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Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Undercover Man (March 21, 1949)

The Undercover Man
The Undercover Man (1949)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Columbia Pictures

The Undercover Man is a tightly paced, hard-driving procedural that grabbed me from the first few minutes and never let go. It’s a fictionalized version of the federal case against Al Capone in which Capone not only never appears onscreen, his name is never spoken aloud. He’s referred to simply as “The Big Fellow,” even in newspaper headlines.

Director Joseph H. Lewis’s two most enduring films — Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) — lay ahead of him, but he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and had directed more than two dozen pictures (mostly westerns) before he directed The Undercover Man. The only one I’ve seen is The Swordsman (1948). I never thought I’d enjoy a Technicolor swashbuckler starring Larry Parks that took place in the Scottish highlands, but I really enjoyed The Swordsman.

Lewis made stylish films with great pacing. The Undercover Man has a standard story and stock characters, but it kept me involved because it’s paced really well. It’s loosely based on the career of Treasury agent Frank J. Wilson, who was involved with the 1931 prosecution of Al Capone and investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping. The film takes place in the present day, however, and isn’t specifically about Capone.

Whitmore and Ford

Glenn Ford plays a fictionalized version of Frank J. Wilson, named “Frank Warren.” The title of the film is misleading, since Warren doesn’t go undercover. The only “undercover man” in the film is a contact of Warren’s who’s gunned down by mobsters in the early going.

The film sticks to the tax evasion angle of the Capone case, and most of the drama involves Warren poring over financial records and butting heads with The Big Fellow’s crooked attorney, Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley). So if you’re looking for an accountant who picks up a shotgun and blasts mobsters by the dozen, like Charles Martin Smith does in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), then you might find The Undercover Man pretty boring.

But if you’re looking for a hard-nosed flick about cops and criminals made in a semi-documentary style, you can’t go wrong with The Undercover Man.

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The Quiet Duel (March 13, 1949)

The Quiet Duel
The Quiet Duel (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Daiei Motion Picture Company

The Quiet Duel is not one of director Akira Kurosawa’s major works. Most reviewers treat it as a lamentable, melodramatic footnote in his career, but I don’t think that’s fair.

Unlike No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), which I think all but the most dedicated Kurosawa completists can skip, The Quiet Duel is worth seeing at least once if you’re a Kurosawa fan. It also functions as a thematic bridge between two of Kurosawa’s major early works, Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949).

Like both of those films, The Quiet Duel pairs two of the director’s most dependable stars: Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. It shares with Drunken Angel the theme of a doctor who struggles with his own conscience, and it presages the major theme of Stray Dog — two young men who face the same difficult circumstances but who make very different ethical decisions.

Mifune and Shimura are always interesting to watch when they’re on screen together, and if The Quiet Duel is their least interesting pairing in Kurosawa’s body of work, it’s only because most of their appearances together for Kurosawa were in films that are all-time classics.

The Quiet Duel (or The Silent Duel, as it’s also translated), is based on a play by Kazuo Kikuta. Mifune plays Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, a young physician who contracts syphilis when he cuts himself while performing surgery in a field hospital during World War II.

Mifune

After the war, he returns to work with his father, Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Shimura). Kyoji rejects his fiancée, Misao (played by Miki Sanjō), without an explanation. He treats himself with Salvarsan in total secrecy. (Salvarsan is the trade name for arsphenamine, the first effective treatment for syphilis.) And he struggles with his sexual desire and romantic longing, both of which he completely stifles so he won’t infect anyone else with his malady.

Later in the film, he again crosses paths with the man he operated on during the war. Unlike Kyoji, this man treats his syphilis as a trifling matter, and doesn’t care who else he infects (his wife is pregnant). We’ll see this moral theme again in Kurosawa’s next film, Stray Dog (1949), in which Mifune plays a young police detective whose gun is stolen. The “stray dog” of the title is a young man who suffered the same indignities and deprivations as Mifune following the war. Unlike Mifune, he chose to take his pain out on the world, and goes on a crime spree with Mifune’s gun.

Most of The Quiet Duel is pretty stagey, and the story is melodramatic. But when Mifune finally lets loose, he lets loose as only he could, and it’s something to behold. And while the film isn’t a great showcase for Kurosawa’s directorial talents, there are a few scenes — especially the surgery sequence that opens the film — that rank among the best work he did.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (March 9, 1949)

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Directed by Busby Berkeley
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By 1948, when Take Me Out to the Ball Game was filmed, legendary musical director Busby Berkeley was suffering from problems with alcohol and with his own temperament. No studio trusted him to both direct and choreograph a picture, so when he was given Take Me Out to the Ball Game to direct, the choreography was handled by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Just judging by what’s on screen, Berkeley had no problem putting together a fun, well-made Technicolor musical for M-G-M.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game reunited Frank Sinatra with Gene Kelly. The two had previously starred together in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Sinatra’s career had hit a bit of a lull in 1948, and M-G-M thought it would be a good idea to pair him with his co-star from the most financially successful film he’d ever made.

Sinatra plays Dennis Ryan, the second baseman of the baseball team The Wolves, and Kelly plays O’Brien, the shortstop. When Ryan and O’Brien aren’t playing baseball, they’re one of the most popular Vaudeville duos in the country. Take Me Out to the Ball Game takes place in 1909, so the notion of two professional baseball players also working as Vaudevillians is only half as ludicrous as it would have been in 1949.

When Ryan and O’Brien report for spring training in Sarasota, they find out that a new owner — K.C. Higgins — has inherited the team. None of the players are happy about this, and they all assume that this Higgins fellow will be a fathead who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball. Unsurprisingly, K.C. Higgins turns out to be a woman (see also Major League).

Of course, K.C. is a baseball whiz, and since she’s played by swimmer Esther Williams, she gets some time in the water, too. The first time Ryan and O’Brien see her cavorting in the hotel pool, one of them remarks, “Not bad for a dame who can field a hot grounder.”

Sinatra and Kelly

The comedy in Take Me Out to the Ball Game is passable, but it’s the singing and dancing that make a musical, and the picture succeeds on both counts. Kelly isn’t quite the singer Sinatra is, and Sinatra isn’t quite the dancer Kelly is, but the same magic they worked in Anchors Aweigh is onscreen here, and it’s a joy to watch.

The songs are all pretty good. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is heard more than once, and there are also highlights like “The Right Girl for Me,” which Sinatra croons to Williams in the moonlight, and “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day,” which Kelly sings while doing a jig, wearing a battered green hat, and brandishing a shillelagh.

If you listen to the lyrics of “Yes, Indeedy,” which is about loving and leaving gals across the country, you’ll catch a line about a lovesick Vassar girl who committed suicide after Sinatra loved her and left her, and a Southern belle who turned out to be 11 years old, which is why Gene Kelly had to leave her. The risqué things you can get away with really change from generation to generation, don’t they?

Just like in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), plenty of humor is wrung from Sinatra’s slender frame. We see him gorging himself on steak and buttered rolls to gain weight during spring training, as well as sucking down milkshakes like they’re water. But alas, he remains a beanpole, and the vivacious and lovesick Shirley Delwyn (played by Betty Garrett) is able to sling him over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry during one of their musical numbers together.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is, by all accounts, not as good as Kelly and Sinatra’s next collaboration, On the Town (1949), which I haven’t seen yet. But I enjoyed the heck out of it.

A Woman’s Secret (March 5, 1949)

A Woman's Secret
A Woman’s Secret (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

A Woman’s Secret is the third Nicholas Ray film I’ve reviewed on this blog, but it was the second film he directed.

Ray completed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market it. It premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

The success of Ray’s third film, Knock on Any Door (1949), led to his first two films being released in the United States in 1949 by a newly confident RKO Radio Pictures.

Of his first three pictures, A Woman’s Secret is easily the weakest, and is significant mostly because it’s how Ray met his second wife, actress Gloria Grahame.

After shooting wrapped, the two were married in Las Vegas on June 1, 1948. It was the second marriage for both of them. (They had to live in Nevada for the required six weeks before Grahame could get her quickie divorce from actor Stanley Clements). Before they divorced in 1952, Grahame starred in one of Ray’s greatest films, In a Lonely Place (1950), which also starred Humphrey Bogart.

