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:

Royal Flush: THE CINCINNATI KID (MGM 1965)

There are movies about the high-stakes world of poker, and then there’s THE CINCINNATI KID. This gripping look at backroom gambling has long been a favorite of mine because of the high-powered all-star cast led by two acting icons from two separate generations – “The Epitome of Cool” Steve McQueen and “Original Gangster” Edward G. Robinson . The film was a breakthrough for director Norman Jewison, who went after this from lightweight fluff like 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE and SEND ME NO FLOWERS to weightier material like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.

The film revolves around a poker showdown between up and coming young stud Eric Stoner, known as The Kid, and veteran Lancey Howard, venerated in card playing circles as The Man. This theme of young tyro vs old pro wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, having been hashed and rehashed in countless Westerns over the years, but screenwriters Terry Southern and Ring Lardner Jr’s changing the setting from a dusty cowtown to a five-card stud table for that inevitable showdown makes all the difference.

THE PLAYERS

Steve McQueen as The Kid

McQueen was at the top of his game after starring in hits like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, and his intense underplaying as The Kid captures the zeitgeist of mid-60’s cool like no other.

Edward G. Robinson as Lancey, “The Man”

Eddie G. had burst into screen history as bombastic Rico Bandello in LITTLE CAESAR 35 years earlier, but his performance here is both shaded and subtle. Robinson SHOULD’VE won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but wasn’t even nominated – Yet Another Oscar Crime (in my humble opinion)!

Ann-Margret  as Melba

For my money, nobody did onscreen sluttiness  better than Annie, and here she’s at her steamy best as trampy Melba, wife of game dealer Shooter.

Karl Malden  as Shooter

Malden excels as the cuckolded, compromised dealer, saddled with both a loveless marriage to Melba and huge debts to rich gambler Slade. Like Robinson, Malden should have been at least considered for an Oscar nom.

Tuesday Weld  as Christian

The criminally underrated Miss Weld turns in a fine performance as The Kid’s sweet but slightly dimwitted girl Christian. Tuesday had previously costarred opposite McQueen in SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, and the pair work well together.

Joan Blondell  as Lady Fingers

Another 30’s icon, Our Girl Joanie is at her best as the boisterous, been-there-done-that relief dealer Lady Fingers. Blondell and Robinson were reunited here for the first time since 1936’s BULLETS OR BALLOTS, and watching these two old pros together again is a joy!

Rip Torn  as Slade

The late, great Rip Torn, who passed away a few short days ago at age 88, plays Slade, the bad guy of the piece. He’s the embodiment of Southern decadence, and is always worth watching (for more Rip Torn performances, watch his Judas Iscariot in KING OF KINGS, writer Henry Miller in TROPIC OF CANCER, country singer Maury Dann in PAYDAY, and of course Zed in the MEN IN BLACK movies. Rest in peace, Rip).

Jack Weston as Pig

Weston doesn’t get much attention these days, but this marvelous character actor graced us in movies ranging from THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET to WAIT UNTIL DARK, CACTUS FLOWER to GATOR, HIGH ROAD TO CHINA to DIRTY DANCING. His role is small here, but Weston always manages to shine.

Cab Calloway as Yeller

Like Weston, Calloway’s part is small, but without the “Hi-De-Ho” Man, THE CINCINNATI KID just wouldn’t have been the same. Calloway hadn’t been on American screens since 1958’s ST. LOUIS BLUES, and it’s always a treat to see him again.

Add to that list a plethora of Familiar Faces, including Jeff Corey , Robert DoQui, Theo Marcuse, Burt Mustin, Milton Selzer, Ron Soble, Karl Swenson, Dub Taylor , Irene Tedrow (as Tuesday’s mom), Charles Wagenheim , and Midge Ware, and you’ve got a Master Class of screen acting going on (and a special shout-out goes to young Ken Grant as the nickle-pitching shoeshine boy). Lalo Schifrin provides the jazzy score, DP Philip Lathrop’s shot composition is perfectly framed, and future director Hal Ashby adds some stunning editing work. THE CINCINNATI KID is a real treat for film buffs, one I’ve seen many times over, and surely will again.

