Diluted Noir: Robert Mitchum in THE RACKET (RKO 1951)

racket1

A solid film noir cast headed by Robert Mitchum Robert Ryan , and Lizabeth Scott ; and a lineage that dates back to both a Broadway smash and an Oscar-nominated original can’t save THE RACKET from rising above minor status. Once again, tinkering behind the scenes by RKO honcho Howard Hughes, this time under pressure from Hollywood censorship czar Joseph I. Breen, scuttles a promising premise that coulda been a contender into an average movie.

racket2

City crime boss Nick Scanlon is an old-school hood whose violent ways don’t jibe with the modern-day syndicate. Capt. Thomas McQuigg, “an honest cop” who’s a no-nonsense guy, is determined to take him down. But the city’s rife with tainted politicians, making McQuigg’s job that much harder. Scanlon’s got a headstrong kid brother named Joe dating a “cheap canary” named Irene, and McQuigg plans on using him to get to Nick. Add a crooked DA, a virtuous young cop on the rise, a newspaper reporter, and a detective on the take, and you’ve got a recipe for slam-bang gangland entertainment.

racket3

Not so fast! Breen objected to several plot points, including Irene’s profession (she was supposed to be a hooker), some of the more violent aspects, and the fact that the bent detective gets away with murder. He called the film “a new low in crime screen stories” and “thoroughly and completely uacceptable within the provisions of the Production Code” (source: American Film Institute). Hughes and his producer Edmond Grainger made extensive changes, turning Irene into a nightclub singer, cutting out some violence, and making sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Sam Fuller was brought in to doctor the script, and Nicholas Ray, Tay Garnett, and Grainger himself reshot some scenes. The result is an average crime drama that, while still retaining some power, fails to rise above it’s restraints imposed by the Code.

Director John Cromwell and the stars of "The Racket"
Director John Cromwell and the stars of “The Racket”

Director John Cromwell had starred in the original 1927 Broadway production as McQuigg, along with a promising young actor named Edward G. Robinson. He knew the material better than anyone associated with this version, and must’ve been supremely disappointed at what they did with his film (Cromwell was soon to be blacklisted by the odious HUAC Commie hunters). William Wister Haines and W.R. Burnett’s tough-talking script was taken out of their hands and sanitized (Burnett also knew this territory, having penned the screenplays for LITTLE CAESAR, THE BEAST OF THE CITY , and SCARFACE). DP George Diskant’s camerawork retains some flashes of his brilliance, but nowhere near his work in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT or KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

racket5

The performances by leads Mitchum and Ryan still hold up, with Ryan particulary brutal as the ruthless Nick. Scott’s role was changed so much it seems like she lost interest in it halfway through. William Talman is a good guy for once as the honest young cop who looks up to McQuigg, paying for it with his life. Ray Collins as the D.A in the pocket of the syndicate shines, as does William Conrad as the detective who acts as enforcer for the gangsters. The film’s loaded with Familiar Faces, including Robert Hutton as the reporter smitten with Irene, and Don Beddoe , Brett King, Harry Lauter, Eddie Parker, Don Porter , Walter Sande, Milburn Stone , Les Tremayne, and Herb Vigran .

racket4

THE RACKET is okay for what it is, but when I think about what it could have been, I just shake my head. The early Fifties were a time of extreme paranoia in Hollywood, with both the censors and the Communist witch hunters clamping down on anything that didn’t jibe with their party line, making them just as bad as the other side. I haven’t seen the rarely-screened 1928 silent version (which lost the Oscar to WINGS), so I can’t really compare the two. What we’re left with is a film that’s like drinking a shot of watered-down booze; unsatisfying and in need of a stronger kick. If there’s any “classic” film in desperate need of a remake, this would be it. Are you listening, Hollywood?                 

All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Jane Russell in THE LAS VEGAS STORY (RKO 1952)

lvs1

Jane Russell’s  sexy as always, but THE LAS VEGAS STORY falls flatter than the proverbial pancake. This dull little crime drama boasts a good cast and some good moments, but on the whole doesn’t satisfy. One of the problems is Jane’s co-star Victor Mature, who tries but can’t match the cynicism frequent Russell co-star Robert Mitchum would’ve brought to the role of Jane’s jilted ex-lover, now a cop in the City of Sin. The most interesting thing about THE LAS VEGAS STORY is it’s screenplay credits, which we’ll get to later.

lvs2

When ex-lounge singer Linda Rollins (Russell) returns to Vegas with husband Lloyd (a subdued but still sarcastic Vincent Price ), she visits her old stomping ground the Last Chance, where she’s greeted by piano player Happy (Hoagy Carmichael) and former boss Mike Fogarty (Will Wright), who’s been bought out by new owner Clayton (Robert J. Wilke). Police lieutenant Dave Andrews (Mature), Linda’s ex, comes along and is still angry over being dumped by Linda.

