The Adventures of Tartu (1943)

It is only very rarely that some reader of this blog tips me off about a film that I should review on this site. When it does happen, however, it is always very welcome, and this week’s entry, The Adventures of Tartu is one that I could have easily overlooked, had I not been informed about it.

It was back in October, 2013, four years and a half ago, after I had written about another British spy thriller, Q Planes (1939), that the user Alan wrote a message mentioning The Adventures of Tartu. (Alan has his own very nice blog in Spanish, Corriente textual, where he sometimes writes about films at the Internet Archive.) I immediately put it on my list of films to see, but it took until quite recently before I got around to it.

Robert Donat and Frederic Richter in The Adventures of Tartu (1943)

The Adventures of Tartu is a propaganda spy thriller. Robert Donat plays a chemical engineer in the British Army who bravely defuses unexploded bombs during the London Blitz. Because of his skills as an engineer, and his considerable knowledge of language, he is recruited for an undercover mission behind enemy lines. The Nazis are about to start production of a new type of chemical weapon, so the formula must be stolen and the chemical plant in Czechoslovakia, where the weapon is manufactured, must be destroyed. Can one man accomplish this? Our hero may have a chance, under the guise of the Romanian fascist Jan Tartu.

It is obvious that The Adventures of Tartu was cheaply made. Yet another war-time propaganda, cranked out to keep morale high. But even so, it has considerable qualities. For example, I am highly enamoured with the futuristic settings of the chemical plant. Robert Donat and Valerie Hobson also work well as the romantic couple.

This film is best enjoyed for its fast-moving and intricate plot, complete with several sudden and unexpected twists. The story sometimes stretches the edges of credibility, but it is so much fun watching it that such trivialities matter little.

Robert Donat in The Adventures of Tartu (1943)

The Adventures of Tartu
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 43 min
Director: Harold S. Bucquet
Stars: Robert Donat
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.8 G)

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Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933)

The evil crime genius Dr. Mabuse has been locked up in an asylum for years. And yet, there are rumours that his band of criminals is again operative, and they commit crimes that seem strangely similar to Mabuse’s old modus operandi. In Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), Fritz Lang’s master criminal from the previous film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922) is set against Inspector Lohmann, previously seen in yet another Lang classic, M – eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (1931). And we, the audience, are in for a treat.

Karl Meixner and Otto Wernicke in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse was the last of Fritz Lang’s long line of classic masterworks. Lang had directed films since the late 1910s, and starting with his first Mabuse film, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), every film he made for the next decade was destined to become one of the great classics of cinema and extremely influential upon future film makers.

After 1933, Lang continued to make competent films, such as Scarlet Street (1945), but none were as groundbreaking or brilliant as his earlier works. Two things happened after completing Testament that may have caused Lang’s filmmaking to take a new direction. First he separated from his wife, Thea von Harbou. She had cooperated with him throughout his greatest period, mainly doing the writing of the films. I do not know enough to say how the separation may have effected Lang, but just by looking at all the great films they made together, I think it is safe to say that her impact upon his films must have been considerable.

The second event was that Lang wisely decided to leave Germany to avoid the Nazis. Hitler came to power earlier the same year that Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse premiered, and there are apparently many small critical references to the Nazis woven into the dialogue of the film (though I will happily admit that, not knowing I aught to look for them, I missed them all when I saw the film).

This film is best enjoyed if you are prepared for Lang’s somewhat different visual and narrative style. Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse is in many ways closer to the 1920s than contemporary films from other parts of the world, and if you are used to film from the 1940s on, you may actually feel more comfortable watching one of Lang’s Hollywood productions.

Otto Wernicke in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse
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Year: 1933
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 2 h 1 min
Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (848×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.4 G)

Tol’able David (1921)

I have long since lost count of the number of great films I would never have seen if it was not for the Internet Archive. Yet another in the long line is Tol’able David, a coming of age story with biblical motifs. It is set in West Virginia (in a fictional village, I believe), presumably some time in the 19th Century, although I have not been able to pinpoint the date or even decade.

