Monthly Archives: May 2011

DVD Round-up: His Kind of Woman, I See a Dark Stranger, Murder on the Third Floor, San Quentin

It was a dark and stormy night in Auld Reekie, the rain so hard that it could wash away all the good in a man’s soul, assuming he still had any. It was a night for watching a batch of old movies on DVDs, movies even more messed up than plans for the city’s tramworks.

Odeon Entertainment was the racket behind the releases, four titles made in glorious black and white which featured some of the finest actors to come out of Hollywood and the UK during the 1930s and 1940s.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell star in His Kind of Woman, a 1951 feature from director John Farrow which was part-film noir and part-noir send-up. The film was the result of a troubled production which should have ended up in an unwatchable mess but which turned out to be one of the most interesting noirs ever made.

Mitchum is Dan Milner, a down-at-heel gambler happy to take the $50,000 offered to him he’s asked to leave the US for a year and head to Mexico. On arrival he meets the beautiful and aloof Lenore Brant (Russell), a woman already promised to actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price).

As Milner attempts to find out why he’s been hired, complications arise in the shape of an undercover cop, Cardigan’s wife and Lenore, whom he’s becoming increasingly attracted to.

Though the script takes its time to kick into gear, half the joy is in simply sitting back and letting the story wash over you. Robert Mitchum may be a man’s man and Russell a classy dame, but there’s also space for Price to ham it up as a thespian who is tired of acting and who wants to live a little. Thanks to Milner, he gets his wish.

Managing to work as both a drama and a comedy, His Kind of Woman may clock in at two hours but every moment is needed, even when it becomes The Vincent Price Show in the closing 20 minutes.

A required purchase for every classic film fan.

Also managing to combine a dark story with a lightness-of-touch is 1946’s I See a Dark Stranger, written by Sidney Gilliat and directed by Frank Launder, perhaps best known for their work on The Lady Vanishes .

Deborah Kerr is 21-year-old Bridie Quilty, determined to head to Dublin to join the IRA at the height of the Second World War. Although dissuaded from her ambition, Bridie is still resolutely anti-British, something which helps convince her to help a Nazi agent whom she encounters on a train.

As the pair plan to break a Nazi spy from jail, a spanner is thrown into the works when a British officer, David Baynes (Trevor Howard) arrives in the area. As Bridie attempts to deflect Baynes’ attention from her plan, he begins to fall for her, setting in motion a new series of events which will take them to the Isle of Man and beyond.

Fans of The Lady Vanishes will find much to admire in I See a Dark Stranger, flashes of that film’s humour and strong scripting evident. Trevor Howard is no carbon copy of the typical Launder and Gilliat leading man, but he shares some of the humanity of Michael Redgrave in Vanishes, while Kerr has the sass that makes for a strong female lead.

With a number of plot twists, a noirish feel and a strong supporting cast, I See a Dark Stranger may have dated somewhat in its politics, but it remains an entertaining war time romp. This first Region 2 DVD release looks in good shape and deserves its place alongside other Launder and Gilliat titles.

We move back across the Atlantic for the final two releases, firstly 1940s Stranger on the Third Floor, which lays claim to being the first real film noir, then 1937’s San Quentin.

Opening at the trial of a man who is convicted of murder based on the evidence of reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire), we’re then put firmly in Ward’s shoes as he fights with his own conscience over whether he did the right thing.

Ward’s change of heart is brought on partly by his fiance, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) and partly by his discovery of a strange man (Peter Lorre) in his apartment block and a subsequent crime.

With impressively overwrought dream sequences depicting Ward’s mental state and a typically odd performance from Lorre, Stranger on the Third Floor makes for a curious watch. It may be hard to take much of the story seriously, but there’s enough conviction from the actors to just about see it through to the slightly kooky end.

Finally, Humphrey Bogart stars in 1937’s San Quentin, a movie hailing from near the start of his impressive career.

