Monday, January 18, 2021

Robert Meets a Shady Lady

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) owns a gas station in a small Connecticut town. He's in love with Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) and the two are discussing marriage.  But the arrival of Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) spells trouble for Jeff - he's been hiding out from Joe's boss, racketeer Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Jeff - then named Jeff Markham - worked as a private investigator for Whit, and didn't finish up the operation to Whit's satisfaction. This week, we'll be discussing Out of the Past (1947).

Often cited as the penultimate film noir, Out of the Past is an excellent, albeit dense story, but with characters that completely hold your interest throughout. Frankly, it's a film that deserves several viewings, if only to puzzle out the sometimes confusing plot. Then again, Out of the Past is not really about the plot - it's about the multiple character relationships.  

Robert Mitchum has become so linked to this part, it's mind-boggling that he was not among the first considered for the role. Both Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart were offered the lead part (Jacques Tourner: The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara) and Pat O'Brien and John Garfield were also in the running. Mitchum had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in The Story of G.I. Joe two years previously, but he was still being relegated to supporting roles (like The Locket) when he was cast as Jeff. He works well with all of his co-stars, though it has been said that he and Kirk Douglas did not immediately hit it off, and there was a bit of jockeying for position (TCM Behind the Camera). Ultimately, the two found common ground; their different styles of acting compliment one another. This intro and outro to the film, featuring Eddie Muller and Chris Mitchum (Robert's son) is worth a viewing for more insights into the production.The part of Kathie Moffat was originally intended for Lizabeth Scott; after she dropped out, Jane Greer (Kathie Moffat) took on the devilish dame. Ms. Greer is remarkable as a woman who goes from good girl to bad girl in the wink of an eye.  In a TCM interview, Ms. Greer discussed director Jacques Tourneur's instructions to her on getting to the heart of the character - "impassive." Though only 23 when she filmed the picture, she is marvelous - seemingly sweet an innocent, her portrayal is more a praying mantis waiting to consume her mate. She would later say that she had an excellent relationship with Robert Mitchum, who took brotherly care of her, even adjusting her dress when he realized it wasn't filming properly (TCM articles).
 
Kirk Douglas, in his third film, is an excellent choice for Whit. Though Lex Barker was in the running for the part (AFI Catalog), Douglas brings both an apparently congenial, but ultimately menacing vibe to the role.  His obvious differences from Robert Mitchum just enhance the danger in his performance - when you first meet the character, the screen hums with the tension between the two men.
Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson) has a small but memorable part as a secretary with ulterior motives. She's quite good in a relatively small part. This was, in fact, only her fifth credited role. Sadly, the lovely Ms. Fleming died at age 97 shortly after we viewed the film. You can see the TCM tribute video to her film work here.
 
Dickie Moore (The Kid), Jeff's deaf-mute assistant in the garage also gives a convincing performance. By the end of the film, we almost feel that The Kid has, in fact, been our narrator. It is he who gives the picture its ending, and he is instrumental in aiding Jeff as his life spins out of control. 
Based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes, the New York Times review by Bosley Crowther focused on the complexities of the plot.  And there are many, but as Mr. Crowther pointed out even then, the "challenge was worth a try." Since then, it has become very highly regarded - it was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1991, and is also on Eddie Muller's list of Top 25 Noir Films 

A 1975 remake using the novel's title fell through, but the film was remade in 1983 as Against All Odds, with Jane Greer and Paul Valentine in small roles. Robert Mitchum and Ms. Greer also guested on Saturday Night Live in a 1987 skit called "Out of Gas."  

If you are a fan of film noir, this is a picture that you must see. And, for film fans in general it is still "an essential". We'll leave you with the film's trailer:

Monday, January 11, 2021

Van Investigates

The murder of police officer Ed Monigan bring his colleague Mike Conovan (Van Johnson) to the Scene of the Crime (1949). Though the papers are accusing Monigan of being on the take, Mike does not believe Monigan was murdered because he was taking bribes. The investigation, however, is disturbing Mike's wife, Gloria (Arlene Dahl) - she's terrified her husband will end up like Monigan, and is doing everything in her power to convince Mike that there are other career options than the police force.

This was Van Johnson's first appearance in a noir-ish role, and he's good as the dedicated police officer. Conovan is the main focus of the film - it's all about his relationships with his wife, his fellow officers, the son of his deceased friend, and finally the criminals he has to deal with on a daily basis. If Mr. Johnson doesn't quite give us a tortured man, he does convey the conflicts that are plaguing Mike.

The more interesting character is Lili, played by Gloria DeHaven. We found ourselves comparing her (favorably) to Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Like Kathy, Lili is a character who is not all that she appears to be on the surface. She is seemingly an innocent, tossed by circumstances into a world of danger but as the film progresses, we learn much more about her apparent innocence. Ms. DeHaven does an excellent job in making you believe in the roller coaster that is Lili. 

