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Tag Archives: Leon Ames

Dial 1119 (Nov. 3, 1950)

Dial 1119
Dial 1119 (1950)
Directed by Gerald Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Dial 1119 is an exceedingly well-made B-movie. It’s suspenseful, well-acted, and holds up extremely well. You don’t have to be a fan of film noirs or “old movies” to enjoy this one. As long as you can tolerate watching movies shot in black & white, Dial 1119 will keep you on the edge of your seat for its brief running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Dial 1119 takes place in the fictional burg of “Terminal City,” where an insane young man named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) has come in search of his psychiatrist, Dr. John D. Faron (Sam Levene). The title refers to the police, fire, and ambulance emergency number that exists in the world of the film. (Although a nationwide emergency phone number was proposed in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that 9-1-1 became the standard in North America.)

Wyckoff is a convicted murderer who has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Dr. Faron’s testimony kept Wyckoff from going to the electric chair, but the young man is clearly deeply disturbed. He is obsessed with war, death, and murder, and is a deadly threat to anyone who crosses his path.

After stealing a pistol and killing a bus driver, Wyckoff goes in search of Dr. Faron. When he finds his office closed for the night, he crosses the street to the Oasis Bar, where he holes up and takes hostages.

Levene and Thompson

It’s surprising how current many aspects of Dial 1119 feel — like hostages watching their own predicament on TV. All the chime-in Charlies blathering into a reporter’s microphone about what they’d do if they were in the same situation will feel eerily familiar to anyone who’s read comments on an article on the internet.

Also, if you’re used to television sets in movies from the 1950s with screens that are the size of a postage stamp, brace yourself for the biggest TV screen you will see in a movie from 1950. The bartender at the Oasis, Chuckles (William Conrad), has a TV that’s so large and flat that it almost looks like a modern hi-def set. He mentions at one point in the film that he paid $1,400 for the television set, and then complains that for all the money he paid it still only shows crummy westerns and professional wrestling. Replace “westerns” with “reality shows” and this movie could take place in 2016.

Marshall Thompson

One of the things I especially loved about Dial 1119 was how much of the story is told without dialogue or music. We watch the actors’ nervous eyes and sweating faces, and we know exactly what they’re thinking. The score by André Previn is great, but it’s used very sparingly, and never tells the audience how to feel. The actors’ performances and Gerald Mayer’s deft direction tell us everything we need to know.

Dial 1119 has a low budget and was obviously shot as a second feature, but M-G-M productions were always glossy, nicely lensed affairs, even when they were “B” flicks.

Lady in the Lake (Jan. 23, 1947)

Lady in the Lake
Lady in the Lake (1947)
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake is a one-of-a-kind experience. Like a lot of one-of-a-kind experiences, it’s one that some people will never want to experience ever again after it’s over.

It’s not like any other movie you’ll ever see, but the fact that its central gimmick was never used again should tell you something.

The gimmick is that nearly the entire film is shot in a first-person point of view (POV). The film is a series of long tracking shots, but there are a few jump cuts and wipes when necessary. The trailer for Lady in the Lake told audiences that the film stars Robert Montgomery … “and you!” But this isn’t entirely true, for reasons that we’ll get into later.

Lady in the Lake is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1944 novel The Lady in the Lake, and stars Montgomery as private investigator Philip Marlowe (whose first name in this movie is spelled “Phillip”). Montgomery also directed the film — his first time as director, although he provided uncredited directorial assistance to John Ford when he starred in Ford’s World War II PT boat saga They Were Expendable (1945).

The only parts of the film that aren’t filmed from Marlowe’s POV — every actor interacting directly with the camera, Montgomery’s face only visible if he happens to look in a mirror — are stiff monologues by Montgomery as Marlowe, seated at his desk in his office, speaking directly to the viewer. These monologues are used to introduce the picture and to cover some gaps in the narrative.

Montgomery begins the films by telling viewers that they will be solving the mystery alongside him. He recites a street address and says, “make a note of it.” The problem with this is immediately clear. The film will continue to spool forward for you the same way it does for everyone else in the audience, whether you remember the address or not.

A first-person POV version of a Chandler novel must have made sense on paper. Chandler was a master of first-person narration, and his brilliant prose made first-person narration inextricable from the P.I. genre.

But first-person POV in film is very different from first-person narration in a novel. Despite what many critics of slasher films in the ’80s would have had you believe, first-person POV in a film does not create identification with the killer, it makes the viewer feels trapped and terrified.

While you’re unlikely to feel terrified while watching Lady in the Lake, it does inspire a sense of claustrophobia and surreality that is at odds with its goal of putting the viewer in the center of the action like no film had before.

