Suspense & espionage films

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

TIME LOCK. British Lion Film Corporation, UK, 1957; Robert Beatty, Lee Patterson, Betty McDowall, Robert Ayres. Screenplay by Peter Rogers, based on the play by Arthur Hailey. Directed by Gerald Thomas.

   Mediocre acting, claustrophobic sets, no production values, trite dialogue, short running time, this film is little more than a television episode with an attitude, all of which begs the question, why is it so damn suspenseful

   Based on a play by Arthur Hailey (Runway Zero Eight aka Zero Hour , Airport, Hotel) the entire story takes play just before the weekend as accountant Lee Patterson’s little boy wanders in and gets locked in the vault of a small Canadian branch bank on his birthday. The time locks are set for 63 hours and can’t be opened. The boy can’t possibly survive that long with only 500 square feet of oxygen. The vault cannot be broken into or forced , and the only man who can open the safe just left on a fishing trip.

   With a little money, a better cast, and production values higher than a high school play the team responsible for some of the “Carry On” films could have done better, but none of those things are present, and the acting is uniformly one note, and a sour one at that.

   But this film gets under your skin. Despite the bad acting and trite script, despite the lack of production values, despite the by rote suspense, the damn film gets under your skin and keeps egging you on until there is real relief in the final moments of the film.

   It may be the best amateur bad professional movie ever made.

   No one comes off looking too good here, but there is a young Sean Connery, who at least can act more than anyone else in the film, as a welder battling to cut into the vault in time to save the boy and knowing it is an impossible job. You might not predict a great career for him based on this, but he does show screen presence, which no one else in this film has.

   Robert Beatty could act, and Lee Paterson has some charm, neither of which shows here, but as you sit cursing the production values and acting you will still be wracking your nerves waiting to get the kid out of that damn vault. How a really inept bad movie generates that much suspense is a mystery someone else will have to solve.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE SCARLET COAT. MGM, 1955. Cornel Wilde, Michael Wilding, George Sanders, Anne Francis, Robert Douglas, John McIntire, Rhys Williams, John Dehner, Bobby Driscoll. Director: John Sturges.

   The Scarlet Coat is at once a docudrama epic, a Revolutionary War era swashbuckler, and a war film. Directed by John Sturges, the movie stars Cornel Wilde as the fictional Major John Bolton of the Continental Army. His task: ferret out the traitor in the colonists’ midst, a trail that ultimately leads him to none other than the infamous historical traitor, Benedict Arnold (Robert Douglas). To accomplish this task, Bolton goes undercover as a deserter in British-controlled New York City where he aims to deceive Major John Andre (Michael Wilding) and the loyalist Dr. Jonathan Odell (George Sanders).

   Filmed in Cinemascope in Eastman Color on location in New York’s Hudson River Valley, The Scarlet Coat benefits from a stellar cast, and lavish, detailed costumes. Yet, when all is said and done, it’s the alternatingly flaccid and meandering script that makes the movie an altogether humdrum affair.

   That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its moments. Indeed, the film’s last thirty minutes or so have enough action and suspense to keep you engaged and anticipating what happens next.

   But it’s simply not enough to make up for the fact that, for much of the movie, the actors seem to be going through the motions more than anything else. Likewise, the friendly rivalry between Bolton and Andre over the fictional Sally Cameron (Anne Francis) seems forced, as if the screenwriters decided upon introducing a romantic subplot just for the sake of having one in the movie.

   And the character of Benedict Arnold, nominally the pivotal character, barely appears on screen, making the film more the story of British spy, John Andre than of the American spy, Arnold.

   The Scarlet Coat, which was not a commercial success, is not a bad film so much a as a movie which reached for a level of historical relevancy that, despite gallant effort, ultimately eluded its grasp. That’s not to say that it’s not worth watching. In a way, it still is, so long as you do so with tempered expectations.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE KARATE KILLERS. MGM, 1967. Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, Joan Crawford, Curt Jurgens, Herbert Lom, Telly Savalas, Terry-Thomas, Leo G. Carroll, Kim Darby, Diane McBain, Jill Ireland, Philip Ahn. Previously seen on TV as the 87th & 88th episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: “The Five Daughters Affair” (Parts 1 and 2), 31 March and 7 April 1966. Director: Barry Shear.

