RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Zachary Scott

Whiplash (Dec. 24, 1948)

Whiplash
Whiplash (1948)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Warner Bros.

Sometimes a good ending is all I need.

I enjoyed Whiplash, and there’s plenty of entertainment packed into its briskly paced 91 minutes, but it’s the ending that really got me. It was a mixture of gallows humor and farce that I didn’t see coming. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but it had me laughing like I haven’t laughed in a long time, and then chuckling and shaking my head at what I’d just laughed at.

Whiplash is a B noir that stars Dane Clark as a soulful, romantic artist named Michael Gordon who also happens to be pretty handy with his fists. If you think that’s a role that sounds tailor-made for John Garfield, you’re right. Michael Gordon is in many ways an amalgam of a couple of characters John Garfield played not long before this film; the rough-hewn but sensitive concert violinist in Humoresque (1946) and the tortured boxer in Body and Soul (1947).

Since this project wasn’t prestigious enough for an actor like Garfield at this point in his career, the producers and the studio went with the next best thing: Dane Clark. Like Garfield, Clark was a native New Yorker with an appealing mix of street smarts, physical toughness, and soft-eyed sensitivity.

The film co-stars several dependable performers from the Warner Bros. stable; Alexis Smith as the beautiful and mysterious woman who captures Michael Gordon’s heart, Eve Arden as Michael’s wise and acerbic gal-pal, Zachary Scott as the shifty-eyed and power-mad villain, Jeffrey Lynn as an alcoholic doctor haunted by his past, and S.Z. Sakall as the avuncular shopkeeper who proudly displays Michael’s paintings.

Dane Clark and Alexis Smith

The first act of the film takes place in California. Michael falls for a woman named Laurie Durant (Alexis Smith) after she buys one of his paintings. Their love affair burns hot, but she runs off one day without explaining what spooked her.

In the second act of the film, he follows her to New York City and eventually finds her singing in a nightclub. He soon discovers that she is married to a wheelchair-bound man named Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). Rex was a boxer before he was paralyzed, and he still has the sweet science in his blood. If he can’t compete in the ring, he’ll do the next best thing and manage fighters.

When Michael Gordon knocks out one of Rex’s bodyguards, he proves that he’s handy with more than just a paintbrush. Rex sees potential in the young man, and he and his crew rename him “Mike Angelo” to exploit the artistic angle, and they put him on the fight circuit.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Whiplash that’s never explored to its full potential, perhaps because of the Hays Code. Rex wants to use Mike’s body for his own purposes; as a surrogate fighter. His wife wants to use Mike’s body as a surrogate for Rex. This dichotomy of sex and violence could have made for a lurid and memorable film, but the sex stuff never really gets off the ground, especially after Laurie’s marital status is revealed. I also thought that splitting the action of the film between California and New York unnecessarily complicated the story.

Whiplash was more than lurid enough for the NY Times, however. In their review of the film, published December 27, 1948, they called it “a pointless exposition of brutality,” and went on to say that “if it’s plain, old fashioned mayhem that you desire, ‘Whiplash’ most likely will be to your liking. Otherwise proceed with caution.”

Modern viewers will probably find the brutality in Whiplash pretty ho-hum, but it’s a solid little B movie with a nice, noirish score by Franz Waxman and crisp black & white cinematography by J. Peverell Marley.

And, as I said, the ending is great.

Ruthless (April 16, 1948)

He wasn’t a man … he was a way of life.

The last line of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless could have been the capper to an epic tale of striving and loss, but after almost one hour and 45 minutes of not-quite-there dramaturgy and characters that seem more like symbols and types than actual people, that last line rings utterly false.

Ulmer is a good director — he’s been called “the poet of Poverty Row” — but nothing he’s made since Detour (1945) has really struck a chord with me.

Detour is not only one of my favorite film noirs, but one of my favorite films, period, and would easily make the list of my top 10 favorite films of all time.

