Give The Devil His Due: Hugo Haas’s BAIT (Columbia 1954)

Every Tuesday during the month of “Noirvember”, I’ll be spotlighting some dark genre gems. Enjoy wandering down the crooked path of film noir!

Welcome to the world of Hugo Haas, King of Low-Budget 50’s Film Noir. I’d heard about producer/director/writer/actor Haas’s films for years through Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide, usually accompanied by a *1/2 to ** (or less!) rating. Of course, being a connoisseur of bad cinema, I was interested, but it wasn’t until recently I viewed my first Hugo Haas epic, 1954’s BAIT, starring Hugo’s screen muse Cleo Moore, who was featured in seven of the  maestro’s movies.

BAIT starts with a unique introduction (and some nice camerawork from DP Eddie Fitzgerald), as an elegantly dressed Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays The Devil Himself delivering a monologue expounding on his evil machinations. Then we get into the story itself (written by Samuel W. Taylor, with “additional dialog” by Haas): Young Ray Brighton meets older Serbian gypsy Marko at a local diner; the two have a deal to find a lost gold mine. The proprietor warns Ray that Marko’s “a lunatic”, with rumors he killed his last partner. Stopping at the general store for supplies, they encounter the beautiful but hardened young Peggy scrubbing floors. Ray’s attracted, but Marko warns him off (“She’s no good, got a baby already and is never married”).

The pair head for the rugged mountain terrain, and Peggy shows up to deliver supplies. Ray tries flirting, but again Marko warns him off (“The devil sent her to stir up your blood and make trouble”). The men stumble onto the lost mine, and gold fever strikes both inside their heads – and souls! The Devil whispers inside Marko’s ear, giving him an idea to get rid of Ray… by marrying Peggy and bringing her to the cabin, hoping to stir their loins so Marko will have an excuse to kill them both and keep the gold for himself…

Okay, it’s not the greatest of noirs ever made, and is hampered by the ultra-low budget, but it did manage to hold my interest. Haas, Cleo, and John Agar form the eternal triangle, with Agar beginning his downward career slide because of his drinking and an acrimonious divorce from America’s Sweetheart, Shirley Temple. Haas, who fled Europe after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, had become a character actor in America, co-starring in films like DAKOTA, NORTHWEST OUTPOST, THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN, and KING SOLOMON’S MINES before becoming the Orson Welles of ‘B’ noir, making tawdry little tales of men enticed by femme fatales. BAIT shows brief  flashes of good filmmaking, but again the budget holds it back from becoming anything more than a second-feature programmer.

B-Movie Bad Girl Cleo Moore was once married to Louisiana Gov. Huey Long’s son (for six whole weeks!) before coming to Hollywood. Cleo had roles in the serial CONGO BILL and some Tim Holt Westerns before getting noticed in a small role in Nicholas Ray’s ON DANGEROUS GROUND. Signed by Columbia as an answer to Fox’s Marilyn Monroe (only with a much harder edge), she became the low-budget Dietrich to Hass’s Von Sternberg , appearing in the auteur’s STRANGE FASCINATION, ONE GIRL’S CONFESSION, THY NEIGHBOR’S WIFE, THE OTHER WOMAN, HOLD BACK TOMORROW, and HIT AND RUN. Cleo never quite hit it big, but a cult has formed around her B-film performances. She left the screen to become a success in real estate and a Beverly Hills socialite before dying of a heart attack in 1973.

My take on Hugo Haas after viewing BAIT? The film was certainly competent enough to hold my interest; I’ve sat through much, much worse. I’m not going to go as far as saying this is a great movie, but it’s good for what it is, and I’d watch other Haas films on that basis alone. He may not be a Ford or Welles, but he’s no Ed Wood , either. And I like Ed. As for Cleo Moore, the scene where she licks that cigarette paper alone is enough to make me want more!!

No Surprises Here: GUN FURY (Columbia 1953)

I watched GUN FURY expecting a surprise. What I got instead was a routine Western, not bad for its type, bolstered by a better-than-average cast, solid direction from veteran Raoul Walsh , and some lavish Technicolor location footage from Sedona, AZ. But I kept waiting and waiting for that “surprise” that never came. What am I talking about? Read on and find out, buckeroos!

