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Category Archives: June 1946

Wanted for Murder (Nov. 2, 1946)

Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder, which was originally released on June 17, 1946, in the U.K., premiered in the United States on November 2, 1946. It’s an effective chiller with a dependable cast and an excellent screenplay by Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger, based on the stage play by Percy Robinson and Terence de Marney.

The film boasts a terrific sense of place, with scenes filmed in Hampstead Fairground, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, and the center of London (which, when necessary, appears as rear screen projection stock footage, a technique that can be distractingly fake-looking but here is done fairly skillfully). There are also several atmospheric nighttime murder sequences in Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park, and Hyde Park.

Particularly effective is the music by Mischa Spoliansky, whose pop-orchestral tune “A Voice in the Night” is a motif that follows the murderer around like his shadow, and which you’ll be hard-pressed not to hum after seeing this picture.

Eric Portman plays middle-class mummy’s boy Victor James Colebrooke, a man who feels haunted by the specter of his late father, William Colebrooke, an executioner to Queen Victoria whose eerie likeness stands in Madame Tussaud’s.

Colebrooke is a handsome, superficially charming gentleman who drink Hendrick’s Gin, lives at home with his mother and a servant, and whose single-breasted suits often sport a white boutonniere and a pocket square. He’s the embodiment of the British fascination with “the murderer next door” — the outwardly ordinary man whose wife’s remains are bricked up in the basement or who strangles working girls on the weekend.

Wispy brunette Dulcie Gray plays Anne Fielding, a young woman who works in a gramophone shop and is dating Colebrooke. A starry-eyed young bus conductor named Jack Williams (Derek Farr) finds her waiting at the fairgrounds and mashes her as hard as he can. She’s attracted to him, but Colebrooke is manipulative and possessive.

Rounding out the fine cast are Roland Culver as Chief Insp. Conway and Stanley Holloway as Sgt. Sullivan, the two Scotland Yard detectives who are on the trail of the killer. Their scenes are some of the film’s most light-hearted, but they are never less than professional, and are dogged in their pursuit of the strangler.

When the first murder occurs, the audience doesn’t know who the killer is, but we strongly suspect Colebrooke. It’s not long before the film removes any doubt about his guilt, which allows for a more interesting and creepy character study than in a whodunnit, where the murderer’s identity is a secret up until the climax.

Most of the film is a game of cat and mouse, with the detectives fairly certain Colebrooke is guilty, but unable to gather anything but circumstantial evidence.

Meanwhile, Colebrooke goes about his dastardly business at night in the parks, telling young women he takes out on dates and strangles that his name is “Tom Mahon.”

Colebrooke blames his sickness on his father, whose killings were all committed in the course of his duty, but whose grim pride in his work earned him the nickname “The Happy Hangman.” The Freudian-minded viewer might blame his overbearing, possessive mother, but the film itself doesn’t draw any such trite conclusions. His father is just a picture on the wall or — in one scene — a disturbingly realistic wax figure, and his mother isn’t a bad person, even encouraging him to find a nice girl and marry her.

Wanted for Murder is a first-rate thriller. Although the adjective hadn’t been invented when it was made, I’d go so far as to call it “Hitchcockian.”

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Colorado Serenade (June 30, 1946)

P.R.C. western Colorado Serenade, which stars lunkheaded cowboy actor Eddie Dean, is a good movie to fall asleep while watching. Dean has a terrible screen presence, zero acting ability, one dopey facial expression, and a great voice. So the best way to enjoy him is with your eyes closed, halfway between sleep and wakefulness.

That’s how I imagine at least a few moviegoers enjoyed this picture in the summer of 1946. As a one-hour Poverty Row oater, Colorado Serenade would have played as the bottom half of a double bill. After the newsreel, the cartoon, and the feature at the top of the bill, who wouldn’t be a little bit sleepy? And with Dean’s smooth, rich baritone belting out tunes like “Home on the Range,” “Ridin’ Down to Rawhide,” “Riding on Top of the Mountain,” and “Western Lullaby,” staying awake doubtless proved a challenge to anyone who hadn’t just drunk a cup of coffee.

Because, Lord knows, the plot of the film won’t keep you on the edge of your seat. Like many of Dean’s other P.R.C. westerns, Colorado Serenade is filmed in color — a rarity for the bargain basement studio — but everything else is typically cheap. Eddie and his comical sidekick, “Soapy” Jones (Roscoe Ates) team up with an undercover lawman named Nevada (David Sharpe) to take down a bunch of stagecoach robbers, but not before Eddie and Nevada, thinking each other on opposite sides of the law, slug it out in a good old-fashioned western saloon brawl.

