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The Set-Up (March 29, 1949)

The Set-Up
The Set-Up (1949)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

My favorite sports movies are all boxing movies. Body and Soul (1947), The Harder They Fall (1956), Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), Raging Bull (1980), When We Were Kings (1996). The list goes on and on.

I love watching boxing, which is one reason I love movies about it, but that’s not the only reason I love boxing movies.

Boxing is an individual sport that lends itself well to film drama. Most of the movies about team sports that I like are comedies — The Longest Yard (1974), Slap Shot (1977), Major League (1989). That’s not to say there aren’t good dramas about team sports. There are plenty, like Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), and Friday Night Lights (2004), but there’s something about one fighter facing another in the ring that makes for a great drama. And the brutality and widespread corruption of the boxing world makes for great film noirs.

The Set-Up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s long, narrative poem of the same name, which was written in 1928. (March’s other enduring work is the narrative poem The Wild Party, also written in 1928, which was republished in 1994 with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.)

March’s The Set-Up is a masterpiece of hard-boiled writing, and especially impressive considering that it’s written in verse.

Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown
And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown.

Mean as a panther,
Crafty as a fox,
He could hit like a mule,
And he knew how to box.
A dark-skinned jinx
With eyes like a lynx,
A heart like a lion,
And a face like the Sphinx:
Battered, flat, massive:
Grim,
Always impassive.

The film version is only loosely based on March’s poem. Significantly, it sidesteps the racial angle by casting a white actor, Robert Ryan, in the lead. It also renames its pugilist protagonist “Stoker.”

Robert Ryan

Judged solely on its own merits, however, The Set-Up is a great film. It’s one of the great noirs, as well as one of the best films about boxing ever made. It’s lean and mean — just 72 minutes long — and unfolds more or less in real time.

Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Ryan) is gearing up to face a 23-year-old opponent in the ring. Stoker is 35 years old, which in his business makes him an old man. (John Garfield’s character in Body and Soul was also facing his own mortality as a boxer at the age of 35.)

Stoker’s wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants him to retire. His days as a fully functioning human being are numbered if he keeps fighting for measly purses and absorbing massive amounts of punishment in the process.

Stoker tries to reassure her, but his eyes tell their own story a little later in the film as he watches a punchy fighter repeat himself for the dozenth time before leaving the locker room for his fight. Gus, a trainer played by Wallace Ford, shakes his head and says, “I guess you can only stop so many.”

The boxing milieu depicted in The Set-Up is exceptionally sleazy. The arena where Stoker faces his opponent, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), advertises “Boxing Wednesdays, Wrestling Fridays,” and is located in Paradise City, a low-rent strip of arcades, dance halls, and chop suey joints.

Worst of all, Stoker’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias), has arranged with local hoods for Stoker to take a dive without telling Stoker about his plan. He’s that certain his man will lose.

Robert Wise’s direction is tight and unpretentious. His cinematographer, Milton R. Krasner, lenses some of the most starkly beautiful black & white images ever captured on film. There’s a scene early in the film where Stoker walks across the street from his rented room toward the arena with his bag in his hand. He moves straight toward the camera, and he looks like the archetype of every lonely hero who has faced a tragic fate without blinking.

Robert Ryan is key to the film’s authenticity. The 6’4″ actor was on the boxing team at Dartmouth College and had a 5-0 win-loss record, with 3 KOs. He continued to box while serving in the Marine Corps.

The Set-Up is a brutal, violent film, but despite its real-time plot that uncoils with ruthless efficiency, there are still quiet and reflective moments, like the sequence in which Audrey Totter walks the streets of Paradise City through a gauntlet of drunks and mashers. She eventually winds up on a bridge over a highway and slowly rips up her ticket to the fight and watches the scraps float down as a streetcar rumbles by.

Robert Wise had a long and interesting career in Hollywood. While The Set-Up will never be a crowd-pleaser like West Side Story (1961) or a family favorite like The Sound of Music (1965), it’s still one of Wise’s best films, and one of the all-time great noirs.

