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Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (Nov. 27, 1947)

William Castle’s 66-minute mystery The Crime Doctor’s Gamble was the ninth film in the series of programmers from Columbia Pictures.

Based on Max Marcin’s radio series Crime Doctor (1940-1947), the films starred Warner Baxter as Dr. Robert Ordway, a former amnesiac and reformed criminal who now works as a psychiatrist and solves mysteries in his spare time.

Every entry had a little something special to distinguish it from all the other entries. The gimmick of The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is that it takes place in Paris, which is a step up from the hillbilly setting of the last entry in the series, The Millerson Case (1947), which was my least favorite of the Crime Doctor features so far.

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble opens at the Institution Psycho-Pathologique des Invalides Mentaux, where Dr. Ordway is lecturing on crime deduction, modern psychiatry, criminal tendencies, and crime prevention to a roomful of old white-haired gents.

Dr. Ordway is in Paris for two weeks, and has three lectures to give. He’s also visiting his old friend Inspector Jacques Morrell (Marcel Journet), but he doesn’t intend to become involved with any police matters during his time in Paris.

Good luck with that plan, Crime Doctor.

After a champagne-soaked night on the town, Inspector Morrell and Dr. Ordway go to a little hole in the wall club with a rooster on the door, where they watch a couple of very acrobatic dancers — a man and a woman whose act includes such spectacles as the woman being swung around by her hair.

The dancers are followed on stage by a man dressed all in black who wears an executioner’s hood and throws knives at a woman wearing a white porcelain mask. Inspector Morrell muses how ease it would be for a trained knife thrower to commit murder and Dr. Ordway asks him if they’re on a busman’s holiday.

Morrell denies it, but the next morning, back at the Préfecture de Police, Morrell invites Dr. Ordway to talk with murder suspect Henri Jardin (Roger Dann), whose father threatened to cut him out of his will after his marriage to Mignon Duval (Micheline Cheirel), the daughter of the knife thrower they saw the night before.

Jardin remembers going into a rage the night his father was stabbed to death, but doesn’t remember what happened after their argument.

Morrell has a personal interest in Henri. The two men spent time together in a concentration camp during the war. After the war, Henri spent six months in a psychoneurotic institution, but Morrell doubts his guilt.

The mystery in The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is well paced and fairly involving. There’s a good collection of suspects — the Jardins’ butler, Theodore (Jean del Val), who overheard an argument the night of the murder, but thought nothing of it; the Jardins’ attorney, Jules Daudet (Steven Geray) who has never practiced criminal law, but who feels it is his duty to defend Henri for his father’s murder; Anton Geroux (Maurice Marsac), an expert painter of reproductions, or forgeries, depending on who’s doing the buying; the knife thrower, Maurice Duval (Eduardo Ciannelli), who says nothing good would have come of his daughter’s marriage to Jardin, and then says that even though Jardin was stabbed, that’s not how a knife thrower would kill with a knife, and drives his point home by throwing a knife into the door next to Ordway’s head; and, of course, Mignon and Henri … could one of them be guilty?

Despite its soupçon of Parisian flavor, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is obviously all filmed on the Columbia sound stages. The signs in the film are in French, but all the actors speak English, even when they are not speaking to Dr. Ordway.

If you can overlook the cheapness of the production, however, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is a good mystery. It’s also the type of series programmer that was on the verge of extinction with the coming popularity of television.

The Gangster (Nov. 25, 1947)

I’m no hypocrite. I knew everything I did was low and rotten. I knew what people thought of me. What difference did it make? What did I care?

In the dirty razzle-dazzle of Neptune Beach, one man runs the rackets, and he has the unlikely name of “Shubunka.” (You can sing his name along to the Perry Como hit “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba.”) Neptune Beach is a thinly fictionalized version of Coney Island (there are references throughout the film to “uptown,” 5th Avenue, Central Park, and Queens).

Barry Sullivan plays Shubunka perfectly. His opening voiceover narration (quoted above) is just the tip of the iceberg. Like a lot of tough guys, Shubunka’s cynical patter doesn’t always match his actions.

As we learn, he actually cares a lot about what people think of him. He’s sensitive, suspicious, and vain. The first time we see him, he’s inspecting his scarred face in a mirror. Later, he angrily asks Dorothy (Joan Lorring) — the girl who runs the cash register at the Neptune Beach ice cream store where he cools his heels — if there’s something wrong with the way he looks when she’s uncomfortable around him and doesn’t want to accept a gift from him.

If there were such a thing as “B-Movie Academy Awards,” Barry Sullivan would be at the top of my list for best actor of 1947.

Shubunka is a big fish in a small pond. The wisecracking soda-jerker Shorty (Harry Morgan) calls him “the King of Siam” behind his back and wonders why Shubunka hangs around Ann’s Soda Store if he’s so great. The Gangster takes place over a short period of time, and tells the story of how Shubunka loses his hold on the rackets in Neptune Beach — as well as his hold on everything else in his life.

Things are already falling apart when the film begins. The owner of Ann’s Soda Store — the sweaty, nervous Mr. Jammey (Akim Tamiroff) — sees right through him. “You go around putting up a tough front, but you don’t fool me. I see inside you. You are no man of iron. You are no terrible big shot. I’m telling you for your own good. If you don’t watch out they’re going to push you right out of business.”

When Mr. Jammey refers to “they,” he’s talking about the Syndicate, a group of sharply dressed criminals who are knocking out the independents one neighborhood at a time.

“Nobody’s pushing me out of business, forget that! I’m no soda jerker,” Shubunka tells Mr. Jammey. “I’m not one of these broken-backed dummies that come into your soda store. I’ll handle it, don’t worry. I worked six years building this thing up. I’m going to keep it. Nobody’s going to make a mug out of me.”

Shubunka is also paranoid about his beautiful blond girlfriend, Nancy Starr (played by Olympic and professional figure skater Belita). Everywhere he looks he sees evidence of her infidelity, even though she’s only making contacts and auditioning for roles in Broadway shows.

The Gangster is occasionally a little “arty,” but it’s never pretentious. And honestly, more B productions could stand to have this film’s self-consciousness and careful camera setups and lighting choices.

It doesn’t hurt that the actors are all really well cast. Harry Morgan, Barry Sullivan, and Akim Tamiroff are all really great, and even the lesser actors tend to be the cream of the crop of B movies — Sheldon Leonard, who plays the syndicate boss Cornell, was the best actor in Decoy (1946), and John Ireland, who plays the desperate, gambling-addicted accountant Karty, was the best actor in Railroaded (1947).

Mourning Becomes Electra (Nov. 19, 1947)

Dudley Nichols’s Mourning Becomes Electra has its staunch defenders, but so does every other awful movie.

Mourning Becomes Electra is unquestionably the worst movie I have seen so far this year, and it’s unlikely that I will see another one that’s as bad in the short time remaining. If I did “worst of the year” lists, it would almost certainly be at the very top.

Rosalind Russell was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress for her role in Mourning Becomes Electra and famously lost out to Loretta Young, who played a young Swedish-American woman in the lightweight comedy The Farmer’s Daughter, despite the fact that Russell lobbied hard for herself. (Russell did win the Golden Globe for best actress for Mourning Becomes Electra.)

I’ve got nothing personal against Rosalind Russell, but if I’d been a member of the Academy 64 years ago, she could have given me a brand new Lincoln Continental, a sable coat for my wife, and one hundred thousand dollars in cash, and I still wouldn’t have voted for her.

It’s not just that her performance is so one-note and hysterically pitched, but also that the entire film is so ineptly directed that each actor in the film seems to be directing him- or herself.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play cycle of the same name, which was a reimagining of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus.

Instead of Agamemnon returning from the Trojan War to his wife Clytemnestra, his son Orestes, and his daughter Electra, a Union general named Ezra Mannon returns to Massachusetts from the Civil War to his wife Christine, his son Orin, and his daughter Lavinia.

Just as in the Greek myth of Orestes, Ezra Mannon is murdered by his wife, and her children plot to avenge their father’s death.

Just like O’Neill’s original play cycle, the film is divided into three parts, Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted.

Of course, the play is more than just a retread of classical Greek tragedy. O’Neill was also strongly influenced by the Freudian psychosexual theories that were in vogue in the ’30s.

