Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn in “Charade”

Over the weekend, I heard the theme from the movie “Charade” and that spurred me to watch it again.

I have seen “Charade” a half a dozen times over the years, and even though I know the story, know the mystery’s solution, know where the clues are planted, I still enjoy it.

While on vacation at a French mountain resort, Regina Lambert, played by the elegant Audrey Hepburn (in clothes designed by Givenchy) contemplates divorce from her shady husband. She does not have to think too long about it because he is murdered on a train by men searching for stolen money. The men and the husband were all in on the theft, but the husband made off with it, and now they want their share.

Regina meets a dashing, mysterious and somewhat older man, played by Cary Grant, who volunteers to protect her from the bad guys. Or, does he just want the money himself?

Grant was 25 years older than Hepburn, but that hardly matters since these movie stars are such charismatic superstars, complete with their own unique accents.

So right there, the movie has two of the most charming people ever to appear on the silver – or Technicolor – screen.

Hepburn and Grant are plunked down in Paris to solve the mystery, while trying hard not to be killed by three odd villains played by James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass. Into this mix comes a square, but humorous American government man, played by Walter Matthau.

For just under two hours, this group dodges, attacks, evades, and detects in a clever, intricate, and light script by Peter Stone and Marc Behm. The doings were guided by director Stanley Donen, in a departure from the musicals he made in the 1950s, many with Gene Kelly.

And talking about music, “Charade” has one of the best theme songs courtesy of the great Henry Mancini. If you don’t remember what it sounded like, click here and listen.

Now a question:

Was there ever a cooler, classier, comic-mystery-thriller than this 1963 film?

Maybe there was. “North by Northwest”? Perhaps. But for me, Hepburn and Grant were a better combo than Grant and Saint.

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

“It Always Rains on Sunday” Kitchen Sink Noir

As a fan of British films, particularly those of the post-World War II period, I waited a long time before catching “It Always Rains on Sunday”.

The movie is a surprising combination of styles, one that was near its height when it came out in 1947 and another not quite a style yet. “It Always Rains on Sunday” is a crime picture, a thriller with film-noir touches, and an early example of “kitchen sink” drama, a style that would catch on a decade later with the “angry young man” dramas.

This film could be called an angry young woman film. In fact it has several angry young women in it.

Rose, played by Googie Withers, is a former barmaid whose boyfriend proposes to her just before getting arrested and shipped off to prison. She settles for a man 15 years her senior whom she marries. When the picture opens, she is living with him and his two grown daughters and little son in a tiny attached house. A good deal of Rose’s life, and this movie, is spent in the cramped kitchen which doubles as the dining room, laundry room, and bathroom – that is, the tub is in there, too. The other fixture, I am guessing, is out behind the house.

One night, Rose’s former boyfriend escapes from jail and hides in a shed in her backyard. She finds him, takes him in, feeds him and lets him sleep in her bed while the rest of the family is out on a rainy Sunday. But family members keep returning to the house, giving Rose and the con several scares and breaking up a rekindled romance.

In the meantime, one step-daughter is seeing a shady, married man. The shady man’s brother, a small-time gambler and fence of stolen items, is putting the moves of the other, more na├»ve step-daughter. And the married man’s wife, who catches on to the affair, is the fourth angry woman in this film.

This moody, edgy film has some unusual twists for its time. It is as crowded with story as its streets are crowded with people. In a subplot, three petty criminals try to unload stolen goods and immediately attract the attention of a police detective, played by Jack Warner (not the Hollywood mogul, but the British actor who looked a bit like Jack Hawkins). The detective is happy to pinch them, but he is busy on the trail of Rose’s old boyfriend. The circle quickly closes in on Rose and the con.

The man makes a run for it and Rose considers suicide in a subtle but horrifying scene in the kitchen.

This rough, crude drama winds itself up with an exciting finish in a railroad yard.

