Harper (1966) Jack Smight

Harper3 By 1966, the private eye had been regulated to television. Shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Peter Gunn, Hawaiian Eye, Honey West and Johnny Staccato are just a few of the better known shows that began in the late 1950’s and/or the early 1960’s. Part of the reason for the decline on the big screen had to do with the rise of James Bond and his fellow international spies. Foreign intrigue, fancy gadgets, sexy women and criminals with more on their mind than just robbery and mayhem superseded the bedroom antics of the lowly P.I. Continue reading

Advertisements

Bloody Mama (1970) Roger Corman

This article is part of the ROGER CORMAN BLOGATHON hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. Click here to check out more Corman reviews!

If you were a young teenage movie lover  in the late 1950’s or in the  early 1960’s Roger Corman was most likely a major influence on your movie going habits whether you knew it or not. Rock and Roll films, teen rebellion, gangsters, monsters, Sci-Fi, Corman did them all pumping them out, three, four or more films a year. Corman, along with A.I.P., practically created the teenage movie market. My own first Roger Corman film on the big screen was “The Masque of Red Death” with Vincent Price, Hazel Court and then Beatle Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher.   On TV, I caught up with some of his early 1950’s flicks like “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “Five Guns West,” “A Bucket of Blood,” “I, Mobster” and “Machine Gun Kelly.” Corman directed four gangster films in his career, the third being 1967’s “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” with a way over the top performance by Jason Robards Jr. as Al Capone. But this was only a warm-up for 1970’s “Bloody Mama” with Shelley Winters whose performance as the machine gun totting Ma Barker made Robards Al Capone seem meek and timid.

1970 was the beginning of a new era in American film whose flame was lit just three years earlier in 1967. The restrictive production code was gone replaced by a rating system that allowed for more “adult” stories to be put on the screen. This translated into varying degrees of sophisticated filmmaking and wild abandon exploitation film depending on who was behind the camera. Corman always one to exploit, obviously was in the second grouping. After pushing the limits of the dying production code in such mid to late 60’s films like “The Wild Angels” and “The Trip,” Corman in 1970 was ready to go all the way. Continue reading

Winchester ’73 (1950) Anthony Mann

This review contains Spoilers!

Was it his personal war experiences that changed James Stewart? Did he come back a changed manl; most men do.  Many of Stewart’s post World War II roles began to take on a darker side with haunted ambiguous characters motivated by revenge or other desires. Maybe a steady diet of Frank Capra’s Capra-corn did not have enough substance anymore, after all life was not that simple (Stewart’s darker side was touched upon slightly in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but he was soon back to his sweet genteel self).  “Winchester ’73” was the first Mann/Stewart collaboration, a joint effort that would produce some of the most mature westerns ever made.

Fritz Lang was originally on board to make this film, however soon bowed out. After a screening of Devil’s Doorway Mann’s first western starring Robert Taylor, Stewart agreed to work with Mann.   The Winchester of the title was a special, “one of a thousand” type made in 1873. President Grant owned one, so did Buffalo Bill, and now Lin McAdams (Stewart), He wins one in a 4th of July celebration shoot out exhibition in Dodge City. His closest competitor is Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), his brother who shot their father in the back, though we do not find this out until toward the end of the film. For most of the story we never understand why Lin is so determined in going after Dutch.

The rifle itself gets passed around throughout the film becoming almost a character, or a link, in the film as it moves on from Lin, who won it in the shooting contest, to Dutch who steals it in a fight with Lin, to  an Indian gun runner, to an Indian Chief (Rock Hudson) to the cowardly fiancé (Charles Drake) of Lola (Shelley Winters) the only female in the cast, to gunfighter Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) then back to Dutch and finally back to Lin.

Just about every male character in the film drools over the perfect piece of equipment, an obvious symbol of virile masculinity. The men who possess it show it off, and the men who want it are envious. Guns in general are seen as phallic symbols. Later after successfully fending an attack by Indians, Lola returns to Lin a pistol he gave her to defend herself during the attack  with the understanding that the last bullet she should use on herself rather than fall into the hands of the Indians. Returning the gun and the bullet Lin suggest she may want to  keep the bullet. Without hesitation she says “I want it!” leaving no  uncertainty in her tone and look that she is talking more about sex and a life with Lin than just an old bullet.

Though the story is fiction, original screenwriter Robert L. Richards, later Mann brought in Borden Chase to do a rewrite in the first of their collaborative efforts, surrounds the story in real western mythology; Dodge City where an elderly though respected Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Doc Holiday and company run a tight ship allowing no one to carry guns while in town. The Civil War has recently ended and General George Armstrong Custer was most recently overrun at Little Big Horn all of this invoking a strong sense of time and place in history.

This was the only western collaboration of Mann and Stewart filmed in black and white which may account for some of the noirish lighting in a few scenes, particularly in the fight between the two brothers in the hotel room where Dutch and his boys take the Winchester from Lin and beat it out of town.

As with “The Naked Spur” the theme of revenge is significant in this film as it motivates Lin in going after his brother. Family or the sense of family is also important here, the two brothers whose family was destroyed by the actions of one. Also between the prostitute Lola who is thrown out of town by Wyatt Earp, and the cowardly Steve. Both are outcasts who attempt to have a life together. Finally, and most prominently in Dodge City where an older Wyatt Earp is the friendly but strong willed patriarch (no guns allowed in town) who oversees the family friendly 4th of July celebration where the shooting contest is held with the winner getting the Winchester ’73.