A Woman’s Secret was a contract job for Ray. The screenplay was adapted from Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s 1946 novel Verpfändetes Leben (Mortgage on Life) by the film’s producer, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Ray had no script input, so it’s easy to write it off as a studio-imposed footnote in Ray’s career.

Gloria Grahame

A Woman’s Secret is a “women’s picture” wrapped in a mystery. It’s no In a Lonely Place, but it’s worth watching at least once.

The central relationship in the film is the one between Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) and her protégé, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). Marian is a singer who has lost her voice, and she’s completely shaped and guided Susan’s career, rechristening her “Estrellita.” One night, after the two argue bitterly, a shot rings out. Susan lies on the floor near death, a bullet lodged near her heart. Marian is holding the smoking gun, but this is a mystery picture, so don’t assume anything yet.

Most of the film’s plot unspools as a series of flashbacks as Susan lies in the hospital and the detective assigned to the case — Inspector Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) — tries to piece together the facts. He spends a good deal of time with composer and pianist Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), who is Marian’s boyfriend. Fowler also gets plenty of help from his wife, Mrs. Fowler (Mary Philips), who’s running an investigation of her own.

There are a lot of interesting things going on in A Woman’s Secret, but nothing really jells. The film is too crowded with plot and characters for the central relationship between Marian and Susan to ever be fully explored. Melvyn Douglas and Jay C. Flippen are fine performers, and both inject their two-dimensional characters with enough life to make their scenes interesting. Philips gets a juicy role as Inspector Fowler’s wife, and her nosiness isn’t just played for laughs. She actually knows what she’s doing, much to her husband’s chagrin.

Most people who write about Ray’s career either gloss over or completely ignore this film. There’s not much about it that fits in with his obsessions and themes. But despite a studio-imposed script, there are interesting themes and tensions bubbling below the surface. Grahame’s role as Susan/Estrellita in particular feels at home in Ray’s oeuvre. She’s a misunderstood, inarticulate, unhappy, and tragic outsider — a character type that would recur again and again in Ray’s films.

I Shot Jesse James (Feb. 26, 1949)

I Shot Jesse James
I Shot Jesse James (1949)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures / Screen Guild Productions

If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage. —Samuel Fuller

Maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller was shopping scripts around Hollywood when he met producer Robert L. Lippert. Lippert admired Fuller’s 1944 pulp novel The Dark Page and gave Fuller his first crack at directing.

The result was I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget but brilliant revisionist western starring John Ireland as Robert Ford, the member of the James gang who killed Jesse James and collected the bounty.

Fuller had a flair for the dramatic, and when shooting began on I Shot Jesse James, he discharged a round from his Colt .45 into the air instead of yelling “Action.”

Fuller made three films for Lippert, I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951). The budgets were tiny and the shooting schedules tight, but Lippert gave Fuller the freedom to make exactly the kind of movies he wanted.

Fuller wrote the script for I Shot Jesse James, and based it on an article by Homer Croy in American Weekly magazine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a roundly reviled historical figure (even if you have no sympathy for Jesse James, it’s hard not to instinctively dislike a man who shot his unarmed friend in the back for reward money).

John Ireland

John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a lovesick man who’s tired of life on the run and just wants to marry his girl, the beautiful actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He’s tempted by Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden’s offer of amnesty for any member of the gang who turns in Jesse James (Reed Hadley), dead or alive.

Fuller depicts the relationship between Jesse and Bob Ford as deeply homoerotic, although the stolid Hadley doesn’t seem aware of anything strange about sitting in a bathtub and asking his friend to scrub his back for him. It’s the tortured Ireland who appears to long for Jesse, and perhaps by killing him he’s killing a part of himself that he despises.

Nothing good comes from it, of course. When Ford tells Cynthy that his killing of Jesse James was legal, she responds in horror, “It was murder.”

He walks through the rest of the picture with a haunted, desperate look on his face. He appears in a stage show in which he reenacts the killing of Jesse James, he dodges bullets from glory-hungry gunmen, and he desperately tries to repair his relationship with Cynthy.

This film explores a lot of the same territory as Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which starred Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse James. The most poignant parts of both films show Ford facing his own terrible legacy, such as when he appears in the onstage reenactment or confronts a troubadour who sings hymns to his cowardice.

I Shot Jesse James has stock music and its minuscule budget is pretty obvious, but it’s a great portrait of a complicated historical figure. Samuel Fuller would go on to have a long and iconoclastic career, and while I Shot Jesse James is never numbered among his greatest works, it’s his opening salvo as a director, and it’s a powerful one.

Knock on Any Door (Feb. 21, 1949)

Knock on Any Door
Knock on Any Door (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Santana Pictures Corporation / Columbia Pictures

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Knock on Any Door was the third film Nicholas Ray directed, but it was the first of his films to have a wide theatrical release.

Ray directed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO didn’t know how to market it, and it premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

They didn’t know how to market his second film, either — A Woman’s Secret — which he directed in 1948.

However, They Live by Night had been screened privately for many actors and producers in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart was impressed by it, and he enlisted Ray to direct Knock on Any Door, the first film made by Bogart’s independent production company, Santana Pictures.

Knock on Any Door was an enormous success, and Ray’s earlier films soon found their way into theaters; A Woman’s Secret in March 1949, and They Live by Night in November 1949.

Bogart and Derek

The screenplay for Knock on Any Door, by Daniel Taradash and John Monks Jr., was based on the best-selling 1947 novel by Willard Motley, an African-American writer from Chicago.

Motley’s novel is the story of a young Italian-American named Nick Romano who went from being an altar boy to a career criminal after growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood and being cycled through the juvenile justice system.

In the film, “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is played by John Derek. It was Derek’s first credit for a motion picture, although he’d had small roles in a few films before it. The 22-year-old actor was pretty much the perfect choice to play a young hood called “Pretty Boy.”

Much is made of Derek’s good looks. When he’s put on trial for murdering a police officer, his lawyer, Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), makes sure to get as many women on the jury as he can.

Morton feels responsible for the man Romano has become, since his lackadaisical legal work for the Romano family when Nick was a young man doomed Nick’s father to prison. He wants to stack the jury with as many women as possible, since he believes they’ll be swayed by his cherubic face.

Morton’s argument in court is that while Nick Romano has a criminal past, he is innocent of the crime of murder. And because Morton feels partially responsible for Nick’s criminal career, he fights for him with everything he’s got.

Bogart and Derek

Knock on Any Door superficially resembles Call Northside 777 (1948), another movie set in Chicago about a man on a crusade to prove that a second-generation American accused of murdering a police officer has been railroaded. But there’s a major difference between Knock on Any Door and Call Northside 777, and it’s why I put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this review. “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is guilty.

I don’t know if this is obvious to some viewers. It wasn’t obvious to me. In fact, I felt so completely hoodwinked by Knock on Any Door that I couldn’t stop thinking about its climax after I watched it. Humphrey Bogart is such a likable protagonist, and his adversary — District Attorney Kerman (George Macready) — is so unlikable that I never once stopped to consider that Romano might actually be guilty. The film even sets up Romano as a handsome foil for the D.A., whose face is scarred. It’s strongly implied during all of the cross-examination scenes that Kerman is jealous of the young man’s good looks.

But then the film pulls the rug out from under the viewer. Not only does Romano finally break down on the stand and admit his guilt, but the last shot of the film is of Romano with the back of his head shaved, walking down a long corridor to the electric chair. I couldn’t believe it.

After Romano’s confession and before his walk to the death chamber, Bogart has a chance to speechify as only Bogart could. It’s a well-delivered speech about how crime is everyone’s fault when it’s grown in the Petri dish of the slums, but in the decades since Knock on Any Door was made, “Don’t blame me, blame society” has become a cliché.

The shouted message of the film didn’t have the same impact as the simple fact that I had grown to like Romano and was looking forward to seeing him found not guilty. When the film ended I felt betrayed and devastated.