The Tomb Of Ligeia(1964)

The history of Gothic Horror and Gothic Romance stretches all the way back to 1764, the year in which Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle Of Otranto was published. This novel is generally considered to be the first Gothic novel ever written. Many authors including Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allen Poe, Matthew Lewis, Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Shelley, Clara Reeve, Emily and Charlotte Bronte all followed in Warpole’s footsteps penning dark and chilling Gothic tales over the coming centuries.

The main tropes usually present in Gothic literature and films are mansions or castles which have dark secrets and mysteries waiting to be uncovered within their walls; a Byronic male love interest who is not what he seems, or who harbours dark or tragic secrets; and a curious and strong willed heroine who seeks to uncover the secrets and to help her troubled man.

Many of the greatest of the Gothic stories seem to work best when their setting is the 1700’s or 1800’s, but there are later stories and films, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, which work just as well with a more modern setting. 

The Tomb Of Ligeia is one of my favourite Gothic Horror films. While it is certainly a creepy horror film, it is at heart a beautiful and tragic love story. I especially love how this film manages to capture the eerie atmosphere, darkness, tragedy and beauty of Edgar Allen Poe’s work, while also being a very touching love story. This has become my favourite film from the Poe cycle of films directed by Roger Corman. 

In 1964, the American horror director Roger Corman was here in the UK to begin work on what would be his eighth and final screen adaptation of a story by Edgar Allen Poe. The film was The Tomb Of Ligeia, which was based upon Poe’s 1838 short story Ligeia. This story may well have been written and published before Poe’s far more famous other literary works came along, but it remains one of his darkest and most tragic tales.

Roger would once again be reunited with Vincent Price on this film. Vincent had become Roger’s regular leading man in the previous Poe films he had made. Although much older than the character in Poe’s story, Vincent never the less suits the role of Verden Fell perfectly, and it is very difficult to imagine anyone else other than him in the role. It was very nearly the case though that Vincent wasn’t cast in the lead role

Roger Corman with Vincent Price and John Westbrook during filming at Castle Acre Priory.

Both Roger Corman and screenwriter Robert Towne(later to find fame as the writer of Chinatown)were actually against Vincent taking the role due to his age. Roger Corman wanted Richard Chamberlain to take the role instead. Vincent’s casting ended up becoming a condition of the films production company AIP(American-International Pictures) in investing in the film, and so he was cast as the lead. Vincent was of course such a big name at the time, and he had become so linked to the horror genre and to these Poe films, that he was a massive draw for audiences when these films were released. He also fit this sort of material perfectly and had done so ever since he was cast in the 1946 Gothic drama Dragonwyck. He brings an emotional depth to the role of Verden Fell that I don’t think would have been there if another actor had been cast. 

British actress Elizabeth Shepherd was cast alongside Vincent, in the duel role of the strong-willed, curious and passionate Rowena, and the sinister Ligeia. Elizabeth absolutely steals the film with her brilliant performance. The film was made on location in Britain, with a large portion of it being shot at the Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk. This film feels and looks quite different from so many of the other Corman/Poe adaptations and the location work is a big reason why in my opinion. So many of the other films in the Poe cycle were very studio bound, whereas this one gains a realism due to the location work. The film also looks different due to a great many scenes taking place outside in daylight and sunshine, but its content is no less dark and strange because of it.

“She will not rest, because she is not dead….to me. And she will not die because she willed not to die.”

Verden Fell

The film tells the tragic love story of the vivacious and fearless Lady Rowena(Elizabeth Shepherd)and the brooding and mysterious Verden Fell(Vincent Price). The pair meet after Rowena breaks away from a local hunt and rides into the ruins of the abbey where Verden lives. She comes across a graveyard in the ruins, and there she finds the grave of the Lady Ligeia(also played by Elizabeth), who was Verden’s wife. Ligeia’s grave is guarded by her pet black cat, who lashes out at Elizabeth startling her horse and causing her to fall off and hurt herself. Verden(clad all in black and rocking a pair of sunglasses which look like the ones from the 1933 Invisible Man film) then suddenly appears and tends to the injured Rowena.

Verdon invites Lady Rowena home.

We can see that as soon as they meet one another the pair are drawn to each other. Rowena bears a uncanny resemblance to Ligeia, which is an added attraction for Verden. 

He seems absolutely grief stricken by the death of his wife and when I first watched this he reminded me somewhat of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights with how he cannot let his wife leave his side to go to the land of the dead.

Verden is constantly at Ligeia’s graveside and is convinced that she will come back to life and be with him again.As the film progresses we learn that there is a dark and terrible reason why he is acting like that, and it isn’t because of grief and love either. Sometimes Verden seems to hate Rowena and becomes afraid of her presence one minute, and then becomes deeply remorseful for his behaviour and becomes gentle and kind to her the next. 

As the film goes on, Verden and Rowena fall in love and get married. Rowena soon discovers that in Verden’s home the dead do not stay dead, and that due to some strange supernatural power, the Lady Ligeia is exerting her will on Verden from beyond the grave. Rowena must find the strength to save her husband and herself, while also trying to fight against forces which are beyond both her understanding and her control. Rowena is one of the strongest Gothic heroines in my opinion. Interestingly the film version of Rowena is very different to the character in Poe’s story, in which she really has no personality and is merely there as a plot device. In the film however, Rowena is brave, strong, self-sufficient, and she has a very strong will indeed. When describing Rowena to Christopher(John Westbrook), a young man of her own class who wants to marry her, Rowena’s father(Derek Francis) says this of her: “Wilful little b***h, ain’t she? Hell to be married to I should think. Her mother certainly was… God rest her soul”. 

Rowena doesn’t conform to the docile female persona that men of the time felt their women should have. Rowena knows what she wants and goes after it. She likes to make her own decisions and she isn’t afraid of darkness and danger. She also has no interest in marrying for money or in marrying the safe and approved type of men she is so often thrown together with. Rowena sees that Verden is brooding, broken and even a little dangerous and frightening, and yet she wants to be with him because she loves him. He in turn genuinely falls in love with her too, and even though he cannot get Ligeia out of his mind, he does try his best with his new wife. 

Vincent Price rocks this whole look!

Vincent is excellent as Verden and makes him the most intriguing character in the film. At first glance Verden seems like the typical Byronic leading man of a Gothic tale, a man of mystery. I love how Vincent draws us in with his performance and makes us at first think he is a heartbroken and damaged man, somewhat akin to Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, a man longing to meet a fresher, purer woman to be his great love.

While some of that description is true, the more we see of Verden, the more that Vincent alters how he plays the character. Vincent’s performance gets much darker and stranger, and he lets us see that there is something more going on here than the typical Gothic character trope we first imagine and assume. Verden also interestingly turns out to be the real victim of the piece rather than Rowena. 

He is also a victim twice over, once due to what we learn has been happening to him, and secondly because of what happens to him at the end of the film. I really like Verden and Rowena and I’m always sad that they don’t get the happiness they deserve, but then it wouldn’t really be a Gothic Horror if that were to happen.

In addition to its intriguing and eerie story, excellent lead and supporting performances, and beautiful costume design, I also want to praise the lovely and suitably atmospheric score by Kenneth V. Jones. The gorgeous cinematography by Hammer regular Arthur Grant is also terrific. I’m of the opinion that The Tomb Of Ligeia is one of the best Gothic Horror/Gothic Romances ever put on screen. It’s also a great deal of spooky fun and a real character piece. You could do much worse than spend an hour and a half with Vincent, Elizabeth and company. 

What are your thoughts on the film? 

Dark Passage(1947)

Dark Passage is one of the most underrated and interesting of all the 1940’s Noir films. Quite why this one isn’t discussed more often is beyond me. It’s a very different looking Film Noir than most and also offers us a glimpse of a far more vulnerable Humphrey Bogart.

The Humphrey Bogart we see in this film is far removed from the cool and tough hero who is fully in control and who we’re so used to seeing, that man who can get himself out of any scrape and not be too phased by what happens to him in the process. His character here on the other hand is a desperate, awkward and frightened man; a man who has no control over his situation and who doesn’t have a clue how to help himself. It’s rare to see Bogie in such a role. Personally I would have liked to have seen him play more similar characters because this shows what a great actor he could be. Bogie’s romantic/affectionate scenes with his wife Lauren Bacall are among some of the most tender I’ve ever seen the couple perform. Dark Passage marked the third time that the couple worked together on screen. Their final screen pairing would come the following year in Key Largo.