Arlene Dahl has a much less appealing role. Gloria spends most of the film looking upset. She does have some very good scenes (especially one at the film's end), but the focus of the part is to make Conovan doubt his ability to perform his job. Ms. Dahl was not the first choice for Gloria - Donna Reed was originally cast in the part (AFI catalog).  In what could have been a thankless role, Ms. Dahl does make the audience like and sympathize with Gloria, which is important, otherwise Mike's dilemma is pointless.

Given that this is an MGM film (an unusual venture for them to take on a noir (TCM article)), the film is gifted with a number of excellent supporting players. Tom Drake, as the straight arrow cop - nicknamed C.C., is fine as the neophyte studying under Mike. Leon Ames (surprisingly, without a mustache!) is also good in the small part of Captain A. C. Forster, Mike's understanding chief. Donald Woods makes Bob Herkimer into a quite unlikable character -  a reporter who is after the story at all costs, and doesn't let a little thing like friendship get in his way. 

Two actors, however, dominate the supporting ranks. The first is John McIntire (Fred Piper), who is excellent as the veteran who is nearing the end of his career as an officer. He brings a sturdiness to the role that demonstrate why he has been one of Mike's mentors.  

The actor who steals the show is Norman Lloyd (Sleeper). A stoolie who works for Mike, Sleeper is extremely creepy. Mr. Lloyd makes no attempts to make Sleeper in any way attractive, yet as repulsive as he is, there is a sort of sick humor that makes you keep watching. A theatre actor, who worked on Broadway, with the Civic Repertory Theatre, with the Federal Theatre Project, and with the Mercury Theatre, he came to film-going public's attention as the title character in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1941). Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, he had steady work as a character actor in films such as Spellbound (1945 - also for Mr. Hitchcock), The Green Years (1946), and Limelight (1952). But work disappeared when he was greylisted. Alfred Hitchcock came to the rescue with the offer of work as a director and assistant producer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, over the objections of studio executives who felt that hiring Mr. Lloyd could be dangerous (The Hollywood Reporter).  He spoke about those years at the TCM Film Festival in 214. Mr. Lloyd really came back to the public's attention as an actor when he was cast as Dr. Daniel Auschlander in the show St. Elsewhere. Mr. Lloyd is retired now - he is 106 at the writing of this post, and speaks regularly with his friend, Ben Mankiewicz.

The New York Times review  by Bosley Crowther was lukewarm, though he enjoyed the performances of Mr. Lloyd, Ms. Dahl and Ms. DeHaven. We had one complaint about the film - it really could use a better title - one that actually conveys what the story is about. Other than that, we found this an enjoyable film and one worth seeing.  In the meantime, we'll end with the film's trailer:


 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Ginger is in a Tight Spot

Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) has served four years in prison, when she is taken from the jail to a swanky New York City hotel by police officer Vince Striker (Brian Keith) and prison guard Willoughby (Katherine Anderson). Both are tight lipped as to the reason. However, it is clear that Sherry is in a Tight Spot (1955) when Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson) informs Sherry of the murder of her friend, Pete Tonelli (Alfred Linder). Tonelli was about to testify against gang leader Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene), and Hallett wants Sherry to finish the job.

This is a tidy film, with a nice twist in the end that you really don't see coming. It's well cast and well-acted, with an engaging performance from a character actor - more on that later.

With a short, blonde hairstyle and severe clothing, Ginger Rogers looks much older than her 45 years. She looks hard, as her character should be, though at times she uses that baby voice that she sometimes exhibits when she wants the character to be naive or innocent.  Ms. Rogers is much too old for the role - Sherry should be hardened by prison life, but she also was supposed to have been a young girl who got caught up with a gangster. As the film opens, Sherry is by no means an innocent and while Ms. Rogers gives a decent portrayal, but this is no where near her best role.

Brian Keith is convincing as the police detective assigned to transport and protect Sherry. Mr. Keith does a good job making Vince hard-boiled, but he is equally adept at making him melt as he develops feelings for his charge.  

Brian Keith, the son of noted character actor Robert Keith, started his career in a few silent films as a small child (one featured his father), and in a bit part in Knute Rockne All American (1940). He then began a new job - four years in the Marine Corps as an air gunner. His return saw him in bit parts in a few more films, then on to Broadway, where, as Bob Keith, Jr. he appeared as part of the ensemble in the play Mister Roberts (which featured Henry Fonda in the lead - and his dad as Doc). He got roles in television episodes at this point, finally getting fourth billing in the film Arrowhead (1953). More television and several more films - including The Violent Men (1955), Nightfall (1957), and Storm Center (1957). But it was, perhaps, his role as Mitch in The Parent Trap (1961) that endeared him to a generation. It was this part that may have helped him to get the television series for which he is most remembered - Family Affair (1966). He continued to work in films and television until his death from suicide (his daughter had recently died, and he was suffering from emphysema) in 1997.