Lady in the Lake begins in an odd fashion, as Marlowe tries to sell his semi-autobiographical story “If I Should Die Before I Wake” to magazine editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). When Fromsett’s stacked and gorgeous blond secretary (Lila Leeds) enters the office, she makes eyes at Marlowe, and the camera tracks her as she sashays out of the office. The eye contact she maintains with the camera is unbearably erotic. It’s ridiculous in terms of an actual narrative, but it works in the heat of the moment, like a tomahawk flying out of the screen in a 3D western. (Proponents of the “male gaze” theory can have a field day with this film.)

Audrey Totter

The problem with Lady in the Lake isn’t just its technique, it’s the fact that most of the actors interact with the camera in an unnatural fashion. Most of them never look away or even blink. Totter is the worst offender. She’s pretty, but her habit of arching one eyebrow while speaking to the camera is bizarre.

When Marlowe asks Fromsett a question — “What would happen if I kissed you?” — there’s no heat or interplay. It’s a purely technical question. If Marlowe kisses her, where will the camera go? Will it smoosh up against her face?

The only actor who interacts well with the camera is Lloyd Nolan, who plays the nasty and volatile police detective Lt. DeGarmot. Unlike the other actors — who seem afraid to break eye contact with the camera — he looks down, and around, occasionally turns his back on Marlowe, and steps forward to be threatening. In a memorable scene, he even slaps the camera in the “face” several times while sneering.

Lady in the Lake takes place during the Christmas holiday, and there’s very little incidental music, except for an eerie holiday vocal choir that shows up every now and then on the soundtrack.

While the first-person POV of Lady in the Lake doesn’t always work, there are a number of interesting “verité” moments, such as the scene in which Marlowe and the viewer sit around while observing Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) on the phone with his daughter on Christmas Eve. He’s embarrassed to be on a personal call while at work, but he chats with her anyway. There’s also an amazing quiet moment when Marlowe wakes up in Fromsett’s house on Christmas day, and the camera observes her lounging on the opposite couch in the living room, smoke curling out from behind the camera (Marlowe’s having a cigarette), as she and Marlowe listen to an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” on the radio.

Because of the nature of the film, I still don’t feel as if I’ve ever seen Robert Montgomery play Philip Marlowe. He seems like a good choice for the character, since he bears a resemblance to Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler, but his disembodied voice was too monotone to make up for the fact that he’s off-screen for most of the movie.

First-person POV would be used again in 1947 for the first section of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage, and for memorable moments in other films, like the opening murder sequence in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and a fistfight in Gordon Parks’s Shaft (1971), but this was the only time it would be used for an entire motion picture.

I actually really enjoyed Lady in the Lake, even though I think it’s a failed experiment. It’s worth seeing at least once by anyone who’s interested in film, and there are enough powerful, uncanny, and interesting moments to make up for the long stretches of flaccidity.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (May 2, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain, opens on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Los Angeles, with a shot of a sign hanging outside a gas station that says “Man Wanted.” We’ll soon learn that the sign has a double meaning.

Itinerant drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hitchhiking from San Francisco, and has thumbed a ride with a nattily dressed man (Leon Ames) whom we’ll soon learn is the local district attorney. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), the owner of the gas station/lunch counter, runs out and greets Frank, assuming he has come about the job.

It isn’t long before Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora, (Lana Turner), in one of the best introductions of a sexpot in ’40s cinema. As he’s eating at Nick’s lunch counter, a tube of lipstick rolls across the floor, the camera focuses on it, then pans back along the floor until it comes to rest on Turner’s legs. Cut to Garfield, his breath quickening, then to a full shot of Turner, in a skimpy white two-piece playsuit that would still turn heads today (although her turban might stand out as being a little odd).

As soon as Cora appears, we know Frank will take the job working for Nick just to be close to her. In the book, Nick is a Greek, and described in detail as a physically repulsive character. In the film, he’s just a harmless old fuddy-duddy. Things play out the same, however. Cora leaves a “Dear Nick” letter and she and Frank run off together, but life on the open road, hitchhiking with a delighted-looking Frank, who has two suitcases under his arm, doesn’t agree with Cora or her white blouse, or her white peekaboo toe pumps.

Lana Turner

So they return before Nick comes home and finds the note, and pick up again with their unhappy triangle. One murder attempt designed to look like an accident goes wrong, and after Nick announces that he is selling the business and taking Cora with him, Frank and Cora devise a simpler plan to just get Nick drunk and push him off a cliff in his car.

