The Flame and The Arrow (1950): Italy’s Acrobatic Robin Hood

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In the region of Italy called Lombardy, Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) is a bit of an Italian Robin Hood. However, his acclaim as an outlaw is brought on by personal conviction and a blatant disregard for authority. Others are captivated by his lionhearted bravado and fearlessness that, even as a peasant, leads him to brazenly defy the local despot Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), known as “The Hawk.”

The two rivals have a muddy history embroiled in wonderfully complicated family dynamics as we soon come to understand. No, they are not related, as Dardo has no noble blood, but his former wife (Lynn Baggett) has willfully taken up as one of “The Hawk’s” courtiers. For that, the proud man has never forgiven her and entreats his young son to remember his mother so he can know the truth about what she did. The boy is played by the terribly precocious Gordon Gebert who many might remember from his memorable turn opposite Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949). He’s much more astute than his age might lead us to believe.

In an act of skill and overt cheekiness, Dardo shoots down one of the king’s prized hunting birds and must flee across the rooftops, scaling walls and scrambling away to live another day. But his son is not so lucky and he gives himself up to the guards so his wounded father can get away. He will be taken to be with his mother and trained up in the way of a nobleman. Learning how to carry himself and dance like a little gentleman. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it. He is the heart and soul over which the entire film will be fought over.

Though he received a great deal of help from quality stunt performers like industry veteran Don Turner, there’s no doubt Lancaster’s own training as an acrobat was put to good use in this swashbuckler, which even saw him partnered with one of his old company Nick Cravat.

There’s an instant camaraderie between Dardo and the mute Piccolo. It’s palpable because the two performers have, in fact, spent many years together on the road doing acrobatic feats together so the trust is by no means a fabrication. They put the real-world rapport to good use through every trial they must face together. They know amid all the treachery on hand, their friendship will hold fast.

Among other bits of mischief, they create a man-made avalanche to come raining down on “The Hawk’s” guards in a mountain pass to frighten them away. Then, the merry brigands are joined by Allesandro (Robert Douglas) who was recently scorned by the Count. He is accompanied by his bard, a very well-versed fellow with a wry wit (Norman Lloyd).

Soon Dardo is on his way to disrupting the king’s courts to collect his son and comes swinging down right into their dinner, fending off the soldier’s lances with a flaming torch. Whether or not it would be practically effective is up for debate but it sure looks cool.

Although they are thwarted in their initial objective, in the hubbub, they manage to steal the princess, the Count’s glamorous niece (Virginia Mayo), away from the castle as leverage. She’s taken back to their lair, situated on some ruins in the wilderness, far from the prying eyes of the Count, to wait it out in captivity. The next move is to bait an irresistible trap for the outlaws by taking Dardo’s feeble uncle to be hung on the gallows within the city gates. The showdown is set. And yet when that is handily dealt with a whole row of new hangings come in its place.

The Count is beyond playing nice. He wants to see Dardo squirm and he’s going to do everything in his power to end him once and for all. In fact, it looks like he’s outmatched his pesky arch-rival. Yet with the help of the townsfolk, the outlaw pulls off one of the great death-defying stunts of all time.

At its best, The Flame and The Arrow really becomes a game — a medieval fencing match with deliberate lunges to go on the offensive then feints and parries, ripostes and other countermeasures all culminating in one final victor. But it comes down to the wire.

The king’s guardsmen prove no match for hordes of villagers and carnival showman led by Dardo, in one last daring siege, rescuing prisoners and overrunning the premises in a most uproarious fashion. But the beauty of how the allegiances have been set up means in order to get to the king, who is looking to run off with Dardo’s boy to live another day, he must go through Allesandro who is compelled to hold him off.

All in all, The Flame and The Arrow lives up to its name with lively acrobatic combat sequences and an impressively agile Burt Lancaster. I must admit I had never seen him in this light as a kind of cavalier action hero cast out in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. I know now he was more than capable of the rigorous challenges.

Virginia Mayo is as feisty as she is radiant, caught between her royal blood and a man who excites her more than anyone she has ever met. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur demonstrates once again that he is one of the finest directors of genre pictures Classic Hollywood ever had moving so freely between horror, westerns, adventure, etc. He can do it all.

4/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1955): The Brew That Is True

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Maybe I’m simply partial to Medieval forms of entertainment but it’s hard to imagine a finer vehicle for Danny Kaye than The Court Jester. It needs to be lithe enough to accommodate his goofy even acrobatic brand of song-and-dance buffoonery. What better arena for Kaye than the king’s courts, that laughable domain of a man in a dunce cap and tights?

However, equally important is some form of plot for the actor to hang his routine on. The production is complemented exquisitely by a lavish setting replete with fine costuming, bejeweled individuals, and everything from knights and sword fights to magic incantations, backroom treachery, and romantic entanglements.

The humorous tongue-in-cheek opening diddy “Life Could Not Better Be” sets the tone nicely. We are inserted into a storyline that is a decidedly genial Robin Hood knockoff. In his place is our righteous outlaw The Black Fox who is looking to install the rightful king to the throne, the infant with the royal birthmark — the purple pimpernel.

