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Desert Romance with a Strong Western Generic Flavor
Ostensibly set in the Arabian desert, the third in a series of highly profitable films produced by Universal with Maria Montez, Jon Hall, and Turhan Bey (the other two being ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942), and ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944), SUDAN is a formulaic romance with a disguised princess sold into slavery (Montez), a rebel leader suspected of killing her father (Bey) and a pickpocket with romantic intentions (Hall) aided and abetted by his comic sidekick (Amdy Devine). Add to that George Zucco in one of his hissable villain roles - and ludicrous costumes - and you have all the ingredients for another rip-roaring epic with plenty of fights and a rousing musical score (by Milton Rosen).
In truth John Rawlins's production doesn't have much to do with the mystic East. Shot in and around Los Angeles, its chase-sequences, with horses galloping across the sun-drenched desert, have more in common with the Western. Likewise the shots of the lovers (Montez, Bey) embracing in the mountains at night, with the peaks stretching like fingers into cloudless skies.
The story has clear propaganda elements: at one point Bey's Herua talks about ridding the world of "evil hours" while ensuring that his people will make Naila (Montez) "forget what has happened." When the villains have been vanquished, and the lovers ride off into the sunset, a heavenly choir strikes up another patriotic song praising freedom that exists like "the wild wind," protecting a people "always proud and free," and "that's the way we will remain," "fighting together for ever." The two lovers might be non-white (in the accepted racial sense of the term), but Rawlins's film projects a transcultural message; in the peace following six years of bitter war everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, will be able to live together harmoniously.
This wish might be idealistic, but it provides a suitably climactic coda to a highly entertaining adventure that is more about America's future than elsewhere.
The Amazing Mr. X (1948)
Efficiently Made Psychological Thriller
With distinct echoes of REBECCA (1940) and GASLIGHT (1941, 1944), THE AMAZING MR. X centers round the exploitation of a psychologically vulnerable woman Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) by two unscrupulous men - the fake medium Alexis (the Mr. X) of the film's title (Turhan Bey), and her supposedly dead ex-husband Paul (Donald Curtis). Although vowing to protect her sister at all costs, Christine's sister Janet (Cathy O'Donnell) also becomes ensnared in the intrigue.
Set in a lonely villa right by the sea - hence the REBECCA echoes - Bernard Vorhaus's thriller has been atmospherically photographed by John Alton in atmospheric black-and-white with a clever interplay of light and shade to denote Christine's gradually degenerating mental state. The window-bars are reflected in shadow on plain white walls, emphasizing the extent to which the house has become like a prison for her. Exterior shots are also cleverly handled; the scene where Alexis appears apparently out of nowhere, dressed in dinner- suit and smoking a cigarette, to greet Christine on the beach generates a genuine frisson.
The music - extracts from Chopin's Nocturnes - likewise creates a sinister atmosphere, reminding us both of Paul's profession as a pianist while reminding us of the extent to which the past has a controlling influence over the present.
Turhan Bey exerts a feline grace as the medium; every movement is carefully rehearsed in a series of performances designed to hoodwink his clients, ably abetted by Emily (Virginia Gregg). He is shown at least twice in half-light looking through the spy-hole of his house at the prospective customers, either grinning in anticipation of their visits, or smiling when he understands the extent to which he manipulates their lives.
Nonetheless Vorhaus exposes Alexis's performances as merely mortal once Paul reappears. The fake medium's movements become jumpy; he clasps his hands in terror as he realizes that he is no longer in control of the situation. He only recovers his sang-froid at the end in the final shoot-out with Paul, where the medium congratulates himself on his "greatest performance" in the shadows as he evades at least six shots from Paul's pistol.
In the end both of the bad guys have to die (according to the diktats of the Johnston Office), but Alexis undergoes a sudden change of heart as Janet leans over him and vows unending love. Even the cleverest personalities can be won over by affection.
Tautly plotted with at least a few surprises in store, THE AMAZING MR. X crams a lot into its seventy-eight-minute running-time.
Now, Voyager (1942)
Forget the Plot - Feel the Quality and Savor the Memorable Moments
In the cold light of day, the plot of Irving Rapper's immortal classic is absolute tosh. Charlott Vale, a dowdy spinster (Bette Davis) is transformed into a classic beauty, falls in love with a married architect (Paul Henreid), and ends up in an arrangement of doubtful morality where she looks after his daughter Tina Durrance (Janis Wilson) full-time at her house while he goes back to his wife. Love remains unfulfilled, but at least Charlotte has found her métier in life.
