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Tag Archives: William Bendix

The Big Steal (July 9, 1949)

The Big Steal

The Big Steal (1949)
Directed by Don Siegel
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer starred in my favorite film noir of all time, Out of the Past (1947). It’s not everyone’s favorite film noir, but I think most noir aficionados would at least put it in their top 10.

The Big Steal probably isn’t in too many noir fans’ top 10 lists, but it’s a damned good picture. I actually don’t think it’s a noir at all, even though it’s often classified as one. (It’s available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 box set.)

Except for the noir-heavy power of the two leads and the presence of lovable film noir lummox William Bendix as a heavy (as well as the fact that the MacGuffin of the film is a large sum of money), there’s really nothing “noir” about The Big Steal.

The Big Steal is a fast-paced chase movie set in the sun-drenched countryside of Mexico. Robert Mitchum plays a US Army lieutenant named Duke Halliday who’s been accused of stealing a military payroll. On his trail is Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix). The film opens with Capt. Blake catching up to Duke on a ship docked in Veracruz, but Duke quickly gets the upper hand and goes on the lam with Blake’s identification papers.

Duke has a “meet cute” scene with American tourist Joan Graham (Jane Greer). She thinks he’s a boor; he thinks she’s a scold. She speaks Spanish; what he speaks barely qualifies as “Spanglish.”

They go their separate ways. She goes to the hotel room of her ne’er-do-well fiancé Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles) and demands he return the $2,000 he “borrowed” from her. Fiske slips away while she’s in the shower and Duke shows up, looking for Fiske, since Fiske has a lot more money than Joan realizes.

At just 71 minutes long, this is a movie that doesn’t waste any time. Duke and Joan are chasing Fiske, and Capt. Blake is chasing Duke and Joan. Mexican police officials Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro) and Lt. Ruiz (Don Alvarado) are chasing all four of them, with no particular urgency.

There’s plenty of action. Siegel keeps the tone light, but when there’s gunplay or a fistfight, it’s swift and tough, which is as it should be.

Mitchum and Greer

While I love Jane Greer in Out of the Past, her character in that film is a classic femme fatale — icy and unknowable. Her role in The Big Steal is more similar to the screwball comediennes of the 1930s. Greer and Mitchum have an easy chemistry, trading barbs and falling for each other along the way. He cracks wise about women drivers, and later she gets to show him exactly what a woman driver can do in a high-speed chase on a twisty mountain road.

Oh, and there’s one more connection with Out of the Past. The Big Steal is based on Richard Wormser’s story “The Road to Carmichael’s,” but the screenplay is by Gerald Drayson Adams and Daniel Mainwaring. Daniel Mainwaring also wrote the screenplay for Out of the Past, which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High.

Don Siegel was a craftsman who had a long career in Hollywood. He directed some of my favorite films of all time, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971), but there are a ton of his films I haven’t seen. I’ve seen his first film, a short called Star in the Night (1945), which is a sweet little Christmas parable starring J. Carrol Naish. I haven’t seen his next few films, the documentary short Hitler Lives (1945), the mystery feature The Verdict (1946), or the romantic melodrama Night Unto Night (1949), which starred Ronald Reagan and Viveca Lindfors (who was married to Siegel from August 10, 1949, to May 26, 1954).

Watching The Big Steal reminded me just how much I love Siegel’s films, and made me happy that I still have so many left to see.

Race Street (Aug. 22, 1948)

Race StreetYou know what would be a great drinking game for a designated driver to play? Watching Race Street and taking a shot every time George Raft changes his expression.

Raft had no range as an actor, but he did play well with others. When paired with good performers, Raft had real chemistry with them. For instance, my favorite scene in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) is when Ann Dvorak does a sexy, playful dance to try to get a reaction out of Raft. He remains stone-faced, but there’s always a twinkle in his eye.

As an actor, Raft got a lot of mileage out of that twinkle in his eye. Even though he mostly played his characters as expressionless tough guys, his eyes always made it seem as if he was taking in everything around him.

The other thing Raft brought to the table as an actor was a whiff of real-life criminality. He was well-known for his associations with gangsters like Owney Madden, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, which added another dimension to roles like the one he plays in Race Street.

In Race Street, Raft plays a bookie named Dan Gannin. Gannin hides his illegal betting operation behind a respectable facade as an investor. Despite his criminal endeavors, he has an easy friendship with a police detective, Lt. Barney Runson (William Bendix). Lt. Runson knows that his friend Dan is a bookie, but they’re childhood friends, and not much trumps that.

Gannin’s other childhood friend in the film, a fellow bookie named Hal Towers (Harry Morgan), needs a little more taking care of than Runson, and when he begins running afoul of thugs in a protection racket, it’s easy to see that things are going to get complicated for Gannin, who is the standard “nice guy who just wants to go straight” character we’ve seen in a thousand crime movies.

On the distaff side of Gannin’s life is his beautiful sister Elaine (Gale Robbins), a leggy dancer and nightclub singer with whom he’s opening a nightspot called the Turf Club. There’s also a new lady in his life, a brunette named Robbie Lawrence (Marilyn Maxwell).

