Watching With Warner: FROM HEADQUARTERS (1930)

Who’s up for a lovely murder?  If you like LAW AND ORDER or NCIS or any of their various incarnations, you might just like this forgotten pre-code from the Warner Archive!

It’s a usual day in police headquarters.  The usual suspects are being brought in for a lineup, complete with at least one person claiming to be a friend to the commissioner.  Reporters are poking around for a story and bailsmen are poking around for a customer.  Safecracker Muggs (Hobart Cavanaugh) has been brought in for questioning in a recent rash of robberies (who doesn’t love a good bit of alliteration?).  In the police laboratory things are going like clockwork causing the pathologist to sigh, “What I wouldn’t give for a nice juicy murder.”  Well, he is about to get his wish.

A dead body has been found, you say? Marvelous!

The call comes in that a dead body has been found in a uptown apartment in the city.  The victim, one Gordon Bates, is an eccentric gun collector.  However, the cause of death is quickly ruled a homicide and not a suicide as first thought.  Young Lt. Jim Stevens (George Brent) is paired with veteran detective Sgt. Boggs (Eugene Pallette), and the pair hurries off to the scene of the crime.  There they find Bates dead of a gunshot through the eye and a set of finger prints on a dueling pistol.  Bringing the evidence back to headquarters, the lab technicians get to work and soon identify the fingerprints as belonging to Broadway actress Lou Ann Winton (Margaret Lindsey).

What do you mean my old flame is accused of murder?

Jim is shocked and certain that Lou Ann can’t have anything to do with the murder.  He admits that he knows her and can’t think of any reason why she would kill Bates, though he hasn’t seen her for some time.  About this time, Bates’ lawyer turns up along with a man named Anderzian (Robert Barrat).  The lawyer says that he is the sole executor of Bates’ will and that Anderzian has some letters that were in the dead man’s possession and that he would like returned.  Since no such letters have yet been recovered the two men take their leave, with Anderzian being very careful to hide his face as they pass Muggs on the way out.

The police begin to question members of Bates’ household, starting with his butler Horton (Murray Kinnell).  Horton relates that he heard Bates’ talking to someone in his study around 10:30 or so last night.  After that he went to bed and heard nothing all night.  In the morning when he went into the study he found the lights still on and Bates dead on the floor.  He can offer no more information except to identify Lou Ann as Bates’ fiancée, much to Jeff’s surprise.  Lou Ann is soon brought in for questioning and she denies knowing anything.  After some prodding she finally admits that she was at Bates’ apartment and touched the dueling pistols when he showed them to her.  She also admits that she struggled with him when he tried to make her his mistress, but she insists that she did not kill him.  Her story is backed up by the forensics lab, who have found hairs under Bates’ fingernails that do not belong to her.  They are the hairs of a young man with red hair, and one such man has just turned up at headquarters asking for his sister Lou Ann.

There’s your problem right there…

Boggs is now convinced that Lou Ann’s brother Jack (Theodore Winton) is the true murderer and that Lou Ann is helping to cover it up.  He subjects Lou Ann and Jack to more extensive questioning while Jeff goes back over the evidence.  Jack admits that he was in Bates’ apartment and that he walked in on him assaulting his sister.  He admits to beating Bates’ up and that Bates drew a gun on him.  He says that Bates fired a shot and then he disarmed him.  He sent Lou Ann from the room and read Bates’ the riot act, but then he says he left and Bates’ was alive when he did.  Frustrated, Boggs goes out into the hallway where he is met by Muggs who has just seen in the paper that Bates’ is dead.  He tries to tell Boggs that this could not be true because he saw Bates alive and well in his apartment after 11:30 last night.  Boggs thinks that this is hogwash because not only did the lab tests put the time of death between 10:30 and 11 o’clock, but also because Muggs claims that Bates didn’t have a mark on him and they already know Jack beat him up.  New results are in from the lab and they don’t help matters much.  The dueling pistol that was thought to have been the murder weapon turned out not to be, and the one that did kill Bates has been wiped clean of prints.  Jeff goes back to Lou Ann and begs her to tell him the whole story.

Time to talk Lou Ann…

This is a really interesting pre-code.  There is some violence and up-front talk of sexuality, but that isn’t why I found it so intriguing.  From what I read, this is a very accurate portrayal of police technology of the time.  The scenes in the police laboratory are really fascinating, depicting finger print, blood type, and bullet analysis.  The police utilize an electronic sorting matching and IBM punch cards to search their database of suspects, perhaps the earliest example of this on film.  There are plenty of examples of how police work has changed over the years, for example police getting fingerprints from their suspects without their knowledge and questioning them without an attorney.  For someone who has watched more modern police dramas this was an interesting juxtaposition, and I can’t help but wonder what police detectives from the 1930s would make of our society today.

The murder mystery is pretty well done, and for a sixty-five minute film it is a fun ride.  Robert Barrat is always a favorite of mine and his character of Anderzian is a cool customer.  George Brent and Eugene Pallett are quintessential young blood/old blood police officers, and the pathologist played by Edward Ellis is hysterical.  All in all this is a unique look into the police force of the 1930s and the scientific breakthroughs that were in use at the time.  Director William Dieterle has put together a fast paced murder mystery to go along with this inside look, and the result is crime solving fun.

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Watching With Warner: ESCAPE (1940)

In the mountains of Bavaria a woman lies in a bed, a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.  She and her roommate are kept by a surly nurse, who seems less concerned with their actual health, and more with their ability to walk come Saturday.  When the roommate begins to hack and cough, the nurse calls for the doctor.  Doctor Ditten (Phillip Dorn) enters and sends the roommate out for treatment.  He now turns to the other woman, a German-born actress named Emmy Ritter (Nazimova).  Ditten recognizes her from her days on the stage, and it is implied that he has gone above and beyond in her treatments in an effort to keep her alive.  This seems to be a cruel irony because Emmy has been sentenced to death and her execution is to take place on Saturday.  Ditten takes pity on the poor woman and offers to let her write a letter to her son, however he will not be able to deliver the letter until after the execution.  Convicted as a traitor for harboring refugees, Emmy is surprised at this offer of kindness and gladly accepts.

Unbeknownst to both of them, Emmy’s son Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) has arrived in the country looking for any information on his mother’s whereabouts.  He is stymied however, when everyone he talks to gives him the same response.  No one will talk about what has happened to his mother and instead recommend that he go back to America as quickly as possible.  Mark is relentless and goes the police commissioner to find out what he can about his mother.  It is here that he finally learns what charges have been brought against his mother and he pleads with the commissioner to see sense.  His mother is a kind woman who has no traitorous inclinations at all, she must have been confused and certainly didn’t mean anything treasonous!  The commissioner won’t listen and is only interested in learning who told Mark that his mother was being held at all.  Mark won’t reveal his source and is told to return next Friday.

Mark now travels to a small Bavarian town in search of an old servant of his mother’s, a man named Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart).  When he finally finds him however, Fritz claims not to know him and brushes him aside.  Dejected, Mark wanders down to a frozen lake where several young women are skating.  They call to a nearby woman who they call “Countess”.  The Countess Ruby (Norma Shearer) soon falls into conversation with Mark and reveals that she is also American.  Having moved to the country over ten years ago, she stayed on after her husband died and now runs a finishing school out of her home.  Ruby is sympathetic to Mark’s situation but has no information to give him, though she promises to get in touch with him if she finds anything out.

Ruby has indiscretions of her own and is the mistress of a high-powered Nazi general, Kurt Von Kolb (Conrad Veidt).  Kurt and Ruby have known each other for many years and became involved soon after Ruby’s husband died.  Kurt suffers from a heart condition and so must avoid excitement.  So when Ruby broaches the topic of Emmy Ritter, she does so subtly.  Kurt reveals that Emmy is being held in a camp not far from the village and will be executed on Saturday.  The next day Ruby heads into town with her girls to see a military parade.  Feigning a headache, she slips off into Mark’s hotel.  Once there, however, she loses her nerve and cannot bring herself to tell him what she has found.  Mark, for his part, has begun to fall in love with Ruby but once he finds out that she is involved with Kurt he pulls away.  Later that night, Kurt mentions to Ruby that she was seen talking with Mark.  He warns that if Mark continues poking around there will be consequences, regardless of whether he is an American or not.

Ruby asks Mark to meet her that night at a concert and he reluctantly agrees.  Once there, Ruby warns him that he must leave Bavaria as soon as possible.  Mark is enraged at what he takes as callousness on her part and lashes out at her.  At this point the concert lets out and the pair find themselves in the lobby surrounded by people.  Ruby sees several people she knows, including Doctor Ditten.  She soon leaves with a group of friends, leaving Mark and Ditten to share an umbrella.  The two men decide to go and get a drink at a local pub.  It is here that Ditten reveals his party affiliations, and asks Mark to send him some American medical journals.  Mark agrees and the two men exchange addresses, and names.  Ditten is shocked to learn that he is drinking with the son of Emmy Ritter and produces the letter written for him.  He finally tells Mark the truth of his mother’s situation and that there is nothing to be done.  He also advises Mark to leave, something he refuses to do.  Ditten leaves but invites Mark to his apartment the following evening.  Mark returns to his hotel and finds Fritz waiting for him.  He admits that he was afraid to be seen talking to Mark but offers to help bury Emmy properly after the execution.

The next day, Emmy suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack.  Ditten pronounces her dead and signs her certificate.  That night Mark comes to Ditten’s apartment where, after dismissing his maid for the evening, Ditten reveals that Emmy is not truly dead.  She is in a coma after being administered a drug by Ditten.  Mark must now find a way to go and retrieve her body within the next three hours or Emmy will suffocate in the coffin.  He must also bring with him many blankets and coats to help warm her up.  Mark is at a loss but soon decides to call Fritz, telling him to that Emmy has died.  Fritz is instructed to collect Emmy and then meet Mark at a local pub.  However, when Mark arrives at the pub he finds that two Nazi officers are also stopping there and they have developed an interest in this American with his large bundle of blankets and coats.

I will admit that when I first started watching this film I found Robert Taylor’s character sort of annoying.  ESCAPE is based on a book and I am not sure how close to the source material the screenplay is, so I can’t say if this is how he is in the book.  The character of Mark comes off as a “typical American”, running around Bavaria demanding to know where his mother is.  He is confounded by the reluctance of the townspeople to help and their insistence that he return to America.  I found this a little irritating but then I was coming at it with the benefit of history on my side.  The important thing to realize is that the time when this book was written and when this film was made was a very crucial moment in history.  Hitler had been in power for almost seven years, World War II was happening but America was not yet involved, the full and terrible truth of the Nazi regime was not yet fully realized.  So if you look at it like that, the reaction of Mark to the people of Bavaria makes more sense.  He is the typical American in that he cannot conceive of a life where you are not free to question, to challenge, to investigate.  The very idea that there might be a place where people can be arrested and sentenced to die simply for helping those who wish to leave the country is so completely alien and foreign to him that he simply cannot accept or process it.

Ruby is a much more complex character, an American who has chosen to give up her citizenship in order to remain in a country that is not her own.  This country is now swept up on the Nazi tidal wave and yet she remains.  Not only that, but she has a lover who is a high-ranking Nazi official.  She seems to still believe that just because Kurt wears the uniform he remains pure of heart, rejecting the Nazi rhetoric.  That her adopted country, though now controlled by the Nazis, is not changed by the events surrounding it and remains the same place she fell in love with.  As time passes she begins to see that the Nazi poison has in fact taken hold of all that she once held dear, including Kurt.  She must then decide where her loyalties lie, whether it is with her adopted country and German lover or with her birthplace and Mark.

Kurt is a devious man.  I think that the fact that his heart is damaged (irony intended) has caused him to be far more underhanded than perhaps he once was.  Some of the comments he makes to Ruby, glancing blows at first and far more savage digs later, seem almost diabolical.  It is his way of keeping her off guard, keeping himself in control of the relationship.  Further, he is a complete convert to the Nazi ideology whatever Ruby might hope for.  By the end he has shown himself to be an enemy in every sense of the word.

As I noted before, this film was made at a strange moment in history.  People were aware that bad things were happening, that Hitler was trouble, and yet there was still this moment of peace when all the world was at war except America.  And so, this movie does not wish to disturb that peace.  For the entirety of the film no mention is ever made of Germany or Nazis.  It is rather “that country” and “political police”.  Even Hitler avoids much mention beyond a Nazi salute.  While the message is clear, that this is a dangerous regime and the world should be on watch for it, the political constraints of the time prevent it from being made obvious.  All in all ESCAPE is a good film and compelling story, one that is almost made more powerful for all the things that it doesn’t say as well as what it does.

Watching With Warner: WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT (1935)

Those who know the Warner Archive Podcast will also know the name Allen Jenkins.  You will also have heard of the Jenkins Awards.  This is an award designed by DW Ferranti on the Warner Archive Podcast to celebrate great actors who have been forgotten by popular culture, such as namesake Allen Jenkins.  Listeners are invited to write in and nominate their favorite actors or actresses for a chance at the Jenkins Award, which I also encourage you all to do.  My personal nominee is one Aline MacMahone, a fabulous actress who is most well-known for playing good-hearted wives and mothers but who is sadly mostly forgotten today.  So imagine my delight when I found a movie that not only stars Aline MacMahone as a crime solving nurse, but that also features Allen Jenkins!  Being that this movie is pretty short, only sixty-five minutes long, and is also a whodunit mystery in an effort to not spoil anything my recap will be briefer than usual.

One stormy night Richard Federie receives a telegram.  The message is brief but the contents are shocking enough to give Mr. Federie a stroke, just as he was reaching for his green model elephant above the fireplace.  He falls to the floor and drops the elephant, and this is where his family finds him.  His clan is full of the usual suspicious characters, a devoted granddaughter (Patricia Ellis) and her lover (Lyle Talbot), a bitter niece (Dorothy Tee), a spiteful daughter-in-law (Helen Flint), an insufferable cousin (Hobart Cavanaugh), a lawyer (Henry O’Neill) and a greedy son (Robert Barrat).  In fact it is the son that will cause the most trouble, as we will soon see.

Through the stormy night comes a car bearing nurse Sarah Keate (Aline MacMahone).  She has been sent for to care for the ailing Mr. Federie and that is just what she intends to do.  Before settling in for the night Federie’s granddaughter, March, comes in to check on her beloved grandfather and his nurse.  After asking if Sarah needs anything else, March requests to be summoned first if her grandfather should awaken as she is certain that he will want to speak to her first before anyone.  She then leaves and is soon followed by Mr. Federie’s son, Adolf.  Adolf also requests to be summoned first if his father wakes up as he is also certain that his father will wish to speak with him first.  In rapid succesion Sarah is accosted by the rest of the Federie clan, all of whom believe that they are the one that will be asked for first when the old man awakens.  By the time that cousin Eustace appears Sarah has had enough, and shoos him from the room after she assures him his name will be placed on the list!

Later that night, while everyone sleeps, March slips through her boyfriend’s room to check on her grandfather.  Her boyfriend, Ross, sees her go through but says nothing and lies back down.  After assuring herself that everything is as it should be, March leaves the room just moments before another visitor enters.  Adolf checks on the sleeping form of nurse Sarah and then hurries to the fireplace to retrieve the green elephant left there by his father.  He takes the elephant and begins to climb the stairs towards Ross’ room when suddenly a shot rings out.  Adolf falls and rolls down the stairs where he is discovered by Sarah.  Awakened by her cries the rest of the family converges on her room where they find Adolf, lying dead.  The family decides to call the police and it is at this moment that Adolf’s wife Isobel, now widow, appears asking what has happened.  When they tell her, Isobel seems slightly surprised but not as upset as you might expect her to be.

Policeman Lance O’Leary (Guy Kibbee) is on the case, along with his right hand man Jackson (Allen Jenkins)!  O’Leary and Jackson have worked with Sarah before, and O’Leary is pleased to be alongside her again.  With a love light in his eye, O’Leary sets about questioning the house staff and various family members.  Each seems more guilty than the next, but Sarah believes that March is the only family member who is above suspicion.  At that moment though, March is out in the rain talking with a mysterious man.  He pleads with her to do as he asks and she agrees before hurrying back inside.  She enters through the kitchen where she runs into Sarah and the cook.  She has also been spotted by the police who are in hot pursuit, and so she quickly slips out of the room.  Sarah, noticing the trail of water on the floor, hurriedly mops the floor just before the two policeman enter the kitchen.  When they ask if anyone has passed through Sarah answers, quite truthfully, that it doesn’t look like anyone has.

O’Leary bemoans to Sarah his surplus of suspects, and the fact that they are all lying so hard to make themselves look innocent that it makes them all look guilty.  At this point, the ballistics expert has arrived and delivers his findings to the detectives.  He believes that Adolf was shot from the balcony above, but Sarah remembers seeing movement behind the curtains just below the stairs.  In fact, she wonders, if Adolf was leaning over the railing at the time when he was shot could it not appear that he was shot from above?  It could!  And Sarah has now remembered something more!  When she discovered the body the little green elephant was lying nearby, the very same little elephant that she returned to the mantelpiece before the rest of the family arrived.  This elephant must be the key to the entire case!  But when Sarah and O’Leary go to retrieve it, they find that it has disappeared!  Where could it have gotten to?  Sarah soon learns that the butler has taken it, but he quickly returns it to her saying that he has felt eyes on him ever since he took it.  O’Leary now believes that the butler is the most likely suspect but he is forced to reconsider when the butler is also found dead at the hands of the unknown assailant.

