18 Days of Paranoia #10: The Quiller Memorandum (dir by Michael Anderson)


The 1966 film, The Quiller Memorandum, is a diabolically clever little spy thriller.

The film opens with a British secret agent getting gunned down while trying to make a call from a phone booth in Berlin.  While we never learn the exact name of the agency that the man was working for, we do discover that they don’t take kindly to their agents getting gunned down in phone booths.  They send in another agent, an American named Quiller (George Segal), to take his place.

In Berlin, Quiller’s boss is a man named Pol (Alec Guinness).  Pol explains that the man in the phone booth was actually the second of his agents to be assassinated in Berlin.  All of the agents were looking for information about a Neo-Nazi group called Phoenix.  Pol tells Quiller that it is vitally important they discover just where, in Berlin, Phoenix is headquartered.  Quiller is given a few items that were found on the dead man in the phone booth: a bowling alley ticket, a swimming pool ticket, and a newspaper article about a school where it was discovered that one of the teachers had Nazi sympathies.

Though The Quiller Memorandum was undoubtedly produced with the hopes of capitalizing on the popularity of the Bond films, Quiller is no James Bond.  We know that as soon as we see him.  It’s not just that Quiller’s an American while Bond was British.  It’s also that James Bond was played by the cool and calculating Sean Connery while Quiller is played by George Segal.  Whereas Connery’s Bond never loses his confidence, Segal’s Quiller comes across as being, at first, a bit cocky and, as a result, we worry about him.  Whereas Connery’s Bond rarely gave his actions a second thought, Segal brings a slightly neurotic edge to Quiller.  You take one look at Connery’s Bond and you know that he’s going to survive no matter what.  Quiller, however, you never get that feeling.  When he’s in danger, you worry about him because it’s easy to imagine him turning up like the man in the phone booth.

And, indeed, it doesn’t take long for Quiller to get captured by the members of Phoenix.  A man bumps him with a suitcase, injecting a drug into his system that makes Quiller become drowsy.  When Quiller awakens, he’s being interrogated by an erudite man named Oktober (Max von Sydow).  Oktober’s an aristocrat.  He speaks in a very calm tone, rarely showing any hint of anger.  The only thing that betrays his evil nature are his eyes, which are cold and soulless.

Even though Quiller survives the interrogation, it’s tempting to give up on him.  After all, Quiller got captured so easily and Oktober seems so clever that you kind of find yourself wondering if maybe the agency made a mistake when they gave this mission to Quiller.  That’s where The Quiller Memorandum surprises you, though.  Quiller turns out to be a lot more clever and resourceful than anyone gave him credit for being and, for that matter, the film itself turn out to have a few more twists and turns in store for the viewer.

It’s a clever and enjoyable spy film, featuring wonderful performances from Segal, Guinness, von Sydow, and Senta Berger as the teacher who may be in love with Quiller or who may have an agenda of her own.  The film may be a spy thriller but Michael Anderson directs it as if its a film noir, full of shadowy streets and morally ambiguous characters.  The script, by Harold Pinter, encourages us to trust no one and Anderson’s direction reminds us that we made the right decision.  On the dark streets of Cold War Berlin, no one is who they seem.

The Quiller Memorandum is a must-see for fans of 60 spy films.  Watch it with someone who you think you can trust.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 23: Spring Cleaning Edition


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Continuing my quest to watch all these movies sitting in my DVR (so I can record more movies!), here are six more capsule reviews for you Dear Readers:

FIFTH AVENUE GIRL (RKO 1939; D: Gregory LaCava) – A minor but entertaining bit of screwball froth revolving around rich old Walter Connolly , who’s got  problems galore: his wife (the criminally underrated Veree Teasdale) is cheating on him, his son (Tim Holt in a rare comedy role) is a polo-playing twit, his daughter (Kathryn Adams) in love with the socialism-spouting chauffer (James Ellison ), and his business is facing bankruptcy because of labor union troubles. On top of all that, no one remembers his birthday! The downcast Connolly wanders around Central Park, where he meets jobless, penniless, and practically homeless Ginger Rogers, and soon life on 5th Avenue gets turned upside-down! Ellison’s in rare form as the proletariat Marxist driver, 

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Ivanhoe (dir by Richard Thorpe)


Welcome to England in the 12th century!

