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The Enforcer (Jan. 25, 1951)

The Enforcer
The Enforcer (1951)
Directed by Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.

I wasn’t expecting much from this fictionalized account of the exploits of Murder, Inc., but I ended up being completely blown away. Although the director listed in the credits is the lavishly named Bretaigne Windust, the bulk of the film was actually directed by Raoul Walsh after Windust was hospitalized with a serious illness.

Walsh is a director I love. He made lean, tough movies that are also incredibly entertaining. He did some of his best work with Humphrey Bogart, like The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941).

The Enforcer was the last time Bogart and Walsh worked together, and while it’s basically a low-budget B movie with an A-list star, Walsh’s crisp, fast-paced direction and facility with hard-boiled conventions elevate the picture.

Ted de Corsia and Everett Sloane

Even though Bogart is the only big name in the credits, this movie has an outstanding line-up of male character actors. The sheer number of ugly mugs in this movie is overwhelming. Ted de Corsia, Zero Mostel, Everett Sloane, and Bob Steele were never going to win any beauty contests, but they are all incredibly convincing as vicious killers.

Also, the black & white cinematography by Robert Burks is an object lesson in how to make simple sets look like works of art. A lot of people will tell you that The Enforcer is not really a film noir because it’s a straightforward D.A. & cops vs. gangsters story, but for me, noir is primarily a style, and this is a movie that oozes style.

Storm Warning (Jan. 17, 1951)

Storm Warning
Storm Warning (1951)
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Warner Bros.

Storm Warning is an incredibly frustrating film. It was one of the first films made since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) to openly depict the Ku Klux Klan, but Storm Warning completely whitewashes (no pun intended) the Klan’s religious and social prejudices and history of racially motivated violence.

About the only good thing I can say about The Birth of a Nation is that it was completely open about its agenda; it was racist propaganda through and through. Storm Warning, on the other hand, is a well-meaning anti-Klan film, but if the script ever contained any pointed messages, they were stripped out one piece at a time until only a few tantalizing details remained.

After I watched Storm Warning I read a bunch of reviews online, and was depressed by the number of people who justified the film’s focus only on white characters by saying that the Ku Klux Klan also killed white people like the Freedom Riders, and that this film just “showed the other side of the coin.” These people are either deeply ignorant or crypto-racists, because to ignore the Klan’s racial animus is to ignore history itself.

I read one review that said the term “Ku Klux Klan” is never spoken in the film, and that the white-robed racketeering organization depicted in the film is only ever referred to as “the Klan” (or possibly “the Clan”), but this is not true. The words “Ku Klux Klan” are spoken once, by a television news reporter outside of the courthouse.

Also, the film takes place in the town of “Rock Point,” which sounds like a coastal Maine vacation destination and looks and feels exactly like a small town in California, which is because that’s where Storm Warning was filmed. Most of the characters don’t speak with a Southern accent, and a few even sound like they didn’t leave New York City before they turned 21. The Klan was active outside of the South, but this film doesn’t take place anywhere. It’s a nebulous Hollywood small-town America that rings as false as the film’s story.

Cochran and Rogers

Storm Warning is a frustrating film because there’s so much good going on in it. I really like Ginger Rogers as a dramatic actress, and I thought she was wonderful in this film. The opening sequence in which she witnesses the Klan drag a reporter out of the town jail and murder him, then flees for her life, is stunning. Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography is gorgeous and makes me wish he had worked with more prestigious directors instead of toiling in the “B” trenches for most of his career.

Stuart Heisler’s direction is workmanlike, but he keeps things moving along at a nice pace. Doris Day and Ronald Reagan both deliver competent performances, but the most interesting performance in the film is Steve Cochran’s role as Day’s husband — Ginger Rogers’s brother-in-law. To say that his character is lifted directly from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is an understatement.

Marlon Brando had been playing the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway for a few years when Storm Warning was made, and Cochran’s slow-witted, sweaty, violent, childlike, and white T-shirted brute is incredibly similar to Stanely Kowalski, right down to a penchant for bowling and attempted rape. Is it a coincidence that Warner Bros. — the studio that made Storm Warning — is the same studio that brought A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen less than a year later? I kind of doubt it.

Klan rally

Storm Warning is a great-looking film with some good performances and a laughably milquetoast story considering the subject matter.

It’s curious that the film retains real-world terms like “Klan” and “Imperial Wizard” and details like nighttime rallies, Klan uniforms, lynchings, and burning crosses while barely acknowledging that African-Americans exist, let alone the motivations behind the formation of the KKK in the Reconstruction-era South and its campaign of terror against black Americans and its hatred of Jews and Catholics.

Whatever socially progressive intentions were present in the original script by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks, what ended up on the screen is laughable. Framing the Klan as a greedy racketeering organization who are only opposed to “outsiders,” “troublemakers,” and “busybodies” is cowardly, and framing their victims as exclusively white is ridiculous.

Seeing Ginger Rogers bullwhipped at a Klan rally is the stuff of high camp; it’s more appropriate for the cover of a spicy pulp magazine than any kind of social exposé. Also, the fact that she’s saved by a heroic prosecuting attorney played by Ronald Reagan is ironic, since Reagan would go on to use the term “states’ rights” as a dog-whistle appeal to racist Southern voters when he was campaigning for president in 1980.

Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).

Stage Fright (Feb. 23, 1950)

Stage Fright
Stage Fright (1950)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros.

Most film lovers love to rank things. When talking about a director or star they love, a common question is, “Where do you place this film in their whole body of work? Top third? Middle third? Bottom third?”

Obsessively rating and ranking things comes pretty easily to me, but as I get older I try to avoid it. I enjoy putting together “best of the year” lists, but aside from that I don’t give films 1- to 5-star ratings or a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” I think it’s more interesting to talk about a film’s meaning and significance, what works and what doesn’t, and how it fits in with the director’s other films and personal obsessions.

So in that spirit, instead of rating Stage Fright from 1 to 10 or ranking it compared with Hitchcock’s other movies, let me just say that I think it is Hitchcock’s first purely enjoyable and crowd-pleasing piece of entertainment since Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946).

The Paradine Case (1947) was a chilly and somewhat dour courtroom drama. I absolutely love Rope (1948), but it’s a technical exercise that didn’t do very well at the box office and is usually loved more by film geeks than by moviegoers who just want to be entertained.

I didn’t love Stage Fright as much as I love some of Hitchcock’s films, but after the weird, overheated Technicolor melodrama of Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright felt like a return to form. It’s a tightly paced black and white melodrama full of intrigue and humor. There’s murder, romance, hidden identities, audience misdirection, and some of the arch, sexually suggestive humor that was Hitchcock’s bread and butter.

Wyman and Dietrich

Stage Fright stars wide-eyed Jane Wyman as Eve Gill, an aspiring actress who gets the role of a lifetime when she goes undercover as Marlene Dietrich’s maid to try to clear her friend of murder.

Eve Gill’s friend is another actor, Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), who tells her he’s been the victim of a terrible misunderstanding. His secret lover, the flamboyant stage siren Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), came to him after killing her husband and begged for his help. While attempting to help her cover up the crime, he was spotted in her house and pursued by police as the most likely culprit, and now he needs Eve to help him clear his name.

Eve has a pretty bad crush on Jonathan, and since his story obviously seems totally 100% on the up-and-up, Eve Gill hides him at her father’s coastal home and goes undercover. Incidentally, her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), was my favorite part of the film. Alastair Sim is good in every role I’ve ever seen him in, but he absolutely kills it in this movie. His line readings are subtle and hilarious, and he communicates more subtext with his eyebrows than most actors can with their whole faces.

I also loved Marlene Dietrich in this film. She plays a sort of “worst case scenario” tabloid version of her own persona — an absolute diva who refuses to learn any of her underlings’ names. If you like Dietrich’s singing (and I do), a highlight of Stage Fright is her extravagant stage performance of the Cole Porter song “The Laziest Gal in Town.”

Stage Fright probably won’t end up being a Hitchcock film that I keep coming back to the way I keep coming back to Notorious, North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), but it was an incredibly fun little movie that I enjoyed every minute of.

Hitchcock cameo

After I watched it I checked out people’s reviews online and was surprised to see how many people hated Stage Fright. Plenty of them just didn’t seem to like it, and there’s not much I can say about that, but many of them seemed to be angry about a piece of misdirection that Hitchcock uses in the film. Come on, people, that’s just Hitchcock messing with you by breaking cinematic rules you think are set in stone! If you don’t like to be screwed with, you probably shouldn’t go anywhere near Hitchcock, who was a master of mischief.

The fact that he still manages to screw with audiences more than 30 years after his death is just proof of his genius.

Under Capricorn (Sept. 9, 1949)

Under Capricorn
Under Capricorn (1949)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

After directing The Paradine Case (1947) and Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock made Under Capricorn, and completed a hat trick of box office disappointments.

It’s not hard to see why Under Capricorn underperformed at the box office. Like nearly all of Hitchcock’s films, it’s a technical marvel, but it’s also a half-baked melodrama.

Under Capricorn is based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, which was adapted from Helen Simpson’s 1937 historical novel. It takes place in Australia in 1831, when Sydney was still a small port city full of ex-convicts. The new governor’s young cousin, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), arrives from Ireland, hoping to make his fortune. He’s quickly embroiled in a land-buying plot with the brusque Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Flusky’s criminal past is whispered about and hinted at, but Adare quickly learns that directly asking about anyone’s criminal past in New South Wales is taboo.

Cotten and Wilding

The loneliness of life in the outback has not been kind to Sam Flusky’s wife, Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), and when she first appears onscreen she looks like a ghost. She’s drunk, barefoot, and in her dressing gown. However, her exposure to Charles Adare quickly changes her, and she begins to take care of her appearance and show a renewed interest in life.

Like Rope, Under Capricorn was shot in Technicolor, and it’s a sumptuous film. There are a lot of bravura little touches, like a tracking shot that briskly follows Adare down a long hallway and through two doorways in the governor’s mansion. This is followed by a slower tracking shot of Adare as he slinks outside Flusky’s estate, peeping in open doors. Hitchcock’s camera, operated by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, is lissome, and flows through the spaces of Flusky’s home like water, in and out of rooms, following first one character, then another.

There are also some lovely visual metaphors. When Henrietta happily reminisces with Adare about their youth together, the film cuts to Flusky, his face perfectly framed by a double candle holder, which resembles horns, the traditional symbol of the cuckold.

Bergman and Wilding

But all the stunning camerawork, beautiful Technicolor, and perfectly framed shots in the world can’t make a dull movie interesting, and Under Capricorn is an awfully dull movie. Its origins as a stage play are painfully obvious. Michael Wilding turns in a one-note performance, Joseph Cotten seems to be phoning it in (he apparently referred to this film as “Under Corny Crap”), and only Ingrid Bergman and Margaret Leighton (in a small but juicy role) are any fun to watch.

However, any Alfred Hitchcock film is worth seeing at least once, and Under Capricorn is no exception. Not everyone finds it dull, either. The film has plenty of proponents, most notably Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French film magazine. In 1958, they named Under Capricorn one of the 10 best films ever made.

White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

Colorado Territory (June 11, 1949)

Colorado Territory
Colorado Territory (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most plot summaries of Raoul Walsh’s western Colorado Territory mention that it’s a remake of the great Warner Bros. gangster movie High Sierra (1941), but that fact is curiously absent from the opening credits.

The screenplay is credited to John Twist and Edmund H. North, but there’s no mention of W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel High Sierra, and there’s no mention of the earlier film.

This is strange, since the change of setting from the modern day to the Old West could almost qualify this as a “variation on a theme” rather than a straight remake, but there are so many scenes and characters that are nearly identical to scenes and characters in High Sierra.

I recently wrote a piece on producer Mark Hellinger for the annual “giant” issue of The Dark Pages, which was devoted this year to The Killers (1946). (You can order copies of The Dark Pages and subscribe here: http://www.allthatnoir.com/newsletter.htm).

Hellinger frequently worked with director Raoul Walsh at Warner Bros., so I went back and watched a bunch of their collaborations — The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941). (I still haven’t seen The Horn Blows at Midnight, though. Jack Benny made a running joke of it on his radio show, but it can’t be that bad, can it?)

Walsh was a great director who made unabashedly commercial films with a great sense of scope and memorable characters.

Mayo and McCrea

Colorado Territory isn’t ever listed among Walsh’s greatest achievements, but it’s a damned fine western that I think would be better regarded if it didn’t have such a generic title. If one were to scan through a list of westerns from 1949, Colorado Territory screams “B picture.” With a title like that, it easily could have been an RKO Radio Pictures western starring Tim Holt or a Republic Pictures western starring Roy Rogers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, an outlaw who escapes from jail and is on the run for most of the movie. (This is essentially the same as Roy Earle, the role Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, except that Earle was released from prison.) He hooks up with a couple of vicious characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are — Reno Blake (John Archer) and Duke Harris (James Mitchell) — and together they plan a daring train heist. (These two criminals were played in High Sierra by Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis.)

There’s also a beautiful woman to makes things complicated. Her name is Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), and she wears lots of flowing low-cut tops and Southwestern-style jewelry because she’s supposed to be part Pueblo. (This is essentially the character Ida Lupino played in High Sierra, although her fashion sense in that film was a lot more conservative.)

And of course, just like High Sierra, there’s a criminal mastermind behind the scenes of the heist and a sweet, innocent-seeming girl whom our criminal protagonist idolizes for a little while before coming to his senses and realizing that he belongs with a straight-up ride or die chick.

There is, however, no cute little stray dog or “comical Negro” character. (You take the bad with the good.)

In Walsh’s filmography, High Sierra will forever be regarded as the superior film. And in 1949, Walsh also directed his masterpiece White Heat, so Colorado Territory suffers by comparison in that department too. (Virginia Mayo is also in White Heat, and her role in that film is a lot meaner and juicier.)

One of the problems with remakes is that no matter how good they are, it’s nearly impossible to lose yourself in them if you’ve seen the original film, since they constantly evoke it. I like Joel McCrea and think he’s a great actor, especially in westerns. But he lacks the nastiness and cynicism Bogart had in High Sierra, which made his more human side stand out in such sharp relief.

On the other hand, when a remake differs from its source material, it can make certain scenes even more shocking and emotionally affecting than they would be on their own, since you’re really not expecting things to go down that way. Colorado Territory has a few bits like that, and it’s exciting and well-made enough to stand on its own.