Gladys Hulette and Richard Barthelmess in Tol'able David (1921)

Young David (a nice lad, but just “tol’able”, since he is not yet a man) grows up in a loving and pious family. They are tenant farmers, and they have a very good relationship with the neighbours, the Hatburns. David’s relationship is especially good with young Esther Hatburn. However, the happiness is about to be shattered. I do not want to spoil all the details of the evil that will befall David and his family, because I think the film benefits from watching it without knowing too much of the plot.

What I will say is that it is rare to find a film from the early 1920s that is so mature in its storytelling. Even though the ending is very Hollywoodesque, our hero’s road is uncommonly thorny, as his faith, love and courage are tested. This story is told to us by a number of really talented actors. Sure, they overact in typical silent style, but that is to be expected. They also show that they can be really subtle with their acting at times, as we feel their pain, joy, hate and love through the distance of time. Even though the age of nearly a hundred years can be felt, the film still has so many strengths that it is more than just watchable.

The Internet Archive copy of Tol’able David, unfortunately, does not feature a soundtrack. This is a film that I feel would benefit tremendously from a good score, but even as it stands, it is a very fine specimen from a time when the art of cinematography was undergoing tremendous development.

A few words deserve to be said about directory Henry King. When King directed Tol’able David, he had already been directing films for a few years, and he was to continue doing so for over 40 more years! At the Internet Archive, you can for instance find Lloyd’s of London (1936) and Hell Harbor (1930). While King may not have been a great artistic genius, he was definitely both talented and skillful. Tol’able David must have been one of his greatest achievements.

This film is best enjoyed because it is a classic that truly deserves to be remembered and cherished. If you like silent film, you are going to love this one for its drama and fine character portraits.

Walter P. Lewis, Ernest Torrence and Ralph Yearsley in Tol'able David (1921)

Tol’able David
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Henry King
Stars: Richard Barthelmess
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (592×448)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, things happened with the film noir genre. It has something to do with the lighting, and with the camera angles. Perhaps there is something about the plots as well. Anyhow, a good example of this “new wave” of noirs is Kansas City Confidential.

John Payne and Lee Van Cleef in Kansas City Confidential (1952)

The plot is superficially similar to one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favourites, where a man is falsely accused of a crime and has to clear himself of suspcion. In this case, however, the plot is twisted in several ways, not least because the accused is an old jail bird, and there really is no-one in the film who has an entirely clean consciousness. Well, except maybe Coleen Gray in the role of the romantic interest, although as a woman studying at law school, that role is interesting for being representative of the growing women’s rights movement.

There are quite a few films with the word “Confidential” in the title, but as far as I have been able to figure out, Kansas City Confidential may have been the first with a city name in the title. It must have been fairly popular, because Chicago Confidential, New York Confidential and others like it followed within the next few years.

This film is best enjoyed for the good actors and the wonderful characters. The plot is a bit weak at times, but those characters, along with solid directing, more than make up for that.

John Payne and Coleen Gray in Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Kansas City Confidential
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Year: 1952
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Director: Phil Karlson
Stars: John Payne, Lee Van Cleef
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Matroska (4.4 G)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those literary classics that have been filmed on a number of different occasions, infamously including an animated Disney version, proving that Disney can make light family entertainment out of practically anything.

Out of the several Hunchback adaptations I have seen, two emerge as superior: the 1923 version with Lon Chaney and the 1939 version with Charles Laughton. The former appears to be the only version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that is available at the Internet Archive.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

To cast the legendary Lon Chaney as the Hunchback was, of course, the best possible choice at the time. Chaney had already made several spectacular and impressive roles, for example The Penalty (1920), but The Hunchback of Notre Dame appears to have been the role that propelled him to the status of stardom, and thus on to future legendary roles.

Unfortunately, I am less impressed with Ruth Miller as Esmeralda. So far I have never seen an actress that quite captured the youth and spirit of Esmeralda from the novel. Miller gives it her best, and that is adequate, but something is lacking. She is at least nearly the right age for the role (Esmeralda is 16 in the novel; Miller was only a couple of years older when the film was made), unlike several others; the worst example possibly being Salma Hayek who was over 30 when she portrayed Esmeralda. I am still waiting for the actress that can bring the combination of youth, naiveté, kind-heartedness and strength to the character.

