Face the Darkness: Bogie & Bacall in DARK PASSAGE (Warner Brothers 1947)


cracked rear viewer

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” concludes with the genre’s biggest icon, Humphrey Bogart (and he’s bringing Lauren Bacall along for the ride!):

The year 1947 belonged to filmnoir, as some of the dark genre’s true classics saw the light of day: Robert Mitchum donned that iconic trenchcoat in OUT OF THE PAST , Richard Widmark snarled his way through KISS OF DEATH, Burt Lancaster battled sadistic Hume Cronyn with BRUTE FORCE , Tyrone Power got trapped in NIGHTMARE ALLEY , Rita Hayworth bedeviled Orson Welles as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , Ronald Colman won an Oscar as a cracked actor leading A DOUBLE LIFE, and Lawrence Tierney terrorized the hell out of everyone in his path in BORN TO KILL . Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, noir’s power couple thanks to the previous year’s THE BIG SLEEP , teamed again for DARK PASSAGE, an slam-bang crime drama that may not…

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30 Days of Noir #13: Undertow (dir by William Castle)


In the 1949 film, Undertow, Scott Brady plays Tony Reagan.  Tony used to be a member of the Chicago mob but that’s all in the past now.  He served his country in World War II and now, as he tells his old racket friend, Danny (John Russell), all Tony wants to do is settle down and run a hunting lodge in Reno.

However, before Tony can forever abandon Chicago for Nevada, he has to make peace with his future in-laws.  He’s engaged to marry Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart).  In fact, he’s so in love with her that not even meeting a single teacher named Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) can distract Tony from his plans.  The only problem is that Sally is the niece of a Chicago gangster named Big Jim Lee and, in the past, Big Jim and Tony haven’t always been the best of friends.  In fact, the Chicago police are constantly harassing Tony because they’re convinced that he wants to start a gang war with Big Jim.  Instead, Tony just wants to make peace with Big Jim before the wedding.

Tony goes to visit Big Jim and …. well, you can guess what’s going to happen, can’t you?  If you’ve seen enough film noirs, you know that no one is every totally out of the rackets.  No one believes an ex-mobster when they say that they’re no longer interested in making trouble.  Even worse, any murder committed with automatically be blamed on anyone who says that they’re no longer a member of the rackets.  That’s what happens to Tony.  Not only does he discover that Big Jim has been shot dead but everyone thinks that he’s the one who did it.  Fleeing through the shadowy streets of Chicago, Tony finds himself not only being pursued by the police but also by the murderers.  Everyone wants to either capture or kill Tony.

In fact, the only person who seems to be on Tony’s side is Ann McKnight.  Ann lets Tony hide out at her apartment while he tries to figure out what’s going on.  Of course, Ann does have a nosy landlady who has no hesitation about letting herself into the apartment whenever she feels like it….

The plot of Undertow isn’t going to win any points for originality.  It’s not going to take you long to figure out who is setting Tony up, if just because there really aren’t enough characters in the film for there to be much suspense about who is betraying who.  But no matter!  The film is still an atmospherically shot and briskly-paced thriller.  Undertow was directed by William Castle, who is probably best known for directing campy B-movies like The Tingler and Strait-Jacket.  There’s nothing campy about Castle’s direction of Undertow.  The majority of the film was shot on location and Castle makes great use of Chicago.  When Tony tries to lose the cops that are tailing him, it helps that he’s not running across a soundstage but instead down real city streets, ones that feels alive with tension and danger.  There’s also a great chase that takes place in a long and dark corridor in an underground garage.

Scott Brady (who was the brother of tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney) gives a sympathetic performance as Tony and he and Peggy Dow have a really likable chemistry in their scenes together.  Dorothy Hart is also well-cast as the film’s femme fatale, while Bruce Bennett has a few good scenes as a detective who is an old friend of Tony’s.  Fans of “classic” matinée idols will want to keep an eye out for Rock Hudson, making a brief appearance in his second film and credited as “Roc” Hudson.

Cleaning Out The DVR #7: The More The Merrier (dir by George Stevens)


The_More_the_Merrier_-_poster

After I finished with Watch On The Rhine, I decided to watch another film from 1943.  Like Watch On The Rhine, The More The Merrier is a film about life during wartime and it takes place in Washington, D.C.  However, that’s all that they have in common.  Whereas Watch On The Rhine was a serious and somber affair, The More The Merrier is thoroughly delightful little comedy.

The More The Merrier opens with a retired millionaire named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) arriving in Washington D.C.  He’s been asked to serve as an adviser for a commission that has been tasked with solving America’s housing shortage.  (This was apparently a very real concern during World War II.)  However, as soon as Dingle arrives, he finds directly effected by the problem that he’s supposed to be solving.  His hotel room won’t be available for two days and he has no where to stay.  After a quick look through the newspaper, Ben finds an ad for a roommate.

