B-Girls and B-Movies: CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1957)

CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL is just a routine ‘B’ crime drama, one of many churned out in the 50’s. Yet the performances of stars Brian Keith Beverly Garland , and an above-average supporting cast helped elevate the by-the-numbers material into something watchable. It’s those Familiar Faces we all know and love from countless movies that made CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL work for me.

The story revolves around racketeers muscling in on the Worker’s National Union so they can bring their “numbers rackets and ‘B’ girls” to the city. Politically ambitious State’s Attorney Jim Fremont is dead set on busting them up, and when the union’s treasurer is murdered, the finger of suspicion is pointed at honest Union President Artie Blane. Blane’s been framed by his rival, VP Ken Harrison, who takes his orders from “disbarred attorney” Alan Dixon, “one of the masterminds of the old Capone gang”. Blane is brought to trial and, thanks to some chicanery by an “old derelict” with the improbable name of Candymouth Duggan and a dummied-up tape recorder, is convicted of murder in the first degree.

Blane’s fiancée Laura Barton just won’t let the case go; she knows Blane was with her the night of the killing and is determined to prove his innocence. When the tape recording of Blane’s voice is found to be bogus, the case is reopened. Candymouth gets iced by Harrison’s “goons, and a nightclub impressionist named Kerry Jordan is also rubbed out. Fremont tracks down Laura’s former neighbor Sylvia, now living at a clip joint run by the mob called the Shanghai Low. He takes a brutal beating from the goons, and Laura and Sylvia are about to be shanghaied themselves on a plane bound for the Philippines before the cops come to rescue, getting into a car chase with the gangsters (“They’re gaining on us!”, one goon exclaims), and a shootout that leaves the three racketeers dead, but not before Harrison confesses everything and Dixon gets busted, putting an end to their reign of terror.

Brian Keith exhibits his natural ease before the cameras as Fremont. The actor had good parts in THE VIOLENT MEN, 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE, and THE PARENT TRAP, but that one role that would’ve put him on top always eluded him. Keith fared better on the small screen, starring in Sam Peckinpah’s seminal THE WESTERNER, the popular but saccharine sitcom FAMILY AFFAIR, and the comedy-actioner HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMICK. He became a respected character actor in the 70’s and 80’s with films like THE WIND AND THE LION (as Teddy Roosevelt), THE MOUNTAIN MEN, and SHARKEY’S MACHINE.

Beverly Garland (Laura) was the 1950”s Queen of the ‘B’ Girls (as in ‘B’ movies, not the other kind!), a fan favorite for her quickies with Roger Corman (SWAMP WOMEN, GUNSLINGER, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, NOT OFTHIS EARTH) and the silly horror THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE.  Bev really puts her all into the role, like she’s auditioning for juicier parts. It didn’t happen, but she certainly proves here she’s not just another pretty face, and later did get some good roles in both PRETTY POISON and AIRPORT 1975.

A slew of Familiar Faces appear in the movie, starting with former Universal leading man Dick Foran (THE MUMMY’S HAND, RIDE ‘EM COWBOY ) as the wronged Blane. Our favorite weasel Elisha Cook Jr.   does his usual fine job as the rum-soaked “old derelict” Candymouth. Character actor Douglas Kennedy is the crooked Harrison, ex-Garbo costar Gavin Gordon plays Dixon, sexy Beverly Tyler (VOODOO ISLAND, TOUGHEST MAN IN TOMBSTONE) is Sylvia, and the two goons are pretty-boy Anthony George (TV’s CHECKMATE, DARK SHADOWS) and mean-mugged noir vet Jack Lambert . Not to mention SUPERMAN’S Phyllis Coates as Keith’s wife and John Hamilton as the defense attorney.

Sidney Salkow isn’t given much to work with in either script or budget, but he guides his players along smoothly. You won’t find CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL on any “best-of” or “Top Ten” lists, but for fans of well acted ‘B’s and Familiar Face spotters it’s an enjoyable way to spend 75 minutes of your time.

 

 

 

 

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)

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American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

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Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood Karl Malden Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired of the formula and its various permutations, leaving METEOR to crumble like so much space dust.

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A brief summary: former NASA scientist Paul Bradley (Connery), creator of America’s secret nuclear missile defense satellite Hercules, is plucked from his yacht race and brought back into service by ex-boss Harry Sherwood (Malden). A wayward comet has struck the asteroid belt, and now the aforementioned five-mile-wide meteor (nicknamed Orpheus) threatens good ol’ Mother Earth. The President (Fonda) holds a televised speech admitting they have the nuclear satellite, and asks for Russia’s cooperation, knowing they too have one (code name Peter The Great). The Ruskies send scientist Dr. Dubov (Keith) and his astrophysicist interpreter Tatiana (Wood) to help, much to the chagrin of commie-hating General Adlan (Landau). Now that the two superpowers have joined together, can they put aside their differences and turn their respective missiles at Orpheus instead of each other in time to avert a global catastrophe?

