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Tag Archives: Roland Culver

Singapore (Aug. 13, 1947)

Note to aspiring makers of B movies — if you’re going to blatantly rip off Casablanca (1942), take a page from director John Brahm’s book. Don’t just change the characters’ names and tack on a happy ending. Do it with real panache and also change the hero’s occupation to “pearl smuggler” and spice up the love triangle by giving the heroine a case of amnesia.

True to its title, Singapore is steeped in the exoticism and heat of the Pacific Rim, but like the film noir techniques Brahm uses to tell his story, it’s mostly just window dressing for a run-of-the-mill potboiler. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Brahm keeps things moving along nicely, and Singapore is a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for a melodrama and you can overlook some contrivances.

When Matt Gordon (MacMurray) returns to Singapore after World War II, it’s clear as soon as he steps off the plane that he has a history there. Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn) has Gordon brought to his office, and he reminds him that the penalty for removing illegally obtained pearls from a British colony is a minimum of 10 years in prison.

“Before the war it was only eight,” Gordon quips. “But I guess everything’s gone up, huh?”

Gordon sits down in the hotel bar, orders two gin slings, and sits alone, reminiscing about life in Singapore before the war. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner), but their whirlwind romance was cut short by the beginning of hostilities with the Japanese.

They were engaged to be married, but before they could tie the knot she was killed in a bombing raid, and Allied forces had occupied his hotel room, where his $250,000 worth of pearls were secreted in the motor of the ceiling fan in his room.

He made it out of Singapore with his life, but that’s all, and now that the war is over he’s intent on retrieving his pearls. (It’s established that Gordon has a service record, and saw combat during the war, perhaps to engender audience sympathy.)

Of course, Linda didn’t really die in a bombing raid. She was injured and stricken with total amnesia. Unable to remember any details of her former life, she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where she met Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver), a British plantation owner who saved her life many times during the war. Now they are married, and her name is Ann Van Leyden. No matter how many times Gordon calls her “Linda,” she just can’t remember their time together, or the love they shared.

So Gordon has two problems — winning back Linda/Ann, and somehow getting his pearls out of the ceiling fan of a hotel room that is now occupied by an obnoxious married couple. The problem of the pearls is compounded not only by the watchful eye of Deputy Commissioner Hewitt, but also by the corpulent gangster Mr. Mauribus (Thomas Gomez), who wants the pearls for himself.

There are a lot of ceiling fans in Singapore, and none of them move quickly. It’s all part of the languorous, overheated atmosphere of the film, but like I said above, it’s all just window dressing. The Asian extras in the background and the crowded streets of the port city add ambiance, but not much else. The action could be moved to any other “exotic” locale, and few details of the plot would have to be changed. (And that’s exactly what happened in 1957 when director Joseph Pevney remade Singapore as a vehicle for Errol Flynn called Istanbul.)

I liked Singapore despite its flaws, and it’s always enjoyable to watch the beautiful Ava Gardner do anything. I didn’t completely buy her relationship with the hulking, thuggish Fred MacMurray — I’ve always thought MacMurray was better in comedic roles than dramatic ones — but it works well enough to keep the film moving.

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Wanted for Murder (Nov. 2, 1946)

Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder, which was originally released on June 17, 1946, in the U.K., premiered in the United States on November 2, 1946. It’s an effective chiller with a dependable cast and an excellent screenplay by Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger, based on the stage play by Percy Robinson and Terence de Marney.

The film boasts a terrific sense of place, with scenes filmed in Hampstead Fairground, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, and the center of London (which, when necessary, appears as rear screen projection stock footage, a technique that can be distractingly fake-looking but here is done fairly skillfully). There are also several atmospheric nighttime murder sequences in Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park, and Hyde Park.

Particularly effective is the music by Mischa Spoliansky, whose pop-orchestral tune “A Voice in the Night” is a motif that follows the murderer around like his shadow, and which you’ll be hard-pressed not to hum after seeing this picture.

Eric Portman plays middle-class mummy’s boy Victor James Colebrooke, a man who feels haunted by the specter of his late father, William Colebrooke, an executioner to Queen Victoria whose eerie likeness stands in Madame Tussaud’s.

Colebrooke is a handsome, superficially charming gentleman who drink Hendrick’s Gin, lives at home with his mother and a servant, and whose single-breasted suits often sport a white boutonniere and a pocket square. He’s the embodiment of the British fascination with “the murderer next door” — the outwardly ordinary man whose wife’s remains are bricked up in the basement or who strangles working girls on the weekend.

Wispy brunette Dulcie Gray plays Anne Fielding, a young woman who works in a gramophone shop and is dating Colebrooke. A starry-eyed young bus conductor named Jack Williams (Derek Farr) finds her waiting at the fairgrounds and mashes her as hard as he can. She’s attracted to him, but Colebrooke is manipulative and possessive.