The fight that closes the picture is actually pretty good, too, with a few stand-out stunts, such as Nevada leaping from the balcony and tackling a black hat in the bar below him, but it’s too little, too late after a turgid, talky flick that feels much longer than its 68-minute running time.

Anna and the King of Siam (June 20, 1946)

John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam isn’t nearly as well known as The King and I, the Technicolor extravaganza starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made a decade later. Both films tell the same story, but The King and I does it in the form of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I saw The King and I when I was a kid, and have strong memories of certain scenes, but not of the film as a whole. So I came to Anna and the King of Siam relatively fresh, and was able to watch it without constantly thinking of Brynner’s iconic performance, at least most of the time. The one big difference — if memory serves correctly — is that the later, musical version of this tale was more of a love story. It’s not as if it ended with a marriage, or Kerr being added to the king’s harem or something, but there was a romance of some sort that grew over the course of the film. The closest Anna and the King of Siam gets is a couple of scenes between Anna and the king that end with the king leering, and seeming to contemplate her in a sexual fashion.

Anna and the King of Siam is the first filmed adaptation of Margaret Landon’s 1944 book of the same name. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly bought the rights to Landon’s book immediately after reading the galleys. As is often the case, the real-life Anna Owens was a considerably more interesting and complicated person than she was portrayed in the book or any of the films about her. This is largely due to her own self-invention. Anna Leonowens was born in poverty in India in 1831, the daughter of Sgt. Thomas Edwards, a soldier in the private army of the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Mary Anne Glasscott, an Anglo-Indian woman. Later in her life, Leonowens took pains to hide her origins, and claimed that her father’s rank was lieutenant (later she claimed he had been a captain), and that she had been born in Wales. It’s important to remember that these fabrications were not merely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As a widow and a single mother, Leonowens faced an uphill battle in life, and almost certainly would have faced discrimination if her mixed-race heritage had been known.

While Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t delve deeply into Anna’s background, there is never any intimation that she is anything but the most proper of British ladies. The Anna Owens of the film, played by Irene Dunne, embodies the best values of the “modern” British empire, while King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) represents an older form of governance; repressive, misogynistic, autocratic, and superstitious.

Reportedly, most Thai who saw the picture were shocked and angered by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth century king, and the film was banned in Thailand due to “historical inaccuracies.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Landon’s book and Leonowens’s own recollections were by all accounts at least partially fabricated, and overemphasized Leonowens’s role in the king’s life, as well as the harshness of his regime. And there’s the larger question of how well any white actor — even one as talented as Rex Harrison — can portray an Asian character.

Granted, the yellowface portrayals in the film look ridiculous, especially Lee J. Cobb as the “Kralahome,” or prime minister, who appears for much of the film stripped to the waist, covered with dark makeup, and sporting a pomaded pompadour. But, like Harrison, he delivers a nuanced performance, and in their scenes together they drop the stilted line deliveries that they have in their scenes with Anna or her son Louis (Richard Lyon). (They continue to speak English, of course, but the syntactical variance is still a nice touch.)

If one ignores questions of historical accuracy, Anna and the King of Siam is an excellent and involving story of cultural differences and the challenges and rewards of education in the face of adversity. The principal actors all give great performances, especially the beautiful Linda Darnell as the king’s newest and most alluring wife, Lady Tuptim. It’s a role that easily could have been one-note, but Darnell is able to create a sexy yet repulsive character who grows more complicated as the film goes on, and eventually becomes the central tragic figure of the picture. Also, Anna and the King of Siam looks fantastic. It won two Oscars, one for best black and white cinematography and the other for best art direction, and they were well-deserved.

South of Monterey (June 15, 1946)

William Nigh’s South of Monterey is another dreary Cisco Kid programmer from Monogram Pictures. Gilbert Roland, in his second appearance as the character, cuts a dashing figure and is always fun to watch, but overall this one is a real snoozer.

I wasn’t exactly knocked out of my seat by Roland’s first turn as the character in The Gay Cavalier (1946), and his second outing is more of the same, with a by-the-numbers story and an anticlimactic finale. As before, Roland is fun to watch as a smooth Lothario and laid-back hero. It’s everything else about this picture that’s the problem.