Lloyd’s got problems of his own, having embezzled big bucks from his firm in Boston, and uses Linda’s $150,000 diamond necklace to get a line of credit from Clayton, which results in him losing both the dough and the necklace. Sleazy insurance investigator Hubler ( Brad Dexter ) has been following the Rollins’s, keeping his eye on the prize. When Clayton is found murdered late one night, Dave arrests Lloyd for the crime, but the real killer is still on the loose…

lvs3

Jane’s undeniable charms make the movie watchable, whether it’s in flashback singing “Of Course I Do” (complete with Bettie Page-style ‘do!) or a brief but sexy shower scene. RKO boss Howard Hughes knew how to use her attributes to maximum effect, and her acting ability didn’t suffer for it. When it comes to Victor Mature, he’s good when given the right role (see MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or I WAKE UP SCREAMING for example), but here he’s just dull. Robert Stevenson’s pedestrian direction doesn’t help matters, as even the chase scene through the desert, culminating in a climactic duel at a shut-down army base, fails to kick into high gear. It’s a shame, because the movie had potential, but the lackluster effort put into it causes it to sink under its own weight.

Hoagy Carmichael is good as Happy, and brightens up the proceedings whenever he’s on screen. The composer of standards like “Georgia On My Mind” and “Stardust” acted in films before, most memorably with Bogie and Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and wrote the songs for this one, including a funny ditty called “The Monkey Song”:

Screenwriter Paul Jarrico (left) at HUAC hearings
Screenwriter Paul Jarrico (left) at HUAC hearings

Earl Fenton and Harry Essex are credited with the uninspired screenplay, but Paul Jarrico also contributed. Jarrico’s name was taken off the credits by Hughes because he’d been named as a communist sympathizer by HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) during the blacklist era. Jarrico, who wrote the films THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , THOUSANDS CHEER, and SONG OF RUSSIA (a film named pro-Soviet propaganda by HUAC), sued to restore his name and lost, the court ruling Jarrico was in violation of the studio’s morals clause. This in turn gave studios free rein to use blacklisted writer’s work without crediting them, or paying them fairly for their toils, either. Jarrcio was booted out of Hollywood, later making SALT OF THE EARTH with fellow blacklistee Herbert Biberman (which became the only FILM to be blacklisted because of its writer and director!) and moving to Europe to ply his trade for another twenty years.

All this behind-the-scenes bullshit didn’t matter to moviegoers, as THE LAS VEGAS STORY bombed at the box office. The film’s definitely minor league, despite a fine cast, and I really don’t think Mr. Jarrico should’ve wasted his time on it. Neither should you; go watch Jane steam up the screen with Mitchum in HIS KIND OF WOMAN or MACAO instead.

Double Dynamite: Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in MACAO (RKO 1952)

macao1

Even though 1951’s HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money (mainly due to studio boss Howard Hughes’ meddling), Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell were reteamed the following year in MACAO. The film was actually sitting on the RKO shelf, having been completed in 1950. Once again, the autocratic Hughes wasn’t pleased with the original version, and fired credited director Josef von Sternberg, replacing him with Nicholas Ray. Mitchum himself even contributed to rewriting some scenes. The result is an entertaining noir that, while not quite as good as HIS KIND OF WOMAN, still manages to hold your interest.

macao3

On a boat from Hong Kong, drifter Nick Cochran (Mitchum) meets grifter Julie Benson (Russell), who lifts his wallet. The pair also meet Lawrence C. Trumble (William Bendix), a salesman specializing in “nylons, pearl buttons, coconut oil, and fertilizer”.  The three are headed to Macao, “The Monte Carlo of the Orient” (actually the RKO backlot), for various reasons. Julie gets a job as a singer working for crime lord Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter):

