Friday, August 28, 2009

The Party Never Stops (Jaffe/Braunstein Films, Lifetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I screened a Lifetime TV-movie I’d wanted to watch since I recorded it but just got around to now: The Party Never Stops (or, to give it its full title, The Party Never Stops: Diary of a Binge Drinker), the story of Jessie Brenner (Sara Paxton) who’s looking forward to going to college after a stellar high-school career in which she got a 3.8 GPA and regularly worked out running with her mom, April (Nancy Travis), whom she’s been especially (and, writer Matt Dorff tries to hint, almost pathologically) close since her father died a year before. Once she gets into college she’s assigned a dorm room and a roommate, Shanna Martin (Chelsea Hobbs), who immediately turns her on to drinking, hanging out with the fraternity boys and partying until she sinks into a stupor. Within a few weeks she’s racing to classes (when she wakes up from her binges in time to attend them at all) and has blown her long-time ambition to try out for the college track team because when she drinks she loses her coordination so totally she can no longer run.

She also lets Shanna set her up with Keith (Jared Keeso), a frat-buddy friend of Shanna’s own boyfriend Perry (Brent C.S. O’Connor), blowing off the affections of Colin (James Kirk), who may not be as drop-dead gorgeous as the frat guys (though frankly he did a lot more for me!) but is a lot more appealing, creative, serious and is working his way through college by busking on street corners singing mediocre songs apparently inspired by his desire to be a male version of Joni Mitchell (whom he names as his favorite musician; he and Jessie go into ecstasies about “that stuff she did with Mingus” — actually Mitchell and Charles Mingus were planning to make an album together and had written three songs together, but Mingus died before he and Mitchell could actually record together, and the final Mingus LP Mitchell released in 1979 — a year after Mingus’s death — contained the three songs they worked on together; a fourth song, “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” in which Mitchell added lyrics to an old Mingus instrumental; and two new songs Mitchell wrote for the project after Mingus died, one of which was about Mingus).

I noticed at least one commentator gave this movie a much better review than it deserved because, like the people who praised the God-awful film Human Trafficking, this writer was so enamored of the intentions behind this film — to warn people, especially students in or about to go to college, of the dangers of binge drinking and the college party scene — he or she ignored what a lousy movie it was. The big problem is that Dorff’s script is so damned predictable — he timidly goes where a thousand addiction movies have gone before him — down to Colin turning out to be a recovering alcoholic himself who did himself out of a scholarship and a job before hitting bottom and sobering up; and Shanna, at the end of the school year, promising Jessie she’s going to stop drinking (Jessie already has, thanks largely due to pressure from her mother, who has turned from best-bud to avenging parent) as soon as she goes to one last frat boys’ party … and literally drinks herself to death at it, as any graduate of Clichéd Screenwriting 101 could have predicted in a heartbeat.

The director, David Wu, doesn’t help either; though at least he doesn’t do the video “flanging” effects beloved of a lot of really schlocky Lifetime directors who think they’re being “artistic,” he’s got another, equally annoying “artistic” mannerism of his own: he way overdoes the freeze-frame and turns the movie into still pictures to indicate that the characters are introspecting. It also doesn’t help that he stages one of the drinking scenes with literal blackouts — as Jessie is climbing the stairs on her way to one such party the image periodically cuts (not fades!) to total black, and the first time this happens we wonder if there’s a problem with our TV before we finally realize, “No, it’s not a picture problem — just an arty director!” I was hoping for some nice soft-core porn scenes, but we don’t even get that — just Jessie waking up in strangers’ beds a couple of times and realizing she’s just let some guy she didn’t even know fuck her because she was too drunk to want to resist.

The Lady and the Mob (Columbia, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out one of the more obscure films featuring Ida Lupino TCM had shown earlier in the day in their “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to her: The Lady and the Mob, a 1939 Columbia “B” whose cartoon-style main titles and the top-billed casting of Fay Bainter, as well as the cheery music, indicated this would be a comedy. It wasn’t drop-dead funny (let’s face it, so soon after watching The Cameraman it’s hard to imagine being especially impressed by a movie comedy whose star isn’t named Keaton or Chaplin — and no, I don’t mean Michael, Diane or Geraldine!) but it was consistently charming and amusing.

Lupino plays Lila Thorne, who previously to the start of the film has got herself engaged to Fred Leonard (Lee Bowman), the son of a wealthy widow who owns the bank in her small town, and has promised to visit her mother-in-law to-be to get to know her and get her to accept her as a worthy marriage partner for her son. When Lila arrives, she finds her fiancé’s mother, Hattie Leonard (Fay Bainter) incensed that her latest dry-cleaning bill was $2 instead of $1.75. She contacts her dry cleaner, Vincenzo Zambrogio (Henry Armetta, whose mock-Italian accent for once comes across as funny instead of overbearing), and learns he’s had to raise his prices to cover the $7 per week “protection” money he’s being charged by racketeer “Harry the Lug” (Harold Huber). This just makes Hattie even angrier: she insists on being at Zambrogio’s business the next time Harry comes to collect, and in order to go up against the crooks she recruits an old friend of hers who used to be a crook himself: Frankie O’Fallon (Warren Hymer),who once tried to steal Hattie’s purse. Instead of pressing charges, she agreed to help O’Fallon find a legitimate job and bought him a taxi so he could make his living as a cabdriver. Now she wants O’Fallon to beat up Harry and drive him out of business — and when Harry beats up O’Fallon instead, Hattie determines to recruit a gang of her own, asking the district attorney (Forbes Murray) to round her up some crooks who have records but aren’t wanted for anything at the moment to become her own gang and take on the extortionists.

The Lady and the Mob is essentially a three-joke movie — the main joke is a woman of Hattie’s age and history delving into crime-fighting; the subsidiary joke is her fish-out-of-water inability to relate to the crooks she’s recruited or to get comfortable with their jargon (her bobbling the expression “take it on the lam” is one of the cuter bits of the film); and the third joke is Lila’s increasing exasperation with Hattie and the doubts she’s having about whether she should marry into a family with such a crazy matriarch in the first place. (This isn’t the first time Hattie’s antics have driven one of her son’s girlfriends away; early on in the film she reminisces about a previous one who came over as a houseguest and seemed really nice, then adds, “Funny thing, after that weekend we never saw her again.”) The script by the usual writing committee (George Bradshaw and Price Day, story; Richard Maibaum — later writer of pioneering spy movies, including the 1946 O.S.S. with Alan Ladd and even the adaptations of the first few James Bond films! — and Gertrude Purcell, screenplay) plows its way through to the predictable resolution, but this is one of those movies in which getting there is almost all the fun — and one particularly clever part of the movie is the spoof of the formula of Columbia’s then-number one director, Frank Capra (one of whose films, You Can’t Take It With You, is referenced via a movie poster on one of the street shots). The tradespeople being victimized by the racketeers are perfectly willing to keep paying and leave well enough alone — it’s Hattie who rallies them to resist with rhetoric from the Founding Fathers — and there’s also a bit of metafiction in the way Hattie and her gang trace the protection racket from low-ball Harry the Lug to his boss, Mr. George Watson (George Meeker), and then in turn to someone even higher up. “There’s always got to be someone higher up!” says Hattie, in a ferocious tone of voice that suggests she’s seen enough movies to know all the clichés herself — even of the one in which she appears as a character!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Cameraman (MGM, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Cameraman was a film I hadn’t seen in years, but it was as deliciously funny and moving as I remembered it. It was Buster Keaton’s first film at MGM, and he fought the studio like mad but got to make it his way — though it was still a silent film at a time when Keaton was desperate to strut his stuff in a talkie (the many verbal gags in the subtitles — which read less like normal silent-film titles and more like dialogue repartée in a sound comedy — indicate how eager he was to make a sound film, and how good he would have been at it if he’d been able to maintain control of himself and his career).

The print TCM was showing was quite a good one, taken from a newly discovered first-generation positive print from the MGM vaults — though, as the opening title explains, one scene (in which Keaton’s girlfriend at MGM News, played by Marceline Day, gives him the tip that a Tong War is about to take place in Chinatown) was missing from this positive print and had to be filled in from the earlier version of the film, discovered in France in 1968. (I’d seen this film twice in the 1970’s and never noticed anything unidiomatic about the titles — either the original English titles survived or the French translations were better than they usually were; in some cases in which silent films survived only in prints from non-English-speaking countries, the translators made such hash of the titles that the films barely made sense anymore.) As TCM’s annotator promised, the difference between the two sources was quite obvious: the French version was washed out, with ghostly white faces and a blurry background, while the 1991 discovery suffered from occasional nitrate deterioration but was otherwise beautiful, luminous, finely grained, richly detailed and showed off the quality of the original photography by Elgin Lessley (Keaton’s favorite cameraman) and Reggie Lanning (though it must also be said that the finer detail of this print shows that Keaton’s alcoholism was already beginning to take its toll on his looks, though not yet on his stunning physical coordination).

