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 Lusty Men (1952) Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray was a visual poet, using the camera like a paintbrush, each stroke expressively revealing an idea or making an enduring impression. In film after film, we see Ray’s camera articulate the emotions of his alienated characters, like Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause” or Bowie in “They Live by Night.” Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is another of Ray’s outsiders living on the edge of society. McCloud is a former rodeo champion, beaten down by too many years of too many injuries and hard living. He heads back to his hometown only to find out there is not much to go home too (the home he grew up in is now owned by someone else). Looking for a job he signs up as a ranch hand where he meets Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward). Wes harbors dreams of becoming a champion bronco rider which would help finance the ranch he and his wife have long desired to have. Louise fears Wes is chasing after rainbows and will only end up injured and worst, a loser like McCloud.  In spite of Louise’s concern, the three soon quit the ranch and hit the rodeo circuit with McCloud acting as Wes’ trainer and sidekick.   

Ray goes on to reveal the unglamorous underbelly side  of the rodeo world depicting it filled with damaged, rowdy losers whose winnings, if there are any, are lost the same night on women and drink. Their life is one of nomadic gypsies chasing the circuit devoid of any taste of stability or roots in their life. The women remain behind the scenes cheering and worrying at the same time about their man. How many more rides before he gets severely injured or even worst.

  Continue reading

Angel Face (1952) Otto Preminger

Review contains spoilers

Poor Robert Mitchum, how those sleepy bedroom eyes always seemed to get him in so much trouble with the ladies. In John Brahm’s “The Locket” he tossed himself out a window because of Lorraine Day, in “Out of the Past”, he had to go face to face with the wicked Jane Greer, while in “Where Danger Lives” he is a chump for Faith Domergue, and in “Angel Face” the porcelain gentile beauty of Jean Simmons sends them both of them to a plunging death in Otto Preminger’s final film noir.

“Angel Face” was late in the cycle of classic noir and at first glance seems to be a redundant rehash of everything that came before it,  the male pawn, the deviant femme fatale, sexual obsession and snippets of incest; all common themes. Even the courtroom scene here it has been pointed out by various writers is a facsimile of the courtroom scene in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” to the extent that the prosecuting attorney in both films is portrayed by Leon Ames. Yet in watching this film, it yields many fine and unique elements beginning with a simmering dark perverse performance by Jean Simmons, one of her finest. Throughout the film, Simmon’s character Diane Tremayne remains a bleak, depressed, manipulative and seriously dangerous femme fatale deriving little pleasure from any of her actions. She’s a blank slate. In luring Mitchum’s chump ambulance driver, Frank Jessup into unknowingly conspiring in murder; she derives neither personal joy nor any odd sexual satisfaction.  The film’s surprising and shocking ending reflects and confirms Diane’s determination for control even if the price of that power is death. It was one of the most daringly cynical endings ever be put on film up to that time. Continue reading

Where Danger Lives (1950) John Farrow

“Where Danger Lives” starts on an odd little note, or maybe it is just me. Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is telling a bedtime story to a sick little girl in the hospital. It is a strange beginning because as we soon find out it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. You end up with the feeling it was just padding for a film that runs only 82 minutes. We soon meet the real woman of the story, Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue), a suicide victim and as the movie progresses we find out a bit of a psychotic. The film moves to the dark side as Dr. Jeff falls for this beautiful, yet seemingly vulnerable woman, and as he and we soon will find out, she is anything but vulnerable, more like deceitful, dangerous and pure evil.