Bogie and Bacall with director Delmer Daves.

The film is directed by Delmer Daves and is based upon the 1946 novel of the same name by David Goodis. Much of this was shot on location in San Francisco and that ensured a more realistic feel to the film Dark Passage is based upon the 1946 novel of the same name by David Goodis. Delmer Daves also wrote the screenplay in addition to sitting in the director’s chair. This is one of his finest films along with The Hanging Tree and 3:10 To Yuma.

Delmar Daves had cinematographer Sidney Hickox shoot a large amount of Dark Passage using a subjective camera technique. This technique makes the film unfold before us entirely from the point of view of Humphrey Bogart’s character. For most of the film we don’t see Bogie’s face at all, but we do hear his voice. When we finally do see his face it is heavily bandaged. The film is one hour and 41 minutes long and it takes about an hour before Bogie’s face actually appears on screen. This visual style more than anything else about the film is what makes it such an unusual one.

Irene takes care of Vince.

The point of view photography was pretty risky when you think about it. Bogie was one of the biggest film stars on the planet at this time. Not showing his face for such a large part of the film was a gamble.  Bogie was the draw for a large amount of the audience and they could very easily have walked out of screenings thinking they weren’t going to get to see the man himself. Dark Passage is not alone in the Noir genre for its use of this technique.Actor Robert Montgomery had caused quite a stir when he directed and starred in another Noir film, Lady In The Lake, which had been released earlier in 1947. That film had been shot almost entirely from the point of view of the character of Philip Marlowe(played by Montgomery).

Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart) is in prison for the murder of his wife, a crime that he insists he didn’t commit. Vince escapes from prison and is pursued by the law. While he is on the run he is picked up by a man who agrees to give him a lift. A news report comes on the car radio describing Vincent and causes the driver to recognise his passenger as the described convict. Vince beats the driver up and drags him into some bushes by the roadside and takes his shoes. Suddenly another car pulls up and out gets a young artist called Irene Jansen(Lauren Bacall). Vince doesn’t know her, but she seems to know him(this is all explained later in the film). She tells him to come with her and that she will help him. Irene drive to San Francisco where they encounter a roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge, which leads to a very suspenseful sequence where Irene has to act casual to throw off the suspicions of the police who stop and search her car. Vince hides underneath a large covered pile of her art supplies and narrowly avoids being discovered. Once in the city, Vince gets help from a back-street doctor (Housley Stevenson)who performs plastic surgery on him to give him a new face. 

The scene where Vince prepares for surgery is a standout and it’s made so by the dubious character of the doctor and his fabulous dialogue and laughter as he prepares for surgery – “Ever seen a botched plastic job? If a man like me didn’t like a fella, he could surely fix him up for life. Make him look like a bulldog or a monkey!”. I doubt a man would want to get a shave off this dude, let alone willingly sit back and let him perform facial surgery on them. As the anaesthetic takes effect on Vince, he enters a bizarre nightmare, one where images and conversations he’s had get all mixed up as he goes under.  

Vince emerges with a new face and recovers from his surgery at Irene’s apartment. Once recovered, Vince changes his name and sets about trying to investigate his wife’s murder. His investigation is difficult and dangerous.His only ally in all of this is Irene.

Madge and Vince have a talk.

The one person who knows the truth about his innocence or guilt is Madge Rapf(a scene stealing Agnes Moorehead), the woman whose evidence in court was crucial in getting him put away. Agnes delivers one of her best performances here.

Madge is a real nasty piece of work. She’s the sort of dame who sucks people in, charms them and then discards them.She’s a whole lot of mean encased in one beautiful and glamorous exterior. I hope that Agnes had a lot of fun with this role because it sure looks like she relished playing the part. Such a shame that she didn’t get to play more villainesses in more Noir films. 

Bogie and Bacall are both absolutely terrific here. They convince as a couple thrown together in very unusual circumstances who slowly begin to fall in love. Bogie does a good job of playing a more vulnerable and wounded character than he usually played. Much of his performance here comes via his voice and by the look in his eyes, it’s a more subtle performance than many of his others. He also makes us root for Vince and admire his determination to risk himself in order to find out the truth. Lauren delivers one of her best performances in my opinion. I love her as the determined, confident and fearless Irene. I find her character so interesting because she is actually quite symbolic. 

Irene functions as the traditional white knight figure(a role usually played by men)to Bogie’s man in distress. She appears to him out of nowhere and saves him several times, nurses him, supports him and stands by him. She is his guardian angel and salvation. You could also say that Irene serves as a symbolic maternal figure as well, due to her being the one to bring the new Vince into the world in a way. Vince doesn’t remove his bandages, it is Irene who does that and thereby reveals his new identity to him. Irene is also the one who chooses a new name for Vince too. Farewell, Vincent Parry. Hello, Alan. 

The entire supporting cast all deliver solid performances. The film is an interesting mystery and contains a lot of suspense and thrills. I admit that some of the plot certainly does come across as being somewhat far-fetched, but the film still works despite that. It is a film that deserves to be much more widely discussed and appreciated today. Highly recommended to Noir fans. 

Announcing The Discovering Classic Cinema Blogathon

I’m delighted to announce my first Blogathon here on my new blog. Those of you who knew me when I was blogging a few years ago will remember how much I loved these. I’d love you all to join me for this one.

For this Blogathon the focus is upon how we all came to be classic film fans. How did you discover classic era films, actors, directors etc? Were you raised during the era? Are you a younger fan who has discovered these films via television, film screenings,videos/DVDs or streaming? Was one film alone all it took? Did it take a few films before you were hooked? What do these films mean to you?

If you would like to take part,please sign up below and share your individual stories on the 28th and 29th of December, 2022. Please let me know the name of your blog and what you’re going to call your article. Please take one of the banners below and put it on your blog somewhere to help promote the event.

Please reply here to leave me the links to your posts on or before those dates. I will then link to all your entries on the 28th and 29th. See the participation list below to see who is writing about what.

Happy writing!

Participants

Classic Film And TV Corner – My Classic Film Journey

The Stop Button – Moods And Feelings: Forty Years With Classic Films

Silver Screenings – How Casablanca Ruined me for Modern Film

Films On The Box – Before The Third Man(1949)

RealWeegieMidgetReviews – Favourite songs from movie musicals made before 1979

Pale Writer – Discovering Classics On VHS

4 Star Films – My Film Odyssey

Moon In Gemini – Watching Citizen Kane With My Dad

The Poppity – Escaping with the Classics

The End Of The Affair(1955)

One of Deborah Kerr’s very best performances can be found in this British film adapted from the novel of the same name by Graham Greene, which was published in 1951. The novel is partly based on Greene’s own love affair with Catherine Walston and is dedicated to her.  The film is directed by one of my favourite Noir directors Edward Dmytryk. You could say that the film itself has Noir elements, given that it actually looks like a Film Noir in several scenes due to the lighting and use of shadows. The novel is adapted for the screen by Lenore Coffee who co-wrote the brilliant British Noir Footsteps In The Fog,which was also released the same year.

Sarah and Maurice.

At first glance this appears to be a pretty standard romantic drama, but you quickly come to realise there is so much more going on in this film and this isn’t your average love story at all.

The film tackles the deep and complex issues of desire and longing, faith, atheism, guilt, jealousy and loss. Few films out there have ever dared to tackle some of these subjects in the way this film does. The other thing about this film which stands out is how it shows different perspectives and recollections of the same event as seen by different people.

The film is also pretty daring for the time with how far it pushes against the notorious Hays Code. A good example of this is the scene where Maurice and Sarah start kissing after leaving a restaurant. This scene leaves little to the imagination as to what is about to happen between the two next. Gazing at each with great desire, Miles huskily whispers to Sarah ” I can’t take you home yet”. “No”, she softly replies. Miles then hails a taxi and tells the driver to take them to a hotel. You know what they are going to go and do now. I get goosebumps during that scene due to the sexual tension flying between the two and they look at each other.

Many consider the earlier British film Brief Encounter to be the greatest film ever made about a love affair, but this one is certainly up there alongside it for me. This has all the emotion and complexity of the relationship depicted in David Lean’s film,but The End Of The Affair goes a step further by showing the couple actually giving into their love and desire and allowing themselves to become sexually involved. We also quickly realise that the pair are genuinely in love with one another and that their relationship is not just one based on physical pleasure and lust. They want to be together and be happy, and we find that we want them to be happy too. All of this brings its own set of complications and struggles.

Maurice and Sarah grow closer and meet when they can.

