Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks

balloffire2lcWhile Billy Wilder is best known as a film director, he always considered himself a writer first and director second. He worked best with a partner, and though he had many over the years, there were two, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, who were his most important associates.  Though he was born in Europe, Wilder quickly picked up and mastered the American vernacular. While Wilder always had a co-writer, there is no way to misinterpret a Wilder screenplay. His footprints are clearly all over them. Continue reading

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Anatole Litvak

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Based on Lucille Fletcher’s highly popular radio play, “Sorry, Wrong Number” was brought to the screen in 1948 by producer Hal B. Wallis and Paramount. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The original radio show featured Agnes Moorehead and was primarily a tense one woman dialogue for the complete twenty-two minute show. The program was so popular, Moorehead reprised her role several times over the years, but when Wallis and Paramount purchased the property, they decided Moorehead was not a big enough star for the lead role in the film. So here came Stanwyck who had just signed a contract with Wallis making this her first film under the new agreement.

Sorry, Wrong, Number LC1To expand the original short radio script into a feature film, Lucille Fletcher “opened” up her original story which she accomplished by adding a series of flashbacks and even some flashbacks within flashbacks, expanding the role of the husband, played by Lancaster. Fletcher would also turn the screenplay into a novel the same year the movie was released.

Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, the bed ridden wealthy invalid, neurotic to the core, with more pills on her end table than Pfizer Inc. produces in a month of Sundays. She is confined to her lavish bedroom apartment, overlooking the New York City skyline.  One evening Leona, attempting to call her boy toy husband Henry, accidently due to crossed telephone lines, overhears two men discussing a murder plot. She calls the police, then her father and finally her doctor, but no one believes her. Continue reading

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Lewis Milestone

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Steely eyed and sexy, that’s Barbara Stanwyck at her best. No one conveyed the tough dame, determined yet alluring look that can arouse a man’s loins any better. With a screenplay by Robert Rossen (Force of Evil) based on a story by John Patrick, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” is a hybrid twisting mix of film noir and 1940’s women’s melodrama with Stanwyck’s dangerous female right in the middle.

It’s the late 1920’s when Martha Ivers, a young orphaned teen, living with her rich aunt (Judith Anderson) strikes the older woman with a cane causing her to fall down a flight and stairs and die. Witnessed by her friend, Walter O’Neil, the boy backs up her story to his father, a hungry and ambitious lawyer, that the older woman did in fact “fall” with no help from Martha. The father suspects that’s not what really happened but realizes Martha, as her aunt’s only living relative stands to inherit a fortune and will make for a perfect wife for his awkward son. Continue reading

Illicit (1931) Archie Mayo

“Illicit” was only Barbara Stanwyck’s fifth film and she was already a star. Having just appeared in Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure” as a prostitute, or as they would call it, a ‘party girl’ for Columbia, Babs, who had arranged for non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Brothers, starred in her next film  for Brothers Warner as a free thinking woman, a post feminist long before the term was even conceived.

Stanwyck is Anne Vincent and her lover, James Rennie, is wealthy Richard “Dick” Ives II. They have been happily living out of wedlock, going away together for weekends, enjoying life, but she refuses to marry Dick who wants to marry her. Anne explains her theories on marriage, how married couples become complacent, have kids and begin to take each other for granted leaving the fun and romance behind. Anne wants none of that. Eventually though pressure from friends and family force the couple to marry. Once married, egos get hurt, misunderstandings come out of the closet as well as former lovers. From Anne’s past comes Price Baines, played smoothly by Ricardo Cortez, who keeps popping up to complicate the situation. Late in the film Dick is about to run off with a former girlfriend (Natalie Moorhead) when the couple come to the realization they only want each other. Continue reading

Remember The Night (1940) Mitchell Leisen

Barbara Stanwyck was always at her best when her character came from the wrong side of the tracks. She seemed to have a natural affinity for those who lives have mostly been filled with hard times, scrapping by the best way they can. Maybe it had to do with her sad Brooklyn upbringing, her mother dying when she was four, pushed from a streetcar by a drunk, and her father leaving only weeks later, never heard from again. That kind of pain has to leave an indelible mark on one for life. Yet, beneath the tough exterior would hide a gentle desirous heart longing for acceptance that would eventually show itself.

