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

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

Framed (1947) Richard Wallace

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“Framed” is James M. Cain light, “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, shaken and stirred. All the ingredients are there, the protagonist, a sap of a guy falling hard for a duplicitous femme fatale who crosses and double crosses anyone getting in her way. There’s also the dame’s lover, a debonair adulterous underhanded white-collar thief masquerading as a model citizen.

Framed insert416063.1010.AStudio hack Richard Wallace directs Glenn Ford, playing Mike Lambert an out of work engineer with a drinking problem. He has the unfortunate habit of drinking too much and not remembering what happened afterward, and needless to say, this gets him into deep trouble. When Paula Craig (Janis Carter) first sets her eyes on him, he is in court, given a bum rap for reckless driving. Broke he cannot afford to pay his $50 fine. Unexpectedly she coughs up the money to pay the fine So the question arises why is she being so nice to a guy she does not even know? Well, it turns out Paula is looking for a stooge to be the fall guy in a plan she and her lover, Bank Vice-President Steve Price (Barry Sullivan),  have cooked up. The two are planning to embezzle two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of the bank’s money. Lambert is just about the right size and weight to pass for Price, if he were to have a deadly car “accident after the robbery. The plan goes awry when Paula begins to have feelings for Lambert, and decides to bump off Price instead.

Paula Craig is one of film noirs forgotten femme fatales, yet here she stands as one the most two-faced treacherous, untrustworthy, deceitful and manipulative woman to grace the screen. Killing her banker/lover, willing to sacrifice Lambert to the law, for Paula, it is all about the money. Men come easy to a beautiful woman like her but money well that’s another story. Fearing Lambert may be able to incriminate her in the murder of Price, she is willing to poison him, only changing her mind once she realizes he was too drunk to remember anything.

Janis Carter gives a convincingly vivid and sexy performance as Paula Craig, in a poisonous role that ranks her up there with some of the most treacherous dames in film noir.  A tall beautiful, high cheeked boned blonde, Carter runs away with the film. Glenn Ford is well, Glenn Ford, Mr. nice guy only here with a drinking problem. Ford is an actor I just cannot warm up too. Rarely do I find his performances engaging and he does nothing here to change my mind. Admittedly, there are exceptions in films like “The Big Heat”,  “3:10 to Yuma”, and “Jubal.”   Other cast members include Edgar Buchanan who Lambert befriends and who Paula at one point attempts to set up as the killer. Karen Morley is on hand in a small role as the banker’s wife. However, for me it’s Carter’s performance that carries this low budget film raising it above its obvious cut-rate production standards.

janis carter   Carter’s career was primarily in “B” films with an occasional foray into “A” works. Films included “Lady of Burlesque”,  “Miss Grant Takes Richmond”, “Night Editor”, and “I Married a Communist.” She also appeared in Budd Boetticher’s  Boston Blackie film, “One Mysterious Night” and with John Wayne in Nick Ray’s “Flying Leathernecks.” In the 1950’s she transitioned into TV, pretty much retiring from the business by 1955. According to IMDB, she made one more film in 1962. Surprisingly it was Russ Myers’ “Wild Gals of the Wild West.”

1Framed-Carter    Based on a story by John Patrick, the screenplay was written by Ben Maddow, whose writing credits include “The Asphalt Jungle”, “The Mephisto Waltz”, “The Naked Jungle” and “Johnny Guitar.” The last two were fronted by Philip Jordan when Maddow found himself blacklisted. Maddow also directed the documentary, “The Savage Eye” among other films. Maddow was also a published poet, novelist and later a well know photography critic whose books included a biography of  the great photographer Edward Weston.

Human Desire (1954) Fritz Lang

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The bad rap against “Human Desire” is that it’s not as good as Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” (released in the U.S. as The Human Beast), the French film it was based on, nor it is not as good as the earlier Lang, Ford, Grahame, collaboration, “The Big Heat.” Still, on its own terms “Human Desire” is a well-paced engrossing film noir. The biggest problem with the film is Glenn Ford’s flat performance which lacks the dark mood required for this tale of seduction, passion and murder. His nice guy personality almost derails the film; however, it’s saved only by Lang’s camera and the enticing nuanced performance of Gloria Grahame.

Based on a novel by Emile Zola, the plot revolves around Jeff Warren (Ford), a recently discharged Korean War veteran returning back to his job as a train engineer. Here he meets the sexy Vicki (Grahame), the young tantalizing wife of Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), a railroad stationmaster.  Carl is soon fired when he gets into an argument with his senior manager. Distressed, he wants Vicki to go to old family friend, and influential businessman John Owens, asking him to help get Carl his job back. Vicki is reluctant to do so; however, Carl, an alcoholic and wife abuser, forces her to go see him. Though Carl never flatly comes out and states it, he implies Vicki should do whatever it takes to entice Owens to help him get his job back. Upon her return, she flatly tells Carl he got back his job; however, he is now more concerned with why she was away so long and what happened between her and Owens. His out of control jealousy escalates into his physically beating Vicki up, forcing her to admit something went on between them.

dŽsirs humains     Carl’s jealousy continues to haunt him, pressuring Vicki to write a letter to Owens saying she would like to meet him at the train. At the arranged time, Carl drags Vicki to the station and directly to Owens compartment, where he stabs him to death in front of her. Escaping from the compartment turns out not to be so easy with a train conductor at one end and Jeff, off duty, at the other end of the car. Carl pushes Vicky to distract Jeff by flirting with him. They strike up a conversation becoming quickly attracted to each other. Before you can finish a cigarette, they are passionately lip locked.

Interviewed during the inquisition of the Owens murder, Jeff covers up for Vicki denying he saw her anywhere need the scene of the crime. They soon begin having an affair. Jeff sinks deeper and deeper into her alluring maze. He had a way out of Vicki’s web, if he wanted it. There is a nice girl Vera (Diane DeLaire), daughter of co-worker and friend Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan), who is attracted to him and tries to draw him into nice decent relationship; however, Jeff is already too deeply entwined in Vicki’s web of sex and deceit. Vicki will eventually attempt to charm Jeff into killing her good for nothing pig of a husband. She rationalizes Jeff, a former Korean War veteran, has already killed plenty of men so what’s one more, especially for a seductive beauty like her.

-Human Desire-gloria    Lang films are filled with outsiders, Hans Beckert in “M”, Eddie Graham in “You Only Live Once”, Christopher Cross in “Scarlet Street” and here you can add Jeff Warren and Vicki to the group. One wonders if Lang’s compassionate viewpoint for outsiders stems from his own background coming from troubled Europe to America?

Unfortunately, Glenn Ford is not an actor with much depth. He’s unable to convey any sense of tragedy. He is bland and comes across as too much the average nice guy. A more conflicted, morose actor, (Robert Mitchum?) would have added an extra layer that is lacking here. In Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” Lantier (Jean Gabin), is certainly a more conflicted character than his American counterpart. He suffers with a family history of mental behavior driving him to murder. In Renoir’s film, there are no likeable people unlike Lang’s remake. On the other hand, Grahame give us one of the boldest performances in her career, a definite improvement over Simone Simon in Renoir’s film. Sexy, vulnerable, desperate and brassy, she is more damaged goods here than femme fatale, with hints that sometime in her past she may have been sexually abused. Grahame’s sexiness shines right from the first scene in the film where we first see her lying down on her bed, her legs up in the air, sexy and inviting. Watching her, you can’t really blame any man for getting weak in the knees. Broderick Crawford is down right nasty as the overly jealous husband and while he is good, his performance is a bit one noted.

dŽsirs humains    Renoir’s “La Bette Humane” was doubtlessly too dark and verboten for American audiences addicted to happy endings, which I believe to be the reason for the changes made between the leading character (Warren/Lantier) in the two versions. Besides the male protagonists, it is also significant how differently Vicki and Serverine meet their respective deaths. Vicki by her jealous husband and Serverine stabbed to death by Lantier.  “Human Desire” was also damaged by restrictions forced upon it by the production code. Zola’s novel and Renoir’s film contain bleaker more naturalistic endings than the unsatisfying ending Lang leaves us with.

The Undercover Man (1949) Joseph H. Lewis

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Glenn Ford is no stranger to the dark streets of film noir, he’s walked them many times before, in “Gilda”, “The Big Heat” and “Human Desire.” In Joseph H. Lewis’ 1949 film, “The Undercover Man,” a low rent though first-class crime drama filmed in a semi-documentary nourish style. Treasury Agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) who is out to bring down the gangland syndicate leader known only as “The Big Fellow” leads a criminal investigation. It would sound ludicrous if it were not true that the IRS brought to justice real life gangster Al Capone, whose story this film tells a fictionalize version of. Based on a Collier’s magazine article called “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone” by Frank Wilson, it tells the story of how the federal government finally caught Al Capone on income tax evasion.  The screenplay is credited to Sidney Boehm and Jack Rubin, though independent producer Robert Rossen is said to have had a say in the script.  Boehm would go on to write many noir films including “The Big Heat”, “Violent Saturday”, “Mystery Street” and “Side Street.”

Burnett Guffey’s gritty dark lit cinematography is filled with murky overcrowded city streets, dark movie theaters and seedy hotel rooms not fit for a two-dollar hooker but good enough for federal enforcement officers to shack up in during the investigation. It is a dark dingy world filled with squealers, bookies and murderers. In this part of town, the bookies are dropping dead, quicker than flies attacked by a blast of bug spray.undercover-poster1

Glenn Ford is a dour actor who barely breaks a smile here until the film’s ending. His government agent is at times tormented, driven, paranoid and almost beaten. He’s prepared to give up his job, until the mother of slain bookie Salvatore Rocco, hands over her son’s books, and tells him how she and many others came to America to get away from the Mafia in Italy, and how thanks to brave men like him, she and others no longer have to live in fear. The woman’s story brings tears to Agent Warren’s eyes and he decides stay on the case. Joseph H. Lewis states in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich that this scene was shot in one take using three cameras. He felt it was the only way he could capture the realistic emotions as portrayed by the actors. Nina Foch, who would have the lead role in Lewis’ “My Name is Julia Ross” is Judith, Warren’s wife. While she has some nice moments, Foch is generally wasted in a role that is of minor importance to the film. James Whitmore is on hand, in his film debut, as fellow T-Man George Pappas.

Lewis spent most of his career in the bargain basement department of filmmakers, though he proved himself a master of camera placement with some of the most unconventional shots to come out of poverty row. He was given the name “Wagon Wheels Joe” after he did one low budget oater that had more cowboys than actors in the cast. Since they could barely read their lines, Lewis, in order to distract the audience from the lack of talent, shot a scene with the camera looking through a wagon wheel. The shot was considered so artistic; it gave Lewis a reputation for placing his camera at unusual angles.

undercover-still1  While “The Undercover Man” was a second feature, it had a budget of about one million dollars and turned out to be the film on the double bill everyone wanted to see. Lewis’ noir films like the aforementioned “My Name is Julia Ross”, along with “So Dark the Night”, “Gun Crazy” and “The Big Combo” are required viewing for any serious film enthusiast.. Along with his noir work, Lewis’ filmography consisted of westerns, generally starring Bob Baker or Johnny Mack Brown. In the 1950’s he made two westerns with Randolph Scott however, his oddest western was the 1958 film “Terror in a Texas Town”, that opens with Sterling Hayden walking down the town street carrying a harpoon! There were war films like “Retreat Hell,” films of intrigue and even the East Side Kids in Poverty Row stuff like “Boys of the City”, “Pride of the Bowery” and “That Gang of Mine.” In the 1960’s, Lewis spent the final days of his career in television doing mostly western series like “The Rifleman”,  “Bonanza”, “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley.” He died in 2000.

“The Undercover Man” is a good crime thriller. It will not make you forget “My Name is Julia Ross” or “Gun Crazy” or “The Big Combo”, though it will remind you of what a large talent can do with just a small amount of money.

The Undercover Man will be on TCM on August 7th at 10PM EST.

Experiment in Terror (1962) Blake Edwards

 exp-in-terror-still1   Blake Edwards is best known for the “Pink Panther” series and later on for a few hits in the 1980’s like “SOB”, “10” and “Victor, Victoria.” Edwards’ career however, started back to the 1940’s where he began as an actor, though not achieving much success at it. Looking at his credits in IMDB, I noticed he did appear in quite a few well known films like “The Best Years of Our Lives”, “They Were Expendable” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” The roles were very small and if you blink your eyes, well, as they say, you would miss him.

    In the late forties Edward produced, co-produced and co-wrote two low budget westerns, “Panhandle” and “Stampede.” His last film as an actor was a 1948 flick called “Leather Gloves” whose only significance is that it was co-directed by Richard Quine. Edwards and Quine would go on to work on many projects together as co-writers or writer and director or any combination thereof. Their films include “Drive a Crooked Road”, “Operation Madball”, “My Sister Eileen”, “He Laughed Last” and “The Notorious Landlady.” Edwards work as a director began in the early 1950’s with Four Star Playhouse, a TV anthology series. His first feature film, “Bring Your Smile Along” was written by Edwards and Quine. His first significant film was “Mr. Corey” starring Tony Curtis and Martha Hyer. Though he continued to make films, Edwards big break came in 1958 with the private eyes series “Peter Gunn.” With its jazzy hip Henry Mancini theme song and noir like atmosphere, “Peter Gunn”, which only ran for two seasons, has long since developed a following. Edwards revived the character twice since then, in the 1967 feature film “Gunn” with Craig Stevens reviving his role as Gunn and again in 1989 with the made for TV film “Peter Gunn” with Pete Strauss in the lead role. exp-in-terror-insert

    Edwards’ first big screen hits were two military comedies, “The Perfect Furlough” with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh and “Operation Petticoat” with Curtis again and Cary Grant. This was followed by “Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961 and then in 1962 Edwards stepped back into the world of noir with “Experiment in Terror” starring Glenn Ford, not as a hip P.I. but as a straight and very square FBI agent. “Experiment in Terror” is based on a novel called “Operation Terror” written by the husband and wife team of Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon. They always signed their works as The Gordons. A few of their other novels have been adapted to the screen, most notably “Undercover Cat” which Disney turned into “That Darn Cat!” 