This time around, Cisco, his sidekick Baby (Frank Yaconelli), and his merry band of Mexican outlaws have a rival, called “The Silver Bandit.” It should come as no surprise to veterans of Saturday afternoon matinees that Cisco and his crew will be blamed for the nefarious exploits of The Silver Bandit.

South of Monterey combines the two hoariest concepts in these types of films; the evil landowner bleeding the poor farmers dry and the young woman in danger of being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love.

The main villain of the piece is the local tax collector, Bennet (Harry Woods), who repossesses peasants’ land based on non-payment of sky-high taxes and then resells them for a profit. The young woman in danger of being forced into a loveless marriage is Carmelita (Iris Flores), the sister of local commandante of police Auturo (Martin Garralaga). Carmelita is engaged to a fiery young activist named Carlos Mandreno (George J. Lewis), but her brother is angling to have Carlos thrown in jail and his sister married off to his friend Bennet.

The film tries hard to achieve an exciting, south of the border flavor, and occasionally succeeds. Roland doesn’t play Cisco as a Boy Scout — he’s a tequila-drinking, womanizing, cigarette-smoking rapscallion. Also, there are four songs in the film sung in Spanish, one of which leads Cisco to pay Carmelita one of his typically over-the-top compliments, “Your voice has the sweetness of a meadowlark, and the softness of mission bells at twilight.”

South of Monterey isn’t a terrible programmer, it’s just a fairly typical Monogram cheapie. The main reason for me that it was a step down from The Gay Cavalier was the climactic fight, which was a fistfight. Yawn.

As he ably demonstrated in Captain Kidd (1945) and The Gay Cavalier, Roland was a hell of a sword fighter, so it’s a shame to see him swinging haymakers and smashing furniture when his blade was no doubt screaming out for blood. I know I was.

Somewhere in the Night (June 12, 1946)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night looks like a noir, talks like a noir, and walks like a noir. But when the credits rolled I felt more like I’d watched a light-hearted mystery farce than a noir. This isn’t to say that Somewhere in the Night is a bad movie. It’s actually a really fun one. But the dark journey promised by the film’s opening never pans out, and the plot twists grow increasingly ludicrous as the picture goes on.

The first few minutes of the picture are mostly shot in first-person P.O.V., as a man (played by John Hodiak) wakes up in an Army field hospital. Through voiceover and the images in front of his face, we learn that he has no idea who he is, and doesn’t remember anything leading up to this point. This opening presages Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person P.O.V. extravaganza Lady in the Lake (1947). Luckily, unlike that picture, the technique is used judiciously in Somewhere in the Night.

Hodiak’s character has Army identification in the name of “George Taylor,” a Dear John letter (it’s really more of an “I Hate You, John” letter), and a letter of credit from someone named “Larry Cravat.” What’s a noir protagonist to do? Clearly, the best course of action is to head for the mean streets of Los Angeles and attempt to track down Larry Cravat, even though “Taylor” has no idea what he’s doing or who all these people are who seem to want him dead. Why should that stop him? Taylor is a Purple Heart recipient and seems to be able to handle himself. It doesn’t hurt that the briefcase he picks up in a Los Angeles train station contains a gun and a letter from Larry Cravat telling Taylor that there is $5,000 deposited in his name in an L.A. bank.

For the first half hour or so, Somewhere in the Night has a few things to say about the plight of returning G.I.s, in particular the disappointments handed them by the women they came home to (or didn’t come home to, in Taylor’s case), and the resentment some servicemen must have felt upon their return.

“You know there’s been a terrible shortage of men,” a beautiful young woman named Phyllis (Margo Woode) tells Taylor.

“Yeah, so we heard in the Pacific,” he responds. “This war must have been murder on you poor women. We used to cry our eyes out about it.”

But, as I said, the longer Somewhere in the Night goes on, the more plot points stack up, and the less time the film has to do anything but crank through its story.

When Taylor goes to the bank to try and collect his $5,000 he arouses the suspicion of the cashier and he ends up fleeing empty-handed. He follows leads to a Turkish bath and then to a nightclub. Set up at the club by the bartender, he ends up hiding from a couple of mugs in the dressing room of a pretty singer named Christy Smith, who is played by the 20-year old Nancy Guild (rhymes with “wild”).

