Short Takes: Natalie Wood, Diana Dors and Ginger Rogers

Short Takes returns with three reviews, totally unrelated. A young Natalie Wood stars in A CRY IN THE NIGHT while 1950’s Brit blonde bombshell Diana Dors is in THE UNHOLY WIFE. Finally, Ginger Rogers shines in the lightweight 5th AVENUE GIRL.

I wonder when they named this picture, “A Cry in the Night,” whose tears they were referring too, Natalie Wood’s character perhaps, who is kidnapped in the middle of the night or maybe the audience who had to sit through this cliché ridden tale about a child-like adult (Raymond Burr), think Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” who watches young couples making out at a local lover’s lane.

After knocking out her boyfriend old Raymond kidnaps Ms. Wood taking her to his secret hideout where he confesses he just wants to be ‘friends.’  Yes, Nat makes a couple of feeble attempts to escape but in the end only manages to ripe her skirt so she can reveal some leg in order to keep the males in the audience awake.   Wood’s father, played by Edmond O’Brien, is an overbearing, over protective, sexist who finds it hard to believe his eighteen year old daughter would  willingly go to a lover’s lane of her own free will after he forbid her too. In fact, ole’ Edmond seems more concerned with wanting to beat the crap out of the boyfriend for this dirty deed than finding his daughter. Oh yeah, by the way, he’s a cop who naturally wants to be involved in the case though he should not be. The cast also includes Brian Donlevy as the sensible cop who attempts to control the out of control O’Brien. As directed by Frank Tuttle, there is nothing original here, to say the least. Tuttle is best known for making “This Gun For Hire” some fourteen years earlier which made Alan Ladd  a star. Ladd, by the way, is the narrator who opens the film and his company co-produced the film. Continue reading

White Heat (1949) Raoul Walsh

When James Cagney returned to the gangster role in 1949’s “White Heat”, the film exploded off the screen, just as it still does today. As Eddie Mueller points out in “Dark City” Cody is not a classic gangster but an outlaw and that is an important difference.  Arthur “Cody” Jarrett was not a victim of growing up on the poor side of town, like Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” or a war veteran returning home to depression era high unemployment, as Eddie Bartlett did in “The Roaring Twenties.” Nor was Cody part of a criminal organization.  Jarrett instead is a cruel, psychotic, homicidal, maniacal mamma’s boy, a brother to Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo, Lawrence Tierney’s Sam Wild and a father to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana along other post war psychotic criminals. Whether he shoots holes into the trunk of his car “to give some air” to fellow prison escapee Parker, who attempted to kill Jarrett in prison, or shoots Big Ed (Steve Cochran) and gleefully kicks him down the stairs telling his boys to catch, Cody is cruelly vicious and unstable. As portrayed by Cagney, he is magnetic, one of the great performances of all time; you just cannot take your eyes off him. Continue reading

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Ida Lupino

With no major female characters, Ida Lupino’s 1953 film “The Hitch-Hiker” is somewhat idiosyncratic in her feature  film directing career. Considered a director with a strong female identity, Lupino shows she can handle a gritty all male thriller just as skillfully as one of her mentors Raoul Walsh. She was also admittedly an admirer of Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang and cinematographer George Barnes. “The Hitch-Hiker” made in 1953 tells the story of  two weekend fisherman, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) who graciously but unfortunately pick up  hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers turns out to be a psychopathic mass killer who forces the men to take him across the border to Mexico. The remainder of the film is a claustrophobic ballet of survival between the two hostages and the killer. Lupino keeps the trio in close quarters throughout the film enforcing the fear that escape is impossible. Much of the time the three men spend in cars and small backrooms, yet even in the openness of the Mexican desert Lupino’s camera confines the characters space.

    From the opening sequence, Lupino keeps you on the edge of your seat with the threat of violence about to explode at any moment. Filmed by the magnificent cameraman, Nicolas Macursa, it is filled with stark contrasty black and white imagery that enhances the moody aridness of the brutal desert heat. What is amazing is how much Lupino accomplished with such a low budget, both in front and behind the camera. Like all of Lupino’s directed features, this was a no-frills production.

