Check out my fifith of seven entries I am writing for the Musical Countdown being hosted by WONDERS IN THE DARK. Here is the link.
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.”
There were few films in 1948 that match up to the power of Anatole Litvak’s “The Snake Pit,” a film that was groundbreaking in its day. Mental Illness was not dealt with on screen, at least not at the level and detail seen here. The institutional living conditions these people were forced to live in was swept under the rug, as they say. Mary Jane Ward’s novel was based on her own experiences as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. After reading Ward’s first person novel, director Anatole Litvak wanted to bring the harrowing story to the screen. Naturally, the subject matter was considered too controversial and downbeat for most studios. 20th Century Fox finally agreed to make the film, which Litvak would not only direct but co-produced.
Olivia de Havilland was not the first choice for the role, that spot went to Gene Tierney who had to bow out due to a pregnancy. de Havilland threw herself into the role, spending time researching, personally watching shock therapy treatments and visiting institutions, talking with doctors, nurses and patients. She apparently also was able to spend time in doctor/patient therapy sessions. Director Litvak wanted the actors and crew members to visit mental institutions in order to experience first hand what it was like.
The film tells the story of Virginia Cunningham, a young married woman who has a nervous breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital. We follow her as she slowly finds her way back from depths of insanity. At her lowest point, Virginia is incapable of remembering who she is, where she is or why. She is subjected to electro-shock therapy and other treatments, forced to live in a dorm like environment with other patients. Eventually with the help of a caring doctor (Leo Glenn) Virginia begins to explore her subconscious delving back to her childhood, (through flashbacks), the strict upbringing by her mother and the loss of a considerate father. Here she discovers the roots of her illness, the pain and guilt she has been carrying inside, and ultimately she is cured.
The conditions inside the institution are horrid. The nursing staff headed by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig) an obvious relative to Nurse Ratched who seems to derive pleasure, in one of the film’s most shocking scenes, when she turns on the juice over and over again during the administration of Virginia’s Electro-Shock sessions.
While Virginia’s illness is portrayed realistically, her cure is a little too straightforward though one must remember the medical treatments are limited to knowledge and practices of more than 60 years ago. The film also gives us a strong flavor of other patients in the wards. There is Marty (Betsy Blair) who does not like to be touched and will strangle anyone who comes near her. Celeste Holms is Grace, seen early in the film who tries to comfort Virginia soon after her arrival and a host of others portrayed by some fine character actors among them Beulah Bondi, Ruth Donnelly, Minna Goombell and Katherine Locke.
There is one particularly visually stunning sequence when, after Virginia has a “relapse,” she is put into a pit like area with other patients. The theory as it is explained is that putting normal people into this pit like area would drive them insane, subsequently, putting insane people into the pit would cure them. As this sequence is filmed, Litvak’s camera is shooting down from extremely high above toward the pit, continuously pulling back revealing a long deep pit with the patients walking aimlessly around.
Other films have dealt with mental disease over the years, (The Bell Jar, Frances) but this film still remains a harrowing experience. After its release, the film led to reforms in mental institutions in various states across the country. In England a disclaimer was added at the beginning of the film stating that everyone appearing in the film was an actor and that similar institutions in England were not like the one portrayed in the film.
In the 1960’s there was a backlash against this film by feminist who claimed that Virginia only improved once she accepted that her role in life was subservient, first to the nurses and then as she prepares to accept a life of that of a mother and a housewife. A closer look at the film reveals that throughout the film, Virginia fights the authorities the best she could under the stringent circumstance and as a writer never reveals any sign that, she is giving up her career upon her release.
The film received multiple Academy Award nominations that year including Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Music Score. The film won an Oscars for Best Sound Recording.
The dance marathon became a phenomenon beginning in the 1920’s. Unlike flag pole sitting, another craze of those times, dance marathons had many participants who at first danced for just the pleasure of the wild heady experience, but later on as we entered the 1930’s and the depression, danced out of necessity for much needed money. The winner would get $1,000. Even if you did not win, you were fed, and had a place to keep warm. With the Great Depression going at full speed, there were many people in desperate need looking for any way possible to make a few dollars. The contests were long grueling endurance affairs going on for weeks, even months at a time before there was only one couple left standing and declared the winner.
Rules were different depending on who held the contest. Some allowed 15-minute breaks on the hour allowing time for a bathroom pit stop, sleep and change of clothes. Horace McCoy’s 1930’s novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? gives a notable account of what these contests entailed. While the contestants were hard pressed folks out of work and luck, the promoters did create jobs for many other people like nurses, doctors, janitors, announcers, and others involved in putting on the event. McCoy’s novel, not surprisingly, was ignored by the public when first published in the middle of the depression; however, it was eventually made into a magnificent movie in 1969, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young.
