Where Danger Lives (1950)
Directed by John Farrow
RKO Radio Pictures
A more accurate and unique title for this film could have been A Man Concussed.
Don’t get me wrong, “Where Danger Lives” is nice and vivid, and it’s so perfectly “noir” that it’s also the name of an excellent blog you should all be reading if you have any interest in film noir. But “A Man Concussed” would have been more specific, and for whatever reason (probably inspired by the Robert Bresson film A Man Escaped), it’s the title that kept running around in my head as I watched Robert Mitchum in this film, his character suffering from a traumatic brain injury, and getting deeper and deeper in trouble.
The screenplay for Where Danger Lives was written by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, who penned the scripts for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), as well as many others. Where Danger Lives has a good story with plenty of unique touches, but the movie never quite hit me where I live. Director John Farrow and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, certainly crafted a great-looking movie. Visually, Where Danger Lives is a great noir, but in terms of a complete experience I don’t think it’s a film noir I’ll keep coming back to.
Perhaps the trouble is Mitchum’s leading lady, Faith Domergue. She delivers a competent performance, but just doesn’t exude the same combination of allure and menace that the great femme fatales do, like Barbarba Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross (1949), or Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1950).
Where Danger Lives is certainly worth seeing at least once, especially if you’re a Robert Mitchum fan like I am. The supporting cast is pretty great, too, including brief appearances by the great Claude Rains and the always enchanting Maureen O’Sullivan.
The Big Steal (1949)
Directed by Don Siegel
RKO Radio Pictures
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer starred in my favorite film noir of all time, Out of the Past (1947). It’s not everyone’s favorite film noir, but I think most noir aficionados would at least put it in their top 10.
The Big Steal probably isn’t in too many noir fans’ top 10 lists, but it’s a damned good picture. I actually don’t think it’s a noir at all, even though it’s often classified as one. (It’s available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 box set.)
Except for the noir-heavy power of the two leads and the presence of lovable film noir lummox William Bendix as a heavy (as well as the fact that the MacGuffin of the film is a large sum of money), there’s really nothing “noir” about The Big Steal.
The Big Steal is a fast-paced chase movie set in the sun-drenched countryside of Mexico. Robert Mitchum plays a US Army lieutenant named Duke Halliday who’s been accused of stealing a military payroll. On his trail is Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix). The film opens with Capt. Blake catching up to Duke on a ship docked in Veracruz, but Duke quickly gets the upper hand and goes on the lam with Blake’s identification papers.
Duke has a “meet cute” scene with American tourist Joan Graham (Jane Greer). She thinks he’s a boor; he thinks she’s a scold. She speaks Spanish; what he speaks barely qualifies as “Spanglish.”
They go their separate ways. She goes to the hotel room of her ne’er-do-well fiancé Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles) and demands he return the $2,000 he “borrowed” from her. Fiske slips away while she’s in the shower and Duke shows up, looking for Fiske, since Fiske has a lot more money than Joan realizes.
At just 71 minutes long, this is a movie that doesn’t waste any time. Duke and Joan are chasing Fiske, and Capt. Blake is chasing Duke and Joan. Mexican police officials Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro) and Lt. Ruiz (Don Alvarado) are chasing all four of them, with no particular urgency.
There’s plenty of action. Siegel keeps the tone light, but when there’s gunplay or a fistfight, it’s swift and tough, which is as it should be.
While I love Jane Greer in Out of the Past, her character in that film is a classic femme fatale — icy and unknowable. Her role in The Big Steal is more similar to the screwball comediennes of the 1930s. Greer and Mitchum have an easy chemistry, trading barbs and falling for each other along the way. He cracks wise about women drivers, and later she gets to show him exactly what a woman driver can do in a high-speed chase on a twisty mountain road.
Oh, and there’s one more connection with Out of the Past. The Big Steal is based on Richard Wormser’s story “The Road to Carmichael’s,” but the screenplay is by Gerald Drayson Adams and Daniel Mainwaring. Daniel Mainwaring also wrote the screenplay for Out of the Past, which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High.