Guild is fresh-faced, has a beautiful voice, and plays her role well. She’s not outstanding, but she does a good job, especially considering this was her first role in a film; not just as leading lady, her first film role, period. Apparently she felt out of her depth, and the production was a struggle for her. In later interviews, she credited Mankiewicz’s generous nature and sensitive direction, and said he was a real father figure to her.

Hodiak also does a decent job, but it’s a one-note performance. He sweats profusely and looks haunted, and does a great job with lines like, “I’m tired of being pushed around. The war’s over for me. I don’t have to live afraid anymore.” He sounds genuinely angry, and he also sounds as if he doesn’t believe his own words one bit.

It wasn’t until after I finished watching Somewhere in the Night that I learned that while Hodiak was born in the United States, he grew up in an immigrant family, spoke Hungarian and Polish at home, and always had to work hard at his English diction. “No part has ever come easily to me,” Hodiak once said. “Every one has been a challenge. I’ve worked as hard as I could on them all.” I never would have guessed from this film that his first language wasn’t English, but there is something about his delivery that is strange and stilted.

Luckily, Guild and Hodiak have wonderful support from two great actors who straddled the line between character actor and leading man; Lloyd Nolan and Richard Conte.

Nolan plays a police detective, Lt. Donald Kendall, who doesn’t eat lunch because it puts him to sleep and doesn’t drink coffee because it keeps him awake. He also wonders aloud several times why detectives in the movies don’t ever take their hats off. (He figures it out by the end of the picture.) And he has plenty of great lines, which he delivers in his trademark wry fashion, like “Big post-war boom in homicide.”

Conte plays a nightclub owner named Mel Phillips, who’s smooth without seeming oily, and whose motives aren’t initially clear. (If you had $5 for every time Conte played a nightclub owner in a noir, you could probably take your whole family out to a nice dinner.)

Somewhere in the Night is a good picture; well-made and a lot of fun. It was all just a little silly for my taste, though.

Dressed to Kill (June 7, 1946)

Dressed to Kill was director Roy William Neill’s eleventh Sherlock Holmes film, and the fourteenth and final film starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his loyal sidekick Dr. John H. Watson.

This was the year that Rathbone said goodbye to the character. His last appearance on the Mutual Broadcasting System radio program The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was in “The Singular Affair of the Baconian Cipher,” broadcast on Monday, May 27, 1946. The next week’s time slot was filled with the summer replacement program The Casebook of Gregory Hood, which starred Gale Gordon as an antique dealer and gourmand living in San Francisco who solved mysteries in his spare time. Like the Sherlock Holmes program, the scripts were written by Holmes aficionados Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. The show was fun, but Gregory Hood was no Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes returned to the airwaves in October, on the American Broadcasting Company. Nigel Bruce reprised his role as Dr. Watson, but Tom Conway took over the role of Sherlock Holmes (although Bruce received top billing). Rathbone, who felt that his association with the character, whom he had played on a regular basis since 1939, was killing his career, so he returned to New York City and the theater. He won a Tony in 1947 for his role in the Broadway play The Heiress, but little significant stage work presented itself to him in the years to come. He had bad luck with films, as well. When The Heiress was made into a film in 1949, Rathbone hoped to appear again as Dr. Sloper, the role for which he had won a Tony, but the part ended up going to Ralph Richardson.

Whatever Rathbone’s feelings about his iconic performances as Holmes, there is no question that he left an indelible mark on the character. (He eventually returned to the role in 1953 when he appeared as Holmes in an episode of the Suspense TV show, as well as starring as Holmes in a play that was written by his wife, Ouida. The play received lukewarm reviews and closed after just three performances.)

In the first scene in Dressed to Kill in which Rathbone and Bruce appear, Rathbone waxes nostalgic about “the woman,” Irene Adler, a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” while Watson sits reading The Strand, the magazine in which Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories originally appeared. (Later in the film, a smoke bomb will prove the undoing of Watson, and Holmes will taunt him, since Watson described an identical ruse in the story he wrote called “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s an enjoyable bit of metafiction of the type Conan Doyle himself engaged in.)

The boys receive a visitor to 221b Baker Street, Julian “Stinky” Emery (Edmund Breon), an old friend of Watson’s. Emery is an avid collector of music boxes, and was robbed the night before. Curiously, the thief (or thieves) knocked him unconscious and then took just one music box, a trifling little thing that Emery had purchased earlier in the day at auction for just £2.

We, the viewers, know that Emery’s music box was one of three manufactured in Dartmoor Prison, so we know that the trio of miscreants tracking them down in London have an ulterior motive, in this case, finding where a pair of original Bank of England plates are hidden, which they will be able to use to produce £5 notes that are not “counterfeit” in the traditional sense. The three music boxes all seem to play the same tune, but with his fine ear for music, Holmes will note minor variations in the melodies, which is the key to the code.

Dressed to Kill features many plot elements that will be familiar to long-time viewers of the series. Mrs. Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) is a clever femme fatale in the mold of the eponymous antagonists of The Spider Woman (1944) and The Woman in Green (1945). And the plot device of a number of cheap trinkets holding a code was used before, and to better effect, in The Pearl of Death (1944).

Dressed to Kill is far from the best of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series, but it’s far from the worst. The Rathbone Holmes pictures are remarkably consistent and terrifically entertaining, however, so the worst picture in the series is still better than most mysteries from the ’40s.

Ghost of Hidden Valley (June 5, 1946)

When it comes to Poverty Row westerns, there’s a fine line between watchable and unwatchable.

I didn’t dislike Ghost of Hidden Valley, and even enjoyed a lot of it. I can’t say whether that’s because it’s a slight cut above other Poverty Row westerns distributed by P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) that I’ve seen lately, or because my expectations were ground down to a nub by the three other movies directed by Sam Newfield that I’ve watched in the past year.

One of the most prolific directors of all time, Newfield directed more than 250 movies in a career that spanned almost 40 years. Martin Scorsese once said, “Newfield is hard, that’s a hard one, you can’t do too much of that.” This from a man well known for his insatiable appetite for films of all kinds.

Ghost of Hidden Valley begins with some stock footage of an enormous herd of cattle. In the next scene, Ed “Blackie” Dawson (Charles King), the leader of a group of cattle rustlers, shoots an interloper so he won’t tell any tales to the law. “Well, that takes care of that,” Dawson’s henchman says. “The ghost of hidden valley will get all the blame.”

I’m a fan of economical storytelling, even when it’s outlandish.

There is no ghost, of course, and we won’t see any more cattle, either. There will be some weak-sauce comedy in which the grizzled and toothless Fuzzy Q. Jones (Al “Fuzzy” St. John) will mistake the calls of a hoot owl for the spectral cries of a wandering spirit, but that’s it.

After Dawson and his rustlers commit murder, we see cowboy Billy Carson (Buster Crabbe) and his friend Fuzzy at the post office in Canyon City, Arizona. Fuzzy has received a letter from someone named Cecil Trenton. (It comes addressed to “Fuzzy Jones, Esq.”) Cecil’s late brother, Sir Dudley Trenton, spoke well of Fuzzy, as well as his sojourn in America generally. “It was his wish that his son Henry, a young gentleman just out of Oxford, should experience a bit of the rugged life and devote some attention to the property Sir Dudley purchased in your vicinity,” Cecil writes.

“What is this Oxford he just got out of, a penitentiary?” asks Fuzzy.

“No,” Billy responds. “Some sort of a school.”

Henry Trenton (John Meredith) is exactly what you might expect. A fey, snooty-accented tenderfoot wearing a checked shirt, vest, ten-gallon hat, and ridiculous sheepskin chaps. “I always make it a point to dress correctly,” he says. He even has an aristocratic butler in tow named Tweedle (Jimmy Aubrey).

Billy sees the potential of Hidden Valley Ranch, if only someone could knuckle down and work it properly. Will Henry Trenton be that man?

Ghost of Hidden Valley is a typical P.R.C. western, with plenty of shootouts, chases on horseback, and furniture-destroying fistfights to fill out its 56-minute running time, but at least it’s briskly paced. Also, the female lead (Jean Carlin) is pretty, unlike the last Crabbe P.R.C. western I saw, and the script by Ellen Coyle is breezy and relatively entertaining.

There’s still Newfield’s trademark sloppiness and inattention to detail for the viewer to contend with. For instance, there’s one scene in which Crabbe’s skinny stunt double, his loose shirt hanging out of his pants, takes a punch, there’s a cut, and the next shot is of the real Crabbe, his chunky torso unmistakable, and his shirt tightly tucked into his jeans.

Crabbe was my main problem with this film. No longer the dashing young actor he was when he played Flash Gordon in the ’30s, Crabbe phones in his performance, has trouble mounting his horse in at least one scene, and generally looks as if he’d rather be somewhere else.