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)

Hon dansade en sommar (1951)

From an international perspective, the 1950s in Swedish film is known for two things only: Sex and Ingmar Bergman. The Swedish classic Hon dansade en sommar (One Summer of Happiness) gives us a bit of both. Bergman had nothing to do with the production, but it is very much a child of the same time, and if you are familiar with Bergman’s early works, you will find many similarities. And as for the sex, well …

Ulla Jacobsson and Folke Sundquist in Hon dansade en sommar / One Summer of Happiness (1951)

It is really quite impossible to write about Hon dansade en sommar without mentioning Ulla Jacobsson’s breasts, so let’s get that done and over with. The film has often been cited as the start of the Swedish wave of sin. Yes, there is some (very tasteful) nudity, and yes, there are strong suggestions of extramarital sex. But even though it is nothing compared with modern Hollywood fare, it was explosive at the time. The film was a huge scandal and a big financial success.

Today, the film seems extremely innocent, so if this film has any remaining qualities as a classic, you will have to look for them somewhere other than sex. Fortunately, there is plenty to look for.

Even as the titles start rolling, the director will not let us doubt that this is a tragedy. The title music is filled with doom and despair, and the first scene shows a young man entering a graveyard where a burial is underway. All eyes are immediately upon him, and the priest’s words of condemnation appears directed only at him.

Flashback to a graduation ceremony in early summer. From here on, most of the film is considerably brighter in tone, and there is even a bit of comedy here and there. We follow the newly graduated Göran as he makes a trip to spend the summer at his uncle’s farm in the Swedish archipelago. There he meets Kerstin and falls in love. But many around them are opposed to the union.

In case you do not understand Swedish very well, a separate srt file is available with English subtitles. The translations are excellent, so there is no need to let the language barrier be a hindrance. For my own part, I strongly dislike dubbing, and good subtitles are far too rare for films downloaded from the Internet. Besides, the typical Swedish 1950s prosody is something which can never be recreated in a dub, no matter how good.

This film is best enjoyed if you focus upon the plot and the dialogue. In the shadow of Bergman, who was at this time striving to establish himself (his international breakthrough was still a few years into the future, and Swedish critics were not always pleased with his early works), Hon dansade en sommar appears today as a good and pretty typical example of what Swedish cinema could offer around this time. If you like Bergman and want more of same, or if you are just curious about Swedish film, then this is a good choice. And, of course, whatever you may think of it otherwise, it is the start of the Swedish sin.

Ulla Jacobsson and Folke Sundquist in Hon dansade en sommar / One Summer of Happiness (1951)

Hon dansade en sommar
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Year: 1951
Language: Swedish (English subtitles in separate file)
Running time: 1 h 43 min
Director: Arne Mattsson
Stars: Ulla Jacobsson, Folke Sundquist
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 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)

Les Vampires (1915–16)

I have previously written about a number of serials. Looking at those earlier reviews, one might easily get the impression that serials were mostly a sound film phenomenon. Ah, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It has proven difficult to find reliable facts about silent serials, but the first ones seem to have appeared as early as the first decade of the 20th Century. By 1915, production was in full swing, on both sides of the Atlantic, and before the era came to an end around 1930, hundreds of silent serials had been made. I am guessing that many are incomplete or lost today, but many others survive, and the best are quite up to the standards of the so-called “Golden Age” serials of the 1930s and 1940s. They were not yet as clichéd and predictable as the later serials usually were, and quite often they created the elements that were later to become cliché.

Édouard Mathé in Les Vampires (1915)

The French serial Les Vampires (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) is often considered to be among the best of those early ones, and indeed some claim that it is one of the best serials of all time. It tells the story of how newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande tries to thwart a group of criminals who terrorize Paris. In spite of the title, Les Vampires has nothing to do with any vampires. It was simply the name that this gang of criminals used for themselves.

The plot, meandering in various directions, is a bit too complex to summarize here, but it is impossible to review this serial and not mention the character Irma Vep (note the anagram), who makes her first appearance in Episode 3. Vep is a close associate to the leader of The Vampires. She is totally unscrupulous and a master of disguise, and for the rest of the serial, she remains the main antagonist. Irma Vep has certainly been one of the strongest cultural footprints of Les Vampires. She remains a popular character and icon among silent movie fans.

