Duck Soup (1933) Leo McCarey

“Revolution for the Hell of It,” Abbie Hoffman wrote back in the late 1960′s but he was way too late in his call. Some thirty five years earlier the Marx Brothers blew the lid off turning rebellion into a mischievous art form in Leo McCarey’s masterpiece of mayhem, “Duck Soup.” Marxist chaos rules in the land of Freedonia.

It is difficult to imagine what a depression era audience; the film was made in 1933, made of the pandemonium being presented to them on screen. Like in all previous films, the Marx Brothers have no respect for anything. All positions of authority are targets for ridicule. Anti-politics, anti-war, anti-authority; as Groucho once sang in an earlier film (Horse Feathers), “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” To the Marx Brothers it was all fodder for their antics to exploit the self-righteous, the rich, and the pompous and most all themselves. Continue reading

Devil’s Doorway (1950) Anthony Mann

 

This article may contain Spoilers

From his very first western Anthony Mann gave us complex adult narratives. Mann’s characters are too complicated to be just good or bad, like real people there are all shades of gray in between.  Released the same year as Delmar Daves “Broken Arrow”, “Devil’s Doorway” tells us a story or proud people who through laws, white man’s laws lose their land, their dignity and ultimately their lives.    

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), a Shoshone Indian returns home from serving in the Union Army during the Civil War where he rose to the rank of  a Sergeant Major and more importantly, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. He comes home believing the world has changed and that and he and his fellow Indians will be treated fairly no longer subject to prejudice. Five years later Lance has built a big cattle ranch in a water abundant area and has become a rich man which we soon find out some local white folks resent.  With the new Homestead Act coming into force, under the law an Indian is not considered an American citizen but rather a ward of the federal government, subsequently as a non-citizen Lance is not entitled to file a claim on the land that is his own. He will lose everything. Lance seeks the help of a female lawyer (Paula Raymond) but each of their attempts to secure his land or keep the peace between incoming sheepherders and the Indians is instigated by Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), a shyster lawyer with big aspirations in his head and racism in his heart. It all leads to a climactic battle where there are no winners.

Along with “Broken Arrow”, “Devil’s Doorway” was a major change in how Native-Americans were portrayed on the screen. Instead of the stereotypical savage whooping it up, Mann and his screenwriters, portray  Lance Poole as a three dimensional character with dignity and pride. As with most of Mann’s characters Lance is a complicated individual, a good man who wants justice but can be unjust at the same time, for example when he is not willing to share the land with the sheepherders becoming almost as responsible as the others for the forthcoming  violence.

Like most of Mann’s westerns this is a dark film, one in particular that retains the  film noir characteristics of his earlier works. The DP was John Alton who worked with Mann on many of his earlier atmospheric film noirs in the 1940′s (Border Incident, Raw Deal, T-Men). Alton’s camera and lighting are evident in many scenes including a harshly lit barroom brawl between Lance and one of lawyer Verne Coolan’s thugs.  This scene is filled with tight close-ups, dramatically effective lighting, including lightning and thunder, all contributing to the noirish quality. Also note the exquisite black and white landscape photography shot on location in Colorado. This is one of the most beautifully photographed westerns made, visually stunning reminding me of Ansel Adams photographs. Sadly, this would be the last collaboration between these two men.

One of the stumbling blocks in the film is the need to get over Robert Taylor portraying an Indian. His facial structure just looks different from the other Indian characters in the film (some actors were actually Native-Americans) whereas Taylor just seems to have an overly sunburned face. That said, he handles the role admirably for an actor I have always considered limited in his abilities.

Like the female lawyer who attempts to help Lance keep his land, both are outsiders, he an Indian and she a female in a man’s profession out west trying to hide her identity by hanging a sign that reads A. Masters. Lance exposes his own prejudice when he first enters her office and realizes she is a woman. He practically runs out, then suddenly stops and returns, a telling moment. Masters on the other hand is concerned on how handling an Indian’s case will affect her already shaky standing in the community. They slowly come to “trust” each other. When she helps fill out the form so Lance can file a claim she discovers he fought in three major battles during the war and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Little do both realize at the time his biggest battle was still to come.

