Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


LISA. 20th Century Fox, 1962. Stephen Boyd, Dolores Hart, Leo McKern, Hugh Griffith, Donald Pleasance, Harry Andrews, Robert Stephens, Marius Goring, Finlay Currie, Geoffrey Keen, Jack Gwillim. Screenplay by Nelson Giddings, based on the novel The Inspector by Jan de Hartog. Directed by Philip Dunne.

   An unusual adventure story/thriller in that despite the tension and real suspense, there are few real villains in the story and many small flawed but human heroes instead.

   The place is Holland in 1946 and Peter Jongman (Stephen Boyd) and Sgt. Stollers (Donald Pleasance) are Dutch policemen tracking a suspected ex-Nazi, Thorens (Marius Goring), who they believe is part of a white slavery ring offering to smuggle refugees to America and Canada but actually selling them to brothels in South America. They intercept Thorens on the boat train to Hoek and London while he is transporting one Lisa Held (Dolores Hart), a concentration camp survivor, and Jongman follows them to London.

   In London Jongman is angered to learn from his policeman friend (Jack Gwillim) that Scotland Yard can do nothing so he confronts Thorens himself. There is a struggle and he knocks Thorens down. Outside the flat he meets Lisa and learns she is a concentration camp survivor Thorens offered to transport to Palestine. Jongman offers to take her back to Amsterdam and she agrees having nowhere else to go, and along the way decides to help her get to Palestine, but once back in Amsterdam he learns from his superior (Geoffrey Keen) that Thorens was killed and he is wanted for questioning and the girl suspected of murder.

   But Jongman has a secret that plagues him and decides to risk everything to get the girl to Palestine, setting off an international manhunt along the way.

   Based on a novel by bestselling novelist Jan de Hartog (The Captain, The Key, etc.) Lisa is unusual in that it concentrates on small human acts of kindness and humanity rather than villains or villainy. There are villains, Thorens played briefly but menacingly by Marius Goring, the unseen, for the most part, Nazis from the war, and a ship of modern pirates they encounter along the way, but they play relatively small roles.

   In a quiet and subtle way Lisa is about kindness and regret in the face of the horrors of the war. Jongman is haunted by having stayed as a policeman during the Occupation and his failure to save a Jewish girl he loved that he had believed the Germans would leave alone if he cooperated. Saving this one girl is his chance at redemption. Lisa herself, a survivor of Nazi medical experiments, is dead inside and has to be reborn through the love that develops between Jongman and herself, and the simple kindness they encounter along the way, Palestine is a dream of new life to her among others wounded as she was since she believes she can’t survive among normal people, but the journey will transform her into a living breathing woman again.

   At each turn the two encounter good people who help them along the way; Jan (Finlay Currie( the river master who knows every smuggler in Holland and has known Jongman since he was a young policeman on the River Police; grumpy old Captain Brandt (Leo McKern), the barge captain who helps smuggle them out of Holland; Sgt. Stollers, too good a policeman not to be ahead of Jongman at every stop and too good a man not to risk is career to save him; Van der Pink (Hugh Griffith) the canny Dutch smuggler in Tangier; Roger Dickens (Robert Stephens) the humane British agent whose job; however much he hates it, is to stop them from entering Palestine and see Jongman goes back to England to face the law; and, Captain Ayoub (Harry Andrews) the Arab gun smuggler who also smuggles Jewish refugees into Palestine.

   It’s a strong movie. The scene where Lisa relives the horror of her ordeal in the medical experimentation camp is powerful stuff, and there are more than enough setbacks and tension to engender suspense while the romance that develops between Jongman and Lisa is affectingly played by Boyd and Hart as simple and human. This was Hart’s last film before she became a nun, and supposedly her favorite of the ones she did.

   This is an intelligent and ultimately heartwarming film about redemption and sacrifice, survival, decency, and hope. It isn’t political and it doesn’t beat the viewer over the head about the horrors that lay behind it, but deals with them in a straight forward manner, both the horrors men can perpetrate upon each other, and the small kindnesses and moments of human decency that sometimes redeem them.