The opening scenes quickly inform us what we are dealing with. A faceless hitchhiker robs and murders an equally faceless couple somewhere in Illinois as the license plate tells us. A newspaper headline flashes across the screen “Couple Murdered!” A second headline identifies the killer as Emmett Myers. We transition to another road, and another pickup and another faceless murder, this time a man. Keeping the victims faceless Lupino enhances the fear that the next murder victim could be anyone, anywhere including us, the viewer watching the film.

    We cut to two men Roy Collins and Gil Bowen; they are on a fishing trip, away from the wives, work, and life in general. Unfortunately, fate enters in the form of Emmett Myers who they misguidedly pick up. Myers quickly pulls his gun and directs the two hostages to head toward Mexico.

Unlike his previous victims, Myers does not immediately kill these men. Instead, he takes them hostage having them drive him to Mexico. On the way, he torments them with sadistic games. In one scene Myers forces Gil, Myers is holding a pistol on him, to demonstrate his hunting skills using his rifle to shoot a soda can out of Roy’s hand.

William Talman’s performance as the psychotic killer with a paralyzed right eye that remains open making it difficult for his prisoners to know when he was sleeping, is outstanding. It’s an unforgettable creepy performance packed with rage and terror. There is nothing good about this man. In a campfire scene, Myers demands Gil toss him his watch. After looking at it, Myers tells them he had a watch like this once, only he didn’t buy it, he robbed a jewelry store. Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are perfect as the two ordinary Joes on a fishing trip, away from their wives and responsibilities, inexplicably trapped in a nightmare journey toward death. The film’s tension is all in the performances of the three leads, the divergent actions and reactions between Talman’s crazed hitch-hiker and the passive hostages.

The film’s major flaw is an ending that does not reach a satisfying climax worthy of all that has come before. A massive manhunt by both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, on the same scale according to Time magazine of the manhunt for John Dillinger, results in Myers capture but is played out very low key.

  Lupino co-wrote the screenplay with Collier Young during the last months of their marriage. Daniel Mainwaring apparently contributed but due to HUAC investigations, RKO refused to give him any screen credit. Lupino and Young would remain business partners, in The Filmakers, and friends even after their divorce in October 1951 and her quick marriage to Howard Duff that same month (she was pregnant with a daughter fathered by Duff).

The film is based on the true story of mass murderer Billy Cook who in a 22-day murder spree killed a family of five and a sixth person, Robert Dewey, a salesman. He then kidnapped two hunters holding them hostage for eight days and forcing them to drive him over the border to Mexico before he was eventually captured in Santa Rosita, a coastal city in Baja California, the same location where the movie was filmed. Cook would die in San Quentin walking the last mile to the gas chamber in 1952. Like Cook, Emmett Myers in the film had a deformed eye that always remained open and was a full-blown psychopath. Cook’s reputation was so large that both Time magazine and Newsweek did multiple stories on him.

   Cook’s life was one of  luck…all bad. Born into a family of seven kids, his mother died when he was five years old. Soon after, Billy and his siblings were abandon by their father and eventually found by authorities in an abandon mine cave. Billy’s brothers and sisters all managed to be placed in foster homes with Billy the exception, possibly due to the deformed right eye. While a ward of the county, Billy began to exhibit violent behavior. When he was 17, Cook was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary where his rage continued to escalate. While there, he would have the words HARD LUCK tattooed on his knuckles (reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s phony reverend in “The Night of the Hunter” who had GOOD and EVIL tattooed on his knuckles).

Lupino was in Palm Springs, to receive the Foreign Press Association’s “Woman of the Year” award and met one of the two hunters held hostage by Cook. Fascinated by the story, The Filmakers Group soon announced they were going to do a film based on the story of the two kidnapped hunters. This was met with resounding objections from the Motion Picture Association insisting that the Production Code forbid the portrayal of modern-day outlaws. The Filmakers would eventually resign to the fact that a fictional version of the story was the only way the MPA would allow the story to be told.

By the way,  Jim Morrison’s song Riders of the Storm from their 1971 album “L. A. Woman”  is said to be partially based on or as least alludes to Billy Cook’s story. Consider the following:

There’s a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad

Take a long holiday/Let you children play

If you give this man a ride/Sweet memories will die

Throughout her directing career, Ida Lupino was patronized as a woman doing a man’s job and certainly ignored artistically. Today, Lupino is recognized for her unique contribution to filmmaking in the early 1950’s as the first woman to direct a film noir (too bad she never had the opportunity to make more), her sparse gritty style, reminiscent of the many Warner Brothers films she acted in. Lupino stands firmly side by side, shoulder to shoulder with other mavericks from the same period like Nick Ray and Sam Fuller. That’s pretty damn good company to be in.

