The Underworld Story (1950)

“You know what’s inside of ivy Mike? Little crawling things. You should feel right at home there.”

The Underworld Story is full of these wild narrative beats forming the foundation of a new normal. It’s like playing an unwieldy game of connect the dots. Take the opening scene. It’s straightforward enough. The district attorney and a gangster informer named Turk are injured on the steps of the hall of justice. They didn’t fall down. There’s a deliberate hit put out on them.

But this particular story has no special investment in apprehending these perpetrators with shotguns and a high-powered car. It plays like more of a misdirect than a primary plot point. Instead, the story slingshots to The Times Gazette‘s hard-bitten reporter Mike Rees who is on the chopping block for not withholding a story.

It’s this breaking news flash that got those same men killed. It’s all his fault, and he finds himself blackballed throughout the industry for breaking their unspoken code of conduct. He’s finished — a leper in the industry.

Dan Duryea is nothing if not a journeyman actor. He went through a number of phases even for the uninitiated. I can think of seeing him in things as diverse as The Little Foxes and The Pride of the Yankees (also as a journalist). Then, came the days of ill repute in everything from Scarlet Street to Too Late for Tears. These were his bread and butter, and he fit the mechanics and the malaise of the material like few others.

What’s marvelous in a picture like The Underworld Story is how he gets leading man status — he was an actor of that caliber surely — but he still plays a starring role as slick and unprincipled as ever.

It goes to show he can play either side of the spectrum — good or bad — and it still comes off mostly the same. There’s something in his delivery that makes it always sound like he’s sneering, disgusted with every human being he has the displeasure of running across. The feelings are mutual.

With nowhere else to go, he sets up shop in Lakeville. In an apt bit of exposition, we learn it is home not only to a church lane but also to a church street…and a graveyard. This is the world he’s walking into. He does his best to play the part of an honest-to-goodness, salt-of-the-earth American. He’ll do anything to survive.

In fact, he gets out of the big ocean so he can poison the water somewhere else. In a small pond where the water’s stagnant, all his rancid practices can fester and congeal into pond scum. The humble paper itself is run by Catherine Harris (Gail Storm) wet behind the ears and her faithful colleague Parky who is a veteran, but he’s used to a leisurely, benevolent sort of reporting. Harris wants none of Mike’s local news with a slant.

When the daughter of the local newspaper magnate (Herbert Marshall) is found murdered in the woods, they have no recourse to run the story. Reese is way ahead of it, prepared to nuke the news flash and blow up circulation all around town. It’s the kind of tactics that might easily get him back into the big leagues.

It also occurred to me right when we see the hustling, bustling frenzy around the murder scene, it plays a bit like a B-side to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (though it does sit on the right side of history having premiered a year earlier). We have some of that media circus going on here albeit in an alternate small-town setting.

The waves of swirling melodrama are the movie at its most overwrought and tiresome. None of this is original or attention-grabbing in the way a good news story might be. It also pushes the envelope on plausibility with these wonky near-nonsequiturs cropping up every which way.

As such, The Underworld Story proves to be a wildly uneven picture. At times there’s so much to latch on to and ruminate over. Other passages of the film feel downright tacky, whether it’s the dialogue or the rather fervent scoring providing a rampant array of dramatic underpinnings.

When it’s grounded in ideas of the press of what it stands for and how it can be used to manipulate and capitulate situations, that’s when the movie sings with something wielding a definite voice.

We watch Reese continually taking advantage of the situation. First, he’s rather comically running up the bargaining price for their exclusive to his liking by juggling two phone calls at once. He’s also prepared to use Molly Rankin. She’s the girl wanted as a suspect in the young woman’s murder.

The Sentinel vows to prop her up, but far from championing her as a symbol of prevailing justice in the town, it feels dangerously close to a trial, with free publicity attached for the paper. Of course, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The Defense Fund becomes his latest scheme, which actually proves itself to be very successful in earning public support.

Alas, the public is fickle. The local paper starts sinking in quicksand as they meet a media juggernaut and watch Molly lose all credibility. The last thing to be done is to concede and plead guilty. However, Molly comes from a place of integrity — all she has are her personal convictions that she’s innocent and she won’t give it up — even if pleading guilty to manslaughter might actually allow her to keep living. To pragmatic, unscrupulous sorts, throwing in the towel makes logical sense. She, however, must abide by the truth.

Ultimately, Mike pleads with a newspaperman in his ivory tower — there’s actually some genuine concern there for once — but he also gets fingered by the jovial gangster who lays out threats with a smile. Howard da Silva makes an early appearance only to show up later and practically steal the show. It’s not simply about malice; it’s how he’s able to mask it with this kind of menacing conviviality. There’s a dissonance between the threat in each of his measured words and his outwardly cordial manner.

In the end, true to form, Duryea gets the crud beaten out of him, enough that he earns a date with an ambulance at the end of the picture. Even then when his girl steps in to ride off by his side, it’s hard not to consider their chemistry in the moment. They never felt like a couple, at least not to the degree such an action implied. Gail Storm, no fault of her own, is written to flit back and forth between indignation and admiration. She isn’t allowed to really stand on her own two feet.

