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Tag Archives: Norbert Brodine

Kiss of Death (Aug. 27, 1947)

Kiss of Death is director Henry Hathaway’s greatest film noir. It’s a mix of the semi-documentary style of his earlier films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) with the hard-boiled conventions of his private eye flick The Dark Corner (1946).

The film begins with the following words: “All scenes in this motion picture, both exterior and interior, were photographed in the State of New York on the actual locale associated with the story.”

Unlike The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine, however, this commitment to veracity isn’t in service of a true-ish retelling of World War II-era espionage, but of a hard-boiled crime drama about a three-time loser facing 15 years in stir after being nabbed for a jewel robbery.

His name is Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and if he wants to watch his two little girls grow up, he’s going to have to stool for the district attorney’s office.

Bianco has been in this position before, and he took the full four-year rap instead of squealing.

“I’m the same guy now I was then. Nothin’ has changed. Nothin’,” he tells Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy).

On his way up the river to Sing Sing, Nick meets a cackling, sociopathic hood named Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Udo won’t show up again for awhile, but he’ll play a major role in Nick’s life when he does.

For awhile, Nick stays clammed up, but then his wife Maria commits suicide and he starts to rethink matters. When a pretty girl from his old neighborhood, Nettie (Coleen Gray), comes to visit him in Sing Sing and tells him that the driver on the jewelry job, a guy named Pete Rizzo, was responsible for Mrs. Bianco putting her head in the oven, Nick decides he wants to talk to the D.A. and secure his release in exchange for information. (In the original story, it was implied that Rizzo raped Nick’s wife, but that’s sidestepped in the final version, making it seem more as if she was having an affair with Rizzo.)

Nick trusts Assistant D.A. D’Angelo enough to tumble to a job in his past that he got away with — the Thompson Fur Company heist — to provide a cover for his trips to the D.A.’s office. D’Angelo promises that he’ll drop the charges later for insufficient evidence.

Things are looking up for Nick. He’s able to care for his daughters, and he’s eventually paroled, leaving him free to marry Nettie.

But as soon as Tommy Udo — Nick’s old pal from the trip up to Sing Sing — re-enters his life, things go very bad very quickly. Udo is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of wrapping up an older wheelchair-bound woman (played by Mildred Dunnock) in electrical cord and pushing her down a long flight of stairs, in one of the most enduring scenes of cinematic sociopathy.

Kiss of Death was Richard Widmark’s film debut, and his balls-out crazy performance is something to behold. The filmmakers thought that Widmark’s high forehead made him look too intelligent, so they outfitted him with a low-browed hairpiece. Like Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), Widmark’s performance as Tommy Udo straddles the line between gangster movie and monster movie. Director Hathaway had toyed with the idea of casting the manic Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, who sang the 1944 druggie classic “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” as Udo, but it’s impossible now to imagine anyone but Widmark in the role.

The screenplay for Kiss of Death was adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from a story by Eleazar Lipsky originally called “Stoolpigeon.” Lipsky was a novelist who worked as a Manhattan assistant district attorney. He was also legal counsel for the Mystery Writers of America. Perhaps because of Lipsky’s day job, the realism of the setting of Kiss of Death is matched by the actions of its characters. Brian Donlevy, in the role of Assistant D.A. D’Angelo, is neither a hero nor a villain. When he tells Nick that he’s going to have to testify in court after all, and later that it was all for nothing, and that Tommy Udo was acquitted and is probably coming after Nick, the viewer gets the sense that D’Angelo genuinely cares for Nick, but that at the same time, putting Nick’s life in danger is just part of the job. D’Angelo might not like it, but he accepts it as a necessary evil.

Interestingly, the fictional Kiss of Death comes off as a more realistic film than either The House on 92nd Street (1945) or 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), both of which touted the “true” stories that were their inspirations. Although not every scene in Kiss of Death was shot on the actual locale associated with the story, as the title card promises (some of the interiors were clearly shot in a studio), the use of real New York City and Upstate New York locations coupled with realistic dialogue, understated performances from all the cast besides Widmark, and extremely sparse use of background music makes for a powerful, engrossing drama. There are standout set pieces, like the jewel heist in the Chrysler Building that opens the film, and spectacular shots of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building, the Tombs, and the Triborough Bridge from the Queens side of the East River, but there are also lots of little touches that give the film its sense of realism. When Nick watches his daughters during their music lesson at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the piano is slightly out of tune. When Nick sits in his cell at Sing Sing, the toilet in the cell is clearly visible, which is something you’d never see in a prison cell built on a Hollywood soundstage in the ’40s. (Incidentally, prior to shooting the scenes in Sing Sing, Hathaway had both Victor Mature and Richard Widmark processed through the system to give them a better sense of the characters they were playing.)

Kiss of Death isn’t a perfect movie, but it stands up to repeated viewings, and its use of music and location are both revolutionary. If you don’t believe me, take it from Walter Winchell…

Boomerang (March 5, 1947)

Boomerang is another fact-based drama produced by Louis de Rochemont, the maker of the “March of Time” series of newsreels. Like de Rochemont’s other films, The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), it features stentorian, “newsreel”-style narration by Reed Hadley, a number of the actual participants in the case playing themselves in minor roles, and a commitment to verisimilitude that is less cut-and-dried than the filmmakers would have the audience believe.

For my money, Boomerang (or Boomerang!, as it appears on the cover of a notebook in the opening credits) is far and away the best of the first three films de Rochemont produced. A great deal of that is due to the direction by Elia Kazan.

Kazan was coming off the success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), but he was still better known for his work in the theater than in Hollywood. I think that Kazan’s enormous talent as a film director and his strong visual sense are often underestimated, but there’s no denying that he was an actor’s director. The actors in Boomerang all turn in powerful, fully realized performances, and I think a lot of that is due to Kazan’s experience directing for the stage.

Boomerang is based on a real case that took place in 1924 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (To sidestep raw feelings, the production was filmed in Stamford.)

A beloved priest named Father Lambert (Wyrley Birch) is killed by a single .32 caliber bullet fired point blank into the back of his head on Main Street one evening. When a prime suspect does not immediately materialize, the reform party newly in power is lambasted in the press, which leads to overzealous police tactics, which means plenty of round-ups and arrests, but not much else. Finally, a drifter named John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) is picked up by police in Ohio. Waldron has a .32 revolver in his pocket, was passing through Connecticut at the time of the murder, and is identified by numerous eyewitnesses as the shooter.

Waldron also makes a signed confession, but only after he’s subjected to days of intense grilling by police chief Harold F. “Robbie” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb) and Detective Lt. White (Karl Malden), as well as a parade of other police officers and a psychiatrist, Dr. William Rainsford (Dudley Sadler).

It seems like an open-and-shut case, and a slam-dunk for State’s Attorney Henry L. Harvey (Dana Andrews), but after talking to Waldron, Harvey has doubts about his guilt, which he shares with his wife, Madge Harvey (Jane Wyatt), before doing some investigating of his own.

When called upon to make his case in court, Harvey says, “I thought I had the case going perfectly straight and then all of a sudden it comes back and hits me right between the eyes.”

Boomerang brilliantly depicts a number of concepts that were fairly new to the public at the time of its release — the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, especially a large group of eyewitnesses, and the idea that a man who was not guilty of a crime might still make a full confession to police under duress.

Kazan also shows exactly what abuse of power looks like. It’s not committed by scheming men of pure evil, it’s committed by police officers like the one played by Lee J. Cobb — decent men with a strong moral code who are desperate to make a conviction, and are absolutely sure that they have the right man. Kazan also does a good job of weaving a story of petty, venal, small-town politics into the larger crime story and courtroom drama.

The character Dana Andrews plays is based on Homer Cummings, who would go on to be the U.S. Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it’s not a biopic. It’s also not a wholly nonfictional telling of the real case, since there’s a character created from whole cloth named Jim Crossman (Philip Coolidge), who may or may not have murdered the priest, and who seems to have been created purely to satisfy audience members who need to see some sort of justice done.

Luckily, false notes like the Crossman character are few and far between in Boomerang.

13 Rue Madeleine (Jan. 15, 1947)

Henry Hathaway’s 13 Rue Madeleine is a spiritual sequel to his espionage docudrama thriller The House on 92nd Street (1945). The address this time around refers not to the headquarters of a Nazi spy ring in New York City, but to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre, France, during World War II.

Like The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine owes a debt to the style and presentation of Louis de Rochemont’s “March of Time” newsreels. (De Rochemont served as producer of both films.) I enjoyed The House on 92nd Street, but judged purely as a cinematic experience, 13 Rue Madeleine is the superior film.

A lot of that is due to the film’s star. James Cagney is dynamic and arresting in every role I’ve ever seen him play, and I would pay to watch a film in which all he did was order and consume room service by himself.

In this film, Cagney plays Robert Emmett “Bob” Sharkey, an instructor of potential agents in a U.S. agency called “O77.” (The organization is clearly based on the O.S.S., but the name was changed because of certain plot elements that we’ll get to in a moment.)

Early in the film, Sharkey’s boss, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), informs him that one of his students is a German mole named Wilhelm Kuncel. The mole turns out to be one of his most promising pupils, William H. “Bill” O’Connell (Richard Conte). O’Connell looks and acts as American as apple pie, and during training grew especially close to blond, fresh-faced Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), who never suspected a thing.