Ben Warren, a peaceful Civil War vet, meets his intended bride Jennifer Ballard at the stagecoach station. The two lovebirds intend to travel to the next stop and get hitched. Also onboard the stage is mean desperado Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed Southerner” feared across the territory, and his partner-in-crime Jess Burgess. Frank’s gang, disguised as Cavalry soldiers, lie in wait and rob the stage of it’s shipment of gold, stealing the loot killing everyone except Jennifer, who Frank has designs on and kidnaps.

But wait! Ben’s still alive, and he saddles up to search for his missing fiancé. Jess, who disapproves of Frank’s lecherous lust for Jennifer, is tied up to a fencepost by the gang and left for the buzzards. Along comes Ben, who frees Jess from his bondage, and the pair form an alliance to find Frank and his gang, Ben to rescue his true love, and Jess to settle the score with Frank…

Yup, it’s a chase Western, with the novelty of being a 3D release, which must’ve looked cool at the time, but falls flat when watching on the TV screen. The saving grace here is the impressive cast, with young Rock Hudson starring as the intense, earnest Ben, on a quest to save his ladylove. She’s played by Donna Reed , who makes for a pretty woman-in-peril (and would win the Oscar that same year for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY). Phil Carey gives a good performance as bad hombre Frank, and Leo Gordon does a fine job as Jess. Lee Marvin and Neville Brand play members of Frank’s gang, and Roberta Haynes tries hard as Frank’s Mexican squeeze Estella.

Director Walsh was responsible for some macho screen classics (WHAT PRICE GLORY, THE ROARING TWENTIES , HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT ), but unfortunately GUN FURY isn’t one of them. Like I said, it’s okay for what it is, it’s just not up to Walsh’s usual high standards. The screenplay was co-written by novelist Irving Wallace, whose books THE CHAPMAN REPORT, THE MAN, and THE SEVEN MINUTES were made into films, and Roy Huggins, who later created such TV hits as MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE FUGITIVE, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. The Sedonia scenery is gorgeous to look at in Technicolor, and Mischa Bakalieinikoff’s music is appropriately rousing.

I recorded GUN FURY off The Sony Channel a while back because under the “Cast and Crew” listing on my DVR was a name towards the bottom that made me want to see the film. It simply stated “James Cagney as The Villain”! Though I couldn’t find any other information, I figured the great Cagney might have done a cameo as a favor to his friend Walsh. So I sat and waited… and waited… and waited, right up until the very end. Cagney was nowhere to be found!! At least, I couldn’t find him! Why he was listed in the first place, I have no idea. So if you choose to watch GUN FURY, don’t expect any “surprise” appearance from Jimmy. Just make yourself some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy an average Western with an above-average cast.

Happy Birthday Charles Bronson!: THE STONE KILLER (Columbia 1973)

Charles Buchinsky was born November 3, 1921 in the coal-country town of Ehrenfield, PA to a Lithuanian immigrant father and second-generation mother. He didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teen, and joined the Air Force at age 23, serving honorably in WWII. Returning home, young Charles was bitten by the acting bug and made his way to Hollywood, changing his last name to ‘Bronson’ in the early fifties. Charles Bronson spent decades toiling in supporting parts before becoming a name-above-the-title star in Europe.

By the 1970’s, Bronson had begun his long run as an action star. THE STONE KILLER capitalizes on the popularity of Cop and Mafia movies of the era, with Our Man Bronson as Lou Torrey, a Dirty Harry-type who shoots first and asks questions later. After he kills a 17-year-old gunman in the pre-credits opening, Torrey is raked over the coals by the New York City press, and decides to accept a job with the LAPD. Two years pass, and we find Torrey making a heroin bust on a crook named Armitage, who he knows from the past. Armitage has a murder warrant out for his arrest in NYC, and Torrey has to escort him back to The Big Apple. The crook is gunned down at the airport, and a string of gangland-related killings occurs, as Torrey tries to connect the dots, leading him to a vengeful Mafia Don, a crew of Vietnam Vet mercenaries, violence, shootings, bloodshed, car crashes, and other fun stuff!

If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best, and THE STONE KILLER is loaded with echoes of DIRTY HARRY and THE GODFATHER. Bronson’s at his best as the tough cop Torrey, whether he’s beating up a perp or spouting a quick quip (“The FBI can piss in its collective ear” is my favorite Bronsonism here!). There are a couple of in-jokes referencing Bronson’s coal-country roots, and I particularly enjoyed the amusingly weird scene set at an Ashram, where Bronson interrogates hippie chick Kelly Miles – it seems so out-of-place among all the carnage! This was his third film with director Michael Winner (CHATO’S LAND, THE MECHANIC ), and the duo’s DEATH WISH was looming on the horizon, which put Bronson over the top as an action star for good.

