Wednesday, July 31, 2013

FEAR (1946)

The best thing to have happened to movies in the last 30 years is the art of restoration. For the first time since their original releases, classic studio movies are being seen they way they were originally presented. At times, they have the appearance of live television, startling in their clarity.

Then there are the public domain movies -- orphans -- from Poverty Row studios no longer in existence. Low budget to begin with, these movies have been around the block more than once and show their age. Lacking a negative or a clean original print, these pictures still have the faded, battered look people were used to when TVs were connected to rabbit ears. Their overall cheapness takes on a dreamlike -- nightmarish, really -- quality not necessarily intended. Yet this often works when it comes to B-movies, film noir-wannabes in particular. Movies like Monogram's Fear.

It's difficult to picture what Fear looked like during its original 1946 run, with the clarity and contrast that even low-budget movies like this had. Every scene, from the protagonist's apartment to the diner where he eats to the stationhouse, looks grimy. Even the nighttime scene at an innocent city park takes on a foreboding look, like a set from one of Monogram's monster movies (which it probably was).

Prof. Stanley is about to grade his last paper.
The story certainly fits the atmosphere. College student Larry Crain, facing a cut-off of his scholarship, murders his professor, who doubles as the local pawnbroker. (Unusual extracurricular activities on both their parts.) Leaving before the next customer arrives, Larry forgets the dough he killed for. In an overload of irony typical of B-movies, the next day Larry receives $1000 for a magazine article and learns that his scholarship has returned. Sucker! 

Immediately coming under suspicion by Police Captain Burke, Larry plays it cool. But as Burke and his sidekick Detective Shaefer gradually turn the screws, Larry can find no comfort anywhere, even in the arms of  his waitress girlfriend Eileen. When a simpleminded house-painter confesses to the crime, Larry feels he's gotten off scot-free. Relaxed at last, Larry decides to lam it out of town. Spotting Eileen on the next corner, Larry crosses the street, not looking at the traffic light or the truck heading his way...

"Why are we suddenly speaking Russian?"
It's a credit to my intellect that it took me only 50 of Fear's 67-minute running time to realize I was watching a cheapjack update of Crime and Punishment. Not that I'm a scholar of Russian literature. It's just that I recently watched the 1935 movie version starring Peter Lorre and Edward Arnold in what you might call the title roles. It would be generous to regard Fear as Monogram's attempt at class; more likely, it was easier than coming up with an original story, the novel was out of copyright and Dostoyevsky couldn't sue.

Larry orders the leg of Eileen.
But he probably would have returned from the grave had he known that Fear pulls the cheapest stunt in the Hollywood book near the end when we learn that the whole thing was a goddamn dream. There was no police investigation because there was no murder! Instead of getting mowed down by a truck, Larry receives a loan from his professor, a scholarship from the college, and discovers that Eileen is moving into his apartment building. This inexplicable bullshit ending (to paraphrase the late Thomas Edison) had me booing out loud from my armchair. It completely negates the entire reason for the movie's existence. I mean, you know going in that Fear it isn't real. But when you learn it really isn't real, it's like slipping on a banana peel placed in front of you by a tour guide. Bull. Shit.

Not that Fear would have ever been considered a classic in the classic sense of the word. Peter Cookson plays Larry in the key of stiff, although that might have been the idea; he appears to be in a haze just walking up the two flights of stairs to the professor/pawnbroker. (It's really gratifying to know that teacher's standards were low even then.) It's difficult to understand what his sweetie, Eileen, sees in him -- especially when she's played by Anne Gwynne, a dish with dimples the size of Arizona's meteor crater.

Darren McGavin, on the far right, suffers the
 indignity of being upstaged by actors nowhere near
as good as him.
None of the actors playing Larry's college friends registered, until I suddenly recognized a very young, very blonde, uncredited Darren McGavin, known to me as the star of the lamentably short-lived
Kolchak TV series, and everyone else as the father from A Christmas Story. Of all the college kids, McGavin alone shows any kind of real expression; his brief moments preview great things to come for him.

Eileen informs Det. Shaefer her boyfriend
isn't on the menu.

