Film review: Dressed to Kill (1946)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Roy William Neill. Writers: Leonard Lee, Frank Gruber, based on the characters by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Patricia Morison, Harry Cording, Edmund Breon, Holmes Herbert, Frederick Worlock, Ian Wolfe, Mary Gordon, Olaf Hytten.

Fourteenth and final film in the Sherlock Holmes series beginning with Hound of the Baskervilles 1939.

Three plain little musical boxes are sold at auction, and before long someone is trying to steal them from their owners, even going so far as to murder one of them. Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is intrigued and decides to get to the bottom of the affair.

The last outing for Rathbone’s and Bruce’s Holmes and Watson has a good story, but one that feels cobbled together from the previous movies: a trio of villains, a femme fatale, a perplexing code, a number of objects bought by innocent people and inexplicably desired by the antagonists. It all works rather well, though, and the loot everyone is after is revealed to be rather original and worth all the fuss. The script also offers some cunning behaviour on the part of Holmes and his opponents, which is always fun to see, and there are a few scenes of proper suspense keeping us alert.

There is barely even an attempt at Holmesian atmosphere in Dressed to Kill: it’s squarely set in the modern day, brightly lit and no-nonsense. That it still feels at least a little like a Holmes story is due to the allusions to Conan Doyle’s stories, the interplay between Rathbone and Bruce, and the somewhat familiar plot, which echoes Holmes tales of yore.

The lack of shadowy ambience is disappointing, but at least Dressed to Kill doesn’t look as cheap as Pursuit to Algiers and Terror by Night: here there are numerous locations on display (even though they’re sure to be refurbished pre-existing sets), and there’s a fair bit of running about in London to open up the scope.

You wouldn’t know from Rathbone’s performance that he was tired of Holmes and preparing to move on. He’s as sharp and energetic as ever, going out in style. Bruce, of course, has perfected his befuddled bumbling and is as lovely/annoying (depending on your view of him) as always. The supporting cast makes a good showing of themselves, although it’s really only Morison who has any real material to work with.

With Rathbone having decided to quit and the series’ guiding light Roy William Neill dying at the end of 1946, there was really no likelihood of the franchise going on. It did on radio, where Tom Conway took over as Holmes to Bruce’s Watson, but only for 39 more episodes; Rathbone and Bruce had done about 200.

Dressed to Kill is a decent, workable finale to the series, but considering the slow but palpable downward trend of the last three or so movies, this was perhaps a good place to stop. And what a show they put on: even the weakest entries of the series are worth watching, and the best are close to sublime.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Say goodbye to the boys.

Say goodbye to the boys.

Film review: Terror by Night (1946)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Roy William Neill. Writer: Frank Gruber, based on the characters by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Dennis Hoey, Renee Godfrey, Frederick Worlock, Mary Forbes, Skelton Knaggs, Billy Bevan, Harry Cording. Gerald Hamer.

Thirteenth film in the Sherlock Holmes series beginning with Hound of the Baskervilles 1939.

Famed diamond the Star of Rhodesia is to be taken by train from London to Scotland, and the owners hire Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) to ensure that it gets to its destination, since one attempt has already been made to steal it.

The budget cuts to these movies start becoming very noticeable with Terror by Night. Like its immediate predecessor Pursuit to Algiers, it takes place in a confined setting, but instead of a sumptuous luxury liner, here we get a train and nothing but a train: the story starts at a station and ends at another one, and all we see in between are train compartments and stock footage of trains and models thereof. Since the interiors, too, were no doubt built for some other film, it’s difficult to conceive of a cheaper Holmes movie, except by imagining Universal recasting Holmes and Watson with unknown actors.

It’s to the credit of Neill and screenwriter Gruber, then, that Terror by Night is as engaging as it is. Despite being even more limited in scope than Pursuit to Algiers, this is a far more thrilling film. There’s a proper mystery this time – Holmes knows who the culprit is, Moriarty’s old henchman Colonel Sebastian Moran, but he doesn’t know what the man looks like, and there’s no shortage of suspects aboard the train. As a viewer, one soon starts leaning in the right direction as to the culprit’s identity, but it’s still a well-wrought mystery, and certainly no less so for all the surprises sprung along the way.

