Action Adventure movies


DONALD HAMILTON – The Steel Mirror. Rinehart & Co., 1948. Paperback reprints include: Dell #473, 1950; Gold Medal d1617, 1966.

FIVE STEPS TO DANGER. Henry S. Kesler Productions/Unoted Artists, 1957. Ruth Roman, Sterling Hayden, Werner Kemperer, Jeanne Cooper and Karl Lindt. Written & directed by Henry S. Kesler, from the novel by Donald Hamilton.

   A tightly-written post-war mystery with the times reflected in small details and a plot that kept surprising me right to the end.

   Even without the surprises, this would be a fun piece of nostalgia, but Steel Mirror hooks the reader quickly with John Emmett, vacationing everyman, whose car breaks down somewhere west of nowhere. He gets a ride from Anne Nicholson, an attractive, well-dressed young woman in a new car, driving across the country, and congratulates himself on his good fortune.

   Until he stows his gear in the trunk and sees no luggage….

   Hamilton builds nicely from this. Our hero and the young lady without luggage are being followed… by what turns out to be her Doctor and a nurse. It seems Anne worked with the French Resistance in WWII, got captured and tortured by the Gestapo – and may have betrayed her husband and friends; she can’t remember, and she’s driving across country to meet the one man who can tell her.

   And oh yes: the good Doctor adds that she’s subject to mental breakdowns, has tried to kill herself, doesn’t trust him (the Doc) and it would be a big help to everyone if Emmett would stay with her and check in when she gets where she’s going.

   Okay at this point the savvy reader has spotted the Bad Guy, and as the pages turn will guess the truth about the one man we’re after. This is because Donald Hamilton has let us spot and let us guess; this plot has more twists than a box of candy canes — near-arrest by a county sheriff, a visit from the FBI, and a helpful passer-by packing heat—and it soon occurs to Emmett and that savvy reader I mentioned that there are a lot of people who don’t want Anne to get where she’s going.

   Eventually the journey reaches that point where all thrillers must inevitably arrive — Anne & Emmett on the run from a Murder charge, posing as husband & wife till they can get to the one man who can clear the whole thing up for them — whereupon it simply takes another turn and then another, all predicated on the people acting like grown-ups and not like characters in a paperback. Even when the chips are down and guns drawn there’s none of the “Very clever, Mr. Bond!” stuff, just everyone playing their cards close to the vest and me trying to figure out who’s got the Joker.

   But what I shall remember from The Steel Mirror is an underlying theme of characters trying to define themselves. Emmett spent the War in a vital civilian job and he’s always wondered if he did it from convenience or cowardice. Anne is trying to find out if she’s a heroine or a traitor. And The Steel Mirror resolves both issues by letting the characters grow and understand each other.

   Nice job, that.

   I only started reading Donald Hamilton in the last few years. I was always put off by the Matt Helm thing, but he did some decent stuff. Like the novel basis of The Big Country and The Violent Men, and in between those two fine Westerns, Henry S. Kesler made a modest little film from this.

   Kesler is hardly a name to conjure with, but he worked on some memorable films (5 Graves to Cairo, In a Lonely Place, Lured …) and Five Steps to Danger is competently done. Even quite good at times. Stars Ruth Roman and Sterling Hayden play well off each other, and the bad guys (Werner Klemperer and Richard Gaines) strike just the right note of stuffy disdain: not so much evil as arrogant, and it works well here. If you ever met a doctor too interested in himself to listen to you, then you know Klemperer’s character. And Richard Gaines (the Insurance Executive in Double Indemnity) as a duplicitous dean is so politely unhelpful as to seem maddeningly sinister.

   That’s director Kesler. Writer Kesler simplifies and updates Hamilton’s book. Maybe too much so. No more Gestapo. Now Anne has (or had) a brother in East Germany working against the communists who died trying to get valuable information to a German Rocket Scientist, now working for the U.S., who was an old friend of the family before the war, and it’s up to Anne to complete the mission.

   Rocket Science. I wonder how long it took to think that one up? Kesler treats it more seriously than it deserves, and maybe I’m being too hard on him. If I hadn’t read the book first, I might have thought more highly of this. But I remembered the human element in the book, and I missed it in the movie.