The film is a charming tale — though Keaton’s character is a bit more nebbishy than usual — and contains some of his greatest set pieces: Keaton frantically running up and down the staircase in the boarding house he lives in when he is expecting his girlfriend to call; Keaton attempting to change clothes in a public-pool dressing room the size of a phone booth and getting his clothes mixed up with those of a much larger man in the room with him (one wonders if this was the inspiration for the famous scene in the stateroom in A Night at the Opera, written by ex-Keaton gag man Al Boasberg); Keaton risking life and limb to get newsreel shots of the Tong War; and the finale in which the organ-grinder’s monkey Keaton has picked up continues grinding away at the camera and thereby shows Day that she was rescued from drowning not by her other boyfriend, but by Keaton. — 7/13/98


The movie at last night’s Organ Pavilion concert was a comedy classic: The Cameraman, the 1928 feature that was a turning point in the career of Buster Keaton for both good and ill. Just before it was made, Keaton’s producer, Joseph M. Schenck, had decided to dissolve the independent production company he and Keaton jointly owned, and arranged for Keaton to work at MGM, since Schenck’s brother Nicholas was president of the company. What Keaton didn’t realize — or maybe he did — was that he wouldn’t be working for his old mentor’s brother, since Nick Schenck ran MGM’s business affairs from a New York office but had nothing to do with actually making films; instead he ran smack into Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the production chiefs at the studio, who intended to run it as a tight ship and had no use for quirky, independent talents like Keaton.

Thalberg assigned his brother-in-law, Lawrence Weingarten, to be Keaton’s producer, and comedy veteran Edward Sedgwick to be Keaton’s director — before that, Keaton had usually directed himself, though sometimes others (usually one or two of his gag writers) had received director credit on his films — and though eventually the studio officials would take over Keaton’s career and put him through professional grief that, combined with the breakdown of his marriage (to Joseph Schenck’s sister-in-law, Natalie Talmadge), activated his latent alcoholism, for The Cameraman MGM let Keaton (mostly) be Keaton and allowed him to make his last masterpiece.

The Cameraman stars Keaton as “Buster,” a tintype cameraman who’s barely making a living on the streets of New York — in the opening scene, his attempt to photograph a rare paying customer gets interrupted by a parade honoring New York’s then-mayor, Jimmy Walker — who happens to run into Sally (Marceline Day), the receptionist at MGM’s newsreel office. He’s immediately infatuated with her, and he determines to become a freelance newsreel cameraman himself in order to impress her. Of course, he’s got a rival, star cameraman Stagg (Harold Goodwin) — indeed, when Stagg walks in with his state-of-the-art camera while Buster has been flirting with Sally, there’s a marvelous little scene in which he seems as turned on by the camera as the girl.

Buster takes his last savings out of his bank to buy an ancient camera from a pawnshop and sets out to shoot whatever he can find to make the grade as a newsreel cinematographer (the writing committee — Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton and an uncredited Byron Morgan, story; Richard Schayer, continuity; Joe Farnham, titles; and an uncredited Al Boasberg, gags — never bothers to explain how he covers the added expense of buying film), and in a marvelously surrealistic (a word Keaton hated when used to describe his work) sequence his film comes back weirdly framed and double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-exposed, including one scene in which a battleship actually seems to be sailing up a New York City street on its way to Times Square.

Buster tries to get to a warehouse fire but gets tongue-tied trying to ask a policeman (Harry Gribbon) for directions — one of many sequences in The Cameraman that’s funny as it stands but would have been even funnier in a sound film (unlike Charlie Chaplin, Keaton loved the idea of sound films and was eager to start making them, but by the time he did the “suits” at MGM had taken over his career completely and he wasn’t able to explore the creative uses of sound the way he’d been able to with the capabilities of silent film in the 1920’s) — and he goes to Yankee Stadium and finds it empty. “Aren’t the Yankees playing today?” he asks the groundskeeper. “Sure … in St. Louis!” is the reply. In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Buster takes the pitcher’s mound and pantomimes a ballgame, first from the point of view of the pitcher trying to pick off the base runners, then as a batter hitting a home run and triumphantly rounding the bases to win. (This scene was copied in Pastime, a mediocre baseball movie from 1991 that was an obvious attempt to suck off the commercial success of Field of Dreams.)

Buster finally gets Sally to take his phone number, and she promises to call — setting up a scene that transforms romantic longing into frantic comedy as Buster, who lives in a seedy rooming house (he practically tears out the paper-thin walls of his room when his piggy bank, on which he’s counting to finance his date, falls through a crack he’s made with a hammer trying to open the thing) with a long staircase between him and the building’s one phone, goes into hysterics (in both senses) whenever a call comes in, sometimes so excited he overshoots his mark and ends up either on the building’s roof or its basement. Keaton, ever the gadget lover, shot this scene with an elevator crane — a piece of equipment that allowed the camera to move up and down a multi-story building set, thereby following the action.

The elevator crane had been invented by director F. W. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund for the 1924 German film The Last Laugh, which was a big enough international hit that Keaton may well have seen it and copied the idea; 32 years after The Cameraman, Jerry Lewis used an elevator crane to follow himself around the multi-story department-store set of The Errand Boy — and at least one critic I’ve read falsely credited Lewis with being the first comedian to use the elevator crane. (This wasn’t the first time others had been credited with Keaton’s innovations; Fred Astaire’s dance scene to “You’re All the World to Me” in Royal Wedding — in which he literally dances up the wall, onto the ceiling and then down again, apparently defying gravity — and the sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the flight attendant on the moonship walks up the wall and turns herself upside down to bring space scientist Heywood Floyd [William Sylvester] his meal, were both filmed with a technique Keaton invented for the submarine scenes at the end of his 1924 film The Navigator: a revolving set with a stationary camera bolted to it so the camera and the set always stayed in the same relative position, while the actors — in fact always at the bottom of the construction, whatever position it was in — appeared to defy gravity.)

When they go out, they go to the Municipal Plunge public swimming pool at Coney Island, and Buster gets trapped in a tiny dressing room with a corpulent man (uncredited but played by Ed Brophy, who’d be a popular character actor for decades afterwards — he acted again with Keaton as his drill sergeant in the 1930 World War I film Doughboys, that time getting screen credit) in a scene written by Keaton gagman Al Boasberg, who seven years later would again get laughs from too many people in too small a space when he wrote the stateroom scene for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. He ends up in a suit several sizes too big for him, while yet a third person (Vernon Dent, later a comic foil for the Three Stooges in many of their films) ends up with Keaton’s swimsuit and asks, “Is this a suit — or a bib?” Trying to impress Sally by showing off a dive, Buster loses his oversized suit in the water and there’s a surprisingly racy sequence in which he’s naked and can’t get out of the pool without revealing himself in the altogether. (He gets out of it by stealing part of a suit worn by a ridiculously overdressed woman, who screams, “Help! I’ve been robbed!”) But Sally drives home with someone else and Buster is relegated to the rumble seat of their car, where he’s drenched by a pouring rainstorm on their way home.

Still feeling sorry for him, and also more or less in love, Sally gives Buster a tip that two Chinese gangs are plotting a tong war and the Chinese new year’s celebrations are going to have a lot more than just fireworks this year. Buster arrives in Chinatown after a run-in with an organ grinder, who accuses Buster of killing his monkey and orders him to pay him for the animal. The monkey revives and follows Buster to Chinatown, where Buster risks his life and gets some incredible footage — at one point rather gilding his lily by slipping a knife into the hand of one of the tong warriors he’s shooting to make his footage look that much more thrilling. Only when he gets back to the MGM newsreel office, someone has taken the film magazine out of his camera and all that’s left is a tiny scrap of raw stock. (“Pretty short war,” says the MGM newsreel editor, played by Sidney Bracey in a role that was probably a relief to him if only because he got to play an authority figure instead of his usual valet.) Buster assumes that he forgot to load the camera with film, and he’s banned from the MGM newsreel office.

The next day he takes his camera to the Westport regatta, where his rival Stagg is taking Sally out in a speedboat. Attempting to show Sally how well he can drive the boat, Stagg takes a hazardous turn and capsizes it, swimming to safety himself but leaving Sally to drown. Buster reaches Sally in a rowboat he’s been using to film the regatta, and saves her — but when he brings her to shore she’s unconscious, and while he’s off at a drugstore getting substances to revive her Stagg comes along, takes her in his arms as she comes to, and pretends he rescued her. Buster goes back to his old trade as a tintyper — tintypes were hopelessly old-fashioned even in 1928 but his tintype camera itself has an oddly futuristic look, like a ray gun in a cheap 1950’s sci-fi movie — but he leaves behind his remaining footage at the MGM newsreel office, saying they can use it for free. It turns out to contain the tong war and also the scene of Sally’s rescue — the monkey, used to turning the crank of his old master’s barrel-organ, had cranked the camera and caught the whole thing, proving to Sally that it was Buster and not Stagg that saved her. The editor declares Buster’s (and the monkey’s) footage the best he’s ever seen, and Sally seeks out Buster and says he’s going to be honored — and just then the triumphal parade welcoming Charles Lindbergh (who’s seen in real newsreel footage of the event) starts up and Buster waves to the crowd, thinking the parade’s for him.

The Cameraman is a marvelous film — before it started Dennis James, who played the live organ accompaniment, read a contemporary review from Motion Picture magazine that said it wasn’t as good as The General (most modern critics and film buffs would agree, but that wasn’t the critical consensus in 1926; one of Keaton’s biographers quoted a New York Herald-Tribune review of The General that denounced the film and said some of the gags were in “gruesomely bad taste”) but was still very funny; this critic also misunderstood Marceline Day’s role and called her a stenographer (she’s a receptionist) — though it’s a peculiar item in the Keaton canon because it’s one of the few times this usually unsentimental comedian actually went for pathos, big-time.

