Tales of Fire and Ice: Memories of Lost Films

❉ Dan Roberts revisits two hard-to-find movie matinees from the Technicolor ‘fifties… 

In the days before the internet, research was a full-on task. You usually needed a book, or failing that, an entire library. It was a different path than the one we take now. The act of researching was a full blown journey which often meant encountering fulfilling pieces of knowledge which embellished and broadened interests and understandings. Now you type something into a box and the answer is there. It isn’t the same. Yes the answers can be the same but the affiliated knowledge side-salad is an optional extra rather than garnish.

So back in these days coming home from school and switching on the TV to watch the climax of BBC2’s afternoon matinee was a bit of daily surprise. Back then of course films weren’t repeated like they are now with the same regularity and while my mum often said “Oh it will be on again…” Sadly they rarely were. At this time we only had four channels, no VCR and only sometimes had the Radio & TV Times.

Vincent Price, Victor Mature and Piper Laurie in Dangerous Mission (1954) Image: Turner Classic Movies.

The number of these afternoon matinees which came and went without me knowing what I saw was huge. Most of them in my memory have been scrapped like waste paper never to be recalled again. However a few made it including a giant spider down a hole (Thief of Baghdad, 1940) and a giant eagle chasing someone down a corridor (Night of the Eagle, 1962). But the two films which stayed with me for many years were a little more difficult to source because they never really became famous or even had a decent home media release. It was several years later when they were shown again and it was thanks to a slightly more expansive Radio Times film preview that I noted them as possible answers.

Dangerous Mission (1954)

Dangerous Mission (1954) Theatrical release poster.

What I saw: Vincent Price in a very large brown suit at the bottom of an icy chasm shooting at someone with a silver revolver with pearl handles. An avalanche occurs killing Vincent. It was in gaudy colour.

Being a huge horror fan I thought seeking out this film wasn’t such a tough deal. I had a lot of Vincent’s filmography documented in various books already. But this clearly wasn’t a horror film and by the look of the colour palette was probably made in the 1950s. Eventually I made a guess of what it was and noted it down. There was no way of checking at this point so it was a simple case of waiting for it to crop up again.

To my knowledge the last time it was shown on TV was sometime around 2013 at about 6am on BBC2 (naturally) and I got up early to watch it. Since then I have only found one source of physical media and the quality is poor. This isn’t the fault of the media source but the actual film negative. It needs someone to remaster and give it a proper release. The print is clearly deteriorating.

Victor Mature wonders, “What am I doing in this film?”

The film itself has a simple plot. Piper Laurie witnesses a mob murder and escapes to the Glacial National park to hide. Victor Mature goes off to protect her while (spoiler alert) Vincent Price is the hired assassin to silence her. All this sounds completely fine and you know only too well Piper and Victor are bound to get together in the end. But this isn’t just any old crime film. This film has been produced by Irwin Allen, the king of the disaster movie (he’s the man behind the two most famous disaster movies of all time – The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno). So we also get a rockslide and a forest fire, neither have anything to do with the plot, not to mention the glacial gun fight and avalanche at the climax.

“I need bigger collars. And lots of them.”

Further behind the camera there is the usual RKO stalwarts of Albert D’Agostino and Roy Webb to solidify the production. Harold Wellman who worked on King Kong (1976) and a host of other spectacular films handles the half decent special effects, but it is a hopeless task.

In all honesty the film isn’t great. The dialogue is often ludicrous. The pacing is dreadful. Some scenes are so flat you wonder why they made it in 3D in the first place. The forever haunted Piper Laurie is more haunted than usual and isn’t sure she has amnesia or forgot the whole murder or has taken on a different identity in the hope of not getting recognised by her publicity agent. Mature is more wooden than ever and I know he had a self-deprecating view of his own abilities so he’s actually the most solid performance of the whole film. We also get William Bendix as the ranger who also adds some comic asides, mainly repeating the same joke – “Not bad, for a civilian.”

Clearly a hitman…

Price wins the over-acting competition though. His reveal while kidnapping Piper is frankly a pantomime performance. He changes from slightly camp photographer to the most unlikely hitman ever in the time it takes to curl a single eyebrow. It’s a wonderful moment of ripe ham. Then there are the clothes. Fashion in the 50s is one thing, but some of the suits Vincent Price dons are massive statements in their own right. Even Victor Mature’s trousers have more depth than a glacial chasm.

Perhaps the 3D was to enhance the trouser experience?

But there is a lot to love in its daftness. It isn’t boring by any means and to be honest I would love to see a remake of the plot as a crime thriller/chase/disaster movie has something going for it. At the moment I have found only one source which is a DVDR seller online. It deserves something more.

The Adventures of Quentin Durwood (1955)

‘The Adventures of Quentin Durward’ (1955) Theatrical release poster.

What I saw: A sword fight while dangling from ropes in a burning building. Followed by an audience in a royal court with the presentation of a green severed head rolled out from a brown sack!

This took a little more research and lot more patience to find. I scoured the Radio Times every week I could for films in general but always in the back of my mind was finding out what this film was. One day there was a description of “climax in a flaming bell tower” in one of the reviews so I made sure I was in to watch it – I didn’t have a VCR until I was much older so it was all or nothing.

As this was the climax of the film I had sit through the preceding scenes with great anticipation. And then it all came together. The villain appeared. He looked familiar, though I could only recall his lurid green severed head. Then a fire started. Finally the bell tower ropes appeared and so did the dagger fight.

Eventually the royal court finale was presented along with the green head. I was very happy.

Duncan Lamont in fine form.

Now the film itself is somewhat of an oddity. A British made film shot mainly in East Sussex and France with all the glamour and pomp of a swashbuckler from the golden age of Hollywood. The director is Richard Thorpe who you could never say had a spectacular career, but it did reach back to the 1920s so he knew what he was doing by 1955.

The lead of Quentin Durwood is played by Robert Taylor following on from his success in Ivanhoe (1952). He’s about as Scottish as Sean Connery is Russian but he does an admirable job as the hero. The rest of the cast is fantastic array of British talent – mainly playing French aristocracy. Robert Morley, Wilfred Hyde White, Kay Kendall, an elderly Ernest Thesiger and a young George Cole bolster this brightly coloured extravaganza.

However it is the main villain, De La Marck, who concerned me or rather the image of his severed green head and it was only recently it occurred to where I’d seen him before. If you are of a particular sensibility and intelligence you will of course love Quatermass & The Pit (1967). De La Marck, played by Duncan Lamont also plays Sladden, the talkative drill technician who becomes possessed by the Martian devils (For Kneale fans, Lamont also appeared in the 1953 TV series of Quatermass).

The difference of character between Sladden and De La Marck could not be more of a contrast and highlights the immense depth of talent the British film industry had in the 50s and 60s. You didn’t need to put a star in the main characters in order to get a good performance, though of course it may affect the box office which is why so many British films of the era used American actors, regardless of ability and sobriety, to headline.

Kay Kendall, Robert Taylor in Quentin Durward (1955) Image: Turner Classic Movies.

The wealth of character actors, sometimes playing very minor roles, added a qualified depth to British films which no other period (and perhaps nation) could match. Lamont certainly wouldn’t be the first name on the cast list for many but his performance in both these films is definitive, unforgettable and you could argue dominating in each scene they appear. De La Marck’s vileness could easily be described as a medieval Darth Vader with his dark shadow cast over every scene, while Sladden simply doesn’t stop talking and even when he does slow down the way he pronounces “dark brown” when describing the Mars sky under a trance is masterful.

Back on Earth, it does help that De La Marck is often mentioned in hushed tones and he doesn’t make much impact until well after half way. This momentum culminates in the dagger fight to end all dagger fights while the flames lick Taylor and Lamont’s heels! The whole of the film rattles along nicely with some lovely interaction between Taylor and Cole, not to mention Robert Morley who plays King Louis with plenty of gusto.

Flaming Duel! The dagger fight to end all dagger fights.

For whatever reason though the film didn’t make a profit. The plot by comparison to similar films of the genre is quite complex and justifiably so as Durwood remarks upon the number of promises he has made, and how complicated his life has now become. Reviews at the time called the film out for its complexity which may have turned audiences away. Taylor makes the role work though and we charmed by his wit, confidence as well as his vulnerability.

The print of the film I have is once again in DVDR format but was thankfully the full widescreen print which was in very good condition. Like Dangerous Mission, it needs some love and a decent release.

❉ ‘Dangerous Mission’ (USA, 1954): Screenplay by Charles Bennett, W. R. Burnett, Horace McCoy from a story by James Edmiston and Horace McCoy. Starring: Vincent Price, Victor Mature, Piper Laurie, William Bendix, Betta St John. Directed by Louis King. Produced by Irwin Allen. Produced & Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. Running time: 75 minutes.

❉ ‘The Adventures of Quentin Durward’ (UK, 1955): Screenplay by Robert Ardrey, George Froeschel (Based on the 1823 novel Quentin Durward by Sir Walter Scott). Starring: Robert Taylor, Kay Kendall, Robert Morley, Duncan Lamont, George Cole. Directed by Richard Thorpe. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Running time: 101 minutes.

❉ Dan Roberts is usually found protecting his vegetables and watching wildlife. Every so often he manages to write something, usually about old films you’d forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Follow him on Twitter: @trampilot

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