Crashing Out: Humphrey Bogart in HIGH SIERRA (Warner Brothers 1941)

Humphrey Bogart played yet another gangster in Raoul Walsh’s HIGH SIERRA, but this time things were different. Bogie had spent the past five years at Warner Brothers mired in supporting gangster parts and leads in ‘B’ movies, but when he read John Huston and W.R. Burnett’s screenplay, he knew this role would put him over the top. James Cagney and Paul Muni both turned it down, and George Raft was penciled in to star, until Bogie put a bug in his ear and Raft also refused it. Bogart lobbied hard for the role of Roy Earle, and his instincts were right: not only did HIGH SIERRA make him a star at last, it led to him getting the lead in his next picture THE MALTESE FALCON , the directorial debut of his good friend Huston.

Roy Earle is an old-school criminal pardoned from an Indiana prison thanks to the machinations of gang boss Big Mac, who wants Roy to take charge of a big-time money and jewel heist at a California resort. Roy’s been locked up a long time, and this caper will finance the freedom he’s always longed for, a way to “crash out” of the life for good. Along the way, he has an encounter with the Goodhue family, farm people like himself, whose pretty daughter Velma was born with a club foot. Roy’s enchanted by the young girl, and gets the idea in his head to pay for her operation and ask her to marry him after his job’s complete.

Roy heads to a camping grounds in the Sierra mountains to meet his new cohorts, a pair of inexperienced hotheads named Red and Babe, who’ve brought along a “dime-a-dance” girl, Marie, and “inside man” Mendoza. The veteran gangster doesn’t like the idea of having a dame around, but the girl, who has nowhere else to go except back to her sordid dance hall life, persuades him to let her stay. A mutt in the camp called Pard starts following Roy around, and the two kind of adopt each other, despite warnings from caretaker Algernon that the pooch brings bad luck to whomever he attaches himself.

Things start to go downhill, as Roy returns to the now-cured Velma, who rejects him. The heist goes awry when a security guard shows up and Roy is forced to plug him with lead.  A police chase ensues, with the panicked Mendoza tagging along, leading to death for the wet-behind-the-ears thugs. Roy and Marie manage to escape, but Mendoza rats, and the manhunt is on. Big Mac dies of a heart attack, and his lieutenant Kranmer tries to pull a fast one, resulting in another notch on Roy’s belt. He sends Marie away and makes it for the High Sierras, where “Mad Dog” Earle (as the papers have salaciously dubbed him) makes his last stand….

Everyone seems to be damaged goods in the powerhouse screenplay by Huston and Burnett. Roy Earle can’t shake his past, no matter what he does, and in the end finds his elusive freedom only in death. Marie, played by top-billed Ida Lupino , is a broken soul from an abusive home, who creates a family of her own with Roy and Pard. Velma (Joan Leslie) was born with a deformity, yet when she has her operation turns ungrateful towards Roy. Red and Babe (Arthur Kennedy,  Alan Curtis ) are wanna-be tough guys in way over their heads. Kranmer (Barton MacLane) is an ex-cop now on the wrong side of the law. Big Mac (Donald MacBride) suffers from a “bum ticker” due to his life of excess. Even Pa and Ma Goodhue (Henry Travers, Elisabeth Risdon), decent  folks they may be, are fleeing a life of poverty in their native Ohio.

Walsh’s direction is top-notch, as always, and DP Tony Gaudio gets some breathtaking location shots on Mount Whitney.  The rest of the cast features Henry Hull as a crime doctor, Willie Best in a rare dramatic role as Algernon, young Cornel Wilde as Mendoza, Jerome Cowan as a reporter, and Eddie Acuff, Dorothy Appleby, Wade Boteler, Spencer Charters, James Flavin, Isabel Jewell, and George Lloyd. Pard is played by Bogie’s real-life pooch Zero! And stuntman Buster Wiles appears on camera as the sharpshooter who nails Roy… and performs the stunt of tumbling down that treacherous mountain, which basically means Wiles kills himself!

“Thanks, George!”: Raft and Bogie in 1939’s “Invisible Stripes”

There’s a strong MALTESE FALCON connection, with Bogart, Huston, Cowan, and MacLane all participating in the film noir classic. But it’s HIGH SIERRA that made that movie possible, again thanks to George Raft, who turned down the part of Sam Spade to appear in Walsh’s next film, MANPOWER. Walsh remade this film eight years later as a Western, COLORADO TERRITORY, with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo, and the story was refilmed in 1955 as I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. I haven’t seen the former, but have viewed the latter, and there’s no comparison. HIGH SIERRA is mountains above it, and remains a bona fide gangster classic.