Race Street was directed by Edwin L. Marin, who directed a bunch of B pictures for RKO with George Raft, including Nocturne (1946), which I enjoyed quite a bit.

As I said above, Raft isn’t the most engaging actor in the world, but he turned in watchable performances when he had a good supporting cast and a decent script, and Race Street succeeds on both counts. I especially liked William Bendix in this film. Bendix was as good at playing comic buffoons as he was at playing sinister villains, and he could do everything in between.

Race Street also has plenty of beautiful footage of San Francisco. A lot of it’s obviously stock footage, but it’s integrated into the film well. This is clearly a B movie, but no studio made B-grade film noirs as well or as consistently as RKO Radio Pictures.

The Web (May 25, 1947)

The Web is a classic case of mediocre material made incredibly entertaining by an excellent cast and a good director. The film’s plot may be run-of-the-mill, but the film itself is never boring.

The exciting opening takes the viewer along the busy Manhattan streets and overpasses that lead to Grand Central Station and culminates in a tearful reunion between an old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), and his daughter Martha (Maria Palmer). Kroner has just been released from prison, and he is surprised that “Mr. Colby” didn’t come to meet him at the train station. The viewer immediately knows that something sinister is going on, because we see a mug trailing Kroner and his daughter through the train station.

Next, we meet brash young attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O’Brien), who’s trying to force his way into Andrew Colby Enterprises to see the man in charge. When he pushes through several sets of doors and finally meets Noel Faraday (Ella Raines), he demands to see Mr. Colby. When she’s asks what his business with Mr. Colby is, he says, “Well, he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, and I’d like to find out what his intentions are.” When Noel tells him that she’s Mr. Colby’s personal secretary, he responds, “Well that just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stocking seams straight.”

Their dialogue continues in this vein for the rest of the picture. Regan is the kind of person who would be known today in some circles as a “jerk,” and if he said half the things he says in The Web during working hours he’d be sued for sexual harassment.

But he’s also a tireless crusader for his clients, which becomes clear when he finally comes face to face with Andrew Colby, who’s played with smooth, villainous charm by the one and only Vincent Price. Regan is there to serve him with a summons on behalf of his client, Emilio Canepa (Tito Vuolo). As a result of Colby’s negligent driving, Canepa’s pushcart and load of bananas were damaged to the tune of $68.72.

Colby sees in Regan’s bullheaded doggedness an opportunity, and offers Regan a $5,000 retainer to come and work for him. Colby tells Regan that five years ago, his business associate Leopold Kroner took nearly $1 million worth of bonds belonging to Colby’s firm, made duplicates, and sold the counterfeit bonds. He was caught and sent to prison, but now that Kroner has been released, Colby claims he’s been threatening him. Colby has a big deal coming up, and he doesn’t want it known that his life is being threatened. If he hired a bodyguard, it would become public knowledge.

If he just hired another lawyer, however, no one would think twice. All Colby asks of Regan is that he work for him for two weeks as a bodyguard and tell no one what he’s doing.

If you know what the word “patsy” means, you’ll probably have no difficulty figuring out what Colby really wants Regan for.

Rounding out the excellent main cast is William Bendix as Lt. Damico, Regan’s friend on the force. Bendix was equally adept at playing tough guys and clowns, and he gets to flex both his dramatic and comic acting muscles as the long-suffering Damico, who’s a lot wiser than Regan gives him credit for.

Even though he’s the protagonist, O’Brien is probably the weakest link in the film. Regan isn’t a very interesting character, and he’s mostly only good for one-liners, but at least they’re decent one-liners. O’Brien’s innuendo-laced banter with Raines isn’t quite Tracy-Hepburn or Bogie-Bacall, but it’s clever and fast-paced enough to satisfy discriminating noir fans, and Raines’s dark beauty and way with a retort elevate their exchanges.

The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (based on a story by Harry Kurnitz) really crackles in the dialogue department, which makes up for the pedestrian plot. Director Michael Gordon keeps things moving along nicely, and delivers a satisfying final product. The Web might not be a classic film noir, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

I’ll Be Yours (Feb. 2, 1947)

I really liked I’ll Be Yours, and not just because it stars my time-travel girlfriend, Deanna Durbin. It’s a light and frothy romantic comedy — hardly my favorite genre — but the performers are appealing, the humor is genuinely funny, and the musical numbers are great.

Durbin herself can’t be counted among the film’s fans. She retired from acting at the age of 27, after a 12-year career in the movies, and retired to France with her husband. In an interview with David Shipman in 1983, Durbin called her last four films — I’ll Be Yours, Something in the Wind (1947), Up in Central Park (1948), and For the Love of Mary (1948) — “terrible.”

I imagine that Durbin’s negative assessment of her last several films was at least partly due to her dissatisfaction with Hollywood. If she was yearning for a “normal” life and looking for a sign that she should continue acting, I’ll Be Yours is neither groundbreaking nor artful enough to qualify. But if you’re a fan of Deanna Durbin, I’ll Be Yours is wonderful entertainment. She’s as lovely and appealing in it as she was in everything else, and her singing voice was unparalleled among Hollywood ingenues.