As usual, it's up to the police to clean things
up, both legally and, in this case, artistically. Nestor Paiva's Det. Shaefer is unsettling, a cop who turns up almost magically anywhere Larry happens to be, whether at home, the diner or the park. With an acting style as unusual as his name, Nestor Paiva looks like he should be in B-movies -- he doesn't have a face so much as a mug -- yet possesses the quality of an A-actor all the way. You notice him from the get-go, even start to look forward to his sudden, creepy appearances here. He completely outshines the rest of the major players in Fear...

"Hello, ladies! Like what you see?"
Except for Warren William. Stylish, well-dressed, polite yet a master of mind games, William gives Capt. Burke a manner alternating between respectful and menacing. Sounding almost British -- although born in Minnesota -- he seems too sophisticated for your typical B-movie cop, which isn't a surprise. In his glory days (1932-1935), William was the top leading man at Warner Brothers, the king of pre-code movies and enormously entertaining. He specialized in scoundrels, womanizers, cads and lotharios, ignoring young women's innocence and wedding rings with equal vigor. (I once referred to him as "the poor man's Barrymore" in the '80s. Now, you can't read a piece about William without seeing that phrase, once again proving my enormous power.) But when the censors started cracking down, it appears his type was no longer wanted. Over the years, like too many actors mentioned on this site, he gradually took a one-way ride to low-budget productions before dying two years after making Fear.

Don't get me wrong; there's plenty to enjoy in Fear. The atmosphere. The audacity of Monogram going all Dostoyevsky on its unsuspecting audience. Warren William and Nestor Paiva. (Why does his name look like it's spelled backwards?) You can deal with the so-so actors who hog most of the camera time, because, well, it's a Poverty Row production, and actors who started there tended to stay there for a reason (Darren McGavin excepted). But that ending! That lousy, good-for-nothing ending! For that alone, there's no way any self-respecting movie fan could watch Fear more than once. 

Just why the people involved thought this dream trope was a good idea is a mystery greater than any Monogram ever released. I keep hoping I'm dreaming it, and that I'll wake up to see Peter Cookson get mowed down by a truck, while Warren William heartlessly seduces and abandons Anne Gwynne before moving on to his next conquest. Now there's a movie worth re-watching.


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Monday, July 22, 2013

PLEASE MURDER ME! (1956)

Contrary to what you might think, Please Murder Me! isn't my wife's reaction when I corral her into watching something like this. Nor is it even a completely unique idea in the film noir canon. A lawyer, Craig Carlson, is having an affair with Myra, who's married to Joe Leeds, his best friend. When Myra's arrested for murdering Joe, Craig successfully defends her, only to discover she's guilty after all.  With the sheer number of similar movies I've watched, I'm genuinely surprised I trust any women at all.

For sheer clarity, the title Please Murder Me! sure beats Quantum of Solace. But there's got to be more to keep a viewer's interest. Fortunately, Please Murder Me! is a terrific movie, the kind with twists you don't see coming, and keeps getting better as it goes along. In other words, it's nothing like life.
Raymond Burr tells Dick Foran he's in love
with his wife. Foran responds the way they
always do in old movies, by talking in a
different direction.
                                                                         
An interesting bonus comes in the casting. Raymond Burr plays Craig Carlson as something of a screentest for his career-making role as Perry Mason, which was to debut one year later. Known primarily for bad guys up 'til Please Murder Me!, Burr gives Carlson a whiff of emotional depth not hinted before or after. Certainly Perry Mason never would have blackmailed a woman into killing him just so she'd serve time for somebody's murder -- and because he feels guilty for unwittingly helping her get away with shooting her husband. If only more lawyers were so conscience-stricken!

A rare photo of Raymond Burr
kissing a woman.
Then there's fellow-TV-icon-to-be Angela Lansbury as Myra, the two-faced, nasty, psychotic -- the type I immediately recognized from past relationships. Similar to her co-star's character, Myra could be considered to a predecessor to her turn as Laurence Harvey's manipulative mother in The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. And as with the latter, Lansbury appears older than her age. She's only 31 in Please Murder Me!, yet could easily match Burr's 39 years. Now that she's 88, she could pass for the mother of the 71-year old Paul McCartney. 



