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Tag Archives: Mark Hellinger

The Naked City (March 4, 1948)

The Naked City
The Naked City (1948)
Directed by Jules Dassin
Universal Pictures

The Naked City was — sadly — the second and final collaboration between producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin. Their first collaboration was the hard-hitting prison drama Brute Force (1947), and we can only imagine what their third collaboration might have been had Hellinger not died on December 21, 1947, at the age of 44.

Hellinger was a hard-living, hard-drinking newspaper columnist. At the height of his popularity, he reportedly had 18 million readers. Like his friend Walter Winchell, Hellinger had an instinctive knack for writing what people wanted to read, and his insight into the criminal demimonde was unparalleled.

Unparalleled except, perhaps, for his love of New York City and all its inhabitants, from Lower East Side deliverymen to Park Avenue titans of industry. In his review of The Naked City in the March 5, 1948, issue of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that the film was “a virtual Hellinger column on film. It is a rambling, romantic picture-story based on a composite New York episode, the detailed detection of a bath-tub murder by the local Homicide Squad. And it is also a fancifully selective observation of life in New York’s streets, police stations, apartments, tenements, playgrounds, docks, bridges and flashy resorts.”

By “fancifully selective,” of course, Crowther meant that the film was Hellinger’s vision, and Hellinger was more drawn to mugs, thugs, and crooks than he was to schoolteachers or veterinarians. On the other hand, The Naked City is a police procedural (arguably the very first of its genre), and cops spend more time rousting crooks than they do schoolmarms.

The film is so thoroughly Hellinger’s vision that he narrates the film himself. After a guided nighttime tour of the city that never sleeps, full of his trademark witticisms and wry observations, he tells the viewer that his film will attempt to show “…the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.”

The opening sequence introduces us to most of the film’s major players. (Whether or not the first-time viewer will catch everything, however, is another matter.) The two mugs murdering a beautiful young woman at 52 West 83rd Street, the charming Frank Niles (Howard Duff) and his fiancée Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart) out at a nightclub, young NYPD detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) and his wife Jane (Anne Sargent) and their young children at home in Jackson Heights, Queens, and the crotchety old Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), whom we see in his undershirt and suspenders, preparing breakfast.

Most of Hellinger’s narration is engaging and fun to listen to. Some of it is even necessary, especially considering that The Naked City was released before Dragnet existed, even on the radio, and the finer points of police procedure might have been unknown to the average viewer. But there are aspects of his narration that don’t play so well. For instance, the images of the city and its inhabitants are powerful on their own. The overlay of Hellinger’s voice-over “thoughts” and “dialogue” for a variety of average New Yorkers captured on film just comes off as hokey.

The film’s biggest weakness, however, is its two leads. Some people find Barry Fitzgerald charming, but I find his whole grumpy leprechaun shtick as Det. Lt. Muldoon — essentially the same role he played as a priest in Going My Way (1944) — annoying. But at least he has a personality, unlike Don Taylor, who plays Muldoon’s young partner and protégé Det. Halloran. Taylor has a “golly gee shucks” attitude and not much else. He also doesn’t seem to know what to do with his face when he’s on camera but doesn’t have any lines.

Taylor and Fitzgerald and their dialogue undercut much of the vérité quality of the film, but certainly don’t ruin anything. As a cinematic experience, I don’t think The Naked City is as satisfying as Brute Force, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining, well-made picture. When Dassin and Hellinger allow the action to speak for itself, as they do in the final, bravura chase along the Williamsburg Bridge, the film is untouchable.

The Naked City was nominated for three Academy Awards; Best Story (Malvin Wald), Best Cinematography, Black and White (William H. Daniels), and Best Film Editing (Paul Weatherwax). It won in the categories of Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

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Brute Force (June 30, 1947)

Snitches get stitches.

Or, in the case of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, they get forced into a giant machine press by a group of cons wielding acetylene torches. They also get tied screaming to the front of a mining cart and used as a human shield during a massive prison break.

Westgate Penitentiary is hell on earth. All the cells are filled to double capacity. The warden is a weak-willed jellyfish who cedes all authority to the sadistic Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). There are punishing make-work assignments in the dreaded “drainpipe.” Capt. Munsey plants contraband on prisoners just to send them to solitary confinement. And worst of all, on movie night the cons are forced to watch The Egg and I.

Brute Force is director Dassin’s first film noir (and still one of his best). It’s also producer Mark Hellinger’s second great film to star Burt Lancaster (the first was The Killers, in 1946).

In 1947, Lancaster wasn’t the versatile superstar he would eventually become. He was mostly known for playing “The Swede” in The Killers. The Swede was a lovesick former prizefighter; a big, dumb brute who feels pain, but little else. Brute Force allows Lancaster to stretch a little as an actor. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is the biggest, toughest man in Westgate — on the surface, not that different from The Swede — but he’s also a canny tactician who is ruthlessly efficient at getting what he wants. Collins doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but Lancaster’s physical performance is phenomenal, and would have been at home in a silent film.