It’s a final dagger in a movie that’s a bumpy excursion and still a calculated risk for Dan Duryea aficionados. The movie certainly isn’t averse to risks, taking on the theme of a black woman accused of murder and theft. It has a lot of potential, although the incisive edge is neutered by whitewashing the part and casting Mary Anderson in the role, no doubt to placate southern audiences. It’s a shame.

There’s only one last point that I feel compelled to bring up given the historical moment. The Underworld Story oozes Blacklist from the moment Duryea gets forced out of town and can’t win a favor, even from his friends. This is indicative of the story, but we can also consider all the personnel involved. Cy Enfield and Howard da Silva among them would wind up victims of HUAC destined for ex-communication from the Hollywood majority.

Mind you, these weren’t coincidences. People on both sides knew what they were doing. It proves that art really does have an impact on life. I would use the term art loosely with Enfield’s picture, though it does have a certain trashy allure around the corners — flaws and all.

3/5 Stars

The Front Page (1931): His Boy Friday

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With The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s ode to the Mythical Kingdom, the world of newshounds was translated to the movies by Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer. Given their own experience hammering away at copy, they locked in on the newsroom parlance going so far as to base many of the characters on their associates. Having not seen the play, it’s difficult to know what liberties were taken.

Many might already know it was reworked as His Girl Friday and it’s true The Front Page serves as the fitting prototype for all of these newsroom pictures of the day. Lewis Milestone does an admirable job trying to liven up the stage beats and the camera does move laterally more than I was expecting. When Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) makes his fateful exit from his “office,” it’s hard to forget the host of reactions to his departure with time stretched out by the magic of cinema.

Likewise, the talking picture still feels youthful, learning what it means to move, as Adolphe Menjou huffs around his office looking for his best story scribe Hildy. They provide the central dynamic for the story to rest on as conniving editor Walter Burns tries with all his might to hook his best writer before he quits the business to go off to New York with his fiancee and her mother, never to be seen from again. Burn’s last chance to nab him is the biggest local story: The hanging of a man named Williams. More on that in a moment.

It should be noted that the most immediate alteration Howard Hawks made was to make Hildy Johnson — not an altogether masculine name — into a woman, who in the Hawkian mode, is capably one of the boys. What it did was ratchet up the contentious romantic dynamics between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who elevated the screwball antics to their zenith. It was a stroke of genius.

After oozing so much about their chemistry, it’s hard to fairly evaluate Grant and Russell’s predecessors. To be fair, I’ve nothing against Pat O’Brien but he’s simply not the most intriguing nucleus when placed together with Menjou. O’Brien did his best work opposite a charismatic lead like a Cagney or even Walter Huston.

Also, Menjou hardly has the caddish charm of Cary Grant. In fact, the meat of their performances feels staid and conventional in comparison. I know this is dangerous, but it’s an unavoidable trap.

It is easy to be complimentary of the picture in other areas. The Front Page really sings in the adjoining spaces because even more so than His Girl Friday it thrives on being an ensemble piece carried over from the stage. The majority of its time is spent in the writer’s room with the colorful gallery of working stiffs and this is where all the action is anyway.

Between cards and puffs of smoke, they’re on the telephones nosing around for a story. Walter Catlett, the bespectacled veteran, is at the center of the action, anchoring the community with his quips. Floating on the fringes around a host of wisecrackers are the likes of Frank McHugh and then Edward Everett Horton. The beloved character player is unmistakable as his typical boob, a germaphobe named Benzinger. He writes for The Tribune.

The rest of the plot will be familiar to anyone who is aware of Hawks’ film. Williams is sentenced to be hung for killing a colored man in a city where the colored vote counts. There’s a sense that we are talking about a vague approximation. The fact we never hear more commentary on the crime and that our cast is entirely white is certainly a sign of the times and another potentially worthwhile caveat.

Mae Clarke reached immortality by getting a grapefruit squashed in her face, but she also performs as the first cinematic Molly Malloy — the one person willing to intercede on Williams’s behalf. The other fact worthy of mention is Clarence Wilson, the bald, pipsqueak making the rounds of the newsroom. It took me a moment to figure out that he’s supposed to be the police chief. In his trembling hands, law and order don’t have a prayer.

When it’s all said and done, it’s hard not to see the voluminous shadow cast by His Girl Friday. Sure, it technically came after but its reputation looms large. The Front Page isn’t a bad picture. It’s still in the nascent days of Hollywood. Lewis Milestone does a decent job of visualizing the stage play, and the cast is ripe with all sorts of colorful talents. The dialogue flies. There’s no problem in that department. From hamburger sandwiches to peeping in teepees, to Jack London-style journalism, you get all sorts. This is the beauty of the bustling environment drummed up. We get to be passive observers of the world.

