Columbia Noir: 5 Against the House (1955)

cnoir5Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), the smartest of four college students who have spent a night at a Reno casino, is excited by the challenge of robbing it. Its the intellectual challenge that inspires him, seeing it as a prank, intending to inform the police of where the money is once he’s stolen it- but one of the four friends, traumatised by his experiences in the Korean war, has no intention of returning any money.

I didn’t really click with this one. The premise is very promising, but its not really the tense thriller that the title or the synopsis would suggest: indeed, the tension really doesn’t come from the heist (which takes most of the film’s running time to even get to), rather coming from Brick going off the rails. For some reason -presumably the source novel by Jack Finney- the focus is largely on Brick, with an awkward aside to Kim Novak’s sexy dame who seems shoehorned in (the film crunching to a halt for her to sing a romantic song or two). Its really a very odd feature, and hardly much of a traditional noir- instead it feels like a genre mash-up, stuck in-between the dark heist thriller I expected and the light-hearted caper film that harkens more towards Oceans 11 (that would arrive five years later). It has its moments, particularly its genius finale set in what I can only describe as an automated parking garage in which cars are parked vertically in columns above each other – absently predating the finale of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Its an early feature for Mathews, a familiar face from films I watched in my childhood (particularly his Harryhausen films, which possibly did his career more harm than good as he’d later become rather typecast with those matinee swashbuckler adventures that quickly slipped out of fashion). Curiously, Matthews will also turn up in the next film of this Indicator noir set, The Garment Jungle, in a superior role that would indeed suggest better things should have lay ahead of him.

I quite like this kind of thing, the links between films, connections of sorts: Nina Foch of course appeared in the first two films of this set, another is that this film’s screenplay was co-written by Stirling Silliphant, who would later write the sixth film in this set, The Lineup. It was an early feature for Kim Novak (her second credited role, I believe), who, unlikely as it might seem from this film, would go on to appear in one of the greatest films ever made, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just a few years after. Both are Matthews and Novak fine, as is Brian Keith who plays Brick, the war-vet student who goes off the rails in rather melodramatic fashion. One curious piece of trivia for viewers of a certain age is the appearance of William Conrad in a minor role, who would later star as Cannon in the hugely popular tv series of 1971-1976, and notable to geeks like me as the narrator of the 1977 Making of Star Wars tv-documentary and the voice that opened every episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980). Those were the days.

Aren’t you the ‘good man’?

maniac12017.54: Maniac (1963)

Hammer is remembered these days as a horror studio, but they made all sorts of films back in the day- Maniac being one of its noir/psychological b&w thrillers. Set in France with some impressive widescreen photography out on location, Maniac is quite a surprise when one considers Hammer’s mostly studio-based Gothic horrors, with their constantly familiar sets. Maniac looks different; bigger, more sophisticated visually.

It is of course, almost at odds with the ambitious location shooting, a pulpish thriller that doesn’t stray too far from what one would expect, but it does start with a very unnerving sequence in which a girl returning from school is picked up and attacked. It’s really quite a brutal sequence, more from what is inferred happening off-screen and our own imaginations, and the film starts confounding our genre expectations from the start- the girl’s rapist is not the maniac of the films title at all. Instead, we see the girl’s father taking justice into his own hands when he catches the rapist and viciously murders him with a welding torch. What is this, a Tarantino movie?

Its funny watching ‘old’ films like this for the first time with modern eyes and different social attitudes. The hero of the film is Geoff Farrell, an American painter played by Kerwin Matthews, Sinbad himself, no less. Farrell is an utter bastard, a self-preoccupied narcist on the bounce from a failed relationship with a rich girlfriend who latches first onto Annette, the girl who was raped five years earlier in the films aforementioned prologue, and then when those overtures seem thwarted, has an affair with her mother, Eve (Nadia Gray). By the time all the twists and turns have resulted in Eve being arrested by the police, Farrell then latches onto Annette again. Really, it had me thinking that Annette would have been safer with the maniac.  It’s not that the character of Farrell does anything particularly bad from the point of view of 1950s/1960s society, but it does look damned questionable from the perspective of 2017. It rather lends this formulaic, if surprisingly effective thriller with an extra layer of grubbiness and sense of distaste, with some questionable sexual objectification of women in general.

In anycase, it’s a great little pulp thriller which suggests there was far more to Hammer than just those gothic horrors we are more familiar with. If you could smell a film, Maniac would be thick with the slightly mouldering odour of old paperback pulp potboilers sitting out on bookstore racks in the old days. It is what it is, and pretty glorious for that.

Maniac can currently be found on Indicator’s recent Hammer vol.1 boxset- slipping fairly obscure (Hammer purists will no doubt take me to task for that) films like this in boxsets such as this is a great move, as I doubt many would purchase Maniac on disc on its own merits. As it is, the film can be a very pleasant surprise for those like me who are unfamiliar with it. The picture quality is pretty great in HD, especially considering how badly some of those more popular gothic horors have fared in comparison. Indicator even supply a fantastic booklet and plenty of on-disc extras, surely going the extra mile for a film that wouldn’t ordinarily be on the receiving end of such attention. More please, Indicator!

 

Sinbad!

Indicator’s recent box-set (the first in a series of Harryhausen sets) contains UK blu-ray premier’s of the Sinbad trilogy, with the usual great special features we have come to expect. I may struggle to get through those extras, but the films? Well, I’ve no wish to add to the ‘to watch’ pile, and I intend to justify every 2017 purchase by actually watching them, so this past week it’s been a Sinbad triple-bill at Ghost Hall…

7thvoy1The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

The oldest of the three films, it shows its age in places but also likely benefits from that age in its bold, technicolour-drenched, almost gothic stylings that lend it a similar charm to the best of Hammer of that period. The comic book-styled colours, and deep dark shadows are particularly vivid and atmospheric-it looks like a timeless European fantasy, unfortunately handicapped by the casting of two incongruous American leads- the bland Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and a frankly terrible Kathryn Grant (who thankfully retired from acting soon after). The film is enlivened considerably by Torin Thatcher as the villain, Sokurah. He chews up the scenery and hugely improves the film- a towering over the top pantomime sorcerer, a joy to witness. He’s about the only human aspect to match up to Harryhausen’s wonderfully imaginative stop-motion creatures. The increased grain of the process photography doesn’t do the film any favours, especially in this beautiful new HD master, but the imagination and craft in the design, building and animation of the creatures is brilliant. The film remains a timeless classic and is served by a spectacular Bernard Herrmann  score that is probably the finest musical accompaniment to any Harryhausen feature.

golden12017.40: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

As the prefix above suggests, somehow I’d never seen this Sinbad film before. The surprising gap between this film and its predecessor results in a new cast and an initially disorientating change of approach. The cast is a definite improvement- John Phillip Law as Sinbad and the gorgeous Caroline Munro as his voluptuous love-interest. Initially Law struck me as an odd-looking Sinbad but I warmed to him considerably as the film went on; a good actor with great screen presence. Munro… well, she doesn’t have to act, she just looks incredible and I always had a crush on her as a young lad- well, what young man in the 1970s wouldn’t? You’d have to be a Vulcan with green blood in your veins not to fall under her spell. This is actually one of her better performances/movies, and as I’d never seen the film before a genuine treat.

The change of approach with the movie is also a bit surprising but quite commendable. It has a bigger budget and a more accomplished scale and style; less European fantasy and more real-world Arabic adventure, helped no end by some great location shooting. Harryhausen’s creations are as fantastic and memorable as ever, but by now his stop-motion technique was showing its age and limitations in the photographic process all the more apparent. Certainly the leap in grain and the impact on mattes leave the film suffering in HD. It’s a great pity but the beauty of these films is that they are such fun and so imaginative in design that you can easily forgive the limitations in the fakery. It’s still movie magic and few cgi creations have the heart and soul of a Harryhausen creation.

And I still haven’t mentioned Tom Baker as the villain, another evil magician, Koura. Less the panto villain of Thatcher’s Sokurah, Koura is more ‘real’, more genuine, and Baker is brilliant. This film was great, possibly the best of the three and I look forward to delving into the discs special features.

eyetiger1Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Oh dear. Horrible. Time (and Star Wars) finally caught up with Harryhausen, and although fans will always forgive the faults inherent in his stop-motion effects, this time the film around them was truly terrible. It’s also likely why this boxset exists- I can imagine genre fans rushing to buy 7th Voyage and, having now seen it, Golden Voyage, but really, how many would fork out hard-earned dosh on nonsense like Eye of the Tiger? I watched it once for completists sake having watched the other two, but now this disc is back in the box where it will stay. Sure, a Sinbad box makes sense but really, it’s surely the only way this film would ever sell.

To be fair, it’s not helped by the film committing one of my very worst pet hates in film- it runs the opening scenes under the title credits. I hate that. I much prefer text over a blank screen, or over graphics, whatever, but not over the opening shots of a film. Worse than that, the film compounds this heresy by showing the closing titles over the closing scenes of the film. The plot of the film involves rescuing the prince from his curse, returning him to human form and ensuring his coronation before the time limit, and then just as our heroes are triumphant and we see the fruits of their labours, boom, full-colour text is processed over the valedictory sequence. Horrible. I hate it.

Another thing, no matter how bad Kerwin Matthews was in 7th Voyage, Patrick (son of John) Wayne is even worse. Its Sinbad channeling a young Clint Eastwood. Seriously, close your eyes and listen to him- maybe it is his American drawl, but he sounds like he is actually mimicking Clint. Its utterly bizarre, and quite out of keeping with a Sinbad fantasy. There seems to be little chemistry between himself and Jane Seymour too, and Seymour herself is a pale reflection of Munro’s sultry heroine of the previous film. It’s all pretty weak and insipid, frankly: the villain (a sorceress this time, with a son for a stooge) is much inferior to those of the first two films, and the direction fairly uninspired. Even the music score is a pale shadow of the Herrmann and Rozsa scores previous. No, I really didn’t like it. Why waste time with this when you can rewatch one of the previous two?