The first face of the Falcon: George Sanders.
I have a real soft spot for the "B" movie mystery series pumped out by the studios in the 1930s and '40s. They were often developed from established literary properties, like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Sherlock Holmes, etc., though frequently taken in a far different direction once adapted to the screen. Unlike those far more famous characters, the Falcon was pretty much hot off the press at the time. Created by Michael Arlen, the Falcon made his debut in short story form, in "The Gay Falcon," published in Town and Country magazine in 1940. RKO Studios quickly brought the character to the screen in the person of snidely suave, British George Sanders, fresh from The Saint series. Indeed, the first three Falcon films made with Sanders - The Gay Falcon, A Date with the Falcon (both 1941) and the Farewell, My Lovely riff The Falcon Takes Over (1942) - were basically Saint movies in all but name, with Sanders' Gay Lawrence a sort of gentleman adventurer (ala Simon Templar), always quick to step in to assist a lady in distress.
The typically indolent Sanders quickly grew bored with B movie work and handed the reins over to his older, lesser-known brother Tom Conway, as Gay Lawrence's brother, Tom, beginning with (appropriately enough) The Falcon's Brother (1942). This is a more action-packed entry than usual, and it's a real treat to see both real-life brothers briefly working together on screen. Conway, not in Sanders caliber as an actor, nonetheless proved a very genial presence, and in many ways was much better suited to the part of the Falcon, quickly making it his own. Conway lacked Sanders' barely-concealed contempt and smug sneer, but seemed just as cultured and suave. He brought a nice balance of smooth, worldly charm, aloof insouciance and leering sophistication to the rest of the nine Falcon films he would go on to star in over the next four years.
The Conway Falcon films are much of a piece, all spry, fun little mysteries with plenty of comedy, and graced with an impressive array of beautiful starlets as miscellaneous femme fatales and romantic interests for our hero. Two of the more unusual entries in the series are The Falcon and the Co-Eds and The Falcon Out West, both directed by William Clemens with the sort of polish and ease that seemed second nature to those who populated the old Hollywood studio system.
Inspector Donovan (Cliff Clark) and Detectives Gates (Edward Gargan), always two steps behind the Falcon.
Wherever the Falcon goes, there are no shortage of lovely ladies in trouble.
More moody and atmospheric than the series' norm, The Falcon and the Co-Eds mixes a pinch of Daphne Du Maurier-esque melodrama into the formula, as Lawrence finds himself posing as an insurance investigator looking into the suspicious death of a popular male teacher at the all-girls Bluecliff Academy. The local coroner's verdict was death by suicide, but the Falcon soon susses out that the man was deliberately poisoned. Several members of the staff at the school, and even a few students, find themselves on the suspect list, including the sultry, hard-boiled Ms. Gaines (Jean Brooks); her sometime paramour, Dr. Anatole Graelich (George Givot), a psychologist with a shady past; Marguerita (Rita Corday), a troubled young student who claims clairvoyance; the flighty Mary Phoebus (Isabel Jewell); and the school's headmistress, Miss Keyes (Barbara Brown), who seems intent on covering up any trace of scandal that might damage the Academy's reputation. The Falcon follows his usual M.O., poking around looking for clues and motives, looking suave and bemused whilst flirting with any attractive woman who crosses his path (though he's fairly decorous with the adoring throng of schoolgirls who trail after him) and having fun one-upping homicide cops (and series' regulars) Inspector Donovan (Cliff Clark) and Detective Bates (Edward Gargan).
On the night of a benefit performance by the school's drama and music club, another murder occurs, this time implicating Marguerita. Eventually, and with the help of three precocious little daughters of one of the school's patrons, nicknamed the "Ughs", Lawrence gets to the bottom of the case. The Falcon and the Co-Eds benefits from its wind-swept, seaside location and the customary interest inherent in any murder mystery set in academic surroundings. There's still plenty of cute comedy moments throughout, such as when Donovan and Bates chase a suspect into the girls' dormitory and get angrily tossed out on their ear by the elderly den mothers ("The very idea! Two grown men frightening young girls! Aren't you ashamed of yourselves?" Gates: "We didn't do nuthin', lady. We just walked through a door. We're police officers!") The supporting cast is good value, including Amelita Ward and Patti Brill as older students making goo-goo eyes at the Falcon, as well as familiar faces Olin Howland (as the Bluecliff driver) and Ian Wolfe (as a duplicitous undertaker).
The Falcon confronts Ms. Gaines (Jean Brooks).
The "Ugh" sisters assist the Falcon with his inquiries.
