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Tag Archives: Gordon Wiles

The Gangster (Nov. 25, 1947)

I’m no hypocrite. I knew everything I did was low and rotten. I knew what people thought of me. What difference did it make? What did I care?

In the dirty razzle-dazzle of Neptune Beach, one man runs the rackets, and he has the unlikely name of “Shubunka.” (You can sing his name along to the Perry Como hit “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba.”) Neptune Beach is a thinly fictionalized version of Coney Island (there are references throughout the film to “uptown,” 5th Avenue, Central Park, and Queens).

Barry Sullivan plays Shubunka perfectly. His opening voiceover narration (quoted above) is just the tip of the iceberg. Like a lot of tough guys, Shubunka’s cynical patter doesn’t always match his actions.

As we learn, he actually cares a lot about what people think of him. He’s sensitive, suspicious, and vain. The first time we see him, he’s inspecting his scarred face in a mirror. Later, he angrily asks Dorothy (Joan Lorring) — the girl who runs the cash register at the Neptune Beach ice cream store where he cools his heels — if there’s something wrong with the way he looks when she’s uncomfortable around him and doesn’t want to accept a gift from him.

If there were such a thing as “B-Movie Academy Awards,” Barry Sullivan would be at the top of my list for best actor of 1947.

Shubunka is a big fish in a small pond. The wisecracking soda-jerker Shorty (Harry Morgan) calls him “the King of Siam” behind his back and wonders why Shubunka hangs around Ann’s Soda Store if he’s so great. The Gangster takes place over a short period of time, and tells the story of how Shubunka loses his hold on the rackets in Neptune Beach — as well as his hold on everything else in his life.

Things are already falling apart when the film begins. The owner of Ann’s Soda Store — the sweaty, nervous Mr. Jammey (Akim Tamiroff) — sees right through him. “You go around putting up a tough front, but you don’t fool me. I see inside you. You are no man of iron. You are no terrible big shot. I’m telling you for your own good. If you don’t watch out they’re going to push you right out of business.”

When Mr. Jammey refers to “they,” he’s talking about the Syndicate, a group of sharply dressed criminals who are knocking out the independents one neighborhood at a time.

“Nobody’s pushing me out of business, forget that! I’m no soda jerker,” Shubunka tells Mr. Jammey. “I’m not one of these broken-backed dummies that come into your soda store. I’ll handle it, don’t worry. I worked six years building this thing up. I’m going to keep it. Nobody’s going to make a mug out of me.”

Shubunka is also paranoid about his beautiful blond girlfriend, Nancy Starr (played by Olympic and professional figure skater Belita). Everywhere he looks he sees evidence of her infidelity, even though she’s only making contacts and auditioning for roles in Broadway shows.

The Gangster is occasionally a little “arty,” but it’s never pretentious. And honestly, more B productions could stand to have this film’s self-consciousness and careful camera setups and lighting choices.

It doesn’t hurt that the actors are all really well cast. Harry Morgan, Barry Sullivan, and Akim Tamiroff are all really great, and even the lesser actors tend to be the cream of the crop of B movies — Sheldon Leonard, who plays the syndicate boss Cornell, was the best actor in Decoy (1946), and John Ireland, who plays the desperate, gambling-addicted accountant Karty, was the best actor in Railroaded (1947).

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The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (April 25, 1947)

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami
The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)
Directed by Albert Lewin
United Artists

I love George Sanders. I don’t know what it is. I could give you a laundry list of attributes — his effortless charm, his ironic detachment, his pitch-perfect performances as cads and bounders — but that would only scratch the surface.

I like him so much that I found it impossible to root against him as the villain opposite Tyrone Power in John Cromwell’s minor swashbuckling classic Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) and I even enjoyed his role in Douglas Sirk’s lightweight A Scandal in Paris (1946).

His insouciance and Herculean detachment from the concerns of everyday life weren’t just an onscreen pose. In the suicide note he left in 1972 before taking his own life at the age of 65, Sanders wrote, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool — good luck. Love, George.”

In life as in art, there is always the sense with Sanders that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Certainly boredom was not the real reason Sanders took his own life. His brother, actor Tom Conway, had died of cirrhosis of the liver — a complication of his alcoholism — five years earlier. Sanders had four failed marriages under his belt, was himself a heavy drinker, and suffered from extremely poor health in his later years, as well as related bouts of depression. But who really knows? No one really kills themselves because they’re bored, but with Sanders, that’s all we’re left with.

Albert Lewin’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel Bel Ami. Dubbed “the history of a scoundrel,” the film has a lot in common with Lewin’s 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which also featured Sanders and Angela Lansbury in starring roles. Both films are black and white adaptations of 19th-century novels that feature a single oil painting shown in stunning Technicolor. In the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s Dorian Gray’s famous portrait, hidden away in an attic, revealing his corruption. In The Private Affairs of Bel Ami it’s the totally crazy and anachronistic “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” by surrealist painter Max Ernst.

Max Ernst

Ernst’s painting isn’t the only anachronistic thing about Lewin’s film. While the film ostensibly takes place in Paris in 1880, there are no attempts at verisimilitude. Frank Paul Sylos’s art direction in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is careful and loving, but it looks more like a picture postcard than real life.

Sanders’s character, Georges Duroy, is a bored habitué of Parisian café society who seduces women and uses them for social and professional gain, then discards them as soon as a lovely new opportunity sashays across his path. The women who love him call him “Bel Ami.” The name is ironic, since Duroy is a friend only to himself. When the film begins, he is already ignoring a hurt-looking former conquest while he seduces the pale beauty Clotilde de Marelle (Angela Lansbury). He’ll soon throw Clotilde over for his business partner’s wife, Madeleine Forestier (Ann Dvorak), to whom he proposes marriage in a businesslike fashion literally as her consumptive husband, Charles Forestier (John Carradine), is drawing his last breath.

Angela Lansbury and George Sanders

Clotilde remains a presence in the film throughout. (Perhaps in an attempt to make Duroy more sympathetic, he dies with her name on his lips.)

She loves him madly, and while Duroy’s treatment of Clotilde is never less than ungentlemanly, the film never gets as sexually brutal as the poster above promises with its implication of desperate, “please-don’t-leave-me” fellatio.

With the help of his wife Madeleine, who does most of the actual writing, Duroy becomes a Victorian-era Walter Winchell with a gossip column called “Echoes.” With it, he influences politics and high society, and becomes a high-level player, but he always wants more. He attempts to buy a title from a family named “De Cantel” whose last descendant is missing, presumed dead. With the promise of his incipient nobility, Duroy courts the young heiress Suzanne Walter (Susan Douglas).

In his role as Duroy, Sanders is always doing things that telegraph his utter boredom with the here-and-now, such as playing with a ball and cup or flipping playing cards into a hat on the floor. He has a voracious appetite for fame, wealth, and women, but he almost never seems to be enjoying himself.

It’s a role tailor-made for the deadpan Sanders. In one of the last scenes of the film, in which he is preparing to fight a duel in the rain with an overheated young opponent, he casually asks for an umbrella and says, “I should not like to quit the field of honor with a bad case of the sniffles.”