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Des Teufels General

"I have to clear my debts at last. My guilt."
German audiences in the 1930's thrilled to see the astonishing aerial acrobatics of Ernst Udet in the mountain films of Arnold Fanck. The highest-ranking air ace to survive WWI, he was to become Colonel-General of the Luftwaffe but the unbearable pressures of the job, his sense of being betrayed by Goering and his despair at Hitler's invasion of Russia led to his taking his own life.

It is generally accepted that the character of General Harras in Carl Zuckmayer's hugely successful post war play is loosely based on Udets and is a fictionalised account of his final days.

The role made an international star of the charismatic Curd Juergens and deservedly won him a Best Actor award at Cannes. It is undeniably his finest role and arguably his best performance.

The cast is uniformly excellent and the characters well drawn, not least Eva-Ingerborg-Scholz as the loathsome Putzchen and Viktor de Kowa as rabid Nazi Schmidt-Lausen. The career of de Kowa, despite his being on Goebbel's 'Important Artists exempt list' and being a member of the Nazi party, continued unabated after the war and his marvellously menacing portrayal is riveting. Marianne Koch plays Harras' young love and their mutual attraction is convincing despite the age gap.

This piece cannot but betray its theatrical roots but under Helmut Kautner's customarily expert direction and with Klaus Dudenhofer's editing it never drags and builds to a stupendous climax.

The intelligent and artistic Helmut Kautner not only navigated the shark infested waters of the Third Reich but also gave us one of its greatest films, 'Romanze in Moll' and managed to rise above the crass commercialism of 1950's German cinema.

The Best Man

"Politics have no relation to morals." Machiavelli.
As the grandson of senator T. P. Gore, being related by marriage to Jackie Kennedy and having campaigned unsuccessfully for Congress and Governorship, Gore Vidal was ideally placed as a political observer and his Tony Award-winning play was no doubt informed by what he knew from personal experience and from what he picked up second-hand.

Mr. Vidal's experiences in Hollywoodland were not generally of the happiest but here he has hit the jackpot as his pungent dialogue, witticisms and splendid one-liners are delivered by a top notch cast whilst director Franklin J. Schaffner whose second feature this is and his superlative editor Robert E. Swink keep proceedings bubbling along nicely.

Of the two main contenders for the Presidency the liberal intellectual William Russell is seen to be a thinly disguised portrait of Adlai Stevenson II and Henry Fonda's persona is ideally suited to the role whilst Cliff Robertson is a revelation as the odious Joe Cantwell, generally agreed to be an amalgam of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy.

Ideological differences between the candidates would not alone be sufficient to maintain an audience's attention so to spice things up we have here the time-honoured dramatic device of the skeleton in the closet. Both Russell and Cantwell have something in their past which, if revealed, would likely scupper their chances and potentially finish their political careers. Will these dark secrets be revealed....?

The only member of the original cast to make it to the screen is Lee Tracy whose Oscar/Golden Globe nominated performance as outgoing President Hockstader practically steals the film. His character is assumed to be a send-up of Harry S. Truman so best to conclude with a quote from Truman himself: " You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog".

La main du diable

The Devil to pay!
The tragic and ill-fated Gérard de Nerval left a small but highly regarded body of poetry but it was as a superlative storyteller that he was first perceived by his contemporaries. He had already published a much praised translation of Goethe's 'Faust' and his short story 'La Main enchantée' is a variation on the 'Faustian pact' theme. It has been adapted for film by Jean-Paul le Chanois. To say it is a 'loose' adaptation is an understatement and le Chanois has interpolated snippets from popular Breton tales told to him by his grandmother.

This is undeniably the best of the five films made by Maurice Tourneur under the aegis of Continental Films, created by Herr Goebbels to distract the French public from the minor annoyance of the Occupation. From the very earliest Monsieur Tourneur's films were noted for their pictorial qualities and he employed his astonishing visual sense most effectively in themes of mystery and fantasy. The air of menace that pervades this piece is due to the Expressionist lighting. His cinematographer here is the legendary Armand Thirard whilst the editing by Christian Gaudin (strangely uncredited) maintains the tension. The sets are by Andrej Andrejew, one of the finest scenic designers of German Expressionism. By all accounts, due to the indisposition of the director, it was the assistant director Jean Devaivre, who was responsible for the wonderfully imagined sequence that gave the film its alternative title of 'Carnival of Sinners'.

This film has been seen by some as an allegory of the pact made between Hitler and Pétain and the Devil here, as played by the diminuitive, bowler-hatted Pierre Palau, is a thoroughly prosaic and unpleasant personage who might easily pass as an official of the Vichy regime. This of course is open to interpretation.

The cast is headed by Pierre Fresnay who was to shine the same year in Clouzot's masterpiece 'Le Corbeau', a thinly disguised allegory that got its director into all sorts of trouble. Fresnay is joined again by Noel Roquefort and Pierre Larquey. A small and uncredited role is played by the excellent Louis Salou, moving up the ranks and just three years before his signature role as Comte de Montray in 'Les Enfants du Paradis'. Fresnay's feverish and intense performance as the doomed painter frantically trying to save his soul is magnetic, even by his standards and it is to be regretted that this brilliant artiste, despite being a decorated hero in the previous war, was never able to shake off the stigma of alleged but never proven collaboration. His leading lady in this is Josseline Gael who was to pay a far higher price for her ill-advised horizontal collaboration with a member of the French Gestapo whilst still legally married to actor Jules Berry.

Maurice Tourneur died in 1961, having been forced to retire from filming in 1949 following the loss of a limb in a motor accident. In a career spanning thirty-six years his output is bound to have been variable but he remains one of Cinema's great visual stylists. His son Jacques, in his films for RKO in the 1940's, proved a worthy successor.

Fantastic Voyage

"We can't be certain of anything."
Despite its plot holes this is an ambitious project for its time, very well imagined and capably directed by Richard Fleischer. The imagery is exceptional and it comes as no surprise that those responsible for the visual effects which very much reflect the psychedelic sixties, were recognised at the Oscars. For his cinematography Ernest Laszlo received one of his eight nominations, having won previously for his work on 'Ship of Fools'.

Arthur Kennedy, Edmond 0'Brien, Arthur O'Connell and Donald Pleasance supply the substance whilst Stephen Boyd provides the machismo. In keeping with her function as eye candy, Raquel Welch is the only member of the crew not required to wear a shirt under her catsuit.

The whole enterprise serves to remind us that the most miraculous mechanism in the universe is the human body although it is just as well that the voyagers were not obliged to navigate the Southern hemisphere!


"0ne day, you'll wish with all your heart that you never came to Dragonwyck."
By all accounts Joseph L. Mankiewicz was unenthusiastic about adapting Anya Seton's novel as he felt that it would be compared unfavourably with Hitchcock's 'Rebecca' and of course he was absolutely right. He has at least been granted the opportunity, after two decades in the industry, of directing his first film thanks to the indisposition of Ernst Lubitsch. Miss Seton's 'historical romance' has here become Gothic melodrama and despite Mr. Mankiewicz' intelligence, literate script and skill with actors, his lack of visual sense is all too evident. For a film such as this to work there has to be a sense of menace and foreboding, of which this film alas has neither. Alfred Newman's superb score is dramatic but insufficiently eerie.

Gene Tierney is suitably appealing as Miranda Wells but was to enjoy far better roles during this period whilst it is Vincent Price's mesmerising performance as van Ryn that carries the day. This is one of a long line of effete crackpots that he was to make his own but here he has succeeded, as one critic has observed, 'in skirting the edges of camp' which was not always the case in his later self-parodies. Hardly surprising that this was one of his favourite roles. The backbone of the piece is supplied by strong characterisations from inveterate scene-stealer Walter Huston as Miranda's bible-punching father, Ann Revere as her mother and a marvellous turn by Spring Byington as the housekeeper. Her absence and that of Connie Marshall as van Ryn's young daughter from the second half of the film are never sufficiently explained however. There is an early appearance by Jessica Tandy two years before she created the role of Blanche Dubois on Broadway.

Mr. Mankiewicz' films would always be talkative affairs and although this is not the most auspicious of directorial debuts, he would of course go from strength to strength, especially as his cinematic technique gradually improved. He was greatly respected by actors and Michael Caine, from whom Mankiewicz drew one of his best performances in 'Sleuth', described him as 'the most civilised man I ever met in the cinema'.

Seven Days in May

Hawks and Doves.
The paranoia engendered by the Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in a select group of films from the 1960's reflecting the fear of nuclear annihilation. Adapted by Rod Serling from the novel by former columnist and satirist Fletcher Knebel this is a first class political thriller expertly directed by John Frankenheimer and although it may not have the imaginative flair of his 'Manchurian Candidate', it is no less skilful and technically polished if slightly marred by Mr. Serling's need to advertise his Liberal credentials.