Pre Code Confidential #26: THREE ON A MATCH (Warner Brothers 1932)


Mervyn LeRoy is usually talked about today as a producer and director of classy, prestige pictures, but he first made his mark in the down-and-dirty world of Pre-Code films. LeRoy ushered in the gangster cycle with LITTLE CAESAR, making a star out of Edward G. Robinson, then followed up with Eddie G in the grimy tabloid drama FIVE STAR FINAL . I AM A FUGITVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tackled brutal penal conditions in the South, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured half-naked showgirls and the Depression Era anthem “Remember My Forgotten Man”, and HEAT LIGHTNING was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency! LeRoy’s style in these early films was pedal-to-the-metal excitement, and THREE ON A MATCH is an outstanding example.

The film follows three young ladies from their schoolgirl days to adulthood: there’s wild child Mary, studious Ruth, and ‘most popular’ Vivien. I loved the way writer Lucien Hubbard’s script is structured, with headlines and music of the day preceding looks in on the girls at various periods of their lives. Mary winds up in a women’s reformatory before becoming a chorus girl, studious Ruth goes to business school and remains studious, while Vivien settles into society by marrying rich lawyer Bob Kirkland and having a son.

Then we focus on modern (1932) times, as Vivien is discontent with her life,  longing to break free of convention and her loveless marriage (at least, loveless on her part). A chance meeting with old pal Mary leads her to meeting Michael Loftus, who immediately puts the moves on Viv. The heavy drinking, gambling Loftus turns her on, and she vanishes with her child, shacking up with the degenerate and joining him on the road to ruin.

Bob is determined to get his son back, and Mary is also concerned that Vivien’s out-of-control drinking and partying is causing her to neglect the boy, so she drops a dime to Bob, who not only reclaims his kid and divorces Viv, but marries Mary and makes Ruth the governess! Vivien is now a destitute alcoholic and drug addict, and borrows money from Mary to help pay Michael’s gambling debts. But it’s not nearly enough, so Michael tries to blackmail Bob by threatening to reveal Mary’s sordid past. His gambit fails, so he gets the bright idea to kidnap Junior, which leads to the vicious gangsters he owes money to wanting a piece of the action….

And all this happens in just a swift 63 minutes! Ann Dvorak plays the part of Vivien for all its worth, going from ‘The Girl Most Likely To Succeed’ to ‘America’s Most Wanted’, and her descent into degradation is astounding. ‘Wild Child’ Mary is played by who else but everybody’s favorite Pre-Code Dame, Joan Blondell . Studious Ruth doesn’t get to do much but be studious, which is a shame, since she’s played by Bette Davis in one of her earliest roles. A pair of Pre-Code he-men, Warren William and Lyle Talbot , play Bob and Michael, respectively.

One of the kidnappers, the snarling Harve, is none other than Humphrey Bogart in just his tenth feature. It’s Bogie’s first screen gangster part, and seems like a precursor to his later Duke Mantee character in THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Familiar Faces abound in lesser roles: Edward Arnold (Bogie’s gangster boss), Herman Bing, Clara Blandick (‘Aunty Em’ herself as Joanie’s mom), Frankie Darro , Patricia Ellis, Glenda Farrell (in a cameo as one of Joan’s cellmates), June Gittleson, Allen Jenkins and Jack LaRue (Bogie’s murderous cohorts), Sidney Miller, Grant Mitchell, Buster Phelps (the annoyingly cute boy), Anne Shirley (Vivien as a child), and Sheila Terry. Allegedly, a 12-year-old Jack Webb is one of the schoolyard kids.

THREE ON A MATCH is a Red-Hot (sorry) Pre-Code that got Warners in hot water with the censors for its parallels to the then-in-the-news Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. Some posed publicity stills of Joan also caused quite a stir:

That’s Our Joanie, always causing trouble! The stills were banned after the Production Code went into effect, but most Pre-Code fans know about them  by now, thanks to the Internet. Racy and ripped from the headlines of the day, THREE ON A MATCH is a must-see for fans of the Pre-Code Era!

THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

Face the Darkness: Bogie & Bacall in DARK PASSAGE (Warner Brothers 1947)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” concludes with the genre’s biggest icon, Humphrey Bogart (and he’s bringing Lauren Bacall along for the ride!):

The year 1947 belonged to film noir, as some of the dark genre’s true classics saw the light of day: Robert Mitchum donned that iconic trenchcoat in OUT OF THE PAST , Richard Widmark snarled his way through KISS OF DEATH, Burt Lancaster battled sadistic Hume Cronyn with BRUTE FORCE , Tyrone Power got trapped in NIGHTMARE ALLEY , Rita Hayworth bedeviled Orson Welles as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , Ronald Colman won an Oscar as a cracked actor leading A DOUBLE LIFE, and Lawrence Tierney terrorized the hell out of everyone in his path in BORN TO KILL . Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, noir’s power couple thanks to the previous year’s THE BIG SLEEP , teamed again for DARK PASSAGE, an slam-bang crime drama that may not be quite on a par with those mentioned above, but more than holds its own in the film noir canon.

The movie starts in a unique way, as the subjective camerawork by DP Sid Hickox allows us to see things through the eyes of Bogart’s Vincent Parry, a convicted wife killer who’s escaped from San Quentin. I found this to be most annoying in Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (released earlier in ’47), but unlike that film, not every frame is shot from Parry’s perspective, proving one again that less is more. Parry hitches a ride with a stranger who recognizes him, and he’s forced to knock the dude out. Pulling him into the roadside brush and changing clothes with him, Parry is stunned when a woman he’s never met, Irene Janson, pulls over and offers to help him.

Turns out Irene knows Parry’s former flame Madge, who was instrumental in getting Parry convicted. Irene’s own father was falsely accused of murdering his second wife and died in prison, and Irene believes Parry’s innocent as well. Now calling himself Alan Linnell, Parry meets a chatty cabby named Sam, who  hooks him up with Dr. Coly, a disgraced plastic surgeon who gives him a new face. When Parry goes to his pal George’s apartment to heal, he finds his friend’s also been murdered, and now he has to turn to Irene for help in clearing himself in two murders…

We don’t get to see Bogie’s mug until almost halfway through the film, which went up Jack Warner’s craw sideways, but once we do things really begin to heat up. Writer/director Delmer Daves crafted a corker of a tale based on a novel by hardboiled pulp author David Goodis, though there are some gaps in logic and too much reliance on coincidence to make this one thoroughly believable. But that doesn’t really matter, as we get a fast-paced thriller with Bogie and Bacall torching the screen once again. Daves started as a screenwriter (including Bogie’s early hit THE PETRIFIED FOREST) before making his directorial debut with DESTINATION TOKYO. He has many good-to-great films on his resume, like THE RED HOUSE, BROKEN ARROW, JUBAL, 3:10 TO YUMA , KINGS GO FORTH, THE HANGING TREE, and the blockbuster A SUMMER PLACE, and if you haven’t discovered his work yet, you should!

Agnes Moorehead  is a real bitch as Madge, the jilted lover who got Parry nailed for murder, though cinema crime solvers will have ‘whodunnit’ figured out pretty quick. Bruce Bennett appears as Irene’s wannabe beau Bob, Tom D’Andrea is good as Sam the cabby, Douglas Kennedy plays a detective on Parry’s trail, and ex-Our Gang member Clifton Young is the jerk Baker, a self-described “small time crook” who first gives Parry a lift, then returns with blackmail on his mind. And that picture of a pre-surgery Parry in the newspaper pre-plastic surgery is actor Frank Wilcox.

Franz Waxman  contributes another memorable score, and the song “Too Marvelous for Words” (written by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting) serves as a love theme, vocalized by big band singer Jo Stafford. DARK PASSAGE may not be 1947’s top film noir, but it’s an entertaining little number that held my interest all the way til the end. Plus, it’s got Bogie and Bacall – what more could you ask for?

The Big Let-Down: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (Warner Brothers 1947)

You would think THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS is just the type of movie I’d love. It’s a Warner Brothers pic from the 1940’s, it’s got Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck , there’s mystery and murder, a Gothic atmosphere… and yet, I didn’t love it, or particularly like it, either. For the first three-quarters, it’s too mannered, slow-moving, and (the cardinal sin) boring for my tastes. Things do pick up a bit towards the end, with Bogie menacing Babs alone in that gloomy mansion, but the denouement failed to satisfy me.

