Four O’Clock (1957)

Today, Alfred Hitchcock is probably best remembered for his fantastic Hollywood films, although he had a long history before that as a director in Europe, and towards the end of his career, he produced and hosted a couple of popular TV series. In fact, back in the late 1950s and a couple of decades to come, Hitchcock was probably more associated with his TV appearances than with his movies.

One of those TV series was Suspicion, and Hitchcock directed the premiere episode Four O’Clock himself.

E.G. Marshall in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

E.G. Marshall plays a watchmaker who has concluded that his wife is having an affair, and he plans revenge. The episode begins as he tests a timer for an explosive device in his shop. He then plants a bomb and sets the timer in his own basement, making sure that no suspicion must fall upon his own person. But then things start to go wrong …

Four O’Clock is excellent in every aspect. It is tense, psychologically interesting, dramatic, full of nice twists, and with an ending that I, for one, was totally unable to predict. Hitchcock shows that even with a much smaller budget than his lavish Hollywood movies, he can still create a little masterpiece.

Suspicion is not so well remembered today as Hitchcock’s other TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which featured Hitchcock’s iconic caricature image, and which had every episode hosted by “Hitch” himself. Two episodes (The Cheyney Vase and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) of that series are available at the Internet Archive, although neither was directed by Hitchcock.

This episode is best enjoyed alone and late at night.

E.G. Marshall and Nancy Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

Four O’Clock
Download link
Year: 1957
Running time: 48 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: E.G. Marshall
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (350 M)

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The American West of John Ford (1971)

Last week, I wrote about the John Wayne film Angel and the Badman, and about John Wayne’s status as a Hollywood legend.

Wayne made his big breakthrough in the classic western Stagecoach (1939). The director was John Ford, and if John Wayne is the leading western actor of all time, then Ford is the leading western director. Ford’s career and legacy are described in the documentary The American West of John Ford.

John Wayne in The American West of John Ford (1971)

Clips from many of Ford’s films are shown in the documentary, and some more are mentioned in passing. Of all those films, the only ones that I know to be at the Internet Archive are two wartime propaganda films, namely The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943).

As a documentary, this is a fairly unique film, because some of Ford’s most respected leading actors, John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, appear as cicerones, talking about Ford and also with him (Ford was still alive when the documentary was made, but died two years after its premiere). Thus, the film revolves around first-hand accounts of the legandary director, and also those of legandary actors, now gone.

The documentary is nice because it tells the story in a very personal way. John Ford’s own participation is not in the traditional interview situation, but in locations where he shot some of his best-known pictures. He seems relaxed, and this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, because we feel like we get close to him.

This film is best enjoyed by western fans who want to see some of the actors and the director that were perhaps most responsible for shaping and popularising the genre in the decades following the 1930s.

James Stewart and John Ford in The American West of John Ford (1971)

The American West of John Ford
Download link
Year: 1971
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Denis Sanders
Stars: John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×406)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

The Bat (1960)

When Bob Kane created Batman, who first appeared 75 years ago this month of May, he used many different sources of inspiration. One of these was a character named “The Bat”, which first appeared in a stage play with the same title. But more about Batman’s connection with The Bat later.

The Bat is a delightful little mystery, fully equipped with murder, romance, double identities, stolen money and a hidden room. It has been said to be the archetype for all later old mansion mysteries, and it has been adapted for the screen on at least four occasions. Three of these adaptations are to be found at the Internet Archive (see other links below), and my favourite is perhaps the least known of these, a TV version of The Bat from 1960, produced for the series The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries.

The Bat (1960)

The best thing about this production is the excellent cast, with legendary Helen Hayes (who had an acting career on stage and screen for over eighty years) in the lead as the old lady who finds her home invaded by people who lie, deceive and double-play. Another good actor is Jason Robards as a police detective. Not to forget Margaret Hamilton, famous for The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Today, it is tempting to dismiss The Bat as a somewhat cheap Agatha Christie rip-off. However, the original Broadway play premiered in the same year that Christie’s first story saw print, so it is more likely that Christie took inspiration from this story, although it is probably more accurate to assume that both are children of the same time.

Now, what about the Batman connection? Actually, it is not completely clear. Roland West directed two film adaptations of the story. First the silent The Bat (1926); later the talkie The Bat Whispers (1930). Bob Kane has allegedly said that he was inspired by the latter, yet the former features a much more Batman-like costume, and also a Bat signal which is arguably the origin of the Batman logo. So even though The Bat was a villain, it is confirmed that the character did make an imprint upon Batman, and the story is therefore historically interesting, in addition to being a good yarn.

This film is best enjoyed in this particular incarnation. In addition to the versions previously mentioned, there was also a film version released in 1959, The Bat starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. This, too, is good, but Hayes easily wins over Moorehead in the “old lady detective” category. Also, the plot is much tighter in the 1960 version. But, of course, if you are a Vincent Price fan, the 1959 version is a must.

Martin Brooks, Helen Hayes, Dale Ogden, Margaret Hamilton, Jason Robards and Sheppered Strudwick in The Bat (1960)

The Bat
Download link
Year: 1960
Running time: 51 min
Director: Paul Nickell
Stars: Helen Hayes
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon, one of the pioneer adventure and science fiction comic strips, debuted 80 years ago tomorrow. The strip, famous for its powerful and detailed art, as well as its fantastic monsters and unexpected plot twists, has been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions.

One of the better such adaptations, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, is available for download from the Internet Archive. It was originally conceived as a live action movie in the late 1970s, but it was decided that it would cost too much to make and was redressed as an animation instead. That animated movie, in turn, was converted into a Saturday morning cartoon series, and the finished movie lay waiting for three years until it was finally aired in 1982.

Thun, Flash Gordon and Barin in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

The basic plot is familiar to all who know their Flash Gordon. Flash, a world-famous athlete, is travelling in a plane with reporter Dale Arden as they are hit by a meteor storm. The plane crashes, but the two are rescued by half-mad scientist Dr. Zarkov. Zarkov takes them aboard his spaceship and they all fly to the planet Mongo where they have to save the Earth from the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless.

Overall, this particular film follows the plot closer than most (certainly closer than the 1980 live action feature, the only redeeming qualities of which are Queen and Max von Sydow). An added subplot about Hitler’s connection with Ming neither adds nor subtracts anything substantial.

The strength of this film is its script. It pulls off the balance between faithfulness to the source material and the different requirements of the film medium in an excellent way. The pacing is just right and the characters are good. I am not all that fond of the animation, though, which is in the style of the Saturday morning cartoons it was later turned into. But if you enjoy that kind of stuff then the animation is decently well made. Me, I would have preferred a much more realistic style, similar to Alex Raymond’s art on the original strip.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Flash Gordon, but anyone who likes some good escapism should find this to their taste.

Flash Gordon battles Emperor Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All
Download link
Year: 1982
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Language: English (Japanese subtitles)
Stars: Robert Ridgely, Diane Pershing
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Windows Media (1.6 G)

A Christmas Without Snow (1980)

Movies about choirs (or, rather, the individuals in them) are not all that common, but if you watch a lot of film you have probably seen a couple, such as Swedish As It Is in Heaven (2004) or English Song for Marion (2012).

Being myself a choir singer, I have definitely seen my share, and I have come to the conclusion that the majority of such films are built around a common template or structure. In terms of dramaturgy, they share a number of traits and characters. I will describe these traits and exemplify with an old TV movie, A Christmas Without Snow.

Early in a choir film, often just at the beginning, we see the Change. Something happens, usually an external force, that takes the choir in a new direction, or even causes its creation. Such Change is usually connected with the Leader, typically the conductor. In A Christmas Without Snow, this Change is the arrival of Mr. Adams, a retired musician, to take over as the Leader of the small and rather bad choir in a San Francisco church.

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Almost immediately, Mr. Adams announces his intention to perform Händel’s Messiah for Christmas. This is the film’s Goal, which is often closely connected with the Change. This announcement is followed by a period of Consolidation where the choir grows and improves. During the Consolidation we get to know many of the other members, including the Soloist Mrs. Kim, who sets a good example for everyone with her exceptional voice and personality; the Dissenter Mrs. Burns, an old opera singer who creates tension through her egotistical personality; and the Disharmonist Inez, a well-meaning old lady who no longer manages to sing in tune.

It would be a boring film indeed if there was not a Crisis to upset the order and, seemingly, make the Goal impossible to reach. A Christmas Without Snow has no less than two separate Crises. First the church organ is vandalised, and there is no money to repair it. But the choir decides to do the job themselves; a Turning which resolves the Crisis. But then Mr. Adams has a stroke only days before the concert. He survives, but cannot lead the choir. Again, of course, there is a Turning to make things right. Arrives finally the day of the big concert. The church is full and the choir makes an excellent performance in the Accomplishment of the Goal.

Now, if you think I ruined A Christmas Without Snow for you by spoiling all the crucial parts, not to worry. There is plenty of plot going on in addition to the “template” events, so this nice (if a bit overstuffed) movie still offers much to discover. Not least the main story about Zoe and her frustration of having to leave her son behind while she is looking for a new job.

The structure I have outlined above, with a Change, a Goal, a Consolidation, a Crisis, a Turning and an Accomplishment, is one you will be able to recognize in almost any choir movie you watch. There may be slight variations. Song for Marion, for instance, conforms to the basic structure, but has no Disharmonist and no clear Dissenter.

This choir film structure is one that can also be seen (although usually not quite so dramatically intense) in most real choirs, as the choir builds itself for the next concert performance. This real-life drama is perhaps one of the reasons why choir singing is such a popular pastime. But there are also fascinating parallels with another genre of movies, namely sports films such as The Bad News Bears (1976), where the new coach has to take the league’s worst team to the top. It is interesting to speculate about the reasons for these parallels.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a choir singer yourself, but should work for anyone who wants to get in the right mood for the Holidays.

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A Christmas Without Snow
Download link
Year: 1980
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: John Korty
Stars: Michael Learned, John Houseman
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (496×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Divx (699 M)

Sherlock Holmes (1954)

Sherlock Holmes is really hot on cinema and TV these days. I guess it took off with the two Guy Ritchie movies a few years ago. Then came BBC’s Sherlock, and the Americans just had to follow that up with Elementary. The latest news is that there is going to be a new movie with Ian McKellen as Holmes.

It seems like we will have to wait a few more months for the third season of Sherlock, but Elementary starts up season two on Thursday. Of course, Elementary is nowhere near as good as Sherlock, but it helps to pass the time.

Or, by all means, take a look at what came before. Elementary, as it happens, is only the second American Holmes TV series. Already in late 1954 a series simply known as Sherlock Holmes began. It only lasted for a single season of 39 episodes, but many of those are really good.

Howard Marion Crawford and Ronald Howard in Sherlock Holmes (1954)

This is not the modern Asperger Holmes, nor is it the almost aristocratic Holmes as played by Basil Rathbone, nor Jeremy Brett’s nervous and over-active detective. This Holmes, played by a young Ronald Howard, is playful, curious about all things, and with a constant gleam in the corner of his eye. Of course, he can be very absent-minded and annoying at times. This is Holmes. But, by and large, he is relaxed and easy-going, as screen Sherlocks go.

Perhaps the best reason to watch this series is the excellent interaction between Holmes and Watson. The latter was played by Howard Marion Crawford, and is perhaps closer to Martin Freeman than to Nigel Bruce, in temperament if not in outward appearance. Archie Duncan is not quite so good as Inspector Lestrade, but you cannot have everything.

The sets are nice, and especially the Baker Street flat has many little details to discover. Like many American TV series from this period, it was actually shot in Europe. But not in England (which would seem to be the obvious choice) but in France, with British actors in the leading roles. This is interesting to keep in mind when watching, since it explains things like the many supporting characters with a French accent, whether warranted or not.

Below is a list of all episodes that can be found at the Internet Archive. Some are available in low resolution only; those I know about are marked in the list. For a complete episode guide, see for example Wikipedia.

