Barbary Coast (1936)

barbary coast 1.png

The production itself was fraught with some turbulence thanks to the contentious relationship between Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The latter actor was irritated how his costar was constantly trying to increase her part and keep him off balance with frequent dialogue changes. Regardless, the talent is too wonderful to resist outright.

How Howard Hawks ended up directing Barbary Coast is anyone’s guess, somehow getting involved as a favor to his screenwriting buddies Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who spent numerous rewrites crafting something that the production codes might actually condone, overhauling the original novel’s plot points immensely.

Hawks has no major stake in the production and as such it hardly stands up with his most engaging works. Still, it does hold some merit demonstrating from the outset it’s a fast-moving, thick-on-atmosphere, period adventure set out in 49ers era California. That environment is enough to make a generally engaging yarn even if the narrative threads run fairly thin.

But the world is fully animated. Alive with honky-tonk pianos, crooked roulette wheels, and hazy city streets paved in mud. Just about what you envision gold country to be like, at least viewed through the inspired dream factory of old Hollywood. The blending of genre is a fine attribute as the picture is a mixture of historical drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and western themes sharing some relation to San Francisco (1936) and The Sea Wolf (1940), along with the lawless towns in Destry Rides Again (1939) or even The Far Country (1954).

A ship lands in the notorious San Francisco Bay, among its passengers a strangely out of place lady (Miriam Hopkins) and a gentlemanly journalist, Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). They are met with quite the reception committee of local undesirables.

Walter Brennan is a standout as the scrounging, toothless, eyepatch-wearing Old Atrocity preying on unsuspecting outsiders who happen to make their way to the streets of San Fransisco. Mary Rutledge is in town to join her fiancee who messaged her to come out and meet him as he’s struck it rich. She promptly finds out her man is dead, no doubt knocked off by the crooked Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson).

With his restaurant the Bella Donna and adjoining gambling house, the ruthless businessman rakes in the profits by robbing prospectors of their hard-earned caches and getting tough when they object to his dirty practices.

Miriam Hopkins, both radiant and sharp, isn’t about to snivel about her lost prospects and heads straight away to the Bella Donna to see what business she can dig up for herself. There’s little question she causes quite the stir because everyone is taken with this newly arrived white woman — including Louis. As Robinson’s character puts it, she has a pretty way of holding her head, high falutin but smart. That’s her in a nutshell as she earns the moniker “Swan” and becomes the queenly attraction of the roulette wheels.

It’s there, an ornery and sloshed Irishman (Donald Meek in an uncharacteristic blustering role) gets robbed blind and causes a big stink. Louis snaps his figures and his ever-present saloon heavy Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) makes sure things settle down.

He’s sent off to do other jobs as well. In one such case, he shoots someone in the back but with a mere Chinaman as an eyewitness in a kangaroo court presided over by a drunk judge, there is little to no chance for legitimate justice. Then there’s the manhandling of free speech by forcibly intimating Mr. Cobb in his journalistic endeavors and nearly demolishing his printing press for publishing defamatory remarks about the local despot. Swan is able to intercede on his behalf as Cobb resigns himself to print droll rubbish and it seems Louis has won out yet again.

barbary coast 2.png

Joel McCrea has what feels like minuscule screentime and achieves third billing with a role casting him as the romantic alternative, a good guy and yakety prospector from back east who is as much of an outsider as Ms. Rutledge. He’s eloquent and strangely philosophical for such a grungy place. He’s also surprisingly congenial. It catches just about everyone off guard. First, striking up a serendipitous friendship with the woman and gaining some amount of rapport with Chamalis for his way of conversing.

Though the picture stalls in the latter half and loses a clear focus, the performances are nonetheless gratifying as Robinson begins to get undermined. Vigilantes finally get organized using the press to disseminate the word about Louis and simultaneously battle his own monopoly with an assault of their own.

