Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: Bancroft Of The Secret Service Mysteries Collection

These films star future President Ronald Reagan as Brass Bancroft, a flyer turned Secret Service Agent who battles alien smugglers, counterfeiters, thieves, and fifth columnist in these films from 1939-40.

From my experience of watching B films, these are about average. The films are not as good as the Nick Carter films for the same era. And despite being about a law enforcement officer, these really aren’t detective stories (except perhaps the third film). The strength of the franchise is really two fisted action and adventure.

As a historical curiosity, it’s interesting to see the future leader of the free world at work in his late 20s and looking his best. Reagan is great whenever he’s on screen exuding great charm and charisma.

The action sequences are pretty good in this one. While not up to the standards of our special effects driven world, the various chases, fistfights, and peril of these four films are fun to watch and there are some standout moments that are great for various reasons. The first film did a great job casting our villains as true menaces to decency when (in response to another Secret Service man trying to bust the plane mid-flight), the pilot opens a hatch in the plane that drops the Secret Service men as well as all the illegal aliens being smuggled right to Earth in a scene that’s very shocking. While the identity of the bad guy is not much of a secret in the third film despite the attempt at a veneer of mystery, the reveal of the “boss” is a beautiful work that’s just great to watch.

Also, viewers of the 1950s Superman TV show will recognize John Hamilton (who played Perry White) who appears in three of the four films as various authority figures.

On the downside, unlike Donald Meek’s character in the Nick Carter series, Eddie Foy Jr.’s comedic sidekick character Gabby Walters doesn’t really help the series and from a plot standpoint, it only made sense for him to be in the first film. While there are  amusing moments where Foy’s charm shines, the character far too often is annoying, particularly in the last film.

The rest of the cast was mostly serviceable. Nothing amazing but nothing really bad either. The writing was dodgy at times. In the first movie, the film really took a long round about way of achieving its goal with the Secret Service going to great pains to have Bancroft convicted by a jury under his own name on a trumped up counterfeiting Charge so he could go undercover in prison rather than simply have him imprisoned under an assumed name. as would happen in the third film In the final film, the plot involved a secret fictional weapon which the filmmakers tried to demonstrate. Unfortunately they didn’t have the budget to do it effectively and the result is a somewhat confusing end.

It’s also worth commenting on as to the dearth of women in these features. Each film has one woman each in the main cast and except for Lya Lys in Murder in the Air none of them actually stand out.

Overall, the films are okay B-movies with some nice acting by Reagan and a few standout moments. But there’s a lot of this that’s also pretty forgettable even by B-movie standards.

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DVD Review: The Saint Double Feature

In 1941, George Sanders left the role Simon Templar in the Saint series and was replaced by Hugh Sinclair.

The contrasts between Sanders and Sinclair is pretty striking.  For Sanders, the Saint was an early highlight of a career that would see him earn parts in A pictures and even earn an Academy Award. For Sinclair, this was as good as it got.  Sinclair just didn’t have the presence that Sanders did, and so both of his Saint films were below Sanders best stories. Though both films were better than Sanders subpar The Saint’s Double Trouble.  

The Saint’s Vacation (1941)  is the better of the two films and truthfully above average when compared to most 1940s B detective features. The Saint is on vacation and gets involved in international intrigue over a music box which serves as the stories Macguffin. It’s not an original idea, but the execution of it in this film is pretty enjoyable. The end is somewhat frustrating and drawn out particularly since we never get to find out what exactly the hubbub was about other than that it was a Macguff.

The Saint Meets the Tiger  (1943) is based on the first Saint Novel and finds the Saint on the trail of international gold smugglers. Most of the movie is a little boring and hard to follow, so it’s a bit below average. However, at the end of the movie, a madcap scene where the Saint’s sidekick and girlfriend are knocking people out aboard a ship really livens things up.

So in short,  the two films are almost mere images of each other. The Saint’s Vacation is an above average film that’s pretty interesting in the beginning but is bogged down by a slow ending. The Saint Meets the Tiger is a below average film that’s propped up by an ending that’s a lot more fun than the film itself.

Overall, I’d give the DVD 3.0 out of 5.0 and recommend it only for Saint completists at its retail price.


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DVD Review: Nick Carter Triple Feature Mysteries

Walter Pidgeon played Nick Carter in a series of 3 MGM films in 1939 and 1940 and the three films were released in the last few years by Warner Archives.

The first film was, Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) which saw Nick heading to California to investigate the theft of plans for an advanced aircraft and sabotage of the factory.

This film is engaging  and breezes by in 59 minutes. The mystery isn’t all that complex, but the film is interesting for its look at a time when the aviation industry was very young.

Carter as portrayed on the film, jumped to conclusions and made plenty of surmises about people’s guilt, some of which were far fetched but promised repeatedly, “If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize later.” A line that would be used in other films, though not as frequently as  here.

The second film was Phantom Raiders (1940) and it was probably the worst of the three. The film was expanded to 70 minutes, but really didn’t seem to know what to do with the extra time, so it opted for padding. You could start watching the film ten minutes in and really not miss anything.

Carter is brought in on a case where several boats are being blown up at sea by the same company leading to massive insurance payoff. This film because of the first ten minutes (which gives away the plot) is much less of a true whodunit and more of a battle of wits between Nick and the villain which does work fairly well.

The location shots are good and the plot progresses nicely. Other than the very boring first ten minutes, my big complaint is that Nick keeps trying to bow out of the case in a way that hardly seem consistent with the heroic reputation of the character.

Finally, we have the best film of the series Sky Murder  (1940) which has Nick investigating a murder that occurred in the air. The movie was one of those pre-war films that really dealt with the war in Europe and fifth columnists in the US. This 72 minute film was exciting, well-paced, suspenseful, and with some lighter moments included as well. In terms of B Detective movies, it didn’t get much better than this. This movie makes the whole set worth buying.

Overall, I found this to be a very good series of films. The glaring flaw with the series was that the Nick Carter on the screen had very little relation to the Nick Carter off the books. Through fifty years of pulp fiction, Carter had been established as a resourceful tireless he-man who looked at danger and laughed in its face. Carter also surrounded himself with younger detectives who he was mentoring, thus the title master detective.

Pidgeon plays Carter as much more typical Mystery Comedy lead. Carter’s no fool, but he’s also a bit of a lady’s man and in The Phantom Raiders he’d rather catch up with the ladies and take a vacation than bust up the ring.

And as for assistants, Nick has Bartholemew (played by Donald Meek), a middle aged bee keeper and wannabe amateur detective who attaches himself to Nick with Nick’s sufferance more than anything else.

It was Hollywood’s practice in the 1930s to pay to adapt characters to the screen and then shove these characters into the formula of the moment, which is why there was a series of Nancy Drew where Nancy was a little bit ditzy, and two Nero Wolfe films where Archie Goodwin was played as a typical punch drunk Lionel Stander character.

Even with this flaw, these three movies are good in and of themselves. The stories are well-written and there’s plenty of action for a film of its era though it’s not bloody. There were a couple of machine gun scenes in this series that were thrilling.

Even Bartholemew works as a sidekick, particularly in the last two movies. While similar characters from the golden age of film usually became  nothing more than annoying comic foils, Meek turns in a solid performance and Bartholemew actually becomes a valuable asset to Nick in the second and third movies, comfortable with a gun and with using some trick action to get the upper hand on the bad guys.

The series stands up well. Only lasting for three installments meant that unlike Mr. Moto or The Thin Man, the Nick Carter series didn’t stick around for one film too many.

The DVD itself is up to the usual standard of Warner Archives with no thrills but three good and very rare films with decent transfers. The only mistake made was that Warner put Phantom Raiders before Sky Murder but this is only of trivial importance as it really doesn’t matter which order you watch these in.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The George Sanders Saint Movie Collection

The Saint, created by Leslie Charteris, hit movie theaters in 1938 with Louis Heyward in the title role. George Sanders took over in 1939 and played the Saint in five films.  This Warner Archives collection collects all five films on a two DVD set.

The films, are somewhat above average B movie fare. The Saint is a figure who walks very close to the edge of the law and is as often hunted by the police as he is the hunter of criminals. Each film includes the Saint teaming up with some recently formed though not all too bright criminal.

The films really work thanks to Sander’s debonair portrayal of the Saint as well as some great supporting characters in the typical roles of police, sidekick, and leading lady.  In four of the five films Jonathan Hale plays the affable and sympathetic Inspector Fernack who is often torn between his sense of duty and his friendship for the Saint and also serves as a comic foil.  Paul Guifoyle plays a criminal who reforms in The Saint Takes Over and then appears as the same character who is now a house detective in The Saint in Palm Springs.  Finally, Wendy Barrie plays three different female leads in the first, fourth, and fifth films.

With that said, here are my thoughts on each film>

The Saint Strikes Back: The Saint helps a female mob boss escape from the scene of a shooting, then flies back to New York to contact Inspector Fernack and get him out to San Francisco with many in San Francisco wanting Fernack to come out any way because it’s suspected the Saint’s involved in the murder. The Saint tries to ensure justice is done and to reform the female mob boss who became a crime boss after she believed her father was framed for murder. The plot’s a bit convulted but really it’s a well executed and tight story that that wraps up nicely in a little more than hour.  Grade: B+

The Saint in London:  The Saint returns to London, hires a pickpocket as a valet, and then is called into a case by an old friend that involves kidnapping, embezzlement, and of course, murder. This is just a very fun movie. Sally Gray is great as the adventurous female lead. David Burns is good as the Saint’s sidekick, Dugan and Gordon Macleod does very well as Inspector Claude Teal of Scotland Yard. This was just a solid film overall. Grade: A-

The Saint’s Double Trouble:  Easily the weakest of Sanders’ five films as the Saint has a double who happens to be a crime boss. The film does have some good moments, but in most places the movie seems kind of forced and silly and not in a good way.  Bela Lugosia can’t even save this one.   In addition, the casting of the film’s heroine and sidekick were the worst of the series. Grade: C-

The Saint Takes Over:  With Fernack framed for murder, the Saint once again journeys through the New York underworld but finds himself as a race against crime as potential witnesses who can save Fernack keep dying off. This film also presents the Saint with the toughest dilemma in his career and perhaps most downbeat ending in the series. Grade: A

The Saint in Palm Springs: Fernack asks the Saint to guard a $200,000 postage stamp for a friend and deliver it to Palm Springs. The friend is killed but the Saint is determined to ensure the stamp  reaches the dead man’s heir. The Saint goes to Palm Springs determined to deliver the stamp and reveal the characters. Overall, this was a fun suspense story with something as tiny as a postage being the desired object, it was always a question as to where it was and who had it, as well as whodunit. The Saint shows a lot of cleverness, unfortunately he also shows a lot of stupidity as he exposes himself and others to unnecessary peril. Still, this was entertaining with a great reveal at the end. Grade: B

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Overall, this was a very enjoyable collection and a great opportunity to see George Sanders at his best.  While the films aren’t perfect, they are really enjoyable.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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