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.