Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)

(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t used to seeing at the local bijou. Lewis, aided and abetted by cinematographer John Alton , uses that script as a springboard for some darkly dazzling visuals; the opening scene alone, with a young girl being chased down a dark alley by two menacing thugs, finds Lewis and Alton showing off their talents. The film moves at lightning speed, a pedal-to-the-metal noir that doesn’t let up until the chilling conclusion inside an airplane hangar.

Cornel Wilde  is the obsessed police detective determined to put an end to Mr. Brown’s reign of terror. Wilde had started his own production company along with his wife Jean Wallace (who plays Brown’s moll Susan), and this was their first release. Wallace does fair work in the part, though her performance is eclipsed by the rest of the cast. THE BIG COMBO got them off to a slam-bang start, and their next production, STORM FEAR, found Wilde in the director’s chair for the first time, a seat he would take again for films like THE NAKED PREY, BEACH RED, and NO BLADE OF GRASS.

Mr. Brown wasn’t Richard Conte’s first gangster role, nor would it be his last, but it may very well be his best. Mr. Brown is a smug cocksure sadist, deriding Wilde’s Lt. Diamond every chance he gets (“Book me, small change”, he sneers, referencing the cop’s low-wage job), and his staccato line delivery aids the film’s breakneck pace. Brian Donlevy , no stranger to gangster parts himself, plays his second-in-command McClure, once a big shot, now reduced to flunky status. Donlevy was one of noir’s greatest character actors, and his McClure adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. Helen Walker , in her final screen role, plays the mysterious “Alicia”; to say more about the character would spoil the film, and I want you to see it for yourselves! Suffice it to say Miss Walker gives a bravura career finale.

Many modern critics see ‘gay subtext’ everywhere they look in older films; most of the time it’s something that’s not really there. But the characters of Brown’s hit men Fante and Mingo are without question “more than just friends” in this one. It isn’t anything overt, but Yordan’s script subtly suggests these two psychcopaths are homosexual lovers, and the performances of screen tough guys Lee Van Cleef (Fante) and Earl Holliman (Mingo) leave no doubt in my mind about their off-duty relationship. They don’t flaunt their sexual persuasion or camp it up, but watching their nuanced performances, you just know there’s something beneath the surface. Kudos to both actors for giving these stone-cold killers a deeper shading.

THE BIG COMBO is a gripping crime drama in every way, and a fitting end to Lewis’s film noir body of work. It’s dark, sordid, and unsavory, and must-see for fans of the genre. Those who’ve never had the opportunity to watch it are missing a real treat – and since it’s in public domain, I’ll give you that opportunity right now! Consider it my “Happy Noir Year” present to you and enjoy!:

New Recipe: HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI (AIP 1965)

HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, the sixth entry in American-International’s “Beach Party” series, attempts to breathe new life into the tried-and-true  formula of sun, sand, surf, songs, and corny jokes. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are still around as Frankie and Dee Dee, but in this go-round they’re separated; he’s in the Navy stationed on the tropical island of Goona-Goona, while Annette has to contend with the romantic enticements of Dwayne Hickman .

Frankie’s part amounts to a cameo, enlisting local witch doctor Buster Keaton (!!) to keep those girl-hungry beach bums away from Dee Dee (while he frolics unfettered with lovely Irene Tsu !). Keaton’s magic ain’t what it used to be, so he has his daughter conjure up a knockout named Cassandra, who first appears on the beach as an animated bikini. All the boys go ga-ga for Cassandra, including a go-go ad man named Peachy Keane, who wants to promote her and Hickman as the ‘Boy and Girl Next Door’ in a series of ads for a motorcycle. And where there’s “sicles”, there’s Erich Von Zipper, who “adores” the stunning Cassandra and wants to enter the cross-country motorcycle race with her against Hickman and Dee Dee to win the coveted ‘Boy and Girl Next Door’ titles… even going as far as changing his image from black leather clad hood to button-down Madison Avenue man!

The movie’s a mash-up of beach party silliness and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, playing more like a traditional musical instead of a rock’n’roll dance party. In fact, the only rock ‘guest act’ in this one are The Kingsmen (of “Louie, Louie” fame), who get one song during a nightclub scene. Substantial time is given to the Madison Avenue Madmen, led by Mickey Rooney as Peachy, who mugs his way through the part in his own inimitable style, and even gets to sing a couple of numbers. Rooney’s boss is veteran Brian Donlevy as B.D. “Big Deal” McPherson, getting a chance to play a comic role for a change, and he’s fun to watch. Harvey Lembeck does his own mugging once again as Von Zipper, while comedian Len Lesser replaces Timothy Carey as ‘North Dakota Slim’s’ even meaner brother, ‘South Dakota Pete’.

