The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Later this week, this blog turns four years. With this week’s post, I therefore take you back to where it all began: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in 1946.

That first film I wrote about was Terror by Night, arguably the best of the many Sherlock Holmes films available at the Internet Archive. Later that same year, Rathbone along with Nigel Bruce were to make their last screen appearances as the famous detective and his sidekick. While not quite as good as the earlier film, Dressed to Kill is not a bad pick if you like old-school mysteries.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill begins with two preludes. First is a scene from a prison, then one from an auction hall. Both involve music boxes, and this is of course no coincidence. Later, we find ourselves on home turf, as far as Holmes mysteries go. Holmes and Watson sit in the 221 B Baker Street apartment, the one playing the violin, the other musing over some old cases that have recently seen print. Watson’s old pal “Stinky” calls for a visit, and of course he brings a somewhat intriguing mystery. A mystery with a music box. Well, who would have imagined?

In an attack of lacking imagination, the producer and writer here re-used the plot of the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, which had already been filmed with Rathbone two years earlier as The Pearl of Death. But there is a twist. The music boxes that are featured in place of the original’s Napoleon busts are not exactly identical; the music they play has slight variations, and in those variations is a code. A code that only Sherlock Holmes can crack. We are also treated with a number of memorable crooks, including a femme fatale well played by Patricia Morison.

With this film, I consider myself to have mined the Internet Archive for worthwhile Sherlock Holmes films, except for one little bonus feature that I saved for next week. There are several other Holmes-related films in the Archive, but all are either too poor or too short, usually both. Of historical interest is, for example, a series of silent shorts.

In addition to this one and Terror by Night, two of the fourteen Rathbone/Bruce films are available for download at the Internet Archive, and in the intervening years since my first post I have written about both. They are Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) and The Woman in Green (1945).

This film is best enjoyed whenever you are in the mood for some good, classic, Holmes. Few are better than Rathbone, and add to that solid scenography, dialogue and directing. I still think that Terror by Night is the best Holmes film at the Internet Archive, but when you have seen that, you will want more, and Dressed to Kill is not a bad next selection.

Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill
Download link
Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.1 G)

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

It is 1945. The tide of war has finally turned in Great Britain’s favour. The Germans are retreating on all fronts, and victory is now more than just a vague dream. But many cities in southern England are in ruins, and the V2 rockets are still a very real threat. It is into this world that Timothy is born. As a tribute to him, director Humphrey Jennings tells the story of A Diary for Timothy.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

I am not sure if Timothy actually existed, but whether he did or not is of minor importance. In this film, the infant baby is a storytelling device, and an effective one. Though the film is not really about Timothy, or his mother, the film repeatedly returns to them and their home in Oxfordshire.

But the stories told in this film are about other people. About the Air Force pilot recovering from his wounds. About the coal miner doing his best to produce as much coal as possible for the war effort.

This is pure propaganda, and well made. It stresses how both military and civilian personnel must work together to take Britain through the war. As a factual documentary, A Diary for Timothy has very little to offer, even though many factual events are doubtlessly recorded.

This film is best enjoyed for its effectively woven image of a strong and resilient country. A country that will not give in, no matter what. Additionally, it is interesting because of its narration, written by famous author E. M. Forster.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

A Diary for Timothy
Download link
Year: 1945
Running time: 37 min
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Stars: Michael Redgrave (narrator)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

If you have a soft spot for British mystery films, then you will not want to miss The Case of the Frightened Lady. It is a delightful, albeit fairly conventional, mansion mystery, complete with a serial killer, Scotland Yard detectives and a sealed room.

Helen Haye and George Merritt in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

In The Case of the Frightened Lady we meet the elderly Lady Lebanon and her son, Lord Lebanon, the last in the line. Being suitably strong-willed, the Lady is set on having her son marry his cousin and secretary, Miss Crane. The young Lord, however, has other plans. As befits a good mystery, they are surrounded by a cast of strange characters, such as the two footmen who appear more like gangster thugs and the family doctor who definitely is involved in some shady business. And what about the architect, called in to plan some well-needed renovation?

The actors perform well, especially Helen Haye (not to be confused with American actress Helen Hayes, who has performed in a number of similar roles) as Lady Lebanon. George Merritt as the Scotland Yard inspector is also good, and Ronald Shiner is nice as the mandatory comic relief sidekick, possibly inspired by Nigel Bruce, who had premiered as Dr. Watson the year before.

