Friday, December 12, 2014

UPTOWN NEW YORK (1932)


Uptown New York tells the well-worn of the story of a woman, Patricia Smith, in love with two men, Dr. Max Silver and gumball-machine entrepreneur Eddie Doyle. As its poster's tagline reads, A human story of a girl who was... just human! We all know what that means, don't we? Just to make it clearer, ViƱa Delmar, who wrote Uptown New York's scenario, was also the author of the novels Bad Girl, Loose Ladies and Kept Woman. No wonder she's the rare writer whose name was on the promotional materials.

With that pedigree, I was hoping for some drug use and a bastard child thrown into Uptown New York -- especially when Patricia and Max spend the night together. However, the only genuine pre-code moments could be counted on one hand:

1) Max's overtly-Jewish family. His proud father invites friends over to announce that Max has graduated from med school -- or, as he says in his sing-song Yiddish accent, "I got for you a big surprise. I'm going to make for you a speech!" That kind of overtly-ethnic portrayal, the only kind portrayed in early talkies, would soon disappear, making movies waspier than an entomologist's greenhouse.

2) Eddie meets Patricia by rescuing her from a ladies room whose door is stuck shut. (Yes, he came in through the bathroom window.) No way would this be approved once the Hays Office dropped the hammer. Nor would they go for Eddie demanding, "Whatcha in there for, anyway?" But at least it gives me a new way to annoy my wife.

3) When Patricia yells at a couple of juvenile delinquents, the older of the two gives her an angry thumbs-up, which appears to be the '30s equivalent of "Up yours!" This gesture is worth trying at your next business meeting -- they'll never know what you're really thinking.

Uptown New York gives some interesting insight on what men expected of women in 1932. When Patricia asks Eddie why he's fallen so hard for her, he replies, "You're clean and good." This was movie-speak for "virgin," something we know she isn't. And once Eddie learns that Max had been her "sweetheart" two years earlier, it almost kills their marriage. Man, if that's what's going to stop Eddie, it's a good thing he's not around today.

"Of course I love you...
up to a point."
And talk about old-fashioned. The only reason Max didn't marry Patricia was because his family paired him off with a rich man's daughter so he could start a practice in Vienna before returning two years later. Such a trade-off! (Max is played by Leon Waycoff, who would soon change his name to Leon Ames, promptly becoming another of those "Oh, that guy!" character actors for the next 60 years. Don't believe me? Go here.)

Being a release from the long-forgotten Sono Art-World Wide studio, Uptown New York's low budget is onscreen throughout. Authentic New York shots consist only of stock footage, mostly under the credits. A sloppy process shot through a diner window looks like Times Square in the middle of an earthquake. And the climax -- Eddie begging Max to perform surgery on Patricia after she's hit by a truck -- is right out of Al Jolson's abysmal Say it with Songs from 1929.

Still, the movie has a nice scrappy feel about it, thanks mainly to Jack Oakie as Eddie. On loan from Paramount, Oakie is extremely likable. His naivete concerning Patricia's sexual history, along with his pride at owning a string of gumball machines across the city, is actually kind of charming in a goofy way. Guys undoubtedly identified with Oakie in a way impossible with, say, William Powell.

"Look at me when you're
talking to me!"
Oakie's performance -- all of his performances, in fact --  are that much more remarkable when you consider the after-effect of his childhood bout of scarlet fever. As Oakie's temperature rose, he could hear his eardrums pop -- and, he told a reporter, "that was the last thing I ever heard." Next time you read about an A-lister wrecking his dressing room trailer because he's been supplied with stale peanuts, just watch any Jack Oakie movie and remember: he's lip-reading his co-stars because he's deaf.


Most astonishing about Uptown New York, however, is Sono Art-World Wide's notorious pre-credit logo: a comely young woman strategically holding two spinning globes directly in front of her. The screenshot doesn't do it justice. You have to see it in action for the full effect. Supposedly dreamed up by studio investor (and one-time "king of comedy") Mack Sennett, it couldn't have been anything other than an outrageous in-joke meant to grab the audience's attention long enough for them to sit through an entire movie. 

As you can tell, it worked for me.

