The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) William Wyler

liberation-lb-jones_420Many directors have gone out with a whimper instead of a bang. Last films by filmmakers have been notoriously bad or mediocre. Now this is not a hard and set fast rule but it seems a filmmaker’s best work is not toward the end of their careers. Don Siegel ended his directing career with “Jinxed,” Sam Peckinpah with “The Osterman Weekend,” Robert Aldrich with “All the Marbles,” and Billy Wilder with “Buddy, Buddy.” Even the great Chaplin laid an egg with “A Countess from Hong Kong.” Other directors have fared somewhat better yet few will claim Hitchcock’s “Family Plot,” Howard Hawks “Rio Lobo” and John Ford’s “7 Women” are among their best. Overall, last films by directors are generally a mixed and disappointing bag. Are they just too tired? Too old? Did they lose their creative spark or maybe just a bad choice?

Now, don’t get me wrong, being old or older does not automatically mean you are over the hill. Far from it. Returning to Hitchcock for a moment, let’s remember he was 72 or 73 when he made “Frenzy,” his next to last film. More recently, Martin Scorsese turned 71 in November and has “The Wolf of Wall Street” due later this year…and he shows no signs of slowing down. And then there is Woody Allen who recently turned 78 and is still turning out fine works like his most recent, “Blue Jasmine.” It may not be at the level of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and  Misdeameanors” but the film is a remarkable, complex tale of one woman’s fall from grace and now trying  her place in a new world. Continue reading

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

Coogan’s Bluff (1968) Don Siegel

Don Siegel released two films in 1968, films bookending the changes that were happening in Hollywood, the first film representing the ending of one era and the second beginning of another. Both films are police dramas based in New York City and both films involved law officers who are troublesome renegades to their superiors. They also have some similar casting with actors, Susan Clark and Don Stroud, in both films, yet in “Madigan” starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, we are saying goodbye to Hollywood’s old guard, while with “Coogan’s Bluff” we are welcoming the future in the cool, silent gaze of Clint Eastwood. Director Don Siegel himself was kind of turning a corner in his own career going from a “B” film director to the “A” list along with what would turn out to be the start of a fruitful and professional relationship with Eastwood.  

 Siegel teamed up for the first time with Eastwood who just completed his first starring role in an American film, “Hang em’ High” and was now looking to move on to his next project, “Coogan’s Bluff,” based on a screenplay by Henry Miller, Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman. The film is a fish out of water story, a culture clash of East meets West, city slickers meet small town country boy. Call it what you will but when the boy is Clint Eastwood the shit is going to fly. Continue reading

Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin

Revenge, money and corruption drive Jules Dassin’s terrific 1949 noirish trucking drama. Written by A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly), based on his own novel, “Thieves Market,” this was Dassin’s last film made in the United States before he was blacklisted. Richard Conte is Nick Garcos, a returning Navel World War Two vet who sets out to avenge his father’s crippling accident caused by crooked produce dealer Mike Figlia played by a vicious Lee J. Cobb.  Much of the film was made on location in San Francisco’s produce and waterfront areas. Dark and gritty, Dassin is set on exposing the dark corrupt side of the produce business where people, mostly immigrants here represented by Italians, Greeks and Poles, are used for cheap labor and then as now, tossed away when no longer needed.  It’s an exploration of the unpleasant greedy side of capitalism, filled with despair and disillusionment where everyone is interested in making a dollar no matter at what cost. Everyone is out for a buck, even Nick’s “nice” fiancée Polly (Barbara Lawrence) reveals herself to driven by the almighty dollar.

Nick arrives home where he is greeted by his soon to be bride, Polly, who is clearly disappointed by the small china doll gift he brings her, that is until she finds the expensive engagement ring hanging on the doll. He then sees his father in a wheelchair, legless due to an “accident,” a result of carelessness by big shot Mike Figlia. Nick boils with rage and swears revenge. He hooks up with Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), a trucker. Using his father’s truck, they become partners. When Ed attempts to cheat some Polish Apple growers, Nick makes him honest paying a fair value. They load their valuable but fragile Apple cargo and head for San Francisco to deliver the freshly picked produce along with a little payback to Big Mike. From here on, the film becomes a dark claustrophobic nightmare filled with speed, treacherous turns, threats and violence.  In the end, Nick, an ex-G.I. happy to be home has turned into battle weary cynic who views life as nothing but an opportunity to make a buck. Money is the driving force.

Visually the film is stunning, thanks to Dassin’s working of the camera and some sharp editing. One highlight is a nicely edited series of shots, close ups inside the truck’s cab when Ed realizes the breaks on the beat up vehicle are gone and he cannot slow down. In between, we cut to two of Ed’s buddies in a second truck driving behind him, who helplessly realize he is in trouble.  A hard turn, suddenly Ed’s truck is going off the road and rolling down a hill exploding into a ball of fire. From the bottom of the hill the camera eyes the turned over truck at the lower part of the frame, apple boxes spread out all over, scattered apples still rolling down the steep hill.

In San Francisco, Nick is beaten up by Figlia’s goons. Rica (Valentina Cortese), a prostitute and Figlia associate helps mend Nick’s wounds. As Nick recuperates in Rica’s small bedroom apartment the two are constantly eyeing each other, verbally and physically sparring between mistrust and sensual desire. At times Rica is playful, other times defiant, then suddenly turning playful again. She becomes openly lustful toward Nick, surprisingly so for a film of this period. 

Unfortunately, the hand of producer Darryl F. Zanuck softened the previous ninety minutes.  Thinking the film to0 downbeat, a quickly manufactured happy ending was filmed including Nick and Rica riding off into the sunset filmed without Dassin’s involvement corrupting the hard realities of what came before. Still, “Thieves’ Highway” remains engrosing, one of Dassin’s darkest and finest films.

Note: this is a revised review that originally appeared in the now defunct Halo-17.

Boomerang! (1947) Elia Kazan

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    A Priest is shot and killed one evening on the streets of Stamford, Connecticut. Based on a true story in   Reader’s Digest, written by Richard Oursler, director Elia Kazan, in this 1947 film focuses on the investigation and accusation of an innocent man, a homeless ex-serviceman trying to get his life together, who is accused of this infamous murder. Filmed mainly in Stamford with mostly non-professional actors except for the leading roles, produced by Louis de Rochemont, and released by 20th Century Fox, the film has a semi-documentary style similar to the previously released “House on 92nd Street” and the then forthcoming “The Street with No Name”, both released by Fox.

    The film’s opening statement informs the audience that this is a true story filmed in the actual locations. As with most films even when claiming the story you are about to see is true the facts are at least somewhat distorted. The actual crime took place Bridgeport, Connecticut not Stamford where most of the film was made. Additionally, the real life crime took place more than two decades earlier, in 1924, than it is recorded here. The move to Stamford was due to the reluctance of the town of Bridgeport to allow 20th Century Fox to film in their streets, subsequently Stamford was used as a substitute.

 Boomerang_R1_00407_ff   The murder of Father Lambert is quick and sudden right as the film begins. We are barely two minutes into the film proper when a gun is put to the back of the pastor’s head and the trigger is pulled. Even today, it is a shocking beginning.  “Witnesses” seem to be everywhere though the camera only shows the murder suspect from the back wearing a dark overcoat and a light hat which in late 1940’s America was just about every man in the street.

    Flashbacks, with the assistance of a narrator reveal how beloved the minister was by all. We see him interact with his flock in several situations including, as we will soon discover, one individual who will become the alleged suspect, John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy). We also see a conversation the pastor has with another individual who he demands seeks help for his mental condition. If he refuses, the pastor will make the call himself. The man is plainly upset at what the pastor is attempting to do and as we shall realize provides a hint, and a motive, at whom the real murderer could be.

     As the days pass by without an arrest, the police are criticized by the local newspaper for not making any progress in the case stating city hall is running around like chickens without a head.  Finally, eighteen days after the crime, the suspect John Waldron is apprehended in Ohio, where he went searching for a job, and is brought back to Connecticut. A harsh police interrogation coerces a confession out of Waldron. Early on, during the interrogation, Waldron had asked for a lawyer and Police Chief Harold Robinson (Lee J Cobb) tells him there is plenty of time for a lawyer later on. So much for civil rights. The evidence against Waldon seems solid. He is picked out of a lineup by local citizens who witnessed the shooting. The gun that fired the bullet was found in his possession and of course, he confessed, signing with the assistance of the police department’s interrogation techniques.Boomerang_1

    State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) is presenting the case. The local warring politicians want Waldron convicted, whether he is guilty or not does not seem to be an issue. Harvey’s cronies are encouraging him to run for Governor, only he has to win this case. While the evidence at first seems solid against Waldron as Harvey begins to review and test the evidence he finds it is not as sound as originally presented. The “witnesses” are as not as perfect as first thought. When the case goes to court, Harvey goes against the political heavyweights demanding conviction, as his doubts about the guilt of the accused mounts.    

