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Undertow (Dec. 1, 1949)

Undertow1949
Undertow (1949)
Directed by William Castle
Universal International Pictures

This review originally appeared last year at Film Noir of the Week.

William Castle is best remembered as the P.T. Barnum of schlock cinema. Castle was a director, producer, and huckster who sold his flicks to the public with brilliant gimmicks. Anyone who bought a ticket to Macabre (1958) was insured by Lloyd’s of London against “death by fright” while watching the picture. People who went to see The Tingler (1959) took a chance that they might be joy-buzzed if they were lucky enough to sit in one of the right seats. And people who bought a ticket to see the Psycho-inspired film Homicidal (1961) were promised their money back if they walked out during the one-minute “Fright Break” before the climax of the film. Provided, that is, they were willing to stand on display in the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until after the film ended.

What people tend to forget, however, is that before he made Macabre, Castle was a hard-working, dependable director of low-budget studio pictures. He was under contract at Columbia Pictures from 1944 to 1947, where he made several films in the Whistler series and the Crime Doctor series, as well as B noirs like When Strangers Marry (1944), which starred Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter.

While under contract with Universal in 1949, Castle directed two B noirs, Johnny Stool Pigeon, which starred Howard Duff and Shelley Winters, and Undertow, which starred Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady.

Just like his big brother’s loony film noir classic Born to Kill (1947), Undertow starts out in “The Biggest Little City in the World” — Reno.

Scott Brady

Brady plays a good-natured, average guy named Tony Reagan who’s just gotten out of the Army after a seven-year stint (he stayed in for another hitch after the war). All Tony wants to do is help his dead war buddy’s dad run the Mile High Lodge, 40 miles north of Reno, and spend the rest of his days hunting and fishing. The only thing he has to do first is fly to Chicago to see his best girl, Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart), and convince her uncle — gambler “Big” Jim Lee — that he’s good enough to marry her.

While in Reno, however, Tony runs into his old friend Danny Morgan (John Russell). Danny tries to convince Tony he’d be better off helping him run his casino. His sales pitch to Tony is: “Lots of sunshine, steady supply of suckers. And loads of lovely, lonely, loaded ladies.”

As I said, Tony is a good-natured, average guy, and even though he knows his way around a craps table, he’d rather put that part of his life behind him.

If you’re a fan of film noirs, however, you know that good-natured average guys who’ve just rotated out of the service are statistically the most likely people to have a murder rap pinned on them and be forced to flee from both the cops and the bad guys.

Brady Blindfolded

Arthur T. Horman and Lee Loeb’s screenplay for Undertow is standard stuff. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not that different from any number of other B noirs about an innocent man on the run. However, Undertow is worth seeking out for several reasons.

First off, the direction is great. Castle knew how to make an entertaining, fast-moving film, and Undertow is one of his better pictures from the 1940s. Another reason to see Undertow is all of the location shooting in Reno and Chicago, which is rare for a 70-minute programmer.

Castle does more than just throw in a few establishing shots. When Tony Reagan first arrives in Chicago, he heads for the Palmer House hotel, then attempts to lose a police tail while walking down South Wabash Avenue and running up into the elevated train station on the corner. Two scenes in Undertow take place at Buckingham Fountain, and at one point Tony meets his friend Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) and his girlfriend Sally at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. The people in the background in the street scenes don’t look like Hollywood extras, either.

Another reason to see Undertow is to catch Rock Hudson in a very small role. This was the first credit Hudson received for a motion picture. He previously appeared in one other film, Fighter Squadron (1948), but his name didn’t appear in the credits. In Undertow he’s credited as “Roc” Hudson. He appears as a Chicago police detective for about one minute toward the end of the film in a scene in which he discusses a case with Det. Chuck Reckling, played by Bruce Bennett.

Hudson and Bennett

I’ve seen a lot of Lawrence Tierney’s films, but I’ve only recently seen films starring his younger brother, Scott Brady (whose real name was Gerard Kenneth Tierney). Brady very closely resembles his older brother. It would probably be difficult for most people who’d never seen either of them before to tell them apart.

But while Lawrence Tierney played nasty, sociopathic characters the way other actors pick up the phone and say, “Hello?,” Scott Brady projected a general air of decency. From what I’ve seen of him so far, his performances aren’t as memorable as Tierney’s, but he’s perfect for this kind of role.

Finally, one last reason to see Undertow is for some truly outstanding bits of noir photography by Castle and his cinematographers, Irving Glassberg and Clifford Stine. The location shooting establishes the world of the film nicely, and is fascinating from a historical perspective, but it’s scenes like the climactic chase down a dark hallway that really tie the film together.

Dark Hallway

Silver River (May 18, 1948)

Silver River
Silver River (1948)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Silver River, which was directed by Raoul Walsh, premiered in Denver on May 18, 1948, and in New York City two days later.

Walsh’s last couple of pictures — Pursued (1947) and Cheyenne (1947) — were both westerns. Silver River takes place after the Civil War, and it’s set in the west, but in terms of action, it doesn’t deliver what I look for in a western. It’s more of a drama, and in fact bears more resemblance to one of Warner’s gangster dramas that it does to a typical Warner Bros. western.

Like Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), Silver River is about a man who takes control of anything and everything around him, wielding his own ruthlessness as a weapon.

Like every good gangster, Michael J. McComb (Errol Flynn) has a faithful right-hand man, “Pistol” Porter (Tom D’Andrea), and he lusts after a woman he can never really attain. And just like every other movie gangster, he finds that once he’s on top, he’s lonelier and more isolated than ever.

When the film begins, McComb is a captain in the Union Army. During the Battle of Gettysburg he burns a wagon-load of payroll money so Jeb Stuart and the Confederates won’t be able get their hands on it. He does this in defiance of an order, so he is court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

McComb learns his lesson and says, “If there’s gonna be any shoving around, next time I’ll do it.”

Sheridan and Flynn

So after a stint as a riverboat gambler — in which we get to see Flynn deliver a lot of smooth lines like, “…and speaking of charming ladies,” before he drops four Queens on the table to beat his opponent’s trio of Aces — he and his buddy Pistol move their operation to Silver City and open a casino. The casino rakes in cash hand over fist, which allows McComb to force his way into the Silver River Mining Company run by Stanley Moore (Bruce Bennett).

What McComb really wants, though, is Moore’s wife, the beautiful Southern belle Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan).

McComb’s lawyer, John Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell), drunkenly warns McComb against the path he’s headed down, and invokes the Biblical story of King David and his obsession with Bathsheba.

After a number of Warner Bros. pictures starring Errol Flynn suffered costly delays when he became too drunk by the afternoon to continue, Jack Warner was determined that Flynn be kept under control, and he made it clear that any delay in filming due to Flynn’s inebriation would be met with legal action.

I don’t know if Flynn’s controlled but uninspired performance is directly related to his forced sobriety, but throughout the film he seems as if he’s just going through the motions. He hits his marks, but that’s about it. Walsh does a good job of controlling his star and keeping everything moving, but after the pyrotechnics of the opening sequence and the breezy charm of the riverboat gambling scenes, the film settles in for a long melodramatic slog, and there just wasn’t enough action to keep me interested. Worse, when there finally is some action to end the film, it feels like a betrayal of the narrative, and isn’t true to Flynn’s character’s arc.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Jan. 24, 1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Bros.

In his review of Elmore Leonard’s 1995 novel Riding the Rap, Martin Amis wrote that “Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner’s Tales, in which Death roams the land — usually Miami or Detroit — disguised as money.”

The same could be said of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but instead of the duffel bags full of cash found in Leonard’s hard-boiled crime novels, money in this film takes the form of gold.

The gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t just a disguise for death, either; it’s the impetus for all manner of human striving and weakness, and brings out the best and the worst in the men who seek it.

As for the film itself, it mostly brings out the best in all of its actors. Neither Humphrey Bogart nor Tim Holt are completely able to shed their well-worn personas, but the same cannot be said of Walter Huston, the director’s father, who is pitch-perfect in his role. (Also, it’s likely that many people who watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre today will have never seen Tim Holt in any of his countless B westerns and therefore have little trouble accepting him in his role.)

Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, a man who finds himself penniless in Tampico, Mexico. He meets fellow American drifter Bob Curtin (Holt) and together they get jobs working in the oilfields, but their unscrupulous employer runs off without paying them, leaving them back where they started. However, luck smiles on them, and after winning a little money they hook up with an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and head for the Sierra Madre mountains to mine their fortune. Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin of the dangers of “gold fever,” but they both claim they’ll deal with their windfalls sensibly if they strike it rich.

