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Sunday, January 13, 2013

TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

Rowland V. Lee had a knack for turning out epic-scaled pics on tight budgets; THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO/’34, made for indie producer Edward Small, being the best known (and best) of the lot. But this neatly constructed historical for Universal, a re-teaming for Basil Rathbone & Boris Karloff after SON OF FRANKENSTEIN/’39 also with Lee helming, shows similar imagination. It’s not really a horror film (Karloff’s torturer/executioner role was padded to add footage), but a relatively straight telling of RICHARD THE THIRD, the world’s favorite evil crookback. Rathbone is vigorous & compelling, though long in the tooth since Richard died in his mid-thirties, but only a few of the supporting players are up to his standard. Like Ian Hunter, who’s great as older brother King Edward IV, with the hearty laugh of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and the young Vincent Price, perfectly pickled & sniveling as kid brother Clarence. (It’s the same role John Gielgud played in Laurence Olivier’s RICHARD III/’55.*) Most of the other major players are hopelessly contemporary, with flat little voices & inflections that remind us we’re really in Studio City. (Though a handsome young fellow who loses his head in the opening sequence does well. It’s Basil’s boy, John Rodion, in his only credited part.) But don’t let the weak points hold you back, the film has too many good qualities to miss. Especially in a final battle sequence that Lee handles with a level of violence & a bold technique that puts it far ahead of the 1939 norm. Yet, mysteriously, just five years later, at the age of 53, Lee called it quits and retired to his horse farm.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Vincent Price was seriously over-parted when he took on Richard III in Roger Corman’s wan ‘62 remake. Instead, with this as a primer, move on up to Shakespeare’s perennial. There are many versions to choose from, but you might as well start with the Olivier classic. It’s the least successful of his three Shakespeare films, those foreshortened sets were a mistake and his WideScreen compositions prove as fatal to his Kingdom as his missing horse. Still, who cares? Olivier's Richard remains one of the great touchstone Shakespeare perfs. We’d accept far worse for the chance to see Kean’s Othello or Barrymore’s Hamlet.

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