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Tag Archives: Walter Slezak

Riffraff (June 28, 1947)

Ted Tetzlaff’s Riffraff, which premiered in New York City on June 28, 1947, was Tetzlaff’s first feature film as sole director. (In 1941, he co-directed the John Barrymore comedy World Premiere with the uncredited Otis Garrett and he was the uncredited co-director on Ralph Murphy’s Jackie Cooper comedy Glamour Boy.)

Before he made the leap to directing, Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films. He started working in the silent era, and his last credited film as cinematographer was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Anyone who’s seen Notorious can attest to how beautifully it’s lighted and shot, and Tetzlaff brings his considerable skill to bear on Riffraff, elevating it from the very run-of-the mill detective story it could have been.

The opening sequence in Riffraff is the most talked-about part of the film. It’s five full minutes of dialogue-free bliss. After the credits roll, the film cuts to an unnerving shot of an iguana placidly lying on a log in the pouring rain. The iguana’s cold, reptilian gaze is a harbinger of things soon to come.

It’s 2:25 in the morning at El Caribe airlines in Peru. A meek, bespectacled man (Fred Essler) boards a cargo plane, the rain sheeting down on him. He sits nervously in the cargo hold, dripping wet and hanging onto his briefcase tightly. He’s sharing the space with a bunch of squawking chickens and an oily, mustachioed fat man with an unnerving smile. (He’s played by Marc Krah, and we’ll find out later in the film that his character’s name is Charles Hasso). The man with glasses watches Hasso fearfully as Hasso stares back at him. Then Hasso stands up and plucks an errant chick from the floor and replaces it gently in its box.

There’s an exterior shot of the cargo plane flying through the rain in the night, then an interior shot of the pilots lighting up a couple of smokes. A warning tone sounds in the cockpit. The co-pilot rushes back into the hold, where the door is wide open and rain is pouring into the plane. “I couldn’t stop him! He jumped!” exclaims Hasso.

Sure he did.

The cargo plane lands in Panama, where Hasso is questioned by the head of the secret police, Major Rues (played by an oddly accent-free George Givot). Hasso is evasive when he’s questioned about his fellow passenger’s death and suggests that the man might have killed himself for love.

Sure he did.

Major Rues’s suspicions (as well as the audience’s suspicions, if they’re awake) are confirmed when Hasso goes to see Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien), president and sole operative of Zenith Services, a detective agency. Hasso hires Hammer as a bodyguard for his two-day sojourn in Panama City, and while Hammer’s back is turned, he takes the map he stole from the man on the plane and tacks it to Hammer’s cluttered bulletin board, where it will remain for most of the film’s running time (there’s no better place to hide something than in plain sight.)

Eventually we find out that the map shows the locations of a number of unregistered oil wells. Hammer is approached by a shady businessman named Walter Gredson (Jerome Cowan), who wants Hammer to find Hasso for him. Hammer talks Gredson and his assistant up to $5,000 to do the job, and of course never tells them that he already knows exactly who Hasso is and where he is staying.

Hammer is a mixture of hero and con man. In fact, nearly everyone in the film is an operator who is looking out for number one. The beautiful girl in the story is named Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) and even her motives are unclear for awhile. (After a scuffle in a bar, she deliberately pours a drink on her dress just so she can get close to Hammer.)

Pat O’Brien is an interesting choice for the protagonist, since he’s a middle-aged character actor with a pear-shaped body. (Although, based on the presence of Marc Krah and Walter Slezak, who plays a vicious killer named Molinar, I suspect Tetzlaff had a fetish for fat guys.)

There’s plenty of violence in Riffraff, and more hard-boiled P.I. clichés than you can shake a stick at, but it’s ultimately not a very dark movie. Aside from all the corpses that pile up, it’s breezy, fast-paced fun in an exotic tropical setting.

Besides the performances, which are all excellent, the film is elevated by Tetzlaff’s direction and the terrific cinematography by George E. Diskant.

It’s too bad there weren’t more Dan Hammer films starring O’Brien. He’s hardly anyone’s picture of a tough-as-nails P.I., but he crafts a great character who I wouldn’t have minded seeing in more pictures. Hammer is the kind of guy who never wears a necktie because someone could choke him out with it, and who says he’s not going to give up on the case not because of any noble conviction, but rather, as he he says, because “I’ve got a lot of time invested in this thing. Plus a good shellacking!”

In case you’re wondering, I looked into it and couldn’t figure out who came first, Dan Hammer or Mike Hammer. (Mickey Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury, was also published in 1947.) While it’s possible that Spillane took his character’s name from Martin Rackin’s script for Riffraff, or that Rackin cribbed the name from Spillane, it’s equally possible that a P.I. with the last name of “Hammer” was just a good idea whose time had come.

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.

Sinbad the Sailor (Jan. 17, 1947)

Sinbad the Sailor was the first film Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made after a decorated career serving in the Navy during World War II. The son of one of the most famous swashbucklers in Hollywood history, Fairbanks cuts a dashing figure in Richard Wallace’s overlong Orientalist fantasy, but there’s too much talk and too little excitement to recommend it to casual viewers.

I have fond memories of Nathan Juran’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which I saw on the big screen as a kid in the early ’80s. I don’t remember a lot about the lead performance by Kerwin Mathews, or how good the story was, but Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects blew me away. Sinbad the Sailor, on the other hand, has no wild monstrosities like the cyclops or the cobra woman. (A mynah bird on a string is the most memorable special effect, and it’s a bad one.) Instead it has fairly grown-up dialogue and a feisty romance between Sinbad (Fairbanks) and Shireen (a Kurdish woman improbably played by Maureen O’Hara).