   Like The Man in the Green Hat, which I reviewed here, The Karate Killers is the feature-length movie version of two The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes. Directed by Barry Shear, who had a fairly prodigious output in television, this light, but nevertheless mildly entertaining movie features guest appearances by stars such as Joan Crawford, Telly Savalas, and Jill Ireland.

   While the plot isn’t particularly interesting, it moves forward with enough vigor to keep the audience engaged with the nearly non-stop action. U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (McCallum), trot the globe in search of five women, all daughters of a murdered scientist who found the means of extracting gold from seawater. Shades of Goldfinger, anyone?

   It’s an altogether amusing, if light on substance, late 1960s spy film. Look for Czechoslovakian-born actor Herbert Lom as Randolph, as the villain from THRUSH and for an amusing sequence in which Solo and Kuryakin sip tea in a Japanese geisha house. No one would likely categorize The Karate Killers as a bold work of art, but as pure entertainment, it’s not all that bad.

Editorial Comment:   For those of you who live in Los Angeles area and would like to see this on the big screen, it’s scheduled to be shown at the New Beverly Cinema next Saturday, August 15.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE SPY IN THE GREEN HAT. MGM, 1967. Robert Vaughn , David McCallum, Jack Palance, Janet Leigh, Eduardo Ciannelli, Allen Jenkins, Jack La Rue, Leo G. Carroll, Joan Blondell, Letícia Román. First aired on NBC, 10:00 p.m., Friday, November 25 and Friday, December 2, 1966 as episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: “The Concrete Overcoat Affair” (Parts 1 and 2). Director: Joseph Sargent.

   Situated somewhere between action film and satire is the fifth The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature film, The Spy in the Green Hat. Part spy film, part anarchic spoof, the movie, like the other films in the series, is the theatrical release of previously aired television shows with some added, often risqué, material added on.

   Directed by Joseph Sargent, this entry is a campy romp featuring Jack Palance and Janet Leigh as THRUSH villains. Veteran actors Eduardo Ciannelli, Allen Jenkins, and Jack La Rue portray Chicago gangsters who team up with U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) to thwart THRUSH’s alliance with a former Nazi scientist. Adding to the excitement is the presence of Italian actress, Letícia Román who portrays an innocent Italian girl who inadvertently gets caught up in a whirlwind of international intrigue.

   As far as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes go, these are fairly average. If it weren’t for Palance and Leigh, they wouldn’t be particularly notable. That said, the movie has enough action, silliness, and homage to make it a light, entertaining, albeit hardly memorable, 1960s spy film, even if the title has almost nothing to do with the movie. Well, except for the fact that a minor character at the very end happens to wear a — wait for it — green hat.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR (Book and Films)
Reviewed by Dan Stumpf

   I did a quick search of this blog just now, and found no reviews of Eric Ambler’s classic Journey Into Fear (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1940; Knopf, US, 1940). “Well,” thought I, “I’m not one to make threats, but there’ll be a letter about this in the Times.”

   Several years ago, a local video store was going out of business, and I naturally stopped by to see what priceless treasures I could pick up on the cheap. Among the things I emerged with was the remake of Journey Into Fear (New World, 1974) adapted by producer Trevor Wallace from Eric Ambler’s novel (previously filmed by Orson Welles in 1942) and directed by Daniel Mann.

   Watching this, I began to suspect that Wallace’s script drew rather more from the 1942 film than from Ambler’s novel, so I pulled out the older film and the book to check my suspicions.

   This was turned into a movie by Orson Welles in 1942, an engagingly gimmicky piece with the Mercury players (Agnes Moorhead, Everett Sloan et al.) but the effect is somewhat vitiated by Welles’ giving himself all the smart lines and by his decision to depict the quiet Graham (Joseph Cotton) as a boob.