It’s a cliche to say that an actor’s body is his “instrument,” but it’s true of Lancaster, a former circus performer who expresses more with his body and his eyes in Brute Force than words ever could.

Collins is the de facto leader of the men in cell R17. He wants out of Westgate Penitentiary, but unlike all the daydreaming, hard-luck sad sacks who are behind bars with him, Collins has a plan, and it’s a good one. But for his plan to work, he has to have the support of the other five men in cell R17, as well as the cooperation and support of a hardened old convict named Gallagher (played with grumpy gravitas by the great Charles Bickford). Gallagher is up for parole, and he’s not sure if he wants to endanger his chances of release by throwing his lot in with Collins.

Brute Force is a film as lean and mean as Joe Collins himself, which makes the sentimental back stories of the convicts feel especially unnecessary. I’ve seen Brute Force at least three times now, and every time I see it I hate the flashback portions of the film more and more. I don’t think Dassin was fully committed to them either, and the abrupt tonal shifts they force on the movie are irritating and unnecessary.

They’re unnecessary because in a prison film about a sadistic captain of the guards and his unfair treatment of the prisoners, the audience will naturally identify with the prisoners without really caring about how they ended up in prison. (Imagine a flashback sequence in Cool Hand Luke that shows Paul Newman saving children from a burning orphanage — what would be the point?)

The fact that the audience knows from the outset of the film that Capt. Munsey arranged to have a shiv planted on Joe Collins in order to throw him into solitary is upsetting enough to most people’s sense of decency and fair play. We don’t also need a ridiculous subplot about Joe’s girl on the outside, Ruth (Ann Blyth), who has cancer and refuses to get the operation she needs unless Joe is with her.

Ditto for the backstory of “Soldier” (Howard Duff, in his first film role — he’s listed in the opening credits as “Radio’s Sam Spade,” the role he was best known for at the time). Duff’s boyish face and incongruously deep, soothing voice do more to elicit the audience’s sympathy than the smarmy flashback in which he’s captured by MPs in Italy and falsely accused of murder while distributed food to the hungry.

Not every backstory in the film is sentimental, nor does every backstory paint its criminal protagonist in a great light. But they are all, in their own way, unnecessary. For instance, the audience doesn’t need to see the flashback in which Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) gives his wife a fur coat with money he’s embezzled to know that he’s a white collar criminal. (Although it’s always nice to see the beautiful Ella Raines, who plays his wife.) Lister’s eyeglasses, his effete appearance, and Munsey’s line — “You’re no hoodlum, like the others in this cell. Why protect them?” — tell us all we need to know about Tom Lister.

The only flashback I enjoyed and would be sad to see excised from the film is the whimsical story Spencer (John Hoyt) tells about the beautiful girl named Flossie who helped him out of a tough jam only to turn around and take off with his money. Not only is the flashback funny and mercifully brief, it ends with the wonderful line, “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now.”

In fairness to producer Hellinger, who was largely responsible for the flashbacks, he knew what it took to get a picture made, and how to make a picture that would lead to another picture. The top brass at Universal probably wouldn’t have been crazy about a grim prison movie with no female characters, so the backstories of the prisoners allowed for several beautiful actresses under contract with Universal to draw people into the theater. (And even though I don’t like the flashbacks, I never mind seeing the aforementioned Raines or the beautiful Yvonne De Carlo, who plays Soldier’s Italian femme fatale.)

Also, Hellinger’s skill at wheeling and dealing helped him negotiate the film’s violence around the production code, and helped Dassin get away with things other directors might not have been able to. Brute Force is an extraordinarily violent film for 1947. Of course, it doesn’t show what really happens to human bodies blasted by Thompson submachine guns or .30 caliber machine guns, but it implies enough.

I haven’t said a lot about Hume Cronyn’s performance as Capt. Munsey, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise him. The diminutive, soft-voiced Cronyn is one of the most memorable villains in the film noir pantheon. Cronyn gives “Napoleon complex” a whole new meaning, and he gives lines like “I get quite a kick out of censoring the mail” a creepy, sociopathic edge.

It’s pretty clear that Dassin is using Munsey to make a statement about creeping fascism in America. Munsey is a homegrown little Hitler, and just in case you don’t immediately get the connection when Munsey professes his simplistic, Social Darwinist philosophy, Dassin drives the point home with the set design of Munsey’s office, which includes a giant framed photograph of himself, enormous shotguns that he relishes stroking and polishing, and sculptures and paintings that scream homosexual body worship, not to mention a phonograph on which he plays the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” while brutally beating a hapless inmate (Sam Levene) with a length of rubber hose for information.

Despite a few missteps here and there, Brute Force is a great film, and should be seen by anyone who appreciates prison movies, film noir, violence in the cinema, finely crafted black and white cinematography, or the brilliant film scores of Miklós Rózsa.

A note about Jules Dassin: because of his French-sounding surname, and the fact that one of his best and most well-known pictures, Rififi (1955), is a French-language film, a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that Jules Dassin was French. He wasn’t. He was an American who was born in Connecticut in 1911 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He immigrated to Europe after he was blacklisted following testimony about him that was given to HUAC in 1951.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.