When he arrives at the apartment, he discovers a long line of men waiting outside.  They’re all in the same situation as him and are hoping that Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) will select him for her roommate.  However, Connie picks Ben, largely because he’s old and rich and she won’t have to worry about him hitting on her on like most guys nor does she have to worry about him borrowing her clothes or getting jealous of her, like she would have to with a female roommate.  Connie is engaged to a boring but well-paid bureaucrat named Charles Pendergrast (Richard Gaines).  She doesn’t really love Pendergrast (and he has an annoying habit of shushing her) but, after growing up poor because her mother married for love, Connie is determined to not to make the same mistake.

Ben and Connie struggle, at first, to adjust to each other’s habits.  Connie keeps to an exact schedule and claims to not have any use for frivolity.  Ben is the exact opposite.  The early scenes of them trying (and, of course, failing) to stay out of each other’s way are hilarious, with both Coburn and Arthur giving brilliant comedic performances.  (I’m jealous of how wonderfully Jean Arthur could express exasperation.)  Connie’s apartment is already small and it gets even smaller once she sublets half of it to Benjamin Dingle.

However, things are about to get even more crowded.  One day, while out exploring Washington, Ben runs into Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a sergeant who has a few days before he’s scheduled to be shipped overseas and who has no place to stay.  Generously, Ben agrees to sublet half of his half of the apartment to Joe.  Of course, Ben does this without telling Connie.

When, after another hilarious and artfully done sequence of the three new roommates wandering around the apartment and just barely missing each other, Connie discovers what Ben has done, she orders both Ben and Joe to leave the apartment.  Ben agrees to do so, if she gives him back his security deposit.  Unfortunately, Connie already spent that money on a hat…

So, they’re stuck together.  Connie is attracted to Joe and Joe to Connie but Connie is also determined to marry Pendergrast.  (When Joe scornfully says that he bets Pendergrast combs his hair “every hour on the hour,” Connie snaps back, “Mr. Pendergrast has no hair!”)  Fortunately, Ben — being older and wiser — can see that Joe and Connie are perfect for each other and he starts doing everything he can to bring the two together.

As Ben says more than once, “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!”

Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She had this perfect “no bullshit” attitude, mixed with an unexpected vulnerability.  In The More The Merrier, she’s just as credible when she’s ordering Ben and Joe to leave as when she’s breaking into tears after she catches Ben reading her diary.  In the role of Ben, Charles Coburn is warm, kind, and wonderfully eccentric.  (When Joe asks him what does for a living, Ben cheerfully replies, “I’m a well-to-do retired millionaire.  How ’bout you?”)  And then you have Joel McCrea, in the role of the “cute but dumb” Joe Carter.  He’s not really that dumb but he certainly is cute.  Wisely, McCrea never tries to be funny.  Instead, he gets most of his laughs just by reacting to all of the craziness going on around him.

Briskly directed by George Stevens, The More The Merrier features a snappy script from Frank Ross, who was married to Jean Arthur.  It’s full of hilarious lines but, at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to it as well.  Hanging, like a shadow over all of the comedy and the romance, is the fact that Joe is soon going to be shipped overseas.  Even while you laugh, you’re very aware that there’s a chance he might not be coming back.  That reality brings an unexpected depth to the film’s otherwise cheerful love story.

The More The Merrier was nominated for best picture but it lost to Casablanca.  However, Charles Coburn did win the Oscar for best supporting actor.

Lisa Marie Goes Down On Mildred Pierce (dir. by Michael Curtiz)


A quick note: By titling this post “Lisa Marie Goes Down On Mildred Pierce” I have now not only proven that there’s no dare I will not accept but I’ve also won a small but useful sum of cash.  Never let them tell you that blogging doesn’t pay off.

Like a lot of people, I was looking forward to HBO’s remake of Mildred Pierce, featuring Kate Winslet in the role made famous by Joan Crawford.  And I hate to say it but, as hard as I’ve tried, I simply can not get into this remake.  Maybe it’s because the remake’s director, Todd Haynes, has apparently decided to use five hours to tell the exact same story that the original film told in less than two.  All I know is that the HBO version has, so far, been slow, ponderous, and ultimately a rather dull affair.

As I attempted to stay awake through the remake, I found myself wondering how the original 1945 film compared to the remake.  Fortunately, I just happened to have the original on DVD.  As well, by watching the original Mildred Pierce, I could continue my current mission to see every single film ever nominated for best picture.  (Joan Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as Mildred but the film itself lost Best Picture to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend.)