However, if there is one area of critique to hone in on it’s mainly the leads. To be frank, in weighing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien as a unit, there’s just no comparison. These feelings are my own — totally subjective as they may be — but their screwball chemistry cannot be topped. The Front Page still remains as an important historical marker, if only partially because of its relation to the later film. It definitely speaks more of His Girl Friday than it proves a critique of Lewis Milestone’s movie. In fact, aside from All Quiet on The Western Front, Milestone probably deserves a lot more respect than he usually garners.

3.5/5 Stars

Five Star Final (1931): Edward G. Robinson and Yellow Journalism

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Five Star Final has its place among a bevy of real-world Journalism movies as perpetuated by Hollywood in the Pre-Code era. Probably equally important is director Mervyn Leroy, who at this point in his career was about to be tackling some of his most pointed material including I Am a Fugitive From a Chang Gang and Three on a Match, which if not totally vying for social realism, certainly blended it liberally with melodrama to instill a social message.

It should be noted before the war over Citizen Kane, famed magnate William Randolph Hearst took offense at this movie, whether or not it was outrightly aimed at him or not. Regardless, it hit close to home. I’ll let you be the judge.

This paper happens to be called the Evening Gazette and it’s anchored by editor Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson), though he’s not introduced for several minutes, remaining an unseen figure. Instead, we are given a clear sense of the rest of the framework built around him.

One of his story peddlers Ziggie (George E. Stone) has a perfect name to go with his line of work. His latest shenanigan involves taxi races through downtown, a cinch to drum up some surefire news.

Aline MacMahon is Robinson’s world-wearied social conscience. In other words, his secretary, who is secretly devoted to him even as the paper goes to seed. Full disclosure, I’ve always maintained a lingering affinity for MacMahon based on her general affability and her prowess in both comedy and affecting drama. Here she strikes a steady medium.

It’s true the modern newspaper game is all about mass circulation and with it all sorts of gimmicks and salacious material to grab people’s eyes. Sensationalism is the name of the game to go with lady models buried in the back of the papers. It might be vulgar, but it works wonders. Mr. Hearst was probably well-aware of it.

This is what Randall is fighting against. At first, we have the sense he’s trying to run a tight outfit — he’s a grade-A journalist — but the pressure from upstairs makes him cave and play the way they want it.

The top man, Mr. Hinchecliffe, doesn’t want their editorial integrity to suffer in so many words, but he wants to position themselves to capture more readers. It’s the old game. Sensationalism and smut sell. It takes a lot less effort and integrity than honest, human-centered journalism, and it’s more profitable.

In a sense, Robinson is at home wheeling and dealing, bustling around amid the chaos, getting on the horn and chomping on his cigars as people come in and out. He thrives on the energy. We come to understand his favorite words to fill out a story are “blah, blah, blah.”

The world itself is engaging — the characters who inhabit it in the office and walking the beat — but the film strays in its moralizing plotline. They’re looking to drudge up a story now 20 years old by getting people interested in the crucifixion of a woman.

By coincidence, the woman (Frances Starr) — now terribly respectable and married to an affectionate man (H.B. Warner) — watches her vivacious young daughter prepare to wed the man of her dreams. Everyone is deliriously happy though a land mine from the newspapers looks to totally decimate her salvaged life.

It’s Randall who set it off at the behest of his superiors because when he wants to be, he has a wily acumen, stooping to every trick in the book. One of his handy stooges is the marvelously-named Isopod. No man is right for the role but Boris Karloff — a once aspiring minister who was summarily booted out and ended up in the paper racket instead. Now he uses his religious training to get into people’s confidence.

It works much the same for Mr. and Mrs. Townsend. There’s something about his formidable voice where his sinister tone becomes unctuous in the company of his callers. He is ready to wheedle them for information, and they oblige, completely vulnerable in the fangs of such an insidious wolf in minster’s clothing.

When the Five Star Final edition comes out at 11:30 one night, the obvious trajectory of their story is sealed. In a world still reeling in the wake of the stock market, the character assassination they are assailed with seems just as hopeless. It’s not something the paper can redact or recant nor do they plan to. It’s lucrative news even at the expense of human lives.

In the final moments, there’s another meeting of the minds. Mr. Hincheclife is flanked by his Yes Men with Randall behind his desk. They are all complicit. A bitter daughter bursts in on them lambasting them for the irreparable harm they’ve caused. She beseeches the omnipotent cowards — all the cogs in the system — to conduct an act of God, by raising the dead. Of course, they can’t. They can only look on ruefully. Totally implicated and utterly guilty. The indictment is fierce and wind-ranging.

Robinson’s the one man who seems to acknowledge his part in it. While he can’t repair this mess, he vows never to become a slave to circulation again as he and his best girl shake off the dust of the crummy establishment. It’s swelling with this sentiment, but the point has been made. Five Star Final is not always elegant but between the lively characterizations and the mordant subject matter, it’s difficult to ask for more from the movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Scandal Sheet (1952)

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There’s no need to mince words here. With a film christened Scandal Sheet you already have a good idea of what you’re probably going to get before it arrives. That’s fine. Straight to the point can be good.