    In  Boomerang!  corrupt politicians are purely out for there own gains or protection. The townspeople want justice i.e. revenge for the death of their beloved minister even if the wrong man is convicted. The police department is squeezed in the middle being pressured by both the politicians and the public for “justice.”  For Kazan, this was the first time he touched on the subject of corruption, a topic he would revisit in more detail in later films. Here, he seems to be somewhat restrained maybe still believing that most political officials were honest and decent folks with no personal agendas. Kazan was still in the early stages of his film career and “Boomerang!”  was pretty much a job for hire.  What Boomerang! did do for Kazan was introduce him to the benefits and realism of shooting on location, freeing him of the studio bound restrictions of his first two films. Location shooting would be something he would pursue in his best works, films like “On the Waterfront”, “Panic in the Streets” “Viva Zapata”, “Wild River” and others. Kazan does credit Boomerang!” for setting the tone of his development and style as a filmmaker. In Jeff Young’s interview book “The Master Director Discusses His Films”, Kazan states, In “Boomerang!” I think, is the basis for “Panic in the Streets” and in “Panic in the Streets” is the basis for “On the Waterfront.” If you see these three films together, you’ll see the development.”   

    The acting highlight is the young Arthur Kennedy as the ex-veteran  John Waldron who previously worked with Kazan in the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in the role of Biff Loman. Of course, part of that same cast in that brilliant work was Lee J. Cobb who played Willy Loman. Cobb would lose out to Fredric March in the 1951 film version of  “Death of a Salesman”, but would get the chance some 15 years later to put his mark on film in a 1966 TV production for which he won an Emmy. Cobb owns the role of Willy Loman like Brando owns “A Streetcar Named Desire.”     

 200px-Boomerang%21  Kazan was comfortable with Cobb and Kennedy, actors from the same theater background as himself, as opposed to Hollywood trained actors like Dana Andrews and Jane Wyatt. This is reflected on screen with Andrews particularly comes off as if his is “acting.” He seems a bit stiff and unnatural as opposed to Cobb and Kennedy’s organic performances. This clash in performing styles is made obvious in scenes where the opposing actors appear together. Sam Levene is the local newspaper reporter who writes hard-hitting articles attacking the police amateur style investigation of the crime. Also, look for another Kazan favorite, an early unbilled appearance by Karl Malden as one of the detectives.  Finally, playwright Arthur Miller, has a small role as one of the suspects in the lineup.  

    As the film ends the narrator announces that the character of States Attorney Henry Harvey was based on that of Homer Cummings who would go on the become Attorney General of the United States under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    “Boomerang!” is not first class Kazan, here he was still learning his craft. That said, the film is his first that deals with the social issues that would consume most of his future work, issues that would be explored in more detail in films like “Gentlemen’s Agreement”,  “On the Waterfront”, “Wild River” and “A Face in the Crowd.” “Boomerang!”  remains a solid if not spectacular piece of work.

Classic Film Alert on May 2nd

On May 2nd two must see films will be making rare appearances on the Fox Movie Channel and TCM.  First up is Jules Dassin’s classic film noir “Thieves Highway” on Saturday May 2nd at 11:30AM and again on May 13th at 9:45AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection “Thieves Highway” is Dassin right in the middle of his best period with “The Naked City” and “Brute Force” behind him and “Night and the City” and “Riffifi” still to come. This was Dassin final American film until his rare 1968 film “Up Tight”,  a black cast remake of  “The Informer.”

Here’s a review I wrote for Halo-17.

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Later that same day, TCM will broadcast the 1932 classic prison drama, Mervyn LeRoy’s  “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” at 8PM. A repeat broadcast is scheduled for June 20th at 7:15AM.  Based on a true story this is one of Warner Brothers classic social dramas that they did so well back then.

Here’s a quick link to the review I wrote a short while back.

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Don’t miss the chance to see this two classic works.