The End Of The Affair is set in London during the Second World War. The Blitz is at its height and ordinary life has been turned on its head. Lonely American writer Maurice Bendrix(Van Johnson)is living in London. He’s been discharged from the army after suffering a leg injury.

Maurice is considering writing a book about a civil servant, so he makes the acquaintance of civil servant Henry Miles(Peter Cushing) in order to do research for the book. As he spends more time with Mr. Miles, Maurice begins to fall in love with Henry’s wife, Sarah(Deborah Kerr),and the two soon embark upon a passionate affair. While their relationship certainly starts off solely because of sexual desire, it quickly becomes clear that a genuine emotional attachment has developed between the two.

Maurice finally feels complete and wanted when he is with Sarah. She feels brought to life in a way she hasn’t been before. Neither can bear to let the other go. During an evening when Maurice and Sarah are together, Maurice goes downstairs and is injured in a bomb attack which nearly kills him. Maurice is distressed that when he recovers Sarah puts an end to their relationship and cuts off all ties with him on the same night. He becomes convinced that she didn’t really love him at all and that she may even have taken up with someone else. When the film later shows us this same event from Sarah’s perspective, we quickly learn how wrong Maurice is in his assumptions. 

After Maurice was caught up in the explosion he was trapped beneath a door and when Sarah went down to check on him he appeared dead. In her despair she offered up a prayer to the God who she doesn’t even believe in to spare the man she loves, but the catch is she says that if he is spared she will no longer see him. A few minutes after that prayer/promise has been uttered, Maurice regains consciousness and comes upstairs to Sarah, who is shocked and devastated to say the least. What confuses her even more is when he says he feels as if he has just been pulled back from a long trip he can’t remember. Does this mean he really did die for a few minutes? Or is it a coincidence and he was unconscious and just felt weird when he regained consciousness? Sarah cleans Maurice up and then leaves.

This is where the film gets really interesting. Sarah is then crippled by guilt and despair about what she has done to Maurice, but she is also struggling with whether or not she believes in God after all. She is in crisis and becomes deeply shaken and confused. The morning after the explosion she comes across a Catholic Priest(the excellent Stephen Murray) who is helping people in a bombed out street not too far from his church. She follows him back to the church and seeks his help and guidance. Deborah is excellent in the church scene. She utterly convinces as a numb, confused, exhausted and distressed woman, who is grappling with something far beyond her understanding. Your heart goes out to her because of how tormented she is. She uttered her prayer/wish because she loves Maurice, but now she feels bound to honour her promise to give him up if he lived. That’s enough to tear anyone apart and mess them up.

The Priest can see how troubled Sarah is and one of the things he says to her is “I don’t see that you have any problem if you made a vow to someone you don’t believe in”. He’s quite right and the truth of his words certainly give her an out. The trouble is she is being drawn more and more to feeling like she does believe there is a God and therefore fears breaking her word.

Next she seeks out Richard Smythe(the very underrated Michael Goodliffe), a known atheist who regularly speaks in public in the city about God and religion. Smythe tells her “You mean above all the bombing and cries of men in battle, some supreme being heard your little cry of help?” That line always hits home because it raises the issue of if such a being does exist, why doesn’t it help everyone? Why does it demand total one way unconditional love? Why does it allow so much suffering, hate and misery? Why doesn’t it show itself to everyone so there is proof it exists? Why does it demand people follow its rules or risk eternal punishment for not doing so? Why must some people face life long unhappiness and even a risk of death because they endure hate,oppression and exclusion by certain religious groups because of what sexuality or gender they happen to be? Sarah finds no comfort from Smythe and is left feeling even more torn apart internally than she did before seeking advice and comfort from both sides of the issue.

The atheist views of Smythe also make me think of all the people in the world who have given up or fought internally against something they want, nothing that will harm or damage anyone else, just something which brings them great happiness and joy, all because in the Bible it says that thing is supposedly a sin. For example think how many unhappy and abused wives have been forced over the centuries to stay with a cruel husband because the marriage vows were deemed absolutely sacred and unbreakable. 

Henry and Sarah.

While Sarah isn’t even remotely abused, she is in a loveless marriage and finds a brief escape with a man she had an affair with before she met Maurice. In Maurice however, Sarah finds far more than physical pleasure and comfort, she finds the first man she is truly in love with, and he is in love with her in return.

Don’t they deserve to be happy together? Isn’t it far more dishonest for her to stay with Henry and make out she loves him for the rest of her life when she doesn’t? True they are fond of one another, and he is a decent man who loves her in his own way and cares for her, but they are not in love and he can be rather distant. Why must she be condemned to live a lie and be unhappy?

I particularly like how the film shows that one can become religious or change their mind about it at any point in life, even if for most of your life you haven’t been a person of faith. The only thing that I don’t think is fair is the inference that Smythe(representing the atheists)only holds the views he does because he is a bitter and damaged man who has suffered because of the terrible birthmark on his face. It makes out that an atheist can only possibly be an atheist because they’ve been hurt in some way and have asked/prayed for help, and found no help came to them,and so because of that they don’t believe in God out of spite. I don’t think that’s true or fair at all, and quite frankly that seems like a way to just dismiss the opinions of those who don’t believe what the religious masses choose to believe.

I’m an agnostic. The way I see it the simple fact of the matter is none of us will know whether there is or isn’t life after death until the second we actually die. Either we will go into a sleep from which we never wake, or something else will happen. Quite how people can claim that they know for a fact there is or isn’t an afterlife or a God has always made me laugh. None of us will know until we take that one way trip which we are all destined to take at some point. Just try and be a nice and decent person throughout your life. The character of Henry seems to be of a similar way of thinking on this to myself. When asked by Sarah what he believes in, he says “It’s all quite simple really. One just does one’s best”. What more can any of us do?

Sadly tragedy and more struggles lie just around the corner for Sarah, Maurice and Henry. Much like with Brief Encounter there is no happy ending to be found here, but there is acceptance, honesty and new perspectives on things.

Deborah is excellent as Sarah and really does some of her very best work in this film. She steals every scene with just a look. I’m always impressed the most by her physical transformation from an elegant, happy, outgoing young woman, to a troubled and ill looking woman who is ironically now living a hellish existence because of her new found belief in God. She looks beaten down and completely worn out. Deborah received a well deserved BAFTA nomination for her performance.

Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson deliver two of their best performances as Sarah and Maurice.

Van Johnson is equally good and it’s a credit to him that he doesn’t seem pushed aside on screen once the focus is turned upon Sarah’s internal struggles. Maurice undergoes almost as much change as Sarah does.

Van is tender and passionate one minute, jealous and angry the next, confused and devastated the next. The scene where he reads Sarah’s journal and finally understands her story and what she has been going through, absolutely destroys me. Van’s acting in that scene is all in the eyes, and he absolutely nails how heartbroken and moved Maurice is at what he is reading. Van and Deborah make a great pair and I wish they had worked together again after this. 

Peter Cushing isn’t in the film very much, but he is terrific when he does show up. He makes Henry come across as a decent man who finds it difficult to open up and really share how he is feeling. You can see why Sarah likes him but isn’t in love with him. 

John Mills is good as the private detective hired by Maurice to trail Sarah. His presence and personality certainly lighten the film up a bit when he appears. It’s always struck me as a bit odd that he was cast in this role though. John was a major star at this point and the role isn’t very big at all, so one wonders why he took the role.

Both Stephen Murrary and Michael Goodliffe are excellent in their small, but very key roles. Both of these men are two of the finest character actors our country has ever produced. I’m most struck by Stephen’s subtle performance.

I’m always surprised to learn that so few people know about this film. Not only is it a very touching love story, but it’s also quite thought provoking. I also appreciate that it offers viewers with different opinions on faith some scenes/moments which will speak to them and them alone. If you’re looking for a film which challenges the viewers expectations and tackles some very deep issues and questions, then this is definitely one for you. It was remade in 1999 with Ralph Fiennes as Maurice, Julianne Moore as Sarah and Stephen Rea as Henry. The remake is very good but it lacks the depth and power of this version.

What do you think of this film?

Sherlock Holmes And Beyond: A Profile Of Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone was one of the finest actors working during the classic film era. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he gained worldwide fame and appreciation, not only for his superb portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, but also for all of those memorable screen villains that he played so often. There are not enough words for me to be able to use to tell you how much I love and admire this man. He was such a brilliant actor and I’ve always been in awe at how he made everything he did on screen appear completely effortless.

