Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Angel Face (1952)

Perhaps overlooked in the Film Noir genre, Angel Face has some interesting twists and turns, and a great cast. However, it never really transcends the genre clich├ęs, and stretches a thin and familiar plot too far

Frank Jessup (played by Robert Mitchum) is a former soldier, now working as an ambulance driver while he tries to raise money to open a garage. One night he is called to a mansion in Beverly Hills where a millionairess has narrowly escaped being poisoned in a gas leak, and soon finds himself romantically involved with her stepdaughter, Diane (Jean Simmons). However, Diane has an all-consuming hatred of her stepmother, and with Frank finding himself drawn further into Diane's schemes, he finds himself fighting for his life.

Film Noir is a term where the precise meaning can be endlessly debated, but for me personally, pure Film Noir is inextricably tied to the time and place of post-World War Two USA. This is a time where the unity and patriotism of the war effort is breaking down into individualism, the optimism is turning sour, the victory is being superseded by another enemy, and the threat of another (this time potentially apocalyptic) war, and men and women no longer know their place. This still leaves room for a wide range of characters and themes, from cops and criminals (example), unhinged nuclear paranoia (Kiss Me Deadly), to loners and losers looking for a break, as we see here in Angel Face

Jean Simmons steals the show, bringing an intense and alluring energy to the role of cold calculating Diane, without being hysterical or hammy. Her character is completely self-absorbed, utterly without any remorse for her actions, and all the more unsettling for it.

This contrasts sharply with Frank, played by Mitchum in his usual laconic, self-confident, loner way, but with a hint of vulnerability. Jessup is a proud independent man, with a dry sense of humour (“Never be the innocent bystander. That’s the one that always gets hurt”), but he is also a man who lets his ambitions get in the way of his common sense. 

The atmosphere and pace at the start of the film is almost as laid back and dreamy as Jessup, as we gradually learn about his character, his hopes and dreams, and his attitudes to women (he has a fear of commitment and an on/off girlfriend, both of which go out of the window when Diane gets her claws in). We also get to know Diane, and her version of her feud with her stepmother, and this character study is where the film is most successful.

However, the film suddenly jolts us awake with a sudden, violent incident, one that sees Frank and Diane involved in a very public court battle, teaming up with a wily attorney who will seemingly do anything to win the case. While the unexpected change of pace and direction works for a while, it eventually becomes apparent that many of the elements of the plot, such as the murder plot, the courtroom battle, and the man being led astray by a woman all feel like they have been done before, and better.

Just when the story has completely run out of steam we get one final shocker at the climax, one that is perhaps not surprising to anyone who is familiar with Film Noir, and will know that in these films there was never any chance of a happy ending.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Saint in London (1939)

The second film to feature George Sanders as Simon Templar, a sort of modern day Robin Hood, The Saint in London is a breezy, enjoyable, lightweight romp.

The plot sees Templar back in England, and getting a tip-off from a friend in British Intelligence about a foreign government official who seems to be caught in a plot by a gang to print millions in illegal bank notes. Things get complicated when the gang kidnap Templar's female sidekick - can he rescue the girl and the money before it is too late?

George Sanders is excellent, as he nearly always was, although the role of Simon Templar allows him to display genuine charm, without the sinister undertones found in some of his later roles.

The move by Templar back to his home country is a slight let down, as it does make you realise that part of the fun of the previous entry, The Saint Strikes Back was watching the fish-out-of-water effortlessly deal with the foreign culture as much as the crime. Back on his home turf of 1930s London, he presents less of a contrast. There is also little challenge to him from the story, which is not really a whodunit, but simply involves Templar finding people and sorting a situation out. Fortunately, the main villains are a good match for him, both in brains and wit, and can be funny without seeming laughable.

The criminal element of Templar’s character is played down somewhat, although the film does start with him pickpocketing a pickpocket, Duggan, an American man who instantly goes on to become his helper. His reasons for being in London seem a little vague, but I assume the studio thought that, with the Saint being back in England, they ought to include one American accent for the Stateside audiences, and the character does get some of the best one liners (“Tell me, what part of the states are you from? Sing Sing?” “Nah, San Quentin”)

Templar's other sidekick is Polly Parker, played by Sally Gray, who, as well as conveniently getting Templar out of a couple of scrapes, also gets some good dialogue, and Gray's quirky, daffy energy makes a good contrast with smooth, charming Sanders. Also worth a mention is Gordon McLeod as the henpecked Scotland Yard detective (and frequent Templar adversary) Claude Teal, who has a running gag of some very funny phone exchanges with his unseen wife.

If anything this film feels more like an episode of the Saint television series that Roger Moore would find fame with in the 60s, particularly with the short running time, and fast pace. Also, as on an established TV show, there is a lack of any back-story for the main character, assuming that we are familiar enough with him to dive straight in.

There is a link to the other character that Moore would enjoy huge worldwide success with, that of James Bond. Although there are differences in the characters and in the nature of the stories, there are also some elements that foreshadow Bond, certainly the cinema incarnation. Both characters are English, unflappable, charming, but will be forceful, even violent, when needed, and they do not always work within the law. They both start stories on their own, but end up paired with a female companion, who they end up having to rescue, and at one point, the Saint even introduces himself as “Templar. Simon Templar”.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Dark Mirror (1946)

The Dark Mirror is an entertaining melodrama, fusing elements of film noir, psychoanalysis and an old cinematic trope about good twin vs bad twin. Although the psychology has dated badly, the film is more than lifted by clever direction, great lead performances, and some, for the time at least, astonishing special effects

Terry and Ruth Collins (both played by Olivia de Havilland) are identical twins, one kind and caring, the other a very disturbed individual. However, both are caught up in the murder of a doctor after witnesses place one of them with the victim just before his death. The police agree, but are stumped as to which, so they call in the help of psychiatrist Doctor Scott Elliott to see if he can shed any light on them. However, is Elliot putting his own life at risk, by falling in love?

Although the events in this film are triggered by crime, director Robert Siodmak favours mind over murder, with the focus on Elliot delving into the psyche of the sisters, rather than any police investigation. Olivia de Havilland wisely plays the pair as having distinctive characteristics, particularly in their attitudes to men, without being too dissimilar, or too extreme and theatrical.

Her performance is greatly helped by the extraordinary (for the time at least) optical effects used to place both twins in the same shot, which, when combined with clever editing and body doubles, means it is often possible to forget you are watching the same actress.

She gets able support from Thomas Mitchell as the baffled police detective, Lt. Stevenson, bringing the same sort of likeable enthusiasm he gave to the role of Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life. Lew Ayres is less successful as Dr Elliot, although this may be down to the character being fundamentally unlikeable, a slightly pompous know-it-all, whose actions, particularly taking a patient out on a date, can seem a little unethical.

Siodmak is considered, in some circles, “the primary architect” of Film Noir, and there are enough elements of Noir, both in style and character, for it to be counted in that genre. The film is shot with plenty of stylised light and shade, which helps keep an air of suspense and unease, the plot revolves around crime, and, of course, if there is a woman who is aggressive confident, and intelligent, she has to be evil. Siodmak has also taken the time to put plenty of mirror themes into the imagery and characters, such as the symmetrical Rorschach inkblots in the opening and end credits, or the total opposite character pairing of the old-fashioned cop and the ultra-modern doctor.

What also makes this film so fascinating is the portrayal of psychoanalysis, something Hitchcock had started putting into his films with Spellbound, which was released a year before this. Perhaps it was the hope it seemed to offer in healing the minds shattered by the traumas of World War Two, but it is shown as something that can provide, quantifiable, empirical, definitive answers, and quickly, in the same way a treatment of drugs can for the body. At one point Elliot subjects the twins to a Rorschach inkblot test, showing them a series of pictures and noting their answers. He is then seen crosschecking these against some sort of textbook, before going on to tell Stevenson that from the results of this alone can he tell for certain that one of the twins is insane. This kind of thinking looks clunky and simplistic nowadays, although this film was not the only example. The idea that a psychological test or the uncovering of a single traumatic event can provide the key to unlocking a mystery would crop up in other Film Noir movies, throughout Hitchcock’s work, and in the giallo films that came out of Europe in the 1960s and 70s. This suggests a pattern of thinking in directors (maybe also in audiences) that, no matter how baffling a mystery may be, it cannot, under any circumstances, go unsolved.

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Battle of the Century (1927)

One of a small number of missing or incomplete Laurel and Hardy films, enough of The Battle of the Century exists to watch and enjoy. What is left is a film of two very different parts, the second of which contains what may be one of the wildest custard pie fights ever filmed. There is no deep message here, just simple exuberant fun, brilliantly executed.

The story starts with Stan stepping into the boxing ring to face the terrifying Thunderclap Callahan “who will probably win” the caption card informs us. The laughs come from playing up the differences between puny thin Stan, who seems to know nothing about boxing, and his gargantuan opponent who seems to have the head of Max Schreck grafted onto the body of a pro wrestler. Standing behind him, powerless to do anything other than watch in mounting horror and exasperation, is his manager, Olly.

The familiar Stan and Olly characters are not yet properly formed, but a few of the basic ingredients are in place. Stan is weak, mentally and physically, as well as clumsy. Olly sees himself as the natural leader of the duo, and always has a get rich quick scheme on the go. What is missing, apart from the trademark hats, is any sense of intimacy and familiarity between the pair. This develops later in their career along with the feeling that whatever is happening is just the latest is an ongoing series of misfortunes to befall the duo.

The boxing sequence is not in itself side-splittingly funny, although it is interesting to see director Clyde Bruckman using varying camera angles and editing to give some sense of the energy of the fight, rather than just point the camera at the ring. Contemporary audiences may have got a hoot out of the references to the famous "Long Count Fight" of the same year where, after flooring his opponent Gene Tunny, Jack Dempsey ignored newly introduced rules requiring him to move to a neutral corner of the boxing ring during the ten second count. Here, Stan messes up in an identical fashion, costing Olly his match winnings, and leading on, albeit very tenuously, to the second part of the film.

Desperate for cash, Olly takes out a life insurance scheme on Stan, with the plan being to make sure he suffers a nasty accident. We do not get to see any of this bit, as the footage has been lost for many years, but it has been reconstructed with the help of a still photo and a title card. When the moving pictures start up again, we cut to Laurel and Hardy regular Charlie Hall performing one of the archetypal pratfalls of slapstick comedy, slipping up on a banana skin, one that was intended to cause Stan an insurance claimable injury. Of course, it's seems only right that Hall is carrying a large tray of custard pies, and what follows may well be one of the greatest examples of the pie fight ever filmed. 

Although the sequence as it stands today is missing some footage, more than enough survived to appreciate what a well crafted piece of anarchy it is. It starts off slowly and deliberately, and, like all the best Laurel and Hardy fights, has an air of ritualised violence to it, as each person gets their turn while the others wait politely for them to throw. However, each time somebody ducks and a pie causes some collateral damage, another person gets drawn into the mayhem, and as more and more pies are flung, the pace winds up and up until it feels like the whole town is involved, until finally Stan is taking orders for pies from the back of a lorry.

Not for the last time, the pair cause mayhem without intending to, or without even seeming to try too hard.