Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sherlock Holmes vs. the Nazis!

In 1942, Universal Pictures retooled Sherlock Holmes. They opened their first movie featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective with a title card that described the character as a timeless figure that works equally well in his "native world" of late 19th century London or the "modern day" of the 1940s. This film, and the sequels that followed--several of which saw Holmes cross wits with Nazis and their agents--show this to be true. (And the recent BBC series "Sherlock" reminded us of the fact, when Holmes and Watson were effectively transported to 21st century London with smart phones, and blogs, and everything.)

The initial Universal Holmes films pitted him against the great evil of the 1930s and 1940s, Nazi Germany and their sympathizers around the world. They are the sort of films I wish Hollywood would make today, instead of churning out crap that portrays those who fight and die for our freedoms--the American military and its allies--as the villains.

This article presents reviews of all the "Holmes vs. the Nazis" pictures in observance of the day Hitler killed himself and thus cemented his reputation as a pathetic little coward.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Henry Daniell, Thomas Gomez, and Reginald Denny
Director: John Rawlins
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As Hitler's armies devour mainland Europe, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Rathbone and Bruce) are retained by British Intelligence to stop the activities of Nazi saboteurs being coordinated by the mysterious Voice of Terror in radio broadcasts that hijack the British airwaves once a week. Holmes soon comes to suspect that the broadcasts portent something far more sinister and dangerous than the horrific acts of terrorist... and that the enemy within England itself is more powerful than dreamed of in the worst nightmares.

Loosely based on Conan Doyle's "His Final Bow" (where Holmes came out of retirement to catch a German spy at the beginning of WW1) and the real-life Nazi propaganda broadcasts that overrode BBC signals during the early 1940s, "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" is the first of a dozen Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce that transports the Great Detective and his loyal sidekick to modern day England. (Modern-day being the 1940s.)

Holmes' methods receive a slight upgrade--the key to unlocking the mystery behind how the Voice of Terror is able to coordinate the broadcasts and the sabotage involves analyzing different types of broadcast with cutting edge audio equipment--he trades in his deerstalking cap and tweed cape for an fedora and overcoat, and the speed of modern travel and communication also impacts the story, but overall the character of Holmes is as it's found in the pages of Doyle.

Although partly a war-time propaganda movie--the kind that I've lamented aren't made anymore, what with American filmmakers preferring to glorify those who would take away their freedom rather than those who defend it--with the patriotic speeches and dastardly Nazi villains that encompasses, the film sets the tone for most of the Universal efforts that will follow. Holmes is a renegade genius, Watson is a doddering moron that seems like he is going senile (even if he isn't quite as dimwitted here as he seems in later pictures), and the villains are of a stripe that would make even the worst of the worst that inhabited the pages of pulp fiction magazines in the 1930s give them a wide berth. But the stories are exciting and fun, so the bad treatment of Watson can be overlooked... as well as the absolutely rediculous hair style that Holmes sports in these early Universal films. (Transporting Holmes to modern-day was the idea of Basil Rathbone who felt the Victorian era was too old fashioned, so I wonder if he was also the genius behind that awful hair.)

While Watson as a ninny didn't originate with the Rathbone/Bruce pictures--there were hints of it as far back as the Arthur Wontner pictures--but it was these pictures that solidified the approach as "standard." The same is true of Holmes as nearly 100% hands-off as far as physical altercations go; when a brawl breaks out between Nazi agents and Limehouse ruffians hired by Holmes as muscle, you almost get the sense that Holmes is afraid to get in the middle of the fight. The Rathbone Holmes seems like he would never throw a punch but would instead leave it to others even in the most dire of situations, so it is with these films that the idea that a "action-oriented" Holmes isn't truthful to Doyle began.

The strong presence of these somewhat legacies aside in this film doesn't really harm the entertainment value, however. The story is too fast paced for anything but Holmes bad hair to distract from the fun, and excellent performances by the stars and supporting cast only made it that much better.

