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:

Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)

Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like heat lightning with some hard-bitten, racy dialog (Gable: “Supposing I wasn’t a convict? Supposing I was sailing through on my yacht, or a guy selling brushes?” Joan: “Yeah, suppose I was Snow White”). Verne manages to sneak out and into Julie’s boudoir (upstairs from the local saloon, of course!), but the swinish M’sieur Pig, who lusts after Julie, rats him out, forcing Julie off the island by order of the local authorities. Pig is played by Peter Lorre at his creepiest, such a scumbag even Julie won’t sleep with him (“You’re the one man in the world I could never get low enough to touch!”).

Verne’s enemy Moll (the equally scumbaggish Albert Dekker ) has planned a great escape, along with some other unsavory characters ( Paul Lukas , Eduardo Ciannelli , J. Edward Bromberg, John Aldredge). The saintly Cambreau pays his and Verne’s way to join them, but that double-crossing rat Moll conks Verne in the head while he’s asleep (with a shoe!), leaving Verne behind – but not for long, because Cambreau has left behind a map of the escape route inside a Bible! Verne, after rescuing Julie from the clutches of a horny mining camp owner (Bernard Nedell), catches up with what’s left of the cons, and they make their way to a waiting boat. But freedom always comes with a price….

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Cambreau is played by Ian Hunter , and it’s never fully explained just who he really is, but there are all sorts of clues along the way. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and offers aid and comfort to the sick and dying. The film is loaded with theological and spiritual debates, as when Cambreau comforts the dying Tellez (Ciannelli). Later, when Hessler (Lukas) bids the survivors adieu to search for another rich woman to kill, the two have a sparring match about whether or not they’ll meet again. It’s pretty obvious to me this is God and the Devil talking! Finally, in the scene where Verne loses his cool and knocks Cambreau off the ship, the angelic Cambreau hangs onto a piece of driftwood in the raging sea, arms splayed as if he were on the cross. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency got their cassocks all in a bunch!

CONDEMNED: The Legion of Decency protests

Then again, these guys were out to censor just about everything they didn’t think impressionable young minds (or old minds, for that matter) should be exposed to. Formed in 1933, the Legion was even stricter than the Production Code then being enforced by the dour Joseph Breen. A ‘CONDEMNED’ rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency meant certain doom, and they put their black stamp on anything they deemed offensive. Besides the anti-drug films of the era (ASSASSIN OF YOUTH, THE PACE THAT KILLS, REEFER MADNESS ), some other films judged taboo were THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (divorce), THE OUTLAW (can’t have people staring at Jane Russell’s boobs!), THE MOON IS BLUE (for daring to use the word “virgin”), and BABY DOLL (just fat-out “morally repellent”). Even something as innocuous as 1945’s MOM AND DAD, a Roadshow production promoting sex hygiene, was denounced as being too strong for delicate audiences. The Legion wielded enormous power during their heyday, until the 1960’s rolled around with a new breed of filmmakers determined to make more adult pictures…. for better or worse.

Anyway, back to STRANGE CARGO. The film was directed by Frank Borzage, who won the first directing Oscar for SEVENTH HEAVEN, and whose credits include STREET ANGEL, BAD GIRL (his second Oscar), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, and THE MORTAL STORM. His films are filled with romanticism and spirituality, and it’s no surprise to find STRANGE CARGO in his canon. His work is considered old-fashioned by many today, but it’s definitely worth looking into. This particular film would’ve been called a classic if made during the Pre-Code era, and can be enjoyed on several levels. Just don’t let the Legion of Decency know you’re watching!

Oh, and Happy Easter!

Joan and Christina Crawford in their matching Easter bonnets – you’re welcome!

Hammer Time!: KISS ME DEADLY (United Artists 1955)

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Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels have long been one of my favorite Guilty Pleasures. Spillane’s books were the literary equivalent of knocking back shots of Jack Daniels with no chaser. The misanthropic Mike Hammer’s Sex & Violence filled adventures are rapid paced, testosterone fueled trips through a definitely un-PC world where men are men, women are sex objects, and blood and bullets flow freely through a dark, corrupt post-war world.  Spillane turned the conventional detective yarn on its ear and, though critics hated his simplistic writing, the public ate up his books by the millions.

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The film version of Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY turns film noir on its ear from its opening shot of Christine Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman) running down a lonely highway, almost getting run over by Mike Hammer. The PI picks her up and the opening credits roll backwards to the strains of Nat King Cole crooning “Rather Have The Blues”. This beginning set-up lets us know we’re not about to see a routine mystery yarn, but something wildly unique courtesy of a promising young producer/director named Robert Aldrich .

The script by A.I. Bezzerides is as convoluted as a Spillane novel, though he changed much of the original book, much to Spillane’s displeasure. I’ll try to capsulize the goings-on without writing a novel myself: Mike Hammer picks up hitchhiker Christine Bailey, whom he discovers has escaped from an insane asylum. “Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me”, she says. “If we don’t, remember me”. They don’t, as Hammer’s car is cut off, the pair are kidnapped, Christine’s murdered, and Hammer wakes up in a hospital bed surrounded by his girl Friday Velda and police pal Lt. Pat Murphy.

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When he’s released, Hammer’s grilled by members of the Interstate Crime Commission, some bigwigs from Washington looking for clues. They know all about him: he’s a third-rate shamus who specializes in divorce cases, “a bedroom dick” who uses Velda for tawdry set-ups. Pat warns Hammer to forget the whole thing and revokes his PI and gun licenses so Hammer won’t go taking the law into his own hands.. fat chance of that! When Mike Hammer finds a thread, he pulls at it until he finds a string, and with the big boys from D.C. interested in this thread, he knows bigger things are at the end of the string.

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That string leads Hammer to murder, kidnapping, torture, and brutality as he bulls his way forward, searching for “The Great Whatsit”. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, Sam Spade’s Maltese Falcon, Kane’s Rosebud, the device that the plot revolves around. Velda describes it perfectly: “Does it exist? Who cares! Everyone, everywhere is involved in a fruitless search for what?” In KISS ME DEADLY, it’s a mysterious suitcase, hot to the touch, containing radioactive nuclear material everyone’s after, with “deadly” consequences.

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But it’s not the what that matters, it’s how Hammer gets there. The violence in this movie comes swift and savage, and is surprising for a 1955 release. The scene where Hammer’s followed by a thug, who he takes out, is shocking in its brutality. Aldrich pulls no punches, with one ferocious scene after another. The film was cited by the Kefauver Commission for corrupting the morals of America’s youth, prompting Aldrich to launch a letter-writing campaign in favor of free speech for independent filmmakers. Bravo, Mr. Aldrich!

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Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as the ultimate anti-hero, a penny-ante goon bulldozing his way through the mean streets of LA. Meeker rose to fame in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s PICNIC, and soon landed in Hollywood. Never a major star, he nonetheless added a macho presence to tough films like BIG HOUSE USA, Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY, SOMETHING WILD, Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE DAY’S MASSACRE, and THE DETECTIVE. He also worked again with Aldrich in a small role as the Army shrink in THE DIRTY DOZEN  . Besides the excellent TV version played by Stacy Keach, Meeker is my favorite of all the screen Hammer, and that includes author Spillane, who played his own character in 1963’s THE GIRL HUNTERS.

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The movie features the film debuts of both Leachman and Maxine Cooper, who makes a sexy Velda. The other main female character here is Gaby Rodgers as the mysterious Lily Carter, who’s not what she seems. Gaby only made one other film before this, an indie called THE BIG BREAK, and did some TV appearances, but never appeared on the big screen again. It’s too bad, because she’s a standout as Lily, and would’ve added greatly to some films of the era. In real life, Gaby was married to songwriter Jerry Leiber   , who penned rock’n’roll classics like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” with partner Mike Stoller. As of this writing, Miss Rodgers is still with us at age 88.

Tough guy actors abound in KISS ME DEADLY, including Albert Dekker as the sadistic Dr. Soberin, Paul Stewart as mobster Carl Evello, and a pair of Jacks- Jack Elam  and Jack Lambert as Evello’s hoods. Other Familiar Faces are Wesley Addy, Fortunio Bonanova , Nick Dennis, Juano Hernandez, Paul Richards, Percy Helton , Leigh Snowden, and Strother Martin in a small role as a witness to murder. Frank DeVol’s music score hits all the right notes, and DP Ernest Laszlo’s photography keeps things dark and moody.

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The only quibbles I have with KISS ME DEADLY are strictly as a Hammer purist. Moving the action from Hammer’s New York City base to Los Angeles seems sacrilegious, and having him use Velda for his sordid set-ups with suckers makes Hammer look like a douchebag. But I suppose I’ll have to grant Aldrich and Bezzerides their artistic license here, because for the purpose of this film it all works. KISS ME DEADLY is like a cinematic punch in the face, and the best Mike Hammer adaptation ever, despite my quibbles. I just wish I’d have kept all my Mickey Spillane paperbacks, because viewing this film and writing this post makes me want to dive back into the Sex & Violence-filled world of Mike Hammer once again!

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break

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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and Baby Leroy dropping grapes through a hole in the porch (“Shades of Bacchus!”); and a wild picnic on private property. One of Fields’ best movies, an absurd comic classic! Fun Fact: Kathleen Howard was a former opera singer who costarred in three of W.C.’s films.

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GENERAL SPANKY (MGM 1936, D: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas) Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and the “Our Gang” kids star in this Civil War era comedy that plays like a few shorts strung together. There’s not really any overt racism, as some critics claim; except for the use of the derogatory term “pickaninny” early on, it’s simply a product of its era. The story is told from the Southern POV, making it sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the slaves are treated with more dignity by the Southerners than the invading Yankee army! The warm relationship that develops between the two orphans Spanky and Buckwheat rarely gets mentioned. Still, this ain’t GONE WITH THE WIND; if it sounds offensive, just don”t watch. Fans of Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts will want to catch it, though. Fun Fact: Irving Pichel, who I’ve discussed here in past posts , plays the mean Yankee captain at odds with Spanky and friends.

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TURNABOUT (United Artists 1949, D: Hal Roach) Gender-bending screwball comedy about a constantly bickering couple (John Hubbard, Carole Landis) that have their wish to swap bodies granted by a Hindu idol come to life. Ultimately the film tries a little too hard at being wacky and is a letdown considering it’s groundbreaking theme. Adolphe Menjou, William Gargan, Mary Astor, Joyce Compton, Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, Marjorie Main, and especially Donald Meek head a game supporting cast. Based on a novel by Thorne (TOPPER) Smith. Fun Fact: One of a handful of feature films directed by comedy pioneer Roach.

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BLONDE INSPIRATION (MGM 1941, D: Busby Berkeley) Minor but amusing screwball comedy concerning an idealistic unpublished writer (John Shelton) who’s conned out of $2000 by two broke publishers (the unlikely but funny comedy team of Albert Dekker and Charles Butterworth !) to write Western pulp fiction when their drunken star scribe Dusty King (Donald Meek again!) quits. Shelton’s bland in the lead,  but the rest of the cast makes up for it, with a wisecracking script by Marion Parsonnet and swift direction from musical maestro Berkeley. Virginia Grey plays the publisher’s cynical secretary who ends up falling for the dopey, naïve Shelton. Reginald Owen, Alma Krueger, Byron Foulger, and Charles Halton all add to the fun. Fun Fact: Marion Martin, former Ziegfeld showgirl, is the “blonde inspiration” of the title, playing the dumb-blonde companion of Butterworth.

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WHO DONE IT? (Universal 1942, D: Erle C. Kenton) Abbott & Costello play two soda jerks (emphasis on “jerks”) and wanna-be radio mystery writers who get caught up in a real-life murder mystery at the station. This was Bud and Lou’s first effort without the usual musical interludes (no Andrews Sisters, no swing bands, etc), and allows them to unleash their comic mayhem uninhibited. The radio setting gives them good material to work with, like their “watts are volts” wordplay riffing (they even have a bit disparaging their classic ‘Who’s On First?” routine). There are some genuinely scary touches between the slapstick from horror vet Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN ), and a solid supporting cast featuring William Gargan and William Bendix as a pair of dopey detectives, Mary Wickes as Lou’s love interest (!!), and Universal’s Familiar Face Brigade: Patric Knowles, Louise Allbritton, Thomas Gomez, Don Porter, Jerome Cowan, and Ludwig Stossel. Cadaverous Milton Parsons even shows up as the coroner! Fast and fun entry in the A&C catalog. Fun Fact: The page boy constantly getting over on Lou is Walter Tetley, a radio actor known to TV affecianados as the voice of Mr. Peabody’s favorite boy, Sherman!

Happy Birthday Burt Lancaster!: THE KILLERS (Universal 1946)

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Yeah I know, I said right here on this blog yesterday that I was going to take a week off after my marathon “Halloween Havoc” series. But since it’s Burt Lancaster’s birthday (b. 11/2/13, d. 10/20/94) I thought I’d watch his film debut, THE KILLERS. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Robert Siodmak, THE KILLERS is one of the best in the film noir canon, full of double-and-triple-crosses, great acting, and the beautiful Ava Gardner as the sexy but dangerous femme fatale.

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The story unfolds mostly in flashback, as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) looks into the murder of Peter Lund, aka ‘The Swede’ (Lancaster). We learn along with Reardon that Lund was really Ole Anderson, an ex-fighter and ex-con from Philly who drifts into a life of crime. Swede falls madly for the devious Kitty Collins (Gardner), whose boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) is serving time. When he gets out, Kitty dumps Swede for Colfax. Big Jim’s planned a foolproof payroll robbery worth a quarter million bucks, and enlists Swede and two others for the heist. I won’t get into the details if you haven’t seen this one yet, but suffice it to say things go decidedly downhill for Swede from here.

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The opening sequence featuring William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the hitmen who blast Swede is memorable for its dark, menacing tone, as the thugs take over a diner to wait for Swede, then slowly creep up the stairs of his apartment to blow him away. Elwood “Woody” Bredell’s cinematography shows us a world of shadow and danger, and Miklos Rozsa adds an excellent score. (By the way, the young actor playing Nick who goes to warn Swede? That’s Phil Brown, later to become Uncle Owen in 1977’s STAR WARS!)

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Lancaster plays The Swede as a naïve dupe who’s in over his head and no match for the devious Kitty Collins. Gardner is smoking hot as Kitty, a duplicitous dame if there ever was one. The cast is peppered with fine character performances  from the likes of Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Donald MacBride, Jack Lambert (particularly nasty as Dum-Dum), and Vince Barnett. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller has uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks. Producer Mark Hellinger went on to work again with Lancaster in the classic prison drama Brute Force the next year, along with Levene and Corey. Tough as a two-dollar steak, THE KILLERS was remade by Don Siegel in 1964 with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in the Albert Dekker role (it was his last film). While the remake is good, the original is better (I’ve seen them both). So happy birthday, Burt Lancaster…and now back to my regularly scheduled break!