    From RKO pictures released in 1950, “Where Danger Lives” is at times a riveting film noir whose characters spiral insanely out of control more and more as the film comes to a maniacal end. Dr. Jeff Cameron saves the life of suicide victim, Margo Lannington. They are soon attracted to each other and quickly become involved. She tells him she lives with her rich controlling father. Unknown to Jeff, Margo’s “father” is really her husband (this is the first of many lies she weaves) and when he confronts her sadistic hubby, Frederick (Claude Rains) who tries to warn Jeff that once he starts down this path there is no turning back, an argument ensues and Frederick attacks Jeff with a fireplace poker. After several severe strikes, Jeff manages to knocks Frederick down and out with a Mitchum size power punch. Jeff, dazed from the beating by the husband, stumbles to the bathroom to wash off the blood. When he returns still dazed, a concussion setting in, he discovers Frederick is dead. Jeff wants to call the police but Margo insists they can’t. Who is going to believe them that it was an accident, she says. We find out later Margo smothered Frederick to death while Jeff was out of the room attending his wound. However, she leaves the impression that Jeff’s punch did Frederick in. For the remainder of the film we find the two fugitives on a nightmarish, doomed, almost surrealistic journey as they attempt to escape across the U.S. Mexican border.

Jeff continues to suffer from the concussion and the formerly meek Margo asserts herself while Jeff, earlier the self-assured professional, remains confused and dazed. Margo’s behavior is erratic only making things more confusing for Jeff. She refuses to listen to radio reports about the police pursuit, knowing that the truth about her husband’s death will be discovered, and Jeff will become aware of what really happened; how she smothered him to death and he did not die from a head trauma from Jeff’s punch. Their trip to the border is one of avoiding roadblocks, most of which unknown to them, were set up for other reasons unrelated to their fleeing. At one point, they stop in a small town where they are unexpectedly arrested, though not for being fugitives but because Jeff does not have a beard! It seems they arrived during the small town’s annual beard festival where every man is required to have a beard.

    While the overall film is uneven, the climatic ending in the border town is one of the film’s highlights, as is the cinematography of the great Nicolas Muscusa who provides a nightmarish darkly lit claustrophobic look, filled with low angle shots that gives the film much of its stylistic visual appeal.  Robert Mitchum is in his element here and is a joy to watch, working those sleepy eyes as he gives us a character that is sucked into the claws of a dangerously off balanced woman, similar in her treachery to “Angel Face” Jean Simmons in the Otto Preminger classic he would make two years later. Mitchum has a great scene where her stumbles down a flight of stairs. Shot in one continuous take, Mitchum did the fall without the assistance of a double.

Faith Domergue is convincingly immoral, seemingly possessed by the role of Margo, an archetypal femme fatale. Though probably best remembered for her role in “This Island Earth” and as another in the long line of Howard Hughes “discoveries”, this is the role of her career. Claude Rains is his usual smooth self as Frederick, at first amused by Jeff’s infatuation with his wife; he even attempts to warn him that Margo is not what or who he thinks she is.  Unfortunately, his role is all too brief. Even briefer is Maureen O’Sullivan’s (director John Farrow wife) role as Jeff’s good girlfriend, Julie Dorn. The screenplay is by Charles Bennett who is best remembered as a long time associate of Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage and Foreign Correspondent).

Overall, the film is an uneven mix, some scenes seemingly there just for padding i.e. the entire wedding scene. “Where Danger Lies” may be an uneven noir but with fine performances by Mitchum and Domergue and especially with Macursa behind the camera it is a must see.

Cape Fear (1962) J. Lee Thompson

Cape Fear Title

    Max Cady is one of the cinema’s most terrifying villains and no one personifies evil more than Robert Mitchum in this 1962 work. I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro however,  the 1992 remake while a fine film in of itself is not in the same class as the original film. “Cape Fear” was adapted by screenwriter James R. Webb from John D. MacDonald’s 1958 novel, “The Executioners” and was directed by J. Lee Thompson.