That’s the setting of the 1952 best picture nominee, Ivanhoe.  It’s a green and healthy land, full of chivalrous knights and corrupt royalty and outlaws who steal from the rich and give to the poor.  King Richard the Lion Heart (Norman Wooland) left on a crusade and he hasn’t been seen for a while.  Richard’s evil brother, the cowardly King John (Guy Rolfe), rules the country and has little interest in making sure that Richard returns.  Even when Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers that Richard is being held for ransom, John declines to do anything about it.

Ivanhoe is determined to raise the money to pay the ransom and restore Richard to the throne of England, even if he has to secretly compete in a tournament to do it.  Of course, before he can do that, he’ll have to buy a horse and some armor.  Fortunately, he comes across Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).  Isaac and Rebecca give Ivanhoe the money necessary to purchase a good horse and equipment.  Rebecca falls in love with Ivanoe, despite the fact that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena (Joan Fontaine, who spends most of the movie looking rather bored).

Speaking of love, the king’s favorite knight — the hot-headed but honorable Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — has fallen in love with Rebecca.  That, of course, complicates matters when the anti-Semitic King John attempts to have the Jewish Rebecca burned at the stake for witchcraft.  When Ivanhoe invokes the “wager of challenge,” in an effort to save Rebecca’s life, Sir Brian is chosen as the court’s champion.  Needless to say, this leads to some awkward moments….

Listen, I would be lying if I said that it was easy for me to follow the plot of Ivanhoe.  It seemed like every few minutes, someone else was plotting against either Ivanoe or King John and it got a bit difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish.  By the time Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) showed up, I have given up trying to make sense of the plot.

Instead of worrying about the exact details of the plot, I decided to just enjoy the film as a spectacle.  If nothing else, Ivanhoe is gorgeous to look at.  The colors are lush and full and the costumes and the sets are all wonderfully ornate.  Apparently, 12 Century England was a very colorful place.  There’s a lot of battles and jousts and sword fights.  I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting who but at least the film moved at a steady pace.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine make for a dull leading couple but a young Elizabeth Taylor is stunning in the role of Rebecca and George Sanders transforms Sir Brian into a truly tragic figure.  Guy Rolfe is memorably evil as King John, though he’s perhaps not as much fun as Oscar Isaac was in Robin Hood.  Everyone in the movie looks good in their period costuming.  Really, that’s the most important thing.

Ivanhoe was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Greatest Show On Earth.

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3


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To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest…

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Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)


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(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter…

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Gothic Art: Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (United Artists 1940)


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REBECCA is unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece. I remember watching it for the first time in a high school film class, enthralled as much by its technical aspects as the story itself. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s  first American film, though with a decidedly British flavor, and his only to win the Best Picture Oscar. There’s a lot of film noir shadings to this adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s  Gothic novel, as well as that distinctive Hitchcock Touch.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, begins Joan Fontaine’s narration, as the camera pans down a dark road overgrown with brush and weeds, fog rolling in all around, as we come up on the once majestic castle called Manderley, now lying in ruins. This first shot was all done with miniatures, another wonderful example of Hitchcock’s innovative use of the camera, looking and feeling totally believable (take that, CGI!). Flashbacks bring us to when Fontaine’s character, who’s…

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Horror on the Lens: The Lodger (dir by John Brahm)


Today’s horror on the lens is 1944’s The Lodger, a remake of Hitchcock’s silent classic.

This creepy little story of paranoia and murder in the London fog features an excellent performance from Laird Cregar and is definitely one of the best films ever made about Jack the Ripper!

Enjoy!

Horror Film Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir by Albert Lewin)


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Hello and welcome to the start of TSL’s annual October horrorthon!  All through the month of October, our focus will be on horror.  We will be sharing reviews and thoughts on some of the best (and worst) horror films ever made!  I have to admit that this is my favorite time of the year.  I love horror … like all good people!

I want to start things off by taking a look at a film from 1945.  The Picture of Dorian Gray is based on the famous novel by Oscar Wilde (a novel that some people think was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders).  Dorian Gray (played by Hurd Hatfield) is a young and handsome aristocrat who lives in 19th century London.  When we first meet him, Dorian is intelligent, kind and virtuous.  He’s also more than a little boring.  He is the bland face of the establishment, a man destined to be celebrated for his position in society and largely forgotten after his death.