But the media angle is only a half of it. It’s as much a film of lurid cover-ups and back-alley beatings as it is about dirty journalism. You need those lightning rods for a juicy scoop and it’s precisely these types of events that bring the newspaper hounds out of the woodwork.

If Samuel Fuller couldn’t wind up being the director of his original story, The Dark Page, then there’s arguably no better man to take up the project than Phil Karlson who has comparable sensibilities and an appreciation for gritty crime pictures and pulp fiction though he’s not quite as dynamic.

It’s true at one point Howard Hawks even had the project flagged to star two of his past favorites in Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. What a film that would have been. But when Karlson came aboard John Payne was offered the role (he would work with Karlson later on) that ultimately went to John Derek.

He and his faithful cameraman (Henry Morgan) are integral pieces of one of the most parasitic relationships on the Bowery that develop between newspapermen and the police. They’re rather like scavengers picking over the carrion or any other delectable scraps that might perchance be tossed their direction.

However, oftentimes the methods of an organization are employed from the top down. In fact, Steve McCleary (Derek) has become the star reporter under the tutelage of Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) the man who has taken over the helm of the New York Express. He took the once reputed but faltering behemoth and turned it into a sensationalized tabloid that subsequently has the highest readership it’s been able to attain in years. There’s no denying the stuff sells like hotcakes fresh off the griddle. What can you say? Sensation is tasty stuff and scandal is the favorite food of the masses.

The paper’s latest gimmick in pursuit of ever-rising levels of circulation is the implementation of a Lonely Hearts Ball trying to play up the angle of a few nobodies falling in love. It’s a real sob fest with all the trimmings for a great story. No one knew how right that assertion was.

What follows is a conflict of interest that’s ripe with dramatic irony. There’s a murder investigation and the paper is embroiled in the middle of it trying to drudge up the answers with the help of their readership. With such hysteria at its core Scandal Sheet shares, some of the same journalism beats of While the City Sleeps (1956).

However, in this picture, Donna Reed is the moral center because how could we ever suspect her of being anything other than that clean, respectful, Midwestern gal with heaps of integrity? She’s much the same here not wanting to besmirch her editorials with sleaze and believing in old washed up writers when no one else will give them the time of day. Even when her boyfriend is guilty of precisely that. In fact, that’s where a bit of their romantic tension is founded.

Steve’s good at his job and a real bloodhound on the beat and a handsome devil at that but a fairly ignorant stiff, the most aggravating reality about the picture being just that. The case is right under his nose and he doesn’t see it for the entirety of the film.

The easiest way to try and explain it away is much the way Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity (1944) though the roles are reversed, “The guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.” Except Broderick Crawford is no Edward G. Robinson and there’s not the same genial relationship that can be attributed to the earlier picture. It’s all business.

That’s why his romantic ties are so important. Because that’s the one area where he is steered in the right direction. Once again, Donna Reed is that crucial moral compass in a choppy sea lacking any amount of rectitude otherwise.

But then again, you get the feeling Donna Reed would never turn up in a Sam Fuller picture if this was his. Still, that should not completely neutralize what Karlson was able to do here — developing a film that’s pretty much as advertised. A gritty bowels drama that cases the insides of New York drudging up all sorts of drama in the name of yellow journalism. If that’s what you’re looking for you’re in for a treat.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Gary_Cooper_in_Mr._Deeds_Goes_to_Town_trailer“He could never fit in with our distorted viewpoint, because he’s honest, and sincere, and good. If that man’s crazy, Your Honor, the rest of us belong in straitjackets!” ~ Jean Arthur as Babe Bennett

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a true treasure of idealism and Americana. People, especially now, may have many quibbles with the films of Frank Capra because he was the undisputed champion of feel good cinema that revelled in happy endings, stalwart honesty, and the little guy being permitted a fighting chance.

It’s no wonder that he made such good use of the likes of Gary Cooper and James Stewart because they embodied common, everyday American decency like few other actors could ever claim. Admittedly it’s easy to belittle his pictures as saccharine and sentimental to the nth degree but beyond that Capra always seemed to have an inherent sense of what America stood for or at least what he believed it could and still can stand for.

Every man deserves a certain amount of respect. You might call them inalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And any force that tries to impede that is in simple terms an affront to all humanity. Because though we might all think we’re different, we share a lot more similarities than we often want to concede. It’s easy for us to forget that and that’s what happens here.

Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) becomes the overnight talk of the town because his rich uncle dies in a horrible car crash and bequeaths his wealth to his unsuspecting nephew. It’s the kind of good fortune that others drool over but in Deeds’ hands, he takes it in stride. He comes off as a real Yokum from the one horse town of Mandrake Falls but if anything Deeds is incredibly smart. He realizes he can have contentment out of the limelight and with very little. He enjoys quiet days oftentimes filling idle hours with his prized tuba and poetry that he writes for postcards.

