Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Saturday, September 16, 1972: Ambush In Leopard Street (1962) / Ghost Ship (1952)

Synopsis: Small-time criminal Harry (Michael Brennan) has been tipped off to a potential big score, far bigger than anything he's ever been involved in. A half a million pounds' worth of cut diamonds are due to be shipped across London by a boutique jeweler as part of a commission. Harry teams up with old cronies Nimmo (Bruce Seton) and Danny (Lawrence Crain), and outside man Kegs (Norman Rodway). Together they draw up a plan to ambush the van carrying the diamonds at its most vulnerable point  -- while it's on the narrow, secluded Leopard Street.

Harry knows the cargo and he knows the route. The only thing he doesn't know is exactly when the shipment will be moved. In order to find out, Harry recruits his brother-in-law Johnny, a good-looking kid with an insouciant charm and a clean record. Harry plans to arrange a chance meeting between Johnny and Jean (Jean Harvey), a lonely secretary who works for the jeweler.  Johnny's task is to start up a romance, and get her to spill the beans about the date of the shipment.

Harry's wife Cath is angry at him for dragging her kid brother into his seedy business, but Harry insists that the payoff will be enough to set the kid up for whatever in life he wants to do. Anyway, he promises, this is his last job.

Johnny is successful in winning over the romantically gun-shy Jean, but as the two grow closer he begins to have second thoughts. Is he really starting to fall for her? And if so, can he go through with the deception?

Meanwhile, Nimmo gets beat up by thugs working for Big George, a gangster further up the food chain. Big George has decided he's going to take the diamonds from under Harry's nose, and he's not above kidnapping Harry's daughter in order to make sure he gets his way....

Comments: Ambush In Leopard Street isn't the first crime drama to be broadcast on Horror Incorporated, but the ones that we've seen so far (like The Island Monster or The Face Behind the Mask) at least feature a recognizable horror star. Tonight we have a low-budget British heist picture, with no stars at all. 

I'm sorry to report there are no leopards in it either.

Giving the film a fair assessment isn't easy; the only extant version seems to be a 57-minute DVD release from Renown --  16 minutes shorter than the original theatrical cut. I suspect that's why the plot seems as choppy as it does.

But I don't need the extra 16 minutes to tell you that the plot is simple - perhaps too simple - and director J. Henry Piperno fails to provide even the slightest spark of visual interest. The interior sets are dingy and uninteresting with only the most rudimentary lighting; and the frame compositions are pedestrian and unimaginative. 

In Piperno's favor, the focus on small-time London hoods has real potential, and the actors are generally doughy and unattractive -- that is to say, they look like real people, not movie stars. On top of this, the street scenes (actually shot in Ireland) lend credibility to this story about the criminal bottom-feeders in London's rougher quarters. In the hands of a more talented director Ambush In Leopard Street might have been a raw, documentary-like thriller, but the movie tries to follow the template of better-known heist pictures of the 1950s. There's just not enough suspense to make it work. As a result it comes off as plodding and dull.

There are also a number of plot holes that dog the movie from the start. There's no real reason to think Harry's plan should work, since it hinges on a number of factors he can't control: that Jean knows the precise timing of the shipment, that a novice con man like Johnny will be able to wheedle the information out of her, that the van wouldn't take an alternate route or change the schedule at the last moment.

For that matter, sending two guys in a van seems an extremely risky way to carry what would be equivalent today to $9.6 million in diamonds. It seems likely that, even in 1962, the shipment would be outsourced to couriers in an armored car. 

This was a rare starring role for Michael Brennan, an extremely prolific actor who usually played thugs and bartenders. He was in Thunderball and played a club fighter in "The Girl Who Was Death", an episode of TV's The Prisoner.

Ghost Ship 

Synopsis: Guy Thornton (Dermot Walsh) and his wife Margaret (Hazel Court) have recently returned to England after a few years of living in the U.S.A. Guy was in the Canadian navy during the war and the two have the idea of buying a yacht and using it as their home. They see an advertisement for a diesel ship called the Cyclops; upon looking at the ship Guy can see that while it's long been neglected, under all the grime and the peeling paint is a beautiful yacht -- exactly what the couple has been looking for. The dealer seems reluctant to sell, though, telling the couple a strange story that he wants them to consider before purchasing.

The Cyclops had been owned by a married couple, the Martineaus, who one day drew the ship out from her berth -- the very berth she is resting in now, the dealer says -- and set out on a pleasure cruise in the English Channel. With them was the ship's engineer, a very capable man. Some weeks later the Cyclops was discovered, drifting and abandoned. She was found to have absolutely nothing wrong with her. The three people on board had simply vanished.

After an inquest the ship was put up for sale. The new owners became alarmed by many odd things happening on board - a persistent smell of cigar smoke, even though no one on board smoked them; and the ghost of a man that sometimes appeared in the engine room. The owners put the ship up for sale, but the Cyclops' reputation as a haunted vessel has dogged her since.

The Thorntons don't believe in ghosts, but do see the ship's dodgy reputation as a way to get a good price for her. They throw themselves into renovating the Cyclops, and after a great deal of hard work a very handsome yacht emerges. But hiring a crew is nearly impossible: no sailor wants to work on a haunted ship. And before long, Margaret begins to note the overpowering smell of cigar smoke on board, and Guy sees the ghost of a man staring at him down in the engine room....

Comments: Not to be confused with the 1943 Val Lewton film of the same name, Ghost Ship isn't a movie that goes for outright scares, but instead cultivates a growing sense of unease. As horror movies go, it's fairly low-intensity. And given the film's provenance this shouldn't come as a surprise.

British horror in the pre-Hammer days tended to be quite understated, and this film is no exception.  It's a ghost story in the classic sense, one that deftly frames the central mystery of the Cyclops: what happened to the Martineaus and their engineer?  As in many haunted-house stories the couple reaches a crisis point when they realize they were wrong to scoff at the ghost stories (horror films always exact a penalty to scoffers) but find they are trapped. They have sunk all their money into buying and renovating the ship. They can't flee the Cyclops and must find a way to rid her of the ghostly infestation.

 Margaret, who is the more open-minded of the two, confesses to Guy that she has called in an expert from a psychic research organization to assist them. Guy is unhappy about this at first, certain that he's opening their home to a crackpot or a con artist, but finally relents. "What have we got to lose?" he says.

"Ten pounds," Margaret replies. "That's their fee."

Expecting a colorful charlatan, the Thorntons are surprised to meet Dr. Fawcett, an earnest parapsychologist armed with nothing more exotic than a box full of tuning forks, which he uses to demonstrate the way in which sound waves pass through air and other media, such as water. It's the same, Fawcett says, with psychic vibrations.   It's a rather long scene and no film would risk boring the audience with anything like it today, but there's a charm and innocence to it that I found appealing.

The beautiful Hazel Court appeared a number of horror films, most notably Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Corman's Masque of the Red Death, The Raven and The Premature Burial in the early 1960s. To me, however, her most impressive credit is her appearance as Ellen in the completely unhinged Devil Girl From Mars.

Dermot Walsh, like his fellow castmembers, was a bread-and-butter actor who could easily jump between lead and supporting roles, and seems to have done a fair amount of stage work in his long career.

But the real star of the movie is the Cyclops, the beautiful steam yacht at the center of the story. Unsurprisingly, the yacht was owned by writer and director Vernon Sewell. Looks like the clever Mr. Sewell was able to write off some maintenance work on the ship out of the film's budget. And why not?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Strange, Sad Case of "Loving The Classics"

Loving the Classics is a gray-market film distributor out of Appleton, Wisconsin that I've bought from a number of times over the years, and in the early days of this blog it was one of the places I linked to when talking about where to buy hard-to-find movies. For an operation catering to the film collector market they had a pretty deep catalog, a busy, well-organized web presence and a fairly aggressive email outreach to buyers. They would offer a lot of sales and specials, and their films came in handsome snap cases emblazoned with cover art and the LTC logo.