No points will be awarded first-time viewers who correctly predict that the protagonists will both strike it rich and succumb to greed and paranoia.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on the 1927 novel by the mysterious author “B. Traven.” Little is known about the possibly German-born novelist who probably lived most of his life in Mexico, which is where most of his fiction is set. According to the February 2, 1948, issue of Time, Traven was paid $5,000 for the screen rights to his novel. Traven was such a mysterious figure that although director Huston frequently corresponded with him, when it came time to meet Traven, a nervous translator named “Hal Croves” showed up in his place, claiming to be a close friend of Traven’s. Huston hired Croves as a technical adviser on the film, paying him $150 a week. Huston strongly suspected (but could never conclusively determine) that “Croves” was really Traven.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was nominated for four Oscars — best picture, best director, best supporting actor for Walter Huston, and best screenplay. It won every Academy Award for which it was nominated except for best picture.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great film. It’s also one of those rare movies — like Casablanca — that even people who “don’t like old movies” will usually enjoy. It has excellent pacing, an involving story, and believable characters, but most importantly, it has authenticity. It was filmed mostly on location in Mexico, and the Mexican characters actually speak Spanish. It’s ironic that this is the movie that gave us the most enduringly stereotypical “Mexican” line — “I don’t have to show you any steenking batches!” — because it’s one of the few films from the ’40s in which Mexican characters actually speak Spanish, and without even subtitles to make things easier on a gringo audience.

Cheyenne (June 6, 1947)

Cheyenne
Cheyenne (1947)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most of the time, when people say “adult western,” they’re talking about the more psychologically realistic western dramas that stood apart from the fray of Saturday matinee singing cowboys. They’re talking about the films of John Ford and Anthony Mann, and TV series like Gunsmoke (1955-1975). Raoul Walsh’s Cheyenne is a different kind of adult western.

While tame by the standards of today’s R-rated movies and cable TV, Cheyenne is a feast of double entendres and sexually suggestive scenes and dialogue. The film stars Dennis Morgan — doing his best impression of George Sanders — as James Wylie, a gentleman gambler who’s impressed into the service of the law by private detective Webb Yancey (Barton MacLane).

Yancey offers to cut Wylie in on the $20,000 reward being offered for “The Poet,” who’s responsible for a series of stagecoach robberies along the Wells Fargo line. Wherever the Poet strikes, he leaves a piece of paper with a few lines of verse, such as “I’m happy the frontier is settling down / With a thriving bank in every town / Let the riders and nesters deposit their pay / So I and my gun can take it away.”

Cheyenne co-stars Jane Wyman (back when she was still Mrs. Ronald Reagan) as a woman named Ann Kincaid. Ann is married to a Wells Fargo banker named Ed Landers (Bruce Bennett), but their marriage is on the rocks, and she’s clearly attracted to the dashing and roguish Wylie. Of course, for the sake of propriety (and the Hays Code), she acts as though she can’t stand Wylie.

There’s plenty of lighthearted, sexy banter, and great lines like, “How did I know she was the sheriff’s daughter? I couldn’t find a badge.” Or my personal favorite, “You know how women are. Like bears. They never get enough honey.”

Ann and Wylie’s situation is complicated when they fall in with a gang led by the Sundance Kid (Arthur Kennedy). Kennedy plays his role with brio. Sundance is a snarling badass who shoots first and thinks later. When a young punk in his gang stands up to him, and says that the Sundance Kid may have all the other members of his gang buffaloed but he doesn’t fool him, Sundance kicks him to the ground and shoots him dead.

Wylie tells Sundance that he is in fact the Poet, and offers to cut him in on the take from his robberies. He also claims that Ann is his wife, which leads to some sexy playacting. Maybe too sexy. As one of Sundance’s gang says, “He kissed the gal like he liked it. That ain’t like no husband.”

When they go to bed in the same room because some of Sundance’s gang are outside watching, Wylie says, “I’ll sleep with one eye open.” Ann responds, “What do you think I’m gonna do?”

The sexual suggestions aren’t limited to the dialogue. The old spinster housekeeper’s look of regret when Ann says “You know how men are” is priceless. And even I couldn’t believe the scene in which Ann complains about back pain after the night she spends with Wylie.

Janis Paige

The sexiness doesn’t stop with Jane Wyman. Janis Paige gives a good performance as a voluptuous saloon singer named Emily Carson. The two songs she performs in a black bustier, dark stockings, and high heels — M.K. Jerome & Ted Koehler’s “I’m So in Love” and Max Steiner & Ted Koehler’s “Going Back to Old Cheyenne” — were a high point of the picture for me.

I enjoyed Cheyenne quite a bit, but it’s not as interesting as Raoul Walsh’s previous western, Pursued (1947), and it suffers from wild shifts in tone. Most of the film is sexy and playful, but the action scenes are surprisingly dark and violent.

Cheyenne is definitely worth seeing for fans of westerns and aficionados of its prolific and talented director. The actors are all fun to watch, especially Arthur Kennedy, and Max Steiner’s bombastic score does a nice job of propelling the action during the film’s shootouts and chase scenes.

