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THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (Akos von Rathony, 1961) ***, 10 August 2015

I have still barely scraped the surface of the popular "Krimi" thrillers made in Germany between the late 1950s and the early 1970s; this one – atypically, a British co-production filmed simultaneously (on location in London) in both languages – is, however, easily among the better entries that I have come across. The reasons for this are mainly due to an above-average cast that includes regulars Joachim Fuchsberger and Klaus Kinski, along with the likes of Christopher Lee, Marius Goring, Albert Lieven and Walter Gotell, and the striking monochrome cinematography by the renowned Desmond Dickinson (though the credit titles are appealingly displayed in red).

The expected murder sequences are reasonably well-staged (though an old-wheelchair-bound-woman-falling-downstairs bit is entirely gratuitous!) – one of them, occurring at night in the busy Piccadilly Circus area, is especially evocative of a classic Hitchcockian set-piece; eroticism, another gene requisite, is briefly touched upon here in a titillating nightclub act. By the way, the film was only the second effort I have watched from this director, and the result is certainly a more substantial achievement than CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) – its chief liability being the unconvincing screams from the various female victims/damsels-in-distress throughout!

The complex Edgar Wallace (from whose extensive work and that of his son, Bryan Edgar, all these flicks were derived) plot involves the ostensibly harmless importing of the titular flower serving as a front for heroin smuggling; twists relating to the identity of two of its principal characters are belatedly, yet effectively, incorporated into the fray. On the trail of the culprits are airline investigator Fuchsberger and Oriental sleuth Lee (coming across like a more ruthless Charlie Chan – complete with a steady flow of aphorisms, at one point causing a woman particularly unreceptive to his genial wit exclaiming "Sod off, Confucius!" to his face).

Actually, it is amusing to note how the film plays havoc with nationalities – where Germans are not only made to pass off as English, but the only true Brit on hand (albeit speaking in fluent German for the duration) is saddled with an Asian countenance! As for Kinski, he surprisingly plays it cool for the most part – with his signature intensity only emerging at the climax. Interestingly, too, Goring, Lee and Lieven would be reteamed for next year's similarly-titled British espionage thriller THE DEVIL'S AGENT (a recent viewing in my continuing marathon of Lee movies). Incidentally, I recall coming across a small poster of this in an old film scrapbook of my Dad's many years ago under its British moniker...since it was later retitled DAFFODIL KILLER for U.S. consumption.

Jinnah (1998)
JINNAH (Jamil Dehlavi, 1998) ***, 10 August 2015

Though I knew how proud Christopher Lee was of his achievement in this film, I had been wary of checking it out in view of the subject matter – which was as foreign to me as it must have been for most audiences (indeed, the movie was a straight-to-DVD release in the U.K., the star's very own native country!). However, I need not have worried since, not only was it a compelling biopic (the titular founder of the Muslim state of Pakistan was a contemporary – and religious rival – of "Mahatma" Gandhi) but one that was tackled in a quite original fashion for pictures of its ilk.

Having mentioned the beloved Hindu leader, at 110 minutes against the 188 of Richard Attenborough's GANDHI (1982), the film under review feels somewhat like a subplot within the epic narrative of that multiple Oscar-winner – in which Jinnah is said to have been unflatteringly portrayed (I have not watched it for years, so I cannot really say myself). As such, the plot here follows much the same pattern – following Jinnah from his youth as a barrister to an interracial marriage (though he would later disown his daughter for doing the same!) and his dealings with the British rulers (represented by war hero Lord Mountbatten – played by James Fox – whose wife apparently carried on an open affair with the future first Prime Minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru!). Ironically, despite their often radically different approach (Jinnah coming across as Malcolm X to his Martin Luther King), Gandhi was assassinated by his own people because of his ultimate consent to the country's "partition" – allowing the Muslim minority in India to have its own nation; in the film, he even meets Jinnah in the computer-driven(!) afterlife and chides him for it.

