The Strange Case of Brit-Noir and British B movies on VCI

VCI, a DVD label that rose out of PD films and second-tier films of the past, has been turning yeoman’s work of releasing obscure movies on DVD into a remarkable job at unearthing and presenting the real B-movie, programmers and forgotten low-budget film of the forties, fifties and sixties, with an emphasis on crime, mystery and noir. Some of the most interesting finds have come from their relationship with Renown Pictures, many of them branded “”Best of!” British Classics” (I don’t understand the curious quotes an punctuation either), others bundled under vaguely titled double features and triple features of “British Film Noir” or “Crime Thrillers.”

Which, mind you, is not to say that the films themselves are all (or most or even often) remarkable. Many of the films branded “British Film Noir” are only vaguely related to the American genre while some of the films in other collections are more in tune with the style and/or sensibility of American film noir. Many are forgotten for a good reason. And the technical quality of these releases varies wildly, from good prints and decent masters to substandard prints and indifferent, noisy digital masters.

But these releases are a window into a particular strain of filmmaking almost forgotten in the lazy and usually incorrect branding of “B-movie” on low budget films from Hollywood and elsewhere. And periodically, they unearth a minor classic, a forgotten gem or a fascinating artifact excavated from the archives.

Here are a few of the more interesting releases of late, beginning with Candlelight in Algeria (1944), the latest release of a “VCI “Best of!” British Classics” branded programmer.

Before James Mason found international success and caught the eye of American filmmakers in films like The Seventh Veil and Odd Man Out, he was a very busy actor in the British film industry, working his way up from supporting roles to leading men. This snappy 1944 espionage thriller, made on a budget comparable to an ambitious American B movie, finds romantic adventure in wartime intrigue in Algiers as Mason flees the Nazis with vital information for the Allies, or so he tells the American girl (Carla Lehman) who becomes his ally. As she becomes entwined with a smitten French Vichy officer and a cagey Nazi spy hunter (Walter Rilla), Mason slips in and out of her life in various undercover identities (and a mustache that our heroine rightly ridicules) to get secret plans to the Allies necessary for the planning of the invasion of North Africa.

This is less Casablanca than Across the Pacific in the European theater, a lighthearted spy adventure with a romantic lilt and a plucky amateur American drafted to play a chaste Mata Hari in the streets of nightclubs of wartime Algiers. While no lost masterpiece, this is a delightful little find, directed by George King with a fleet pace and deft turns of turns character and populated with colorful personalities dancing around one another in flirtations and battles of wits. Some credit is surely due to cinematographer Otto Heller (who later shot Olivier’s Richard III), who doesn’t let the limited budget show through his images, and editor Terence Fisher (soon to be a director in his own right), for driving the momentum, but hand it to King for the energy of the performances and ensemble banter. And the disc itself is perfectly fine, a decent master with no supplements.

Wartime romance: Carla Lehman and James Mason

Keeping on the World War II theme, the 1943 flag-waver Tomorrow We Live (aka At Dawn We Die—how’s that for a contradictory retitling?) is total propaganda cinema of triumph and tragedy, a very British drama of the French resistance in World War II. John Clements dons a beret to play Jean Baptiste, ostensibly a rural Frenchman who flees his Nazi-occupied village and seeks out the Resistance to deliver information about Nazi submarine bases, but that’s the extent of this cheery chap’s Gallic credentials. Berets and bistros aside, the French speak and act with such British personality that the film could almost be a nightmare fantasy of the Nazi occupation of London (which this studio-created version of Paris suggests in its blackout night scenes). Which is where it is most interesting. Again, George King is on the job as director, driving the pace with snappy patter and moving the film forward with a momentum that gives the situation a palpable sense of urgency (if not exactly a sense of peril). The grim coda, as hundred of hostages marching off to a Nazi firing squad singing “The Marseilles” rather than betray the underground, is a stiff upper lip as they come and oddly rousing. The film, which looks just fine, is part of the Best Of British Classics Double Feature Volume 1, accompanied by a genuine B-movie, a snoozer of a 1939 courtroom drama called Inquest.