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


Saturday, December 6, 2014

DECOY (1946)

Decoy is a good name for a movie that looks like a typical film noir, only to feature a plot twist alien to the genre; stars a couple of unknowns who look like two other, famous actors; and features a third actor playing completely against type.

After Frank Olins is given the hot seat for an unspecified crime -- selling loose cigarettes? -- his two-timing girlfriend Margot Shelby seduces the noble Dr. Lloyd Craig into injecting him with the life-reviving drug Methylene Blue (which I hereby trademark as a new color for Uniqlo). 

It's all for love -- that is, the love she has for the 400-grand Olin's got socked away in the woods. Once Olin hands over a map leading to the money, he's plugged by Jim Vincent, his overpriced mouthpiece who's also Margot's third lover. How does this dame keep these guys straight?

Now in over his stethoscope, Dr. Craig is forced at gunpoint to drive Margot and Jim to the buried loot. Before the night is over, Margot has fatally run over Jim before finding the money and shooting Dr. Craig to death. Or so she thinks.

Mirror mirror on the wall,
who's the damnedest of them all?
Filled with little moments that separate it from other low budget crime pictures, Decoy opens with the ghostly Dr. Craig washing his hands in a bathroom right out of the Beggars Banquet album cover. Gazing at his reflection in a broken mirror, he seems shocked to be alive. After silently hitching his way to San Francisco, he plugs Margot but good before expiring. The oddly-named cop Joe Portugal drops by a moment later to hear Margot's deathbed -- make that death couch -- confession. It's a testament to her strength that she can inaugurate a 65-minute flashback after being shot in the chest. Ambulance? What ambulance?

Margot's nastiness comes wrapped in silk, thanks to her generous boyfriend Frank Olins. But considering that she's keeping two other guys punching the clock in her bedroom, Olins, the toughest of the bunch, is probably the biggest sap of the three. Imagine being electrocuted, then brought back to life an hour later, only to be shot by your sweetie's lover before your body's barely warm again. Hardly seems worth the trip.

He's not the only one
playing with fire.
You can't help feel sorry for him -- after all, he's played by Robert Armstrong, who brought King Kong to New York 13 years earlier. His stunned, disbelieving reaction to just lighting a match after being brought back to life is almost pitiful. "I'm alive!" he shouts, arousing memories of Frankenstein, "I'm alive!" Not for long, bub, not for long.

The original version of Midnight Run.
And for all this meshugga, Dr. Craig gave up his altruistic career as a slum doctor. As with Frank Olins, you feel bad for the doc, a good guy suckered by a pretty face, a sweet line of lies, and a body to revive the dead for. Herbert Rudley, who plays Dr. Craig, juices up the sympathy by being a near-double for Charles Grodin, the ultimate hangdog actor.


A fur hat for a cold mind.
Unlike other tough dames of this genre, Margot is a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit. That's be due to "Miss Jean Gillie," as she's billed in the credits, being a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit herself.  And by the looks of her, I'd wager she was being groomed as the next Joan Fontaine. (Aspiring actresses: if you want that kind of special billing in the credits, marry the movie's producer, as Miss Gillie did.)

A kiss to build a laugh on.
One more welcome twist is the great character actor Sheldon Leonard on the right side of the law for a change, as Det. Joe Portugal. Sneering as if his paycheck depended on it, he's all too familiar with Margot's type: the trollop with a heart of ice. Yet not even a misanthrope like Joe can resist her allure. Going in for a kiss requested by the dying Margot, he's unexpectedly spurned by the most contemptuous laugh ever captured on celluloid.

Supposedly a "lost" film until recently, Decoy is a welcome surprise to noir fans who thought they had seen them all. There was more than a little thought put into all aspects of its production, from the bizarre script to the atmospheric cinematography, and is the kind of Monogram production that rightfully drove the French cinema buffs into throes of extase. This Decoy, without doubt, is the real thing.

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

Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE BRAVE (1997)

When you read "A FILM BY" attached to a person who's never even directed traffic, and "SPECIAL APPEARANCE BY" with a big name, it can mean only two things. The movie is going to be self-consciously grim with a lot of heavy symbolism, and the big name is onscreen for five minutes. Just warning you. 