However, for a movie with kissin’ cousins and freaky Oedipus complexes, Mourning Becomes Electra sure is boring.

The problems begin at the beginning. The first scene of Homecoming involves Seth Beckwith (Henry Hull), the Mannons’ groundskeeper, leading a small group of townspeople around the Mannon estate and explaining all the characthers’ names and relationships. It’s obvious that Seth and the townspeople are meant to function as a Greek chorus, but it’s too much information too soon, and without any context, it’s mind-numbingly boring.

In Homecoming, Christine Mannon (Katina Paxinou) and her daughter Lavinia (Russell) howl at each other for awhile over the affections of officer Adam Brant (Leo Genn), who it turns out is the product of an illicit coupling between a Mannon male and a lowly housekeeper, both of whom were expelled from the house. Brigadier General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey) returns home, and his wife conspires with her lover, Adam, to poison him. Ezra accuses her with his dying breath.

In The Hunted, Orin Mannon (Michael Redgrave) returns home and spends a lot of misty-eyed time with his head in his mother’s lap. Eventually his sister Lavinia convinces him that Adam Brant and their mother were responsible for their father’s death, so they sneak aboard the ship The Flying Trades and kill Adam after they observe Christine’s rendezvous with him. Following Adam’s murder, Christine shoots herself out of grief.

In The Haunted, Orin and Lavinia return home after a romantic year-long getaway to the South Seas. When they return to Massachusetts, their friends — a slightly less dysfunctional pair of siblings, Peter Niles (Kirk Douglas) and Hazel Niles (Nancy Coleman) — are disturbed by the changes Orin and Lavinia have gone through. Lavinia plans to marry Peter, but Orin threatens to reveal all of their crimes to Peter if she goes through with her plan. Orin tries to molest his sister, and kills himself when she rejects him. Then, instead of marrying Peter, Lavinia shuts herself up in the house forever. The end.

Mourning Becomes Electra flopped terribly at the box office, and was hastily recut from its original 173-minute version down to a 105-minute version (which I believe was achieved by chopping off the entire final third section, The Haunted). It has since been restored, mostly, and exists on DVD in a 159-minute version. (The full 173-minute version has been shown on TCM.)

The main problem with Mourning Becomes Electra is how uninteresting and stagy the direction is. (Dudley Nichols did much more work as a writer than as a director, and Mourning Becomes Electra was the last film he ever directed.) This does not mean, however, that it is a faithful adaption. The demands of cinema are very different from the demands of the stage. Simply running through the lines of a stage play in front of a camera is a very different proposition than performing a play night after night in front of an audience. As a film, Mourning Becomes Electra is a “faithful” adaptation of O’Neill’s play in the same way a film of an elderly British man reading Great Expectations aloud for 19 hours could be called a “faithful” adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel.

It also doesn’t help that nearly everyone in the cast has a wildly different accent from everyone else, and that nearly everyone is the wrong age for the character they’re playing. The “young and handsome” Adam Brant is played by Leo Genn, a square-headed, fat-lipped 41-year-old British actor. Lavinia is supposed to be a young woman, but Rosalind Russell was 40 (or nearly 40) when she appeared in Mourning Becomes Electra, while Katina Paxinou, who plays her mother Christine, was only 46. This closeness in age could perhaps be overlooked if the two actresses were on the stage together, but on film, it’s distracting. Also, Paxinou’s thick Greek accent could perhaps be explained by her marrying into the Mannon family, but how to explain Michael Redgrave’s British accent?

The psychosexual and incestuous drama of Mourning Becomes Electra is obvious and ham-fisted. This is a film that is likely to be praised as “Freudian” only by people who have never read Freud. It’s also a film that is likely to be praised only by pretentious dilettantes who think that merely by forcing themselves to sit through something long and crushingly boring they are engaging in a high-minded activity.

Out of the Past (Nov. 13, 1947)

Out of the Past
Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
RKO Radio Pictures

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is the greatest film noir ever made, but no one knew it at the time.

Robert Mitchum even said as much when he told writer Arthur Lyons, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”

In 1947, French film critics and cinéastes were just beginning to use the term “film noir” (it was first used in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank) and it would be decades before the term caught on in the United States, long after the end of the “noir cycle.”

