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Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

Undertow (Dec. 1, 1949)

Undertow1949
Undertow (1949)
Directed by William Castle
Universal International Pictures

This review originally appeared last year at Film Noir of the Week.

William Castle is best remembered as the P.T. Barnum of schlock cinema. Castle was a director, producer, and huckster who sold his flicks to the public with brilliant gimmicks. Anyone who bought a ticket to Macabre (1958) was insured by Lloyd’s of London against “death by fright” while watching the picture. People who went to see The Tingler (1959) took a chance that they might be joy-buzzed if they were lucky enough to sit in one of the right seats. And people who bought a ticket to see the Psycho-inspired film Homicidal (1961) were promised their money back if they walked out during the one-minute “Fright Break” before the climax of the film. Provided, that is, they were willing to stand on display in the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until after the film ended.

What people tend to forget, however, is that before he made Macabre, Castle was a hard-working, dependable director of low-budget studio pictures. He was under contract at Columbia Pictures from 1944 to 1947, where he made several films in the Whistler series and the Crime Doctor series, as well as B noirs like When Strangers Marry (1944), which starred Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter.

While under contract with Universal in 1949, Castle directed two B noirs, Johnny Stool Pigeon, which starred Howard Duff and Shelley Winters, and Undertow, which starred Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady.

Just like his big brother’s loony film noir classic Born to Kill (1947), Undertow starts out in “The Biggest Little City in the World” — Reno.

Scott Brady

Brady plays a good-natured, average guy named Tony Reagan who’s just gotten out of the Army after a seven-year stint (he stayed in for another hitch after the war). All Tony wants to do is help his dead war buddy’s dad run the Mile High Lodge, 40 miles north of Reno, and spend the rest of his days hunting and fishing. The only thing he has to do first is fly to Chicago to see his best girl, Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart), and convince her uncle — gambler “Big” Jim Lee — that he’s good enough to marry her.

While in Reno, however, Tony runs into his old friend Danny Morgan (John Russell). Danny tries to convince Tony he’d be better off helping him run his casino. His sales pitch to Tony is: “Lots of sunshine, steady supply of suckers. And loads of lovely, lonely, loaded ladies.”

As I said, Tony is a good-natured, average guy, and even though he knows his way around a craps table, he’d rather put that part of his life behind him.

If you’re a fan of film noirs, however, you know that good-natured average guys who’ve just rotated out of the service are statistically the most likely people to have a murder rap pinned on them and be forced to flee from both the cops and the bad guys.

Brady Blindfolded

Arthur T. Horman and Lee Loeb’s screenplay for Undertow is standard stuff. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not that different from any number of other B noirs about an innocent man on the run. However, Undertow is worth seeking out for several reasons.

First off, the direction is great. Castle knew how to make an entertaining, fast-moving film, and Undertow is one of his better pictures from the 1940s. Another reason to see Undertow is all of the location shooting in Reno and Chicago, which is rare for a 70-minute programmer.

Castle does more than just throw in a few establishing shots. When Tony Reagan first arrives in Chicago, he heads for the Palmer House hotel, then attempts to lose a police tail while walking down South Wabash Avenue and running up into the elevated train station on the corner. Two scenes in Undertow take place at Buckingham Fountain, and at one point Tony meets his friend Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) and his girlfriend Sally at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. The people in the background in the street scenes don’t look like Hollywood extras, either.

Another reason to see Undertow is to catch Rock Hudson in a very small role. This was the first credit Hudson received for a motion picture. He previously appeared in one other film, Fighter Squadron (1948), but his name didn’t appear in the credits. In Undertow he’s credited as “Roc” Hudson. He appears as a Chicago police detective for about one minute toward the end of the film in a scene in which he discusses a case with Det. Chuck Reckling, played by Bruce Bennett.

Hudson and Bennett

I’ve seen a lot of Lawrence Tierney’s films, but I’ve only recently seen films starring his younger brother, Scott Brady (whose real name was Gerard Kenneth Tierney). Brady very closely resembles his older brother. It would probably be difficult for most people who’d never seen either of them before to tell them apart.

But while Lawrence Tierney played nasty, sociopathic characters the way other actors pick up the phone and say, “Hello?,” Scott Brady projected a general air of decency. From what I’ve seen of him so far, his performances aren’t as memorable as Tierney’s, but he’s perfect for this kind of role.

