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Tag Archives: Herman Schlom

Under the Tonto Rim (Aug. 1, 1947)

Tim Holt’s second postwar western, Under the Tonto Rim, is a lot like his first postwar western, Thunder Mountain (1947). Both are RKO films produced by Herman Schlom and directed by Lew Landers, with screenplays by Norman Houston that are based on Zane Grey novels.

And even though Tim Holt plays a different character in Under the Tonto Rim than he did in Thunder Mountain, Richard Martin is back as his Irish-Mexican sidekick, Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamonte Rafferty, the same character he played in Thunder Mountain. Chito is tall and handsome, and has a way with the ladies, but he’s also a barrel of laughs, and has a way with malapropisms like “He swallowed it hook, line, and stinker.”

In Under the Tonto Rim, Tim Holt plays Brad Canfield, the new owner of the Rim Rock Stage Line. In the first reel of the film, one of his stagecoaches is held up by masked bandits who carry off the Wells Fargo box, kidnap Lucy Dennison (Nan Leslie) — a beautiful blonde with a mysterious past — and kill his friend Andy (Jay Norris), a young stage driver who was about to be married.

No one ever said running a stage line in a B western was easy.

Chito and Brad ride into Wicksburg and describe their attackers to Captain McLean of the Arizona Rangers. All the raiders wore black masks, except for the leader, who wore a gray, spotted bandanna

“A gray, spotted bandanna!” exclaims Capt. McLean (Jason Robards). “Sounds like the Tonto Rim Gang!”

Capt. McLean tells Brad and Chito that the Tonto Rim Gang’s hideout is somewhere under the Tonto Rim.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the Tonto Rim Gang are a bunch of clowns, naming themselves after their hideout isn’t quite like a group of criminals on the lam calling themselves “The 285 West Sycamore Street Safe House Gang,” since there are more than a hundred canyons under the Tonto Rim, and the gang could be in any one of them.

Brad and Chito decide to take matters into their own hands. Brad arranges to get himself thrown in jail in Tonto, where one of the captured raiders, Patton (Tony Barrett), is locked up and scheduled to hang. Brad thinks that if he can pass himself off as a criminal with $10,000 buried somewhere, he can escape with Patton, and Patton will lead him to the Tonto Rim Gang. But as they ride into Tonto, Chito expresses his doubts about the plan in his own inimitable way.

Chito: “You know what the word ‘Tonto’ means in Spanish?”
Brad: “No.”
Chito: “It means ‘fool.’ And I bet you that’s what we are.”
Brad: “Ah, keep your shirt on.”
Chito: “I always keep that on. Except on Saturday nights, when I take it back.”
Brad: “Well, this is only Thursday, and I don’t want to attract too much attention yet.”

When they arrive in Tonto, Chito passes himself off as “Ranger Rafferty” to Deputy Joe (Lex Barker), then bends the ear of the sheriff (Harry Harvey) with tales of Brad Canfield the outlaw, and tells him he needs to be taken alive.

Brad’s plan works out, and he and Patton escape together. But Brad’s quickly back in hot water when he finds that Lucy Dennison is part of the gang.

Or is she? And what part will the sultry Juanita (Carol Forman) play?

Under the Tonto Rim is good fun. Before this year, I’d only ever seen Tim Holt as a supporting player in A pictures like My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He never made a huge impression on me, and after watching a couple of his starring roles in B westerns, I think I know why. He’s a soft-spoken, unassuming guy with average looks. But he projects a lot of steel when he’s the focus of the film, and gives the impression that he won’t stop fighting until the fight is through.

Thunder Mountain (June 1947)

Thunder Mountain, which was directed by Lew Landers, is one of a long line of RKO westerns that were loosely based on Zane Grey novels, including Nevada (1944), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1945), West of the Pecos (1945), Sunset Pass (1946), and Code of the West (1947).

In some cases, a character’s name was all that remained from the source material, and the use of the name “Zane Grey” above the title was just a way to sell the film.

But even when the plots followed Grey’s novels, the RKO westerns based on his books bore little resemblance to Grey’s feverish prose, larger-than-life Romantic heroes, and old-fashioned dime-novel plots. They were straightforward B westerns with straight-shooting heroes, vicious bad guys, comical sidekicks, and beautiful women. They were rarely much longer than an hour, and they were fashioned solely to entertain.

