Drive a Crooked Road (1954): A Malibu Sunshine Noir

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“On a clear day, you can see Catalina.”

Drive a Crooked Road might best be labeled as a So-Cal sunshine noir, and it easily has a place at the counter next to Shack Out on 101 and equally grubby fare.

Because under the right circumstances, it’s easy to see how Mickey Rooney could make a darn good noir protagonist. Like one of the genre stalwarts — Elisha Cook Jr. — he’s small in stature. Visually, he’s a bit of a pipsqueak and if you strip away his typical magnetism, the confidence, and charisma of a lifelong entertainer, there’s something quite fragile and forlorn there.

Rooney, for all his successes and the serpentine nature of his career, does himself credit here, reinventing his image once more. Eddie Shannon is the kind of guy who gets stepped on his entire life and takes it. He’s a lowly mechanic with far-off dreams of racing a European job at Le Mans. His other prominent feature is the scar on his forehead as if to mark him as a kind of social outcast.

Admittedly, his life is nothing more than fixing cars by day and going back home at night to a mantle lined with childhood trophies. It’s as if they’re compensation, a way of telling himself he is a big deal after all as he kicks back on his bed.

I won’t make any claims that the actor-turned-director Richard Quine is a virtuoso hand, but I do enjoy a handful of his films with varying themes. What draws together some of the better ones are his collaborators. Kim Novak made a startling debut in another sordid noir of the same year Pushover. Then, he had a good many collaborations with both Bill Holden and Jack Lemmon, just to name a few.

What Drive The Crooked Road shows off is his substantial collaborations with future mainstream directing giant Blake Edwards. Rooney, a fellow youth actor, was a holdover from their days together working on the screen as some of the industry’s promising talent. The greatest joy is how it shuns the prevailing song-and-dance, happy-go-lucky entertainment they normally stuck their name to and gladly takes a divergent path.

As good a place as any to start is with a femme fatale (Dianne Foster). She comes by the repair shop one day to get her car fixed up. That could be the end of it, but she has other plans. So Eddie pays the good-looking dame Matthews a house call.

It’s immediately apparent she’s shamelessly flaunting herself. First, on the lawn then, hanging over the side of her convertible, and finally, right next to him as he digs under the hood. Barbara makes her presence known, as it were, and she has total command of the scene.

This perceptible dynamic is so crucial as is Rooney’s diffident performance if the story’s to come off. How visibly uncomfortable he feels being around her — making eye contact with her flirtations — as she chats him up on the way to sunbathing above Malibu. It implicitly coaxes him out to the water’s edge.

Because even as his whole existence is uncomfortable in her very presence, he desperately wants someone as beautiful as her to give him the time of day. The fact she actually paid him notice gives him hope.

If it’s not obvious already, this bit of come-hither interplay devolves into a not so unfamiliar ploy used most definitively in Scarlet Street. Edward G. Robinson’s Christopher Cross was a suffocating nobody as well with nothing but his art. Kitty (Joan Bennet) exploits him for all he’s worth on the behest of her boyfriend (Dan Duryea).

In Barbara Matthews’s case, she’s operating on behalf of her major love interest, the dashing and charismatic, if generally despicable cad, Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). He and his smart-aleck buddy (Jack Kelly), don’t immediately strike one as a criminal types. And yet their high-living, bon vivant ways, and impatience with the normal tenets of capitalism cause them to buck the system.

They’re looking to rob a bank, a handy joint they scoped out while spending their summer vacation in Palm Springs. You could say the crime fits the criminals. The only problem is a driver. They need someone to navigate the windy backroads from Palm Springs to San Diego. Someone with handles who can help them make a quick getaway since time is of the essence. That’s why they called on Barbara to reel Eddie in.

However, she’s the only one to realize what is really happening. They label him like all the rest as an ugly little guy, a lonesome little animal; and it’s true by the world’s prognostications. But Matthews sees more being around him. There’s an earnestness, a candor in how he interacts with her.

She calls it devotion, a terrible kind of worship because he’s fallen for her irrevocably hook, line, and sinker. It’s pretty much instantaneous since the first moment she ever gave him the time of day. He’s not a normal mark; he’s completely given himself over to him, totally vulnerable. One can only imagine what he might do if he finds out he’s just a sucker.

