BECAUSE OF THE CATS. Fons Rademakers Production Amsterdam, 1973. International Coproductions, US, 1974 (dubbed). Bryan Marshall, Alexandra Stewart, Edward Judd, Anthony Allen, Sylvia Kristel, George Baker. Screenplay: Hugo Claus, based on the novel by Nicholas Freeling. Directed by Fons Rademaker.
If I ever knew this film existed I had forgotten it until I found it on YouTube.
By any standards this is an odd film. On one hand it is virtually hard core with graphic scenes of male and female full frontal nudity, brutal rape, and one really strange murder; on the other it is a well done and faithful adaptation of the novel that introduced Nicholas Freeling’s Piet Van der Valk to detective fans everywhere.
I can honestly say I’ve seen nothing like it.
I’ll go farther in that I don’t think anything really like it came along until the 1990s and Basic Instinct.
A group of well to do bored youths have formed a club and a sadistic, sociopathic, and hypnotic nilhist has turned them from a group of juvenile delinquents into a Manson like cult. When they break into the home of a well do to middle age couple (shades of A Clockwork Orange, which is nowhere near as graphic or disturbing) they smash the home up and when the couple surprise them, force the husband (and us — in flashback as the wife tells what happened to Van der Valk —Bryan Marshall) to watch her being gang-raped.
This is an extremely violent rape scene, more like something you might expect in one of Jess Franco’s later films than a detective story. The exploitative and voyeuristic aspects of the crime are blatant and it is obvious the director is having it both ways, both a depiction of a brutal crime and an uncomfortable glimpse at our own voyeuristic impulses collectively and individually. Those of you familiar with Italian giallo films of this era may be surprised how far beyond that this goes. I’m not sure I have seen anything like it in a mainstream film of this era, even some with a reputation for shock.
Van der Valk is called in and begins to investigate doggedly. You might expect the sex aspect to take a back seat then, but during the investigation Van der Valk meets a woman from his past (Alexandra Stewart) and they have graphic full frontal nudity sex albeit as a key element of the plot. Much as he is in the novels, Van der Valk is portrayed warts and all.
Later, one of the girls caught up in the plot, Sylvia Kristel, recounts another graphic murder of a young man replete with full nudity, sex, and a truly disturbing scene when all the girls, all nude, drown him while he is making love to Kristel. Prior to that a ritual held by the cult with a dead cat is truly uncomfortable to watch.
Eventually Van der Valk tracks down the hypnotic sociopath behind it all Eric Mierle (Anthony Allen), is nearly killed by him, and when his old flame kills Mierle saving him, Van der Valk stages it to look like he did the shooting in the true high-handed tradition of great detectives everywhere.
This is actually a good seventies detective film with Marshall well cast as Van der Valk (played by Barry Foster on television), and somewhat mindful of Freeling’s description in the book — albeit better looking. Almost everything from the book is here and accurate including Van der Valk’s French wife, Arlette, though she plays no real role other than someone to cheat on.
Even the graphic sexual content is true to the novel, though in the book it is revealed in Van der Valk’s Maigret-like interviews with victims and suspects. Presenting it this graphically in flashback rather than dialogue changes more than you might expect, and I’m not sure if the salacious and voyeuristic feel of the film is accidental because of that or deliberate.
Filmed in the flat seventies style matter-of-factly, though stylishly, with the rich colors of the era predominant in clothes and backgrounds (during the night swim drowning scene the water is startlingly blue and clear the nubile bodies a stark contrast to the horror of their crime), and a few psychedelic touch, it’s very much of its era, yet much more blatantly sexual than even many films meant to shock audiences in that era.
It’s almost as if they had taken one of those German, French, or Italian soft porn films of the era that used to show up late on Showtime and injected an actual detective story into it. It’s a bit wrenching if you don’t know what’s coming as if they didn’t want the audience to know quite how to react to it. It must have been truly uncomfortable to watch in a theater. I mentioned Franco, but it could also have been made by Jean Rollin, Tinto Brass, or other of the era’s more exploitative directors.
