Short Takes: The Hard Way (1943) and The Westerner (1940)

 

The Hard Way – Vincent Sherman (***1/2) – The Hard Way is centered by a strong iron clad performance by Ida Lupino who won the New York Film Critics Award for her role as the determined, tough, hard driven older sister willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to ensure her sister’s rise to the top of Broadway’s bright lights.  Lupino’s character is tagged as evil but is she really? The sisters were raised in a small polluted industrial town, both women looking to get out using any means necessary to accomplish their goal. The kid sister, played by Joan Leslie has talent and gets a few “breaks”, mostly amoral breaks promoted by big sister Lupino. When little sister is part of the chorus of a Broadway show Lupino gets the bitter star, played by Gladys George, drunk enough that she storms out of the rehearsal, Lupino then pushes her sister on the producers giving her the opportunity of a life time. It works and she becomes a star! Directed by Vincent Sherman with male supporting roles provided by Dennis Morgan and an excellent Jack Carson. Behind the scene credits also include cinematography by James Wong Howe and montage by future director Don Siegel. Leslie’s performance is debatably the weak link here. Her song and dance number that represents her big break is actually pretty bad making it hard to swallow that it was this routine that impressed the director and producers of the play to give her the lead.

The Westerner (William Wyler) ***1/2 Except for an overly sentimental ending this western duel between Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan holds up very well. Brennan gives one of his best performances as Judge Roy Bean, a law unto himself with a big weakness for the beautiful actress Lily Langtry whom he would never meet. Brennan deservedly won one of his three Best Supporting Actor awards for his role. While on the surface it seems that Brennan steals the movie, Cooper’s subtle performance adds much to the proceedings though it is a secondary part. Cooper is a wandering cowboy who stops in the town of Vinegroon where the only law west of the Pecos is the hanging Judge Roy Bean. Cooper as Cole Hardin, is quickly put on trial for horse thief but manages to save himself through a series of long comical tales about knowing Lily Langtry the actress with whom the Judge is in love from afar. The meat of the film is the relationship between the Judge and Hardin. Whenever the film moves on to other storylines such as the growing war between the homesteaders and cattlemen and a bland love story between Hardin and homesteader Jane Mathews (Doris Davenport) the film slides in clichés ridden tedium.

According to author Jeff Myers (Gray Cooper: American Hero) at the Dallas premiere Coop rode down Main Street during a parade fully dressed in a cowboy outfit on  horseback.  This film also marked the film debuts of Dana Andrews and Forest Tucker.

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.”

****

Boomerang! (1947) Elia Kazan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Otto Preminger

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     After leaving MGM where she reigned as the biggest star on the lot Joan Crawford signed a contract with Warner Brothers and had series of hits that rank up there with her best from MGM, “Humoresque”, “Possessed” (1947), her Academy Award winning role in “Mildred Pierce.” While under contract to Warner’s she was loaned out to 20th Century Fox for “Daisy Kenyon”. Kenyon has been called a woman’s picture, a melodrama and a film noir. Though released on DVD by 20th Century Fox as part of its film noir series this is misleading. The movie, while it may contain some noirsh style lighting, that may have more to do with Ms. Crawford being too old for the part with the dark shadowy lighting used to cover up the effects of her fortyish age. Either way, Joan was still at the top and could command leading men of status like Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda to be her co-stars.  daisy-kenyon         

     Here Crawford was given two of the top male stars of the time to co-star with, Preminger favorite Dana Andrews who had appeared in at least five Preminger films and Henry Fonda. Billed third behind Andrews, which may be surprising to some, Fonda, just back from the Army was at the tail end of his studio contract and was ready to go out on his own. Andrews was a big star and on a roll during this period having just appeared in “Boomerang”, “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “A Walk in the Sun.” “Daisy Kenyon” is the story of a young commercial artist who is having an adulterous affair with big time lawyer Dan O’Mara (Andrews). O’Mara always got everything he wanted. He never lost a case; he had a family with two young daughters who love him and a beautiful mistress. Daisy wants to get married however, the smooth talking O’Mara strings her along never committing. Daisy meets psychologically disturbed war veteran Peter Lapham (Fonda). After a single date he professes his love for Daisy. When Daisy rejects his proposal, he just disappears. Later on, realizing Dan is not going to divorce his wife (Ruth Warwick) marries Peter though she still in love with Dan. O’Mara however, cannot get over Daisy and after losing a case for the first time, where he was defending a Japanese-American war veteran who came home to find his property taken away from him, he makes the decision to divorce his wife and come after the now married Daisy.

    Preminger who was at the height of his career in the 1940’s through the 1950’s does a nice job of keeping the suspense up on whom Daisy will decide on until the very end. From what I have read, Preminger did not think much of the final results of the film.

   daisy-kenyon-poster Of the three leading characters, Crawford’s Daisy is probably the least interesting though as usual, she plays a strong female character and her presence alone is powerful. Fonda’s character is a bit of an oddity, as is the pairing of Crawford and Fonda in general. There does not seem to be any chemistry between them making their scenes together disappointing. Dana Andrews gives a fine performance as Dan, going from a smart over confident self centered charmer to a man who suddenly realizes he is losing everything. You can see the confidence drain from Andrews face as his fortunes decline. A really nice performance, the most successful in the film though his character is not very likeable.

    There are also problems with the script. Dan’s relationship with his children seems like it needed to be explored more. Similar is the relationship between Daisy and her friend Martha (Mary Angelus) who always seems to be hanging around Daisy’s apartment making you wonder if there is more to their relationship than is being said. 

     Look for cameo appearances by John Garfield, writer Damon Runyon and newspapermen Leonard Lyons and Walter Winchell in the Stork Club scene. The film was written by David Hertz was based on a novel by Elizabeth Janeway. As an aside, Elizabeth Janeway was married to Elliot Janeway who was economic advisor to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and later to Lyndon B. Johnson.