   No one should be surprised McKern, Griffith, and Andrews steal the thing whenever they are on screen. All three were veteran scene stealers by the time this film was made. Boyd was a more than capable leading man whose ability to play a villain as well as a hero enriched his performances, and Hart, in her few roles, had a short but remarkably strong career.

   The film is richly shot in color in Cinemascope on location across Europe and in the Middle East with a rich score by Malcolm Arnold; add to that brief but strong performances by Donald Pleasance, Robert Stephens, Finlay Currie, and Marius Goring, and Lisa is a strong and affecting film that does exactly what author Jan de Hartog intended of his novel, to give people hope in the face of the horrors of the past.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


DEVIL AND THE DEEP. Paramount, 1932. Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. Written by Harry Hervey and Benn W. Levy. Directed by Marion Gering.

   I’ve wanted to see this since I was fourteen and read it mentioned in an article by William K. Everson, and I should say if it doesn’t live up to 50 years of wishful thinking, it ain’t bad at all.

   Charles Laughton had a brilliant career on stage and screen, but he was at his nastiest in those early days at Paramount, in films like this, White Woman and Island of Lost Souls: three chilling and quite different essays in grand guignol screen villainy. This was his second film in the U.S. and his first at Paramount; they gave him special billing, and he deserves every inch of it.

   I should probably add that the writing and direction are nothing much, the special effects downright laughable and the ending drawn out and anticlimactic. But Devil and the Deep is suffused with that elegant Paramount atmosphere that lent distinctive style to films as disparate as Scarlet Empress and Duck Soup — which are not all that dissimilar, come to think of it. There’s just no mistaking a Paramount film from this era, and they are generally a pleasure to look at, if not always to watch.

   The story? Completely forgettable but oddly compelling. Laughton is a naval commander at “A British Submarine Base in Northern Africa” (and don’t that sound Hollywood-exotic!) who has a fetish for imagining his wife (Tallulah Bankhead) is unfaithful to him and tormenting her about it. As the film opens, it’s common gossip about the local British enclave that she’s carrying on with Cary Grant she’s not, but she might as well be because everyone treats her like Miss Sadie Thompson anyway.

   Breaking under the pressure of public opinion and Charlie’s lascivious threats, the poor girl runs off into the night, or rather the Paramount back lot, gets caught up in a rowdy native ceremony and quickly rescued by Gary Cooper. And then…..

   Well, and then things get a bit predictable but enjoyably overblown. (At Paramount, even the inside of a submarine has a spacious look to it.) Cary drops out of the story like a pebble down a canyon, Gary and Tallulah strike sparks, and Laughton gets enough big dramatic scenes to satiate his fans and himself.

   Great filmmaking? Hardly. But a treat for fans of this sort of thing and I’m glad I finally caught it.

ISLE OF MISSING MEN. Monogram Pictures, 1942. John Howard, Helen Gilbert, Gilbert Roland, Alan Mowbray, Bradley Page, George Chandler, Ernie Adams. Director: Richard Oswald.

   A strangely unclassifiable story in may ways. The title may make it sound like a crime film, but except for the fact that the film takes place on a penal island in the South Pacific, there is no crime committed during its short 67 minute running time.

   That it takes place in the South Pacific during wartime, and a Japanese warplane takes an early unsuccessful bombing run at the island, just on general principles only, might classify as a war film. On the other hand, that is the end of any reference to the war, and to honest, this movie could have taken place well before the hostilities began. It has, in fact, an overall 1930s feel to it, as if Monogram had made the film back then and only got around to releasing it in 1942.

   What Isle of Missing Men really is, is a romantic drama, centered around a blonde temptress (Helen Gilbert) who finagles her way to the island where John Howard is the governor, Alan Mowbray is the prison doctor, Bradley Page is the very suspicious second in command, and Gilbert Roland a prisoner who claims to be innocent, but then again don’t thy all? But maybe this time, just maybe.

   It is at least a four-way love triangle, and Miss Gilbert easily has her way with all her quickly gained suitors and admirers. The lady — the actress — apparently was far better known for her several marriages than she was ever was for her movie career. Isle of Missing Men may have been the peak of her success.

