The Paleface (1948)

As a kid, I was fond of Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface for a myriad of reasons. Thanks to that esteemed institution known as the local library I was well-versed in the Hope & Crosby Road Pictures by an early age and Roy Rogers was probably second-only to Gene Autry as king of the Singing Cowboys. Jane Russell wasn’t too bad herself.

More recently, coming to understand Tashlin himself — his background in animated comedy and his partnership with Jerry Lewis — gives greater context to his place as a creative visionary. Because it’s true he blends the gray area between live-action and the cartoon logic of animation better than almost anyone else.

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Tashlin had these unsavory words for The Paleface and its director:

“After seeing the preview of it, I could’ve shot Norman Z. McLeod. I’d written it as a satire on The Virginian (1929), and it was completely botched. I could’ve killed that guy. And I realized then that I must direct my own stuff.”

While it’s true the original movie doesn’t have the same outrageous commitment to comic gags that its successor did, if Tashlin was not so close to the material, he might be able to appreciate some of its elements.

However, before we go there, it seems necessary to introduce a caveat. The Paleface is a film out of a different era. If you’re an immediate impression of the movie is one of distaste, there aren’t any surprises here. Particularly jolting is when they are taken in by the local Natives to die some gruesome death only to be saved by Hope’s masquerading as a medicine man armed with the black magic of dynamite.

But if you have a sense of nostalgia, can look past the blind spots, or have a reservoir of goodwill toward Bob Hope, it delivers alongside the best of his comedies by providing a genre and allowing him to bend it to his will, courtesy of his usual feckless, smart-aleck shtick.

It works by first introducing all the western tropes Tashlin was mentioning. Russell, the feisty female outlaw, Calamity Jane, is enlisted by the government to investigate clandestine operations supplying the Indians with firearms. She joins a wagon train after outsmarting some adversaries in the ladies’ showers. It allows her to do some recon and she uses a first-class boob as her cover.

Bob Hope (as Painless Potter) is showcased with a row of dentistry gags including his canister of laughing gas, which becomes a recurrent plot point throughout the picture. When he’s not getting them lost in the woods, he knocks back “Buttons and Bows,” a tune that has remained a lasting relic of the movie, thanks to renditions by the likes of Dinah Shore, and its reintroduction in the sequel.

Every kiss he shares with his costar is like a rap over the head with the butt of a pistol. But along with being the aggressor, Russell also does his shooting for him on multiple occasions. In fact, when he is goaded into a shoot-out over the hand of a woman in a saloon, the outcomes prove surprisingly close to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paleface was released over a decade earlier). Could it be John Ford was influenced by Paleface? I’ll let you be the judge.

As for Norman Z. Macleod, I’m inclined to give him my good graces given his pedigree with Marx Brothers and screwball-like comedies of all sorts. While he might not commit to gravity-defying visual gags as Tashlin would have — we understand how he would be able to expand and punctuate them — Macleod always seems intent on zipping the pace along and keeping the tone zany.

This suits Hope even as Russell and the other characters allow the story to still stay true to many of the western tropes of cowboys, Indians, and western towns needing to be tamed.  This melding of the usual beats with the wacky subversions instigated byHhope is the crux of the movie and blended with its color photography and the antagonistic chemistry of its stars, it’s more than enough to garner a watch. My own biased nostalgia still makes me partial to The Son of Paleface. 

3.5/5 Stars

I Shot Jesse James (1949): A Sam Fuller Western

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I Shot Jesse James is an off-center western as only Sam Fuller could possibly conceive it. At the very least it brings a journalistic eye and a shift in perspective. Because distilled down to its most basic elements, it’s a psychological character piece with John Ireland at the heart of it as Robert Ford: the man who shot Jesse James.

It’s not quite as punchy as Sammy Fuller would establish himself to be, but there is a slew of compelling ideas, and it’s not as straightforward as the western genre often suggests itself to be. Sure, the opening scene feels like quintessential Fuller, prepared to rap us over the head with the brunt of his movie. Bank robberies can never be easy; they’re always contentious. Guns drawn and bank tellers intent on sounding the alarm.

The picture is also about as noirish as they come out on the range — part of this is indebted to the conflicted character psychology — as expectations fluctuate wildly and scenarios happen not as we expect, but as they are meant to in a dismal landscape where everything comes out to its pessimistic worst.

People are poison to one another. The cruel hand of fate is inevitable. The lynchpin moment where a frankly, conventional Jesse James (Reed Hadley) is gunned down by his best friend is hardly imbued with the mythical glory the tabloids would have you believe. It’s almost matter-of-fact, totally unsentimental.

Fuller’s script acts as an examination of mythos and the pariah-like celebrity that engulfs the man. It makes for a far more perplexing exploration when you consider Jesse James died a hero — a Robin Hoodesque legend — while Ford is totally disgraced in society. He shot his best friend. If not for money, at least for a girl.

His desires are normal. He wants to get a ring so he can marry her and settle down. The question remains whether this kind of humdrum life is available to someone in his station.

The thematic ideas of legends on the range are dissected in many other westerns, and there’s always a sense of notoriety catching up with a protagonist. He has a target on his back. They might not have modern technology but papers, telegraph, and word of mouth have more pull than we might imagine. Word gets around and, if anything, legends grow larger with every town dispelling their own half-truths about the man and the myth.

Every gunshot potentially has Ford’s name on it. And yet he doesn’t want to give up his name. He’s too proud for that. He does take to the stage circuit reenacting how he shot Jesse James, and yet he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. The audiences watch with a kind of morbid curiosity. It’s another nail in the coffin. Surely they comprehend this is simply one pitiful man shooting another — not some gargantuan duel of ruinous proportions.

In an equally telling interlude, Ford offers to trade a drink for a troubadour’s ballad and gets an ode to the coward Robert Ford who laid Jesse James in his grave sung back in his face. You can imagine his chagrin when he finds out he’s been memorialized in such a manner and then the jovial performer’s surprise when he learns he’s singing to the craven legend himself.