Not only do I love him as an actor, but I admire him so much for what he went through during the First World War and how he somehow managed to continue on in life after suffering such immense loss and tragedy. I also like that he appeared to be a humble, down to earth and sensitive man in real life. 

My introduction to Basil Rathbone came about in the early 2000’s when I first watched The Adventures Of Robin Hood(1938), in which Basil plays the dastardly and extremely dashing, Sir Guy Of Gisbourne. What presence he has in that film! I was left both impressed and intrigued by Basil after seeing this film, and I set about checking out as many of his other films as I could find from then on. I’ve been a fan of his ever since. 

Sir Guy and Robin fight a duel in The Adventures Of Robin Hood.

As much as I love The Adventures Of Robin Hood for the exciting story and Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland as Robin and Marion, what I love most about it is how Basil, along with co-star Claude Rains, effortlessly steals the film from everyone else in the cast.

Whether he’s duelling with Errol Fynn’s heroic Robin, or shooting a withering glance at someone, Basil has your attention throughout that film and commands your attention even when he’s actually doing very little. The nail-biting and thrilling duel at the end between Robin and Sir Guy is a moment that you don’t forget in a hurry.

 If you are left with the impression that Basil handles a sword pretty well in that sequence, then you’d be right. Basil was twice the British Army fencing champion and was a natural at swordfighting. While Sir Guy loses his duel with Robin, I would put good money on Basil having been the winner if that had been an off-screen duel being fought for real. 

Basil Rathbone was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 13th of June, 1892. His parents, Edgar and Anna Barbara, were British. Anna Barbara was a violinist. Edgar was a mining engineer and a member of the Liverpool Rathbone family, who were merchants and shipowners famous for their philanthropic work. Basil was the third of five children. He had two older half-brothers, Harold and Horace, and two younger siblings, Beatrice and John.Basil was very close with his younger brother and sister. The Rathbone’s fled South Africa when Basil was three years old after Edgar was accused by the Boers of being a British spy. Back in England, Basil attended the Repton School in Derbyshire from 1906 to 1910. After leaving school he briefly worked as an insurance clerk. Basil first trod the boards in April, 1911, at the Theatre Royal in Ipswitch. The play was The Taming Of The Shrew and Basil played the role of Hortensio. Between 1912 and 1915, Basil played various Shakespearean characters on stage.

When the First World War broke out Basil didn’t join up until 1916, when he joined the British army London Scottish Regiment, a regiment which also included amongst its ranks three fellow future acting legends – Claude Rains, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall. Basil was awarded a commission as a Second Lieutenant. Basil’s younger brother John was also caught up in the war, serving in the 3rd Battalion, the Dorset Regiment. John had left school in 1915 and volunteered to join up that same year. In February, 1917, the Rathbone brothers were reunited in London where they convalesced together. Basil was recovering from the measles and John was recovering from chest wounds sustained in the Battle Of The Somme. 

As soon as Basil was well enough he rejoined his unit and was sent out to the trenches. John would not be well enough to return to the front until 1918. That year John’s regiment ended up being stationed close to Basil’s out in France, and the two brothers were once again reunited. Basil remembered their reunion in his memoir. “John and I spent a glorious day together. He had an infectious sense of humor and a personality that made friends for him wherever he went. In our mess on that night he made himself as well-liked as in his own regiment. We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey. We shared my bed and were soon sound asleep. It was still dark when I awakened from a nightmare. I had just seen John killed. I lit the candle beside my bed and held it to my brother’s face—for some moments I could not persuade myself that he was not indeed dead. At last I heard his regular gentle breathing. I kissed him and blew out the candle and lay back on my pillow again. But further sleep was impossible. A tremulous premonition haunted me – a premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel.” 

A few weeks later Basil had another premonition, one which came to pass with eerie accuracy. “At one o’clock on June 4, 1918, I was sitting in my dugout in the front line. Suddenly I thought of John, and for some inexplicable reason I wanted to cry, and did. In due course I received the news of his death in action at exactly one o’clock on June the fourth.” Basil was absolutely distraught by his brother’s death, and in addition to dealing with that huge loss, he was also mourning his mum, who had died the previous year.

In this extract from a letter that Basil wrote to his dad, it’s very clear not only how broken he was by John’s death, but also that he may have become convinced that he himself might die soon. 

I have all of Johnny’s letters parcelled up together and I will either bring them home on my next leave or arrange for someone to deliver them in person. I would send them as you asked but I would be afraid of them being lost. The communication trenches can take a beating and nothing can be relied on. If I can’t bring them myself for any reason there is a good sort here, another Lieutenant in our company who is under oath to deliver them, and who I have never known to shirk or break his word. So, you will get them, come what may. I’m sorry not to have written much the past weeks. It was unfair and you are very kind not to be angry. You ask how I have been since we heard, well, if I am honest with you, and I may as well be, I have been seething. I was so certain it would be me first of either of us. I’m even sure it was supposed to be me and he somehow contrived in his wretched Johnny-fashion to get in my way just as he always would when he was small. I want to tell him to mind his place. I think of his ridiculous belief that everything would always be well, his ever-hopeful smile, and I want to cuff him for a little fool. He had no business to let it happen and it maddens me that I shall never be able to tell him so, or change it or bring him back. I can’t think of him without being consumed with anger at him for being dead and beyond anything I can do to him.

Basil was the intelligence officer for his battalion and had been leading night patrols into No Man’s Land for some time in order to gather info on the German’s. Basil persuaded his commanding officer to allow day patrols too, as it would be easier to gather vital information in the day than at night. These missions were extremely dangerous, and from how I see it, it’s really not hard to view Basil’s actions as possibly being some sort of death wish in response to John’s death. One of these daytime patrols saw Basil and his men disguise themselves as trees!

Although he makes light of what he did and acts like it was no biggie, the reality was that it was extremely dangerous work for him to undertake. In recognition of the daylight patrols he undertook, Basil was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. After the war ended, Basil returned to acting on the stage in the UK. His marriage to his wife Marion sadly broke down and the pair separated in 1919, although they didn’t divorce and Basil still financially supported both his wife and his young son, Rodion. 

In 1923 Basil travelled to America to star in the play The Swan at the Cort Theatre in New York. That same year he met scriptwriter Ouida Bergere and the pair fell in love. Basil obtained a divorce from Marion and he and Ouida married on the 18th of April,1926. Ouida and Basil sadly suffered the loss of their baby in 1928, and in 1939 the pair adopted a baby girl, who they named Cynthia. Cynthia sadly died in 1969 aged just 30.  Unfortunately Ouida had a weak spot for throwing lavish Hollywood parties and she spent Basil’s money like it was going out of style. Sadly this led to Basil taking on screen work far beneath his talents in later years in order to pay off the huge bills piling up.  Despite her issues with money, it seems that Basil never stopped loving his wife and was utterly devoted to her.

In 1926, Basil and the rest of the cast of the play The Captive, were famously arrested in the middle of a performance for offending public morals – although these charges were later dropped and the play was permanently closed down. The play sees the wife of Basil’s character fall in love with another woman. Feathers were ruffled and many pearls clutched due to the subject matter. Basil was furious at this censorship, as he and the rest of the cast felt the subject matter was something which was important to talk about in the open. He described the night of the raid in his autobiography “As we walked out onto the stage to await our first entrances we were stopped by a plainclothes policeman who showed his badge and said, ‘Please don’t let it disturb your performance tonight but consider yourself under arrest!’ At the close of the play the cast were all ordered to dress and stand by to be escorted in police cars to a night court.”

Basil as Philo Vance.

Basil had transitioned into film work in the Silent era, appearing in his first film in 1921. I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t until the 1930’s rolled around that he really hit his stride on screen. In 1929 he played Detective Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case(released in 1930).

While the acting in this one isn’t all that great, it’s nice to see Basil in the lead role. The film amusingly contains a scene where a character refers to Basil’s Philo Vance and his companion as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Ten years later of course Basil would famously don that deerstalker hat and play Conan Doyle’s master detective. 

During the 1930’s Basil impressed in a wide variety of films including Anna Karenina(1935), David Copperfield(1935), Romeo & Juliet(1936), Make A Wish(1937), A Tale Of Two Cities( in which he plays a real swine, 1935), The Adventures Of Robin Hood(1938), If I Were King(1938), Son Of Frankenstein(1939).