Gibson orders Sharkey to pass O’Connell and to not let on what he knows, in order to feed false information to the Germans through O’Connell. Alas, O’Connell proves to be even cannier than Sharkey’s bosses could have predicted, and this decision leads to a series of tragedies.

Conte isn’t an actor I could have picked out of a lineup a year ago, but after seeing him now in several roles, I think he’s a tremendous performer, and I look forward to a lifetime of watching his films. It doesn’t matter for his role as a double agent in 13 Rue Madeleine that he doesn’t look the slightest bit “German.” In a wordless scene in a transport plane over Europe, as O’Connell and Lassiter are preparing to jump, O’Connell suddenly sees what the straight-arrow Lassiter can’t hide, and the look on his face is chilling.

Somewhere in the Night (June 12, 1946)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night looks like a noir, talks like a noir, and walks like a noir. But when the credits rolled I felt more like I’d watched a light-hearted mystery farce than a noir. This isn’t to say that Somewhere in the Night is a bad movie. It’s actually a really fun one. But the dark journey promised by the film’s opening never pans out, and the plot twists grow increasingly ludicrous as the picture goes on.

The first few minutes of the picture are mostly shot in first-person P.O.V., as a man (played by John Hodiak) wakes up in an Army field hospital. Through voiceover and the images in front of his face, we learn that he has no idea who he is, and doesn’t remember anything leading up to this point. This opening presages Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person P.O.V. extravaganza Lady in the Lake (1947). Luckily, unlike that picture, the technique is used judiciously in Somewhere in the Night.

Hodiak’s character has Army identification in the name of “George Taylor,” a Dear John letter (it’s really more of an “I Hate You, John” letter), and a letter of credit from someone named “Larry Cravat.” What’s a noir protagonist to do? Clearly, the best course of action is to head for the mean streets of Los Angeles and attempt to track down Larry Cravat, even though “Taylor” has no idea what he’s doing or who all these people are who seem to want him dead. Why should that stop him? Taylor is a Purple Heart recipient and seems to be able to handle himself. It doesn’t hurt that the briefcase he picks up in a Los Angeles train station contains a gun and a letter from Larry Cravat telling Taylor that there is $5,000 deposited in his name in an L.A. bank.

For the first half hour or so, Somewhere in the Night has a few things to say about the plight of returning G.I.s, in particular the disappointments handed them by the women they came home to (or didn’t come home to, in Taylor’s case), and the resentment some servicemen must have felt upon their return.

“You know there’s been a terrible shortage of men,” a beautiful young woman named Phyllis (Margo Woode) tells Taylor.

“Yeah, so we heard in the Pacific,” he responds. “This war must have been murder on you poor women. We used to cry our eyes out about it.”

But, as I said, the longer Somewhere in the Night goes on, the more plot points stack up, and the less time the film has to do anything but crank through its story.

When Taylor goes to the bank to try and collect his $5,000 he arouses the suspicion of the cashier and he ends up fleeing empty-handed. He follows leads to a Turkish bath and then to a nightclub. Set up at the club by the bartender, he ends up hiding from a couple of mugs in the dressing room of a pretty singer named Christy Smith, who is played by the 20-year old Nancy Guild (rhymes with “wild”).

Guild is fresh-faced, has a beautiful voice, and plays her role well. She’s not outstanding, but she does a good job, especially considering this was her first role in a film; not just as leading lady, her first film role, period. Apparently she felt out of her depth, and the production was a struggle for her. In later interviews, she credited Mankiewicz’s generous nature and sensitive direction, and said he was a real father figure to her.

Hodiak also does a decent job, but it’s a one-note performance. He sweats profusely and looks haunted, and does a great job with lines like, “I’m tired of being pushed around. The war’s over for me. I don’t have to live afraid anymore.” He sounds genuinely angry, and he also sounds as if he doesn’t believe his own words one bit.

It wasn’t until after I finished watching Somewhere in the Night that I learned that while Hodiak was born in the United States, he grew up in an immigrant family, spoke Hungarian and Polish at home, and always had to work hard at his English diction. “No part has ever come easily to me,” Hodiak once said. “Every one has been a challenge. I’ve worked as hard as I could on them all.” I never would have guessed from this film that his first language wasn’t English, but there is something about his delivery that is strange and stilted.

Luckily, Guild and Hodiak have wonderful support from two great actors who straddled the line between character actor and leading man; Lloyd Nolan and Richard Conte.

Nolan plays a police detective, Lt. Donald Kendall, who doesn’t eat lunch because it puts him to sleep and doesn’t drink coffee because it keeps him awake. He also wonders aloud several times why detectives in the movies don’t ever take their hats off. (He figures it out by the end of the picture.) And he has plenty of great lines, which he delivers in his trademark wry fashion, like “Big post-war boom in homicide.”

