Tuesday, 14 February 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was, in retrospect, too young to appreciate it. I remember being wowed by the visuals but bored by the story. I saw it again years later and was rather more impressed. Now having seen it once again after the lapse of even more years I can finally see it as a masterpiece.

Arthur C. Clarke was in the mid-60s one of the three biggest names in science fiction. He did not merely co-write the screenplay - the film was very much a collaboration between Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, to the point where it’s often difficult to know where Clarke’s vision stops and Kubrick’s begins.

Clarke was an atheist and very hostile to religion but oddly enough his fiction often had a certain quasi-religious element to it. The atheist conception of a universe that is random and purposeless is in fact explicitly rejected by this movie. In this movie humanity has a destiny. Whether this destiny is part of God’s plan or whether it is part of the plan of hyper-intelligent aliens doesn’t really matter. For all practical purposes hyper-intelligent aliens might as well be gods.

The central theme of the movie is human evolution, but evolution guided by outside forces.  These forces, unimaginably advanced aliens, first intervene in mankind’s story four million years ago. Our distant ape ancestors are peaceful vegetarians until a strange black monolith teaches them to use tools, and to kill. The movie’s approach is however considerably more subtle. The famous jump cut linking prehistoric tools with space age tools is more than just a striking piece of imagery. The monolith may have unleashed human aggression but it also unleashed human inventiveness and imagination and creativity and the implication is that these qualities are all inextricably linked.

Fast forward to 2001 and this brings us to the second intervention, with the monolith being discovered on the Moon. It has been left there for four million years, until such time that humans display their readiness for the next step in evolution by being able to find the buried object. A single radio transmission points in the direction of Jupiter and eighteen months later a spaceship is on its way to that planet, with a crew of five (three in suspended animation) plus the HAL 9000 super computer.

HAL, the computer that has become such an iconic feature of the movie, really is one of the central characters. Whether HAL really does have emotions and consciousness, or whether he has simply been programmed to mimic those qualities, remains uncertain (at one point we hear the astronauts discuss that very question with an interviewer from Earth). It doesn’t really matter - whichever is true the end result is a computer that behaves as if it has emotions and consciousness, which for all practical purposes may actually amount to the same thing.

HAL is one of the reasons that this is a movie that can only be fully appreciated after multiple viewings. On your first viewing you will undoubtedly  look at the HAL sub-plot from the point of view of the human astronauts. On subsequent viewings you may (as I did) start to look at these events from HAL’s point of view, in which case his actions become much more comprehensible.

What’s interesting is that the astronauts have been so carefully selected and so thoroughly trained to maintain an absolute discipline over their emotions that they come across as less human than HAL (which is why the deliberate underplaying of Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea which is off-putting at first comes to make perfect sense). If HAL has achieved consciousness and the ability to experience emotion then these are very recent developments and he has not had the time or opportunity to learn how to deal with these things. He is in some ways a super-intelligent child.

One of the emotions that HAL has developed is anxiety. There’s a crucial scene in which HAL expresses his anxieties about the mission to Dave. Dave assumes that HAL’s questions are simply part of a routine test of the psychological well-being of the human crew and fails to realise that HAL may in fact be expressing actual anxieties of his own.

HAL also shows signs of acquiring another human characteristic - a sense of self-preservation.

Anxiety and insecurity can of course lead to paranoia, and HAL certainly starts to exhibit paranoid tendencies. What’s really intriguing is that while Dave and Frank are becoming concerned that HAL might be a threat to them HAL is simultaneously becoming concerned that the human astronauts might be a threat to him.

The famous scene in which Dave decides he must de-activate HAL’s higher mental functions achieves a real poignancy. We’re obviously disposed to be on Dave’s side but we do really feel HAL’s fear.

The HAL sub-plot is not a mere plot device introduced to add danger to the Jupiter mission. The subject of the evolution of machine intelligence (to the point where it might well become artificial life) is one of the movie’s major themes, dovetailing nicely with the other main theme of human evolution.

This is an insanely ambitious movie. There had been big-budget sci-fi movies before this (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Woman in the Moon were very big productions indeed in the 1920s) and there had been intelligent thoughtful sci-fi movies as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey aims not only to be an intelligent sci-fi epic it also does something more - it creates a whole new aesthetic for sci-fi films. It looks radically different from every previous sci-fi movie and every sci-fi movie made since has been to some degree influenced by this aesthetic.

