Monday, May 29, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

What, Sherlock again? There’s fourteen of these suckers and I am determined to get through them by years end. So, this time Holmes and Yo-Yo transport a scientist out of Switzerland before he and his Secret Weapon fall into the hands of the Gestapo. This proves difficult because even eccentric scientists need a booty call every now and again. So when man and machine turn up missing, our heroes must track down both before the Evil Moriarty discovers their secrets. Based ever so loosely on The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

Ah, the middle section where I find something interesting about an actor or behind-the-scene happening. Yea, this is totally where I do that. It seems this Holmes series was factory production and they click off like clockwork. So …. good job, guys!

Crossing studios and eras, the Sherlock Holmes series is amazingly consistent in quality and tone, which is especially surprising as they don’t yet share writers or directors. In fact, different actors have played Moriarty. The story, humor, and atmosphere are what we come to expect. Chalk another nice watch for Holmes. AMRU 3.5.
“Brilliant man, Sherlock Holmes. Too bad he was honest.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

The inner council requests the help of Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) because the citizens of London are being terrorized by radio broadcasts from Nazis. Wait, what?

That’s right, Nazis. Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce) are transported about fifty years to the (then) present day to do their part in the war effort. This is possible because “the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging”, so, yea. That. Not sure how a modern day Sherlock played to audiences back then, but since it’s been seventy five years since the movie came out, it still plays somewhat as a period piece.

Anachronisms aside, The Voice of Terror is a better than fair mystery (there's a spy) with all the wit and charm of the earlier films. Given my druthers, I’d prefer it set in Victorian London, but while America escaped the war to the cinemas, England had no such option. We had difficulty getting meat and gasoline, they were eating acorns. Universal did a good job picking up the franchise. AMRU 3.5.
“There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson. And a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind nonetheless and a greener, better, stronger land that will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Troubled but talented screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is assigned to adapt a terrible novel for the screen. Hot coat check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart - No, not THAT Martha Stewart!) loves the book, so he invites her back to his place for her to describe the story to him. Or whatever else. He gets nowhere with the girl or the script so he sends her packing via taxi. When she turns up dead, Dix is the prime suspect. The only witness for his whereabouts is a hot neighbor (Gloria Grahame) who noticed him from her window. Love blooms.

So, rather than a who-done-it, we’ve got a did-he-do-it. We’re used to the old and decrepit Bogart playing the romantic lead, and he is no stranger to morally ambiguous characters, so this is right up his alley. But maybe a bit more morally ambiguous than we are used to. At the onset the audience and his alibi-then-lover are certain of his innocence but soon we both become unsure as his darker nature reveals itself. His relationship with too-young-for-him Graham rings true. Besides, she was about a year older than his real life wife.

Speaking of Graham, perhaps you recall me retelling of a certain friction between her and her second husband, director Nicholas Ray. Graham and Ray’s marriage was on the rocks while he was directing her here. You remember, dabbling with the step-son. That's a recipe for disaster.

Despite being the sole suspect for the murder, and Dixon’s violent tendencies which frequently get him into trouble, his friends all repeated say how much they love Dix. They love Dix so much! They'd never say no to Dix. Yea, sometimes I’m twelve.

In a Lonely Place is sometimes dark, sometimes amusing, and has great atmosphere. Don’t expect Bogart to be his regular hero character. He is far more real here. An excellent film-noir. AMRU 4.
“There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.”

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Dr. Moriarty (George Zucco) is released from prison because, you know, reasons, and vows one last plan to ruin Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) before retiring. Why he says this to Holmes directly is beyond me. Anyhow, Holmes is appropriately suspicious when two cases cross his desk. The captain of Scotland Yard asks for help when he receives a vague threat regarding the Crown Jewels. But that’s not nearly as interesting as the hot young woman (Ida Lupino) who fears for her brother’s life because of a silly drawing. Suspicious boyfriend is suspicious.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was based on a 1899 stage play which starred a young Charlie Chaplin in a small role. Cratchit boy Terry Kilburn plays that character here. I understand the two stories bear little resemblance. One strange thing here is that Holmes lives not at 221B Baker street with boy-toy Watson (Nigel Bruce) but instead in a great mansion with servants and stuff. The films opening was overshadowed by the Nazis invading Poland the same day. Way to ruin a party, Hitler!

