RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Houseley Stevenson

Dark Passage (Sept. 5, 1947)

Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage is the red-headed stepchild of the Bogie-Bacall movies.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married in 1945, and stayed married until Bogart’s death in 1957. They made four movies together — To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage, and Key Largo (1948). Of these four, Dark Passage is the strangest and the least widely acclaimed.

It was a bit of a critical and box office disappointment at the time of its release, possibly because Bogart’s face doesn’t actually appear on-screen until the picture is more than half over, and possibly because of Bogart’s involvement with the Committee for the First Amendment.

The Committee for the First Amendment was an organization that was formed to protest the treatment of Hollywood figures by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Bogart later recanted his involvement with the organization in a letter published in the March 1948 issue of Photoplay entitled “I’m No Communist.”)

Dark Passage is based on a book by oddball crime novelist David Goodis. The film does a good job of bringing Goodis’s strong characterizations and nightmarish, occasionally surreal demimonde to the big screen.

For better or for worse, it also does a good job of bringing to life some of Goodis’s less powerful aspects, like his convoluted plots and his reliance on coincidence.

But just like the best of Goodis’s novels, the film version of Dark Passage doesn’t need to be plausible to work. It plays by its own rules, and when it works, boy does it work.

In Dark Passage, Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a man convicted of killing his wife who breaks out of San Quentin by hiding in a 55-gallon drum on the back of a flatbed truck. He manages to roll himself off the truck and into a ditch somewhere in Marin County. He strips down to his undershirt, buries his prison-issue shirt, and takes to the highway to thumb a ride. He’s picked up, first by a guy named Baker (Clifton Young), and then — when that little ride goes sour — by a beautiful artist named Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall).

She hides him under her canvases and wet paint so they can make it through a roadblock at the entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge, then she takes him to her luxurious bachelorette pad in North Beach. Why is she helping him? Because her own father was unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, and because she followed Parry’s trial, even writing letters to the editor protesting his treatment by the press.

For the first 37 minutes of Dark Passage, Bogart’s face is never shown, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. This P.O.V. style of filmmaking was pioneered by Robert Montgomery in his film Lady in the Lake (1947), but the technique works much better in Dark Passage, for a variety of reasons. First, the editing is more aggressive than in Lady in the Lake, which was essentially one long tracking shot designed to put the viewer in the shoes of the protagonist but that never quite worked. Second, there are third-person shots of Bogart in which his back is turned or his face is in shadows, which helps to break things up and make them more visually palatable.

Once Parry makes it to San Francisco, Dark Passage gets really weird. Irene gives him $1,000, new clothes and a hat, and a place to stay, but if you thought that qualified Parry as the luckiest escaped convict in history, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

He’s picked up one night by a cabbie named Sam (Tom D’Andrea), who not only recognizes him but believes Parry got a raw deal from the court system, and hooks him up with his buddy, Dr. Walter Coley, a plastic surgeon who can change his face.

Nervous about staying with Irene, Parry goes to see his friend George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson), a trumpet player who gives Parry a key to his place. Incidentally, we get our first shot of Parry’s “real” face on the front of a newspaper laid across his friend George’s chest as he lies in bed. The real Parry has a mustache, and doesn’t look much like Bogart.

But he looks exactly like Bogart after his trip to see Dr. Coley, who’s played by 67-year-old actor Houseley Stevenson. Dr. Coley is the most ghoulishly fun character in Dark Passage. Wrinkled, liver-spotted, and chain-smoking, Dr. Coley asks Vincent if he’s ever seen a botched plastic surgery job right before he puts him under, and the kaleidoscopic nightmare Parry has while undergoing plastic surgery is a real standout.

Even after the surgery, we don’t fully see Bogart’s face until more than an hour into the picture.

Until then, he’s covered with bandages, smoking cigarettes with long filters and communicating with Irene using pencil and paper. (Throw a pair of shades on him and he’d look like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man).

While the plot may be contrived and coincidence-laden, the characterizations are sharp, and the actors are all really good. Lauren Bacall has to carry the film for much of the first hour, and she delivers a really good performance. She’s much better at interacting with the camera than any of the actors in Lady in the Lake were. Consequently, the P.O.V. technique draws less attention to itself, and works fairly well.

When the bandages finally come off, Parry looks at himself in the mirror and remarks, “Same eyes, same nose, same hair. Huh. Everything else seems to be in a different place. I sure look older. That’s all right, I’m not. And if it’s all right with me it oughtta be all right with you.”

The fact that Bogart and Bacall were married in real life gives this line a little humorous subtext.

Hidden behind his new face, Parry is faced with another murder to solve, cops on his tail, a chiseler who hopes to blackmail Irene after he finds out she’s been shielding Parry, the presence of Irene’s old beau Bob (Bruce Bennett), and her shrill friend Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), who keeps dropping by and nosing around.

That Parry goes about solving his problems in a haphazard, roundabout way should come as a surprise to no one who’s familiar with the fiction of David Goodis.

Dark Passage may not be a perfect film, but it’s an intriguing and involving one. Sid Hickox’s cinematography is gorgeous, and the location shooting in San Francisco is really effective. It’s worth seeing at least once, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to see it again.

Advertisements

Ramrod (Feb. 21, 1947)

Ramrod
Ramrod (1947)
Directed by André De Toth
United Artists

They called it God’s country … until the Devil put a woman there! screams the poster for André de Toth’s Ramrod.

That darned Scratch. Goin’ and puttin’ women where they oughtn’t to be.

The woman in Ramrod is Connie Dickason, whose slight frame and small stature belie her will of iron. She’s played by Veronica Lake (de Toth’s wife from 1944 to 1952).

Connie’s fiancé, Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), plans to bring sheep through public grazing land, which hasn’t endeared him to local cattleman Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), who has Connie’s father, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), in his pocket.

Alcoholic cowhand Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) has worked for Shipley for the past three weeks. At the request of Connie, with whom he has a history, he backs up Shipley when Ivey and his men attempt to stop Shipley from leaving on the night stage. (If Shipley gets out of town, he’ll come back with sheep.)

Sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) cautions Dave to stay out of it. When Dave says to the sheriff, “I work for Walt,” the sheriff responds, “For three weeks? What do you owe that fool, your life?”

All of this takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film. De Toth drops the viewer into the action in media res. Without a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who during the first reel. (And it doesn’t help that Shipley and Ivey look nearly identical.)

Veronica Lake

But things become more clear as the plot rolls forward. Shipley decides that he doesn’t love Connie enough to die for her, so he heads out of town, leaving her his ranch. Connie’s father expects that she’ll do his bidding after Shipley departs, but she throws down the gauntlet with a fiery speech: “From now on I’m going to make a life of my own. And being a woman, I won’t have to use guns. This isn’t just a fight between father and daughter. You’ve pushed Frank Ivey at me ever since I can remember. For years I’ve watched him run things his way. The town, the valley, you, and now me! No one’s ever had the nerve to stand up to him. Well I have!”

Connie hires Dave to be foreman of her ranch, the Circle 66. He in turn hires an old friend of his, a handsome, charming loose cannon named Bill Schell (Don DeFore). Dave is determined that everything the Circle 66 does to fight Ivey be above board, but Connie and Bill have their own ideas. Connie may have made the decent and honest Dave “ramrod” of her outfit, but it’s the violent Bill Schell who is the true instrument of her will.

Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea has the pleasantly handsome, soft-featured face of the dad next door, but he’s tall enough and projects enough quiet menace to be convincing as the ramrod of the Circle 66 ranch. Don DeFore, who usually played pleasant, jovial men, is excellent playing against type as a cold-blooded gunman.

Ramrod is a great western. It’s based on a novel by Luke Short, and de Toth does an excellent job of capturing Short’s hard-boiled western prose and talent for characterization. The tone of the picture is closer to the film noirs of the period than it is to the westerns.

In Ramrod, de Toth creates a grim, violent world in which the righteous are just as likely to die as the wicked. Fistfights in this film don’t end with a bunch of broken furniture, they end with blood. A group of Ivey’s men beat an unarmed cowhand to death in front of Connie. When Bill Schell slaps a man in the face to enrage him, he tells Bill that he won’t be “rawhided” into drawing, so Bill burns his hand with a cigar. When Ivey shoots a man, he steps forward and finishes him off with another shot. Ramrod ends with a shootout, of course, but it doesn’t end with a quick draw or any fancy trick shooting. It ends with a shotgun blast to the gut.

