Detective Story (1951)

detective story 1

“Who are you, God? Didn’t you ever make a mistake?” – Cathy O’Donnell as Susan Carmichael

Counselor at Law (1933) was an early William Wyler film from the 1930s that shares some cursory similarities with this feature. Along those lines, Detective Story proves to be an exploration into the life of a cop much as the earlier film allowed us to look through the keyhole at the life of a lawyer (John Barrymore). Fundamentally they also both provide the same cross-section of society with Wyler navigating the space in such a way to tie the threads together while keeping things engaging.

Detective Story proves to be a stage play and a morality play in one fell swoop and that is decidedly both good and bad. It’s true that the crossroads of so many films and talents meet here and all share a room together.

There’s another fiery role for “Mr. Instensity” himself Kirk Douglas as Jim McLeod, a man who strives to rid the streets of criminals and put them where they belong: The electric chair. He wants to be judge, jury, and executioner if at all possible. His all-out war on crime can be traced back to his lousy father. Ever since those days, he’s vowed to be everything his old man never was — not tolerating any kind of infraction of the law. It’s a thoroughly intense portrayal though it jumps off the emotional deep end a few times too often.

It’s his supporting cast that steadies him and guides the film toward something more authentic and attainable. William Bendix was potentially slated for a reunion with Alan Ladd before Douglas ultimately took the role. However, he trades out his image as a heavy for a policeman with a decent dose of humanity.

Frank Faylen is the acting desk clerk who fields all the incoming calls that come his way. Meanwhile, Lee Grant is a skittish young purse snatcher who winds up at headquarters for her first offense. Cathy O’Donnell (wife of screenwriter Robert Wyler) plays her always immediately likable ingenue role as the young woman trying to bail out her childhood friend on a charge of theft.

There are a number of others including journeymen cops, journalists, and four-time losers and then there’s McLeod’s wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). I’m not sure what to evaluate Eleanor Parker on but in the recent months, I have gained an appreciation for the fact that, good or bad, she will fearlessly commit to a role and pour her all into it. She owns a very eclectic body of work as well but Detective Story sees her succumbing to histrionics much like her onscreen husband.

Because at its best Detective Story is a slice-of-life drama that gives us insight into humanity much as Counselor at Law (1933) did. But this picture is high on the dramatics and whether or not they are completely believable is up for contention.

It’s also a fairly frank picture at that — at least for its day — though it does point out the duplicity that’s so blatantly clear.  Here a taboo is utilized as the fodder for melodrama as something so despicable. Yet in the heart of Hollywood itself, there were undoubtedly many women who did similar covering up jobs to save their reputations.

The Hays Code could try and keep taboos under raps but in doing so they were ignoring an unfortunate reality. It is necessary to remove the shrouds and let these things live on in the light.

But far from seeing this film with our enlightened postmodern sensibilities and condemning it for making such a frank subject seem sullied and unseemly, I would contend that this picture leaves me melancholy. Not for the reasons you might expect either.

I feel sorry for women ostracized and labeled as “tramps” like Mary is. I’m ashamed that there is a standard that everything must be good and pure. There is no room for grace. It’s this hypocritical nature that’s blatantly obvious in McLeod with the bitter irony coming to fruition. He became the very person that he was striving never to become.

The depressing depths of the drama suffocate any chance of a laugh by the film’s latter half and so while I’m all for fatalistic even tragic denouements in the right context, this film is so utterly discouraging and it has nothing to do with desiring a happy ending. It’s more closely related to the lens in which the film seems to use. There’s no integrity left in humanity. A world where beating hearts of flesh have been transformed into hearts of stone. That’s a very dark world to try and reconcile with.

Worst yet it does try by heaping on more drama and last minutes heroics to right all the wrongs in a matter of seconds. So we lose on two accounts. The picture doesn’t have the guts enough to dig into its disconsolate inclinations and still for almost its entire runtime it’s focused on those precise conflicts making it supremely difficult to enjoy Detective Story as much as we could have.

3.5/5 Stars

Side Street (1950)

 

SideStreetposterThough director Anthony Mann later made a name for himself with a string of Westerns pairing him with James Stewart, it’s just as easy to enjoy him for some of the diverting crime pictures he helped craft. Everything from Raw Deal (1948) to T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and of course this little number.

