The Prowler (1951)
Directed by Joseph Losey
United Artists / Horizon Pictures / Eagle Productions
The Prowler is a queasy movie about voyeurism, stalking, and sexual power dynamics, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when it was released.
Evelyn Keyes — a very good actress who appeared in a lot of “small” films but is mostly remembered for playing Suellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind — turns in a star performance as Susan Gilvray, a lonely and frustrated married woman who spends her nights alone in a great big house in Los Angeles. In a brief POV shot before the opening credits, we see her in her bathroom, wearing a towel. She looks out the window, directly at the camera, and screams.
The interesting thing about The Prowler is that while that Peeping Tom looms large over everything that happens next, we never see him, and the viewer can never entirely be sure that he wasn’t a figment of Susan’s imagination.
But whether or not he exists is beside the point, because Susan soon opens her door to a more insidious threat. One of the two patrolmen who responds to the report of a prowler is Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a slimy, bitter, superficially charming man who hates being a cop and is always looking for an “angle” so he can move up in the world.
As LAPD superfan James Ellroy is quick to point out in the supplemental features of the Blu-ray, Webb Garwood is never specifically identified as a member of the LAPD, and his badge and certain identifying features of his uniform are different from the ones worn by LAPD officers. However, Garwood’s black uniform and the fact that The Prowler clearly takes place in Los Angeles seem to mark him as an LAPD officer, despite the filmmakers’ decision to err on the side of political caution.
But just like the mysterious and unseen creeper who sets things in motion, it doesn’t really matter whether Webb Garwood is a member of the LAPD or not. He’s a rotten symbol of something much bigger. He represents the worst possibilities of unscrupulous people who have the power of the state behind them. He can sexually manipulate women, commit murder, and perjure himself, but because of his badge, juries and the general public will give him the benefit of the doubt.
The screenplay for The Prowler — based on the story “The Cost of Living” by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm — was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was no stranger to the cruel power of the state. Trumbo had been blacklisted, but it didn’t stop him from working throughout the ’50s. It just meant he got paid much less than he deserved. (His front for The Prowler was Hugo Butler.) Trumbo is one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history, and The Prowler is Trumbo at his down-and-dirty best.
I’ve seen The Prowler several times, and it gets a little better with each viewing. Evelyn Keyes and Van Heflin embody their characters. Arthur C. Miller’s black & white cinematography is haunting, and makes Susan’s hacienda look like the loneliest place on earth. Losey’s direction is crisp. Lyn Murray’s music is powerful without being overbearing. Dalton Trumbo’s script is timeless.
The Prowler is classic Los Angeles noir, and one of the best “bad cop” movies of all time.
Mr. Soft Touch (1949)
Directed by Gordon Douglas and Henry Levin
I saw Mr. Soft Touch two weeks ago at the Music Box Theatre, and I loved everything about it.
I couldn’t find many reviews of Mr. Soft Touch online, but most of the reviews I found were lukewarm, and criticized its dichotomous nature. “It can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a film noir or a comedy” seems to be the consensus. Another refrain I saw was “Could have been a holiday classic but misses the mark.”
Most of those reviews blame the fact that the film has two directors.
Well, for once in my life I don’t care what went on behind the scenes, or which director contributed to what parts of the film, because I loved Mr. Soft Touch and I’ll sing its praises from the rooftops.
It probably helped that I saw it on the big screen in a real theater on a gloomy winter afternoon. If it wasn’t a pristine and fully restored 35mm print then it was a damned good facsimile of one. I watch most of the movies I review on DVD (occasionally Blu-ray) or on a streaming service, but that’s out of necessity. If you love classic films there is simply no substitute for the theatrical experience.
Mr. Soft Touch stars Glenn Ford as Joe Miracle, a shady character who’s running from the law with a bag full of cash when the movie begins. The opening sequence is suspenseful and features some great San Francisco location shooting. Joe Miracle uses his wits to get through a series of close shaves and eventually winds up hiding out for several days in a settlement house run by a woman named Jenny Jones (Evelyn Keyes).
