Machine Gun McCain (1969)

machineI’m not certain what I was expecting from this, but I was quite surprised when it turned out to be some kind of trashy Italian crime flick partly filmed on location in San Francisco and Las Vegas (with interiors shot in Rome). Starring Peter Falk,  John Cassavetes and Brit Ekland, I’d expected something very, very different, but most of the remaining cast (notably Gabriele Ferzetti, of Once Upon a Time in the West fame) are obviously Italian actors and the film is dubbed as horribly as only these Italian exploitation flicks can be. Coupled by a score from Ennio Morricone, this is a crime flick with some kind of identity crisis.

The film is so intent on being shocking and edgy (as far as one could get back in the 1960s) that it loses any credibility – I suppose its the kind of thing that Quentin Tarantino might champion as being ‘cool’ but its far from it. Its really pretty bad. Cassavetes, as the titular anti-hero, is terribly wasted, his character behaving in oddly incoherent ways that spoils any credibility to his performance (he robs from the mob but has no escape plan to get away?), and Brit Ekland looks pretty but strangely lacks any real chemistry with Cassavetes, rather undermining a film that is evidently trying to depict them as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.

Not doing the film any favours was the print shown on the Talking Pictures channel being some horrid pan and scan version- I thought such travesties were a thing of the past, but I guess a channel as small-fry as Talking Pictures (transmitting out of someone’s back garden, essentially, which is almost cyberpunk when you think about it) just has to work with what its non-existent operating budget gets. I got so confused by one typically cartoonish (oh, so Italian) gunfight that I had to stop and rewind the film slightly to make sense of the framing etc. and deduce exactly who was shooting who.

The story is extremely silly, with characters displaying remarkable stupidity, with terrible dialogue that is possibly badly-translated Italian, and the editing is so very poor (again, not helped here by the pan and scan butchery) I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those really bad cut-to-ribbons tv versions frequently inflicted upon us back in the 1970s. Maybe on a widescreen DVD or Blu-ray its a longer, uncut film with original framing but imagining that makes it a better film is probably still a stretch.

The Hand of Night (1968)

hand1Frederic Goode’s The Hand of Night is a particularly peculiar horror film, horrifyingly tedious, appallingly directed with utterly woeful acting, but somehow fascinating. Whilst trawling through the Talking Pictures schedules these past few months I appreciate that I’ve seen some really obscure films that I would otherwise not ever had the opportunity (or misfortune) to see, and The Hand of Night is one of the best/worst examples of this.

Its also an example of how we film fans can get caught out by movie-connections, usually attracted to films by the cast- in this case, the only reason why The Hand of Night caught my eye for recording/later viewing was William Sylvester in the starring role- Sylvester being familiar chiefly from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few other genre films. The fall from grace of working on a timeless classic like Kubrick’s epic to working on this dismal horror effort must have been the equivalent of leaping off a cliff, but as I’ve commented before, every gig’s a pay-cheque.

hand2So lets start with whats good about the film- well, its very odd, with a really bizarre film score attributed to someone named Joan Shakespeare which is alternatively spooky-weird or was composed for some other movie- it seems to either work incredibly well to maintain a dreamy aspect to the film or it just feels totally wrong. Clearly a product of the 1960s, it also strangely evoked the earliest film-scores of Vangelis (Sex Power, L’Apocalypse des Animaux  and Ignacio) which was really disorientating for me, a reference likely lost to anyone unfamiliar with the Greek maestro’s early work. The title sequence is quite promisingly moody. The film is full of death references- Sylvester plays Paul Carver, a bitter, haunted man who has travelled to Morocco to see a doctor (who has unfortunately died when Carver gets there). Carver is either trying to get over the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident that he somehow survived three months before, or working out how to kill himself, its not entirely clear. On the one hand he makes for an interesting protagonist, being so wracked by guilt and self-pity. He befriends Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) on his flight to Morocco- Gunther is an archaeologist whose project is a dig at a Moorish Medieval tomb, and at Gunther’s home Carver meets Gunther’s pretty young assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) who clearly takes an immediate shine to Carver. Chantal was the fiance of Gunther’s son before he died. So there’s this weird thing about Death through the film. Dead family, dead doctor, dead fiance, a tomb for a Moorish princess… Carver’s apparent death-wish stemmed from the guilt of surviving the crash that killed his family. So there is this subtext going on that made me think there was more to the film than seems on the surface, but, er, I was wrong.