But his new status as a millionaire forces him into the life that he doesn’t much want. Mansions and butlers, folks looking for handouts, ravenous newspapermen (and women) and conniving lawyers. Front and center is Mr. Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille). It’s these very individuals who see Deeds as a ridiculous outsider to be belittled and taken advantage of.

The brilliance of Capra’s movie is that he makes his hero, while simple and practical, still very astute. He may have his many quirks but there’s a surprising amount of business acumen and common sense flowing through his veins that consequently sends everyone else for a loop. He spies phonies from a mile of away and he looks to reform the local opera while finding ways to spend his newfound fortune sagaciously.

The only thing he’s not watching out for is a pretty girl, journalist Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) is ready to nab him, capturing his heart and simultaneously giving the whole city a front row seat to his exploits about town from quarrels with a snooty circle of poets to an evening jaunt ending on a fire engine. She’s a pro at spinning the tale into one of a first class boob, christening him the “Cinderella Man” that the whole world laughs at. They eat it up and they want to see him fall–this idiotic nobody suddenly being scrutinized by society for his good fortune. It’s all rather unfair but oftentimes that’s the way the world turns. It’s a cruel and sometimes curious place.

Because while Deeds grows fed up with this whole lifestyle, ready to leave it all behind him, Babe finds herself truly falling for her project since he models something she rarely sees in a man — real honest to goodness integrity that guides his every action. There’s never a false pretense or a veiled intention. What you see is what you get. Ironically enough, in this land of fakes, she’s the only “real” person he thinks he’s met. And she knows what’s been going on, going so far as to tell her editor that she’s quitting. There’s no way she can keep up the charade only injuring the character of the one she loves more and more.

But of course, everything dives into the depths of despair when Deeds is sent to trial calling into question his sanity after he resolves to use $18,000,000 to portion off acres of land to destitute farmers to work for him. It’s utter lunacy, isn’t it? The workers line up around the block leading into his home as he offers them a chance at a real life without starving children and food lines every day. This is what Cedar, Cedar, Cedar, and Blumenfeld are bringing him to court for or is it the fact that they want a portion of his fortune? Yes, that just might be it.

Anyways, far worse than that fate is the fact that he thinks his girl has betrayed him and she has in a sense, but she’s also devoted to him by now. She watches helplessly as her man gets railroaded. She began as the one to crucify him in the tabloids and now she prepares to watch him get crucified in the courtroom. In these moments, he does take on a Christ-like post watching all the proceedings without a word. He never makes any effort to defend himself after accusation after accusation is thrown his direction.

But the bottom line is that he does not have to let himself be destroyed. Being the martyr, in this case, is not his job and Capra lifts him out of the pit and resurrects him. The fact that Louise fights for him and numerous others including his cynical right-hand man Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) and the local newspaper editor (George Bancroft), not to mention a legion of grateful farmers. So Mr. Deeds ends with a tumultuous courtroom finale befitting one of Capra’s finest pictures. It brims with goodness and bubbles over with humor that constantly underlines this feel good classic.

Though Gary Cooper represents Capra’s love of the every man with common decency and common sense, Jean Arthur remains equally crucial to the worlds that he creates. It has to do with her quality as an actor that allows her to play the snappy, witty, world-wearied types. Because she represents all the many people with that very same cynical streak and yet the very fact that her heart can be melted and her whole mindset can be changed suggests that there might be hope for all of us. That hope burgeons up from Mr. Deeds and leaves us with a warm feeling indeed.

4.5/5 Stars

Park Row (1952)

Park_Row_FilmPoster.jpegIt’s no secret that Sam Fuller cut his teeth in the journalism trade at the ripe young age of 18 (give or take a year) and so Park Row is not just another delicious B picture from one of the best, it’s a passion project memorializing the trade that he revered so dearly.

It’s also his typical style of economical filmmaking, shot in only two weeks and clocking in at just over 80 minutes and also funded on his own dime. To show just how much this movie meant to him he wrote, directed, and produced it. It was, of course, a monumental flop at the box office (despite an opening at Grauman’s Chinese). Still, that type of result could never quell a maverick like Fuller always prone to be a bit of a loose cannon who nevertheless perennially released a string of enduringly interesting projects. Consider a lineup of pictures including Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, and Pickup on South Street from 1951 to 1953 and you get the idea.

In some ways, Park Row seems like an invariably different film than its compatriots, very unlike Fuller, and yet it still gives off glimpses of Fuller’s style and sentiments.

The year is 1886. An industry has been developed and honed out of the invention and tradition of the likes of Johannes Gutenberg and Ben Franklin. The names of Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer are as good as gold and the hub of that honorable profession, known to the masses as journalism, is based in Park Row.

Phineas Mitchell portrayed by Gene Evans–Fuller’s favorite brawny everyman–is a reporter at The Star, the publication that has a bit of a monopoly run by the icy empress Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). As he badmouths the very same newspaper at the local watering hole, he subsequently finds himself relieved of his position along with a couple of his colleagues.

But together, with the help of an eager benefactor they set out to craft their own newspaper. As envisioned by Mitchell, The Globe will be a paper for the people, devoted to honest to goodness journalism beholden to the facts. And in the subsequent days they take an abandoned office space, build a ragtag team, fix up a printing press, and scrounge around for any type of paper they can get their hands on. What they lack in resources they make up for with grit and determination. Because they have something Charity never had–verve and ingenuity. It sets their little paper apart and the public takes note.

Thus, the film’s entire narrative captures the ensuing journalistic feud between the established paper The Star and their rising rival The Globe. The main conflict coming from the very fact that their business models and mission statements are diametrically opposed.

Led by Mitchell, The Globe finds compelling cover stories to reel in the public. First, it’s a rallying cry for a man sent to prison for illegally jumping 120 stories off the Brooklyn Bridge and living to tell about it. They become his voice, interceding on his behalf and people listen. Next, it’s a public fund to help pay for the base of The Statue of Liberty–that symbol of goodwill, friendship, and ultimately, American liberty and idealism. Every member of the community, no matter the contribution, gets their name printed in the paper out of gratitude.

Still, Ms. Hackett is not about to be outplayed and while she admires her competitor’s tenacity, she is ready to resort to any means necessary to sink them for good. She tries all number of tactics, some more destructive than she ever anticipated. And while she might not be the most virtuous individual she’s hardly a killer. Mitchell hates her guts, rightfully so but that’s not how she wants to be known. There’s some nuance in their relationship, in fact, there’s a great deal of appeal to many of these relationships because they’re brimming with life.

Some noticeable hallmarks of Park Row include Sam Fuller’s typically dynamic camera that moves rapidly into close-ups and tracking shots gliding down the long avenues of Park Row with its horse-drawn carriages, train tracks, and the general hubbub of humanity. There are the accustomary fistfights and explosions, but the film stands out among Fuller’s other narratives for its championing of virtue, honor, and integrity especially in relation to a profession like journalism. It would have been so easy for this to be another expose of lurid sleaze and corruption and yet it’s surprisingly laudatory to the very end.

3.5/5 Stars

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

the_whole_towns_talking_1935_posterComic mayhem was always supercharged in the films of the 1930s because the buzz is palpable, the actors are always endowed with certain oddities, and the corkscrew plotlines run rampant with absurdities of their own.  Penned by a pair of titans in Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, The Whole Town’s Talking opens with an inciting incident that’s a true comedic conundrum.

Bald and beady-eyed Mr. Seaver is called upon to fire the next employee who comes in late to work. A tough proposition to begin with but it gets worse.  Arthur Ferguson Jones has not been late to work in 8 years and of course, today’s the day his alarm clock doesn’t work. Although he gets a reprieve. Still, the next person walking in isn’t so lucky. The hardy, wisecracking Miss Clark (Jean Arthur). And that’s our introduction to our main players.

But the real wrench comes from an age-old device that’s easy to scoff at initially. There’s a doppelganger. Yes, the same upstanding, timid Arthur Ferguson Jones is cut in the spitting image of Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion. But before you check out, consider what this does for this ruckus of a story. It ties it up in knots.

Jones is the talk of the town. Exploding flashbulbs. Cover stories. Tumult. Back in the glory days when the press ran in a pack like hyenas.  His boss invites him to dinner, wants an autograph for his boy. He’s being ribbed by his coworkers and Miss Jones takes an interest in his literary endeavors. This leads to a gig ghostwriting the gangster’s life story in the local paper.

Meanwhile, the police argue about what to do about him. They finally decide to give him a special passport. It says he’s not Killer Mannion. And hapless little Mr. Seaver still badgers his employee to finish up his waiting caseload. What no one expects is that Mannion will sneak into Jones’ home and sets up camp.

And from that point on, everything gets confused. Robinson gets a chance at a great deal of range sometimes having his two diverging roles playing off each other in the same frame. All you need to know is the gangster is looking to leave his new benefactor holding the bag for his numerous crimes. Whether it works out or not is quite another story.

This a particularly odd film for the talent assembled. It doesn’t especially feel like a John Ford film and not simply because it’s not a Western. But at this point in his career, his stock company isn’t even assembled.

Edward G. Robinson will always be identified with gangster pics and it’s true he was tired of that association. Here he’s playing comedy. He has one foot in his usual wheelhouse but the other seems utterly alien to his usual persona. As such it’s great fun.  And his timid common man isn’t even a tragic figure like Chris Cross (Scarlet Street). The comedy is far more apparent and that in part stems from Arthur.

She shows up late to work, gets fired, and still has quips coming out of her ears. She plays all the journalists trying to pump her for facts and at the same time falls for this dope who has her picture framed by his bedside. Perhaps better than anyone she perfected how to be cheeky but still wholesome and caring. Arthur feels most at home in this film more than anyone else, given her comedic pedigree but she and Robinson bounce off each other well.

In a few years she would play a Miss Jones but for right now she’s content calling her colleague by the pet name “Jonesie” and (tiny spoiler) she does become Mrs. Jones. So an oddball romantic pair they might be, but that doesn’t make the partnering of Robinson and Arthur any less amusing. They’re both on their A-game in The Whole Town’s Talking and thankfully there would be many more arresting performances to come.

4/5 Stars

The Big Clock (1948)

TheBigClock.jpgWith its rather dreary title aside, The Big Clock is actually an enjoyable thriller that works like well-oiled clockwork. It’s true that oftentimes the most relatable noir heroes are not the hardboiled detectives, although they might be tougher and grittier, it’s the hapless everymen who we can more easily empathize with. Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum are great but sometimes it’s equally enjoyable to have someone who doesn’t quite fit the elusive parameters that we unwittingly draw up for film-noir. Ray Milland is a handsome actor and he was at home in both screwball comedies (Easy Living) and biting drama (The Lost Weekend). He’s not quite what you would describe as a prototypical noir hero.

In some fascinating way, The Big Clock falls somewhere in the middle of those two reference points and to explain the very reasons it becomes necessary to start from the beginning. In fact, our story opens in a cold open that’s foreboding, shadowy and tense. The reasons being we don’t quite know yet and that’s how we get to know George Stroud (Milland), a workaholic chief editor of a crime magazine. He’s got a lovely wife (Margaret O’Sullivan) and a kid but, really, he’s married to his vocation. He’s never even been on a proper honeymoon.

And the reason for all this is Mr. Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) the newspaper magnate with the vice-like grip and enigmatic way about him. He’s very practical in how he shows his displeasure (docking pay and firing employees at will) and it also allows him to exercise complete control in all facets of his business. That and the fact that his life is constantly on schedule, perfectly epitomized by the giant clock that has become the emblematic tourist attraction of his empire.

It’s a fascinating reflection of modern times circa 1940s Hollywood with international communication, journalists, and media conglomerates helping the world to function on a national level with mass media. Oddly enough, the story hardly conjures up Citizen Kane but instead the crime-filled frames of While the City Sleeps.

This film functions on two layers due to the fact that someone has been murdered. The blame is being pinned on a phantom man who looks strikingly like our hero, but simultaneously, the evil lurks close at hand. And things begin to fall into place. Strout is called upon to close in this criminal but only he knows that the man they are trying to capture is him. It’s complicated by the fact that, conveniently, he’s also the only one who knows for sure of his own innocence. After all, he would have known if he murdered someone. Here lies the tension as the film comes full circle back to its beginning – back to its climactic moments. Now we comprehend what’s at stake.

But what sets The Big Clock apart is the satisfaction in every little human interaction. The many characterizations are surprisingly lively and are at times fit more for a comedy than the darkened hallways of film-noir. Rita Johnson takes well as a bit of a femme fatale while Laughton pulls off his role with a certain sphinxlike iciness. Meanwhile, Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester delivers a scene-stealing performance as an eccentric artist who finds herself at the center of this entire investigation because of one of her very outlandish (and incriminating) paintings. And as every noir needs a thug, a menacing, mute Harry Morgan carries the mantle as is necessary–thank goodness he got promoted to M*A*S*H in due time. Everyone else, from the bartender to the elevator girl, to bar regulars all have wonderful moments to shine and show some personality that fills out the frames of the narrative.

Furthermore, John Seitz’s photography is on point, his camera roving with the necessary precision making for dynamic sequences while also developing the perfect tonalities of light and dark within the corridors of the mega news conglomerate. Director John Farrow is not all that well-remembered, but either way, The Big Clock stands tall as a quality film-noir that still somehow finds ways to be invariably funny. It’s a rare but still greatly welcomed combination.

4/5 Stars

Penny Serenade (1941)

cary_grant-irene_dunne_in_penny_serenade

Irene Dunne still remains one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. She was both a lively comedienne, an impressive singer, and performed in melodrama better than most. Pair her with Cary Grant and director George Stevens and you have an impressive bulwark to build a film out of.

I disdain the rather condescending term “Woman’s Picture,” but if Mildred Pierce was one of the darkest exemplars of the genre than Penny Serenade might be one of the most heartfelt. It finds its inspiration in the revolving melodies of records on a Victrola. It’s true that music is so very powerful in evoking emotion and it is precisely these songs that lend themselves to Julie Gardiner’s myriad memories. They began when she initially met the love of her life, a budding journalist who was not too keen on getting hitched or the future prospect of having kids. But Roger’s career took him to Asia and he tied the knot with Julie because he was not about to let another man take her away from him.

The rest of the film can best be described as a marital drama concerned with the many moments that make up a marriage. The thrill of the honeymoon period. The little marital tiffs. The tough times when your fledgling self-run paper is not doing the best. The struggles of trying to have kids or wanting to adopt and realizing the process is far more arduous than you first expected. All of these moments can be found in Penny Serenade. But it is one of the sweetest that also becomes the most heartbreaking.