 

    Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is a beautiful young bank teller who is accosted in her garage one night by an unseen asthmatic psycho (Ross Martin) who threatens to kill her and her teenage sister Toby (Stephanie Powers) if she does not steal $100,000 from the bank where she works. Kelly contacts the FBI however; the psychotic madman seems to know every step Kelly makes. FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) attempts to protect Kelly and her sister while trying to hunt down the psychopath though he has no leads to go on. Ripley working with a local police informant eventually identifies the man as Red Lynch (Ross Martin), a criminal who already has two murders to his credit. Soon after, in order to ensure Kelly goes through with the robbery Lynch kidnaps id sister Toby. It all comes to a climatic boil at the San Francisco Giant’s Candlestick Park in a game with the Dodgers. The film’s suspenseful ending is classic and one the more famous in cinema.

    “Experiment in Terror has a lot going for it, a menacing score from Henry Mancini, excellent noir like cinematography from Philip Lathrop especially in the beginning, which is one of the most menacing openings of any on film on celluloid. A wonderful performance from the beautiful and intelligent Lee Remick while Ross Martin is truly creepy as the sick Red Lynch and Glenn Ford gives it his stoic best. On the minus side, the film is a bit too long. Chopping off about 15 minutes would have tightened up the pace. Edwards though is known for his extended scenes, liking the action to play out. While this worked well in “The Pink Panther” series where it gave Peter Sellers plenty of space and time, here it feels like the pacing drags the film a bit. There is also a subplot involving an earlier victim of Lynch’s who comes to Ripley’s office saying a “friend” of hers is in trouble and would Ripley help. Soon after, Ripley and his partner go to the woman’s apartment, where they find her hanging upside down between a series of mannequins. I can see why Edwards would want to keep this scene in the film. While the scene is eerie and visually stunning, the entire sequence could have been removed without any damage to the overall story. experimentinterror-opening-credtyOther than the fact that this woman was an earlier victim of Lynch’s the only connection between her and Kelly Sherwood is a mysterious note containing the name Sherwood. It remains unclear how the dead woman knew Kelly’s name.  As mentioned Glenn Ford’s character is stoic, straight laced. There is no sign of any personal life nor does he ever show any interest in Kelly as a woman other than the fact that she is a victim that he has to protect. He comes across as a “just the facts” lawman as Sgt. Joe Friday used to say. Then again, no one in the film seems to have much of a love life except for teenage Toby who hangs out with her friends and has a boyfriend. While we never see or here anything about Ripley’s private life, Kelly, whose personal life we do see also seems to be lacking any sort of real relationship with a man, other than the psychopath Red Lynch, in her life. One co-worker who asks her out to dinner is quickly shrugged off with a “call me tomorrow.” True, Kelly does have other things on her mind right now than dinner with a man. You would think though that a drop dead beautiful woman like that would certainly show some signs of a man in her life now or at least in the past. Ross Martin as Red Lynch gives us a menacing vision of a cold psychotic evil criminal who has no problem with killing his victims if they threaten his life or his plans. Yet, there are two scenes in the films where Lynch, the cold-blooded killer, displays he has a heart or at least some feelings. First with his girlfriend, Lisa Soong (Anita Loo) whose son’s hip replacement operation Lynch pays for. The second incident is after kidnapping Toby, he tells her to remove her clothes. After stripping down to a bra and a half-slip, (he mails her outer garments to Kelly to prove he abducted her), Lynch begins to move toward her. Frightened she backs away, he keeps coming however, seeing how frightened she is he suddenly backs down, showing a momentary sign of sympathy, reducing the tension of a sexual attack. While this doesn’t make Lynch “a nice guy” it does provide some dimension to the role that otherwise would be lacking.  Martin, of course, in a few years would become better know as Artumus Gordon in the 1ate 1960’a hit TV Western “The Wild Wild West.”

    “Experiment in Terror” starts off as a sharp noir like thriller, all deep blacks and menacing lighting with extreme close ups of Lynch terrorizing Kelly, this sequence generates such an intense mood that manages to last throughout the rest of the film. While not a great film, Experiment in Terror” is certainly a worthy one to look out for.