Bogey stars as Joe Kennedy, a recently arrived inmate at San Quentin prison. Kennedy is the brother of the beautiful May (Ann Sheridan), who coincidentally is the object of affection for San Quentin’s new guard, Captain Robert Stephenson (Pat O’Brien).

As Stephenson makes himself known among the prison staff and inmates which falling for May, Kennedy’s plans at keeping his head down till his release are scuppered when he takes against the idea of the prison officer seeing his sister and decides to break out of jail to do something about it.

San Quentin is a bit like Joe Kennedy: rough, ready and with little humour. If it wasn’t for the appearance of a young Bogart this would be a forgettable feature, nothing about it particularly memorable.

As it is, Bogart is watchable throughout, showing some of the promise that would make him a screen icon, though it’s easy to wonder if he made much of an impression on contemporary viewers.

At just 67 minutes this is a quick watch which Bogie fans would do well to search out.


TCM Classic Film Festival 2011 Overview

A lot has been written lately about the future of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), as it attempts to pick itself up and dust itself off after being hit by budget cuts in its 65th year.

Having already witnessed how Glasgow Film Festival coped in 2011 on a modest budget (exceptionally well is the answer), I decided to go a step further and head to Hollywood for the TCM Classic Film Festival, four days of screenings with a focus on movies made before the 1960s, to see how they do it over there.

Now in its second year, the festival is an extension of the TV channel of the same name, which screens dozens of classic films each week hosted by the avuncular Robert Osborne: think Barry Norman meets Michael Parkinson and you’re not too far off.

With fans confident that the programmers would provide a high quality selection, passes went on sale before the titles being shown were announced. Prices for these ranged from £700 to £180, with tickets also available at the door for those wanting to only watch a few films.

Split across five screens – four at the legendary Grauman’s multiplex and one along at the Egyptian Theatre – passholders queued on a first-come-first-served basis, with the most popular shown again on the final day.

With over 70 films to choose from (including the rarely seen The Constant Nymph and Night Flight), many with guest appearances (Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas and Angela Lansbury included), there were hard decisions but few disappointments thanks to the variety on offer.

The opening evening saw a red carpet event take place to celebrate the screening of the 1951 Gene Kelly musical, An American in Paris, with celebrities such as O’Toole, Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, Mickey Rooney and Hayley Mills present. I managed to catch a couple of the stars for short interviews, with Roundtree one of the most interesting in attendance.

Day two saw the things kick-off with a rare screening of 1943’s The Constant Nymph, a film which has been tied up in legal issues since the mid-1940s and not seen anywhere (bar the odd bootleg DVD) since.

Starring Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer, Edmund Goulding’s romantic drama features Ms Fontaine at something of a career peak as her character, Tessa, moons over an older man (Boyer) as his musical talents take him to London and Tessa follows suit.

It’s a beautifully shot picture with a radiant Fontaine holding it together as the lovestruck teen. It’s hard to believe the actress was in her 30s at the time, so lively and affecting is her performance. Now that the rights issues are resolved it’s hoped the film will receive a wider airing on television and DVD.

As well as catching some Walt Disney Silly Symphonies from the 1920s and 30s, the other big event of the day was an audience with Peter O’Toole. Robert Osborne took to the stage of LA’s Music Box Theatre to chair an event which saw O’Toole take us through his life and career, with time spent discussing his war time exploits and his success on celluloid.

O’Toole was a charming storyteller, his wit and grace making the two hour run time fly past. Osborne teased a few surprising stories from the actor, mainly around his decision to move from journalist to actor, and the audience gave both men a standing ovation at the event’s close.

Day three, Saturday, saw me first attempt to see the 1933 Clara Bow comedy, Hoop-La, in the morning, but on arrival at the cinema I discovered it had sold out early. A quick change of plan took me into 1950’s All About Eve, the twisted tale of Anne Baxter’s Eve as she attempts to use famous theatre actress Margo (Bette Davis), as her way to stardom.

