MODs of the Week: Boris Karloff, B Noir, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith and More
Warner Archives' Boris Karloff Triple Feature showcases a hat trick of lesser-known features in the iconic actor's prolific c.v., which also underscore his versatility in genres outside of horror, for which he was best known. Karloff dons yellowface to play a Chinese bandit general in West of Shanghai (1937), one of several screen version of Porter Emerson Browne and Charles Hanson Towne's novel The Bad Man (1920), which Browne also adapted as a play in 1921. Director John Farrow's take moves the action from Mexico to China, where Karloff's "White Tiger" settles a love triangle between oil men Ricardo Cortez and Gordon Oliver and Beverly Roberts' as Cortez's missionary ex-wife. Farrow also directs Karloff in The Invisible Menace (1938) - not to be confused with the Karloff/Lugosi vehicle The Invisible Ray (1936). which, despite its menacing title, is a lightweight courtroom drama (again, based on a play) with Karloff shouldering most of of the dramatic weight as the suspect in a murder on a military base. His talent for sympathetic turns receives a better showcase in
Warner also has a quartet of lesser known noir titles that, while not quite classics of the genre, employ enough stylistic touches or bursts of creative energy to warrant interest from fans of hard-boiled cinema. Though "best" isn't the appropriate descriptive phrase for Death in Small Doses (1957), with Peter Graves as a FDA agent investigating the effects of illegal amphetamine use on truckers, it's hard to deny the film's cautionary-cum-hysterical stance on "thrill pills" or Chuck Connors' absolutely berserk turn as a hip flipster hot-wired on bennies. Code Two (1953) also rattles and hums on the strength of an offbeat turn by Ralph Meeker, who offers a variation on the smirky heel persona he perfected throughout his career, most notably as a brutish Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1953). Here, Meeker is an over-confident LAPD cadet whose induction into the motorcycle division provides a path to Responsible Maturity and Citizenship as well as some boss footage of vintage bikes in action. The foursome is rounded out with Murder is My Beat (1955), a minor thriller nearly undone by the leaden presence of Paul Langton as its lead, but rescued by director Edgar G. Ulmer's visual inventiveness on a microbudget and the lurid allure of Barbara Payton, making one of her final stops on her descent down the Hollywood ladder to her sad end. A lively cast also does much for Scene of the Crime (1949), a rare noir effort for MGM with Van Johnson as an LA detective on the trail of cop killers, with Arlene Dahl and Gloria De Haven as his concerned spouse and a burlesque dancer with connections to the thugs, respectively. Lots of snappy dialogue by Charles Schnee (Red River, The Bad and the Beautiful), a proto-police procedural approach and a loopy turn by Norman Lloyd as a a jive stoolie named Sleeper make it an agreeable if not essential addition to your midnight-to-dawn crime patrols.
Also on deck this week: The Mudlark (Fox Cinema Archives), Jean Negulesco's 1950 period drama about a 19th century street urchin (Andrew Ray) whose quest to meet Queen Victoria (Irene Dunne) inspires her to end her seculsion after the death of Prince Albert. Alec Guinness is on hand to deliver an epic (6 1/2 minute) speech as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, as is a robust Finlay Currie as Victoria's assistant, Scotsman John Brown. Meanwhile, the Sony Choice Collection has Alan J. Pakula's Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), a fizzy bit of romance anchored by Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms as a pair of mismatched travelers who fall in love while on vacation in Spain. The pair elevate Alvin Sargeant's cottony comedy-drama until their best efforts are undone by a Love Story-inspired ending that upends the whole sweet but sudsy affair. -- Paul Gaita