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Ministry of Fear (1944): Nazis & Noir

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In screenwriting 101 they always say engaging movies employ ticking clocks from start to finish. Ministry of Fear takes this quite literally, opening with the tick-tock of a clock face as Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) sits in rapt attention, waiting for the bells to chime.

At first, we’re not sure where we’ve found ourselves. What’s going on? Why is he so on edge? Then, he makes his way through some stone gates and the word “asylum” is emblazoned on the front entrance. We instantly know more about him. He has a past but it seems, at least for the time being, this man has a clean slate to work with.

His first adventure upon purchasing a ticket to London is popping over to a local carnival put on by all the nice ladies of the town. But this British-set noir, directed by Fritz Lang, and based on a Graham Greene work, also begins employing a time bomb…in the form of a cake.

After an enigmatic tip from a lady psychic, Mr. Neale unwittingly acquires said confection and soon gathers he’s gotten involved in something way over his head. The MacGuffin has been brought into circulation.

It proves to be an eventful trip to London, to say the least, and not just because of the Nazis raining down bombs overheard. There’s some homegrown drama as well. As Neale starts dropping cake all over the train compartment, he subsequently welcomes in a bland bloke, only to have the mystery man run off with his dessert.

For the time being, there is nothing to do. In London he calls on a stodgy old investigator (Erskine Sandford) to back him up; he obliges only when money is waved in front of his nose. Then there’s the giggly introduction of an amiable brother and sister duo (Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond) who escaped from Austria.

Mr. Neale is led to believe their business is unwittingly being used as a front for some clandestine activities involving The Mothers of Free Nations. They always were shifty characters.

Meanwhile, Reynolds dips in and out of her accent; she probably would have been served better without it. Though she is winsome enough, I’m inclined to believe the film could have been more twisted if she was, in fact, a more duplicitous dame. Admittedly, the rogue gallery is still quite busy without suspecting her.

The imposing, austere beauty, Mrs. Belaine, leads a seance joined by the foreboding Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier) and dropped in upon by a Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea), who has a very familiar face. The good doctor holds a particularly high position in the ministry of propaganda.

The unearthly environment is textbook high contrast cinematography with visages almost incandescent while otherwise shrouded in darkness. Unfortunately, there’s a shot in the dark (no Clouseau available here) and our hero must be on the run again. We have yet another tip-off that an international conspiracy akin to Foreign Correspondent is afoot.

We are treated to a Hollywood version of a wartime Underground bomb shelter as Neale looks to evade capture with Carla. We get another visual tip on Dr. Forrester thanks to ominous swastikas projected on the wall. His newest analysis “Psychology of Nazidom” is the culprit. One gathers he might have a closer relationship with the Third Reich than he’s letting on. Unless it’s someone else…

Given these details, it’s difficult not to also consider Lang’s harrowing Hangman Also Die! which tackled the Nazi menace right from the interior. The fact that the enemy might have infiltrated and live all but undetected among us is even more frightening (though these themes are not considered in length here).

Because, like Hitchcock’s best British films, Ministry of Fear is all thriller, and its main allegiance is to entertainment rather than pure propaganda. I think the years are kinder to it for those very reasons. It does not give us a completely false sense of the piety found in the world — especially in the midst of something so troubling as WWII.

There are further bomb explosions and the involvement of Scotland Yard leading to a very familiar face turning up once more. The emblematic shot of the whole picture comes when a door is closed behind a fleeing fugitive and a shot rings out, with one solitary beam of light emanating through the bullet hole. It explains the whole scene, and what has happened, in the most dramatic way possible.

A chase up to the roof ensues, where, upon being pinned down, Neale and his gal shoot it out with the enemy, the rain pouring down in torrents overhead. It looks like dire straights if not for some fortuitous help. In literary terms, I believe the accepted phrase is a deus ex machina. Because closure, as such, is hardly arrived upon so easily, we conveniently edit through the climax to explain it away.

Instead, there is a hastily cut-together ending with one obligatory mention of a forthcoming church wedding and of course, a wedding cake…It is a glib reminder noir can often bleed into the most mundane environments.

As forced as it may feel, this happy ending leaves us with nervous laughter. Otherwise, we might still be trembling considering what might have happened. I can only imagine the reactions of a wartime audience — no matter how farfetched the plot — they were living through this very real fear.

3.5/5 Stars

Grace Kelly & Audrey Hepburn Part II

Two years ago I contributed a post to The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon to commemorate the actress and cultural icon alongside my other favorite performer Audrey Hepburn. For my initial point of reference, I started with a pair of photos I’d seen backstage at the 28th Academy Awards in 1956. They, of course, had previously won for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Country Girl (1954) respectively.

