[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]
Winning, Red Sky at Morning, The Gang ThatCouldn’tShootStraight. Each one more atrocious than the one that went before. Which tends to raise the question: how does James Goldstone, the most conspicuously untalented director of the past ten years, get financed (Ernest Lehman of Portnoy’s Complaint is exempt, being very talented—as a writer)?
99 River Street (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), released in 1953, is one of most underappreciated film noirs of the 1950s and arguably the greatest film by Phil Karlson, the toughest film noir director, and certainly his most beautifully brutal, a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag. Karlson developed the film with John Payne, the former star of musicals and light romantic comedies who remade himself as a tough guy star. They had worked together in the lean, mean, twisty cult film noir Kansas City Confidential (1952), a film that inspired Quentin Tarantino, and hatched the story for this follow-up together.
The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blow and come up with a new plan. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99and44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
The hyperchromatic comic-strip explosion terminating the credits sequence gives way to an American flag flapping over Puget Sound, and the camera half-crawls, half-pans toward the dock to pick up a black limousine sleeking toward us. The cut recalls the zany political surrealism of TheManchurianCandidate—generals snapping to attention to salute a brainwashed assassin, a fat Senator pinked through the milk carton by a silenced bullet—and what immediately follows also suggests the offbeat cinematic imagination that, eight or twelve years ago, enabled John Frankenheimer pictures to crackle. Two black-suited gangsters spill a corpse out of the backseat, his feet cased in concrete, and heave him into the drink; down the body sinks to land kachunk on the bottom among a submarine orchard of similarly weighted cadavers in various stages of corruption; and with them rests and rusts a nostalgia-ridden criminal landscape, a grand Guignol hall of memories: slot machines, chemin-de-fer tables, safes, skeleton-stuffed phonebooths and automobiles. It’s a giddily hilarious moment in spite of, more than because of, the rinkytink Mancini music on the soundtrack. And the grim comedy continues as the dumpers of the latest human detritus are themselves spilled into another part of the water mere moments later—in a less reputable corner of the graveyard.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Francesco Rosi’s attempt to adapt the method of TheMattei Affair to the career of Charles “Lucky” Luciano fails almost completely. What made the earlier film such a morally disturbing and aesthetically challenging experience was its formal complexity as a real-life mystery story in which the levels and processes of the narrative act became implicated in the hypotheses and half-truths it hoped to sort out. No such structural complexity informs LuckyLuciano. Sections of the movie are compelling, partly because they are imaginatively filmed, partly—the greater part—because they provide us with fascinating historical dirt: e.g., the connivance between Vito Genovese (Charles Cioffi) and the United States Army after the liberation of Italy. But whereas the fractured chronology and mixture of narrative modes served in MatteiAffair to render the very abundance of its mountain of evidence meaningful, here the method merely produces a muddle.
The Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.
The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
While TheRoaringTwenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.
With sales of movies on disc falling with the rise of streaming video and digital movies, many studios have licensed their catalogs of classic movies to other labels. But not Warner Brothers. They started the Warner Archive in 2009 for manufacture-on-demand releases of films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release, and a few years later they started releasing Blu-rays through the same service. The difference between the formats, however, is that the Blu-ray releases from this line are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.
Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months.
Out of the Past (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – In a genre full of desperate characters scrambling and plotting to grab their slice of the American dream, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) is a hard-boiled tale of betrayal with an unusually haunting quality. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is the classic doomed not-so-innocent of the American cinema, a former private detective whose life is forever changed when he falls in love with the wrong woman: Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the runaway mistress of a gangster (Kirk Douglas, all shark-like smiles). He’s been hired to get both her and the small fortune she stole back. She has other ideas and immediately seduces him, sending him on a long road to a fatal dead end.
Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece has been called the greatest film noir of all time and I wouldn’t argue the claim. It’s certainly one of the quintessential expressions of the genre, a hard-boiled story of betrayal and revenge with its compromised PI, vindictive gangster, coldly conniving femme fatale, and flashback structure narrated by the wounded hero. It opens in an idealized rural Eden, flashes back to the corrupt city and an exotic escape south of the border, and crawls into a snake-in-Eden thriller of deception, regret, and scarred-over emotional wounds, and it’s beautifully photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s resident expert in shadowy atmosphere and clear-eyed perceptions.
The photography alone is reason enough to get the Blu-ray; in a genre of hard shadows and stark graphic imagery, this film contrasts the dark scenes of murder and treachery with the rural escape and the wooded retreats, an ideal that is slowly corrupted when the city crooks arrive. But this is one of the noir essentials and features perhaps Mitchum’s greatest role. He delivers more than merely a performance: his sleepy-eyed sneer and laconic delivery create the quintessential bad boy with a good soul and resigned acceptance of his fate. And Greer is blithely seductive as the alluring but hollow object of his obsession. “Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”
It’s a beautifully-mastered disc from an excellent source print, with no visible scratches or damage. The image is crisp and sharp and the contrasts are excellent, pulling out the details in the light and in the shadows. It features the commentary track by film noir expert James Ursini recorded for the 2004 DVD release.
