Thursday, June 27, 2013

RESISTING ENEMY INTERROGATION (1944)

Hey folks, it's time to start to planning those summer vacations! And just in case you find yourself captured by Nazis, forget Fodor's and watch Resisting Enemy Interrogation instead. Don't even bother with those translation books, either. All you'll need to remember is one simple word: Shaddap!

One of the countless military training films made at the Hal Roach studio during World War II -- I'm pretty sure I spotted a set from his Nazty Nuisance comedy -- Resisting Enemy Interrogation is different from many others of its kind. For one thing, it could pass for a "real" 65-minute B-movie feature, despite never being shown to civilian audiences on its original release. It was good enough, in fact, to have earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary -- a strange category for a fictional movie. (Feel free to make your own Michael Moore joke.)


"Remember, men -- name, rank and
SAG membership number."

The set-up is simple enough. The crew of a downed American military aircraft is brought to the Dulag Luft POW camp and debriefed by the crafty Major von Behn. Each of the Americans conforms to a type: the stoic Lieutenant, the too-clever-by-half Major and the frightened and wounded crew members. 


"Have some water, pal. And pay no attention to
the swastikas."
No one is to be trusted at Dulag Luft. Not the German Captain who claims to have grown up in America (and who looks like a California surfer dude), the sweet nurse who loves Gone with the Wind, the alleged POW with the Brooklyn accent, or the Red Cross representative. Even the trees are bugged, and we're not talking cicadas. And although the Lieutenant's already warned his crew not to talk, all of them -- including, ultimately, the Lieutenant himself -- give just enough "innocent" yet vital information that allows von Behn to figure out where the next U.S. bombing raid will occur. (Somewhere in a Russian airport, Edward Snowden is thinking, Dude, just get the thumb drive!) To make doubly sure Resisting Enemy Interrogation's intended audience gets the point, each bit of incriminating info is accompanied by a melodramatic music sting. Something like that in real life would make, say, police work much easier. 

"We have ways of making you talk.
Or making you not talk. Or something."
Von Behn learns exactly what he wants to know not through torture, but a combination of mind games, flattery, food and intimidation -- kind of like in your average family. Although your family might not have gone so far as to stage a mock-execution of your best friend in order to throw you off your game. But if this movie is any indication, it works well enough that you might want to try it sometime.



Today, he'd tell you to shut the F up.

Lloyd Nolan appears at the very end, as the American officer recapping what just transpired and, looking straight at the camera (i.e., the troops in the audience), dramatically intoning the film's mantra: "Don't talk." Or as he puts it, "Don't tawk." Pretty heavy New York accent for a guy born in San Francisco. That's Method acting before it even existed, and it's still a chilling moment.


George O'Hanlon out of uniform.
As usual with training films, Resisting Enemy Interrogation lacks credits, but was supposedly produced by Warner Brothers' contract player Ronald Reagan. The movie is filled with familiar character actors, including Don Porter (Gidget's father on TV in the '60s), Arthur Kennedy (Biff Loman in the original stage production of Death of a Salesman) and George Dolenz (father of future Monkee Mickey Dolenz), increasing the Warners vibe. While most of them would have been familiar in 1944, none of them were what you'd called stars, and thus fit into their roles without standing out unnecessarily. Oddly, Mel Torme is said to be in there somewhere, though I didn't notice him. On the other hand, I immediately recognized George O'Hanlon, the star of Warners' Joe McDoakes shorts and, years later, the voice of George Jetson. For this reason alone, I'd have made a great soldier -- this is the kind of trivia that would drive Nazi interrogators bonkers. "Send him back! He is boring me to death!"
 