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In a flat western, Barbara Britton’s part would be tepid. Here she gets at least two moments in close-up where her face comes alive with a crazed expression you don’t soon forget. It’s fit for a femme fatale, but she’s not evil or psychotic. At worst, she’s torn apart by love, and it’s a force she can’t cope with.

If Ford is still madly in love with her, there’s another character who drifts through and vies for her affections. Whether real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter. Ford has it in his head that the genial prospector, John Kelley (Preston Foster), is his bitter rival.

As mankind follows the trail of prospective wealth, both Ford and Kelley wind up in Colorado in the midst of a silver boon. For the time being, Cynthy is out of the picture. Far from fighting, they share a room, right neighborly.

The final act doesn’t feel much like a western at all. It’s shed all the traditions long ago. Again, it is a character piece. It could be any genre. This one just happens to be set around saloons and hotels, mining towns, and grubstakes.

But there are two men and one woman, and she can only end up with one of them. Perhaps she only actually really loves one of them. Frank James comes back into the story — you might remember him too — but he’s only another mechanism, like Wanted Dead or Alive posters or climactic showdowns between good and evil. Here they always carry the persistent inevitably we attribute to noir. There can only be one conclusion…

To the very last iota, it feels like textbook Fuller as he announces himself on the cinema landscape. On top of writing and directing the picture, he purportedly shot it over 10 days on rented sets from Republic Pictures. What’s most extraordinary is how the movie hardly seems to suffer from these constraints. If anything, it set a template for how Fuller would maintain a degree of creative autonomy while still managing to create a wide array of compelling projects in years to come.

Although his visual style would continue to grow and sharpen, there’s a killer instinct proving a lightning rod for stories. As a journalist and a journeyman, there’s this sense Fuller had the “don’t get it right, get it written” mentality. However, this very rarely seems to harm his output, which somehow always manages to find a worthwhile point of view to grab hold of.

I Shot Jesse James is little different. Its inadequacies often wind up making it all the more intriguing. You’ve never seen Jesse James spun in this manner, and way back in 1949 Fuller had a kind of prescience in suggesting where the West would go after the 1950s.

3.5/5 Stars

The Shop Around The Corner (1940): A Christmas Love Story

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The Shop Around The Corner samples a Hollywood-style Hungary that nevertheless establishes it as a much humbler, quieter picture than seasoned Lubitsch aficionados might be accustomed to. It’s subsequently one of his best efforts for this very reason. There’s an intimacy to it, recalling his own upbringing working in his father’s tailor shop based out of Berlin, during his youth.

Initially, it feels like curious casting — James Stewart playing a Hungarian is absurd and he makes no attempt at an accent — and yet Lubitsch had the foresight to understand his appeal. He lacks all the suavity and urbanity normally associated with the director’s creations. In fact, for an American audience beginning to grow used to Stewart’s own steadily rising star, they connected with his disposition since it was very much the antithesis of stereotypical Hollywood or the highbrow of 1930s Lubitsch pictures. But it is the tone that matters most.

Because, again, this is not Hungary in the flesh — it is out of the mind of Lubitsch, a creation of nostalgia, warmth, and sentimentality — and on its streets, Stewart is more than at home. He fits the spirit of what The Shop Around The Corner cordially represents.

It is not a place right in front of us but just out of reach in the near-beyond of our memories and our imaginations. It represents our hopes and high ideals, even the sentiments of hope wrapped up in the Christmas season. Stewart as a figure — a token — is somehow able to stand in for so many things.

But there is more to it. Stewart delivers something a bit more substantial than his “aww shucks” persona, which was continually teased out leading up to the days of Mr. Smtih Goes to Washington. There’s also a stern assertiveness present, ready to come out; it just needs a spark, some point of instigation.

Enter Margaret Sullavan, his perfect counterpart and sparring partner. Her breathy delivery is quiet and understated, while still somehow implying this spunky resilience residing inside her character. This is what Sullivan brings to the part herself, earning a reputation as a demanding and “difficult” performer who sent shivers down the spines of major studio magnates, knowing full-well what she wanted. As a result, she found initial success though she’s mostly forgotten today.

Accordingly, her Klara Novak turns out to be a crackerjack saleswoman, at first pleading for a job, then proving Mr. Kralik’s rebuttals wrong by turning right around and earning employment. This sets the stage for their prevailing antagonism from which a love story must bloom. 

But that comes a bit later. The movie opens with all the staff of Matuschek and Co. congregating outside before the workday commences waiting for the front door to be opened by their employer.

Frank Morgan is Mr. Mathuchek, a blustering and a demanding fellow who can never quite make up his mind about the shop’s inventory. For that, he trusts his most faithful and pragmatic right-hand man Kralik (James Stewart), who has been the company’s longest-serving employee. If there are any decisions to be made, he’s the man to make them.

Felix Bressart is a fine family man and friend who always has a habit of fleeing the scene when the boss is requesting personal opinions. What he provides is quiet stability and an encouraging ear to Kralik.

Among the other current employees is the brownnoser with fine threads Vadas and the precocious errand boy Pepi (William Tracy) who does everything in his power to get ahead. With their communal workspace, a number of things come to pass. The relationship between Kralik and Ms. Novak continues turbulently as she manages to sell one of their useless purchases to an unsuspecting customer — a cigarette box that plays “Ochi Chernye.”

Simultaneously, Mr. Kralik is maintaining letter correspondence with an unknown paramour who engages his intellect on ideas of art, culture, and literature. One is reminded how The Shop Around The Corner extrapolates the axiom of not judging a book by its cover. Closely related is the fallacy of getting caught up in books such that you fail to see and comprehend the reality playing out right in front of your nose.

You read Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Dostoevsky, only to realize the people living and breathing right beside you are not only more than what’s meets the eye — they are simultaneously writing their own stories. We can’t always mold them to fit the narratives we know. Both Ms. Novak and Mr. Kralik seem to know these issues intimately without realizing it.

