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Tag Archives: Phil Brown

Johnny O’Clock (Jan. 23, 1947)

Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock — yes, it’s really about a man named “Johnny O’Clock” — isn’t as good as some of Rossen’s later films, like The Hustler (1961), but it’s a great start. Rossen was a prolific writer of screenplays, but Johnny O’Clock was his first time in the director’s chair.

The improbably named protagonist is played with a light touch by former crooner Dick Powell. Johnny is a partner in a New York gambling syndicate run by an oily, overweight gangster named Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).

Marchettis is married to a beautiful sloppy drunk named Nelle (Ellen Drew) who’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, but who loves the dough too much to ever leave Marchettis. Powell’s scenes with Gomez and Drew are some of the best of the picture, as the boozy moll falls all over Johnny in front of Marchettis and his heavy-hitters, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s jealousy. At the same time, Marchettis seems desperate for approval from both Johnny and his wife. In one scene, he goes on and on about the portrait he had a Mexican boy paint of him. When he shows it to Johnny and asks him if he likes it, Johnny simply responds, “It looks like you.”

There’s a police inspector named Koch (Lee J. Cobb) who’s hounding Johnny O’Clock, lurking in the lobby of the hotel where he lives and constantly trying to catch him riding dirty. Johnny’s association with corrupt cop Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon) rubs the honest Inspector Koch the wrong way, especially since Blayden’s been on the winning end of more than one shootout with Marchettis’s rivals. Koch suspects that Marchettis and Johnny are using Blayden to do their dirty work under the guise of “justifiable homicide.”

When a pretty hat-check girl who works at Johnny O’Clock’s casino goes missing, things heat up. The girl, Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), was dating Chuck Blayden, and when her body is found in her gas-filled apartment — an apparent suicide — Koch smells foul play. As soon as Harriet’s sister, Nancy Hobson (Evelyn Keyes), arrives in New York to claim her sister’s body, cracks begin to appear in Johnny O’Clock’s carefree exterior. He and Nancy are attracted to each other, but are from different worlds. She makes him want to cash out and run away with her, but if you’ve ever seen a gangster movie, you know that cashing out always comes at a price.

Johnny O’Clock is the third of many noirs to star Powell after he shed his image as a boyish Depression-era crooner and appeared as Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Johnny O’Clock gives Powell a chance to craft a more three-dimensional character than he had a chance to in either Murder, My Sweet or Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), and he’s mostly successful, although he didn’t seem fully up to the challenge of some of the more emotional moments in the film’s climax. (Powell was a breezy and charming actor who could project toughness and nastiness when he had to, but raw, naked emotion wasn’t one of the tools in his actor’s toolbox.)

While the story’s twists and turns are sometimes hard to follow, the actors are all good, and enjoyable to watch. Lee J. Cobb’s most famous role is probably as Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist (1973), so it was fun to see him in a similar role, more than 25 years earlier.

Writer-director Rossen has a fuller vision of his criminal demi-monde that we see in most ’40s noirs, and his characters are convincing within its context. I really liked Johnny O’Clock, and I’d love to see proper DVD releases of more of Dick Powell’s film noirs in the future. I had to watch this one on a janky DVD-R recorded off of television.

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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.

Without Reservations (May 13, 1946)

Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations is the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that frequently has adjectives like “sparkling” and “breezy” attached to it. It’s also the last film in which John Wayne appeared as one of the leads but did not receive top billing. Claudette Colbert’s star power still shone pretty brightly in 1946.

I thought that LeRoy’s previous film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), was one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen, so I was looking forward to seeing Without Reservations, but found it mediocre. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

In the film, Colbert plays Christopher “Kit” Madden, a sort of socially progressive version of Ayn Rand. Her novel Here Is Tomorrow is a runaway best-seller, and is the one book it seems that everyone in post-war America has read. When the film begins, Kit is arguing with film producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall), who is unable to fulfill his promise to secure Cary Grant for the part of Mark Winston, the protagonist of Here Is Tomorrow. Kit won’t consider making the picture without Cary Grant, and begins drafting a letter while traveling by train that will stop production of the film. Anyone who’s been paying attention, however, will notice that the heroic painting of Mark Winston on the cover of her novel looks an awful lot like John Wayne, and will probably be able to predict what will happen next.

Sure enough, Kit meets two Marine pilots, Rusty Thomas (John Wayne) and Dink Watson (Don DeFore), on the train. As soon as she lays her eyes on Rusty, she realizes he’s perfect for the role of Mark Winston, and immediately begins to rewrite her letter. Since she introduces herself only as “Kit,” and the novel was published under her full name, Dink and Rusty don’t realize that she’s the most popular author in America. When she asks Rusty what he thinks of the novel Here Is Tomorrow he rips into it with abandon. His main complaint seems to be that the romance in the novel is unconvincing. Mark Winston, a progressive with grand plans to remake America, is chased around by a woman, but they can’t make things work because she’s a political reactionary.

