Karma’s a Bitch: THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (RKO 1947)

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1947 was a peak year for film noir. There was BRUTE FORCE BORN TO KILL , DARK PASSAGE, KISS OF DEATH, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, OUT OF THE PAST, and NIGHTMARE ALLEY , to name but a few. THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME doesn’t get the notoriety of those I just mentioned, but it can hold its own with them all. This unheralded dark gem from the RKO noir factory boasts an outstanding cast, and a taut, twisted screenplay from hardboiled pulp writer Jonathan Latimer.

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Larry Ballantine’s on trial for the murder of his wife and his girlfriend. Larry’s a real cad, a lying and cheating weasel. He takes the stand and tells his side of the story, as the film goes into flashback to recount the sordid details. Larry’s stepping out on rich wife Greta with co-worker Janice, who gives him an ultimatum. She’s transferring to Montreal, and Larry is to leave his wife and go with her. Greta finds out, and pulls some strings…purse strings, that is. She buys a home in Palm Springs and a brokerage firm partnership there for her husband. The weak-willed, dead broke Larry follows the money, leaving Janice to Canada.

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Trenton & Ballantine comes with many perks, foremost among them Verna. The sexy, golddigging dame sets her cap for Larry, and the louse can’t resist her, though he doesn’t try very hard. The two engage in a hot’n’heavy affair until Janice comes to town and bumps into them. Jealous Janice rats her ex-playmate out to Greta, and wifey puts her foot down hard. She sells Larry’s interest in the firm and buys a ranch out by the lake, demanding Larry choose to be with her or Verna. Since he’s nothing without Greta’s dough, the spineless worm moves out to the isolated country, without even a phone to tempt him.

Greta thinks she’s finally got him by the gonads now, but Larry’s lust knows no bounds. Seizing on an opportunity to go to L.A. and meet with an architect, Larry desperately calls Verna at his first chance. He hatches a scheme to bilk their joint checking account of $25,000 and run off with Verna to Reno, where he can get a quickie divorce and marry her. Things turn ugly when they’re involved in an accident on the highway to Reno, as a truck blows a tire and smashes into them, injuring Larry and killing Verna. But at the hospital, Larry discovers the cops think the burned, unidentifiable corpse is Greta, and Larry begins to get ideas about ridding himself of his marriage for good.

The plot takes some twists and turns from here, and I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t seen this film. The cast is ably directed by Irving Pichel, as unheralded these days as the film itself. Pichel was an actor and director known to horror genre fans as the servant of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) and co-director of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and SHE (1935). He also performed in the spicy Pre-Codes THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE and I’M NO ANGEL (with Mae West), and played Fagin in the 1933 version of OLIVER TWIST, and was narrator of two John Ford classics, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. His directing credits include the anti-Nazi films THE MAN I MARRIED, THE PIED PIPER, and O.S.S., the fantasy-comedies MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID and THE GREAT RUPERT, the early sci-fi entry DESTINATION MOON, and the excellent low-budget noir QUICKSAND (with Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre). Pichel made the Randolph Scott Western SANTA FE before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist, forcing him to move to Europe and ply his trade. After helming two religious pictures, MARTIN LUTHER and DAY OF TRIUMPH, Irving Pichel died in 1954. Many of the films he worked on were nominated for Academy Awards in various categories, and his career deserves a second look.

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All-American good guy Robert Young plays the rotten egg Larry, and he’s perfect in the part. Young’s long film career was winding down, and he was stretching his acting muscles at this juncture. A new career in television was just on the horizon, as he starred in not one but two long-running hits: the family comedy FATHER KNOWS BEST and the drama MARCUS WELBY, M.D. Sexy Susan Hayward (Verna) gets top billing, though she dies before the film’s conclusion. Hayward would receive her first Oscar nomination in 1947 for SMASH UP, THE STORY OF A WOMAN, the first of four she earned before taking the golden statue home for 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE! Jane Greer (Janice) co-starred in another ’47 noir, OUT OF THE PAST with Robert Mitchum… but you already knew that, right noir fans? Rita Johnson (Greta) isn’t as well-known as the other ladies, but she’s just right as the clinging wife. Some of her other films are HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, and MY FRIEND FLICKA. Let’s not leave out the Familiar Face Brigade: Don Beddoe , Anthony Caruso, Frank Ferguson, Byron Foulger, Milton Parsons, Tom Powers, and George Tyne all lend solid support.