Dorian is posing for a painting that’s being done by his friend, an artist named Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore).  One day, Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) stops by the studio while Basil is painting Dorian.  Lord Henry is everything that Dorian Gray is not.  He’s a worldly and cynical man and he is very proud to live a life devoted to complete and total hedonistic pleasure.  He immediately sets out to corrupt Dorian and it turns out to be a lot easier than he was expecting.  Henry convinces Dorian that he can have everything that he wants as long as he’s young and handsome.  Dorian announces that he wishes the painting could age instead of him…

Now, here’s where the film takes a huge departure from Wilde’s novel.  In the novel, the painting ages while Dorian stay young.  No specific reason is given.  Instead, it’s just something that happens.  In the film, it turns out that Basil owns an ancient Egyptian statue and that the statue has mystical powers.  Dorian makes his wish in front of the statue and that’s why the painting starts to age.  Personally, I think the bit with the Egyptian statue is unnecessary and a little bit silly.  To me, the story is a lot more effective if the painting starts to age without an explanation.  The filmmakers obviously disagreed.

But no matter!  In the end, the Egyptian statue isn’t that important.  What is important that, freed from getting old or physically suffering for his actions, Dorian transforms into a different person.  Soon, he’s even more hedonistic than Lord Henry.  When he breaks the heart of a tragic singer named Sybil Vane (Angela Lansbury, in a poignant and Oscar-nominated performance), Dorian sees that the painting is now cruelly smirking while his own face remains innocent and untouched.  When Dorian eventually commits a murder to keep his secret from getting out, the blood appears on the painting’s hands while his own remain clean.

And the years pass.  Dorian finds himself both being hunted by Sybil’s brother (Richard Fraser) and falling in love with the niece (Donna Reed) of a man that he earlier murdered.  Dorian never ages but his portrait becomes more and more twisted.  What’s particularly interesting is that we see little of Dorian’s evil actions.  Instead, we watch and listen as other characters whisper about the horrific things that he’s done.  Physically, Dorian remains an innocent and young aristocrat.  But all we have to do is look at the picture and we can see what a monster Dorian has become…

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an absolutely gorgeous film, one that is full of elaborate sets that are often cast in shadow.  (It’s interesting to note that the more corrupt Dorian becomes, the darker and more shadowy his estate becomes.)  The film is in black-and-white, with the exception of three scenes in which the portrait is revealed in all of its Technicolor glory.  If that sounds like a gimmick … well, it is.  But it’s an amazingly effective gimmick.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic exercise in psychological horror.  See it the next chance you get!

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The Fabulous Forties #27: Sundown (dir by Henry Hathaway)


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You may remember how, back in April, I started on a mission to review all 50 of the films included in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.  I actually got off to a pretty good start and, by the end of the month, I was about halfway through.  Yay me!

However, then the month of May began.  And May turned out to be a very, very busy month.  As I sit here writing this, it’s been 27 days since I last posted a Fabulous Forties review.  That review was …. well, I can’t even remember what it was.  After I post this, I’ll click on this link to find out.

However, things have calmed down a bit and now I can go ahead and finish up the Fabulous Forties box set.  And that’s a good thing because, between me and you, I am more than ready to move on to the Nifty Fifties box set!

Anyway, without further ado, let’s consider the 27th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties, 1941’s Sundown!

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Sundown was released by United Artists in 1941.  It’s a propaganda film, telling the story of British soldiers in North Africa and their attempts to both maintain the peace among the natives and to keep the Axis powers from arming the local rebels.  Bruce Cabot is the experienced soldier who knows how things work in Africa.  George Sanders is the new commander who is a bit more by-the-book.  At first, you think that the film is going to be dominated by the rivalry between Sanders and Cabot but actually it’s not much of a rivalry.  For the most part, they get along just fine and I guess that’s to be expected considering that the film was made at a time when the emphasis was on everyone remaining unified against the Nazis.

Speaking of the Axis powers, they’re always in hovering in the shadows of the film but it’s rare that we actually see any enemy soldiers.  Perhaps this is because the film was made at a time when the United States was technically neutral.  Joseph Calleia plays a prisoner of war who has rejected fascism and instead just wants to sing opera and cook for Sanders and Cabot.  Calleia’s character is specifically identified as being an Italian.  If not for that (and the fact that the film was made in 1941), it would be just as easy to assume that Sanders and Cabot were fighting the French or maybe the Russians.