Halloran’s got the local cops (led by Thomas Gomez) in his hip pocket. He’s also got a moll named Margie (the always welcome Gloria Grahame ), who’s jealous of his attention to Julie. Nick’s looking for work, too, but Halloran doesn’t trust him. He thinks Nick’s a New York cop trying to extradite him. Salesman Trumble has a deal for Nick to make some dough: he’s got a hot diamond necklace stashed in Hing Kong, and will cut Nick in on the deal if Nick can arrange for Halloran to buy it. This sets in motion plenty of trouble for all involved, but have no fear! Things turn out well in the end, and Nick winds up with Julie (like you just knew he would!)

macao2

I liked MACAO, but not as much as HIS KIND OF WOMAN. The team of Mitchum and Russell still crackles with sexual heat, the supporting cast is good, and the movie’s exciting enough. There’s a reason it sat on the shelf for two years, and I think I know what it is: the movie feels like they just lost interest and gave up on it about halfway through. Kind of like I’m doing here with this review.  It’s not the best, not the worst either. It’s kind of an average RKO/Mitchum entry, but that’s still better than a lot of films of that era. I’d watch it again, and if you get the chance, give it a try. You can do a lot worse than seeing Mitchum and Russell go at it again!

Pounded to Death by Gorillas: HIS KIND OF WOMAN (RKO 1951)

hiskind1

People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is; they go there to eat popcorn, be happy“- Wynton (Jim Backus) in HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Right you are, Mr. Howell, err Backus. There’s an abundance of fun to be had in HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the quintessential RKO/Robert Mitchum movie. Big Bob costars with sexy Jane Russell in a convoluted tale that’s part film noir, part Monty Python, with an outstanding all-star cast led by Vincent Price serving up big slices of ham as a self-obsessed movie star. And the backstory behind HIS KIND OF WOMAN is as entertaining as the picture itself!

hiskind2

But we’ll go behind the scenes later. First, let’s look at the movie’s plot. We meet down on his luck gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) in a bar…. drinking milk! Dan just got done doing a 30 day stretch in a Palm Springs jail “for nothin'” (an in-joke reference to Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust ). He returns to his apartment only to be greeted by three goons, who promptly beat the crap out of him. He’s made an offer he can’t refuse to clear his debt: accept $50,000 and move to Mexico for a year, no questions asked. Dan’s no dummy; he takes the offer.

What he doesn’t know is that deported vice lord and “upper crust crumb” Nick Ferraro (bulky Raymond Burr) plans to hijack Dan’s identity and return to the states. While Dan waits for his plane at a crummy cantina, he meets songbird Leonore Brent (Russell):

The heat is on between Dan and Leonore, and their sexually charged banter crackles throughout the film. Leonore is heading to the same place as Dan: Morro’s Lodge, a swanky hotspot for the idle rich. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, none of whom are what they seem. There’s Morro (Phillip Van Zandt), who’s comfortable on both sides of the fence,  Krafft (John Mylong) a chess playing writer with a past, Wynton (Backus) a cheery sort who likes to play cards and hustle young women, and Thompson (Charles McGraw ), who’s mixed up in Dan’s deal.

hiskind3

Then there’s Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan, played by the one and only Vincent Price, and he’s a hoot. Price has a field day as the vain blowhard in the Errol Flynn mold (when his latest swashbuckler is screened, a wag says, “It has a message no pigeon would carry”). His Cardigan has a thing going on with Leonore, that is until his wife (Marjorie Reynolds) shows up to put a halt to it. Whether spouting Shakespeare or rousing up a rescue party, Price shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably his best non-horror role, and he plays it up for all he’s worth.

Back to the story: Dan’s biding his time, waiting to get paid off, while Krafft and Thompson are always lurking in the background. A hurricane is brewing, and a drunken pilot (Tim Holt) barrels through it. But he’s not really a lush, he’s Federal agent Lusk, and he spills the beans to Dan about Ferraro’s scheme to make a patsy out of Dan. Lusk is killed by Thompson, Dan’s kidnapped by Ferraro’s goons, and taken to the gangster’s yacht to await certain doom.  Macho man Cardigan leads the Mexican police on a raid, and a battle ensues. Dan finally breaks free in time to save Cardigan from Ferraro, and the good guys are victorious! Dan and Leonore get together at last and have the final say in a memorably STEAMY ending!