Don Siegel was a craftsman who had a long career in Hollywood. He directed some of my favorite films of all time, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971), but there are a ton of his films I haven’t seen. I’ve seen his first film, a short called Star in the Night (1945), which is a sweet little Christmas parable starring J. Carrol Naish. I haven’t seen his next few films, the documentary short Hitler Lives (1945), the mystery feature The Verdict (1946), or the romantic melodrama Night Unto Night (1949), which starred Ronald Reagan and Viveca Lindfors (who was married to Siegel from August 10, 1949, to May 26, 1954).
Watching The Big Steal reminded me just how much I love Siegel’s films, and made me happy that I still have so many left to see.
Blood on the Moon (1948)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures
Blood on the Moon is an RKO western directed by Robert Wise. It’s based on Luke Short’s novel Gunman’s Chance, which was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941.
I’ve only read one of Luke Short’s western novels (he wrote more than 50), but judging by it and the two films I’ve seen that were based on his work (this one and André de Toth’s 1947 film Ramrod), dense plotting, terse dialogue, and three-dimensional protagonists were some of Short’s trademarks.
Like most protagonists of westerns in the ’40s and ’50s, the protagonists of Blood on the Moon and Ramrod are on the side of the angels. But they’re more interesting than the cookie-cutter heroes of countless B westerns. Not so much because they’re complex people, but because they’re believable people who exist in a complex world.
First-time viewers of both Ramrod and Blood on the Moon will likely have a little difficulty figuring out who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are right away, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying — at least for the first couple of reels.
The hero of Blood on the Moon — Jim Garry — is played by Robert Mitchum. Garry is a solitary cowpoke with a small herd. He’s passing through open country when his herd is run off in a stampede. Rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully), owner of the Lazy J Ranch, apologizes and offers to reimburse Garry for the outfit he lost. Even so, their exchange is tense. Lufton doesn’t trust loose riders, since he’s feuding over grazing land with Jake Pindalest (Frank Faylen), a newly appointed Indian agent who’s thrown Lufton off the reservation grass, and stopped Lufton from supplying the tribe with beef, even though he’d done so for years.
When Garry turns down Lufton’s offer to work for him, the opposition comes knocking in the form of an old friend of Garry’s — a man named Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Tate represents the homesteaders who are opposed to Lufton, and he offers to hire Garry as a gunhand for $10,000. Tate tells Garry, “Lufton’s tough and my ranchers aren’t. You make up the difference.”
“I’ve been mixed up in a lot of things, Tate, but up till now I haven’t been hired for my gun,” Garry says.
“Can you afford to be particular?”
Garry thinks for a moment, then says, “No, I guess I can’t.”
Mitchum is perfect for this type of role. He was a laconic actor who barely ever changed his expression, but he could suggest depths of emotion with his eyes.
I’ve seen him in run-of-the-mill westerns like West of the Pecos (1945), and he’s fine in them, but he did his best work in dark, noirish westerns like this one and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947).
Robert Wise, the director of The Body Snatcher (1945) and Born to Kill (1947), keeps Blood on the Moon moving at a brisk, tense pace. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is full of darkness and shadows. It’s not full-on “noir” like James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Pursued, but Blood on the Moon still spends a lot of time in darkened saloons, lonely country at night, and the streets of a frontier town after dark. Even the exterior scenes that take place in daylight have a sense of gray desolation.
The cast is really great, too. I like seeing Barbara Bel Geddes in just about anything, and I especially liked her as one of Lufton’s two daughters, Amy. (Phyllis Thaxter plays the other daughter, Carol.) Square-jawed, gruff-voiced tough guy Charles McGraw plays a gunhand named Milo Sweet who wears one of the sweetest buffalo coats I’ve ever seen. As a homesteader named Kris Barden, Walter Brennan plays essentially the same character he played in every movie he was ever in, but he finds depths of emotion in his character that he didn’t always get to explore as a comical sidekick. And I always love seeing Tom “Captain Marvel” Tyler in any western, even if he was a pretty wooden actor. In Blood on the Moon, he appears just long enough to be effective — in a tense showdown with Mitchum that’s 10 times as exciting as most western showdowns that have more traditional outcomes.
The tough, no-nonsense screenplay of Blood on the Moon is by Lillie Hayward, from an adaptation of the novel by Luke Short and Harold Shumate.