   A statement which I make in all seriousness. This may not have been a crime film, per se, but it has elements of a truly noir film. The low budget acts against it, of course, and so does the execrable quality of the Alpha Video DVD. And yet, and yet. The story is oddly ingratiating, if not wholly admirable. I liked this one maybe more than I should have.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


80,000 SUSPECTS. J. Arthur Rank, UK, 1963. Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Yolande Dolan, Cyril Cussack, Michael Goodliffe, Mervyn Johns. Based on the novel The Pillars of Midnight by Elleston Trevor. Written and directed by Val Guest.

   A tense medical disaster movie with soap opera undertones, 80,000 Suspects, based on the novel The Pillars of Midnight by Elleston Trevor (Flight of the Phoenix, The Quiller Memorandum as Adam Hall …) takes place in the vacation spot of Bath in England starting on a bitter cold and snowy New Year’s Eve as Dr. Stephen Monks (Richard Johnson) and his wife Julia (Claire Bloom) are about to find their lives upended by lies, deceit, and an outbreak of a deadly disease.

   After a New Year’s party from Hell ends up with Ruth (Yolande Donlan), the drunken wife of Dr. Monks’ colleague Dr. Clifford Preston (Michael Goodliffe), confessing to Julia she had an affair with Stephen, he is called into the hospital on the eve of their European vacation to see a patient who proves to have smallpox.

   As the city tries to muster forces to prevent an outbreak and trace the path of the original victim, tensions rise with overtaxed forces, raw nerves, and guilty secrets all overshadowed by the specter of the disease.

   At times it is all a shade overdone, but in general. there are top notch performances all around from leads Johnson (who manages to be both heroic, flustered, guilty, and annoyed all at once) and Bloom (who pulls off hurt, betrayed, frightened, and obviously in love at the same time), but also Cyril Cussack as Father McGuire, a canny priest with an eye for sin, Goodliffe as the too good Dr. Preston who knows all too well what his wandering wife is and who she has wandered with, and Mervyn Johns as Buckridge, the overtaxed policeman in charge, contribute to a suspenseful adult film that holds the interest and builds quite a bit of understated suspense.

   Along the way, Monks will see his love for his wife tested and deal with lingering feelings for the woman he had an affair with, Julia will face death from the deadly disease and betrayal by the man she loves, and a twist will put the whole city at risk when it seems everything is finally under control. The soap opera is never allowed to crowd out the other elements, but instead used as counterpoint to the immensity of the problem at hand.

   It is common for viewers to complain about soap opera elements in this sort of film, but they are there to remind you that life goes on even in a crisis, and that the people responsible for handling such things are under pressures of their own at the same time.

   The Bath locations are well used, as is the winter landscape (apparently 1963 was one of the worst winters on record and it shows). The drama is understated and well handled by a solid cast of familiar British actors and actresses with more familiar faces than names.

   A few minor quibbles, smallpox vaccinations are given for life, boosters only given if you have gone years without them, and the disease is kept confined to Bath awfully easily, even though one key character travels to London with no one seeming to be concerned, but those are minor things.

   All in all, this is an attractive little film with a good cast and an intelligent script well written and directed by veteran Val Guest. It doesn’t hurt that it is based on a novel by Elleston Trevor (Trevor Dudley Smith), who was a fine suspense and adventure novelist as Trevor long before he created Quiller under his Adam Hall pseudonym.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Anyone remember a Cornell Woolrich story called “The Fatal Footlights”? It first appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly for June 14, 1941 and finally found a hardcover home when I included it in my Woolrich collection NIGHT & FEAR (2004). The setting is a cheap burlesque house on New York’s 42nd Street and the plot kicks off when the featured dancer, who performs with her body painted gold all over, collapses on the runway during a show and dies.

   We soon learn that it was the gold paint that killed her, and that someone had stolen the paint remover from her dressing room precisely in order to cause her death without laying a finger on her. Of course, what death by gilding conjures up for most of us is not this obscure Woolrich story but the James Bond movie GOLDFINGER (1964) and Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel of the same name. Fred Dannay had reprinted Woolrich’s story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for June 1955 under the new title “Death at the Burlesque,” and if the tale came to Fleming’s attention it was probably by this route.

