The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

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Cover Girl (1944)

2016 #168
Charles Vidor | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Cover GirlRun-of-the-mill musical starring Rita Hayworth as a Brooklyn showgirl who finds fame after accidentally landing a prestigious magazine cover because the editor was in love with her spitting-image grandmother.

Gene Kelly co-stars as the owner of the low-rent joint she used to star in, and provides two decent dance numbers: the first alongside Hayworth and Phil Silvers, the second alongside himself, double exposure allowing his shop-window reflection to leap into the street.

Otherwise the songs are forgettable, despite the fact it won an Oscar for its score, and the predictable story is allowed too much leeway by the running time.

3 out of 5

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

2016 #122
Robert Z. Leonard | 113 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Pride and PrejudiceThe first adaptation of Jane Austen’s ever-popular novel, MGM’s film is a compromised endeavour: by executives softening dialogue and rewriting characters; by changing its setting to permit grander costumes; by Gone with the Wind using all the Technicolor stock, forcing the lavish production to shoot in black-and-white.

Nonetheless, it emerges a solid take on Austen (until the ending goes thoroughly astray). Laurence Olivier is a suitably moody Darcy and, though far too old for the part, Greer Garson makes a witty Lizzy.

Massively overshadowed by later adaptations, this remains an entertaining version for anyone not too concerned about textual faithfulness.

4 out of 5

Casablanca (1942)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #17

They had a date with fate in Casablanca.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 102 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG (1992)

Original Release: 7th December 1942 (Brazil)
US Release: 23rd January 1943
UK Release: December 1942 (BBFC)
First Seen: DVD, 2006

Stars
Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep)
Ingrid Bergman (Notorious, Autumn Sonata)
Paul Henreid (Now, Voyager, Deception)
Claude Rains (The Invisible Man, Notorious)
Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Thief of Bagdad)

Director
Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce)

Screenwriters
Julius J. Epstein (Arsenic and Old Lace, Cross of Iron)
Philip G. Epstein (Arsenic and Old Lace, The Last Time I Saw Paris)
Howard Koch (The Letter, Letter from an Unknown Woman)

Based on
Everybody Comes to Rick’s, an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. (Despite the film’s popularity, a legal dispute between the playwrights and Warner Bros meant it wasn’t staged until 1991.)

The Story
Controlled by the German-subservient French government, Morocco in 1941 is a congregation point for German officials, collaborating French, and refugees attempting to get to neutral America. When letters of transit allowing that passage come into the possession of nightclub owner Rick Blaine at the same time as the love of his life, Ilsa Lund, walks into his joint with her husband, Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, Rick has some tough decisions to make — and quickly, with corrupt police captain Renault hunting for the letters and German Major Strasser gunning for Laszlo…

Our Hero
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, everybody comes to Rick’s. That’s because Rick is Humphrey Bogart. You’d go to a bar run by Humphrey Bogart, wouldn’t you?

Our Heroine
The most beautiful woman to ever visit Casablanca (a gross understatement), here’s looking at you, Ingrid Bergman. (Yes, I added this section pretty much just to say that.)

Our Villains
It’s set during World War 2 so, I mean, who do you think?

Best Supporting Character
Claude Rains was the Invisible Man, but here he’s Captain Louis Renault, a corrupt copper who — despite being fourth-billed in a film packed with memorable dialogue — still gets a good many of the best lines.

Memorable Quote
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” — Rick

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” — Rick

The Most Famous Misquote in Movie History
“Play it again, Sam.” — Rick
(Ilsa says, “Play it once, Sam,” and, “Play it, Sam.” Rick says, “You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can take it, I can take it, so play it!”)

Memorable Scene
As Laszlo boards the plane out of Casablanca, Isla thinks she’s staying with Rick… until he convinces her to go. Standing in the doorway of an aircraft hanger, it’s probably the film’s most iconic scene — if you’ve not seen it, you’ve certainly seen it parodied.

Memorable Song
You must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply, As Time Goes By. Play it again, Sam!

Making of
Casey Robinson re-wrote the film’s romantic scenes and was offered a credit, but turned it down because he only took credit for screenplays he wrote entirely himself. Of course, with that decision he missed out on winning an Oscar.