I liked both The Strange Woman (1946) and Carnegie Hall (1947), but neither ascended to the pulpy, brilliant heights of Detour. It’s been more than 15 years since I saw Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), but I remember loving it. The wonderful lead performances by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff didn’t hurt, but Ulmer’s direction and surreal set pieces took it to a level that most Universal horror films can’t match. His dreamy horror film Bluebeard (1944), which starred John Carradine, is good too.

My point is that Ulmer is a director capable of great stuff, but Ruthless doesn’t show him in top form. Based on Dayton Stoddart’s 1945 novel Prelude to Night, the film is a series of flashbacks that tell of the merciless rise to power of Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott).

The film begins with a glamorous party at Horace Vendig’s palatial seaside manor. He has thrown the party to coincide with his announcement that he is handing over all his wealth and possessions to world peace organizations. Among the guests are Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and his date, Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn). Vic is Horace’s oldest friend, and his reappearance stirs up old wounds and painful memories.

Horace was an unwanted child. His parents (played by Raymond Burr and Joyce Arling) split up, and both of them were more interested in their own love affairs than in their son. But after Horace saves a girl named Martha Burnside (played as a child by Ann Carter), her parents accepted him as their own child, which allowed him to attend Harvard and make his mark in society. Incidentally, young Horace is played by Robert J. Anderson, who also played James Stewart as a young man in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

In the series of flashbacks that follow Horace’s childhood, Zachary Scott and Louis Hayward play the younger versions of themselves and Diana Lynn, who plays Mallory, also plays the grown-up Martha Burnside. I’m not sure what the point of this dual role was. The two characters aren’t related, and if Mallory’s resemblance to Martha is meant to remind Horace of everything he has lost then not enough comes of it.

Horace’s ruthless business machinations and his seduction of women are inextricable. When he’s used a woman for all the social advancement she’s worth, he throws her aside for his next conquest.

The film’s theme of sex & business is made most literal in the sequence in which Horace takes over the entire financial empire of Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) by seducing his wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). With her comes everything. She tells Buck that she couldn’t transfer her affection to Horace without also transferring her loyalty, but the idea that she holds the key to all of Buck’s assets is still pretty far-fetched. She eventually wises up, as all of Horace’s women do, and she screams at him, “From the first moment you weren’t kissing me, you were kissing forty-eight percent!”

On the IMDb page for Ruthless, there are many user reviews that proclaim the film a classic, and nearly the equal of Citizen Kane (1941). I don’t know what movie these people saw, and can only ascribe their enthusiasm for Ruthless to the deep desire that lies in the heart of every cinéaste to champion an unfairly neglected film.

Besides the style of the film, which is passable but nowhere near the technical brilliance of a film like Kane, the lead performance of Zachary Scott is too one-note to ever make the viewer truly hate or love Horace Vendig. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the scenes of Horace’s childhood, in which another actor plays him, are the most moving and compelling of the film.)

Scott crafts a character who is by no means likeable, but there’s also nothing particularly interesting or profound about his plutomania, and I could never dredge up the depth of feelings that his friend Vic experiences, making the “tragic” events of the film’s climax more laughable than sad.

The Unfaithful (June 5, 1947)

The opening narration of The Unfaithful informs us that while the film takes place in Southern California, it deals not with a problem of a particular place, but with a problem of our times. At first, this problem seems to be rampant divorce, but it ends up being more about wartime infidelity (or possibly the widespread problem of married women committing murder in self-defense and then having to lie about it to cover up an affair).

It’s hard not to compare The Unfaithful with Nora Prentiss, which was released earlier the same year. Both were directed by Vincent Sherman, both star the beautiful Ann Sheridan, and both have infidelity as their subject. But while Nora Prentiss indulged in some truly outré and baroque excesses by the time the credits rolled, The Unfaithful goes in the opposite direction, and slowly peters out to an anticlimax. It’s a good film — well-acted and directed with assurance — but when it was over, I couldn’t help feeling as if the filmmakers wanted to make a melodrama about an “issue of the day,” but weren’t sure how to fold it into the murder investigation and blackmail story that dominate the film.