Incidentally, it is scenes such as the latter – which surprisingly abound here – that stand out, even more perhaps than the expected stirring speeches (powerful though these undeniably are); in fact, the movie emerges as more of a fantasia (though obviously far removed from the self-indulgent excesses of Ken Russell's treatment of many a classical composer in his 1970s heyday) than a typical biopic. This may have been done so as to give 76 year-old Lee maximum screen-time – but the notion of having him look over his life accompanied by a sharp-witted heavenly "narrator", to determine what good he has done but also where he went wrong (the moving finale has him asking forgiveness of his subjects for the great hardships they had to endure as a direct result of his honest struggle to lend them "dignity"), was certainly an inspired touch – shades of "A Christmas Carol" and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)! That said, some confusion is not avoided: not only does Lee see himself as an old man – but he is even shown advising his younger self (Richard Lintern) on what course of action to take! One of the best sequences, then, has him fictionally take up law one last time in order to try Lord Mountbatten for what he deems betrayal i.e. having renounced his pro-Pakistani stance – again, a welcome fanciful passage that reminds one of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941) and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946)!!

While the production went through much financial difficulties that almost saw it abandoned and Lee's casting was reportedly the cause of an uproar in Pakistan itself, it must be said that the actor's commanding performance really holds this together and, thus, he was justified to hold it in such high esteem within his extensive and varied canon.

TOO HOT TO HANDLE {Black-&-White Version} (Terence Young, 1960) **1/2, 10 August 2015

According to the IMDb, apart from the delightful Jack Conway-Clark Gable-Myrna Loy screwball comedy from 1938, there are 5 more movies that go by the name of TOO HOT TO HANDLE. The film under review (retitled PLAYGIRL AFTER DARK in the U.S.) is the would-be steamy noir-ish Jayne Mansfield vehicle made in Britain and co-starring actors who normally are above this sort of thing – Leo Genn, Carl Boehm and Christopher Lee – but which decidedly help in raising it above the rut of contemporaneous quota-quickie gangland thrillers; indeed, Patrick Holt – whom I recently watched in a film from that very ilk, SERENA (1962) – even plays the Police Inspector here!

The American "Blonde Bombshell" plays Midnight Franklin, the star attraction of a Soho strip club called "The Pink Flamingo"; suave Genn is her boss whom he affectionately calls "12 O'Clock" and she has feelings for; Boehm (in his second British film) plays an inquisitive journalist reporting on the sordid London nightlife – typically he falls for one of the girls but, surprisingly, it is not the leading lady but gloomy Danik Patisson; and Lee is Novak, Genn's double-faced right-hand man/MC. Another well-known figure (pun intended) that is featured further down in the cast list but whose violent demise plays a pivotal role in the film's climax with respect to the major characters' fate is future "Carry On" star Barbara Windsor.

Indeed, the film's unhappy ending – in which most characters show their true (and uglier) colours – is its real trump card…more so than the much-touted "hot" numbers of Miss Mansfield; speaking of which, unfortunately, not only is the print I watched shorn of colour (which is how it is widely available today – probably a disservice to the great Otto Heller's original lensing – and which, arguably, also enhances its ties with the aforementioned sub-genre)…but her two songs are bereft of sound, too!! Luckily enough, the sequences are intact – if still just as monochromatic and chaste – when looked up individually on "You Tube" (which is where I came across the film in the first place) and, apparently, TOO HOT TO HANDLE is available in colour on a German DVD.

Incidentally, while the film may have been intended as a dramatic showcase for its shapely star, she had fared much better in Paul Wendkos' debut, the superior noir THE BURGLAR (1957), which I have caught up with just the other day; besides, while it may seem odd that a film originally shot in colour would "exist" solely in a black-and-white print, this is the 10th such instance I have come across in my film collection alone…

FORTUNE IS A WOMAN (Sidney Gilliat, 1957) ***, 2 August 2015

The esteemed British writing-producing-directing team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder seemed to divide their work between stylish thrillers and broad comedies – though not always each member of the unit would be responsible for their entries in any one particular genre, Gilliat's efforts tended to be more serious and therefore generally worthier of attention and less prone to become dated with the passage of time.

Anyway, this film again features Christopher Lee in just one scene (albeit an amusing one as a black-eyed movie star attempting to pull off an insurance fraud!) and, in a more substantial role than in the previously-viewed PORT AFRIQUE (1956), Dennis Price. The elaborate plot also involves arson, fake paintings, a blackmail scheme, and even the shaky rekindling of an old romance. The rather mismatched stars are Jack Hawkins (immediately prior to embarking upon his international/movie spectaculars phase with the same year's THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) and American Arlene Dahl (just as unconvincingly married here to asthmatic and unbalanced aristocrat Price) who run the gamut of emotions trying first to hide their prior affair then facing it head-on following Price's fiery death, Hawkins accusing Dahl of the murderous deed and then compromising his position in the insurance firm he works for by sticking by her (even if he knows the blaze was deliberately ignited) and fend off the inevitable vultures – knowledgeable of this fact – over Price's estate. This being the 1950s, everything works its way satisfactorily towards a happy ending – down to Hawkins' associates literally chasing after him out on the streets in the final scene to retract his decision to resign rather than bring shame upon his colleagues and superiors!

As I said, the film is classy (even managing a few dream sequences to cloud Hawkins' mind during his mission) and reasonably absorbing (the identity of the chief blackmailers is quite a surprise) throughout – but taking care to also provide meaty supporting turns by the likes of Ian Hunter (as the proverbial "friend of the family"), Geoffrey Keen (as Hawkins' sympathetic superior), Bernard Miles (a similar role to the one he had just played in Hitchcock's THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH {1956}), Greta Gynt as a middle-aged nymphomaniac(!) and Michael Goodliffe (as a dogged Police Inspector). Incidentally, the print I watched sported the somewhat more appropriate U.S. moniker of SHE PLAYED WITH FIRE and, while pristine enough, suffered from the occasional jerkiness…

PORT AFRIQUE (Rudolph Mate', 1956) **1/2, 2 August 2015

This British mystery thriller (not a Foreign Legion adventure, as I had anticipated!) owes an obvious debt to CASABLANCA (1942), but the end result – despite having the usually reliable Mate' at the helm – is unquestionably a disappointment. It was wrong to start off with a title song, followed by female star Pier Angeli performing another tune at the inevitable café, so that the expected noir-ish mood seemed almost like an afterthought! That said, the colour scheme throughout (courtesy of cinematographer Wilkie Cooper, not forgetting that Mate' had himself cut his teeth in that department) was occasionally striking. While the plot is no great shakes either, it is peopled by offbeat characters that keeps one somewhat interested: crippled WWII veteran Philip Carey returns home to his wife – who is said to abhor imperfection! – only to find her dead from an apparent suicide. Soon, however, it transpires that this in fact was a case of murder – not to mention that the victim had not quite been the dutiful spouse.

Typically, a number of suspects are on hand: Angeli herself (who had somehow become the woman's permanent guest), shady café owner James Hayter (Angeli's "keeper", who apparently came into money overnight, having previously served as the local beachcomber!), a rather wasted Dennis Price as Carey's business partner, and even painter Christopher Lee (who admits in his one scene to having had a dalliance with the deceased). To be fair, though, the identity of the killer was a surprise here – not that the investigation had elicited much in the way of suspense or action! Besides, the requisite romance between the protagonists barely gets going during the trim 87-minute duration (though the TV-sourced print I watched seemed obliged to pause for commercials after every reel!)…but they get the obligatory fade-out clinch regardless! Also among the cast are Eugene Deckers as the military official in charge who knows far more than he lets on and Anthony Newley (still not having fully attained his adult look) as an animated Portuguese airline pilot who becomes chummy with Carey.

As often happens to me when watching routine fare, something in the narrative sets me off wandering on the actors' careers or private lives; here it was the fact that Lee had already played a dubious painter in his first notable film role, PENNY AND THE POWNALL CASE (1948); Angeli would herself commit suicide in 1971; and, irony of ironies, up-and-coming star Price would have his career destroyed by alcoholism and homosexuality but, in this film, his character not only berates his wife for drinking but was on the point of eloping with Carey's philandering spouse!!

INNOCENTS IN Paris {Edited Version} (Gordon Parry, 1953) **, 29 July 2015

I am obliged to review this very minor effort due to Christopher Lee's uncredited involvement in it, which lasts for all of 30 seconds(!), appearing merely to inspect an English military band before and after their flight to the titular location. The film is a British comedy, very typical of its era, and pitting established (Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford) with emerging (Claire Bloom) talent – not forgetting local, i.e. French, star presences (Claude Dauphin and Louis De Funes). To be honest, caricatures of various types emanating from these two countries have been done to death over the years – to have them engage in a clash of cultures, then, is even more lamentable (though it was obviously devised and intended as an irresistibly hilarious notion!)…and to which is even added that of the humorless Russian diplomat, who takes offense when his British counterpart (the perennially-flustered Sim) rather tastelessly compares the effect of drinking vodka to the devastation caused by an atom bomb – and who can only concede to the Western way of thinking while under the influence himself!!