The usual film noir signatures are scattered throughout Please Murder Me! The lurid title, for one thing. Some nighttime location cinematography. People in half-shadows. Unusual camera angles. Hard-bitten dialogue: "You're a murderess, Myra. Anything that happens to you won't be enough!" Yet it's the courtroom scenes that
Take a good look; this is the only time you'll
see Raymond Burr doing this.
jump out at you simply because you keep thinking, That's Perry Mason up there. Only it isn't. And you know it isn't because this lawyer actually gets to address the jury. Perry Mason would have merely hectored Myra until she broke down and cried, "Yes! I admit it! I killed him!", thus cutting the trial short once more.



Background checks optional.


A couple of the location shots provide historic interest. In the pre-credit nighttime sequence, we follow Burr walking down an L.A. street until he enters a  pawnshop featuring a window display that would give Mike Bloomberg  a heart attack: dozens of firearms of all kinds, piled up atop each other like puppies in a pet store, just looking for a good home. Shopping was so much easier then.

If this had been a Kubrick movie,  critics
would claim the billboard was his ironic
comment on the story. Me, I know it's
because it was cheaper to shoot outdoors.

Then there's the scene when Burr gets out of a taxi. Across the street is a large billboard advertising Lucky Lager. I had to do some research to learn that it was once the largest selling beer in the Western states. (Its clever slogan:  "It's Lucky When You Live in California." Tell that to the people who live near the pawnshop that doubles as an armory.) Little moments like this are better than all the history classes I sat through in school. I should've become a teacher.


If I did this, my wife would yell,
"Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

Neither Burr nor Lansbury were what you'd consider "stars" in 1956, although they'd been around since the '40s. Having been used to Burr as a heavy in most movies, were audiences surprised that he could play sympathetic so believably, thus paving the way for Perry Mason? And Lansbury -- was this rare foray into evil what she needed to eventually land the role of a lifetime in The Manchurian Candidate? As my wife sighs when I bring up such philosophical questions, "I don't know, dear." Meaning, "Do I look like I care?"


Perry Mason never had lighting or
or camera angles like this.
I wouldn't be surprised if both actors considered a programmer like Please Murder Me! something of a step down from the bigger budget movies they'd become used to. (Just two years earlier, Burr played the key role of the wife killer in Hitchcock's Rear Window.) On the other hand, a movie was a movie, and as long as the check cleared they could pay the rent for another few months. And as years went on, and those residuals for Perry Mason and Murder She Wrote arrived in the mailbox, they could afford to look back, bemused, when they appeared in a movie with a title like that. Add the credit featured on the poster -- A GROSS KRASNE PRODUCTION -- and you've got something that sounds like a bad joke. Fortunately, Please Murder Me! is one more movie waiting to be rediscovered by film noir fans. As with Double Indemnity, you know how it's going to end two minutes into the movie, but it doesn't matter. It's how it got to that point that makes it a fascinating story -- and warning to men everywhere. Before you fall for a married woman, make sure she didn't marry her current husband for money. You never know if she wants to cash in the easy way.



                                     
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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

RUBBER RACKETEERS (1942)

World War II introduced a new breed of movie character: the unpatriotic gangster. Up 'til then, moviegoers watched Cagney, Bogart and their brothers-in-Tommy guns with a certain thrill. Sure, they were criminals -- but by and large they were swindling and killing each other. And during Prohibition, they were just selling the booze that everybody wanted. When you think about it, they were actually providing a public service far greater than today's hot-air politicians claim to be doing.

The Axis changed that equation. Everyone was expected to do their bit, and those that didn't were as bad as Adolf & company. By trafficking in rationed goods, hoodlums became really bad guys.

