See you in Atlanta, LA Rams! #EverythingWeGot
Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?
Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his men’s club to meet his pals for supper, but before going in, the three men gaze admiringly at a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window next door. Wanley’s friends, DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) leave after dining, but Wanley stays behind to finish his brandy, and reads a copy of Solomon’s Song of Songs.
As Wanley departs, he stops to again gaze at the portrait – and the woman appears in the flesh, her face reflected in the window! He strikes up a conversation with her, learns her name is Alice Reed, and impulsively joins her for a late night cocktail. Alice takes the professor to her apartment to look at some artist sketches she posed for, all quite innocent. That is, until a man (Arthur Loft) barges into the apartment, angry she’s with someone else, and slaps her hard across the face. A fight breaks out between the man and the scared professor, who grabs a pair of scissors and stabs the intruder to death!
To say things go steadily downhill for Wanley is an understatement, as he methodically concocts a cover-up, dropping the body in a wooded area miles away. His buddy Lalor is on the case, as the deceased turns out to be a big shot financier, whose sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea of course!) comes calling on Alice with blackmail on his mind, and Professor Wanley sinks deeper and deeper into that old familiar noir quicksand…
Fritz Lang’s Expressionist visual roots show up all over this film, and the dark scene where Wanley dumps the body in a rainstorm particularly stood out for me. Krasner’s cinematography is outstanding; he was one of Hollywood’s top DP’s, from his work on 40’s Universal Horrors (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN , THE MAD GHOUL ) to film noir (THE DARK MIRROR, THE SET-UP ), comedies (HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH), drama (ALL ABOUT EVE), his Oscar winner THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), and everything in between.
Johnson’s script is a murderous marvel of construction that features a twist ending I admit I did NOT see coming – and I don’t think you will, either! While THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW didn’t supplant SCARLET STREET as my favorite of the Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea/Krasner collaborations, it’s a great film that noir fans will surely love. Like I said before, with all that talent, would you expect anything less?
I’ve written about Bela Lugosi’s infamous ‘Monogram 9’ before, those ultra-cheap spectacles produced by the equally ultra-cheap Sam Katzman for low-budget Monogram Pictures. These films are all Grade Z schlock, redeemed only by Lugosi’s presence, giving his all no matter how ludicrous the scripts or cardboard the sets. BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a cut above; still schlock, but the pulpy premise is different from the rest, and Bela gives what’s probably his best performance out of the whole trashy bunch.
Lugosi plays kindly Karl Wagner, a benevolent soul who runs the Friendly Mission down on the Bowery. But wait – it’s all a front for recruiting down-on-their-luck criminals into Wagner’s gang of thieves. And when he’s done with them, he bumps them off and gives the corpses to ‘Doc’, a dope fiend ex-medico who uses the bodies for his own nefarious purposes!
But wait again! Wagner’s not really Wagner, he’s eminent psychology Professor Brenner, who specializes in deviant behavior! Wagner’s pretty nurse at the mission Julie Malvern has a rich Park Avenue boyfriend, Richard Dennison, a student of Brenner, who’s disdainful of Julie working with all those Bowery bums. “I want you to give up that silly job”, he scolds, “Saving humanity, it’s ridiculous!”, then later, “Go ahead and have all the fun you want, you and your social work”, as he petulantly walks out the door. Yep, Richard’s a real jerk!
Wagner/Brenner aligns himself with “dangerous killer” Frankie Mills, a young sociopath who has no qualms about doing Brenner/Wagner’s dirty work (though the split-personalited mastermind doesn’t mind murder himself, as when he tosses one of his henchmen off a rooftop to create a diversion!). Newly appointed police detective Peter Crawford is hot on Frankie’s trail, and that trail leads to the Friendly Mission, where Richard has gone undercover to spy on Judy (he thinks she’s banging Bela!!). Richard gets himself killed, the cops figure things out and bust the joint, and Wagner/Brenner hides in Doc’s secret basement, where we learn Doc’s been turning those corpses into Zombies!! The Professor gets his just desserts… but somehow Richard is de-zombified and reunited with Judy for a happy ending!