The malevolent, power-hungry King Roderick has usurped the domain and set himself up as the supreme leader of the land, surrounding himself with an array of equally loutish characters, namely Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The King is hopeful an alliance with a knight named Griswold will help him to vanquish his mortal foe, the Fox, promising to betroth his reluctant daughter (Angela Lansbury) as a sign of goodwill.

Ravenhurst, fearful that his place of prominence might be undercut, calls on the services of a Court Jester named Giacomo (John Carradine) to do away with the king’s other consorts. However, on the surface, it seems the perfect disguise for the minstrel Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) to aid the Black Fox in his raid on the castle.

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If Kaye is for all intent in purposes our Allan a Dale thrust into our Robin Hoodish role, then Glynnis John is his fair companion Maid Jean (aka Maid Marian) who also happens to be a trusted captain of the Foxes men (aka his capable Little John).

After they overtake the real Giacomo, the carnival showman dons the robes of a jester for the masquerade. He thinks there is only one agenda. To meet a contact within the castle on behalf of The Black Fox. Little does he know, he’s also got to look after the well-being of a precious baby in a basket while unwittingly making a connection with Ravenhurst who assumes him to be an assassin (“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good!”).

Meanwhile, the princess receives an oracle from her personal maid — a witch named Griselda (Mildred Natwick) — that a gallant man will soon arrive at the castle to have her hand. Little does the new Giacomo know he’s now caught up in a third complication as Griselda casts a spell on him turning him into a strapping and virtuous lover with the snap of her fingers — another one of the film’s recurring gags.

After his new entertainment arrives from Italy, the king also sends out an edict that all the fair wenches of the land be brought into his courts and, of course, the lovely countenance of Maid Jean gains the favor of the king, earning her a prestigious place in his company.

As he does his best not to bungle (by purposefully bungling) his floor show to earn the approbation of his master, Kaye must try and resolve the three plans of action put forward, though he’s conveniently forgotten them all.

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Soon our hero is ousted as an imposter and a cunning plan is enacted to red light him for knighthood so he will be eligible to face off against Griswold at the following day’s tournament for the hand of the princess. It’s all but inevitable. He’s a dead man without a chance at survival unless the Black Fox can come in time to take his place! Alas, it is not to be.

Their last-ditch effort is to try and poison Kaye’s formidable foe before they enter into combat. What it sets up is the film’s most beloved gag and one of the most heavily quoted routines there ever was: The Vessel with the Pestle and The Chalice from the Palace. In typical Kaye fashion, he struggles to remember which one holds the brew that is true or as he says it “the true that is brew.” Add the Flagon with the Dragon to the verbal shell game and he’s done for.

The extended hijinks is pure tongue-twisting, mind-boggling perfection, given an added exclamation point by his suit of armor becoming conveniently magnetized. This causes him to continually clunk into his adversary as they present themselves before the king. It couldn’t be funnier. And as a good belly laugh is often hard to come by these days, I was greatly delighted. The scene plays just as well as the first time I’d seen it.

But the antics in part give way to some genuine thrills as the jester leads a daring uprising against their would-be captors capped off by a counter-offensive by their friends. A merry band of little people sneaks in only to terrorize the courts and form a conveyor belt to fling their adversary away from the castle premises with a catapult. What follows is a storming of the castle by the rest of the rebels and a finale of the best comical homage to Technicolor Robin Hood there ever was.

A final duel with Ravenhurst showcases Kaye’s bipolar “dual” personalities. First, the frantic slap fighting of a craven coward, then the cocksure swordsmanship of a man with endless confidence, though it takes some support from his true love to send Ravehurst to his fitting demise.

There, in a nutshell, you have the impeccable concoction of the film reflected in Kaye. He’s a buffoon as much as he is a hero who nevertheless comes out on top thanks to another’s love. With a fairy tale ending such as this, life could not better be. Of course, The Court Jester is spruced up by the very fact it supplies a wagon-load of laughs to supplement a thoroughly agreeable adventure.

4.5/5 Stars

He Ran All The Way (1951): John Garfield’s Final Film

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We meet the belligerent two-bit criminal named Nick Robey (John Garfield) sleeping one off in the grungy apartment he shares with his acerbic mother (Gladys George). It’s not exactly the lap of luxury but it gives us some immediate insight into who he is. He’s an oafish, pitiful excuse for a human being and he’ll never amount to anything. One very visible reason comes from his open disdain for other people; he and his mother share no amount of affection whatsoever. It’s not a very promising portent.

Norman Lloyd, once again, plays some sidewalk sleaze, like he did in Scene of The Crime (1949), this time coaxing his pal Nick into helping him pull a job. It looks as easy as pie. And it is. The man parks, starts walking away with his briefcase full of dough, and they overtake him easily — without a hitch of any kind. But it’s inevitable; in order for there to be any movie at all, something must go wrong. A nosy policeman starts poking around and they scramble to get away before he nabs them.