The picture opens with a party being thrown by a character named Paula (played by Eve Arden) to celebrate her divorce. (Interestingly, Arden herself divorced her husband — Ned Bergen — in 1947 after eight years of marriage. Her next marriage would be more successful. She married actor Brooks West in 1952, and they stayed married until his death in 1984 from a heart ailment. She and West had four children together.)

In attendance at the party is Paula’s friend Christine “Chris” Hunter (played by Ann Sheridan, who was also no stranger to divorce. She and her second husband, George Brent, divorced in 1943 on their one-year anniversary.) After the party, a mysterious figure attacks Chris as she unlocks the front door of her home. He pushes her inside and a struggle ensues, which we see play out through the living room windows of the Hunters’ suburban home as two silhouettes locked in a life-or-death struggle.

Chris’s husband, Robert “Bob” Hunter (Zachary Scott), a big-time house builder and real-estate developer, arrives home and comforts his wife, who’s understandably shaken up after killing the intruder in self-defense. The couple’s friend and lawyer Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayres) is also on hand to comfort Chris.

Det. Lt. Reynolds (John Hoyt) questions Chris, and doesn’t seem to really believe her story of a stranger attacking her in her home and demanding jewels, but he doesn’t accuse her of anything … yet. The detective also questions Hannaford about the couple, and Hannaford tells him he’d be hard pressed to find a couple as happy as the Hunters.

To summarize the plot any further would be to give away too much. It should suffice to say that there’s more to the story than Chris originally reveals to the police, and the film ends with a sensational trial and plenty of wagging tongues.

The Unfaithful takes place mostly indoors, but there are a lot of great Los Angeles exteriors, too. If you’re a fan of vintage street cars, this movie is worth checking out just for them.

Ernest Haller’s cinematography is especially memorable. I really liked the dark, low-angle shot of Zachary Scott parking his car in his driveway and striding along the front walk of his home after receiving some terrible news. And during the trial, there’s a wonderful shot of a bloody knife being held over the murder photograph, then quickly moved to the left as an exhibit — but for just a moment it seems as if we are seeing a gruesome murder scene with a bloody knife poised over a corpse.

The screenplay of The Unfaithful, by James Gunn and crime novelist David Goodis, is excellently written, with realistic dialogue and characterizations, especially in Ann Sheridan’s scenes with Zachary Scott. As I said, it’s a bit anticlimactic, but the journey is worth it, and The Unfaithful is worth seeing despite a weak final reel. Incidentally, it’s an uncredited remake of William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), which was based on the 1927 play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham.

Mildred Pierce (Oct. 20, 1945)

Mildred_PierceIf you’ve only seen the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce, you’re forgiven for never wondering whether the striking murder set piece that opens the film and informs the entire picture was an invention of the producer and the screenwriters that never occurred in the novel.

It was. But it’s a brilliant invention. Even though long stretches of Mildred Pierce (told in flashback) are essentially melodrama, the sequence that opens the film is one of the greatest examples of film noir I’ve ever seen. It is nighttime. Heavy shadows fall over caddish playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), resplendent in a tuxedo, as he is gunned down in a Malibu beach house. Not every shot hits him. A few smash into the mirror behind him. But enough hit him to kill him, and he falls to the floor. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) flees from the house, walks down the boardwalk, and looks as though she is contemplating suicide by jumping into the Pacific Ocean, but is stopped by a policeman. She talks her way out of the situation and later entices the beefy and amorous Wally Fay (Jack Carson) back to the house on the beach and locks him in, with the intention of pinning the murder on him. The scenes in which Wally realizes Mildred has left him alone in a locked house with a corpse and a revolver and he attempts to escape are stunning, and are one of the greatest noir sequences in film history.

Unlike Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), another noir classic adapted from a novel by Cain, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce takes a lot of liberties with its source material. This is partly due to necessity. I loved Cain’s novel, and found it every bit as good as his 1934 crime classic The Postman Always Twice and more believable than his 1937 novel Serenade, which is about a male opera singer who loses his voice after he gives in to homosexual temptation. Cain’s Mildred Pierce contains no murders, just plenty of bad behavior, and the most despicable character waltzes off at the end with no punishment in sight. Apparently the moral tone of the novel was troubling to the Breen Office, so producer Jerry Wald devised a murder plot with a culprit who could be punished, which sufficiently palliated the concerns of producer and studio head Jack L. Warner, and he purchased the rights to the novel in 1944. The script for the film went through eight different versions before Ranald MacDougall’s version was accepted. William Faulkner and Catherine Turney both made uncredited contributions. (And we can all thank our lucky stars that Faulkner’s scene in which Mildred’s maid, played by Butterfly McQueen, consoled Mildred while singing a gospel song was either never filmed or was left on the cutting room floor.)

Mildred Pierce is a fantastic film. Crawford’s longtime nemesis Bette Davis and fellow fading star Rosalind Russell were both considered for the lead role, but both turned it down. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone but Crawford playing Mildred Pierce. She brings not only her finely controlled histrionics to the role, but her own life history as a woman who crawled up from nothing.

When the picture opened, it was a huge hit, both with critics and audiences. It was nominated for best picture, best actress, best supporting actress (for Eve Arden, who plays Mildred’s wisecracking best friend), best writing, and best black and white cinematography. Joan Crawford won the Academy Award for best actress, and accepted the statuette at home, where she was sick in bed. (Her adopted daughter Christina claims she was faking, but this is hardly the worst accusation she has lobbed at her mother.)

The Southerner (April 30, 1945)

SouthernerFrench director Jean Renoir directed this adaptation of George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, which won the first National Book Award in 1941. (The novel was adapted by screenwriter Hugo Butler, with uncredited contributions from Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner.)

Zachary Scott, in a role originally intended for Joel McCrea, plays a Texas cotton picker named Sam Tucker who decides he doesn’t want to be a sharecropper anymore. He wants to grow his own cotton, harvest it, and be responsible for his own destiny. So he buys a piece of land and a ramshackle little house, and moves his wife (played by Betty Field), his children, and their crotchety grandmother onto it. Once there, the Tuckers must valiantly struggle against nature, disease, and their fellow humans to make a go of it.

The Southerner received three Academy Award nominations, including one for best director. Renoir didn’t win, but he was named best director by the National Board of Review, which also named The Southerner the third best film of 1945, after the World War II documentary The True Glory and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (which won the Oscar for best picture). Despite all these accolades, I was lukewarm about this picture. Scott is good in his role. His acting is understated, and he embodies “quiet dignity.” J. Carrol Naish is also very good as the villain of the piece, Tucker’s neighbor who seeks to destroy Tucker merely because of his inchoate hatred for anyone who tries to rise from his station in life. In fact, all the actors are good, except for perhaps Beulah Bondi, who hams it up a bit as Granny, a prickly pear if ever there was one. (Also, it might be hard for modern viewers to see her sitting in her rocking chair in the bed of a slow-moving pickup truck along with all the family’s worldly possessions and not think of The Beverly Hillbillies, which is unfortunate, since this film strives to be a realistic human drama.) My tepid reaction to the film is not related to any of the particulars, but rather to the overall feeling I had at the end. I just felt as if something was missing. Some essential component that would make me care about the characters and their situation more than I did.

Renoir is today best known for his French-language films like Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), but he made a few English-language films besides this one. The first was Swamp Water (1941), which, like The Southerner, is about simple rural Americans. Perhaps my cool reaction to this film was due to the fact that I don’t find simple people as compelling as complicated people. Or maybe it’s just because the print I saw was kind of crummy. If the visual beauty of the countryside were allowed to shine through, maybe I would have liked it more. I’ve read that Renoir considered this his favorite American-made film. And, as I mentioned above, it was very successful with critics. So if this sounds like the kind of film you enjoy, then by all means you should see it. Meanwhile, I’ll be next door, watching a late ’40s film noir set in a big city about paranoid, sweaty people who aren’t quietly dignified in the slightest.