Act of Violence Revisited

Act ov violence

Mary Astor’s career was a long one going back to the early 1920′s. Over the years her career continued to grow until an infamous marital scandal broke in 1936 while she was making William Wyler’s “Dodsworth.”  During the court battle her husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe threatened to submit Astor’s spicy, fully detailed, diary as evidence of her infidelities with George S. Kaufmann and other celebrities. Ultimately, the diary was never offered to the court. Astor’s career could have been in jeopardy, since as with most actors at the time, a morality clause was included as part of the contract. Fortunately, Sam Goldwyn refused to fire her and she continued in her role as Edith Cortwright, Huston’s lover in the film.  “Dodsworth” was a hit and Astor amazingly entered what could be considered her peak period with films like “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “The Hurricane,” “Midnight,” “Brigham Young” leading her into arguably her best year, 1941, with “The Maltese Falcon” and an Academy Award winning role as Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Great Lie.”

After the successful year of 1941, along with its follow up with films like “Across the Pacific” and Preston Sturges, “The Palm Beach Story,” both in 1942, Mary Astor’s career hit another serious bump in the road. She made the mistake of signing a contract with MGM where they pretty much regulated her to playing “mother” roles in films like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Little Women.” In the 1944 musical, Astor, only 38 at the time, played the mother of Judy Garland who was 22. Suffice it to say, Astor was not happy. One of the few meatier roles MGM tossed Mary’s way came in 1948. Continue reading

Act of Violence (1948) Fred Zinnemann

In the late 1940′s, director Fred Zinnemann made a loose trilogy of films depicting the effects of the post war aftermath. First up was “The Search” (1948) with Montgomery Clift as an American soldier helping a young boy search for his mother. The last film was “The Men” (1950) with Marlon Brando, in his film debut, as a paralyzed G.I. attempting to adjust to his new post war life.  In between these two works came the noirish thriller,” Act of Violence.”

“Act of Violence” explores the choices one makes creating the sometimes thin line between being a hero and an informer. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a war hero, maybe. He has a beautiful wife, (a young fresh faced, Janet Leigh), a young boy, a thriving business, a house in the California suburbs and is well respected in the business community. He goes on weekend fishing trips with his neighbor while the wives are happily at home. Into this tranquil and serene world comes Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a limping, gun carrying, revenge seeking former army buddy who is dead set on killing Frank. Parkson is sinister looking, seething with hate. Joe cannot forget or forgive what happened back when they were prisoners of war in a Nazi stalag camp. Continue reading

The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston

This posting is a contribution to the John Huston Blogathon over at Adam Zanzie’s Icebox Movies.

If anyone believes that the writer is the auteur of a film one only has to look at the 1931 and 1941 versions of “The Maltese Falcon.” The difference in not so much in the script as both films  take dialogue directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel but more in the set design, lighting, direction and in how the characters are portrayed. In Roy Del Ruth’s pre-code version Sam Spade is more of an upper class dandy, from the Nick and Nora Charles School of private eyes. Del Ruth’s Spade has a fancy apartment and office. Huston’s Spade is from the dark, dirty,  hard-boiled school of detectives, cynical and willing to be as corrupt as the bad guys. He is an unsentimental man who indifferently informs his dead partner’s wife that he is dead, a woman with whom he recently had an affair. Huston/Bogart’s Spade is a much more complex character than the dandy portrayed by Cortez in the earlier version. It is not just Spade who is different, Bebe Daniels Brigit O’Shaughesssey is more defenseless than the tough as nails, manipulative Mary Astor version. In Huston’s version no characters trusts any other. While the 1931 pre-code film is blunter about Spade’s womanizing as portrayed by Ricardo Cortez there is no sleaze factor in his Spade whereas Bogart’s Spade you can tell has been around the block a few times. I will not even discuss the second remake “Satan Was a Lady” barely recognizable as a remake..

No one at Warner Brothers was expecting much from what was a low-budget production. They even wanted to call the film “The Gent From Frisco.” George Raft, it is well known, refused to work with an untried director, turned down the lead role opening up the position for Humphrey Bogart, and with that began the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” as Rick Blaine (Bogart) says to Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in another Warner classic a few years later, between the director John Huston and actor  Humphrey Bogart.  His performance here was a major step in the creation of the Bogie persona which achieved its completion in Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca.” Huston and Bogart would make six films together. This being his first film Huston made drawings of all the camera setups so as not to appeared unprepared on the set came time to actually shoot.

For a director making his first film Huston’s camera setups were superb, Close oppressive atmosphere, stunning low-angle shots, and the final shot of Mary Astor as the police take her away with the elevator door closing on her like a jail cell door are some examples. There is also one long continuously shot scene in Spade’s apartment that according to Huston in his autobiography, “An Open Book” required something like twenty-six dolly moves requiring the cameraman to move along with the actors in order to complete the six or seven minute take. A  theme that would become common in Huston films shows up in this first outing, greed, the lust for the falcon representing the stuff dreams are made of. This theme will be explored over and over again in films like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Man Who Would Be King” and others.

