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Monthly Archives: November 2011

Magic Town (Oct. 7, 1947)

Complaining that William A. Wellman’s Magic Town is built on a faulty premise is kind of like complaining that Cadbury Creme Eggs are too sweet, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Magic Town, which is written by frequent Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, is about a public opinion pollster named Lawrence “Rip” Smith (James Stewart) whose small polling company has just gone out of business because of high overhead costs. To stay afloat, Rip starts looking for a mathematical miracle in order to conduct public opinion polls without nationwide coverage.

He finds the shortcut he’s been looking for in a little town called Grandview.

You see, Grandview has the exact same distribution of Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young, farmers and laborers, and so on, as the nation as a whole. In other words, Grandview thinks exactly the same way the entire United States does. Instead of exhaustive telephone polling of representative swaths of the nation, all Rip will need to do is find out what people in Grandview think, and he’ll be able to extrapolate the results.

The catch is that the people of Grandview can’t know what Rip is up to, otherwise they’ll become self-conscious, and it’ll kill the goose that lays golden eggs. So Rip and his partners, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), head for Grandview, where they pass themselves off as insurance men from Hartford, Connecticut. They’ll engage in stealth polling, pretending to offer insurance policies while they’re really making note of the current issues the citizens of Grandview are all too willing to sound off about.

Rip’s plan hits a snag as soon as he hits town, where he reconnects with an old friend from his days in the service — Mr. Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) — who is now principal of Grandview High School. The snag is pretty local girl Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who’s a civic crusader, and is constantly pushing to modernize the town and build a new civic center.

Rip’s “perfect” town and its “perfect” demographics can’t be altered in any way for his covert polling operation to work, so he opposes Mary’s plans. He tells the city council that Grandview is “A sturdy challenge to the evils of the modern era.” He encourages them not to modernize anything and not to change anything.

And herein lies the problem, and the reason I said that Magic Town is built on a faulty premise. Grandview supposedly perfectly mirrors the demographics of the United States as a whole, but it’s consistently represented as an idyllic Utopia, unchanging, and a refuge from the outside world. (It’s also oddly free of blacks and Jews.)

So Magic Town is less about a town that represents America in miniature than it is about one of the most enduring American myths — the sanctity and perfection of small-town life. Grandview doesn’t represent what America actually is, it’s what America wishes it was.

Rip finds happiness in Grandview. He and Mary fall in love. He and Hoopendecker relive old times. Rip coaches the boys’ basketball team and turns them into winners.

All this could have been funny, romantic, and charming, but the film persists with its idiotic plot about opinion polling. Eventually Mary finds out what Rip is really up to and “outs” him in the press. There follows a nationwide rush to move to this “mathematically perfect” town. The civic center is approved and the citizens of Grandview become full of themselves and start forming and selling their own opinions.

And just as Rip predicted, their self-consciousness destroys everything, and results in the following newspaper headline: “GRANDVIEW COMPLETES FIRST POLL. 79% Favor Woman for President. ‘RESULT RIDICULOUS!’ SAYS EXPERT.”

All the newcomers move out of the now not-so-magic town, but things don’t go back to normal. Grandview is in shambles, and it’s up to Rip to fix things.

Despite the weak story, I enjoyed all of the actors in Magic Town, especially Stewart. He’s been parodied and impersonated so many times that it’s easy to forget what a good actor he was. He didn’t always play good guys, but when he did, no one projected the same kind of sweetness, generosity, and earnestness.

Magic Town is sort of a “greatest hits” compilation of earlier, better films that Stewart starred in. There’s the same celebration of small-town life found in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and there’s even a scene in which Stewart gives an impassioned speech while being supported by a bunch of kids, just like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It’s nowhere near as good as either of those films, but it’s not without its modest pleasures, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

Quai des Orfèvres (Oct. 3, 1947)

Nothing spices up a love triangle like murder.

And nothing elevates a routine police procedural like the sure hand of director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is ultimately less interested in the mechanics of unraveling a murder mystery than he is in showing human life in all of its sordid glory.

Quai des Orfèvres is based on Stanislas-André Steeman’s 1942 novel Légitime défense, which Clouzot adapted from memory when he was unable to locate a copy.

The plot isn’t hard to summarize. What is hard to convey is the richness of its characters and its evocation of the messiness of real life.

