Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks

balloffire2lcWhile Billy Wilder is best known as a film director, he always considered himself a writer first and director second. He worked best with a partner, and though he had many over the years, there were two, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, who were his most important associates.  Though he was born in Europe, Wilder quickly picked up and mastered the American vernacular. While Wilder always had a co-writer, there is no way to misinterpret a Wilder screenplay. His footprints are clearly all over them. Continue reading

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) William Wyler

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This essay is Twenty Four Frames contribution to the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch’s The Movie Projector. Click here to visit other great contributors to this event.

One of the most moving scenes in William Wyler’s epic film about returning war veterans appears only minutes into the start of the film when Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a disabled Navy veteran who lost both hands in the war, is dropped off at his parents’ home by the two other vets from his hometown he just met at the airport.  The two others, Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) remain in their taxi watching Homer as he approaches the house. He halts on the front lawn, feeling a sense of unease about what waits inside. It’s quiet, nothing happens for a moment, suddenly his kid sister Louella appears at the door, sees him, and excitedly runs out to greet her big brother. Homer’s parents are not far behind. They greet him, hesitant at first, his father then hugs him, his mother sobs, both tears of joy and sadness. They are soon joined by Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), Homer’s girl who lives next door. Their eyes meet, they stand still for a second and then she hugs him. Significantly, Homer does not hug her back. Continue reading

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) Fritz Lang

“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” was Fritz Lang’s last film in America. Having fought with producers and studios over the years he decided to stop making movies (He actually moved back to Germany and made his final films in his homeland). At the center of this final Hollywood film is the always highly sensitive issue of capital punishment. Does man have the right to take another’s life? Is the law giving another man, the executioner, a legal right to kill? In the film’s opening scene, we see a convicted murderer walking the last mile to the electric chair. One of the witnesses is Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a former newspaper reporter and now a novelist engaged to Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), the daughter of Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), newspaper publisher, Garrett’s former boss and an anti-capital punishment advocate. While Garrett is sure, if a man is being put to death by the law he must be guilty…Spencer is not. When a young and beautiful stripper is found murdered, the two men concoct a plan; plant enough circumstantial evidence in the murder case, making it look like Garrett is a strong suspect, enough for him to be arrested and put on trial by the politically motivated D.A. Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) who will push for the death penalty. The only proof of Tom’s innocence is photographs taken by Spencer of Garrett planting evidence that has incriminated him. Spencer keeps the “evidence” in his safe at his home. The two men do not even confide in Susan, Garrett’s fiancée, of their plot. It
all goes as planned; Garrett becomes suspected of the crime, is arrested and put on trail.

(SPOILERS AHEAD!)

With the jury in deliberation, Spencer takes the photographic evidence from his safe and is set to bring it to court to free Garrett. While driving to the courthouse he is struck by a truck, his vehicle bursting into a ball of fire killing him and destroying the only evidence of the plot he and Garrett conspired. Upon hearing the tragic news, Garrett desperately explains the entire charade to the court protesting his innocence but to no avail, he remains scheduled for execution.

Susan organizes a campaign to find enough evidence to clear Garrett of the murder. When she visits him in jail to tell him the good news of her findings, Garrett unexpectedly lets slip out a bit of information that only the murderer would know exposing himself at the real killer (it turns out the murder victim was Garrett’s ex-wife, a nightclub dancer, from a bad first marriage). With this unanticipated omission of guilt Susan walks out of the jail letting the execution take place.

Dana Andrews character makes for a strong victim. He is effective, if not necessarily a likable person. He is a writer in needs of a subject for his next book. The plan his future father-in-law and he cook up sounds intriguing and both men hope to prove their own point of view on the subject of capital punishment.  Of course, you may wonder why is he putting himself through this when he is on the verge of getting married to the beautiful Joan Fontaine who is left out in the cold on the plan and may be a little pissed eventually when it is all over that he and her father went through with this dangerous charade.

Lang’s final Hollywood production continues with one of his most consistent themes; an innocent man set on a course out of his control in a society that sucks individuals in like a vacuum. Along with “You Only Live Once” and “Fury”t his film suggest that individual’s have little power over their life, a lack of control in directing his or her own destiny. Outside forces, like the justice system, or in the case of “Fury,” mob violence and group thinking dominating one man’s fate.

Fritz Lang was not a happy camper during the making of this film. Battles with producer Bert L. Friedlob left him drained. Friedlob forced Dana Andrews on Lang. A bad alcoholic, Andrews drank throughout the filming adding to Lang’s despair. Friedlob also battled Lang on the ending of the film, first saying he wanted to film the electrocution as graphic as possible (The Celluloid Muse – Higham and Greenberg), later denying this after a front office spy claimed Lang was shooting this explicit scene of his own accord. In the end, Lang filmed the ending as it is in the final film with Susan forsaking Garrett in his jail cell as he awaits his execution.   Lang was right. There was no need to show the execution, the audience is well aware of what fate awaits Garrett. The front office battles though had left Lang drained. The fight wasn’t in him anymore. He did not like the film which had left a bad taste in his mouth.

The element of an innocent man in prison was not new, James Cagney played a crusading newspaper reporter who is framed for murder in Warner’s 1939’s film, “Each Dawn I Die.” and Peter Breck got himself put into a mental institution to solve a murder in Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.”  The film is based on a story and screenplay by Douglas Morrow, a lawyer, who probably should know how foolish an attempt this would be to trick the court, undermining justice. Most likely all involved would find themselves behind bars. That said, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is a taut thriller with a convincing twist of an ending, even if the legal premise is a bit shaky.  Like Lang himself at the time, the film is filled with acidity and disillusionment. The film was the second of two films Lang had on the screen in 1956. Earlier in the year came the tough, riveting, “While the City Sleeps” also produced by Friedlob.

Financially a minor success at the time, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” was a shattering harsh farewell note for Lang to have ended the Hollywood phase of his career.

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.