Blood on the Moon won’t ever be counted as one of the all-time great westerns, but the western was a damned busy genre at the time of its release, and it’s a cut above the rest. It holds up to multiple viewings, and presages the many ways in which the genre would mature in the 1950s.
Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
RKO Radio Pictures
Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is the greatest film noir ever made, but no one knew it at the time.
Robert Mitchum even said as much when he told writer Arthur Lyons, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”
In 1947, French film critics and cinéastes were just beginning to use the term “film noir” (it was first used in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank) and it would be decades before the term caught on in the United States, long after the end of the “noir cycle.”
All of this is a good thing, of course, since self-consciousness can kill art.
If filmmakers in the ’40s and ’50s had deliberately tried to make films with all the elements that the French were praising, they probably would have produced ham-fisted junk that was as unwatchable as most of the “neo-noir” that littered multiplexes in the ’90s.
On the other hand, this means that a brilliant noir like Out of the Past got lost in the shuffle at the time of its release, and was viewed as just one more “private eye” picture, or just one more “violent melodrama.” The review in the December 15, 1947, issue of Time, for instance, called it “a medium-grade thriller.” (Although they did praise Nicholas Musuraca’s beautiful cinematography.)
In his November 26, 1947, review of Out of the Past, curmudgeonly NY Times critic Bosley Crowther had a lot of good things to say about the film, and praised the dialogue and acting, but admitted that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot.
This is a fair criticism, since the plot of Out of the Past still confounds first-time viewers, and most second- and third-time viewers as well. Note, for instance, the number of reviews of the film that claim the story is told mostly in flashback, when the flashback portion of the story actually occupies less than a half hour of running time, and from the 40-minute mark onward, the film takes place entirely in the present.
But time has been kind to Out of the Past, and a perfect understanding of its plot isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying every gorgeously filmed minute of it, since it’s packed with everything that makes a noir a noir. Its male protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is smart and tough, but ultimately helpless when faced with the seductive charms of the film’s femme fatale, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). The film contains murders, swindles, frame-ups, crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, gambling, a large chunk of stolen money, a tragic ending, and some of the most seductive chiaroscuro cinematography of all time.
The plot can’t really be summarized in a nutshell, but I’ll try anyway.
While driving through a one-stoplight California town called Bridgeport, which is 79 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) pulls into a service station owned by Jeff Markham, who’s living in Bridgeport under the name “Jeff Bailey” and trying to forget his tawdry old life by going fishing every day with a nice girl named Ann (Virginia Huston), which her boyfriend Jim (Richard Webb) isn’t too happy about.
Joe tells Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), his old employer, wants to see him in Lake Tahoe.
So Jeff spills to Ann. His real name is Markham, not Bailey. Three years ago he lived in New York and worked with an oily gentleman named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). They were detectives. They got a call to see a big operator, a gambler named Whit. His girl had shot him with his own .38 and taken off with $40,000 of his money, and he wanted her back. The money, too, but mostly her.
Jeff took off on his own, leaving Fisher behind, and followed Kathie’s trail to Acapulco, Mexico. As soon as he saw her, he was hooked like a fish.
In voiceover, Jeff recalls his romance with Kathie in Acapulco.
I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away, like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived, I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end. Maybe we thought it was a dream and we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls. I wired Whit but I didn’t tell him.
“I’m in Acapulco,” I said. “I wish you were here.” And every night I went to meet her. How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.
Kathie swore to Jeff that she didn’t take Whit’s money, to which he responded, “Baby, I don’t care,” and kissed her.
Jeff and Kathie ran off together and headed for San Francisco. Things went swimmingly until he was spotted at the racetrack by his old partner Jack Fisher, who would turn him and Kathie over to Whit in a heartbeat for the payoff.
Despite Jeff’s best efforts to lose the tail, Fisher eventually tracked him and Kathie down. When Jeff and Fisher started trading blows, Kathie coldly shot Fisher, then took off.
Jeff never saw her again. He was left to bury Fisher’s body in the woods. He also found a deposit slip for $40,000 in Kathie’s purse, confirming that she’d lied to him about the money.
