Familiar Faces #3: Esther Howard, Grand Dame of Film Noir

Esther Howard (1892-1965) graced the screen in over 100 appearances, but it’s her work in the shadowy world of film noir for which she’s best remembered. A deft comedienne, Esther was also a member in good standing of Preston Sturges’ stock company, cast in seven of his films. Her matronly looks and acting talent allowed her to play a rich, haughty dowager or drunken old floozy with equal aplomb. Esther may not have been a big star, but her presence gave a lift to any movie she was in, big or small.

Esther in 1931’s “The Vice Squad” (w/Judith Wood)

She was already an established stage actress when she entered movies in 1930. Talkies were all the rage, and Esther began her screen career appearing in Vitaphone shorts opposite the likes of Franklin Pangborn. Her first feature was 1931’s THE VICE SQUAD, a Pre-Code drama starring Kay Francis and Paul Lukas, with Esther billed sixth. More movies found her down in the cast lists, or sometimes unbilled: MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932), THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE (’35), DEAD END (’37), and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (’38) were among her many credits.

Esther’s got her eyes on Ollie in 1944’s “The Big Noise”

Esther’s flair for comedy found her supporting many classic comics of the era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s COCKEYED CAVALIERS (’34) places her square among the team’s medieval mirth. The short THE MISSES STOOGES (’35) has Esther hosting a swanky society party ruined by Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly. The bawdy KLONDIKE ANNIE (’36) pairs her with the inimitable Mae West. 1939’s THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE sees her briefly as a florist. In MY FAVORITE BLONDE (’40), she’s involved with Bob Hope’s zany shenanigans. Laurel & Hardy’s THE BIG NOISE (’44) has Esther on the make for Ollie. She has a bit in the Three Stooges short IDLE ROOMERS (’44), and played Andy Clyde’s wife in seven of his Columbia shorts.

As Miz Zeffie in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)

Her association with writer/director Preston Sturges began with his first in the director’s chair, 1940’s THE GREAT MCGINTY. From there, Esther went to  appear in six more Sturges classics. SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS   (’41) casts her as a man-hungry farm widow setting her sights on Joel McCrea. THE PALM BEACH STORY (’42) finds Esther married to the wealthy “Wienie King”. She had three Sturges films released in 1944: MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK has Esther embroiled in the saga of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), she serves as a dentist’s guinea pig in THE GREAT MOMENT, and plays Mayor Raymond Walburn’s wife in HAIL THE CONQUORING HERO. Her last with Preston Sturges was also his last American-made film, 1949’s THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND.

As boozy Mrs. Kraft in 1947’s “Born to Kill”

Despite all this, it is her roles in film noir for which Esther Howard is most closely associated. In 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET , she plays a key role as the duplicitous drunk Jessie Florian, who tries to throw Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) off Velma’s trail. Her part as the waitress in Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945) is small, but her presence adds much to this low-budget masterpiece. In DICK TRACY VS CUEBALL (’46), she has a meaty role as Filthy Flora, proprietor of the Dripping Dagger. My favorite Esther Howard noir is Robert Wise’s BORN TO KILL , where she plays nosy boarding house owner Mrs. Kraft, menaced by Lawrence Tierney and his sneaky sycophant Elisha Cook Jr. She closed out her film noir career with a pair of 1949 films: Mark Robson’s CHAMPION (as boxer Kirk Douglas’s mother) and THE CROOKED WAY (a bit as a hotel proprietor).

Mrs. Florian (Esther) is wary of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in 1944’s “Murder, My Sweet”

Esther Howard closed out her film career completely by returning to comedy as Joe Besser’s aunt in the 1952 short CAUGHT ON THE BOUNCE. She’s still remembered today for both the dark worlds of film noir and classic comedy. Actresses like Esther Howard are part of what makes watching these films so special, their small but memorable contributions enhancing our viewing experience. All hail Esther Howard!

 

Hot in Argentina: Rita Hayworth in GILDA (Columbia 1946)

If COVER GIRL made Rita Hayworth a star, then GILDA propelled her into the stratosphere. This 1946 film noir cast Rita at her smoking hot best as the femme fatale to end ’em all. Surrounded by a Grade A cast and sumptuous sets, GILDA gives us the dark side of CASABLANCA , moved to Buenos Aires and featuring star-crossed lovers who are at lot less noble than Rick and Ilsa ever were.

