Category: DVD Review

Streaming Review: T-Men

In the 1947 film T-Men, two Treasury agents (Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder) travel to Detroit and go undercover in an attempt to infiltrate and ultimately break a counterfeiting ring.

T-men was a very entertaining bit of noir. It has the same cinematographer as He Walked by Night, and if you enjoyed the look of that film, you’ll probably like this one as well.

It’s one of those procedurals like He Walked by Night which really strove to portray the real life work of the investigator. So there’s a lot of detail, a lot of different scenes and minor characters who pop-up as our heroes try to work their way to the top, through a long tangled web of the underworld from creating their criminal identities to solving the case and making the bust. 

The script is smart, well-written and well-thought out. Our heroes are in constant peril and we’re given a reminder of how much they and, by extension, real-life Treasury Agents risk in the course of their work. Throughout most of the time, the film takes a deliberate pace, but it definitely picks up in the last ten minutes as the case comes to a finale.

The acting is solid. Outside of O’Keefe, most of the cast is made up of veteran character actors who manage to play their parts without seeming over-the-top, campy, or too stereotypical. Wallace Ford as the Schemer may have been my favorite performance. The main rising star in this is June Lockheart (Lost in Space) who appears as one of the agents’ wives.

The criticisms I’ve read online have basically come down to complaints about it being a procedural noir made in 1940s. If you want something faster paced or less detailed, this may not be the film for you. However, if you appreciate the realistic procedural films of the 1940s, this is a must-see.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Currently Available for free Streaming with Amazon Prime or on Blu-ray/DVD with two other films.

DVD Review: Forgotten Noir, Volume Seven

Forgotten Noir, Volume 7 collects three B-movie mystery/adventure films from the 1950s, all of which had interest to me as a fan of old time radio.

The first is David Harding, Counter Spy. Based on the long-running Phillip H. Lord radio series, the film has a framing device of a commentator who blasted the government, having the idea of counter-espionage explained to him through a story that occurred during World War II as a Navy Lieutenant Commander is called in to find out how information is being leaked from a torpedo manufacturing plant. The framing device is unnecessary and the film has a few slower moments, but this is the best film in the set as it was made as a studio B picture for Columbia rather than as an Independent release.

Next up is Danger Zone. There’s some confusion around this movie. Some say it’s based on Pat Novak for Hire starring Jack Webb. It’s actually based on the Pat Novak for Hire ripoff Johnny Madero, Pier 23 also starring Jack Webb. Future Ward Cleaver Hugh Beaumont stars as Dennis O’Brien, who is Johnny Madero by another name. This movie adapts two different stories made over radio with little to link them, apparently to allow the option of splitting them to air on television. One of the stories adapts an existing radio episode, “The Fatal Auction” and follows the plot beat for beat.

The biggest change is that rather than having his confidant be a waterfront priest, Dennis’ go-to guy, Professor Frederic Schiker, is a Jocko Madigan-type drunk who lives with O’Brien, which does save on scene changes. I did miss the character’s chiding (which was a feature of both Pat Novak and Johnny Madero) and without that the performance is a bit flat. The stories are decent, but the acting is a bit off. Even Beaumont, true pro that he was, seemed to not totally believe the off-the-wall hard boiled lines he was being asked to deliver. It does make me appreciate the unique quality that allowed Jack Webb to deliver those lines with as much conviction as he did.

Finally, we have The Big Chase. I was interested in this film as it starred Mystery is My Hobby and Stand by for Crime star Glenn Langan and his wife (and Stand by for Crime co-star) Adele Jurgens as a rookie policeman and his expectant wife. The story does have some nice features. Langan’s character is given depth as we learned why he joined the force and why he wants to get into the juvenile division. Langan does a good job and plays his part without the more refined voice he does his most famous radio voice in.

The story features better talent than you’d expect with a film like this with Lon Chaney, Jr. playing one of the bad guys and Douglas Kennedy playing our hero’s police Lieutenant buddy. It also featured Joe Flynn (of McHale’s Navy fame) in one of his earliest film roles as a reporter in yet another unnecessary set of framing scenes. The film is called the Big Chase for a reason. It has a twenty minute chase scene that’s a lot of fun. It involves cars, trains, a helicopter, boats, as well as some fisticuffs, and gun play. It’s not perfectly executed but makes up for it with some nice location shooting which can cover a multiple of film-making sins for many fans.

The big problem with the film is that it is severely padded. It runs a little over an hour and has enough interesting material to fill somewhere between 25-35 minutes. The chase really gets started nearly 40 minutes in, and prior to that the pacing was positively glacial.

I was glad to watch the films, but this is one of those ones I couldn’t recommend for everyone. This is a film that you have to be an OTR buff to appreciate. We have a well-known radio series coming to film, an obscure radio series coming to film, and a star of two lesser known radio series playing a policeman in a slow, dull film that gives way to an impressive low budget chase. As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you would like.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5

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DVD Review: Dick Tracy (1990)

Dick Tracy is a comic strip movie starring Warren Beatty as the famous detective Dick Tracy, as he tries to take down the criminal organization of Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) while avoiding the designs of Breathless Mahoney (Madonna.)

This film won three technical Oscars and deserved it. The world created for this movie is visually appealing with some stunning use of color and art deco touches as well. The make-up and costume design are top notch. In addition, Danny Elfman turns in a typically good score.

The story is decent if not spectacular. The final the twist at the end is good. The plot points related to Junior are taken right out of the comic and feel right in place. There are also some great actors in relatively minor roles including Dick Van Dyke, Dustin Hofffman, and James Caan. In addition, in a nod to classic detective movies, Mike Mazurki shows up.

There are three problems with the film. First, I don’t care much for Beatty’s performance as Tracy. He was going for strait-laced and upright but instead comes off as stiff. Al Pacino, on the other hand, gives a performance that is way over the top. I’ll never understand how he got nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and a Saturn Award. For me, it was a grating, scenery-chewing performance that was more annoying than funny.

Second, there’s too much of Madonna singing in this film. One or two musical numbers, I can see. But she has five numbers in this film. They’re all well-written, but the only one that worked was, “Back in Business.”

Third, the film’s tone is inconsistent. It’s a movie that doesn’t know who its marketing itself to. I remember seeing happy meal toys for this movie and the bright colors and character of Junior would appeal to kids. On the other hand, some of the violence was too extreme for children and Breathless Mahoney is an over-sexualized character in keeping with Madonna’s 1990s brand. On the other hand, much of the plot, story, and characters doesn’t appeal to adults. The tonal differences means that sometimes, it feels like the characters are in different movies.

They were trying to imitate Chester Gould, who made Dick Tracy, the type of comic strip the whole family wanted to read by mixing elements that appeal to kids and adults to satisfy everyone. In the film, they seem to have succeeded in not fully satisfying many people at all.

That said, there are worse attempts to adapt a classic property. A lot does work about the film. Something Val Kilmer would prove six years later in The Saint. The film looks classy and has a great sense of style, with a lot of homages to its source material. If you’re a Madonna fan and/or you liked Al Pacino’s performance in this, you’re going to like it more than I did. For me, it’s a film that had a lot of potential but never fully lived up to it.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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Streaming Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a throw-back as a big-screen murder mystery. This is the type of film made all the time during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the sixties and seventies, these sort of films began to feature all-star casts such as Murder in the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun.

Then, the big-screen detective faded in popularity and murder mysteries became almost exclusively the province of television. There have been exceptions over the years, but in general, the murder mystery has been replaced by more Thrillers at the box office or occasionally we’ll see Sherlock Holmes re-imagined as a steampunk action film.

What Knives Out offers is an original, modern day American murder mystery that feels a lot like Agatha Christie. Mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his mansion the night after his birthday party. He informed family members that he was going to be making some changes to the financial arrangements that his family members enjoy, including to his will. The physical evidence points to a suicide, however Louisiana-based Benoit Leblanc (Daniel Crag), “the last of the gentlemen sleuths” has been hired to investigate the case by an anonymous client. Due to his reputation, the local police take a second look at the case and find that all is not as it seems.

Daniel Craig is good at playing this eccentric detective. There’s a touch of Columbo that has most of the household not taking him as seriously as they should. He has many quirks to his method, plus great human touches. He calls to mind Hercule Poirot. The accent is only so-so, but to be fair some Poirot actors are a bit dodgy.

Ana de Armas has a lovable turn as Marta, the dead man’s nurse and his best friend who Benoit designates as his Watson, as he has a hint that she knows far more than she’s letting on.

We also have a supporting cast with Hollywood mainstays like Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and lesser known competent character actors, and some younger actors who know what they’re doing.

The mystery itself is something right out of a classic mystery novel and while the plot is complicated, some might say convoluted, it’s played out and resolved with a wonderful sense of style.

While this has a lot of throwbacks, it’s still set in the modern day and also includes enough modern touches to make the story work. In a lot of old detective stories, the victim is a really horrible person to nearly everyone they met. Here, I think there’s more nuance. Harlan does things that makes his family angry and provides good murder motives, but he’s still a decent guy whose actions are taken out of an abundance of concern. He’s actually an interesting person who has complex relationships. The main characters are handled pretty well in that regards.