The Cameraman may be the most openly Chaplinesque film of Keaton’s career — one could easily imagine Chaplin in the lead role as a lovesick cameraman who’s competing for his love object’s attentions with a hunkier and/or richer rival, whereas one can’t possibly imagine Chaplin in Sherlock, Jr. or The General — though it’s a testament to Keaton’s skill as both actor and editor (while the Russian directors were experimenting with closeups of an utterly impassive actor cut next to a pretty girl, a bowl of soup or a dying baby and noting that audiences read the scene and thought the actor was registering the emotions the viewers were actually supplying themselves, Keaton was — perhaps unwittingly — doing the same thing in his comedies) that he’s able within the limits of his unchanging “great stone face” expression to convey the same lovelorn emotions Chaplin used his full panoply of facial tics to get across.

The Cameraman even casts Keaton at the bottom of society, or close to it; like Chaplin in The Kid, Keaton in The Cameraman isn’t homeless but lives in a really cheap building — whereas in a lot of his earlier films Keaton had cast himself as an upper-class twit, as if he felt that the way to differentiate himself from Chaplin was to play the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale. What’s remarkable about The Cameraman is not only the individual gag scenes but the overall conception — though Dennis James accompanied it expertly it sometimes seemed less like a silent film than a talkie with the sound turned off, and as good as Joe Farnham’s joke titles were one really missed sound in some of the characters’ repartée — and also Keaton’s continuing fascination with the mechanics of film.

In Sherlock, Jr. he’d played a movie projectionist who dreams himself into the film he’s showing; here Keaton builds some of his best laughs out of the mechanics of making films, and though he’s usually not considered much of a satirist his treatment of the tong war is a marvelously understated commentary on how the media affect the events they cover and use trickery to make them seem even more exciting than they are. One can regret the ethnic stereotyping that mars this film — not only the tong war but also the Jewish name on the pawnbroker’s shop where Keaton buys his camera and the mock-Italian dialect from the organ grinder (“Hey! You kill-a da monk!” reads the title when the organ grinder demands payment from Keaton for his presumably dead monkey) — but that’s a minor blemish on a film that is not only funny as all get-out but was ripped off for years by other filmmakers (including an MGM crew 10 years later for Too Hot to Handle, with Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon as rival newsreel cameramen not above faking footage to get more powerful stories before the public).

Indeed, The Cameraman for years was regarded as MGM’s training film for aspiring comedians; every new comedy act MGM signed was made to sit through it as an example of what the studio wanted from them — including the Marx Brothers, which particularly perplexed Groucho because he couldn’t help but wonder what the hell he was expected to learn from watching a comic genius whose style was so different from his own! — 8/25/09

Virtue (Columbia, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Virtue, fifth and last in that interesting sequence of early-1930’s “B”’s from Columbia TCM showed on July 10 (the others were The Good Bad Girl, Attorney for the Defense, The Final Edition and the awesome Three Wise Girls). Virtue had some of the same virtues (pardon the pun) of Three Wise Girls: an excellent star performance in the female lead by an actress who would go on to mega-stardom elsewhere, Carole Lombard (and by a grim irony would also, like Three Wise Girls star Jean Harlow, die tragically young!); a salty “pre-Code” script by Robert Riskin; a refreshing honesty in its treatment of human relationships rare in films then or now; and a few abrupt turns to barely credible melodrama as the film started creeping to a close and the plot strands needed to be resolved — but though the twists and turns on the way to the end weakened the film, they certainly didn’t invalidate it completely and what was left was a quite remarkable piece of work.

Also like Three Wise Girls, Virtue had a director who’s not particularly respected — Edward Buzzell, whose best known works are two of the Marx Brothers’ later (and lesser) films, At the Circus and Go West — and in a way this is really a Schreiber movie since it’s Riskin’s sensibility that rules, not Buzzell’s. It also had in common with the last film we watched, Big City, that its male lead was a cabdriver, but it’s a far superior movie in that it stays on one main plot line throughout and doesn’t have the jarring and ill-managed genre shifts of Big City. It’s also nowhere near as sentimental; anyone coming to this film knowing Riskin from his work for Frank Capra will be astonished at how hard and tough his sensibility could be before he hooked up with the Capra-corn man (though Capra not only helped Riskin to an Academy Award and enduring fame, he probably helped keep Riskin’s career going through the wrenching adjustments after the Legion of Decency came in in 1934 and Production Code enforcement was toughened to a level that films like Three Wise Girls and Virtue could no longer be made in the U.S.).

Virtue opens with Mae (Carole Lombard), a hard woman of apparent ill repute, being escorted by a police officer onto a train from New York to Danbury, Connecticut. “Pretty soft for you, sister, getting the city to pay your fare to Danbury,” says the cop. “Pretty soft for the city I don’t live in Australia,” Mae fires back. It turns out she’s being thrown out of New York for moral offenses that don’t get specified until well into the running time, and that she’s determined not to leave; even before the train pulls out of the station, she’s off of it, hiding out in the home of her similarly employed (and similarly transgressive) friend Lil (Mayo Methot, Humphrey Bogart’s third wife — and given that she’s playing here a serious version of the tough, no-nonsense salty broad Lauren Bacall later kidded, it’s easy enough to see what attracted him to her) and ultimately landing a job in a café alongside Gert Hanlon (Shirley Gray),

Meanwhile the male lead, cabdriver Jimmy Doyle (Pat O’Brien, another actor from this film who became a major star elsewhere), is introduced having an argument with a friend and co-worker, Frank (Ward Bond). Frank insists that the girl he’s just become engaged to is decent — different from all the other girls both he and Jimmy have been dating — and Jimmy insists that all women are alike, all unscrupulous creatures who live just to exploit men. Needless to say, Jimmy and Mae meet (when she gets into his cab and then sneaks out again, stiffing him for the fare) and ultimately start dating; eventually they get married, only in the meantime the cops find out about Mae still being in New York (a film crew shooting some scenes of dignitaries visiting the city offices at the same time Jimmy and Mae were leaving their civil wedding caught the couple and “outed” Mae) and go to see her to arrest her. When Jimmy naturally wants to know what they’re going to arrest her for, they say, “The same thing she did to you — picking men up off the street.” (That’s as much of a clue as we get to why Mae was being thrown out of town in the opening scene, but that’s really all we need.)

Jimmy shows the cops their marriage license and gets them to back off, but his own trust in her is undermined big-time and for much of the rest of the movie he’s suspicious of her motives, and in particular he closely questions her about what she’s doing with their money and whether she’s been tapping their savings account — which is significant plot-wise because Jimmy has an option to buy half-interest in a gas station as soon as he can raise $500. He’s almost there when Gert shows up and says she’s desperately ill and needs $200 for an operation immediately, and when Mae says no Gert grabs a bottle of poison, threatens to drink it, collapses to the floor outside Mae’s apartment and gets the money out of her. Then she and Jimmy have Frank over for dinner, and Frank reveals that Gert scammed him similarly — and with Jimmy needing all their money immediately to pay for the gas station, Mae determines to find Gert and get her money back. It turns out that Gert pulled the scam in association with Toots O’Neil (Jack LaRue), a thoroughly nasty piece of work who’s also the boyfriend of Mae’s old roommate Lil — he’s cheating on Lil with Gert while also pulling scams with her — and when Gert gets an attack of conscience and wants them to give Mae back her money, Toots kills her and sets Mae up to take the fall.Jimmy, who’s been following his wife around because he’s suspicious of her, actually saw a man in Gert’s apartment the night she was killed (the police theory is that she and Mae were the only people there that night), but when he attempts to visit Mae in jail with the information that could free her, she’s so hurt that she refuses to see him.

Eventually it all ends happily — the cops figure out who really killed Gert and arrest Toots, Mae buys the half a gas station for Jimmy and herself, and there’s a cute reconciliation scene there — but in the meantime the eccentrically titled Virtue has been quite a ride, most powerful in the simple scenes in which lack of money and lack of trust both take their toll on Jimmy’s and Mae’s relationship and they struggle along to stay together in a series of powerfully intense, well-written scenes that make them come across as real people in a difficult situation, not the stick-figures of most movies. Virtue is a tough, no-nonsense story about people barely hanging on in the proletariat, and like Three Wise Girls, it makes one wonder just how many other intensely moving, emotional and highly watchable films like this are moldering in Columbia’s vaults!

Manhandled (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Manhandled, a 1949 film noir wanna-be (film gris, as I like to call such things) from Paramount whose title makes no sense in terms of its plot — it seems that Paramount just had the title lying around from a 1924 silent with Gloria Swanson as a department-store clerk (she actually took a job clerking at a department store to prepare for the role; she intended to stay there three weeks but just after lunch break on her first day, word went out across the shop floor, “Gloria Swanson’s in the store!,” and she was “outed” all too quickly) and stuck it on this movie on the theory that it would bring more customers into the theatres than The Man Who Stole a Dream (the working title, and the name of the novel by L. S. Goldsmith on which it was based) or Betrayal (which would actually have made more sense than Manhandled — no one actually gets manhandled during the course of this movie — but would still have left audiences wondering who betrayed whom), the other titles they considered sticking on it.

Directed by Lewis R. Foster (not exactly one of the names to conjure with in the history of Hollywood’s auteurs) from a script by himself and Whitman Chambers (author of the source stories for the 1930’s independent thrillers Murder on the Campus and the awesome Sensation Hunters), Manhandled is a movie pieced together, Frankenstein-style, from bits and pieces of other, better movies. The “star” is Sterling Hayden, playing an insurance investigator and playing him in a relentlessly overbearing manner (frankly, Hayden was not to the hero manner born; his best films — The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Dr. Strangelove — cast him as villains), but the reason I put “star” in quotes is that he doesn’t appear at all until half an hour into a 97-minute movie.