Another simple pleasure gleaned from Side Street is the second teaming of the two young starlets Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell who made such an impression together in Nicholas Ray’s sensitive drama They Drive By Night (1948)

We begin this particular picture with a flyover of New York City and the “Voice of God” narration comes off as another installment of The Naked City (1947) because it too takes to the streets, shot on location in the city of a thousand stories with thousands more waiting to happen.

There’s something engrossing in this style of storytelling which takes interest in several seemingly unextraordinary, unconnected individuals and then over the course of less than an hour and a half slowly ties together all the threads of their lives into one cohesive narrative.

There are some calling cards of crime pictures including sleazy extortion, a body fished out of the East River, and the police who are working the beats of the case and trying to keep the frenzy of journalists at bay. Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw head up the police procedural angle.

But the man we come to know the best is unassuming postman Joe Norson (Granger), who becomes extra jumpy after unwittingly stealing thousands of dollars when he thought he only swiped a few bucks to buy his wife a mink coat. He’s just a poor, small, unimportant little man in the scheme of things. An “Average Joe” if you pardon the expression. He’s not supposed to be embroiled in such a story. It’s a bigger can of worms than he could ever imagine and there are consequences.

Other people of interest are wealthy businessmen, crooked lawyers, cabbies, bar owners, bank tellers,  journalists, cops on the verge of retirement, nightclub singers, and at least a few ex-cons, all the usual standard bearers.

Joe’s wife is in the latest stages of her pregnancy and shortly her baby is on the way but her husband has made up a fanciful story about a new out-of-town job that’s loaded him with cash. Of course, she has no idea what’s going on and nor does he. He asks a near stranger, the man who runs the local bar to hold the cash for him. He says it’s a nightgown for his wife.

But Joe’s not a criminal. His guilty conscience is too much for him so he goes back to the office to plead with them to let him return the money. Of course, they have as much right to it as he does. What follows is a cat and mouse chase across the city. First, some thugs tail Joe looking for the $30,000. Then, Joe and ex-convict George Garsell look for the bar owner who has all but disappeared and conveniently the money’s gone too.

As the police are also involved, they want both men, believing they are complicit in different murders that have been committed. Joe has just enough time with his wife to explain his predicament. Still, he got himself into this mess and he holds the belief that he is the only one who can make it right.

What follows is a culmination of all the events thus far as all the character arcs begin to bump up against each other. Namely, Joe, a local nightclub singer (Jean Hagen), and the last man that Joe wanted to see, Garsell himself.

Side Street closes out with a lively car chase near The Third Avenue El that predates many of the revered classics from Bullitt (1968) to The French Connection (1971) years later. The full weight of the title’s meaning, subsequently makes itself increasingly clear as squads of police cars look to close in on the criminal’s getaway taxi. Of course, what makes it compelling is the fact that Joe is right in the thick of it all to the very last avenue…with a loaded gun pointed at his head. Thankfully there are no speed bumps in this one.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): The Forgotten Counterpart to George Bailey’s Story

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_Inherent in a film with this title, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is the assumption that it is a generally joyous tale full of family, life, liberty, and the general pursuit of happiness. With both films you would be partially correct with such an unsolicited presumption, except for all those things to be true, there must be a counterpoint to that.

Upon watching both these films on subsequent days, that became markedly evident. George Bailey (James Stewart), of course, must go through a perturbing alternate reality where he never existed, and the consequences are catastrophic to all those he knows and loves in his community. But such a paradigm shift or new perspective, does truly revitalize his entire existence. It’s as if he sees the whole world through an unfaltering lens of hopefulness thereafter.

Although it lacks the dark fantasy that engulfs the latter half of It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years has its own heavy dose of foreboding, that while more realistic, is no less disconcerting. All the boys have returned from the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, including our three protagonists Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March). Upon getting back to their old abode of Boone City, sons talk about nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and men at drug store counters warn of the imminent threat of “The Reds.” Some soldiers like Fred have trouble landing work. Others struggle with getting the necessary loans from banks like the one Al works at,  or they come back to far less glamorous lifestyles. Homer copes with being a double amputee and simultaneously closes himself off to all those who love him, including his longtime sweetheart Velma (Cathy O’Donnell). He must learn not so much how to love, but the equally difficult life skill of allowing others to love him.

Derry also struggles in a loveless marriage with his superficial wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), while also battling with PTSD symptoms like recurrent nightmares. Even the subtle reality that the only African-Americans in the film work behind soda fountain counters or in nightclub jazz bands has greater implications. Theirs is a relegated status, even in a country of liberty like America. Unlike the former film, we do not see any ghoulish human cemeteries, but we do see plane graveyards like ghost towns where metal is slowly rusting just waiting to get demolished and re-purposed. At this point, it is only a sobering reminder of all those who fought and died in the war years.

Many of these topics are only mentioned for a brief moment or we can only infer them from visual cues, but still, they lurk there under the surface or better yet, right in plain view. These real-life unsettling concerns are worse than It’s a Wonderful Life because they fall so close to home even today.

Wounded veterans are still coming home to a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, or a country that seems ungrateful for their service. Married folks still struggle through marriage and divorce. Single people still struggle with figuring out if they should get married and so on.

I think part of the reason I admire The Best Years of Our Lives so much, despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is its ability to captivate my attention rather like a day in the life of someone I would meet on the street. Although Virginia Mayo and Mryna Loy seem the most Hollywood, most everyone feels rather ordinary. Certainly, Dana Andrews is handsome and Teresa Wright, as well as Cathy O’Donnell, are wonderful as multidimensional girls-next-door, but I feel like I could potentially know people like them. And of course, Harold Russell was unusual since he wasn’t a trained actor. That casting choice pays off beautifully in moments such as the final wedding scenes where in a dyslexic moment he switches up his vows. But it works wonderfully as an authentic addition.

Although Gregg Toland worked on revolutionary fare like Citizen Kane, and William Wyler dabbled in all sorts of genres from westerns to period dramas, they have all the necessary sensibilities for a perfect presentation given the subject matter. The visuals are crisp and beautiful, but never flashy or overly conspicuous. The use of deep focus concerns itself with the overall composition of the frame -never attempting to focus our attention on any singular action.  It all becomes equally important. Meanwhile, Wyler directs with a sure hand that makes the actions flow organically and at the same time his ensemble is given the space and the time to grow and evolve before our very eyes.

It’s a timeless film for what it brings to the forefront and also because of what it evokes out of the audience members themselves. There is an underlying somberness to it at times, but most importantly it rings loudly with the high unequivocal notes of hope. In the post-war years, it was a pertinent film, and it still has something to offer even now. More people need to know about The Best Years of our Lives.

5/5 Stars

They Live by Night (1948)

theyliveby4Regrettably, I have seen very little of Nicholas Ray, however from his debut in They Live by Night, I saw the same care spent on his youthful characters, which is also noticeable in Rebel Without a Cause. He does not treat “Keechie” and “Bowie” as cardboard cutouts or kids who are dumb and in love. They have value and feelings that are worth examining more closely.

The film opens with three thugs breaking out of the local prison. Two of the men Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) are weathered criminals. The third, Bowie is a baby-faced kid looking hardly a day over 20, but he went into the clink for a reason.

They find shelter at a nearby filling station where Chicamaw’s mangy older brother (Wil Wright) makes a living with his timid, no-nonsense daughter Katherine. They get a car and have enough money to get their feet off the ground before a big bank job in Kelton.

theyliveby2It goes off without a major hitch, but soon after Bowie gets in a car accident and Chicamaw takes him back to his brother’s to be cared for. Katharine is there and the two of them find companionship in each other because neither one has anyone else to turn to. They are young, naive, and in love. They’ve never had these types of feelings before.

Since Bowie needs to lay low, he takes “Keechie” with him and they make an adventure out of it. Ultimately, it results in a cheap $20 marriage and a lot of nice intimate nights spent together driving and cuddling. They’re living the lives of carefree newlyweds who need no one but each other. They find a simple cottage out in the backcountry owned by a homely proprietor (Byron Foulger), and it acts as a new home. A perfect oasis from the newspapers, the cops, and Bowie’s accomplices.

However, they do catch up with him eventually, and he and Katherine split fast after a tiff. They want a normal life, but Chicamaw and T-Dub won’t allow it because they need more money from another bank job. He won’t and in the subsequent attempt, his former partners eat it. The lookout is still hot for the boy as well.

theyliveby1He seems so undeserving of hard justice, but it is bound to come after him anyways. For such relative newcomers, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives) have such genuine chemistry opposite each other. Granger is more often than not gentle and kind. O’Donnell is pretty in a simple, unadorned type of way. They elicit so much more sympathy than Bonnie and Clyde or even the fugitives in Gun Crazy. Perhaps because they aren’t even outlaws, only young kids who are victims of their circumstances.

4/5 Stars