“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me”, Hayworth is famously quoted as saying. Who could blame them, as Rita is absolutely stunning in this film. From our first glimpse of her, popping into view with that iconic hair flip…

…to her sultry faux striptease singing “Put the Blame on Mame”, Rita burns up the screen with her smoldering sexuality. Lines like “If I’d been a ranch,  they’d’ve named me the Bar Nothing” leave no doubt as to Gilda’s character, a woman unafraid using her feminine wiles to get her way. It’s an electrifying performance, and Hayworth plays up her erotic charms to the nth degree.

Glenn Ford  returned to the screen after his WWII stint in the Naval Reserve to play Johnny Farrell, Gilda’s ex-lover and narrator of the tale. He’s an American gambler down on his luck in Argentina who’s befriended by casino owner Ballin Mundson, becoming the latter’s right hand man. When Ballin returns from a trip with a new bride, Gilda, we know right off the bat there’s a history between the two. The sexual tension between Johnny and Gilda is so thick you could slice it with Ballin’s unique sword-cane, a weapon that becomes important to the denoument of the story.

Johnny’s job description now includes keeping close watch on Gilda, not an easy task as she flirts and frolics with every man she sets her sights on. Johnny and Gilda have an unhealthy love/hate relationship, spitting lines at each other with unbridled vitriol (Gilda to Johnny: “I hate you so much I would destroy myself to take you down with me”). Ballin’s involvement in a shady tungsten cartel results in murder, and he fakes his own death in a plane crash, but not before catching the locked in an embrace in his own bedroom.

After he’s declared dead, Ballin’s estate leaves everything to Gilda, with Johnny as the executor. Johnny takes over the cartel and marries Gilda, making her a canary in a cage out of spite. She runs away to Montevideo, but Johnny cleaverly retrieves her before she can file for divorce. The cartel is dismantled by the police, and Gilda and Johnny meet in an empty casino. She’s about to leave for America, and Johnny pleads to go with her, his defenses finally broken. Then Mundson returns from his watery grave, brandishing his sword-cane and demanding, “I want my wife back”…

Hayworth and Ford made five films together, beginning early in their careers with 1940’s THE LADY IN QUESTION, and continuing with THE LOVES OF CARMEN (’48), AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (’52), and THE MONEY TRAP (’65), but GILDA outshines them all. Their onscreen chemistry probably had something to do with their decades-long on-and-off love affair, and it shows in the eyes of both stars. Standing out in support is suave George Macready as Ballin, one of the most elegant villains this side of George Sanders. Joseph Calleia has a pivotal part as Detective Obergon, always standing on the movie’s fringes until the ending. Also worth noting is Steven Geray as Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant loyal to Gilda and contemptuous of Johnny, calling him a “peasant”. Familiar Faces standing in the shadows are Joe Sawyer , Gerald Mohr, Symona Boniface, Eduardo Cianelli , Ludwig Donath, Bess Flowers (naturally!), John Tyrell , and Phillip Van Zandt.

Marion Parsonnett‘s biting, sophisticated script (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) surprisingly made it through the censors, given the era. Vidor’s direction is enhanced by Rudolph Mate’s brooding chiaroscuro photography. The costumes for Rita designed by Jean Louis make Rita luscious even in black and white, especially in the musical numbers “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amore Mio”, a two-piece outfit showing off her slinky hip-wiggle. GILDA is an indisputable classic of film noir and highlights Rita Hayworth at the peak of her movie-star power. What more could you ask for… go watch it!

Happy Birthday Peter Lorre: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (Columbia 1941)

In honor of Cracked Rear Viewer’s second anniversary, I’m re-presenting my first post from June 26, 2015. I’ve re-edited it and added some pictures, something I didn’t know how to do at first. My, how times change! Anyway, I hope you enjoy this look at an early noir classic. (Coincidentally, this is also Mr. Lorre’s birthday!)

The sinister star Peter Lorre was born in Hungary on June 26, 1904. He became a big screen sensation as the child killer in Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), and like many Jews in Germany at the time, fled the Nazi regime, landing in Britain in 1933. Lorre worked with Alfred Hitchcock there in the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, then immigrated to America, starring in films like MAD LOVE  , CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and the Mr. Moto series. In 1940, the actor starred in what many consider the first film noir, STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. The next year Lorre appeared in another early noir, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, directed by the underrated Frenchman Robert Florey. In it Lorre plays a young Hungarian immigrant like himself, only under much, much different circumstances.

