Duel (1971): The Stirring Success of a Young Spielberg

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Duel stands as a stirring reminder that this is the same Steven Spielberg who brazenly got himself on the Universal lot because he needed to be in as close proximity to movies by any means possible. There was no other alternative.

Here is a young, brash filmmaker, part Hitchcock, part Truffaut, and all American humanist. Is it wrong to say he is dearly missed? Because this is not to imply films like Bridge of Spies or The Post do not have merit or are not worthy of acclaim. However, it does feel expected of them. If ever a gigantic cinematic undertaking could be termed safe, they are, at least in terms of comparison.

Duel is full of the electrifying exuberance of youth with a director out on the prowl to prove himself. He most certainly does. He cannot help but shape our perceptions along the entire adventure through impetuous moves and constant manipulation. But that is what the directors and the magicians behind films are capable of at their highest potential.

What sets it apart instantly is the point of view. As an audience, we are flying down the streets of what can only be L.A. and the world is being relayed to us from the cab of the car as the radio whirs with the typical chatter.

Baseball scores. The latest exploits of Lee Trevino. A man calling in proclaiming himself a member of the silent majority and simultaneously afraid folks will get the wrong idea if it gets out he’s not his family’s primary breadwinner. His masculinity is in danger of being under attack. Blah blah blah.

It is not a film saturated in dialogue so whatever you hear serves a key purpose either thematically (like in this case) or to define character conflict. This is the first instance where it becomes especially apparent.

The movie, originally a television movie, also fits nicely into TV’s cultural moment with Dennis Weaver of later McCloud fame and Spielberg himself having directed an early episode of Columbo for Sunday Mystery Movie Night.

Our hero is a Vietnam war vet still trying to exorcize demons while grappling with his own faulty sense of masculinity that has his own marriage going down the tubes. What follows is a laughably simple premise executed exquisitely to a fever’s pitch.

Because David Mann (Weaver) is currently being delayed from getting home to his wife and kid due to a business trip. It can’t be helped and seen in this light, Duel might easily be a suburban family drama about the daily monotonies of life as a member of the aforementioned silent majority.

And yet Duel slowly unfurls a more menacing and blatantly overt conceit. Real, tangible opposition is created in the arrival of a flammable tanker and rolling pollution factory belching exhaust. The story as originally conceived by the prolific Richard Matheson preys on the anxieties about L.A. smog and the uninhibited road rage brought to a simmer by the daily commute.

Because soon enough Mann, for some inexplicable reason, finds himself being pursued and bullied off the road by the massive truck. It’s the personification of a destructive vendetta out on the road. It’s vindictive. It feels personal. But we never understand why.

As they begin to make their way across more secluded desert highways and byways, what starts out feeling like a practical joke continually escalates. It follows him to a diner, waits for him menacingly, and comes upon him as he tries to service a broken down school bus. The kids seem to jeer him, a jarring image, given the fact this ominous big rig comes to their aid. Could it be they are in cahoots? The fears begin to proliferate.

However, from a narrative perspective, the true masterstroke is how Spielberg never tips us off to who the phantom pursuer is. He is more a creature of diesel propelled by exorbitant amounts of fury rather than a human being — a cinematic creation more than a real-world entity.  It sounds eerily familiar to a mechanical shark just hopped up on gasoline and plowing down the roadways instead of the deep blue.

Thus, the parallel to Jaws are all too obvious. This is a low budget, compact, and even punchier rendition. However, everything goes back to Spielberg’s fearless inventiveness, whether it’s in the elementary way in which to frame shots or to build up this ever heightening sense of paranoia as the world begins to collapse around our protagonist.

Dennis Weaver embodies this brand of All-American, nevertheless, plagued by demons, and his spells of voiceover, particularly in a roadside diner, lend an added depth to his anxiety.

It is one way we are given license to get inside of his head as he tries to guess which old boy sitting at the counter is the one out to get him. His nerves are all about shot by the end of it and if he’s our surrogate, as an audience we do not fare much better.

Obviously, there are these moments of dialogue, but the sparse moments full of near-wordless action recall Hitchcock quite vividly. A film can be won and lost in how it utilizes these moments, and Spielberg rides them out to great effect.

When the radiator hose breaks, and it feels like sheer desperation time the camera is literally peering up through the steering wheel on the most severe angle on Dennis Weaver yet. Because we have hit the most crucial moment in the picture.

Mann is broaching a precipice of mad despair as he wills his vehicle to not completely fall to pieces around him. He’s physically incapable of running any longer because his wheels have betrayed him. His only hope is making it to the top of an incline so he can coast his way to freedom.