Annette’s more covered up than usual, due to the fact she was pregnant during the film’s shoot. The producers got pretty creative hiding her bulge, even using a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at one point – how’s that for product placement! Beverly Adams , the future Mrs. Vidal Sassoon, makes a sexy (if extremely klutzy) Cassandra. Regulars Bobbi Shaw (as Keaton’s assistant Khola Koku), Alberta Nelson, Andy Romano, Michael Nader, and Marianne Gaba are on hand, and reportedly Beach Boy Brian Wilson is in the movie as… well, a beach boy! And there’s a cameo appearance at the end by everyone’s favorite TV witch as Keaton’s daughter:

Yep, Elizabeth Montgomery, star of BEWITCHED and then-wife of director William Asher! The slapstick cross-country race shows signs of Keaton’s handiwork; alas, this was his last in the franchise. The formula had worn pretty thin by this point, and the next ‘Beach’ movie, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, didn’t even feature Frankie and Annette, and is a disappointing end to the series. HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI is a game try to resuscitate the franchise, but failed to keep the ‘Beach Party’ money machine running.  Frankie and Annette went on to star in a racing drama, 1966’s FIREBALL 500, but fans would have to wait thirty years to see them get back to the beach… in 1987’s aptly titled BACK TO THE BEACH!

Fool’s Gold: BARBARY COAST (United Artists 1935)

BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her, dubbing her Swan and putting her to work at his crooked roulette wheel. Some of the townsfolk, including newly arrived newspaper editor Col. Cobb, aren’t happy living under Chandalis’s thumb, but his gang of cutthroats and murders prove to be too much to handle.

When Cobb prints a story detailing Chandalis’s misdeeds, the crooked town boss threatens him, only to be saved by his friend Swan. The upset Swan rides out, getting caught in a rainstorm, and stumbles upon the cabin of young miner Jim Charmichael, who speaks with a poet’s soul. When the insanely jealous Chandalis hears Swan was seen with another man, he threatens to find out who it was and kill him. Of course, Jim comes to Frisco, promptly losing his gold at Swan’s crooked roulette wheel, and has to work for Chandalis, who puts two and two together and goes after Jim, just as the fed-up townspeople unite for some vigilante justice of their own.

Sure, it’s melodramatic as hell, but Hawks and his excellent cast kept me glued to the screen. Miriam Hopkins (Swan) is one tough cookie at first, caring only for gold and the finer things in life. The tough cookie begins to crumble though when she meets Jim, and allows Miriam to engage in some dramatically weepy histrionics. Edward G. Robinson (Chandalis), despite his puffy ruffled shirts and dangling earring, is basically doing a variation on his gangster parts (“You work at the table, see”) – which isn’t a bad thing! Handsome he-man Joel McCrea (Jim) and his easygoing charm certainly fills the bill as Miriam’s poetry spouting romantic interest.

The supporting cast includes then 41-year-old Walter Brennan as the cantankerous old coot Old Atrocity, Brian Donlevy in one of his patented bloodthirsty henchman roles, Frank Craven as the crusading editor, and Harry Carey Sr. as leader of the vigilantes. Other Familiar Faces in smaller parts are Herman Bing, Clyde Cook, Ed Gargan, J.M. Kerrigan, Frank McHugh , Donald Meek, football legend Jim Thorpe, and Hank Worden . An uncredited David Niven appears early as a drunken sailor getting thrown out of Robinson’s saloon. Veteran cinematographer Ray June, whose career stretched all the at back to 1915, perfectly captures the mise en scene Hawks wanted. June’s work can be seen in such diverse films as HORSE FEATHERS, TREASURE ISLAND, CHINA SEAS , STRIKE UP THE BAND, H.M. PULHAM ESQ., A SOUTHERN YANKEE, THE COURT JESTER, FUNNY FACE, and his final feature HOUSEBOAT.

All this is set to a sweeping Alfred Newman score that features cues from old-time favorites like “Oh Susanna” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. BARBARY COAST is a fun film, full of romance, action, and humor, made by a cast and crew of professionals who knew what they were doing, and did it well. I’ll hold off on calling it a classic, however; now, if it had been made in the Pre-Code era, with just a tad more spice…      

 

Strange Bedfellows: THE GLASS KEY (Paramount 1942)

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Anyone who watches television, reads a newspaper, or surfs the Internet today knows the axiom “Politics is a dirty business” is dead on point. The mudslinging and brickbats are being tossed at record rates, and it just keeps escalating. Here at Cracked Rear Viewer, we’re just plain tired of all the nonsense. Ah, for the old days, when politics was much more genteel and civil, right? Wrong! Politics has always been a dirty business, proving another old adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun”. Case in point: the 1942 film THE GLASS KEY.