“It Always Rains on Sunday,” based on a novel by Arthur Le Bern, was directed by Robert Hamer, and was produced by Michael Balcon and Henry Cornelius at Ealing Studios. Ealing was famous for its Alec Guinness comedies, but the company produced a variety of very good dramas in the 1940s and 1950s. “It Always Rains on Sunday” was one of them and it is well worth seeing.

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason's blog.)

Friday, April 7, 2017

FFB: The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman

Moe Prager is a former New York City cop who left the force after a knee injury. He splits his time between the up-scale wine shop he owns with his brother, and the occasional private investigation job.

At the beginning of The James Deans, a wealthy man pressures Moe to investigate the unsolved case of a murdered intern of a state senator. The crime derailed the career of the politician, changing him from a rising star to a prime suspect. His wealthy backer wants him cleared so the man can continue his climb.

As a cop in Brooklyn ten years earlier, Moe Prager made the papers when he solved a missing child case. The rich man believes Moe is luckier than the police and the private investigators stumped by the case.

The pressure applied to Moe comes in the form of a state inspector arriving at his wine shop. The message to Moe is people with political pull can make his life miserable if he refuses to work the case. Moe agrees to take a look. A friend in the NYPD helps him with department information. But another former cop, the hard-drinking father of the dead woman, refuses to talk to Moe, which is a smaller mystery within the larger story.

Moe digs into the case, exposing other mysteries and placing himself, his brother, and his wife and child in danger.

The James Deans is Reed Farrel Coleman’s third Moe Prager mystery, but the first I have read. Meeting his cool, savvy P.I. and sampling his hard-edged writing style, I will be reading more Moe Prager stories, soon.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott's blog.)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Western Movie: Return to Warbow

“Return to Warbow” is one of the better, budget Westerns turned out by Hollywood in the 1950s.

Clay Hollister, a prisoner for eleven years at Yuma for robbing a stagecoach, is on a work detail outside the walls when he coordinates a violent escape. He and two others use their picks and shovels on the guards, steal the work wagon and drive the team of horses nearly to death in their getaway.

The men head for the town of Warbow where Clay plans to meet his brother, Frank, who was in on the robbery, got away and promised to hold the loot until Clay returned. Clay and his tough, untrustworthy gang make their way to the home of Clay’s former love. She is now married to the owner of the stage outfit, whom Clay will force to go fetch his brother. When the brother, now a drunk, learns Clay has escaped, he is terrified.

The prison notifies the sheriff of Warbow of Clay’s escape. The sheriff forms a posse and they comb the area for the gang. Complicating matters, Clay can barely control the two men he brought with him who have no regard for anyone but themselves and are a danger to the woman and her young son.

This 67-minute, Technicolor movie from 1958, has enough action, violence, twists and turns for a full-length feature. It moves along at a nice pace.

Clay is played by Phil Carey, an actor who appeared in many films and television shows from the early 1950s through the 1970s. The owner of the stage line is played by Andrew Duggan, another actor who shows up in supporting roles in movies and TV. Carey, listed on the IMDb as 6-foot-4, and Duggan at 6-foot-5, both close in age, both World War II vets, are well-matched as rivals. Robert J. Wilke, another big guy, 6-2, made a career of playing hard-bitten bad men, and here he is the member of the gang Clay has the most to worry about. Clay’s love interest is played by Catherine McLeod, and her son by Christopher Olsen, one of the better child actors. Clay’s brother Frank is played by James Griffith, a good character actor of the day. And, in a small role, Jay Silverheels, best remembered as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” series, plays a former stage employee who was blinded in Clay’s hold up.

“Return to Warbow” was written by Les Savage, Jr., based on his novel. It was directed by Ray Nazarro, a man who made dozens of Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s.

(For more posts on film and TV, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Seven Keys” a Tight Little British Mystery Movie

Released in 1961, “Seven Keys” is a fast-paced English crime film about a surly prisoner named Russell, played by Alan Dobie, who is informed by the warden that he has inherited a strange gift from a fellow inmate who died behind bars.