The film opens with what turns out to be a best scene: a figure of ambiguous gender (it’s obviously a person, wearing either a fancy dress or a dressing gown) crouches under a piece of furniture in a lavishly appointed apartment and watches a woman and a man enter the apartment together; the other man leaves and the hiding figure emerges and turns out to be the woman’s husband, renowned novelist Alton Bennet (Alan Napier, just coming off of his best-ever film role as the Holy Father in the Orson Welles Macbeth and having little idea that The Mole People lay just seven years in his future!), who proceeds to corner her in their bedroom and club her to death with a perfume bottle. Then the scene dissolves to the office of psychiatrist Dr. Redman (Harold Vermilyea), and it turns out that Bennet is in therapy with Dr. Redman and the previous sequence was a recurring dream he has been having and which he just narrated to the therapist.

Sitting in on the session was Dr. Redman’s secretary, Merl Kramer (a 35-year-old and definitely past-her-prime Dorothy Lamour), whom Redman told Bennet had been working there for four years when it’s really only been four weeks. Merl is dating Karl Benson (Dan Duryea), a private detective (the sign on his window says “KARL BENSON — COLLECTIONS — INVESTIGATIONS”) who has a live-work office just one floor down from Merl’s own apartment. Redman decides that Mrs. Bennet (Irene Hervey) is in genuine danger of being murdered by her husband, and he calls her up to set up a meeting and explain the danger — only right after the two meet she is in fact killed, clubbed to death with her perfume bottle just as her husband did in his dream, and $100,000 worth of jewelry is stolen from her room by her killer. The husband manages to convince the usual shitload of dumb police officers that he didn’t do it — he persuades them he was under the influence of sleeping pills at the time of the murder — and instead they decide that Merl must be the killer, since supposedly the only people who knew of Bennet’s revelations in therapy were Redman and her.

What we know, though the rest of the characters don’t, is that she’s been breaking patient confidences right and left by blabbing to her boyfriend Karl about what the patients are telling the therapist — and later we find out that they were in a plot together and Karl forged phony references so she could get the job in the first place, with the idea that with the information she was getting from the therapy sessions and feeding to him, he’d be able to target anyone on the psychiatrist’s list of patients who had something worth stealing or was otherwise an appropriate target for criminal activity. Foster and Chambers clearly intended audiences to be shocked at the end of the movie when Benson was revealed as the killer — he followed the script of Bennet’s dream in hopes of framing him for his wife’s murder, then when that didn’t work he planted one of Mrs. Bennet’s jewels on Merl to make her the fall person.

The problem with Manhandled is that it’s a mad jumble of plot lines and situations that had already been done better in previous movies, some of them made the same producers (William Pine and William Thomas, who had risen from the “B” ranks to a berth at a major studio): the gimmick of having the murder prefigured by a dream had been done better in the Pine-Thomas-Paramount Fear in the Night from 1947 (in which DeForest Kelley, later Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, played a man who’s hypnotized into actually committing a murder and then recalling it later only as a dream — based on a Cornell Woolrich story, this film was utterly preposterous plot-wise but also much more powerful drama than Manhandled), Sterling Hayden’s role as the avenging insurance agent had been done better by Burt Lancaster (in his first film!) in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), and Dan Duryea had played this sort of part considerably better in his films The Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1946), both with a considerably better director (Fritz Lang) and a stronger, more powerful actress, Joan Bennett, as the woman he lured into helping out with his criminal schemes — and it doesn’t help that Foster and Chambers somehow got the Production Code office to let them suggest a romantic interest between the Hayden and Lamour characters at the end even though she was a co-conspirator in the villain’s crimes.

Lamour is one of the problems with this movie; the part desperately calls for a salty noir woman like Lauren Bacall or Paramount’s own Veronica Lake, she’s not a good enough actress to pull off the crisis of conscience the script hints at, and she was 35 and her figure was no longer as willowy as it had been in her “sarong” movies — before the movie TCM host Robert Osborne said she’d made “the fatal mistake of getting older,” and while I pointed out that old age isn’t usually “fatal” until it actually leads to death, it’s clear that at all stages of Hollywood history the mid-30’s have been a dangerous career shoal for stars, especially for women. (Most of the big male names at the end of the silent era — Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, William Powell, John Barrymore, etc.) made the transition to sound quite easily; most of the women — Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Vilma Banky, Corinne Griffith, Colleen Moore and Constance and Norma Talmadge — didn’t because sound came in right when they were hitting that awkward mid-30’s age that would have caused them career problems anyway.)

But the main problem with this movie is that it’s incredibly uneven; amazing noir scenes by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (even though so many of them take place after it’s just rained that it reminded me of the Mad magazine joke about the TV series The Fugitive: in the last panel of their spoof, in a scene that looked like it had just rained, there was a man in a white work coat whose back said, “Making Streets Look Like It Just Rained Co.”) alternate with plainly photographed setups of people talking to each other in rooms; for a supposed thriller it doesn’t have very many thrills; and even the genuinely talented actors, like Duryea, seem way off — Duryea seems so hyper one wonders if he was snorting helium before every take and one misses the chilling restraint with which he enacted similar villains for the great Fritz Lang instead of the mediocre Lewis R. Foster!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Three Wise Girls (Columbia, © 1931, rel. 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked the fourth in a sequence of five films TCM showed made at Columbia in the early 1930’s: Three Wise Girls, an unexpectedly good movie thanks largely to the original story, “Blonde Baby,” by Wilson Collison; a wisecracky script by Robert Riskin (based on Agnes Christine Johnston’s adaptation of Collison’s story); and a marvelous performance by Jean Harlow in the lead, Cassie Barnes, small-town girl from Chillicothe (it’s somewhat surprising in a movie this old to see a real small town depicted on screen instead of a generic or fictional one) who works as a soda jerk (jerkette?) at a drugstore and makes $15 per week, out of which she appears to be supporting her widowed mother (Lucy Beaumont) as well as herself. When her friend Gladys Kane (Mae Clarke) returns to Chillicothe and tells Cassie she’s making $200 per week as a model in New York, that’s all Cassie needs to hear: she’s out of that depressing small town almost immediately, whereupon she promptly loses three jobs in New York, the last of which (and, it’s implied, the other two) she was fired from when she punched out a boss who was making advances to her.

We already know that Harlow’s character is playing someone highly protective of her virginity because when the film opened, she was walking away from a date who parked three miles outside of town and tried to “get fresh” with her. A man drives by and offers her a ride home, but she saltily tells him that it’s because of another man with a car and some nasty ideas about her that she’s walking home. Once she’s in New York, rooming with Dot (silent-screen veteran Marie Prevost) — who works from home doing address labels (in a modern movie she’d be doing something involving the Internet, but the principle would be the same!) — she visits Gladys at the salon where she models, and Gladys gets her a job and she becomes a success. (One of the surprising things about this movie from today’s point of view is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone as full-figured as Harlow being a clothes model now.)

She also finds that Gladys is actually making only $60 per week and that she’s dating a married man, Arthur Phelps (Jameson Thomas) — who both she and we quickly find out is a total heel when he makes a pass at Cassie while Gladys isn’t looking. Cassie had earlier met her own rich man, Jerry Dexter (Walter Byron, the leading man for Gloria Swanson in the ill-fated Queen Kelly), only when he brings his wife (Natalie Moorhead) to the salon where Gladys and Cassie model she’s stunned — but at the same time not too surprised — to find he, too, is married. What’s more, in the earlier exposition scene setting up the fact that Jerry is married, he and his wife describe a relationship (they can date other people but each gets veto power over the other’s choices) that sounds more like modern-day polyamory than anything we expect to see in a classic-era Hollywood movie — even one like this that comes from the so-called “pre-Code” period of looser (but not nonexistent!) Production Code enforcement.

Tearing into Gladys for setting herself up for unhappiness by dating a married man, Cassie rattles off a series of predictions — that he’ll say it doesn’t mean anything, that if it weren’t for his wife refusing to give her consent he’d divorce her in a moment, and that shouldn’t mean they can’t still go out together — that (thanks to Robert Riskin and a strain of mordant wit in his writing he had to suppress in his later work for Frank Capra) exactly parallels the arguments she gets from Jerry as to why she should allow their relationship to continue. The film goes on its merry way, punching holes in conventional morality all over the place and using tough wisecracks to get away with depicting people as they actually behave — especially sexually — and it’s only towards the end, when conventional morality has to be given a chance to start kicking back, that it gets soapy: Phelps makes it look as if he’s having an affair with Cassie, thereby driving Jerry away in a jealous hissy-fit, then gets away from both Gladys and Cassie by announcing a reconciliation with his wife that’s announced on the front page of the New York Sun (second edition — Charles was pleased for once to see a newspaper in a movie that wasn’t a final or an extra).

