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Tag Archives: Virginia Christine

The Invisible Wall (Oct. 15, 1947)

Never gamble with the boss’s money.

I don’t know about you, but that seems to me like a pretty simple rule to follow.

Then again, more film noirs than I can count are based on doomed protagonists breaking simple life rules because of their uncontrollable urges.

In the case of Eugene Forde’s The Invisible Wall, the protagonist’s uncontrollable urge is the urge to gamble.

When World War II veteran Harry Lane (Don Castle) is sent to the Hotel Flamingo in Las Vegas by his once and future boss, big-time L.A. bookie and racketeer Marty Floyd (Edward Keane), he has $1,000 of his own money, and he plans to blow his roll fast. He’s holding $20,000 of Marty Floyd’s money that he needs to make a payoff with, though, so when he meets a man who claims to have a system for beating roulette, his goose is cooked.

The man who draws Lane into his gambling scheme in Las Vegas, Richard Elsworth (Richard Gaines), is accidentally killed, so Lane heads to Denver, where he impersonates Elsworth. The only snag is Elsworth’s wife, Mildred (Virginia Christine), who shows up and throws a monkey wrench into Lane’s plans.

The Invisible Wall follows a familiar film noir structure. It begins in St. Louis, where Harry Lane works at the Crown Jewelry Company under another name. He’s arrested for murder and gives a full confession, telling the story in flashback.

The Invisible Wall isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s solid entertainment from Sol M. Wurtzel Productions, theatrically distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox. The actors are all stiff, but not laughably so, and as far as B noirs go, you could do a lot worse.

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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.

The Mummy’s Curse (Dec. 22, 1944)

The Mummy’s Curse was the fifth and final installment in Universal Studio’s mummy series, which began with the Boris Karloff classic The Mummy, which was released in 1932.

The Mummy’s Curse picks up where the fourth film, The Mummy’s Ghost (July 7, 1944), left off, except that the swamp in which the mummy sank to his demise, along with the beautiful Ramsay Ames (the reincarnation of his lover, natch), has been moved from New England to the American South, which frankly makes more sense.

Unfortunately, the exotic, pillow-lipped Ames has been replaced with the rather plain, sharp-featured actress Virginia Christine. She’s not as alluring as Ames was, but the scene in which she slowly crawls out of the dirt is delightfully nightmarish.

Lon Chaney, Jr. returns as Kharis (the mummy) and again has little to do except slouch around while covered in dirty bandages. Given that he was fired from at least one set for falling off a horse drunk, it’s a safe bet that under all that makeup, with no lines to say, Chaney was three sheets to the wind during most of filming.

Fans of Universal horror don’t hold this film in particularly high regard, but I thought it was fun Saturday matinée viewing.