But Loving The Classics has not been my go-to purveyor for a long time. The main reason is that they have been painfully slow on the fulfillment end. An order with them took at least three weeks to fulfill, usually more. And if there was a problem with the disc - as sometimes happened - LTC would take its time sending a replacement.

Things took a turn for the worse late last summer. Customers began complaining on the company's Facebook page that orders weren't being fulfilled. Despite a few cheerful replies that they were "behind" on filling orders, things only went downhill from there, and the complaints grew.

It was around this time that I ordered a title from them, and a long wait (around six weeks) a disc arrived in the mail. But the movie I ordered wasn't on it. Instead, there was hodge-podge of short subjects on the disc, with the movie I wanted nowhere to be found.

I sent numerous emails to the customer support address. No response.

I called the phone number listed on their site. It rang into an after-hours message, even during business hours. I never got a call back.

Eventually, I packed up the disc and mailed it back to the company, with a note explaining the problem. No response to that either.

Finally - having run out of other ways to reach them -- I posted on the company's Facebook page. There was no response to that either, and after a month or so I gave up.

 But just last week I got the following email:


I'm sorry no one has been in touch sooner, but we don't spend a lot of time on Facebook. I see from your post that you have had a problem dealing with us and for that I am truly sorry. I would like to get the situation resolved to your satisfaction and I do hope you will give us that opportunity. I look forward to hearing back from you when you have a free moment.


Customer Service

This was a nice (though probably canned) note to receive after nearly six months of silence, but it puzzled me. Consider the first sentence: I'm sorry no one has been in touch sooner, but we don't spend a lot of time on Facebook.

The obvious response to that is, why not?

If your company maintains a Facebook page, doesn't it make sense to check the page regularly -- at least once a day -- in case there are customer complaints that require follow-up?

So - they don't spend much time checking voicemail, email or peeking into the mailbox either, judging by how quickly they've responded in those areas.

It certainly didn't surprise me when my response to Brenda's email went unanswered.

Anyway, a quick Google search indicates that the LTC staff has been busy -- posting missives claiming they're being unfairly targeted by their enemies (whoever they are). These posts have appeared on a number of web sites -- including (for some reason) LinkedIn:

Curiouser and curiouser.

The manifesto claims that everyone thinks Loving the Classics is a great site, and their customer service is wonderful, and anyone who says otherwise has either missed all the glowing testimonials on their web site, or is a nefarious nogoodnik trying to wreck the reputation of a wildly successful and eminently responsible company which brings joy to millions. North Korea couldn't write a more zany or paranoid press release. The only thing missing is a declaration that Loving the Classic's enemies are sniveling capitalist dogs who will soon die in a storm of atom bombs.

So in the end, what's the story on Loving the Classics? Spectacularly inept and self-destructive company? North Korean front organization? Mafia vanity project? CIA false-flag operation? We may never know.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Friday, September 15, 1972: Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber) operates a museum of the occult, located in the former mansion of a famous Gypsy queen named Marie LaTour.  Dr. Morris tells assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) that he is about to publish a ground-breaking work on Marie LaTour, which will reveal important new information about her life.  

Elsa leaves to pick up Dr. Morris' son Bob (Stephen Crane) at the train station, but when the two of them return to the LaTour mansion they find Dr. Morris has been killed by an animal - apparently a wolf.  Moreover, the notes he has compiled for his manuscript have been tossed into the fireplace and are mostly burned, and a tour guide who was present at the museum (John Abbott) is now babbling incoherently, his mind apparently broken by what he witnessed. 

Bob and Elsa devise a way to reconstruct some of the information from the burned notes, and this leads them to investigate the mythology and practices of the Gypsies.  Marie LaTour had purportedly been a werewolf, and as the Gypsies are a matriarchal society, her daughter -- also named Marie LaTour  (Nina Foch)-- has inherited her lycanthropy. 