One of my favourite performances from him during the 30’s is as the dashing pirate, Levasseur, in Captain Blood(1935), a film which saw him co-star with Errol Flynn for the first time. I love Basil’s performance in this film. He’s full of so much energy and plays a great rogue with a deadly edge to him. The gritty beach fight between Basil and Errol is edge of your seat stuff.

Basil with Errol Flynn in The Dawn Patrol.

In 1938 Basil starred in The Dawn Patrol, a film which I think features one of his best performances. Basil plays Major Brand, a Royal Flying Corps squadron commander during WW1, who is edging ever closer to a nervous breakdown following the loss of so many of his men.

You can see the heartache and weariness of this character written all over Basil’s face. It’s a very poignant performance and I think there’s a good possibility that Basil reached deep into his own traumatic memories of WW1 to help capture Brand’s emotional state. The film saw him work with Errol Flynn for the third and final time and I think Errol also does some of his best work here. 

The year 1939 was an important one for Basil. WW2 began and Basil wanted to serve, but he was turned down from active service due to his age. He helped the war effort as best he could though through fundraising, entertaining troops and volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen. Apparently author Margaret Mitchell’s preferred choice to play Captain Rhett Butler in the 1939 film adaptation of her novel Gone With The Wind was Basil Rathbone. I like Clark Gable as Rhett, but I have to admit to wondering many a time how Basil would have played that character. I for one think he would have been brilliant as Rhett.

1939 was to become the key year in Basil’s film career. It was the year in which he first played the character with whom he has become forever linked, a chap by the name of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Basil dons the deerstalker and enjoys a pipe as Sherlock Holmes.

With his thin facial features and uncanny resemblance to the Sidney Paget illustrations of Holmes in the Strand Magazine, it’s little wonder that Basil was cast in the role of Sherlock Holmes.

For many he has become the ultimate screen Holmes and it’s really not hard to see why so many feel that way. He perfectly captured the intellect and many facets of Sherlock Holmes. Personally I think that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke are the greatest screen Holmes and Watson, but coming in a close second for me is Basil Rathbone’s superb portrayal.  

If the Rathbone Holmes films had been more authentic adaptations of the stories, and if his Watson had been more like the character in the stories, then I think his 14 film run would be able to be called the best with no contest. As much as I love his performances and the films themselves, what stops them from being truly great adaptations in my opinion, is that most of the plots bear such little resemblance to any of Doyle’s stories.

The other issue for me is Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. I want to preface this next bit by saying this is not meant as a slight to Mr.Bruce, who after all was only playing the character as directed. Basil and Nigel had been close friends for many years and Basil sent the following message to Nigel when he was offered the role of Holmes, “Willie dear, do play Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes, we’ll have such fun.” Nigel accepted the role and thus a beloved screen team was born.

On screen Basil and Nigel’s real life affection for one another is evident and this helps us buy into the friendship and bond between Holmes and Watson. Unfortunately the way in which Watson is portrayed in these films is appalling. While Nigel’s Watson is certainly lovable and tries hard, he is also extremely slow minded and bumbling. He is more of a source of comedy than anything else. This portrayal is at odds with the intelligent and capable medical man and army veteran we know from the books. Frankly this screen portrayal of Watson grates on me, even though I do adore the old man for his loyalty to Holmes and his desperate desire to do all he can to help out wherever he can. 

Holmes and Watson are on the case.

Basil and Nigel first took up residence at 221B Baker Street in an adaptation of the most famous Holmes story of them all – The Hound Of The Baskervilles which is one of the best screen adaptations of the story and has a brilliant gothic atmosphere. Weirdly though Basil is listed second on the cast list beneath Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville. The success of this film quickly led Twentieth Century Fox studios to make a second film entitled The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which was released later the same year. In the sequel the great Ida Lupino joins the lads as Ann Brandon, a young woman who finds herself in desperate need of Holmes’s help.

These two films would be the only ones of the Rathbone/Bruce films to be set in the Victorian era and they would also be the last films of the series to be made at Fox. Alongside the films, Basil and Nigel also played Holmes and Watson in the radio series The New Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which began airing in 1939. Basil remained on the radio series until 1946 when he was replaced by Tom Conway. Nigel continued to play Watson until 1947.

In their second big screen outing Basil and Nigel were joined by actress and director Ida Lupino.

The other 12 films in the Rathbone/Bruce series would be made at Universal Studios between 1941 and 1944. These later films were interestingly set in the modern day(1940’s), and this of course all long before the Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller modern day set Holmes series came along with their supposedly new spin on the stories and characters. The remaining 12 films also have a lot of WW2 propaganda in them. My favourites of the 14 films are The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Terror By Night, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl Of DeathSherlock Holmes Faces Death, The House Of Fear. 

While Basil was at first very enthusiastic about playing Holmes, the enthusiasm quickly wore off and he gave up the role. Playing Holmes was something of a double edged sword for Basil. On the one hand he gained worldwide fame and popularity, but on the other it led to him becoming typecast and forever after associated with Holmes. It’s easy to understand his frustration at the situation he found himself in. 

Basil refused to renew his film and radio contracts in 1946 and returned instead to the theatre. I get the impression that the theatre was always his first love and that it was on the stage where he felt most comfortable and fulfilled. In 1947 he played the odious Dr. Sloper in the stage production of The Heiress(a performance which saw him rewarded with a Tony Award). When the play was adapted for the screen in 1949, Ralph Richardson was cast as Dr. Sloper. As much as I enjoy Ralph Richardson’s performance, I do find myself imagining what Basil would have been like instead.

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Basil was sadly appearing in some real rubbish on screen, and he appeared on screen less and less. I think his last great film role was as Sir Ravenhurst in The Court Jester(1955).In the 1960’s he went on tour with his one man show entitled In And Out Of Character(also the name of his memoir). In these shows he spoke about his life and career, as well as reciting Shakespeare and poetry. 

Basil died suddenly after suffering a heart attack on the 21st July,1967. He was 75 years old. His death was such a huge loss for the theatre and film industry. I’d like to think that he would be touched by how much love and respect there is for him today, both as an actor, and also for the real man behind the screen image. 

As he lived and died long before I was even born, it is a great regret of mine that I never had the chance to see him act on stage. Basil Rathbone truly was one of the best. Here’s a few of my favourite films of his the Sherlock Holmes series, Captain Blood, The Dawn Patrol, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Make A Wish, Sin Takes A Holiday. 

Here’s some interesting trivia to end with. Basil’s distant cousin was Henry Rathbone, who was sitting next to President and Mrs. Lincoln the night that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s theatre in Washington. Rathbone tried to stop the assassin John Wilkes Booth and was stabbed by him. He would never get over not being able to prevent Lincoln’s murder and tragically went insane.  

How did you become a fan of Basil Rathbone? What are your favourite films and performances of his?

As a special bonus, please enjoy this beautiful photograph of Basil. Photographed by the Vandamm Studio for the 1933-1934 stage production of The Barretts Of Wimpole Street, in which he played poet Robert Browning.

Stray Dog(1949)

“He felt he would suffocate on the bus. A baby was crying. The cheap perfume of the woman next to him was nauseating.” This voiceover is heard almost three minutes into the film as we see Toshiro Mifune’s young detective Murakami squashed together with fellow passengers(standing room only) on an overcrowded bus hurtling through the streets of Tokyo.

Toshiro Mifune as Detective Murakami.

The scene is extremely claustrophobic and he looks like he is suffocating in the heat and can’t bear the fellow passengers crushing him. The opening scene of the American Noir Pickup On South Street(1953)which shows Candy(Jean Peters)and Skip(Richard Widmark)on a crowded train always reminds me of this scene.

The film is set in post-war Japan during an oppressive heatwave and features director Akira Kurosawa’s regular lead actor Toshiro Mifune in the third of sixteen films that the pair would make together. Mifune delivers one of the best performances of his career as the sweat soaked, hotheaded, rookie detective Murakami. When Murakami’s police gun is stolen from him while travelling on the bus he immediately gives chase and doesn’t stop trying to track it down.

Unfortunately the pickpocket evades him and Murakami will later discover that his gun has moved on from the pickpocket who snatched it and been passed into the criminal underworld. Murakami becomes guilt ridden and has to swallow his pride,report the theft of his weapon and ask for help in his search to retrieve it – as well as seek his own redemption in the process.

Murakami and Sato are on the case.

Help and support arrives in the form of detective Sato – played by the terrific character actor Takashi Shimura, who is at his best here as the wise, laid back and slightly weary veteran detective . Mifune and Shimura had first worked together that same year on Kurosawa’s medical drama The Quiet Duel and the work wonderfully well together.