This double side of Stanwyck’s persona is clearly on display in an early scene in the 1940 holiday comedy/drama, “Remember the Night,” when Fred MacMurray’s prosecuting Assistant District Attorney John Sargent arranges, through a legal technicality, to have Lee Leander’s (Barbara Stanwyck) trial for shoplifting postponed until after the holidays. This results in Lee, unable to post bail, having to spend the long holiday week in a jail cell. Sargent, in a twinge of guilt, or holiday spirit, arranges through a shady bondsman to have Lee’s five thousand dollars bail paid for. When the bondsman delivers Lee to the ADA’s apartment, she is cynical enough to have no doubt her payback to him will be in sexual favors. To her surprise ADA Sargent expects nothing in return. He really just did not want her to spend Christmas in jail. The look of surprise in Lee’s eyes and face is priceless when this realization hits her. Continue reading

Jeopardy (1953) John Sturges

“Jeopardy” is a terrific little thriller from MGM, cheaply made, did okay at the box office and disappeared without much fanfare. MGM known for its lavish and expensive musicals also had a small unit that produced low budget films, programmers, product to keep pumping out to theaters. With a small budget and stars who were no longer at the top of their career the studio was able to put out some decent films that turned a profit. “Jeopardy” falls nicely into this category.

A typical American family is driving down to Mexico for a vacation. Let’s remember this is 1953, post-war America, the Eisenhower years, folks were glad the war years were over and enjoying the open roads, the country’s super highways. Barbara Stanwyck’s narration in the film alludes to this as well as to the unknown trouble that lies ahead.  The destination is an isolated beach area her husband, Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan) went fishing there years ago with former Army buddies.  The rest of  the family consists of wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker).

The first stop is Tijuana but from there it is a long ride to the isolated beach some 400 miles south on the Baja peninsula. When they first arrive young Bobby goes exploring on a pier that has been condemned (only the condemned sign is in Spanish and we do not find out the meaning of the word until it is too late). Bobby gets his foot stuck in between two boards and Dad has to go out on the pier and pry his son’s foot loose. On the way back one of the weaker boards gives way and Dad falls, a piling pinning his foot underneath. Unable to get him loose and with the tide beginning to come in, Helen, panic stricken, is forced to take the car and go for help hopefully getting back before the tide comes in drowning Doug.

Not knowing any Spanish, unfamiliar with the terrain and half hysterical Helen drives wildly searching for help. She meets some locals walking down the road but the language barrier prohibits any communication and she drives off frantically still in search of help.  She comes upon a roadside gas station but the place seems deserted. She breaks in looking for a heavy rope or some other material that would help free her husband.  Suddenly, a man appears standing by her car, he’s an American and she tells him her tale. He instantly agrees to help her; they jump into her car and take off. As they drive away, the camera,remaining behind at the gas station, slowly moves over revealing a dead body lying on the ground. The supposed good Samaritan is Lawson (Ralph Meeker) a half psychotic escaped prisoner.  He isn’t interested in helping Helen and her husband as much as using the car to get away from the Mexican police. To make Helen’s situation even more desperate he finds a pistol in the glove compartment, one Helen’s husband packed for shooting practice.

The remainder of this short (69 minutes) film becomes a duel between Helen, a woman determined and willing to do anything to save her husband and the crazed Lawson (the film hints that she agrees to a sexual encounter), who mocking her fears that her husband may die at one point tells her to “stop it, you’re making me cry, I’m a very sensitive guy.”

Stanwyck is always at her best when she combines vulnerability and toughness which she does so well here, but the real revelation is Ralph Meeker (who incidentally replaced Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway). Best known as Mike Hammer in the classic Robert Aldrich film “Kiss Me, Deadly,” here he just about steals the entire film in what has to be one of his best and juiciest roles. It was a good year for Meeker, he also had a role in Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur.”

As exciting as Meeker is in his role, Barry Sullivan is just as dull. He has the less fortunate part of the husband who for most of the film is stuck under the pile with the tide coming in, the waves crashing up against him harder and harder. Actually it is not so much Sullivan’s talent that is at fault as it is the role itself.  Lee Aaker who plays the young son Bobby is best remembered by baby boomers as Rusty in the TV series “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” that began filming the following year and ran for five years.

Though the film was set in Mexico, the Yucca Valley and an area near Laguna Beach were substituted for the Baja Peninsula. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli who wrote such fine thrillers as “The Spiral Staircase,” “Cause for Alarm,” “The Window” and “Beware, My Lovely.” Directed by John Sturges on a very small budget,  He would within two years go on to make his first great classic, “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

Notice in both the poster and the insert how in the advertising of this film they allude to Stanwyck’s character having sex with the killer Lawson with phrases like “she did it…because her fear was greater than her shame!”  and “she did it…and no woman in the world would blame her”

“Jeopardy” is a fine thriller without ever reaching the level of greatness, but you will not be bored.

***1/2