As a follow-up, I have to alternative photos no doubt featured in the same issue of Life Magazine and they lend yet another candid quality to the proceedings, the first showing Grace Kelly peering directly toward the camera (Audrey’s figure all but blurred). Then in the second, we see Audrey looking on along with someone else at Grace Kelly’s noticeable excitement. Another engaging detail is all the figures visible in the reflection.

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Grace Kelly & Audrey Hepburn Part II

Back then, I pondered upon their interactions — what they might have been like, however brief — and also I wondered if they ever met again?  Thanks to a helpful comment and some minor investigating I came to an interesting if not altogether conclusive solution. More on that later.

First, we must take a moment to acknowledge Grace Kelly (and Audrey) as 2019 would have represented their 90th birthdays respectively. They left us far too quickly but their impact both on the silver screen and in society as ambassadors was duly noted.

But I’m sure you already have a great deal of admiration for them. I’ll let others fill in with the effusive praise for their various accolades and attributes. Let’s get on with a bit of amateur sleuthing.

The Resolution

It’s not too great a spoiler to say Grace and Audrey did cross paths again, this time accompanied by their spouses Prince Ranier of Monaco and Mel Ferrer.

Although we can’t carbon date, I could instantly place the photos to the mid-60s because of Audrey Hepburn’s look. It felt very How to Steal a Million on the way to Two For The Road. In comparison, since Grace Kelly had been out of the acting game for some time (since 1956) and had been all but forbid from making a triumphant return in Hitchcock’s Marnie, we can’t do the same with her hairstyle.

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This is my best piece of legitimate confirmation from a French Getty Images caption:

La princesse Grace et le prince Rainier III de Monaco avec Audrey Hepburn et son mari Mel Ferrer à la Nuit du Cinéma au théâtre Marigny le 28 octobre 1965 à Paris, France . (Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

From my middling knowledge of French, I gather the four aforementioned parties were gathered at the Theater Marigny in Paris on October 28th, 1965 for a “Night of Cinema.” I’m not quite sure what it entailed — if it was a retrospective of any kind — but they seem to be having a fine time, despite the host of journalists. What’s more, these images, like the backstage snaps from the Oscars, feel spectacularly candid.

If you have any more information on the circumstances of this visit, I’d love to hear it! Otherwise, this is my ending to the question I posed two years ago. Princess Grace and Princess Ann (Audrey) did cross paths, and it looked to be a sumptuous occasion.

The only things I have left is to share some double features worth checking out:

Double Features

The Country Girl (1954) & Sabrina (1954)

 

 

This is an obvious pairing because, for one thing, William Holden had the chance to star with Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn in the same year! (Not to mention Bogart and Bing Crosby). He would repeat the feat thanks to The Bridges at Toko-Ri (also ’54) and Paris When It Sizzles (1964).

Dial M for Murder (1954) & Wait Until Dark (1967)

 

 

 

This is a more thrilling pairing of two home invasion features. I’m surprised I’d never actually thought of them in a similar light, but when you have Kelly fighting for her life against a murderous husband and a blind Audrey Hepburn fighting off an intruder, it’s easy to understand why we root for them. Both these ladies all but top cinema’s likeability list.

Wonderful World of Cinema, Flapper Dame, and Musings of a Classic Film Addict, thanks so much for having me for The 5th Grace Kelly Blogathon!

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Spencer Tracy and Small-Town Bigotry

Review: Bad Day at Black Rock: Japanese-Americans and Small-Town Bigotry

In its theatrical cut, Bad Day at Black Rock opens furiously, charging forward with the momentum of a freight train as the credits roll and Andre Previn’s score thrashes in the film’s most manic moment.

From thenceforward, its greatest strength is restraint. The whole town cowers around watching the train arrive with a mysterious one-arm man named Macreedy aboard. If the mysterious out-of-towner isn’t enough, it might also be the fact they haven’t had a visitor for well-nigh four years. This is big news but they aren’t looking to be neighborly. The local observation from the train conductor is telling:

“Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

“I’ll only be here 24 hours.”

“In a place like this, that can be a lifetime.”

The opening minutes not only set up our character but this impeccable environment for accentuating the underlying unfriendliness. The wide-open spaces of Lone Pine, CA are as much about the vast planes created between people as it merely breathtaking landscape. Because it’s gloriously austere, and it’s completely evident we really are off the beaten track.

Spencer Tracy might seem an odd choice, given the traits of his character; he seems too old and overweight to be a recently discharged veteran of WWII, especially since the year is 1945. And he’s hardly a western hero or an action star in the commonly accepted sense. A film like this would normally call for a hybrid between Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, or Clint Eastwood.

It borrows from westerns and noir, but I hesitate to label it as either. Because it has near revisionist outcomes and a palette more akin to large-scale epics than B-level entertainment. There’s really nothing else I can think of with such a fascinating and simultaneously confounding pedigree.

