Saturday, October 14, 2017

THE LAS VEGAS STORY (1952)


Howard Hughes puts his trademarks on this film, what with the flying sequences and microscopic closeups of his leading lady. A film that is hardly unknown. With the pairing of two popular Hollywood stars, Victor Mature and Jane Russell, it is hard to ignore. The perfect sneering couple. Throw in Vincent Price and you have great movie potential.

With similar “dangerous” facial features, testy pout and a noteworthy sneer, Jane Russell reminds me of a female Elvis. She could hardly be called flat except for her acting. Adequate, but her eyes are generally expressionless. True, few men of the era were really that interested in her eyes. Her potentially witty comebacks are not as pointed as in “His Kind of Woman” a year earlier. Perhaps due in part to a screenplay by Frank Fenton or her costar, Robert Mitchum, who knew his way around witty dialogue. Nonetheless, she had one of the most beautiful smiles in Hollywood. But lately, those smiles only happen when she is around Hoagy Carmichael.


Hoagyas Happyis the casino pianist. Thanks to his delivery, he lightens the film considerably, if not frequently. His opening narration sets up the background for the film's stars prior to their appearance. Hoagy's folksy tone of a “country cool cat” is endearing. He performs an early “rap” song with, “The Monkey Song.” The difference with his rap is that he uses an actual melody. Not percussion-backed rhyming. From 1938, “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is reused for this film. Written for this film, “My Resistance Is Low,” is a fun song but hard to sit through because of the syrupy delivery and slurring lyrics by Russell. She is filmed only from the waist up, providing another comparison to Elvis. But with opposite intentions.

Russell's husband, Vincent Price, insists on vacationing in Las Vegas. He is undoubtedly a character with selfish motives and is determined to play the tables in hopes of winning enough to pay his debts. Russell preferred a flight anywhere but Vegas from fears of running into her old flame, Victor Mature, now a lieutenant with the Sheriff's Department. Through most of the film, he and Russell get along without each other very well. Their parting years before, the result of poor communication skills. Russell's necklace becomes Price's collateral with the casino owner taking possession. In between a couple of songs, he ends up dead and the necklace goes missing. Getting off the same plane was Mr. Smarmy himself, Brad Dexter. He has been assigned by his insurance company to watch Price and Russell's...uh...necklace.


The exciting climax, perhaps filmed at the former Tonopah Army Airfield, was the first car and helicopter chase sequence in a movie. Flying twice through an open hanger was a groundbreaking sequence and I imagine approaching something of science fiction for the era. Mr. Smarmy's kidnapping of the necklace and Russell is a useless attempt at a sedan escape. The foot chase between Mature and Dexter is typical of the era, resulting in Dexter making a final curtain call. Price is given a sentence for embezzlement and divorce papers to sign while incarcerated. The film ends unresolved but one gets the feeling she and Mature have a future together. Viva Las Vegas!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950)


This film hardly falls into the unknown category for any film noir fan. It is generally highly regarded despite a familiar B-movie path. Directed and produced by Otto Preminger with screenplay by the typically great Ben Hecht, it follows the story of another cynical detective who hates criminals to the core. Subconsciously because his late father was a gangster in his own time. His methods of getting a criminal to talk are not by the book and the Inspector, Robert Simon, in his first film role, repeatedly calls him on the carpet for it.


Dirty Dana” Andrews plays the aforementioned detective where violence seems to be around every corner. Murder suspect and gambler, Craig Stevens, who is particularly soused, strikes Andrews across the jaw then he is decked, hitting his head on the floor. Andrews tries to wake him but he is out. Permanently. Andrews turns white with fear. He will surely lose that parking spot in front of headquarters! When he finds out Stevens was a war hero and the silver pate in his head is what killed him, he feels even worse. Things get more dicey after Andrews discovers that Gene Tierney was his wife. Andrews' web of deceit plunges him deeper into self-loathing. Andrews devises a plan to detour the manslaughter rap.


Gary Merrill is Andrew's gangster nemesis. It was Andrew's father who set Merrill up in the mob. His character is somewhat in the mold of Richard Widmark's screen debut role, though not mentally unstable. Cool, calm and polite with nice threads, Merrill's quirk is his apparent addiction to nasal inhalers. A medicinal gimmick that seems to only afflict the underworld. Hiring Neville Brand as a heavy, here doing double duty as a massage therapist, was also a customary gimmick during this period.