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Producer Joan Harrison was a long time associate of Alfred Hitchcock, writing screenplays for JAMAICA INN , REBECCA, and FOREIGN CORRESPSONDENT. Harrison would later serve as producer of Hitchcock’s anthology TV series. The production values are high here, with a perfect score by Roy Webb and moody cinematography from Harry J. Wild ( MURDER MY SWEET ). THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a great example of 40’s noir filmmaking, and deserves to be included in any discussion of films made during noir’s greatest year, 1947.

 

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt. 5: Fabulous 40s Sleuths

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It’s time again for me to make room on the DVR! This edition features five Fabulous 40’s films of mystery and suspense, with super sleuths like Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes in the mix for good measure. Here’s five capsule reviews of some crime flicks from the 1940s:

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WHISTLING IN THE DARK (MGM 1941, D: S. Sylvan Simon): The first of three movies starring comedian Red Skelton as Wally Benton, aka radio detective ‘The Fox’. Skelton is kidnapped by a phony spiritual cult led by Conrad Veidt to devise “the perfect murder”. Ann Rutherford and Virginia Grey play rivals for Red’s affections, while Eve Arden is her usual wisecracking self as Red’s manager. Some of the jokes and gags are pretty dated, but Red’s genial personality makes the whole thing tolerable. Fun Fact: Rags Ragland (Sylvester) was once the Burlesque comedy partner of Phil Silvers.

Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)
Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (Universal 1942, D: Roy William Neill): Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes in this fourth entry in the series. All the gang from 221B Baker Street are along for the ride (Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Mary Gordon) as Holmes tries to foil a plot to steal a new bomb sight (for the war effort, don’t you know) by his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A secret code holds all the answers. That Grand Old Villain Lionel Atwill plays “The Napoleon of Crime”, and it’s terrific to watch screen vets Rathbone and Atwill engage in a battle of wits. In fact, it’s my favorite Universal Holmes movie because of the pairing of the two. Fun Fact #1: Rathbone and Atwill also costarred in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Fun Fact #2: Kaaren Verne (Charlotte) was the second wife of another screen villain, Peter Lorre!

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TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (RKO 1945, D: Anthony Mann): Ann Rutherford’s back as a female cab driver who helps an amnesia victim (Tom Conway) piece things together in this early effort from director Anthony Mann. Unlike Mann’s later films, the tone’s light and breezy here. There’s lots of plot twists to keep you guessing, and Conway and Rutherford have good onscreen chemistry. Cracked Rear Viewers will recognize supporting players Lester Matthews (The Raven), Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim), and Jane Greer (Out of the Past). Hollywood’s favorite drunk Jack Norton does his schtick in a bar scene (where else?). Fun Fact: Actor Dick Lane (reporter Haley) later became a TV sports commentator in the 50’s, announcing pro wrestling and Roller Derby matches!

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DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (RKO 1947, D: John Rawlins): Chester Gould’s stalwart comic-strip cop (personified by Ralph Byrd) goes up against gangster Gruesome, who uses a paralyzing gas to commit bank robberies. Boris Karloff is Gruesome (of course he is!), and adds his special brand of menace to the proceedings. (At one point, Dick’s aide Pat exclaims, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”) Gould’s trademark quirky character names like L.E. Thal and Dr. A. Tomic are all in good fun, and the Familiar Face Brigade includes Anne Gwynne, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, and Robert Clarke, among others. Fast moving and fun, especially for Karloff fans. Fun Fact: Boris played many gangsters early in his career, including a role in the 1932 Howard Hawks classic SCARFACE.

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THE THREAT (RKO 1949, D: Felix Feist): Convict Red Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who sent him away (Michael O’Shea), the DA (Frank Conroy), and his former partner’s moll (Virginia Grey again). The police go on a manhunt to capture Kluger and save the others in this taut, suspenseful ‘B’ crime noir.  Quite brutal and violent for it time, with McGraw outstanding as the vicious killer on the loose. A very underrated and overlooked film that deserves some attention. Highly recommended! Fun Fact: Inspector Murphy is played by Robert Shayne, better known as Inspector Henderson on TV’s SUPERMAN.

Enjoy others in the series:

Happy Birthday Robert Mitchum: OUT OF THE PAST (RKO 1947)

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One of my favorite actors, the laconic, iconic Robert Mitchum was born August 6, 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Rugged Robert had a wandering spirit, riding the rails in the days of the Depression, and even did time on a Georgia chain gang. Mitchum eventually ended up in California , and was bitten by the acting bug. After small roles in Laurel & Hardy comedies and Hopalong Cassidy oaters, Mitchum got noticed in a series of B-Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey. His big break came as a tough sergeant in 1945’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE, which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But the role that made him a star was world-weary private eye Jeff Bailey in the film noir classic OUT OF THE PAST.