Unsurprisingly, the narrative takes up several strands of plot as the various passengers of a plane enjoy a week-end in the French capital; most of these are wafer-thin and alternate between improbable romantic trysts (including a Scotsman falling for a local girl) and the idiosyncratic pursuit of a particular hobby (painting and indoor cricket!). Mind you, the film is tolerable enough for what it is – but it is certainly not among the better examples of its kind, especially when considering that the copy I acquired ran for 86 minutes against the movie's official duration of 102…which makes me wonder just how long was the print shown on local TV during the early 2000s, but which I had not managed to either view or record back in the day! Suffice it to say that, while Laurence Harvey's name and face is prominently featured in some of the film's theatrical posters (apparently playing a French waiter!), he was nowhere to be seen in the print I watched!!

DIAGNOSIS: MURDER (Sidney Hayers, 1975) ***, 29 July 2015

I had long wanted to check out this British thriller (mainly because the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide gave it a surprisingly favourable write-up) co-starring Christopher Lee – but had been wary of the prospect since all the sources I have checked give the film's running-time as 95 minutes, whereas the only available print lasted for only 83!; with the actor's recent passing, I acquired it regardless to include in my ongoing tribute. Having watched it now, I pretty much agree with Maltin's opinion – but, to be fair, for most of the duration I was prone to slash off half-a-star from the rating; the reason for this is the fact that the film-making on display is essentially no different to what was contemporaneously being proposed on TV: one would expect a theatrical release from this era – particularly since British cinema was virtually in the doldrums by then – to include a modicum of sex and violence, but these are hardly in evidence (if at all)! As I came to learn after the fact, the film was indeed intended for TV but was released theatrically anyway; whatever the case, the opening abduction sequence plays out like something out of the cult espionage TV series THE AVENGERS (1961-69)!

The premise is straightforward and typical, but nonetheless engaging (if somewhat improbable): the wealthy wife of a doctor (Lee) goes missing and he comes under suspicion, especially since he may be carrying on an affair with his secretary (Judy Geeson); the police investigation is handled by a gaunt-looking Jon Finch (due to an as-yet untreated diabetic condition) who, apart from keeping his hair long and drinking on the job, is struggling with 'domestic' problems of his own (he contemplates quitting girlfriend Jane Merrow, who is forced to tend to her ungrateful crippled husband). Eventually, it transpires that Lee is really guilty – with Geeson soon made an unwitting accomplice – and wants to inherit his spouse's fortune (whom he keeps hidden away in a remote countryside place, leased under an alias, and is slowly poisoning); at one point, he tries to explain himself to his lover by saying that he does not have 40 years to live that he can comfortably wait for what is lawfully coming to him – in hindsight, it is quite moving to realize that Lee had exactly that amount of time at his disposal before passing away! Despite having a full schedule of patients and with a policeman constantly tailing him, the doctor is regularly able to flee his workplace in order to carry out this nefarious plan with relative ease (indeed, Lee's portrayal is perennially cool and collected – albeit with a barely-disguised sadistic streak).

The film is certainly enjoyable along the way (though the ostensibly redundant subplot involving Merrow's plight is admittedly dull) and is aided immeasurably by Laurie Johnson's pulsating score; what really gives DIAGNOSIS: MURDER (nothing to do, incidentally, with the much-later and long-running TV show starring Dick Van Dyke) its raison d'etre, however, is the clever double twist at the climax (the first of which recalls to some degree the ending of TASTE OF FEAR {1961}, also with Lee) and the second proving quite cynical (stressing the comparable situations plaguing both hero and villain within the narrative).

The Keeper (1976)
THE KEEPER (T.Y. Drake, 1976) *1/2, 29 July 2015

I do not know what it was with Christopher Lee during the mid-1970s, but he seemed to accept pretty much every script that came his way in an attempt to obtain for himself some kind of Guinness World Record for movie roles played (which he probably holds anyway)!; with this in mind, a sizeable amount of titles from his extensive career remain obscure to this day and, having watched a few of them already in my ongoing tribute to him, I regret to say that this status is justified certainly for the majority emanating from this vintage (with only ALBINO {1976} emerging thus far as being undeservedly forgotten).

This Canadian thriller (erroneously considered horror by some sources but, then, this would often prove the case with this particular genre icon) is a genuine dud, and one really has to strain to determine just what could have attracted the star to become involved!; it may have been the fact that he plays a cripple, but his condition is never explained and has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, or perhaps the notion that he can control minds by way of hypnosis – but the sessions conducted are downright laughable, with himself adopting a perfectly idiotic diabolical countenance throughout! Anyway, he plays the head of an insane asylum but insists on being referred to as "keeper": it transpires that his patients (one of whom turns out to be a "sympathetic" twin with another, shady character within the narrative) are all well-to-do and that their relatives – in line to inherit them – are being eliminated; since this would make Lee the eventual beneficiary of their fortune, a cop has been infiltrated into the establishment to investigate…but he too has been virtually reduced to a puppet in the master's hands!

Incidentally, this is given a period setting – complete with trenchcoat-sporting detective hero (though far removed from the hard-boiled prototype) and a resourceful shoeshine boy – but, since there was no concerted attempt at sustaining mood, the option was no more than a randomly-deployed gimmick! However, perhaps the most head-scratching decision here was to make the inevitable Police Inspector – first clashing with, then abetting – the protagonist a highly-strung and accident-prone buffoon, obviously intended to supply comedy relief but only serving a litany of cringe-inducing antics one would think hard before including even in an outright slapstick comedy! I am afraid THE CRAPPER would have been an equally appropriate moniker…

Faerie Tale Theatre: THE BOY WHO LEFT HOME TO FIND OUT ABOUT THE SHIVERS {TV} (Graeme Clifford, 1984) **1/2, 21 July 2015

I usually watch episodes from this fantasy series over Christmas but, since this one co-stars the recently-deceased Christopher Lee, I thought I might as well get to it now. The cast actually includes Peter MacNichol as the fearless titular figure, Jeff Corey as his ultra-superstitious father, David Warner as a scheming innkeeper in cahoots with the regal Lee, Frank Zappa as the latter's mute hunchbacked servant, and even Vincent Price providing the narration (making this the fourth and final collaboration between the two Horror icons, obviously discounting the THIS IS YOUR LIFE TV episode devoted to Lee I recently watched).

The film is likable enough and occasionally amusing (Corey's antics to fend off misfortune at the start and, while spending three nights at Lee's ostensibly haunted castle, the protagonist is not only averse to terror but he even teaches the visiting ghouls how to play bowling with a skull!), but the attempts to scare the hero and his gauche obliviousness to them are often too silly – in the vein of a "Scooby Doo" cartoon – to elicit much interest from an adult audience! This is all the more telling when it transpires that MacNichol is basically afraid of growing up…since he gets all shivery when ultimately offered the hand of Lee's daughter in marriage upon completing his endurance test!

The Girl (1987)
THE GIRL (Arne Mattsson, 1986) **, 21 July 2015

Given that director Mattsson made his name with the ground-breaking Swedish erotic drama ONE SUMMER OF HAPPINESS (1951), it was perhaps inevitable that during the twilight of his career he would return to this theme. The film (distributed in the U.S. by Roger Corman's New World Pictures!) is basically a variation on "Lolita" – with successful married lawyer Franco Nero falling under the spell of a teenage schoolgirl and all but ruing his life for her. What is more, here, the protagonist's wife is herself involved in an affair with a much-younger man; though Mattsson understandably has the young Clare Powney disrobe quite often, he also gives middle-aged Bernice Stegers her share of nude scenes!

The temptress of the title comes from an eminent family, so her sudden elopement with Nero leads to an ambitious journalist tracking the couple down to an island retreat – complete with mute servant girl (I thought Jess Franco cornered that particular market?!) – and eventually attempt blackmail; the girl, obviously wiser than her years, seduces and knifes him (twice at one go!) in order to deal with his threat – a befuddled Nero can only contrive to dispose of the body and his personal effects. Ultimately, both elder parties decide to get together again, which the youngsters do not take lightly; Stegers' boyfriend begins hounding her, so she opts to come clean – but somehow Nero never does and pays the price with his life…only, since the death occurs in an apartment separately shared by the clandestine couple and to which the young man also has the key, it is he who is accused of the crime by Christopher Lee (once again playing at upholding law and order)! The latter appears during the very last stages of the film but his presence add some much needed gravitas at that point.

To be fair, the film is not devoid of interest throughout – but the tedious plot and sluggish pacing only exacerbates the redundancy of the whole enterprise, while the palpable decline in the quality of movies being offered at this point in time to international stars the likes of Nero and Lee – who had previously appeared together in THE SALAMANDER (1981) – renders it that much sadder to watch! Incidentally, I recall the VHS poster of THE GIRL from one of the magazines dedicated to that home video format I used to pore on in my childhood days…

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