Saturday, November 03, 2012

Tonight's Movie: South of Suez (1940)

SOUTH OF SUEZ is an uneven but worthwhile melodrama about love, deceit, and diamonds.

The early section of the film is a bit sluggish, as we're introduced to John Gamble (George Brent), who is mining for diamonds in Africa. Gamble's partner, Roger Smythe (Miles Mander), is murdered by greedy Eli Snedeker (George Tobias), and Snedeker and his wife (Lee Patrick) frame Gamble for the murder.

Gamble flees from a lynch mob and heads to England, where he puts his diamonds in a safe, intending to find a way to give them to his late partner's daughter Kit (Brenda Marshall).  Over a few years he becomes a great financial success, now known as John Bradley. When Gamble/Bradley meets Kit, they fall in love. John wants to confess his true identity to Kit, but is afraid of how she will react, as she believes John Gamble is the man who murdered her father. And then John crosses paths with Eli Snedeker again... The plot's even more complicated than that, but I'll leave the rest of it as a surprise.

The film's pace picks up tremendously once Gamble leaves Africa, and it becomes considerably more interesting. Gamble stows away on a boat, where he meets a sailor named Limey (Eric Blore); Blore's character is really terrific, as once in England he becomes Gamble/Bradley's dignified "man," but periodically some of his Cockney slang slips out. It's a key character and Blore really gives the last two-thirds or so of the movie a lot of its fizz.

The romance between John and Kit is somewhat brief but nicely handled, and the final courtroom sequence is quite good, with some interesting twists and turns. Marshall's role isn't especially big but she does a nice job, and I liked the way things were resolved between John and Kit as the film went on. The final shot is pure 1940 movie magic.

Lee Patrick and George Tobias make the most of their roles, yet I felt as though the early section of the film, where there's a lot of focus on their characters, was more of a too-long prologue. When they reappear later in the film they -- and the story -- are more interesting. Lee Patrick's courtroom histrionics somewhat called to mind Ida Lupino in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1941).

George Tobias could be a real chameleon. In SOUTH OF SUEZ he's evil incarnate, hiding behind his thick glasses. I recently saw him in another Brenda Marshall film, EAST OF THE RIVER (1940), in which he played a kindly Italian waiter, and in another recently seen film, SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 (1950), he played another cold-blooded killer who was completely different in manner and appearance from his Eli Snedeker. (It's curious he was in so many films with "directional" titles!)

Cecil Kellaway and Mary Forbes play Brenda Marshall's kindly relatives. Frederick Worlock, James Stephenson, and Edward Fielding are also in the cast.

Side note, watch the nighttime scene in Africa where Brent runs out of the house, jumps on a horse and rides away. I felt pretty sure the man riding the horse toward the camera wasn't actually George Brent!  I think they were a little too confident that the dark would disguise the stuntman's features.

IMDb lists Randsburg, California, as a location; the mine scenes must have been shot there. Gold was discovered in Randsburg over a century ago. I've driven through the area (current population under 70), and it's a bit creepy!

SOUTH OF SUEZ runs 86 minutes and was directed by Lewis Seiler. The black and white cinematography was by Arthur Todd, who passed away in 1942; he was just 47 years old.

This film isn't available on either VHS or DVD, but it is shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is on the TCM website.

April 2019 Update: This film will be released on DVD by the Warner Archive in May 2019.

June 2019 Update: My review of the Warner Archive DVD is here.


Blogger barrylane said...

Lelsie Halliwell used the phrase "Monte Cristoish" to describe South of Suez and I agree. I did think, and still do, that the opening scenes are excellent. Could be you should have another look.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for the feedback, Barrylane! I do sometimes find that my perspective changes when I revisit films.

I treasure a letter from Halliwell which I received as a teen. :)

Best wishes,

11:58 AM  

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