  1. The Case of the Cunningham Heritage (low res)
  2. The Case of Lady Beryl
  3. The Case of the Pennsylvania Gun
  4. The Case of the Texas Cowgirl
  5. The Case of the Belligerent Ghost
  6. The Case of the Shy Ballerina
  7. The Case of the Winthrop Legend
  8. The Case of the Blind Man’s Bluff
  9. The Case of Harry Crocker
  10. The Mother Hubbard Case
  11. The Case of the Red Headed League
  12. not available
  13. The Case of the Split Ticket
  14. The Case of the French Interpreter
  15. The Case of the Singing Violin
  16. The Case of the Greystone Inscription
  17. The Case of the Laughing Mummy
  18. The Case of the Thistle Killer
  19. The Case of the Vanished Detective
  20. The Case of the Careless Suffragette
  21. The Case of the Reluctant Carpenter
  22. The Case of the Deadly Prophecy
  23. The Case of the Christmas Pudding (low res)
  24. not available
  25. not available
  26. not available
  27. The Case of the Perfect Husband (low res)
  28. not available
  29. not available
  30. The Case of the Eiffel Tower
  31. not available
  32. not available
  33. The Case of the Baker Street Bachelors
  34. The Case of the Royal Murder
  35. The Case of the Haunted Gainsborough
  36. The Case of the Neurotic Detective
  37. The Case of the Unlucky Gambler
  38. The Case of the Diamond Tooth
  39. The Case of the Tyrant’s Daughter

I wish I could make a perfect guide to all the episodes, including tips for which ones are worth seeing and which are not. However, I have not seen some of them for several years, so the best I can do is to say that a few good ones are episodes 1, 9 and 39. If you like those, you might as well go through the rest as well. In my opinion, a handful of clunkers can be tolerated for the greater good.

This series is best enjoyed if you prefer your Holmes in the original 1800s setting. Horse-drawn carriages, starch collars and gas lamps. Not to forget the deerstalker hat. Great stuff!

Ronald Howard and Howard Marion Crawford in Sherlock Holmes (1954)

Sherlock Holmes
Download link (episode 1)
Year: 1954
Running time: Approx 27 min per episode
Directors: Jack Gage, Sheldon Reynolds, Steve Previn
Stars: Ronald Howard, Howard Marion Crawford
Image quality: Acceptable for most episodes
Resolution: Low to medium
Sound quality: Acceptable for most episodes

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

As I started preparing this week’s post, I noticed that I was not the only one who made the connection between Edward Snowden and Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. News editorials and political blogs are filled with Orwellian metaphors, and Amazon sales of the book apparently rose several thousand per cent in a single day after Snowden’s revelations were made public.

One of the very best filmed versions of the book was made thirty years before the year in the title. Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Quatermass and the Pit (which I wrote about last week), is a live science fiction drama produced by the BBC. The two productions even had the same writer and director, and some actors also appear in both.

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Winston Smith is played by none other than Peter Cushing. A brilliant Cushing, at that. And if possible, Donald Pleasence as his “friend” Syme is even better. In fact, the whole production is brilliant. A few slip-ups (such as the shadow of an overhead microphone visible on screen) must be accepted in a live production such as this. The dictatorial government’s total control and repression reaches for you through the screen, and you can feel the anguish, then a vague hope, and then … But I should stop here, in case you are not previously familiar with the story.

One year earlier, American CBS had made another live TV production of the same story. I have not seen that version, but it too is said to be very good, although shorter. Orwell fans may want to check it out.

We have to acknowledge that the US is not Oceania, Edward Snowden is not Winston Smith, and Barack Obama is certainly not Big Brother. But that was never the point. The point, I think, is that the book and the film Nineteen Eighty-Four still have something to offer. Real-world events can only serve to reinforce what was already there.

This film is best enjoyed as an allegory and a warning that is just as relevant today, almost sixty years after the film, sixty-four years after the book.

'Big Brother is watching YOU!' Peter Cushing in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four
Download link
Year: 1954
Running time: 1 h 47 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×544)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)