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Tag Archives: Richard Conte

Thieves’ Highway (Oct. 10, 1949)

Thieves' Highway
Thieves’ Highway (1949)
Directed by Jules Dassin
20th Century-Fox

Welcome to the white-knuckle world of trucker noir!

Trucker noir is a sparsely populated subgenre, even though the world of long-haul trucking seems tailor-made for film noir. Truck drivers are blue-collar everymen who push themselves to the limit and exist in a nighttime world where sleep equals death. They battle corrupt syndicates and each other for a little cold hard cash.

And yet, when I was trying to think of great noirs (and not-so-great noirs) specifically about truck drivers, I could only come up with a handful.

The original, and still one of the best, trucker noirs is Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940), which is based on the 1938 novel The Long Haul, by A.I. Bezzerides. Produced by Mark Hellinger and released by Warner Bros., They Drive by Night still stands up as superior entertainment, and was the template for most of the trucker noirs that followed. It stars film-noir mainstays George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as brothers who run a small trucking business in California that carries fresh fruit from farms into the markets of Los Angeles. The beautiful and talented Ann Sheridan plays a truck-stop waitress who takes a shine to Raft, and Ida Lupino — one of my favorite actresses from the classic noir cycle — is the femme fatale who wants to get her claws into Raft.

Other noirish tales of brave men fighting rackets and trying to stay awake through the night include Truck Busters (1943) (directed by B. Reeves Eason), Speed to Spare (1948), and Highway 13 (1948) (both directed by William Berke).

Trucker noir reached its apotheosis in 1953 with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), which was remade by William Friedkin in 1977 as Sorcerer. The Wages of Fear is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the few thrillers that lives up to the term “edge of your seat.”

Conte and Mitchell

But before that high-water mark, Jules Dassin directed a very good film called Thieves’ Highway. It’s similar in a lot of ways to They Drive by Night, probably because they’re both based on novels by A.I. Bezzerides. Thieves’ Highway is based on Bezzerides’s novel Thieves’ Market, which was published earlier in 1949.

Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, a Greek-American who has returned home to Fresno, California, after serving overseas. He discovers that his father, Yanko Garcos (Morris Carnovsky), has been crippled following an altercation with the crooked produce distributor Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).

Nick vows revenge, and teams up with a salty old trucker named Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) to deliver a big load of Golden Delicious apples to Figlia’s market in San Francisco. Nick drives a military surplus Studebaker US6 and Ed drives an old Mack AB that’s on its last legs.

My favorite sections of Thieves’ Highway are the ones that take place on the road. Jules Dassin’s direction is at its best in these sequences, which are full of tension and drama. There are another pair of wildcatters, Pete (Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie), who are trying to beat Ed and Nick to the San Francisco markets. I love Pevney and Oakie’s performances in this film. Even though they come off as jerks in most of their early scenes, they’re both able to craft fully realized and relatable characters who are as much a part of the fabric of the film as Ed and Nick are.

Lee J Cobb

I also love the scenes in the market, which were shot on location in San Francisco and are dominated by the menacing bonhomie of Lee J. Cobb as Figlia. I’ve never seen Cobb give a bad performance, and Thieves’ Market is no exception.

Ditto for Richard Conte, who plays Nick as a determined guy who doesn’t have a lot of experience, but is good at thinking on his feet and won’t ever back down from a conflict. I love the scene where he snarls the extremely old-school threat, “Touch my truck and I’ll climb into your hair.”

The scenes in the market are punctuated by Nick’s burgeoning love affair with a prostitute named Rica, played by Valentina Cortese. (She’s listed in the credits as Valentina “Cortesa.”) She invites him up to her rented room, and lets him sleep and bathe after spending hundreds of miles on the road. These scenes are strongly reminiscent of the bits in They Drive by Night where Ann Sheridan cares for the bone-tired George Raft, but they’re much more sexually charged. Not only does Nick remove his shirt and allow her to caress him, but it’s brazenly obvious that she’s a prostitute. Figlia even refers to her as a “trick” when he admits to Nick that he paid her to get Nick up to her room.

Valentina Cortese

Dassin directed a bunch of films for MGM before making his two early masterpieces, Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) for Universal with producer Mark Hellinger. He was blacklisted around the time he made Thieves’ Highway, and it would be the last film he directed in Hollywood. (He was still under contract with 20th Century-Fox when he directed his final post-blacklist film, Night and the City, but that movie was shot in London.)

