THE CAT BURGLAR. United Artists, 1961. Jack Hogan, June Kenney, John Baer, Gregg Palmer, Will White, Gene Roth, Bruno VeSota. Director: William Witney.
The Cat Burglar doesn’t have the most unique plot, the best actors, or the greatest cinematography. But what it has going for it is atmosphere. An atmosphere of low-rent criminals, sleaze, and the type of world-weariness and despair you’d expect to find on the margins of polite society. Plus there’s a pretty great fight sequence in a warehouse at the end of the movie.
Directed by William Witney, the story follows the tragic life of third, make that fourth, rate Southern California cat burglar Jack Coley (Jack Hogan). Coley gets more than he bargains for when he breaks into a woman’s apartment and steals a briefcase that contains – you guessed it – documents and papers that a foreign spy ring is more than eager to get their hands (and fists) on. As I said, it’s not the most unique plot.
Witney’s direction takes us to the low-rent side of Los Angeles: a pawnshop, the broken down apartment of a criminal low-life fixer, Coley’s ratty garden apartment, and a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes. Coley is a tragic figure, a man who knows he’s really not a very good person. In the course of the film, he gets chewed out by his landlady and beaten to a bloody pulp. He also redeems himself at the very end, demonstrating to himself that his life hasn’t been a complete waste.
All told, it’s a fairly bleak, albeit disconcertingly entertaining, little production. Part of this is due to the Buddy Bregman jazz soundtrack. Granted, it’s a bit unusual to have an early 1960s jazz sound to a taut, low budget crime thriller. But The Cat Burglar is, in many ways, a quite unusual film.
Yes, the story doesn’t really make all that much sense or hold up to scrutiny all that well. But in a way, it really doesn’t matter. The film is less about the story, than it is about taking the viewer a cinematic sojourn through the frighteningly sleazy shadows of sun-baked Los Angeles. And with Witney at the helm, The Cat Burglar does that pretty darn well.
THE LONG WAIT. United Artists, 1954. Anthony Quinn, Charles Coburn, Gene Evans, Peggie Castle, Mary Ellen Kay, Shawn Smith, Dolores Donlon. Based on the book by Mickey Spillane. Director: Victor Saville.
Victor Seville’s film of The Long Wait from the novel by Mickey Spillane, is an action-packed but mostly banal affair, bucked up somewhat by Anthony Quinn as a herd-boiled amnesiac who loses his fingerprints end memory in a fiery car crash that opens the thing.
Wandering back to his home town, he finds himself wanted for en old murder by the local cops, and definitely unwanted by the local crooks, who find his presence somehow threatening to Organized Crime thereabouts. Indeed, the only ones with a friendly interest in Quinn are a half-dozen beautiful women who – because this is a Spillane story – fling themselves at him, knees akimbo, and — because this is a 50s movie — take him up to their apartments end dance with him.
The story proceeds mostly by-the-numbers, competent but unremarkable, helped along by vigorous thesping from the likes of Charles Coburn, Gene Evans and Bruno VeSota as the sweatiest henchman in film noir.
Anthony Quinn, who cut his acting teeth playing small-time hoods in Paramount “B” movies brings a mean-spirited panache to the goings-on, and then…
… and then for some reason there are five minutes in The Long Wait of pure, sadistic brilliance: A protracted execution, set in an abandoned warehouse, with harsh lights, minimal sets and camerawork that spreads like an expressionist dream across the screen as Gene Evans taunts and toys with his bound victims until….
But that would be spoiling things. Suffice it to say that The Long Wait may be a more descriptive title than the producers intended, but it’s definitely worth the time.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION I mentioned that the music for the first ten episodes of the ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN radio series, which debuted in 1939, was composed by the young Bernard Herrmann, and that three excerpts from his scores for the series could be heard on the Web, played on a synthesizer by David Ledsam.
A few weeks ago I discovered that three complete Herrmann scores for the series were uploaded to the Web last summer, more than a year after my book came out. The episodes for which Herrmann’s music can now be heard are “The Fallen Angel,” “Napoleon’s Razor” and “The Impossible Crime,” which aired respectively on July 2, 9 and 16 of 1939.
Each score runs from ten to twelve minutes and is played on a synthesizer by Kevin Dvorak. I’m sure the music would sound more like the Herrmann we know and love if it were played on the instruments for which he wrote it, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing. Check all three out via the YouTube videos above.
For us old-timers “Gone Girl” is the name of a Lew Archer short story by Ross Macdonald. Now it’s also the name of a first-rate crime-suspense movie, directed by noir specialist David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 best-seller of the same name.