Basil Rathbone is excellent as always as Sherlock Holmes (even if I will always prefer Peter Cushing's portrayal) and Nigel Bruce is solid as the comic relief, perhaps even moreso than in future sequels as less of the humor is at the expense of his character than will become the norm. Other standout performances are delivered by Henry Daniell (who will return to the series again and again, as a different villainous character almost every time) and Reginald Denny as power-brokers in British Intelligence, either of which could be a double-agent and the Voice of Terror himself. Finally, Evelyn Ankers has a small but important part as a Limehouse bar girl who helps Holmes track the Voice of Terror's main operative for deeply personal reasons.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, William Post Jr, Kaaren Verne and Dennis Hoey
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is charged with rescuing a Swiss scientist (Post) and his revolutionary new bomb-sighting system from the Nazis and bringing him safely to England. However, when the scientist turns out to have too high an opinion of himself and his intelligence, and he falls into the hands of British Nazi agents, Holmes finds himself in race against his old nemesis Professor Moriarty (Atwill) to unlock a coded message that reveals where the prototype of the bomb-sight is hidden.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" is the second of Universal's "Holmes vs. the Nazis" flick, and it is not only a fun Holmes adventure but a passable espionage thriller. The opening sequence where Holmes outsmarts the Gestapo agents who have crossed into Switzerland to kidnap genius inventor Franz Tobel is a great bit of filmmaker--and the only part of the film that stuck with me from the first time I saw this film at some point in the distant past. (I have no memory of watching this film before, but that opening bit, the revelation of Holmes, and the get-away was all very familiar to me.)

Like many movies of this type, the villains initially benefit from the fact that Holmes' charge may be a genius when it comes to inventing military hardware, but he's otherwise an idiot who ends up in Professor Moriarty's clutches because he had sneak out for a clandestine booty call and because of irrational demands placed on the British security forces regarding the production of his bomb sights. This is what leads to the race to decrypt the code. Apparently, Dr. Tobel is SUCH a genius that he knew the clandestine booty call was a bad idea, so he wrote a code he thought only Holmes would be able to help build his bomb sight should he come to a bad end. Too bad for Tobel that a man almost as part as Holmes is the one who grabbed him.

Speaking of Moriarity, Lionel Atwill gives an excellent performance as Holmes' evil opposite. The script writers also do a nice job of demonstrating his sinister genius by having him and Holmes discover the key to unlocking a particular complicated part of the code only by accident. (I suppose this means that neither are as smart as Tobel gave them credit for... but at least neither Holmes nor Moriarty would sneak out for booty calls while Nazi agents are prowling the streets looking for them.)

In some ways, actually, the film makes Moriarty out to be a bit smarter than Holmes in some ways, but ultimately too crazy to be as effective an evil genius as he might be. Twice during this picture, Holmes places himself completely at Moriarty's mercy, presumably assuming that the evil professor won't just kill him. A pretty stupid thing to do, and one that almost backfires at one point and leads to a more chilling portrayal of Moriarity than I've ever seen. Still, if he had just killed Holmes instead of being duped into killing him slowly (by Holmes playing off Moriarty's ego and sadism), he would have won the day AND the war for his Nazi paymasters.

Then again, if Moriarty had been as smart as Holmes, he wouldn't have teamed up with Nazi losers to begin with... and there wouldn't have been a movie.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" is a film that you'll enjoy if you get a kick out of old-time thrillers and pulp-fiction style detective tales. Hardcore Holmes fans will probably mostly enjoy the film for it being a sequel of sorts to Doyle's "The Dancing Men" short story, but only if they aren't too annoyed by Holmes and Watson being transplanted to 1940s London instead of 1880s London. (And all of us will have to ignore the goofy looking hair-do on Holmes. I will have to get around to researching that. It is so stupid looking there HAS to be story behind it.)

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Marjorie Lord, Henry Daniell and George Zucco
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a British secret agent vanishes while on a mission to Washington, D.C., the British government sends Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Rathbone and Bruce) to the United States to uncover what happened to him and to learn if valuable secrets have fallen into the hands of the Nazis.

"Sherlock Holmes in Washington" is the final and best of the Universal "Holmes vs. the Nazis" trilogy of films. It features a well-crafted and suspenseful plot that takes full advantage both of Holmes' legendary deductive powers as well as the modern (early 1940s) setting, with the mystery revolving around missing documents that unbeknownst to heroes and villains alike have been duplicated on microfilm and hidden inside a matchbook that is then passed from character to character and almost lost for good on more than one occassion. The fact that the audience knows exactly where the documents everyone is looking for adds greatly to the suspense (and fun) of the film as it unfolds.