This western is far from the type generally made at the time, more psychological, character driven with a conflicted dark hero. An excellent example occurs early in the film in Dodge City, after Lin surrenders his gun to Wyatt Earp, he enters a bar and finds his nemeses and brother at a card table. The reaction of both brothers to seeing each other is to crouch down and draw their guns. Thanks to Earp neither man has a weapon and a shooting is adverted but it is a disturbing scene as we watch the “hero” react in a way no better than the villain. Still, there is plenty of the standard action audiences would expect, Indian attack on the Calvary, cheating at cards, gunfights, Indian gun trader, a planned bank robbery and a woman in distress.

With this film Anthony Mann found his own John Wayne in James Stewart. Stewart collaborated with other directors (Hitchcock and Capra notably) but in Mann he found his alternate mantra that of an ambiguous hero verging on obsessed, unhinged, psychologically driven behavior.  Ford’s heroes were generally more straight forward white hat types though late in his career Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” and to a lesser extent Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are certainly characters who struggle with life’s complexities and Edwards specifically is a man driven by traits that are both good and bad.

Stephen McNally as Lin’s evil brother is convincingly evil and just about as driven as his sibling. Noir favorite Dan Duryea also is adept at playing a malicious outlaw who hooks up with McNally for a bank robbery.   Look for newcomers Rock Hudson as the Indian chief who for a while is in possession of the Winchester and another unknown actor at the time , one Anthony “Tony” Curtis who has a small role as a Calvary solider prominently seen during the Indian raid scenes. James Best also has a small role.

*****

Cry of the City (1848) Robert Siodmak

    The story of two men from the same neighborhood who go off in different directions in life, one on the right side of the law, and the other on the wrong side of the law.  We have seen this so many times in films such as “Angels with Dirty Faces” with Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan and Pat O’Brien’s Father Jerry Connelly, two Irish kids who grew up together in the slums of New York and took opposite paths in life.  In the 1948 film noir “Cry of the City”, we get the Italian-American version. Marty Roman (Richard Conte) and Candella (Victor Mature) grew up together in New York’s Little Italy. Candella became a cop and Roman a cop killer, a charismatic loser who defies death’s odds.

    Rome escapes from a prison hospital and is pursued by Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and his partner Lt. Collins played wonderfully by Fred Clark. Rome wants to clear his young girlfriend Teena (a young Debra Paget) of any involvement in a jewel robbery of a Mrs. DeGrazia, an elderly woman who was tortured and murdered. Niles (Berry Kroger), a crooked lawyer threatens to implicate Teena in the crime if Rome does not admit to the jewel robbery and murder to clear the lawyer’s innocent client. What difference does it matter anyway, the lawyer Niles says since he is getting the chair for the cop killing and has nothing to lose.

    Teena is in hiding, however, Rome still fears that Niles will still find and implicate her.  After his escape, Rome heads to Niles office where he finds the stolen jewels in secret compartment in the lawyer’s safe. Niles gives Marty the name of his accomplice, Rose Givens, before he pulls a gun and tries to kill Rome. Marty sticks a switchblade knife through the lawyer’s leather chair stabbing him to death.

    Rome meets up with Rose Givens (Hope Emerson) a sadistic masseuse who is willing to trade for the jewelry by giving Rome money and a way out of the city in exchange. The trade will be made at a subway station where Rome has the jewels secured in a locker. Rome notifies Candella where Givens will be for the pickup, his plan was not to be there but Givens wants Rome at the station fearing a setup. As Givens opens the locker, the police close in on her. There’s a struggle. Givens pulls a gun and a wild bullet hits Candella as he was jumping over a turnstile t assist with the arrest. As the police arrest Givens, Rome manages to escapes and meets Teena in a church where he tries to persuade her to run away with him. Candella, still wounded shows up at the church and tells Teena how everyone who has ever helped Marty has been hurt. That he’s left a trail of physically or emotionally wounded souls. Teena decides not to go with him. As Candella and Rome leave the church, Rome tries to escape but Candella shoots him dead.

    The film is loaded with sleazy low life’s from the sadistic masseuse to the creepy abortionist, to Niles, the crooked lawyer. Directed by Robert Siodmak, the film is well paced maintaining a tense dark moody atmosphere. While not quite on par with some of Siodmak’s other noirish works such as “Crossfire” or “The Killers”. “Cry of the City” provides a realistic look at the squalor of the inner city.

   Richard Conte was riding high in his career when this film was made. He had just completed “Call Northside 777” and also had under his belt “Somewhere in the Night”, “A Bell for Adano” and “A Walk in the Sun.” Conte was a staple in some of the best noir films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “Thieves Highway”, “Whirlpool” and “The Big Combo.” Billed second to Victor Mature in this film Conte not only has the larger part but also steals the show as Marty Roman, a magnetic, woman chasing cop killer.

Victor Mature, an actor of limited talent actually gives a good performance as Candella, the tough yet sensitive cop. The rest of the cast is loaded with many familiar faces including Shelley Winters, as an ex-girlfriend, the previously mentioned Fred Clark, Debra Paget and Hope Emerson who is especially memorable as the sadistic masseuse who almost strangles Rome with ecstatic pleasure.    

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.”