With a stellar cast including George Sanders and a certain Marilyn Monroe, I’d recommend everyone try to see this if they haven’t already: they really don’t make them like this anymore.

A further four films followed on Saturday: restored 1942 British drama, Went the Day Well?; 1928 silent gem, The Cameraman, starring the great Buster Keaton and accompanied by Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra, a New York-based group who recreated the music of the 1920s; 1971’s Shaft, with an appearance by star, Richard Roundtree; and a midnight showing of the Universal horror classic, The Mummy (1932), introduced by Hellboy actor, Ron Perlman.

Having an opportunity to see any of those films on a big screen would usually be enough for me, but all of them in the same day was something approaching movie heaven. As a Keaton fan, the opportunity to see him in action again was probably the highlight of the day, but that can’t diminish the pleasure to be had from sitting back in the historic surroundings of the Egyptian for an evening to hear Roundtree and Perlman in discussion.

Sunday, the fourth and final day, was a chance to see yet another rarely-screened picture, 1933’s Night Flight. Starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and John & Lionel Barrymore, it’s an odd little flick which tells of the bravery of the men who first carried out night flights across America in small, single propeller, planes.

Though it can’t be said to be the finest film of any of the actors’ careers, Night Flight has its  charms and the film zips by in no time.

On hand to introduce the screening was actress Drew Barrymore, who reflected on the careers of her family (John is her grandfather and Lionel her granduncle) and discussed how proud she is of them.

A chance to finally see Ms Clara Bow in Hoop-La meant I was able to see my third Bow film  on the big screen this year (Mantrap in Bristol and It in Bo’ness) and witness her enter the era of the talkies after a career in silent cinema. She handled herself with aplomb here and it saddens me that she’s forgotten in comparison to Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps the fact that at least three festivals have featured her in 2011 means more film fans will discover her.

A panel discussion on the art of the film sequel was next, Rush Hour director Brett Ratner Batman producer Peter Guber in a discussion about how and why sequels are made. Ratner, perhaps best known for his big budget sequels, talked much sense about the curse of the sequel and the lack of variety offered to cinema goers. 

Guber asked Ratner to “forget state of the art and think state of the heart” in his films, and the end of the talk suggested that things will get worse before they get better for those who despair at the amount of sequels out there.

My final film of the festival was Disney’s Fantasia from 1940, beamed onto the three-storey high screen of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The idea of making a film based on classical music set to stunning visuals was a bold step by Disney, one which didn’t really pay off fully until it’s VHS release in the 1990s, but there’s no denying this is an astonishing sight to see, certainly on the (very) big screen.

Los Angeles may be a long way to go to see some movies, but it was worth the effort.

Friendly staff and fellow film fans made it a pleasure to queue and wait in the audience for a film to begin. Catching up on other highlights and finding out what good films and events you’ve missed is part of the pleasure and the pain of festivals and I’m still kicking myself I didn’t go to see Angela Lansbury introduce Gaslight on Saturday…but then I’d never have seen Shaft. Choices, choices…

Undoubtedly one of the most consistently enjoyable film events I’ve ever attended, TCM Classic Film Festival felt wasn’t just a chance to see some old films for the umpteenth time. People I spoke to noted how in many cases it was as if they were watching a picture for the first time, the quality of the picture, the size of the screen and the atmosphere in the auditorium combining to make each screening as fresh as the day they premiered.

Films are made to be seen on giant screens by audiences willing to be transported to other times, places or worlds, something TCM delivered with ease. Hollywood may be a fair distance from Holyrood, but anyone who feels that films pre-1960 are for them, I’d not hesitate to recommend heading across in 2012 for the third festival – I certainly hope to be there.

As for Edinburgh, here’s hoping the new EIFF team don’t forget what made it so popular in the first place and that the rumoured gimmicks don’t overwhelm the most important part of it: the films.