Short Takes: Shanghai, Alaska, Girls, Guns, Gangsters on the Western Front

gene-tierney-shanghai-gesture_420The Shanghai Gesture  (***1/2) Such an amazingly lurid, corrupt and wicked film to ever come out of Hollywood during the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code. Gene Tierney is Poppy a spoiled young woman out for a good time in Shangahi. One night she parties in the biggest gambling house in town owned by Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Meanwhile, entrepreneur Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) is buying up large pieces of land in Shanghai including the property where Gin Sling’s gambling casino is located. When Gin Sling finds out Poppy is Sir Guy’s daughter she gets the slimy looking Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) to seduce wild child Poppy into the dark world of gambling, drugs and alcohol. A climatic Chinese New Year’s dinner reveals secrets and skeletons hidden in the closet that forever change lives. Gene Tierney, barely twenty one at the time, over plays some of her more dramatic scenes but makes up for it in her looks. Overall, this late Von Sternberg is not completely successful, but there is some nice photography and a fantastic crane shot worthy of his best work. Continue reading

Niagara (1953) Henry Hathway

Marilyn Monroe made her name as a rising new film star in 1952.  In 1953 she exploded on the screen with three standout Technicolor productions, “Niagara,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” all of which would help define the Monroe celluloid doctrine. Her screen persona was now full blown and propelled her into the Top 10 list of Hollywood stars.

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Call Northside 777 (1948) Henry Hathaway

20th Century Fox produced a series of semi-documentary film noirs in the late 1940′s including “Boomerang!,” “Kiss of Death,” “House on 92nd Street” and “Call Northside 777,” the last three directed by perennial hard ass Henry Hathaway. Hathaway was a studio director, a craftsman whose work was devoid of complexity, straightforward and took no crap from anyone (see my interview with Dennis Hopper biographer Peter L. Winkler who talks about Hathaway’s battle with young know it all Hopper and how he single handedly blackballed Hopper from Hollywood films.). Despite any lack of pretension in his work Hathaway directed some fine film noirs. In addition to those previously mentioned he made “The Dark Corner” and “Niagara.”

Based on a true story, “Call Northside 777″ tells the tale of Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), a Polish-American falsely accused of murdering a police officer. (1) After spending 11 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, his story is assigned to Chicago Times news reporter Mickey McNeal (Jimmy Stewart) when it comes to the attention of his editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb). Kelly had spotted a notice in the classified ad column, a $5,000 reward for information leading to the killer of a police officer back in 1932, 11 years ago, during the height of the prohibition era. McNeal follows up on the story and discovers it is Frank Wiecek’s mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazeski) a scrub woman in a office building who put up the reward saving her paltry salary ever since her son’s conviction. McNeal follows up with a visit to the Illinois State Pen where he talks to Frank only to find his story full of dead ends that cannot be proven. Frank though seems resigned to his fate, he will be spending the rest of his life in prison. Frank even told his wife Helen (Joanne De Berg) to divorce him and marry someone else so their son will have a full and happy family and not be haunted by his father’s past. After McNeal writes about the family, exposing their current lives, an incensed Frank demands they be left alone and wants the entire investigation stopped accusing McNeal of writing his story only for the newspapers’ circulation gains. He rather spend the rest of his life in prison than subject his kid and ex-wife to public scrutiny. Continue reading

Kiss of Death (1947) Henry Hathaway

    Richard Widmark in his screen debut dominates “Kiss of Death”, a fairly suspenseful film noir crime drama. As the crazed psychotic Tommy Udo, Widmark’s portrayal is just plain creepy and his performance alone makes this film a must see. The classic scene where Udo tosses wheelchair bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs still packs one a hell of a punch. The film stars Victor Mature as Nick Bianco, a small time crook who is caught after a Christmas Eve jewel robbery and sent to jail. Assistant D.A. D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) tries to persuade Bianco to name his two partners in the robbery but Nick is no stoolie. This typical hoodlum stance however results in a twenty year sentence. Three years later after a visit from Nettie Cavello, a former babysitter for Nick’s family, Nick finds out his wife committed suicide after she was attacked by Pete Rizzo, one of Nick’s accomplices in the jewel robbery. Distraught Nick decides to tell the D’Angelo everything in exchange for a visit to see his two daughters. D’Angelo arranges for Nick to tell his crooked lawyer Howser that Rizzo squealed on him. Howser hires the now free crazed killer Udo to murder Rizzo. When Tommy gets to Rizzo’s apartment, he has already fled and the only person there is his wheelchair bound mother. Upset that Rizzo escaped, Udo ties mother Rizzo to the wheelchair with telephone cord and tosses her down a flight of stairs. Now released from jail, with the help of D’Angelo, Nick marries Nettie and with the two kids, they are living an honest and clean life. However, Nick still has some debt to be paid. D’Angelo wants him to get the goods on Udo. Nick meets with Udo who takes Tommy around the town introducing him to underworld characters, revealing enough information for Nick to tell D’Angelo who can now prosecute Udo. D’Angelo wants Nick who is living under an assumed name with his family, to testify against Udo, swearing that a conviction is a sure thing. Reluctantly Nick testifies however, Udo is found not guilty and released. Now knowing that Nick was a turn coat and squealed Udo is out to kill Nick. The confrontation that follows has Nick setting up a meeting with Udo who despises squealers so much he wants to shoot Nick personally, ignoring his cohorts advise about him being a three time loser if he is caught with a fire arm.  The films ending is fairly standard stuff. Nick survives the shootout and Udo goes to jail. 

In addition, a large problem is its conflicting moral view. First, we are to root for Bianco living the criminal code and not squealing, a position most crime movies take. Then after finding out about his wife’s tragic death Nick turns stoolie and sings his way out of jail. At this point, the film now wants us to accept Nick the canary as the hero of the story.  Maybe this is the reason Udo was made such an evil despicable character so that is Nick’s canary singing does not look that bad when compared to the psychotic Tommy Udo tossing a sick old lady down a flight of stairs.

    Victor Mature is a pretty stiff actor and gives one of his typical performances as Nick Bianco. For Coleen Gray, this was the first time she received screen credit and is decent as the adoring baby sitter with a crush on Nick. Coleen had previously appeared in a couple of other films unbilled. However, as mentioned earlier this is all Richard Widmark’s film. He is just amazing as the crazed wide eyed disturbed Tommy Udo, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award. Listen and look at Widmark as Udo, the high pitched giggling voice. The hat he wears. It looks like the young Widmark here was auditioning for the role of The Joker for the next upcoming Batman movie.