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The story’s based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and was filmed once before in 1935 with George Raft, Edward Arnold, and Claire Dodd. In this version, Paramount chose to star their red-hot team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, fresh off their hit THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Brian Donlevy takes the Arnold role as Paul Madvig, a shady political boss who came up from the streets to become a powerful kingmaker. Madvig throws his support to reform candidate Ralph Henry, mainly because he’s got the hots for Henry’s daughter Janet. Madvig’s second-in-command Ed Beaumont doesn’t trust her, as she’s been making the goo-goo eyes at him.

Henry’s son Taylor is a young wastrel with a gambling habit who’s in deep to gangster Nick Varna. Varna’s backing another candidate, and he and Madvig are at odds (at one point Madvig calls him “a pop-eyed spaghetti bender”). Taylor’s been dating Madvig’s sister Opal, and Ed warns her to steer clear of him. Soon Taylor’s found murdered, and Madvig’s the #1 suspect. The local newspaper (in Varna’s pocket) is splattering Madvig’s name all across the headlines (Aside: I love it when the newsboy screams, “Extry! Extry! Read all about it!”).

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Soon Janet asks for Ed’s help in solving her brother’s murder. Varna sends for Ed and offers him a stake in his gambling joint in exchange for dirt on Madvig. He tells Ed he’s got a sworn affidavit from an eyewitness, but Ed turns the gangster down flat, causing Varna to sic his brutal henchman Jeff on him. Ed’s locked in a room as Jeff continuously beats the shit out of him, trying to “persuade” him. Ed escapes by setting fire to a mattress and lands in the hospital.

Madvig and Janet visit Ed there, and reveal they’re now engaged, though Janet’s still hot for Ed. When he leaves the hospital, Ed goes to the Pine Lake home of publisher Matthews, finding Varna and his hoods there as well. Ed figures it all out, and the publisher commits suicide, leaving a note behind. Ed grabs the note and puts the kibosh on the story. The so-called “witness” is gunned down by Varna’s men, then Madvig astounds Ed by telling him he really did kill Taylor! Madvig’s indicted, and Ed tracks Jeff down at a seedy bar. The hulking brute is drunk, and plans on more fun and games with Ed. Varna arrives, Jeff spills the beans that he killed the witness, Varna pulls a gun, Jeff strangles him, and the real murderer is finally revealed (no, I won’t tell you who it is!). Ed and Janet leave for a new life in New York, with Madvig’s blessings.

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The dense story, a Hammett trademark, is adapted well by screenwriter Joanthan Latimer, no slouch himself in the hardboiled department. Latimer covered the Chicago crime beat during the heyday of Al Capone, then began writing novels featuring tough PI William Crane, three of which were filmed as part of Universal’s “Crime Club” series. Latimer also wrote the scripts for the noir’s NOCTURNE, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, and over thirty episodes of the TV classic PERRY MASON.

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Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake had an onscreen electricity between them, a red-hot sexual chemistry that wasn’t topped until Bogie & Bacall. Of the seven films they appeared in together, three (THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY, THE BLUE DAHLIA) are bona-fide film noir classics. Ladd, who’d kicked around Hollywood for years, became a major star in films like SHANE and THE GREAT GATSBY. Veronica Lake, whose “peek-a-boo” hairstyle became a 40’s fad, wasn’t so lucky. A troubled soul diagnosed with schizophrenia, Lake turned to alcohol for relief, and by the early 60’s was working as a bartender in New York City. Her final film was the Grade-Z FLESH FEAST, in which she played a Nazi mad scientist. The beautiful Miss Lake died from complications of cirrhosis in 1973.

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Always reliable Brian Donlevy is at his sleazy best as Madvig. I like Donlevy much more when he plays villainous roles, and though Madvig’s not exactly a villain here, he definitely is a political slimeball. Joseph Calleia (Varna) was one of Hollywood’s great gangster types; he’s got a face made for wanted posters! The sadistic Jeff is brutish William Bendix  , and he’s one scary dude. Jeff is supposedly homosexual, but I see him more as a sadistic animal who gets off on inflicting pain no matter who it is. It’s a good performance any way you look at it, and a far cry from Bendix’s later success as a likeable lug on early TV’s THE LIFE OF RILEY. Bonita Granville (Opal, also called ‘Snip’) was just graduating from juvenile leads (as in the popular Nancy Drew films) to more mature roles. The doomed Taylor is Richard Denning, years before his days as a sci-fi hero (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE BLACK SCORPION ). Some other Familiar Faces of note here are Donald McBride (as the dishonest DA), Frances Gifford (a lovely sight to behold!), Moroni Olsen, Dane Clark, Billy Benedict, and Three Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent in a small role as a bartender.