“The Maltese Falcon” was a major hit, financially and artistically, receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Picture of the Year, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut). This was also the first pairing of Greenstreet and Peter Lorre who was award worthy himself as Joel Cairo. The film is generally considered the first film noir, though there are some that will debate that. Bogart became a major league star and Huston’s directing career was off to an auspicious start.

*****

The Little Giant (1933) Roy Del Ruth

This is a reprint of a short review from my Weekly Wrap column that I have been doing over at  the “Watching Shadows on the Wall” blog,  I am reposting some of the short reviews I have written over there that fit into the scope of 24frames.

 

From Little Caesar to Little Giant. Just two years after Edward G. Robinson made celluloid history as Rico in Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little Caesar” he and Warner Brothers were spoofing his tough guy image in this little gem.  With a story line similar to the better known “A Slight Case of Murder”, which was made some five years later in 1938, this film has Robinson as gangster Bugs Ahearn who decides to get out of the bootlegging business and go straight after Roosevelt’s victory over Hoover and the government’s announcement to repeal prohibition.

Rich from his 12 years of bootlegging, he decides to relocate to California and mingle in high society. The film becomes a fish of water story as Bugs, hiding his true identity, become a target for every scam artist on the west coast especially the evil Cass family. From pretty Polly Cass (Helen Vinson) who seduces him hoping to marry so she can get a quickie divorce and a large settlement, to her brother who sells Bugs polo ponies and finally, the father who sells Bugs an investment firm on the verge of bankruptcy and has the law coming down on them for fraud. Also on board and about the only honest person in the film is Ruth Wayburn (Mary Astor) who of course falls secretly in love with our gangster hero.

The mix of slapstick and verbal humor, many that play on Robinson’s gangster screen image, keeps this film moving at a snappy pace. The film is directed by Roy Del Ruth whose career seems to have flourished during the pre-code era while he was at Warners. His works from this period include “The Maltese Falcon” (1931), “Blonde Crazy”, “Lady Killer”, “Blessed Event”, “Employee Entrance” and “Taxi.”

“The Little Giant” is the least known of four comedy gangster films Robinson did in his career, at least with him in the lead, and deserves to be known better than it is. TCM always has the other three in their rotation (The Whole Town’s Talkin’. A Slight Cast of Murder and Larceny Inc.) however, this one seems to have fallen off the map. It deserves better.

***1/2

There’s Always a Woman (1939) Alexander Hall

There always is blondoug

    “There’s Always a Woman”, is pretty much a forgotten film in Joan Blondell’s filmography. Made for Columbia in 1938, the film is a less sophisticated “Thin Man” variation with Blondell and Melvyn Douglas as the husband and wife detective team. The film won’t make you forget Nick and Nora or even Jean Arthur and William Powell in “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford”; still it is a fun light weight movie.

    What’s make the film most enjoyable is Joan Blondell, who on loan to Columbia, is out of her sassy, smart aleck Warner’s Brother mode and into a more Carole Lombard/Jean Arthur type, though there may be a little Gracie Allen tossed in too.   The snooping couple are Sally and Bill Reardon who are going broke operating a detective agency due to a lack of clients. William, a former Assistant D.A. decides to go running back to get his old job when the bills begin to pile up too high. Sally meanwhile, is determined to make the private eye business a success and stumbles onto a client, Lola Fraser (Mary Astor, another tie to The Thin Man) who suspects an affair is going on between her husband and his former fiancée (Frances Drake). Lola’s advance practically wipes their debits off the books. The remainder of the story involves the comical sleuthing of the Reardon’s trying to track down the murderer of a double homicide.

Theres always a woman still   The script and the jokes are rather thin though Blondell confirms to all that she is a wonderful comedienne. She’s excellent in a scene when the police are interrogating her under a harsh light and the only ones to show a strain from the interrogation are the police while Joan remains as perky as the moment she walked in.  My biggest problem with the film is the treatment Sally receives from her husband, which is a bit troubling unless you think pulling your wife’s hair or making gestures that you are going to smack her for “disobeying” you are the stuff of yucks. Bill Reardon comes across as an archaic Neanderthal who only wants his wife home, cooking with those pots and pans in the kitchen, and not meddling in a murder investigation though in the end she is partially responsible for solving the case.

   Alexander Hall, who keeps things moving at a nice pace directed the film that was based on a short story by Wilson Collison. Columbia’s original plan was for this to be the first in a series, however it only resulted in one sequel in 1939, “There’s That Woman, Again” with Douglas reprising his role, however with Virginia Bruce replacing Blondell. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in April of 1938 to moderate business. Look for Rita Hayworth in a bit part as a secretary to an attorney.