Showing posts with label Thirties. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thirties. Show all posts

Dec 7, 2012

Restless Airs Tonight on Sundance

The BBC/Sundance co-production of William Boyd's Restless announced last summer airs tonight in America on The Sundance ChannelCaptain America's Hayley Atwell (the best part of that lousy Prisoner remake, which she later disowned) and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery (seen briefly in Hanna) star alongside Michael Gambon (Page Eight), Charlotte Rampling (The Avengers episode "The Superlative Seven") and Rufus Sewell (The Tourist) in a WWII-era spy thriller based on a novel by future James Bond author William Boyd (Any Human Heart). (For the record, I'd happily back either Atwell or Dockery as future Bond Girls.) Boyd penned the screenplay, based on his own novel of the same name. (He also adapted his novel Any Human Heart in 2010; that miniseries also starred Atwell and featured Tobias Menzies as Ian Fleming.) Boyd was announced earlier this year as the next James Bond continuation novelist, so Bond fans eager for a taste of his spy writing might want to check out this miniseries.

In Restless, Dockery plays a woman in 1979 who learns that her mother (Rampling) has been living a double life and is really a former spy for the British Secret Service. In flashbacks to 1939 Paris, Atwell plays Rampling’s younger self who’s recruited into the service by and falls in love with Sewell’s spymaster. After a crucial mission collapses, she must go into hiding, but 30 years later wants to resurface and enlists her daughter to track down her former lover, now played by Gambon. Part 1 airs tonight, Friday, December 7, at 9PM on Sundance; Part 2 airs next Friday, December 14, at the same time. Watch the trailer below:

Mar 18, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Criterion Revisits Hitchcock's 39 Steps

I've been waiting for this ever since Criterion revisited their original release of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes nearly five years ago! This June, finally, they will revisit the master's other essential prewar spy movie, The 39 Steps, with new Blu-ray and DVD editions. At the very least, that one was in dire need of an artwork update, and indeed this new cover is far more stylish and in keeping with the company's current Lady Vanishes disc. But I'd never been entirely satisfied with the transfer on the old 39 Steps, either, and expect big improvements with this Blu-ray's new high-definition digital restoration. In addition to the new transfer, the Blu-ray sports a typically impressive array of new and old supplemental material (all of the features from the previous edition appear to be present and accounted for), including (per the Criterion website) an audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a 2000 British documentary covering the director's prewar career called Hitchcock: The Early Years, original footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview with Hitchcock, the complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, performed by Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, original production design drawings, excerpts from François Truffaut’s (deservedly) ubiquitous 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock, and a new "visual essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. I'm actually really looking forward to that one, as Leff's visual essay on The Lady Vanishes (a sort of combination featurette and select scene commentary) proved to be a far more substantial extra than the name would imply. In addition to all that bonus material on the disc, there will also be a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns. The 39 Steps hits Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion on June 26, retailing for $39.95 and $29.95 respectively. Don't be misled by any of the many public domain versions of this title that are floating around out there; this Criterion edition is definitely the one you want.

Mar 12, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Lassiter (1984)!

One of my favorite 80s movies and one of my favorites of the cat burglar-forced-to-spy subgenre, Lassiter is coming to DVD! On April 24. I figured the only way we'd ever see a Lassiter DVD at this point was on MOD, but this is an actual DVD from an obscure company that specializes in obscure movies that are particularly awesome: Hen's Tooth Video. No matter what else they did, I would be forever indebted to Hen's Tooth for their Region 1 release of my favorite Eurospy movie, Deadlier Than the Male. (If you don't own that and you're reading this blog, stop whatever you're doing, follow this link, and go buy it right now. Done? Okay, now we can continue.) The week before that, they're also releasing another great Tom Selleck period adventure from the same era (while he was trying to make up for missing out on Indiana Jones by grasping at anything like it), High Road to China. That one's not a spy movie, but it does have an excellent John Barry score. High Road to China will be available on both DVD and Blu-ray.

In Lassiter, Selleck plays the suave titular cat burglar, operating in 1930s London. When British and American Intelligence get wind of a major diamond shipment moving through the German embassy, the spooks force Lassiter to pull another job—for them, It Takes A Thief-style. As he plots the heist, he finds himself between two beautiful women: his sweet, long-suffering girlfriend, played by former Bond Girl Jane Seymour, and sexy femme fatale Lauren Hutton. Persuaders! composer Ken Thorne provides the jazz-heavy, period-appropriate soundtrack. One of my favorite moments to date toiling (fruitlessly, thus far) in the Hollywood salt mines of screenwriting came on a heist movie my partners and I were writing that had endured an excruciatingly lengthy development process, when one of the producers name-checked Lassiter on a conference call. I was so excited to discover that there was someone else in this industry for whom Lassiter was a touchstone (and reassured that despite the frustrations of the project, I was clearly working with the right person), and I hope that this DVD release makes it a touchstone to a whole new generation as well. It's a really fun movie, and for my money Selleck's best theatrical effort.

Feb 16, 2012

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

I never expected to see a Region 1 release of the 1989-90 ITV series Frederick Forsyth Presents, but thanks to Timeless Media Group, here it is! That awkwardly Photoshopped cover isn't representative of the six classy TV movies contained on 3 discs within. These movies are mostly based on novellas contained in Forsyth's book The Deceiver. Alan Howard (best known as the voice of the Ring in the Lord of the Rings movies) plays unorthodox spymaster Sam McCready, Forsyth's answer to George Smiley. McCready generally takes a backseat, however, to the people he's manipulating in each story. This formula enabled the producers to bring in big guest stars for each film, including Elizabeth Hurley, Lauren Bacall, Brian Dennehy, Beau Bridges, Chris Cooper, Phillip Michael Thomas, David Threlfall and Peter Egan. The ones I've seen are solid productions, and I'm not sure why this series isn't better known. It deserves a place beside other solid Forsyth adaptations like The Day of the Jackal (indeed, one of these stories concerns Carlos, the international terrorist the media dubbed "the Jackal" after Forsyth's book!), and especially the Pierce Brosnan and Michael Caine starrer The Fourth Protocol. (Fans of that film should definitely give this release a try.) This budget release, priced at just $14.98 (and even less on Amazon) will no doubt prove to be one of those nice little cheap gems for spy fans eager for more serious espionage dramas in the serious vein of le Carre. Since it's Valentine's Day, why not pick it up today for your spy-loving sweetheart?

You've probably seen, or at least heard of, last year's John Madden-directed, English-language version of The Debt starring Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain. Maybe you've even picked up the recent Blu-ray. But have you seen the original Israeli film on which that one was based? If not, now's your chance. American spy fans can now see the 2007 version (originally titled Ha-Hov) of this spy thriller about Mossad agents on the trail of a Nazi war criminal in Cold War Berlin, and the present-day ramifications of their mission, on DVD thanks to MPI. This version is in German and Hebrew with English subtitles. I wasn't crazy about the remake, but I've heard good things about the original and I'm curious to see how the compare. Retail is $24.98, but it's only $14.49 on Amazon right now.

Additionally, the Warner Archive unleashed a wave of MOD spy fare this week.

