Executive Suite (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

Private Hell 36 (1954)

privatehell1There’s not a whole lot to it. Aside from a wonderfully pulpy title, Private Hell 36 feels like a pretty straightforward endeavor from director Don Siegel. The low budget procedural nevertheless boasts a surprisingly good cast. The tale is framed by a nice bit of narration from the sitting police chief played by the always enjoyable Dean Jagger, in a particularly compassionate role.

Our story opens on a perfectly normal night where one copper seems to quell a drugstore burgle while he’s off duty, and another cop gets it in the crossfire between rival gangs. It causes the police to go on high alert.

When some street vermin rolls into the station to get booked, he’s found with some nifty paper. Detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farham (Howard Duff) are assigned to follow the trail of a counterfeit $50 bill that’s pinned on a killer. So it’s more than hot money now. There just might be a murder rap at the end of it. Their canvassing leads them right to the lap of self-assured night club singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino).

Farham is a relatively honest chap with a doting wife (Dorothy Malone) and a kid already. Bruner has a propensity for recklessness, and he also takes a liking to Ms. Marlowe, especially after they spend so much time together.

privatehell2The temperature begins to rise when the two colleagues get caught up in a car chase with their counterfeiting adversary. All the days casing the local race track with Ms. Marlowe finally leads to some action. In the aftermath, one car goes careening off the road, and the boys have a decision to make. They frantically begin snatching up dollar bills and they decide to go dirty and make a run with the money.

Such a plot takes the usual turns that we would expect as girlfriends, greed, familial responsibility, and guilty consciences cloud the path to the straight and narrow. The film, which was jointly written by Ida Lupino and her former husband Collier Young, is no great work of art. But there is enough character conflict and crisis to make Private Hell 36 a gratifying piece of lower tier noir.

3/5 Stars

“You know I’ve seen this all on Dragnet” ~ Lilli Marlowe

 “Save the jokes for the customers” ~ Detective Bruner

 

White Christmas (1954)

58e88-white_chrismas_filmMany times I feel like a broken record (this time playing a Christmas tune), but White Christmas is one of those classics that I never get tired of. It is so ingrained, so integral to my childhood memories, that I have difficulty analyzing it or finding fault.

Wonderful, visceral films stop being something that must be thought about and simply become an all out experience. That’s what White Christmas is for me. A full blown Christmas experience courtesy of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, director Michael Curtiz and of course Irving Berlin.

I mean this as a compliment, but at a basic level, I always thought of White Christmas as a Christmas-like version of Singin’ in the Rain. We have a talented and dashing leading man in Crosby (Bing Crosby) and his mischievous and hilarious partner in crime (Danny Kaye). They are never better than during their parody of the sister’s act (It’s a priceless gem of a moment). Although, there is constant chemistry throughout the film thanks to the bickering and back and forth between two buddies.  Similarly to Singin’ in the Rain, you also have big spectacles, lavish sets, great songs, dancing, and constant quotability. It brings out the most reluctant of crooners and even the guys with two left feet. But what about the story?

White Christmas follows those two war buddies as they make it big as a boffo double act. Along the way, they help out a pair of sisters as well as their washed-up former commander General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who owns an inn in snow-less Vermont. Although, it’s lacking in business,  it’s the perfect locale for matchmaking, acts of kindness, and misunderstandings courtesy of local innkeeper and resident eavesdropper Emma (Mary Wickes). But what we end up receiving is a joyous romance with plenty of Christmas cheer and sentiment to go around.


Bing Crosby’s pipes are as good as ever (“Count Your Blessings”) and Danny Kaye can make his voice crack like no other. Vera-Ella has a talented pair of legs and Rosemary Clooney can carry a tune in her own right opposite Crosby. Whether it’s “Snow,” “Sisters,” or the eponymous track, there’s so much to offer. Weather any slow sections and you will be rewarded thanks to the even-handed direction of Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), paired with the ever memorable compositions of Irving Berlin. Now go spend the holidays with your kith and kin. Vermont must be nice this time of year, all that snow.

4/5 Stars

Forty Guns (1957)

6fb70-fortyguns1Samuel Fuller has got an eye for style, cinematic scope, and at times, subversive mayhem. It’s no coincidence that Forty Guns was shot in Cinemascope, and it is one of the enjoyments of watching this film, which constantly bounces back and forth between long shots and close-ups. To start things off, Barbara Stanwyck is Jessica Drummond, the “High Ridin’ Woman with a Whip,” and she is the heiress of a self-made frontier empire.

It helps to tote forty guns around with her, but she is not as unethical as she would appear at first glance. On the other side are the Bonnell brothers, former gunslinger Griff (Barry Sullivan), number two man Wes (Gene Barry) and then the baby Chico. After they arrive in town, on behalf of the Attorney General, the nearsighted sheriff (Hank Worden) is gunned down by a drunken troublemaker who just happens to be Drummond’s kid brother. Then his buddies proceed to trash the town all in the name of good fun.

Soon Griff straightens Brockie out and Jessica comes into town to retrieve him. Next, Griff comes with a warrant to Jessica’s ranch and in a memorable scene, literally made for Cinemascope, the warrant gets passed down the table. Jessica wants no trouble but soon a crooked sheriff named Logan (Dean Jagger) want to finish off Griff. It doesn’t go so well and he gets more and more jealous of Jessica’s increasing love for the oldest Bonnell brother.

Ultimately, Brockie ends up in the clink, but he uses his sister as a shield in an attempt to escape. For once Griff loses his cool and sprays him with bullets and that’s not all. For good measure, Fuller has Griff ride solemnly off in his buckboard only to have Jessica scamper after him. The power dynamic see-sawing once again.

Yet again, Fuller never seems to do anything conventionally or demure. His film has a reformed gunfighter who calls his former profession that of a freak. The leading female character dominates most everyone else and has a ballad written about her. There are tornadoes that envelop the screen. Then, only Fuller would have the audacity to kill someone during their wedding ceremony, and he does it without skipping a beat.

Among other things, it is a film about guns, brothers and sisters, and love. Griff packs a gun on him. Jessica always has guns behind her. Griff has a younger brother who has much to learn. Jessica’s brother will never learn. That being said, the inventive visuals, typical brutality, and the memorable casting of Stanwyck were all in a day’s work for Samuel Fuller.

4/5 Stars

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Starring Gregory Pb181c-twelve_oeck, the film follows a strict brigadier general who takes command of a group of bombers who fly precision daytime missions during WWII. Frank Savage is sent to relieve his friends because the group has suffered a great deal of poor luck. From the get go this tough leader is at odds with his men. They all want to be transferred and yet with the help of the camp adjutant, Savage is able to lead them effectively. His touch tactics lead to success in the air and a pride in his men develops. However, after one good mission Savage is incapable to go up the next day. He becomes a lifeless man and only when his men return does he revert back to normal. All this is remembered by Major Stoval as the film concludes. Peck and Dean Jagger were both very good and the bombing mission was certainly exhilarating to watch. It is more about the people then the war and that still makes it a good film.

 

4.5/5 Stars