Because this is a Lubitsch picture, irony comes into play quite early; although it’s difficult to know if Stewart or the audience come up with the answers first. Maybe it hits us at the same time. If you don’t already know what it is, I’m not licensed to say. Allow it to happen to you.

Meanwhile, for some unseen reason, Mr. Matuschek grows cold and distant — going so far as relieving Kralik of his post in an uncharacteristic move. It’s the film at one of its lowest points. This was the fountain of all Kralik’s joy until he is so unceremoniously plucked from his position. Because we realize this job is his life, these people his extended family. Even Ms. Novak feels sorry that they must say goodbye, though patching things together might be altogether too little too late.

Sampson Raphaelson’s story kindly reconciles this conflict as Kralik and Mr. Mathuschak smooth out the situation. What still remains is the meeting with his mysterious correspondent. The Christmas season is upon the shop, and they work tirelessly to have the biggest sales in Christmas Eve history. They succeed. It’s punctuated by holiday bonuses for everyone, a soft powdering of snow, and genial celebrations all around — even for lonely Mr. Matchuchek.

This could be the end, but of course, we cannot forget the main reason Lubitsch has cast his eye on this inauspicious shop. Among many other things, it’s to unpack themes of love. The lights are low in the backroom, and Kralik is trying to get the words out, playing up the piece of jewelry he bought for his unseen beau.

Ms. Novak tries to accept her own fate with fortitude as her former rival tramples over her dreams with a reality check. Their words meet midsentence as she recites the recitations from her own dream suitor:

“True love is to be two, and yet one.”

“A man and a woman blended as angels.”Heaven itself.” That’s Victor Hugo. He stole that.”

“I thought I was the inspiration for all those beautiful thoughts. Now I find he was just copying words out of a book. He probably didn’t mean a single one of them.”

“I’m sorry you feel this way about it.”

She’s been led to believe he’s a balding, chubby fellow playing at a great romantic. As it turns out, he’s lanky and bowlegged, but not without his charms; he meant every single word. He says to her, “Take your key and open the post office box and take me out of my envelope and kiss me.” His proclamation of love stops her cold as the recognition comes over her face. She follows suit soon enough, and there you have it…

No more fanfare is necessary. We have the cathartic moment as a romantic tree-topper that Stewart and Sullavan more than earn. Even right here, it’s the same old Lubitsch with an unequivocal knack for finding the most satisfying conclusion, whether in drawing room comedy or backroom romance.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I wrote this in conjunction with a series of reviews on the films of Margaret Sullavan released earlier this year.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Yuletide Cheer and The War’s End is Here

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Christmas in Connecticut functions as a fine way to cap off 1945, a year full of jubilation and relief for the American public. The war was finally over! Given this context, the setup might feel familiar. A sailor who was shipwrecked out at sea in the Pacific was rescued. Now he’s seeing the war from the sidelines in a hospital.

Because in the mind of the viewer the war is already won, it feels like a relief. Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is an American hero, and all he has to worry about are building his strength and getting to know the pretty southern belle nursing him back to full health. Still, with the holidays approaching, he can’t help yearning for a little bit of good old-fashioned Americana, the down-home comfort and hospitality he’s missed out on overseas.

A letter of request gets sent on his behalf and the old battle-ax, famed magazine publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) catches wind of it. The idea is to serve up the soldier a meal in the home of famed columnist Elizabeth Lane, known for her idyllic farm, snow-covered nostalgia, and domestic tips and tricks. (The character was based on real-life Gladys Taber of Family Circle Magazine who actually lived on a farm in Connecticut)

As he could use a bit of comfort and home cooking himself, Yardley thinks it’s a fine suggestion, and he’s prepared to invite himself and the soldier out to the country for the holidays. He has no thought that it might be an inconvenience.

But of course, this is hardly the problem. It’s worse than that. Elizabeth Lane does not exist, at least not as vividly as she does on the pages of Yardley’s magazine captivating nationwide audiences coast to coast.

In truth, she lives in a drafty apartment overlooking the outside laundry as she knocks away at her typewriter eating sardines for breakfast. Because she’s no cook nor a wife with a baby and a farm. She’s more of a city girl living off a diet of independence and mink coats. Of course, no one knows about the sham aside from her and her editor.

What makes it worse is the fact Mr. Yardley is a very principled fellow and a stickler for printing the truth. If he ever caught wind of this charade, it would be the end. So to take stock of the damage, her boss is about to show up on her doorstep (one which she doesn’t have) for Christmas eve with an unwitting soldier who believes in what she comes to represent.

Barbara Stanwyck dons this kind of part with ease as the street-wise lifestyle columnist. She rides out the comedy with her usual aplomb, but she can play romance and the sentimental in a manner that doesn’t totally rob them of their import.

Men vying for her affection will be an ongoing theme throughout the picture and why not because Barbara Stanwyck is the picture of self-confident beauty with an undisputed vivacity.

The film is salvaged — from solely a narrative perspective — when she impulsively accepts the routine marriage proposal from her suitor, the wealthy businessman John Sloan. He’s been trying to get her hand in marriage for a time. This time she acquiesces and accepts. Might as well have some stability.

However, it’s also the decision leading the shambles around her to all slide into place. It gets to the point where they might have a fighting chance making the impression stick at least for a weekend. John will be her husband because he is, isn’t he? They’ll conveniently use his farm. Check. Uncle Felix (S.Z. Sakall) will come along to cook the meals. Now there’s just the issue of the baby…

They assemble everything to make a go at the charade. They call out a judge to perform the marriage before their arrivals show up. There’s one hitch. Jefferson shows up early! It’s a scramble to pull everything together but the game is on whether they like it or not!

Morgan is an old star I always find to be a bit blah if generally genial. Thankfully, the film is replete with a formidable supporting cast to round out the holiday household. Not least among them Sydney Greenstreet (in a rather uncharacteristic role), then S.Z. Sakall, and Una O’Connor.

Felix and Norah go to war in the kitchen with their equally pertinacious attitudes. After all, Sakall is the king of the kitchen and catastrophe while subsequently becoming the film’s most lovable secret weapon when the story gets convoluted and a savior is called to bring it back around.

The many scenarios are easy to list off: bathing the baby with company on hand, flipping flap jacks at the behest of Mr. Yardley, putting the cow to bed, and the most calamitous of all, the baby swallowing a watch! It’s the actual unraveling of the scenes which become most delightful because Stanwyck rides them out with her typical flair for situational comedy.

A major turning point comes at a festive dance where love blooms though it does give a strange impression to outsiders looking in. The “married” Mrs. Sloan looks to have taken a shining for the tall man in uniform and the feelings are mutual. But that’s quite out of the question. Think of the scandal. This would never do totally dousing the prevailing happiness brought on by the cessation of war.

Still, they take a magical sleigh ride together. Because one of them knows they are unattached and Morgan’s character is just naive and self-effacing enough for us to believe he would never have presumptuous intentions.

However, everything must come to a head as this is tantamount to Murphy’s law in cinema. In this movie, it’s thanks to a miscommunication and a kidnapped baby. One of the highlights of the movie is observing the subtle antagonism of Sakall toward Greenstreet. He mutters “Fat Man” which might be a fairly blatant reference to his incorrigible part in The Maltese Falcon.

However, they also go at it in the kitchen because Sakall is the glue and the matchmaker — everything required to hold the story together and see it to the desired ending. It means stopping Yardley in his tracks. In fact, these scenes are only topped by Stanwyck laying into the Fat Man of her own accord and then falling for Dennis Morgan as it’s meant to be. They really are 1 and 2 on the film’s greatest attractions.

In a movie such as this with snow, sleighs, a warm hearth, and friends and family, not to mention the end of WWII, what would the ending be without our protagonists wrapped up in each other’s arms? If you’re like wartime audiences with generous spirits, it’s excusable to find Christmas in Connecticut to be agreeable holiday entertainment as the mood strikes you.

3.5/5 Stars

Black Narcissus (1947): Another Archers Masterpiece

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Under their collaborative umbrella, The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed one of the most mystifying and extraordinary partnerships within the annals of British cinema history. Black Narcissus is just one of the many enchanting jewels in their collective crown.

Part of the acclaim must be heaped on Jack Cardiff because there’s little doubt; his compositions are absolutely stunning front to back. It starts with this gorgeous even intoxicating brand of Technicolor mingling the real and artificial in a manner on par with anything Hollywood was cranking out at the same time.

Whether through miniatures, grandiose matte paintings, or Pinewood Studio sets, it creates a spectacular illusion as a cinematic representation of the Himalayas. In perfect juxtaposition are the sculpted interiors with columns and facades bathed in this equally mesmerizing patchwork of glowing light and meticulous shadows. Not in the sleazy low-grade setups of film noir, but rather like the Rembrandts and Carravagios might have done it in their Baroque works.

One of the earliest images to leave an impression comes from the POV of two nuns as they gaze down at a cruciform table with nuns moving about for their daily meal.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh comes off somehow regal in her white habit, proud and imperious, even as she sets out assiduously to manage the task at hand. The Sister Superior divvies out her allotted help scrounging up a task force of sorts, within the convent walls, to send out into the world and form a community.

Admittedly, the veteran sister has her doubts about the youthfulness of her counterpart, chiding her pupil, “The superior of all is the servant of all.” This is her word of admonition as they head off to face the unknown set before them.

I’ve never fully considered the methodology of the habit and yet purely from a cinematic perspective, what it does is put all the focus on an individual’s face — their features and, thus, their emotions speak for them. Then, of course, hidden under the garb is their heart and this is the seat of all their actions whether sympathetic or callous. Otherwise, they might all look the same. But of course, the head and the heart are what set us all apart.

While they are nestled in the Himalayas, there is some mention of Darjeeling, India as a stepping stone to civilization, and yet otherwise they are quite secluded. Still, they make it clear they are not merely looking for a place of solitude to live out a reclusive existence.

Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the knowledgeable yet resident cynic, is meant to be their point of contact to help them settle in, but his brusque often insinuating comments lingering in the air don’t begin the relations in a cordial manner. The fact he’s a handsome, strapping young specimen creates yet another layer of unspoken tension.

He explains the local General used to keep his women there — his concubines and wives — in a place where the nuns have plans to turn into a medical dispensary with a school and a space to minister to the needs of the local populations.

But there are numerous reasons to be uneasy. The people pile into their compound with their sick and old overwhelming the newly installed outpost. There’s also the wind, altitude, and disease which have a curious joint effect on the new transplants still trying to gain their legs.

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The sisters find everything distracting, even disturbing, and Sister Clodagh, for the first time in ages, finds her mind clouded by past memories — triggering flashbacks from her former life. Could it have been a mistake to join the order? Are these her nagging regrets come back to haunt her? She yearns for the liberation of a normal life, and she’s not the only one.

Likewise, the best encouragement she can muster against the elements and spiritual forces working against them is to, “work hard, work until you’re too tired to think of anything else.” She hasn’t been equipped by any other means, and it becomes obvious she will not be able to succeed with such a plan.

At the same time, they receive requests to take in a local outcast Kanchi (a bedazzled and brown-skinned Jean Simmons) known for her meretricious ways. Also, a young prince (Sabu) inquires about being a pupil within the establishment, which normally only caters to women and children.

We see the remnants of imperialistic disdain especially in Sister Ruth (a wildly manic Kathleen Byro). Far from being all marked with the image of a higher being, she sees the indigenous people around her as lesser beings whom she deigns to help in all their ignorance. It is this relationship between the enlightened few on Christian mission and the impoverished heathens.

We must come to terms with this complicated relationship even with Sabu playing opposite the Anglo Jean Simmons in brownface. Effectively a cross-cultural attraction forms between them even as he is her social and patriarchal superior within the storyline.