Cape Fear cady    After serving eight years in prison, Max Cady is released and comes to a small North Carolina town to find Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a lawyer he holds responsible for his guilty verdict and incarnation. From the first moment Cady appears on screen, he unleashes an assault of vicious menace that flows throughout the entire film. He quickly confronts Sam in his car letting him know he is back in town and out for revenge. He begins to follow Sam, making veiled threats against Sam’s wife and daughter and soon poison’s the Bowden’s dog. Sam attempts to  diffuse the situation when he asks police chief Mark Dutton( Martin Balsam) to intercede and find any excuse to arrest and or run Cady out of town.  However, Cady knows his rights, they cannot arrest him for vagrancy; he has money in the bank.  When that fails Sam hires three thugs to beat Cady up, then he hires a private detective (Telly Savalas). All attempts to convince Cady to leave are in vain. Cady’s one mistake may have been when he seduces and physically assaults a young woman (Barrie Chase) he picks up. However, his sheer terror frightened the girl to such an extent she is too scared to press charges and just wants to get out of town.

   capefear2 Cady is brazen, face to face with Bowden he insinuates how he will ravish his wife nad daughter. One of the most terrifying scenes occurs when Cady confronts Peggy Bowden (Polly Bergen), Sam’s wife, in the family boat where he cracks a raw egg in his hands and rubs it all over Peggy’s chest. The scene fades leaving you with the impression he is about to rape her. Bergen’s horrified look during the egg smearing is one of total shock and apparently real. The egg cracking and rubbing it across her neck and chest was not in the script and fully unexpected. Director Thompson and Mitchum planned the situation without letting Bergen in on the change in plans. From what I have read, Bergen was a bundle of nerves for a couple of days after filming this scene. The final confrontation is a brutal excruciating confrontation between the two men in the murky waters of Cape Fear.

    The film oozes violent sexual tension right from the beginning. When we first meet Cady, he eyes every woman that walks by like a lion in heat. Mitchum’s sleepy eyes and slow matter just reek with innuendo. Every threat he makes against Bowden’s wife and daughter are overflowing with sexual intimidation. When he eyes the young woman up in the bar, he informs her she got one hour to dump the guy she’s with.  For 1962, this film spill over with sexual tension.capefear1962 poster 2 450

    “Cape Fear” is filled with great performances but it is Robert Mitchum who walks away with the honors. He is just plain scary, and unlike DeNiro’s Max Cady, comes across as a real person and thus his menace is particularly terrifying.  It is a masterful performance, made to look so easy by Mitchum’s “I don’t give a damn” style. Gregory Peck is dogged as the protector of his family, though here he is not quite as righteous as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, another lawyer he portrayed that same year.  Director Thompson and Gregory Peck, who owned the rights to the book, had to convince Mitchum to accept the role, which he originally turned down. Interestingly, Haley Mills was considered for the role of Nancy, the daughter, but was still under contract to Disney who refused to let her do it. 

    An enormous part of the films success is Bernard Herrmann’s excitingly tense score, which contributes so much to the on edge atmosphere of the film, along with Sam Leavitt’s graphic black and white cinematography. Thompson’s direction is quickly paced with no wasted time moving the film along at an ever nerve wracking pace. 

    In 1992, when Martin Scorsese remade “Cape Fear” he stated that in the original film the Bowden family was too one note, too good and Cady pure evil. In his remake, Scorsese made the Bowden’s victims of martial infidelity and the daughter was no longer the sweet little girl but a rebellious sexy adventuress who is seduced and attracted to the disturbed Cady. He also turned Cady into a bible-frenzied fanatic of doomsday proportions.  The two films make interesting bookends.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Peter Yates

Eddie

    Simply said, Peter Yate’s 1973 film, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a crime thriller. The problem with stating it so simply is today’s action fans will be disappointed. There are no blow-ups, no action car chases, and no CGI graphics. What “Eddie Coyle” remains, is an unsentimental, uncompromising film about the final days of a somewhat tragic protagonist.