Mr. Frankenheimer once again has the services of superlative editor Ferris Webster who contributes to what American critic Bosley Crowther referred to as the film's 'tingling speed and irresistible tension' whilst the percussive score of Jerry Goldsmith underlines the menacing military mood. Black-and-white cinematography reached a peak of perfection in the the 1960's and here Ellsworth Fredericks is behind the camera. Production design is by Cary Odell.

The film was totally overlooked at the Oscars as nothing that year could possibly compete with 'My Fair Fady' could it?! A Golden Globe went to Edmond O'Brien whose turn as a boozy Southern senator can only be described as 'ham of the finest quality'. Fredric March as President Lyman deservedly picked up a David di Donatello award and Mr. Frankenheimer was at least recognised by a Bodil award from Danish film critics. He must also have been overjoyed by his film achieving the ultimate accolade of 'The box office Blue Ribbon Picture of the Month for the whole family'.

As General Scott whose character is most likely an amalgam of hawkish Edwin Walker and Curtis le May, the charismatic Burt Lancaster is never pathological but terrifyingly plausible and is matched in the charisma stakes by Kirk Douglas who has a less showy but no less effective role. This is undoubtedly the finest of their seven films together. Lancaster's best scene is the confrontation with the magnificent March aided by excellent shot/reaction shot set ups. Douglas is especially good in his scenes with Ava Gardner. Her role is small but telling and the director's comment that he was surprised how good she was in the part must have pleased her no end!

More conventionally shot than Lumet's 'Fail Safe' and Kubrick's 'Dr. Strangelove' this is equally as absorbing and packs just as big a punch whilst calling to mind Oscar Wilde's 'Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious'.

Noi vivi

L'altare della mia vita.
Ayn Rand had great difficulty in getting her semi-autobiographical first novel published as it was regarded as anti-Communist at a time when Communism was seen as a bulwark against Fascism. Sales were minimal and the stage adaptation closed in less than a week. By the late 1950's of course the true horrors of Communism had emerged and with two successful novels to her name, one of which had been filmed by King Vidor, the second edition of 'We, the Living' became a best-seller.

Hardly surprising that its unflattering depiction of post-revolutionary Russia found favour in Mussolini's Italy. This excellent film version by Goffredo Alessandrini was a great success commercially and won the Volpi Cup. After a few months however it to occurred to the authorities that it might also be viewed as anti-Fascist, whereupon it was withdrawn and disappeared.

Following its rediscovery and restoration it was released in the two-part version we now know but owing to poor distribution has not alas received the recognition it so richly deserves and is destined to be appreciated by a handful of cinéphiles.

Ayn Rand's narrative skills and the rich tableau of characters bear witness to her admiration for Dostoevsky and Hugo whilst as a young woman in Petrograd she and her family experienced similar hardships to those in the film. A distinct feature of her novels is that of a woman involved with more than one man and this is no exception. Kira Argounova, played by Alida Valli, is loved by both the Leo Kovalensky of Rosanno Brazzi and the Andrei Taganov of Fosco Giachetti. Kira is a tragic heroine in true Tolstoy mode and would be even more tragic in this had not the makers changed the ending! The twenty-one year old Valli with her wonderfully expressive eyes is utterly luminous here and shows the promise that she was to fulfil. Brazzi as Leo, the revolutionary who betrays his principles, turns in what is indisputably his best performance. It is however the performance of Giachetti that leaves the strongest impression. Usually cast as a leading man in Fascist propoganda films, he brings his powerful presence and intensity to the role of Andrei the disillusioned Party official whose character is as tragic as that of Kira. I have never alas seen the Italian version of 'The Brothers Karamazov' but can well imagine his effectiveness as Dmitri.

Expertly directed by Alessandrini, the film is enhanced by another of Renzo Rossellini's full-blooded scores whilst cinematographer Giuseppe Caracciolo has excelled in the dramatic use of close ups in which the characters fill the screen.

Already evident here are the author's uncompomising views regarding the individual versus the state. In his final speech Andrei dismisses the idea of the 'common good' and goes on to say "Every honest man lives for himself....because that's the way man is."


Shady lady.
The old theatrical war horse 'Bella Donna', first performed on stage by Alla Nazimova is here re-titled 'Temptation' with Merle Oberon following in the footsteps of Pola Negri and Mary Ellis on film. Classy Miss Oberon with her air of mystery and subdued sensuality is ideally cast as Ruby, is further enhanced by the fabulous costumes of master designer Orry-Kelly and is of course flattered by the 'Obie' light created by her then husband, cinematographer Lucien Ballard. In the thankless part of her good-natured, cuckolded husband, George Brent does the best he can whilst Charles Korvin as the beastly Baroudi and Miss Oberon have a powerful chemistry. As the voice of Ruby's conscience the immaculate Paul Lukas as usual quietly steals all of his scenes. The only weak link is Suzanne Cloutier as Yvonne but happily she has little screen time. She went on of course to play Desdemona, yet another of Orson Welles' bizarre casting choices. There is an intriguing appearance by the brilliant and ill-fated photojournalist Robert Capa who visited his friend Charles Korvin on the set and ended up playing his servant.

