Archive for Arthur Kennedy

Angles and Dirty Phases

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2020 by dcairns
A striking inverted angle from CASTLE ON THE HUDSON

Lesser Litvaks —

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON is a remake of Curtiz’s 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING, which I’ve never seen, though the title fascinated me as a kid. I ought to do a compare-and-contrast. I found this one a bit by-the-numbers with John Garfield as a Cagney clone. (He’s better as a complete swine in OUT OF THE FOG, his other role for this director.) It’s got a lot of punch, but lacks Litvak’s usual fluidity: too many close-ups.

It really comes alive, though, during the few minutes when Burgess Meredith comes in takes it by the throat. I’m guessing Litvak admired OF MICE AND MEN since he snapped up Burgess here and Betty Field for BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

CITY FOR CONQUEST —

“That was a book by Aben Kandel that was quite successful at the time, a book very difficult to adapt into a motion picture, because it dealt with
as enormous a city as New York is I was fascinated by the book, and had a terrible feeling, a kind of horrible ambition, about doing a picture about the city of New York that I was so terribly· impressed with from the moment I came here. It was a challenge to me, because basically I still was quite a foreigner at that time. I spent quite a while in New York, just for my basic acquaintance with the city, and the people of the city, before I started on the story.”

Writer Aben Kandel came to my attention for his involvement as screenwriter in the rather drole SING AND LIKE IT (1934) but later was mixed up in TROG and CRAZE, two ghastly low-budget horror affairs made in Britain. How he descended from being an acclaimed novelist to that dreck is an unknown but no doubt depressing story.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars the actual Cagney, along with Ann Sheridan again, and a young and unusually appealing Arthur Kennedy. Plus Elia frickin’ Kazan, during his brief stint as a Warners character player. Both his big roles were for Litvak (BLUES IN THE NIGHT is the other) and he tears up the screen. But all the characters are from stock, and typecast accordingly. One is happy to see Frank McHugh as a sidekick, but not exactly surprised. Warners specialised in cramming the screen with yammering cut-outs, but somehow in this case thing feel thin.

Cagney & Kazan!

Cagney threw himself into training to play a boxer and really felt they were adapting a great book, but he was bitterly disappointed by the end result. “I worked like a dog on City for Conquest,” he wrote, or dictated, in Cagney By Cagney, “There were some excellent passages in Kandel’s novel, and all of us doing the picture realized that retaining them (as we were doing) would give City for Conquest distinction. Then I saw the final cut of the picture, and this was quite a surprise. The studio had edited out the best scenes in the picture, excellent stuff, leaving only the novel’s skeleton. What remained was a trite melodrama.”

He’s not wrong. Worse, you can see the trailing stumps of scenes and characters that clearly needed further development for the thing to make structural sense. Frank Craven as “the old timer” is set up as a Greek chorus, an old hobo who talks to the camera, but he only appears a couple of times. I think a lot of it might still have been corny, but it could have hung together.

Litvak: “I was crazy about Jimmy Cagney, and Warner Bros. was crazy about him because he was a big star. This is for the first time when Jimmy Cagney played the part of a weak man. As you know, Jimmy Cagney mostly played — particularly at that time — tough guys, dominating tough guys. I thought — I always felt– that Jimmy was a great actor, and didn’t have to do this stereotyped kind of a fellow, this gangster he had played for years. I came with this proposition to Warners and finally they accepted it. I found that Jimmy Cagney was a bit scared of this picture. I would say that in all my career this was one of the few times when I had trouble with an actor. I explain it to myself as a strange feeling Jimmy had about the part. He was not quite sure what he was doing. But I must say that I feel (and I think the public agreed with me too, and the critics) that it was probably one of the
best things Jimmy Cagney did on the screen.”

Maybe Cagney just didn’t have the weakness in him? What co-star could convincingly intimidate him?

Cagney did ruefully note the picture’s box office success, but strongly implies that the public was wrong. I am unable to find an original source for the star’s description of Litvak as “a natural born asshole,” but going by both men’s recollections it does seem quite possible that he said it at some time. Cagney always admitted to being difficult, but only when he was trying to give a good performance and felt he was being hampered.

Interesting that Litvak doesn’t mention the film’s truncation, which he SHOULD have been unhappy about, since the mutilation is hardly invisible.

Cagney as the blinded boxer redeems it a little with his convincing physicality both as prize-fighter (his dancing background pays off) and blinded newsie — he really tries to look properly, unphotogenically disabled. And Kazan is a knockout. He’s obviously intended to form the fourth corner of a structure that interleaves Cagney, Sheridan and Kennedy’s struggles, and the reduction of his role is really frustrating because he’s so bloody good, damn him.

“I coulda been a contender, Tola…”

I’m not sure if anyone ever asked Kazan about working for Litvak. He must have learned SOMETHING about screen acting from the experience.

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON stars Porfirio Diaz; Nora Prentiss; Hildy Johnson; The Penguin; Miles Archer; Kewpie Blain; Carson Drew; Lady Macduff; Danny Leggett; Pete Daggett; Michael Axford; Bim; Detective Bates; Egeus – Father to Hermia; Louie the Lug; Dr. Leonardo; Noah Joad; and Cueball.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars George M. Cohan; Nora Prentiss; Jackson Bentley; Battling Burrows; Asa Timberlake; ‘Spud’ Connors; ‘Pusher’ Ross; Nickie Haroyen; Alexis Zorba; Effie Perine; Madame Therese De Farge; Dixie Belle Lee; Inspector Crane; Detective Bates; El Gringo; Bim; The Obtrusive Gentleman; Max Jacobs; and Cueball.