The cop fatally wounds Lloyd but Garfield gets away, not before gunning down his pursuer. Just like that he winds up a cop killer. Except no one knows his identity definitively. So he’s got to go on the lamb keeping himself masked with the weekend crowds.

It’s a fascinating documentation of weekend diversions, in particular, community swimming pools. With his payload of money in toe, Nick nervously tiptoes around the pool eyeing the oblivious policemen milling about. There he also meets a girl. She’s not only a cover but a bit of a welcomed distraction from his continual paranoia.

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He Ran All The Way takes on a motif reused in Suddenly (1954) and other such pictures as Nick essentially becomes a live-in guest to Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters), her parents (Wallace Ford and Selena Royle), and her kid brother (Bobby Hyatt). He lets them go about life partially unimpeded, keeping one of the family at home at all times as constant leverage. That way there’s no funny business.

While the picture is hardly Garfield’s best, it is imbued with tightly coiled tension that’s instigated in the opening minutes. The ticking clocks never end aided by confined spaces, oddly intimate relationships between captors and hostages, as well as a volatile showing by Garfield. He’s all turned upside down trying to deliberate on his future plans.

Then they have a clash of principles over the dining room table. The family with their stew and him with the turkey and the lavish meal he’s gotten together. They want no part of it but he’s going to get them to eat even if he has to provoke them at gunpoint. In another scene, he inquires gruffly, “What does that church stuff do for you?” Without skipping a beat, still working away on his model vessel, Mr. Dobbs succinctly replies, “it makes you understand the virtue of love.”

Thus, this dialogue aptly frames the story as a tale pitting family versus romance in such a way that only one can come out intact. Peg is the one forced to make a choice. James Wong Howe’s camera works in numerous close-ups and that continues even until the end of the film to underscore moments of isolated impact. Garfield’s face, in particular, is singled out. We see the fear, the anger, and the confusion breaking out across his features time and time again.

A stairwell finale perfectly epitomizes the dynamic between the two leads, see-sawing back and forth perilously. Until they make it to the ground level and things must come to their harrowing conclusion once and for all.

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For all the hell Garfield put his captors through, the look on his face is striking, when it all comes to an end. It’s betrayal and fright and forlornness all rolled into one. Even as he’s a hard-bitten, tormented man, there’s still a sliver of something inside of him that we cannot help feeling sorry for. That’s a testament to the earnestness of his talent.

The context of the picture becomes arguably just as important as the film’s condensed narrative. Like any movie, it was hardly conceived in a vacuum and the early 1950s were, of course, characterized by the paranoid finger-pointing culture of McCarthyism.

The emblematic figurehead that always gets brought up is The Hollywood Ten — who subsequently were some of John Garfield’s closest collaborators. Dalton Trumbo even worked under a pseudonym on this script while director John Berry, for all intent and purposes, might have been christened the 11th member of this targeted group. Following the production, he would enter a self-exile in Europe.

But this would also be John Garfield’s last film and it would primarily be his last film — most people agree — because his heart attack, brought on at the age of 39, was caused by undue stress from the allegations he was embroiled in.

Even though he went before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, his appearance did not completely absolve him and on top of that, a separation with his wife looked to be ending in divorce. He would die on May 21st, 1952, his funeral attended by masses of mourning friends and fans.

He was the apparent forerunner to such other tragic figures like James Dean and Montgomery Clift and the not-so-tragic decline of Marlon Brando. Without Garfield, those fellows would have come out of nowhere but from him, you trace the line of progression from hardboiled stars like Cagney and Bogart. Watch these films and you recognize that same pent-up alienation and angst. Most importantly there’s a newfound sense of vulnerability being awakened.

3.5/5 Stars

Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars

Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

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I grew up with Hogan’s Heroes reruns on our Magnavox analog television. In fact, at one point it was my favorite show because it had such a colorful cast, it was perennially entertaining and utterly goofy to the extreme. But others have understandably decried the show because they see it finding humor in something that is not very funny. They contend it was making light of the Holocaust and WWII on the whole. Although I do believe this is an oversimplification and I don’t have time to tackle it right now, it’s still an important dialogue to have. I will defer to others for the time being.

The point of discourse I want to take up is Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 because it’s obvious there would be no Hogan’s Heroes without this P.O.W. comedy-drama. The plots, even the characterizations, are eerily similar, close enough to prompt plagiarism lawsuits. But the difference is Hogan functions as pure zaniness carried by the strength of its ensemble where the Germans are utter buffoons. That’s the hallmark of characters like Sergeant Schultz (John Banner) and Kommandant Klink (Werner Klemperer) who are both lovable imbeciles. They will never be allowed victory over Hogan and his allies.

In Wilder’s hands, a P.O.W. camp is silly and light-hearted at times, yes, but it’s also equally dark and cynical. Because what would a Wilder picture be without some pointed comic venom? Two obvious points of reference would have to be the wartime comedy directed by his idol Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be (1942), which some would argue employs morbid humor. Then there’s Grande Illusion (1937) starring Erich von Stroheim (featured in Sunset Boulevard) as a prison camp commander who can easily be contrasted with Otto Preminger’s Colonel von Scherberg. In both, you have those evident counterpoints of humor and tragedy exquisitely executed.