AT SWORD’S POINT. RKO Radio Pictures, 1952. Also released as The Sons of the Three Musketeers. Cornel Wilde (D’Artagnan Jr.), Maureen O’Hara (Claire, daughter of Athos), Robert Douglas, Gladys Cooper, June Clayworth, Dan O’Herlihy (Aramis Jr.), Alan Hale Jr. (Porthos Jr.), Nancy Gates. Director: Lewis Allen.

   I don’t wish to insult anyone, but if you can’t tell from the credits above what this movie is all about and 90% of the plot, you may be reading the wrong blog. But not being a person to send anyone packing without a second chance, I’ll talk some about the movie anyway.

   After the death of Cardinal Richelieu, it seems as though the ailing Queen of France is once again in trouble — the evil Duke de Lavalle is making plans to marry the Queen’s daughter Henriette and kill the young Prince, next in line for the throne. She calls for the assistance of The Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan. They have aged, however, and while willing, they each send one of their offspring in their stead.

   Three men and one woman, and she may be the best swordsperson of them all:

           Enemy soldier: I’ll not fight with a lady.

           Claire: I’m no lady when I fight!

   The movie is in Technicolor, and deservedly so. Maureen O’Hara was meant for color movies, and her presence in one must have doubled the box office receipts, at least.

   This one is told with a great sense of fun, and it only bogs down when things start to turn serious, as they do, but only every once in a while, but not too often. There are a lot of swordfights in this movie, and I mean a lot, and I meant it when I said Maureen O’Hara’s is right there, mixing it up with the rest of them, thrusting her sword into the enemy, through and through.

   It all turns out well, you can count on that. I enjoyed this one.

BONUS TRIVIA:   Taken from the IMDb page. Alan Hale Jr. plays the son of Porthos here. His father, Alan Hale, appeared in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) as an aging Porthos. When that film was remade as The Fifth Musketeer (1979), that role was taken by Alan Hale Jr.. In that same movie the role of an aging D’Artagnan was played by Cornel Wilde, this picture’s son of D’Artagnan. Also here, the elderly Porthos is played by Moroni Olsen, who played that character in his younger days in the film of the original Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers (1935).


   The trailer for Just Before Dawn (1981, directed by Jeff Lieberman) suggests that it’s a standard slasher film, one with perhaps some supernatural themes. While it’s true that the movie is undeniably a slasher film and part of that “craze” that swept drive-ins and cheap theaters in the early 1980s, it is also a survival film.

   Think: John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which Lieberman credits as a major influence on his work. The trailer decribes the plot pretty well, but it fails to capture how hauntingly atmospheric the movie is. How the natural outdoor setting in the movie – it was filmed on location in Oregon – is as much as a character in the film as are the doomed protagonists.

   But let’s be honest. Just Before Dawn is an exploitation film, designed to appeal to the suburban fear of the backwoods. Just who are those inbred people who live up there, all alone in the mountains? The fun-loving kids in this movie with their fashionable clothes and their love for Blondie and Debbie Harry will soon find out, much as Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight’s characters did in that seminal work of 1970s cinema.

   One final note: for a slasher film, Just Before Dawns is relatively bloodless. There’s some gore, of course, but Lieberman didn’t go for the cheap thrills as much as he did the psychological menace of being chased and hunted in an unfamiliar, dangerous setting.


   I just watched the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray release of Kidnapped (1971) starring Michael Caine. Despite some plot flaws and the fact that the film seems to require the viewer know something about the Jacobite Risings and the doomed struggle of the Scottish Highlanders for freedom from English rule, it’s a fun movie.

   It’s the type of adventure film that is rarely made anymore. A sort of timeless work that’s intended to appeal to both children and adults. Filmed on location in Scotland, the scenery is spectacular. Apparently, Kidnapped was originally designed as a television movie. But it works as a feature film too and was released as such in some countries.

   The trailer does a fairly good job in giving the would-be viewer a sense of what to expect from the movie. Some adventure, some drama, some romance, and a host of British character actors with names likely familiar to moviegoers at the time.


