The Song of The Thin Man (1947)

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The Song of The Thin Man is really and truly the swan song of the series and while I did enjoy most of the additions, there is a sense that it was time to end the franchise. The year is 1947. The war is over. Things have changed. It really has little to do with William Powell and Myrna Loy being older or past their prime, because they are still a joy to watch working in tandem and they’re hardly over the hill.

But in some respects, society didn’t need Nick and Nora anymore. They were more like a touch of nostalgia than an up-and-coming force because they were born out of the Depression years and though they grew and matured as characters well after that, it seemed like as good a time as any to let them be.

Their son, little Nick Charles Jr. (a young Dean Stockwell) is a precocious lad like his father.  His behavior is deserving a spanking though his father is averse to giving it out even on his wife’s behest. But this was never meant to be a family comedy. Even Asta was always a sidekick and not a focal point.

Most of the film is conceived on a luxury liner, the S.S. Fortune amid nightclub musicians and patrons who have come out for a charity benefit put on by the wealthy David Thayer. It’s the perfect locale for, you guessed it, murder.

The center point of it all is Tommy Drake, the band leader scrapped for cash and with plenty of bones to pick with any number of people. He wound up gunned down from behind. In introducing all the players, it’s safe to assume they’re potential suspects too. There’s songbird Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), the ship’s proprietor Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), and the soused musician Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor). It’s Brant and his forbidden fiancee Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows) who come to the Charleses’ so that Phil’s name might be cleared.

Bess Flowers turns up in a fairly visible role given her usual penchant for bit parts in hundreds of high profile films. Leon Ames returns to The Thin Man universe in an unsual circumstance of the same actor taking on a different role. Helen Vinson who played his wife previously was not available for the picture and so the exquisite Patricia Morrison (currently 102 years young at the time of this viewing) filled the part instead. Even noir regular Marie Windsor shows up as a gangster’s moll although I’m not sure if she even utters a word.

Anyway, back to the business at hand, Nick and Nora Charles and the mystery. One of the best parts of the film is watching the Charleses be introduced to the jazz beatnik culture craze and their guide is none other than Clinker (Keenan Wynn) a real hip cat on the reed who happened to be aboard the liner when the murder occurred.

It should be noted that when rock n’ roll came Beethoven could be found rolling in his grave. Currently, his bust simply looks begrudgingly from his perch, given the state of affairs with the contemporary music scene.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many police authorities running around to get in the way. It’s all Nick Charles joined by his wife and, in this case, Clinker who has connections to really help them understand the scene.

Although the setup and the characters are interesting enough, the film probably has the least satisfying finale of any of the Thin Man films. It winds up back on the ocean liner but it somehow doesn’t come off like its predecessors. Even the fact that the picture is a good 20 minutes shorter than the earlier films seems to suggest the beginning of the end. But on the bright side, for once Nick was able to retire for good — to his bedroom that is. Its fitting, really. Mr. and Mrs. Charles gave us plenty of laughs. They deserve to rest in peace.

3.5/5 Stars

The Narrow Margin (1952)

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The Narrow Margin is comprised of tight and lean drama where every bit of film is used judiciously. This should rightfully earn it respect as one of the preeminent shoestring budget films of all time within any genre.

Because it’s easy to admire films that do a fine job with a plethora of resources and financial capital but what about those pictures working with very little? It seems like concocting something special with limited resources should be considered even more impressive. If you follow this logic, The Narrow Margin is an unrivaled success — a micro-budget masterpiece — that does a great deal to separate itself from the pack of lesser B-grade crime pictures.

Richard Fleischer gets lost among the big-named directors tagged to the big-named productions but when it came to small pictures he made some pretty decent ones and The Narrow Margin just might be one of the finest B pictures, period. But I think I already said that. Still, it’s worth saying twice.

If we had anything close to a star it would be Charles McGraw as a cop named Brown who has been assigned a case along with his veteran partner (Don Beddoe), an assignement neither one of them particularly relishes. They’ve been burdened with the task of protecting the widow (Marie Windsor) of a notorious gangster who has agreed to be the key witness before a grand jury.