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It’s not exciting as it may sound. Connery looks bored, Malden and Landau overact, and Fonda’s obviously only there for the paycheck. Only Keith and Wood seem engaged in the material, though Trevor Howard does okay in his tiny role as a British astronomer. Besides the big names, there are other, lesser Familiar Faces in lesser roles: Joseph Campanella, Richard Dysart, Bibi Besch, Sybil Danning, Gregory Gaye, Clyde Kusatsu, newscaster Clete Roberts, and Uncle Walt’s nephew Roy Disney (wait… how’d he get in here??). They even got THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE’s Ronald Neame to direct, hoping to capture some of that movie’s popularity. Didn’t work- the new film was nowhere near that early disaster classic in terms of character development, script, or excitement.

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The special effects scenes are good, not great. There’s a tsunami in Hong Kong, an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, and a meteor fragment that destroys a large swath of New York City. There are some unintentionally funny moments, like watching Connery and Malden slog through a muddy flood in a subway tunnel, Malden’s comb-over flopping down his shoulder. We get ominous music every time Orpheus appears onscreen, kind of like when “Bruce” shows up in JAWS. It’s all silly and overwrought, and by the next year AIP founder Samuel Arkoff, his big-budget gambles all gone sour, sold the company to Filmways, which was later bought out by Orion, which in turn was sold to MGM, who now own the rights to the AIP catalog. Old Sam should’ve stuck with beach parties and monster movies.

First Shot Fired: THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (Pathe’-America 1961)

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Maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah got his start in television, writing and directing for Westerns such as GUNSMOKE, THE RIFLEMAN, and HAVE GUN- WILL TRAVEL. In 1959, he created the series THE WESTERNER, starring Brian Keith as a drifter named Dave Blassingame, noted for its extreme (for the time) violence. When Keith was cast as the lead in THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, he suggested his friend Peckinpah as director. This was Peckinpah’s first feature film, and the result is a flawed but interesting film which has brief flourishes of the style he later perfected in THE WILD BUNCH and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

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Keith is again a drifter, this time an ex-Union soldier known only as Yellowleg. He hooks up with a pair of Southern outlaws and they ride to Hila City to rob the bank. They get sidetracked at the saloon when it converts into a church service. Next thing you know, some robbers beat them to the punch in robbing the bank, leading to a shootout. Yellowleg accidentally kills the young son of redheaded dance hall girl Kit, played by none other than Maureen O’Hara (whose brother Charles Fitzsimons was the film’s producer).

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Kit is determined to bury her son in Siringo, located across hostile Apache territory. Yellowleg, feeling guilty, offers to help, but is spurned by Kit. Nevertheless, he and his companions Billy and Turkey, follow along. Billy, who noticed Kit at the barroom sermon, has sexual designs on Kit, who wants no part of him. Yellowleg catches Billy in a rape attempt and, after a fight, sends him away. Turkey, who’s not right in the head, goes with his pal, and Yellowleg and Kit are left to cross the desert alone, battling the heat, the Apaches, and each other.

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Peckinpah plays on his theme of misfits banded together, working from A.S. Fleischman’s screenplay (based on his own novel). Yellowleg has a bum arm, and never takes his hat off, hiding a deep, dark secret. A Rebel soldier once attempted to scalp him, and revenge has fueled him for the past five years. Kit, a prostitute with a bastard son, has been ostracized by the women of Hila City. The only thing she ever truly loved was the boy, now shot dead by Yellowleg. Billy (Steve Cochran) is a good-looking man with a lustful dark side. Chill Wills turns in the best performance as Turkey, an unrepentant criminal who dreams of setting up his own little empire. He’s crazier than a loon, and twice as dangerous. It doesn’t take much to figure out it was Turkey who attempted to scalp Yellowleg during the Civil War.

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The trademark Peckinpah violence is there, not nearly as gory as what was to come, but probably shocking for 1961. The movie’s Arizona locations are vividly filmed by DP William Clothier , noted for his work with John Wayne and John Ford, together and separately. The problem laid in a choppy script, which slowed the film down. Peckinpah demanded script control from then on, and his next film, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, proved him right. It’s now considered a Western classic, while many critics dismiss THE DEADLY COMPANIONS. It’s worth watching for a look at what the director could accomplish on a low-budget. The four lead actor’s all shine (Maureen even sings the film’s mournful title song!), and Strother Martin and Will Wright offer strong support in minor roles. THE DEADLY COMPANIONS doesn’t get much recognition, but for fans of Sam Peckinpah, it’s required viewing to see the beginning of a controversial but brilliant career.

 

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