Short Takes: Bogart, Bacall and Widmark Times Two

This week’s short takes are not a particularly great bunch. Like most bloggers I tend to write about the films I love, or at least like. I decided that’s not fair; makes every film that is considered “classic” sound great. They are not. This group is not necessarily horrible, except for one; another is mediocre and another is just decent. Now mediocrity can be enjoyable on some levels, recently I have been watching some low budget Boston Blackie films from Columbia Pictures which have been on TCM every weekend. They are light hearted, a bit corny, but enjoyable pieces of detective fluff. Blackie, as played by Chester Morris, is the only one with any brains, and in every film has to prove his innocence to the two dumb and dumber detectives who see him as a one man crime wave. You see, Blackie was a former jewel thief, now gone straight. At best, these films are fair, lightweight entertainment. Classic? Well, I guess it all goes down to your definition of classic, which by the way, has been discussed recently by some members of CMBA and there is a particularly good posting on the subject by Gilby of  Random Ramblings of a Broadway, Film and TV Fan.  Anyway below are this week’s short takes. classics or not. Continue reading

Short Takes – Bogie, McQueen, Cassavetes and More…

My next full length review with be up on Monday morning. The change in schedule is due to my participation in the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe .  I will be contributing a piece on the 1960 film, “Peeping Tom.” In the meantime, I thought I would post seven short takes on some other films that I have recently watched.

The Sand Peebles (1966) Directed by Robert Wise

When “The Sand Peebles” premiered in December 1966, the U.S. was already deep into its “quagmire” in Vietnam, a foreign policy disaster fueled by false fears that if one domino (Vietnam) fell, all the others in Southeast Asia would surely all fall too. Though set in 1926 in China, the analogy to Vietnam and the depiction of racism, prevalent at the time as well as the colonialism is all too clear.  “The Sand Peebles” is a three hour anti-war epic about the effects of wrong-headed foreign policy. Steve McQueen gives what is arguably his finest performance as a rebellious ship engineer. Richard Crenna is superb as the ships’ self-righteous Captain, as is Richard Attenborough as one of McQueen’s shipmates who falls for a local Chinese girl.  Visually, the film is epic and stunningly photographed. Only weak spot is Candice Bergen’s non-existent performance as a missionary. Continue reading

Black Legion (1937) Archie Mayo

Only Warner Brothers, who ripped the stories from the day’s headlines, would have the guts to have put out a gutsy uncompromising perceptive film like “Black Legion.”  Released in 1937, the film traces the story of Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), a machinist who gets passed over for a promotion in favor for a more qualified “foreigner,” Polish-American co-worker, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).  Frank, prior to being passed over, was a swell guy, a good family man, liked by everyone at work for his eagerness to do a good job. That all changes after the studious Dombrowski is anointed with the Supervisor position Frank thought he had in the bag. After all, he had many years of service and he was a real American. 

Director Archie Mayo paints a brutally ugly picture of bigotry, cowardice and senseless brutality hiding behind a mob mentality of flag waving patriotism. The film’s screenplay, written by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was based on a story by Robert Lord, who wrote a fictionalized version of the secret society known as the Black Legion, a group based in the nation’s heartland who modeled themselves on the Klu Klux Klan. Like the fictional organization in the film, the real Black Legion had a common purpose, keeping America pure for “real” Americans.  During their reign there were daily news reports of kidnappings, floggings, hangings, and were responsible for at least two murders, including the death of Workers Progress Administration organizer, Charles Poole. The Black Legion swore to fight against the Catholic Church, Judaism, Communism, “and all the ism’s our forefathers came to this country to avoid.” That is except for racism which they embraced. Continue reading

The Desperate Hours (1955) William Wyler

May Contain Spoilers!

What I have always liked about this film is its sense of unrelenting fear and randomness that it could happen to anyone. That is what still makes this film work well. Wyler is an archetypal style Hollywood filmmaker in the best sense of the word. He never lets the camera intrude on the story.
Three convicts escape from prison and take cover in the home of the Hilliard’s, a “typical” American family of four living in a middle class neighborhood. Holding the family hostage the escaped cons are waiting for the girlfriend of Glenn Griffin (Bogart) to deliver a money package to help with their escape.