Of course, her conspirators fail to heed her warnings. After all, what could a born loser do to them? So Eddie comes aboard, brought into their confidence, initially hesitant until Barbara leverages everything so he thinks he’s doing this for her. 15,000 smackers could do a lot for them. He studies their home movies religiously in an effort to gain a lay of the land in preparation for game day. Once more, he’s devoted because he thinks she wants this. It’s not for himself but to earn her affections.

Again, Barbara is overcome by misgivings about the entire operation. In her own way, she tries to give him a way out — knowing where they are headed listening to Eddie’s big talk about driving better than he ever has, doing the job so he can get the money she wants. He couldn’t see he’s being played unless he was hit in the head with it. That’s what it takes.

One of the greatest investments of the film really comes with Foster’s performance. Because at first, she feels like a prototypical noir vamp, merciless in how she uses her feminine wiles, and yet, if we can coin the phrase, she is a tender femme fatale.

Take, for instance, one scene where Eddie makes an impromptu house call to see her. They’re supposed to stay apart for the good of the mission and still, he cannot bear to be away from her. She comes out into the living room, closing the bedroom door to meet him.

At first, I thought she closed her door behind her to cover up something — maybe a male visitor lurking behind. But it’s simpler than that, even more innocent. Finally, Eddie leaves and she goes into her bedroom and cries. Whereas Kitty’s laughter was mistaken for tears in Scarlet Street, here the tears are real, there’s this conflicted tenderness present.

But of course, all this must be put on hold as the day of the bank robbery arrives. They make their best-laid plans, intercepting the route of the usual bank employee. In another quality creative decision a la Gun Crazy, we are forced to wait out the job from the getaway car with Eddie and Steve. It comes off without a hitch because it’s not primarily a heist film at all.

If that were the case, everything would need to go awry at this point. The question remains, Why do we hold off? Because the true pearl in the oyster is how the story is not solely about the tension of the bank robbery and whether they will succeed, though that becomes of great interest. Encompassing all of these genre elements is really the underlying character piece.

What will Eddie do? What will happen to him at the end of said crooked road when reality sets in and he finds out he’s been used. Because it’s not a question of if but when it will happen; eventually it does.

There’s the confrontation, the reveal, the turn of events. You’ll have to witness them for yourself. The images resonate most deeply with me. A car overturned on the beach, the tide lapping up against the shore in the background. There’s not a more fitting summation of the film’s juxtaposition of elements — that is sun-soaked, Malibu beachfront noir.

The final interludes bring to mind another paranoia piece of the atomic age, Kiss Me Deadly, and far from jumping off the deep end, Quine’s picture has its own misanthropic edge. Where the beach, shrouded in shadows, provides the perfect landscape for a devastating capitulation. It’s a testament to his core players, Rooney and Foster in particular. I’ll never look at Mickey Rooney the same way again.

3.5/5 Stars

National Velvet (1944)

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“Everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly, once in his life.” ~ Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown

There’s been many a boxing and a ball sport movie and so it seems only fair that there be room for at least one more Technicolor horse drama, especially one with the breathtaking and gloriously unbridled energy of National Velvet.

It showcases the lofty aspirations riding on the back of a horse and carrying the effervescent hopes of a young girl. I’m certain we could use more movies like this — ones done with this amount of candor and geared toward a broad audience — namely the entire family.

True, Clarence Brown is a director mostly lost to time and perhaps understandably so. This isn’t so much of a technical marvel as it is a story that wraps up its audience with some amount of vigor.

Nor was it a film shot abroad in some exotic location. But that is hardly a criticism, mind you. This was Hollywood’s rendition of the British Isles created in Pebble Beach, California much in the same category of other such period classics like How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lassie Come Home (1943) — the most obvious point of connection being the always admirable Donald Crisp.

Featured front and center is Elizabeth Taylor in the days when she hadn’t yet been propelled to iconic sex symbol status and still remained the sweet precocious little girl who made the screen sparkle with her adorableness.