Holmes is attacked, creepy little Skelton Knaggs appears out of nowhere, Lestrade (Hoey) shows up “under cover”, an unnerving method of murder is employed, and we’re never quite sure where the real diamond is. To top all this off, Terror by Night sports one of the more startling and fun resolutions of the entire franchise, one in which – believe it or not – both Lestrade and Watson make themselves useful.

Action and suspense aside, there are also other things to enjoy here, such as Watson’s comedic confrontation with a bad-tempered Math professor (Worlock) and his banter with old friend Duncan-Bleek (Mowbray). For the record, I agree with Watson on the most important component of a good curry.

The movie is filled with fine actors in parts large and small, the one bad apple in the basket being Godfrey, whose inability to act almost plumbs the depths of her colleague Acquanetta. Luckily, Godfrey only has a couple of scenes of note, so she doesn’t succeed in ruining the film, which she could have done with one arm tied behind her back if she’d had a more important role.

Terror by Night is quite good Holmes, even if it is short on environmental variety, and even though it lacks the pseudo-Victorian ambience of the best films in the franchise. It has a solid story, some thrills and surprises, and a (mostly) good cast. That will do nicely.

Followed by the final film in the series, Dressed to Kill 1946.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Whatever Happened to Vera West?

Posted in General with tags , , , , on April 19, 2014 by Mistlake

If there’s one name you’ll see in the credits of every single one of the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s, it’s that of costume designer Vera West, who created the women’s clothes for them (and many others, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt).

Now, the story goes that in her youth, West ran away from New York for undisclosed reasons. In 1927 she became head costume designer at Universal Pictures, a position she retained almost up to her death at age 49.

She committed suicide, leaving a note saying that she had been the subject of blackmail for over twenty years. No one seems to know why she was blackmailed , and of course no guilty party has ever come to light. Allegedly, a fortune teller told her that death was the only escape from the clutches of the blackmailer.

Is this true? Who knows? Maybe it’s just a story, maybe West was delusional, or there might be something in it. Information is scarce, but stranger things have happened. I find the whole thing morbidly fascinating, and if nothing else it would make for a highly interesting biopic. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man … and the story of ultimately fatal blackmail in Hollywood. Have this one on me, movie producers!


Film review: Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Roy William Neill. Writer: Leonard Lee, based on the characters by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Marjorie Riordan, Leslie Vincent, Rex Evans, Martin Kosleck, Rosalind Ivan, Gerald Hamer, Frederick Worlock.

Twelfth film in the Sherlock Holmes series beginning with Hound of the Baskervilles 1939.

The king of Rovenia has been murdered, and the crown prince needs to be taken from England to his home country to assume rule. As he is expected to be the target of assassination attempts, the services of Sherlock Holms (Rathbone) are enlisted to ensure his safety.

Despite a promising start, this must be the least of the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes movies. Storywise, it’s a rather meager offering, and there isn’t much excitement on offer either. Most of the story takes place aboard a cruise ship full of suspicious characters, any and all of whom can be the would-be assassin. This could have made for a suspenseful tale, but instead it’s one that’s almost scuttled by Holmes’ strange and uncharacteristic passivity. For example, once he knows who the villains are, he just sits back and permits them to make one assassination attempt after the other, taking only lackadaisical precautions to keep the prince out of harm’s way.

There are a few incidents onboard, but the ocean voyage soon gets monotonous, all the more so for us knowing that there can be no great turns of events as long as the characters remain ship-bound. Instead of thrills and deduction we get the set of stock eccentrics who usually populate cruise ships in older movies, and they contribute very little in terms of entertainment.