Bela tones down the bombast and plays the part of the double-life prof fairly straight. He’s damn good too, rising above the material and making the movie a memorable one (far as Monogram pics go, anyway!). He’s reunited with his DEVIL BAT costar Dave O’Brien as the cop Crawford, and though they don’t get much screen time together, it’s fun to see them briefly go at it again. DETOUR’s Tom Neal plays the psycho Frankie, pretty ‘B’ ingenue Wanda McKay is pretty Judy, and handsome ‘B’ lead John Archer the jerky Richard. Others in the cast of note are Lew Kelly as the doped-up ‘Doc’, Vince Barnett as the unfortunate hood who gets thrown off the roof by Bela, Bernard Gorcey in a funny cameo as a haberdasher, and silent stars J. Farrell MacDonald and Wheeler Oakman as (respectively) a cop and a crook.
Sure, sometimes the dialog is downright dumb, the script relies too much on coincidence, and those cardboard sets were seen in countless Monogram epics (and it’s a wonder they didn’t collapse!). And yet… BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a fun little film, thanks in large part to the power of Bela Lugosi, who could (and often did) make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s the best of his ‘Monogram 9’, which isn’t saying much, but think about this… movie buffs are still watching Bela’s low-budget schlock, seventy-plus years after the fact. There’s a reason for that, and his name is Bela Lugosi.
It’s hard to believe that, except for two films in which he cameoed, I haven’t covered any movies starring my namesake, Gary Cooper . Nor have I written anything about any of major Hollywood director William Wyler’s works. So let’s kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1940’s THE WESTERNER, one of the best Westerns ever. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the life and times of Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903), played by Walter Brennan in his third and final Oscar-winning role, with Cooper as a drifter at odds with “The Law West of the Pecos”.
That “law” is Bean, who sides with the open range cattlemen against the homesteaders who’ve moved into the area. Into the town of Vinagaroon rides Coop as Cole Harden on his way to California. Unfortunately for Cole, he rides in on a horse stolen from one of Bean’s cronies, and is put on trial in Bean’s saloon-cum-courthouse. The sly Cole is saved from the hangman’s noose thanks to some quick thinking, gloming onto Bean’s obsession with singer/actress Lili Langtry. Cole claims to not only have met “The Jersey Lily” but possess a lock of her hair, and smooth talks his way into Bean’s good graces.
The homesteaders are disheartened by the cattlemen’s constant harassment, and begin leaving West Texas in droves. Cole stops by one of the ranches to thank Jane Ellen Matthews, who tried to stand up for him at his trial, and finds out some of the sodbusters have ridden into Vingaroon to lynch Bean. Cole rides ahead to avert catastrophe, and an uneasy truce between cowboys and farmers is formed. That truce doesn’t last long, and Cole is forced to choose sides between Jane Ellen and the sodbusters and Bean’s men, while the judge awaits the coming of Lily Langtry herself to nearby Fort Davis…
The interplay between Cooper and Brennan is a master class in screen acting. The two actors made six features together, and were friends offscreen as well. Whether feeling each other out while guzzling some ‘Rub of the Brush’ (so strong it eats right through Bean’s wooden bar!), Cole’s fanciful tales of Lily Langtry captivating the enamored Bean, or their final showdown (which heavily influenced the finale of Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST ), these two are perfection. The taciturn, boyish Cooper is a movie star like they don’t make anymore, and Brennan matches him scene for scene.