Stalag 17′s opening escape attempt of two men is snuffed out by machine gun fire just waiting to mow them down. It’s the definition of unsentimental and it is the first of numerous breakdowns in communication. There is a rat somewhere. There has to be.

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Then, the picture is back to its belly laughs supplied most obviously by Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his tubby, scruffy buddy Animal (Robert Strauss). They spearhead all of the shenanigans, including a daring attempt to break into the prison camp of Russian women to sneak a peek. You see, Animal’s deeply broken up by his unrequited love for Betty Grable. They bicker with the resident Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman), another Hogan’s Heroes precursor, who good-naturedly chortles at all their ribbing. Surely this isn’t anything like how Stalags actually operated?

Wilder’s trademark biting wit is most fully realized in Sefton. For the part he was initially reluctant to take, William Holden donned a crew cut and scruff generally masking his normally dashing features. But this was hardly the aspect making him uneasy about the role.

Sefton is a textbook undesirable. He openly trades with the enemy in an effort to make himself as comfortable as possible. He bets a boatload of cigarettes the two fugitives won’t make it out of the camp and when it proves morbidly correct, he makes a killing.

Likewise, he’s the local wheeler-dealer, maintaining the Stalag 17 rat race turf complete with betting for all the servicemen. His other enterprises include a distillery — a flamethrower of sumptuous potato peel schnapps — and “The Observatory” where all the boys eagerly line up for a tantalizing look at the Russian delousing shack. Conveniently, he’s also the obvious culprit when a stoolie is suspected within their ranks.

It takes all kinds to liven up the joint and make it into a space with real drama to go along with so many lighter notes. We already mentioned Harry and Animal but the Barracks chief is the always reliable Hoffy (Richard Erdman), head of security is Peter Graves, Duke (Neville Brand) is the rough and tumble one who’s not squeamish about having a fist fight. There’s a blond brainiac, the catatonic one, the amputee who uses his spare space to sneak materials in and out of the barracks, and the nasally mailman with a voice to top all voices.

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When a new prisoner named Dunbar (Don Taylor) gets brought in with his copilot (Jay Lawrence), who has a penchant for spot-on impersonations, they receive a hero’s welcome. After all, they helped to sabotage enemy armaments on their way to being captured. But the information leaks continue with their radio being confiscated and Dunbar being called in for questioning, due to his treacherous activities. The SS is coming to take him to Berlin for questioning. If he’s ever going to come out alive the P.O.W.s must make a last ditch effort to try and get him to safety.

Meanwhile, Sefton gets a going over by the whole barracks, which is quickly overshadowed by Christmas in the camp complete with carols, dancing, and parading full of gaiety. It’s meant to lull us into a false sense of security as Sefton is put in his place and things are good again. It all conveniently diverts from something else. Sefton’s not the culprit. Someone else has been communicating with the Germans and tipping them off.

The final confrontation is when the film really puts it all on the line. We find out who the perpetrator is and Sefton’s vindicated in everything, even going out as a kind of hero. Except to the bitter end, he’s never redeemed as a human being. He’s as hard-edged and acerbic as ever and yet to the folks at homes, he’s who will be cast a hero because he did something brave. Holden was uncomfortable with this as much as we are as an audience but Billy Wilder was unflinching and ultimately right in creating this dissonance.

If anything, Stalag 17 as realized by Billy Wilder and his team is a reminder of the harshness and utter absurdity of war. This is how he conceives it — a man who lost his parents to concentration camps and was sent over to his former land to help rebuild it. He probably knew as much as anyone how horrible the Nazi atrocities were but to memorialize every attribute of the Allies as noble would not document the whole truth.

If Sefton’s the poster boy of the war, then we have to take a deep hard look out our ideals and what we stand for. Because, of course, he was the only one not taken in. Everyone else was so quick to accuse him and to see what they wanted to. It’s almost as if a film documenting an aspect of WWII was in the same breathe suggesting what was afoot with the red scare in the rising fury of the Cold War. Heaven forbid a person we don’t like or don’t agree with is not so easy to demonize as “other.”

It’s far too scary to concede they’re probably just like us. They just didn’t have the decency to hide it. Perhaps they’re better because they were not swayed by the clouded judgment of others.

So if I watch Stalag 17 and become turned off by this incongruity between the historical setting, the lightness in tone, and the shock of a generally unsympathetic lead, maybe it says more about my conception of the world than anything wrong with Billy Wilder’s admittedly incisive picture. It’s a scary admission to make but it just might be true.

4.5/5 Stars

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

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There is arguably no director who is, in retrospect, more important to the film movement that became classified as film noir than German emigre Robert Siodmak. His name isn’t quite as well known as the Billy Wilders or Fritz Langs necessarily but one can contend his influence on this style is without equal.