Tierney was another actress of the era with a slight overbite. Not nearly the Nutty Professor but not entirely appealing. This physical “feature” is noticeable only when she speaks. Which is every scene she's in. I guess they cannot all be Grace Kelly. I digress. Her father, Tom Tully, is a cabbie who has been understandably angry with his good for nothing son-in-law, Stevens. Because of this and his whereabouts near the time of Stevens' demise, he is inadvertently accused of the homicide. Newly promoted Lieutenant, Karl Malden, is convinced Tully is the killer despite Andrews' attempt to throw the killing in Merrill's direction.

At his personal sidewalk ends, Andrews is abducted and driven to the gangsters hideout. There is a creepiness being helplessly trapped inside a car as it is lifted to the upper level of a parking garage. No dialogue. No music. Just the sound of mechanical hydraulics at work. Feeling more despondent and no better than his father, he hopes to be killed so the authorities can at least pin one murder on Merrill, who is not taking the bait. The gangsters hightail it when the sirens get louder and they lock Andrews in the garage. In their hasty retreat, the gang forgot about an unlocked rooftop door and out pops Andrews. He stops the elevator's descent between floors with Merrill and gang being arrested.

Andrews had written a confession letter to be opened in the event of his death. Simon, now all smiles and grateful to Andrews for bringing down the mob, indicates there is no reason, thankfully, to open it. Awkward. He wants the letter read anyway. In front of Tierney. The Inspector's smile is turned upside down. Andrews will have time to contemplate his future career move. Perhaps security detail at a Woolworth store. As expected, Tierney promises to wait for him. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

QUICKSAND (1950)


Thanks to the Internet, this movie needs little introduction. Mickey Rooney's characterization is legitimate as a young auto mechanic—an occupation he returns to four years later in, “Drive A Crooked Road”—who longs for a lifestyle he cannot afford in somewhat of an ego boost. Throughout the film, he provides his inner thoughts in voice-overs. His innocent borrowing of twenty dollars from the garage's cash register is only the beginning. Though he has every intention of paying it back the next day, his descent into crime pulls him down deeper as each misdeed gets more risky. The twenty dollars is soon forgotten. Rooney improves this film and keeps it from sinking.


Not helping is dangerous Jeanne Cagney, who is temptation personified. Saying she is well known in the neighborhood is an understatement. Peter Lorre, seedy owner of a penny arcade, could teach a detailed history class on Cagney's past. Barbara Bates plays the wholesome, unappreciated good girl who has taken her relationship with Rooney seriously. She rounds out the quartet of main characters. Like anyone not taking responsibility for their actions, Rooney's audible inner thoughts express his disgust with the “bad luck” that has befallen him. Things get so bad, Rooney ends up robbing a soused bar patron near the arcade for his large bank roll. And there are eye witnesses.


Seedy Lorre blackmails Rooney over the robbing and in exchange for his silence, requests a new car. Between a rock and a hard place, the mechanic steals one but those pesky witnesses are everywhere. His boss wants the car's price reimbursed at nearly twice the Blue Book. The less-than-lovely Cagney hatches a plan for Rooney to steal money from Lorre's arcade to pay for the car. Been there, done that, she thinks she is entitled to half so she can buy that mink coat she has lusted over. A driving suspense theme kicks in during the theft. A nightwatchmen spots someone inside the arcade and fires a shot. Despite the darkness, a light bulb turns on for Rooney who parts company with the female quicksand. He offers what funds are left to his unethical boss who promptly attempts to call the police. The ominous suspense theme returns with good effect as Rooney viciously stops his boss from speed dialing. Sure he has committed murder, he panics and runs.

Bates returns to see Rooney and the film to the end. She is head over heels in love with Rooney no matter what. In a surprising bit of unlikely good fortune, he hijacks a car driven by a sympathetic lawyer. The most unbelievable sequence in the script. After long driving advice, Rooney sends Bates and lawyer back inland while he tries to sail south until things cool off. He quite literally, misses the boat, but does not miss a bullet from one officer. The lawyer's car does a U-turn when its radio reports that Rooney's boss is recovering nicely. The good news. The bad news is that Rooney is off to prison for a few years. All because of a lousy twenty bucks! Life is not fair, man. Bates promises to wait and I believe her. She is determined to get married.