But to criticize this timeless classic, based on Olive Higgins Prouty's best-selling novel, is to overlook the panoply of memorable moments it contains, from Davis's first appearance coming down the staircase in a shapeless dress and glasses, to her showing her ivory carvings - for the first time - to Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), her arguments with her bitchy mother (Gladys Cooper), and her tenderness when dealing with equally insecure teenager Tina. Oh, and don't forget the memorable details of her love-affair with Jerry, from the stylish way he lights two cigarettes at once, then passes one on to her; to their night spent alone on a Brazilian mountain; their conversation by moonlight accompanied by Max Steiner's memorable theme; and the film's final line ("Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars").
The film shows Davis at her very best as she changes chameleon-like from a put-upon daughter to a socialite with the aid of Orry-Kelly's wonderful costumes. Her hairstyles also change, as do her body- movements; at the film's beginning she clasps and unclasps her hands as she faithfully carries out her mother's wishes while trying to avoid another fit of hysterics. When she meets Jerry (Henreid) for the first time onboard ship, she resembles a wolf in sheep's clothing, as she fingers her fur wrap gingerly, in full knowledge that it does not belong to her. Contrast such hesitation with the confident way she disembarks from the Port of New York to meet her sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase) and niece June (Bonita Granville) and astonishes both of them with her supreme self-possession.
The love-sequences between Davis and Henreid are truly memorable - not so much for their overblown dialogue, but because the two of them are so good at suggesting the passions that have overcome their reason and throw them together at any and every opportunity. Henreid generally played more introverted roles; this was one of the few occasions when he had the chance to let rip emotionally, and he grasps his opportunity with both hands.
The supporting cast of British émigrés Rains and Cooper are equally memorable. Rains makes a thoroughly convincing job of the sympathetic psychiatrist, who likes Charlotte even when she breaks all the rules; and Cooper, her hard face staring stonily at her unwanted daughter, comes across as a thoroughly amoral woman who is more than willing to put on an act of feigning illness, so long as she remains the center of attention.
NOW VOYAGER is one of those movies you can watch again and again without tiring of it; its emotional force brings viewers to tears even though it is now over seventy years old.
Angels One Five (1952)
Fighter Pilot Drama Notable for its Sincerity of Purpose
One of a slew of World War II dramas that appeared from British studios at the beginning of the Fifties, ANGELS ONE-FIVE centers on the brief career of T. B. ("Septic") Baird (John Gregson), who joins the Pimpernel Squadron as a tyro pilot, shoots down a German plane but breaks Air Force protocol as a result, but ends up bravely sacrificing his life in an aerial dog-fight against impossible odds.
George More O'Ferrall's docu-drama makes some important points about the virtues of teamwork. Led by Peter Moon (Michael Denison), the squadron works as a unit, each member sacrificing personal gain for maximum efficiency. On the ground they enjoy their fair share of joshing - making fun of Baird's penchant for chess - but when called out to battle they set aside their jokes and dedicate themselves to the task in hand, even when they are exhausted. Anyone stepping out of line, such as the mechanic Wailes (Harold Goodwin) is sternly reprimanded.
At the head of the entire station stands "Tiger" Small (Jack Hawkins), someone who sets an example of dedication to his men. But he is not without his frailties - during a German raid he rushes to a machine- gun and fires on enemy planes, thereby sacrificing his role as leader. On the other hand he possesses sufficient humanity to understand the importance of leisure-time, which is why we see him supping beer in the officers' mess and trying to make the newbie Baird feel at home.
The film reflects the class and gender attitudes of its time, with the largely upper-middle class pilots and the forelock-touching working-classes (Harry Fowler, Victor Maddern) supporting them. The women have largely passive roles, especially Nadine Clinton (Dulcie Gray), whose husband Barrie (Cyril Raymond) controls operations during any raids. Her role is simply to look after the house and provide moral succor where necessary. Other women fulfill more significant roles, especially in the Operations Room, but they remain subservient to Clinton and his male superiors.
Some of the lines in Derek Twist's script might seem rather archaic today - especially the determination to preserve stiff upper lips even under the most extreme pressure. On the other hand we cannot deny the cast and director's sincerity of purpose to recreate a time during the Battle of Britain when the Royal Air Force were heavily outnumbered yet still managed to protect the country from obliteration by the Luftwaffe. Nothing was ever easy for them; and they did manage to maintain morale even under the most extreme circumstances.
The film's final shot says it all - a view of the ruined Operations Room in the middle of an airfield pockmarked by bomb-craters. Despite the heavy attack, everyone followed Prime Minister Winston Churchill's dictum to keep going on despite every attempt to prevent them.
Shadows on the Stairs (1941)
Quickie Whodunit set in a London Boarding-House
Set in the kind of boarding-houses that simply don't exist any more, SHADOWS ON THE STAIRS is based on a West End hit and contains a cast of Hollywood British stalwarts augmented by Turhan Bey as a suspicious Indian student (in his first film).
