Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Movies: Man Bait (1952)/Bad Blonde (1953)

Let’s talk about old movies. Feels like I haven’t done that in a while.

England’s Hammer Films is synonymous with horror. But in the 1950s Hammer also churned out its share of noirs, low-budget tales of doomed love and murder. Mother’s milk to yours truly. Neglected for decades, these movies are finally surfacing on DVD.

This is where I’m supposed to say that Hammer’s noirs are overlooked gems. Sadly, no. But they’re solid enough films. As screenwriter Lem Dobbs observed in his Double Indemnity commentary track, noir is the only genre that always satisfies. You won’t find a bad movie in it.

Although Man Bait (known as The Last Page in Britain) comes close. For starters, it’s set in that most hardboiled of environments ... a book shop? Considering the line-up behind the camera – directed by Hammer horror staple Terence Fisher, adapted by Frederick Knott (Wait Until Dark, Dial M For Murder) from a play by noted U.K. crime writer James Hadley Chase – I expected more than the standard mélange of blackmail and murder. Still, Diana Dors – England’s Marilyn Monroe, the Siren of Swindon – registers as a bombshell unsure of how to use her power over men who finds herself in the sway of a sociopath.

Bad Blonde (released in England as The Flanagan Boy – why do they fear lurid titles so?) starts out as a decent thriller with a boxing backdrop but eventually goes off the rails. The climactic scene requires not one but two characters to doze off. It doesn’t help that the femme fatale is played by Barbara Payton, whose life story is more twisted than anything unfolding onscreen.

VCI Entertainment’s animated logo looks like an outtake from Gun Crazy the videogame. And they could have taken more care with the extras. I enjoyed the brief, informative commentaries by film historian Richard Roberts delivered in Winchellesque style, but would it have hurt to edit out Roberts’ request for a retake?

Still, the company is to be credited for bringing these movies back. It’s always interesting to see another nation’s take on noir. Yes, the French know their way around it, but I always think of it as an American genre. This is the land of optimism and eternal sunshine, after all. When shadows fall here, they fall dark and deep.