The rest of the film takes place in the present. Jeff meets with Whit at his palatial getaway in Lake Tahoe. Kathie has returned to Whit, and he now knows everything about Jeff’s betrayal of him.
Exacting a kind of payback, Whit forces Jeff to go to San Francisco to steal income tax records from the crooked accountant — Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) — who helped him hide his money from Uncle Sam and who’s now demanding $200,000 hush money. Jeff is supposed to get to Eels through his beautiful secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming).
But it quickly becomes clear to Jeff that he’s being set up as a patsy, and that Whit’s people are going to kill Eels and make it look as if Jeff did it.
Ann, the good girl in Jeff’s life, can’t believe that Kathie is as awful as he makes her out to be. “She can’t be all bad, no one is,” Ann says. “Well, she comes the closest,” Jeff responds.
And he’s right. Kathie is a murderer, a thief, and a liar. She’s completely and utterly faithless, but Jeff keeps falling for her. Every time she calls, he comes running. He can’t help it. He hates himself for it, but he can’t stop.
I first saw Out of the Past when I was 17, and I’ve seen it many times since then. It took me several viewings before I got a handle on exactly what was going on in the film, but I always felt that its byzantine plot was part of its appeal.
Even if you can’t figure out exactly what’s going on or who’s doing what to whom (or why), Out of the Past is still a seductive and brilliant film. It’s the Platonic ideal of a film noir.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures
In 1947, social-issue pictures were starting to come out of Hollywood that tackled a formerly taboo subject — antisemitism.
This might not seem like such a big deal today, but it was a big deal at the time.
No matter how artful or moving some of its products are, the film industry is still a business, and any subject that challenges the status quo or that might hurt ticket sales is extremely difficult to make a film about. And despite the fact that in the ’40s the majority of studio heads were Jewish, they preferred to release films that depicted a homogenous, idealized vision of America.
Richard Brook’s 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole is about a homosexual who is beaten to death by his fellow Marines. Producer Adrian Scott convinced the studio bosses at RKO Radio Pictures that an adaptation of the book would pass muster with the production code if the gay character in the novel were changed to a Jewish character.
Crossfire is a social-issue picture wrapped in a murder mystery. It’s likely that many ticket buyers didn’t realize the film would contain a message about antisemitism, and were attracted by the “three Bobs” in the credits (Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and Robert Mitchum) or the lurid promise of violent death in the poster.
Whatever drew people into the theater when the film opened, however, nothing kept them away in the weeks that followed. Crossfire was a big hit, and was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards, although it lost out to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, Twentieth Century-Fox’s more “prestigious” take on antisemitism. (In the case of best picture, best director, and best supporting actress, the awards went to Gentleman’s Agreement. In the case of best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay, the awards went to Miracle on 34th Street.)
Edward Dmytryk, the director of Crossfire, once said in an interview that he used “film noir” techniques primarily to save money, and because he wanted to spend more time working with the actors than doing setups. Dmytryk and his cinematographer, J. Roy Hunt, worked six and a half hours a day, and did about seven setups a day.
Dmytryk was an excellent director, and Crossfire is an exceedingly well-made film.
He shot Crossfire in 20 days, less than the 22 days he was allowed with his $500,000 B-movie budget. Because of this, RKO was able to beat Twentieth Century-Fox’s Gentleman’s Agreement to the box office. (But not, ultimately, in the Oscar race.)
The darkness and shadows that creep into each shot disguise the simplicity of the sets, and the performances from all the actors are exceptional, especially Robert Ryan as the vicious, Jew-hating soldier named Montgomery, and Gloria Grahame as a lonely B-girl named Ginny.
The beating death of the Jewish man, Samuels (Sam Levene), that opens the film takes place in darkness, so the culprit is not seen. But the mystery doesn’t really persist. Montgomery is the likely suspect right from the beginning. His sneering dismissal of the “kind of guy” Samuels was makes his guilt seem pretty obvious during the scene in which he’s interrogated by the police detective, Finlay (Robert Montgomery).
The film quickly switches gears, however, and focuses on the search for a missing soldier named Mitchell (George Cooper), whom the police suspect of the murder. The jaded and world-weary Sgt. Keeley (Robert Mitchum) helps Detective Finlay, but ultimately shields Mitchell, helping him hide in a movie theater while Keeley and his buddies try to sort out what really happened.
