House of Strangers (1949)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always hold the prestige of a writer over a director and yet working off a script by Phillip Yordan, he guides the picture with an assured hand. House of Strangers manages to be intermittently stylish and deeply evocative highlighted by fiery performances. Ironically, it begins like a good many of his most well-known works with an extensive flashback.

It stems from a story that has deeply familiar roots in the American experience full of the old vs. new world dichotomy, immigrant lives, love, and hate. The expansive Italian family rendered so memorably in The Godfather films comes to mind most plainly and there’s little doubt House of Strangers sows some of the same seeds cropping up again over 20 years later in Coppola’s classic.

Thematically, it’s about a culture that is extremely family-oriented but also hierarchical. It’s right there in the title. With how he runs his household, Gino Manetti (Edward G. Robinson) has tended a “house of strangers” by picking favorites and alienating his other sons. They are tired of constantly being ridiculed and doing his bidding, while their ambitious brother Max (Richard Conte) gets their father’s full attention, going so far as to herald his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart (Debra Paget). The other Manettis never get such fanfare.

As might be expected within this context, the story relies on powerhouse performances and Robinson is astoundingly effectual as the patriarch. It never really feels as if he’s playing at something (the same cannot be said of Hope Emerson unfortunately) but he takes on the persona of someone who does only what they see fit to do. His mode of thinking and acting is very straightforward. There’s nothing diplomatic about his dealings and that garners him many friends but also plenty of ill feelings.

Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest Minneti brother, is discontent with the way his father takes him for granted, keeping him as a bank teller with little responsibility in the family business. He’s worried about his image with his wife and the neighborhood. Their father’s favoritism only makes it worse.

Then, there’s Pietro (George Valentine) the brawny brother who doesn’t have the greatest brains and so his father keeps him on as a security guard. The boy’s also been moonlighting in the boxing ring but he receives his father’s disdain for having a soft belly. So he’s got his own burning grudge, that and the fact Gino is always making him change the records at family dinners. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is the pushover and it’s easy for dad to keep him in his place.

In a sequence that could almost be plucked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank is closed down in the throes of The Depression and there are riots in the streets broken up by the police force. But in the aftermath, Gino is put on trial for his loose business practices that more than likely bent numerous federal regulations. He never did care much for them.

If his sons were behind him it would be easy enough to beat the rap but with only Max in his corner, it becomes an increasingly strenuous battle. In the end, the beloved son shields his father but ends up being disbarred and served a prison sentence for jury tampering.

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Waiting for him on the outside is the former client that he’s come to love, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), and out of love she confronts the old man and berates him for what he has unwittingly done to his sons, worst of all Max. Hayward’s performance is poised, at first sultry and then full of fight as she battles for what’s hers. She’s one strong woman in what seems a sea of benevolent ones.

The inevitable finally happens and Gino dies but he has left behind residual bitterness that still seethes between the siblings. The other three remain jealous of Max’s hallowed place at their father’s right hand and he sees their takeover of their father’s bank as seditious.

Conte seems often criminally underappreciated and best-remembered as a casualty of Michael Corleone. But do a survey of his career and you realize how crucial he was to the film noir movement serving up a versatility that found him in sympathetic roles as well as villainous turns running the gamut from Call Northside 777 (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Whirlpool (1949) to Cry of The City (1948) and The Big Combo (1955).

On a side note, this picture would once again briefly pair Conte with Debra Paget romantically though, oddly, she was only about 16 at the time. The studio’s executives must have seen something…

However, with House of Strangers Conte straddles the line between most of his other roles. Ruthless when he needs to be, capable of a grudge even, and still generally affectionate of the ones he loves. It’s arguably his most far-ranging and nuanced performance of the whole lot and he does a sterling job.

Because to drag The Godfather comparison out further, if Robinson is Vito, in some regards, the most prominent figure in the film, then Conte’s Max is Michael, the son who soon comes into his own and becomes the new center. He owns the picture just as Pacino ultimately became emblematic of The Godfather as a dynasty.

The repercussions of brother pitted against brother are evident. The forces of their father are still working on them almost unconsciously now. It’s been built into how they perceive family. But in a single shining moment, Max wrenches his clan out of this self-destructive horror that their dear old departed dad seemingly cultivated. Instead, he lays the foundation for something more substantive even if the healing comes in incremental baby steps.