The inheritance is a ring of keys. Russell learns the old prisoner was sent to jail for embezzling £20,000. The money was never recovered and the warden, the guards, the police, and Russell suspect one of the keys will open the secret hiding place of all that loot.

Once Russell is out of the can, he goes through the keys, one-by-one, discovering what each opens. While working his way through the ring, he attracts the attention of baddies who would also like to get their hands on the cash.

This quirky little movie, with a running time of just 57 minutes, was most likely the second feature on a double bill, but it is miles ahead of the usual B-picture. The twisty story, the acting, and the visual style are well above average.

“Seven Keys” was directed by Pat Jackson, who went from making documentaries in the 1930s and 1940s, to feature films in the 1950s, to television in the 1960s and 1970s. He directed several episodes of two shows starring Patrick McGoohan – “Danger Man” (called “Secret Agent” in the U.S.) and “The Prisoner.” Both of those shows have some of the flavor found in “Seven Keys.”

The quirky, jaunty quality of “Seven Keys” with its snappy pace and eccentric supporting characters, may be the influence of producer Julian Wintle. In the 1960s, he produced all the Emma Peel episodes of “The Avengers.”

The writers on the film were Henry Blyth and Jack Davies. Davies had a long career in movies, including the scripts for the tricky Michael Caine picture, “Gambit,” and the comedy, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.”

This good little film is out on DVD, part of a series of box sets called "The Edgar Wallace Mysteries." But the discs are not available in a format for the U.S. and Canada.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“Road House” with Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliott

The 1989 movie “Road House” is a rip-roaring action comedy that took me 28 years to see.

Dalton, played by Patrick Swayze, the coolest, toughest bar bouncer in the country is hired to come to a small town and clean up the roughest dive in the burg. Liking the challenge, as well as the big bucks that go along with the job, Dalton sets out to kick ass. And he does, although it takes him half the movie to whup all the dirtbags, and to teach the bouncers and bartenders how to do the same, with style.

Dalton takes his lumps along the way, and when he can’t administer first aid to himself, he is forced to go the hospital, where he meets a beautiful young doctor, played by Kelly Lynch, and – well, you are way ahead of me.

The biggest problem in the town is a rich gangster named Wesley, who is running a protection racket and collecting from all the honest businessmen. Wesley is played with zeal by the great Ben Gazzara, who all but steals the show from Swayze.

Just when Wesley and his goons step up their strong-arm methods, Dalton’s old mentor, Wade, played by Sam Elliott, rides into town to help. Elliott is another actor who nearly steals the show from Swayze. But Swayze persists, taking on the gang, including a one-on-one martial arts showdown with Wesley’s top henchman, and finally Wesley himself.

This film was directed by Rowdy Herrington, who made a handful of action and crime films over the years, along with an interesting movie about pro golfer Bobby Jones. “Road House” was produced by Joel Silver who made tons of action films since the late 1970s.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

“A United Kingdom” is a Movie to See

If “A United Kingdom” is still playing at a theater near you, go see it.

It is the true story of Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo, the heir to the hereditary kingdom of Bechuanaland (now Botswana, but in the late 1940s, still a British protectorate), who, while a law student in London in 1947, meets an English girl, played by Rosamund Pike, and marries her over the objections of his uncle, the acting king of his country, and the British government.

When I saw the coming attractions, I thought it was going to be good, but it was far better than I expected.

So check your local listings (OK, a Google search), find out if it is playing, and go see it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

John Ford's "The Rising of the Moon"

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and as they usually do every March 17, the cable channel, Turner Classic Movies, is showing Irish-themed films all day.

Tonight at 8 p.m., TCM is scheduled to show John Ford’s “The Rising of the Moon.” (But, please check your cable guides. The times can vary and schedules can be different outside the U.S.) .

“The Rising of the Moon,” from 1957, is an unusual little black and white film with no big-name stars, except Tyrone Power who introduces segments of the picture.

The movie is in three parts, each a separate and unconnected tale, based on short stories and plays by Frank O’Connor, Michael J. McHugh, and Lady Augusta Gregory, and adapted by long-time Ford collaborator, screenwriter Frank S. Nugent.