The aftermath of WWII also meant many displaced people groups were readily available to serve as extras in the picture, and in this regard, the film is blessed with some genuine sense of authenticity around the edges to counteract the whitewashing represented by Simmons, Edmond Knight, and May Hallat.

The film implicitly dances around these ideas. One moment the fiery-eyed Sister Ruth dismisses the young general as vain and black like a peacock. Although she does seem utterly tantalized by his lavish clothes and his pervasive scent: the titular black narcissus.

He’s also the one who on Christmas night says with all candor, ” I am very much interested in Jesus Christ.” Sister Clodagh extends him some leniency for speaking of their Lord and Savior with such familiarity. Ironically, it is the half-drunk Mr. Dean who chastizes her in the very same moment: “He should be casual and as much a part of life as your daily bread.” Truthfully, she doesn’t like it; it hits far too close to home, especially from a man of such ill-repute.

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While not quite the same sentiment as Luis Bunuel, there is something about the movie that proves unsettling in a religious context. There’s some unseen force, whether merely ill-fortune or closer still spiritual warfare, taxing them and splintering their meager enclave apart.

The two defined poles have been made obvious. Either you give yourself up to the world like Mr. Dean or live like the Holy Man. Neither will do for the Nuns who are stuck in the middle as the emblem of Christ in this far-off land.

After, the locals are scared off by the death of one of their infants and leave the Sisters all alone, hysteria sets in. With time, the impending psychological drama fills the world with unease. It has all these unnerving undercurrents accentuated by Cardiff’s own striking palette bursting with this vibrant even violent color scheme.

Mr. Dean matter-of-factly notes there is “something in the atmosphere that makes everything feel exaggerated.” The comments feel strikingly self-reflexive of the film’s own art direction burning images deep into our retinas.

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Still, the sisters are left drifting and dreaming through the world. It matches the, at times, hypnotic often queasy psychological torment in Hitchcock’s Vertigo to the point it pulls you in and wears on the psyche. That’s before even getting to the climax, which coincidentally also relies on a bell tower. It manages so much out of the very fact it is being manufactured to create a heightened impression of reality by manipulating the audience.

Even in the final scene, as the clouds envelop the castle high above and the Nuns are led off dejectedly in their little caravan, there’s nothing but this residual innervation. They must give up their mission and be humbled knowing they will be sent to other lowly assignments having failed by the world’s standards.

While India isn’t central to this story there is this lingering sense of colonialism as missionaries were often tied up with this since they were such a staple of the British Empire. There are enough movies to suggest this is true including The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Keys of The Kingdom, and 6 Women.

The rain starts to pour down in sheets as if signaling the end of something — something being totally overrun. Could it be the British Empire collapsing right in front of us? If you were curious like me, India officially gained independence in August 0f 1947. This was after Black Narcissus‘s release in the U.K. and during its run in the U.S.

Somehow they feel interlinked even as this story bursts out of the confines of reality under the exhilarating vision of The Archers. It remains an astounding feat in cinematic magic verging on the otherworldly, positively possessed by color. Like all the most enduring films, it stays with you long after the credits roll like a bewitching fragrance.

5/5 Stars

I Walk Alone (1948) with Lancaster and Douglas

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“All the songs sound alike these days.”

The title of this movie inadvertently made me think of the Dinah Shore number “I’ll Walk Alone.” Granted, the title is slightly different, and it was birthed out of the WWII context where soldiers left their sweethearts behind to wait it out.

I Walk Alone could have easily made a play for this type of story. Instead, it replaces traumatic military experience with a long stint in prison and so our protagonist comes back to the outside world with a slightly different mentality. So there’s really no connection out all, and yet somehow music holds a crucial place in this movie because it comes to represent something about the characters. We hear, among other standards “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Heart and Soul.”

Each of these classics plays as odd counter music to an otherwise rough and tumble story that might yield descriptions ripe with gangsters and noir imagery. When Dave meets Frankie at the train station, we understand the score instantly: 14 years behind bars and now he’s on the outside. Lancaster and Corey are holdovers from the previous year’s Desert Fury (along with Lizabeth Scott).

Ill-will has built up over the same period because back in the days of prohibition, Dave (Lancaster) used to be in cahoots as a rum runner with Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), who has now made a name for himself on the outside. After taking the rap, Dave feels slighted by his old partner, and true to form, his partner is trying to feel him out so he might know how to counteract him. It’s an instant conflict.

Coincidentally, it’s the first crossing of the dynamic wills belonging to Lancaster and Douglas who would continue a storied cinematic partnership over seven pictures. Even at this early date, they have fire in their bellies to drive their dramatic inclinations.

Having the two of them together is a singular delight in a way Desert Fury from the previous year could never deliver. Because in a sense they are on equal footing in terms of cinematic clout and charisma. Not that they’re the same person by any means, but it’s rather like Mitchum and Douglas sparring in Out of The Past. It makes for a far more absorbing picture.

Before he won the privilege to be an irascible hero, Douglas excels at being the cool and calculating criminal type. His voice is almost high-pitched and strung tight giving him an unnerving quality with pointed fury behind his eyes — as dark as ever. Still, he gladly maintains the pretense of friendship; it’s good for business.

When Frankie makes his way to the Regent club, he sees all the old crowd is still around, Dan the hulking doorman, then Ben behind the bar. It’s a bit like old times, but times have changed.

The veiled threats in their first meeting are an extraordinary barrage from the opening warning “Don’t move,” to the insinuations about his health on the outside, and the final flash of flame from a cigarette lighter. Intensions are made very clear.

True to form, Dink uses every resource at his advantage to defuse and exploit his old friend if possible. He’s the consummate businessman even when it comes to women. Lisabeth Scott, the club’s resident torch singer, is a whole-hearted sentimentalist who believes in love and in people — the fact they just don’t make songs like they used to. In this regard, she shares a conviction with Frankie. But she’s supposed to be Dink’s girl; at least she works for him.

However, there’s also Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) a refined beauty with a name “spelled in capital letters” and a cigarette pinched between her feminine fingers. She’s also filthy rich and she doesn’t mind her men philandering; for her romance is as much a business transaction as it is for Dink.