Even worse: since the story is pretty bare bones, and since there isn’t much of a mystery going on (we realise who the murderers are as soon as we see them, and so does Holmes), Pursuit to Algiers is reduced to that standby of 1940s movies in need of fluffing up to feature length: songs. Riordan croons three of them in this 62 minute film, and when that isn’t enough, Watson of all people joins in, belting out “Loch Lomond”, and even that is a wasted opportunity, since Bruce is dubbed by another singer. And above and beyond the musical filler, we’re also subjected to the type of inane love story that we’re usually spared in the Holmes movies.

Luckily, this is not all there is to Pursuit to Algiers. Holmes, despite his shrugging attitude, is at his most engaging here, cracking jokes that are perfectly in character and being so debonair in the face of death and potential violence than James Bond probably watched this film and took notes. In fact, this is one of the funnier films in the series, and mostly in a well-judged way, culminating in Holmes’ last line, which is a quite good meta-joke. There are also a number of fun references for Conan Doyle fans, such as the name of the ship (the S.S. Friesland, mentioned both in a Holmes story and in The Lost World) and Watson’s tantalizingly incomplete dinner table account of “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” (an adventure Conan Doyle only hinted at and never wrote).

In the final tally, then, Pursuit to Algiers is more amusing than it is exciting or clever, and although there are numerous nice touches (including small roles for Hamer and Kosleck), the whole never becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Followed by Terror by Night 1946.

Rating: 5 of 10.

Could these guys be the assassins? Naaah, really?

Could these guys be the assassins? Naaah, really?

Film review: Night in Paradise (1946)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Arthur Lubin. Writers: Ernest Pascal, Emmet Lavery, based on the novel The Peacock’s Feather by George S. Hellman. Starring: Merle Oberon, Turhan Bey, Thomas Gomez, Gale Sondergaard, Douglass Dumbrille, Ray Collins, Paul Cavanagh.

Aesop (Bey), he of the fables, arrives at the court of King Croesus (Gomez) as an ambassador, but manages to fall in love with the king’s queen to be, Delarai (Oberon). Things are further complicated by the fact that Croesus has attracted the anger of witch queen Attosa (Sondergaard).

Why is it that every time Universal made a colour film in the 1940s, it ended up a spineless, feebleminded pool of glucose vomit? The Phantom of the Opera 1943 and The Climax 1944 are fine examples of this, and here’s another one. Just because a movie is made in dreamy pastel colours, does that mean the script too has to be a candy-coloured milkshake with a cherry on top?

At least the intended demographic for Night in Paradise is abundantly clear: women, and not just any women, but ones singularly lacking in taste, and dreaming of a world of flamboyant costumes, marble columns and dreamily exotic men to take them away from their dreary lives. Now, I don’t think anything in anyone’s life is as dreary as this movie, and any swooning Universal might have hoped for when these ladies’ eyes fell on Turhan Bey would have been instantly curtailed by the fact that he’s disguised as an apelike cripple for about 90% of his scenes.

The wafer-thin intrigues at Croesus’ court are just an excuse for showing off the Ancient Greek set design and John P. Fulton’s optical landscape effects. Never is there sufficient plot to distract from these visual splendors or the gauzy costumes or the conjectural dreamy atmosphere which director Lubin at no point succeeds in creating. Everybody seems to be scheming in one way or the other, but since each character is delineated on a kids’ matinee level of childishness, it’s hard to care one way or the other. They are merely cardboard moving around, now and again flaunting the single character trait they’ve been allotted.

In lieu of perceptible substance, there is at least the love story, which is the film’s raison d´être. There is much wooing and woe and vowing. This is to be expected in a historical romance, of course, but the secret to a good love story is – I shouldn’t reveal this secret known only to a few, and certainly not to 1940s Universal – that the audience must like and care about the lovers. Fat chance that’s going to happen here. Delarai is cold, callous and above all shallow, in that she fully intends to marry Croesus solely for his money, and falls for Aesop only after he removes his monkey-looking disguise and proves himself to be a looker. Aesop isn’t that much more attractive a character. First of all, “wise” Aesop falls for the unpleasant woman just described, and that in itself is enough to make one think him an idiot, and secondly no sharp contour is given to him; he just shuffles around and interferes a little bit when he deems it necessary, and in the end he utterly fails at everything. Good thing ever-crazy Sondergaard is on hand to provide a wimpy, tacked on copout ending.