In addition to its expertly constructed plot, the film also features well-written dialogue that is delivered by a cast that are all at the top of their game. Rathbone's Holmes is the best I've ever seen itm Bruce's Watson is comedic but not annoyingly dimwitted, and Daniell and Zucco are excellent as the Nazi secret agents. From the film's opening scenes to the closing anti-fascism remarks from Holmes, this is a film that provides top-notch and classy entertainment. It's a move that fans of Sherlock Holmes and classic crime dramas will enjoy equally. (Heck, even if you're some sort of misguided moron who admires Nazis, you'll enjoy this flick. The ones in this story are smarter than the average bunch, be they fictional or real.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

They don't make 'em like Cab Calloway anymore!

In my review of "Hi-De-Ho", I lamented the lack of a "Minnie the Moocher" performance. Here's Cab Calloway performing it with a higher-than-average degree of craziness.

And here's the title song from 1947's "Hi-De-Ho". The opening and closing sections that sounds like a Jewish synagogue prayer is super cool! (Oh... and if you listen closely, you'll discover that the hippies weren't quite as cutting edge as one might thing; their lexicon predates them by more than a decade, as this song proves. They may not have trusted anyone over 30, but they sure spoke like some of them. Or were the hippies just the wiggers of their day?)

And then there are the stoners. Calloway and his pals were there first, too.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

'Hi-De-Ho' has virtually no plot to interfere with the musical numbers

Hi-De-Ho (1947)
Starring: Cab Calloway, Jenni Le Gon, Ida James, James Dunmore, and George Wiltshire
Director: Josh Binney
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When struggling musician Cab (Calloway) and his band are on the verge of their first big break, his jealous girlfriend Minnie (Le Gon) gets him embroiled in a fight with a deadly gangster (Wiltshire) because she believes he is having an affair with his female manager (James).

Made primarily for theaters that catered to black audiences in the segregated south, "Hi-De-Ho" is a short movie that is first and foremost a showcase for bandleader and legendary jazz man Cab Calloway. The paper-thin plot is just an excuse to move us from Calloway performance to Calloway performance, and it vanishes almost entirely at the halfway point where it gives way to a supposed club performance by Calloway and several other very talented, real-world acts from the late 1940s. It is so perfunctory that when three people die in a shoot-out, including one innocent bystander, the police's reaction is basically to walk away while saying, "Hey, great job killing those gangsters, Cab! Good riddance to them!"

This film is of interest only to fans jazz, scat-music, and great big band performances. Calloway does show himself to be a better actor than many of his fellow musicians--like when he is performing a mournful acapella version of "Minnie's a Hep Cat Now" (a song he performs earlier in an upbeat fashion).

Surprisingly, Calloway doesn't perform "Minnie the Moocher", the song he is perhaps best known for today--especially considering that song includes the "Hi-De-Ho" phrase from the movie's title and he refers to the Minnie character as a moocher at one point. Of course, the film more than makes up for its absence a song title "I am the Hi-De-Ho Man" and the aforementioned "Minnie's a Hep-Cat Now".

The target audience for this movie--fans of Cab Calloway and 1940s jazz--will love this movie. I would even recommend that wanna-be musicians check it out, especially if you're fancying yourself a hip-hop or rap artist. You will find some things in this movie that may surprise you. Everyone else can't help but be awed by the talent and energy of Calloway... although you will likely find yourself wishing for a little more story to go with the excellent musical numbers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Exodus: When God Layeth Down the Law

Moses and the Ten Commandments, by Paul Gulacy
Half a century later, there has yet to be made a more impressive Biblical movie than Cecile B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments". It also remains one of the most successful Hollywood remakes of all time, being the second movie version of the Book of Exodus from the Old Testament that De Mille helmed; the first being a 1923 almost-as-grand silent version.

Is there a better way to celebrate Passover/Easter than to watch this great classic movie? (Well, except perhaps reading the original Old Testament story upon which it was based and taking part in various religious observances as your faith might dictate? I suppose either of THOSE might be better ways... but it's a great movie!)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tarzan meets his match: Crappy Filmmakers

Tarzan and the Green Goddess (1936)
Starring: Herman Brix, Ula Holt, Frank Baker, Lew Sargent, and Ashton Dearholt
Director: Edward Kull
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Tarzan (Brix) and his friends struggle to be the first to loot a Guatemalan idol from the natives of the Dead City, so the secret of ancient Mayan explosives don't fall into the wrong hands.

"Tarzan and the Green Goddess" is a condensed version of the second half of a serial titled "The New Adventures of Tarzan", and subsequently is a sequel to the condensed version of the serial's first half.

And it shows. Based on references characters make (along the lines of "let's hope the monsters of the Dead City aren't chasing us!") give the impression that a far more exciting adventure led up to the drab and boring events of this one.

This is perhaps the dullest Tarzan tale I've ever seen. Some excitement creeps in during the film's final third--when characters return to the Dead City and once again deal with the goofy cultists who live there--but it's too little, too late. A movie about the "gay gypsy party" that Lord Greystoke hosts to celebrate his return from Central America would probably have been more interesting.

The only positive thing I can find to say about this film is that Brix bears a close resemblance to one of my favorite Tarzan depictions in art--that from the pen of the great Russ Manning. He's also an okay actor, but he manages to ruin the performance by delivering a Tarzan "victory cry" that sounds like he's if he's taking part in a hog calling contest.

I think even the biggest fans of Tarzan can safely take a pass on this sorry effort.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Barack Hussein Obama MMMmmmNNNo!

Obama formally began his reelection campaign on April 4, 2011. Here's what the Future says about the Hope and Change he has brought....

Are You In(sane)?

If you don't get the reference in the title of this post, click on this link to visit Cinema Steve for a look at the creepy, borderline un-American degree to which some worship (or worshipped, one hopes) Barack Hussein Obama.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

'Blackout' may put you off the bottle

Blackout (aka "Murder By Proxy") (1954)
Starring: Dane Clark, Elanor Summerfield, Belinda Lee, Andrew Osborn, and Betty Ann Davies
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

An American drinking away his sorrows in London (Clark) is offered a large sum of money by a young woman (Lee) if he will marry her. He wakes up the next morning with a pocket full of cash, blood on his coat, and no recollection of happened after his "engagement" in the bar. However, his "wife" is nowhere to by found, and the newspapers are full of the news that her wealthy father was murdered the night before.

"Blackout" may be the best of the film noir-style pictures produced by the venerable British film studio Hammer, first with American B-movie producer Robert Lippert and later with Columbia Pictures. I haven't watched them all, but this one was by far the most interesting of a batch of films that are undeservedly obscure.

Dane Clark excels here as an Everyman who suddenly finds him thrust into a world of deception, intrigue, and murder. The script is expertly paced as the story of his efforts to find out what sort of trouble he is in, so he can find a way out, and the red herrings and plot reversals and surprise twists are all perfectly timed. This is one mystery that will keep you guessing almost up to the very end as to who is behind the killings and why.

The rest of the cast also does a fine job, although Belinda Lee--who plays the girl who marries Clark, either to escape impending forced nuptials or to frame him for murder--was probably hired more for her beauty than her acting talent. She is perfect at playing a distant upper-class snob, but falters when called upon to do anything else. Of course, Lee might just be suffering in comparison to strong and experienced character actors like Clark and Elanor Summerfield--who plays an artist who helps Cook on his quest of discovery, and whose performance and character is so much more lively than Lee's that one hopes that she is the Clark will end up with in the end--as she was just 19 and this was her first major film role.

Then again, good performances from the actors, along with plenty of striking visuals, are to be expected when Terence Fisher is at the helm of a picture. He rarely disappoints, and he doesn't do so with this one, either.

Fans of film noir pictures and well-crafted mysteries will appreciate this film... especially since it comes bundled cheaply with other neglected Hammer Films mysteries.


