Times Square Revisited – Astor Theater

The Astor Theater began life as a legit theater converting to a movie theater in 1925 which it remained until 1972. For the next ten years the lobby was used as retail space. In 1982, the Astor and some of its neighbors were demolished  to make way for the construction of the Marriott Marquis Hotel which included the Marquis Theater.

One of the things I miss about the Times Square scene of old are the grand movie advertising signs. I caught the end of this era in the 1960’s and remember well the gigantic block long sign advertising John Huston film, THE  BIBLE. I hope you enjoy these photos below.

The Astor Theater presents Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”

Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll” written by Tennessee Williams

Another Williams work, “The Rose Tattoo” is being presented

That is “Kismet” playing at the Astor.

MGM used The Astor to showcase its biggest films 

Lloyds of London

Grand Hotel

In 1954 Jules Vernes “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

In 1936, “The Great Ziefeld” 

They Live By Night (1948) Nicholas Ray

They’re young, they’re in love and they kill people. That was the tag line for Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde” and it could have been equally appropriate some eighteen years earlier in Nick Ray’s first film “They Live By Night.” Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel “Thieves Like Us” (Anderson only wrote two novels of which this was his second ), and one of the earliest of a loosely banded group of films about young fugitive lovers on the run from the law (You Only Live Once, Gun Crazy, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde ).

Made in 1948, the film remained on RKO’s shelf for almost two years before new owner Howard Hughes decided to release it (It’s U.S. release was in November 1949). Various producers attempted to get a good screenplay written, however it was not until John Houseman came on board as producer and showed the depression era novel to Nick Ray, who loved the book, wanted to make the film and wrote an adaptation. Houseman had considerable clout as a producer at the time and was able to get first time director Ray an okay to direct the film.

Three men escape from prison, two seasoned bank robbers T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) along with young Bowie (Farley Granger) who was innocently convicted of murder.  The three men rob a bank. When Bowie is injured he is brought to Chickamaw’s brother’s place where he meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s tomboyish niece. After another bank job, the young lovers take off to get away from Bowie’s two thug partners and a life of crime. Unlike Bowie, his two cohorts quickly blow their share of the money and want Bowie for another bank job which goes bad resulting in T-Dub’s death. Bowie and Keechie are again running only this time instead of running to a new life they are running from the law and straight toward a tragic end.

Like many of Ray’s films, the sympathy lies with those living outside of society, outlaws doomed to a tragic end; in this case an ambush  that foresees Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” Like “Bonnie and Clyde”, the young couple are also betrayed to the police by someone they thought they could trust, in this case, Chickamaw’s sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) who Bowie pleads to for help late in the film. During the filming Ray continually worked on the screenplay, written by Charles Schnee, making sure his vision would remain intact. Ray reflects a world with few honest people, even the justice of the peace is corrupt, everyone “are thieves like us”, as Bowie tells Mattie toward the end of the film.

The critics at the time were generally dismissive, Bosley Crowther called it, “a common little story about a young escaped convict” and later on states the film “is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook.” He lthen addsh”They Live By Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime.” To be honest, the ever straight laced Crowthers does give the film credit for “good production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray.”

The film’s beginning is unique in two aspects; first we see Bowie and Keechie in close up kissing as the opening credits come on. When the film proper begins we are in an open field, the three prison escapees are in a car on the run. This is all viewed from a helicopter shot high above. I believe this to be the first, or at least one of the first times this technique was used in an action scene giving  the film a fresh documentary touch. We also see the owner of the car taken prisoner by the three fugitives and severely beaten by Chickamaw.