The family is also a nice mix of modern day characters. They reflect a lot of aspects of society, including the current political divides, but the movie resists the urge to paint some family members as better based on politics or cultural alignment. In fact, with most of the family, it just means that they are equally horrid but in different ways.

There are also some great camera techniques that are used to enhance our enjoyment of the story without overwhelming us with CGI effects. It’s a well-balanced mix of classic and modern storytelling.

If I have one issue with the story, it’s that Marta has an unusual tell that means she throws up when she lies. I’m not a fan of gross out humor, and it was used to facilitate a couple of the laziest writing moments in the film.

Beyond that, this is good. This is a recent Hollywood film that lives up to its hype and I can only hope its success will lead to more films like it.

Based on its returns, I’m hopeful. It grossed $320 million at the box office. That’s not Marvel Movie money, Ant Man and the Wasp grossed $622 million the same year. However, Knives Out did this with a $40 million budget, which is 1/4-1/5 of Ant Man and the Wasp. Knives Out shows there’s still an audience for a well-made and well-written detective movie.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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DVD Review: The Complete PRC Michael Shayne Mystery Collection


Most of the Michael Shayne films from the first half of the 1940s starring Lloyd Nolan have been on DVD for years. This DVD features five films released in 1946 and ’47 starring future Ward Cleaver actor Hugh Beaumont as Michael Shayne.

The earlier films were B pictures for Fox, however the Hugh Beaumont films were poverty row pictures, with low budgets and generally dodgy acting with no-name casts.

The restoration is phenomenal. While the typical poverty row picture from original prints looks grainy and even unwatchable, these films look superb, given the source material. The production team on the release went to a lot of work to make these look as good as possible. Given I watch so many DVDs of older material where it looks like a straight transfer was done to get them out and start taking money, I was really impressed.

Hugh Beaumont elevates the quality of these films. The ordained minister who would go on to play Beaver’s dad is miscast. But Beaumont’s an actor and pulls this off. An annoying lead can wreck one of these films. (See George Montgomery in the Philip Marlowe “B” film The Brasher Doubloon.

The films are helped by having good underlying stories. The Fox Shayne films adapted one of Britt Halliday’s Shayne novels. All five of the PRC films were adapted  from Shayne novels. Halliday was great at constructing mystery plots and these transfer over well when the producers don’t tinker with them too much.

In the course of five films, Beaumont was paired with three different actresses as Phyllis Hamilton. Hamilton was a composite of Shayne’s wife Phyllis in the novel and Lucy Hamilton, who became Shayne’s secretary after his wife died. Cheryl Walker played the role in three films, Kathryn Adams in Blonde for a Day, and Trudy Marshall in Too Many Winners.  Walker and Adams did fine in the role, but I found Marshall irritating, though it’s hard to tell whether it was the screenwriting or her acting, but she was a negative on that film.

The rest of the supporting actors range from competent to awful, reflecting the sort of variety seen on these hour-plus-long poverty row films.

As to individual films, Murder is My Business, Three on Ticket, and Too Many Winners were decent to good films with Murder is My Business being the best. Larceny in Her Heart was based on the novel Bodies are Where You Find Them which was going to be a difficult novel to adapt in this format due to its complex political subplot, which does get reduced to confusing nonsense. In addition, in the novel, Shayne’s wife Phyllis heads to New York and isn’t heard from again. In this movie, Phyllis returns in the middle of the movie and adds a plot complication that the film didn’t have time for.

Blonde for a Day is undermined by weak acting apart from the leads and once again is too complicated for the limited run-time of the film, though I did find it more visually pleasing than when I first rented a non-restored version off Amazon a few years back.

While Too Many Winners was not my favorite, it’s the most noteworthy. As part of the plot, Mike and Phyllis are planning a duck-hunting vacation which is disrupted by the mystery and the movie is obsessed with this point, even using drawings of Mike and Phyllis duck-hunting in the opening credits. This film also featured the most recognizable actors to appear outside of Beaumont in the entire series. John Hamilton (aka Perry White from The Adventures of Superman) and also veteran TV and film character actor Ben Weldon who has 249 acting credits on his IMDB profile.

Given two of the movies aren’t good, it’s hard for me to recommend the set for everyone. However, if you love Michael Shayne books, are a fan of Hugh Beaumont, or if you like poverty row, B-movie mysteries and would like to see a well-restored production, this could be worth checking out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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