Whether he conquerors the beast or not, the struggle is not without consequence on both our hero and the audience. You would assume Duel is a movie that would feel stagnant and yet even with rhythms that repeat, it somehow manages to maintain a level of tension that must be accredited not only to Spielberg and his cameraman but Weaver’s anchoring performance as he goes through a hellish battle against the steely-beast. TV movies often get a bad rap but Duel is at least one shining example in their favor.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1950s Film Noir

We follow up last week’s guide to classic film noir of the 1940s by continuing into the 1950s with 4 more entries. With the new decade came new progressions in realism, location shooting, and heightened character psychology.

As Paul Schrader wrote, the noir hero started to “go bananas.” What remained were graft, corruption, and the depravity of the human heart. True, gumshoes and femme fatales were never cut-and-dry. Now they were even less so. Enjoy!

Gun Crazy (1950)

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B movies form the backbone of this often down and dirty genre. There are few better than Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy an exercise in inventive economy. It tells the tale of a romance-fueled crime spree with verve and violent passion. Although mostly forgotten today, John Dall and Peggy Cummins do a fine rendition as a latter-day incarnation of Bonnie and Clyde

The Big Heat (1953)

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It’s a cops and robbers procedural with Glenn Ford as the straight-arrow family man going against the local mob. What Fritz Lang does is boil it over with newfound vindictiveness. We soon find out the good guys aren’t always untarnished nor the noir dames (Gloria Grahame) always the villains. True to form, Lee Marvin plays an incorrigible heavy.

The Killing (1956)

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It’s early Stanley Kubrick so some might find it a stark contrast to his later works. Regardless, it’s one of the finest heist films of all-time. Because the best-laid plans — even the most meticulous — always have a habit of going awry. The set-up is gritty and no-nonsense with a cast headed by a fitting protagonist: Sterling Hayden. Likewise, it’s ending just about sums up film noir fatalism.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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It’s often cited as one of the final signposts of classic film noir. With its tale of below the border corruption instigated by a portly Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) against a Mexican policeman (Charlton Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh), it more than fits the parameters of the genre. The extended opening shot is just one stunning testament of Welles’ vision as a director.

Worth Watching:

Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, Night and The City, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Ace in The Hole, The Narrow Margin, Kansas City Confidential, Pickup on South Street, Night of The Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly, Bad Day at Black Rock, Murder by Contract, and so many more.

The Curse of The Cat People (1944): The Oddest of Horror Sequels

800px-Curse_of_the_Cat_People_lobby_card.jpgThe Curse of the Cat People feels like entering a storybook only to find ourselves in Tarry Town near Sleepy Hollow. Fittingly, we are placed with a group of kindergarteners who have come with their teacher to frolic and enjoy a field trip to the place brought to life in the tall tales of Washington Irving.

Immediately, this latest Val Lewton production plays to its greatest strengths by melding folk tale, supernatural sensibilities with bits and pieces of our world. The medium through which the picture chooses to work is a little girl named Amy (Ann Carter). She’s a serial daydreamer with her big doe eyes constantly glowing with light. One moment she’s infatuated with a butterfly and an overeager boy obliterates it in his attempts to catch it for her. She proceeds to rear back and slap him across the face.

It’s only her way but the other kids see her as odd and aloof. She’s not like them. With its opening premise in place, it’s safe to say The Curse of the Cat People is one of the strangest sequels for the very fact it has a decent amount to do with its predecessor and yet feels as if we have literally been transposed to a different cinematic world. Also, the name is an utter misnomer.

We have an offshoot taking the basic characters and settings from its predecessor while foregoing normal horror beats for a stranger set of psychological and adolescent themes. It might as well be an entirely standalone film with the urban working environment being replaced with a rural suburbia.

Now our hero from Cat People (1942), Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), has settled down with his wife Alice (Jane Randolph) and his little girl, but parenthood has made him a bit testy. Given the powers previously wreaking havoc on his life, perhaps it’s warranted. He wants to shield Amy from his deceased wife’s fate at any cost. 

But if we look at their current domestic life, it’s fairly sterilized in a way that might quickly become sickening to watch. They go by their three names: “Daddy,” “Mommy,” and “Darling” while their able-bodied, eloquent servant Edward (Sir Lancelot) keeps house. However, this very veneer is set in sharp juxtaposition with forces far more volatile and unnerving — at least at first.

Amy begins to have arcane experiences with the old Farren House where a cantankerous matron resides with her brooding, spectral-like daughter. So if we want to get technical, the movie is really about two families: One seemingly perfect, the other accursed.

On one such visit, Mrs. Farren grips the little girl with the local myths. The recounting of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow all but sweeps us up in a moment of pulse-pounding vigor, in spite of taking place entirely in a single drawing-room. Something about it is so alive and deeply unsettling.

As a defense mechanism, Amy calls out to a phantom who comforts her. We’ve all had invisible companions at one time or another so it’s not a strange request. However, her friend feels far more tangible than any of ours.

Of course, it’s Irena (Simone Simon) the woman her father has never dared tell her about. Besides, Irena is dead. As her parents worry about her mental stability, Amy is comforted by having Irena as a confidante. 

Life continues cheerfully enough. On Christmas, all the most important people in her life get a present. Carolers come by and begin an impromptu chorus of, “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.” Mommy reminisces about her memories putting on “mummers plays.”

We expect something darkly twisted to invade this holiday conviviality and yet it never comes. What was initially exploited is childish fancy intertwining with this supernatural entity. But everything gives way to a heart-aching sincerity. We come in expecting one twist, and we get an almost anti-twist in its place. Instead of being haunted by demons and cursed things, a young girl makes friends and finds a way to heal wounds through a firm embrace. It turns out this could be an offbeat Christmas classic in some circles. 

The picture strikes this curious tone between obvious markers. Though it makes it maddening to try and categorize — especially for contemporary advertisers — now it plays more like a blessing than a curse. Because we expect something mundane and one dimensional, only to get a surprisingly inventive exploration of childhood and imagination. While we never quite forget we have a minor production on our hands, this Val Lewton-produced effort continues his run of beguiling material.

Taken as a body of work, Lewton’s pictures are bewitching to the very last frame. A young up-and-comer, Robert Wise, would also be called upon to complete the picture. It’s probably an understatement to say it was a humble beginning to an auspicious career. 

3.5/5 Stars

The Ghost Ship (1943): Creaky Yet Atmospheric

Ghostship.jpg“What a hobby to pick: authority.” 

The Ghost Ship is yet another serving of shadows and sound courtesy of legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and former editor-turned-director Mark Robson. However, the film is punctuated by few dramatic notes and instead settles in to develop a world of continual foreboding. It begins with the near-ESP of a blind street peddler who warns a youthful 3rd officer (Russell Wade) about the new ship he is about to board.

Though our lead actors are fairly bland types — the kind of people who could easily be slotted into any number of similar projects — I still found myself interested in them. Because with both Richard Dix and Wade I hardly have any history with them; it’s a tabula rasa. They remain as a reminder of how many actors and actresses are all but lost to time just waiting to be discovered anew. Some give a more lasting impression than others.

But Ghost Ship‘s most intriguing characters are certainly the shipmates because each man has an element to his performance. Sparks (Edmund Glover) is probably the most affable and the closest thing to a friend the new 3rd officer has onboard. Beyond this, the radioman sprinkles in some Latin with his normal vernacular.

Our next person of interest is an all-seeing mute who is nevertheless given the courtesy of a voiceover. He is the first among seafaring hands aboard, including Boats (Dewey Robinson, a Preston Sturges regular), the calypso-singer (Sir Lancelot), and the Greek who needs his appendix taken out mid-voyage. This is a whole ordeal in its own right.

But none of this gets at the reason the Altair just might be one of the most perturbing seas vessels in the annals of maritime movies. It should be noted the previous third officer died under unusual circumstances and rather dubiously, Mr. Merriam is occupying the same room the deceased man passed away in. Another old mate is found dead on the deck without much fanfare.

There were flying coffins during WWII, but this is a floating coffin if there ever was one. Its all very curious because The Skipper seems a good, honest seaman. His new mate likes him and the men — though at times disgruntled — listen to him, for the good of the outfit.

One particularly perilous event involves a loose hook on the bridge all but ready to decapitate a mate. Still, as time progresses, the captain’s words get more and more troubling. Without blinking an eye, he says, “I have rights over their lives – I have the right to do anything for the crew – because their lives depend on me.”

He is drunk on authority. It remains his only concern, and he will do anything to maintain his image, even fabricating events involving the aforementioned appendix operation. He can raise people from the brink of death while a cascading stack of clinking chains quickly means the demise of another man. No one can prove it outright, but the captain literally holds everyone’s life in his hands.

The third officer wants no part of this scenario. However, it seems fate brings him back into the clutches of this dictatorial madman, and the net is slowly contracting around him. Only time will tell if he is stopped in his tracks before knocking off another defenseless victim.

Obviously, given the time period, we can have a guess at the allegorical references toward the crazed power hunger of Hitler. It’s not difficult to see the parallels, but I don’t think we need much of a reminder such slavish devotion is detrimental. In this regard, such a pronouncement seems altogether superfluous.

The plot is also a bit stagnant and our leads admittedly bland. We are reminded of not only wartime shortages but that these are far from A-list talents on hand. In spite of these admissions, it’s all the more astounding to consider the impression this Lewton production still manages to provide.

The bottom line is that the ideas and the visuals are still worth remembering. Because Ghost Ship is not completely derailed by its shortcomings, still casting a fine vision lingering ominously over every frame.