Janos Szabo has come to America to find work and live the American dream. He’s befriended by police Lt. O’Hara ( Don Beddoe ), who buys the naïve newcomer a five dollar lunch and directs him to the Excelsior Palace, a low rent hotel. When another border’s negligence causes the joint to go up in flames, Janos is trapped inside, and suffers a horrible disfigurement.

O’Hara feels responsible for the poor guy’s plight and writes a message on one of his calling cards for Janos to contact him when he’s released from the hospital. Now unable to find work due to his terribly scarred visage, Janos goes to the waterfront, contemplating suicide. He meets up with a petty crook named Dinky, who takes a liking to Janos. Dinky has a safe cracking job lined up but falls ill, and asks Janos to take his place. The Hungarian, good with his hands, takes care of business. When Dinky’s former comrades show up wanting to know why they weren’t in on the score, the four decide to form a crime gang, with Janos (now nicknamed Johnny) as the ringleader. A crime wave ensues, baffling the police, and putting O’Hara under pressure to end the larcenous spree quickly as possible.

Janos wants the illicit dough so he can have plastic surgery and restore his features. A rubber mask is made from his passport photo for him to wear until the doctor returns. When the doc (Frank Reicher, KING KONG’s   Captain Englehorn)  finally does see Janos, he informs him the facial nerves have suffered too much damage, and it would take fifteen years before any progress could be made!

Disheartened, Janos leaves the doctor’s office, where he (literally) bumps into Helen Williams. Helen is blind, but she can sense the goodness still inside the scarred master criminal. Eventually, Janos comes clean to her about his face, but not his illegal activities. Helen is played by the beautiful Evelyn Keyes , best known as “Scarlet O’Hara’s Younger Sister” (the name of her autobiography) in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Now in love with Helen, and with plenty of money stashed away, Janos decides to leave his life of crime behind and settle down in the country. This doesn’t sit well with his former cronies, especially Jeff, the gang’s new leader. When the cop’s calling card (remember?) is found in Janos’s old desk, they fear their former boss has turned stool pigeon. The gang beats and tortures Dinky, who knows Janos’s whereabouts, and force him to spill the beans. Jeff and the crew pay a visit to Janos and his new bride, and while Jeff delivers a warning, the gang plants a bomb in his car, connected to the radio. Dinky gets dumped to the side of the road, badly beaten and shot, but manages to get to a phone and warn Janos. But it’s too late. While Helen’s unpacking the car, she wants to hear some music, turns on the radio, and KA-BOOM! She sadly dies in Janos’s arms.

Dinky’s still alive though, and tells Janos the gang has chartered a plane and are going on the lam. They take to the air and head west, unaware that Janos has ambushed the pilot and is flying the plane. He lands them smack in the middle of the Arizona desert and tells them he’s stranding them all there to die a slow, painful death. Soon after, O’Hara gets a hot tip and flies west to discover a gruesome tableau. The gang members are all dead, including Janos, who’s been tied to the plane’s wing. O’Hara finds an explanation note in his little friend’s pocket, along with the five bucks for the lunch O’Hara bought him long ago.

Lorre is superb as a man trapped in circumstances beyond his control, showing his wide range of emotion as an actor. Keyes is also good as the doomed Helen, proving she would’ve been a much bigger star with better roles. THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK features plenty of Familiar Faces from Columbia’s roster of contract players, including George E. Stone , Cy Schindell, John Tyrell , and George McKay. (The name Janos, by the way, was obviously inspired from the Roman god Janus, always depicted with two faces!) Peter Lorre went on to become one of the screen’s busiest character actors, appearing in classics like THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , THREE STRANGERS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and many, many more. He ended his career working alongside Vincent Price in a string of Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe thrillers before succumbing to a stroke on March 23, 1964 at age 59. He left a legacy of fantastic film work, and THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK gave him one of his best starring roles. Fans of Lorre and those who want to see the beginnings of what became known as film noir will want to watch this gripping little crime drama. Happy birthday, Mr. Lorre!

Marlowe at the Movies Returns!: Bogie & Bacall in THE BIG SLEEP (Warner Brothers 1946)

It’s been a long time since we last visited with Raymond Chandler’s fictional “knight-errant”, PI Philip Marlowe. Way too long, so let’s take a look at THE BIG SLEEP, starring Humphrey Bogart as the definitive screen Marlowe. This 1946 Howard Hawks film was a follow-up to 1944’s hit TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which introduced audiences (and Bogie) to luscious Lauren Bacall . The pair was dynamite together onscreen, and off as well, marrying a year later. Their May/December romance was one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, lasting until Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957.

For me to try and explain the plot here would be futile, as it takes more twists and turns than a “Balinese belly dancer”. Marlowe is hired by elderly General Sternwood, whose sexy young daughter Carmen is being blackmailed. The General’s other daughter Vivien, a sexy divorcee, is also in trouble. This takes Our Man Marlowe through a maze involving murder, money, and sexy dames by the truckload, all of whom seem to want the sleuth. It’s tough to tell all the players without a scorecard, but that doesn’t really matter. Hawks’ take on Chandler is all about noir style, and the film has it in spades! The hard-boiled, hard-bitten dialog by screenwriters William Faulkner, Jules Furthman , and Leigh Brackett is delivered in that trademark “rat-a-tat” Warner Brothers style by the cast, the dark, moody photography by Sidney Hickox perfectly captures the noir world inhabited by the characters, the studio-bound fog-shrouded streets look marvelous, and everybody’s hiding some sort of secret. Even the opening credits literally scream noir, with Bogie and Bacall smoking cigarettes in silhouette, then placing the burning butts in an ashtray as Max Steiner’s sweeping music plays under the credits.

THE BIG SLEEP was filmed in 1945, but when TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT lit up the screen (and the box office) like a comet, the studio decided to take advantage of its newfound star team and shoot additional scenes featuring Bogie and Bacall. The couple’s pairing was steamier than General Sternwood’s orchid-filled hothouse, their sexually charged banter flowing freer than bootleg gin (check out their “horse racing” metaphors for example!).  I loved the way Bogart tugs at his ear whenever he’s in deep thought, and Bacall’s still sexiness covers the fact she’s fairly new to the acting game at this point in her career. Tongues are placed firmly in cheek as they trade repartee, and if their first film together established them as a force to be reckoned with, THE BIG SLEEP certainly seals the deal.

The supporting cast is more than up to the task of keeping up with Bogie and Bacall’s star power. Twenty year old Martha Vickers (whose noir bona fides include RUTHLESS, THE BIG BLUFF, and THE BURGLAR) is the sexy (there’s that word again!) Carmen, a babyish bimbo constantly biting her thumb like a pacifier (or more likely, an oral fixation!). John Ridgley (who appeared with Bogart on eleven other occasions) has the pivotal role of gambling joint owner Eddie Mars. You can’t have a film noir without inviting Elisha Cook Jr. to the party, and he’s here in a small role as (what else?) a weasel trying to sell Marlowe some information. Young Dorothy Malone made a splash as a book store owner sharing rye (and whatever else gets left to the imagination!) with the shamus. Cowboy star Bob Steele plays ice-cold killer Canino, an archetype he’d return to in Bogart’s 1951 THE ENFORCER. Familiar Faces dotting the dark landscape include Trevor Bardette , Tanis Chandler (no relation to Raymond!), Joseph Crehan, Bess Flowers , Louis Jean Heydt, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey (as Marlowe’s cop friend), Theodore von Eltz, and Ben Welden.

Howard Hawks mastered any film genre he worked in, from screwball comedy (HIS GIRL FRIDAY) to wild Western ( RIO BRAVO ), during his fifty-four year Hollywood career. In THE BIG SLEEP, Hawks injects the dark world of film noir with his personal artistic vision, and paints a black & white masterpiece with shadows and light. Bogart inhabits the character of Philip Marlowe like a well-worn trench coat, Bacall is the quintessential Hawks “hard dame”, and the overlapping staccato dialog is filled with a sly, sexy sense of humor. Don’t worry about following the story, just sit back and enjoy Hawks and his stars at the top of their game!

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A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)

Watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is like taking a slog through a sludge-filled, rat infested sewer. It’s “a cookie full of arsenic”, with two of the most repellant characters to ever worm their way across the silver screen. It’s also a brilliant film, with superb performances from stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, wonderfully quotable dialog by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, tense direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe . It’s a movie that demands repeated viewings; just make sure to take a shower after each one!

Powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker is dead set on destroying the relationship between his kid sister Susie and up-and-coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. To achieve this goal, he uses his toady, press agent Sidney Falco. Sidney, forever trying to curry favor with the great Hunsecker, pimps out cigarette girl Rita to rival columnist Otis Elwell, in exchange for Elwell printing a blind item linking Dallas with marijuana use, not to mention being a card-carrying Commie! Of course, none of it’s true, and Dallas confronts Hunsecker and Falco. For daring to stand up to him, Hunsecker goes for the jugular, and gets Falco to plant some weed on the musician, siccing his psycho-cop friend Kello on him. Falco’s reward will be to take over Hunsecker’s column while he and Susie take an ocean cruise. But as in any good film noir, the best laid plans of rats and men go horribly awry…

Burt Lancaster made his name in 40’s film noir (THE KILLERS,  BRUTE FORCE CRISS CROSS ), but nothing tops his turn as the malicious J.J. Hunsecker. He’s got ice water in his veins and a razor-sharp tongue (when Falco first fails to breakup the romance, Hunsecker tells him: “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried”). Cold, cruel, and callous, J.J will do anything to save his twisted relationship with his sister. Wrapping himself in the American flag and wound tighter than a coiled spring, Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is said to be based on famed columnist Walter Winchell.  Whether this is completely true or not, J.J. Hunsecker stands tall in the noir pantheon of heels.

Good as Lancaster is, Tony Curtis runs away with the film as the self-loathing publicist Sidney Falco. Sidney will do whatever it takes to get in J.J.’s good graces (and get his clients in J.J.’s column). Sid’s a real shit, a sniveling sycophant with the morals of… no, below an alley cat. The duplicitous, brownnosing Falco is a far cry from Curtis’ 50’s good-guy roles, and his best screen performance by far. Though nominated for an Oscar the next year in THE DEFIANT ONES, Tony Curtis should’ve won for this (Red Buttons took supporting honors that year for SAYONARA). The film wasn’t even nominated; apparently, even Oscar was repulsed by these characters!

“Match me, Sidney”

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is dense and filled with some quotable poison-pen dialog. Besides the famous “cookie laced with arsenic” line, here are a few venomous samples:

Sidney to J.J. about Dallas: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”

Sidney to Elwell after hooking him up with Rita: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. That leaves a lot of leeway”

Rita, upon finding out Sidney’s set her up: “What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”

J.J., on New York City: “I love this dirty little town”

Barbara Nichols as Rita

The supporting cast is equally good. SWET SMELL OF SUCCESS is also Martin Milner’s  finest hour on the big screen as earnest young Steve Dallas; he of course went on to smell success with TV’s ROUTE 66 and ADAM-12. Susan Harrison (Susie) didn’t; she’s best remembered as the ballerina in the TWILGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Barbara Nichols shines as not-so-naïve Rita, a small but standout role. Barbara’s other credits include THE KING & 4 QUEENS, PAL JOEY, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and the cult sci-fi flick THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS. Another small part cast David White as the lascivious Elwell; he’s known to TV viewers as BEWITCHED’s Larry Tate. Other Familiar Faces among the denizens of this dirty little town are Sam Levene , Edith Atwater, Jeff Donnell, Lawrence Dobkin, John Fiedler, Bess Flowers Emile Meyer , Queenie Smith, Lurene Tuttle, and Phillip Van Zandt . Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton plays himself, and vaudeville veteran Joe Frisco plays a comedian.

“I love this dirty little town”

The choice of director was an unusual one. This was Alexander Mackendrick’s first American film, after helming such Ealing Studios comedies as THE MAN IN THE WHTE SUIT and THE LADYKILLERS. It turned out to be a good one; the British director, aided and abetted by the great James Wong Howe as DP, perfectly capture the grittiness of Times Square nightlife in the 50’s, making the area a character itself. Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score (along with some  Chico Hamilton Quintet bebop numbers) add to the flavor of the film. SWEET SMALL OF SUCCESS did not do well at the box office upon release, as audiences were undoubtably turned off by it’s repulsive main characters. Only later has it become a classic, one of the best in the noir canon, certainly one of the decade’s best movies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower!

