Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!

We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and the rest is screen history. Thanks, Al!

THE BLUE GARDENIA (Warner Brothers 1953; D: Fritz Lang ) – Minor but well done film noir with Anne Baxter, after receiving a ‘Dear Jane’ letter from her soldier boyfriend, falling into the clutches of lecherous artist Raymond Burr ,who plies her with ‘Polynesean Pearl Divers’, gets her drunk, and tries to take advantage of her. Anne grabs a fireplace poker, then blacks out, wakes up, discovers his dead body, and thinks she killed him. Did she? Veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuracra’s shadowy camerawork helps elevate this a few notches above the average ‘B’, as does a high powered cast led by Richard Conte as a newspaperman out to solve the case (and sell papers!), Ann Southern and Jeff Donnell as Anne’s roommates, George Reeves as a dogged homicide captain, and Familiar Faces like Richard Erdman, Frank Ferguson, Celia Lovsky, Almira Sessions, Robert Shayne, and Ray Walker. Based on  short story by Vera Caspary, who also wrote the source novel for LAURA. Not top-shelf Lang, but still entertaining. Fun Fact: Nat King Cole has a cameo singing the title tune in a Chinese restaurant, but the real ‘Fun Fact’ is the guy playing violin behind him… that’s Papa John Creach, who later played rock fiddle in the 70’s with Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna!

ILLEGA(Warner Brothers 1955; D: Lewis Allen) – ‘Original Gangster’ Edward G. Robinson stars as a tough, erudite DA who sends the wrong man to the chair, crawls into a bottle of Scotch, and crawls out as a criminal defense attorney working for racketeer Albert Dekker. EG’s practically the whole show, though he’s surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, including Nina Foch as his protege, Hugh Marlowe as her husband, Jan Merlin as Dekker’s grinning torpedo, Ellen Corby as EG’s loyal secretary, and Jayne Mansfield in an small early role as Dekker’s moll. Keep your eyes peeled for some Familiar TV Faces: DeForest Kelly (STAR TREK) as EG’S doomed client, Henry “Bomber” Kulky (LIFE OF RILEY, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) as a witness, Ed Platt (GET SMART) as the DA successor, and sour-voiced Herb Vigran, who guested in just about every TV show ever, as a bailiff. Fun Fact: Co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett wrote the novel LITTLE CAESAR, which Warners turned into Eddie G’s first gangster flick back in 1930!

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (20th Century-Fox 1974, D: John Hough) – The late Peter Fonda costars with sexy Susan George in this classic chase movie from the Golden Age of Muscle Cars. Fonda and fellow AIP bikesploitation vet Adam Rourke (a personal fave of mine!) are a down-on-their-luck NASCAR driver and mechanic, respectively,  who pull off a robbery and are saddled with ditzy George, with Vic Morrow as the maverick police captain in hot pursuit. The stars are likable, the cars are cool (a ’66 Impala and a ’69 Charger), and there’s plenty of spectacular stunt driving in this fast’n’furious Exploitation gem, with an explosive ending! Fun Fact: Roddy McDowell has an uncredited role as the grocery store manager whose family is held hostage.

BONUS: Now kick back and enjoy the noir-flavored blues of Papa John Creach and his band doing “There Ain’t No More Country Girls” from sometime in the 70’s:

You’re Killing Me, Smalls!: Let’s Play in THE SANDLOT (20th Century-Fox 1993)


Baseball movies are as American as apple pie, and everyone has their favorites, from classic era films like THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME to latter-day fare like THE NATURAL and FIELD OF DREAMS. There’s so much to choose from, comedies, dramas, and everything in-between. One of my all-time favorites is 1993’s coming of age classic, THE SANDLOT.

Like most baseball movies, THE SANDLOT is about more than just The Great American Pastime. Director David Mickey Evans’ script (co-written with Robert Gunter) takes us back to 1962, as young Scotty Smalls has moved to a brand new neighborhood in a brand new city. His dad died, and his mom (Karen Allen of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE fame) has remarried preoccupied Bill (young comedian Denis Leary…. hmmm, I wonder what ever happened to him??), who tries to teach the nerdy kid how to play catch. “Keep your eye on the ball”, Bill tells Scotty, and he does – resulting in a shiner!

