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

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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

Days of Wine and Roses (1962): Alcoholics Anonymous

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I had always heard Days of Wine and Roses was shown to members of AA. It’s no small coincidence the co-founder Bill Wilson served as a technical advisor. But I never realized how integral it is to the very integrity of the plot.

Jack Lemmon had the penchant for playing lovable losers — the corporate schmucks who are a bit sleazy but have just enough charm to make them relatively endearing. In this one, he’s Joe Clay, a public relations man who nevertheless finds himself to be “a eunuch in a harem” and a glorified pimp for businessmen.

To some, he may feel reminiscent to C.C. Baxter who was an ambitious fellow with a similar conundrum. Because he has a conscience in this callous corporate jungle. Clay likewise, is a character with a decent streak. He feels uncomfortable with certain duties thrust upon them.

He gets off on the wrong foot with the bosses secretary Kirst Armeson (Lee Remick), followed up by rejected peanut brittle offerings in an attempt to make amends. Though ultimately his persistence and a certain amount of candor straighten things out between him.

Getting along is not their main problem anyway. The issue which will become most troubling is his penchant for a little merriment after hours. In other words, he likes to drink. “Booze makes you feel good,” he says. Something to let off a bit of steam like any extracurricular. In a way, it’s kind of endearing when they’re standing on the water’s edge reminiscing together, Joe’s a bit tipsy.

From these moments onward, Days of Wine and Roses is capable of contending with some of Wilder’s comedies like The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie while being superior to Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite being less well-known. It’s hardly going out on the limb to say this offering is his best work. Because whatever his plethora of comedies might say about him, beloved as they are, Days of Wine and Roses shows a capacity for completely different material. He does it justice juggling tones.

Maybe it’s a matter of how she carries herself or her hairstyle but Lee Remick never felt more mature and self-assured than in Days of Wine and Roses. It’s as if she has aged — still beautiful and alive — but there is something more to her now.

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She lives in “The Roach Kingdom” and begins a romance with Clay, which ends with marriage on the fly. She takes him home to her daddy (Charles Bickford) and he doesn’t approve exactly but he gives them the benefit of the doubt. They seem happy.

But you don’t cease to be your old self and suddenly become someone new once marriage is decided upon. As is the case in all scenarios, you bring your baggage along with you and it can either make you a more steadfast couple or be the millstone around your neck drowning you mercilessly.

If he is a flawed husband than he is a flawed father as well. Alcohol-fueled giggle fits are endearing at first but when they turn heated and verge on the uncontrollably violent the destructiveness of alcoholism becomes overpowering

Their daughter feels like a casualty as their parenting suffers. First, Joe comes home swacked one evening and wakes the baby in a fit. Then, slowly Kirst gets pulled down with him. Her own dive toward alcohol dependence ends in a house fire of her own creation.

The effectiveness of the storytelling has to do with the alcohol not being front and center as it insidiously moves in on a man’s life. Here are a man and a woman. This is a love story. But it goes horribly awry.

What follows is a horrifying cut to Jack Lemmon in a straitjacket. Grimace-inducing. We have gone far beyond a mere mealy-mouthed drama. We have reached the point of positively no return. No film thus far, not even The Lost Weekend has managed this low before, so it seems.

Unfortunately, it’s a result of countless appreciative viewings of  Some Like it Hot and The Odd Couple that causes me to often label Jack Lemmon a comedian rather than a “real” actor. But what an oversight that is. He is absolutely phenomenal without a shadow of a doubt. Like Peter Sellers, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey, it does seem funnymen are often capable of extraordinary dramatic performances because it’s so true there is an inherent polarity between comedy and tragedy. Yet they are so closely tied together.

Jack Klugman (another future Odd Couple veteran) appears as an AA man who acts as Joe’s anchored lifeline providing tough love with pragmatic advice. “Just one more” is a lie. And assuming that we have enough willpower to overcome it is equally pernicious. Pretty soon we’re content to live in spiraling cycles.

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Meanwhile, Kirsten balks about joining AA. She doesn’t want to degrade herself in front of a group of people. She deems herself better than that and goes on living the lie, getting by on willpower.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where the bottle is God. Joe is finally made to realize that but now his wife is so tainted. He pleads with her, “There’s just room for you and me, no threesome.” His wife proceeds to go out the door.