The settlement house is staffed by Jenny and a group of older women, including actresses Beulah Bondi and Clara Blandick. They tend to the needs of homeless men, juvenile delinquents, and poor immigrants.
For the first reel or two of Mr. Soft Touch I kept waiting for a flashback sequence that would show how Joe Miracle wound up with a bag full of cash, fleeing for his life, and biding his time until he can hop on a steamer bound for Japan. A flashback like that would have been a classic film noir device, but the story unfolds in a linear fashion, and everything is explained along the way.
A bunch of gangland toughs are on Joe’s tail, and they’re led by the always entertaining mug Ted de Corsia. There’s also a muckraking radio reporter, Henry “Early” Byrd (played by a bespectacled John Ireland), who sends warnings to Joe over the airwaves but who might not have Joe’s best interests at heart.
Significantly, Mr. Soft Touch takes place at Christmastime, and adds the layer of “holiday film” to the already rare blending of hard-boiled noir, romantic comedy, and “social issues” picture.
I got very involved with the story and characters in Mr. Soft Touch. I tend to dislike movies that have an inconsistent tone. Despite the blending of genres, I never felt like the tone of Mr. Soft Touch shifted uncomfortably from one genre to another. It was unpredictable, but it all worked.
I don’t know which director did what, but I never had the sense that there were two different films fighting each other for supremacy. Mr. Soft Touch is all about dualities, though, so perhaps having two directors works in the film’s favor. Joe Miracle’s last name is an Americanization of a much longer Polish surname that starts with the letter M. But it also symbolizes the unexpected gifts of the holiday season, and the element of the unexpected that he brings to Jenny’s settlement house. The title of the film has a double meaning, too. Joe Miracle has hands that can make the dice in a craps game come up the way he wants them, but the title of the film also refers to the goodness lurking behind his tough exterior that Jenny helps expose.
It’s a somewhat odd film, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.
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.
The Jolson Story (1946)
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Alfred E. Green’s Technicolor extravaganza The Jolson Story purports to tell the story of Al Jolson, one of the most popular singers in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s.
What it actually does is take the bare bones of Jolson’s life story and tell a mostly fictionalized show-biz story of a man’s unalloyed love of music and his tireless quest to touch the hearts of every man, woman, and child in America. That he often touches their hearts while wearing blackface makes The Jolson Story a tricky movie to watch and review in the 21st century.
Apologists for Jolson’s use of blackface usually point to two things; one, Jolson was Jewish, a minority group that itself suffered a great deal of discrimination in the U.S., especially before World War II; two, he genuinely loved the black musical forms that he appropriated. (There are also claims that he fought against segregation on Broadway, but I was unable to find any hard evidence of what he did or when he did it. If anyone has more information, please let me know.)
Unlike the white actors in blackface in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), who blacked up to portray their characters as brutes, villains, and rapists, or the minstrel-show comedians who used burnt cork on their faces to portray “those funny little darkies” as shiftless and uneducated objects of ridicule, Jolson used blackface strictly in the context of musical performance, and there was never anything deliberately mean-spirited about it.
But no matter what the context, it’s hard today to look at a white person with black makeup covering every part of their face except a wide area around the mouth meant to convey the impression of big fat lips and not cringe.
Born Asa Yoelson in 1886, Jolson emigrated from his native Lithuania with his mother and his siblings in 1894. They joined Jolson’s father, Moses Yoelson, who had been rabbi and cantor at the Talmud Torah Synagogue in Washington, D.C., since 1891. Late in 1894, Jolson’s mother died, which had a profound effect on him, and he reportedly became completely withdrawn for seven months. In 1895, however, he was introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves, and by 1897, he and his brother Hirsch (whose stage name was “Harry”) were singing on street corners. The brothers continued in show business for several years, but eventually “Al” and “Harry” had a falling out.
Jolson first appeared in blackface in 1904 in a show at Keeney’s Theatre in Brooklyn. According to John Kenrick, blacking up created in Jolson “a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known before.” His blackface performances, and his black character, “Gus,” became wildly popular. Jolson probably wasn’t the first American popular musician who ironically experienced feelings of “freedom” by appropriating the appearance and attitude of a black man, but he was the first and perhaps most significant of the century that also gave us Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, and Justin Timberlake.