Old habits die hard but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eradicated…Maybe. More importantly, he hears the impatient honk of that same horn out on the adjoining street. He’s still got his girl. The film’s happy ending deserves a noirish asterisk. Some amount of loss must come with any gain.

3.5/5 Stars

Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

TheKeysoftheKingdomvideocover.jpg“Heathens are not always low just as Christians are not always high.” – Gregory Peck as Father Chilsum

Tales of humble priests are more fit for the likes of a Bresson or Rossellini, but Hollywood proves it too can offer up a film with resonance along similar lines. It’s a more melodramatic tale, a  historical and religious epic of sorts, carved out of the studio era mold, but its facets are auspicious and abundant. The script comes from veterans Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

It’s also hard to believe that it was this role as Father Chilsum that truly galvanized Gregory Peck’s career early on. Because if you look at him, he’s an imposing figure, kind-faced and calm. Still, there’s an unwritten maturity that seems to dwell beyond those eyes of his like he’s been doing this for a long, long time. It makes his playing an old man not all that unbelievable, in spite of any amount of makeup.

Keys of the Kingdom is also blessed by the studio system with the likes of Thomas Mitchell, Edmund Gwen, Vincent Price and a surprisingly adequate array of Asian performers including Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, and Benson Fong in an especially notable turn as the Father’s faithful right-hand man Joseph.

Despite having a loving family, Francis came from humble roots and tough beginnings illustrated by the long-held divide between Catholics and Protestants. Even as he resolved to join the clergy, his heart struggles with love and assignments that feel unfulfilling to his heart.

That is until he asks to be assigned as a missionary in a province of China. In the ensuing decades, he works to leave his mark of goodwill on a community, and he’s an upright man not looking for so-called “Rice Christians,” believing such bartering is a forgery for God. As his track record reflects, he’s a rather unorthodox as far as priests go, but he makes up for it with sincerity. His best friend is an atheist, a doctor from back home, and he’s not just concerned about the spiritual well-being his flock but their physical health too–all too soon becoming a trusted healer of the town, despite having little to no official medical training.

And although his gains are humble, he garners the respect of most everyone he meets. His fellow helper Joseph, the initially curt Reverend Mother (Rose Stradner) and even a republic soldier Major Shen (Richard Loo), who is amazed by the religious man’s resolve. True, his congregation is hardly a boon of religious conversions, but he begins an orphanage, taking in discarded children and nurturing them on the mission grounds. Many years later the Father Chilsum is to be sent back home for the sake of his health. It’s a bittersweet goodbye to this place he called home for so many years.

However, there’s a peaceful contentment to his character that Peck reflects so seamlessly. This was a man who came here to this foreign land with a vision that went beyond conversion rates. First and foremost, he cared about loving people well, and everything else was added to him.

3.5/5 Stars

5 Fingers (1952)

5fingersHonestly, this doesn’t feel like a typical Joseph L. Mankiewicz film. It was written by someone else and because he was nearing the end of his contract with 20th Century, he didn’t end up editing the project. Supposedly the overseeing of Daryl Zanuck led to several scenes being scrapped which Mankiewicz thought were good. Also, as a director, his name does not usually scream spy thriller like an Alfred Hitchcock. He’s more in his element with cultured dramas about relationships. However, 5 Fingers is still an engaging tale based on the historical wartime events surrounding the informant code-named Cicero.

In real life, Elyesa Bazna was an Albanian born valet who worked under the British ambassador to Turkey. He played both sides, first ingratiating himself as a gentleman among the Brits and then taking pictures of top secret information and passing it off to the Germans in the period between 1943-44. Cicero, as he was called, could easily come off as an abhorrent traitor and yet James Mason plays his character Diello with an adeptness that is underlined with an air of civility. We don’t particularly care for the man, but he’s not a monster, just a bit crooked and concerned with personal gain. Mason certainly did have a knack for playing the criminal type and I must admit I’m curious to watch more films with him because his performances have not quite won me over yet. There’s still time for that.

The film altogether is not that tense, but it does set the groundwork for some interesting interactions which all seem to stem from Cicero. He is subservient and aloof when it comes to serving the ambassador. He’s quite open with the Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darreux), who turns into a confident, romantic partner, and in some ways an accomplice — just wait. Meanwhile, he deals with the Germans self-assuredly knowing what he wants and how he’s going to get it. He’s no slouch and he seems devilishly good at the spy game.