All of this is a good thing, of course, since self-consciousness can kill art.

If filmmakers in the ’40s and ’50s had deliberately tried to make films with all the elements that the French were praising, they probably would have produced ham-fisted junk that was as unwatchable as most of the “neo-noir” that littered multiplexes in the ’90s.

On the other hand, this means that a brilliant noir like Out of the Past got lost in the shuffle at the time of its release, and was viewed as just one more “private eye” picture, or just one more “violent melodrama.” The review in the December 15, 1947, issue of Time, for instance, called it “a medium-grade thriller.” (Although they did praise Nicholas Musuraca’s beautiful cinematography.)

In his November 26, 1947, review of Out of the Past, curmudgeonly NY Times critic Bosley Crowther had a lot of good things to say about the film, and praised the dialogue and acting, but admitted that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot.

This is a fair criticism, since the plot of Out of the Past still confounds first-time viewers, and most second- and third-time viewers as well. Note, for instance, the number of reviews of the film that claim the story is told mostly in flashback, when the flashback portion of the story actually occupies less than a half hour of running time, and from the 40-minute mark onward, the film takes place entirely in the present.

But time has been kind to Out of the Past, and a perfect understanding of its plot isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying every gorgeously filmed minute of it, since it’s packed with everything that makes a noir a noir. Its male protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is smart and tough, but ultimately helpless when faced with the seductive charms of the film’s femme fatale, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). The film contains murders, swindles, frame-ups, crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, gambling, a large chunk of stolen money, a tragic ending, and some of the most seductive chiaroscuro cinematography of all time.

Greer and Mitchum

The plot can’t really be summarized in a nutshell, but I’ll try anyway.

While driving through a one-stoplight California town called Bridgeport, which is 79 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) pulls into a service station owned by Jeff Markham, who’s living in Bridgeport under the name “Jeff Bailey” and trying to forget his tawdry old life by going fishing every day with a nice girl named Ann (Virginia Huston), which her boyfriend Jim (Richard Webb) isn’t too happy about.

Joe tells Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), his old employer, wants to see him in Lake Tahoe.

So Jeff spills to Ann. His real name is Markham, not Bailey. Three years ago he lived in New York and worked with an oily gentleman named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). They were detectives. They got a call to see a big operator, a gambler named Whit. His girl had shot him with his own .38 and taken off with $40,000 of his money, and he wanted her back. The money, too, but mostly her.

Jeff took off on his own, leaving Fisher behind, and followed Kathie’s trail to Acapulco, Mexico. As soon as he saw her, he was hooked like a fish.

In voiceover, Jeff recalls his romance with Kathie in Acapulco.

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away, like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived, I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end. Maybe we thought it was a dream and we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls. I wired Whit but I didn’t tell him.

“I’m in Acapulco,” I said. “I wish you were here.” And every night I went to meet her. How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.

Kathie swore to Jeff that she didn’t take Whit’s money, to which he responded, “Baby, I don’t care,” and kissed her.

Jane Greer

Jeff and Kathie ran off together and headed for San Francisco. Things went swimmingly until he was spotted at the racetrack by his old partner Jack Fisher, who would turn him and Kathie over to Whit in a heartbeat for the payoff.

Despite Jeff’s best efforts to lose the tail, Fisher eventually tracked him and Kathie down. When Jeff and Fisher started trading blows, Kathie coldly shot Fisher, then took off.

Jeff never saw her again. He was left to bury Fisher’s body in the woods. He also found a deposit slip for $40,000 in Kathie’s purse, confirming that she’d lied to him about the money.

The rest of the film takes place in the present. Jeff meets with Whit at his palatial getaway in Lake Tahoe. Kathie has returned to Whit, and he now knows everything about Jeff’s betrayal of him.

Exacting a kind of payback, Whit forces Jeff to go to San Francisco to steal income tax records from the crooked accountant — Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) — who helped him hide his money from Uncle Sam and who’s now demanding $200,000 hush money. Jeff is supposed to get to Eels through his beautiful secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming).

But it quickly becomes clear to Jeff that he’s being set up as a patsy, and that Whit’s people are going to kill Eels and make it look as if Jeff did it.