Jolson’s popularity grew and grew in the ‘teens and ’20s, culminating in his appearance in the film The Jazz Singer (1927), which was the first “talkie,” or film with a synchronized soundtrack. There wasn’t much dialogue in The Jazz Singer, and most of the sound came from Jolson’s songs, but when he said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” (a phrase he had already made famous in his stage performances), Jolson carved his place into history.
The Jazz Singer tells a fictionalized version of Jolson’s own life. Jolson’s character, Jake Rabinowitz, sings jazz music as “Jack Robin,” and even debuts on Broadway, but he is forever in conflict with his deeply traditional father, who wants Jake to be the sixth generation of Rabinowitz men to sing as cantors in the synagogue. The dramatic conflict is eventually resolved when he nearly misses his Broadway debut to sing the Kol Nidre in the synagogue, allowing his father to die a happy man, and then follows it up with his appearance on the stage, in blackface, in which he goes down on one knee to sing “My Mammy” to his mother, who is sitting in the front row.
In his book Black Like You, John Strausbaugh writes of this scene that, “there’s barely a hint of the racist mockery that’s supposed to be the corrupt heart of blackface entertainment. It’s much more like watching Mick Jagger or Eminem — not mockery, but the sincere mimicry of a non-Black artist who loves Black culture (or what he thinks is Black culture) so dearly he can’t resist imitating it, even to the ridiculous point of blacking up.”
As I said earlier, The Jolson Story takes a lot of liberties with the facts. It begins in Washington, D.C., at the turn of the century. Little Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett) is the only boy in the audience at a burlesque theater who sings along with the vaudevillian Steve Martin (William Demarest) when he asks the audience to sing along with him as he performs “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Martin cries, “Give that boy a spotlight!”
Of course, Asa’s Old World parents don’t approve of his love of popular song, especially his father, the cantor (Ludwig Donath). His mother (Tamara Shayne) is a little more understanding.
Little Asa hops a train to Baltimore to follow Martin, who wanted to make him a part of his act, but he gets picked up by a copper and taken to St. Mary’s Home for Boys. His parents come up to collect him, but when they hear him singing “Ave Maria” in the boy’s choir at the orphanage, their hearts soften.
“Singing without his cap on,” Cantor Yoelson tsks-tsks. “It’s not so much what’s on the head, as what’s in the heart,” says Father McGee (Ernest Cossart).
With his parents’ support, Asa goes on the road with Steve Martin. “Give that boy a spotlight” becomes the whole act, with Asa as Martin’s ringer in the audience. When his voice breaks during a performance, Jolson turns it into a whistling performance. He’s a consummate performer, and the show must go on.
The transition from childhood to adulthood in The Jolson Story is nicely done. Scotty Beckett and Larry Parks (who plays Jolson as an adult) look eerily alike, which helps. There’s a montage of Jolson’s performances across the nation represented as postcards sent home to his parents. He performs in all the big cities, as well as smaller towns, like Walla Walla, Washington, “the town so nice they named it twice.” Less than a half hour has gone by, and already his parents (both of whom remain living for the entire picture) are completely supportive of his musical career. The Jolson Story is pretty short on dramatic conflict.
At the half hour mark, we finally see Parks as Jolson black up when he substitutes for a performer named Tom Baron (Bill Goodwin) in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, after Tom wins a “snootful” at the tracks and gets good and drunk. This is Jolson’s breakout moment, and it’s worth noting that the blackface and nappy wig make him anonymous, and indistinguishable from a completely different-looking white performer once he corks up.
Only one person, Lew Dockstader (John Alexander) realizes the deception, and offers him a place in Dockstader’s Minstrels. (A real performing group that Jolson worked with early in his career.)
