Films: Drama/Romance



ON THE NICKEL. Rose’s Park Productions, 1980. Donald Moffat, Ralph Waite, Hal Williams, and Penelope Allen. Written and directed by Ralph Waite.

   I hate to review, much less rave about, a movie this hard to see, but I just watched it again last night, and enjoyed it so much I had to share it.

   Or perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t quite the right word….

   Writer/producer/director/star Ralph Waite gets top billing, but Donald Moffatt carries the film (and most of the cast at one time or another) as Sam, a recovering alcoholic who helps an old drinking buddy (Hal Williams) get into a mission shelter on LA’s skid row (5th Street, called “the nickel” by its habitues.) and goes in search of another former crony, the elusive “CG” (Ralph Waite.)

   Sam’s search slowly morphs into a bizarre odyssey, by turns nostalgic, monotonous, and horrifying, as he revisits the people and places of his old life and rediscovers the appeal of a nomadic, bombed-out life, and the oppression, freedom, friendship, and dependency that come with it.

   As you may have gathered, this is a complex film. It’s also a very moving one, played to perfection by actors who look and speak like genuine derelicts. Penelope Allen in particular gives a truly moving performance as a mentally impaired street-dweller with a smile that embraces all of humanity – and two shopping carts that contain her worldly goods.

   Amid all this, Ralph Waite’s showy performance as the flamboyant “CG” fits in very well indeed, with quiet moments of reflection followed by fits of the DTs and a powerfully done moment as he sees his approaching death (called “the Pillow Man” for reasons shown later) and reacts with a totally bizarre and convincing air of startled detachment — or maybe just numbed surprise.

   I was disappointed by a comic interlude toward the end, but that may be just a personal thing. There are those who find the whole film funny. The ending as it stands is curiously upbeat — or at least it tries to be, but it’s hard to dispel the poignant ninety minutes that preceded it.

   So what we’ve got here is a remarkable film in many ways. It’s also practically impossible to see. On the Nickel doesn’t show up on any of the streaming services, and the DVD is rather pricey if you can find it at all. For me, it was a lavish birthday present, and one I’ll revisit.




UNDER THE RED ROBE. 20th Century Fox, UK/US, 1937. Conrad Veidt, Annabella, Raymond Massey, Romney Brent, Sophie Stewart, Wyndham Goldie. Based on the 1894 novel by Stanley J. Weyman. Director: Victor Seastrom.

   Everyone remembers Conrad Veidt as the Nasty Nazi in Casablanca; a few recall him as the baddie in Thief of Baghdad, and, at a stretch, might recollect his forays into Warner Brothers villainy in A Woman’s Face or All Through the Night.

   There was a time, though, when Veidt was a Big Star in the early German Cinema, starting in Cabinet of Caligari,  and on through Student of Prague  and Hands of Orlac,  and when he and his Jewish wife exiled themselves from Germany in the 30s, there was a serious attempt to translate his stardom to English-speaking moviegoers.

   He even became something of a cause celebre when he visited Germany just prior to World War II and was “detained” by the Nazis for “health reasons”, eventually being rescued by a team of British doctors.

   Red Robe is one of the films they were making in England when they thought Veidt would be a Big Star, but weren’t quite sure what to do with him. He plays a 17th century swashbuckler in the sometimes-employ of Cardinal Richelieu (Raymond Massey) who is sent to the Spanish border to capture a rebellious nobleman and ends up enamoured of his target’s sister (Annabella).

   Not a very exciting film, but not a bad one either. Victor Seastrom directs with an eye for Pomp and Tapestry, Veidt plays the lethal swordsman in the jaded style of a William S. Hart gunfighter, and there’s a charming turn by Romney Brent as Veidt’s watchdog. With a cast like that, Under the Red Robe has barely enough star-power to illuminate even a tiny TV screen, so it’s not apt to turn up at video stores or on television, but it’s worth catching.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #78, July 1996.




DANGEROUS CORNER. RKO, 1934. Virginia Bruce, Conrad Nagel, Melvyn Douglas, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ian Keith, Betty Furness. Based on the play by J.B. Priestley. Director: Phil Rosen.

   Phil Rosen was around in pictures almost from the beginning through the 40s for no apparent reason, a director whose oeuvre included everything from distinguished silent films to the very dregs of the Charlie Chan series at Monogram. In 1934, RKO trusted him with a mildly prestigious effort called Dangerous Corner, based on a J.B. Priestly play, lavished with a very distinguished cast, including Virginia Bruce, Betty Furness, Conrod Nagel and Melvyn Douglas.

   It’s a well-written, if terribly contrived bit of work involving larceny, suicide (or was it?) infidelity and what-all, and up to the chicken-out ending it turns up some very deft and nasty surprises, as the lead characters, reflecting on the mysterious death of a disgraced friend, find their relationships suddenly spinning this way and that.

   A director with a sense of Drama, like William Wyler, could have made this a classic. A director with a sense of Style, like Mitchell Leisen, could have made it a devastating tragedy-of-manners. Alas, all Phil Rosen knew how to do was photograph actors talking, so the fine Priestly lines, delivered flawlessly by a superb cast, just sort of flops out and lies there, cluttering up the screen till someone decides this thing’s run on long enough and puts THE END to it.

   A damn shame.




RIO. Universal Pictures, 1939. Basil Rathbone, Sigrid Gurie, Victor McLaglen, Robert Cummings, Leo Carrillo, Billy Gilbert, Samuel S. .Hinds. Screenplay by Abden Kandel, Edwin Justus Mayer & Frank Partos. Directed by John Brahm. Current;y available om YouTube.

   Contrary to director John Brahm’s film noir credentials (The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Brasher Doubloon) Rio is not an early example of that genre as often suggested half as much as a late blooming of German Expressionism and silent melodrama that anticipates those elements in film noir.

   It probably didn’t help that the title Rio sounds more like a musical with Fred and Ginger dancing on the wings of an airplane than a melodrama loosely based on an international scandal.

   Here Rathbone is Paul Reynard (rather obviously named, reynard being “fox” in French), a fantastic Parisian financial figure whose massive empire proves to be merely a paper facade held together by unsecured bank loans upon bank loans and Reynard’s superhuman cool. When that empire collapses after a loan is called in by a rival taking many of his investors fortunes with it the whole thing implodes.

   Loosely based on the Stavisky scandal that shook France and inspired a film (Stavisky, 1974) that starred Jean Paul Belmondo as Serge Stavisky the great swindler Rio adds to the character of the real life Stavisky a kind of cold genius and Svengali like influence over Reybard’s wife a once popular entertainer Irene (Norweigian actress Sigrid Gurie, Algiers, The Adventures of Marco Polo) who he possessively loves in his own controlling way.

   Following the collapse of his financial empire the coolly unrepentant Reynard is arrested and put on trial. On conviction he is sentenced to a Devil’s Island like prison near Brazil and Irene, with his right hand man and bodyguard, Dirk (Victor McLaglen), agree to follow him to wait for him in Rio, Reynard urging her to divorce him and bragging to Dirk that he knows giving her that out will only serve to assure she doesn’t leave him out of loyalty. Even from his island prison he will continue to manipulate her, which is his only true pleasure.

   There Irene takes up singing again in a bar owned by Roberto (Leo Carillo), a slinky type hoping to undermine her devotion to Reynard, while Dirk works as a bartender to be near Irene and protect Reynard’s interests.

   Meanwhile in prison Reynard is the same arrogant Nietzschean ubermensch, content with his lot so long as he knows he still controls Irene even from afar, her letters proof of that control.

   Back in Rio Irene meets drunken American Bill Gregory (Robert Cummings), an engineer who was responsible for a bridge that collapsed thanks to investors who supplied him with inferior materials. Now he is drinking himself to death in disgrace and shame.

   But he has some charm, and unlike the cold Reynard he needs Irene. She helps him to reform, sober up, and get a job as an engineer, and this time he does a spectacular job of it. Redeemed and in love he convinces Irene to divorce Reynard and marry him.

   Humiliated by the guards he has taunted because he letters have stopped and furious his control of Irene has been lost Reynard vows to kill the two lovers and plots escape, luring another prisoner into the suicidal attempt planning to kill the other prisoner and plant his id on the unidentifiable body,

   Able to contact Dirk for help Reynard escapes, “dies,” murders his fellow prisoner, and is free, if only he wasn’t insistent on coming to Rio to murder Irene and Bill for their betrayal despite Dirk’s pleas.

   Rio is a peculiar film. It seems closer to silent melodrama than modern film noir, and while it could be noir with just a turn here or there it isn’t in this incarnation, not quite.

   Rathbone is perfect as Reynard, by turns cooly charming and sadistic, admiring his wife the way a snake looks at a bird, reading volumes into a glance. Gurie is quite lovely and persuasive both as the wife under Reynard’s hypnotic control and as the woman slowly freeing herself from his interest. While he had no need to model his performance on anyone Rathbone does, at times, seem to be channeling the kind of silent film roles often played by Conrad Veidt.

   The film belongs to Rathbone though. Cummings has some good moments as a charming drunk but soon enough sobers up to be a somewhat standard, but far more skillful than usual, male ingenue. He seems a bit young for Gurie, but you can see the appeal after Rathbone’s snake like Reynard.

   There are a number of evocative scenes and shots (nice cinematography by Hal Mohr) showing how well Brahm had absorbed the lessons of German expressionism and would later use them in his film noir works. Stylistically Rio is an attractive film.

   It’s odd how misused and underused McLaglen is in this film. He has relatively little screen time and what time he does have is mostly in the kind of role you were more likely to see Walter Brennan or Thomas Mitchell in. McLaglen at this point was an Oscar winning actor and a star in his own right both teamed in films with the likes of Edmond Lowe and Chester Morris, and as a lead on his own having played the lead in two John Ford films (The Informer, Black Watch).

   It’s downright strange to see him play so small, if important, a supporting role in the film. Leo Carrillo is wasted too as the wastrel owner of the place where Irene performs. He is suggested as an oily type after Irene’s honor, but is awfully jovial about giving up when she ends up with Cummings. His role mostly consists of trying to scare gossipy waiter Billy Gilbert into shutting up. He never more than annoys Irene a little.

   Rio is an odd film. Rathbone is the main reason to watch, but by no means the only one. It’s also interesting to note American audiences in 1939 would be expected to immediately draw the inference to the Stavisky scandal that rocked France earlier in the decade. I’m not sure a modern film would dare to imagine an American audience would be that familiar with an international scandal, but here the film expects the audience to have some familiarity with those events and connect Reynard with Stavisky effortlessly.




WATERLOO ROAD. Gainsborough, UK, 1945. John Mills, Stewart Granger, Alastair Sim, Joy Shelton, and Alison Leggatt. Written & directed by Sidney Gilliat. Currently available on YouTube.

   Sidney Gilliat’s credits include thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, Bulldog Jack, Night Train to Munich, The Green Man and many others, so with him at the helm this promises to be a witty, fast-paced and suspenseful yarn. It doesn’t disappoint. Waterloo Road (set in 1941 at the height of the Blitz) crackles with movement and tension, even though there’s very little actual criminal activity, mostly done by the hero of the piece.

   Said hero is Private Jim Colton, ably played by John Mills in his usual unassuming way, albeit a bit handier with his fists than usual. When Colton hears that his wife Tillie (Joy Shelton) has been running around with spiv Ted Purvis (a slick job by rising star Stewart Granger) he goes AWOL in London to check things out for himself.

   That’s not a terribly promising start for a thriller, but Gilliat fills the slender tale with fast-paced foot chases as Colton eludes the MPs, tense encounters with Purvis’ thuggish associates, and he backs it up with some colorful smaller parts, ably written and played: Alastair Sim fits in quite suitably as the moral anchor of the tale, and Joy Shelton conveys the complexity of a lonely woman missing her husband and sorely tempted by Granger’s patently phony charm as Gilliat cross-cuts neatly between Colton’s search for Purvis and Purvis’ simultaneous moves on the Missus, each building suspense in its own way. And when the pay-off scene finally arrives it’s handled perfectly, with the most savage fight scene in British Cinema until Sean Connery and Robert Shaw went at it in From Russia with Love.

