Archive for Brian Donlevy

Garage Noir

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2021 by dcairns

Trunk item: started writing this ages ago, set it aside. Hope it can withstand daylight.

It’s a film noir axiom that if you’re hiding out from killers, you should go undercover working at a gas station or garage. They’ll find you, but it’ll take a while.

HEAT LIGHTNING may be the first proto-garage noir, with Aline McMahon as a former moll now running a “gas farm.” Then of course we have Burt Lancaster as the boxer-turned-mechanic in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum as former private eye now running an auto shop in OUT OF THE PAST, and Brian Donlevy as amnesiac-businessman reinventing himself as a car repairman in IMPACT. And the neo-noir reprise comes in LOST HIGHWAY, where jazzman Bill Pullman gets reincarnated on death row into Balthazar Getty, who promptly resumes his apparently continuing life at Richard Pryor’s garage.

Boxing, saxophony and mollwork, or course, are all readily transferable skills that come in useful when you make career change to greasemonkeying.

I thought it would be fun to have a garage noir double feature, with IMPACT, which I’d never seen, and THE KILLERS, which we needed to rewatch for work-related reasons… Hmm, do the various other versions of this story — the Tarkovsky short and the Siegel TV remake — use the garage setting? And has anybody got more examples? Let’s make this a thing!

THE KILLERS holds up brilliantly — uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks. along with Anthony Veiller who has his name on it, adapt Hemingway’s story by turning it into a crimey CITIZEN KANE, with the Thompson character fleshed out into Edmond O’Brien at his most charming. Newcomer Burt Lancaster gets the CF Kane part, dying at the start only to pop up in the flashbacks. Director Robert Siodmak’s rematch with Lancaster, CRISS CROSS, may be even better.

IMPACT is stodgy, despite a lot of actors we like: the plot has some interesting elements but unfolds in a plodding, A-B-C-D fashion. Flashbacks might have helped — jumble the scenes, amp up the intrigue, skip some of the steps. It’s an indie production and I have to think that had it been a studio film, somebody like Harry Cohn would have got an itchy ass and slashed it from 111 minutes to something more nimble.

The dullest part is the romantic idyll. Ella Raines had experience projecting adoration at, you would think, ill-suited mates (Laughton, Sanders, Bracken, that Alan Curtis guy), but Brian Donlevy is required to reveal some tenderness of his own, and that cupboard is bare, baby.

IMPACT stars Quatermass McGinty; Carol “Kansas” Richman; The Honorable Betty Cream; Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman; A Flower of the Orient; Mr. LeBrand; Quigley Quackenbush; President Harry S. Truman; Philo Vance; The Dear One; Saburo Goto; The Gilded Boy; and Roger Bronson.

THE KILLERS stars JJ Hunsecker; Pandora Reynolds; Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock; Dr. Thorkel; Frank D’ Angelo; “Goldie” Locke; Princess Ananka; Philadelphia Tom Zaca; Big Mac; Sebastian Sholes; Herr Kastner; Frank Cannon; Uncle Owen; Wild Bill Hickok; Ming the Merciless; The Blind One; and Mr. Waterbury.

The Daltons

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2020 by dcairns

George Marshall’s 1940 western starts with a bang: a low angle shot of a forested road, the branches forming a vertiginous-in-reverse canopy overhead, the gang riding past us, a looong whip-pan after them, landing on a reverse of the road and the gang riding off, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, as Slim Pickens would say.

Then there’s a very verbose bunch of print, all basically to tell us that what follows will be so historically inaccurate you won’t believe your eyes, and then a really nice narration by some never-identified old-timer (Ford fave Edgar Buchanan), and then it finally starts. And very rambunctious it is: does any western really need THREE surly lugs (Brian Donlevy, Broderick Crawford and George Bancroft) or two raspy goofs (Stuart Erwin and Andy Devine)? George Marshall never did like to stint on character. In fact, Bancroft and Erwin underplay so as not to clash with their co-stars.

It’s not all rootin’ and tootin’, though — Kay Fwancis is on hand, who may have tooted occasionally but certainly never lowered herself so far as to root.