While not his greatest achievement, The File on Thelma Jordon is yet another example of the man’s proclivities for deliciously shadowy melodrama which, while not always plausible, is more often than not incessantly intriguing.

In this particular case, we are involved with a local district attorney (Wendell Corey). He is a man who loves his wife while not being too fond of her overbearing father. In fact, Cleve conveniently stays away from home whenever the in-laws are around. It’s certainly complicated his marital relationship as of late.

One such night he stays at the office to knock a few back only to cross paths with a Ms. Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) who mistakes him for someone else as she recently inquired about protection for her paranoid aunt — a woman fearful of burglars. On the verge of a real bender, he invites her for a drink and they spend some time together. She’s just what he’s been looking for to fill the void in his life.

Meanwhile, his wife is going away with the kids for a summer at the beach house and he hates to see them leave; he really does. Maybe he knows deep down they are slowly drifting apart and his urges to see the other woman are all but insurmountable. He can’t fight it much longer. There used to be someone — an estranged one-time husband named Tony — but he’s purportedly no longer around. Cleve brushes him off and they keep seeing each other whenever possible.

But their relationship hits a dramatic turn one evening. She calls him up in the thick of night and he comes at her beck and call. They slink in the shadows as she breaks the news to him. Her aunt has been killed by an intruder; the old woman’s worst fears coming to fruition with priceless jewels being stolen from the safe.

The situation is complicated by a frantic Thelma who panicked by altering the crime scene and failing to call the police. Now the man across the road has his interest piqued and comes over to investigate. In the heat of the moment, they must hastily cover everything up as Cleve rushes out of the window and Thelma feigns sleep. It’s all part of an intense interlude coursing through the middle of the picture making the collective heart of the audience pulse with anxiety.

What follows is a murder inquest and then a trial with Ms. Jordon standing as the defendant. She’s got herself a stone-cold and exacting lawyer who could care less about her guilt or innocence. In his mind’s eye, she is innocent and that’s how he plans to win her case regardless.

Meanwhile, Cleve gets put in a very sticky and uncomfortable situation as he finds himself made the prosecuting attorney on the case. As the two sides try to legally sway the jury, the identity of a mysterious Mr. X still swirls around the case, and Cleve tries everything to throw the case in the most indirect ways possible. It’s a perilous balancing act where he will lose something regardless. Siodmak milks it for all its tension as the frenzied proceedings press on with the media jumping on it like ravenous wolves. Someone’s got to be a fall guy. Stay the course and you might be surprised in how the case resolves itself.

Wendell Corey could always be called on for steady and at times wry support but that being so, it’s refreshing to see him in a substantial leading role playing opposite a true professional. They work capably together as the story relies mostly on their two performances.

Barbara Stanwyck is great when she’s bad. Phyllis Dietrichson is the epitome of this fact, remaining one of the crowning achievements of her career. Though a lesser-known incarnation, Thelma Jordon is worthy of some notoriety in her own right.

However, the sublimeness of Stanwyck here is how she never really feels slimy or full of guile, even in the stages when the books are all but closed on her case and we get a fuller picture of who she is. The whole time we are kept constantly guessing and fluttering this way and that in indecision. More than once she surprises us.

The trick to a femme fatale like herself is never consciously deciding to be destructive. She’s doing what she personally believes to be right even if it’s due to a lapse in judgment or an impending sense of fear. I’m sure there was some greed in there too but we all harbor a little bit deep in our hearts somewhere.

So though it ends with a malaise that can only be film noir, there is some sense of rightness in the way everything goes down. It’s not to say there’s not a bite to the picture. When the file closes on Thelma Jordon two lives have been deeply affected forever with far-reaching repercussions. There’s no changing that.

3.5/5 Stars

No Man of Her Own (1950)

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Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is slighted by her slimy boyfriend who ditches her for a blonde and the only thing he offers her in return is a train ticket out of town. What can she do but take it dejectedly with barely any money, 8-months pregnant, without any future at all? She’s in a lowly state. That is until she is befriended by the perky Patrice Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter) and her genial husband (Richard Denning), who quickly lift her spirits through their continual ebullience.

The first sign of melodrama comes with a horrible train crash that leaving both Harknesses dead but Helen survives waking up in a hospital to find that her baby was saved. Except there’s a catch and, mind you, it’s the pivot point on which the weight of the whole story balances. In the commotion-filled aftermath of the crash, Helen is mistaken for Patrice, the young wife her purported in-laws have never met before. Now she is in their home to be taken care of.

Of course, at first, Helen is scared. She has nowhere to turn and so she goes along with it as her baby for the moment has a roof over his head. As time progresses, she comes to grow deeply affectionate of Mr. and Mrs. Harkness. The kindly matriarch (Jane Cowl) is so taken with her new daughter-in-law it all but consoles her in the loss of her son. Meanwhile, her other boy Bill (John Lund) takes a deep liking for his sister-in-law and does everything to make her feel welcome in the foreign environment. You can tell he genuinely cares about her. It’s no act.