3/5 Stars

The Leopard Man (1943): A Work of Sound and Shadow

190px-Leopard_man.jpgIt’s fitting that a pair of castanets act as our entry point into the latest entry from Val Lewton’s RKO unit. Not only do they instantly grab our attention, but they foreshadow the auditory nature of the film and, in the cultural context, provide a little shorthand for where our setting might be.

Because with this stereotypical “Latin flavor” we find out soon enough we are indeed in New Mexico. At the local nightclub, Kiki (Jean Brooks) bemoans the fact her rival Clo-Clo (Margo) is constantly clicking, and it does seem blondes like herself are on the downside. However, her boyfriend, a fledgling publicity man (Dennis O’Keefe), has a new stunt to make waves with the viewing public.

When he walks into her dressing room with a leopard on a leash, she nearly dies of fright, and we have entered into the kind of territory intent on making our B feature a pulpy pleasure. Kiki reluctantly makes a grand entrance with her new pet and makes quite the impression as patrons look on with shivers of trepidation. Except her moment doesn’t last long as Clo-Clo scares the creature off and it goes racing off into the night — a beast off on the loose. One can only imagine what a deadly cat might get up to lurking in the shadows on any given evening…

From this point onward, the picture introduces a plethora of players from a fortune teller hiding in the shadows with her deck of cards just waiting to tell Clo-Clo her fortune. There’s the hapless bloke Charlie who gave up his prized leopard to Manning and wants his remuneration.

Then the local girl deathly afraid of the beast at large and nevertheless gets locked out of the house by her mother until she fetches the cornmeal for her father’s supper. We know the inevitable is about to happen. The creature will find her. Her world is developed almost solely through sound. The drip of water. Feet trudging through the dirt. A train passing overhead. They punctuate the scene immaculately leading into the big reveal. Because we know what is waiting for her…

She makes a mad dash to the front door of her home crying out to her family to open up but she gets no further. Like Cat People before it, The Leopard Man is made as much out of what is not seen and it has one of the most startling cinematic death scenes executed through utter minimalism.

Because although Manning and his girl feel awful about their hand in this girl’s tragic death, they soon realize more might be afoot. Another grisly death follows and then a subsequent evening Clo-Clo…

It is the stripped-down sound design in the picture that reflects the Lewton/Tourneur unit at the pinnacles of their powers. Where pure suggestion is imbued with so much meaning. So little can be so very much. Whereas M was a picture where the killer has a calling card, in this film the murders can be remembered by their accompanying sounds.

The wind whipping through the trees as a woman sits locked in a garden. A car engine driving off to get someone to open up the gate. Rustling leaves being stepped on and then quiet. With Clo-Clo it’s little different with the same repetition of her heels clicking on the pavement in rhythm with her castanets. Then, she too reaches a finality.

Despite the stylistically rewarding elements, The Leopard Man gets less interesting with time as it comes out the leopard might be masking a more mundane serial killer plot. Not to sound overly callous, but this is more of a real-world development. Aside from courting too many characters who dilute the impact of the whole story, The Leopard Man feels more stagnant than its predecessors.

The greatest pity is how there isn’t the same unnerving magic hanging over the picture. It probably has too big a stake in reality. What its predecessors were blessed with, in narrative terms, was the supernatural mixed in with everyday reality. The Leopard Man falls on the wrong side of the fence, unable to leave us with the same type of lingering specter. Its strengths were always in what was not actually there, instead of human beings of tangible flesh and blood.

3.5/5 Stars

I Walked with a Zombie (1943): Shadow and Psychology

IwalkedwithazombieThe film commences brilliantly as Frances Dee can be heard in voiceover with almost fond recollection, matter-of-factly stating, “I Walked with a Zombie.” The way she expresses it immediately debunks anything we might think from an admittedly exploitative title. Producer Val Lewton does not settle for a straightforward slapped together horror flick.

His ambitions were always to elevate the concepts he was handed into something indelibly interesting. Our heroine Betsy Cornell (Dee) is a Canadian nurse who applies for a position taking care of a man’s wife. It’s all very mysterious, but she’s eager to work and sets sail for San Sebastian where she will be in the service of Mr. Paul Holland (Tom Conway).

Lewton re-framed the source material into a Jane Eyre tale transplanted to the West Indies. Here Ms. Cornell arrives by boat, immediately struck with a callous first impression of the aloof Mr. Holland. He easily dismisses her childhood fear of the dark, while noting he never should have hired her.

I still contend most children are never afraid of the dark per se but what might come out of it. It’s the fear of an unknown thing lurking out of reach. Meanwhile, his younger brother (James Ellison) is a charming fellow who immediately takes a liking to the new nurse and helps to make her feel welcome. We have polar opposites set up and obvious points in a possible love triangle.