This United Artist release has a slightly amusing ending as three extras peer in the car's rear window, jockeying for a better view inside the studio prop car as the stationery trio inside calmly discuss the lawyer's fine print of his invoice. Those extras nearly steal the scene.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953)


The slow motion dissolving opening credits of a shimmering font seems to establish a whimsical tone. The orchestral music crescendos gently as each main credit slowly appears then decrescendos as credits fade. Then the cycle repeats. With a complicated lead character and screenplay, this movie needs to be watched more than once to catch all the nuances that make this low budget film work. The cinematography by John Russell is certainly a highlight. A couple of chase scenes have actors running into or stepping over a camera letting the viewer see their approaching and retreating action. The sets nicely masquerade for location filming and a few bits of well placed dialogue adds appeal. But the film would never be considered concise. I was a bit frustrated with this film's pacing for the first thirty minutes.

The insomniac city is Chicago and Chill Wills gives it voice. A good bet this is the only fantasy noir released by Republic Pictures. The film is the city's tale of one night in The Windy City. When Wills pops up out of nowhere to be Gig Young's substitute patrol partner, the script adds a quirky fantasy element. Nearing the film's end, once he is confident Young has everything under control, he magically vanishes just as fast as he appeared. This really is an odd choice to have Wills materialize into the film and I am not sure it even has a point. Young does not seem to be affected by any of Wills encouragement or wise counsel. An angel of sorts seems out of place in this humorless crime drama.



Young is strangely nonchalant with his unhappy lot in life. Uncommitted. He has grown weary of his job and restless with his marriage of an interminable three years. Few could play nonchalant better, though. It took me awhile to realize the early references to “Pops” was more than everyone's affectionate term for a senior policeman. Young is his son, carrying the family torch in the line of duty. Young's brother, on the other hand, is tempted to a wilder side by local magician turned criminal, William Talman. Another odd character. The magician angle is irrelevant to the movie or with anything Talman does. Unless he prepared those opening credits. Nothing magical about him. He is a local hood. Or as officer Thomas “Steve Allen” Poston near the end calls him, a “who’d.” Talman is indelibly etched into this film. Smooth and calculating with a stone in place of a heart. He and Edward Arnold, in another role as a powerfully crooked attorney, have had “arrangements' in the past. His plan is to do Talman a “favor” by getting him safely to Indiana. Talman is apparently unaware of the post office wanted posters in the neighboring state. He would be put away for a long time, getting him out of Arnold's hair. What there is of it. The attorney wants Young to transport him.




In the mix is an “exotic” dancer, Mala Powers, who Young is not that committed to either. He would like to be but it is complicated. Powers is an aspiring ballerina whose bit of bad fortune placed her in the company of less aspiring dancers. Also in love with Powers is perhaps the film's most unusual character. Wally Cassell plays the club's unique entertainer whose job behind an elevated glass case outside the nightclub is to fool the public into believing he is actually a mechanical man. This he does in shifts for the equivalent length of this movie (ninety minutes) with five minute breaks in between! With face painted silver atop a black tuxedo, this quirky character may be the only witness to a murder outside the club. Talman waits in the shadows to find if he is real or not before firing. Cassell is that good.

There is a nice ending twist of confusion for Talman regarding father and son. The father takes the police radio call in place of his son. Thinking he is Young, Talman is stunned to learn father is there to handcuff and arrest him. Young is devastated over the outcome of Talman's brutal action. His career commitment and life purpose hit new heights, no thanks to Wills. The ending is the typical gunfire exchange while running to total exhaustion. But this time down Chicago's elevated train tracks. A particularly helpless location if not timed just right. Talman's narrow escape between two speeding trains is exciting. He looks particularly terrified. But it is the electrified rails that concern both men the most as they side step over them. Running the gauntlet of stepping into well-placed automotive tires at an NFL training camp would not be this challenging. Nor this dangerous. This climax is well-timed, pretty suspenseful and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

HIAWATHA (1952)


Based on Longfellow's 1855 epic poem, at times this film seems sincere about its treatment of the story with filming locations setting a wonderful tone. Composer Marlin Skiles' score takes the film up a notch, mostly complimenting the location and light action scenes. The movie opens under beautiful visuals and a soothing voice-over reading of a poem, after a fashion. As a segue from poem to film, the main credits are uniquely held until the end so the viewer stays in the moment. This was the last film produced by the low-budget production company, Monogram Pictures. Considering the era depicted and story, the low budget is pretty well hidden. Until the actors show up.