This is such a fun film, I really enjoyed it!  It is based on a character created by American author, Mignon G. Eberhart, who was thought to be the equivalent of Agatha Christie.  Sarah Keates was featured in several novels, two more of which have been made into feature films from the Warner Archive.  They each feature Ann Sheridan as Sarah Keates, and I am definitely planning on checking them out.  But I will say that I am sad that this is the only time that Aline MacMahone took on the role.

Aline MacMahone is really an underrated actress, and not one that many people know today.  My first time seeing her was alongside Ann Dvorak in HEAT LIGHTNING and I was blown away immediately.  After seeing her in other films, such as HEROES FOR SALE, I was convinced that this was a great actress.  Some have called her homely or plain, but I think she is beautiful and real.  Her acting is always a wonderful combination of sharp wit, humor, pathos, and intelligence.  Her banter with O’Leary is quite funny and you get a good sense of what the relationship between these two characters is. The supporting cast is also terrific with Guy Kibbee putting on a great performance as the quick talking detective, Robert Barrat (reuniting with Aline MacMahone from HEROES FOR SALE) as the duplicitous son, and Allen Jenkins at his Allen Jenkins-iest as the right hand man who just wants to make captain!  This preview clip gives a good sense of what this movie is:

If you get a chance to see this film I highly suggest you do!  If you like Agatha Christie you will most likely be charmed by Sarah Keate and Detective O’Leary, I know that I was!

Watching With Warner: ANGEL FACE (1952)

And now for something completely different…

One of the things I like the most about films from the Warner Archive is that there is such a variety of films available, from pre-codes (which we will be getting into next month for sure), to comedies, to melodramas, and historical dramas. The first two films of my watch-a-thon were definitely comedies but for my third film we are going to the complete other side of the spectrum for a film noir from Otto Preminger.

One night in Beverly Hills a call goes out to the local ambulance company.  Two drivers are dispatched to the estate of Catherine and Charles Tremayne, but by the time that they arrive the patient is already being treated by the doctor.  Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) has suffered the effects of gas inhalation from the fireplace in her room.  She insists that someone has tried to murder her, but her husband Charles (Herbert Marshall) and the doctor dismiss the idea.  When the key to the gas shut off is found in the back of the fireplace by driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) the suggestion that Catherine might have tried to commit suicide is brought up.  Charles dismisses that as well and Frank is told that he is no longer needed.  On his way out of the house Frank comes across the beautiful Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), daughter to Charles and stepdaughter to Catherine.  Frank tells Diane that her stepmother is going to be fine and Diane becomes hysterical.  Frank slaps her to stop her hysterics, and Diane slaps him in return.  When Frank explains it wasn’t anything personal, Diane apologizes but later follows Frank after he gets off of work.  Frank goes to a local diner to call his girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman), but gets no answer.  His disappointment is soon forgotten, however, when Diane appears and offers to go to dinner with him and later dancing.

Over dinner and drinks, Diane tells Frank about how her father used to be a famous novelist but he has not written a thing since marrying Catherine.  She then asks Frank about himself and Mary, and soon learns that Frank is a former race car driver who has aspirations of owning his own garage in the future.  As for Mary, Frank relates that she is a hospital receptionist with blonde hair and blue eyes, and has been saving money to help Frank open his garage.  The next day Diane invites the unsuspecting Mary to lunch.  Under the guise of offering to help lend Frank money for his garage, Diane lets Mary know that she and Frank spent the previous evening together.  Mary quickly catches on to Diane’s true intentions and rejects her offer, but does admit that her faith in Frank has been shaken.  She has more reason to doubt Frank when, later that day, he lies again about his activities the night before.  Mary reveals that she had lunch with Diane and knows everything about their date, and then agrees to go out with Frank’s partner Bill instead of him.  Diane meanwhile has convinced her family that they need a chauffeur and, during a moonlit drive and some kissing, convinces Frank that he should take the job to help fund his garage.

Working at the Tremayne household is going well for Frank, especially when Diane tells him that Catherine has agreed to consider funding his garage.  Frank goes to present his business plan to Catherine who, while suspicious of Diane’s motives, agrees to talk to her lawyer about the garage.  However, when she calls his office she finds that her attorney is out-of-town and won’t be back for at least a week.  Later that day, during a secret meeting, Diane shows Frank the crumpled papers of his business proposal that she claims to have found in Catherine’s wastebasket.  Diane complains to Frank that Catherine is doing everything she can just to hurt her.  She claims that Catherine uses Diane’s love for her father, who is weak-willed and bad with money, as a way to control her.  Frank tells Diane not to worry too much about the garage plans but Diane won’t hear of it.  Later that night Diane comes into Frank’s apartment over the garage and claims to have just survived an attempt on her life.  She tells Frank that Catherine snuck into her room and opened the gas, just like what had happened before.  But if she thinks that Frank is going to be a push over, Diane is in for a surprise.  Frank refuses to believe her story and orders her back to her room to consider what she is really trying to do.  He says he knows that Diane hates her stepmother but she needs to stop and reconsider her actions before she does anything rash.  Stunned, Diane agrees and leaves the apartment.  The next day Frank visits Mary and tells her that he is quitting the job with the Tremaynes.  Upon his return to the estate he begins to pack his suitcase when Diane finds him.  She shows him her own packed suitcase and begs him not to leave her, to take her with him.  Frank finally relents, after admitting that he is in love with Diane, and agrees to wait a few more days before leaving but only if Diane takes the time to seriously think over their situation.

The next day Catherine is searching the house for Frank when she instead finds Diane.  Frank has gone into town and won’t be back for several hours, and Catherine needs to go to a bridge tournament.  Resolving to drive herself, Catherine borrows Diane’s car (at her insistence) and prepares to leave when she is approached by Charles.  Charles asks his wife to drop him off in town on her way out and she agrees.  She puts the car into drive and presses down on the gas, but the car lurches backwards and speeds off a cliff and down into a ravine.  Her father and step-mother lying dead below, Diane calmly plays the piano inside.  Following some investigation Diane is arrested under suspicion of murder, but she isn’t the only one.  Frank is also arrested and is to be tried along with Diane in the murder of the Tremaynes.

This is a movie that I had caught several times but always halfway through.  Finally seeing the whole story made me realize what an underrated noir this is.  While it isn’t on the same level as a film like OUT OF THE PAST, this is still an intriguing and well told story.  There are definite tones of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN here, the woman who wants to have love all to herself, which was made about seven years prior.  There are differences of course, including Diane’s remorse about involving Frank in her crimes and her devastation at the death of her father and Catherine.  The real fun of this movie is to watch it while asking the question, is Diane just crazy the whole time or is there something more?  If you go into it with this question in mind then the whole film takes on a much more complex tone.

Otto Preminger made one of my other favorite noirs, the terrific LAURA, and you can the similarities between the films.  The way he uses conversation to move the plot along, the way that the small moments have just as much impact as the large, really make this a unique film.  The production was not without problems however.  This was Jean Simmon’s last picture while under contract with Howard Hughes.  In an attempt to dissuade Hughes from using her in the film, thereby running out her contract, Simmons cut her hair as she knew Hughes preferred long hair.  Hughes responded by casting her in this film and forcing her to wear a wig throughout production, he also promised Preminger a bonus if he completed filming before Simmons’ contract was up.  Preminger did just that and collected his bonus.  Another story tells of how Mitchum grew frustrated by Preminger’s repeated re-takes which required him to slap Simmons repeatedly.  Finally, Mitchum slapped Preminger and asked if that was how he wanted it.  Preminger was furious and demanded that Hughes replace Mitchum, which Hughes obviously refused to do.

While this is not one of the best noirs, I think it is much more underrated than it deserves to be.  The story isn’t new but the character of Diane is much more complicated than I think she first appears.  Frank Jessup is a terrific character as well, because he is not a willing patsy to Diane’s scheming.  In fact, contrary to the men in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, Frank is well aware of Diane’s games and schemes.  He knows her true intentions and has no desire to put up with them, something he tells her to her face.  It is the fact that he knows what she is and what she is capable of but still loves her that makes this noir so tragic.

Even now I find myself thinking about parts of this film and coming to new realizations about the characters and their motivations.  Any film that can provoke that sort of thought is definitely worthwhile.

Watching with Warner: IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER (1937)

Digges!  Pack the bags!

We are starting my month-long Warner Archive watch-a-thon (OK, I made that word up) with a film that I had never heard of before, but one that once I knew the cast I had to see!  What could be bad about a screwball comedy starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland?  Answer; not a thing.

