Monday, 22 September 2014

The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)

The Falcon in Hollywood is one of the best of the original RKO Falcon series, with the hackneyed plot more than compensated for with the breezy script, debonair star, and his sassy sidekick. In addition, we also get a fascinating behind the scenes tour of the RKO backlot.

This time the Falcon is on vacation, in Tinseltown, enjoying a relaxing day at the races. However, within minutes of the opening credits he is being questioned by police detectives and approached by beautiful women. Before you can say "how does he do that?", he is embroiled in a murder mystery involving a shady businessman, a neurotic, superstitious Shakespeare quoting movie producer and film that seems to be cursed.

The script keeps our hero busy locking horns with the police, the criminals, the filmmakers and the actresses. Helping and hindering in equal measure in the faithful sidekick role is cabbie Billie (Veda Ann Borg).Although the part is played by a woman, the character is pretty gender neutral and, refreshingly, she is not presented as merely a love interest who occasionally screams, but as great comic relief. 

Given the subject matter and setting, The Falcon in Hollywood qualifies as a film about filmmaking, with the focus on the behind-the-scenes drama as much as any taking place in front of the camera. With the ruthless scheming producer, autocratic director and pompous diva actors, it is fascinating to see how the movie world sees itself.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Falcon in Mexico (1944)

The Falcon in Mexico is the ninth entry in RKO's Falcon series and sees a change of location/stock footage/backdrops, with pleasantly entertaining results.

As usual, our freelance crime-fighting mystery solving hero Tom Lawrence aka The Falcon (played for the sixth time by Tom Conway) gets dragged into the mystery in an amusingly implausible manner, one that us mere mortals can only dream of. Within seconds of kissing his girlfriend goodnight at her apartment, he finds himself lip-locked with a mysterious woman named Dolores in order to shield her from a passing police officer, then helping her break into an art gallery, to recover a painting that she has recently modeled for – even though the artist, Humphrey Wade, has supposedly been dead for over a decade. Dolores promptly disappears just as the Falcon finds the body of the gallery owner. Now wanted for murder, Lawrence teams up with Wade's daughter Barbara and travels to Mexico to clear his name and find out whether reports of Wade's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Conway is a suave as ever, playing the Falcon as seeming amused and bemused by events, but never fazed by them. As usual, he has a sidekick, Manuel, a stereotypical laid-back Mexican, who helps Lawrence negotiate the mean streets of a strange country, and who may not be all he seems, as his character takes on more significance later in the story (the sidekick also has a sidekick, in the shape of his son, basically a mini-Manuel)

The script saunters along at an appropriately relaxed pace, but does stick to the plot without getting sidetracked, with the exception of a few weak musical numbers. Given the brief running time of these sort of films (typically 65-70 minutes), it does leave the denouement feeling rushed, and the killer almost arbitrary. Nevertheless, there is enough entertainment along the way to make that not too much of a problem.

Interestingly, an oft repeated – and never confirmed – legend about this film concerns the stock footage, which is supposedly taken from Orson Welles' unfinished documentary about Brazil, It's All True. Whether this is true or not, what we see is very well shot and certainly a step above the usual stock footage standards.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Falcon in Danger (1943)

The Falcon in Danger, the sixth of RKO's Falcon films, is an unremarkable affair, where an annoying sidekick, a dull script and flat direction undo the charming lead.

The story starts intriguingly, with freelance crime solver the Falcon, aka Tom Lawrence (played by Tom Conway) somehow getting roped into investigating a plane crash at an airport in New York. Missing from the wreckage is the pilot, two wealthy businessmen and $100,000 in securities.

Sadly instead of spending time developing this mystery properly, there is instead too much attention given to the Falcon's grating fiancée Bonnie Caldwell, and her, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to keep Lawrence out of crime fighting. It is not that a character like the Falcon cannot work with a female sidekick; it is more that, whoever that sidekick is, they need to serve a function in the storytelling, whether that is getting the hero into or out of scrapes, or providing somebody for the hero to explain plot points to, for the benefit of the audience. Given that the film only has just over an hour to tell the story, the fiancé diversions are a mistake, and when we do return to characters and elements related to the crash, they feel rushed or poorly thought out.

Tom Conway took over the character of the Falcon from the original star, his brother, George Sanders, and while Conway is no George Sanders – who could be? – but luckily he still manages to be suave, (even when on roller skates) and entertaining enough to keep us watching, and make for mostly pleasant, if unessential viewing.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1978)

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula may have one of the goofiest premises for a vampire film, but it deserves credit on three points. Firstly, for trying something different with the mythology, secondly, for a couple of interesting cast choices, and thirdly, for being great trashy entertainment.