***

   For the media the megadeath of April 2016 was that of pop icon Prince. But just one day earlier, on the 20th of the month, death claimed the director of GOLDFINGER — and of several other Bond films. Guy Hamilton was born in Paris of English parents in 1922 and entered the British film industry after service in World War II. In 1952, having put in a few years as an assistant director, he made his first film, THE RINGER, based on something — whether a novel, a story, a play or just the character is unclear — by Edgar Wallace.

   It wasn’t until his involvement with Sean Connery and GOLDFINGER that he came to prominence, and in later years he directed three other Bond films: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971), again with Connery, and LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), both starring Roger Moore. He also contributed to the more serious type of espionage film as director of FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966), based on the novel by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine.

   Near the end of his career he helmed two pictures based on Agatha Christie novels and filmed in the manner of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, with a huge budget and tons of guest stars. THE MIRROR CRACK’D (1980) starred Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple, with guest stars including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, while Peter Ustinov took the lead as Hercule Poirot in EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982), with Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, James Mason and Diana Rigg among the guest stars.

***

   The actress in GOLDFINGER who met her death by gilding was Shirley Eaton (1937- ). As chance would have it, I met Ms. Eaton twenty-odd years ago, at the Memphis Film Festival. We both happened to pick the same time to have lunch in the convention hotel restaurant and out of the blue she asked if she could sit with me, saying she didn’t like eating alone.

   Was I a hot dude in those days or what? No, I didn’t make a pass at her, nor she at me, but in her middle fifties she was still quite lovely. I was interested in Guy Hamilton, GOLDFINGER’s director, and asked if she knew how I could get in touch with him. She told me that she understood he’d retired and moved to Majorca. With no more to go on than that, I wasn’t able to track him down. Now he’s gone for good. Obituaries indicate that Majorca was indeed his final home.

***

   So why was I interested in Hamilton? Not because of GOLDFINGER, or any other Bond film, and not because of the Christie-based pictures either. Just before GOLDFINGER, Hamilton had directed a picture that fascinated me: a commercial failure, not even mentioned in the New York Times obituary, but one that I was using in my Law and Film seminar at St. Louis University and wanted to write about. Odds are that no reader of this column has seen or heard of it.

   The literary source of the film was the 1959 novel THE WINSTON AFFAIR by Howard Fast (1914-2003), a super-prolific author who was a Communist and, back in the Red Menace era, served a prison term for contempt of Congress. Among general readers he’s best known as the author of SPARTACUS (1951), source of the blockbuster movie with Kirk Douglas; among mystery fans he’s remembered for the whodunits he wrote as E.V. Cunningham.

   No one would call THE WINSTON AFFAIR a mystery but it might be considered a legal thriller. The time is late in World War II and the place is India, which Fast knew well from his work as a war correspondent. Large numbers of British and American troops are serving in the area side by side and tension between the two armies is running high.

   Barney Adams, a West Point graduate and wounded combat veteran, is assigned as defense counsel at a court martial. The defendant, Lieutenant Charles Winston, is a middle-aged misfit who at a military outpost in the boondocks cold-bloodedly shot to death a British sergeant in full view of several witnesses.

   In order to restore unity with their British allies, the American commanders are determined that Winston be tried promptly and hanged. But since Winston happens to have a Congressman as his brother-in-law, the court-martial must be conducted not in the drumhead style but with the facade of due process preserved. It’s made clear to Adams, however, that he is not to raise the only defense available: insanity.

   Everyone with professional expertise admits privately to Adams that Winston was and still is insane but a “lunacy board” with no psychiatric experience has ruled to the contrary. At a press conference before the trial, Adams responds to an Indian journalist’s question with the statement that might does not make right and justice can only exist apart from power. Once the court-martial begins, he jumps the reservation and goes all out to establish an insanity defense, clearly destroying his own military career in the process.

