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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Race Street (Aug. 22, 1948)

Race StreetYou know what would be a great drinking game for a designated driver to play? Watching Race Street and taking a shot every time George Raft changes his expression.

Raft had no range as an actor, but he did play well with others. When paired with good performers, Raft had real chemistry with them. For instance, my favorite scene in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) is when Ann Dvorak does a sexy, playful dance to try to get a reaction out of Raft. He remains stone-faced, but there’s always a twinkle in his eye.

As an actor, Raft got a lot of mileage out of that twinkle in his eye. Even though he mostly played his characters as expressionless tough guys, his eyes always made it seem as if he was taking in everything around him.

The other thing Raft brought to the table as an actor was a whiff of real-life criminality. He was well-known for his associations with gangsters like Owney Madden, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, which added another dimension to roles like the one he plays in Race Street.

In Race Street, Raft plays a bookie named Dan Gannin. Gannin hides his illegal betting operation behind a respectable facade as an investor. Despite his criminal endeavors, he has an easy friendship with a police detective, Lt. Barney Runson (William Bendix). Lt. Runson knows that his friend Dan is a bookie, but they’re childhood friends, and not much trumps that.

Gannin’s other childhood friend in the film, a fellow bookie named Hal Towers (Harry Morgan), needs a little more taking care of than Runson, and when he begins running afoul of thugs in a protection racket, it’s easy to see that things are going to get complicated for Gannin, who is the standard “nice guy who just wants to go straight” character we’ve seen in a thousand crime movies.

On the distaff side of Gannin’s life is his beautiful sister Elaine (Gale Robbins), a leggy dancer and nightclub singer with whom he’s opening a nightspot called the Turf Club. There’s also a new lady in his life, a brunette named Robbie Lawrence (Marilyn Maxwell).

Race Street was directed by Edwin L. Marin, who directed a bunch of B pictures for RKO with George Raft, including Nocturne (1946), which I enjoyed quite a bit.

As I said above, Raft isn’t the most engaging actor in the world, but he turned in watchable performances when he had a good supporting cast and a decent script, and Race Street succeeds on both counts. I especially liked William Bendix in this film. Bendix was as good at playing comic buffoons as he was at playing sinister villains, and he could do everything in between.

Race Street also has plenty of beautiful footage of San Francisco. A lot of it’s obviously stock footage, but it’s integrated into the film well. This is clearly a B movie, but no studio made B-grade film noirs as well or as consistently as RKO Radio Pictures.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Aug. 11, 1948)

Mr. Peabody and the MermaidIrving Pichel’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is an enchanting little fantasy that’s perfect for chasing away the winter doldrums.

This movie is an old favorite of mine. I first saw it on TV when I was a kid and absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun to revisit, and was just as charming and funny as I remember.

Mr. Arthur Peabody (William Powell) is a dignified Bostonian on the verge of turning 50, that dreaded age that says, “if you’re not already having a midlife crisis, you’d better start now.” Mr. Peabody and his slightly younger wife, Mrs. Polly Peabody (Irene Hervey), go on vacation to the British Caribbean (now commonly referred to as the British Virgin Islands), and Mr. Peabody has a life-changing experience. While out fishing, he hooks a mermaid.

The mermaid is played by the beautiful and doll-like Ann Blyth. She’s listed in the credits as just “Mermaid,” but in the film, Mr. Peabody decides her name is “Lenore.”

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is book-ended by scenes of Mr. Peabody talking to a psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey (Art Smith). No one but Peabody ever sees the mermaid, so naturally his wife and everyone else all assume that he’s crazy.

The film is coy about Lenore’s existence, but she does seem to exist in physical reality. Mrs. Peabody see the mermaid’s fins sticking out of a bubble bath and scolds her husband for cleaning a fish in the tub. The mermaid also spits water on a man before darting back into the water, and when a woman whom the mermaid considers a rival for Mr. Peabody’s affection goes swimming, the mermaid bites her on the leg.

But there’s still a sense of unreality about “Lenore,” and not just because she’s a mythical creature. Lenore never speaks, but seems to understand everything Mr. Peabody says to her, and adores him. She’s his middle-aged fantasy come to achingly beautiful life.

There are parallel stories about Mrs. Peabody’s flirtation with a handsome chap, Major Hadley (Hugh French), and the beautiful adventuress, Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), who sets her sights on Mr. Peabody. The film wrings a lot of humor out of this situation, as Mrs. Peabody thinks Mr. Peabody is dallying with Miss Livingston while in fact he’s trying to keep the mermaid’s existence secret while planning on running away with her to the Florida Keys.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is a lovely escapist fantasy, and is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon. Highly recommended, especially if you’re sick of cold weather and aren’t going on vacation anytime soon.

Blyth and Powell

They Live by Night (Aug. 5, 1948)

They Live by Night
They Live by Night (1948)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

This movie grabbed me with its first frame and never let go.

They Live by Night is unlike any other movie I’ve seen so far from 1948. Obviously I know what lay ahead for its director, Nicholas Ray, but even if I didn’t, this is the kind of film that would make me sit up and take notice of his name, and look forward to seeing everything he directed next.

Come to think of it, my knowledge of Ray’s filmography is pretty spotty. In high school, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was one of my favorite films. I watched it over and over, but never thought to explore more of Ray’s films. Years later, I saw In a Lonely Place (1950) and loved it, but didn’t make the connection that it was the same director who made Rebel. But now I’ve got so many Nicholas Ray films to look forward to!

