Films: Drama/Romance



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.

   â€œDo 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.




THE WIFE OF MONTE CRISTO. PRC, 1946. John Loder, Lenore Aubert, Fritz Kortman, Charles Dingle, Eduardo Ciannelli, Martin Kosleck, Fritz Feld, Eva Gabor. Screenplay by Dorcas Cochran, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Franz Rosenwalk (Francis Rosenwald) suggested by the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

   Almost from the start there were sequels to Alexandre Dumas mega selling The Count of Monte Cristo including The Daughter of Monte Cristo and The Treasure of Monte Cristo by Jules Lermina published orginally as by Dumas himself. The Wife of Monte Cristo is not a sequel, but a retelling, adding a dash of Zorro and casting Haydee, Dantes Indian ward who is a key part of his revenge plot, as the wife of the title.

   The time is 1832, the place France where corrupt government is opposed by the mysterious masked man known as the Avenger. The Prefect of the Police, de Villefort (John Loder) has two reasons to stop the Avenger, one he ruined his father, the other because he is the head of the corrupt elements in the governent backed by the wealthy Danglars (Charles Dingle) and Malliard (Fritz Kortman) who are both part of a plot to sell contaminated medicine during an outbreak of fever.

   De Villefort has set a trap for the Avenger, and it very nearly works when his men ambush the Avenger and his hand is wounded. Now de Villefort is sure he has the man he suspects is the Avenger, the mysterious and wealthy Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo (Martin Kosleck).

   Monte Cristo manages to outwit de Villefort, going out of town to his hunting lodge and leaving his beautiful wife Haydee (Lenore Aubert) in charge and in contact with the Avengers legion of men.

   But de Villefort still suspects Monte Cristo and the only way to keep him off balance is if the Avenger appears while Monte Cristo is gone so Haydee chooses to don the mask and black costume of the masked hero.

   Meanwhile de Villefort, still certain Monte Cristo is the Avenger, romances Haydee enlisting Mme Malliard (Eva Gabor) in his game to set a trap for the count. But for a time Haydee manages to outwit him, even capturing, putting on trial, and executing Malliard under de Villefort’s nose (in the best sequence of the film shot in smoky dark inns, wine cellars, and on Parisian roof tops), which results in Haydee being arrested, and now it is up to Monte Cristo to return from his hunting lodge and free his wife and avenge his honor as de Villefort has discovered from his spy (Fritz Feld) Monte Cristo is Edmund Dantes.

   All this is standard cloak and dagger, and done on a low budget, but in this case done stylishly by director Edgar G. Ulmer who takes a fairly strong script, an interesting and intelligent heroine in Aubert, who is convincing equally in cape and mask and low cut gown, a dashing and despicable villain in Loder, and a surprisingly dashing and adept hero in Kosleck, who is off screen for much of the film, but returns in time to outwit de Villefort and confront him in his own palace in a well staged duel to the death. Considering Kosleck is best remembered for low budget villainy he is quite good as the swashbuckling mystery man.

   A better than usual supporting cast of Kortman, Dingle, Gabor, Ciannelli, Anthony Warde, and Feld add to the fun while Bruce Lester and Robert J. Wilkie are unbilled in small parts.

   Virginia Christine has a nice bit as a woman who hides Monte Cristo from the soldiers.

   Mostly it is Ulmer who makes this worthwhile. While I don’t quite hold with the auteur theory of Ulmer’s genius, he was capable of making the most of a low budget, poor lighting, inexpensive sets, and a feel for German Expressionism. Here the directors eye and ability to make the most of very little combined with a decent cast and the usual mix of desirable women, flashing swords, swirling cloaks, and masked heroes works better than you might expect.

   This is by no means a great film, but it holds its own with better known and better financed sequels to Monte Cristo like the two Louis Hayward outings The Return of Monte Cristo and The Son of Monte Cristo. Considering those two are well respected among fans of swashbucklers that’s saying quite a bit for this film.


BARRICADE. 20th Century Fox, 1939. Alice Faye, Warner Baxter, Charles Winninger, Arthur Treacher, Keye Luke, Willie Fung, Philip Ahn. Directed by Gregory Ratoff.

   In the midst of war-torn China, an isolated, almost forgotten American consulate is besieged by Mongolian bandits, Trapped inside, among others, are a beautiful American woman (traveling incognito without a passport as the Russian wife of a dead American) and a reporter who is “temporarily” between jobs, fired for having concocted an interview with a Chinese general who (unbeknownst to him) was dead at the time.

   On the surface this is nothing more than a love story, taking place against a background of history’s making, filled with suspense and brave deeds, but once again the real hero is neither of the two leading stars. As the consul who is all but forgotten by his country, Charles Winninger turns in an outstanding performance as a patriot who has not forgotten his country a fraction of an inch. Seemingly bumbling and naive, Winninger shows that his character knows exactly what is going on, and that trampling on the rights of Americans is not an action that should be taken lightly.

   In other words, an old-fashioned movie that’s as timely as last month’s headlines.

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.




● W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM – The Narrow Corner. William Heinemann Ltd., UK, hardcover, 1932.

● THE NARROW CORNER. Warners, 1933. Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Patricia Ellis, Ralph Bellamy, Dudley Digges, Artur Hohl, Reginald Owen, Willie Fung, and Sidney Toler. Screenplay by Robert Presnell. Directed by Alfred E. Green.

● ISLE OF FURY. Warners, 1936. Humphrey Bogart, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Woods, E.E. Clive, Paul Graetz, George Regas, Tetsu Komai, Miki Morita, and Frank Lackteen. Screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews and William Jacobs. Directed by Frank McDonald.

   The Narrow Corner finds Maugham striding confidently through Joseph Conrad territory, with a Marlow-like narrator recalling his encounter with a young wastrel out cruising the south seas to evade a murder rap in Australia. With the ship laid up for repairs on a remote island, the young man meets a family of simple, decent Dutch traders and finds love (or does he?) when it’s too late (or is it?)

   Maugham does a splendid job with the locations, the simple plot and the complex characterizations, but it sometimes seems he’s trying too hard to write a Serious Novel when he could be telling a Good Story. I should also add, in case you’re bothered by it, that this is the homosexiest straight novel I’ve seen in some time: the women are generally predatory or self-absorbed, and Maugham spends a lot of time contrasting the physical beauty and innocence of the young men with the saggy, baggy dissipation of their elders.

   Despite the subtext, The Narrow Corner was snapped up by Warners and filmed just a year after publication. In those heady, pre-code days, Hollywood could still exploit the steamy exoticism of the thing, and director Alfred E. Green and writer Robert Presnell did rather well by it, Presnell excising Maugham’s pretensions, and Green slapping the story on screen with pace and style.

   Corner offers one of the best storm-at-sea scenes ever in the Movies, plus a cast of able thespians (including Doug Fairbanks Jr. as the wastrel, Patricia Ellis as the love-starved island girl, Dudley Digges and Arthur Hohl as dope-addict doctor and crooked captain, and Sidney Toler as a tough “fixer.”) delivering some sharp lines. The film falls down only in the casting of Ralph Bellamy, the mere appearance of whom gives away the ending immediately.

   A few years later, Warners went to the well again, and to their credit, they made an enjoyable “B” picture out of the thing. True, they tossed out most of Maugham’s novel (He got screen credit anyway, which he may or may not have welcomed.) but they filled it up with crackerjack ideas of their own invention: shifty natives planning robbery and fomenting unrest; a larcenous skipper prone to murder; undersea mayhem, and even a hokey octopus!

   Humphrey Bogart, sporting an unflattering mustache, stars as a husband balanced precariously on the edge of cuckoldry when mysterious castaway Donald Woods turns up on his remote tropical island. Wise old Doctor E.E. Clive is quick to intuit the attraction between Woods and Bogey’s bride (lovely Margaret Lindsay, whose star burned steadily in Hollywood but somehow never caught fire) but writers Andrews and Jacobs cut away to the action scenes before things get too syrupy.

   They also do a good job of fleshing out the characters to more than B-movie dimensions. Director McDonald lets his actors expand to fit the parts, as his camera moves gracefully through the studio tropics. As for Bogart, well, this was the point in his career when Warners was still wondering what to do with him, the years he spent playing second-leads, vampires and Mexican bandits. He looks a bit as if at any moment the writers might decide to kill off his character, and the uncertainty works well in this context. It’s not Maugham’s novel, but it’s a dandy bit of entertainment in the Warners style.


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