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Tag Archives: Harry Morgan

Moonrise (Oct. 1, 1948)

Moonrise
Moonrise (1948)
Directed by Frank Borzage
Republic Pictures

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise is a surreal Southern Gothic drenched in noir atmosphere.

Based on the novel by Theodore Strauss, Moonrise stars Dane Clark as a man named Danny Hawkins who is haunted by his father’s execution for murder. Danny has grown up in the shadow of his father’s crime, both figuratively and literally (this is a noir, after all).

In nightmarish flashback scenes, we see the young version of Danny being mercilessly taunted by his schoolmates.

In the first few minutes of the film, the grown-up version of Danny finally lashes back at the worst of the bullies, Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), who is the son of the wealthiest man in town. Danny beats Jerry Sykes to death on the outskirts of a carnival, and leaves his body to be discovered by the authorities.

For the rest of the film, Danny is tormented by guilt but is too terrified to turn himself in. And soon after the murder, he strikes up a desperate romance with Jerry Sykes’s girl, Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a schoolteacher and the prettiest girl in town.

Clark and Russell

Moonrise was an attempt by Republic Pictures to break out of their Poverty Row rut and release an A picture. (The budget was $849,452, whereas the Western B pictures the studio pumped out on a regular basis usually cost around $50,000.)

It was still a modestly budgeted film by Hollywood standards, and Borzage shot the entire film on only two sound stages. Although Moonrise wasn’t a hit, I think the claustrophobic “staginess” works in the film’s favor when watched today. Lionel Banks’s art direction and John L. Russell’s cinematography give the film a dreamlike quality. Especially in the early going of the film, there are instances of dream logic — such as a terrible car accident that seems to have no consequences in the next scene — but that only contributes to the film’s hypnotic power.

Dane Clark’s performance as Danny is similar to the romantic, sad-eyed fugitive he played in Deep Valley (1947). Gail Russell is gorgeous, although her role as Gilly mostly requires her to be wide-eyed and worried.

There’s some really terrific work by the supporting cast. Lloyd Bridges only has a minute or two on screen, but his nastiness and sense of entitlement is palpable. Ethel Barrymore is wonderful, as always, as Danny’s grandmother. Allyn Joslyn grounds the film with his role as philosophical sheriff Clem Otis. And African-American actor Rex Ingram gives an amazing performance as Mose, Danny’s friend who lives deep in the swamp, raises and trains dogs, and avoids people as much as possible. The character of Mose has aspects of the “magical Negro,” but Ingram is a good enough actor — and the part is written well enough — that he mostly escapes cliché.

Moonrise is a hard film to categorize. It’s stylistically a film noir, but thematically it ranges from Southern Gothic to European art film. It’s worth seeing if you have any affinity for any of those genres, or even if you’re just someone who can appreciate a beautifully made black and white movie.

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.

The Big Clock (April 9, 1948)

Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) wasn’t the only film in which Ray Milland got into trouble because of booze.

In John Farrow’s The Big Clock, based on the best-selling novel by Kenneth Fearing, George Stroud (Milland) misses the 7:25 train home because he’s knocking back stingers with Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a former model for Styleways magazine, one of the many imprints of Janoth Enterprises. In the film, Janoth is a Manhattan publishing juggernaut that also owns magazines with names like Artways, Airways, Sportways, Futureways, and Crimeways.

Stroud is the executive editor of Crimeways, and not long after the film begins he offers Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) his resignation. He’s been promising his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) a honeymoon since they were married, and now that they’ve been married long enough to have a five-year-old son, her patience has reached its breaking point.

Of course, Stroud strains her patience even further by missing that 7:25 train home, and Georgette leaves for their belated honeymoon alone while he goes out to nightclubs and passes out dead drunk in Pauline’s apartment, fully clothed on the couch. Oh, and did I mention that Pauline is the girlfriend of Stroud’s temperamental boss, Earl Janoth?

In Fearing’s 1946 novel, it’s made explicit that George Stroud has sex with Pauline (whose last name in the book is Delos, not York). He’s a regular cad and even has an overnight bag ready for any illicit sleepovers that might come his way.