 Mildred Pierce opens with the murder of sleazy playboy Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott).  Monty’s wife, Mildred (Joan Crawford), responds to the murder by attempting to frame her ex-business partner, the equally sleazy Wally Fay (Jack Carson).  However, the police arrest Mildred’s 1st husband, the well-meaning but really, really dull Bert (Bruce Bennett).  This leads to Mildred going to the police in an attempt to clear Bert’s name.  As the police interrogate Mildred, she tells them (and the film uses flashbacks to show us)  how she went from being a dissatisfied housewife to a succesful businesswoman to finally becoming Monty’s wife.  Through it all, Mildred is motivated by the need to take care of and spoil her manipulative daughter Veda (Ann Blyth).

Seen now, Mildred Pierce is an artifact of different time but, as a secret history nerd, I happen to love studying artifacts.  Like many of the films of the late 40s, Mildred Pierce‘s melodramatic plot serves as a reflection of a culture that, in the wake of World War II, was no longer as smugly complacent about how the world worked.  As I watched Mildred Pierce, the thing I immediately noticed was just how much the film seemed to be suspended between pre-War and post-War culture.  It’s the type of film that goes out of it’s way to acknowledge Mildred’s role as a “new woman” but, at the same time, still finds time to include numerous “comedic” scenes of various men leering at Mildred’s ankles. 

(Actually, I guess they were supposed to be staring at her legs but, since this was the 40s, this could only be represented by an occasional flash of ankle.  Personally, my ankles are okay but I like my legs better.)

Mildred Pierce is often cited as being a forerunner to feminist cinema and I have to admit I have some issues with that.  Yes, the film does acknowledge that a woman can be tough and that a woman can be a succesful businesswoman.  However, the film’s message ultimately seems to be that mothers who work will ultimately raise daughters who will become burlesque dancers and potential killers.  Mildred Pierce doesn’t so much celebrate female independence as much as it fears it.  If only Mildred had remained married to boring and predictable Bert than Veda would never have ended up as a murder suspect.

The question of ideology aside, the original Mildred Pierce remains an entertaining example of old school melodrama.  Director Michael Curtiz was one of those “craftsmen” who, in the 30s and 40s, seemed to direct hundreds of films without ever really establishing any sort of unique style of their own.  Instead, they simply used whichever style that would be most efficient towards dramatizing the script.  For Mildred Pierce, Curtiz imitated the style of a B-movie film noir.  It’s a good approach for this story even if Curtiz doesn’t seem to understand  the shadows of noir quite as well as his contemporaries Billy Wilder or Robert Siodmak.

Of course, Mildred Pierce is best known as the film that won Joan Crawford an Oscar.  I haven’t seen many of Crawford’s films (though I have seen Faye Dunaway playing her in Mommie Dearest) and I’ve got an unapologetic girlcrush on Kate Winslet but I honestly have to say that I prefer Crawford’s version of Mildred to Winslet’s.  Because, as much as I idolize Kate Winslet, she doesn’t seem to so much be playing Mildred Pierce as much as she’s observing her.  Crawford, meanwhile, sank her perfectly manicured nails into the role and pretty much refused to let go until she got her Oscar.  Crawford plays Mildred as a woman so obsessed with survival that she seems to be perfectly willing to destroy the rest of the world if that’s what it takes.  To be honest, it’s really not a great acting job but it certainly is fun to watch. Technically, Winslet gives the better performance but Crawford is a lot more entertaining.

(That said, I still love Kate and I actually would probably fall at her feet and say, “Thank you,” if I ever met her in real life because she’s really one of my heroes.  Physically, I developed early and I had to deal, at way too early an age, with a combination of a physical maturity and emotional immaturity.  By the time I was 13, I was so totally overwhelmed by the insecurity and uncertainty but then I read an interview with Kate Winslet in which she said, “I like having tits and an ass.”  And that, to be honest, was the first time I had ever come across anyone saying that it was okay to like your body.  So, anyway, the point of all that is that I love Kate Winslet.)

Crawford pretty much dominates the entire film but a few of the other performers do manage to make an impression.  As Mildred’s ex-husband, Bruce Bennett is pretty boring but the other men in Mildred’s life are well-played by Jack Carson and Zachary Scott.  Scott especially was well-cast as the type of guy that we always says we’re done with just to end up hooking up with them whenever we’re at our weakest.  As Veda, Anne Blyth gives such a driven and intense performance that you actually believe that she could be the daughter of Mildred Pierce.

In the end, Mildred Pierce isn’t really a great film but it is a lot of fun and that’s a definite improvement on the current remake.