I get the heebie-jeebies just looking at him.
But it's Carl Esmond who steals the show. As with his other Nazi role in the previously discussed Address Unknown, Esmond is scary just standing there, raising his voice only to intimidate the lying Major. It's frustrating when obviously great actors go essentially unrecognized for years while lesser talents hog the spotlight undeservedly (cough cough Keanu Reeves cough cough). Esmond quietly commands the movie here, never striking a false note. Unlike your stereotypically hammy Hollywood Nazi, it doesn't take much -- a lift of an eyebrow, a smile crossing his thin lips -- to scare the hell out of you. (Having emigrated from Germany in 1936, he was probably all-too familiar with the real thing.) In researching Esmond, I was surprised to discover that I saw him in his supporting (and final) role in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, the made-for-TV bio of Errol Flynn, in 1985. He died in 2004 at the age of 102, undoubtedly outliving the rest of Resisting Enemy Interrogation's cast, crew and probably most of their offspring.

Whoever decided Resisting Enemy Interrogation should be a straight-ahead narrative rather than an "educational" movie deserved a promotion. Because as both an historical artifact and a drama, this is one of the more fascinating pieces of wartime "entertainment" you'll ever see. And if you're a married man, take notes while you watch; many of the situations these guys go through will be familiar to you. Most obvious rule: Don't try to lie. They'll see right through it and it only gets them angrier.

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To view Resisting Enemy Interrogation on YouTube, click here.
To read about Address Unknown, click here. To read about Nazty Nuisance, click here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

TWO-DOLLAR BETTOR (1951)

Two-Dollar Bettor had been on my radar since I bought the poster at a memorabilia show about 20 years ago. It graced our dining room wall for a spell, probably killing my wife's appetite more than once. I caught up with the movie itself only very recently when it finally turned up on YouTube. Preparing for either a film noir or over-the-top "warning" picture, I found it to be instead a depressing drama about a decent, middle-aged guy who gets caught up in a hellish situation that gradually costs him his security, happiness and, eventually, his life. Some would consider that a good description of marriage, too, but you didn't hear it from me.
 
This won't be the last time he
puts his hand to his face in desperation.
Thanks to a winning tip the very first time he's at the track, widower John Hewitt gets on a lucky streak, acquiring a bookie in the process, and using the money to make life that much better for his two teenage daughters. I'd put the money toward a higher quality beer -- my daughter has it easy enough.

All good things have to come to an end, and when his favorite jockey is injured, Hewitt finds that he can't stop betting. Luckily for him he's a bank manager, allowing him to dip into the till, or, more accurately, a safe helpfully marked COMPTROLLER'S FUND, stealing $16,000 without anyone noticing. (This doesn't look like a bank that you could trust with your tip money, let alone your savings.) When that's not enough, he cashes in his war bonds, cleans out his accounts and skips the mortgage payments. Damn, why don't you take the quarters from the cystic fibrosis collection they have in every corner store? 

When you have lunch with a dame like this,
the only item on the menu is trouble.
Hewitt's bookie, not exactly in this business for his health, sends his associate Mary Slate around to collect his dough -- and take more bets. Mary seems to fall for Hewitt, and soon is urging him to cool it with the ponies. But another day older and deeper in debt -- his promotion at work hanging on an audit of his department -- Hewitt embezzles even more money, hoping that he can finally make a big score to square things for good. Mary offers to introduce him to her brother Rick, who pulls down $100,000 a year on "information horses." I initially thought she was referring to Mr. Ed's siblings, but these are horses who certain bettors know for a fact are going to win a particular race. Consider it equine insider trading. 

Oh yeah. You can completely trust that guy.
Confident that he's finally found the horse of his dreams, Hewitt skims another $20,000 from the bank to place his bet with Rick. Hewitt doesn't realize that Rick is actually Mary's sweetie, and they're playing him for a fool. Or, as Rick elegantly puts it, "Sounds like you hooked a real chump this time." When Hewitt's horse is scratched, Mary and Rick plan to beat it out of town to find the next chump. Luckily, Hewitt, as with all businessmen in old movies, has a gun in his desk drawer, and catches the scamming lovers just in time. Hewitt gets his money back, but not before gunplay erupts. Seeing Rick bite the dust is to be expected, but it's quite a shock when Mary gets plugged, even for a no-good jane in a B-movie like this. Satisfying, too.

In another "only in the movies" scene, Hewitt, though mortally wounded, has enough stamina to drive to the home of his boss, explain the whole sorry story, return $20,000 of the $36,000 he stole and beg him to lie to his daughters so they can continue to worship his memory. He might have lived if the idiot maid had called for ambulance instead of the cops. You just can't get good help anymore.

The bleak tone of Two-Dollar Bettor is broken from time to time by the ridiculous scenes of home life. As with most movies even today, all the high school kids are clearly in their twenties. Hewitt's daughters are forever inviting their friends over to dance to that bland post-swing, pre-rock & roll music infecting the airwaves of the time. Hell, they even square-dance when Grandma sits down to play "Golden Slippers" on the piano while Uncle George calls out the moves. Did kids really engage in this bullshit even in 1951?

This doll's a bad bet.
Marie Windsor, the film noir femme fatale queen, is splendid as Mary. Not exactly beautiful, Windsor exudes a sexy charm that transforms her looks into something quite striking. (In that sense, she's a lot like actress Illeana Douglas, to whom she bares a passing resemblance.) That she was convincing enough to fool me -- a movie fan who's seen what every two-bit dame is capable of -- is all you need to know.

Who'd have thought
that Alfalfa would grow up
to be Lee Harvey Oswald?
Two Dollar-Bettor also offers two baby-boomer legends at the opposite ends of their career. Hewitt's secretary is played by Barbara Billingsley, six years away from gaining TV immortality as June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver, while one of the "teenagers" is 24 year-old Carl Switzer, long past his glory days as Alfalfa in Hal Roach's Our Gang comedies. Of the four movies Switzer made in 1951, Two-Dollar Bettor is the only one where he received screen credit. Trust me, he was grateful.

You'd gnaw at your finger, too,
if you lifted $36K from work.
But Two Dollar-Bettor is John Litel's show all the way. His performance as the doomed John Hewitt is often quite difficult to watch. Not that he's bad -- quite the opposite. You just feel so damned sorry for the sap. In this respect, Two-Dollar Bettor demonstrates the difference between movies now  and of an earlier age. Litel was 59 at the time; in today's Hollywood years, that would make him about 148. Like the losers he bets on in Two-Dollar Bettor, Litel would be ready for the glue factory. Yet it's that very factor that makes his frenzied reactions at the track, whether winning or losing, not only quite frightening but impossible for a current younger actor to duplicate.

If Two-Dollar Bettor were to be remade today, someone like Matt Damon would get the lead. And your first thought would be, "Oh, it's Jason Bourne, he'll get through this." And you'd be right. There would be no emotional connection whatsoever because the guy has proven himself damn near a superhero in role after role.

Yes, as played by John Litel, John Hewitt is a first class chump. But he's an old chump on a downward trajectory that he hasn't the ability to stop, and, as a result, arouses emotions that today's mainstream movies do everything in their power to avoid. No wonder why it took me two days to watch the 72-minute Two-Dollar Bettor; I'm not used to feeling anything in movies anymore. Today's studio product is made to deaden the senses. For that reason alone, Two-Dollar Bettor would never stand a chance with audiences now.

To put it another way: when was the last time you felt emotionally connected to any role played by Tom Cruise? Or Tom Hanks? Johnny Depp? You don't have to be a two-dollar bettor to call that one correctly.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND (1932)

"The ghosts of [the Founding Fathers] would turn in their graves if they could see how the crooks, the gangsters, the hypocrites have paralyzed our government. They made a scrap of paper out of the Declaration of Independence! They make a joke out of the Constitution of the United States of America!"
      -- Lee Tracy in Washington Merry-Go-Round

There's a special irony that the movie which best captures the zeitgeist of our cynical times was released over 80 years ago.  Far more bitter than any studio movie today, Washington Merry-Go-Round is a Rand Paul speech come to life, a Tea Party gathering writ large. No one gets off easy here, not the politicians who sell their votes to the highest bidder, the constituents who condone the system or those who prefer to complain rather take action. Frank Capra, it's not -- and yet, eventually was. But we'll get to that later.

Brown is shocked to discover that politicians
don't like hearing the truth.
Button Gwinett Brown is a freshman Congressman who's out to rid Washington of the corrupting influence peddlers who got him elected -- one of whom has committed suicide in shame of his own crooked ways. In his first Congressional speech, Brown single-handedly leads the defeat of a pork-barrel bill that power-broker Edward T. Norton was counting on for its kickbacks. The political machine retaliates by getting Brown kicked out of office via a phony vote recount. If only more politicians served hours rather than decades.

"Senator Wylie... are you sure you're not
Charlie Rangel in whiteface?"
Having thoroughly alienated Alice Wylie, a DC socialite who's trying hard not to fall for him, Brown cements his outlier reputation with her grandfather, Sen. Wylie. A basically-decent chap who, over 30 years, has been sucked into corruption without even realizing it, Wylie tries to guide Brown into the ways of Washington ("One never takes orders. One gathers by indirection that a certain course would be preferable"). Brown in return accuses him of being part of the problem because Norton pays him off by deliberately letting him win during their high-stakes poker games.

When he and Norton next play cards, Wylie realizes the truth in Brown's statement. Wylie promises to go public with all that he knows about Norton's dirty ways. Norton retaliates with a move that would make him the envy of lobbyists everywhere: arranging to have the Senator assassinated. Does this guy have juice or what? Norton, you see, has plans: "Italy has her Mussolini. Russia has her Stalin. Such a man will rise in America" -- namely, himself. Well, if you're going to dream, dream big.
Brown and the boys make an exception for
gun control when Norton shows up.

Luckily, Brown has one more trick up his sleeve, installing unemployed war veterans at Norton's regular watering holes in order to take notes on his conversations. They ultimately shanghai him to their campground, where Brown is holding captive the man who poisoned Wylie on Norton's orders. The assassin's written confession in his hands, Brown offers Norton a gun to make his next move that much easier. A moment later, Norton blows his brains out. That's the next best thing to term limits.



Taken just as a rough outline, Washington Merry-Go-Round appears to be a blueprint for Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington seven years later. A newly-elected Congressman named after a founding father. (Jefferson Smith vs Button Gwinett Brown, a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.) A sardonic woman who is at first amused by, then attracted to, the guy. A party elder who takes an interest in him, even as he himself is part of the problem. Smith and Brown even drop by the Lincoln Memorial at night for strength as they become pariahs among their colleagues. Both movies were made at Columbia Pictures, for heaven's sake. It's unthinkable that Capra wasn't at least aware of Washington Merry-Go-Round at the time he made his own movie.

Brown isn't exactly the object of
his colleagues' affection.
Of course Capra being Capra, he wouldn't stomach just how nasty Congress is portrayed in Washington Merry-Go-Round. Time and again, Brown states how most Congressmen are decent, hard-working people, but we're not fooled. Senators read newspapers or talk about bridge games while their colleagues bloviate at the Congressional podium. Laws
pass without votes. Suicides and assassinations are just part of business. Edward T. Norton is even arranging his political puppets to authorize a military invasion of a Central American country to protect his business interests. (No! Congress would never do such a thing.) There aren't enough synonyms for "cynical" to do this movie justice. Congress was outraged by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, yet appeared to be too busy bloviating, deal-making and murdering colleagues to notice its far more eviscerating predecessor.

How the well-dressed
troublemaker carries himself.
And unlike the naif-bordering-on-simpleton Jefferson Smith, Brown is wide-eyed as to the ways of Washington even before he gets there: "The good people of my district didn't vote for me, some of them didn't vote at all... My only constituents are the crooks who put me in office, and I'm going to use that office to double-cross them the way they've been double-crossing the people!"  As Brown, Lee Tracy is more abrasive than James Stewart's Smith, but there's a sharp reality in his delivery that jolts even today. He has at least a half-dozen juicy speeches to chew on, all of them quite effective.

How the well-dressed
evil bastard carries himself.
Alan Dinehart's Norton is one-dimensional compared to Claude Rains' tortured Sen. Paine in Mr. Smith, but that's the way the part was written. I mean, the guy actually plays with swastika-engraved poker chips, so you're not going to get much hand-wringing from him. It's never made clear exactly who Norton is; depending on what you read about the movie, he's either a senator, lobbyist or just a bootlegger made good. Me, I go for evil bastard. Much more encompassing. (When writing about Dinehart's appearance in The Sin of Nora Moran, I stated he was in every other movie on TCM. I stand by that observation.)


If Constance Cummings were around today,
Gawker
would say she looked old.
Like her Smith counterpart Jean Arthur, Constance Cummings is the skeptical woman who's seen it all in Washington until this small-town upstart comes to town. This being a pre-Code picture, however, Cummings is far more sexy and interesting. She and Tracy have a slapsticky, Capraesque moment when they first meet aboard a train; unsurprisingly, it's the only scene that reeks of silliness. Cummings is a fine example of just how more mature and classy 22 year-old women were back in the day, when they weren't interested in being perpetual adolescents.  

Lee Tracy is concerned that, once again,
Clarence Muse is stealing the scene.
I would be remiss without mentioning Clarence Muse as Brown's valet. A busy character actor, Muse tended to be stuck as butlers, porters and cleaners despite his background in law school and the New York theater. (That's what being black in 1932 did for you.)  Although given dialogue of the "Yassuh, boss" variety, Muse is wonderfully funny and human in his role which, unfortunately, disappears in the final half of the movie's 78-minute running time.



El loco Lee Tracy.
Always a lot of fun to watch -- he's hilarious in the 1932 farce The Half Naked Truth -- Lee Tracy was one of the more colorful actors of his time. Having originated the role of Hildy Johnson in The Front Page on Broadway, he spent much of his movie career playing fast-talking reporters and press agents, with a nasal whine that often makes him sound like a hopped-up W.C. Fields. Tracy was doing pretty well until a little incident in Mexico while making Viva Villa! for MGM. Depending on which story you believe, he either gave the finger to a Mexican soldier who had done the same to him, or drunkenly urinated on said soldier from a hotel balcony. Although either seems almost charming compared to today's celebrity shenanigans, it was enough to force MGM into issuing una disculpa to the Mexican government and Tracy into low-budget B-movies. He was to find more work back on Broadway and, in the '50s, television. In a happy ending, Tracy had a late-in-life comeback in both the stage and movie versions of Gore Vidal's political satire The Best Man, earning him his only Oscar nomination. Glad that little incident south of border was forgotten.

Washington Merry-Go-Round is one of those interesting, elusive movies unavailable on DVD and only rarely shown on TV. It can't be for a potential lack of audience. Democrats can hiss the bad guy who wants a military invasion to protect his bootlegging enterprise. (Imbibers in the movie are always raving about "the real embassy stuff.") Republicans will cheer Brown's patriotism. Libertarians can point to its portrayal of a broken two-party system. Tea Partiers would agree that Congress is an utterly corrupt institution in dire need of a good flushing-out. Readers of Alex Jones could point with satisfaction to its many references to "the hidden government" really running things. Movie fans would find fascinating its snappy patter and shockingly casual venality. 

Everybody, in fact, can find something to enjoy in Washington Merry-Go-Round. Everybody but the jokers currently in Congress, that is. All the more reason to rip the lid off the Columbia vaults the way Button Gwinett Brown rips the lid off the Capitol. Those "public servants" in Washington wouldn't notice anyway. They're too busy cutting deals with Edward T. Norton's grandchildren.

                                                     
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