The Four Feathers (1939)

The Four Feathersfour_feathers poster
Directed by Zoltan Korda
Written by A.E.W. Mason; screenplay by R. C. Sherriff
1939/UK
London Film Productions

First viewing/Streaming on Hulu Plus

 

Harry Faversham: I am a coward, Doctor. If I’d been anything but a soldier I might have lived my whole life and concealed it. But to be a soldier and a coward is to be an impostor, a menace to the men whose lives are in your hands.

I was never able to suspend my disbelief, but as pure spectacle this film is great.

Harry Faversham (John Clements) is the last in a long line of military officers.  His father despairs of the boy and asks his friend General Burroughs (C.  Aubrey Smith) to buck him up over dinner.  But Burroughs’ war stories terrify the boy.

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Ten years later, Harry is himself an officer and engaged to Burroughs’ daughter Ethne.  Fellow-officer John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) carries a torch for her.   Then Harry’s regiment is called up to the Sudan to avenge General Gordon’s defeat and death. Harry fears that he will turn tail under fire and resigns his commission.  Three of his comrades, including John, and Ethne send Harry white feathers condemning him for cowardice.

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Almost immediately, Harry vows to redeem himself.  He sets off for Egypt where he convinces a doctor to brand his forehead so that he will be mistaken for a member of a tribe which brands traitors and cuts off their tongues.  The blue-eyed Harry disguises himself as an Arab and nobody notices he has a tongue for the rest of the film. Conveniently, Harry manages to find all of his detractors and heroically rescue them from various situations.  He also takes an enemy arsenal single-handed and even finds a Union Jack to raise there.

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I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes but I have to admit the story makes a ripping action adventure.  The scenes in Sudan are astonishing for the time – really for any time. How the filmmakers managed to capture this all on location with hundreds and hundreds of local extras and clunky Technicolor cameras is beyond me.  The attacks by the “dervishes” and “fuzzy-wuzzies” are terrifying.  I imagine a “making-of” documentary would be an adventure film in itself.  Ralph Richardson is, as per normal, excellent and does well as a blind man.

The Four Feathers was nominated for an Academy Award for its Color Cinematography by Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile.  It was also nominated for the Palme d’or at the very first Cannes Film Festival and for the Mussolini Cup at Venice.

Trailer

 

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady VanishesLady Vanishes Poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder based on a story by Ethel Lina White
1938/UK
Gainsborough Pictures

Repeat viewing
#127 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Miss Froy: I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?

I simply love this movie and would rank it in Hitchcock’s top five pictures.

The story opens at a mountain inn in 1938 Mandrika, a fictitious European country where a varied group of tourists is stranded following an avalanche.  Iris Henderson i(Margaret Lockwood) is a spoiled young woman who feels she has done everything and so might as well get married to a “blue-blooded check chaser” back home in England.  Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is an itinerant musicologist who irritates Iris mightily by conducting loud folk music sessions directly overhead.Lady Vanishes 2

The elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess and music teacher, is also returning to England.  Before the train departs the next day, Iris returns Miss Froy’s glasses to her and is struck on the head by a falling planter.  Dazed, Iris gets on the train assisted by the kindly old lady.  When she awakens from her sleep, Miss Froy is gone and no one will admit she was ever on the train.  Iris’s only ally is Gilbert, who is willing to play along even if he doesn’t believe her.  Before long, the two are enmeshed in a dangerous game of hide and seek.  With Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford as cricket enthusiasts, Cecil Parker and Linden Travers as an adulterous couple, and Paul Lukas as a sinister brain surgeon.

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This film has a delightfully tight script that enchants me every time with its naughty humor and sly political commentary on the appeasement policies of the British government.  I also love Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood together.  They equal Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps) as playful antagonists.  The supporting cast is also great.  Hitchcock perfectly captures the setting of a moving train on a small budget.   Highly recommended.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with an excellent commentary by film historian Bruce Eder.