The plot is straightforward: Mr. Reynolds (Paul Cavanagh) is apparently knifed to death one night when everyone else is asleep. The Scotland Yard inspector assigned to the case (Lumsden Hare) makes all the wrong deductions and is set right by aspiring playwright Hugh Bromilow (Bruce Lester). An hysterical maid Lucy (Phyliis Barry) apparently commits suicide as she realizes that Tom Armitage (Miles Mander) - who has had a clandestine affair with her - wants to dump her. Add to that an hysterical boarding-house maitresse d'h (Freda Inescort), and a comic spinster (Mary Snell), and you have plenty of material for a fifty- nine minute quickie.
Director D. Ross Lederman ensures that his camera keeps moving up and down the staircases and from room to room; this fast pace seems ideal for a film with more than its share of implausibilities, no more so than at the end, when a final plot-twist reveals that we, the viewers, have been hoodwinked just as much as the Inspector. But it really doesn't matter: the film's primary purpose is to provide a showcase for a gallery of British eccentrics, even down to the mustachioed police constable (Charles Irwin), who averts his eyes to anything potentially salacious.
Dark Victory (1939)
Solid Melodrama with the Star at the Height of her Powers
In truth DARK VICTORY has a soggy story of the impending death of Judith Traherne (Bette Davis), an energetic socialite diagnosed with an incurable brain disease. Nor is the film helped by a wooden performance from costar George Brent, who seems more worried about stealing Davis's limelight rather than creating a coherent portrait of a hotshot surgeon falling in love with his patient.
On the other hand viewers have much to savor in Davis's performance. She begins the film full of nervous energy, as she desperately tries to prove to herself and her friends that she is perfectly healthy apart from occasional headaches. Her movements are abrupt, almost bird- like as she moves across the frame, unable to keep still for one moment.
It is only when Dr. Steele (Brent) takes her under his medical wing that her condition improves. She becomes almost childlike as she willingly agrees to have her nerves tested. The doctor taps her knees and her elbows and she laughs girlishly, almost as if such treatment was not something she had experienced for a long time.
In the film's third movement, once she discovers her true condition, Davis resembles a galleon in full sail. Her drunk sequence in an upmarket restaurant reminds us of her memorable performance as Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE: no one, not least Dr. Steele and her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) can stand in her way.
At length, however, Judith comes to accept her fate and enjoy her last days in peace. She marries Steele, and the two of them decamp to Vermont where she enjoys cultivating her garden and acting the part of an embryonic homemaker. The end, when it strikes, is sudden: Judith clasps her hands to her head and moves slowly up to her bedroom where she lies on the bed and awaits death to the accompaniment of heavenly choirs. Davis's face becomes still, almost beatific; a testament to her versatility as a screen performer.
Beside her performance, no one really has much of a chance. Fitzgerald carries off the thankless role of the best friend with aplomb, while Humphrey Bogart (in one of his last supporting roles before stardom beckoned) makes a passionate stable-hand. But DARK VICTORY is very much Davis's picture, and she takes her opportunity to dominate our attention with both hands.
Out of the Blue (1947)
Madcap Comedy with Contrasting Performances
Ostensibly set in Greenwich Village but actually never leaving the confines of Eagle-Lion's studios, OUT OF THE BLUE's basic plot-line adumbrates better-known comedies such as THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and THE ODD COUPLE. Arthur Earthleigh (George Brent), a put-upon husband, has to fend for himself while his spouse Mae (Carole Landis) goes away for the weekend. He encounters serial drunk Olive (Ann Dvorak) in a club, takes her back home but finds his adulterous dreams frustrated by a combination of conscience and drunkenness. Meanwhile his neighbor David (Turhan Bey) appears to be continuing his career as a serial womanizer with dog-breeder Deborah (Virginia Mayo), but his romantic dreams are frustrated by Olive.
Leigh Jason's production is distinguished by contrasting performances. Once Warner Brothers' leading man but now sporting middle-aged spread, Brent is quite happy to play the well-meaning but clueless husband led a merry amatory dance by Olive, apparently unable to cope with rapidly changing situations. Turhan Bey acts the sophisticate, dressed in a white tuxedo and showing his perfect manners to Mayo - while successfully seducing her - but even he has no real answer to Olive's machinations. Ann Dvorak enjoys herself with a madcap role as Olive, as she sups vast quantities of brandy and flops lifelessly down on the sofa in a series of drunken stupors.
Playing a couple of old women reminiscent of those in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (released three years previously), Julia Dean and Elizabeth Patterson have great fun playing cards but showing far more interest in their neighbors' affairs. It's clear that in this tight-knit Greenwich Village society - where an unidentified murder is on the prowl - everything that happens is everyone else's business.
Needless to say the comedy ends happily with Brent reasserting patriarchal authority over his wife Mae, while Deborah establishes mastery (or should it be mistressy) over Turhan Bey's David, even though such authority is only skin-deep.
The Letter (1940)
Full-Blooded Melodrama with Memorable Performances
William Wyler's version of the Somerset Maugham classic is very much of its time, full of colonial stereotypes of the true British gentleman and his spouse, stiff upper lips and scheming orientals headed by Victor Sen Yung as lawyer's clerk Ong Chi Seng.
And yet the film remains probably the best of several versions available on different media. Although relentlessly studio-bound, Tony Gaudio's photography is particularly memorable, as the camera relentlessly pursues the protagonists, never letting them out of its sight. The use of symbolic close-ups on the eponymous letter, and the knives that Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) encounters on her visit to the Chinese junk-shop warn us of what will follow. Deep-focus establishing-shots of the opulent interiors of the British colonists' quarters remind us of their lives of privileged affluence, seldom punctuated by uncomfortable realities. This is why the murder of Geoff Hammond (David Newell) causes such a stir, and why lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) is willing to risk accusations of malpractice in order to guarantee Leslie's innocence.
The story is a familiar one, that of Leslie confessing to a murder and then trying to deceive her well-meaning husband (Herbert Marshall) while preserving her reputation. We know what will happen in the end (the Production Code would not have permitted anything else), but director Wyler ensures that there are plenty of things to remember on the way. The action proceeds through a series of shot/ reverse shot sequences interspersed with lengthy takes, giving the film a faintly stagy look. Yet this doesn't matter, as it allows us to concentrate on Davis's unbelievable range of facial expressions, as well as her unique eye-work as she tries to maintain a respectable facade while knowing in her heart the futility of her task. Elegantly costumed (by Orry- Kelly), with scarcely a hair out of place in her coiffed look, she is the very epitome of the colonist's spouse.
The supporting cast are equally good, but in different ways. Marshall carries off the role of the husband like a cut-price Ronald Colman, seldom losing his sang-froid until the moment when he discovers the truth about his wife. Stephenson is especially good as the lawyer, walking ramrod-straight through each frame with an air of authority, but guiltily acknowledging his secret in the courtroom scene (even though judge and jury do not notice it). In the non-speaking role of the deceased's wife, Gale Sondergaard - who would later distinguish herself as the baddie in several Universal horror films - smolders with suppressed rage as she tries to stare Leslie into confessing her sins.
The film is only ninety-one minutes long, but the action unfolds with such intensity that viewers are rendered exhausted at the end.
Beck: Den svaga länken (2007)
Disturbing Analysis of the Effect of Rape on a Community
Sometimes long-running detective series like BECK can become too entrenched in their ways. With guaranteed audiences and repeated commissions from the television companies, there might be no need to do anything other than plod through yet another murder-plot while emphasizing the sparky interplay between the main characters.
Thankfully "The Weak Link" avoids such pitfalls. Harald Hamrell's production begins with the savage - and apparently motiveless - rape and murder of a teenage girl (Nadine Kirschon) close to her home. This is the latest in a series of assaults taking place near Stockholm's Blue Line on the subway. Beck (Peter Haber) and Gunvald (Mikael Persbrandt) are deputed to solve the case, but Beck is haunted throughout by concern for his daughter Inger's (Rebecka Hemse), even though she is nearly thirty years old with a son to look after.
The plot ends up dealing with sensitive race-issues - despite its reputation for tolerance, we discover that Stockholm is not always kindly disposed towards immigrants, especially if they are members of the so-called "black" economy. Unlicensed cab-driver Juri Govalenko (Jamil Drissi) is automatically classed as a suspect in the murder on account of his being a Russian émigré. Even the so- called hero Gunvald is not above hurling a few racist insults.
Eventually the murderers are caught, but we are left with the impression that such serial rapes are commonplace in a city full of dark, lonely spaces, whose people are more likely to turn their backs rather than become involved in something unsavory.
Short Documentary Assessing the Impact of the Bette Davis Classic
Produced by Warner Brothers as one of the extras to the DVD release of MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944), this short documentary has a variety of talking heads describing the origins and impact of the film on its original release, as well as explaining how and why its appeal has lasted so long.
Most of the comments are of the usual "it was great working with ..." variety, coupled with references to Bette Davis's legendary penchant for dominating a set. Director Vincent Sherman's reminiscences are perhaps the most interesting, as he recalls how he forged an effective working relationship with the star, who frequently wanted to go her own way, yet listened to him when she understood that his suggestions might help to improve her performance on screen.