The kids on the block take an immediate dislike to goofus Smalls (“The kid’s an L-7… a weenie!”). Why, he doesn’t even know who The Great Bambino was!! Benny, the best ballplayer in the neighborhood, feels sorry for Smalls and takes him under his wing. They all warn him of The Legend of The Beast, a ferocious Great Mastiff junkyard dog who resides on the other side of the sandlot’s fence and eats any baseballs that come his way… and kids, too! One fine day, Benny literally “tears the cover off the ball”, so Smalls runs home to fetch a replacement – an autographed Babe Ruth ball from Bill’s trophy room! Needless to say, Smalls’ first home run winds up in The Beast’s possession, and a mad scramble is on to retrieve it before Bill comes home…

THE SANDLOT is an exercise in nostalgia, all about friendship and childhood dreams, and also happens to be uproariously funny! There’s so much to love about this film, and I especially love the scene at the community pool when ‘Squints’ has his big moment in the sun with neighborhood hottie Wendy Peffercorn, played by Marley Shelton, later of PLEASANTVILLE, SIN CITY, GRINDHOUSE (the Robert Rodriguez half PLANET TERROR) and GRAND THEFT PARSONS. Then there’s the kids learning a valuable lesson: carnival rides like the Tilt-A-Whirl and chewing tobacco don’t mix! The boys trading insults with a rival, well-heeled team about eating toejam and bobbing for apples in toilets ends with ‘Ham’ hurling the biggest insult of all: “You play like a girl!!” (Gasp!!!).

There’s a neat cameo at the end by James Earl Jones (who knew a thing or two about baseball flicks!) as junkyard owner Mr. Mertle, and like it’s spiritual predecessor AMERICAN GRAFFITI , the soundtrack’s loaded with classic rock tunes of the era by Booker T & The MG’s (“Green Onions”), Hank Ballard & The Midnighters (“Finger Poppin’ Time”), The Champs (“Tequila”), The Drifters (“There Goes My Baby”, “This Magic Moment”), The Surfaris (“Wipeout”) , and The Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). THE SANDLOT is a true summertime classic, one I could watch over and over again… in fact, I think I’ll go watch it now! As for the rest of you, since I’m still reelin’ and rockin’ from the John Fogerty concert I attended a few days ago, I’ll leave you with John’s classic ode to baseball from 1985, “Centerfield”:

  “Let’s play two!” – Ernie Banks

“You’re killing me, Smalls!” – Ham Porter

A (Not-So) Brief Note On WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT (20th Century Fox 2004)

Sometimes while scrolling through the channels one come across a pleasant surprise. So it’s Saturday afternoon,a thundershower has cancelled my plan to hit the beach, the Red Sox don’t start for awhile, and I’m clicking the old clicker when I land on WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT. I wasn’t expecting much, just a way to kill time; instead, I found an underrated little gem of a comedy that kept me watching until the very end.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT is an undiscovered classic or anything like that. It’s just a solidly made piece of entertainment about small-town life starring Ray Romano (riding high at the time thanks to his successful sitcom EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) and Oscar winning Gene Hackman. Romano uses his nebbishy TV persona to portray Mooseport, Maine’s local hardware store owner “Handy” Harrison, who gets involved in a mayoral campaign against Hackman’s Monroe “Eagle” Cole, ex-president of the good ol’ USA, who’s running so his grasping ex-wife will keep her paws off his vacation house. The race to the corner office takes a U-turn when Handy’s girlfriend Sally, tired of his inability to make a commitment, dates the former leader of the free world to make Handy jealous!

OK, it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but the movie has more than it’s share of chuckles and some out-and-out guffaws. It kind of reminded me of something that Don Knotts would’ve starred in 30 or 40 years earlier, with Romano taking the small-town Everyman role in his stead. Ray’s funny here, and so is Hackman, who could play just about anything. This was Hackman’s final film before retiring and he nails it as usual. The supporting cast is top-notch as well, including the delightful Maura Tierney (ER, INSOMNIA) as tough State-of-Mainer Sally, Marcia Gay Harden (Oscar winner for POLLOCK) as Hackman’s trusted assistant (who of course carries a secret torch for him, just to even things out in the end), Fred Savage (THE WONDER YEARS) as a nerdy political operative, and the great Rip Torn as a sleazy consultant brought in to crank up the political heat. Christine Baranski pops up as the president’s vindictive ex-spouse, adding her own comic touch to the silliness, and that’s an uncredited Edward Herrmann as the debate moderator. And let’s have a shout-out please for the delectable Canadian actress Reagan Pasternak (BEING ERICA) in the small part of Mandy, who’s got a crush on her boss Handy!