We meet Bailey running a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California (an homage to Mitchum’s hometown, perhaps?) He has a mute boy only known as The Kid (Dickie Moore) working for him, and a pretty girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston). Life is good until old acquaintance Joe Stefano (Paul Valentine) drops by and tells Jeff his ex-employer Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him. Jeff has Ann drive him to Whit’s estate in Lake Tahoe and relates the story of his past in flashback: His real name is Markham. a former private eye once hired by Whit to find errant girlfriend Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer). Kathy put two slugs in Whit’s gut and absconded with forty grand. But Whit says he doesn’t care about the money, he just wants Kathy back. Jeff tracks her down to Acapulco, and immediately becomes infatuated with her. She plays along, but knows why he’s there. She confesses she did shoot Whit, but didn’t take any money. The two begin their doomed affair (Kathy: “Won’t you believe me?” Jeff: “Baby, I don’t care” as they embrace). Whit and Joe show up and Jeff throws them off the trail.

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Jeff and Kathy wind up in San Francisco, where they’re spotted by Jeff’s former partner Fisher (Steve Brodie), now working for Whit. The couple gets a cabin deep in the woods, but Fisher trails them. The two men duke it out, when Kathy shoots Fisher. She takes off in the car and leaves Jeff  to bury the body…

Flashback over, Ann drops Jeff off at Whit’s. There he discovers Kathy’s “back in the fold”, as Whit puts it. Whit wants to hire Jeff for a new job, obtaining some incriminating tax papers from Whit’s blackmailing attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). Kathy goes to Jeff alone and tries to explain things, but he bitterly tells her to get lost. Jeff’s sent back to San Francisco to meet Eels’ secretary Meta (Rhonda Fleming), and put the plan in play. Sensing a frame-up going on, he tries to warn Eels. When Jeff goes back to Eels apartment later, sure enough, the lawyer’s been killed. Jeff hides the body in the basement. Jeff sneaks over to Kathy’s, and discovers her calling the building manager about Eels. The scheme has failed, and Kathy tells Jeff she was forced to sign an affidavit stating Jeff murdered Fisher, and had to go along with the plan. Jeff obtains the papers from Whit’s club, and Joe and Kathy call Whit, who puts the word out, and Jeff’s now wanted for two murders. Joe is sent by Kathy to follow the Kid to lead him to Jeff. He’s about to shoot Jeff when the Kid snags him with a fishing hook, and Joe falls to a watery grave. Jeff confronts Kathy and Whit, and tells Whit the truth. Returning briefly to Ann, Jeff goes back to Whit’s and finds him shot dead on the floor. Kathy’s running the show now, and is ready to split with Jeff (Kathy: “I think we deserve a break”  Jeff: “We deserve each other”). As she gathers some clothes, Jeff discretely calls the cops. They drive down the highway when Kathy sees a roadblock. Realizing Jeff’s betrayed her, she shoots him. The car careens down the highway as the cops shoot at it, and both Jeff and Kathy wind up dead.

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Pretty bleak stuff. OUT OF THE PAST can get confusing at times, but Mitchum’s the glue that holds it all together. His Jeff Bailey/Markham is tough but vulnerable, smarter than his adversaries, always with a wisecrack on his lips. Robert Mitchum in that trenchcoat and slouch hat became the symbol of a film noir anti-hero. The sleepy-eyed star’s career almost ended in 1948 after a pot bust, but he returned to the screen for almost another half-century. Some of his best (in my opinion) were HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951), RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Marilyn Monroe, 1954), NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957), THUNDER ROAD (1958, where Mitchum even sings the title song!), THE SUNDOWNERS (1960), the original CAPE FEAR (1962), EL DORADO (with John Wayne, 1966), RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (as Phillip Marlowe, 1975). He also starred in the popular 1983 TV-miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR. Robert Mitchum had a long and diverse career as a true Hollywood star, and though he died on July 7, 1997, we still have that tremendous body of work to look back on. OUT OF THE PAST isn’t just one of Mitchum’s best films, it’s a film noir masterpiece that has influenced generations, and will continue to do so as long as there are movies to be made. Happy Birthday, Robert!

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