There are a number of reasons why the movie just doesn’t work. It was filmed in 1945, but held back two years by the studio for some reason or another (reports vary). Director Peter Godfrey, a Stanwyck favorite, just wasn’t up to the task of creating much suspense. Then again, the screenplay by Thomas Job practically gives everything away early on, so much that there’s really no suspense to be had. We already know Bogie poisoned his first wife to be with Barbara, and once he takes up with Alexis Smith and Stanwyck falls ill, we know exactly what’s going on. In the hands of, say, Alfred Hitchcock , perhaps we’d have a different, more suspenseful film, but Godfrey’s plodding direction fails to deliver the goods.

Then there’s Bogart, a fish out of water among all the Gothic trappings. I love Bogie, he’s one of my favorites of the classic era, but he just doesn’t feel like he belongs here as an artist with an insane streak. I could see someone like Errol Flynn (who costarred with Stanwyck in Godfrey’s similar CRY WOLF that same year) or maybe Paul Henreid (who was announced for the role during pre-production) pulling it off, but Bogie’s just flat-out not right for the part. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS sometimes gets lumped in as a film noir (as it seems too many films do these days), but it’s a far cry from that stylistic genre. It’s more a Gothic mystery, and doesn’t make the grade in that department either, thanks to Godfrey’s mishandling of the material and Bogart’s weak performance.

The supporting cast doesn’t help matters much. Ann Carter, who was brilliant as the lonely child in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, is stiff and wooden as Bogart’s daughter Bea. Nigel Bruce goes for laughs as Stanwyck’s doctor, but doesn’t achieve any. Alexis Smith is okay as Bogart’s next conquest, but isn’t given a lot to do except look good. Anita Sharp-Bolster (MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS ) gives the best performance as the housekeeper Christine, a decidedly minor role. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS certainly looks good, with Anton Grot’s set design and Peverell Marley’s cinematography helping a bit, and has a great dramatic score by Franz Waxman . But looks aren’t everything, and I can think of dozens of films starring Humphrey Bogart or Barbara Stanwyck I’d rather watch than this tedious, tired film. I bet you can, too.

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!)

 

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3

To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest DA who pumps the brakes when the politicians, fearing the wrath of the voters demanding action, pressure the police chief (Lee J. Cobb ) into arresting somebody – anybody – for the murder. But it’s Arthur Kennedy who steals the show as a down on his luck WWII veteran caught up in the hysteria, put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit so political hacks can save (as Mel Brooks would say ) their phoney-baloney jobs. The cast is loaded with marvelous actors, including Jane Wyatt as Andrews’ wife, Cara Williams as Kennedy’s bitter ex-girlfriend, Ed Begley as a shady pol, Sam Levene as a muckraking reporter, and a young Karl Malden as one of Cobb’s detectives. Cobb sums the whole thing up best: “Never did like politicians”. Amen to that, Lee J! BOOMERANG is a noir you won’t want to miss.

Director Nicholas Ray contributed a gem to the noir canon with IN A LONELY PLACE (Columbia 1950) . Noir icon Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murdering a hat check girl. Steele has a violent history well-known to the police, but new neighbor Laurel Grey (another noir icon, Gloria Grahame ) provides him with an alibi. Bogart, as the obviously off-center writer who may or may not have killed the girl, goes deep into his dark side, giving one of his best screen performances – and that’s saying a lot! The viewer is never quite certain if Dixon Steele did the deed until the very end, as Bogart’s psycho scenarist keeps everyone off-balance.

Grahame is one cool customer at first, but as things progress and Bogart’s rage rises to the surface, she becomes more and more frightened of him. Grahame and Ray were married while making IN A LONELY PLACE, but the union was becoming unraveled by this time, and they would soon separate. Frank Lovejoy, whom I’ve always thought was a very underrated actor, plays Steele’s former Army buddy, now a cop on the case. I especially enjoyed Robert Warwick as Charlie Waterman, the alcoholic former screen star who relies on Steele for handouts. Other Familiar Faces include Carl Benton Reid, Morris Ankrum , Jeff Donnell, and famous restaurateur ‘Prince’ Michael Romanoff, a friend of Bogie’s playing (what else?) a restaurateur. If you love movies about the dark side of Hollywood, IN A LONELY PLACE is for you!