Quai des Orfèvres is a film in which a woman complains about a nail in her shoe poking her foot, in which a tense police interview takes place next to a pair of cops inspecting and discussing a fishing pole, in which a police inspector who comes round asking questions ends up shuffling around on carpet slippers because the floors have just been waxed, and in which a man opens his veins in a jail cell on Christmas Eve while the prostitute in the cell next to him natters on about inconsequential matters, not realizing what’s going on right next to her.

The film demonstrates a sense of the movement of time that few films do. It begins in early December and marches on inexorably toward Christmas. At first, Paris looks cold and damp, but toward the end of the picture we see fat flakes of snow beginning to fall slowly outside the windows of the police station.

The aforementioned plot involves a bald, chubby pianist-accompanist named Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier) and his coquettish wife, a music-hall singer whose stage name is Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair). The two couldn’t be less alike, and Maurice is constantly jealous of his wife. The two share a friendship with their neighbor, Dora Monier (Simone Renant), a photographer who is as perceptive and close-lipped as Maurice and Jenny are hot-tempered and argumentative.

Things come to a head when Jenny begins meeting with a dirty-old-man producer named Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin, a legend of the French stage, in his last film role). She wants a part in a movie. Maurice wants Brignon to stay far, far away from his wife.

On the night when Jenny is set to go to Brignon’s house for a romantic dinner, Maurice cooks up a half-baked scheme. He’ll go to the theater for a show and be seen by his friends in the business before and after the show, but during the show, he’ll quietly slip out with his revolver in his pocket and drive to Brignon’s house.

It’s never made clear whether he plans to kill both Brignon and his wife or just Brignon, and we never find out, because when he arrives at Brignon’s house, Brignon has already been killed.

And worse, when he flees the scene, he finds his car has been stolen, which means he barely gets back to the theater in time to shuffle out with the stragglers, which pokes a few holes in his alibi.

Meanwhile, Jenny admits to her friend Dora that she hit Brignon over the head with a bottle when he became too amorous, and Dora goes to Brignon’s house to clean up the scene.

Enter Inspector Antoine of the Paris police (Louis Jouvet).

Inspector Antoine is no Sherlock Holmes. He’s a detective for a homicide department that currently has a 48% clearance rate. But he is a dogged investigator, and as any Columbo fan knows, beware a hangdog police detective with a runny nose who never, ever gives up.

The character of Antoine — perfectly played by Jouvet — is a great example of how Clouzot injects little unexpected moments to make characters three-dimensional. For instance, Antoine is a single father raising a mixed-race son. When he learns that his son has failed one of his final exams — that pesky geometry — Antoine is upset, and mutters that he’ll just have to give his son the Meccano set he already bought him as a Christmas present instead.

Oh, and remember that love triangle I referred to in the lede? At first it seems that Dora has feelings for Maurice, but it very quickly becomes clear that her feelings are for Jenny. The fact that she is a lesbian is handled delicately, but is confirmed late in the film when Antoine tells her, “When it comes to women, we’ll never have a chance.”

Quai des Orfèvres is a remarkable film. It doesn’t have the heart-stopping suspense of some of Clouzot’s more famous later pictures, like Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) (1953) and Diabolique (1955), but it’s an extraordinarily well-made, well-acted, richly textured, and involving movie that I couldn’t wait to see again as soon as it was over.

The Unsuspected (Oct. 3, 1947)

If you’re looking for proof that a mystery doesn’t have to be difficult to figure out to be thoroughly involving, look no further than Michael Curtiz’s The Unsuspected.

Claude Rains stars as Victor Grandison, the “genial host” of the radio program The Unsuspected on the fictional WMCB network. Grandison has turned his fascination with gruesome crimes into a lucrative career recounting tales of real-life murders to a nation of rapt listeners.

Roslyn Wright (Barbara Woodell), Grandison’s secretary, is the killer’s first victim. She’s working late in Grandison’s mansion in Croton, New York, when the door opens and a man’s shadow is thrown over the wall behind her. He strangles her, then hangs her from a chandelier to make it look like suicide.

Grandison lives with his niece, Althea (Audrey Totter), whom he maneuvered into seducing and then marrying Oliver Keane (Hurd Hatfield), who was set to marry Grandison’s other niece, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield). Matilda is currently missing, presumed dead, after the ship she was traveling on was lost at sea. Althea is a grasping, scheming young woman who will do anything for money. Her husband Oliver really loved Matilda and has seemingly been on a bender since he married Althea.

The plot kicks into gear when Steven Francis Howard (Ted North) shows up, claiming he married Matilda shortly before she was lost at sea, and consequently is the heir to her fortune. This news is not taken well by Grandison, who has been moving the people in his life around like chess pieces in order to gain control of Matilda’s fortune.

Part of the fun of The Unsuspected is how the entire thing plays out as though it’s one of Grandison’s radio plays come to life. He’s the master of ceremonies, pushing and pulling, scheming and finagling.

He even uses 16″ transcription discs — which were used to record radio shows for later broadcast — as a part of his schemes, to divert and confuse people.

As I said, the identity of the killer isn’t difficult to suss out, and The Unsuspected is more of a thriller than a mystery, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a first-rate thriller, brilliantly directed by Curtiz and gorgeously shot by his cinematographer, Elwood “Woody” Bredell. Even though the story itself is standard stuff, the film is full of arresting visuals, recurring motifs like faces reflected upside down, and brilliant little moments like the one in which Mr. Press (Jack Lambert — recently seen as the villainous “Claw” in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma) sits in a dark hotel room. The neon sign outside says “Hotel Peekskill,” but when the shot cuts to inside the room, all we can see is “kill,” blinking on and off hypnotically.

The film isn’t perfect. Ted North isn’t a very good actor, and his scenes lack a certain something. (Interestingly, North is listed in the opening credits as “Introducing Michael North,” even though this was his last film. It was the first time he was credited as “Michael,” not “Ted,” but he’d had significant parts in plenty of films before, most recently The Devil Thumbs a Ride.)

But Curtiz wisely doesn’t make North the focus of the film, and allows Rains to carry things, propelled by taut pacing and Franz Waxman’s compelling score. Aside from North, the actors are all good, especially Totter, whose role is enjoyably juicy. I also really liked Constance Bennett as Grandison’s witty, smart-mouthed assistant, Jane Moynihan. She delivers my favorite line of the picture: “After slaving all day over a hot typewriter, there’s nothing I like better than a swan dive into a bottle of bourbon.”

If you enjoy classy, well-made thrillers, The Unsuspected is well worth seeking out.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (Sept. 26, 1947)

The last of RKO’s four Dick Tracy pictures employs horror icon Boris Karloff to tell a hard-boiled crime story with a sci-fi twist.

Directed by John Rawlins and produced by Herman Schlom, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome gives top billing to Karloff, not Ralph Byrd, but it hits a lot of the same notes as the first three films.

I was sad to see the last of the Dick Tracy pictures. I thought they were some of the best programmers from the ’40s, second only to Columbia’s Whistler series. I preferred Morgan Conway — who starred in the first two movies — to Byrd, but all the films were action-packed, fast-paced police procedurals with lots of humor. In short, they were great adaptions of Chester Gould’s comic strip.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome begins with a dramatic shot of a noose silhouetted on a wall. But then the camera pans to the left and we see that it’s just part of the outdoor decor of a dive bar called “Hangman’s Knot.” (Not to be confused with “The Dripping Dagger,” the waterfront dive in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.)

The hulking Karloff shambles into the bar, takes a shot without paying, and asks to talk to the disreputable-looking piano player, “Melody” Fiske (Tony Barrett).

Yes, Karloff’s character is really named “Gruesome,” and together with Melody and a Coke bottle glasses-wearing character named “X-Ray” (Skelton Knaggs), he robs banks using a unique nerve gas developed by Dr. A. Tomic (Milton Parsons) and his assistant, I.M. Learned (June Clayworth).

Gruesome learns about the nerve gas firsthand, when he accidentally doses himself and winds up with rigor mortis for about an hour. Gruesome’s “dead” body provides plenty of laughs, especially when Dick Tracy’s partner Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) tries pushing his stiff leg down, and the rest of his body rises up like a corpse rising from the grave.

“I tell you, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff,” Pat says.

“Looks that way,” Dick Tracy responds.

Even though the gas causes temporary rigor mortis in anyone who breathes it, the scenes in which Gruesome and his crew release the gas into banks are more like one of those “stopping time” bits than anything else, since the body-freezing effect of the gas is achieved by slowing down and then stopping the film.

