Tight Spot (1955) Phil Karlson

What I do not understand is why this film is so little known today. Director Phil Karlson put together a terrific little crime thriller. Based on a Broadway play called “Dead Pigeon” by Lenard Kantor, with a screenplay by William Bowers, “Tight Spot” stars Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith. Playwright Kantor used as inspiration for his play the true life incident of Senator Estes Kefauver’s strategy in intimidating Virginia Hill to testify against Bugsy Siegel. 

    The film shows its theatrical roots by being about 90% confined to a hotel room where Sherry Conley (Rogers) a convict is being held in protective custody as a witness in the exportation trial of a mob leader named Costain (Lorne Greene). Detective Vince Striker (Keith) has been assigned to guard Conley along with women’s prison matron, Willoughby (Katherine Anderson). Lloyd Hallet (Robinson), the D.A. is trying to convince the hard case Conley to testify against Mafia chief Costain. She is their last chance to get him after their star witness was gunned down on the courthouse steps in the first scenes in the film. Conley is an uncooperative hard case who keeps refusing to testify until Willoughby is killed by one of Costain’s henchmen. Striker who it turns out, is a crooked cop informing for Costain sets up Conley to be killed by leaving a bathroom window open for one of Costain’s gunmen to enter and kill Conley. Nervous and also realizing that during their time together he has feelings now for Conley, Striker burst into the bedroom as the assassin is entering killing the gunman but getting shot himself.  Though too old for the role, Ginger Rogers comes off terrific as the tough wrongly convicted convict Sherry Conley. Edward G. Robinson is his usual steady self, giving a fine performance, as do Brian Keith and Lorne Greene, old Pa Cartwright himself, playing the mob leader on the verge of exportation. Phil Karlson, one of  the “B” movie kings,  keeps the film moving nicely though it does bog done a bit with too much dialogue at some points, but overall, this is a sharply written well acted  and directed movie that should be seen by more folks. The film was released on VHS years ago but has not been released on DVD release. Try to catch it the next time it is on TCM.

You Belong to Me (1941) Wesley Ruggles

    From a quality point of view, it is hard to believe that “You Belong to Me” was made the same year as “The Lady Eve.” However, it was the success of “The Lady Eve” that encouraged Columbia to reteam the two stars again so quickly in this film They should have left good enough alone. This was the third and final time Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck starred together. It was also their weakest effort. Their first film was “The Mad Miss Manton” made back in 1938.

    In “You Belong to Me,” Fonda plays ambitionless millionaire playboy Peter Kirk who is smitten, at a ski resort, by the likes of Dr. Helen Hunt (Stanwyck). Kirk is what used to be called the idle rich, those who never worked a day in their life and have no need or purpose to do so. Kirk is also insanely jealous of any contact his doctor wife has with men, going to absurd lengths to “catch” her with male patients in compromising positions. Each time this happens, it is more embarrassing for Kirk as he is constantly proven wrong. That is pretty much the whole film until the somewhat “surprise” ending.

    Fonda’s character is weak, childish, and insecure while Stanwyck’s is strong and intelligent. You can never understand what it is she sees in him, other than money, which it is never hinted at that she has ever given it a second thought. Overall, the film is pretty much a total wreck, at best more cute than funny. The most redeeming value of this romantic comedy is the combination and the chance again to see Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda together one more time.  

Manny Farber 1917-2008

    Manny Farber, a model for many, and one of the most unique and important film critics died on August 18. Farber who famed article White Elephant are vs. Termite Art was among the first to value the work of such purely American filmmakers as Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks whose films he saw as termite art versus the over blown white elephant art of directors like Michealangelo Antonnini.

For any serious film lover Farber’s writing, much of which is collected in his  book Negative Space is essential. Attached below are a few related  links:

 

http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-08-12/film/manny-farber-1917-2008

http://www.frameworkonline.com/40nk.htm

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/19/arts/design/19farber.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

Cry of the City (1848) Robert Siodmak

    The story of two men from the same neighborhood who go off in different directions in life, one on the right side of the law, and the other on the wrong side of the law.  We have seen this so many times in films such as “Angels with Dirty Faces” with Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan and Pat O’Brien’s Father Jerry Connelly, two Irish kids who grew up together in the slums of New York and took opposite paths in life.  In the 1948 film noir “Cry of the City”, we get the Italian-American version. Marty Roman (Richard Conte) and Candella (Victor Mature) grew up together in New York’s Little Italy. Candella became a cop and Roman a cop killer, a charismatic loser who defies death’s odds.

    Rome escapes from a prison hospital and is pursued by Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and his partner Lt. Collins played wonderfully by Fred Clark. Rome wants to clear his young girlfriend Teena (a young Debra Paget) of any involvement in a jewel robbery of a Mrs. DeGrazia, an elderly woman who was tortured and murdered. Niles (Berry Kroger), a crooked lawyer threatens to implicate Teena in the crime if Rome does not admit to the jewel robbery and murder to clear the lawyer’s innocent client. What difference does it matter anyway, the lawyer Niles says since he is getting the chair for the cop killing and has nothing to lose.

    Teena is in hiding, however, Rome still fears that Niles will still find and implicate her.  After his escape, Rome heads to Niles office where he finds the stolen jewels in secret compartment in the lawyer’s safe. Niles gives Marty the name of his accomplice, Rose Givens, before he pulls a gun and tries to kill Rome. Marty sticks a switchblade knife through the lawyer’s leather chair stabbing him to death.

    Rome meets up with Rose Givens (Hope Emerson) a sadistic masseuse who is willing to trade for the jewelry by giving Rome money and a way out of the city in exchange. The trade will be made at a subway station where Rome has the jewels secured in a locker. Rome notifies Candella where Givens will be for the pickup, his plan was not to be there but Givens wants Rome at the station fearing a setup. As Givens opens the locker, the police close in on her. There’s a struggle. Givens pulls a gun and a wild bullet hits Candella as he was jumping over a turnstile t assist with the arrest. As the police arrest Givens, Rome manages to escapes and meets Teena in a church where he tries to persuade her to run away with him. Candella, still wounded shows up at the church and tells Teena how everyone who has ever helped Marty has been hurt. That he’s left a trail of physically or emotionally wounded souls. Teena decides not to go with him. As Candella and Rome leave the church, Rome tries to escape but Candella shoots him dead.

    The film is loaded with sleazy low life’s from the sadistic masseuse to the creepy abortionist, to Niles, the crooked lawyer. Directed by Robert Siodmak, the film is well paced maintaining a tense dark moody atmosphere. While not quite on par with some of Siodmak’s other noirish works such as “Crossfire” or “The Killers”. “Cry of the City” provides a realistic look at the squalor of the inner city.

   Richard Conte was riding high in his career when this film was made. He had just completed “Call Northside 777” and also had under his belt “Somewhere in the Night”, “A Bell for Adano” and “A Walk in the Sun.” Conte was a staple in some of the best noir films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “Thieves Highway”, “Whirlpool” and “The Big Combo.” Billed second to Victor Mature in this film Conte not only has the larger part but also steals the show as Marty Roman, a magnetic, woman chasing cop killer.

Victor Mature, an actor of limited talent actually gives a good performance as Candella, the tough yet sensitive cop. The rest of the cast is loaded with many familiar faces including Shelley Winters, as an ex-girlfriend, the previously mentioned Fred Clark, Debra Paget and Hope Emerson who is especially memorable as the sadistic masseuse who almost strangles Rome with ecstatic pleasure.    

The Face Behind the Mask (1941) Robert Florey

    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.     

A Tribute to George Furth

    Just a note that George Furth one of our best character actors recently passed away at 75 years of age. If you believe, you do not know who George Furth is then take another look at “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” George played the overly loyal railroad employee, Woodcock, who was blown up by Butch (Paul Newman) not once but twice.

 

”Woodcock, you can’t want to get blown up again,” Butch yells out.

“Butch,” Woodcock says, “You know that if were my money, there is no one I would rather have steal it than you. But, you see, I am still in the employment of E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad.”

 

    A classic moment in a classic film, the kind of moments that Furth’s  was notable for in every project he was involved in. Furth also appeared in other films including “Games,” “Myra Breckenridge,” “Oh God,” “Cannonball Run,” Young Doctors in Love,” “Shampoo” and “Blazing Saddles” where he played Van Johnson. However, it is TV where he did much of his work starting in the early 1960’s through the late 1990’s.  Shows like “The Odd Couple”, “Murder, She Wrote,” “Happy Days,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Wings” and many others. George was very distinctive and was generally cast as milquetoast, nervous, jumpy type.

    George was also a playwright collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on “Company” for which he won a Tony. He also collaborated with Sondheim on “Merrily, We Roll Along” and “Getting Away with Murder” Other plays he wrote include  “Twigs,” “The Supporting Cast” and “Precious Sons.”         

Kim Novak

    With Turner Classic Movies recent Kim Novak day as part of their Summer under the Stars Month, there have recently been a lot of articles reevaluating or just discussing her career. So having been a fan of Novak’s for years I’m throwing my two-cent in.

    Underrated, surprisingly good.  You hear these terms a lot when critics discuss Kim Novak. She has always been underrated. Kim was surprisingly good in “Middle of the Night.” The question becomes if she is always considered underrated and is always surprisingly good how many films does it take before the surprise wears off.  The woman just never received the respect she deserves. What I want to know is when is the AFI going to do a tribute to her? With this year’s tribute to Warren Beatty and last year’s to Al Pacino, they seemed to have already moved on the next generation passing her by. She was a major star in her day working with many great directors and has appeared in quite a few films that most would consider classic.

 

It is no secret that she was originally signed by Columbia Pictures as a Marilyn Monroe substitute. All the studios were looking for their own Marilyn. There was Jayne Mansfield, Sheree North and Mamie Van Doren, none achieved the level of success, nor did they have the magnetism of Marilyn. Kim was successful and had the star quality, without the cheapness of the Marilyn wannabes, and unlike Marilyn, Kim came across as a real woman. She was sensual, all you had to do was just look at her eyes and listen to her voice. She was certainly more attractive than the others were. Monroe never came across as authentic, someone that you could actually meet in the street whereas Kim was genuine. She was no fantasy figure. Kim was sexual without being obvious about it. Just watch her in “Pushover”, or “Strangers When We Meet.”

    For someone who was suppose to be of limited talent she certainly attracted  some of the great directors of her time and she handled herself well under the guidance of Hitchcock in “Vertigo”, Preminger in “The Man with the Golden Arm” and Delbert Mann in “Middle of the Night.” With Richard Quine, she seemed to be exceptionally responsive. Just look at her performances in “Bell, Book and Candle” or “Strangers When We Meet.”  I have also enjoyed her performances in films like “Kiss Me Stupid”, “Boy’s Night Out” and “The Notorious Landlady.”

TCM’s recent all day Novak festival was a joy. While I have most of the films they showed, I finally got to record and will soon watch for the first time “Five Against the House.” I was also pleased to record “The Notorious Landlady” a particular favorite of mine being both a Novak and Jack Lemmon fan and not available on DVD, this was a must.

   Novak retired from the movies in the early 1990’s and she hardly ever looked back. Making only rare appearances like the Larry King Show in 2004, where she still looked very good, otherwise Kim lives on her ranch with her husband and their many animals

 

 

 

William Castle

Only as a producer did William Castle ever make a truly great horror movie.  That was because he had the fortunate luck or the insight to have a great horror novel as the foundation and a master of the macabre as the screenwriter and director.  The film, of course, was “Rosemary’s Baby,” directed by Roman Polanski from Ira Levin’s best selling book.  If “Psycho” ushered in the era of the modern day horror films, “Rosemary’s Baby” gave the genre a more sophisticated acceptance than previously existed, at least for a few short years.

    Now, I am not here to damn William Castle but to praise him.  Yes, his works are mired with dull direction; bad acting and certainly some of the scripts could have or should have been better. But, surprisingly, films like “Macabre,” “The Night Walker,” “The Tingler”, House on Haunted Hill”, “13 Ghosts”, “Strait-Jacket”,  and “Homicidal” hold up today better than expected.  The “Night Walker”, with a script by Robert Bloch, and an excellent cast headed by Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor is certainly still a terrific thriller, as is “Strait Jacket,” again scripted by the talented Robert Bloch. This film starred Joan Crawford and Diane Baker.  Certainly, the casting of these excellent actors was an advantage, which enhanced both of these films. In Matthew Kennedy’s new biography Joan Blondell: A Life Between Acts” Kennedy tells the story that Blondell was all set to play the role eventually portrayed by Crawford until either Crawford assumed the role was hers after talking with Castle at a social gathering or Blondell bowed out due to illness depending on which story is to be believed. Either way it sounds pretty enticing the thought of Joan B. in the role of the psychotic mother. Then there is “The Tingler” and “Homicidal” both still strange and scary enough to send shivers down your spine. The test of time has made William Castle’s work more appreciable.  Known best for his publicity  gimmicks, such as “Illusion O”, where in “13 Ghosts,”  filmgoers were given special glasses upon admission, giving them the choice of whether view the ghosts by wearing the glasses, or not.  With “The Tingler” the gimmick was called “Percepto” which was nothing more than electric buzzers attached to selected seats in the movie house designed send a few shock waves giving the person sitting in the seat a slight tingle.  Can you imagine doing a stunt like this today? Lawsuits would be filed quicker than a 95 mile an hour fastball! Then there was “Macabre” where Castle sold policies, insuring the filmgoer against dying of fright!  As an aside, all this is lovingly portrayed in Joe Dante’s affectionate look at schlock movie making in “Matinee.” (1993)  John Goodman stars, playing a character obviously inspired by William Castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

              In most cases, Castle’s films have been dumped upon by critics, yet teenage audiences and quiet a few adults of the late fifties and early sixties loved these films. It would probably be politically incorrect to make some of these films today. “Macabre” with its story of a young child being buried alive would be too frighteningly real today.  Like all films, they are a product of their times. 

    Many of Castle’s films are more fun and thrilling to watch than the majority of the blood and gore stuff that is released as horror today. Unfortunately, only a few of  Castle’s films have been made available for home video, “Strait-Jacket”, House on Haunted Hill,” “13 Ghosts” and “The Tingler” with its original color sequence in tact. “The Night Walker” was released years ago in VHS but sadly has yet to see a DVD release. If you are resourceful enough you can find some of the others through private collectors willing to trade barter or sell. In 2007, a documentary on William Castle was released called “Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story.” The film had a limited release and as of now, there is no scheduled DVD release. Also worth seeking out are the trailers,   you know those “Coming Attractions,” of William Castle’s movies, some of the most entertaining ever done, this side of Hitchcock.  Also worth seeking out is his autobiography “Step Right Up! I’m Going to Scare the Pants Off America.”

Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes by Matthew Kennedy

    Joan Blondell, the big olive eyed round faced beauty who made more than fifty movies between her screen debut in 1930 and 1939 and more than 80 in her career is the subject of a new biography Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes by Matthew Kennedy. In addition to the movies, Joan was regular on the TV series “Here Comes the Brides” and made many TV appearances on such shows as “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” “Burke’s Law” and “Starksy and Hutch.”  Blondell co-starred with James Cagney in more movies (7) than any other leading man did.  

    The book is a must read for any fan of Blondell and/or the early days of sound movies.

All of Warner Brother’s stars are on hand, Cagney, Bogart, and Eddie G. Joan starred with them all. 

   Joan’s private life was not as sweet. She came from a vaudevillian family that traveled the world. She was the oldest of three kids and the most talented. As Vaudeville’s days ended, Joan’s family hit on hard times, living in small apartments scraping for money. Joan got occasion work in small theater productions and odd jobs in between. One of those jobs was working at a circulating library where one night she was raped by a police officer. Joan was twenty years old.

    Her three marriages all turned out bad. Forced to have multiple abortions by her first husband, cinematographer George Barnes, and physically and mentally abused by third husband Mike Todd. She did have good relationships with her parents, sister and her children.   

