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Elisha Cook Jr.

Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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Review: Winterhawk

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Most of what is at all worthwhile in Winterhawk has little to do with Winterhawk (Michael Dante), a mysterious Blackfoot leader who captures a white woman and boy and asks that he be given smallpox remedies in exchange for their return. No smallpox remedies are ever forthcoming; instead, a grizzled band of mountain men led by one (Leif Erickson) who’s had dealings with the Indians in the past sets out in pursuit of the captors and the captured. As it turns out, they prove to be a more interesting assortment of faces and personalities than the tight-lipped, elusive myth they chase through the mountains of Montana. Not that interesting, though: Pierce’s characters tend to resolve into thinly textured types reminiscent of the most simplistically portrayed Disney frontiersman. Still, the first scene indicating that something actually matters in the film—and resists absorption into Winterhawk‘s I’m-ready-to-be-inspired idealism—takes place when the mountain men sit at Guthrie’s (Erickson’s) table and hedge around one another’s motives for wanting or not wanting to go after the Indians.

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MOD Movies Spotlight: B-Noir and Forgotten Crime

The Threat (Warner Archive), a 1949 programmer from Felix E. Feist, opens with a rat-a-tat energy, quite literally: a prison break, a whining siren, and then the almost unbroken blasts of machine gun fire standing in for a musical underscore during the opening credits. All accomplished with a couple a few simple sets against the black of night. That’s making the most of limited resources. And that’s part of the pleasure of this kind of cinematic archeology.

Felix Feist is no auteur but he made some minor classics of the noir genre, notably The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Tomorrow is Another Day. Here he has a good story (if not always a great script) and a truly menacing heavy in Charles McGraw as death-row killer Red Kluger, his tenor gravel and heavy frame carrying the threat of the title in every step and speech. Red isn’t simply engineering a getaway, he’s plotting his revenge against everyone who put him in prison and getting rid of anyone standing in his way.

We’re not talking lost masterpiece here; Feist is saddled with flat dialogue (“Now you know how a good detective works. When he finds something, he calls!”), generic sets and a cast of frankly non-charismatic leads (Michael O’Shea adequate as the cop hero, Robert Shayne a real stiff as his partner, and Frank Conroy almost a non-entity as the D.A..). But Virginia Grey is superb as a trampled flower of a showgirl and Feist allocates his limited budget cleverly, saving his resources for a few set pieces, notably the finale in a hunting cabin where the wait for a getaway plane drags on and the tension turns to violence with a dynamic crane shot and a brutal bare-knuckle brawl. This is the kind of punch that low-budget crime films could and, at their best, did deliver.

Follow Me Quietly (Warner Archive), a 59-minute thriller from Richard Fleischer (soon to be a major studio director but in 1949 paying his dues in specialty shorts and B-movies), is just as good, and just as limited. This was clearly timed to play the bottom of a double bill, but it has better production values than most B-movies and Fleischer devotes much greater care to the direction. He’s announcing his ambitions here.

William Lundigan is the lead detective on the trail of a self-styled executioner called “The Judge” and Jeff Corey is his loyal, supportive partner, supplying the wry remarks as Lundigan applies modern techniques to build a physical and psychological profile from a smattering of clues: an early profiler in a shadowy film noir world. Fleischer does a tremendous job of whipping up drama from a generally static script, though even he can’t generate much heat from the love-hate tension between Lundigan and spunky, persistent reporter Dorothy Patrick. But while Fleischer garnered well-deserved kudos for a couple of sharp cinematic stings involving the dummy they mock up from the clues, his more impressive achievement is the eerie mood he creates from a generic backlot city street set and the chase finale he stages in an industrial plant, full of pipes and tanks and catwalks and ladders, a labyrinth that Fleischer employs superbly before the film’s final jab. (You should just ignore the romantic comedy of the framing coda, just one of those conventions of B-crime movies designed to left audiences back out of the darkness before send them out of the theater.)

Both of these films are given solid presentations: no frills, as is the MOD way, but solid, sharp masters from clean prints. They are fine looking discs.

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Stranger on the Third Floor: Notes on the First Film Noir

German expressionism flowers in American cinema

Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.

Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.

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Elisha Cook

Elisha Cook Jr. in "The Maltese Falcon": an indespensible man
Elisha Cook Jr. in “The Maltese Falcon”: an indispensable man

I posted the piece on The Maltese Falcon last week. Today I rewatched a few minutes of They Won’t Forget and thought, let’s have a little remembrance for an indispensable man. This was written as an obit fifteen years ago.

If they gave career Oscars to character actors, nobody would have had a better claim to one than Elisha Cook Jr. Character actors were the life-blood of the classical American cinema, and there were dozens of redoubtable players whom audiences never knew by name but still took pleasure in reencountering – “There’s that guy again, he’s always good” – as they filled up the sides and backgrounds of scenes, the spaces between the stars, contributing a vital, credibility-enhancing texture that contemporary films largely lack. Cook was one of the few members of the breed that moviegoers learned to greet by name. And the “he’s always good” definitely applied.

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The Maltese Falcon

[Originally written for the National Society of Film Critics anthology The A List: 100 Essential Films (2002)]

In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – but pirates seized the galley carrying the priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.

The black bird
The spell cast by the black bird

That crawl appears following the opening credits of The Maltese Falcon, set to dreamy-sinister music and laid over a dark image of the peregrine statuary seemingly poised in some undiscovered tomb. The grammar is regrettable (surely it should be Knights-Templar?), and suggestive of some haste. Was the foreword perhaps added at the last minute, in an act of desperation, after preview audiences had grown fidgety with reel upon reel of baroque conversations and ornately peculiar comings and goings in a collection of offices and hotel rooms purporting to be modern-day (1941) San Francisco? More than half the film elapses before anyone even mentions the titular bird, let alone accounts for its immense value and lurid history. Yet strike the keynote with that one-sentence prelude and the mantle of legend settles over the entire proceedings.

Of course, The Maltese Falcon has become positively encrusted with legend in the six decades since its release. It’s the classic hardboiled private-eye movie; the nervy maiden offering of its celebrated director, John Huston; the first glamorous star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, an icon of American cinema and the 20th century’s definition of existential cool; and still the most triumphantly well-cast movie from Hollywood’s golden age (rivaled only by Casablanca). Watching The Maltese Falcon now, everybody and his brother know they’re in the presence of something extraordinary. But it’s tantalizing to contemplate how easily the brass ring might have been missed – how close the picture might have come to being just another detective thriller, like the two previous screen versions of Dashiell Hammett’s groundbreaking novel (respectively so-so, in 1931, and ludicrous, in 1936).

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