He looks out the window and watches her disappear into the night. Then, he looks out the window again and the street’s empty. The only thing there is a neon “Bar” sign flashing in the night. He looks at it grimly knowing that it took his wife away from him.

In a manner of speaking, they were unfaithful to one another. No, not with another person but another thing — an obsession that ripped apart their marriage with a canker that cannot be easily eradicated. Days of Wine and Roses manages to document it all with a harrowing lucidity hardly pulling a gut punch. It also conveniently forgets to tack on a happy ending.

Is it any wonder that Blake Edwards, Jack Lemmon, and Lee Remick, who had all struggled with excess alcoholism at a time, eventually all quit the habit? There is no more potent indicator. If it does its job, there will be at least several moments where your insides will squirm and you will be repulsed. For people so amiable, Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick do an astonishing job.

4.5/5 Stars

Whirlpool (1949)

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Despite being ludicrously absurd, it’s impossible not to get whisked away by the swirling cauldron of psychological drama found in Whirlpool. Otto Preminger adds yet another perplexing noir to his filmography and it seems reasonable that Whirlpool along with The Fallen Angel (1945) and Angel Face (1953) deserve more recognition though, it’s true his debut, Laura (1944) will forever be the benchmark.

But these three films share such fascinating themes beyond beautiful photography and quality staging. They find roots in some odd bits of quack chicanery like fortune tellers and astrologers while interesting themselves in psychologically unstable women and male confidence men who like nothing more than taking advantage of others.

Whereas Laura (1944) works exquisitely because the title character casts a spell on everyone else, Whirlpool functions in part because our protagonist falls under another man’s spell. But it takes something else, something in her past that he can prey on and exploit.

You see, in the opening moments of the film we find out something about Gene Tierney’s character. She’s a kleptomaniac which in itself is a fairly startling albeit intriguing revelation. And we don’t see it occur just the aftermath that follows. But here is a dilemma already. Her husband (Richard Conte) is a renowned psychoanalyst. How would it look if his wife was found shoplifting from a reputable establishment? The house detective catches her. The manager is looking to bring in the police. The wheels of justice are turning and scandal looks all but inevitable.

Then, in walks David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) a man with a certain magnetism that still makes him a tad unsettling. In fact, it’s pretty easy to assume he has ulterior motives. Because he so easily smooths things out for Mrs. Sutton so she is, to a certain extent, indebted to him. Something like that can quickly turn into a splendid opportunity for blackmail. Except the check comes and he rips it up so from thenceforward it’s a little more difficult to discern his intentions and it proves to be a wonderfully enigmatic performance from Ferrer start to finish.

It’s true. He is a charlatan. He’s preoccupied with astrology and then hypnotism which he uses on his new “patient” supposedly for her own good. But he’s had other women who have called on his services before. In fact, one of them has now sought help from Mrs. Sutton’s husband. Because Korvo had made her life miserable coaxing her to withdraw her daughter’s inheritance and leeching her happiness. Soon Theresa Randolph is found dead with Ann at the scene of the crime — the prime suspect.

By this time, you almost forget that Charles Bickford is in the film because the bewitched Tierney and stolid-faced Ferrer steal the show. But it is Lt. Colton (Bickford) who must get to the bottom of this whole twisted affair. He and Dr. Sutton are quick to write off the poor woman with a closeted kleptomania hidden under the cloak of a respectable suburban housewife. However, after hitting the beat, they know it stinks to high heaven but there’s no proof.

What can be said of Ben Hecht’s script is the very fact that it relies on unbelievable occurrences in both its beginning and ending. But in this very reality, there’s a certain continuity where the psychologically dubious extrapolations become the new normal. That in itself is unsettling.

It’s notable that when he has multiple figures Preminger never seems content to be stagnant, instead constantly utilizing close-ups and see-sawing camera movements that readily change the dynamics of scenes. The climactic moments proving a prime example.

The power struggle dictates itself in other ways too, namely in the physical staging of characters. Ferrer hanging over Tierney as he begins to hypnotize her. Bickford questioning Ferrer who himself looks so vulnerable lying in his hospital bed. But even that composition in itself is at times a put on as we soon find out. However, it’s phenomenal that the very projections up on the screen are indicative of what is going on with the film’s main point of conflict. This quality we can safely assume can be attributed to Preminger himself. He has an intuitive understanding of cinematic space and how to utilize it to his greatest advantage.

