I Love Trouble (1948): Enter Roy Huggins

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In the days before they were known as film noir, the melodramas of the 1940s have such evocative titles, which now verge on the edge of camp. One can imagine the plethora of quality bumper stickers noir aficionados could plaster on their jalopies and Cadillacs. Try these on for size: Kiss Me Deadly, Murder My Sweet, Touch of Evil, In a Lonely Place. You get the idea.

I’ve become so conditioned to hearing them — to referencing the actors and directors within their frames — sometimes it’s easy to forget how strange they sound. Well, you might as well add I Love Trouble to the bunch. Of course, it means absolutely nothing, but that’s the point isn’t it, stirring something volatile up within the viewer. It suggests a vivid mental picture and this is somehow equally important.

I Love Trouble is generally forgotten today, as is its director-producer, S. Sylvan Simon, and yet the movie is a swirling labyrinth capable of going toe to toe with anything Marlowe ever faced. The dividing line between tautness and plot holes or logic and absurdity almost ceases to have credence. If this will fluster you as a viewer — enrage your logical sensibilities — it’s best to look somewhere else for your two-bit entertainment.

The true pleasures come with getting swept up in the world with all its additions and misdirects courtesy of a neverending conveyor belt of characters riffing off snappy bits of repartee. It fills in fairly nicely between the confrontations and beatings, smoothing over any major issues.

The opening is simple. A man is trailing a woman and she confronts him. It turns out he’s a private eye in the service of one Ralph Johnston (Tom Powers), looking for the other man’s missing wife. So it’s a bit of a Vertigo set-up, except the woman he’s already confronted wasn’t her. Well, it was, but it might as well be somebody else. Because she altogether vanishes from the film.

What follows is as expected. Stuart Bailey (Franchot Tone) makes the rounds being his charming, slightly ingratiating self in order to dig up the facts at the behest of his employer. Tone is a dashing lead prone to cheekiness, but this is most of the fun, played in the vein of the best P.I. work of Bogart and Dick Powell if not quite as iconic.

No matter. It leads him to run around Los Angeles and take a venture to Portland, Oregon. The facts start unveiling themselves bit by bit but never in a clear, definitive manner. There must always be further convolutions and new moments of sheer incomprehensibility.

In a picture like this, every single Dick and Jane might as well have a motive and the cast just keeps on coming. To explain how all the characters fit together siphons off a bit of the gamesmanship of the drama. It’s safe to say John Ireland is a brooding heavy. Steven Gerray, though graced with pleasant features, somehow contrives them, along with his accent, into something vaguely sinister.

Then, there’s the bald-pated cafe staffer Buffin (Sid Tomack), who knew the dame in a former life when she was making the move to Los Angeles. There’s a Chauffeur who seems oddly invested in the whereabouts of Mrs. Johnston and his enigmatic employer Mrs. John Vega Cabrillo (Janis Carter).

Others might be far more astute than me, but upon a single viewing, it’s easy to admit never quite getting one’s head straight on which woman is which, and maybe that’s the point of it all. Regardless, it hardly seems necessary to avail oneself of the details.

Janet Blair has near-top billing and drifts into the story almost haphazardly on the pretense of finding her sister. Janis Carter is suitably brooding with that imperious allure of hers. Adele Jergens is just another pretty face who jousts with our protagonist because what would such a picture be without her? Finally, there’s Glenda Farrell with a bit of lovable fortitude as Hazel Bixby, Bailey’s hapless secretary.

It actually proves to be a fine asset, having so many female characters all of varying degrees of importance, but all getting a piece of the pie. Because granted some are more cursory than others, and yet I’m even disposed to remember the two waitresses (Karen X Gaylord and Roseanne Murray) at the sidewalk cafe. It says something about the characterizations, where the bit players get to leave an impression.

These whirling, often abstruse brands of noir often work best on this level. I Love Trouble can generously be christened a lesser disciple of The Big Sleep but nevertheless a decent go at the gumshoe genre. Because it has the peculiarities — small pockets of interest — placed within the befuddling signposts of the plot.

Roy Huggins would be remembered much later for his work in television for shows like 77 Sunset Strip, coincidentally starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Stuart Bailey, and then The Rockford Files, which owes more than a small debt to the hardboiled procedurals of the olden days with a James Garner twist for the 70s.

The final moments of I Love Trouble could play out as a male dreamscape. Our protagonist is surrounded by a myriad of women, and yet since the threat is abated, he’s taken in by the calls of matrimony. For being such an obscure entry in the noir canon, it’s quite a surprising piece of diversion if you go for such things.

3.5/5 Stars

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935) with Gable, Laughton, and Tone

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More recently I’ve found myself straying away from period pieces and epics and not necessarily because there is something fundamentally off-putting about them. Nor do I think it can solely be blamed on my admittedly short attention span in this increasingly inane and vapid social media-fueled society we live in.

To prove my reasoning, I only need to express a couple of repurposed lines, “To whom much is given, much is required.” It’s not from Spider-Man, no, but it does suggest a movie like Mutiny on the Bounty already has a mountain to climb. It needs to do more to wow me than one of its shorter more economical brethren. Therein lies the issue at hand: greater expectations.

The year is 1787 and the Royal Navy is on a mission to acquire breadfruit trees as sustenance for slaves in the West Indies. This is implied to be a tale about how a mutiny led by a man named Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) laid the groundwork for modern British sea law still ruling the seas to the present day (that is, 1935).