Pre Code Confidential #28: Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (Warner Brothers 1931)

Gangster movies were nothing new in 1931. Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Lewis Milestone’s THE RACKET (1928), and Bryan Foy’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1929) had all dealt with urban organized crime onscreen (and Foy’s drama was the first “all-talking picture” to hit cinemas). But when Edward G. Robinson rat-a-tatted his way through Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR, the gangster genre had finally arrived – with a vengeance! This highly influential flick opened the floodgates for a variety of films about mobsters, killers, and other assorted no-goodniks, and made an unlikely star out of the pugnacious Eddie G.

The film concerns the rise and fall of Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, a small-time hood from the sticks who, along with partner in crime Joe Massara, moves to the big city and blasts his way up the ranks to become a gang boss. The diminutive Robinson exudes star power as the psychotic sociopath who cares about nothing but himself, and craves power over everything. Robinson’s a cocky bantam rooster, strutting and swaggering his way across the screen; he’s a vicious animal to be certain, but you can’t take your eyes off him. Although he had a long Hollywood career (but believe it or not, never won an Oscar!), it’s as Rico most people remember him by, thanks to numerous bad impressionists and cartoon characters (i.e. THE KING AND ODIE’s Biggie Rat).

Film scholars make a lot about the homosexual subtext in LITTLE CAESAR: Rico’s got no time for dames, preferring the company of his fellow crooks; his close relationship with Joe, deriding him for keeping company with dancer Olga Stassoff; the fauning gangster Otero, who beams as his boss checks himself out in the mirror, donned in a tux. Though nothing is explicit or overt it’s definitely there, hidden in the shadows like like homosexuality itself during those more puritanical times.

What stands out even more for me is the proto-noir flourishes that appear throughout the film. LeRoy and his DP Tony Gaudio use devices such as montage and fades, and many of the scenes (William Collier Jr’s murder on the church steps, for example) precede the film noir movement by a good ten years. Gaudio’s fluid camerawork and Ray Curtiss’s slick editing keep LITTLE CAESAR from being static, unlike many early talkies, and that famous final scene, as the defiant Rico, trodding down a wind-swirled lonely street, gets cut down by the Tommy gun blast of copper Thomas E. Jackson, uttering the now-classic line “Mother of Mercy, is the the end of Rico?”, remains a highlight of Hollywood cinema. Mervyn LeRoy may not be a name that springs to mind when thinking of film noir influences, but films like this one, FIVE STAR FINAL , THREE ON A MATCH , and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tell a different story.

Young (21 at the time of filming) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also makes an impression here as Rico’s pal Joe Massara, a hoofer who wants to put his life of crime behind him after falling for Olga (Glenda Farrell in her film debut). George E. Stone as henchman Otero, infatuated with boss Rico, gives another of his outstanding supporting performances. Other cast members of note include the aforementioned Jackson as the laconic cop out to get Rico, Stanley Fields as the dimwitted ex-capo Sam Vettori, and Sidney Blackmer as the dapper boss ‘Big Boy’.

LITTLE CAESAR can be enjoyed on many different levels: as an influential  piece of Hollywood history, a precursor to film noir, or Edward G. Robinson’s star-making turn. But for me, it’s just damn good entertainment, a rip-roaring crime saga that outguns the rest of them, and the granddaddy of all gangster flicks to come.

 

Fever Dreams: Fritz Lang’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (RKO/International Pictures 1944)

Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his men’s club to meet his pals for supper, but before going in, the three men gaze admiringly at a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window next door. Wanley’s friends, DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) leave after dining, but Wanley stays behind to finish his brandy, and reads a copy of Solomon’s Song of Songs.

As Wanley departs, he stops to again gaze at the portrait – and the woman appears in the flesh, her face reflected in the window! He strikes up a conversation with her, learns her name is Alice Reed, and impulsively joins her for a late night cocktail. Alice takes the professor to her apartment to look at some artist sketches she posed for, all quite innocent. That is, until a man (Arthur Loft) barges into the apartment, angry she’s with someone else, and slaps her hard across the face. A fight breaks out between the man and the scared professor, who grabs a pair of scissors and stabs the intruder to death!