Macreedy is intent on visiting Adobe Flat, but he seems like a genial fellow. It’s everyone else who loiter around menacingly. They’re either outright brusque like, the local hotel clerk, or pushy folks who ask him straightforward-like what he wants around their town.

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In certain terms, Black Rock is the epitome of rural America — with a sinister twist. It’s smaller than small. Everyone knows the business of everyone else. But these folks are about as tight-lipped and inhospitable as anyone ever in the history of humanity when it comes to outsiders. What’s more, they have little reason to be unless they have something to hide. Of course, they must be covering some secret, but we don’t know quite what it is. There we have our movie.

The beauty of the story is how it plays close to the vest on both accounts. Because Macreedy seems to be in no hurry to broadcast his news all around. Simply the fact he has come to town at all seems like enough. He finally does let his business come out talking to the local sheriff (Dean Jagger), another very gracious fellow in line with all the others. Macreedy is there to see a man named Komoko. The name is a tip-off for some. He is Japanese and we are sitting on the tail-end of WWII.

It recalls the quote always attributed to Hitchcock: “The thrill is not in the bang but the anticipation of it.” John Sturges, while known for action films, does such a measured job of stretching out of the tension of this picture. It gets to this unbearable high deserving some sort of release.

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One could say it happens in the diner. Spencer Tracy is working on a bowl of chili, only to get needled by Ernest Borgnine. First it’s a squabble over a chair, then it’s a bottle of ketchup being poured into a bowl of chili. It’s a maddening scene of belittling, but Spencer Tracy takes everything in stride with the finest brand of mild amusement. Everything slides off his back. The following interchange is representative:

“You’re a yellow-belly Jap lover, am I right or wrong?” – Coley Tremble
“You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.” – Macreedy

Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin are lounging around to watch the show. Up until this point Macreedy has kept his cool and one might say he walks out as calmly as he came in, but he also exerts himself like he has yet to do. It’s a cathartic moment and as an audience, it gives us an unalienable belief in our hero. We wanted to believe he could hold his own implacably and he can. But the forces against him are nevertheless stifling.

We get the final piece of vital information. Macreedy came to town because of Joe Komoko, who died in Italy saving the life of his brother-in-arms. Forever in his debt, he thought the least he could do was pass on a medal and his condolences. It’s gratifying to have it spelled out, but the bottom line is still the same. Tracy is all but trapped without any outside assistance.

His only chance is some inside help — someone who is willing to do something right for a change, instead of turning a blind eye. The closest he finds is in the local doctor/undertaker (Walter Brennan) who gives his best half-hearted attempt to help the stranger.

Meanwhile, the town’s poor excuse for a sheriff (Dean Jagger), who spends his days nursing the bottle and his nights sleeping in his own jail cell, finally feels compelled to take a stand. His behavior strips him of his badge. The final reluctant players are the tight-lipped hotel clerk and his young sister (Anne Francis), who both aid Macreedy begrudgingly. In a town like this, each action seems nearly monumental. One questions if it is enough.

I challenge anyone to stack the movie up against most any cast of the 1950s, especially because this is not some grandiose epic. This film clocks in at a mere 81 minutes of film, but it has more than enough to go around. Robert Ryan, in particular, is a crucial piece. He always gets these roles as militant bigots and in one sense you feel bad for him and in the other, he’s so convincing at it you can understand why.

His blatant malevolence briefly hidden under a thin exterior is the perfect foil for Tracy to bounce off of. Because they share conversation civilly enough, but it all draws out how diametrically opposed they are. Macreedy got it in Italy. Smith tried enlisting straight after Pearl Harbor but wasn’t accepted.

We come to understand his view of humanity is cut-and-dry. Komoko was a lousy Jap farmer. Pearl Harbor and Corregidor. They’re all the same. There’s no such thing as a loyal Japanese-American. Its this type of rhetoric we must immediately be wary of. For it is pernicious.

At his first chance, Macreedy decides he should get out of town since he’s hit a dead-en, attempting to notify the state police on his way out. He bumps into another bystander, the squeamish telegraph officer Hastings, who excuses himself by saying, “I’m just a good neighbor.”

Of course, as Macreedy suspects, his definition only stretches to those who share his skin tone. He is yet another problem character. Because he has no guts and if I indict him then I am indicting myself as well. There is no place for wishy-washiness with such issues.

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Bad Day at Black Rock, personally, is an important film for me because, like Daisy Kenyon or The Steel Helmet, it stands as a record of Japanese-Americans place in a polarized society. There was injustice done, and it’s not something we should try and forget. The acknowledgment alone is a victory and yet another important record in the annals of visual history.

