RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Bob Steele

The Enforcer (Jan. 25, 1951)

The Enforcer
The Enforcer (1951)
Directed by Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.

I wasn’t expecting much from this fictionalized account of the exploits of Murder, Inc., but I ended up being completely blown away. Although the director listed in the credits is the lavishly named Bretaigne Windust, the bulk of the film was actually directed by Raoul Walsh after Windust was hospitalized with a serious illness.

Walsh is a director I love. He made lean, tough movies that are also incredibly entertaining. He did some of his best work with Humphrey Bogart, like The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941).

The Enforcer was the last time Bogart and Walsh worked together, and while it’s basically a low-budget B movie with an A-list star, Walsh’s crisp, fast-paced direction and facility with hard-boiled conventions elevate the picture.

Ted de Corsia and Everett Sloane

Even though Bogart is the only big name in the credits, this movie has an outstanding line-up of male character actors. The sheer number of ugly mugs in this movie is overwhelming. Ted de Corsia, Zero Mostel, Everett Sloane, and Bob Steele were never going to win any beauty contests, but they are all incredibly convincing as vicious killers.

Also, the black & white cinematography by Robert Burks is an object lesson in how to make simple sets look like works of art. A lot of people will tell you that The Enforcer is not really a film noir because it’s a straightforward D.A. & cops vs. gangsters story, but for me, noir is primarily a style, and this is a movie that oozes style.

Killer McCoy (Nov. 30, 1947)

Nineteen forty-seven was the year Mickey Rooney turned 27, and the star of the Andy Hardy series and family fare like National Velvet (1944) was looking to stretch his range as an actor and step into more grown-up roles.

Roy Rowland’s Killer McCoy is a remake of Richard Thorpe’s The Crowd Roars (1938), which starred Robert Taylor as a young pugilist named Tommy “Killer” McCoy who was caught between his no-good father and his gangland manager.

Hopefully there’ll be a second remake next year starring former child star Haley Joel Osment. Maybe they could even throw in a drug-related in-ring breakdown, à la Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall, or a tawdry and mysterious death, à la Arturo Gatti.

But I digress.

Killer McCoy isn’t a bad flick, and Mickey Rooney is pretty good in it, but it has the misfortune of being a boxing picture that was released right around the same time as Body and Soul, which is one of the best boxing pictures of all time.

If you’re a fan of knock-down, drag-out fights, Killer McCoy does offer more punches per foot of film than Body and Soul. On the other hand, if the number of punches thrown was the only measure of a boxing film, then Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) would be superior to Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), and we all know that ain’t the case.

Rooney is pretty convincing as a boxer. The filmmakers don’t try to shoot around how unbelievably tiny he is, so it makes sense that his character starts out fighting as a featherweight and moves up to lightweight. (Although I think in real life Rooney would probably have been more in the flyweight and bantamweight range.) The boxers he faces are mostly little guys, too, like Bob Steele, who plays a former lightweight champion named Sailor Graves.

The supporting cast is generally good. I love seeing diminutive cowboy actor Steele in anything, and the same goes for Brian Donlevy, who plays boxing manager and fight promoter Jim Caighn. And actor James Dunn is great as Tommy McCoy’s drunken father, a former vaudevillian who clings to the past.

The problem is not with the actors, but with the story, which never really allows its characters to become three-dimensional people. Caighn, the manager, is an especially egregious example. He has a double life as “Carrson,” a Wall Street tycoon who is far removed from the disreputable world of boxing. Caighn doesn’t want his daughter, Sheila Carrson (Ann Blyth), to know about his double life. This is all totally ludicrous, of course, and only exists to manufacture a stumbling block to Sheila’s romance with Tommy McCoy.

Killer McCoy is competently made and entertaining if you’re able tolerate Mickey Rooney, which a lot of people aren’t. Its boxing matches are well choreographed and action-packed. It’s no Body and Soul, but then again, what is?

Exposed (Sept. 8, 1947)

Exposed
Exposed (1947)
Directed by George Blair
Republic Pictures

I wish that George Blair’s Exposed was a better movie, because it’s got a great setup. It’s one of those rare movies from the 1940s — like Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) — that features a woman in a traditionally masculine role. In Molly X it was June Havoc as the leader of a heist crew (and later tough gal behind bars). In Exposed it’s cute-as-a-button Adela Mara as Los Angeles private eye Belinda Prentice.