Mitchell was pretty drunk, and can barely remember what happened at the party that evening. But the last words we hear Montgomery say in Mitchell’s flashback to the party — “What’s the matter, Jew boy? You afraid we’ll drink up all your stinking wonderful liquor?” — cement Montgomery’s guilt.
Mitchell’s sad and lonely journey through the night is classic noir stuff. His strange encounters — like the ones he has with B-girl Ginny and later with her “husband” (played by Paul Kelly), whose name we never learn — are haunting.
While Crossfire is occasionally preachy, this can be forgiven, especially considering the time when the film was released.
Unlike Brute Force (1947), which showed what American fascism could look like at the upper echelons of authority, Crossfire is a portrait of the rank and file of fascism — the dumb, mean, resentful men who “just carry out orders,” and do so happily. Ryan doesn’t overplay his role, and he’s all the more scary for it.
Directed by Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.
In the territory of New Mexico at the turn of the century, a handsome, sloe-eyed man named Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is hunted across a desolate landscape by gunmen. He returns to the cabin where he was found as a boy and prepares for a showdown. The mountains that surround the cabin are drenched in shadows, and they tower above the tiny human figures below them like skyscrapers. As Jeb waits, he is plagued by nightmares of boots on wooden floors — boots with jangling spurs — but he can’t make sense of his strange visions.
Welcome to the world of Raoul Walsh’s Pursued. It’s an oneiric film about a man who is haunted by the past. Mitchum narrates the film, sounding like someone who knows he is doomed. (“I always have a feeling something’s after me,” he says.)
Pursued is a western, not a film noir, but it has all the hallmarks of noir, including stunning black and white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, Freudian relationships up the wazoo, the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present, a man on the run, plenty of sinister characters packing heat, and a story mostly told in flashback.
Young Jeb Rand (played by Ernest Severn) survived the massacre that killed his family and was taken in by Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), who has two children about Jeb’s age — Thor (short for “Thorley”) and Adam. They’re played by Peggy Miller and Charles Bates as kids, and by Teresa Wright and John Rodney as adults.
Jeb often complains that his head hurts. Nothing about his past makes sense, and his present is equally confusing. Thor and Adam don’t treat him as a brother. (His separation from them is represented visually as well as thematically. In one scene in which the family gathers, Mrs. Callum stands in the center, with Thor and Adam on one side of her and Jeb on the other.) Adam hates his adopted brother Jeb. Thor loves Jeb, but her love seems more romantic than sisterly.
One day, someone shoots young Jeb’s horse out from under him. Mrs. Callum tells him it was probably just careless deer hunters, but Jeb is convinced that it was Adam.
We eventually learn that Mrs. Callum’s brother-in-law, Grant Callum (Dean Jagger), led the attack on Jeb’s family. Grant’s brother (Mrs. Callum’s husband) was killed in the attack, and Grant was wounded and had to have his arm amputated. Grant vowed not to rest until every last Rand on earth was dead. Mrs. Callum, on the other hand, considers the events of that night Providence — the Lord may have taken her husband, but He delivered unto her a second son.
Jeb, Thor, and Adam grow to adulthood. When the draft board demands that at least one young man from every family in the territory enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War, Jeb and Adam flip a coin. Jeb loses.
He returns home from the war to find that little has changed. Adam still hates him, and Thor still has romantic feelings for him. “I want you to come courtin’ me,” she says. “I know that seems silly when we grew up together, but I want to pretend we didn’t.”
Mrs. Callum doesn’t have a problem with Jeb and Thor marrying, but she refuses to ever talk with Jeb about the night his family was killed, no matter how much he pushes her. “I’m giving you my daughter for your wife,” she says. “Isn’t that enough for you? Doesn’t that show you that you’re loved?”
Grant Callum dogs Jeb’s every move, sending shooters after him even though he clearly just wants to be left alone. After he’s forced to kill two men in self-defense, Mrs. Callum and Thor shun Jeb, and tell him that he’s dead to them.
