Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars

Clash By Night (1952)

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Clash By Night comes from a stage play by Clifford Odetts and, in one sense, it’s extremely evident. However, being blessed by a still capable director in Fritz Lang and bolstered by quality talent does wonders for this squallish RKO drama. The portentous symbolism of Lang is on full display from crashing waves to billowing clouds in the skies up above.

We spy circling seagulls and seals perking up, creatures obviously hungry for something — in this case the fish being harvested on the trawler right nearby. Here we have our environment, a cannery that sustains an entire community with work. One of the seamen is Jerry (Paul Douglas) a teddy bear of a man who works on a fishing boat as his father did before him. He now supports his senile father along with his idle good-for-nothing uncle.

When Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) comes back to her family home after being away well nigh a decade, the summation of her activities is terse, “Big dreams, small results.” She’s very dismissive and aloof in every interaction; she’s not about to give herself to anyone or fall in love. But when the good-natured Jerry comes to call on her she actually accepts. Maybe she can learn to like a nice guy and have a home and a family. They try on all accounts and get married. Every attempt is made to convince herself that this is what a normal woman is supposed to aspire to.

However, Jerry’s buddy, the local projectionist at the movie theater, the outgoing, slightly patronizing stiff Earl (Robert Ryan) offers an inkling of something else. He has raw even carnal energy and a cynic’s outlook on love. Mae despises his personality type probably because it’s too close to home — too akin to how she sees the world. But his raffishness can easily get contorted into something volcanic, flaming with an attraction that draws in a wife desiring something more.

What’s staged thenceforward is a showing that hits the throttle on several occasions to heated extremes. It’s the utter epitome of ’50s hothouse drama that can feel overwrought and stagy; the emotions at times become heightened to an unbelievable degree. Sweat and manic attacks of rage that lead to blows ensue. Not to mention countless mentions of the rise in temperature.

Even the early dialogue at times feels too cute, manufactured to be read off and yet to their credit the stars come with fury at times heartless and tender and full of self-loathing. Stanwyck is a mess of tortured dissonance subjecting herself to emotional whiplash, never truly contented. However, feeling completely sorry for her proves difficult.

Though Marilyn Monroe received her first prominent billing, she comes off as more of a side note than an integral part of the picture at least in front of the camera. There’s little doubt she was causing her usual media frenzy behind the camera and headaches for her director due to her often temperamental ways. Those would hardly change but superstardom would only continue to descend upon her.

Always the consummate professional, Stanwyck was in the middle of divorce proceedings with Robert Taylor and as art often mirrors life you get the impression that just possibly she might be channeling some of that emotion into her performance. If she is, it’s nearly impossible to tell as she carries herself with the same self-assured composure in every scene, touching every note, regardless, with her accustomary ease.

Even for a black and white piece filmed by Nicolas Musuraca, Clash By Night is not necessarily a typical Lang exhibition in expressionistic, noirish tones but the expression comes boiling up from within his actors. That is enough. The picture could have done well to smolder until the end. Instead, it chooses a more forgiving road. Jerry relents saying, “You gotta trust somebody. There ain’t no other way.” He’s taking a beating and yet his heart is still large. There’s no word on whether it will be torn out again.

3.5/5 Stars

Panic in the Streets (1950)

panic_in_the_streets_1950It disappoints me that I was not more taken with the material than I was but despite not being wholly engaged, there are still some fascinating aspects to Panic in the Streets. Though a somewhat simple picture, it seems possible that I might just need to give it a second viewing soon. Let’s begin with the reality.

This noir docudrama is somehow not as tense as some of Elia Kazan’s other works. In fact, it’s port locale anticipate the memorable atmosphere of On The Waterfront, although it’s hard to stand up to such a revered classic. Still, the film does have its own appeals.

It begins with a gritty setting full of grungy character and New Orleans charm that continues the trend of post-war films taking the movie cameras to the streets and to the people who actually dwell there. In this way, the film shares some similarities to The Naked City.

The acting talent is also a wonderful strength with Richard Widmark playing our lead, Lt. Commander Clint Reed, this time on the right side of the law as a Naval Doctor trying to contain an outbreak of pneumonic plague before it spreads exponentially. His compatriot is played by the always enjoyable Paul Douglas a world-wearied police captain who must grin and bear joining forces with Reed.

The film is full of seedy undesirables and the most important and memorable one is Jack Palance (in his screen debut) showing off his tough as nails personality that was certainly no fluke. His right hand blubbering crony is the equally conniving Zero Mostel and together they make a slimy pair for the police to close in on. Because it’s one of their associates who ends up murdered but it’s only in the coroner’s office where they find out he was infected with something fierce.

This sets the sirens going off in Reed’s head and while not an alarmist, he wants everyone to consider the gravity of the situation. He has some trouble working with the police but he also seems to understand that this is not an isolated issue but it can affect his family — his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and his precocious boy (Tommy Rettig). But not just his immediate circle, but his entire community. And so he and Captain Warren race against the clock to not only to prevent an epidemic but solve a crime and apprehend the perpetrators. So this is undoubtedly your typical police procedural enlivened by New Orleans but there are also different layers to what is going on that have broader implications.

For instance, what do you tell the press? Do you keep it under wraps or let them shout it from the rooftops so the criminals get away scotch free – like rats fleeing the scene of the crime? Are you just looking for the murderers or are you considering the entire community at large? These questions deserve to be parsed through more thoroughly than I possibly can. So while Panic in the Streets is more methodical than a tense drama there are some very good things to it. Namely its location, its cast, and the universal nature of its central conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

Fourteen Hours (1951)

fourteenhours1Fourteen Hours is a taut little thriller, based on real circumstances that occurred in New York in 1938. The film opens with a young man standing on the ledge of a tall hotel in New York City. An unsuspecting waiter happens upon him and a traffic cop (Paul Douglas) spies him from the street below. All of a sudden, a mundane day gets a little more exciting for all the wrong reasons.

Henry Hathaway’s film has the kind of self-contained drama of a modern film like Phone Booth (2002) and a media frenzy that is in some ways similar to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). Really when you break it down it’s essentially about two men. Robert Cosick (Richard Baseheart) is the despondent and disturbed man tottering on the edge of destruction. He needs a friend. He needs guidance. The rapport built between him and Charlie Dunnigan (Douglas) is what keeps him where he is.

Outside of this main dynamic, we have a lot of smaller events all happening at once. The gruff deputy chief Moskar (Howard Da Silva) tries to work on the inside of the hotel to get the man indoors. A psychiatrist with a hypnotic stair (Martin Gabel) tries to divvy out advice to Dunnigan and others. Meanwhile, Robert’s histrionic mother (Agnes Moorhead) and his plain-speaking father both make appearances, but to no avail. They even finally track down his girl Virginia (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the hopes that she can get him down. All the while the journalists scrounge around for a good story that they can feed to their papers because this is news!

fourteenhours3Down in the streets below young people (Debra Paget and Jefferey Hunter) look up wishing they could do something. The cynical cabbies decide to make a wager on when the man will jump since they aren’t getting any more business for the time being. Even Grace Kelly makes an appearance (her debut), as a young wife who is about to go through with her divorce. But the man on the ledge flusters her and she and her husband have a happy ending.

Hour after hour drags on as Dunnigan continues to work on Robert to get him to come in. He loses his temper once, converses about fishing for floppers, and talks fondly about his wife. By far Paul Douglas is the standout because he has such a genial quality that makes his new found friend, and the audience, trust him. He’s a good egg as they say, and at the end of the day, he gets to walk off with his wife and son after a good days work.

I think it’s true that the film was remade as Man on the Ledge, but I doubt that I would ever want to see it after this film. Don’t get me wrong, it crawls a little bit in the middle, but the combination of this human drama and the plethora of characters lent itself to a generally interesting tale. Also, it’s never static visually. Hathaway gives us a lot to look at. I will admit that several of the storylines were flimsy and unnecessary, but it was still fun to see Grace Kelly for at least a few moments.

3.5/5 Stars

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars