The Shanghai Gesture (***1/2) Such an amazingly lurid, corrupt and wicked film to ever come out of Hollywood during the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code. Gene Tierney is Poppy a spoiled young woman out for a good time in Shangahi. One night she parties in the biggest gambling house in town owned by Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Meanwhile, entrepreneur Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) is buying up large pieces of land in Shanghai including the property where Gin Sling’s gambling casino is located. When Gin Sling finds out Poppy is Sir Guy’s daughter she gets the slimy looking Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) to seduce wild child Poppy into the dark world of gambling, drugs and alcohol. A climatic Chinese New Year’s dinner reveals secrets and skeletons hidden in the closet that forever change lives. Gene Tierney, barely twenty one at the time, over plays some of her more dramatic scenes but makes up for it in her looks. Overall, this late Von Sternberg is not completely successful, but there is some nice photography and a fantastic crane shot worthy of his best work. Continue reading
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.
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.”
Harry Fabian is on the run and so was director Jules Dassin. “Night and the City” is dark unsympathetic masterpiece, uncompromising right down to its bleak ending. Even the film’s title is one of the most noirish, containing two essential elements of film noir.
“Night and the City” is one of a string of wonderfully directed film noirs Dassin made in the late 1940’s and into the early 1950’s. “Brute Force”, “The Naked City”, “Thieves Highway”, “Riffi” and this Richard Widmark marathon run. Dassin’s first European film, caps an unbelievable string of cinematic home runs that remain tough to beat. With his career in the United States over due to the McCarthy witch hunts, Dassin in exile, made his way to England, with the backing of 20th Century Fox, jumping into production on this dark morose tale of a small time scam artist who spent his life looking for his one big break. Dassin’ s post war London is cold, wet, Dickensian with remnants of the war torn city still clearly visible. From the opening scenes at St. Paul’s Cathedral where we first see Fabian running in the night to the final scenes at the Hammersmith Bridge where Fabian’s journey ends, London is portrayed as an inhospitable gloomy place. This is all achieved with Dassin’s use of his camera; the angles, the strategic placement of the lens all accomplished with the talented assistance of cinematographer Mel Greene.
Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian gives us his most definitive role. Dressed in flashy plaid sports jackets, tellingly saying to the world his is a sharpie while in truth, Fabian is a scam artist, an ugly American, a nobody who wants to be somebody out for his own big score and unconcerned about the bodies left behind. Even Mary (Gene Tierney), the girl who loves him is a victim to Fabian’s hucksterism. In the end there is no victory, no escape, no redemption for Fabian, he tried to take on the London underworld and lost.
Widmark once said in an interview, what he remembers most about this film is that he did a lot of running. He does. According to Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon in the book, The Rough Guide to Film Noir, for Fabian’s final run near the Hammersmith Bridge, Dassin and cinematographer Max Greene with only about a half hour of light left used six cameras and “completed a staggering twenty two shots in eighteen minutes.”
At the time of its release the film was not well received. The late Bosley Crowther, the premiere film critic at the New York Times for 27 years, said after first praising Jules Dassin’s recent work on “The Naked City” and “Thieves Highway” called “Night and the City “a pointless, trashy yarn, and the best he (Dassin) has to accomplish is a turgid pictorial grotesque.” As usually is the case Mr. Crowther has delivered a pompous bizarre review. Later on in his review he downplays Widmark’s performance, now considered one of his finest. Crowther seemed let his prejudices, dictate his criticism; his dislike of violence in film or display of political beliefs (right or left) always seemed to color his reviews. Today, “Night and the City” is considered a noir essential, a wicked masterpiece of dark cinema and Widmark’s performance is one of his finest.
Based on a novel by Gerald Kersh, “Night and the City” was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as Harry Fabian, now a scheming lawyer and Jessica Lange. London was replaced with New York, a good choice, but the film remains ordinary and inferior to the original.