**** (out of five)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) John Ford

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“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Ford’s final great work, though he continued to work and made a few more films; none had the intensity nor reached the level of art his previous films achieved. The film is based on a short story by western author Dorothy M. Johnson, who also wrote “A Man Called Horse” and “The Hanging Tree”, both of which were adapted to the screen.

The story begins with the return of Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) a well-known and respected senator, of an unnamed western state who along with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) comes back to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of small time ranch owner Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The town’s newspaper editor is curious to know why the famed senator renown for being “The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance” (Lee Marvin) would make the long trip from Washington to pay his respects to this local unknown. Stoddard tells him the story ….

Liberty LC   Rance is a young attorney who believes in law and order though he refuses to carry a gun. On his way to the town of Shinbone, he is attacked and beaten during a stagecoach robbery by the outlaw Liberty Valance and his gang.  Rance is found by rancher Tom Doniphon and taken to the home of some friends who take care of the tenderfoot and nurse him back to health. Doniphon believes that in these parts “a man needs a gun.” Despite their philosophical differences, the two men become friends and rivals for the young and beautiful Hallie (Vera Miles). Valance continues to terrorize the town and Rance until one day the tenderfoot lawyer is forced into a showdown with the gunfighter. Though wounded during the gunfight, Rance shoots and kills Valance. Hallie’s true feelings come out for Rance driving Doniphon off in a drunken rage. Rance finds himself a hero as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He is selected to be a delegate as the territory applies for statehood. Feeling unworthy and guilty for becoming a hero based on killing a man, Doniphon reveals to him what really happened. Rance, relieved to know he is not riding on the coattails of a dead man, becomes the delegate, goes on to marry Hallie, and become the State’s first Governor and a three time Senator. While the death of Liberty Valance triggered a brilliant career for Rance Stoddard, for Tom Doniphon it led to a life of drinking, loneliness, and alienation.

liberty    After the Senator finishes telling his story to the paper’s editor and the truth about how Valance was killed, the editor tears up his notes and throws them into the stove to burn. Stoddard asks him why isn’t he going to use the story.  The editor replies, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

When I recently compiled my list of the best films of the 1960’s for the Wonders in the Dark blog, I inexplicitly did not include this John Ford masterpiece. This is one reason I hate making lists and I should be horsewhipped the same way Liberty Valance horsewhips James Stewart in the film for this omission. “Liberty Valance” is a classic western that stands up against the best of John Ford’s work. It is a work of an elder statement taking a darker, morose look at a period in America he had glorified in earlier times.  It is a turning point in the history of the American west, Statehood was on the horizon; the law and civilization were coming. Tom Doniphon knew his days were over and that Stoddard and his breed represented the future.

libertyvalance-c   John Wayne is an actor that I have always had mixed feelings about. When used correctly, mostly by Ford, his persona and the role merge into a “perfect storm” as they do in “The Searchers”, “Rio Bravo” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Wayne was never much of a real actor though he played ‘John Wayne’ better than anyone could. Moreover, rarely has a Wayne character displayed the vulnerability that he does here.  I always enjoyed James Stewart as an actor more than Wayne, however here I find his character, Rance Stoddard, a bit annoying, somewhat stubborn and naïve. While Wayne and Stewart are the stars of the film, it is Lee Marvin’s menacing performance that ‘stirs the drink.’ Marvin has portrayed many violent and evil characters in his wonderful career but Liberty Valance has to be at or near the top. He is brutal, intimidating and just plain evil. Reese (Lee Van Cleef), one of his gang members, twice has to stop him from whipping his victims to death. Vera Miles is the woman in the middle, in love with Doniphon, and as the film goes on, she develops a growing fondness for Stoddard and marries him. At the end of the film as they ride the railroad back to Washington, Ford subtly tells us, though she has been married to Stoddard for many decades her true love is left behind in a wooden box. “Liberty Valance” is not just Wayne, Stewart and Marvin, the film is rich in terrific performances with character actors like Edmond O’Brien as the newspaper editor, Andy Devine as the cowardly sheriff, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Valance’s two thugs in crime. The wonderful Woody Strode as Pompey. Also in the cast are John Carradine and Denver Pyle. All these colorful characters make the film interesting, giving it depth and making up for the less than expected gunplay you would assume to see in a western. The film is also filled with rich black and white photography courtesy of cinematographer William Clothier who had photographed many western, “The Horse Soldiers”, “The Comancheros” and “McLintock.” Other works include “Merrill’s Marauders” and “Donavan’s Reef.”