Mann is also more daring in attempting to reflect a sexual attraction between the two outsiders. When Lance wants to know how much she really trusts and likes him, he puts his arms around her and pulls her close daring her to kiss him. The desire is there but she holds back from going “all the way.” The sexual frustration is evident on her face.  After the final battle is lost, a badly wounded Lance surrenders to the soldiers, he gives up wearing his Army uniform with the Medal of Honor on his chest. He receives a salute from the Captain. He salutes back and falls forward dead.  

Though the treatment of Native-American’s was dealt with more respect in “Broken Arrow” than earlier films it remained a traditional western and became a major hit. The James Stewart character is himself attracted to the Indian Squaw (played by Debra Paget) this certainly would reflect a more acceptable romance for the masses than a white woman’s attraction to a male Indian as portrayed in Mann’s more risky film. “Devil’s Doorway” was released later in the year, a less traditional film it died a quick box office death.

****1/2

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston

Note: There are spoilers in the article.

Everyone has a weakness and if you let it consume you it just might do you in.  Young girls, expensive living, horses, it does not matter, they can all become vices and destroy you. That what happens to the various characters in John Huston’s classic caper film “The Asphalt Jungle.” Written by Huston and Ben Maddow based a  novel by W.R. Burnett whose tough yet effortless style is responsible for such other memorable films like “Little Caesar” and “High Sierra.”

“The Asphalt Jungle” is the first caper movie to detail in a realistic gritty style, a step by step process on how to pull off a heist job.  It definitely set the standards for future heist films to come like  “Rififi”, “The Killing”, “The Anderson Tapes”, “The Usual Suspects”, “Reservoir Dogs”  and even a lesser film like “Ocean’s 11″ all of which owe a debt of gratitude to this film. The characters that we are now familiar with in so many other heist films are all there, the brains behind the plan,  the brawn,  the safe cracker, the getaway guy, the stoolie, and the double-crosser who wants everything for himself. The women are there too, Doll (Jean Hagen) and Angela (Marilyn Monroe) whose biggest weaknesses are they love their men too much.

Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is just out of prison and wants to pull a big heist, one he had planned long before being sent away. He hooks up with a small time bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence) who brings in the money man, a slimy lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who is actually in debt, has a beautiful and very young mistress, despite being married. Her name is Angela (Marilyn Monroe) and she has expensive taste. Emmerich and his thug partner Bannerman (Brad Dexter) convince Cobby to put up the front money, you see they have plans to steal the jewels from Doc and company and fence it on their own. Doc brings in Dix (Sterling Hayden) as strong arm, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) as the pro safecracker and Gus (James Whitmore), as the getaway guy. The heist goes well except during the getaway, Louis is critically wounded. This is the first of a series of actions that unravel a “perfect plan.” Gus is soon picked up by the police, Cobby turns stoolie after being beaten up by a former friendly corrupt cop. Dix will kill Bannerman when he and Emmerich try to take the jewels, however, Dix is wounded himself from a shot Bannerman got off before dying. When the cops come to pick up Emmerich at his house he commits suicide. Doc decides to get out of town heading for Cleveland but is picked up by two police officers at a pit stop when he waited a few minutes too long before moving on, drooling over a young teenage girl dancing to music on a juke box. Dix plan is to head back to his home in Kentucky. He and his girl Doll (Jean Hagen) take off but that wound is still bleeding, and as he reaches the ranch he collapses and dies in his field of dreams.  

From the first shots where we pick up Dix roaming the dark deserted city streets trying to avoid the police to the approximately 10 minutes heist scene, to the final scenes where Doc and then Dix meet their fate Huston films it all with  a commanding  intensity and strong atmospheric camerawork, extracting a series of fine performances from the cast.

The plan is done in by the weaknesses of the men. Doc would have escaped from the city had his weakness for young girls not held him back a few extra minutes. He had to watch the young teen girl boogie to the tunes on the juke box. Emmerich was simply done in by greed, a common theme in Huston films (Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon). Even Dix had to try to make it back to his old Kentucky home and the horses he loved only to die trying.

Huston cast the film with a fine group of actors but there was no star power. For Sterling Hayden, this was his first leading role in a major film. Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and Jean Hagen were known entities but lacked marquee strength. Marilyn Monroe was still a starlet in what was essentially her first important part in a major film. She was not even Huston’s first choice for the role of Angela; he originally wanted Lola Albright for the part. Monroe does not have much screen time as the young play thing to the sleaze ball lawyer but she manages to make a big impression with her limited exposure and she looks great.

In 1958, a western called “The Badlanders”(available via Warners Archive Collection) starring Alan Ladd was a loose remake. An even looser version was tried as a TV show in 1961. Basically, they used the title and changed everything else turning it into a standard cops and robbers series.  Needless to say, the show did not last long.  Other remakes include a 1963 film called “Cairo”, with George Sanders, and in 1972, a blaxploitation version called “Cool Breeze” was released with a cast that included Pam Grier. 

The film received four Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.  Interesting enough MGM had two other films they pushed for best picture that year, “Father of the Bride” and unbelievably “King Solomon’s Mines” were both nominated.

Overall, “The Asphalt Jungle” holds up very well retaining a sense of realism, three dimensional characters, darkly lit noirish lighting, and claustrophobic close-ups. The film is more visually representative of Warner’s ripped from the front pages of newspapers 1930′s style than the glossy films you would expect from MGM.

Watch this film and you will see everything that is missing in the unrealistic thrill seeking super acrobatic capers that today’s stars like Tom Cruise and others attempt to entertain us with in multiplexes.

****1/2

Notorious (1946) Alfred Hitchcock

Who ever said Alfred Hitchcock was not a romantic? After all, what could be more romantic than the final scenes in “Notorious” where we see Cary Grant coming to Ingrid Bergman’s rescue just in time to take her away from the murdering Nazi Claude Rains. True for the past two hours Grant forced Ingrid to whore herself  by playing a 20th Century Mata Hari, seducing and sleeping with Rains in order to obtain secret information. He then resents her for agreeing to do this and hates himself for forcing her do it. Yep, no one knew how to treat a woman like Mr. Hitchcock, just ask Janet Leigh in “Psycho” or Grace Kelly in “Dial M for Murder.”

“Notorious” is a dark perverted love story. It is also a story of espionage, spies, murder and sex with Grant and Bergman as two of the most glamorous spies this side of James Bond, and wouldn’t have Grant made a great James Bond. In this seductive tale, Bergman is Alicia Huberman, daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, though Alicia herself is a patriotic American, a party girl who loves to drink and has a reputation for promiscuity, which just happens to make her a perfect choice for a dirty job planned by American agents (CIA, FBI?).  Agent Devlin (Grant) is selected to recruit her, by seduction if necessary, for the delicate mission. He does his job well, a little too well as she falls in love with him. One romantic evening, Devlin breaks the news on what she has been recruited to do. They want her to go to Rio de Janeiro where a known Nazi spy ring has congregated. There she is to ingratiate herself into the home and life of the spy rings leader, one Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a man she has previously met. In a subtle (remember this is 1946) but still clear way, Devlin tells her to do what it takes, even to sleep with Sebastian if need be, to find out what he and his cohorts are up too.  Reluctantly she agrees. In love with Devlin, she practically pleads with him to tell her not to go through with this mission but Devlin never says the magic words, he has his orders. Poor Devlin, our dark hero is conflicted; he has feelings for Alicia yet resents her for accepting the job and hates himself for not stopping her.

 And so, Alicia not only sleeps with Sebastian, she marries him when forced to prove her love when jealousies arise.  During a reception in Sebastian’s home, to which Devlin was invited, he and Alicia make their way down to the wine cellar where by chance discover uranium hidden in wine bottles. A short time later, Sebastian goes toward the cellar to retrieve more wine for the party and spots the couple. When Devlin realizes Sebastian is watching them he puts his arms around Alicia and kisses her hoping to draw Sebastian’s thoughts away from thinking they are spying. Sebastian is not fooled and to his dismay realizes he foolishly married an American spy. Mortified that he has been duped, and scared of what would potentially happen if his cohorts found out, he acquiesces to his mother’s devious plan to get rid of Alicia by slowly poisoning her. When Devlin discovers Alicia is in danger he goes to Sebastian’s house, rescuing Alicia just in the nick of time from her slow demise, and in turn leaves Sebastian and his mother to face their fellow Nazi’s and most certain death.       