The story starts in 1970s Romania, where a group of Russian soldiers are carrying out excavation and demolition work. But despite their best efforts, they only succeed in unearthing and reviving two of Count Dracula's faithful and long dead servants, one two legged (Veidt Smith, played by the wonderfully sinister looking Reggie Nalder) and one four legged (Zoltan, the count's faithful mutt, played by, well, a dog). However, servants are no good without a master, so the pair set off to track down the only surviving member of the Dracula bloodline, a man living in Los Angeles, under the cleverly disguised name of Michael Drake. Can the enigmatic Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer) get to him first? Moreover, can Drake trust his own four-legged friends to protect himself and his family?

The central premise, the idea of man’s best friend turning into man's worst enemy is actually a good one, and screenwriter Frank Ray Perrili, a veteran of low budget exploitation films has some fun with transferring human vampire behaviour to animals. Granted, the results, such as scenes of Zoltan biting other dogs to turn them into his vampire slaves are impossible to take seriously. However, there are two set pieces with Drake trapped in a house and a car respectively, under siege from the canines, desperately trying to hold out until sunrise, which are suspenseful.

The (human) star of the show is definitely Reggie Nalder, whose distinctive scarred face had helped him get work with the likes of Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much). Despite often doing nothing more than staring at the camera, he still manages to imbue the role with an unsettling, creepy quality.

Kudos too for casting Jose Ferrer as Inspector Branco, the Van Helsing type character tasked with explaining the back-story to the audience and characters. In a similar way that Peter Cushing does, he manages to bring a bit of gravitas to patently stupid situations and dialogue.

The film only really flags during the frequent, unnecessary and interminable scenes of people driving, scenes that last beyond the time needed to establish that people are going somewhere and quickly feel like the padding that they are. However, they are usually accompanied by a distinctive musical theme, so at least when you hear it start, you can go to the fridge and get a beer.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Take Me High (1974)

How could a film that stars Cliff Richard as a merchant banker in 1970s Birmingham, a former Dr Who companion as his love interest, has a plot that revolves around a burger that represents the city, and features random shots of people machine-gunning televisions fail? Sadly, Take Me High is nowhere near as interesting as that synopsis may make it appear, a musical drama with no drama and boring, forgettable music.

Cliff plays Tim Matthews, a high flying, (he keeps a half bottle of champagne in the glove box of his Mini Clubman) go-getter in the world of international finance. All set for a promotion and transfer to New York, he is instead sent to Birmingham to turn the screws on a failing restaurant and the owner, Sarah Jones (played by Deborah Watling, perhaps best known for playing Victoria Waterfield, one of the assistants of the second Dr Who, Patrick Troughton). However once there, he finds himself helping relaunch the business as a glamorous burger bar, with the Brum Burger - a product designed to sum up the city in meat form - but also finds himself falling in love with Sarah.

Sadly, Cliff is utterly unconvincing as a smarmy charmless banker, although he gets no help from the script, which has no believable character development, and little in the way of dramatic tension. The musical numbers do actually serve as the internal monologue of Matthews, expressing what is going on in his head, although they are boring and undistinguished.

Deborah Watling makes the character of Sarah Jones likeable and sympathetic and the ever-reliable George Cole does his best as the hard-bitten socialist politician Bert Jackson. However, again, poor scripting makes them both largely dull characters, especially the underwritten part of Jackson, too much even for Cole's talents to breathe life into

The only beacon of interest character-wise is Hugh Griffith as Sir Harry Cunningham, the socialist hating millionaire, who seems to own most of Birmingham. We are first introduced to him at a dinner party, raging at a TV interview with Jackson, before picking up a machine gun and urging his guests join him in blowing the set to pieces. His all too brief and infrequent scenes are so entertainingly bizarre and surreal that they breathe some much-needed life into proceedings, even if those scenes are so jarringly off-the-wall.

The other star of the show is Birmingham itself, and credit to the director David Askey for actually shooting on location, rather than go for the stock footage option. Much is made of the famed canals of the city, fascinating for somebody like me who used to live around that way, perhaps less so for anyone who did not. It certainly does not capture the feel of the people of the city, showing little of the racial and cultural diversity present even 40 years ago, and without the recognisable locations, could actually have been set anywhere outside of London.

As a side note, the Brum burger itself is remarkably prescient, being handmade, and using all locally sourced ingredients, something that every Gastro pub in the country seems to offer nowadays.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

The Ghost of Frankenstein is an intriguing film, which can be loved or not depending on the perspective from which is viewed. While a fast paced, entertaining B-movie on its own, it also shows how far the Universal Horror franchise had moved from its origins, in terms of both character and execution.

Set after the events of Son of Frankenstein, the previous film in the franchise (with a town meeting providing some handy flashback and plot info), the film starts with an angry mob blowing up Castle Frankenstein to finally draw a line under the Doctor's experiments, and those of his son. However, this (somehow) actually has the effect of freeing Frankenstein's monster (Lon Chaney Jr) from the sulphur pits that were trapping him. Frankenstein's assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has also, miraculously, survived and the two flee to the nearby town of Vasaria, where a second, previously unmentioned Frankenstein son lives. He is also a Doctor, working with his assistant Dr Bohmer (Lionel Attwill) on a method for transplanting brains. Seeing an opportunity to test his theories, Frankenstein arranges to replace the damaged brain of the monster with a healthy one – but Ygor and Bohmer have other ideas.