    Eddie is a small time gunrunner with no ambition to be any more than what he is. He is fifty-one years old and facing a two to five years jail sentence for driving a truck loaded with smuggled stolen whiskey. Earlier in his career, Eddie made one mistake, when he purchased stolen guns that some of his associates used in a robbery. The guns were traced by the law costing a couple of Eddie’s “friends” twenty-five years in the slammer. For this mistake, one of Eddie’s hands was smashed in a draw, cracking his knuckles, acquiring him the nickname Eddie Fingers.  “It was nothing personal,” he tells bartender/police informant/contract killer, Dillon (Peter Boyle). Eddie understood why it had to be done. It was business. 

    The film is split into two interweaving narratives, one of which is a straight-laced bank heist movie demonstrating the intricate details of the robberies, something director Peter Yates has perfected over the course of his career. Having previously directed ”Bullitt”, “Robbery” and “The Hot Rock” you might take it for granted that Yates is giving us more of the same. He’s not. The second narrative is Eddie’s story,  a man getting too old for the business he’s in, not wanting to face another term in jail and slowly turning into a stool pigeon.

   eddie1 Robert Mitchum as the doomed Eddie gives one of his most beautiful understated performances. It is a work is equal to anything else in his portfolio. Just watch him toward the end of the film sitting in the nosebleed seats watching the Boston Bruins play. It is a simple scene, yet so perfectly executed scene. He’s semi drunk from too many beers and he suddenly yells out to no one in particular “Number 4, Bobby Orr! The greatest hockey player ever.” It’s a perfect Boston moment at the now gone Boston Garden. Soon after the game, Eddie’s “friends” will take him for a final ride. Though Mitchum is the star, his part is just one of many excellent integrated roles. Surprisingly he sometimes remains off camera for long periods of time, still it is his quiet unassuming performance that grabs you and holds you to the screen.   

    The film is based on an excellent novel, and former bestseller, by George V. Higgins. The screenplay is by Paul Monash who wisely stuck close to Higgins dialogue and storyline. Higgins never acknowledge it but the story is similar to real life Boston criminal Billy O’Brien, an associate of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Like the fictional Coyle, it was feared by his associates that Billy O’Brien was talking to the cops. Billy was silenced, and again like Eddie his murder was never solved. Unusual for an action film “Eddie Coyle” is dialogue driven, there are few violent scenes and when they do happen Yates is very low key, making the film’s ending that much more unsettling.  Tarantino fans should note that Eddie’s gun dealer is named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), a name borrowed by Mr. Tarantino when he turned Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” into his classic crime film.

    Along with Mitchum, the film is loaded with nice subtle performances by some excellent character actors of the 1970’s, from Peter Boyle, to Richard Jordan, Joe Santos, Steven Keats and Alex Rocco. Brit Peter Yates displays a nice affinity for a Boston filled with cold, gray weather. Character’s whose breath is clearly visible in the wintry air. Hangouts of dingy bars and unsavory coffee shops, automobiles that have seen better days. It is all very unglamorous. Still, Boston has rarely been served better on screen than in this low-key crime drama. eddie1

    An interesting story from Kent Jones article included in the Criterion Edition of the DVD is about Alex Rocco who was born  in Boston, Mass. Rocco, who originally went by the name Alexander Petricone, aka Bobo, was very familiar with Bugler and his gang. He eventually left the North East for L.A. changing his name and started a career in acting. The New England mobsters never knew what happened to Bobo until 1972 when they saw him on screen as Moe Green in “The Godfather”

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton

 
 

 

“Beware of false prophets that come in sheep’s clothing…………
It is a shame Charles Laughton never directed another film. Not many first time filmmakers are as impressive as this the first time out. “The Night of the Hunter” is a dark atmospheric thriller that grips you like a vise and never let’s go. The screenplay written by famed film critic and writer James Agee and Charles Laughton, who received no screen credit, was based on a novel of the same name. The novel used a true life incident as the basis for the story. Agee is known for his book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, ignored when first published, and is now considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century. In the 1940’s Agee began work as a film critic for the magazine “The Nation” and wrote his first screenplay, “The African Queen” in 1951 based on C.S. Forester’s novel. “The Night of the Hunter” was his second screenplay. Laughton, of course, was already a successful actor in such movies as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Canterville Ghost,” “Rembrandt,” “The Big Clock” and so many others. The film is beautifully and richly photographed by Stanley Cortez. Cortez other works include “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Three Faces of Eve” and two Sam Fuller films, “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss”. Cortez was also the Cinematographer on the 1991 TV movie remake of “The Night of the Hunter” which starred Richard Chamberlain.

