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Category Archives: 1945

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.

Leave Her to Heaven (Dec. 19, 1945)

Can there be such a thing as a film noir in color? I don’t think there can, but the term noir has been so widely used, popularized, and bastardized that director John M. Stahl’s Technicolor adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’s novel Leave Her to Heaven, made during the heyday of noir in Hollywood, is often referred to as a rare instance of a film noir in color.

A year after she starred as the eponymous Laura (Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic that is also frequently referred to as a noir even though it really has very few characteristics of one, aside from being filmed in black and white), Gene Tierney created a memorably unhinged character named Ellen Berent.

When we first meet Ellen, the first thing we see is her beauty. Sitting across from novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) in the lounge car of a train, surrounded by green walls, her dark hair and pale face offset by her bright red lips, she looks like a porcelain doll come to life. Quickly, however, we notice something else. The way she is staring at him is predatory. The way she doesn’t speak for a long time after he answers a question is strange. She is beautiful, but there is something wrong with her. We can guess, however, that his relationship with Ellen won’t have a happy ending.

If only Richard saw what the audience can see. Of course, the audience also has the advantage of a framing device. In the first scene of Leave Her to Heaven, we see Richard return to Deer Lake, Maine. His friends and neighbors look at him strangely. As they whisper among themselves, we learn that he has just gotten out of prison after a two-year stint, but we don’t know what the charge was.

Most of the story is told in flashback. Beginning with the scene on the train, we see how Richard fell into Ellen’s clutches. After they disembark, they find that they are both guests at Rancho Jacinto, in New Mexico, where Ellen has gone to scatter her father’s ashes. After telling Richard several times how much he looks like her father (even though a framed photograph of the man looks nothing like Cornel Wilde), the scene in which the stone-faced Tierney rides a horse and scatters her father’s ashes in the mountains is one of the most striking in the picture. When Richard agrees to marry her soon after, it is at her urging. Marrying her is something he thinks he wants, but the words “Will you marry me” never escape his lips. He is caught in her web.

After their marriage, Ellen and Richard go away to his cabin in Maine. She resents the intrusion of anyone else into their lives, such as her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) or Richard’s younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is recovering from polio, and her resentment has deadly consequences.

Ellen is devious, but it’s not always clear how conscious she is of her own cunning. Although the other characters speak of how unnaturally close she was to her father, and how she loves with a childish ferocity that can be dangerous, the viewer is not privy to any deeper psychological insights. There are no scenes of her childhood or flashbacks to any trauma that might have precipitated her madness. It’s refreshing to have a character with sociopathic tendencies that have no pat explanation, but some insight into the jealousy that drives her might have helped flesh out the character.

So what is it that makes Leave Her to Heaven a film noir? The classification is a slippery one, and has become popular enough that nearly every black and white film from the ’40s that is not a musical or a comedy has been called a film noir at some point. In one of the first treatises on the subject, the 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified the five main facets of film noir. They said that it is “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” Over the years, the term film noir has grown to encompass certain stylistic elements as well. Stark black and white cinematography and unbalanced constructions that grew out of German Expressionism are both hallmarks of noir, as is a pervading sense of doom.

So does Leave Her to Heaven contain any of these elements? It certainly could be called “strange,” but it’s not particularly dreamlike. It’s not very erotic, either, since Ellen seems to capture Richard in a web that is more psychological than it is sexual. Her actions are sometimes cruel, but the picture as a whole is not terribly ambivalent. Ellen may arouse feelings of both pity and hatred in the viewer, but she is still presented in a straightforward way. She has no crises of conscience or confusion about what she wants. And the lush Technicolor cinematography really pushes Leave Her to Heaven out of the noir category.

Leave Her to Heaven is a melodrama with a couple of shocking scenes, a sociopathic main character, and a courtroom denouement that drags down the pacing of the picture, but which does feature an enjoyable performance by Vincent Price as one of Ellen’s old flames who is now a prosecutor. It is not a film noir, unless we can divorce style from content. The absence of black and white cinematography and a real sense of doom (or a truly unhappy ending) means that Leave Her to Heaven just doesn’t qualify as a film noir. Of course, this shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it. Whatever its genre, it’s an effective film with an interesting performance by a beautiful actress who didn’t exhibit a great deal of range in any of her roles, but who is chilling in this one.

Leave Her to Heaven was Twentieth Century-Fox’s highest grossing picture of the 1940s. Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for best cinematography in the color category.