Finally, one last reason to see Undertow is for some truly outstanding bits of noir photography by Castle and his cinematographers, Irving Glassberg and Clifford Stine. The location shooting establishes the world of the film nicely, and is fascinating from a historical perspective, but it’s scenes like the climactic chase down a dark hallway that really tie the film together.

Dark Hallway

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Oct. 30, 1948)

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
Directed by Norman Foster
Norma Productions / Universal Pictures

Norman Foster’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands begins with some onscreen text that could fit at the beginning of nearly every single post-war film noir:

The aftermath of war is rubble — the rubble of cities and of men. They are the casualties of a pitiless destruction. The cities can be rebuilt, but the wounds of men, whether of the mind or of the body, heal slowly.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is based on Gerald Butler’s bestselling 1940 novel of the same name, and stars Burt Lancaster as Bill Saunders, a tightly wound, violent man with a mysterious past. He says he was born in Canada and raised in Detroit, but he doesn’t go into much more detail. When the film begins, he’s alone in a pub in an unnamed city in England, hunched over the bar and nursing a pint. When the barman tells him that it’s closing time, he lashes out violently. His assault on the barman starts a fire that his uncontrollable rage will continue to stoke throughout the film.

The role of Bill Saunders seems tailor-made for Lancaster at this point in his career. He made his debut in The Killers (1946) as Ole “Swede” Andreson, a brutish former prizefighter. In his next film, Brute Force (1947), he played Joe Collins, the toughest man in a tough prison. In Desert Fury (1947), Lancaster played a sheriff’s deputy who was also a former bronco buster. In I Walk Alone (1948), he played a former bootlegger and all-around alpha male who was determined to exact vengeance on his former partner.

Subsequent roles in All My Sons (1948) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) allowed Lancaster to stretch his thespic muscles a little, but Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a solid return to type.

Lancaster and Fontaine

In the NY Times review of the film, published on October 30, 1948, the headline was Lancaster Fights the World Again. The first paragraph of the review was as follows: “The process of humanizing Burt Lancaster obviously is not going to be easy and it is going to take time. Mr. Lancaster is handy with his fists and speaks most eloquently when using them. But to develop fully as an actor and to come over to the right side of society he will have to make a break someday, for there are only so many variations on the theme of being misunderstood and Mr. Lancaster has just about exhausted them all.”

The reviewer praised the film, however, especially its three-act structure and strong climax, two elements which the reviewer lamented were sadly absent from most current films (apparently this is not just a 21st-century problem).

I think that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a tremendously effective film noir. What it lacks in innovative storytelling it makes up for with strong performances — not only by Lancaster but also by Joan Fontaine as the woman who grows to love him and Robert Newton as the Cockney schemer who is determined to manipulate him through blackmail. In addition to the acting, the shadowy cinematography by Russell Metty sharpens the violence and suspense of the film, and the tense, driving score by Miklós Rózsa (who also wrote the music for The Killers, Brute Force, and Desert Fury) propels the action of the film and mirrors Lancaster’s barely controlled rage that constantly threatens to boil over.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Aug. 11, 1948)

Mr. Peabody and the MermaidIrving Pichel’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is an enchanting little fantasy that’s perfect for chasing away the winter doldrums.

This movie is an old favorite of mine. I first saw it on TV when I was a kid and absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun to revisit, and was just as charming and funny as I remember.

Mr. Arthur Peabody (William Powell) is a dignified Bostonian on the verge of turning 50, that dreaded age that says, “if you’re not already having a midlife crisis, you’d better start now.” Mr. Peabody and his slightly younger wife, Mrs. Polly Peabody (Irene Hervey), go on vacation to the British Caribbean (now commonly referred to as the British Virgin Islands), and Mr. Peabody has a life-changing experience. While out fishing, he hooks a mermaid.

The mermaid is played by the beautiful and doll-like Ann Blyth. She’s listed in the credits as just “Mermaid,” but in the film, Mr. Peabody decides her name is “Lenore.”

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is book-ended by scenes of Mr. Peabody talking to a psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey (Art Smith). No one but Peabody ever sees the mermaid, so naturally his wife and everyone else all assume that he’s crazy.

The film is coy about Lenore’s existence, but she does seem to exist in physical reality. Mrs. Peabody see the mermaid’s fins sticking out of a bubble bath and scolds her husband for cleaning a fish in the tub. The mermaid also spits water on a man before darting back into the water, and when a woman whom the mermaid considers a rival for Mr. Peabody’s affection goes swimming, the mermaid bites her on the leg.

But there’s still a sense of unreality about “Lenore,” and not just because she’s a mythical creature. Lenore never speaks, but seems to understand everything Mr. Peabody says to her, and adores him. She’s his middle-aged fantasy come to achingly beautiful life.

There are parallel stories about Mrs. Peabody’s flirtation with a handsome chap, Major Hadley (Hugh French), and the beautiful adventuress, Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), who sets her sights on Mr. Peabody. The film wrings a lot of humor out of this situation, as Mrs. Peabody thinks Mr. Peabody is dallying with Miss Livingston while in fact he’s trying to keep the mermaid’s existence secret while planning on running away with her to the Florida Keys.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is a lovely escapist fantasy, and is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon. Highly recommended, especially if you’re sick of cold weather and aren’t going on vacation anytime soon.

Blyth and Powell

Man-Eater of Kumaon (July 1, 1948)

Jim Corbett was the archetypal “great white hunter.”

He was born Edward James Corbett in 1875 in Nainital, in the Kumaon region of northern India (now known as Uttarakhand), and was the eighth of 13 children. Corbett would go on to work for the Bengal and North Western Railway. He also attained the rank of colonel in the British Indian Army.

Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett killed a documented 33 man-eating tigers and leopards (the first tiger he brought down was responsible for more than 400 deaths). Despite his fearsome reputation as a hunter, Corbett was committed to conserving endangered Bengal tigers and their natural habitats, and India’s first national park was renamed in his honor in 1957.

His book The Man-Eaters of Kumaon was published in 1944 and was a great success, so it was natural that a Hollywood movie would soon arrive that bore little resemblance to it.

That movie is Man-Eater of Kumaon, and it stars Wendell Corey as Dr. John Collins, a successful but disillusioned physician who has given up the Manhattan rat race for the thrill of big game hunting. Dr. Collins bears no resemblance to Jim Corbett, and he’s not meant to. For better or for worse, the screenplay by Jeanne Bartlett and Lewis Meltzer is mostly an invention, and not directly based on any of Corbett’s stories.

The director, Byron Haskin, was a Hollywood veteran, and the film looks great despite obviously having been filmed on soundstages and at the Corriganville ranch in Simi Valley, California. William C. Mellor’s cinematography is dramatically lighted and ominously shadowed, and the nighttime scenes look especially good. The story and dialogue are overly serious to the point of ridiculousness, however, and Wendell Corey has neither the acting chops nor the charisma to carry a mediocre film.

Corey’s facial expressions range from glum to deeply depressed, and voiceover narration strings together much of the film. More than one scene involves Corey smoking a cigarette, pacing back and forth, and looking pensive as the narrator explains to the audience what he is feeling.

Indian actor Sabu plays a young man named Narain, and he acquits himself well, but he doesn’t have very much to do. (Sabu does get top billing over Corey, although I’m pretty sure Corey has more screen time.) Morris Carnovsky’s performance as the village elder Ganga Ram is overly mannered and soporific, but part of the blame can be placed on the stilted dialogue. Joanne Page, who plays Narain’s wife Lali, acts her part well, but she isn’t given much to do either.

The most interesting thing about Man-Eater of Kumaon is the Bengal tiger who is shot by Corey at the beginning of the film. Throughout the film the tiger is wounded and tracking the man who has harmed him, leaving a path of death and terror in his wake. (As one character in the film says, “A tiger will not forget the man who wounded him.”) The footage of the tiger is really spectacular, and it seems to be mostly original, unlike most jungle adventure pictures, which rely heavily on stock footage.

Man-Eater of Kumaon is currently streaming on Netflix, and you can watch the first seven minutes on YouTube by clicking on the line below:

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (June 15, 1948)

There are two schools of thought regarding Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

On the one hand, it was the final nail in the coffin of the increasingly moribund Universal monster series. If you’re a horror purist, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents the nadir of Universal Studios’ monster movies.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who loves horror-comedies, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents one of the best-known and most enduring films in the genre.

It wasn’t the first horror-comedy. Paul Leni’s silent film The Cat and the Canary (1927) was the cornerstone of Universal’s horror machine, and it had plenty of comedic elements. James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) is both scary and incredibly funny, which is not an easy mixture to pull off.

And the practice of throwing comedians into a horror-movie scenario didn’t start with this film either.

The Ritz Brothers were paired with Bela Lugosi in The Gorilla (1939), and Bob Hope and Paulette Godard starred together in a remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) and the horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers in (1940).

So by the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released, not only were horror-comedies an established part of the box-office landscape, but Universal Studios had firmly demonstrated that they had run out of ideas beyond the “mix and match” approach, which gave us Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), each one more campy and silly than the last. (And the last “straight” monster movie that Universal released in the ’40s — Jean Yarbrough’s 1946 film She-Wolf of London — was pretty dull.)

My main problem with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is that I don’t find Abbott and Costello funny. The duo started in vaudeville, and every comedic set piece in their films feels to me as if it needs to be watched in the midst of an easily amused, wildly guffawing audience for the full effect. Watching their films at home just doesn’t work for me. (I felt the same way about Mel Brooks’s 1974 horror-comedy Young Frankenstein when I rented it years ago. After hearing for most of my life that it was one of the funniest movies ever made, I was shocked by its obvious jokes, its incredibly slow pacing, and the way Gene Wilder mugged for the camera. The problem, I think, is that the jokes are timed to allow for a large audience to rock with laughter before the next joke is dropped. If you’re watching it for the first time alone, however, it can feel awfully slow.)

As a nearly life-long aficionado of Universal monster movies, I appreciated the look of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The film is set in Florida, and the sets are an effective mix of castle-like structures and steamy swamps. I also enjoyed seeing Bela Lugosi reprise his most famous role — Dracula. John Carradine played the Count in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and he was fine, but there’s no beating Lugosi. And it’s always fun to see Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a.k.a. The Wolf Man.

I also liked that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t overloaded with characters. Lugosi performs a kind of double duty. As Dracula, he turns into a bat and bends people to his will, but he’s also a mad scientist, scheming to bring Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) back to life to do his bidding. (The gag is that he plans to use the brain of Lou Costello, one of the dumbest characters in the history of cinematic comedy.)

Despite its classic Universal-horror look, there’s really nothing scary about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The director, Charles Barton, was a hard-working journeyman who had a lot of experience directing comedies and none directing horror. But the special effects do look really good. The main thing that stood out for me was Dracula’s transformations into a bat, which look much better here than they did in Dracula (1931). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the transformations are achieved with a mixture of hand-drawn animation and puppetry. Still, I’ll take the eerie power of the original and its rubber bat on a string over an Abbott and Costello horror-comedy any day.

Up in Central Park (May 26, 1948)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have a special place in my heart for Deanna Durbin.

I think Durbin is one of the most charming, talented, and attractive performers to ever appear on screen. If some of the material she appeared in was beneath her, it’s hard to tell, since she brought the same vivacity, humor, and clear-as-a-bell singing voice to every one of her roles.

Durbin — a.k.a. “Winnipeg’s Sweetheart” — went from nearly single-handedly saving Universal Pictures from bankruptcy at the age of 14 with her first feature, Three Smart Girls (1936), to permanently retiring from acting in 1948 after appearing in her last film, For the Love of Mary.

Up in Central Park was Durbin’s penultimate picture. She was nearly 27 years old, and was tired of working within a stultifying studio system and playing the same type of character she’d been playing since she was 14. After appearing in For the Love of Mary, Durbin married producer Charles David and settled in a small village in rural France. She never appeared in another film.

Up in Central Park was based on the successful Broadway musical of the same name that opened in 1945. It takes place in 19th-century New York and stars another of my all-time favorite actors — Vincent Price — as the notoriously corrupt Boss Tweed.

Wide-eyed Irish immigrant Rosie Moore (Durbin) and her father, Timothy Moore (Albert Sharpe), come to New York with dreams of a better life and are quickly ensnared by the agents of Boss Tweed, who set up Mr. Moore with a plum position as Central Park zookeeper, as well as a little house in the park to call their own.

When things seem too good to be true, they usually are. But Rosie loves her new life, so when a crusading reporter for The New York Times named John Matthews (played by crooner Dick Haymes) tries to convince her that Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies are no good, she refuses to believe him.

Up in Central Park is an entertaining little musical, but my favorite thing about it was watching the louche Price woo the naive Durbin, as well as chew the scenery on his own. For instance, when Tweed gives his puppet mayor Oakley (Hobart Cavanaugh) his cigar to dispose of and Oakley can’t find a spittoon, Tweed says — in a withering, condescending tone — “We use ashtrays here, Mayor. This isn’t the city hall.”

Hamlet (May 4, 1948)

Hamlet
Hamlet (1948)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Two Cities Films / Universal Pictures

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet dominated the 21st Academy Awards with seven nominations and four wins. (Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda was nominated in 12 categories — more than any other picture — but only won a single Oscar.)

It was the first time a non-Hollywood production won an Oscar for best picture, and it was the first time an Oscar for best actor was given to an actor who had directed himself. (Besides best picture and best actor, Hamlet also won Oscars for best costume design in a black and white picture and best art direction in a black and white picture.)

These accolades represented something of a vindication for Olivier, whose previous film, Henry V (1944), was nominated for best picture and best actor Oscars (among others), but only received a special Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” which Olivier considered “a fob-off.”

Well, sometimes great works require big egos, and Hamlet is proof. It’s a dark, expressionistic psychodrama and a deeply satisfying cinematic achievement, which is no small feat for a film based on a play by William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is an unassailable and towering figure in English literature, I don’t find most films based on his plays very satisfying. They either treat his texts with stodgy reverence or go off the deep end with ridiculous costumes and set pieces that seem designed to draw in viewers who find Shakespeare “boring.”

Olivier’s Technicolor production of Henry V played around with artifice, beginning by showing the inner workings of a stage play complete with shots of the actors backstage waiting for their cues and slowly became more realistic, culminating in the battle of Agincourt, which was filmed outdoors.

Hamlet, on the other hand, establishes its moody, black and white world with the opening shots and stays the course. Olivier’s camera moves in a lissome fashion around his fog-shrouded castle set, which is a hulking, brooding character unto itself, towering over a dark, roiling sea. The dialogue and the movement of the actors are treated as realistically as possible. Monologues are not delivered in a theatrical fashion toward the audience, but in voiceover as the actor silently broods.

Hamlet was mostly a success with the critics, but Shakespeare purists took umbrage at Olivier’s tinkering with the text, since he cut out roughly half the play, losing whole characters in the process.

There were numerous minor cuts, too, as the very first moments of the film demonstrate. Olivier’s Hamlet begins with the lines from Act 1, Scene 4, that precede the appearance of the ghost. They appear onscreen and are spoken by the narrator. Olivier excised certain lines, which I’ve shown below as crossed-out text:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them—
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin),

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that [grown] too much o’erleavens
The form of plausive manners—
that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

The demands of cinema are different from the demands of the stage, and I find these edits sensible and pleasing. However … and this is a big “however” … Oliver ends his prologue with the following line of spoken dialogue, which does not appear in text on screen, but is spoken by the same narrator, and could easily be mistaken for more of Shakespeare’s writing by the unschooled: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

To me this seems like pandering, but I suppose it helps to have a “mission statement” for the more thick-headed among us in the audience.

And this is indeed the story of a young man crippled by indecision. By removing all of the political aspects of Hamlet (the character Fortinbras, for instance, is excised completely and is never mentioned), it becomes a character study. For 20th century audiences I think this was the enduring view of Hamlet, and the aspect people found most interesting. Modern audiences probably miss most of the political undertones of the play, which was written at the tail end of the 16th century, when the age of chivalry was dying and the age of global empire was beginning with the creation of the East India Company. Surely Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw aspects of their own time in the tale of a slain king, a usurper on the throne, and a young prince dealing poorly with political realities.

Even in its edited form, Olivier’s Hamlet runs for a little more than two and a half hours. There simply would have been no way to film the entire play and end up with a commercially successful film. (When Kenneth Branagh filmed a complete version of Hamlet in 1996 it clocked in at 242 minutes and was not widely released theatrically. The cut version was 150 minutes.)

If you can stomach an edited Bard, Olivier’s Hamlet stands as one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. The cast are all good, including Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Basil Sydney as Claudia, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Norman Wooland as Horatio, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, and Terence Morgan as Laertes. But the real star is Olivier, both in front of and behind the camera.

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