British Agent is Michael Curtiz's epic 1934 spy romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Leslie Howard is the titular British agent, and Kay Francis is a dedicated Communist who happens to love him... yet has orders to gather evidence against him that will surely lead to his death. Though this airs from time to time on TCM, I've never seen it. That cover, though, is pretty awesome, and makes me want to. British Agent is already available directly from the Warner Archive for $19.95, and available to pre-order from Amazon.

Forgotten funnymen Wheeler and Woolsey get up to 1930s-style antics in Diplomaniacs. The studio copy gives you some idea of exactly what those antics entail: "Whisked away by the oil-rich Oopadoop Indians, the pair are offered a million dollars by the chief of the tribe to represent them at the Geneva peace talks. What ensues is madcap hilarity on a steamship that goes in endless circles due to a drunken captain. The pair dodges assassination attempts and is spied on by the team of Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen and Puppenpuppen!" If that sounds up your alley, Diplomaniacs is available today from Warner Archive and for pre-order from Amazon.

Straight-edge Efram Zimblast, Jr. leads the chase in the deadly serious 1960s Quinn Martin show The FBI, and The Second Season is available this week from the Warner Archive, split into Part One and Part Two, available this week from Warner Archive and to pre-order from Amazon. Part One features Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves as a guest star, along with Octopussy villain Louis Jourdan, On Her Majesty's Secret Service villain Telly Savalas and Archer's mom, Jessica Walter. A fact-based series, The FBI drew story ideas directly from the Bureau's actual casefiles, and J. Edgar Hoover himself served as a creative consultant up until his death in 1972. Like Dragnet, it's all a bit dry, but unlike Dragnet, the show frequently deals with espionage, since that falls within the Bureau's purview. You can actually watch one of those espionage-themed episodes, "The Courrier," guest starring a young Gene Hackman, for free right now. Warner Archive is streaming the episode here through February 17th.

Aug 10, 2011

DVD Review: Code of the Secret Service (1939)

It turns out George H. W. Bush was not the only former spook on the Republican ticket in 1980 and 1984. Bush may have run the CIA, but his running mate Ronald Reagan was actually a field man… in a series of four Warner Bros. B-programmers made between 1939 and 1940. Long before working for the government for real, Reagan played Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service, a square-jawed agent who pursued spies, counterfeiters and other threats to national security in exploits supposedly “based upon material compiled by W.H. Moran, ex-chief of the U.S. Secret Service”—at least according to the credits. The first Brass Bancroft movie, Code of the Secret Service, actually offers all the elements of a classic spy movie… on a poverty row budget, and packed into 60 minutes! All you’d need to add is color and booze and it could pass itself as a Eurospy movie. In one of many sequences audiences would come to associate with the genre two decades later, Bancroft’s adventure begins when he meets his boss at HQ to receive his assignment. Brass is far too wholesome, however, to engage in any flirtation with the pretty secretary. That sort of behavior is reserved for the comic relief sidekick, Gabby (Eddie Foy, Jr.).

The mission, to take down a counterfeiting gang flooding the US with their phony currency from South of the Border, takes Brass and Gabby all the way across America, from Washington D.C. to a Southwest border town, as an animated line on an Indiana Jones-style map superimposed over an airplane traces their route. Like any good agent in decades to come, Brass hits up a nightclub for his first clue—a disreputable establishment across the border, in Mexico. There (still strictly following a formula that technically hasn’t even been established yet), he naturally gets into a fight. His contact is killed—and the bad guys frame Brass for the murder.  Soon the Mexican authorities are after him in force, but instead of running for the border, Brass escapes by heading deeper into Mexico.

Quickly fulfilling another spy movie expectation (one already firmly in place in 1939), Brass soon enough finds himself embroiled in intrigue on a train as he tries to follow one of the villains back to his secret hideout. After some lame Thirties and Forties comedy bits from the faux-Mexican train conductor fall flat, the bad guy spots Brass on his tail and tips off the police that he’s on the train. This leads to a pretty great stunt for this kind of micro-budget programmer: as the train stops on a bridge and the police drive him to the caboose in a car-by-car sweep, Brass makes a daring and thrilling escape by diving off the high bridge into the water far below! (It's achieved more through clever editing than actual stunt work, but I still found it impressive.) There, he hides underwater using a reed to breath (as James Bond would one day do in Dr. No) as the police pursue him through a swamp. 

Of course, Code of the Secret Service can’t expend the entirety of its brief running time prefiguring Sixties spy movies. After all, Forties spy actioners have their own set of clichés to deliver, every bit as predictable as those in the Eurospies. For instance, when Gabby presents Brass with a book, Spanish in 7 Days, you just know he’ll put it in his breast pocket and it will stop a bullet… which, indeed, it dutifully does! (Though it doesn’t keep him from getting captured.) What I didn’t see coming, however, is that when Gabby tries to find a way to get Brass out of jail, he instead manage to get himself arrested for indecent exposure. Yes, things get very silly very quickly.

Brass does manage to escape, of course, and quickly finds himself on the run again, now handcuffed to a beautiful and innocent woman, Elaine (Rosella Towne). Yep, someone’s been watching Hitchcock! The plot in fact follows The 39 Steps pretty closely from there on, complete with the two of them being hauled off in a car by fake police who are really working for the enemy. The enemy in question, however, can be identified by his peg-leg instead of his missing finger. See what they did there? 

Eventually, Brass gets into more of an Indiana Jones kind of outfit with a leather jacket and puffy breeches he could have stolen from Katherine Hepburn. In this suitable attire, he’s able engage in some fisticuffs, cause—and escape from—some explosions, and even participate in a pretty good car chase which ends in a big wreck stunt! (Surely this footage is reused from something else, but I can’t identify the source.) Belying its immediately pre-war genesis, the movie concludes with a patriotic quote akin to the propaganda at the end of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies of the era, spoken over a waving American flag. It’s a fitting finale for a spy movie starring a future US president! Code of the Secret Service is predictable, cheap and cheesy—but quite a lot of fun for fans of the low budget films of that period. I’m hopeful that all the Brass Bancroft movies prove as entertaining. All four are collected in the 2-disc Warner Archive MOD DVD-R collection Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service (currently on sale for just $14.98 on—45% off!), and the audio and video quality are impressive, as with nearly all the Archive titles I’ve seen. With this sort of movie, if the picture is soft, it's more likely because the shot's out of focus than anything to do with the transfer!

Apr 30, 2010

The 39 Steps Stageplay Opens In Los Angeles

When the comedic stage adaptation of the classic John Buchan spy novel and Alfred Hitchcock film opened on Broadway two years ago, I lamented being stuck in Los Angeles, far away from America's theater capital.  (In my frustration, I may have even used the term "smog-bubble" to describe a city I actually love. For this I now apologize.)  Well, now Angelenos can finally enjoy this production that's played London and New York and elsewhere to rave reviews.  "The 39 Steps" is running at LA's Ahmanson Theater downtown from April 27 to May 16, 2010. Nodding to the book, but apparently owing more to the first of several film adaptations of the material, The Hollywood Reporter noted when it opened on Broadway that "this particular adaptation is an almost scene-for-scene spoof/interpretation of Hitchcock's 1935 movie version that starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll." The procuction uses a cast of only four actors and minimal sets to, apparently, great effect. Tickets are available through the Ahmonson's website.

