Bullitt May 24, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 3 comments
(Note: This post is also up at a new site I’ve established - clydefro.com - which I’m still putting the finishing touches on, but one that will very soon replace my Film Journal. I hope you like it and I’ll set up a post later in the week to invite feedback. Thanks for reading.)
Steve McQueen’s guarded blue eyes drive this Peter Yates film just as the actor forcefully guides his title character’s ‘68 Mustang in that iconic car chase. The number of close-ups Yates gives McQueen is surprising until you realize each and every one works. When Yates cuts to McQueen as San Francisco Police Lt. Frank Bullitt, it’s done so with an intimate focus and typically yields no dialogue. McQueen looks, squints, ponders, thinks, and performs any number of other silent reactions. His eyes subtly volunteer what’s required each time. No film better supported Steve McQueen’s mastery of underplaying scene and character. His two Peckinpah pictures are lovingly patient and blessed with the harsh touch of conflict, but neither lets McQueen so effectively measure his performance. Yates, with no Hollywood films on his resume at the time and mostly here on the strength of the British crime drama Robbery, didn’t have the clout of Peckinpah or Robert Wise or the other more established directors McQueen worked with, and it’s easy to imagine how persuasive the actor was when he insisted on removing bits of dialogue in favor of those wordless close-ups.
There’s a thin line of physical detachment McQueen walked throughout his career, with some films and performances clearly more successful than others. His screen presence was full of silent swagger and minimalist proficiency, qualities that cry out for the silver screen instead of less than ideal television sets of any size. His expertise was not in the conveyance of heightened emotion. He didn’t have a particularly theatrical or broad style, which perhaps limited the types of roles he could effectively make his own. This isn’t to say he wasn’t capable of such parts, but his strength was clearly in the direction of reaction more than action. You can place your own ideas, thoughts, emotions into a McQueen performance because of the narrow opening he left within the characters. The stares aren’t blank, though, and those who pay attention can clearly see the conflict in McQueen’s eyes. When a writer like Matt Zoller Seitz in The L Magazine’s online article “Too Cool?” describes McQueen as the “consummate man of action” before dismissing our beloved movie star with the summation that “calling him a great actor, or even a great leading man, is a bit of a stretch,” you wonder if he really sees or appreciates what his target was doing.
In Bullitt, McQueen has to play a man of considerable skill in his job, and someone who’s both smart enough and decent enough to lead the viewer through the often unaccommodating morass of the plot while still being a believably solitary figure. His Frank Bullitt is first seen awakening from a 5 AM night. This is a character who buys frozen TV dinners by the armful. He has a girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) who would seem to be there mostly due to consequence. That article doesn’t look kindly on McQueen’s stoicism toward women, citing a shot where the back of his head is shown as Bisset lays in bed. There’s a fundamental misidentification of McQueen here or elsewhere as a role model in that sort of thinking. He’s not the ideal and anyone thinking as much is more the problem than what’s on the screen. The reason McQueen’s awkward treatment of women resonates is because it’s consistent and relatable. He doesn’t handle women with James Bond finesse or romantic comedy charm. Women flock to him because of how he looks and the way he carries himself. The fact that he’s constantly distracted enough to overlook them is a revelation of the struggle with intimacy that’s bred into the male psyche. These are problems rooted deeply within the male-female relationship dynamic, and it’s absurd to blame McQueen for truthfully playing the characters this way.
In other aspects, McQueen may indeed be the ideal for filmic masculinity, but that comes as a reflection of how we wish to be viewed more than as a measuring of priorities. If he portrays integrity, rebelliousness, and the cool calm of a man sure in both his capabilities and his methods, the desire to emulate such a path is undeniable. Films once were veritable instruction manuals for males on how to survive the usual rites of passage. These ideas may have contained their share of flaws, but there was still something genuinely comforting about having a choice among several leading male actors as to who best represented the chosen brand of impact. It’s no longer there and we’re instead left with neither the McQueen style of letting professional responsibility fully dominate over personal relationships nor the slightly more sensitive nature of a Newman or Redford making time for the female lead amid his internal turmoil. Blandness has won out and there are no Steve McQueens in modern American cinema. I can’t think of a single leading man this decade who could convincingly step into the role of Bullitt. If you want to disparage McQueen for a lack of intimate risk or an unwillingness to show tenderness, I just think it’s missing the entire point of the portrayal. McQueen’s characters are fascinating and flawed precisely because of their combination of the external assuredness with internal confusion. Witness the final shot, the final close-up, in Bullitt and tell me it would somehow be better if the character was a loving romantic partner. The fact that Bullitt is probably a lousy lay is part of the driving force of the entire film.
To fully appreciate Yates’ movie, I think you have to see it as a character study. As a simple police procedural, it’s still an outstanding and meaty outing, but the reaction is perhaps lessened, especially on repeat viewings. To instead hold McQueen’s character as our compass is to witness one of the true joys of several careers, a genre, and an era. It’s important to be completely in tune with this man, to see everything from his perspective of distrustful caution and uneasy dedication to the job. The Film Society at Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, a mere frolic through the woefully brief career of an actor whose life was itself all too fleeting, wears the painfully appropriate title of “Yesterday’s Loner,” and it’s this line of thinking that helps to unlock much of McQueen’s career. Bullitt has an able sidekick in Don Murray’s Delgetti, but our protagonist is still a closed-off guy. Those nitpicks about how McQueen interacted with women on screen conveniently forget that it was the same way he treated everyone in most all of his films. The “Yesterday’s Loner” moniker is thoughtful and apt. He made a career out of emotionally partitioning himself off against the world. It’s okay to find that unpersuasive, but realize that many people could not disagree more. McQueen was emblematic of something that seems so frustratingly foreign to the modern magpie culture where trends go in the direction of telling the world what you’re doing at any given time rather than actually taking time out to fully experience it.
Because I perceive Bullitt as McQueen’s most signature role and film, and because the result was so impressive, it follows that the opportunity to see it on a very large screen was impossible to ignore. Even in an archive print - and you’d think a film as popular as this would warrant something freshly struck - the effect was like seeing it for the first time. Those McQueen close-ups depend so much on where the attention is elsewhere. And the car chase…the car chase! It’s less viewed than experienced. The hilly San Francisco streets inspire that same discomforting stomach jump as one gets while traversing actual roads of that nature, though perhaps not quite with the same abandon of doing so at such raw speed. Engines at full roar have rarely sounded so exciting. The scene lasts a few minutes, but it feels like the blink of an eye. Most movies that try car chases get it wrong, or at least less right, because they struggle to comprehend that it isn’t the suspense or the result that the viewer craves. The key is in how closely we can transport ourselves into the car. Nothing tops Bullitt. When Lalo Schifrin’s score goes silent and we see that great literal image of a seatbelt being buckled, all that’s left is for the cars to forcefully peel out into the chase. It’s a video game, with superb editing, before they existed. And it’s much, much better.