“Right then I knew I had to have you,” Jeb says in voiceover as he watches Thor at a funeral. “I’d have to climb across two graves to get to you, but nothing in the world would hold me back.”
Pursued has a happy ending, but that doesn’t stop Jeb and Thor’s semi-incestuous love from having a doomed quality. “There was a black dog riding my back and yours,” Jeb tells Thor as they reminisce about their past while waiting in the burned-out cabin together for Grant Callum and his gunmen to arrive.
This noirish sense of doom pervades the film. So many scenes take place at night or indoors — in smoky saloons and casinos — that the film has a powerful sense of claustrophobia. And the fact that Jeb is a returning combat veteran plagued by nightmares gives him more in common with many of the protagonists of post-war film noirs than it does with the cowboy heroes of most post-war oaters.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ’em exactly like they used to.
Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.
So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”
Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.
Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.
When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”
True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”
Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.
I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.
West of the Pecos (1945)
Directed by Edward Killy
RKO Radio Pictures
After recently seeing early performances by Robert Mitchum in two top-notch World War II films, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Story of G.I. Joe (1945), I was a little disappointed by his starring role in West of the Pecos. Mitchum is one of my favorite actors, and he’s always interesting to watch, but this movie is hard to take very seriously.
After small roles in a variety of films (including some Hopalong Cassidy westerns), and a larger role in William Castle’s B noir When Strangers Marry, Mitchum was signed to a contract by RKO, who needed a B western star in the Tim Holt mold. I haven’t seen the first western Mitchum made for RKO, Nevada (1944), which is based on a Zane Grey novel, but if it’s anything like West of the Pecos, I don’t think I’m missing too much. Like Nevada, West of the Pecos is also based on a Grey novel, and is typical “romance of the West” malarkey. In terms of plot and character development, it has more in common with 19th-century stage drama than anything else.
In West of the Pecos, Barbara Hale plays a young Chicagoan named Rill Lambeth, whose father, Col. Lambeth (Thurston Hall), is ordered out west for his health. The two of them travel by stagecoach to Texas with their French maid, Suzanne (Rita Corday). In the course of their travels, they cross paths with Pecos Smith (Mitchum), an outlaw who’s seeking revenge against the corrupt vigilantes who killed his best friend. There are plenty of western tropes in West of the Pecos, like shootouts and unconvincing portrayals of Mexican bandits (Richard Martin plays their leader), but at its heart it’s a light-hearted romance and cross-dressing farce. Soon after her arrival in Texas, Hale decides to dress as a boy to dissuade all the nasty cowboys she meets from sassing her. To say she makes an unconvincing fellow would be an understatement. Her long, flowing hair is simply piled up and pinned under a ten-gallon hat, and all she does to hide her pretty face is rub a little dirt on it.
Part of the problem is Mitchum. Even here, in one of his first roles, he’s simply too world-weary and knowing. Consequently, it’s hard to tell most of the time if his character is supposed to be convinced by Hale’s drag, or if he’s just playing along for his own amusement, like when he rubs her face and says, “You’re just a kid! I bet you haven’t even started shaving. How old are you, anyhow?” Hale petulantly responds, “Old enough.”
Their relationship is based on kidding around, but it’s so flirtatious that I was actually surprised at the end when Mitchum’s character acted shocked when he found out Hale was really a young woman. He plays all their scenes together as if he has every idea what’s going on. Take, for instance, the scene by the campfire in which Mitchum tries to convince Hale to get in his bedroll with him on account of the nighttime chill. He rolls over on his side, faces her, and throws the blanket aside.
“C’mon, kid, get in,” he says.
“But … I want to sleep alone,” she responds.
“Ah, no you don’t. C’mon. Get in and cuddle.”
“Sure. Keep each other warm. And I hope you haven’t got cold feet.”
“Cold feet?” she says, too quietly for him to hear. “I got ’em right now.”
It’s interesting to see Mitchum in this type of role. Not too long after appearing in this film, he would receive the only Oscar nomination of his career, for his role in the much better film The Story of G.I. Joe. After that, his days of starring in movies like this were pretty much over. Not every picture he made was great (some of them were even pretty bad), but by 1946 he was on his way to becoming an A-list actor, and eventually a Hollywood legend.
