Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

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“My name is Wong. James Lee Wong.”
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US / 62 minutes / bw / Monarch Dir: Phil Rosen Pr: Paul Malvern Scr: Joseph West Story: Ralph Bettinson Based on: characters created by Hugh Wiley in 12 stories published 1934–38 in Collier’s Magazine Cine: Fred Jackman Jr Cast: Keye Luke, Lotus Long, Grant Withers, Charles Miller, Huntley Gordon, Virginia Carpenter, John H. Dilson, Paul McVey, John Holland, Dick Terry, Robert Kellard, William Castello, Lee Tung Foo.

Not long after his return from a field trip to Mongolia, Dr. John Benton (Miller)—clearly labeled “Cyrus Benton” in a newspaper that we see—is giving a lecture at San Francisco’s Southern University about his expedition and the discovery he made in the Gobi Desert of the long-lost tomb of a powerful Ming emperor. He illustrates the lecture with the movie footage taken during the trip by photographer Charlie Frasier (Dilson), the very same guy as who’s now operating the projector for the lecture. Sitting in the front row are two further members of the expedition, Benton’s daughter Louise (Carpenter) and the pilot Tommy Dean (Kellard); the two are evidently sweet on each other. Helping the archaeologist is his secretary, Win Len (Long).

Tommy (Robert Kellard) and Louise (Virginia Carpenter), so much in love.

But one member of the expedition didn’t return, Benton explains to his audience. The backup pilot, Mason (Holland), was lost during a wild dust-storm and, although the party hunted for him, in the end they had to abandon the search.

Frasier (John H. Dilson) films everything.

Suddenly Benton grabs his throat and collapses. Soon the homicide cop Captain Sam Street (Withers) and his sidekick Detective Grady (McVey) are on the scene, but it looks as if Continue reading

Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949)

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The final Barton!
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UK / 68 minutes / bw / Hammer, Ted Kavanagh Associated, Exclusive Dir: Godfrey Grayson Assoc Pr: Anthony Hinds, Mae Murray Scr: Elizabeth Baron, Ambrose Grayson Story: Ambrose Grayson, based on characters created for Dick Barton—Special Agent (1946–51 BBC radio series), devised by Norman Collins and scripted by Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb Cine: Cedric Williams Cast: Don Stannard, Bruce Walker, Sebastian Cabot, James Raglan, Jean Lodge, Morris Sweden, John Harvey, Humphrey Kent, Sidney Vivian, Tony Morelli, George Crawford, Laurie Taylor, Schulman.

This was the third to be made in what Hammer planned to be a long-lasting series of movies featuring the popular BBC radio character Dick Barton, begun with Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948). It proved to be the last, however, because, driving home after the “It’s a Wrap” party, series star Don Stannard crashed his car and was killed instantly. His co-star in Dick Barton Strikes Back, Sebastian Cabot, traveling with him, escaped with only minor injuries. Presumably in an effort to cash in on public interest in the tragedy, Exclusive, the series’ distributor, hurried the release so that this movie came out before its predecessor, Dick Barton at Bay (1950). The next movie in the series was apparently intended to be Dick Barton in Darkest Africa—to judge by the title, a radical departure from the series template.

I mentioned in connection with Dick Barton at Bay that the improvement of its production standards over those of its predecessor was evident within moments of the end of the opening credits. The improvement in standards of the third entry over Dick Barton at Bay is obvious even during the opening credits! Farewell to the strictly functional, rather amateurish credits of the previous two movies; hello to a more sophisticated presentation, complete with cameos of the three principals. A new production team and a new cinematographer—one who was far readier to use noirish techniques of shadow and angle—make a huge difference, but so does the fact that a bit more thought seems to have gone into the story, which, while it follows the basic overall template established by the two earlier movies and is as full of wild-and-woolly plot developments as ever, has an actual dramatic structure, leading up to an extended finale that is cleverly put together and genuinely edge-of-your-seat stuff.

Creston (Morris Sweden, left) tersely briefs Dick (Don Stannard, center) and Snowey (Bruce Walker) at the airport.

