Wednesday, July 30, 2014

APOLOGY FOR MURDER (1955)

A cop is questioning a woman about a murder. He searches her bureau and closet as if he lived there.

WOMAN: You're pretty free with my apartment, aren't you?
COP: Do I have to buy a ticket?

I might not have ever heard of Murder is My Beat if it hadn't been for the beautiful three-sheet poster I bought a couple or three decades ago. Unfortunately, someone -- a nervous theatre-owner, perhaps? -- covered "MURDER" with "DANGER." Still, I could tell it was a movie that was certainly my beat, especially with the Wim Wenders of Poverty Row, Edgar G. Ulmer, directing.

Make no mistake, Murder is My Beat follows the usual film noir recipe by the teaspoon. Plainclothes flatfoot Ray Patrick is on the prowl for Eden Lane, a blonde floozie wanted for murder. First putting his life in jeopardy by tracking her 7,000 feet up a mountain in a blizzard, he finds himself putting his job on the line when he falls for hard for her. Doing a belly-flop off a prison-bound train, Ray and Eden go rogue in order to find the mysterious man whom Eden claims is the real killer.

The Abominable Detective
Nothing new here, unless you count the blizzard, which probably counts as a first for a film noir (film blanc?). But nobody watches these things for breakthroughs in storytelling. Cops, saps, blondes, twists and double-crosses -- that's all we ask for. And Murder is My Beat delivers. No, the dialogue doesn't give Double Indemnity for a run for its money. The story might be a little convoluted for its own good. It suffers from an unwelcome happy ending. Nor are there what might be called high-wattage stars. This was, after all, an Allied Artists (formerly Monogram) B-picture.

"No problem, this is the way
I always look."
But you know what it does have? A cast of real-looking (rather than Hollywood-looking) actors you wouldn't have been able to pick out of a police line-up. The sad-eyed Paul Langton (Det. Patrick) spends a good deal of the movie beat up worse than a banker at a May Day Parade. Occasionally lapsing into Bogart patois, Langton is more sympathetic than the average film noir hero, seeing that he's a decent cop who doesn't know if he believes Eden or is merely falling in love -- make that in sexual heat -- with her. Langton's the kind of actor who may not have made a major impact in his 100+ movie and TV roles, but was always real.


"C'mon, baby, you can spare a little of that
make-up to cover my hematoma."
Barbara Payton (Eden) drips with sex, yet there isn't really anything that sexy about her, at least from my perspective. Tight sweaters, close-cropped hair, make-up that's been applied with pancake spatula -- the '50s were apparently a time when drag queens were what women aspired to be. Or, more likely, what men aspired women to be. And yet she and Langton look perfect together, as do the equally-plain Hugh Beaumont and Ann Savage in the previously-discussed Apology for Murder. Sex appeal comes in strange packages. (Feel free to google Barbara Payton's sorry life -- alcoholism and prostitution just scratching the surface -- to see just how her biopic could rival any classic film noir... and without a happy ending.)


"Careful with those things, lady, or you'll hurt
somebody with 'em!"
The budget restrictions of Murder is My Beat (great name for an album of dance music, by the way) heighten its realism. You can see a real downward trajectory from 1930s movies in terms of fashions, decor, even cars. The cop's Nash Rambler is a sorry ride compared to the flashy coupes of 20 years earlier, while there are enough dangerous-looking bullet bras for an ammunition depot. The plentiful location shots, too, show that even Los Angeles was starting to look seedy. In fact, there isn't anything particularly attractive about Murder is My Beat, and that's a good thing. 

Edgar G. Ulmer does a good job here, concentrating on close-ups to heighten the emotional drama. His occasional cutting from location to studio to process shot in the same scene can be whiplash-inducing, but again, that's more due to budget than talent. One chance where he gets to show what he's capable of -- cutting back and forth from Langton's emotional third-degree of Eden to the relentless drive of the train's steel wheels -- screams of sexual arousal. All aboard! 

All things considered, Murder is My Beat might not be the Acela, but it gets where it's supposed to in a timely, efficient manner.

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To read about the B-movie mentioned in this piece, Apology for Murder, click here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

POSTAL INSPECTOR (1936)

The 1935-1936 movie season marked something of an apex with Hollywood's hagiographies of federal investigators. Warners' G-Men and Grand National's Tough Guy (which chronicled the "adventures" of an Weights-and-Measures inspector), both starred James Cagney. Universal got into the act with Postal Inspector, but settled for Ricardo Cortez in the lead role of Bill Davis.