Ann, the good girl in Jeff’s life, can’t believe that Kathie is as awful as he makes her out to be. “She can’t be all bad, no one is,” Ann says. “Well, she comes the closest,” Jeff responds.

And he’s right. Kathie is a murderer, a thief, and a liar. She’s completely and utterly faithless, but Jeff keeps falling for her. Every time she calls, he comes running. He can’t help it. He hates himself for it, but he can’t stop.

I first saw Out of the Past when I was 17, and I’ve seen it many times since then. It took me several viewings before I got a handle on exactly what was going on in the film, but I always felt that its byzantine plot was part of its appeal.

Even if you can’t figure out exactly what’s going on or who’s doing what to whom (or why), Out of the Past is still a seductive and brilliant film. It’s the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

Gentleman’s Agreement (Nov. 11, 1947)

Director Elia Kazan’s fourth film, Gentleman’s Agreement, dominated the 20th Academy Awards.

It was nominated for eight Oscars and took home three — best picture for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, best director for Kazan, and best supporting actress for Celeste Holm.

It was also incredibly popular, and was the eighth highest grossing film of the year, earning more than $4 million at the box office.

This was a remarkable feat for a sober black and white drama about anti-Semitism, especially considering that most of the ten highest grossing films of 1947 were either comedies or Technicolor spectacles.

Before embarking on this project, I’d never had much desire to see Gentleman’s Agreement, despite my love of Kazan’s other films. It has a reputation for being heavy-handed, and I dislike movies with good intentions that spoon-feed the audience a simplistic message.

So I was really happy to discover that Gentleman’s Agreement is a much more subtle and thought-provoking film than its reputation suggests. It’s a little dry in stretches, but it wasn’t nearly as preachy as I was expecting.

In fact, it’s still a unique movie because it addresses not active, virulent anti-Semitism but the silent majority that allows prejudice to flourish. In other words, if there are ten people at a table and one person tells a nasty joke about Jews and the other nine people either chuckle politely or feel offended but don’t say anything, the problem is not the one anti-Semite, but the other nine people.

Most movies made after Gentleman’s Agreement still focus on active, violent hatred, which lets the audience off the hook to some degree. Someone can watch Mississippi Burning (1988) and come away with the feeling that they’re not a racist, because they’d never burn a cross in a black family’s yard or participate in a lynching.

Gentleman’s Agreement, on the other hand, never really lets the audience off the hook, and now that I’ve seen it, I suspect that part of its reputation for preachiness comes from the discomfort it causes.

For instance, there’s a great scene in which writer Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who is pretending to be Jewish in order to write an exposé on anti-Semitism, tries to get a hotel manager to tell him if the hotel is restricted. The manager refuses to answer the question, but still steers Green out of the hotel, saying things like “Maybe you would be more comfortable in another establishment.” The viewer expects Green to get somewhere and it’s incredibly frustrating when he doesn’t. Eventually he leaves and all the people in the lobby watch him go. Probably many of them feel bad about what’s happening, but no one speaks up. It’s a maddening, intensely uncomfortable scene, and begs the question, “What would you do if no one else was speaking up?”

Another scene that really stuck with me was the one in which Green’s son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) comes home crying after a group of boys call him a “stinking kike” and “dirty yid.” Green’s fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) is upset, as anyone would be, but she comforts Tommy by hugging him and telling him that it’s all a mistake, and he isn’t really Jewish.

This causes Green to fly into a rage, and he lectures Kathy that her attitude is what allows prejudice to flourish unchecked.

I think that Gregory Peck’s humorless performance and holier-than-thou attitude is what turns off some viewers, but I couldn’t find fault in the logic of anything he says in the film.

His relationship with his secretary Elaine (June Havoc) is particularly interesting, since she’s Jewish but pretends not to be. Early in the film, when she still believes Green is Jewish, she expresses dismay that the magazine they work for is courting Jewish applicants. She tells Green, “Just let them get one wrong one in here and it’ll come out of us. It’s no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones.”

Green’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) tells him that he’s having such strong reactions to anti-Semitism because he’s experiencing it all at once. Dave grew up experiencing subtle prejudice, so he’s learned to filter a lot of it out. There’s something else, however, that I think is unspoken in the film, which is that Green is experiencing the passion of the newly converted.