Well, that’s the good, the bad about the film is pretty much everything else. The cast is pretty awful- I’m not certain if its bad casting (Underdown and Clare, struggling with bad accents, are either really bad actors or woefully ill-cast in material that doesn’t suit them), or the cast in general being hampered by really bad dialogue and direction. The budget was obviously slight, and although the location adds some exotica to the proceedings it is ruined by scenes obviously shot day for night, and editing that seems to slip day scenes into night scenes ruining even that ‘shot day for night’ material.  The ‘villainess’ of the piece, the beautiful Marissa whose tomb it is that Gunther is excavating, is more succubus than traditional vampire (no fangs on display here), and is played by Aliza Gur with no sense of threat or danger whatsoever, crippling the film. She looks beautiful and mysterious but stumbles every-time she opens her mouth to speak -clearly Gur was a model more than an actress (she was Miss Israel in 1960), or perhaps she too was hampered by that dialogue and terrible lack of direction, not that she has to do much other than lounge on a divan sexily or stand, er, mysteriously. Diane Clare, who is really, really terrible as Chantal, apparently left acting altogether after this film. Clare appeared in The Plague of the Zombies and The Haunting and lots of other films and tv series prior to The Hand of Night so she must have been a better actress than this film suggests.

William Sylvester was mostly a tv actor, so The Hand of Night was one of his few film gigs; turns out 2001: A Space Odyssey really was the oddity in his career, notable by its exception, so that shows where movie connections gets you, watching films like The Hand of Night. There’s nothing in this film that suggests that Sylvester merited a successful career in films- while he handles the haunted, guilty aspect of Carver very well, its the romantic and physical stuff here that displays his limits. He has no chemistry at all with Clare (and he’d have to be some kind of eunuch not to have some chemistry with the sultry (albeit wooden) Gur), but for most of the film he seems a duck out of water.

Not that the film could have been saved by a better lead. This film was pretty broken at the script stage and the director clearly wasn’t particularly enthused by it. Some b-movies can’t help but seem terribly cynical affairs, woefully short of any ambition. Sometimes they can be genuinely interesting and daring, but this isn’t one of them.

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

blood2This is really something of a curio- it has the look and feel of Hammer, featuring a Jimmy Sangster script and Barbara Shelley in the cast, but it isn’t a Hammer at all. I can only imagine it was a quick cash-in, maybe, following the success of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein the year before, with Hammer imminently bringing its own Vampire horror to the screen in 1958’s Dracula (since both films came out in 1958, I can’t imagine that Blood of the Vampire was a cash-in on Dracula‘s huge success, but you never know, films got made fast and cheap in those days).

Indeed, now that I think about it, the title is rather misleading, because the villain of the film is a scientist in the vein (sic) of Frankenstein rather than a blood-sucking vampire -there’s certainly no fangs on offer here, which suggests it was indeed based upon The Curse of Frankenstein‘s success with just a canny allusion in the title to a certain vampire movie. Its actually something that proves rather disorientating, and pleasantly so, as it leads the film to subvert expectations. Donald Wolfit,  a kind of ‘Bela Lugosi that can act’,  is great as the mad scientist Callistratus whose experiments have caused him to become a sort of living vampire, his character a peculiar combination of very polite and ruthless in his quest for a cure (hints there of The Invisible Man, too). The film is done few favours with Callistratus’ henchman hunchback Carl (Victor Maddern buried under poor make-up), a character that threatens to plunge the film into farce although I suppose it suggests Sangster was perhaps affectionately nodding towards Universal’s b&w horrors past. I suppose considering that the film is caught between Universals old b&w classic horrors of a then-few decades before and the hugely ‘modern’ rock-and-roll horrors about to come from Hammer, it strikes an oddly cute kind of horror atmosphere.