   The biggest problem with THE WINSTON AFFAIR is that, like so much “socially conscious” fiction, it’s heavy on earnest rhetoric and light on drama. In MAN IN THE MIDDLE (1963), the movie based on Fast’s novel, the Debate on Great Issues tone is either scrapped or, where kept, is made subordinate to story and character.

   Let’s compare the first few paragraphs of WINSTON and the first minute or so of the movie. Fast begins with a banal exchange of dialogue between the area’s commanding general and his sergeant. Guy Hamilton opens the movie with a stunning pre-credits sequence as we watch Winston (Keenan Wynn) stride from his quarters to the tent barracks, walk into the British sergeant’s canvas cubicle, take out a pistol and pump four bullets into him. In the novel we never see the murder.

   Barney Adams is the protagonist of both works but his biography differs sharply from one to the other. Fast’s character is a captain, 28 years old, six years out of West Point and an honors graduate of Harvard Law School. The Adams of the movie looks to be in his mid-forties, as Robert Mitchum was when he played the role, and accordingly holds the higher rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

   This version of the character knows next to nothing about military law and certainly never went to a civilian law school. He’s invested much more of himself in his career as a soldier than has Fast’s Adams, and if he sacrifices that career trying to save his pathetic and disgusting client, the stakes are much higher than they are for his novelistic counterpart.

   The ultimate evil in Fast’s novel is anti-Semitism. Winston is a paranoiac who believes he’s being plotted against by “international Jewry, the Elders of Zion, the whole kit and kaboodle of Nazi filth.” A Jewish officer calls him “a decaying cesspool of every vile chauvinism and hatred ever invented…, who spat in my face and called me a kike and a sheeny….”

   Guy Hamilton and his collaborators drop the anti-Semitism theme, a decision which displeased Fast mightily, and anachronistically replace it with what in the early 1960s was much more timely. You guessed it. Racism. The British sergeant he killed, Wynn tells Mitchum, “was altogether an evil man. He’d sit and spout democracy, then he’d go out….Up into the hills, one of these native villages. He had women up there. Black women. I saw him!….I used to follow him up that hill and watch him with those black witches up there. He was defiling the race, Colonel….He wasn’t fit to live in a white man’s world.”

   As Mitchum is leaving the guardhouse, Wynn is taken out for his daily exercise. Guy Hamilton places us with Mitchum, looking down into the sunken prison yard, watching Wynn pace back and forth in an enclosed stone cube that is a perfect visual correlative for his racism.

   I could go on for many more pages — and did just that in a chapter on the movie and Fast’s novel that was first published in the University of San Francisco Law Review and is included in my Edgar-nominated JUDGES AND JUSTICE AND LAWYERS AND LAW (2014) — but space compels me to cut to the bottom line.

   The key to understanding the differences between novel and film is that, during the four years between them, two monumental events occurred: the publication of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1960) and the release of the classic film version (1962) with Gregory Peck. Hamilton’s movie does what Fast’s novel couldn’t have done.

   Robert Mitchum’s version of Barney Adams creates a new type of Atticus Finch figure: tough and laconic, almost a Philip Marlowe in khaki, where Atticus was loving and compassionate; representing not a sympathetic and clearly innocent black man in the South of the 1930s but a guilty white racist of the worst sort. “It’s easy to fight for the innocent,” Mitchum says, perhaps referring subtly to Atticus. “But when you fight for the sick, for the warped, for the lost, then you’ve got justice.”

   His (and Guy Hamilton’s) Barney Adams doesn’t have a license to practice law but, as I see it, offers a more challenging and less reassuring incarnation of the lawyerly ethos that is permanently linked in the public mind with the years of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren.

***

   We’ve come a long way from Cornell Woolrich and death by gilding and it would be hard to end this column neatly by going back. Since many readers of this column are movie buffs, I’ll close by quoting a letter about MAN IN THE MIDDLE sent to me by Howard Fast early in 1996.