It’s an extremely dangerous proposition as there’s a whole network of syndicate members who don’t want their names to get out. They’re ready to stop this mystery dame at any cost and by any means necessary.

The opening lines of dialogue come off as idle patter but they set up the entire scenario as the two policemen get ready to pick up the woman who will cause immense complication in their professional lives.

It’s a simple question really: What kind of woman would marry a gangster? Meanwhile, there’s a tension in the air and conflict pervading the film. Every waking minute is blessed with an air of constant confusion. Identities of everyone are all but in question. We don’t quite know what’s going on. We’re in the same place as the cops and that’s the key.

What follows is an astonishingly intense and immersive storyline that has no right to be either of those things. Still, it’s an undeniable fact. Faceless criminals in fur-lined coats lurk in the shadows ready to fill men full of lead. Tails loiter ominously at train stations for their mark. Men snoop around train cars trying to find out secrets. Lives are constantly in jeopardy. There’s not a moments peace for the chronically paranoid cops or the audience.

The majority of the picture takes place aboard a train bound for Los Angeles with the danger being crammed into a limited space with good guys and bad guys constantly trying to evade and outwit each other. They all vie for the upper hand in this continuously see-sawing game of cat and mouse. Because in simple terms that’s what it is. A cinematic game of cat and mouse.

But The Narrow Margin proves to be a fine train noir for the contours it develops to help strengthen this basic premise. It’s a rumbling ride complete with a fat man to stop up all the passageways, acerbic dames, and suspicious young boys wary of train robbers. It has character beyond a rudimentary crime film and that’s immeasurably difficult to convey in 73 minutes of celluloid. But Earl Felton’s script manages this near impossible feat.

For other films, the limited space would cause the action to become stagnant even tepid whereas, in this picture, those precise elements are turned on their heads as a true advantage. Though the film is starkly different, the original Alien (1979) similarly used consolidated space to hike the tension to uncomfortable heights. You get the same sense here.

But the great films also aren’t completely straightforward. Their rhythms might look familiar but they play against our preconceived expectations, thus allowing us to enjoy their bits of intrigue and the added payoffs they’re able to deliver. However, whether are not you’re able to predict everything that gets thrown at you is beside the point because the true satisfaction comes in the overall rush of the experience. This one is a gem, a diamond pulverized under filth and grime only to come out scintillating. Enjoy it for what it is.

4.5/5 Stars

The Sniper (1952)

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From the outset with Stanley Kramer’s name emblazoned over the opening credits it gives an indication of what this film is as does the name of Director Edward Dymtryk. Kramer is, of course, remembered as one of the most fervent socially-conscious producers behind a string of classics like Defiant Ones (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and…It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)?

But then there’s Dymtryk who was one of the most visible casualties of the blacklist as one of the scapegoated Hollywood 10 and also the helmer of such earlier pictures as Crossfire (1947) which had a very obvious message behind it.

Thus, the Sniper looks to be the perfect collaboration with a harrowing story that hopes to simultaneously enact some amount of social change. We are introduced to a man who is one of the “sex criminals” alluded to in the opening crawl who provide a major problem for the local police force.

In this case, we get stuck inside the head of the troubled figure named Eddie Miller, a deliveryman for a local dry cleaning service, who is plagued by not only paranoia and cold sweats but a burning hatred of women.

There’s a peeping tom, voyeuristic manner to the camerawork as we follow Eddie and his morbid curiosity. He sits in his second-floor apartment picking out women through the scope of his sniper rifle and pretending to pull the trigger.  He’s an unstable personality, an isolated individual with a mother complex that sends him seeking out brunettes. But rather than getting some perverse pleasure out of the thought or actual implementation of their suffering, it comes off as a nearly uncontrollable urge.

So rather than hating Eddie for his indiscretions, it’s quite easy to pity his impulses because they feel like precisely that. Something he cannot seem to rein in. In one particular moment, he sticks his hand on the hot burner of a stovetop scalding his hand because it’s the only release he can get from the maddening thoughts hammering inside his skull.

There’s also the suggestion that people like Eddie are the ones who need mental help and yet they get kicked back out to the curb in deference to more priority cases — the suggestion being that physical injury is more pressing than psychological problems. It’s true that it can be a difficult issue to reconcile with.