The casting department's budget was thin. An obvious reason for a forgettable film. The cast sounding like they just completed their first month at a New York school of drama. The main leads, Vincent Edwards, Keith Larsen and Yvette Dugay, each wearing identical non-gender Indian wigs, do not totally embarrass themselves, however. Edwards seems to fit the part of the even-tempered, peaceful tribesman and does possess more charisma than a cigar store Indian. Larsen delivers his lines as if it were opening night of a melodramatic stage play. With tribal names like Pukkeewis, Megissogwon, Chibiabos and Mudjekeewis, better turn up the volume and have an encyclopedia handy. I will say, the arrows shot into a couple of bare backs are very realistically done. Would like to know the film wizardry behind this. I liked the period appearance of the canoes, though adapted from modern ones.


Selected by the Ojibway council, Edwards/Hiawatha is sent on a peace mission to the Dakotah tribe. Fellow tribesman, Larsen, insists Edwards is a weak coward because he is so nice and even tempered. Plus, Edwards removed his chest hairs with Nair. Larsen constantly spreads fake news and real arrows to undermine Edward's mission so he can elevate himself in the eyes of the tribe. Edwards has a choreographed fight with a black bear costume and you will burst out laughing when the bear takes an arrow from one Dakotah, who comes to Edwards' aide. While recovering, you witness one of the fastest courtships in film history as Dugay/Minnehaha falls in love with Edwards after only their second scene together. She is all gitche gumee about him. The subsequent wedding is clouded by a manufactured war between the two tribes, instigated, naturally, by Larsen, who prefers to make war, not love. Acceptance and peace win out and war is averted as Larsen gets justice thrust upon him once and for all. Rest assured, Edwards and Dugay will one day have a tribe of mini-hahas running around.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

ROSES ARE RED (1947)


Twentieth Century Fox agreed to distribute this tidy sixty-seven minute noir despite a lead cast that has been mostly forgotten. Okay. Totally forgotten. Giving the viewer some common ground is a supporting cast of more familiar faces whose careers were gaining momentum, Jeff Chandler, James Arness, Joe Sawyer and Charles McGraw. Other than the ridiculous premise of identical twins from different mothers, there is not much to fault here.

The title refers to a murder case where the victim is found with a single rose in her hand. It does not make up the crux of the film, however. Sawyer is first seen smelling the rose at the crime scene. He sniffs up the aroma with great nostalgia as he recalls, as a child, his mother's rose garden. Lovely.

Don Castle, at times looking like a cross between Rory Calhoun and Robert Taylor, plays a dual role of the new D.A. and a criminal with the exact same appearance. Establishing both characters with matching mustaches and hair color and style makes for one gullible audience. If that is not confusing enough, pretty Peggy Knudsen and Patricia Knight play, respectively, the good guy's fiance and bad guy's wife. Of similar height, hairstyle, clothes and hooked up with—in reality—the same guy, it may take a few minutes to sort things out. Knudsen, a crack newspaper reporter, appears to be wearing wax lips when not talking or with a lower lip that could burst at any moment. The ladies have no trouble identifying their man, however, as each have a kiss that is more distinct than fingerprints.


A wheelchair-bound mob boss is filled in about the new D.A. by crooked cop and rose smeller, Sawyer. He informs him that the new D.A. will not “cooperate” like the last D.A., who was apparently voted out for that very reason. After bad Castle is released from prison, he spots a photo of the new D.A. in the newspaper and recognizes himself. Posing as the real D.A., he visits the mob boss in the hope of convincing him he could play the new D.A. since he is the same person. However, the boss is not fooled. He recognizes bad Castle from a program cover for his performance in “Othello” by The Prison Players with a talented supporting cast! Obviously, bad Castle has the acting chops to pull it off. They initiate a prison revolving door plan and manipulate the judicial system.