Here she is as Velvet Brown. Other girls, namely her big sister (Angela Lansbury) are boy struck but Velvet can best be described as horse struck. She dreams about them in her sleep, thinks about them in her waking hours, and must stop the moment she sees one of her favorite thoroughbreds in the fields on the road home to her town of Sewells.

From the first time she sees “The Pie” in all his majesty, she’s absolutely enchanted by him. It was a love story meant to be. Stirred up by her mother’s own past forays in sport, Velvet begins to entertain thoughts of entering her beloved horse in the Grand Nationals which she believes he is capable of winning with the right training and a rider who knows him.

With the guidance of Mi (Mickey Rooney), a young nomad hired on by the family, they get the horse trained up for competition. But of course, the only one who truly can ride “The Pie” and believes he cannot put a foot wrong is Velvet herself.

Perhaps it’s not as epic as a Ben Hur chariot race or a pod race but there’s still somehow such investment in Velvet and her horse and we feel the same urgency that’s coursing through Mi as he’s watching the race. It’s an infectious moment that catches us up in its swelling emotions to the very last leg.

Far more important than the outcome of the race, however, is how Velvet remains true what she deems to be right. She never lets her pure love of horses — or this particular horse — be muddied by any amount of press or potential fame that might come out of the partnership. Because she’s not seeking any of that. Her intentions are very sincere. She’s doing it all for the sheer joy of getting to gallop across country with her best friend. That’s reward enough for her.

It’s true that Velvet’s parents prove to constantly upend our typical expectations and there’s a pleasure in finding out more about their true character bit by bit. They are folks of hardy stock who are plain but not without their unostentatious charm that comes from being bred in a world of hard work and no doubt Christian charity.

Anne Revere gives one of the most enjoyable performances of her career, start to finish, imbued with an impeccably dry wit that also comes with being a mother who loves her family dearly and aspires for them to have hopes and dreams to carry them through life. You get a sense that she desires they might be decent people who never weary of doing the right thing. There’s a sublime nuance to her turn that would be lacking from the film’s frames otherwise. She is the moral heartbeat and the counterbalance to every other character.

Fiction also mirrored reality in that Elizabeth Taylor truly became the tenderhearted horse whisperer as one of the few people who could actually handle and ride her horse. There’s no sense of parlor tricks and if it’s possible to say this, there’s almost a visible chemistry between her and her steed. They seem meant to be together. Fittingly, on her 13th birthday after the filming was done she was bequeathed her four-legged friend and they remained together for his entire lifetime.

The only rather odd performance or casting choice might seem to be Mickey Rooney who was still a major star in 1944 but sometimes his role doesn’t feel the most authentic. It feels like he’s playing at his part. Meanwhile, Taylor continually bowls us over with every drop of cheerfulness she has in her being.

Maybe I am unfairly prejudiced against Mickey Rooney but he always seemed more like a personality than a true actor. Here as Mi he more or less looks like a tragic story waiting to happen but now thanks to a girl and a horse, he’s getting his shot at redemption. Thankfully for us, this is not wholly his story but more so the story of the horse and its girl.

It’s a wonderfully forward-thinking message for its day that a young girl with ambition can succeed in a man’s world even on the racetrack. Fantasy or not this is a story that uplifts with sheer climactic euphoria.

To all the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, explorers, scientists, and jockeys, this film gives its message loud and clear. Dare to dream. You can’t worry about what others might say. Just go out and pursue whatever it is with all the passion you can muster. No matter the outcome, there will be little to regret.

4/5 Stars

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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Every time I return to Breakfast at Tiffany’s certain things become more and more evident. Mickey Rooney’s characterization as Mr. Yunioshi is certainly an egregious blot on this film, but if you look around the nooks and crannies, it’s full of quirky sorts who can be described as weak caricatures at best. Buddy Ebsen and Patricia Neal are wonderful actors but for some reason, they feel out of place in this one. I love Martin Balsam too but he’s not quite right either.