Julie and Roger get the child that they so desire and it’s hard and trying and oh so scary, but they make a go of it and truly revel in being parents. But even that joy is taken away from them. It’s that same pain that shakes the foundations of their marriage just like the deadly earthquake they experienced in Japan. Once more amidst the heartbreaking tremors, there are wonderful revelations and an ultimate resolution that is good.

It’s true that Penny Serenade is overlong, lacking a great deal of substantial conflict or direction but it certainly plays to its strengths. The third time around Grant and Dunne continue their impeccable chemistry that carries the film alongside the direction of George Stevens who always seems to know how to helm both drama and comedy with ease. And the secondary roles are filled out marvelously by the always venerable Beulah Bondi and a noticeably younger Edgar Buchannan playing his usual old softie with a gravelly voice.

So if you’re in a sentimental mood tune into Penny Serenade a film that is less of a classic than a film that rides on the laurels of its main players who elevate the storyline above the normal fray through sheer charisma and ingenuity. While Grant is always remembered as a comedic actor, there are several notable heart-wrenching sequences where he taps into a different side of his persona.  In the end, having Cary Grant and Irene Dunne together again is worth it in itself.

3.5/5 Stars

All the President’s Men (1976)

allthepresidentsmen1You couldn’t hope to come up with a better story than this. Pure movie fodder if there ever was and the most astounding thing is that it was essentially fact — spawned from a William Goldman script tirelessly culled from testimonials and the eponymous source material. All the President’s Men opens at the Watergate Hotel, where the most cataclysmic scandal of all time begins to split at the seams.

And Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) joined by Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were right there ready to pursue the story when nobody else wanted to touch it. The Washington Post went out on a limb when no other paper would. Because if we look at the historical climate, such an event seemed absolutely ludicrous. Richard M. Nixon was the incumbent president. Detente had led to cooled tensions with the Soviets. And Democratic nominee George McGovern looked to be on a self-destructive path.

But the facts remained that these “burglars” had ties to the Republican Party and potentially the White House. It was tasked to Woodward and Bernstein to figure out how far up the trail led. And to their credit the old vets took stock in them — men made compelling by a trio of indelible character actors Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Jason Robards.

Woodward begins hitting the phones covering his notepad with shorthand and chicken scratch, a web of names and numbers. With every phone call, it feels like they’re stabbing in the dark, but the facts just don’t line up and their systematic gathering of leads churns up some interesting discoveries. Names like Howard Hunt, Charles Colson, Dardis, Kenneth H. Dahlberg all become pieces in this patchwork quilt of conspiracy. The credo of the film becoming the enigmatic Deep Throat’s advice to “Follow the money” and so they begin canvassing the streets encountering a lot of closed doors, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

allthepresidentsmen3But it only takes a few breakthroughs to make the story stick. The first comes from a reticent bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) and like so many others she’s conflicted, but she’s finally willing to divulge a few valuable pieces of information. And as cryptic as everything is, Woodward and Bernstein use their investigative chops to pick up the pieces.

Treasurer Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) stepped down from his post in the committee to re-elect the president based on his conscience, and his disclosures help the pair connect hundreds of thousands of dollars to the second most powerful man in the nation, John Mitchell. That’s the kicker.

It’s hard to forget the political intrigue the first time you see the film. What I didn’t remember was just how open-ended the story feels even with the final epilogue transcribed on the typewriter. The resolution that we expect is not given to us and there’s something innately powerful in that choice.

allthepresidentsmen4Gordon Willis’s work behind the camera adds a great amount of depth to crucial scenes most notably when Woodward enters his fateful phone conversation with Kenneth H. Dahlberg. All he’s doing is talking on the telephone, but in a shot rather like an inverse of his famed Godfather opening, Willis uses one long zoom shot — slow and methodical — to highlight the build-up of the sequence. It’s hardly noticeable, but it only helps to heighten the impact.

Furthermore, some dizzying aerial shots floating over the D.C. skyline are paired with Redford and Hoffman’s voice-over as they are canvassing the streets to convey the type of paranoia that we would expect from a Pakula film. Because, much like the Parallax View before it, All the President’s Men holds a wariness towards government, and rightfully so. However, there is a subtext to this story that can easily go unnoticed.

The name Charles Colson is thrown around several times as a special counselor to the president, and Colson like many of his compatriots served a prison sentence. That’s not altogether extraordinary. It’s the fact that Chuck Colson would become a true champion of prison reform in his subsequent years as a born-again Christian, who was completely transformed by his experience in incarceration. And he did something about it starting Prison Fellowship, now present in over 120 countries worldwide.

It reflects something about our nation. When the most corrupt and power-hungry from the highest echelons of society are brought low, there’s still hope for redemption. Yes, our country was forever scarred by the memory of Watergate, but one of the president’s men turned that dark blot into something worth rooting for. It’s exactly the type of ending we want.

4.5/5 Stars