GOLD FOR THE CAESARS. Adelphia Compagnia Cinematografica / Films Borderie, Italy, 1963, as Oro per i Cesari. MGM, US, 1964. Jeffrey Hunter, Mylène Demongeot, Ron Randell, Massimo Girotti, Giulio Bosetti, Ettore Manni. Directors: André De Toth, Sabatino Ciuffini (Italy), Riccardo Freda (uncredited).

   Peplum par excellence. An Italian production with Andre De Toth credited as its director (there’s some dispute as to how much actual work he did on the film), Gold for the Caesars isn’t exactly the type of film that is rich in character development. Instead, it relies upon costumes, sword fights, and campiness to get its point across. And that point is celluloid escapism, pure and simple.

   Jeffrey Hunter, a long way from the set of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), portrays Lacer, a slave in the hands of Rome. He’s also an architect, responsible for aiding in the construction of a bridge in Spain. Enlisted by a local Roman leader to aid in the search for gold in hill country occupied by the Celts, he is forced to choose between a life of enslavement versus a chance to risk it all for freedom. Along the way, he falls for a Roman slave girl.

   That’s about it, to be honest. That’s the essence of the plot. But you know what? In an era of overwrought CGI productions, there’s something slightly charming about being able to watch an admittedly mediocre sword-and-sandal film that actually has a large cast of extras portraying soldiers and slaves alike.

   Make no mistake about it: if this movie was remade today – a highly dubious proposition to be sure – both the Roman and Celt warriors would likely be “made” of CGI imagery rather than a cast of hundreds all dressed in traditional costumes. And a lot of it would probably have been filmed on green screens rather than outside. I can’t overly recommend anyone going out of his way to see Gold for the Caesars, but I’m not going to be unduly harsh on it either.


THE GREEN GODDESS. Warner Brothers, 1930. George Arliss, Ralph Forbes, H.B. Warner, Alice Joyce. Director: Alfred E. Green.

   Speaking of surprises, there’s a nifty one at the end of The Green Goddess, a remake of a venerable Silent Film derived from a creaky play by William Archer. Both films starred that shameless old ham George Arliss (whom a critic dubbed “The Man of One Face”) delivering a magnificently fruity performance as the half-mad ruler of some lost city in the remote regions of what C. Aubrey Smith used to call “Injah.”

   This film may be the spiritual progenitor of every “lost city” serial and B-movie ever made. Certainly, all the elements are there, what with the doughty downed flyers (Ralph Forbes and H. B. Warner, back when he had hair) and the woman they both love (Alice Joyce) at the mercy of heathen zealots, playing cat-and-mouse with Arliss amid splendiferous sets and keeping upper lips stiff to the point of Lockjaw. There are hairbreadth escapes, human sacrifices, stylish lust, and everything else kids go to the movies for.

   At Center Stage, though, is the unforgettable Arliss, who — how can I describe it? — manages to ham it up without overacting. He ladles out every line of his drippy dialogue with all the relish of Robert Newton or Tod Slaughter, yet somehow manages to gently kid the whole thing at the same time.

   It’s a performance of enormous gusto and more complexity than you might think, and as a reward for it, Arliss gets to wrap up the film with a Closing Line guaranteed to awaken even the most jaded viewer, Watch it and see.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #44, May 1990.

SECRET SERVICE OF THE AIR. Warner Brothers, 1939. Brass Bancroft #1. Ronald Reagan, John Litel, Ila Rhodes, James Stephenson, Eddie Foy Jr., Rosella Towne. Director: Noel M. Smith.

   I really can’t imagine that anyone who went to see this movie in 1939 could have possibly come away from it saying to his wife or her husband, as the case may be, that that guy’s got what it takes to be President someday! But what they definitely would have gotten was a good look at an amiable, good-looking actor with a lot of personal appeal if not necessarily a wide range of acting ability.

   Although only a small budget affair from Warners, the movie itself did so well that three more in a follow-up series were made. I’ve listed two women in the cast, but you can forget about them, even though one of them plays Brass’s fiancée, showing up only at the beginning and once again right at the end.

   In between this is a guys’ story only, one dealing with a tough gang of hoodlums actively smuggling people across the border by plane into California. (How tough are they? Watch this movie and you’ll find out.)