Nora Prentiss (Feb. 21, 1947)

In 1947, March was “make jokes about Nora Prentiss” month on the Jack Benny show. A week didn’t go by with at least one line like, “She makes Nora Prentiss look talkative.”

I suppose the promotional tagline for the film — “Would you keep your mouth shut if you were Nora Prentiss?” — was irresistible for comedians, especially since it’s selling the picture based on its final 10 minutes, which strain credulity a bit.

If you can swallow a few plot contrivances, however, Nora Prentiss is a fantastic film. The performances are great, Vincent Sherman’s direction is assured, Franz Waxman’s score is rich and expressive, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is crisp and beautiful, as it always was.

The title, poster, and advertising campaign for Nora Prentiss all seem to be modeled on the earlier Warner Bros. “women’s noir” Mildred Pierce (1945), but they’re very different films. Nora Prentiss, which is based on Paul Webster’s short story, “The Man Who Died Twice,” is more about its male protagonist, Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith), than it is about Nora.

The film begins, as so many noirs do, at the end. A man sits in the shadows of a prison cell and refuses to say how he knew Dr. Talbot, or why he was blackmailing him.

Dr. Talbot is a 43-year-old physician with a wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and two teenaged children (Robert Arthur and Wanda Hendrix). He lives in a beautiful house in San Francisco and shares a thriving practice with his partner, Dr. Joel Merriam (Bruce Bennett).

One night, Talbot comes to the aid of a beautiful nightclub singer after she’s knocked down by a car and suffers minor leg injuries. The singer, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan), flirts with him a little as he tends to her, her nylon rolled down on one leg.

The strait-laced Talbot is completely smitten with Nora, but when she finds out he’s married, she resists his clumsy advances. Talbot says he doesn’t see a reason why they can’t be friends, but an afternoon at his cabin in the mountains never seems platonic, no matter what either of them says.

Nora is drawn to Talbot, but she never seems less than clear-headed about the affair. After a short, dreamy period of time with Talbot, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be “the other woman,” and attempts to break it off. He is less clear-headed, and will do anything to be with her, including — but not limited to — promising her he will divorce his wife, using a cadaver to fake his own death, and following her to New York, traveling under an assumed name.

If the logic police tend to kick down your doors of perception anytime the party in your head gets too weird, you’ll probably find yourself picking apart the plot of Nora Prentiss starting around the halfway mark.

But if you can relax, sit bank, and enjoy the ride, Nora Prentiss is an absorbing film about a man who loses everything for the love of a woman, eventually devolving into a paranoid, hard-drinking wreck who never leaves his hotel room for fear he will be recognized.

Kent Smith is very good as Talbot, but the film works as well as it does because of Ann Sheridan’s performance as Nora. Unlike noirs in which a wicked femme fatale with no discernible inner life seduces and ensnares a sad sack Everyman, Sheridan’s Nora is a three-dimensional character. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and sensible enough to pull away from Talbot when things start to go south. This has the effect of making Talbot’s obsession sadder and more believable than it would be if she were just a harpy with a beautiful face.

The Man I Love (Jan. 11, 1947)

The Man I Love
The Man I Love (1947)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Loving the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love, but it sure helps.

If you don’t like old pop standards (I do, and found myself humming “The Man I Love” constantly for about a day after I watched this movie), then you’d better like “women’s pictures,” because that’s what this is. (I’ve seen The Man I Love called a film noir, but it’s not. Half the movie takes place in nightclubs, and there’s a hint of criminal malice every now and then, but that alone does not a noir make.)

The most prominent tune is the one that gives the film its title, George and Ira Gershwin’s sublime “The Man I Love” — both as a smoky nightclub number and as a constant refrain in Max Steiner’s lissome score — but there are plenty of other great songs, like Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Why Was I Born?” and James P. Johnson and Henry Creamer’s “If I Could Be With You.” There are also tunes just tinkled out on the piano, like George Gershwin’s “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” and Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” suffusing the film with a nostalgic languor that’s a nice counterpoint to all the melodrama.

When New York nightclub singer Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) packs her bags for Los Angeles to visit her siblings, she’ll find love, lose love, flirt with danger, and leave things a little better off than she found them. The poster for The Man I Love features the following tagline: “There should be a law against knowing the things I found out about men!” This is a bit of an overstatement, since most of what Petey finds out about men in this picture is what most clear-eyed women already know; most of them are rotten, some are crazy, some are sweet but naive and dim-witted, and the few you fall for are probably in love with another dame who they’ll never get over.