Director Stuart Heisler graduated from the editing room, and does a great job handling the film. Would that I could say more about him, but he was mainly relegated to undistinguished ‘B’ pictures with a few exceptions (ALONG CAME JONES, SMASH-UP THE STORY OF A WOMAN) before ending his career in television. Given some bigger productions and we could be talking about Heisler as a major director, but it just wasn’t to be. That’s a shame, because THE GLASS KEY is a fine example of noir filmmaking, and a film everyone should see during this crazy political season. There’s just as much shady shit going on here as there is today on both sides of the aisle. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Saddle Sore: BILLY THE KID (MGM 1941)

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What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? Perennial bad guy Brian Donlevy is on the side of the law, loveable Gene Lockhart is the villain, and almost 30 Robert Taylor is BILLY THE KID. This 1941 Technicolor horse opera has only a passing resemblance to reality, and was actually a remake of a 1930 film starring Wallace Beery and Johnny Mack Brown, which depicted the outlaw’s legend a bit more truthfully… but not much!

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In this version, Billy joins up with ruthless cattleman Hickey, who’s out to takeover Lincoln County. They start a stampede of rival Keating’s cattle, and during the commotion Billy encounters childhood friend Jim Sherwood, now working for Keating. Billy and his pal Pedro switch sides, and Pedro takes a bullet for it. The Kid is out for revenge, but Keating’s cooler head prevails, and he sets out to seek help from the territorial governor.

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But Keating doesn’t make it, as we see the familiar trope of his empty horse returning to the ranch. Hickey tries to make it look like Keating was killed escaping the law, but the hotheaded Billy ain’t a-buying it. He, Jim, and the Keating hands ride into town, but when kill-crazy Billy goes too far, Jim has him locked up while he negotiates with Hickey. Billy escapes of course, and hunts down the men responsible for Keating’s death. Jim and Hickey corral Billy, who shoots the bad hombre in the back. Billy and Jim have a final showdown, which Billy loses on purpose by drawing with his right hand instead of his usual left.

Yeah, that’s the whole shootin’ match in a nutshell, pardner. You might recognize some of the Monument Valley locations, but you’ll notice the painfully obvious matte shots more. The color cinematography was Oscar nominated, but lost to THE BLACK SWAN. Director David Miller’s no John Ford either; he had an uneven career, his best film being 1962’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, an existential tale of a cowboy at odds with modern society starring Kirk Douglas.

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Robert Taylor is stoic and tight-lipped as Billy, and not in a Gary Cooper way. Taylor was a handsome hunk who made the girls swoon, but not a great actor by any measure. He had a long film career based on his looks, though I can’t think of any movies he really stands out in. Brian Donlevy was better cast as a slimy villain in Westerns like UNION PACIFIC, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, and THE VIRGINIAN; as a hero he’s only so-so here. It’s jarring to see Gene Lockhart as the baddie after having so much sympathy for him in 1938’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL , where he played Bob Cratchit. Lockhart is one of those character actors who’s good in whatever role he did, one of my favorites being the weasely sheriff in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

"Even a man who's pure of heart, and says his prayers by night..."
“Even a man who’s pure of heart, and says his prayers by night…”

Let’s not forget the Familiar Face Brigade, and this movie’s loaded with them. Lon Chaney Jr is one of Keating’s henchmen, just before turning into THE WOLF MAN that same year. Ian Hunter (Keating) was King Richard in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and the long-lost dad in Shirley Temple’s THE LITTLE PRINCESS. Every cowboy movie’s gotta have an ingénue, and undistinguished MGM starlet Mary Howard fills the bill here. Thar’s plenty of sagebrush vets filling out the rest of the cast, including Olive Blakeney, Dick Curtis, Arthur Housman, Cy Kendall, Henry O’Neill, Kermit Maynard, Frank Puglia, Chill Wills, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Grant Withers.

BILLY THE KID strives to be a thrilling action epic, but falls far short of the mark. It has more in common with Saturday matinee B-Westerns than John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille. The casting leaves a lot to be desired, especially with stiff Taylor in the title role. Speaking of which, why did they even bother to use the real William Bonney as the protagonist in this unfactual flick? Why not GEORGE THE KID, or SIX-GUN STEVE, or even A BOY NAMED STU? If you want Billy the Kid, you’re better off catching Paul Newman in THE LEFT HANDED GUN or Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.