It also aims at a level of realism never previously approached in a movie. All the technology in the film not only looks like it would really work but is, within the limitations of what was known in the mid-60s, entirely plausible. The fact that we don’t have giant space stations that rotate in order to achieve artificial gravity doesn’t mean that the idea was implausible. If we failed to achieve the future predicted by this movie that is due to our loss of confidence in ourselves rather than any failing on the movie’s part.

Those who don’t like the film often complain about its length and its slowness. Personally I think the leisurely pacing works and many of the slower scenes actually tell you a great deal about the world of the film - and it is a fully realised world. It’s also been criticised for being pretentious and obscure. I actually think the plot is fairly straightforward, although the first time you see it you can be distracted by the visuals and misled into thinking it’s obscure when it isn’t.

2001: A Space Odyssey may have been immensely influential aesthetically but it was less influential as far as content is concerned. For a while it did look as though it might be the precursor of a run of intelligent provocative science fiction movies, movies like Planet of the Apes (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and Westworld (1973), but that run soon dried up. This was perhaps inevitable. Big-budget science fiction movies are an enormous risk for a studio. They’re an even bigger risk if they’re long on ideas and short on action. Shoot ’em ups in outer space were to be the future of movie science fiction. 

2001: A Space Odyssey still stands up as one of the great science fiction movies. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Mad Ghoul (1943)

The Universal horror movies of the 1940s are a bit of a mixed bag but The Mad Ghoul does have quite a few things in its favour. Most notably it has the right cast. It has George Zucco as a mad scientist, it has famous scream queen Evelyn Ankers and it has Turhan Bey to add the necessary touch of exoticism.

Zucco plays chemist Dr Alfred Morris who has been researching some strange aspects of ancient Mayan rites. He believes that the Mayans may have used a type of poison gas to induce what he calls a state of death-in-life. He also has a theory about the Mayans’ rather unpleasant custom of tearing out the hearts of living sacrificial victims. He believes they had a means of reversing the state of death-in-life.

With his eager young student and assistant Ted Allison (David Bruce) Dr Morris is determined to prove the correctness of his theory.

At first we assume that Dr Morris is the kind of movie mad scientist who is led into evil through his single-minded pursuit of science without any moral grounding. He scornfully dismisses the idea of morality. He is a scientist and believes there is no good or evil, only true or false. There is however another factor at work in this case. Dr Morris knows a good deal about science but he is a fool when it comes to women. 

The worst thing is that he thinks he knows all about women. And as the old saying goes, there’s no fool like an old fool. Dr Morris’s foolishness about women will lead him to use his knowledge of science for evil rather than good.

Young Ted is also somewhat naïve when it comes to women, and this will have equally disastrous results for him. Ted is engaged to be married to popular singer Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers) but he has an unknown and formidable rival in the person of her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey).

Soon a ghoul is on the loose, robbing graves all over the country. There seems to be some mysterious link to Isabel Lewis. Of course Isabel herself cannot possibly be involved. Reporter Ken McClure (Robert Armstrong) has a theory but he will need some hard evidence before he can go to the police. He has an idea he knows how to find that evidence.

George Zucco is in fine form. Dr Morris is the kind of mad scientist who doesn’t struggle very hard against the temptations of evil but he’s smooth and clever and he’s able to maintain an outward appearance of respectability. People trust Dr Morris. Zucco doesn’t overdo his performance - Dr Morris is a villain but he’s a victim of his own delusions and he’s not entirely unsympathetic.

David Bruce does an excellent job as the hapless innocent Ted Allison. Evelyn Ankers makes a sympathetic and glamorous heroine. Turhan Bey is as suave as ever as her handsome lover.

While the term zombie is never used this can be seen as a type of zombie movie, with a scientific rather than mystical explanation.

One of the great things about this movie is the lack of comic relief. I just can’t tell you what a joy it is to encounter a 1940s Universal horror flick without irritating comic relief. Even the smart aleck reporter is mostly played very straight.

The movie includes many of the staples of Universal horror films with some nicely atmospheric graveyard scenes. The makeup effects (by the legendary Jack Pierce) are effective without being in any way excessive. Universal’s horror films of this era might have been uneven but they always looked good.

The script, by Brenda Weisberg and Paul Gangelin, is serviceable and in fact surprisingly intelligent and has some original touches. Director James P. Hogan spent his career in B-features but he knew his business and his work here can’t be faulted. He gets the most out of the material and the results are quite classy by B-movie standards. Sadly Hogan died of a heart attack shortly before the film’s release.