This was Bogart’s final role as a gangster and his next to last film before succumbing to cancer two years after the film was made. Bogart once said, his role here was Duke Mantee, referring to his star making part in “The Petrified Forest”, all grown up. It is a good point, in both films the Bogart character and his cronies are holding a group of innocent hostages. Griffin is a sneering, arrogant menace easily willing to lie, cheat and kill to get what he wants just like Mantee. Bogart growls with a viciousness in a perfect career ending role for the man who created some of the most memorable sleaze ball gangsters in cinema history.


As Dan Hilliard the head of the invaded household Fredric March is steadfast, determined to protect his family, capable of battling Griffin in a psychological battle to save his home. He not only has to stand up to the three convicts on the run but later toward the climatic end has to fend off the various law enforcement agencies including a local sheriff who wants to rush in with guns blazing taking down anyone in their path mostly because it would not be good for his career if these criminals got away.
The remainder of the cast does a capable job with Arthur Kennedy as Deputy Sheriff, Martha Scott as Ellie Hilliard, the wife, Dewey Martin as Hal, the younger of the Griffin brothers and Robert Middleton as Kobish the bear like uncontrollable third convict. Mary Murphy as the older of the two Griffin kids is somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the cast. You may remember her as the nice local town girl in “The Wild One.” The one cast member I found wanting was Gig Young who plays Murphy’s much older lawyer boyfriend, older by about twenty years. Except for his performance in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” I have always found Young a rather bland actor. He does nothing to alter those feelings here.


The source story began as a bestselling novel in 1954 written by Joseph Hayes. The following year Hayes adapted the novel into a play that made its way to Broadway in 1955 (winning a Tony Award) with Paul Newman as Glenn Griffin and Karl Malden as the head of the Hilliard family. The story was inspired by several real life incidents. The film was actually completed before the play even opened on Broadway, subsequently it was held back from release until the play unexpectedly closed after Karl Malden left the production after 212 performances.
The change in casting from a young and still relative newcomer like Paul Newman to the iconic Bogart caused an obvious age difference between the convict Glen Griffin and his young brother Hal portrayed by Dewey Martin. Hayes willingly changed the script to accommodate the age difference in the actors. That said it does in no way distract from the story.
Wyler originally wanted Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda for the role of the father with Marlon Brando or James Dean in the role of Glenn Griffin. Later he sought Spencer Tracy as the family head but no agreement could be reached between Bogart and Tracy on who would receive top billing, subsequently Tracy bowed out. Also look for two well known “B” actors in small roles, science fiction favorite Beverly Garland and Joe Flynn of “McHale’s Navy” fame, who plays a motorist whose car is hijacked by Kobish.
As previously mentioned the novel is based on an actual incident which took place in Pennsylvania in 1952 when James and Elizabeth Hill were held hostage in their home by escaped federal convicts. In 1955 to coincide with the opening of the play, Life Magazine ran an article and photographs with the original stage stars (Newman and Malden) recreating some scenes in the actual home where the Hill’s lived (they had since moved away). The Hill’s sued the author, Paramount Pictures and Random House the publisher for $300,000 claiming invasion of privacy. The case was eventually dismissed.


As a director Wyler was well known for being relentless in pursuing the performances he wanted from his actors, many times by intimidation. There was one time he made Bogart work overtime (he and Bogart had an agreement that the actor would quit every day at five). By the time it got to six o’clock Bogart was pissed and put all his frustration and anger into the scene which was just what Wyler wanted. Another time, there was a simple scene where March was to kiss Martha Scott and leave for work. After more than thirty takes Scott asked Wyler what it was she was doing wrong. Wyler said, “It’s not you, I want March to look tired.” He was “acting” too much, his character was supposed to be worn out and upset. The scene took over a day to shoot but Wyler got his shot.


The film received mostly good reviews, one exception was from the ever odd Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who called it “a mere exercise in melodramatic hocus pocus.” Surprisingly the film did not do well at the box office. Part of the reason may have to do with the hold up in releasing the film until after the play closed. “The Desperate Hours” opened in October however, in July a film with a similar theme called “The Night Holds Terror” opened. It is possible the public did not want to see another family held hostage drama and opted out .
A 1990 remake by Michael Cimino with Mickey Roarke is best just left on the video shelf.

The Movie Projector presents the William Wyler blogathon running through June 29th. Click here for more great reviews.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston

This posting is a contribution to the John Huston Blogathon over at Adam Zanzie’s Icebox Movies.