Thunder Mountain, which stars quiet, understated cowboy star Tim Holt (the son of cowboy star Jack Holt and a veteran of World War II — he served in the Army Air Corps as a bombardier), is solidly in this tradition. Its story about greedy land-grabbers and old family feuds is the standard stuff of horse operas, but it’s still a well-made and enjoyable way to spend an hour.

Marvin Hayden (Holt) returns to Grass Valley, and lands smack-dab in the middle of a long-standing feud with the Jorth family. Hayden is the last surviving member of his family, and his romance with the pretty little Ellie Jorth (Martha Hyer) is cut short as soon as they discover each other’s parentage.

Ellie’s brothers, Chick Jorth (Steve Brodie) and Lee Jorth (Robert Clarke), are itching to put Hayden six feet under, but what none of them knows is that the real bad actors in Grass Valley are Trimble Carson (Harry Woods) and his right-hand man Johnny Blue (Tom Keene), who quickly realize how easy it will be to play Hayden against the Jorths.

But like any good western hero, Hayden has a solid group of compadres — the Mexican-Irish Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin), the feisty Irish bar girl Ginger Kelly (Virginia Owen), and the alcoholic and broken-down old lawyer Jim Gardner (Jason Robards Sr.) — not to mention Ellie and her conflicted feelings about Hayden. It’s a foregone conclusion that Hayden will come out on top, just like it’s a foregone conclusion that his vow to never wear a gun will be broken by the end of the picture, but the journey is a fun one, and well worth watching for fans of ’40s B westerns.

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (May 20, 1947)

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, directed by John Rawlins, marked Ralph Byrd’s triumphant return to playing Chester Gould’s famous police detective. Byrd played the hawk-nosed, square-jawed hero in four serials, Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941).

In William Berke’s excellent programmer Dick Tracy (1945), Morgan Conway stepped into the role. I really liked Conway as Tracy. His facial features were as big and ugly as Byrd’s were small and perfect, but he imbued the character with a humanity lacking in Byrd’s one-note performance, and I would have liked to see him in more Dick Tracy movies than just Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of people who grew up watching Byrd in the Dick Tracy cliffhangers on Saturday afternoons were thrilled to see him return to the role. And besides, everything that made Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball standout pieces of bottom-of-the-bill entertainment from RKO Radio Pictures is still present in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma — tight pacing, good writing, solid direction, dramatic lighting, and nicely staged action — so I enjoyed it in spite of Byrd’s somewhat wooden performance.

The plot of Dick Tracy’s Dilemma is pretty similar to the plot of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. Instead of a chrome-domed thug with a leather garrote, the villain of the piece is a hulking Neanderthal with a club foot and a hook for a hand. He’s a 39-year-old career criminal named Steve Michel, but he’s better known in the underworld as “The Claw.” Michel was a bootlegger and hijacker during Prohibition. He lost his right hand and crippled his right leg when he was rammed by a Coast Guard cutter, and he’s looking to score some dough now that he’s back on the street. (The Claw is played by character actor Jack Lambert, who’s outfitted with bushy fake eyebrows and a glower that just won’t quit.)

The Claw is part of a crew that takes down a big score at the Flawless Fur warehouse. After the night watchman (Jason Robards Sr.) wakes up from the knockout blow The Claw gave him, he comes after the crew with a gun, and The Claw rips him up with his “hangnail” (as another member of his crew calls his hook). The murder brings in homicide detectives Dick Tracy and his partner, Pat Patton (Lyle Latell).

The Claw waits nervously with his partners for the big payoff. Tracy intercepts Longshot Lillie (Bernadene Hayes), a fence for stolen goods, with $20,000 in her purse. The crew also floats a proposal to Peter Premium (William B. Davidson), the vice president of Honesty Insurance, offering to sell him the furs for half their value before his company has to pay out on the policy.

While this is a solid police procedural with lots of violence, it’s also a Dick Tracy film, so there are plenty of comedic touches. Besides the ridiculous names of some of the characters (see above), there’s a bar called “The Blinking Skull” (not to be confused with “The Dripping Dagger,” which featured in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball), and a beggar named “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), who’s only pretending to be blind. Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is back, too, and provide plenty of laughs — if you’re amused by pretentiousness and narcissism, that is.

John Rawlins directs the one-hour programmer with brisk efficiency. His style is straightforward, but he and his cinematographer Frank Redman throw in plenty of nice touches, such as a man who knocks a plug out of its socket as he is being murdered by The Claw. The next shot is of The Claw rising to stand. The unplugged desk fan is in the foreground, and its blades slowly stop rotating as The Claw leaves the room. It’s a great visual metaphor for a life ending. The film also features a fine score by noir favorite Paul Sawtell.

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

Code of the West (Feb. 20, 1947)

Code of the West, a programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, has the same pedigree as Sunset Pass (1946). Both films are based on novels by Zane Grey, the screenplays for both films were written by Norman Houston, both are directed by William Berke, both star James Warren and John Laurenz, and both feature Robert Clarke, Harry Woods, Steve Brodie, and Harry Harvey in supporting roles.

In Sunset Pass, the tall, lean, blond-haired, scowling Warren played a cowboy named “Rocky.” Here, he plays a cowboy named “Bob Wade.” John Laurenz plays the same character, Chito Rafferty, a comical, musically inclined Irish-Mexican. (Incidentally, “Chito Rafferty” was a sidekick character made famous by Richard Martin, who played the character in 33 different westerns from 1943 to 1952. Laurenz was the only other actor to play the character, and he only did so in Sunset Pass and Code of the West.)

While I won’t be able to tell you the plot of either of these films at this time next month, I thought Code of the West was the better picture, largely due to the presence of a young Raymond Burr, who is a smoother and more malevolent villain than Harry Woods was in Sunset Pass.

In Code of the West, Burr plays a land baron (what else?) named Boyd Carter. Carter and his henchmen know that the railroad is coming through town, but they’re keeping the information to themselves as they buy up all the land they can get their hands on. When a young banker named Harry Stockton (Robert Clarke) lends Bob and Chito money to stake a claim of their own, Carter’s men go into action.

If you were drawn to this film by the poster above, be forewarned that Carter’s arson-murder gang that blasts the frontier is mostly a collection of stock footage. But if you squint your eyes, suspend your disbelief, and take another sip of bourbon, you’ll be fine.

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (Dec. 18, 1946)

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball begins with a montage of Dick Tracy and his rogues’ gallery from the Sunday funnies — B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, Vitamin Flintheart, Flattop, etc. — and ends with a face that Chester Gould never drew. He’s a chrome-domed, pug-nosed bruiser called Cueball, and his cartoon image eventually dissolves into the visage of the character actor who plays him, Dick Wessel, looking menacing as all get-out as the recently paroled thug.

In the opening scene of the film, Cueball sneaks onto an ocean liner that has just docked, forces his way into the compartment of a passenger named Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), and demands he hand over his diamonds. When Abbott fights back, Cueball wraps a braided leather strap around his neck and strangles him to death. It’s not as shocking as the murder that opens Dick Tracy (1945), but it’s still fairly gruesome by ’40s standards. (We see it in silhouette, and Cueball even drives his knee into the small of Abbott’s back as he garrotes him.)

Police detectives Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) run down clues and question Abbott’s employer, jeweler Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire). Pat trails Sparkle’s diamond cutter, Simon Little (Byron Foulger), to a meeting with his hideous assistant Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), while Tracy follows Sparkle’s secretary, Mona Clyde (Rita Corday), to a rendezvous with antiques dealer Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton).

Meanwhile, Cueball seeks help from Filthy Flora (Esther Howard), the proprietor of a waterfront dive bar called “The Dripping Dagger,” and it becomes clear that he is a pawn in a game he doesn’t fully understand. He’s a pawn who kills as easily as other men breathe, however, and before the film is over, he’ll have murdered three people in his quest to get $20,000 for a score of diamonds worth $300,000.

Like Morgan Conway’s previous outing as Dick Tracy, this picture is a solid, unpretentious police procedural that moves at a nice clip. Many of the characters never appeared in Chester Gould’s comic strip, but they’re crafted in the right spirit. Gould’s bad guys may have been grotesque caricatures with ridiculous names, but he treated them with dead seriousness. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball does the same thing. There’s plenty of comic relief whenever the pill-popping Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is onscreen, but there’s nothing funny about Cueball slapping Filthy Flora across the face with his leather braid before he chokes her to death with it.

Gordon M. Douglas directs with energy and élan. His camera setups are utilitarian, but the angles and lighting create a dramatic noir atmosphere. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a violent B mystery thriller with 0% body fat and a lot of muscle.

The Bamboo Blonde (July 15, 1946)

Anthony Mann’s The Bamboo Blonde is a cute little World War II-era programmer based on Wayne Whittaker’s story “Chicago Lulu.” It’s a romantic comedy, but there are nearly enough songs to qualify it as a musical. There are also nearly enough bombing raids over Japan to qualify it as a war movie, but the tone is so light that all the death and destruction on the ground is just there to provide a context for the saucy pinup girl painted on the nose of the bomber. It’s a fun romp — hell and gone from the westerns and noirs on which Mann’s reputation currently rests, but a thoroughly enjoyable way to kill 67 minutes during the dog days of summer.

The film begins with a magazine reporter named Montgomery (Walter Reed) interviewing Eddie Clark (“Truth or Consequences” host/creator Ralph Edwards), the mile-a-minute talker who runs Bamboo Blonde enterprises, an enormous conglomerate that operates a recording studio, furniture manufacturer, hosiery company, cosmetics line, and more. The reporter wants to know how the company got started, and when Eddie finally tires of trying to push Bamboo Blonde brand candy bars on the poor guy, he settles in to tell the story. It all started, Eddie explains, “Around the time Japan was finding out the B-29 wasn’t another American vitamin.”

The picture then begins in earnest, and we see the Ransoms, a wealthy family from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, tearfully send their son, Patrick Ransom, Jr. (Russell Wade), off to war. I say “tearfully,” but I can’t remember if there were any actual tears. The send-off was so wrought with emotion, however, that the presence of waterworks is beside the point. The Ransoms are the type of blue bloods who think nothing of Junior kissing mom on the mouth to say goodbye.

After cutting — or at least loosening — the umbilical cord, young Ransom wanders into Eddie’s Club 50, heedless of the sign outside barring all servicemen from entering. A couple of MPs walk out of the back office, and a perky little blonde named Louise Anderson (Frances Langford) acts quickly, hiding Ransom behind some curtains and then walking onstage to perform the song “I’m Good for Nothing But Love.”

Ransom is the new skipper of a bomber crew, and as the new guy, his boys had sent him to the club as a practical joke, or, as Ransom explains it to Louise over dinner, “Sending me here was a tactical maneuver to ditch me.” The two hit it off right away, and go on the kind of date that was really “on the beam” for the greatest generation, and is still pretty fun today. It starts with dinner at a restaurant with red and white checked tableclothes and candles stuck in bottles that’s run by a woman named “Mom” (Dorothy Vaughan) and it ends in a photo booth. The only thing that seems weird by today’s standards is that Louise sits in the photo booth alone, and Ransom ends up with a little framed photo of her.

That little framed photo will lead to big things. After a disastrous series of runs in the Pacific, Ransom’s B-29 has the worst record in the Air Force, without a single Zero downed. To turn their luck around, one of the guys borrows Ransom’s photo of Louise and paints an Alberto Vargas-style pinup of her with a stacked body “painted from memory.” After a long argument about what exact color hair their sexy new mascot has, they settle on “bamboo blonde,” and they’re well on their way to becoming “that nightmare to the Nips,” as Eddie Clark will later describe them.

The only problem is that Ransom’s crew thinks that Louise is his girlfriend, and he hasn’t disabused them of the notion, even though he has a dark-haired fiancée back home named Eileen Sawyer (Jane Greer, who shows a little bit more of that Out of the Past malevolence than she did in Sunset Pass, which was released a week before this picture). Eileen is a real harpy, and her interest in Ransom is only rekindled because of his growing fame. Meanwhile, Louise first learns that she’s been painted on the side of a bomber while reading a copy of Look magazine that has a picture of Ingrid Bergman on the cover wearing a nun’s habit (presumably from the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s). You don’t have to be a genius to foresee the romantic complications that will arise once Ransom and his boys are called back home for a USO tour with Louise to help sell war bonds.

This is all frothy nonsense, of course, but Mann keeps things moving at a nice clip. Even when working with material that was clearly beneath him, such as this picture and Strange Impersonation (1946), he was able to craft something that was darned watchable. Langford was a classically trained singer, and has a really beautiful voice, which helps. (She was a radio star, and spent a lot of time as a USO performer.) For the most part, the musical numbers are staged in a straightforward fashion, but Mann takes a left turn into the realms of the surreal when Louise sings “Right Along About Evening.” Not only is everything in the idyllic farmland backdrop labeled (e.g., “mailbox,” “dog”), but it end with her rolling up a suddenly two-dimensional Ransom and stuffing him under her pillow before she goes to sleep. Truly odd.

Sunset Pass (July 8, 1946)

Judging by the only Zane Grey novel I’ve read, Riders of the Purple Sage, which was published in 1912, Grey was the most influential and important writer to ever mythologize the American west.

He was also a hack, and his florid prose made me wish for the more psychologically realistic and straightforward portrayals of the west I grew up reading in westerns by Louis L’Amour. Part of this is due to the era in which he was writing. By the ’40s and ’50s, passages like the following would have seemed ridiculous:

Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the truth, when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentle forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was stiffening all that had been soft and weak in her. She felt a birth in her of something new and unintelligible.

The word “overwrought” doesn’t begin to describe the world Grey creates. His hero, Lassiter, wears an outfit that would make Richard Boone as Paladin in the TV series Have Gun — Will Travel (1957-1963) look positively conservative. Not only is Lassiter dressed all in black leather, but his black sombrero boasts a band of silver dollars, and his long-barreled revolvers are sexualized to a ridiculous degree. And, of course, the action is fast, furious, implausible, and frequently accentuated by exclamation marks. I’d be tempted to call the novel Riders of the Purple Prose if it didn’t contain such raw power in its descriptions of landscapes.

Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-Hinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.

Grey had the soul of a Romantic. In his world, emotion trumps reason and the physical world mirrors the longings and passions of the people who exist in it. For better or for worse, it is this vision of the old west that captured the imagination of the reading public in the early 20th century, and informs the western genre to this very day.

I don’t really know why I’m going on and on about Riders of the Purple Sage, except that William Berke’s film Sunset Pass, which I’m reviewing today, is based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Zane Grey, and watching it made me think back to the only novel by Grey that I’ve read. (There’s an earlier filmed version of Sunset Pass that was directed by Henry Hathaway and starred Randolph Scott. It was released in 1933. I haven’t seen it.)

Sunset Pass, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures, hasn’t gone down in history as one of the great westerns, and it certainly can’t hold a candle to John Ford’s early westerns, but it’s a sight better than the stuff P.R.C. and Monogram were churning out week after week in the ’40s. The print I watched was clean and crisp. The black and white cinematography looked great. Neither Berke’s direction nor Norman Houston’s screenplay, however, capture Grey’s febrile world or antiquated dialogue. This is a by-the-numbers oater with plenty of shootouts, fistfights, chases on horseback, romance, and a few songs.

The film begins with an exciting but nonsensical scene. A cowboy named Rocky (James Warren) and his Mexican sidekick Chito (John Laurenz) tie up their horses in a stand of trees and watch a passenger train chugging toward them. They leave their horses and run alongside the train, which appears to be moving at top speed, and hop aboard. They take their seats, flirt with the ladies, and are in place to attempt to foil a train robbery. I say “attempt,” because a young woman named Jane Preston (Nan Leslie) knocks Rocky’s rifle barrel to the side when he attempts to shoot one of the robbers, allowing him to make his getaway. The men are all masked, but it’s clear that she recognizes him, and intervenes to save his life.

It turns out that Rocky and Chito are undercover agents employed by the railroad to stop robberies. If this is the case, what was the purpose of them not only leaving their horses in a remote area but also boarding the train in the middle of its journey? If anyone can explain it to me, please do. Were they hungover and missed the train? That’s the only explanation I can think of.

With the money stolen, Rocky and Chito are in hot water with the railroad company. Rocky rides off to track down the stolen loot while Chito grabs his guitar and makes love to showgirl Helen “Lolita” Baxter (played by Jane Greer, who exhibits none of the malevolence she would exude a little more than a year later in her most famous role as the femme fatale who ensnares Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past).

Eventually Rocky catches up with the robbers, but he’s shot and badly wounded. Luckily, he’s spirited away by a young man named Ash (Robert Clarke), who turns out to be Jane’s brother.

Clarke gives the best performance of the film as Ash Preston, and when his character faces ethical dilemmas, the movie really comes alive.

James Warren is a decent hero, but his performance is more one-note than Clarke’s. Tall, lean, and blond, with a perpetual scowl, Warren is sort of a Sterling Hayden Lite.

The villain of Sunset Pass, Cinnabar (Harry Woods), is good, too, but his name sounds like a candy bar or a coffee bar chain, and the other characters in the film refer to him a lot by name, which I found unintentionally funny.

Sunset Pass is standard western fare, but it was an enjoyable enough way to while away an hour and 5 minutes.

Dick Tracy (Dec. 1, 1945)

Dick Tracy, directed by William Berke and starring Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, wasn’t the first filmed adaptation of the most famous detective in the funny pages. There had been four serials prior to it, all of which starred Ralph Byrd; Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941). The first one was also re-edited into a feature in 1937, which was a fairly common practice. These were B pictures, after all. If you had the footage, why not repackage it?

This film, however, took the character in a new direction. Played by Morgan Conway, Tracy is more believable as a real person than the way Byrd played him. Both embody aspects of the character, but they look nothing like each other. Byrd literally looked like a cartoon character. He had small, perfect features and intense eyes. But for me, his voice was too high and his nose too small to really convey the toughness of the character. Conway, on the other hand, is ugly and tough as nails. He looks like what I imagine Tracy might look like if he were a real person, although his nose is more of a “schnoz” than Tracy’s “beak.” He’s decent and brave, but still not above underhanded tricks to get his man. When we’re introduced to him, he’s interrogating a sweaty suspect named Johnny (Tommy Noonan). Tracy makes Johnny believe his mother has been killed so he’ll agree to roll over on someone. After Johnny spills the beans, Tracy admits to having tricked him. “It was the only way I could get you to talk and clear yourself at the same time,” he says. “All right boys, clean up Johnny and send him home.”

This film also features the full supporting cast of characters from Chester Gould’s daily newspaper strip, many of whom had been missing from earlier adaptations; Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his best girl Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), his adopted son Junior (Mickey Kuhn), and Chief Brandon (Joseph Crehan). Gould’s violent, gruesome world is handled well in this film. Its opening may be the darkest of any film based on a comic strip character made before 1970. A high-angle shot shows a man with his back to the camera, leaning against a light pole in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at night, smoking a cigarette. When a bus stops and a single, female passenger (Mary Currier) disembarks, he moves into the shadows. A tracking shot follows her as she walks across the street, then cuts to a static shot of the man’s shadow on a wall, and the viewer can see from the movement of his shadow that he is reaching into his breast pocket for something. This is followed by a tracking shot of the woman with the camera directly behind her, presumably showing his point of view. The woman walks down the sidewalk, her heels clacking. She looks nervous. She turns around. There is no one behind her. She keeps walking. Suddenly, a shadow falls across her and she screams. The man attacks her. There is a cut to a long shot of the street, which shows her body lying on the sidewalk and the man running away.

Dick Tracy discovers a note on the woman’s viciously mutilated body, demanding that $500 in small bills be left in a street sweeper’s trash can on the corner of Lakeview and Ash. The note is signed “Splitface.” The next morning, the mayor of the city (William Halligan) receives a similar note, demanding that $10,000 be paid out or the mayor will be “slashed to pieces.”

The murdered schoolteacher, the mayor, and another man who was killed by Splitface seemingly have nothing to connect them. Tracy and Patton investigate, and Tracy comes to the conclusion that Splitface is motivated by something other than money, since the murdered woman didn’t pay, but the murdered man did.

Dick Tracy has plenty of action, with Dick and Pat chasing down suspects on foot and in cars, but it doesn’t skimp on the investigations that lead them there. It’s not rigorous enough to qualify as a police procedural, but it doesn’t gloss over any details, and Conway’s acting style and line delivery are not unlike Jack Webb’s on Dragnet.

Devotees of the daily strip will probably quibble with details, but I thought this picture did a nice job of balancing the violence with over-the-top characters. There is a loony astronomer and fortune teller named Professor Starling (Trevor Bardette), a ghoulish undertaker named Deathridge (Milton Parsons), and of course the great character actor Mike Mazurki as the villain.

Dick Tracy is a one-hour programmer, and there’s no question that it’s a B movie, but it’s an expertly directed, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable one.

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