Tuesday, September 9, 2014

THE SNIPER (1952)

Long before he was the producer of "message" movies both treacly (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Child is Waiting) and self-consciously serious (Ship of Fools, The Defiant Ones), producer Stanley Kramer made a film noir "message" movie, The Sniper. And instead of tackling the issues of race, religion or Nazis, The Sniper took on psycho killers. Don't tell me that doesn't sound better. 


"No, I'm not Shepard Smith!"
Terrifically directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper follows a week or so in the life of ex-con Eddie Miller (played with the perfect combination of angst and pathos by Arthur Franz) a guy who's had it with women abusing him, even if it's all in his mind. I mean really had it, like shooting all brunettes who cross his path. Since this is taking revenge a step too far, the public and the press start pressuring Police Lt. Frank Kafka (what a name) to catch this guy before he starts turning his rifle on blondes. Now that would be a loss.

But this being a Stanley Kramer production, we learn early on that Eddie Miller's problem is a lack of proper psychiatric treatment. Eddie, you see, wants to be locked up. He calls his old prison shrink for help, but the doc's analyzing a nine-iron at the golf course. He even deliberately burns his hand on a stove as a failed signal to the e.r. doctor that there's something wrong with him. What's a rejected guy to do but keep killing women?

Dr. Kent tries to figure out if chopsticks
are phallic symbols.
While the local yokels are readying the hot seat for the still-unknown sniper, police shrink Dr. James Kent has other ideas. What this boy needs, he says, is help. In fact, he insists, that's what all these psychos need before they go shooting women from rooftops. Dr. Kent being played by Richard Kiley, the original star of Man of La Mancha, you expect him to sing "The Impossible Dream" to get the public on his side. 


A fastball thrown by the
screwball.
Lt. Kafka initially doesn't buy into Dr. Kent's theories, but is soon won over when he receives reports of a fellow at a carnival who's a little too eager to throw fastballs at a woman in a dunking cage -- one of the many creepy moments found in The Sniper. Seems Eddie Miller, who has already become a suspect, was known to be fast with the balls in his day. If only he joined the majors -- then he'd be shooting up steroids instead of dames.

"Bet you don't recognize me
without the 'stache, eh, kid?"

Perhaps Stanley Kramer knew that the idea of an almost-sympathetic killer was going to be a tough sell. Why else would the world-weary, seen-it-all Lt. Kafka (I laugh every time I write that name) be portrayed the usually-debonair, audience-friendly Adolphe Menjou? Minus his dashing mustache for the first time since puberty, Menjou can't completely disguise his urbane demeanor -- he speaks too articulately for a cynical cop -- yet is great fun to watch because he's playing against type. You almost expect him to break out a bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, vintage 1889, when he finally captures Miller.

...while the cops say, "We're busy
working, bub."
Kramer, not surprisingly, lays on the "society is to blame" spiel a little thick now and then in The Sniper, starting off with a pre-credit prologue. Dr. Kent gets two soliloquys on the matter, while Lt. Kafka makes with the Freud routine eventually. Yet two women who set Miller off on his killing spree -- a woman slapping her young son, and Eddie's harridan of a supervisor at work -- are so hideous that you're sorry that he didn't shoot them instead. Next time, Eddie, choose your targets with better care. 


Edward Dmytryk and cinematographer Burnett Guffey make great use of the San Francisco locations, especially the shadowy nighttime sequences. One of their recurring visual motifs is Eddie Miller taking aim while normal life continues behind him, whether it's at a carnival sharpshooting gallery or on a rooftop. In a particularly startling moment, an elderly woman removing towels from an indoor drying line near a window reveals a police sniper on the next door roof, but doesn't notice him herself. The madness, Dmytryk seems to be saying, is so prevalent that people don't even see it anymore.

It's always important to keep on the lookout for familiar faces in old movies, and The Sniper is no exception. The legendary Charles Lane (left) appears briefly as a barfly annoying a lounge singer moments before she's killed by Miller. (That's noir queen Marie Windsor, co-star of Two Dollar Bettor in a small but important role.) The sympathetic intern in the e.r. is Sidney Miller, whom I immediately recognized as Warner Brothers' stock Jewish kid from 20 years earlier. You can see him when he was 18 years-old in the previously-discussed bootleg-toothpaste drama, The Big Shakedown. (His character names from those Warners' days include Sanford Nussbaum, Issadore Marks, Maurice Levy... and George Washington. That's comedy, folks.) 
 
It's a pity that The Sniper is pretty much ignored these days, especially compared to Kramer and Dmytryk's other 1952 production, the appallingly-overrated High Noon. To my narrow-vision eyes, he never made a better, tighter movie. (His rare venture into comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, crawls 3 hours and 40 minutes.)  If I have to be fed a message, let it be a quick, tasty one like The Sniper.

                                    ****************************

To read about Two Dollar Bettor, go here.
To read about The Big Shakedown, go here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)

Oh my God. Has there ever been a more oversexed, overheated, overproduced, overacted movie than Duel in the Sun? With phantasmagorical three-strip Technicolor and shouting-to-the- rafters dialogue making it look every inch the fever dream of amphetamine-addicted producer David O. Selznick, Duel in the Sun was intended to top his previous epic Gone with the Wind

Instead, the huge, grossly-expensive (almost $100-million when adjusted for inflation), two year-long production is still considered one of the most harebrained movies from Hollywood's "golden age." Director King Vidor handles Selznick's risible script with the same anvil-like touch that he would bring to The Fountainhead three years later. Vidor, by the way, was one of six directors who helmed Duel in the Sun during its lengthy inception -- or is it ejection? -- including Selznick, who, in a rare moment of lucidity, fired himself. As for the acting, there's so much ham on display that it's probably banned in Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods.

The tale of a young, half-breed trollop who causes havoc between two brothers and their racist father, Duel in the Sun intends to be spicy but winds up being tasteless. It would have fared better as a low-budget RKO black & white programmer as originally intended, but once Selznick got his Oscar-winning paws on the project, all bets were off. 

Warning: staring at this sun on a high-def
TV for 10 straight minutes can cause
permanent eye damage.
The movie announces its intentions to epicdom (a word I just made up) with a 10-minute instrumental prelude by Dimitri Tiomkin, which never manages to string together more than three interesting notes at a time. 

The difference between "prelude"
and "overture" is 7 minutes.
Just as it comes to a thudding end, and you're settling in for, you know, a movie, the voice of character actor Reed Hadley announces, "Ladies and gentleman, the overture to Duel in the Sun!" -- followed by three more unmemorable minutes of the Selznick Studio orchestra sawing away while Hadley describes the movie you're about to see. Show, don't tell! 

Then that's followed by the credits, and that's followed by a magniloquent prologue spoken by Orson Welles (presumably to make it sound classy) before the movie finally kicks in. I guess Selznick had to do something to make it seem as long as Gone with the Wind. (Without the music folderol, Duel in the Sun runs only a little over two hours.)

Now we know where Elvis Presley got his sneer.
If Duel in the Sun was Selznick's attempt to turn his then-mistress, Jennifer Jones, into another Vivian Leigh, he should have spent more time on his shrink's couch and less time popping bennies. Wearing dark "Injun" make-up, Jones instead resembles a drunken Emirates Airline stewardess. And rather than being sexy, as was Selznick's intentions, she's actually seriously sluttish, admitting, "I'm trash like my maw!" A moment later, upon reflection, she writhes on her bed shouting, "Trash, trash, trash, trash, trash!" Yeah, like the script, script, script, script, script!

"After we do the nasty, I'm going out to kill
a mockingbird."
Anyone familiar with the stolid Gregory Peck of To Kill a Mockingbird will be shocked by the horny, violent sociopath presented here. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock's multidimensional bad guys, Peck's Lewt McCanless is a rotter through-and-through, licking his chops like a hungry wolf eyeing a defenseless lamb -- in this case, Jennifer Jones' Pearl Chavez. As for Pearl, it winds up being one of those I-hate-you-so-much-I-love-you relationships that always work out real well in the end. (Note: that was delivered with a heavy dose of irony.) If nothing else, Peck appears to be having the time of his life playing a heel for a change, far looser in Duel in the Sun than anything else he ever made, even if he is more cartoon than human. 

Joseph Cotten is amused by Jennifer Jones'
attempt at catching flies with her mouth.

Jessie McCanles, Lewt's younger brother, hasn't got a chance with Pearl. While having pledged her love to Jessie, she's far more attracted to bad boy Lewt. Just to show you how low Pearl is, she  allows Jessie to enter her room just as Lewt is in there lighting up a post-coital smoke. (What's Apache for "bitch"?) Cotten is saddled with pity-me dialogue, but so underplays his part that he comes off better than most of his co-stars. (The only other actor in Duel in the Sun who avoids histrionics is Herbert Marshall as Pearl's father, and that's only because he's killed off after ten minutes.)

The good preacher takes a personal interest in
Pearl's salvation.
Yet despite Jones' and Peck's grandstanding, it's up to the old-timers to really pull out the stops. Walter Huston's brief appearance as a shady preacher proves that the actor knew kitsch when he saw it, and, as with his role as Doc Holliday in The Outlaw, plays it with outsized tongue in cheek. King Vidor probably didn't get the joke.

"I look like Hillary who?"
Nor did Vidor do poor Lillian Gish any favors as Lewt and Jessie's mother Laura Belle McCanles. Perhaps not having seen any Gish performance since The Birth of a Nation, Vidor appeared to have instructed her to telegraph her emotions by opening her eyes like manholes, dropping her jaw to the floor, and placing her hands on her cheeks whenever possible. Her final scene -- crawling from her bed to console her grumpy husband before dropping dead at his feet -- is perhaps the cruelest, most unfortunately-hilarious thing a legend like Gish ever had to suffer. Other than the rest of her scenes in Duel with the Sun.

Lillian Gish wipes away the
spittle from Barrymore's
line-readings.
But nobody -- no body -- overdoes it like Lionel Barrymore as Sen. Jackson McCanles, the family patriarch. Once a wonderfully subtle actor, Barrymore had by now settled comfortably into the wheelchair-bound lovable crank character that defined the latter part of his career. Under Vidor's direction, however, Barrymore crosses the divide between crank and bull undergoing a wide-awake vasectomy. Bellowing, bawling and roaring his dialogue like a one-man zoo, he officially becomes a self-parody in Duel in the Sun the way his brother John did in Playmates. But at least the latter was supposed to be a comedy.

At least you can see the (over)budget on the screen.
An impressive sequence featuring hundreds of cowboys charging down a steep hill and across the plains is still exciting (and today would be recreated with CGI). The psilocybin-like Technicolor is wildly vivid, with fiery red sunsets and gorgeous blue skies popping out of the screen, while Tiomkin's score never, and I mean never, stops. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "Oh, brother—if only the dramatics were up to the technical style!"

D.W. Griffith visits Huston and Barrymore
on the set of Duel in the Sun, and decides he got
out of pictures at the right time.
Thanks to the lurid promise of SEX SEX SEX, Duel in the Sun actually turned a financial, if not artistic, profit, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of the year. It would go down in history as being the first movie little Martin Scorsese ever saw -- such are legends made.

Love means never having to say you're
sorry after shooting each other to death.
Today, Duel in the Sun divides viewers. Scorsese, still a fan, believes it was ahead of its time. Everybody else thinks it's the work of a madman. But the best part -- the absolute icing on the cake -- follows the climax. Pearl and Lewt shoot each other a dozen or so times before dying lustily in each other's arms in the hot desert sun. Pull back, fade out... to five minutes of Exit music. Two hours and 20 minutes of non-stop score -- and I still can't remember a frigging note.

 


                                              ****************************

 

Friday, August 29, 2014

AN ACT OF MURDER (1948)

Anyone who tells you that present-day Hollywood movies are more mature than ever should seek out An Act of Murder. Really, I'd like to see a writer pitch an idea involving a middle-aged couple and euthanasia. "Are you crazy?" would come the reply. "A middle-aged couple?!"

Calvin Cooke is a hanging judge, following the letter of the law like a senator follows a Gallup poll, sentencing criminals to 20 years when 20 days would be more appropriate. His straight-arrow attitude is put to the test when his wife, Catherine Cook, is diagnosed with a fatal disease found exclusively in studio sound stages. Her doctor informs Calvin of her illness, while keeping Catherine in the dark. The Hippocratic Oath, as we know, states, "First, tell no truth."

Unwilling to let his wife suffer as she deteriorates, Calvin makes a split-second decision to kill her and himself in a car crash while returning from vacation. He survives, however, and, rather than taking it on the lam with a cutie-pie half his age like anyone else would, turns himself in for murder. (Remember, this is a movie.) His future son-in-law, David Douglas, whom he loves like a lice-infected cavity, volunteers to take on the case.

In 1948, this was normal. Today, audiences
would throw up.
Other than all those alliterative character names, An Act of Murder is an adult movie that would put most of today's releases to shame. What strikes you almost immediately is that there was a time when mature (i.e., older-looking) actors took the leads in A-pictures. Fredric March and Florence Eldridge look every bit their ages -- 51 and 47 respectively -- and then some. Way then some. (To put it in perspective, Brad Pitt is 51 and Sandra Bullock is 50.) And don't tell me about good genes, unless you're talking about those belonging to their plastic surgeons.

Can you think of any actor, other than George Clooney, who doesn't appear to be in arrested development?  Or an older-looking actress who isn't relegated to character roles? This couple is in love, and you get the feeling they still get it on once in a while. Perhaps that's because March and Eldridge were married in real life, which must have given their on-screen situation a little more charge. Hey honey, I've got a script for us where I kill you. No, really, you'll like it. Let's rehearse.


Judge Cook not only learns that his wife is dying,
the long-distance phone call isn't
considered a deductible, either.
As usual in old movies, the medical stuff is a little sketchy. Catherine's disease is never quite spelled out -- her doctor alludes to a "neuroplastic situation," admitting that any disease with several names is something medical professionals don't know anything about. You can trust this guy, right? Especially when his first bit of advice to Calvin when breaking the news is, "Have a cigarette." His colleagues' bedside manners leave a little to be desired -- like, oh, compassion -- telling Calvin during a conference call, "Surgery is useless" and "Death is indicated at any time." Don't forget to pay the receptionist on the way out! 

Following doctor's orders -- other than smoking cigarettes -- Calvin keeps the diagnosis from Catherine, in order to make her final days that much more peaceful. Like dropping coffee cups, falling into mirrors, and going blind are peaceful. Calvin gets a prescription of Demorine to give Catherine when necessary, with the warning that
"Let me get you a flower for your funeral --
I mean, corsage!"
more than two every 12 hours could be fatal. I Googled "Demorine," and the only thing I found was someone on Facebook, so that must be another of those only-in-Hollywood medical things.

But Calvin can't stand to see his wife suffer. An idea is planted when a medical advertisement reading, none too subtly, KILL THE PAIN catches his eye in a drugstore. A moment later, that idea blooms when a dog who's been hit by a car is put out of his misery by a friendly cop. Muttering, "Well, we can't let him suffer," he pulls out his gun and blows its head off. Paws up, don't shoot!

The Judge is up for murder, but he's just pissed-off
his daughter is sleeping with his lawyer.
Watch enough old movies, and you get to appreciate actors you took for granted on TV in later years. In An Act of Murder, that would be Edmond O'Brien as David Douglas, the lawyer who believes there's more to justice than law. Or the other way around. Only 33 but looking 50, he doesn't quite appear the ideal suitor for Cook's law-studying daughter, Ellie, played by 23 year-old Geraldine Brooks. (Everybody looked older then.) And talk about different times -- Calvin doesn't blink an eye when Ellie casually smokes in front of him, like it was normal.  Which it probably was back then.

It's Ellie who gives David an idea that leads to An Act of Murder's twisty climax, which I won't reveal. However, Fredric March's closing lines still resonate today, if only accidentally. Realizing that intentions can be as important as legalities, he admits that a person must be "judged not just by the law but the heart" -- words similar to those used by Barack Obama when nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. That guy really does have a thing for Hollywood.

Can you imagine a studio today
backing a major movie with this
couple in the lead roles?
Even during a time of grown-up movies, An Act of Murder probably stood out. It was, in fact, nominated for the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prize. It holds up quite well, still packing several punches, with Fredric March giving his usual classy performance (something else sadly missing from most actors today). Like its leads, An Act of Murder is a mature piece of work -- one that continues to make profound statements on human nature and what really counts when judging a person's actions. Unlike, say, Transformers Part 3.

Pay no attention to the image of
a car driving off a cliff, folks!
But as with Freud 14 years later, Universal-International Pictures got a little skittish about the title, eventually re-releasing it as Live Today for Tomorrow -- what the hell does that even mean? -- which sounds like a homily you'd see hanging in somebody's laundry room. Adding insult to artistic injury, the one-sheet's design makes it look like a love story instead of, uh, an act of murder. For that alone, the head of the marketing department should have been force-fed a bottle of Demorine.

                             ***************







Tuesday, August 19, 2014

FREUD (1962)

Few high-pedigree movies of the last half-century or so have done such a thorough disappearing act as Freud. Premiering to major fanfare in 1962, it quickly underwent nervous studio butchering before vanishing into the collective unconsciousness of Hollywood producers, who would make sure not to make any more movies about psychiatrists, unless they were farces or Barbra Streisand vanity projects. 

Perhaps the headcases who ran Universal-International Pictures realized too late that a movie called Freud, directed by John Huston and starring Montgomery Clift, wasn't going to be a date movie. Instead, it focuses on the Viennese shrink developing his theory on how we're all screwed up because we either loved our mothers too much and hated our fathers, or vice-versa, or both. In a year that saw two Disney productions in the top 10 highest-grossing movies, Freud was not what the doctor ordered.

Forget that much of Freud's work in this field has been discredited in the last couple of decades. (For some reason, women go into hysterics over the word "hysteria.") There's much to admire about Freud on its own terms. First, Huston made the wise decision to abandon the original script written by France's favorite cockeyed philosopher, Jean-Paul Satre, which would have run about 10 hours. 

No wonder he never got the girl on
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
Second, casting Montgomery Clift was brilliant, in that his presence -- usually described by movie historians as "troubled" -- makes Freud more human than we tend to picture him. I mean, this Freud is so repulsed by his patients that he temporarily quits psychiatry altogether, because these people are, you know, nuts. I mean, how would you react to David McCallum speaking like Peter Lorre before making out with a headless mannequin he thinks his is mother?

"On the count of three, you're going to quack
like a duck. Just kidding!"
But thanks to his mentor, Dr. Josef Breuer, Freud is soon back in the game, taking on the case of Cecily Koertner, blind and paralyzed since a traumatic childhood incident involving her father. Peeling back the layers of Cecily's memories like a jumbo shallot, Freud cures her physically and psychologically, while discovering the root of his own deep-seated hatred for his father. Doesn't anybody like their parents?


If all this sounds like the patient-curing-the-doctor routine beloved by Reader's Digest, don't be put off. Freud is a serious, perhaps great movie, even if it has a whiff of old Hollywood about it. The mishmash of accents; occasional dialogue along the lines of, Siggy, you look hungry, eat a sandwich!; the boastful father who envisions great things for his son the doctor. 

Yet, had Huston waited for a more liberated time, Freud would have lost its prime assets: Montgomery Clift; the stunning black and white photography; and Jerry Goldsmith's Twilight Zone-ish score (parts of which were later lifted for Alien). The dream sequences, by the way, look like the dreams I have, which, upon reflection, is more information than you need.

"Say,  you look familiar..."
One of Huston's inspired casting choices directly involves Freud's sexual theories. Freud's wife Martha believes that he married her only because, according to him, we all fall in love with someone who reminds us of somebody else. No surprise, then, that the actresses playing Freud's mother and wife look like sisters. If that's not enough, Rosalie Crutchie, as Freud's mother, was only 42 -- the same age as Montgomery Clift. Oh, yuck.


Larry Parks expounds on the psychological 
underpinnings of singing "My Mammy."

In hiring Larry Parks as Dr. Breuer, Huston was doing his bit to break the Hollywood blacklist. Famous for starring in The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, Parks' movie career was derailed by admitting to Congress that, when barely out of his teens, he was very briefly affiliated with the Communist party. A white guy in blackface who was once red -- only in Hollywood, kids. 

Freud himself should have been on the set of the movie. John Huston emotionally tortured
Having fun with Spence and Monty.
Montgomery Clift over the latter's sexuality. Clift, now in the depths of his booze and drug addiction, briefly fled to Germany for the premiere of Judgement at Nuremberg, where, reports film historian John McElwee, "a hostile German press merely exacerbated [his] already bizarre behavior... [Clift], according to one observer, 'showed up stoned and drunk out of his mind, jumping on Spence’s back.' Things got worse when Monty crawled on his hands and knees between the aisles, and 'screamed all sorts of crazy things,' causing Tracy to flee from the auditorium." Today, that kind of thing would earn you a spokesman gig for Cabo Wabo Tequila and a guest shot on Two and a Half Men. 




"Good God, I can't believe
that title!"
Still far more interesting than most any movie today, Freud comes from a time when intelligent dialogue was not only important, but expected from this kind of drama. Unfortunately, the studio wasn't particularly keen on it. Shorn of several minutes for general release, the film was given the legendarily stupid title Freud: The Secret Passion. Some posters printed it as Freud: A Secret Passion -- a subtle yet vital difference for the article-obsessed.

Following its TV debut in the late '60s, Freud vanished for about 15 years before briefly reappearing on home video. It went AWOL for many more years until a handful of airings on cable television -- then disappeared again for over a decade. Today, the original 140-minute version is commercially available on DVD only in Spain.

Well, not quite. I remember a particular dream sequence at a train depot during AMC's sole broadcast of Freud about 25 years ago. When watching the DVD, I was disappointed to discover that it was missing. For God's sakes, leave Freud alone!

                                               ***************

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

THE FLAME WITHIN (1935)

Psychiatry. Unrequited love. Emotional adultery. Clown costumes. The Flame Within is a veritable textbook of classic movie genres. 

Dr. Mary White, apparently confusing her occupation of psychiatrist for relationship counselor, is treating Linda Bolton for suicidal tendencies, and Linda's fiance Jack Kerry for alcoholism. Now there's a fun couple! The good news: Linda and Jack are eventually cured. The bad news: Jack and Dr. White fall in love. Ha! Better get out those razor blades, Linda!



Paging Dr. Bozo, paging Dr. Bozo...
Writer/director Edmund Goulding appears to have consulted Symbolism for Dummies when putting together The Flame Within. Mary White's name recalls both the name of Jesus' mother and the color of purity. Dr. Gordon Phillips, the man hopelessly in love with her, dresses as an especially sad-eyed clown at a costume ball. Jack Kerry, who sobers up to become an inventor, develops an inflatable airline seat, symbolic of the kind of plot device that actors were paid to deliver with a straight face.

Advice for the man on the make:
get rid of the costume before you put the
moves on a woman.
Despite its soap opera aura, The Flame Within features some fascinatingly progressive notions, not the least of which is a woman who prefers her profession over marriage. In fact, Dr. White alarmingly considers psychiatry "a religion," perhaps allowing her to take a tax exemption. For doubtful patients like Jack Kerry, however, she refers to herself as a "nerve specialist." Make up your mind, lady!

Pining in the background for Dr. White is the older Dr. Phillips, who appears to have taken the Hippocratic oath from Hippocrates himself.  Perhaps most startling for its time, Dr. White is herself several years older than her object of lust, Jack Kerry. Unintended laugh alert: somebody refers to him as John Kerry, another fellow with a penchant of collecting rich, older women.

Director Edmund Goulding, Louis Hayward
and Ann Harding (Dr. Mary White) look
for a greater ecstasy than themselves,
and fail.
Seeing that The Flame Within was a product of 1935 Hollywood, all this refreshing progressiveness flies out the window in the last reel. Having returned from a trip to Europe, Kerry wants to dump Linda for Dr. White, who's equally in love with him. But Dr. White, taking that psychiatry-as-religion jazz seriously, advises him that doing something good for someone who needs him -- like staying with the wife whom he doesn't love -- will provide a "greater ecstasy" than his own happiness. 

While there might be an argument to be made for that schlocky slice of philosophy, most people would reply Buuuuuuullshit. I mean, tell that to Louis Hayward, the actor playing Kerry, who was married twice, all the while carrying on a long-term affair with Noel Coward. Tell that to anyone involved in the making this movie. That "greater ecstasy" routine was just a sop to both the censors and the saps in the audience who were living lives that couldn't compare to those they saw in glossy, upscale M-G-M pictures like this.

Most disappointingly is The Flame Within's final moment, when Dr. White decides to take her own advice, and announce that she's going to give up her profession. What will you do, her wannabe-paramour Dr. Phillips asks. Turning to him soulfully, she whispers, "You tell me." While their colleague Dr. Frazier smiles approvingly at their sudden engagement, the lesson for women is to marry a guy you don't love only because he needs you. Just for laughs, somebody please run this movie for Gloria Steinem.

"Can you treat my daughter
once she comes of age?"
It's appropriate Linda Bolton -- who tries to commit suicide a second time by jumping out of Dr. White's window --  is played by Maureen O'Sullivan. During one of the two costume ball scenes, she wears a blonde wig -- and, for a moment, becomes the spitting image of her equally-nutty daughter Mia Farrow, who's had, um, relationship issues of her own. Until her final moment onscreen, O'Sullivan's character is quite unlikeable throughout The Flame Within, making you wish she'd successfully jump out the window for a change.



What keeps The Flame Within worth watching is Ann Harding as Dr. White. Unlike her drag-queen contemporaries Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Harding doesn't indulge in histrionics. Her subtle, empathetic performance is so different from everyone else's that at times she appears to have come from several decades in the future. No wonder she's been pretty much forgotten -- there's nothing to parody. 

Harding, too, might have been more self-aware than the character she plays. Finally succumbing to Dr. Phillips' amorous entreaties, the expression on her face is anything but ecstasy, probably unnoticed by audiences 80 years ago, leaving one with an uneasy feeling as the movie fades out. There's plenty of drama in The Flame Within, alright, but not all of it intended.

                                            ***********************

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

MURDER IS MY BEAT (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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