He may not have converted to Judaism, but he’s committed to his subterfuge, and takes all the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism intensely personally.

Apparently many Hollywood studio heads, most of whom were Jewish, didn’t want Darryl F. Zanuck (who wasn’t Jewish) to make Gentleman’s Agreement. They feared that it would stir up trouble, and that directly confronting anti-Semitism would only make things worse.

One of the big themes of Gentleman’s Agreement is how wrong-headed this notion is, and that failing to confront things is never the right move.

It’s a really good movie, and not just because its philosophy is “politically correct.” The actors all play their parts perfectly, and it’s a really well-made film about people, and how people relate to each other. Most of the “big ideas” in the film are expressed the way they are in real life — by people who have opinions.

Body and Soul (Nov. 9, 1947)

Body and Soul
Body and Soul (1947)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Enterprise Productions / United Artists

Charlie Davis’s face is a road map. Every scar tells a story, and every story is the same — a bruising boxing match, a big purse, wealth, success, and another step farther away from the people he loves.

This isn’t a spoiler, because we see exactly how far Charlie Davis (John Garfield) has fallen in the first scene of Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul. He wakes from a nightmare, sweat glistening on his scarred face, mournfully crying out a name … “Ben!”

He drives to his childhood home in New York’s Lower East Side and sees his mother (Anne Revere), but neither she nor his old girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer), wants anything to do with him, so he drives to a smoky jazz club to see the beautiful singer Alice (Hazel Brooks). She tells him his manager has been looking for him everywhere. “How does it look, Charlie, the night before the fight, three a.m. and you loaded?” she asks him.

The next morning at the weigh-in, the challenger for the middleweight championship of the world, Jack Marlowe (Artie Dorrell), derides the tired and hungover champ. “All fat,” he sneers. “Nightclub fat … whiskey fat … thirty-five year-old fat.”

Back in his dressing room, Charlie’s gangster manager Roberts (Lloyd Gough) reminds him that he’s being paid $60,000 to throw the fight, and to make it look good.

John Garfield

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. We see Charlie’s youth as a tough Jewish kid looking to break into the fight game. His best friend Shorty Polaski (Joseph Pevney) is his manager. Charlie’s father David (Art Smith) is supportive, but his mother wants him to choose a more respectable profession than the sweet science. All of this is strongly reminiscent of Garfield’s previous film, Humoresque (1946), although I have to say that Garfield is more believable as a pugilist than he was as a violinist.

Body and Soul is the first really great boxing film, and it still stands as one of the best. Garfield’s performance as Charlie Davis is pitch-perfect, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous. As good as Raging Bull (1980) is, it still owes an enormous debt to this film. And so does nearly every boxing picture made after 1947.

To be fair, the rise and fall structure of Body and Soul and most of its story elements were clichéd even at the time of the film’s release. But despite a sense of familiarity, Body and Soul still manages to feel fresh. A lot of this has to do with the final fight, which Howe famously shot with a handheld camera while standing on roller skates. It’s a brilliantly shot and edited sequence, and still thrilling to watch.

Garfield and Dorrell

Body and Soul was director Rossen’s second feature. His first, Johnny O’Clock (1947), was good, but overly complicated and occasionally contrived. Body and Soul, on the other hand, is a punch straight to the gut. It’s moving, brilliantly acted, and one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.

Body and Soul was nominated for three Oscars; John Garfield for best actor, Abraham Polonsky for best original screenplay, and Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish for best film editing, the only category in which it won.

Monsieur Vincent (Nov. 5, 1947)

Last Easter, I attended services at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The bishop who delivered the sermon told of how Jesus was resurrected after dying on the cross, and how he appeared to Mary Magdalene. At first she didn’t recognize him, and mistook him for a common laborer. Clearly there was no unearthly glow around his body or blindingly bright halo encircling his head. “Hollywood would not approve,” the bishop said.

I thought about the bishop’s joke when I watched Maurice Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent, a biography of the seventeenth century curé Saint Vincent de Paul.

It’s a great film, and not just because of Pierre Fresnay’s brilliant, totally convincing performance as Vincent de Paul. It’s a great film because it doesn’t engage in the flashy hokum that so many films about religious figures do. There are no heavenly choirs, light streaming through stained glass, or mist-shrouded appearances of Jesus.

Despite the fact that Monsieur Vincent is about a deeply religious man, it depicts his life as one might have observed it at the time. His commitment to caring for the poor isn’t idealized — the people who receive his charity are often filthy, miserable, and ungrateful — but the film is all the more powerful for its realism.

Monsieur Vincent was released in France on November 5, 1947, and in the United States on December 20, 1948. It was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1949 at the 21st Academy Awards.

The Fugitive (Nov. 3, 1947)

Faith and religiosity are notoriously difficult things to depict on film. It’s easy to go too far in one direction — witness for instance, the brutal, mind-numbing literalism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Belief and faith are abstract things, and while cinema can suggest the abstract, it is still a visual medium.

John Ford’s The Fugitive is rarely numbered among the director’s greatest achievements, but it was reportedly one of his personal favorites. It was filmed entirely in Mexico, and much of the crew was assembled from the Mexican film industry.

In it, Henry Fonda plays a fugitive priest, on the run from the authorities after the church and its emissaries have been made illegal following a civil war. He’s a man whose faith appears to be broken — or at least in the process of being tested — but it’s difficult to really know, because Fonda’s performance is so blank-eyed and tentative that it’s hard to know what’s going on in his mind for most of the picture. Ironically, The Fugitive is a movie that is strongest when it is at its most heavy-handed.

It’s clear from the outset that the movie is meant to be seen as an allegory — the opening narration tells us as much. Also, in the opening credits, we see that none of the characters have names. Fonda plays “A Fugitive,” Dolores del Rio plays “An Indian Woman,” Pedro Armendáriz plays “A Lieutenant of Police,” J. Carrol Naish plays “A Police Informer,” Leo Carrillo plays “A Chief of Police,” and Ward Bond plays “El Gringo.” It’s also not meant to take place in Mexico, but rather, as the narrator informs us, “merely a small state, a thousand miles north or south of the Panama Canal. Who knows?”

Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory (also published as The Labyrinthine Ways) did actually take place in Mexico, but the filmmakers likely didn’t want to offend their host country with a story that was critical of the Mexican Revolution or any of its ramifications.

Greene wrote The Power and the Glory when he was himself a kind of fugitive. Twentieth Century-Fox and Shirley Temple’s lawyers had sued Greene and the magazine Night and Day for criminal libel over his review of the film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), which — ironically — was directed by John Ford. In his review of the film, Greene wrote of Temple that “she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Greene’s trip to Mexico in 1938 was ostensibly at the behest of the Vatican, who wanted him to document anti-Catholic violence and persecution. According to Greene’s friend, director Alberto Cavalcanti, whose lost autobiography was recently unearthed, Greene’s real reason for going to Mexico was to escape Temple’s lawyers.

In any case, whatever narrative subtlety and moral complexity the novel had is not present in the film, which has little to offer in the way of ideas. I hesitate to call Henry Fonda “miscast,” because he’s usually such a wonderful performer, but he really is awful in The Fugitive. His facial expressions range from beatific to panicked, and that’s about it.

The power of the film — and it is a powerful film, especially toward the end — comes from its visuals. Ford and his cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, crafted a beautiful-looking movie, full of nighttime shadows, murky light, and sun-drenched wide open spaces. The final sequence, which is an allegory for the crucifixion and resurrection, is achieved with very little dialogue, and is well-done, if a little obvious.

Forever Amber (Oct. 22, 1947)

The review of Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber in the November 3, 1947, issue of Time magazine called it “every bit as good a movie as it was a novel,” but I’m not sure if they meant it as a compliment.

Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 period romance was the best-selling American novel of the ’40s. Forever Amber sold more than 100,000 copies during its first week on the shelves, and went on to sell more than three million copies. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how much Winsor’s storytelling skills had to do with its popularity. What I do know is that it was banned in 14 states, and that the attorney general of Massachusetts — the first state to institute a ban — cited 70 references to intercourse, 39 out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and seven abortions, among other reasons for the ban.

So it seems clear that whatever other merits the novel had, its biggest selling point was S-E-X.

