Contraband [Blackout] (1940)

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Contraband holds a number of similarities to All Through The Night (released by Warner Bros the following year). Both films are Hitchcockian thrillers and (as the title of the latter suggests) take place all through a single night in which a romantic hero inadvertently infiltrates a Nazi spy ring (even though the word “Nazi” is never used in ether film). On top of that, Conrad Veidt appears in both films, although he is cast as a villain in All Through The Night. I love films that effectively play out within a condensed time frame and Contraband is simply enormous fun to watch – one of those films which I felt like I had to tell someone about it afterwards I was left that thrilled. Contraband would be renamed Blackout for the US release, but I think Contraband is the cooler title.

Contraband would offer Conrad Veidt the rare role of a hero as Danish seaman, Captain Anderson. Veidt doesn’t have the looks matinee idol but he is very suave and pulls of the romantic hero with ease (sadly this great actor would pass away only three years following the release of Contraband from a heart attack aged 50). The bane to Captain Anderson, Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is introduced defying the captain’s orders and not wearing a life jacket despite what the chattering gossips around her say. This defiance and Hepburn-esque, free-spirit attitude establishes Mrs Sorensen as a real badass.

The chemistry between Veidt and Hobson has shades of William Powell & Myrna Loy, with the two sharing moments reminiscent of screwball comedies. For example, the scene in which Sorensen calls for a taxi in a feminine voice after multiple taxis ignore Anderson is similar to the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One NightContraband makes reference to bondage on a number of occasions from Anderson’s early foreshadowing asking Sorensen “Have you ever been put in irons?” to the rather erotic, James Bond-style scene in which they attempt to break free after being tied up by their Nazi captors. All this sexual tension culminates by the film’s final scene in which Anderson directs Sorensen to drop her life jacket as it hits the floor and they go into a clinch, followed by phallic symbolism of a dripping wet anchor in the final shot – as steamy as a film from the 1940s can get.

Contraband is set in November 1939, the phoney stage of World War II. Like Powell & Pressburger would do in their subsequent film 49th Parallel, Contraband is clearly a rally call to other nations against neutrality in the war. Although a British film, Contrband is one which should ignite the patriotism in any Dane as Captain Anderson and his fellow Danish patriots from the Three Vikings restaurant in London work together to infiltrate the London based Nazis. Contraband offers an insight into life in London during the blackout as people try to go about their lives as normal, using torches to navigate their way in the street (they must be pointed down or else the blackout warden will call you out) and closing their eyes for ten seconds before going back outside. In one scene two wardens approach a man lighting up a cigarette in the street to which the man angrily responds “Why don’t you do something to earn your 3 quid a week and leave taxpayers alone”. With this portrayal of the restriction of liberties as well as the aforementioned refusal of Mrs Sorensen to be compelled to wear a life jacket, I can’t help for Contraband to directly remind me of recent world events as of writing this review. Due to the blackout setting, much of Contraband is visually dark and makes great use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionist visuals – appropriate considering that the film stars the most notable cast member from the granddaddy of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Unfortunately Contraband has yet to receive the special edition, 4K re-master treatment, with the film only being available in a scratchy print on an old Region 1, Kino DVD.

I do have to question if escapade off Captain Anderson’s ship and into London by Mrs Sorensen and her accomplice Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) was part of a mission or a spur of the moment decision since we are lead to believe the British interception of the ship was unplanned.  It’s never made clear who or what Sorensen or Pidgeon are working for however it is reveled their aim is to find out under what neutral names, German vessels sail across the Atlantic, so in all likelihood, they’re probably British spies. Thus I do theorise that Sorensen and Pidgeon had a part to play on the British authorities stopping the ship and forcing it to dock overnight. This theory is backed up by the film’s ending in which one of the British authorities gives Anderson what he is told is a box containing painkillers to help him with his illness. Afterwards Mrs Sorensen tells him to look in the box only to find it contains the pocket watch which he lost in London, proving more or less she is working for the British authorities.

Adjoining the Nazi’s London layer is a warehouse full of busts of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a company known as “Patriotic Plaster Products”. Why does a Nazi spy ring have a warehouse full of busts of Neville Chamberlain? Likewise, I can’t tell whether or not the film is trying to denigrate Chamberlain. After Anderson knocks out one of the Nazi ring leaders using one of the busts which simultaneously smashes it to pieces, Anderson responds “They always said he was tough”. Chamberlain left office on May 10th, 1940 and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister –Contraband was released in UK theatres the following day.

Dodge City (1939)

A Rootin-Tootin Good Time!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

A Texas cattle agent witnesses the brutal lawlessness of Dodge City, Kansas and agrees to take up the job of sheriff to clean the town up. If that doesn’t sound like the most stereotypical summary of a western then I don’t know what does. 1939 was the year in which the western went from a B-movie genre to getting the big studio treatment almost overnight and as a result, the inclusion of just about every western trope in Dodge City almost feels slightly comical. We get a train, a stagecoach, cattle drives, a saloon brawl, dancehall girls, an evil gang terrorising the locals, the “new sheriff” in town, a schoolmarm, lynch mobs, a crusading newspaperman, poker games, herds of bison, a climactic shootout, rock and roller, cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! Perhaps the only elements which are missing are a fight with Indians and big ol’ saguaro cactus (geographically inaccurate I know)

Errol Flynn transitions well to the role of a cowboy as Irishman Wade Hatton (“Thirty years ago, my father met my mother at the Londonderry fair” – excuse me, no true Irishman calls it Londonderry). Dodge City was the 5th of eight pairings of Flynn and Olivia deHavilland in which she plays feisty frontierswoman Abbie Irving. The magic is still there with any scene in which they are alone – you can tell these two really are in love, and like in The Adventures of Robin Hood, deHavilland is given many a memorable, brightly colored costume change throughout the film. Abbie’s brother Lee (William Lundigan) on the other hand is one of the biggest twats in screen history. A spoiled, trouble-making, tantrum-throwing drunkard who carelessly fires his gun into the air which causes a cattle stampede that leads to his untimely death. However, I don’t quite get why Abbie resents Wade for his involvement in Lee’s death as he ultimately got what was coming to him. None the less, Henry Travers perfectly sums up the situation – “Women’s logic and emotions are often very confusing”.