With The Big Clock, Farrow crafted a remarkably faithful version of Fearing’s best seller. Stroud’s extramarital affair couldn’t be shown in a Hollywood film, obviously, and all mentions of homosexuality had to be expunged from the script, but in adapting the book Farrow and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer seemed to adopt an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach.

There are some minor changes that neither add nor detract from the story, like how the Strouds of the film have a five-year-old son while the Strouds of the novel have a five-year-old daughter, but there’s one big change that works extremely well. In the novel, “the big clock” was merely George Stroud’s personal metaphor for the rat race — the vast machinery of life and society that never stops ticking forward — but the big clock has been made literal for the film. It’s an enormous contraption that dominates the lobby of the building that houses Janoth Enterprises, and — no surprises here — the climax of the film involves a good amount of crawling around in its works.

The central conceit of The Big Clock is too good to screw up. Stroud leaves Pauline’s apartment moments before Janoth steps out of the elevator and sees a shadowy figure leaving down the stairs. Janoth and Pauline have words, he flies into a rage, and murders her. Janoth’s co-publisher Steve Hagen (George Macready) convinces Janoth that they need to find the mysterious witness and eliminate him.

Since Crimeways has an investigative team, Janoth and Hagen put Stroud in charge of the search for the mysterious witness. Stroud knows Janoth killed Pauline, but he can’t speak up or his marriage will be ruined. He also can’t mess up the search for himself too badly without raising any red flags. All he can do is try to stay one step ahead of things.

The Big Clock is full of nail-biting suspense — especially the last reel — and features fine performances all around. I can’t picture anyone but Charles Laughton as Janoth, a grotesque, vain, sensitive, mercurial publishing genius with one of the silliest little mustaches you will ever see on film, and Milland is perfect as a very intelligent man who knows just exactly how badly he’s trapped but who never stops trying to figure out his escape route. I also especially liked Harry Morgan as Janoth’s personal masseur and probable hit man Bill Womack, a creepy guy who wears dark clothes, has a perpetual scowl, and never speaks.

And in case you were wondering, the director, John Farrow, is indeed Mia Farrow’s father. He and Maureen O’Sullivan were married on September 12, 1936, and had seven children together; Michael, Patrick, John Charles, Mia, Tisa, Prudence, and Stephanie.

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).

Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (Oct. 24, 1946)

Crime Doctor's Man Hunt
Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s mystery programmer Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt is yet another wacky outing with Warner Baxter as Robert Ordway, M.D., Ph.D. (a.k.a. the Crime Doctor).

The Crime Doctor was a character created by Max Marcin for a Sunday-night mystery radio show that ran from 1940 to 1947 on CBS stations. Like a lot of radio detectives (e.g., Boston Blackie, the Falcon), the Crime Doctor also got his own series of hour-long B movies.

In the first film in the series, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), a Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan survives a murder attempt, but suffers from complete amnesia, reinvents himself as “Robert Ordway,” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. His past eventually catches up with him, but everything works out all right, and he is able to continue being Dr. Ordway, putting crooks behind bars and helping the helpless.

Crime Doctor is one of the best films in the series. The subsequent films are all a lot of fun, but Dr. Ordway’s checkered past is rarely referred to. Baxter’s performance in the lead role is always top-notch, however, and most of the Crime Doctor pictures are a cut above most other mystery programmers from the ’40s.

In Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt, John Foster (Myron Healey), a young, pencil-mustachioed man suffering from “bomb shock and combat fatigue,” comes to see Dr. Ordway. He’s suffering from fugue states in which he wanders in a daze, always drawn to the same intersection, but he doesn’t know why, and never remembers how he got there. He could get treatment from the Army, but he doesn’t want his fiancée to know about his condition.

His fiancée, Irene Cotter (Ellen Drew), comes to see Dr. Ordway right afterward. (Foster’s attempts to conceal his condition from her were clearly in vain.) Dr. Ordway deflects her questions and tells her that he can’t violate any patient’s confidentiality.

As with most of the Crime Doctor films, things get loonier as the film goes on. We learn that Foster had his fortune cast during a “slumming party” downtown, and was told by a fortuneteller named “Alfredi” (real name “Alfred Hemstead,” played by Ivan Triesault) that he would meet his violent death on the corner of Garth and Davis streets, which is why he is continually drawn there.