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Ernie Pyle was a journalist for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Long before the term “embedded journalist” entered the national consciousness, Pyle traveled with servicemen, writing about the war from their perspective. He had a conversational writing style, and attracted a huge following during World War II. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his work as a war correspondent. He was killed in combat in 1945.
William A. Wellman’s film Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe” stars Burgess Meredith as Pyle, and co-stars Robert Mitchum as Lt. (later Capt.) Bill Walker and Freddie Steele as Sgt. Steve Warnicki.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it was the finest war film he had ever seen, and I tend to agree with him. Wellman is a superior craftsman. Not only is The Story of G.I. Joe one of the best war movies I’ve seen, its gripping scenes of combat have yet to be improved upon. For all the credit that Saving Private Ryan (1998) got for ushering in a new era of realism to the World War II film, watching this film reminded me that the horrors of war don’t necessarily need to be depicted in gruesome detail to be affecting. The first combat scene comes early in the film, when a German plane attacks the company on the ground, strafing them as they return fire with mounted machine guns and BARs. After the dust has cleared, there’s a low-angle shot of the men looking down, dejected and stunned, followed by Walker brusquely saying, “All right men, in the truck. Come on, make it snappy, the medics’ll take care of him.” As the men disperse, he says to Pyle, “First death’s always the worst.” The corpse is never even shown on the screen, but the impact is huge.
The battle scenes in the film are gripping. Walker and his men fight amidst bombed-out rubble, in close quarters, in the destroyed towns and cities of Italy. But the focus of the film is on the day-to-day lives of the men in the infantry. For most of the film, Warnicki carries a phonograph recording of his baby boy’s voice that he received in the mail, but he can’t ever seem to find a record player. The living conditions of infantrymen are unglamorous. The men are nearly always unshaven, wet, filthy, tired, and underfed. Mud, rain, and fatigue are a few of the running themes. Pvt. Robert “Wingless” Murphy (played by Jack Reilly) is constantly falling asleep on his feet. His sleepiness provides a few comic moments, but not without some sadness. When he marries a WAC and they go the “bridal suite” (a truck), he passes out immediately.
Meredith is the first actor billed, and a large part of the film is about Pyle’s relationship with the men he writes about. When a G.I. asks Pyle his age, he says, “Forty-three,” and crosses himself. The G.I. responds, “I’m twenty-six. If I knew I’d live to be forty-three, I wouldn’t have a worry in the world.” Pyle says, “Oh yes you would. You’d be just like me. Worrying about whether you’d get to be forty-four.” Meredith was actually 37 years old when he made this picture, but with his dyed white hair and bald pate, he looks older. He has a natural rapport with the men, but he doesn’t try too hard to be anyone’s buddy. In fact, in most scenes, he’s almost aloof. He’s also more soft-spoken than the real Pyle, who had a blunt, straightforward style, at least in the single piece of newsreel footage I’ve seen of him.
Pyle’s ordinariness is stressed. He learns that he has been awarded the Pulitzer from a couple of servicemen during mail call. He shrugs off their praise, then sits down at his typewriter to eulogize a man who has just died, and whom he thought of as a friend. “He was just a plain Hoosier boy,” Pyle writes. “You couldn’t imagine him ever killing anybody.”
I liked Mitchum in his supporting role in the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (another excellent World War II film), but he’s even better here. The Story of G.I. Joe received four Oscar nominations, including one for Mitchum for best supporting actor. It was the only Academy Award nomination he would ever receive. He never won an Oscar. In The Story of G.I. Joe he displays effortless star power, even though the film is not a star vehicle for him.
Director Wellman was a fighter pilot in World War I, where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill.” Like many pilots, he had no use for the infantry, and originally had no interest in making this film. Producer Lester Cowan went to great lengths to cajole Wellman into being his director, but Wellman only agreed to take on the job after meeting Pyle and spending time with him.
An aura of tragedy and sadness pervades the film. Pyle acted as technical advisor on the film. The extras were all American combat veterans of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Most of them were in the process of being transferred from active duty in the war in Europe to the war in the Pacific. And many of them were killed fighting in Okinawa, the battle in which Pyle himself was killed.