The Mad Ghoul is one of the five movies included in TCM’s excellent (although hard to find) Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. Sound quality is just a little uneven. On the other hand the image quality is superb. There are a few extras. The Mad Ghoul is a neat little horror movie that has been unjustly neglected and is highly recommended. As for the TCM boxed set, it’s pretty much a must-buy for classic horror fans.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was the third of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies and the first to be produced by Universal. Universal decided not only to bring Holmes into the present day but also to have him battle Nazi saboteurs. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was released in 1942, at a time when Hollywood was whipping itself up into a frenzy over the war.

The contemporary settings of the Universal films are not generally too much of a problem. The wartime background was a less successful experiment which Universal mercifully abandoned after the first few films.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was based, very loosely, on Conan Doyle’s short story His Last Bow. This 1917 story, which in my opinion is one of the weakest of all Conan Doyle’s stories, had pitted Holmes against a Germany spy during the First World War. The spy theme is the only element of the short story utilised in the screenplay by John Bright and Lynn Riggs. 

Britain is being demoralised by a series of propaganda broadcasts from Germany. The broadcasts predict acts of sabotage. What really worries the British intelligence chiefs is that the predictions are always accurate. They are so worried that they are prepared to resort to desperate measures - they have called on Sherlock Holmes for help. Holmes has one clue to work with - the dying words of one of his operatives. He also has the assistance of the dead man’s girlfriend Kitty (Evelyn Ankers) and can also count on assistance from London’s underworld after Kitty delivers a stirring patriotic speech to them. 

It is obvious that the Germans have a sophisticated espionage and sabotage operation in place in Britain and that they have access to secrets that can only come from sources in high places. They are determined to safeguard their spy ring and attempt have been made on the lives of several senior British intelligence chiefs - and on the life of Holmes as well.

Kitty will play a vital role in uncovering this network, having attracted the amorous attentions of one of the Nazi ringleaders. 

The German spy network is set to pull off its greatest coup and it appears that they have the British thoroughly bamboozled. Holmes however is not so easily fooled.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce had settled into their respective roles very well by this time. Bruce plays things fairly straight this time, as he was alway perfectly capable of doing. In fact there’s virtually no comic relief in this film. Thomas Gomez is a subtly menacing villain. The very underrated Henry Daniell provides fine support as does Reginald Denny. Evelyn Ankers shines as Kitty.

I personally have a strong dislike for wartime propaganda movies. The more hysterical the propaganda the less I like them and the tone of this film is very hysterical indeed. 

On the plus side this movie is very impressive visually. The look of the movie is reminiscent of both the great 1930s Universal gothic horror movies and the film noir style although in fact the noir style was only just beginning to emerge in 1942. Director John Rawlins is very fond of extreme close-ups which he uses to excellent effect. This was unfortunately the only Universal Sherlock Holmes movie that Rawlins directed.

There was nothing outrageous about having Sherlock Holmes hunting spies. Several of Conan Doyle’s original short stories are in fact espionage stories. Pitting the great detective against Nazis though just seems too anachronistic. The stridently propagandistic tone doesn’t help at all and there are way too many political speeches. 

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is not a complete success. Critics at the time were unenthusiastic but it did great business at the box office. The best thing about this movie is that its success ensured that there would be more Universal Sherlock Holmes movies. It marked an uncertain start to what would be one of the great B-movie series. Recommended, with reservations.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966)

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters  is a slice of classic 1960s drive-in movie cheesiness.

As so often in sci-fi/horror movies of that era the threat to humanity originates in the frozen wastes of either the Arctic or Antarctica. In this case it’s Antarctica. Plant samples from the frozen continent are being flown to a remote US Navy base at Gow Island but disaster strikes the aircraft and it has to make an emergency landing. There is only one survivor, the pilot, and he’s in no condition to tell anything of the odd events that caused the aerial mishap.

Before very long personnel at the base start to disappear and then turn up dead. Of course if you’re a horror movie fan then at this point you’ll be suspecting that those plant samples belonged to giant walking carnivorous plants. And you’d be spot on! It takes a while for the base’s resident scientists to catch on.

This particular base doesn’t seem to be especially well equipped - when the killer plants cut the wires to the generator the task of repairing the damage is quite beyond the capabilities of the personnel here. The officer in charge, Lt Charlie Brown (Anthony Eisley), eventually realises the full significance of the menace posed by these vicious plants. The only way of stopping them seems to be by using fire.