Dodge City is a story of morality and civilization – another chapter in how the west was won. The bad guys of Dodge City lead by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) are essentially gangsters, murdering for business interests, running gambling clubs and threatening the press. However, once Wade becomes the sheriff and begins cleaning up the town of its crime and degeneracy, my libertarian alarm bells start going off as he restricts gambling, gun rights (is he violating the 2nd Amendment by decreeing “No firearms permitted north of Front Street”?) and introduces taxes (at least his barber recognizes they are a necessary evil). 

Dodge City may have the best bar fight ever committed to screen. One spurred on by post-civil war tensions as the Confederate half of the saloon sings (I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land and the Yankee half retaliates with Marching Through Georgia before dozens of men cause utter fist-fighting destruction, destroying ever corner of the saloon and even falling through walls and multiple floors as they pummel each other. The beginning of the scene in similar to that from Casablanca (which Curtiz would also direct) in which the Germans at Rick’s Place start singing Die Wacht am Rheinin in front of the French of whom retaliate by singing the La Marseillaise.

The film’s score by Max Steiner sounds awfully similar in parts to that which Steiner would compose for Gone With The Wind, released 8 months after Dodge City. Even some of the shots present in the film are reminiscent of the scenes in Atlanta from GWTW. From the beautiful artwork in the title screens to the grand 3-strip Technicolor encompassing many scenic horizons, Dodge City is a visual delight (it’s just a shame the DVD copy of the film suffers from some colour bleeding). The film’s climactic shootout on the train, however, lets the film done slightly as the cuts back forth between the location and a studio set fail to convincing match each other.

Errol Flynn and Alan Hale once again make a great duo and Hale even receives his own comedic spotlight moment when he wanders into a temperance union known as the Pure Prairie League, only to find he’s the only man among a group of older women. Likewise in an interesting twist to convention, it’s Alan Hale and not Errol Flynn who takes out the film’s main villain played by Bruce Cabot. I’m just disappointed Ann Sheridan’s part in the film is barely beyond a cameo despite being third billed. She performs several songs as a saloon singer but has no impact on the plot – did she have any deleted scenes? I could also do without that cutesy little kid (Bobs Watson), although to be fair at least he has a major role in the progression of the plot. Regardless of any minor shortcomings, any film is worth it when it has earned its right to culminate in the most endearing of cinematic images, the hero riding off into the sunset.

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

The Return Of Doctor X is a movie with very little value to it aside from the anomaly of being Humphrey Bogart’s only horror/science fiction film in which he plays the titular Dr Maurice Xavier, a.k.a. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “caine”). Dr. Xavier is essentially a zombie-vampire, a doctor who was sentenced to the electric chair after trying to see how long babies could go without eating (gruesome even for today, let alone 1939), only to be resurrected by a proto Dr Frankenstein, Dr Francis Flegg (John Litel) and is kept alive by regular injections of Type One blood. I do love the Karloff-like design of the character with his pale, white face, punk rock style hair with the white streak and a rabbit which he carries around with him (I’m making this my future Halloween costume). The Return Of Doctor X is a rare instance in which Bogart played a subservient character, of whom is quite Peter Lorre-esque with his tragic and pathetic demeanour, while his unnatural body movements and limping call back to Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. The film’s climax does, however, venture into more traditional Bogart territory in which Xavier partakes in a gangster-style shootout. Bogart is a consummate professional who doesn’t phone in the role regardless of how much he was known to detest it. Just contrast him to his master played by John Litel, of whom the movie gives him somewhat of an arc in which he eventually regrets his actions playing God, he is a much more generic bad guy.

According to the audio commentary for The Return Of Doctor X featuring director Vincent Sherman (of whom went on to do better work in his career), the film had a troubled production with the original script going in one direction and then being significantly altered during filming. This is evident when watching the film’s trailer of which the majority of footage featured is not in the finished picture not to mention the film’s as various credit errors (Wayne Morris is billed as Walter Barnett but is referred to as Walter Garrett in the film). Likewise, the film oddly gives the “All persons fictitious” disclaimer full-screen treatment before the opening titles, whereas it’s usually in small print at the bottoms of the credits. What was the studio worried about?

It’s Alive!

The premise of The Return Of Doctor X has potential with its mix of vampirism and reincarnation but with the exception of Bogart, the mystery yarn fails to flesh out the story or characters (although I do find it interesting that the movie has to explain the more recent scientific discovery of blood group types, whereas today this is common, layman knowledge). Wayne Morris might have worked at the title character in Kid Galahad but he’s no leading man material in the role of a go-getter reporter from Wichita. The Return Of Doctor X is a typical example of the Warner Bros B-movie product of the late 30’s/early 40’s – the film is by the numbers and has no real flashy moments. Worst of all, it is masquerading as a sequel to the two-tier Technicolor, pre-code gem Doctor X, however, there is no connection between the two films. Many would point to The Return Of Doctor X as an embarrassment in the career of Humphrey Bogart, however I would point to it as another example of how great an actor he is as he brings so much life to an otherwise average film when he’s on-screen. Boris Karloff made a career playing roles like this, why should Bogart’s attempt at playing a monster be looked down upon?

