Florida Noir: Key Largo

Key Largo

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Here’s the story of the hurricane….

   On September 2nd 1935, a category five, the highest level, storm slammed into the Florida Keys. The storm hit on Labor Day. Original predictions had it heading between the Lower Keys and Cuba. At first, it was thought to be of lesser severity. Then it blew up heading toward Upper Matcumbe Key, Plantation Key and Tavernier Key with wind speeds between 200 and 250 mph. It turned out to be the strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. Storm surges ranged from 18 to 25 feet. Towns like Tavernier and Marathon were left with no buildings standing. Other towns nearby suffered catastrophic destruction. Over 400 hundred deaths were reported, many were World War I veterans who were working on the completion of the Overseas Highway the road that would connect the mainland to the keys. The veterans were part of the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Continue reading

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Moulin Rouge (1952) John Huston

Moulin Rouge2

   John Huston’s 1952 film about the life of the great French artist, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, more commonly known as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress (Colette Marchand). It won two Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. Surprisingly, cinematographer Oswald Morris, received no recognition since one of the film’s highlights is its brilliant use of color.  Today, when you talk to someone about a film called Moulin Rouge, they assume you’re referring to the 2001 Baz Luhrmann musical. Huston’s film, while maybe not forgotten,  is generally not discussed much. It’s a shame because there is much to admire. Continue reading

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Anatole Litvak

“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”  is an odd little Warner’s film with Edward G. Robinson as a Park Avenue doctor who decides to do some research on criminal behavior by becoming a criminal himself. After stealing some expensive jewelry at a dinner party he seeks out a fence by the name of Joe Keller who turns out to be Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), a woman. Jo’s gang includes “Rocks” Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), a young Ward Bond, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Warner Brothers’ regular Allan Jenkins.

To continue his research the good doctor goes on “vacation” in Europe freeing him up from his practice to secretly join the gang in a series of daring robberies. This is a out of the ordinary film that manages at times to be suspenseful, funny, and sinister with a whiff of mad scientist thrown in for good measure. At times the actors seem to be in different films; Bogart in a straight gangster film with “Rocks” in the ranks of his greatest slime ball characters while Robinson acts as a scientifically aloof madman obsessed with his findings going to any length to save his breakthrough research.

In the final courtroom scene Clitterhouse is on trial for poisoning “Rocks” after he discovered the Doctor’s real identity and blackmails him forcing in to stay in the gang. Clitterhouse objects to testimony in court that he must be insane fearing all his research would be disregarded. Still the jury finds him innocent by reason of insanity leaving Clitterhouse not only confused but innocent of murder charges, an ending that was daring for its time when the production code was strictly enforced and criminals must pay for their sins.

The script was written by John Wexley and John Huston based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and was directed by the reliable Anatole Litvak. It was during the filming of this movie that Bogart and Huston met and became friends, a partnership that would lead to some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Huston, Robinson, Bogart and Trevor would reunite some ten years later in “Key Largo.”    

 ***

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1946) John Huston

Greed and the pursuit of power are major themes in John Huston’s films. They propel Gutman and Joel Cario to pursue the stuff that dreams are made of in “The Maltese Falcon,” only to find out their targeted prize is worthless. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” two soldiers attempt to become rulers of a country until greed and ego come between them. These themes are also plainly evident in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Kremlin Letter.” Similarly, these themes are at the center of what is considered Huston’s greatest work, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” You hear it in Howard, the old prospector’s voice when he explains the lust and fever that grows in men’s desire for gold and you see it in Fred C. Dobb’s eyes throughout the film as the potential increases for a larger prize with man’s morality all but disappearing.

Huston read the novel in 1936 and was interested in filming it; Warner Brothers owned the film rights, yet, it took ten years to get off the ground. After Huston returned from his World War II duty the green light was finally given. Huston had two major obstacles to overcome in adapting the screenplay. First was B. Traven’s beautifully unique, though unrealistic for the screen, writing style. Second was the book’s strong anti-capitalist sentiment and its blatant attack on materialism both of which had to be toned down. The novel also has a downbeat ending and the film’s star is not portraying a likable person, still the post war cynicism that gave rise to the popularity of film noir, also fit in here with the dark mood of the story.     

Two down on their luck Americans, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) in 1920’s Mexico hook up with an old time prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and go searching for gold. The old-timer is skeptical, forewarning that trouble will lie ahead, still he agrees to go. They head for the Sierra Madre mountains, and soon are attacked by bandito’s during the train ride out there. Once in the dessert, and as they begin to mined the gold, the loyal friendship begins to disintegrate. Dobbs trust no one and is afraid his partners will kill him for his share. Another American, a man named Cody (Brue Bennett) follows Curtin back to the campsite when he went for supplies and tries to deal his way into the group’s fortune. As tensions mount the three begin to question each other and thier morals, as they considered whether let in the newscomer, letting him have a share or to just kill him. Before they decide, they are attacked by a gang of bandito’s and the fourth American is killed. Mexican Federale’s fortunately show up chasing the bandito’s away. For the three prospectors their rush for gold continues to go downhill, disintegrating into a tale of greed, paranoia, and lost dreams.

One of the keys scenes is when the old prospector Howard tells the other two men that the potential of gold to be mined is going to much more than they anticipated. At the beginning of their adventure, no one was looking to be greedy, but as the gold fever began to catch on, especially with Dobbs, not only is there greed in the air, but the distrust factor shows its face again specifically with Fred C. Dobbs who “suggest” they all hide their shares of gold dust from each other. Dobbs mistrust of his two partners will only escalate as the film progresses until it turns into delusional madness. In contrast to Dobb’s, Tim Holt’s character, Bob Curtin is portrayed as honest if a bit too naive and innocent, still Holt, a B-western actor handles the part well never letting it fall flat. Originally John Garfield was set for the role until he backed out. But the acting kudos belongs to Huston, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and to Bogart for one of the finest performances of his career. At the time it was a courageous move by Bogie to portray such a pathetic despicable character as Dobbs. Also worth noting is the performance of Alphonso Bedoya as Gold Hat the leader of the Mexican bandito’s. It is Bedoya who has the famous lines, often misstated, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Huston and Bogart are one of the great actor/director teams. Huston was a well respected screenwriter having written or co-written scripts like “Juarez”, “Jezebel”, “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” and “Sgt. York”, however it was his adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s “High Sierra” that opened the door to his directing career. Together, Huston and Bogie would go on to make six films including two certified masterpieces, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and four other films ranging in quality from decent to very good works. There is not one that I would consider bad. Huston was the Oscar for Best Screenplay adaptation making it the first time a father and son was the awards.

The film is notable for some interesting cameos beginning with John Huston who portrays a well-dressed American at the beginning of the film who Bogart’s Dobb’s keeps attempting to panhandle from. Also look for a very young Robert Blake as the Mexican boy who sells Dobbs a lottery ticket. Jack Holt, Tim’s father has a small role in the flophouse scene early in the film where Dobb’s and Curtin first meet Howard. And then there is Ann Sheridan…maybe. There is a scene where a prostitute walks passed Dobbs and is seen shortly later going up a flight of stairs. According to the extra in the DVD, “The Making of the Sierra Madre” the lady is Ann Sheridan. Some historians claim it is Sheridan while others do not. There seems to be no definitive answer or at least one I could find.   

Whether the woman in that scene is Sheridan or not, one thing for sure, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is one of the great American films, nominated for a best picture Oscar only to lose to Oliver’s “Hamlet.”

*****

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