If anyone believes that the writer is the auteur of a film one only has to look at the 1931 and 1941 versions of “The Maltese Falcon.” The difference in not so much in the script as both films  take dialogue directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel but more in the set design, lighting, direction and in how the characters are portrayed. In Roy Del Ruth’s pre-code version Sam Spade is more of an upper class dandy, from the Nick and Nora Charles School of private eyes. Del Ruth’s Spade has a fancy apartment and office. Huston’s Spade is from the dark, dirty,  hard-boiled school of detectives, cynical and willing to be as corrupt as the bad guys. He is an unsentimental man who indifferently informs his dead partner’s wife that he is dead, a woman with whom he recently had an affair. Huston/Bogart’s Spade is a much more complex character than the dandy portrayed by Cortez in the earlier version. It is not just Spade who is different, Bebe Daniels Brigit O’Shaughesssey is more defenseless than the tough as nails, manipulative Mary Astor version. In Huston’s version no characters trusts any other. While the 1931 pre-code film is blunter about Spade’s womanizing as portrayed by Ricardo Cortez there is no sleaze factor in his Spade whereas Bogart’s Spade you can tell has been around the block a few times. I will not even discuss the second remake “Satan Was a Lady” barely recognizable as a remake..

No one at Warner Brothers was expecting much from what was a low-budget production. They even wanted to call the film “The Gent From Frisco.” George Raft, it is well known, refused to work with an untried director, turned down the lead role opening up the position for Humphrey Bogart, and with that began the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” as Rick Blaine (Bogart) says to Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in another Warner classic a few years later, between the director John Huston and actor  Humphrey Bogart.  His performance here was a major step in the creation of the Bogie persona which achieved its completion in Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca.” Huston and Bogart would make six films together. This being his first film Huston made drawings of all the camera setups so as not to appeared unprepared on the set came time to actually shoot.

For a director making his first film Huston’s camera setups were superb, Close oppressive atmosphere, stunning low-angle shots, and the final shot of Mary Astor as the police take her away with the elevator door closing on her like a jail cell door are some examples. There is also one long continuously shot scene in Spade’s apartment that according to Huston in his autobiography, “An Open Book” required something like twenty-six dolly moves requiring the cameraman to move along with the actors in order to complete the six or seven minute take. A  theme that would become common in Huston films shows up in this first outing, greed, the lust for the falcon representing the stuff dreams are made of. This theme will be explored over and over again in films like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Man Who Would Be King” and others.

“The Maltese Falcon” was a major hit, financially and artistically, receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Picture of the Year, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut). This was also the first pairing of Greenstreet and Peter Lorre who was award worthy himself as Joel Cairo. The film is generally considered the first film noir, though there are some that will debate that. Bogart became a major league star and Huston’s directing career was off to an auspicious start.

*****

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Anatole Litvak

“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”  is an odd little Warner’s film with Edward G. Robinson as a Park Avenue doctor who decides to do some research on criminal behavior by becoming a criminal himself. After stealing some expensive jewelry at a dinner party he seeks out a fence by the name of Joe Keller who turns out to be Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), a woman. Jo’s gang includes “Rocks” Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), a young Ward Bond, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Warner Brothers’ regular Allan Jenkins.

To continue his research the good doctor goes on “vacation” in Europe freeing him up from his practice to secretly join the gang in a series of daring robberies. This is a out of the ordinary film that manages at times to be suspenseful, funny, and sinister with a whiff of mad scientist thrown in for good measure. At times the actors seem to be in different films; Bogart in a straight gangster film with “Rocks” in the ranks of his greatest slime ball characters while Robinson acts as a scientifically aloof madman obsessed with his findings going to any length to save his breakthrough research.

In the final courtroom scene Clitterhouse is on trial for poisoning “Rocks” after he discovered the Doctor’s real identity and blackmails him forcing in to stay in the gang. Clitterhouse objects to testimony in court that he must be insane fearing all his research would be disregarded. Still the jury finds him innocent by reason of insanity leaving Clitterhouse not only confused but innocent of murder charges, an ending that was daring for its time when the production code was strictly enforced and criminals must pay for their sins.

The script was written by John Wexley and John Huston based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and was directed by the reliable Anatole Litvak. It was during the filming of this movie that Bogart and Huston met and became friends, a partnership that would lead to some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Huston, Robinson, Bogart and Trevor would reunite some ten years later in “Key Largo.”    