Probably realizing that there's nothing inherently exciting about a guy who's primary job is listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by mail-order scams, Postal Inspector's producers padded out the movie's screentime by throwing in three songs (one of which is performed three times), a romantic subplot involving the postal inspector's brother and a nightclub singer, and newsreel footage of a Midwest flood, and endless speeches about how important it is listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by bogus mail-order scams.  A voice-over impersonation of President Roosevelt gets into the act as well, reminding us how important it is listening to saps who... Well, you know. And the damn thing still runs only 56 minutes!


Ricardo Cortez looks for a loophole in his
contract to get out of this movie.
With everything but postal drama taking charge, the story proper doesn't really kick in until about the 30-minute mark. Bill Davis' brother Charlie, another fed, is in charge of delivering worn-out currency to the Treasury Department for eventual destruction. His girlfriend, nightclub thrush Connie Larrimore, innocently spills the beans to her boss, Gregory Benez, who steals Charlie's $3,000,000 shipment. If the producers had been honest, they'd have called this movie Treasury Guy with the The Big-Mouth Girlfriend. 

To jazz things up further, a flood of Biblical proportions threatens to destroy the city. (That's where the newsreel footage comes in.) Super Inspector Bill Davis risks his life by flying to a neighboring town to help move the contents of a post office to the second floor of another building, just so people can continue receiving junkmail. Thanks, Bill. The flood, however, offers the unique chance to watch a climactic motorboat chase in the middle of downtown, which looks as weird as it sounds.

"So, you re-used a one-cent stamp, hunh?
It's curtains for you!"
Ricardo Cortez, as usual, is better than the material he's given here, probably having choked on lines like "A postage stamp is the best insurance in the world" during the first read-through. He must have suffered some unfortunate deja vu as well, when warning Connie Larrimore, "You're in this, too, up to your neck" -- a line almost identical to one he recited as Sam Spade in the original version of The Maltese Falcon four years earlier. It's quite a comedown from ace private eye to mailman cop.

Lugosi gives the day's special:
blood pudding.
Most fans of obscure movies know Postal Inspector only because of fourth-billed Bela Lugosi as Benez. It's a nothing role for a guy who, five years earlier, was Universal's biggest draw in Dracula. Still, it's a treat to see Bela in a non-horror role for a change, even if he doesn't strike one as a nightclub owner. Never explained, however, is why a guy with a Spanish surname has a Hungarian accent.

Never explained, either, is why the songs featured in Postal Inspector survived the final cut. Connie Larrimore (Patricia Ellis) sings the pseudo-rhumba "Hot Towel" while taking a shower:

When you're through with your shower,
Do you shiver? Do you quiver?
Well, you're wrong.
When you're through with your shower,
You should treat it, you should heat it
With a song!

If only she met her fate before the musical numbers.
What is this, a first-grade glee club? (The best part of the number is the maid -- who else but Hattie McDaniel? -- using bottles of bathbeads as makeshift maracas.) Nothing, however, beats the song with quite possibly the worst title in music history, "Let's Have Bluebirds on All Our Wallpaper":

Let's have bluebirds on all our wallpaper
Decorating our dreams.
Shy little rosebuds on the chinaware,
Murmurs of love from the Frigidaire...

Either someone at Universal thought this was going to be a big hit or he lost a bet, for this song is performed three times -- twice accompanied by an obnoxious kid playing a harmonica. The incompetent hack responsible for such atrocious lyrics? Frank Loesser, who would go onto write Guys and Dolls and the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Forget about Robert Johnson; I think Loesser met the devil at the crossroads of 44th and Broadway. There's no other way to explain that kind of improvement.

It's tempting to speculate just what the guys who ran Universal really thought of nonsense like Postal Inspector. They didn't have to make this for financial reasons; unlike Warners, M-G-M and Paramount, they didn't own a chain of movie theatres that needed a constant supply of product. If they wanted to jump on the federal agent bandwagon, why not the Secret Service? Surely there's some real drama involved in protecting the president, rather than... well, listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by mail-order scams -- or by ridiculous movies like Postal Inspector.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

DARK DELUSION (1947)

It's always fun to watch old medical-based movies. Procedures taken for granted by naive audiences then would be grounds for malpractice today. It's a real hoot, too, when watching these melodramas since my wife's a nurse. They make her gasp, "Oh my God!" more than the investors in Malaysian Airways.  

Dark Delusion ups the entertainment value by exploring the world of mental illness, presumably a ripe topic after the success of Hitchcock's Spellbound two years earlier. But while the latter strove to be a serious, mature take on one man's psychological breakdown, Dark Delusion is Freud by way of M-G-M's Department of Romantic Melodrama.
"She may be crazy, but she's my  kind
of crazy!"
Dr. Tommy Coalt is a headstrong sawbones who's been quite successful at alienating patients and hospital management alike. Sent to the fictional New York suburb of Bayhurst to temporarily replace the town's only doctor, he immediately becomes entangled in the case of Cynthia Grace. Cynthia has a psychological condition that makes her appear to be photographed in semi-shadow even when in direct sunlight, and her every move accompanied by a woozy organ, glockenspiel, and off-key violins. But speaking professionally, she's all kinds of maniac -- depressive, klepto, and pyro topping the list. While her father wants her admitted to the local laughing academy, Coalt ultimately proves that she's no crazier than anyone else in town. That, of course, isn't saying much.


"I now pronounce you man and lung."
Tommy's a nice guy once you get to know him. He even plays cupid when he's not alienating people. One young woman hospitalized for polio wants to break off her engagement, until Tommy convinces her that her fiance has absolutely no problem being married to someone who's living in an iron lung. And thus we are allowed to witness the most bizarre wedding scene in movie history before Chained for Life, starring real-life Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton.

But Tommy is fully aware of his professional standards. When talking to a newly-adoptive mother, Tommy notices she has baggy eyes, so he prescribes her sleeping pills. When Cynthia shows up unexpectedly at his office, he slips tranquilizers in her water. Keeping up with his madcap drug dispensing, Tommy gets to the root of Cynthia's problems via narcosynthesis. Shooting her up with an unidentified drug for about 10 seconds -- "This is an awfully long injection," my wife rightly noted -- Tommy gets her to talk about the root of her problem. It seems Cynthia banged her head after falling off a horse. With absolutely nothing else to go on, Tommy immediately diagnoses her with having a blood clot on the brain, and arranges for surgery the following day. It took my doctors six weeks to diagnose me with renal cancer, followed by seven weeks of waiting before the surgery. Medicine obviously has gone backwards since 1947.


"Hey, I know that person!" alert. That adoptive mother I mentioned is played by a pre-game show Jayne Meadows. Her onscreen husband is cured of his fear of heart trouble when his doctor deliberately picks a fistfight with him -- a treatment no longer covered by Cigna. That MDF (Doctor of Fisticuffs) is played by the great Keye Luke, formerly Charlie Chan's #1 son. Confucius say, When co-pay not paid, broken jaw suitable substitute. 


Barrymore is disgusted by playing
third banana to a wanna-be Gable
and a crazy lady.
Dark Delusion, oddly, was the final entry in M-G-M's Kildare/Gillespie series, starring the cantankerous Lionel Barrymore. You wouldn't know it by any of the posters, since Dark Delusion was sold, quite falsely, as a romantic mystery. (The tagline -- "How Much Can A Guilty Girl Hide?" -- seems to have been created to further throw the audience off the scent.) It almost seems like the Gillespie scenes were an afterthought in order to pad the movie's running time to an A-length 90 minutes. Barrymore is off-screen for the bulk of the movie, which is a shame since his playing-to-the-rafters style is sorely missed. There are times, however, when he seems to be channeling his fellow character actor Edward Arnold -- but you'd recognize that, wouldn't you?


"Frankly, my dear, I don't give
a damn that I'm aping a better
actor."
And speaking of channeling, James Craig, as Dr. Coalt, struck me as doing a Clark Gable impersonation for much of the movie. That was no surprise, since he was Gable's replacement at Metro when the latter went off to war. Once Clark returned, Craig had no place else to go except, well, Dark Delusion. He, like his ilk of washed-up actors, retreated to the far more lucrative refuge of real estate. I could name a dozen actors today who should make that career change, but I'd only be wallowing in my own dark delusion.


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Monday, July 14, 2014

THE HAT BOX MYSTERY (1947)

How, you may wonder, can a mystery be created out of a hat box? Easy, if you made Poverty Row nonsense like this.

Two-bit private dick Russ Ashton has been called out of town on a case when his secretary/mistress Susan is arrested for shooting socialite/criminal shill Marie Moreland. But don't blame Susan -- she thought the gun inside her client's hat box was a camera, which was going to take an incriminating photo of his philandering wife. 

Yeah, the cops don't believe it, either. Russ puts on his gumshoes to prove that not only didn't Susan pull the trigger, Moreland was actually shot by one of the members of a criminal gang. If the cops had been doing their damn job, they would have discovered the bullet had fired from a completely different angle. But then the movie would have been a one-reeler.

The cop sees nothing strange about this.
The Hat Box Mystery appears to have been angling to be a little different from the average B-crime movies of the day. For one thing, it clocks in at 42'55" -- even shorter than Hal Roach's "Streamliner" comedies. Another difference is that the Roach movies were supposed to be funny. The only time The Hat Box Mystery isn't funny is during the comedy relief. In fact, the only relief the movie offers is when it ends. 

"Hi, folks. We've put armed guards outside the
theatre, so don't even think of leaving."

Too, in the opening scene, immediately following the title card, Russ Ashton addresses the audience, explaining, in so many words, what a lousy detective he is. He then goes on to introduce Susan and his sidekick Harvard (named,we learn, because he didn't go to Yale. That's as good as the jokes get, folks), and Harvard's idiot girlfriend, Veronica, a burger-flipper who feeds them for free. 

But then he takes it one step further by introducing himself and the others by their real names -- Tom Neal, Pamela Blake, Allen Jenkins, and Virginia Sale -- before the rest of the credits roll. This is without doubt the most interesting part of the movie, giving it the feel of a very early TV pilot. However, it was more likely the first of a proposed series of movies with these characters -- if there was audience demand. Since there was no sequel titled The Dress Bag Mystery, we should assume the obvious.

"I love you, honey. Now just go out and get a brain."
Unlike, say, classic private eyes like Phillip Marlowe, Russ Ashton's attempt at clever banter doesn't rise above personal insults. (He confides to us that his pal Harvard is "plenty D-U-M-B" right in front of the guy.) His treatment of Susan borders on the psychologically and emotionally abusive, forever reminding her how bad she is at her job and how much she's screwed up in the past. He willingly partakes of Veronica's free food even while complaining about it and borrowing money from her. He even has the nerve to physically threaten a repairman who calls him out for the phoney-baloney that he is. No wonder why he never gets any work.

Ashton puts his lion-taming skills to good use.
The closest Ashton gets to wit -- and by "closest," I mean halfway from here to Jupiter -- is when he's kidnapped by the criminal gang. While tied to a chair, he spins a few yarns to his captor to kill time, winding up at fairy-tales. "Didja ever hear the one about the momma bear, the poppa bear and the baby bear?" he asks in his usual sarcastic delivery. "Momma Bear was a Democrat, Poppa Bear was a Republican. Baby Bear was too young to vote." Make that halfway to Betelgeuse.

Character actor Allen Jenkins is always worth a look, but it's Tom Neal who's the real draw for me here. Not that he's particularly good. If you've read this blog long enough, you'll know he's the star of the greatest of all film noirs, Detour, where his wooden style works for the one time in his career. Tom started at the top as a contract player at MGM, only to bounce down the ranks to Warners, RKO, and finally landing in Poverty Row studios like PRC. (The Hat Box Mystery was released by the even more obscure Screen Guild Productions, whose other epics include the previously-discussed Scared to Death.)

Never more than a competent actor -- he at least follows Spencer Tracy's dictum to know your lines and not trip over the furniture -- Neal seems out of place in his early movies at the major studios. He appears far more at home in his Poverty Row pictures, where his dime-store Gable looks and vaguely uneasy demeanor fit well with the low-rent surroundings. You can almost feel his bad luck vibe -- he was convicted of shooting his wife in the back of the skull in 1965 -- as his career petered out over time. The Hat Box Mystery, not even strictly qualifying as a feature with its brief running time, wouldn't have been worth watching without his doomed presence. Desperate to be a movie star, Neal would probably be happy to know that.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

POP GEAR (1965) and HAVING A WILD WEEKEND (1965)

Other than two live concert numbers by the Beatles (lifted from the 1963 short The Beatles Come to Town), Pop Gear consists of nothing but lip-synched performances by over a dozen, mostly forgotten musical acts playing their records that charted in the UK. Only a handful were ever released in America, and for very good reason. Most of the music presented here ranges from bland, mainstream, over-produced pop to bland, mainstream, over-produced pop-rock. Not that you can tell the difference. If nothing else, Pop Gear should put to rest the myth that the 1960s British music scene was the swingingest in the world.




God almighty, what an idiot.
Just as every band west of the Rockies wanted to be the next Beach Boys, so did every band within a thousand-mile radius of Liverpool strive to make it big by wearing collarless jackets, skinny ties, and "mod" haircuts. Talent? What's that? And so Pop Gear offers us, without shame, Tommy Quickly singing "Humpty Dumpty" while grinning like a mental ward patient on an all-night masturbation jag. Yes, "Humpty Dumpty" the nursery rhyme. In 1965. The year that the Beatles recorded "Norwegian Wood." Now, to be fair, most of the songs in Pop Gear were originally released in 1964 -- the year the Beatles recorded "Things We Said Today." Get the picture?

Got to get you off the stage.
And speaking of the Beatles, the instrumental band Sounds Incorporated promised to be of mild interest, having provided the backing tracks for "Got to Get You into my Life" and "Savoy Truffle." So they must have some kind of cool factor, right? Sure -- until they play their big number, the "William Tell Overture." Had Rossini heard his piece arranged for three bellowing saxophones, he'd have asked Tell to shoot an arrow through his head.

Perhaps rightly thinking that performers standing in one place could make Pop Gear even more unwatchable, the director wrongly told them to walk around in circles for three minutes, to the obvious embarrassment of those who were more self-aware. Did you ever think Herman's Hermits would ever be described as self-aware? Me neither.


This is rock & roll?
Forgive me for not going into further detail, but I admit to fast-forwarding through most of Pop Gear, the majority the bands being entirely interchangeable and utterly forgettable. American audiences (who saw it under the title Go Go Mania) must have been baffled by the line-up. For every Peter & Gordon, Animals, and Herman's Hermits, there's Billie Davies, the Rockin' Berries, the Fourmost, Four Pennies, the San Remo Four (there must have been a law requiring audiences to know how many people were in the band), and others who were completely unknown over here. Too, what were they to make of dancers "interpreting"  terrible pop instrumentals by artless studio musicians trying desperately to imitate the Mersey sound, or the crooning of Matt Munro, the UK's answer to Vic Damone?

No, there's nothing skeevy about this guy.
The whole shebang is hosted by Jimmy Savile of the UK's legendary music series Top of the Pops. Resembling Marty Feldman after semi-successful corrective eye surgery, Savile was the kind of wacky personality who was popular with all ages. That all came crashing down after his death when an investigation showed him to have been a major player in a pedophile ring that operated out of the BBC for decades. When you're aware of that piece of the story, there's something unsettling about how he anticipates Pop Gear's first number, "Little Children." Seriously.


The Dave Clark 5's pretentious Having a Wild Weekend (released as Catch Us if You Can in its original UK release) must have been a little bizarre to US teens as well. The opening scene promises a combination of A Hard Day's Night (black-and-white cinematography) and Help! (zany friends living together in a zany house). But once Dave Clark is addressed as "Steve," you learn these guys aren't playing themselves, but, rather, stuntmen currently appearing in an ad campaign for the meat council. Steve doesn't dig the job (he's just a piece of meat, get it?), but he seems to fancy the commercial's star, Dinah. She and Steve jump in an MG and escape to the real world, with the other four, and the director of the ad campaign, on their trail.

Unlike the Beatles' movies, Having a Wild Weekend isn't a showcase for a band. No, this is Dave Clark's project all the way. He and Dinah (played by Barbara Ferris) are supposed to be symbols of the freethinking younger generation, but their pseudo-philosophical ramblings are pretty much what you'd expect a couple of budding 23 year-old Rambeaus to babble while on holiday (as the Brits say). Director John Boorman pads out the couple's getaway with endless scenery shots while Dave Clark 5 songs bash away on the soundtrack. It's kind of like playing a record while watching artsy home movies. As I think of it, Having a Wild Weekend is an attempt at what was referred to as a "kitchen sink drama," only after a good scrubbing of Ajax. (Boorman would later polish his C.V. by directing Point Blank and Deliverance.)