Pillow of Death (Dec. 14, 1945)

Wallace Fox’s Pillow of Death, the sixth and final film in the Inner Sanctum Mysteries series, is a haunted house mystery, the kind that Charlie Chan and the Crime Doctor excelled at solving. It lacks the ghoulish fun of the Inner Sanctum radio show, and it’s the least memorable of the film series.

The film begins when attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) drops his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) off at her family home after another late night of preparing briefs at the office. The crotchety patriarch of the family, Sam Kincaid (George Cleveland) grumbles, “The Kincaid women never worked,” which is funny, considering the fact that his sister Belle (Clara Blandick) waits on him hand and foot, and he employs Amelia Kincaid (Rosalind Ivan), a poor relative from England, as his housekeeper.

When Fletcher returns home, the police are waiting for him in his living room. Capt. McCracken (Wilton Graff) and his men acted on a tip from a spiritualist named “Julian” (J. Edward Bromberg), who is sitting in Fletcher’s rocking chair like he owns the place. The police inform Fletcher that Julian had a psychic presentiment that one of his adherents, Mrs. Fletcher, had come to harm. When the police arrived at the Fletcher home, they found her murdered corpse. Fletcher is now the prime suspect.

After he’s questioned and released, Fletcher goes to the Kincaid home, as does Julian, and most of the rest of the film takes place there. Donna’s amorous teenaged neighbor Bruce (Bernard Thomas) keeps popping up, skulking around the grounds and saying little, as the bodies start piling up. The haunted house clichés come fast and furious, including a séance presided over by Julian, which gives the roly-poly character actor Bromberg free rein to tilt his head back, roll his eyes up in his head, and speak very, very slowly. It’s not quite entertaining enough to be called “campy,” but it comes close.

Unlike the previous films in the series, the supernatural element is poorly handled and its role in the story is never fully explained. In other Inner Sanctum films, and on the radio show, any supernatural hokum was usually debunked and explained away. Like pulling the mask off the monster at the end of Scooby-Doo, the explanations were sometimes preposterous, but they were usually clever, or at least fun. And since Pillow of Death a straightforward mystery, the lack of explanation seems more like a product of lazy writing than anything else.

Also, with a title like Pillow of Death I was expecting something more overtly supernatural, like a pillow cursed by Satan, or a talking pillow, or possibly even a pillow with a hole in it full of sharp teeth. Instead, an ordinary pillow is used at one point as a murder weapon, in an attempt to smother someone, but that’s it. Given the pillow’s limited role in the film, the title seems almost like a joke.

House of Dracula (Dec. 7, 1945)

House of Dracula followed in the footsteps of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944), Universal Studios’ earlier “monster mash” movies. It would be a few years before the genre descended into outright self parody, but House of Dracula is still campy and fun compared with the more serious scares of Universal classics like Dracula (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941).

The macabre goofiness begins with the opening credits, which drip down like blood dumped on the roof of an A-frame house, coalescing over a shot of a creepy old manse, high atop the cliffs on the shores of what looks suspiciously like the Pacific Ocean. Like most Universal horror movies, House of Dracula seems to takes place in “Europe,” but the details are vague, and everyone speaks English, even though the characters have names like Holtz (Lionel Atwill), Siegfried (Ludwig Stössel), and Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens).

The last time we saw John Carradine as a tall, white-haired, and mustachioed Count Dracula, he was burned up in the sun halfway through the running time of House of Frankenstein. How he came back to life is never explained. How he manages to walk into Dr. Edlemann’s castle without being invited in is also a mystery. But walk in he does, through an unlatched back door, and presents himself to Dr. Edlemann as “Baron Latos.” Dr. Edlemann is a scientific genius with a hunchbacked assistant named Nina (Jane Adams) and a basement full of crazy doodads and contraptions. He is also an expert on the affliction of vampirism. Dracula wants to be cured, and Dr. Edlemann agrees to help him.

The plot thickens when, one evening shortly after sundown but before the rise of the full moon, Dracula is receiving a blood transfusion from Dr. Edlemann in his basement laboratory. A nervous man named Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) appears in Dr. Edlemann’s waiting room. Like Dracula, he is looking for a cure. Dr. Edlemann’s pretty nurse, Miliza Morrelle (Martha O’Driscoll), tells Talbot he’ll have to be patient, but he refuses to wait. “There isn’t time!” he shouts, and runs out of the castle, directly to the nearest police station, where he convinces them to lock him up. He transforms into the dreaded Wolf Man while behind bars, which convinces Dr. Edlemann to take him on as a patient.

Luckily for Talbot, the doctor is also an expert on lycanthropy, and he has a pseudoscientific explanation for Talbot’s condition. Pressure upon certain parts of the brain, coupled with Talbot’s firmly held belief that the full moon can cause a change in his body, brings on self-hypnosis, and the glands that govern his metabolism get out of control. Surgery to enlarge the cranial cavity would be a long and dangerous process. Dr. Edlemann has a more sensible solution. He, Nina, and Miliza are growing a hybrid tropical plant that produces a mold that can soften substances composed of calcium salts, like bone, which will allow Dr. Edlemann to enlarge Talbot’s cranium without surgery. (It will also allow him to dissolve Nina’s hump, which he promises her he will do once Talbot is cured.)

Miliza refers to Talbot as a “young man,” and Dr. Edlemann calls him “my boy,” which are both strange appellations for a tired-looking 39-year-old alcoholic with slicked-back hair and a mustache. His behavior is also strange, but that’s standard operating practice for the Wolf Man’s human alter ego in a Universal horror movie.

After a setback, the impatient Talbot unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide by jumping from the cliffs. The doctor follows him down to one of the seaside caves, where he tells him the conditions are perfect for growing his mold spores, and not to despair. While in the caves, the plot thickens once again when Talbot and Dr. Edlemann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), buried in mud along with the skeleton of Dr. Niemann, who revitalized him back in House of Frankenstein. The villagers chased them into a pit of quicksand, and the mud flow brought them to the caves below Dr. Edlemann’s castle.

The altruistic Dr. Edlemann belts the monster down on an operating table, and wires him for revival, but his reasons for doing this are less clear than his reasons for helping Dracula and the Wolf Man. He says that to not do so would be murder, since the monster is man’s responsibility. (Presumably, if he could speak, the monster would say, “Please bring me back to life so I can destroy you, your laboratory, your home, and everything you’ve worked for.”) Nina and Talbot eventually manage to dissuade Dr. Edlemann from bringing the monster back to life. However, the monster is still hooked up and ready to be reactivated, like a loaded gun carelessly left lying on the floor of a mental institution.

Things start to go south at the halfway mark of House of Dracula, as they tend to when monsters mash. Dr. Edlemann doubles up on the transfusions he’s giving to Dracula, which leads to a fateful accident. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Count casts his hypnotic spell over Miliza, with whom he has a past.

I thought that House of Dracula was a more satisfying picture than House of Frankenstein. The way each monster is introduced is clumsy, but other than that the plot flows smoothly from beginning to end. It’s a spooky good time that doesn’t strain to fit all of its ghoulish pieces into its 67-minute running time.

The Bells of St. Mary’s (Dec. 6, 1945)

The Bells of St. Mary’s, Leo McCarey’s follow-up to his smash hit Going My Way (which won the Academy Award for best picture of 1944), premiered in New York City on December 6, 1945. It was one of the first really “respectable” sequels, and, like Going My Way, was nominated for Oscars in all the big categories; best picture, director, actor, and actress. (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend ended up taking home the awards for best picture, director, and actor, and Joan Crawford won the best actress award for Mildred Pierce.)

In The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby reprises the role of Father O’Malley, for which he won an Academy Award for best actor of 1944, and he is joined by Ingrid Bergman, the best actress winner of 1944 (for Gaslight). The talent pool might be heavy, but the film itself is pretty light. There’s a disease, but it’s not fatal; there’s a bunch of needy kids running around, but the word “orphan” is never heard; and the sisters are in danger of losing St. Mary’s, but keep your fingers crossed for a Christmas miracle.

Like a lot of sequels, The Bells of St. Mary’s sticks with the formula of its predecessor. Father O’Malley is still the new guy in town, he’s still freewheeling and freethinking, and he butts heads with the other members of the clergy. His foil in Going My Way was Barry Fitzgerald as a crotchety old Irish priest, and in The Bells of St. Mary’s it’s the luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict, a nun who was born in Sweden and raised in Minnesota. Bergman projects equal parts wisdom and naivete, and her performance is beatific enough, at least on the surface, to make up for what the role lacks in substance. The scene in which she masters the techniques of boxing by reading a book and then teaches the sweet science to a young boy who is being bullied is both funny and touching.