However, in following the plotting of Bronte’s work, the elder half-brother is tortured by a secret, literally locked away. It is, in fact, his mysterious wife, whom Betsy unwittingly meets one night, upon hearing a startling noise. At first, she’s taken aback by this specter of a woman, this ghost, this living dead.

But as her kindly doctor explains, supplying a firm foundation of ethos to this enigma, a portion of the spinal cord is burned out, and it has permanently made her a sleepwalker who can never be awakened. Aside from a potentially dangerous foray into shock therapy — to induce some sort of coma and hope for the best — her future prospects look dim. That is unless there’s an alternate means to bring about healing.

Like the Wolf Man before it, we are introduced to a stylized but nevertheless real locale that thrives by mixing the logical digressions that come from our world with ghostly influences. Screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Raye create a kind of poetic mythology for a supernatural conclusion to be crafted out of. Whether they meant to or not, they succeeded in canonizing zombies in the same manner werewolves were developed in Siodmak’s earlier script.

What’s lovely is how Betsy foreshadows all sorts of events to come and there are strangely mesmerizing objects to captivate us. The figurehead of a slave ship features Saint Sebastian himself pierced by arrows. It lends this undercurrent of the brutish injustices of the slave trade to the landscape we must come to terms with.

These very same traditions have the same weighty dolefulness but are also imbued with an otherworldly quality of its own. It gives this shading to the African-American characters who seem so happy-go-lucky like other Hollywood creations, and yet there’s an almost unnerving sense about them as if something is working under the surface. It’s hard to put an exact finger to it, but though they look similar, they aren’t quite straightforward stereotypes.

A local club singer chants an island song mixed with family folklore telling of the deep-rooted tragedies of the Holland family. The local populations are also adherents of local voodoo customs, and their nightly drumbeats ring out through the air ominously, picked up by the tropic winds. It’s yet another layer to this continually bewitching atmosphere.

Another character of crucial importance is Mrs. Rand, the deceased patriarch’s widow, and Wesley’s birth mother.  Her own station in life, as the wife of a Christian missionary, creates a juxtaposition between a so-called normal religion and a darker, more dubious strain.

Because it cannot help but bump up against the voodoo rituals even as black and white people now exist together. In fact, one might say the religious rituals become nearly intertwined. Betsy begins to realize maybe some powers at be might be capable of lifting the spell that has entranced Ms. Holland, even as she herself falls for the comatose woman’s husband.

As such, it is not horror lingering over the frames but a near mesmerizing catatonia. It carries you up in its grips from start to finish, trying to decipher what to make of such a vision. Enchantment, ugliness, cruelty all apply. And yet it’s difficult to cry out and out evil against the people partaking in these dances or voodoo ceremonies. The acts themselves might be evil, but the people are held in the grips of entrancement. Everyone is, to varying degrees, weighed down with desolateness even before the fateful dead are laid to rest.

We must recall the beginning voiceover once more. The fact Betsy walked with a zombie might hold an inherent element of terror, but more so, it carries with it a despondency that cannot be lifted. It hangs over us and haunts us just as the lurching Carrefour does throughout the picture.

The beauty of most any of the Val Lewton films of the 40s is how the studio and the audience expected one thing — a low budget horror flick with a provocative title — then the producer turned around to make micro-budget gems steeped in shadow and psychology. They have more depth and complexity than they have any right to.

Each entry boasts sumptuous visuals hiding weaknesses in the budget department to fully develop, not necessarily a world, but the impression of a world. One might contend the latter is far more powerful in an expressionistic capacity. Arguably, Lewton had no more formidable collaborator than director Jacques Tourneur who had an established knack for conjuring up the most splendid atmospherics.

This time he is aided by the black and white photography of Roy Hunt. In their hands, every character has a doppelganger in the form of shadows creeping along the walls with their human counterparts. It’s developed with the utmost efficiency, which seems all but a lost art these days.

But the astounding economy is matched only by a ceaseless ingenuity. Because the artfulness they managed to accomplish on the very same shoestring budget, is part of what makes them marvels even today. If you willingly invest your time in one of these RKO pictures, it’s very likely you’ll be met with a lasting impression. The dividends, as far as cinematic capital is concerned, are enormous.

4/5 Stars

Daughter of Shanghai (1937) Starring Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn

daughter of shanghai

No, this isn’t an alternate universe. There really was a film from the 1930s starring both Anna May Wong and Phillip Ahn. They’re not just supporting players or bit parts to fill in a few stereotypical roles, either, but actual leads. More amazing still, they both speak English without a hint of an accent. They are Asian-American, intelligent and brave — in an era lacking comparable heroes.

Ahn is a G-Man sent by the government to investigate a smuggling ring bringing in hordes of aliens from foreign locales. Wong is front and center as a woman whose father, a local merchant, will not cave to the strong-arm tactics.  He ultimately becomes a casualty of the clandestine syndicate looking to elbow its way further still into the illegal trade.