Cary Grant has played his share of dark characters, especially with Hitchcock. Here Grant plays Devlin the American agent as unlikable, cold, calculating and cruel, pimping the woman he has fallen in love with to sleep with another man. Alicia marries Sebastian partially in spite to get back at Devlin for forcing her into this life. She loves Devlin but willingly sleeps with Sebastian. Devlin loves Alicia but encourages her to seduce Sebastian (all for God and Country). Sebastian, a hen-pecked mama’s boy desires Alicia and resents Devlin. Hitchcock, ever the little devil makes Sebastian the Nazi come across as the gentler, more considerate, loving and more likable man while Devlin, our alleged hero is cold and despicable forcing the woman he loves to cheapen herself.

“Notorious” is one of Hitchcock’s most visually stunning films, brilliantly photographed with exquisitely arranged camera work. In a very early scene we  see Alicia waking up the following morning from an alcoholic binge to find Devlin at her bedroom door with the camera, from her POV spinning 180 degrees to simulate her hangover. There is a superb crane shot during the reception scene at Sebastian’s home where Hitchcock’s camera begins at the top of the stairs and slowly zooms in and down to first floor continuing to an extreme close up of Alicia’s hand and a key (to the cellar) she is holding. Then of course, there is the famous kissing scene where Hitchcock out foxed the censors with their rule of  “no kisses lasting longer than three seconds” which he managed to make more erotic than the most blatantly steamy scenes we see in today’s films.  Needless to say, “Notorious” is a beautifully choreographed film.

You can add Sebastian to the list Hitchcock’s mama’s boys, which include Roger Thornhill in “North by Northwest” along with good old Norman Bates. Speaking of “Psycho” Hitchcock  uses a similar opening here with  the location, time and date appearing on the screen, as he would use again  in opening scene of the  1960 horror classic. Hitchcock was forced to change the ending by Selznick. In early versions of the script Alicia dies, Hitchcock does manage to come up with a “happy ending” that is still one of the smoothest, thrilling and satisfying ending. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in 1946, and was an immediate hit. The story was exciting and had the audiences smoking with the sexual heat generated between the two stars.  

*****

Blonde Crazy (1931) Del Ruth

blonde-crazy-vhs1

    Over the years, there have been plenty of movies about grifters, confidence men, scam artist and flim flam men. Think David Mamet’s “House of  Games”, Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise”, “The Grifters”, “Confidence”, “The Flim Flam Man” and “The Sting” just to name a few. An early entry in this sub genre, just to give it a category, is Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 film “Blonde Crazy.” Starring James Cagney, who would play a scam artist again a couple of years later in Merlyn LeRoy’s “Hard to Handle”,  and Joan Blondell along with Louis Calhern and Noel Francis, “Blonde Crazy” is a lively, witty and entertaining piece of pre-code cinema that is enhanced by the screen chemistry of its two stars.

    Fresh off his career-making role in “The Public Enemy” Cagney is Bert Harris, a bellhop and small time grifter working in a hotel in a small mid-western town. In walks Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell) looking for a job as a chambermaid. Bert eyes her lasciviously and decides it worth having her around. He arranges for the last recently filled chambermaid position to be vacated and for Ann to get the position. Looking for Ann to be ever so grateful, he arranges for her to come up to an empty room in the hotel so they can be along and she can demonstrate just how thankful she is.  Instead, Bert gets a slap in his face, one of many he will receive from Ann.

