30 Days of Noir #22: Woman On The Run (dir by Norman Foster)


Like many film noirs, this 1950 film opens with a murder.

On a dark night in San Francisco, a man attempts to blackmail an unseen person called “Danny Boy” and gets shot for his trouble.  The gunshot is heard by a frustrated painter, named Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott), who is out walking his dog.  Frank sees the dead body being pushed out of a car and then catches a shadowy glimpse of the killer.  When the killer open fires on him, Frank runs for it.

Like a good citizen, Frank goes to the police but, when he learns that the victim was due to testify against a local gangster, Frank panics and vanishes.  When Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) goes to see Frank’s wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan), he’s shocked to discover that Eleanor isn’t shocked by Frank’s disappearance and that she doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.  As Eleanor explains it, Frank is a notorious coward and, years ago, their once strong marriage became a loveless charade.  Frank’s vanished and Eleanor doesn’t care.

Or does she?

While it quickly becomes obvious that Eleanor is telling the truth about not knowing where Frank is, she’s not being totally honest about no longer caring about him.  For instance, when she learns that Frank has been hiding a heart condition from her, Eleanor goes to the doctor to pick up his medicine, just in case he should happen to come by the house.  Of course, it’s not always easy to get out of the house, especially now that the police are watching Eleanor.

Eleanor wants to track down Frank without involving the police and it seems like there’s only one person who is interested in helping he do that..  Played by Dennis O’Keefe, this person is a tough reporter and he says that he wants to do an exclusive story on Frank.  He offers to help Eleanor track him down and he even says that he’ll pay $1,000 for the chance to interview Frank.  The reporter and Eleanor are soon searching San Francisco, retracing Frank’s day-to-day life and discovering that Frank loved Eleanor more than she ever realized….

What’s that?  Oh, did I forget to mention the reporter’s name?

His name is Danny.

That’s right.  Eleanor is trying to find Frank so that she can save his life and working with her is the one man who wants to kill him!

Needless to say, this leads to a great deal of suspense.  On the one hand, you’re happy that Eleanor is rediscovering how much she loves Frank.  On the other hand, you spend almost the entire movie worried that Eleanor is going to lead Danny right to him.  Shot on location in San Francisco and featuring all of the dark shadows and tough dialogue that one could possibly hope to get in a film noir, Woman On The Run is an underrated suspense gem.  Full of atmosphere and steadily building suspense, Woman on the Run features a great and acerbic performance from Ann Sheridan and a genuinely exciting climax that’s set at a local amusement park.  Seriously, roller coasters are super scary!

Woman on the Run was directed by Norman Foster.  If you’ve recently watched The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix, you might recognize the name.  A longtime friend of Orson Welles, Foster played the role of Billy Boyle in Welles’s final film.

Cleaning Out the DVR #21: Halloween Leftovers 3


cracked rear viewer

Time to reach deep inside that trick-or-treat bag and take a look at what’s stuck deep in the corners. Just when you thought it was safe, here’s five more thrilling tales of terror:

YOU’LL FIND OUT (RKO 1940; D: David Butler) – Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge, for those of you unfamiliar…

…were a Swing Era band of the 30’s & 40’s who combined music with cornball humor on their popular weekly radio program. RKO signed them to a movie contract and gave them this silly but entertaining “old dark house” comedy, teaming Kay and the band (featuring Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, and the immortal Ish Kabibble!) with horror greats Boris Karloff , Bela Lugosi , and Peter Lorre . It’s got all the prerequisites: secret passageways, a creepy séance, and of course that old stand-by, the dark and stormy night! The plot has Kyser’s…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Cimarron (dir by Wesley Ruggles)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1931 best picture winner, Cimarron!)

“Be careful, Hank!  Alabaster may be a little dude but he’ll mess you up.”

“No offense … but he’s from Oklahoma.”

— King of the Hill Episode 5.13 “Ho Yeah”

Some best picture winners are better remembered than others.  Some, like The Godfather, are films that will be watched and rewatched until the end of time.  Others, like Crash, seems to be destined to be continually cited as proof that the Academy often picks the wrong movie.  And then you have other films that were apparently a big deal when they were first released but which, in the decades to follow, have fallen into obscurity.

1931’s Cimarron would appear to be a perfect example of the third type of best picture winner.

Based on a novel by Edna Ferber (who would later write another book, Giant, that would be adapted into an Oscar-nominated film), Cimarron is an epic about Oklahoma.  The film opens in 1889 with the Oklahoma land rush.  Settlers from all across America rush into Oklahoma, searching for a new beginning.  Among them is Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne).  Yancey is hoping to become a rancher but, upon arriving at the settlement of Osage, he discovers that the land he wanted has already been claimed by Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor).