The script has its moments of lively snappiness especially leaving the lips of Lancaster who exerts himself as the brusque, no-nonsense tough operator. He’s not about to let other’s knock him off balance or get too far into his confidences.

However, I Walk Alone charts the changes that went into organized crime while Frankie was in the slammer. Whereas he represents the brawn of the old days, Dink is an emblem of the wily business practices necessary to get ahead currently. He’s able to cast off his old partner’s stake in the company with a convenient signature on a piece of paper.

What has developed is an age where big business steamrolled the olden days of hoods and backstreet gangsters calling the shots. Where three corporations can only be understood and operated through board meetings, diagrams, and dizzying bureaucracy. This web feels like a conspiracy to Frankie while only reiterating the helplessness found in a story like The Grapes of Wrath where modernity has overwhelmed the old ways.

He piles into his old buddy’s office with a posse of thugs including the smart-mouthed Skinner (Mickey Knox), the heavy Tiger (Freddie Steele), and the ubiquitous Dewey Robinson. What he realizes only too late is it’s not a matter of bringing knives to a gunfight. They are mostly outdated tokens just like him. As the brassy one quips he’s “swimming in it.”

What happens next is not unforeseen. There’s a manhunt and the man finds himself a woman who brims with his same spirit; someone who stands by the standards and sentiments of the past. To coin a paradox, they can walk alone together.

Beginning to end, what truly holds I Walk Alone together is the slimy impudence of Kirk Douglas struggling for dominance over Lancaster’s inherent tenacity. Without them, and then everyone else, including Scott, ably orbiting around them, it feels like the story might fall apart. Still, film noir aficionados should have more than enough to gorge themselves on.

3.5/5 Stars

Desert Fury (1947): Small Town Melodrama in Technicolor

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The draw to Desert Fury must begin with its intriguing cast running the range of personalities. John Hodiak and Wendell Corey (in his film debut) are driving into town. There’s this sense that their relationship is familiar but they feel like out-of-towners, somehow bringing a ting of noirish sentiment into what might otherwise be a straight-laced picture from director Lewis Allen.

The town was doubled by Piru in Ventura County and the colors of Charles Lang are grand if a tad on the campy side. All the better to serve the visual melody of the film. Burt Lancaster is Tom Hanson, the sheriff in the small town where he happens upon Lizabeth Scott on Main Street, a rambunctious creature of trouble nosing around for romance in her wood-paneled Chrysler New Yorker Town and Country. He warns Paula Haller to watch herself, which she easily laughs off before driving home.

Part of her disposition must be genetic because while they couldn’t seem different, her mother is a very independent-thinking, straight-talker who lays it out like she sees it. Fritzi feels like the toughest dame Mary Astor has ever played — the cocksure proprietor of the local gambling joint — used to throwing around money and being on top of everything, and well-liked by everyone if she can help it.

That being said, she’s hardly the maternal type — in fact, she hardly feels like a mother at all — even as she’s vehemently against Paula following in her footsteps. Because hers is a tough life doing her best to shield the impressionable girl from the same trajectory. Surely, that must be it…

The Purple Sage proves its own self-contained world for the characters to lose themselves in. Our primary players are thrown together again and it never ceases until the final exhale.

Because out of everything Desert Fury can possibly offer, the relational dynamics are one reason to latch onto the film and stick around just to feel out what’s going on and where it possibly could be heading with each character exerting their own pressures on the story.

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Lizabeth Scott could be simpering but with her smoky voice and youthful looks, she always managed to be an enigma. Not always the most engaging performer but somehow she fits the curious makeup of a picture like this. As her mother observes with an inflection of eros, she’s “nice and fresh and alive.”

John Hodiak is generally curt, with an abrupt delivery and whether it’s his performance or his own nature seeping into the part, there’s no nuance or finesse to what he puts out. But as Eddie, he’s allowed the benefit of a past — a past that makes Fritzie wary of any advances on her daughter. It attributes menace to him regardless of what he is capable of offering.

Johnny is his lifelong companion since their youth, protective of him, even jealous for his affections playing as an inversion of Fritzie — as both housekeeper and bodyguard to his longtime associate. But the secrets run deeper still.

What A.I. Bezzerides and Robert Rossen’s script evolves into is this kind of tug-of-war with Paula acting as both the object of desire and the token with which to play out these feuds and affections. She gladly honks and smiles her way into all sorts of conflicts, driving her town car with a cavalier daring from the very beginning. Her sheer impetuousness propels the story.

She’s drawn to Hodiak, and he’s enchanted by her, showing her the door in another instance only to instantly revert back again to his charmed infatuation. It’s a tumultuous if moderately intriguing bedrock for romance.

Because Lancaster is invested in her too, warning against association with such a character. Whether it’s on account of her personal safety or his own guarded affections feels immaterial. Even as Fritzie offers a pact — land for the hand of her daughter — the proud lawman balks at the offer because he wants romance on his own terms.

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Fritzie knows where he stands but even she doesn’t get it. One evening Lancaster walks into her office searching and yet keeping his cards close to his chest. It’s as if he’s letting her try and figure it out.

Meanwhile, Paula and Johnny have their own strange war playing out over Eddie colored with its share of passionate kisses, flying fists, and slaps of disdain. The incendiary couple ignites most of it.

However, what’s even more important is what is alluded to not simply off-screen but from each individual’s past personal dosier and shared history. They know one another out of the confines of this hour and a half. The ensuing array of heightened dramatics and supposed revelations are nothing unusual or unforeseen on their own.

It’s the observable action speaking in the final stretch (along with the theatrical Miklós Rózsa accompaniment) with cars barreling down the desert highway in hot pursuit of one another.

It’s a Hollywood denouement — hardly a reinvention of themes from love triangles to shadowy pasts — but the melange of performances and the slight subversions teased out speak to something. Where the final kiss is not between Lizabeth Scott and her alpha male but with her mother.