Prentice is a stylishly dressed young woman who eats in the best restaurants and drives a Lincoln Continental Convertible. She has an office with marble walls and blond wood furniture. The door to her office has “B. Prentice” stenciled on pebbled glass. Her fee is $75 a day plus expenses.

When a dignified gentleman, Col. Bentry (Russell Hicks), who is looking to engage the services of a private investigator is surprised to discover that B. Prentice is a woman, she responds, “You were expecting maybe Senator Claghorn?”

Prentice is full of quips like that. When a tough little gunsel named “Chicago” (Bob Steele) sits down at her table at the Deauville Restaurant and places his fedora down with a gun under it, she says, “Take your hat off the table. I’m allergic to dandruff.”

When a waitress at a cocktail lounge warns Prentice that the man she wants to talk to is a bad egg, she responds, “Don’t worry, I’ll scramble him.”

Her dialogue may be hard-boiled, but she always comes off as cute and impish, not like a bull dagger who talks out of the side of her mouth. She achieves this by backing up all of her wiseacre comments not with her fists or a pistol, but with her assistant, a hulking ex-Marine named Iggy (William Haade).

Like I said, Exposed has a great setup. The problem is its execution.

Exposed was a B feature from Republic Pictures, but it’s top-heavy with plot, which is tough to handle with a running time of only 59 minutes. Consequently, the dialogue is nearly all exposition. The shooting schedule was obviously tight, allowing for a limited number of takes, which results in the actors all being stiff, reciting their lines without flubbing any of them, but without injecting much life into them either. (Compare, for instance Bob Steele’s performance as a gunman in this film with his similar role in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep.)

The plot, in a nutshell, is that Col. Bentry’s stepson, William Foresman III (Mark Roberts), has been making very large withdrawals from the family business without telling anyone. The bluenosed Col. Bentry doesn’t want to ask him anything directly because he doesn’t want to seem like he’s prying.

So he employs the services of Belinda Prentice. But by the time she arrives at the Bentry estate, Col. Bentry is dead, seemingly stabbed with a letter opener. But there’s very little blood. Could it have been a heart attack — or poison — that caused him to collapse on the letter opener? The police are called in, including Inspector Prentice (Robert Armstrong), who’s Brenda’s father.

William Foresman III seems like a nice enough young man, but that never ruled anyone out as a suspect in a murder mystery. There are also all number of creeps crawling around in the woodwork, including Prof. Ordson (Paul E. Burns), Bentry’s physician, who’s working on a chemical cure for alcoholism.

If you can overlook the stilted dialogue and the overly involved mystery, Exposed is a fun second feature. Bob Steele’s fight scene with the much-larger William Haade is pretty good, and the film’s unpretentious shooting style is a great way to see what Los Angeles looked like circa 1947.

Twilight on the Rio Grande (April 1, 1947)

Frank McDonald’s Twilight on the Rio Grande features Gene Autry and his co-stars being put through their B-movie paces south of the border.

Crime melodramas (we call them film noirs nowadays) were very popular Hollywood products in 1947, and Twilight on the Rio Grande incorporates several elements from them, such as the hero investigating the murder of his partner, lots of nighttime photography, a plot about jewel smuggling, and a beautiful knife-throwing señorita. (They showed up in noirs every now and then, didn’t they?)

Gene Autry (played by Gene Autry) and his ranch hands, Dusty Morgan (Bob Steele), Pokie (Sterling Holloway), and the singing trio The Cass County Boys, are all down in Mexico, singing in Spanglish and ogling the ladies. (If there was a deeper purpose to their visit, I missed it.)

The diminutive Bob Steele was a western actor whose star had faded by the mid-’40s, and he picks up a pretty easy paycheck in Twilight on the Rio Grande, since his character is murdered in the first reel, which I thought was a shame. I like Steele, and would have enjoyed seeing him and Autry solve the murder of Sterling Holloway’s character, Pokie, since the loose-limbed, rubber-faced Holloway is more annoying than a barrel of Jim Carreys.

The femme fatale of the film is the beautiful and hot-blooded Elena Del Rio (Adele Mara), who throws knives at Gene while he’s singing “I Tipped My Hat and Slowly Rode Away.” She throws one after the other into the wall behind him, in order to show him how angry she is. She has a steady hand, so she doesn’t hurt him. But then Gene shows her his steady hand when he finishes his song, throws her over his knee, and spanks the bejeezus out of her with the flat of a big knife blade.

Dusty is murdered with a knife in the back, and a smuggler Gene and his boys rope out on the prairie winds up with a knife in his back that could only have been thrown, not thrust at close range, so suspicions fall on Elena.

The title song is a good one, and was never released as a record by Autry, so if you’re a fan of his music, it’s a reason to see this picture. He sings two versions, a slow, mournful version at Dusty’s funeral, and a more upbeat version to close the picture.

If you’re not a fan of Autry’s music, there is really no reason to see this picture. It’s not terrible, but there are plenty of better B westerns out there.

The Big Sleep (Aug. 31, 1946)

The Big Sleep is a classic of the mystery and noir genres. Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is one of cinema’s most memorable shamuses (a term which everyone in this movie pronounces “shah-mus,” not “shay-mus”). It’s also one of the most quotable movies of all time. When asked how he likes his brandy, Marlowe says, “In a glass.” After an encounter with a young coquette, Marlowe says, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”

And it’s not just Marlowe who gets all the good lines. Nearly every character in the movie makes an impression, even the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. Aging cowboy actor Bob Steele, whom I’ve recently seen in several forgettable B westerns, plays steely-eyed killer Lash Canino with icy resolve, and delivers lines like, “What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?” in a way that makes you believe him.

It’s also a great showcase for Lauren Bacall and her chemistry with Bogart. She was still finding her way as an actress, but as Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, the older daughter of Marlowe’s client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), her star quality is undeniable. Beautiful and statuesque, with a deep, sexy voice, she doesn’t “perform” as much as she merely exists. After appearing together in To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall and Bogart famously fell in love, got married, and — despite their nearly 25-year age difference and his three previous marriages that all ended in divorce — remained married to each other until Bogart’s death early in 1957. Of course, in 1945 no one knew whether their marriage would stand the test of time, but that didn’t stop America and the rest of the movie-going world from falling head over heels in love with “Bogie and Bacall.”

Just 20 years old when she made this film, and reportedly still extremely nervous in front of the camera, her performance was disparaged by many critics, most notoriously by infamous NY Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowther, who wrote in his August 24, 1946, review (published a day after the film’s premiere), “Miss Bacall is a dangerous looking female, but she still hasn’t learned to act.”

Time has proven this criticism unfair, and to be honest, Bogart wasn’t the greatest actor to appear onscreen either. But he was — and is — one of the biggest movie stars of all time. It doesn’t matter that his portrayal of Marlowe isn’t significantly different from his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s very different P.I., Sam Spade, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), because he is believable as both. In each of these iconic performances, he serves as the anchor for all of the seamy characters and twisting plot elements swirling around him.

The plot of The Big Sleep is notoriously byzantine. In his review of the film, Crowther wrote, “This is a frequent failing in films made from Raymond Chandler’s books … if you haven’t read the original, as we haven’t, you are stuck.” It’s possible that Crowther never read any of Chandler’s mysteries that were published before this film was released; The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). If he had, he might have known that the plots of all of the Philip Marlowe mysteries were incredibly confusing, and that having read one of Chandler’s books was no guarantee that you would understand a film adaptation of it any better than the illiterate person in the seat next to you.

I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and frequently get details of the two novels confused with each other. This would be a criticism if the point of Chandler’s novels were “whodunnit,” but it never was. Plot was secondary to the writing itself, and to the colorful characters who Marlowe met in the course of his investigations. After reading Farewell, My Lovely, you may forget who did what to whom, but you’re much less likely to forget the first appearance of the hulking Moose Malloy, “not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck … arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.”

The dark underbelly of Los Angeles was another thing that Chandler evoked brilliantly, and his convoluted plots helped create a sense of constant movement beneath the surface, and of dark goings-on that even his superlative hero could never fully unravel.

Even Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, was confused by the novel he was adapting. When he wired Chandler to ask who had killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur, whose corpse is found floating in his sunken car, Chandler replied, “No idea.”

The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material, although a few significant elements of the novel (e.g., homosexuality, pornography) were perforce glossed over. But there is one significant moment in which Marlowe sits down in the office of the D.A. and the viewer is led to expect that a recitation of the facts of the case is about to occur. Instead, the screen fades to black, and we rejoin our hero after any explanation has come and gone.

I believe that this scene remained intact in the film’s original version. The Big Sleep was originally shot during World War II, but with the end of the war approaching and a backlog of war films in the can, Warner Bros. released one war picture after another before the public’s appetite for them could diminish too much. A mystery picture like this one, on the other hand, was relatively timeless. (Astute viewers, however, will notice a photograph of President Roosevelt hanging in a bookstore, a reference to “red points,” and the presence of a female cab driver.) Starting in January 1946, many key scenes were reshot to focus more on Bogart and Bacall, and make their romance one of the focal points of the film.

Consequently, several scenes involving the coquette I mentioned in the first paragraph, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), were left on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Not only is she beautiful, she’s an interesting and flawed tragic character. Also, the plot was probably made even more confusing. But whether it makes for a less satisfying overall film is debatable. As with Chandler’s novels, the plot is not really that important.

Thunder Town (April 12, 1946)

Diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele rides again! In Harry L. Fraser’s Thunder Town, Steele plays Jim Brandon, a man recently paroled after serving time for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Things aren’t easy for a parolee out there. As soon as Brandon gets off the stagecoach, he warmly greets the fellow loading it, but the man refuses to shake his hand. Then, while getting some drinking water, the sinister Dunc Rankin (Edward Howard) warns Brandon to stay away from him and his brother.

Brandon has a few friends on the outside, however. Matt Warner (Steve Clark), the local sheriff, recommended his parole, even though he doesn’t believe Brandon’s claim that he and his late partner Jim Donovan were framed. Brandon also claims Donovan’s suicide was really murder, and with the help of small-town ballistics expert Peter Collins (Jimmy Aubrey), he intends to prove it.

He also has a steadfast pal in Utah McGirk (Syd Saylor), who took care of Brandon’s ranch while he was behind bars. McGirk is hanging on to the ranch by his eyeteeth, and even had to take a job as a cook to make ends meet and keep paying taxes on the ranch.

The sheriff firmly reminds Brandon that, as a parolee, he won’t be allowed to carry a firearm. Brandon’s inability to carry a gun means that fisticuffs rule the day. This could have been interesting, but unfortunately he’s too obviously doubled by a stunt homunculus in some of his fight scenes. Also, he doesn’t do anything clever or flashy against his armed opponents, like throwing a knife into their hands or lassoing their guns. Mostly he just flees from them on horseback.

The main heavy in the picture is the aforementioned brother of Dunc Rankin, Bill Rankin (Charles King). Unsurprisingly for a P.R.C. western from the ’40s, the bad guy wants everyone else’s land, and will stop at nothing to get it. He even kidnaps Brandon and threatens to kill him in a bid to force a young woman named Betty Morgan (Ellen Hall) to marry Dunc so they can gain possession of the Morgan ranch. On the plus side, Hall is really easy on the eyes (too often, P.R.C. pictures featured some real dogs as the female leads), but if there was a scene that established her relationship with Brandon, I missed it. Also, the 23-year-old actress looks too young for Steele, who looks older than his 39 years. Strangest of all, the only love scene they share occurs in the last 30 seconds of the picture, and ends with a whispered proposal of marriage.

While Steele continued to appear in films and on television into the early ’70s, in parts both large and small, Thunder Town was his last leading role. He had a good run, though. He was a star of the silent era, and appeared in more than a hundred westerns.

For my money, Thunder Town is the type of western that should have died years earlier. The editing is jumpy, the framing is static, and every scene is lit like a bar after last call, when they turn all the lights on, temporarily blinding the patrons. The actors all deliver their lines in a stilted, cautious fashion, as though their pay will be docked if they flub a line. Steve Clark, who plays the sheriff, is the only supporting player who imbues his lines with any kind of human feeling, and his few scenes with Steele are the only ones that seem as if they belong in a decent movie. Overall, though, the acting is better than the last Steele P.R.C. western I saw, Ambush Trail. Blessedly, Syd Saylor acts like a normal person in this one, instead of the goggle-eyed, rubber-faced mugging machine he was in Ambush Trail. Except, that is, when he’s punched in the face. Then all bets are off. He’s still in this film to provide comic relief, after all.

There are also a few musical numbers shoehorned into the picture that aren’t bad, if you like old-school country music that occasionally involves yodeling.

Sheriff of Redwood Valley (March 29, 1946)

I really like the Red Ryder movies with “Wild” Bill Elliott and Bobby Blake. Sheriff of Redwood Valley is the third one I’ve seen, and watching it after a couple of really bad P.R.C. westerns drove home an opinion I’ve long held; a low budget is no excuse for a bad movie.

I have no idea what the budget was for Sheriff of Redwood Valley, or how it compared with the budgets for contemporaneous P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) westerns starring actors like Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, and Eddie Dean. Sheriff of Redwood Valley was released by Republic Pictures, which was a more prestigious outfit than the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., so it’s likely the budget was higher, but it’s still clearly a low-budget programmer.

But Republic specialized in low-budget programmers and weekly chapterplays, and made some of the best ones in the history of Hollywood. Most of their stars weren’t great actors, but they were likable and fun to watch. Most of their scripts weren’t brilliantly written, but they were nicely paced and had enough twists and turns to keep you watching. And, like all low-budget productions, they cut corners and used stock footage, but they used it judiciously. Most importantly, their movies had a sense of fun and excitement, and were tailor-made for Saturday matinée viewing down at the local bijou.

It didn’t hurt that Republic employed directors who could put together a watchable movie, like William Witney and John English. The sheer number of pictures directed by Sam Newfield for P.R.C. should tell you something about the studio. (The name “Sam Newfield” isn’t as well-known among connoisseurs of bad movies as “Ed Wood,” but it probably should be.)

All of this is not to say that Republic Pictures never released a bad movie; they released plenty. And P.R.C. distributed a few very good films (including Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, for my money the best film of 1945, and one of the best film noirs of all time). But most Republic films are object lessons in how to make a very entertaining movie in spite of a small budget, actors who aren’t that talented, and a limited shooting schedule.

R.G. Springsteen’s Sheriff of Redwood Valley takes place in 1895. The first shot is of San Quentin at night. A shadowy figure runs along the ramparts and jumps down to safety. We learn from a newspaper headline in the next shot that this man was the notorious stagecoach robber the Reno Kid.

The scene shifts to the Redwood Valley, where the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the railroad is going to come through their town. If it does, it will be an economic boon. If it doesn’t, their town just might wither up and die. Red Ryder (Bill Elliott) is presiding over a meeting with town leader Bidwell (James Craven), the sheriff (Tom London), and Red Ryder’s aunt and ranch owner the Duchess (Alice Fleming). The townsfolk have raised the $50,000 necessary to dynamite a tunnel through their mountain and bring the railroad to them, so naturally the best way to deliver it to the right people is to hide it in a cowboy boot and get Red Ryder and the sheriff to transport it in a buckboard.

As you might guess, things go wrong. Red and the sheriff are ambushed, both are badly wounded, and the money is stolen. Circumstantial evidence points to the Reno Kid, but Bidwell and his henchman are actually behind the robbery.

It turns out that the Reno Kid (played by the diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele, last seen in the P.R.C. cheapie Ambush Trail) isn’t such a bad guy after all. He broke out of prison to see his pretty wife Molly (Peggy Stewart) and their sick child Johnny (John Wayne Wright), and to clear his name.

Red Ryder and the Reno Kid’s paths cross after the robbery, when Red’s adorable, pidgin-English-speaking Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) trusses the injured Red to his horse Thunder and leads him to Molly’s cabin to recover from his wounds. It doesn’t take long for Red to suss out who Reno really is, but he plays it cool in order to apprehend him with a minimum of bloodshed. Eventually, of course, Red realizes that Reno isn’t the villain he’s reputed to be, but it took a lot longer than I was expecting, which added a good amount of suspense to the story.

The Red Ryder series is clearly aimed at kids. Each film begins with an enormous storybook slowly opening, followed by Elliott and Blake stepping out of its pages, Elliott’s guns blazing. (Red Ryder was a long-running character in the Sunday funnies, so it might have made more sense if they’d stepped out of a newspaper, but what the heck? It works.) Also, little Bobby (later Robert) Blake was a veteran of the Our Gang comedy series, and he’s really cute, although to fully enjoy the Red Ryder movies you have to be O.K. with the ridiculous stereotype that Little Beaver is, as well as put out of your mind for a little while the details of Blake’s tragic and violent personal life.

Elliott is fairly stiff as an actor, but I think he’s great in this role, mostly because he acts like someone who’s stiff and plainspoken in real life, not like someone who’s acting that way because he’s a bad actor. His playful relationship with Blake is especially enjoyable to watch. (There’s a running gag in Sheriff of Redwood Valley about Red getting Little Beaver to take medicine and eat food Red finds distasteful.) While the intended audience was kids, I think the Red Ryder series stands up as great B western entertainment for anyone.