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Tag Archives: Marsha Hunt

Raw Deal (May 26, 1948)

Raw Deal
Raw Deal (1948)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) together form one of the most powerful one-two punches in the history or film noir.

Both films star Dennis O’Keefe, both feature musical scores by Paul Sawtell, John C. Higgins has a writing credit on both, and both feature the exquisite cinematography of John Alton.

What makes these two films such a great one-two punch is that they are each one side of the film noir coin. T-Men is a docudrama, purportedly made to show square-jawed agents of the Treasury Department cracking a big case, but like all great noir docudramas, the depiction of the criminal demimonde and the gray areas of its protagonists’ moral codes are the most interesting parts of the film.

Raw Deal is the other side of the coin. It’s a film noir purely about crime and criminals, and it has all the great elements of noir — a doomed male protagonist on the run, a “good girl” and a “bad girl” competing for his love, dream-like voice-over narration, a casually sadistic villain, and it’s set in one of the great noir cities — San Francisco.

Like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Raw Deal is the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

Raw Deal begins with aging gun moll Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) going to visit Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) in prison. Right away Raw Deal establishes that it is not a run-of-the-mill crime film, as Claire Trevor’s voice-over narration is accompanied by a haunting theme played on a theremin. The element of the theremin is only present in Paul Sawtell’s score during these voice-overs, and establishes Pat’s point of view as dreamy and hyperreal. Raw Deal is the first film in which I’ve heard a theremin since Miklós Rózsa’s masterful scores for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), both of which used the eerie sound of a theremin to establish altered states of perception.

When she arrives at the prison, however, Pat is told she has to wait a little while because Joe already has a visitor — Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Ann works for Joe’s defense lawyer’s office and she cares about his case and wants to see him paroled, but she admits that he will probably have to wait at least three years. She leaves, Pat enters, and Joe is faced with a more tantalizing prospect. Gang boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) has devised an escape plan for Joe. If he can make it over the wall Pat will be there waiting in a getaway car.

Of course, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface, and Coyle — whose double-cross is how Joe ended up in prison in the first place and who still owes Joe his cut from a robbery — is hoping that Joe will be shot by prison guards during his escape, taking care of Coyle’s problem for good.

Burr formerly played a memorable villain in Mann’s noir Desperate (1947), but he’s an even nastier and more violent character in Raw Deal, casually setting his girlfriend on fire in a shocking scene of cruelty that presages a similar scene in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). His right-hand man, the bizarrely named “Fantail,” is solidly played by John Ireland, who formerly starred in Mann’s noir Railroaded (1947).

First and foremost, Raw Deal is a masterpiece of suspense. For most of the movie Joe, Pat, and Ann are on the run from the police, and the film hits all of the classic “fugitive movie” moments — navigating a road block, hiding out in a cabin in the woods, one narrow escape after another, etc. Finally, for the last act of the film, the type of suspense changes, and a ticking clock takes the film closer and closer to its inevitable violent confrontation.

Since so much of Raw Deal takes place on the open road, there aren’t as many opportunities for Alton to flex his cinematographic muscles in the same way he did in T-Men, which mostly took place in urban environments. But he makes the most of what he has to work with. There’s a lot of day-for-night shooting in Raw Deal, and it’s a technique that never looks quite right, but at least with Alton operating the camera it always looks good. Finally, scenes toward the end with Claire Trevor’s face reflected in a ticking clock as she weighs a decision in her mind are absolutely masterful.

Anthony Mann was a great director who made wonderful films in all genres, but among his film noirs, I’ll never be able to decide if I like Raw Deal or T-Men better. They’re both great, must-see pictures for every aficionado of film noir.

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (March 1947)

I suppose this had to happen.

After yesterday’s film, The Farmer’s Daughter, which was an inspirational and heartwarming story of a woman fighting to succeed in a man’s world, I got hit in the face with this wet noodle of a picture. Stuart Heisler’s Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is a not-so-heartwarming film about a woman slipping into the depths of loneliness, depression, and alcoholism.

Inspired by the tragic life of Bing Crosby’s first wife, singer Dixie Lee, Smash-Up begins with Angelica “Angie” Conway, née Evans (Susan Hayward), lying in a hospital bed, her face and head bandaged, murmuring, “I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink… I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink…”

The events that brought her to this place are told in flashback. Angie and her husband, Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), both start out as struggling singers, but after he gets a job performing on the radio as “Ken Conway, the Singing Cowhand,” he grows to be a coast-to-coast sensation, and Angie’s career is derailed.

She turns to drinking to soothe her loneliness and frustration, staying home with their infant daughter while Ken is on the road with his friend and partner Steve Nelson (Eddie Albert), his manager Fred Elliott (Carleton Young), and Elliott’s beautiful secretary, Martha Gray (Marsha Hunt), which drives Angie into a spiral of jealousy and paranoia.

Angie may live in a large, beautiful home with servants (all provided with the money from Ken’s success), but none of it means anything when she’s all alone with her baby, who has a fever, and she’s singing “Hushabye Island” to her while a weighted toy swings back and forth on the dresser by the crib. Its shadow is taunting. It looks like a liquor bottle bobbing to and fro.

It would be easy to call Smash-Up a distaff version of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). The two films have many similarities, but Smash-Up is as much about a disintegrating marriage as it is about dipsomania.

There’s some nice subjective camerawork in Smash-Up, like the zoom in on Angie’s face when Ken walks out after finding her drunk at her vanity table following the baby’s illness, but it never gets as wildly baroque as the depictions of Ray Milland’s delirium tremens in The Lost Weekend.

The film also sidesteps several issues. For instance, after Ken leaves with their daughter and Angie says, “I’m going to get my baby back,” there is a montage of liquor splashing into glasses, Angie’s unsteady feet on the sidewalk, and neon club signs (including the appropriately named “Club Downbeat”) that ends with Angie passing out on a stoop. She wakes up in a strange room with her clothes and a man’s clothes thrown over a chair. The camera pans up and we see an unattractive middle-aged man in his undershirt working his razor over a strop. Before the audience can get any ideas, however, we see that there is also a woman in the apartment, who tells Angie that she and her husband put her to bed, effectively quashing any hint of booze-fueled promiscuity.

Like The Lost Weekend, Smash-Up ends a little too happily for its own good. But while The Lost Weekend ended with a promise to stop drinking that might be insincere, Smash-Up pulls out all the stops. The film ends not only with Ken and Angie promising to each other that they’ll try to patch things up, but with the revelation that Angie’s face (the result of a fire caused by a half-smoked cigarette and a bellyful of liquor) is going to be fine, and there won’t be any scarring.

Smash-Up isn’t a bad film, just a gloomy one. The melancholy refrain of the song “Life Can Be Beautiful” started to drive me crazy by the end of the picture, but it suits the proceedings. The actors all play their parts well, especially Hayward, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.

Carnegie Hall (Feb. 28, 1947)

The poster for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Carnegie Hall boasts the following: “Never before … never again … so magnificent an array of artists on one screen!”

That’s true. It’s a film jam-packed with the crème de la crème of classical musicians, opera singers, and conductors from the first half of the 20th century.

What the poster doesn’t tell you is that the dramatic portions of the film are pretty dire. But if you can suffer through violinist Jascha Heifetz and conductor Fritz Reiner reading their lines in monotones as they discuss stage fright with an Irish usher named John Donovan (Frank McHugh), who says he only feels that strange feeling in the pit of his stomach when he’s eaten too much, you’ll be rewarded by hearing Heifetz play the First Movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Reiner.

Carnegie Hall was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the poet of Poverty Row, who directed such minor masterpieces as Detour (1945), Bluebeard (1944), and The Black Cat (1934). Ulmer’s love of classical music was apparent in Detour — the main character is a nightclub pianist who, in one memorable scene, plays boogie-woogie variations on a Brahms waltz. Carnegie Hall is a love letter to great music and musicians, as well as to the eponymous edifice itself.

The plot in a nutshell (and there’s barely enough of it to fill two nutshells) involves an Irish girl named Nora Ryan (Marsha Hunt) who sees her first performance in Carnegie Hall as an adorable little rag-headed immigrant in 1891, and works her way up from cleaning woman to program director. She marries a febrile pianist named Tony Salerno (Hans Jaray, listed in the credits as “Hans Yaray”), who falls to his death while drunk when their son, Tony Jr. (William Prince), is still a baby.

Tony Salerno Jr. grows to maturity while being forced to diligently practice piano by his mother. They experience a rift after Tony Jr. falls in love with a nightclub singer named Ruth Haines (Martha O’Driscoll) and runs away to perform with crooner and band leader Vaughan Monroe. (Monroe is best known today for his version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Ironically, Monroe wanted to be an opera singer, but the economic realities of the Depression coupled with a string of early hits led him to perform popular music exclusively.)

Eventually, Tony Jr. gets a record set released on RCA/Victor called “American Rhythms,” and performs his own composition, “57th Street Rhapsody,” onstage at Carnegie Hall as pianist and conductor of the New York Philharmonic, with soloist Harry James on the trumpet. It’s a performance that blends “high” and “low” music, and brings tears to his mother’s eyes. The end.

The drama is hackneyed and poorly written (and it doesn’t help that Jaray is utterly charmless as Tony Sr.), but the bulk of the film’s 2 hour and 15 minute running time is occupied by great performances — the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Bruno Walter; soprano Lily Pons singing the “Bell Song” (“L’Air des clochettes”) from Delibes’s opera Lakmé; cellist Gregor Piatigorsky performing Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” from The Carnival of Animals (Le carnaval des animaux); mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens performing the end of the introduction and the start of the principal melody of Delilah’s song that seduces Samson in the second act of Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson and Delilah, followed by a performance of the Seguidilla from Act I of Bizet’s Carmen. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The DVD of Carnegie Hall that’s currently available from Kino Video looks great. The print is crisp, the blacks are deep, and the contrast is good. (And the “piano” scene from Detour is included as an extra.) As a dramatic film, Carnegie Hall doesn’t really succeed, but as a showcase for great musicians and singers, it’s a winner.

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