Rollercoaster (1977)

Big Boy, Big Boy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Just how many films exist which are centered on rollercoasters? – Unfortunately, exceedingly few. Well, that’s where the aptly titled Rollercoaster comes into play. Rollercoasters and theme parks, in general, have been a fascination of mine since childhood with all those hours spent sitting at the computer playing Rollercoaster Tycoon (ah, good times). Even the ending of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had me disappointed when that lovely rollercoaster was set on fire in order to kill the creature. I can happily sit all day and watch nicely shot and edited footage of theme parks as well as POV footage of Rollercoasters of which this 70’s thriller has in plenty supply.

Rollercoaster is often mischaracterized as a disaster movie and while it does feature that 70’s disaster movie motif of having an all-star cast, the only disaster occurs at the beginning of the film in which a bomb is detonated on an active rollercoaster (shot at Ocean View Amusement Park, Virginia). This leads to a very well staged and brutal sequence in which carriage goes off track and bodies are seen being crushed on screen, albeit very briefly. Throughout the remainder of the film, the killer in question is threatening disaster rather than having disaster play out. Rollercoaster is also one of several films in the 1970s to feature Sensurround, a process to give the viewer a sense of vibration. This along with the film’s ties to the disaster genre gives the impression Rollercoaster is going to be a gimmicky picture however it’s a stronger film than its exterior would indicate. Rollercoaster is a Hitchcockian, cat & mouse thriller which if anything owes more to Jaws than the disaster movie genre (both films feature July 4th as a major element in their plots). Rollercoaster also makes a worthy companion piece to fellow terrorist thriller from 1977, Black Sunday, which both explore how public attractions can’t just be shut down due to terror threats. Likewise, it goes without saying that in the 21st century no company would allow their brand to be featured in a film in which their product is at the basis of a terrorist attack while the plot itself would be less likely to occur in today’s surveillance world.

No motive is given to the killer played by Timothy Bottoms (simply billed as the “Young Man” in the end credits), however, the character comes off more frightening this way than if he was given a clear motive (see Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets for a similar villain). In one scene the Young Man is shooting with precision at a fairground range and is asked by the carnie if he is ex-military to which the Young Man gives no response. Could he be a Vietnam veteran? – Along with his knowledge of explosives, the movie leaves such a reading open. The relationship between the hero Harry Calder (George Segal) and villain in Rollercoaster takes place over audio channels as they never encounter each other face to face until the end. This dynamic would later become commonplace in action films such as Die Hard or Speed, but Rollercoaster is the earliest film I’m aware of to feature this trope. In retrospect, I feel Bottoms gives the strongest performance in the film. He has a cold, calculating menace to him and even manages to do a lot with his eyes and tone of voice. Timothy Bottoms would later go onto portray U.S President George W. Bush a total of 4 times, and once you know that you can’t unsee it.

The middle portion of Rollercoaster involves a lengthy sequence of mind games at King’s Dominion Park, Virginia, in which the Young Man orders Harry to perform a series of tasks including wearing a funny hat and going on various rides (including one titled Vertigo – a little Hitchcock reference?) in order to transfer a briefcase containing a cash ransom. It’s a very well constructed piece of suspense similar in vain to the Simon Says series of mind games in Die Hard With A Vengeance (not to mention that camera trick they pull off on the Rebel Yell rollercoaster is a real shocker).

So who is that band featured in Rollercoaster playing at the film’s finale in Six Flags Magic Mountain on the 4th of July? They’re called Sparks, a respected music act from what I gather despite their resemblance to an 80’s hair metal band as seen in the film. Their song Big Boy is played as a bomb squad is attempting to find and disable an explosive on the rollercoaster and on first viewing, it feels like the song is on loop for a comically absurd amount of time, even with several intervals in which the film cuts to other scenes in which the song is not played. When watching the film again and timing how long the song is actually played for it only lasts 5 minutes but on first viewing, I could swear it felt more like 20 minutes (good tune though). The roller coaster featured in film’s climax is the Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California which opened the year prior in 1976 and is the first rollercoaster in the world to feature a complete 360-degree vertical loop. The score by Lalo Schifrin on the other hand is surprisingly varied. The carnival motifs are original pieces composed for the film and not just lifted stock music, and like any carnival music, its one part joyous and the other part sinister. The score also occasionally transitions into the style of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score and even throws some nice blaxploitation style funk into the mix at the beginning of the Magic Mountain sequence.

The film’s writers Richard Levinson and William Link were primarily involved writing for TV, thus Rollercoaster does have a made-for-TV vibe to it which it can’t quite shake off. The plot itself does sound the type of premise which would be the basis for a TV movie and unlikely to make it to cinematic A-picture. The characters themselves in Rollercoaster are only surface-level interesting but the plot has enough intrigue to keep it engaging. George Segal is likeable as everyman Harry Caulder who gets caught up in the Hitchcock tradition of an ordinary man getting trapped in an extraordinary situation. He is also given an odd but memorable introduction seen trying to give up smoking via Clockwork Orange style methods. Likewise, the always cool Richard Widmark does his reliable thing however I’m just disappointed Henry Fonda’s role in the film barely goes beyond a cameo. Fonda’s part could have provided some entertaining comic relief with the antagonist relationship he shares with George Segal by popping up now and then but instead only appears in two scenes and is clearly phoning in his performance – the part must have been a quick pay-cheque. Regardless of shortcomings, for now, Rollercoaster is probably the best film in the not so contested category of best rollercoaster film of all time. 