Jump ahead to the post-war occupation of Vienna for Four in a Jeep (1951), a European coproduction from a Swiss production company with an Austrian director (Leopold Lindtberg), an international cast and an American actor (Ralph Meeker, very early in his career) in the lead. Set in the same political culture of in The Third Man, the city divided into four sectors policed by a separate Allied power, it’s the anti-Third Man portrait of the post-war world, where the four powers (American, French, British and Russian) really can get along. That’s embodied in the melting pot Inter-Allied Military Police patrol, a quartet officers (one from sector) that patrol the International Zone.

Meeker’s Sergeant William Long, the tough American soldier, snubs the new Russian member assigned to the team, Vassilij (Yossi Yadin), but it’s not a display of nationalistic prejudice. Flashbacks show a past camaraderie, two allies who celebrate the conquering of Berlin with a strangely (and likely unintentional) homoerotic comradeship of dancing and roughhousing, rolling around on the ground and wrestling like adolescent boys between slugs of contraband booze. But post-Armistice the friendship went cold, thanks to official Soviet frowning on fraternizing with the allies. Meeker takes that snub personally and the bad blood only gets worse when they respond to a call and find Russians are hassling a Hungarian woman, Franziska (Viveca Lindfors), who is waiting for POW husband to return home. Suspicions of Vassilij’s loyalties, William becomes her protector and goes in search of her husband, who escaped from the camps before the liberation is now on the run from the Russians, determined to get him back behind the Iron Curtain. What gives the film its distinction—apart from the ultimate message of human connection trumping national identity—is the tension and the details of life in post-war Vienna, where citizens live under military patrols, gather for radio broadcasts to listen for the names of men returning from POW camps and crowd the train stations awaiting the return of loved ones. And watch for a delightful appearance by Paulette Dubost—legendary as the flirtatious maid Lisette in Rules of the Game—as the romantically-inclined wife of a French MP.

This disc is adequate at best, with some sequences marred by poor mastering and substandard electronic subtitles, which are ungainly, lag behind the dialogue in too many spots and appear to add a haze of interference to the image in some passages. There is both a skill and an art to subtitling. This disc, which lists a 1986 copyright on the subtitles from Medallion TV, lacks both.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948), a British adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel, was notorious in its day. The noir-tinged crime drama with lurid edges and an American setting that never quite comes off, thanks to studio-bound shooting and sometimes awkward attempts at American accents and gangster talk. Jack La Rue, who looks like a poor man’s Humphrey Bogart, is given a terrific entrance that establishes him as the cock of the walk and is just fine (if never genuinely commanding) as the tough guy with a sop of a heart under his ruthless front. He’s the nightclub impresario and gangster who kidnaps a jaded heiress (Linden Travers) and falls in love with her, much to the frustration of his partners. Their illicit affair is ostensibly at the heart of the condemnation of the film but their chemistry isn’t all that convincing (or is that neither of them is able to convincingly exude passion for anything?) and the direction by St. John Legh Clowes (who also adapted the novel) never manages to bring a snap to the underworld milieu, a passion to the supposedly mad love, or a savage edge to the mercenary twists.

Jack La Rue and Linden Travers

There’s more fun to be found around the details at the edges of the story: a reporter (Hugh McDermott) who repeatedly pulls a gun while he pursues his story and peeps on a showgirl getting undressed, gang members shacking up with their latest conquest, and (my favorite) a cigarette girl whose outfit includes a zipper that goes right down the front (and gets tested by more than one customer). The novel was remade a number of time, quite memorably by Robert Aldrich as The Grissom Gang. This original screen effort is a strange and somewhat unsatisfying piece of crime cinema but it has its oddball attractions. The image quality is fine, if not particularly noteworthy, and the disc features a video interview with American distributor Richard Gordon and actor Richard Nielson and an additional audio interview with Richard Gordon, each over 30 minutes.

Also new this month from VCI (but unreviewed by me) is Child in the House (1954), directed by Cy Endfield (Zulu) after he fled the American blacklist and starring Stanley Baker as a fugitive on the run and child star Mandy Miller as his daughter, living with uncaring relatives (Phyllis Calvert and Eric Portman) and struggling with her vow to keep his whereabouts a secret.

Available from Amazon:
Candlelight In Algeria
Tomorrow We Live
Four In A Jeep
No Orchids for Miss Blandish
Child In The House