Crosby builds on his characterization of Father O’Malley. He’s a little older and wiser than he was in Going My Way, but not much else has changed. He’s still a “modern” thinker. He’s still a magnet for young girls in trouble, and if someone has a problem that can be solved with a song, he’s still happy to sit down at a piano and lend his golden pipes to the situation. Crosby will never be mistaken for Laurence Olivier, but he’s believable and charismatic in this picture. Enough so that he can deliver lines like, “If you’re ever in trouble, just dial ‘O’ … for O’Malley,” and not automatically trigger the viewer’s gag reflex.

The world of The Bells of St. Mary’s is much like our own, but the problems in it are solved with broad strokes and last-minute changes of heart instead of time and hard work. All it takes to mend a broken family is simply locating the wayward father, and getting a new parish is no harder than praying for it (and cajoling an old millionaire to donate his latest high-rise condominium).

Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s are both holiday classics, even though neither focuses too much on Christmas. There’s a cute scene in The Bells of St. Mary’s in which some very small children stumble and improvise their way through a rehearsal of a Christmas pageant, but that’s about it. Oh, and a year later, astute viewers will be able to spot The Bells of St. Mary’s on the marquee of the local movie house in Bedford Falls when Jimmy Stewart runs through downtown wishing everyone and everything a Merry Christmas at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Fallen Angel (Dec. 5, 1945)

Fallen Angel, Otto Preminger’s follow-up to his smash hit Laura (1944), was slapped around by critics and passed over by audiences, but it’s not a bad film. It’s just not involving or memorable in the ways Laura was, and it’s composed of a bunch of elements that never really coalesce.

Fallen Angel reunited Preminger with the star of his previous film, Dana Andrews, and a lot of my enjoyment in the film came from watching Andrews. He’s more of a focal point in Fallen Angel than he was in Laura, and he dominates every scene he’s in. Andrews was 5’10”, but he looks well over six feet in this picture. He’s rough-looking but charming, and imposing and tough without being wooden. At the same time, he projects bitterness and alienation, barely concealed behind a handsome mask. In short, he’s the embodiment of American post-war masculinity. Andrews’s co-stars are all good as well. And I can’t fault Preminger’s direction. The film looks great, and taken one scene at a time, it’s very good.

Where Fallen Angel failed to engage me was in its pacing and storytelling. I haven’t read the Marty Holland novel the film is based on, but Fallen Angel plays like an adaptation of a sprawling book in which each section of the plot is dutifully reenacted, as opposed to a terse adaptation in which unnecessary subplots and themes are jettisoned. When drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) is thrown off a bus in the small town of Walton, California, because he doesn’t have the $2.25 fare necessary to continue on to San Francisco, he stops in at a place called Pop’s Café. In the first few minutes of the film we’re introduced to all the major players; the phony spiritualist Professor Madley (John Carradine), whom Stanton used to shill for, hard-boiled ex-New York police detective Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), cafe owner Pop (Percy Kilbride), June Mills (Alice Faye), June’s spinster sister Clara (Anne Revere), and Pop’s pouting, sexy waitress Stella (Linda Darnell), whom every man in town seems to be obsessed with (and it’s not hard to see why).

The beginning doesn’t seem rushed, however, or as though too much information is being packed in. A lot of this can be credited to Preminger’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, who also worked with Preminger on Laura, and whose fluid tracking shots and crisp black and white cinematography are both a joy to watch. Eventually, however, the way certain characters dropped out of the picture left me feeling suspended. The grifting medium and his relationship with Stanton could have filled an entire picture (although I admit being partial to John Carradine), but he leaves town before too much time has passed. Later, when Stella is murdered, it happens off screen, and just as I felt her relationship with Stanton was starting to get juicy. His romance with June and Stella could have formed the classic “good girl/bad girl” film noir tension, but his romance with June doesn’t really get started until Stella’s ticket has been punched, and once that happens, Fallen Angel becomes more of a melodrama than a noir. It’s also a mystery, since we don’t know who killed Stella, but this aspect of the film doesn’t come to much, as the second half focuses more on Stanton’s courtship of the sheltered, naïve June, and the question of whether or not he really loves her or is just out to fleece her. Meanwhile, most viewers will have the number of suspects in Stella’s murder narrowed down to two suspects, neither of whom is a more interesting culprit than the other.

I’m probably making Fallen Angel sound worse than it is. Many modern viewers consider it a lost classic of film noir, or just a really great film that has been overlooked. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of Preminger or any of the principal actors. I found it disappointing, but that might change years from now with a second viewing.