   The cinema of Orson Welles is deliberately un-heroic, which is probably just as well, given his strong visual style; a Welles movie with an out-and-out Hero would come off as altogether too Wagnerian. There is, in fact, more than a touch of Wagner in Welles’ two most nearly heroic characters, Rochester in Jane Eyre and MacBeth. But there I go digressin’ again

   Getting back to the re-make, well, to be fair, there are a couple lines from the novel in the newer film and not in the 1942 version. But to be frank, huge chunks of Welles’ film seem to have been simply re-shot without credit and plunked down in this movie. When Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton adapted Ambler’s novel for the film (Cotton gets sole screen credit for the writing.) they gave lines from one character to another, re-arranged scenes and added little bits of business, and all these changes appear just about shot-for-shot in the re-make. In fact, the earlier film features a hired killer who never speaks, because the guy who played him was no actor and would only take the part if they cut out all his lines. And sure enough, in the re-make the hired killer –- played by the very capable actor Ian McShane –- has no dialogue.

   What difference exists between the two films is largely in the ordinary look of the ’74 film – the careful camerawork and set design of the original replaced by harsh color and tinny sound – and in the casting: Welles filled his film with capable bit players whose names mean little to most moviegoers, but players who leave a distinctive impression — the best-known are maybe Everett Sloane and Hans Conreid.

   The re-make, on the other hand, is filled with second-rank “stars” mostly miscast or wasted: Sam Waterston is fine in the lead, and Vincent Price and Donald Pleasance have a couple good scenes (though Price makes a decidedly unconvincing Arab) but Zero Mostel, Shelley Winters, Scott Marlowe, Yvette Mimieux and even Stanley Holloway all just kind of take up space.

   On the plus side, though, I’ve got to say Joseph Wiseman (fondly remembered as the first of the Bond villains and star of his own comic-book cover) is fine in the old Orson Welles part as Colonel Haki, there’s a solid, actionful ending, and a shoot-and-chase done entirely with sound effects – I still can’t figure out whether it was meant to be clever or merely cheap, but it’s enough to elevate this startlingly unoriginal film into the class of a pleasant time-filler.

   Moving on just briefly to Eric Ambler’s novel (the excuse for this piece, after all) well, it was one of those things I read in 7th grade, and I was glad to come back to it. Even after seeing two movies and getting very familiar with the plot, I found the writing absorbing and the story suspenseful.

   Ambler’s tale takes a bit of familiarity with the political map of war-torn Europe in the 40s; readers who didn’t live through it or bone up on their History might wonder at a story where British and German agents travel freely in Turkey while the British are supposedly arming the Turks against Hitler, but complications like this were pretty much gratis when Ambler wrote it, and by the time he gets to the crux of the tale — Howard Graham, an un-assuming British engineer trapped on a tramp steamer with a bizarre assortment of passengers, one of whom wants to kill him — he has notched the suspense up very agreeably indeed, and proceeds to a conclusion that is both cynical and exciting: no small feat, that.

   Ambler also does a sharp job here creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension, and he adds a layer of genuine thoughtfulness: our hero starts out his journey as a man with secrets to hide, and he seems at first rather unique and isolated, surrounded by a ship full of very ordinary and rather dull background characters.

   As the book and the journey go on, though, we discover the rest of the cast have their own secrets: droll, noble, sinister or just venal, the passengers who began the journey as stereotypes become real by the story’s end, and the central character seems much less unique -– and more believable.

   This works both as a plot device (I won’t say how) and as something more. Perhaps Ambler, writing in a world at war, was trying to say something about the worth of the individual. Or maybe he was just setting us up for a delicious bit of anticlimax at the very end of the book, when the last secret is revealed. Whatever, it makes for the kind of reading one remembers.

THE SATAN BUG. Mirisch Corporation/United Artists, 1965. George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis, Dana Andrews, Edward Asner. Based on the novel by Ian Stuart [Alistair MacLean]. Screenplay: James Clavell & Edward Anhalt. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Director: John Sturges.