In addition to Chaney’s performance, there are several good reasons for watching this film. For one thing, it is perhaps one of the most truthful adaptations of the original novel (except for the inevitable happy Hollywood ending). The sets and costumes of mediaeval Paris are stunningly majestic and beautiful. Whether historically true or not, I am not competent to say, but they certainly help to set the mood.

This film is best enjoyed if, like me, you are both a fan of Lon Chaney and of Victor Hugo’s wonderful novel. The combination of the two makes for a near-perfect film and a true classic.

Lon Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller as Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Huncback of Notre Dame
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 57 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music well edited to fit the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.4 G)

D.O.A. (1949)

Life is tough for Frank Bigelow. Not only is he uncertain about his feelings for his girlfriend and secretary Paula, but he is also dying after having been poisoned by a radioactive substance slipped into his drink. The film D.O.A. begins famously with a long tracking shot as we follow Bigelow into the police station where he goes to report the murder of himself. The rest of the film is one long flashback, explaining all about how he came into such circumstances.

Edmond O'Brien and Pamela Britton in D.O.A. (1949)

The abbreviation DOA stands for “dead on arrival”, and that is basically what Bigelow is as he enters that police station. This gives the whole film a sense of impending doom, one which is strengthened by the protagonist’s clothes. From the beginning of the film to its very end, Bigelow wears the same elegant double-breasted suit. Only, the further the film progresses, the more beat up Bigelow gets, and the suit with him.

In addition to its many other good qualities, D.O.A. is gifted with an abundance of quirky personalities. Frank Bigelow himself is certainly among these, and in many ways he fits the archetypal cynical noir “hero”. About the only sane person in the entire film appears to be his sweetheart Paula.

This film is best enjoyed if you like a good story with lots of nice and unexpected twists. This one has them in abundance, even for a film noir. Sure, it may be a little improbable at times, but that is easily forgotten and forgiven.

Neville Brand and Edmond O'Brien in D.O.A. (1949)

D.O.A.
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Year: 1949
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Robert Cummings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (953 M)

Suddenly (1954)

When I think about Frank Sinatra, I think about him as a singer. But he also acted in dozens of films, mostly during the 1950s and 1960s, and he was not a half bad actor. Today, his acting is perhaps best remembered for roles in classics such as From Here to Eternity (1953), Ocean’s Eleven (the 1960 original) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). But he made many other memorable performances, not least so in Suddenly.

Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)

Here, we see Sinatra as a cynic war hero who has turned into an assassin, taking money for doing what he does best – killing people. He has taken on the job of shooting the president of the United States, and decided to do so in a small town named Suddenly. There his chosen firing position forces him into a close encounter with the local sheriff and the sheriff’s sweetheart, the widowed Mrs. Benson who lives with her father-in-law and her son.

During the first part of the film, the acting feels a bit stiff, especially by Stirling Hayden, who plays Sinatra’s nemesis, the sheriff. Hayden was an excellent actor, and the stiffness was no doubt deliberate on his part. He must have wanted to create a slightly boring but totally dependable and patriotic hero, just what American movie-goers needed at a time when the world seemed a very dangerous place to live, and the president was much more of a symbol for the entire nation than is perhaps the case today.

Suddenly was remade in 2013 by Uwe Boll, but the remake is said to be far inferior to the original.

This film is best enjoyed when you understand some of the political undercurrents of the time. The moral message of this film is perfectly clear: Unless you have a bigger gun than your enemy, and unless you are prepared to use it, he is going to make you suffer. In that respect, you can see this film as a metaphor for the entire Cold War. Sinatra and his gang represent the communists, and his sniper rifle represents their nuclear arsenal. It is a good thing there were still righteous Americans around in the 1950s.

Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly
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Year: 1954
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Lewis Allen
Stars: Frank Sinatra
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1488×1090)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.5 G)