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Under Capricorn (Sept. 9, 1949)

Under Capricorn
Under Capricorn (1949)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

After directing The Paradine Case (1947) and Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock made Under Capricorn, and completed a hat trick of box office disappointments.

It’s not hard to see why Under Capricorn underperformed at the box office. Like nearly all of Hitchcock’s films, it’s a technical marvel, but it’s also a half-baked melodrama.

Under Capricorn is based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, which was adapted from Helen Simpson’s 1937 historical novel. It takes place in Australia in 1831, when Sydney was still a small port city full of ex-convicts. The new governor’s young cousin, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), arrives from Ireland, hoping to make his fortune. He’s quickly embroiled in a land-buying plot with the brusque Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Flusky’s criminal past is whispered about and hinted at, but Adare quickly learns that directly asking about anyone’s criminal past in New South Wales is taboo.

Cotten and Wilding

The loneliness of life in the outback has not been kind to Sam Flusky’s wife, Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), and when she first appears onscreen she looks like a ghost. She’s drunk, barefoot, and in her dressing gown. However, her exposure to Charles Adare quickly changes her, and she begins to take care of her appearance and show a renewed interest in life.

Like Rope, Under Capricorn was shot in Technicolor, and it’s a sumptuous film. There are a lot of bravura little touches, like a tracking shot that briskly follows Adare down a long hallway and through two doorways in the governor’s mansion. This is followed by a slower tracking shot of Adare as he slinks outside Flusky’s estate, peeping in open doors. Hitchcock’s camera, operated by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, is lissome, and flows through the spaces of Flusky’s home like water, in and out of rooms, following first one character, then another.

There are also some lovely visual metaphors. When Henrietta happily reminisces with Adare about their youth together, the film cuts to Flusky, his face perfectly framed by a double candle holder, which resembles horns, the traditional symbol of the cuckold.

Bergman and Wilding

But all the stunning camerawork, beautiful Technicolor, and perfectly framed shots in the world can’t make a dull movie interesting, and Under Capricorn is an awfully dull movie. Its origins as a stage play are painfully obvious. Michael Wilding turns in a one-note performance, Joseph Cotten seems to be phoning it in (he apparently referred to this film as “Under Corny Crap”), and only Ingrid Bergman and Margaret Leighton (in a small but juicy role) are any fun to watch.

However, any Alfred Hitchcock film is worth seeing at least once, and Under Capricorn is no exception. Not everyone finds it dull, either. The film has plenty of proponents, most notably Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French film magazine. In 1958, they named Under Capricorn one of the 10 best films ever made.

White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

Colorado Territory (June 11, 1949)

Colorado Territory
Colorado Territory (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most plot summaries of Raoul Walsh’s western Colorado Territory mention that it’s a remake of the great Warner Bros. gangster movie High Sierra (1941), but that fact is curiously absent from the opening credits.

The screenplay is credited to John Twist and Edmund H. North, but there’s no mention of W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel High Sierra, and there’s no mention of the earlier film.

This is strange, since the change of setting from the modern day to the Old West could almost qualify this as a “variation on a theme” rather than a straight remake, but there are so many scenes and characters that are nearly identical to scenes and characters in High Sierra.

I recently wrote a piece on producer Mark Hellinger for the annual “giant” issue of The Dark Pages, which was devoted this year to The Killers (1946). (You can order copies of The Dark Pages and subscribe here: http://www.allthatnoir.com/newsletter.htm).

Hellinger frequently worked with director Raoul Walsh at Warner Bros., so I went back and watched a bunch of their collaborations — The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941). (I still haven’t seen The Horn Blows at Midnight, though. Jack Benny made a running joke of it on his radio show, but it can’t be that bad, can it?)

Walsh was a great director who made unabashedly commercial films with a great sense of scope and memorable characters.

Mayo and McCrea

Colorado Territory isn’t ever listed among Walsh’s greatest achievements, but it’s a damned fine western that I think would be better regarded if it didn’t have such a generic title. If one were to scan through a list of westerns from 1949, Colorado Territory screams “B picture.” With a title like that, it easily could have been an RKO Radio Pictures western starring Tim Holt or a Republic Pictures western starring Roy Rogers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, an outlaw who escapes from jail and is on the run for most of the movie. (This is essentially the same as Roy Earle, the role Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, except that Earle was released from prison.) He hooks up with a couple of vicious characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are — Reno Blake (John Archer) and Duke Harris (James Mitchell) — and together they plan a daring train heist. (These two criminals were played in High Sierra by Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis.)

There’s also a beautiful woman to makes things complicated. Her name is Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), and she wears lots of flowing low-cut tops and Southwestern-style jewelry because she’s supposed to be part Pueblo. (This is essentially the character Ida Lupino played in High Sierra, although her fashion sense in that film was a lot more conservative.)

And of course, just like High Sierra, there’s a criminal mastermind behind the scenes of the heist and a sweet, innocent-seeming girl whom our criminal protagonist idolizes for a little while before coming to his senses and realizing that he belongs with a straight-up ride or die chick.

There is, however, no cute little stray dog or “comical Negro” character. (You take the good with the bad.)

In Walsh’s filmography, High Sierra will forever be regarded as the superior film. And in 1949, Walsh also directed his masterpiece White Heat, so Colorado Territory suffers by comparison in that department too. (Virginia Mayo is also in White Heat, and her role in that film is a lot meaner and juicier.)

One of the problems with remakes is that no matter how good they are, it’s nearly impossible to lose yourself in them if you’ve seen the original film, since they constantly evoke it. I like Joel McCrea and thinks he’s a great actor, especially in westerns. But he lacks the nastiness and cynicism Bogart had in High Sierra, which made his more human side stand out in such sharp relief.

On the other hand, when a remake differs from its source material, it can make certain scenes even more shocking and emotionally affecting than they would be on their own, since you’re really not expecting things to go down that way. Colorado Territory has a few bits like that, and it’s exciting and well-made enough to stand on its own.

Whiplash (Dec. 24, 1948)

Whiplash
Whiplash (1948)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Warner Bros.

Sometimes a good ending is all I need.

I enjoyed Whiplash, and there’s plenty of entertainment packed into its briskly paced 91 minutes, but it’s the ending that really got me. It was a mixture of gallows humor and farce that I didn’t see coming. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but it had me laughing like I haven’t laughed in a long time, and then chuckling and shaking my head at what I’d just laughed at.

Whiplash is a B noir that stars Dane Clark as a soulful, romantic artist named Michael Gordon who also happens to be pretty handy with his fists. If you think that’s a role that sounds tailor-made for John Garfield, you’re right. Michael Gordon is in many ways an amalgam of a couple of characters John Garfield played not long before this film; the rough-hewn but sensitive concert violinist in Humoresque (1946) and the tortured boxer in Body and Soul (1947).

Since this project wasn’t prestigious enough for an actor like Garfield at this point in his career, the producers and the studio went with the next best thing: Dane Clark. Like Garfield, Clark was a native New Yorker with an appealing mix of street smarts, physical toughness, and soft-eyed sensitivity.

The film co-stars several dependable performers from the Warner Bros. stable; Alexis Smith as the beautiful and mysterious woman who captures Michael Gordon’s heart, Eve Arden as Michael’s wise and acerbic gal-pal, Zachary Scott as the shifty-eyed and power-mad villain, Jeffrey Lynn as an alcoholic doctor haunted by his past, and S.Z. Sakall as the avuncular shopkeeper who proudly displays Michael’s paintings.

Dane Clark and Alexis Smith

The first act of the film takes place in California. Michael falls for a woman named Laurie Durant (Alexis Smith) after she buys one of his paintings. Their love affair burns hot, but she runs off one day without explaining what spooked her.

In the second act of the film, he follows her to New York City and eventually finds her singing in a nightclub. He soon discovers that she is married to a wheelchair-bound man named Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). Rex was a boxer before he was paralyzed, and he still has the sweet science in his blood. If he can’t compete in the ring, he’ll do the next best thing and manage fighters.