As boring as she is pretty.
Likewise.
Ironically for a former actor, Dave Clark himself is the least engaging member of the band, blessed as he is with an acting style consisting of squinting, scowling, and squinting and scowling. The looker of the bunch, Dave is given plenty of soulful James Dean-ish close-ups, but appears to suffering from constipation. His co-star, Barbara Ferris, is cute -- I'm always a sucker for that '60s blonde go-go girl hairdo -- but is appealing as a stick of butter that's been out during a heatwave. These two specious bores are actually perfect for each other, but Dave (or Steve, whatever you want to call him) wants more out of life than ad campaigns for meat; he's looking for the meaning of life by moving to Spain... and becoming a skindiving instructor. What?


Dave Clark leaves Barbara Ferris
to fend for herself.
Written by Dave Clark and bandmate Lenny Davidson, Having a Wild Weekend seems to be deliberately playing to the critics. A subplot featuring the cynical ad agency probably flew right over the heads of the barely-out-of-rompers audience. During their weekend adventure, Steve and Dinah crash a proto-hippie commune, whose equally-turgid denizens are looking for marijuana and heroin. You almost want to applaud when they're all suddenly driven out by army tanks firing live shells at them (Occupy Cotswold!) for no reason other than Dave and Lenny's script wanting to a statement. Whether the statement is anti-military or anti-hippie, well, you'll have to ask them. 

A later segment featuring Steve and Dinah spending an afternoon with a bored suburban couple, Guy and Nan, seems to be lifted from another movie entirely. While the sexually-frustrated Nan puts the moves on Steve, the clueless Guy tries seducing Dinah via his collection of pop culture memorabilia. (That hit a little too close to home for comfort.) Guy is an unhappy man, baffled by the strange world of 1965, wanting nothing more than to escape to an earlier, simpler time, away from the wife who offers him nothing but contempt. It's a strange, biting scene -- the film's best, in fact, thanks to Robin Bailey's exquisitely sad portrayal of Guy -- but one that makes you wonder, What's this doing here?


"Who are these four guys in the car with me?"
Dave's bandmates don't get to indulge in any of this stuff -- they're strictly supporting players, with little individual characterization, other than Rick Huxley trying to eat inedible objects. Although sharing an authentic camaraderie, they lack the Beatles' natural charisma and wit. Too, the muddy audiotrack and their thicker-than-blood-pudding accents often muffle what little dialogue they have. 
 
Having a Wild Weekend actually plays better the second time around, when you know to expect, but its drawbacks persist. The main problem is its dichotomy. It wants to be taken seriously as a message movie -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! There's talk of drugs and sex -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! It exposes the media's manipulation of society -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! The nervous taglines on the movie's American promotional material warned it was "the year's big dramatic surprise! Watch it make the 10-Best lists!" Clearly, Dave and his mates were going for something other than just another teen idol comedy, and are to be commended for their effort.  But did screaming teenyboppers in the audience really give a shit about drama and 10-best lists? Give us "Bits and Pieces!" 

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Monday, June 2, 2014

DANTE'S INFERNO (1935)


OK, so maybe Spencer Tracy shot his classic movies at MGM. Anybody can do that, right? I'm more interested in his apprentice work during his early days at the Fox studio. You can keep those confections he made with Katherine Hepburn. I'll take Tracy as the wisecracking cop in Me and My Gal; the homeless man who knocks up Loretta Young in Man's Castle; and as the ill-fated tycoon in The Power and the Glory (a virtual blueprint for Citizen Kane, made eight years later) -- the kind of pre-code movies from a scrappy studio interested in simply pleasing an audience while occasionally striving for greatness. Tracy's final Fox feature, Dante's Inferno, is the weirdest of Tracy's entire career, and certainly wilder than anything else he made until It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963.

Don't let the title fool you. Dante's Inferno tells the story of Jim Carter, a sociopathic Walt Disney-wannabe who steps on, swindles or ruins anyone in his path in order to build an unrivaled entertainment empire, starting with the Dante's Inferno amusement park attraction. With the help of his assistant Jonsey, Carter reaches the pinnacle of success with the purchase of a gambling ship, the S.S. Paradise. When a strike threatens to delay the Paradise's maiden voyage, Carter goes against the captain's advice and hires a shipful of inexperienced workers. The formula is complete: Drunk passengers + drunker scabs x a large flambé served too close to the inflammable drapes = inferno on the high seas. Moral: desserts kill.

I'd take my kid to this over "It's a Small World."
Judging by the impressive sets, Fox must have considered Dante's Inferno its big release of 1935. The cost for the construction of the Inferno spook house alone must have equaled that of a short subject. The grand opening of the Inferno, by the way, is spoiled somewhat when one of Carter's swindled victims jumps from the top floor into a shallow man-made lake. Now that's entertainment!


Tracy pays close attention to Pop McWade's
request to call the safety inspector.

The hell motif is present right from the beginning, when we see a ship's boiler room from the perspective of the coal oven, and builds as Carter's star rises (or sinks into a morass, depending on your point of view). And yet Carter himself is actually an excellent husband and father. Well, until his wife feels obliged to commit perjury regarding his bribe of a safety inspector -- a pay-off which led the Inferno to collapse on hundreds of innocent people, including his wife's uncle, Pop McWade. (I guess Uncle McWade was little too wordy.) The safety inspector, realizing the collapse could have been prevented, commits suicide. Doesn't anyone see a pattern emerging in dealing with this Carter guy?


Some entrepreneur could make a fortune if he
built a members-only club that looked like this.
Pop McWade, having somehow survived a five-story building crashing all around him, warns Carter of his descent into immorality by reading aloud Dante's epic poem, setting up the movie's raison d'etre: a bizarre, disturbing (in a way only old movies can be) ten minute recreation of hell, featuring 3,000 of the best looking, near-naked damned souls you've ever seen, climaxing with them jumping into a lake of fire like Olympic champions. It was a trick Cecil B. DeMille mastered in his biblical epics: make the audience feel better about enjoying sin by presenting it as a morality tale. Six hours of footage were shot for Dante's Inferno and I bet half of that went to this scene alone. That's a hell of a lot of hell, equal only to the last three Adam Sandler movies combined. 




Don't mess with Spence.
Even competing with enough melodrama for a dozen movies, there's a naturalism about Spencer Tracy rare for his time. His Jekyll-Hyde portrayal of the good family man/evil entrepreneur makes his Carter that much more complex than it has any right to be. Yet his best moment happens without any dialogue at all. Discovering that his son has been brought on the gambling ship without his permission, Carter shoots Jonsey a look that rivals the entire Inferno scene for sheer intensity.

Tracy warms up for a chorus of
"My Mammy."
It could be Tracy was just angry at starring in Dante's Inferno, believing it one of the worst movie ever made, and going so far as to prevent Fox from using his name on any of the promotional materials, at least in America. (He was most likely appalled, too, by his brief blackface scene early on.) But perhaps there was something else going on. Tracy was never as close to his own son the way Carter is, and his marriage was on its way to being in name only, thanks to, among other things, falling deeply in love with his Man's Castle co-star, 22 year-old Loretta Young. A Jesuit school graduate, Tracy felt that his son being born deaf was God's punishment for his own laundry list of transgressions -- adultery, alcoholism, choosing show business over the priesthood, and his alleged bisexuality, to name a few. 


Today’s audiences would respond to all of that with, “What else you got?” But Tracy himself might have felt he shared all of Carter’s bad traits without any of the good. Had he seen his image in the Spanish release of Dante's Inferno (the title of which translated to Satan's Ship), he might have thought he was staring into a particularly penetrating mirror.  No way is Dante's Inferno the worst movie ever made. But when one looks at it with Tracy's own life in mind, it's probably his most fascinating.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL (1935)

Considering it will have taken 22 years by the time the New York's Second Avenue Subway is completed, the idea of a tunnel running from England to the USA seems something of a fool's commute. The idea has actually been discussed from time to time, but Gaumont British Pictures got there in 1935 with the art-deco sci-fi epic Transatlantic Tunnel. If the Second Avenue Subway contains as much melodrama and intrigue as this movie -- marital problems,  blindness, double-crossing, murder, a disease called "tunnel sickness," underwater volcanoes -- those poor sandhogs are in for a hell of a time.




How many people were decapitated opening
the trunk?
It's a credit to the British filmmakers' honesty that the character behind the tunnel, Richard McAllen, is an American. Apparently, Brits weren't forward-thinking (or foolhardy) enough to come up with such an insane idea. As with all sci-fi movies, Transatlantic Tunnel takes place in the future -- that is, the 1940s and beyond. This allows the filmmakers to show off all kind of jim-dandy inventions, including television, wall-installed Skypes called televisors, trains and cars shaped like torpedoes, and private planes that resemble badly-made scones. Doesn't life today seem dull by comparison?

"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm on the
phone, not hiding behind the wall!"
None of these material things, of course, prevents human drama from taking its toll. Gossip rags hint that McAllen is having an affair with British debutante Varlia Lloyd. His wife Ruth, having gone blind working in the tunnel as a nurse, walks out on him, taking their son with her. McAllen's friendship with his associate, Robbie, is stretched almost to the breaking point. A couple of the moneymen financing the project plan to dump their shares, and, in the resulting panic, buy up the rest to control the whole thing. (One of the financiers is murdered when he backs out of the deal.) McAllen's son Geoffrey, now a young man, is killed in a tunnel explosion, joining hundreds of other fatalities that have already incurred. All this to prevent climate change from airplanes zooming over the Atlantic? No thanks, bub, I'll take my chances with the melting icebergs.

You'd think by then, they'd have invented
an iPhone instead of having to use
pencil and paper.
You may be wondering by now if the tunnel is even worth this heartache. The world leaders, deciding if they're willing to back the project, aren't so sure. When one declares the tunnel will provide only "useless employment," another says, "That's the kind they prefer." (Hey, how did Harry Reid get in here?)  But the overriding reason for the tunnel's construction, as repeated over and over, is to bring about world peace. But nobody ever explains how! They should have paid attention to the French representative, an arms manufacturer, who admits, "When your tunnel is built, all of the other nations will come to me for guns to blow it up." Merci, mon ami. (His line echoes a similar sentiment during an equally-cynical scene in The Man Who Reclaimed his Head.)


The wonderful world of alanite steel.
You may be wondering, too, just how a transatlantic tunnel can possibly be built. Well, I guess you weren't counting on radium drills and alanite steel. That's the cool thing about science-fiction -- if something is impossible, just make up stuff to defy it. Another side-effect of living in the future, by Transatlantic Tunnel's sights, is that apparently nobody ages over time except McAllen's son -- and he's killed on his first day on the job. That'll teach you non-aging little whippersnapper!


Richard Dix and Leslie Banks discover just
how hot it can get drilling through a
volcano.
Richard Dix, nearing the end of his leading-man days, was probably hired to play Richard McAllen because he looks and sounded to Brits like the typical American -- part genius, part caveman, not quite handsome but someone who can fill out a tux.  British actor Leslie Banks -- perhaps best known for the original UK version of The Man who Knew Too Much -- plays McAllen's friend Robbie with his usual flair, even as he spends most of the time with his
Even this UK promotional card
for the movie kept Leslie Banks
in right profile.
right profile to the camera, the left side having been paralyzed during service in World War I. (I bet you thought I was going to make a crack about him being a two-faced actor. Never.) George Arliss and Walter Huston -- "classy" actors from the UK and US -- make guest appearances as the British Prime Minister and American President respectively. Arliss fans will be happy to know that he continues his time-honored technique of dramatically pointing his finger in the air while giving speeches. Why doesn't anybody do this anymore?



My wife would love this staring down at her
in the living room every day.
A fascinating film, Transatlantic Tunnel wouldn't appeal today to the average movie fan, if only because its soft, faded image and occasionally muffled audio cry out for a restoration that is unlikely to come. Yet some of its "farfetched" ideas have already come true. McAllen, we learn early on, has already built the English Channel tunnel, although his other tunnel, linking the Bahamas to Miami, remains unrealized, to the grateful thanks of the anti-immigration crowd.

 Transatlantic Tunnel is actually a remake of the German movie Der Tunnel, and one from France entitled -- you'll never guess -- Le Tunnel. In England, it seems to have premiered as -- hold on to your hats -- The Tunnel before taking on its final title in America. The release in Spain, as El Tunel Transatlantico, also provided its most bizarre poster, one I would use my kid's college savings to purchase. I'd say it's worth its weight in alanite steel. 

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Richard Dix didn't always play such noble characters, as he proved quite well in The Ghost Ship.

Can't get enough of profiteering world leaders dragging their nations into war?  Read about The Man Who Reclaimed His Head.