This film is best enjoyed if you are willing to sacrifice credibility on the altar of entertainmet. The plot is definitely convoluted at times, not least so the ending, but it is told in a thrilling and involving way. Even though you may at times suspect the true killer, you will want to keep watching in order to find out the motives and all the background details.

Helen Haye and Penelope Dudley Ward in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

The Case of the Frightened Lady
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: George King
Stars: Marius Goring
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (560 M)

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The submarine film is an interesting genre, and We Dive at Dawn is a good representative. Here you will find everything to be expected from a good submarine film. The closed spaces, the comradeship and conflicts among the crew, the sounds of machinery and exploding depth charges, the excitement of the hunt and the tense waiting as the hunter turns to prey.

John Mills and Reginald Purdell in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The British submarine Sea Tiger has just come back after a long time at sea. We get to see the various crew members as they go ashore for a presumed lengthy leave, but we barely get a glimpse of their private troubles before they are ordered back to ship for another important mission. As the somewhat disheartened lot take their vessel out again, they are told that they are going after the German battleship Brandenburg, as they should be able to catch up with her before she enters the Kiel Canal in northern Germany.

But when they take aboard some Germans from a rescue buoy, they learn that the Brandenburg is farther ahead than expected, and they will not be able to catch up. The ship’s captain (John Mills) then makes the decision to enter the Baltic and search for the German battleship there. But the decision is a foolhardy one. Not only because the Baltic is full of German ships, but also because they are running low on fuel.

Judging by its looks, We Dive at Dawn was a pretty cheap film. The submarine interiors look convincing enough to my untrained eye, but many small details, such as John Mills’ fake stubble, lack the attention which marks a really well-produced film.

Nationalism and propaganda naturally lurks in the background of a wartime production such as this. But it is never allowed to surface (pun intended) in the same way as in, for example, In Which We Serve (1942) or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942).

This film is best enjoyed if you like either submarines or British 30s/40s films. Though not the best representative of either category, We Dive at Dawn nevertheless has enough good qualities to satisfy your hunger for more of those kinds of films. The story, while a touch on the sentimental side, is good and the actors are adequate.

Turkish S class (Oruç Reis class) submarine P 614 in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

We Dive at Dawn
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: John Mills
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (700 M)

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good

The Battle of Russia (1943)

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and 70 years of communist domination in Eastern Europe. During most of 2017, I will commemorate this by writing about several films with a Soviet connection. I started two weeks ago with Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This week, I present to you The Battle of Russia, the fifth part of Frank Capra’s World War II series of propaganda documentaries Why We Fight.

A Soviet army marching in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

Last week, I wrote about The Battle of Britain, and I have also written previously about The Nazis Strike. These, along with the rest of the films in the series, are both very similar and very different from one another. Walter Huston’s excellent narration help to make them similar, as does the style of cutting and the similar looking animated maps and other graphics. Yet, each is uniquely woven around its fact content. In the case of The Battle of Russia, that fact content tells the dramatic, and often tragic, story of Hitler’s idiotic attack on the Soviet Union.

One reason why The Battle of Russia is interesting is that it was seemingly made with respect for the Russian nation and its people. Anatole Litvak, who was the main director (together with series director Frank Capra) was himself Russian. Thus, while the film is certainly propaganda to a large extent, it also shows a deep understanding of Russia and its struggle. It is probably significant that the title contains the word “Russia” rather than “Soviet”. I know next to nothing about Litvak’s background, but I am guessing, based on the film’s contents, that he was not a communist nor, for that matter, a believer in the idea of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Soviet is only mentioned in passing in the film and communism not at all. Mostly, it talks about Russia and the Russians.

Like other parts in the series, The Battle of Russia is propaganda, and it must be used with caution for historical facts. I am guessing that most facts presented in the film are basically true, but on the other hand many things are left out.

This film is best enjoyed for its excellent use of a variety of film material. Everything from old Russian silent historical dramas to captured Nazi propaganda films are used to produce a living picture of how the Soviet Union and the United States became allies in World War II. This is doubly interesting when you consider the bitter enmity that was to replace this alliance only a few years later with the coming of the Cold War.

Soviet soldier with machine gun in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

The Battle of Russia
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)