RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Barry Sullivan

Tension (Nov. 25, 1949)

Tension
Tension (1949)
Directed by John Berry
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I recently did an MGM double bill and watched John Berry’s Tension right after I watched George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949).

After the wit, charm, and progressive gender politics of Adam’s Rib, I was turned off by the first reel of Tension and its tale of infidelity and murder. Audrey Totter is the classic femme fatale with no motivation, backstory, or realistic psychology. She’s just bad because she wants to be.

Ditto for her nebbishy husband played by Richard Basehart, who puts up with being cuckolded to such a ridiculous degree that I wanted to reach into the movie, slap him around, and tell him to stop deluding himself and just get a divorce, already.

Audrey Totter in Tension

But after the plot took one crazy turn after another, Tension totally won me over. The plotting is byzantine but never confusing, the performances are all solid, Allen Rivkin’s screenplay (based on a story by John D. Klorer) is clever and engaging, the score by André Previn is terrific, and the film offers a chance to see the lovely Cyd Charisse in a rare non-dancing role. Also, as an MGM production, Tension looks absolutely fantastic, and features a lot of great location shooting in and around Los Angeles.

Richard Basehart brings the same chameleonic everyman qualities to his role in Tension that he brought to his role in He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike that film, however, Basehart isn’t a trigger-happy sociopath in Tension, he’s just an average guy who changes his appearance to commit murder after he’s pushed to the edge by his cheating wife.

Richard Basehart

Basehart plays a pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to make enough money to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). Unfortunately, she’s as faithless as the day is long, and she runs off with a hairy, knuckle-dragging he-man named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

After Barney Deager beats the tar out of Warren Quimby when he confronts Deager and his wife on the beach, Quimby vows revenge. He gets a pair of contact lenses to change his appearance and moves into an apartment under an assumed name. By creating a person who doesn’t exist, he thinks he’ll be able to murder Barney Deager and get away with it.

Events quickly spiral out of Quimby’s control, as they tend to in film noirs.

He falls for his pretty neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), who falls even harder for him, his murder plot goes badly awry, and before he knows it, he’s in up to his neck as a dogged pair of homicide detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are on his trail.

Tension isn’t exactly a realistic film, but it’s one of the most fun and twistiest noirs I’ve seen in a long time.

Advertisements

The Great Gatsby (July 13, 1949)

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby (1949)
Directed by Elliott Nugent
Paramount Pictures

Long before Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio played F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American striver Jay Gatsby, another iconic blond pretty boy tackled the role.

I first saw Elliott Nugent’s version of The Great Gatsby in 2012 as part of Noir City 4 at The Music Box Theatre. Although in the lobby after the screening I overheard one audience member very angrily denounce the film as “not noir in any way,” and I couldn’t disagree, it’s not a bad film and I’m glad I saw it.

At one point, both Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power were attached to the project. According to several websites, Tierney was deemed “too beautiful” to play Daisy Buchanan by both Nugent, the director, and Richard Maibaum, the producer, but none of those websites have a source for that claim. Personally, it seems an insane reason not to cast an actress as Daisy Buchanan. She’s the unattainable object of Gatsby’s romantic longing. Whether or not she’s really the most beautiful woman in West Egg, Long Island, is immaterial. Film is a visual medium and a beautiful actress playing Daisy just makes sense.

Betty Field, who plays Daisy in this film, is attractive, but she possesses none of the ethereal beauty of an actress like Tierney. Also, I can think of no better actress than Tierney to project outward beauty coupled with inward emptiness and callousness.

Alan Ladd, however, makes a better Jay Gatsby than I imagine Tyrone Power would have. Ladd was a handsome actor whose understated persona was always somewhat unknowable. Viewers could project whatever they wanted onto him.

Because of this, Ladd is perfect as Gatsby, the bootlegger who single-mindedly built a fortune and passed himself off as a man who came from money. Gatsby’s outward appearance was perfect, but like the beautiful books in his study, which all have uncut pages, there is nothing behind the façade.

Alan Ladd

The early parts of the film play up Gatsby’s early days in organized crime, exploiting Ladd’s facility with gangster movies and film noirs. Eventually, though, the film settles into a talky version of the novel that is largely drawn from Owen Davis’s stage adaptation that opened in 1926 and ran for 112 performances.

As I said, it’s not a bad film, but it’s not a particularly compelling one. Ladd is a good Gatsby, and the other performers are generally fine. I liked Barry Sullivan as Daisy’s husband Tom and loved Shelley Winters as Tom’s mistress Myrtle.

The film is at its best when it most resembles a hard-boiled noir, but those moments are few and far between.