In I’ll Be Yours, Durbin plays a naive, wide-eyed young woman with the unwieldy name of Louise Ginglebusher who leaves her hometown of Cobleskill, NY, for a life of excitement in Fun City. While eating lunch on a ridiculously tight budget, she’s befriended by a cranky but kindhearted waiter named Wechsberg (played by William Bendix, another performer who was able to overcome mediocre material).

She’s given a job as an usherette in a palatial movie house by a fellow native of Cobleskill, Mr. Buckingham (Walter Catlett), and shown kindness by a young and handsome lawyer named George Prescott (Tom Drake) who sports an unfortunate Van Dyke beard.

After Wechsberg sneaks Louise into a swanky party he’s working at the Savoy Ritz, she’s snookered into performing a musical number by a philandering millionaire named J. Conrad Nelson (Adolphe Menjou). Naturally, she pulls it off with aplomb, and the song she sings — “Granada” — is a high point of the film.

This leads to J. Conrad Nelson offering Louise a starring role in the Broadway musical he’s financing, but to fend off his advances she invents a husband for herself. In doing so, she underestimates the tenacity of Nelson’s libido. Nelson demands to know who her husband is so he can be put on his payroll and eventually be bought off and done away with.

Forced to produce a husband, Louise turns to Prescott, but his old-man beard will have to go.

All of this is ridiculous, of course, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining vehicle for a quartet of appealing performers. And the music is wonderful.

Felix Jackson wrote the script, which was adapted from Preston Sturges’s The Good Fairy (1935), which was based on a play by Ferenc Molnár. William A. Seiter directed the film.

The Dark Corner (April 9, 1946)

If someone were to say to me, “What exactly is a film noir? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” I might direct them to Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Not because it’s the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but because it contains so many “noir” elements; a tough-talking P.I. and his sexy secretary, blackmail, frame-ups, violence, creative use of shadows and low-angle shots, and a plethora of quotable tough-guy dialogue like “I can be framed easier than Whistler’s mother.” It’s also not a picture that’s attained the status of a true “classic” like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946), so no one’s going to be distracted by great acting, iconic characterizations, or a brilliant storyline. This is pulp. Pure and unvarnished.

I love pulpy noir, so I really enjoyed The Dark Corner. On the other hand, I first saw this movie less than a decade ago, and only remembered one scene, in which one character pushes another out of a skyscraper window and then calmly walks to his dentist appointment. I have pretty good recall, especially when it comes to films, but I didn’t remember anything about this movie, not even after watching it again. Nothing came back. And I have a feeling that I won’t remember much about it 10 years from now, either.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the heck out of it while I was watching it. Mark Stevens isn’t an actor who ever made a big impression on me, but he’s a passable lead. As private investigator Bradford Galt, he delivers his lines with the speed and regularity of a gal in the steno pool pounding the keys of a Smith Corona typewriter. Galt is the kind of guy who makes himself a cocktail by grabbing two bottles with one hand and pouring them into a highball glass together. He’s also the kind of guy who probably wouldn’t do well in today’s litigious corporate environment. When he tells his newly hired secretary Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) that he’s taking her out on a date, she asks, “Is this part of the job?” He responds, “It is tonight.”

It turns out that he’s (mostly) telling the truth, and the reason he’s taking her out on the town is to draw out a tail he’s spotted; a big mug in a hard-to-miss white suit played by William Bendix. Their date was one of my favorite sequences in the movie. There’s a lot of great location footage of New York in The Dark Corner, but the scenes in the Tudor Penny Arcade take the cake. I don’t know if any of the scenes in the arcade were shot in back lots, but the batting cages, the Skeebowl, and the coin-operated Mutoscopes with titles like “Tahitian Nights” and “The Virgin of Bagdad” all looked pretty authentic.

Once Galt gets his hands on the guy tailing him and roughs him up for information, the plot kicks into gear. Bendix’s character, “Fred Foss,” is a heavy who claims to have been hired by a man named Jardine. Galt starts to panic as soon as he hears the name. Jardine was Galt’s partner when he was a P.I. in San Francisco. Jardine had Galt framed, which led to Galt doing two years in the pokey. Jardine (played by the blond, German-accented Kurt Kreuger) is now in New York, but still up to his old tricks, seducing married women and running blackmail schemes. The current object of his affection, Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs), is married to the effete art dealer Hardy Cathcart, who is played by Clifton Webb. In The Dark Corner, Webb essentially reprises his role from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944); another film noir in which a painting of a beautiful brunette played a major role.

I won’t summarize the Byzantine plot any further, but it should go without saying that all the pieces tie together. As I said, The Dark Corner isn’t the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty enjoyable to watch, and it looks fantastic. The dialogue is especially cracking, and consistently verges on the ridiculous. For instance, when Cathcart tells Foss (who is on the phone with Galt) to tell Galt that he wants $200 to leave town, Foss repeats the information to Galt by saying, “I need two yards. Powder money.”

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