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Tag Archives: Virginia Huston

Tarzan’s Peril (March 10, 1951)

Tarzan's Peril
Tarzan’s Peril (1951)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

The lavish spectacle King Solomon’s Mines (1950) rewrote the rules of the “jungle adventure” film, since it was shot on location in Sub-Saharan Africa and instantly made all the B movies shot on soundstages and backlots look ridiculous. First and foremost, it showed that there was a lot less jungle in Africa than kids raised on Tarzan movies assumed there was. The distant, rolling plains we saw in King Solomon’s Mines bore little resemblance to the dense jungles where Tarzan swung on vines.

So producer Sol Lesser and RKO Radio Pictures picked up the gauntlet and decided to shoot their next Tarzan picture not only in color, but on location in Kenya.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with the color footage, so Tarzan’s Peril was released in black & white. A fair amount of the location footage found its way into the final product, but it’s not integrated very well into the main narrative. We never see Lex Barker strutting in his loincloth through the grasslands of Kenya, for instance. He mostly sticks to the soundstages and backlots, clowning around with Cheetah the chimpanzee and throwing knives at not-very-terrifying giant snake puppets.

Huston and Barker

As I said in my review of Lex Barker’s previous Tarzan picture, Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), Barker’s movies are probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. With nearly a century of Tarzan flicks to choose from, newcomers are advised to start with the Johnny Weissmuller movies, particularly the first two, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934). If you have kids and don’t want to expose them to the dated and racist depictions of Africans in the early Weissmuller films, you’ll probably want to show them either Disney’s Tarzan (1999) or Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) (which, incidentally, was the first Tarzan movie I ever saw).

However, if you’re not a hardcore Tarzan fan, there is one reason to check out Tarzan’s Peril. It features Dorothy Dandridge as “Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba.” Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and along with Lena Horne, she was one of the only black “leading ladies” in Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s. Of course, even for a beautiful and light-skinned actress like Dandridge, good roles for black women were still hard to come by in the ’50s. And the roles she was offered, like this one, are fairly limited.

Dorothy Dandridge

The problem is not just that Tarzan’s Peril is a low-budget picture (I love B movies, and this is a perfectly decent one with plenty of action), it’s that Dandridge is given frustratingly little to do. In fact, after watching Tarzan’s Peril I wished that Jane hadn’t even been featured as a character. She’s played by Virginia Huston, and except for a bit of mutual splashing around in the water, there’s no erotic chemistry between her and Barker. Mostly she comes off as an idealized version of a prim 1950s housewife, chastising Tarzan for eating food out of a pot on the stove and demanding he sit down to dinner.

Given that Huston was the third different actress to play Jane in as many Tarzan movies featuring Lex Barker, I wished they had written her out of the movie entirely and just focused on Dandridge’s character, Melmendi. Anything like kissing would have been verboten with a white actor like Barker, but they could have beefed up her part and had plenty of erotic subtext. That would have been really fun to watch.

Tarzan’s Peril is OK, but not great. On the plus side, it’s got plenty of action, some of the best location footage in an RKO Tarzan movie to date, and a trio of memorable villains.

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Out of the Past (Nov. 13, 1947)

Out of the Past
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.

Greer and Mitchum

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.

Jane Greer

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.

Nocturne (Nov. 11, 1946)

Edwin L. Marin’s Nocturne is close to being a great film noir, but not that close. It’s an entertaining mystery thriller with plenty of clipped, hard-boiled dialogue that’s fun to listen to, if not particularly credible.

George Raft plays Lt. Joe Warne of the Los Angeles police, and it’s a role that seems designed to play to the public’s perception of Raft as a gangster and a thug. Warne conducts his murder investigation with the subtlety of a steamroller, pushing a mustachioed Lothario into the pool when he gets in his way and ripping up the roll of a player piano in a diner when the owner won’t cooperate with him.

And when was the last time you saw a hard-boiled detective who lived at home with his mother? It’s the kind of oddball detail that feels as if it would be more at home in a gangster movie starring James Cagney.

Raft’s first big role was as Paul Muni’s sidekick in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). After that he starred in a string of gangster pictures, and was one of the most popular actors in crime melodramas, along with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. His boyhood friendship with gangster Owney Madden and association with men like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky aided the public’s perception of him as a hard man who didn’t just “talk the talk.”

By the ’40s, however, his star was beginning to fade. Turning down the lead roles in High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944) didn’t help matters. (Raft was reportedly functionally illiterate, which may have made choosing scripts difficult.) It’s safe to say that by 1946, he was getting the scripts that Humphrey Bogart used to line his birdcage.

Raft wasn’t a very expressive actor, and he had the range of a T-bone steak, but his tight-lipped acting style was perfect for B movies like Nocturne.

A flamboyant pianist and composer named Keith Vincent (Edward Ashley) is murdered, presumably by one of the nine brunettes he was running around with. He has glamour shots of all of them lining one wall of his living room, and it’s clear they were all interchangeable for him, since he called them all “Dolores.” (This may seem like a clever device to hide the identity of the murderess from the viewer, but it’s not.)

Lt. Warne investigates with ham-handed glee, and his investigative technique is as sloppy as the filmmaking. For instance, in one scene his chief (Robert Malcolm) bawls him out for bothering a character named “Mrs. Billings,” but apparently her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. This is fine, but why leave references to her in the film? Similarly confusing is the fact that Warne’s chief gives him two days to investigate Vincent’s murder on his own, but we only find this out after the two-day period is over. And it’s only after this two-day investigative blitz that Warne goes back to Vincent’s house and notices that one of the pictures is missing, since the pattern is disrupted, and there’s an enormous nail hole in the wall. Looking at the stamp on the back of one of the other pictures leads him to a sleazy photographer named Charles Shawn (John Banner). Wouldn’t a detective worth his salt have noticed all this immediately?

The most enjoyable thing about this film is the atmosphere. Lt. Warne spends a lot of time in smoky nightclubs, including the unique Keyboard Club, in which a hulking man-child named Erik Torp (Bern Hoffman) pushes a pianist named Ned “Fingers” Ford (Joseph Pevney) and his upright around on a rolling platform so they can take requests, table by table. When they get to Warne’s table, he hands Vincent’s unfinished piece “Nocturne” to Fingers to play. When he reaches the end of the handwritten sheet music, Fingers asks, “What did your friend do, run out of notes?” Warne responds, “More or less.”

Plenty of sex and sleaze run right below the surface of the picture, but it’s all pretty lighthearted. There’s a funny scene in a dance studio in which Warne can’t learn even the most basic steps (it’s mostly funny because Raft was a professional dancer), and his romance with his prime suspect, Frances Ransom (Lynn Bari), doesn’t carry much sense of danger or menace.

Nocturne is a really fun picture, despite its shortcomings. It has some of the snappiest, most hard-boiled, least naturalistic dialogue I’ve heard since I watched The Dark Corner (1946). Fans of B noirs are encouraged to seek out this picture.