However, the film also explores themes that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on The Train (1951) would traverse only a year later with strains of blackmail and the specters out of her past coming to ruin the life Helen has created for herself.

Her no-good ex is interested in what she has landed in and what he can get out of it. First, it’s money to keep her secret, then it’s marriage so that he can get in on her cut of the Harkness fortune if ever it comes her way. He’s a filthy parasite and she knows there’s only one conceivable way to be rid of him. You know if already: murder!

But far from getting tossed out by the Harknesses or being completely undone by Morley, Helen, Patrice, whatever you wish to call her, is able to salvage a life for herself because of compassionate folks who are willing to accept her no matter her background. They even get knee deep into her plight, even die for her. The extent of their kindness leaves her forever grateful and hopeful that some form of human love still remains possible for her. Even the prospects of a murder rap seem surmountable.

The ending has one of those final cherry-on-the-top-of-the-sundae resolutions allowing everything to tie together in a nice bow. Some people might find it silly but I rather liked it. It gives the storyline one ironic twist of fate perfectly suited for this turbulent strain of drama. The police are satisfied. Crime didn’t pay. Our romantic leads get to stay together. All is right with the world. After such bleak beginnings, it’s almost laughable.

Despite being an utterly preposterous conceit, Barbara Stanwyck rides it out with her usual measured commitment to her craft both sympathetic and to the degree possible, believable. In the latter half, she’s an absolutely pasty mess personifying a woman terrified about being found out in her lie and subsequently rejected by the ones she’s worked so hard to love.

Director Mitchell Leisen, though given his penchant for finely wrought romantic comedies and an eye for costumes and interiors, shows he is no less capable in this woman’s picture, keeping it afloat even as it cycles through all sorts of implausibilities. I was generally fond of John Lund in The Mating Season (1951) as well, though it’s true he’s all but overshadowed by his female costars in both movies. However, when the people in question are the caliber of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, and Thelma Ritter it’s quite understandable.

3/5 Stars

Review: Night and The City (1950)

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I’m not sure why but like Tommy Udo, the name Harry Fabian always stays with me when I think of Richard Widmark. One is the apex of sadistic evil and the other an archetypical noir hero met with utter calamity.

It’s true that for those who know a bit of the oeuvre of American director Jules Dassin, Night and the City might be perceived as a new rendition of The Naked City (1947). However, instead of New York, the suburban jungle of a thousand stories captured in documentary-like realism, we are given instead London, in all of its seedy glory, warts and all.

It’s fitting we meet Harry Fabian on the run from some unseen pursuer and whether someone is there or not hardly matters because that’s just Harry. The life he leads means he’s always in a jam with someone and always looking for the next big scheme to get him out of the doghouse. One might say he knows the dives of London like the back of his hand. He frequents them often trying to drum up business.

Because Harry is Widmark certainly at his most charismatic, an artist without an art and a constant idea man floundering in hot water every minute of the day. Like all such figures, he aspires to be something more than what he is. We’ve seen it many times before. For no conceivable rational reason except love, Mary (Gene Tierney), a nightclub singer, has remained faithfully by his side, despite all his flaky tendencies.

The mad chemist cooking upstairs also proves to be a pretty nice guy who cares deeply about Mary’s well-being. Especially since it seems that she is so easily tossed around by Harry. He doesn’t seem to care for her well. In fact, if we can cast it as such Harry is the Homme Fatale, even a slightly sympathetic one, while Adam (Hugh Marlowe) is his utter contrast in every way — the man who seems to have nothing but Mary’s goodwill in mind, even if he is in love with her too.

“The Silver Fox” is an underground tavern with some small consequence to the plot. Because you see, under the grubby hands of portly Phil Nosseross and his opportunistic and manipulative wife (Googie Withers), Harry works a hustle.  He drums up business like an all-purpose promoter, fishing around for unsuspecting out-of-towners and worming his way into their confidence. Meanwhile, Mary remains the main attraction with a floor show. They do quite well. Mary has scrimped and saved a great deal but Harry is still unsatisfied. It’s all small potatoes.

He’s waiting for the next great lightning rod of inspiration to strike and of all places, it comes at the fights. A big-time promoter (Herbert Lom) tells him to keep away because he’s already profiled Fabian as a no-good scrounger who cannot be trusted. He’s not wrong. However, Harrys a quick wit when he needs to be, instantly gaining the favor of formerly renowned wrestler Gregorius.

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Not only is he disillusioned with the way that modern wrestling bouts are fought, he also has a young pupil named Nikolai who he deems can take on any man. What makes his stamp of approval stick is the very fact the old man happens to be Kristos’s dearly beloved father. If Harry has this formidable ally in his corner he’s got it made.

Soon all the cash he can lay his greasy paws on is sunk in Fabian’s Promotions, even coaxing the boss’s conniving wife for a bankroll. He’s got his angle; he’s got his shield to help him shoulder his way into the wrestling game. It’s a cinch. But he’s also got everything riding on this endeavor because that’s his game. Go big and risk the chance of falling flat on his face.