As exhilarating as the car chase still is, it’s unfortunate that one sequence tends to overshadow the rest of the film. Bullitt’s plotting is layered and confident, but doesn’t care to be clever. There’s no winking or warning to pay attention. This seems to catch people off guard, even causing some to gripe that the film is difficult to follow. But everything’s clearly there. McQueen’s character is requested by the publicity hound DA Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to ensure the safety of a mob witness from Chicago. When the witness is shot up in his dive of a hotel room, following his strange unlocking of the door, the already suspicious Bullitt immediately realizes something about the whole thing is off. To get into (spoiler) territory, the witness proves to have been a married car salesman the real mob guy paid off, leaving the actual witness on the run to kill the car salesman’s wife and fly out of the country with all the cash he’d embezzled. Bullitt finally catches up to him at the airport, where the film’s second great chase occurs, again leaving McQueen with criminal blood on his hands.
The scene where Bisset’s character expresses her frustration with the barrier he’s built up over constant exposure to murder and violence is a little forced, but I think it’s a necessary interaction that also clarifies some of the film’s intentions. Bullitt isn’t a vigilante cop. Yates’ film is sometimes compared against Dirty Harry and The French Connection, but the protagonists just aren’t the same. McQueen plays him as principled, but realistic. The summation in Bullitt comes near the end when Chalmers says, “Frank, we must all compromise,” and McQueen responds without allowing any breathing room: “Bullshit.” That’s the essence of the character laid bare. He’s not the aggressive thug of a Popeye Doyle or Harry Callahan. There’s no joy in violence or killing. The contemplative final scene shows the weight that hangs over this man when he allows it to, and it’s scary because we require people like this to protect us but then ask them to do such horrific things with little regard for the psychological turmoil that really should result.
The police are generally portrayed with an extremely sympathetic eye, and only Baker, the character played by Norman Fell, is shown as corrupt or incompetent. The theme of corruption does arc through the film, but it’s not departmental or criminal corruption. This sort of corruption is internal - the corruption of the soul. Chalmers and his police lackey that Fell plays are both afflicted, as are the real and fake incarnations of the mob witness. A man like Chalmers is so muddied in self-interest that he has little use in determining what the right path might be from a legal standpoint. The compromise he practices is everywhere, seemingly contagious in all professions, and all the more dangerous for how pervasive it is. McQueen lets Bullitt be constantly aware that these corruptions exist but strong enough to avoid the compromises. While the term “anti-authority” is sometimes thrown at the character, that’s hardly true. His hanging up on Baker or spurning of Chalmers isn’t done to rebel against authority. It’s a further rejection of that corruption.
The Big Parade on TCM 5/25 May 23, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, The TCM Ten , 1 comment so far
It’s Memorial Day weekend and, as usual, TCM is showing a marathon of war films. Most of these are on DVD. Many are old standbys for the channel and get plenty of showings. A rarity in the mix is King Vidor’s classic silent The Big Parade, from 1925. The film has been repeatedly delayed for DVD by Warner Bros. and has become, along with Vidor’s The Crowd, one of those titles promised time and again with still no release announced. I think I read that a restoration exists of The Big Parade that should be on the eventual DVD, but the TCM showing will likely not be from that print. Watch for it on TCM Memorial Day night at 2:15 AM.
Aside from the French Connection-esque Badge 373 starring Robert Duvall and also involving Eddie Egan, the real “Popeye Doyle,” (airing Tuesday night, May 26 at 2:00 AM), that’s all I’ve got this week. The TCM Ten should return on Friday.
The TCM Ten 5/16-5/22 May 15, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, The TCM Ten , 3 comments
Birthdays everywhere this week. Frank Capra, Robert Montgomery, Laurence Olivier, and James Stewart all would have celebrated their births this week in May. Currently, however, I’m looking ahead to August. August 13th, to be exact. TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” continues that month and the 13th is a day full of Gloria Grahame movies. Cannot wait. Sterling Hayden gets his own day also. See the schedule for yourself here. As always, all times are EDT and program days begin at 6:00 AM.
Saturday May 16
4:00 AM Riptide (Goulding, 1934) - BW-92 mins. - This week is a feast for fans of Robert Montgomery, including a birthday anniversary celebration on the 21st. Here he stars with Norma Shearer, seducing her along the French Riviera despite Shearer’s marriage to Herbert Marshall. The film was released (according to IMDb) in late March of 1934, making it just barely pre-Code. MGM was the distributor, though Warner Bros. should now control. It isn’t on DVD.
Sunday May 17
1:30 PM A Child Is Waiting (Cassavetes, 1963) - BW-104 mins. - There was turmoil during the filming of this, a predictable clash between Cassavetes and producer Stanley Kramer, but the remnants of the picture are still pretty good. It concerns a school for children with disabilities. Burt Lancaster is the head and Judy Garland a new teacher. Cassavetes handles everything with such patient grace that some scenes almost feel documentary-like. This certainly isn’t a great film, but it isn’t a failure either. Sony owns the rights and nothing’s been released on DVD in R1. I think there’s an out of print French edition where it’s paired with Love Streams.
Monday May 18
10:15 AM Rain or Shine (Capra, 1930) - BW-88 mins. - An incredible week for birthdays starts with a day’s worth of films by Frank Capra. I’ve mentioned them before, but the Stanwyck films he did (except Bitter Tea of General Yen) which aren’t available in R1 are on today’s schedule. I’m less familiar with this comedy, based on a play by the actor James Gleason and with no major stars in the cast. In it, a girl (Joan Peers) inherits a circus which struggles financially. Joe Cook plays the circus manager who tries to help out by putting on a one-man show. Columbia was behind this movie just like it was the Capra-Stanwyck pictures. Rain or Shine is not available on DVD (and somewhat rare it seems).
8:00 PM Penthouse (Van Dyke, 1933) - BW-89 mins.- Oh boy, oh boy, it’s Myrna Loy. This has Myrna’s frequent director W.S. Van Dyke and was released a year prior to The Thin Man establishing her as a comedic actress. The MGM production is set in the criminal underbelly and stars Warner Baxter as a lawyer for the defense. In addition to Loy and Nat Pendleton as a gangster, Mae Clarke also appears, elevating it to probably my most anticipated showing of the week. Warner Bros. controls. Nothing on the DVD front.
9:45 PM When Ladies Meet (Beaumont, 1933) - BW-85 mins. - Here we get Myrna again, also Robert Montgomery again, and Ann Harding. Loy is a novelist with a thing for her publisher (Frank Morgan). Montgomery, who has an interest in Loy, sets up a blind meeting between her and the publisher’s wife (Harding). It seems a bit of a stretch to see Morgan as married to Harding and pined over by Loy, but these things happen I guess. Another for MGM, also not on DVD.
Tuesday May 19
8:00 AM Speed (Marin, 1936) - BW-70 mins. - Rarely mentioned or seen, this was Jimmy Stewart’s first starring role in the movies. He plays a car tester for an automobile company with an interest in Wendy Barrie’s character. Una Merkel and Ted Healy are part of the supporting cast. The short little picture was done for MGM. Rights holder Warner Bros. hasn’t let it out of the vault thus far.
8:00 PM The Lawless (Losey, 1950) - BW-82 mins. - Director Joseph Losey’s second film, after The Boy with the Green Hair, and this one stars MacDonald Carey, Gail Russell and Lee Patrick. It’s being shown as part of the Latino Images in Film tribute, appropriate since the plot involves Carey’s newspaper editor taking up the cause of the mostly Mexican fruit pickers in California. The movie was released originally by Paramount. I’m not sure whether the rights are still with that studio and I don’t know of a DVD release (though it’s possible one exists somewhere since Losey is generally more respected outside of the U.S.). Trial, starring Glenn Ford and an Oscar-nominated Arthur Kennedy follows.
Wednesday May 20
10:00 PM Harry in Your Pocket (Geller, 1973) - C-103 mins. - James Stewart films take up the entire day to honor the 101st anniversary of his birth. The films shown are good ones, but nothing out of the ordinary. Less expected is TCM’s night of films starring Michael Sarrazin. If you live long enough you’ll see just about anything. This one sounds sort of interesting and has James Coburn as the lead, a pickpocket who takes Sarrazin under his wing. Trish Van Devere is also in the cast. Coburn doesn’t really get his due but I almost always find him to be an agreeable presence. This movie isn’t on DVD in R1. I believe MGM might have the rights. The Robert Mulligan-directed The Pursuit of Happiness, also with Sarrazin, airs later in the night at 2:15 AM.
Thursday May 21
7:15 AM The Big House (Hill, 1930) - BW-87 mins. - Here’s the Montgomery day, honoring 105 years since his birth. The Big House did well at the Oscars, earning a nomination for Wallace Beery and as Best Picture. Chester Morris plays a convict who falls for Montgomery’s sister Leila Hyams (changed from the original relationship where the two were instead married) after breaking out. When Morris is recaptured, another escape attempt is planned. Warner recently put the MGM picture in its made-on-demand Archive collection. How does the unrestored DVD-R image purchasable for $20 look? Judging from the DVD Beaver review, somewhat lousy. The TCM showing will be almost certainly identical.
Friday May 22
6:30 AM Friends and Lovers (Schertzinger, 1931) - BW-68 mins. - I looked at the cast for this and thought it was immediately worthwhile. There’s Adolphe Menjou, Lili Damita, birthday boy Laurence Olivier, Erich von Stroheim, and Hugh Herbert. Anything with Olivier prior to Wuthering Heights seems forgotten and von Stroheim always adds an interesting layer to things. The latter is married to Damita, with both Menjou and Olivier, British Army officers in India, also taken with her. Made for RKO and now likely to be a Warner Bros. property, the film isn’t on DVD in R1.
The TCM Ten 5/9-5/15 May 9, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films , 4 comments
A review for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that, arm twisted, may be my favorite thing I’ve written has recently gone up at DVD Times. I’m also in the process of posting reviews to the three films in the Criterion Collection’s “Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura” set, a release that I’m overwhelmingly excited is happening and one that I hope will be successful for the label. TCM picks are a day or so late, mostly because of these reviews. As always, all times are EDT and program days begin at 6:00 AM.
Sunday May 10
6:00 AM Bachelor Mother (Kanin, 1939) - BW-82 mins. - I’ve mentioned this movie before here, but it’s just so delightful that I can’t overdo the recommendation. Ginger Rogers plays a department store worker who finds herself with a baby that isn’t hers. David Niven is the son of the store’s owner (Charles Coburn) and eventual love interest for Ginger. There’s a very funny scene involving wind-up Donald Duck toys in the store. RKO originally distributed the film and that studio was also used by Disney to release his cartoons before he set up shop independently. Bachelor Mother can be had on DVD in France and the UK, though the latter is only a colorized version. Warner Bros. controls the rights in R1 but hasn’t released its own version yet. You just know those scoundrels are probably going to throw the movie onto a $20 DVD-R now. Keep the early Sunday morning comedy momentum going with Carole Lombard in Lady by Choice at 7:30 AM.
10:00 PM The Sign of the Ram (Sturges, 1948) - BW-84 mins. - The last film of actress Susan Peters has her play a wheelchair-bound woman who manipulates her family. Alexander Knox and Peggy Ann Garner co-star in the picture, which was also the only one Peters made after suffering an accident that resulted in paralysis. What a raw deal she got. Oscar nomination for 1942’s Random Harvest when she was in her early twenties. Bullet in the spine from a discharged hunting rifle that left her paralyzed from the waist down in 1945. Dead at just 31 years old in 1951. The Sign of the Ram was directed by John Sturges for Columbia. It isn’t on DVD.
12:00 AM The Cheat (DeMille, 1915) - BW-59 mins. - The remake of this film can be found in Universal’s Pre-Code Hollywood Collection that came out a bit over a month ago. After watching that version, starring Tallulah Bankhead, I’m interested to see what is apparently an even more daring take by Cecil B. DeMille. The extremely odd sexual predator character was played by future director Irving Pichel in the 1931 film, but here it’s Sessue Hayakawa in the role. The Japanese actor also stars in the film next on TCM’s schedule, The Dragon Painter, which has a typically excellent DVD from Milestone available. DeMille’s The Cheat is also on DVD, from Kino in a set with Manslaughter, another silent from the same director.
Monday May 11
6:15 AM Miranda (Annakin, 1948) - BW-77 mins. - A man (Griffith Jones) goes fishing and soon enough finds himself a mermaid (Glynis Johns). Directed by Ken Annakin, who just passed away a couple of weeks ago, the fantasy film also stars Googie Withers as the lucky fisherman’s wife, Withers’ real-life husband John McCallum, and Margaret Rutherford. The UK production isn’t on DVD and was released by Eagle-Lion in American theaters. I’m not sure where that would put the rights.
7:45 AM The Magic Box (Boulting, 1951) - C-108 mins.- Another British film in the early morning. The behind the scenes talent is quite impressive, with John Boulting directing, Ronald Neame producing, Jack Cardiff behind the camera, and a screenplay by Eric Ambler. Robert Donat stars as a man who may have been the first to invent the motion picture camera. Maria Schell plays his wife and Richard Attenborough is down the cast list. Credited even further down on IMDb are Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov. What’s that about, I wonder. This one is available on DVD in the UK, though not stateside.
8:00 PM The Hucksters (Conway, 1947) - BW-116 mins. - Really great cast here, lead by Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr in her Hollywood debut. They’re joined by Sydney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou, Ava Gardner, even Edward Arnold. The plot finds veteran Gable moving into the advertising business. He takes interest in widow Kerr and, briefly, singer Gardner. Surprisingly not available on DVD, the MGM production should have its rights controlled by Warner Bros. Another marketing themed movie, Callaway Went Thataway, follows at 10:15 PM.
Tuesday May 12
8:00 PM Tortilla Flat (Fleming, 1942) - BW-99 mins. - The Latino Images in Film festival continues tonight, starting with this adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. Spencer Tracy stars alongside Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield in a story about the lazy, aimless ways of a group of people. I can imagine that the commentator speaking with Robert Osborne this evening will not endorse the way Latinos are portrayed in the film. It did earn an Oscar nomination for Frank Morgan, playing the character named “the Pirate.” No DVD here, with it being a Warner Bros. via MGM property.
Thursday May 14
2:15 PM Smilin’ Through (Franklin, 1932) - BW-98 mins. - Norma Shearer alert. This sounds like a convoluted story that’s difficult to even try to quickly summarize. Something about a man (Leslie Howard) who is about to marry a woman (Shearer) but another man (Fredric March) is jealous enough to kill the woman. Howard’s character spends years of loneliness but takes in the niece of his dead fiancee (who grows up to also be Norma Shearer). The niece then takes interest in the son (March again) of the man who killed her aunt. The film was one of ten nominated for Best Picture in 1934, losing to Cavalcade. Another MGM production, not on DVD, with rights held by Warner Bros.
9:30 PM My Man and I (Wellman, 1952) - BW-99 mins. - Ricardo Montalban plays a Mexican (Chu Chu Ramirez is the character’s name) who proudly becomes an American citizen but has his dignity tested while laboring in the fields. An excellent supporting cast includes Shelley Winters, Claire Trevor and Wendell Corey. Director William Wellman was nearing the end of his career but still very much relevant, making Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty the following two years. This movie has not shown up on DVD and was, again, done for MGM but now owned by the WB.
Friday May 15
9:15 AM Walk Softly, Stranger (Stevenson, 1950) - BW-100 mins. - Shades of film noir from the director of Mary Poppins? Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, before The Third Man but released after it, are the leads, with Spring Byington, John McIntire and, yes, Jack Paar in tow. Cotten’s character drifts into a small Ohio town and acts like it was his boyhood home. Byington is his new landlady and Valli the crippled woman he falls in love with, though neither realizes Cotten is actually a crook. The film was done for producer Dore Schary and released by RKO. Unavailable on DVD, it should now be a Warner Bros. property.
The Man Who Watched Liberty Valance April 29, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , add a comment
The new Paramount Centennial Collection releases arrived here a couple of days ago. I’ll have full reviews up at DVD Times soon enough. (Please read them.) I have to listen to the commentary tracks on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but the review is otherwise written. Fingers crossed for no inaccuracies or other embarrassments that may arise when writing about a film of such stature. El Dorado will follow at some point, before the May 19th release date I hope. For now, here’s a comparison between the previous R1 edition of Liberty Valance and this new issue. I don’t think I’m really allowed/encouraged to have an official review up until two weeks before release, but DVD Beaver will probably throw theirs online any day now. Older release is on top and Centennial Collection is bottom.
(click and click again to fully enlarge each)
More on Dassin April 8, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 1 comment so far
The Film Forum retrospective on Jules Dassin has just ended, right when I return to the area. Anyone arriving to this piece via search or otherwise who caught The Rehearsal, A Dream of Passion, or He Who Must Die is encouraged to share an opinion. Those were the titles I didn’t get a chance to see but would’ve liked to given their rarity. I did catch Up Tight, Dassin’s take on The Informer, earlier filmed by John Ford, with the setting moved from Ireland to Cleveland. The film was his last for a Hollywood studio, though it carries very few of the placations one would expect from something financed and released in 1968 by Paramount. Beginning with footage of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral march and letting that wounded anger inform the whole of the movie, Dassin is here at perhaps his most provocative and overtly political without letting it become a full-on diatribe.
The film may work best as a curiosity to gawk at and a timepiece projected squarely against both whites and blacks of that difficult era. Dassin barks more at philosophy than race. Some of this inevitably dates the movie, even prefiguring the blaxploitation films that would come just a few years later, but there are also striking scenes and encounters, albeit played broadly in typical Dassin fashion, that seem to resonate as loudly today as they would’ve at the time. The most immediate example of this would be the carnival scene in the second half of the film, when an inebriated Tank (played effectively by Julian Mayfield in his only major film role) is perceived as the black militant incarnate by a group of stereotypical white people. They reduce him to a harmless caricature of the angry Negro seen on the news as Tank plays along with stories about a planned uprising. Dassin then furthers the nervous tension by filming the sequence with funhouse mirrors, making for a distinctly odd combination of faux revolution dialogue and ironically silly images.
Even with its self-imposed limitations that don’t really have the same effect on Ford’s version (though any true comparisons are useless), Up Tight can still be seen as a partially successful balance of an important topic usually ignored by Hollywood while also retaining the dramatic roots of Liam O’Flaherty’s original novel. A flamboyant Roscoe Lee Browne and the twitchy score from Booker T. and the M.G.’s are additional reminders that we’re not in Ireland anymore. Dassin is credited with adapting the material alongside Mayfield and Ruby Dee, who gives a fine supporting performance as a poor single mother romantically involved with Tank, and some context and explanation behind the motives for this seemingly strange revisiting of an already filmed story might be helpful. The DVD generation has gotten so accustomed to a Criterion-level pinning of films inside perfect-fitting boxes brimming with explanatory material that simply watching a movie on its own can feel incomplete to fully understand it.
Since Criterion clearly loves Dassin and the company has developed a relationship with Paramount, which I’d imagine still controls the rights to Up Tight, I wondered whether a DVD release from the boutique label could be in the cards. After seeing the film, my expectations for that idea took a hit, both because I’m not sure it’s of the quality necessary for Criterion to be interested and because the print shown was clearly from the studio archives. The sound was scratchy and the animated opening titles were full of dirt and marks, damage which settled down as the film went on but still never let the viewer forget the print wasn’t of recent vintage. Film Forum originally had the screen set up for, I believe, 1.85:1 but finally made the necessary adjustments to accommodate what looked like, surprisingly, Academy ratio. The not fully reliable IMDb page doesn’t even list an aspect ratio.
I’ll also make mention here of some writing I did on Dassin’s brilliant film noir Thieves’ Highway for the Noir of the Week site. It was actually the noir of last week there, but I didn’t have a chance to bring it up earlier. When watching the film again after not seeing it for a couple of years, I was impressed with, first, how beautiful the transfer on Criterion’s DVD is, and, also, how tightly Dassin was able to pace everything. There’s quite a bit of plot squeezed into those 94 minutes, but it’s more uneasiness than physical action. I don’t see Dassin as a director concerned with atmospherically setting a mood via short cuts like many of the noir auteurs. He instead built tension organically through situation and gravity, fully realized in the famous Rififi heist sequence where half an hour passes without any words spoken. Thieves’ Highway is his most pure of those prime noirs, and it’s a truly great film.
Follow Me Quietly March 17, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s , 1 comment so far
A few things really got my attention with the 1949 film noir Follow Me Quietly. Its director Richard Fleischer was the epitome of the solid noir director, always churning out something interesting without fully dazzling the viewer. He made short, cheap crime films for RKO like The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery, and The Clay Pigeon. Very no-nonsense and without the style of a Joseph H. Lewis, Phil Karlson or Anthony Mann. His career later went every direction imaginable, but there are still a few gems amid the rubble of those pictures. For Follow Me Quietly, Fleischer was assigned by RKO to essentially walk in Anthony Mann’s footsteps and churn out a police thriller his fellow director had actually written a few years earlier. The IMDb site even has Mann as an uncredited director on the movie, though I can’t verify this anywhere else and Jeanine Basinger’s book only speculates that Mann might have directed the film’s finale based on a similar scene in T-Men.
The article on TCM’s website about Follow Me Quietly goes into a little detail about the situation. Prior to breaking through with Raw Deal and T-Men, Mann apparently presented his treatment to RKO for the story while toiling away at the studio on fare like The Bamboo Blonde. After Mann’s He Walked by Night proved to be a success in 1948, RKO dusted off his Follow Me Quietly idea and made the picture with Fleischer. Robert de Grasse, who’d been the cinematographer on everything from Kitty Foyle and Vivacious Lady to The Leopard Man and The Body Snatcher, was brought in to shoot it. He Walked by Night and Follow Me Quietly are hardly the same film, with the former carrying much more atmospheric tension and stylistic lighting courtesy of John Alton, but the similarities are easy to spot. In both films, the police profile and stalk a serial killer using then-modern investigation techniques.
The Fleischer movie wastes little time at just an hour’s length, and seems almost annoyed with sketching out a romantic subplot to pad the story. Considering how flat the dalliance between William Lundigan’s Police Lt. Grant and the would-be crime reporter played by Dorothy Patrick falls, you can understand why no one much seems to care. I’d be surprised if Mann had anything to do with that part, which was more likely added by screenwriter Lillie Hayward. Patrick’s character is neither a femme fatale nor a particularly vital piece of the investigation. If her main purpose is to add layering to Lundigan’s lonely, overworked cop, the film’s leanness prevents that development from ever fully taking shape. A few offhand comments about the lieutenant nicely prefigure the idea of criminal profiling and its accompanying stress, but the actual relationship between him and the reporter is too threadbare.
Where the film turns interesting is with its maniacal, self-righteous killer, a man who calls himself the Judge. He strangles his victims to death, taunts the police with letters written like ransom notes, and schedules killings when it rains. Unlike Richard Basehart’s sharp man on the run in He Walked by Night, the Judge isn’t shown clearly until the police finally catch him. Little clues like a hair sample or the report of a victim who survived the Judge’s attack eventually coalesce into a life-size dummy with a blank face. The featureless front of the dummy’s head makes for one of the film’s most striking images. A scene late in the picture when the seemingly lifeless body sits in the shadows of Lt. Grant’s office only to get up once everyone has left the room is downright unnerving, if almost entirely implausible. When we’re face to face with the Judge, he’s far less sinister than the build-up has implied.
The final chase through streets and steps and into an industrial building where artificial rain wilds the eyes of the Judge is perhaps the film’s true highlight. Fleischer (or Mann) masterfully uses space and environment to maximize the tension. I’m not sure why a supposedly experienced police lieutenant would handcuff himself to his suspect while navigating through a high altitude walkway - placing his own life in the hands of the Judge here who could jump and leave Grant with no choice but to follow - but it’s not the only example of logic failing the film. It also makes little sense to use a photograph that simply shows the rear view of the dummy dressed in a regular suit and fedora while trying to make a positive identification on the Judge. The police would’ve been better off sticking a large green apple over the dummy’s face and asking around whether anyone’s seen him.
And yet, I liked Fleischer’s little movie just as I’ve enjoyed his other taut crime pictures. (Maybe a bit less.) There are headscratchers like the ones I’ve mentioned, but the idea of the dummy and the way it’s presented kept my interest. Even if Lundigan is a little bland, he does well with shaking out demons. He’s less guarded and explosive than a character like Robert Ryan’s Wilson in On Dangerous Ground. Lundigan displays his angst much differently, yet still with a frustration that’s ultimately effective.
Follow Me Quietly hasn’t yet made it to R1 DVD. Maybe Warner Bros. will throw it onto a Film Noir set in the future (though Armored Car Robbery is my preference for Fleischer). There is a disc available in France from the Éditions Montparnasse label. DVD Beaver reviewed it and the print used looks just as good as what I saw on TCM.
Brute Force March 3, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s , 4 comments
We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of director Jules Dassin’s death and his films, as ever, have been on my mind lately. It was last March 31st when Dassin died at the age of 96, a survivor of the film industry’s schizophrenic ups and downs. At the time, I was compelled to lay a little wreath of words out for him and Richard Widmark, who starred for Dassin in Night and the City and preceded his director in death by only a week. I’ve got another piece planned on Dassin’s film Thieves’ Highway later this month for the Noir of the Week site. I’m also quite impressed with the 15-movie retrospective at New York’s Film Forum in March and April.
In preparation of all this, I pulled out my Brute Force DVD, released by Criterion a couple of years ago now and just one of the boutique label’s five discs dedicated to a Dassin film. Criterion’s continued appreciation of Jules Dassin is absolutely one of the company’s most admirable and important reputation-building endeavors. Though Dassin was somewhat known in the 1960s, largely on the basis of the popular and Oscar-nominated import Never on Sunday which is a highly watchable film that nonetheless pales next to his earlier work, and his Rififi semi-remake Topkapi, responsible for Peter Ustinov’s second Academy Award, the five films Criterion has put out fell a little by the wayside on their initial releases. It may have been Rififi’s theatrical re-release by Rialto Pictures that got the ball rolling for the director. From what I’ve read, it was a minor sensation upon opening at Film Forum in 2000, and set house records for box office ($18,000 on opening weekend in a 180-seat screening room).
A Criterion Collection DVD of Rififi followed, with Night and the City and Thieves’ Highway coming a couple of years later. These were either good sellers or someone at Criterion particularly likes Dassin because The Naked City and Brute Force were later given spine numbers too. I think the pair of movies he did at Fox (Night and the City and Thieves’ Highway) are my favorites, but all are good, solid releases that are worth having if you enjoy film noir. R2 editions also exist, or are soon to, for all four, including BFI’s Night and the City release and upcoming editions of Brute Force and The Naked City from Arrow.
Something shared between the two films originally distributed by Universal - Brute Force and The Naked City - is the involvement of producer Mark Hellinger, whose name was certainly a bigger draw than Dassin’s at the time, a fact illustrated by the one-sheet at the top of this post. I tend to see Hellinger’s input as probably close to the level of Dassin’s on those pictures because of the recognition the producer had received for The Killers and other crime movies, though he suffered a fatal heart attack prior to the release of The Naked City. The earlier film, 1947’s Brute Force, actually feels more like a Dassin movie than the latter Hellinger collaboration, however. It’s largely uncompromising, relentlessly pessimistic and the film seems enthralled with characters who, under most any other circumstances, would be the bad guys. There’s almost a hierarchy of villainry presented, where those who broke the law aren’t necessarily relegated to being the ones in the wrong. The sense of the authority figures being the actual persons to fear is overwhelming.
What we now know of Dassin’s politics - very leftist, blacklisted for his ties to Communism - can easily be transferred into Brute Force, but I’m hesitant to go too far in that direction. The thinking here is that the sadistic, veiled homosexual prison guard Captain Munsey (played in a possibly career best performance by Hume Cronyn) represents a fascist leader and the inmates, led by Burt Lancaster’s Joe Collins, are the oppressed resistance forces. This theory basically works, even if it reduces quite possibly the best American prison movie and one of the bleakest films of its era to an allegory. Yet, the reason I’m hesitant to go down that route with Dassin captaining the ship is because he was hardly an established director at this point in his career. He’d made seven features, all for MGM. We’re talking about things like Reunion in France starring Joan Crawford and John Wayne, The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton, and the Lucille Ball starrer Two Smart People.
Little in Dassin’s filmography could’ve prepared anyone for the ferocity of Brute Force and I’m skeptical as to whether Hellinger would’ve given him the keys to make a political statement. It’s there, sure, but I think it’s more incidental than focal. Furthermore, it was Richard Brooks who wrote the screenplay. Brooks would go on to be a versatile director of The Professionals and Elmer Gantry, among many others, and he’s someone who probably doesn’t get discussed enough nowadays. Though his films aren’t all overtly political, I do believe Brooks was another one with leftist ideals. So if Brute Force must be seen for its ideological undercurrent, I think some restraint is necessary before attributing these intentions to Dassin, who apparently claimed later that he didn’t even like the film.
Instead, let’s applaud how brilliantly Dassin handles the less peripheral aspects of Brute Force. I’m content to base my admiration for him as a director on the five films released by Criterion because of how individually unique and modern they are. Both Brute Force and The Naked City suffer a little when compared against the wealth of similarly-themed movies that have followed. But if you look at the films of the ’40s and ’50s that attempt to do the same sort of thing Dassin was going for there’s no comparison. Dassin’s films are alive, lacking the nostalgia and the chains of the period. They breathe and flow and scurry ’round while their peers mostly adhere to, as opposed to create, a formula. Watching Brute Force is a reminder of just how dynamic Dassin could be. From the opening, a wholly rain-soaked primer of gloom that immediately sets the right mood, to the blazing final climax, he has the viewer pinned inside a well of claustrophobia and hopelessness.
That the entire movie functions only within the prison seems completely intentional. The few scenes not set inside are expository flashbacks where the inmates remember the women in their lives. Even these find the future convicts trapped in some way. One perceives his marriage falling apart so he embezzles enough to buy a fur coat for his wife. Another’s love is confined to a wheelchair, limiting both of their possibilities. The smooth lothario prisoner gets taken by his new female friend, stripping away his money and method of transportation in the process. These are all men who were already stuck. Instead of the typical concerns of fatalism, Brute Force exists more on an existentialist plane. The prisoners are shown lacking freedom even on the outside while their lives on the inside are entirely dictated by others. When several are forced to work on a drainpipe that’s of questionable use, they simply do it because it’s what they’ve been told to do. Like the doctor says at the end in a dual-edged Production Code appeasement/added touch of pessimism, nobody ever really escapes.
This extreme gloominess is part of what establishes Brute Force as an unquestionable film noir. The bookends of scenes set amid rain and fire are appropriate, almost Biblical visuals where chaos and disaster lurk as a constant threat. We pretty much know going in that a pleasant ending is unlikely to be in store. Indeed, almost every single point of confrontation ends badly for one of the characters. Whether it’s Munsey getting into the head of poor Tom Lister or the flashbacks or the snitch’s horrific death, Brute Force consistently lives up to its title while retaining a certain psychologically damaged undercurrent. I don’t think the prisoners are portrayed necessarily as sympathetic, and none have even implied innocence, but it’s clear that the Purgatorial confinement is doing more harm than good. Whether the inmates are dying, circling the facilities, or likely to emerge with a gigantic chip on the shoulder and a scarlet letter, rehabilitation is a foreign concept in the film.
By the flame-soaked ending, it’s apparent that struggle outweighs acquiescence. Lancaster’s character is celebrated by Dassin as a martyr for destroying Munsey. Collins’ escape wasn’t what he intended, but he still managed to rid himself of the prison’s oppression. The allegory then rears its head quite strongly if we’re meant to side with the incarcerated. Like Jacques Becker’s Le Trou, this is the rare pro-prisoner movie. From an entirely straightforward angle, Dassin stages the finale to maximize tension and unease. A wounded Collins staggers up the tower to confront Munsey amid the roaring inferno. As the battle ensues, our allegiance is squarely with Collins regardless of his past. We’ve clearly seen Munsey’s present and it’s laced with sadism. Cronyn’s prison guard is painted as such a hateful, loathsome creature that the viewer wants his demise to occur exactly as it does. Moral conflicts aside, the film sacrifices Collins for Munsey while reminding us that next Tuesday never comes.
Employees’ Entrance February 11, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , add a comment
Film Forum in New York City is having another of its wonderful series of classic Hollywood movies, most of which are being shown in double features and many of the films haven’t been released on DVD. The title this time is “Breadlines and Champagne,” with a theme focusing on movies released around the time of the Great Depression. Nearly all were made prior to the implementation of the Production Code and they remain incredibly fresh even today. Some of the plots and jokes are relevant now more than in a very long time, adding a sad but fascinating layer to the viewing experience. This doesn’t seem lost on the folks at FF, as they’ve scheduled giveaway drawings each Tuesday night and even kicked off the program with a full day of the Mae West picture I’m No Angel at only 35 cents admission. I found a quarter beside a subway turnstile and it covered my full member ticket!
Filmwise, I was more interested in a double feature pairing two Warren William pictures. Skyscraper Souls, from 1932, has William as the namesake and owner of a 100-story skyscraper who uses nefarious means to get most anything he wants. It’s usually compared to Grand Hotel due to both films centering on several characters in a single setting. The cast is a step down in name recognition, including Maureen O’Sullivan, Norman Foster, and Anita Page, but they perform ably. In particular, there’s a sequence late in the film where William has devised a scheme to obtain full ownership of the building by paying all his outstanding loans. The plan involves basically ruining the lives, sometimes in the immediate sense while others more permanently, of everyone else in the cast. It plays out with a gravity that completely shifts the tone of the movie and feels all too familiar to followers of current events. Some nice camera work from William Daniels also contributes to making Skyscraper Souls entirely worth watching.
Even still, it’s not in the same league with Employees’ Entrance, which is simultaneously shocking and giddily enjoyable. William is basically the same character as in the earlier film, but the performance is far more ferocious and unapologetic. If you’re not familiar with Warren William as an actor, track down this movie (it’s on VHS and shows on TCM occasionally) to see someone who essentially has no peer from that era for charismatically playing complete pricks. His characterization of department store boss Kurt Anderson teeters between going over the top and being so forceful as to almost make the viewer feel sorry for this guy. He’s an inveterate womanizer, setting his sights on Loretta Young both before and after she’s married his protege, and he has zero compassion, reacting to the suicide of a longtime employee he’d recently fired with the rationalization that all men should kill themselves when they’re no longer useful. And yet, you can’t take your eyes off of William, with a face resembling a bull terrier, when he’s on the screen.
As in Skyscraper Souls, there’s quite a bit to ponder regarding capitalism in Employees’ Entrance. The film is set almost entirely in a large department store, where William’s character Anderson quickly rises to the top based on his proven ability to increase sales. His entire existence, save for carnal flings, revolves around how to improve the store’s profits and he’s unwilling to tolerate even a single mistake. He eschews ethics and decency for the success at whatever cost mentality. He’s cutthroat, diabolical and irredeemable, but he gets the job done while displaying a total commitment to his endeavor. The portrayal feels very American to me for its insistence on being number one. I feel like that’s the ideal of the country, the secret of success, and I don’t know how relevant it remains right now. Part of the sheer glee in watching William unload on the various levels of incompetence around him is in knowing that he’s almost always in the right. His methods are debatable, but we see no one in the film working more passionately than Anderson does.
Just how he works is also part of the fun. Anderson thinks one character is overseeing his every move a little too closely so he sends a very willing model from the women’s department to keep the man company, doubling her salary for the trouble. The model is played by Alice White, an actress who ideally should’ve been a much bigger name than she was. She was also in the James Cagney movie Picture Snatcher, among a few others, but she’s really great here as a bubbled up blonde who’s more sly than she seems. Her scenes with William have some of the snappiest dialogue, from a screenplay filled with breakneck quips, in the film. I believe it’s their first meeting we see when he tells her that he didn’t recognize her with all those clothes on. The line isn’t delivered in a cutesy and forced provocative way like one of Mae West’s quips, making it even more jawdropping.
Though the ostensible plot of Employees’ Entrance is most concerned with a romance between Young and Wallace Ford, and their secret marriage, the film and director Roy Del Ruth seem more interested in William terrorizing everyone in his path. You might still expect some redemption of the character, given the film’s time and place, but we instead get a good 75 minutes of behavior totally lacking in scruples. Anderson doesn’t change, see the light, face punishment, or any of that other Production Code nonsense. His stripes remain firmly in place all the way to the end. When his protege, played by Ford, threatens to shoot him from point blank range, Anderson provides encouragement and then mocks him for only hitting his wrist. He seems to be almost laughing at the thought that a mere bullet could take him down.
TCM Complete Lost and Found RKO Collection February 3, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , add a comment
Back in December, cable channel and haven of quality older films Turner Classic Movies did something a bit strange. In conjunction with online retailer Movies Unlimited, TCM put together a package of six films originally made for RKO studios in the 1930s and released them exclusively through its website, both together in a box and individually. TCM had previously partnered with corporate buddy Warner Bros. Home Video for several DVD releases through a separate TCM Archives banner. These will surely continue, with a Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 scheduled to hit shelves in March. The RKO films are different, however, and have no connection to Warner Bros. at all.
The six films (titles later) were all picked up by former RKO head and King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper several years after he left the studio. Legal stuff. They had very few television showings in the 1950s, mostly in the New York City area I believe, but hadn’t been seen again until February 2007 when they all screened at Film Forum in NYC. In April of the same year they made their debut on TCM, and the channel has aired the pictures intermittently ever since. The films were presumed lost, but actually had been stowed away safely by Cooper. Some more legal wrangling eventually allowed for the TCM broadcasts and freshly struck film prints. Though Warner Bros. owns the majority of the RKO catalog, these films weren’t included due to the rights being used as payment to Cooper decades ago. At some point, TCM apparently anted up for the films’ rights and we now have a lovely box set of early Hollywood films.
The artwork used and entire presentation is really quite elegant and classy. My particular set was a Christmas present, but I was eyeing it strong enough that a purchase was nonetheless imminent. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the sturdy keepcases only to realize that the discs are not actual manufactured DVDs, but burned DVD-R copies. This is clearly a blunder on TCM’s part. DVD-R discs are less stable than regular DVDs and can sometimes refuse to play on certain players and/or crap out after a period of time. The set isn’t cheap either, costing $65 plus shipping with no friendly competition to drive the price down. None of this DVD-R business was advertised either. I had assumed this was a legitimate operation and that I’d receive DVDs. Future releases are apparently planned and I now dread the idea of paying high prices for DVD-R copies. This particular set, dubbed the TCM Complete Lost and Found RKO Collection, is being advertised as only available for a limited time. How limited is anyone’s guess. Aren’t we all only available for a limited time?
Going in, I’d only seen one of these RKO pictures - the Ginger Rogers movie Rafter Romance. I almost always find Ginger’s movies from the ’30s to be delightful and this is no exception. She stars alongside Norman Foster as a pair of youngsters who unwittingly fall for one another while sharing the same Greenwich Village apartment. Ginger’s character rents during the night because she’s a telephone salesperson hocking ice boxes by day. Foster lives in the same room during the day and acts as a night watchman while she’s in the apartment. They meet away from home, not knowing they’re roommates, and a sweet little romance develops. It’s cute enough for 70 minutes and definitely my favorite in the set. There’s even a stray dig at the Nazis thrown in for little reason other than a somewhat hidden political statement.
The other title I was most interested in was Double Harness, with William Powell and Ann Harding. Powell was under contract at Warner Bros., though he’d gotten attention while making Philo Vance mysteries for Paramount, and was loaned out to RKO for the picture. The plot has Powell as a rich playboy shipping magnate who’s sort of conned into marrying Harding. It’s slightly interesting that the rationale for their entire marriage is Harding’s father coming over after the couple had presumably engaged in premarital relations. Though seeing such topics addressed just prior to the implementation of the Production Code does hold some value, the film overall is dull and aggressively depressing. No one seems happy, even the typically jubilant Powell, and there’s a sense of doom hanging over the entire thing. The Depression is referenced twice (a surefire downer for anyone watching at this point in time), most cleverly early on when we’re told everyone’s broke and those who aren’t should pretend to be.
The somber tone of the film feels odd. Harding’s sister is constantly in debt for buying expensive clothes, but it’s hardly a few bucks here and there. Her bill at one store prior to getting married is over $3,000. That’s $3,000 in 1933 money. Later she tries to wrangle another $1,000 from Harding and anyone else who’ll listen. That’s an insane amount of cash for that time period. Even crazier is Powell’s character, who thinks nothing of writing out a check for it. Something with all of this sits funny with me. Really no one in the film has it together at all. Each character is undeserving of what they have and completely unsympathetic. Harding makes almost zero impression. The final wrap-up is jarring and takes about as long as it would to rip a bow off of a gift. Aside from a couple of good lines (Powell’s likening of geraniums to Harding) and a sometimes interesting performance from Powell, Double Harness is difficult to recommend with any enthusiasm.
A bit better is the third film from 1933 in the set, One Man’s Journey. It stars Lionel Barrymore, who’s considerably folksy and humble as a doctor still wounded from the death of his wife in child birth when the movie begins. He moves back to the country and tries to establish himself as a physician in the small town, but falters on his first try when an expectant mother doesn’t survive the birth of her child. The father is so angry he doesn’t want to keep his own baby daughter. Barrymore’s Dr. Eli Watt begins raising the little girl alongside his young son, with a helpful May Robson moving in to keep things afloat. Soon enough (the film only runs 72 minutes), the doctor gains respect in the town by successfully treating a smallpox epidemic. His son grows up to be Joel McCrea, and he wishes to follow his father’s career path except as a specialist who can work in the city. The casting here is notable because McCrea’s love interest is played by Frances Dee. Shortly after filming the two would be married and remain so for 57 years, until his death in 1990.