There’s the expected romantic sub-plot involving beautiful Navy nurse Nora Hall (Mamie van Doren), and there are the usual conflicts between the Navy people and the somewhat irritable civilian meteorologist. 

It’s played to a large extent for laughs, and the comic elements are rather heavy going. But this is very much standard drive-in fodder so you expect that sort of thing. On the plus side there’s plenty of enjoyably goofy technobabble. And the monsters are as cheesy as one could possibly desire.

The acting is exactly what you expect in a low-budget drive-in movie. Oddly enough Mamie van Doren isn’t given to many opportunities to show off the spectacularly voluptuous figure that made her a B-movie queen. As an actress her abilities are strictly limited but they’re more than adequate for his role.

Of course you know that sooner or later someone will decide to all in an air strike by Navy bombers to pulverise those rampaging killer shrubs, or in this case to zap them with napalm. Half a dozen aircraft duly arrive, and in each shot they strangely metamorphose into entirely different types of aircraft. That sort of thing is one of the great joys of low-budget sci-fi movies. 

It’s not overly scary but even at the time the picture was released it was essentially an exercise in campy silly fun and on that level it works admirably. I certainly enjoyed it.

The Region 1 DVD comes to us from an outfit called Cheezy Flicks. They don’t seem to have done a great deal in the way of restoration but these days we have to be grateful that such obscurities are being released on DVD at all. 

If you’re in the mood for a popcorn movie you could do a lot worse than The Navy vs. the Night Monsters. Recommended.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Mozambique (1964)

Mozambique is a 1964 low-budget crime thriller from writer-producer Harry Alan Towers employing his successful and profitable formula of shooting in exotic but very cheap locations. 

Brad Webster (Steve Cochran) is an American pilot in Lisbon and he’s down on his luck. After a plane crash no-one wants to hire him. Finally he is offered employment by a certain Colonel Valdez, to fly aircraft in East Africa (specifically Mozambique). For some reason the Portuguese police are very anxious that he should accept this job. In fact Inspector Cammaro (Paul Hubschmid) insists, and he is a very persuasive man.

On the flight to Lourenço Marques he meets beautiful blonde Danish singer Christina (Vivi Bach). She’s also been offered a job and a one-way plane ticket by Colonel Valdez.

On arrival he discovers that Colonel Valdez has passed away, to the regret of absolutely nobody. His extensive wealth and business interests (some legal and some illegal) are now up for grabs and his former business manager, the smooth but sinister Da Silva (Martin Benson), wants to make sure that he gets his share. Or, preferably, considerably more than his share. Valdez’s former business rival Henderson (Dietmar Schönherr) also hopes to profit from the sad demise of the colonel.

Brad just wanted a flying job but he’s drawn into a web of corruption, smuggling and murder. Not to mention white slavery. He can’t escape from the web because the chief Portuguese police investigator Cammaro won’t let him (and Cammaro has a number of charges that he is holding over Brad’s head) but he also can’t escape because he’s fallen for Christina and she’s landed herself in deep trouble having wandered unwittingly into the white slavery racket mentioned earlier.

It’s a reasonably solid plot and there is perhaps just a very slight tinge of film noir to Mozambique. In fact it can be seen as falling into the fascinating sub-genre of tropical noir, a sub-genre that flourished in the 40s and early 50s and included movies like Singapore.

Steve Cochran was a very fine actor who should have had a better career. His best movies were in the film noir mould (movies such as the superb Highway 301 and the amazingly bleak Private Hell 36). By the time he made this film his drinking and womanising was clearly taking its toll and in fact he died (in scandalous circumstances) before the movie was released. Nonetheless he gives an excellent performance. Cochran was always good at playing bad boys. This time he’s a bit of a bad boy but underneath he’s a decent guy who just isn’t getting the breaks. 

Hildegard Knef is just as good - mysterious, sultry and obviously dangerous. She’s the femme fatale and she does it well.

Vivi Bach is quite adequate as the naïve but charming Christina. Martin Benson makes an effective villain. Dietmar Schönherr is excellent as the devious Henderson.

Hildegard Knef had by this time begun a second very successful career as a singer and she gets to sing in this film (and she really is pretty good with that deep sultry voice). Vivi Bach also gets to sing, in a very different style - a light frothy 60s pop song that is kind of fun.

The visuals are a definite strength. The film was shot in Mozambique and Towers found some great locations. There’s some very nice colonial-era architecture. And if you’re looking for a place to shoot an exciting action climax you can’t do much better than the bridge over Victoria Falls.

