Friday, May 15, 2020

5 Against the House (1955)

This is an intriguing crime drama about a group of college students pulling off a heist of a Reno, Nevada casino. After a holiday trip to the casino, one of the students gets the idea of pulling off the perfect crime, and gets his classmates involved -- some of them against their will. One of them, a traumatized Korean war vet (Brian Keith) gets carried away and takes charge of the heist himself, with devastating consequences.

Directed by Phil Karlson, it builds some effective suspense about how the characters will be impacted by the scheme, but the heist itself is a relatively minor element compared with other films of this genre. The script is by a team of writers including Stirling Silliphant and Frank Tashlin. Guy Madison, Kerwin Mathewsm, and Kim Novak co-star.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Saskatchewan (1954)

An adventure-packed "North"-Western about a Canadian Mountie who takes up the protection of the lone survivor of an Indian attack, and defies commands in order to strategically lead his troops to the border to avoid another attack. Splendid Technicolor location photography (actually filmed in Alberta), with great contrasts between the bright red coats of the Mounties against the breathtaking mountain scenery in the background. Directed by Raoul Walsh.

Convicted (1938)

Rita Hayworth, age 19, in CONVICTED (1938)

"Quota Quickie" produced in Victoria B.C. for the British market, with American stars Charles Quigley and Marc Lawrence.

Hayworth plays a nightclub singer whose brother is framed for a murder, and must hunt down the real killer. Otherwise routine crime drama (based on the Cornell Woolrich story "Face Work") enhanced by the presence of Hayworth in an early role right before coming to the attention of Hollywood.

Playboy of Paris (1930)

Not a great or even particularly good film, by any means, but I could watch Maurice Chevalier in anything and this gives him a fun role as a cafe waiter who comes in to a fortune but has to continue working his job in the cafe. The plot is wafer thin but I enjoyed the fun spirit and energy of it all. I'm also intrigued by this director, Ludwig Berger (whose other films include the Korda THIEF OF BAGDAD and the 1937 Dutch version of PYGMALION), and was interested to see another example of his work.

Roadhouse Nights (1930)

I watched this strange little number from 1930 recently. It showed up on my radar after reading "Red Harvest", as this film is described as a loose (very loose, I'd say) adaptation of Hammett's book. It's so loose, in fact, that the book isn't even listed as a source in the film's credits, the script attributed solely to Ben Hecht.

I strongly suspect that little of Hecht's original script ended up on the screen, because it's an utterly bizarre mixed bag. The film tells the story of a reporter (Charlie Ruggles, in a dramatic role) who is sent to a small town outside of Chicago to investigate the disappearance of a fellow reporter, who went MIA while investigating a mob of rum-runners operating out of the town. We know that the reporter was bumped off by the mob leader when he got a little too close to uncovering the operation.

The plot finds time for music numbers by Helen Morgan, as the gangster's moll who also turns out to have been an old sweetheart of Ruggles, and some energetic comedy singing and dancing from the team of Clayton, Jackson & Durante (with Jimmy making his film debut in a role that also calls for some dramatic support).

It all runs out of steam by the end, with the absurdity of the situations working against the dramatic tension, but it's all oddly fascinating in its strangeness. The performances and direction have a stilted and lugubrious quality that give the impression of a bad dream.

Detective Story (1951)

Based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, this William Wyler film shows its theatrical roots but is imbued with a strong degree of realism. Set almost entirely inside a New York City police station and centered around the revolving group of characters who come and go throughout the day, it offers a first-rate showcase for its powerhouse ensemble cast headed by Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix, Cathy O'Donnell, and standout performances by newcomers Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman.

This was right around the time that Douglas was essaying some really dark, intense roles (notably ACE IN THE HOLE), and his Jim McCleod here is one of the best of those. McCleod is angry and vengeful, uncompromising in his tough-as-nails attitude toward crime. He is anchored only by his love for his wife as his growing bitterness threatens to destroy him both personally and professionally.

The set design of the police station perfectly captures the claustrophobic atmosphere and the resulting high tensions of all who work within it. Special mention should also be made of the fine cinematography by Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz. Screenplay by Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan from Kingsley's 1949 play of the same name.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Night Owls (1930)

I watched this Laurel and Hardy short on TV this morning. I've seen it probably close to a dozen times over the years, and it's never been one of my favorites. I've always found it a little too slow and plodding, even clumsily-staged compared to their best work. I had chalked this up partly due to the lack of fluidity in the early talkies, but even then, Laurel and Hardy had achieved a more relaxed, smooth pace in even earlier films like The Perfect Day and The Hoosegow (1929), so I wasn't sure I could explain my reaction to Night Owls based purely on the challenges of adapting their comedy to early sound film.

For whatever reason, when I watched Night Owls again this morning, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found my estimation of it much higher than before. The version shown on the "Laurel and Hardy Show" features new musical under-scoring of the familiar LeRoy Shield tunes, arranged by Ronnie Hazlehurst, so perhaps that added to my enjoyment and smoothed over the flow of the action. But beyond that, the antics of the Boys' repeated attempted break-ins struck me as much funnier this time around. What had struck me as one of their weaker shorts in the past now had me in stitches.

Maybe it was just the laughs I needed this morning.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Sven Nykvist on working with Ingmar Bergman

American Cinematographer ran an article by Sven Nykvist, "Photographing the Films of Ingmar Bergman", in which the cinematographer talks about his work with the great director. The article provides a fascinating insight into their working relationship and Bergman's working methods.

Nykvist describes his approach to working with Bergman:
"I am grateful to Bergman’s scripts that his photographic goal always changes with each one. There is no possibility for his cameraman to just alter his ordinary routine lighting technique or to shoot production after production in the same manner. All easy-come effects must be sacrificed for the simplicity which does not disturb. Although public acclaim in cinematography often can be achieved by instantaneous effects, it is in the long run only the true light which is interesting and which I strive for more and more in my work."
Full article here: