The Bowery (1933) and Jumping Off Brooklyn Bridge

There is an immediate sense The Bowery was meant to capitalize on Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper’s success in The Champ from the year prior, as well as the rising stock of George Raft after Scarface. In short, the creative paring works quite well because although Beery was the highest-paid talent at MGM, Raft proves himself to be a chipper and able sparring partner for his formidable colleague. 

The world being projected and explored is the relatively distant past of the Gay Nineties, and yet still recent enough to remain as a living memory for some contemporary audiences. The movie is capped off by a prologue touting the Bowery as “The Livest mile of the face of the globe,” and here we have our entry point into the turn-of-the-century milieu. 

Before The Rifleman, there was another Chuck Connors (Beery), who is a larger-than-life figure on the bowery with his bowler hat and brawny shoulders. He runs the local saloon, an expectantly raucous and bawdy place, it also carries with it a rather off-putting name. Strike one.

Of course, none of these folks care and why should they? They’re too busy knocking back a pint and ogling the floor show. And Connors is right in the middle of the daily bedlam. One of Beery’s favorite drinks is “boy-bin” in the local parlance. He’s also not above clubbing a woman who gets too touchy-feely with him. 

However, for all his boisterous show of bravado, he does have a soft spot. One of the most important people in his life is Swipes (Cooper) a young vagabond he adopted off the streets whose hobbies include throwing rocks at the Chinks. Strike two. Does it need to be said that, although these elements are period, they definitely don’t play now? Well, there you are. 

Despite, these immediate if realistic racial insensitivities, there is some instantly immersive world-building director Raoul Walsh synthesizes through a host of vignettes on the streets. It might only be a figment of my own mind, but there’s a reason Bowery sounds like Bowels because we’ve found ourselves in one of the lowliest, basest melting pots of the world.  

But there would be no movie without our two stars. If Beery opens the film and establishes himself, then George Raft comes right on his heels making an entrance of his own as Steve Brodie (Don’t ever say I don’t give you nothin’!). What they provide the movie is the simultaneous presence of two colossal movers and shakers in the local community. 

Beyond being snappy dressers, they are men of many hobbies and even bigger boasts. They’re both pugilistic promoters in the ring, and they run rival fire brigades on the side, which consequently are more like street gangs than civil servant assemblies. It’s all the better to whip up some brassy entertainment. 

The street brawl in the wake of a conflagration is extraordinarily choreographed as pure fist and brick-throwing chaos. While I’m not altogether enamored with the world, the ongoing sense of atmosphere is impressive in such moments of machismo.

What’s more, they become tempered and subsequently more complicated by the introduction of another character. Because the mantle of the movie is built off the trifecta of males, and they remain the focal point. However, then one Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray) arrives on the scene. She’s a woman from Albany — a virtuous schoolteacher — who Chuck rescues from the depths of destitution. She’s eternally grateful and offers to clean house for him. The most telling outcome is the big man’s chivalry. 

It is a bit of a clash of cultures — she is not of this world — and it’s in part because of her vulnerability; he protects her from the wolves on the prowl. But if Lucy brings out another side of Chuck, the same might be said of Steve Brodie. He comes off as a brute in their opening encounter, everything we expect him to be, but then he warms and softens. And she does too.

She’s still devoted to Chuck (though Swipes can’t stand her much), but her romance with Steve starts to bloom. They have excursions out to the beach at Coney Island — romantic moments like that. The only question remaining is where will the movie go? 

For those familiar with the real-life Steve Brodie, it must escalate into a bet and a dare to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, which he looks to weasel his way out of. Although, in the end, he’s forced to prove his mettle with the whole town gaping and the authorities on high alert. 

Walsh expertly understands the cadence of the scene with Brodie flying across the bridge in his carriage — the policeman sprinting after him in pursuit. Meanwhile, the director cuts across the panoply of humanity — the faces we know like Wray and Cooper — and the host of onlookers who fill out the world. It’s the strangest kind of social event, and yet how it’s delivered to us builds up the mounting tension of the moment.

Ultimately, Chuck loses at the hands of Brodie (and Carrie Nation!). His bar is flipped in the process. With his pride and joy taken away from him, and his gambling debts weighing him down, he winds up living a life of poverty as Brodie ascends and becomes the new grand man about town. The balance of power — their aggressive stalemate — has finally shifted, and there is a forlornness about it. What made them such formidable rivals before had to do with them both being on equal footing. It looks like one has finally won out. 

Being a proud man, Chuck isn’t quite over his vendetta, and knowing Brodie’s own wellspring of pride, they agree to a river barge face-off, man to man, just like the old days. But the most curious development is this. It’s summed up with only a few words: “Remember the Maine.” Suddenly patriotic fervor is afoot. There is a new enemy. Suddenly, the two sworn enemies make their amends.

Fay Wray is a mediator, and they agree to have themselves a lark in Cuba because with two palookas like them, the war’s bound to be over in a fortnight. So the Bowery’s greatest source of conflict simultaneously becomes its new hub of comedy and comradery as the rivalry evolves, and we get to see it turn. It’s yet another entry in the Walsh canon fully in tune with its own idea of fun. There’s never a sense this picture takes itself too seriously. 

I am not sure if the director had a certain preoccupation with the Gay Nineties from his youth or what have you — his filmography is very robust and equally diverse — but the Bowery certainly would pair nicely with the likes of Strawberry Blonde and Gentleman Jim in how they so readily evoke the era. Nothing speaks to that more than John L. Sullivan and a bit of temperance imposed by Carrie Nation.

4/5 Stars

Me and My Gal (1932): Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett

Spencer Tracy falls easily into the role of an Irish cop on the beat, Danny Dolan, working in the heart of the pier on the Lower East Side. What stands out immediately is his humanity and good-natured benevolence extended to his neighbors. In a matter of minutes, he’s nabbed himself a banana, rescued a dog, and drummed up a bit of small talk with a pretty cashier (Joan Bennett).

The film itself provides a  fairly simple framework. Director Raoul Walsh finds himself sculpting a world out of characterizations and vignettes, not unlike future endeavors like Strawberry Blonde or Gentleman Jim. But it showcases precisely how a couple of weeks of shooting can translate into an enjoyable piece of work.

Dolan falls into company with a detective named Al (Adrian Morris) hanging around the docks and watching out for a big-time gangster named Duke Castanega. However, before they can roll out the welcome wagon, they get accosted and thoroughly distracted by the most persistent drunks in film history (Will Stanton). He’s in a perpetual state of belligerent inebriation only made funnier by the fact he’s probably the scrawniest character in the whole picture.

One of the other scenes bursting with life comes in the wake of the marriage of Kate Riley with her sister Helen (Bennett) by her side. Soon the minister has summed up the proceedings and every man looks to get a smooch from the bride before her nebbish husband can get in edgewise.

Soon the after-party is flowing with beer, belches, drumsticks, and boisterous conversation. Walsh pulls out a trick he would use later in Gentleman Jim where his characters speak to the camera. Actually, they speak over and past it and what it does is intuitive, bringing us into the fold of the movie. So right in this moment, we as an audience are there at the wedding experiencing the frenzy with everyone else.

The chemistry sparks early between Tracy and Bennett, and it slowly grows into a mutual appreciation. He does her a good deed at her sister’s wedding, turning a blind eye and earning points with her blustering father. Later, Danny and Helen trade advice: He straightens his new bowler and she stops chewing gum.

One of their lighter moments on the beat involves the aforementioned drunk in yet another altercation. This time they must defuse a confrontation involving a man who was slapped in the face with a fish. It doesn’t fall into the realm of high-brow comedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be delightful.

For Me and My Gal — like many films from bygone eras — also has standalone details we can look at from our current station in history and truly appreciate. A radio salesman pulls out all the tricks to get the Rileys to bite on his best merchandise. The budding couple eat vanilla ice cream together in the kitchen, and a cup of java is two bits.

Even better is the linguistic education. Sporting the new bowler, one asks the other “Well, how do I look?” They say “Jake”  with a playful flick of the brim and a superlative adjective is born. Likewise, the weighty insult getting hurled around on all sides is “beezock.” Look it up. 

In fact, nothing’s sacred. They take a few minutes to razz a contemporary moving picture where they say one thing out loud, and then a minute later express what they really think. The way they amuse themselves with this gag feels like unusual territory for the era as we hear their inner thoughts playing against their spoken words (in a prodding nod to the movie Strange Interlude). 

As he tugs her down and she plops on the couch next to him, they are such a wonderful portrait of romance so perfectly in sync. In these self-reflexive sequences, I couldn’t help but find my mind drifting to Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy. They both had long and illustrious careers, and almost 20 years later they would play opposite one another in a starkly different picture: Father of the Bride.

For now, they are young and in love. Bursting with all sorts of sass and equally romantic elan. Take the scene later on when he charges into her hash house aiming to marry her, and she’s clattering around behind the counter giving him her glib repartee. It’s the way romance is supposed to play out and around all the cliche beats of wanted gangsters and what-have-you, these are the other elements of the movie that feel singular and almost transcendent.

These are the little “pieces of time” Jimmy Stewart said actors can give an audience. When they reach over the counter to kiss, the embrace sends both their feet shooting up in the air like a pair of cinderellas. Tracy’s a terribly genial chap, but he works all the better with an able sparring partner. Bennett has a whipsmart, blistering independence about her, and she’s also constantly at the defense of her cowering sister.

Kate’s one weakness is the man she’s trying to forget, an escaped gangster named Duke (Walsh’s brother George). We know where the picture is going after a prison escape, the sheltering of a fugitive in an attic, and a brazen bank robbery. Only one logical resolution remains. There’s the obligatory confrontation and Tracy becomes a hero. Why dwell on any of this? We’ve seen it umpteen times before (and after). 

Walsh seems to have a great deal more fun in the final minutes. Now there is a second wedding in process, and it’s yet another excuse for mayhem. We sit there trying to take it all in as Tracy and Bennett get whisked around, swamped by people, trading kisses. How lovely it is to be a part of this contingent living vicariously off their energy. 

Spencer Tracy always makes the toils of an actor feel effortless and Bennett does a swell job to counter him. People don’t talk much about their onscreen partnership, but it’s pleasantly appealing. In the back of our minds, we know with content in our hearts Me and My Gal was just the beginning. More people should seek it out.

3.5/5 Stars

The Man I Love (1947): Ida Lupino Steals The Show

The_man_I_lovesmallIt feels like we might have the courtesy of a bit of Gershwin masquerading under the cloak of noir. We find ourselves at a hole-in-the-wall jazz joint after hours. Club 39 feels free and easy with an intimate jam sesh. Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) is having fun with a rendition of “The Man I Love.”

What strikes us is her breezy confidence. Everyone seems to like her, and she knows how to get by on her own laurels. So though we might begin on a New York street corner, this is all merely the set-up supplying not simply a preexisting world but the core tenets of our main character. We come to like her right from the outset.

However, quickly our action is transplanted to Long Beach, California because catching a bit of the homesickness bug, Petey goes to call on her two younger sisters and brother for the holidays. Could it be she brings darkness into sunshiny suburbia? Again, that would be a negative.

Instead, she comes back into her family’s lives to play the role of big sister and Ms. Fix-it, leaving their lives better than when she arrived. The eldest sister, Sally slings spaghetti for a living, and she’s angelic. But one Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) has his eyes on her because his uncle runs the restaurant. He’s a real cad (On a side note: I will always have gratitude for Alda for bringing his son Alan into the world to star in M*A*S*H).

Admittedly, his sleazy charisma is pretty smooth, but it turns ugly on a dime. This isn’t just a dismissible instance of being “fresh;” it’s blatant, out-in-the-open harassment, and it grieves me to see. Because from everything we have been coming to terms with in the world, it is all but the norm. I am reminded of Janis Paige’s article bravely recounting her own real-life experience.

A movie like this can easily turn everything into an instance for melodrama, and we cannot blame it too much because it is meant to be riveting. Regardless, this is a film full to the gills with angry men. Sally’s own husband, a war hero, is under observation at the hospital for certain volatile instabilities. The girls’ younger brother Joey pushes back against the chiding of his siblings as he gets more involved running errands for Torresca.

Across the hall, a generally affable Johnny O’Connor is jealous over his glamorous wife (Dolores Moran), who finds her twin sons and a middling marriage to be a bore. Ida Lupino is the one who can capably joust with them all, because, of course, she’s from New York. She’s been around and partially to shield her sister, she takes up a job as a lounge singer at Toresca’s club. He’s got his paws and lecherous eyes all over her.

Even she falls for a man, a tragic and equally tormented pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennet) with demons of his own to exorcise. So amid this constant collision of temperaments and personalities, there’s bound to be a firestorm of emotion, ultimately blowing up in a need for release.

Raoul Walsh is an old pro at manning stories even if this one feels slightly out of his typical wheelhouse. However, The Man I Love is blessed with a wide-ranging, truly eclectic cast. In fact, for the amount of time it has to work with, it’s genuinely surprising how many characters it chooses to erect.

Admittedly, despite the diverse spread, they could have used more shading on a whole. Martha Vickers, in particular, feels like a bit of a letdown, because her part is so tepid as the youngest sister who would rather stay home than go out with boys. Especially in juxtaposition with her scene-stealing turn in The Big Sleep, it seems like a monumental waste. Alan Hale also gets a lackluster part to fill.

So while not everyone is exactly electric (all but Lupino are fairly drab), the sheer variety of talent makes for some intriguing dynamics to go with all the genre pieces. I’m tempted to consider it a woman’s picture — more melodrama than noir — but why split threads? Infused with jazz and romance and even a bit of holiday cheer, there are some agreeable facets to the ambiance being created.

When the time comes, Petey drifts out of her family’s life and heads back out into the great big world ready to come back when she’s needed again. Wouldn’t we all like a person like that in our lives? But then real life doesn’t work quite like that. Messes are not remedied so easily. Oftentimes the pain and suffering have lifelong consequences that cannot be conveniently tied together by a Hollywood ending.

3/5 Stars

Gentleman Jim (1942): Biopic by Marquess of Queensberry Rules

Gentleman_Jim_-_Poster.jpgBoxing movies and biopics are a mainstay of Hollywood. It’s an established fact so naming names is all but unnecessary. The affable brilliance of Gentleman Jim is its agile footwork allowing it to sidestep a myriad of tropes attached to biopics and the schmaltz that Old Hollywood was always capable of serving up.

Certainly, a great deal of credit must be heaped upon Errol Flynn who seems to relish the very opportunity to portray such a magnetic man as James J. Corbett — always perceptive and driven with a bevy of tricks at his disposal to get ahead. I can’t help but hear Butch Cassidy’s words in my ears, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals. Corbett could live by that credo too.

Authenticity is to be trodden upon softly and so there is a sense Flynn has taken the “gentleman” moniker of his namesake and fashioned the role around his own roguish charm, good looks, and irrefutable charisma. Thus, it becomes almost second nature for him to play the part because there’s this sense that he’s playing what he knows best, and loving every minute of it.

He’s meant to come from hardy Irish stock with a jovial father (Alan Hale), two boisterous older brothers, an awestruck sister, and the ever maternal mother figure. Around all these types Flynn and Jim feel like outliers. They’re not meant to fit into this family and yet it somehow manages to work — Marty McFly anyone?