   As for Brass Bancroft, he’s a pilot recruited by the secret Service to go undercover and find out who he Big Boss is. To this end he is framed on a counterfeiting rap and sentenced to a term in prison. Our star of course does this standing on his head. Figuratively speaking, of course. And in spite of his longtime sidekick’s attempt to help (Eddie Foy, Jr.), he’s pretty good at catching bad guys, too.

   Don’t expect too much from this one, as it doesn’t have a lot to give, but you may find this one as much fun to watch as I did.


13 HOURS BY AIR. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Zasu Pitts, John Howard, Brian Donlevy, Alan Baxter, Fred Keating, Ruth Donnelly, Adrienne Martin, Benny Bartlett. Screenplay Bogart Rogers, based on his story “Wild Wings” with Frank Mitchell Dazey. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A bit different than what you might expect from director Leisen, though he often did films about flying or flyers (Arise My Love).

   This is an early aviation film with the usual Grand Hotel cast, first Captain Jack Gordon (MacMurray) meets Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) desperate to get a ticket on the flight to San Francisco. Of course he can’t resist helping even when he sees a headline about a woman in a fur coat who held up a jewelry store with two men.

   Add to the passenger list Zasu Pitts as the high-strung nanny to wealthy young Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett, billed as Binnie Bartlett), a small handful of ill manners and painful tricks, then a mysterious Dr. Evarts (Brian Donlevy), the nosy Mr. Palmer (Alan Baxter), and a foreign fellow threatening Felice (Fred Keating), plus co-pilot John Howard and stewardess Adrienne Martin who just got engaged.

   The usual comedic misdirection abounds, and this one almost falls into the runaway heiress genre of screwball comedy, with Bennett and MacMurray both veterans of such lighter fare, but then the plane is forced down in bad weather in a snowy field, and it turns out there is a killer on board willing to sacrifice everyone so he can escape to Mexico.

   No surprises here. Waldemar proves his worth, MacMurray gets the girl, and the bad guy gets decked while all the romantic entanglements get explained simply as soon as everyone stops playing cute and just talk to each other. Leisen often combined comedy and drama in his films.

   Granted the model work is distractingly crude, though good for the time, but aside from that I’m a sucker for these closed world films whether on a train, a plane, or ship, and this one boasts an unusually good cast and a solid plot that, while slight, gets by on good dialogue and the quality of the players. It plays like one of the better stories of this sort that appeared in the slicks and the pulps of the period, and is a good example of a genre that writers such as Ernest K. Gann and Arthur Hailey would push to the bestseller list and would be adapted into memorable films later.

   Better than average fare in a genre that would become a staple in the decades that followed.


ALISTAIR MacLEAN – River of Death. Collins, UK. hardcover, 1981. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1982. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1983.

RIVER OF DEATH. Cannon Films, 1989. Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, L.Q. Jones. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean. Director: Steve Carver.

   I imagine a conversation between Alistair Maclean and his editor going something like this: “Imagine a story where you have an adventurer, an Allan Quatermain sort ripped straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard, who discovers that a Nazi war criminal is not just hiding in South America, but that he’s hiding in a lost city originally founded by a hitherto unknown Indian tribe!” That is, to be sure, an intriguing premise to a story.

   But there are obvious questions raised by the idea. How did the Nazi get there? What is he doing there? Just hiding out or up to something far more nefarious? And who is this adventurer who gets the honor of serving as the tale’s protagonist?

   Sadly, it’s the near complete dearth of character development, to say nothing of the achingly dull plot, which relegates Maclean’s River of Death to a minor work in the author’s far more distinguished canon. Hamilton, the hero of the story, is introduced to the reader almost simultaneously with other characters, all of whom will play far lesser roles in the plot.

   There’s no real moment in the first third of the novel when the reader gets a feel for Hamilton and learns why he might be so motivated to return to the site of this so-called lost city. That, along with the fact that many of the characters seem to speak exactly alike, is unnecessarily confusing and does very little to keep one engrossed, let alone interested, in what’s transpiring.

   And then there are the Nazis. In the novel’s prologue, which is undoubtedly the best part of the work, Maclean is at his best at least as far as this work is concerned. He paints a picture of two Nazi war criminals. It’s the end of the war, when it’s clear to all but the most deluded fanatics that Germany is about to be a defeated power. Two S.S. officers, Van Manteuffel and Spaatz, decide to abscond to South America with treasures they have looted from a Greek monastery.