If you wonder why a movie starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando flew under your radar, don't worry. The Brave was never released in America, and is available only as a DVD from Asia. For that, you can thank its critical reception following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. To say that it was negative would be to describe the bombing of Hiroshima as a stern warning. 

Certainly the story should have met the approval of America-loathing cheese-eaters. Raphael, a poor American Indian living with his family in a trailer next to a garbage dump, agrees to be tortured and murdered in exchange for $50,000. In the week he has remaining to live, he tries to make life better for his people. That's it, kimosabe. 

How. Or more like, what the --?
Johnny Depp's first of many mistakes, other than agreeing to direct and rewrite the script, was to cast himself as Raphael. Despite his claims to be part Cherokee or Creek -- disputed by the tribes themselves -- Depp looks as Native American as I do, which is Irish. Long black hair and a bandana do not an Indian make. You wonder why his character just doesn't hop a bus to the nearest modeling agency if he wants to make some serious dough -- he's more beautiful than most women.

Then there's the idea of going through with being murdered. (Every review of The Brave says Raphael has been hired to appear in a snuff movie, but that wasn't made clear to me.) If you received $50,000 and was told return in a week to get sliced, wouldn't you maybe, just maybe, get the the hell out of Dodge?

So just why does Raphael intend to return? Because the snuff movie producer trusts him. Oh, brother. They should have called this movie The Stupid. (In the novel upon which The Brave is based, Raphael is indeed a mentally-defective drunk.)

"Sorry you don't have a shirt, kid.
But you can ride on the merry-go-round!"
OK, so maybe you do have some kind of honor. You hold up your end of the bargain because you're, I dunno, brave. But you have two kids and a wife back in the trailer next to the dump. You'd do right by them. Like opening a savings account with that 50 grand. Getting advice from a good accountant. Buy them some nice clothes instead of the rags they're walking around in.

Nah, you'd do what Raphael does -- build a carnival out of scraps from the dump. Then take your kid grocery shopping, where you load up your carts with junk food and race up and down the aisles, knocking over displays and laughing. Then throw a party for the tribe. Why not just buy a case of Grey Goose while you're at it and call it a day? (One of the party guests, whose character credit is "MAN EATING LEG", is Iggy Pop, who also wrote the score. Because Iggy's just as Indian as Depp.)

Crucifixion symbolism alert!
If you think all this would attract too much attention, well, you just aren't ready to make a movie. Raphael's old partner in crime, Luis, drops by for his share of the score and, when he doesn't find it, beats up the wife and son. Because no self-respecting ex-con like Raphael would ever take revenge for such a thing. 

Depp washes his sins away and, in doing so,
drives all the girls in the audience crazy with lust.


Just kidding! That night, Raphael goes all Mike Tyson on Luis, first biting off his ear, then breaking his neck. And he does all this in front of two hookers. That's OK -- he's going to be murdered tomorrow anyway! But first, he stops off to see his father, who performs a ceremony calling up the spirits to... well, I dunno, the old guy didn't say exactly. Then Raphael goes to town the following morning to get killed. A real popcorn movie, The Brave is.
Last War Dance in Arizona.

Marlon "Special Appearance" Brando plays McCarthy, the snuff movie producer -- if that's what he really is -- as if he never left the set of Apocalypse Now. Pushing himself around in a wheelchair, blowing a harmonica, mumbling his flowery dialogue (self-written by the sounds of it) through suspiciously large, red lips, the gargantuan method actor has apparently been visited by the ghost of Lee Strasberg with the instruction, "You are a talking whale!"

It's commendable, in a way, that by this stage of the game, Brando didn't care what people thought of him. But in comparing his bizarre maundering here to his epic soliloquy in Julius Caesar, you're almost awed by how far down he's come -- or rolled. And yet... you keep yearning for him to reappear in The Brave because his wackiness stands in such stark relief to the rest of the movie.

As for Depp's direction, it's Very Serious. A low shot of Raphael on one side of the screen and a priest on the other, while divided by the church, is a little too on the nose. On the other hand, his choice of keeping The Brave dialogue-free for the first ten minutes is actually interesting. Best of all is the early scene with Raphael applying for a job in a rundown office with faulty fluorescent lighting, a manager with a bad attitude and an unidentified, muttering freak in the corner of the room. (You have to see it to really appreciate it -- kind of like Orson Wells meets David Lynch.) Raphael being led through an increasingly-hellish series of dark hallways and giant elevators to meet McCarthy gives The Brave a genuine, welcome creepiness that never returns. Other than Brando playing harmonica.

Between takes: Brando minus his
hairpiece, while Depp wonders what the hell
he's saying.
In the wake of The Brave's poor reception, Johnny must have thought twice about directing ever again. Certainly the idea of tackling something as serious as this never crossed his mind. From here on out, it was clear sailing with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Alice in Wonderland, and the Dark Shadows parody. Like his idol Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp is more than willing to go from "most respected actor of his generation" to "human cartoon." Maybe he is The Brave after all.

Confession: My copy of The Brave is 30 minutes shorter than its official two-hour running time. That in itself should have prevented me from writing about it, but probably made me that much more positive about the whole thing.

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

THE FEARMAKERS (1958)

I'm no film historian, but I'll go out on a limb and declare The Fearmakers the first movie to expose push-polling -- the "art" of asking a question a certain way in order to get the desired answer and, thus, steer the public to a certain way of thinking. Something like, "Do you think The Ol' Fish-Eye is one of the best blogs about obscure movies, family hijinx, and satire of current events that you've ever read?" 

Alan Eaton, an army vet released from an enemy detention camp during the Korean War, returns to the Washington PR firm he built with his business partner, who mysteriously died the day after selling out the company to Jim McGinnis. Eaton discovers that McGinnis has been working as a front for a shady organization intent on manipulating statistics in order to shape, rather than report, public opinion for their own nefarious reasons. The deeper Eaton digs for the truth, the more his life is in danger. He shoulda stayed in the POW camp.

Don't look now,  but the guy with the
notepad is redder than a blushing cardinal.
The Fearmakers never explicitly states that Communists are pulling the strings. But when one of McGinnis' clients is the Committee for the Abolition of Nuclear War, you know that there's a pinko in the woodpile -- lots of pinkos and they're everywhere: the flight Eaton takes to Washington, the boarding house where he stays, and, of course, at work.
Responding to a beating by one of McGinnis' stooges, Eaton mutters, "I've been worked over by professionals. They call it co-existence!" -- the dog whistle of Communism. As John McCain, another POW, would tell you, peace is the first sign of treason.


"How did I afford an Edsel? Oh, I forgot,
it was free!"
Despite looking like a cross between Moe and Shemp Howard, Dana Andrews is agreeably low-key as Alan Eaton, prone to violence only when provoked. You can tell he's a tough guy -- when offered bacon and eggs for breakfast, he replies, "I generally have a cigarette and coffee in the morning." (Just how many people hearing that would have thought, Me too?) If that's not 1950s enough, Eaton's secretary Mary drives a spanking new Edsel, a desperate product placement for a car nobody wanted.

"Forget about 'Blue Moon' -- I'm such
a Commie, I sing 'Red Moon'!"
While Dick Foran and Kelly Thordsen are pitch-perfect as McGinnis and his scummy henchman Hal Loder, The Fearmakers' real surprise is 33 year-old Mel Torme as Barney Bond, the eager beaver of the PR company. Squinting through Coke-bottle glasses, nervously wiping sweat from his face, trying without success to win the respect of McGinnis, Torme makes for an unexpectedly good character actor in the Byron Foulger mold -- a mousy creep with a nasty side. Probably the only thing preventing him from carving out a second career in movies was the response from the audience -- "Hey, that's Mel Torme! What's he doing there?" (His credit reads "Presenting Mel Torme" -- conveniently forgetting that this was roughly his 15th movie appearance since 1943.)

By never using the word "Communist," The Fearmakers ages much better than most other anti-Red melodramas of its time. You can pretend that Democrats or Republicans are the bad guys here, and it would play just as well -- better, in fact, because they're pulling this kind of thing all the time. The brainwashing Eaton endured by the Reds is no different than that being conducted in the name of polling. Only now they call it "information gathering." Sounds less red, and more red, white and blue.

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