Throw in some double-crossing from the countess and a dynamite word like “Overlord” (aka D-Day) and Dellio finds himself on the run with the Brit’s counterintelligence operative (Michael Rennie) hot on his tail. Thanks to his assistance, the Germans are trying to protect him as he gets ready to hightail it to South America. There’s one small thing he didn’t account for. He’s been duped. He and the countess both. All he can do is break out in a fit of laughter. I’m not sure if that’s how the real story ended — probably not, but it makes for a fitting conclusion of this tale as his money slowly drifts away in the wind.

3.5/5 Stars

No Way Out (1950)

220px-No_Way_Out_(1950_film)_posterI had a preconceived notion that No Way Out might be the kind of social drama that was groundbreaking for its day and by today’s standards looks mundane and quaint. 65 years have passed and this film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz still packs a wallop, believe it or not. We are blessed with the first major role for screen icon Sidney Poitier as young doctor Luther Brooks. His main antagonist is Richard Widmark playing a racist scumbag like he does best, and Linda Darnell also gives a key performance, although her career would soon be on the decline.

The film opens with the young interning doctor — Poitier was only 22 at the time –getting ready for a night shift. His first customers just happen to be Johnny and Ray Biddle, who both got it in the leg after a botched robbery attempt. At first glance, their wounds look superficial, but Luther notices Johnny is disoriented. His diagnosis is a brain tumor so he tries to administer a spinal tap which ends up unsuccessful, partially due to Ray’s constant berating. But Ray has no sympathy; all he knows is that this black doctor has killed his brother. A white doctor could have saved him and all his prejudiced beliefs of blacks are confirmed. At least that’s what he tells himself in his narrow little mind.  Luther even goes to his superior Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and although he cannot be absolutely certain, he maintains confidence in Luther’s competence.

nowayout1Again that bears little importance to Ray and he will not grant them the opportunity to do an autopsy. After all, his mind is already made up. So the next best thing is to track down Johnny’s former wife Edie (Darnell), who has pulled herself out of the gutter which is Beaver Canal and made a modest living for herself. They want her help, and unbeknownst to them, she does go see Ray. You can see it in how they interact with each other. She was Johnny’s wife once, but there was something between them and Ray won’t let her forget it. That’s undoubtedly why she wanted to get away, but Ray brings out the worst in her. Even as they speak, her racist sentiments come bubbling to the surface. It’s in her veins after all. It doesn’t help that unrest is building in the city. A riot is at hand and the slow build-up leading to the imminent rumble is boiling with tension. Mankiewicz does something important here. He shows both perspectives. I cannot help but think some things have not changed a whole lot over the years. Black vs. white. The same racism. The same belligerence. The same lack of understanding.

nowayout2Of course, after that is all done, that still does not wrap things up with Ray. He still has to settle a score with Luther and he uses Edie against her will. They set a trap at the home of Dr. Wharton for the unsuspecting Luther, and this scene has vital importance to the film, not simply because Biddle and Brooks come face to face once more. This is the scene where Edie must make a choice. Really it’s the universal choice. Stand passively by as injustice is being done or take a stand against it.

So you can make your own diagnosis, but this was not a superficial message movie. It hits fairly hard. I was even surprised by how often Ray Biddle lets the N-word fly. It completely fit Widmark’s characterization, but the production codes allowed it. Supposedly the actor apologized profusely after many of his scenes with Poitier, but his performance is nevertheless potent. It’s certainly convicting and we cannot be too quick to find fault with any of these characters because, truth be told, we all have some apathy and narrow-mindedness stuck inside our skulls. No Way Out is a striking reminder of that.

4/5 Stars

Review: All About Eve (1950)

“FastEveEveMargotCasswellWitten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” ~ Margo Channing

It’s cliche, I do admit, but they simply do not make films like this anymore. Stories about people talking where the actors take center stage. In this case, the story from Joseph L. Mankiewicz is about the Broadway stage and all that happens behind the curtains, in the dressing rooms, and behind the closed doors of the royalty of that profession.There is so much that could be dissected, antagonized over, or acknowledged so I will move through it the best way I know how.

A moment must be spent acknowledging that this is the film that revitalized the career of Bette Davis. She was the tops during the 30s and early 40s, but the role of the histrionic stage icon Margo Channing was her comeback and it thoroughly suited Davis. I have actually never been a fan of hers because I always found her rather arrogant and she scares me visually. However, All About Eve plays on my personal sentiments wonderfully. When we’re first introduced to Margo, she’s everything we expect in a Bette Davis character, and truth be told I don’t really like her. But interestingly enough that changes. That’s where Eve and the rest of the cast come in.

The film is book-ended by the wonderfully wry and snooty commentary of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He makes it his mission to rake every new play over the coals, and he can be merciless. But he also is a great ally and he proves so for young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Because, after all, this film is her story, we just don’t quite understand why at the beginning.

Eve came from humble roots and was the most devoted young fan of Margo Channing. She would attend every one of her performances and wait outside her dressing room timidly, just to get a glimpse of the star. One of Margo’s best friends Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) was accustomed to seeing the girl and in a kindly gesture she invited Eve up to the dressing room. And just like that Eve had her backstage pass into this world rounded out by Margo Channing, Karen, her husband the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and the young director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) who also happens to be Margo’s suitor.

She begins unassuming enough on the outskirts of their little group. Always seen, not heard. Always thoughtful and ready to be of service. Eve takes on the role of Margo’s personal assistant just like that and an ego like Channing doesn’t mind. In fact, everyone seems to like having her around except the skeptical Birdie (embodied by the always spunky Thelma Ritter).

As time marches on, Eve loses her charm. More and more it feels as if she’s analyzing Margo. Watching her every move. Monitoring her success and slowly moving in. She plants the idea that she can be the next understudy and so it is. One fateful night Karen agrees to stall Margo and Eve gets her big chance as an understudy. She of course politely invites all the major critics to see the performance. It was the conscientious thing to do after all. Ironically, it’s at this point where things turn. Margo becomes the victim and in her great vulnerability, while sharing with Karen, we begin to sympathize with this woman hiding behind the facade of Margo Channing. Meanwhile, Eve continues her ascent using whatever means possible. She alienates Margo and begins driving a wedge between the always amiable working relationship of Lloyd and Bill. Eve even resorts to blackmail and home wrecking sharing her master plot with Addison.

She’s used everybody else and so he seems like the next logical target. However, he’s too much like her. He’s too cynical to fall for her act, and he points out a few chinks in her armor. So like that we end up back at the award ceremony where Eve is about to win her big award. Now we know all the clawing and backstabbing it took for her to get there. Now all that is veiled under her perfectly demure features and charming voice. But we see it on the faces of all the ones who sit there knowingly. Each one knows all too well the damage that this girl has done. She came out of the woodwork, used and abused them because everything was about Eve. Nothing else mattered to her.

But the beauty of the film’s ending is that the cycle continues. Margo is fading away yes, and Eve is taking her place, but that means that there are more Eves where she came from. Young girls obsessed with stardom, fame, and success. It’s a frightening evolution and it proves to be a sharp indictment of the industry as a whole.

The five leads are solid and their performances shift as the Margo-Eve dynamic fluctuates. However, George Sanders is possibly the most enjoyable character, because, despite his cruel wit, he’s the one who is outside of Eve’s influence, or at least he catches her in her charade. There’s something utterly satisfying in that. Also, he has some memorable moments alongside the aspiring Ms. Casswell (none other than the show-stopping Marilyn Monroe in an early role). So really this is a film about the performances and they are well worth it because they suggest that in such a cultured world, so many things lurk under the surface. It might be insecurity, fear, suppressed desire, or savagery. Humanity is most definitely messy, you just have to look behind the curtain sometimes.

5/5 Stars

People Will Talk (1951)

peoplewill1People Will Talk is in this weird gray area between genres. It has humor but it’s not screwy enough to be a screwball. It has drama, but it’s not intense enough to be a full-fledged melodrama. And underlining all this are issues that reflect such areas as the medical industry, the Korean War, and most definitely the witch hunts that were going on in the nation — bleeding into the Hollywood industry.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this is a minor classic about a doctor named Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant), who is under investigation from one of his by-the-book colleagues Dr. Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who dislikes the good doctor’s unorthodox and thoroughly effective approach to his trade. Praetorius by now is a preeminent physician who started his own clinic and also teaches classes at a local med school.

One of these individuals happens to be Mrs. Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain). She is not a student but sits in the lecture because her former partner was a medic. A date with a cadaver proves to be too much for her and she faints. Seems normal enough right? Wrong. After examining her, the Dr. tells her she’s pregnant. The truth comes out that she’s not really married and the father is dead. Her own father would be greatly distressed to learn about her condition, since he cannot provide for her.

That’s where Dr. Praetorious comes into the picture, and he takes great concern in Ms. Higgins condition. He attempts to allay her anxiety by saying she’s not really pregnant, and she runs away from his clinic out of embarrassment, since she is falling in love with him. He goes with his stoic friend Mr. Shunderson to the farm owned by Deborah’s uncle.