Gladys responds by committing suicide — Riskin toys with us by showing her alone in her apartment, her window wide open and her standing at the edge of it, just before she calls Cassie; Cassie arrives and we think she’s got there in time to save her friend; then Gladys collapses in her arms and Cassie heads for the bathroom to get a wet cloth to revive her and finds an empty bottle marked “Poison.” Cassie responds by returning to Chillicothe and her old job in the drugstore, but Jerry traces her there, shows her a newspaper headline that announces that he and his wife are indeed divorcing, and so there’s a happy ending for two of the three wise girls, at least — since in the meantime there’s been a charming comic-relief romance between Dot and Jerry’s chauffeur Jimmy Callahan (Andy Devine — almost unrecognizable in a role that doesn’t give him much dialogue with which to show off that famous gravelly voice) and they’re together in the front seat of Jerry’s car at the fadeout.

Three Wise Girls is the last film Harlow made anywhere other than at MGM — she was still under contract to Howard Hughes then but he was loaning her out all over Hollywood — and three films after this she’d do another film based on a Collison story, Red Dust, and have one of the biggest hits of her career (thanks largely to having Clark Gable as a co-star, a far cry from all the prissy guys with thin moustaches that inhabit the male roles here!). It also has a surprising director, William Beaudine — yes, the very man who made what was probably the worst film of Bela Lugosi’s career (at least until he hooked up with Ed Wood), The Ape Man, just 11 years later; though the quality of Three Wise Girls is probably due far more to Riskin than Beaudine (Schreiber theorists take note!).

Beaudine’s name was on the credits of a truly great film from two years later, The Old-Fashioned Way, but that was a winner simply because W. C. Fields was the star and all a Fields director had to do is make sure the cameras were pointed at him and in focus. Here Beaudine actually turns in a stylish job that proved he did have real talent that probably got bludgeoned out of him by all the cheap, tacky assignments he had to take to pay off his debts from the stock market crash; maybe it’s damning with faint praise to say that William Beaudine could make a great movie with an Academy Award-winning writer and a star who later became one of Hollywood’s enduring legends (and not just because she died tragically young), but though he started off with those advantages he was certainly good enough here to prove himself worthy of them!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Pink Panther (MGM/Columbia/Sony, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Pink Panther, the 2006 quasi-remake of the 1963 film that introduced Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau to the world — and it may seem heretical, but I actually found the new one funnier than the old. I’m not saying Steve Martin, the star of this Pink Panther and the 2009 sequel, is a greater comedian than Peter Sellers — but I suspect, having recently re-seen the first two Sellers Clouseaus, the 1963 Pink Panther and the 1964 A Shot in the Dark, that there’s a tendency among film buffs to remember these movies as funnier than they really are. Martin is a surprisingly credible physical comedian (even if, as I suspect, a lot of his pratfalls were stunt-doubled the way many of Robin Williams’ were in Flubber) and he does the cluelessness about as well as any modern comedian could have, even though it’s clear throughout the movie that he doesn’t have his own “read” on the character: he’s playing Peter Sellers playing Clouseau.

Not surprisingly, the new Pink Panther used nothing from the original but the title, the fabulously expensive jewel after which the film is named, and some of the character names. It opens in the middle of a World Cup semi-final between France and China, in which France scores an upset victory in a sudden-death overtime (actually when a regular soccer game is tied at the end, it’s settled with penalty kicks — I’ll never forget the World Cup that was held in the U.S. in which the final was between Italy and Brazil, the two teams held each other to a scoreless tie in regulation play, and Brazil finally won 1-0 on a penalty kick — and people wonder why soccer isn’t a popular spectator sport in the U.S.?), and the French coach, Yves Gluant (Jason Statham), is immediately murdered with a poisoned dart as his team is celebrating the win.

The gimmick is that the Commissioner of Police for Paris, Dreyfus (Kevin Kline in the role originated in the 1960’s by Herbert Lom), is upset because he’s been nominated seven times for the Medal of Honor but has never won. (“Being nominated seven times is … something,” he muses, a Hollywood in-joke about people who’ve been repeatedly nominated for Academy Awards but never won.) His strategy is to find the most incompetent local policeman in all France, give him a promotion to Inspector, bring him to Paris and set him to work on the Gluant murder — while he himself works behind the scenes and actually solves the case. The suspects are a motley crew including Gluant’s girlfriend, pop singer Xania (Beyoncé Knowles, frankly less appealing singing her own music than she was as Diana Ross in Dreamgirls or Etta James in Cadillac Records); Bizu (William Abadie), the team’s star player, who was dating Xania until she left him for Gluant; Cherie (Kristen Chenoweth), who was dating Bizu until he left her for Xania; plus assorted hangers-on including the team’s trainer, Yuri (“the trainer who trains,” Clouseau repeatedly calls him in his fractured English) and members of the Chinese team, whom Dreyfus suspects because the poison that killed Gluant was made from Chinese herbs.

The plot doesn’t really matter much — Yuri turns out to be the killer, in case you actually cared (though there’s a nice worm-turning moment in which we learn that Clouseau was able to solve the case because his preposterous claim of being able to understand Chinese was actually true, and the resolution based on a chain of hilarious deductions was pretty obviously intended as a parody on Sherlock Holmes) — but there are some brilliant sight gags as well as some interestingly inventive turns on some of the old chestnuts. When Dreyfus gives Clouseau a fountain pen to sign his appointment as an inspector, we wait for — and dread — the scene in which Clouseau will spray Dreyfus in the face with the ink. Instead Clouseau signs the document without mishap, hands Dreyfus the pen uncapped — and Dreyfus puts it in his shirt pocket and we see more and more of his white shirt stained black as the ink drips from it until he utters the punch line, “Why am I feeling wet?” Later Clouseau starts twirling a big bronze globe in the commissioner’s office — and just when one is beginning to think the globe might magically turn into a balloon and he might do a Chaplin-style dance with it, instead it slips off its moorings, barrels down the stairs of the building and starts taking out pedestrians, cars and the bicyclists running the Tour de France. (Well, the Tour is one of the most famous things that happens in France these days, so it was almost inevitable they’d mine it for a gag — and, indeed, bicyclists really take it in the neck throughout this film.)

There’s also a gag in which Clouseau flies to New York to pursue a clue and ends up searched at the airport and arrested for trying to smuggle two hamburgers onto the flight home, and another in which he totally accidentally gets credit for capturing the “Gas Mask Bandits,” who release toxic gas into public places and rob them at will because they’re wearing gas masks, courtesy of British secret agent 006 (“You’re one number short of the top,” Clouseau says) who dons Clouseau’s coat and goes after the bandits because “nobody can know I’m here.” The new Pink Panther isn’t exactly a deathless comedic masterpiece, but it’s a very funny film and it does a good job of maintaining the sought-after balance of physical and verbal humor — and frankly it made me laugh harder than the originals from the 1960’s did!

Kudos belong to director Shawn Levy and the usual writing committee — Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards (who directed the original Pink Panther movies) get credit for creating the characters, and Len Blum receives co-credits for both the original story (with Michael Saltzman) and the screenplay (with Steve Martin, who shows a good instinct for what works for him and what doesn’t — and he’s written much-produced plays like Picasso at the Lapin Agile so he’s not just an egomaniac star demanding a writing credit for little or no actual input) — and also to Christophe Beck, who’s credited with an “original” score but mostly — wisely — confines himself to a series of inventive variations on Henry Mancini’s original “Pink Panther” theme (including a funny disco version that heralds Xenia’s arrival on screen) — and of course there’s a pink-panther animated sequence in the opening credits, though it’s digitally done in the three-dimensional Pixar style and somehow not as cute or clever as the old hand-drawn animation of the originals. But that’s a minor disappointment in a very funny movie that honors its original source and at the same time manages, in a way, to outdo it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Girl in Lovers’ Lane (Robert Roark Productions, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I showed was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a movie that in some ways seemed too interesting to be appropriate for their ridicule — though in others it was just right for the “treatment.” It was The Girl in Lovers’ Lane (the title doesn’t contain an apostrophe but it bothers me too much to leave it out!), an indie made in 1959 by Robert Roark Productions (I couldn’t help thinking of his near-namesakes — Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s superman architect in The Fountainhead, and the 1950’s author Robert Ruark) and directed by Charles R. Rondeau from a script by Jo Heims.

It’s a very simple plot: for some reason we’re never quite told (the synopsis says he’s a rich kid and he’s doing this because he’s upset that his parents were just divorced, but that’s not all that apparent from the actual film), Danny Winslow (Lowell Brown), a decently dressed young man with $100 in his wallet, decides to start hopping trains and living as a hobo. As the film open he’s fleeing two men who are trying to rob him; he throws his wallet into the boxcar of a train that’s about to leave, then follows it inside and meets up with Bix Dugan (Brett Halsey, top-billed), who’s supposed to be an experienced hobo but doesn’t look any seedier than Danny — they both look like people who regularly get three squares, clean clothes and a place to shower and shave. Bix grabs Danny’s wallet and there’s some doubt as to whether he’s going to give it back, but eventually he does, albeit with some warnings aimed at trying to keep Danny from getting rolled in the future.

The two take the train to a nearby small town, getting off a mile away so they don’t get arrested at the railroad yard when the train pulls in, and from then on most of the action takes place at the small-town diner owned by Cal Anders (Emile Meyer) and staffed, it seems, mostly by his daughter Carrie (Joyce Meadows). From then on the film is 78 minutes of surprisingly little action; mostly it’s talk, as Carrie welcomes the attentions of Bix and fends off those of Jesse (Jack Elam), a tall man with bad hair who hangs out at the diner and has a decidedly unrequited crush on her. Jesse is supposed to be so repulsive that no woman in her right mind would want to go out (or have sex) with him, but in fact all it looks like is he’s in need of a comb — and Elam is by far the most talented actor in this film (and, not coincidentally, the only person in the cast I’d heard of before).