Joseph Losey’s THE PROWLER (United Artists 1951) gives us Van Heflin as an obsessed cop who falls for married Evelyn Keyes after responding to a peeping tom call. Heflin delivers a dynamite performance as the narcissistic ex-jock turned officer, unhappy with his lot in life, who has most everyone fooled he’s a “wonderful guy”. Keyes is alone most nights because her husband works the overnight shift as a disc jockey. After he tries (and fails) to put the make on her, he returns to apologize. The lonely housewife dances with him while the song “Baby” plays on the radio, cozying up cheek to cheek, and then… well, you know!

Heflin resorts to anything to get what he wants, including setting up Keyes’ hubby and shooting him. After being found innocent in a coroner’s inquiry, literally getting away with murder, he convinces her of his innocence and the two get married. Heflin buys a motel in Vegas, and is ready to live the American dream, but there’s a hitch to his plans when Keyes discovers she’s already four months pregnant, and her deceased hubby was impotent! Realizing questions will be re-raised regarding their relationship while she was married, the two take off to a deserted ‘ghost town’ in the desert to have the child, away from prying eyes. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it packs a wallop! THE PROWLER is essential viewing for film noir lovers, written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo under the name of “front” Hugo Butler (and as an inside joke, Losey hired Trumbo to provide the radio voice of Keyes’ disc jockey husband, without the knowledge of anyone involved!).

Last but certainly not least, we come to WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (RKO 1956), directed by the legendary Fritz Lang , who knew a thing or two about crafting film noir! Casey Robinson’s extremely cynical script shows us the power struggle at a New York newspaper, with whoever discovers the identity of “The Lipstick Killer” terrorizing the town being named Executive Director. The characters are sleazy and unlikable, with everyone sleeping with everyone else, and only the top-notch cast makes them palatable, led by Dana Andrews as a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV broadcaster, Thomas Mitchell as the sly old-school pro, George Sanders at his smarmy, sarcastic best, Vincent Price as the dilettante son who inherits a media empire, Rhonda Fleming as his slutty wife (who’s banging art director James Craig on the side), Sally Forrest as Sanders’ secretary in love with Andrews, Ida Lupino as a gossip columnist Sanders sics on Andrews to seduce him, and Howard Duff as the lead cop on the case. You can’t get much better than that cast!

As the sex-killer with mommy issues, John Drew Barrymore (billed a John Barrymore, Jr.) looks more like Elvis than he does his famous father. Barrymore’s career never reached the heights of his dad, mainly due to his excesses, and his was a tragic life. Towards the end, he was cared for by daughter Drew, who’s had quite a career of her own. WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS is arguably Lang’s last great film, with moody cinematography by the great Ernest Laszlo (DOA, KISS ME DEADLY ). With that cast, Robinson’s pessimistic script, and Lang’s deft direction, it’s another must-see for film noir fans. Oh yes, before I forget, if that stylized ‘K’ for Kyne, Inc. looks familiar, it’s because it’s leftover from another RKO film:

That’s right, CITIZEN KANE! Who says RKO didn’t get the most for their money?

More CLEANING OUT THE DVR:

Five Films From Five Decades

Five Films From Five Decades 2

Those Swingin’ Sixties!

B-Movie Roundup!

Fabulous 40’s Sleuths

All-Star Horror Edition!

Film Noir Festival

All-Star Comedy Break

Film Noir Festival Redux

Halloween Leftovers

Five From The Fifties

Too Much Crime On My Hands

All-Star Western Roundup!

Sex & Violence, 70’s Style!

Halloween Leftovers 2

Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

Here’s Looking at You On The Big Screen, CASABLANCA!

Longtime readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite film. It’s blend of stars, supporting cast, script, direction, drama, romance, and humor is the perfect example of 1940’s Hollywood storytelling,  when Tinseltown was at the peak of its moviemaking powers . I’ve seen the film at least 80 times in many different formats, from broadcast television to cable and satellite, from VHS to DVD to DVR, but never before on the big screen – until this past Sunday, that is!

Fathom Events, in conjunction with TCM, presents classic films on a monthly basis in theaters across the country. In my area, they’re shown at Regal Cinemas in Swansea, MA, a half hour drive down the highway. I’ve been tempted to make the trip a few times, but never got around to it for one reason or another. But when I heard CASABLANCA was this month’s feature, I knew I had to be there, despite the drive, the multiple personal viewings (hell, I own it in two formats!), and the $12.50 ticket price (not to mention the requisite popcorn and soda!). This was an opportunity to see my favorite movie on a big screen, and I wasn’t about to pass it up!