To say things go steadily downhill for Wanley is an understatement, as he methodically concocts a cover-up, dropping the body in a wooded area miles away. His buddy Lalor is on the case, as the deceased turns out to be a big shot financier, whose sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea of course!) comes calling on Alice with blackmail on his mind, and Professor Wanley sinks deeper and deeper into that old familiar noir quicksand…

Fritz Lang’s Expressionist visual roots show up all over this film, and the dark scene where Wanley dumps the body in a rainstorm particularly stood out for me. Krasner’s cinematography is outstanding; he was one of Hollywood’s top DP’s, from his work on 40’s Universal Horrors (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS,  GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN , THE MAD GHOUL ) to film noir (THE DARK MIRROR, THE SET-UP ), comedies (HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH), drama (ALL ABOUT EVE), his Oscar winner THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), and everything in between.

Johnson’s script is a murderous marvel of construction that features a twist ending I admit I did NOT see coming – and I don’t think you will, either! While THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW didn’t supplant SCARLET STREET as my favorite of the Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea/Krasner collaborations, it’s a great film that noir fans will surely love. Like I said before, with all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Pre Code Confidential #18: FIVE STAR FINAL (Warner Brothers 1931)

Tabloid journalism has been around far longer than the cable “news” channels of today, with their 24 hour a day barrage of nonstop sleazy scandals and “fake news”. A circulation war between publishers Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) in the 1890’s, filled with sensationalized headlines and mucho muckraking, gave birth to the term “Yellow Journalism”, derived from Richard Outcault’s guttersnipe character The Yellow Kid in his comic strip Hogan’s Alley, which appeared in both papers. This legacy of dirt-digging and gossip-mongering continued through the decades in supermarket rags like The National Enquirer and World Weekly News, leading us to where we are today with the so-called “mainstream media” stretching credibility to the max and bogus Internet click-bait sites abounding. All of which leads me to FIVE STAR FINAL, a Pre-Code drama about headhunting for headlines starring Edward G. Robinson and a colorful supporting cast.

Robinson and director Mervyn LeRoy , fresh off the hit gangster epic LITTLE CAESAR, reunited for this sordid little tale as E.G. plays Randall, managing editor of the fictional New York Gazette, pressured by his publisher to boost sagging sales by jazzing things up with girlie pics and juicy scandals. Rehashing the twenty year old Nancy Voorhees murder case, in which a young secretary shot and killed her boss/lover, Randall assembles his team to dig up everything they can on her life today. Staff floozie Kitty Carmody hunts down her whereabouts; Nancy is now Mrs. Michael Townsend, whose daughter Jenny is about to be wed to wealthy manufacturing heir Phillip Weeks.

Isopod, an ex-divinity student ejected for drinking and lasciviousness, impersonates a reverend and visits the Townsends, learning the couple is afraid all this bad publicity will harm Jenny, who was born out-of-wedlock and isn’t Michael’s child. A drunken Isopod brings the scoop back to Randall and the smear campaign is on! A distraught Nancy ends up committing suicide; when Michael finds the body he follows suit. Kitty and her photographer sneak into the Townsend’s apartment and take a pic of the two bodies on their bathroom floor. The scandal causes the upper crust Weeks’s to demand the wedding be called off, and a hysterical Jenny grabs a gun and confronts Randall, Isopod, and publisher Hinchcliffe in an amazingly tense dramatic scene, concluding with Randall telling Hinchcliffe just what he can do with his bloody paper!

Robinson’s staccato line delivery and perpetual scowl make Randall seem as real a newspaper man as you can get. Reluctant at first to sensationalize his paper, he dives right into the mudpit to deliver the goods. His forlorn face when he learns of the tragedy is unforgettable, and his compulsive hand washing throughout the movie suggests a man who can never get all the filth off of them. The fact that Robinson, who gave brilliant performances in films like DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SCARLET STREET , KEY LARGO , and so many others, never won an Oscar, only awarded a posthumous statuette two months after his death, is another black eye on the Academy.

A pre-FRANKENSTEIN Boris Karloff plays the unctuous reporter Isopod, a leering slimebag of a man just as creepy as any monster or mad doctor he ever played… maybe creepier! Ona Munson (GONE WITH THE WIND’s Belle Watling) is Kitty, the girl who’s “been around”, George E. Stone (E.G.’s LITTLE CAESAR henchman) is Ziggie, a street hardened “idea man”, and Aline MacMahon makes her film debut as Randall’s secretary Miss Taylor, who’s secretly in love with her boss. Marian Marsh as Jenny is cloying at first, but heats things up when she becomes unhinged at the end. Veterans H.B. Warner and Frances Starr as Michael and Nancy are okay, but Anthony Bushell is rah-ther wooden as Phillip. Familiar Faces include Oscar Apfel, Gladys Lloyd (Mrs. Edward G. Robinson), and the hypnotic Polly Walters as an uncredited switchboard operator.

One innovative scene I found fascinating was a triple-split screen with Nancy frantically trying to call Randall and Hinchcliffe, leading to her death. Le Roy moves his camera to good effect; the film is rarely static, yet LeRoy’s work as director seems to get overlooked in conversations among film buffs today. FIVE STAR FINAL is admittedly creaky in some spots, but overall holds up well, and is as relevant in today’s world as it was 87 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same… and more’s the pity.

Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid

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…      

 

Moanin’ Low: On Claire Trevor and KEY LARGO (Warner Brothers 1948)

John Huston’s film noir KEY LARGO is a personal favorite, and a bona fide classic in its own right that works on many different levels. Much of its success can be credited to the brilliant, Oscar-winning performance of Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn, the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer and moll of gangster Johnny Rocco (played with equal brilliance by Edward G. Robinson ). The woman dubbed by many “Queen of Noir” gives the part a heartbreaking quality that makes her stand out among the likes of scene stealers Robinson, Humphrey Bogart , Lauren Bacall , and Lionel Barrymore .

Claire Trevor (1910-2000) arrived in Hollywood in 1933, and almost immediately became a star. Her early credits include playing Shirley Temple’s mom in BABY TAKE A BOW (1934), the title role in the Pre-Code drama ELINOR NORTON (also ’34), Spencer Tracy’s wife in the bizarre DANTE’S INFERNO (1935), and the reporter out to expose a human trafficking ring in HUMAN CARGO (1936). Claire’s turn in the small part of Francie, gangster Baby Face Martin’s ex-girlfriend turned syphilitic prostitute in 1937’s DEAD END, earned her the first of three Oscar nominations.

(l to r) Claire, Elisha Cook Jr, & Lawrence Tierney in 1947’s “Born to Kill”

In John Ford’s STAGECOACH , (1939), Claire takes top billing as another prostitute, Dallas, who falls for John Wayne’s Ringo Kid. This was The Duke’s breakout role, and the two became lifelong friends, acting together again in ALLEGHENY UPRISING (’39), DARK COMMAND (1940), and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954), which garnered Trevor her third and final Oscar nomination as world-weary actress May Holst. Film buffs love her best for her many roles in the shadowy world of film noir, like the duplicitous Mrs. Grayle in 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET . Bad girls were her specialty, none badder than her turn as Helen Trent opposite Lawrence Tierney’s psycho Sam Wilde in 1947’s BORN TO KILL . She was the murderous Ruth Dillon in STREET OF CHANCE (1942), the greedy golddigging wife of Marvin Miller in JOHNNY ANGEL (1945), and escaped con Dennis O’Keefe’s girlfriend/accomplice in 1948’s RAW DEAL .