Thankfully, it never feels quite like we are being taught a moral or a lesson of social significance. It’s nothing more than entertainment, though it’s still one of the great seafaring epics (not starring Errol Flynn).

A handful of hapless men are pulled out of a tavern away from their wives and loved ones and conscripted into a two years voyage with a Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Another man of privileged stock takes his post gladly (Franchot Tone).

When his crew is finally aboard and assembled, Bligh sets the precedent of unyielding discipline with a flogging of some poor unfortunate chap. His men look on gravely, no doubt questioning what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s true the sea is a fierce adversary with gales whipped up and immersive wave-drenched decks swaying madly under their legs. However, if there is a touch of man vs nature in the drama, it’s even more vehemently about bouts of human conflict and insurrection.

Director Frank Lloyd makes liberal use of claustrophobic close-ups played in sharp juxtaposition to the more grandiose naval imagery. It signals the tone of the world even as this grand scale is made tactile through the onscreen relationships. Namely, that of a tyrannical captain and his hapless crew as he ceaselessly dishes out lashes and other sordid punishments indiscriminately even unto the point of death. There must be a breaking point. For now, we wait as they grin and bear their taskmaster.

One of the few sources of jocularity is the ship’s surgeon (Dudley Digges) a blustering old sea dog who dubiously lost his leg — the story of how it happened is the source of many of his largest yarns. Still, he too is in danger of being a casualty. No one is safe on a boat where the most precious cargo is botanical and not human. It’s these plants that are given preferential treatment when rations are concerned.

The crew is half-raving, stir-crazy as they finally weigh anchor on the shores of Tahiti — taken by the country’s beauty, coconut milk, and native girls. Our voyage has reached its midpoint and dipped its toes into what feels like paradise. Is it a coincidence that Bligh seems to all but disappear? Instead,  Tone busies himself picking up as much of the dialect as possible, and then Gable is taken by the pretty woman making eyes at him; they don’t need language to communicate.

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It’s the interim period of leisure and romance. But this respite must come to an end and with it, we arrive at the beginning of the end. After all, the whole story has been mounting to this precise point as we’ve all but avoided the inevitable.

If I’m to engage with my boyhood proclivities, Mutiny is not much of an actioner or at least not in the sense of a rip-roaring swashbuckler. It’s a war between titans, men of differing ideals, only to be interrupted by the unpredictable ferocity of the sea. So in this way, it’s more of a character piece injected with action. Still, this is not the bottom line.

The conflict is in staying the voyage (and the film) to see whose will is enacted in the end: Bligh’s or Christians with Byam forced to navigate the turbulent waters of ambiguity in-between. One positive of the picture is how none of the three men seem to entirely steal the show; they seem to be on surprisingly equal footing.

Yes, Laughton is an impudent, bull-headed taskmaster but hardly one of the most nefarious villains of all time. This is a tribute to the actor. He sculpts Bligh into a wretched, small-time human being who’s too big for his britches.  A paranoid weasel blinded by his devotion to duty and the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t forget those who revolt and his retribution is swift.

However, he is all but cast aside and forgotten, an insignificant little man, who knows how to make his way amid the rules and regulations of the Navy. It’s a more galling ending than if he had been lost at sea or most preferably eaten by a shark. But Laughton is a credit to the role showcasing his mind-boggling dexterity and range among actors of his day and age.

Gable is ultimately made into a kind of mythical figure out there on the ocean somewhere, but he is not destined to wander aimlessly — he and his rag-tag crew find a place to rest and call home. He wears the fierce, proud masculinity of Fletcher Christian just as you would expect him to (with our without his trademark pencil-thin mustache).

But if they are the two behemoths doing war against one another with the ship and the sea as their arena of battle, it is Tone who actually gets the final word as our initial in to the story. He is the every man, and therefore, the voice of reason for all of us. While I wouldn’t go out on the plank to say The Mutiny on The Bounty is a so-called “great film,” it does a service to its genre as one of MGM’s most prominent period pieces of the decade and a fine showcase for some of their most acclaimed stars.

4/5 Stars

6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

Thank you to Classic Film and TV Cafe for hosting this year’s 6 Films — 6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day!

It’s been a perennial enjoyment the last few years to hear the topic and then go to work curating a personal list. In keeping with the impetus of the occasion, I wanted to share some lesser-known films that I’ve enjoyed over the course of the last year or two.

This is a list of new favorites if you will, ranging from the 20s to the 70s, and like every year, I will do my best to fudge the rules to get as many extra recommendations in as I can. I hope you don’t hold it against me and hopefully, you will find some of these films as enjoyable as I did.

Without further ado, here are my picks, and once more, Happy National Classic Movie Day!

Go West (1925)

Riding High With Buster Keaton in “Go West” – Cowboys and Indians Magazine

I feel like in the 21st century — and this is only a personal observation — Buster Keaton has grown in esteem. Chaplin was always the zenith of cinematic pathos and heart. He cannot be disregarded as the one-time king of the movies. But Keaton, with his Stone Face and irrepressible spirit, is also strangely compelling in the modern arena we find ourselves in.

In pictures like Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr., he’s part magician, part daredevil stuntman, who, in the age before CGI, dared to play with our expectations and put himself in all sorts of visual gags for our amusement. It’s extraordinary to watch him even a century later. But whereas The Tramp was taken with Edna Purviance, the pretty blind girl (Virginia Cherill), or even Paulette Goddard’s feisty Gamin, Buster Keaton’s finest leading lady could arguably be a cow.