The front half of The Sniper proves to be a surprisingly frank depiction and we can attribute this to the fact that as an audience we get so closely tied to Eddie Miller as a character. It’s an unflinching portrayal delivered remarkably well by Arthur Franz.

But the picture falters in its efforts to get didactic and it becomes overtly a message picture instead of purely a character study of a troubled man. We sense it trying to make its point rather than allowing the actions to dictate what happens and thus allowing the audience members to arrive at their own conclusions.

The most obvious extension of this is the all-knowing psychiatrist who lays down his wisdom though no one seems ready to listen to his insights. He’s a proponent of nipping the problem of sex offenders in the bud at a latent stage putting them into a mental institution with newly proposed legislation. It’s not that the idea is bad but it’s the execution in cinematic term that proves heavy-handed.

The latter half is more about the investigation to find the killer headed by Detective Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou). Meanwhile, Frank Faylen was apparently promoted and transferred from New York following his days in Detective Story (1951). Marie Windsor appears in an uncharacteristic sympathetic role as a victimized nightclub pianist. Her outcome and a number of others subsequently turn The Sniper into a commentary on gender whether it meant to be or not.

I rather like how the film utilizes the streets of San Francisco and there’s no need to overtly make a point that the film is set there, existing within police precincts, humble apartment buildings, and hilly streets. It’s simply the world that the film makes its home. It includes a rather authentic Chinese restaurant which besides providing a little flavor, shows that Menjou could use some work on his chopstick form. Though on a positive note, Victor Sen Yung snags another uncredited appearance after showing up in the S.F. set Woman on the Run (1950) as well.

Still, despite the reality that the picture gets a bit too preachy, there’s often a modicum of truth in this type of film we could do well to consider. The same psychiatrist notes the following, “You’ll catch him and they’ll kill him and everyone will forget about it. That is until the next one comes along and it’ll start all over again.”

It’s the endless cycle that we as humans allow without actually ever fixing problems. Such issues cause me to say, again and again, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same old problems just reassert themselves in different ways. It doesn’t help when our attention spans get shorter and shorter while our knowledge of history continues to dwindle.

3.5/5 Stars

Japanese War Bride (1952)

Japanese_War_Bride_VideoCoverMuch like Sam Fuller’s Crimson Kimono (1959), Japanese War Bride’s title carries certain negative stereotypes, however, its central romance similarly feels groundbreaking, allowing it to exceed expectations.

The film opens during the waning days of the Korean War. A man lies incapacitated in a hospital bed, but he couldn’t be happier because he’s met the love of his life. Maybe it’s war fatigue or something else, but he simply cannot take his eyes off the pretty young nurse Ms. Shimuzu (Shirley Yamaguchi).

And although prospects don’t necessarily look that promising, since duty calls, Jim leaves that hospital bent on getting that girl for his wife. He’s serious. So serious in fact that he goes straight away to convene with Tae’s grandfather (Philip Ahn) that he might persuade him for Tae’s hand in marriage. Although warning that the road ahead will be a difficult one, the sagacious man, relents, reluctant to stand in the way of this blossoming love.

It’s after the happy couple is picked up at the train station by family and settle into the old family home, that it becomes obvious that things aren’t quite the same. They’ll be more difficult than they first appeared.

Jim’s parents and brother are welcoming enough, but there is still a necessary period of gelling as they get used to their new family member. Even Jim encourages his petite young wife to be more assertive and embrace American culture fully. She does her best.

japanesewarbride2Jim looks to build up a happy life with her as he looks to take some of his father’s land to keep a home of his own and raise crops. Tae begins to acclimate to her new life and gains the respect of the Taylor family while making a few friends including the kindly Hasagawa siblings (Lane Nakano and May Takasugi) who work at a factory nearby. The icing on the cake is when Tae announces she’s pregnant and Jim could not be more ecstatic.

Still, what crops up are the subtleties of racism through slight snubs and bits of insensitivity. First, the skeptical sister-in-law (Marie Windsor) drops pointed remarks towards Tae. At first, they are so veiled, they seem only a passing wisp of a word, hardly worth acknowledging. But following one of the neighbors confessing how much she hates all the Japanese, it becomes evident that all is not right in Monterrey.

One moment Tae is getting accosted by a drunken merrymaker at a party who jokingly calls her a geisha girl. Then the family is scared, rightfully so, when Mr. Taylor receives a threatening letter. It voices the opinion of an unnamed “friend” about the fact that there are rumors floating around that Tae’s baby looks fully Japanese and she has been spending time with Shiro Hasagawa. A scandal of this kind will ruin Mr. Taylor’s reputation among his fellow growers. It will ruin him period.

But most important to this story, it infuriates Jim with a fiery rage. He’s angry at all the narrow-minded folks he used to call friends. He’s mad at his family and most of all Fran for her part in Tae’s distress. It’s in these most tenuous moments that  Tae decides to take her baby and seek asylum somewhere else to get away from the cultural chasm that has formed. Of course, they are reunited and there is a version of a happy ending, but it does not take away from the bottom line. They’ll still have to struggle against societal pressures and flat-out bigotry. However, if you’re in love, there are many rivers you are willing to ford and the same goes for Jim and Tae.

japanesewarbride1Japanese War Bride is continuously fascinating for the presence of Japanese within its frames. First, we have a rather groundbreaking and relatively unheard of interracial romance between the always personable average everyman Don Taylor and stunning newcomer Shirley Yamaguchi. Their scenes are tender and hold a great deal of emotional impact. It’s the kind of drama that has the power to make us mentally distraught but also imbue us with joy.

The film carries even more sobering underlying tension given the relative freshness of World War II. Mothers are still bitter about the deaths of their sons and that righteous anger is not discriminating between people. It only sees race. Meanwhile, Shiro and his sister reflect the times as Nisei, who were affected by internment and increased amounts of prejudice. While Shiro was imprisoned in Japan during the war, his family was interned at Tulare near Sacramento and his resentful father nearly had all of his land taken. Many other Japanese farmers were not so lucky.

For her part Marie Windsor plays her prime role as the antagonistic woman to the tee, effectively embodying all the small-minded, underhanded folks out there that live life without a genuine kindness for their fellow man. Poisoning other people’s mind just as they are poisoned, and it’s this type of rancor that leads to fear and bigotry. A breeding ground for hatred. In some shape and form, it still rears its ugly head to this day. What makes this film special is how it reflects the realities as it pertains to Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Veteran director King Vidor’s effort is a generally authentic and nuanced tale that pays his subjects the ultimate respect even in its more melodramatic moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Force of Evil (1948)

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This is Wall Street… and today was important because tomorrow – July Fourth – I intended to make my first million dollars. An exciting day in any man’s life. Temporarily, the enterprise was slightly illegal. You see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket”  ~ Joe Morse

Not in recent memory has a film left such a different taste in my mouth. Force of Evil has all the trappings of a thoroughly engrossing noir crime film. There’s the crooked lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield), looking to get ahead by helping a top level gangster named Tucker take over the numbers racket in New York. There’s his estranged older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) wanting nothing to do with his brother’s dirty money. It’s a classic Cain and Able type conflict. Add realistic location shooting inter-cut with voice-over, and a David Raksin score to make a real winner.

Yet Force of Evil is a dangerous film to take at face value because on that level alone it is highly entertaining. However, director and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky created something special here at only 78 minutes in length. His film has a certain rhythm that is hard to pinpoint. John Garfield especially delivers his lines impeccably, drifting in and out of common everyday jargon and moral convictions. It’s a slightly higher level of dialogue that deserves more digestion and thought. He even gives a taxi cab soliloquy that gives On the Waterfront a run for its money.

As a big picture, the plot makes sense for the most part. Joe is on the verge of making millions on the Fourth of July, and he wants to cut his brother in on it. But his brother works one of the smaller rackets which is bound to be pushed out. He has his own sense of morality, where he can bear what he does but not what Joe will hand him.

Leo reluctantly agrees to join the big operation out of necessity until things get way too involved, and this time Joe is in a place where he has to get out himself, with no way of protecting his brother. His resolve to watch over his brother is to no avail when the Ficco Gang tries to push their way into the racket. Meanwhile, Joe still finds time to flirt with the innocent and proper Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson), the former secretary of Leo, who is in complete juxtaposition with Mrs. Tucker (Marie Windsor), who Morse keeps company with initially.

However, this whole mess is constantly being complicated. There is “Freddie” Bauer (Howland Chamberlain), the nervous fellow who used to work with Leo and now, with the big takeover, is looking to blow the whistle on whoever he can to stay out of the fray. There’s the police who seem intent on getting their hands on everybody they can and not showing favoritism towards anyone. There’s Leo who is righteously indignant while also taking his brother’s offer of a better position begrudgingly. There’s Doris who is in all ways sensible and yet still falls for Joe, not in your typical passionate way, but it still happens nonetheless. There’s the line between legitimate business and criminal activity that is constantly be zig-zagged.

Finally, there is Joe who deserves the greatest amount of scrutiny. John Garfield apparently could not pinpoint his character’s deal initially either, but he must have figured it out because he nailed it. It’s probably his greatest performance. He’s the kind of guy who blows the whistle on his own brother in order to help him in his own way. It doesn’t quite make sense, and he seems so often blinded, but he keeps pushing forward in a vain attempt towards success. All the caustic words and aggressive come-ons don’t work. Ultimately, he has to come to reality. When Joe does, that’s when he realizes what he has started and what he has done to Leo. By that point, it’s nearly too late for him, and it’s most definitely too late for Leo.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Killing (1956)

e4855-thekilling1Stanley Kubrick is one of the most acclaimed directors of all time, and The Killing is his first great film. The main focus of the action takes place at a racetrack, but a great deal of the story occurs in other places before and after the job is pulled.  Recently released Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is the mastermind behind an intricately planned job. It’s a whole complex jigsaw puzzle involving a few “Average Joes” and a couple professionals. When you put it together it all adds up to the perfect heist.

Marvin is a friend of Johnny’s and a fatherly figure who is backing the deal. George (Elisha Cook Jr.) is the paranoid window teller banking on the job so he can hold onto his shallow wife. Randy is the policeman who is set to pick up the plunder. Then, Mike is the bartender who is supposed to help with the distraction. Johnny lines up the brawn, Maurice, to start a fight at the race track with Mike. He gets a sharpshooter named Nikki to bump off a horse and it’s all set. All their plans revolve around the Seventh Race, and they have it planned out to the minute. The beauty of The Killing is that it all but works like clockwork. The horse is shot, the brawl does its job, the vault is cleaned out, and the money gets picked up. Only a few small problems crop up.

After the job is done is another matter, as the perfect timetable begins to break down. In a matter of seconds, things blow up thanks to George’s backstabbing wife (Marie Windsor). Soon the carnage is strewn all over the floor. Johnny holds onto the money as previously decided since things go awry, and he makes the getaway. His girl (Colleen Gray) is waiting at the airport and it looks to be smooth sailing from here on out.

Thanks to a yippy dog and a precarious perch, the money-laden suitcase takes a tumble and the contents fly off. All too soon it’s raining money, and there’s nothing Johnny can do about it. He leaves the terminal with Fay, but with no taxi to be had, he gets nabbed and there is no chance to escape. After everything lining up so perfectly for him, in a cruel turn everything that could go wrong did. He was not going to be so lucky.

The title of this film always struck me as ambiguous, whether it meant the amount of money being taken or the deaths that take place I’m not sure. However, I do know that The Killing is tautly constructed. The non-linear and sometimes overlapping narrative is held together by the narrator. He seems fit for a newsreel, but he complements the straightforward procedure of the film with timestamps included.

Because of the lead performance of Sterling Hayden and the main plot element of a heist, this film can sometimes be confused with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). However, I enjoy this storyline more because the heist is not the issue. It is the aftermath and all the subsequent problems occurring so rapidly.

It is a wonderful unraveling thriller and although we do not see Johnny arrested, he might as well be because there are two men with pistols drawn walking right towards him. The Killing was not a big payoff for Hayden’s character, but it certainly is for the audience.

4.5/5 Stars