It’s silly, but so is a taxidermist named “Y. Stuffum” (a throwaway gag in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome). Chester Gould always delighted in punctuating the violent goings-on in his strips with puns and silly humor, and the RKO Dick Tracy series did the same. While the series never used any of Gould’s original villains, they got the tone of the strip just right.

Railroaded (Sept. 25, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s Railroaded represents a number of missed opportunities and a few modest successes.

In 1947, Mann made his first really good film noir, Desperate, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures. It wasn’t a perfect film, but the actors were decent, the story was suspenseful, and many of the lighting setups by Mann and his cinematographer, George E. Diskant, were stunning.

Railroaded was the next film he made. While I was watching it, I found myself frequently saying “If only…”

If only the script was more focused. If only the music wasn’t so terrible. If only the actors were talented. If only the film featured more screen time for the interesting villains and less screen time for the uninteresting heroes. If only Mann had been given a larger budget. If only he had worked with cinematographer John Alton.

But if you want to watch that kind of movie, you have to dig into Mann’s later work; his six collaborations with Alton, made between 1947 and 1950, or the five westerns he made with James Stewart between 1950 and 1955. Railroaded is a modestly entertaining little picture if you have no expectations, but if you’re familiar with Mann’s later work, it’s bound to disappoint.

Mann made Railroaded for Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.), a dependable old Poverty Row workhorse. It was the last really cut-rate movie that Mann would make. (P.R.C. was in the process of being bought by the powerful British film distributor J. Arthur Rank, and P.R.C.’s name would soon be changed to “Eagle-Lion International” to class it up a little. It was through Eagle-Lion that Mann’s excellent T-Men would be released later in 1947.) While Mann’s budgets were low, he was able to work with less studio control at Eagle-Lion International than he had been faced with at RKO, Universal, Paramount, and Republic.

In Jeanine Basinger’s book Anthony Mann (published in 1979; expanded and republished in 2007), she writes that Railroaded “is more unified than Desperate and points toward the coherence of Mann’s later works. It is perhaps his first really unified film, presenting the story of a young woman … and her attempts to clear her brother’s name of a murder charge.” I don’t agree with Basinger’s assessment, and find Railroaded an even more uneven film than Desperate.

Guy Roe was Mann’s cinematographer on Railroaded, and even though he’s not as good as Alton, there are still a number of impressive sequences, particularly the robbery that opens the picture.

John Ireland (the only actor in the film with any talent) plays a sneering criminal named Duke Martin who perfumes his bullets. (What’s a B-noir bad guy without a gimmick or two?)

The robbery is of a joint controlled by Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon). It’s a numbers operation hidden in the back of a beauty shop run by Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph). Clara is Duke’s girlfriend, and the inside job was supposed to be a cinch, but the cops show up, and Duke snuffs one of them, which sets the events of the film in motion.

Duke arranged everything to point in the direction of a patsy, Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly). Steve is a young guy who lives with his sister, Rosie Ryan (Sheila Ryan), and his mother, Mrs. Ryan (Hermine Sterler). At the breakfast table, Rosie talks about the movie she saw the night before, and how she cried at the end, when the police got their man. Even though he was a criminal, she felt bad for him. Steve is unsympathetic, and says “Maybe some guys need a goin’ over.” Minutes later the police bust in and arrest him for murder. (John C. Higgins’s screenplay, which is based on a story by Gertrude Walker, could have used more clever and ironic moments like this one.)

Things look bad for Steve. Duke used Steve’s scarf as a mask during the robbery. Steve’s car was stolen and used as the getaway vehicle. A paraffin test to see if Steve has recently fired a gun comes up negative, but that doesn’t mean much after Duke’s partner, Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle), who was shot during the robbery, gives a deathbed confession that implicates Steve.

Railroaded isn’t actually a very accurate title for the film, since the cops don’t railroad Steve. They work with the evidence they have. (Framed would have been a more accurate title.) Unlike Desperate, which followed an innocent man’s terrifying flight from both gangsters and the police, the unjustly accused protagonist of Railroaded pretty much disappears from the film as soon as he’s jailed. Enter Sgt. Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), a police detective who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Ryans, and is still sweet on Rosie.

Rosie believes her brother is innocent, and eventually starts to convince Sgt. Ferguson. This is where the picture really took a nosedive for me. Sheila Ryan is nice to look at, but she’s a completely unconvincing actress. Beaumont is even worse. He brings the same gravitas to his role as Sgt. Ferguson that he did to the scenes on TV a decade later in which he punished Wally and The Beav. Watching his scenes is like watching grass grow, and he and Sheila Ryan are the protagonists of Railroaded, not bit players.

With no one to root for, the only enjoyment I got out of Railroaded was watching John Ireland’s scenes, especially the ones with Jane Randolph. With the heat on, Duke orders Clara to hole up and stay off the booze. He’s planning one last score — a robbery of the Club Bombay, where the vigorish from Ainsworth’s bookie shops goes. Duke figures he can get revenge on Ainsworth and make off with $30 to $40 grand, which he’ll use to finance his and Clara’s getaway to South America. Of course, he can’t keep Clara off the sauce, but things aren’t all bad, since occasionally something exciting happens, like a vicious catfight Clara gets into with Rosie that Duke impassively watches while hidden:

Railroaded is a pretty typical P.R.C. product. The sets look like they’re made out of cardboard, the dialogue is stilted, the music is awful, and actors who can carry a scene are in the minority. Stretches of the film are entertaining, and occasionally the cinematography and editing create suspense and some real excitement, but overall, this isn’t one of Mann’s better pictures. There are plenty of people who champion the film, but for me, if a picture doesn’t have decent actors and strong characterizations, it doesn’t hang together. A few great scenes do not a great film make.

Skepp till India land (Sept. 22, 1947)

Ingmar Bergman’s third time in the director’s chair, Skepp till India land (A Ship to India), was released in Sweden in September 1947 and was shown at the 2nd Cannes Film Festival around the same time.

It was the first Bergman film to be shown in the United States, where it was released in 1949 as Frustration.

Frustration isn’t a bad title. It is a film about angry, trapped, and frustrated people, after all. But A Ship to India is such a beautifully understated title, and it has a touch of irony. It evokes exoticism and adventure, but for most of the film, the characters are stifled and miserable, and trapped in one dreary place.

The film, which is based on a play by Martin Söderhjelm, begins with a handsome young sea captain named Johannes Blom (Birger Malmsten) returning to Sweden after being away for eight years. He learns from an old friend, Sally (Gertrud Fridh), that his father died of pneumonia while he was away, but he seems strangely unmoved by the news. Sally has fallen on hard times, and seeing her upsets Johannes.

He walks down to the beach and falls asleep on the rocks, remembering his earlier life.

He was born with a hump on his back and his father beat him mercilessly when he was a child. His father, Alexander Blom (Holger Löwenadler), was the captain of a salvage vessel, and lived on it with his crew, as well as his son Johannes and his wife Alice (Anna Lindahl). Capt. Blom was an alcoholic who would disappear for days at a time, which threatened his salvage operation. With his crew doing nothing while he was away, the wreck they were working on was in danger of sinking forever.

The tensions simmering below the surface bubbled over when Capt. Blom brought his mistress, Sally, to live with him on the salvage ship.

Capt. Blom is one of the nastiest, most despicable film characters I’ve seen in a long time. The worst thing about him is that he never comes off as a monster. His cruelty to his wife and son is believable, and we see just enough of his internal life to understand him without ever sympathizing him. It helps that Löwenadler is a really fantastic actor.

Like Bergman’s first film, Kris (Crisis) (1946), Skepp till India land shows flashes of brilliance, but it’s not as masterful as a lot of his later work. Birger Malmsten, who plays Johannes, is easy to feel sorry for, but not always easy to understand.

But Bergman has a keen sense of why people do the things that they do, and the human drama in Skepp till India land is keenly observed, if rarely uplifting.

Exposed (Sept. 8, 1947)

I wish that George Blair’s Exposed was a better movie, because it’s got a great setup. It’s one of those rare movies from the 1940s — like Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) — that features a woman in a traditionally masculine role. In Molly X it was June Havoc as the leader of a heist crew (and later tough gal behind bars). In Exposed it’s cute-as-a-button Adela Mara as Los Angeles private eye Belinda Prentice.

Prentice is a stylishly dressed young woman who eats in the best restaurants and drives a Lincoln Continental Convertible. She has an office with marble walls and blond wood furniture. The door to her office has “B. Prentice” stenciled on pebbled glass. Her fee is $75 a day plus expenses.