“They Live By Night” (released in England as The Twisted Road) is an astonishing directorial debut, a dark lyrical poetic love story, it has been called a weepy noir, and like their counterparts in “Gun Crazy”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and even “Romeo and Juliet” the lovers are doomed to a poignant fate.  Ray’s background prepared him for the details of this depression era drama. He was a devotee of Southern folk music and worked with Alan Lomax and knew many folks singer of the era like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, he even had a weekly radio show. He met John Houseman during this period who was influential enough to get Ray his first gig as a director. Ray was also associated with the Group Theater as an actor where he met and befriended Elia Kazan who would invite Ray to study his filmmaking style during the production of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

The cast consist of one superb performance after another from Farley Granger as the sensitive unlucky Bowie and Cathy O’Donnell as the melancholy rural Keechie looking for an escape from nowhere, to character actors Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva as Bowie’s two hardened partners. Granger was at a party when he met Ray who took a liking to him; both he and O’Donnell were under contract to Sam Goldwyn at the time. Robert Mitchum was interested in playing Chickamaw but was deemed a rising star at the time and the role too limited for his newly found status, as a result Jay C. Flippen got the part.

A few aspects of the film have dated somewhat; Bowie admitting his virginal inexperience with kissing and Keechie saying things like “a good woman is like a dog” (they are loyal). Still, these bits aside, the film’s tug and pull between romance and violence continues to work. T-Dub and Chickasaw remain two vivid characters given some nice touches especially when Chickamaw reappears in Bowie and Keechie’s lives destroying a Christmas ornament and in the process their dream of a regular life.

In 1974, Robert Altman made a new version of the film under its original source material’s name, and remained closer “in tone”, as Pauline Kael states in her review, than Ray’s more sympathetic view. Kael called the seventies film “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films – a masterpiece.

****1/2

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) Otto Preminger

Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is a cop whose head is filled with demons. He loathes criminals having had a father who was in the life. A bitter, brutal cop who does not like to follow the rules, he had no problem smacking around a potential suspect to get him to talk. A predecessor to Dirty Harry, Dixon’s views the law as way too soft on criminals.

Set in a New York filled with underworld thugs, the film is a dark look at Dixon’s obsessive pursuit of gangster Tommy Scalise, a former associate of his father. Preminger portrays Dixon as a loner, haunted by the past without any moral compass.

Kenneth Paine (Craig Stevens), a gambler and a decorated war hero gets into a fight with another gambler while gambling at one of Scalise joints. While investigating the murder Dixon accidently kills Paine. Dixon makes the crucial mistake of covering up the murder, even allowing Paine’s former father in law (Tom Tully) to be arrested for the crime, this after he begins a relationship with Morgan (Gene Tierney), a fashion model and Paine’s widow. As his life spirals out of control, Dixon attempts to frame Scalise for the two murders however, Dixon’s superiors see Morgan’s Dad as the prime suspect and it looks like he is going to take the fall. When convinced that Morgan will wait for him, love forces Dixon to face his demons and confess.

From the mid 1940’s to the early 1950’s Preminger directed a series of noir films that cement his reputation, starting with “Laura”, his most successful work. “Fallen Angel”, “Whirlpool”, “Angel Face” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” followed. Working with cinematographer Joseph LaShelle in “Where the Sidewalks End”, they created a claustrophobic bleak seedy post world war two vision of 1950’s America.

One of the most noteworthy shots takes place approximately 19 minutes into the film when Dixon goes to Paine’s apartment, apparently located on Pike Street in Manhattan. This is where Preminger and LaShelle recreate the famous Benenice Abbott photograph of the Manhattan Bridge framed by tenements on both sides. Modern audiences will recognize this shot as Sergio Leone recreated it once again in his own 1984 epic, “Once Upon a Time in America.”

The film is based on a novel called “Night Cry” by William L. Stuart. It was originally purchased by an independent producer named Frank P. Rosenberg Jr. who would eventually sell the rights to 20h Century Fox. Ben Hecht, who worked with Preminger previously, was assigned to write the screenplay. Apparently, earlier versions of the script had gangster Scalise as a drug addict but that was dropped from the script on orders from the censors. Still, Scalise throughout the film is seen using a nose inhaler that could suggest many things. Preminger shot for three weeks on location in New York before moving to Hollywood for the remainder of the shoot.

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney were both veterans who worked with Preminger before, together in “Laura” some six years earlier, and separately. Andrews starred in “Fallen Angel” and “Daisy Kenyon” and Tierney previously worked on “Whirlpool.” Andrews plays Dixon as a loner (note how many shots Preminger has Dixon stand alone isolated from everyone else), a tight lipped, rage filled, yet vulnerable detective whose only outlet is taking it out on the gangster scum controlling the grimy streets. Tierney is very good as Morgan, a kind gentle woman forced to face unfortunate disastrous life situations that are out of her control. The cast also includes Gary Merrill, an interesting choice, as Scalise, Karl Malden as Dixon’s superior Detective Lt. Thomas, Neville Brand as one of Scalise’s hoods and Ruth Donnelly as a local restaurant owner/match maker. “Where The Sidewalk Ends” is just one of many superb film noirs released in 1950, a year that included Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd”, Dassin’s “Night and the City”, Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets”, Joseph H. Lewis’  “Gun Crazy” and Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle.”

****

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) Jack Arnold

When I think of movie monsters who fall for a beautiful human the first one to always come to mind is “King Kong” the over sized gorilla we first met back in 1933. Poor Kong, fell like a ton of bricks for Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), right off the Empire State Building. Okay, he was shot, but still he climbed to the top of the Empire State Building for the girl of his dreams. Oh yeah, the things you do for love.

 Of course, there is also the fabled tale of “Beauty and the Beast”, the most celebrated film version being the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, but for it was always Kong who had the look, the style, the panache when it came to bestial love for a human.    

In 1954, Universal was just one of the studios fighting back at television with Vistavision, Cinemascope and 3-D, along with other gimmicks in an attempt to get people back into the theatres.  Universal’s first 3-D film, “It Came From Outer Space” came out in 1953 and was a smash. The following year, Universal released its second 3-D film, a story about an amphibious creature who falls hard for a beautiful woman in “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

During an expedition in the Amazon Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers the remains an oversized webbed hand. He goes to see his former student, now an ichthyologist, David Reed (Richard Carlson) who along with Mark Williams (Richard Denning) is enthusiastic enough about the discovery to finance an expedition. Along with Kay (Julie Adams) David’s girlfriend and assistant, another scientist, Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell) and the Captain of the boat (Nestor Paiva) they take off in search of the fossil remains that they hope will connect to the recently discovered webbed hand. Prior to their arrival at the expedition site, we see one of Dr. Maia’s assistant’s who stayed behind when Maia went to get help attacked and killed by a mysterious  creature. Actually all we see are only a webbed hand and shadows on a tent wall.  When the expedition finally arrives they find the hideous corpse of the doctor’s assistant. 

After eight days of finding no other remains, the group is ready to return home when David suggest that  part of the area where the hand was discovered may have fallen into the water taking with it the remains the creature. The Captain talks about the water emptying into a beautiful black lagoon only, he jokes, no one has ever returned to talk about it. They agree to forge ahead into the Lagoon. Once in beautiful eerie lagoon David and Mark go diving searching for evidence that can be analyzed and compared to the previously found remain.  Unbeknown to the men swimming, the creature has spotted them and follows the duo but never attacks. When they safely surface, the ship suddenly begins shake violently. The creature has gotten caught in a large net the crew had dropped earlier. Managing to escape the creatures leaves something behind caught in the net… a claw.

Kay, apparently with nothing else to do figures just because there is some strange unknown creature in the waters below, see that as no reason not to go for a swim and does just that. These scenes shot from deep in the sea, looking up, we see Kay swimming languidly, some of the shots are in silhouette, graceful motions without a care. At the bottom of the screen the creature come into view swimming beneath her, following her from below. Apparently, the creatures has never seen such beauty as he follows her, observing her ballet like moves before she retreats back to the boat.  David and Mark decide to go back in after the creature, David, only to shoot some photos to prove its existence and Mark to shoot it dead with a harpoon. For the rest of the film the creature seems to be winning the battle, killing off two crew members, severely injuring Dr. Thompson, killing Mark and eventually kidnapping Kay off the boat taking her to his private cave, where he is eventually tracked down and shot full of lead. In one of the last scenes we watch as the creature stumbles his way back to the lagoon apparently to die. But of course, two sequels were to follow and somehow the creature recovered and lived to terrorized again.    

Based on a story by Maurice Zimm (the original idea came from producer William Alland) with a screenplay by Arthur Ross and Harry Essex, “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” has built up a legacy that far outreaches the low budget origin of the film.  Even in Billy Wilder’s 1956 comedy “The Seven Year Itch”, Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe are viewed coming out of a theater showing “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and Marilyn, sympathetic to the creature, says it only wanted to be loved. Yes, love hurts.  Future films like “Alien” have been obviously influenced by this gill like creature and filmmakers like Steven Spielberg whose film “Jaws”, whether intentionally or not, show influences. The early scenes in “Jaws” where we see the young girl swimming naked in the water in silhouette shot from underneath the camera pointing up are reminiscent of shots of Kay taking her swim in the lagoon. Also, when Dr. Maia’s assistant was attacked we only the creature’s hand and  shadow, in fact the creature’s hand or shadow  are all we see for the first 24 minutes of the film, similar to Spielberg’s not unveiling the shark until well into the movie. 

The underwater sequences, filmed in Wakulla Springs, Florida, are numerous and are excellently shot by James C. Havens.  The best action in the film takes place in these underwater sequences including the overtly sexual attraction of the creature to Kay. As Kay swims on the water’s surface, right underneath her, swimming on his back is the creature. He watches, as we the audience do too, Kay gracefully moving along, occasionally diving doing an acrobatic twist or turn in the water, the creature and us, seeing it all from below. At one point, he seems to either caress or playfully tickle her foot. Kay unsure what it was swims along and eventually back to the boat with the creature following her.  In the end, the creature like Kong kidnaps his true love taking her to a cave-like hiding place where David will eventually find her lying on a large rock sprawled out on her back. 

Contributing to the atmosphere is the excellent music score which had three composers (Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein) as well as some nice eerie camerawork by William E. Snyder. Note the pounding music every time the creature appears another characteristic similar to “Jaws.”  One of Universal’s top low budget directors, Jack Arnold directed. Arnold had already made,” It Came From Outer Space” and would go on to direct the first sequel, “Revenge of the Creature.” He also made, “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, “High School Confidential”, “Tarantula” and a fine little known noir “The Tattered Dress”, with Jeff Chandler. Arnold would spend most of the 1960’s and the rest of his career mostly in episodic television with shows like “Gilligan’s Island”, “It Takes a Thief” and “The Love Boat” among others.  

Overall, the film still holds your interest. Yes, the creature looks like a man in a rubber suit but let’s put it in perspective. BTW, there was actually two actors who portrayed the creature. The swimming creature was Ricou Browning and the land creature was Ben Chapman. As I was saying, the film still holds your interest. nicely paced, sexy, and still packs some good thrills, a minor masterwork of its genre.

***1/2

The Moon and Sixpence (1942) Albert Lewin

Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel,”The Moon and Sixpence” tells the story of Charles Strickland (George Sanders), who leads a respectable life working for the London stock exchange. He has a lovely wife, married for seventeen years, and children. Then one day, at forty years of age, Strickland walks out on his life.  Leaves his family, his job and goes to Paris to live a bohemian existence as an artist.  No explanations are given nor does Strickland care about his wife and children’s future, He pretty much says “They somehow get along, I can’t worry about it.”  

Like the novel, the film is narrated by a third person character; author Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall) who seems to be a fictional stand-in for Maugham.  Four years later Marshall would literary portray Maugham in “The Razor’s Edge.” Wolfe follows Strickland through his life as he runs off to Paris, living the life of an artist in search of the elusive truth. He refuses to sell any of his works, searches for no praise and does not seek desire to prove anything to anyone. He is an artist purely for art sake. At the end of the film, after his death, based on his request his wife destroys his work.

At one point when Strickland becomes ill, another less talented artist, Dirk Stroeve (Steven Geray), and his wife Blanche (Doris Dudley) take him in bringing him back to health, Strickland repays his artist/friend Dirk by stealing his wife. Later when he decides to go off to find himself in the South Seas (Tahiti) and no longer having any use for Blanche, he indifferently dumps her despite her promises she will kill herself. He leaves, she dies, he shows no remorse.  In Tahiti, Strickland does find someone he cares for, a pretty native, Ata (Elena Verdugo) who he marries and who loves him dearly. He also paints at a voracious speed however, within a few years Strickland dies a hideous death with leprosy.

“The Moon and Sixpence” is the portrait of the artist as a cad and who better epitomizes the cad persona than George Sanders who made a career of being unscrupulous and uncaring.  In “All About Eve”, he was Allison DeWitt, the cynical scathing theatre critic and in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” he was the immoral Jack Favel. As the callous Charles Strickland he utters the lines “the more you beat women, the more they love you for it.”  A line that easily displays the unsympathetic contemptible smug outlook he had for life and especially women. (Sanders found himself in the center of a storm when women’s groups protested his verbiage. As he stated, defending himself, in his 1960 autobiography, “Memoirs of a Cad”, these were Maugham’s words he was saying, not his own).

Maugham’s novel is a surface only fictional recreation of the life of Paul Gauguin. Don’t look for a fictional Van Gogh, who Gauguin spent some two months painting with in Arles. And since Strickland had to die a hideous death to pay for his contemptible life he was blessed with leprosy where as Gauguin died from syphilis.

The film moves at a slow pace, laden with too much narration, not only does the author Wolfe narrate but later in the film two other characters as well.   Also, there seems to be too many unnecessary scenes with secondary characters that could have been eliminated.  While the aforementioned Sanders does well, Herbert Marshall as the writer Wolfe is rather stiff and looks uncomfortable for the majority of the film. Director Albert Lewin makes an interesting if not totally successful use of film by shooting most of it in black and white, separating the Tahitian scenes from the Paris scenes by giving a reddish tint to the Tahitian segment and for the final scene displaying Strickland’s masterpiece mural, in full color (Lewin would use this technique again in his 1945 film, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”).  Lewin was wise not to show us Strickland’s paintings throughout the film (except for the final color sequence) which leaves the audience to depend on the words and judgment of the other characters.  Subsequently, we are not forced to look at poor substitutes and think they are masterpieces.

The VCI DVD contains two versions of the film, the original theatrical release in B&W/Color and a full black and white version.

***

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.

****

My Top 10 Newspaper Films

In conjunction with the Film Forum’s latest retrospective THE NEWPAPER PICTURE which begins today and runs through  May 6th, I thought I’d list my top 10 favorite newspaper films plus a list of honorable mentions. I have always had an affinity for newspaper themed films, along with train themed films among a few others.  Check out the FILM FORUM’s schedule here.  Also attached is a N.Y.Times article by A.O. Scott  on the retrospective.

Below is my top 10 list.

A note….

The top ten are in order of preference as they relate to being a newspaper film and not necessarily the overall quality of the movie. Subsequently, “Citizen Kane” ranks fourth  as a newspaper film which does not mean this is the 4th best film.

Finally please submit your own list of favorites.

1  Ace in the Hole (1951)

2  Park Row (1952)

3  All the President’s Men (1976)

4 Citizen Kane (1942)

5 Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

6 His Girl Friday (1940)

7 It Happened One Night (1934)

8 Zodiac (2007)

9 Absence of Malice (1981)

10 The Paper 1994)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Call Northside 777 (1948)

Dealine U.S.A. (1952)

Five Star Final (1931)

Meet John Doe (1941)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Shattered Glass (2003)

Shock Corrider (1963)

State of Play (2009)

The Front Page (1931)

The Harder They Fall (1956)

While the City Sleeps (1956)

Woman of the Year (1942)