‘B’-ware, My Love: HOUSE OF SECRETS (Chesterfield 1936)


Do you like movies with gloomy old mansions, secret passageways, clutching hands behind curtains, bloodcurdling screams, and the like? How about we throw in some Chicago gangsters and a hidden pirate treasure? Then you may like HOUSE OF SECRETS, a ‘B’ mystery originally sold to audiences as a horror thriller. It’s no classic, to be sure, but it is an enjoyable little low-budget film produced by tiny independent Chesterfield Pictures, who specialized in this sort of thing, and featuring a better than average cast of Familiar Faces.

Aboard a ship bound for London, a young American woman is accosted by a cad who swears he saw her leaving a drug palace in Paris. Globetrotting but near penniless Barry Wilding defends her honor, but the mysterious blonde won’t reveal her name. Barry runs into his old friend Tom while in Jolly Olde England, a detective on the trail of a murderer. Meanwhile, someone slips a piece of paper under Barry’s door, summoning him to a barrister’s office.

The lawyer informs Barry he’s inherited his late uncle’s estate, which consists of $50,000 and a mansion called The Hawk’s Nest. When he arrives there, he finds people already living on the property, including that mysterious blonde! Her father insists he leave the premises, and the girl appears the next day at his hotel, telling him her name’s Julie Kenmore, and pleads to stay at The Hawk’s Nest for six months. Barry agrees, and she tells him he must keep away… fat chance of that happening! The smitten Barry keeps coming back, and gets enmeshed in sinister doings out of his control…

Leslie Fenton  (Barry) is good, but his acting career never really took off; he later had more success as  a director. Muriel Evans (Julie) is appealing, but she never quite made the leap to stardom, either. Sidney Blackmer (Tom) had a long career as a character actor, Noel Madison , featured in many a 30’s gangster picture, plays a crook called Three Fingers Dan, Morgan Wallace (Julie’s dad) is best known as the perverted jailer in SAFE IN HELL   and the man demanding his “kumquats” in W.C. Fields’ IT’S A GIFT , and Western sidekick Syd Saylor offers up some comic relief as one of the hoods.


Chesterfield Pictures was formed in 1925, and had a ten-year run making movies for the bottom half of double bills until being absorbed (along with some other indies) into Herbert J. Yates’ mega-indie Republic Pictures. Their films featured stars on their way up (Betty Grable, Myrna Loy) and their way down (Betty Compson, Erich Von Stroheim), and competent directors like Phil Rosen, Frank R. Strayer, Richard Thorpe, and John Ford’s brother Francis. HOUSE OF SECRETS was helmed by Chesterfield workhorse Roland D. Reed, who later became a producer of early TV (BEAULAH, ROCKY JONES – SPACE RANGER, MY LITTLE MARGIE). Like I said, the movie’s no classic: the production values are extremely low, the photography murky in spots, and it can be slow going during those dreaded exposition scenes. But all in all, it’s a likeable little ‘B’ that managed to hold my interest until the very end.

(HOUSE OF SECRETS is airing all this month on The Film Detective )  

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THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

Made Man: Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS (Warner Brothers 1973)

Let’s talk about Martin Scorsese a bit, shall we? The much-lauded, Oscar-winning director/producer/film historian has rightly been recognized as one of out greatest living filmmakers, with classics like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED on his resume. Yet Scorsese started small, directing shorts and the low-budget WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? as a film student. He got work as an editor (UNHOLY ROLLERS) and assistant director (WOODSTOCK) before directing a feature for Roger Corman called BOXCAR BERTHA, starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine. When Scorsese and Mardik Martin cowrote a screenplay based on Martin’s experiences growing up in New York’s Little Italy, Corman wanted to produce, but only if the film could be turned into a Blaxploitation movie! Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked it up, and the result was MEAN STREETS, which put Scorsese on the map as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.

MEAN STREETS follows Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), a young man with ambitions to move up in his insular neighborhood. Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) is a loan shark, a ‘man of respect’, and Charlie works for him as a debt collector. His uncle wants to grace him with the ownership of a restaurant currently in dire financial straights, but Charlie’s got problems. One of those problems is his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a loose cannon who owes money to everybody. Charlie vouched for Johnny Boy with their pal, fellow shark Michael (Richard Romanus), but the wild child hasn’t paid up.

Charlie’s also hampered by his Catholic guilt, torn between religious convictions and life on the streets. He’s got another issue: he’s been having an affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), whose epilepsy makes her a neighborhood pariah. All this spells trouble for Charlie’s ambitions on these mean streets, where everybody’s on the hustle, respect is valued above all, and violence is a way of life…

This is the film where Scorsese first developed his distinctive style, freed from the constraints of working for someone else’s vision, albeit on a much smaller scale and budget than in films to come. First, there’s the violence; it comes swiftly, without warning, and is brutal and uncompromising. Scorsese brought screen violence to new artistic heights, aided here by the lightning-quick editing of Sidney Levin, who like Scorsese had cut his teeth on AIP Exploitation fare (THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, THE YOUNG ANIMALS), and would later edit more mainstream films (NORMA RAE, MURPHY’S ROMANCE).

Being an unrepentant film buff, Scorsese peppers his film with homages to some of his favorites. Most noticeable is when his characters go to the movies, and scenes from John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Corman’s TOMB OF LIGEIA play onscreen; posters and marquees from other movies dot the landscape. The characters of MEAN STREETS are constantly at war, with themselves as well as those who dwell in their world, and Scorsese references several war films during the course of the action. There are plenty of other examples, but I’ll leave that for you to discover… Happy Hunting!

Most importantly is the way Scorsese incorporates contemporary rock music into MEAN STREETS; the soundtrack of the character’s lives almost becomes a character itself. The film uses songs by The Rolling Stones (‘Tell Me’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’), Derek and the Dominoes (‘I Looked Away’), Smokey Robinson (‘Mickey’s Monkey’), The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), Cream (‘Steppin’/Out’), Betty Everett (‘It’s in His Kiss’), Johnny Ace (‘Pledging My Love’), and others, as well as traditional Italian tunes from his childhood. All these musical cues have meaning to the scene at hand, and Scorsese was one of the first to utilize pop music as a film score, a device that’s de rigueur in films today.

Martin Scorsese would go on to further explore crime and it’s consequences, but MEAN STREETS was his first attempt at making a personal statement, and it holds up well today. When his newest film THE IRISHMAN is released later this year, a direct lineage to MEAN STREETS can be traced – both DeNiro and Keitel will appear in the film. Scorsese is still going strong at age 76, one of The Greatest Living American Filmmakers, and MEAN STREETS remains essential viewing for all film buffs.

RIP Jan-Michael Vincent: A Pictorial Tribute

Jan-Michael Vincent has passed away at age 74. Though the actor suffered many trials and tribulations in his personal life, there’s no doubt his onscreen presence connected with audiences of the 70’s and 80’s. In his honor, we present ten shots from the film and TV career of Jan-Michael Vincent:

Tribes (TV-Movie 1970; D: Joseph Sargent)
Going Home (1971; D: Herbert B. Leonard)
The Mechanic (1972; D: Michael Winner)
The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973; D: Robert Scheerer)
White Line Fever (1975; D: Jonathan Kaplan)
Damnation Alley (1977; D: Jack Smight)
Big Wednesday (1978; D: John Milius)
Defiance (1980; D: John Flynn)
The Winds of War (TV-Miniseries 1983; D: Dan Curtis)
Airwolf (TV Series, 1984-87)

Rest in peace, Jan-Michael Vincent (1944-2019)

Rockin’ in the Film World #19: Bob Dylan in DON’T LOOK BACK (Leacock Pennebaker Films 1967)

“…some people say that I am a poet… ” 

– Bob Dylan, in the liner notes from the 1965 LP “Bringing It All Back Home”

Bob Dylan has been put under the media microscope, bisected, dissected, and trisected for the past six decades, with everyone and their mother trying to interpret the essence behind the enigma. Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker doesn’t go that route in DON”T LOOK BACK; instead, his cinema verite, free form style adheres to the old adage “show, don’t tell”, as he and his camera crew follow the troubadour on his 1965 tour of Great Britain, culminating in his historic set at the Royal Albert Hall. This would be Dylan’s final tour as a solo performer with guitar and harmonica – the album “Bringing It All Back Home” would soon be released, featuring electric and acoustic sides, and later that year he’d plug in with his band and shock the hell out of the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival, who booed him mercilessly and accused him of selling out.

Pennebaker, who was later responsible for the seminal rock docs MONTEREY POP and ZIGGY STARDUST & THE SPIDER FROM MARS, opens his film with the shape of things to come, a pre-MTV style video of Dylan’s electric “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which was already beginning to climb the pop charts). We then go behind the scenes to get a glimpse of the man called variously a poet, folk singer, anarchist, and voice of a generation. Dylan pokes holes at the pretentiousness of the journalists and interviewers on his trail; one wonders where the put-on ends and the truth begins. He’s accompanied by fellow folkie and then-lover Joan Baez, though the couple were in the midst of breaking up at the time, for while Joan was a true believer in causes, Dylan scoffed at such matters, and admits he considers himself “an entertainer”, not a social justice warrior. (He even played with these various interpretations of himself in Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID , as his character Alias is asked, “Alias what?”. His response: “Alias anything you please”).

Many 60’s luminaries besides Baez appear in the film, including Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (who appears in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” proto-video), Alan Price of The Animals, Marianne Faithful, and notably Scottish singer Donovan, whose early career was so obviously modeled after Dylan they could be twins! When they finally meet at a hotel room party, Donovan serenades Bob with the tune “To Sing For You”, after which Dylan tops him with a rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, Donovan obviously mesmerized by his idol.

And yes, there’s plenty of music in the movie; Dylan croons “All I Really Want To Do”, “The Times They Are A-Changing”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”, “It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”, and others, both on-and-off stage. Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman is a ubiquitous presence, negotiating TV contracts, and proving what Bob’s been saying all along – he’s just an entertainer, not a standard-bearer for any movement. DON’T LOOK BACK allows Bob Dylan to show himself behind the masks, a portrait of a young artist who’s constantly changed and evolved over the years. It’s probably the most honest picture of Dylan we’ll ever get to see, and if you’re a Dylan fanatic like myself, you don’t want to miss it.

“Definition destroys. Besides, nothing’s definite in this world” 

– Bob Dylan, in a 1976 interview with TV GUIDE

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”:

ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK – THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS – BEACH PARTY – WILD IN THE STREETS – JAILHOUSE ROCK – IT’S A BIKINI WORLD – A HARD DAY’S NIGHT – BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS – JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH – THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT – HAVING A WILD WEEKEND – HEAD – KID GALAHAD – SKI PARTY – THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS – HOLD ON! – 200 MOTELS – TOMMY

 

Spring Fever: Joe E. Brown in ELMER THE GREAT (Warner Brothers 1933)

It may be cold and snowy here in New England, but down in sunny Florida, Spring Training has already begun – which means baseball season is on it’s way! The Red Sox are looking good, although they got pounded by the Orioles in the game I watched this afternoon (I’m writing this on a Saturday), but just hearing the crack of the bats has whetted my appetite for the return of America’s National Pastime. So while we wait for Opening Day to arrive, let’s take a look at the 1933 baseball comedy ELMER THE GREAT.

Comedian Joe E. Brown plays yet another amiable country bumpkin, this time Elmer Kane of small town Gentryville, Indiana. Elmer’s  laid back to the point of inertia, except when he’s eating… or on a baseball field! He’s better than Babe Ruth and he knows it, and so do the Chicago Cubs, who’ve bought his contract from minor league Terre Haute and want him to be their starting second baseman. But Elmer won’t leave his hick town, because he’s got a crush on his boss, pretty general store owner Nellie Poole. When Nellie finds out she’s holding him back, she reluctantly rejects him so he’ll sign the contract and be a success. Disheartened Elmer does, and he’s off to The Windy City.

At training camp, Elmer the big-headed rube gets constantly ribbed by his teammates, but wows ’em at the plate with his hitting power. The season begins, and the Cubs go on a tear, with amazing Elmer belting “67 Home Runs”! Nellie, whose letters have been withheld by team management so Elmer won’t return to Gentryville, flies to Chicago for a visit, and catches Elmer kissing a big city gal! The misunderstanding makes Elmer miserable, so his teammate High-Hips tries to cheer him up by taking the hayseed to a swanky speakeasy/gambling joint. Elmer, thinking they’re playing for “funsies”, racks up a huge gambling debt, and the gangsters that run the joint tell him they’ll rip up the tab if he’ll do them a favor – throw the upcoming World Series against the hated New York Yankees!!

Costars Frank McHugh and Patricia Ellis

Brown’s early 30’s sports comedies are always entertaining, and ELMER THE GREAT is among his best. The screenplay by Tom Geraghty, based on a play by Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan, allows the comic to show off his knack for getting laughs both physically and verbally. He also gets to use that “Big Mouth” of his to good advantage early in the film. Brown’s ably supported by charmingly cute Patricia Ellis as Nellie, Frank McHugh as High-Hips, Sterling Holloway as his kid brother, and Familiar Faces like Berton Churchill, Claire Dodd , Douglas Dumbrille , Emma Dunn, Preston Foster, Russell Hopton, J. Carrol Naish , and Jessie Ralph. And believe it or not, that’s Lucille Ball’s TV nemesis Gale Gordon as the (very) young radio play-by-play announcer!


ELMER THE GREAT was the fourth and final collaboration between Brown and director Mervyn LeRoy , who also guided him in TOP SPEED, LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD and BROADMINDED. It’s a funny little baseball comedy, and best of all (*SPOILER ALERT*), Elmer helps his team rally to BEAT THE YANKEES! Now that’s what a die-hard Red Sox fan like me calls a happy ending!