One man must die for the right of freedom of speech to be exercised while another man is strung up like an animal. Our two lovebirds get over the lies they told each other looking to flee the ever-extending reach of a jealous lover. Chamalis is not about to let them see happiness together. The question remains if they can be rescued in time from his tyrannical clutches. The dramatic beats may well be familiar but Barbara Coast still manages to be diverting entertainment for the accommodating viewer.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

where the sidewalk ends 1.png

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

Review: Notorious (1946)

notorious 1.png

I never put much stock in a Hitchcock title out of force of habit or lack thereof because he never seemed to. But thinking on Notorious I came to the rather unextraordinary epiphany that it refers to lovely Ingrid Bergman as much as any Nazi, at least from a certain perspective.

In the film, she plays the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who was put on trial and found guilty. She, however, is not implicated in his deeds. Instead, busying herself with having a good time, drinking, dancing, laughing — all the superficial pursuits that can distract her from a post-atomic world. You might even say her reputation precedes her and that provides the framework for how others see Ms. Huberman. Namely, one government agent named Devlin, put on her case and writing her off early on as a certain kind of woman.

There’s that initial shot at one of her parties where all the guests are dancing and drinking and everything’s jovial and there Cary Grant sits on the edge of the frame just his profile identifiable to us. And the beauty of the scene is that Ingrid Bergman starts talking to him but instead of showing us his face Hitchcock elects to wait until everyone is gone and they’re sitting together in the next scene. But already there’s this implicit sense that there’s something unusual about this man even without putting words to it.

In the subsequent scene, we get our first view of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together and how wonderful they look. But Bergman’s character makes an off-handed remark about love songs, about how they’re a bunch of “hooey.” Of course, that pertains to this film and where it will decide to go in the realms of romance, but in my own mind, I see it also functioning as a reaction to Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By” — a film where lovers fell in love partially because of a song.

It’s easy to put the title of a spiritual sequel on Notorious for numerous reasons. Once again we have Bergman and Rains in crucial roles and then trading out Bogey for another legend in his own right, Cary Grant. The paranoia of Casablanca is replaced with the sunnier disposition of Rio de Janeiro which nevertheless is underlined by a certain looming Cold War menace. In this case, instead of the letters of transit, we are provided a Hitchcock MacGuffin, including a bottle of wine, some uranium, and an iconic UNICA key.

But if nothing else these minor remarks can put the debate to rest conclusively. Notorious is a spectacular film in its own right and it enters some similar yet still uncharted territory in accordance with the waters Casablanca chose to ford a few years prior. Meanwhile, Grant has glimpses of his previous self from other films but soon enough he falls into the role of cool and calculated federal agent Devlin in what feels like a true departure.

There’s that supremely unnerving shot as we take on the perspective of a disoriented Ingrid Bergman as Grant walks into the room and hangs over her in a strangely alarming way. Everything is setting up the dynamic at this point.

Still, others will remember the extended make-out session that made history by upholding the Hays Code ” three-second rule” while simultaneously perfectly encapsulating nearly an entire romance in a matter of four or five minutes. There was little else to be said because it was all seen in that one sequence and Hitchcock could proceed with his conceit.

Because, ultimately, Hitchcock’s picture is built around this idea: The American government has a little job to be done and Alicia and Devlin are caught in the middle. Thus, it becomes that time-worn idea of love versus duty. In one sense, Devlin’s caught in a terrible position and yet in the other he treats Alicia so badly — and it’s not simply that this is Alicia but this is beautiful, sweet Ingrid Bergman that he is pushing away. Still, in pushing her away, it’s leading her toward the objective.

He’s simply not willing to dictate anything because that means being vulnerable. Very simply he’s not willing to open up.  Cary Grant has never felt so icy, so aloof, and so unfeeling. Then, on top of this, Sebastian (Rains) looks a far more agreeable fellow cast in such a light. He genuinely loves this woman even if she is a spy. It makes for a conflicted viewing experience.

Though there is a juncture in the film where Devlin is beginning to shift his way of thinking. But as if on cue (undoubtedly) one line of dialogue out of Alicia’s mouth during a racetrack exchange (“You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”) poisons his whole frame of mind again. His prior opinions of Alicia are confirmed and he sours to her — never giving her the benefit of the doubt from that point forward — and ultimately torturing her so that there is no other choice.

Just like that, she goes through with it. Instigating her relationship with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and succeeding so thoroughly that she’s married to him soon enough. For the U.S. government this is a smashing success but for Alicia and Devlin it’s nothing of the sort.

The descending stairwell crane shot is textbook Hitchcock and so often cited but it’s for that very reason. He so directly points us toward the cues of the scene and he does it with his usual technical elegance.

He gives us a party but it’s a party underlined with so much tension because there are stakes that go beyond the nominal appearances. There’s the fact that Devlin’s one of the party guests but also Alicia has that all important key that proves to be their chance to figure out what Sebastian is hiding. But it also makes them far more suspicious.

Beset with paranoia as much as illness she’s suffocated by the presence of her husband and mother-in-law. It looks like Devlin will never come to her. But he does. We’ve seen this before. Cary Grant comes to her bed as she lies there disoriented and looks up into the eyes of this man looking to be her savior instead of opting to use her. At least on one account, the tension has been resolved.

But in the same breath never has there been so much sympathy as for Claud Rains in the closing moment indicative of how Hitch has even given his purported villain a chance to be sympathized with and Rain’s typically compelling performance does precisely that. So even in this final moment, Hitchcock is playing with us giving us that Hollywood ending that we desire and at the same time undermining it in a wonderful way that’s both suspenseful and artistically arresting.

Notorious just might be the Master’s purest expression of his art lacking the micromanagement of Selznick in Rebecca (1940), the technical experiments of Rear Window (1954), the psycho-sexual layers of Vertigo (1958), the man-on-the-run motif of North by Northwest (1959), or even the low budget and marketing frenzy of Psycho (1960), while still garnering the highest production values in its day.  The results speak for themselves, positioning Notorious as one of the definitive romantic thrillers by any standard.

5/5 Stars

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

ride-the-pink-horse-1Films Noir often find their hooks in lurid titles but also in metaphor. Ride the Pink Horse fits into the latter category as pulled from the pages of Dorothy B Hughes and adapted by Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer. The horse can be taken in the literal sense as one of the wooden animals that go round and round on the local carousel but there’s some symbolism in this opulent creature. In some distant way, it’s the fantasy of a different life that every man seems to crave when he doesn’t have it. But still, he strives and grinds to get closer and closer to it. More often than not he does not succeed in finding so-called contentment.

Whether you get that sense from actually watching Ride the Pink Horse is up for debate, but it’s a film that deserves more limelight for its numerous assets. Robert Montgomery is not necessarily the most agreeable lead at first as Lucky Gagin, a war vet who travels to the New Mexico tourist trap of San Pablo to end some unfinished business for a friend.

But the camera gives the sense of constantly tailing Montgomery as he makes his way through the surprisingly atmospheric streets of New Mexico. The on-location shooting is a credit to the film, in particular, the work inside La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe that gives a certain Spanish sensibility to the film through its very architecture. It has the type of color that you expect to find in a place like Rick’s Cafe or The Mos Eisley Cantina.

ride-the-pink-horse-2And it’s from these opening moments that we try to get a line on Gagin by watching his every move and word. He’s brusque and abrasive with almost crazed features — constantly suspicious, demanding, and sour. He had a little too much cyanide for breakfast (although he does like fruit cocktail). Just as we watch him with interest, his probing eyes case every joint and every person he comes in contact with. Because, if it’s not obvious already, he’s not come to San Pablo for R & R. He’s come to town to avenge his dead army buddy, who was double-crossed and put out of a commission by a very big man (Fred Clark).

Gagin’s looking to get Shorty’s due: $15,000. But he hasn’t thought it out a whole lot; he doesn’t quite understand what he’s up against as is often the case with rough and tumble noir heroes. It can be their undoing. Uncle Sam (Art Smith) is in one sense grandfatherly but there’s also a sly sparkle in his eyes that leads to some question to his motives. Does he really have Gagin’s well-being in mind or is there something sinister going on here? It’s too early to tell.

However, in a dive bar, Gagin meets the jovial local Pancho (Thomas Gomez in a particularly spirited performance) who quickly befriends the out of towner over drinks and simultaneously makes the audience like Gagin a little more by simple transference. We like Pancho right off and if Pancho likes this character then we might as well give him a chance. He makes him into an actual human being and that’s what he’s searching for too. Because, in truth, Gagin is wary of anyone and everyone. The people who are out to get him. The “dames” you touch only to get stung in return.

ride-the-pink-horse-3Just as there is a cultured femme fatale (Andrea King), her counterpoint is the tentative Pila (played sympathetically but rather unfortunately by Wanda Hendrix), who floats in to watch over Gagin even when he doesn’t want her around. She stays anyways.

A merry go round was utilized by Hitchcock a few years later in Strangers on a Train but in a different way. He used the frenetic energy to his advantage. In Ride the Pink Horse it’s the blatant juxtaposition that is telling. Something so pleasant and joyous as a merry go around takes a whole new meaning in the presence of violence.

A grand fiesta makes its way through town that culminates in the traditional burning of the effigy of Sasobra, The God of Bad Luck.  A dozen years later Sam Fuller would use a similarly lively cultural celebration as the climatic backdrop for The Crimson Kimono.

However, what stands out about Ride the Pink Horse is the idiosyncratic roads it traverses. It’s difficult to put a finger on it exactly, as it has glimpses of other films but there’s also nothing quite like it. The way the story progresses, what the characters find time to talk about, even the title, it’s all fascinating for its very uniqueness.

4/5 Stars

Nothing Sacred (1937)

 13094-nothingsacred2Before His Girl Friday (1940) came, there was another screwball comedy about journalism, the perfect scoop, and deception. After getting on the bad side of his boss, newsman Wally Cook (Frederic March) is demoted from the living and forced to write obituaries. It’s quite the awful setup and Cook desperately looks for another story to get him in the good graces of the Morning Star’s editor.

The perfect news flash has just come up in the form of a woman who is soon going to die of radium poisoning, and so Wally Cook goes to meet her. Heading up from New York, he ends in the one horse town in Vermont. He meets a lot of unobliging people whose vocabulary is limited to “Yup” and “Nope.” He finally comes across the crying girl who has just left an appointment with a doctor. He comforts the girl cheering her up by promising a trip to the big city where she will be treated like royalty (And he’ll get his story). So Hazel Flagg soon becomes the sweetheart of New York with public appearances at Madison Square Garden, parades, poems, articles and special honors. It’s all going according to Cook’s plan, the only thing is that Hazel is not actually ill.

That’s a wrench in the plan and soon it becomes evident that Cook will look like a cad. To make matters worse, he’s falling for her and his editor Oliver Stone is all over him. Now he must take part in Hazel’s charade, despite his annoyance. She too is annoyed and ends the game so the two lovebirds can elope. Still, the story of Hazel is given a romanticized ending that the public deserves.

Frederic March is decent as the desperate and long-suffering journalist. Carole Lombard is her typical light-headed, whimsy, high-strung, scatterbrained, sniveling self. It proves to be a volatile combination partnered with Ben Hecht’s script. The news industry loses a lot of its self-respect for the sake of laughs because nothing’s sacred. Some might be interested to know that it was shot in glorious technicolor and it was the only time Lombard would appear in a technicolor film. She would, of course, die in a tragic plane crash in 1942.

This film was quite short so the story moved quickly and there were definitely some screwy moments. I am however partial to His Girl Friday and some of the other more well-known screwballs.

3.5/5 Stars