No joke, I swear I saw this same set
in another rubber racket movie.
Restrictions on rubber certainly provided an abundance of similarly-themed B-movies, thus the meaning of the title Rubber Racketeers. The stories were all the same: criminals cash in on the shortage by manufacturing "new" tires out of old, worn-out ones. Fatal traffic accidents ensue. In Rubber Racketeers, the good guys are working stiffs from a munitions factory. This was another war-themed concept -- civilians putting their lives on the line instead of calling the cops. In fact, one newspaper headline in Rubber Racketeers screams FDR ASKS CITIZENS TO APPREHEND RACKETEERS! What the hell were we paying policemen to do, steal apples? 

If that were me, I'd apologize for getting
in his way, but that's the kind of a wimp
I am.
Don't try telling that to these Untouchables-wannabes. Now, say you were cut off in traffic by a guy who just got out of prison. And he's identified in the newspaper as FORMER PUBLIC ENEMY. Would you visit him to complain that his insurance company didn't offer enough of a payment on the damage your car incurred? I think not. Yet that's what Bill Barry does, thus setting off a chain of events that leads to his future brother-in-law getting killed in a car accident (those lousy tires again!), and his co-workers forming their own little vigilante group to bring down the rotten racket once and for all. Even when Bill's socked in the breadbasket by a couple of gunsels, he refuses to call the police, because, you know, this time it's personal. That's why I try not to take things personally. You never know when it might lead to a shootout at a makeshift tire factory.

Gilin, the titular rubber racketeer, is a first-class villain just by his very business. But he hits a real low near the end. His Chinese-American servant, Tom (Tom?), has joined the Army when he returns on a 24-hour leave to serve him coffee. (I don't know about you, but if I were on leave, that wouldn't be the first thing I'd think of doing.) Now Tom was cool when Gilin was in the bathtub gin racket or hijacking other gangsters' goods -- that was business. But when he gets wind of Gilin's new operation, he tries playing to
Bill at work. Wouldn't you
love a job like his?
his boss' patriotism. Whereupon Gilin shoots him dead. If you listen carefully, you can still hear 1942 audiences hissing. Even Gilin's moll Nikki starts waving the flag; by the end, she's taken a job at the munitions factory where Bill works -- another dame taking work away from a man. (I kid!)


"Stop! Or I'll shoot the ceiling!"
History lessons abound in Rubber Racketeers. We learn, for instance, that the only way you could get tires in waritme was to buy a whole damn car. Now that's a racket! (What do you think the odds were a cheapskate like Bob Hope couldn't get his hands on a couple of Goodyears on the QT?) You want slang? Rubber Racketeers is a veritable dictionary. "Don't let anyone get hep." "If anything goes wrong, I know from nothing." "What goes?" (The actor who spoke that last line might have misspoken, since in context of the conversation, what he means is, "What gives?" When you were shooting B-movies on tight budgets, retakes were necessary only when necessary.) Just to remind audiences what they were watching -- as if they didn't hear the word "rubber" in every line of dialogue -- radio announcers are forever reminding listeners of the shortage, and to drive under 40 MPH to make their tires last longer. You try telling that to commuters on the 405 today, see the look they give you.

As with many B-movies of the time, Rubber Racketeers makes use of location shots in downtown L.A., always a pleasure for a guy like me still waiting for that time-travel machine to become available at Costco. Minimal traffic, big mountains, tall palm trees, clear skies, no smog -- this was heaven, with or without ration cards. One scene takes place on the corner of Hazelhurst and Findlay -- two honest-to-gosh Los Angeles streets. Gilin and Nikki stop off for a nightcap at the Club Tally Ho, which appears to be authentic, and wash down a few rounds of French 75s. That's what I'm ordering the next time my moll and I bend elbows at our favorite watering hole. I just want to see how quickly we get thrown out. 


Rubber Racketeers showcases two actors on the way down, with two others biding their time before gaining TV immortality. For reasons unknown, Ricardo Cortez (the star of the original Maltese Falcon) had gone from starring in A's to coasting in B's by 1942. Still, his thin, sneering lips and dark eyes made him perfect for a hood like Gilin. Perhaps it's just my perception, but he seems to be fully aware he's better than the material he's given here, while giving it his all anyway. That's a pro.