However, getting beyond, this thriller is ultimately about a hero who is doing his best to honor another man — of course, he happens to be Japanese-American — but most importantly he is given the dignity and the respect of a human being. Because there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friends. Even if we never see Motoko, or his deceased son in person, their presence over the film is still felt, and it’s meaningful for me. The implications are that he matters as not merely an innocent citizen but a sacrificial hero for the sake of our country.

It manages to be universal. Because Black Rock could be the stand-in for any such towns. In this particular instance, it’s about a Japanese man. But in other stories, he could be any marginalized individual. The hateful frenzy of The Red Scare is too fresh to disregard any type of allegory in that context.

This type of bigotry and incensed racial (or political) hatred is not a thing of the past. It disadvantages many types of people by conveniently terming them “other” from the accepted subset of society.

What always fascinates me in history and in the stories we excavate is finding the people who faced this abhorrent reality and willingly pushed against it. Still, others initially accept it with apathy. It’s the path of least resistance. However, even they are forced to make a stand, lest they continually bury their conscience and grow miserable.

Bad Day at Bad Rock is about precisely these types of people, and it takes all sorts. So the beauty of it is that we can enjoy its utter intensity and the mystery at its core. It keeps its secrets close and only divulges them at opportune moments. The dialogue too is sparse and measured.

But seething under the surface is a commentary framed by a none too flattering portrait of America. It stands as a testament to fear leading to hate and hate leading to violence. There’s this sense of full-blown conspiracy and holding onto each other’s secrets because we’re all implicated.

If we are to break the chain, it’s imperative to band together in opposition and bring all those dirty secrets into the light. The greatest gift Spencer Tracy gives to this picture is not brawn but the unwavering sense of integrity — in his acting and in that iconic face of his. In a world of shady two-timers, his candor is something we can trust.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Grace Kelly

Here is my latest installment in my beginner’s guide to classic movies where I look to profile a Hollywood star by highlighting 4 of their films and getting sidetracked by a few others too good to pass up.

This week we’ll be talking about none other than Princess Grace of Monaco who willingly gave up her movie career in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier and become royalty. Here’s where to start!

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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There were plenty of early films worth noting including Fourteen Hours, High Noon, and Mogambo. But how could we not acknowledge this first Hitchcock pairing that has Grace Kelly fighting desperately for her life against a jealous husband (Ray Milland)!

Rear Window (1954)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Grace Kelly

The top tier of Hitchcock movies and it solidified Kelly and Hitch for the ages as one of the great movie partnerships. She is the quintessential “Icy Hitchcock Blonde,” cool and collected in one moment, beautiful and elegant, and yet impetuous as the stakes get higher. Despite their differences, Jimmy Stewart cannot help but fall in love with her.

The Country Girl (1954)

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Grace Kelly had so much poise and screen presence in all her films. But if there was ever a question of whether or not she was a “serious” actress, The Country Girl might as well dispel any doubts. She exudes a quiet dignity as she supports her husband (Bing Crosby), a soused up entertainer who unwittingly assassinates her reputation. They also starred together in the light-hearted musical High Society.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

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Grace Kelly and Cary Grant together are literally fireworks. The outfits are as extravagant as they are iconic. The interplay sizzles as the mystery mounts on the stunning French Riviera. A game of cat and mouse is afoot and both our leads are more than obliging in this lithe Hitchcock offering.

Border Incident (1949): Mann and Alton Enhanced Docu-Drama Noir

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A voice of God with a certain newsreel ethos sets the scene. California’s Imperial Valley. An area renowned for its robust agricultural industry. The Bracero Program, that brilliant reflection of U.S.-Mexican relations during the war years and beyond. However, if this scenario sounds too simplistic and squeaky clean, it soon gets slightly more intriguing in consideration of the border.

You have illegals jumping the fence to get into the U.S. and numerous egregious perpetrators of human suffering and injustice looking to take advantage of the situation by any means possible. Indigenous Bandidos are looking to murder and pillage a la The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and their savagery terrorizes the countryside. Then, there is the clandestine trafficking of labor, another real-world problem portrayed in cinematic terms.

Because Border Incident is pronounced a composite case of real life and hard facts. Like T-Men before it, the introduction leaves me rather skeptical. It does feel like reality is still being sculpted, not only for the movies but in a manner that the heroes and villains can become more easily definable.

Instead of a trail of counterfeit bills, it’s all about finding out the route of illegal transportation into the country. But regardless of my qualms, it’s extraordinary for Ricardo Montalban to get such a hefty and prominent part in a picture. There’s no question he’s the standout, at least as far as the heroes are concerned, playing a brave and charismatic Mexican agent, Pablo Rodriguez, who is tasked with uncovering the smuggling at its source. His American counterpart is American Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) who is brave but hardly as compelling.