blood1On the whole its a pretty good film, making a great Friday Night Fright flick- the cast are much better than the script or film really deserves (Shelley in particular is clearly above this sort of nonsense, but both Wolfit and Vincent Ball who plays John Pierre, the nominal protagonist of the film, are very good). It does a very fine job of mimicking Hammer’s gothic horrors (one could be forgiven for thinking it was indeed a Hammer), with pretty solid production qualities suggesting the film had some ambitions- minus one unintentionally hilarious miniature shot that seems to have been taken at a tourist model village (certainly the matte painting shots are no worse than Hammer’s were at the time, and some interior matte’s interestingly extend some sets). I gather the print I watched on Talking Pictures was a UK copy, as the film was subjected to considerable BBFC cuts on its release that never seem to have been restored over here (the US has a slightly stronger cut, which itself apparently lacks some shots still deemed too shocking), but even so the film is pretty strong in places considering how old it is and the draconian censorship codes of the time. A film such as this is never going to get a restoration and I’m sure any cut sequences/shots are long since destroyed, but the film was kind of fun in a lazy, undemanding old-fashioned shocks kind of way, and any Hammer fans unfamiliar with it, like myself, might get a kick out of it.

Dark City (1950)

dark1You waited long enough. Why Now?  Well, this film first came to my attention just a year or so ago, when I noticed that Arrow had released a Blu-ray of it- since its a film noir, and stars the man-mountain that is Charlton Heston, it stayed on my radar, and I actually came close to buying it when I noticed it in a sale. Anyway, it turning up in the Talking Pictures schedule this week finally sealed the deal with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Yes, I know I’m 70 years late to the party, but I have the excuse I wasn’t born back then. Also, films like this don’t appear on the networks at all often, even though they patently should do.

So whats it about, then?  Charlton Heston plays Danny Haley, a small-time bookie whose operation is shut down by the police one time too many, leaving him keen to get out of town and try his luck elsewhere- if only he could get the money to do it. Danny thinks his luck has at last changed when he stumbles across Arthur Winant, a businessman from Los Angeles with too much money in his wallet. Danny and his work associates sucker Winant into a series of poker games where they fleece him of all his money- including $5000 that isn’t his. Winant staggers off distraught and the next morning the hustlers learn he has killed himself in shame; Danny and his cronies try to cover their tracks but later learn that Winant had an older brother who is out for revenge.

Any good? Perhaps not a classic, definitive film noir but very good nonetheless. Its curious seeing a young Charlton Heston channelling a sulky, moody character struggling with right and wrong and lashing out at the world- there’s clearly all sorts of nascent Ben Hur bubbling away here, and isn’t it strange, with this film featuring a “Introducing Charlton Heston” credit, that that most famous of all epic movies was released in 1959, just nine years later. What a meteoric career Heston must have had. That being said, I’ve noticed on IMDB three earlier credits for Heston so perhaps the credit referred to it being his first starring role in a major studio picture or something.

So worth waiting for? Crikey, yes. Some of these film noir are just fantastic, full of mood and atmosphere and menace, and they manage to spring twists and surprises, even for old jaded fools such as I, who’ve seen too many films and rarely get surprised anymore. Modern films tend to telegraph things too easily, I guess, and I’m pretty certain that script-writing is something of a lost art. As a movie buff, seeing such an early film for Heston is particularly fascinating too- like Clint Eastwood in bis early films (like Play Misty For Me a few days back), its clear this guy was destined for movie stardom.

Worthless observation? Co-star Lizabeth Scott, who plays Fran, a singer hopelessly besotted with Danny, was no stranger to noir films (that’d be her husky, too-many-cigarettes-voice, I’d imagine) and later starred in an Elvis Presley movie (Loving You, 1957)). And its great, also, to see Dean Jagger as wise cop Captain Garvey; he was a very fine character actor who I recently also caught in Hammer’s X: The Unknown. Yeah, sometimes its a small world watching films from a certain era. Finally, no, this film is not to be confused with the 1998 Alex Proyas sci-fi thriller that borrows so many noir tropes itself.