Awards
3 Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Supporting Actor (Claude Rains), Black-and-White Cinematography, Editing, Score)

What the Critics Said
“bear in mind that it goes heavy on the love theme. Although the title and Humphrey Bogart’s name convey the impression of high adventure rather than romance, there’s plenty of the latter for the femme trade. Adventure is there, too, but it’s more as exciting background to the Bogart-Bergman heart department. Bogart, incidentally, as a tender lover (in addition to being a cold-as-ice nitery operator) is a novel characterization” — Variety

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
“the script’s greatest strength is not quotability. It’s character development. Rick, Ilsa, Renault and Laszlo are complex individuals, about whom we care, no matter their flaws. Sam (Dooley Wilson), an African American pianist, is layered by loyalty to Rick and emotional acuity, while Major Strasser, the antagonist, is not a comic book villain. Because he’s a Nazi, we do not like the Major, but director Michael Curtiz and his writers are smart enough not to make him stereotypically evil, instead opting to develop him as determined and efficient. Because all of the characters are so genuine, the filmmakers earn our emotional investment” — Josh, Cinema Parrot Disco

Verdict

Casablanca is remembered now as much for its selection of ever-quotable lines as for anything else — you don’t have to have seen the film to know that if you go walking into all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world and someone’s looking at you, kid, then maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon you should round up all the usual suspects again, Sam, for the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or something. It’s much more than that, though: an engaging romantic drama, with enough overtones of noir to keep it snappy, set in perhaps a ’40s equivalent of the Wild West. It may be three-quarters of a century old next year, but it still merits playing again.

#18 will see… Bond begin.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

2015 #198
Ernst Lubitsch | 108 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

My first experience of Lubitsch’s US output concerns a man who arrives on Hell’s doorstep and reflects on his life to explain why he’s there.

It starts brilliantly: the bookend scenes are excellent, and the early parts of the plot are buoyed by consistent wit and enjoyable characters, particularly Charles Coburn as a slyly raucous grandfather. As it heads into its second half, it loses momentum and focus, the most entertaining characters disappear, and it takes its time plodding to a finale.

An enjoyable film with a lot of amusement value, just a little too long for its own good.

4 out of 5

The Big Sleep (1946)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #11

The Violence-Screen’s
All-Time Rocker-Shocker!

(Yes, that is a real tagline.)

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 114 minutes
BBFC: A (pre-release, 1945) | A (1946) | PG (1988)

Original Release: 31st August 1946 (USA)
UK Release: June 1946 (BBFC)
First Seen: DVD (maybe), c.2004 (possibly)

Stars
Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, North West Frontier)
Martha Vickers (The Falcon in Mexico, The Big Bluff)
Dorothy Malone (The Fast and the Furious (not that one), Basic Instinct (yes, that one))

Director
Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Screenwriters
Leigh Brackett (Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back)
Jules Furthman (The Outlaw, Nightmare Alley)
William Faulkner (To Have and Have Not, Land of the Pharaohs)

Based on
The Big Sleep, a novel by Raymond Chandler.

The Story
Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts his daughter, Carmen, owes to a man named Geiger. Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivian, suspects Marlowe has actually been hired to find Sean Reagan, the General’s friend who has disappeared. Arriving at Geiger’s home, Marlowe hears a shot, and inside finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged, and a hidden camera with the film gone. So begins a complex web of blackmail and murder. Very complex. Very, very complex.

Our Hero
The archetypal downtrodden PI, Philip Marlowe makes up what he lacks in good fortune with a fast mouth and sharp mind. Has bad manners though, which he grieves over on long winter evenings.

Our Villain
It’s a mystery, let’s not give it away. The film certainly does its best not to.

Best Supporting Character
Lauren Bacall as headstrong Vivian Sternwood, a character who benefitted from the behind-the-scenes situation at the time: Bogie and Bacall’s chemistry in To Have and Have Not led the studio to want more of the same, and her agent was only too keen after the poor reviews of Confidential Agent threatened to sink her career before it had really begun. New sparky dialogue scenes took the place of exposition ones in the final cut, essentially creating the film’s reputation for confusion.

Memorable Quote
“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” — Philip Marlowe

Memorable Scene
Bogie and Bacall discuss horse racing.
— “I like to see them work out a little first… You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
Just horse racing.
— “I don’t know how far you can go.” “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Just horse racing.

Making of
Another part in the Bacall situation described above was supposedly played by original author Raymond Chandler. He reportedly observed that Martha Vickers was so good as Carmen that she overshadowed Bacall, and consequently much of Vickers’ material was removed.

Previously on…
The Big Sleep is the fourth screen adaptation of a Philip Marlowe story, though only the second to star the detective: 1942’s Time to Kill adapted The High Window into the Michael Shayne series, and the same year Farewell My Lovely was filmed as The Falcon Takes Over. The same novel was adapted again in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet (though, famously, retained the novel’s title for its UK release), starring Dick Powell as Marlowe.

Next time…
Bogart never played Marlowe again, but multiple film, TV and radio adaptations of Chandler’s novels have followed, with the lead role being occupied by the likes of James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, Danny Glover, James Caan, and Toby Stephens. A remake of The Big Sleep, relocated to ’70s London and directed by Michael “calm down dear” Winner, was Marlowe’s final big screen outing to date.

Awards
Not a sausage.

What the Critics Said
“one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused. And, to make it more aggravating, the brilliant detective in the case is continuously making shrewd deductions which he stubbornly keeps to himself. What with two interlocking mysteries and a great many characters involved, the complex of blackmail and murder soon becomes a web of utter bafflement. Unfortunately, the cunning script-writers have done little to clear it at the end.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.” — Colin, Riding the High Country

Verdict

Famed for having a plot so complicated even author Raymond Chandler doesn’t know who committed at least one of its murders, I’ve always found The Big Sleep very followable if you pay attention… just don’t expect me to be able to explain it after its finished. The film’s popularity in spite of its impenetrability confirmed director Howard Hawks’ theory that audiences didn’t care if a plot made sense as long as they had a good time, and he’s kinda right — the joys here are Bogie and Bacall’s verbal sparring, the exposure of LA’s seedy underbelly (albeit in a Production Code-friendly way), and the film’s whole noir-ish atmosphere.

The Big Sleep is finally released on US Blu-ray on Tuesday 23rd February.

#12 will be… a Marvellous vampire.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code / Prelude to Murder

2015 #200
Roy William Neill | 69 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Dressed to KillIn the seven-and-a-bit years between 31st March 1939 and 7th June 1946, there were a total of 14 films released starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. By coincidence rather than design, I’ve spent nearly eight years viewing and reviewing them all for this blog — so yes, it’s taken me a little longer to watch them than it did to make them, which is ridiculous, but there you go.

This final film in the series sees Holmes in pursuit of a criminal gang who are on the trail of three music boxes, and are prepared to kill to acquire them. The boxes were all made by a prisoner and contain coded messages which, when combined and decoded, will reveal the location of stolen Bank of England printing plates — a literal licence to print money. Well, apart from the licence bit, because it would be illegal. But you get what I mean.

The Rathbone Holmes series was only sporadically adapted from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this entry takes loose inspiration from several tales. The use of secret codes is reminiscent of The Dancing Men (previously the basis for The Secret Weapon), while the plot device of having to track down multiple identical items that hide something comes from The Six Napoleons (previously the basis for The Pearl of Death). I don’t know if that suggests there are only a few Doyle tales actually worth adapting, or if the makers of the series were running out of fresh ideas by this point.

There are also elements of A Scandal in Bohemia, the story most famous for featuring Irene Adler, aka The Woman, but screenwriters Frank Gruber and Leonard Lee have an unusual method of including it: Dressed for the occasionthe story is explicitly referenced in the film, Watson having just had it published; then the film’s villainess turns up, played by Patricia Morison, functioning effectively as an Adler stand-in — and using some tricks she learnt from reading Watson’s story! The series hasn’t featured Adler before, so why not just name this character Irene Adler, have her devise those tricks from her own imagination, and be done with? Who knows.

Dressed to Kill is an ending to the Rathbone/Bruce films only in the sense that it’s the last one, this not being an era of “series finales” or what have you. It isn’t among the top tier of Holmes adventures starring the pair, but it’s still an entertaining mystery. In some respects that’s a good summation of the series, and why they’ve endured in popularity for over 75 years: even when not at their very best, they remain enjoyable.

3 out of 5

Lady of Burlesque (1943)

2016 #5
William A. Wellman | 89 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

Based on the novel The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee (as in Gypsy), Lady of Burlesque stars Barbara Stanwyck as Gypsy surrogate Dixie Daisy, a performer in a burlesque show in New York where the backstage arguments turn murderous.

The story unfurls in the traditional Christie-esque shape of a murder mystery: we find out all the different reasons why everyone hates a particular character, then that person dies and they all have motive. For set dressing, instead of the English country houses and other upper-middle-class establishments of Christie, we have the slightly seedy, slightly risqué world of ’40s burlesque… tempered by the strictures of the production code, of course. Stanwyck may get out on stage and wiggle around, but she’s largely shot from the waist up; and it may’ve been released as Striptease Lady in the UK (allegedly), but the clothes remain on (I can’t imagine anyone expected anything else, then or now).

Nonetheless, the world of the story adds some sparkle to proceedings. The investigations are largely confined to a couple of lengthy scenes when the cops turn up, led by Charles Dingle’s meticulous Inspector Harrigan (“This is my first experience with burlesque. It’s a surprising profession.”), and question everyone in one room. These bits have their moments, but feel a little heavy-handed. Around them, the world of burlesque, and the relationships between its performers, rolls on.

Stanwyck carries the film, both on stage and off. Her “will they/won’t they (of course they will)” romance with Michael O’Shea’s comic is kept aloft by her biting ripostes to his advances, and when a comedy sketch is interrupted by backstage noises she saves the day by breaking into song, doing the splits, a cartwheel, and the Cossack dance in quick succession. Not bad for a 36-year-old!

Ostensibly a murder mystery, in practice Lady of Burlesque plays as all-round entertainment with a bit of everything: comedy, romance, songs, shoot-outs, and, yes, both mystery and murders. It’s not the kind of film that will linger long in the memory (apart from Stanwyck’s gymnastics, that is), but it’s entertaining while it lasts.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Terror by Night (1946)

2015 #140
Roy William Neill | 57 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

After the previous Basil Rathbones-starring Sherlock Holmes adventure set its tale almost entirely aboard a boat, this time we find ourselves in the confines of a train. It’s a sleeper travelling from London to Edinburgh, with Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) aboard because they’ve been hired to guard the Star of Rhodesia diamond after an attempt was made to steal it in London. In short order, their employer is murdered and the diamond is missing. The crime can only have been committed by one of the handful of other passengers in the same carriage, but which?

For what is the shortest film in the series, screenwriter Frank Gruber and regular director/producer Roy William Neill have constructed a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. The supporting cast are fairly colourful, and there’s a spot of genuine mystery to be had in which of them is the culprit. Okay, one or two red herrings are glaringly obvious, but I don’t think the teapot-loving couple were ever meant to be serious contenders anyway. Elements of the canon are incorporated willy-nilly, not least some memorable parts from The Sign of Four, which adds flavour.

Rathbone and Bruce are on fine form as ever, with the latter getting a kind of sidekick of his own in the equally-portly form of Alan Mowbray as an old chum Major Duncan-Bleek. He keeps Watson occupied so Holmes and Lestrade (series regular Dennis Hoey, in his last appearance) can go about their business, anyway. Sadly, the next most noteworthy cast member is Renee Godfrey, who is remarkably bad as the suspicious Vivian Vedder. Perhaps it’s just because she’s clearly struggling with an atrocious variable accent, the quality of which makes it rather distracting whenever she opens her mouth. Having used Moriarty plenty, the series finally accepts that he’s dead and moves on to his right-hand man, Col. Sebastian Moran. Considering the identity of the conniving colonel is a mystery for most of the movie, however, his involvement is perhaps no great shakes.

Terror by Night is good fun for the most part, with a decent array of suspects and clues to keep us guessing in its moderately atmospheric setting. For what it’s worth, I’d put it a step above most of the other films in the series that I’ve rated 3, but a step below those I’ve rated 4. That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.

3 out of 5

Terror by Night is on TCM UK tonight at 7:50pm.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

2015 #54
George Cukor | 108 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

The Philadelphia StoryKatharine Hepburn is the high society heiress getting re-married to someone dull from daddy’s company. Cary Grant is the husband from her tempestuous first marriage. When he turns up uninvited, screwball hijinks ensue.

There are even more thanks to James Stewart, the journalist covering the wedding who no one wants to be there, including himself. He won an Oscar for it, too, and well deserved it was.

The whole thing deserves such accolades, mind. It’s a hilarious, timeless classic, from an era when rich Americans still had class. I doubt they ever had what Hepburn, Grant and Stewart did, though.

5 out of 5