So, Yancey gives up on becoming a rancher.  Instead, he becomes a newspaper publisher and an occasional outlaw killer.  Soon, Yancey and Sabra are two of the most prominent citizens in Osage.  Under the guidance of Yancey, Osage goes from being a wild outpost to being a respectable community.  It’s not always easy, of course.  Criminals like The Kid (William Collier, Jr.) still prey on the weak.  As the town grows more respectable, some citizens try to force out people like Dixie Lee.  Struck by a combination of personal tragedy and wanderlust, Yancey occasionally leaves Osage but he always seems to return in time to make sure that people do the right thing.  When even his wife reveals that she’s prejudiced against Native Americans, Yancey writes a vehement editorial demanding that they be granted full American citizenship.

The film follows Sabra and Yancey all the way to the late 1920s.  Oklahoma becomes a state.  Sabra becomes a congresswoman.  Oil is discovered.  Throughout it all, Yancey remains a firm voice in support of always doing the right thing.  In fact, he’s such a firm voice that you actually start to get tired of listening to him.  Yancey may be a great man but he’s not a particularly interesting one.

By today’s standards, Cimarron is a painfully slow movie.  The opening land rush is handled well but once Yancey and Sabra settle down in Osage, the film becomes a bit of a chore to sit through.  Richard Dix is a dull lead and the old age makeup that’s put on Dix and Dunne towards the end of the movie is notably unconvincing.  Considering some of the other films that were eligible for Best Picture that year — The Front Page, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Frankenstein — Cimarron seems even more out-of-place as an Oscar winner.

And yet, back in 1931, it would appear the Cimarron was a really big deal.  Consider this:

Cimarron was not only well-reviewed but also a considerable box office success.

Cimarron was the first film to ever receive more than 6 Academy Award nominations.  (It received seven and won 3 — Picture, Screenplay, and Art Direction.)

Cimarron was the first film to be nominated in all of the Big Five categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay).

Cimarron was the first film to be nominated in every category for which it was eligible.

Cimarron was the first RKO film to win Best Picture. The second and last RKO film to win would be The Best Years of Our Lives, a film that has held up considerably better than Cimarron.

Cimarron was the first Western to win Best Picture.  In fact, it would be 59 years before another western took the top award.

Though Cimarron may now be best known to those of us who watch TCM, it’s apparent that it was a pretty big deal when it was first released.  Though it seems pretty creaky by today’s standards, they loved it in 1931.

Horror Film Review: The Leopard Man (dir by Jacques Tourneur)


leopard_man

The 1943 film The Leopard Man is set in a small town in New Mexico.  It’s a place that seems to be hidden away from much of the modern world and where the cultures of Mexico and America mix, occasionally with unease.  Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) is an American publicity agent who is dating a nightclub performer named, Kiki (Jean Brooks).  Kiki has a rivalry with another performer, the far more flamboyant (read: interesting) Clo-Clo (Margo).  Jerry, however, feels that he’s come up with the perfect way for Kiki to upstage Clo-Clo.  Jerry has rented a leopard!

Unfortunately, it soon becomes obvious that neither Jerry nor Kiki knows how to handle a leopard.  Clo-Clo startles the leopard with her castanets, causing the leopard to escape and flee into the desert.  Now, Jerry has two problems.  Not only is Kiki mad at him but the leopard’s owner, Charlie (Abner Biberman), expects Jerry to pay for the missing animal.

Actually, make that three problems.  Soon after the leopard escapes, a teenage girl is chased to the front door of her house.  When she bangs on the door and begs her mother to let her in, her mother assumes that her daughter is making up a lie to get out of helping around the house.  The mother ignores her until suddenly, her daughter screams and blood starts to seep in from under the door…

All of the locals believe that the girl was killed by the leopard.  Soon, more people in town are also killed.  The police are sure that it’s the leopard but Jerry soon comes to think that something else might be happening.  Could it be that something or someone else is committing the murders and attempting to frame the leopard?

A moody and rather fatalistic film that looks truly impressive for a B-movie that was shot on the studio backlots, The Leopard Man is really more of a mystery than a traditional horror film.  That said, the film is full of atmospheric and creepy scenes, particularly a lengthy sequence in which the townspeople commemorate the anniversary of a centuries-old massacre.  The specter of death, both past and future, hangs over both the town and the film.  That’s not surprising when you consider the The Leopard Man was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, the same time that previously created the original Cat People.  Much like Cat People, The Leopard Man is a film that’s power comes as much from what we don’t see as what we do see.  The Leopard Man is a triumph of atmosphere and tension.

While neither Jerry non Kiki are very interesting characters, the film is full of memorable character roles.  The citizens of that small town in New Mexico are all vividly drawn and portrayed, with the film perfectly capturing the quiet desperation of being both poor and forgotten in American society.  My favorite character was Clo-Clo.  As played by Margo, she is fierce, determined, and — in a few small moments — rather tragic.  If they ever remake The Leopard Man, I’m claiming that role right now.