True to the noir tone of the film, there’s a “good girl” to counterbalance Connie, named Rose (Arleen Whelan). The intertwined relationships of Dave, Bill, Connie, and Rose are well-played, and evolve naturally over the course of the film. Character drives the plot of Ramrod forward as much as bullets and fists.

Ramrod premiered on Friday, February 21, 1947, in Salt Lake City, at both the Utah and Capitol theaters. The world premiere event was part of Utah’s centennial celebration as a U.S. Territory. Ramrod went into wide release on May 2, 1947.

The Brasher Doubloon (Feb. 6, 1947)

Ladies, I don’t know if you know this, but the cure for frigidity is George Montgomery.

Let’s pretend that you are a young woman who is terrified of a man’s touch, due to some unstated trauma in your past. You work for a tyrannical old dowager who has an unnatural attachment to her spoiled, weak-willed son. You tremble at the sound of the old woman’s voice, and you live in her Southern California mansion as a virtual slave.

Then, one day, a man appears at the front door. He’s tall, he’s trim, he’s 30 years old, and he has high cheekbones and a nice mustache. In short, he’s the complete package. He’s come at the behest of your mistress, Mrs. Murdock, who wants him to track down a coin that has been stolen from her. The coin is the Brasher Doubloon of the title, and it’s a coin with “a romantic and violent history.”

If this man approached you privately after meeting with the old woman and you told him you don’t like to have men touch you, and he responded — “Well, in that case you better do something about your appearance. And that perfume you use … Night of Bliss. You just can’t seem to make up your mind, can you, Miss Davis?” — would you accept his offer to “take it very slowly” and cure you of your phobia?

Of course you would.

In John Brahm’s The Brasher Doubloon, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Montgomery) accepts both cases — tracking down the missing coin owned by Mrs. Murdock (Florence Bates) and curing her secretary, Merle Davis, of her frigidity.

Merle is played by Nancy Guild (rhymes with “wild”), who looks a little like a softer-featured Margot Kidder. She and Montgomery are an attractive pair, but their limits as thespians keep The Brasher Doubloon from being a top-flight picture.

Montgomery delivers every line in an emphatic huff. If it’s supposed to be hard-boiled it doesn’t come across that way. When a slimy coin dealer named Elisha Morningstar (Houseley Stevenson) asks Marlowe if he’s threatening him, Marlowe responds, “Yes…,” as though he’s not sure. When Marlowe tell Mrs. Murdock, “I do things my own way,” he sounds like a petulant child.

Throughout the film, Guild looks as though she’s been thrown into the deep end of the pool and doesn’t know how to swim. (This was only her second film — the first was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1946 noir Somewhere in the Night.) Luckily, wide-eyed panic is what her character calls for. Unfortunately, her performance remains pitched at exactly the same level throughout the film.

Dorothy Bennett’s screenplay, which is adapted from Chandler’s 1942 novel The High Window, is pretty good. John Brahm’s direction is excellent. Unlike The Big Sleep (1946), this isn’t a picture that’s overly difficult to follow, and the settings — from baronial mansions to smoky underworld dives and rented rooms — are well-done.

The Brasher Doubloon is one of the least well-known films adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel. After two B movies adapted from Chandler novels that did not retain the Philip Marlowe character were released — The Falcon Takes Over (1942) and Time to Kill (1942), based on Farewell, My Lovely and The High Window, respectively — the two most famous Philip Marlowe movies were made: Murder, My Sweet (1944), which starred Dick Powell as Marlowe, and The Big Sleep (1946), which starred Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe. Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947) rounds out the “big three” Philip Marlowe films of the ’40s, and while it’s not as well-regarded as the other two, it’s available on DVD, and is an interesting picture.

The Brasher Doubloon is currently unavailable on DVD, which is a shame. While the acting by the two leads is pretty bad, and there’s a really cheesy scene at the end in which Marlowe assembles all of the suspects and explains to them who committed the murders, overall this is a pretty tight noir mystery.

The Yearling (Dec. 18, 1946)

The Yearling
The Yearling (1946)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Yearling, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is a hard movie for me to review. It’s a beautifully filmed picture, and is a great example of just how good the sometimes-gaudy Technicolor process could look.

But it’s also one of the saddest “family” films I’ve ever seen. I would certainly never show it to a child under the age of 12, and would only show it to a child 12 or older if they knew the basic story and specifically requested to see it. I’ve seen The Yearling called “heart-warming,” but I found it emotionally draining and depressing.

I don’t know why so many animal stories for young people involve a beloved pet dying, but they do. Unlike The Yearling, however, the animals in Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller at least die after a heroic struggle of some kind. In The Yearling, the 12-year-old protagonist is forced to shoot his beloved deer, whom he raised from a fawn, because it’s eating their cash crops. The message, obviously, is that life is hard, and growing up and becoming a man involves unpleasant tasks, but it still left me feeling more dejected than inspired.

Young Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman, Jr.) is a dreamer — sweet and sensitive despite his hardscrabble life in the Florida scrub country in the late 19th century. He has an easy rapport with his father, Ezra “Penny” Baxter (Gregory Peck), but a more difficult relationship with his mother, Orry (Jane Wyman), who is as hard and unforgiving as pioneer women come. Early in the film, Penny tells his wife, “Don’t be afraid to love the boy.” The film cuts to a scene of Wyman standing in front of the graves of all her dead children, David Baxter, who died at the age of 1 year, 3 months, Ora Baxter, who died at the age of 2 years, 4 months, and Ezra, Jr., who was stillborn, and we see precisely why she is afraid to let down her guard around her only son.

Jody yearns for a little pet of his own, but his parents never let him have one for practical reasons. After Penny is bit by a rattlesnake, however, he shoots a doe for its heart and liver, which can pull the poison from his wound. (I’m pretty sure this is what we would now call “unscientific.”) The doe leaves behind a little fawn, which Jody’s parents allow him to adopt. Jody names the fawn “Flag.”

But why? Why do they finally relent in that situation? The Baxters are practical people who could have seen the handwriting on the wall. When you’re a family that depends on every last penny of income your meager crops provide, having a domesticated deer living on your farm is bound to cause trouble.

Claude Jarman Jr

And trouble Flag causes. Jody’s parents are patient after the year-old Flag eats a large portion of their cash crop of tobacco. Penny and Jody plant a new crop of corn to help make up for the loss. But when Flag eats most of the corn, Jody promises to erect a fence so tall that Flag won’t be able to get over it. His father injures his back, and can’t help him, even though he wants to.

If this was just a story about learning responsibility, then Jody toiling far into the night, in the rain, over the course of several days, all alone, just to build a fence (which appears to be more than six-feet tall) to not only save his family’s crop but also the life of his beloved pet would be enough. But the moment Flag easily jumps over the fence and goes back to work on the corn, my heart dropped. I knew what was coming next, but still couldn’t quite believe it when it happened.

There are plenty of positive interpretations of The Yearling. Death is a part of life, and we all must learn this sooner or later. It could also be seen as a young boy coming to understand his mother’s pain and hardship. Like her, he has now lost something fragile and beautiful that died too young. But these were all things my head understood after watching the movie. My heart felt empty, as though I had just been shown the utter futility of cherishing anything frivolous or out of the ordinary.

The Yearling won three Academy Awards; one for Best Color Interior Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, and Edwin B. Willis), one for Best Color Cinematography (Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, and Arthur Arling), and one honorary Oscar for the young star of the film, Claude Jarman, Jr., who was given an award for “Outstanding Child Actor of 1946.” I thought that Jarman’s performance was good, but I didn’t believe him during two scenes in which he registers horror and disbelief. Peck is good, as always, but he seems miscast. He registers earnestness and decency, but his accent is never quite right. Wyman, I thought, gave the best performance in the film, which was impressive, considering how unsympathetic her character was for most of the running time.

Oh, and there’s a disclaimer at the end that all scenes involving animals were supervised by the American Humane Association. We’re used to seeing this now, but it was fairly new in the ’40s. After several horses were killed during the making of Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Jesse James (1939), there were numerous audience protests, which led to supervision by American Humane of most Hollywood films involving animal performers. This said, I’d really like to see behind the scenes for the amazing sequence in which Penny and Jody hunt a bear, and their dogs attack it over and over. I guess the bear was just hugging the dogs before it tossed them safely away, but it looked pretty damned real to me.

Somewhere in the Night (June 12, 1946)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night looks like a noir, talks like a noir, and walks like a noir. But when the credits rolled I felt more like I’d watched a light-hearted mystery farce than a noir. This isn’t to say that Somewhere in the Night is a bad movie. It’s actually a really fun one. But the dark journey promised by the film’s opening never pans out, and the plot twists grow increasingly ludicrous as the picture goes on.

The first few minutes of the picture are mostly shot in first-person P.O.V., as a man (played by John Hodiak) wakes up in an Army field hospital. Through voiceover and the images in front of his face, we learn that he has no idea who he is, and doesn’t remember anything leading up to this point. This opening presages Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person P.O.V. extravaganza Lady in the Lake (1947). Luckily, unlike that picture, the technique is used judiciously in Somewhere in the Night.

Hodiak’s character has Army identification in the name of “George Taylor,” a Dear John letter (it’s really more of an “I Hate You, John” letter), and a letter of credit from someone named “Larry Cravat.” What’s a noir protagonist to do? Clearly, the best course of action is to head for the mean streets of Los Angeles and attempt to track down Larry Cravat, even though “Taylor” has no idea what he’s doing or who all these people are who seem to want him dead. Why should that stop him? Taylor is a Purple Heart recipient and seems to be able to handle himself. It doesn’t hurt that the briefcase he picks up in a Los Angeles train station contains a gun and a letter from Larry Cravat telling Taylor that there is $5,000 deposited in his name in an L.A. bank.

For the first half hour or so, Somewhere in the Night has a few things to say about the plight of returning G.I.s, in particular the disappointments handed them by the women they came home to (or didn’t come home to, in Taylor’s case), and the resentment some servicemen must have felt upon their return.

“You know there’s been a terrible shortage of men,” a beautiful young woman named Phyllis (Margo Woode) tells Taylor.

“Yeah, so we heard in the Pacific,” he responds. “This war must have been murder on you poor women. We used to cry our eyes out about it.”

But, as I said, the longer Somewhere in the Night goes on, the more plot points stack up, and the less time the film has to do anything but crank through its story.

When Taylor goes to the bank to try and collect his $5,000 he arouses the suspicion of the cashier and he ends up fleeing empty-handed. He follows leads to a Turkish bath and then to a nightclub. Set up at the club by the bartender, he ends up hiding from a couple of mugs in the dressing room of a pretty singer named Christy Smith, who is played by the 20-year old Nancy Guild (rhymes with “wild”).

Guild is fresh-faced, has a beautiful voice, and plays her role well. She’s not outstanding, but she does a good job, especially considering this was her first role in a film; not just as leading lady, her first film role, period. Apparently she felt out of her depth, and the production was a struggle for her. In later interviews, she credited Mankiewicz’s generous nature and sensitive direction, and said he was a real father figure to her.

Hodiak also does a decent job, but it’s a one-note performance. He sweats profusely and looks haunted, and does a great job with lines like, “I’m tired of being pushed around. The war’s over for me. I don’t have to live afraid anymore.” He sounds genuinely angry, and he also sounds as if he doesn’t believe his own words one bit.

It wasn’t until after I finished watching Somewhere in the Night that I learned that while Hodiak was born in the United States, he grew up in an immigrant family, spoke Hungarian and Polish at home, and always had to work hard at his English diction. “No part has ever come easily to me,” Hodiak once said. “Every one has been a challenge. I’ve worked as hard as I could on them all.” I never would have guessed from this film that his first language wasn’t English, but there is something about his delivery that is strange and stilted.

Luckily, Guild and Hodiak have wonderful support from two great actors who straddled the line between character actor and leading man; Lloyd Nolan and Richard Conte.

Nolan plays a police detective, Lt. Donald Kendall, who doesn’t eat lunch because it puts him to sleep and doesn’t drink coffee because it keeps him awake. He also wonders aloud several times why detectives in the movies don’t ever take their hats off. (He figures it out by the end of the picture.) And he has plenty of great lines, which he delivers in his trademark wry fashion, like “Big post-war boom in homicide.”

Conte plays a nightclub owner named Mel Phillips, who’s smooth without seeming oily, and whose motives aren’t initially clear. (If you had $5 for every time Conte played a nightclub owner in a noir, you could probably take your whole family out to a nice dinner.)

Somewhere in the Night is a good picture; well-made and a lot of fun. It was all just a little silly for my taste, though.