Fairbanks plays Sinbad in a grand, theatrical style, with lots of balletic movements and arm sweeps. The Sinbad of Sinbad the Sailor is a braggart and raconteur who begins the film by promising to tell his rapt crew of his legendary “eighth voyage” — the one that never made it into the history books. It involves his quest for the lost treasure of Alexander the Great, hidden on the mysterious isle of Daryabar. He’s accompanied by his faithful (and comical) sidekick Abbu (George Tobias), a fat, effeminate cook named Melik (Walter Slezak), and a crew of roughneck sailors led by a brute named Yusuf (played by Mike Mazurki, of all people). Opposing him is the evil Emir (Anthony Quinn), who wants the treasure and the beautiful Shireen for himself.

RKO intended Sinbad the Sailor to be their big film of the 1946 Christmas season, but a strike at the Technicolor processing plant delayed its release. (A problem that plagued David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, as well.) Instead, they dumped a little black and white movie called It’s a Wonderful Life into theaters. Oh well.

This was the first Douglas Fairbanks Jr. film I’ve seen, and while it wasn’t bad, it didn’t blow me away. (I’ve only seen one of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s films — the 1926 two-strip Technicolor adventure film The Black Pirate — and that one did blow me away.) Fairbanks channels his dad in a couple of action scenes in which he leaps from rooftop to rooftop, swings from balconies, somersaults through descending gates, and trips up legions of the Emir’s palace guards. The action sequences are good, but there are too few of them for a film that’s almost two hours long.

The lead actors are all good (I especially liked Anthony Quinn as Sinbad’s handsome antagonist), but the Arabian Nights-inspired sets are chintzy and the script is talky and repetitive. I didn’t hate Sinbad the Sailor, but I was looking at my watch a lot during the final 45 minutes.

Cornered (Dec. 25, 1945)

Cornered was director Edward Dmytryk’s second film to star Dick Powell. Powell was a boyish crooner and star of musical comedies who made a 180 degree turn into hard-boiled noir territory at the age of 39 when he played detective Philip Marlowe in Dmytryk’s film Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell jumped into his new, hard-boiled persona with both feet. Between the two films, Powell started appearing every week on the Mutual Broadcasting System as private investigator Richard Rogue in the radio series Rogue’s Gallery. The series was mostly standard P.I. fare, but it featured one unique element; every time Rogue was knocked out (which was nearly every episode) he’d drift off to “Cloud Eight,” where his alter ego, a little white-bearded gnome named “Eugor,” would taunt him, occasionally dropping a clue for Rogue to pick up on later, when he’d regained consciousness.

Cornered has no fanciful elements like that one, and the devil-may-care charm Powell exhibited in Murder, My Sweet has been completely done away with. In Cornered he plays a broken man who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

When we first meet Flight Lieutenant Laurence Gerard (Powell), an RCAF pilot, he is in London, receiving £551 back pay for the time he spent as a P.O.W. His next stop is a passport office, where he seeks passage to France. He wants to settle his wife Celeste’s estate. She was a French citizen, and they were married during the German occupation. When Gerard is told that all passports to the continent require investigation, and that it will take at least a month to clear, he walks out of the office without saying another word. In the next scene, he is alone in a rowboat, crossing the English Channel. When he sees land, he chops a hole in the hull, sinks the boat, and swims to shore.

In a muddy French town that is mostly rubble, Gerard meets with Etienne (Louis Mercier), a former resistance leader, and Celeste’s father. Gerard demands to know who is responsible for her death, and who betrayed her. “If there was any betrayal, I betrayed her, by fathering her in a century of violence,” Etienne tells him. Gerard doesn’t accept this circumspect response, and vows to hunt down the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac, who ordered the killing of Celeste and several other members of the resistance. Jarnac supposedly died in a fire, but Gerard refuses to believe he is dead. He sets out with a single goal; to kill Jarnac.

Gerard follows Jarnac’s trail to Buenos Aires, and it is there that most of the film takes place. As soon as Gerard steps off the plane, he is approached by a fat man in a white suit. This man, Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), is an operator with no clear allegiances. Gerard is quickly drawn into a world where no one is what they seem. Former Nazis and their collaborators have fled to Buenos Aires, biding their time until the next great war, while a loose-knit, clandestine organization seeks to root them out. Incza introduces Gerard to Jarnac’s wife (or possibly widow), Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), and even her loyalties are unclear.

While it may sound like a globe-trotting adventure film, Cornered is really a claustrophobic film noir with healthy doses of paranoia and tension. The script, by John Paxton (with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht), from a story by John Wexley, takes a run-of-the-mill manhunt plot and ratchets up the tension with crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a brutal finale. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is classic film noir, with inky nighttime exteriors, close-quartered interiors, and actors’ shadows frequently preceding them into the frame.

Powell plays Gerard as a shell-shocked man who suffers from frequent headaches. He’s on a mission to avenge a woman to whom he was only married for 20 days. He’s an amateur doing the work of a detective, and while he’s clever enough to connect the dots, he’s still just one man at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension. “You are sick with fear,” Mme. Jarnac tells him. “You’ve been hurt so deeply you cannot trust anyone but yourself.”

Is there a better description of the classic film noir protagonist?