When a dignified gentleman, Col. Bentry (Russell Hicks), who is looking to engage the services of a private investigator is surprised to discover that B. Prentice is a woman, she responds, “You were expecting maybe Senator Claghorn?”

Prentice is full of quips like that. When a tough little gunsel named “Chicago” (Bob Steele) sits down at her table at the Deauville Restaurant and places his fedora down with a gun under it, she says, “Take your hat off the table. I’m allergic to dandruff.”

When a waitress at a cocktail lounge warns Prentice that the man she wants to talk to is a bad egg, she responds, “Don’t worry, I’ll scramble him.”

Her dialogue may be hard-boiled, but she always comes off as cute and impish, not like a bull dagger who talks out of the side of her mouth. She achieves this by backing up all of her wiseacre comments not with her fists or a pistol, but with her assistant, a hulking ex-Marine named Iggy (William Haade).

Like I said, Exposed has a great setup. The problem is its execution.

Exposed was a B feature from Republic Pictures, but it’s top-heavy with plot, which is tough to handle with a running time of only 59 minutes. Consequently, the dialogue is nearly all exposition. The shooting schedule was obviously tight, allowing for a limited number of takes, which results in the actors all being stiff, reciting their lines without flubbing any of them, but without injecting much life into them either. (Compare, for instance Bob Steele’s performance as a gunman in this film with his similar role in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep.)

The plot, in a nutshell, is that Col. Bentry’s stepson, William Foresman III (Mark Roberts), has been making very large withdrawals from the family business without telling anyone. The bluenosed Col. Bentry doesn’t want to ask him anything directly because he doesn’t want to seem like he’s prying.

So he employs the services of Belinda Prentice. But by the time she arrives at the Bentry estate, Col. Bentry is dead, seemingly stabbed with a letter opener. But there’s very little blood. Could it have been a heart attack — or poison — that caused him to collapse on the letter opener? The police are called in, including Inspector Prentice (Robert Armstrong), who’s Brenda’s father.

William Foresman III seems like a nice enough young man, but that never ruled anyone out as a suspect in a murder mystery. There are also all number of creeps crawling around in the woodwork, including Prof. Ordson (Paul E. Burns), Bentry’s physician, who’s working on a chemical cure for alcoholism.

If you can overlook the stilted dialogue and the overly involved mystery, Exposed is a fun second feature. Bob Steele’s fight scene with the much-larger William Haade is pretty good, and the film’s unpretentious shooting style is a great way to see what Los Angeles looked like circa 1947.

Dark Passage (Sept. 5, 1947)

Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage is the red-headed stepchild of the Bogie-Bacall movies.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married in 1945, and stayed married until Bogart’s death in 1957. They made four movies together — To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage, and Key Largo (1948). Of these four, Dark Passage is the strangest and the least widely acclaimed.

It was a bit of a critical and box office disappointment at the time of its release, possibly because Bogart’s face doesn’t actually appear on-screen until the picture is more than half over, and possibly because of Bogart’s involvement with the Committee for the First Amendment.

The Committee for the First Amendment was an organization that was formed to protest the treatment of Hollywood figures by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Bogart later recanted his involvement with the organization in a letter published in the March 1948 issue of Photoplay entitled “I’m No Communist.”)

Dark Passage is based on a book by oddball crime novelist David Goodis. The film does a good job of bringing Goodis’s strong characterizations and nightmarish, occasionally surreal demimonde to the big screen.

For better or for worse, it also does a good job of bringing to life some of Goodis’s less powerful aspects, like his convoluted plots and his reliance on coincidence.

But just like the best of Goodis’s novels, the film version of Dark Passage doesn’t need to be plausible to work. It plays by its own rules, and when it works, boy does it work.

In Dark Passage, Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a man convicted of killing his wife who breaks out of San Quentin by hiding in a 55-gallon drum on the back of a flatbed truck. He manages to roll himself off the truck and into a ditch somewhere in Marin County. He strips down to his undershirt, buries his prison-issue shirt, and takes to the highway to thumb a ride. He’s picked up, first by a guy named Baker (Clifton Young), and then — when that little ride goes sour — by a beautiful artist named Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall).

She hides him under her canvases and wet paint so they can make it through a roadblock at the entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge, then she takes him to her luxurious bachelorette pad in North Beach. Why is she helping him? Because her own father was unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, and because she followed Parry’s trial, even writing letters to the editor protesting his treatment by the press.