Friday, April 8, 2011

'They Saved Hitler's Brain': A bad movie
that didn't improve when expanded by 30 mins

They Saved Hitler's Brain (1974 (?))
Starring: Lots of mustaches and a couple of blondes.
Director: David Bradley and someone working for "Paragon Production"
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

"They Saved Hitler's Brain" is a television edit of "The Madmen of Madragor", a film about a clumsy international conspiracy orchestrated by Nazis and Hitler's head-in-a-jar from a diamond-rich South American country. For the bulk of the details about the film, read my review of the original version by clicking here.

When producers looked into selling the film to television in the late 1960s, they discovered it was too short for the two-hour programming time block occupied by movies--which needed to be 92 minutes, with the remaining 28 minutes being occupied by commericals.

So, they shot an additional 30 minutes of film, expanding the original plot of "The Mad Men of Madragor" to inclue a spy-vs-spy angle with intelligence agencies from around the globe (I think) shooting at each other and performing asassinations in order to make sure that only they have the secret of the super nervegas at the center of the story.

The filmmakers charged with expanding the film TRIED to make their new material match the original footage, but I think budget and time conspired against them. Basically, the agents from the new storyline sport 1970s hairstyles and clothing styles, and they clash when they are intercut with the cast with their 1960s crewcuts and fashions. Government agents cruising around in a VW Bug is a particularly amusing aspect of the additions to the film, even if it wasn't intended to be amusing.

A worse slip-up made in the efforts to expand the film is a continuity gaffe of such epic scale that one wonders if whoever scripted that new half-hour bothered to sit through the original movie; a big deal is made out of the fact that only two scientists know the formula for the deadly nerve gas that Nazis are threatening to unleash on the world. However, in other scenes, the gas formula has already been acquired by "foreign powers", but the antidote is still a well-guarded American secret which makes it useless as a weapon (or so the filmmakers believed, in an innocent time before Islamic suicide bombing psychos started making Nazis look like choir boys).

All in all, the 30 minutes of additional material neither adds or subtracts particularly from the film. It doesn't fix any of the problems with the original, and while it offers a bit more action up front than the film contained originally, it creates new continuity flubs.

"Mad Men of Madragor" still has a slight advantage, though, as it's shorter. Unless you REALLY want to torture yourself, go with the original instead of "They Saved Hitler's Brain"; it may have a sexier title--which I remain astonished that they didn't use on the original film--but "Mad Men" is more to the point.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Picture Perfect Special:
In the dark, all cats are gray...

... especially if one of them is Catwoman!

Here's a selection of illos of Batman and his oldest and most dedicated "frenemy." (Comics Trivia: On at least one of an infinite number of alternate reality Earths, were marrued after she gave up her thieving ways and he hung up the Batsuit. Their daughter grew up to be the suerpheroine, Huntress. That Bat and Cat are portrayed in the last three drawings.)

Click here to read reviews of graphic novels starring Catwoman over at Cinema Steve.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lon Chaney Jr nails the 'loveable victim' role

Man Made Monster (1941)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, and Samuel S. Hinds
Director: George Waggner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After a carnival sideshow worker (Chaney) is the only survivor from a mass electrocution during a traffic accident, the world's leading electro-biologists (Hinds) invites him to become a research subject so the reason for his survival can be discerned. The scientist's evil assistant, however, subjects the unsuspecting man to illicit experiments that turn him into an electrically charged superhuman killer.

"Mad Made Monster" is a far-fetched tale of mad science of supercharging the naturally occuring electrical systems of the human body with high voltage in ways that Baron Frankenstein wouldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams. You'll barely have time to digest the pseudo-scientific whackiness because the film moves so fast.

Further, you'll find yourself buying to just about every aspect of the film thanks to some truly great performances by its cast. Lon Chaney Jr. is almost as good here as he was in anything he ever made, playing a kindhearted, trusting Everyman whose faith in his doctors ends up dooming him. Meanwhile, Lionel Atwill will have you hating him through-and-through as his characters' manipulative, self-centered ways seem all the more evil because he is exploiting and abusing such a nice guy as Chaney's character. The supporting cast are all likewise excellent in their parts, but it is Atwill and Chaney who make this movie and who elevate it to a level that almost equals Universal Studio's spectacular horror films of the early 1930s.

"Mad Made Monster" is of the very best films from the studio's 1940s horror output, and it is well worth a look by anyone who loves classic horror and monster movies.

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