Rounding out the fine cast are Roland Culver as Chief Insp. Conway and Stanley Holloway as Sgt. Sullivan, the two Scotland Yard detectives who are on the trail of the killer. Their scenes are some of the film’s most light-hearted, but they are never less than professional, and are dogged in their pursuit of the strangler.

When the first murder occurs, the audience doesn’t know who the killer is, but we strongly suspect Colebrooke. It’s not long before the film removes any doubt about his guilt, which allows for a more interesting and creepy character study than in a whodunnit, where the murderer’s identity is a secret up until the climax.

Most of the film is a game of cat and mouse, with the detectives fairly certain Colebrooke is guilty, but unable to gather anything but circumstantial evidence.

Meanwhile, Colebrooke goes about his dastardly business at night in the parks, telling young women he takes out on dates and strangles that his name is “Tom Mahon.”

Colebrooke blames his sickness on his father, whose killings were all committed in the course of his duty, but whose grim pride in his work earned him the nickname “The Happy Hangman.” The Freudian-minded viewer might blame his overbearing, possessive mother, but the film itself doesn’t draw any such trite conclusions. His father is just a picture on the wall or — in one scene — a disturbingly realistic wax figure, and his mother isn’t a bad person, even encouraging him to find a nice girl and marry her.

Wanted for Murder is a first-rate thriller. Although the adjective hadn’t been invented when it was made, I’d go so far as to call it “Hitchcockian.”

Dead of Night (Sept. 4, 1945)

DeadOfNightDead of Night is a British anthology of horror stories with many layers and a cyclical story structure. The five segments are based on stories by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, and Angus MacPhail. Each is great, but the way the stories are told and the way they are linked together is the most interesting thing about the film.

When Dead of Night begins, an architect named Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is driven to an English country estate, where he has been hired for a reconstruction project. Once he arrives, and is introduced to the group of people in the living room, he experiences déjà vu. He claims to have dreamed the room and the people in it many times. He is able to predict certain things before they happen in the narrative. A psychiatrist named Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) refuses to believe any of it, but Craig claims that he is being treated by the doctor, and works hard to dispel the doctor’s doubts. In between the stories that people tell, Craig presages disaster. Horrific events will come to pass, he keeps telling his fellow house guests.

Antony Baird tells the first tale. His character is a race car driver named Hugh Grainger who survives a smash-up on the track, but soon after has disturbing visions of a hearse driver who appears in different guises, but always at a quarter after four, and always speaking the words, “Just room for one inside, sir.” This story provides the template that was followed by every Final Destination film, and it does so in less than seven minutes.

The second story is about a young woman named Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) who attends a Christmas party. While playing hide-and-seek with the other young people, she is found by a young man who hides with her, and claims that there was a murder committed in the house in 1860 by a mad young woman. Going off on her own, she discovers a passage into a child’s bedroom, where a little boy sits, weeping. He tells her about his older sister. She puts him to bed and sings to him. When she rejoins the party, she learns that the name the little boy gave her was the name of the boy who was murdered by his sister.

In the third story, a woman named Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) recalls buying a birthday present for her fiancé, Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), a large mirror. He starts seeing strange things in the mirror, such as a room completely different from the one in which he is standing. Increasingly disturbed by her husband’s claims and his strange behavior, Mrs. Cortland tracks down the history of the mirror, and learns that its former owner was a wealthy gentleman who groundlessly accused his wife of infidelity. He murdered his wife, and then sat down in front of the mirror and cut his own throat. Will history repeat itself?

In the fourth story, the owner of the house, and the host of the party, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), tells a comical ghost story about his two good friends, George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne), who were both avid golfers. Bitter rivals on the links, they were the best of friends at all other times, until they both fell in love with the same woman, Mary Lee (Peggy Bryan). They decide to settle things with an unfriendly game of golf. When the game is finished, one of them quite unexpectedly walks into a lake and drowns himself. The winner marries Mary, but is haunted by the voice of his late friend, destroying his golf game for good. (Radford and Wayne played comically sport-obsessed British gentleman in a number of films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. Their alliterative pair of names changed from picture to picture, but the schtick was the same.)

In the final story, Dr. Van Straaten tells his own tale. He was once called to examine a ventriloquist named Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) who was accused of the attempted murder of an American ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). Frere’s dummy, Hugo, seemed to have a mind of its own, and threatened to leave Frere for a new owner, Kee. Dummies in horror movies had been done before, (e.g., The Unholy Three), but Dead of Night created a template that many films have used since.

Dead of Night was released on September 4, 1945 in London, and a little less than a year later in the United States, on June 28, 1946, in an edited version. Apparently the U.S. distributors felt that the film’s running time (103 minutes) was too long, so they cut out the golfing story and the Christmas ghost story, leaving only three stories. I can’t imagine seeing this film without them. The structure of the film is deliberate, and all the segments are tied together in a brilliant and surreal climax.