Go West earns its title from the potentially apocryphal quote from Horace Greeley, but the glories of the movie are born out of Keaton’s ability to take on all the nascent tropes of the Western landscape. He’s the anti-cowboy, the city slicker, the cast aside everyman, who doesn’t quite fit the world. And yet he’s still a hero, and he gets the girl in the end. You might think I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Keaton seems to love that cow, and it’s strangely poignant.

The Stranger’s Return (1933)

It’s remarkable to me that a film like The Stranger’s Return rarely seems to get many plaudits. Lionel Barrymore is a hoot as a cantankerous Iowa farmer, playing what feels like the affectionate archetype for all such roles and welcoming his city-dwelling granddaughter into the fold.

Miriam Hopkins has rarely been so amiable and opposite Franchot Tone, King Vidor develops this profound congeniality of spirit played against these elemental images of rural American life. It’s a collision of two worlds and yet any chafing comes more so from the hardened hearts of relatives than the nature of one’s upbringing. It moved me a great deal even as I consider the different worlds I’ve been blessed to frequent.

If you want to go down other cinematic rabbit holes, I would also recommend Ernst Lubitsch’s The Broken Lullaby with Barrymore. For Miriam Hopkins, you might consider The Story of Temple Drake, and for director King Vidor, I was equally fascinated by the Depression-era saga Our Daily Bread.

The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

Janus Films — The Children Are Watching Us

During the beginning of 2021, I went on a bit of an Italian neorealist odyssey, beginning with some of the less appreciated films of Vittorio De Sica (at least by me). While Bicycle Thieves is a high watermark, even an early film like The Children Are Watching Us shows his innate concern for human beings of all stripes.

This is not a portrait of economic poverty as much as it depicts poverty of relationships and emotion. In what might feel like a predecessor to two British classics in Brief Encounter and Fallen Idol, a young boy’s childhood is fractured by his mother’s infidelity. While his father tries to save their marriage and they gain a brief respite on a family vacation, these attempts at reconciliation are not enough to save their crumbling family unit.

What’s most devastating is how this young boy is left so vulnerable — caught in the middle of warring parents — and stricken with anxiety. In a tumultuous, wartime landscape, it’s no less miraculous De Sica got the movie made. It’s not exactly a portrait of the perfect fascist family. Instead, what it boasts are the pathos and humanity that would color the actor-director’s entire career going forward.

Violent Saturday (1955)

Violent Saturday (1955) | MUBI

Color noir is a kind of personal preoccupation of mine: Inferno, Slightly Scarlet, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Hell on Frisco Bay, and a Kiss Before Dying all are blessed with another dimension because of their cinematography. Violent Saturday is arguably the most compelling of the lot of them because of how it so fluidly intertwines this microcosm of post-war America with the ugliness of crime.

Richard Fleischer’s film takes ample time to introduce us to the town — its inhabitants — and what is going on behind the scenes. Three men, led by Stephen McNally and Lee Marvin, spearhead a bank robbery plot. But we simultaneously are privy to all the dirty laundry dredged up in a community like this.

These criminals are the obvious villains, and yet we come to understand there’s a moral gradient throughout the entire community. The out-of-towners are not the totality of evil just as the townsfolk aren’t unconditionally saintly. The picture boasts a cast of multitudes including Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Silvia Sidney, Virginia Leith, Tommy Noonan, and Ernest Borgnine. The ending comes with emotional consequence.

Nothing But a Man (1964)

THROWBACK MOVIE REVIEW: NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964) AND DEPICTIONS OF RACISM | AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Nothing But a Man was a recent revelation. It was a film that I meant to watch for years — there were always vague notions that it was an early addition to the National Film Registry — and yet one very rarely hears a word about it. The story is rudimentary, about a black man returning to his roots in The South, trying to make a living, and ultimately falling in love.

However, the film also feels like a bit of a time capsule. Although filmed up north, it gives us a stark impression of what life in the Jim Crow South remained for a black man in the 1960s. The March on Washington was only the year before and The Voting Rights Act has little bearing on this man’s day-to-day. The smallest act of defiance against the prevailing white community will easily get him blackballed.

I’ve appreciated Ivan Dixon for his supporting spot on Hogan’s Heroes and his prolific directorial career (Even his brief stints in A Raisin in The Sun, Too Late Blues, and A Patch of Blue). Still, Nothing But a Man, showcases his talents like no other. Likewise, I only just registered Abbey Lincoln as a jazz talent, but I have a new appreciation for her. She exhibits a poise and a genuine concern that lends real weight to their relationship. It’s not simply about drama; it’s the privilege to observe these moments with them — to feel their elation, their pain, and their inalienable yearning for dignity.

Les Choses de la Vie (1970)

Les Choses de la Vie | Institut français du Royaume-Uni

Even in the aftermath of the cultural zeitgeist that exploded out of the French New Wave, the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette et al. released a steady stream of films. One of the filmmakers you hear a great deal less about — and one who was never associated with this hallowed group — was Claude Sautet.

Still, in his work with the likes of Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli, he carved out a place worthy of at least some recognition in the annals of French cinema. If one would attempt to describe his work with something like The Things of Life, you could grasp at a term like “melodrama,” but it is never in the fashion of Douglas Sirk. It’s a film of melancholy and a subtler approach to splintering romance.

It somehow takes the motifs of Godard’s Weekend with the constant vicissitude of the continental Two for The Road to alight on its own tale of love nailed down by the performances of Piccoli and Schneider. They are both caught in the kind of fated cycle that bears this lingering sense of tragedy.