Deborah turns out to have a strange mix of aloofness and lovesickness, but when she realizes the Doctor’s true motive for being there (before he even does) she is wholly relieved. They share a passionate kiss and leave the farm behind to get married. Of course, the Doctor still hasn’t told her about the pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the whole storyline culminates with a concert conducted by Praetorious himself, but it just so happens that the hearing to analyze his conduct is happening simultaneously. Some mysterious truths about Mr. Shunderson are given in his own words, and stale Mr. Elwell’s case is dumped. Everything wraps up nicely as you expect with a happy marriage and Grant free to direct the symphony in one last glorious crescendo.

So you see if you really look at this film, there are these two main story arcs. One is a response to McCarthy’s witch hunts, the other an equally subversive love story about a doctor marrying a woman who had a pregnancy out of wedlock. When you put it that way this film seems chock full of controversy, and yet it is all veiled in a palatable comedy-romance. Walter Slezak is a welcomed addition to the cast as the nutty colleague and Hume Cronyn has taken on better roles, but nonetheless, he is always an enjoyable character actor. Obviously, this is a lesser Grant performance, but his pairing with Jeanne Crain is still a fun one.

4/5 Stars

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

A_letter_to_three_wives_movie_posterHere is a story about three wives, the three husbands that go with them, and the one woman who got in the middle of them all. The main plot device is simply this: This woman named Addie Grace, who we never see but who is always being referred to, has left town and she also left a letter addressed to the three wives. The women get it as they board a boat for an afternoon out at sea with some underprivileged children. When they read what it says their afternoon takes a major turn. The one and only Addie Ross has run off with one of their husbands and yet she does not say who it is.

The rest of their time is spent thinking back on their marriages and each recollection is framed as a long flashback. First, comes Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), a farm girl who met her husband during the war. Now with his friends back home she wishes to make a good impression, but she feels like she can never measure up with such elite society. To make matters worse, she learns that before the war it was thought that Brad would marry Addie Grace because they grew up together.

Next, comes Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), who puts on an extra special dinner for her bosses from the radio station she writes for. The night includes a forgotten birthday, sappy radio programs, and all the while Rita is constantly trying to please and appease her bosses. They enjoy the evening but her husband George is upset that she constantly caves to them. To make matters worse, as a school teacher, it is difficult for him, as the man of the house, to have her bring in a great deal of their income.

Last but not least is Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) who grew up in a poor household near the train tracks with her mother and younger sister. She focuses her attention on Porter Hollingsway (her future husband), an older divorced man who also happens to own a chain of department stores. After a great deal of back and forth, they get married but underlying their marriage is this assumption that she only went after him for his money. Their relationship hardly seems to involve true love.

All three women return to their lives. Rita is grateful to find George sitting in the living room. Porter, who Lora Mae half expected to be gone, has come into the house exhausted after a long day of work. Deborah is seemingly not so lucky. All of them get ready for the dance that evening with their spirits all at different levels. However, after Porter shares a revelation the evening gets a whole lot better.

This Joseph L. Mankiewicz precursor to All About Eve is a remarkable drama in its own right thanks to its primary narrative device and fine performances from the cast. Thelma Ritter was as entertaining as ever and Celeste Holme was tantalizing as the unseen voice of Addie. It is interesting how all the stories of the film interconnect characters, making us come to understand each and every one of them a little better. The ending was slightly abrupt but still clever. All in all, A Letter to Three Wives was an interesting concept that paid off beautifully.

4.5/5 Stars

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

f5ab0-the-ghost-and-mrs-muir-postersStarring Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, and George Sanders, the film is about a widowed mother who moves with her daughter to a supposedly haunted house. She and the ghost have some altercations but she will not be intimidated and she has fallen in love with the unique home. Soon Mrs. Muir and the Ghost bond as he dictates his life story for her book. However, once it is done, they realize the problems with their relationship. Mrs. Muir falls for a human man and when it gets serious Michael decides to leave her life, causing her not to remember him. Soon the years pass and the unmarried Mrs. Muir is getting older with her daughter growing up. Finally Mrs. Muir passes away peacefully and now she is reunited with the one she forgot and they can be happy for eternity. This is a very nice film and Tierney and Harrison are both wonderful in their roles. Although the plot is simple it is unique and enjoyable all the same.

4/5 Stars