Yep, this is one bad movie all right. A romance picture that doesn’t even get the romance right, and bombs even more atrociously in the rest of the “plot”, is not what the world needs, and quite logically Night in Paradise is all but forgotten. A few familiar actors from better genre movies, like Sondergaard, Dumbrille, Gomez and Cavanagh, do at least a little to elevate one’s spirits, and it is interesting to see Bey in something other than a horror film. This apart, I’d like to retitle the whole thing Day in Hell, because that’s pretty much what watching it feels like.

Rating: 2 of 10.

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Mister Lova' Lova'

Mister Lova’ Lova’

Film review: The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , on April 18, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Edward Ludwig. Writer: Jean Bart, based on her play. Starring: Claude Rains, Joan Bennett, Lionel Atwill, Baby Jane (Juanita Quigley), Henry O’Neill, Ferdinand Gottschalk.

Just before World War I, brilliant pacifist writer Paul Verin (Rains) is persuaded to write speeches and editorials for politically ambitious publisher Henry Dumont (Atwill), who is secretly in league with the arms manufacturers who want to bring about the war. Dumont would also like to have Verin’s wife (Bennett) served as a bit on the side.

Apart from one small morbid element, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is neither horror nor fantasy, so I can only assume that the reasons it routinely gets lumped in with Universal’s horror output is 1) the title, 2) the presence of Rains and Atwill, and 3) that few people have bothered to actually watch it. A remake of sorts, Strange Confession, was part of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Inner Sanctum film series, but not even that one really qualifies as horror, even though it is perhaps more of a thriller than this version.

So what is The Man Who Reclaimed His Head? More than anything, it’s blunt and unrefined pacifist propaganda. Now, I enjoy having as few bombs as possible dropped on my house, so it’s not the pacifism itself I take issue with, merely its facile treatment here and the bombastic … well, editorializing is a good word in the context of the story. The messages hammered home time and again are: war is bad and peace is good, never trust a politician or an industrialist, and always stay true to your ideals even if your covetous wife thinks you should sell your soul. I’m sure these concepts weren’t new even in 1934, but the movie speechifies about them as if they were entirely original. When Verdin starts hauling out charts and documents to support his claims against the arms merchants, the distinct feeling creeps in that we’re watching a Power Point presentation rather than a movie. At least we are realistically shown what an easily swayed, primitive herd people turn into as soon as they get together in large groups and “think” they have an opinion in common.

Despite the ever so righteous propaganda, this is not a bad film. The way it maps the fall of shy but bright Verdin feels like proper tragedy, handled a little ham-handedly by the script, perhaps, but made believable, compelling and affecting through the sheer acting talent of Rains. Your heart wants to reach out to Verdin when we learn that his happiness isn’t real and that he is in fact being cruelly manipulated not only by Dumont, but also by his own wife. If Verdin had been completely naïve it would have been harder to sympathise with him, but somehow the way he hides the truth from himself in order to maintain marital bliss makes him easier to relate to, more human than the single-minded idealist he could easily have been portrayed as.

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is shot quite beautifully and has a few scenes from the war to add some thunder. Most of the scenes, however, show beautiful people in beautiful surroundings, which doesn’t do much to set the movie apart from many other 1930s films set in high society.

Rains is, as always, a riveting screen presence, aided in no small measure by that voice. It’s unusual and fun to see him smiling and chirping this much, but the real meat is in his darker scenes, of course, where he pulls out an unexpectedly naturalistic acting style that suits the serious material perfectly.