According to Wikipedia, Les Vampires was made “quickly and inexpensively with very little written script.” Well, that shows, and the plot seems pretty random and incoherent at times. I know that some people have a problem with that, but I do not find that it detracts from my enjoyment. There is so much to like about this serial that some small rough spots are easily overlooked. Besides, modern Hollywood scripts are not always too coherent either.

This serial is best enjoyed because of the huge influence it has had on later crime cinema. Among the film makers said to be strongly inspired by it are such giants as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. There are good reasons why this particular serial became so influential. Watch it and find out for yourself!

A Vampire thief in Les Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
Year: 1915–16
Running time: 6 h 40 min
Language: English
Director: Louis Feuillade
Stars: Édouard Mathé, Musidora
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (352×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Eight men, one woman. They have formed a secret society, the aim of which is to better mankind by murdering those who deserve to die. They have gathered on this day to decide if a certain person will die, and if so, who is to perform the deed. Such is the beginning of The Ace of Hearts. The title indicates the fateful card that is used to randomly choose the murderer.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

But love is about to complicate our plot. Two members are rivals for the love of the only woman, Lilith, but she loves neither back. She only has feelings for the Cause. Ah, but what will happen when one of the two is chosen to commit a murder for that Cause? Can she separate her feelings for the man and the ideal? This plot may seem a bit corny, but works really well togehter with the excellent actors and the nice photography.

Around this time, film cameras slowly started to move around; to pan, to track, to zoom. The camera in The Ace of Hearts, however, is always completely static. But that is not entirely a problem, because when the limits of the set are known, the director and cameraman can use the set as if it was a painting, carefully composing each detail to balance the whole picture. Akira Kurosawa was to use similar techniques a lot in many of his best films, decades later, and Wallace Worsley does it here, almost to perfection. Watch, for example, The Man Who Deserves to Die striding slowly from the restaurant entrance to the dining hall’s vault. Splendid!

If you are a fan of Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, then this may or may not be a film to your taste. This is the only film I have seen where Chaney does not in any way use heavy makeup or prosthetics for enhancing his role and performance. Chaney is good enough an actor that he is excellent even without this, but if your fancy are his many amazing horror masks, then this film may disappoint you.

Like any silent film, I am sure this one would have been even better with a good soundtrack. However, thanks to the film’s poetic imaging and slow but deliberate tempo, I did not find the lack of sound disturbing. The mere visuals keep tension up by themselves. If silence makes you nervous, a version with an acceptable organ score is also available, but unfortunately it has lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed as a conceptual sequel to The Penalty from the year before. The Ace of Hearts had the same director, the same star (Chaney), and was based on a novel by the same author, Gouverneur Morris. And even though the films are set in very different surroundings, they share the delving into the darker recesses of the human psyche.

Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy and John Bowers in The Ace of Hearts (1921)

The Ace of Hearts
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (889 M)

Love Affair (1939)

I sit here on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, waiting for Christmas dinner to be prepared and for presents to arrive (where I live, Christmas Eve is more important to celebrate than Christmas Day). Every year, I try to include at least one Christmas themed movie around this time. This year, I have chosen the classic Love Affair.

Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Love Affair (1939)

True, the entire film is not about Christmas. It is only in the last twenty minutes that the Christmas theme comes in, but it is fitting enough at that point, because that is where the film turns into a real feel-good melodrama. I will not reveal too much of the plot, except to say that it involves true love at first sight, forced separations, great personal sacrifice, and I do not think I spoil too much by revealing that there will be a happy ending, although one not entirely without complications.

Like many other popular old movies, this one was adapted into a radio play, and Irene Dunne even reprised her role from the film. I have not listened to this particular adaptation, but those old radio plays are often very good. If you are interested, Love Affair and many others are available as part of the Screen Guild Theater series.

This film is best enjoyed because the chemistry between Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne is excellent. The plot have a few weak moments if you start analysing it too closely, but Boyer and Dunne nevertheless manage to make the story believable.

Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya and Irene Dunne in Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576; including black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)