George Axelrod was a playwright, screenwriter, novelist and film director best remembered for his 1952 hit Broadway play, “The Seven Year Itch,” turned into a movie by Billy Wilder and starring Marilyn Monroe. Axelrod’s plays which included “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” and “Goodbye Charlie” introduced to modern pop culture, the sex comedy, a sub-genre that would become more prevalent in the 1960′s and beyond. Axelrod’s other works include “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “How to Murder Your Wife” (screenwriter), “Lord Love A Duck,” and “The Secret Life of an American Wife” (screenwriter and director). Continue reading
Bad cops, family values and the middle class American dream are the themes driving Joseph Losey’s dark riveting film noir, “The Prowler.” Whenever one thinks of voyeurism in the cinema, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” tops the list. For 110 minutes we watch James Stewart observe what goes on in the magnificent studio constructed Greenwich Village court yard. But “Rear Window” was not alone in approaching this topic, in fact, released at almost the same time, within a week of each other was another film, this one from Columbia called “Pushover.” It was directed by Richard Quine and starred Fred MacMurray and a young Kim Novak. Plenty of other films have dabbled in voyeurism including “Psycho,” “The Conversation,” “Peeping Tom,” “Body Double” and more recently “Suburbia.” If one thinks about it, and if you take it to the extreme every film is voyeuristic, subsequently making every moviegoer a voyeur. Now, doesn’t that make you feel good?
So now that you feel nice and dirty we can delve into Joseph Losey’s ”The Prowler”, a nasty tale of bad cops, misplaced trust, repressed sexuality, desires and chasing the middle class American dream. That last piece is part of what would get Losey in trouble with the HUAC. It may seems insignificant today but back in the early 1950′s right wing communist witch hunters looked at “The Prowler” as downright subversively un-American, but more on this later. Continue reading
In the 1950’s film director Phil Karlson put out a series of solid crime dramas including, “Scandal Sheet,” “Five Against the House,” “Tight Spot,” “The Phenix City Story” and two works with John Payne, “Kansas City Confidential” and “99 River Street.” Karlson made his way up from Poverty Row working with the Dead End Kids (Live Wires and Bowery Bombshell) and Charlie Chan (Dark Alibi) to working on “B” features for the big Hollywood studios. In the 1960’s Karlson worked with Elvis (Kid Galahad), Glenn Ford (A Time for Killing), also a couple of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films before hitting box office big time with the south’s version of Harry Callahan, “Walking Tall,” the story of Buford Pusser, a Southern lawman willing to break the law in order to fight injustice.
In “99 River Street,” former boxer Eddie Driscoll (John Payne) is now a cab driver scraping by with a job and an unsatisfied ex-showgirl of a wife, Pauline (Peggie Castle), unhappy working in a flower shop to help make ends meet and unhappy being married to a “pug.” Eddie was an up and coming boxer, everyone knew who he was, winning more than 60 fights without a knockdown until the night he goes up against the current champ and ends up with a deep cut above his eye and the doc calling the match over. Now Eddie is driving a cab, just another guy on the street, with a wife who is fed with the low rent lifestyle. Continue reading
The Face Behind the Mask, a rare film noir, starring Peter Lorre as Jonas “Johnny” Sazbo an immigrant watchmaker who comes to America full of hope searching for the American dream. Through the help of a friendly police officer, Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe) Jonas finds an apartment. Unfortunately, his first night their, a fire breaks out and he is hideously burned though he survives. His face totally scarred this talented watchmaker is refused employment repeatedly due to his deformity. He meets up with a small time thief, Dinky (George E Stone) and turns to a life of crime to survive and make enough money to get a face mask to cover his scars. Jonas becomes the boss of a criminal gang due his uncannily ability to plan robberies and outsmarting the law. Jonah runs into a young beautiful blind woman named Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes) who despite her handicap sells trinket jewelry and has a full life. Jonas falls in love with Helen who sees the good person in Jonas that was there before he turned to his life of crime. They make plans to marry and live out in the country. Jonas tells the gang he’s quitting and wants out but the gang does not like what they are hearing and plan to kill him by blowing up his car, only they kill Helen instead. With this Jonas’ last chance at love and redemption are lost, all that is left is revenge. Jonas gets the gang members on to a plane that they think is taking them out of the country however, Jonas who is the pilot, lands the plane in the middle of the desert where they all slowly die, an unusual ending, which is surprising and unique. All in all “The Face Behind the Mask” is a poignant, yet somewhat twisted noirish look at the American dream.
Robert Florey deemphasizes the horror aspects of the film keeping Jonas’ deformed face in the shadows or hidden from the camera. For a good portion of the film, Lorre’s face is not seen until he gets his mask. You should also note the socially conscience details of the film, the immigrant coming to America to start a new life and how people reacted to Jonas’ disability by shunning him, rejecting him in horror which ultimately leads him to his life of crime. As a director, Florey was influenced by the German Expressionist movement, which is evident in many scenes in this film and in his 1929 short “Skyscraper Symphony”, a study of the geometric patterns of New York skyscrapers.
Peter Lorre is perfect as the immigrant Jonas. Lorre has been one of the most interesting and original actors to ever grace the screen. Here he provides a sensitive and engaging performance. It is hard to imagine another actor in this role. The under appreciated Evelyn Keyes is also good in her role as Helen, Jonas’ blind love. Also notable is George E Stone who plays Dinky.
The movie runs only slightly over one hour and has never been released on home video or DVD. I believe it has been on Turner Classic Movies on occasion so keep your eyes open for it.
Evelyn Keyes passed away on July 4th. Best known for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister, Suellen, in “Gone with the Wind” she also had prominent roles in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “Johnny O’Clock,” “Ladies in Retirement” and “The Jolson Story”. She never made it to the top, never quite getting the role that would have put her in the stratosphere of Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. She eventually became more famous for her private life than her professional one. Four marriages, which included directors Charles Vidor and John Houston along with bandleader Artie Shaw all ended in divorce. In her 1977 autobiography Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister she comments on affairs she had with Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, David Niven plus a three-year affair with Mike Todd who would leave her for Elizabeth Taylor. This was during the period when Todd was developing “Around the World in 80 Days.” Evelyn was smart enough to invest in the film and admits that it set up her for life. Her last notable film was a small role as Tom Ewell’s wife in “The Seven Year Itch.”
She was a versatile enough actress proving herself capable of doing comedy (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) and noir style crime films like “99 River Street” and, “Johnny O’Clock.” Lesser known films but worth checking out are “The Prowler” with Van Heflin, “The Killer That Stalked New York” and “The Face Behind the Mask” with Peter Lorre. All three films are tough to find but worth seeking out.