3.5/5 Stars

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

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The Woman on the Beach is ripe with subject matter that feels akin to Jean Renoir as much as any Hollywood picture possibly could be. Since the beach, in his specific case, initially evokes not the California coasts but the shores that might have so easily cropped up in the paintings of his renowned father Auguste Renoir. Marrying that preconception with the domain of beguiling femme fatales makes it all the more disconcerting.

But this is also a story of what it is to be an artist and you can see Renoir using the materials at his disposal to grapple with such themes which were no doubt ruminating in his own mind.

Like any director of irrefutable substance, Renoir was probably aspiring to do far more with the medium than his American backers would have preferred and that could explain why his movie was cut down from an unspecified length into the version we now have.

It’s true that the film is yet another collision of worlds with a tortured American tough guy like Robert Ryan paired with a French master of composition and commentary like Renoir. But far from being a mere incomprehensible jumble, the results are still revelatory if not quite flawless.

The opening underwater dreamscape proves to be an entrancing interlude as it plays out in Robert Ryan’s subconscious, brought to us by a self-imposed exile like Renoir no doubt with obstacles of his own to do battle with.

If we want to try and be standard in our appraisal of the picture by providing the cadence of the plot, it’s about a Coast Guard officer (Robert Ryan) stationed on the West Coast who is taken with a woman (Joan Bennett) he comes across when she is picking up firewood on the beach.

There’s an almost uncanny lucidity to how she pinpoints his deepest fears in their initial encounter and they come to the conclusion that they’re pretty much alike. How Peggy Butler can be so sure is slightly beyond the point. Certainly, it doesn’t make sense in rational terms.

Here again, we are met with the bewitching gaze of Joan Bennett that first came to my attention in a portrait found within a dream of a film called Woman in the Window (1944). She’s undoubtedly one of the underrated noir sirens out there because she was one of the preeminent talents in casting a spell of enchantment to entangle her male companions. Ryan falters much like Edward G. Robinson did previously, twice over.

Charles Bickford gives a performance of equal import as the blind artist Tod Butler, a man who is as attached to his work — a passion that he can no longer realize — as much as he is to his wife. They want to get rid of him in one moment and they think he’s faking his frailty in another but all these preoccupations fall by the wayside.

Thus, The Woman on the Beach cannot be branded as a pure film-noir but instead a vein of those crime pictures grafted with Renoir’s own sensibilities. Even if the studio knew in part what they were getting, it still makes sense that they were not completely satisfied.

It looks to be one of those sordid love triangles that were always a mainstay of film noir but, again even in its short running time with footage lopped off, it works beyond that and despite Hollywood’s best efforts (whether intentionally or not), Renoir’s going to have a voice.

To a degree, it’s possible to see some sort of progression from Le Bete Humaine (1938) in its stylized atmospherics highlighted by billowing smoke, psychological duress, and oh yes, an alluring gal playing opposite Jean Gabin in Simone Simon.

Aside from the luminescent Bennett, a few other ideas leave a lasting impression whether it’s the turmoil of an artist caught in the throes of obsession or the dreams that overtake a man plagued by post-traumatic stress. This picture has more to offer than you might expect.

It brings to mind John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage (1951) another cannibalized picture that in its present form is about two-thirds of a minor masterpiece. There’s still an exceptional spirit and resonance to what was leftover. It can only lead us to imagine what might have been on both accounts.

This would prove to be Renoir’s last film in the States before he washed his hands of the whole industry and returned to his native land to continue the creation of high-regarded works like he had never left. True, this is a picture that is often neglected but that’s simply because there are other works of great repute. That does not speak entirely to the detriment of The Woman on the Beach.

3.5/5 Stars

The Farmer’s Daughter (1947)

The_Farmer's_Daughter_(1947_film).jpgWhatever our criticisms of the previous generations, there’s still something within me that sees something uniquely compelling about films of old. Hollywood in the 30s and 40s could sugar coat, they could oversell the drama, but there was also a general decency that pervaded many of those films.

The cynical edge of dirty politics and corruption was given credence but more often than not, all that was good would win out in the end. Is it realism? Certainly not. Is is dated? Probably so. But there’s something overwhelmingly pleasant about a film like The Farmer’s Daughter for the very reasons mentioned above.