Even though it was a Sunday afternoon during football season, a three-quarters full crowd gathered to attend the 2:00 showing. The fact that our Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots didn’t play hated rivals the Denver Broncos until 8:30PM certainly didn’t hurt matters (and by the way, we kicked their asses!).  The audience was a good mix of older viewers and, to the delight of my classic movie lovin’ heart, some younger fans, giving up their Sunday afternoon to watch a 75-year-old Black & White movie in a theater. Just goes to show what I’ve known all along – a great film will always draw an audience, no matter how old it may be.

After a filmed introduction and some solid background info from TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz, it was showtime. Seeing this film up there larger than life was an awesome experience for yours truly, even though I know it by heart and can recite the dialog like singing along to an old song on the local classic rock radio station. Every line on Bogart’s world-weary face was there, all the pain and self-pity indelibly etched in vivid detail when Rick Blaine meets up with his long-lost love Ilsa Lund, now accompanied by Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. The scene where Rick, drinking himself to oblivion in the darkened Café Americain, orders his piano playing friend Sam to play “As Time Goes By”, stirring memories of his and Ilsa’s affair in Paris before the Nazis marched in, brought tears to even the most jaded of eyes – including my own. I guess Captain Renault would label me a “sentimentalist”, too!

Ingrid Bergman looked beyond beautiful on the big screen, her dewy-eyed, ethereal face conveying powerful emotions boiling just under the surface. Paul Henreid looked more heroic than ever as Victor Laszlo, especially during the inspirational scene where he leads the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise”:

Claude Rains  as Captain Renault gets most of the best lines, and got the biggest laughs from the crowd, including that “I’m shocked – shocked to find that gambling is going on here” one. The diminutive Rains dominated every scene he was in, and very nearly steals the picture from the Bogart/Bergman/Henreid triangle with his acting skills. S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Karl got his share of laughs, too, whether looking at Rick all googly-eyed after the boss allows a young refuge couple to win at roulette, or the charming scene he shares with Mr. and Mrs. Leuchtag (Ludwig Stossel, Ilka Gruning) as they demonstrate their command of the English language – or rather lack of it!

Dooley Wilson has never sounded better, and his musical interludes on “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood” felt like a live concert event, surpassed only by the iconic song “As Time Goes By”. Peter Lorre , Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt – such an amazing cast! And being the inveterate Familiar Face spotter that I am, it took all my strength not to shout out the names of the character actors who pop up in scene after scene (Frank Lackteen! Dan Seymour! Madeleine LeBeau! Gino Corrado!), many of whom were real-life refugees who escaped the Nazi terror in Europe and came to America to ply their trade.

All in all, celebrating CASABLANCA’s 75th Anniversary on the big screen was a dream come true, and an experience I’ll not soon forget. The perfect film in the perfect venue, surrounded by like-minded fans – I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I could go on and on, but instead I’ll let the great Dooley Wilson take this post home. Play it, Sam:

 

Hoods vs Huns: ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Warner Brothers 1942)

A gang of Runyonesque gamblers led by Humphrey Bogart take on Nazi spies in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, Bogie’s follow-up to his breakthrough role as Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON. Here he plays ‘Gloves’ Donahue, surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors in a grand mixture of suspense and laughs, with both the action and the wisecracks coming fast and furious in that old familiar Warner Brother style. Studio workhorse Vincent Sherman, whose directorial debut THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X also featured Bogart, keeps things moving briskly along and even adds some innovative flourishes that lift the film above its meager budget.

Bogie’s gangster image from all those 1930’s flicks come to a humorous head in the part of ‘Gloves’. He’s a tough guy for sure, but here the toughness is humanized by giving him a warm, loving mother (Jane Darwell ) and a fondness for cheesecake (the eating kind, though he loves the ladies, too!). ‘Gloves’ and his cronies (William Demarest,   Frank McHugh , and a young Jackie Gleason!) get embroiled in the murder of local baker Miller (Ludwig Stossell), with the notorious ‘Gloves’ as prime suspect. A mystery woman (Kaaren Verne) leads the gang to rival Marty Callahan’s (Barton MacLaine) nightclub, and intrigue involving a nest of Fifth Columnists led by Conrad Veidt , Peter Lorre , and Mrs. Danvers herself, Judith Anderson !