There’s also a case of split personality, which I won’t say too much about in order not to give anything away. However, even the dimmer bulbs in the audience will see the “twist” ending coming from a mile away. I’m not even sure it was meant to be a surprise.

Ordway comments at the end of the film that this has been a strange case, first the fugue, then the split personality. “Doctor, I’d like you to come see my wife,” says Police Inspector Harry B. Manning (William Frawley). “Split personality?” asks the doctor. “No personality,” quips the inspector.

Dragonwyck (April 10, 1946)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck was adapted from Anya Seton’s best-selling 1944 historical novel of the same name. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but I loved this film, and would like to dig into the book some day. Based on the description on the back cover, the introduction, and the first several pages that I leafed through, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation, as far as these things go. Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor Herman Melville make an appearance in the film, however, and the Astor Place massacre and steamboat racing both, sadly, fell outside the scope of the film.

But that’s par for the course in any 100-minute long adaptation of a 350-page novel. Taken purely as a cinematic experience, Dragonwyck is an engrossing Gothic melodrama that treads lightly the tricky boundary between romance and horror. As a Vincent Price fan, I especially loved his performance in this film. In my review of Shock, which was released earlier the same year, I mentioned that it was the first role I’d seen Vincent Price play in which there was a glimmering of the horror icon he would become. Well, he continued to blossom in this role. While never descending into outright horror territory, Dragonwyck gave Price an opportunity to exhibit more range than any role I’d seen him play previously, and the way his character changes drives the film; from coldly aristocratic to warmly romantic, and from a wielder of petty power to a broken drug addict.

The film begins in 1844. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is a bright, beautiful young woman who longs to see the world. She lives on a small New England farm with her younger siblings, her mother Abigail (Anne Revere), and her deeply religious and strait-laced father Ephraim (Walter Huston). The Wellses receive a letter from their distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price), who wishes to take Miranda away from her simple surroundings and employ her as a governess and companion to his young daughter at his home, Dragonwyck Manor, on the Hudson River. After much deliberation, Ephraim assents, even though Van Ryn’s wealth and atheism distress him. Like everything else in the film, Huston’s portrayal is fully realized. The character could have been portrayed as a two-dimensional Bible-thumper, but Huston crafts a believable and sympathetic character.

Once Miranda arrives at Dragonwyck, the obvious touchstone is Jane Eyre, but instead of a madwoman locked in the attic, there is merely Van Ryn’s fussy, compulsively overeating wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne). Theirs is clearly a loveless marriage, and as soon as we learn that Van Ryn is not really Miranda’s cousin by blood, we can read the handwriting on the wall.

The story takes a lot of interesting turns, however, and I wasn’t ever quite sure what was going to happen next. While Van Ryn is portrayed sympathetically, he is also deeply flawed. A “patroon,” he forces his tenant farmers to pay tribute to him while he sits on a throne. It’s an anachronistic display of power, even for the mid-nineteenth century, and shows early in the film that all may not be well in Dragonwyck.

Dragonwyck also has an excellent sense of place. As Seton said in her introduction to the novel, “There was, on the Hudson, a way of life such as this, and there was a house not unlike Dragonwyck. All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations!”

State Fair (Aug. 30, 1945)

StateFairState Fair was the first musical made specifically for film by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their two previous musical collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, were both stage productions. (Although both would eventually be made into films in the ’50s.) State Fair was based on a novel by Philip Stong that had previously been made into a non-musical film in 1933 with Will Rogers.

Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) and her brother, Wayne (Dick Haymes), go to the Iowa State Fair with their parents (played by Fay Bainter and Charles Winninger) and their prize hog, Blue Boy. Margy and Wayne are both somewhat dissatisfied with their current significant others, and each find someone a whole lot more exciting at the fair; she a cavalier reporter played by Dana Andrews and he a flame-haired singer played by Vivian Blaine. Things go well for both, but can their love affairs outlast the fair?

Musically primitive and relentlessly cheery, State Fair injects life into its clichéd proceedings with charm, humor, and some cartoonishly outsized, Technicolor images of middle-American excess. And Andrews (who played the detective in the 1944 noir classic Laura) is rakishly charming, almost but not quite a thug, and always fun to watch.

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