Shed No Tears (June 9, 1948)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times … only a chump fakes his own death.

And yet, that’s exactly what Sam Grover (Wallace Ford) does in the very first scene of Jean Yarbrough’s Shed No Tears. He sets fire to his hotel room and leaves a cadaver behind as he sneaks out the back way. It’s all part of a scheme he’s cooked up with his wife Edna, an icy blonde played by June Vincent, whose best-known film noir performance was probably in Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946).

Edna is as young and beautiful as Sam Grover is middle-aged and schlubby. When an old woman on the bus sees Sam looking adoringly at a picture of Edna, she asks him if it’s a picture of his daughter. “My granddaughter,” he responds with a sigh.

If you’ve ever seen a B noir before, you’ll know that Edna’s up to no good before Sam even kicks over the flaming wastebasket in his hotel room, but all doubt is erased a few minutes into the film when Sam scurries off to hide out and Edna falls into the well-muscled arms of her handsome young boyfriend Ray (Mark Roberts, listed in the credits as “Robert Scott”).

The plot thickens when Sam’s adult son, Tom (Dick Hogan), suspects foul play and engages the services of a slippery and pompous private investigator named Huntington Stewart (Johnstone White). Meanwhile, Sam grows restless in hiding and gets itchier and itchier as he waits for Edna to come through with the insurance dough for his “death.”

Shed No Tears is based on the novel by Don Martin. Its dialogue is heavy on exposition, but the editing and visual storytelling are tight. The acting by everyone except the always dependable Wallace Ford is merely passable, with Dick Hogan’s stilted performance qualifying as the most egregious. I suspect that he was cast more for his cute little face than for his acting ability. Incidentally, this was one of Hogan’s last roles. After Shed No Tears he would go on to appear in the Alan Ladd vehicle Beyond Glory (1948) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), in which he played the murder victim.

Shed No Tears never rises above the level of a B-movie programmer, but for what it is, it’s an entertaining 70-minute melodrama. It’s in the public domain, and there’s an OK-looking DVD available from Alpha Home Entertainment that was transferred from a 16mm print. There are also a few versions currently streaming on YouTube:

T-Men (Dec. 15, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s T-Men sneaks up on you like a sap-wielding mug in a dark alley.

For the first 10 minutes or so, it seems like just another docudrama about the heroic exploits of undercover government agents — like Henry Hathaway’s films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) — right down to the stentorian voice-over narration by Reed Hadley, the guy who always did the stentorian narration in patriotic docudramas.

The title and opening credits of the film appear superimposed over the Seal of the United States Department of the Treasury as triumphant music plays. Then a disclaimer appears explaining that all the U.S. currency in the film was reproduced with special permission of the Treasury Department, and that reproduction of said currency is strictly prohibited. (Don’t film yourself fanning out a bunch of sawbucks at home, kids!)

Then the former chief coordinator of the law enforcement agencies of the Treasury Department, Elmer Lincoln Irey, haltingly reads from a piece of paper and explains the six units of the Treasury Department: “The Intelligence Unit, which tracks down income tax violators, the Customs Agency Service, with the border patrol, which fights smuggling, the Narcotics Unit, the Secret Service, which guards the president and ferrets out counterfeiters, the Alcohol Tax unit, which uncovers bootleggers, and the Coast Guard. These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard.” (Incidentally, the mild-looking, bespectacled Irey was one of the men who brought down Capone. He also worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.)

Irey goes on to say that what we’re about to see is called “The Shanghai Paper Case,” a composite of actual counterfeiting cases tackled by the Treasury Department.

Over the course of the first couple of reels, however, it becomes clear that T-Men is a very different film from The House on 92nd Street, and that its dry, fact-filled introduction is only the tip of the iceberg.