Anyway, the film is basically Of Mice and Men meets Baby Doll, as the characters speak a lot of pseudo-“poetic” dialogue (I was pretty sure Jo Heims was inspired by Tennessee Williams) and occasionally go out to the meadow outside of town (a pretty obvious soundstage “exterior”), where Jesse attempts to rape Carrie and Bix happens on the scene to stop him. There’s an attempt to move us with Bix’s internal conflict — should I stay or should I go? Should I settle down to a relationship with a woman who I love and who loves me, or should I leave her and hit the road again? — though this becomes academic when Jesse confronts Carrie in the meadow a second time, and this time Bix happens on the scene too late to spare her; mortally wounded by Jesse’s assault, she dies in Bix’s arms and naturally Bix is assumed to be the guilty party. Not only is he arrested, but Carrie’s father organizes a lynch mob, which grabs Bix from the jail and starts beating him up — until Danny brings in Jesse and gets Jesse to blurt out that he raped and killed Carrie. Bix and Danny hit the road again as the film ends.

I’ll give The Girl in Lovers’ Lane credit for daring a lot more than your average cheap, exploitative drive-in movie with a no-name cast; there’s almost no action to speak of, Jo Heims is attempting to write a serious drama (though Tennessee Williams’ brand of faux “poetry” was bad enough when he did it — virtually none of Williams’ plays persuade us that any real people talk like that — and Heims’ attempt to do his schtick is even worse) and director Rondeau (punning on the meaning of his name as a musical term, I joked that he would use the same footage again and again — though this film is actually refreshingly sparing in its use of stock footage) tries to bring it some atmosphere, but the sheer pretension of the plot and the lack of serious dramatic incident hamstrings the movie. So does the cast; there aren’t any truly bad actors in it (except maybe Meyer, who’s an even more repulsive screen presence than the character needs to be to make the story’s points about him) but, aside from Elam, there aren’t any especially good ones either and it’s no mystery why even the most hardened movie-goers haven’t heard of most of these people.

The MST3K people did their best to spoof a movie that really didn’t offer them most of their usual targets for humor — the best they could come up with was referring to Bix Dugan as “Big Stupid” (his name jarred me, too, but only because I’m not used to hearing about people named Bix who aren’t jazz musicians, just as I remember reading a story in the Los Angeles Times in the late 1980’s about Elvis Cooney, who led the Sandinista party on an island offshore of Nicaragua, and whom I recalled as the first person I’d heard of named “Elvis” who wasn’t a rock ’n’ roll singer by profession!), and their interstital segments were considerably more amusing than their offtakes on the movie itself.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cry Danger (Olympic Productions/RKO, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched two movies last night that were linked (by me and a happenstance of my videotaping, not by TCM this time) by the appearance of the word “danger” in their titles. One was Cry Danger, a 1951 RKO release directed by Robert Parrish (he’d written the screenplay for the 1947 film Body and Soul and this was his first time out as a director) and starring Dick Powell as Rocky Malloy, an ex-con who was unjustly convicted of killing a guard during an armored-car holdup that netted $100,000 and served five years in prison. His alibi was that he was on a drinking binge with a bunch of Marines who couldn’t be located because they shipped out (“were deployed” would be the current argot) the next day. A Marine veteran, DeLong (Richard Erdman), surfaced and claimed to be one of Rocky’s drinking buddies, and though he actually wasn’t that was good enough to get Rocky pardoned and released.

Once he’s out he arrives in L.A., from whence he came (and of which we get quite a few nice cityscapes from cinematographer Joseph L. Biroc) to try to trace the rest of the money and also to contact Nancy (Rhonda Fleming), the widow of the man who was convicted along with him. He and DeLong move into the same trailer park where Nancy lives and they rekindle their romance (the backstory is that Nancy had dated Rocky before they quarreled and she married his partner Danny — whom we never see — on the rebound). Meanwhile Rocky is tracking down Los Amigos nightclub owner Castro (William Conrad in one of the best of his early performances), who masterminded the holdup and presumably still has the $100,000; while Rocky is in turn being tailed by Cobb (Regis Toomey), a Javert-like police detective who’s convinced Rocky was in on the holdup and will lead him to the never-recovered money.

The plot goes through quite a few turns and twists — including a car accident in which DeLong is mistaken for Rocky and nearly killed, while his morally ambiguous girlfriend Darlene Lavonne (Jean Porter in a surprisingly Monroe-ish performance well before Monroe’s mannerisms became clichés), whom he continued to date even after she picked his pocket (or tried to) during one outing, is killed — before the all-too-predictable resolution in which Nancy (ya remember Nancy?) turns out to be a bad girl after all; she, her husband Danny (whom Rocky had assumed was also innocent) and Castro plotted the robbery in the first place and she and Castro split the loot and sat on it for five years.

The plot (the script is by William Bowers from a story by Jerry Cady) really doesn’t make much sense, and Powell turned in other tough-guy performances that were better than this (notably in Murder, My Sweet and Cornered), but what saves this film is the atmospherics: the quirky supporting players (including the trailer-park manager, a middle-aged eccentric who’s shown constantly strumming a ukulele and usually singing wordlessly and out-of-tune to his own accompaniment), the effective use of actual L.A. locations and some of the studio noir setups, notably a great depth-of-field shot in which DeLong (who’s by far the most interesting character in the piece, reminiscent of Van Heflin’s alcoholic supporting character in Johnny Eager that won him an Academy Award and stole the film right out from under its nominal leads, Robert Taylor and Lana Turner) is shown in the background and a liquor bottle looms in the foreground, dwarfing him and vividly dramatizing his compulsion to drink.

There’s a curious anomaly in the credits — we’re promised a song called “Cry Danger,” music by Hugo Friedhofer and lyrics by Leon Pober — but no such song materializes. Perhaps one of the nightclub sequences originally contained a performance of a song based on the main theme of the background score (also by Friedhofer), but it was deleted from the final cut. — 6/19/04


I showed Cry Danger, a 1951 semi-noir (it qualifies thematically if not visually) from RKO in partnership with “Olympic Productions” (probably a “collapsible” company formed to make just that one film) that stars Dick Powell as “Rocky” Mulloy, a convict, recently released after serving five years for a robbery he didn’t commit. He returns to Los Angeles from wherever it was he was incarcerated — in an otherwise deserted railway station (a location Charles recalled and said still looks the same) in which he appears to be the only person getting off his train — and hooks up with the man who got him released, DeLong (Richard Erdman). It seems that Rocky’s alibi was that he was out drinking with a group of Marines when the robbery occurred, but he was never able to find any of them. DeLong, a Marine himself, decided to come forward and identify himself as one of the Marines who were Rocky’s drinking buddies that night — and claim that all the others had been killed in the war — because, even though he wasn’t, posing as Rocky’s alibi witness and getting him sprung would presumably lead him to the $100,000 in proceeds from the robbery, which had never been found.

Also in search of the $100,000 is police detective lieutenant Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey), who busted Rocky in the first place, and despite his official exoneration is still convinced of Rocky’s guilt and sure Rocky will access the money sooner or later — thereby allowing Cobb to recover it and send Rocky back to prison. Rocky and DeLong move in as roommates to a seedy trailer in a trailer park, where DeLong starts dating one of the residents, blonde pickpocket Darlene LaVonne (Jean Porter) while Rocky hooks up with Nancy Morgan (Rhonda Fleming, second-billed). Nancy is the wife of Rocky’s supposed confederate in the robbery; he’s still in prison and, though he’s scheduled to be paroled in six months, Rocky wants him released free and clear because neither of them were actually guilty. Rocky mounts his own investigation of the crime, which takes him to a wide variety of places and hooks him up with people like Castro (a young but already corpulent William Conrad), the gangster he figures masterminded the robbery he got nailed for.

Rocky makes a bet on a horse race with one of Castro’s bookies — only to realize he’s been set up when the money he’s paid off with turns out to be “hot” money from the original heist. Eventually he realizes that the real mastermind behind the robbery is Nancy Morgan, whom he’s already started falling for — setting up a potentially interesting conflict between sex and loyalty to his still-incarcerated friend writers Jerome Cady (story) and William Bowers (screenplay) don’t do justice to. What the writers are clearly interested in is yet another recycling of the Maltese Falcon gimmick of having the hero’s girlfriend turn out to be the crook he’s after, and the film ends with a bittersweet scene in which Rocky is finally exonerated but also alone and emotionally devastated.

Cry Danger has the moral ambiguity necessary for film noir, and William Bowers’ script abounds in marvelous wisecracks which Powell delivers in the world-weary tone he brought to his breakthrough noir role as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, but where it differs from most of the previous noirs is that it takes place mostly during daylight and is largely shot outdoors on real L.A. locations — and cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc seems either unable or (more likely) just uninterested in creating the rich, chiaroscuro nighttime atmosphere of the classic noirs. But what this movie loses in atmosphere, it gains in you-are-here realism — both Charles and I recognized some of the locations from modern-day L.A. — and overall Cry Danger emerged as a workmanlike thriller.