Gaye Dawn is a much more sympathetic figure than Claire’s usual bad girls. We first meet her sitting at the bar inside the nearly deserted Hotel Largo, already intoxicated and babbling about horse racing to Bogie’s ex-war hero Frank McCloud.  The hotel has been taken over by hoods in the employ of Johnny Rocco (Robinson), a preening, swaggering deported gangster who has snuck back into the country to pull off a counterfeit money scheme. Rocco uses and abuses his once glamorous girlfriend, now gone to seed and trapped in an alcoholic hell of her own sad devise.

The sadistic Rocco humiliates Gaye when, as she begs for a drink, he belittles her and forces her to sing for her booze. The ex-torch singer seems bewildered at first, then pathetically starts to croon the jazz standard “Moanin’ Low” in a decidedly off-key manner, obviously suffering from the pains of her addiction. Rocco then refuses to give her a drink, stating “You were rotten”, and the faded flower bursts into tears. McCloud, feeling sorry for the devastated Gaye, gets up and pours her a drink, only to receive a few quick slaps from Rocco. It is heart wrenching to watch Claire as Gaye be degraded so hatefully by the sociopathic Rocco, and this scene no doubt nailed the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her.

Later, when Rocco forces McCloud to transport him and his mob back to Cuba via boat, he refuses to take the pitiful Gaye with him. She gets a measure of vengeance when, pretending to throw herself at Rocco in a last-ditch attempt to return to his good graces, she lifts his gun and surreptitiously gives it to McCloud. Her bravery sets the stage for the final denouement at sea, where McCloud singlehandedly takes on Rocco and his men. The woman scorned has become a woman redeemed, and Claire Trevor becomes just as much the hero of the piece as Bogart himself.

KEY LARGO was nominated only for Trevor’s marvelous performance, though cases could surely be made for Robinson’s Johnny Rocco, Huston’s taut direction and screenplay (with Richard Brooks ), Karl Freund’s moody cinematography, and Max Steiner’s fantastic score. The main reason behind this snubbing was that another Huston film of 1948, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, cancelled it out, gaining four nominations and winning Huston the Best Director and Screenplay that year, not to mention Best Supporting Actor for his father Walter Huston . KEY LARGO can certainly stand on its own merit as an all-time great movie, and Claire Trevor’s incandescent playing of the broken Gaye Dawn ranks as one of Oscar’s  most memorable screen performances.

(This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled , and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club . Join them for more exciting and informative Oscar posts!)

 

 

Double Bogie: THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938) and YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER (1939)

bogie1

Before Humphrey Bogart became the screen icon known as “Bogie”, he paid his dues as a Warner Brothers contract player, usually cast as a second fiddle gangster who winds up getting filled full of lead by the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. It wasn’t until 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON that Bogart hit the big time, remaining a box office star until his death from cancer in 1956. Here’s a look at two early movies that typecast Bogie again as a gangster, with wildly different results.

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1938’s THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE is supposedly a comedy, starring Edward G. Robinson  as a Park Avenue surgeon who’s researching a book about the physiology of criminals, mainly by ripping off his high society friends. He meets up with female fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor in another of her hard dame roles) and gangster  Rocks Valentine (Bogie). Clitterhouse, dubbed “Professor” by the crooks, takes over the gang, much to Rocks’ chagrin, and studies the goons while they work. Rocks double crosses him during a fur warehouse job, locking the doctor in a refrigerated vault. After escaping, Clitterhouse decides he’s done enough research and is ready to retire. But Rocks has other plans after finding the doctor’s notes, and threatens to reveal his role in the crimes unless Clitterhouse agrees to set up his society pals.

Clitterhouse hasn’t researched the “ultimate crime” yet though… murder! He drops some pyridyl chloride tabs into Rocks’ whiskey, causing an overdose, and dumps the body in the river. Dr. Clitterhouse finally confesses to his crimes, stating everything he did was in the interest of science. He tries to prove himself sane, but the jury disagrees, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming “an insane man cannot writer a sane book”.

Edward G. Robinson (Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse) is fascinated with the working of the criminal mind. He joins a gang of crooks headed by Humphrey Bogart (Rocks Valentine) for whom Clitterhouse masterminds a series of heists. With Maxie Rosenbloom (Butch) and Claire Trevor (Jo Keller).

Robinson is far too good for this mess, but manages to rise above the mediocre material. Claire Trevor hadn’t quite hit her stride yet as Queen of Noir, and she isn’t really given much to do here. The Warner Brothers Rogue’s Gallery is on hand as the gang members (Maxie Rosenbloom, Allen Jenkins , Curt Bois, Vladimir Sokoloff, and a young Ward Bond ), while Donald Crisp, Henry O’Neill, John Litel, and Gale Page represent law and order. Listen close and you’ll hear Ronald Reagan’s  voice as a radio announcer, his former occupation before hitting Hollywood. Another recent Hollywood arrival, Anatole Litvak, directed as if he’d never seen a gangster picture before.

As for Humphrey Bogart, he is said to have absolutely despised this film. Wouldn’t you, if your character name was Rocks Valentine? He referred to it as “The Amazing Dr. Clitoris” among friends. The one good thing to come out of it for Bogie was he became friends with co-screenwriter John Huston. When Huston was tabbed to direct his first film, THE MALTESE FALCON, he chose Bogie to play the lead, Sam Spade. This was the beginning of a long collaboration for the two men, “the stuff that dreams are made of”, to quote Spade.

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Much better is YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER, released in 1939. Bogart gets top billing in this B-movie, but he’s still playing second fiddle. Dead End Kid Billy Halop plays the lead as Johnny, a young punk who lives in Hell’s Kitchen with his sister Madge, and detests her straight-laced boyfriend Fred. He’d rather hang out with local hood Frank Wilson (Bogart), who takes him under his wing. Soon the pair steal a car and rob a gas station. Johnny steals Fred’s gun, and Frank uses it in a pawn shop stick-up, killing the proprietor. Fred is arrested for the murder, while Johnny and Frank get pinched for the gas station job.

All three are sent to Sing Sing, with Fred on Death Row. Johnny has a crisis of conscience; does he rat out his pal Frank, or let Fred fry in the hot seat? Frank and his thug pals plan a jailbreak, and take Johnny along with the intent of capping him, eliminating the possibility of him cracking under pressure. Johnny and Frank are the only two who make it out, and during a gun battle with the screws Frank puts a slug in Johnny’s  gut. Frank then gives himself up, but the still alive Johnny tells the authorities the truth. The youth is taken to the operating table but doesn’t pull through; however he gets to make amends with Madge and Fred before he dies.

If you can get past the  Brooklynese “dese, dems , and doses”,  you’ll find a good performance from Halop. The leader of the Dead End Kids in films like DEAD END, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, and THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL goes solo here, and shines as a slum kid angry at the world, putting up a tough guy front to mask his fear. The scenes with sister Gale Page are kind of schmaltzy, but don’t distract too much from the action. Bogart gives his stock gangster characterization as the vicious hood Frank, a follow-up of sorts to his Baby Face Martin in DEAD END. He’s good, but we’ve seen it done before.

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Henry Travers (Clarence the Angel from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is on hand as Pop, an old con who befriends Johnny. Harold Huber, Joe Sawyer, and George E. Stone are hardened criminals, and much to my surprise, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson shows up as one of the prisoners. Harvey Stephens is much too bland as Fred… no wonder Johnny decides to follow Bogie! And no,  that’s not James Cagney’s son in the neighborhood pool hall scene. It’s Frankie Burke, a Cagney lookalike who played the actor as a youngster in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. Lewis Seiler keeps things zipping along; he had a long but undistinguished Hollywood career.

Humphrey Bogart continued to dwell in “B” purgatory until receiving good reviews in 1941’s HIGH SIERRA, which led to THE MALTESE FALCON and movie immortality. Watching his 1930’s efforts, we get a brief glimpse into what was to come. Of the two, I’d watch YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER again; far as THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE goes, once was enough.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Noir: Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET (Universal 1945)

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One of my favorite movies of any genre has always been SCARLET STREET. I used to watch the grainy Public Domain print on my local cable access channel over and over. When I saw that TCM was running the film last October, I recorded it for future reference, as I was in the midst of my “Halloween Havoc” marathon. I finally got the chance recently to sit down and enjoy this beautiful, crispy clear print and watch the film as it was meant to be seen.

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Meek, mousey cashier Christopher Cross receives a gold watch at a party honoring his 25 years of service to J.J. Hogarth’s company. Chris has done his boring, repetitious job without complaint, though his dream has always to be a successful painter. When Hogarth leaves the party, Chris watches him get into a car with a pretty young girl. Walking home with friend and co-worker Pringle, Chris muses aloud what it would be like to have the love of a young beauty. His  wife Adele is a ballbuster, constantly berating his art and lack of gumption, and unfavorably comparing him to her late policeman husband.

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Enter Kitty March. Chris encounters her getting slapped around by an unknown assailant (later revealed to be her boyfriend Johnny) and rescues her. They go for a cocktail, where Chris tries to impress her by passing himself off as a painter. Kitty, thinking he’s rich and famous, claims to be an actress. Johnny schemes to have Kitty string Chris along, playing him for a sucker. Gullible, lonely Chris now becomes a thief and embezzler in order to fund Kitty’s lavish lifestyle. Johnny brings Chris’s paintings to sell in Washington Square, where they’re snapped up by an art critic named Janeway. Believing he’s discovered a new sensation, Janeway tracks down Johnny to Kitty’s apartment, where he’s tricked into believing Kitty is the artist. Chris’s “modern art”, under Kitty’s name, becomes the toast of the art world. Things fall apart when Adele’s ex-husband shows up, quite alive, and demands to be paid off. Chris, finally free of Adele, can now marry Kitty. But the vixen cruelly rejects him, and Chris murders her, pinning it on Johnny. But Chris will never be rid of Kitty and Johnny, as we discover in the film’s haunting finale.

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Edward G. Robinson has one of his best roles as Chris. Henpecked, his dreams never fulfilled, Chris Cross is one of the most pitiful, heartbreaking characters in film noir, and Robinson pulls it off beautifully. Joan Bennett was never sexier or sluttier than here as Kitty. She’s cruel, lazy, and downright treacherous, without an ounce of kindness, the complete opposite of Chris. Dan Duryea is her man Johnny, giving one of his patented sleazebag performances. Even though he’s framed on a murder rap, I felt no sympathy for Johnny paying for his countless other, unacknowledged sins. Rosalind Ivan (Adele) is as good here as she was in another noir, Robert Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT. Jess Barker, Russell Hicks, Samuel S. Hinds , and Margaret Lindsay round out the excellent supporting cast.

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Fritz Lang’s  expressionistic direction is top-notch, and SCARLET STREET is (in my opinion) one of his top three films, right up there with METROPOLIS and M. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay was based on the French novel LA CHIENNE, filmed in 1931 by Jean Renoir. Of course, since “La Chienne” translates in English to “The Bitch”, the title had to be changed! (We’d have to wait til 1979 for a film with that title, starring the eternally bitchy Joan Collins) Milton Krasner’s B&W photography gives SCARLET STREET an atmospheric, melancholy mood, as does Hans J. Salter’s score.

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The paintings in the film are by John Decker, artist and notorious Hollywood reprobate. Decker was a talented portrait artist known for his drinking bouts with famous pals like Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, and W.C Fields. His paintings are certainly unique, and I’ll leave you with a gallery of some of his artwork:

W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
John Wayne
John Wayne

 

Hunger Games: Charlton Heston in SOYLENT GREEN (MGM 1973)

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Oscar winning actor Charlton Heston (BEN-HUR) ventured into the realm of dystopian science-fiction in the late 60s/early 70s with a quartet of films. He starred in the 1968 blockbuster PLANET OF THE APES and its 1970 sequel BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, then a 1971 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND titled THE OMEGA MAN. The last of these was 1973’s SOYLENT GREEN, a grim look at an overpopulated, polluted future world (set in 2020!) where food is scarce, the climate has changed dramatically, and the rich minority controls everything. (Geez, sound familiar?)