Thieves’ Highway was a modestly budgeted film shot on a very tight schedule, and it suffered some narrative tinkering by Darryl F. Zanuck, but it still stands as a typically great film by Dassin. It’s also an important part of the wave of post-war/pre-HUAC film noirs that explicitly critiqued the American capitalist system.

Thieves’ Highway is a tale of capitalism in miniature. The Golden Delicious apples that Ed and Nick struggle to get to market are a hot but perishable commodity. They’re gambling with their livelihoods and their lives to get them to Figlia’s market as fast as they can. Dassin presents capitalism as an economic structure that, at its best, encourages daring, shrewd negotiation, and hard work. At its worst, it encourages deceit, treachery, and the exploitation and death of laborers as long as there’s a buck to be made.

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.

The Other Love (May 14, 1947)

Director André de Toth is mostly associated with hairy-chested genres like westerns and war movies. The Other Love, which is based on a short story by All Quiet on the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque, is a rare example of de Toth making a “women’s picture,” and it’s not a bad one. It’s also not a great one, so if you’re expecting Dark Victory (1939) or Now, Voyager (1942), don’t bother. But if you’re a fan of well-acted weepers, The Other Love is worth seeking out.

Karen Duncan (Barbara Stanwyck) is a world-renowned concert pianist who is gravely ill. She arrives at Mount Vierge, a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, unaware of the seriousness of her condition. On her first night in the sanitarium her physician, Dr. Anthony Stanton (David Niven), insists she have dinner with him. He tells the nurse to have the kitchen prepare the “Grade A stimulation diet” and have it sent to Room 17.

Someone sends Karen a white orchid corsage before her “date” with Dr. Stanton, but it wasn’t he. It turns out there is a standing order to have white orchids delivered nightly to Room 17. The order came from a man who died months earlier, and was for a woman who died the day before Karen arrived, but Dr. Stanton insists this is just a rumor, and that they were both cured and moved away. Karen doesn’t believe him.

The second day, Karen has to quit smoking. The patients in Mount Vierge all seem to be on rest cures, which means convalescing outdoors on chaise longues while wrapped snugly in blankets. Karen befriends another patient, Celestine Miller (Joan Lorring), who claims she’s only there to make her philandering husband jealous, but is in fact quite ill, even though she doesn’t know it.

Karen bristles under Dr. Stanton’s inflexibility. When he stops her from playing the piano after she gets too worked up while performing a piece, she shouts, “Is everything forbidden here?” Yes, he tells her. Everything except hope. But a month of bed rest? Being treated like a child? Yes, he tells her. Until she’s well.

Despite being forbidden from practicing her art, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol, Karen is apparently allowed to drive a horse and carriage all by herself on twisting mountain roads, which is how she meets the handsome and exciting auto racer Paul Clermont (Richard Conte). When he and his buddy Pete (Jimmy Horne) come tearing around a corner in their roadster, Karen’s horse rears up, and Paul comes to her aid after deliberately driving his car into a tree to avoid her.

Paul is in the Alps for an upcoming road race, and he and Karen are instantly attracted to each other, but Dr. Stanton refuses to let her go into the village again after learning of her affaire de cœur with Paul. Why must he take every bit of joy from her? “Too much excitement for one day,” the doctor says, simply.

Dr. Stanton tells her that she must never get overexcited. That she must be an automaton. “You haven’t got a free will anymore,” he tells her. She wants to live! He loves her! She doesn’t believe him! “Believe what you want,” he says. “But you’ve got to get well for your music! The world deserves your music!”

Karen runs away to the village for brandy and a cigarette with Paul. She gets into his car with him and reveals that she is Karen Duncan. Yes, THE Karen Duncan. “If Chopin could see me now,” he quips, and they go away to the Hotel Monaco together.

For most of the film the nature of Karen’s illness is as mysterious to the audience as it is to her. Once out of the crisp, dry air of the mountains, however, it quickly becomes clear that she’s consumptive, and she breaks down in coughing fits in the heavy air and rain of the low altitudes where Paul and she relax and play as only two well-dressed Hollywood actors in a mid-century film can play.

One way to see Karen’s disease in The Other Love is as part of a symbolic representation of the two men in her life. To follow Dr. Stanton’s dictates means a life of convalescence, but also one of security and contentment. To run around the world with Paul means a life of excitement and glamor, but also one of early death and frequent danger (represented quite literally by an amorous croupier, played by Gilbert “Cisco Kid” Roland, who tries to rape Karen in a doorway when she’s drunk and ill).