Incidentally, a “trivia” item on the film on says that Tom Weaver did an interview with Jean Porter, who said that though Robert Parrish (who the same year made The Mob, which was even better) is credited as director, Dick Powell actually directed the film himself — he’d make his “official” directorial debut, also at RKO, two years later with the film Split Second, an explicitly anti-Communist thriller but one far better than the norm for that usually irritating sub-genre. — 8/18/09

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bunco Squad (RKO, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Bunco Squad, a 1950 RKO “B” I have a certain fondness for — Charles and I watched a videotape of it years ago but I wanted to see it again, especially since reading Russell Miller’s biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had put me in the mood to see a film exposing the tricks of phony spiritualists and mediums. The 67-minute film was based on a novel by Reginald Taviner and was written by George Callahan (also the author of many of the scripts for Monogram’s Charlie Chan movies) and directed by Herbert I. Leeds (who’d done some of the detective series films at 20th Century-Fox just before the war and was a hack, but a competent one with a pretty good sense of pace). Though “bunco” was a general term referring to con games in general, after a short introductory film showing some of the more terrestrial cons the film focuses on a spiritualist racket masterminded by Tony Weldon (Ricardo Cortez), a.k.a. Anthony Wells, who recruits a motley crew including “The Swami,” t/n Drake (Robert Bice); graphologist Annie Cobb (Vivien Oakland) — who willingly gets involved with Weldon again even though the last time she worked with him, she got arrested and served three years in prison while he got off scot-free; and medium Liane (Bernadene Hayes). The film as a whole takes a very superior attitude towards anybody who would believe this sort of nonsense.

In order to fleece wealthy widow Mrs. Jessica Royce (the great Elizabeth Risdon) out of the $2 million by pretending to make contact with the spirit of her dead son (he was killed in the Normandy invasion during World War II), the four form a front organization called “The Rama Society” and invite her to its séances, complete with sheet-clad “ghosts” making appearances on schedule and speaking with sepulchral voices that don’t sound like those of any living person, They also blackmail her previous spiritual advisor, Dr. Largo (Frank Wilcox), by threatening to reveal his true name, Mike Finlayson, to the police, who still want him for similar cons committed in another state. Though they don’t charge for their services initially, their intent is to get the spirit of Royce’s “son” to urge her to will her entire estate to the Rama Society, and once she signs the will they intend to kill her and make it look like an accident.

For people engaged in what is usually a non-violent sort of crime, these folks are pretty bloodthirsty; they off Royce’s secretary, Barbara Madison (Marguerite Churchill), after Weldon has pumped her for information by dating her (though Ricardo Cortez had clearly aged from his glory years in the silent era and in early talkies like The Younger Generation and the 1931 The Maltese Falcon, he was still good-looking enough one could believe he could attract a woman visibly half his age) only to find that she was totally skeptical about the whole spirit business and might, if allowed to live, be able to keep Royce from doing anything stupid like willing her fortune to phony psychics.

The good guys in all this are bunco squad detective sergeants Steve Johnson (Robert Sterling) and Mack McManus (Douglas Fowley) as well as Steve’s long-suffering girlfriend, Grace Bradshaw (Joan Dixon) — who in an interesting twist in the plot is also a minor contract player at RKO. The significance in making the (good) female lead an actress emerges when the police realize that the only way to pull Mrs. Royce from the influence of the Rama Society is to set up a phony spiritualist operation of their own, and to that end they recruit Dante the Magician (playing himself — eight years after he appeared in the Laurel and Hardy film A-Haunting We Will Go) to show her the tricks of the phony spiritualist trade — Dante apparently having taken up where Houdini left off in demonstrating that the spiritualists’ manifestations were simply the same sorts of tricks he pulled on audiences as an entertainer. Dante and the cops coach Grace to speak in a suitably low and deep voice when she’s supposedly channeling the souls of the dead — and at one point she complains that she’ll never be able to memorize the stupid dialogue she’s instructed to use to convince the gullible Mrs. Royce that she’s genuinely in communication with her dead son.

Though Bunco Squad is one of those movies in which the crooks, who until then have been acting cautiously and carefully, have to get obnoxiously stupid in the last reel in order for the police to be able to catch them, it’s still an entertaining little movie and actually superior to the 1938 film Crime Ring, which used the same story source but had an overly complicated plot in which the syndicate was involved in way too many rackets for either the filmmakers or the audience to keep track — and it has the services of Cortez, a gentlemanly and appealing actor even in a black-hearted villain’s role and worth seeing in almost anything (even if his quite good performance in the 1931 Maltese Falcon, probably the best of his career, has been overshadowed by Humphrey Bogart’s even better one in the far more famous 1941 remake).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Case Against Brooklyn (Morningside/Columbia, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I settled in and watched a movie: The Case Against Brooklyn, which TCM ran on their night of undercover-cop movies right after The Undercover Man (which didn’t really feature an undercover man!) and The Mob (which did). It was also a Columbia release, co-produced with an outfit called Morningstar (which may have been a “collapsible” production company formed to make just one film) and directed by hack Paul Wendkos from a story inspired by an article by reporter Ed Reid for True magazine. The film credits Daniel B. Ullman with the story and “Raymond T. Marcus” with the screenplay from it, though “Marcus” was actually a pseudonym for blacklisted writers Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet.

The plot of this one has Darren McGavin playing Pete Harris, a former Army intelligence officer who after the war (which one? Probably Korea, since 1958 seems a bit late in the day for the character to be a World War II veteran, though an opening title specifies the time of the story as “a few years ago”) leaves the Army to join the New York Police Department and is just about to graduate from the police academy when the film opens. Actually the film begins with the sad tale of Gus Polumbo (Joe De Santis), who’s got himself $5,800 in debt to a bookie ring run by Finelli (Nestor Païva, a good deal heavier than he was in the “Black Lagoon” movies just four years earlier!) and is being told to come up with the money that day — or else! That night he’s ambushed in the auto garage he runs and beaten up while his wife Lil (Margaret Hayes), who was supposed to meet him so they could go out to a show, catches sight of what’s going on. Unable to raise any money for his gambling debt and knowing that the gangsters are just going to keep beating him up regularly until he either pays up or dies, Gus loads his truck and drives it at a frantic pace, ultimately losing control, running off the road and dying in the accident — actually a suicide but made to look like an accident so his widow can collect under the double indemnity clause of his life insurance policy. (We see the ominous words “DOUBLE INDEMNITY” stamped across the face of the policy — and we can’t help but flash back to the far better 1944 movie of that title.)

Then we cut to the office of Kings County district attorney Michael W. Norris (Tol Avery), who’s aware that the bookie ring has bribed cops not only to look the other way and allow it to operate, but actually shoot people who get too close to its operations. He figures that the way to combat it is to requisition newly graduated police officers, fresh from the academy and therefore, as he puts it, unaware that to all too many veteran cops “honesty” is a dirty word. Because of his intelligence background, Pete Harris is a “natural” for this assignment, but there’s one nagging detail: in order to get information on the gang, he has to pursue an affair with the widow Polumbo — even though he’s already married to Jane (Peggy McKay). The D.A. outfits him with an apartment near Polumbo’s garage, where he rents space for his car and pursues his acquaintance with the widow — who genuinely likes him and finds herself attracted to him.

Meanwhile, the police decide to rotate the officers’ beats so there’ll be a new group of people patrolling the Brooklyn territory of the bookie ring — only within a week the syndicate’s agents have got to them, too — and events move towards a climax when the syndicate’s hit man, Rudi Franklin (Warren Stevens, easily the most charismatic and interesting actor in the film), catches Pete’s partner Jess Johnson (Brian Hutton) changing tapes in the recorder with which they’re taping Finelli’s wiretapped phone conversations, reports him as a prowler and gets crooked cop Detective Sergeant Bonney (Robert Osterloh) to kill him. Meanwhile, Jane calls the number of Pete’s “cover” apartment and Lil answers — and Jane naturally leaps to the wrong conclusion and decides her husband is having an affair. The fact that he may be doing so in the line of duty predictably cuts no ice with her, and just as we’re beginning to wonder what long-term effect this is going to have on Pete’s and Jane’s relationship when the case is over, the bad guys turn the tables on Pete and bug his apartment (his “real” home with Jane), then send up a phony “repairman” with a booby-trapped phone that explodes when Jane answers it, killing her. (Thus the film turns towards the end into a semi-remake of The Big Heat, though in that movie the honest cop’s wife dies considerably earlier, also as a result of a booby-trap meant for her husband, and thus the ensuing affair-ette between the hero and the demi-monde girl he’s pumping for information is more poignant and less kinky.)

The shock of the loss of his wife turns Pete from a cool, calm, collected law-enforcement officer into a prototype of Dirty Harry, throwing his gun at the D.A. and going out after Rudi with every intent of killing him, but at the end the baddies are taken alive and Pete even smokes out the big boss of the outfit — and there’s a quirky final scene in which Pete and Lil meet again, only there’s no reunion; she’s leaving town and they say a bittersweet goodbye at the fade-out. The Case Against Brooklyn — a title suggesting an even more far-reaching criminal conspiracy than the one actually depicted — isn’t exactly fresh and original storytelling, and there are some wrenching bits like the voice-over narrator who suddenly appears on the soundtrack about 20 minutes in, but it’s basically a good movie, maintaining interest even as it travels down well-worn dramatic paths, and McGavin (as he usually did) turns in an unspectacular but workmanlike performance even though Warren Stevens steals the movie out from under everyone else.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Undercover Man (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One movie Charles and I watched last night was The Undercover Man, made in 1949 and produced by Robert Rossen, though he gave over the writing duties to other people — Sydney Boehm and Jack Rubin, with additional dialogue by Malvin Wald — and it was directed by someone else as well: Joseph H. Lewis, about to end his long apprenticeship on Western, horror and gangster “B”’s and about to go from this film to his first masterpiece, Gun Crazy. The film began life as a true story, narrated by magazine writer Frank J. Wilson in a piece called “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone,” though according to Robert Osborne (who introduced the film on TCM as part of a night devoted to undercover cops) the filmmakers weren’t allowed by Columbia’s legal department to use Capone’s name so they referred to him only as “The Big Fellow.” (One wonders why they couldn’t use Capone’s name, since the real Capone had died in 1946, three years before the film was made.) They also set the film in the (1949) present instead of doing it as a 1920’s period piece.