Over thirty years earlier, Mervyn LeRoy directed the 1933 film, Hard to Handle, a James Cagney vehicle, which starts on a somewhat serious tone during the opening dance marathon, providing a realistic harsh look at what these lengthy contests involved, and reminding me much of the Pollack classic. However, soon after, the film moves into a different direction more toward a lighthearted energetic comedy. It could have just as easily turned into a con game/gangster drama from the early tone of the film.
Cagney is Lefty Merrill, who along with his shady partner are running a dance marathon, which, “surprisingly” is won by Lefty’s girlfriend, Ruth Waters (Mary Brian). The opening scenes, reminiscent of Pollack’s excellent downbeat 1969 film, finds Allan Jenkins, in the Gig Young role, as the marathon’s emcee, rousing the audience to cheer on the final two surviving couples who are barely able to stand, (the second couple’s male dancer is a young Sterling Holloway). Watching this scene with the audience’s bloodthirsty cheers edging the couples onward, reminds me of the vulture culture, that today’s TV audience has for shows like Survivor and other reality type shows. The similarities between this film and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? quickly end with the marathon scenes conclusion. Horses goes on to be a bleak dark vision of the depression times and its toll on a group of people, while Hard to Handle veers off in the direction of a fast moving light comedy.
The second dancing couple soon falls by the wayside, and Ruth and her partner are declared the winners. What should be a happy moment for Ruth, her clinging mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly) and for Lefty turns into a nightmare when Lefty’s partner runs off with all the proceeds from the contest, leaving Lefty to face an angry crowd who believe they have been swindled. Lil is more outraged at Lefty for the loss of the money than Ruth is, but Lefty has more immediate problems, like quickly getting away from the massive angry crowd.
Lefty soon falls on hard times financially when he finds Ruth, now a model, on the cover of Vogue, and finds her dating a successful fashion photographer. He begs to stay with Ruth and her mother just until he can get back on his feet. Lefty, ever the ingenious publicist gets a new idea when he spots Ruth struggling to rub facial cream on her face one day, and comes up with the absurd notion that women can lose calories this way, and promotes the facial cream as a diet treatment! The idea is “unbelievably” successful, and so lucrative that even money conscience Mamma Lil decides Lefty is marital worthy material again for her daughter Ruth.
Lefty financially successful again, next promotes a fund raising campaign for a small college where he successfully raises one million dollars and gains the attention of young student Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), who has eyes for him. Marlene’s father hires Lefty to promote a real estate deal in Florida, Grapefruit Acres. Lefty wants to marry Ruth but she is still resistant, saying she will marry him only after he comes back from his big deal in Florida. While in Florida, Lefty is surprised to find Marlene there who makes it plain that she is very interested in Lefty, who defensively, declares his love for Ruth. Ruth and Lil decide to fly down to the sunshine state to surprise Lefty, and are surprised themselves when they find him and Marlene having breakfast together in their pajamas. Lefty claims that nothing happened, though that is hard to believe, since he is in her hotel room in his PJ’s. The Waters women fly quickly back to New York with Lefty chasing after them trying to explain. Soon after, Lefty is arrested for false advertising related to the Grapefruit Acres project. While in jail, he meets his thieving dance marathon partner who happens to tells him he lost weight over the past few days just eating nothing but grapefruit. Lefty’s new idea, The 18 day Grapefruit Diet, which becomes the nation’s latest fad. A success again, and in Mama Lil’s favor again, Lefty finally, with some trickery, gets Ruth to say yes and marry him.
Hard to Handle is certainly entertaining enough with the usually fine performance by Mr. Cagney, and a especially entertaining performance by Ruth Donnelly who plays the money hungry Mama Lil, despite in real life being only three years older than Jimmy and ten years older the Mary Brian. Her character has plenty of sharp funny lines, delivered with fine timing, constantly referring to her daughter and herself as “we” when marrying and not marrying Cagney’s Lefty Merrill. Anyone marrying Ruth was definitely getting two for the price of one. While Mary Brian is competent, I would have liked to have seen Joan Blondell in the role of Ruth. She and Donnelly would have been two quick pistols together and the charisma between Cagney and Blondell is always electric. The picture moves at lightening speed, thanks to Cagney’s exceptional flair for rapid speech, which gives no one any time to pause.
The film unfortunately has never been released in the home video format and remains a hard film to see, undeservedly so. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will see fit to release this film in the near future. Hard to Handle was originally brought to my attention by Judy of Movie Classics’s who has written her own great review some time back, and as a Cagney admirer, is certainly worth reading to get her perspective on this film and other classics.