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There are, however, plenty of villains to fawn over as with any respectable noir. Charles McGraw is an ornery enforcer who takes no flack and pushes the impoverished Mexicans around like chattel. Being wary of the border patrol in Indio, he’s not above dumping their cargo in the Salton Sea if they have to. It’s a chilling illustration of his disreputable nature.

Jack Lambert is always game as a sneering heavy and Howard Da Silva also has a mug made for villainy. However, in this case, he’s actually a big deal — the untouchable mastermind of this entire operation — it’s the men below him who get their hands dirty.

While Rodriguez is embroiled right in the pit of the harrowing operation, befriending a sympathetic countryman named Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), it is the American agent who works from the top down; he gets an alias as a criminal on the lamb and makes contact with the big man. They look to set up a mutually beneficial business transaction, a load of visas for heaps of cash.

If the narrative structure leaves something to be desired, there’s nevertheless an impeccable framework for Mann to implement his unsentimental brand of filmmaking. In a textbook example, there’s a moment where Lamber’s fingers get crammed in a truck window — as the braceros try to flee — only to get pushed off the speeding vehicle and potentially hurtled to his death. The uncompromising imagery is only to be surpassed when a wounded border agent is squashed to smithereens by a tractor, literally dwarfing the frame. It’s this sense of suffocation even in wide open spaces.

The glorious tight angled close-ups are only one facet to the film, accentuating this sense of constraint just as the extraordinary tones of John Alton, in essence, cloak the space in a noose of supreme darkness. For a film about men trying to flee authorities crossing cultural borders, there’s hardly a better visual method of conveyance possible.

Raw Deal is still the gold standard of Anthony Mann film noir with T-Men and then Border Incident falling a rung below. Mostly because the mechanism created for the plot feel flat, and yet everything Mann and Alton touch really is dynamite, with the most gorgeous tones, equally stylistically dynamic. It’s a killer one-two punch and all business as usual for director and cinematographer.

On this front, as a merely technical and formalistic endeavor, Border Incident is superb and a darn good docu-noir. In the closing moments, Montalban gets swallowed up by quicksand, fighting for his life against adversaries, and fistfights and gunshots abound on all sides. These lightning rods of drama are appreciated.

Unfortunately, it keeps the same framework that now in present days looks more propagandistic and heavy-handed then authentic storytelling. We find ourselves with a certain rhetoric about living under the protection of two great republics and the bounty of God Almighty.

Of course, there’s no mention of the Zoot Suit Riots and the perpetration of racial violence, because that was too close to home and does not fit into a handy framework for a public service announcement storyline such as this. Instead of chalking all problems up to cold, capitalistic men in suits with greedy underlings, we must look at a social system that breeds bigotry as much as it does inequality. Admittedly, I am not one with the right answers but nonetheless, I am curious to know how we move forward from a film like this.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Thieves’ Highway (1949): Apple Crates and Femme Fatales

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Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) makes a joyous homecoming to his parents after literally traveling the seven seas, armed with boxes of gifts to lavish upon them. In a matter of minutes, we already have a warm feeling and an affection, however cursory, for these characters we have just met.

With money to spare and a pretty girl (Barbara Lawrence) just waiting to marry him, it really does seem he doesn’t have a care in the world. However, he’s rudely awakened when he entreats his father to put on a pair of moccasins. The old man becomes dour for the first time and confesses he no longer has use of his legs.

It seems like a major reveal for the boy not to know, but it nevertheless gives traction to the forthcoming story. Mr. Garcos used to be a truck driver and yet one fateful evening, he took a load of tomatoes to San Francisco. Far from getting paid, he found himself receiving a vocal I.O.U. and getting into an accident late at night under dubious circumstances. One has to admit he’s a kindly man but a bit of a pushover.

While it doesn’t begin as a revenge story, Thieves Highway’ certainly becomes one as Nick looks to not only get his father’s money and clean up the mess left behind but also get even because its pretty obvious foul play was involved.

First things first, he looks to buy his father’s truck back, from a shifty old pro named Ed Kenny (Millard Mitchell). Instead, they wind up going into business together ready to carry the season’s first load of Golden Delicious apples to try and make a killing. With the other man’s know-how and Garcos youth and tenacity, they just might make out. Soon they’re caravanning up to San Francisco to cash out on their load. It seems simple enough, but such a journey never is.

Richard Conte fits seamlessly into this role that capitalizes on his versatility in playing both heroes and villains. Because while we can label Nick our protagonists, he exhibits violent tendencies only visible in noir films where the dividing line between good and bad is often inconsequential.

