Saturday, 9 February 2019

Sheer enjoyment movies: St.Martin's Lane, The Suspect, Unfaithfully Yours, House by the River, Ladies in Retirement and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

St. Martin's Lane (aka Sidewalks of London) is a 1938 British film starring Charles Laughton as the leader of a troupe of buskers, Vivien Leigh as a pickpocket he takes under his wing, and Rex Harrison as a successful songwriter who introduces her to the theatrical big time. Okay, it isn't a great film, but it's a lively celebration of the sort of busking that was still thriving in the West End in the early and mid-sixties when I used to queue to get into picture palaces in Leicester Square, it crackles with energy, and Laughton is quite splendid as the talentless ham who loses his heart to the lovely Miss Leigh (which he didn't do in real life - the two didn't get on, and the shoot was complicated by Laurence Olivier hanging around on days when Viv was scheduled to perform love scenes with Sexy Rexy). Well worth a Sunday afternoon wallow, and...

... it's available free on YouTube:

Charles Laughton also starred in the 1944 American noirish film, The Suspect, set in 1902 London. Laughton (under)plays a kindly, mild-mannered, Crippenesque accountant married to a truly ghastly wife, whose fate is sealed when he meets a lovely young woman played by the extremely attractive Ella Raines. Directed by noir-specialist Robert Siodmak, it's a cracking little film (if you can get used to all the supposed Londoners talking in American accents), and it's also available on YouTube:

I'll mention in passing another 1944 Siodmak film, Christmas Holiday, based on a Somerset Maugham story. Despite its cheerful title, despite starring two musical comedy greats, Deanna Durbin (who deserves to be better known) and Gene Kelly, and despite the lovely Deanna performing a few songs (as a night-club singer), it's a sinister noir murder thriller, and the killer is none other than... well, you can confirm your suspicions by watching it on YouTube, here.  (There's an excellent performance by Gale Sondergaard as Gene's mum.)

Just as eighteen months of intensive film-viewing have convinced me that Charles Laughton was a far more subtle and versatile actor than he's normally given credit for, I've also warmed to Rex Harrison, who can be enjoyed as a British classical music conductor in Unfaithfully Yours, a 1948 comedy written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges, whose spectacularly successful career as the King of Screwball Comedy had recently suffered a few knocks. This film, which was admired by the critics, should have restored Sturges's reputation, but failed with the public, and his career went into terminal decline.

It's hard to know why the film failed at the box office. Perhaps the subject - a conductor suspects his young wife is having an affair with his handsome personal secretary, and decides to bump her off - was just too dark (the scene where he imagines carrying out the first of his plots, which involves a cut-throat razor, is certainly strong meat); or maybe it was the upmarket setting and too much classical music; or perhaps the lead characters were just too unsympathetic for American tastes. Whatever the reason, it's failure was a shame, because it's a cracker - not as good as the following year's equally black-humoured British classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets, certainly - but well worth watching. Rex Harrison is in terrific, irascible form, and the sequence where he tries to implement his main scheme is a comic masterpiece - especially the bit involving a piece of "fool-proof" cutting-edge voice-recording technology. I know Surges isn't to everyone's taste, with his penchant for slapstick and exaggerated "comic" sound-effects,  but even if you sat stony-faced through Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail, the Conquering Hero!, I recommend giving this one - which is also available for free on YouTube - a try:

After the commercial failure of his decidedly weird, self-produced 1948 noir film, Secret Beyond the Door,  Fritz Lang found himself on Poverty Row in 1950, working for Republic Pictures, directing yet another noir film, House by the River. Set in Victorian times, it centres on a feckless, unsuccessful novelist husband who, his wife being away for the day, makes a clumsy pass at their maid, who vigorously resists his advances. Alarmed that her cries will be overheard, he inadvertently kills the poor girl. Luckily, his brother - a strait-laced, crippled accountant who is forever getting his useless younger brother out of scrapes - turns up a few minutes later and is yet again persuaded to help out, for the sake of his lovely sister-in-law. They truss the dead maid up in a sack, row out to the middle of the river at the end of the garden, weigh the sack down with an anchor, and toss it in... only for it to surface a few weeks' later. All the evidence points to the respectable brother as the murderer - an impression the actual killer is keen to foster. Made on a shoe-string, and with a decidedly unstarry cast, Lang's moody, atmospheric direction and a great performance by the British actor Louis Hayward as the increasingly deranged killer result a near-masterpiece: not well received at the time, its reputation has deservedly grown over the years. Here it is: 

While we're on the subject of Louis Hayward (an actor whose looks, voice and mannerisms make him seem - to me, at least - a pint-sized version of Orson Welles), let me recommend another slice of period Gothic noir - 1941's splendidly unpleasant Ladies in Retirement. Ida Lupino is a housekeeper/companion to a wealthy former chorus girl (of doubtful virtue) in an isolated, mist-shrouded house surrounded by marshes (why the old girl has chosen to retire there rather than to, say, Brighton, is never explained). Ida has dedicated her life to looking after her two crazy sisters. When she learns that they have been kicked out of their lodging house in London, she asks her employer, Miss Creed, if she can fetch them to stay for a short holiday. While she's off in London, a distant relative of Ida's, played by her then-husband, Louis Hayward, a cheeky young ne'er-do-well, turns up and scrounges a few pounds from Miss Creed before melting into the surrounding mists. Ida returns with her nutty siblings (one of whom is Elsa Lanchester), but they rapidly wear out their welcome and Miss Creed orders them to leave. Unbeknownst to the maid, Ida' sisters, or two nosey nuns who keep turning up, Ida murders Miss Creed by strangling her. As if covering up her deed isn't difficult enough, her annoying male cousin returns and soon guesses what has happened. Although by no means comic, it's great, grisly, fun - and one incidental pleasure is the fact that, as it's set in England, and a majority of the cast are are English, they can relax and stop trying to sound American:

I'll end with W.C. Fields's last film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), which was heavily recut by his studio Universal, who also took the opportunity to let him go. As he was a sick,  drink-sodden 61 at the time, I'd assumed it would be a rather depressing reminder of past glories. Not a bit of bit of it: in  fact, it's the most wildly, surreally inventive of any of the Fields films I've seen, and contains several laugh-out-loud, vintage sequences:

1 comment:

  1. This is really good stuff.
    You've made them sound enticingly watchable and if I get a moment to spare will definitely tune in to see what all the fuss is about.
    Interesting to read Fritz Lang (what an earth was one so famous doing living in poverty) was the director of House by the River. Forgive my naivety but how exactly does a noir film made 69 years ago have it's reputation "deservedly grown over the years?" Presumably there are dozens of critics out there writing for esoteric magazines, constantly reevaluating cinema history.
    Mr Gronmark is,or should be, one of them. Nice job.