When Michael Gordon knocks out one of Rex’s bodyguards, he proves that he’s handy with more than just a paintbrush. Rex sees potential in the young man, and he and his crew rename him “Mike Angelo” to exploit the artistic angle, and they put him on the fight circuit.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Whiplash that’s never explored to its full potential, perhaps because of the Hays Code. Rex wants to use Mike’s body for his own purposes; as a surrogate fighter. His wife wants to use Mike’s body as a surrogate for Rex. This dichotomy of sex and violence could have made for a lurid and memorable film, but the sex stuff never really gets off the ground, especially after Laurie’s marital status is revealed. I also thought that splitting the action of the film between California and New York unnecessarily complicated the story.

Whiplash was more than lurid enough for the NY Times, however. In their review of the film, published December 27, 1948, they called it “a pointless exposition of brutality,” and went on to say that “if it’s plain, old fashioned mayhem that you desire, ‘Whiplash’ most likely will be to your liking. Otherwise proceed with caution.”

Modern viewers will probably find the brutality in Whiplash pretty ho-hum, but it’s a solid little B movie with a nice, noirish score by Franz Waxman and crisp black & white cinematography by J. Peverell Marley.

And, as I said, the ending is great.

Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.

Rope (Aug. 28, 1948)

Rope
Rope (1948)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

Did you know that actor Dick Hogan’s last role was playing a symbolic male orgasm?

It’s true. Hogan — previously mentioned in this blog for his role in Shed No Tears (1948) — was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope as murder victim David Kentley.

It’s an important role, but a thankless one. As Kentley, Hogan has no lines, and is offscreen for most of the film’s running time.*

After the film’s opening credits have rolled, we hear his scream, then see him with a rope wrapped around his neck at the moment he is dying. He’s being murdered by a pair of thrill-killers named Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who consider themselves “superior” and most everyone else — including their friend David — “inferior.”

Rope is based on a 1929 play written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. Brandon and Phillip are thinly veiled versions of Leopold and Loeb, the infamous thrill-killers who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy in an attempt to commit a “perfect crime.”

Leopold and Loeb were law students at the University of Chicago. Both came from wealthy families, and both had muddled ideas about Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” and their own superiority.

Long story short, their crime was far from perfect, and they were arrested and put on trial. Leopold and Loeb were represented by Clarence Darrow, who was a staunch opponent of capitol punishment. The jury found them guilty and the judge sentenced the two young men to life in prison for murder, plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate in 1936, but Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958, after 33 years in prison. He died in 1971 of natural causes.

Dick Hogan

But back to the fictionalization of their crime, and that symbolic male orgasm I mentioned at the beginning.

I’m sure some will accuse me of “reading too much into” the film or seeing something that isn’t there, but I think anyone who reads up on the Leopold and Loeb case and then immediately watches Rope will find it impossible not to notice the homosexual undertones. Also, Hitchcock is one of the most self-aware filmmakers of all time, and he was fascinating by unconventional sexuality.

The very first scene — the murder — is a symbolic orgasm shared by the murderers; strangled, intense, and shameful.

The murder is a stand-in for a sexual encounter between Brandon and Phillip. Phillip doesn’t want to turn the lights on right away. “Let’s stay this way for just a minute,” he says, and Brandon lights up a post-coital cigarette. “We couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight.”

This is about as explicit as a film from 1948 could be when exploring gay sex and gay desire.

Add to this the fact that the two young men are most in danger of being found out by book publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who was the boys’ headmaster in prep school. The theme of naughty little boys possibly being found out and punished by a boarding-school authority figure is just one of the many skillful pieces of homosexual innuendo that Hitchcock sprinkles throughout Rope.

Granger, Stewart, and Dall

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most impressive technical stunts. He filmed the action in long takes, like a play. Most of the cuts are necessitated by the length of film reels, and are done as seamlessly as possible (e.g., an actor passes in front of the camera, darkening the frame for a moment to facilitate a cut). Most of the action of Rope takes place during a dinner party at Brandon and Phillip’s apartment. They’ve arranged a buffet on top of the trunk in which David Kentley’s corpse has been hidden.

I don’t normally like films adapted from plays, but I love Rope. Stage plays are very different from screenplays, and I think the problem with most play-films is that something seems very, very “off” about the dialogue and the way the characters appear, disappear, and reappear in physical space. By filming Rope exactly like a play, however, Hitchcock ironically created a very exciting movie that works extremely well. There’s a creepy sense of intimacy created by the single setting and the actors all playing off each other without a cut every few seconds. And of course, the fact that every line in the film is colored by the viewer’s knowledge that the corpse of David Kentley is hidden away under everyone’s nose.

The way the film moves from day to night is eerie and impressive, too. The backdrop of the film is an enormous window that looks out over Manhattan, and as the film moves forward in time the sky grows darker and lights come on in the buildings and smoke curls from little smokestacks.

Rope should be seen at least once by everyone who has any interest in how films are made. And for people who love Hitchcock’s gruesome playfulness and gallows humor, it’s a film to be savored over and over.

*Interestingly, Hogan has a speaking role in the film’s trailer, but never utters a word in the film itself. Hitchcock’s films always had some of the most inventive trailers, and Rope is no exception:

Key Largo (July 31, 1948)

Key LargoJohn Huston’s Key Largo was the fourth and final film Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart made together.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Bogie and Bacall are one of the most famous couples — perhaps the most famous couple — in Hollywood history. And yet, their onscreen work together boils down to just four films made over the course of five years: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo.

Key Largo is very loosely based on the 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. I often don’t like films adapted from plays. The dialogue and the way the characters enter and re-enter the action usually feels very strange. But Key Largo never feels “stagey,” and confining the action to a single location only heightens the tension between the characters.

The film opens with beautiful footage of the Florida Keys. By opening with establishing shots of the steamy, summertime Keys, by the time the action is confined to a hotel while a hurricane rages outside, nothing about Key Largo feels stagey or stilted. The viewer is right in the middle of the action, and the suspense grows as the film goes on.

Summertime is the off season in the Florida Keys, when the mercury never dips below 100 degrees, and all the hotels are closed. Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a veteran of World War II who is in Key Largo to visit James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound man whose son George was killed in the war. (McCloud was George Temple’s commanding officer.) Temple runs a hotel in Key Largo with George’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall).

When Bogart sits down at the bar in the Largo Hotel, he laconically introduces himself to the boozy moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) as “McCloud. Frank. By John, out of Ellen.”

Gaye is not the only oddball occupant of the Largo Hotel. There are also a trio of men — Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), and Toots (Harry Lewis) — and with names like those, it’s clear that their story about coming down to the Keys from Milwaukee to do a little fishing isn’t on the up-and-up.

The full terror of the situation becomes apparent when we catch our first glimpse of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), sitting in a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms of the hotel, chewing a cigar and exuding menace.

Robinson is a great actor, and Johnny Rocco is one of his most memorable creations. Rocco craves power and money, and there will never be enough power and money to satisfy him. He delights in toying with his hostages, taunting them with their helplessness. He even goes so far as to give one of them a pistol, daring them to kill him. But his bullying takes all forms. One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is when he humiliates Gaye by forcing her to sing for everyone before he’ll give her another drink. And like most bullies, Johnny Rocco is a coward at heart. As the hurricane builds in ferocity outside the hotel, so does his fear.

Key Largo was John Huston’s second film to be released in 1948. (The first was another collaboration with Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Key Largo is a masterfully directed film. The actors are all at the top of their game (Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role). The film’s music, by Max Steiner, is perfect; full of tension and menace, and — when the scene calls for it — a crushing sense of inevitability. Rudi Fehr’s editing accentuates the tension, and Karl Freund’s cinematography is beautiful.

Silver River (May 18, 1948)

Silver River
Silver River (1948)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Silver River, which was directed by Raoul Walsh, premiered in Denver on May 18, 1948, and in New York City two days later.

Walsh’s last couple of pictures — Pursued (1947) and Cheyenne (1947) — were both westerns. Silver River takes place after the Civil War, and it’s set in the west, but in terms of action, it doesn’t deliver what I look for in a western. It’s more of a drama, and in fact bears more resemblance to one of Warner’s gangster dramas that it does to a typical Warner Bros. western.

Like Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), Silver River is about a man who takes control of anything and everything around him, wielding his own ruthlessness as a weapon.

Like every good gangster, Michael J. McComb (Errol Flynn) has a faithful right-hand man, “Pistol” Porter (Tom D’Andrea), and he lusts after a woman he can never really attain. And just like every other movie gangster, he finds that once he’s on top, he’s lonelier and more isolated than ever.

When the film begins, McComb is a captain in the Union Army. During the Battle of Gettysburg he burns a wagon-load of payroll money so Jeb Stuart and the Confederates won’t be able get their hands on it. He does this in defiance of an order, so he is court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

McComb learns his lesson and says, “If there’s gonna be any shoving around, next time I’ll do it.”

Sheridan and Flynn

So after a stint as a riverboat gambler — in which we get to see Flynn deliver a lot of smooth lines like, “…and speaking of charming ladies,” before he drops four Queens on the table to beat his opponent’s trio of Aces — he and his buddy Pistol move their operation to Silver City and open a casino. The casino rakes in cash hand over fist, which allows McComb to force his way into the Silver River Mining Company run by Stanley Moore (Bruce Bennett).

What McComb really wants, though, is Moore’s wife, the beautiful Southern belle Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan).

McComb’s lawyer, John Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell), drunkenly warns McComb against the path he’s headed down, and invokes the Biblical story of King David and his obsession with Bathsheba.

After a number of Warner Bros. pictures starring Errol Flynn suffered costly delays when he became too drunk by the afternoon to continue, Jack Warner was determined that Flynn be kept under control, and he made it clear that any delay in filming due to Flynn’s inebriation would be met with legal action.

I don’t know if Flynn’s controlled but uninspired performance is directly related to his forced sobriety, but throughout the film he seems as if he’s just going through the motions. He hits his marks, but that’s about it. Walsh does a good job of controlling his star and keeping everything moving, but after the pyrotechnics of the opening sequence and the breezy charm of the riverboat gambling scenes, the film settles in for a long melodramatic slog, and there just wasn’t enough action to keep me interested. Worse, when there finally is some action to end the film, it feels like a betrayal of the narrative, and isn’t true to Flynn’s character’s arc.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Jan. 24, 1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Directed by John Huston
Warner Bros.

In his review of Elmore Leonard’s 1995 novel Riding the Rap, Martin Amis wrote that “Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner’s Tales, in which Death roams the land — usually Miami or Detroit — disguised as money.”

The same could be said of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but instead of the duffel bags full of cash found in Leonard’s hard-boiled crime novels, money in this film takes the form of gold.

The gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t just a disguise for death, either; it’s the impetus for all manner of human striving and weakness, and brings out the best and the worst in the men who seek it.

As for the film itself, it mostly brings out the best in all of its actors. Neither Humphrey Bogart nor Tim Holt are completely able to shed their well-worn personas, but the same cannot be said of Walter Huston, the director’s father, who is pitch-perfect in his role. (Also, it’s likely that many people who watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre today will have never seen Tim Holt in any of his countless B westerns and therefore have little trouble accepting him in his role.)

Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, a man who finds himself penniless in Tampico, Mexico. He meets fellow American drifter Bob Curtin (Holt) and together they get jobs working in the oilfields, but their unscrupulous employer runs off without paying them, leaving them back where they started. However, luck smiles on them, and after winning a little money they hook up with an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and head for the Sierra Madre mountains to mine their fortune. Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin of the dangers of “gold fever,” but they both claim they’ll deal with their windfalls sensibly if they strike it rich.

No points will be awarded first-time viewers who correctly predict that the protagonists will both strike it rich and succumb to greed and paranoia.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on the 1927 novel by the mysterious author “B. Traven.” Little is known about the possibly German-born novelist who probably lived most of his life in Mexico, which is where most of his fiction is set. According to the February 2, 1948, issue of Time, Traven was paid $5,000 for the screen rights to his novel. Traven was such a mysterious figure that although director Huston frequently corresponded with him, when it came time to meet Traven, a nervous translator named “Hal Croves” showed up in his place, claiming to be a close friend of Traven’s. Huston hired Croves as a technical adviser on the film, paying him $150 a week. Huston strongly suspected (but could never conclusively determine) that “Croves” was really Traven.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was nominated for four Oscars — best picture, best director, best supporting actor for Walter Huston, and best screenplay. It won every Academy Award for which it was nominated except for best picture.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great film. It’s also one of those rare movies — like Casablanca — that even people who “don’t like old movies” will usually enjoy. It has excellent pacing, an involving story, and believable characters, but most importantly, it has authenticity. It was filmed mostly on location in Mexico, and the Mexican characters actually speak Spanish. It’s ironic that this is the movie that gave us the most enduringly stereotypical “Mexican” line — “I don’t have to show you any steenking batches!” — because it’s one of the few films from the ’40s in which Mexican characters actually speak Spanish, and without even subtitles to make things easier on a gringo audience.

The Voice of the Turtle (Dec. 25, 1947)

The first thing you should know before you watch Irving Rapper’s The Voice of the Turtle (or One for the Book, its title when it’s shown on TV) is that in 1947, the phrase “make love to” didn’t mean “have sexual intercourse with,” which is more or less what it means today. In the ’40s it was a nebulous expression that could mean anything from “pitching woo” to “heavy petting,” but didn’t explicitly refer to P to V contact.

So when pretty young struggling actress Sally Middleton (Eleanor Parker) says, “I was raised to think no nice girl let a man make love to her unless … unless it was serious — I mean, sort of marriage — otherwise you’d be cheapening yourself,” she’s not talking about making the beast with two backs.

Or is she?

It’s hard to say, because Rapper’s film is a sanitized version of one of the longest running plays in Broadway history. The Voice of the Turtle opened in 1943 and was nearly at the end of its run when the film version came out. John Van Druten’s play was a funny and frank look at the sexual lives of young New Yorkers during World War II. Clearly the story of a nice young man and a nice young woman who decided to go to bed together couldn’t be made into a Hollywood film without some alterations. Or, as the review of the film in the December 15, 1947, issue of Time put it, “The movie is most coyly prurient where the play was most pleasantly candid.”

Van Druten adapted his play for the screen, and even though it contains the obligatory concessions to the Hays Code, I found it enjoyable, funny, and charming. As someone who grew up with President Reagan, it’s always a little weird seeing him as a younger man, since there are so many things about his physical appearance and line delivery that literally never changed over the course of four decades.

Even though he was 36 when he appeared in The Voice of the Turtle, Reagan still had the slightly high voice, nervous smile, and “aw shucks” attitude that exemplified youthful masculinity in the ’40s.

Other than that and a few missing wrinkles, however, I felt as if he could have been telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” or explaining the Strategic Defense Initiative to his fellow Americans.

But I digress. In any case, I liked Reagan as the good-natured Sgt. Bill Page, who’s pushed aside at the last moment by the worldly Olive Lashbrooke (Eve Arden) for the lunkheaded Commander Ned Burling (Wayne Morris). Bill ends up staying at Sally’s apartment over the long Christmas weekend after he can’t find a hotel in Manhattan. (Eve Arden played the heroine’s best gal pal in more movies than Randolph Scott played cowboys or Keye Luke played Chinamen, but here she gets to play a role with a little bite. She’s not a total jerk, but she clearly cares more about herself than she does about her friend.)

Despite a few inserted scenes that are meant to imply that Bill and Sally don’t really engage in any heavy hanky-panky (those scenes can easily be ignored, if you so wish), I thought The Voice of the Turtle was a funny and enjoyable look at two likable young people who fall in love with each other despite each having a broken heart and a reluctance to mend it.

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