Although slowly paced and clearly showing its theatrical roots, this tale of infidelity, blackmail, poisonings and an Egyptian mummy's curse keeps one watching thanks to its leading players and Irving Pichel's capable if somewhat uninspired direction.

Ball of Fire

This splendid piece of entertainment has been described by one critic as the 'integration of intellectual and physical impulses'. Gary Cooper, for whom 1941 proved to be an annus mirabilis, provides the mind whilst Barbara Stanwyck, in a role disdained by Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard, certainly provides the body. As Sugerpuss O' Shea Miss Stanwyck is utterly wondrous and was nominated for an Oscar. The competition, as always in those times, was pretty tough but the surprise winner was Joan Fontaine. Mr. Cooper of course picked up his statuette that year for 'Sergeant York'. Although on paper he appears to be miscast as egghead Bertram Potts, he actually turns in one of his most beguiling performances.

This is one of Billy Wilder's and Charles Brackett's most inspired screenplays. Mr. Wilder was a renowned 'borrower' and when director Howard Hawks remarked upon its debt to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he typically responded with 'that doesn't get you a shared credit.'

The delightful 'Dwarfs' merit a mention as played by Oscar Homolka, Richard Haydn, Henry Travers, S. Z. Zackall, Tully Marshall, Aubrey Mather and Leonard Kinskey whilst the mobsters of Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea look ahead to 'Some like it Hot'.

Released days before the bombing of Pearl Harbour this provided just the kind of escapism required and also marked the bridge between Mr. Hawk's previous films and his more subdued future offerings.

Mr. Wilder's verdict? "It was a silly picture but so were audiences in those days." What he would think of today's audiences, Heaven only knows.

Das Bekenntnis der Ina Kahr

The inconstant husband.
Sadly, it is probably best to draw a discreet veil over most of G. W. Pabst's films from the 1950's. This melodrama based upon Dit Hans Emil's 'Hear and See' is certainly an improvement on his two previous cinematic aberrations made in Italy, the most 'interesting' of which is set in a monastic retreat whilst the other, of which the less said the better, takes place in a lunatic asylum.

Ina Kahr is on trial for the murder of her husband and refuses to speak in her defence. Faced with the death penalty she reveals to her father and defence lawyer what led her to it.......

Curt Jurgens is excellent here as the faithless, philandering husband who prefers to dine a la carte rather than be content with the set menu at home. Ina is played by Elisabeth Mueller, an immensely appealing actress whose performance in this won her a role opposite Robert Taylor in 'The Power and the Prize' but for whom the promise of Hollywood stardom failed to materialise.

There are at least glimpses here of the old Pabstian magic, the script is literate and his legendary simpatico with his players is very much in evidence. Suffice to say this is a far cry from his films of the previous three decades but let us give thanks for those and accept that the form of even the best directors invariably tails off as they decline into the vale of years.

Bob le flambeur

"Bob the high-roller, just as Nature made him."
Post-war France embraced all things American, not least its Film Noirs which resulted in three classic heist movies from the 1950's, directed by Jacques Becker, Jules Dassin and Jean-Pierre Melville, the latter having changed his surname from Grumbach in admiration for the author of 'Moby Dick'. His first entry into the genre that he was to make his own sprang from his love of John Huston's masterpiece 'Asphalt Jungle' and he has imbued his variant with typical Gallic irony and finesse. The film has also acquired the reputation of being a precursor to the New Wave with its jump cuts, jazzy score and location shooting.

Bigger budgets and much bigger stars were to come of course but here Melville has a cast prepared to work for peanuts and to be on standby until he could raise more finance to resume filming. Top-billed Isabel Corey was a teenage model when spotted by Melville and he tracked down actor Roger Duchesne, very much persona non grata for his alleged collaboration during the Occupation, whose casting as the title character proved to be a masterstroke. More familiar faces belong to Howard Vernon as a Mr. Big and the excellent Guy Decomble as the Commissaire with whom Bob has a camaraderie that would have been inconceivable in Huston's film.

Melville has the great good fortune to have the services of cinematographer Henri Decae who would become the darling of the New Wave and whose use of natural light and handheld camera are so effective here. The iconic score is by Eddie Barclay who composed for very few films and once again for this director Monique Bonnot provides her editorial skills. Auguste le Breton with his intimate knowledge of the Underworld, makes an invaluable contribution to the script.

A distinct feature of Melville's gangster films is the notion that law makers and law breakers represent both sides of the same coin. In 'Asphalt Jungle' the character of Emmerich refers to criminality as merely 'a left-handed form of human endeavour'. One gets the impression that Huston and Melville were of the same opinion.

La terrazza

The depressed privileged.
Commedia all'Italiana had pretty well run its course by the time Ettore Scola made this film but its dark humour, scathing social satire and colourful characters certainly qualify it as typical of that particular genre. One is hardly surprised as the award-winning script is by the redoubtable duo of Age and Scarpelli whilst the cast is headed by three of the greatest male practitioners of Italian comedy, namely Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi. The absent Alberto Sordi gets a mention! As a bonus there are beautifully observed portraits of a deranged writer by Jean Louis Trintignant and a depressed pen-pusher by Serge Reggiani. On the distaff side Stefania Sandrelli proves once again that she is more than just a pretty face by picking up a Nastro d'Argento for her performance as Gassman's lover and as Mastroianni's ex-wife the elegant Carla Gravina was recognised at Cannes.

Although not Scola's greatest this is still the work of a master film-maker, is eminently watchable and fully justifies its length. The inexorable passing of time with its painful regrets, the fragility of relationships and the frailties of humankind as depicted here cannot fail to strike a chord and we are furthermore treated to a level of artistry from the principals that belongs to a vanished era.

Baby Face Nelson

Baby Face Rooney
Working against the clock with a miniscular budget and a mere seventeen-day shooting schedule that required fifty-five setups on the final day, Don Siegel has turned in a terrific B-movie.

Suffice to say it is more fictional than factual but there is never a dull moment or a still frame and Mickey Rooney's sociopathic, psychotic depiction of the title character is utterly mesmerising. According to the director, working with Mr. Rooney was a less than congenial experience but of course between the words 'action' and 'cut' he delivers the goods which is really all that matters.

Daniel Mainwaring who had collaborated with Siegel on 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', has revised Irving Shulman's original script whilst Hal Mohr is behind the camera and the editing of Leon Barsche guarantees the film's momentum.

As for the rest of the cast the classy Carolyn Jones is a far from typical gangster's moll and Cedric Hardwicke, despite taking a lower salary, relishes his role as a seedy, lecherous, alcoholic doctor. This also confirms the immeasurable contribution made to films of this type by supporting players such as Ted de Corsia, Jack Elam, Leo Gordon, John Hoyt, Tony Caruso and last but not least Elisha Cook Jnr.

Edgar J. Hoover, to whom the film was dedicated, thought that it glamorised criminal behaviour. Considering the sheer viciousness of Rooney's portrayal, that verdict is mystifying.

American Guerrilla in the Philippines

Lang's lousiest.
Even Fritz Lang's staunchest devotee would find it hard to enthuse about this lamentable opus as it is possibly, nay probably, his very worst film. By this time he was persona non grata with 20th Century Fox and although Daryl F. Zanuck took control of the editing, nothing further could be done either to damage or improve it.

By all accounts Herr Lang and Gallic import Micheline Presle, spelt Prelle for the benefit of American viewers, got along splendidly and she fares best. It must be said that in common with so many European actresses her sojourn in Hollywoodland was utterly fruitless and a waste of talent.

Whenever this worthless piece was alluded to in afteryears its perpetrator would react with his customary modesty: "I never made such a film. It would never fit into the Fritz Lang world vision."

Nära livet

Mothers-to-be or not to be.
Considered by most to be a 'marginal' work, its director was himself rather dismissive. He is on record as saying "Altogether the film isn't much and the actresses are its biggest asset". Unsurprisingly all four of its leading actresses, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck and Barbro Hiort af Ornas received a 'collective award' at Cannes for their astonishing performances whilst Bergman, ironically, was recognised as Best Director for the only time at that particular Festival.