Stray Dog was the precursor of the buddy cop genre where two officers whose personalities couldn’t be further apart are teamed up and develop an unbreakable bond. If you love the likes of the Lethal Weapon films then you owe thanks to Akira Kurosawa.

Stray Dog is such an exciting and tense film and has some striking photography courtesy of Asaichi Nakai. There’s strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast, even people who feature for a small amount of screen time manage to make a real impression. The film was mostly made on sets with some second unit footage shot on location in the Tokyo streets by Kurosawa’s friend and assistant director Ishiro Honda, who would himself go on to become an acclaimed director and make films including Godzilla(1954) and Mothra(1961). This is also possibly the sweatiest film ever made. Everywhere you look on screen people are trying to cool off in any way they can and are irritated and worn down by the unending heatwave encroaching on their lives.

Kurosawa also shows us a side of Japanese life which we don’t see too often in other films, that of the nightclubs, the dancehalls and the police force. The film rarely lets up on its intensity and thrills, but there are some more quieter and poignant moments to be found – such as the grief stricken husband of a woman murdered by a man using Murakami’s stolen gun breaking down and sobbing in his wife’s little vegetable garden. In this moment we see (as does Murakami)the terrible impact such a crime has on the loved ones left behind.

Interestingly Sato seems quite distant during the breakdown scene which to me indicates he has seen so many similar moments throughout his career and that due to his experience with the aftermath of such crimes he’s become partially hardened against them. Sato tries to get Murakami to understand that he cannot keep getting so personally involved in every case or it will break him apart, but the older detective also knows he can’t just expect him to heed his words, it is something that can only come in time when bitter real life experiences force him to keep a distance in future. 

The finale in the field is tense and surprisingly deeply moving as we find ourselves unexpectedly feeling a sliver of pity for a loathsome murderer. If the film has a message it is that crime is a destroyer and a waste all round and there are only losers caught up in such a life. The lives of both the victims and perpetrators of crime are either ended or forever altered as a result of criminal activity. It’s always best to choose another path to walk down in life instead.

When he began writing the script for Stray Dog, Kurosawa was inspired by the works of Maigret author Georges Simenon and by Jules Dassin’s American Noir The Naked City(1948). The similarities between Stray Dog and The Naked City are clear to see. Both films have a documentary look and feel about them and both focus on just one of many such stories taking place in the big city. Strangely enough Kurosawa didn’t regard Stray Dog very highly for some years declaring it to be “too technical”, but he had changed his mind by the 1980’s and spoke much more warmly about it.

While I love Kurosawa’s Samurai epics such as Throne Of Blood, Seven Samurai and Rashomon, I’ve always been drawn far more to his intimate and somewhat less acclaimed dramas such as The Quiet Duel, No Regrets For Our Youth, Drunken Angel, The Idiot, Scandal, High And Low and Ikiru – featuring a career best performance by Takashi Shimura as a terminally ill man finally taking the time to see and appreciate the world around him. Stray Dog is one of the best of these and I think it also acts as a perfect gateway film to use to introduce someone to Japanese cinema.

Whenever I finish watching this one I’m always left feeling sad that we never got a film series focusing on more cases handled by Sato and Murakami. That the film leaves audiences wanting to spend more time with these characters is a credit I think to Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.

Remembering Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury(1925-2022)

Hearing the sad news of the death of Dame Angela Lansbury on the 11th of October broke my heart. Yes she was 96 years old and death at that age is to be expected, but she was one of those people who had always been there and seemed like she always would be. When I was little she was a huge part of my childhood thanks to her films Bedknobs And Broomsticks, the 1991 Disney classic Beauty And The Beast, and the beloved detective series Murder, She Wrote.

Angela Lansbury was one of the most versatile people in the entertainment industry working on stage, in film and in TV. She was still working right up to her death, with her final film appearance being a cameo in the soon to be released Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.

Angela Lansbury was born in London on the 16th of October, 1925. Her mother was the Irish actress Moyna Macgill and her father was Edgar Lansbury, a member of the British Communist party and a former Mayor, who died in 1935 of stomach cancer. Angela’s grandfather was George Lansbury who was the leader of the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935.

Angela and her mother Moyna Macgill.

Angela’s younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar, were born in 1930. Angela was a supporter of the Labour Party here in the UK and of the Democrats in America. She supported many charities during her life and in the 1980’s supported charities engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS, raising millions of dollars.

She began to study acting in 1940 at the Webber Douglas School Of Singing And Dramatic Art. With the onset of WW2 and the Blitz, Angela’s mother moved with her children to the United States, where Angela received a scholarship to study at The Feagin School Of Dramatic Art.

Angela Lansbury steals the show from Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in her debut role.

At a party hosted by her mum in 1943, Angela met the playwright and theatre director John van Druten, who had just co-written the script for the film Gaslight. He thought she’d be perfect for the role of the conniving maid. Angela received the role and also gained a seven-year contract with MGM Studios. When the film was released her performance received rave reviews and she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She literally went from being an unknown teenager to a star overnight. Her next role was as Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet, and the pair became lifelong friends.

While she never became a glamourous star and leading lady like so many of her colleagues and friends, she did become one of the best and most dependable character actresses. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s she worked steadily in films such as The Court Jester and Blue Hawaii, in which she was bizarrely cast as Elvis’s mother, despite only a nine year age gap between them. In 1962 she delivered possibly her best performance in The Manchurian Candidate, in which she played the chilling and scheming Eleanor Iselin.

She predominately worked on stage during the 1960’s and 1970’s winning Tony Awards and gaining many new fans through her performances in shows including Mame, Gypsy, The King And I, A Taste Of Honey and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.

Angela with Joan Plowright in the 1960 Broadway production of A Taste Of Honey.

In the 1970’s she received some of her most interesting roles such as trainee witch Eglantine Price in Bedknobs And Broomsticks, Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d, and the larger than life Salome Otterbourne in Death On The Nile.

In 1984 Angela took on the role with which she would forever after be associated when she was cast as mystery novelist turned detective, Jessica Fletcher, in Murder, She Wrote(1984-1996). The role of Jessica Fletcher had been created specifically for actress Jean Staepleton who turned it down. The producers sent the script to Angela but didn’t think she would be interested in making a TV series.

For her work in the series she was nominated for 10 Golden Globes, of which she won four, along with 12 Emmy Awards nominations, which earned her the record for the most Golden Globe nominations and wins for Best Actress in a television drama series and the most Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. She was also an executive producer on the series during the 1990’s.Her brother Edgar who was a TV producer and screenwriter also worked on the series as a producer on 88 episodes, he also wrote 15 episodes for the series.

Angela received an honorary Oscar in 2013 and was made a Dame in 2014. She was married to Richard Cromwell from 1945 to 1946. She married her second husband, the actor and producer Peter Shaw, in 1949 and the pair were together until his death in 2003. The couple had two children together, Anthony Peter and Deidre Ann.

Angela and Peter on their wedding day.

I will miss Angela Lansbury very much but she leaves behind an absolute treasure trove of performances for us all to enjoy. R.I.P, Angela. Thank you for all the happy memories.

The Narrow Margin(1952)

The Narrow Margin is a film that I never tire of watching. It’s a very brisk film and one which manages to pack quite a punch in just 71 minutes. This is a film in which no scene or dialogue exchange feels like a waste of time. I also consider The Narrow Margin to be a prime example of how a low budget B movie can sometimes stand head and shoulders above an A film. 

The Narrow Margin was an RKO studios film and it was directed by Richard Fleischer.It was shot in just twelve days. The screenplay for the film was written by Earl Felton and it was Oscar nominated.

 The film has no music (other than Mrs.Neall’s beloved records), instead the sound effects of the train wheels and ambient noise are all that we hear as the film plays out. I think those natural sounds add a great amount of realism to the film and I like that the scenes are undisturbed by intrusive or over dramatic music.  

This film has more twists and turns than a roller-coaster, and it also features some of the greatest lines ever uttered in Film Noir history.  The following are just a few of my favourite lines of dialogue from the film.  

Brown:  “She’s a sixty-cent special. Cheap, flashy, and strictly poison under the gravy.”

Brown: “Take it all, I can’t eat it!” Mrs. Neall: “That’s because you’ve been packin’ away steaks behind my back.”

Mrs. Neall: “Some protection they send me. An old man who walks right into it, and a weeper!”. 

Brown: “You make me sick to my stomach.” Mrs. Neall: “Well use your own sink!, and let me know when the target practice starts.”

Brown: “My partners dead, and it’s my fault. He’s dead and you’re alive. Some exchange.” 

Mrs. Neall: “Not till I tell you something, you cheap badge-pusher! When we started on this safari, you made it clear I was just a job, and no joy in it, remember?”

Besides the fabulous dialogue, it is the complex and fascinating characters who make this film what it is. Charles McGraw’s detective is one of the hardest, toughest and cynical men that you’ll find in any film, let alone in any Noir film.

Marie Windsor steals this film.

Marie Windsor steals every scene she is in as the tough-talking, strong-willed dame who sprays quips and insults around as though they were bullets fired out of a gun. For me this is the best performance she ever gave.

Police Detectives Walter Brown (Charles McGraw)and Gus Forbes(Don Beddoe)are assigned to protect Mrs.Neall(Marie Windsor)and escort her to court. Neall is a mobsters wife who has agreed to testify against her man in court. People associated with her husband are trying to kill her before she can talk in the courtroom.

Brown is tough, cynical and hates the fact that he and his partner are risking their lives for a no good gal like Mrs. Neall. Even though she is testifying, he doesn’t think she’s a good person at heart at all. As they escort her to the train they’ve booked tickets on, Forbes is gunned down by a hitman sent to take out Mrs. Neall.

Brown and Mrs. Neall

Brown manages to get Mrs.Neall on the train and locks her in the empty compartment. A number of hired heavies board the train too, and there are now very few places on the train for Brown and Mrs. Neall to hide. Can Brown protect her or not? Brown also has to deal with the distraction of the lovely Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White)who is travelling on the train with her young son. Brown and Mrs. Sinclair strike up a genuine bond and he becomes very fond of her. 

This is a very tense film and the train setting gives it an extra level of suspense as there are very few places that Brown and Mrs. Neall can hide once they’re on board that train and it is hurtling down the tracks. The antagonistic relationship between the pair is also very interesting to watch, they loath one another, have wild sexual tension going on, and their verbal sparring is a Noir lovers treat to listen to. 

There is a big twist in this film concerning a main character (which I’m not going to reveal because it’s best to go into this film not knowing who it is, this in order to retain the surprise and impact when the reveal does arrive) and when it is revealed, I think that it makes you see this person in a very different light than you did much earlier in the film. When this twist is revealed we also realise that there are two different Police operations being run, and each one is as important and dangerous as the other.  

If there is a downside to this film I would say that it lies with the way the sacrifice and murder of this character later on in the film is only referred to once afterwards. When you realise the risk this person was taking and how brave they were, I think that it’s a shame that more time isn’t devoted to acknowledging that sacrifice.That issue aside though this is one of the best Noir films and it is filled with superb performances and many memorable moments. 

McGraw gives one of his best performances as the tough as nails Detective who hates his current assignment, but despite his personal feelings he will work hard to protect Mrs.Neall no matter what. He may be mean, abrasive and rough at times, but there is no doubt that he is a good guy underneath all that, and he is certainly someone you would want on your side in a fight.

It’s a real shame that Marie Windsor appeared in so few Noir films because she is perfectly at home in the dark and seedy world of Noir. She’s tough, strong, sexy, and a real natural with that snappy dialogue.

Paul Maxey also turns in a very memorable performance as an overweight train passenger who keeps getting in the way of Brown.

My favourite scenes are the following. Brown fighting in the train compartment. Brown and Forbes meeting Mrs. Neall for the first time. Brown and Forbes discussing what Mrs. Neall is going to be like. Mrs. Neall and Brown arguing after he brings her a sandwich. The reveal/twist murder scene.  

Any other fans of this one?

Walking Down The Dark Alleys Of Film Noir

Happy Noirvember. Yes it’s that time of year again, time to once again celebrate all things Film Noir. Put on your trench coats and hats, pour yourself a glass of bourbon and sit back and revel in a cinematic world of shadows, thrills, double-crosses, sexual tension, Femme and Homme Fatales and plenty of darkness and danger.  

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart engage in a little back and forth innuendo in The Big Sleep(1946)

My first time venturing into the dark alleys of Film Noir was when I watched The Big Sleep(1946). I loved Bogie and Bacall’s performances and the mind bogglingly complex plot. What I loved most of all about the film was the daring dialogue and use of innuendo, especially in scenes between Bogie and Bacall and between Bogie and Dorothy Malone in the bookstore scene. I knew after seeing this that I had to check out more Film Noir.

Double IndemnityThe Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet(1944) quickly followed and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve had great fun heading off down the side streets of Film Noir and discovering less famous/somewhat less discussed gems such as The Narrow Margin(1952), They Made Me A Fugitive(1947),Daybreak(1948),The Long Memory(1953), Le Jour Se Leve(1939), T-Men(1947), Cry Of The City(1948).

If pressed to choose just one film genre as my all time favourite, I would certainly have to go with Film Noir now. Why is this genre(yes, I do indeed consider it a genre rather than a style) such a favourite of mine? Because it changed cinema. It pushed against the restraints and restrictions of Joseph L. Breen’s ridiculous and prudish Production Code, and in the process provided audiences with the only truly adult film content on offer since the Pre-Code era. Noir film directors quickly mastered the art of innuendo and double entendre. The result was a set of films which were extremely violent and brutal without wallowing in blood and graphic violence, and which were also extremely sexy, all without actually showing nudity or sex scenes. The films also featured some very psychologically complex and fascinating male and female characters.

These films reflect the truth of humanity back to those of us sitting in the audience. Film Noir reminds us that we all have good and bad within us, that we’re all complicated in some way and that we all do what we have to do to survive and get by in life.

Following on from the horrors of WW2, 1940’s film audiences began to be bombarded with films which reflected the reality of the life they were living at the time. Not since the 1930’s gangster flicks had films been so gritty or violent. Noir films dished out a slice of real life for many viewers and captured the cynical and bleak mood of the times. People were now much more aware of the dark side of humanity, and everyone in some way had been affected by the war.

The Noir villains were ice cold, nasty pieces of work, while the women were independent, strong, and even manipulative in some cases. Even the heroes themselves were not always clear cut good guys. The public lapped these films up and they continued being made throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. Where 1940’s Film Noir was all about cynicism and the dark side of man, the Noir films of the 1950’s focused more on the paranoia and fear surrounding things like communism and the arrival of Nuclear weapons. Few films captured this era better than Kiss Me Deadly(1955)which is the wildest and one of the darkest Noir films you’ll ever see.

Another thing I love about Noir is that’s not just one thing there are so many different subgenres of it. For example there is Documentary Noir – true crime stories often inspired by the heroic actions of Police and Government Agencies, which include films like T-Men and Call Northside 777.Noir films weren’t all crime thrillers set in the big city either, there were also those that become known as Western Noir.

These films at first glance are your typical Westerns, but on closer inspection you can see that they have characters and plots which fit the established tropes found in traditional Noir films, such as Femme Fatales, outright bad guys who revel in violence, and the good guys who are more gray than white. My favourites of these are Ramrod, featuring Veronica Lake giving one of her best performances as the manipulative Connie Dickason; The Furies which features Noir Queen Barbara Stanwyck in one of her most memorable roles; and Station West starring Noir favourites Dick Powell and Jane Greer.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Ramrod(1947)

It was the French film critics who first came up with the name for these dark crime films that we now know as Film Noir. The word they chose was Noir(literally meaning black or dark.) The French themselves have also made many excellent Noir films over the years such as Le Jour Se Leve and Rififi for example. These moody and atmospheric films are among the very best in the genre. My favourite French Noir is Le Jour Se Leve, featuring an unforgettable lead performance by the great Jean Gabin.The atmosphere, lighting and performances in this film are some of the best found in the whole genre. Due to the films message it was banned by the Vichy government during WW2. RKO Studios acquired the distribution rights to the film in the 1940’s and attempted to buy up every copy in order to destroy them so they could they remake it as The Long Night(1947), for many years it was feared the film had been lost, until copies were thankfully discovered in the 1950’s.

Noir films are often very interesting visually. The black and white photography captures long dark shadows,and creates an atmosphere unlike anything else found in film, with the exception of the German expressionist films of the 1920’s, from which Noir directors and cinematographers found their influence. Darkness is everywhere in Film Noir, it clings to all of the characters like a suffocating fog. The photography and lighting are such important parts of these films, with so much of that Noir atmosphere and look down to the skill of the camera and lighting crews. An early Noir that makes great use of shadow and lighting is The Stranger On The Third Floor(1940). This film also has the added bonus of Peter Lorre lurking in the shadows. 

