Friday, April 18, 2014

QUICKSAND (1950)

Is it too soon to admit I usually found Mickey Rooney annoying, too brash by a hundred, and as endearing as surgery without anesthesia? Yes, I know Laurence Olivier -- not always on speaking terms with subtlety himself -- considered Rooney "the greatest actor of them all." Me? Every time I saw a clip of one his MGM musicals, or some variety show, or his legendary, hot-headed interviews -- always veering off-topic to remind us he was once the most popular movie star in the solar system -- I'd find the nearest pillow to crawl under until the moment passed.

On the other hand, there's his performance in Quicksand, one of the most underrated film noirs of its time. Unlike the know-it-alls he was used to playing, his character here, Dan, is a sap from the opening moments of the movie, disparaging the girl who loves him while falling hard for a cashier named Vera, who's obviously one step away from the alley and two from Tehachapi. 

Sure, kid, nobody's gonna notice that
missing double sawbuck.
Quicksand's story is classic film noir -- the kind of move where the "borrowing" of $20 from the office cash register leads to an escalating series of crimes that climax with a carjacking/kidnapping after the boss is strangled. And what would drive an honest, hardworking mechanic like Dan into, well, a quicksand of disaster? A bottle-blonde dame who smells of sex and stinks of the gutter. It makes me feel better about myself that, no matter how stupid I was in the past regarding women, it was nothing compared to your typical noir dope.


Dan reflects on what an idiot he is
to go out with this woman.
You know there's going to be trouble when, on their first date, Vera takes Dan to gaze at a window display featuring a fur coat that's been on her radar since forever. Their reflections looking back at them in the window, Vera can't take her eyes off that coat, while Dan wonders just what the heck he's getting himself into. But we know already: a whole mess of mess. Jeanne Cagney (sister of James) portrays the brassy, brazen Vera, who's hard as nails -- and ready to pound them into Dan in order to get what she wants.

For a fun time, visit Nick's penny arcade!
"Sleazy" can't begin to describe the people and surroundings Dan has to put up with. From his perpetually angry, skinflint boss, to the cheap carnival they go to on their first date, to Vera's former(?) lover, Nick, the rodentesque owner of a low-rent arcade. And since Nick is played by Peter Lorre, Quicksand's noir factor ratchets up a dozen or so steps. A guy with the charm of dung-covered Black Mamba, Nick orders some noisy little boys out of the arcade -- "or I'll save you all the trouble of growing up." One of my all time favorite actors, Lorre has a rare presence, unique delivery, and the ability to elevate any movie he appears in. It's he who discovers that Dan has mugged a drunk to pay off a debt, but offers to keep his mouth shut if Dan supplies him with a new car. Nice guy! (Their brief, believably sloppy fight scene -- without stunt doubles -- is a highlight.)

"Would you like to spit on me, Danny?
You can, you know."
For reasons she herself can't explain, a good girl named Helen (Barbara Bates) is head over heels in love with Dan. He ignores her, lies to her, dumps her for Vera, winds up committing more crimes in a few days than most criminals do in a lifetime -- and still Helen keeps coming back for more. Maybe because Dan is the only guy she's dated who's smaller than her. Boasting the style of a nursery school teacher, Helen is the total opposite of the icy Vera, whose eyeballs probably have dollar signs in place of pupils. 




Never trust a dame with a fur coat,
stolen money, and a big, fat smirk on her face.
By the time Dan figures out what Vera's all about -- way after everyone in the audience has -- he's up to his boyish blonde hair in trouble. "What kind of a dame are you?" he demands after she's sold him out. "The kind who watches out for herself!" she replies, and, brother, she's not kidding. All she cares about is the cabbage (and I don't mean coleslaw). If it isn't green and ready to fit in her wallet, she ain't interested in what you're carrying, bub. Unless it's a fur coat. 


Jimmie Dodd (left) turns from the camera
so the Mouseketeers don't see him ogling
a tramp like Vera.

Mickey Rooney isn't the only unexpected actor in Quicksand. Dan's co-worker, Buzz, has only one scene at the very beginning of the movie. He'd be completely forgettable if it wasn't for the fact he's played Jimmie Dodd, a few years away from becoming the Mouseketeer godfather on The Mickey Mouse Club. Quicksand offers the rare chance to see Dodd without large, round discs atop his head.