 01westlake_6501   Despite Bert’s fresh attitude Ann soon hooks up with him and do their first con together scamming a hotel guest. They soon are off to a big Midwestern city where they meet Dapper Dan Barber (Louis Calhern) and Helen (Noel Francis) two big time con artists they team up with only to be swindled out of five thousand dollars by both of them.  Ann meets rich Wall Street investor Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland)  who is everything Bert is not, successful in an honest job, has friends who are into the arts. Joe is the kind of guy Ann would like to settle down with. However, there is a score to settle with Dapper Dan, and Ann comes up with a successful sting of her own that will get their money back from him.  Bert now wants to marry Ann, but she has fallen in love with Joe. They soon marry while Bert looks on.

    One year later Bert is living in a small apartment when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Ann, and it seems that honest Joe is not that law-abiding. Ann explains that Joe has embezzled thirty thousand dollars in unregistered bonds from his company.  Ann wants to borrow money from Bert so Joe can pay back the firm. Only problems is, Bert is broke. After Ann married Joe, Bert quit grifting. Still stuck on Ann he comes up with a plan to help her husband only to be double-crossed by Joe when he notifies the police and Bert is caught in the act and arrested. Ann realizing she is love with Joe, who now faces years behind bars, swears her love and promising she will wait for him.   

   blondecraz Up until the phony happy ending “Blonde Crazy” is unencumbered by censorship. There’s plenty of spicy dialogue delivered by many in the cast. Racy scenes include Cagney ogling Blondell’s body when she first arrives at the hotel looking for work, Blondell discreetly naked taking a bath giving the audience, if not Cagney, a partial view of the right side of her breast. We also have Cagney inspecting Blondell’s panties and bra to find where she hides her money (in her bra). Considering all this, why the filmmakers felt that Cagney had to pay for his sins with jail time is a mystery and Blondell as the woman promising to wait for him has been done so many times since it has become a cliché. Despite this, the film is a real pleasure to watch. Cagney and Blondell, in their fourth of seven films they made together are a perfect match as comfortable together as a pair of well-worn shoes. I don’t think the fast talking Cagney ever had a better match than the wise cracking sassy Joan Blondell.

    The Cagney persona that became so recognized was not yet fully developed at this point in his career. There are scenes early in the film that seem a little off kilter coming from Mr. Cagney. For example, the first half or so of the film is comedic and Cagney’s character, Bert, keeps greeting the ladies with a loud uncharacteristic “Hello Honeeeeeey!”  Later in the film, as it turns more serious, shades of the Cagney persona emerge that we know so well. This does not deter from the film, it is more just an interesting point as you watch Cagney’s career and persona develop from these early films to the classic Cagney we know so well.  

    Written by the team of Kubee Glasmon and John Bright who also wrote or had a hand in writing  “The Public Enemy”, Three on a Match”, “Smart Money”, “Union Depot”, “Taxi” and “The Crowd Roars”, all films that costarred both or at least either Cagney and Blondell. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, one of Warner Brother’s studio directors the film is solidly made. Del Ruth made some of his best films during the pre code period under the Warner Brothers banner. Later in his career, his films became more uneven with atrocious work like “The Babe Ruth Story” and “The Alligator People” mixed in somewhat more successful films like “West Point Story” and a lot of TV work. 

  blondecrazy-still1  “Blonde Crazy” opened in New York at the Strand Theater on Broadway in early December and was a triumph at the box office guaranteeing Cagney’s and Blondell’s continued success. According Matthew Kennedy in his recent biography “Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes” Blondell, like Cagney, went from one film to another with little or no breaks in between. The Warner Brothers ran their studio like a factory. In just over a year since she was signed to a contract, Joan made twelve movies! Cagney, a huge star now with the success of “The Public Enemy” decided that after “Blonde Crazy” he wanted more money than his current contract with Warners was paying. When Warners refused, he walked out on his contract. Again, according to Matthew Kennedy, Cagney told Blondell she should do the same thing and demand more money. Insecure with no hit under her belt the size of “The Public Enemy” and responsible for supporting her family, Blondell stayed and continued to work. Cagney would return with a huge increase in pay while Joan continued to receive her contracted salary.    

    “Blonde Crazy” was released on VHS years ago as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood” series that came out in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, there is no sign of a DVD release. Maybe, if we are lucky some creative studio executive with get a brilliant idea and release a box set of Cagney/Blondell films, all seven of them!