A major and memorable part of a Noir film is the Femme Fatale. As a woman I love that these films offered such juicy roles for actresses to play. The Noir era was really the first time since the 1920’s and pre-code 1930’s that actresses had been offered such strong and complex roles. The femme fatales are clever, overtly sexual, independent and sexually aggressive women. These gals know what they want and they go after it. Anyone today who says actresses didn’t start getting good roles until recent years, really need to go back and watch Noir, Pre-Code and Silent films to see that just isn’t the case at all. 

Rita Hayworth as Elsa in Lady From Shanghai

Noir women are not content to just stay at home cooking in the kitchen and looking nice for their men. They do their own thing. Some become equal partners to men, while others go out and use men and then toss them aside without a second thought. My favourites amongst these women are Kathie (Jane Greer)in Out Of The Past; Vera(Ann Savage) in Detour;Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck)in Double Indemnity; Cora(Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice;Elsa(Rita Hayworth) in The Lady From Shangahi; and Peggy Cummins as Laurie, truly one of the most memorable Noir women, in Gun Crazy. 

I think it must have been a lot of fun for the actresses to be able to play these women in this way. When you look at the roles in Noir actresses film credits, you’ll often find that their Noir characters are the most memorable and interesting roles of their entire career.Mention Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall, Jane Greer, Marie Windsor, Peggy Cummins or Lana Turner and what is the first film of theirs that usually gets mentioned? Nine times out of ten it’s their Noir films such as Double IndemnityLeave Her To Heaven,The Big Sleep, Out Of The Past, The Narrow Margin, Gun Crazy and The Postman Always Rings Twice respectively.

As well as the villainesses, Noir also features many memorable heroines too. These are also strong, clever and independent gals who will happily get mixed up in danger and prove to the cynical men in their lives that not all women are Femme Fatales and can also be just as capable as men. These gals don’t get their kicks in using and hurting men. My favourites of these characters are Kathleen (Lucille Ball)in Dark Corner(1946). Kathleen is the loyal secretary to Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens)a tough Private Investigator who is being set up. Kathleen happily puts herself at risk to help him uncover the bad guys and proves herself to be a woman worthy of his heart.

Jean Peters and Richard Widmark in Pickup On South Street(1953)

My other favourite is Candy (Jean Peters)in Pickup On South Street. Candy is a tough gal who puts up a I can take care of myself front, when in reality she can be easily hurt. Candy puts herself in great danger helping Skip (Richard Widmark)uncover a communist gang. The chemistry between Widmark and Peters is wild!

I also love Debby Marsh(Gloria Grahame)in The Big Heat. Debby is the sweet and slightly naive girlfriend of Lee Marvin’s gangster. When he permanently scars her face during a fit of rage, Debby hardens and turns to Glenn Ford’s Detective Bannion to help take her man down.

The men in Noir films (both good and bad)are usually cynical and world weary. They are tough and comfortable with dishing out (and being around) violence. Some are bad guys with no redeeming features, while others have tough exteriors in order to survive this world, but underneath that toughness they are actually total sweethearts. Sometimes a decent guy (like Walter Neff for example)gets caught up in a web weaved by a femme fatale, or an old pal who they should have steered well clear of,and becomes caught up in murder and crime and has no way out and will end up dead or in jail. 

Gloria Grahame as Debby and Glenn Ford as Detective Bannion in The Big Heat(1953)

Actors like Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark, Dick Powell, Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum played some of the best remembered Noir male characters. These performances remain powerful when viewed today. My favourites from the Noir guys are Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell)in Murder, My Sweet; Raven(Alan Ladd) from This Gun For Hire; Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens)in The Dark Corner; Jim(Robert Ryan) in On Dangerous Ground; Mark McPherson(Dana Andrews) in Laura; Sam(Van Heflin) in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers;Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) in The Narrow Margin ;Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) in The Big Heat; Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) in Pickup On South Street; Martin Rome(Richard Conte) in Cry Of The City; and Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Despite being made in an era when films were heavily censored, Noir films contain scenes and dialogue that make me sit up and wonder if I’ve really just seen or heard what I have. These films are often violent without graphically depicting violent acts, as most of what we see is implied, but the violence still packs a punch for the viewer. There is also dialogue and shared glances between characters that leave you in no doubt as to the meaning, be that implied meaning sexual or violent. These films were about as risque and daring as you could get in mainstream cinema at the time. The fact that they retain their shock value and impact in the 21st century is a credit to all involved in putting these films together. 

When you mention Film Noir, I will bet that most people automatically think of American cinema, and while it’s true that the majority of Noir films are predominantly American, there are also many fantastic Noir films which were made outside of the USA as well. I’ve already mentioned that the French made many fantastic Noir flicks. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese Noir Stray Dog (1949) is one of the best in the genre, filled with an intensity found in few others, while the first screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice was the brilliant Italian Noir Ossessione(1943).  

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune as the detectives in Stray Dog(1949)

There are also many Noir treasures to be found in British cinema – such as The Long Memory, They Made Me A Fugitive, The Third Man, The October Man, Night And The City, I Met A Murderer(1939),Odd Man Out, Cast A Dark Shadow and Brighton Rock. One of my favourite hidden gems is The Long Memory, which sees John Mills playing against type as a tough, embittered man wrongly accused of murder. Some other good ones are Daybreak and It Always Rains On Sunday.

Googie Withers and John McCallum in It Always Rains On Sunday(1947)

Film Noir slowly began to wind down towards the end of the 1950’s but enjoyed a revival known as Neo-Noir in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown(1974)and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye(1973)are two key early examples of Neo-Noir. One of the most memorable of these later films is the sexually explicit Body Heat(1981). In this film Kathleen Turner plays Mattie, a sultry Femme Fatale leading the lovestruck William Hurt into her trap. Sex is Mattie’s weapon and she is in complete control of her situation. I consider this to be the best Noir film made outside of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Kathleen is up there with Lana, Barbara, Jane and Rita for me. 

Kathleen Turner as Mattie in Body Heat(1981)

A groundbreaking Neo-Noir, and one of my favourites, is Carl Franklin’s Devil In A Blue Dress(1995).It’s based on the novels by Walter Mosley. Set in the 1940’s, the film follows Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins(Denzel Washington),an African-American WW2 veteran living in the suburbs who turns private detective after being asked to help find a missing woman. Watching this makes me mourn for all of the classic era Noir films that we could and should have had with predominantly Black casts. Think of the roles that the likes of Theresa Harris, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge or Harry Belafonte could have had!

Denzel Washington as “Easy” Rawlins in Devil In A Blue Dress(1995)

In more recent years Noir films such as Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Femme Fatale, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, LA Confidential and To Live And Die In L.A. have come along. It’s clear filmmakers and audiences still have a taste for Film Noir. Hopefully people who like these modern takes on the genre will go and check out Noir films from the 1940’s and 1950’s. It would be a real shame if they didn’t because they will be missing out on so many superb films and performances.

10 of my favourite Noir films include Murder, My Sweet (Dick Powell version),Woman On The Run, Double Indemnity, Pickup On South Street, Le Jour Se Leve, They Made Me A Fugitive,The Narrow Margin, The Big Heat, Kiss Me Deadly and Detour.

My favourite decade for Noir? Without a doubt it has to be the 1940’s. When I hear the word Noir, I immediately think of black and white images, and of smoke filled rooms where the light catches the shadows on the blinds, which in turn cast long dark shadows. This decade has so many films that I think are amongst the best of the genre. For me just the word Noir is enough to conjure up images of world weary detectives, cynical people trying to make it from one day to the next, and of women whose greatest weapon is themselves. The 1940’s Noir films capture all of this to a tee. 

My favourite Noir actor? It’s got to be Dick Powell. I think he suited these films perfectly. His appearance in these films also ensured he got a nice career change as he moved away from musicals and proved his dramatic acting ability. As much as I adore Bogie as Philip Marlowe, it is Dick Powell who I consider to be the best screen version of Raymond Chandler’s most famous private detective. Both the film Murder, My Sweet(1944) and Dick Powell’s performance in it are so underrated. I also love Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Charles McGraw, Dana Andrews.

My favourite Noir actress?  Jean Peters, Marie Windsor and Barbara Stanwyck. They were perfect as tough and sultry dames. I also love Lana Turner,Jane Greer, Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth and Lizabeth Scott.

Why do you love Film Noir?