To be adapted as a film, a lot of the novel’s more scandalous bits had to be cut out, but it still has one big selling point: L-I-N-D-A. D-A-R-N-E-L-L.

In her journey to the screen, the vain, beautiful, promiscuous, and socially climbing Amber St. Clare lost many of her lovers and innumerable shocking details and compromising situations from the novel were excised. (The film does contain one element from the novel that was extremely rare in Hollywood films of the ’40s — Amber’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. However, the fornicating that produces the offspring occurs so far off screen that the announcement that she’s expecting comes as a complete surprise.) No matter how tame the story might be compared with the book, though, Linda Darnell’s megawatt sex appeal and unearthly beauty lend a constant sense of illicit excitement to Forever Amber.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of her co-star, Cornel Wilde, who plays Lord Bruce Carlton, the gentleman soldier on whom Amber sets her sights at the beginning of the film, but who never loves her quite as much as she loves him. Wilde cuts a dashing figure, but he has roughly one facial expression. He doesn’t so much act in this film as much as he exists.

Forever Amber is set during the English Restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne from exile and the monarchy was restored. The film hits all the high points of the time period, like the plague and the Great Fire of London. Also, George Sanders, who plays King Charles II, is a lot of fun to watch. His trademark indifference and supercilious charm are perfectly suited to the hedonistic monarch he’s playing.

Forever Amber is far from a great film, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It’s a beautifully filmed Technicolor epic that overwhelms the senses with its visuals and sweeping musical score. This is the kind of film in which $100,000 was spent filming a single kiss that was later cut from the film.

The Black Widow (13 chapters) (July 28-Oct. 20, 1947)

Spencer Gordon Bennet and Fred C. Brannon’s The Black Widow is a typically thrilling chapterplay from Republic Pictures. With its shadowy, semi-mystical antagonists and plucky male-female pair of protagonists navigating their way through a slam-bang adventure with plenty of sci-fi elements, it hits a lot of the same notes as The Crimson Ghost (1946), which Brannon co-directed with William Witney.

The Black Widow of the title is the darkly beautiful fortune teller Sombra (Carol Forman), who uses her crystal-gazing business as a front for her espionage activity. Like Fu Manchu’s daughter, she’s the henchwoman for an evil foreign mastermind bent on world domination. Her father, Hitomu, is played by grim monologist Brother Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Gottlieb.

Hitomu is a weird character, and Theodore’s performance is suitably bizarre. Hitomu looks like a stage hypnotist wearing a turban with a fez on top. His plan for world conquest involves stealing the atomic rocket that Prof. Henry Weston (Sam Flint) is working on. Most of the time Hitomu pulls the strings from the background, giving Sombra his orders, then disappearing the same way he appeared — in a puff of smoke.

To do her bidding, Sombra has a pair of loyal henchmen, Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley) and Nick Ward (Anthony Warde). She’s also a master of disguise. With just a floppy rubber mask and a camera dissolve, Sombra can assume the appearance of any woman she pleases. It should come as no surprise — if you’re familiar with the conventions of serials — that this talent comes in handy week after week.

Opposing the Black Widow Gang at every turn are plucky Daily Clarion reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lee, who’s listed in the credits as Virginia Lindley) and amateur criminologist and mystery writer Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards), the creator of the fictional detective “Rodman Crane.”

Joyce and Steve have a mildly antagonistic relationship that’s supposed to be flirty and playful, but it never quite works because Lee and Edwards are such stiff actors. Occasionally, however, it reaches such insane heights that it’s hard not to go along for the ride, like the scene in which Steve handcuffs Joyce to the steering wheel of their car so she won’t follow him, but she detaches the steering wheel and ends up saving Steve from a gunman by attacking the gunman with the steering wheel.

The Black Widow is full of nifty pseudoscientific malarkey like the “Sinetrone,” which uses sound vibrations to destroy atomic rockets, and a tube of rocket fuel that contains “phosphoro,” a deadly chemical that can only be neutralized by “ciprocyllium acid.”

There’s plenty of action, but none of it’s meant to be taken very seriously. And in case you thought it was, the final chapter of the serial ends with Joyce rushing off to investigate a hot tip that Hitler is hiding in the Florida Everglades and Steve calling after her, “Wait for me!”

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