For the first 37 minutes of Dark Passage, Bogart’s face is never shown, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. This P.O.V. style of filmmaking was pioneered by Robert Montgomery in his film Lady in the Lake (1947), but the technique works much better in Dark Passage, for a variety of reasons. First, the editing is more aggressive than in Lady in the Lake, which was essentially one long tracking shot designed to put the viewer in the shoes of the protagonist but that never quite worked. Second, there are third-person shots of Bogart in which his back is turned or his face is in shadows, which helps to break things up and make them more visually palatable.

Once Parry makes it to San Francisco, Dark Passage gets really weird. Irene gives him $1,000, new clothes and a hat, and a place to stay, but if you thought that qualified Parry as the luckiest escaped convict in history, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

He’s picked up one night by a cabbie named Sam (Tom D’Andrea), who not only recognizes him but believes Parry got a raw deal from the court system, and hooks him up with his buddy, Dr. Walter Coley, a plastic surgeon who can change his face.

Nervous about staying with Irene, Parry goes to see his friend George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson), a trumpet player who gives Parry a key to his place. Incidentally, we get our first shot of Parry’s “real” face on the front of a newspaper laid across his friend George’s chest as he lies in bed. The real Parry has a mustache, and doesn’t look much like Bogart.

But he looks exactly like Bogart after his trip to see Dr. Coley, who’s played by 67-year-old actor Houseley Stevenson. Dr. Coley is the most ghoulishly fun character in Dark Passage. Wrinkled, liver-spotted, and chain-smoking, Dr. Coley asks Vincent if he’s ever seen a botched plastic surgery job right before he puts him under, and the kaleidoscopic nightmare Parry has while undergoing plastic surgery is a real standout.

Even after the surgery, we don’t fully see Bogart’s face until more than an hour into the picture.

Until then, he’s covered with bandages, smoking cigarettes with long filters and communicating with Irene using pencil and paper. (Throw a pair of shades on him and he’d look like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man).

While the plot may be contrived and coincidence-laden, the characterizations are sharp, and the actors are all really good. Lauren Bacall has to carry the film for much of the first hour, and she delivers a really good performance. She’s much better at interacting with the camera than any of the actors in Lady in the Lake were. Consequently, the P.O.V. technique draws less attention to itself, and works fairly well.

When the bandages finally come off, Parry looks at himself in the mirror and remarks, “Same eyes, same nose, same hair. Huh. Everything else seems to be in a different place. I sure look older. That’s all right, I’m not. And if it’s all right with me it oughtta be all right with you.”

The fact that Bogart and Bacall were married in real life gives this line a little humorous subtext.

Hidden behind his new face, Parry is faced with another murder to solve, cops on his tail, a chiseler who hopes to blackmail Irene after he finds out she’s been shielding Parry, the presence of Irene’s old beau Bob (Bruce Bennett), and her shrill friend Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), who keeps dropping by and nosing around.

That Parry goes about solving his problems in a haphazard, roundabout way should come as a surprise to no one who’s familiar with the fiction of David Goodis.

Dark Passage may not be a perfect film, but it’s an intriguing and involving one. Sid Hickox’s cinematography is gorgeous, and the location shooting in San Francisco is really effective. It’s worth seeing at least once, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to see it again.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Sept. 1, 1947)

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best original screenplay at the 20th Academy Awards in 1948, beating out the scripts for more “serious” fare like Body and Soul, A Double Life, Monsieur Verdoux, and Sciuscià (Shoeshine).

But just because its win was surprising doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve to win. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a very funny film. It’s a latter-day screwball comedy about a handsome artist who is forced — by court order, no less — to date a teenage girl.

Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay treats those jumpin’ and jivin’ post-war kids with affection rather than bemusement or contempt, and he has a keen understanding of the ways teenagers try to act like adults, and how they unwittingly fail.

The dialogue might not be a completely accurate evocation of the way real bobby-soxers and their jalopy-driving boyfriends actually talked (did any kid before this movie came out actually say that they felt “sklonklish”?), but the characterizations all feel right.

Former child star Shirley Temple — all grown up (sort of) — plays the bobby-soxer of the title, a 17-year-old high school student named Susan who lives with her older sister. Her older sister just happens to be a judge, and when the film begins, the Honorable Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy) is presiding over a case involving a kerfuffle at a nightclub between a couple of brassy gals over the affections of charming artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant).