The Undercover Man ends up as a quite straightforward police-procedural thriller in which Glenn Ford plays Treasury agent Frank Warren, who frequently has to absent himself from his Washington, D.C. home and his wife Judith (Nina Foch, reunited with Lewis four years after My Name Is Julia Ross — though the character is a one-dimensional Long-Suffering Wife and, compared to her genuinely conflicted playing in Julia Ross, here she’s playing a part she could have played in her sleep, and through much of the film that looks like exactly what she’s doing) to go on long case assignments at considerable physical risk to himself. He travels to a carefully unnamed city (Columbia apparently shot this under the working title Chicago Story but evidently decided that even giving the film such a specific place was risking legal complications) to build a case against the “Big Fellow” and his extensive criminal enterprise, and to do this he stages a series of wide-open raids on ordinary retail businesses that offer secret sidelines in bookmaking, drug dealing and other illegal trades — not so much to nail the small-time proprietors of these establishments than to seize their books and use them to get testimony against the “Big Fellow.”

While the title is a cheat — at no time during the movie do we see either Glenn Ford or anyone else playing a representative of law enforcement actually operating undercover — what comes through most strongly is the sheer extent of the control the “Big Fellow” and his syndicate have over the city. The film’s most interesting character is the “Big Fellow”’s combination attorney and enforcer, Edward J. O’Rourke (Barry Kelley), who seems able to intimidate potential witnesses into silence just by staring at them and glowering — and throughout the movie the syndicate is depicted as so powerful they can murder people in broad daylight with utter impunity because everyone in eyeshot is so terrified of the prospect of being next that they’ll conveniently “forget” they ever saw anything (much the way the drug cartels, the Crips and the Bloods, and their equivalent gangs in the Latino-American communities operate today).

Throughout the movie Frank Warren is in a Kafka-esque loop in which just when he seems to have got a witness actually willing to testify against the mob, they’re killed — and finally when he is able to assemble a handful of former syndicate small-fry who can testify to the “Big Fellow”’s crimes, and keep them alive long enough to get a grand jury indictment against the “Big Fellow” and the other syndicate principals, he finds to his horror that even before the names of the people on the jury pool are released to the court, the syndicate has got hold of them and either bribed or scared them into guaranteeing an acquittal. (O’Rourke leaks this information to Warren and is himself killed — run over by a car — for his pains.) Eventually the judge in the case (Everett Glass) assures the prosecution a fair trial by arranging a last-minute swap of jury panels with another judge in another case, and the trial goes forward and leads to convictions.

The Undercover Man has some powerful scenes — notably one in which the grandmother of a girl whose dad was killed by the syndicate when he was about to testify recalls for him the days of her childhood in Italy, when the Mafia (the original camorra) ran roughshod over her little village and scared everybody into paying them — and, in a conversation that becomes even more poignant because she speaks only Italian and her granddaughter has to interpret for her, she convinces Warren, who’d been on the point of giving up the case and his Treasury career and retiring to a farm with his wife, to stick it out — but most of it is pretty straightforward cops-and-robbers stuff, and Lewis turns in a well-paced job of direction but without his usual stylistic flair in a film that really only barely counts as noir even though The Film Noir Encyclopedia lists it.

It’s also a good film for the Schreiber theorists — the advocates for the writer, not the director, as auteur — because it’s really a lot closer in mood and overall approach to Sydney Boehm’s other movies (especially The Big Heat and Rogue Cop) than to Lewis’s. Indeed, at some points it seems like a beta version of The Big Heat, especially since Glenn Ford is the star in both, though The Big Heat benefits not only from Fritz Lang’s masterly direction but also a story that kills off Ford’s wife early on and gives him a powerful personal motive, as well as his professional one, for taking on the syndicate.

The Mob (Columbia, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Oddly, the second movie we watched last night, The Mob — likewise an urban drama about corruption, and also a Columbia Pictures production — was a good deal better. Indeed, the most ironic thing about it is that, three years before making On the Waterfront, Columbia did another story about corruption on the New York docks and made a film that, though hardly as “good” in terms of such indicia of quality as production values, stars and prestige names behind the camera, ended up as a good deal more exciting and fun to watch.

The Mob was based on a novel called Waterfront by Ferguson Findley, and was written by William Bowers and directed by Robert Parrish — hardly as much of a “name” to conjure with in the annals of all-time great directors as Joseph H. Lewis — but The Mob has a lot more noir atmospherics going for it (the cinematographer is old Columbia hand Joseph L. Walker, who shot most of the major Capras in the 1930’s) as well as much more in the way of excitement and proletarian credibility. Part of the latter is due to the choice of a star, Broderick Crawford, whom Columbia was desperate to cast because he’d risen from character actor to Academy Award winner in the lead in All the King’s Men (only because Columbia needed someone fast after Spencer Tracy withdrew from All the King’s Men at the last minute!), but he still wasn’t exactly the romantic leading-man type.

Here, though, he’s ideal in a custom-tailored role as Johnny Damico, a plainclothes police detective in New York City who, while on patrol in a driving rainstorm, watches a tall man in an overcoat and a hat worn low on his head shoot somebody. The shooter instantly claims to be a police officer himself -— “Lieutenant Henderson” — and even flashes an authentic police badge. Damico therefore lets him get away, and it’s only later when he meets his superior, Sgt. Bennion (Walter Klavun), that he finds out there’s no such New York cop as “Lieutenant Henderson” and the man he saw was really mob hit-man Blackie Clegg, whom he let get away with shooting a key witness in an upcoming case about waterfront corruption. As for the badge Clegg flashed, it was real all right — Clegg had taken it off the body of a cop he’d assassinated in a previous job assignment for the mob.

Bennion works out a plot to suspend Damico publicly — he even has a newspaper run a photo of him that’s really of a relative — but really assign him to infiltrate the gang undercover; he’s supposed to go to New Orleans, join the longshore union there, then get a job on a ship and work his way back to New York, then ask for a visitor’s permit and find out how the waterfront gang operates by doing longshore work and finding out how the syndicate extracts money from the workers as well as the shippers. The methods involved should be no surprise to anyone who’s seen On the Waterfront — involving kickbacks disguised as phony “charities” for injured workers; forced “loans” at massive rates of interest; as well as gimmicks that don’t involve the workers directly, like stealing valuable items from the cargoes of the ships they unload — though, if anything, The Mob is actually more progressive than On the Waterfront on at least one point: The Mob depicts the longshore union’s hierarchy as appalled by the corruption and working with the police to end it, while in On the Waterfront the union was itself part of the syndicate.

Using the name “Tim Flynn,” Damico bluffs his way into getting a visitor card and a highly coveted assignment driving a forklift (so he doesn’t have to handle cargo by hand). As part of his pose, he’s been ordered to be very combative and truculent, at one point accusing a gang of his fellow longshoremen of being “chorus boys” (Charles joked that they probably were chorus boys merely playing longshoremen!), and Crawford’s scenes in this mode are his most powerful bits of acting in the film. He makes us believe in him as a proletarian in a way Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, laden down by all his Method-actor tics and the gimmicks both in his performance and the script itself to make him seem “sensitive,” never did.

Where The Mob disappoints is in giving us too few scenes that actually take place on the docks — there’s no equivalent to the chilling scene in On the Waterfront in which the dock bosses throw the medallions that entitle their holders to a job that day at the workers like zookeepers feeding the animals, and the workers eagerly snap them up like zoo animals being fed — and it goes off the rails in its last half-hour by throwing so many reversals at us it gets confusing and one wonders whether William Bowers was a role model for Duplicity writer-director Tony Gilroy. We learn [spoiler alert!] that Clancy (Richard Kiley), whom Damico befriended in his cover identity as Flynn and sought out for help in working his way up the hierarchy in the docks, is himself an undercover agent — a federal one — and that Smoothie (Matt Crowley), the bartender at the misnamed “Royal Bar” attached to the fleabag hotel where Flynn and Clancy live, is really Blackie Clegg.

The film ends in a hospital, where Damico is being treated for wounds he suffered in a shoot-out and Clegg takes Damico’s fiancée Mary Kiernan (Betty Buehler, playing a typically nothing damsel-in-distress role) hostage until the police eventually manage to pick him off without hurting her — a confusing and low-energy ending for a movie that until then has been a quite credible crackerjack thriller and a good deal more entertaining than the more prestigious — but also much more pretentious — On the Waterfront, made by the same studio on the same subject three years later! And one interesting aspect of The Mob, was the number of future stars who appear in it in small roles, including Neville Brand (basically duplicating his appearance in D.O.A. as a hired gun for the bad guys who gets his sick psycho jollies by holding a gun on the hero as they’re riding together in the back seat of a car), Ernest Borgnine (as a gang boss) and even Charles Bronson (uncredited — if they had credited him, it would have been under his original last name, “Buchinsky” — as a longshoreman).