One Man’s Journey was a nice little surprise that plays well to my innate sense of American small town folksiness. Barrymore’s restraint is noteworthy, as is the film’s resistance to ever becoming overly preachy or simplistic. Dr. Watt is portrayed as a generous man who’s primarily concerned with treating those in need more than earning even a modest wage. That overly simple portrayal of a life that may have never even existed (though I suspect it did) usually wins favor from me. The film has a few other moments of interest, belying its pre-Code production, which also tend to mitigate the rushed nature and other shortcomings. Most fascinating is a quick, and a bit awkward, scene where Barrymore and Robson are driving and her dialogue comes to an abrupt stop only to then be picked up by the now grown-up girl taken in at the beginning (played by Dorothy Jordan, who had just become Mrs. Merian C. Cooper and wouldn’t make another film for twenty years) and her paramour. The presentation is unexpected, but so is the subject matter. The Jordan character is pressured into premarital sex under the stars, later leading to a pregnancy. There’s what seems to be a punishment that immediately follows the act. For a film this homespun, the scene plays as even more naughty than it probably should.
While One Man’s Journey lends itself to a sense of being realistically grounded in a definite time and place, the 1934 film Stingaree more closely resembles a peacock in a fish tank. Its sincere ridiculousness keeps the viewer interested at all times, if for no other reason than to see whether the film will acknowledge in some way how absurd it is. That this movie, which involves an English bandit in the Australian outback whose superpower seems to be the ability to write songs, was directed by William Wellman only furthers the disbelief. Wellman was a prolific studio craftsman who excelled in the 1930s with pictures often aimed in the direction of exploring social issues. Wellman’s films like The Public Enemy, Wild Boys of the Road, and Heroes for Sale still have quite the impact several decades later and play as hard-hitting, to the point dramas. In comparison to these and other Wellman pictures, Stingaree seems almost like a joke.
Reuniting Irene Dunne and Richard Dix from Best Picture winner Cimarron, Wellman’s film pairs the leads, respectively, as a woman who dreams of singing but is essentially trapped in the home of a rich, badgering woman who has a terrible voice and the infamous bandit Stingaree who poses as a music box salesman. The movie starts off well enough as Stingaree and his goofy sidekick Howie (Andy Devine) enter a saloon quietly and leave with much more of a commotion. The mustachioed bandit then shows up unannounced at Dunne’s home as she’s singing and playing the piano. Where exactly he thought this visit would lead is anyone’s guess, but the path taken is probably even more unlikely. Stingaree, pretending to be a famous composer, teaches Dunne a song, which she later uses to become world renowned with help from the real composer. The creeping feeling of how sensationally silly the plot is sort of makes the film an early contender for the “so bad it’s good” mantle. Aided by Wellman’s direction and the lead performances, Stingaree’s flaws are strange enough to very nearly become strengths. I’d rather watch a movie like this than bland retreads of the Living on Love variety.
Canvassing the same ground as Rafter Romance did just four years earlier, Living on Love takes a pretty good story and buries it in mediocrity. James Dunn picks up the Norman Foster role and while he doesn’t embarrass himself, I still prefer Foster’s lanky slickness. More discouraging is Ginger Rogers’ replacement, Whitney Bourne, who shows herself to be a poor actress and has no chemistry with Dunn. It’s easier to believe the warring anonymous roommates portion of the plot than the budding lovebirds business. A direct comparison of the two films also favors the slightly risqué nature of Rafter Romance. Its pre-Code mischievousness makes the remake look prudish. Scenes that are duplicated across both films especially suffer. When the landlord is showing his female tenant her new shared apartment in Rafter Romance, he cheekily shoves a liquor bottle out of the way before also claiming a pipe as his own. Living on Love omits the liquor bottle altogether. You won’t be seeing the equivalent of Ginger Rogers showering in the latter either, which instead seems to have a strange preoccupation with shots of legs running or walking down the street.
The final film in the set is also a remake of another one of these very movies. A Man to Remember, the first picture directed by Garson Kanin (at the tender age of 25) and released originally in 1938 , follows the same story as One Man’s Journey. It was made quickly and cheaply, but garnered rave reviews when first shown. Much of the later film is familiar territory, but without a lot of the sentimentality found in the earlier version. Star Edward Ellis was older than Lionel Barrymore had been and it shows in his performance, which comes across as more serious and dignified. The straightforward humanity displayed is once again impressive and perhaps the film’s strongest attribute.
Future blacklistee Dalton Trumbo received sole credit for the screenplay. He altered the story structure from the original film and source novel, starting A Man to Remember at doctor John Abbott’s funeral and flashing back to moments in the man’s life. That the remembrances occur with visual fades from various debts Abbott owed at his death seems of some definite importance. Trumbo’s work is often scrutinized for hints into his leftist politics, and while One Man’s Journey also had a sharp focus on the doctor’s somewhat selfless work done for little money, A Man to Remember particularly emphasizes this point in terms of duty versus monetary reward. Some of the other small differences are especially intriguing, with events rearranged or altered between the two films. One particular contrast is the much warmer, eventually romantic relationship that develops between Abbott’s son and the orphaned girl he raised. The earlier One Man’s Journey gave both characters separate companions while Kanin and Trumbo use an odd, almost incestuous fix to the romantic angle that one would normally expect more from a pre-Code film.
Though the idea to pounce on one event after another in the man’s life makes for some awkward and unconvincing transitions, the more distracting issue with A Man to Remember is something that can’t be helped. The other films in this set were all licensed out for regional television broadcast in the 1950s, but A Man to Remember hadn’t been seen since its original release in 1938. The only known print to have survived originated in the Netherlands and has Dutch subtitles burned into the bottom of the picture. This is a mild imposition on its own and can be ignored once the viewer settles in a bit. For awhile my eyes kept gravitating to the subtitles like they would for any other subtitled film, except I can’t read Dutch. The bigger problem is that most all of the written material in the film, the notes of debt and various other things, has also been converted to Dutch without any English equivalent provided. I knew silent films often did this, but I don’t think I realized other pictures were altered for international audiences in this manner.
Regarding the quality of the prints used, nothing was disappointing. There’s some minor dirt and vertical line damage on most of the films, but not to the point of distraction. A few frames seem to be missing, particularly on A Man to Remember. Stingaree has an annoying habit of sometimes looking slightly greenish. It doesn’t appear that any major clean-up was done, as evidenced by the amount of dirt and occasional scratches, but all the films look good enough to satisfy the reasonable viewer.
The bonus material on these releases initially seems generous, and indeed some thought and care must have been put into it, but only a couple of titles really have much of any substance. Each film has a selection of stills, lobby cards and posters accessible from the disc. Pressbooks are also available from the menu and as pdf files upon inserting the DVD-R into a computer. All the films are advertised as having a “Rudy Behlmer Video Commentary,” but this is a tad misleading since Behlmer’s comments are quite short at just a couple of minutes per title and the two remakes share the same pieces with their originals. Stingaree doesn’t even have one of these, though it does have a short bit on the history of these RKO titles, as do all the other discs. The main interest in the extra features comes from an interview on Stingaree with William Wellman that runs 10 minutes and finds the director being quite candid and entertaining. It’s taken from Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies episode on Wellman, which is soon to be released in the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 set. Equally worthwhile is a piece with Garson Kanin from 1995 that lasts just over 11 minutes. It was done for TCM and has him discussing Samuel Goldwyn and Kanin’s preference for writing over directing.
All in all, the overly expensive set has some flaws both in the decision to use DVD-R’s and the quality of the films as a whole, but the simple option to own these films in relatively good editions should still be pleasing enough to the classic film consumer.