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Tag Archives: James Wong Howe

The Baron of Arizona (March 1, 1950)

The Baron of Arizona
The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

Samuel Fuller didn’t suffer from sophomore slump when he directed his second picture, The Baron of Arizona. It’s every bit as good as his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), and boasts a great lead performance by Vincent Price and gorgeous black & white cinematography by James Wong Howe.

James Wong Howe is arguably the greatest cinematographer of black & white films of all time, and Fuller was lucky to get him at a low rate. The Baron of Arizona had a small budget and was shot in just 15 days, but it looks like an “A” picture. The cinematography is a big part of this, and Price’s pitch-perfect performance as a louche swindler is another.

Price plays James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure who attempted to defraud the U.S. government by forging land grants in order to take possession of more than 18,000 square miles of the central Arizona Territory and the western New Mexico Territory in the late 19th century.

Vincent Price is best known today as a horror icon, so many people forget that he wasn’t always associated with the horror genre. I always enjoy watching his early performances (and listening to him play “The Saint” on the radio), and the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona is perfectly suited to his talents.

Price was an actor who always seemed to be chuckling at a joke that none of the other actors in the film were privy to, and that quality works perfectly for the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona.

With just two films as a director under his belt, Samuel Fuller was already establishing himself as a filmmaker who could make entertaining, fast-moving, low-budget pictures that had hidden depths. Just like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona uses the tropes of the western to turn an American myth on its head.

The Baron of Arizona takes the classic American idea of the “self-made man” and draws it out to its most audacious and unethical conclusion.

Vincent Price

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Body and Soul (Nov. 9, 1947)

Body and Soul
Body and Soul (1947)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Enterprise Productions / United Artists

Charlie Davis’s face is a road map. Every scar tells a story, and every story is the same — a bruising boxing match, a big purse, wealth, success, and another step farther away from the people he loves.

This isn’t a spoiler, because we see exactly how far Charlie Davis (John Garfield) has fallen in the first scene of Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul. He wakes from a nightmare, sweat glistening on his scarred face, mournfully crying out a name … “Ben!”

He drives to his childhood home in New York’s Lower East Side and sees his mother (Anne Revere), but neither she nor his old girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer), wants anything to do with him, so he drives to a smoky jazz club to see the beautiful singer Alice (Hazel Brooks). She tells him his manager has been looking for him everywhere. “How does it look, Charlie, the night before the fight, three a.m. and you loaded?” she asks him.

The next morning at the weigh-in, the challenger for the middleweight championship of the world, Jack Marlowe (Artie Dorrell), derides the tired and hungover champ. “All fat,” he sneers. “Nightclub fat … whiskey fat … thirty-five year-old fat.”

Back in his dressing room, Charlie’s gangster manager Roberts (Lloyd Gough) reminds him that he’s being paid $60,000 to throw the fight, and to make it look good.

John Garfield

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. We see Charlie’s youth as a tough Jewish kid looking to break into the fight game. His best friend Shorty Polaski (Joseph Pevney) is his manager. Charlie’s father David (Art Smith) is supportive, but his mother wants him to choose a more respectable profession than the sweet science. All of this is strongly reminiscent of Garfield’s previous film, Humoresque (1946), although I have to say that Garfield is more believable as a pugilist than he was as a violinist.

Body and Soul is the first really great boxing film, and it still stands as one of the best. Garfield’s performance as Charlie Davis is pitch-perfect, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous. As good as Raging Bull (1980) is, it still owes an enormous debt to this film. And so does nearly every boxing picture made after 1947.

To be fair, the rise and fall structure of Body and Soul and most of its story elements were clichéd even at the time of the film’s release. But despite a sense of familiarity, Body and Soul still manages to feel fresh. A lot of this has to do with the final fight, which Howe famously shot with a handheld camera while standing on roller skates. It’s a brilliantly shot and edited sequence, and still thrilling to watch.

Garfield and Dorrell

Body and Soul was director Rossen’s second feature. His first, Johnny O’Clock (1947), was good, but overly complicated and occasionally contrived. Body and Soul, on the other hand, is a punch straight to the gut. It’s moving, brilliantly acted, and one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.

Body and Soul was nominated for three Oscars; John Garfield for best actor, Abraham Polonsky for best original screenplay, and Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish for best film editing, the only category in which it won.

Pursued (March 2, 1947)

Pursued
Pursued (1947)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.

In the territory of New Mexico at the turn of the century, a handsome, sloe-eyed man named Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is hunted across a desolate landscape by gunmen. He returns to the cabin where he was found as a boy and prepares for a showdown. The mountains that surround the cabin are drenched in shadows, and they tower above the tiny human figures below them like skyscrapers. As Jeb waits, he is plagued by nightmares of boots on wooden floors — boots with jangling spurs — but he can’t make sense of his strange visions.

Welcome to the world of Raoul Walsh’s Pursued. It’s an oneiric film about a man who is haunted by the past. Mitchum narrates the film, sounding like someone who knows he is doomed. (“I always have a feeling something’s after me,” he says.)

Pursued is a western, not a film noir, but it has all the hallmarks of noir, including stunning black and white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, Freudian relationships up the wazoo, the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present, a man on the run, plenty of sinister characters packing heat, and a story mostly told in flashback.

Young Jeb Rand (played by Ernest Severn) survived the massacre that killed his family and was taken in by Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), who has two children about Jeb’s age — Thor (short for “Thorley”) and Adam. They’re played by Peggy Miller and Charles Bates as kids, and by Teresa Wright and John Rodney as adults.

Jeb often complains that his head hurts. Nothing about his past makes sense, and his present is equally confusing. Thor and Adam don’t treat him as a brother. (His separation from them is represented visually as well as thematically. In one scene in which the family gathers, Mrs. Callum stands in the center, with Thor and Adam on one side of her and Jeb on the other.) Adam hates his adopted brother Jeb. Thor loves Jeb, but her love seems more romantic than sisterly.

One day, someone shoots young Jeb’s horse out from under him. Mrs. Callum tells him it was probably just careless deer hunters, but Jeb is convinced that it was Adam.

We eventually learn that Mrs. Callum’s brother-in-law, Grant Callum (Dean Jagger), led the attack on Jeb’s family. Grant’s brother (Mrs. Callum’s husband) was killed in the attack, and Grant was wounded and had to have his arm amputated. Grant vowed not to rest until every last Rand on earth was dead. Mrs. Callum, on the other hand, considers the events of that night Providence — the Lord may have taken her husband, but He delivered unto her a second son.

Jeb, Thor, and Adam grow to adulthood. When the draft board demands that at least one young man from every family in the territory enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War, Jeb and Adam flip a coin. Jeb loses.

Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright

He returns home from the war to find that little has changed. Adam still hates him, and Thor still has romantic feelings for him. “I want you to come courtin’ me,” she says. “I know that seems silly when we grew up together, but I want to pretend we didn’t.”

Mrs. Callum doesn’t have a problem with Jeb and Thor marrying, but she refuses to ever talk with Jeb about the night his family was killed, no matter how much he pushes her. “I’m giving you my daughter for your wife,” she says. “Isn’t that enough for you? Doesn’t that show you that you’re loved?”

Grant Callum dogs Jeb’s every move, sending shooters after him even though he clearly just wants to be left alone. After he’s forced to kill two men in self-defense, Mrs. Callum and Thor shun Jeb, and tell him that he’s dead to them.

“Right then I knew I had to have you,” Jeb says in voiceover as he watches Thor at a funeral. “I’d have to climb across two graves to get to you, but nothing in the world would hold me back.”

Pursued has a happy ending, but that doesn’t stop Jeb and Thor’s semi-incestuous love from having a doomed quality. “There was a black dog riding my back and yours,” Jeb tells Thor as they reminisce about their past while waiting in the burned-out cabin together for Grant Callum and his gunmen to arrive.

This noirish sense of doom pervades the film. So many scenes take place at night or indoors — in smoky saloons and casinos — that the film has a powerful sense of claustrophobia. And the fact that Jeb is a returning combat veteran plagued by nightmares gives him more in common with many of the protagonists of post-war film noirs than it does with the cowboy heroes of most post-war oaters.

Nora Prentiss (Feb. 21, 1947)

In 1947, March was “make jokes about Nora Prentiss” month on the Jack Benny show. A week didn’t go by with at least one line like, “She makes Nora Prentiss look talkative.”

I suppose the promotional tagline for the film — “Would you keep your mouth shut if you were Nora Prentiss?” — was irresistible for comedians, especially since it’s selling the picture based on its final 10 minutes, which strain credulity a bit.

If you can swallow a few plot contrivances, however, Nora Prentiss is a fantastic film. The performances are great, Vincent Sherman’s direction is assured, Franz Waxman’s score is rich and expressive, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is crisp and beautiful, as it always was.

The title, poster, and advertising campaign for Nora Prentiss all seem to be modeled on the earlier Warner Bros. “women’s noir” Mildred Pierce (1945), but they’re very different films. Nora Prentiss, which is based on Paul Webster’s short story, “The Man Who Died Twice,” is more about its male protagonist, Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith), than it is about Nora.

The film begins, as so many noirs do, at the end. A man sits in the shadows of a prison cell and refuses to say how he knew Dr. Talbot, or why he was blackmailing him.

Dr. Talbot is a 43-year-old physician with a wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and two teenaged children (Robert Arthur and Wanda Hendrix). He lives in a beautiful house in San Francisco and shares a thriving practice with his partner, Dr. Joel Merriam (Bruce Bennett).

One night, Talbot comes to the aid of a beautiful nightclub singer after she’s knocked down by a car and suffers minor leg injuries. The singer, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan), flirts with him a little as he tends to her, her nylon rolled down on one leg.

The strait-laced Talbot is completely smitten with Nora, but when she finds out he’s married, she resists his clumsy advances. Talbot says he doesn’t see a reason why they can’t be friends, but an afternoon at his cabin in the mountains never seems platonic, no matter what either of them says.

Nora is drawn to Talbot, but she never seems less than clear-headed about the affair. After a short, dreamy period of time with Talbot, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be “the other woman,” and attempts to break it off. He is less clear-headed, and will do anything to be with her, including — but not limited to — promising her he will divorce his wife, using a cadaver to fake his own death, and following her to New York, traveling under an assumed name.

If the logic police tend to kick down your doors of perception anytime the party in your head gets too weird, you’ll probably find yourself picking apart the plot of Nora Prentiss starting around the halfway mark.

But if you can relax, sit bank, and enjoy the ride, Nora Prentiss is an absorbing film about a man who loses everything for the love of a woman, eventually devolving into a paranoid, hard-drinking wreck who never leaves his hotel room for fear he will be recognized.

Kent Smith is very good as Talbot, but the film works as well as it does because of Ann Sheridan’s performance as Nora. Unlike noirs in which a wicked femme fatale with no discernible inner life seduces and ensnares a sad sack Everyman, Sheridan’s Nora is a three-dimensional character. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and sensible enough to pull away from Talbot when things start to go south. This has the effect of making Talbot’s obsession sadder and more believable than it would be if she were just a harpy with a beautiful face.

My Reputation (Jan. 25, 1946)

Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation, which premiered on January 25, 1946, and went into wide release a day later, was filmed in 1944. Prior to its stateside theatrical release, My Reputation was released for military use, and was shown to troops as entertainment during World War II. The screenplay, by Catherine Turney, is based on the novel Instruct My Sorrow, by Clare Jaynes.

On paper, this movie didn’t interest me, and I probably never would have watched it if I wasn’t doing this project. A prototypical “women’s picture,” My Reputation is about a young widow living among the upper crust of Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1942. Once I started watching it, however, it quickly drew me in. It’s a quality picture from beginning to end. The actors all deliver heartfelt performances, the situations and dialogue are realistic, and the direction, editing, and cinematography are all top-notch.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the protagonist, Jessica Drummond. When the film begins, Jessica’s husband has just died, leaving her a widow and their two sons, aged 12 and 14, fatherless. The executor of the late Mr. Drummond’s estate, lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) clearly has feelings for Jessica, but they are not reciprocated. Jessica’s mother, Mrs. Mary Kimball (Lucile Watson) has worn mourning clothes ever since her own husband died decades earlier. Jessica’s mother is scandalized when Jessica refuses to dress differently after her husband’s death. “Our kind of people wear black,” she says matter-of-factly.

My Reputation reminded me a little of Mildred Pierce (1945) in its nuanced portrayal of a single woman navigating tricky social waters. It didn’t hurt that Eve Arden, who played Mildred’s best friend, here performs a similar duty as Jessica’s reliable gal pal, Ginna Abbott.

When Jessica goes on a skiing vacation with Ginna and her husband, Cary (John Ridgely), she meets the the insouciant and charming Maj. Scott Landis (George Brent), who is on leave from the war. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into a romance, but Jessica distances herself from him when he becomes too sexually forward. Landis isn’t a heel, but he is a bit of a rogue, and clearly states that he has no plans to marry. Despite this, Jessica can’t get him out of her mind, and when their paths cross again, she gives in to his advances, consenting to at least kissing. Whether more transpires between them is left up to the viewer, but there is no implication that they consumate their love. This doesn’t change the scandalous nature of their relationship, and Jessica quickly finds herself ostracized from the gossipy circles in which she runs. She stands up for herself, but the disapproval of her mother and her friends is nothing compared with the criticism she receives from children, especially her younger son, who says, “But you belong to dad. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s dead or not.”

My Reputation ends on a hopeful note, but its depiction of an intelligent, sensitive woman living in a stifling social milieu is still hard to watch. The viewer’s frustration is mitigated, however, by the excellence of the production, especially the attention to detail that makes a well-made film such a joy to watch. For instance, in a scene in which Jessica confronts her mother, the shot is framed so that a large portrait of Jessica as a child and her mother as a younger woman hangs in the background between them. The juxtaposition says nearly as much as their heated words.

Objective, Burma! (Jan. 26, 1945)

objective_burma_xlg
Objective, Burma! (1945)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Errol Flynn was rejected for military service due to his enlarged heart, tuberculosis, morphine addiction, and bouts of malaria. But that didn’t stop him from making some kick-ass war movies.

Raoul Walsh, who made a number of fine films, directed this patriotic World War II action film starring Flynn as an Army Captain named Nelson. World War II junkies will enjoy the fact that Objective, Burma! features weapons, gear, and uniforms that are all original and accurate.

Of course, the story itself is not all that accurate. The British apparently objected when the film was released, since it took the basic story of an operation by British Chindits and retold it as an American operation. (Flynn, an Australian, seems to be playing an American in the film, though his accent is hard to place.) One of the producers, however, said that the film was also largely inspired by the 1940 film Northwest Passage, which took place during the French and Indian War. So, like a lot of Hollywood productions, it’s a war film that could just as easily have been a Western.

If you’re looking for historical accuracy (or, for that matter, Japanese soldiers who don’t look suspiciously Filipino and Chinese) look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a gritty war movie that delivers the goods, Objective, Burma! fits the bill.