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)

X Marks the Spot (1931)

Sometimes, I find myself watching a film for very strange reasons. X Marks the Spot, for example. I was looking at this blog’s alphabetical list of films, and realized that I had blogged about films starting with every letter in the English alphabet, except X. I am a fan of balance, unity and harmony, so I set about to find myself an X film at the Internet Archive (no, not that kind of an X film). This proved easier said than done, but two films eventually turned up with the title X Marks the Spot. Finding that one was a remake of the other, I went for the original, and to my great satisfaction, it turned out to be quite a gem of a film.

Wallace Ford, Sally Blane and Lew Cody in X Marks the Spot (1931)

Before I go on, I should probably mention that there is one big problem with the available copy: image quality is terrible. A good copy may not exist. Apparently, the original negative was deliberately burnt during the filming of the great fire in Gone with the Wind (1939). Sound is not great either, but good enough, especially considering that sound in the early 1930s was not very good even under the best of circumstances.

The plot is difficult to describe without giving away too much, but it involves a reporter who needs money for an operation to save his sister’s life. He puts himself in debt with a criminal, only to find, years later, that he may have to cash the debt in an unexpected and unpleasant way. Wallace Ford plays the reporter and Lew Cody gives us a genre cliché with his hot-tempered editor-in-chief.

The best thing about X Marks the Spot is the snappy and often funny dialogue. Accounts differ regarding when the first real screwball comedies were made, but this is definitely a big step in that direction, even though some say that proper screwball only appeared a few years later.

As I hinted above, a remake with the same title is also available at the Internet Archive. From what I have been able to find out, however, it is not as good as the original.

This film is best enjoyed if you like The Front Page (1931) and want more of the same. X Marks the Spot is not quite as good, especially not the actors, but it shares similar environments, similar dialogue, and there are some parallels in the plot, also. Sensitive viewers will be advised that the film contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping.

Fred Kohler in X Marks the Spot (1931)

X Marks the Spot
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Stars: Lew Cody, Wallace Ford
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (480×360; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (395 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

Nanook of the North (1922)

The documentary is an interesting genre. In a sense, it may be said to be the first film genre. Some of the very earliest surviving films, such as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), were just brief snatches of reality, but already with Blacksmith Scene (1893) we see actors performing what may best be described as a forty-second drama documentary, and Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) is an early example of the filmmaker tampering with reality rather than just recording it, as the “actor” Fred Ott is apparently putting snuff in his nose for the purpose of producing an effect on film.

Compared with the 19th Century efforts, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North plays in a completely different league. It has been described as the first feature-length documentary, and as such it has had a tremendous impact on the entire genre of documentary film produced ever since. But in essence, it is just a very much more polished and sophisticated variant of what had already been done ever since the dawn of film.

Inuit eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922)

In Nanook of the North we are provided with some samples from the life of Nanook, an eskimo living in northern Canada. We get to see life in the igloo, walrus hunting, and various other activities in the life of Nanook and his family. All of it appears very genuine, but when you start to think about the lighting equipment that would be necessary to film inside an igloo, or the realism of bringing cameras along on a strenous and dangerous hunting expedition, you realize that many scenes must have been staged to a greater or lesser extent.

As a factual description of an eskimo’s life, Nanook of the North is about as flawed as any later documentary. Whether a wartime propaganda, such as The Fighting Lady (1944), or a modern political statement, such as The Corporation (2003), you can be sure that the film-maker has his own purpose, his own vision and his own ideological background, leading every step in the creative process. While few documentaries actually lie about factual matters, they are selective in what they show, and how they present their message.

Nanook of the North was the first “modern” documentary, and like any good documentary, it tries to impress upon the viewer its creator’s vision. But regardless of what shortcuts and stagings were made between takes, it succeeds in bringing the humans in front of the camera to life. The film begins and ends with closeups of Nanook’s face, and in between, Flaherty makes me feel that I get a glimpse of the soul behind that face. And perhaps, to some small measure, I do get such a glimpse, nearly 100 years later. Such is the power of good cinema.

This film is best enjoyed for its considerable artistic merits. Regardless of whether the film reflects any kind of truth or not, it is in its best moments breathtakingly beautiful. If you are interested in the history of documentary film, or if you are just looking for an fascinating cinematic experience, this is one you will definitely not want to miss.

Inuit eskimo paddling a kayak in Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North
Download link
Year: 1922
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Robert Flaherty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×738)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.4 G)

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)

The Battle of Britain (1943)

Frank Capra’s famous World War II propaganda series Why We Fight has been justly praised for its high drama and impact. I have previously written about The Nazis Strike, the second part, and the turn has now come to part four, The Battle of Britain. I have seen most of the series, and in my humble opinion, this part is perhaps the best of the lot.

The Nazi whale about to devour Great Britain in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

There are several reasons why I like this film. One is the large amount of genuine aerial footage, both from British sources and from captured Nazi propaganda films. Another is the exciting story it tells. Not the least important reason is the excellent narration by Walter Huston, with brilliant lines like this one: “The Nazi plan called for the RAF to be knocked out of the air, but the men of the RAF hadn’t read the Nazi plan.”

Sure, this is propaganda. It cannot be trusted for historical facts. But it will give you at least a partial glimpse of the reality behind the facts and figures of World War II.

If you are interested in some more facts about the series as a whole, do check my post on The Nazis Strike.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in old combat aircraft. The pictures do not lie about these magnificent machines and their performance in the air.

Spitfires in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

The Battle of Britain
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 53 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)