The Fabulous Forties #47: Broadway Limited (dir by Gordon Douglas)


Broadway_Limited_FilmPoster

The 47th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was a 1941 comedy named Broadway Limited.

Broadway Limited tells the story of several increasingly desperate characters and a baby.  April Tremaine (Marjorie Woodworth) is a film star whose career is in danger of stagnating.  Her frequent director, the eccentric Ivan Ivanski (Leonid Litinsky), comes up with a plan to increase April’s popularity.  He starts a rumor that she has adopted a baby.  The only problem is that April has to be seen with the baby for the rumor to be believable.

Fortunately, April is going to be traveling from Chicago to New York via a train known as the Broadway Limited.  Ivan decides that April needs to be seen with the baby on the train.  April’s assistant, Patsy (Patsy Kelly), is dating the train’s engineer, Mike (Victor McLaglen).  When Patsy tells Mike about the scheme, Mike decides to help out.  He spots a mysterious man with a baby.  Mike asks if he can borrow the baby for a few minutes.  The man agrees and hands over the baby and then Mike gives the baby to April.  Everyone sees April with the baby but the mysterious man has vanished.  What Mike does not initially know but quickly comes to suspect is that the baby might be the Pierson Baby, whose kidnapping has become national news.

(As confusing as it may sound when you read about it, it’s even more confusing when you actually watch it.)

The rest of the film basically follows Patsy, Mike, Ivan, and April as they all try to get the baby to safety without running the risk of being implicated in the kidnapping.  The four of them keep trying to leave the baby in different parts of the train, where she can be discovered by someone, just to inevitably have the baby somehow end up back in their compartment.

But that’s not all!  The high-strung president of the April Tremaine fan club (played by ZaSu Pitts) is also on the train and she keeps getting in everyone’s way.  And then there’s Dr. Harvey North (Dennis O’Keefe).  Harvey was April’s childhood crush and they just happen to be on the same train!  However, Dr. North believes that, since April has a baby, she must also have a lover…

If Broadway Limited sounds like an extremely busy film … well, it is.  The film attempts to do the screwball thing, with increasingly frantic characters running from compartment to compartment and behaving in increasingly ludicrous ways.  How well it works depends on which character is appearing in which scene.  O’Keefe plays his role too seriously, Litinsky is too broad, and Woodward is never believable as a movie star (which, needless to say, is problem when you’re the star of a movie).  However, Patsy Kelly and Victor McLaglen are both hilarious as Patsy and Mike and have a lot of chemistry.  As long as the film concentrates on Patsy and Mike, it’s entertaining.

Plus, the baby’s super cute!

Broadway Limited is hardly a classic but it works well enough.

 

The Fabulous Forties #36: Dishonored Lady (dir by Robert Stevenson)


40s

15 to go!

That’s what I find myself thinking as I begin this review of the 35th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.  I’ve only got 15 more of these reviews to go and then I will be finished with the Fabulous Forties.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  Over the past two months, I’ve seen some very good movies from the 1940s — The Black Book, The Last Chance, Trapped, and a few others.  However, I have also had to sit through things like Jungle Man, Freckles Comes Home, and Lil Abner.  The Fabulous Forties has been an uneven collection, even by the standards of Mill Creek.  However, the important thing is that I’m getting to discover films that I probably would otherwise have never known about.  I love watching movies, even ones that don’t quite work.

Fortunately, the 35th film in the Fabulous Forties does work.

Dishonored_Lady_poster

The 1947 film Dishonored Lady stars the beautiful Hedy Lamarr as Madeline Damien.  Madeline would appear to have it all.  She’s wealthy, she’s socially well-connected, she lives in Manhattan, and she has a glamorous job as the fashion editor of a slick magazine called Boulevard.

So, if Madeline’s life is so perfect, why does she end up crashing her car outside of the house of psychiatrist Richard Caleb (Morris Carnovsky)?  Madeline says it was just an accident but Dr. Caleb immediately understands that she wrecked her car as part of a suicide attempt.  He takes Madeline as a patient and we quickly learn that Madeline is actually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  When she’s not working, she’s usually drinking.  When she’s not drinking or working, she’s having sex with almost every man she meets.

(Or, as the film primly insists, “making love” to every man she meets.)

And what’s remarkable is that, for a 1947 film, Dishonored Lady is rather sympathetic to Madeline.  While it portrays her lifestyle as being self-destructive, it doesn’t condemn her.  It doesn’t attempt to argue that her problems are a fitting punishment for her decisions, as opposed to so many other 1940s films.  Even when Dr. Caleb’s counseling leads to Madeline quitting her job, the film refrains from criticizing Madeline for wanting to have a career.  Instead, it simply suggests that Boulevard is a toxic environment, almost entirely because of the sleazy men that Madeline has to deal with on a daily basis.

Madeline ends up renting a small apartment and rediscovering her love for painting.  Speaking of love, she also falls in love with her neighbor, Dr. David Cousins (Dennis O’Keefe).  At first, she doesn’t tell David anything about her past but, when she’s falsely accused of murder, she has no choice but to tell him everything.  Will David stand by her or will he prove to be yet another disappointment?  And will Madeline be able to prove her innocence even while her past in put on trial?

I really liked Dishonored Lady.  It’s a surprisingly intelligent film and Hedy Lamarr gives a great performance in the role of Madeline.  Dishonored Lady proved to be a pleasant surprise and you can watch it below!

The Fabulous Forties #4: Topper Returns (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


Topper_Returns_VideoCover

The fourth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1941’s Topper Returns.  Topper Returns was the third (and final) film to be made about Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).  Cosmo Topper is an upper class and mild-mannered banker who likes to collect automobiles and who is married to the somewhat daffy Clara (Billie Burke).  Cosmo would seem to be a pretty normal guy, except for the fact that he can talk to dead people.  In the first Topper film, a ghost played by Cary Grant helped him to learn how to appreciate life.  In the second Topper film, Topper Takes A Trip, a ghost played by Constance Bennett helped to save Topper and Clara’s marriage.  And in this Topper film, a ghost helps …. well actually, the ghost doesn’t help Topper out at all.  Instead, Topper helps the ghost solve her own murder.

When Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) visits her friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) for the weekend, she has no idea just how weird things are going to get.  First off, while Gail and Ann are riding in a taxi to the big and foreboding Carrington mansion, a mysterious man in black shoots out the taxi’s tires.  Though the taxi crashes, both Gail and Ann survive and are able to hitch a ride from Ann’s neighbor, Cosmo Topper.

Once they get to the mansion, Gail meets Ann’s strange family.  Gail loves the mansion and who wouldn’t, seeing as how it is big and dark and full of secret passageways?  However, Gail makes the big mistake of switching beds with Ann.  Later that night, when that man in black sneaks into the bedroom and attempts to stab Ann to death, he ends up killing Gail instead.  When we next see Gail, she’s a ghost who can’t leave our world until her murder has been solved.

No worries!  Gail isn’t that upset about being a ghost.  In fact,  she seems to be rather amused by it all.  She floats right over to Topper’s house and demands that he come over and solve her murder.  After some initial reluctance, Topper agrees.  Topper sneaks into the Carrington mansion and gets to work searching for clues and attempting to solve the crime.  Needless to say, it involves a lot of family secrets, hidden rooms, and dark passageways.

Now, I should admit that I haven’t seen the first two Topper films so I don’t know how Topper Returns compares to them.  The majority of the reviews that I’ve read online seem to indicate that Topper Returns is widely considered to be inferior when compared to the first two films.  It is true, as a lot of other reviewers have pointed out, that Topper himself occasionally seems almost superfluous to the film’s plot.  At no point does he mention that he has a history of talking to ghosts and, if not for the fact that the film’s title is Topper Returns, it would be easy to believe that this film was the first appearance of the character.

But no matter!  I enjoyed Topper Returns, mostly because I’d like to think that if I was ever murdered and came back as a ghost, I would manage to have as much fun doing so as Joan Blondell appears to be having in the role of Gail.  Funny, likable, and quick-witted, Gail isn’t going to let a little thing like being dead keep her from having fun!  I also appreciated that the film has a nicely morbid streak.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a cheerful conversation between Gail and another ghost.  Gail mentions that, as soon as the murder has been solved, she can go to Heaven and “you can go to…”  Gail lets her voice trail off but still make a point of glancing down at the ground.

For a modern viewer, the most problematic part of Topper Returns is the character of Chauffeur, who is Topper’s African-American servant and who doesn’t even get a proper name even though he’s in about 80% of the movie.  On the one hand, Chauffeur is written as a total racist stereotype and, as written, the majority of his lines will absolutely make you cringe.  On the other hand, he’s also played by Eddie Anderson, a talented comedic actor who always played his servants in such a way as to suggest that they were actually a hundred times smarter than the white people they were working for.  Though you may not like the way the character is written, it is possible to appreciate the subversive subtext that Anderson brings to his performance (a subtext which, undoubtedly, was not present in the original script).  Anderson was best known for playing comedian Jack Benny’s sidekick and, at one point during Topper Returns, he announces that he’s sick of ghosts and that he’s going “return to Mr. Benny!”

Taken on its own 1941 terms, Topper Returns was an enjoyable old, dark house movie.  Watch it for Joan Blondell having the time of her afterlife.