Oct 4, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set

Jason Whiton at Spy Vibe reports that UK company Eureka Entertainment's Masters of Cinema Series (the same people who put out the Judex/Nuits rouges Georges Franjou costumed adventurer set last year) will release a box set on October 19 containing all of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse films: The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set. Lang was long obsessed with spies, and spying was a recurring theme in his films throughout his entire career. The horrific figure of unstoppable criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse also cast his shadow over Lang's entire career. The director fashioned a two-part, five-hour silent epic around the archvillain in 1922 called Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. He revisited the character eleven years later in a talkie, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. And finally he reinvented the character for the Cold War era one more time in his final film, 1960's The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, an early entry in the Eurospy genre. The thousand eyes the title refers to are of course Mabuse's agents, who seem to be everywhere in Berlin and beyond, spying on everyone. No one is safe from Dr. Mabuse and his empire of fear. In the final film, spy mainstays Gert Frobe (Goldfinger), Peter Van Eyck (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) and Dawn Addams (The Saint, Danger Man and pretty much all the rest of the ITC stable) stand against the evil doctor. While 1000 Eyes was Lang's final film, it was not Mabuse's. Other directors took on the character, and the series picked up even more steam throughout the spy-crazy Sixties. But Lang's Mabuse films are unsurprisingly the best, and this set provides a fascinating glimpse at Lang's whole career through his films about this one character. For more information on the character, head over to Permission to Kill where David Foster has written extensively about many of the Dr. Mabuse films.

Masters of Cinema has also packed this release with special features, including newly translated English-language subtitles for each film, newly recorded audio commentaries on all three movies by film scholar and Fritz Lang expert David Kalat, three featurettes totalling an hour-and-a-half in length on the score of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, the creation of author Norbert Jacques' Mabuse character, and the motifs running throughout the works, a 2002 video interview with Wolfgang Preiss, the star of The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, an alternate ending to The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse taken from the French print of the film, and an optional English-language dub track for The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. On top of all that, there are also three lengthy booklets containing a new translation of Fritz Lang's 1924 lecture on "Sensation Culture," an essay by critic and scholar Michel Chion on the use of sound in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse; new writing on The 1000 Eyes Dr. Mabuse by critic David Cairns, extracts from period interviews with Fritz Lang, an abundance of production stills, illustrations, marketing materials and more. Whew! Sounds like the definitive release of these films.

The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set is available for pre-order from Find more information on the Masters of Cinema website.

Nov 25, 2008

Movie Review: Espionage Agent (1939)

In the days leading up to WWII, Joel McCrea made near back-to-back spy films with polar opposite political agendas. Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining action masterpiece Foreign Correspondent warned of the chaos brewing in Europe and made the clear case that it would be impossible for America and Americans to avoid being caught up in it, so the U.S. should make a stand soon and come to the aid of its overseas allies. (As a Brit working in Hollywood, Hitchcock himself had an obvious patriotic agenda.) Prior to that role, however, McCrea played an American diplomat in Espionage Agent, a movie that dared to vilify Hitler’s Germany at a time when studios preferred to play it safe with international politics, yet at the same time advocated America’s neutrality. "If America, lacking the protective laws it needs, is drawn into another war," one mouthpiece character declares, "it will be because of those human ostriches who keep their heads buried in the sand." While advocating isolationism, the movie recognizes its drawbacks. "Isolation is a political policy, and not a brick wall around the nation," comments another character. "And fancy pants guys [meaning spies] walk right through political policies."

Espionage Agent blames nefarious foreign spies and saboteurs for warmongering in America, ignoring all the other factors that led to U.S. involvement in the Second World War, but at the same time makes the sound case that the United States badly needs a counterintelligence agency of its own to root out those spies. That, the film’s creators naively believe, will be the end of it. As long as U.S. authorities can round up all the foreign agents operating within the country, America need have no more involvement with the war in Europe. So while it’s heart may have been in the right place, the movie’s politics have dated badly. But how does Espionage Agent fare as pure entertainment? Sadly not so well. Director Lloyd Bacon and the four credited writers had not yet cracked the genre the way Hitchcock had.

At a time when Hollywood films weren’t supposed to stir up trouble by specifically identifying the foreign powers behind the spies and saboteurs creeping all over movie screens, Espionage Agent boldly opens with headlines about German agents operating subversively on U.S. soil and Congress’s need to take action. They get away with this by hiding behind a title card that identifies these events as occurring in 1915, but the implication is clear that they’re happening again. Once we flash forward to the contemporary setting of 1939, there’s no more specific mention of Germany, though all the foreign agents speak with German accents and have names like Muller and come from a country that borders Switzerland with soldiers whose uniforms closely resemble those of the SS.

McCrea plays Barry Corvall, a U.S. diplomat in Algiers. He helps a throng of American travelers escape the revolution-rocked nation, including the beautiful Brenda Ballard (played by the equally beautiful Brenda Marshall). When he sees Brenda, it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, we’ve just seen her agreeing out of desperation to spy for the loathsome Herr Muller (Martin Kosleck) if only he’ll furnish her with an American passport so she can get home. Barry books Brenda passage on the same steamship he’s taking back to the States, and woos her throughout the voyage. Not wanting to drag him into her own unfortunate predicament, Brenda adamantly refuses his advances.

Back in America, Barry and his friend Lowell enroll in some sort of advanced diplomat school, and learn more about the dangers of foreign spies. This section plays out like the Top Gun of the diplomatic corps; it’s clearly designed to attract eager recruits for foreign service. Barry eventually completes his higher learning and gets posted to Paris. And he finally convinces Brenda to marry him. Of course, that’s when the snake Muller emerges from the shadows, reminding her of her debt of service to his organization. Here, the movie does something surprising. It doesn’t milk the drama of a wife coerced into spying on her husband. Instead, Brenda comes clean with Barry and tells him everything. He, in turn, reveals all this to his bosses in the State Department.

I don’t know if their response accurately belies the astonishing ignorance of the pre-war U.S. intelligence community, or merely the astonishing ignorance of Hollywood’s screenwriters at telling good spy stories. Either way, instead of using this newfound asset as a double agent to pass misinformation along to the Germans, the honchos at the State Department call Muller into their office and tell him exactly what they know, blowing their chances at running any sort of counterspy operation. Muller smiles and says it’s all true, but what can they do about it? He’s a foreign citizen, so under the current U.S. law they have no choice but to let him go. Way to go, State Department; way to accomplish nothing. Yes, that’s the movie’s point, but it makes for frustrating plot development.