Dick Tracy (Dec. 1, 1945)

Dick Tracy, directed by William Berke and starring Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, wasn’t the first filmed adaptation of the most famous detective in the funny pages. There had been four serials prior to it, all of which starred Ralph Byrd; Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941). The first one was also re-edited into a feature in 1937, which was a fairly common practice. These were B pictures, after all. If you had the footage, why not repackage it?

This film, however, took the character in a new direction. Played by Morgan Conway, Tracy is more believable as a real person than the way Byrd played him. Both embody aspects of the character, but they look nothing like each other. Byrd literally looked like a cartoon character. He had small, perfect features and intense eyes. But for me, his voice was too high and his nose too small to really convey the toughness of the character. Conway, on the other hand, is ugly and tough as nails. He looks like what I imagine Tracy might look like if he were a real person, although his nose is more of a “schnoz” than Tracy’s “beak.” He’s decent and brave, but still not above underhanded tricks to get his man. When we’re introduced to him, he’s interrogating a sweaty suspect named Johnny (Tommy Noonan). Tracy makes Johnny believe his mother has been killed so he’ll agree to roll over on someone. After Johnny spills the beans, Tracy admits to having tricked him. “It was the only way I could get you to talk and clear yourself at the same time,” he says. “All right boys, clean up Johnny and send him home.”

This film also features the full supporting cast of characters from Chester Gould’s daily newspaper strip, many of whom had been missing from earlier adaptations; Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his best girl Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), his adopted son Junior (Mickey Kuhn), and Chief Brandon (Joseph Crehan). Gould’s violent, gruesome world is handled well in this film. Its opening may be the darkest of any film based on a comic strip character made before 1970. A high-angle shot shows a man with his back to the camera, leaning against a light pole in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at night, smoking a cigarette. When a bus stops and a single, female passenger (Mary Currier) disembarks, he moves into the shadows. A tracking shot follows her as she walks across the street, then cuts to a static shot of the man’s shadow on a wall, and the viewer can see from the movement of his shadow that he is reaching into his breast pocket for something. This is followed by a tracking shot of the woman with the camera directly behind her, presumably showing his point of view. The woman walks down the sidewalk, her heels clacking. She looks nervous. She turns around. There is no one behind her. She keeps walking. Suddenly, a shadow falls across her and she screams. The man attacks her. There is a cut to a long shot of the street, which shows her body lying on the sidewalk and the man running away.

Dick Tracy discovers a note on the woman’s viciously mutilated body, demanding that $500 in small bills be left in a street sweeper’s trash can on the corner of Lakeview and Ash. The note is signed “Splitface.” The next morning, the mayor of the city (William Halligan) receives a similar note, demanding that $10,000 be paid out or the mayor will be “slashed to pieces.”

The murdered schoolteacher, the mayor, and another man who was killed by Splitface seemingly have nothing to connect them. Tracy and Patton investigate, and Tracy comes to the conclusion that Splitface is motivated by something other than money, since the murdered woman didn’t pay, but the murdered man did.

Dick Tracy has plenty of action, with Dick and Pat chasing down suspects on foot and in cars, but it doesn’t skimp on the investigations that lead them there. It’s not rigorous enough to qualify as a police procedural, but it doesn’t gloss over any details, and Conway’s acting style and line delivery are not unlike Jack Webb’s on Dragnet.

Devotees of the daily strip will probably quibble with details, but I thought this picture did a nice job of balancing the violence with over-the-top characters. There is a loony astronomer and fortune teller named Professor Starling (Trevor Bardette), a ghoulish undertaker named Deathridge (Milton Parsons), and of course the great character actor Mike Mazurki as the villain.

Dick Tracy is a one-hour programmer, and there’s no question that it’s a B movie, but it’s an expertly directed, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable one.

Detour (Nov. 30, 1945)

Detour
Detour (1945)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
P.R.C.

There should be a picture of Tom Neal from the first few minutes of Detour next to the word “dejected” in the dictionary.

Unshaven, tie loosened, hat and suit rumpled, he walks along a California highway with his hands in his pockets, looking as though he just watched the world burn down to a cinder and he doesn’t know why he’s still standing.

Like a lot of film noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is told through flashback and voiceover narration. Sitting at a counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, Al Roberts (Neal) recalls his nothing-special but decent job playing piano in a Manhattan nightclub called the Break o’ Dawn, back when he had a clean jaw, a sharp tuxedo, and brilliantined hair.

“All in all I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says, recalling his romance with Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the singer in the club. Al has dreams of Carnegie Hall that he downplays with cynicism, while Sue dreams of making it in Hollywood. When she leaves New York to fulfill her dream, Al is still stuck in the club, performing virtuoso pieces for the occasional sawbuck tip from a drunk.

When Al decides he’s going to travel to Los Angeles to marry Sue, he has so little money that the only way he can do it is by thumbing rides. Hitchhiking in Detour isn’t the transcendent experience Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, it’s a grim necessity. “Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me,” Al says. “Oh, yeah, I know all about how it’s an education and how you get to meet a lot of people and all that, but me? From now on I’ll take my education in college, or in P.S. Sixty-Two, or I’ll send a dollar ninety-eight in stamps for ten easy lessons. Thumbing rides may save you bus fare, but it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes. If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”

What’s in store for Al is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. The plot of Detour is not that different from any number of 30-minute radio plays produced for Suspense or The Whistler, and any devotee of the pulp novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson will feel right at home while watching this film. So what is it that makes Detour so unique?

First, it’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations; a hotel room and a car in front of a rear projection screen. Furthermore, it’s stunning how easy it is to suspend one’s disbelief during all of the driving scenes. Usually rear projection is a technique that draws attention to itself, and looks incredibly fake, but in Detour it’s just part of the background. It helps that the performances in the film are hypnotic. When Al is picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), Haskell pops pills from his glove compartment and tells Al the story of how he got the deep scratches on his hand. “You know, there oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. “I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don’t you? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.” As Haskell speaks, Al responds with noncommital little “Yep”s in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s hitchhiked, or who’s had to sit next to a talkative creep on a Greyhound bus.

When Haskell drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Al is convinced he’ll be blamed for the murder if he reports it to the police, so he hides the corpse, switches clothes with Haskell, and takes his identification and money. His luck goes from bad to worse when he picks up a slovenly hitchhiker the next day named Vera (Ann Savage), who looks as if she’s “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Despite her plain looks, Al is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately for him, Vera turns out to be the woman Haskell threw out of his car. She doesn’t recognize the car at first, and takes a nap after exchanging a few sullen words with Al. But after a minute or two, she bolts awake and says, “Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister.”

The heartless Vera blackmails Al, forcing him to give her all of Haskell’s money and promise to get his hands on more, or she’ll turn him in to the cops. The two of them hole up in a lousy hotel room with a bedroom and a living room with a Murphy bed. Vera plays Al like a fiddle while getting drunk off cheap liquor and flinging abuse at him. Even so, the sexual tension between them is unbearable, which is even more remarkable considering that Savage is no great beauty, and plays the scene in which she attempts to seduce Al while wearing a bathrobe and a headscarf.

Like everything else in Detour, Neal and Savage’s performances are not Oscar-caliber, but they have an eerie power that can’t be fully explained. Neal, who was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, was a former boxer with a Harvard law degree who played mostly tough guys in the movies. A troubled man, he was blackballed in Hollywood in 1951 after beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and giving him a concussion in a quarrel over the affections of Barbara Payton. And in 1965, Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale, and did time in prison for manslaughter.

Neal’s performance in this film is haunting, and invites a subjective judgment from the viewer. Are the things Al tells us about the deaths in the film accurate? Were they, as he claims, purely accidental? Or is he like every other murderer who pleads for clemency because it “wasn’t really my fault”? How real are the things we’re shown? Is Al really the unappreciated piano virtuoso he seems to be, or is this just another part of an elaborate fantasy world in which life refuses to hand him any breaks? This sense of nightmarish uncertainty and the pervading sense of doom make Detour one of the all-time great noirs. Edgar G. Ulmer was probably the best director who made films for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but Detour is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever seen of his.

Captain Kidd (Nov. 22, 1945)

Released on Thanksgiving day in 1945, director Rowland V. Lee’s Captain Kidd is a pretty good swashbuckler, even though it’s not exactly a history lesson.

The real William Kidd was hanged for piracy in 1701, but there is still debate about the extent of his crimes on the high seas, and whether or not he should even be considered a pirate, as opposed to a privateer; someone employed by a nation to attack foreign shipping during time of war. But no matter how unjust his execution might have been, the name “Captain Kidd” and rumors of his buried treasure have passed into pirate legend along with names like Blackbeard and Calico Jack.

The film’s prologue shows the “ruthless” (according to the narrator) Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) and his pirate crew reduce the English galleon The Twelve Apostles to a smoking ruin near Madagascar and sneak off to a cove to bury their booty before high tide. His band of cutthroats includes B-movie stalwarts John Carradine and Gilbert Roland (playing characters named Orange Povey and José Lorenzo, respectively). When there is a dispute over the spoils, Kidd shoots one of his crew and buries him with the treasure. The impromptu eulogy he says over the grave is a masterpiece of irony.