Sabrina (1954 + 1995)

Will They?/Won’t They?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Never again will the screen see such grace as Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn is hot, but Audrey is beautiful. However its Audrey being the goddess that she is which brings about the major flaw in Sabrina – you cannot make Audrey Hepburn look like a scrawny chauffeurs’ daughter. It doesn’t matter what she wears, Audrey can make any piece of dowdy clothing look glamorous (later in the film she even makes a lumberjack shirt look feminine). After all, in the original stage play, Sabrina Fairchild was played by the down to Earth Margaret Sullivan. Despite this, the sheer enchanting screen presence of Audrey Hepburn, as well as her childlike innocence does help to some degree, overcome this suspension of disbelief. The opening of Sabrina couldn’t be more impossibly romantic – a clear sky with a full moon, Isn’t It Romantic playing the background and a forbidden love imposed by class differences. Well that is until things take a dark U-turn and Sabrina attempts to commit suicide by locking herself in a garage with multiple car exhaust pipes emitting carbon monoxide. Even in a moment as disturbing as this, a joke is still thrown in with that one popping exhaust pipe (likewise did Sabrina’s father ever discovering that suicide note?).

Humphrey Bogart in the role of business mogul Linus Larrabee gets an opportunity to show his flair for light comedy. Bogart is such a pleasure to watch in the many witty lines he delivers, in particular the inter-office memo he sends to his brother David via a car phone. Linus Larrabee is a benevolent capitalist and not the stereotypical archetype of the evil business owner, as he brilliantly sums up in an exchange he shares with David:

“A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbour is dug up and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who’ve never seen a dime before suddenly have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed.”

Linus evens has connections to a military general who can get him a bazooka to test against his revolutionary plastic, showing he has some Elon Musk in him. Likewise unlike as seen in many screwball comedies of the 1930’s, the servants of the Fairchild family have a perfectly amicable and respectable relationship with their masters.

David Larabee (William Holden) is the polar opposite of his brother – a 1950’s Billy Madison who lives for hedonism. Holden looks rather ghastly with his bleached hair and the ugly dressing gowns which he wears throughout the film. Sabrina has been head over heels for David since childhood but her love of the man was always forbidden due to class, well until her transformation after spending two years in Paris. David does not appear to be much longer than Linus, which is odd as it’s mentioned at one point in the film that David had kissed Sabrina when she was nine during a time they were roller skating. I never quite get what Sabrina sees in the immature David – this goes for both the original and the remake (more on that later).

At its heart, Sabrina is a story about true love vs. romantic love. Sabrina may be romantically infatuated with David, but ultimately it’s Linus of whom she is destined to be with. The age difference between Audrey and her leading men in multiple films is often a topic of conversation with the casting of a 54-year-old Bogart as a romantic love interest to a 25-year-old Hepburn not being the most obvious choice. Changing social norms since the 1950s and the feminist movement have made it anathema for a woman to rely on a man for money or status, making older man/younger woman relationships age gaps more taboo in modern times. Personally, I’ve seen enough old films with relationship age gaps that I’m more used to it plus the argument can be made that many women simply prefer an older man. At the very least the movie does acknowledge this age difference (“Here I am going off on a sailboat to make an ass out of myself with a girl of 22”). Age aside, with Bogart’s arrogance and overly masculine voice, Audrey isn’t the most obvious choice to play off him – she’s not like Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn. The argument can be made that the original casting choice of Cary Grant would have been more suitable for the part. Regardless these performers are two of my favourite movie stars of all time and they are a joy to watch together so I personally can’t complain at the end of the day.

That Billy Wilder wit is as strong as ever in Sabrina (“That good, that’s bad” – I can see where a certain Simpsons joke came from), with the film also including one of the most clever and witty methods in which a film got around the censorship of the day (“What rhymes with glass?”). On a technical level, it’s also notable that Sabrina was filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, despite being released in late 1954, making it one of the last Hollywood productions to do so as almost all movies at this point where being shot in various widescreen formats. Coming off the heels from Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole and Stalag 17, I get the impression Billy Wilder wanted to do something more pleasant and straightforward with Sabrina. I don’t consider Sabrina to be one of Wilder’s best films but I do enjoy it despite its flaws and the relationship dynamics requiring much suspension of disbelief. When a rom-com sparks an interesting debate on whom the female lead should have ended up with, to an extent it has done its job. However, unpopular opinion time, I will argue that the 1995 remake of Sabrina directed by Sydney Pollack is a superior film. 

The remake of Sabrina carries the same themes and follows the same basic plot of the original but with some notable adjustments, the most prescient of these being Sabrina’s (Julia Ormond) transformation in Paris being far more significant. At the film’s beginning, Sabrina really is a scrawny, nerdy girl with a dreadful fashion sense and very long, unkempt hair. Her time in Paris takes up a significant portion of the film (this time working as a photographer for Vogue rather than going to a cooking school) in which she gets mentored by others and comes out of her shell. Symbolically her hair gradually gets shorter over the two year period and returns to the US unrecognizable (I’m just slightly disappointed the remake doesn’t include the attempted suicide scene). Unlike the original, the Paris scenes are filmed on location and are the most distinctly 90’s portion of the film with the fashions and music (nice cover of Love’s In Need Of Love Today). So who is the better Sabrina? I know its sacrilege to outrank Audrey Hepburn, but going from the standpoint on both superior writing and more appropriate casting, Ormond’s rendition of Sabrina does have greater depth, is more believable and is portrayed with a greater sense of vulnerability.

Who was the better Linus? You’re asking me to pit two of my favourite actors of all time against each other. Harrison Ford plays the part beautifully with his trademark comic grumpiness and a real sense of loneliness, and even with the 90’s setting, Ford’s Linus remains a conservatively dressed man with his glasses, dotted bowtie and Homburg hat. The remake also features a much more resentful relationship between David and Linus. In the original, Linus is not impressed with David but doesn’t harbour much resentment, whereas in the remake the relationship is far more antagonistic (“My life makes your life possible – I resent that – So do I!”). I do wish however they could have retained the benevolent capitalist aspect of his character as Bogart portrayed. I feel like going for a tie but I know that’s a cop-out so ultimately I will have to choose Ford once again due to the superior writing and more appropriate casting – Ormond and Ford are simply a more believable romantic pair.

Lastly who was the better David? Greg Kinnear does a good job at portraying the hedonistic sleaze of David, while his turnaround towards actually doing work at the end is a very nice comic touch. Yet even the additional aspect of the antagonistic relationship, I would choose Holden on the account of simply being a more charismatic and likeable screen presence. Likewise, I do particularly enjoy John Wood as Sabrina’s father, a real charmer of an English gentleman, while Paul Giamatti gets one of his earliest screen roles but it’s just a shame he’s given nothing to do. I’d even go as far as saying that Sabrina ’95 provides a greater feast for the senses. The location filming of the North-Eastern United States (notably including Martha’s Vineyard) with the gorgeous architecture alongside the breezy John Williams score, makes the film a very relaxing watch (I also have to ask, was the film’s poster inspired by that of Billy Wilder’s Fedora?). While I hate having to outrank these classic Hollywood legends, Sabrina ‘95 is a rare remake which remains a classy affair and outperforms the original.

We’re No Angels (1955)

Angels With Dirty Faces

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

We’re No Angels was Michael Curtiz’ second Christmas film in a row (despite its release date of July 1955), although unlike White Christmas, We’re No Angels is a less secular affair with its use of biblical references in the tale of three, perhaps not so wise men who bestow gifts on a distressed family at Christmas. We’re No Angels is both sentimental and darkly comic as the Ducotel family in a French colonial town on Devil’s Island (despite none of the cast appearing remotely French) are not massively bothered by having three escaped convicts stay at their adjoining home/business. The three disreputable men go to the Ducotel household intending to rob them but end up getting caught up in the spirit of the season after having a voyeuristic insight to the troubles bestowing the family and their failing general store. We’re No Angels is a bright and colourful affair with the scenes in the bustling port town in particular showing off Curtiz’ directorial skills. The picture even calls to mind Larceny Inc (1942), another film in which a group of criminals inadvertently turn around a failing business.

A large portion of the film’s dark humour comes from Aldo Ray alone in the role of Albert, a sexual offender type convict of whom we don’t know the extent of his activities but the movie hints that it ain’t pretty. Much of the film involves him having an attraction and interacting with the family’s daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott), including pinching her derrière and carrying her fainted form into her room with the door closed – once again, the family takes no objection to this. Likewise Isabelle appears to have a serious medical disorder in that she faints multiple times in a short period and even has an unrequited love for her second cousin. Contrasting the more lowly and thuggish Albert is Peter Ustinov as the eloquent and well-spoken Jules. His technique of cracking locks and opening safes involves him lightly touching the outside of a device and then bumping the side of his hand lightly against said device, resulting in the hatch opening – is it this simple in real life or is the movie playing loose with safe and lock-cracking techniques? 

We’re No Angels was Humphrey Bogart’s big career opportunity to show off his eccentric comedic side as the con artist Joseph. Bogart was able to display his comic chops in All Through The Night, however, We’re No Angels is more in the vein of The Marx Brothers – just look at the scene in which Joseph successfully cons a customer into buying a suit which is clearly several sizes too small for him. Bogart’s facial expressions and body movements accentuate the performance and even the sight of the tough guy cooking in a kitchen wearing a pink apron somehow doesn’t degrade his machismo. Likewise, Bogie also delivers one of the funniest lines among the pantheon of great Bogart quotes:

“We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes.”

Basil Rathbone on the other hand, the Hollywood embodiment of villainy portrays an Ebenezer Scrooge type role as Andre Trochard, the business owner who sees no objection to doing labour on Christmas Day nor having no concern for people’s humanity, just business. We’re No Angels bounces back and forth from zany jokes to more deadpan humour such as the trio’s very slow, drawn-out debate on who should tell Andre not to open the box with their pet snake named Adolf in it. The humorous ending in which the three decide to return to prison was likely brought about by the production code forbidding criminals to be portrayed as sympathetic characters thus their redemptive conclusion – an example of finding a clever solution within the confines of censorship.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Tailor Made Man

Love Me Tonight was produced and directed by the forgotten movie magic maestro Rouben Mamoulian, a name who doesn’t make the history books compared to the likes of Orson Welles but who’s work during the pre-code era deserve that cliché expression, “ahead of its time” – films which had extensive visual freedom more technical wizardry than you can shake a stick at. No more so than in the musical, comedy Love Me Tonight, the first film in history to use a zoom lens as it does several times throughout the movie (yet it would be decades until this technique would catch on). Not to mention the film’s early use of slow-motion during a very dreamlike deer hunt sequence – quite unlike anything else you’ll see in a film from the time.

Sharp Dressed Man

Love Me Tonight opens with the city of Paris coming to life in a visual manner reminiscent of the silent documentary film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; however this is accompanied by a symphony created by everyday sounds from a construction worker hitting the ground with a pike axe to a woman sweeping a pathway. Likewise, the Paris street sets look authentic (with shots reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s apartment and neighbourhood from An American In Paris), I would believe it was real-world location but it was a set in the Paramount back lot, which is equalled by the opulence and detail of the chateau seen later on in the film.

Love Me Tonight is an Ernst Lubitsch style romantic comedy focusing on European aristocracy. Our protagonist and his Supreme Frenchness is Maurice Chevalier in the role of well…Maurice – the stereotypical Frenchman who’s life revolves around the concept of romance (is there any truth to Hollywood’s fantasy of France and Paris in particular?). He is one fine dressed man in his dashing turtle neck and a distinct walk (he is a tailor after all) along with a shade of Groucho Marx aspect to his personality with his witty comebacks to all the bourgeois snobs he encounters. 