Edward G. Robinson is also good as the District Attorney who has pinned his hopes of deporting Costain on Sherry, though there is a hole in his plot line. Why, we wondered, would he approach this woman to testify against Costain, with no offer in hand? One would think that he would arrive with a promise of some reward for her danger, rather than just some lame appeal to her nobility. Mr. Robinson was at a low point in his career at this juncture. He'd been caught up in the McCarthy blacklist, and as he put it,  he "entered the 'B' picture phase of my career." (TCM article) Regardless, there is not an actor one looks forward to seeing more in a film than Mr. Robinson.

Lorne Greene is decidedly despicable as the gangland thug out to get Sherry before she can get him. Mr. Greene was two years from playing the ultimate good guy - Ben Cartwright in Bonanza. Also worthy of note is the performance of Katherine Anderson as the prison guard, Willoughby. Her's is a different kind of prison matron - she's kind and caring. Her affection for Sherry is evident from the minute we see her, and Ms. Anderson makes the character both memorable and engaging.

There is a theme that runs through the film - Sherry (who has been out of the world for four years) wants to watch television. But, every time she puts it on, all she can find is a telethon, hosted by a cowboy singer.  This was, of course, a dig at television, which had become the rival of the movie industry, and at television's penchant for telethons in the 1950s (AFI catalog). We should note that the film was set in New York City, which, in 1955 had six television stations (not two)!

The original Broadway play on which this film is based, Dead Pigeon (which featured Lloyd Bridges, Joan Lorring, and James Gregory), was inspired by Virginia Hill's testimony to the Kefauver Committee ("Gang Busters: The Kefauver Crime Committee and the Syndicate Films of the 1950s" by Ronald W. Wilson in Mob Culture: Hidden Histories of the American Gangster Film) [For more on Virginia Hill, see this bio].

New York Times review by H.H.T. (Henry Howard Thompson) called this "a pretty good little melodrama, the kind you keep rooting for..." and the book Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film, 2nd ed. (by Jack Shadoian) says it is "a B gem that bears repeated viewings." We agree, and suggest you keep your eyes open for a it to appear on a TV set near you. In the meantime, here's a scene where Ginger Rogers talks to Brian Keith:


 


 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Dick O'Clock

Casino manager Johnny O'Clock (1947) (Dick Powell) awakens to a mess of trouble. Nelle Marchettis (Ellen Drew), the wife of his business partner,a Pete (S. Thomas Gomez) has sent him an expensive watch with a tender endearment engraved on it. Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), the hat check girl in his casino, is distraught -  her lover, police detective Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon) has tired of her. Add to this, Police Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) is nosing around his hotel lobby. Johnny's difficulties are just beginning.

This is a film that requires the kind of concentration that you have in a movie theatre, which makes watching it on a television a bit of a commitment. Several of us commented that we did appreciate the opportunity to run the film back and rewatch certain scenes to clarify our questions. But the plot is dense, and though it all ties together in the end, there are periods when you feel like something has been dropped from the action.

Dick Powell is excellent as the titular hero of the piece, a man with a heart who camouflages it with brusque repartee. This was his third appearance as a noir leading man, and he commands the screen. The introductory scenes to the film outline the complexity of the man who now calls himself Johnny O'Clock - there is a subtlety to this opening that negates the fact that these are the background aspects of of the film.

Evelyn Keyes  is also convincing as Nancy Hobson, the sister of the sad Harriet. We felt that during much of the film, Ms. Keyes was able to keep you in doubt as to her motives and next actions, which worked well for the character.  Her autobiography noted the constant changes that were being made to the script by first time director Robert Rossen (TCM article). We wondered if Mr. Rossen's neophyte status as a director (and the ongoing alterations) caused some of the density in the storyline (AFI catalog).

The film opens with Lee J. Cobb visiting the hotel residence of Johnny but it's really not clear WHY he is there. We learn that Johnny, though possessing a slew of aliases, has never had any real problems with the law; and the series of crimes that occur within the film have not yet happened. It's not clear if Inspector Koch is aware of Detective Blayden's side deals, but having Koch there does give us much of that background information that the director/screenwriter Rossen want to convey to the audience. Mr. Cobb is good in the part (though Ms. Keyes noted that he had a penchant for stealing scenes by chomping on his ever present cigar).

Several other actors deserve mention. Ellen Drew is fiendish as the straying wife who has her eye on Johnny; she reminds one of a wild cat - purring one minute and snarling the next. She's given excellent support by Thomas Gomez as her braggart husband - and Johnny's partner. His passion for his wife is evident - as is his jealousy for her obviously wandering eye.  

John Kellogg as Charlie, Johnny's friend and major domo is also worthy of a mention. Charlie seems on the up-and-up, and like Ms. Keyes, keeps his real motivations a secret until the end of the film.  Mr. Kellogg spent much of his movie career in small, often uncredited parts.  He moved easily into television in the 1950s, where he worked until 1990 (he'd started his film career in 1940, after doing some stage work) in shows such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Untouchables. He died of Alzheimer's Disease in 2000 at the age of 83.

Nina Foch has such a tiny part, but she is quite lovely as the sad-eyed Harriet. She'd made My Name is Julia Ross (a starring role) two years earlier, but that was a B movie, and Ms. Foch rarely got the opportunity to star in A movies. She makes the most of her small amount of screen time - you remember the character throughout the film, thanks to her excellent performance.

Bosley Crowther was unimpressed by the film in his New York Times review: "another of those smoldering exhibitions of gambling-joint jealousy and greed...", while a more recent review Richard Brody in The New Yorker called it "terse and taut film noir." Perhaps had director Rossen had a tad more experience, he would have been able to tighten the film a bit; the nearly two hour length leads to some redundancy that we found unnecessary. 

Lux Radio Theatre did an episode in May of 1947, with Dick Powell and Marguerite Chapman. In summary, we enjoyed the film, in spite of its faults; it's an opportunity to see some good actors, portraying very intriguing characters.  We'll leave you with a trailer:

Monday, December 21, 2020

Charlie's Home Invasion

Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) has just arrived at his winter home in New York City - the mansion of multi-millionaire Michael J. O'Connor (Charles Ruggles), who is currently in Virginia at his winter home. Mr. McKeever, it seems, has been inhabiting the O'Connor home for several winters now, all unknown to the home's owner. When McKeever happens upon Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a homeless vet, he invites Jim to stay at the house as well. But things get out of control when Trudy O'Connor (Gale Storm) arrives at the house, and Jim invites his buddies Whitey Temple (Alan Hale, Jr.) and Hank (Edward Ryan, Jr) and their wives (and a baby) to stay at the O'Connor home. It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947).

Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles walk away with this movie as the opposing force and the immovable object, with the dynamic of servant and master completely reversed. The two men bicker and argue throughout the film, but the audience watches as O'Connor grows to like McKeever, despite his laissez-faire attitude towards life and work. 

Victor Moore's Broadway career began in 1906 - he would ultimately appear in 23 Broadway productions, through 1957 (when he appeared as the Starkeeper in Carousel). His film career began in 1915, and continued until 1955. He's probably best remembered as Fred Astaire's pal, Pop in Swing Time (1936) and as the husband being forced to separate from his wife of 50 years in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). The Victor Moore Bus Terminal in Queens was named for him - he'd funded construction on a bus station there to help local performers get into Manhattan more quickly.  Mr. Moore died in 1962 at the age of 86. 

Frank Capra had originally planned to direct the film, but he eventually passed on it, and the director role was passed onto Roy Del Ruth. Gale Storm found working with Mr. Del Ruth to be somewhat of a problem, as he refused to allow her to sing, even though she was a trained singer (TCM article). Regardless of the lack of her real singing voice, she's enjoyable as Trudy, a plucky young woman who is willing to leave her luxurious life style and take on a job in a music store. Ms. Storm is best remembered today for her television series, My Little Margie and The Gale Storm Show (originally called Oh, Susanna). Later in her career, she would guest star in an episode of The Love Boat, which likely took some of its inspiration from The Gale Storm Show.

Like Gale Storm, Don DeFore (Jim Bullock) is remembered today primarily for his television work - specifically Hazel, in which he played the harried husband. This is one of the few film lead roles he got the opportunity to play, and he's earnest as the young veteran intent on making a better life for himself and his colleagues. His scenes with Ms. Storm are very nice; they make an appealing couple.

Ann Harding (Mary O'Connor), as always, is excellent as the rejected wife who is trying to reconnect with her husband. She'd not been appearing in a lot of movies by this point in her career (mostly appearing in one or a two film a year), but she makes the most of her limited screen time in this film.

Some extra footage was shot in New York City, which adds a verisimilitude to the film (AFI Catalog). We noticed that the house (which you can see is located on the corner of 79th Street and 5th Avenue) looks very much like the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (which was originally the home of Andrew Carnegie). The location of the O’Connor home is currently the site of the Ukrainian Institute of America (and was the home of Harry F. Sinclair).

The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was positive - most of his praise centered on Victor Moore.  The story was aired on the Lux Radio Theatre in May 1947 with Mr. Moore, Mr. DeFore, and Mr. Ruggles reprizing their roles.

With Christmas coming, this is a delightful film that deserves to be included in the season's festivities.  We'll leave you with Victor Moore arriving at his winter home. However you celebrate, have a safe, healthy and happy holiday season!



Monday, December 14, 2020

Humphrey Gets a New Face

Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) has escaped from San Quentin; he tries to hitch a ride, but the driver, Baker (Clifton Young) realizes Vincent is an escapee. Vincent knocks him out and abandons the car down the road. He finds Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) painting in the countryside. She knows who he is and offers to help him. Against his better judgement, Vincent accepts her assistance. This week, we're looking at Dark Passage (1947).