      Joan’s entrance into the movies started with an audition for a role in a Broadway play called “Penny Arcade.” One of her co-stars was a young unknown actor name James Cagney. The play did not last long but the two young hopefuls were signed and brought out to Hollywood to co-star in the film version, renamed “Sinner’s Holiday.” This was the first of seven films they would make together. Joan signed a contact with Warner Brothers and they put her to work. Warner’s was like working at a slave labor camp, a production line where you went from one film to another. “The Office Wife,” “Other Men’s Women,” Illicit, Night Nurse,” “The Public Enemy” and “Blonde Crazy” were just some of the films within the first two years. “The Public Enemy,” “Night Nurse” and “Blonde Crazy” are today still considered classics from the era.  In 1932 Joan made ten films, in 1933 eight including “Blondie Johnson,” “Gold Diggers of 1993,” “Footlight’s Parade” and “Convention City.”  Gold Diggers one of the great depression era musicals is also notable for Joan’s classic emotional closing number “Remember My Forgotten Man.” “Convention City,” a supposedly lost film is considered one of the films that brought about the Hayes Office. The film is noted for scenes of bootlegging, dialogue with loads of sexual innuendo and the full chested Blondell not wearing a bra. The film apparently so outraged audiences and even Jack Warner that he eventually ordered the negative and all the prints burned. It has been rumored that prints do exist but if so, the film remains elusive.

   After her divorce from Todd, Joan’s career took a turn toward older and more supporting type roles. She also started doing a lot of television and even some theater work. Over the life of her career, Joan worked with many of Hollywood’s greats. In addition to Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson, she worked with Gable. Tracy, Dick Powell (her second husband), Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Wyman, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Elvis Presley. In one of her last films, “Opening Night,” she was directed by John Cassavetes.

   Author Matthew Kennedy makes you feel and care for Joan giving you a portrait of a woman who was strong enough and resilient enough to overcome her personal tragedies and prevail. Highly recommended.

Sinner’s Holiday (1931) John Adolphi

    “Sinner’s Holiday” was James Cagney and Joan Blondell’s first film. Based on a flop Broadway play called “Penny Arcade” that both appeared in. The quality of the play may have had nothing to do with it being a flop. It was at the start of the depression and people did not have the money to spend going to the theater. Al Jolson purchased the rights to the play, and then sold it to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that both Cagney and Blondell repeat their roles in the film. Warners agreed and two future movie star careers were born, though they did not blossom with this film. Cagney was third billed in the film. Blondell who played his tart of a girlfriend was further on down the list. The stars were Grant Withers and Evelyn Knapp, two pretty much forgotten names today. Withers career started in silent films and it ended in the late 1950’s with his suicide. Evelyn Knapp worked in mostly “B” pictures and is best known for her work as Pauline in the serial “The Perils of Pauline.”    

    Made in 1930 during the early days of the sound era the film is typically talky and lacking a music soundtrack. It was directed by John Aldofi, who pretty much specialized in low budget films. Sinner’s Holiday takes place in Coney Island and centers around Ma Delano (Lucille La Verne) and her family, Harry (Cagney), Joe (Ray Gallagher) and daughter Jennie (Knapp). Behind the scenes of another concession, owner Mitch McKane is transporting illegal liquor and young Harry is heavily involved. Mitch accuses Harry of stealing, they argue and Harry shoots and kills Mitch, with the whole scene witnessed by Harry’s sister Jennie. The police investigate and Harry’s mother, a protective, tough old woman, takes the gun and plants it in Angel Harrigan’s (Withers) room. Angel is Jennie’s boyfriend who she plans to marry and who her mother thinks is a bum. As the police investigate the murder, they begin to focus on Harry, however, his girlfriend, Myrtle (Blondell)  provides him with an alibi when she tells the police she and Harry were together all night at the beach. The police eventually arrest Angel for the murder and Jennie  begs the police not to take him away finally admitting to what she knows that her brother is the killer. The police take Harry away. Angel and Jennie stay together and the Penny Arcade business goes on.

    The film is most significant for the debut performances of Cagney and Blondell who both shine, especially Cagney, who lights up every scene he is in. He literary takes over every shot.  Notice the odd almost incestuous relationship between Cagney’s character, Harry has with his mother. Of course this would not be the first time Cagney’s character’s had a strange mother fixation. It would come into play again in “The Public Enemy” and still later in “White Heat.”  Blondell, her hair darker than we will get use too, also shines and even in this first film, she delivers a classic sassy line. When the police are asking if she was with Harry all night at the beach, her father tells her, ”think of your reputation!” To which she replies,  “You think of it, you worry about it more than I do.”  Grant Withers character is a bit of an odd ball, goofy, and not very appealing. Withers career though long would sink to “B” westerns and small parts. He was married for a very short time to Loretta Young who was seventeen at the time. The marriage was annulled.