Still, all those complaints go away when I see those opening shots. If a film is defined purely by its opening sequence, this would be one of the most sublime films of the 20th century. Because watching Audrey Hepburn walk the silent streets of New York right outside of Tiffany’s is as good as it gets. There’s a perfect cadence to the sequence. We learn so much about the character of Holly Golightly in a few short moments and New York has never been a more magical place — as hushed as it is when her solitary taxi pulls up to the curbside.

Moon River lends a beautiful melancholy to the sequence and it’s absolutely marvelous. But then the illusion is broken when Holly gets home chased by a caricature of a man and accosted by her caricature of a landlord. The yellow face is deeply unfortunate but to a lesser extent so are many of the other portrayals.

Because it’s so easy to care for Holly. Audrey Hepburn makes us care for this woman who doesn’t quite understand what it is to need other people, to love other people, and to be okay with that. She’s scatterbrained in all the best ways. By proxy, we like “Fred, Darling” (George Peppard) because he is a stand-in for the audience as we get to know her better. He’s conflicted but also mesmerized by her like we are. She’s truly something special. And all the affection that we hold for her is because she is Audrey Hepburn. We cannot help but love her — unless I’m just speaking for myself — which easily could be the case.

Still, Truman Capote’s source novel was a very different animal and it could have become a very different film altogether with Marilyn Monroe initially slotted to star. But with her sweet smile and demure image, Hepburn brought something of herself to the role. Still sweet but more extroverted and out there.

It’s easy to peg this as her best performance because it does have so much character and her wardrobe by Givenchy becomes a perfect extension of Holly Golightly. In every sequence, she’s impeccably dressed and even when she’s in her pajamas she looks ready for a night out on the town. But of course, with all of those nights on the town, she’s come to her conclusions about men. They’re all either “rats” or “super rats” only looking out for themselves.

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Holly winds up with her cat and the man who wants to love her, perhaps even the man that she deserves. Anyways he’s probably the closest thing she can achieve in the cinematic landscape at hand. However, it is unfortunate that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not quite the film that Audrey Hepburn deserved. It rightfully so galvanized her iconic status for the ensuing generations. It’s only a shame that the film is not a greater achievement than it is, settling instead to be a generally light and diverting romcom from  Blake Edwards.

But do yourself a favor and listen to Moon River again and again on repeat. The version doesn’t matter too much whether Mancini, Andy Williams or Hepburn herself. It’s one of the most remarkably mellifluous tunes of all time and truly worthy of Audrey Hepburn’s performance in this one.

4/5 Stars

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

itsamadmad1It’s easy to forgive this sprawling comedy for a weak script because it does a wonderful job of playing to its strengths and delivering a hilarious payload of laughter. Stanley Kramer (known mostly for his social dramas) drops this raucous comedy full of bone-shattering slapstick and violently wild antics. It also assemblies arguably the greatest comic ensembles with some of the biggest names you could ever hope to see on the big screen. Everyone seems to come out for a who’s who of comedic talent in roles big and small. Half the fun is recognizing a familiar face on the screen for a quick cameo, giving a nod of approval, and then grabbing hold of this rip-roaring comedy once more as it hits breakneck speed. There’s nothing sophisticated about it and that’s part of its charm.

The film opens on a mountainous road when a car goes careening off the side of the cliff. Some onlookers go to see what they can do, but little do they know they’ve stumbled on to a gold mine. It’s not hidden under Jimmy Durante’s big nose, but a giant “W” in Santa Rosita State Park. It’s all very suspect, and everybody gets ready to head their different ways. However, a little old-fashioned, All-American greed sets in and they begin to high-tail it down the coast. The prize of a $350,000 payoff is too much to disregard.

After a harrowing car chase the treasure-seekers break off as follows:

Sid Caesar and his wife Edie Adams charter a prehistoric bi-plane and wind up spending the majority of the film trying to escape the basement of a convenience store using any means possible. Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney find a plane of their own, the only problem is that their pilot (Jim Bachus) gets a little tipsy mid-flight, leaving landing duties in their inept hands.The long-suffering Milton Berle constantly is being berated with the incessant babbling of loud-mouthed Ethel Merman. Poor Jonathan Winters is ditched by everyone else, then double-crossed by Phil Silvers, before he’s finally is able to hitch a ride. Berle finally loses all patience and teams up with buck-toothed Brit Terry Thomas. Spencer Tracy the wry police chief Culpepper watches all these events unfold with a play by play being fed his way. Meanwhile, his life begins to fall apart, but that pales in comparison to the gas station that Winters demolishes with his bare hands. That’s not the only destruction this gang leaves in their wake either. They total cars, destroy buildings, and do every type of damage you could ever expect. It’s great!

