“I hope my Kodachrome impresses you, Rick.”
“It does, Ugarte. I am impressed with you now.”
Now that the three dozen boxes of books are unpacked & reshelved & mostly organized, I’ve found more time to kick back and drain the DVR of material to report about on here. I’m putting a new advanced film course together, and I’ll be kicking it off with a unit on hard boiled detective/noir films (yeah, another excuse to plug my novel). While the stuff I plan on showing is material I’m pretty familiar with, I’m building lists of additional suggestions for people (Good God, did I just call my students “people?” I’d rather think of them as lower life forms) to pursue their own research and what not.
In the new Wagstaff digs, I’ve graduated from cable to DirectTV, who I’ll plug here for the simple reason that they were nice enough to give me a bunch of credits after screwing up my first bill (unlike AT&T, where the actual service is fine, but getting installed, billed, tech supported and whatever else has been easily the worst experience with corporate America-voicemail hell-incompetence that I’ve ever experienced). The local channel set-up means I’ve lost Antenna TV which I enjoyed, but the luck of the draw has given me MeTv, a different old-rerun channel. I’ve basically traded Barney Miller, WKRP, George Burns & Jack Benny for The Rifleman, Dick Van Dyke, The Odd Couple, Car 54 & Sgt. Bilko... not a bad trade, actually.
Oh, and movie channels galore. Oh, and a Youtube hookup through the TV, so now I actually enjoy sitting through the poor quality uploads of movies in their entirety that people have put up.
It’s how I got to watch DeForest Kelley’s film debut, Fear In The Night. Not a bad little B-movie, with what was then an innovative plot that has since become rather cliché – the hypnotized patsy. Kelley dreams of killing someone & wakes up finding bits of evidence that tell him that it might not have been a dream. His detective brother-in-law helps him figure it all out. Parts of it are shot interestingly, with the dream sequences and mirrored alcoves coming off as creepy enough. And since it’s based on a Cornell Woolrich story, it’s plotted pretty well. And you can watch the entire thing right here!
Next up was a caper film – The Split, from 1968. It’s based on one of the “Parker” novels by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark, and since I’ve liked the other movies from that era based on the same series, like Point Blank & The Outfit, I figured I’d like this one, despite it’s relatively low rating on IMDB. How can you resist the cast? Parker is changed to McLain and is played by Jim Brown. His squeeze is Dihann Caroll. The gang he puts together to rob the LA Colosseum during a Rams game consists of Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, Donald Sutherland & Ernest Borgnine, with Julie Harris as den mother. The cop who investigates ’em is Gene Hackman, and James Whitmore plays the creepy landlord.
If you’re someone I’d like, you’re wanting to see this thing RIGHT NOW.
It struck me that the main reason for the low rating on IMDB has mostly to do with the post-heist segment of the film, where a plot point out of nowhere sends the entire story in a different direction. Without making it too much of a spoiler, creepy landlord Whitmore attacks Carroll and screws up Brown’s plans. The problem in how this seemingly comes from nowhere, I think, must have resulted from the way it’s hinted at that Whitmore had been getting his rent from Carroll via sex & then blew a gasket when Jim Brown returned, but there’s no telegraphing of this at all, and in 1968 I guess they couldn’t go beyond hinting due to the interracial aspect of it. So, you either recast Whitmore with a black landlord, or go balls to the wall and make Whitmore a jealous guy, or have telekinetic aliens force the issue. Once this happens, way too much stuff that affects the plot (especially involving the Hackman character) happens offscreen, but I still enjoyed the thing. Granted, if the same material had been given to Boorman the way The Hunter had been, the results might have been better. And if they had set up the Whitmore/Carroll sex better and then shown us the Hackman sleaziness in dealing wih Whitmore, we’d have a better movie and we’d also be close to Elmore Leonard territory as far as plotting goes. Yup, a flawed effort to be sure, but the cast alone makes this one worthwhile.
A couple of B-movies from wonderful character actor Charles McGraw: First, The Threat, an RKO effort from the late ’40s. McGraw’s the baddie this time, an escaped con who kidnaps the DA & the cop who sent him up, trying to discover who in his gang betrayed him as he makes his getaway. A tough little film with a fast moving plot, despite the enormous plot hole of having the crooks listen to police radio for updates on cop movements – and the cops know they’re doing this, yet never change their behavior or restrict what they say on the radio. Duh, indeed. But McGraw is terrific as the thug here, just as good as he was as the cop in Narrow Margin. Also on the docket was Armored Car Robbery, with the same team of director Richard Fleisher & star Charles McGraw that worked so well in The Narrow Margin. McGraw’s a growly cop again here, determined to get the gang who robbed the armored car at good ol’ Wrigley Field of Los Angeles in the pre-Dodger days of LA baseball. It took me a second to recognize the main bad guy here, William Tallman, until it hit me all at once how he was Hamilton Burger, the guy who always lost to Perry Mason. He clearly needed Jim Brown et. al. to rob a sports venue successfully.
And then I rewatched one I hadn’t seen in years & thought about showing in the class… and went with my original instinct. Get ready, sports fans, but I’m not enamored of The Maltese Falcon the way so many film buffs are. Yeah, I know… it’s the pure hard-boiled formula – the tough detective with his own morals, the secretary who loves/watches over him, the femme fatale, the smooth-talking elegant villain… and so on. But I remember my original reaction to the thing decades ago when I kept thinking “There are better Bogart movies than this” and “This is overly talky.” Watching it again this very day produced the exact same response.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a decent movie, certainly worth seeing. But the best of the genre? Sorry. It reminds me of all the hoopla over Vertigo when there are better Hitchcock films out there. I wonder what sorts of qualities in various films lead to the way they wind up getting totally overrated by film critics and film freaks. In any event, I went back to my original instinct & swapped Maltese Falcon out for what I think is a superior private eye film of the same era, Murder, My Sweet. It’s got a lot of the same formula elements to illustrate the genre, but a better story. In the past I’ve shown The Big Sleep for a Bogart entry. Dark Passage would also work well. Maybe later in the year.
Yeah, I know…. rough work. But somebody’s gotta do it.
Next up on the blog, thanks to youtube uploads… I finally got to see some Olsen & Johnson! And there was much rejoicing.
This is the wonderful time of my year when I get to watch tons of old movies in between catching up on reading the ever-growing stacks of books culled from thrift stores and yardsales over the past months. Over the past couple of days, I watched a bunch of Bogie movies I’d never seen before, and they were all pretty good in their own way.
As much as Bogart always got typecast as a tough guy, watching more and more of his movies makes me see how wide a range he had as an actor. Sure, he admitted he’d never do Shakespeare, but he wasn’t always playing gangsters, either.
In the earliest of the bunch, 1937’s Black Legion, Bogart starts out as a good guy family man & dad – working at his lunchbucket job and coming home to his happy blue collar small town existence, that is until he loses an expected promotion to the hotshot book learnin’ kid on the factory floor (played by a young Henry Brandon, who spent much of the rest of his career playing Indians like Scar in The Searchers). Bogart looks very young here, especially in the early scenes before he gets deeper & deeper into the Klan-inspired Black Legion that starts terrorizing immigrants around town in those wonderful social-movie-by-Warners-in-the-’30s sets of montages that follow. The movie follows the change in Bogie’s Frank Taylor from easy going family man to paranoid angry hater, eventually lashing out at both friends and family, until an act of violence shocks him back into reality. One of the interesting things about a lot of the “message” movies from Warners during this time, like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, is how they don’t give you the usual old movie endings, and this one is no exception. And if you look really carefully near the end, you’ll catch none other than Frank Nelson (YeeeEEEEESSSSSS!) playing a radio announcer! Watching Bogart here shows how he can play tough yet weak at the same time – Frank Taylor becomes a robed bully who feels tougher when he goes along with his group, but deep down is terrified of crossing them up himself.
Bogart also showed how well he plays a weak & frustrated man in Conflict from 1946, where he’s the engineer husband in a failing marriage, in love with his sister-in-law. Bogie knocks off his wife, sets up a great alibi & then tries to express his honest feelings for his sister, but ultimately is rejected… and accepts it. At the same time, he keeps getting clues that his wife may still be alive… or that someone is pretending to be her in order to drive him insane. While parts of this movie worked, the plot runs around a little too much and in the end plays out more like one of those Alfred Hitchcock Hours I wrote about recently, but watching Bogart go through a drawn out paranoid nervous breakdown was different – and he did it well. Clearly he drew upon this sort of material when he played unbalanced characters like Dixon Steele or Captain Queeg later in his career.
The best movie of the three was Dead Reckoning from 1947 (it and Conflict sandwiched Bogart’s appearance in The Big Sleep). This postwar noir has a rather silly plot device to keep it going (basically someone doesn’t hand Bogie a letter when they easily could – and only then can the entire story happen), but Bogart’s narration and the overall feel of the thing are on the mark. The photography of Gulf City, especially at night, is beautiful – dark, shadowy, mysterious – and the story of Bogart investigating the murder of a GI buddy of his involving a femme fatale nightclub singer (Lizabeth Scott) and a local gangster isn’t too bad – my main problem was how the Scott character was underdeveloped compared to a Phyllis Didrickson or Gilda – she became a little too predictable, and the best dames from this type of movie have you guessing about their motives even after the movie is over. But Dead Reckoning has its moments as well as the same atmosphere of cold fatalism that works so well in this genre. And Bogart is terrific here – he’s the tough Sam Spade type, yet also exhibits a self-destructive vulnerability when it comes to Scott, one that he’s totally aware of, yet powerless to do anything about. It reminded me a little of Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past (although that’s a better movie). However, this one earned my affection simply when Bogart called Scott “Husky Cinderella.” She always sounds like her vocal cords are made of sandpaper.
Then again, her role could have been played by Frank Nelson. Now THAT’S a noir I’d like to see.