There’s an enemy agent in one of the tribes and it’s up to Sanders and Cabot to figure out who.  Helping them out is the local big game hunter, played by Harry Carey.  And, on top of that, there’s also a mysterious native woman played by Gene Tierney.  Gene Tierney is totally miscast but that adds to this film’s odd charm.

And, for modern viewers, it definitely is an odd charm.  I watched Sundown twice and I’m still not sure exactly what happened in the film.  Sundown is one of those films that doesn’t so much have a plot as it just has a lot of scenes that kind of tell a story, assuming that you have the patience and concentration to figure out how they all link together.  Between Cabot’s roguish smile, Sanders’s stiff upper lip performance, Calleia’s enjoyable overacting, and Gene Tierney’s otherworldly beauty, Sundown is unexpectedly dream-like.  The film even features a sudden sermon in which a clergyman (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) exhorts everyone to fight.  The clergyman is never seen again.

Sundown was a strange movie, one that I often found myself struggling to follow.  It was also apparently a box office bomb, though it did receive 3 Oscar nominations.  One of those nominations was for Charles Lang’s cinematography and it was definitely deserved.  Even the version I saw (which suffered from a typically poor Mill Creek transfer) was still impressive to look at.

The Fabulous Forties #11: The Strange Woman (dir Edgar G. Ulmer)


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The eleventh film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s The Strange Woman.  The Strange Woman is one of those film noir/small town melodrama hybrids that seem to have been something of a cinematic mainstay in the mid to late 40s.

The Strange Woman of the title is Jenny Hager (Hedy Lamarr) and she’s not just strange because she’s got an Eastern European accent despite having grown up in Bangor, Maine.  The film opens in 1824 and we watch as tween Jenny pushes one her classmates into a river, despite the fact that he can’t swim.  At first, she seems content to let him drown.  However, once she realizes that an adult is watching, Jenny jumps into the river and saves his life.

Ten years later, Jenny has grown up to be the most beautiful woman in Maine.  However, her father is abusive and regularly whips her as punishment for being too flirtatious.  Jenny has plans, though.  She wants to marry the richest man in town, a store owner and civic leader named Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockahrt).  Isaiah also happens to be the father of Ephraim (Louis Hayward), the young woman who Jenny tried drown at the beginning of the film.

And eventually, Jenny’s dream does come true.  She marries Isaiah, even though she doesn’t love him.  She just wants his money and is frustrated when the sickly Isaiah keeps recovering from his frequent illnesses.  She starts to flirt with the weak-willed Ephraim, trying to manipulate him into killing his father.

Of course, even as she’s manipulating Ephraim, she’s also flirting with John Everd (George Sanders), despite the fact that John is already engaged to the daughter of the local judge.  Though Everd is a good and decent guy, he still finds himself tempted by Jenny.

What makes all of this interesting is that Jenny isn’t just a heartless femme fatale.  Throughout the film, there are several instances when she wants to do good but can’t overcome her essentially heartless nature.  She gives money to charity and, whenever she listens to one of the local fire-and-brimstone preachers, she finds herself tempted to give up her manipulative ways.

The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who is probably best known for directing the ultimate indie film noir, Detour.  He was a childhood friend of Hedy Lamarr’s and she specifically asked that he direct her in The Strange Woman.  As a result, this film represents one of the few times that Ulmer was given a budget that was equal to his talents.  What makes The Strange Woman stand out from other 40s melodramas — like Guest In The House, for example — is that, even with the larger budget, Ulmer’s direction retains the same deep cynicism and dream-like intensity that distinguished his work in Detour.  The film remains sympathetic to Jenny, even as she often suffers the punishments that were demanded by the production code.

In the role of Jenny , Hedy Lamarr is a force of a nature.  She is so intense and determined that watching her as Jenny is a bit like seeing what Gone With The Wind would have been like if Scarlet O’Hara had been a total sociopath.  Even the fact that Lamarr’s accent is definitely not a Maine accent seems appropriate.  It sets Jenny apart from the boring people around her.

It reminds us that, even if she is “strange,” there is no one else like Jenny Hager.

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