As for Rochelle Hudson (Nikki), she should have gone on to big things after co-starring with W.C. Fields in Poppy six years earlier. Instead, movies with titles like She Had to Eat, Babies for Sale and The Stork Pays Off were in her future. Yet these are exactly the kind of pictures I'd watch anytime; in fact, I've seen Babies for Sale, so I know from whence I speak. I'm sure Ms. Hudson is looking down gratefully at me from that big soundstage in the sky.


Then there's Gilin's henchman Angel, played by Milburn Stone (left). Stone was just a journeyman actor until landing a 25 year-gig as Doc on Gunsmoke. Alan Hale, Jr., son of the great Warner Brothers character actor (both pictured right), and who plays Bill's friend Red, had a similar CV by the time he signed on to play the Skipper on Gilligan's Island. (Note to all aspiring actors: Stone and Hale had been making movies a combined total of 45 years before landing their hit series.)

But without doubt the most arresting supporting actor of the bunch is John Abbott as the, er, mentally-slow henchman who answers to the name Dumbo. Actually, he doesn't answer at all, since he seems incapable of speech. Looking like Pat Paulson's deranged great-uncle, Abbott spends most of the time twisting rubber around his fingers while his eyes appear to stare in two different directions simultaneously. Suffice it to say, he's a striking presence, although I don't know what good he'd be as a gangster's sidekick. And talk about bad luck -- the actor was briefly blacklisted during the 1950s because fellow-blacklistee Dalton Trumbo used the name "John Abbott" as a pseudonym. Sorry 'bout that, John!

I'd been waiting for Rubber Racketeers to turn up since buying the poster back in my more carefree days. I can't say it lived up to my expectations, since I'm not sure I had any to begin with.  But from the clever opening credits, divided by rolling tires, to the finale when Nikki machineguns a V (for Victory) around a caricature of Hitler, Rubber Racketeers proved a fine hour's entertainment, and a reminder that when the rubber meets the road, it better be real. 


And the recipe for a French 75, according to Esquire magazine:
  • 2 ounces London dry gin
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 5 ounces Brut champagne
Shake well with cracked ice in a chilled cocktail shaker, then strain into a Collins glass half-full of cracked ice and top off with champagne. 

See you at the bar, Gilin -- and don't forget the tires!
                                          *****************************
For more about Ricardo Cortez and his original version of The Maltese Falcon, click here.
For more about my ridiculous movie poster collection, click here
For more B-movies, click the B-MOVIES label below. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

THE GHOST SHIP (1943)

You think Lt. Commander Queeg made life on the USS Caine intense?  Allow me to introduce you to Capt. Will Stone of the cargo ship Altair. Crewmen have a habit of dying under his command, and not in acts of war. Stone is in fact, to quote Third Officer Tom Merriam, "a homicidal maniac!" And you thought fantasizing about stolen strawberries was cause for mutiny.

One of the several classy B-movie thrillers produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio, The Ghost Ship delivers the goods for its entire 69-minute running time. From the opening scene, where even a blind man warns that no good can come of sailing on the Altair, to its startlingly bloody climax, The Ghost Ship is one more example of how Lewton's "little" B's managed to outshine the A's they ran with in theaters. 


Newly-hired Officer Tom Merriam initially admires the fatherly Capt. Stone. Stone has a gentle voice, a firm but decent way of commanding a ship and a knack for zen-like aphorisms like, "You have no right to kill that
"This is your Captain speaking.
 I'm going to kill you in five minutes."
moth. Its safety doesn't depend on you."  But as days past, Merriam comes to realize that there's a dark side to the Captain. Like when Stone arranges for the "accidental" death of a crew member he doesn't particularly care for. And thanks to Stone's otherwise placid demeanor -- along with the respect accorded to his rank -- the crew ignores Merriam's warnings.  It's only when the radioman stumbles upon proof of Stone's plan to murder Merriam -- and pays for it by being thrown overboard -- does the anybody start to wake up.
That hook is up to no good.
The hallmark of Lewton's movies is atmosphere.  Long shadows, foggy evenings, eerie footsteps -- it doesn't matter who the director is (in this case, Mark Robson), Val Lewton's fingerprints are all over his productions, and The Ghost Ship is no exception. Consider it an oceanic film noir, where even a dangling hook seems to come alive, ready to kill at the Captain's orders.