Possessed (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – As Joan Crawford aged out of glamorous roles and glossy romantic dramas she remade herself in the 1940s as a tough, driven woman in a series of melodramas that gave the actress an opportunity to play big, emotional scenes. This 1947 drama stars Crawford as a woman who appears to be the very model of self-possessed strength and confidence except for her obsessive love for Van Heflin, a cad of a bachelor who is happy to play around with her but resists any commitment. She moves on and eventually marries the rich and kind Raymond Massey, but when Heflin re-enters her life and falls for another, younger woman, she spirals into jealousy, paranoia, and emotional instability.
Crawford gets to play both the proud, strong, glamorous woman and the flamboyantly crazy woman, sinking her teeth into jittery madness and exaggerating her trademark make-up (dark lips and slashes of eyeliner standing out from a powdered face) to something like a kabuki mask. This was made during the post-war fascination with psychiatry and analysis and plays out in flashback, framed by blandly authoritarian doctors providing elaborate diagnoses for the hysterical Crawford after she is found wandering the streets in a stage of shock in the opening scenes. The psychological explanations are simplistic and arrogant and the wonder drug that instantly makes her lucid is a movie gimmick, but that’s not unusual for the period. German-born director Curtis Bernhardt balances the portrait of high society affluence and fashionable lifestyle with the shadowy atmosphere of film noir as Crawford slips into madness.
It’s a handsome film and it looks great on Blu-ray, which shows just how rich and nuanced black-and-white photography can be. Features commentary by film historian Drew Capser and the featurette Possessed: The Quintessential Film Noir. Not to be contrary, but this this is less quintessential noir than a prime example of how the noir sensibility seeped into so many other films in the late forties and early fifties.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – James Cagney won his only Academy Award playing George M. Cohan in the rousing Michael Curtiz bio-pic. Cagney was a song-and-dance man before he found fame as a movie tough guy and he returns to his roots with a passion, dancing his way through the role with straight-backed, stiff legged formality while his body is coiled like a loaded spring about to leap. The story of his spunky rise in the showbiz world pure Hollywood hogwash, but it is delightful hogwash invigorated by Cagney’s cocksure drive. Walter Huston and Rosemary De Camp play his vaudevillian parents and Joan Leslie is the love of his life (for whom he writes the song “Mary” – “plain as any name can be”). It’s a real flag-waver of a show-biz tale, a Fourth of July celebration with Cagney setting off the fireworks.
Warner released the film as a two-disc special edition on DVD a decade ago. The Blu-ray presents and excellent HD edition of the film. Not all of the extras from that set have made it to this single-disc Blu-ray, but I’d say that the most essential supplements are there. That includes commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer (an expert on Warner Bros. studio history), the 45-minute documentary Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the 1943 propaganda film You, John Jones with Cagney, the 1943 cartoon Yankee Doodle Daffy, an “Audio Vault” of archival audio-only extras, the trailer, and the “Warner Night At the Movie 1942” collection of ephemera hosted by Leonard Maltin (with the cartoon Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid, short subject Beyond the Line of Duty, a newsreel, a Casablancatrailer).
Pete Kelly’s Blues (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Jack Webb is best remembered for his most iconic creation: Sgt. Joe Friday, the no-nonsense hero of the police drama Dragnet on radio and TV. But he played a number of other characters on radio and TV and in the movies, and one of his favorites was jazz coronet player Pete Kelly, first on the radio in 1951 and then in this 1955 movie. Webb directs and stars as Pete, the leader of a Dixieland jazz band in 1927 Kansas City, when speakeasies sold bootleg liquor practically in plain sight and the mob ran the streets.
It’s a mix of musical melodrama, with Pete as a struggling musician trying to keep a band together during the depression and Janet Leigh as a rich flapper who falls for the reluctant Pete, and gangster drama, with Edmond O’Brien as the mob boss running the protection rackets, produced in bright, vibrant Technicolor and CinemaScope. Webb was a big fan of Dixieland jazz and fills the film with club performances by his band (performed by Matty Matlock’s Dixielanders) and vocal numbers by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee (who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as an alcoholic torch singer). Webb’s performance mixes the terse, unemotional delivery of Friday with an edge of uneasiness and dialogue filled with period slang and colorful dialogue and his direction is clean and straightforward, light on atmosphere but full of vivid characters and telling detail. His casting is also interesting, with Lee Marvin playing nicely against his usual tough guy roles as an easy-going clarinet player and Andy Devine, who usually get comic relief roles, playing it tough as a cop who wants to shut down O’Brien’s mob boss. It’s a solid old-fashioned drama with great music, memorable dialogue, and lots of period color. The new Blu-ray looks great, with color that pops, and it includes two vintage shorts.
The Great Race (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Blake Edwards made this epic comedy, a tribute to silent movie serials and thrill comedies, a few years after It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which helps explain the unusual length and scope of the film. Tony Curtis stars as the clean-living, chivalrous, and chauvinistic hero The Great Leslie, always clad in gleaming white outfits, while Jack Lemmon is in black and sports a flamboyant mustache as his dastardly nemesis Professor Fate, a rival daredevil who, with the help of his loyal but dim henchman (Peter Falk), tries to sabotage Leslie at every turn. Like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, every scheme ends up backfiring on them.
The rivals engage in a car race from New York to Paris (they float across from Alaska to Russia on an ice floe) while a suffragette newspaperwoman (played by Natalie Wood) joins them, first as a racing competitor and then as a traveling companion. Blake Edwards has always been a fan of physical comedy and elaborate visual gags and this film, which he dedicates to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” plays the slapstick for self-aware nostalgia, taking cartoonish delight in the lavish recreations (from barnstorming biplanes to an old west saloon and a Russian castle), Rube Goldberg schemes with early 20th century technology, and comic brawls, the last of which is a massive cream pie fight in a Russian castle. While it doesn’t have the star-studded cast of Mad World, it has an epic running time of two hours and forty minutes, so long that it requires an intermission. It is, in fact, a little too long for the whimsical nature of the story, and it stalls long before the end, but there’s just enough gas to get it across the finish line.
The Blu-ray, beautifully transferred from a restored Technicolor master of the complete Road Show version, also includes the original Overture, Entr’acte and Exit sequences and an archival behind-the-scenes featurette.
Kismet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is one of the stranger exotic musicals from MGM’s Technicolor prime (though to be accurate, this was shot in Eastman Color). Howard Keel, who plays a beggar-poet with a lovely daughter (Ann Blyth), carries the slim tale with his outsized presence and rich baritone. Directed by Vincent Minnelli, it is a pure studio fantasy of Arabian exotica starring Howard Keel, who carries the slim fantasy of wizards and princes curses and treasures with his outsized presence and rich baritone. Blyth and Vic Damone are admittedly weak, but the score is marvelous, including “Stranger in Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles, Bright Shiny Beads,” though the best moment is Dolores Gray’s number “Not Since Ninevah,” as she tries to woo three Princesses into staying in Bagdad with a great song and dance performance in a huge, lavish set. The glorious production design and fantastic Eastman Color storybook colors never allows reality to intrude upon the make believe.
This disc features a superb HD transfer of the CinemaScope film with a DTS-HD 5.1 treatment of the original soundtrack. Supplements include an alternate version of the song “Rahadlakum” (in B&W) from the archives, an audio-only deleted song, two excerpts from the TV series MGM Parade about the film, the 1955 short The Battle of Gettysburg and Tex Avery cartoon The First Bad Men, and trailers from the film and the earlier 1944 version of the musical.
Man in the Dark (1953) could be the working title of many a film noir, a genre that routinely casts shadows (literal and figurative) over its characters. In this case, the title is something of a pun, as criminal Steve Rawley (stolid, sturdy noir regular Edmond O’Brien) volunteers to undergo experimental brain surgery to curb his criminal tendencies and emerges with his personality softened and his memory gone. But it’s not quite a clean slate. Rawley’s past comes back in the form of an insurance investigator (Dan Riss) suspicious of the wonder cure and his former partners, who know nothing of his treatment. Rawley masterminded a payroll heist and hid the haul right before he was nabbed, money which was never recovered. When his old partners stumble onto his new situation, they bundle him off to their hideout to get their share. They aren’t taking “I don’t remember” for an answer, but when working him over doesn’t get any results, his former girlfriend Peg (Audrey Totter) tries to seduce it out of him. When it becomes clear to them that he’s telling the truth, they keep him captive to help sleuth out the location.
A remake of the 1936 crime melodrama The Man Who Lived Twice, this version takes the story of amnesia into urban noir territory. O’Brien spouts tough-guy wisecracks until he emerges a kinder, gentler soul (he turns to painting flowers during his recovery), Ted de Corsia does thug duty as the gang’s heavy (Horace McMahon and Nick Dennis, the va-va-voom mechanic of Kiss Me Deadly, fill out the crew), and the investigator turns out to be a mercenary soul in his own right.
If Barbara Stanwyck was the Queen Bee of film noir (as she was dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in They Drive By Night (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in High Sierra (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.
It may be stretching definitions to call The Man I Love a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.