New York After Midnight: 99 RIVER STREET (United Artists 1953)

The trio that brought you KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL – star John Payne, director Phil Karlson, and producer Edward Small – teamed again for 99 RIVER STREET, and while it’s not quite on a par with their film noir classic, it’s crammed with enough sex’n’violence to hold your interest for an hour and a half. Karlson’s direction is solid, as is the cast (including a knockout performance by Evelyn Keyes), and the camerawork of the great Austrian cinematographer Franz Planer gives it a wonderfully brooding touch of darkness.

The story itself is highly improbable yet highly entertaining: ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne), once a heavyweight contender now reduced to driving a cab, is married to ex-showgirl Pauline (the delectable Peggie Castle), who’s two-timing him with crook Victor Rawlins (slimebag Brad Dexter ). Ernie catches them making out through the window of the flower shop Pauline works at, and his PTSD is triggered. Then when his friend, struggling actress Linda Jordan (Keyes) sets him up as a patsy so she can nail an acting job, Ernie explodes and beats up the play’s producer and crew!

Meanwhile, Victor and Pauline try to sell a load of hot diamonds to fences Christopher and Mickey (Jay Adler, Jack Lambert ), but they balk at dealing with a woman – that and the fact Victor killed a man during the heist. So the dirty douche strangles Pauline and dumps her body in Ernie’s cab. The cops are already looking for Ernie after his meltdown at the theater, and that old familiar noir downward spiral rapidly escalates as Ernie, with the help of Linda, races to find the killer at large and clear his name…


Payne does a fine job as the guy who’s taken one too many blows to the head, and although things like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries aren’t specifically mentioned, it’s obvious Ernie’s troubles go deeper than just financial or marital. Good as Payne is, Evelyn Keyes totally stole the show for me as Linda. The scene where she tricks Payne into believing she’s murdered someone had not just Payne’s character fooled, I was totally taken in! Later, she impersonates a drunken floozie in a sleazy waterfront gin joint while trying to lure Dexter’s Victor out in the open. Keyes, best known as Scarlet O’Hara’s little sister Suellen in GONE WITH THE WIND and her years at Columbia (making, among other films, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE JOLSON STORY, and JOHNNY O’CLOCK), never really got a chance to strut her stuff, and she certainly delivers the goods here.

DP Franz Planer makes the backlot look and feel like New York After Midnight. The veteran’s career stretched back all the way to 1919 in his native Austria-Hungary. Leaving war-torn Europe in 1937, he came to America and worked on films both large and small. Planer’s name doesn’t get mentioned a lot in the film noir conversation, but he was the man behind the camera on gems like the aforementioned FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE CHASE, CRISS CROSS , and CHAMPION . Perhaps it’s because his other work overshadows his noir efforts: among his resume you’ll find classics such as PENNY SERANADE, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE CAINE MUTINY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S . He was working on SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE when that film was shelved due to the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe; it proved to be his last job, as Planer himself died a year later.

After 99 RIVER STREET, the trio of Payne, Karlson, and Small went their separate ways, though they worked together in various combinations on occasion. Pairing this film with KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL would make a dynamite film noir double feature, perfect examples of what can be accomplished on a low budget with little money and a whole lot of talent before and behind the cameras.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Jane Russell in THE LAS VEGAS STORY (RKO 1952)

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Jane Russell’s  sexy as always, but THE LAS VEGAS STORY falls flatter than the proverbial pancake. This dull little crime drama boasts a good cast and some good moments, but on the whole doesn’t satisfy. One of the problems is Jane’s co-star Victor Mature, who tries but can’t match the cynicism frequent Russell co-star Robert Mitchum would’ve brought to the role of Jane’s jilted ex-lover, now a cop in the City of Sin. The most interesting thing about THE LAS VEGAS STORY is it’s screenplay credits, which we’ll get to later.

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When ex-lounge singer Linda Rollins (Russell) returns to Vegas with husband Lloyd (a subdued but still sarcastic Vincent Price ), she visits her old stomping ground the Last Chance, where she’s greeted by piano player Happy (Hoagy Carmichael) and former boss Mike Fogarty (Will Wright), who’s been bought out by new owner Clayton (Robert J. Wilke). Police lieutenant Dave Andrews (Mature), Linda’s ex, comes along and is still angry over being dumped by Linda.