The biggest flaw, of course, is that it’s a straightforward and very literal adaptation of a great American novel, and possesses none of Fitzgerald’s elegant prose. It’s worth seeing, but far from a masterpiece. It’s a great example of why the phrase “the book was better” became a cliché.

Smart Woman (April 30, 1948)

Edward A. Blatt’s Smart Woman is a film of “lasts.” It was the last screenplay for which Alvah Bessie received a credit. (Louis Morheim and Herbert Margolies are also credited for the screenplay, from a story by Leon Gutterman and Edwin V. Westrate.) Bessie was one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten,” a group of people who refused to cooperate with HUAC and who were blacklisted from the movie industry in 1948.

It was also the last film to feature Constance Bennett in a starring role. Bennett was a glamorous actress who appeared in dozens of films in the ’20s and ’30s, but whose star began to fade in the ’40s. (Her younger sister, Barbara Bennett, also appeared in films, and her youngest sister was film noir icon Joan Bennett.)

Smart Woman was the second and final film released by Bennett’s own production company, Constance Bennett Productions (the first was Paris Underground in 1945). It was distributed by Allied Artists. Smart Woman is by no means a bad film, but it’s not difficult to see why it didn’t reignite Bennett’s career and launch her back into starring roles.

Bennett plays defense attorney Paula Rogers, a woman who’s “smart” not just in the cerebral sense, but also in the sense that she is fashionable and sophisticated. She’s a single woman with a young son named Rusty (Richard Lyon), and her love for her son will force her to make difficult decisions as the plot of the film unfolds.

As in most “women’s pictures,” there is a suave, sophisticated, and handsome gentleman to set Paula’s heart (and the hearts of distaff audience members) aflutter with desire. He’s a special prosecutor named Robert Larrimore (Brian Aherne) who’s appointed to investigate cases the crooked district attorney, Bradley Wayne (Otto Kruger), may have improperly handled.

There’s also a slippery gangster named Frank McCoy (Barry Sullivan), whom Paula defends in a murder case. The prosecuting attorney? You guessed it … it’s Larrimore.

Smart Woman is well-made entertainment, but it’s lacking that essential spark that would move it up into the “must-see” category. Thematically, the film has elements of a film noir or gangster picture, but its cinematic style is straightforward and without any baroque flourishes. The script is well-written, but it contains a lot of parallelisms, which always seem more clever to someone hunched over a typewriter than they play out in an actual film. The film’s leads are good, but they had more active careers in the ’30s than they did in the ’40s, and Smart Woman occasionally feels a little old-fashioned because of it.

The Gangster (Nov. 25, 1947)

I’m no hypocrite. I knew everything I did was low and rotten. I knew what people thought of me. What difference did it make? What did I care?

In the dirty razzle-dazzle of Neptune Beach, one man runs the rackets, and he has the unlikely name of “Shubunka.” (You can sing his name along to the Perry Como hit “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba.”) Neptune Beach is a thinly fictionalized version of Coney Island (there are references throughout the film to “uptown,” 5th Avenue, Central Park, and Queens).

Barry Sullivan plays Shubunka perfectly. His opening voiceover narration (quoted above) is just the tip of the iceberg. Like a lot of tough guys, Shubunka’s cynical patter doesn’t always match his actions.

As we learn, he actually cares a lot about what people think of him. He’s sensitive, suspicious, and vain. The first time we see him, he’s inspecting his scarred face in a mirror. Later, he angrily asks Dorothy (Joan Lorring) — the girl who runs the cash register at the Neptune Beach ice cream store where he cools his heels — if there’s something wrong with the way he looks when she’s uncomfortable around him and doesn’t want to accept a gift from him.

If there were such a thing as “B-Movie Academy Awards,” Barry Sullivan would be at the top of my list for best actor of 1947.

Shubunka is a big fish in a small pond. The wisecracking soda-jerker Shorty (Harry Morgan) calls him “the King of Siam” behind his back and wonders why Shubunka hangs around Ann’s Soda Store if he’s so great. The Gangster takes place over a short period of time, and tells the story of how Shubunka loses his hold on the rackets in Neptune Beach — as well as his hold on everything else in his life.

Things are already falling apart when the film begins. The owner of Ann’s Soda Store — the sweaty, nervous Mr. Jammey (Akim Tamiroff) — sees right through him. “You go around putting up a tough front, but you don’t fool me. I see inside you. You are no man of iron. You are no terrible big shot. I’m telling you for your own good. If you don’t watch out they’re going to push you right out of business.”

When Mr. Jammey refers to “they,” he’s talking about the Syndicate, a group of sharply dressed criminals who are knocking out the independents one neighborhood at a time.

“Nobody’s pushing me out of business, forget that! I’m no soda jerker,” Shubunka tells Mr. Jammey. “I’m not one of these broken-backed dummies that come into your soda store. I’ll handle it, don’t worry. I worked six years building this thing up. I’m going to keep it. Nobody’s going to make a mug out of me.”

Shubunka is also paranoid about his beautiful blond girlfriend, Nancy Starr (played by Olympic and professional figure skater Belita). Everywhere he looks he sees evidence of her infidelity, even though she’s only making contacts and auditioning for roles in Broadway shows.

The Gangster is occasionally a little “arty,” but it’s never pretentious. And honestly, more B productions could stand to have this film’s self-consciousness and careful camera setups and lighting choices.

It doesn’t hurt that the actors are all really well cast. Harry Morgan, Barry Sullivan, and Akim Tamiroff are all really great, and even the lesser actors tend to be the cream of the crop of B movies — Sheldon Leonard, who plays the syndicate boss Cornell, was the best actor in Decoy (1946), and John Ireland, who plays the desperate, gambling-addicted accountant Karty, was the best actor in Railroaded (1947).

Framed (March 7, 1947)

I’ve seen Janis Carter as the female lead in two of Columbia’s “Whistler” pictures, The Mark of the Whistler (1944) and The Power of the Whistler (1945), but I couldn’t have picked her out of a lineup of other glamorous B-movie blondes from the ’40s until I saw her as the death-obsessed femme fatale with a heart of ice in Henry Levin’s Night Editor (1946).

The part she plays in Richard Wallace’s Framed is more nuanced and less irredeemably evil than the role she played in Night Editor, but she’s still a nasty piece of work.

Framed starts out with a bang. We see Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford), his hat pushed back on his head, looking scared and exhausted, behind the wheel of a runaway truck. The first minute of the picture looks like an outtake from Thieves’ Highway (1949) or The Wages of Fear (1953). Mike careens around mountain passes, fighting the gears of the truck every inch of the way, and pumping the brakes to no avail.

It’s a great way to start the picture, and it’s fast-paced and suspenseful enough for the viewer never to stop and wonder why Mike doesn’t try to run the truck off the road just outside of town instead of driving straight down Main Street and smashing his front fender into a parked pickup truck.

Mike Lambert isn’t a guy who thinks things through before doing them. He’s a classic noir character — smart and resourceful, but bullheaded and cursed with a single fatal flaw. In Mike’s case, it’s his habit of getting blackout drunk at all the wrong times, a condition he accepts the way other men accept the weather. “I told you I never remember what I do after I’ve had a couple of drinks,” he says, as though it’s just another one of those things, like not being able to remember people’s names or biting your fingernails.

Mike is an out-of-work mining engineer. He took the job driving the truck with no brakes to make a few bucks, but the truck owner’s refusal to pay him and his citation for reckless driving leave him stranded in the little California town with no choice but to do some time in jail, since he’s flat broke and can’t pay the fine.

A beautiful guardian angel appears in the form of pretty blond waitress Paula Craig (Carter). She pays Mike’s fine for him and even lends him money to get a room in town. It’s not hard to see that she must have ulterior motives, but Carter plays her role well, and has good chemistry with Ford, so it’s easy to sit back and let yourself be lulled for a little while into feeling as though you’re watching a laid-back, romantic drama in which everyone will live happily ever after.

And for awhile, things seem to be going Mike’s way. He befriends the kindly, bedraggled old man (played by Edgar Buchanan) whose truck he hit, and who just happens to have a mining claim he needs help with. Mike also does a good job of keeping Paula at arm’s length with matter-of-fact statements like, “Don’t count on anything I said last night. Liquor blanks me out.”

Soon enough, Paula’s evil schemes become apparent to the viewer, if not to the booze-addled Mike. She’s only working in a greasy spoon to troll for a patsy that she and her boyfriend, Steve Price (Barry Sullivan), need for a scheme they’ve got cooked up. And Mike fits the bill.

Framed is a programmer that benefits greatly from having a rising star like Ford in the lead role. It’s a B movie that’s clearly cast in the same mold as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but I think it succeeds wonderfully on its own terms. The script by Ben Maddow (based on a story by John Patrick) evolves naturally as it chugs forward, and never seems too contrived. Shifting loyalties and the yearnings of the main characters drive the story forward, and it never felt as if plot points were being checked off.

Richard Wallace, the director of Framed, was a hard-working studio hack. His career as a director spanned from 1925 to 1949 (he died in 1951), during which he made 46 features and 15 shorts. Of the films he directed that I’ve seen, Framed is one of the best. It’s a brisk tale of love, lust, and betrayal that might not quite qualify as a classic, but it’s never boring.