Our heroine is intelligent, plucky, and sincere. She’s from good Scandinavian stock which not only explains her vitality but informs a bit of her work ethic and her constant handle on what is right and true. That’s something we could always use more of today. A bit more of those core values sprinkled into our upbringings. It’s not informed by pride, or entitlement, selfishness or greed. It cares about what is good for all people and looks to be honest in all circumstances. To her credit, Loretta Young embodies all those qualities with a profound earnestness.

Katrin (Young) makes her way into the spotlight after acquiring a position as a maid for a local political dynasty after losing her hard-won funds for nursing school to a local swindler.  Still, in the home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore) and her son the promising young senator Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), Katrin soon makes a strong first impression.

She proves to be a gifted woman not only in doing housework but also in ice skating, with Swedish massages, making glogg, and much more. She’s also politically astute and though she lacks education her practical upbringing allows her to see every individual in practical terms. She bases none of her opinions on hearsay, ad campaigns, or newspaper spreads. Her thoughts come from what she’s heard first hand and what officials have done in the past. She’s also an impeccable judge of character.

The most obvious tension running through the film is the fact that Glenn is slowly growing attached to Katrin for the very reasons mentioned previously. Although he already has a bit of a fling with a local reporter who is smitten with him. But the real problems come into being when a seat opens up in the house and the incumbent’s choose to back an unscrupulous career politician.

Katrin sees right through him and openly grills him at a town hall meeting. Now the opposition is calling on this young woman to be their candidate and she agrees to run against her employers. She’s crossing political lines because she constantly exercises her freedom to do as she sees fit. That is her prerogative after all. Glenn in one sense is incensed by her decision but he’s also madly in love with her and he has to make a choice.

A raucous screwball finale turns out to be surprisingly gratifying given the sentimentality and political drama that provide most of the film’s makeup. The comedy is also bolstered by the generally open-minded and wryly amused Ethel Barrymore who looks at all the unfoldings in front of her with a bit of a glint in her eye. Meanwhile, Charles Bickford’s gruff charm as the valet Mr. Clancy serves as the perfect foil for Katrin’s affability. Because he’s really a good man as well.

The Farmer’s Daughter might turn some modern viewers off for a purported simplistic view–a film of overt goodness where the woman ends up with the man who in turn allows her to succeed. But what is wrong with a good Joseph Cotten and an effervescent Loretta Young? A dose now and then can hardly be considered harmful.

What struck me was a timeless statement that Mrs. Morley teases out of the crooked Mr. Finley. He’s opposed to things that don’t meet his definition of “100% Americanism” and it’s a very narrow view. Namely whites, no foreign-born, and the right kind of religion. Ironically, 70 years later we are still guarding against such poisoned intentions. Because if anything, Katrin represents in a small way a great deal of what makes America great. Let us not forget that.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Fallen Angel (1945)

fallen-angel-3The film opens with a dead end drifter being ushered off a bus in the little every town of Walton, wedged somewhere between LA and SF. Although in actuality it was shot partially on location in Orange, California, serving up a perfect representation of quaint Middle America. You can almost hear Paul Simon singing from the future (Got off a greyhound to look for America) as Dana Andrews gets off the bus. Except he winds up at Pop’s instead. There he sizes up the town and gets his first eyeful of the alluring waitress Stella (Linda Darnell).

He’s dead broke but he also has a brain on his shoulders and that gets him far with a pair of traveling fortune tellers who he is able to promote throughout town, despite the wariness of the townsfolk. This moral crusade is led by Clara Mills (Anne Revere) who is suspicious of such goings-on. It’s her sister, the righteous Ms. June Mills (Alice Faye) who ascertains, “Are we to judge?” She obviously is acquainted with the Beatitudes. And what she says is true but this whole issue made out of a couple of no-name mystics seems like a strange place to try and develop a film-noir.

It’s a curious portrait. Here we have small town America, a wily drifter, two women, and a fortune teller putting on a Seance. But this is only a pretense to get to the dark heart of this film. Eric Stanton is bent on marrying Stella and he tells her as much. They’ve got something (When they lock eyes the cash register clangs). But the underlying problem is that he has no dough, no money to make anything of a marriage. Stella’s not a dumb girl. She’s just opportunistic and she wants some assurance at the end of a proposal.

As Darnell’s character notes several times, she likes the way Andrews talks and he is a real talker, he’d probably make a grand used car salesman. As the story progresses it’s easier to get a line on his train of thought and the way he thinks is insidious indeed.

fallen-angel-4Being blessed with a certain amount of charm, Stanton strikes up a relationship with the untouchable gal, the churchgoer, the book reader, the generally good human being, June. He knows how to pull her out of her shell. Catering to her necessity to get out and live life (All the things you look down on are the things that make up life. Little things, like a game of bowling..or a swim at night, or a dance, a kiss, stuff that bubbles). It works and she begins to be swayed. Conveniently she also has a great deal of money. The outcome seems obvious and yet the story twists in unexpected ways.

Linda Darnell certainly steals the beginning of the story as the beautiful brunette that every man in town is batty over. The list of interested suitors is quite long but it doesn’t matter much. The latter half of the film is Alice Faye’s and as she was supposed to be the star of this picture it’s only fair that she should get her due.

Except, understandably, she felt slighted by Daryl Zanuck who lobbied for his sweetheart Darnell and as a result, a great deal of Faye’s dramatic performance was left on the cutting room floor. What’s left as a testament of her performance, might pale in comparison to her counterparts Andrews and Darnell but it’s often true that it takes that virtuous character to juxtapose with the seedier qualities of those around them.

fallen-angel-1Fallen Angel undoubtedly gets a bad rap because it does not reach the rapturous, beguiling heights of Laura (1944) from the year prior, but it deserves to be seen in its own light. It’s true that both films are murder mysteries but while Fallen Angel isn’t all that interesting in that regard it has a surprisingly sharp script in other ways. Preminger works through his story with a certain dynamic assurance and like its predecessor, it’s the characters that are by far the most fascinating. Laura was a superior mystery, character study, etc., but Fallen Angel gleams brightly thanks in part to its classical chiaroscuro cinematography and an engaging menagerie of locals including Charles Bickford, Percy Kilbride, Bruce Cabot, and John Carradine.

Dana Andrews thrives in his element as the laconic drifter who nevertheless knows how to play people. Every time I caught a glimpse of Darnell’s hair decorated with a flower all I could hear were the refrains of Scott Mckenzie’s “San Francisco” ringing in my ears. And although Faye would not make another film until 1962, hers was not a bad performance. Above all, Otto Preminger deserves a break because Fallen Angel is still a minor noir classic.

3.5/5 Stars

Brute Force (1947)

BruteForceImage873Potentially one of the weaker Jules Dassin films noir, Brute Force is still a worthwhile film exploring the dynamics of a prison during the 1940s. The inspiration comes from the rebellion at Alcatraz in 1946 and this film was shocking at the time for the amount of violence it portrayed. It stars Burt Lancaster as the glowering leader of a group of prisoners in block K17. His main antagonist and the villain of the entire yard is the authoritarian Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn in an especially icy role).

The story follows the inmates as they make due with prison life and bide their time waiting for parole. However, Joe Collins, who is fresh off a spell of solitary confinement, seems bent on escape. The prison warden is an older fellow struggling to keep tempers from boiling over. The likable but often inebriated doctor (Art Smith) can see the writing on the wall. Things are reaching the end of the line if Munsey continues to hike up his tactics that are making the men resent him more and more every day. It’s positively a powder keg and it’s not going to be a pretty sight if the pressures get to be too much.

The entirety of the film takes place within the confines of the prison except for a couple flashbacks as four men recall the women they left outside in the real world. They are played by Anita Colby, Ella Raines, Yvonne De Carlo and Ann Blyth respectively, reflecting the hope, memories, and loved ones who are pulling at these men and ultimately led them to get into trouble. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but you might even be able to call them the femme fatales in an otherwise very male-centric film.

One man hangs himself afterward from Munsey and another gets it for causing problems for Joe. Neither of these men is looking to stand down anytime soon as Joe cautiously begins enacting plans of escape with another prisoner named Gallagher (Charles Bickford). Munsey continues to hound prisoners for information while halting all privileges.

Ultimately, the finale turns into the most electrifying moment of the film, while simultaneously Munsey is made the new warden and Collins puts his plan in action. Guards are waiting for him and his crew, but Gallagher has plans of his own in the compound. It leads to a handful of explosions, endless mayhem, and more than a few deaths. This is what happens when you use brute force.

4/5 Stars