   But Nazis aren’t the sorts to play fair. It’s no surprise that Von Manteuffel, a poorly developed arch-villain if there ever were one, decides he’d rather have the loot all to himself and have his would-be partner in crime out of the way.

   Fast-forward several decades. Spaatz, who managed to survive Van Manteuffel’s bullet, is now working and living in Brazil under the laughably generic name Smith. He hires Hamilton, the story’s hero-adventurer, to lead him into the Amazonian jungle under the pretense that he’s interested in seeing the lost city for himself. What he’s really after, of course, is revenge. He knows that Van Manteuffel is living a Kurtz-like existence out in the jungle.

   Most of the novel follows Hamilton and Smith, along with a motley crew of thrill seekers, as they traverse rough terrain, fight off Indian tribes, and learn each other’s deepest secrets. The dialogue is forgettable, as are the descriptions of the group’s infighting. Like slogging through the rainforest, it requires patience to get where you’re going.

   And, unfortunately, the payoff isn’t really worth it. Yes, they find Van Manteuffel and the implication of the ending is that the bastard gets his just desserts. Nevertheless, it all left me with a feeling of “so what.” Unlike Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (reviewed here), which raised all sorts of ethical and political questions, Maclean’s work seems to be content with just following through with a mildly quirky, albeit intriguing, premise.

   The cinematic adaptation of Maclean’s work isn’t much better than the novel itself. What starts off as a sweaty, low-budget adventure film with potential to punch well above its weight, ends up faltering under the weight of so many 1980s action movie clichés. You’ve got some gunfights, some explosions, uncivilized natives, and the cruel and sadistic Nazis.

   Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence, who portray the two Nazi war criminals, could have put in solid dramatic performances rather than the cartoonish ones they deliver here. Michael Dudikoff, who plays Hamilton, is stilted from the very beginning. He radiates as much personality as his character in the novel. Which is to say almost none. It’s a shame. When given the opportunity to do so, he was capable of so much more than phoning it in.

   The one exception is L. Q. Jones. A veteran of many Sam Peckinpah productions, Jones is a welcome presence in River of Death. He plays a shifty fixer, the type of guy you might very well meet in a small town Brazilian watering hole a million miles from nowhere. It’s a real good role for him and one that I admit kept me watching the movie longer than I would have otherwise.

SICARIO. Lionsgate, 2015. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber. Director: Denis Villeneuve.

   When a young female FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is recruited to join an elite task force assigned to bring down a Mexican drug cartel, she agrees readily enough, but when she shows up for work, she finds herself on the outside and along only for the ride.

   And this is the problem. Not only is she totally confused as to what it that’s going on and what it is she should be doing, so is the viewing audience — and so was the scriptwriter. The story makes no sense at all.

   As it turns out, the task force is doing things totally illegally as far as respect of international borders is concerned. The ends justify the means? Well, maybe. The drug cartel and its elusive boss are doing very nasty things, and they deserve to be brought down. But why recruit someone who plays it straight and goes strictly by the book?

   It is also not to say that Emily Blunt is at all convincing as a tough head of a FBI SWAT team. She’s far too slight in size and stature. She’s a little girl playing with the big kids on the block in dress-up clothes. She’s very good at sitting in a car or a bus looking out the window wondering what it is that’s going on, but little else.

   Nor is the ending worth waiting for. It’s very dramatic, I grant you, and we do find out two things: (1) why Benicio Del Toro’s brooding liaison character has been hanging around since the beginning of the operation, and (2) the meaning of the film’s title (which translated means “Hitman,” or so I’m told).

   But when it comes down to it, Emily Blunt’s character is shoved aside for a good portion of the end of the film. While this does allow the real story to be told, it’s very unsatisfying that she’s not there to be part of it. Emily Blunt is the star of the movie, but there’s almost no reason she had to be in it. (Of course, if she isn’t, there’s no conflict of ideas, and it’s an entirely different story than the screenwriter intended to tell.)

   A complicated film, in other words, but one that just didn’t connect with me. The photography is nice, though.

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