While Lady in the Lake is credited as the first film to use the subjective camera technique, Dark Passage, released the same year, takes the idea and uses it to better effect.  Not all of the film is subjective, and the motivation for not showing our protagonist becomes apparent when Vincent is taken to a plastic surgeon. Even when Vincent still has his original face (seen in a newspaper article - the photo is of actor Frank Wilcox), the film uses shadows to hide his face.  That we do eventually get to see Humphrey Bogart in the latter part of the film is a benefit to the audience; the first view of his expressive eyes (when he is bandaged following the surgery) is something we've all been waiting for. Regardless, Jack Warner was not amused that for 40 minutes, his expensive star's face was nowhere to be seen (Eddie Muller intro and extro).

Bogart and Lauren Bacall had been married for less than two years (TCM article); this was their third (of four) screen pairings. Howard Hawks, who had discovered her and nurtured her for the beginning of her career, had become disinterested in her once she became involved with Mr. Bogart. He sold her contract to Warner Brothers and Ms. Bacall found herself asked to work in parts that she found inappropriate - for the first five years of that contract, she was in five films - three of them with her husband (Los Angeles Times obituary). She's wonderful in this film, taking on an almost impossible part and making it believable - the unlikely premise of her willingness to take in a convicted murderer becomes quite acceptable in her able hands. And her growing love for her charge is reflected in her every movement. Yet, she still maintains a strength and sensibility that makes Irene memorable.   
The actress who walks away with the film is Agnes Moorehead (Madge Rapf).  William Hare said that in the role "the traditional femme fatale role was turned on its head...she is overbearing, domineering, and thoroughly ruthless" (Pulp Fiction to Film Noir: The Great Depression and the Development of a Genre) . She inserts herself into everyone's lives - her former fiance, Bob (Bruce Bennett); Irene, and, it turns out, the late Mrs. Parry. We dislike her from the minute she appears in Irene's apartment, but we can't take our eyes off her. 

There are a remarkable number of excellent character actors in the film: Tom D'Andrea (Sam the Cabby), like Ms. Bacall, adds to our trust of Vincent in his willing acceptance of the escapee's innocence. Sam's open and friendly personality is believable because of Mr. D'Andrea's performance. Similarly, Houseley Stevenson (Dr. Walter Coley) brings just the slightest bit of menace to his role as the plastic surgeon who helps Vincent alter his appearance - will he disfigure him? Turn him in? His performance dances on the head of a pin.  Finally, there is Clifton Young, who, from first glance is horrifyingly creepy. Baker is a heel of the first water, and Mr. Young plays him that way. We know he is going to be a key factor in Vincent's life, and Mr. Young does not disappoint.

If there is a weak link in the film, it's Bruce Bennett as the man romantically pursing Irene. Mr. Bennett, as we've mentioned before, is not a favorite actor. He's dull and fades immediately into the background. The plus to having him in the film is that one can imagine Madge bossing him around.  What you can't believe is that he would have the gumption to break up with her, or that Irene would have even the slightest interest in him.

Based on a novel by David Goodis; later, Mr. Goodis, and his the estate sued United Artists for copyright infringement - stating that The Fugitive was based on Dark Passage (Mr. Goodis' estate won the suit, but the monetary amount was minimal).  Like the novel, the film was set in San Francisco, and some scenes were shot on location (AFI catalog); the city and its hills are very important to the story.

Some reviews were indifferent - Bosley Crowther's New York Times review liked the scenery better than the story. He did have high praise for Agnes Moorehead who "is also quite electric in a couple of scenes as a meddlesome shrew."  Variety's, review, on the other hand, was more complimentary, saying that the "dialog frequently crackles."

We very much enjoyed the film, and recommend it highly. Here's a trailer for a taste of what's to come:

Friday, December 11, 2020

P.I. Robert Celebrates Christmas

Just before Christmas, private detective Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is invited to the office of Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) to discuss a mystery story he has written. When he gets there, he finds that Ms. Fromsett has something else on her mind - hiring Marlowe to find  Chrystal Kingsby, the missing wife of her boss, Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Our film this week is Lady in the Lake (1947), part of the 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society
 
Lady in the Lake is remembered today for its innovative use of the subjective camera. With the exception of two framing scenes, the film is told entirely through the eyes of our hero, Philip Marlowe. The camera acts as his eyes; we only see Mr. Montgomery when he looks into a mirror. It's an interesting conceit, though some members of our group found it a bit off-putting. 

The plot in the film is also very dense - many subplots, many characters that seem irrelevant as you proceed. While the movie very carefully ties everything together at the end (and very neatly too), as you are watching you have to pay very close attention to what is going on - if you lose concentration at all, you can miss an essential plot point.

Audrey Totter has the hardest job in the film - verbally dueling with and making love to a camera. Most of her scenes involve just her and Robert Montgomery; but we rarely see him - we see her, and she does a magnificent job of making you believe that Philip Marlowe is standing just behind the audience. With a script full of taut, witty dialog, Ms. Totter makes Adrienne into a tough lady that you don't want to cross, but wouldn't mind having at your side - she's strong, realistic, and sexy, but an intelligent sexy.  At one point, Lana Turner was being considered for Miss Fromsett (AFI Catalog); frankly, it's hard to imagine anyone but Audrey Totter in the role.

This was Robert Montgomery's first credited directing role, and he decided to use the subjective camera technique. It was an idea Orson Welles had toyed with; new, lighter cameras and the crab dolly made the concept viable (Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir by J.P. Telotte). MGM was not thrilled with the idea, and insisted on a prologue to the film, so audiences would get to actually SEE their star (Eddie Muller commentary), but they let him do it and used their marketing expertise to engage the audience, who were now part of the story. Mr. Montgomery emphasized that acting TO the camera was the most difficult part of the film for the actors - they were trained to NOT look at the camera; here, the camera was itself a character (TCM article).
 
Certainly, being off-screen for much of the action assisted Mr. Montgomery in his role as director, but he is excellent as the voice of the hard-bitten Marlowe - though it does seem like he spends a lot of the movie unconscious. His best scenes, not surprisingly, are with his good friend, Ms. Totter, who turned down the lead in The Killers (1946) in order to appear in this film.  
We are used to seeing Lloyd Nolan (Lt. DeGarmot) play a good guy.  Here, he gets to let his inner villain out, portraying a really bad police detective.  It's clear from the start that Lt. DeGarmot is not to be trusted - how bad he actually is becomes apparent as the film progresses. Mr. Nolan came to film from Broadway; he would ultimately appear in 9 productions, including The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in which he appeared as Lt. Com. Philip Francis Queeg (the role that would eventually go to Humphrey Bogart in the film). His career was primarily B films, though he was often a supporting actor in films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and The Man I Married (1940). He moved into television, and is best remembered for Julia, in which he played Dr. Morton Chegley to Diahann Carroll's nurse. His first marriage to Mell Efrid lasted from 1933 to her death in 1981 (they had two children); he remarried in 1983.  He was worked to fund autism research (his son Jay was severely autistic). In 1985, he died of lung cancer at the age of 83.

One other actor worth noting is Jayne Meadows  (Mrs. Falbrook) in her second film appearance. It's a small, but pivotal role and she is quite convincing playing a woman with a number of different aliases.

Whether this is a Christmas movie is for the viewer to decide (rather like Die Hard) - it was released in January, but the music and parties make it a contender for a Christmas film. We're voting for it as a Christmas movie. It's worth noting that the setting for the book was NOT Christmas, and Raymond Chandler was not amused by the alteration.

The New York Times review by Thomas M. Prior (T.M.P.) was positive: "The picture is definitely different and affords one a fresh and interesting perspective on a murder mystery." In February of 1948 the story was recreated with a Lux Radio Theatre production starring Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Totter.

While not the best detective film ever made, this is well worth seeing (though you really have to concentrate). It's certainly an interesting addition to the pantheon of Christmas movies! We'll leave you with the trailer:

This blog post is part of the 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society


 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Jimmy is a Bootlegger

The First World War has ended. Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) returns to New York City to find all the jobs gone - taken by the men who remained home during the war. As The Roaring Twenties (1939) begin, Eddie falls into a new career - bootlegging - and enters into the world of organized crime.

Let's start by admitting that, no matter who else we discuss in this space, this is James Cagney's movie. Period. When he is on the screen, it's him you are watching. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Bogart fan, but this is one where Cagney shines. His Eddie Bartlett is a man of depth. We watch him change because of the circumstances of his life; we don't like most of those changes, but because it is Mr. Cagney playing him, we understand them. Director Raoul Walsh encouraged Mr. Cagney to improvise a bit, which adds to his impact (including a scene where he punches out two men with one throw!)  (TCM article).  From beginning to end, James Cagney is the linchpin of the film. 
 
Humphrey Bogart (George Hally) also provides a fascinating character - he's a monster from the moment we see him. Unlike Eddie, he seems to have no reason for doing the things he does. He enjoys inflicting pain and death. There are no shades to George's character - he is a murderer who we would like to forget (and do, when he disappears immediately after the war). What Mr. Bogart brings to the role is someone you can genuinely hate - Bogart is not afraid to make George horrific, with no attempts to gain the audience's sympathy.

A great deal of our conversation centered on Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane). I, for one, find her hard to like or sympathize with. From the start, we discover she is a liar (she'd misled Eddie into thinking she was a woman in her twenties, when she is actually a high school student). She's self-centered, caring only for her career, and very willing to use Eddie to get ahead. She's well aware that he loves her. She tells him she doesn't love him, yet she takes expensive gifts from him, while she carries on a relationship with Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). Because she is played by Ms. Lane, who is an engaging actress, you want to like her, but Jean is a passive person, who floats from man to man.  One wonders why all these men are smitten with her; it is perhaps because they are that we get distracted from the reality of Jean - that she is a thoughtless woman who likes Eddie because of what she can get from him.  Perhaps the character needed a firmer hand in the writing; as written, she's not a person that one can countenance.

Gladys George, however, is perfect as Panama Smith. She was not the first choice for the part - it was originally intended for Ann Sheridan; Lee Patrick and Glenda Farrell had also been cast at various points  (The Films of James Cagney by Homer Dickens). It is hard to imagine any of them playing the character. Panama's love for Eddie is selfless - she is truthful with him, even when he doesn't want to hear it (especially about Jean). With her husky voice, it's easy to accept her as a "tuneless canary" (the name given to her by a minor character); she also is the epitome of the tough broad after which she was patterned - Texas Guinan. 

Also worth noting is the performance of Frank McHugh (Danny Green). A gentle man who gets pulled into bootlegging  through his friendship with Eddie, he's too kind for the business and eventually pays the price. Mr. McHugh gives him a simplicity and sympathy that makes him believable.  Jeffrey Lynn (Lloyd Hart), on the other hand, has the thankless task of being "the other man." Like Jean, Lloyd works with Eddie, while protesting his distaste for the business. It's not a great part because the character is very underwritten.

New York reporter Mark Hellinger wrote the 1938 story The World Moves On, on which the film is based.  He was writing about real people that he had encountered (AFI catalog). Mr. Hellinger also served as a producer on the film.

The New York Times review by Frank S. Nugent was not enthusiastic, however he praised both Mr. Cagney and Ms. George (who "breathed poignance into the stock role of the night club hostess") for their work. Given that it was released in 1939 (and had stiff competition), no Oscar nominations were given, but Mr. Cagney won the National Board of Review for Best Actor.  On a side note, Carol Burnett did her own take on the story as "The Boring Twenties." As always, Ms. Burnett (as Panama Smith) is hysterical. 

This is an engaging film; if you are an admirer of Mr. Cagney or Ms. George, it is an essential. It was also one of my father's favorite films. We'll leave you with a trailer to introduce you to the action:

Monday, November 30, 2020

Ben Directs Silent Movies

Hugo (2011) (Asa Butterfield), is an orphan who lives in the clock tower at the Paris train station. There, he steals enough food to live, and tries to rebuild a broken automaton - a mechanical man Hugo's father (Jude Law) was working on when he died in a fire. But life takes a  turn when Hugo's pilfering is discovered by the toy-maker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who confiscates Hugo's notebook - his only hope of getting the mechanical man to work.

This week, we decided to view a recent film, but one that salutes the classic film era. Hugo is very much about the history of - as well as the love for - silent movies. Director Martin Scorsese was introduced to the book when he read it to his daughter - it was one of her favorite books (The  Christian Post). Best known for films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, this was Mr. Scorsese's first film to get a PG rating since The Age of Innocence (1993). Hugo has the feel of a fairy story - it could easily start with "once upon a time..." This was also an opportunity for Mr. Scorsese to create a film that discussed one of his favorite topics - the preservation of our cinema history (TCM article). He even appears in a cameo, as a photographer.

The heart of the film is Hugo Cabret; as portrayed by Asa Butterfield, he is a lonely boy who has seen nothing but the painful side of life since the death of his father. Hugo's Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) is a drunk; he pulls the young boy from school, to work with him to maintain the railway station clock. The one advantage is that the task gives Hugo a place to hide and the tools (and a few more skills) to repair his beloved mechanical man. Uncle Claude's disappearance means little to Hugo, except that he must be even more careful to not be detected by the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), a bitter man who will consign Hugo to an orphan asylum should he ever be discovered.

We are not fans of Sacha Baron Cohen, but he is fine as a man who has seen service in World War I, and lost a leg as a result. The Station Inspector is a bitter man; he yearns for affection, but can give none. He's very much in love with Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the flower seller, but is unable to tell her because of his self-pity.  In many ways, the Station Inspector mirrors the resentment that affects Georges as well.   

Ben Kingsley is outstanding as the angry Georges. Forced to support himself, his wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory) and his adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) by working as a toy-maker, he has lost his life's work and his legacy because of the War. Like the Station Inspector, he too is defeated by life. Hugo's pilfering of his spare parts is just one more insult to his already deflated life view.

The relationship between Hugo and Isabelle is probably the best part of the film. She is a girl in love with books; he is boy entranced by movies. He's lost his love of books due to the death of his father; she's never seen a movie. They introduce each other to their fantasy world; as a result, they are able to make reality a better place. It's in those worlds that the audience is inaugurated into the universe of the silent film. Hugo mentions his love for the book Robin Hood and for actor Douglas Fairbanks - and it was Fairbanks who played Robin Hood in 1922.  The pair go to the movies and see Harold Lloyd's Safety Last (1923) - Hugo ends up hanging off a clock tower, much like in that film's most famous scene.  We see posters outside the movie theatre to Chaplin and Keaton coming attractions. We are introduced to the early films of the Lumière brothers, and finally, we see A Trip to the Moon - the magnificent film of Georges - and Jeanne - Méliès.

Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, this is a visually stunning film from beginning to end - even in 2-D (the film was released in 3-D) on a television set, it still a breathtaking movie.  It won five Academy Awards, for Production Design, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Cinematography, Sound Editing, and nominated for six more - for Director, Editing, Score, Screenplay, and Costume Design, and Picture. Interestingly, it lost the best picture Oscar to The Artist, a silent movie. 

The New York Times review by Manohla Dargis was glowing, as were  Roger Ebert  and The Guardian. Because of the costs of the film and the marketing, it sadly lost money on release. We highly recommend this film to lovers of classic film - it's a delight not to be missed. We'll leave you with the trailer:

Monday, November 23, 2020

John Fought for Spain

Following his escape from a Spanish POW camp, John "Kit" McKitrick (John Garfield) has been hospitalized in the US. While there, he discovers his best friend police lieutenant Louis Lepetino has died, allegedly the victim of an accidental fall from the window of a New York City high-rise. Kit is convinced that his possession of a war standard is the cause of Louie's death - and will also bring about his death next.  Our film this week is The Fallen Sparrow (1943). 

John Garfield is perfect as a man teetering on the edge of sanity. Yes, Kit has been hospitalized for what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, and has been discharged, but the death of his friend has summoned back all the demons he'd hoped to put behind him. Mr. Garfield brings a vulnerability to the character that does not detract from his strength of purpose. Given that Kit is in nearly every scene in the film, it's important that the audience identify with and support him; Mr. Garfield makes him a character you take to your heart. He wasn't the first choice for the part - RKO originally wanted James Cagney, but he turned it down (he'd been under some scrutiny because of his support for Loyalist Spain); Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, and George Brent also said no. (TCM article). Mr. Garfield, himself a supporter of Loyalist Spain, very much wanted the part and campaigned to get it. (John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and Stage by Patrick J. McGrath).Stage by Patrick J. McGrath). Warner Brothers got the rights to remake Of Human Bondage from RKO in exchange for Mr. Garfield's services in this film (AFI catalog).

Maureen O'Hara (Toni Donne) takes on an unusual role - that of a possible Nazi spy. Toni is rather a cypher - you want to like her, you know that Kit wants to believe her, but in the final analysis, neither the audience nor Kit trusts her.  She's good in the part, because she is able to keep the audience on edge as to her intentions throughout the film; why she is working for the enemy is a question that hovers over the viewer.

While Ms. O'Hara keeps the audience guessing in an atypical role, Walter Slezak (Dr. Skass) does not. You know from the instant you see him that he is the villain. Sure, Mr. Slezak's early career was spent playing villains, but it's more than that. He fairly oozes evil - Dr. Skass' first conversation with Kit is a discussion of the beauty of water torture. We're told that Skass is a researcher - it's pretty apparent that he's the head of the spy ring, and no amount of screen subterfuge will convince you otherwise. If we had one regret in this film, it was that we would have appreciated a little more mystery surrounding the identity of the spy leader. 

We particularly enjoyed Martha O'Driscoll (Whitney Hamilton) as one of Kit's close friends. She is sweet and appealing as the one of the few people in Kit's life who is sincere. We especially enjoyed Kit's nickname for her - Imp. It seemed to happily sum up her personality and their friendship. 

Another character to watch is Inspector Tobin (John Miljan). Unlike too many police roles in movies, this is a character to observe carefully. There is more going on than meets the eye, and Mr. Miljan plays the part with an attention to detail.

The film's score was nominated for an Oscar (It lost to The Song of Bernadette).  While the New York Times review by Theodore Strauss (T.S.), was not keen initially on the film's story, Mr. Strauss' regard for Mr. Garfield's performance won him over: "by virtue of a taut performance by John Garfield in the central role, and the singular skill with which director Richard Wallace has highlighted the significant climaxes, The Fallen Sparrow emerges as one of the uncommon and provocatively handled melodramas of recent months." It would become one of RKO's high grossing films for 1944 (Variety) The story would appear as a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on 14 Feb 1944, co-starring Robert Young,  Maureen O'Hara, and Walter Slezak. 

This is a movie worth seeing if for no other reason than to watch Mr. Garfield in action, but it has much more than that. We highly recommend it. In the meantime, here is a trailer: