Suspense & espionage films

PASSAGE FROM HONG KONG. Warner Brothers, 1941. Lucile Fairbanks, Douglas Kennedy (as Keith Douglas), Paul Cavanagh, Richard Ainley, Marjorie Gateson, Gloria Holden, William Hopper (uncredited, as a worker at the US Consulate). Based on the novel The Agony Column, by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: D. Ross Lederman.

   Passage from Hong Kong takes place before the war and as foreign nationals are warned to leave Hong Kong. Finding a ship that will take them out of harm’s way is a problem, though, but in the chaos a young man (Douglas Kennedy) meets a young girl (Lucille Fairbanks) who catches his eye. She is traveling with her aunt (Marjorie Gateson) who disapproves of him.

   Not knowing the young lady’s name, the young man resorts to a local newspaper’s classified ads section. She responds, but playing it coy, she asks him to write her five letters first before she will decide to meet him or not.

   We do not know this until later, but the young man is a writer of thriller novels, and following the old adage of “write what you know,” the letters he sends her are a series of chapter installments of an serious scrape  he gets into involving both murder and international intrigue.

   It’s all totally fictitious, of course, but the story he tells her, to get into her good graces, as well as her aunt’s, is dramatized for us on the screen, making this a full-fledged adventure film as well as a romance, with a considerable amount of frothy comedy thrown in to boot.

   The Agony Column, the story by Earl Derr Biggers that the movie is based on, takes place in England before World War I, but as in the film, the communications between two would-be lovers takes place through a series of a newspaper’s “agony column,” so there is some similarity. (I’ve not read the book. I’m only stating what I found out about it online.)

   The movie is no classic, far from it. Once watched, quickly forgotten, the players as well as the story line. Especially the story line.



THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN. Universal International Pictures, 1957. Zza Zza Gabor, Lex Barker, Jeffrey Stone, Maurice Manson, Kurt Katch. Screenplay by Gene L. Coon & Robert Hill. Story by DeWitt Bodeen & Harry Ruskin. Directed by Russell Birdwell. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   â€œThe Devil has gone back to Hell.”

   This twisty and twisted little thriller mostly from the Universal back-lot and sets from the horror movies is something of a cross between a Men’s Sweat Mag, the National Enquirer, Sterling Noel’s bestselling I Killed Stalin, and a government propaganda short.

   We open in Moscow at Joseph Stalin (Maurice Manson)’s deathwatch. A team of surgeons, including a noted plastic surgeon and nurse Greta Grisenko (Zza Zza Gabor) are there to operate on Stalin, but first he has to indulge his fetish for watching women have their heads shaved and oversee the murder of his double before the operation and the announcement of his death as he absconds from the USSR with half the national treasury.

   Several years have passed and we are in West Berlin where American Private Eye Steve Anderson (Lex Barker) and ex-OSS agent meets Lili Grisenko (also Zza) a naturalized American who hires him to find her sister who went missing in Russia after they were separated as war refugees and who was known to have been a nurse for Stalin.

   Steve’s friend, one-armed Mischa (Jeffrey Stone), who runs an underground group of Russian expatriates, informs Steve and Lili that he believes Stalin is still alive and that their best chance to find Greta is to find Stalin. That best chance to find the dictator turns out to be his son Jacob (William Schallert) who defected to the West in the War to escape the influence of his evil father and now hides out in a small German village trying to forget his Father, protected by Mischa and his friends.

   Meanwhile both Stalin in his hideout and the Russians in Moscow who don’t want his treachery out  send assassins to kill Anderson before he can find the dictator.

   Stalin’s son (a surprisingly sensitive performance by Schallert for this film) provides them the clue they need to find Stalin, and Anderson polishes off one of the assassins and neutralizes the other (a once wartime friend), while he and Mischa are off to find Stalin who is planning to return to Russia and take power again for a finale of suggested kinky sex (Greta allows Stalin to shave her head for kicks and tortures Steve) and a retribution ending to that first line I quoted.

   â€œThe Devil has returned to Hell.”

   The Girl in the Kremlin is more interesting than good, sensational and exploitative without ever achieving the kind of pulp level garishness required for that to work and despite a few kinky flourishes –- notably the really disturbing and near pornographic scene in the opening when a peasant girl’s (Natalie Daryll who allowed her waist length hair to be shaved) hair is graphically shorn while Stalin watches intently — it never really manages to wallow in the depths it seeks. It is far too polite for that.

   Barker is appropriately tough in the lead, and Zza Zza is actually fairly good in the twin role, avoiding too much scenery chewing as the evil sister in her bald cap, the big reveal of the film’s second half, along with Barker, bare-chested of course, being whipped by two women. There is even a touch of mystery as we don’t know until the end which of the men is Stalin in his new face.

   This does capture the feel of those popular Men’s Sweat Mags of the era where the garish covers and provocative illustrations and article titles always promised more than the prose dared to deliver. This film is like that but, to borrow a line from Ian Fleming, it reads better than it lives, ending with a title card to inform us piously that man reaps what he sows.

   That sums up this one. You went for Rocky Horror Picture Show and you ended up with Scooby Doo.



THE LEOPARD MAN. RKO, 1943. Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabell Jewell, Marguerite Silva, Abner Biberman, James Bell, Margaret Landry, Fely Franquelli, Ariel Heath, Tuulikki Paananen. Producer: Val Lewton. Writers: Ardel Wray and Edward Dein, based on the novel Black Alibi (1942) by Cornell Woolrich. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

   “You don’t get the idea, mister. These cops banging those pans, flashing those lights, they’re gonna scare that poor cat of mine. Cats are funny, mister. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy. These cops, they don’t know what they’re doing.”


   Despite what everybody says about The Leopard Man, it’s not really a horror film. Of course it looks and even sounds like one most of the time, and it’s true producer Val Lewton specialized in horror films (e.g., Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, etc.). Nevertheless, when you eliminate all the terror trappings, what’s left isn’t just a crime movie but an actual mystery film.

   It’s clear the intention was to ratchet up the suspense as much as possible — and then go beyond that. So it’s surprising to realize that just about every moment of violence is off screen; lighting and sound effects do the job of suggesting the horrors we don’t see.

   “Mamacita, let me in! Let me in! Let me in! If you love me, let me in!”


   When someone is attacked and murdered on one side of a door, we and another person on this side of it hear the violent scuffle but only see the victim’s blood oozing under the door.

   In a darkened cemetery dimly lit by a hazy moon, another victim is stalked by something unseen up in the trees. The camera focuses on the tree limbs as they creak downward and then spring up, with the attacker just out of visual range. All we hear is a muffled scream.

   The Leopard Man has many moments like that. The source material was Black Alibi, a 1942 novel by Cornell Woolrich.


   Numerous books and stories by Cornell Woolrich have been adapted for other media, such as these films: ‘Convicted’ (1938), ‘Street of Chance’ (1942), ‘Phantom Lady’ (1944), ‘The Mark of the Whistler’ (1944), ‘Deadline at Dawn’ (1946), ‘Black Angel’ (1946), ‘The Chase’ (1946), ‘Fall Guy’ (1947), ‘The Guilty’ (1947), ‘Fear in the Night’ (1947), ‘The Return of the Whistler’ (1948), ‘I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes’ (1948), ‘Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ (1948), ‘The Window (1949), ‘No Man of Her Own’ (1950), 6 episodes of the ‘Suspense’ TV series (1949-50), 3 segments of ‘Robert Montgomery Presents’ (1950-51), ‘Rear Window’ (1954), ‘Obsession’ (1954), ‘Nightmare’ (1956); 3 installments each of ‘Lux Video Theatre’ (1954-57), ‘The Ford Television Theatre’ (1955-57), ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ (1956-58), and ‘Thriller’ (1961); ‘The Bride Wore Black’ (1968), ‘You’ll Never See Me Again’ (1973, TVM), even ‘Mrs. Winterbourne’ (1996) — and this list of media adaptations is hardly exhaustive.



WATCHER. IFCMidnight, 2022. Maika Monroe as Julia, Karl Glusman as Francis, Burn Gorman as Daniel Weber, Madalina Anea as Irina. Director: Chloe Okuno.

   I’m glad I didn’t read anything about Watcher before I went to see it recently at an independent movie theater in North Hollywood. That is to say: I knew nothing beyond the basic premise: a woman has a watcher/stalker problem. It’s a plot as old as time, especially when it’s a young woman who moves into a new apartment. This is territory that has been fodder for countless thrillers and slashers, some memorable. Many decidedly not.

   Does Watcher have anything it in that sets it apart from the dozens of similar movies that have come before it? Before I can answer this question, I must point out that the film doesn’t necessarily break new ground and that it wears its myriad influences on its sleeve. There’s Hitchcock, of course. Particularly Rear Window (1954).

   There’s also Roman Polanski. I’ve seen one reviewer make references to both Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967), but the film that came immediately to my mind was Polanski’s later thriller, Frantic (1988) in which Harrison Ford portrayed a doctor out of his element in Paris, searching for his missing wife. One salient aspect from that exceptionally well-crafted film that continues to stick in my mind is how Ford’s character finds the language barrier – he doesn’t speak French – to be a deeply threatening psychological barrier to his quest.

   That’s even more the case in Watcher, in which a youthful married couple moves from New York City to Bucharest, Romania. Julia (Maika Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman) seem to be very much in love and eager for a new chapter in their lives. Francis, who speaks Romanian, has been promoted to a marketing agency’s Romanian office. Julia, who we know was an “actress,” doesn’t speak a word. She is basically left alone to fend for herself in the couple’s apartment while Francis is off at work, making money and interacting with colleagues.

   What begins innocuously enough (or does it?) ends up as a waking nightmare. Julia, soon after moving into the decently outfitted apartment, sees what she thinks is a man staring at her from the building across the street. It doesn’t help her growing sense of isolation when she learns that there’s a serial killer – the media calls him “The Spider” – attacking young women in the neighborhood.

   Pretty soon, Julia is certain she is being stalked as prey. But no one believes her; at times, she almost doesn’t seem to believe herself. The movie skillfully plays with this ambiguity. What does it mean when someone who thinks they are being stalked begins to stalk their purported stalker? Is Julia being watched or is she the watcher?

   There’s very little actual violence in Watcher, but when it comes it comes brutally and most of all, loudly. Most of the time, what envelops the viewer is not blood and gore, but atmosphere. Dread, isolation, and madness are the name of the game here.

   The director makes the most of the on-location filming. Bucharest is as much a character in the film as Paris was in Frantic. The streets, museums, and the subway system all feature prominently in the visual narrative. Monroe’s acting is top notch, although it’s the subtly hidden interplay between her and the camera that makes her performance stand out. It’s well worth a look. One might even say it’s worth watching.




WINDFALL. Netflix, 2022. Jason Segel, Lily Collins, Jesse Plemons, Omar Leyva. Director: Charlie McDowell.

   “Chekhov’s gun” is the principle, attributed to the eponymous Russian playwright, that every element introduced into a play should be necessary and extraneous elements should be removed. The gun aspect is largely understood to mean that, if the audience is going to see a gun at the opening of a play, it should be a key element in how the action unfolds later in the play.

   I couldn’t help but think of this while watching Netflix’s Windfall, a satisfying, if incomplete, thriller and black comedy directed by Charlie McDowell (son of actor Malcolm). At the very beginning of the film – in the first 10 minutes or so – the audience witnesses a man (Jason Segel) exploring and rummaging through a beautiful California country house that clearly is not his own.

   We don’t know why he is there, nor what his motivations are. But he seems to be taken with the place and its natural beauty. It also seems as if he is looking for cash. And, perhaps most significantly, he finds a handgun in a drawer.

   Pretty soon, though, Segel’s character is not alone. An upscale couple (Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins) arrives at the home. The break-in turns into a hostage situation. Over the next hour or so, tensions unfold between the three characters – who are never named – with the intruder asking for a giant financial sum from the wealthy husband.

   All of this puts great strain on the computer mogul’s wife, who seemingly has been unhappily living in her philandering husband’s shadow lo these many years. If this sounds like a chamber piece – like a play – you’d be absolutely on the mark. For this is a movie script that could have been written by Chekhov himself.

   Windfall is most certainly a slow burn; it doesn’t offer instantaneous thrills. What it does offer is atmosphere – a sunny quasi-noir disposition that you feel like you have been transported to the French countryside – and a quirky, offbeat sensibility.

   It’s well directed and certainly well cast, with Segel showing that he has a lot of potential for more dramatic roles that don’t require him to be quite so goofy. It just is that the film doesn’t add up to all that much. It certainly aims to be a little more highbrow than many Netflix offerings and, on that level, it succeeds.

   But there’s nothing all that new under the California sun here for those well immersed in the thriller genre. One last note: the aforementioned gun is ultimately fired. More than once.




THE NOVEMBER MAN. Relativity Media, 2014. Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic. Will Patton. Director: Roger Donaldson.

   The concept is compelling; it’s the execution that’s flawed. That’s pretty much how I would describe The November Man to anyone who wanted a brief, succinct answer to the question: “What did you think of the movie?”

   Adapted from Bill Granger’s espionage thriller There Are No Spies, the seventh entry in the author’s “November Man” series, the movie is grounded in the realities of the post-Cold War world and has a solid, reliable lead in Pierce Brosnan. But it ultimately ends up being nothing more than a stunningly average spy film, one that relies on twists and turns that are – for those familiar with the genre, at least – clearly visible from miles away.

   The movie opens at a fast clip, with the viewer immediately thrust into the action. CIA operative Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) and junior partner, David Mason (Luke Bracey) are in Montenegro and are on an assassination mission. Things don’t go according to plan. Brosnan is hit. And a young child is wounded, perhaps fatally.

   Years pass and we find a retired Devereaux (the spy in retirement trope!) living in Lausanne, Switzerland. That’s when his former boss, John Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) shows up, asking Devereaux to take on one last mission: to extract a CIA asset from Russia by the name of Natalia Ulanova. She’s currently working for Arkady Fedorov, a former Russian Army general who is on his way to becoming president of the Russian Federation and has information that supposedly could bring Federov crashing down.

   That’s where the twists and turns begin. Can Devereaux really trust that he is taking on a legitimate mission or has he been set up? Things get interesting when we learn that Federov apparently kidnapped and sexually assaulted a young girl during the Second Chechen War.

   Things get more interesting when we learn that this girl may still be alive and that she may have been witness to a meeting between a CIA Agent and Federov that set into motion that deadly conflict.

   Most of the film follows Devereaux as he attempts to make sense of a confusing, fast-moving situation. He not only finds himself at odds with Mason, his former protegee, but having to protect a social worker (Olga Kurylenko) who supposedly knows the whereabouts of Federov’s victim.

   Now don’t get me wrong. I like Roger Donaldson’s work and consider his thriller, No Way Out (1987) one of the best, if consistently underappreciated, spy films ever. But here he feels as if he was just going through the motions. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with the direction, there’s nothing particularly captivating about it either. The action sequences, filmed on the streets of Belgrade, are about as ordinary as can be. If it weren’t for Brosnan, one wouldn’t really pay much attention to them at all.




WITNESS IN THE DARK. Alliance Films, UK, 1959. NBC, US, 1961 (TV). Patricia Dainton, Conrad Phillips, Madge Ryan, Nigel Green. Director: Wolf Rilla. Currently available on YouTube here.

   Most stories relay on relatable, often primal instincts to engage an audience. In thrillers, fear is the one most filmmakers try to evoke, and it can never be more acute than those times in which we are least in control. We feel especially vulnerable when we are incapacitated in some way and the most dramatic method of conveying this is injuring the protagonist. This usually happens towards the end of the third act, during the final confrontation when it seems as though the hero is about to perish. Sometimes, however, the injury is built into the story from the start in order to bring maximum intensity.

   The most famous example of this is Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which James Stewart’s photojournalist breaks his leg and is forced to remain in his Greenwich Village apartment with nothing to do but stare out of the window and suspect people of murdering their wives. In Witness in the Dark, the injury is blindness. This had already been explored in 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) and would be again in Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn and See No Evil with Mia Farrow.

   Jane Pringle (Patricia Dainton) was blinded five years ago in a car accident in France which also killed her fiancé. She now continues to work as a switchboard operator and even teaches a young boy how to read Braille. However, one night, alone in her flat, she hears a disturbance downstairs. She investigates, moving into the hall, and encounters a thief (Nigel Green) on the staircase. Fortunately for the thief, Jane is unable to see him and will not, therefore, be able to identify him later.

   The thief does not attack her and instead escapes. Inspector Coates (Conrad Phillips) investigates and discovers that the thief had also murdered Mrs Temple, the old lady whose flat had been burgled. Jane, realising that she came so near to the culprit, believes she can help. Things get charged, however, when the thief decides he must return and tie up one or two loose ends…

   A brisk, involving thriller, Witness in the Dark succeeds in what all such films must do and makes the audience care for the character in danger. Jane is a pragmatic, brave, independent and compassionate woman who clearly has not let the tragedy in her life define it, and Dainton convincingly portrays someone without sight, sans glasses. Nigel Green, unsurprisingly, makes for a dauntingly sinister villain and, in the final scenes, maintains dignity and tension in what might otherwise have seemed vaguely farcical.

   Conrad Phillips gives his usual best, here appearing after thirty-nine episodes of ITV’s The Adventures of William Tell. I’m always interested – though not morbidly so – in how long such actors ended up living, and Phillips left us five years ago at the age of 90, after publishing his autobiography Aiming True online.

   There is also some amiable comedy involving Jane’s neighbours Mr and Mrs Finch, in which the former is hoping to retain the stolen pocket watch he has recently bought down the pub and not relinquish it to the investigating officer. Elsewhere, eagle-eyed viewers will spot Man About the House and Robin’s Nest star Richard O’Sullivan, only fifteen as the young blind boy Jane coaches, while there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role from future Doctor Who and Emmerdale Farm star Frazier Hines as a newspaper boy.

Rating: ***



DEADLIER THAN THE MALE. Rank, UK, 1966. Universal, US, 1967. Richard Johnson (Hugh Drummond), Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Nigel Green, Suzanna Leigh, Steve Carlson. Screenwriters: Jimmy Sangster, David Osborn) & Liz Charles-Williams, based on a original story by Jimmy Sangster and the character Bulldog Drummond created by Herman C. McNeile (as Sapper) & Gerard Fairlie. Directed by Ralph Thomas.

   By the late 1960s, almost everyone was cashing in on the wildly successful Bond films and seeing if they could make their own without breaking the international copyright laws. This splurge of spy movies gave us the two Derek Flint films with James Coburn, the four Matt Helm films, questionably starring Dean Martin, and – closer to home – the so-called ‘Euro-spy’ films. These were badly-dubbed Italian and French films which featured a Bond-like character.

   Here in Britain, we also had the Harry Palmer films, The Quiller Memorandum, Hot Enough for June and Modesty Blaise, along with comedies like Carry On Spying and that one with Morcambe & Wise.

   So it was only expected that some bright spark would dust off the old Bulldog Drummond adventure novels by 1920s writer ‘Sapper’ which were partly responsible for Bond in the first place. The original character is considered to be a racist bigot now, but he was more or less Bertie Wooster with a penchant for brutal justice and initially went up against criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.

   This film, however, strips Drummond of his nick-name, military rank, character, backstory, supporting cast and storylines and makes him a smooth, wryly-amusing insurance investigator with a Rolls Royce and a passion for karate. Richard Johnson would always be a respected actor and is perfectly likeable here as Drummond, but he was clearly cast because he bears a passing resemblance to Sean Connery.

   That’s no bad thing, of course. I would’ve cast someone who looked like Connery too (I wouldn’t, however, have cast Connery’s brother, as Italian director Alberto De Martino did that same year).

   I had big hopes for this film, not least because it managed to spawn a sequel, but mainly because I had seen so much love for it on the internet.

   First, the good: there’s the two glamorous female assassins, Irma and Penelope, played by Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina. There’s an outrageously Avengers-like scene near the beginning in which they emerge from the ocean, clad in bikinis and armed with spear-guns, and kill a sunbather. There’s a cigar which fires bullets into whoever smokes it. There is the excellent Nigel Green.

   Also, Leonard Rossiter (whose ability and work, of course, there isn’t a superlative strong enough to describe) dies in another Avengers-like scene in which our pair of saucy slaughterers paralyses him with a mysterious spy-fi drug and send him tumbling off the balcony of his fifteen-storey apartment building.

   There’s also a great bit where Drummond meets his old army friend, the crime boss Boxer, who is lying low in a tropically-themed flat after faking his own death. It’s one of those instances in which the character seems to live beyond the confines of the scene he’s in.

   Finally, there’s the climax, where Drummond and his nemesis creep around a life-size chess board in a duel to the death. Again, very Avengers. So, how come I don’t like the film as a whole?

   Well, the plot is dull and unimaginative. It’s all about a company named Phoenecian Oil and a merger which one man on the board of directors, Henry Keller, opposes. A third party has offered to resolve the issue, via an undisclosed method, within six months and asks to receive a million pounds in return. Subsequently, Keller dies in a plane explosion, the merger can go ahead and this mysterious problem-solver demands payment. It is, of course, villain Carl Peterson and he wants to take his murderous solution to every corporation in the world.

   Drummond is tasked with finding out what is going on. His only lead is an inch of audio tape which Keller had recorded a message, but only half of one sentence remains. It could well reveal the answer to the mystery, if Drummond can only make sense of the jumble of words.

   Unfortunately for Drummond, and indeed the viewer, his American nephew Robert has come to stay with him. Now, in order to secure distribution in the states, many British films cast an American actor in a role. This is one such example. As the ‘60s was a decade obsessed with youth, perhaps it seemed like a good idea to cast one in the film. Arguably, the result isn’t a good one, as the Robert character brings next to nothing to the film and distracts from the story it is trying to tell.

   The whole movie can be divided between the first half, set in London, and the second half, which moves to Northern Italy. Here, the film seems to come to a crashing halt. Drummond meets Peterson, yes, and we get to see his castle lair, but nothing really happens. It’s this half which I have always struggled with during three previous efforts to appreciate the film.

   I must reiterate, however, that the film seems popular enough with other people, and is certainly better than a couple of other Bond-pastiches of the era, such as Death Is a Woman (1966) and Hot Enough for June (1964), both of which I found to be utterly unwatchable.

   Despite this, I’ll check out the sequel [Some Girls Do (1969) was the second], while I’m always in the mood to watch the older Bulldog Drummond films, and indeed the books.

Rating: **





ERIC AMBLER – Journey Into Fear. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1940. Alfred A. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback.

● JOURNEY INTO FEAR. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943. Joseph Cotten, Dolores Del Rio, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Jack Durant, Everett Sloane, Orson Welles. Screenplay by Orson Welles & Joseph Cotten, based on the novel by Eric Ambler. Directed by Norman Foster & Orson Welles (the latter uncredited).

● JOURNEY INTO FEAR. New World, 1975. Sam Waterston, Zero Mostel, Yvette Mimieux, Scott Marlowe, Ian McShane, Joseph Wiseman, Shelley Winters, Stanley Holloway, Donald Pleasence, Vincent Price. Screenplay: Trevor Wallace. Director: Daniel Mann.

   A local video store was going out of business lately, and naturally I 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, adapted by producer Trevor Wallace from Eric Ambler’s 1940 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.

   The 1942 film is an engagingly gimmicky piece, complete 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 overall theme 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

   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 do 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.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #42, January 2006.



THE GORILLA MAN.  Warner Bros., 1943. John Loder, Ruth Ford, Marian Hall, Richard Fraser, Lumsden Hare, Paul Cavanagh, John Abbott, Mary Field and Charles Irwin. Written by Anthony Coldeway. Directed by D. Ross Lederman.

   Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it seems to me that if you watch a movie titled The Gorilla Man, you should expect to see at least one Ape Suit in the picture. Imagine then, my disappointment to learn that the eponymous anthropoid is just the nickname hero John Loder got from fellow-soldiers in recognition of his climbing skills on a commando raid.

   Well, life is full of disappointment, especially for those of us looking for cheap thrills. But in fact, Gorilla Man does offer a modicum of shivers, thanks mainly to character actor John Abbott, who plays a particularly sadistic henchman to mildly-mad doctor Paul Cavanagh.

   The whole thing gets a bit over-complicated, thanks mainly to writer Coldeway’s efforts to turn a then-topical spy story into a monster movie, but here goes:

   Doctor Cavanagh runs a sanitarium on the channel coast, where he gets secret orders from Berlin. You see he’s really one of those respectable-looking Nazi spies, who seem to have overrun England in wartime movies like this. Anyway, he’s warned by radio signals that Loder and his men are en route back home from a raid, and that Loder has vital information that must at all costs be kept from Army Brass. Quick as a button, henchman Abbott greets the returning raiders as they land, finds Loder slightly wounded, and spirits him off to Cavanagh’s phony hospital.

   Bwa-(as they say)-ha-hah!

   But Loder does get Germany’s secret invasion plans to the General, so Cavanagh switches to Plan B — there’s always a plan B in these things — which involves making Loder look crazy, so he won’t be believed. To this end, they release Loder and follow him around, killing helpless young ladies he comes into contact with, a task that psycho Abbott is just tickled plumb to death to carry out.

   Add a dubious General into the mix, stir in a sneering Police Inspector, a jilted girlfriend who meets a grisly end, and you have an hour that moves briskly enough, served up with Warners’ usual polish. And as I say, John Abbott is really quite creepy, lurking about with google-eyed glasses and a sick grin.

   But damn, where’s a Gorilla Suit when you need one!

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: I had a nickname in my unit too, where my comrades affectionately called me “that sorry sunuvabitch.” But I digresss….


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