He’s surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors. Oscar winner Martin Balsam  plays Mafia chieftain Vescari, complete with Sicilian accent, out to settle an old score. Norman Fell plays Bronson’s boss Daniels (and Fell’s future THREE’S COMPANY costar John Ritter is a rookie cop!). Ralph Waite is the racist cop Mathews, David Sheiner’s Bronson’s old partner Guido, Stuart Margolin the mercenary Lawrence, and veteran Walter Burke stands out as a grass-dealing informant. Other Familiar Faces include Frank Campanella , Jack Colvin (THE INCREDIBLE HULK’s McGee), Robert Emhardt , Hoke Howell, Byron Morrow, Christina Raines, Angelo Rossitto , Alfred Ryder, and Charles Tyner .

THE STONE KILLER certainly fills the bill for Charles Bronson Action Flick junkies out there – and yes, I’m one of them! It’s got all the elements, including the obligatory car chase (only Charlie’s chasing down a suspect on a Honda – another good scene!), and moves swiftly thanks to Winner’s direction and Roy Budd’s pulse-pounding score. Happy birthday Mr. Bronson – we miss you!!


Smile When You Say That: Randolph Scott in BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (Columbia 1958)

The usually stoic Randolph Scott gets to show a sense of humor in BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, his fourth collaboration with director Budd Boetticher. The humor comes from Burt Kennedy’s script, who did an uncredited rewrite of Charles Lang’s original, foreshadowing his own, later comic Westerns. The result is a good (not great) little film that’s not up to other Scott/Boetticher teamings , but still a gun notch above average.

This one finds Scott as the title character, crossing the border from Mexico to the unfriendly Agry Town, where it seems everyone’s an Agry, and they don’t cotton to strangers. Buchanan just wants to make a pit stop on his way back to West Texas, get himself a nice steak, a bottle of whiskey, and a good night’s sleep. But he runs into trouble at the saloon with young Roy Agry, who is gunned down by Juan de la Vega. Apparently, Roy raped Juan’s sister over the border, and when Buchanan tries to defend Juan from a beating, both men are hauled off to Sheriff Lew Agry’s jail, then taken to be hung!

Judge Simon Agry (see, I told you they’re all Agrys!), father of Roy and brother of Lew and hotel proprietor Amos, comes along with his hired gun Abe Carbo (a non-Agry!) and stops the lynching, giving a speech about serving justice properly. The trial results in Buchanan getting off, but Juan guilty of murder. Simon’s got ulterior motives, though… Juan’s padre is rich Don Pedro de la Vega, and the judge thinks the Don will pay big bucks for his son’s release. Buchanan is ordered to get out of Dodge (er, Agry) by Lew, with two “escorts” to make sure he doesn’t come back – ever! One of these is young Pecos, a West Texan himself who saves Buchanan’s life. Now Buchanan heads back to the border town, wanting his gun belt (containing two thousand dollars in gold) back, while the feuding Agry brothers scheme against each other for Don Pedro’s fifty thousand dollar ransom…

BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE is based on the novel “The Name’s Buchanan” by William Robert Cox under the name Jonas Ward. Cox was a prolific writer of pulp magazine stories (ARGOSY, BLACK MASK, DIME WESTERN) and paperbacks, who also used the pseudonyms Willard d’Arcy, Mike Frederic, Joel Reeve, Roger G. Spellman, and probably a few others we don’t know about! The character of Buchanan was created by William Ard, and after Ard’s death Cox continued the paperback series under his Ward nom de plume. Cox also wrote for episodic TV (like WAGON TRAIN, G.E. THEATER, THE VIRGINIAN, THE OUTER LIMITS, BONANZA, and ADAM-12).

The cast consists of sagebrush vets like Tol Avery (Simon), Barry Kelley (Lew), and Peter Whitney (Amos) in another of his signature slow-witted roles. Craig Stevens , the future PETER GUNN, is all black-hatted, steely-eyed menace as Carbo. Others in the cast include Bob Anderson, Joe De Santis, Terry Frost, Roy Jensen, and a young L.Q. Jones as the West Texan Pecos. One thing missing from BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE is a love interest for Scott… maybe that’s why they changed the title from “The Name’s Buchanan”! It’s a minor but definitely watchable entry in the Scott/Boetticher series, and if you’re a fan like I am, you’ll enjoy seeing Randolph Scott able to crack a smile for a change!