Petey’s sister Sally Otis (Andrea King) has a young son and a husband, Roy Otis (John Ridgely), who’s languishing in a ward for shell-shocked soldiers. Sally lives with the youngest Brown sister, Ginny (Martha Vickers), who’s 18 and should be enjoying life, but instead spends most of her time caring for the infant twins of their across-the-hall neighbors, Johnny and Gloria O’Connor (Don McGuire and Dolores Moran). Joe Brown (Warren Douglas) — the girls’ brother — is hip-deep in trouble. He’s working for a slimy nightclub owner named Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) and seems destined for a one-way trip to the big house.

There are a few potentially interesting stories that never really go anywhere, such as Ginny’s attraction to Johnny, whose wife is two-timing him, and Sally’s relationship with her mentally ill husband. For better and for worse, Lupino is the star of The Man I Love, and her dangerous dealings with Nicky Toresca and her doomed romance with a pianist named San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) who’s given up on life dominate the running time of the picture.

The actors are all fine, and the stories are involving, but it’s the music that elevates this picture. Ida Lupino expertly lip synchs her numbers, which were sung by Peg La Centra (who can be seen in the flesh in the 1946 film Humoresque, singing and playing the piano in two scenes in a dive bar).

There’s also at least one allusion to a popular song in the dialogue. When Petey sees the twins and asks “Who hit the daily double?” Gloria responds gloomily, “Everything happens to me,” which is the title of a Matt Dennis and Tom Adair song first made popular by Frank Sinatra when he was singing for Tommy Dorsey’s band. There are probably other little in-jokes like that sprinkled throughout, but that was the only one I caught.

Mildred Pierce (Oct. 20, 1945)

Mildred_PierceIf you’ve only seen the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce, you’re forgiven for never wondering whether the striking murder set piece that opens the film and informs the entire picture was an invention of the producer and the screenwriters that never occurred in the novel.

It was. But it’s a brilliant invention. Even though long stretches of Mildred Pierce (told in flashback) are essentially melodrama, the sequence that opens the film is one of the greatest examples of film noir I’ve ever seen. It is nighttime. Heavy shadows fall over caddish playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), resplendent in a tuxedo, as he is gunned down in a Malibu beach house. Not every shot hits him. A few smash into the mirror behind him. But enough hit him to kill him, and he falls to the floor. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) flees from the house, walks down the boardwalk, and looks as though she is contemplating suicide by jumping into the Pacific Ocean, but is stopped by a policeman. She talks her way out of the situation and later entices the beefy and amorous Wally Fay (Jack Carson) back to the house on the beach and locks him in, with the intention of pinning the murder on him. The scenes in which Wally realizes Mildred has left him alone in a locked house with a corpse and a revolver and he attempts to escape are stunning, and are one of the greatest noir sequences in film history.

Unlike Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), another noir classic adapted from a novel by Cain, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce takes a lot of liberties with its source material. This is partly due to necessity. I loved Cain’s novel, and found it every bit as good as his 1934 crime classic The Postman Always Twice and more believable than his 1937 novel Serenade, which is about a male opera singer who loses his voice after he gives in to homosexual temptation. Cain’s Mildred Pierce contains no murders, just plenty of bad behavior, and the most despicable character waltzes off at the end with no punishment in sight. Apparently the moral tone of the novel was troubling to the Breen Office, so producer Jerry Wald devised a murder plot with a culprit who could be punished, which sufficiently palliated the concerns of producer and studio head Jack L. Warner, and he purchased the rights to the novel in 1944. The script for the film went through eight different versions before Ranald MacDougall’s version was accepted. William Faulkner and Catherine Turney both made uncredited contributions. (And we can all thank our lucky stars that Faulkner’s scene in which Mildred’s maid, played by Butterfly McQueen, consoled Mildred while singing a gospel song was either never filmed or was left on the cutting room floor.)

Mildred Pierce is a fantastic film. Crawford’s longtime nemesis Bette Davis and fellow fading star Rosalind Russell were both considered for the lead role, but both turned it down. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone but Crawford playing Mildred Pierce. She brings not only her finely controlled histrionics to the role, but her own life history as a woman who crawled up from nothing.

When the picture opened, it was a huge hit, both with critics and audiences. It was nominated for best picture, best actress, best supporting actress (for Eve Arden, who plays Mildred’s wisecracking best friend), best writing, and best black and white cinematography. Joan Crawford won the Academy Award for best actress, and accepted the statuette at home, where she was sick in bed. (Her adopted daughter Christina claims she was faking, but this is hardly the worst accusation she has lobbed at her mother.)

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