So halfway through the movie, we’re robbed (twice) of what could have been the compelling espionage drama promised in the film’s title. Luckily, Corvall feels just as cheated as the audience, and vows to single-handedly bust up this spy ring. Of course Brenda won’t let him go it alone, so he reluctantly accepts her help. As a private citizen, he’ll fashion himself and Brenda into a two-person CIA. And so they head off together to take on all the espionage agents in Europe, trying to gather evidence of infiltration that will force Congress to act... somehow. This private mission leads to the good stuff we expect from Thirties spy movies, like secret codes, foreign embassies, listening to conversations through windows and–of course–crossing borders on trains. But still, Barry and Brenda are dogged by America’s general lack of preparedness to function as a superpower. When Barry tries to bluff that American agents are watching all the train stations, the head German (oops, I mean head "foreign") agent snidely gloats, "Ve know America has no counter-espionage service."

Things still manage to get exciting in a kind of third-rate way, and then wrap up very suddenly against the same conditions that end Foreign Correspondent, with the world on the verge of war. It’s not giving away too much about a movie of this era to say that Barry does something worthy of praise, but sadly America is in no position to offer it. "You helped forge the weapon the service so badly needed," says his former State Department superior. "And yet the service can’t show its gratitude for it." The age-old secret agent’s dilemma: there’s no public reward for secret service. Of course, the movie itself has managed to make its very public case for an American counterintelligence agency, so it’s undeniably successful to some degree, and of considerable interest to students of spy history. Yet its creators remain blissfully hopeful that such an organization will enable the country to maintain its isolationist outlook, and steer clear of the troubles in Europe.

Espionage Agent is a curious time capsule from that moment when Hollywood was first dabbling with the notion of a secret agent hero. Spies were still shadowy villains, aiming to do America harm, but what about a counterintelligence officer, protecting the country from such threats? Barry Corvall is still a private citizen, and a cinematic James Bond is still two decades away. Despite a few anomalies during WWII, the heroic counter agent wouldn’t emerge until the Cold War, but Espionage Agent is notable as an early experiment in that direction. It’s also worth seeing for solid performances from Joel McCrea and the truly stunning Brenda Marshall, whose career was sadly never as big as it should have been. But it’s far from top-shelf spy entertainment. For that, seek out McCrea’s next spy movie, Foreign Correspondent.

Feb 13, 2008

DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 4

"Startling international intrigue becomes the weirdest case in the annals of crime!" boasts the trailer when Charlie Chan takes on a prewar Nazi spy ring operating in Paris in 1939's Charlie Chan in City in Darkness (the final entry in Fox’s superb new Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 4). From then on (with the outbreak of WWII), pretty much all his cases had something to do with espionage. Eventually he’d even officially work for the U.S. Secret Service. But in City in Darkness, he’s still following his usual, well-established routine: on vacation in an exotic port of call (Paris), Chan becomes embroiled in a murder mystery and helps out his local law enforcement colleagues by solving their case. What’s extraordinary this time around, though, is the setting. Not merely the location, mind you, but the geopolitical setting.

As the stellar special features (produced, again, by John Cork’s Cloverland) go to great lengths to point out, this is a surprisingly political Chan film. I’d actually go so far as to say that the viewing experience isn’t complete with the movie itself; one must watch the featurettes to have it appropriately historically situated. Yes, we all know what was going on in Europe at that time. But I, for one, was unaware that the Hayes Code forbade Hollywood movies from "maligning" a nation, effectively preventing filmmakers from directly commenting on the rise of Nazism. Nor did I know that the script was adapted from a play written by recent European emigres who had just been through the events it portrays. The facts one learns from "The Making of City In Darkness" greatly enhance the viewing experience. (They also spoil the film, so be sure not to watch it beforehand!)

Charlie himself is considerably different from when we saw him last, in Fox’s Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 3; he’s now played by Sidney Toler, stepping in for the late Warner Oland. By City in Darkness, Toler has had three films to get used to the part, and he’s essentially made it his own. Unfortunately, he finds himself without his amiable comic-relief sidekick, Number 2 Son, and instead saddled with Harold Huber as a somewhat lacking substitute, the dim-witted, proto-Clouseau cop nephew of Charlie’s friend, the Prefect of Police. Huber, a reliable character actor who made appearances in various roles throughout the Chan series, isn’t bad, and some of his antics are amusing, but a little goes a long way. His best gag is one of the most surprising aspects of the film: every time planes are heard overhead, he runs off camera and comes rushing back in panic, loaded down with gas masks. It’s rather startling that the filmmakers were comfortable making jokes about this at a time when Paris–and the world–were gripped with fears of war and air raids! The real joke, of course, is slyer than the sight gag of seeing Huber weighed down by clumsy contraptions; it’s a comment on the ultimate futility of these hysteria-inducing "duck and cover" responses (to borrow an anachronistic term from the atom age). Which, frankly, isn’t the sort of joke one expects in a B-mystery programmer! Air raids, it bears mentioning, are also the reason that the titular city is bathed in darkness, as a precaution against German bombers and, as the Prefect fears, providing a field day for crooks.

The cloud of war (represented by the prevailing darkness) hangs over all the events of the movie, and lends a darker undercurrent to the typical comic mystery goings on of a Chan film. Similarly, there’s a more dangerous edge to City in Darkness than to some of the entries that preceded it most directly. Charlie Chan finds himself in real, mortal danger at the hands of future U.N.C.L.E. boss Leo G. Carroll, and it requires all of his ingenuity to escape. Reflecting the new espionage angle, all of the motives are murkier as well, even that of the murderer. There is more gray in a spy film than a typical mystery film, and Chan films especially tended to be clear-cut black and white. City in Darkness takes a while to get underway, but its historical setting–and particularly its finale, and Charlie’s final epitaph–make it compulsory viewing for fans of spy films of this era, particularly in conjunction with the short documentaries included on the disc.

Fox has really outdone themselves with the special features on their Charlie Chan collections, and they alone would make these sets appealing even if the films weren’t as enjoyable as they are. Each film in Vol. 4 is accompanied by several relevant featurettes that shed light on both the period in which the film was made and they key players involved in its making. Despite their smaller budget (which Cork manages to stretch impressively), they remind me of the incredible documentaries on the Young Indiana Jones DVDs, and serve a similar function. For me, movies like this are even more fun to watch when situated in the context of their times. In addition to the fascinating "Making of City in Darkness," this disc includes a featurette on the writing team of Helen Logan and Robert Ellis, reliable and prolific Fox scribes who churned out a wide array of Charlie Chan, "Jones Family" and Shirley Temple pictures before moving on to a number of "A" musicals. While it’s a little frustrating that the documentary raises more questions than it answers (implying, for instance, that his partnership with Logan may have been responsible for the dissolution of Ellis’ marriage to movie star Vera Reynolds), it’s fantastic that time and money are being devoted to long-forgotten writers at all!