Honorable Mentions (in no exact order):

  • Dishonored (1931) Dir. by Josef Von Sternberg
  • Pilgrimage (1933) Dir. by John Ford
  • TIll We Meet Again (1944) Dir. by Frank Borzage
  • Bonjour Tritesse (1958) Dir. by Otto Preminger
  • Scaramouche (1952) Dir. by George Sidney
  • Pale Flower (1964) Dir. by Masahiro Shinoda
  • Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) Dir. by Vincente Minnelli
  • Girl With a Suitcase (1961) Dir. by Valerio Zurlini
  • Sergeant Rutledge (1960) Dir. by John Ford
  • Buck and The Preacher (1972) Dir. by Sidney Poitier
  • Cooley High (1975) Dir. by Michael Schultz
  • My Name is Nobody (1973) Dir. by Tonino Valerii

Three Comrades (1938) in Body and Soul

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“Germany’s a pretty rough sea if you’re drifting.” – Breuer

“But I’m not alone anymore. There are so many drifters!” – Patricia Hollmann

Erich Maria Remarque is of course most famous for his work All Quiet on The Western Front, which was adapted to great effect for the silver screen by Lewis Milestone in 1930. Three Comrades, another one of his novels, feels very much like an extension of the same themes found in the earlier novel.

We find ourselves at the tail-end of the Great War. Mainland Europe is jaded and bedraggled. One must recall these were the days before Nazism: a force that felt like personified evil. When we look around from trench to no man’s land, it feels like everyone’s equally besmirched, equally implicated in the senseless killing.

So in this regard, it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think a cohort of three German veterans might be likable to an American audience (especially because they are also Caucasian). However, equally importantly, they are played by three strapping young talents with charm bouncing off them like pinballs. It’s how they’re able to leave the calamitousness of war behind and attempt to discover a new life of humble contentment.

It was the war that instilled them with a certain collective memory, both scarring and then firmly solidifying their friendship in the aftermath. They take the world on like the Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all. Together they happily resolve to become car mechanics, carving out a peaceful existence for themselves, even as their beloved country has succumbed to a kind of mob rule with rampant new ideologies. To each his own.

Erich Lokhamp is the first, played by a dashing, if a bit wooden, Robert Taylor. Though it’s his friends who really seem to bring him alive. Franchot Tone is Otto Koster, always ready to support his friends and speak sense into their lives. His brand of loyalty is finer than gold. The other is Gottfried Lenz (Robert Young) also light-hearted while stricken with the mind of an idealist. Still, he gladly gives up his social conscience for the sake of his friends’ well-being. At least for a time, life is happy.

But before there’s any greater stakes, it begins as three lads having a blast taking a stuffy socialite (Lionel Atwill) for a ride as they roar down the thoroughfares in their beloved, hopped-up creation “Baby.” It’s a bit of good fun, but it also introduces the trio to one of the most important people in their subsequent life together: Pat

Margaret Sullavan is at it yet again a husky-voiced, troubled soul and yet overwhelmingly resolute in her pursuit of love and the preservation of those around her. It’s a quality found in all these characters — this self-sacrificial nature that becomes so laudable, if not entirely necessary. She is the one who surmises how lovely it might be to pick when we were born. Perhaps an age of reason and quiet. This sounds like a Borzage picture. Because of course, they must make do with the here and now, where evil still exists in the world (as it does in any era).

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Their favorite hangout belongs to a jolly man named Alfons (Guy Kibbee). Erich takes his new girl there following some awkward interplay over the telephone. Also, his buddies always have a penchant for showing up uninvited to sit in on their evenings. It’s one of the added delights of the pictures because Young and Tone can supply the wisecracks to rib their friend.

I admire Otto and Gottfried even as I relate. They are faithful, they wish the best for their friends, act as encouragers — spurring each other on — and celebrating their victories while taking any setbacks as they always do: together.

This courtship brings with it other complications, namely trying to impress a high society girl of culture no matter how good-natured she might make out. It’s still easy for a man used to the inside of cars, to feel out of place with the social elite, dancing and wearing customary uncomfortable clothing, which also has a habit of coming apart at the seams. He even spins tall tales of rolling down to South America, an exotic land full of monkeys and coffee, just so he might be able to keep up with her.

All of this show proves unnecessary. This is how it works when you are smitten with a rich man’s girl and, more importantly, when she is in love with you. In another line that feels transcendent in the usual manner of Borzage, they aspire to being “lovers on the edge of eternity between day and night.”

A lesser film — or at least one ill-befitting the predilections of Borzage — would probably have made this a fight for the woman’s hand. It’s easy enough to see how this would have pulled the boys’ bond asunder. And yet these characters are more genial, enlightened, and well-intentioned. The story itself strives for something more. Young plays cupid urging his friend toward marriage. Tone’s character knocks out a concerto on their automobile as he tries to hammer away some sense into Pat in favor of his friend.

Propitiously, all this coaxing culminates in the quaintest wedding, which somehow fits all the players to a tee. Borzage captures it such that we feel we are there with them discovering it as it happens, partially spur of the moment, but also imbued with this star-crossed purposefulness. In step with everything else, their honeymoon to the seaside is as gay as can be until it is met with a setback.

It plays into the film that Sullavan always feels emotionally strong and sturdy but often physically frail. Maybe she just exudes this quality between her throaty vocals grasping at words and the obdurance she gained a reputation for. But in Three Comrades, she is bedridden and in critical condition from hemorrhages — still nursing sickness that has clung to her for some time. Erich has little idea, but once again, Otto comes to their aid with his usual expediency. It only serves to bring them together.

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While remaining unnamed throughout the film, there’s little question that the rising Nazi Party is the instigator of public brawls. Dr. Becker (Henry Hull) speaks out on his soapbox about the need for reason in confronting the issues of the times, instead of the prevailing violence. Since it’s not the first scuffle or an isolated event, Gottfried feels compelled to stand up for his beliefs, putting his ideals on the line.

Meanwhile, Erich has a less politically charged fistfight in the streets over a work claim. He gets ganged up on before his comrades, of course, fly to his defense. Just like old times. Pat is placed in a sanitarium on the behest of her doctor (Monty Wooley) just in time for the snows of winter and then Christmas.

The violence continues to escalate, this time dragging Tone into a shootout in the streets with Handel’s “Hallelujah” clamoring in the background. It’s oddly hypnotic even as it spells what feels like the end of the beginning.

If it’s not apparent already where Three Comrades is going, it easily functions as a fitting companion piece to Borzage’s later Mortal Storm because there is this same uncanny prescience about it, although it probably did very little to halt the impending course of history. The unholy mechanisms were already in place.

Every Borzage movie makes the world a little broader and love a little grander to match. In this regard, the meeting of the prose of Erich Maria Remarque and F. Scott Fitzgerald somehow manages to work in the hands of a director.

What sets it apart from a melodrama like Douglas Sirk’s is the slow burn and how the characters take each moment on with their own brand of quiet fortitude. In many ways, love (and camaraderie) are an antidote to the wiles of the world. Our heroes know what’s inevitable and they brave it together — smiling until the end of days — even in the face of tragedy and hardship.

Is it high-minded and idealistic? Most assuredly. But it’s also one of the most blessed hallmarks of Frank Borzage’s filmmaking. This hallmark, more than anything, is why we can easily draw a line in the snow from something like Seventh Heaven or Man’s Castle to Three Comrades and then The Mortal Storm.

One is especially reminded of Margaret Sullavan because one of the pervading attributes of her characters is this all-encompassing dignity to see her to the end. We feel like unsightly sots and indignant pions compared to her eminent calm.

But really, the same might be said about all the players in Three Comrades. It’s a pacifist portrait. Not so much in prognostications of any sort. It has to do with the inner peace inside the characters that radiate out from them, due to their affections for one another. Thus, in a fitting Epilogue, with fighting breaking out in the city, the four inseparable friends walk off solemnly together. If not in body, then certainly in spirit.

4/5 Stars

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and The Desert Fox

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For modern audiences especially, the movie’s opening crawl gives us a bit of helpful context. It’s June, 1942.  Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pounding the Brits back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. His notoriety as a tactician and “The Desert Fox” is already spreading. That’s enough on the historical moment.

However, as far as the film is concerned, this was Billy Wilder’s second film behind the camera. Not only is Charles Brackett producing, but he also shared script-writing duties with Wilder, deep into their lucrative, if complicated, collaboration. With the gorgeously perfected cinematography of John Seitz, it’s hard not to consider what was just around the corner. We can almost feel Double Indemnity peeking through. But we’re not quite there yet. There is still space to grow.

Wilder’s opening image is a fine vision: a phantom tank trawling across the sands driven by the dead weight of a corpse. Except, there is one survivor inside the rolling tomb; his name is Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), of the British army. He’s exhausted and terribly disoriented trying to make sense of his curious predicament just as we are.

In the end, the tank gets away without him, leaving the corporal to wander through the desert in a one-person exodus. Plagued by sunstroke, he eventually trades the vast arid emptiness for a ghost town, the former regimental headquarters for the British forces. They have long since left the premises.

One of the only people left in The Empress of Britain Hotel is Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a bumbling wreck of a man, trying to keep his neck and assuage all parties at every turn. The other is Mouche (Anne Baxter), a Frenchwoman in the middle of nowhere, serving as a maid. His cook ran out on him and his only waiter got it in the most recent blitzkrieg.

There’s no time to form a decision about the delusional Brit because just to make things more tenuous German forces roll into town, in preparation for the high command. It’s enough to make any man cave, much less a pile of perpetual nerves, wearing a fez, like Farid.

He obviously acquiesces to their every whim, except giving away their newest guest, currently stowed away behind a counter. He gets by on the skin of his teeth and through the clemency of his newfound benefactors as they vouch for him in his position as their waiter. For the time being, no one can catch them in the lie.

In full transparency, I’m not quite sure what to make of Baxter’s performance — that of an American playing a Frenchwoman, however, I’m rather hesitant to admit she does a fairly spot-on approximation of a Simone Simon or other French contemporaries speaking in English. Truthfully, the whole picture brazenly scrambles all the nationalities, somehow normalizing all the casting. Another American as a Brit. A Russian as an Egyptian, An Austrian as a German, and so on.

Italians come in as well, represented by the boisterous baritone, Fortunio Bonavova, grumbling about the state of affairs for his army. There proves to be a testy relationship even within Axis allies. As always, the Italians feel like the comical little brother in the scenario. If we take the Germans nominally serious — as a kind of threat — the Italians are all but dismissed.

Erich Von Stroheim gives a blood-chilling introduction, back turned completely toward the camera. One thing he doesn’t lack is stage presence, capturing the screen with the entirety of his entrance. While he’s not doing an imitation of the real Rommel, it seems Von Stroheim does us a greater favor by being a version of himself. After all, this is the same hallowed figure who gave us Greed, showed up in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and subsequently Sunset Blvd (1950). He is a worthy enigma in his own right.

The story twirls on a peculiar, if not altogether compelling, coincidence. Bramble takes on the persona of the crippled waiter as a pure survival tactic, only to find out he’s not what he seems. The Germans are the ones who make him realize this, by bringing him into their confidence. They seem in one sense highly rational — at any rate, not utter buffoons — and yet would they have actually been so stupid? We can only conjecture. Regardless, here we are. He’s been given an invaluable if precarious, opportunity.

With an influx of British prisoners, there’s a fear that the jig is finally up. They only need give the word, and he’s done for. Instead, they too play along, realizing their brilliant luck. 20 questions over dinner with The Desert Fox only elicits more riddles when it comes to his plans and unparalleled success.

Even more so than Stalag 17, Wilder’s picture is a small-scale war film. What’s present is a decently solid script by he and Charles Brackett. While it doesn’t always jump off the page, there are frequent lines, giving a stirring reminder of who is penning this story. These are the men behind Double Indemnity.

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It also becomes obvious the battles have been left for others to reenact. At its best, Five Graves to Cairo is about character and with it, cracking the code of Rommel. It might seem like an insignificant victory but the implication for the broader war are made obvious. It’s easy to admit lives are at stake, even as Bramble teeters precariously close to being ousted. Mouche has no allegiance to him or the country that left her countrymen stranded at Dunkirk.

Instead, Wilder uses the bombers overhead as a bit of a tumultuous symphony for what is going down in the bomb cellar. Chiaroscuro is most boldly on display as our hero must flee for his life. If any character is redeemed, it is Mouche, but for the narrative to function, she is also forced to pay the consequences.

The ending is nothing to bat an eye at — certainly no extraordinarily inventive digression — but it suitable enough for its purpose. There’s a bit of satisfaction as Tone returns back to the place he once stumbled into, now victorious. There’s time for a laugh or two, even as a hint of somberness sets in. In the end, a new resolve has been instilled. We’re ready to go out there and do our part. It fits conveniently enough into the contemporary propaganda machine.

It left me thinking, what’s really missing is the trademark Wilder wit, whether trenchant or wholly subversive. Thankfully, there was still ample time for this to come to fruition. There’s certainly no illusions about war smelling like honeysuckle with enough sand, killing, and residual dead to rule that out completely.

But this early in his career, it still feels like Wilder willingly propagates an ongoing idealism about the Allies and America — the country that openly took him in when he needed a place. He would never lose his gratitude, even as he began to subvert convention soon enough. One could contend Wilder started to understand his adopted nation to its core — warts and all — and still managed to love it. This is one of the true marvels of his career.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Dancing Lady (1933): Joan Crawford & Clark Gable

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You know the drill. In the throes of the Depression, the idle rich fritter their wealth away at such social events as striptease and then attend the ensuing night court until they get bored with the whole affair. Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is one of their ilk, but he’s more engaged than others thanks to the pretty girl on the other side of the courtroom.

Down-on-her-luck Janie Barlow (an effulgent Joan Crawford) is a casualty of a police raid undertaken on the saucy dancing joint she’s been working at. Beyond being smitten, Tone (Crawford’s real-life husband for a time), is invested in helping give her a leg up, ulterior motives notwithstanding.

If it’s not obvious already, Dancing Lady has a premise to rival Warner Bros’ superlative successes with risque backstage, rags-to-riches musicals like 42nd Street. So, while the plot is nothing special, it somehow taps into Crawford’s innate sense of ambition as an actress.

There’s a feeling she’s not entirely acting a part; she’s driven to make it to the top. It’s this impetus that leads her to stick to “thousand-to-one-shots” over any man — even Park Avenue know-it-alls swimming in cash. She’s going to make it of her own accord. She’s going uptown toward the art world.

The script purposefully bears down on the vernacular to differentiate the patricians from the plebians and with it Janie’s attempts to make something of herself — first, through improved diction and then a newly cultivated wardrobe.

Without knowing it, she’s probably aspiring to the entertainment funded by such nincompoops as Mr. Bradley and his roly-poly walking gag of a son Junior. They are a father and son comic echo chamber if you will, and they also hold the purse strings for one of the industry’s latest productions.

It’s not altogether glamourous stuff but Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) and his taskmaster-like regimen, turning chorus girls into a full-fledged production, is the “big time” for someone like Janie. The only problem is getting an audition. The head honcho has his right-hand man Steve (Ted Healy) run interference for him — it didn’t go so well for a wisecracking Eve Arden. Still, the “Dutchess” is an assiduous gal if there ever was one.

Director Robert Z Leonard is evidently enamored with his whip pans, but he does evoke pace rather well, especially when Crawford tries furiously to catch up with Gable as he streaks down the sidewalk. While it’s a cliched rom-com montage that would be recycled time-and-time again, it still stands out within the context of the film. The leads don’t speak a word to one another for several minutes at least.

In what feels like a non-sequitur, the Three Stooges make a lightning-quick cameo. Well, they actually show up twice, posing as stagehands. It’s true they feel completely at odds with Joan Crawford’s story arc, but it’s delightful to see them, even momentarily, as she continues her ascension. This is only to be surpassed by the appearance of Fred Astaire! (And I nearly forgot to mention Nelson Eddy, so there you go).

Tone continues to go to great lengths to win her affections, secretly bankrolling her star vehicle, dancing and dining her, and flaunting his swimming pools. When all else fails, he resorts to taking her to Cuba, conveniently far away from the other man in her life and the career she’s chosen.

The red-hot sparks are given a literal gymnasium to work themselves out in — positively buzzing between Crawford and Gable — as they get in their morning exercise to keep their svelte dancing figure and brawny physique respectively. It goes unspoken, but an unwritten rule of storytelling tips us off that antagonism usually denotes love. They have copious amounts ready-made to dish out at one another.

Unfortunately, by this point, the story gets less and less interesting by the minute as it continues to sink into the preconceived notions of the genre. In other words, what we suspect to be derivative proves itself to be precisely that. It speaks to the charisma of the stars who make the well-trod paces watchable, even engaging, and there are a few momentary delights around the fringes.

The final extravaganza is a not-too-veiled Busby Berkeley knockoff infatuated with beer. The surreal foray that follows offers up a luxuriant carousel of beauties and giant fan blades strapped with women — not to mention the surreal moment when a host of old maids go behind a curtain only to be dismantled to come out as gorgeous dancing ladies.

With Fred Astaire showcased prominently alongside Joan in a very fluffy ensemble, it felt strangely out of place. Astaire and Rogers had yet to be placed together and it’s true their trajectories could have been so much different. I don’t know a thimbleful about dancing, but at the very least, Crawford has an earnestness on taps. Though, she’s not quite Ginger Rogers either. No one ever said she was.

With Tone’s gigolo scorned and “The Duchess” going in to check on her dejected “Duke” after their stunning success, there’s a sense the working-class heroes are being reunited in a triumphant victory for all the blue-collar folks in the audience. In other words, it’s not just Depression-era pap, there’s this genuine element of wish fulfillment.

The movie is gracious enough to supply one last obligatory scene between Crawford and Gable for contemporary audiences. Because there are a lot of distractions (and some unique surprises like Astaire), but the romantic chemistry is present and delivered on a silver platter with the kiss that the whole movie’s been culminating to. Surprising, I know. What’s the axiom? Give the people what they want? Dancing Lady is case and point.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lives of Bengal Lancers (1935): Colonial Camaraderie Sullied by Hitler

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In the imperialist traditions of the likes of Tarzan The Ape Man (1932), Gunga Din (1939) and even Lawrence of Arabia (1962) comes The Lives of Bengal Lancers. We cannot take the era or the colonial sentiments for granted like the contemporary viewer did since we must reconcile with the complicated filter hindsight lends.

It’s a bit like an old Cowboy and Indians picture except instead we have lancers and Indians. In theory, our allegiances lie solely with the dominant sides, and the rebels have our ire because revisionist filmmaking had yet to be created. This is the victor’s myth.

Director Henry Hathaway in later years would be remembered as a veteran of both crime pictures and classic John Wayne westerns including True Grit. The Lives of Bengal Lancers was his first formidable success, and the action and adventure itself are frankly quite thrilling.

Gary Cooper, as one of American’s dashing action heroes of the day, plays our protagonist MacGregor, a rough-edged soldier who nevertheless conceals the age-old heart of gold. A prime example comes when he makes up some excuse to send a new recruit to call on his father so they can talk in confidence. The boy has yet to see his flesh and blood face-to-face without constant rules and regulations getting between them.

Actually, we have two new recruits who come aboard: Forsythe (Franchot Tone) a glib sportsman who finds great relish in crossing wills with MacGregor and then dashing Lieutenant Stone (Richard Cromwell) still wet behind the ears. His father is the commander of the entire outpost. A journeyman soldier, “Old Ramrod” Stone (Guy Stander) is an incorrigible stickler for duty and discipline.

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But the task at hand is the apprehending of a charismatic gunrunner and local outlaw Ahmad Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), who subsequently holds great power over the territory. The favored sport of “Pig Sticking” provides a handy cover for snooping around.

Most delightful of all is the one-upmanship fostered between our two manly specimens played by Cooper and Tone. The constant friendly competition between the blunt Canadian straight-arrow and the more polished and tempered “Blues Man” brought up in Britain is one of the film’s finer assets.

But of course, the inevitable happens and our heroes get captured by Khan. The famed line misstated on numerous occasions is actually, “We have ways to make men talk.” However, it feels anticlimactic considering.

It’s also difficult to decide if it’s to the film’s credit or not, but the villain, played by the white actor Douglas Dumbrille, is not trying to hide it. He is educated and resists playing up some savage image. He leaves that to all his underlings who do his every bidding.

While imprisoned, our heroes spend their idle time, outside of being tortured, playing at cockroach races and letting their stubble grow out. Once again, it represents the very best of the film instilled by the performances of Cooper and Tone opposite one other. Because everyone else we can easily see in any of these old adventure epics. It feels like standard stuff. They are not.

Certainly, the story teases out this issue between the duties of a soldier and the scruples of a man with inbred common decency. Should the family be sacrificed for the sake of the outfit? Is a man who has poured everything into his military career because he believes in regulation fit to be praised and venerated? The commander’s appreciative colleague (C. Aubrey Smith) lauds his actions acknowledging, “Love or death won’t get in the way of his duty.” Whether that is an entirely good thing remains to be seen.

Of course, we see analogous themes in even some of John Ford’s pictures like Fort Apache and specifically Rio Grande. The latter film has the same father-son dynamic playing out, except inside of conveniently killing off the spouse to streamline the conflict, that film actually digs into the themes more definitively. Anyone who has seen the film will agree Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s relationship is the most interesting dynamic. A close second is the camaraderie of the soldiers.

In The Lives of Bengal Lancers, again, we have no such relationship, so the film is at its best with the soldiers sharing their lives together. One must note while the western might be dead, these old adventure yarns feel even more archaic. This brings up a host of other issues to parse through.

Watching the film unfold we cannot know for sure if we are on the right side of a righteous or unjust war; the underlying problem is the film does not leave it open. It’s already accepted who the conquers and heroes will be. I have nothing against the likes of Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone. I rather like them. But I can’t help but feel their team is playing a bit unfairly. The deck is stacked in their favor.

This ties into another notable caveat to make the viewer wary because Lives of a Bengal Lancer was purportedly a favorite of Hitler. In its digressions, he saw agreeable conclusions to inspire his own empire — the Third Reich — namely an unswerving duty to country along with elements of racial superiority.

Because it is these Brits with their bravery and know-how who are able to hold off the hordes of enemies. Their valor in itself is not an issue but placed up against their enemy, it is slightly troubling. The fact Hitler made it compulsory viewing to members of the SS is another level of bone-chilling. It’s hard to look at the picture in the same light after such a revelation.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Phantom Lady (1944)

phantom-lady-1Robert Siodmak might not be the foremost of lauded directors, but it’s indisputable that film noir as a genre, a movement, a style, whatever you want to call it, would be a lot less interesting without him.

Phantom Lady is a perfect illustration of that fact as it takes a simple plotting device and rides it through the entire story to a fitting conclusion. It’s not a taut thriller or really anything of the kind but the characters and even the cinematic choices make it a surprisingly shadowy delight.

As the title suggests, any explanation of the narrative must begin and end with this phantom lady who, if you want to use storytelling terms, is the MacGuffin, the entity driving the plot forward to its final end. She’s necessary but as we might predict she’s at the same time integral to the story and not at all important.

Because the fact that she is missing is simply a pretense that leads to a response from our hero. And at first, our hero seems pretty obvious, the handsome down on his luck Joe with a pencil mustache (Alan Curtis). Once upon a time, I confused him with another noir regular Brian Dunlevy but no more. Anyways, our actual hero comes to the fore after the inciting incident. This man Scott Henderson all of a sudden comes back from a crummy night at the theater to find himself accused of strangling his wife. The cops seem to have a guilty until proven innocent modus operandi. True, the eyewitnesses for his alibi seem knee deep and yet everyone has hushed up, including a bartender, a jazz drummer, a flamboyant performer. Worst of all his female companion for the evening has vanished into thin air.

With no alibi, Scott still sticks to his ridiculous story that no one believes and he winds up sentenced for the murder of his wife. If you’re still following, it’s at this juncture where the story really begins. Henderson’s plucky secretary “Kansas” (Ella Raines) is smitten with her boss and determined to prove his innocence. So she becomes our intrepid noir hero digging around in the sleazy bars and dance halls, tracking down possible leads. A tight-lipped bartender is subjected to her merciless tailing and she even ingratiates herself to a swinging jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who can really make his sticks fly.

They get her closer to the trail but each one becomes a successive dead end. She gains some encouraging allies in the initially skeptical detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as well as Scott’s best friend who has just returned from a trip to South America (Franchot Tone). Together they try and wrap up the loose ends. Of course, as an audience, the dramatic irony sets up the tension as we know what’s going on behind the scenes. So this is still partially a mystery as the search for the phantom lady continues but the joke’s really on us because soon enough we know what’s happening. However, whether it’s too late for our heroes is quite another question altogether.

Siodmak does well to develop a stylized atmosphere and there are some especially intriguing touches. The foremost is how many sequences, including the tailing sequence, function without music and yet jazz is utilized in a frenzied interlude that is almost unheard of in noir for its sheer vivacity. It’s oddly disconcerting, the juxtaposition suggesting this utter contrast between personified joy and the darkness that is seeping into the story. After all, a man is about to be sentenced to death. Jazz certainly does not fit the mood.

There’s also the paradigm of the noir working girl played perhaps most iconically by the audacious Ella Raines. In many ways, this is her film and she’s as good and almost better than many a gumshoe and insurance investigators. It’s a role that Raines embodies with great resolve and a certain amount of drive that we can appreciate in a female character of that day and age. She’s far from an objectified figure because she has brains and desires of our own — even if they are all for the well-being of a man.

It also should be noted that this was the first production credit for pioneering British screenwriter Joan Harrison. She was only one of only three woman producers in Hollywood at the time and this is a film that she could certainly be proud of with an impressive noir heroine.

3.5/5 Stars

Phantom Lady (1944)

PhantomladyThe film uses the motif of a mysterious lady who cannot be found as the jumping off point for this Film-Noir. It is this so called phantom lady who Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meets at a bar after having a spat with his wife. They lift each others spirits and part ways. Returning home, he is met by the police inspector (Thomas Gomez), who found that Henderson’s wife was strangled to death. Scott is the prime suspect and now he needs his alibi which seemed so airtight before.

She truly has vanished and no one remembers her so Henderson is on the verge of the death penalty. It is his smitten secretary Carol (Ella Raines) who takes up his cause. She retraces his steps interrogating a bartender and wheedling information out of a puny drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.). Soon an old friend (Franchot Tone) of Scott’s returns from South America and everything gets a little more interesting.

Phantom Lady stars a cast of only a couple recognizable names, however Robert Siodmak does a decent job at making this noir interesting and it is certainly worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars