Detective Story (1951)

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“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

The Man with The Golden Arm (1955)

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Everybody’s habitual something ~ Kim Novak as Molly

Otto Preminger was the creator of a number of important “issue pictures” because he dared deal with themes that others had shied away from, mostly in part because of the production codes that ruled Hollywood well into the 1960s. Thus, any type of drug addiction was seemingly out of the question.

Such an issue might seem almost unthinkable in this day and age but that very fact is one of the reasons that The Man with the Golden Arm still maintains some resonance. Perhaps it has aged some and looks tame by today’s standards, a film that hardly dares to mention the drug in question, and yet there is much to be enjoyed all the same.

Saul Bass’s opening titles for one made the credit sequences of a film into an important attraction and he did much the same for Alfred Hitchcock and other Preminger films as well. The film is also laced with what might be best termed as sleazy jazz music to underscore the world that Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to.

Before a word of dialogue is even spoken in the local dive we already have a pulse on what kind of place this is. It’s the type of world that sucks the life out of you. People lead you astray and if you’re not able to make something of yourself you’re bound to sink into the pits.

He is just off a stint in the State Penitentiary but unlike many, his story has a touch of hope. He’s gotten the monkey off his back as they say. He’s no longer addicted thanks to the help of a doctor who also tried to line up a job for him as a drummer. It looks like he has some talent that can take him places. He’s got a lifeline out of town.

His return is a heralded one. Everyone’s intent on welcoming him back including first-rate scrounger Sparrow (Arnold Stang) as well as the pudgy local card shark Schwiefka and the “dealer” Nifty Louie. He’s very much the devil on Frankie’s shoulder coaxing him to give him a call if he ever needs a fix of candy because he used to be a great customer.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) is constantly paranoid about his purported unfaithfulness and simultaneously quells any of his aspirations to make anything more of his life. She’s just a scared little person and her fear stifles Machine even as he tries to make her understand that things are different now.

The one person who does seem to understand him is his old flame Molly (Kim Novak) who is currently a hostess at the local club. He remains faithful to Zosh and yet it is the friendship with another woman that gives him the encouragement to pursue this new path.

Yet the film soon delves into the depths of addiction. As often rings true, after you think you’ve got addiction beat (any kind), it comes back with raging abandon and it goes for the choke hold. A bad break and the plethora of undesirable influences are leading Machine down the well-trod paths of old. He initially gives in and yet still battles and fights and shakes his way back to sobriety. But it’s not easy. The only place he has to turn is Molly and she gladly gives him her support.

All in all, this is a fairly unflinching portrait for the time and this picture points to the fact that Frank Sinatra was a serious actor, not simply a singer, a personality, or a star. Here he offers up an honest to goodness performance though his career was ripe with many others. Still, this one encapsulates the tortured cycles of those trapped in the throes of addiction.

Meanwhile, Kim Novak’s performance flows with a sincerity — a woman who is willing to do what is good and right even when it is difficult and seemingly offers very little recompense. It’s a stirring turn indeed.

The histrionics of Eleanor Parker are maybe a bit much and yet in this performance, you begin to see why she is hardly remembered along with other classical beauties. It’s because she actually wanted to be an actress first and a star second and thus, instead of projecting a certain image in all her pictures, it does seem like she’s constantly changing and stretching our expectations of her. Today her choices look quite audacious and yet it no doubt left her contemporary audiences a little befuddled. That in no way detracts from her efforts here if only to magnify our appreciation for Sinatra and Novak’s characters.

Rather than simply seeing this as an antiquated issue picture, a film made for a different era and for a different person than me, I would like to say that there is something of note in The Man with the Golden Arm. As Molly so lucidly acknowledges, many of us go through some type of cycle or we succumb to some habitual pattern whether it be an addiction or something less extreme. Still, either way, these very things can detract from our lives and trap us in rhythms of life that hinder our relationships and all that is truly paramount. That’s just a small caveat to take heed of.

3.5/5 Stars

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Caged (1950)

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Caged proves to be a stark, even uncompromising picture for the 1950s. Director John Cromwell had a long career in Hollywood, helmed some quality film noir, and became a subsequent casualty of the Blacklist but this just might be his finest effort.

Furthermore, despite being an actress of some acclaim, I must admit that even I forget about Eleanor Parker aside from her well-remembered appearance in The Sound of Music (1965). But if Caged is any indication, she is most certainly worthy of more credit. She freely channels a bit of the flustered timidity of Joan Fontaine early on only to transform into a completely different person entirely.

It’s a film that dances on the complete opposite spectrum of George Cukor’s The Women (1939) another film that is dominated by the lives of female characters. In that case, the narrative is preoccupied with the intricacies of their frivolous catty ways and malicious gossip. Caged has not even a pretense for laughter.

Likewise, the scenes of incarceration bring to mind images of  The Snake Pit (1946) and Shock Corridor (1964) but even those films were about mental illness and the lack of quality care, not so much the abominable corruption that begins to coalesce within prison walls.

Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is one of the first-time offenders who comes in with the new batch of prisoners. At only 19 years of age she seems like no more than a girl and yet she’s already been married, had her husband fatally killed during a bank robbery, is pregnant with a child, and has an accessory rap pinned on her. That’s how Marie got where she is even if she doesn’t seem meant for such a hardened life.

Agnes Morehead delivers one of her most sympathetic performances as a champion of rehabilitation who unfortunately is fighting a losing battle against the system as we soon see.

Some might remember the imposing Hope Emerson from Cry of the City (1947) but she leaves an even more indelible mark on this picture as the ever-necessary sadistic prison guard — an individual who sees little worth in her inmates — believing them to be animals to be treated as such. She is indicative of the institution as the cog that lays down the law and narrowly believes that there is no worth left in these women. They’re trash.

When everyone thinks that it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in time as she comes up for parole and then has it spit back in her face, the changes begin to show in Marie’s face. It’s hardened. Her voice is tougher. She’s more defiant.

Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption (1994) was another character with unfortunate circumstances but he maintained his humanity in a dank place. You either get busy living or get busy dying. Yet being an impressionable girl Marie takes to heart the words of her veteran prison mates, “You get tough or you get killed.”

Maybe Caged outcome is easy to read and it ultimately succumbs to melodrama but there’s still something unnerving about the film on the whole with its overarching unsentimentality.

When I saw the name of famed composer Max Steiner as part of the production that was a tip-off but Caged rather audaciously functions in many sequences without any scoring and that lends to the overall sense of realism that pulses through this prison noir.

The utter irony is that the notes of “Rock of Ages” can be heard wafting through the corridors as Marie prepares for her final parole hearing and she makes it this time. But by now there seems little chance for redemption. She is intent on calling her own shots and not about to rely on anyone else. She’s gone beyond clinging and seeking shelter from the world around her. She doesn’t seem to need anyone. She’s become part of that world. The before and after are startling. They make for a harsh indictment of a flawed prison system.

4/5 Stars