When everyone finally happens on the treasure they’ve picked up a couple cabbies played by the venerable Eddie “Rochester” Royal and Peter Falk. The mayhem leads to an excavating party and a final chase as Culpepper takes the money and runs with the gang hot on his heels. It all ends thrillingly from the top of a fire escape with a precariously situated ladder. The boys all end up in the hospital, but it’s still a laughing matter thanks to a stray banana peel.

Although the laughs slow down a bit in the second half, this film is a wonderfully good time. You have cameos from everybody like Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, William Demarest, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, and even The Three Stooges. Since there so many people who did make the cut I’ll be a glass half empty misanthrope and list off a few names who did not end up joining the film’s cast. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Stan Laurel, Bud Abbott, Lucille Ball, Peter Sellers, and of course Don Rickles who never let Kramer live it down for not inviting him. Quite the list, but mind you I’m not complaining too much.

The film takes on a personal note too because my dad actually saw the movie being shot on highway 73 back in the 1960s, and he remembers it rather fondly. To me, the film takes on deeper significance due to the crisscrossed palm trees which also became the iconic symbol of Inn-N-Out Burger all across California. What’s not to love about such a Mad Mad Mad Mad World?

4/5 Stars

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

If you want a movie of comedy legends and who’s who, this film has practically everyone you want. Spencer Tracy is a police officer who is tipped off to where a great sum of money is. Close behind are a group of travelers including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Dorothy Provine, Edie Adams, and Jonathan Winters. Soon it becomes a mad dash as each group tries to reach the money first. Along the way are many hilarious antics and memorable cameos (including Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, Don Knotts, and Buster Keaton). In the final scenes Tracy has the money but the others are still in pursuit. After some wild events everyone ends up in the hospital without any money. However, they are quickly reminded how madly funny the world is all the same. I really enjoyed this film because of the many great stars and hilarious scenarios. It really had me belly-laughing. This was also the favorite movie of the founder of Inn-N-Out Burger so what more could you want?

4.5/5 Stars

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, the movie follows the lavish lifestyle of the ditsy Holly Golightly. Moving into her apartment building, the down-on-his-luck writer Paul immediately grows fond of Holly’s quirky personality. Considering each other simply friends, Paul comes to one of Holly’s wild parties and they journey through New York together. However, although Paul is falling for Holly, his circumstances seem to prevent it and besides she is oblivious to his affection. Slowly they fall farther apart with Holly’s upcoming marriage to a wealthy man. In the end they do reconcile, embracing in the rain (of course). Holly has finally found a man who truly loves her and does not use her. The love story is an interesting one and Hepburn gives a lively performance. Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” is a wonderful addition to this film. I would say however that this is not my favorite film with Hepburn because it is certainly hard to top Roman Holiday.

Needless to say, this is a film that I have a difficult time  making my mind up about. I will wholeheartedly admit that I enjoy Audrey Hepburn movies ranging from Roman Holiday and Sabrina to Charade and Wait Until Dark. Of all of her performances, Holly Golightly is arguably her most iconic. Perhaps this is because she played against her usual gracefully timid image or maybe it was  the memorable wardrobe put together by Givenchy. Breakfast at Tiffany’s also has some wonderful supporting actors such as Patricia Neal, Martin Balsalm, Buddy Epsen, and an unfortunately badly cast Mickey Rooney. I think I would conclude that if Tiffany’s was just composed of its beautiful opening sequence accompanied by Moon River and the final romantic moments, I would thoroughly enjoy it. However, some of the moments in the middle I suppose are not as memorable or downright strange, making this a far from perfect film. It is, however, still an enjoyable romantic comedy that showcases Audrey Hepburn and includes the best of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

4/5 Stars