Technically The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir, but it occasionally borders on farce, especially after the murder, and is filmed in a professional and well-lighted but ultimately flat style. Too much of the film’s running time is taken up by courtroom machinations and the gamesmanship between Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), Frank and Cora’s lawyer, and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Ames). It’s all well-done and entertaining, but in a light and breezy way. There’s the threat of execution in the gas chamber for our two protagonists, but there’s no sense of impending doom during the courtroom proceedings, and with the focus on Ames and Cronyn, it borders on comedy. Things pick up in the noir department towards the end of the picture, but it takes too long to get there, and is undercut by a ridiculous, moralizing denouement. In some editions, Cain’s novel is barely more than 100 pages long, but this film is bloated and overlong at 113 minutes. More minutes in the film than there are pages in the original novel? There oughta be a law.

MGM wasn’t known for this kind of picture. In general, they didn’t even do crime pictures or thrillers. After the runaway success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, however, every big studio released at least one similar picture in an attempt to cash in on the craze, with all the attendant love triangles, murders, and doomed protagonists. What better choice for MGM than another novel by Cain? Especially the one most similar in its basic plot? Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce had already been done, and with a murder plot that was never in the novel, which was more of a straight kitchen sink drama. His 1937 novel Serenade was too weird. It featured a love triangle, but between a spicy Mexican prostitute, her opera-singing boyfriend who loses his voice when he’s tempted by homosexual desires, and the orchestra conductor whose magnetism threatens to draw him into a gay tryst. (Eventually Serenade was made into a film in 1956 starring tenor Mario Lanza and directed by Anthony Mann, but the gay theme was jettisoned.) And his 1942 novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, about a town full of gangsters and crooked politicians, seems as though it would have been a more appropriate vehicle for James Cagney or George Raft 10 or 15 years earlier.

So The Postman Always Rings Twice was a natural choice for MGM, a powerhouse of a studio that churned out high-quality product week in, week out. The film works as well as it does because of the presence of Lana Turner, who in 1946 may have been the sexiest woman in Hollywood. John Garfield turns in a credible performance, but he and Turner never quite click. So much of the film is spent setting up and knocking down plot points that their relationship seems almost like an afterthought.

A better adaptation of Cain’s novel is an unauthorized one, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). (Cain’s publishers sued for copyright infringement, and kept the film off American movie screens until 1976.) Both the grimy working class milieu and desperate, sweaty love affair are better handled in Visconti’s film. The American version is just too sterile.

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.

Anchors Aweigh (July 14, 1945)

AnchorsAweighI don’t generally like musicals, but I loved Anchors Aweigh. It probably doesn’t hurt that I really like both Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, and this movie uses both of them to wonderful effect. Kelly’s dance sequences are all high points, and even Sinatra comports himself well in the one dance in which he has to match Kelly step-for-step. Although I can only imagine how many takes it took to get it right. Unlike today’s hyperkinetic editing styles, most of the dance sequences in Anchors Aweigh are done in what appear to be one take, or just a few at most.

In Anchors Aweigh, Sinatra and Kelly play sailors who are granted a four-day shore leave in Los Angeles due to extraordinary bravery. Kelly is a ladykiller with a woman in every port, while Sinatra is a dope when it comes to love. Kelly just wants to hook up with his beloved Lola, while Sinatra just wants a girl … any girl. Their amorous plans hit a snag, however, when they’re charged with the care of a Navy-worshipping runaway played by the very cute child actor Dean Stockwell. (Viewers familiar with Stockwell’s film and television work as an adult might wonder while watching this movie … what the hell happened to the guy?) Sinatra falls for the boy’s young aunt (Kathryn Grayson), while Kelly find himself drawn to her as well, which he resists, since his buddy has already spoken for her. But the draw is mutual. What’s a guy to do? Not to worry. With the help of orchestra leader José Iturbi (playing himself), everything will turn out O.K. in the end.

Sinatra gets top billing, even though Kelly is clearly the more seasoned performer. Sinatra may have been one of the most popular crooners in the country, but this was only his third real acting role on screen. At points he looks like a kid in a high school play who doesn’t know what to do with his hands. If you’d told anyone in 1945 that he’d win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor just eight years later they probably wouldn’t have believed you. But his natural charisma makes up for a lot. Iturbi is clearly not a professional actor, either, but the few scenes in which he has to perform (and not just conduct), he’s charming and fun to watch. He has a wonderful sense of comic timing, and projects warmth and empathy when he needs to.

Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, Anchors Aweigh is the kind of candy-colored fantasy that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in … there’s even a fantasy dance sequence in which Kelly dances in a cartoon world with an animated mouse (Jerry of Tom & Jerry fame). Its Bollywood-sized ambitions might turn off some modern viewers, but I thought it was great. At no point was I bored. I was entranced and delighted throughout.