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1946) John Huston

Greed and the pursuit of power are major themes in John Huston’s films. They propel Gutman and Joel Cario to pursue the stuff that dreams are made of in “The Maltese Falcon,” only to find out their targeted prize is worthless. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” two soldiers attempt to become rulers of a country until greed and ego come between them. These themes are also plainly evident in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Kremlin Letter.” Similarly, these themes are at the center of what is considered Huston’s greatest work, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” You hear it in Howard, the old prospector’s voice when he explains the lust and fever that grows in men’s desire for gold and you see it in Fred C. Dobb’s eyes throughout the film as the potential increases for a larger prize with man’s morality all but disappearing.

Huston read the novel in 1936 and was interested in filming it; Warner Brothers owned the film rights, yet, it took ten years to get off the ground. After Huston returned from his World War II duty the green light was finally given. Huston had two major obstacles to overcome in adapting the screenplay. First was B. Traven’s beautifully unique, though unrealistic for the screen, writing style. Second was the book’s strong anti-capitalist sentiment and its blatant attack on materialism both of which had to be toned down. The novel also has a downbeat ending and the film’s star is not portraying a likable person, still the post war cynicism that gave rise to the popularity of film noir, also fit in here with the dark mood of the story.     

Two down on their luck Americans, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) in 1920′s Mexico hook up with an old time prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and go searching for gold. The old-timer is skeptical, forewarning that trouble will lie ahead, still he agrees to go. They head for the Sierra Madre mountains, and soon are attacked by bandito’s during the train ride out there. Once in the dessert, and as they begin to mined the gold, the loyal friendship begins to disintegrate. Dobbs trust no one and is afraid his partners will kill him for his share. Another American, a man named Cody (Brue Bennett) follows Curtin back to the campsite when he went for supplies and tries to deal his way into the group’s fortune. As tensions mount the three begin to question each other and thier morals, as they considered whether let in the newscomer, letting him have a share or to just kill him. Before they decide, they are attacked by a gang of bandito’s and the fourth American is killed. Mexican Federale’s fortunately show up chasing the bandito’s away. For the three prospectors their rush for gold continues to go downhill, disintegrating into a tale of greed, paranoia, and lost dreams.

One of the keys scenes is when the old prospector Howard tells the other two men that the potential of gold to be mined is going to much more than they anticipated. At the beginning of their adventure, no one was looking to be greedy, but as the gold fever began to catch on, especially with Dobbs, not only is there greed in the air, but the distrust factor shows its face again specifically with Fred C. Dobbs who “suggest” they all hide their shares of gold dust from each other. Dobbs mistrust of his two partners will only escalate as the film progresses until it turns into delusional madness. In contrast to Dobb’s, Tim Holt’s character, Bob Curtin is portrayed as honest if a bit too naive and innocent, still Holt, a B-western actor handles the part well never letting it fall flat. Originally John Garfield was set for the role until he backed out. But the acting kudos belongs to Huston, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and to Bogart for one of the finest performances of his career. At the time it was a courageous move by Bogie to portray such a pathetic despicable character as Dobbs. Also worth noting is the performance of Alphonso Bedoya as Gold Hat the leader of the Mexican bandito’s. It is Bedoya who has the famous lines, often misstated, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Huston and Bogart are one of the great actor/director teams. Huston was a well respected screenwriter having written or co-written scripts like “Juarez”, “Jezebel”, “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” and “Sgt. York”, however it was his adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s “High Sierra” that opened the door to his directing career. Together, Huston and Bogie would go on to make six films including two certified masterpieces, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and four other films ranging in quality from decent to very good works. There is not one that I would consider bad. Huston was the Oscar for Best Screenplay adaptation making it the first time a father and son was the awards.

The film is notable for some interesting cameos beginning with John Huston who portrays a well-dressed American at the beginning of the film who Bogart’s Dobb’s keeps attempting to panhandle from. Also look for a very young Robert Blake as the Mexican boy who sells Dobbs a lottery ticket. Jack Holt, Tim’s father has a small role in the flophouse scene early in the film where Dobb’s and Curtin first meet Howard. And then there is Ann Sheridan…maybe. There is a scene where a prostitute walks passed Dobbs and is seen shortly later going up a flight of stairs. According to the extra in the DVD, “The Making of the Sierra Madre” the lady is Ann Sheridan. Some historians claim it is Sheridan while others do not. There seems to be no definitive answer or at least one I could find.   

Whether the woman in that scene is Sheridan or not, one thing for sure, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is one of the great American films, nominated for a best picture Oscar only to lose to Oliver’s “Hamlet.”

*****