Lonely As The Night: Randolph Scott in COMANCHE STATION (Columbia 1960)

COMANCHE STATION was the final entry in the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher/Burt Kennedy series of Westerns, and in many ways a fitting ending. The loneliness of the Westerner is again a key theme as the film begins with the solitary figure of Scott as Jefferson Cody, riding across that rocky, barren, now mighty familiar Lone Pine terrain. He bargains with hostile Comanches for a captive white woman named Nancy Lowe, wife of a wealthy rancher. Stopping at Comanche Station, Cody and Mrs. Lowe encounter three men being chased by the tribe.

We learn one of these men is Ben Lane, a bounty hunter who shares a dark past with Cody. The two were formerly in the Army together, where then-Major Cody busted Lane out of the service for the slaughter of a village of friendly Indians. We also learn Mrs. Lowe’s husband is offering a five thousand dollar reward for her return – dead or alive. The station manager returns, an arrow in his chest, telling Cody and company the stagecoach was turned back by renegade scalphunters before he dies, and now the four men and Mrs. Lowe must ride to Lordsburg on their own, with those scalphunters close behind. There’s plenty of action, danger, and drama along the way, as the renegades aren’t the only threat, and a surprise twist at the end.

Scott is stoic as Cody, a man whose wife was captured by Comanches ten years earlier, and has been searching for her ever since. His singlemindedness of purpose has led him to a life of bartering for the release of captive white women in hopes of finding her. He’s the eternal Wandering Cowboy, cursed by fate to search for his love, a search that has so far been in vain. Claude Akins as Lane is a smiling menace with an evil laugh who has ideas of his own about what to do with Mrs. Lane. Nancy Gates (SUDDENLY ) does good work here as Mrs. Lane, and the small cast also features Skip Homeier and Richard Rust as Lane’s accomplices.

There is some truly majestic camerawork here by Boetticher and his DP Charles Lawton Jr., the outdoor scenery becoming a character itself, filled with both beauty and terror. Boetticher went from here to direct the gangster drama THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND and some TV work (ZANE GREY THEATER, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, THE RIFLEMAN), but spent much of the decade working on a documentary about Mexican bullfighting legend Carlos Arruza , an obsession which consumed him and created much hardship for the director. It was finally released in 1972 to no great acclaim. Boetticher directed one other film, 1969’s A TIME FOR DYING (Audie Murphy’s swan song), wrote the story for TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, and made an appearance in the 1988 film TEQUILA SUNRISE before his death in 2008.

As for Randolph Scott, after a thirty-plus year career in films, the actor had one more film in him before settling into a comfortable retirement at the age of 64. It was another Western, by a new young director, delineating the contrast between the Old West and the New. The film was 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. The director? Sam Peckinpah.

Lonesome Cowboy: Randolph Scott in RIDE LONESOME (Columbia 1959)

Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher  teamed again for RIDE LONESOME, their sixth of seven Westerns and fourth with writer Burt Kennedy. Scott’s a hard case bounty hunter bringing in a killer, joined in his trek by an old “acquaintance” with an agenda of his own. Everyone’s playing things close to the vest here, and the stark naked desert of Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, with its vast emptiness, plays as big a part as the fine acting ensemble.

Ben Brigade (Scott) has captured the murderous Billy John and intends to bring him to justice in Santa Cruz. Coming to a waystation, he finds Sam Boone and his lanky young companion Whit, known outlaws who’ve heard the territorial governor is granting amnesty to whoever brings in Billy. Also at the station is Mrs. Crane, whose husband has been murdered by marauding Mescaleros. Sam’s interested in forming a partnership and taking Billy to the nearest town, but Brigade is determined to head to Santa Cruz “no matter what”, for reasons of his own. The five of them ride out, and get ambushed along the way by the Mescaleros. They manage to come out victorious, but more peril awaits, as Billy’s brother Frank and his crew are following their trail…

I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen this – and it’s must-see for Western buffs! Boetticher, a John Ford acolyte, frames his shots almost as well as The Master himself, and Lone Pine is his Monument Valley. Charles Lang’s camera captures the sense of isolation not only of the location, but of the players. The small cast all get to shine here, though most never went on to huge success in film. Pernell Roberts (Sam) became a star on television, first as eldest son Adam Cartwright in the first six seasons of BONANZA, then for seven years as TRAPPER JOHN, MD (1979-86). Karen Steele (Mrs. Crane) did four films for Boetticher (DECISION AT SUNDOWN, WESTBOUND, THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND, this one), but did better as a guest performer on episodic TV. James Best (Billy) supported many a Western, but didn’t achieve real stardom until playing goofy Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979-85).

The two actors that did obtain screen superstardom have very small parts in RIDE LONESOME. James Coburn made his movie debut as Whit, and though he’s a minor character, there are signs he’s an actor with a future. Coburn would make another Western that year (FACE OF A FUGITIVE), then score big in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN , go on to hits like THE GREAT ESCAPE and  OUR MAN FLINT, and eventually an Oscar for AFFLICTION. Lee Van Cleef (Frank) could be called “Lee Van Brief” for all the screen time he gets here. It wasn’t until he teamed with Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE that he became an overnight success after 13 years in films, and a Spaghetti Western icon in his own right.

RIDE LONESOME’s sparse cast and setting, along with Boetticher’s keen eye and the intense script by Kennedy, make this a most enjoyable Western, and  Randolph Scott’s portrayal of a man hell-bent on vengeance is the glue that holds it all together. Sometimes, smaller is better!

Well of Loneliness: Randolph Scott in THE TALL T (Columbia 1957)

I’ve told you Dear Readers before that Randolph Scott stands behind only John Wayne in my personal pantheon of great Western stars. Scott cut his cowboy teeth in a series of Zane Grey oaters at Paramount during the 1930’s, and rode tall in the saddle throughout the 40’s. By the mid-50’s, Scott and his  producing partner Harry Joe Brown teamed with director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy for seven outdoor sagas that were a notch above the average Westerns, beginning with SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. The second of these, THE TALL T, remains the best, featuring an outstanding supporting cast and breathtaking location cinematography by Charles Lang, Jr.

Scott plays Pat Brennen, a friendly sort trying to make a go of his own ranch. Pat, who comically lost his horse to his old boss in a wager over riding a bucking bull, hitches a ride with his pal Rintoon’s oncoming stagecoach. Rintoon’s passengers are newlywed spinster Doretta Mims, whose father owns the richest copper mine in the territory, and her spouse Willard, a worm who obviously married Doretta for her money. The coach pulls into the switching station run by Pat’s friend and his young boy. But neither are to be found… instead three bad hombres greet them, thinking the stage is carrying a payroll they intend to rob. Rintoon is gunned down, and Pat, Doretta, and Willard are doomed to be next, until the spineless Willard strikes a deal with the outlaws to have Doretta’s father pay a ransom….

There’s an undeniable theme of loneliness threaded throughout the film, beginning with Scott’s Pat Brennen. Though outwardly an affable man, Pat has a hard edge to him that begins to boil to the surface after he and Doretta are held hostage. He’s always been an independent loner, though more than once people tell him, “Ain’t right for a man to be alone”. Doretta too, not the most attractive woman, suffers from being alone, which is the reason she married the cowardly Willard Mims. Even outlaw leader Frank Usher feels isolated, and finds more of a bond with Pat than his younger, uneducated companeros. Boetticher’s direction emphasizes this loneliness under a vast blanket of blue Western sky and the beautiful but empty scenic location of California’s Pine Valley mountains and desert.

The supporting cast is small, again underscoring that feeling of isolation. Maureen O’Sullivan , best known as Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan, was semi-retired when she took the role of Doretta Mims. Miss O’Sullivan, a striking beauty, was glammed down for the part of the homely spinster, later blossoming toward film’s end. Richard Boone shows subtle depth of character as gang leader Usher while still conveying a menacing presence as a man not to be trifled with. His underlings are a pair of movie “bad hombres” indeed – Henry Silva and Skip Homeier . Arthur Hunnicut’s Rintoon seems a comic sidekick, which makes his death early on all the more shocking. John Hubbard as the craven Mims, who throws his own wife under the bus to save his miserable hide, elicits no sympathy when he gets what’s coming to him.

The Scott/Boetticher Westerns don’t have the flamboyance of, say, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone trilogy , or the historical importance of the John Wayne/John Ford collaborations . Instead, they’re all compact, well-made productions that have plenty to say about the human condition under the guise of the Western genre. THE TALL T stands tallest among them, and makes a good introduction to those who haven’t seen any of these classic Westerns before. Once you watch, you’ll be hungry for more.

 

 

Stop the Presses!: Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Columbia 1940)

In my opinion, Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY is one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made, a full speed ahead movie that’s pretty much got everything a film fan could want. A remake of the 1930 Lewis Milestone classic THE FRONT PAGE (itself an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway smash), Hawks adds a delightful twist by turning ace reporter Hildy Johnson into editor Walter Burns’ ex-wife… and casting no less than Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the roles!

The two stars are in top form as the bickering ex-spouses, with their rapid fire banter nothing short of verbal dynamite. Grant in particular spouts off words quicker than a rapper (where did he get all that wind!) and his facial expressions and comic squeals (reminiscent of Curly Howard!) are simply priceless! Roz is more than his match as Hildy, with one lightning-fast zinger  after another. Miss Russell stated in her autobiography she didn’t think her part was funny enough, so she hired a writer to craft some good quips for her  character. Hawks didn’t mind, and encouraged the pair to ad-lib at will!

There’s a lot to love for classic movie fans, including some laugh out loud in-jokes sure to leave you in stitches. Charles Lederer turns his screenplay from  the original 1930 version on its ear by changing Hildy’s gender, which in turn gives Ralph Bellamy a chance to shine as Hildy’s fiancé Bruce Baldwin, a boring insurance salesman from Albany. The contrast between high-octane, high-strung Grant and gullible bumpkin Bellamy is vast as the ocean, and Ralph’s just as funny as the two stars. The press room is packed with character actors like Cliff Edwards , Porter Hall , Frank Jenks, Roscoe Karns , Regis Toomey, and Ernest Truex, as big a bunch of reprobates as your likely to find. John Qualen plays the meek murderer Earl Williams, Gene Lockhart and Clarence Kolb represent the crooked political hacks determined to hang Williams, Abner Biberman essays Grant’s devious but dumb right-hand man, Alma Kruger is a scream playing Bellamy’s oh-so-proper mother, and veteran comic Billy Gilbert has a juicy bit as the governor’s messenger.

I’d like to single out Helen Mack here for her dramatic turn as the tortured, doomed prostitute Molly Malloy, whose kindness she showed to Earl Williams is exploited by the press hounds. Miss Mack, star of 1933’s SON OF KONG, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t get to play for laughs, instead giving an emotional performance as Molly, dogged by the newspaper reporters and sacrificing herself to save the now escaped and hidden Earl by doing a swan dive out the window. While everyone around her is in full comedy mode, she adds some gravitas to the proceedings. It must have been tough to keep a straight face amidst all that comedic talent, but Helen Mack pulls it off, and deserves some recognition for her efforts.

Hawks certainly keeps things moving with his fluid camerawork, bringing what could’ve been too stagey to roaring life. And yes, there’s that trademark overlapping dialog of his, with Grant and Russell constantly talking over each other during their exchanges. Hawks made some great films in virtually every genre, but of all his screwball comedies (TWENTIETH CENTURY, BRINGING UP BABY, BALL OF FIRE, I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE, MONKEY BUSINESS), I love HIS GIRL FRIDAY the best. It’s a sure-fire cure for the blues, a non-stop frolic of fun, and without question a screen classic you can’t afford to miss.

Dirty Boulevard: George C. Scott in HARDCORE (Columbia 1979)

Cracked Rear Viewer: “Back in the day….”

Dear Readers: (groaning) “There he goes again. Another history lesson!”

CRV: “B-but it’s important to put things in their proper historical context!”

DRs: (sigh) “We guess you’re right. Sorry.”

CRV: (beaming) “No problem! Now, like I was saying…”

Back in the day, every major urban city, and many smaller sized ones, had what was known as a “Red Light District”, where sex workers plied their trade. These streets were loaded with sex shops, peep shows, massage parlors, strip joints, and Triple-X movie palaces, with hookers and drug dealers hawking their wares. New York City had its Times Square/42nd Street area, Boston had The Combat Zone near Chinatown, and Montreal the infamous St. Catherine Street. For Los Angeles, the action was on Sunset Boulevard, and it’s into this seedy milieu that writer/director Paul Schrader plunges George C. Scott in 1979’s HARDCORE, which isn’t about sex so much as it is about relationships, both intrapersonal and with society at large,  and a father’s frantic search for his missing daughter.

Dear Readers: (giving the fish-eye) “Boston, huh. That’s your neck of the woods.”

CRV: “Hey, it was a long time ago. I was young, dumb, and full of c…curiosity!”

Scott plays Jake Van Dorn, a repressed, heavily religious businessman from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his daughter Kristen lead a safe, secure life revolving around church and family. Kristen and her cousin Marcie are sent on retreat to a Calvinist Convention in California, and soon Jake gets word his pride and joy has gone missing from Knott’s Berry Farm with a strange man. The distraught Jake flies to LA, but when the police prove no help, he hires a somewhat shady PI named Andy Mast to find his daughter.

Mast does, but what he finds shocks Jake to his fundamentalist core… the detective procures an 8mm loop of Kristen having sex with two men. Jake and Mast butt heads, so Jake goes out on his own to roam the grimy side of LA, experiencing culture shock in a world he knows nothing about. The denizens of this grimy arena are an understandably tight-lipped lot, so he takes it upon himself to go undercover as an out-of-town porn investor, sinking ever deeper into the dirty swamp.

Posing as a casting director, Jake meets a lad with the moniker “Jism Jim”, who he recognizes from the loop he saw with Kristen. When Jake starts asking questions about Kristen, now known as “Joanna”, the young would-be stud talks trash about how kinky she was, and an enraged Jake lashes out, beating Jim mercilessly until he gets some info on his daughter’s whereabouts. This leads to Niki, a prostitute and part-time porn actress, who agrees to help Jake… for a price, of course. The unlikely pair, a conservative Midwestern businessman and a freewheeling hooker, travel to San Diego and San Francisco on a grungy trail that takes them to a man named Ratan, a notorious producer of S&M and “snuff” films…

DRs: (scowling) “Sounds pretty gross. Where’s the value in a film like this?”

CRV: “It’s socially significant. And says a lot about the state of America, even today. An apathetic society, turning it’s back on its values…”

DRs: (eyes rolling) “Oh, brother.”

Scott is a sight to behold, going from staid patriarch to obsessed father desperately trying to save his little girl, no matter what the cost. The scene where he sits and watches the stag loop is painful and uncomfortable, as he agonizes over the obscene footage. His veneer of civility, of reliance on God in all things, is shattered when he enters this sleazy world, and Jake in turn becomes as animalistic as the predators that roam those dark streets. Scott was one of his generation’s greatest actors, and he totally immerses himself in the part, adding subtle shadings every time more is revealed about his daughter and himself.

Season Hubley plays the hooker Niki, to whom Jake becomes a father figure. She’s brash, stoned, and street smart, the opposite of Scott’s Van Dorn. He needs her more than she needs him, but the two form a bond, broken only when Jake finds his daughter at last, leaving poor Niki alone to the streets once again. Hubley played a similar role in the 1982 exploitation classic VICE SQUAD, and is an actress who can always be depended upon to deliver the goods. She was the title character in THE LOLLY MADONNA WAR, played Desdemona in a rock version of Othello called CATCH MY SOUL, and appeared with ex-husband Kurt Russell in both the TV Movie ELVIS (as Priscilla Presley) and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Peter Boyle’s Andy Mast isn’t exactly Philip Marlowe, but a knight in rusty armor who knows all the players on the mean streets of LA. He’s got a bit of John Wayne in him, referring to Jake as “Pilgrim” throughout the film, and is an important part of the proceedings. Dick Sargent (the second Darin on BEWITCHED) is Jake’s equally repressed brother-in-law, worried Jake has gone too far down in the muck and mire of Hollywood. Marc Alaimo, Bibi Besch, and Tracey Walter have small roles, as does Hal Williams as “Big Dick Blacque”, a porn star auditioning for Jake who calls him a racist when he doesn’t get the (bogus) part.

This was Paul Schrader’s second film as both writer and director, the first being BLUE COLLAR. He made a splash with his screenplay for TAXI DRIVER, another movie exposing the dirty underbelly of American life. Most of Schrader’s films deal with the dark side of human nature, from AMERICAN GIGOLO to AUTO FOCUS, RAGING BULL to AFFLICTION, and contain religious overtones (Schrader also wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST). Schrader uses music to represent the dichotomy of Van Dorn’s life; in the Grand Rapids scenes we hear the gospel strains of “Precious Memories”; when Jake hits LA, the industrial rock noise of composer Jack Nietzsche dominates. He puts Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s “Helpless” to good use when Jake enters his first porn shop, and the film ends again with the gospel standard, father and daughter reunited but never to be the same again. HARDCORE may not be an easy film for some to watch, but it’s not supposed to be. In the world of Schrader and HARDCORE, nothing is what it seems, and life is as hard as those grubby streets where anything can be had… for a price.

DRs: “OK, but next time why don’t you review a Disney movie or something. Next thing we know, you’ll be doing porn reviews!”

CRV: (lopsided grin) “Well, you know, some of them do have historic and cultural significance. There’s DEEP THROAT, THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES, BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR…. hey, wait, come back! I was only kidding!!”

“Back in the day”: Boston’s Combat Zone

Base-Brawl: William Bendix in KILL THE UMPIRE (Columbia 1950)

Ahh, spring is in the air, that magical time of year, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of… baseball!! That’s right, Dear Readers, Opening Day is upon us once again, and what better way to celebrate the return of America’s National Pastime than taking a look back at KILL THE UMPIRE, a 1950 comedy conceived in the warped mind of former animator Frank Tashlin and directed by ex-Warners vet Lloyd Bacon.

Big lug William Bendix stars as Bill Johnson, an ex-major leaguer whose passion for the game keeps him from holding a regular job because he keeps playing hooky to go to the ballpark. Bill hates only one thing more than missing a game – umpires! But when his exasperated wife threatens to leave him, his ex-ump father-in-law suggests he go to umpire school to save his marriage. Bill balks at first, but then reluctantly agrees, not wishing to lose his spouse. He does everything in his power to get ejected out of the school, including donning a pair of thick “Coke-bottle’ glasses, but eventually comes around. Bill and his roomie Roscoe are sent to the Texas League, where he finds Texans hate umpires even more than he does, at one point getting knocked out by a tossed cowboy boot! Some gamblers attempt to bribe Bill, but he causes them to lose by having their team forfeit, causing a Texas-sized riot at the old ball game! Fans want Bill’s head on a platter, and it all culminates in a wild chase with Bendix in drag, pursued by an angry mob and angrier gamblers. But as you probably can guess by now, all’s well that ends well.

Tashlin’s loony screenplay features many of his trademark cartoony sight gags, like Bendix wearing an over-inflated chest protector, then getting his spikes stuck in a wooden floor, with hilarious results. The chase is a riot too, with our hero being dragged water-skiing style on a piece of fence behind an ambulance. Tashlin strikes the right balance of situation comedy and slapstick hijinks, aided by Bacon’s deft direction. Bacon was adept at any type movie, but got his start with Chaplin and Mack Sennett; his comedy bona fides include GOLD DUST GERTIE, THE IRISH IN US , A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER, and MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND.

“This ballpark has sho’ gone crazy!”

William Bendix plays it broad as baseball nut Bill. He was no stranger to baseball pictures, having starred two years earlier in THE BABE RUTH STORY. No stranger to comedy, either: Bendix starred in radio’s THE LIFE OF RILEY sitcom, later bringing it to television (in fact, his RILEY TV costar Tom D’Andrea plays roommate Roscoe). It’s nice to see Una Merkel get a substantial part here as Bendix’s beleaguered wife. Ray Collins , of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and TV’s PERRY MASON, plays father-in-law Jonah. Three Stooges fans will get a kick out of seeing many Columbia Short Subject Players in small roles: Murray Alper, Stanley Blystone, Vernon Dent, Dudley Dickerson (“This house has sho’ gone crazy!”), Emil Sitka, Dick Wessel, and Jean Willes appear, and the familiar strains of “Three Blind Mice” play over the opening credits! You’ll also find Familiar Faces like William Frawley , Billy Gray, Frank Hagney, Alan Hale Jr. , and others in the mix.

Some may find KILL THE UMPIRE a bit dated, but it’s still got plenty of laughs in it to make it worth your time. And it’s available on YouTube for your convenience! Makes a good pre-game warm-up…. now let’s Play Ball!

Oh, and one other thing…. Let’s Go Red Sox!!