Charlie Chan in Reno boasts equally arresting documentaries. The movie itself is a top-rate Chan mystery that particularly showcases relative newcomer Sen Yung as comic relief Number 2 Son. (Sen Yung joined the series with Toler, replacing Keye Luke who played Number 1 Son to Oland’s Chan.) Boasting a nighttime setpiece in a Western ghost town, the film (unsurprisingly, given its title) plays out against the sin-drenched backdrop of 1930s Reno. My own limited impressions of Reno were of a sort of poor man’s Vegas, but the movie–and the documentaries–provide another context. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Reno was apparently known as a "divorce resort." According to the featurette "Welcome to Reno," the state of Nevada legalized gambling, turned a blind eye to prostitution and made divorces easier in order to remain vital after the gold and the railroads dried up. Divorce was a lengthy–and sticky–process elsewhere, but in Reno it took just six weeks. Women would check into hotels, boarding houses, or "divorce ranches" in order to "take the Reno cure" and end the marriage that ailed them. Meanwhile the city attracted gigolos and Lotharios eager to swoop in on the new divorcees, making it a hotbed of lowlifes and the ideal setting for a Chan picture. One of the contributors to "Welcome to Reno," a dude ranch cowboy named William McGee also shares his memories of the time and place (including dishing on movie stars) for "Reno Memories." It’s a strange subject, and a very strange place to discover it, but I’m glad I did. An interview-based documentary with actress Kay Linaker rounds out the disc, but contains spoilers.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is also fascinating, as are its features. Widely considered one of the very best movies in the whole series, Treasure Island earns its reputation in spades. Set against the backdrop of the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, it contains more than its share of exotic flavor (travel by Pan Am clipper, parties with famous magicians) and exotic mysticism (seances, fortune-telling and ESP). Cesar Romero turns in a great performance as the Houdini-like magician/debunker Rhadini, who joins Chan in his attempt to discredit phony spiritualist/suspected blackmailer Dr. Zodiac. The imposing Dr. Zodiac is a masked, egomaniacal criminal who issues written warnings like, "Do not challenge the supernatural unless you are prepared to visit your ancestors." The featurette "Charlie Chan and the Zodiac" explores this and other startling connections between the Chan film and the Zodiac killings that terrorized San Francisco in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Some of them are tenuous, but it certainly makes enough of a case to believe that the infamous Zodiac killer could well have been influenced by Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. These spooky connections will be evident watching the film to anyone who’s seen David Fincher’s Zodiac, but the documentary provides further exploration with testimony from experts. The other major featurette on this disc looks at Treasure Island itself, the location of the World’s Fair. It’s another fascinating chunk of forgotten history, illustrated with interviews with people who went there as children and remarkable color footage of various movie stars and celebrities attending. The disc also offers a commentary track by Cork and Chan historian Ken Hanke which proves every bit as insightful and listenable as their previous commentaries.

The special features on the first disc, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, are also wonderful, focusing on the passing of the torch from Oland to Toler. Oland’s own final days (rife with drink and questionable mental stability) were the subject of a great documentary on the last set; "Reinventing Chan" picks up right where that left off, with the search for Oland’s replacement. "Sidney Toler: The Man Who Became Chan" focuses on Toler himself, and includes a nice montage of his character roles in other Fox films leading up to his most famous part. Like Oland, he came from a very prestigious stage background. Neither of these documentaries speak very favorably about Charlie Chan in Honolulu, though; in fact they were so negative that they dissuaded me from even watching it for now, though I’m sure I’ll go back to it eventually. Apparently Toler required time to grow into the role, but it didn’t take too long because he manages to make it his own in the other films in this collection.

There is only one spy movie in this batch, but Fox deserves a lot of credit for their attention to detail with the entire Chan line; they truly reward fans of genre cinema. The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 4 is another great addition to the series.

Nov 30, 2007

DVD Review: The Lady Vanishes

The satisfyingly thick liner notes to Criterion’s superb new DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes call it "not a slice of life, but a slice of cake." A commentary track and a "video essay" on Disc 2 then go a long way to refute that, and illuminate all of its subtext. So is it the pure, escapist entertainment that a "slice of cake" implies? Or is it something more, layered with hidden meaning and symbolism? Like most Hitchcock movies, it’s both. It’s a richly layered cake!

The Lady Vanishes was one of Hitchcock’s last English films before decamping to Hollywood, and a key bridge between his somewhat stagier early British productions and his glossy, high budget American ones, notable for their intricate setpieces. Unlike Foreign Correspondent or Saboteur, this isn’t one setpiece on top of another. Instead, most of the movie is a single setpiece (prefiguring more radical experiments like Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window): a suspenseful, romantic spy adventure entirely confined to a train.

Well, not entirely. First we have a lengthy set-up at an Alpine hotel (its exact whereabouts disguised by the gibberish language its staff speak, assembled from odds and ends of various European dialects) introducing us to all of the characters. This portion is played mostly for comedy, although (as commentator Bruce Eder points out), here we are also unknowingly introduced to the film’s MacGuffin.

Primary figures include wealthy socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her frivolous companions, elderly (and ever-so-proper) British nanny Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), playboy musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), adulterous couple Mr. and "Mrs." Todhunter, and the comic duo of cricket-obsessed "overgrown schoolboys" (to borrow a phrase from Eder) Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). All of these vacationers are trapped in the hotel overnight while they wait for snow from an avalanche to be cleared from the train tracks.

Amidst farcical hijinks about overbooked rooms and noisy neighbors and an It Happened One Night-style "meet-cute" between Iris and Gilbert, there is an incongruous and rather alarming murder, but we’re not remotely privy as to why. And as it goes unnoticed by all of the characters, it’s purely for the audience’s benefit, reminding us that we’re in Hitchcock territory (even if it doesn’t quite feel like it yet) and that there is something sinister lurking beneath all this frivolity. Kind of like prewar Europe, still partying on the eve of strife. You see? The cake has layers! And like all of the director’s work of that time, they’re not particularly subtle.

Everyone boards the train the next day, and it isn’t until the thirty minute mark (roughly a third of the way into the film) that the lady in question actually vanishes. That lady is the nanny, Miss Froy. After helping Iris onto the train following a nasty bump on the head, and treating her to tea in the dining car, Miss Froy disappears. Iris awakes to find her gone, their compartment filled with severe Teutonic faces. All of the occupants claim to have no recollection of any English woman. Neither does the porter, or the waiter who brewed Miss Froy’s unique tea. Against all evidence to the contrary, Iris insists on her friend’s existence, leading neurologist passenger Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) to diagnose her as suffering hallucinations following her head trauma. Gilbert agrees to help her in her search, on a lark at first, but then more seriously as clues start amassing that suggest she’s telling the truth.

The brilliance of this part of the movie is that Hitch and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder provide separate, plausible reasons for all of the characters we’ve gotten to know to lie about having seen the governess. The adulterous couple doesn’t want to risk exposure should there be an official inquiry. Charters and Caldicott don’t want to do anything that might delay the train for fear of missing a crucial cricket match back in England. Even a stage magician traveling with the apparatus for his trick "The Vanishing Lady" has his reasons for lying.

It’s difficult to discuss the final act of the film without revealing too much, but when one of the characters turns out to be a British agent, the film becomes a rare early example of the "hero spy" genre. Spy films of this era (including many of Hitchcock’s) tended to portray spies (usually German) as the enemy, fifth columnists thwarted by an everyman hero. While The Lady Vanishes adheres to that everyman (or, in this case, "everywoman") tradition for heroine Iris, the actual spy is a good guy too, and a very atypical sort of movie secret agent.