Wyler came up through the ranks making silent Westerns at Universal, and his resume reads like an All-Time Great Movie list: DEAD END, JEZEBEL, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE LETTER, MRS. MINIVER, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, DETECTIVE STORY, ROMAN HOLIDAY, BEN-HUR. He directed fourteen actors to Oscar victories, which must be a record! Wyler and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Gregg Toland , create a deep-focus Western world, and though the screenplay by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch may be historically inaccurate, the film’s look certainly isn’t. There’s an ambitious, exciting scene where the cattlemen burn out the homesteaders, and the “special photographic effects” are credited to another ace cinematographer, Archie Stout .
Doris Davenport plays Cooper’s love interest Jane Ellen – wait, who? Miss Davenport was a former model who was a contender for the Scarlett O’Hara role in GONE WITH THE WIND (wasn’t everybody?), and has but nine credits on IMDb. Apparently, she quit acting after 1940’s BEHIND THE NEWS, but her performance here shows she could’ve been a star given half the chance (at least in my opinion). A very young Forrest Tucker makes his debut as a farmer, while veteran Fred Stone appears in his last as Jane Ellen’s father. Others in the cast are a young Dana Andrews , Stanley Andrews, Trevor Bardette, Lilian Bond (as Lily Langrty) , Charles Halton, Paul Hurst, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Tyler , and Chill Wills.
THE WESTERNER is full of so many great bits it would take me all day to point them all out. So I’ll just say, putting all those bits together adds up to a classic Western that’s hard to resist for film buffs. The performances, the dialog, the camerawork, direction – what are you waiting for, go watch it now!
When the conversation turns to great screen comedians, Don Knotts doesn’t get a lot of respect among the cognescenti. Talk to his loyal fandom, including celebrities like Jim Carrey and John Waters, and you’ll hear a different tune. They all agree – Knotts was a talented and funny comic actor, the quintessential Everyman buffeted about by the cruelties of fate who eventually triumphs against the odds. Following his Emmy-winning five-year run as Deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, and his first feature for the studio was the perfect vehicle for his peculiar talents: a scare comedy titled THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.
Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek typesetter for his local newspaper in the small town of Rachel, Kansas. He’s also somewhat of the town laughing-stock, bullied by the paper’s ace reporter Ollie, his rival for the affections of sweet young Alma. Luther dreams of becoming a reporter himself (after all, he has “a certificate from the Kansas City Correspondence School of Journalism”), and one day Luther, goaded on by his coworker Kelsey, writes a filler piece on Rachel’s infamous Simmons mansion, where a ghastly murder/suicide occurred twenty years ago, and the locals believe is haunted by the deceased.
Luther’s little column causes quite a stir, and the editor (also goaded by Kelsey) gets the idea to have someone spend the night in “The Murder House” and write a story – namely Luther! The cowardly Luther is reluctant at first, but after being embarrassed by Ollie in front of Alma, decides to go through with it. This sets the stage for the bug-eyed, rubber-faced Knotts to engage in his patented ‘fraidy cat’ buffoonery, as he encounters unexplained noises, secret passageways, eerie music from an organ that plays itself, and a portrait stabbed with garden shears dripping blood!
The story makes Luther the talk of the town, and the Chamber of Commerce throws a town picnic in his honor (a sign reads “Rachel, Kansas – Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”!). But Nicholas Simmons, heir to the Simmons mansion, claims it’s a complete fabrication, and sues him for libel. The raucous trial culminates at the “Murder House”, where Luther’s story is debunked, but with a little help from his friends, Luther is vindicated and the mystery of the Simmons murders is finally solved.
For all intents and purposes, Luther Heggs is Barney Fife under an assumed name, even wearing Barney’s old salt-and-pepper Sunday-go-to-meeting suit! Rachel might as well be Mayberry transplanted to the Midwest, and that Mayberry flavor is no coincidence. Screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everrett Greenbaum worked on some of the GRIFFITH SHOW’s classic episodes, as did director Alan Rafkin, and Mayberry citizens Hal Smith (Otis), Hope Summers (Clara), and Burt Mustin (Old Jud Fletcher) appear in small roles. Another Mayberry figure had a hand in the film – Andy Griffith himself, who was called in by Knotts to help punch up the script! The plot recalls a GRIFFITH episode entitled “The Haunted House”, those “karate skills” were on display in another, and that speech Don gives at the picnic is a riff on his old ‘Nervous Man’ persona. Yet THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN isn’t just a rehash of Don’s greatest hits; it’s a showcase for his incredible comic timing, and became a box office hit.
Producer Edward Montagne (who’d created another successful 60’s sitcom, MCHALE’S NAVY, featuring Don’s future comedy partner Tim Conway) filled his cast with dependable Familiar Faces from the worlds of film and TV. Pretty former Playmate Joan Staley (BROADSIDE, ROUSTABOUT) plays Alma, mean Skip Homeier is mean Ollie, and George Chandler, Ellen Corby, Robert Cornthwaite , Herbie Faye, Sandra Gould, Florence Lake, sourpuss Charles Lane , Cliff Norton, Phillip Ober, Eddie Quillan, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent (as Luther’s editor/boss), Reta Shaw (funny as leader of Rachel’s ‘Psychic Occult Society’), Lurene Tuttle, Nydia Westman, and Dick “Please Don’t Squeeze The Charmin” Wilson all engage in the frenetic madness (and that’s screenwriter Greenbaum’s voice doing the “Attaboy, Luther” shouts offscreen).
You can call THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, or Don’s other films, just silly family comedies geared to the kiddie matinée crowd if you want. But for me, and millions of other Don Knotts fans, he was an inventive comic actor who made some hysterically funny films. He may not have reached the lofty heights of a Chaplin or Keaton, but he definitely followed in their tradition. Scoff if you wish, but he still manages to make me (and many others) laugh out loud, and that’s what matters most!
Today we celebrate the birthday of classic actor Paul Henreid (1908-1992)
THE SPANISH MAIN is one of those films where the acting is cranked up to 11 and tongues are held firmly in cheek. That’s not a bad thing; this is a fun, fast-paced romp that doesn’t require much thinking, a colorful piece of mind candy that doesn’t take itself too seriously and features a great cast. It’s not what you’d normally expect from director Frank Borzage, usually associated with weightier matters like 7TH HEAVEN, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, STRANGE CARGO , and THE MORTAL STORM. Maybe after all that heavy drama, the veteran needed to lighten up a bit!
Paul Henreid stars as our hero Laurent Van Horn, a Dutch captain whose ship is wrecked in the Caribbean waters near Cartagena. The Spanish Viceroy there, Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak ), is a tyrant who holds the captain and his crew as slaves to the Spanish Crown. Van Horn is imprisoned with the Brit Gow (J.M. Kerrigan), Frenchman Paree (Henreid’s CASABLANCA costar Curt Bois), and the mute brute Swaine (Mike Mazurki ). The four men escape, and terrorize the Caribbean with Van Horn becoming the notorious pirate known as The Barracuda!
The Contessa Francesca (Maureen O’Hara, in all her gorgeous Technicolor glory!) sails from Mexico to wed Alvarado sight unseen in a political marriage. Van Horn, disguised as her ship’s navigator, meets her and of course they don’t get along at first… Francesca even demands he be whipped for his insolence! The Barracuda’s ship attacks and commandeers the Mexican ship, with Francesca forced to marry Van Horn so a passing ship will be spared of another raid. Van Horn plans to ransom off Francesca, The Bishop, and her duennas, but once they reach the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, The Brotherhood of the Pirates, led by Van Horn’s treacherous mate Du Billar (John Emery), plot to get rid of her, and turn Van Horn over to the wicked Viceroy…
Henreid makes a dashing hero, and Maureen’s a feisty heroine. The pair have good chemistry, and both would sail the seas in more buccaneer movies to come. Slezak gives a broad performance as the evil Viceroy, Barton MacLane has a field day as Henreid’s rival pirate Captain Benjy Black, but for me bawdy Binnie Barnes (shown above) steals the show as the rowdy female pirate Anne Bonny, who fights like a wildcat and gets to indulge in some swordplay herself! There are plenty of other Familiar Faces sailing over the bounding main: Nancy Gates, Brandon Hurst, Ian Keith, Tom Kennedy, Victor Kilian, James Kirkwood, Jack LaRue , Fritz Leiber Sr., Antonio Moreno , Dan Seymour (another CASABLANCA alum), and Leo White.
The screenplay by George Worthington Yates and Herman Mankiewicz contains plenty of exciting action, romance, and witty lines for the players to deliver, all of whom look like they’re having a ball with the material. THE SPANISH MAIN is harmless juvenile fun, and was one of many movies that (at least according to IMDb) inspired Walt Disney to create his Pirates of The Caribbean attraction, which in turn spawned the whole Johnny Depp/PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise. It may not be the greatest swashbuckler of all time, but it sure fills the bill on a rainy afternoon. Get the popcorn ready, turn off your mind, and have some fun with THE SPANISH MAIN!
Ever since THE GODFATHER, I’ve been fascinated by the history of the Mafia in America. I’ve devoured just about every book on the subject, and consider myself a bit of an expert on this clandestine crime cartel. I believe it was while reading Ovid Demaris’s 1980 THE LAST MAFIOSO, a biography of gangster-turned-rat Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, that I first became aware of the man known as Johnny Rosselli. His story captivated my interest, so when I saw a new biography of Rosselli was on the shelves at the local Barnes & Noble, I thought it’d make a great Christmas present… for myself! Naturally, I bought a copy, eager to learn more about this man who played a pivotal role in both the Mafia’s rise and the shadowy underbelly of American life in the 20th Century.
Author Lee Server is someone I’m unfamiliar with, which is strange, because his previously released titles sound right up my alley. There’s THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR, a compendium of articles about film noir, pulp fiction, and the like, and biographies of Sam Fuller, Robert Mitchum, and Ava Gardner. Obviously, Server knows the Hollywood turf, and HANDSOME JOHNNY is a meticulously researched account of Rosselli’s life. At times, his prose reminded me of James Ellroy, a perfect fit for this material.
Server takes us on a trip down the dark alleys and glittering neon lights of 20th Century America, and Johnny Rosselli was there for it all. The slum kid immigrant who hit the road as a teen; Prohibition in the days of Al Capone; Hollywood’s classic era, where he made friends with Harry Cohn, slept with Jean Harlow, married ‘B’ starlet June Lang, milked the studios with shady labor practices, and even produced a couple of films (CANON CITY, HE WALKED BY NIGHT); the glory days of Las Vegas; political shenaningans with Joe Kennedy; and the ill-fated attempt by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, which may have cost President John Kennedy his life. The famous and the infamous rub shoulders behind this opaque curtain, lifted by Server in a gripping read I just couldn’t put down. You won’t believe some of the names who pop up in HANDSOME JOHNNY, but I’m not talkin’ – you’ll have to pick up a copy for yourself!
My only quibble with Server comes when speaking about Rosselli’s involvement with Eagle-Lion Films, successor to Poverty Row studio PRC. He calls Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR a “rock-bottom crime drama” and states a “doped-up Bela Lugosi” was on the roster. DETOUR has rightly been hailed as a classic in the film noir canon, while Lugosi only made one pic for PRC, THE DEVIL BAT (a personal favorite of mine!). But I’m just nitpicking here based on my own personal bias. Gangster buffs, movie gossip fans, political junkies, and history nerds like myself will devour HANDSOME JOHNNY like a platter of calamari washed down with strong bathtub gin, a right-between-the-eyes look at Rosselli the man and a side of America you don’t learn about in school. I highly recommend you buy it on your next trip to the bookstore!