hiskind4

That ending wasn’t the one concocted by credited writers Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard and director John Farrow. They weren’t even involved in it. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, feeling it wasn’t exciting enough. Hughes hired director Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Fenton, who’d just wrapped up filming on another RKO noir, THE NARROW MARGIN. The three brainstormed a new ending, building a replica of Ferraro’s yacht inside the studio’s water tank for the added action. This put the film way behind schedule, but there was more to come. When Hughes viewed the footage, he decided the actor playing Ferraro (Robert J. Wilke, later Captain Nemo’s first mate in Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ) wasn’t appropriately menacing enough. Recalling seeing Raymond Burr in another film, Hughes recast the role, and Fleischer had to reshoot all the scenes featuring Ferraro!

hiskind5

Hopelessly over budget due to Hughes’ tinkering, HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money at the box office. Today aficionados see it as a camp classic, a romp through film noir territory unlike any other of its day. Mitchum and Russell make an attractive screen team, Price is a riot, and the rest of the cast is more than up to par. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Tol Avery, Danny Borzage, Anthony Caruso, Robert Cornthwaite, King Donovan, Paul Frees, and Carlton Young, not to mention a very young Mamie Van Doren. There’s no other film in the noir canon quite like HIS KIND OF WOMAN, so put it on your must-watch list today.

Swing and a Miss: Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue in WHERE DANGER LIVES (RKO 1950)

wdl1

I have mixed feelings about WHERE DANGER LIVES. On the plus side, it features Robert Mitchum in a solid role as a young doctor trapped in beautiful Faith Domergue’s web. John Farrow’s direction is tight, the script by Charles Bennett is full of twists and turns, and Nicholas Musuraca turns in another atmospheric job as cinematographer. But there are two major flaws that make this film noir fall just short of classic status.

Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) is about to leave work for a date with his fiancée, nurse Julie (Maureen O’Sullivan, wife of director Farrow and mother of actress Mia) when an emergency arrives. A young woman (Domergue) has attempted suicide. Jeff saves her life, but the woman, calling herself ‘Margo’, is still despondent, stating she “has nothing to live for”. The next day, Jeff gets a telegram asking him to meet ‘Margo’ at a certain address. The address turns out to be a mansion, and the woman explains her full name is Margaret Lannington, giving Jeff a vague story about being “lonely” since her mother died, and living under the thumb of her rich father (Claude Rains).

wdl2

Jeff blows off faithful Julie and begins dating Margo, falling madly in love with her in the process. Margo tells Jeff her father is sending her off to Nassau to get away from him. Jeff gets drunk and decides to confront dad at the mansion. Jeff is shocked when he finds out Mr. Lannington isn’t Margo’s father, but her husband! Dejected and disillusioned, Jeff leaves, but returns when he hears a scream from the house. Margo’s ear is bleeding, claiming hubby ripped her earring out, and Jeff gets into a fight with Lannington. The older man hits Jeff with a poker, but Jeff knocks him out. Woozy from the blow to the head, Jeff goes to the kitchen to get water for Lannington. When he comes back, Margo claims her husband is dead, and the pair take it on the lam.

wdl3

Jeff’s suffering from a concussion, and struggles to remain conscious. Jeff lets Margo take the lead, and she slowly begins to unravel. The duo head to Mexico, encountering trouble at every stop. Jeff finally finds out the truth about Margo (she suffers from mental illness), and learns through a radio broadcast that Mr. Lannington was smothered to death by a pillow. Margo gets her comeuppance in the end…and then there’s a sappy ending with Jeff getting treated for his concussion in the hospital, faithful Julie waiting patiently by his door.

wdl4

This ending just doesn’t feel right to me. It seems like it was tacked on for the sake of a happy denoument, and just doesn’t fit the dark tone of the film. Though Jeff is innocent of murder, he isn’t completely blameless in the whole matter. It was Jeff who initiated the whole sordid affair with Margo, kicking Julie to the curb along the way. Julie’s gotta be some kind of doormat to take him back after all he did to her. Then there’s Faith Domergue. One of Howard Hughes’s pet projects, Faith is a desirable woman for sure, yet leaves much to be desired as an actress. She comes off wooden, unable to project the emotions necessary as Margo, and though she tries her best, it hurts the movie as a whole. Most of WHERE DANGER LIVES is good, except those two little things….the ending and the costar. Mitchum fans will still want to see it. Too bad RKO couldn’t get Jane Greer (Out of the Past) to reunite with Mitchum on this one. I guess you’ll have to judge for yourselves, but as for me, WHERE DANGER LIVES is a minor effort in the noir canon.