I found out there was just as much talent behind the cameras as in front. Director Donald Petrie was responsible for a couple of old favorites of mine (MYSTIC PIZZA, GRUMPY OLD MEN); his father Daniel did both features (A RAISIN IN THE SUN, BUSTER AND BILLIE, FT. APACHE THE BRONX) and TV Movies (A HOWLING IN THE WOODS, MOON OF THE WOLF, the excellent MY NAME IS BILL W) of note. Screenwriter Tom Schulman was also an Oscar winner (DEAD POETS SOCIETY), penned the Disney comedy HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS and the insanely hilarious WHAT ABOUT BOB?, and served as writer/director of the cult classic 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG.

So yeah, WELCOME TO MOOSEHEAD was a pleasant diversion, a well made comedy with an impressive cast giving their all. Sure, it can be a little corny in places, but there’s nothing wrong with a little corn now and then – just ask Frank Capra. The movie seems to have been made in that Capra spirit, and I’m pretty sure Frank would’ve enjoyed it. I know I did!

RIP 20th Century-Fox (1935-2019)

The failing Fox Film Corporation merged with Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent 20th Century Pictures in 1935, and quickly joined the ranks of the major studios of the day (MGM, Paramount, Warners, Universal, Columbia). Over the decades, the trumpet blows sounding the logo for 20th Century-Fox  became familiar to film fans around the world. Now, the studio has been purchased outright by The Walt Disney Company, and will be just another subsidiary to the House The Mouse Built. In tribute to 20th Century-Fox, Cracked Rear Viewer presents a small but glittering gallery of stars and films from the vault of that magnificent movie making machine, 20th Century-Fox:

20th Century-Fox’s first release was the bizarre drama “Dante’s Inferno” starring Spencer Tracy
Sweet little Shirley Temple was Fox’s biggest star of the 1930’s
Warner Oland as sleuth Charlie Chan was popular with audiences and critics alike (here with Boris Karloff in “Charlie Chan at the Opera”)
Sonja Henie skated her way into filmgoer’s hearts in musicals like “One in a Million”
If one Oriental sleuth is good, two is better: Peter Lorre starred in a series of mysteries as Mr. Moto
Dshing Tyrone Power swashbuckled his way through movies like “The Mark of Zorro”
Director John Ford made many of his classics at 20th Century-Fox, such as “The Grapes of Wrath”
Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” was the studio’s first Best Picture Oscar winner
Contract player Betty Grable was the Most Popular Pin-Up Girl of WWII
The studio was known for film noir classics like Otto Preminger’s “Laura”
Richard Widmark freaked audiences out as giggling psycho Tommy Udo in “Kiss of Death”
Arch, sarcastic Clifton Webb starred in a popular series of comedies as Mr. Belvedere
‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night’: Bette Davis in the Oscar-winning “All About Eve”
Marilyn Monroe wowed ’em as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”
Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte sizzled the screen in “Carmen Jones”
Jayne Mansfield rocked the film world in Frank Tashlin’s “The Girl Can’t Help It”
Ed Wynn, Millie Perkins, and Richard Beymer starred in the dramatic true story “The Diary of Anne Frank”
Elvis Presley got a chance to display his acting talent in director Don Siegal’s “Flaming Star”
Comedian Jackie Gleason had a rare dramatic turn opposite Paul Newman in “The Hustler”
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor began their torrid affair on the set of “Cleopatra”; the film itself nearly sunk the studio
“The hills are alive, with the sound of” Julie Andrews singing in “The Sound of Music”
Holy Camp Craze! Fox brought Burt Ward and Adam West to the big screen in 1966’s “Batman”
‘Take your filthy paws off me, you damned dirty ape”: Charlton Heston monkeyed around in the sci-fi classic “Planet of the Apes”
“Who are those guys?”: Why, they’re Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”
George C. Scott won (and refused) the Oscar for the 1970 biopic “Patton”
“Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”: Gene Hackman as tough cop Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection”
An all-star cast had their world turned upside down in Irwin Allen’s disaster flick “The Poseidon Adventure”
‘May the Force Be with You”: battle of the light sabres from 1977’s “Star Wars”

 

Campus Kooks: The Ritz Brothers in LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE (20th Century Fox 1937)


I haven’t posted anything on The Ritz Brothers since January of 2016 , so when TCM aired a trio of their films this weekend, I chose to review what I consider their best solo effort, 1937’s LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE. This was their first name-above-the-title movie, and features Harry, Jimmy, and Al at their zaniest, with the added bonus of comedienne Joan Davis as a kooky coed with her sights on Native American football hero Nat Pendleton.

Collegiate musical comedies were a popular sub-genre in the 30’s: COLLEGE HUMOR, PIGSKIN PARADE, COLLEGE SWING, COLLEGE HOLIDAY, et al, so it seemed the perfect milieu for the Ritzes to showcase their peculiar brand of nuttiness. The story is typical campus corniness, as George “Little Black Cloud” Black arrives at Lombardy College (crashing his motorcycle for an entrance) wanting to join the football team, and immediately developing a rivalry with football team captain Bob. There’s Coach O’Hara, in danger of losing his job after three losing seasons, and his daughter Janet, a love triangle with Janet, Bob, and Southern belle Cuddles, and of course the Big Game against Midwestern, where it’s revealed George is ineligible to play because of his pro past.

However, the plot is strictly secondary to the Ritz lunacy. They’re a trio of tailors who’ve been working their way through college for seven years, without much success (they’re lousy tailors!). They befriend George, who suffered a hazing by Bob and his jock friends early on, and find out the kid’s loaded (Oklahoma oil wells), which he doesn’t want the other students to know about. The brothers act as a “front” and give the dean a huge endowment ( driving him crazy in the process!), with the provision that Coach keeps his job and they get to play on the team (they’ve been sitting on the bench those seven years!). This is all an excuse for the boys to show off their precision timing in some nonsensical song-and-dance routines (a hilarious ‘Latin’ number with Harry in drag, an ‘Indian’ number with them as not-so-brave braves, the fan favorite ‘Spirit of ’76’), and the physical and verbal clowning that made other comedians green with envy! Of course, they get into the Big Game in the final two minutes, and almost blow it before making one of the most ridiculous winning touchdowns in the history of these college football moves!

Gloria Stuart  makes a pleasing Janet, and even gets to sing “Why Talk About Love?” (though I think she’s dubbed), but Dick Baldwin as Bob is dull as a butter knife. Nat Pendleton talkum like Tonto as George, but his comic timing is solid and he’s believable as an athlete (he won a Silver Medal in wrestling at the 1920 Olympics). Joan Davis was a fine clown in her own right, and performs a solo number highlighting her limber slapstick moves. Tony Martin’s on hand as a band leader, though he doesn’t get to do much except introduce the tune “Sweet Varsity Sue”. Veteran Fred Stone is the Coach, and among the Familiar Faces you’ll find two very young actors: a pre-noir Elisha Cook Jr. as the team manager, and a pre-horror Lon Chaney Jr. as one of the football players!

But LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE is all about The Ritz Brothers, and as you watch, you’ll find out where comics like Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, and Jerry Lewis learned their schticks. No less than Mel Brooks called Harry Ritz “the funniest man ever” – high praise coming from a comic genius like Mel! If you’ve never experienced the comedy of The Ritz Brothers, this film’s a good place to start. OR…. you can start here, with this rare clip of Harry, Jimmy, and Al’s appearance on the 1961 TV series JACKPOT BOWLING, hosted by another of their admirers, Milton Berle:

Forever Young: Ingrid Pitt in COUNTESS DRACULA (20th Century Fox/Hammer 1971)

Iconic Ingrid Pitt became a horror fan favorite for her vampire roles in the early 1970’s.  The Polish-born actress, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child during WWII, played bloodsucking lesbian Carmilla in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, based on the classic story by J. Sheridan LeFanu, and was a participant in the Amicus anthology THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD opposite Jon Pertwee in that film’s best segment. Finally, Ingrid sunk her teeth into the title role of COUNTESS DRACULA, a juicy part where she’s not really a vampire, but a noblewoman who gets off on bathing in blood, loosely based on the real life events of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

Portrait of the real Elizabeth Bathory

Bathory (1560-1614) was the most infamous female serial killer in history, officially found guilty of 80 murders, yet a diary allegedly found puts the count as high as 650! Bathory was a sadistic woman who delighted in torturing young women, through beatings, burning, freezing, and cannibalism. She was found guilty of her atrocities and imprisoned until her death. Local gossips claimed she delighted in bathing in her victim’s blood, but there is no proof. The film uses that part of the legend as it’s starting point, and Bathory’s story  becomes just another Hammer Gothic horror tale.

Elderly Countess Elizabeth Nadasdy (Bathory’s real married name), shortly after her husband’s death, accidentally discovers bathing in the blood of virgins restores her youth and beauty. With the aid of her long-time lover Captain Dobi and nurse Julie, she procures young women to kill and keep her young, going so far as to have daughter Ilona kidnapped so she can impersonate her. The Countess has designs on young Lt. Imre Toth, and must maintain her bloody ritual in order to have him fall in lover with her. Castle historian Fabio becomes suspicious, and discovers the truth, but is hanged by Dobi before he can alert Toth. Ilona escapes, and Elizabeth is willing to kill her to obtain that precious virginal blood and stay young… .

The movie was a bit disappointing to me. The horror quotient is low, with more bare boobs than bloody murders (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Pitt is good as always (though her heavily accented voice was dubbed) in a part where she’s more a Jekyll & Hyde character than vampiric countess. Her old age makeup hides her beauty, which is revealed whenever she takes her blood baths (with a giant loofa!). Other cast members include Nigel Green as Captain Dobi, Lesley-Anne Down as Ilona, Sandor Eles (EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) as Lt. Toth, and Peter Jeffrey as the local inspector.


Director Peter Sasdy came from the ranks of British TV, and among his horror credits are TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, HANDS OF THE RIPPER , DOOMWATCH, and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. His COUNTESS DRACULA isn’t one of his better efforts, it moves too slow and doesn’t have enough horror to keep an enthusiast like me interested. The only thing that truly held my interest was Ingrid Pitt’s performance, and if you’re a Pitt person, you’ll want to watch this one. Otherwise, go find a copy of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

Midnight Snack: THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (2Oth Century-Fox 1950)

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF made it’s TCM debut last Saturday night on Noir Alley, hosted by “The Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller. This is a ‘B’ film I’d never heard of before, and since you all know how much I love discovering new/old ‘B’ movies, I stayed up past the midnight hour to give it a watch (which I usually do on Saturday nights anyway, being a Noir Alley fan!).

The film doesn’t waste any time, quickly introducing the main characters and getting right into the story. Thinking her husband is planning to murder her, rich San Francisco socialite Lois Frazer guns him down in cold blood directly in front of her lover, Homicide Lt. Ed Cullen. Ed dumps the body at the airport to make it look like a robbery/murder, tossing the murder weapon off the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he takes the lead in the investigation, along with his recently promoted brother Andy. Things heat up when the bullets used to kill a liquor store clerk matches the one that killed Frazer, the pawned gun leads to young Nito Capa, who is charged with both crimes. But eager beaver Andy doesn’t believe things add up, and starts investigating on his own…

Lee J. Cobb , primarily a character actor onscreen, plays the compromised cop Ed without his usual bombast. Jane Wyatt , cast against type, is a cold, calculating bitch as Lois. John Dall of GUN CRAZY as young Andy goes from happy-go-lucky rookie detective to disillusioned brother through the course of the film. All three are excellent in their roles, though it’s Cobb’s protagonist caught in that old familiar downward spiral who dominates the proceedings.

Felix Feist’s direction is on target, as he showed in his previous films noir THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, THE THREAT , and the sci-fi shocker DONOVAN’S BRAIN . DP Russell Harlan does his usual fine job behind the camera; among his many credits are RED RIVER, THE THING , BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and the aforementioned GUN CRAZY. Some of the movie was filmed on location in San Francisco, including the penultimate scene inside Ft. Point, brilliantly shot by Harlan and edited by David Weisbart (MILDRED PIERCE, DARK PASSAGE, JOHHNY BELINDA, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE). The score by Louis Forbes adds greatly to the film’s mood.

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF’s screenplay by veterans Seton I. Miller and Philip McDonald is tight and compact, the way a good little B-Movie should be done. Kudos to the entire cast and crew, and to Eddie Muller’s Film Noir Foundation for restoring the film so a new audience can enjoy it. And if you’re not a night-owl like me, TCM reruns Noir Alley on Sunday mornings, so you can get your fix of film noir with a hot cup of java.

Psycho-Killer: Peter Falk in MURDER INC. (20th Century-Fox 1960)

American filmgoers have had a long love affair with the gangster movie. The Pre-Code era was riddled with rat-a-tat-tat tommy gun action from Warner Brothers, MGM, and the other studios, helping to make stars out of Edward G. Robinson , James Cagney , Clark Gable , and a host of movie tough guys. Things quieted down once the Code was strictly enforced, but the gangster was still around, sometimes in comedy masks as likeable lugs, deneutered yet always lurking on-screen in some capacity.

By the late 1940’s, film noir introduced us to a darker vision, one seething with murderous rage. Cagney in WHITE HEAT, Robinson in KEY LARGO , and virtually everything Lawrence Tierney was in showed us gangsters were no “swell guys”, but anti-social psychopaths. The 50’s saw the gangster relegated mainly to ‘B’ status, just another genre to pit the good guys against the bad guys. Then in 1959, along came TV’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, bringing the Roaring Twenties back to colorful life, and the gangster was back with a vengeance.

It’s here we find MURDER INC., a true-life tale about the infamous hit squad from Brooklyn’s Brownsville section who conducted a nationwide kill-spree under orders from organized crime. The film doesn’t break any new ground, but it does introduce Peter Falk as a force to be reckoned with playing Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a psycho-killer if there ever was one. Falk’s Reles fits right in with the Warner Brothers’ Gangland Rogue’s Gallery of Cagney, Bogart, et al, and earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He’s as cruel and vicious as the devil, his weapon of choice an ice pick, and makes for one memorably malevolent mug!

Reles and his band of assassins get their contracts from Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (David J. Stewart), a Jewish “businessman” who controls New York vice alongside Mafioso Albert Anastasia (Howard I. Smith). Their first hit is on Catskills comic Walter Sage (Morey Amersterdam in a cameo ), and Reles recruits unwitting ex-band singer Joe Collins (Stuart Whitman), in debt to Reles up to his ears, to help set the crooked comedian up. Collins’s dancer wife Eadie (May Britt) is repulsed by Reles and insults him when he’s brought to her home; the hood later responds by attacking and brutally raping her. Reles then sets them up in a lavish apartment furnished with ill-gotten gains.

When Lepke is under indictment and forced to go into hiding, he stays with Joe and Eadie, keeping them virtual prisoners catering to his whims. Lepke sends his right-hand man Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard in a chilling performance) to kill the witness against him. The crime lord ends up in Leavenworth, and pressure is put on the mob by crusading DA Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan, the radio and TV personality, not the man from M*A*S*H). Lepke, feeling the heat, orders Mendy to hit everybody, including the Murder Inc. gang (which may have served as the inspiration for Michael Corleone’s revenge in Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER!). Reles and Eadie start singing like canaries; she’s killed on the boardwalk, and Reles is thrown out a window, leaving only Joe to lift the lid off organized crime and reserve a seat for Lepke in the electric chair.

There are some good flourishes in MURDER INC., with the violence coming in quick spurts, but on the whole the movie suffers from its budget limitations. Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE ) began the film as director, but was fired and replaced by producer Burt Balaban (actor Bob’s cousin). The actors, while all good, were from the Broadway (and Off-Broadway) stage, giving the film little star power. Falk was a virtual unknown at the time, and Whitman just another Fox contract player. The movie boosted both their careers, with Falk going on to much greater success as everyone’s favorite rumpled detective Lt. Columbo.

MURDER INC. features soon-to-be Familiar Faces like Simon Oakland as a dogged cop and Vincent Gardenia as Lepke’s mobbed-up lawyer. Actors Seymour Cassel and Sylvia Miles make their film debuts, and jazz singer Sarah Vaughn shows up to perform a couple of numbers. While not in the same category as gangster films past, it will certainly sate the crime buff’s appetite for destruction, and Peter Falk’s sociopathic ‘Kid Twist’ alone makes it more than worth watching.

Celebrity Hound: Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER (20th Century-Fox 1950)

By the late 1940’s, the Western was beginning to grow up. Films like Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD (1949), and William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (1949) incorporated darker, more adult themes than the run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. Henry King’s THE GUNFIGHTER tackles the still-relevant issues of celebrity culture and the price of fame, personified by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious fast gun whose reputation brings him the adulation of the masses but little peace.

Jimmy Ringo is weary of being challenged everywhere he goes by young punks eager to make a name for themselves. When one such punk (played by a young Richard Jaeckel) draws on him at in a saloon, he quickly learns how Jimmy earned his fast-draw rep. Problem is the punk has three brothers who “ain’t gonna care who drew first”. Ringo once again hits the trail, heading for the town of Cayenne, New Mexico, this time with a purpose in mind. His estranged wife Peggy is living there, along with the child he’s never met, having been on the run eight long years.

Cayenne is all a-buzz about the presence of the infamous gunfighter in their humble town. Saloonkeeper Mac (Karl Malden ) treats him like royalty. The local schoolkids, including Jimmy’s own, skip class and line the streets to get a glimpse of the famous Jimmy Ringo. But not all are so welcoming. Jimmy’s former outlaw pal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell ) is now town marshal, and wants his old pardner out-of-town ASAP. Peggy (Helen Westcott) refuses to see him. Yet another young punk, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier ), wants to test his mettle against Ringo. The ladies auxiliary (led by Verna Felton and Ellen Corby ) demand he leave town. And those three brothers keep riding, hot on Jimmy’s trail and hellbent on revenge…

Peck cuts a menacing figure as Jimmy Ringo, with his perpetual scowl and dark moustache. By this time, he had become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with credits like THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, SPELLBOUND, THE YEARLING, DUEL IN THE SUN, and GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. More hits would follow, including his Oscar-winning performance in 1962’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Jimmy Ringo is tired of being hounded at every turn, whether by celebrity seekers or the next two-bit punk. Ringo’s an outlaw and a killer, to be sure,  yet Peck manages to elicit sympathy as a man who only wants to live out the rest of his life in peace and anonymity.

All the supporting cast are good, but I wanted to make special mention of Jean Parker in the role of Molly, a saloon girl once married to one of Ringo’s gang. Miss Parker, a promising starlet in the early 30’s, had been relegated to starring in low-budget films for Universal, Monogram, and PRC for a decade. THE GUNFIGHTER was her first movie role in four years, after replacing Judy Holliday on Broadway in BORN YESTERDAY, and she makes the most of her limited screen time. Some of my favorites with her are Laurel & Hardy’s THE FLYING DEUCES, Lon Chaney Jr’s “Inner Sanctum” mystery DEAD MAN’S EYES, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (with John Carradine). It’s a pleasure to see Jean Parker in anything, and her presence adds to this film’s success.

Director Henry King made his first film in 1915, and was responsible for classics like IN OLD CHICAGO, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, WILSON , TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (with Peck), and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, among many others. King keeps his focus on Ringo and the world he lives in, hunted and haunted by his notoriety. THE GUNFIGHTER is a genre classic, and helped the Western movie mature and move with the times. As relevant today as it was in 1950, in my opinion this is a must-see film.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3

To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest DA who pumps the brakes when the politicians, fearing the wrath of the voters demanding action, pressure the police chief (Lee J. Cobb ) into arresting somebody – anybody – for the murder. But it’s Arthur Kennedy who steals the show as a down on his luck WWII veteran caught up in the hysteria, put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit so political hacks can save (as Mel Brooks would say ) their phoney-baloney jobs. The cast is loaded with marvelous actors, including Jane Wyatt as Andrews’ wife, Cara Williams as Kennedy’s bitter ex-girlfriend, Ed Begley as a shady pol, Sam Levene as a muckraking reporter, and a young Karl Malden as one of Cobb’s detectives. Cobb sums the whole thing up best: “Never did like politicians”. Amen to that, Lee J! BOOMERANG is a noir you won’t want to miss.

Director Nicholas Ray contributed a gem to the noir canon with IN A LONELY PLACE (Columbia 1950) . Noir icon Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murdering a hat check girl. Steele has a violent history well-known to the police, but new neighbor Laurel Grey (another noir icon, Gloria Grahame ) provides him with an alibi. Bogart, as the obviously off-center writer who may or may not have killed the girl, goes deep into his dark side, giving one of his best screen performances – and that’s saying a lot! The viewer is never quite certain if Dixon Steele did the deed until the very end, as Bogart’s psycho scenarist keeps everyone off-balance.

Grahame is one cool customer at first, but as things progress and Bogart’s rage rises to the surface, she becomes more and more frightened of him. Grahame and Ray were married while making IN A LONELY PLACE, but the union was becoming unraveled by this time, and they would soon separate. Frank Lovejoy, whom I’ve always thought was a very underrated actor, plays Steele’s former Army buddy, now a cop on the case. I especially enjoyed Robert Warwick as Charlie Waterman, the alcoholic former screen star who relies on Steele for handouts. Other Familiar Faces include Carl Benton Reid, Morris Ankrum , Jeff Donnell, and famous restaurateur ‘Prince’ Michael Romanoff, a friend of Bogie’s playing (what else?) a restaurateur. If you love movies about the dark side of Hollywood, IN A LONELY PLACE is for you!

Joseph Losey’s THE PROWLER (United Artists 1951) gives us Van Heflin as an obsessed cop who falls for married Evelyn Keyes after responding to a peeping tom call. Heflin delivers a dynamite performance as the narcissistic ex-jock turned officer, unhappy with his lot in life, who has most everyone fooled he’s a “wonderful guy”. Keyes is alone most nights because her husband works the overnight shift as a disc jockey. After he tries (and fails) to put the make on her, he returns to apologize. The lonely housewife dances with him while the song “Baby” plays on the radio, cozying up cheek to cheek, and then… well, you know!

Heflin resorts to anything to get what he wants, including setting up Keyes’ hubby and shooting him. After being found innocent in a coroner’s inquiry, literally getting away with murder, he convinces her of his innocence and the two get married. Heflin buys a motel in Vegas, and is ready to live the American dream, but there’s a hitch to his plans when Keyes discovers she’s already four months pregnant, and her deceased hubby was impotent! Realizing questions will be re-raised regarding their relationship while she was married, the two take off to a deserted ‘ghost town’ in the desert to have the child, away from prying eyes. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it packs a wallop! THE PROWLER is essential viewing for film noir lovers, written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo under the name of “front” Hugo Butler (and as an inside joke, Losey hired Trumbo to provide the radio voice of Keyes’ disc jockey husband, without the knowledge of anyone involved!).

Last but certainly not least, we come to WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (RKO 1956), directed by the legendary Fritz Lang , who knew a thing or two about crafting film noir! Casey Robinson’s extremely cynical script shows us the power struggle at a New York newspaper, with whoever discovers the identity of “The Lipstick Killer” terrorizing the town being named Executive Director. The characters are sleazy and unlikable, with everyone sleeping with everyone else, and only the top-notch cast makes them palatable, led by Dana Andrews as a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV broadcaster, Thomas Mitchell as the sly old-school pro, George Sanders at his smarmy, sarcastic best, Vincent Price as the dilettante son who inherits a media empire, Rhonda Fleming as his slutty wife (who’s banging art director James Craig on the side), Sally Forrest as Sanders’ secretary in love with Andrews, Ida Lupino as a gossip columnist Sanders sics on Andrews to seduce him, and Howard Duff as the lead cop on the case. You can’t get much better than that cast!

As the sex-killer with mommy issues, John Drew Barrymore (billed a John Barrymore, Jr.) looks more like Elvis than he does his famous father. Barrymore’s career never reached the heights of his dad, mainly due to his excesses, and his was a tragic life. Towards the end, he was cared for by daughter Drew, who’s had quite a career of her own. WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS is arguably Lang’s last great film, with moody cinematography by the great Ernest Laszlo (DOA, KISS ME DEADLY ). With that cast, Robinson’s pessimistic script, and Lang’s deft direction, it’s another must-see for film noir fans. Oh yes, before I forget, if that stylized ‘K’ for Kyne, Inc. looks familiar, it’s because it’s leftover from another RKO film:

That’s right, CITIZEN KANE! Who says RKO didn’t get the most for their money?

More CLEANING OUT THE DVR:

Five Films From Five Decades

Five Films From Five Decades 2

Those Swingin’ Sixties!

B-Movie Roundup!

Fabulous 40’s Sleuths

All-Star Horror Edition!

Film Noir Festival

All-Star Comedy Break

Film Noir Festival Redux

Halloween Leftovers

Five From The Fifties

Too Much Crime On My Hands

All-Star Western Roundup!

Sex & Violence, 70’s Style!

Halloween Leftovers 2

Keep Calm and Watch Movies!