   Oddly though, what stays in the mind is the emotional resonance of the moment, as feelings are conveyed by a glance, hearts broken and mended with a meaningful gesture, and Colton’s fury is unleashed not by Purvis’s attempted seduction, but when the rejected spiv insults his wife. The delicate emotional balance lends dramatic contrast to the violence that ensues, and the result is one of those truly memorable movie moments in a film well worth seeking out.


THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH.  Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Kathryn Hunter, Brendan Gleeson.  Screenwriter/Director: Joel Coen.  Based on the play The Tragedie of Macbeth by William Shakespeare. [See also Comment #20.] Currently streaming on AppleTV+.

   I’m going to be lazy and not spend any time outlining the plot. (You can check it out for yourself via Wikipedia by going here.) All in all, this new movie version follows the main story line exceedingly well. It’s the production values that interested me as I was watching. (I confess that I wasn’t able to follow the dialogue all that well. Except for many often exceptions, Shakespeare’s characters talk a language quite foreign to me. This doesn’t bother me. I can always follow his plays well enough without knowing exactly what they’re saying.)

   My impressions. The movie is in black-and-white. Not many movie are any more, but in this case, it was a good choice; it adds immensely to the sheer eeriness of the tale. All the scenes take place in indoor sets. Nothing was filmed out of doors. The camera shots were taken at all angles and from all distances, with close-ups used whenever needed. Walls and hallways are stark, with very little adornment. Stripped down to its essence, the play’s the thing, to repeat a previously invented phrase.

   All of the performers are excellent. They should take pride in a job well done. I would like to think this filmed version of the play would do well in actual theaters, and that’s where I would love to see it, given the chance to do so. (It’s a film that well deserves a second viewing.) As it is, it’s a good time for streaming services to have been invented, to give movies such as this the opportunity to have the largest possible audiences they deserve.




A CANTERBURY TALE. Archer, UK, 1944. Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Esmond Knight, H.F. Maltry, and Eliot Makeham. Written & directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger.

   I watched this twice, back to back, just to see if I’d missed something. When I was through, I told the leggy red-head next to me on the couch that I still wasn’t sure how A Canterbury Tale felt about itself.

   “Do movies think about themselves?” she asked.

   Well, every movie has an attitude, even if it’s just give-a-damn, and Canterbury’s attitude is mostly one of a cherished England, rich in heritage and humanity. But there’s also a disturbing sub-text that moves the film, like many another Powell/Pressberger work, from the realm of simple propaganda into the rare class of Weird Movies.

   Made in the fifth year of a World War, confused, diffuse, and at times quite powerful, Canterbury concerns itself with conditions on England’s home front, bizarre crime, and the problems of three ordinary people caught up in it all.

   Price and Sweet play Sergeants — British and American, respectively — and Sim is a Land Girl detailed to work for local JP Thomas Colpepper (Eric Portman) in a village just outside Canterbury. But as the sergeants escort her from the train station to the town hall (It’s night and the village is under Blackout orders.) a shadowy figure darts out of the darkness and… and…. and…..

   Pours glue on the lady’s head. Yeah. Well, I told you there was bizarre crime here. Someone’s been making rather a habit of this sort of thing (Wait till you hear the motive!) picking on young ladies out after dark with soldiers, and Ms Sim is only the latest victim.

   But not a passive one. She and the sergeants pursue the miscreant into the Town Hall, where the local police (“The Glue Man’s at it again!”) search the building and, in a moment worthy of Caligari, discover only Colpepper, the all-powerful JP, seated magisterially in his inner sanctum.

   Of course the locals refuse to believe that a man of Colpepper’s stature could possibly be the Glue Man, so it falls to our intrepid trio to uncover evidence of his guilt and take it to the authorities in Canterbury.

   The ensuing story moves far too slowly, with way too many digressions, but the amateur sleuths carry it along by dint of their sheer charm and inefficiency. And they get their act together just in time for a tense and surprising confrontation in a railway carriage compartment on a train bound for Canterbury.

   And then they reach Canterbury, and all my notions about this movie got blown to pieces.

