young Dora Bryan as an increasingly exasperated cafe waitress. The comedy is lightly done and ultimately the whole thing is something of a delightful fantasy.

Hearne disappeared from our screen too soon and his memory is faint now (The comic mantle he left was perhaps passed on to figures such as Harry Worth then Michael Crawford for new generations). We are lucky to have this film to see now as a reminder of once what was, and how good it was. The picture and sound is perfectly acceptable. Look out for a brief appearance by Stanley Baker as a young police constable at the end.

Bad Johnson

No so bad Johnson
First off: this is a low budget, high concept film with no real pretensions, so don't come looking for deep meanings or Oscar-worthiness here. Second off: despite the frattish central conceit this isn't at all bad, and even manages to suggest, and comment about, matters of male sexual morality etc which much bigger, more earnest productions miss, or labour out of existence with good taste. 'Rich' Johnson, the titular hero, starts off as a helpless philanderer, losing a succession of girlfriends due to his inability to control himself. (He is however not entirely to blame, as one encounter demonstrates). After the most recent occasion of betrayal by him and the ending of another promising relationship thing rather personal separate and Johnson and his johnson have to learn to live with and then apart from one another.

The interesting thing about Bad Johnson is that Johnson's johnson is made human and not just a comic talking appendage. (It could for instance have been portrayed like 'Tonguey' in Kung Pow). Instead what we have is like that old Star Trek episode when the 'good' and the 'bad' Kirk co-exist after a transporter malfunction. The effect of this is to make the change less of a joke which runs out of steam after a few crude scenes, and the situation more susceptible to social comment, as the film ambles from its un-PC beginnings onto something more regular. Ultimately johnson shows himself in his newly independent form as a element of Johnson's ego (significantly this separate existence does not effect Johnson's libido)which is revealed as sometime-objectionable part of the male character. As Johnson gets along without his friend, so does his relationship with women improve and, surprise surprise, he becomes a much more likable fellow. Even if the words he later utters about the need to "say 'no'" seemed to this viewer to take the case against active sexuality a little too far, it is clear that the film does manage to pose some interesting questions about how much of stereotyped maleness is down to selfishness and a lack of self control and yet how both the good and bad parts of Johnson are together necessary for things ultimately to work.

The cinematography and direction are perfectly fine, and the cast acquit themselves well. I had a smile on my face throughout and, for a film like this, its all better than you'd expect.

Kitten with a Whip

Kitten whips up a great movie
I really can't understand the low rating here for a movie I enjoyed thoroughly from end to end. The two leads work well together with John Forsythe, more familiar from soap work on TV in later years, reminding me at times of a cut-rate Henry Fonda. Sure, Ann-Margaret tears the scenery up some, but let's not forget her character is supposed to be emotionally unbalanced, and that she's a woman frequently playing for sympathy, then threat, often within a few moments of each other. I found it more of a misjudgment that, as David, Forsythe never really acted a man coming unstuck as events crowded in on him.

No one I think has mentioned the music for this movie which is generally excellent, and which lifts, slightly rearranged, a couple of Mancini cues from Touch of Evil! They fit in quite effectively. Director Heyes, who largely worked within television does an excellent job with some interesting set ups (including the notable motel fight) while the cinematography, full of light and shade composition by the experienced Joseph Biroc, would have graced an A-production.

Ultimately this is an excellent exploitation movie with no slack scenes and a compelling narrative, albeit with some dated 'hip' dialogue, principally from the later, intruding, trio. I'd recommend it to anyone who is looking for the real thing. My DVD file is excellent, crisp and clear.

Whispering Smith

Excellent, lesser known western
OK, I am going to come right out and say it. I actually prefer this more muscular film to the (imho) considerably more self-conscious and portentous 'Shane'. The ever un-demonstrative Ladd has more of chance to breath here in an excellent, vigorous action story which involves him playing the eponymous railroad detective dogged with a secretly broken heart. Even with the constraints of the genre at this time and date the lead actor manages to find some depths and seriousness in a role which could easily have become a cliché. After foiling the predations of the notorious Barton gang, a wounded Whispering Smith finds himself back on home territory and being cared for by his one true love Marian (Brenda Sinclair) - who has meanwhile married his closest friend Murray (a splendidly tousle-haired Preston Foster). Murray meanwhile has problems on his own account after making some wrong choices when losing his job on the railroad, and grows increasingly closer to the crooked rancher Rebstock (Donald Crisp), eventually turning outlaw himself. Crisp, normally type-cast as the model of rectitude, here grabs the chance to appear menacing with both hands.

What distinguished 'Whispering Smith' above all is the vital quality of the action sequences, particularly the opening railway robbery, which have a violent, modern air about them. Ladd is excellent as the introspective Legend of the Line, ably supported by a cast with no weaknesses. Only the requisite no-surprise hidden love subplot seems more of its time, although even this remains free of an obligatory happy ending and the expected clinch never materialises. Standout too are the accompanying cast: an excellent psychopathic sidekick 'Whitey' - Frank Faylan, an actor I was unfamiliar with - as well as the redoubtable William Demarest. Did he ever put in a bad supporting act? Interestingly the plot of 'Whispering Smith' features a number of train rides, virtually all of which are interrupted: sabotaged or hi-jacked. One can argue that this echoes the life of Smith himself, which has become a interrupted journey itself - a way of distraction, it is implied, from his romantic disappointments, as he's wedded to his dangerous job - a passage in life which never reaches any final, emotionally fulfilling destination. Director Fenton made 'The Streets of Laredo' with Holden immediately after this which, on this experience, I shall now seek out.

The colour film appears these days on disc in an excellent print - it certainly looked good on a blu-ray player though a HD projector at 80", a highlight of a 3 disc DVD westerns box set I found cheap on Amazon. Recommended.

90 Degrees in the Shade

The Shop Around the Corner with adult themes.
90 Degrees is a strange, if excellent little film which sees Zulu's James Booth appear in what could easily be a work from the Czech new wave, and indeed some viewers might find the British accents of the cast (some apparently dubbed, some not) a little disconcerting in the context, although it is done well. It's a modestly scaled tale which is by turn sexual, claustrophobic, and tragic, a title pretty obscure these days but which ought never the less to be better known as it rarely takes a foot wrong. Although Booth looks a little out of place in his European environment, he turns in a characteristically chippy performance as the scoundrel womaniser Vorell, but he is almost upstaged by the dour inspector Kurka (Rudolf Hrusinsky), whose humourlessness is surely inspired by that of contemporary communist functionaries, as well as the performance of Anne Heywood as the doomed Alena.

The 90 degrees of the title of course refers to more than just the sweltering heat of the year, it also invokes the sexual tensions which run throughout the film (most notably in the 'coffee wiping' stock room scene near the beginning). Vorell and Alena, as well as Kurka and his wife, are essentially two aspects of the same game; ultimately Vorell's replacement of tea-filled liquor bottles in the stockroom is a much a betrayal of empathy as is Kurka's replacement of marital warmth back at home with the coldness of duty. Down the cast list is Donald Wolfitt, no barnstorming from him here though, and one eventually wonders why he accepted such a supporting role. In some ways this is The Shop Around the Corner but a year after and with adult themes. Those familiar with Prague will also relish the backgrounds. Altogether this can be highly recommended as a forgotten bywater of British cinema. There is some fleeting nudity.

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