Despite this story being new to me, it falls short of The Hound. There was the atmosphere and amusing moments, but little mystery. Because of some inside information it’s not hard for us to guess the outline of Moriarty’s plan. Sherlock, however, is mostly perplexed. Rather than solve the mystery, he follows all the wrong leads, then runs to the climax to wrestle with Moriarty.

Amusing and entertaining, The Adventures is a fun watch and worthy successor to The Hound. It was the last for 20th Century, the franchise being picked up by Universal three years later (with some changes!) AMRU 3.5.
“You've a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

A pretty young woman (Joan Fontaine) is the travelling companion of a wealthy busybody (Florence Bates). While in Monte Carlo they cross paths with dashing rich man (Laurence Olivier). He is mourning his dead wife and thus acts aloof and antisocial. Despite this, pretty woman and dashing widower spend time together and get married. He takes her back to his expansive estate

Skittish and unsure, the new Mrs. de Winter has to contend with a distant husband, a household staff that seems not to embrace her, and the spectre of the dead OLD Mrs. de Winter (Rebecca). George Sanders plays the George Sanders character, Leo G. Carroll played the Leo G. Carroll character, and Nigel Bruce plays the Nigel Bruce character. Nice when that all works out.

What a peculiar film! Apparently faithful to the source material, the pace was hurried to get all the facts in place. Also, the extensive use of matte paintings and miniature sets, while impressive, were very apparent. But it was the film’s frantic pace that initially troubled me. Over time, however, it slowly won me over to this, Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film only Best Picture.

Rebecca is one of the earliest Hitchcock films I’ve seen and it has the polish characteristic of his later work, but somehow feels a little different. Set in the modern day (1940), it seems a little like a period piece. Austere mansion, polite society, elevated language, and not expressly a genre picture. That said, it does resemble Suspicion a bit, Fontaine’s (and Bruce’s) other Hitch Flick.

In the end. as I said, I did come around. It’s an interesting and very good picture. The scene between Fontaine's unnamed character and Mrs. Danvers is truly bizarre. For my money, not THE best picture of 1940, but up there. AMRU 3.5.
“I've been thinking...
Now why would you want to go and do that for?”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Entitled bitch Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) learns that the man she is infatuated with (Leslie Howard) is marrying his cousin (Olivia de Havilland), then the war of southern aggression takes the men’s attention away from her, and all the while she is pursued by the cad Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). After losing her precious way of life she learns to be self sufficient, saves Tara, gets her man, and lives happily ever after. Promise.

Chalk this up as another ‘How the hell did I not see this until now’ film. I’m sure this is because I have seen bits and pieces and, well, I have issues. Costume melodramas aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse and I have reveled in my dislike for this kind of film. I have called the Wizard of Oz the greatest bad movie ever and this the worst great movie ever. Not that anyone could say the line Fiddle-dee-dee without sounding like a complete fraud, but some of the acting was horrendous. But mostly I have an extreme distaste for the idolization of the old South, where the idle rich live in lavish comfort on the backs of unimaginable cruelty. And make no mistake, some of that is here, but more on that later. So, after seeing fifty candles on my cake I actually sat down and watched all seventy hours of this epic, romantic, quasi-historic costume melodrama. Here is what I have to say.

There are no likable characters in the film, said one son, with the exception of de Havilland’s Melanie, and she was just a paper-thin generic goodie character used as a foil for horrid Scarlett. To disagree somewhat, I did like the cad Rhett Butler. He knew who he was and owned up to it. He pursued Scarlett because she was just like him. Selfish, manipulative, and driven. Oh, and she was hot. And rich. This may be Gable’s best roll, even though he dismissed it as a woman’s picture. But if you really liked Scarlett as a protagonist, then you are a terrible person.