   It’s a powerful and moving finale, and one that left me considerably upset. Perhaps I shouldn’t look at it from a contemporary perspective, but to my mind pouring glue on ladies’ hair and running off into the night are acts of misogyny and cowardice. I’ll just say A Canterbury Tale doesn’t share my point of view, and leave it at that.

   A final note: this was to all intents and purposes the only film appearance of John Sweet, an amateur actor chosen for his total freshness in the part of the American Sergeant. It was a good choice.




MAN ON THE RUN. Associated British-Pathé, UK, 1949. Stratford Pictures, US, 1951. Derek Farr, Joan Hopkins, Edward Chapman, Laurence Harvey, Howard Marion-Crawford, Kenneth More. Written & directed by Lawrence Huntington.

   Peter Burden (Derek Farr) is an army deserter, one of twenty thousand British men who live in fear of imprisonment even after the war has ended. After having served four years, the authorities denied his request for compassionate leave in order to attend his mother’s deathbed and he absconded in disgust.

   He is now working as a landlord of a country pub and is pulling pints when an old army acquaintance (Kenneth More) walks in and recognizes him. Corporal Newman is newly demobbed and, having found only low-paid work in the area, opportunistically blackmails Burden.

   Terrified, Burden flees again, this time returning to London, where a lack of funds and the late rent on a ragged bedsit force him to try and pawn his old service revolver. At the jeweller’s, however, two armed robbers arrive and promptly kill a copper, with Burdon believed to be part of the gang.

   His attempts to elude the police become more perilous than ever and a desperate escape sees him bounding breathlessly into the house of young widow Jean Adams (Joan Hopkins). Jean takes pity on the ex-soldier and agrees to help. The pair become determined to find the robbers, knowing only that one of them (Edward Underdown) is missing two fingers on his left hand.

   All the while, they must avoid the grimly persistent Chief Inspector Mitchell (Edward Chapman) and Detective Sergeant Lawson (a young Laurence Harvey), who prove to be quite able pursuers…

   Lawrence Huntington directed, produced and wrote this foray into near-noir which was presumably inspired by the many deserters still at large long after V.E. Day. His script carefully positions Burdon as a sympathetic figure (the name is well-chosen). The sad circumstances surrounding his desertion and the fact he had spent most of the war in combat is repeated at least once.

   To steer clear from presenting him as a coward or a chancer was undoubtedly important as everyone in the audience would have known soldiers or might even have been one themselves. Huntington also has his protagonist plea for a more constructive solution to the problem, particularly when so many such people inevitably turn to crime to survive.

   This situation, often forgotten today, makes Man on the Run interesting and slightly more nuanced than other chase thrillers, though it so solidly sides with Burdon that a more minute exploration of similar issues facing other such soldiers – for example, post-traumatic stress or the frustrating futility of war itself – is avoided altogether. There’s a sense that each man would have his own story, though nobody describes what those might be.

   Derek Farr is excellent as Burdon: pained, thoughtful, and reluctant to enlist anyone else’s help. It’s a shame he didn’t have more of a career as he could easily have become a Kenneth More. More himself pops up early on, well before his middle-class every-man persona, like an English James Stewart in tweeds and a pipe, would lead him to become one of Britain’s biggest film stars.

   The police investigation, meanwhile, is headed by the sort of dogged, pipe-smoking detective familiar to pictures of this period, with Chapman’s chief inspector wry and astute enough to elicit tension. It’s this quietly humming, will-they-catch-him? element which carries the film, particularly in the excellent first half, though a thrilling set-piece of the sort included in The 39 Steps (which also had a bad guy deprived of a digit) or North By Northwest is unfortunately even more elusive than Burdon himself.

   Particularly interesting for its glimpses of post-war life (from genuine London locations to a reference to radio’s proto-James Bond Dick Barton), plus some gently amusing moments, Man on the Run makes for an entertaining and compelling thriller which is much recommended.

Rating: ***1/2




A GOOD WOMAN. Lions Gate, 2004. Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Milena Vukotic, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Mark Umbers. Screenplay by Howard Himelstein, loosely based on Lady Windermere’s Fan,   by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Mike Barker.

   Whothehell did they ever think was gonna go see a movie called A Good Woman?

   A pity, that title, because this is an excellent, film: moving, witty and romantic, even as it runs over Wilde’s play with a mulching mower.


   For starters, writer Howard Himelstein moves the action from London to Italy, the scenic towns near Naples, a visual treat beautifully exploited by director Mike Barker. Then he turns Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) and the Windermeres (Johansson & Umbers) into Americans, the latter two vacationing in luxury, the former penniless and on the prowl.

   From there, Himelstein touches on the play in fits and starts, tossing in Wildean epigrams of his own composing, opening out the action, and rearranging scenes while flirting with the original story line: Mr. Windemere seems to be having an affair with the predatory Mrs. Erlynne, and when Mrs. Windermere finds out, she flees to the amorous Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) leading to a tense confrontation on his yacht, where Truth rears its ugly head and promptly ducks back down again when Love shows up.

   All this would be plenty enough for an enjoyable movie, but again, Himelstein gives us more: two wonderfully thought out and affecting scenes (not in the play) that Ms Hunt caries off movingly, just by hiding her emotions, so we can read our own feelings into the thing.

   All of which got fed to the lions. The critics sneered, turned thumbs down, and audiences turned the attention to the cinematic gladiators and chariot races on other screens at the multiplex. Too bad. They missed a fine movie.




THE ROARING TWENTIES. Warner Brothers, 1939. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane, Gladys George, Jeffrey Lynn, Frank McHugh, Paul Kelly, Joe Sawyer, and Abner Biberman. Written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen, Mark Hellinger, Earl Baldwin, Frank Donoghue, and John Wexley. Directed by Raoul Walsh.

   Not so much a roar as a whimper. Warners obviously lavished a lot of care on this one (Just look at all those writers.) and the result was a lot of tedium.

   Note that The Roaring Twenties was made in 1939. Everyone who worked on it, and most of the audience, would have remembered the era in a glow of youthful reminiscence, and the film became less a gangster picture than an exercise in nostalgia. So in place of fast-moving action, we get lengthy and rather pedestrian musical productions of the golden oldies of yesteryear.

   The story (WARNING!) starts with three doughboys (Cagney, Bogart & Lynn) who meet in the trenches of The Great War and strike up a tentative friendship. Back at home, Lynn becomes a lawyer, and Cagney a bootlegger who runs an honest racket, while Bogart tends toward the seamier side of law-breaking. Cagney takes a shine to young songstress Priscilla Lane, and invests in a nightclub to showcase her talents, but she falls for Lynn, and when they run off and get married, Jimmy takes to drink.

   Come the Great Depression — seems like everything was “the Great” back then — Cagney loses everything and ends up a lowly cab driver, whenever he’s sober enough to drive. Chantoosie Gladys George has stuck with him through all this, with patience that outlasted mine by at least a half hour of running time, but he still burns his torch for Priscilla.

   If all this seems a bit staid, that’s because it is. And as I say, it’s not helped any at all by musical interpolations that stop the story quite dead in its proverbial tracks. Compare this with Edward G. Robinson’s similar arc in The Hatchet Man, a fast-paced half-hour shorter, and you’ll see what I mean.

   But then there’s the ending.

   If you’ve never seen The Roaring Twenties, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that Lynn and Bogart end up on opposite sides, and when Bogie gets menacing, Ms Lane turns to Cagney for help. The scene where he confronts Bogart is perfectly choreographed and effectively played: seedy cabbie vs big-shot gangster, with Jimmy at first humble, and Bogart dismissive.

   The knowing, defeated look in Cagney’s eyes when Bogart says, “It’s cold out, Eddie. I think I’ll have the boys give you a ride home.” Is almost worth sitting through the preceding ninety minutes. And Bogie’s cowardice when things go bad is just as convincing. The burst of action that follows is beautifully done by Raoul Walsh, a master stylist whose elegance was never fully appreciated.

   I just wish the ending had come a bit earlier in the film. As it is, it makes the movie memorable. Watch it, but keep a finger poised on the Fast Forward button.


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