It is hard to criticise The Ghost of Frankenstein for being what it is – a fast moving, atmospheric, hokey piece of entertainment, with all the tropes we associate with the genre, such as monsters, scientists, laboratories, lightning and angry mobs. Despite a fairly high amount of expositional dialogue, the script races through the storyline, and at 67 minutes long, the film does not out stay its welcome.

The star of the show is definitely Lugosi, reprising his role from Son of Frankenstein, giving a playful performance that is great fun to watch. Less successful is Lon Chaney JR taking on the role of the monster, as he lacks the pathos that Boris Karloff brought to the role and the and self-awareness, leaving a creature who is no longer a tragic monster, but simply a monster. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Frankenstein as less manic and intense than his predecessors but still gives the character some dignity, while Lionel Attwill is underused, but still makes the most of his scenes, always at his best playing a slimy, power hungry villain.

The direction, by Erle C. Kenton, is competent if unimaginative (apart from a few interesting height perspective shots involving the monster and a little girl), and is certainly no match for the ground-breaking work James Whale did with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, or the arch humour of those films. However, in fairness to Kenton, his budget was clearly no match either, and he still manages to produce some good model effects with Castle Frankenstein, as well as a laboratory full of gadgets, bubbling beakers and fizzing electrical coils.

One interesting new development from the previous films is the role of the lynch mob and the audience feeling towards this. Whereas it was possible to empathise with the Karloff monster when being hounded by a torch and pitchfork wielding crowd, the Chaney version is less sympathetic, so when a child is threatened and villagers killed by him, the anger and fright felt is more understandable than from those just lashing out at something that they do not understand.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Ghost of Frankenstein may depend on the context that you watch it in. Within the cycle of Universal Horror, particularly the Frankenstein series, it can be seen a sad comedown from the glory days of the Whale films. However, watched on its own terms it is still great fun, and a breezy slice of monsters, mobs, and mad scientists.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Liar's Autobiography (2012)

When Monty Python’s Flying Circus took the stage in London earlier this year, they were one member short. Graham Chapman, the hedonist, reformed alcoholic, pipe smoking, qualified medical doctor had passed away from cancer in 1989. Three years before that he had recorded himself readings extracts from his only telling of his life story, “A Liar’s Autobiography”, and it is these that form the basis of the film of the same name. However, the animated visuals that accompany the soundtrack rarely do justice to the words, and the sloppy overall tone soon becomes irritating.

Along the way learn something of his life, growing up in the Midlands with a no-nonsense policeman dad, studying medicine at Cambridge, meeting John Cleese, breaking into the world of television, coming out as an openly gay man, fame with Monty Python, 70s hedonism with rock star pals in LA, and a last few years of sobriety. We also learn a little of his character, his interest in and knowledge of science and medicine making a perfect contradictory counterpoint to his surreal outlook on life and hedonistic, staggeringly unhealthy lifestyle.

However, it soon becomes apparent that we are learning all of this purely from listening to Chapman talk, with the visuals at best adding nothing, and worst becoming distracting and grating. This is not to say that individual bits are not without merit, such as an astonishing sequence involving fighter pilots becoming overwhelmed with lust for each other, which plays like something from a William Burroughs novel. Far from being gratuitous, the scene links together several strands of Chapman's character and past, such as growing up during, World War Two, reading the stiff upper lip exploits of fictional hero fighter pilot Biggles, his sexuality, and his rugged macho image and interests, such as rugby, and mountain climbing. The credits list over a dozen different animation studios and while this may have been an attempt to capture the anarchy and randomness that Chapman brought to his work, the combined result feels like a tiresome mess.

Sadly having four of the five remaining Pythons (Eric Idle is the only one not involved) to voice the characters in the life of Chapman adds little to the film. Instead of creating characters, they mostly sound like they are halfheartedly reading lines of a piece of paper that has just been handed to them, while the use of Cameron Diaz as the voice of Sigmund Freud is just pointless stunt casting

So, what is the point of this film? Fair enough, the directors did not want to do a straightforward biography, and certainly, Chapman did not with his book. The stories may be largely untrue, but you can still learn plenty about people from tall tales. Beyond a brief mention of watching Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller perform Beyond the Fringe on television, the film does not explore any of the roots of Chapman's comedy, such as BBC Radio comedy like The Goon Show. There is also little mention of his long-term partner David Sherlock, who stuck with him through the darkest days of boozing, right through to the end of Chapman’s life. Python fans will not learn anything new, and non-fans just will not learn anything much.