Margaret and Susan’s parents are dead, so Margaret is as much of a mother to Susan as she is a big sister. After the initial courtroom scene, the stage is set for the sparks of disapproval to fly as soon as Margaret learns that the object of her little sister’s affection is the same Lothario she saw in court.

Most of the humor in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer comes from the fact that Richard has absolutely no desire to be with Susan, but is ordered by the court, under the recommendation of a psychologist, to take her out on dates so his mature-man forbidden fruit will sooner wither and die, and she’ll go back to her sweet, somewhat dumb high school boyfriend, Jerry (Johnny Sands).

Susan is mature for her age, but she’s still a 17-year-old. Watching Cary Grant suffer through taking her to Sunset High School basketball games and dates at the ice cream shop are some of the funniest bits I’ve seen in a long time.

Cary Grant — no stranger to screwball comedies — has an arch, deadpan comic style that’s perfectly suited to the material. Temple is really great in this movie, too. Like Deanna Durbin, she was an impossibly cute child star who blossomed into an engaging adult performer without missing a beat. And Myrna Loy is wonderful to watch, as always. It doesn’t matter that she was old enough to be Temple’s mother when she made this movie. She barely looks a decade older, and she matches Cary Grant beat for beat in all their scenes together.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a great comedy that stands the test of time.

Lured (Aug. 28, 1947)

If you go solely by the current DVD cover art for Douglas Sirk’s Lured, you’ll come away thinking it’s a thriller starring Boris Karloff and Lucille Ball; possibly a Gothic melodrama in which her character marries his character and is then terrorized by him in a creepy old mansion.

Or you might not.

But in any case, that’s what I thought, so I was surprised when it turned out that Karloff’s character in Lured is essentially a throwaway, and all of his scenes could be excised from the film without affecting the plot.

Of course, excising Karloff from the film would excise much of the ghoulish fun, since the sequence in which he plays a thoroughly mad former fashion designer who forces Ball to model his “latest creations” is one of the best bits in the picture, but it ultimately has very little to do with the central mystery about a poetry-obsessed killer who places ads in the personal columns.

In Lured, Lucille Ball plays Sandra Carpenter, an American dancer and actress who came to London from New York with a show. It folded after four nights and she was broke. So now she works in a dance hall called the Broadway Palladium where “50 beautiful ravishing glamorous hostesses” dance with men off the street for six pence a twirl.

It’s no picnic. After one of Sandra’s co-workers mentions that there’s just two hours left to go in their shift, Sandra responds, “Two hours in this cement mixer’s longer than a six-day bike race.” (Incidentally, Ball played a similarly occupied character on the CBS radio show Suspense in the January 13, 1944, broadcast, “A Dime a Dance.”)

When Sandra is offered a tryout for a part in the new Fleming & Wilde show, she jumps at the chance, not so affectionately referring to her current place of employment as a “slaughterhouse.”

But just as she arranges a private audition with Mr. Fleming over the phone, she sees the headline of the London Courier. Her friend and fellow taxi dancer Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) has just become the eighth victim of the “Poet Killer”!

So two very different men enter Sandra’s life, and things will never be the same for her.

One is the charming and insouciant Robert Fleming (played by the the charming and insouciant George Sanders), who initially wants to cast Sandra in his show, but soon wants her to play the leading lady in his own life, till death do them part.

The other is Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who tests Sandra’s powers of observation and then enlists her in Scotland Yard after she passes with flying colors.

Their policewomen are very clever, he says, but the killer only places ads for young, beautiful women. (Sorry, ladies of Scotland Yard. No offense intended, I’m sure.)

Sandra then has to respond to every personal ad for young, unattached women. The police will write the responses, but Sandra will have to keep the appointments. A humorous montage follows, natch.

Lured is a mixed bag. Douglas Sirk is a great director, but Lured isn’t one of the films he’s remembered for. It’s well-done, and Sirk’s fascination with surface opulence masking (or possibly masking) darker forces is in full effect. The plot, however, twists and turns through so many contrivances that it’s hard to keep track of everything, let alone take any of it seriously.

It’s worth seeing, however, by anyone who’s a Sirk completist, or anyone who wants to see Lucille Ball in a glamorous leading role in a beautifully art-directed film. She didn’t have too many of those, you know, after I Love Lucy.

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