Mickey Rooney made Quicksand as his career was going into eclipse. Ironically, this was the time he gave his best performances in dramatic movies and, occasionally, on TV. (His portrayal in the corrosive title role of "The Comedian", a live episode of Playhouse 90, is an absolute a career highlight -- especially when you know it's based on a combination of the holy terrors Milton Berle and Red Buttons.) Unlike the MGM musicals he's best known for, Quicksand allows Rooney to often shift down into first gear, giving him several wonderfully subtle moments. Watch him dicker with Lorre over the keys to the stolen car in return of the bloodstained handkerchief he used in the mugging -- a scene where, like a couple of others, he resembles Leonardo DiCaprio not only in looks but style. Yet, only 30 years old and already on the third of his eight marriages, he appears to know that his major box-office days are already behind him. For Mickey Rooney, Quicksand was more than just a movie. It was his becoming his life.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934)

Let's test your knowledge of current events. Who spoke the following passionate words?

"The people must be told who their enemies are. The unseen foe who maneuver nations into war. They must know the duplicity of men who profit from human misery and death. [...] As long as munitions stay in the hands of private enterprises, war will always be around the corner."

Was this the keynote speaker at the Libertarian Party Convention? Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Senate floor? An anonymous protestor outside last year's G8 summit? No, no, and no. The correct answer: Claude Raines on a Universal Studios soundstage in 1934. Now do you remember?

Possessing one of the more freakish titles in moviedom, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is an uncompromising anti-war drama, resonating today as a startlingly contemporary attack on the hellish marriage of corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen who create war purely for their own financial gain. If the "Occupy" movement ever holds a film festival, this should be the closing night attraction. 

Paris, 1916. Paul Verin  has dedicated his life to promoting world peace. Always poor, Verin is given the chance to make money when hired to write anti-war editorials for newspaper publisher Henry Dumont-- editorials for which Dumont takes credit. But as the temptation for political power and monetary riches grows, Dumont eagerly sells out to the munitions manufacturers. When Verin is drafted at the outbreak of World War I, Dumont is able to keep him on the front lines, edging him closer to death -- all the while putting the moves on Verin's wife, Adele. Discovering the truth about his former friend, Verin goes AWOL and, in a fit of insanity, turns the movie's metaphoric title into shocking reality. (Hint: the thing he stuffs into a satchel used to rest on Dumont's shoulders.)


Never push a pacifist to the brink.
Told in flashback as Verin confesses to a lawyer, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is a wonderful showcase for Claude Raines, only his second movie since his star-making turn in The Invisible Man. Blessed with a mellifluous voice and eyes that can register love, loathing or madness when called for, Raines gives his anti-war dialogue, as the one quoted above, a resonance that holds up even better today than it did in 1934. A committed pacifist, Verin proclaims, "Give me a child's mind for the first 12 years of his life and I'll sweep war from the face of the earth." As my daughter can affirm, my goals are a little different. Give me a child's mind and I'll fill it with old movies, unfunny jokes, and the collected writings of Charles Krauthammer. I think we know who'll turn out better.


"At least I'm taller than your husband."
As usual, nobody plays the slick villain like Lionel Atwill as the murderously duplicitous Henry Dumont. Bad enough he uses Adele to guilt-trip her husband in trying to sell out his beliefs for financial gain. Dumont then tries to get Verin killed on the battlefront so he can have his way with her. But what's really shocking is how easily Dumont, an expert at mob psychology, manipulates the idiot masses into following whatever line he happens to be peddling. Call it the Rush Limbaugh Syndrome.

Like Men Must Fight from a year earlier, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head blames cynical power brokers for wars. The difference is, however, here we actually see those madmen plotting their war aboard a luxury liner. One of them, the manufacturer of chemical gas, appears to have second thoughts:

BUSINESSMAN #1: I hate to think of all that blood being spilled. My dear countrymen -- I   wonder just what is the duty of patriotism?
BUSINESSMAN #2: And you're the man who makes liquid fire!
BUSINESSMAN #1: Well, what good is it? The peace conference banned it.
BUSINESSMAN #3: Oh, they'll forget all their silly scruples once the first shot's fired!
  
Chess game of the damned.
Their silly scruples. Things get uglier when we learn that these "patriotic" men are selling weapons to the enemy through a dummy corporation in Switzerland. To their disappointment, they realize this could lead to the destruction of their munitions plants with their own weapons -- and, unfortunately for them, end the war. It's up to Henry Dumont -- who has sold each of them them stock in his publishing company at 5,000 francs a share -- to give some sage advice regarding "a general understanding to conserve all our natural resources." In other words, he explains, corner the market on oil and drive up the price, creating a handsome profit for all concerned. No way this really happens, right?


