Showing posts with label Peter Lorre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Peter Lorre. Show all posts

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Strange Cargo

TCM has been honoring Clark Gable today as part of its annual Star of the Month programming. Several of the movies they've shown have co-starred Joan Crawford: the two of them, being contract players at MGM in the 1930s, were repeatedly paired by the studio bosses. In fact, the two made eight pictures together, and the last of those eight, Strange Cargo, is airing at midnight.

Joan Crawford plays Julie, a brassy woman who shows up on an island where there is a prison colony. On the ship to the island, she's met Verne (Clark Gable), who is actually a prisoner being transported to the island. He tries to escape; she turns him in. Some relationship. Anyhow, Julie is presumably a woman of ill repute, and the authorities don't want her around. The only person who can help her is Monsieur Pig (Peter Lorre), who just oozes dirty creep from every pore of his body. Things aren't looking good for Julie.

But the movie is just as much about Verne, and we see him in the prison camp, along with a whole bunch of other prisoners who live in what are more or less barracks as opposed to cells. It's an island; who the hell is going to escape anyway? Sure enough, however, some of the prisoners are going to try to escape. They're led by Moll (Albert Dekker), who's in for murder. Moll takes along his young companion Dufond (John Arledge); serial killer Hessler (Paul Lukas); and Cambreau (Ian Hunter), who seems to have an influence on those around him. But more on that later. Moll and Verne hate each other, but Verne is able to blackmail his way into a spot in the escape, as an uneasy, impermanent truce forms among the various convicts.

Along the way, Verne gets attacked by Moll, is given a map of the escape route to the boat that's supposed to be waiting for them by Cambreau, finds Julie, who is now a kept woman, and then makes it to the boat. There's one catch: there's not enough water on the boat for them to last the whole journey. And if any of them drink the salt water, it's going to kill them. Still, Cambreau begins to work his influence on the various prisoners one by one, an influence which is almost Jesus-like. The movie's title, Strange Cargo, is certainly appropriate. There's a lot odd going on here.

Some of what goes on in the movie is predictable: Julie winds up falling in love with Verne, for example. Some of it is less predictable. Moll's relationship to Dufond, for example, is probably a homosexual relationship, although of course thanks to the Production Code this is only hinted at. But it's the obvious reason for why Moll would want the otherwise incompetent Dufond along on the escape. It also seems kind of difficult to believe that Cambreau could have the sort of influence on the various prisoners that he does. But then, I think Strange Cargo is supposed to be more of a morality play than a work based on realism.

As for the acting, it's uniformly good. The writing I find a bit uneven: at times it feels like the movie is going on a bit too slowly; at other times it feels as though, with all these prisoners, there's too much going on. But that's a minor flaw in what is otherwise a very interesting and worthy movie.

Strange Cargo has been released to DVD as part of a Joan Crawfod box set. I'm not certain whether it's available as a stand-alone DVD, however.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Another movie that's returning to the Fox Movie Channel lineup in March is Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It's airing today at 1:00 PM, but don't worry if you don't read today's post until later in the day. You have another chance to catch the movie tomorrow at 9:30 AM, and then Sunday at 4:00 AM. (There are also several airings in April.)

Walter Pidgeon stars as Adm. Harriman Nelson, the designer of the Seaview, the newest and best submarine in the US Navy's nuclear fleet. At the beginning of the movie, he's putting the sub through its paces up in the Arctic, when something surprising happens: pieces of icebergs are breaking off and "raining" down on the sub below. This is, to put it mildly, highly unusual. The reason for the icebergs breaking up is even more unusual. Solar flares or something have caused the Van Allen radiation belts (which had only been discovered a couple of years before the movie was released) a couple thousand miles above the earth to catch fire! It's a problem that could doom mankind to a fiery death, and nobody knows how to solve it!

So, the scientists of the world have been brought together by the United Nations to figure out what to do, and understandbly, they can't reach any agreement, since this is a problem they've never seen before, and there's no way to do experiments. But, the scientists that the political leaders of the world consider the "best and brightest" minds, tend to think that the fire will burn itself out, and that mankind should be able to survive until this happens. Adm. Nelson, on the other hand, has a different idea. He thinks he can use the missiles on board his ship as a sort of fire extinguisher, but to do so requires getting to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest point in the ocean, at a precise time to fire the missile. It goes without saying that the scientific establishment thinks this is cockamamie, and may only make the problem worse.

Adm. Nelson, for his part, sets off for the Marianas Trench, with the navies of the world sending subs after the Seaview to try to prevent Adm. Nelson from carrying out his plan. Adm. Nelson has his old friend, Commodore Emery (Peter Lorre) along, who supports Nelson's scientific belief. Many of the crew, however, aren't so certain, led by the ship's commanding officer (Robert Sterling). Joan Fontaine plays a psychologist who had come aboard to study the stress submarine crews face, and God knows they're going to get a lot of stress on this mission. Barbara Eden was along for eye candy in Five Weeks in a Balloon, which I recommended yesterday; she's here as well, playing Nelson's secretary who is also the fiancée of Sterling's character. And for the teens, there's not Fabian, but Frankie Avalon.

The movie is scientific nonsense for the most part. This does not, however, mean that the movie can't be entertaining. It recycles a lot of clichés about ship- and submarine-bound films, to be sure, and there are also some terrible effects, notably with the giant squid. Some of the plot points are also badly telescoped. A point is made of making certain everybody on board the Seaview has a radiation detector clipped to their shirt, so you know at some point one of those detectors is going to indicate a fatal dose of radiation poisoning. Still, as with yesterday's Five Weeks in a Balloon, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is one of those popcorn movies: sit back with a bowl of popcorn and prepare yourself for an implausible by entertaining enough ride.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Five Weeks in a Balloon

Tomorrow is the first day of a new month, which means TCM is going to have some new programming salutes, at least once 31 Days of Oscar ends on Sunday: we'll finally get back to having a new Star of the Month and a new season of The Essentials. Before that, however,the Fox Movie Channel is taking a few movies out of its vault that they haven't shown in years. Two of them show up tomorrow, and immediately get repeated on Saturday. The first of these is Five Weeks in a Balloon, which you can see at 9:00 AM tomorrow on FMC, with a repeat at 6:00 AM Saturday.

Based on the novel by Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon stars Cedric Hardwicke as Ferguson, a Victorian-era balloonist who has invented a new type of balloon that allows for more lift and can stay in the air longer. He's about to take it out for a test flight in the British East African colonies, but Mother England is calling. Apparently there's slave trading in the interior of West Africa (which was mostly French, but don't let that plot hole stop you) that the British government needs to put down, and apparently Ferguson's balloon is the quickest way to get there unnoticed. So, could Ferguson take along a British agent Sir Henry (Richard Haydn)? Also along for the ride is an American journalist, Donald O'Shay (Red Buttons), Barbara Eden as a teacher, and Canadian Jacques (Fabian).

So they head west, and the crew meets with the sorts of adventures you'd expect from a Hollywood movie about Africa, which means stereotypes galore, along with establishing shots. That, and the standard squabbles among the various people in the balloon, and problems with the balloon. Along the way, they pick up slave trader Ahmed (Peter Lorre, looking corpulent and sickly), who's got a woman of his own in tow (Barbara Luna, clearly there as eye candy).

The result of all this is thoroughly mediocre, albeit not without its interesting points. Fabian was clearly cast because the producers thought he'd appeal to the teens, as he'd already been a teen idol a few short years earlier. Bu the same token, the two Barbaras, Eden and Luna, are clearly there to appeal to another segment of the demographic. And the whole plot, being taken from the Jules Verne novel, is something you'd have to think would appeal to kids, at least boys interested in adventure novels. Adults with a discerning eye will get to laugh at the bad parts of the movie, including some truly awful dialog. As Peter Lorre exclaims, "Kismet! We are doomed!" You might unfairly think the movie is doomed, too. At least, you might if you're looking for something more than dated escapist fare.

Five Weeks in a Balloon received a DVD release several years ago, but I'm not certain if it's still in print.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The first noir?

TCM is showing the movie which is often referred to as the first noir: Stranger on the Third Floor, tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM. Whether or not it's really the first noir is beside the point, although I'll comment on that a bit at the end of this post. The movie is extremely well worth watching in its own right.

John McGuire plays Mike, a journalist working in the big city, in love with his girl Jane (Margaret Tallichet). He's also a witness in a murder trial: apparently he saw the defendant Joe (Elisha Cook, Jr.) threaten the victim, and the victim wound up quite dead, having had his throat slit. John testifies, and his testimony gets Joe convicted and sent to the electric chair. So far, so good, right? Of course not! Jane isn't so sure of Joe's guilt, and that's the least of Mike's problems.

Mike's got a neighbor Meng (Charles Halton) who seems to have something against Mike, getting the landlord to have Jane sent home when she spends too long in Mike's apartment. (If you'll recall the old days of rooming houses, many of them were single-sex and especially the ones for women discoaraged having single guests of the opposite sex and closing the doors.) Mike rather stupidly threatens Meng, in much the same way that Joe threatened his murder victim. The next morning, Meng is found dead, and obviously, Mike is accused of being the murderer.

Mike, for his part, claims to have been asleep when the murder would have occurred (and boy did he have the nightmare to prove it; at least, we viewers get to see the nightmare). Not only that, but he claims to have seen a shadowy strnager in the building who, unsurprisingly, has disappeared. You'd think the police would be able to find blood in Mike's room after a murder as vicious as slitting somebody's throat, especially since he didn't have the facilities to clean his hands and blood the way, say, OJ Simpson did. But the police weren't so good 70 years ago. It's up to Jane to find out whether or not there really was a stranger there.

The Stranger on the Third Floor is a great little film. As you can probably guess from the list of actors I've mentioned above, this was decidedly a B movie. In fact, the one really recognizable name is Peter Lorre, playing the stranger, who doesn't show up until toward the end of the movie and doesn't speak much, although what he does say and do he does quite well. Supposedly he had a brief period left on his contract at RKO and the studio came up with this "small" role to finish out the contract. Lorre makes a lot out of it. Being a B movie, the writer and director were forced to come up with lighting and camera techniques to add to what is a fine story, even if one of mistaken identity that had probably been done before. It is that lighting (stuff that you could imagine Val Lewton doing a few years later at RKO), combined with the plot turning on Mike, that makes The Stranger on the Third Floor fit somewhat into the noir genre. It doesn't really have the femme fatale or later movies that are unambiguously noir, but many of the elements or noir are unmistakably there. So a proto-noir, definitely. Was it the first? Well, I don't think so; noir came about from the French, who in the late 1930s made movies like Le jour se lève (which I've briefly mentioned a couple of times, but never done a full-length post on). Still, I think The Stranger on the Third Floor is a reasonably important movie in American cinematic history, and a pretty darn good one, too.