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Heston plays NYC Police Detective Thorn, investigating the murder of powerful, rich industrialist William Simonson (Joseph Cotten in a cameo), who lives in Central Park West, a complex for wealthy males that comes complete with a woman as part of the “furniture” (Leigh Taylor-Young). The killing looks like a robbery attempt gone bad, but Thorn suspects foul play, and has his eye on Simonson’s bodyguard Tab (a rather paunchy Chuck “THE RIFLEMAN” Connors).

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Thorn is assisted by his roommate, the elderly crime book researcher Sol Roth. Edward G. Robinson is Sol, in what was his last film role. Robinson was Hollywood’s OG, having starred in 1931’s LITTLE CAESAR, the movie that kicked off the gangster cycle. His acting chops hadn’t diminished one bit, and Robinson gives us a touching swan song as a man who longs for the days when the world was livable, showing his disgust at the “tasteless, odorless crud” the Soylent Corporation manufactures to feed the masses. The scene where Thorn brings home some plundered “real food” (beef, apples, and a bottle of bourbon) is priceless as we watch the old man’s spirit lift savoring the meal.

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The powers that be put the kibosh on Thorn’s investigation, having him reassigned to “riot duty”, riding herd over the rabble as Soylent Green is put up for rationing. An assassin tries to gun him down, meeting a gruesome death under one of the front-end loaders used to control the rowdy peasants. Thorn keeps digging into the murder despite pressure from his boss (Brock Peters), as does Sol. The elderly former professor goes to The Exchange, bringing along the reference books Thorn obtained from the Soylent Oceanographic Survey. They come to a grim conclusion, and Sol cannot bear to live with the truth. He checks into Home, an assisted death facility, and Thorn arrives just before Sol expires. Sol shares the horrible secret of Soylent Green, begging Thorn to prove it to the world. The death scene is poignant, as Sol drinks from a poisoned cup, then lays down while bathed in orange light, images of nature before him, classical music gently taking him away. Edward G. Robinson, an actor’s actor to the last, died of terminal cancer twelve days after filming this scene.

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I’m about to SPOIL THE ENDING so if you haven’t seen SOYLENT GREEN, keep scrolling. Most of you film fans out there already know, and even those who’ve never seen the movie have heard people imitating Heston’s famous last words: “It’s people…Soylent Green is people!” I’m a huge admirer of Heston, not just for his many great performances, but for always staying true to himself. Charlton Heston was King of the Epics (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY), starred in Orson Welles’ classic noir TOUCH OF EVIL, and made great Westerns like WILL PENNY and THE MOUNTAIN MEN. A liberal politically early in his life, Heston campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, marched with Martin Luther King, and was president of his union, The Screen Actor’s Guild. When he felt the Democratic Party had abandoned their principles, Heston switched to the Republicans, supporting his old friend Ronald Reagan. He served as president of the NRA, making that famous speech about taking our guns away “when you pry them from my cold, dead hands”. It’s not hip to be Heston fan nowadays, but I don’t really care. He served his country in WW2, and stood up proudly for his convictions. Besides, any actor who can do Shakespeare and share a stage with Dame Edna Everage can’t be all bad. Charlton Heston, American icon, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2008.

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Other cast members include Whit Bissell, Paula Kelly, Dick Van Patten, and Celia Lovsky. Miss Lovsky was once married to Peter Lorre, and as an actress is perhaps best known to sci-fi fans as Vulcan leader T’Pau in the “Amok Time” episode of STAR TREK. Director Richard Fleischer, son of animation pioneer Max (Popeye, Betty Boop), had an uneven career, batting slightly over .500, with more hits (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE BOSTON STRANGLER) than misses (1967’S DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, the abominable MANDINGO, 1980’S THE JAZZ SINGER with Neil Diamond). SOYLENT GREEN is solidly in the hit column, with themes that are still relevant today, and a wonderful farewell performance from Edward G. Robinson.

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