One in Eight Million: NAKED CITY (Universal-International 1948)

Producer Mark Hellinger, who brought you the film noir classics THE KILLERS and BRUTE FORCE , traveled to the mean streets of New York City to shoot  NAKED CITY, along with director Jules Dassin and a solid cast led by Barry Fitzgerald. The movie, though fiction, is shot in docu-drama style, with Hellinger himself providing narration throughout. It was an attempt to do something boldly different with the genre, and it succeeds thanks to the talents in front and behind the cameras.

Beautiful young model Jean Dexter is found by her housekeeper brutally murdered in the bathtub. The homicide squad, with veteran Lt. Dan Muldoon and rookie detective Jimmy Halloran, gets to work investigating the case. They discover Jean had been seeing a mysterious man from Baltimore named Henderson. The team then begins the slow, methodical process of catching a killer, pulling on the loose strings of Dexter’s life. Their number one suspect becomes lying young wastrel Frank Niles, engaged to Dexter’s model friend Ruth Morrison. Through dogged determination and old-fashioned footwork, they’re led to a harmonica-playing ex-wrestler named Willie Garzah, who leads them on a chase through the gritty streets of New York, winding up on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, where the real murderer is finally shot down and killed.

Barry Fitzgerald excels as the no-nonsense veteran cop. Lt. Dan Muldoon is a far cry from his Father Fitzgibbon in GOING MY WAY or Michaleen Oge Flynn in THE QUIET MAN , but Fitzgerald still displays that old Irish charm. His partner Halloran is played by Don Taylor, whose star would soon be on the rise in films like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and STALAG 17. It fell just as quickly, and Taylor turned to directing, helming ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU among others. Howard Duff’s star was also on the rise as the cad Niles; Duff would later star in his own police procedural TV series THE FELONY SQUAD.

Ted de Corsia  makes a most memorable villain as the brutish Willie Garzah. Though Garzah is spotted throughout the film, our first real encounter finds Halloran tracking the thug to his sparse apartment, where he’s stripped to the waste and incessantly working out. After rabbit-punching Halloran into unconsciousness, Garzah takes it on the lam. He’s so mean he even kills a seeing-eye dog along the way before going down in a blaze of inglory atop the Williamsburg Bridge. De Corsia (who also appeared in the noirs LADY FROM SHANGHAI, THE ENFORCER, THE BIG COMBO, THE KILLING, and several Westerns) makes Willie Garzah one of the vilest villains in film noir history, and that’s saying a lot!

Adelaide Klein & Grover Burgess as the grieving parents

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City”, and it seems there are also as many Familiar Faces roaming its streets, many of whom make their Silver Screen debuts. Among the throng of humanity you’ll spot cast members Dorothy Hart, Frank Conroy, and House Jameson, and in smaller bits Jean Adair, Walter Burke Paul Ford Kathleen Freeman , Bruce Gordon, James Gregory , Robert H. Harris, Enid Markey (who was Tarzan’s first Jane opposite Elmo Lincoln back in 1918!), John Marley, Arthur O’Connell, David Opatoshu, Nehemiah Persoff, Molly Picon, and John Randolph. A special Cracked Rear Viewer round of applause goes to actors Adelaide Klein and Grover Burgess as the victim’s parents; their few scenes are brief but packed with such raw emotion I felt I just had to give them a shout-out!

circa 1944: Polish-born American photographer Arthur Fellig (1899 – 1969) with his Speed Graphic camera. He was known by the police as ‘Weegee’ for his ouija-like prescience of crime scenes and disasters. In fact he kept a radio in his car tuned to the police frequency, and was often able to reach the scene before the police themselves. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

The screenplay by Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald was inspired by a book of photographs titled NAKED CITY by famed photojournalist Weegee , noted for his uncompromising pictures of life in the urban jungle. The film earned two Academy Awards, for William Daniels’  stark cinematography and Paul Wetherwax’s precise editing, and spawned a later television show in the late 50’s/early 60’s. The score is credited to both Miklos Rozsa and Frank Skinner, but who is responsible for what I just don’t know. NAKED CITY was Mark Hellinger’s last film; he died of a heart attack while watching the final cut three months before it’s release. He certainly went out on a high note, as the film has become one of the most influential of its ilk. The New York locations make this a must for history buffs and film buffs alike, giving us an up-close-and-personal look at a bygone era as well as one of the greatest films noir of all time.

The real star of “The Naked City” – The big Apple circa 1947

 

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.