Valentina Cortese plays Rica, the hooker with a heart of gold who is initially paid $100 to lure Garcos away from his truck. If it’s totally a stereotype — she is an apple crate femme fatale if you will — then Cortese still manages to play the mixture of sensuality and genial warmth in a manner that makes us care for her as an individual. Because she gives us a couple hints, suggesting a character with more good than bad — someone who is in a tough bind, yet still out looking for goodness and love to welcome into her life.

If Rica is the embodiment of an opportunist getting their chance at redemption, Mike Figglia is pure deceitfulness. Lee J. Cobb played sour apples before but Figglia is just about as ruthless as any of his boisterous antagonists. He is a trenchant embodiment of crooked free-market industry. There is no integrity to him and even less humanity as he strives to swindle his way to one dishonest buck after another. It’s not simply survival of the fittest but the roost is literally ruled by those who have no sense of rectitude whatsoever. They absolutely relish sinking other people for their own gain.

Thieves’ Highway had its predecessors in the likes of They Drive by Night (1940), coincidentally taken from a story written by this film’s screenwriter. However, though it has its own gritty Warner Bros. elements, it’s nevertheless a studio lot entry. John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) as well, while more of a migrant story, shows us the merciless side of cutthroat capitalism.

Just to get to the marketplace takes a lot of winding roads. There are bribes stuck up tailpipes, Garcos jacks up his truck with the back of his neck, and the worst for Kinney involves his ride continuously conking out. All for the sake of a truckful of apples.

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Simultaneously, two vultures (Jack Oakie and Joseph Peveney) in a truck of their own, are ravenously following Kinney as his own vehicle moans and wheezes its way toward its final destination. If time is money, he’s losing cash value fast and everyone knows it.

Still, the young newcomer has done pretty well for himself. He’s not taking any flack from Figlia, and he comes out of the shrewd operator’s office with $500 and a $34000 check. It sounds good, but it’s already a red flag. Because we know something’s going to happen to that valuable piece of paper. We just know it.

Sure enough, the story takes a devastatingly fatalistic nose dive on both Nick and Kinney’s end of the story. It’s a film literally chewing up and spitting out its protagonist.

A truck decimated. A hillside covered with busted apple crates. Then, back in the market a big fat nothing. There’s a sense of helplessness even as despondency sets in. Surely, this cannot be worth it? And yet Garcos somehow pulls himself together instead of rolling into a ball. Because he has an injustice to rail against and the perfect target is Mike Figlia.

One can quibble over whether or not it is neutralized by a slightly gushy ending — noir is certainly at its most mordant in the pits of despair — but there is still much to recommend in Thieves’ Highway.

Director Jules Dassin is one of the prominent names in post-war noir, because he made the genre not simply stylistic but imbued it with real-world grit, palpable for different reasons. Because we feel it and could see roadways and back alleys that get closer to reality than the studios ever could on their backlots.

For those familiar with the real San Francisco, Thieves’ Highway authentically embodied the robust produce industry set up within the city, detailing the area formerly adjacent to the Embarcadero, not mention more images of Oakland Produce Market.

It’s the kind of immersive imagery you can’t begin to fake in a convincing manner, and it adds another fascinating accent to this picture. Because not only is it a story with heady themes of revenge, but it’s planted in cold hard historical reality. Films at their best provide such documentation.

4/5 Stars

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954): Social Commentary in The Guise of Exploitation

Riotcellblockpost.jpgIf you’re like me you met Don Siegel because of Dirty Harry (1971) or maybe The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But it was only after discovering the rest of his work — the likes of The Big Steal (1949), The Lineup (1958), or even this film, where you began to appreciate the consummate craftsman that he was.

The film makes a creative choice to set up its narrative with real-life newsreel footage of prison riots across America and this is no facsimile; it feels like the real deal. This decision begins with the initial impetus of producer Walter Wang to make a picture authentic to the plight of prisoners. Showing the inside and the inherent issues with such mass incarceration. Why would he have such a stake in telling these stories in a picture like Riot in Cell Block 11 or I Want to Live (1958)?

It’s because he actually spent a spell in prison himself after shooting his wife’s lover. That is a whole different story, but it gives us some context for the aims of this project.

Compared to Brute Force (1947) or Caged (1950), for instance, this is not simply a story of brutality at the hands of some maniacal prison guard like Hume Cronyn or Hope Emerson. Those narratives are assuredly entertaining. But for something that looks similarly exploitative, this picture decides on a more nuanced approach in a generally successful attempt at open-ended social commentary.

The warden (Emile Meyer), for instance, is a no-nonsense man but far from a tyrannical monster; he has a grim view of the prison system, knowing they are not always able to offer the best rehabilitation. He constantly strives for discipline while also harboring a certain level of sympathy for those deserving of it. He is a first-hand witness to the short-sighted effects of negligence in our justice system.

