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Tag Archives: John Abbott

The Web (May 25, 1947)

The Web
The Web (1947)
Directed by Michael Gordon
Universal Pictures

The Web is a classic case of mediocre material made incredibly entertaining by an excellent cast and a good director. The film’s plot may be run-of-the-mill, but the film itself is never boring.

The exciting opening takes the viewer along the busy Manhattan streets and overpasses that lead to Grand Central Station and culminates in a tearful reunion between an old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), and his daughter Martha (Maria Palmer). Kroner has just been released from prison, and he is surprised that “Mr. Colby” didn’t come to meet him at the train station. The viewer immediately knows that something sinister is going on, because we see a mug trailing Kroner and his daughter through the train station.

Next, we meet brash young attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O’Brien), who’s trying to force his way into Andrew Colby Enterprises to see the man in charge. When he pushes through several sets of doors and finally meets Noel Faraday (Ella Raines), he demands to see Mr. Colby. When she’s asks what his business with Mr. Colby is, he says, “Well, he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, and I’d like to find out what his intentions are.” When Noel tells him that she’s Mr. Colby’s personal secretary, he responds, “Well that just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stocking seams straight.”

Their dialogue continues in this vein for the rest of the picture. Regan is the kind of person who would be known today in some circles as a “jerk,” and if he said half the things he says in The Web during working hours he’d be sued for sexual harassment.

But he’s also a tireless crusader for his clients, which becomes clear when he finally comes face to face with Andrew Colby, who’s played with smooth, villainous charm by the one and only Vincent Price. Regan is there to serve him with a summons on behalf of his client, Emilio Canepa (Tito Vuolo). As a result of Colby’s negligent driving, Canepa’s pushcart and load of bananas were damaged to the tune of $68.72.

Raines and O'Brien

Colby sees in Regan’s bullheaded doggedness an opportunity, and offers Regan a $5,000 retainer to come and work for him. Colby tells Regan that five years ago, his business associate Leopold Kroner took nearly $1 million worth of bonds belonging to Colby’s firm, made duplicates, and sold the counterfeit bonds. He was caught and sent to prison, but now that Kroner has been released, Colby claims he’s been threatening him. Colby has a big deal coming up, and he doesn’t want it known that his life is being threatened. If he hired a bodyguard, it would become public knowledge.

If he just hired another lawyer, however, no one would think twice. All Colby asks of Regan is that he work for him for two weeks as a bodyguard and tell no one what he’s doing.

If you know what the word “patsy” means, you’ll probably have no difficulty figuring out what Colby really wants Regan for.

Rounding out the excellent main cast is William Bendix as Lt. Damico, Regan’s friend on the force. Bendix was equally adept at playing tough guys and clowns, and he gets to flex both his dramatic and comic acting muscles as the long-suffering Damico, who’s a lot wiser than Regan gives him credit for.

Even though he’s the protagonist, O’Brien is probably the weakest link in the film. Regan isn’t a very interesting character, and he’s mostly only good for one-liners, but at least they’re decent one-liners. O’Brien’s innuendo-laced banter with Raines isn’t quite Tracy-Hepburn or Bogie-Bacall, but it’s clever and fast-paced enough to satisfy discriminating noir fans, and Raines’s dark beauty and way with a retort elevate their exchanges.

The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (based on a story by Harry Kurnitz) really crackles in the dialogue department, which makes up for the pedestrian plot. Director Michael Gordon keeps things moving along nicely, and delivers a satisfying final product. The Web might not be a classic film noir, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

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Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

Deception (Oct. 18, 1946)

In my recent review of Decoy (1946), I mentioned that most of the movies that are now classified as film noirs were originally called “thrillers” or “melodramas.”

Irving Rapper’s Deception, about a love triangle in the world of classical music, sometimes gets thrown on the film noir pile, but it’s a melodrama through and through. The film reunited the director and all three stars of the popular, classy flick Now, Voyager (1942), which featured one of Bette Davis’s most iconic performances.

Lightning didn’t strike twice. While Deception, which reunited Davis with her fellow Now, Voyager alumni Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, received generally positive reviews, it was the first picture Bette Davis made for Warner Bros. that lost money. It’s a good film, but as melodramas go, it’s not terribly thrilling, and the criminal activity is kept to a minimum.

In the first scene of the film, piano teacher and musician Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) rushes through the driving rain to a concert in a small, second-floor performance area. She sees cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and she begins to cry. Quite by chance, she saw an announcement for the performance and couldn’t believe it, since she believed that Novak, her old flame, had died during World War II.

Their reunion is so emotional that it quickly leads to marriage. Even before the nuptials, however, Novak senses that Christine might be hiding something from him. She lives in an enormous apartment with a spectacular view of Manhattan, and her closets are full of fur coats, all improbabilities in the tight housing market of 1946, especially on a piano teacher’s salary.

Things quickly reach a head at their wedding celebration, with the appearance of Christine’s teacher, the famous composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains). He has witticisms and icy remarks to spare, but he doesn’t really tip his hand until Christine sits down to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, the “Appassionata.” Hollenius listens, enthralled, and crushes his champagne glass in his hand. When Christine rushes to tend to him, he says, “Like all women, white as a sheet at the sight of a couple of scratches. Calm and smiling like a hospital nurse in the presence of a mortal wound.”

That’s the first hint he drops about his feelings, but it won’t be the last. When Christine goes to visit him the next day, she walks into Hollenius’s conservatory and calls the piece he is playing “wonderful,” to which he responds, “Extraordinary, isn’t it, that music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude?”

From the beginning, Christine kept Novak in the dark about her relationship with Hollenius. Hollenius goes along with this deception, but never misses an opportunity to drop a hint or needle Novak about something. Compounding the mess is the fact that Hollenius is one of Novak’s favorite composers, and when he offers Novak the chance to be the soloist for the world premiere of his new cello concerto, Novak is ecstatic. Christine, on the other hand, senses that the mercurial Hollenius may be setting a trap for the emotionally fragile Novak.

And it certainly seems that way to the viewer, especially when Hollenius brings in Bertram Gribble (John Abbott), a journeyman cellist, to act as understudy in case Novak’s strained nerves get the better of him. Besides all the barbs and insinuations in social settings, Hollenius the conductor even seems hell-bent on tormenting Novak during the serious work of preparing for their concert, when he forces him to replay the same measure over and over during a dress rehearsal.

I’ve rarely seen a character in a film wield his art as a weapon quite so effectively as Hollenius does. It’s a perfect role for Rains, who as an actor projected a unique mix of effeteness and virility. By the time the climactic world premiere scene rolls around, the audience’s nerves are so thoroughly jangled that merely watching Henreid bow and pluck at his cello’s strings is as suspenseful as watching someone defuse a ticking time bomb. (It helps that Henreid’s pantomiming is nearly perfect. His cello parts were actually played by cellist Eleanor Aller, the wife of Felix Slatkin, when she was pregnant with their son, Frederic Zlotkin. Henreid was coached on how to properly mimic playing the instrument by Aller’s father, Gregory Aller.)

The score of Deception and all of Hollenius’s compositions were written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), an Austro-Hungarian composer whose stirring, neo-Romantic scores for films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) presaged the work of John Williams. His style was too old-fashioned and his medium was too populist to attract anything but disdain and indifference from critics and scholars during his lifetime, but he was incredibly talented, even though his music was neither groundbreaking nor avant-garde. In Deception, he seems to be straining against the bonds imposed on him by the conventions of the cinema, and Novak’s cello part in the concerto is especially moving and powerful. At least I thought so.

Pursuit to Algiers (Oct. 26, 1945)

Pursuit_to_AlgiersPursuit to Algiers, the twelfth film to star Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his boon companion Dr. John H. Watson, is a minor entry in the series, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. It’s the ninth Holmes picture directed by Roy William Neill, and his sure hand and professionalism are fully in evidence.

The film gets down to business in a wonderfully circuitous fashion, as Holmes and Watson are handed cryptic directions by a series of strangers. In each case, it takes Holmes a few beats to catch on, while Watson is oblivious the whole time. Eventually they are led to a group of men from an unnamed foreign country whose king has just been assassinated. They want Holmes to guard the life of the heir to the throne, Nikolas, who was educated in England. Holmes suggests that Nikolas pose as Watson’s nephew on a steamship voyage to Algiers. Once at sea, the film introduces a worthy cast of drawing room mystery characters, including a trio of sinister but quirky assassins.

Elements of Leonard Lee’s screenplay are taken from an otherwise unrecorded affair mentioned in the beginning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” in particular the use of the steamship Friesland. And at one point in the film, Watson begins to share with his fellow dinner guests aboard the ship his adventure with Holmes that involved the “Giant Rat of Sumatra,” which is mentioned in Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” These references are similar to what Anthony Boucher and Denis Green would occasionally do in their scripts for the radio show The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and, like the film series, starred Rathbone and Bruce. For instance, in one program, Holmes is willed a patch of land in gratitude for his successful work on a case, and he tells Watson he plans to retire there someday and keep bees. (In Conan Doyle’s stories and novels, the background of Holmes’s retirement in 1903 to the Sussex Downs, where he engaged in beekeeping, was never supplied.)

At times, Pursuit to Algiers comes dangerously close to being a musical, as one of the passengers on the ocean liner is a young and beautiful pianist named Sheila Woodbury (Marjorie Riordan), whom Dr. Watson makes a bit of a fool of himself over. It’s all in good fun, though, and Bruce’s “silly old goat” act is always fun to watch, even if his portrayal of Watson is a bit more ridiculous than Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character. Sheila plays several songs on the piano, including the beautiful “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” Watson even joins her at the piano toward the end of the picture for a lovely version of “Loch Lomond.” Director Neill always keeps things moving, however, and despite its minor status, Pursuit to Algiers is still a worthy entry in the Sherlock Holmes series.