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Tag Archives: Henry Hathaway

Call Northside 777 (Feb. 1, 1948)

Call Northside 777 is the latest in director Henry Hathaway’s series of fact-based dramas.

Together with producer Louis de Rochemont, the creator of the March of Time series of newsreels, Hathaway made The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), which were both based on the wartime exploits of the OSS.

Unlike Hathaway’s previous film, Kiss of Death (1947), which was fiction, but made in a verité style and filmed on location, Call Northside 777 is more in line with Louis de Rochemont’s Boomerang (1947), which was directed by Elia Kazan.

Like Boomerang, Call Northside 777 is about a miscarriage of justice.

In 1933, Joseph Majczek and another man, Theodore Marcinkiewicz, were convicted of killing a Chicago police officer the previous year. In 1944, their convictions were overturned when a crusading reporter named James McGuire helped prove that the eyewitness who gave the testimony that sent the two men to prison had perjured herself under pressure from the police.

Majczek is renamed “Frank Wiecek,” and he’s played by Richard Conte. The crusading Chicago Times reporter is renamed “Jim McNeal” and he’s played by James Stewart.

McNeal’s editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), spots a notice in the classified section of the Times — “$5000 reward for killers of Officer Bundy on Dec. 9, 1932. Call Northside 777. Ask for Tillie Wiecek 12-7 p.m.” — and sends McNeal to investigate.

Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski) is the convicted man’s mother. She earned the $5,000 by scrubbing floors.

After McNeal interviews Mrs. Wiecek, his wife Laura (Helen Walker) says to him, “I wasn’t thinking about the boy, I was thinking about his mother. You know what it is? It catches your imagination. Nobody knows whether she’s right or not. She’s worked so hard, she’s had such faith that, well, I want her to be right.”

McNeal, on the other hand, is hard-nosed and unsentimental about the case. As he tells Wiecek when he goes to prison to interview him, “She believes you. I need proof. This thing’s gotta have sock — mass appeal. It’s the only way we’ll be able to help you.”

Eventually, though, the evidence begins to pile up, and even the cynical McNeal is convinced of Wiecek’s innocence.

Call Northside 777 was released on DVD in 2004 as part of the Fox Film Noir collection, but there’s very little thematically that marks it as “noir.” The closest the film gets stylistically to being a film noir is toward the end of the picture, when McNeal scours the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago in search of the eyewitness in the Wiecek case, Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde). These scenes are bathed in shadows and shot through with suspense.

For the most part, though, Call Northside 777 is lit and shot in a neutral, docudrama fashion, which is a shame, since it was the first big Hollywood production filmed in Chicago. There are a few shots of the Merchandise Mart, the Loop, and Holy Trinity Polish Mission, but most of the film takes place indoors.

It’s a good film, but since it’s mostly a hidebound retelling of established facts, it’s never as thrilling or suspensful as a piece of pure fiction like Kiss of Death. It’s interesting, for instance, that Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the polygraph, plays himself in the scene in which Wiecek is given a lie detector test, but it’s not really the stuff of great drama.

The best thing about the film is Jimmy Stewart’s performance. He handles his character’s progression from a cynical reporter who’s “just doing his job” to a man who’s finally found a cause worth fighting for wholly believable and thoroughly involving.

Kiss of Death (Aug. 27, 1947)

Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest film noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946).

The film begins with the following words: “All scenes in this motion picture, both exterior and interior, were photographed in the State of New York on the actual locale associated with the story.”

Unlike The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine, however, this commitment to veracity isn’t in service of a true-ish retelling of World War II-era espionage, but of a hard-boiled crime drama about a three-time loser facing 15 years in stir after being nabbed for a jewel robbery.

His name is Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and if he wants to watch his two little girls grow up, he’s going to have to stool for the district attorney’s office.

Bianco has been in this position before, and he took the full four-year rap instead of squealing.

“I’m the same guy now I was then. Nothin’ has changed. Nothin’,” he tells Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy).

On his way up the river to Sing Sing, Nick meets a cackling, sociopathic hood named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Udo won’t show up again for awhile, but he’ll play a major role in Nick’s life when he does.

For awhile, Nick stays clammed up, but then his wife Maria commits suicide and he starts to rethink matters. When a pretty girl from his old neighborhood, Nettie (Coleen Gray), comes to visit him in Sing Sing and tells him that the driver on the jewelry job, a guy named Pete Rizzo, was responsible for Mrs. Bianco putting her head in the oven, Nick decides he wants to talk to the D.A. and secure his release in exchange for information. (In the original story, it was implied that Rizzo raped Nick’s wife, but that’s sidestepped in the final version, making it seem more as if she was having an affair with Rizzo.)

Nick trusts Assistant D.A. D’Angelo enough to tumble to a job in his past that he got away with — the Thompson Fur Company heist — to provide a cover for his trips to the D.A.’s office. D’Angelo promises that he’ll drop the charges later for insufficient evidence.

Things are looking up for Nick. He’s able to care for his daughters, and he’s eventually paroled, leaving him free to marry Nettie.

But as soon as Tommy Udo — Nick’s old pal from the trip up to Sing Sing — re-enters his life, things go very bad very quickly. Udo is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of wrapping up an older wheelchair-bound woman (played by Mildred Dunnock) in electrical cord and pushing her down a long flight of stairs, in one of the most enduring scenes of cinematic sociopathy.

Kiss of Death was Richard Widmark’s film debut, and his balls-out crazy performance is something to behold. The filmmakers thought that Widmark’s high forehead made him look too intelligent, so they outfitted him with a low-browed hairpiece. Like Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), Widmark’s performance as Tommy Udo straddles the line between gangster movie and monster movie. Director Hathaway had toyed with the idea of casting the manic Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who sang the 1944 druggie classic “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” as Udo, but it’s impossible now to imagine anyone but Widmark in the role.

The screenplay for Kiss of Death was adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from a story by Eleazar Lipsky originally called “Stoolpigeon.” Lipsky was a novelist who worked as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. He was also legal counsel for the Mystery Writers of America. Perhaps because of Lipsky’s day job, the realism of the setting of Kiss of Death is matched by the actions of its characters. Brian Donlevy, in the role of Assistant D.A. D’Angelo, is neither a hero nor a villain. When he tells Nick that he’s going to have to testify in court after all, and later that it was all for nothing, and that Tommy Udo was acquitted and is probably coming after Nick, the viewer gets the sense that D’Angelo genuinely cares for Nick, but that at the same time, putting Nick’s life in danger is just part of the job. D’Angelo might not like it, but he accepts it as a necessary evil.

Interestingly, the fictional Kiss of Death comes off as a more realistic film than either The House on 92nd Street (1945) or 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), both of which touted the “true” stories that were their inspirations. Although not every scene in Kiss of Death was shot on the actual locale associated with the story, as the title card promises (some of the interiors were clearly shot in a studio), the use of real New York City and Upstate New York locations coupled with realistic dialogue, understated performances from all the cast besides Widmark, and extremely sparse use of background music makes for a powerful, engrossing drama. There are standout set pieces, like the jewel heist in the Chrysler Building that opens the film, and spectacular shots of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, the Tombs, and the Triborough Bridge from the Queens side of the East River, but there are also lots of little touches that give the film its sense of realism. When Nick watches his daughters during their music lesson at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the piano is slightly out of tune. When Nick sits in his cell at Sing Sing, the toilet in the cell is clearly visible, which is something you’d never see in a prison cell built on a Hollywood soundstage in the ’40s. (Incidentally, prior to shooting the scenes in Sing Sing, Hathaway had both Victor Mature and Richard Widmark processed through the system to give them a better sense of the characters they were playing.)

Kiss of Death isn’t a perfect movie, but it stands up to repeated viewings, and its use of music and location are both revolutionary. If you don’t believe me, take it from Walter Winchell…

13 Rue Madeleine (Jan. 15, 1947)

Henry Hathaway’s 13 Rue Madeleine is a spiritual sequel to his espionage docudrama thriller The House on 92nd Street (1945). The address this time around refers not to the headquarters of a Nazi spy ring in New York City, but to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre, France, during World War II.

Like The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine owes a debt to the style and presentation of Louis de Rochemont’s “March of Time” newsreels. (De Rochemont served as producer of both films.) I enjoyed The House on 92nd Street, but judged purely as a cinematic experience, 13 Rue Madeleine is the superior film.

A lot of that is due to the film’s star. James Cagney is dynamic and arresting in every role I’ve ever seen him play, and I would pay to watch a film in which all he did was order and consume room service by himself.

In this film, Cagney plays Robert Emmett “Bob” Sharkey, an instructor of potential agents in a U.S. agency called “O77.” (The organization is clearly based on the O.S.S., but the name was changed because of certain plot elements that we’ll get to in a moment.)

Early in the film, Sharkey’s boss, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), informs him that one of his students is a German mole named Wilhelm Kuncel. The mole turns out to be one of his most promising pupils, William H. “Bill” O’Connell (Richard Conte). O’Connell looks and acts as American as apple pie, and during training grew especially close to blond, fresh-faced Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), who never suspected a thing.

Gibson orders Sharkey to pass O’Connell and to not let on what he knows, in order to feed false information to the Germans through O’Connell. Alas, O’Connell proves to be even cannier than Sharkey’s bosses could have predicted, and this decision leads to a series of tragedies.

Conte isn’t an actor I could have picked out of a lineup a year ago, but after seeing him now in several roles, I think he’s a tremendous performer, and I look forward to a lifetime of watching his films. It doesn’t matter for his role as a double agent in 13 Rue Madeleine that he doesn’t look the slightest bit “German.” In a wordless scene in a transport plane over Europe, as O’Connell and Lassiter are preparing to jump, O’Connell suddenly sees what the straight-arrow Lassiter can’t hide, and the look on his face is chilling.

The Dark Corner (April 9, 1946)

If someone were to say to me, “What exactly is a film noir? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” I might direct them to Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Not because it’s the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but because it contains so many “noir” elements; a tough-talking P.I. and his sexy secretary, blackmail, frame-ups, violence, creative use of shadows and low-angle shots, and a plethora of quotable tough-guy dialogue like “I can be framed easier than Whistler’s mother.” It’s also not a picture that’s attained the status of a true “classic” like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946), so no one’s going to be distracted by great acting, iconic characterizations, or a brilliant storyline. This is pulp. Pure and unvarnished.

I love pulpy noir, so I really enjoyed The Dark Corner. On the other hand, I first saw this movie less than a decade ago, and only remembered one scene, in which one character pushes another out of a skyscraper window and then calmly walks to his dentist appointment. I have pretty good recall, especially when it comes to films, but I didn’t remember anything about this movie, not even after watching it again. Nothing came back. And I have a feeling that I won’t remember much about it 10 years from now, either.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the heck out of it while I was watching it. Mark Stevens isn’t an actor who ever made a big impression on me, but he’s a passable lead. As private investigator Bradford Galt, he delivers his lines with the speed and regularity of a gal in the steno pool pounding the keys of a Smith Corona typewriter. Galt is the kind of guy who makes himself a cocktail by grabbing two bottles with one hand and pouring them into a highball glass together. He’s also the kind of guy who probably wouldn’t do well in today’s litigious corporate environment. When he tells his newly hired secretary Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) that he’s taking her out on a date, she asks, “Is this part of the job?” He responds, “It is tonight.”

It turns out that he’s (mostly) telling the truth, and the reason he’s taking her out on the town is to draw out a tail he’s spotted; a big mug in a hard-to-miss white suit played by William Bendix. Their date was one of my favorite sequences in the movie. There’s a lot of great location footage of New York in The Dark Corner, but the scenes in the Tudor Penny Arcade take the cake. I don’t know if any of the scenes in the arcade were shot in back lots, but the batting cages, the Skeebowl, and the coin-operated Mutoscopes with titles like “Tahitian Nights” and “The Virgin of Bagdad” all looked pretty authentic.

Once Galt gets his hands on the guy tailing him and roughs him up for information, the plot kicks into gear. Bendix’s character, “Fred Foss,” is a heavy who claims to have been hired by a man named Jardine. Galt starts to panic as soon as he hears the name. Jardine was Galt’s partner when he was a P.I. in San Francisco. Jardine had Galt framed, which led to Galt doing two years in the pokey. Jardine (played by the blond, German-accented Kurt Kreuger) is now in New York, but still up to his old tricks, seducing married women and running blackmail schemes. The current object of his affection, Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs), is married to the effete art dealer Hardy Cathcart, who is played by Clifton Webb. In The Dark Corner, Webb essentially reprises his role from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944); another film noir in which a painting of a beautiful brunette played a major role.

I won’t summarize the Byzantine plot any further, but it should go without saying that all the pieces tie together. As I said, The Dark Corner isn’t the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty enjoyable to watch, and it looks fantastic. The dialogue is especially cracking, and consistently verges on the ridiculous. For instance, when Cathcart tells Foss (who is on the phone with Galt) to tell Galt that he wants $200 to leave town, Foss repeats the information to Galt by saying, “I need two yards. Powder money.”

The House on 92nd Street (Sept. 10, 1945)

House92ndStWhen The House on 92nd Street was released on DVD in 2005, it was as part of the “Fox Film Noir” collection. This is misleading, since it’s more of a docudrama than it is a noir. It’s a historically important film, however, since it was one of the first to feature location shooting for nearly all the exteriors, and one of the first to skillfully blend fact with fiction while presenting itself as essentially factual. (Charles G. Booth won an Academy Award for best original story for his work on this film.)

The House on 92nd Street stars William Eythe as Bill Dietrich, a second-generation German-American who becomes a double agent for the F.B.I., Lloyd Nolan as his contact in the Bureau, Agent George A. Briggs, and Signe Hasso as the leader of the spy ring, Elsa Gebhardt. The film is a fictionalized account of the F.B.I.’s 1941 operation against the Nazi spy ring led by Fritz Joubert Duquesne. It was one of the largest counterspy operations in U.S. history, and led to the conviction of 33 people. In reality, however, none of them were involved in anything quite as grand as the secrets of the atomic bomb, which is the MacGuffin in The House on 92nd Street. And the real Dietrich was not the all-American boy portrayed by Eythe. He actually was a German-born man named William G. Sebold who served in the German army during World War I but became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. Presumably the war was still too fresh in the minds of the American viewing public for them to accept a German as the hero of a picture.

This film also shows the beginnings of J. Edgar Hoover’s massive publicity campaign for the F.B.I., which he disguised as a simple display of information. In reality, of course, Hoover carefully controlled the information that the public saw about the F.B.I., twisting and distorting as necessary. A good example of this information control is a scene early in the film, in which we see an indoor enclosure the size of an airplane hangar, filled with filing cabinets. The booming voice of the narrator (Reed Hadley) explains that this is the F.B.I.’s collection of 100 million sets of fingerprints, a number that seems unlikely, given that the population of the United States was fewer than 140 million people in 1945. Were they counting each finger? The message, of course, is that there is no hiding from the F.B.I. If you commit a federal crime or spy for another nation, they will find you. (This was also the message of the radio show This Is Your F.B.I., which began broadcasting dramatizations of real federal cases on American Broadcasting Company stations in the spring of 1945, all with the cooperation of Hoover, who called it “the finest dramatic program on the air,” and “our show.”)

The House on 92nd Street was directed by Henry Hathaway, but much of its style can be attributed to producer Louis de Rochemont, who created the “March of Time” newsreel series. When he lacked the footage he wanted, de Rochemont would stage clever recreations, but his newsreels were presented as wholly factual. It’s important to keep in mind that American audiences were less savvy about media trickery in 1945. After all, it had only been six years since people tuned into Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast midway through the program and thought Martians were vaporizing people in New Jersey.

The House on 92nd Street begins with a compilation of actual footage of people entering and exiting the German embassy, which is interesting. Of course, the characters in this film watch a great deal of surveillance footage. Some of it is real, some is not. It’s not that audiences in 1945 didn’t realize that the film was a blending of reenactments and actual footage, it’s the overall message they were taking away from the film that was perhaps not completely accurate. For instance, in Thomas M. Pryor’s September 27, 1945 review of the film in the New York Times, he wrote the following:

Since the picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox with full cooperation from the F.B.I., was completed some months ago, the secret of the atomic bomb has been revealed. Now the picture carries a simple and restrained foreword explaining that the “Process 97″ which the Nazi agents are attempting to steal was in reality a part of the atomic bomb formula. It is to the producers’ everlasting credit that this information is not sensationalized in the film.

In reality, however, there is no evidence that there was a single “missing piece” of the atomic bomb process that spies were in danger of transmitting back to Nazi Germany. And of course, film by its very nature presents a sensationalized picture of reality.

Also, a big deal is made at the beginning of the picture that every person playing an F.B.I. agent, aside from the principals, is an actual F.B.I. agent. This, however, does not make what is depicted any more or less truthful than if they were played by actors, but it seems to.

The House on 92nd Street is not a bad picture by any stretch. Taken at face value, it’s tense and exciting. And director Hathaway, when not constrained by the documentary-style approach of de Rochemont, creates some great sequences, such as when Dietrich gets himself arrested just to get in touch with Briggs at the F.B.I., or the meeting between Dietrich and his co-conspirators at a waterfront dive. And the final shootout, which involves tear gas grenades and a surprising disguise, is fantastic. If you’re looking for a film that uses the framework of a docudrama to present a tense film noir, however, you’d be better off watching Anthony Mann’s excellent T-Men (1947).

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