It turns out that before the days of Johnny Cash, Folsom State Prison was used as the shooting location for this film. Siegel even had the ingenuity to cast real-life prisoners as extras. I’m not sure how the logistics worked out, but the film undoubtedly benefits surrounding the already believable tough guys like Neville Brand and hulking Leo Gordon with a host of others.

The usual suspects include a skulking Alvy Moore (pre-Green Acres) and “The Colonel” who is the most learned of the inmates and helps to give them some credibility. The lives of prison guards, including Whit Bissell and Paul Frees, reflect how close the jailers get to their charges. That’s a dangerous arena and especially with the guy’s in solitary.

Without this overcrowded, undermanned system, there would be no Riot in Cell Block 11. As it is, four guards are easily overpowered and held hostage to be used as leverage against the authorities.  There’s a giddy jubilance to their trashing of the cell block that’s nearly comical, even as the stakes are far more harrowing. It proves far more than a game, with lives on either side of the wire at stake.

James V. Dunn (Brand) takes the lead, daring all others to join him and his band of cronies. Crazy Mike Carnie (Gordon) is the one who frightens everyone into line. But it is The Colonel (Robert Osterloh) who is called upon to organize their grievances to be presented. He provides a voice of reason and rationality we would be lacking otherwise.

The warden is put in an agonizing position, walking the tightrope between the prisoner demands and the outsiders coming in, including the pitiless commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), going all the way up to the governor. Likewise, worried spouses call his office about their husbands’ well-being as journalists (including William Schallert) look to stir up the story around the riot.

At its cores is this ideological war of treating prisoners firmly but with inherent dignity and then caging them up with the most merciless of standards to keep them in line. To show clemenscy is seen as a sign of weakness.

Inside and outside the bars, you see people with grievances and problems like any person. It humanizes everyone, in a sense, going beyond mere exploitative drama. It somehow wears a fairly convincing cloak of authenticity while still remaining pulse-pounding stuff. Because I’ve seen prison riots captured on film before but to my knowledge, there’s never been anything so enveloping and tumultuous on all fronts.

Keeping with Wang’s agenda, the film does not pull any punches as it slinks back into the status quo. There is tragedy, there is victory, and finally, there is a feeling of powerlessness in the face of bureaucracy. It’s as if a man’s word stands for nothing. It’s as if this whole ordeal was entirely pointless.  The finale is as eye-opening as it is pessimistic. But movies have a license to do that. It makes them a lot more lifelike.

4/5 Stars

Armored Car Robbery (1950): Wrigley Field L.A. Noir

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Armored Car Robbery instantly had my rapt attention in part because of its location shooting and due to one place in particular. We start out at L.A. City Hall and soon a shooting and a robbery are being called in from nearby Wrigley Field, which sends Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) and his partner out to respond.

It proves to be a false alarm but the setting alone might throw some contemporary audiences for a loop. After all, Wrigley Field is synonymous with the ivy-laden bricks of Chicago, not Los Angeles.

Except L.A. enthusiasts might know that the area once held a Wrigley Field of its own, formerly the home of the original Los Angeles Angels expansion team in 1961. It also served as the backdrop in many classics including Meet John Doe and Pride of the Yankees. Added to that list is Armored Car Robbery, although it only uses a facade of the stadium, which could just have easily been a studio set.

Aside from always being fascinated by time capsule moments — Wrigley Field was all but demolished in 1963 — I had always heard talk of my Grandma growing up down the street in Los Angeles. She was born in L.A. County and her family ran a grocery store in the area. I don’t have much of a picture of that world and so even a brief image like the one provided here gives me a glimpse into yesteryear. But I digress.

Richard Fleischer’s heist noir is an obvious precursor to The Killing for its stadium locale and the ever necessary complications that begin to present themselves in due time. What good is a heist if it doesn’t go completely haywire?

Because of its limited time, Armored Car Robbery spends minutes on the preparations and the actual execution of the job. But the trick is, it’s all so efficient, we are never allowed time to get bored by the usual rhythms. Still, all the information is there for us to be brought into the crime.

Generally known as defense attorney Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason,  William Talman gives a far more insidious turn as a meticulous criminal obsessive about keeping a low profile and tying up every loose end so he can pull off the perfect crime. What’s more, he’s secretly got a bite on his accomplice’s girl, a heartlessly opportunistic blonde bombshell (Adele Jergens).

By night she’s got the entire male populous ogling. By day, she’s looking pretty, hanging around the bar, and getting miffed with her husband (Douglas Fowley), who can’t seem to make any dough. Hence her convenient extramarital operations. Dave Purvis is the man for her, taking charge of two other thugs as they set their sights on $200,000 of cold hard cash.