It’s not long before Jolson bristles against the mawkish and old-fashioned music he performs for Dockstader as part of the chorus. When the group performs in New Orleans, Jolson wanders off into the black part of town. This sequence features the only real black people you’ll see in The Jolson Story, although none of them have speaking parts. Jolson hears genuine ragtime music as he sits in with a band (sans blackface, of course) loving what he is hearing. He goes back to Dockstader and says, “I heard some music tonight called ‘jazz.'” But Dockstader is happy with the show the way it is. “Son, minstrels have been doing fine for fifty years, and we take pride in doing it the way it’s always been done,” Dockstader tells him.
Jolson goes off on his own, and enters a period of creative exploration. He calls the music he’s been listening to and working on, “Music nobody ever heard of before, but the only kind I want to sing.”
By “nobody,” he means, of course, no white people, since the (presumably black) composers and musicians he refers to are never shown. It could have been interesting to see Jolson work with and collaborate with black artists, but after that brief scene in New Orleans, we never see another black person.
Jolson gets a call from good old Tom Baron, and Jolson tells him he has all kinds of music that just needs to be “polished up” a little (no pun intended) and makes his debut on Broadway, singing “Mammy,” in blackface, down on one knee. Interestingly, he does so without a nappy wig — just his dark hair slicked back — and he sounds “blacker” than he ever did before.
Jolson is depicted as a man who is always desperate to make a connection with his audience. During his show “Honeymoon Express,” he even has the house lights turned up, so he can see everyone in the audience. This was also the scene in which I felt that his blackface looked the most insane. There’s a superimposition of his face singing over a left-to-right pan of the crowd, and the closeup shows just how crazy his blackface looks, with a wide area around his lips un-made up, showing the white skin around his mouth, his pink lips, and his small yellow teeth. His eyes are nearly maniacal, he’s clearly sweating under his makeup, and he’s superimposed over a crowd of laughing, happy white people. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
When it comes to Jolson’s personal life, this picture makes Jolson seem like a singing monk, when in reality he was an inveterate womanizer. In The Jolson Story, he has no relationships with women except for his lifelong chaste romance with childhood friend Ann (Jo-Carroll Dennison).
As soon as she marries another man, however, he meets his future wife, producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s newest female sensation, Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes). He spots her in the audience at one of his shows, and asks her to request a song. After she says, “April Showers,” he practically lies down on the stage in front of her and sings his heart out. Interestingly, this is the first time in the picture he sings a really heartfelt number without blackface on. Maybe it would have been too strange for audiences of the time to see him romance a white woman while blacked up.
After the show, he finds her mimicking his performance of “California, Here I Come,” perfectly copying his resonant voice and wild arm and leg gesticulations, and he falls, hook, line, and sinker.
Even though “Julie Benson” is a complete fabrication, I would have liked to have seen even more of her. Keyes only gets one proper musical number, showing her in action as part of the Ziegfeld Follies, but her dancing and singing were impressive, not to mention the fact that she has one of the best pair of gams I’ve ever seen.
As I said, there’s not much dramatic tension in this picture. Marrying a shiksa doesn’t raise an eyebrow on either one of his parents’ faces, and the only real conflict comes later in the film, as Julie encourages Jolson to quit show business so they can have a quiet life together, but he clearly misses the limelight, even though he claims he is happy.
Jolson was something of a has-been in 1946, and he was no longer one of the most popular singers in America, but this film was a huge hit, and revitalized interest in his music. It even spawned a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). Larry Parks was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, but didn’t win. Parks was a relatively unknown B-movie actor before he was cast in this role, which launched him into stardom. Not too many years later, however, his career would be destroyed by the House Un-American Affairs Committee, when he admitted under pressure that he had once been a member of the Communist Party. He testified against his will in 1951, and was never officially blacklisted, but his career hit the skids.
His performance in The Jolson Story really is excellent. He lip-synched all of the songs to recordings of Jolson’s voice, and the effect is seamless. He plays Jolson as a man who is pathologically addicted to stardom, but never makes him seem maniacal or inhuman.
The Jolson Story took home two Oscars in 1947. Morris Stoloff won one for best musical score, and the film also won an Oscar for best sound recording. William Demarest for nominated for best supporting actor, and Joseph Walker was nominated for best color cinematography (the only other nominee in this category, The Yearling, ended up winning).