Dial 1119 (1950)
Directed by Gerald 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.
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.
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.
Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
The great director Anthony Mann worked in a lot of different genres, but he’s most revered today for his noirs and his westerns.
Mann directed three westerns that were released in 1950. Winchester ’73 was the first one released in theaters, but he finished shooting both The Furies and Devil’s Doorway before starting work on Winchester ’73 with star James Stewart.
Winchester ’73 was far and away the most successful, and it’s still a favorite of western fans. (Mann and Stewart also went on to make several more highly regarded westerns together.) Devil’s Doorway remains the least widely seen.
There are a lot of reasons for film fans — particularly western fans — to see Devil’s Doorway. It breaks the traditional mold of the western by having heroes who are Native Americans and villains who are white settlers. It’s well written, tightly paced, and beautifully shot. It was also the last movie Mann made with cinematographer John Alton, who shot some of Mann’s greatest films, including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949).
Like he did in Border Incident, Alton turns wide open spaces, big skies, and towering western mountain ranges into dark, oppressive spaces that seem to be closing in on the tiny humans who inhabit them. Devil’s Doorway is one of the best-looking black & white westerns I’ve ever seen.
My one real problem with Devil’s Doorway, and it’s a big one, is the casting of Robert Taylor as “Broken Lance” Poole, a Shoshone who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Poole is a Medal of Honor winner who returns home to find that the land where he grazes his cattle is going to be overrun by homesteaders and sheepmen. Poole petitions to homestead his own land, but his petition is rejected because he is not an American citizen, but rather a “ward of the government.”
Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors to play non-white characters, especially if they are the lead of a film. And in this respect Devil’s Doorway is no different from the other big western released in 1950 with Native American heroes, Broken Arrow, which starred Jeff Chandler as Cochise. But I found Robert Taylor especially bad. At the time of filming, Taylor was pushing 40, but he looks a decade older. He also looks not at all Native American. At least he doesn’t put on a goofy accent or speak in pidgin English, but he still looks completely wrong for the role. When I was watching him, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jon Lovitz playing Tonto on old episodes of Saturday Night Live.
Aside from the presence of a miscast and aging matinee idol as its protagonist, Devil’s Doorway is a powerful western drama with beautiful cinematography and some stunning battle sequences. It’s definitely worth seeing, along with Mann’s other westerns.
Mystery Street (1950)
Directed by John Sturges
“Mystery Street” is too generic a title for this groundbreaking crime thriller.
To me, Mystery Street sounds like one of those mystery programmers from the ’30s and ’40s designed to run as a second feature — perhaps featuring Charlie Chan or The Crime Doctor.
But with its focus on forensic investigation, Mystery Street is an innovative police procedural. Only its title is run-of-the-mill. If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones, make some time to watch this movie, and see where the genre got its start.
In the post-war years, “reality” entertainment was king. The “ripped-from-the-headlines” police procedurals that are still all over TV kicked off with the film He Walked by Night (1948) and the radio show Dragnet, which began broadcasting in 1949 and quickly inspired a slew of imitators.
Mystery Street follows the established formula of the police procedural, but focuses on the process of forensic investigation. When Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to a murder case with no clues — only skeletal remains that have washed up on the beach — he turns to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) of Harvard Medical School. (Incidentally, Mystery Street was also the first Hollywood film to shoot in Boston and Cambridge, MA.)
Discriminating fans of CSI will enjoy the outlandish example Dr. McAddoo gives Lt. Morales when he explains the kinds of crimes forensic science can solve: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case that turned out to be a combination of a bloody nose, a paroxysmal seizure, and a head injury caused by a fall. (It only looked like the woman’s husband had beaten her to death.)
Mystery Street is a stylish and very entertaining noir. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. I think it would make a great double bill with Border Incident (1949), another film that starred Ricardo Montalban when he was first establishing himself in Hollywood. He’s a compelling and charismatic leading man, and it’s fun to watch him before he was a household name.
According to Wikipedia, Mystery Street lost money at the box office, which is a shame, because it’s a great little flick. Maybe a better title would have helped?
Directed by William A. Wellman
A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.
Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.
During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.
A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.
The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.
The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.
So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.
Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)
As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.
One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)
At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.
The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)
The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)
Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.
I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”
I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.
But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.
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.
The Clock is the first film Judy Garland made in which she did not sing. She had specifically requested to star in a dramatic role, since the strenuous shooting schedules of lavish musicals were beginning to fray her nerves. Producer Arthur Freed approached her with the script for The Clock (also known as Under the Clock), which was based on an unpublished short story by Paul and Pauline Gallico. Originally Fred Zinnemann was set to direct, but Garland felt they had no chemistry, and she was disappointed by early footage. Zinnemann was removed from the project, and she requested that Vincente Minnelli be brought in to direct.
The Clock is the second film that Minnelli directed that starred Garland. The first was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which is one of the great American musicals, a big, Technicolor production with memorable songs and fine performances. It’s worth seeing, even if you’re not crazy about musicals. Minnelli and Garland were involved romantically during the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, and they were married on June 15, 1945, shortly after The Clock was released.
The Clock seems like a deliberate attempt to make a film as different from Meet Me in St. Louis as Minnelli was capable of making. Filmed in crisp, luminous black and white, The Clock is an intimate story of two people. Cpl. Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is on leave in New York City for the weekend. While trying to find his way around Pennsylvania Station, he meets Alice Mayberry (Garland), a Manhattan “girl next door” who works in an office and isn’t initially thrilled that Joe takes in interest in her. She breaks her heel and he offers to help her, but he’s so pushy that it’s a bit of a turn-off. He refuses to take “no” for an answer, following her onto a bus, questioning her incessantly, and attempting to arrange to see her again. He also does it in such a naïve, corn-pone manner that it’s obvious that a polite girl like Alice would have a really hard time just telling him to shove off. Part of the problem, for me at least, is that Walker just doesn’t have the necessary charisma to pull off the “aw shucks” persona the script calls for and get away with it. In any case, after some indecision (and after ignoring her roommate’s advice that the young serviceman she met is “just looking for a pick-up”), she goes back to the Astor Hotel to meet him under the clock where they first met. They spend the entire night together, exploring New York City, and even end up helping a milkman (James Gleason) make his appointed rounds after a drunk (Keenan Wynn) punches him in the face, partially blinding him. Over the course of the night, they fall in love, but are separated on a busy subway the next morning. How will they ever find each other in a city of seven million people? (I don’t want to give anything away, but the way they find each other again won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.) After they reconnect, Joe asks Alice to marry him, and she accepts his proposal, but they have to run through a mess of red tape to get the necessary documentation to get married immediately, before Joe has to ship out again.
The Clock has a lot to recommend it. Garland looks beautiful, and her performance is natural and engaging. Walker only has one mode, “wanting Alice,” but Garland wonderfully expresses confusion, excitement, and ambivalence on her path to falling in love. Also, the film does a good job of playing through the stages of love, from initial infatuation to full-blown romantic love, marriage, and even the quiet vicissitude of the “morning after.” The film looks fantastic. Minnelli recreated New York City on the MGM backlots in Culver City, California, mixing sets with stock footage, but I never realized this while watching the movie, and I live in New York. He reportedly spend almost $70,000 recreating Penn Station, and it certainly doesn’t look like a set. (The original Penn Station was torn down before I was born so I can’t say if it’s perfectly accurate, but it certainly fooled me.) I liked The Clock, and would recommend it to anyone who likes old movies, especially anyone who loves tales of wartime romance, but a more interesting actor than Walker in the lead role might have elevated it to a truly great film.
This is a love story, but it’s a melancholy one, especially during its second half. I’m not sure if the sense of sadness that pervades the film is by design, or is due to the fact that both stars were plagued with personal problems throughout filming. Garland became increasingly addicted to the prescription drugs the studio gave her to control her weight and perk her up, and Walker had recently found out that his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, had been cheating on him with producer David O. Selznick and wanted a divorce. Reportedly, Garland would often find Walker drunk in L.A. bars during filming and she would help him sober up during the night so he could appear in front of the cameras the next day.