Adapted by Ulla Isaksson from her short story, this is to my knowledge Bergman's first film in which dialogue and characterisation take precedence over scenery and locations. It is decidedly non-cinematic and indeed looks forward to his later work in television. Already in evidence of course is Bergman's masterful use of close-ups which in the case of Thulin as Cecilia and especially the Stina of Dahlbeck is utterly merciless. Miss Thulin would be no stranger to these microscopic examinations in her later films for Bergman whilst this is sadly the last time that Miss Dahlbeck would appear for this director. Although not in the original story the character of Hjordis has been created by Bergman for his current muse, the gifted Bibi Andersson. As Nurse Brita this is Miss Ornas' finest hour for Bergman and although he used her again, many of her subsequent appearances were uncredited. In his first credited role for Bergman as Cecilia's disdainful husband, Erland Josephson would later prove perfect casting in 'Scenes from a Marriage'. As Stina's husband we have an unusually light-hearted Max von Sydow and theirs is one of the few happy marriages in Bergman's output. The director did not exactly gel with cinematographer Max Wilen and this is the first and last time they would work together.

The setting is a singularly inhospitable hospital, the subject matter is harrowing and Bergman's treatment is suitably taut and clinical without a trace of sentimentality, in keeping with Isaksson's "some are called to live whilst others are called to die". It does end on an optimistic note however as Cecilia realises that she is probably not cut out for motherhood, Hjordis resolves to have her previously unwanted child and Stina is left to hope that she will be luckier next time around.

Coming as it does after 'Wild Strawberries' and before 'The Magician', this has been unfairly labelled as a minor, in-between work. It deserves better.


Yin and Yang.
Despite poor health Kenji Mizoguchi mangaged to make about eighty films over a thirty-four year period. Thanks to International Film Festivals it was the works of his final decade that brought him deserved recognition in the West.

This is the first of his two colour films made the year before his death and perhaps because of its lack of natural background and its formalised setting, it has been unjustly overlooked.

It could hardly be said to be teeming with life but captures brilliantly the enclosed and stifling nature of the eighth century Chinese court with its rules, rituals and the rigid protocol that would ultimately lead to the sacrifice of its title character. As a child Mizoguchi had witnessed his sister being sold as a Geisha and it is hardly surprising that the social condition of women was to become his overriding theme.

The attention to detail here is stunning thanks to exquisite art design by Hiroshi Mizatini and costumes by Tsugio Togo whilst cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama shoots in glorious Daiecolor. Not for nothing has Mizoguchi been described as having 'the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet'.

The superlative cast is headed by a sensitive Masayuki Mori as Emperor Xuan, a bravura So Yamamura as Anshan and of course the magical Machiko Kyo as the ill-fated Princess Kwei Fei.

Coincidentally this film was released the same year as Max Ophuls' 'Lola Montes', his only film in colour, and his last. Lola of course flees the country so as to spare Ludwig's monarchy. Film historian David Thompson has observed that both films depict 'the impossible balance between authority and despair, beauty and prison.'

Cry Wolf

Barbara Stanwyck at forty.
This is indisputably the best of Barbara Stanwyck's three films for English director Peter Godfrey and is infinitely the better of the two films he made with Errol Flynn.

Marjorie Carlton's novel was snapped up pretty quickly by Warner Bros as a vehicle for Stanwyck whilst her leading man was originally to have been Dennis Morgan so let us give thanks for small mercies. Errol Flynn never thought much of himself as an actor but of course he possessed star quality in spades and acquits himself well here in a role that requires him to be both menacing and rakish. The quality and consistency of Barbara Stanwyck's work, whatever the vehicle, is impressive although by all accounts this consummate professional invariably gave her best on the first take. The film also marks the beginning of the film careers of Geraldine Brooks and Richard Basehart whilst Viennese emigré Helene Thimig brings her presence to bear as the customary creepy housekeeper without whom an old dark house wouldn't be quite the same.

Films such as this rely heavily on atmosphere and of this there is certainly no shortage courtesy of Carl Guthrie's noirish lighting, fabulous art direction by Carl Jules Weyl and of course Franz Waxman's lush score. Stanwyck is once more shown to advantage by the costumes of Edith Head.

The pairing of the two leads is intriguing and works well but yet again it is Stanwyck's steely determination that carries the day and transcends the material. At one stage her character says "I'm not a placid girl". That Miss Stanwyck never was!

Blowing Wild

Black gold.
This is a far cry from the two undisputed classics which had paired Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck twelve years earlier and Hugo Fregonese is not in the same league as Messrs. Capra and Hawks. Philip Yordan's script is way below his best.

The old chemistry between Cooper and Stanwyck is still there of course and as a bonus we have the strong presence of Anthony Quinn, one of Cinema's genuine characters who worked very hard to develop and improve his craft whilst Ruth Roman's subtle sensuality offers a much needed contrast to the film's machismo and Miss Stanwyck's passionate intensity.

The film benefits from Dimitri Tiomkin's score, the cinematography of Sidney Hickox and most particularly its momentum for which editor Alan Crosland merits a special mention. In effect this opus represents a prime example of talented, professional artistes rising above their material.

Garden of Evil

"You gotta have breathtaking Cinemascope and stereophonic sound." Cole Porter.
Although Henry Hathaway could hardly be described as one of Filmdom's most stylish directors he was certainly one of its most workmanlike and enjoyed a fruitful professional relationship with John Wayne, Gregory Peck and of course Gary Cooper with whom he is reunited here. Hathaway had previously directed Susan Hayward and Hugh Marlowe in 'Rawhide' and his 'Kiss of Death' had put Richard Widmark on the map.

On the plus side the Mexican landscape is stunningly shot by Milton Krasner and Jorge Stahl whilst Bernard Herrmann's symphonic score is monumental. The film is let down however by a weak script which has been known to scupper the best of actors.

The main problem here is the Cinemascope format which, like Cinerama and 3D was designed to entice viewers away from their haunted fishtanks and back into movie theatres. In 'Le Mepris' director Fritz Lang, playing himself, opines that Cinemascope 'wasn't meant for human beings...' One is left with the distinct feeling that in Hathaway's film the intimacy has been sacrificed to spectacle and that the dynamic between the characters would have been far more effective in plain old black-and-white.

Un flic

C'est ainsi que les Choses arrivent.
Even the staunchest devotees of Jean-Pierre Melville of whom this viewer is one, would have to acknowledge that this, his thirteenth and final film, is one of his least effective. By the standards of the average film-maker of course it isn't at all bad but following in the wake of his four previous gangster films and the undisputed masterpiece 'Armée des Ombres' in which he swapped the Underworld for the Underground, this opus is decidedly lame.

It fared pretty well at the box office but of course the Delon/Deneuve factor guaranteed that but Melville's customary coolness has here become positively glacial whilst many of the minor characters are simply ciphers and cardboard cut-outs and his usually mesmerising slow pace is just plain tedious. The technical excellence that one has come to expect from this director is somehow sadly lacking. Whatever its weaknesses however, it didn't fail to influence the neo-noirs that predominated in French cinema of the 1970's.

What impresses most is the morally ambiguous relationship between the detective of Delon and the crook, played by a dubbed Richard Crenna. Melville has never disguised his distrust of the guardians of law and order and here Delon and Crenna represent both sides of the same coin. It is often said that in order to catch criminals it is necessary to possess an inverted criminal mentality and the methods employed by Delon's character do nothing to contradict that view. Catherine Deneuve is the meat in the sandwich but her role is woefully underwritten.

Even the best directors are like thoroughbreds that only have so many great races in them and here alas there is a distinct dipping of form. Had he not died at just fifty-five whilst preparing his next project with Yves Montand, well, who knows......?

In Harm's Way

"All battles are fought by scared men who'd rather be some place else."
Otto Preminger maintained that 'what counts isn't the frame but what you put in it' and here he has filled it with thrilling action sequences, strong performances and interesting dynamics between the characters.

Many of the cast members had impressed for this director previously, notably Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, Franchot Tone and Tom Tryon who had recently been put through the ringer by Preminger in 'The Cardinal'. Dana Andrews and Preminger of course had enjoyed a highly successful collaboration. The demonic aspect of Kirk Douglas' persona is used to great effect here and while it has been suggested that John Wayne's subdued performance resulted from the onset of the disease that was eventually to kill him it nevertheless remains his finest. Naturally it comes as no surprise that he believes fervently in the material whilst the script allows him to show a seldom-seen side of his personality and he is especially effective in his scenes with his son, played by the ill-fated Brandon de Wilde and Patricia Neal as the nurse who becomes his mainstay. Although strictly speaking the 'love interest', Miss Neal is far too magnetic to be just that and she and Wayne work as well together as they had done in 'Operation Pacific' fourteen years earlier.

The talent behind the camera is just as impressive. Veteran Lyle R. Wheeler's production design is magnificent, Jerry Goldsmith supplies one of his most powerful scores and editor George Tomasini shows his ability to heighten tension and determine mood which made him so invaluable to Hitchcock. Loyal Griggs was nominated for his expansive and deep focus cinematography and one has to mention the marvellously imaginative title sequence by Saul Bass, which actually comes at the end. Good writing makes good actors even better and this is the last of three splendid adaptations by Wendell Mayes for Preminger based upon a literary source, in this case from James Bassett's novel.

The gung-ho, flag-waving variety of movie may not be everyone's cup of tea but this is in a class by itself and fully justifies its epic length. Its scale and scope also remind us of Mr Preminger's observation that 'there were giants in the industry, now it is an era of midgets and conglomerates'.

The Day of the Triffids

In the Kingdom of the blind.........
The dire direction of this execrable travesty of John Wyndham's classic Cold War allegory is by someone named Steve Sekely, an Hungarian émigre totally unhampered by talent with a little help from Freddie Francis who has the great good fortune to remain uncredited whilst the abysmal screenplay is credited to Philip Yordan, not for the first time 'fronting' for the blacklisted Bernard Gordon. Both writers should have hung their heads in shame. Ron Goodwin's atrocious score delivers the coup de grace.

In order to get at least some sort of box-office return the token American star here is Howard Keel, marvellous in musical comedy but completely incongruous in this material and who seems to be acting in his sleep. Nicole Maurey provides some welcome gallic finesse whilst the delightful Janette Scott is not only wasted but is ridiculously mismatched with Kieron Moore, he of the charisma bypass.

It comes as no surpise that this crapulous and unintentionally comic opus should have achieved cult status.

Mr. Wyndham was still alive when this embarassment was released. He deserves our deepest sympathy.

The Desperate Hours

"Get out of my house."
Joseph Hayes' adaptation of his novel, based upon the ordeal of the Hill family, was staged at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1955. Both the play and its director Robert Montgomery received Tony awards. Hollywood was quick to pounce and apart from Hayes being hired to write the screenplay none of those involved in the original production, including Paul Newman, made it to the silver screen. The up-and-coming Mr. Newman of course had bigger fish to fry and the other cast members were not deemed sufficiently 'box office'.

For the film version bums on seats are guaranteed by the casting of two Hollywood heavyweights Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March, under the direction of renowned perfectionist William Wyler who has wisely taken parts of the piece out of the proscenium arch.

This is tense, gripping stuff with Bogart as Quinn and March as Hilliard, a role previously offered to Spencer Tracy, on top form whilst Martha Scott is perfectly cast as Mrs. Hilliard, having been so effective opposite March in 'One foot in Heaven'. Robert Middleton enjoys his finest hour as a Neanderthal halfwit and there is great support from Arthur Kennedy and the ill-fated Gig Young.

Wyler's direction is impeccable and regular collaborator Robert Swink ensures taut editing. Although known mainly for documentaries composer Gail Kubik contributes an edgy score which in the title sequence gives note of the menace to come. Lee Garmes is behind the camera which must always constitute a plus.

Although very much of its time, especially as regards what would now be considered its 'sentimental' ending, this remains a marvellous piece of film-making and an early example of the 'Home Invasion' movie.

Bogart was to make one more film before his death whilst March continued acting until his mid seventies. Of these two superlative artistes the former was lucky enough to be gifted a few signature roles which ensured his legendary status whereas the latter's reputation seems not to have stood the test of time. He deserves better.

Le jeu de la vérité

"La Loi, ici, c'est moi."
As well as being a prolific performer on both stage and screen, Robert Hossein has also found time to direct twenty-four films, most of which he has either adapted or for which he has written the original screenplay.

The material here is predictable and far from being inspired but is rendered bearable by the charismatic Paul Meurisse, Jean Servais and Jean-Louis Trintignant together with a handful of actresses who exhibit an elegance and refined sensuality that is alas gone forever. Hossein himself does a turn as a far from conventional policeman. He and his cinematographer Christian Matras have manoeuvered the cast around a single set designed by Jean André although the overall effect is somewhat static. The director's father provides his customarily insipid score which contributes nothing whatsoever to the drama.

Monsieur Hossein's output has generally been regarded as possessing more style than substance which is a little unfair but that criticism certainly applies here.

I would strongly advise you not to play this game at home for as Oscar Wilde reminds us: "the Truth is seldom pure and never simple."


A vision of Hell.
I am truly astonished(or perhaps I shouldn't be) at the praise heaped upon this ham-fisted apology for a Film Noir with its sub-Chandleresque dialogue and sub-standard acting. Where on earth they dug up Anne Savage heaven only knows whilst Tom Neal's main claims to fame are being blacklisted for beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and later serving a jail sentence for 'accidentally' shooting his third wife. He was evidently as much of a loser as the character he plays in this. Edgar G. Ulmer came to Hollywoodland from Vienna, having worked with Reinhardt and Murnau and for the next thirty years had the distinction of directing nothing of any value whatsoever.

Based upon the principle that Time is precious and needs to be wasted constructively I would strongly advise against wasting the seventy minutes required to endure this abysmal opus.

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