Basil Underwood (Leslie Howard) is a famed stage actor who is currently starring in ROMEO AND JUILET with his love, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis).  Unfortunately, this Romeo and Juliet would rather whisper insults and threats to each other rather than sweet nothings.  Up in the balcony, unaware of the sniping below, Marcia West(Olivia de Havilland) is swooning over Basil much to the dismay of her fiancé, Henry Grant (Patric Knowles).  Once Romeo dies the show is over for Marcia, who quickly leaves the private box to wait outside.  Joyce and Basil continue to spit fire at each other until the very end, and continue to argue during the curtain calls.  Back in their respective dressing rooms, each complains to their assistants about the others.  Basil’s long-suffering valet, Digges (Eric Blore), has heard it all before and is not surprised when the talk of hate soon turns again to love.  In spite of everything, Joyce and Basil truly do love each other.  Basil is interrupted by the arrival of a guest to his dressing room.  Marcia has snuck back in order to tell him how ardently she admires him and that he is her ideal man.  Having delivered her message, she promptly leaves again.  Basil is flattered and is now in a better mood and he begins to consider himself as a person.  What has he done of note, what has he given back?  Digges reminds him that most of his so-called charitable works were more self-serving than he would care to admit.  Basil dismisses this line of thought and returns to Joyce.  Joyce, for her part, has decided that she is through with Basil but after he climbs through her window to ultimately wish her a Happy New Year the two reconcile.  In fact they decide, for about the twelfth time, to be married that very evening.  Their happy plans are again interrupted by the arrival of a visitor to Basil’s dressing room.  This time it is Marcia’s fiance Henry, who has come to inform Basil that Marcia is in love with him and he should leave her be.  Basil recalls a play that he once did in which he acted a cad to make a woman fall out of love with him and Henry strikes upon an idea.  Perhaps Basil could re-enact that play with Marcia and cause her to fall in love with Henry again!  Though reluctant at first, Basil sees a chance to do a selfless act and soon agrees.  The only problem is that they would have to leave for Marcia’s house at once, and that will mean postponing the wedding to Joyce yet again.

Joyce is less than pleased with Basil’s sudden change of plans, and since he won’t reveal his true reasons for doing so, believes that he no longer wants to marry her.  Well, two can play that game!  She declares that she would never marry Basil now and storms off, leaving Basil and Digges to drive to Marcia’s estate for a house party.  Upon their arrival, Digges and Basil set about making themselves at home as the two most disagreeable and annoying house guests ever.  The other party members roused from their beds are bleary eyed and confused, but Marcia’s father is seeing red.  He angrily orders that the two leave the house and demands to know who invited them there!  Basil claims that Marcia did, assuming that she will deny the inference and send them on their way, but Marcia is only too happy to oblige in keeping up the ruse.  She is beyond thrilled to have Basil in her home and Digges is instructed to unpack the bags, as this plan is going to take longer than anticipated.  The next morning over breakfast, Basil is introduced to the other guests and sets about making a bore of himself.  He demands kippers when there are none, insults the guests, recites Shakespeare, and finally storms out of the dining room.  Marcia’s family are shocked and demand that this rude man is sent away, but Marcia steps up and reprimands them.  What are manners, she asks, but little rules for little people!  Of course Basil is rude, he is a great star and is too big for such constraints as manners!

Basil continues his reign of terror over the household, even going so far as to insult Marcia’s beauty marks or “moles” which he suggests she removes.  There are two problems with Basil’s plan to make Marcia hate him however.  First, Marcia does not hate him and seems to fall more and more in love with him the more awful he is to her.  And second, Basil is starting to enjoy her attentions much to the concern of Digges who by this time has packed and unpacked the bags so many times he knows the contents by heart.  He takes it upon himself to call the only person who can help Basil at a time like this, his true love Joyce.  That afternoon Basil and Marcia are taking a stroll in the garden when things become much more cozy.  Basil resists for a time but then finally gives in to his desires, and it is at this moment that Joyce appears.  Both Basil and Marcia are shocked, though Basil is secretly thrilled that Joyce has come to help him, but they are further surprised when Joyce introduces herself as Basil’s wife!

This is such a fun screwball comedy, I am surprised it is not more well-known!  Leslie Howard is terrific and it is fun seeing him play a more caddish role, I am so used to seeing him as a quiet gentleman.  He and Bette Davis, reunited from THE PETRIFIED FOREST, are terrific together and their scenes as Romeo and Juliet are a highlight!  Olivia de Havilland is still a year away from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD but you can already see what a terrific actress she is.  She is also great at the comedy, playing the eager fangirl with a gleeful attitude.  Two years in the future she and Leslie Howard would be reunited in GONE WITH THE WIND, and this would be the first of four films that she and Bette Davis would star in together.  In watching this you can see the chemistry of all three leads working together to make this a really standout film.  But for me, the one who really steals the show is Eric Blore.  His character of Digges is the comedic glue holding the whole thing together.  The scenes between him and Basil are some of the best in the entire film.  In fact, I almost wish that there was an entire series of movies about the mis-adventures of Basil and Digges.  There is something of Jeeves and Wooster in them and I loved every moment they were onscreen.

This is a great film from the Warner Archive and I highly recommend it!  It has moments that are reminiscent of TWENTIETH CENTURY, and others that seem to have influenced TO BE OR NOT TO BE.  While this is not a new story, especially for a screwball comedy, it is done with such wit and skill that it never feels stale or overdone.  If you get a chance to see this film don’t miss it!  Just remember to get Digges to unpack the bags first!

Watching with Warner: CLASH BY NIGHT (1952)

I love Barbara Stanwyck.  When I started watching movies when I was younger I never saw many of her films, and so was unaware of her talents.  Growing up my favorite actresses were more along the lines of Katherine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn.  While I still like both actresses, my tastes have grown more towards Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, and Lauren Bacall.  But I think that if I had to name my favorite actress it would be Barbara Stanwyck.  She is such a tremendous talent and, from what I have read, a truly professional and hardworking actress.  There is an honesty that comes from Barbara Stanwyck in her movies, an honesty that I think comes from her as a person.  This honesty has never seemed more immediate or apparent than in CLASH BY NIGHT directed by Fritz Lang.

In seaside Monterey, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) has returned home after spending the last ten years in the big city.  Upon her arrival she takes a moment, and a drink, in the local bar where she runs into Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas).  Jerry is a local fisherman who lives with his elderly father (Silvio Minciotti) and his Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish).  Jerry is thrilled to see Mae, remembering her from his younger days, but Mae fails to recognize him and leaves to find her brother.  Mae’s brother Joe (Keith Andes) works alongside Jerry on the fishing boats and is returning home with his girlfriend, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), who works at the local cannery.  Joe is less than pleased to find Mae waiting for him and questions her reasons for returning.  Mae is quite upfront with Joe in admitting she made a mistake, and reveals that she was involved with a married man who died and left her some money in his will.  His wife and children contested the will and left Mae with nothing, so unhappy and alone she felt there was nothing left but to return to her home.  After hearing Mae’s story, Joe softens a bit and Peggy helps Mae unpack.  While putting clothes away, Peggy confides to Mae that she is envious of her experiences in the big city and yearns for more excitement.  Peggy admits she wants to be like Mae and never let any man tell her what to do.

Weeks go by and Mae barely leaves the house.  At the docks, Jerry asks Joe about her availability and Joe encourages Jerry to ask Mae out for a date.  Jerry does and to his great excitement, Mae agrees.  The night of their first date arrives and Jerry is eagerly getting ready when Uncle Vince comes home with an armful of beer for himself and Jerry’s father to share.  Uncle Vince advises Jerry to be careful, that women are like horses and sometimes you need to use the whip on them, all of which Jerry ignores before leaving for his date.  After picking Mae up at her house, the two go to see a movie at the local theater where Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan) works as a projectionist.  Once the movie is over, Jerry takes Mae to meet Earl introducing him as his best friend.  Mae is initially attracted to Earl but soon comes to reconsider this attraction when he launches into a misogynistic tirade about his wife, who works as a burlesque dancer.  She notes that Earl hates women and Earl does not deny it.  Mae becomes sharp and dismissive of Earl and eventually asks Jerry to take her home.

Sometime later, during a night boat ride, Jerry broaches the subject of marriage which Mae gently rebuffs.  She tells Jerry that she wouldn’t make a good wife for him and that he should find someone else who is more of the “wife type”.  Several nights later, Jerry and Mae are out a beachside bar when Uncle Vince tells Jerry that his father is getting drunk at the counter.   Jerry hurries off to stop him, leaving Mae and Earl alone.  The two begin talking and it soon becomes clear that while they each find each other attractive, there are deeper forces working against them.  Earl again launches into a rant against his wife, further cementing his attitudes against women.  Mae has her own feelings about men, having little time for those who would act more like boys than men.  Not wanting to be a nursemaid for her man, desiring instead a man who makes he feel confident and alive, Mae says that she could bear anything if she truly felt love for a man again.  Earl, somewhat drunk at this point, tries to forcibly kiss Mae causing her to slap him.  Jerry returns and Mae angrily asks him to walk her home, leaving Earl alone at the table.  Once they reach her door Mae tells Jerry that if he still wants to marry her, she would try her best be a good wife to him and to not hurt him.  The two are soon married and at the wedding reception Earl insists on kissing the bride.  Mae resists and Earl storms off angrily into the night.

Several months later, Mae and Jerry are living happily together with their newborn daughter named Gloria.  The only one who isn’t happy is Uncle Vince, who has been ousted from the house by Mae, and he complains to Jerry.  Uncle Vince says that Mae is too controlling and that Jerry has become henpecked, but Jerry denies this and sends Uncle Vince away.  That night, at Jerry’s invitation, Earl comes to call.  When he arrives at the house, the now divorced Earl is visibly drunk and soon passes out. Jerry carries him inside to sleep it off and that is where Earl revives the next morning, after Jerry has left for work.  Mae is alone in the kitchen, feeling more conflicted than ever with the arrival of Earl.  Her request for a goodbye kiss from Jerry has not seemed to settle any feelings for her, and she swallows her sobs as she hears Earl stirring.  Earl questions Mae as to the status of her relationship with Jerry.  Mae denies that anything is wrong but Earl senses that Mae has given up her hopes for excitement and surrendered to a quiet life with Jerry.  He seizes a chance and forcibly kisses her which Mae resists.  They are interrupted by the arrival of Peggy, who happily shows off her new engagement ring.  Mae offers to take the baby and go into town with her, but Peggy can’t wait and hurries out.  Earl and Mae left alone again finally succumb to their desires and kiss passionately, beginning an affair.  Sometime later Jerry finds out that his father has gotten into a fight at the bar and rushes over to retrieve him.  Once home, Jerry begs his father to tell him why he was fighting but he gets no reply.  Uncle Vince however, is more than happy to reveal that the entire town has been gossiping about Mae and Earl and his father was defending the family name.  Jerry refuses to believe this and drives Uncle Vince from the house.  But doubts soon creep in, especially as Mae and Earl have gone out to the fair together.  Jerry searches their bedroom and soon finds two brand new nightgowns, and a bottle of perfume.  At that moment Earl and Mae return and Jerry goes to confront them.

This was Marilyn Monroe’s first starring role and once again it is an example of what a talented actress she might have been given the chance.  Made prior to GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, long before THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, this is before Marilyn was Marilyn.  The baby doll voice isn’t quite there and the vapidness is gone.  Instead there is an earnest attempt by a young actress to make an impression in a serious dramatic role.  Marilyn Monroe was known for being difficult on set, prompted by her severe insecurity in herself, often missing lines or needing retakes.  The one person in all Hollywood who never complained, the one who was always kind to her, was Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck came to this film having just gone through the emotional devastation of divorcing her husband, Robert Taylor.  Taylor, who was the love of her life, was said to have had numerous affairs during their life together and there were rumors of affairs on Stanwyck’s end as well but these are unsubstantiated.  Another possible cause of the breakup was the fact that Robert Taylor had made attempts at creating a life outside of Hollywood, a goal that Barbara Stanwyck did not share.  In spite of her emotional distress, she remained professional throughout the filming but I can’t help but think that part of the emotional impact her performance has in this film comes from her personal experiences.  There is a weariness and sadness in Mae that feels real, and looking at Barbara Stanwyck’s face you can see the truth behind the acting.  In some ways this script must have mirrored aspects of her own life and marriage, the hurts and slights suffered by both Mae and Jerry familiar and painful.  The journey of Mae, seeking to decide what is more important in life and love, whether it is better to have a life that is full of excitement and personal fulfillment or to have a life of quiet moments and caring for something bigger than oneself, must have seemed very close to Barbara’s desire to have a life in Hollywood versus the desires of her husband.

This film is a true character study of men, women, and the slowly shifting roles in the world.  What is the role of a men and a woman in a relationship or marriage?  What happens to those roles when women assert more independence?  How does a man relate to a woman who acts more liberated?  What do women want from men and what do men want from women?   Mae wanted independence but wants a man who not only supports her and boosts her up, but also is strong and confident and doesn’t need her to mother him.  She is initially happy with Jerry but soon becomes restless, and finds herself annoyed by his laid-back manner.  In Earl she finds a man who is exciting but one who has a dislike of women, a distrust of their motives and games.  I’m not certain if I believe that Earl is truly in love with Mae or if he simply lusts after her and enjoys to attention and power of the relationship.  There is a scene where Earl says, in almost a throw-away line, that he needs to be wanted and needed and I think that has more to do with his affair with Mae than actual emotional connection.  Earl and Mae are two people who have been hurt and who are fulfilling their selfish and personal desires.  The challenge to Mae is the decision she must face when confronted with the affair.  What matters more in that moment, her own happiness or the happiness of the other people in her life?  What is important and what is worth losing?

Watching with Warner: THE LUSTY MEN (1952)

Ain’t a bronc that can’t be rode, ain’t a cowboy that can’t be throwed

I am not a fan of westerns, I’ve said this before.  So when I first heard about Nicholas Ray’s film THE LUSTY MEN on a Warner Archive podcast, I didn’t pay much attention.  But as time went on I heard this film mentioned again and again, and with more and more enthusiasm.  Finally, during the year-end wrap up podcast the hosts of the Warner Archive mentioned it again as one of the overlooked gems of the year.  That did it.  I decided that I needed to see what the fuss was all about but I wasn’t convinced that this would be my kind of movie, after all how interesting could a movie about rodeo cowboys really be?  Holy cow (no pun intended) was I in for a surprise!

Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is a former rodeo star, having recently retired from the circuit after being injured by a wild bull during his last show.  Having no real home of his own, having spent the last eighteen years leading a nomadic lifestyle while following rodeos, Jeff returns to his childhood home in Texas.  While searching the crawl space under the house for childhood souvenirs, Jeff is discovered by the home’s current occupant.  Surprised, having assumed that the home was empty, Jeff introduces himself to the sixty-two year old Jeremiah Watrus (Burt Mustin) and the two sit down to a cup of coffee.  While trading memories and life theories, Jeff and Jeremiah are interrupted by the arrival of a local cowhand and his wife.  According to Jeremiah, the two come out to see him quite often as they are interested in buying the property.  Jeremiah won’t sell the house for less than $5000 and until the young couple has the money they content themselves by coming to see the house and talk about changes they will make when it is finally theirs.  Jeremiah invites Jeff to stay and watch the fun but Jeff demurs, and bidding Jeremiah good-bye sets off down the road.  The cowhand, Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), recognizes Jeff from his days at the rodeo and strikes up a conversation which leads to inviting Jeff home for dinner.  After dropping Wes’ wife Louise (Susan Hayward) back at their home, Jeff and Wes go to see the rancher that Wes works for.  After some convincing Jeff is offered a job to work alongside Wes as a cowhand.

That night, after a meal of lamb chops, Wes asks Jeff about his days on the rodeo circuit.  Jeff talks about the bulls, bucks, women, and quick money.  Louise is unimpressed and tells Jeff so.  A former waitress, Louise has little patience for men who are after a fast buck and who can lose that money as soon as they get it.  She proudly tells Jeff that she and Wes have saved $1100 towards the purchase of Jeremiah’s place.  The next day Wes tells Jeff about his plans to enter the rodeo circuit starting in San Angelo, Texas.  He has taken $125 from the savings Louise mentioned for an entry fee and he wants Jeff to help train him.  Jeff advises Wes to forget the rodeo and stick with Louise and her lamb chops, to earn his money in a reliable and sensible way.  But Wes insists and Jeff finally agrees to show him the ropes.  Later that night, Louise discovers the missing money and questions Wes.  He tells her his plans and she angrily tells him that she had many men pursuing her but chose Wes because they each wanted a steady, honest life together.  Wes, just as angrily, insists that he doesn’t want to wait for years to finally have the money to buy their own place, or their own herd of cattle and that he needs to do this to get what he wants from life.  Louise emphasizes the danger of the sport but Wes won’t hear any more and goes with Jeff to compete.

With Jeff’s help, Wes is a great success at his first rodeo and wins $410.  Flush with his winnings, Wes returns to Louise and tells her that he has quit his job as a cowhand and has decided to travel the rodeo circuit instead.  Jeff will accompany him as his coach and as such will get half his winnings.  Louise confronts Jeff about this scheme, convinced that Jeff is just using Wes as a ticket to some quick cash.  Jeff points out to Louise that she latched on to Wes too in order to get what she wanted and that he, Jeff, is just helping Wes get what he wants.  Louise tells Jeff that growing up she never had a real home, or money, or security.  When she met Wes, he wanted to give her the life that she longed for and she married him for that.  So, even though she doesn’t agree with his plan as his wife she will go with Wes even if that means going on the rodeo circuit.  The three set out the next day and arrive at the rodeo camp in Tucson that night.  Upon their arrival, Jeff stops a fight that has broken out between several rodeo cowboys.  The instigator is Buster Burgess (Walter Coy) whose recent goring by a bull has left him scarred, both mentally and physically.  Jeff also reconnects with his old friend Booker (Arthur Hunnicutt) and Booker’s teenage daughter Rusty (Carol Nugent).  The next day Louise makes friends with Buster’s wife, Grace (Lorna Thayer), and Rosemary (Maria Hart), a trick rider and Jeff’s old flame.  Rosemary warns Louise about Jeff’s womanizing ways before taking her leave to let Louise use her shower.  Jeff appears and begins to flirt with Louise but he is quickly shot down.