In reality, of course, it’s Kit who’s the progressive (Mark Winston is merely her mouthpiece) and Rusty who’s the reactionary. Without Reservations is based on the novel Thanks, God! I’ll Take It From Here, by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston. I haven’t read the novel, but if the film is in any way faithful to its source material, the title comes from a speech Rusty makes about the first men in America. According to Rusty, no amount of political disagreement is enough to keep a man and a woman apart if they’re hot for each other. (Can you sense, yet, where the film might be heading?)

Angry about the grand plan laid out for society in Here Is Tomorrow, Rusty says to Kit, “Have you ever heard of some fellows who first came over to this country? You know what they found? They found a howling wilderness, where summer’s too hot and winter’s freezing. And they also found some unpleasant little characters who painted their faces. Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age? For their crops? For their homes? They did not. They looked at the land and the forest and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids, and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, ‘Thanks, God. We’ll take it from here.'”

Watching the film in 2010, I found it hard to believe that no one from the Tea Party movement has latched onto this scene and played it on JumboTrons across the country, since its simplistic vision of America’s beginnings and total opposition to the federal government and even the most basic of social programs seem so close to that movement’s weltanshauung. Not to mention that the speech is delivered as only John Wayne can.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and Wayne and Colbert have decent chemistry, even though he’s not that well suited to playing a romantic lead, especially in a comedy. If Without Reservations had kept up the momentum it establishes in its first couple of acts, I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, it goes off the rails and becomes a meandering road movie.

But not before Rusty, Kit, and Dink run afoul of one of the Pullman porters when they stack up the tables in the club car and have Kit “fly a plane” with a stand-up ashtray for a yoke. The drunken Kit eventually falls over, knocking everything to the ground. Like a bunch of goons, they run off, leaving the mess for one of the porters to clean up while they hide in one of the sleeping compartments (see the film’s poster above).

Once on the road, they buy a flashy sports car from its exasperated owner, and it constantly breaks down. They stay with a colorful Mexican family with a hot and spicy daughter named Dolores (Dona Drake) and a fiery patriarch, Señor Ortega (Frank Puglia), who teaches Kit a few things about love, namely how brutal, selfish, and turbulent it is, and should be. “Love and violence walk hand in hand, señorita!” he says.

The strangest thing about Without Reservations is that Colbert and Wayne do not appear in the same scene at any point during the last act of the film. Kit galivants around Hollywood with a series of leading men in an effort to make Rusty jealous, and the viewer is treated to cameos by Cary Grant (playing himself) and Raymond Burr (still young and trim enough to play an up-and-coming leading man named “Paul Gill”). In these sequences it makes sense for Colbert and Wayne to not appear together, since they’re in different physical locations, but when Rusty finally gives in and appears on Kit’s doorstep, we hear him ringing her doorbell and see her run out of her bedroom downstairs to let him in, but the camera pans right and stops and lingers on a shot of her bed as we hear her greet him off screen. Fade to black. It’s about as subtle as a train going into a tunnel.

I know there are legions of people who think Colbert was the epitome of class, beauty, and charm, but I found her unappealing in this film. With her little stick body, hunched shoulders, spastic movements, short hair in a tight perm, and heavy makeup, she looked to me like an eighty-year old woman with a forty-year old face.

State Fair (Aug. 30, 1945)

StateFairState Fair was the first musical made specifically for film by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their two previous musical collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, were both stage productions. (Although both would eventually be made into films in the ’50s.) State Fair was based on a novel by Philip Stong that had previously been made into a non-musical film in 1933 with Will Rogers.

Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) and her brother, Wayne (Dick Haymes), go to the Iowa State Fair with their parents (played by Fay Bainter and Charles Winninger) and their prize hog, Blue Boy. Margy and Wayne are both somewhat dissatisfied with their current significant others, and each find someone a whole lot more exciting at the fair; she a cavalier reporter played by Dana Andrews and he a flame-haired singer played by Vivian Blaine. Things go well for both, but can their love affairs outlast the fair?

Musically primitive and relentlessly cheery, State Fair injects life into its clichéd proceedings with charm, humor, and some cartoonishly outsized, Technicolor images of middle-American excess. And Andrews (who played the detective in the 1944 noir classic Laura) is rakishly charming, almost but not quite a thug, and always fun to watch.