Randolph falls for her, but she’s Brod’s broad. And he’s such a swell guy (all the soon-to-be bank robbers are loveable). “Why couldn’t Bob be a low-down no-account worthless Indian?” asks Mr. Scott, hypothetically. (Throwaway racism is something the movies can’t do anymore, which is mainly a good thing, but it means you can’t do lightweight period movies anymore without whitewashing away all the uncomfortable stuff that would have been there. Peter Jackson’s proposed DAMBUSTERS remake hits the rocks because the flyers gave their dog a racist name. (I think you could and should just rename the dog. Unless you’re making a serious film which notes that the raids killed 1,600 civilians and 1,000 forced labourers. If you do that, then you have to change the theme tune, I’m afraid.)

In this movie, the Dalton’s become outlaws when landgrabbers try to, well, you know. And there’s a fight and one of those guys with the narratively convenient glass skulls gets knocked down, so now it’s murder. In reality, they turned to crime after working in law enforcement and finding the horse thievery paid better. But their careers robbing trains and banks was largely disastrous. I like the sound of that movie. But in 1940 they made this kind. A shame, because I think Marshall quite liked bad guys, and would have made a good, piratical movie about them. He gets close, once things really get going here, which takes a while.

Ma Dalton is played by the great Mary Gordon, recently murdered by the Frankenstein monster and soon to take up landladying for Sherlock Holmes. The real Adeline Dalton was not only mother to most of one gang, but aunt to the Younger Gang and a cousin to Frank & Jesse James. This may be the biggest role our Mary ever had: not quite as much screentime as Randolph, but close. Because Randolph has VERY little to do, puttering impotently at the edges of the action and spending most of the climax unconscious.

Yakima Caunutt doubles Broderick to slide under a stagecoach, just as he’d done in STAGECOACH the year before. They’re figured out that giving this gag to a random Indian is less effective than giving it to a protagonist. “We’ll do it different this time,” growls Brod as he clambers aboard again to deal with the guy who knocked him under there.

The real Emmett Dalton, played by Frank Albertson here, had only just died three years before this movie. He had done fourteen years in prison then moved to Hollywood. He acted in one 1916 movie, THE MAN OF THE DESERT.

 

The movie’s OK, I guess. Easy to forget that westerns had been regarded as kids’ stuff for most of the ’30s until Ford made STAGECOACH. This wants to be adult — while Scott has nothing to do as an honest lawyer, the Daltons themselves are slowly by their brutal lifestyle. The trouble is it’s so full of phony stuff. Just as Scott is pledging his troth to Kay Francis, formerly Brod/Bob’s broad, a brick comes through the window with a message from Brod/Bob. Chased by a posse, the gang abandon their horses and leap from a convenient bluff, I believe is the word, onto a passing train — but how could they have known the bluff was there? Somehow, Ford’s movies use lots of unrealistic genre tropes (bullets cost nothing in the west) but seem passably true to life as well as compelling and beautiful. (One of this film’s writers, Harold Shumate, wrote westerns all through the kidstuff period of the ’30s, and that’s maybe the trouble.)

The ending — well, not the cozy VERY ending, the climax, is practically peckinpahesque, with great physical perfs from the various bodies who expire in it.

Randolph Scott faced the Dalton’s again in BADMAN’S TERRITORY, then again in RETURN OF THE BAD MEN, then joined the related Doolin Gang in THE DOOLINS OF OKLAHOMA.

WHEN THE DALTONS RODE stars Gil Westrum; Mary Stevens, MD; Quatermass McGinty; ‘Bull’ Weed; Harry Brock; Merton Gill; Link Appleyard; Sam Wainwright; Mrs. Hudson; the Wienie King; and The Mister.

The Laddie and the Lake

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by dcairns

I feel like wallowing in Paramount’s Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pictures for a while (there are three, really, but I suppose I might get around to STAR-SPANGLED RHYTHM in which they cameo separately).

I used to think that the tiny Veronica Lake was invented specially so that the tiny Alan Ladd would have somebody to star opposite that he could look down on, but no, her stardom predates his. You might more convincingly argue that she made him possible. So it’s unfair that her stardom sputtered out before his, principally because she was forced to change her peekaboo hairstyle, but no doubt also because she didn’t have the right allies at the studio to keep her career going in the face of such an obstacle (her wartime, factory-safe new ‘do didn’t suit her as well as the old one, but something could have been worked out).

Her smile at the end of her sequence here is heartbreaking, because it’s The End and she doesn’t know it.

There was a lot more to this girl than a spectacular and distinctive (if inconvenient/dangerous) hairstyle. Lake is pretty much always the coolest, most modern player in any film she’s in, even giving noted underplayer Joel McCrea a a run for his money.

Now. Someone explain to me how THE GLASS KEY got made, and got past the censor? The whole “Crime Must Not Pay” dictum is gleefully thrown out the window here, like it annoyed Brian Donlevy or something. Everybody’s a gangster, fixer or moll, the respectable people are crooked too, and the cops are just a nuisance likely to pick up the wrong guy. Nobody reforms, and the happy ending allows vice and corruption to continue untrammelled. And we feel pretty good about it all. Well, leading man and leading lady are united, so at least the matrimonial norms are to be respected. Some liberties are no doubt taken with Dashiell Hammett”s original, but it’s still a wow on all fronts.

I must watch the George Raft version, curiously enough directed by Frank Tuttle who helped make a star out of Ladd in the previous Ladd-Lake vehicle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. It should have been a precode but isn’t. Then there’s the other adaptation, MILLER’S CROSSING, for which the Coens could plausibly have been sued for plagiarism, and there’s YOJIMBO, which is theoretically an unlicensed version of Red Harvest — serves Kurosawa right that Leone ripped off his rip-off with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — but which steals the giant sadist character (played by William Bendix here and by a pituitary case in YOJIMBO) from The Glass Key, quite unapologetically. Kurosawa’s claim that The Servant of Two Masters was his real source strikes me as untrue and lawyered-up.

I once read a Michael Caine quote where he claimed, with what accuracy I don’t know, that in Japan, being a lawyer is not a very respected profession because, “In Japan, if someone cheats you and gets caught, they kill themselves. Whereas over here, they try to kill you.”

Anyway, THE GLASS KEY. Very stylishly directed by Stuart Heisler, who had great talent but only occassionally seems to hit the ball out the park. Here, he smashes a floodlight with it, to explosive and scintillating effect. The luminous Paramount style adapts well to noir if you take it by the throat and talk softly to it. Fiona points out the weirdness of Ladd getting a spectacular introductory shot in his SECOND scene, which does seem like a blunder, but it’s still a nice shot (see top).

And we have an ideal cast, with Donlevy just the right kind of honest-hearted crook (Spencer Tracy would have worked too but maybe he’d have wanted to get the girl. Or the guy?). With his elevator shoes he can just barely see over Ladd & Lake. Bendix is extraordinary, unlike any other role he had, as Fiona remarked. A guy with a very distinctive look suddenly seems like someone you’ve never seen before — a malign garden gnome, shaved and soaked with oily sweat and somehow pumped up to giant size with an injection of testosterone right in his nose. His demonic glee in beating up Ladd is clearly sexual, even more so than in the book.

Ladd is beyond perfect. For me, he only works in anti-hero roles. Allow him a measure of rectitude and he’s a colossal small bore. Even playing a gunfighter in SHANE he’s a little too nice. Here, he gets his cold smile out a lot, and is a real Hammett hero, cards close to his chest, which beats with an icy heart. We’ll allow that he has a code, but it has nothing to do with legality or conventional morality, just maybe his own idiosyncratic understanding of the latter.

Anyway, by the end he’s found love and can express warmth but that’s OK because the movie’s over and we don’t need to see him again.

THE GLASS KEY stars Shane; The Girl; Quatermass McGinty; Nancy Drew; Hunk Jordan; Det. Maurice Obregon; ‘Babe’ Ruth; Nyoka Meredith; Big Mac; and the voice of the Senior Angel.