I first saw The Man Who Reclaimed His Head when it was run as part of a horror movie show on local television. I'd never heard of it, but the title, cast, and year of production certainly sounded promising. Around the 20-minute mark, I realized I was watching something far different than what was promised. As the years passed, I looked out for it again, but it seemed to have disappeared into movie heaven. Only a week ago -- after roughly 40 years -- I discovered it on YouTube. Having become more cynically aware to the ways of the world, I was stunned to see how ruthlessly, depressingly honest a movie it was. And although there isn't a werewolf, invisible man or electrically-revived corpse in its 82-minute running time, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head truly is a horror movie -- one that continues to play out in real life every day.

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To read about Men Must Fight, click here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934)

Sporting a title more appropriate for a '50s crime picture, The Big Shakedown asks the question: What happens to the bootleggers now that Prohibition's over? Gangster Dutch Barnes, impressed by pharmacist Jimmy Morrell's way with chemicals at the local drugstore, comes up with the brilliant idea of hiring him to manufacture bootleg toothpaste. Desperate times call for desperate measures -- like coming up with a movie that takes the concept of bootleg toothpaste seriously.
 
Soon, Dutch's goons are strong-arming local druggists to buy their product, just like the good ol' days. But perhaps realizing such a conceit would eventually make him the laughingstock of his fellow criminals, Dutch soon orders Jimmy to whip up cosmetic knock-offs. Naturally, the lipstick-happy dames can't tell the difference. Then, instead of making the logical move to, say, pseudo-Brioschi, Dutch decides to go into the medical-supply business, blackmailing Jimmy into creating bogus antiseptics and, eventually, digitalis -- a dose of which causes Jimmy's unsuspecting wife, Norma, to suffer a miscarriage. The moral of the story: toothpaste is a gateway drug.

She's a good actress, but not good enough
for those Bette Davis eyes to hide her contempt.
You just know that ingenue Bette Davis (Norma) was secretly praying for studio head Jack Warner to keel over with a shot of phony digitalis himself for forcing her into melodramatic hooey like The Big Shakedown, roughly her 20th movie in three years. Still a few years away from being treated like the royalty she always thought herself to be, Davis can't completely mask her disgust with the ridiculous script or her milquetoast leading man, Charles Farrell, the kind of actor she'd happily chew up and spit out before breakfast.

"...And next week I want you to make a vat of
interferon, or else!"
However, the ever-reliable Ricardo Cortez plays Dutch Barnes with his usual oily, clenched-teeth style. A well-dressed sociopath, Barnes has no problem flooding the city's hospitals with phony medicine if it means keeping the money rolling in. As Rand Paul would urge, let the marketplace decide what to do with him. 

"How can I be anti-
Semitic if I'm Jewish?"
Made near the end of the pre-code era, The Big Shakedown has plenty of little moments that would never have made it in a movie a year or two later. A dumpy housewife is humorously portrayed as a cough syrup addict. Sidney Miller, Warners' go-to whiny Jewish kid, is obsessed with keeping track of his money. The scientist who eventually shoots Dutch gets away with it because 1) Dutch stole his formula, and 2) Dutch had it coming. In order to further protect the doctor, Jimmy dumps the murder weapon into the same vat of bubbling acid where Dutch's body falls. Very Shakespearean stuff.

One gag probably baffles most contemporary viewers. A mousy middle-aged guy enters Jimmy's store and asks for a druggist. When Bette Davis informs him that she's the druggist, the guy gulps and, thinking fast, asks for a bottle of aspirin. Davis smirks knowingly. Audiences in 1934 would have immediately caught the unspoken subtext: the guy had come in for condoms but didn't want to ask a woman for them. Now you can find them at any bodega next to the Milk Duds. I'm not certain we've made progress.


"And I ain't talkin' soda!"
Most unexpected of all is a line of dialogue spoken by the great Allen Jenkins. When informed that the gang is moving from beer to drugs -- pharmaceuticals, that is -- Jenkins misunderstands. "Not me," he replies. "I got a brother doing twenty years for going into the drug business and all they found on him was two decks of coke." There's nothing better than drug references in old movies. Except maybe sex references.

Bootleg toothpaste, Jewish stereotypes, a murderer getting off scot-free, drug humor, cough syrupholics -- it's just another day on the Warner Brothers lot. If not the best pre-code picture, The Big Shakedown is certainly one of the more entertainingly absurd. On the other hand, the next time you visit New York's Chinatown district, stay away from the exotic-looking toothpastes. Many contain diethylene glycol, a substance usually found in, among other things, heating fuel and brake fluid. As least Jimmy Morrell's stuff cleaned your teeth without killing you.

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