Archive for Brian Donlevy

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.

 

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Tuttle Wash-Outs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2018 by dcairns

A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956), starring Daisy Clover, Lars Thorwald, ‘Fats’ Murdock, Quatermass McGinty and Steve Austin’s boss. A relatively late Frank Tuttle film.

Really poor. David Dortort’s script slaloms around anything potentially interesting. And smashes into any opportunity to make the characters seem dumb or unpleasant. Unconscious misanthropy? At any rate, a psycho mother’s boy abducts a young girl and we never learn anything about his mental problems, while the cops proceed to follow a trail of lucky coincidences to allow them to crack the case while being as stupid as possible.

We begin on lover’s lane, with an intense voice-over from an uncredited Alan Ladd (Tuttle made him a star), commenting on the activities, stressing their innocence but somehow making them seem really dirty because of his Dramatic Intensity, which also makes him sound like a skeevy prowler. “Kids always have things to talk over, questions about life.”

Raymond Burr snatches teenage Natalie Wood; her cop father, dyspeptic ulcer Edmond O’Brien, teams up with her boyfriend Richard Anderson and A,N. Other Cop Brian Donlevy and they drive around desperately while sniping at each other. Eventual rescue near some kilns.

Tuttle’s great compositional skill is not in evidence, unless he’s enjoying the contrasting body types as much as I am. Burr’s large adult son character is an amusingly lumpen form to postulate next to the tiny, birdlike Wood, and the trio of O’Brien, Donlevy and Anderson create a vaudevillian panoply whenever united in the same frame. If you posed a bag of cat food, a box of cat food, and turkey leg together, you’d get roughly the same effect and twice the charisma.

Nobody is on form: the script encourages them to be the worst possible version of themselves. I love Natalie, but wouldn’t have cared if she’d ended up in a fridge here. Burr’s Lonesome Lenny routine is a screaming embarrassment. There are plenty of movies where I can forget that O’Brien was a struggling alcoholic, that Orson Welles called him “a magnificent ruin,” and that he traveled with a suitcase full of meat and light bulbs. This isn’t one. And Donlevy is equally grating and artificial: if it weren’t for him being a cuboid and O’Brien being totally shapeless, you couldn’t tell them apart.

They all drive around in a car a lot and you wish they’d give Anderson the wheel, because he only has concussion.

The best bit was the police getting a tip-off from Burr’s domineering mother because he’s out late and there’s no pie in the house.

Strangely enough, Raymond Burr dated Natalie Wood for a while.

“This one’s no good too!” declared Fiona after ten minutes of HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955). Tuttle goes into super widescreen for this one. Stars Lucky Jordan, Dr. Clitterhouse, Tess Millay, Constable Kockenlocker, Captain Escobar and Ann Darrow. Poor Alan Ladd looks puffy and out of sorts: these movies both feel like episodes of some grisly Alcohol Watch. Edward G. Robinson is just old, but can still exude malevolence and smoke a cigar at the same time. He looks more and more like a Winsor McCay drawing, only not in blackface.

The climax scales new heights of bathos — a fist fight between Ladd and Robinson. Both are prematurely aged but Robinson, at only sixty-two, is an actual little old man. Ladd is little too, but he seems like a monster for slugging this geriatric case. Then Ladd has to do a dramatic leap and it’s a tragi-comic belly-flop. As is the film.

   

It’s just DULL. The title is good (and is the name of a fine blog). Nothing else lives up to it. Tuttle’s work is so lacking energy and impact, it’s amazing he worked again: but he did A CRY IN THE NIGHT the very next year.

Look like I have to head into his past to find stuff of value. Not only does THIS GUN FOR HIRE include a ton of marvelous noir imagery, but its opening gave Jean-Pierre Melville LE SAMOURAI. And MISS BLUEBEARD features a reel of the best bedroom farce ever shot. So he was good, very good, to begin with. I think cooperating with HUAC broke something inside. Recommendations for obscure, good Tuttle films will be gratefully received.

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.