Short Takes: Portraits of the Artist on Film

Douglas Van GoghThere was a second cousin of mine, my mother’s first cousin, who always fascinated me. She was different from the rest of the family and was sometimes referred to by other members as ‘the Beatnik.’  Now, you have to realize my parents and family were primarily first generation Italian-Americans born here. They did not do Beatniks. I was in my very early teens, or maybe even slightly younger, when I got to meet her. She had just moved from Greenwich Village and back to Brooklyn where she went to live with her father ( I believe he was very sick and I know she was a severe diabetic). I remember the first time we visited, many of her paintings were scattered all over the apartment. I was in awe.

Everyone would say she was a bit odd, if no other reason than she always wore black and had lived in the Village, living a different lifestyle from the little world I knew. I never really got to know her, but the fact she had the talent to paint was somewhat mysterious and fascinating to me even at that young age. I only mention this because it was my first introduction to art. Other than these few times I saw her, art in my life was not something that came into the family equation. Continue reading

Short Takes: Cagney, Dodsworth and Scream of Fear

Each DawnEach Dawn I Die (***1/2) It is Cagney versus Raft in this classic 1939 Warner Brothers prison drama. Directed by William Keighley, Cagney is Frank Ross an investigative reporter who exposes a political candidate’s corrupt association with a construction company. After the article is published, Ross is snatched by some goons right in front of the newspaper building. He’s knocked out, soused with alcohol and tossed into a speeding car resulting in a car accident which kills three innocent people. Framed for the murders, Ross is sent to prison where he meets big shot Stacey (George Raft). At first, they get off on the wrong foot with Ross continuing to claim he was framed and innocent, all falling on deaf ears. The two become pals when Ross saves Stacey’s life from an attempt by another prisoner to kill him. Continue reading

Short Takes: Natalie Wood, Diana Dors and Ginger Rogers

Short Takes returns with three reviews, totally unrelated. A young Natalie Wood stars in A CRY IN THE NIGHT while 1950′s Brit blonde bombshell Diana Dors is in THE UNHOLY WIFE. Finally, Ginger Rogers shines in the lightweight 5th AVENUE GIRL.

I wonder when they named this picture, “A Cry in the Night,” whose tears they were referring too, Natalie Wood’s character perhaps, who is kidnapped in the middle of the night or maybe the audience who had to sit through this cliché ridden tale about a child-like adult (Raymond Burr), think Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” who watches young couples making out at a local lover’s lane.

After knocking out her boyfriend old Raymond kidnaps Ms. Wood taking her to his secret hideout where he confesses he just wants to be ‘friends.’  Yes, Nat makes a couple of feeble attempts to escape but in the end only manages to ripe her skirt so she can reveal some leg in order to keep the males in the audience awake.   Wood’s father, played by Edmond O’Brien, is an overbearing, over protective, sexist who finds it hard to believe his eighteen year old daughter would  willingly go to a lover’s lane of her own free will after he forbid her too. In fact, ole’ Edmond seems more concerned with wanting to beat the crap out of the boyfriend for this dirty deed than finding his daughter. Oh yeah, by the way, he’s a cop who naturally wants to be involved in the case though he should not be. The cast also includes Brian Donlevy as the sensible cop who attempts to control the out of control O’Brien. As directed by Frank Tuttle, there is nothing original here, to say the least. Tuttle is best known for making “This Gun For Hire” some fourteen years earlier which made Alan Ladd  a star. Ladd, by the way, is the narrator who opens the film and his company co-produced the film. Continue reading

Short Takes: The Gangster and Crime Wave

Crime in the streets is this week’s theme. Two low budget flicks that came and went from the screen in the final blink of a dead man’s eye.

The Gangster (1947) Gordon Wiles

Unconventional gangster flick with Barry Sullivan as a hardened, self made, top dog gangster who becomes obsessed with a beautiful dame (Belita). Meanwhile he soon finds himself being squeezed out of his territory by another outfit headed up by the snarly Sheldon Leonard. Each of his weaknesses are slowly exposed, the politicians once in his pocket are no longer there, and other hoods are no longer willing to back him up. His downfall is inevitable.

Sullivan’s character is obsessive and paranoid when it come to his girl and bitter, cold-hearted and cynical toward everyone else.  Despite being a low-budget production director Gordon Wiles paints the sets with a shadowed noirish light. And the sets, though obviously backlot, are very stylized, the shadowy ironwork on the elevated train, the rain soaked streets, the details in the soda fountain shop add an engaging arty flavor. The look and detail most likely stems from director Gordon Wiles background as an art director. There is also a winning melodramatic score by Louis Gruenberg.  Yet for all these nice touches there is something about the film that does not crystallize. All these nice pieces yet the whole does not ring true and leaves you unfilled.

The film represented a reteaming of Barry Sullivan and Belita one year after they appeared in the 1946 oddity, “Suspense.” Supporting cast include Charles McGraw, John Ireland, Virginia Christine, Harry Morgan, Akim Tariroff, Elisha Cook Jr. and Leif Erickson. Also look for Shelley Winters in a small role. The script was co-written by the soon to be blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Continue reading

Short Takes: Ladd, Stanwyck, Flynn and Seduction, Italian Style

Alan Ladd’s first major screen appearance, a tepid thriller with Barbara Stanwyck and Errol Flynn and a wicked satire from Italian film director Pietro Germi hightlight this week’s short takes.

This Gun For Hire (1942) Frank Tuttle

Alan Ladd is a nasty hired killer out for revenge after he is paid off in marked bills and he soon finds the police are quickly on his tail. Based on a novel by Grahame Greene, the movie comes across as one part foreign intrigue and two parts a noir crime film. Ladd is good as the pretty boy killer, with a soft spot for cats, who inadvertently becomes involved with a group selling chemical secrets to the Japanese. Veronica Lake is recruited by a senate committee to help expose the men selling the secrets becomes mixed up in the police hunt for Ladd. Ladd’s killer eventually finds redemption through Lake’s character who befriends him.  This was the first teaming of the handsome Ladd and the gentle soft beauty of sexy Veronica Lake. It’s also the film that made Ladd a star. The memorable Laird Cregar, so good in “Hangover Square” and “The Lodger,”  makes for an interesting weasel like neurotic criminal. I admittedly have always found Robert Preston, here he play the police Lieutenant in charge of the case, rather dull and he does nothing here to change my mind. Continue reading

Short Takes: Wall Street, Mitchum, Lincoln and Mansfield!

This edition of Short Takes includes one underrated fairly new film, from 2011, a made for television movie along with communists, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Joan Blondell and Jayne Mansfield.

Trial (1953) Mark Robson

A courtroom drama, filled with hot topics like racism, vigilantism, the Klu Klux Klan, communism, police brutality, paranoia and the influence of the media. On trial, a Mexican youth accused of murdering a local white girl. One of his lawyers (Arthur Kennedy) is more interested in using the boy as a martyr to raise money for the communist party while the other (Glenn Ford) is an idealistic young law professor who never tried a case before. Made during the McCarthy witch hunt era the story line has a strong anti-communist feel to it, but still manages to reflect some of dark sides of the American dream. Continue reading

Short Takes: Point Blank (1967) John Boorman

This week’s Short Takes consist of one film. I have been working on this review, on and off, for a long time and could never get anything I was satisfied with. It was starting to feel like an albatross around my neck and I just wanted to toss it into the circular file. Instead, I put it away and only just the other day took another look at it again. I decided to chop and chop and chop dropping paragraphs all over the place and continued to chop until I ended up with what we see here.

Though dressed in suits and working out of corporate offices, John Boorman’s underworld characters in “Point Blank” are as treacherous, back stabbing, conniving group of low life’s as treacherous as gangsters of the Al Capone and bathtub gin era in the 1920′s. But as slick as they think they are, they meet there match in Walker (Lee Marvin) a relentless, life long criminal, doubled crossed out of his share of money from a robbery and left for dead. More than revenge… Walker wants his damn money.

Right from the very beginning the film has a dreamlike quality to it that gives the impression everything we have seen unfolding is exactly that, a final dream of a dying man. We first see a severely wounded Walker bleeding badly in a Alcatraz jail cell, the result of a betrayal of a friend and his own wife. Then, still wounded, we see Walker swimming across the San Francisco Bay away from Alcatraz toward San Francisco, an almost impossible task for a healthy human being, never mind someone badly injured. The dream like quality continues through to the film’s finale back on Alcatraz where a helicopter drop is made with Walker’s money, and one of the organization’s honchos, a man named Brewster (Carroll O’Connor) standing next to the package telling him to come and get it. Off to the side standing in the shadows Walker watches the drop.  He does not come out; he stands back hidden and slowly fades into the darkness of the prison as the film ends.

The film is based on the novel, “The Hunter,” the first of twenty three hard boiled paperbacks about a career criminal who only goes by the name of Parker. It was written by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of the great crime fiction writers our time.  In the film version, Parker’s name was changed to Walker. This was came about due to author Westlake’s refusal to let the filmmakers use the name Parker unless they agreed to make a series of films based on his Parker novels. They did not and subsequently the name was changed.

“Point Blank” was a revelation when it first came out in 1967 one of the most stylistic and earliest films, along with “Bonnie and Clyde” released the same year,  to reflect the influences of the French New Wave. Boorman uses flashbacks, intercutting, off beat camera composition to create the paranoid universe Walker travels in attempting to collect the $93,000 owed him.

In 1999, the film was needlessly remade with Mel Gibson as Parker/Walker, only now he is called Porter. In comparing the two films, “Payback” is more straight forward, and certainly much more sadistically violent. It has the kind of over the top gratuitous movie violence that in real life no one could live through, yet Gibson’s Porter somehow does. Porter is also a much nastier version of Starks’ anti-hero, robbing, pick pocketing one person on the street to get false identification. He even steals some chump tip change off a sandwich shop counter for no reason other than he’s low-life. Porter is less anti-hero and more just a crude gorilla dressed up in false modern day movie cool. The film as whole has no heart or soul. It’s mindless pulp, a cartoon. Give me Lee Marvin over Mel Gibson and “Point Blank” over “Payback” any day.

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

Short Takes – Bogie, McQueen, Cassavetes and More…

My next full length review with be up on Monday morning. The change in schedule is due to my participation in the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe .  I will be contributing a piece on the 1960 film, “Peeping Tom.” In the meantime, I thought I would post seven short takes on some other films that I have recently watched.

The Sand Peebles (1966) Directed by Robert Wise

When “The Sand Peebles” premiered in December 1966, the U.S. was already deep into its “quagmire” in Vietnam, a foreign policy disaster fueled by false fears that if one domino (Vietnam) fell, all the others in Southeast Asia would surely all fall too. Though set in 1926 in China, the analogy to Vietnam and the depiction of racism, prevalent at the time as well as the colonialism is all too clear.  “The Sand Peebles” is a three hour anti-war epic about the effects of wrong-headed foreign policy. Steve McQueen gives what is arguably his finest performance as a rebellious ship engineer. Richard Crenna is superb as the ships’ self-righteous Captain, as is Richard Attenborough as one of McQueen’s shipmates who falls for a local Chinese girl.  Visually, the film is epic and stunningly photographed. Only weak spot is Candice Bergen’s non-existent performance as a missionary. Continue reading

Short Takes III: Groucho, Doris and Frank James

Horse Feathers (****1/2) The only thing wrong with this hilariously funny Marx Brothers film is the absene of Margaret Dumont from the cast. Other than that this film, the fourth of five for Universal the Brothers made is outstanding.  At this point in time the Marx Brothers were in the middle of a series of iconic films that still stand today as gems of absurdist comedy. The anarchistic arm of comedy rules right from the opening scene when Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, performs, “Whatever It Is , I’m Against It,”   and that pretty much is the theme of this short 75 minute film.

There are so many great scenes it is difficult to highlight just a few. I love the row boat scene with Groucho romancing Thelma Todd while she is attempting to seduce the team’s plays out of him. The entire sequence has a risqué and somewhat surrealistic feel to it all. When Thelma fall overboard and screams to Groucho to throw her a life saver, heroically he does just that, a candy life saver. The final wedding scene ends in what could be termed a riotous orgy. The scene opens with Groucho, Harpo and Chico standing off to the side as newlywed Thelma and an unseen groom, presumably Zeppo, are receiving their wedding vows from  the preacher. As soon as he pronounces the couple man and wife and says to kiss the bride, Groucho, Harpo and Chico literally jump all over Thelma falling into one big pile to the ground.   Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

My Dream Is Yours (***1/2) an odd little musical with a young Doris Day and second banana Jack Carson in the male lead role. Despite being a musical there are dark overtones of alcoholism and the death of a husband/father in the war. I am not much of a Doris Day fan (I’m diabetic and cannot take the sugar rush) generally avoiding her films like I would a hornets’ nest, but Martin Scorsese discusses this film in the new book, CONVERSATIONS WITH SCORSESE and liked it. Coincidently, it recently popped up on TCM and thought, with the Scorsese recommendation, I would give it a try. The film is a mixed bag, but  there is a wonderful dream sequence blending live action and animation featuring Bugs Bunny, along with Doris and Jack that is the highlight of the film. Location shots in Hollywood including Schwab’s Drugstore and The Brown Derby add a nice flavor. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

The Return of Frank James (**1/2) Fictional version of Frank James pursuit of the Ford Brothers for the killing of his brother Jesse. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Frank James is a gosh darn, soft spoken, man of the land kind of guy just out for good ol’ American revenge. I find Fonda such a likable actor, he could play a serial killer and you gosh darn want to like him. Henry Hull is entertainingly blustery as the newspaper editor/lawyer who defends Frank in court. The recently deceased Jackie Cooper’s death scene in the film has more corn than tears, and the film is also hurt by some serious stereotyping dialogue forced to be read by the black members of the cast. Nicely photographed by George Barnes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast includes Gene Tierney, John Carradine and Donald Meek.