The train eventually ends up in unfriendly territory, surrounded by the Gestapo-like secret police of a foreign power. All the British characters are gathered in the dining car (for tea, of course!), and wind up rallying around their nation’s agent, shooting it out with the enemy to provide cover. This scene exemplifies the sort of propagandist themes Hitchcock would infuse most of his wartime films with: patriotism (in this case British, and not American as in Saboteur), international responsibility and anti-isolationism. The film’s pacifist (a term at the time more associated with cowardice and Nazi collaboration than with a legitimate peace movement) abandons his British brethren, exiting the car waving a white flag. For his efforts, he’s gunned down. Everyone else, men and women, rich and poor, risk everything to escape. Even the comic bumblers Charters and Caldicott prove themselves refreshingly handy with firearms. This final scene, confined not just to the train, but to a single car, represents a uniquely Hitchcockian blend of humor and suspense. The situation is a real nail-biter, but the "veddy English" stiff-upper-lip resignation of the characters about the whole bothersome affair lightens the mood.

Film historian Bruce Eder discusses the more obvious symbolism of this scene and more subtle touches throughout the film in his solid, highly informative, wall-to-wall commentary. The guy never even pauses to take a breath! He’s well-prepared, and he knows his subject, making for a good track. (Although he does occasionally inject some personal opinion not directly related to the film, particularly about current US foreign policy!) Throughout the commentary, Eder gives plentiful production tidbits, delivers a plausible origin for the term "MacGuffin" (generally attributed to Hitchcock himself), and makes an interesting comparison between the opening of this movie, in the hotel, and that of Rear Window. In The Lady Vanishes, we’re introduced to all the characters by briefly eavesdropping on snippets of each of their conversations; in Rear Window, we’re similarly introduced to Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors via his own voyeurism, but mostly sans sound. (It should be noted Hitchcock makes excellent use of sound and music throughout The Lady Vanishes, something various other directors coming from a silent film background were never able to master.)

Disc 2 includes a "video essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. This is basically another, shorter commentary, delivered over a thirty minute montage of scenes from the movie cut together with behind-the-scenes stills and posters. While it covers some of the same ground as the audio commentary (both men discuss the framing of a scene in which someone’s glass is poisoned in the dining car, for instance), it also offers a nice counterpoint to it. Leff and Eder disagree on certain interpretations, particularly with regards to the Charters and Caldicott characters. Leff believes that they’re supposed to be gay, while Eder refutes that and argues that they’re essentially overgrown schoolboys, representative of a certain class of British men of that period. Both make plausible cases for their points of view.

Of particular interest to spy fans, Leff takes a whack at defining the "spy picture," a task I’ve pretty much concluded is impossible after rethinking every definition I ever come up with. Leff calls it a "subgenre of the crime picture" and states that it came out of fiction. (Didn’t pretty much every film genre?) One phrase he uses to describe spy movies that I quite like is "just inside the borders of the possible." He postulates that Hitchcock’s sextet of British thrillers leading up to and including Lady all fall within the spy genre, but after further consideration concludes that they’re something different: "The Hitchcock picture." I think that both labels are apt, but I do agree that Hitchcock is essentially a genre unto himself. I’d love to pinpoint Foreign Correspondent as the genesis of the contemporary "action movie," but since it failed to spawn any serious and successful imitators on an equivalent scale (besides others by the director himself) until... probably Dr. No, I cannot identify it as the genesis of anything. One inescapable conclusion, however, is that Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely integral to the development of the spy genre. The video essay is both instructive and thought-provoking, and leaves a viewer with plenty to ponder.

This disc doesn't include any of the making-of documentaries we're used to from the Warner and Universal Hitchcock sets, and lacks the welcome comments from the ubiquitous Pat Hitchcock and Peter Bogdonovich, but, while I miss those, the alternative is frankly preferable. Those featurettes do start to run together a bit after you've watched so many of them, and they become somewhat repetitive. The "video essay" is less than a full-on documentary featurette, but really much more than the printed essays, or text features, that Criterion loves so much. A featurette might tell you about the making of the movie, but a video essay tries to interpret it for you, like a film school lecture. At least they offer a few different interpretations to choose from! And it does offer some behind-the-scenes info: it goes into detail about what Hitch himself added to the existing script, which was adapted from a novel.

We also get to hear from the auteur himself, in an eight-minute excerpt from Francois Truffaut’s "legendary 1962 audio interview" with Hitchcock. Even he discusses the much-mooted "poisoned drink" scene, and offers a few unique insights on the film while attempting to talk over a French translator.

By far the biggest extra on Disc 2, if not the most instantly captivating, is the inclusion of an entire other movie, Crook’s Tour. Crook’s Tour is a spin-off from The Lady Vanishes, featuring the popular Charters and Caldicott characters (who also appeared in Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich, again supporting Margaret Lockwood, and their own radio serial) in starring roles. Crook’s Tour is definitely not Hitchcock, and clearly much lower budget, but it’s a very generous inclusion nonetheless, and a film that’s never been available on DVD before. The transfer is also superb for a B picture of its vintage, if not up to the quality of the truly remarkable picture and sound on the main attraction.

The Criterion disc is rounded out by a comprehensive gallery of international poster art and behind the scenes stills (featuring young Hitchcock with lots of hair!) and two interesting and very readable essays (by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr) in the aforementioned booklet. All of this is wrapped up in a very handsome package. Not many DVD cases compel me to write about their beauty, but everything about this design–from the vintage poster artwork to the colors to the attractive spine to Criterion’s relatively new logo, which has finally grown on me–is so pleasing to the eye that it bears mention. It’s the kind of DVD that you’d be happy to add to your collection even if it didn’t contain such a wonderful movie just because it looks so good on the shelf! This is one of the best Hitchcock DVD releases to date, and a must-purchase for fans of the director.

Sep 11, 2007

DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 3

Unlike the previous volume, there are no spies per se to be found in any of the movies in Fox’s third collection of Charlie Chan films starring Warner Oland. But the series remains an undeniable prototype for the spy series to follow in later decades, and thus merits Double O Section coverage.

The notion of the "series spy," or even of the spy as hero, wouldn’t really come along until James Bond (or at least Hammer’s Dick Barton, Special Agent) and is a purely postwar phenomenon, cinematically speaking. In the 30s and 40s, series heroes tended to be detectives or, in the serials, masked avengers. But whereas the detectives of literature tended to stick to a single haunt (Marlowe had LA and Sam Spade San Francisco; Charlie Chan had Honolulu), their early cinematic counterparts quickly drifted farther afield. When you’re delivering a succession of B pictures that all basically offer variations on the same plot, it’s a lot more appealing to audiences (especially depression-era audiences seeking escapism from their own bleak, urban surroundings) if you change the location, and offer them some exotic scenery. Thus the Chan of the movies, while remaining a detective on the Honolulu police force, began to venture out around the world and append destinations like "In Paris," "In London," "In Shanghai," and "In Monte Carlo" to his name for a succession of successful programmers. An argument could certainly be made that these films led directly to the postwar secret agent hero, who had much better reason to travel abroad than a flatfoot, anyway.

Of course, the Chan crew didn’t actually travel the globe. A Charlie Chan movie typically begins with the credits appearing over establishing stock footage of the locale in question, then moves into studio sets and the occasional Southern California exterior dressed to look like wherever. But that, combined with an appropriate cast of accented "locals" (usually including a local police chief), is generally enough. One exception to the rule, however, is The Black Camel, which really was shot on location... in Hawaii. (Black Camel was only Oland’s second performance in the role, and the series was still young enough that Chan’s home turf was exotic enough in and of itself.)

The Black Camel finds the detective investigating the murder of an actress who was shooting a movie in Hawaii, and also that of an actor killed three years earlier in Los Angeles. (As Nancy Drew would sometimes speculate, there just might be a connection!) Bela Lugosi shows up (fresh off his success as Dracula) as a psychic, and Chan wastes no time in debunking his methods. Lugosi’s character, however, sees through Chan’s as well, making their initial confrontation a highlight of the film. Some of the supporting performances are definitely better than others, and there’s a major flaw in the solution if one puts too much thought into it, but this is certainly a fun way to pass seventy minutes. In fact, the location photography and impressive camera movements (atypical for the era), make the picture look more expensive than it no doubt was, and combine to make this one of the better entries in the series. (And probably the best from a purely visual standpoint.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Charlie Chan In Monte Carlo was Oland’s last completed Chan picture. The actor is certainly comfortable in the role, and a joy to watch. But the series has fallen, for better or worse, into a predictable formula by this point, and the direction is a lot more formulaic, too. Still, it’s a formula by which anyone who’s bought and enjoyed Fox’s previous volumes will no doubt be entertained, and the supporting cast is especially good this time out. Harold Huber, who plays a proto-Clouseau police chief (the sort of French caricature who actually exclaims, "Sacrebleu!"), deserves particular mention. Monte Carlo (as portrayed primarily by a casino interior) is always a favorite setting of mine, and Bond fans will probably get a kick out of the (admittedly few) gambling scenes. Maybe it was the stagy casino sets, but I was pleasantly reminded of the Barry Nelson Casino Royale while watching this.

Charlie Chan’s Secret brings the detective to San Francisco, where he unravels an "old, dark house mystery," a staple of 30s and 40s B movies, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. The house itself is a marvel of production design (which the commentators credit to the director, a former art director himself), with oddly-sized doors and crooked angles reminiscent of German expressionism. It’s also loaded with secret passages and hidden panels, and this is exactly the sort of movie that served as the model for classic Avengers episodes like "The Joker" and "The House That Jack Built." Chan debunks a seance by exposing some nifty trickery, and some of the ingenious killing methods also involve inspired gadgetry, making this entry especially appealing to spy fans.

Finally, Charlie Chan On Broadway proves a curious title, for the movie doesn’t involve actors or showgirls (of the big-time variety, anyway) or any of the things one associates with the Great White Way. Instead the tale revolves around newspapermen, gangsters and the goings on at a small nightclub that really could be anywhere. It's another one of those "missing diary" plots, but at least Keye Luke gets some time to shine as Chan's famous #1 Son, Lee. (The only other movie in this set that Luke appears in is Monte Carlo.)

As with all of Fox’s Cinema Classics, there is an abundance of quality bonus material on this set. (The only noticeable omission is original theatrical trailers, but I assume that’s because none survive.) These DVDs are produced by John Cork, and James Bond fans especially know that his association is generally a mark of quality on any DVD release. A half-hour featurette called "The World of Charlie Chan" lends credence to my argument for the Chan movies as a proto-spy series, and also serves as a great primer on the Oland cycle of Chans. A succession of experts in various fields pop up to contribute comments on the historical or sociological significance the locations and events dealt with in all the Oland Chan movies (not just the ones in this set). The best part concerns Charlie Chan At the Olympics, which appeared in the last volume and bursts at the seams with historical curiosities! (Chan flies to Germany on the Hindenberg mere months before its destruction, and stock footage shows brief glimpses of both Adolf Hitler and the man who put his "master race" in its place in ‘36, African-American Olympic great Jesse Owens.)

Equally fascinating is the documentary on Oland himself, "Charlie Chan is Missing." While it never delivers a satisfactory answer to the startling mystery it begins with (why did Oland excuse himself for a drink of water on set one day and then disappear?), it paints a portrait of a very complex and emotionally unbalanced actor. Did you know that Oland and his wife translated the first editions of their friend August Strindberg’s plays into English? Or that he became so enmeshed in his famous character that he would conduct interviews as Chan late in his life, referring to Warner Oland in the third person? These are only a few of the fascinating bits of information to be gleaned from this featurette.

I expected "Chanograms: The Aphorisms of Charlie Chan" to be nothing more than a compilation reel of Chan’s various pithy epithets ("Tongue often hang man quicker than rope!"), but it’s actually more than that, and begs reconsideration of a hallmark of the series which some dismiss as unfortunate, racist "Confucius say" humor at the expense of the Chinese. One film historian points out that these biting remarks are generally terrible insults disguised as polite wisdom, and enable Chan to establish his intellectual dominance over hapless, xenophobic Caucasians in a socially acceptable manner. Perhaps he’s over-thinking it, but the notion appeals to me. I must admit that I have trouble seeing why the series is considered so politically incorrect to begin with. True, the lead Asian character is played by a white man, but is that really so bad? The character is portrayed with great reverence and intelligence. Chan is no bumbler; he is smarter than everyone else and always outwits the white local police and suspects alike.

"Charlie Chan and the Rise of the Modern Detective" firmly establishes the character’s place in the pantheon of crime-fighters. Scholars of the genre compare the detective to Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Chan relies on deductive reasoning and forensic investigation to solve cases. They point out that this was in direct opposition to the prevailing trend in the genre at the time, that of the "hard boiled" detective, who relied more on his fists and his gun. Famed forensic investigator Dr. Henry Lee reveals that Chan’s methods are surprisingly accurate, and often prefigured actual investigative techniques that wouldn’t be perfected until much later in the 20th century. Lee, who, like Chan, is Chinese, also stars in the final featurette, "Dr. Henry Lee: The Modern Day Charlie Chan." Based on the title, I was expecting this to be a throw-away feature, drawing a tenuous comparison between the forensic expert and the fictional gumshoe with very broad strokes. It isn’t; it’s merely mis-titled. The documentary doesn’t present Lee as a "real life" Chan, but gives him the opportunity to discuss his own love for the Chan movies and their influence on his life and career, which is interesting and unexpected.

Cork and film historian/Chan expert Ken Hanke contribute informative commentaries to two of the titles; both are worthwhile listens, and information doesn’t overlap. Their track for The Black Camel offers a lot of insight on why it’s so visually superior to the others, giving most of the credit to director Hamilton MacFadden. The track for Charlie Chan’s Secret gives plenty of background on the character and the series, along with an interesting explanation for Chan’s famous broken English. "It isn’t pigeon English," Hanke asserts. (That’s something different, and very specific.) The delivery, he says, came about because Oland wanted it to seem that a non-native speaker was thinking, formulating his sentences in Chinese and then translating them (roughly) to English as he spoke. Cork also throws in a good nugget for Bond fans, revealing that the look for Oddjob was modeled on Oland’s Chan.

But the best special feature of all is the inclusion of two entire bonus movies... almost. One of them, Charlie Chan's Chance, has been lost (apparently destroyed in a fire), but it’s been re-created for DVD via production stills and script pages, read by actors. Bear in mind, the production is mounted with the budget of a DVD feature, and not of a radio play, so it’s not particularly impressive. But it admirably serves its purpose, giving us an idea of what that lost film might have been. The other bonus movie, Behind That Curtain, fortunately survives, but proves a bit disappointing. The 1929 talkie is the first appearance of Charlie Chan in a Fox movie, but the character, played by E.L. Park, barely appears! Still, the transfer on this film is impressive, despite Fox’s dire caveats that it was made from the best vault materials at their disposal, and the studio deserves major credit for including the film. It will prove a curiosity to most, but a treasure to dedicated followers of the series.

The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 3 is another impressive set in the Fox Cinema Classics line. Because of the way the movies are distributed between the boxes, you’re guaranteed some really good ones in any of the sets, but this latest one (concluding the Warner Oland cycle) definitely offers the best extras of the batch.

Jan 4, 2007

Review: The Devil In Amber

Mark Gatiss’s follow-up to his excellent spy debut The Vesuvius Club has been out for a while now in Britain, and just hit American stores this week. While The Vesuvius Club was a whole lot of fun, it ultimately lived up to its subtitle by being "A Bit of Fluff," just as it claimed. I loved every minute of reading it, but come the final chapter, I just wanted something more, and I wasn’t sure what. Gatiss did an excellent job of going through all the motions of a turn-of-the-century thriller, right down to the obligatory evil Chinaman, but that wasn’t quite enough. It was a dead-on pastiche, and I couldn’t fault it for that, but coming from one of the co-founders of The League of Gentlemen, I expected some sort of twist on the genre. (Well, some twist beyond the hero being bisexual, which I guess would have been quite a shock to Edwardian readers, but, coming from Gatiss, I pretty much expected.) In The Devil In Amber, Gatiss finds that missing ingredient and then some.

Gatiss once outlined his plan for a Lucifer Box trilogy (Box being the hero of Vesuvius and Amber). The first book was to be his take on Sherlock Holmes and Victorian/Edwardian adventure, the second was to be his 1920s/30s John Buchan-style thriller, and the third (forthcoming) to be Gatiss’s version of Ian Fleming, set in the early Fifties. Rather than doing a straightforward 39 Steps-style story, though, Gatiss has stepped outside the box, so to speak, and outside of the strict borders of the spy genre. Lucifer Box is very much still a secret agent "by appointment to His Majesty," but his struggle against would-be Facist dictator Olympus Mons in The Devil In Amber takes him into the realm of the supernatural. Mons’s objective? To summon the Devil himself, in the flesh. As, of course, a means to rule the world. (Note to would-be dictators: such plans rarely work out as you expect.)

Gatiss’s influences clearly extend beyond the obvious Doyle/Buchan/Fleming origins (all still very present) and into Hammer movies and their sources. (The League of Gentlemen also had homages aplenty to Hammer and Amicus, particularly in their Christmas Special.) Most obviously, he draws from two Christopher Lee movies: Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (directed by Terrence Fisher) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. (Anyone familiar with that movie will spot where the plot is heading long before Box does, but the fun is in the journey!) He mixes all these ingredients, plus more (‘30s pulp fiction and comic strips, Marjery Allingham and her ilk, and a healthy dose of P.G. Wodehouse), adds his own, unique authorial touches and comes out with an expert blend of recycled pop culture every bit as skillful as Quentin Tarantino’s artful melanges of ‘70s film genres. Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. It’s as if someone (well, Mark Gatiss, to be specific) took all the entertainment I love most (James Bond! Hammer! Bertie Wooster!) and mixed them together into The Damn-Near Perfect Novel.

Yes, I loved this book that much. The Devil In Amber was just about the most pure enjoyment I’ve gotten out of any book in a long time. Even as I raced through the pages, I didn’t want it to end. And now I can’t wait for the third volume, presumably due late this year.

The Devil In Amber is set some time after The Vesuvius Club, although once again Gatiss makes it hard to pin down an exact year. Lucifer Box is older, and constantly feeling his age (especially with a hotshot younger agent biting at his heels), but he’s still just as full of himself as ever. As a narrator, he never misses an opportunity to inform us of just how handsome or... generally great... he is. And he’s still just as amoral, too. He’s a cad, through and through, and impossible to dislike for it. He’s like the polar opposite of Adam Adamant (of whom Gatiss makes no secret of his admiration, popping up all over the DVD’s special features!) While Adamant represents all the virtues of the perfect Edwardian gentleman, Box is all the sin and vice of that era wrapped up in a devilish smile.

The humor in The Devil In Amber, like Vesuvius, comes mainly in the narration, and in the organically funny predicaments Box finds himself in over the course of his adventure, amidst all of his near-death escapes. Despite what you might expect from a TV comedian, these books aren’t parodies, but pure pastiche. They are stright-up adventure stories, with humor. Like his fellow veterans of British comedy, Charlie Higson and Hugh Laurie, as an author Mark Gatiss takes his spy/adventure stories very seriously.

If you’re a spy fan, do not pass up this book because it draws outside the lines of the genre. It’s still a spy novel, albeit one with a Brimstone threat instead of a nuclear one. There’s intrigue aplenty within Box’s agency, and within an embryonic American counterpart agency as well. The addition of the supernatural Macguffin gives it the feel of an Indiana Jones movie (always a good thing, if you ask me), and I would absolutely LOVE to see this book filmed. Unfortunately, given the fact that the hero is as apt to jump into bed with a man as a woman, that’s probably unlikely to happen in Hollywood. Box’s bisexuality is really not nearly as central to the story as it was in The Vesuvius Club, but I doubt Gatiss would allow a studio to excise it entirely. So I can’t imagine a movie coming any time soon, which is a shame. In the mean time, I certainly hope there’s a graphic novel adaptation once again, as there was for The Vesuvius Club. (Like that book, the British edition of Amber features occasional full-page illustrations, complete with dialogue captions. It’s a different artist, with a style more appropriate to the 1930s.)

I can’t recommend this book enough.

Dec 13, 2006

Mr. Moto Returns

According to DVDActive, Fox Home Entertainment will release Volume 2 of their Mr. Moto collection on February 13. Mr. Moto, like Charlie Chan, is an Asian (Japanese this time) hero played by a white guy (the incomparable Peter Lorre), in a series of 1930s B mysteries. Unlike Chan (and based on the few movies in the series that I’ve seen), Moto isn’t an offensive caricature (other than the whole "played by a white guy" thing), but a highly competent, martial arts-trained man of action. Also unlike Chan, Moto is more of an adventurer than a detective, and his adventures are often borderline spy thrillers. But what really justifies this news item on a spy blog is that this collection also includes the 1965 Return of Mr. Moto, starring Henry Silva, in which Moto was re-conceived for the Bond Age. Once again (as with the barely tolerable but still-great-to-finally-have Flint TV movie) Fox has included an obscure spy curiosity that otherwise would have remained unseen as a bonus feature with a box set.