Lan Ying Lin (Wong) escapes her captors and is intent on infiltrating their racket and putting an end to it, once and for all, to avenge her father’s death. She ends up going undercover as a dancer at an exotic dive in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. She does not know the meaning of the word danger, her finest attributes being a certain stubbornness and resiliency.

She makes quite the impression bringing her “Daughter of Shanghai” act to the seedy exotic cantina. Her boss (Charles Bickford) is a grungy braggart who discloses that he is instrumental in helping sneak certain people in through Uncle Sam’s backdoor. Bingo.

Meanwhile, Kim Lee (Ahn) takes up with a mangy sea captain who’s on the other end of the racket supplying the “cargo.” The inside man convinces his not too bright superior that he can speak Russian — a sample of his linguistic skills include those useful Russian phrases, “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Epsilon.” Being as “exotic” as he is, it’s easy enough to swallow and not another inquiry is made on the subject.

Despite being a quickie, clocking in at barely over an hour, Daughter of Shanghai still manages to have enough time for a couple murders, a barroom brawl, some exotic dance numbers, gambling, and copious amounts of alcohol. The dialogue’s a bit shoddy and there’s no time to waste so the story operates in very straightforward, uncomplicated turns. It’s B level without a doubt, but it utilizes everything at its disposal to draw up the punchy melodramatics necessary to make a story such as this impressionable.

In the end, our two heroes are reunited in their quest only to make the chilling discovery that villainy is a little closer than they ever dreamed. Ahn gets a chance to slug it to Anthony Quinn in a very early spot in the actor’s career. But he gets some much-appreciated help from a pug-nosed, good-natured chauffeur who makes up for his lack of brains with brawn.

One of the strangest dichotomies comes at this point because although Wong has been our guiding heroine thus far, she nevertheless watches the fighting between the men all but powerless to intercede. Regardless, justice is enacted. It’s a group effort.

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for the leads, maybe we would quickly forget The Daughter of Shanghai, but such a cast is so few and far between that this is a historical relic certainly worth unearthing and therefore worth remembering. That doesn’t imply it’s perfect by any means.

The road toward nuanced representation is a long and arduous one requiring baby steps only to be impeded with various obstacles and inevitable steps backward. Because it’s easy to be homogenous, unimaginative, and flat. The outliers are where we find intriguing artifacts suggesting exceptions to the rule, cultural documents that dared to give us a different portrait of humanity. In my labyrinthian odyssey to discover hidden gems, those are the ones I’m invariably drawn to.

Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn should have been bigger stars if not for the perceived impediment of their ethnicity. Daughters of Shanghai is a tantalizing taste of something altogether groundbreaking. That makes it worthwhile even as there’s an air of disappointment. Oh, what might have been. However, we must be thankful this treasure still exists.

3.5/5 Stars

The Naked Dawn (1955): An Edgar G. Ulmer Western

220px-The_Naked_Dawn_film_poster.jpgThe western is founded on certain unifying archetypes, from drifters to revenge stories, showdowns and the westward progress of civilization butting up against the lawless wilderness. It always proved a fitting genre for morality plays and deeply thematic ideas. The tradition of the bank robbery goes back to Edwin S. Porter and The Great Train Robbery, and it plays an important role in The Naked Dawn.

The action opens with Mexican banditos robbing a train and looking to flee the scene. Though they manage to get away, it’s not without consequences. One hombre named Santiago watches as his campanero Vincente dies in his arms. He comforts him with visions of heavenly cattle grounds even though the man’s life was full of indiscretions, to put it nicely.

The story does occupy itself with religious rhetoric, which feels very much a part of the cultural landscape, as do the Spanish language and such ubiquitous elements as taco stands, cantinas, and a mariachi soundtrack. The film rightly steeps itself in this perceived world below the border. Whether it is authentic or not feels slightly immaterial, because something fairly immersive is erected. In one sense, this is the most impressive success of The Naked Dawn.

There is “brownface” needing acknowledgment and a certain stereotypical gaze, but director Edgar G. Ulmer develops a surprising amount of atmosphere for such a meager western. Secondly, Arthur Kennedy somehow manages to give a thoroughly flamboyant performance showing his competency in anchoring a leading role — even in an admittedly small scale oater like this.

Because in typical drifter fashion, he goes from leaving his dead buddy behind to finding a day’s shelter at a farmhouse along the trail. There he is met by an energetic young farmer and his dutiful wife. The presence of such a figure as Santiago unearths all their flaws even as he overwhelms them with his vagabond existence, full of a certain high-living and nostalgia for the old days.

Although initially hesitant to get involved, the husband finds himself brought along for a raid on a crooked shipment manager who they overpower and string up while raiding the contents of his safe. In the midst of all the money, Manuel (Eugene Iglesias) suddenly becomes brave and also greed springs to life in his heart.

For thence onward, Manuel holds this stranger in high regard, in awe of this man who has seen so much and takes him for the time of his life in the local watering hole, partaking of all the worldly pleasures afforded from strong drink, saucy women, lively music, and a bar brawl to wind out the entertainment.

But if this is the grand exciting world away from the ranch, then back with his doting wife (Betta St. John), we find a certain amount of unrest. She does not love her husband but his prospects were so much better than what she had before. Still, this new man makes her heart glad; she is ready to elope with him without fear of consequences.

The utter irony is the very fact that while Santiago is the outlaw, at least he is obvious and upfront about his waywardness. In his new company, Manuel fancies himself an honest man and his wife comes across as an angel. However, whether it’s unwitting or not, they both have more conflicted characters than they let on. Santiago is the one who allows them to salvage their lives.

It should be noted Francois Truffaut purportedly gleaned inspiration from this film’s love triangle for Jules et Jim. At first, any sort of comparison seems superficial at best. However, I finally settled on the fact both films contrive this three-way relationship that plays peculiarly for the very fact it lacks a great deal of interpersonal drama.

There is a passivity to how it unwinds and this feels counterintuitive to how these stories are supposed to function. Although we have tragedy on both accounts, the fact it is so detached leaves a different taste, rather than a blistering, jealousy-fueled gunshot finale. For that, we have to look at alternatives like Laura (1944) or Truffaut’s own Soft Skin (1964).

There is not a lot of time and space but the resources are used in all number of facets to at least touch on issues of religion, law and order, romance, greed, and unquestionably, so much more. Fittingly, as the picture zips to its rapid conclusion, we have come full circle with our larger-than-life Bandido dreaming of the pearly gates much like his campanero before him.

Ulmer blesses the audience with another extraordinarily lucid 10-day effort. Let that sink in for a second. The Naked Dawn is yet another marvel in economic ingenuity. Better yet, any drop off in quality or production values only seems to add to the film’s inherent flavor.

3.5/5 Stars

Decoy (1946)

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THIS IS MY VERY LATE ENTRY IN THE CMBA SPRING BLOGATHON: FEMME/HOMME FATALES OF FILM NOIR! 

Like any self-respecting noir, this one chooses to open in a grungy gas station bathroom with a hero (Herbert Rudley) disheveled, hobbling, and covered with grime. We can gather he’s been through hell. Better yet, Decoy begins at the end of the story with murder!

He hobbles past a gas station attendant, stands at the side of the road to hitch a ride to San Fransisco. Mind you, this is without saying a single word. Upon arriving, he wanders into a hotel. He takes the elevator up, pushes open the front door, sees an attractive woman packing and proceeds to fill her with lead! What’s even stranger is the cop who follows close at hand as if he knows exactly what’s about to happen. He plods in to find the shooter dead and the lady dying.

Here’s this pretty dame, Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie), in the arms of a hardboiled flat foot (Sheldon Leonard) recounting her indiscretions on her deathbed. Really all she’s doing is helping him pick up the stray pieces he already knew but for the audience, it’s all news. To get a line on the story, we must start back with an incarcerated gangster named Frankie Ollins (Robert Armstrong).

He is in line for the gas chamber and Margot has long been his girl. She assuages him, saying they’re lining up money to get him out of his jam — but she also is concerned about security — he has promised to keep her sitting pretty. And he has the resources to do it with $400,000 waiting out there for her somewhere. He just needs to give the word. We get the sense foul play might be a central component of our story.

From thenceforward she goes to work efficiently. She exerts her feminine charms on a local clinician who also regularly gives his services to the local prison. You see, he is pegged to do the autopsy on Frankie’s body just to make sure everything’s on the level. Except Margot’s got his head spinning — most of it happens off camera —  but we believe he’s fallen for her, like putty in her manicured, greedy little fingers.

And Margot goes all in, playing it up. The love angle is seemingly candid even as she tells him the plan to revive the “dead” gangster with Methylene Blue. We witness the gas chamber in a groggy POV shot. In another picture about regenerate gangsters, this would be the end. For Decoy it is merely the beginning.

Because Margot is the film’s greatest force as a notable apex in the gallery of B noir femmes. She keeps gangsters madly jealous, twisted around her fingers, and then righteous men start caving, relinquishing their high ideals just to be with her.

Two of the most oddball supporting characters in the pictures are the morgue attendants who distract themselves with solitaire and reading words out of the dictionary — a real hoot — but they are plain folk who don’t ask questions when the good doctor skips out on the normal autopsy.

They go on obliviously as the body gets carted off to the “oven” only to get picked up by waiting gangsters. By now, there’s little doubting it. Owens is to be resurrected and yet it’s the devil incarnate doing it! But someone like Margot is only operating in viable currency. People are only needed for their immediate value to her.

Frankie is out of the picture when he’s not needed, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) is just a handy thug to have around, and of course, Dr. Craig’s expertise made him invaluable (although he does smoke cigs which always leaves me scratching my head).

Everyone else is under the illusion that she actually wants them. Her intentions surely cannot be completely self-serving? Can they? And yet she can be found jamming the accelerator to get rid of people and gunning down hapless accomplices with waves of giddy relish. Even on her deathbed, she gets the last laugh on a cop who falls momentarily under her spell. But for all her trouble she got absolute zilch. A creature of crazed avariciousness will ultimately be met with total destruction.

Jean Gillie’s accent somehow elevates her performance with an edge of refinement and respectability the British seem to have and yet her actions and words are like vicious daggers of selfishness. There is no other way to see her vindictiveness but within the context of film noir; it’s a pulpy delight. Detour is still the standard bearer and the pinnacle of Poverty Row, throw ’em together noir gems, but Gillie is a preeminent femme fatale, especially for such an unassuming picture.

3/5 Stars

 

Tall In The Saddle (1944)

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“Boy oh, boy has somebody come to town!” – Gabby Hayes

How else is there to describe Gabby Hayes except for a cantankerous old cuss? When we first set eyes on him he’s berating his old mare for making him spill his liquor although he’s already swigged down quite the snootful.

Even Walter Brennan who was often cast in similar roles showed some diversity in performances during his early years (maybe Hayes did too) but Gabby will always be such a lovable coot in my eyes. Because, you see, if you grow up on westerns of the B variety with the likes of Gene Autry and especially Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes was a mainstay of the genre as far as sidekicks go. I was fond of Smiley Burnette and Slim Pickens but no one holds a candle to Hayes.

He makes us chuckle along with the tall handsome stranger who’s just witnessed the same events. Before ever interacting we know they will wind up good friends. They hold a mutual admiration for each other.

The man named Rocklin, played by Marion Morrison and known to the world as John Wayne, rides shotgun on the stage headed for the town of Santa Inez. The coach’s other occupants are a terribly irksome old crone and her demure young niece who are heading to the same town for some business. Rocklin has come for the prospect of work.

However, he finds out the man who paid for his train passage was killed and his holdings have passed on to the very same young lady in the stage except her peevish aunt is not about to allow her to conduct her own affairs.

Rocklin seems to have little reason to stay and yet he does. He gets into a tussle with a young hot-head over a poker hand. Then, the next day he gets a faceful from strong-willed Arly Harolday (Ella Raines); she comes into town to get this brazen newcomer to hand the money over.

How can you not love John Wayne? His lady costar confronts him, guns-drawn and shrilling at him to stop and turn around but he just keeps on walking nonchalantly as she fires a hail of bullets all around. He pushes the saloon’s door open and saunters up to the bar, nice as you please.

The next such moment could have easily been a climax — as a gun duel looks all but imminent. Wayne cuts a business proposition short and proceeds to clock hulking George Clews over the head with the butt of his revolver before going back inside to return to his conversation. He subsequently gets hired on as Topaz ranch foreman.

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As he so eloquently puts it, “No women is going to get me hogtied and branded.” However, that does not account for the power-hungry land grabs and the shooting of men in the backs that’s being orchestrated. Wayne must navigate with his own brand of sleuthing. A later highlight follows our hero destroying an entire office space having it out with his old football chum Ward Bond, playing a local judge.

While there’s nothing especially novel about the yarn spinning, there’s nevertheless something comforting in this as Paul Fix pulls double duty as co-scriptwriter (with Michael Hogan) and also portraying the thug Bob Clews.

It does feature two formidable female characters, one in Raines whose fiery pistol-packing showcases her own charisma opposite Wayne, while Audrey Long, who plays the reticent Easterner, proves to have enough intuition to see the picture to its conclusion. Because it must end with Wayne a wanted man, a posse coming to get him, and two guns looking to finish him off. But he has some corruption to thwart and let me assure you he puts an end to it just as assuredly as he nabs the girl — I’ll let you be the judge which one it ends up being.

Search for an underlying moral and you might not discover anything outright. What you will receive for your trouble is a good ol’ fashioned western vehicle for John Wayne that he tackles with his usual fearless gumption. Despite his rediscovery in Stagecoach in 1939, that didn’t mean that The Duke had quite risen above B fair completely. For what it’s worth, Tall in the Saddle does the low budget genre justice.  Besides Duke would get plenty of other quality movies in the future.

This is an unnecessary aside but whenever I hear John Wayne speak Spanish it always seems to add another layer of authenticity to his persona. He once said that he’d want to be remembered by the phrase, “Feo, fuerte y formal.” He was ugly, strong, and had dignity. Sounds about right.

3.5/5 Stars