Conte plays a nightclub owner named Mel Phillips, who’s smooth without seeming oily, and whose motives aren’t initially clear. (If you had $5 for every time Conte played a nightclub owner in a noir, you could probably take your whole family out to a nice dinner.)

Somewhere in the Night is a good picture; well-made and a lot of fun. It was all just a little silly for my taste, though.

The House on 92nd Street (Sept. 10, 1945)

House92ndStWhen The House on 92nd Street was released on DVD in 2005, it was as part of the “Fox Film Noir” collection. This is misleading, since it’s more of a docudrama than it is a noir. It’s a historically important film, however, since it was one of the first to feature location shooting for nearly all the exteriors, and one of the first to skillfully blend fact with fiction while presenting itself as essentially factual. (Charles G. Booth won an Academy Award for best original story for his work on this film.)

The House on 92nd Street stars William Eythe as Bill Dietrich, a second-generation German-American who becomes a double agent for the F.B.I., Lloyd Nolan as his contact in the Bureau, Agent George A. Briggs, and Signe Hasso as the leader of the spy ring, Elsa Gebhardt. The film is a fictionalized account of the F.B.I.’s 1941 operation against the Nazi spy ring led by Fritz Joubert Duquesne. It was one of the largest counterspy operations in U.S. history, and led to the conviction of 33 people. In reality, however, none of them were involved in anything quite as grand as the secrets of the atomic bomb, which is the MacGuffin in The House on 92nd Street. And the real Dietrich was not the all-American boy portrayed by Eythe. He actually was a German-born man named William G. Sebold who served in the German army during World War I but became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. Presumably the war was still too fresh in the minds of the American viewing public for them to accept a German as the hero of a picture.

This film also shows the beginnings of J. Edgar Hoover’s massive publicity campaign for the F.B.I., which he disguised as a simple display of information. In reality, of course, Hoover carefully controlled the information that the public saw about the F.B.I., twisting and distorting as necessary. A good example of this information control is a scene early in the film, in which we see an indoor enclosure the size of an airplane hangar, filled with filing cabinets. The booming voice of the narrator (Reed Hadley) explains that this is the F.B.I.’s collection of 100 million sets of fingerprints, a number that seems unlikely, given that the population of the United States was fewer than 140 million people in 1945. Were they counting each finger? The message, of course, is that there is no hiding from the F.B.I. If you commit a federal crime or spy for another nation, they will find you. (This was also the message of the radio show This Is Your F.B.I., which began broadcasting dramatizations of real federal cases on American Broadcasting Company stations in the spring of 1945, all with the cooperation of Hoover, who called it “the finest dramatic program on the air,” and “our show.”)

The House on 92nd Street was directed by Henry Hathaway, but much of its style can be attributed to producer Louis de Rochemont, who created the “March of Time” newsreel series. When he lacked the footage he wanted, de Rochemont would stage clever recreations, but his newsreels were presented as wholly factual. It’s important to keep in mind that American audiences were less savvy about media trickery in 1945. After all, it had only been six years since people tuned into Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast midway through the program and thought Martians were vaporizing people in New Jersey.

The House on 92nd Street begins with a compilation of actual footage of people entering and exiting the German embassy, which is interesting. Of course, the characters in this film watch a great deal of surveillance footage. Some of it is real, some is not. It’s not that audiences in 1945 didn’t realize that the film was a blending of reenactments and actual footage, it’s the overall message they were taking away from the film that was perhaps not completely accurate. For instance, in Thomas M. Pryor’s September 27, 1945 review of the film in the New York Times, he wrote the following:

Since the picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox with full cooperation from the F.B.I., was completed some months ago, the secret of the atomic bomb has been revealed. Now the picture carries a simple and restrained foreword explaining that the “Process 97” which the Nazi agents are attempting to steal was in reality a part of the atomic bomb formula. It is to the producers’ everlasting credit that this information is not sensationalized in the film.

In reality, however, there is no evidence that there was a single “missing piece” of the atomic bomb process that spies were in danger of transmitting back to Nazi Germany. And of course, film by its very nature presents a sensationalized picture of reality.

Also, a big deal is made at the beginning of the picture that every person playing an F.B.I. agent, aside from the principals, is an actual F.B.I. agent. This, however, does not make what is depicted any more or less truthful than if they were played by actors, but it seems to.

The House on 92nd Street is not a bad picture by any stretch. Taken at face value, it’s tense and exciting. And director Hathaway, when not constrained by the documentary-style approach of de Rochemont, creates some great sequences, such as when Dietrich gets himself arrested just to get in touch with Briggs at the F.B.I., or the meeting between Dietrich and his co-conspirators at a waterfront dive. And the final shootout, which involves tear gas grenades and a surprising disguise, is fantastic. If you’re looking for a film that uses the framework of a docudrama to present a tense film noir, however, you’d be better off watching Anthony Mann’s excellent T-Men (1947).