While not a moral tale,  it’s a movie voicing the tangled, clouded, dysfunctional relationships plaguing a small town — and the world at large. The guise of  Technicolor melodrama is a fitting pretense.

3/5 Stars

The Threat (1949): Starring Charles McGraw

ThreatPoster.jpgThe beauty of a picture like this comes with the efficiency of the drama with a prison breakout occurring under the opening credits. Soon we learn a notorious, shadowy criminal named Kluger has broken out of Folsom prison.

The convict once vowed to kill both the detective and district attorney who worked to put him away and he doesn’t take the threat lightly. He means to carry it out.

When he finally does show his face, Charles McGraw, makes an indelible entrance almost bursting the seams of such a lowly movie. He’s so imperative to the movie’s meager claim at success destining him for thug greatness for all posterity (and a few hardboiled heroic turns once he’d paid his dues).

Felix Feist’s latest thriller is at its best putting forth its claustrophobic kidnapping scenario strung out with tension and genuine terror. Our so-called heroes are a fairly drab bunch including a career cop and family man, Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea).

In contrast, McGraw maintains the film’s gruff core more than willing to throw his weight around as he plans the rest of his getaway and subsequent revenge. To the movie’s credit, he’s liable to do anything he deems advantageous to his plans, doling out orders to his cronies, and forcibly throwing around anyone he wants. He doesn’t care about others. They’re disposable goods.

It starts with the old moll (Virginia Grey) he thinks has double-crossed him, then his two old adversaries, and finally the unwitting delivery truck driver who proves integral to his proposed plan to weasel his way past the police dragnet and network of roadblocks.

However, the tension is borne in the intervals in-between where they must wait around. First, at a house and then out at an old shack in the desert, until their buddy, Tony, drops in with his plane. Both sides are hanging on edge, either for fear of being killed or the threat of being captured.

There’s one shot, in particular, slyly setting up the dynamics of the film’s finale to come as the camera peers down into the shack they’re holding up in. With time running out, our drama must escalate. Red coaxes the gun away from one stir-crazy housemate just to turn around and use it in the next. There’s no prevailing mercy or level of sentiment, whether it’s a man or woman. It’s this continual unpredictability making for a sweaty, nasty little climax.

The plot’s breakthrough revolves around a long shot — a nice bit of circumstance — and it is by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m not sure if the logic exactly checks out, narratively speaking, though it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye for the sake of the action. You don’t necessarily seek out The Threat to feed your desire for taut scripting.

My only real qualm is how this film ends like so many others I’m seen recently where a happy ending is only obtained through a wife’s pregnancy. It is a bit of shorthand to say something about the American Dream circa the 1940s and 50s — and new life is such a precious thing — but it seems like such a tiresome trope when it’s used as a crutch so often.

Up to this point, The Threat genuinely lives up to its title mostly in part to Charles McGraw. If you’re a fan of the minor film noir icon, it’s a must-see. Otherwise, it’s best to look elsewhere for diversions of a higher caliber.

3/5 Stars

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Starring Lawrence Tierney

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Felix Feist is a relatively obscure figure today and the only reason I’ve come to him has to do with two B films he was attached to, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and The Threat released two years later.

As a Southern Californian, I might obtain more glee out of name recognition than other viewers. It comes, quite literally, with the territory. These types of second-bill features hit the ground running. In this case, The Bank of San Diego gets its pockets picked by a thug.

So much is evoked stylistically, and we are reminded how integral signs become as a shorthand and cost-effective device for these quickie B-movies. Feist scripted the movie as well as directing, and we might sum it ups as a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hell courtesy of garble-mouthed tough guy Lawrence Tierney. He certainly doesn’t skimp on his brand of scowling, unrepentant, hard-ball, and the picture is indebted to the cloaked menace he provides.

Because he’s the forger-turned-bank robber now on the lamb from the rousing authorities. Not unlike Detour (1945), it’s some fateful or cinematic force landing him in the car of a happy sap and devoted family man (Ted North) just off a joint birthday/anniversary with his best buds in San Diego. It looked to be a real gas, and he’s grinning from ear to ear. He might still be feeling the buzz from the merriment, but he’s sane enough to drive. The contrast is set up immediately, and they develop a fairly easy-going rapport since they cancel one another out.

They make a pit stop at a gas station as “Fergie” calls in on his adoring wife telling her to synchronize her watch for “3 hours and 26 minutes and 42 seconds.” Doing my own mental calculations, freeways (and automobiles) must have been a lot slower because today you could probably be doing San Diego to L.A. in 2 and a half hours (without traffic). When one of the passengers notes the driver is almost pushing 70 MPH, that might give us some indication.

Even as we eavesdrop on his conversation and Morgan snaps at the fresh-faced gas station attendant (Glen Vernon), the movie exudes the rudimentary pleasures of seeing mundane aspects of life circa 1947. The telephone. The music playing on the radio. The garb the gas station clerk wears. Each detail, whether only a studio embellishment or an authentic accent, adds something to the picture. Because elements of it are familiar to me and yet so far removed from the world I know.

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In the process, they pick up two dames looking for a lift — one of them a husky-voiced blonde (Betty Lawford) the other a diffident brunette (Nan Leslie), again juxtaposed for dramatic effect. Now our story on wheels is loaded up not unlike Arigato-san (1936) or Stagecoach (1939), albeit to a lesser degree.

In the ensuing moments, the slighted and eagle-eyed station attendant calls up the police because he thinks he’s spotted the man they’re looking for. Of course, he has. On the other end of the line, the dogged but good-natured police break their perpetual off-duty poker game to jump back into action. Roadblocks are set up all over the coast and the veteran detective on the beat (Harry Shannon) takes along the overzealous youngster to apprehend the criminal.

Staying true to actual geography, they make their way up the California coast from San Diego. First, Oceanside, then San Clemente, and then placing roadblocks at both “Capistrano” (San Juan Capistrano) and near “Laguna” (Laguna Beach). What’s more, the carpoolers set their course for a friend’s place in Newport — Newport Beach that is — and they wind up hitting all the local hot spots from my childhood. Santa Ana even gets a mention.