So with Kristos all but threatening his life and a scorned husband pulling out his backing unless Harry can land The Strangler (Mike Mazursky), a competitor Gregorius has little taste for, that’s the end. The utter elation is Harry pulling a miracle out of his hat for the fight of a lifetime but just as easily the rug gets pulled from under him. Fate is a cruel taskmaster.

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Now a price sits on his head which essentially means he’s a dead duck. His dreams of success evaporate instantly. In the latter stages of the film, Widmark scrambles around London down all the back alleyways and abandoned brickyards he can. But everything he does seems futile. He has no friends with that much money at stake. The irony is that even Harrys last foolproof scheme doesn’t take when he pretends Mary is turning him over to Kristos for the cash. It wasn’t to be. For their love or for Harry. Noir is nothing without a heavy dose of fatalistic tragedy to become its ultimate undoing. Night and the City is little different.

As the story goes, Jules Dassin would be blacklisted during the production of the picture and therefore had no hand in the editing or scoring, at least to his liking. Thus, we have two distinct cuts. Otherwise, after a rough patch stricken by the Blacklist, he got back to work in France with the deeply revered Riffifi (1955). His career would have a second life all throughout Europe, yes, but for all intent and purposes, his days of hardboiled American noirs were over for good. All in all, he left behind a stellar body of work during the late 1940s. Night and the City remains a testament to a perennially underrated director.

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the British version with a score by George Frankel opposed to a different American cut with slightly different footage and score by Franz Waxman.

5 Favorite Films of the 1950s: The B Sides

Just a day ago a whole slew of individuals shared their 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s for National Classic Movie Day. Thank you again to The Film & TV Cafe for spearheading that quality endeavor!

In retrospect, I realized all my choices were really “A Pictures,” which were difficult and yet at the same time fairly easy to choose. They were all no-brainer picks because I love them a great deal. Many others also chose the likes of Singin’ in The Rain, Roman Holiday, and Rear Window (for good reason, I might add).

However, the decisions that left me the most intrigued were, of course, the dark horses and the underappreciated gems. Certainly, you have to start somewhere when it comes to embarking on the classic movie journey, but half of the fun is unearthing treasures along the way. For instance, I was left charmed by the following picks, all wonderful films in their own right, that I would have never thought to choose:

People Will Talk, The Narrow Margin, The Earrings of Madame De…, It’s Always Fair WeatherThe Burmese Harp, and Night of the Demon, just to name a handful.

All of this to say, I was inspired by these folks to take on “Round 2” for my own edification. I’m going to leave my highly subjective list of “A Sides” behind for what I’ll term the “B Sides.” The only rule I’m going to place on myself is that this fresh set of picks must be what I deem to be “underrated movies.” Again, it’s a very subjective term, I know.

Regardless, here they are with only minor deliberation!

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Stars in My Crown (1950)

Jacques Tourneur is an unsung auteur and if all he had on his resume were Cat People (1942) and Out of The Past (1947), his would be quite the legacy. However, throughout the ’50s, he helmed a bevy of fabulous westerns and adventure pictures. I almost chose Wichita (1955), also starring Joel McCrea. In the end, this moving portrait of a frontier minister won out because it cultivates such a fine picture of how one is supposed to live in the midst of a bustling community of disparate individuals. This involves conflict, tension, tragedy, and ultimately, a great deal of human kindness.

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The Breaking Point (1950)

Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not with Bogey and Bacall is probably more well-known but this version has merits of its own. Namely, a typically tenacious and compelling John Garfield playing a returning G.I. and family man trying to make a living in an unfeeling world. His wife portrayed by Phyllis Thaxter deserves a nod as well for her thoroughly honest effort. The movie gets bonus points for shooting in and around my old summer stomping grounds on Balboa Island.

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Bigger Than Life (1956)

It does feel a bit like Nicholas Ray was the king of the 1950s. Rebel Without a Cause is the landmark thanks, in part, to James Dean. However, his best picture, on any given day, could be Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford, On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan, or The Lusty Men with Robert Mitchum. Today I choose Bigger Than Life because James Mason gives, arguably, the performance of his career as a man turned maniacal by the effects of his new miracle drug, cortisone. It employs the same gorgeous Technicolor tones and Cinemascope Ray would become renowned for while also developing a truly terrifying portrait of 1950s suburbia.

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Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

I skipped James Dean’s most famous film, but never fear because in his place is a film featuring an actor who channeled the American icon’s angsty cool. In Andrzej Wajda’s Polish drama, set at the end of WWII, Zbigniew Cybulski embodies much of the same electric energy. His defining performance is central to a gripping tale about a country absolutely decimated by war, between German occupation and the ensuing columns of Russian soldiers arriving on their doorstep.

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Good Morning (1959)

This might be my personal favorite of the Yasujiro Ozu’s films for its pure levity. The images are meticulously staged as per usual with glorious coloring. Every frame could easily be a painting. However, against this backdrop is a domestic story about two brothers who hope to wage a pouting war against their parents who won’t cave and buy them a TV like they want. The conceit is simple but the results are absolutely delightful.