Meanwhile, Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McLane) doggedly tries to solve the murder without resorting to occult explanations.  This is surprisingly difficult, since Elsa, his first prime suspect, is cleared because her fingerprints don't match those found at the scene of the crime, and museum janitor Jan Spavero, his second prime suspect, ends up getting mauled by a wolf. ...


Like its predecessor Return of the Vampire, this rare Columbia horror outing begins with a head-scratching opening crawl:
 The ancient belief is still held by many that anything that happens in the world is never lost. No sparrow falls unnoted -- no tree crashes in the forest unheard. The sorrows, the joys, the loves and the hates of past generations live on in people's memories, in their legends and their stories.

Perhaps our story is something that has lived on in a person's memory or perhaps it is just a legend -- 
 Return of the Vampire's title card was confusing and unnecessary, but at least it knew when to quit. This one won't shut up.

Blah, blah, blahbity blah blah....

But instead of just tapping our feet and waiting impatiently for the movie to start, let's pause and examine this title card for a moment. The first thing we notice is that the language is almost comically grandiloquent; one can imagine John Abbott's tour guide delivering all this mumbo-jumbo in his smooth Shakespearean cadence.

But what, if anything, does it all mean?

First we are assured that the idea that "anything that happens in the world is never lost" is an "ancient belief that is still held by many". This is a bit vague but we are immediately given two examples of the sorts of things that aren't lost. First: "No sparrow falls unnoted". This is clearly derived from Matthew 10:29-31:

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

The second example, "No tree crashes in the forest unheard" is presumably based on a well-known philosophical riddle -- "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, does it make any sound?"  It's a conundrum that's been posed in various forms since the 19th century.

These two examples are actually incompatible, because the first refers to a New Testament assurance that God watches over the universe and is aware of everything that happens; and the second to a epistemological riddle about whether, outside the range of human perception, anything can be said to happen at all. Yet here they are cludged together, pressed into the service of another idea that immediately follows: "the sorrows, the joys, the loves and the hates of past generations live on in people's memories, in their legends and their stories."

Note that the memories themselves aren't said to live on; this is something more primal. Only the strongest human emotions - "the sorrows, the joys, the loves and the hates of past generations" are carried over, like layers of sediment. This seems to be a little bit of foreshadowing, prepping us for the ancient gypsy resentments against prying outsiders, which will figure prominently in the plot.

We come now to the final line in the card:

Perhaps our story is something that has lived on in a person's memory or perhaps it is just a legend.

 Up to this point, Cry of the Werewolf's opening crawl seemed to be working (however imperfectly) toward some kind of  a point; but now the whole thing suddenly runs off the rails. The final sentence contains the qualifier "perhaps" not once but twice; and it can't decide what we're about to see falls under "memory" or "legend". In fact, faced with this choice, it hedges yet again, first proffering "memory" and ending meekly with "just a legend". 

We've seen some bad opening crawls on Horror Incorporated -- remember this one from The Beast With 5 Fingers?

An opening crawl is rarely a good idea. They are usually tacked onto the front of a movie because someone has gotten scared that the audience won't be able to follow what's happening -- never a vote of confidence. In The Beast With 5 Fingers, the crawl is evidently used to reassure the audience that what they're about to see isn't actually a horror movie. 

I'm not sure what Cry of the Werewolf is using the crawl for; it winds up as little more than a bit of cinematic throat-clearing, and was presumably dropped into an early draft of the screenplay and no one had the sense to take it out.

Even when a crawl is necessary to set the scene, it has to be very carefully written; every word counts. Here's an example of one that does everything right:

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Interlude: Dinosaurs Are Coming To This Town

From 1989, here's an impressive TV commercial promoting limited edition dinosaur stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. It's a clever pastiche of 50's sci-fi movies, directly referencing Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It Came From Outer Space. The woman who appears at the end reminds me a bit of the Joan Weldon's character in Them! -- another film set in the desert southwest.

The ad was clearly done with affection by someone who knew these films.