Great characters abound. Capt. Stone, of course, dominates the movie, rarely raising his voice yet terrifying nonetheless. At times, he doesn't even need to speak; the casual way he arranges for one of the seamen to get crushed to death by an anchor chain is truly chilling. Yet, unlike many
Capt. Stone makes his point quite clear.
actors of his time might have done, Richard Dix gives Stone depth and a little empathy. Stopping in port, he refuses the proposals of a woman who's loved him 15 years with little to show in return. Stone has his reasons -- he knows, even confesses, that a lifetime at sea is making him insane yet appears to be powerless to do anything about it. At the same time, his crew obeys his every word because... well, Stone puts it best while holding Merriam at gunpoint, his voice barely above a whisper:

I'm Captain. And as long as I wear these stripes, there isn't a man in the crew that'll believe you or help you. You'll find them too lazy, too cowardly. Too disinterested. That's what I want you to learn, Merriam. Men are worthless cattle. And a few men are given authority to drive them. 

"Authority" -- that's the word that Stone uses over and over, at times like a prayer, at others a deadly threat, always caressing it like rosary beads. And yet, his nasty description of the crew is pretty much on the money. They are disinterested in hearing about Merriam's take on Stone, too cowardly to question the man with stripes on his uniform, too psychologically lazy to investigate the living evil that haunts their ship. The Ghost Ship is an allegory on power that goes unchecked until it's almost too late, whether at sea, in the workplace or the political world.

Richard Dix is no joke.
Richard Dix, remembered even less now than he was when mentioned as a joke in Blazing Saddles, gives an understated, frightening performance, his eyes conveying emotions almost too painful to contemplate. That he really does look like a weather-beaten sea captain rather than a movie star -- it's shocking he was only 50 at the time -- makes him all the more convincing. A pity Alfred Hitchcock never got to work with him; Dix could have easily played Joseph Cotten's role in Shadow of a Doubt, another 1943 picture about a guy with a decidedly cynical view of mankind.

"Skelton Knaggs" is not
a declarative sentence.
You can always count on fine character actors in Lewton movies, and The Ghost Ship has a shipful of them. In addition to Dix, there's Skelton Knaggs, a Brit whose scarred, pockmarked face is as unique as his name. Although his character, Finn, is a mute, his thoughts are heard throughout the movie, something of a Cockney Greek chorus. He's the only other person onboard who appears to believe that Stone is a little, well, off his nut, and becomes Merriam's guardian angel over time.

"Just wait 'til I pack on another 100 pounds.
Then I'll  really kick your ass."
It took me at least 20 minutes to recognize the unbilled Lawrence Tierney as one of Stone's soon-to-be victims. Just a couple of years away from his run as RKO's resident psycho gangster, Tierney would later hit a long rough patch, thanks to his favorite hobbies of getting drunk and beating up cops. (During the 1970s, tourists in New York probably had no idea that the guy at the reins of their horse-drawn cab in Central Park was once one of the best bad guys in the movies.) He scored a late-in-life comeback as the gang leader in Reservoir Dogs, while Seinfeld fans may remember him as Elaine's menacing father. By then, the gruff, bald, hulking actor, unrecognizable from his RKO days, was 72 years old but more in demand -- and scarier -- than ever. Good for him.

Typical of posters of the time,
that woman on the right appears nowhere
in the movie.
For years, The Ghost Ship was something of a ghost movie, having been pulled from circulation shortly after its original 1943 release due to a plagiarism suit. Once in a while I'd read a rave review by someone lucky enough to score a pirated copy. By the time of its first legitimate appearance on DVD a few years ago, I was afraid that it was going to be one of those over-hyped "lost" movies that, once found, would prove to be a disappointment.

It wasn't. The Ghost Ship deserves to be ranked with The Body Snatcher, Cat People, The Seventh Victim and all the other classic Val Lewton productions. Its return is to be celebrated. And maybe make Richard Dix something other than a Mel Brooks punchline once again.


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