On the other hand, Dr. Stanton’s treatment of Karen hearkens back so strongly to the medical profession’s patronizing and deceitful treatment of women in less enlightened times that their “romance” is often more creepy than it is romantic. His refusal to reveal to her the seriousness of her illness — a subject he discusses freely with Karen’s mentor, Professor Linnaker (Richard Hale) — seems more like condescension than compassion.

The Other Love may be a “women’s picture,” but it’s certainly not a feminist one. (The Yellow Wallpaper this story is not.) But it’s a well-acted, well-directed, and beautifully staged film, so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of any of the principal actors, or fans of André de Toth who want to see what he could do behind the camera without Joel McCrea blowing someone away with a shotgun in front of it.

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.

Somewhere in the Night (June 12, 1946)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night looks like a noir, talks like a noir, and walks like a noir. But when the credits rolled I felt more like I’d watched a light-hearted mystery farce than a noir. This isn’t to say that Somewhere in the Night is a bad movie. It’s actually a really fun one. But the dark journey promised by the film’s opening never pans out, and the plot twists grow increasingly ludicrous as the picture goes on.

The first few minutes of the picture are mostly shot in first-person P.O.V., as a man (played by John Hodiak) wakes up in an Army field hospital. Through voiceover and the images in front of his face, we learn that he has no idea who he is, and doesn’t remember anything leading up to this point. This opening presages Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person P.O.V. extravaganza Lady in the Lake (1947). Luckily, unlike that picture, the technique is used judiciously in Somewhere in the Night.

Hodiak’s character has Army identification in the name of “George Taylor,” a Dear John letter (it’s really more of an “I Hate You, John” letter), and a letter of credit from someone named “Larry Cravat.” What’s a noir protagonist to do? Clearly, the best course of action is to head for the mean streets of Los Angeles and attempt to track down Larry Cravat, even though “Taylor” has no idea what he’s doing or who all these people are who seem to want him dead. Why should that stop him? Taylor is a Purple Heart recipient and seems to be able to handle himself. It doesn’t hurt that the briefcase he picks up in a Los Angeles train station contains a gun and a letter from Larry Cravat telling Taylor that there is $5,000 deposited in his name in an L.A. bank.

For the first half hour or so, Somewhere in the Night has a few things to say about the plight of returning G.I.s, in particular the disappointments handed them by the women they came home to (or didn’t come home to, in Taylor’s case), and the resentment some servicemen must have felt upon their return.

“You know there’s been a terrible shortage of men,” a beautiful young woman named Phyllis (Margo Woode) tells Taylor.

“Yeah, so we heard in the Pacific,” he responds. “This war must have been murder on you poor women. We used to cry our eyes out about it.”

But, as I said, the longer Somewhere in the Night goes on, the more plot points stack up, and the less time the film has to do anything but crank through its story.

When Taylor goes to the bank to try and collect his $5,000 he arouses the suspicion of the cashier and he ends up fleeing empty-handed. He follows leads to a Turkish bath and then to a nightclub. Set up at the club by the bartender, he ends up hiding from a couple of mugs in the dressing room of a pretty singer named Christy Smith, who is played by the 20-year old Nancy Guild (rhymes with “wild”).

Guild is fresh-faced, has a beautiful voice, and plays her role well. She’s not outstanding, but she does a good job, especially considering this was her first role in a film; not just as leading lady, her first film role, period. Apparently she felt out of her depth, and the production was a struggle for her. In later interviews, she credited Mankiewicz’s generous nature and sensitive direction, and said he was a real father figure to her.

Hodiak also does a decent job, but it’s a one-note performance. He sweats profusely and looks haunted, and does a great job with lines like, “I’m tired of being pushed around. The war’s over for me. I don’t have to live afraid anymore.” He sounds genuinely angry, and he also sounds as if he doesn’t believe his own words one bit.

It wasn’t until after I finished watching Somewhere in the Night that I learned that while Hodiak was born in the United States, he grew up in an immigrant family, spoke Hungarian and Polish at home, and always had to work hard at his English diction. “No part has ever come easily to me,” Hodiak once said. “Every one has been a challenge. I’ve worked as hard as I could on them all.” I never would have guessed from this film that his first language wasn’t English, but there is something about his delivery that is strange and stilted.

Luckily, Guild and Hodiak have wonderful support from two great actors who straddled the line between character actor and leading man; Lloyd Nolan and Richard Conte.

Nolan plays a police detective, Lt. Donald Kendall, who doesn’t eat lunch because it puts him to sleep and doesn’t drink coffee because it keeps him awake. He also wonders aloud several times why detectives in the movies don’t ever take their hats off. (He figures it out by the end of the picture.) And he has plenty of great lines, which he delivers in his trademark wry fashion, like “Big post-war boom in homicide.”

Conte plays a nightclub owner named Mel Phillips, who’s smooth without seeming oily, and whose motives aren’t initially clear. (If you had $5 for every time Conte played a nightclub owner in a noir, you could probably take your whole family out to a nice dinner.)

Somewhere in the Night is a good picture; well-made and a lot of fun. It was all just a little silly for my taste, though.

A Walk in the Sun (Dec. 25, 1945)

A Walk in the Sun
A Walk in the Sun (1945)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
20th Century-Fox

A Walk in the Sun had its premiere on Monday, December 3, 1945, and went into wide release on Christmas day. Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone, the director of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), A Walk in the Sun tells the story of the ordinary men who serve in the infantry. Long stretches of the film are filled with the men’s meandering thoughts (both in voiceover and spoken aloud) and their circuitous conversations. When violence occurs, it comes suddenly, and its larger significance is unknown. The film’s exploration of the infantryman’s P.O.V. is similar to William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, released earlier the same year. (Burgess Meredith, who played Ernie Pyle in that film, narrates A Walk in the Sun, although he is not listed in the film’s credits. When I first watched this film I was sure it was Henry Fonda’s voice I was hearing. I was surprised when I looked it up and found out it was Meredith.) Unlike The Story of G.I. Joe, however, A Walk in the Sun covers a much briefer period of time (from a pre-dawn landing to noon the same day), and its ending is more heroic, with little sense of loss or tragedy.

Based on the novel by Harry Brown, A Walk in the Sun takes place in 1943, and tells the story of the lead platoon of the Texas division, and their landing on the beach in Salerno, Italy. Square-jawed Dana Andrews plays Staff Sgt. Bill Tyne, a simple man who never had much desire to travel outside of his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Richard Conte plays the Italian-American Pvt. Rivera, a tough soldier who loves opera and wants a wife and lots of children some day. George Tyne plays Pvt. Jake Friedman, a born-and-bred New Yorker. John Ireland plays PFC Windy Craven, a minister’s son from Canton, Ohio, who writes letters to his sister in his head, speaking the words aloud. Lloyd Bridges plays Staff Sgt. Ward, a baby-faced, pipe-smoking farmer. Sterling Holloway plays McWilliams, the platoon’s medic, who is Southern, speaks very slowly, and just might be a little touched. Norman Lloyd plays Pvt. Archimbeau, “platoon scout and prophet,” as Meredith describes him in the opening narration; Archimbeau talks incessantly of the war in Tibet he theorizes will occur in the ’50s. Herbert Rudley plays Staff Sgt. Eddie Porter, an opinionated guy who’s always looking for an argument (Normal Rockwell’s wasting his time painting photo-realistic covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Porter says. He should use a camera. Some day magazine covers will have moving pictures on them anyway.) Richard Benedict plays Pvt. Tranella, who “speaks two languages, Italian and Brooklyn,” and whose fluency in the former will prove useful when the platoon runs across two Italian deserters.

All of these “types” seem clichéd now, but they’re probably not unrealistic characters for the time. The only really dated thing about A Walk in the Sun is the song that appears throughout the film, and helps to narrate the action. “It Was Just a Little Walk in the Sun,” with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by Millard Lampell, is sung by Kenneth Spencer in the deep, mournful style of a spiritual. I didn’t dislike the song, but its frequent appearance as a kind of Greek chorus felt intrusive.

One thing that really impressed me about A Walk in the Sun was the cinematography by Russell Harlan. While A Walk in the Sun is clearly filmed in California, Harlan makes the most of starkly contrasted black and white shots that could have been shot anywhere. One of the film’s motifs is black figures against a white sky. There are a couple of scenes that reminded me of the famous final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) in which death leads a procession of people down a hill. Several times in A Walk in the Sun, the platoon is depicted as groups of indistinguishable black figures walking down a black hillside, silhouetted against a completely white sky. And in keeping with the infantryman’s P.O.V., when the platoon lies down to rest there are a couple of shots from the ground, looking up at the sky, while arms reach up across the frame and exchange cigarettes.

A Walk in the Sun is one of the better World War II films I’ve seen, and it’s generally well-regarded, but not everyone liked it. Samuel Fuller, who saw combat in World War II as a rifleman in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and would go on to direct many cult favorites, wrote a letter to Milestone complaining about the film. “Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel’s technical advice on what happens in a platoon is something I’ll never figure out,” he wrote. “When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I’ll come out with a yarn that won’t make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust.”

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