Although Reed Hadley’s hokey narration occasionally dominates the proceedings, the script is tight and the actors are all excellent. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who play undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro, are solidly believable, and Wallace Ford — who plays “The Schemer” — is always fun to watch, but for my money, the most memorable character in the film is “Moxie,” played by the granite-jawed Charles McGraw. Moxie is a merciless thug who shoots men dead without blinking, breaks fingers as easily as he asks questions, and boils a man to death in a steam bath without changing his expression.

But it’s not just the sudden, brutal acts of violence or the sense of paranoia that suffuses T-Men that set it apart from other films of its ilk, it’s also the dimly lit, “you are there” cinematography by John Alton.

Director Mann and the studio had faith in Alton, and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. Alton, quoted in the press book for T-Men,* said “…we shot scenes just as they came along. We shot under all conditions. Some of our night shots were made without any lights at all. I know some people thought the scenes wouldn’t match and it would turn out to be a horrible mess. Fortunately, it turned out as I was sure it would.”

T-Men was Mann’s first collaboration with Alton, but it wouldn’t be his last. Together they would go on to make Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) (which Alfred Werker directed and Mann co-directed), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Alton and Mann’s contribution to what we now call “film noir” is enormous. T-Men is a great picture. It’s tense, violent, and looks amazing. Despite its low budget, it was a big hit when it was released, and it’s still fresh today.

*And cribbed by yours truly from Alan K. Rode’s fantastic book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy.

Dead Reckoning (Jan. 2, 1947)

Lizabeth Scott looks a lot like Lauren Bacall. It’s hard not to compare her to Bacall even when she’s not acting opposite Humphrey Bogart.

There’s a lot of that going around in John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning, a film that isn’t as well known as some of Bogie’s other noirs, like The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946), and which suffers in direct comparison with them. But taken purely on its own merits, it’s a tense, well-made picture, full of post-war desperation, but with little of the silliness of a lot of returning-vet noirs, like Somewhere in the Night (1946).

Bogart plays a paratrooper, Capt. “Rip” Murdock, who was ordered to Washington, D.C., to receive the Distinguished Service Cross along with his buddy, Sgt. Johnny Drake, who was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Before they could get there, Johnny hopped off the train and went on the lam before any newspaper reporters could snap his picture.

Rip finds a Yale pin from the class of ’40 that reveals that Johnny’s real name was John Joseph Preston. Rip follows the clues to Johnny’s hometown of Gulf City. (It’s unclear where Gulf City is supposed to be, but it has to be somewhere along the Gulf Coast. There are palm trees, and Bogie refers at one point to “Southern hospitality.” There is a real Gulf City in Florida, but it’s an unincorporated little town that had a population of zero by the 1920s.)

Rip rolls through the microfiche in the Gulf City public library until he finds a newspaper article dated September 3, 1943, with the headline “Rich realtor slain.” The motive was jealousy — both men loved a woman named Coral Chandler — and Johnny confessed to the murder, but disappeared before he could be sentenced, and enlisted in the army under a false name.

Rip finds a scrap of paper in his hotel room with a single word, “Geronimo,” scrawled on it. It’s from Johnny (it was what they always yelled before jumping out of planes), but the next time Rip sees Johnny, he’s a burnt-up corpse in a twisted car wreck.

Rip tracks down the woman in the case, the beautiful and statuesque Coral “Dusty” Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), a singer in a Gulf City nightclub. The scene in which she sings “Either It’s Love or It Isn’t” under a spotlight to Rip at his table is memorable, though Scott’s lip synching is pretty awful. Rip calls her “Cinderella with a husky voice,” and they embark on a whirlwind love-hate romance.

Most of the film is told in flashback. Rip sits in a pew in a church, his face hidden in the shadows, confessing his sins to Father Logan (James Bell), whom he sought out because he’s a former paratrooper. Logan was known as “the jumping padre, always the first one out of the plane.”

If you’re starting to think that Dead Reckoning might have an overabundance of references to parachuting, you’d be right, and we haven’t even scratched the surface. (The title of the film refers to flying a plane without the aid of electronic instruments — which is a metaphor for Rip’s dangerous, seat-of-the-pants investigation — and the final image of the film is a woman’s face metamorphosing into a billowing white parachute floating to earth along with the whispered word “Geronimo.”)

In many ways, Dead Reckoning feels like a pastiche of earlier Bogart film noirs. The loyalty to a dead man is straight out of The Maltese Falcon (“When a guy’s pal is killed he oughtta do something about it,” Rip says). A villain who rushes to open a door at the climax, only to be shot down, is straight out of The Big Sleep. And the film’s chief antagonists, the effete, cultured Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and his brutish, mildly brain-damaged henchman, Krause (Marvin Miller), are straight out of too many noirs to count.

Dead Reckoning carves out its own misanthropic place in the noir pantheon with its doses of brutal violence, fiery finale, and Rip’s distrust of dames, which is nothing new for a noir, but which Dead Reckoning takes to new heights. Rip says things like “I don’t trust anybody, especially women” and “Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?” And his diatribe about how women should all be shrunk down to pocket size has to be heard to be believed.

Dead Reckoning is full of memorable hard-boiled dialogue. Unfortunately, Scott can’t always pull it off the way Bogart can. The dialogue in film noir is often artificial, but it’s artificial in the same way as Shakespearean drama — it can express something more real than “naturalistic” dialogue can, but it takes a very talented actor to make it work.

Bogart had his limitations as an actor, but he perfectly delivered every single line of dialogue in every single film noir in which he appeared. Dead Reckoning is no exception, and while it’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen, it’s damned good, and I look forward to seeing it again some day.

Black Angel (Aug. 2, 1946)

Black Angel was directed by Roy William Neill, the dependable craftsman responsible for eleven of Universal’s fourteen Sherlock Holmes pictures. Black Angel isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s slick, well-made entertainment and a nice opportunity to see what Neill was capable of when he stepped outside of the formula of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes films.

The screenplay, by Roy Chanslor, is based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name. Woolrich was a prolific author, and an instrumental figure in film noir, even though his actual work for the film industry occurred only during the silent era and was brief and unhappy. He apparently wrote a few screenplays under the name “William Irish,” which was one of his pseudonyms. (“George Hopley” was the other.) He was also briefly married as a young man, but it was annulled after less than three years. After that, he headed back to New York City, his hometown, and went back to live with his mother.

Woolrich mostly kept to himself. A closeted homosexual with a drinking problem, Woolrich found his niche writing stories for the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to publications like Black Mask and Argosy. More screenplays for film noirs were adapted from Woolrich’s stories and novels than from the the work of any other crime writer, but that’s not the only reason he was instrumental to the genre. The inky darkness of noir is evident in the titles of his books alone; The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948) are just a few. The two novels of his I’ve read were not particularly well-written — he wasn’t a great stylist like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett — but he conveyed in his writing a sense of overwhelming dread and alienation, both emotions that are central to film noir.

Also, perhaps due to his his drinking, Woolrich’s characters frequently suffer from amnesia and alcohol-induced blackouts. In Fright, written in 1950 under the name George Hopley, a young man is convinced he has committed murder while blind drunk, but it’s not clear for most of the novel whether he actually has or not.

This is a theme that rears its head once again in Black Angel, in which a regular Joe named Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of the murder of a blackmailing singer named Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Bennett’s wife Catherine (June Vincent, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Dowling) believes he is innocent, and sets out to prove it. She enlists the aid of Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), a composer and piano player who seems like a decent guy despite his alcoholism and unhealthy obsession with the murdered woman. (In the memorable first scene of the picture, we see Duryea leaning against a wall, staring up at the high rise apartment in which Mavis lives.) As Bennett’s execution date looms, the two pose as a professional singer and piano player in order to get closer to their prime suspect, an oily club owner named Marko (Peter Lorre).

One of the things I liked best about Black Angel was the opportunity to see Duryea in a sympathetic role. He wasn’t perpetually cast early in his career as villains and sniveling punks because he lacked charisma, he had plenty. But he was whip-thin and had a perpetual scowl, and he was good at playing nasty characters. The poster for Black Angel calls him “that fascinating tough guy of Scarlet Street,” and that movie and this one were both instrumental in creating his new image as a violent, dangerous, and sexy antihero.

Sadly, this would be Neill’s last film. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1946, while visiting relatives in England. He was 59 years old. Neill was a superior craftsman, and his Sherlock Holmes films were some of the most entertaining and well-made programmers of the ’40s. He made all kinds of films, including the campy horror movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (a personal favorite), but Black Angel showed what he was capable of in the hard-boiled noir/mystery genre. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to make more movies like it.

Spellbound (Dec. 28, 1945)

Spellbound
Spellbound (1945)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
United Artists

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound gets knocked around for its basis in Freudian theory. Many reviews of the film written in the past 20 years use words like “dated,” “implausible,” and “preposterous.” A lot of these same reviews also praise the dream sequence, which was designed by Salvador Dalí, as the most memorable part of the film.

Freud has been knocked around, criticized, and discredited since the turn of the century, so to dismiss a film’s plot and ideas merely because they are “Freudian” seems like picking low-hanging fruit. Granted, Freud had a lot of wild ideas, but he was a brilliant thinker, and should be viewed as a philosopher and a humanist as much as a doctor or scientist. Also, many people who dismiss Freud out of hand haven’t actually read any of his writing, and cannot discuss his ideas beyond the fact that they’ve heard that they’re loony.

Upon revisiting the film, I found the much-praised dream sequence by Dalí overly gimmicky, adding little to the narrative beyond a “gee whiz” moment. (Hitchcock had almost nothing to do with its production. Dalí worked with a production unit from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures on the sequence.) There’s nothing wrong with “gee whiz” moments, but Spellbound is an underappreciated film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it bears rewatching as a complete work of art, not just as a showcase for pop surrealism or “dated” notions of neuroses and the unconscious.

In 1942, after winning back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture (then called “outstanding production”) for Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), producer David O. Selznick was morose. He took time off and sought treatment. His experience with the “talking cure” was so positive that he decided to produce a picture with psychoanalysis as its subject. In 1943, Hitchcock mentioned to Selznick that he owned the screen rights to the 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer under the pseudonym “Francis Beeding.” The Gothic potboiler was about a homicidal lunatic who kidnaps a doctor named Murchison and impersonates him, taking over his position as head of a mental institution. A female doctor named Constance Sedgwick uncovers the impostor’s ruse and eventually marries the real Dr. Murchison.

In early 1944, Hitchcock and his friend Angus MacPhail crafted a preliminary screenplay in which Dr. Murchison was the outgoing head of the institution and Dr. Edwardes was his successor. They also created a romance between Constance and Dr. Edwardes, as well as the downhill skiing set piece that cures Edwardes of his amnesia. In March 1944, Selznick offered Hitchcock the talents of Ben Hecht, and Hitchcock and Hecht worked together for months to refine the screenplay. They even visited mental institutions, and preliminary versions of Spellbound featured more semi-documentary material than the final product does.

The final product may be, as Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” But with Hitchcock behind the camera, even the most pedestrian manhunt story can become something dazzling. Hitchcock considered Spellbound one of his minor works, but part of his underestimation of the picture could have been due to all the clashes he had with Selznick, who was known for meddling with his productions. Selznick even hired his own therapist, Dr. May E. Romm, as a technical advisor for the film. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Dr. Romm told Hitchcock that an aspect of psychoanalysis in Spellbound was presented inaccurately, Hitchcock responded, “It’s only a movie.”

In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the director of Green Manors, is being forced into retirement shortly after returning to work following a nervous breakdown. His replacement is the young, handsome Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). “My age hasn’t caught up with me,” Dr. Edwardes responds when someone mentions how young he appears. But this isn’t the case, of course. He is actually an amnesiac who has no idea who he is or how he arrived at Green Manors. His state of confusion is such that he initially believed he was Dr. Edwardes, and is now playing the role because he doesn’t know what else to do. Dr. Petersen uncovers the truth, but she has already fallen instantly, madly in love with him. When the rest of the world learns the truth about Dr. Edwardes, he flees Green Manors. He still has amnesia, but he knows that his real initials are “J.B.” He heads for New York, and tells Dr. Petersen not to follow him. Does she follow his advice? Of course she doesn’t.

The romance is a high point of the film. The presentation of Dr. Petersen’s initial “frigidity” is certainly dated, but it leads to one of Hitchcock’s wildest sequences. When Bergman first kisses Peck, a shot of her forehead dissolves into a shot of a door. The door opens, revealing another door, which also opens, revealing another door, and so on.

Bergman’s performance is pitch perfect in every scene. Peck’s performance is less natural, but it works, since he is playing a man who literally doesn’t know who he is. (Apparently Peck craved more direction from Hitchcock, but Hitchcock just kept telling him things like “drain your face of all emotion.” Hitchcock had little patience for method acting.) Also, you would be hard-pressed to find two actors in 1945 who were more physically attractive than Bergman or Peck.

The cinematography by George Barnes is another high point. Each shot in Spellbound is beautifully constructed, and gives off a silvery glow. There are a number of choices that are still shocking, such as a flashback to an accidental death, or the penultimate sequence in the film, in which a P.O.V. shot shows a revolver being turned directly on the audience. When the trigger is pulled, there is a splash of red, the only instance of color in the film. It’s an assault on the audience par excellence from a man who spent his entire career assaulting his audience while almost never alienating them, which is not an easy thing to do.

Miklós Rózsa’s score for the film incorporates a haunting theremin melody, as did his score for The Lost Weekend, released around the same time. Rózsa won an Academy Award for best score for his work on Spellbound. Hitchcock was disappointed in the music, however, since it emphasized the romantic aspects of the film, and was more to Selznick’s liking than his own.

Sometimes creative dissonance leads to great creations, however. Spellbound is a great movie, whether or not its producer and director ever saw eye to eye.

Blood on the Sun (April 26, 1945)

BloodSunJames Cagney made a big splash in William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). It was his first starring role. Some people claim that when Cagney first walked on screen in that picture, it was the beginning of “modern acting.” Whether or not you believe that claim, there’s no denying the impact Cagney had on Hollywood, especially gangster films. The scene in which he shoves a grapefruit half into Mae Clarke’s face is iconic. Late in his life, Cagney claimed that people still sent grapefruits to his table in restaurants, with a wink and a nod. The Public Enemy ushered in a new era of onscreen violence, and an icon was born.

Cagney would go on to play many criminals, gangsters, and con men, in films like Smart Money (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931), Hard to Handle (1933), Picture Snatcher (1933), The Mayor of Hell (1933), Lady Killer (1933), He Was Her Man (1934), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and The Roaring Twenties (1939). He was so good in these roles that when a lot of people hear the name “Jimmy Cagney,” they can only think of a sneering mug with a gat clenched in his fist and a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. But Cagney was a versatile actor. He also played cops, G-men, servicemen, and comedic roles, as well as singing and dancing in musicals. In fact, the only Academy Award he ever won was for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a drama and musical that told the life of George M. Cohan.

I think Cagney is a great actor with a unique style and personality. Anything he appears in is worth watching. Blood on the Sun was directed by Frank Lloyd, a Hollywood veteran who’d been making pictures since the silent era. It’s a wartime potboiler with a dubious MacGuffin; the Tanaka Memorial, an alleged strategic document from 1927 in which Prime Minister Baron Tanaka Giichi created for Emperor Showa a strategy to take over the world. It is believed by many historians to have been a forgery. In the ’30s and ’40s, however, the document was widely accepted as true. It was mentioned in Frank Capra’s agitprop documentary series, Why We Fight, and translations were published in Chinese and American periodicals. Of course, one reason why it was widely regarded to be an actual document is because Japan’s actions so closely mirrored the strategy that the Tanaka Memorial outlined; the conquest of Manchuria and Mongolia, followed by the invasion of China, the establishment of bases in the Pacific, and the eventual conquest of the United States. So although General MacArthur’s armies were unable to uncover any original Japanese-language versions of the Tanaka plan after World War II, perhaps its authenticity is beside the point.

In Blood on the Sun, which takes place in Tokyo in the late ’20s, Cagney plays an American reporter named Nick Condon. Condon writes for the Tokyo Chronicler, which is essentially a mouthpiece for the Japanese government, and is aimed at the Western business community. When Condon writes and publishes an article about a secret plan that outlines Japan’s plans for world domination, his editor tells him to print a retraction. He refuses, and the Japanese secret police plant a false story in the newspaper designed to discredit Condon. When Condon still refuses to back down, the Japanese secret police raise the stakes by murdering two of Condon’s friends, whom they believe are smuggling a copy of the Tanaka plan out of the country. Eventually, the film becomes a cat-and-mouse espionage thriller, with Condon on the run with a “half-breed” named Iris Hilliard, played by Sylvia Sidney, who is originally sent by the secret police to ingratiate herself to Condon and find out if he has a copy of the Tanaka plan. (Since Sidney is a white actress in yellowface makeup, I wasn’t clear for awhile which two races she was supposed to be descended from. One is Chinese, but I could have sworn that at one point, another character described her as being half Japanese/half Chinese. Her surname, however, implies that her father was British or American. So I must have misheard the line of dialogue.) Besides the questionable historical accuracy of Blood on the Sun, the white actors playing Japanese roles will probably be the hardest thing for modern audiences to swallow. John Emery, who plays Tanaka, and Robert Armstrong, who plays Col. Hideki Tojo, are not the worst examples of yellowface I’ve ever seen, but with their indeterminate, lisping accents, they’re still pretty bad. Blood on the Sun isn’t a particularly racist film, however, especially when one considers the context in which it was made. All of its villains are representatives of the Japanese government, which committed horrifying atrocities during World War II, and with whom the United States was still at war when this film was made. Several of the actors in smaller roles are actually Asians (although it’s unlikely that too many, if any, are actually Japanese).

The main reasons to see this film today, aside from historical curiosity, are the performance of Cagney and the well-choreographed fight scenes. Blood on the Sun won a single Oscar at the 18th Academy Awards in 1946, for best art direction in a black and white film, but it should have won for “most awesome martial arts battle in an American film.” Sadly, such a category did not exist. How could it? Martial arts were new to Hollywood. Some people cite John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as having the first real martial arts fight scene in an American film, which is clearly not the case. Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva’s karate chops were fine, but they pale in comparison to the brutal judo smackdown that crowns Blood on the Sun. Cagney studied judo for this film, and liked it so much he kept it up for most of his life. How could he not? A born-and-bred brawler, Cagney clearly took to martial arts like a fish to water. The combination of judo throws and boxing as he fights the leader of the secret police, Capt. Oshima, played by Jack Sergel (who acted under the stage name “John Halloran”), is fairly basic by today’s standards, but it’s still impressive. Cagney and Sergel go to the ground several times, and the chokeholds and arm bars look as if they hurt. So do the throat punches. Sergel was actually my favorite actor in the film after Cagney. He’s tall, menacing, and has a shaved head and black mustache. He doesn’t look particularly Japanese, but he’s more convincing as an Asian than any of the other white actors in the film. Sergel was a former LAPD officer who had been investigated by the FBI because of his involvement with the sport of judo, including his participation in at least one judo tournament that was held in a Japanese internment camp. Even though he was a Los Angeles police sergeant and loyal American citizen, his admiration for Japanese culture and sport was seen as suspicious by federal and local authorities, and he ended up resigning from the LAPD in 1944. Cagney spends a lot of his time in this film punching, kicking, and throwing the bad guys who come after him, but his fight with Sergel is the high point. Cagney was a small man, and Sergel towers over him, but Cagney’s sheer physicality makes you believe they’re evenly matched.

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