The film was not a hit with critics or the public at the time of its release and did not win any awards or even receive any nominations. Laughton who made one of the best expressionistic film noirs never directed another film .
 

 

Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is sentenced to hang for his part in a bank robbery and the killing of two people. Before being picked up by the law Harper hides the stolen money at his home and gets his two young children to promise not to reveal where the money is hidden to no one. While in prison, Harper meets the self anointed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to get Harper to reveal where he has hidden the money. Believing that Harper told his two kids, John and Pearl, where the money is, Powell, upon his release makes his way to Harpers home where he woos Willa (Shelley Winters), Ben’s gullible widow, and the whole town. The one person who is not won over by the hell preaching reverend is young John. Powell marries Willa but rejects her sexually telling her that her body is only for “begettin’ children.” Eventually convinced that Willa does not know where the money is he kills her in a superbly composed and horrifying ritualistic bedroom sacrificial scene. As she lies in bed, he raises his hand; the one with LOVE tattooed on his fingers, and comes down toward her plunging the knife into her. Being 1995, this is off screen. Not getting anywhere with the two young children on confessing where the money is hidden he begins to lose his patience locking them in the cellar. John and Pearl manage to escape and runaway traveling along the river eventually making their way to the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) a woman who takes in wayward children. In these scenes, the film takes on a more lyrical fairy tale twist. Powell goes out in search of the children and eventually finds them but Rachel, unlike most adults before her, sees through the phony preacher. After a tense night and a confrontation, Rachel calls the police and they arrest Powell. The town people rise up and demand justice forming a lynch mob led by Walt and Elsie Spoon (the luncheonette owners where Willa worked). The police take Powell out the back door of the jail to escape the mob transporting him to somewhere safer as Rachel Cooper gathers all her kids to get them out of harms way. The film ends with a homey Christmas scene at Rachel’s place.
There’s one scene that takes place in the luncheonette where Willa worked. It takes place after Powell killed her. To cover up for her disappearance Powell is telling Walt and Icey Spoon that Willa ran off leaving her children and him behind. The couple try to console him and at one point Walt tells him don’t worry, she’ll come back. Powell, sitting at the counter, head hanging down replies “She’ll not be back I reckon I can promise you that.” As he finishes the last few words his eyes are raised upward and there’s the most chilling evil sinister look on his face. A wonderful piece of acting by Mitchum that has stuck with me and even sent a chill down my spine.

Other wonderful scenes include the discovery of Willa’s body at the bottom of the lake; the cellar scenes where the two kids are hiding are some of the most gripping in the film and the entire sequence with the two kids going down the river. There’s also a visually stunning scene of Powell riding on horseback as he pursues the kids shot completely in silhouette. The list just goes on. It is difficult to believe that Cortez was not recognized for his work on this film. I found the scenes with Rachel Cooper, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s work and Laughton may have intentionally done that, or maybe it is just me associating Gish with Griffith.

The only disappointing part of the film was the ending, which seems a little forced and frankly, it is unbelievable that nosey bodies Walt and Icey Spoon are the type to lead an angry lynch mob of town folks who felt betrayed by the deceptive Powell.

Today most agree that Robert Mitchum gives one of his best performances in this film. The entire cast is good but Mitchum is superb. He is the personification of evil dressed in the Lord’s clothing. With the letters spelling out LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers he preaches the word of the Lord while stealing and killing his way toward hell. As most film lovers know a few years, later Mitchum would create another memorable villain, Max Cady, in the 1962 version of “Cape Fear.”