The neurotic Marguerita (Rita Corday)
The next film, The Falcon Out West, opens with a seemingly-impossible murder in a crowded nightclub. Millionaire rancher and businessman Tex Irwin (Lyle Talbot) is dancing with his fiancee, Vanessa Drake (Carol Gallagher), when he suddenly keels over, dead from an apparent rattlesnake bite. The Falcon happens to be on the scene, summoned there by Tex's jealous ex-wife (Joan Barclay), and quickly takes over the crime scene, much to the chagrin of his rivals at the Homicide department, Inspector Donovan and Detective Gates.
Suspicion centers on Vanessa, a former dancer and fashion model considered a gold digger by several of Tex's cronies. Tex's attorney, Steven Hayden (Donald Douglas), steps in to represent her, but it isn't long before Vanessa skips town and heads out to Irwin's ranch, purportedly left to her in the victim's will. The Falcon swiftly follows and surprises her in her railway carriage, where the two have a brief powwow and Lawrence agrees to help her, if he can. Donovan and Gates, along with lawyer Hayden, are there to meet them when they arrive, and all agree to head to the Irwin ranch to get to the bottom of the affair. After an amusing interlude with a runaway stagecoach (after Ed Gargan's big bear of a detective knocks the driver off the coach and spooks the horses), the Falcon meets super cute and capable cowgirl, Marion Colby (Barbara Hale, a good dozen years before becoming famous as Della Street on Perry Mason). Marion is the daughter of the murder victim's partner, David Colby (Minor Watson), who notoriously squabbled with Irwin over how to run their cattle empire. Other suspects include ranch foreman Dusty (Lee Trent) and the widow, Mrs. Irwin, who is soon ensconced in her old home, down the hall from interloper Vanessa.
A young Barbara Hale, a.k.a. Della Street on TV's PERRY MASON
Murder victim Tex (Lyle Talbot) with trophy fiancee Vanessa (Carole Gallagher)
Minor Watson (right)
The Falcon saunters between the various suspects, suspicious of everyone but clearly enjoying the attentions of the two gorgeous ladies in the case. It's a kick seeing the oh-so-urbane Conway out on the ranch, dressed down in his cowboy duds and riding horses like a pro, dodging bullets and dismissing death threats (an old Indian scalp impaled with a knife on his bedroom door) with equal aplomb. It's also fun having the irascible Inspector Donovan and the constantly-eating Gates along for the ride; Clark and Gargan are old pros and both possess wonderfully craggy, expressive faces. Carole Gallagher only had a brief career but makes the most of her lead role here - she's utterly gorgeous and looks fab in both evening gowns and riding gear. (Gallagher can also be seen in an unbilled part in The Falcon and the Co-Eds, as the perpetually fainting Elsie). Barbara Hale is all fresh-faced, girl-next-door natural beauty, and is equally adorable. (In fact, watching the series as a whole, it becomes obvious that Conway's tenure as the Falcon saw the caliber of female pulchritude on display rise considerably.)
Conway went on to star as the Falcon in an additional five entries (The Falcon in Mexico, The Falcon in Hollywood, The Falcon in San Francisco, The Falcon's Alibi and The Falcon's Adventure) before calling it quits in 1946. In between stints as the Falcon, he found time to star in three Val Lewton horror classics, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim. Conway seemed content to toil away in the B movie realm for most of his career, with the occasional time out for a part in a bigger picture, such as Prince Valiant or as vocal talent for Disney, as the narrator in Peter Pan and the noble collie in 101 Dalmatians. He gradually shifted over to work on various television programs, including headlining his own series in the early 50s, Mark Saber. Troubled by alcoholism in his later years, Conway succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver in 1967, at age 62. While he might never have achieved A-list star status, Conway remains a pleasant screen presence, and, for me, the definitive Falcon.
All in all, the Falcon films are a load of fun, pacy, packed with deft supporting performances, humor both sly and broad, and surprisingly engaging mystery plots. They all run just a little over an hour and cram a lot of incident and entertainment into their spare running times...no mean achievement for any movie, really.
DVD Note: All 13 films are available on two MOD sets from the Warner Archive Collection. Though there are occasional speckles and dirt, the transfers are mostly sparkling, and though I still can't fully get behind DVD-R product being sold at pressed DVD prices, it's great to have this nifty little series of programmer mysteries available for collecting.
A splendid example of Hammer Films operating at the height of their powers, The Devil Rides Out - released as The Devil's Bride in the U.S. to avoid being confused for a western - is pure class all the way. Elegantly directed by Terence Fisher, it features a fine script by ace horror scribe Richard Matheson (based on the somewhat forgotten but once famous novel by Dennis Wheatley), and stars one of the horror genre's biggest stars, Christopher Lee, in a role he has long claimed as a personal favorite. The Devil Rides Out wasn't a big hit at the box office and isn't nearly as well known as it should be, but it regularly appears near the top of most fan polls of Hammer's best movies. It's certainly an unusual sort of film compared to the studio's typical Gothic horror output, set as it is in the late 1920s world of art deco and English country estates, and revolving around black magic amidst a group of decadent Satanists. It's also unusual for giving the imposing Lee, so often typecast as villains (to memorable effect, it must be said), a chance to doff his Dracula cape and fangs and fight on the side of the angels for a change.
The films opens with a bang and scarcely pauses for breath as it hurtles headlong through its story. Once every year, veterans of the Great War and ex-members of the Lafayette Escadrille, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau (Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) meet up with Simon (Patrick Mower), the son of their dead wartime friend, for a celebratory dinner. No sooner has Rex landed his biplane upon the green swards of southern England and joined de Richleau in his expensive roadster than he finds out that this time, Simon has cancelled their heretofore unbreakable tradition for mysterious reasons. De Richleau and Rex decide to pay an impromptu call on Simon at the country estate he's recently had built for him outside London. Upon their arrival, the pair discover that an odd sort of party appears to be in progress. Simon gives them a halfheartedly warm welcome but is obviously nervous about their presence, and it doesn't take long for the Duc to suss out what's really going on - Simon's got himself mixed up with a bunch of Satan worshippers, led by the suavely sinister Mocata (Charles Gray). For his part, the stalwart but skeptical Rex finds himself entranced by another party guest, an otherworldly Continental beauty known as Tanith (Nike Arrighi).
Those who feel that the modern horror genre has become glutted with "torture porn" Saw knock-offs, home invasion "thrill killer" gorefests and miscellaneous, misbegotten remakes of older classics, have had reason to cheer up of late. Recent hits like The Conjuring are tapping in to that narrow but rich vein of more restrained, subtle terror that some might deem old-fashioned (and the rest of us, classy.). A few enterprising filmmakers, generally funded by smaller, independent production companies, are coming out with films made in this classical style, with horrors more implied than overt, constructed with a bit of that old school intelligence and grace. One of these is The Awakening, a refreshingly traditional British ghost story of the type they rarely make anymore. Reminiscent of such wonderfully eerie films like The Innocents, The Haunting (the Robert Wise version, natch), Legend of Hell House and The Changeling, The Awakening makes for fine seasonal viewing.
Set in 1921, when the extreme losses suffered during the First World War were still keenly felt, The Awakening centers around occult expert and spiritualist hoax debunker Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), who's gained some notoriety from a book she's published about her experiences dealing with supposedly supernatural phenomena. The movie opens with Florence attending a seance and swiftly exposing it, and the medium in charge, as frauds...to the gratitude of the police but the hostility of a bereaved couple whose hopes she's shattered. Worn out by her investigations and overwork, Florence returns to the London home she shares with her parents, reflecting on her own deep personal loss, of a fiancee pilot shot down in the war, when she's visited by Robert Mallory (a brooding and very effective Dominic West), who teaches at a boys' boarding school in Rookford, Cumbria. Mallory tells a chilling tale of a recent death of a young boy at the school, and shows Florence several school photos depicting the ghostly figure of a child, its face obscured.
The third out of four films Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made for Universal in 1941, Hold That Ghost is the duo's first foray into spooky territory, and finds the former vaudevillians in fine fettle, pretty much at the height of their physical and comedic powers. Alas, it also features that bane of the 30s and 40s comedy film - unnecessary musical numbers. The 86 minute film wastes nearly 10 minutes of that screentime by bookending performances by annoying "talk-singing" bandleader Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters. The sisters are terrific, but seem shoehorned in, mainly because they previously featured in A & C's first film, Buck Privates, and that was such a smash that the studio apparently figured it was best to keep to the same formula. Luckily the songs are pretty painless and it isn't long before the movie proper kicks into gear.
Per usual in these early Abbott and Costello movies, the plot is mostly just a bit of nonsense upon which to hang several of the boys' finely-honed routines, patented schtick and slapstick business. The movie opens with Chuck Murray (Abbott) and Ferdinand "Ferdy" Jones (Costello) trying to make a go of it as fill-in waiters at a posh restaurant and nightclub. Needless to say, things don't go so well, as Ferdy makes one cock-up after another, under the baleful eye of a snooty maitre-d' (Mischa Auer). An example of the quick, witty dialogue woven throughout the movie occurs in this early exchange between Ferdy and his first customers: an attractive young gold digger and her grouchy sugar daddy:
Ferdy: Good evening, folks. Want to start off with some soup?"