   Most of the shooting, he said, took place “on Lord Somethingorother’s estate about ten miles out of London. I was in London with my family and I watched a good bit of the filming. Bob Mitchum was wonderful. For me he was the best film actor of his time. Each day he sat quietly on the set, putting away a quart of whisky. When his scene came he never flubbed a word, while the British actors were flubbing all over the place. They never had to do a second take because of Mitchum… I was awed by the ability of the British film makers to reproduce an Indian setting there near London.”

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


SKYSCRAPER SOULS. MGM, 1932. Warren William, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gregory Ratoff, Anita Page, Verree Teasdale, Norman Foster, George Barbier, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford, Hedda Hopper. Based on a novel by Faith Baldwin. Director: Edgar Selwyn.

   Although it doesn’t do a particularly good job at introducing its myriad array of characters at the very beginning, Skyscraper Souls ends up being a devilishly enjoyable romantic comedy/drama. What sets this film apart is that nearly the entire story takes place within the confines of a supersized midtown Manhattan Art Deco skyscraper, one that symbolizes its owner’s oversized ego.

   Based on Faith Baldwin’s novel Skyscraper (1931), this pre-code movie features Warren William in a starring role. He portrays Dave Dwight, a selfish and lecherous owner of the aforementioned skyscraper, one that towers over the Empire State Building. Motivated primarily by greed and lust, Dwight has engaged in a long-term extramarital affair with his secretary, Sarah Dennis (Verree Teasdale). Soon enough, however, he has his eye on Sarah’s new and younger assistant, the exceedingly innocent Lynn Harding (a beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan). But Lynn has a suitor of her own, a bumbling, if not handsomely charming bank teller named Tom Shepherd (Norman Foster).

   Not surprisingly, given that the movie was adapted for the big screen from a novel, there’s also a couple of further subplots involving a stock market scam, a lonely jewelry store proprietor who has fallen in love with a girl who seems to bed every man except him, and a down-on-their-luck couple willing to steal in order to get back up on their feet. Plus, there’s a gun, a murder by mistake, and a suicide.

   A combination of romantic comedy, sleaze, and sentimentalism, Skyscraper Souls can feel sluggish at times, which necessitates a degree of patience from the viewer. But it ends up being a rather insightful look into the romantic and working lives of both sexes in the early 1930s and a subtle, but hardly over the top, indictment of hyper-capitalism. All told, it’s not what I would consider a great film, but it’s certainly worth a look.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


SIROCCO. Columbia Pictures, 1951. Humphrey Bogart, Marta Toren, Lee J. Cobb, Everett Sloane, Gerald Mohr, Zero Mostel. Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides & Hans Jacoby, based on the novel Le coup de grâce by Joseph Kessel. Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

   Sirocco was hardly Humphrey Bogart’s finest hour. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, this espionage thriller features Bogie in a role eerily similar to that of Rick Blaine in Casablanca. But Casablanca this is not. Rather, Sirocco is a rather tepid, occasionally soporific affair, about a Harry Smith (Bogart), a cynical high living arms dealer, based in Damascus in 1925 at a time when Syrian Arab nationalists were battling the French military stationed there.

   There is, of course, a girl and a romantic rivalry that has political overtones. In this case, the girl is Violette, a Frenchwoman portrayed by Swedish actress Märta Torén. A fine actress, to be sure; alas, she simply doesn’t have the screen presence of Ingrid Bergman. But then again who does?

   Lee J. Cobb, a fine character actor in some roles, portrays a French Army officer in love with Violette. Did I mention he’s also tasked with rooting out who is selling arms to Arab leader Emir Hassan? Hint: it’s Bogie’s character. That’s basically the whole plot.

   Then again, Sirocco isn’t a total wash. The cinematography is occasionally quite stellar, and Zero Mostel’s scenery chewing performance as a local merchant is quite memorable and downright enjoyable to behold. It’s just that one cannot help but compare this mediocre film with that of Bogart’s best films. Even if they named it Damascus – a far more fitting and preferable title – Sirocco would pale in comparison not only to Casablanca but also to one of my personal favorites, To Have and To Have Not. So, take it from me. It’s okay to forget Sirocco. After all, we’ll always have Paris.

Next Page »