The action moves forward to London, 1699. Kidd is receiving instructions on how to be a gentleman from a man named Shadwell (Reginald Owen), such as “A gentleman never sucks his teeth” and “A gentleman never pays his domestics high wages.” Kidd’s lust for gold is clearly matched by his lust for power. When he is granted an audience with King William III (Henry Daniell), he convinces the king that he is the right man to sail to India and give a treasure-laden ship called the Quedagh Merchant safe passage through the pirate-infested waters of Madagascar. In exchange he wants a castle and the title of a lord.

William III in this movie is pretty easily manipulated, because he also agrees to Kidd’s insane demand that he be given a crew of condemned pirates. Kidd claims the irreedeemable brigands will be loyal as long as they know a royal pardon awaits them at the completion of a successful mission. Along with some of his old mates from Newgate Prison, Kidd frees a wild card; a tall, well-spoken man named Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), who was the master gunner to another pirate, Captain Avery. Mercy’s motives are mysterious, but it should come as no surprise to the audience when the stalwart and handsome Scott steps into the role of protagonist.

Scott is best known for his many roles in westerns. His physical appearance and his acting style were the Platonic ideal of a western hero, but he makes a decent swashbuckler, too. Scott doesn’t try too hard to hide his American accent in this movie, but he has a patrician bearing that makes up for it, and the scene in which he locks swords with Roland (who went on to play the Cisco Kid in a number of pictures) is exciting and masterfully directed. And the fact that he does it to protect Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton) from Roland’s unwanted advances should delight people who like to read into a scene’s Freudian undertones. (Scott and Roland are the two most virile men on the ship, and as they sword fight, the camera keeps cutting back to Britton, who gasps at each clash of steel on steel.)

Laughton and Scott were the same age, but they might as well have been from different species. While Scott was heroic and laconic, Laughton was a grotesque, blubbery-lipped character actor, and much of the pleasure in watching this film comes from his fantastic performance. No one else can deliver a line like, “Of all the slummocky blackguards!” and sound genuinely appalled while at the same time disgusting the viewer with his own loathsomeness.

The Lost Weekend (Nov. 16, 1945)

In the decades since Billy Wilder made The Lost Weekend, an entire vocabulary about alcoholism has entered the national consciousness through self-help books, 12-step programs, and daytime talk shows, such as “codependency,” “enabler,” “denial,” “intervention,” “addiction,” “recovery,” and “relapse.” None of these terms are heard in The Lost Weekend, but the film depicts the concepts they represent with grim thoroughness. (At the time of the film’s release, even the widespread understanding of the term “alcoholic” was fairly new, since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935.)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a handsome, intelligent, and charming man who shares an apartment in Manhattan with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). After receiving praise for his short stories during his time at Cornell University, Don dropped out before graduation and moved to New York to pursue his dreams of becoming a famous and respected author. Now in his 30s, Don has finished nothing and published nothing in all his time in New York. He has no money and no prospects. He survives on handouts from his brother, and he is an alcoholic.

As the film begins, he has supposedly abstained from drinking for several weeks, and is packing for a long weekend in the country with Wick. What his brother and his long-suffering girlfriend, Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), don’t know is that he has a bottle of cheap rye cleverly hidden. It’s hanging out his bedroom window on a string. Wick and Helen are optimistic about Don’s progress, but like so many people who love alcoholics, they are deluding themselves. Although perhaps only partly. When Helen says, “You’re trying not to drink, and I’m trying not to love you,” it encapsulates years of sadness and betrayal. In preparation for the getaway, Helen brings Don a care package with a new James Thurber novel, two Agatha Christie books, cigarettes, and chewing gum. Don is irritable and evasive, however. When Wick talks about looking forward to apple cider in the country, Don snaps, “Why this emphasis on liquids? Very dull liquids?” Wick eventually discovers the bottle of rye hanging out the window and pours it out. Don weasels out of the situation by claiming it was something he hid weeks ago, during a binge, and forget about. He then convinces Wick and Helen to go to the symphony without him, telling them he just needs a few hours to clear his head before they catch their train.

His denials and his lies are classic alcoholic behavior, and it comes as no surprise when, as soon as they leave, he turns over the apartment looking for money and anyplace he might have hidden liquor and forgotten about. He finds $10 intended for the cleaning lady and goes to the liquor store to buy two bottles of rye. The proprietor (Eddie Laughton) initially refuses to sell them to him, but it doesn’t take long for him to cave in.

“Your brother was in,” he says. “He said he’s not gonna pay for you anymore. That was the last time.”
“Two bottles of rye!” Don says, showing his money.
“What brand?”
“You know what brand, Mr. Brophy, the cheapest. None of that twelve-year-old aged-in-the-wood chichi. Not for me. Liquor’s all one anyway.”
“You want a bag?”
“Yes I want a bag.”
“Your brother said not to sell you anything even if you did have the money to pay for it, but I can’t stop anybody, can I? Not unless you’re a minor.”
“I’m not a minor, Mr. Brophy. And just to ease your conscience, I’m buying this to refill my cigarette lighter.”

Milland’s performance as an alcoholic is masterful. Before The Lost Weekend drunks in Hollywood movies were all bums on skid row or comical, hiccupping buffoons who saw pink elephants. No matter how drunk Birnam gets, he never slurs his words. He simply becomes more grandiose and irrational, and more desperate to keep drinking. After he hides his booze at home, he stops in at Nat’s Bar for a few shots before the weekend. After Nat (Howard Da Silva) pours him his first glass of rye, he moves to wipe up the bar.

“Don’t wipe it away, Nat,” he says. “Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning. What time is it?”
“Quarter of four.”
“Good! We have the whole afternoon together. Will you let me know when it’s a quarter of six? It’s very important. I’m going to the country for a weekend with my brother.”

Don then delivers a monologue about his plan to smuggle rye on his weekend. He plans to hide one bottle in a copy of The Saturday Evening Post, so his brother can discover it, which will set his mind at ease. The other will be hidden in his brother’s luggage, and Don will retrieve it and hide it in an old apple tree. He doesn’t need it, he says, he just needs to know that it’s there if he needs it. When the scene ends, Don lifts a glass to his lips, and the camera shows that there are five “vicious circles” in front of him; five rings of booze on the surface of the bar.

Back at home, Wick and Helen give up on waiting for Don to arrive, and Wick leaves without him. Helen pleads with him and defends Don. “He’s a sick person,” she says. “It’s as though there were something wrong with his heart or his lungs. You wouldn’t walk out on him if he had an attack. He needs our help!” But both of them–the two people in the world who really care about Don–are at the ends of their ropes.

The rest of the film alternates between Don’s nightmarish bender that eventually finds him in the alcoholic ward of a hospital with no memory of how he got there, and flashbacks to his corrosive relationships with Helen and his brother. We see Wick make excuses for Don and even lie for him, and we see Helen fall in love with Don, lie to herself about the depth of his problem, and struggle to help him. “But there must be a reason you drink, Don,” she says. “The right doctor could find it!” “The reason is me,” he responds. “What I am. Or rather, What I’m not. What I wanted to become, and didn’t.”

Wilder does not depict Don’s descent into delirium in a purely subjective fashion, but there are a lot of brilliant little moments in the film that put us inside Don’s head. The extreme close-up on Don’s eye as it slowly opens while a phone rings in the background will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had a crippling hangover, and Miklós Rózsa’s brilliant score, which incorporates haunting melodies played on a Theremin, mirrors Don’s altered mental states. The Theremin would become ubiquitous in science fiction films in the ’50s, but in 1945, most Americans had never heard the instrument before, and it must have sounded incredibly eerie. The rubber bat that Don imagines he sees in his apartment is less effective, however.

But The Lost Weekend is still a brilliant film, and remains one of the most honest portrayals of addiction ever put on film. When I first saw it years ago, I thought it had a happy ending. Watching it now, I’m not so sure. Don’s promise to stop drinking and finish his novel could just be one more lie; one that the audience itself wants to believe because the alternative is unbearable, that Don’s life is the vicious circle he referred to in Nat’s Bar, and that there is no hope for him. After all, Charles R. Jackson, whose semi-autobiographical novel was the basis for this film, did eventually commit suicide.

Paramount Pictures was initially reluctant to release The Lost Weekend. They were encouraged to bury it not only by the liquor industry, but also by temperance groups who felt the film would only encourage drinking. Critics loved it in limited release, however, so Paramount released it in theaters nationwide, and it went on to win numerous awards. The Lost Weekend is the only film to win both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix du Festival International Film. Milland won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Charles Brackett and Wilder won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and Wilder won the Academy Award for Best Director.