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Tag Archives: John Cromwell

Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).

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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.

Anna and the King of Siam (June 20, 1946)

John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam isn’t nearly as well known as The King and I, the Technicolor extravaganza starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made a decade later. Both films tell the same story, but The King and I does it in the form of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I saw The King and I when I was a kid, and have strong memories of certain scenes, but not of the film as a whole. So I came to Anna and the King of Siam relatively fresh, and was able to watch it without constantly thinking of Brynner’s iconic performance, at least most of the time. The one big difference — if memory serves correctly — is that the later, musical version of this tale was more of a love story. It’s not as if it ended with a marriage, or Kerr being added to the king’s harem or something, but there was a romance of some sort that grew over the course of the film. The closest Anna and the King of Siam gets is a couple of scenes between Anna and the king that end with the king leering, and seeming to contemplate her in a sexual fashion.

Anna and the King of Siam is the first filmed adaptation of Margaret Landon’s 1944 book of the same name. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly bought the rights to Landon’s book immediately after reading the galleys. As is often the case, the real-life Anna Owens was a considerably more interesting and complicated person than she was portrayed in the book or any of the films about her. This is largely due to her own self-invention. Anna Leonowens was born in poverty in India in 1831, the daughter of Sgt. Thomas Edwards, a soldier in the private army of the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Mary Anne Glasscott, an Anglo-Indian woman. Later in her life, Leonowens took pains to hide her origins, and claimed that her father’s rank was lieutenant (later she claimed he had been a captain), and that she had been born in Wales. It’s important to remember that these fabrications were not merely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As a widow and a single mother, Leonowens faced an uphill battle in life, and almost certainly would have faced discrimination if her mixed-race heritage had been known.

While Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t delve deeply into Anna’s background, there is never any intimation that she is anything but the most proper of British ladies. The Anna Owens of the film, played by Irene Dunne, embodies the best values of the “modern” British empire, while King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) represents an older form of governance; repressive, misogynistic, autocratic, and superstitious.

Reportedly, most Thai who saw the picture were shocked and angered by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth century king, and the film was banned in Thailand due to “historical inaccuracies.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Landon’s book and Leonowens’s own recollections were by all accounts at least partially fabricated, and overemphasized Leonowens’s role in the king’s life, as well as the harshness of his regime. And there’s the larger question of how well any white actor — even one as talented as Rex Harrison — can portray an Asian character.

Granted, the yellowface portrayals in the film look ridiculous, especially Lee J. Cobb as the “Kralahome,” or prime minister, who appears for much of the film stripped to the waist, covered with dark makeup, and sporting a pomaded pompadour. But, like Harrison, he delivers a nuanced performance, and in their scenes together they drop the stilted line deliveries that they have in their scenes with Anna or her son Louis (Richard Lyon). (They continue to speak English, of course, but the syntactical variance is still a nice touch.)

If one ignores questions of historical accuracy, Anna and the King of Siam is an excellent and involving story of cultural differences and the challenges and rewards of education in the face of adversity. The principal actors all give great performances, especially the beautiful Linda Darnell as the king’s newest and most alluring wife, Lady Tuptim. It’s a role that easily could have been one-note, but Darnell is able to create a sexy yet repulsive character who grows more complicated as the film goes on, and eventually becomes the central tragic figure of the picture. Also, Anna and the King of Siam looks fantastic. It won two Oscars, one for best black and white cinematography and the other for best art direction, and they were well-deserved.