Out of the Fog (1962)

outfogThe fascination of British movies with jails and cons getting out into civilian life is quite a mystery to me, but here we go again, after Turn the Key Softly and The Price of Silence, with a shot of the exterior of a prison and an interior scene of a con being prepared for a return to the streets. Here its George Mallon (David Sumner) a fairly obnoxious and surly young man with a chip on his bitter shoulder. His bad mood and short temper aren’t helped when upon being freed he becomes a chief suspect for a series of murders of young women which occur at every full moon near the lodgings for ex-cons in which he lives.

Out of the Fog features a jazzy, typically crime-movie score from Ken Thorne, something I only mention because I recognised his name in the credits (he later scored the Superman II soundtrack when his friend John Williams dropped out following Richard Donner’s dismissal from that film). That, and the appearance of Michael Ripper, a frequent face in British films of the period, are possibly the only notable things I can raise about the film to be honest. Its a functional crime drama/morality play, and it maintains some minor tension at the end, but really the film suffers for its unlikable protagonist: a brave decision of the film-makers, I suppose, but it doesn’t work. If you don’t care for your lead, it leaves the drama rather lacking. The intention, I assume, was to maintain a “is he/isn’t he?” mystery at the end regards whether Mallon really is the culprit, and to maintain that they had to keep him looking suspicious. I’ll admit, my money was on Michael Ripper’s character, unlikely as that may sound, but it turned out to be someone else entirely. Maybe the film should score some points for steering me wrong.

June Thorburn and The Price of Silence

price2Its curious, the circuitous routes that steer us to certain films. I was impressed last month by the performance of June Thorburn in Hammer’s The Scarlet Blade, whereupon I learned of her tragic death and a career that never realised its potential. The latter point has come home to me having just seen The Price of Silence, a film that caught my attention only because I saw her name in the credits. Thorburn’s role in the film is as undemanding, underwritten and thankless as one could fear and I imagine that if this is as representative of her filmography as I expect, she must have been feeling quite frustrated and disheartened. She deserved much better than this, but most actresses of her generation likely did, too.

Alas, partly this is no doubt reflective of the times -the film dates from 1960 and is indicative of women’s roles in both film and in society in general. Thorburn’s role in The Price of Silence is little more than a meek, passive (and decidedly wholesome) love-interest for Gordon Jackson’s character, offering him support and driving him around.  Its almost a wonder she didn’t blend into the wallpaper. She’s literally walking her dog and bumps into him as he’s selling the house next door and promptly falls for him- as if she’s living on a desert island somewhere and has come across the first man she’s seen in years. Conveniently she is also rather rich, living alone in a huge house with a second property out in the country- the film is literally that contrived and convenient. She’s got no traction for any drama, so Thorburn just has to be pretty and deferential to her male lead.

None of this is helped by the fact that the film itself is a rather week, and numbingly predictable crime thriller, in which jailed-for-a-crime-he-didn’t-commit Richard Fuller (well, he did do it, but he did it for foolish reasons and was left in the lurch and did the honourable thing etc) is released from prison and finds it hard to get a break on the outside. He resorts to changing his name and hiding his criminal background, finding good work in an estate agents office where he progresses well, until an old lag from stir recognises him in the street and blackmails him, threatening to reveal his true past. Adding to Fuller’s woes is his elderly employer’s decidedly young and flirtatious wife, Maria (Maya Koumani) whose overtures he has to repeatedly resist, a sub-plot that fails to go anywhere until Fuller’s alibi for a murder depends on her.

Gordon Jackson is pretty good as the morally upstanding Fuller, but even he seems to find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm, lacking any chemistry with any of the ladies that are so besotted by him. Jackson just wasn’t that kind of romantic player, so is rather miscast here and the film instead bores when it ideally should simmer. Without that heated sexual dynamic that might breathe some life into it, the whole thing feels neutered and routine and lacks any real drama at all. I like Jackson and in the right role he can be fiery and dynamic but while his leading role here is unusual for him, and therefore has some interest, it sadly doesn’t work. I suppose he’s not helped by the perfunctory and bland  direction, nor the script which is predictable and never really shows any ambition or drive to shake things up a bit, or really even feel the need to convince. Any energy seems reserved for the performances of the dogs in the film.