Most readers of this column are likely to have seen something about the picture, so I won’t bother to summarize the plot beyond saying that when beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears from her upscale Missouri home amid signs of violence, the media go into a frenzy and all but crucify her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her murderer.
There are several strong females in the film so perhaps I’m not revealing too much when I say that one of them struck me as the film noir woman to end all film noir women, and a manipulator of such epic proportions that she leaves Diedrich Van Horn and all the other Iago figures in the Ellery Queen novels choking on her dust.
A few weeks ago, with a bit of time to kill, I decided to tackle REDHEAD (Hurst & Blackett, 1934), the fourth of John Creasey’s 600-odd novels, the second of 28 that deal with Department Z — which in those days of Creasey’s youth was called Z Department — and the earliest I happen to own.
According to the invaluable Hubin bibliography, this item was never published in the U.S., not even back in the early 1970s when Popular Library was putting out original paperback versions of countless Creaseys from the Thirties. My copy is an English softcover (Arrow pb #417, 1971) and indicates that the book was revised for republication, although the revisions must have been done with a very light hand indeed.
Department Z has little to do with the operation, which pits a muscular young Brit named Martin “Windy” Storm and various of his cohorts against an American gangster known as Redhead who’s determined to bring his crime methods into England.
If Creasey took this notion from Edgar Wallace’s 1932 novel WHEN THE GANGS CAME TO LONDON, he moved the center of gravity to the remote Sussex village of Ledsholm and the ancient castle that dominates the area. Much of the book’s second half is taken up by a long long action sequence in which our guys inside Ledsholm Grange are besieged by two separate gangs equipped with revolvers, automatics, machine guns, armored cars, explosives, the whole nine yards of weaponry.
But since all the characters are stick figures, it’s very hard to keep the action straight or care who shoots or socks whom. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point (“The greatest criminal enterprise in the history of England was reaching its climax!”), and the king toad makes Lord Voldemort look like a newborn kitten (“Through the hole in the wall he saw the demoniac eyes of Redhead, green, fiendish, glowing with the blood-lust that possessed him”).
The writing is almost Avallonean in spots: “‘Be quiet!’ hissed Redhead.” And if Creasey preserved lines like “A bullet winged its message of death across the room, sending the dago staggering back”, I can’t help wondering what gems of political incorrectness he tossed out.
Fast forward to his books of only seven or eight years later, like the early Roger West novels (the first five of them collected in INSPECTOR WEST GOES TO WAR, 2011, with intro by me), and you see at a glance how radically Creasey’s writing skills improved over the Thirties.
Or did it take that long? I also happen to have a copy of the next Department Z adventure, FIRST CAME A MURDER (Andrew Melrose, 1934; revised edition, Arrow pb #937, 1967). It has all the earmarks of a Thirties thriller but the writing is so much more restrained and stiff-upper-lippish that it’s hard to believe it came from the same pen as REDHEAD just a few months before.
I don’t have copies of any Creaseys earlier than these but, judging from the quotations in William Vivian Butler’s THE DURABLE DESPERADOES (1973), both SEVEN TIMES SEVEN and THE DEATH MISER resemble FIRST CAME A MURDER in this respect. Of course, what I have is the revised version of the latter title, and perhaps Butler was quoting from the revised versions of Creasey’s earlier novels too.
But in that case why does the revised version of REDHEAD sound so different? I can only speculate, and perhaps, in the words of so many Erle Stanley Gardner characters, I’m taking a button and sewing a vest on it. But it strikes me as significant that REDHEAD was originally published by Hurst & Blackett whereas the publisher of all the other early Creaseys was Andrew Melrose.
Creasey once said that SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, the first novel he sold, was the tenth he’d written. Could REDHEAD have been one of the rejected nine? If there’s ever a comprehensive biography of that awesomely prolific author, perhaps we’ll learn the answer.
THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. Miramax Films, 1995. Andy Garcia, Christopher Lloyd, William Forsythe, Bill Nunn, Treat Williams, Jack Warden, Steve Buscemi, Fairuza Balk, Gabrielle Anwar, Christopher Walken. Director: Gary Fleder.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is a good film, perhaps very good, if a bit too firmly mired in its own neo-noir ambiance. Andy Garcia plays a character on the fringe of the underworld pressured by mob boss James Woods into settling his debts by beating up a romantic rival of Woods’ younger brother.
Andy recruits a team of other needy-seedy types to help out, including Treat Williams and Christopher Lloyd, and when the plan goes spectacularly awry, he’s given 48 hours to get out of town… while his henchmen get Steve Buscemi as the deliveryman for slow, painful death.
Motivated by quirky loyalty, Garcia decides to spend his last 48 hours trying to save the inept buddies who screwed things up in the first place, bringing on a nice, pre-doomed search for some meaning in one’s own death: a perfect noir conundrum.
Most reviewers found this too clever by half, but I thought it very deeply-felt, well-played and intelligent. Someone told Andy Garcia to “do Cary Grant,” and he makes a nice job of it. Even better is Treat Williams, whose brilliant, portrayal of a sub-normal Strong-arm should be held up as a textbook model to show every actor how to lose himself in a part, a powerful bit of acting which should have won him an Oscar.
Of course, some elements of his character may be in questionable taste, but it’s still a dandy performance in a film good enough that I wish they hadn’t felt it necessary to underline Garcia’s dilemma by having someone watch DOA in the background.
THE LAST RIDE. Warner Brothers, 1944. Richard Travis, Charles Lang, Eleanor Parker, Jack La Rue, Cy Kendall, Wade Boteler, Mary Gordon. Director: D. Ross Lederman.
One of the players in this film was later nominated for three Oscars, and it wasn’t either the leading player, Richard Travis, whose career never got out of first gear, nor was it Cy Kendall, even though he was always, as he is in this film, the best villain around, and always worth watching — the oiliest, the most conniving, and in a good old-fashioned way, a wonderful toad of a fellow with a eye always on whatever money he can make in whatever scheme seems the most profitable at the time.
And in The Last Ride, made in 1944 — war time, in other words, when rubber was scarce — that’s where the money is. In spite of the patriotic message this movie was intended to send, supporting the war effort, Mr Kendall is not only a captain in the police department, but he’s also the secret head of a gang of black marketeers in the tire business.
Problem is, the tires are shoddy, and as a result a couple of kids on a joy ride end up dead in a ditch. Travis plays Pat Harrigan, a detective on one side of the law, while his brother Mike is on the other and one of the members of the gang. They both have their eye on a girl named Kitty Kelly (Eleanor Parker), but her part in the story all but disappears after 30 minutes into the story, not much over the halfway point.
Travis tries to pull of the oldest gambits in the books, from the police department’s point of view, and the tale peters out from there. The beginning’s not bad, and some money was put into the production, but when a key point in the tale is covered in a letter to the police captain, one that has to read by the audience on the screen, instead of a short two minute scene that could have shown the same thing, you have to know that corners had to be cut somewhere, and it shows.
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In the late Fifties and early Sixties private eye series on TV were a dime a dozen. One of the lesser known of these was released on DVD by Timeless Media not long ago and, never having watched it back in 1960 when it was first run, I decided to check it out more than half a century later.
CORONADO 9 was a 30-minute syndicated series, released by Revue Studios, largely shot on location in San Diego and elsewhere, and starring 6’5″ Rod Cameron (1910-1983) as PI Dan Adams, a big beefy guy who conjures up images of a pro football player in middle age.
What makes the series unusual is that its directors and writers went out of their way to avoid the tried-and-true elements we tend to associate with the PI genre except for the chases and fights, which we also associate with Westerns, and of course for the first-person narration, although almost every episode cheats with scenes outside the narrator’s presence. Adams is so untypical an eye that, assuming he has an office, we literally never see him in it.
The main reason the series attracted me is that 16 of its 39 segments were directed by William Witney (1915-2002), the Hitchcock of the action film and my best friend in Hollywood. When it comes to visual excitement, most of Bill’s are not on a par with his great cliffhanger serials (one of which starred a much younger and leaner Rod Cameron) and Western features and episodes of TV series like BONANZA and THE WILD WILD WEST and THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, but the best of them are very good indeed.
Whenever he could take over a locale and shoot his climax there, he did it with glee, commandeering a Coast Guard cutter for “The Day Chivalry Died” and the San Diego Zoo for “Obituary of a Small Ape,” just to give two examples. My favorite among Bill’s dozen-and-a-third is “Hunt Breakfast,” which despite its unintelligible title is a near-perfect film equivalent to those Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novels that are central to the Fifties experience for many of us. In this episode Adams tries to save a friend and his family whose home has been invaded by three bank-robbing psychos, and the Witney visual fireworks run neck and neck with the violence.
Of the 23 episodes not directed by Witney the most deserving of mention are at least four which were apparently shot on location in New Orleans and helmed by Frank Arrigo (1917-1977), who usually worked in Hollywood as an art director.
The segments which take place overseas seem to have been filmed on the Revue back lot with help from stock footage and process plates. I certainly don’t believe that Arrigo shot “Film Flam” in Algiers, or “Caribbean Chase” in then newly Communist Cuba!
Among the actors who appeared once or more often in the series are John Archer, Richard Arlen, Al Hodge (early live TV’s Captain Video), DeForest Kelley and Doug McClure. The veterans of Witney’s Western features and earlier TV films whom Bill found roles for in CORONADO 9 episodes include Jim Davis, Faith Domergue, Patricia Medina and Slim Pickens.
Featured in two segments not directed by Witney is Lisa Lu, a well-known Asian actress best known over here as Hey Girl in HAVE GUN–WILL TRAVEL. A friend of mine who recently interviewed her tells me that in her eighties she is still acting.
As so often when Timeless Media releases a TV series, there are a few technical problems with the transfer of CORONADO 9 to DVD. But if you can snag it for a decent price—it’s listed on Amazon.com for $17.99, and someone on the Web claims to have found it at Sam’s Club for $12.88 — it’s worth having.
No one would rank Rod Cameron with the great cinematic PIs, like Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, Ralph Meeker in KISS ME DEADLY and Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN. But Liam Neeson comes within shouting distance as Lawrence Block’s recovering alcoholic and off-the-books investigator Matt Scudder in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, which is based on Block’s 1992 novel of the same name and came to theaters a few weeks ago.
Directed and written by Scott Frank and filmed noirishly in Brooklyn where the novel takes place, the movie has garnered mixed notices to date, with the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times going so far as to call it torture porn. I’ve seen nothing on the Web or in print that attempts to stack it up against the novel (except for one cyber-comment that I stumbled upon as I was finishing this column) so I might as well do the honors.
Since the book is narrated by Scudder, nothing can happen outside his presence, although Block cheats a bit in the first chapter where lovely Francine Khoury is abducted on a Brooklyn street and, after payment of $400,000 ransom by her narcotics-trafficker husband, is returned cut up into fresh meat.
Unrestricted by first-person narrative, Scott Frank shows us the psycho kidnappers at work here and later in ways Block couldn’t. The novel takes place in 1992, the film in 1999, so that we’re treated to a few allusions to the Y2K panic, which has nothing to do with the plot, and also to the sight of pay phones on the streets of New York City, which do figure in the plot and still existed, I assume, at the end of the 20th century but are rarae aves in today’s cell phone era.
The film’s climax is something like Block’s but also quite different, in ways that I won’t reveal here. Between beginning and end Frank touches base with Block only on rare occasions.
A host of the novel’s characters make no appearance: Scudder’s wealthy call-girl lover, the teen-age computer hackers, the various cops Scudder hits up for information. Although one of the perps’ victims in the novel survives her ordeal and gets to talk with Scudder, in the movie there are no surviving women. Indeed two important male characters make it through the novel alive but wind up dead in the film, and several other men in the movie, like the obese groundskeeper and the DEA agents, have no counterparts in the book.
The bloody incident that made Scudder a boozer is never mentioned in the novel but is dramatized for us in a flashback at the movie’s start, with the difference that Scott Frank morphs it into the catalyst for Scudder’s giving up the sauce and joining AA.
The streetwise black teen who calls himself TJ has a big role in both novel and movie but Frank’s version of the character unlike Block’s is a vegetarian and a victim of sickle cell anemia, although Frank mercifully spares us the rhyming patter and much of the it-be-rainin-out jivetalk of TJ according to Block.
Ironically enough, two of Frank’s alterations in the storyline seem to have been expressly rejected by Block. Late in both versions comes a scene in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery where a million dollars, much of it counterfeit, is exchanged for the 14-year-old girl who is the psychos’ latest victim.
In the novel the exchange comes off without incident, and Scudder specifically tells the girl’s family (on page 269 of the hardcover edition) that “it’s crazy to get into a firefight in a graveyard at night”. That craziness Scott Frank embraces, letting the bullets fly and the cars screech and crash away as in a thousand other action flicks.
A fter Block’s badguys have fled the cemetery, TJ tells Scudder (on page 286): “[I]f this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back [of the psychos’ vehicle] an’ hunker down ‘tween the front an’ back seats. They be puttin’ the money in the trunk and sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they’d go back to their house…an’ when we got there I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.”
Well, what Scott Frank wrote and directed is a movie and that’s exactly what his TJ does and how Neeson as Scudder finds the perps’ home base.
What Larry Block thinks of the picture I have no idea. It does capture something of the spirit of the Scudder series, and Neeson’s performance is excellent, thanks in part to his wisely not attempting a New York accent.
Most of Frank’s innovations help make the movie cinematic in ways that the dialogue-driven novel wasn’t and couldn’t have been. In the same league with THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP and CHINATOWN it isn’t, and the moments of extreme violence, especially to women, are integral to the storyline but may turn off potential viewers. (I saw it with a Vietnam veteran who later told me he had to close his eyes during some scenes.)
To anyone wondering whether to see it or not, all I can say is: Hit the Web, do your homework, make (or as the Brits would say, take) a decision.
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.