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Tag Archives: James Gunn

Killer McCoy (Nov. 30, 1947)

Nineteen forty-seven was the year Mickey Rooney turned 27, and the star of the Andy Hardy series and family fare like National Velvet (1944) was looking to stretch his range as an actor and step into more grown-up roles.

Roy Rowland’s Killer McCoy is a remake of Richard Thorpe’s The Crowd Roars (1938), which starred Robert Taylor as a young pugilist named Tommy “Killer” McCoy who was caught between his no-good father and his gangland manager.

Hopefully there’ll be a second remake next year starring former child star Haley Joel Osment. Maybe they could even throw in a drug-related in-ring breakdown, à la Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall, or a tawdry and mysterious death, à la Arturo Gatti.

But I digress.

Killer McCoy isn’t a bad flick, and Mickey Rooney is pretty good in it, but it has the misfortune of being a boxing picture that was released right around the same time as Body and Soul, which is one of the best boxing pictures of all time.

If you’re a fan of knock-down, drag-out fights, Killer McCoy does offer more punches per foot of film than Body and Soul. On the other hand, if the number of punches thrown was the only measure of a boxing film, then Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) would be superior to Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), and we all know that ain’t the case.

Rooney is pretty convincing as a boxer. The filmmakers don’t try to shoot around how unbelievably tiny he is, so it makes sense that his character starts out fighting as a featherweight and moves up to lightweight. (Although I think in real life Rooney would probably have been more in the flyweight and bantamweight range.) The boxers he faces are mostly little guys, too, like Bob Steele, who plays a former lightweight champion named Sailor Graves.

The supporting cast is generally good. I love seeing diminutive cowboy actor Steele in anything, and the same goes for Brian Donlevy, who plays boxing manager and fight promoter Jim Caighn. And actor James Dunn is great as Tommy McCoy’s drunken father, a former vaudevillian who clings to the past.

The problem is not with the actors, but with the story, which never really allows its characters to become three-dimensional people. Caighn, the manager, is an especially egregious example. He has a double life as “Carrson,” a Wall Street tycoon who is far removed from the disreputable world of boxing. Caighn doesn’t want his daughter, Sheila Carrson (Ann Blyth), to know about his double life. This is all totally ludicrous, of course, and only exists to manufacture a stumbling block to Sheila’s romance with Tommy McCoy.

Killer McCoy is competently made and entertaining if you’re able tolerate Mickey Rooney, which a lot of people aren’t. Its boxing matches are well choreographed and action-packed. It’s no Body and Soul, but then again, what is?

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The Unfaithful (June 5, 1947)

The opening narration of The Unfaithful informs us that while the film takes place in Southern California, it deals not with a problem of a particular place, but with a problem of our times. At first, this problem seems to be rampant divorce, but it ends up being more about wartime infidelity (or possibly the widespread problem of married women committing murder in self-defense and then having to lie about it to cover up an affair).

It’s hard not to compare The Unfaithful with Nora Prentiss, which was released earlier the same year. Both were directed by Vincent Sherman, both star the beautiful Ann Sheridan, and both have infidelity as their subject. But while Nora Prentiss indulged in some truly outré and baroque excesses by the time the credits rolled, The Unfaithful goes in the opposite direction, and slowly peters out to an anticlimax. It’s a good film — well-acted and directed with assurance — but when it was over, I couldn’t help feeling as if the filmmakers wanted to make a melodrama about an “issue of the day,” but weren’t sure how to fold it into the murder investigation and blackmail story that dominate the film.

The picture opens with a party being thrown by a character named Paula (played by Eve Arden) to celebrate her divorce. (Interestingly, Arden herself divorced her husband — Ned Bergen — in 1947 after eight years of marriage. Her next marriage would be more successful. She married actor Brooks West in 1952, and they stayed married until his death in 1984 from a heart ailment. She and West had four children together.)

In attendance at the party is Paula’s friend Christine “Chris” Hunter (played by Ann Sheridan, who was also no stranger to divorce. She and her second husband, George Brent, divorced in 1943 on their one-year anniversary.) After the party, a mysterious figure attacks Chris as she unlocks the front door of her home. He pushes her inside and a struggle ensues, which we see play out through the living room windows of the Hunters’ suburban home as two silhouettes locked in a life-or-death struggle.

Chris’s husband, Robert “Bob” Hunter (Zachary Scott), a big-time house builder and real-estate developer, arrives home and comforts his wife, who’s understandably shaken up after killing the intruder in self-defense. The couple’s friend and lawyer Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayres) is also on hand to comfort Chris.

Det. Lt. Reynolds (John Hoyt) questions Chris, and doesn’t seem to really believe her story of a stranger attacking her in her home and demanding jewels, but he doesn’t accuse her of anything … yet. The detective also questions Hannaford about the couple, and Hannaford tells him he’d be hard pressed to find a couple as happy as the Hunters.

To summarize the plot any further would be to give away too much. It should suffice to say that there’s more to the story than Chris originally reveals to the police, and the film ends with a sensational trial and plenty of wagging tongues.

The Unfaithful takes place mostly indoors, but there are a lot of great Los Angeles exteriors, too. If you’re a fan of vintage street cars, this movie is worth checking out just for them.

Ernest Haller’s cinematography is especially memorable. I really liked the dark, low-angle shot of Zachary Scott parking his car in his driveway and striding along the front walk of his home after receiving some terrible news. And during the trial, there’s a wonderful shot of a bloody knife being held over the murder photograph, then quickly moved to the left as an exhibit — but for just a moment it seems as if we are seeing a gruesome murder scene with a bloody knife poised over a corpse.

The screenplay of The Unfaithful, by James Gunn and crime novelist David Goodis, is excellently written, with realistic dialogue and characterizations, especially in Ann Sheridan’s scenes with Zachary Scott. As I said, it’s a bit anticlimactic, but the journey is worth it, and The Unfaithful is worth seeing despite a weak final reel. Incidentally, it’s an uncredited remake of William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), which was based on the 1927 play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham.

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.