A pretty poor effort indeed.

Waterfront

waterfI’ve a sneaking feeling that Kathleen Harrison could be the face of 2020 for me, how bizarre is that? Well, here she is again in Waterfront, from 1950. As is quickly becoming usual, Harrison is (apparently) effortless here- she’s clearly one of those character actors that have this natural ease with the camera and makes it all seem so simple, and yet remain so convincing. She clearly wasn’t cast against type, which helps her no end, playing the slightly befuddled but well-meaning matriarch of a struggling single-parent family in times when such things were frowned upon.

Robert Newton features as Peter McCabe, a worthless cad of a seafaring husband who walks out on his young family in 1919 to return to roving as a sailor, leaving his wife and two daughters to fend for themselves in the Liverpool slums near the docks. Making patently false promises to Nora, his eldest daughter, who can read through his lies with ease, McCabe has no intention of ever returning and fulfilling any husband/fatherly duties. Unbeknown to McCabe, his family’s lot is even more tenuous, because his wife (Kathleen Harrison) is pregnant with a third child, delivering a son a few months later, putting even more pressures upon them.

The family manages to struggle through, however, making a go of it through rough times in the slums. Fourteen years later, with the son George Alexander bright enough at school to get a scholarship and the grown girls finding boyfriends (Nora finding a young unemployed sailor struggling for work -played by Richard Burton, no less- and younger daughter Connie unwittingly falling for a lousy cad as untrustworthy as her father), the family is up-heaved by the sudden return of Peter McCabe who has been forced to return through his own misfortune, threatening to wreck the family again.

watrfront2Waterfront is one of those great, old-fashioned human dramas that used to be popular in film but later became ‘relegated’ to television movies and soaps, I suppose, as films themselves turned towards the spectacular in order to distance themselves from the home entertainment on the smaller-screen. Partly a morality play showing good people with very little struggling to do the right thing, and those around them with lesser scruples, its a simple story  about the human condition that is well told. The cast is excellent, really (Avis Scott really impressing as adult Nora), making the story really involving, and from the vantage point of 2020, the setting is utterly fascinating albeit that’s a particular quality unguessed back in 1950. This is a Liverpool that might have been familiar, I suppose, to the boys that became The Beatles when they were growing up, and is a clear reminder of how living conditions for the working-class have improved in the post-war years.

Its a solid effort- nothing astonishing, I guess, but then its not trying to be. There is some lovely location photography and night-time sequences (I don’t know why, but seeing genuinely night-time shooting as opposed to day-for-night shoots always surprises me in low-budget films like this) and other than the odd lack of actual scouse accents (likely the film trying to appease to international audiences) it just feels right. Its just telling a genuinely involving, dramatic story that back in the day might have been mildly shocking, even (one has to mindful of historical sensibilities, I think, with ‘old’movies). I really enjoyed this. The core dynamics and values are universal and timeless, making the film as timely and relatable as it ever was, really, and the previously mentioned appeal of seeing that lost world of post-war Britain is quite sublime; something of a time machine as so many films of that era seem to be.

Appearing on the Talking Pictures schedules, Waterfront is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Network.

 

In Brief: Two Nights

nightcity1Quick post regards what I’ve been up to. By weird coincidence (its funny how these things happen) I’ve watched two films that share the word ‘Night’ in their titles: Night and the City, an outstanding film noir set in postwar London starring Richard Widmark and Night of the Eagle, a really effective horror film starring Peter Wyngarde. Both films really were very impressive (Night of the Eagle evoking -yes there’s THAT word ‘Night’ again- the classic Night of the Demon– so much so it’s sent me to the shelf for my copy of that film for a timely re-watch). Although I’d heard of Night and the City a few years ago I hadn’t gotten around to buying the Blu-ray until now (nothing like a sale price to finally swing it), but I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Night of the Eagle before, so that film (another catch on Talking Pictures) proved to be a very welcome surprise. Its just a pity that film hasn’t been released on Blu-ray over here; again, one has to wonder how many of these genuinely great old films fall through the cracks, never get a disc release and seldom get aired on mainstream channels.

I can’t say I ever really warmed to Richard Widmark; I don’t really know why, but I suppose with any actor, part of the process is one of chemistry and empathy. There are actors which, as a viewer, one can instantly strike a rapport with and subsequently enjoy any film they feature in, but at the same time the opposite can be true. In the case of Night and the City, the coolness I feel towards Widmark as an actor likely worked in the films favour, as his character, the hustler/chancer/selfish rogue Harry Fabian is pretty much a contemptible character anyway, so far as me as a viewer was concerned, half of Widmark’s work was done. Perfect casting maybe. To be fair to Widmark, an interview with him from 2002 that accompanies the film on this BFI disc was a bit of an eye-opener for me, gaining me new appreciation for the man and, who knows, maybe his work too. An opportunity for future re-evaluation then.

nighteagAs for Night of the Eagle– what a cracking horror movie. Soon as I noticed that the screenplay featured the work of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont I guessed that I would be in for a treat. Its a finely wrought script that balances reason with the inexplicable and the film confidently suggests more than it shows (and to be honest, even when it ‘shows’ it does so surprisingly well). The cast, too, are uniformly excellent, I think; Peter Wyngarde is very good but I was particularly impressed by Janet Blair, who played his wife. Yet again, however, I find myself chagrined by being greatly impressed by an actress only to find her subsequent career destined for ill- in Blair’s case, one removed from film pretty much entirely, instead languishing in television guest-star spots.

Real-world issues have impacted my blog-writing over the past few days but I’m hoping to get proper reviews posted for these two, but if not, hopefully these brief notes will suffice until I can.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

league2Major Race, looking at a portrait on the wall: Is that your wife?

Lt.Col. Hyde: Yes.

Major Race:  Is she dead?

Lt.Col.Hyde: No, no. I regret to say the bitch is still going strong.

Somebody get Guy Ritchie on the phone. While I’m much averse to remakes/reboots etc, this is a film just begging for a modern-day remake with an A-list of Brit actors and Guy Ritchie’s crime-comedy skillset at the helm. I can hear the ‘ker-ching’ of the box-office cash registers. Just take my money, dammit. What? It won’t sell overseas? Whats Chinese for… oh, never mind.

Even for a film made in the late 1950s, this film has something of a modern-day wit and sensibility. The brilliant cast chews up the dialogue with gusto, and indeed, what a cast: Jack Hawkins, Nigel Patrick, Roger Livesay, Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes and even Oliver Reed in perhaps one of the most ill-judged cameos ever, a briefest of moments that likely haunted him for years, it’s so awkward and camp. A reminder that even the biggest of movie stars need to put food on the table before stardom calls.

The story is a boys-own adventure by way of a sojourn in the world of noir:  Colonel Hyde (Jack Hawkins), having suffered enforced redundancy from his beloved army, recruits seven other dissatisfied ex-servicemen for a bank robbery.  Each of his carefully-chosen recruits are experts in their particular field, forced out of the service and each with shady backgrounds and need for money.  Hyde reasons that only a crack team with military discipline and training can pull off the daring heist that he has in mind. Naturally there are twists and turns and tense moments, and the film dates from a period when crime really wasn’t seen to pay, so you can guess how things end up, but its a cracking yarn well-told, and quite daring, I think, for its time in how it tackles topics like bad marriages, promiscuous wives and hidden homosexuality.

A surprising treat and a cracking entirely British film the likes of which we don’t see anymore. Not unless Guy Ritchie picks up the phone, that is…

league1

*The League of Gentlemen is currently doing the rounds on the Talking Pictures channel available on Freeview, Sky, Virgin media etc. and is well worth looking out for.