They set up shop in the bachelor pad in the harbor, although there’s no Bogey or Duke Wayne to be had riding the waters. All we get is a doddering nightwatchman (Andrew Tombes), a wild array of near-screwball antics, murder, and then ensuing hostage situations. Come to think of it, based on what we were promised, it pretty much measures up.

While the characters are cliched to the max and their reactions are a bit wonky, especially after rolling over a cop in pursuit, it’s easy to take delight in the cumulative effect. A title like The Devil Thumbs a Ride should be some kind of tip-off and between Tierney’s minacious countenance and the sheer shoddiness behind many of the lines of dialogue, there’s an odd tone developed. It can be near-screwball one minute, and then instantly plunged back into thriller territory.

The family man gets in hot water with his wife thanks to the conniving blonde jumping on the hone extension. The Devil still has his eyes on the other girl even as he’s anxious to wait it out and let the situation die down. Even as the cops start closing in, there’s a sense something explosive is going to happen. Because when agitated and cornered, outlaws have a habit of lashing out in a desperate struggle to survive. They don’t much care who gets in their way.

Much of The Devil Thumbs a Ride feels mediocre, but if you’ve never been acquainted with Lawrence Tierney or you’re game for a bit of post-war time capsule filmmaking, there are a few modest delights crammed into its 62 minutes.

3/5 Stars

Lust For Gold (1949): Biography of a Deathtrap

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The movie opens with a score raging with dramatic tones fit for a title like Lust For Gold. The resulting narrative ploy is not a new one either, suggesting the details of this “unusual situation” were substantiated by historical records and legends of Arizona. It’s meant to provide this obvious sense of real-world ethos.

We find ourselves at Superstition Mountain. A severe voice, strung out with the same dramatic intensity of the music, paints a wild portrait of this horrible place — Satan’s art gallery in the rocks.

His name is Barry Storm (William Prince) — a real figure — and yet for all intent and purposes, conveniently fictionalized to narrate the tale for us. Unfortunately, the man isn’t able to pull off the voiceover like a Bogart or Mitchum. It lacks the hardboiled lip or the inherent sense of noir malaise.

It’s possible to mention noir, even when our prerequisites are more aligned with a western because we are dealing in terms of avarice and the greed found within the human heart. These are the building blocks for any respectful film noir of old where humanity runs amok with murder and deceit. In any regard, this is what the hope is.

Still, Prince comes off lacking from the outset because as an actor he’s a bit of an innocuous blank slate. Even if this is purely how he is meant to function, there’s nothing impressionable about him. But it also falls partially to the anatomy of a faulty story with dialogue practically regurgitated to us to get our pulses going. The effect is moot.

Still, this version of Barry Storm does serve one solitary purpose if only to toss us headlong into this narrative. He’s part unwitting victim, part fresh-faced raconteur and adventurer looking to dig up the famed treasure once belonging to his distant relation “The Dutchman.”

He crosses any number of people among them cocksure explorer Floyd Buckley (Hayden Rorke) and two fellows who act as deputies under the local sheriff: a relaxed fellow named Covin (Will Geer) and the quietly observant Walter (Jay Silverheels).

To their credit, they are the first people who bring some color of any sort to the picture. However, even Geer’s own recounting of the Dutchman legend — delivered in a casual, conversational manner — isn’t able to rescue the dialogue which feels just as straightforward and didactic as before.

The real meat and potatoes of the movie come with a substantial flashback moving the action to 1880, and it couldn’t come soon enough. Because it’s at this juncture we are reminded Lust for Gold has a surprisingly stellar cast, and the best patches of drama come with the biggest stars. Regrettably, they’re never able to assemble in full force spread out across the years as they are.

Glenn Ford is reteamed with Edgar Buchannan from Framed, although this time they’re a bit more dubious and hardened, following the trail of a mythical gold mine. If you were to fashion an approximate reference point the movie, functions a bit like Treasure of The Sierra Madre Lite with everyone gold crazy and opportunistic.

Glenn Ford is not much of a Dutchman. His accent or lack thereof could have used some sharpening if he was really looking to commit, but perhaps, more importantly, he shows himself capable of some vindictive fury before the days of The Big Heat. This is what the story must rely on.

He’s the man who ends up the victor with all the gold to himself and no one else left alive to challenge him when he checks his wealth in the nearest outpost. The whole town’s envious of his cache, and the news spreads rather hilariously through the local gossips. They want a piece of the action because it’s far too much wealth for one man, but he clings to its with near-violent secrecy. There’s not one male or female who’s going to get him to open up about it.

That doesn’t keep them from trying. The best bet is one Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), an educated woman who nevertheless runs the local mercantile and doesn’t have much hope of going anywhere. Her useless husband (Gig Young), hasn’t done anything to alleviate their situation. So, much to his chagrin, she’s prepared to slip off her wedding ring and weasel her way into the miner’s affections.

It works quite well and as with any of these old star vehicles, the movie is most enjoyable when we have Ford and Lupino together. They were both seasoned performers in all the grungy corners of the genre pictures even if this is a hybrid. But what sets them apart is how they both have desires. Sometimes opposing, sometimes convening, and their feelings for one another do become complicated.

To her credit, Lupino plays a far more nuanced part than a simple seductress. She is tired of her life. She is tired of her husband. She’s ready to take things into her own hands, and yet there is some amount of feeling dwelling within her. The Dutchman, for one, is happy to find someone to hold, someone to share his native tongue with. It’s the human face slipped in with the pervading moments of avarice.

Because in the end all parties are pitted against each other in a testy competition for the goods — both in the past and present — weathering seismic avalanches and showdowns up in the rock crevices. Some of these moments, especially crammed within the middle of the story have the pulse of compelling action. It’s only a shame this hybrid noir offering must be so hampered by its own plotting device.

3/5 Stars