Finally, this is the film where John Wayne imitators latched on to the phrase “pilgrim.” Doniphon constantly refers to Stoddard by that name.

711 Ocean Drive (1950) Joseph M. Newman

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The Syndicate, the organization, the outfit, the rackets, the mob, all synonymous terms used in post-war crime films to identify the criminal underworld. Eventually, terms like crime family, The Family and Mafia would overshadow them all. In 1950, the Kefauver Hearings brought forth the top mob figures of the day right into our homes, via the newest electronic and revolutionary family toy, the TV. These gangsters with names like Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Meyer Lansky craved a veneer of respectability, more so than hoods of previous years like Al Capone, John Dillinger or Bugs Moran. Hollywood recognized the mob was changing, just like the rest of the world, and so crime films of the 1950’s began to reflect this new criminal hierarchy, the organization. You see it in films like “The Racket,” and Phil Karlson’s “The Big Combo” where big boss Richard Conte is only known as Mr. Brown. In the “The Enforcer,” a film based on organized crime’s own murder for hire “company,” Murder Incorporated, a term invented by the newspaper media and the title of a 1960 movie with Peter Falk, covered similar ground as “The Enforcer.”

Into this pattern falls “711 Ocean Drive”, the story of the rise and fall of Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien), a phone company technician who gets involved with some ‘big shots’ running the numbers racket when they realize he can modernize their communications, and he realizes he can make a lot more money by helping them do so. The films begins with an introductory statement, typical in many films of this period, that it could not have been made without the protection of various police departments. Then the actual story begins as we see Lt. Pete Wright (Howard St. John) of the “Gangster Squad” in a squad car chasing after Granger. Wright begins to tell the story in flashback and most of the film remains in this fashion until we get near the climatic ending which takes place at Boulder Dam (eventually it was renamed Hoover Dam).    711lobbycrd

The film opened in July of 1950 to mixed reviews. New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers said, “711 Ocean Drive” is no more original or revealing than 100 previous gangster films. He is the same evil fellow you have seen countless times before, and the story of his badgering of the hero is as familiar as the palm of your hand.  Additionally, the film’s ending is sanctimonious and simple in its preaching about the evils of gambling. Viewing the film today, these shortcomings still stand out however, do not let it deter you from the enjoyment of the rest of the film. 

“711 Oceans Drive” has many things going for it, starting with director Joseph Newman, who keeps the film going at a nice swift pace; there really is never a dull spot. Never a topnotch director, Newman is probably best known for directing “This Planet Earth,” does a solid craftsman like job.  Visually, it is cinematographer Franz Planer providing some exceptional work here with some fine noirish like lighting. The scenes at the Dam are truly worth the price of admission all by themselves. Planer worked on some other nice noir films like  “Criss Cross,” “Champion” and Phil Karlson’s little known “99 River Street.”  Other films he contributed to include “The Caine Mutiny,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “King of Kings.” Edmond O’Brien give us one of his best performances with a character that is a far cry from Frank Bigalow in “D.O.A.” released the same year. Don Porter (does anyone remember Porter from the TV series “Private Secretary’ and The Ann Southern Show?), as Mason, the local top crime lord, comes across exceptionally well as the slimy wife beating hood, that it is hard to find any sympathy for when he is executed gangland style, courtesy of arrangements made by Granger. Joanne Dru is Gail, Porter’s cheating wife who falls for Granger eventually trying to escape with him. Finally, there is Otto Kruger as th Mr. Big or the organizaiton, the nationwide boss of bosses who does not like to get his hands dirty but has no problem giving the orders to others to do so.

Overall, the “711 Ocean Drive” film is a decent “B” film noir with some nice touches and a terrific ending that keeps you involved.