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Tag Archives: Franz Waxman

Whiplash (Dec. 24, 1948)

Whiplash
Whiplash (1948)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Warner Bros.

Sometimes a good ending is all I need.

I enjoyed Whiplash, and there’s plenty of entertainment packed into its briskly paced 91 minutes, but it’s the ending that really got me. It was a mixture of gallows humor and farce that I didn’t see coming. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but it had me laughing like I haven’t laughed in a long time, and then chuckling and shaking my head at what I’d just laughed at.

Whiplash is a B noir that stars Dane Clark as a soulful, romantic artist named Michael Gordon who also happens to be pretty handy with his fists. If you think that’s a role that sounds tailor-made for John Garfield, you’re right. Michael Gordon is in many ways an amalgam of a couple of characters John Garfield played not long before this film; the rough-hewn but sensitive concert violinist in Humoresque (1946) and the tortured boxer in Body and Soul (1947).

Since this project wasn’t prestigious enough for an actor like Garfield at this point in his career, the producers and the studio went with the next best thing: Dane Clark. Like Garfield, Clark was a native New Yorker with an appealing mix of street smarts, physical toughness, and soft-eyed sensitivity.

The film co-stars several dependable performers from the Warner Bros. stable; Alexis Smith as the beautiful and mysterious woman who captures Michael Gordon’s heart, Eve Arden as Michael’s wise and acerbic gal-pal, Zachary Scott as the shifty-eyed and power-mad villain, Jeffrey Lynn as an alcoholic doctor haunted by his past, and S.Z. Sakall as the avuncular shopkeeper who proudly displays Michael’s paintings.

Dane Clark and Alexis Smith

The first act of the film takes place in California. Michael falls for a woman named Laurie Durant (Alexis Smith) after she buys one of his paintings. Their love affair burns hot, but she runs off one day without explaining what spooked her.

In the second act of the film, he follows her to New York City and eventually finds her singing in a nightclub. He soon discovers that she is married to a wheelchair-bound man named Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). Rex was a boxer before he was paralyzed, and he still has the sweet science in his blood. If he can’t compete in the ring, he’ll do the next best thing and manage fighters.

When Michael Gordon knocks out one of Rex’s bodyguards, he proves that he’s handy with more than just a paintbrush. Rex sees potential in the young man, and he and his crew rename him “Mike Angelo” to exploit the artistic angle, and they put him on the fight circuit.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Whiplash that’s never explored to its full potential, perhaps because of the Hays Code. Rex wants to use Mike’s body for his own purposes; as a surrogate fighter. His wife wants to use Mike’s body as a surrogate for Rex. This dichotomy of sex and violence could have made for a lurid and memorable film, but the sex stuff never really gets off the ground, especially after Laurie’s marital status is revealed. I also thought that splitting the action of the film between California and New York unnecessarily complicated the story.

Whiplash was more than lurid enough for the NY Times, however. In their review of the film, published December 27, 1948, they called it “a pointless exposition of brutality,” and went on to say that “if it’s plain, old fashioned mayhem that you desire, ‘Whiplash’ most likely will be to your liking. Otherwise proceed with caution.”

Modern viewers will probably find the brutality in Whiplash pretty ho-hum, but it’s a solid little B movie with a nice, noirish score by Franz Waxman and crisp black & white cinematography by J. Peverell Marley.

And, as I said, the ending is great.

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Possessed (July 26, 1947)

If you like to see Joan Crawford get her crazy on as much as I do, then you’ll love Possessed.

Curtis Bernhardt’s fevered noir melodrama begins with a surprisingly unglamorous-looking Crawford wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, asking everyone she passes if they’ve seen “David.”

Crawford isn’t wearing any makeup, and her journey through the early dawn streets reminded me of a similar scene that appeared a decade later in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1958), in which Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets of Paris without makeup. (Was Malle influenced by Possessed? It’s certainly possible.)

The character Crawford plays, Louise Howell, is taken by ambulance to the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles Municipal Hospital, where she is cared for by Dr. Willard (Stanley Ridges). He gives her narcosynthesis to lift her out of her catatonic stupor, and the tale of what brought Louise to this place is told through a haze of flashbacks and psychobabble.

Louise was a nurse in the employ of wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Her job was to care for Graham’s infirm wife.

After a brief love affair with an average-looking but very charming architect named David Sutton (Van Heflin), Louise became hopelessly attached to him. When David told her that he wasn’t the marrying kind, and that he had to break things off with her, it began her spiral into madness. She was convinced that there was another woman, but he assured her there wasn’t.

“Louise, don’t hang onto me. You’ll get hurt,” he said in exasperation, and his words were prescient. The straitlaced, self-possessed Louise began to unravel.

Dr. Willard diagnoses her with a persecution complex. She thought that David breaking up with her was all part of a plan. Everyone was against her. Dr. Willard calls it “typical schizoid detachment … split personality.”

Despite its sometimes overheated story and dialogue, Possessed is a stylistic feast. Franz Waxman’s musical score perfectly underscores every one of Joan Crawford’s scenes, and Joseph A. Valentine’s cinematography visually expresses her madness.

There are recurring visual motifs, most notably water. For instance, when David gets into his boat and leaves Louise sobbing on the dock, the churning water symbolizes her inner turmoil. The doctors hovering over Louise’s bed discuss her case, then the scene cuts to a shot of the carafe of water by her hospital bed that dissolves into a shot of the water around Dean Graham’s home.

When Louise stops the little pendulum of her bedside clock from ticking because it’s “driving her crazy” the sound is replaced by the sound of dripping water outside her open window. She slams the window shut, trying to control her madness.

Possessed could never be called a realistic film. But that’s not its goal. It subjectively depicts an unraveling psyche, and isn’t afraid to veer into territory that sometimes seems as if it would be more at home in a horror movie than in a melodrama.

Cry Wolf (July 18, 1947)

Peter Godfrey’s Cry Wolf is a good-looking thriller with two great stars and an intriguing setup, but it never quite fulfills its promise, and eventually peters out with an ending that you can see coming a mile away.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a young widow, Sandra Demarest née Marshall, who arrives at the creepy New England mansion of Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn). Mark is a cold, imposing patriarch who lives with his brother, Senator Charles Caldwell (Jerome Cowan), and his teenage niece, Julie Demarest (Geraldine Brooks).

Sandra claims she was married to Mark’s deceased nephew, James Caldwell Demarest (Richard Basehart). She says she was working toward her doctor’s degree in geology. Jim came to her as a friend and she helped him. She needed money. He needed his inheritance. (Jim and his sister Julie have money that is kept in trust until they are 30. If, however, Jim were to marry, control of his inheritance would immediately pass from Mark to Jim’s wife.)

Sandra tells Mark she knows he would have preferred to choose a wife for Jim himself — someone placid — and she assures Mark that she is not a placid girl.

Jim gave Sandra $2,000 to complete her studies and she was to divorce him in six months. There were no other strings. They were married five months before his death. She has come to collect his inheritance. Two thousand dollars has become $2 million.

Doubt and mistrust informs Sandra’s relationship with Mark. Mark isn’t convinced that Sandra’s marriage certificate is genuine, and Sandra suspects Mark is up to no good in his mysterious laboratory. Nevertheless, there are clearly romantic sparks between the two. Also, Mark’s niece Julie instantly becomes attached to Sandra, and begs her to stay.

So it’s a perfect setup for a Gothic thriller. Mark struts and preens about the house, a pipe clenched between his teeth, spitting out nasty one-liners like, “Next time you hear some odd noise in the night, just follow the memorable custom of your sex and stick your head under the bedclothes.” And Sandra gets to play at being a grown-up Nancy Drew, pulling herself up to Mark’s lab in a dumbwaiter and then hiding behind a door when he unexpectedly arrives, and later climbing along the eaves of the mansion and dropping down a skylight to spy on him.

Cry Wolf reminded me a lot of Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), which is another Gothic thriller about a not-terribly-romantic love triangle in which one-third of the equation is absent for most of the picture.

Like Undercurrent, Cry Wolf is competently put together, and it’s worth seeing if you like the film’s stars, but it never really takes flight. Franz Waxman’s musical score and Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography are both top-notch, and add a good deal of suspense to the shadowy proceedings, but there’s only so far that atmosphere can take a picture. Ultimately, Cry Wolf is a mystery that’s not terribly mysterious.

Nora Prentiss (Feb. 21, 1947)

In 1947, March was “make jokes about Nora Prentiss” month on the Jack Benny show. A week didn’t go by with at least one line like, “She makes Nora Prentiss look talkative.”

I suppose the promotional tagline for the film — “Would you keep your mouth shut if you were Nora Prentiss?” — was irresistible for comedians, especially since it’s selling the picture based on its final 10 minutes, which strain credulity a bit.

If you can swallow a few plot contrivances, however, Nora Prentiss is a fantastic film. The performances are great, Vincent Sherman’s direction is assured, Franz Waxman’s score is rich and expressive, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is crisp and beautiful, as it always was.

The title, poster, and advertising campaign for Nora Prentiss all seem to be modeled on the earlier Warner Bros. “women’s noir” Mildred Pierce (1945), but they’re very different films. Nora Prentiss, which is based on Paul Webster’s short story, “The Man Who Died Twice,” is more about its male protagonist, Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith), than it is about Nora.

The film begins, as so many noirs do, at the end. A man sits in the shadows of a prison cell and refuses to say how he knew Dr. Talbot, or why he was blackmailing him.

Dr. Talbot is a 43-year-old physician with a wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and two teenaged children (Robert Arthur and Wanda Hendrix). He lives in a beautiful house in San Francisco and shares a thriving practice with his partner, Dr. Joel Merriam (Bruce Bennett).

One night, Talbot comes to the aid of a beautiful nightclub singer after she’s knocked down by a car and suffers minor leg injuries. The singer, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan), flirts with him a little as he tends to her, her nylon rolled down on one leg.

The strait-laced Talbot is completely smitten with Nora, but when she finds out he’s married, she resists his clumsy advances. Talbot says he doesn’t see a reason why they can’t be friends, but an afternoon at his cabin in the mountains never seems platonic, no matter what either of them says.

Nora is drawn to Talbot, but she never seems less than clear-headed about the affair. After a short, dreamy period of time with Talbot, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be “the other woman,” and attempts to break it off. He is less clear-headed, and will do anything to be with her, including — but not limited to — promising her he will divorce his wife, using a cadaver to fake his own death, and following her to New York, traveling under an assumed name.

If the logic police tend to kick down your doors of perception anytime the party in your head gets too weird, you’ll probably find yourself picking apart the plot of Nora Prentiss starting around the halfway mark.

But if you can relax, sit bank, and enjoy the ride, Nora Prentiss is an absorbing film about a man who loses everything for the love of a woman, eventually devolving into a paranoid, hard-drinking wreck who never leaves his hotel room for fear he will be recognized.

Kent Smith is very good as Talbot, but the film works as well as it does because of Ann Sheridan’s performance as Nora. Unlike noirs in which a wicked femme fatale with no discernible inner life seduces and ensnares a sad sack Everyman, Sheridan’s Nora is a three-dimensional character. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and sensible enough to pull away from Talbot when things start to go south. This has the effect of making Talbot’s obsession sadder and more believable than it would be if she were just a harpy with a beautiful face.

Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

Objective, Burma! (Jan. 26, 1945)

objective_burma_xlg
Objective, Burma! (1945)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Errol Flynn was rejected for military service due to his enlarged heart, tuberculosis, morphine addiction, and bouts of malaria. But that didn’t stop him from making some kick-ass war movies.

Raoul Walsh, who made a number of fine films, directed this patriotic World War II action film starring Flynn as an Army Captain named Nelson. World War II junkies will enjoy the fact that Objective, Burma! features weapons, gear, and uniforms that are all original and accurate.

Of course, the story itself is not all that accurate. The British apparently objected when the film was released, since it took the basic story of an operation by British Chindits and retold it as an American operation. (Flynn, an Australian, seems to be playing an American in the film, though his accent is hard to place.) One of the producers, however, said that the film was also largely inspired by the 1940 film Northwest Passage, which took place during the French and Indian War. So, like a lot of Hollywood productions, it’s a war film that could just as easily have been a Western.

If you’re looking for historical accuracy (or, for that matter, Japanese soldiers who don’t look suspiciously Filipino and Chinese) look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a gritty war movie that delivers the goods, Objective, Burma! fits the bill.