It was a novelty in 1932 for musical numbers to be so interwoven into the text and pushing the plot along, in particular, the Isn’t It Romantic number which cleverly connects future lovers by song as Maurice begins singing it in his Paris tailor shop and it ends up being carried out of the city and across the countryside to a chateau in which Jeanette MacDonald (who feels like she was tailor-made to play nobility) and her magnificent pair of pipes finish it off. Love Me Tonight has no shortage of character actors galore such as the inclusion of the three spinster sisters (a more benevolent version of the three witched from Macbeth) being a very humorous touch, especially when they sound like chickens as they frantically pace. Also take note of MacDonald’s reaction to Charles Butterworth falling off ladder and landing on his flute – priceless. 

The other great addition to Love Me Tonight is an always show-stealing Myrna Loy in a part which helped turn her career around from being typecast as the exotic temptress to performing high comedy as the sex-hungry Countess Valentine. The bored sex fiend spends her time around the chateau sleeping on chairs and furniture, becoming excited when the prospect of a male encounter arises. She gets many of the film’s best and not to subtle innuendo-laden lines and even sings for the only time in her career during her few lines in The Son Of A Gun Is Nothing But A Tailor. Currently, the only version of Love Me Tonight known to exist is the censored 1949 re-issue which includes among other potentially suggestive cuts, an omission of Myrna Loy’s reprise of “Mimi” due to her wearing of a suggestive nightgown. Why yes I’m outraged that a piece of film history has been erased and in no way does being deprived of seeing a scantily clad Myrna Loy factor into it. 

Regardless of what we are left with, it surprises me the Love Me Tonight would even receive a post-code rerelease with every other line of dialogue being a sexual innuendo (not to mention one particularly luring pan of MacDonald in lingerie as the Doctor inspects her). We can always hope one day an uncensored print we surface.

Thirteen Women (1932)

Mean Girls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Aeons before the likes of Michael, Jason, Freddy or even Norman there was Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy).Thirteen Women is one of the earliest prototypes of the slasher film (made at a time when most horror movies featured supernatural creatures) in which the half-Hindu, half-Javanese Ursula (even though Georgi is a name of European origin) seeks revenge on her former high school peers due to their racist mistreatment through the use of horoscopes which don’t predict a happy or successful future. Whether or not Loy actually enjoyed doing exotic roles such as this during her early career, she remains professional and doesn’t phone it in. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and when she gives you that blank stare you know you’re done for, not to mention she goes through many a memorable costume change throughout the film’s short runtime.

Throughout the picture Ursula has control over her victims, leading them to commit suicide. However, the film does not make it clear if she has supernatural mind control abilities (“I was his brain as I am yours”) or simply can just manipulate her victims though psychological means as the film’s opening prologue appears to imply: 

 “Suggestion is a very common occurrence in the life of every normal individual…

…waves of certain types of crime, waves of suicide are to be explained by the power of suggestion upon certain types of mind.”

Pages 94 and 105 of Applied Psychology by Professors Hollingsworth and Hoffenberger, Columbia University.

The extent of the mistreatment towards Ursula is not made clear. In her final monologue at the film’s climax, Ursula speaks of she tried to become white and it was almost in her hands when the sorority of girls wouldn’t let her “cross the colour line”, subsequently followed by the sorority’s leader Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) acknowledging their cruel treatment. The film’s racial subject matter was frank for the time – this was after all when screen star Merle Oberon was hiding her mixed-race origins from the public.

Thirteen Women is an oddity in the career of Irene Dunne, being her only macabre picture in a filmography of generally light-hearted fare. Laura is the only woman in the sorority who attempts not to act so gullible and take superstitions seriously (not to mention she has one fine Beverly Hills Home). Thirteen Women is an example of a female ensemble film yet oddly all the women in the picture are comprised of divorced and single mums – there are no husbands insight and even the one who is married shoots her hubby at the beginning of the film.

Thirteen Women doesn’t disappoint with those to be expected pre-code shocker moments from the circus acrobat accident in the film’s beginning to Ursula going as far as to send poisonous chocolate and later a bomb disguised as a birthday present to kill Laura’s child. The film’s atmosphere is also aided with an exotic score by Max Steiner (topped with plenty of gongs thrown in there for good measure) at a time when most movies seldomly used scored music. Steiner would go onto compose King Kong the following year at RKO and the rest is history.

Thirteen Women’s biggest claim to fame is the film being the only on-screen appearance of the elusive Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by hanging herself on the Hollywood sign, shortly before the Thirteen Women was released – ironically the only film she appeared in had suicide as a major theme. According to the book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide, Entwistle’s role as Mrs Hazel Cousins was central to the first 22 minutes of the film in which she was involved in a lesbian love affair leading to the murder of her jealous husband. In the 59 minute cut of the film, Entwistle is only on screen for a few minutes in which during that time she locks arms with another woman (her love affair?) and later shoots her husband and then screams at what she has just done. Thirteen Women originally ran at 73 minutes however the likely watered-down 59-minute cut is the only version currently known to exist. Perhaps somewhere out there exists a 73 minute print of Thirteen Women, regardless of what we are left with is still an entertaining hour. Perhaps future cult classic status is still in the waiting for Thirteen Women.

Grand Prix (1966)

I Sleep In A Racing Car, Do You?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Grand Prix may be the best Howard Hawks film he didn’t make – a loosely plotted film following four Formula 1 drivers with the theme of male bonding. There is even a Hawksian woman in the form of Eva Marie Saint as Louise Frederickson in a role similar to that of Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, an onlooker who  is taken back by this subculture and the reaction or lack thereof the drivers have to death and injury. The loosely plotted structure avoids the cliché of many sports films in which the drama hinges on whether or not the protagonist or team wins the final bout. Rather Grand Prix is an examination of these stoic modern gladiators and the women who come to reject their men’s participation in the sport.

Grand Prix was John Frankenheimer’s first picture in colour and while something is lost when compared to his earlier films which are some of the most visually astounding black & white films of the era, Grand Prix is one colourful and eye-popping film. Grand Prix is one of the best examples of a movie which offers such a vibrant slice of exotic, European flavor; complete with beautiful locations, gorgeous women, an exquisite score by Maurice Jarre and the full glitz and glamour of the sport. It plays like a not so cynical tourism commercial complete with early use of film product placement (the first of two Frankenheimer films to make use of the Good Year brand).

The 1960’s, when every movie was over three hours long, complete with an overture, intermission and entr’acte. Filmed in Super Panavision for display on a Cinerama screen, Grand Prix was a movie designed for the theatrical experience with its astounding racing sequences – no further proof is required that Frankenheimer is one of the screen’s greatest directors of action. During the film’s three major race sequences there are no instances of cars being filmed slowly with footage sped up in post production as seen in many older films – no, this is the real deal. Grand Prix was filmed during the 1966 racing season with the actual actors in the film performing their own driving (bar Brian Bedford).

The location shots during the film’s opening race at the Monaco Grand Prix are a thing of beauty to look at with the winding roads, palm trees and glorious architecture. Combine that with extensive use of shot types and transitions and you have an unforgettable feast for the senses. Right from the Saul Bass opening credits with the extreme use of close-ups and use of checkered frames to the fast-moving ariel footage, POVs, split-screen and quick cuts – Grand Prix is a marvel of editing. In relation to the sound design, just like the sound of galloping horses during the chariot race from Ben-Hur, the sound of Formula 1 engines ramps up the suspense without the aid of music – rather it creates a rhythm of its own. One race in Grand Prix is however scored by Jarre’s music in a surprisingly relaxing and dreamlike montage of overlapping footage of F1 cars which the sounds of their engines subtly in the background. I wonder if Grand Prix played an influence on George Lucas for the pod race sequence in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Well guess who was a young camera operator on Grand Prix back in 1966?

Among the glamour of Grand Prix, things do u-turn on several instances during the film’s bloody and graphic injury scenes of various drivers, not to mention a very upsetting scene involving two young boys who should not have entered the race track as and when they did. With the comparable lack of safety back in 1966, one has to ask does this make the sport more exciting for both the drivers and spectators? There is even one scene in which James Garner is recklessly driving on a country road and no one in the car is wearing a seatbelt.

James Garner headlines Grand Prix as American racer Pete Aron, a bit of jackass but one who has a sympathetic streak to him. Toshiro Mifune makes his Hollywood debut as Japanese automobile magnet Izo Yamura. I’ve read many reviews complaining that Mifune’s English dubbing is on par with a Godzilla film but I beg to ask what copy of the film are they watching? – I can’t see any issue with the quality of the dub. Yves Montand however in the role of Jean-Pierre Sarti brings the highest level of gravitas from the film’s cast. He questions his participation in the sport and has wanted to quit after witnessing many an accident (“Maybe to do something that brings you so close to the possibility of death and to survive it is to feel life and living so much more intensely”). In a sign of mutual respect and good sportsmanship, he even stops in the middle of a race when Pete Aron is trying to escape a burning vehicle. Montand’s character appears to be a stereotype for French existential angst, a man wearied by the absurdity of his existence. This is backed up by the fact that his name is similar to that of French, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Grand Prix hits its emotional peak with the tragic ending in which Sarti’s body comes flying out of a vehicle and only to lie mangled on a tree, all because he drove into a pipe which came loose from another vehicle. The irony of the character who contemplated most on retiring would see such a bloody end and not to mention the emotional breakdown in which Louise Frederickson screams at the press, while her hands are covered in Sarti’s blood – it leaves much food for thought. Grand Prix is as much a tribute to Formula 1 as it is a reminder of how dangerous it once was – for better or worse.

Mulan (1998)

Yin & Yang

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Mulan is one of my favourite films in the Disney animated canon.  A movie which is rich in layers and characterisation topped with brilliant songs and great action, there’s barely a single minute that doesn’t leave me enthralled. The titular heroine herself is a unique specimen in the canon of female Disney protagonists. For one she actually has living parents and contrary to the likes of Belle or Ariel, Mulan is not a free spirit. She is a clumsy, unpunctual, clutz, and a bit of a tomboy who doesn’t fit the gender norms society would have expected of her at the time as she tries to find her place in the world. She is also an adult who still possesses some childlike tendencies, perhaps most memorably and heart-warmingly when she unexpectedly hugs the Emperor of China. Mulan is also under the Disney princess brand even though she has no royal lineage? – Money talks.

Mulan is one of many examples throughout history of women disguised as men in combat roles, albeit in the case of Hua Mulan being one of disputed historicity. For many western children, a film like this would be their first introduction to Chinese culture and history beyond what they would see in a Chinese takeaway. I’m not Chinese so I can’t atone for well the film represents the culture. From a historical accuracy perspective, however, the film presents the Huns being a threat during the film’s setting of 600AD (Tang Dynasty) when they were actually active several centuries prior to that. Likewise, fireworks and gun powder wouldn’t come along until the 9th century (also Mulan’s family owns a pet dog?). – Embrace it in a charmingly inaccurate Cecil B. DeMille way.

Mulan is a classic heroes’ journey as she begins the film within the familiarity of her village but soon has a call to adventure into the unknown, only to eventually return to her village, a transformed individual. Disney films often being at the ire of snooty left-wing academics due to their highly archetypal nature rooted in the conventions of storytelling which are often dismissed as passé and cliché formulas of storytelling in favour of the deconstruction of myths. Thus I have no desire to see a live-action remake of Mulan in the age of woke Hollywood. In relation to the dreaded “F” word of feminism, I’ll reference an unlikely source in the form of Knuckles the Echidna:

“You know Amy, any time someone brings attention to the breaking of gender roles, it ultimately undermines the concept of gender equality by implying that this is an exception and not the status quo.”

Ok, Mulan is a film which is guilty of this itself with irony-laden songs such as Honour To Us All and A Girl Worth Fighting For which would normally lead one to groan with their intentionally un-pc lyrics and little visual accompaniments such as Mulan unintentionally wielding the umbrella like a sword during Honour To us All, but I’m never left with the impression the film is propagating an agenda. Mulan’s journey was never some feminist quest to prove a woman can do anything a man can do and stick it to the patriarchy – rather it was to preserve her father’s and by extension her family’s honour. Mulan doesn’t want to change how her society works, but rather just cheat its conformist rules.

Hollywood has a modern tendency to portray female characters whom are just women acting like aggressive men who can beat up hordes of bad guys and lack any sense of femininity. Mulan is not like that and film demonstrates her lack of physical strength and demonstrates how she has to rely on her mental capabilities to survive. Mulan figures out how to climb the pole and retrieve the arrow with the stone slabs of strength and discipline not with physical strength but with ingenuity, by wrapping the ropes attached to the slabs around the pole as an aid to climb it. Some suspension of disbelief is required that no one in the boot camp isn’t more suspicious that Mulan’s alias Ping is not a man, even as an effeminate one at that (one way the animators got around this is by having Mulan’s face shape change when she is dressed as Ping). To use a symbol of ancient Chinese philosophy, Mulan’s balancing of masculine and feminine is akin to the balancing of the yin and yang.

“The quickest way to the emperor is through that pass. Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.”

From the opening shot of The Great Wall, Mulan captures an epic scope on par with some of the best live-action epics. The colour scheme throughout the film is a thing of beauty complete with many a fantastic shot or creative transition. Mulan was the first time a Disney movie dealt with warfare with the sequence involving the soldiers discovering the village following a genocide (after such a joyous upbeat song) being one of the darkest Disney moments. Likewise, the beginning of the battle sequence on the mountain as Shan-Yu and his men appear over the hill is reminiscent to the film Zulu (that avalanche sequence breaks many laws of physics but no less exciting). The film’s scope reaches a peak with the film’s climactic money shot of Mulan jumping of the palace roof in the Forbidden City with fireworks behind her. The only criticism I have for the animation is the repetition of very similar character models in the Chinese and Hun armies as well as in the Forbidden City. Although the appearance of these models on screen is very limited it’s a bit odd whenever I took notice of it.

Jerry Goldsmith’s East Asian influenced score is among the strongest of his career. The track titled Haircut is a piece of synth to die for! How does a piece of music from 1998 sound like it was recorded for a movie made in 1985? None of the musical numbers in Mulan fail in their grand, sweeping nature. The film’s classic Disney “I desire more” ballad in the form of Reflection (how did she wipe away all that makeup with on rub of her sleeve?) helps to signify Mulan’s vulnerability. Yet Mulan’s greatest musical accomplishment is the hair raising I’ll Make a Man Out of You, the militaristic training montage ballad with its larger than life lyrics and memorable one-liners from the supporting characters – it can proudly stand among the likes of the Rocky IV soundtrack as motivational music to get you out of any rut.

The other area where Mulan surprisingly exceeds is the comedy as one of the funnier Disney animated films, managing to balance the laughs with the high stakes drama. Eddie Murphy as Mushu doesn’t surpass Robin Williams in Aladdin but his antics and many memorable quotes give him one of his best career roles. However I find the film’s funniest moments come from Mulan’s attempts to act manly – it’s not a body swap comedy without a scene in which the character’s cover is almost blown when they are out of costume (underwear with hearts on it, anachronism much?). The only tonal criticism I would levy at the film is the end credits song True To Your Heart, an upbeat pop song which comes out of left field after Mulan’s heartfelt reunion with her father and family. A good Stevie Wonder jam but it feels out of place.

The film’s villain Shan-Yu is a two-dimensional bad guy but is still quite entertaining from how overtly evil he and his falcon companion are, with Shan-Yu himself being complete with fangs and muted colours. I also love how his scenes end with him delivering a spine chilling message (“How many men does it take to deliver a message?” – oh, badass!). He’s not the main source of conflict in the film so his two-dimensional personality doesn’t interfere with the film. However, he does display one revealing character moment during the film’s climax in which upon discovering Mulan was the solider from the battlefield who took out his army, in an ironic twist he is the only character in the film who does not belittle Mulan for being a woman.

Thug Life

Mulan’s world is populated with many great characters from the badass, no-nonsense general and love interest to Mulan, Li Shang (those abs are body goals) of whom it turns out is a bit socially awkward when it comes to women. Mulan’s dignified father Fa Zhou on the other hand is best summed up in the powerful shot of his attempt to walk without his aid and disguise his limp to accept his conscription assignment. Although absent for most of the film, he is at the film’s heart as the instigator of Mulan’s journey (“I know my place! It is time you learned yours!”). The question does have to be raised if the military would actually have this old, physically weak man on the battlefield but rather to act as a general due to the fact that he appears to be a well-known figure at the boot camp and thus likely respected and held in high esteem. I do also adore the trio of soldiers – the fiery voiced Yao (thank you Harvey Feinstein), the childlike Ling and the pacifist Chein with their camaraderie and failure to act like tough guys and lady killers. Then there is the slimy pencil pusher Chi-Fu, the film’s love to hate character. I like how he is given some humanising moments like his picture with the Emperor on his desk and his claim that he apparently has “a girl back home who’s not like any other”. Even The Emperor of China himself is full of wisdom and memorable quotations worthy of Confucius himself.

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all”