Three Reasons to Watch – The Criterion Collection

 

Bulldog Drummond at Bay (1937)

Bulldog Drummond at BayBulldog_Drummond_at_Bay_FilmPoster
Directed by Norman Lee
Written by Patrick Kriwan and James Parrish
1937/UK
Associated British Picture Corporation

First viewing

“Demobilised officer, … finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential.”  — Advertisement placed in The Times by Drummond in the novel Bulldog Drummond

This entry comes from the U.K. and features an entirely different cast than the 1937 Paramount pictures.  I thought this might mean a weaker film, but no, it’s the best since the first one with Ray Milland!

This time Bulldog (John Lodge) is on the trail of an evil foreign arms broker who has been bilking a World Peace organization into backing his nefarious deeds.  The broker has kidnapped the inventor of a top-secret weapon and is torturing him to get the plans. Tennie the butler and the long-engaged Phyllis have left the scene but Algie is still along and more twitish than ever.

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I think the only other movie I’ve seen John Lodge in was The Scarlet Empress where I was not impressed with his performance.  Here, though, he has just the right mixture of savoir faire and daring to make an excellent Drummond.  I liked the leading lady a lot, too.   Well worth seeing if you are in to this kind of mindless entertainment.

 

Murder on Diamond Row (1937)

Murder on Diamond Row (AKA “The Squeaker”)Murder on Diamond Row Poster
Directed by William K. Howard
Written by Ted Berkman and Bryan Edgar Wallace based on a novel by Edgar Wallace
1937/UK
London Film Productions
First viewing

 

Tagline: Whose hand writes these messages of death?

This British programmer is nothing special.  I found the plot confusing and the solution unsatisfying in the extreme.  It is of note mainly for an early performance by Alistair Sim as a reporter.  I was going to comment that his Scottish accent was a bit much only to find out that Sim was born in Edinburgh!  What do I know?

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Clip – London nightlife 1937

The Edge of the World (1937)

The Edge of the WorldEdge of the World
Directed by Michael Powell
Written by Michael Powell
1937/UK
Joe Rock Productions
Repeat viewing

 

“Art is merciless observation, sympathy, imagination, and a sense of detachment that is almost cruelty.” — Michael Powell

This was Michael Powell’s first major creative project after several years of directing “quota quickies”.  It is an exquisite film.

The island of Hirta in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland is cut off from the rest of the world during much of the year and accessible only by sea during the rest.  The people live a simple life herding sheep and fishing as they have for hundreds of years.  Now young people are moving away and the peat the people cut for fuel is giving out.  Most people know their days on the island are numbered but community leader Peter Manson (John Laurie) refuses to budge.  James Gray (Finlay Currie), another leader, suspects evacuation is inevitable.

Gray’s son Andrew (Niall McGinnis) is in love with Manson’s daughter Ruth.  The couple is intent on marrying and raising a family on the island.  Manson’s son Robbie has returned for a final visit.  He has fallen in love with a girl on the mainland and has no intention of bringing her back to the island.  The conflict inherent in the threads of the plot comes to a head when Robbie and Andrew engage in a contest of nerve and physical prowess.

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What an eye Powell had!  This film contains some of the most stunning shots to be seen anywhere.  If people could eat scenery, Hirta would have been overpopulated.  Powell also captures the sadness and poetry of a dying way of life.  The choral music and orchestral score is beautiful.  The story is secondary I feel. Highly recommended for lovers of the visual aspects of film.

Clip – Introduction

Rembrandt (1936)

RembrandtRembrandt Poster
Directed by Alexander Korda
Written by Carl Zuckmayer, June Head, and Lajos Biró
1936/UK
London Film Productions

Repeat viewing

 

Rembrandt van Rijn: What is success? A soldier can reckon his success in victories, a merchant in money. But my world is insubstantial. I live in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist.

This is a very good biography of the painter with a fine performance by Charles Laughton and beautiful costumes and art direction.

The story follows Rembrandt from about the time he lost his beloved wife Saska after his “The Night Watch” met with ridicule.  We see Rembrandt struggle with poverty and a nagging mistress (Gertrude Lawrence) while he continues to pursue a vision that few share.  He finds contentment toward the end of his life despite bankruptcy through the love and inspiration of former scullery maid Hendrickje (Elsa Lancaster).

