The Big Heat (1953) Fritz Lang

By 1953, Fritz Lang’s career was a rocky road forced to make small studio or independent films one after another. He also spent the last few years clearing himself of accusations, made by the House of Un-American Activities, he was a communist. By the time he signed with second tier Columbia studio the commie accusations had been cleared and Lang was heading toward the final phase of his career in America before heading back to the homeland, Germany.

With Glenn Ford, a poor man’s James Stewart, in the lead, Lang was still floating in less than grade A film waters. At this point in his career Ford was mostly making programmers or second features, films like  “Plunder in the Sun,” “Time Bomb,” “The Redhead and the Cowboy,” “Framed” and “The Undercover Man” with the occasional more expensive production  added in (“Gilda”). Quality varied, some were good, some not, most as mentioned were not “big” pictures. Columbia did not consider, “The Big Heat,” a major motion picture.

“The Big Heat” is based on a serialized, in the Saturday Evening Post, novel by William P. McGivern, a novelist (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder), screenwriter (The Wrecking Crew, Brannigan) and TV writer (Kojack, Adam-12, Banyon) with a screenplay by Sidney Bohem (Side Street, Union Station, Violent Saturday). Continue reading

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Don Siegel

This review is part of the 50′s Monster Mash Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. The blogathon runs from July 28th through August 2nd.

An allegory on the infiltration of communism in America? A metaphor for people turning a blind eye to the McCarthyism hysteria that was sweeping the country in the early 1950′s? An attack on the potential dangers of conformity and the stamping out of individuality? Don Siegel’s 1956 gem of a film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has been said to really be about any and all of these themes since its debut now more than fifty years ago. Siegel, who should know, never mentions any of this kind of subtext in his autobiography, “A Siegel Film,” so one can assume, all the reading into this classic SF film that has been done is just that, critics and filmgoers reading their own thoughts and ideas into a work of pop art…and there is nothing wrong with that! After all, isn’t personal interpretation one of the elements and joys of good art? Admirer, analyze, come up with theories, themes beyond what even the artist conceived.

The film is based on a serialized novel, written by Jack Finny, published in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine called, “The Body Snatchers.” It was produced by Walter Wanger (notoriously known for shooting  talent agent, later a producer, Jennings Lang. Wanger believed Lang was having an affair with his then wife, actress Joan Bennett) and directed by low budget action director Don Siegel. Siegel already had ten feature films under his belt including “The Big Steal,” “Duel at Silver Creek,” “Private Hell 36″ and “Riot in Cell Block 11.” Allied Artist agreed to back the film and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring was on board to adapt Finney’s superb novel. Continue reading

Where Are They? Baby Face Nelson (1957)

An occasional series on missing films. They are rarely, if ever, shown on TV and have never been released on video in any form. If anyone has any knowledge where these films have been shown, TV, a film festival or in a basement in your house please let me know.

 

The next film in this series is “Baby Face Nelson” directed by Don Siegel.

 

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Siegel’s other films include the original 1956 verison of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”,  “Coogan’s Bluff”, “Madigan”, “Dirty Harry”, “Two Mules for Sister Sara”, “The Shootist” and many other great films. Mickey Rooney stars in the 1957 film about the violent and uncontrollable Baby Face Nelson, bank robber and killer. His real name was Lester Gillis and he became a member of John Dillinger’s gang participating in numerous crime sprees. After Dillinger’s death outside a movie house, Nelson became Public Enemy Number 1.

 

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The film co-stars Leo Gordon as John Dillinger who starred earlier in another rare Siegel film, “Riot in Cellblock 11.” The film also co-stars Carolyn Jones as Sue, Nelson’s girlfriend.

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In 2006, the Film Forum in New York City had a Don Siegel retrospective and “Baby Face Nelson” was given a rare showing. Elliot Stein in a review of the series in the Village Voice, said, “a ferocious Mickey Rooney gives the finest dramatic performance of his career.”

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 The film received mostly negative reviews when first released (see New York Times review here ) however, since then the film has been praised by many film critics for Rooney’s performance and it violent action scenes. See this short review in the Chicago Reader.

 

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The late 1950′s and early 1960′s saw a rash of low budget gangster films. Along with “Baby Face Nelson”, there was “Al Capone”, “Machine Gun Kelly”,  “The Purple Gang”, “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” and “Mad Dog Coll.”

 

 

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In addtion to the Film Forum Don Siegel retrospective, “Baby Face Nelson” has been shown at a few other venues including a 2005 salute to Don Siegel at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The real question is when will this film be released on home video or shown on TCM?

 

In fact, many of Siegel’s film are among the missing, the previously mentioned “Riot in Cell Block 11″, the teenage gang film  “Crime in the Streets” with John Cassavetes, Sal Mineo and Mark Rydell, “The Lineup” with Eli Wallach, which had a rare showing on TCM last year and “Private Hell 36″ with Ida Lupino to name a few. 

 

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I saw “Baby Face Nelson” at the time of its original release. We (my father took me) saw it at the Loew’s Commodore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The Commodore in the 1960′s would gain legendary status when it became the Fillmore East  rock venue.  

   

Here is a list of the films mentioned in this post that are not available on home video.

 

Crime in the Streets

Riot in Cell Block 11

Private Hell 36

Mad Dog Coll

Al Capone (released on VHS OOP – No DVD release)

The Purple Gang

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond  (released on VHS OOP – No DVD release)

The Lineup

Machine Gun Kelly (released on VHS OOP – No DVD release)

 

  

OOP VHS can still be found in some video stores and local libraries. Certainly worth checking out.

King Creole (1958) Michael Curtiz

     “King Creole” is arguably Elvis Presley’s best film. This may sound like a dubious achievement but “King Creole” is a movie that you do not actually have to be an Elvis fan to like. The film has a lot more going for it than most Elvis films. A good solid Hollywood director in Michael Curtiz, the man responsible for made “Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk” and so many others.  A cast of actors that would do any film proud including Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, Dean Jagger, Dolores Hart and the wonderful sexy off beat Carolyn Jones…and of course, Elvis. Also contributing is Russell Harlan’s moody photography that captured the seedy French Quarter atmosphere so well.

    “King Creole” was only Elvis’ fourth film and the last before military service cut his hair and other more vital organ parts, at least symbolically. The music was still good (King Creole, Hard Headed Woman, Trouble) and had yet to disintegrate into fetal filler like “It’s A Dog’s Life” and “Song of the Shrimp,” that would become typical of his movies within only a few years. The movie was based on an early novel by Harold Robbins, one of the most successful authors or the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Robbins works included “The Carpetbaggers,” “Never Love a Stranger,” “Where Love Has Gone” and “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” all eventually made into movies. “A Stone for Danny Fisher” was retiled “King Creole” when adapted into a screenplay (co-written by Michael V. Gazzo) for Elvis. The location was changed from the streets of New York to New Orleans to accommodate Elvis’ southern accent and of course, now Danny can sing.

     Danny Fisher is a high school student just about to graduate when family problems, his dad is out of work, and a hot temper result in Danny dropping out of school and falling in with a group of young punks who plan to rob a five and dime store using Danny’s singing skills as a diversion. The punks, lead by Vic Morrow, as Shark,  work for Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) a minor local hood who owns a club where Danny works mopping and sweeping because his father can’t hold down a job.  Danny leads a double life. There’s Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), Maxie’s kept woman, who is attracted to Danny and Danny is attracted to her, as he is to Nellie (Dolores Hart), a nice girl Danny meets at the five and dime store he was mixed up in robbing. There’s also, Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), a honest rival club owner (he owns the King Creole) of Maxie’s, who gives Danny a break singing there, and then there is Maxie Fields, a viciously vile and abusive thug representing the dirtier underworld  side of the nightclub life. Danny is pulled in both directions; the unhappy Ronnie abused and used by Maxie and the sweet more innocent Nellie, the nice girl who a good life can still be possible with.

“King Creole” would be Elvis’ last ‘rebel without a cause’ style film. He would go into the army an anti-hero and when he came out two years later, like Samson once his hair was cut, he lost that rock and roll spirit. He turned into a cleaner cut friendly all American Elvis, a pod that would carry him through approximately thirty more films with little or no redeeming value.           

  King Creole has plenty of good moments in it like the opening scene; we see the wet empty streets on an early New Orleans morning. A black woman, riding in a wagon calling/singing out “Crawfish” as she slowly strolls the empty street. “See I got’em, see there size, stripped and cleaned before your eyes”.  A bongo beat begins and suddenly from up on a balcony above we hear Elvis sing out “Crawfish,” back and forth with the black woman.  What great opening scene. There a lot of other good stuff in this film, Elvis in a switchblade fight with Vic Morrow and his gang; Walter Matthau’s performance as the slimy hood Maxie Fields;  Elvis singing “Trouble” on top of a bar proving to Maxie that he can sing and Carolyn Jones giving another great performance as a sensitive good-hearted loser.  

It’s sad that Elvis rarely got to use his acting chops again (only in Flaming Star did he have that chance). In “King Creole” he shows flashes of acting talent that if nurtured could have potentially gave us some memorable performances. At one time or another Elvis was considered, or offered such roles as Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the Kris Kristofferson role in the Streisand remake of “A Star is Born.”  It would have been interesting to see what a director the caliber of a John Scheslinger could have done with Elvis.