Friday, January 30, 2015

EYES IN THE NIGHT (1942)

One of the many things I love about old movies is their simplicity. Or is it the original audiences' simplicity? Because there are times you have to swallow an awful lot of malarkey with these things (which I happily do).

Take Eyes in the Night, a 1942 M-G-M programmer. While trying to clear a friend of murder, Police Captain Duncan McLain breaks up a Nazi spy ring. 

You'd trust a blind cop with a gun, right?
So far, so World War II. But what sets McLain apart from other cops is that he's blind. And like other blind cops, McLain has no problem getting the drop on bad guys with his own patented martial arts technique, or walking (with his seeing eye dog) to a greenhouse on a property he's never visited before. McLain even has perfect cursive handwriting. The only thing he can't do is explain how the hell he's capable of all of this.

Friday's ticked off because his
contract said nothing about
publicity stills.
And speaking of geniuses, his dog Friday can understand commands like "Hide behind the bed," "Take this message home," and, probably, "Make me a South Beach Martini, and don't be stingy with the Cointreau."  Friday is also capable of jumping 12-foot walls and figuring out how to escape from a locked basement by knocking over a pile of mattresses and... well, it doesn't matter. You wouldn't believe me, anyway. Suffice it to say, this mutt makes Rin Tin Tin look like Goofy. According to the credits, Friday is played by Himself, which is a strange name for a dog. (Memo to wife: That's a joke.)

"Four walls and a roof... or is it
four roofs and a wall?"

Smart as he is, Friday can't talk (yet), so McLain has a two-legged sidekick, Marty, to describe the surroundings when inspecting crime scenes. But when Marty's played by the perennially dim-witted Alan Jenkins, you know that the dog ultimately has the upper paw. Jenkins, on loan from Warner Bros., seems almost out of place in a Metro picture, even one on the lower-end of the budget spectrum as Eyes of the Night, but, as usual, is a welcome sight. Well, except for the blind cop.

Ann Harding is 41 but playing 50.
Donna Reed is 24 but playing 17 while
looking 35
. The magic of Hollywood!
While it's always fun to see not-yet famous stars in early roles, it's even better when they're playing the opposite of what you're used to. And here, it's Donna Reed as the 17 year-old slutty bitch (or bitchy slut) Barbara Lawry, who's having an affair with her stepmother's ex-lover (the soon-to-be murder victim). In Eyes in the Night's final scene, Reed's character is going on a date with the middle-aged McLain. What people called a happy ending, we now refer to as "daddy issues."


"OK, anyone who isn't a Nazi, say 'aye.'"
I'm not sure how many Nazi spy rings there were in America, but judging from 1940s movies, you couldn't open a refrigerator without hearing "Sieg heil!" In Eyes of the Night, the krauts make up the theatre group Barbara Lawry belongs to and Norma's entire household staff. Didn't anyone hear of background checks?

I have no idea what's supposed
to be happening here.
Edward Arnold plays Capt. McLain with what used to be called his usual aplomb. Sophisticated, clever, almost happy to be blind, McLain doesn't let his affliction stop him from doing his job, although I wouldn't want to live in a town where there's a blind cop packing heat.

But Arnold's style is partly his undoing. Adept at playing villains (like Satan in the Metro short Inflation), he makes me just a little uncomfortable when a good guy, as in Eyes in the Night. There always seems to be something nasty simmering just below the surface, like a desire to kick his dog in the face without warning. (Paul Newman admitted basing his performance in the Coen Brothers' 1940s-style farce The Hudsucker Proxy on Arnold. Take it from someone who's seen it -- it was a bad idea.)

Maybe audiences didn't buy the blind-cop premise after all. The studio waited three years before making another McLain movie with Arnold before scuttling the whole idea. These were also Friday's only movie appearances. Not much of a call, apparently, for seeing-eye dogs working with blind cops. Typecasting's brutal, even if you can hide behind a bed on command.

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To read about Inflation, go here.




Saturday, January 17, 2015

BELOW THE DEADLINE (1946)

Blessed with direction by the legendary William "One-Take" Beaudine; actors whose neighbors probably never even heard of; and a title that makes no sense whatsoever, Below the Deadline is more interesting than it has any right to be.

On the surface, it's just another B-criminal picture about one gambling king, Joe Hilton, mooching in on the territory of another, Oney Kessel. What gives Below the Deadline an interesting twist, though, is that Joe is a World War II vet who happily inherited the underworld job after the murder of his brother Jeffrey.

In a time when post-war movies portrayed vets as world-class heroes who, at worst, had a little trouble adjusting to civilian life, Below the Deadline must have been unique. From the moment we meet Joe, we know he's trouble. Having lost his soul somewhere on the Philippines' battlefields, he's returned with a redwood-sized chip on his shoulder and an itch for violence. One of those vets who hates civilians, Joe has no empathy for anybody's death outside a war zone.


"So your hat's still on, eh? Well,
take that!"
Joe's first move in taking over Jeffrey's business is beating the hell out of one his yeggs, Nichols, just to show him who's boss. The fight scene is strangely absorbing, being sloppy, violent and surprisingly lengthy. And it's always fun to watch a fight where neither guy's fedora is knocked off until almost the very last moment -- hats must have been tighter in those days. Joe's Jewish bookkeeper Pinky looks on approvingly, telling the others, "That's m' boy!", a catchphrase repeated throughout the movie. (Character actor John Harmon plays Pinky with an a naturalness that turns up in old B-movies from time to time. He's so good, so real that it's almost discombobulating -- how the hell did he get in this picture?)


Apparently her high school
graduation picture.
Still, even the hardboiled Joe needs a jane, and it's Lynn Turner, one of his croupiers. Discovering that she's underage, Joe fires her before getting serious with the wooing. Lynn is supposed to be 19, but doesn't look like any girl my daughter goes to college with. (The actress, Ramsay Ames, was in reality 26.) Lynn somehow sees some good in Joe, but failing to straighten him out, breaks it off. C'mon, lady, let the guy be himself -- a semi-psychopathic criminal with a violent streak!

Nor can Joe be reformed by his former CO, Sam Austin, who tries convincing him into going in on a private air transportation business. But something good finally takes hold, when Joe donates some serious scratch to an anti-gambling
Lynn is impressed at Joe's ability to
 get shot in the stomach and still not bleed.
mayoral candidate named Vail, a vet who lost his leg in Okinawa. Joe's rival Oney takes this personally, leading to a climatic shootout at Sam's office. (Guys, can't you take this outside? I'm trying to run an airline here!) Oney goes to the slammer, while Joe leaves the craps tables behind, taking a job with Sam and reuniting with Lynn. How he managed to avoid prison time for his illegal activities is left unexplained.
William Beaudine, in a rare
moment not yelling, "Cut! Print!"
Below the Deadline features all the hallmarks of a Monogram movie. Actors casting multiple shadows on the walls; grimy sets; a 65-minute running time; men's suit with mile-wide lapels, and women's hairdos that no stylist outside a movie studio would be able to replicate now. Special mention must be made to the aforementioned William Beaudine, who directed close to 1,000 movies and TV shows, from 1915 to 1968. (Now you know how he earned the nickname "One-Take".)

I'm no fan of remakes, but Below the Deadline is just waiting for an update: An Iraq war vet comes home to take over his brother's drug ring and wipe out his rival once and for all. His on-the-level girlfriend wants him to go straight. His army buddy tries to get him to join him in a software business. Climactic shootout in the giant offices of the software company. Comedy relief from the Jewish bookkeeper. 

There, Hollywood, I've given it to you. Just change the title. 

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