The first two stories are told with a gentle sense of nostalgia. The last is harder and tougher. All three parts were made with care and artistry on location in Ireland.

Don’t miss this one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Don’t Bother Seeing “I See a Dark Stranger”

St. Patrick’s Day is approaching and, ironically, I happened to watch a film the other night with a distinctly anti-Irish tone. But then, most of the English characters in this movie did not come across too well, either.

“I See A Dark Stranger” is a 1946 war film set in Ireland and England in the weeks prior to the 1944 D-Day invasion. I was expecting a noir thriller, but was disappointed.

Bridie Quilty, played by Deborah Kerr, a young, obstinate and none-too-bright young Irish woman who spent her life listening to stories of fights for Irish freedom from the British, decides to serve her country against its ancient foe by becoming a Nazi spy in England.

While working diligently and unthinkingly for a nest of spies gathering information about the coming invasion, she attracts the amorous attention of a British officer, played by Trevor Howard. Why the Howard character would think Bridie anything but an ill-tempered idiot is beyond explaining. Bridie makes Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher of “The Quiet Man” look like an easy-going hippie girl.

“I See A Dark Stranger” is part adventure film, which the producers supposed would be in the mold of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” and part slapstick comedy with most of the slaps coming in the last 15 minutes of the picture. But this movie is a 100 percent mess, although a technically well-crafted mess.

The film was co-written and produced by the team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, with Launder directing. The two wrote the script for Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” so this one should have been a lot better. But they did not have Hitch to guide them.

My advice is to skip “I See A Dark Stranger,” especially if you have any Celtic blood in your veins. You might want to skip it, too, if you are British because the movie is none too kind to your people either.

Now, so as not to leave you without a movie recommendation for March 17, do try to see John Ford's "The Rising of the Moon," Friday on Turner Classic Movies (in the U.S.). And, please check back here on St. Patrick's Day for a post on Ford's film.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

FFB: Six Days of the Condor by James Grady

The violent spy thriller, Six Days of the Condor, is a fun, fast read from 1974.

Written by a first-time author, then in his mid-20s, James Grady quickly sets up a deadly predicament for his main character, Ron Malcolm, a man in his mid-20s, working for the CIA.

Malcolm is part of a research division in which half a dozen men and women read novels all day and turn in detailed reports on them, noting any passages that may reveal a deeper knowledge of the world’s spy agencies than any ordinary person could know.

This division is off on its own, housed in a Washington, D.C. townhouse. Into this quaint building on a residential street come three men with machine guns who massacre everyone working there – except Malcolm, who left through a back door to run some errands for his boss and pick up lunches for the staff. Malcolm returns to find his colleagues dead. He calls headquarters and arranges to be picked up and taken to safety. But the pick-up is a trap which he narrowly escapes and which sets him running for his life, not trusting anyone.

Why the employees are killed is not too hard to figure out. The people behind it are well disguised. Malcolm's struggle to figure it all out takes a backseat to his avoiding the hitmen and staying alive.

In a strange twist, Malcolm kidnaps a young woman and hides in her apartment. He explains his crazy situation, she forgives him and jumps his bones. Well, 1974 was not that far removed from the free-loving 60s.

With a little suspension of disbelief, Grady’s novel is a swift, action-packed yarn with several well-done, tension-filled moments that keep the pages turning.

A couple of minor criticisms of the book are its use of two old devices. One is concealing the identity of the bad guys by using only vague physical descriptions in scenes featuring them. The other is leading the reader up to a revealing moment, and then cutting it short with a chapter break. The following chapter jumping ahead in time to the characters carrying out the plan which was not revealed to readers. These devices are still in use.

Overall, Grady did a fine job of setting up and sustaining suspense, and his lean prose style made for an enjoyable read.

In 1975, Six Days of the Condor came out as a film, with many changes from the book, including its title, called “Three Days of the Condor,” starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.