The third leg in this love triangle is Ashley Wilkes, played by a middle aged ugly man. I guess they didn’t want people rooting for him too much. Seriously, Howard was pushing fifty during filming! He loves Scarlett (I guess) but marries his cousin because that’s what the Wilkes always do. I suppose. Then the war, then all hell breaks loose, then our story resolves. Back to my principal issue.

Slavery is the single greatest evil my nation perpetrated on other humans, and that is saying something. The best thing you can say about the institution is that it was worse in other places. America didn’t need to continuously import slaves to replace the ones dying in the fields, like in the Caribbean. They lived long enough to produce new slaves. If that’s your saving grace, then, again, you are a terrible person. Slavery is never justified by the gifts of civilization and Christianity. And you cannot reminisce for the old south without acknowledging the great and terrible evil that allowed it to exist. The Old South needed to die just as the aristocracies of old Europe. Let’s get back to the film.

What I had missed about Gone With the Wind was there is more than one way to enjoy the story. You could feel sorry for Scarlett or the loss of plantation society as many people do. But the events depicted are not necessarily a treatise on the loss of something grand or the cruelty of the North, but a statement that War is Hell and here are events that happened. Enjoying the story does not necessitate sympathy with slaveholders.

Stepping away from the heavy narrative for a moment, I'd like to shout out to Scarlett's dad played by Thomas Mitchell. He also appeared in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all in the SAME YEAR! Olivia de is pushing 101, almost as old as my uncle.

Gone With the Wind is an amazingly beautiful film. The sets, the photography, the editing, it all comes together wonderfully. And the copy I saw was a fairly poor transfer. I can only imagine what a fully restored 4k edition would look like. And for a film that’s two minutes shy of four hours, it never drags. That’s coming from me, charter member of Short Attention Span Theater fan club. I will see it again. AMRU 4.

I don’t leave you with a film quote (of course there were many to choose from), but one from Leslie Howard, who died four years later, a causality of the war:
“I hate the damn part. I'm not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Young Henry (Richard Greene), heir to the Baskerville Estate, gets to move in early when uncle Charles dies of a heart attack. Or was he eaten by a phantom hound? No, it was a heart attack. Anyhow, Charlie’s good buddy Dr. Mortimer thinks the family is cursed (you now, by a hound) and young Henry’s life is in great danger. He goes to the legendary Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) for help.

Remember when I covered the 1959 Hammer version? You do? I don't, to be honest. That was almost seven years ago, and yes, I still haven’t read the source story. I may have gotten details wrong there, so hopefully I’ll do better here.

In a pre-Cumberpatch world, Holmes and Watson were synonymous with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. (Remember Nigel from Suspicion?) The pair did fourteen Holmes films between 1939 and 1946. Impressed? Twelve were between 42 and 46, plus they even made an appearance in an unassociated comedy. Now THAT’S a production schedule! As such, their style and performances became the standard for all future versions.

The character of Watson (in a pre-Martin Freeman world) was that of a portly, somewhat pompous windbag. A complete foil to Holmes’ understated genius. That characterization comes from Nigel Bruce. The Watson from the stories was the admiring and frequently confounded narrator, not dissimilar to Freeman’s depiction.

Veteran studio hack John Carradine played the suspicious butler. This was just about when his career was taking off. That same year he’d appear in Stagecoach and eventually build a reputation in the world of horror. Also appearing is Lionel Atwill as the good Doctor. He too would spend time working the Universal horror circuit. Come to think of it, Basil himself also had a brief spell there.

The Baskerville estate lies, apparently, on a rocky asteroid, far from civilization but with unusually fast mail delivery. Anyhow, they hold dinner parties,  perform seances, and fall in love while waiting for the mythical hound-beast to eat them all. Or not. Hard to tell.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a lot of fun. A better than fair mystery with great atmosphere, the kind Old Hollywood sometimes did well. There were red herrings and amusing moments, and a good time was had by all. Except those who died. The next one won't be too far off. AMRU 3.5.
“Oh, Watson - the needle!”