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Tag Archives: James Bell

The Millerson Case (May 29, 1947)

The Millerson Case
The Millerson Casee (1947)
Directed by George Archainbaud
Columbia Pictures

George Archainbaud’s The Millerson Case is the eighth film in the Crime Doctor series from Columbia Pictures and for my money, it’s easily the worst.

Produced by Rudolph C. Flothow, the picture finds Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter) leaving his Manhattan medical office in the incapable hands of his partner, Dr. Shaw (Walden Boyle), and taking a well-earned vacation in the country for some hunting and fishing.

I’m not sure exactly which remote rural area the film is supposed to depict. Dr. Ordway drives to it from New York City, but it looks suspiciously like California. All I can tell you for certain is that it’s a part of the country where people are always asking, “What fer?”

After a young man named Eben Tuttle (Elvin Field) is shot while carrying a deer on his back, Dr. Ordway comes face to face with the superstitious and uneducated ways of local physician Sam Millerson (Griff Barnett). When an epidemic of typhoid fever breaks out, Doc Millerson dismisses it as “summer complaint” and treats it with “complaint bitters.” He says that he’s been doctorin’ man and beast for 30 years in these parts and he’ll be damned before anyone else tells him what to do.

Three people in the rural community die during the outbreak of typhoid, but one of them, Ward Beechy (Trevor Bardette), has peculiar symptoms. One of the more sensible medical men in the area, Dr. Prescott (Robert Kellard), who’s sent in after the government quarantines the area, isn’t surprised to find evidence of perforated peritonitis in Beechy’s intestinal tract, but he’s never seen a typhoid case with perforations throughout the entire alimentary canal, such as might have been caused by a corrosive poison. Dr. Ordway is unsurprised, since he found no evidence of typhoid bacilli in Beechy’s blood sample and knew something was fishy.

We get a sense of Ward Beechy’s character as he lies dying on his sickbed and he amorously tells his wife’s sister, Belle Englehart (Nancy Saunders), “Sometimes I wish you wasn’t my sister-in-law, Belle.”

This turns out not to be just a typical piece of throwaway hillbilly humor (of which there’s plenty to go around in The Millerson Case). After his death, we learn that Beechy was the local Casanova and had made plenty of enemies — mostly cuckolded husbands and boyfriends who had access to poison. He’s also described as the handsomest man around, which, if you know what Trevor Bardette looks like, should give you some idea of how good-looking the average man in town is.

Doc Millerson, who claims he knows who the guilty party is, receives a note in a woman’s handwriting requesting a meeting at the river bank. He goes there and is killed in an ambush by a rifle shot. With only the note as a clue, Dr. Ordway sets out to find the murderer (or murderers) of Beechy and Millerson and set things right.

I generally like the Crime Doctor series, and while I didn’t hate The Millerson Case, it was the weakest entry yet. There was too much broad humor for my taste, and the mystery just wasn’t very compelling.

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The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

Dead Reckoning (Jan. 2, 1947)

Lizabeth Scott looks a lot like Lauren Bacall. It’s hard not to compare her to Bacall even when she’s not acting opposite Humphrey Bogart.

There’s a lot of that going around in John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning, a film that isn’t as well known as some of Bogie’s other noirs, like The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946), and which suffers in direct comparison with them. But taken purely on its own merits, it’s a tense, well-made picture, full of post-war desperation, but with little of the silliness of a lot of returning-vet noirs, like Somewhere in the Night (1946).

Bogart plays a paratrooper, Capt. “Rip” Murdock, who was ordered to Washington, D.C., to receive the Distinguished Service Cross along with his buddy, Sgt. Johnny Drake, who was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Before they could get there, Johnny hopped off the train and went on the lam before any newspaper reporters could snap his picture.

Rip finds a Yale pin from the class of ’40 that reveals that Johnny’s real name was John Joseph Preston. Rip follows the clues to Johnny’s hometown of Gulf City. (It’s unclear where Gulf City is supposed to be, but it has to be somewhere along the Gulf Coast. There are palm trees, and Bogie refers at one point to “Southern hospitality.” There is a real Gulf City in Florida, but it’s an unincorporated little town that had a population of zero by the 1920s.)

Rip rolls through the microfiche in the Gulf City public library until he finds a newspaper article dated September 3, 1943, with the headline “Rich realtor slain.” The motive was jealousy — both men loved a woman named Coral Chandler — and Johnny confessed to the murder, but disappeared before he could be sentenced, and enlisted in the army under a false name.

Rip finds a scrap of paper in his hotel room with a single word, “Geronimo,” scrawled on it. It’s from Johnny (it was what they always yelled before jumping out of planes), but the next time Rip sees Johnny, he’s a burnt-up corpse in a twisted car wreck.

Rip tracks down the woman in the case, the beautiful and statuesque Coral “Dusty” Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), a singer in a Gulf City nightclub. The scene in which she sings “Either It’s Love or It Isn’t” under a spotlight to Rip at his table is memorable, though Scott’s lip synching is pretty awful. Rip calls her “Cinderella with a husky voice,” and they embark on a whirlwind love-hate romance.

Most of the film is told in flashback. Rip sits in a pew in a church, his face hidden in the shadows, confessing his sins to Father Logan (James Bell), whom he sought out because he’s a former paratrooper. Logan was known as “the jumping padre, always the first one out of the plane.”

If you’re starting to think that Dead Reckoning might have an overabundance of references to parachuting, you’d be right, and we haven’t even scratched the surface. (The title of the film refers to flying a plane without the aid of electronic instruments — which is a metaphor for Rip’s dangerous, seat-of-the-pants investigation — and the final image of the film is a woman’s face metamorphosing into a billowing white parachute floating to earth along with the whispered word “Geronimo.”)

In many ways, Dead Reckoning feels like a pastiche of earlier Bogart film noirs. The loyalty to a dead man is straight out of The Maltese Falcon (“When a guy’s pal is killed he oughtta do something about it,” Rip says). A villain who rushes to open a door at the climax, only to be shot down, is straight out of The Big Sleep. And the film’s chief antagonists, the effete, cultured Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and his brutish, mildly brain-damaged henchman, Krause (Marvin Miller), are straight out of too many noirs to count.

Dead Reckoning carves out its own misanthropic place in the noir pantheon with its doses of brutal violence, fiery finale, and Rip’s distrust of dames, which is nothing new for a noir, but which Dead Reckoning takes to new heights. Rip says things like “I don’t trust anybody, especially women” and “Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?” And his diatribe about how women should all be shrunk down to pocket size has to be heard to be believed.

Dead Reckoning is full of memorable hard-boiled dialogue. Unfortunately, Scott can’t always pull it off the way Bogart can. The dialogue in film noir is often artificial, but it’s artificial in the same way as Shakespearean drama — it can express something more real than “naturalistic” dialogue can, but it takes a very talented actor to make it work.

Bogart had his limitations as an actor, but he perfectly delivered every single line of dialogue in every single film noir in which he appeared. Dead Reckoning is no exception, and while it’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen, it’s damned good, and I look forward to seeing it again some day.

The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.