Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) Roy Ward Baker

1952 was an important year in Marilyn Monroe’s career, a Life magazine cover, photographed by Phillip Halsman, her nude calendar photos, originally published a year or two before were reissued and became a scandal that only helped her career plus the release of five films, including her first leading role. The first three films were released within a month of each other. In Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night,” for which Marilyn was loaned out to RKO, she had a small but impressive role dressed mostly in a swimsuit. This was followed by a five minute appearance in “We’re Not Married,” a multi cast film with little to offer and then came “Don’t Bother to Knock,” along with “Niagara” the darkest roles in the Monroe catalog.  Later the same year came “O’Henry’s Full House” another multi cast film in which Marilyn appeared in one segment and “Monkey Business” a comedy starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. In this film Marilyn played the kind of part she already came to hate, the dumb blonde.

In “Don’t Bother to Knock,” Monroe’s character is a young disturbed woman recently released from a mental institution who gets a job, through her uncle, as a babysitter for a young girl.  Considering Monroe’s mental history, and eventual suicide, plus her mother’s illness, it would seem this film could have hit very close to home for the young and upcoming actress as well as being prophetic. It is also arguably one of her best dramatic performances. Continue reading

Short Takes: Bogart, Bacall and Widmark Times Two

This week’s short takes are not a particularly great bunch. Like most bloggers I tend to write about the films I love, or at least like. I decided that’s not fair; makes every film that is considered “classic” sound great. They are not. This group is not necessarily horrible, except for one; another is mediocre and another is just decent. Now mediocrity can be enjoyable on some levels, recently I have been watching some low budget Boston Blackie films from Columbia Pictures which have been on TCM every weekend. They are light hearted, a bit corny, but enjoyable pieces of detective fluff. Blackie, as played by Chester Morris, is the only one with any brains, and in every film has to prove his innocence to the two dumb and dumber detectives who see him as a one man crime wave. You see, Blackie was a former jewel thief, now gone straight. At best, these films are fair, lightweight entertainment. Classic? Well, I guess it all goes down to your definition of classic, which by the way, has been discussed recently by some members of CMBA and there is a particularly good posting on the subject by Gilby of  Random Ramblings of a Broadway, Film and TV Fan.  Anyway below are this week’s short takes. classics or not. Continue reading

Road House (1948) Jean Negulesco

“Road House” is one of those films that could possibly be classified as a noir or a melodrama ,still the look, the style,  especially in the second half of the film makes it hard to deny its film noir lineage. This is especially due to cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Psycho) ominous lighting crammed with and fog and darkness in the climatic final scenes.  The plot is a ménage a trios right from hell, two men in love with a beautiful woman. A tawdry tale filled with booze, smokes and unrequited desires. Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark) has just hired Lily Stevens, bringing her in from Chicago, to sing at his roadhouse located a couple of miles from the Canadian border. Jefty’s long time friend, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) manages the place for him and sees Lily as just another in a long line of babes Jefty has hired and Pete has to fire after Jefty gets tired of them.

Jefty inherited the roadhouse from his father. While he may not be a spoiled rich kid, he seems to be someone who has had everything handed to him without much effort on his part and when he tires of any possession they get disposed of, women included. For Jefty, Lily though is different, he wants to marry her though she has displayed no interest or given any encouragement to him on her part.    

Pete takes an instant dislike to Lily; however after Jefty goes off with some friends for a few days on a hunting trip they get to spend time together and fall in love.  When Jefty returns with a marriage license all set to marry Lily he is instead confronted by Pete who tells him he and Lily are in love.  Jefty, who up to this point in the film has been a regular guy, suddenly metamorphoses’ into Tommy Udo, Widmark’s psychotic gangster in “Kiss of Death.”  Jefty frames Pete for a robbery at the roadhouse, getting him convicted and facing a two to ten year stretch in prison, only to convince the Judge just before sentencing, to suspend the sentence on the condition that Pete serves two years on probation in Jefty’s charge.  Jefty’s maniacal games attempting to control Pete and Lily’s lives eventually leads to a deadly and decisive chase through the woods as they approach the Canadian border.

Ida Lupino has top billing and earns it! She is smart, tough, sexy, vulnerable and all shades in between, a no-nonsense, hard bitten, tough woman whose backstory one must assume is filled with a pocketbook full of bad dreams. Our first shot of her is in Pete Morgan’s office, her bare leg up on his desk, a cigarette dangling from her sensuous lips as she plays solitaire.  Lupino even does her own singing and frankly her voice is limited though if you have ever been in a similar small town joint like Jefty’s you have probably seen worst. Give her credit for not insisting on a voice dubbing. Among her four or five songs is the classic “One for My Baby, One More for the Road.” My only complaint with Lupino is her Princess Leia hairdo that she wore throughout the film. It reminds me of another noir hair disaster, the Barbara Stanwcyk blonde wig in the otherwise magnificent “Double Indemnity.” One has to wonder in both cases, what the filmmakers were they thinking.   As for Cornel Wilde, the best that can be said is that he is stiff.

 

 In only his third film Widmark who had fourth billing battles Lupino for who is going to steal the show. I would say Lupino owns the first half of the film but once Widmark releases his inner Tommy Udo in the second half, it is all Richard. Celeste Holms is the fourth member of the cast. As Susie, she works for Jefty at the roadhouse and has had a crush on Pete. She also has some of the best lines in the early part of the film.  When Sam the bartender (Jack G. Lee), after hearing Lily sing for the first time says, “Hey, Susie, What do you think of this one? She something, isn’t she? Susie’ sarcastically responds “If you like the sound of gravel”    She also tells Jefty “She does more without a voice than anybody I ever heard.”    The screenplay is courtesy of Edward Chodorov based on a story called “Dark Love” by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul which was originally commissioned by Lupino.

If anything hinders “Road House” it is the artificial setting which today stand out as typical movie sets. Coming from a studio that in the past year or so prior to this film released realistic location shot films like “Boomerang!”, “The Naked City” and “Call Northside 777″ makes it a bit disappointing . Still the film’s storyline leads to a good climax and the performances by Lupino and Widmark along the some nice photography make this a film well worth seeing.

****

Night and the City (1950) Jules Dassin

Harry Fabian is on the run and so was director Jules Dassin. “Night and the City” is dark unsympathetic masterpiece, uncompromising right down to its bleak ending. Even the film’s title is one of the most noirish, containing two essential elements of film noir.

“Night and the City” is one of a string of wonderfully directed film noirs Dassin made in the late 1940’s and into the early 1950’s. “Brute Force”, “The Naked City”, “Thieves Highway”, “Riffi” and this Richard Widmark marathon run. Dassin’s first European film, caps an unbelievable string of cinematic home runs that remain tough to beat. With his career in the United States over due to the McCarthy witch hunts, Dassin in exile, made his way to England, with the backing of 20th Century Fox, jumping into production on this dark morose tale of a small time scam artist who spent his life looking for his one big break.  Dassin’ s post war London is cold, wet, Dickensian with remnants of the war torn city still clearly visible. From the opening scenes at St. Paul’s Cathedral where we first see Fabian running in the night to the final scenes at the Hammersmith Bridge where Fabian’s journey ends, London is portrayed as an inhospitable gloomy place. This is all achieved with  Dassin’s use of his camera; the angles, the strategic placement of the lens all accomplished with the talented assistance of cinematographer Mel Greene.

Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian gives us his most definitive role. Dressed in flashy plaid sports jackets, tellingly saying to the world his is a sharpie while in truth, Fabian is a scam artist, an ugly American, a nobody who wants to be somebody out for his own big score and unconcerned about the bodies left behind. Even Mary (Gene Tierney), the girl who loves him is a victim to Fabian’s hucksterism. In the end there is no victory, no escape, no redemption for Fabian, he tried to take on the London underworld and lost.

Widmark once said in an interview, what he remembers most about this film is that he did a lot of running. He does. According to Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon in the book, The Rough Guide to Film Noir, for Fabian’s final run near the Hammersmith Bridge, Dassin and cinematographer Max Greene with only about a half hour of light left used six cameras and “completed a staggering twenty two shots in eighteen minutes.”

At the time of its release the film was not well received. The late Bosley Crowther, the premiere film critic at the New York Times for 27 years,  said after first praising Jules Dassin’s recent work on “The Naked City” and “Thieves Highway” called “Night and the City “a pointless, trashy yarn, and the best he (Dassin) has to accomplish is a turgid pictorial grotesque.”  As usually is the case Mr. Crowther has delivered a pompous bizarre review. Later on in his review he downplays Widmark’s performance, now considered one of his finest. Crowther seemed let his prejudices, dictate his criticism; his dislike of violence in film or display of political beliefs (right or left) always seemed to color his reviews. Today, “Night and the City” is considered a noir essential, a wicked masterpiece of dark cinema and Widmark’s performance is one of his finest.

Based on a novel by Gerald Kersh, “Night and the City” was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as Harry Fabian, now a scheming lawyer and Jessica Lange. London was replaced with New York, a good choice, but the film remains ordinary and inferior to the original.

*****

 

Remembering Six Who Won’t Be Forgotten

 

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    The notable deaths in 2008 seem merciless. Young, middle age and old, death took no prisoners. Here are six passings that affected me deeply

    The world is going to be a different place without George Carlin explaining the quirks in our language and how we go about our life and yes, those seven words you can never say of television (unless its HBO). The music will not be the same without Jerry Wexler, who along with Ahmet Ertegun was responsible for producing some of the finest soul music ever recorded on the great Atlantic Records label. Artists included Aretha Franklin, Wilson “Wickett” Pickett, Ray Charles,The Drifters and  in 1968, Wexler signed Led Zeppelin to the Atlantic label. Sunday mornings will shine less bright without Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” Russert pulled no punches and asked the hard questions no matter what side of the political fence his guest sat on. Director Jules Dassin whose films “Brute Force”, “The Naked City”, “Night and the City” and “Thieves Highway” are treasures for film noir lovers. Actor Richard Widmark whose career-making role as Johnny Udo, the crazed psychotic killer in the 1947 film “Kiss of Death” is a landmark in crime movies. The famous scene where he pushes the old lady down a flight of stairs is still shocking fifty years later. Last but far from least, I am going to miss Paul Newman, the last great superstar of the last century. Starting out as an imitation Marlon Brando and James Dean, Newman’s career reached levels that neither of his counterparts ever did. Goodbye Fast Eddie.

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.