In the frame

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Gradually overcoming my foolish Elia Kazan aversion — based on his politics/ethics, not his movies, so I’ve just been robbing myself, really — and ran BOOMERANG! (1947), a wackily titled courtroom/political drama from Fox, recklessly elaborated from a true story. Ambitious D.A. Dana Andrews (but the D.A. stands for District Attorney, you see) builds up a perfect case against a drifter (Arthur Kennedy, young but already rodent-like) accused of murdering a priest — ballistics, eye-witnesses, a destroyed alibi and a confession, but then, since he’s a painfully honest man, he risks his whole career by trying to dismantle the evidence, which proves shakier than first assumed.

These corruption dramas are always double-edged things. The old Hollywood model has to show the system working, both to confirm our faith in society and to deliver the required happy ending. But one can be left with doubts. If not for the impeccable Jimmy Stewart in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the forces of corruption would surely win, and the movie makes it very clear that Stewart/Smith is an unusual individual, therefore can we not assume that corruption wins most of the time? So with Andrews here. Kazan can be assumed to have meant more criticism of the status quo than Capra ever would. Here, the newly elected reform politicians are shown to be as capable of shady dealings as the villain they ousted — some are prone to “noble cause corruption,” believing that basically any course they take is justified if it gets them re-elected so they can carry out more reform. One, played by the turtle Ed Begley, blatantly has his fingers in the till.

(I think SERPICO marks a significant point — corruption is seen as so entrenched that a single honest man CANNOT reform the system.)

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The usual suspects: Arthur Kennedy, number 5, but in a surprise cameo, Arthur Miller is rumoured to appear in one of the film’s lineups.

Another guest star: Gadge’s dad uncle, as an incompetent witness. Runs in the family?

There’s some corny stuff in here, corny but fun. Sam Levene plays a hardboiled newspaperman with as dopey sidekick. Andrews indulges in ludicrous courtroom theatrics that make you applaud, like having a loaded gun aimed at his own head, the trigger pulled (yeah, probably more lawyers should do this); when a stooge tells the baddie “It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” the baddie replies, “I know.” A jilted dame testifies against the hapless patsy out of sluttish pique. Lots of cornball stuff, and filming on location doesn’t diffuse that, though the occasional reverberant sound in the background testifies to the existence of a world outside the frame.

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More valuable is the strong cast, with Kazan regulars Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden in evidence. Cobb as the police chief, more muted than usual, is rather wonderful. He uses sleep deprivation to torture a confession out of his man, but refuses to use violence. He has a conscience, up to a point. There’s no evidence that he lets politics influence his performance of his duties. But like a lot of flawed cops, once he sells himself on a man’s guilt, he can justify almost any action to get a conviction. At that point, an innocent man’s denials become lack of contrition, and the further he goes the more committed he is to proving a supposition rather than investigating a case.

So the social critique is quite smart — only the script’s need to roll everything into a neat ball, and to amp up the dramatics, compromises its credibility, so that you pretty much KNOW watching it, “Well this wasn’t part of the original true story… nor this…” Still, it’s a strong piece of Hollywood product — like is Kazan and Zanuck got into a telepod together and what came out was… Kazanuck!

Brains Vs Bronco

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2014 by dcairns

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“I’ve got a strong back and a weak mind,” says Robert Mitchum near the start of Nick Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN. Later, asked “You a thinking man?” he replies “I can get out of the rain, that’s about it,” thereby establishing his smarts — listeners who focus on what he says rather than how he says it will derive a different impression, but we know.

Rumours of the film’s scriptlessness appear to be exaggerated (see Bernard Eisenschitz’s excellent Ray bio for backstory) but they did start with an unfinished scenario and Mitchum did contribute dialogue of his own. I’d love to think these lines are his.

Elsewhere, Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part gets all the funny lines. Despite her dislike of westerns and her deep suspicion of this “rodeo film,” our friend Nicola really enjoyed him.

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The objection she raised to the greater part of the film had to do with the romantic triangle between Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy, which seems at first unfairly weighted — overwhelmingly so — in favour of Mitchum. But Kennedy is married to Wayward Hayward, so the Hays Code determines that Mitch must be relegate to the role of Romantic Rival Who Tests and Ultimately Strengthens the Bonds of Marriage. Which is fine in narrative terms, but not something we actually root for because Mitch is lovable, melancholic and mucho manly, and Kennedy is basically a weasel — good actor, and he applies all of his weaselly equipment to the role, having a particularly good time with the stuff where his character, drunk on his success as rodeo star (and also drunk on drink) behaves like an asshole.

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He also has an appalling jacket, the broadest checks I’ve ever seen on a living human being. It’s like he was standing by the window when they dropped the atom bomb.

So the film’s happy ending isn’t really happy, and indeed it’s played for all the lack of conviction you could ever wish for, in the time-honoured fashion of Hollywood endings disliked by the director. But the scene before that works as tragedy — all that matters is the story of Mitchum the broken-down bronco buster, in love with a woman he can’t have, destroying himself over it, perhaps without even properly realizing why. His last scene is like the Beast’s farewell in Cocteau.

When Charlton Heston was contemplating doing 55 DAYS AT PEKING for Ray, he asked a buddy who had previous experience of the director.

“Good director. Good with actors. Good with the camera. But Chuck, I’ve played poker with him. And Chuck, he’s a loser.”

I always disliked the American concept of “loser” — which doesn’t really exist so much elsewhere in the world — which presupposes a character type, the person who will lose, as if it were a choice or an attribute rather than a combination of such things with the workings of chance (was Rockefeller a winner? He’s dead, isn’t he, and I’m alive, typing this in my Homer Simpson shorts). But in the case of Ray and various of his characters, losing is a choice, taken more or less consciously, by someone who rejects the terms of the contest or who wishes to be punished and thus redeemed.