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Charles Laughton is convincing as Rembrandt.  In the course of portraying the painter, he also has the opportunity to movingly read some selections from the Bible.  But the real star for me was the production design.  The settings, lighting, and costumes call to mind not only several Rembrandt masterpieces but works of other Dutch Masters such as Brueghel and Vermeer.  Recommended.

TV promo

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)

The Man Who Could Work Miraclesman who could work miracles poster
Directed by Lothar Mendes and Alexander Korda
Scenario and dialogue by H.G. Wells from a story by H.G. Wells; screenplay by Lajos Biró
1936/UK
London Film Productions

First viewing

 

The subsequent meditations of Mr. Fotheringay were of a severe but confused description. So far, he could see it was a case of pure willing with him. The nature of his experiences so far disinclined him for any further experiments, at least until he had reconsidered them. But he lifted a sheet of paper, and turned a glass of water pink and then green, and he created a snail, which he miraculously annihilated, and got himself a miraculous new tooth-brush.” – H.G. Wells, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles”

Comedy and H.G. Wells wouldn’t seem to be an obvious match but it works out fairly well here.

A trio of demi-gods (including George Sanders in a very early role) bemoans the weakness of man.  One suggests giving men limitless power and seeing what happens.  The others are more cautious and convince him to experiment with just one man at first.

So our hero mild-mannered George Fotheringay (Roland Young with a Cockney accent) suddenly finds himself able to levitate a lamp at the local pub.  He experiments and finds everything is at his command except the minds of others.  When others find out about these gifts, they try to harness them for themselves.  George’s boss wants an exclusive agreement to enable him to open a chain of stores.  The local vicar (Ernest Thesinger) wants to eliminate poverty, illness, and war.  But there are those with interests in the ills of mankind who are not pleased, including Major Grigsby (Ralph Richardson).

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While it didn’t rock my world, I thought this movie was pretty entertaining.  I always enjoy Roland Young and Ralph Richardson disappeared into his role.

Trailer

 

Sabotage (1936)

SabotageSabotage poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Charles Bennett from the novel “Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad
1936/UK
Gaumont British Picture Corporation

Repeat viewing
#100 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Title Card: [camera zooms in on definition] sa-botage sà-bo-tarj. Wilful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.

For some reason, this film fizzled for me on the second viewing despite excellent performances by some of the actors and a rather prescient treatment of urban terrorism.

Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolca), of Continental but undefined nationality, runs a cinema in London with his wife (Sylvia Sidney).  Mr. Verloc is considerably older than his wife who seems to have married him to provide security for her much younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester).  The film opens with a general blackout that results from Mr. Verloc sabotaging a power station.  A friendly fruit seller (John Loden) keeps an eye on the cinema and befriends Mrs. Verloc and Stevie.  It turns out that he works for Scotland Yard.  Verloc’s employers are not happy with the blackout and instruct him to plant a bomb in an underground station.  Family happiness is threatened when the only person Verloc can think of to deliver the bomb is Stevie.

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I remember loving this film the first time around but now the infamous “bomb on the bus” set piece seems uncharacteristically heavy-handed to me. The use of the montage of ticking clocks, etc. seems much too obvious.  I still adore Sylvia Sidney’s performance particularly in the “knife” scene and thereafter.  I think it is one of the best portrayals of grief on record.  Homolka, Loden and Tester are also very good.  The poor quality of the public domain print I watched didn’t help at all.

Hitchcock himself regretted the “bomb” sequence later in life as it violated his general method of suspense whereby tension eventually had to be relieved.

Clip – Alfred Hitchcock at the AFI on the difference between “mystery” and “suspense”

 

 

Things to Come (1936)

Things to ComeThings to Come Poster
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
1936/UK
London Film Productions

First viewing
#102 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Raymond Passworthy: Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?

I have mixed feelings about this lavish but heavy-handed anti-war science fiction yarn.

The story begins in Everytown (evidently London) at Christmas, 1940.  The population is blithely celebrating while the headlines scream warnings of war and John Cabal (Raymond Massey) worries that another war will destroy civilization.  Suddenly the air raid sirens go off and an unprovoked aerial bombardment and gas attack of the city begins.  The enemy is unnamed.

A montage follows the war through its conclusion in 1966.  By 1970, the people of Everytown are living in medieval conditions.  A plague spread by enemy bombs causes a fatal contagious “Wandering Sickness” to break out.  A man becomes The Boss (Ralph Richardson) by insisting that sufferers be shot.  He consolidates power by continuing war against his neighbors.

John Cabal has gone on to become the leader of a technocracy in the Mediterranean called Wings of the World.  Cabal visits Everytown in his modern airplane, vowing to “cleanup” the city if it does not forsake war.  The Boss imprisons him.  The Boss cannot conceive of the might of Cabal’s organization or its “peace gas.”

Fast forward to 2036, when people live in sleek underground cities and prepare for space travel.  Scientists must still face the forces of reaction and jingoism in the form of Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) who incites the masses to revolt against any further progress.

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Director Menzies was much better known as an art director and the design of this film (by Vincent Korda) is certainly striking.  His work with actors was not as successful.  Much of H.G. Wells’s dialogue sounds like it is being read from a book of speeches and the usually reliable Massey and Hardwicke are not able to do much with it.  Only Richardson manages to bring life to his character.  His Boss is a foolish bombastic bully and a lot of fun.

As usual with H.G. Wells’s material, I had a hard time following the logic.  This is supposed to be an anti-war story and yet the beginning of the war in the film would seem to be an argument for a strong army of defense.  “Peace gas” also seems oxymoronic.

This is a unique film and prescient of the catastrophe that was to overtake Europe a year earlier than predicted by the story.  I’m glad I saw it but I don’t see any reason to revisit it.

Trailer

 

Blow-Up (1966)

Blow-Up (AKA Blow Up)Blow-Up Poster
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
1966/UK/USA
Bridge Films/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Repeat viewing
#448 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDB users say 7.6/10; I say 9/10

Thomas: I wish I had tons of money… Then I’d be free.

When I was first exposed to the films of Antonioni, I thought he made boring films about boredom.  Now I think he makes interesting and beautiful films about boredom and a whole lot more.  While Blow-Up can hardly be called entertaining, it is a sometimes frustrating but intellectually stimulating and visually exciting examination of an artist’s unsuccessful struggle to find meaning within the distractions of an empty but swinging London.  Although it is impossible to spoil the unresolved mystery the film is built around, I will get deep into the story in order to explore its themes.  I would recommend not reading this review until you have watched the movie.

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The film begins with a group of merry-makers cavorting through the streets of swinging London collecting money.  These folks are among the most animated people in the entire film.   We then segue to a shot of a group of men leaving a homeless shelter.  We follow one of the men until he loses sight of the others and gets into his dirty Rolls Royce convertible, thus establishing our anti-hero (David Hemmings) as your basic super-cool fraud.  He is not named in the film but is called Thomas in the credits so I will call him that here.

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He proceeds to drive said car through the strangely empty streets of the city until he arrives at his studio.  We soon find out that Thomas has been photographing the men at the shelter, making him also a kind of voyeur and exploiter.  He is very macho and apparently irresistible to women.  When he begins photographing fashion models at his studio, we learn about the glee with which he keeps women waiting.  The famous scene of Thomas shooting the supermodel Verushka reads like a sex scene with Thomas tiring of the woman immediately after the climax.  He goes on to  berate a whole group of zombie-like models until he gets what he wants.

While he leaves his models standing around with their eyes closed, he visits the apartment of a painter friend.  The painter says that his abstract compositions have no meaning when he paints them but reveal themselves later.  This also applies to Thomas’s photographs of the park, as we will see.  Thomas then heads for an antique store he is considering buying.  He hunts for jewels among the junk and winds up buying a propeller on impulse with no particular use in mind.  He later asks his agent to follow up with the owner so that he can buy the shop before anyone else does.

Jane: This is a public place — everyone has the right to be left in peace.

Thomas: It’s not my fault if there’s no peace.

From there, Thomas heads to the park and starts aimlessly taking pictures of pigeons.  He starts to focus on a couple he sees embracing there.  The woman (Vanessa Redgrave – “Jane” in the credits) asks him to stop and demands the negatives.  He refuses her.  We soon find out he is planning to use them in an upcoming book, along with photos of naked men showering at the homeless shelter and other gritty images of marginalized Londoners.

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A very nervous and vulnerable Jane shows up at Thomas’s studio later and pleads for the negatives.  He toys with her, poses her as a model, and instructs her on how to smoke and listen to music.  She takes off her shirt, offering herself to him and he gives her a blank roll of film.  They then apparently make love.  She gives him what she says is her phone number.

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After Jane leaves, we see Thomas perform the most concentrated activity he does in the film.  Several minutes are spent developing the images he has taken in the park.  He spies Jane looking at something in the trees and enlarges the area she seems to be watching until he finds a gun in the shadows.  His concentration is broken by the arrival of two young would-be models who have been pestering him throughout the day.  He welcomes the distraction and dallies with them in a romp that begins in what looks a little like a rape.   The girls soon get into the fun.  After their three-way tryst, Thomas sends the girls on their way and returns to his photographs.  He discovers what seems to be a body under a tree.

Thomas goes back to the painter’s apartment, apparently to share his discovery, and finds the painter making love with his girlfriend or wife Patricia (Sarah Miles). She sees Thomas and seemingly tries to give him some message.  Thomas goes back to the studio  and Patricia soon follows.  Thomas tells Patricia about his discovery that someone has been killed in the park.  Patricia asks if Thomas has gone to the police but Thomas ignores that question.  He shows Patricia the greatly blown-up image that he says shows the body.  She remarks that it looks like one of her partner’s abstract paintings. Enlarging the photos has both revealed and removed information from the images.  Patricia reaches out to Thomas for help with a problem but then thinks better of telling him what it is.

Thomas goes to the park alone and sees the corpse. When he returns to the apartment, his cameras, negatives, rolls of films, and prints of the park photos are all gone.

He goes out to search for his publisher to get him to go with him to look at the body.  He sees Jane standing at a store window briefly but when he goes to confront her she has disappeared.  He goes to a club and stands with a zombie-like crowd who are absently watching the Yardbirds perform.  The crowd becomes animated when they start to fight over the neck of the guitarist’s smashed guitar.  Thomas manages to “win” this treasure.  When he leaves the club he discards it in the street.  It has no meaning for him now that he has gone; he only wanted to get it away from the others, like the antique shop earlier.

Blow-Up 1966 Club Wall

[last lines] Ron: What did you see in that park? Thomas: Nothing… Ron.

Finally, Thomas arrives at the party his publisher is attending.  He tries to convey his urgent need to have the publisher confirm his sighting of the body but the guy is stoned out of his mind. Thomas, defeated, goes into the back room with the publisher for some diversion.  At this point, I began to feel sorry for Thomas.  He seemed so utterly alone in spite of his many acquaintances.

He wakes up in the morning and goes to the park by himself but the body is gone.  There is no evidence except his own memory of the shooting he saw in the photographs.

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The film ends with the return of the merry-makers who proceed to mime a tennis match on one of the courts.  Thomas looks on skeptically but when the “ball” goes over the fence he runs off to retrieve it.  We hear the sounds of rackets hitting the ball with Thomas’s eyes following the action as the match becomes real for him.  At last he stoops to pick up his camera and dissolves into air leaving only the green grass behind.

We are left with more questions.  Is the character of Thomas a misogynist creep or a tortured artist or both?  What happened in the park?  Do the distractions of modern life make it impossible to find meaning?  Is it valid to abstract reality from second-hand experience?  Can we know reality that is not confirmed by a shared group experience? Is Antonioni reminding us that the film, too, is not real when Thomas disappears at the end?

I find all this stuff fascinating so I could watch this again any time. As a murder mystery, however, it stinks.

 

Trailer