The script, co-written by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy, begins by drawing up the story in a most agreeable fashion that takes into account our hero’s life but also considers any number of stray antecedents that led to his rise in the boxing world.

Boxing in its most barbaric forms is being outlawed across the nation. Jim and his hapless buddy Walter (Jack Carson) spy the prominent higher-up from their bank at a fight only to have the police raid the event. Soon they’re all in prison with their prominent friend and Jim sees it as the perfect opportunity to earn some favor. Soon Judge Geary has brought on his young protege as a new brand of fighter: one with class.

Being a fast worker, Jim gets himself into the elitist Olympic Club doing his best to look the part of a  well-to-do gentleman, despite hardly having a dollar to his name. Concurrently he begins annoying the gentleman around him with his constant stream of boys sent around paging him.

It becomes quickly apparent that Gentleman Jim exists in a world, not unlike that of Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde (1941), where America seemed to have acquired a newfound propriety. Nasty pugilism had been replaced with marquess Queensberry Rules and someone like Jim Corbett was able to become something.

He soon is acquainted with Ms. Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) who along with her family are members of the social elite and patrons of the bank. I must admit that the Canadian actress has all but slunk under my radar aside from her part in Conflict opposite Bogart.

But I have rectified the oversight because she gives a lovely turn opposite Flynn allowing the sparks to fly in the most vehement way possible. High-class respectability can only get you so far. Sometimes you just want to see someone get wailed on for their own good.

She has just about enough of his conceited ways finding him utterly infuriating with his faux polished manners and overblown head. He has the gall to criticize her idol worshipping of such an eminent legend as John L. Sullivan. Corbett being an utter nobody himself. But he’s got ideas and the fancy feet to go someplace.

Upon leaving their little tiff, he dances his way back down the street zigzagging through oncoming passerby. He’s got John L. Sullivan (an impeccably cast Ward Bond) on the mind now. Because there was no bigger national hero, icon, and legend than John L. Sullivan. The film even evokes the famous phrase, “I just shook the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!” He was that big of a celebrity.

Backed by William Frawley in his corner, Corbett is soon on the rise taking on anyone who will get him some visibility. In the ring, the suave-looking Irishman is a model of agility and impeccable footwork. Though Flynn, to his credit, stood in for most of the scenes his flying feet were spotted by world-class former welterweight Mushy Callahan.

Many of the sequences capture the immersive even suffocating atmosphere of a boxing match through fairly furious cutting, especially for an old film. Inserting shots of the ring, mincing feet, and a flurry of audience reactions throwing together a swirling experience.

The most frenzied is a back and forth river barge slugfest with haymaker after haymaker flying through the air. Corbett and his hulking opponent wind up decking each other flat again and again.  Flynn takes a plunge into the water only to lay out his competitor for good minutes later.

The victor is finally raised as the police arrive on the scene to crash the proceedings and all the spectators jump ship in the most tumultuous and mayhem-filled denouements to a fight you’ve ever witnessed. The beauty is we get an almost birdseye view of the madness from the cheap seats and we see on what a large scale everyone is frantically escaping. Jumping into the drink. Screaming and shouting. It’s the kind of bedlam that’s contagious and a real enjoyment from reel to reel for some inexplicable reason.

Surely the fight to top them all is Jim Corbett against John L. Sullivan. But just as important as the actual bout is the skirmish going on outside the ropes. As the telegraph lines are flooding the country with news round after round, Corbett’s clandestine backer watches expectantly for him to get clobbered.

Meanwhile, Ms. Ware’s father with a glint in his eye eggs her on very tenderly toward the most antagonistic man in her life and subsequently the most important. In the movies at least, the people who detest each other the most wind up making the most passionate romances.

Aside from love, Gentleman Jim is refreshingly light on heart-wrenching drama or needless sentiment for that matter. It slips up in one solitary moment where a gracious Sullivan looks back wistfully at an illustrious career and pays his respects to Gentleman Jim. If anything it shows that Flynn can play genuine just as he can slather on the charm.

For contemporary audiences, it no doubt carried a sardonic edge as the actor was simultaneously embroiled in a scurrilous court trial that all but ruined his reputation for months on end.

Regardless, standing on its own merit, Gentleman Jim might just be one of my new favorite boxing exhibitions and the key is that there’s seemingly no agenda. It ebbs and flows around a life and characters without concerted realism or a need for continual heightened drama. And yet we still find it compelling and jovial with all sorts of moments worth telling the folks at home about.

In fact, that might just be Raoul Walsh’s finest attributes making every scene, action, brawl, what-have-you, totally immersive, effectively involving the audience through his array of shots. While Flynn and Smith are finally in each other’s arms, Jack Carson makes one final call straight to the camera shouting that the Corbett boys are at it again, duking it out in the parlor. Some things never change and the beauty is that we’re in on the joke as much as anyone within the frame. What a delightful biopic. Shamelessly fun to the very last word.

4.5/5 Stars

Colorado Territory (1949): High Sierra on Horseback

colorado territory.png

For me, it’s fascinating to consider directors who did not simply direct remakes but they actually reworked their earlier films. Prominent examples are, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Cecil B. DeMille, and Frank Capra, just to name a few.

The reasons could range from any number of things. Maybe they could command higher production values or harbored a desire to reexamine or improve on themes they had tackled previously. In the case of Howard Hawks, he even amazingly returned to the same basic narrative three times over as Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo respectively. That’s quite the feat even if it initially appears a tad repetitive. However, watch the films and it does feel like you are seeing an altogether different entity each time, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory fits somewhere in there as a western that very much has two feet to stand on and the fact it was based off the director’s earlier work High Sierra, starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, feels nearly inconsequential. It’s not so much that there is no space to begin comparing the two. It’s more so the latter film, given its new cast and a new location, genuinely feels like an entirely different animal. Yes, we still have Walsh at the helm but the canvas and the language being utilized is essentially different. So from thenceforward, I will treat it as such.

Walsh is no slouch when it comes to western scenery capturing the raw majesty of the rock faces as men on horseback make their way across the planes of God’s country. This certainly is no gangster movie. The distinctions are made straightaway.

We meet Jeff McQueen (Joel McCrea) for the first time in a jail cell where he’s been stowed for his notorious exploits as a bank robber. However, an old friend keeps a promise and gets him out of the clink so he can pull one last job.

It feels like an uncharacteristic role for McCrea, in one sense, but he still fills the boots of his character with his typical principled outlook. McQueen, at this point, has had time to think and favors settling down and carving out a new life for himself with a stretch of farmland, a pretty wife, and a life of honest sweat and toil.

On an outgoing stage, he makes the acquaintance of a hopeful fellow from back east (Henry Hull) who’s also looking to make a new life for his daughter (Dorothy Malone) and himself out west. His philosophy is epitomized by the statement, “The sun travels west and so does opportunity.” He’s intent on finding the Promised Land and even as his daughter remains slightly skeptical, their life appeals to McQueen deeply.

What follows is an epic introduction of our antihero’s attributes, single-handedly righting a runaway stagecoach while fending off incoming bandits with an assured fearlessness. Even in these moments, McQueen cannot completely disown what he is or shed the years of experience he has accrued. He’s a hardened and whip-smart man whether it’s on horseback or handling a revolver. He’s a real man’s man.

So when he finally arrives in the rubble of a ghost town, serving as a hideout, he’s quick to cut the two young bucks waiting for him down to size. One’s your prototypical hothead (John Archer) looking to have it out at the drop of a pin and the other (James Mitchell) is strangely eloquent, though no less treacherous.

In his vast history of bank jobs, McQueen’s met many like them and it speaks to something that he’s probably the only one who made it out alive. Everyone else is either dead or rotting in prison. He’s not a man to take chances or make mistakes because if he had, he would have been dead long ago.

colorado territory 3.png

It’s part of the reason, despite his compatriots’ objections, he tells their gal pal Colorado (Virginia Mayo), a fiery former saloon singer, to leave their company. He’s not afraid of her getting in the way. On the contrary, he’s worried the other two outlaws will find reason to quarrel over her. That’s the last complication he needs now.

And yet Colorado impresses him and ultimately convinces McQueen to let her stay. She’s pumped full of a dogged tenacity making her persistently tough. He likes that and, of course, she’s beautiful because Mayo is sweltering even in her earthy, lacquered state.

If the dichotomy is not obvious already, the weathered outlaw has two girls and two lives calling out to him. He must dispense with one for good before he can take up the other for all posterity. At this point, the story is barreling towards the long-awaited bank job. We know what it means.

As the events unfold, he’s always one step ahead of everyone moment after moment. It’s thrilling to watch really because McQueen’s such a savvy, completely pragmatic man. This constant awareness makes him likable. He feels as much of a hero as he’s a villain and that’s as much as a testament to McCrea gritty candor as anything else — a straight arrow as he always is.

No matter, he outwits his two accomplices and flees the posse looking to string them up with the price tag on his head growing steadily bigger. There is a sense that time is running out on his dreams. He also comes to find things were not as good for his stagecoach acquaintances as they expected. For once in his life, he begins to gamble.

colorado territory 2.png

First, on the prospect they will take him in even as a fugitive on the run and then in his own struggles to protect Colorado. What we get is literally Virginia Mayo versus Dorothy Malone as they have it out in a stellar log cabin struggle, the picture beginning to spiral toward imminent doom.

A harrowing finale takes us back inevitably to the Valley of Death with McQueen climbing over cavernous rock faces in a last-ditch effort to flee his pursuers. It’s easy to see the foregone conclusion. We don’t want it to be but it’s hopeless and Colorado Territory gives us that odd sensation only certain stories can effectively manage.

It made us empathize with a purported scourge on society, wishing that he might find love and escape to a life of anonymity as he had always dreamed. But we knew before it ever arrived such a dream was never to be. Does the ending surprise us? Not necessarily. That doesn’t make it any less bitter as two tragic hands clasp each other one final time in a desperate attempt to stay together.

4/5 Stars

Pursued (1947)

pursued 1.png

A film like the Searchers (1956) or even The Bravados (1958) frames the western as a tale of vengeance, where a vendetta is carried out from start to finish, only to get twisted up along the way across moral lines. Pursued is a psychological western that takes up the story from the opposite end of the barrel, as its name implies, though the way it goes about it isn’t altogether straightforward. Such stories very rarely are.

Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is hiding out in a cave as his love Thor (played by Teresa Wright) rides to him. We don’t know their history, why he is there, or who is coming after him. All we know through obvious inference is that all these things must be true.

It’s screenwriter Niven Busch’s ploy to draw us into our story and then he fades into a flashback that carries most of the picture’s weight. As many stories channeling Freudian theories must begin, this one is conceived in childhood.

A young boy remembers glimpses of a horrible event. Bullets flying. A body of a woman crawling towards him as he hides under a bed. And this woman (Judith Anderson) would become his adopted mother as her two own kids become rather like his siblings. Thor and Jeb get on well enough but from their boyhood, there has always been an unresolved conflict between Jeb and Adam. The animosity stems from the fact Adam will always see the other as not a true part of his family and Jeb lives with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, understandable or not.

For the sake of their mother and their sister, they begrudgingly tolerate each other and that’s the extent of it. When the Spanish-American War erupts one of them must go and so they decide it in the most arbitrary way possible. With a coin flip. Jeb loses and goes off to be a war hero.

When the family finally reunites and gathers around to sing “Danny Boy” to the tune of Londonderry Aire, there is a sensitivity we feel unaccustomed to, since the rest of the story is brusque and distant nearly scene after scene.

While in its opening moments it began as a story of hospitality and family, Pursued really starts falling apart and allows its core themes to exert their full presence. It’s in these moments where we begin to see hints of a story playing out not unlike a crazed version of the prodigal son.

On another coin flip, Jeb loses out on his piece of the ranch and after having it out with Adam turns to his buddy (Alan Hale Sr.) at a gambling house. He is brought on as part of the operation. Meanwhile, the jealous older brother character begrudges the fact his mother will give Jeb an equal inheritance so he is looking to avenge this personal affront. It doesn’t end peaceably.

At his ensuing trial, Jeb’s life is on the line but even though he gets away scot-free, his relations with his surrogate family will never be the same. And it’s only made worse with every subsequent moment including a town dance where Thor’s latest beau (Harry Carey Jr.) is egged on to confront Jeb.

Dean Jagger makes a nuisance of himself hanging over the entire picture menacingly, but it does feel like his talents are generally wasted. Because when everyone else is gone, the most traumatized parties are Mitchum, Wright, and Anderson.

However, this noir western is a genre-bender blessed by the beautiful black and white imagery of James Wong Howe matched with the direction of that old Warner Bros. vet Raoul Walsh. Whether it’s the distant silhouette of Robert Mitchum illuminated in the doorway at night or the sheer magnitude of the cliffs and crags as they frame insignificant riders galloping by on their horses, the images are undeniably evocative.

There’s nothing all that surprising or thematically interesting about the film’s content initially. Still, this is not a full denunciation of the picture outright. Because the way it plays out does become marginally more intriguing as Mitchum comes under attack and finds himself becoming more abhorred by the minute.

I must admit it’s hard to buy sweet, innocent Teresa Wright could be vindictive at all. However, what the two stars breed is the most detached married life known to man. It’s a tribute to both of them. But they can’t stay that way forever.

What does remain is the fact Mitchum has been hounded his whole life by some unnameable specter hanging over him, and the picture has been hemming and hawing for a final showdown all along. It finally comes, though the ones who take a stand are not who we might expect.

The psychology puzzle of it all is up for debate — how memories come flooding back at just the right moment or how people can love someone and them turn around and hate them and then love them again almost on a dime.

But this does not completely neutralize Pursued which still deserves a reputation as a brooding and atmospheric take on the West. It’s not as mentally stimulating as might have been warranted but with the cast of Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, even ill-fit as they may seem, this oater still comes as a fairly easy recommendation.

3.5/5 Stars

The Enforcer (1951)

220px-The_Enforcer_1951.JPGNot that this should deter you completely but The Enforcer isn’t a particularly unique crime film by any stretch of the imagination. Still, we have Humphrey Bogart headlining the police procedural not unlike a Call Northside 777 (1948), The Naked City (1948), or Panic in the Streets (1950).

He’s the acting district attorney entrenched in the war against syndicated crime in the city. And the case he has topples like a house of cards when his one key witness is terminated. All the efforts behind four long years of tireless legwork go out the window.

They knew that it was an expansive operation with a multitude of contracts, a laundry list of hit men, and an undertaker on the payroll. They subsequently unearthed abandoned cars, drained marshes for the dead bodies, and questioned countless others who were purported to be involved. And yet it all seemed all for naught. No one knew enough or else they weren’t talking.

But Martin Ferguson (Bogart) is not about to let his case against the wanted crime boss Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) crumble that easily. There’s got to be another way to nab him. The script from Martin Rackin spends the majority of the time filling in all the details. In fact, he probably spends too much time before finally tacking on Bogart`s last-minute hunch almost as if it were an afterthought.

Ultimately, The Enforcer could almost be called a Raoul Walsh picture as the veteran director and friend of Humphrey Bogart took over the project when the incumbent Bretaigne Windust was taken seriously ill early in production.

No disrespect to Mr. Windust at all but the film got a leg up thanks to Raoul Walsh who directed many of the film’s more volatile sequences, capturing the action with bullets flying and fists flailing — brought to us with his usual dynamism. That counteracts some of the faulty storytelling that bogs the plot down.

The narrative structure is strikingly similar to aspects of The Killers (1946) but it’s hardly executed in the same gripping fashion. In fact, the layering of the flashbacks is hardly ideal even if it feels canonically very typical of what we often term noir. By the film’s end, whether or not the story gets told feels beside the point but nevertheless, Walsh manages to provide us with a decently tense climax that satiates some of our clamorings for a quality ending.

The film’s better assets are a few of the supporting cast members that help to add color to the procedural. We are treated to the typical menagerie of seedy characters including Ted de Corsia, Jack Lambert, and Zero Mostel. But the kingpin of them all is Everett Sloane. I can’t decide if it’s simply an uncharacteristic role for the actor or simply a poor bit of casting for the role of the boss of Murder Inc. But no matter, it is what it is.

There are also no femme fatales and very few female characters to speak of at all. For one moment, a woman is important: one Angela Vetto. Otherwise, it’s pretty bleak going. Even Bogart is not particularly interesting per se but he is still Bogart, making his scenes worth watching at the very least because he’s more than believable in any incarnation as a tough guy.

3/5 Stars

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

the strawberry blonde 1.png

The opening shots of The Strawberry Blonde are not unlike Easter gatherings at my family’s house. Croquet in the backyard…well, that’s about it. But that’s precisely the distinction that’s being made as Raoul Walsh develops a dichotomy between two societies on either side of a brick wall.

On one side the Yale college boys play guitar as their gals all gussied up sing “Meet Me in St. Louis” after a rousing game of croquet. They are eye-catching and the frivolously well-off members of the elite. We think of them and their gayly prim and proper ways when we conjure up archetypal mental pictures of the so-called “Naughty Nineties.”

On the other end, two working men play a good old-fashioned game of horseshoes. They’re a different type of folk. A Greek barber (George Tobias hidden behind an accent and a mustache) and our pugnacious protagonist Biff Grimes. It’s not a typical Cagney picture but it’s still a typical hard-nosed Cagney and that’s the joy of it.

To use his vernacular, he’s a real hairpin. The kind of guy who never takes nothin’ from nobody but has made a habit of getting stepped on his entire life. Whether it’s the girls he’s missed out on or the fights he’s lost or any number of other footfalls. A 5-year stint in prison springs to mind.

Still, he can’t believe he missed out on the flirtatious, bodacious strawberry blonde Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), what seems like so many years ago now. But as was his habit, Biff’s friendly rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) ended up the lucky man.

Following their fateful first encounter, Biff gets continually saddled with Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) which obviously would be far from a disappointment with any sensible man. That doesn’t stop Biff from being sore. He needs a house call to get it through his thick skull that he really has a life to be grateful for.

This is the Epstein Brothers’ glorious revamping of a failed Gary Cooper vehicle from 1933, in this case, made to tailor fit James Cagney. The actor returned to his old studio, Warner Bros., looking for a change of pace to get him as far away from gangster fare as possible. Likewise, director Raoul Walsh was looking for a change after the riveting but tragic drama High Sierra (1941).

Given the results, it’s little surprise that the director considered it one of his personal favorites among the many pictures he helmed over the years. The quality cast starts with Cagney but we really have four superb talents at its core rounded out by Olivia De Havilland, a vivacious Rita Hayworth, and that old happy-go-lucky jokester Jack Carson. Alan Hale fills in as Cagney’s derelict father who’s always finding himself getting thrown out of the local saloon by the ear.

By now I all but take James Wong Howe’s photography for granted but as per usual, The Strawberry Blonde looks two-tone drop dead gorgeous as it lights a world with nostalgic hues of turn-of-the-century New York. Whether moonlight, streetlights, or candlelight, it is a film that is totally evocative of a bygone era.

Where men removed their coats to partake in fisticuffs. The same men humored their best girls with Sunday walks in the afternoon while local bands paraded through the park their brassy tunes wafting through the air. The barbershop subculture was in full bloom, quartets and all. Likewise, modernity was coming into its own with nitrous oxide, horseless carriages, electric lights, women’s suffrage, and the art of spaghetti imported from Italy.

In some paradoxical way while being nostalgic it still finds a way to feel surprisingly progressive particularly through the character of Olivia De Havilland with all her so-called improprieties. A nurse who winks, smokes, and whose mother was a bloomer girl and her aunt was an actress. At least on the surface. Maybe she’s not quite like that.

Meanwhile, Biff is always trying to save face his entire life and as a married man, he’s trying to save face with his concerned wife. He lives with discontentedness instead of satisfaction but just as the times keep on changing, Biff does too, realizing how lucky he is.

What makes the film itself a charming change of pace is the fact that it’s not concerned so much with one singular defining moment of drama but an entire life and it elicits a connection with a time and place even as we feel a sense of pity for Biff. It’s not a bleak film, more of a wistful one, and with wistfulness, a lighter more nostalgic tone can still be evoked.

Even to the end when Cagney takes on the masses it’s great sporting fun and he gets in his licks like any of his gangster pictures but he does it with a loving wife and a life to be wholly satiated by.

4/5 Stars

“Don’t be a hypocrite Virginia. Spiritually you winked.” ~ Olivia De Havilland as Amy Lind

High Sierra (1941)

high-sierra-1They Drive by Night is a surprisingly engrossing picture and I only mention it for its obvious relation to High Sierra. It came out a year earlier, helmed by Raoul Walsh starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. The important fact is that if Walsh had gotten his way, he would have cast Raft again as Hollywood’s perennial tough-guy leading man.

But Bogart saw what this film, based on the work of W.R. Burnett, could do for him and he talked Raft out of the part while lobbying Walsh for the role. Reluctantly the director agreed and as it turned out it was the perfect vehicle for Bogart’s big break as he had foreseen.

High Sierra functions as a crossroads of sorts between America’s standard genres. There’s no question that Roy Earle is a gangster in the former sense of the word. And even as an actor Bogart was used to playing second fiddle to the likes of the Cagneys, Rafts, and Robinsons. But if there was ever a poster boy for the emerging film-noir movement Bogart is the shining example carrying that tough as nails persona from gangster films but also functioning as a fatalistic antihero in the same sense. We see it with Spade, Marlowe, and all the rest. Also, as an early heist drama, High Sierra ushers in a trend that would be explored further in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing (notably all gritty cogs in the film-noir canon).

To understand what Bogart saw in this picture and to comprehend what a lynchpin it was, it’s necessary to delve into the story itself penned by Burnett and Bogart’s long time future collaborator John Huston.

Veteran gangster Roy Earle (Bogart) has just earned a government pardon with a little help from a powerful friend. It’s this aged gangster from the old days Big Mac who pays his loyal henchman a favor so he can run point on a new bank job. Big Mac is on his deathbed and the changing of the guards seems all too imminent, still, Earle is beholden to him. He’s a loyal son of a gun and tough as all get out. He’s not about to trust a copper and just about scoffs at the men who are supposed to help in pulling off the job.

high-sierra-3He’s not about to lose his nerves or take his eyes off the objective but the two young bucks he’s thrown in with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) carry the tough guy bravado well but there hardly as experienced as him. He’s not too happy about the girl (Ida Lupino) they have hanging around either because she’s an obvious liability. In his experience, women squawk too much. The man on the inside (Cornel Wilde) is even worse, a spineless hotel clerk with even less nerve.

Earle’s philosophy is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what we expect from a gangster picture. However, there are several elements to suggest that we are on the brink of a new movement to reflect the changing American zeitgeist. High Sierra is actually composed of a great deal of on location shooting throughout the Lone Pine area that adds a layer of credence to this entire tale but also a certain visual tranquility. And although it’s difficult to know precisely how much involvement Huston had on the script, there’s no doubt that his impact on noir was crucial with The Maltese Falcon released the same year.

But the bottom line is Bogart’s character has another side. With the gears of the heist in motion, he wryly notes, “Of all the 14 karat saps, I start out this caper with a girl and a dog.” And it’s true he has a certain soft spot for Marie Garson, and the yippy dog Pard (Bogart’s own pet Zero) but that’s not the extent of his character. In the stories most striking B plot, he befriends a trio of poor country folk led by their patriarch the always amiable Henry Travers and important to Roy because of their pretty granddaughter (Joan Leslie) who also happens to be a cripple.

high-sierra-2In an unassuming act of charity, Roy has a doctor friend take a look at Velma and ultimately pays for the surgery that heals her ailment completely. Still, if the story ended there it would be a happy ending but with the heist in the works, Roy is not so lucky. He pulls off the job and makes his getaway but with most any cinematic criminal activity in Hollywood’s Golden Age there must be repercussions. After all, that’s what keeps things interesting and it’s true that Roy and Marie are able to lay low for a time but soon the word is out and the gangster is a wanted man.

Walsh orchestrates the tense finale stirringly in a way that still has the power to excite with editing, score, and camera all flowing seamlessly for the most crackerjack of endings. It’s true that big shots are brought low and the irony was that it was hardly a woman or a dog that caused his downfall. It was himself. In those faltering moments, Bogart won his audience over as a leading man and would never lose them again. Certainly, we have the rather unfair added benefit of hindsight, but High Sierra stands as a monumental picture.

4/5 Stars

 

 

They Drive By Night (1940)

They_Drive_by_NightThis is a surprisingly nice little film-noir that follows two brothers (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) who make their meager living transporting loads of produce by night on a big rig. Despite the seemingly mundane topic, They Drive by Night has some juicy bits of drama as the brothers struggle to survive and make their way in life. Along the way there is disaster and treachery. Ida Lupino is absolutely psychotic in her role opposite George Raft and Alan Hale. Then Ann Sheridan plays the nice girl role. I wouldn’t say that this is a great Noir but it certainly is far from boring.

Raoul Walsh proves just how adept he was at making entertaining melodramas and Humphrey Bogart is yet one step closer to his breakthrough with The Maltese Falcon (1941).  The truck drivers can always be found at the local diner getting their burger, talking up the waitress and maybe playing some pinball. When there time is up, it’s a long night ahead hauling fruit crates. The film is a slice of Americana reflecting a bygone era, at least for most of us.

3.5/5 Stars