At the rodeo Wes has entered all five events, including bull riding which he has never done before.  After performing well in all other events, Wes prepares to ride a bull named Yo-yo much to the shock of Jeff and Louise.  However, Wes stuns everyone by riding the bull and winning the event.  That night Wes collects his winnings and is invited to join in a rodeo sponsored party, where he attracts the attentions of a young woman named Babs.  Louise quickly marks her territory and sends Babs scurrying with a swift kick to the rear end.  In the middle of the party, Grace appears having left the rodeo to tend to Buster who was injured during that day’s events.  She angrily scolds all the guests for living such a careless and dangerous life, and the next day tells Louise that she and Buster are quitting the rodeo.  Wes buys their trailer and over the next few months travels the rodeo circuit with Louise and Jeff, winning events and large amounts of money.

When the group reaches the Annual Pendleton Roundup in Oregon, Louise tells Jeff that Jeremiah has agreed to sell his house for $4100 and they now have enough saved to buy their house.  Jeff congratulates her, and they two sit down to wait for Wes to return for a pot roast dinner.  However, Wes is not as thrilled by Louise’s news and tells her that he has no desire to give up the rodeo circuit to go back to their old life.  Angry, Wes storms off to a party at Babs’ apartment leaving Louise and Jeff alone.  Jeff advises letting Wes blow off steam and talking to him again in the morning, but Louise is tired of being the supportive wife and decides to go to the party and confront Wes.  Wearing her most alluring dress, Louise heads off with an admiring Jeff in tow.  When they arrive, Wes is drunk and wearing Babs’ lipstick.  Louise brawls with Babs and is kicked out of the party, taking Jeff with her.  Out in the hall Jeff confesses to Louise that he has been in love with her from the very start and offers her a way out of life with Wes.  Louise gently refuses him, citing her continued love for her husband, and begs Jeff to do what he can to save Wes and get him out of rodeo.  Jeff requests a kiss, for all the times he won’t be able to, and it is while they are kissing that Wes discovers them.  Wes insults Jeff, calling him yellow and weak for not competing, and Jeff slugs him.  Asking Louise if he is sure of her decision, Jeff exits and isn’t seen again until the next morning.  Rusty bursts into Louise’s trailer, where Louise is packing to leave Wes, and tells her that Jeff has surprised everyone by entering all the events.  Louise, realizing what Jeff is doing, rushes to the arena with Rusty.

This was one of Robert Mitchum’s favorite films and it is easy to see why.  His performance as Jeff is believable and relatable, in spite of Jeff’s background as a rodeo cowboy.  Through his acting, we can see Jeff as a man who ran away to the rodeo to find something that was missing inside himself.  The feeling that he got from riding bucks and broncs filled the void inside, left behind by not having anyone to rely on.  It is in Louise that he finally finds that feeling again, the possibility of loving her and having a home/life with her giving him the chance to find peace and happiness without needing to rodeo.  And when she refuses him, he accepts it and what it means for his life.  Robert Mitchum is an actor who doesn’t need to do much in order to make an impact, and it is in the little moments and gestures that he gives us a complete picture of Jeff and his world.

Susan Hayward is not an actress that I have seen many times but she is just so good it is unreal.  Louise is a woman who married Wes, not because he was the most handsome, the richest, the smartest, and maybe not even the one she loved the most, but because he was the one who wanted to give her the home and security she wanted so badly.  She equates this security with love, and so when Wes wants to give up their dreams of a home for such a risky and dangerous venture it is almost as if he is rejecting her love and their life together.  She eventually comes to realize that she loves Wes, in spite of everything, and must make a decision to either fight to save their marriage or leave him to his desires.  Susan Hayward gives a performance that is strong, tough, and still sympathetic.  Louise supports Wes in spite of her misgivings and you can see this struggle, especially when Louise is getting to know the other rodeo wives.  She wants to be there for Wes, but can’t understand the total commitment of some of the other wives.

Arthur Kennedy’s Wes Merritt is a character that could easily be dismissed as a selfish and immature man.  And yes, there is an element of selfishness to him.  But the reasons why Wes is doing what he wants, the reasons why he is entering the rodeo events, are more complex than just because he wants to or because he wants to prove people wrong.  Wes is a man who wants to take a chance to get what he wants because he doesn’t want to rely on other people.  He wants to finally get something of his own in this world.  He wants to be a man.  Maybe the way that he goes about it is selfish and immature, but his reasons are deeper than that.

Some people have complained about the ending, calling it weak, poorly done, or just saying it didn’t ring true.  I could not disagree more.  This is the ending that was always coming.  This is the ending that is truest to the characters and their intentions.  It is foreshadowed in the name of the horse Jeff rides.  It is the ending that was set in motion the moment that Jeff loved Louise and she asked him to save Wes.  I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to spoil anything, but once you watch this amazing film send me an email and let me know if you agree.  This is a film that needs to be seen and I am so glad that I had the chance to.

Watching with Warner: KONGO (1932)

Holy cats.  That was my thought while watching my latest film.  This is a pre-code film that is definitely not for the faint of heart. More than just bawdy humor, lusty innuendo, and social commentary, this is a film that delves into the darkness found in the hearts and minds of men.

“Deadlegs” Flint (Walter Huston) is a paraplegic who lives in the deep Kongo surrounded by his henchmen and his bitterness.  He controls the local natives with cheap magic tricks assisted by his mistress, Tula (Lupe Velez), and is venerated as a powerful “juju” master.  He lives with Tula and two thugs named Hogan (Mitchell Lewis) and Cookie (Forrester Harvey) in a compound at the center of an eighty mile radius of which he is in command.  No one enters or leaves that area without his express permission.  Although Flint spends his days and nights commanding the natives to do his bidding, his every waking moment is consumed with thoughts of revenge.  On the wall of the compound is a sign with the words “HE SNEERED” written on it, and underneath a tally of days.  The days total eighteen years, eighteen long years of plotting vengeance on a man named Gregg (C. Henry Gordon).

Eighteen years ago, Flint stole away a baby girl and hid her in a convent.  This baby, now grown into a young woman, is the key to his plan of revenge.  Now that the girl, named Ann (Virginia Bruce), has come of age Flint sends Hogan to the convent to retrieve her.  Trusting Hogan, as he is dressed as a missionary, Ann accompanies him into the jungle.  This is the last time she will ever be so trusting, or so innocent.  Two years later Ann is barely recognizable, ravaged by the black plague, frequent assaults and rapes at the hands of Hogan and others, and countless bottles of brandy.  She still has no idea why she has been brought to Flint, nor what he wants from her.  She spends her days drinking to numb the pain of the horror of her life as well as the fevers brought on by the plague.  There seems to be no way out for her and she knows it.

One day a man arrives at the camp, a doctor named Kingsland (Conrad Nagel).  Into this dark underworld comes a surgeon who is just as damaged as the rest of the inhabitants.  Kingsland is a dope fiend, addicted a root that grows in the congo, and Flint knows it.  He knows that without daily doses of this root, Kingsland while withdraw painfully and decides to use this weakness to his advantage.  One night during dinner Kingsland gets his first glimpse of Ann and is immediately attracted, and concerned.  He tells Ann that continuing to drink brandy will only increase her symptoms and fevers, and will eventually kill her. Ann tells him not to be worry about her, but she is touched by his concern.  When Flint tries to get Ann to drink Kingsland intervenes on her behalf, and is beaten for his efforts.

Over time Ann and Kingsland fall in love, each helping to heal and improve the other.  But Tula is growing jealous of the attention that Ann is receiving from the handsome doctor, Flint being more and more abusive towards his former mistress a well, and resolves to steal him away.  She begins to supply the doctor with the root he needs to satisfy his cravings, much to Flint’s displeasure.  He needs Kingsland free of drugs because he has a plan.  He intends to have Kingsland operate on his back, to help relieve the constant pain and he can’t have him high on drugs if that is to happen.  Angered by Tula’s betrayal, Flint has Hogan and Cookie restrain her as he prepares to twist her tongue with a wire when Kingsland appears with a gun.  High as a kite, Kingsland threatens to shoot Flint if he harms Tula but he is quickly disarmed and knocked out.  Flint cuts the doctor and leaves him half-submerged in leech infested waters, in order to cleanse him of the drug.  Hours later Ann finds her love out in the swamp and rescues him, taking him back to the compound to nurse him back to health.  Flint tolerates this new relationship, as he says Ann has known “so many romances, what’s one more?”, and its positive affects on Ann because he needs the operation.  Once Kingsland has recovered sufficiently he begins the procedure and not a moment too soon, as Gregg is approaching the compound summoned there by Flint.