Like all innovative films made more than 50 years ago, They Live by Night doesn’t contain anything we haven’t seen in hundreds of films since, but when viewed in its proper context, it’s exhilarating. Just look at the opening of the film. Unlike nearly every other film of the era that began with a title card followed by a credit roll, They Live by Night begins with shot of two deliriously happy young lovers as the following words flash on the screen: “This boy… and this girl… were never properly introduced to the world we live in… To tell their story…” And suddenly the music becomes grim and portentous, we cut to a shot of a speeding car, and the film’s title appears. The speeding car is filmed from a helicopter, and it’s the earliest instance of action shot from a helicopter that I’ve seen in a film. It’s just one of the innovative ways that Ray creates tension, drama, and excitement with filmmaking techniques that are common practice now, but that were revolutionary at the time.

They Live by Night was based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us (1937). Farley Granger plays a young man named “Bowie” Bowers (his first name is pronounced “Boo-ee,” just like Jim Bowie). When the film begins, he’s an escaped con running from a murder sentence, and his luck will only get worse as the film goes on.

Except for one thing. He falls in love with a young woman named Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and while they’re on the run together, they’re happy as only two young people in love can be happy.

There are obvious comparisons to be drawn with Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). They Live by Night shares the Depression-era setting with Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s visually similar to Gun Crazy, but unlike both of those films, Keechie isn’t an active participant in any criminal activity and the film focuses more on her romance with Bowie than it does on Bowie’s crime spree.

Ray makes so many surprising and smart choices in this film. He doesn’t show most of Bowie’s bank robberies, which focuses our attention on Bowie’s romance with Keechie. His crime spree across Texas is a matter of grim necessity, and all he wants to do is escape. This has the effect of making a radio news report about Bowie’s growing infamy surprising to the audience. Ray makes it easy to forget much of the time that Bowie is a criminal, which make the intrusions of hard reality into Bowie and Keechie’s lives all the more shocking.

Ray also has a knack for depicting life in a way that feels authentic. Even minor characters with just a few lines feel like fully realized, three-dimensional people. When Bowie and Keechie go to a nightclub on a date, the African-American singer Marie Bryant does a rendition of “Your Red Wagon” and collects dollar tips from the crowd, which she folds and clasps between her fingers. Most Hollywood productions would never show a nightclub singer taking tips — it would ruin the illusion of glamour. But the nightclub in They Live by Night looks and feels like a real place. When Bowie goes into the men’s room, he has a brief conversation with the African-American bathroom attendant. In a lesser film, the attendant would be comic relief, and in a lower-budget film, he wouldn’t exist at all.

They Live by Night features top-notch work by all of its cast and crew. Leigh Harline’s music (with uncredited assistance from Woody Guthrie) is phenomenal. George E. Diskant’s cinematography is some of the most beautiful and most noirish I’ve ever seen (they really do live by night in this movie), and Sherman Todd’s film editing is soothing when it needs to be and jarring when it needs to be. Todd and Ray made a lot of risky choices in the editing room, but for my money, they all paid off.

Ray filmed They Live by Night in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market the film, and it ended up premiering in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948. It wasn’t released in the United States until November 1949, and didn’t end up being a financial success, but it had been screened privately in Hollywood for many actors and producers, which led to Ray’s next film, Knock on Any Door (1949), with Humphrey Bogart, as well as to Farley Granger being cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

Key Largo (July 31, 1948)

Key LargoJohn Huston’s Key Largo was the fourth and final film Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart made together.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Bogie and Bacall are one of the most famous couples — perhaps the most famous couple — in Hollywood history. And yet, their onscreen work together boils down to just four films made over the course of five years: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo.

Key Largo is very loosely based on the 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. I often don’t like films adapted from plays. The dialogue and the way the characters enter and re-enter the action usually feels very strange. But Key Largo never feels “stagey,” and confining the action to a single location only heightens the tension between the characters.

The film opens with beautiful footage of the Florida Keys. By opening with establishing shots of the steamy, summertime Keys, by the time the action is confined to a hotel while a hurricane rages outside, nothing about Key Largo feels stagey or stilted. The viewer is right in the middle of the action, and the suspense grows as the film goes on.

Summertime is the off season in the Florida Keys, when the mercury never dips below 100 degrees, and all the hotels are closed. Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a veteran of World War II who is in Key Largo to visit James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound man whose son George was killed in the war. (McCloud was George Temple’s commanding officer.) Temple runs a hotel in Key Largo with George’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall).

When Bogart sits down at the bar in the Largo Hotel, he laconically introduces himself to the boozy moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) as “McCloud. Frank. By John, out of Ellen.”

Gaye is not the only oddball occupant of the Largo Hotel. There are also a trio of men — Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), and Toots (Harry Lewis) — and with names like those, it’s clear that their story about coming down to the Keys from Milwaukee to do a little fishing isn’t on the up-and-up.

The full terror of the situation becomes apparent when we catch our first glimpse of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), sitting in a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms of the hotel, chewing a cigar and exuding menace.

Robinson is a great actor, and Johnny Rocco is one of his most memorable creations. Rocco craves power and money, and there will never be enough power and money to satisfy him. He delights in toying with his hostages, taunting them with their helplessness. He even goes so far as to give one of them a pistol, daring them to kill him. But his bullying takes all forms. One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is when he humiliates Gaye by forcing her to sing for everyone before he’ll give her another drink. And like most bullies, Johnny Rocco is a coward at heart. As the hurricane builds in ferocity outside the hotel, so does his fear.

Key Largo was John Huston’s second film to be released in 1948. (The first was another collaboration with Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Key Largo is a masterfully directed film. The actors are all at the top of their game (Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role). The film’s music, by Max Steiner, is perfect; full of tension and menace, and — when the scene calls for it — a crushing sense of inevitability. Rudi Fehr’s editing accentuates the tension, and Karl Freund’s cinematography is beautiful.

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