Dick (Stannard) and Snowey (Walker, replacing and much improving upon George Ford) go to St. Albans airport, about twenty miles out of London, to meet Special Agent Robert Creston (Sweden), who’s just arrived on the plane from Prague. He’s reluctant to be seen with them, muttering only that “If my guess is correct, the atomic bomb is child’s play compared to this” and arranging to meet them later at Continue reading

Dick Barton at Bay (1950)

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More Barton!
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UK / 68 minutes / bw / Marylebone–Hammer, Exclusive Dir: Godfrey Grayson Pr: Henry Halsted Scr: Jackson C. Budd, Ambrose Grayson, Emma Trechman Story: Ambrose Grayson, based on characters created for Dick Barton—Special Agent (1946–51 BBC radio series), devised by Norman Collins and scripted by Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb Cine: Stanley Clinton Cast: Don Stannard, Tamara Desni, George Ford, Meinhart Maur, Percy Walsh, Joyce Linden, Campbell Singer, John Arnatt, Richard George, Patrick McNee (i.e., Patrick Macnee), George Crawford, Paddy Ryan, Fred Owen, Yoshihide Yanai, Ted Butterfield.

Although this was the third and last to be released of the three DICK BARTON movies produced by Hammer, it was actually the second to be made. It therefore seems to make sense to discuss it here before Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949), the last to be made. The predecessor of Dick Barton at Bay was Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948), about which I waffled here the other day.

As soon as the credits are over it’s obvious this movie is a cut above Special Agent. There’s a genuinely suspenseful chase as a War Office agent called Phillips (played by an almost unrecognizably youthful Macnee) flees through the docks at Limehouse from two bad guys. They eventually catch him in a phone box and shoot him dead, but not before he’s been able to phone Dick Barton (Stannard) and gasp out an enigmatic message: “Two longs and a short.”

Patrick Macnee as a man on the run.

Dick races to the phone box and discovers the imprint of a three-fingered hand on the glass.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Continue reading

Bande à Bonnot, La (1968)

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Classic gangsterism!
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vt Les Anarchistes; vt Bonnot’s Gang
France / 86 minutes / color plus some bw / Intermondia, Kinesis, Mega, Valoria Dir: Philippe Fourastié Pr: Jean-Paul Guibert Scr: Jean Pierre Beaurenaut, Pierre Fabre, Rémo Forlani, Philippe Fourastié, Marcel Jullian Cine: Alain Levent Cast: Jacques Brel, Bruno Cremer, Annie Girardot, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, François Dyrek, Dominique Maurin, Michel Vitold, Nella Bielski, Pascal Aubier, Anne Wiazemsky, Armand Mestral, François Moro-Giafferi, Léonce Corne, Jacqueline Noel.

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In reality, Jules Bonnot was a very minor criminal; he was not even the leader of the gang that the French press of the day—the early 1910s—dubbed La Bande à Bonnot (the Bonnot Gang; the movie’s anglophone variant title, Bonnot’s Gang, is actually a mistranslation). Bonnot began as a bit of a rebel without a clue, became interested in anarchist politics and then, in 1908, joined a counterfeiting gang. The gang diversified into auto theft and burglary. In 1911 he became a member of the anarcho-criminal gang led by Octave Garnier, where he pioneered the use of the getaway car. The following year, with the public in an uproar and the cops coming ever closer, the gang split up. On April 24 1912 the flics almost nabbed Bonnot; in a shootout, he killed Louis Jouin, deputy head of the Sûreté Nationale. A few days later the cops surrounded the house where he was now hiding, and there was a major standoff that ended only when the cops dynamited the building.

The events in this movie bear some resemblance to the ones just recounted (with the help of en.wikipedia.org and fr.wikipedia.org).

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Jacques Brel as Raymond.

Raymond Callemin (Brel), nicknamed “Raymond la Science,” is an anarchist and a bit of a troublemaker; he and his pal Édouard Carouy (Dyrek) tend to get thrown out of places a lot. They join up with an anarchist group led by Continue reading

Gang Smashers (1938)

vt Gun Moll
US / 59 minutes / bw / Toddy Dir: Leo C. Popkin Pr: Harry M. Popkin Scr: Hazel Barnes Jamieson, Phil Dunham, Zella Young Story: Ralph Cooper Cine: Robert Cline Cast: Nina May McKinney (i.e., Nina Mae McKinney), Lawrence Criner, Monte Hawley, Mantan Moreland, Reginald Fenderson, Eddie Thompson, Vernon McCalla, Charles Hawkins, Everett Brown, Neva Peoples, Arthur Ray, Bo Jenkins, Phil Moore and His Orchestra.

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I’m sure I’ve ranted about this on Noirish before, but it’s way past time that someone made a determined effort to recover and restore the “race movies.” Made between about 1910 and the early 1950s, these typically featured all-black casts and were shown to all-black audiences, and were produced outside the Hollywood system on budgets that made Poverty Row enterprises seem positively DeMillean. Because of the cheapness, the production standards generally weren’t high and the acting could on occasion be amateurish; moreover, there was a reluctance to tackle genuine African American problems in the race movies, probably because most of the studios creating work in this genre were white-owned. Despite all this, the movies often show great verve, and some of the acting is top-notch; here you can see many fine African–American actors in leading roles who could get nothing but bit parts, often racially demeaning caricatures, in Hollywood productions.

Because the race movies flew under the radar of cinema historians until relatively recently, they were neglected to the point that only about 20% of the five hundred or so thought to have been made still survive, and most do so only in pretty appalling condition. So far as I know—and I confess a deal of ignorance here!—none of them have been restored in Criterion-like fashion. Please advise in the comments if I’m wrong.

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The great Mantan Moreland as Gat’s sidekick, Gloomy.

Gang Smashers is, I gather, a tad unusual among race movies in that it focuses on the relatively contentious (for the late 1930s) issue of black-on-black crime. In other words, in any other context you’d regard it as a thriller, a borderline noir. I admit it was Continue reading

Unter Ausschluß der Öffentlichkeit (1961)

vt Blind Justice; vt The Whole Truth
West Germany / 98 minutes / bw / CCC, Bavaria Filmverleih Dir: Harald Philipp Pr: Artur Brauner Scr: Harald Philipp, Fred Ignor Cine: Friedel Behn-Grund Cast: Peter van Eyck, Marianne Koch, Eva Bartok, Claus Holm, Wolfgang Reichmann, Werner Peters, Susanne Cramer, Alfred Balthoff, Leon Askin, Rudolf Fernau, Gudrun Schmidt, Ralph Wolter, Heinz Weiss, Jochen Blume, Kurd Pieritz, Albert Bessler, Herbert Wilk, Peter Schiff, Heinz Welzel, Claus Dahlen.

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Staatsanwalt (District Attorney) Robert Kessler (van Eyck) believes he’s just about to strike the winning blow in his latest sensational court case—that of airplane engineer Dr. Werner Rüttgen (Holm), accused of murdering his wife of many years by poison to begin a new life with lovely young mistress Helga Dähms (Cramer)—when court proceedings are interrupted.

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Helga (Susanne Cramer) testifies at the murder trial of her lover, Werner (Claus Holm), seen at rear.

Another lovely young woman, Mrs. Laura Beaumont (Bartok), leaps to her feet and proclaims that the dead woman committed suicide: she knows because she was Frau Rüttgen’s oldest and best friend, and was there when Continue reading

Dernier Domicile Connu (1970)

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Lino Ventura, midst trademark ass-kicking, warms to Marlène Jobert!
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vt Last Known Address
France, Italy / 101 minutes / color / Cité, Valoria, Parme, Simar, Rizzoli Dir & Scr: José Giovanni Pr: Jacques Bar Story: The Last Known Address (1965) by Joseph Harrington Cine: Étienne Becker Cast: Lino Ventura, Marlène Jobert, Michel Constantin, Paul Crauchet, Alain Mottet, Béatrice Arnac, Guy Heron, Albert Dagnant, Monique Mélinand, Marcel Pérès, Germaine Delbat, Hervé Sand, François Jaubert, Philippe March, Jean Sobieski, Bianca Saury, Raymond Meunier, Frédéric Santaya, Luc Bartholomé, Michel Charrel, Max Desrau.

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Paris cop Marceau Leonetti (Ventura) has a reputation for toughness. In the opening minutes of the movie—as per the opening minutes of a Bond movie—we witness some action-packed sequences that have nothing to do with the plot but fix in our minds that this is the hard man of Paris policing. When he arrests the drunk-driving son of a prominent Paris lawyer, however, he discovers there’s something tougher than him: political corruption.

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Arnold (Albert Dagnant, left) explains to Marceau (Lino Ventura) that he’s this month’s scapegoat.

His boss, Arnold (Dagnant), manages to spare Marceau the worst of the flak, but only by dint of transferring him to a sleepy suburban precinct, the Commissariat du XVIIIth Arrondissement, Section Junot 54. There the most exciting case that’s likely to come Marceau’s way . . . well, one day a little boy (uncredited) reports that his fancy pet pigeons have been stolen and, even though the desk sergeant declines to do anything about it, Marceau, like the good serious-crime cop that he is, successfully tracks down and nails the perpetrator.

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Big Frank Lambert (Alain Mottet) has a job for Marceau.

But that’s hardly enough. So, when one day his old colleague and friend “Big” Frank Lambert (Mottet) phones him up to recruit him into a new Special Squad that Lambert’s been asked to form, Marceau leaps at the chance. The fact that the new squad liaises with the Flying Squad and Vice sounds great; in fact it’s been formed to catch a plague of perverts who’ve been pestering young women in the Paris cinemas.

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Marceau’s new partner, Jeanne Dumas (Marlène Jobert), arrives for her first day working with the Special Squad.

As his partner, Marceau is assigned a rookie, Jeanne Dumas (Jobert). At first glance he realizes she’s not so much his partner as his baitfish: it’s her job to sit in the cinemas looking repressed and virginal—to be a sort of perve-magnet, luring the creeps so that Marceau can then leap out of the shadows and Continue reading

Rope of Sand (1949)

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Burt Lancaster battles it out with Paul Henreid in a tale of diamonds and dust!
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US / 104 minutes / bw / Wallis–Hazen, Paramount Dir: William Dieterle Pr: Hal B. Wallis Scr: Walter Doniger, John Paxton Story: Walter Doniger Cine: Charles B. Lang Jr Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Corinne Calvet, Sam Jaffe, John Bromfield, Mike Mazurki, Kenny Washington, Edmond Breon, Hayden Rorke, David Thursby, Josef Marais, Miranda (i.e., Miranda Marais).

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Welcome to Diamondstadt, headquarters of the Colonial Diamond Co. Ltd:

“This part of the desert of South Africa, where only a parched camelthorn tree relieves the endless parallels of time, space and sky, surrounds like a rope of sand the richest diamond-bearing area in the world—an uneasy land where men enflamed by monotony and the heat sometimes forget the rules of civilization.”

The place is run like a fascist state in miniature—complete with torture chamber—by its sadistic police chief, Commandant Paul G. Vogel (Henreid), and his thugs. Vogel’s primary task is to ensure that no one strays into the Prohibited Area, a region of desert where sometimes clusters of diamonds can be found mere inches beneath the surface of the sand.

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Total bastard Vogel (Paul Henreid) rules his little fiefdom with an iron fist.

It’s here that Mike Davis (Lancaster) returns after an absence of two years. Almost from the moment of his arrival it’s clear he has a bitter past in Diamondstadt . . . and a bitter past with the loathsome Vogel. When Mike refuses to be intimidated at the docks by Vogel, the police chief deliberately engineers an “accident,” so that a derrick’s worth of stuff falls—not on Mike, because that could cause problems, but glancingly on the leg of a sailor, John (Washington). Mike tends John’s wounds and sends him off to see Diamondstadt’s physician, Dr. Francis Kitteridge Hunter (Jaffe), who’s more or less permanently inebriated but remains competent.

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As Mike (Burt Lancaster, right) tends the wounds of John (Kenny Washington), the two men become fast friends.

Vogel’s boss is a man called Martingale (Rains); he’s listed as Arthur Martingale in the closing credits but in fact called Fred throughout the movie. The two work together and on the surface are allies, but in fact there’s no love lost between them, as we witness when Martingale covertly blackballs Vogel from membership of the snooty Perseus Club in Cape Town. Also in Cape Town, Martingale is picked up by Suzanne Renaud (Calvet), supposedly the French niece of a Colonial Diamond Co. stockholder but in fact a scammer whose trick is to inveigle herself into the rooms of married men and then threaten to accuse them of sexual impropriety.

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Suzanne (Corinne Calvet) casts an alluring glance Martingale’s way.

Martingale, having been informed of Mike’s return to Diamondstadt, calls Suzanne’s bluff—aside from anything else, he isn’t married—but then offers her a job. The reason there’s bad blood between Mike and Vogel is that Continue reading

Ivy League Killers (1959)

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A rare Canadian noir set among bikers and their molls!
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vt The Fast Ones
Canada / 68 minutes / bw / Ivy League Dir: William Davidson Pr: Norman Klenman, William Davidson Scr: Norman Klenman Cine: William H. Gimmi Cast: Don Borisenko, Don Francks, Barbara Bricker, George Carron, Jean Templeton, Patrick Desmond, Barry Lavender, Igors Gavon, Art Jenoff, John Ringham, John Paris, Gertrude Tyas, Jack Blacklock, Boyd Jackson & The Black Diamond Riders.

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Apparently the producers of Ivy League Killers, Norman Klenman and William Davidson, were eager to establish a commercially successful movie industry in Canada, and so they rather cynically tailored this teen melodrama as an attempt to cash in on the US fad, begun with movies like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), for dramas featuring juvenile delinquents. Whatever their motives, Klenman and Davidson succeeded in creating, out of a minuscule budget and a group of unknown actors, a movie that is actually rather fine, and one that could quite reasonably be considered a film noir.

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Nancy (Jean Templeton) and Don (Don Borisenko) in the face-off with the rich kids.

Four rich kids in posh sports cars—Susan Grey (Bricker), Andy (Francks), Charlie (Desmond) and Bertie (Lavender)—exchange words with a biker gang, the Black Diamond Riders, led by Don Gibson (Borisenko). Andy, the leader of the posh kids, is pretty rude to the bikers, and Don is rather reluctantly goaded by his jittery deputy, Bruno (Carron), into Continue reading

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

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Boris Karloff stars in a triple locked-room mystery!
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US / 69 minutes / bw / Monogram Dir: William Nigh Assoc pr: William Lackey Scr: Houston Branch Based on: characters created by Hugh Wiley in 12 stories published 1934–38 in Colliers Magazine Cine: Harry Neumann Cast: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Maxine Jennings, Evelyn Brent, George Lloyd, Lucien Prival, John St. Polis, William Gould, Hooper Atchley, John Hamilton, Wilbur Mack, Lee Tong Foo, Lynton Brent, Grace Wood, Frank Bruno, Wheaton Chambers.

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The first of a series of six movies about the San Francisco PI James Lee Wong, created in print by Hugh Wiley; the first five movies starred Boris Karloff as Wong, while the sixth starred an actual Chinese-American in the role, Keye Luke. Depressingly, that sixth movie, Phantom of Chinatown (1940), flopped and so the series came to abrupt end. (When I get a chance, I’ll add it to this site. But it seemed silly to start watching a series with its final entry.)

I confess that for years I’ve avoided the Mr. Wong movies—as I generally do the Charlie Chan ones—because I find it just as creepy to watch a white actor play what I suppose we have to call Yellow Face as I do watching white actors play Black Face. I have to report, though, that the experience wasn’t as grueling as I’d expected. There is no mockery at all of Chinese culture or mannerisms. To the contrary, Wong is the most respected character in the movie; at one point the romantic lead compares the elderly Wong so favorably to her police-detective boyfriend—“Mr. Wong, it’s been such a pleasure meeting a detective with such charming manners”—that the cop’s eyes narrow in jealousy.

The Dayton Chemical Co. is planning to ship a consignment of toxic chemicals to Europe aboard the good ship Orinoco. The operation is spied upon by Lescardi (Bruno), an enforcer working for a pair of activists embedded in European politics, Anton Mohl (Prival), who goes by the name Baron von Krantz, and Olga Petroff (Evelyn Brent), who goes by the name Countess Dubois. They’re eager to divert Continue reading