Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

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Rockin’ in the Film World #8: BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (20th Century Fox 1970)

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Sex and drugs and rock and roll!! That about sums up BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, a lightning-fast paced Russ Meyer extravaganza covering the end of the decadent 60’s with a BANG… literally! The movie was originally intended to be a sequel to 1967’s soapy and sappy VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, but Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, THAT Roger Ebert!) changed course and concocted this satirical, surrealistic saga that skewers Hollywood, rock music, the sexual revolution, and anything else that got in its way.

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Like the original, the story concerns three nubile young ladies trying to make it out in La-La Land (that’s Los Angeles, folks), only this time they’re a Midwestern rock power trio named The Kelly Affair. Kelly (Dolly Read, former Playmate and soon-to-be wife of comedian Dick Martin), Pet (model/actress Marcia McBroom), and Casey (Playmate Cynthia Meyers), along with Kelly’s boyfriend and band manager Harris (David Gurian), hit the big city, where Kelly’s sexy Aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis of VEGA$ fame) bequeaths a third of her fortune to her only living relative, much to the displeasure of slimy lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod).

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The trio attend a hipster party thrown by record producer and scenemaker Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (a completely over-the-top John LaZar). The promoter digs their sound and look, rechristens them The Carrie Nations, and they zoom to the top of the pop charts. Kelly’s ego gets the best of her, and soon she demands half of Susan’s dough, thanks in part to hustler Lance Rocke (Peter Fonda lookalike Michael Blodgett), who worms his way into her, uh, good graces, leaving Harris out in the cold. Porn star Ashely St. Ives (the immortal Edy Williams!), who gets horny when the wind blows, then sets her sights on Harris’s fresh meat, and what Ashley wants, Ashley gets!

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Drummer Pet (and why is the drummer always black in rock films?) hooks up with earnest law student Emerson (Harrison Page, later of TV’s SLEDGE HAMMER!), but strays with World Heavyweight Champion Randy Black (Blaxploitation/Exploitation fixture James Iglehart). Bassist Casey quickly gets hooked on booze and downers, ends up pregnant by Harris, has a (then) illegal abortion, and falls into the arms of designer Roxanne (Meyer vet Erica Gavin). All these shenanigans wind up in a private party at Z-Man’s, where the peyote-laced wine takes things from love-in to freak-out as Z goes psycho and starts a bloody killing spree…

This delightfully demented cautionary tale moves at breakneck speed, and there’s never a dull moment as we follow the band on their sordid rise to the top. It’s funny right up until things take a dark turn as Z-Man reveals his true nature and, his mind blown from all the drugs, starts chopping off heads and blowing people’s brains out! Ebert’s script is a psychedelic trip through the sleazy side of Hollywood, filled with in-jokes (Porter Hall was a 30’s-40’s character actor specializing in weasels), thinly disguised characters (Z-Man= Phil Spector, Randy Black = Muhammed Ali), and nods to classic film genres. Rated X when first unleashed, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS contains plenty of nudity but no explicit sex scenes. The rating was bestowed more for the bombastic, gore-filled ending, coming so soon after the Tate-LaBianca Manson murders that scandalized the country.

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The Carrie Nations aren’t the only rock band featured here. The psychedelic sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock can be heard playing at the party, including their #1 smash “Incense and Peppermints”. The band had also appeared in AIP’s hippie drama PSYCH-OUT, a Dick Clark Production, making them the only rock band in history to hold the distinction of working for both Clark and Russ Meyer! Folky singers The Sandpipers (of “Gunatanamera” and “Come Saturday Morning” fame) warble the title song, while blues rocker Lynn Carey (daughter of actor Macdonald Carey) dubs Kelly’s vocals. Composer Stu Phillips (known for his TV scores on THE MONKEES, GET CHRISTIE LOVE!, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, among others) fills the film with groovy period music, and The Carrie Nations’ songs were written by Bob Stone (Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, & Thieves). I really dug the hard rocking “Sweet Talkin’ Candy Man”!

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BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS probably isn’t for everybody, but it’s a delicious treat for many, especially Grindhouse fans. It’s a wild ride to Hollywood’s dark side, filled with sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, and for my money you can’t beat that!

BONUS! Here’s Strawberry Alarm Clock doing their hit, “Incense and Peppermints”!

TRIXIE, QUEEN OF THE JUGGLERS!

Recently, TCM aired THE BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940, starring Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. There was plenty of singing and dancing, but one scene in particular caught my eye:

Holy guacamole!! Who was this blonde cutie bouncing balls off her head and juggling plates with aplomb? Well, your Cracked Rear Viewer spared no expense to get to the bottom of this mystery! Her name was Trixie Firschke, and she was known as Queen of the Jugglers. She was born in Hungary in 1920 to a family of circus entertainers, and began learning her craft at the age of 11. Trixie and her family travelled across Europe, playing for capacity crowds and heads of state, including Adolph Hitler, who gave the young girl an autographed box of bon-bons (she later said she found him very scary!). In 1938, the clan moved to America except her mom and sick younger sister. Times being what they were, when war broke out they became separated, finally reuniting in 1948.

Trixie was now a headline act, playing prestigious halls like the Roxy and Radio City in New York, and nightclubs across the country. After her film debut, Trixie did not appear onscreen again until a 1944 effort from Universal titled MY GAL LOVES MUSIC:

If you think that jumping rope bit was something, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! In 1942, our gal Trixie joined the Ice Capades. That’s right, she performed her juggling magic while ON ICE SKATES, as this rare clip demonstrates:

Trixie married fellow skater Escoe Larue, with whom she had five children. She left the Ice Capades in 1957 and slowed down her performance schedule, making a few sporadic appearances but mainly content with raising her kids in Oklahoma. Trixie Firschke was given the Historic Achievement Award by the International Jugglers Association in 1991, and quietly passed away on September 22, 2001. Though she only appeared in two films, her contributions are so unique I wanted to take you classic movie buffs back to a time when a circus star shared (and stole!) a scene with the great Fred Astaire. Thanks, Trixie!

(Source: eJuggle, The Official Publication of the International Jugglers’ Association)

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Have A Happy Thanksgiving with BLOOD FREAK (Full Movie from 1972 )

Before you eat all that Thanksgiving turkey, save some room for a real MOVIE turkey about a man who becomes a hopeless pothead, eats some tainted turkey, and winds up turning into a giant turkey craving the blood of stoners! Sound bizarre? You bet your giblets it is! Hosted by YouTube’s “Al Omega”, here’s 1972’s BLOOD FREAK! Gobble, gobble!:

 

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL (RKO 1934)

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King of Classic Horror Boris Karloff was born on this date in 1887. The actor is beloved by fans for his work in genre flicks like FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY , THE BLACK CAT, THE BODY SNATCHER , and many other screen tales of terror. But Karloff had always prided himself on being a working actor, and stepped outside the genre bounds many times. He excelled in some early gangster classics (THE CRIMINAL CODE, SCARFACE), played George Arliss’ nemesis in HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, was a Chinese warlord in WEST OF SHANGHAI, an Oriental sleuth in Monogram’s MR. WONG series, the psychiatrist in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, and a scientist in THE VENETIAN AFFAIR . And then there’s John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL.

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The film itself tells the story of a British troop traveling through the Mesopotamian desert circa 1917. When their leader is shot dead by an unseen Arab bullet, the stoic Sergeant (Victor McLaglen , looking every inch the hero) takes over the regiment. Problem is, the commander has taken their mission’s location to the grave with him, and the men are hopelessly lost in the hot, oppressive desert. Stumbling upon an oasis, they find an abandoned outpost and plan to spend the night before soldiering on. Next morning, the men discover their sentries have been killed and their horses stolen, leaving them stranded in the desert as the hidden Arab hoard begins to pick them off, one by one.

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THE LOST PATROL is Karloff’s juiciest non-horror role. As the religious fanatic Sanders, he gives us a portrait of a man slowly descending into madness. His devotion to the Bible draws sneers from the macho troopers, as he exclaims with awe, “This very spot (Mesopotamia)… is the actual Garden of Eden!”. When the roguish Brown (Reginald Denny) regales the men with his tales of sexual conquests past, Sanders sternly admonishes him: “Has your whole life been filled with filth, talk of brawling and lust, even here and now, close to your death!”. Toward the end, when the troop is down to Sarge, Sanders, and Morelli (Wallace Ford ), a British biplane spots them. Landing in the vastness of the desert, the pilot gets out and is swiftly assassinated by the unseen enemy. Sanders goes berserk, screaming at Sarge, “You killed him! He came in answer to MY prayers for ME, and you KILLED him!!”, attempting to cave Sarge’s head in with his rifle butt. Sanders is subdued and tied up for his own good, but escapes his bondage and heads across the dunes, wearing sackcloth and carrying a large staff topped with a cross, as Max Steiner’s music swirls, walking to his inevitable doom.

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Boris has a field day as Sanders, playing to the balcony with gusto. The pious, prudish Sanders always has his nose in the Bible for comfort, seeking solace from his heathen comrades and his grim fate. Looking like a gaunt ghoul from one of his horror flicks, he whines, screams, and cackles like a madman. His wide-eyed, haunted visage tells us he’s already on the brink of insanity before his final act of desperation. It’s a bravura, over-the-top performance that shows once again the range of this great actor. Outside the realm of horror, Karloff shows us the horror of war and madness, and is a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

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John Ford  gives us a stark, white backdrop, the Arizona desert subbing for the isolated Mesopotamia, and cinematographer Harold Wenstrom fills the screen with the great shots you’d expect from a Ford movie. The Dudley Nichols/Garrett Ford screenplay is compact and tense. Besides those actors previously mentioned, J.M. Kerrigan, Billy Bevan, and Alan Hale Sr. offer fine support. Boris Karloff shows once again he was more than just a horror star (most of the classic monsters were), he was a superb character actor, and Sanders is a showcase for his thespian talents. If you’ve only seen him in genre films, I suggest you give THE LOST PATROL a chance, and watch a master craftsman at work. Happy birthday, Boris, and thank you!

Outside the (Hat) Box: PHANTOM LADY (Universal 1944)

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Interested in a Hitchcockian 40’s thriller full of suspense and noir style? Then PHANTOM LADY is the film for you, a small gem based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and  directed by the talented Robert Siodmak. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film noir like many do, but it certainly contains many of the stylistic elements of the genre in its gripping murder mystery story. Pretty damn close, though!

The Hitchcock influence clearly comes from Joan Harrison , former secretary and screenwriter for The Master of Suspense, who became one of only three female producers working during Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s Hitchcock’s famed McGuffin to be found in the form of a “crazy hat” worn by the mysterious woman of the title that’s crucial to the film’s plot. Add the tension ratcheted up by screenwriter Bernard Schoenfeld and you’ve got a Hitchcock movie without Hitchcock.

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The noir elements come directly from the German Expressionist school courtesy of Robert Siodmak , soon to become one of the most influential directors in the noir canon. Working hand in hand with the brilliant cinematographer Woody Bredell, Siodmak creates a dark atmosphere loaded with shadows and light, best realized when the protagonist Kansas follows the suspicious bartender down the mean streets of New York, mostly silent until the scene’s nerve-rattling end. Another scene finds Kansas finally realizing who the killer is, now trapped alone with him in his spacious apartment. These scenes (and others in the film) are noir filmmaking all the way.

The reason I don’t consider PHANTOM LADY true noir isn’t the stylistic elements, but the film’s plot as written. The main character, Kansas, isn’t on a downward spiral, though her boss is certainly in trouble, sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s straightforward “find-the-killer”, well done for certain, but not in the category of other noirs produced that year, like LAURA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. In 1944, what we now call film noir was just beginning to emerge, and though this movie is definitely filmed in the noir style, I consider it more of a straightforward suspense drama.

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The cast is outstanding, especially Ella Raines as ‘Kansas’ Richman, working diligently to prove her boss’s innocence. This was the beautiful Miss Raines first starring role, and the actress uses her versatility and range to maximum advantage. She also appeared in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, TALL IN THE SADDLE (with John Wayne), the aforementioned UNCLE HARRY, and two true Siodmak noirs, THE SUSPECT and BRUTE FORCE . Raines also starred in the early TV drama JANET DEAN, REGISTERED NURSE, which was produced by Harrison. Ella Raines was never a major star, but made important contributions to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and deserves recognition for her efforts.

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The veteran actor Franchot Tone gets top billing, even though he doesn’t appear until the film’s second half. His Jack Marlow is a chilling figure, seemingly a friend to Kansas’s boss before revealing his true, psychotic nature. The way the camera and lighting focus on his hands, seemingly having a murderous mind of their own, is effective and chilling. Universal leading man Alan Curtis is Raines’ boss, falsely accused of murdering his wife, and character actor Thomas Gomez portrays Inspector Burgess, the cop who arrests him based on the evidence at hand, yet believes in his story about the mysterious Phantom Lady. Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) plays a key role as an entertainer, and old friend Elisha Cook Jr. is his weaselly little self. Familiar Faces in the film include Virginia Brissac, Joseph Crehan, Theresa Harris, Fay Helm , Doris Lloyd, Matt McHugh, Jay Novello, Regis Toomey, and the uncredited voices of Milburn Stone and Samuel S. Hinds during the court proceedings.

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PHANTOM LADY may not completely fall into the noir genre, but whatever you want to label it, it’s a well-made, suspenseful tale from a cast and crew of professionals guaranteed to keep you entertained. It doesn’t fit neatly into a category box, and I’m okay with that. Give it a chance and make your own judgement call, either way I think you’ll be more than satisfied.