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Tag Archives: Mike Mazurki

I Walk Alone (Jan. 16, 1948)

It’s the battle of the strutting, preening alpha males!

Fighting out of the blue corner, with the prison pallor, the brand new cheap suit, and the “not good, not bad” room at the Avon, it’s Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), former world heavyweight champion of bootlegging.

Fighting out of the red corner, with the jutting cleft chin, the expensive wardrobe, and the controlling interest in the swank night spot the Regent Club, it’s Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), the current world heavyweight champion of upscale criminality.

Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuumble!

When the film begins, Frankie, a former hard man in the bootlegging rackets who came up in a tough neighborhood and knew how to handle himself, has just gotten out of prison after a 14-year stretch for murder.

He’s picked up at Grand Central Station by his old friend Dave (Wendell Corey), who’s now the bookkeeper for Dink Turner.

The killing that sent Frankie to prison occurred when he and Dink were running rye whiskey from Canada through upstate New York and they blew through a roadblock set up by hijackers, which led to a chase and a gun battle that left one of the hijackers dead. Afterward, Dink and Frankie split up and agreed to go 50-50 for each other, no matter what happened or which one of them got nabbed.

All of Turner’s men call him “Noll” now, but Frankie mostly still refers to him as “Dink.” When Dave takes Frankie to the Regent Club, Frankie recognizes his old friend Dan (Mike Mazurki), a hulking mug who used to be behind the door of Dink and Frankie’s speakeasy the Four Kings, staring through a little peephole. Now he’s out front, in a snappy uniform.

A lot has changed in 14 years, but Frankie’s still the same guy he was when he went to prison.

Dink tells him, “The world’s spun right past you, Frankie. In the ’20s you were great. In the ’30s you might’ve made the switch, but today you’re finished. As dead as the headlines the day you went into prison.” (On New Year’s Day, 1930, Burt Lancaster was 16 years old and Kirk Douglas had just turned 13, so I think both men might be a little young for the roles they’re playing.)

The Regent Club was built on the force of Dink’s personality. It was his personality that controlled Frankie back in their bootlegging days. He expects the force of his personality to still be able to get Frankie to do what he wants, but all of his smooth talk and finesse only carries him so far.

Frankie is bitter than Dink never came to personally visit him in prison, and instead sent Dave, even though the prison was only an hour’s drive on the new parkway. All Dink did was send Frankie a carton of cigarettes a month.

Dink tells Frankie he feels terrible about never coming to see him, but that he just couldn’t be associated with a convicted murderer when he was building up a high-class joint like the Regent Club. Back in the days of the Four Kings they ruled things by force, but now Dink deals with banks and lawyers, and his nightclub has a Dun & Bradstreet rating.

Dink manages to deflect Frankie for a little while by setting him up with his paramour Kay Lawrence, who’s played by the angular, dead-eyed beauty Lizabeth Scott. Dink tells Kay he wants her to find out what Frankie really wants, so he can help him, but she can’t help falling for Frankie a little, especially after Dink shows his true colors by planning to marry the wealthy Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) while telling Kay that it’s just to increase his wealth and prestige, and his upcoming nuptials don’t have to change anything between him and Kay.

Frankie is volatile and brutish. He wants what’s his. But he’s like a bulldozer and Dink is like a silk curtain. No matter how hard he comes at him, Dink just seems to slide harmlessly to one side.

Dink tells Frankie that their 50-50 agreement was based on their partnership in the Four Kings, not on anything future. Dave brought Frankie a lot of things to sign in prison that he didn’t read very carefully, and one of them was a dissolution of his partnership in the Four Kings. After closing costs, plus 6% interest compounded over 14 years, there’s $2,912 Frankie has coming to him. Dink makes it an even $3,000 and wishes him well. Frankie wants half of everything Dink has, but Dink doesn’t think Frankie’s entitled to anything Dink earned on his own after the Four Kings closed down. “How can you collect on a race when you don’t hold a ticket?” Dink asks Frankie rhetorically.

This confrontation occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and it’s a great sequence. Burt Lancaster was a former acrobat and circus performer, and he was always wonderful at using his body. When he finally realizes how little he can do to get what he wants from Dink, he stands alone in the middle of Dink’s conference room, his fists balled, bent over in anguish.

I Walk Alone was directed by Byron Haskin and produced by Hal B. Wallis. The screenplay is by Charles Schnee, and it’s based on the play Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s not good enough to be called a classic. Part of the problem is that it too often strays from its most compelling feature, the snarling macho men at its center who oppose each other. I was really caught up in the story when Dink denies Frankie his half and Frankie vows to kill him, but then the story veers into less interesting territory. Where does Dave’s loyalty lie? What does Dink have over Dave? Will Dave be able to break free? Does Kay really love Frankie? And so on.

Lancaster and Douglas are both outsized personalities who dominate the screen. By the time things come to a head two-thirds of the way through the film, the picture might have been more compelling if it focused solely on them and their head-to-head conflict, instead of spinning off a variety of plot threads.

The film ends with a shootout in a darkened room that we’ve seen a hundred times before and will probably see a thousand times again. Like everything else in the film, it’s not terrible, but it’s too run-of-the-mill to be truly outstanding.

I Walk Alone is definitely worth seeing if you’re a die-hard fan of either of the two lead actors, and worth a look for film noir fans who’ve never seen it. If, however, you’re looking for something truly great, I Walk Alone never quite rises above the level of entertaining mediocrity.

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Nightmare Alley (Oct. 9, 1947)

Nightmare Alley is a harrowing tale of manipulation and degradation. It’s a journey through a night-lit carnival world in which everyone is out for themselves and no one cares who they chew up and spit out if it means climbing one more rung on the ladder.

It was Tyrone Power’s second film directed by Edmund Goulding, and it’s miles ahead of their first collaboration, The Razor’s Edge (1946).

While The Razor’s Edge was more acclaimed at the time of its release — four Oscar nominations and one win — it’s aged poorly, and the Eastern mysticism at its center is supposed to be profound but is really just high-minded hokum.

Power made The Razor’s Edge with Goulding as a deliberate attempt to break out of the mold he’d been cast in as a handsome swashbuckler with a limited range. His performance wasn’t bad, but at times it seemed forced.

In Nightmare Alley, however, he completely loses himself in his character. His performance as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle — a grasping, duplicitous carny who graduates to tony nightclub performances and fleecing the wealthy — is so natural that I think someone who’d never heard of Tyrone Power before seeing Nightmare Alley would never guess that he wasn’t always seen as a serious actor.

Stan is one of the most memorable film characters I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a drifter who joins a carnival and attaches himself to an aging mentalist named Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her husband, broken-down alcoholic Pete (Ian Keith), then throws both of them aside when he’s learned all he can from them.

He takes up with Molly (played by the stunningly beautiful Coleen Gray), much to the dismay of her boyfriend, the brutish, simple-minded carnival strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki). Using the techniques he learned from Pete and Zeena for cold reading a subject and conveying information through a spoken code, he and Molly take their mind-reading act to posh nightclubs, where they’re a sensation. Stan is more than just a quick study. He has an innate ability to see through people and glean their pasts, their innermost desires, and their secrets. The fact that he uses his talents to take people’s money doesn’t bother him, but it bothers Molly, who’s the only character in the film who’s essentially good and decent.

I love the scene in which Stan breaks down and finally uses the oldest trick in the book on Molly. He admits he’s a bad person and a hustler, but that he’s never lied to her. He may have used everyone else in his life, but he’s never used her.

This is, of course, also a lie, which becomes clear when he tosses Molly aside for Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), consulting psychologist to Chicago’s upper crust, and uses Lilith’s knowledge of the intimate details of the lives of the wealthy to take them for all they’re worth.

While The Razor’s Edge was about Power’s character’s spiritual awakening, Nightmare Alley is about his character’s use of spiritual tropes to lie, cheat, and steal. Maybe it’s just the cynical age in which we live, but I thought that The Razor’s Edge came off as disingenuous, while Nightmare Alley was utterly convincing.

Nightmare Alley is based on the best-selling novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Certain aspects of the novel had to be sanitized for the film version, but it’s still a kick to the stomach. Its story of degradation is so powerfully told that there are many people who saw the film a long time ago and claim that there was a horrifying scene that was deleted for the DVD release. The scene they remember never existed (even in the novel), but it’s easy to see why they think they saw it. Like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Nightmare Alley uses the power of suggestion to make you remember horrifying things that you never actually see. It’s a great film, and one that will stay with you a long time after the credits have rolled.

Sinbad the Sailor (Jan. 17, 1947)

Sinbad the Sailor was the first film Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made after a decorated career serving in the Navy during World War II. The son of one of the most famous swashbucklers in Hollywood history, Fairbanks cuts a dashing figure in Richard Wallace’s overlong Orientalist fantasy, but there’s too much talk and too little excitement to recommend it to casual viewers.

I have fond memories of Nathan Juran’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which I saw on the big screen as a kid in the early ’80s. I don’t remember a lot about the lead performance by Kerwin Mathews, or how good the story was, but Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects blew me away. Sinbad the Sailor, on the other hand, has no wild monstrosities like the cyclops or the cobra woman. (A mynah bird on a string is the most memorable special effect, and it’s a bad one.) Instead it has fairly grown-up dialogue and a feisty romance between Sinbad (Fairbanks) and Shireen (a Kurdish woman improbably played by Maureen O’Hara).

Fairbanks plays Sinbad in a grand, theatrical style, with lots of balletic movements and arm sweeps. The Sinbad of Sinbad the Sailor is a braggart and raconteur who begins the film by promising to tell his rapt crew of his legendary “eighth voyage” — the one that never made it into the history books. It involves his quest for the lost treasure of Alexander the Great, hidden on the mysterious isle of Daryabar. He’s accompanied by his faithful (and comical) sidekick Abbu (George Tobias), a fat, effeminate cook named Melik (Walter Slezak), and a crew of roughneck sailors led by a brute named Yusuf (played by Mike Mazurki, of all people). Opposing him is the evil Emir (Anthony Quinn), who wants the treasure and the beautiful Shireen for himself.

RKO intended Sinbad the Sailor to be their big film of the 1946 Christmas season, but a strike at the Technicolor processing plant delayed its release. (A problem that plagued David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, as well.) Instead, they dumped a little black and white movie called It’s a Wonderful Life into theaters. Oh well.

This was the first Douglas Fairbanks Jr. film I’ve seen, and while it wasn’t bad, it didn’t blow me away. (I’ve only seen one of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s films — the 1926 two-strip Technicolor adventure film The Black Pirate — and that one did blow me away.) Fairbanks channels his dad in a couple of action scenes in which he leaps from rooftop to rooftop, swings from balconies, somersaults through descending gates, and trips up legions of the Emir’s palace guards. The action sequences are good, but there are too few of them for a film that’s almost two hours long.

The lead actors are all good (I especially liked Anthony Quinn as Sinbad’s handsome antagonist), but the Arabian Nights-inspired sets are chintzy and the script is talky and repetitive. I didn’t hate Sinbad the Sailor, but I was looking at my watch a lot during the final 45 minutes.

Mysterious Intruder (April 11, 1946)

Mysterious Intruder
Mysterious Intruder (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

“I may not be the greatest detective in the world … but I am the most unusual.”

So says Don Gale, the shady private investigator played by Richard Dix in William Castle’s Mysterious Intruder, the fifth entry in Columbia’s mystery series The Whistler. Based on the CBS radio show of the same name, each film in the series featured Dix in the lead role, but unlike other B mystery series of the ’30s and ’40s, like Charlie Chan, The Falcon, Boston Blackie, Michael Shayne, and the Crime Doctor, Dix played a different character in each. The Whistler, who narrated the radio show but never participated directly in the events of the story, made similar appearances in the film series, walking in the shadows, whistling the haunting 13-note theme music by Wilbur Hatch, and occasionally offering a pithy analysis of the trouble the characters were in. The anthology format and Dix’s strange, arresting performances made The Whistler one of the more interesting series of its time.

In Mysterious Intruder, Gale is an oily operator who employs a “photographic model” named Freda Hanson (Helen Mowery) for dirty work. He also has a secretary named Joan (Nina Vale) who hates him. Clearly motivated by money, Gale walks the narrow line between self-interest and outright villainy. He’s an interesting character to watch, since his intentions remain shadowy right up to the end of the picture. This being a B-level programmer, we’re not treated to a deep character study, but Dix is a good enough performer to make Mysterious Intruder worth watching.

When the film begins, Gale is in his office, which has a spectacular view of the city and looks as if it should be home to the most expensive lawyer in town, not a small-time bedroom snooper. He’s visited by Edward Stillwell (Paul Burns), a kindly old music store owner who wishes to track down a young woman whom he hasn’t seen since she was 14, seven years ago. Her name is Elora Lund, and he has something he wants to give her. One hundred dollars is all Stillwell can afford to pay, which isn’t enough to pique Gale’s interest, but he changes his mind when Stillwell tells him that Elora Lund will pay any amount for bringing them together.

Three days pass, and Stillwell receives a visitor in his shop. She’s a tall, attractive blonde, and she convinces Stillwell that she is Elora Lund. (She’s actually Freda Hanson, Gale’s blackmail tool.) Stillwell tells “Elora” that among the countless odds and ends that her late mother brought in for him to sell was one item that will bring a fortune if sold. Unbeknownst to Freda, however, she was tailed to the store by a hulking thug named Pontos, played by dependable character actor Mike Mazurki. (Mazurki is always a welcome sight, but he doesn’t have a lot to do in this picture. It’s not too different from the role he played in Dick Tracy; a vicious killer with few to no lines.) Pontos murders Stillwell, and Freda screams and flees the scene.

Meanwhile, we learn that the real Elora Lund (Pamela Blake) is in a sanitarium, recovering from the effects of an auto accident. She’s appears to be uninjured physically, and why she wasn’t recuperating at home is never explained. Ah, the good old days of “rest cures.”

Before he became the premier schlockmeister of the ’50s and the most famous “gimmick” director in Hollywood, William Castle was a dependable director of one-hour programmers, including several Whistler and Crime Doctor pictures. Mysterious Intruder is a tight, entertaining ride that features plenty of twists and turns, as well as one of my favorite plot conceits, the private dick who constantly contaminates crime scenes and tampers with evidence for his own purposes, all while staying one step ahead of the police.

Dick Tracy (Dec. 1, 1945)

Dick Tracy, directed by William Berke and starring Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, wasn’t the first filmed adaptation of the most famous detective in the funny pages. There had been four serials prior to it, all of which starred Ralph Byrd; Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941). The first one was also re-edited into a feature in 1937, which was a fairly common practice. These were B pictures, after all. If you had the footage, why not repackage it?

This film, however, took the character in a new direction. Played by Morgan Conway, Tracy is more believable as a real person than the way Byrd played him. Both embody aspects of the character, but they look nothing like each other. Byrd literally looked like a cartoon character. He had small, perfect features and intense eyes. But for me, his voice was too high and his nose too small to really convey the toughness of the character. Conway, on the other hand, is ugly and tough as nails. He looks like what I imagine Tracy might look like if he were a real person, although his nose is more of a “schnoz” than Tracy’s “beak.” He’s decent and brave, but still not above underhanded tricks to get his man. When we’re introduced to him, he’s interrogating a sweaty suspect named Johnny (Tommy Noonan). Tracy makes Johnny believe his mother has been killed so he’ll agree to roll over on someone. After Johnny spills the beans, Tracy admits to having tricked him. “It was the only way I could get you to talk and clear yourself at the same time,” he says. “All right boys, clean up Johnny and send him home.”

This film also features the full supporting cast of characters from Chester Gould’s daily newspaper strip, many of whom had been missing from earlier adaptations; Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his best girl Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), his adopted son Junior (Mickey Kuhn), and Chief Brandon (Joseph Crehan). Gould’s violent, gruesome world is handled well in this film. Its opening may be the darkest of any film based on a comic strip character made before 1970. A high-angle shot shows a man with his back to the camera, leaning against a light pole in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at night, smoking a cigarette. When a bus stops and a single, female passenger (Mary Currier) disembarks, he moves into the shadows. A tracking shot follows her as she walks across the street, then cuts to a static shot of the man’s shadow on a wall, and the viewer can see from the movement of his shadow that he is reaching into his breast pocket for something. This is followed by a tracking shot of the woman with the camera directly behind her, presumably showing his point of view. The woman walks down the sidewalk, her heels clacking. She looks nervous. She turns around. There is no one behind her. She keeps walking. Suddenly, a shadow falls across her and she screams. The man attacks her. There is a cut to a long shot of the street, which shows her body lying on the sidewalk and the man running away.

Dick Tracy discovers a note on the woman’s viciously mutilated body, demanding that $500 in small bills be left in a street sweeper’s trash can on the corner of Lakeview and Ash. The note is signed “Splitface.” The next morning, the mayor of the city (William Halligan) receives a similar note, demanding that $10,000 be paid out or the mayor will be “slashed to pieces.”

The murdered schoolteacher, the mayor, and another man who was killed by Splitface seemingly have nothing to connect them. Tracy and Patton investigate, and Tracy comes to the conclusion that Splitface is motivated by something other than money, since the murdered woman didn’t pay, but the murdered man did.

Dick Tracy has plenty of action, with Dick and Pat chasing down suspects on foot and in cars, but it doesn’t skimp on the investigations that lead them there. It’s not rigorous enough to qualify as a police procedural, but it doesn’t gloss over any details, and Conway’s acting style and line delivery are not unlike Jack Webb’s on Dragnet.

Devotees of the daily strip will probably quibble with details, but I thought this picture did a nice job of balancing the violence with over-the-top characters. There is a loony astronomer and fortune teller named Professor Starling (Trevor Bardette), a ghoulish undertaker named Deathridge (Milton Parsons), and of course the great character actor Mike Mazurki as the villain.

Dick Tracy is a one-hour programmer, and there’s no question that it’s a B movie, but it’s an expertly directed, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable one.

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (Oct. 5, 1945)

AbbottCostelloHollywoodAbbott and Costello were one of the most popular comedy teams of the ’40s. They’re still famous for their “Who’s on first?” routine, and a lot of their film and radio work is still funny, as long as you’re in the mood for their old-fashioned brand of burlesque antics. If you’re not in the mood for them, or if one of their bits falls flat, Lou Costello is the most irritating man on earth.

In Abbott and Costello in Hollywood they play a couple of bumbling barbers named Buzz Kurtis (Abbott) and Abercrombie (Costello). Who’s ready for lots of physical humor involving shaving cream and shoe polish?

When we first meet the boys, they’re in the supply room of Hollywood Shop: Barbers to the Stars. Even if you’ve never seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, as soon as you see Abbott instructing Costello on how to shave a customer’s face without cutting him while Costello listens attentively, holding a straight razor poised above a balloon covered with shaving cream, you’ll know the balloon is not long for this world. If you have seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, you’ll know that after the balloon breaks and sprays shaving cream all over Costello’s face, there will be a second balloon. Will there be a third balloon? I don’t want to give anything away.

Thankfully, the movie doesn’t coast on barbering gags, since Abbott and Costello decide they want to be Hollywood agents at around the 30-minute mark. As with any Abbott and Costello picture, however, the plot is secondary to gags and wordplay, so it doesn’t really matter whether they’re playing geologists or Portugese noblemen. A lot of the routines in this movie are clunkers, but a few are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the one in which Costello hides out by pretending to be a dummy on the set of a western, and finds himself being punched in the face and thrown over a balcony in take after take by craggy-faced tough-guy character actor Mike Mazurki.

Most of the “stars” they meet in Hollywood (like Rags Ragland) are long forgotten, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see a young Lucille Ball in a small role.

Murder, My Sweet (Dec. 9, 1944)

murdermysweetDick Powell was known as a song-and-dance man when he was cast as hard-boiled dick Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely.

He nailed the role by not overplaying it. It didn’t hurt that the script and direction were pretty good, too. Powell in Murder, My Sweet will never give Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep much competition, but he does a pretty good job.

This film marked a turning point in Powell’s career, too. At the age of 40, Powell was able to slough off the public’s perception of him and reinvent himself as a noir tough guy.

He would go on to star in film noirs like Cornered (1945), which, like this film, was directed by Edward Dmytryk, Johnny O’Clock (1947), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), and Pitfall (1948), among others, as well as two classic radio detective shows, Rogue’s Gallery, which premiered in 1945, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which premiered in 1949.