Old man: I don't like soup.
Ferdy: Gimme a reason.
Young woman (cooing in a little girl voice):
I don't have to give you a reason, other than I don't want any soup.
Well, maybe the young lady'd like to have some soup.
She doesn't like soup either.
It's good soup.
I don't care how good it is, we don't want any soup!
Somebody's gotta eat the soup!
Well, feed it to the chef.
The chef's all souped up now.
Daddy, I think I will have some soup.
You'll do nothing of the kind.
After all, don't talk back to your father.
I'm not her father!
Well, why don't you let the young lady have some soup, then? Why don't you let her?
All right, give her some soup, give me some soup...give us both some soup!
I'm sorry, but we ran outta soup.
"Of the 19 men and women who have set foot upon the planet Mars, six will return. There's no longer a question of murder but of an alien, an elemental life force, a planet so cruel, so hostile, that Man may find it necessary to bypass it in his endeavor to explore and understand the universe. Another name for Mars is Death."
It's that time of year again. October has started and as usual, my movie viewing tastes run to blood-curdling tales of terror, Gothic horror and rampaging monsters. I decided to kick off Halloween 2013 with an old fifties sci-fi flick, the splendidly-titled It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Far from the cream of the 50s monster movie crop, it's still a pretty fun watch and at 69 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome.
The movie has a terrific premise: Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the commander and sole survivor of an initial expedition to Mars. When a second, rescue expedition arrives, they refuse to believe his story of some strange creature that attacked and killed the rest of his crew, especially when the only evidence they find is the skull of one of the missing men with a bullet-hole in it. The leader of the second ship, Col. Van Heusen (Kim Spalding), puts Carruthers under arrest in anticipation of a court martial and sets his ship on a return course to Earth.
Carruthers is allowed to roam free on the ship, the Challenge 142, as long as he's always accompanied by one of the other crewmen to keep an eye on him. Heusen is convinced that he can make Carruthers crack and refute his crazy monster story. Only ship's science officer (and Heusen's girlfriend) Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith) proves somewhat sympathetic to the very sane-seeming Carruthers. Of course, Carruthers' story is borne out when the crew discover that they are not alone on the ship. Some thing has managed to get aboard, and soon begins to run amok, picking off crew members one at a time...
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Kim Spalding and Marshall Thompson
Back into the Malaysian jungles we go again for Cecil B. DeMille's early survival pic, Four Frightened People. Released just under the wire before the studios started fully enforcing the Hays Code in 1934, the movie retains a few spicy Pre-Code moments, even in its edited-down theatrical release form (the studio hacked it down from 95 minutes to 78, most of the cuts seemingly not eliminating juicy or saucy material, but mostly unnecessary backstory for the four main characters.) The film starts out like gangbusters, full of lots of witty banter and some fun character interactions, but becomes increasingly ridiculous and melodramatic the more it goes on.
The four people in the title are Claudette Colbert, as Judy, a mousy spinster of a schoolteacher no one takes seriously - at least at first, until she loses her glasses and goes all nature girl sexpot later in the film; the refined Herbert Marshall, believably snarky if hard to buy as a downtrodden rubber chemist and henpecked corporate schlub named Ainger; Mary Boland as Mrs. Marsdick, a cheerful (and surprisingly tough and resilient) society grand dame and wife of a British official, on a mission to educate the East about the dangers of overpopulation; and William Gargan as a brassy, boorish newspaper reporter named Corder.
The movie opens with our protagonists sneaking off ship to escape an outbreak of bubonic plague on their steamer. No sooner do they arrive on shore in the wilds of Malaya (once again, Hawaii acts as a substitute) then they find themselves tramping through the jungle to get to the port on the other side of the peninsula, led by an amiable native guide, Montague (Leo Carillo), who thinks of himself as a "white man" (fittingly, as he's played by one) and wears a necktie over his bare, barrel chest.
The "Great White Hunter" subgenre was on the wane by the early-to-mid 1960s, and Rampage was part of that last gasp, trying to bridge the old-fashioned jungle adventure yarn with more modern sensibilities about the appropriateness of big game hunting and sexual politics amongst the decadent European jet set. In a reverse twist on Mogambo (1953), here it's one woman who finds herself torn between two men, but unlike the earlier John Ford film, the romantic triangle this time out is far less interesting. Rampage does have several things in its favor, however, including some great scenery (Hawaii standing in for Malaysia), a nifty title tune and memorable score courtesy of Elmer Bernstein, a couple of nice, tense stand-offs between man and beast, the alluring presence of Elsa Martinelli and one of the last appearances by the one-and-only Sabu.
Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Stanton, commissioned by a German zoo to head to Malaysia and capture two tigers and, especially, the elusive "Enchantress," a local legend purported to be a combination of a leopard and a tiger. Zoo manager Schelling (Emile Genest) has also hired aging big game hunter Otto Abbot (Jack Hawkins) to accompany Stanton. Otto has experience in the Malay territory and knows the local tribal dialect; he also has a stunning young mistress, Anna (Elsa Martinelli), who, it's rather salaciously implied, he took under his wing when he found her wandering alone as a war orphan at age 14. Harry gets one good look at Anna (and she him) and the game is on (you can practically see Mitchum's nostrils flare). Since Anna is Otto's "general staff," she'll be going along on the expedition. Otto is amused by the sparks flying between the two, as well as Stanton's preference for catching animals alive rather than killing them. The dichotomy in their personal philosophies is summed up in an early exchange, in Otto's vast trophy room:
It can't be too easy, pulling the trigger on an elephant. I mean, they seem to come from another age. It's a shame they couldn't stick around to decorate this age.
The trapper speaks.
I admit it.
My friend, a charging elephant has one idea only - to remove the hunter from this age, and preferably by trampling him to death...just as that panther there would have loved to have torn me into little pieces. I was after his mate. He didn't approve of that at all. He was quite right, you know. Every animal is entitled to kill in order to keep what belongs to him.
The luminous Carole Lombard
"I've lived by a man's code designed to fit a man's world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick." ~ Carole Lombard
"Marvelous girl. Crazy as a bedbug." ~ Howard Hawks
“With her, it was like music, it was completely natural.” ~ Clark Gable
Carole Lombard was not only one of the great beauties of Hollywood's Golden Age, but a top class comic actress. A wonderful combination of glamor, wit, brains and beauty, she was blonde dynamite in a petite 5' 2" package. Tragically killed in a plane crash at the age of 34, she might have left this world too early, but, by all accounts, she packed a whole lot of living in that brief span, and managed to star in a slew of films, too - several of them comic gems. In her filmography, 1936 stands out as a banner year, featuring one sizzling screwball (Love Before Breakfast), one fun, oddball comedy/mystery (The Princess Comes Across) and one out-and-out masterpiece (My Man Godfrey). In each of these, Lombard shows her impressive comic range, expert timing and facility with rapid-fire dialogue, and an ability to inhabit varied types of characters. She also displays terrific chemistry with her three leading men, suave fellows all: respectively, Preston Foster, Fred MacMurray and ex-husband Willlam Powell.
Richard Johnson stars as an updated Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond.
Elke Sommer and Sylvia Koscina get busy proving they are DEADLIER THAN THE MALE.
Made in the heyday of the 60s spy craze, Deadlier Than the Male takes H. C. McNeile's hero Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond and gives him a swinging, secret agent spin. Under the pen name "Sapper," McNeile wrote ten Bulldog Drummond novels from 1920 until his death in 1937, when his friend Gerard Fairlie took over the series and wrote seven more. The character proved very popular in film as well print, portrayed by actors such as Ronald Colman, Ralph Richardson, John Howard, Tom Conway and Walter Pidgeon, among others. After a 15-year absence from theaters, Deadlier Than the Male resurrected the old-school Drummond in the person of slim, saturnine and dry-witted Richard Johnson. Pretty much all that remains of McNeile's original character is cosmetic: he's still an upper-class Brit bachelor who fights crime and his nation's enemies. The rest is all knock-off 007, but as James Bond wannabes go, this is one of the better ones.
The title is taken from the Rudyard Kipling poem, "The Female of the Species" (also the title of the 5th Drummond novel), and the film lives up to its title by presenting two of the more glamorous and gleefully sadistic female assassins to strut across the screen.
The film opens on board oil executive Keller's private jet, as gorgeous blonde Irma Eckman (Elke Sommer), posing as a stewardess, calmly lights an explosive cigar for him, strips down to a skimpy white wetsuit, dons a parachute and dives out of the plane before it, and all the other staff on board, are blown to smithereens. Splashing down in the sea, Irma is picked up by a motorboat driven by her equally stunning cohort, Penelope (Sylvia Koscina), and the two zoom cheerfully away, as the sub-Bondian main title tune (sung by pop group The Walker Brothers) croons on.
Just a heads-up to let readers know that I've just posted my contribution - all about the wonderful road-trip drama Route 66 - to the Me-TV Summer of Classic TV Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic TV Blog Association. Please mosey your way over here to my TV Reviews page (The Small Screen, also accessible from the menu at the top of this page), and don't forget to check out the other entries at the above link.