Lloyd’s got problems of his own, having embezzled big bucks from his firm in Boston, and uses Linda’s $150,000 diamond necklace to get a line of credit from Clayton, which results in him losing both the dough and the necklace. Sleazy insurance investigator Hubler ( Brad Dexter ) has been following the Rollins’s, keeping his eye on the prize. When Clayton is found murdered late one night, Dave arrests Lloyd for the crime, but the real killer is still on the loose…

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Jane’s undeniable charms make the movie watchable, whether it’s in flashback singing “Of Course I Do” (complete with Bettie Page-style ‘do!) or a brief but sexy shower scene. RKO boss Howard Hughes knew how to use her attributes to maximum effect, and her acting ability didn’t suffer for it. When it comes to Victor Mature, he’s good when given the right role (see MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or I WAKE UP SCREAMING for example), but here he’s just dull. Robert Stevenson’s pedestrian direction doesn’t help matters, as even the chase scene through the desert, culminating in a climactic duel at a shut-down army base, fails to kick into high gear. It’s a shame, because the movie had potential, but the lackluster effort put into it causes it to sink under its own weight.

Hoagy Carmichael is good as Happy, and brightens up the proceedings whenever he’s on screen. The composer of standards like “Georgia On My Mind” and “Stardust” acted in films before, most memorably with Bogie and Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and wrote the songs for this one, including a funny ditty called “The Monkey Song”:

Screenwriter Paul Jarrico (left) at HUAC hearings
Screenwriter Paul Jarrico (left) at HUAC hearings

Earl Fenton and Harry Essex are credited with the uninspired screenplay, but Paul Jarrico also contributed. Jarrico’s name was taken off the credits by Hughes because he’d been named as a communist sympathizer by HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) during the blacklist era. Jarrico, who wrote the films THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , THOUSANDS CHEER, and SONG OF RUSSIA (a film named pro-Soviet propaganda by HUAC), sued to restore his name and lost, the court ruling Jarrico was in violation of the studio’s morals clause. This in turn gave studios free rein to use blacklisted writer’s work without crediting them, or paying them fairly for their toils, either. Jarrcio was booted out of Hollywood, later making SALT OF THE EARTH with fellow blacklistee Herbert Biberman (which became the only FILM to be blacklisted because of its writer and director!) and moving to Europe to ply his trade for another twenty years.

All this behind-the-scenes bullshit didn’t matter to moviegoers, as THE LAS VEGAS STORY bombed at the box office. The film’s definitely minor league, despite a fine cast, and I really don’t think Mr. Jarrico should’ve wasted his time on it. Neither should you; go watch Jane steam up the screen with Mitchum in HIS KIND OF WOMAN or MACAO instead.

It’s the original THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN- or is it? (United Artists 1960)

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There’s a large hue and cry about the upcoming remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (and remakes in general) among classic film fans. “How dare they”, it kind of goes, “Why, that’s blasphemy!”. The truth is, Hollywood’s been cannibalizing itself since almost the beginning, and remakes have long been a staple of filmmakers. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Japanese film SEVEN SAMAURI, moved to the American west by producer/director John Sturges . And while quite frankly most remakes can’t hold a candle to the originals, this 1960 action epic can stand on it’s own as one of the great Western adventures.

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Sturges assembled a macho cast to tell the tale of bandits terrorizing a small Mexican village, and the seven hired guns who take on the job of defending them. Top billed is Yul Brynner as Chris, the black clad gunslinger who puts together the crew. First among them is Steve McQueen   , star of TV’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and on the cusp of film stardom after appearing in 1959’s NEVER SO FEW. McQueen plays Tanner, honing his ultra-cool persona in this breakthrough role. He also gets the best lines, like “We deal in lead, friend”. Cool indeed!

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Charles Bronson had been around awhile before taking on the role of O’Reilly, and his scenes with the adoring Mexican children who idolize him are standouts. Bronson would do a bunch of these all-star actioners (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN  ) before becoming a solo action icon in a series of 70’s films. Lanky young James Coburn was just beginning to get noticed in movie and TV appearances when he was cast as the knife-throwing Britt. Robert Vaughn   was another up-and-comer at the time, essaying the part of Lee, an outlaw who’s losing his nerve. (That would never happen to Napoleon Solo, his star-making role in TV’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE!) Brad Dexter was a veteran actor, usually cast as the heavy; he adds humor to the part of soldier of fortune Harry Luck.

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Horst Buchholz, “The German James Dean”, was already a star in Europe when he took the role of Chico, a cocksure young gun out to prove himself with these seasoned professionals. Buchholz was just beginning to branch into English-speaking productions, which later included Billy Wilder’s ONE TWO THREE and the excellent NINE HOURS TO RAMA. He probably would’ve been a bigger star if he hadn’t turned down the part of The Man With No Name in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Clint Eastwood is forever grateful for that!

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These seven take on bandit chief Calvera, played to perfection by Eli Wallach, foreshadowing his Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. While the rest of the cast plays it low-key, Wallach’s over-the-top bad guy offers a nice contrast, dominating every scene he’s in. Veteran Vladimir Sokoloff as the village elder gives a solid performance. Familiar Faces include Whit Bissell, Val Avery, Bing Russell, Robert Wilke, Jim Davis, and Victor French in minor roles. Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros is also on hand as the love interest for Buchholz.

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William Roberts gets credit for the screenplay, but it’s a bit more complicated then that. Blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein did the original adaptation, which was rewritten by Walter Newman. Roberts made some changes while on location and asked for a co-credit, prompting Newman to ask for his name to be removed from the credits. I’m not sure just who wrote what, only that the screenplay works as one of the all-time action greats. Charles Lang’s majestic cinematography is a work of art in itself, as you’d expect from the man behind the camera on such classics as THE BIG HEAT  and SOME LIKE IT HOT. Speaking of works of art, Elmer Bernstein’s score is one of Hollywood’s best known and best-loved. That theme has been sampled in countless movies, TV shows, and recordings, enjoying a second life as the theme for countless TV commercials for Marlboro cigarettes in the 1960’s.

So the question is, will I go see the new version? Probably not. I’ve seen the trailers, and it looks okay. It might even be pretty cool. But it won’t be Steve McQueen/Charles Bronson/James Coburn cool. And there lies the rub as far as remakes of classic films goes. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is the perfect action flick in every respect, and it’s hard to top perfection. The 1960 movie does it by bringing Kurosawa’s samuari original to the Old West, adding a new spin to the story. But for the most part, remaking a classic (or even semi-classic) film seldom works. Now, if they had put the new Seven epic in outer space, we might be having a completely different conversation about this latest Hollywood remake!

*Author’s Note: TCM is showing this movie tonight (9/22/16) at 8:00PM EST. Watch and enjoy!

 

 

 

Double Dynamite: Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in MACAO (RKO 1952)

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Even though 1951’s HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money (mainly due to studio boss Howard Hughes’ meddling), Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell were reteamed the following year in MACAO. The film was actually sitting on the RKO shelf, having been completed in 1950. Once again, the autocratic Hughes wasn’t pleased with the original version, and fired credited director Josef von Sternberg, replacing him with Nicholas Ray. Mitchum himself even contributed to rewriting some scenes. The result is an entertaining noir that, while not quite as good as HIS KIND OF WOMAN, still manages to hold your interest.

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On a boat from Hong Kong, drifter Nick Cochran (Mitchum) meets grifter Julie Benson (Russell), who lifts his wallet. The pair also meet Lawrence C. Trumble (William Bendix), a salesman specializing in “nylons, pearl buttons, coconut oil, and fertilizer”.  The three are headed to Macao, “The Monte Carlo of the Orient” (actually the RKO backlot), for various reasons. Julie gets a job as a singer working for crime lord Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter):

Halloran’s got the local cops (led by Thomas Gomez) in his hip pocket. He’s also got a moll named Margie (the always welcome Gloria Grahame ), who’s jealous of his attention to Julie. Nick’s looking for work, too, but Halloran doesn’t trust him. He thinks Nick’s a New York cop trying to extradite him. Salesman Trumble has a deal for Nick to make some dough: he’s got a hot diamond necklace stashed in Hing Kong, and will cut Nick in on the deal if Nick can arrange for Halloran to buy it. This sets in motion plenty of trouble for all involved, but have no fear! Things turn out well in the end, and Nick winds up with Julie (like you just knew he would!)

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I liked MACAO, but not as much as HIS KIND OF WOMAN. The team of Mitchum and Russell still crackles with sexual heat, the supporting cast is good, and the movie’s exciting enough. There’s a reason it sat on the shelf for two years, and I think I know what it is: the movie feels like they just lost interest and gave up on it about halfway through. Kind of like I’m doing here with this review.  It’s not the best, not the worst either. It’s kind of an average RKO/Mitchum entry, but that’s still better than a lot of films of that era. I’d watch it again, and if you get the chance, give it a try. You can do a lot worse than seeing Mitchum and Russell go at it again!

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