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Tag Archives: Dick Powell

Pitfall (Aug. 24, 1948)

PitfallOne man’s domestic bliss is another man’s prison.

John Forbes (Dick Powell) has what some men only dream of — a home; a steady job with the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company; an attractive, intelligent, and loving wife (Jane Wyatt); and a son (Jimmy Hunt) who thinks his dad is the greatest guy in the world.

And yet, he’s dissatisfied. It’s a formless sort of dissatisfaction. He grumbles about how fast his son Tommy outgrows his shoes. He tells his wife Sue that the world won’t end if he doesn’t show up at his desk every morning at 9 o’clock. He asks Sue what became of those two young kids they were … the two young kids who were going to build a boat and sail around the world.

As Sue drives him to work he tells her, “Sometimes I get to feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.”

“You and fifty million others,” she responds.

“I don’t want to be like fifty million others,” he says.

“But you’re John Forbes, average American, backbone of the country,” she says with a smile.

“I don’t want to be an average American, backbone of the country. I want somebody else to be the backbone and hold me up.”

Later that day — a day shaping up to be like any other — he goes to the apartment of Miss Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful but world-weary blonde who received gifts from a man convicted of embezzling.

It’s just part of his job. He doesn’t care one way or the other that one of the gifts he’s recovering is an engagement ring. But Mona sees right through him, and tells him, “You’re a little man with a briefcase. You go to work every morning and you do as you’re told.”

Her words get to him, and he softens towards her. They share a few afternoon drinks in a dark cocktail lounge. They go boating. And he never once mentions his wife or son.

Scott Powell and BurrOne thing I loved about Pitfall is that its characters are real adult people leading real adult lives. They’re not overblown film-noir caricatures, and their actions all have realistic consequences.

Mona is not a femme fatale who sees in John Forbes an easy mark. Aside from being unusually attractive, she’s an average woman who hates that she was involved with a man who was not only stupid enough to embezzle money to spend on her, but stupid enough to get caught. And she gets involved with John Forbes not because she has a dastardly scheme, but because he’s kind to her and she thinks he’s a decent guy. (Mona Stevens has a lot more in common with Ann Sheridan’s character in Nora Prentiss than she does with Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity.)

But Pitfall is not just a tale of marital infidelity and post-war suburban malaise, it’s a noirish thriller, which means there are some nasty surprises lurking.

One of them takes the form of the angry loser who embezzled for love of Mona — Bill Smiley (Byron Barr), whose prison term is nearing an end. The other takes the hulking form of a creepy private detective who is obsessed with Mona — J.B. “Mac” MacDonald (Raymond Burr).

Pitfall has all the ingredients of a great film noir, but director André de Toth mixes them together in interesting ways, and avoids over-the-top contrivances. Cinematographer Harry J. Wild’s solid but unpretentious shots of Los Angeles anchor the film, the actors all deliver really good performances, and Karl Kamb’s screenplay (based on Jay Dratler’s novel The Pitfall) is full of wit and intelligence.

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Johnny O’Clock (Jan. 23, 1947)

Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock — yes, it’s really about a man named “Johnny O’Clock” — isn’t as good as some of Rossen’s later films, like The Hustler (1961), but it’s a great start. Rossen was a prolific writer of screenplays, but Johnny O’Clock was his first time in the director’s chair.

The improbably named protagonist is played with a light touch by former crooner Dick Powell. Johnny is a partner in a New York gambling syndicate run by an oily, overweight gangster named Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).

Marchettis is married to a beautiful sloppy drunk named Nelle (Ellen Drew) who’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, but who loves the dough too much to ever leave Marchettis. Powell’s scenes with Gomez and Drew are some of the best of the picture, as the boozy moll falls all over Johnny in front of Marchettis and his heavy-hitters, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s jealousy. At the same time, Marchettis seems desperate for approval from both Johnny and his wife. In one scene, he goes on and on about the portrait he had a Mexican boy paint of him. When he shows it to Johnny and asks him if he likes it, Johnny simply responds, “It looks like you.”

There’s a police inspector named Koch (Lee J. Cobb) who’s hounding Johnny O’Clock, lurking in the lobby of the hotel where he lives and constantly trying to catch him riding dirty. Johnny’s association with corrupt cop Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon) rubs the honest Inspector Koch the wrong way, especially since Blayden’s been on the winning end of more than one shootout with Marchettis’s rivals. Koch suspects that Marchettis and Johnny are using Blayden to do their dirty work under the guise of “justifiable homicide.”

When a pretty hat-check girl who works at Johnny O’Clock’s casino goes missing, things heat up. The girl, Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), was dating Chuck Blayden, and when her body is found in her gas-filled apartment — an apparent suicide — Koch smells foul play. As soon as Harriet’s sister, Nancy Hobson (Evelyn Keyes), arrives in New York to claim her sister’s body, cracks begin to appear in Johnny O’Clock’s carefree exterior. He and Nancy are attracted to each other, but are from different worlds. She makes him want to cash out and run away with her, but if you’ve ever seen a gangster movie, you know that cashing out always comes at a price.

Johnny O’Clock is the third of many noirs to star Powell after he shed his image as a boyish Depression-era crooner and appeared as Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Johnny O’Clock gives Powell a chance to craft a more three-dimensional character than he had a chance to in either Murder, My Sweet or Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), and he’s mostly successful, although he didn’t seem fully up to the challenge of some of the more emotional moments in the film’s climax. (Powell was a breezy and charming actor who could project toughness and nastiness when he had to, but raw, naked emotion wasn’t one of the tools in his actor’s toolbox.)

While the story’s twists and turns are sometimes hard to follow, the actors are all good, and enjoyable to watch. Lee J. Cobb’s most famous role is probably as Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist (1973), so it was fun to see him in a similar role, more than 25 years earlier.

Writer-director Rossen has a fuller vision of his criminal demi-monde that we see in most ’40s noirs, and his characters are convincing within its context. I really liked Johnny O’Clock, and I’d love to see proper DVD releases of more of Dick Powell’s film noirs in the future. I had to watch this one on a janky DVD-R recorded off of television.

Cornered (Dec. 25, 1945)

Cornered was director Edward Dmytryk’s second film to star Dick Powell. Powell was a boyish crooner and star of musical comedies who made a 180 degree turn into hard-boiled noir territory at the age of 39 when he played detective Philip Marlowe in Dmytryk’s film Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell jumped into his new, hard-boiled persona with both feet. Between the two films, Powell started appearing every week on the Mutual Broadcasting System as private investigator Richard Rogue in the radio series Rogue’s Gallery. The series was mostly standard P.I. fare, but it featured one unique element; every time Rogue was knocked out (which was nearly every episode) he’d drift off to “Cloud Eight,” where his alter ego, a little white-bearded gnome named “Eugor,” would taunt him, occasionally dropping a clue for Rogue to pick up on later, when he’d regained consciousness.

Cornered has no fanciful elements like that one, and the devil-may-care charm Powell exhibited in Murder, My Sweet has been completely done away with. In Cornered he plays a broken man who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

When we first meet Flight Lieutenant Laurence Gerard (Powell), an RCAF pilot, he is in London, receiving £551 back pay for the time he spent as a P.O.W. His next stop is a passport office, where he seeks passage to France. He wants to settle his wife Celeste’s estate. She was a French citizen, and they were married during the German occupation. When Gerard is told that all passports to the continent require investigation, and that it will take at least a month to clear, he walks out of the office without saying another word. In the next scene, he is alone in a rowboat, crossing the English Channel. When he sees land, he chops a hole in the hull, sinks the boat, and swims to shore.

In a muddy French town that is mostly rubble, Gerard meets with Etienne (Louis Mercier), a former resistance leader, and Celeste’s father. Gerard demands to know who is responsible for her death, and who betrayed her. “If there was any betrayal, I betrayed her, by fathering her in a century of violence,” Etienne tells him. Gerard doesn’t accept this circumspect response, and vows to hunt down the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac, who ordered the killing of Celeste and several other members of the resistance. Jarnac supposedly died in a fire, but Gerard refuses to believe he is dead. He sets out with a single goal; to kill Jarnac.

Gerard follows Jarnac’s trail to Buenos Aires, and it is there that most of the film takes place. As soon as Gerard steps off the plane, he is approached by a fat man in a white suit. This man, Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), is an operator with no clear allegiances. Gerard is quickly drawn into a world where no one is what they seem. Former Nazis and their collaborators have fled to Buenos Aires, biding their time until the next great war, while a loose-knit, clandestine organization seeks to root them out. Incza introduces Gerard to Jarnac’s wife (or possibly widow), Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), and even her loyalties are unclear.

While it may sound like a globe-trotting adventure film, Cornered is really a claustrophobic film noir with healthy doses of paranoia and tension. The script, by John Paxton (with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht), from a story by John Wexley, takes a run-of-the-mill manhunt plot and ratchets up the tension with crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a brutal finale. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is classic film noir, with inky nighttime exteriors, close-quartered interiors, and actors’ shadows frequently preceding them into the frame.

Powell plays Gerard as a shell-shocked man who suffers from frequent headaches. He’s on a mission to avenge a woman to whom he was only married for 20 days. He’s an amateur doing the work of a detective, and while he’s clever enough to connect the dots, he’s still just one man at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension. “You are sick with fear,” Mme. Jarnac tells him. “You’ve been hurt so deeply you cannot trust anyone but yourself.”

Is there a better description of the classic film noir protagonist?

Murder, My Sweet (Dec. 9, 1944)

murdermysweetDick Powell was known as a song-and-dance man when he was cast as hard-boiled dick Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely.

He nailed the role by not overplaying it. It didn’t hurt that the script and direction were pretty good, too. Powell in Murder, My Sweet will never give Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep much competition, but he does a pretty good job.

This film marked a turning point in Powell’s career, too. At the age of 40, Powell was able to slough off the public’s perception of him and reinvent himself as a noir tough guy.

He would go on to star in film noirs like Cornered (1945), which, like this film, was directed by Edward Dmytryk, Johnny O’Clock (1947), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), and Pitfall (1948), among others, as well as two classic radio detective shows, Rogue’s Gallery, which premiered in 1945, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which premiered in 1949.