   With all the manpower both in front and behind the cameras, and one woman, I was expecting a lot better film than the on I saw. This is one of the most boring major studio thriller movies I have ever seen. It is dull from the beginning to the end, in spite of the view of Los Angeles from the air in the finale as three men in a helicopter slug it out while a glass flask of deadly toxin rolls around loose in the back seat.

   How could such a scene be dull? It beats me, but it is. Maybe if the first 15 minutes were more interesting — watching a car driving endlessly along a road in the desert to pull into a guarded but totally non-secure government facility, where small handfuls of guards and men in hats and coats and ties walk around talking to each other about things important to them but not to us — not my idea of a way to catch anyone’s interest, not if I were given a chance to make a movie with at least some money to invest into it.

   Maybe if the next half hour or so were not filled with more men in hats and coats and ties talking to each other about a deadly toxin that could kill off the world, but since the scientific facility is guarded by as many as maybe five men, one dog and a couple of wire fences, how serious could they be about it?

   Maybe if the star of the movie, George Maharis, fresh from his success on the TV series Route 66, weren’t as bland as scrambled egg whites. He’s as good-looking as they come, but I can’t overemphasize how clearly his lack of range as an actor shows up on the big screen.

   Maybe if the rest of the cast weren’t so dour and expressionless. Maybe if all of them were all but interchangeable, what with their identical suits and ties and hats. I have never seen so many suits and ties and hats.

   Maybe if they’d actually given Anne Francis something to do. As the only female in the movie to appear for more than a blink of an eye, you’d think they’d come up with a reason why she’s actually in the picture.

   Maybe if the plot weren’t muddled. The basic idea is clear: a madman has gotten his hands on a deadly poison of some kind and we gotta get it back. But the details of who, when and where were more than I could figure out. I suppose I could watch it again, but I was so unimpressed that there is no chance in the world I could sit as long as I just have without experiencing a moment of tension, a modicum even of suspense, or a hint of that maybe, just maybe, a deadly disaster was about to occur.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WATERFRONT. PRC, 1944. John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, Maris Wrixon, Edwin Maxwell, Terry Frost, John Bleifer, Marten Lamont, Olga Fabian. Director: Steve Sekely.

   Sometimes casting one actor rather than another really can make or break a film that, on the surface at least, does not appear to have that much else going for it. In the case in Waterfront, a taut 1944 spy thriller about Nazi spies and German expatriates in wartime San Francisco, that actor is John Carradine.

   Directed by Steve Sekely, a Hungarian filmmaker who made numerous low-budget American films, Waterfront stars Carradine as Victor Marlow, a ruthless dark-clad Gestapo agent tasked with hunting down the men responsible for stealing a list of Nazi spies in America from one Dr. Karl Decker (J. Carrol Naish), an optometrist with a waterfront practice.

   The story begins with an armed robbery in the fog. The rather unobtrusive Decker, who we soon come to realize is a Nazi spy, is held up by a waterfront hoodlum. Too bad for him, as something far more valuable than money is taken from his possession. The thug takes his master spy book, a veritable listing of the Nazi agents in America.

   Enter Marlow (Carradine), a lean, mean Nazi who will do whatever it takes to get the book back. He also, we soon learn, seems to have his eye on Decker’s position as head honcho in the San Francisco Nazi underworld. Marlow intimidates a local German woman who runs a boardinghouse, forcing her to provide him with lodging. As it turns out, the landlady’s daughter’s boyfriend has a pending business deal with one of the local, anti-fascist Germans involved with the theft of Decker’s book.

   If it sounds complicated, it is and it isn’t. Suffice it to say that if you think too much about the plot, you begin to realize how preposterous it all is to have all these characters interacting in one small neighborhood of a large West Coast city.

   Indeed, all things considered, Waterfront could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a remarkably well-crafted spy tale. It does, however, benefit from a noir-like atmosphere and some exceptionally well-filmed sequences when the lanky Carradine, with his unmistakable voice, demonstrates just how well he portrays menacing characters. It’s a slightly clunky low-budget affair from PRC Pictures, but for what it is, it’s an enjoyable little wartime spy thriller.

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