Well, that just about wraps up my 5 supplemental picks…

Except I would be remiss if I didn’t share at least a handful of other outliers. Let me know what you think of the films I chose!

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)

Review: Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

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There’s something intriguing about the opening titles of Where The Sidewalk Ends thanks to a stripped-down quality ditching a conventional score for whistling and recognizable street noise as the credits come painted on the sidewalk. Feet trample over the names in the picture and we get a very concrete sense (apologies for the pun) of the environment we are about to be embroiled in.

This is a gutter noir that, along with the Asphalt Jungle (1950), deserves the title of one the most grungy, seedy, and therefore aptly named films noir of all time. The movie begins where the credits end quite obviously.

Otto Preminger is back together with his two stars from Laura (1944) and that picture proves to be a double-edged sword as his shining success but also the measuring stick all of his follow-ups would be held to. I’m not sure if any of them measured up but that’s beside the point. Where The Sidewalk Ends is an extremely gritty delight worth remembering in its own right.

The script by prolific Hollywood icon Ben Hecht knows all the beats well and delivers the action with an assured cause and effect hinging on our main character’s inner conflict. Detective Dixon (Dana Andrews) is a tough guy cop who has a history of indiscretion when it comes to running in criminals. He’s not always diplomatic and it gets him in hot water in the form of a demotion and a stern talking to from his superior.

In a crooked gambling joint, something else is going on entirely, with one man left for dead from an altercation. Soon enough, the police are on the site poking around. Later, Dixon out on the beat unwittingly lays a man out cold in self-defense. Regardless he knows what he’s in for. With steel-nerves, he takes on the mantle of the criminal in a lapse of judgment hiding the body and masquerading as another man because he knows the hit is already on and if found out this will sink him for good.

He spent his whole life trying to get out from under the shadow of his no-good dad and here he winds up, despite his best efforts, right back in the thick of it with guilt weighing on him. It’s easy to compare him with other analogous characters like Kirk Douglas in The Detective Story (1951) who had a similar chip on his shoulder that makes him absolutely merciless. Then, there’s Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1952) who gets chewed out for rough and tumble antics only for the film to leave the seedy world entirely behind.

In this case, Preminger never gives us an escape valve nor are we cooped in a police precinct. We are on the streets walking the beats and living the lives with the normal, average, everyday people. It’s more personal and real. This allows us to understand Dixon better and feel empathy for him. However, there’s little doubt that he’s in the wrong and will be implicated in the cover-up.

There is a slight reprieve as he meets Gene Tierney. Because despite her poor choice in men, she nonetheless gives the picture a much-needed edge of humanity. Momentarily, she makes Dixon and the audience forget what a fix he is in.

Likewise, Martha (Ruth Donnelly) at the local hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a riot. She and Dixon feign mutual distaste but you know she’s one of the few people in his corner and she hopes to see him settle down into a real life. Because his identity is always that of a cop. Strip that away from him and what do you have?

However, when Morgan’s loquacious father, a veteran cabbie, winds up getting the rap pinned on him, Dixon is truly faced with muddled moral lines he must untangle. Still, he doggedly goes after Scalise the man he knows was privy to one of the murders but not two. Dixon is well aware who is implicated in that one… He tries to champion the dad’s release by helping to hire a lawyer and trying to convince his newly instated superior (Karl Malden) otherwise. It’s to no avail.

A striking sequence comes in a very mundane moment utilizing traditional voiceover dialogue as Andrews reads off the contents of his confession to be read in case of his death. You see, he’s about to go after Scalise single-handedly and hopes to get a bullet in the stomach to maintain his image in life. It’s his last chance at a blaze of glory. But as he writes out the note there is a palpable bitterness in his words that you can almost taste. Tierney is in the same room like a sleeping angel, laid out on the nearby sofa.

Maybe it’s a run-of-the-mill scene in the midst of a film blessed by Otto Preminger’s eye for camera setups and the like, but Andrews reading nevertheless got to me. Maybe we can partially chalk it up to Hecht’s veteran quill laden with regret, but someone also had to deliver the lines.

It very much serves as a personification of who he is an actor — always playing tough ever tortured heroes who must grapple with their flaws in an ultimate effort to do good in a jading world. I’m sure others could have filled the part and done it well but I admire Andrews here with his perpetually grim mug and cynicism. No one could do it exactly like he was able to.

As much as I enjoy Gene Tierney’s glowing countenance, there’s not all that much for her to do except be concerned and dote, though she does admittedly stir our rogue cop to action. Even with a very sobering ending verging on the fatalistic, one could argue there is a silver lining because, if nothing else, Dixon’s morality has been upheld. His conscience to this end proves he’s not his father’s son.

We don’t know what the future holds for him and yet he can hold his head up high. Because the streets of noir are perennially a battleground between light and dark not only visually but morally as well. It’s this very struggle at the core of the film and subsequently within Dixon. The good inside him is able to prevail.

4/5 Stars