Lionel Atwill played many a pig in his day, but it adds a fresh twist seeing him as a politically motivated corporate type rather than, you know, a mad scientist. He’s all smiles and warm reassurances with Verdin, and all gloating sarcasm with his weapon manufacturer chums. It’s funny how Atwill, even in his most friendly roles, always has such an evil chuckle.

Then there’s, ahem, “Baby Jane”. A shrill and unconvincing child actress she is, but we all know she became a lot more interesting in her old age … or am I thinking of that Bette Davis movie?

When you think “1930s Hollywood”, vaguely socialist anti-war rhetoric isn’t the first thing to spring to mind, but there you have it in the shape of The Man Who Reclaimed His Head. As a character study it works, as a political statement less so. Worth a watch for Rains and Atwill.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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Film review: Son of Kong (1933)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack. Writer: Ruth Rose. Starring: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher, John Marston, Victor Wong, Noble Johnson.

This review contains spoilers.

One month after the death of King Kong, Carl Denham (Armstrong) flees New York, where everyone wants to sue and indict him for the death and damage caused by the monster. Eventually he and Captain Englehorn (Reicher) hear that there might be treasure on Skull Island, and so they return there in the hopes of turning their lives around. What they find is a baby ape monster that they assume is Kong’s son.

Well, here’s a movie that gets most things wrong. It starts out well enough with the logical repercussions of Kong’s rampage, but then it just sort of meanders along introducing superfluous characters and showing ineptly performing little monkeys for about as long as you can stand it. Following forty minutes of this nonsense we finally arrive at Skull Island, where Baby Kong turns out to be cute and cuddly but quite capable of ripping cave bears and dinosaurs a new one as needed. Denham and company befriend the creature, and it all turns into a cutesy children’s film, albeit one with a nightmare of an unhappy ending that is suddenly sprung on us out of nowhere.

Rose allegedly said that since she didn’t expect to be able to improve on King Kong, she instead tried to make the sequel funny to compensate. There is one funny exchange (Helstrom: “Are you broke?” Denham: “Broke? I’m shattered!”), and that is about as humorous as it gets. Pardon me for not finding it overly amusing seeing Baby Kong’s eyes roll in their sockets following a knock on the head, as if he were Mickey Mouse.

Of the human characters, Denham is, just like in the first film, the most interesting one, and if there’s one thing to be said for the screenplay, it is that Denham goes through quite a journey of character development over the two movies, discovering a conscience and trying to make amends for what he did. The others people aren’t very interesting, even though hardworking genre actor Reicher gets a bit more to play with this time around.

Son of Kong is a cheap quickie, rushed into production when King Kong became a hit. This may explain the scattershot script, and it certainly explains why the time-consuming stop motion work is so sparse. And stop motion, of course, is the only reason one would want to watch a movie like this.

There are some nice fights between Baby Kong and some other critters, but they feel rather perfunctory and lacking in detail compared to the ones in King Kong, no doubt due to the time limitations. Baby Kong fails to make much of an impression, because of his limited screen time, his passive nature and his general dorkiness. He looks good, though, and in lieu of more exciting Kong offspring (don’t ever mention King Kong Lives to me if you want to live), I’ll take him.

There’s a very specific point in the film where Rose, during her writing process, must have looked at her watch, thought “Look at the time” and typed “And then an earthquake destroys everything”. There’s no warning, no build-up and most emphatically no point – with shocking abruptness the movie simply goes Roland Emmerich and then it’s over. I rest contented in my firm belief that every child who saw Son of Kong had their hopes, dreams and sleep ruined for life by that sadistic, wantonly destructive non-ending.

Son of Kong was billed as a “seriocomedy” in its day, but neither the serious nor the comedic parts have much success in engaging the viewer. It’s a randomly written, uninspired and ultimately frustrating work that should be avoided if you wish to maintain your unsullied memories of King Kong.

Rating: 4 of 10 (because I just barely don’t hate it).

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Meet King Kong's son, King Komedy

Meet King Kong’s son, King Komedy


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