This is a well made and well told adaptation of Freeling’s novel, and it captures some of the qualities of his work and aspects of the novel I would have thought couldn’t be filmed. Marshall has a great face that certainly reflects his odd moments of reflection, anger, disgust, and pity. Still it is one of those films that always seems to be on the verge of saying something important and never quite gets it out.
But if nudity, graphic brutal sex, and feigned rape disturb you skip this one.
DASHIELL HAMMETT – Woman in the Dark. First appeared in Liberty Magazine in three installments, April 8, April 15 and April 22, 1933. Later published in Woman in the Dark, a digest paperback original collecting six stories, including the title novella: Jonathan Press, 1951. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1988. Vintage Books, softcover, 1989.
WOMAN IN THE DARK. RKO Radio Pictures, 1934. Also released as Woman in the Shadows. Fay Wray, Ralph Bellamy, Melvyn Douglas, Roscoe Ates, Ruth Gillette, Joe King. Based on the story by Dashiell Hammett. Director: Phil Rosen.
Actually I recently watched the movie first, then decided I didn’t remember the story all that well and not being able to locate my copy of the 1951 paperback, I bought the more recent one from Amazon for a ridiculously low price.
For only a long novelette, there’s a lot of story involved. Hammett’s prose is crisp and clear, and I found myself really enjoyed reading it again, after some umpteen years. If I were to try to summarize the story in as short a space as I could, it would go something like this. I’ll fill in more later as I go along:
A guy named Brazil (John Bradley in the movie, played by Ralph Bellamy) has just been released from prison for killing a man in a fight, and he knows he has to keep his temper from now on for fear of going back. In the course of events, however, he knocks a man down who hits his head on a fireplace. When Brazil learns the man is dying, he takes it on the lam.
This summary is far from adequate, of course, since there’s no mention of the girl who comes knocking on his door in the middle of the night (Luise Fischer in the book, Louise Loring in the movie, played by Fay Wray). Turns out that she’s on the run from the member of local gentry whom she’s been staying with as a live-in “house guest,” and all the people around know what that means.
It’s the fellow’s buddy who gets socked, though, after the two of them come to retrieve the runaway Luise. Brazil objects, not because the girl is good-looking, especially, but mostly on general principles.
For a place to hide out for a while he heads for the apartment of a former cell mate (Donny Link in the book, Tommy Logan in the movie, played by Roscoe Ates) and his full-bodies blonde wife Fan (Lil in the movie, played by Ruth Gillette), where they are welcomed, but when the police are tipped off, the safe haven suddenly isn’t so safe any more.
I hope I don’t spoil things by saying that it all works out, with a slight twist and a happy ending to boot, but a good part of the real enjoyment is Hammett’s tough, terse prose in the getting there, told in such a wonderfully atmospheric, precise fashion that I think the movie could have been filmed without changing a thing.
But while of course they did, and not only the names of the characters, most of the story comes through intact. There are two long opening scenes to set the stage that are not in the book, the first in which we see Bradley (Brazil) being released from prison, the second at the home of the local sheriff, whose daughter has had a long time crush on Bradley, and against her parents’ wishes, is there in his cabin when Louise comes stumbling in from the cold and the dark. (Fay Wray in a white dress stands out beautifully in the night sky.)
Ralph Bellamy seems to be a man of some wealth. I didn’t catch that that was so for Brazil in the book. Brazil seems to have been a rougher, tougher man than a Ralph Bellamy type, the latter seen most memorably lounging against the fireplace in his cabin, casually puffing away on a pipe.
There is a flashback in the movie that describes how Louise met her benefactor Robson (a suitably slimy Melvyn Douglas), softening her image somewhat. In the movie she’s a singer down on her luck; in the story it is less clear, but she sadly seems to acknowledge that when she is called a strumpet by the local folks, they may not be altogether wrong.