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But there’s always a slip-up. There can hardly be a heist genre without the wrench that causes everything to hurtle out of control. As it turns out, Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) and his partner are on the beat, responding to the subsequent distress call at Wrigley immediately. The culprits aren’t expecting it, and the ensuing shootout leaves one of the officer’s dead in the line of duty and one of the gangsters badly injured. Soon the alarm has been raised with roadblocks set out everywhere and the police force on high alert for the four fugitives.

For the rest of the film, Cordell must live with this galling injustice, stewing day and night in his own distraughtness and copious amounts of lukewarm coffee. First, jaded by the untimely murder of his partner and then saddled with a wet-behind-the-ears replacement (Don McGuire). Although the new recruit nevertheless proves to have a certain amount of gumption when it counts.

The film employs a low-budget airport terminal ending — one of the few times it lets slip its meager means — but the film goes for the narrative jugular. We see precursors to the likes of The Big Combo, The Killing, and even Bullitt. On multiple occasions, it’s not at all squeamish about letting the bullets fly and the death toll rises as a result. And it’s this disregard for the sanctity of life that gives the narrative real heft. No one is protected and there we have grounds for a thrilling drama.

These kinds of stories are awesome pulp classics with a stripped-down punchiness that’s instantly gratifying. RKO was such a wonderful studio in this regard for giving us such raw delights. They don’t make them like this anymore.  We waste too much time.

While not completely related, one should note RKO is the only of the major classic studios that completely folded. Those were the good old days. But all good things must come to an end. Wrigley got demolished. Actors die. Studios close down. That’s why cinematic memorials are often so important. They allow us to journey back into the past.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Cary Grant

It’s that time again to profile a classic Hollywood star by briefly looking at 4 of their films. Today’s centerpiece is Archibald Leach more commonly remembered as Cary Grant, the suave, debonair, screwball extraordinaire who groomed himself into one of Hollywood’s preeminent leading men.

Philadelphia Story (1940)

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He’s rude and obnoxious and yet something about him makes it hard for Katharine Hepburn to say no to her old beau even as he tries to scandalize her latest marriage. The dynamics between Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are what you dream for with such a pairing. While you’re at it, Bringing Up Baby is a must.

His Girl Friday (1940)

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This is a true Cary Grant tour de force as he whizzes through the newsroom sparring with his old matrimonial partner in crime Rosalind Russell. Their verbal jousts are truly frenetic poetry, and the turbulence they churn up is some of the best conflict any screwball comedy was ever blessed with. The Awful Truth and The Favorite Wife with Irene Dunne are swell as well.

Notorious (1946)

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He’s always a bit of a debonair or lovable cad. In this one there’s no pretense. As the callous government agent Devlin, he makes Ingrid Bergman cry. This total revision of his persona is powerful, and it would lay the groundwork for one of the great Hitchcock movies. Not only that, their amorous kiss fest would slyly obliterate Hollywood convention.

North By Northwest (1959)

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What makes him so great in North By Northwest is how ordinary and amicable his Roger Thornhill is only to be thrown pell-mell into a cross-country murder plot. The advertising exec finds himself fleeing from the authorities and the perpetrators in this delightful man-on-the-run pulse-pounder.

Worth Watching:

Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Suspicion, Talk of The Town, The Bishop’s Wife, People Will Talk, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet, Charade, and many more!

4 Living Legends Part 6

Here is another entry in our ongoing series of Classic Hollywood Stars who are still with us. Please enjoy their many talents!

Peggy Dow (1928-)

Peggy Dow is most well-remembered for her enchanting turn as a nurse opposite Jimmy Stewart’s disarming Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. In later life, she’s been a prominent philanthropist. She also appeared in a few lesser-known pictures including Woman in Hiding (1950), I Want You (1951), and Bright Victory (1951) worth it for classic film aficionados.

Nancy Olson (1928-)

If you’re like me, Nancy Olson stands out for two landmark films from two completely opposite ends of the spectrum. The first one is the incomparable Sunset Blvd (1950) where she played opposite William Holden. The other is that preeminent childhood classic, The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) with Fred MacMurray. I also really enjoyed her in Union Station (1950).

Ann Blyth (1928-)

Ann Blyth was in a wide variety of pictures running the gamut of musical and drama, but if she’s remembered for one film, it’s certainly her sweltering turn as the vindictive Veda in Mildred Pierce (1945). When Joan Crawford slaps her across the face, it’s the climactic moment in one of the most terrifying mother-daughter relationships ever. I’m sure she’s lovely in real life!

Jane Powell (1929-)

What a lovely performer Jane Powell is and she brightens up the frames of many a musical with her multi-talented effervescence. Some personal highlights in her career include Royal Wedding (1951) with Fred Astaire and, of course, the wonderful Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).