A mob goon, Chandler, abducts the real D.A., taking him to a secluded location for a few days until the fake D.A. is ready to roll. Good and bad Castle finally meet, always with a blank door between them in the background, a safe distance apart. When the opportunity arises, the D.A. jumps corrupt Castle, knocks him out and places him in an upright position as Chandler's automobile pulls into the drive. The D.A. exchanges clothes with the unconscious twin. How timely...how ridiculous. Dressing himself and a limp body in less than a minute is suspended disbelief at its briefest. Through his own initiative and just for fun, the goon (unknowingly) shoots the corrupt Castle. After pushing the real D.A.'s car over a roadside embankment, Chandler roughs him up and shoves him down the slope to make it believable that he was thrown clear of his car. While recovering in the hospital the real D.A. keeps his kidnapping and bad driving skills vague to the authorities and his girl while a smug Sawyer looks on.

Knudsen, however, smells something rotten in this Castle. Later at gunpoint, she questions him until he reminds her of their first kiss. After their third date. They kiss and she instantly knows he is the real deal. Well, he is at least alive. The real D.A. assumes the persona of the “dead D.A.” for Sawyer's sake. Oh brother! Knight unexpectedly drops by his office and expects a familiar kiss from her husband. Upon leaving, she lets Sawyer in on what a kiss means to her as they motor away. A little too personal for Sawyer. His face turns red as a rose. I imagine. The real D.A. is now her fake husband. Or something. She disappears in the film for a while. The audience not too concerned since they are way ahead of the script.

The jailbird accused in the murder agrees to turn state’s evidence on his crime family. Meanwhile, the mob boss will pay Sawyer to get out of the country but Sawyer turns the table and threatens the boss at gunpoint in his own plan to come out smelling like a rose. With an armed wheelchair Ernst Blofeld would envy, the mob boss mortally wounds Sawyer. Police arrive to haul off the dead and charge one with the illegal use of a wheelchair. Knight is called in to sign papers and divest herself from her late husband. As she goes out the door, she reminds Knudsen that her fiance’s kissing needs some practice. Well, of all the nerve!


Saturday, July 29, 2017

NO ESCAPE (1953)


A limited budget movie with opening narration is sometimes a clear signal the film is going to stall out somewhere along the way, not sustaining its “docudrama” set up. There is no escaping that reality here where escape has a double meaning. One, of having all roads out of the city blocked by police for any fleeing fugitive, and the other, trying to escape a homicide rap. This is a rare crime B-movie where none of the principles die. There is a lot of faking in this film, from dubbed singing to a rooftop escape which looks particularly manufactured. One might relish the scenes of vintage San Francisco but only if you grew up there.

The film starts off fairly optimistically thanks to Lew Ayres in a likable role well suited some five years later for a young Jack Lemmon, perhaps. He appears to be a flippant, carefree songwriter who is eking out a living playing piano at a nightclub. Actually he cannot get his composing mojo back and wallows in self-doubt and drink. His dubbed vocals being way off the believability chart. To say nothing of the piano “playing” before his hands get near the keyboard.


Marjorie Steele, girlfriend of Sonny Tufts, is adequate in her role. Her trumpeted, curling upper lip when talking is annoying as if she continued as a thumb sucker through sixth-grade. But I digress. While chatting with Ayres in the nightclub, she is whisked away by a wealthy James Griffith, in possibly his briefest role ever. A quarrel later ensues with a lamp base going to Griffith's head. All of which is assumed but never filmed. Fearing she has killed Griffith, she becomes an over-the-top bundle of nerves, jumping three feet whenever a phone rings or a siren blares. Ayres later stumbles into Griffith's apartment to return the “pity cash” he received from Griffith in the nightclub. He leaves enough fingerprints to incriminate himself. It eventually occurs to Ayres that she only knocked out Griffith with someone else returning for the kill.


Tufts as a policemen seems a stretch, as one gets the feeling he will go into a jealous, maniacal rage at any moment. Slightly unstable roles like this seemed to be more the norm for him in the Fifties as his career self-destructed. But I digress again. Tufts would prefer to pin the crime on Ayres but Steele feels guilty about that. She helps Ayres escape—without leaving town—but there is no escaping the mundane sections throughout this film which are not integral to the plot and make it seem a lot longer than it is. There are a few clever close calls or two but hardly worth mentioning. In a moment to catch their breath, Steele pointedly challenges Ayres to snap out of it and return to being the composer he once was. In the end, he sees a fresh horizon with a newly written song and encouragement from his new girl.