A major highlight is the glimpse into a now vanished world. Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony in 1964. Whatever one thinks of colonialism there’s no question that it provided great backgrounds for adventure films and thrillers. This is a world of seedy sometimes desperate European expatriates, all on the make. It’s a world tailor-made for danger, romance and intrigue.

Blue Underground have released Mozambique on Blu-Ray, paired with another Harry Alan Towers production, Code 7, Victim 5, on a single disc. The anamorphic transfer (the film was shot in the Cinemascope ratio and in Technicolor) is very satisfactory. There are no extras but both movies are fun making this a good value for money double-header package.

Don’t expect an enormous amount of excitement. This is a crime suspense movie rather than an adventure romp but the suspense is done fairly well. The script is workmanlike and the acting is generally exceptionally good - much better than one would normally expect in such a movie. Mozambique is thoroughly enjoyable if you have a taste for the old-fashioned style of thriller. There’s also the tropical noir flavour alluded to earlier. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate is one of the most notorious of all Hollywood pre-code movies. In fact it was considered so brazen and shameless at the time of its release in 1934 that it became one of the main reasons for the tightening up  of the Production Code. Until fairly recent times it’s only been available in a savagely cut version, with all that pre-code naughtiness removed.

It’s also possibly the best of all the Tarzan movies, and one of the greatest of all jungle adventure films. You could almost say it’s the Citizen Kane of jungle adventure films! Even now it still seems remarkably fast-paced and action-filled. There’s a considerable reliance on stock footage (in fact quite a lot of the footage is from an earlier MGM movie, Trader Horn) and on rear-projection. The process shots don’t seem very realistic today, but back in 1934 this movie offered spell-binding excitement. In fact even today it’s pretty exciting.

The plot is somewhat involved for a jungle movie, with an old flame of Jane’s setting out on an expedition to find the fabled elephants’ graveyard and the enormous cache of ivory it contains. He wants the ivory, but the real prize that he seeks is Jane. Harry is a decent sort of chap really but his partner is another matter. He’s motivated purely by greed, but disguises these base motives under an exterior of charm and affability. To reach the elephants’ graveyard these two mismatched explorers will need the help of Tarzan.

Johnny Weissmuller gives his standard performance as Tarzan, and it works. While he can’t really act he does manage to convey a certain sense of fun which makes Jane’s decision to share his jungle life reasonably understandable.

The supporting cast is quite adequate. Neil Hamilton is very good as Harry, a decent fellow really but we know that he’s not likely to be able to win Jane away from Tarzan. Paul Cavanagh as Harry’s partner Martin makes an effective, very sneaky and very caddish, villain.

The real highlight though is Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. Wearing very little clothing (one of the reasons the movie is so controversial) she’s feisty and sexy and charming and bubbly and generally adorable.   

There’s a staggering amount of sexual innuendo in this movie. The combination of Maureen O'Sullivan’s overtly sexy performance as Jane and the extraordinary skimpiness of her costumes this would have been enough to get the moral watchdogs of the day in a lather. And then there’s the infamous nude swimming scene. As Jane dives into the water, her dress catches on a branch and is ripped off. There’s an extended underwater sequence in which none of Jane’s charms are left to the imagination (although in fact a body double was used).  If you don’t think 1930s American movies can be erotic then you haven’t seen this one. White it is erotic, it’s also playful and oddly innocent.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the movie is not quite as immoral as it seems. It’s made quite explicit that Tarzan and Jane consider themselves to be married.

It’s also an exceptionally violent movie, at some points quite disturbingly so. 

Tarzan the Ape Man had made an enormous amount of money for MGM in 1932 and for the follow-up movie, Tarzan and His Mate, the studio was prepared to be very lavish in the budgetary department. The action scenes are quite spectacular. The climax, with Jane along with Harry and Martin facing an entire army of lions, is certainly memorable. The elephants’ graveyard is another visually impressive sequence.

I caught this one on cable TV here in Australia but there have been several DVD releases.

If you’re only ever going to see one Tarzan movie, this is the one to see. It remains highly entertaining, and its notoriety makes it a must-see. Highly recommended.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)

Paramount’s 1929 The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu did not mark the film debut of the great super-villain. He had been featured in a series of shorts during the early 1920s but The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu was the first feature film based on Sax Rohmer’s immensely successful thrillers.

The title role is played by Warner Oland who would go on to much greater fame in the Charlie Chan movies.

This particular movie is interesting because it attempts to give us a backstory to explain Fu Manchu’s motivations. The movie opens with a sort of prologue. It is China in 1900 and the Boxer Rebellion has broken out. Europeans in Peking are under siege in the foreign legations. A small child, a girl named Lia, is sent by her British father to the house of Dr Fu Manchu. The famous scientist and physician is loved and respected by both the Europeans and the Chinese so she will be safe there. Or so her father assumes. Tragedy is however about to strike. Snipers have taken shelter in the courtyard and Fu Manchu’s house comes under artillery fire from British troops. Fu Manchu’s wife and child are killed. Fu Manchu vows to exact vengeance upon the senior officers of all the European troops involved.

Dr Fu Manchu is in fact a kindly and gentle man who has been driven to violence and hatred by his personal tragedy. It’s an intriguing idea and if it doesn’t quite make Fu Manchu a sympathetic character it at least gives us some understanding of him as a man.

On the other hand it also has the effect of making him the kind of relatively straightforward revenge murderer one might encounter in a murder mystery rather than the diabolical criminal mastermind of Rohmer’s novel’s. It also downplays the single most interesting thing about Rohmer’s villain - the fact that Fu Manchu is not actually evil but rather sees himself as fighting on behalf of civilisation. It is of course oriental civilisation on whose behalf he is fighting and he is the deadly enemy of western civilisation but he is nonetheless an idealist rather than a mere evil madman.

The movie also downplays a very important aspect of Fu Manchu’s character that Rohmer always stresses. Fu Manchu is a man of honour, a man whose word is his bond. He is as much a gentleman as his nemesis, Sir Nayland Smith. So what we get is a less complex Fu Manchu.

After the prologue in China we jump forward to London in the 1920s. Several distinguished senior military officers have been murdered in various countries, all in mysterious circumstances. What they all have in common is that they were present at the siege of the foreign legations in Peking in 1900. Now Inspector Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard has reason to believe that the elderly General Petrie will be the next victim. He also suspects that the general’s son, Sir John Petrie, and grandson, Dr Jack Petrie, may be in danger. But he has no way of knowing how and when the murderer may strike nor does he, at this stage, have any certain knowledge of the identity of the man behind these murders (although he has his suspicions).

The audience already knows that Dr Fu Manchu is behind the killings and we also know that the instrument he has chosen to carry out his revenge is the little English girl (now an attractive young woman) who had been entrusted to his care in 1900.

It goes without saying that Fu Manchu’s plans to wipe out the Petrie clan are fiendishly ingenious and imbued with a certain ironic cruelty.

The plot is pure melodrama but it’s spirited and entertaining melodrama.

Rowland V. Lee was a somewhat underrated director and he handle the material pretty well. This is of course a very early talkie and very early talkies have a reputation (only partly deserved), due to the technical problems initially posed by sound, of being terribly static and creaky. Some of the camera setups here are a little static but Lee makes sure there’s plenty going on within the frame. The slight creakiness isn’t a great problem - if anything it enhances the melodramatic nature of the tale. The sets are impressive with a hint of German Expressionism and there are some nice visual moments. The slightly static camera setups make the movie at times slightly reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies of that era.

One might have expected Warner Oland to be a bit too warm and likeable to be an effective super-villain. This is in fact a slight problem but Oland does the best he can and his performance does work - his natural warmth makes him a smooth and deceptively harmless-seeming villain. For the character of Fu Manchu to work really well he has to have both menace and dignity, the qualities which Christopher Lee the greatest of all screen Fu Manchus in movies like The Face of Fu Manchu. Warner Oland isn’t as effective  as Lee and he’s not as outlandishly megalomaniacal as Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu but he is an intriguingly different Fu Manchu.

Nayland Smith is played with the right degree of noble heroism by O.P. Heggie while a very youthful Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the Batman TV series) gets to do the romantic lead stuff as the young Dr Jack Petrie. Jean Arthur does a good job as the unfortunate Lia, the girl used as an unwitting tool by Fu Manchu.

All three of Paramount’s Warner Oland Fu Manchu movies survive but they’re not easy to find, and it’s an even bigger challenge to find a decent print of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (although you can watch an atrocious print on youtube). On the whole this is an enjoyable slice of melodramatic villainy. It’s a slightly unusual take on Fu Manchu and it’s worth a look.

If you haven't read them I also highly recommend Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books such as Daughter of Fu Manchu which I've reviewed at Vintage Pop Fictions.