This is a dark movie.  It is certainly the darkest pre-code movie that I have seen by far.  The story was done four years earlier, in WEST OF ZANZIBAR starring Lon Chaney, and both movies are based on a stage play that was first performed in New York in 1926.  In both the stage play and KONGO, Walter Huston plays the role of Flint and it is a role that is more complex then it first appears.  Flint is a man motivated by anger and revenge, but by the end of the film there is a change in him that is just as sad as it is surprising.  Huston does a great job of portraying a man who is more monster than mortal without ever forgetting the reasons that made him that way.  It is a role that could very easily become one-dimensional but once the truth of Flint’s revenge is revealed the darkness in Flint changes, and the man himself becomes more nuanced.

Virgnia Bruce does a fantastic job as Ann.  She begins so pure and innocent, and by using her face, body, and eyes conveys the horrors she has suffered through.  I am so used to seeing her as a society girl so this was a big change.  Ann is so raw and worn down she is almost a ghost.  The other cast of characters are all so damaged that Flint is able to control them all with harsh words, beatings, and bribes.  The world they live in is a never-ending cycle of moral degradation and the darkness starts to seep into their pores.  At the end of the movie two characters are shown in a physically cleaner state (i.e. they have showered) and it is a physical relief to see something clean in this film.  All in all this is a truly interesting example of the darkness in men’s hearts and minds, and of how a man can create his own hell on earth.  If you are a pre-code fan, and you aren’t too squeamish, give this film a look which you can now do while it is streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Watching with Warner: THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

I think that I have an addiction to the Warner Archive.  Between the sales, the podcast, and the AWESOME movies I have bought so many films that I haven’t even seen yet.  So, the other night I decided to watch one of my many offerings from the Warner Archive and I decided to let my husband pick it.  After some careful perusal he handed me a copy of THE NARROW MARGIN starring Charles McGraw and directed by Richard Fleischer.

Arriving from Los Angeles, Detectives Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) head out from the train station to the Chicago hideout of a federal witness.   Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) is a gangster’s widow who is set to testify in front of the grand jury and to present them with his “pay-off” list.  Brown and Forbes are sent to make sure that she arrives unharmed, but there is one catch.  No one, not even the hitmen gunning for her, know what Mrs. Neall looks like.  Brown and Forbes arrive at the apartment where Mrs. Neall is waiting, not at all patiently.  She is surly, argumentative, and scared.  The three get ready to head back to the train station and start down the stairs.  As they descend, from the shadows a man with a fur collared coat readies himself to take the shot.  Suddenly, the back door opens and an unsuspecting tenant enters the building.  The hidden gunman startles and begins firing wildly.  Forbes comes down first and is hit immediately, Brown giving chase to the assailant while Mrs. Neall stays hidden on the landing.  Brown manages to clip the fleeing gunman, but loses him in the alley when a car pulls up and takes him to safety.  Upon returning he finds his partner is dead and Mrs. Neall is in no mood to mourn him.  She demands to be taken to safety and quickly.  Brown leaves instructions for the tenant to call the police and give his information about the assailant, and then proceeds to a taxi with Mrs. Neall.

During the ride to the station Brown bemoans the loss of his partner but Mrs. Neall once again proves herself to be a class act by showing no sympathy for the dead man.  She figures that the job of both Brown and Forbes is to protect her no matter what, and if that means dying for her than that is just fine.  Brown is disgusted but duty-bound to help her, so he hops out of the cab two blocks before the station after giving detailed instructions as to how to safely board the train to the irate Mrs. Neall.  Brown knows that he was spotted by the hitman and his getaway vehicle but that Mrs. Neall was not.  That means he is the only one who can lead them to Mrs. Neall, so by separating they have a chance to keep up her cover.  In the station, two men are waiting for him not knowing that their actual target just walked right by them.  Brown makes every effort to lose his tail, but he can’t shake them before boarding the train.  Arriving at his compartment, Brown has little time to settle in before there is a knock at his door and the conductor is standing there with a man.  The man is Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and he claims to have lost his luggage which he thinks might be in Brown’s compartment.  Brown recognizes Kemp as the man who was tailing him at the station and knows that he is just trying to snoop around his compartment for signs of Mrs. Neall.  Brown calmly shows Kemp and the conductor that his compartment is empty of rogue luggage when Kemp wants to look into the adjoining room.  The door is locked and on the other side is Mrs. Neall, hiding in the darkness.  Brown tells the conductor that his partner missed the train and so the compartment is empty.  Satisfied, the conductor escorts Kemp from the room though Kemp promises to be back.

Brown makes his way to the dining car to get a drink but he soon spots Kemp sitting nearby.  In order to keep an eye on him, Brown takes a seat at the same table as a young woman.  The woman, Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), is surprised at her new visitor but soon strikes up a conversation.  Brown makes absentminded small talk until he sees Kemp exit the dining car, at which point he hastily takes his leave of Ann and hurries after Kemp.  Kemp is searching through Brown’s compartment and finding nothing.  While Brown spies on him, Kemp makes his way into the adjoining room and finds nothing again.  Frustrated, Kemp leaves and Brown ducks into a nearby compartment in order to remain hidden.  The room that he has picked is occupied however, and a little boy named Tommy (Gordon Gebert) accuses him of being a train robber.  Brown gives excuses to the woman in the top bunk and hurriedly exits, while Tommy locks the door behind him.  Brown retrieves Mrs. Neall from the bathroom, where he sent her to hide, and they both return to their respective cabins.  As Brown gets ready for bed he notices the handle of his door beginning to turn.  Grabbing the handle, Brown finds a man trying to enter his room.  The man introduces himself as Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco) and he offers Brown a lot of money, if he will turn over the list carried by Mrs. Neall.  Brown refuses the bribe and Yost begins to leave, pausing only to entreat Brown to reconsider because they are going to find Mrs. Neall eventually so why not make some money for himself?  Unbeknownst to Brown, Mrs. Neall is listening at the door and hears the whole exchange.

The next morning Brown spots Kemp leaving his own berth and seizes the opportunity to do some snooping of his own.  He finds a telegram informing Kemp that a man named Densel will be contacting him soon, but is unable to find much more before Kemp returns from the bathroom.  Entering the dining car again, Brown is met by Ann and the two strike up a conversation.  Soon Brown notices that Kemp is sitting nearby having a conversation with a very large man.  The man approaches Brown and introduces himself as Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey).  He says that Kemp has informed him that Brown is in possession of a spare compartment which he would like to buy.  Brown refuses and Jennings angrily goes to ask the conductor to intervene.  Brown goes after him and is able to smooth things over with Jennings, just as the conductor informs them that they are approaching their next stop.  During their twelve-minute stop in a small Colorado town, Brown sends a telegram to his home office informing them about current developments onboard the train.  Outside he runs into Tommy once more, and takes the time to make friends with the boy.  He then discovers that the child’s mother is none other than Ann Sinclair, the woman he has been talking to.  The two spend time conversing on the platform all under the watchful eye of Kemp, who sends a telegram of his own.  Having no idea what Mrs. Neall looks like, Kemp has picked out Ann Sinclair as most likely target and has sent word back to his bosses of his suspicions.

This was a movie that I had neither seen nor heard of before it was brought up on the Warner Archive podcast.  As mentioned in a previous post, this is a fantastic podcast that often prompts me to buy films that I might never otherwise purchase due solely to the enthusiasm of the hosts.  This film was described with such fervor I knew that I had to check it out, and I certainly am glad that I did!  This is a terrific noir, a tight little story that moves quickly and packs a punch (no pun intended).  The setting of the train makes it really claustrophobic but only in the best sense.  I felt like the story was similar to the modern film 16 BLOCKS with Bruce Willis, but having it take place on a train gave a greater sense of tension and urgency.  On a train there are only so many places to hide and only so much time available to find what you are looking for.  Having all your characters in one small place adds a dimension of fear that around any corner there is someone waiting, or someone might spot the hidden witness on her way to the bathroom.  At seventy-one minutes, this story MOVES but never feels rushed or slapped together.  There are some really great twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil for you here, but if you go along for the ride you will definitely have some surprises.

One of the best parts of this film is the camerawork.  This was one of the first films to use handheld cameras, in order to avoid removing walls on sets.  The handheld look works with the grittiness and “down in the streets’ mentality of the story, and actually adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.  Another great feature is that the background is just as important as the foreground.  More than once I noticed characters walking by in the background or drifting in and out of the frame that caused me to wonder what they were doing?  Were they listening to the conversation happening on camera?  Were they spies too?  It added to the feeling of not knowing who to trust or who might be hiding around the corner.  When you watch this film, make sure you keep your eyes on all characters because you might catch them doing something.  It almost felt like a WHERE’S WALDO book in that there are people all around, but once you stop looking for Waldo you notice other little details that were thrown in.  It makes viewing and re-viewing an enjoyable possibility.

All in all this is a fun and punchy (again, no pun intended) film noir.  A B-picture that has the qualities of an A-picture, and one that I really enjoyed.  Guess I’ll have to thank my husband!

Watching with Warner: THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

After watching THREE ON A MATCH (1932) on Warner Archive Instant I had two reactions.  First, how do they cram so much into just sixty-four minutes?  Second, how is Ann Dvorak not a huge thing?

THREE ON A MATCH tells the story of Vivian (Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell), and Ruth (Bette Davis).  These three girls all attend Public School No. 62 as children, though each has a very different path to follow.  Ruth is studious and practical, Mary is independent and headstrong, and Vivian is popular and privileged.  Mary is always getting into trouble, sneaking off to smoke with boys, and showing off her bloomers, much to the disapproval of Vivian.  At graduation Ruth is awarded Valedictorian and, as her family cannot afford to send her to high school, goes off to business college.  Vivian is voted Most Popular and is sent off to an exclusive boarding school, while Mary barely manages to graduate at all.  When Ruth wonders what will happen to Mary now that they have left school, Vivian sniffs that she will probably end up in reform school.  Flash forward a few years and Ruth is working hard in business college, Vivian is reading saucy novels among breathless girls at boarding school, and Mary is indeed in reform school.

Several more years pass and Mary is now working as an actress when she happens to run into Ruth, who is now working as a secretary.  As Mary recounts her chance meeting to a hairdresser that afternoon, the woman in the booth next door overhears and realizes that she also knows Mary.  In fact the other woman is Vivian, who is now married to a successful lawyer named Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) with whom she has a 3 1/2 year old son.  The three women agree to meet for lunch to catch up on old times.  Over sandwiches and tea, the women share a match to light their cigarettes causing Mary to note, “Three on a match.”  The “Three on a Match” superstition was created around WWI, at first believed to be from soldiers on the battlefield but later discovered to have been created by a large match manufacturer in an effort to decrease sharing and increase sales.  The saying goes that three on a match, the last one on the match is soon to die because in the time it takes for the three to share the match a sniper has enough time and light to find his target.

Mary asks what the other two have been up to over the years, and each discusses their lives and their envy of the others.  Surprisingly, even though Vivian has everything the other two could ask for she is the least satisfied with her life.  She complains that she feels restless, that the things that give pleasure to others hold nothing for her, that they simply leave her cold.  Ruth speculates that perhaps it is because things have always come easily for Vivian, which she does not disagree with.

Later that night, Vivian and Robert are returning from a party to find that their son is still awake.  Vivian tucks him back in and goes back to her bedroom, while Robert spends some more time with his son.  Once alone Vivian hurries to get ready for bed before Robert comes in.  When Robert does finally appear, Vivian is already in bed and pretending to be asleep.  Sensing something is wrong, Robert asks Vivian what he can do to make her happier.  After some discussion, it is decided that Vivian will take a trip abroad with just herself and her son.  Robert is sad to have his family leave but he truly wants to help Vivian find the happiness that is eluding her.  When the day of departure comes Vivian is excited to have some time on her own, and is even looking forward to the prospect of caring for her son without the help of the nursemaid.  Robert offers to spend some time with the two of them before the ship departs but he is interrupted by the arrival of a message from his office.  Work calls him away and he leaves Vivian with a kiss, before hurrying out down the hall and past Mary who has just arrived.  Mary and several friends are onboard to throw a farewell party for another friend who is sailing.  She invites Vivian to join her and Vivian, who has noticed Mary’s handsome friend Mike (Lyle Talbot), happily agrees.  By the end of the night Vivian and Mike are smitten with each other.  Vivian is thrilled by Mike’s attention, and feels more alive and desired than she ever has before.  Mike asks her to leave the ship with him and she agrees.  Vivian returns to her state room to collect her son and her baggage before disappearing into the night.

Robert is going crazy looking for Vivian and his son, but no one can find her.  But Mary knows where she is, and is concerned for the safety and health of the child.  Vivian and Mike are wrapped up in each other, alcohol, parties, and drugs.  Vivian’s son is often hungry and dirty as his mother no longer cares enough to get him food or bathe him.  Mary has a plan to get Vivian’s son away from her and into the care of Ruth, and Ruth’s sister.  Mary goes to see Robert and lets him know just where Vivian has been staying and what she has been up to.  Leading the police to the apartment, Mary finds Vivian passed out in the room and her son playing in the bathroom.  Father and son are happily reunited, and Vivian relinquishes control having no grounds to object to Robert taking the boy into his care.

Some years pass, and Robert has become more friendly with Ruth and Mary.  Ruth is wonderful with his son, and Mary is just wonderful.  Robert asks Ruth to stay on as governess to his son, and he asks Mary to stay on as his wife.  Now divorced from Vivian, Robert marries Mary and settles into a happier life.  But one day Vivian appears on the corner and asks Mary for help.  It seems that Mike has left her, after spending all her money and now she has nothing.  Mary, feeling sorry for Vivian, gives her what she can and tells Vivian to come again to talk with her.  Walking around the corner Vivian meets with Mike, who has in fact not left, and presents him with the money.  Mike has gambled away more money than he can pay, and now he owes $2,000 to a night club owner named Ace (Edward Arnold).  Ace tells Mike that if he does not return the money life will become very painful, a threat which will be backed up by his main enforcer Harve (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang.  Mike is desperate and decides to go to see Robert.  In an attempt at blackmail, Mike threatens to tell the papers about Mary’s stay in the reform school unless Robert pays him $2,000.  Robert refuses and sends Mike away, telling him that if the story about Mary makes its way into the news that Mike will be sued for libel.  On his way out of the office Mike spies Robert’s son coming to see his father, and he suddenly has an idea.  In the park Mike corners the little boy, and tells him that Vivian needs him and he must go to her at once.  The child agrees and goes off with his “Uncle Mike”, little knowing the truth behind Mike’s actions.  In the apartment Vivian is getting high and she is less than thrilled with Mike shows up.  Things go from bad to worse when there is a knock at the door, and in walks Harve and the gang.  Apparently, Ace has had an idea of a way to get even more money out of Mike.

This movie is an essential Pre-Code viewing.  It has everything that the Hayes Code hated!  There is sex, violence, drinking, drugs, and skin.  There is also a nice bit of foreshadowing at the beginning, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Joan Blondell is great as Mary, her quick patter delivery and snappy comebacks giving a bit of comic relief.  Bette Davis is a really minor character here, but you can still tell that this is an actress to watch even if all she is doing is putting on her stockings.  Warren William, the “King of Pre Code”, is sympathetic as Robert a man who really wanted only the best for his family.  But let’s be honest here, this is really Ann Dvorak’s movie.

I will admit that I hadn’t really heard of Ann Dvorak until recently.  I had heard some talk of her online, and seen her biography written by Christina Rice which I have since bought, but aside from that I didn’t know too much about this actress or her films.  That changed during TCM’s month of pre-code films, starting with HEAT LIGHTNING.  Here is the talented and gorgeous actress who is relatively unknown today, especially outside of classic film fan circles.  How can that be?  I won’t presume to offer any theories at this point, at least until I have read her biography.  That might be a blog post for the future.  But let’s talk about Ann Dvorak in this film.  She is amazing.  She starts out as a child (played by Anne Shirley by the way!) who has everything she wants and who looks down on those who are too different, wild, or free.  She grows into a woman who craves those very things, but who has settled into a quiet and respectable life.  When she is given a taste of what she desires it becomes too great of a temptation, and she is ultimately destroyed by those desires.  Ann Dvorak gives such a complete performance, moving from put-together socialite, to unsatisfied wife and mother, to debauched mistress, to fallen woman, finally to strong and protective mother.  She changes in degrees throughout the film, so each time you see her she is slightly different, moving further down the path towards ruin.  I had heard that in this film Ann Dvorak is like “an exposed nerve”, and this is totally true.  It isn’t just near the end, when she is so raw and wired that she seems ready to take flight and burst through the screen, but really throughout the whole film.  There is never a moment where you don’t know exactly what Vivian is feeling.  Good emotions or bad, Ann brings them out on her face and through her performance and through her we experience everything.  I can’t wait to read the biography, to see more films (I have Scarface on my DVR!), and to learn more about this amazing actress who definitely deserves more recognition.