One scene in particular surprised me little when I saw it reproduced in the movie almost the way I pictured it in the book. It is when the lawyer that Brazil’s pal calls on for assistance repeatedly puts his hand on Luise’s knee, and she accidentally brushes it off with the tip of her cigarette.
What consistently breaks the mood of the movie, though, is the comic antics of Roscoe Ates as Bellamy’s former cell mate. Hammett could be amusing in a tough, hardboiled way. It isn’t over the top, but the movie really could have done without silly stuff like this.
Fay Wray is near perfect in her part, though, and the near pre-Code release date means we get to see camera shots of her beautifully long legs as she examines them for bruises, but there’s far more to her role than that.
2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY. MGM, 1996. Danny Aiello, Greg Cruttwell, Jeff Daniels, Teri Hatcher, Glenne Headly, Peter Horton, Marsha Mason, Paul Mazursky, James Spader, Eric Stoltz, Charlize Theron, Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher. Director: John Herzfeld.
2 Days in the Valley is sort of Harry Stephen Keeler meets Pulp Fiction. The film starts with a protracted interrogation which turns into a Drug Killing, which turns into a frame-up which turns into….
Meanwhile we pick up on unrelated plot threads about an aspiring detective, a weary vice cop, a suicidal -director trying to find a home for his dog, a high-powered agent and his brow-beaten secretary. And as the web-work plot tightens into a recognizable pattern, we’re suddenly in the midst of a wacky story propelled by colorful characters to a violent and highly satisfying conclusion.
THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.
This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…
Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.
I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.
The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.
The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).
Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.
Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.
You can see where this is going.
Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).
The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.
Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.
If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.
Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.
Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.
The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)
Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.
It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.
Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.
Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.
It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…
Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.
The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.
Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.
McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.
But one actor stands out.
Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.
He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.
Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.
This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.
If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.
I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.
It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.
For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.
To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.
THE PUBLIC DEFENDER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1931. Richard Dix, Shirley Grey, Purnell Pratt, Ruth Weston, Edmund Breese, Frank Sheridan, Alan Roscoe, Boris Karloff, Paul Hurst. Based on the novel The Splendid Crime by George Goodchild (1930). Director: J. Walter Ruben.
The Public Defender is a good, albeit somewhat simplistic crime film starring Richard Dix and Boris Karloff. The film benefits from rapid spitfire pacing, a believable protagonist, and its skillful utilization of humor to keep the overall mood light and fun. Directed by J. Walter Ruben, the movie definitely has its moments and its charms. But it doesn’t have all that much depth, either in terms of characterization or plot.
The film follows Pike Winslow (Dix), a wealthy playboy who, under the alias, “The Reckoner,” seeks to absolve an innocent man of criminal charges against him. Joining him in his task are two men, The Professor (Boris Karloff), the brains, and Doc (Paul Hurst), the muscle. They are crime-fighting triumvirate that, unlike the bumbling cops, actually gets stuff done. Too bad then we never learn actually why these men have decided to become vigilantes.
After Winslow learns that the father of his love interest, Barbara Gerry (Shirley Grey) has been unjustly imprisoned for a financial crime, he decides to seek out incriminating evidence that will both absolve Gerry and demonstrate who the real culprits are.
Gerry’s attorney lets on that he knows what Winslow is up to. But he not deterred. As “The Reckoner,” Winslow puts fear into the hearts of the real criminals by … leaving them business cards with the scales of justice on them. It’s all good innocent fun, in a way. Although he’s a playboy superhero of sorts, Winslow’s a cheerful guy and definitely not a broody, morbid Bruce Wayne sort of guy. Truth be told, though, Batman’s costume is a thousand times cooler than that of The Reckoner. Plus, Batman had much better gadgets.
Although Dix got top billing and was undoubtedly the star and box office attraction, Karloff has quite a presence in this one. He’s a poetry-quoting scholar who’s also evidently skilled in nighttime capers. Look for the fun scene with him using a flashlight to distract one of the criminal’s hired guns.
All told, The Public Defender is a fun little crime film with a solid lead performance by Dix and some great Karloff moments. But it’s just not all much more than that.
JOHNNY APOLLO. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Tyrone Power, Dorothy Lamour, Edward Arnold, Lloyd Nolan, Charley Grapewin, Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence. Director: Henry Hathaway.
Johnny Apollo is an crime film that benefits greatly from an exceptional cast, good pacing, and notable proto-noir characteristics. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the film stars a dynamic Tyrone Power as Bob Cain, a somewhat idealist college student who, in order to help get his embezzler father (Edward Arnold) out of state prison, transforms himself into a lightweight gangster named Johnny Apollo. Of no real help to him is his father’s unpalatable lawyer, portrayed by Lionel Atwill.
The story follows Cain (Power) as he teams up with a crooked and drunken attorney, Emmett Brennan (Charley Grapewin), and a gangster named Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), to earn money so he can get his father out of prison. Joining them on their not particularly wild ride through crime is Dwyer’s girl, Lucky (Dorothy Lamour), who begins to loathe Dwyer. She also develops romantic feelings for Johnny Apollo/Bob Cain.
Things get dicey when Brennan decides to double cross Dwyer. This leads us to an ice pick scene wherein Dwyer kills Brennan, a scene that begins with a staff member in a Turkish/Russian bath utilizing an ice pick. You just know what’s coming next! And if that’s not enough, the staff member leaves his workstation with the pick stuck there alone in the pile of ice. The camera captures it perfectly. Soon enough, Dwyer picks up the ice pick and enters the steam room. You don’t see him kill Brennan, but the callous nature of the crime is implied.
Dwyer (Nolan) is a brute and a sadist, but he’s also capable of charm and genuine affection. In some ways, he is a more urbane, but crueler, version of Bogart’s character in The Petrified Forest. Bob Cain/Johnny Apollo is clearly the film’s protagonist, but Dwyer is just a bit more interesting of a character. Much as in The Texas Rangers, which I recently reviewed here, Nolan is very good in portraying a villain.
About those noir characteristics I mentioned earlier. Shadow and lighting are often utilized to convey meaning. When we first see Nolan’s character, he’s standing in a courtroom waiting to be sentenced. His face is haggard and dark, signifying his violent side. Later on, upon being freed from jail and now back in his familiar surroundings with Lucky by his side, his face appears significantly lighter in tone.
Power’s character’s psychological descent is also conveyed through changes in lighting. When we first see him, he’s college student Bob Cain, not Johnny Apollo. He has a soft face and is resplendent in the sunshine, palling around with his college classmates and posing for a photograph shirtless. After transforming himself into Johnny Apollo, however, he soon gets a black eye in an altercation with one of Dwyer’s former associates.
Worse still is Johnny Apollo’s appearance upon visiting his father in prison for the first time. We see his darkened face, almost angular like Dwyer’s through bars, foreshadowing what fate awaits him in the near future. In one of the film’s next-to-final, albeit very brief, scenes, set in a darkened prison cell, we see Johnny Apollo without a trace of that soft light in which we first saw cheerful Bob Cain.
The film’s biggest flaw is in its slightly clumsy method of introducing its characters. The first two people we see in the movie are Bob “Pop” Cain (Arnold) and his lawyer (Atwill). For the next half hour or so, Atwill seems as though he’s going to be a significant figure in the film, but he soon disappears completely.
The scene in which Dwyer (Nolan) is first introduced, however, is very brief and is immediately followed by a couple of quick scenes in which random, unimportant characters, such Pop Cain’s cellmate are introduced, never really to be seen or heard much from again.
When we first see Brennan, he’s merely standing by Dwyer’s side at the latter’s sentencing. Although he makes a few facial expressions, he doesn’t have a speaking part in the film until later on. I found this an odd way to introduce a character that the plot will ultimately turn upon. That said, the film’s strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses.
In conclusion, Johnny Apollo is an eminently watchable and significantly above average crime film. Although the film does have some proto-noir characteristics and a seemingly doomed protagonist, it ends up having a light, happy, and somewhat pat ending.
But the film does show the dark side of human nature. It also touches upon the question of fate and destiny. Look, in particular, for the black (or dark colored) cat crossing Bob Cain’s path right before he ascends the staircase to Brennan’s office for the very the first time. That tells you something.
THE BIG STEAL. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen. Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) & Gerald Drayson Adams, based on the story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser (The Saturday Evening Post, 19 September 1942). Director: Don Siegel.
The Big Steal is an action-packed crime film starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the duo best known for their work together in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. Although it’s not as nearly as artistic as the better-known Tourneur film, The Big Steal is very much a solid piece of filmmaking. It benefits from not only from its strong cast, but also by its excellent pacing.
Directed by Don Siegel, whose great crime film, The Lineup, I reviewed here, The Big Steal defies easy categorization. It’s not so much a film noir as it is a hard-boiled crime film, replete with terse dialogue, witty and sarcastic banter between the two leads. Shifting allegiances also figure prominently. Plus, there’s a thrilling car chase sequence that predates Anthony Mann’s well-known car chase through a visually claustrophobic Manhattan in Side Street.
There’s something of light comedic aspect to The Big Steal, making it a bit less hard-boiled and more of a good old-fashioned, south of the border caper. Did I mention there’s a shootout between Mitchum’s character and some Mexican hired thugs that’s more reminiscent of a Western than anything out of what’s typically thought of as film noir?
The plot basics are as follows. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) arrives in Mexico in pursuit of Army payroll cash that he alleges was stolen by Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). He teams up with Joan Graham (Greer), who was cheated out of a comparatively meager sum of cash by Fiske, with whom she was having some sort of romantic liaison back in the States.
The two attempt to track down Fiske, all the while being pursued by the haplessly ineffectually U.S. Army Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix). Adding to the cat-and-mouse aspect is a Mexican law enforcement officer by the name of Ortega (Ramon Novarro) who is eager to let Halliday and Graham lead him to Fiske. All the while, Ortega has time to practice his English and ogle pretty Mexican girls poolside. John Qualen rounds out the cast as Seton, the film’s quirky, art collecting arch-villain.
With the notable exception of the final showdown, The Big Steal isn’t a particularly moody film. It’s not much of a psychological study, either. It’s simply a significantly above average late 1940s crime film with a coterie of colorful characters, all chasing one another up and down Mexican streets. It may not be one of Mitchum’s iconic roles, but he’s really quite good here.
There’s one scene in which he sits backward in a chair, smirking at his rival. It’s a pretty much perfect moment in a film that overall works very well. As for Greer, she’s no femme fatale in this. She’s just a gal along for the ride. All told, it’s a pretty entertaining one.
FOG OVER FRISCO. First National Pictures, 1934. Bette Davis, Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Hugh Herbert, Arthur Byron, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Irving Pichel, Douglass Dumbrille, Alan Hale. Based on the novel The Five Fragments by George Dyer. Director: William Dieterle.
Sometimes a film starts off really well, with a promising plot, a stunning female lead, and an atmospheric San Francisco nightspot. There’s also a gangster, a goody two shoes stepsister, and a duped fiancé, all of whom vie for the deeply flawed protagonist’s attention. What’s not to like?
But then all of a sudden, about thirty minutes into the movie, things just quickly fall apart, leaving the movie feeling utterly rudderless. That’s the best way to describe Fog Over Frisco.
Based on a novel by George Dyer and directed by William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola), the movie stars Bette Davis as Arlene Bradford, a scheming socialite and femme fatale. She manipulates her fiancé, Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot), into a scheme involving a criminal lowlife and some stolen government securities. Her father, head of the brokerage firm where Spencer works, thinks Arlene’s rotten to the core. Her stepsister, Val (Margaret Lindsay), however, isn’t willing to give up on her.
Davis is nearly perfect for the part of the scheming Arlene, portraying the doomed protagonist as a liar, schemer, and classic manipulator. You kind of start actually liking her, even though you know she’s up to no good whatsoever. Then she disappears from the film for a few minutes, leaving you wondering where she went and where the film’s headed.
And then you get your answer. She’s been killed, leaving the film without its best character. In contrast to an extremely focused first half, the second half of Fog Over Frisco is one big muddled affair with stock footage of car chases, too many characters, and no Bette Davis. It’s fast moving, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Who could the murderer be? Her fiancé, her sleazy gangster friend, and even her on-the-side love interest are all possible suspects, but it’s difficult to care. Somewhere along the way, the stepsister Val gets kidnapped, an intrepid newsman gets involved with the case, and it turns out Arlene had a secret husband who used to live in Los Angeles. If it sounds far too complex for a film with a running time of sixty-eight minutes, it’s because it is.
In conclusion, Fog Over Frisco starts off extremely promising, but ends as feeling like just another convoluted and mediocre B-film mystery with some ridiculous plot devices thrown in to explain away a clumsy story. As far as the fog alluded to in the title, there’s a bit here and there, but really nothing to justify its usage beyond a marketing device.
All told, it’s an average, if not below average, suspense film with little to recommend it beyond Davis’s great, albeit abbreviated, performance.
WITHOUT HONOR. United Artists, 1949. Laraine Day, Dane Clark, Franchot Tone, Agnes Moorehead, Bruce Bennett. Re-released as Woman Accused. Screenplay: James Poe. Director: Irving Pichel.
Without Honor was directed by Irving Pichel and written by James Poe, a distinguished writer for radio and film. (Though Poe wrote the screenplays for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Summer and Smoke, Lilies of the Field and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, he won his sole Oscar for Around the World in Eighty Days.)
For genre lovers Poe also is especially notable as a radio scriptwriter for classic series like Suspense and Escape (perhaps his best known adaptation is the brilliant nail-biter “Three Skeleton Key,” starring Vincent Price).
Without Honor followed the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope into theaters by one year, and the influence on the latter film on the former seems clear, with Without Honor playing as a feminized, suburbanized version of the classic Hitchcock film.
Laraine Day stars as Jane Bandle, a San Fernando valley housewife whose dalliance with businessman Dennis Williams (Franchot Tone) has been uncovered by a private detective employed by her rat fink brother-in-law, Bill Bandle (Dane Clark), who is still angry that she once spurned his advances and has been eying his chance to exact revenge.
Williams has come to the Bandle house to inform Jane that with a detective on their tails, it’s all over between them — he won’t divorce his wife as he had promised. A distraught Jane, who when Williams dropped in to lower the boom had been preparing shish kabob for her husband’s dinner (d’oh!), grabs a skewer and hysterically threatens to commit suicide on the spot. Williams grapples with her and ends up getting stabbed in the chest.
After Williams collapses in the laundry room, a panic-stricken Jane shuts the door on him but finds that the worst is yet to come: her snake-in-the-grass brother-in-law has invited Williams’ wife, Katherine (Agnes Moorehead), to come over the Bandle bungalow to discuss a certain matter of marital infidelity. Oh, yes, and Jane’s husband, Fred (Bruce Bennett, aka former thirties film Tarzan Herman Brix) should be along any minute now too….
This film has gotten its share of criticism over the years, but I enjoyed it. The performances are quite good, in my view. Tone is his customarily sophisticated self, but it’s Dane Clark who dominates the film, as a highly memorable etching in sleazeball venom. A rather censorious New York Times, which didn’t like the film, allowed nevertheless that “Mr. Clark does such a thoroughly good job in developing the revengeful brother into a full grown monster that one can almost forgive and commiserate with Laraine Day, despite her guilt of marital indiscretion.”
Laraine Day mostly spends the film looking terrified, though she does this well. Agnes Moorehead lends an interesting performance as a not entirely unsympathetic Beverly Hills matron. Bruce Bennett is convincing as Day’s somewhat dim husband. Essentially a post-war kitchen sink women’s melodrammer, Without Honor nevertheless also offers genre fans a pleasing repast of crime and suspense.
NOTE: This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp. Check out Part One of this series on this blog here.
BLACKOUT. Hammer Films, UK, 1954. Lippert Pictures, US, 1954. Originally released in the UK as Murder by Proxy. Dane Clark, Belinda Lee, Betty Ann Davies, Eleanor Summerfield, Andrew Osborn. Based on the novel Gold Coast Nocturne by Helen Nielsen. Director: Terence Fisher.
Dane Clark (1912-1998) is one of those actors that you, if you are, as I am, in middle age, have almost assuredly seen on television earlier in your life, even if you don’t match the name with the face. I recall him playing an FBI agent in Season One of Angela Lansbury’s beloved mystery series, Murder She Wrote, the “Watson” in that episode to Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. I don’t know why I remember this character, but I suppose I have to chalk it up to Clark’s acting skills, having seen some of his other genre film work of late. He’s good!
Dane Clark was known in the 1940s as the “B-list John Garfield,” but I don’t believe this appellation does him justice. (It’s a bit like when the great Ida Lupino is dismissed as the “poor man’s Bette Davis.”) Dane Clark was his own man. Both John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913) and Dane Clark (born Bernard Zanville in 1912) were Jews from New York City, but Clark came of much more comfortable circumstances than Garfield, graduating from Cornell and getting a law degree before ending up in acting (after stints in boxing, baseball, construction, sales and sculptor’s modeling — he had found lawyers weren’t doing too well in the Depression either).
In 1941 Clark married the artist and sculptor Margot Yoder (a distant relative of my family) and the next year appeared in several films (uncredited): The Pride of the Yankees (“Fraternity Boy”); Wake Island (“Sparks”); and, most notably, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (“Henry Sloss”).
By the end of World War II Clark was getting bigger roles, including that of the Bohemian artist in the Bette Davis identical twins melodrama A Stolen Life (1946); the escaped convict who has a desperate romance with Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947); and, in the Oscar-nominated film Moonrise (1948), the tormented Danny Hawkins, who is in love with gorgeous Gail Russell and has, most inconveniently, killed her fiancee (played, very briefly, by Lloyd Brides). Today Moonrise pops up on lists of greatest noir films though regrettably it’s not available on DVD (you can see on it Amazon instant video, however).
If you look around, you should be able to find on DVD some of Clark’s work as a lead actor in late 1940s and 1950s crime films (when he really came into his own as an actor), including Without Honor (1949), Backfire (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950; screenplay by Eric Ambler), Gunman in the Streets (1950, with Simone Signoret), Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), Blackout (1954; Murder by Proxy in UK), Paid to Kill (1954; Five Days in UK), Port of Hell (1954), The Toughest Man Alive (1955) and The Man Is Armed (1956).
I’ve recently seen several of the above films, the first being, for the purpose of this review, Blackout.
Blackout, as I have discussed on my own blog, is an English adaptation of Helen Nielsen’s Chicago-set hard-boiled crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951). Although transferring the setting from Chicago to London is slightly awkward, to be sure, overall I was really rather impressed with this film. It is quite faithful to the novel, even using some of the dialogue.
As the beleaguered hero, Casey Morrow, an American out to solve a murder he wakes up to discover he’s suspected of having committed, Dane Clark is excellent, as are the two lead women, Belinda Lee (sexy blonde heiress Phyllis Brunner) and Eleanor Summerfield (wisecracking artist Maggie Doone). A couple crucial supporting performances could have been stronger, but overall I would quite recommend this film.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Editorial Comment: This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp.