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Tag Archives: Fritz Leiber

The Web (May 25, 1947)

The Web
The Web (1947)
Directed by Michael Gordon
Universal Pictures

The Web is a classic case of mediocre material made incredibly entertaining by an excellent cast and a good director. The film’s plot may be run-of-the-mill, but the film itself is never boring.

The exciting opening takes the viewer along the busy Manhattan streets and overpasses that lead to Grand Central Station and culminates in a tearful reunion between an old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), and his daughter Martha (Maria Palmer). Kroner has just been released from prison, and he is surprised that “Mr. Colby” didn’t come to meet him at the train station. The viewer immediately knows that something sinister is going on, because we see a mug trailing Kroner and his daughter through the train station.

Next, we meet brash young attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O’Brien), who’s trying to force his way into Andrew Colby Enterprises to see the man in charge. When he pushes through several sets of doors and finally meets Noel Faraday (Ella Raines), he demands to see Mr. Colby. When she’s asks what his business with Mr. Colby is, he says, “Well, he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, and I’d like to find out what his intentions are.” When Noel tells him that she’s Mr. Colby’s personal secretary, he responds, “Well that just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stocking seams straight.”

Their dialogue continues in this vein for the rest of the picture. Regan is the kind of person who would be known today in some circles as a “jerk,” and if he said half the things he says in The Web during working hours he’d be sued for sexual harassment.

But he’s also a tireless crusader for his clients, which becomes clear when he finally comes face to face with Andrew Colby, who’s played with smooth, villainous charm by the one and only Vincent Price. Regan is there to serve him with a summons on behalf of his client, Emilio Canepa (Tito Vuolo). As a result of Colby’s negligent driving, Canepa’s pushcart and load of bananas were damaged to the tune of $68.72.

Raines and O'Brien

Colby sees in Regan’s bullheaded doggedness an opportunity, and offers Regan a $5,000 retainer to come and work for him. Colby tells Regan that five years ago, his business associate Leopold Kroner took nearly $1 million worth of bonds belonging to Colby’s firm, made duplicates, and sold the counterfeit bonds. He was caught and sent to prison, but now that Kroner has been released, Colby claims he’s been threatening him. Colby has a big deal coming up, and he doesn’t want it known that his life is being threatened. If he hired a bodyguard, it would become public knowledge.

If he just hired another lawyer, however, no one would think twice. All Colby asks of Regan is that he work for him for two weeks as a bodyguard and tell no one what he’s doing.

If you know what the word “patsy” means, you’ll probably have no difficulty figuring out what Colby really wants Regan for.

Rounding out the excellent main cast is William Bendix as Lt. Damico, Regan’s friend on the force. Bendix was equally adept at playing tough guys and clowns, and he gets to flex both his dramatic and comic acting muscles as the long-suffering Damico, who’s a lot wiser than Regan gives him credit for.

Even though he’s the protagonist, O’Brien is probably the weakest link in the film. Regan isn’t a very interesting character, and he’s mostly only good for one-liners, but at least they’re decent one-liners. O’Brien’s innuendo-laced banter with Raines isn’t quite Tracy-Hepburn or Bogie-Bacall, but it’s clever and fast-paced enough to satisfy discriminating noir fans, and Raines’s dark beauty and way with a retort elevate their exchanges.

The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (based on a story by Harry Kurnitz) really crackles in the dialogue department, which makes up for the pedestrian plot. Director Michael Gordon keeps things moving along nicely, and delivers a satisfying final product. The Web might not be a classic film noir, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

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Bells of San Angelo (April 15, 1947)

Bells of San Angelo
Bells of San Angelo (1947)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Bells of San Angelo was Roy Rogers’s second western filmed in “Trucolor,” a two-color film process. (The first was Apache Rose, released earlier in 1947.) It was also the fifth film he made with director William Witney, who I’ve been a big fan of since high school. Witney directed my favorite Republic serials (often with John English), such as Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), and Spy Smasher (1942). Witney had a sure hand with pulpy material, and never made a picture that was less than entertaining. The stunt work in his films was always a high point. His action scenes — especially the fights — were incredibly well-staged, and still hold up pretty well.

There are currently a few ways to see Bells of San Angelo online. It’s available on YouTube, at Internet Archive, and on Netflix instant watch. The version on Netflix is the version that was edited for TV. It’s in black and white, not color, and shaves more than 20 minutes off the running time. Among the scenes that are lost is a really good fistfight between Roy and one of the bad guys. So if you want to see this movie, I recommend downloading the version from Internet Archive or watching it on YouTube. (You can click the links above to go directly to this movie.)

In Bells of San Angelo, Roy plays — as usual — a character named “Roy Rogers.” In this one, Roy is a border investigator. There are nefarious goings-on down at the old Monarch mines, which are run by a man named Rex Gridley (John McGuire), a handsome, dark-haired gentleman with a pet bird named “Cinderella.” In the first of many exciting action scenes, Gridley’s right-hand man, Ulrich (David Sharpe), shoots a man fleeing by stagecoach, then plants some silver ore in his pocket. Ulrich’s official story is that he was shooting down a thief, but Roy smells something rotten.

Roy’s comical sidekick in Bells of San Angelo is a big fat guy named Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine), who’s San Angelo’s mayor, sheriff, and official dog catcher (but the soft-hearted Cookie is really more of a “dog keeper”). Cookie may have a passel of titles, but Roy is the real authority, and his reach extends down into Mexico.

When Roy learns that western pulp writer Lee Madison is coming to town, and will be observing him work, he exclaims, “I don’t mind chasin’ thieves and murderers, but this is too much.” Madison is the author of numerous western potboilers, including one called Murder on the Border, and Roy thinks Madison will just twist reality to suit the tastes of a bloodthirsty readership.

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone when it’s revealed that Madison is actually a woman, or that she will hide her identity from Roy as long as she can, creating all manner of humorous misunderstandings.

Madison is played by Dale Evans, Roy’s real-life wife, and they’re really cute together. They always seem to be having fun in their scenes, which softens things when he’s being a chauvinist and threatening to spank her, or calling her “the nosiest girl I’ve ever met.”

Director Witney is more concerned with packing the film full of entertainment than with narrative coherence. But who cares? There are songs aplenty, subplots galore, and lots of action, some of it pretty rough for a Saturday matinée picture aimed at kids.

Bells of San Angelo was filmed in Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, and the scenery is spectacular. Of course, it looks nothing like San Angelo, Texas, which — by the way — is in the heart of Texas, not anywhere near the Mexican border. But whatever. If you like Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger, you’ll love this movie.

Monsieur Verdoux (April 11, 1947)

Monsieur Verdoux
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
United Artists

Monsieur Verdoux, “a comedy of murders,” is a product of Charles Chaplin’s Frantic One-Man Band. Besides starring in the film, Chaplin is credited with directing the picture, writing the screenplay, producing the film, and writing the music. Orson Welles wrote the original script and was slated to direct Chaplin in the picture, but at the last minute, Chaplin decided that he didn’t want to be directed by someone else — he’d always been his own director in the past — and bought the script from Welles, crediting him with the “idea” for the film.

The film is based on the career of real-life murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who between 1914 and 1918 seduced a number of women and murdered them after gaining access to their assets. He burned their dismembered bodies in his oven, disposing of them completely, which made prosecuting him a challenge after he was caught. A trail of paperwork and other evidence was enough to eventually convict him of 11 counts of murder (10 women and one of their teenaged sons), and he was executed on the guillotine in 1922.

In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays a man named Henri Verdoux, who describes himself as an “honest bank clerk.” Honest, that is, until the Depression of 1930, at which point he began his new career, “liquidating members of the opposite sex.” He claims that he began his career as a Bluebeard strictly as a business proposition. This is utter claptrap, as is nearly every other word out of M. Verdoux’s mouth that isn’t plot-advancing dialogue, but we’ll get to that later.

The film takes place in 1932. M. Verdoux had a 30-year career in banking before he began his new career as a murderer, and with his dainty, foppish clothes he looks like a relic of another time. When the film begins, he is living in a villa in the south of France. He’s a tidy little man who loves to garden, but whose incinerator has been going full-blast for the past three days. He’s kind to animals, moving a caterpillar out of his way in the garden path and feeding a cat on the street. M. Verdoux is even a vegetarian.

He is also a lothario with an insatiable appetite for well-heeled widows. But this, M. Verdoux assures us, is just his day job. His heart belongs to his wheelchair-bound wife Mona (Mady Correll) and adorable little boy Peter (Allison Roddan). At home, M. Verdoux lectures Peter when he catches him pulling the cat’s tail that “violence begets violence.” He also tells his son that he has a mean streak. “I don’t know where you get it!” he exclaims.

Aside from the saintly Mme. Verdoux, nearly everyone in the film is a grotesque and obnoxious caricature. In this way, Monsieur Verdoux is a distillation of Chaplin’s career-long vacillation between sentimentality and cruelty. A perfect example of this is the scene in which M. Verdoux brings a girl in off the street to poison her, but thinks better of it after she speaks of how wonderful life can be, and how she loved her husband, crippled in the war. (The girl is played by 20-year-old ingenue Marilyn Nash.)

The few bits of physical comedy in the film are funny, but they’re mostly either too brief or out of character with the rest of the scene in which they take place. Several comedic scenes — such as when M. Verdoux and another man start slapping each other with rapid-fire speed, or when M. Verdoux is romancing the older woman who was going to buy his villa in the beginning of the film, and he’s moving ever closer to her on the couch — fade to black in a quick, unsatisfying way.

When Monsieur Verdoux was released, Chaplin’s reputation was severely tarnished. He hadn’t made a film since The Great Dictator (1940), and he was under attack for both his Leftist political sympathies and his morals (he was the subject of a sensational paternity suit, and was a serial seducer of young women, many of them underage).

Chaplin and Nash

Monsieur Verdoux can be seen as a defiant stand against his critics. It’s the blackest of black comedies, and was a box office disaster in the United States when it was first released (it fared a bit better in Europe), but has built up quite a cult since it was re-released to receptive audiences in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time of its release, however, it polarized critics. James Agee crowned it a masterpiece, and the National Board of Review named it the best English-language film of 1947. Others were less enthusiastic.

I think that Monsieur Verdoux is a deeply flawed film. Chaplin was the preeminent clown of the silent era. He wasn’t quite the master technician of hijinks that Buster Keaton was, but he was able to convey a panoply of emotions through his face and body. His films are not only some of the funniest of the silent era, but are emotionally affecting, too. The ending of City Lights (1931) is still one of the most powerful I have seen in any film.

When he was able to speak onscreen, however, Chaplin was a tedious hack who only thought he was profound. Monsieur Verdoux isn’t as crushingly pretentious and boring as his later film Limelight (1952), but it has its moments.

The end of Monsieur Verdoux is especially problematic. Speaking on his own behalf in court, M. Verdoux says, “I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.”

The problem with this is that the murders of dowdy and grotesque women that we’ve seen M. Verdoux carry out in the film are very different from the mass mechanized killing of the Great War or the genocidal horrors of World War II. They’re intimate crimes, carried out for personal gain, and occasionally hilarious, such as the sequence in which M. Verdoux is repeatedly foiled while attempting to drop a noose around one of his wives’ necks while they are out fishing. It would be one thing if Chaplin were presenting M. Verdoux’s crimes as symptoms of a sick society, but what he seems to be doing is using a sick society as a justification for M. Verdoux’s crimes.

Is M. Verdoux meant to be an unreliable narrator? Perhaps, but he never comes across that way. I think that Chaplin was simply too infatuated with himself to present M. Verdoux as anything but a lovable cad, which makes the entire film uncomfortable and off-putting in ways I’m not sure Chaplin ever intended.

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.

A Scandal in Paris (July 19, 1946)

This early film by renowned director Douglas Sirk is based on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, who was the founder of the Sûreté Nationale police force, and is generally regarded as the world’s first private detective. What makes Vidocq fascinating is that he became a crime-fighter only after a fairly lengthy career as a criminal.

Sirk’s film is only very loosely based on Vidocq’s ghost-written memoirs. Vidocq was the father of modern criminology. He is credited with the introduction of modern police methodology and record-keeping, as well as things we now take for granted, such as undercover work, ballistics, and plaster casts of footprints, but you won’t see much of this in A Scandal in Paris (which was also released under the title Thieves’ Holiday). It’s a lighthearted and romantic picaresque adventure in which the focus is firmly on Vidocq’s career as a rake and a rapscallion. The closest he comes to doing any actual police work is when he goes to elaborate and clever lengths to pin his crimes on a romantic rival.

In the world of the film, Vidocq was born in 1775, and came from a poor, honest family, “a little poorer than honest,” he says in voiceover. His mother stole a loaf of bread every time she went into labor in order to give birth in the only shelter available to her — prison. Vidocq claims his mother stole 11 loaves of bread and gave birth to 11 children. He spent the first 30 years of his life engaged in all matter of villainy, and used many surnames, since his father’s name was unknown.

Except for the year of his birth, none of the specifics match the official record, but George Sanders, who plays Vidocq, is such a smooth and engaging performer that I didn’t really care. When he breaks out of prison on his birthday with a file baked into a cake brought to him by the jailer’s daughter, he does so in the best tradition of cinematic Lotharios who can’t utter a true statement to save their lives, but whom you just can’t help but like.

Douglas Sirk was born “Hans Detlef Sierck” in Germany to Danish parents. He grew up in Denmark, but moved to Germany as a teenager. By 1942, he had emigrated to the United States, and was directing the stridently anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Madman (1943), which was made for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but was bought and distributed by the prestigious M-G-M. He directed nearly 50 films in Danish, German, and English, but today his reputation rests mainly on the lush melodramas he made in the ’50s, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959).

A Scandal in Paris hasn’t gone down in history as a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good film; light and fluffy, but always visually arresting and with plenty of sly humor. For instance, when we’re told two years have passed while he served in the army, Sanders as Vidocq says that this period of his life was omitted “Out of concern for ‘censorship (military).'”

There are a number of interesting motifs running through the film, too. One of these is the English myth of St. George and the dragon. After Vidocq and his cellmate Emile (Akim Tamiroff) escape from prison, they pose for a painting as St. George and the dragon, respectively, before escaping on horseback, still in costume. The painting of them will later show up on a wall of the estate owned by Marquise de Pierremont (Alma Kruger) and Houdon de Pierremont (Alan Napier), the minister of police. Their daughter, Therese de Pierremont (Signe Hasso) falls in love with Vidocq’s image. When she meets him in the flesh, he rides to the rescue of a bunch of bathing beauties (see the poster above) who are terrified by a snake slithering along the banks of a river. Vidocq rides by, and like St. George, kills the serpent. He does so with a nonchalant lash of his riding quirt, not a lance, but the effect is the same. Therese swoons.

The scene is played lightly, as is everything else in the picture. Throughout, Sirk seems to be mocking traditional notions of heroism. Sanders is the perfect actor for the role. He never winks at the camera, but there always seems to be a joke that only he is in on. Lines like, “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do, and those who don’t dare,” could have been awfully clunky coming out of another actor’s mouth, but Sanders’s delivery is perfect.