There’s a truckload of hilarious one-liners (some a bit dated) and some clever Code-bending double entendres, most of which center on newlywed McHugh’s plight. Sherman and DP Sid Hickox stage a novel and well shot fight in a freight elevator between Bogie and an Axis spy that’s very noir-ish in its execution. A scene Sherman dreamt up features Bogart and Demerest infiltrating a Nazi sympathizer rally and giving the Krauts the “doubletalk”. This scene, mostly improvised by the two stars, was ordered cut by studio boss Jack Warner, but when test audiences reacted positively to a snippet Sherman purposely left in the mogul relented. I’m glad he did, because it’s a very funny bit, allowing Bogie to show off his comedy chops!

Veidt, Lorre, and Anderson all excel as the bad guys, and the two male ex-pats would later join star Bogart in my favorite film, CASABLANCA . Kaaren Verne is quite good as the mystery woman, who of course is not what she seems. Miss Verne was in Sherman’s previous anti-Nazi film that year, UNDERGROUND, and acted in KING’S ROW, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON , and THE SEVENTH CROSS before marrying costar Lorre and retiring from the screen. After their divorce in 1950, she made a brief comeback in movies and TV, including a memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Death’s-Head Revisited”. It’s too bad she wasn’t given a higher profile during her Hollywood career; she’s both skilled and beautiful, and with the right part could’ve probably been a big success in films.

The supporting cast features a pair of comics who later gained success in the world of television. Gleason, billed as Jackie C. Gleason, shows glimpses of his comedic talent; he wouldn’t make it in films until after he was firmly established as a top TV comic. Louie the waiter is played by Phil Silvers , who fared slightly better in movies, but did much better after bringing SGT. BILKO to life on the small screen. Familiar Face spotters will have a field day with this one, as Jean Ames, Egon Brecher, Ed Brophy , Walter Brooke, Wally Brown , Chester Clute, Wallace Ford, William Hopper, Martin Kosleck , Sam McDaniel, Emory Parnell, Frank Sully, Philip Van Zandt, Henry Victor, and Ben Welden all appear in small roles (some of them of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him variety).

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT is one of those enjoyable 40’s films made in an innocent time, where even gangsters rallied ’round the flag for freedom against the Nazi menace. It’s colorful dialog and cast of pros make this a fun vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, on the cusp of superstardom after years of toiling in secondary parts for the Brothers Warner. Soon Bogie would be travelling to CASABLANCA and achieve even greater success, thanks in large part to his work in films like ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Movie lovers like yours truly are forever grateful!

 

Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every laugh they can get, especially Kahn as the mystery woman who continuously changes her name and personality!

There’s a CASABLANCA subplot with Louise Fletcher as Lou’s former flame, now married to French resistance fighter Fernando Lamas, getting an opportunity to show off his comic skills. Nicol Williamson plays Colonel Schissel, leader of “the Cincinnati Gestapo”, with young James Cromwell as his aide Schnell. James Coco and David Ogden Stiers are café waiters, and since you can’t have CASABLANCA without Sam, we get Scatman Crothers as the piano player who’s told not to play that song again… “Jeepers Creepers”!

Eileen Brennen mimics Lauren Bacall as a sultry saloon singer who calls Lou “Fred” (he in turn dubs her “Slinky”). Ann-Margret channels THE BIG SLEEP’s Martha Vickers as the oversexed wife of ancient, decrepit Sid Caesar , Simon’s old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS boss. Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, plays Merkle’s cheating widow Georgia, who accidentally flushes the dead dick’s ashes down the toilet! Stockard Channing’s on hand as Lou’s handy, virginal secretary Bess, and Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, and Carmine Caridi are the overbearing cops on Lou’s case ( at one point, Tayback tells Vigoda to “stop leaning” on Lou… literally!). Funnyman Phil Silvers , who Simon also worked with on the SGT. BILKO sitcom, has a cameo as a cab driver.

DP John Alonso, who shot the neo-noir CHINATOWN (and there’s a CHINATOWN gag in this, too), gives us a fog-shrouded, sepia-toned San Francisco setting. Simon goes back to his SHOW OF SHOWS roots with all the puns, word play (“Hello, Georgia. I just had you on my mind”), and wacky sight gags. It’s obvious Simon has an affection for these films as he lampoons all the Bogart movie tropes, and the cast seems to be having a ball. There are plenty of guffaws to be had viewing THE CHEAP DETECTIVE, a Bogie devotee’s delight, and fans of film parodies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN are sure to get a kick out of this one.