30 Days of Noir #7: The Sniper (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


Halfway through the chilling 1952 film, The Sniper, there’s a scene in which a woman is seen standing on the rooftop of a San Francisco apartment building.  She’s nonchalantly hanging laundry.  When she steps to the side, we suddenly see that there’s a man standing on the next rooftop over.  And he’s holding a rifle.

Fortunately, in this case, the man is a policeman.  He’s one of several cops who have been ordered to stand on rooftops with their weapons drawn and to keep an eye on the city below.  There’s a killer on the loose and the city is demanding that the police capture him.  And yet, even with a city that’s caught in the grip of fear and even with heavily armed men watching everything going on in the streets, life goes on.  People go to bars.  People go to work. Couples stroll in the park.  And one woman hangs her laundry to dry on the rooftop of an apartment building.

Suddenly, the policeman spots someone on another rooftop, a man who isn’t supposed to be there.  He’s a young guy, carrying what looks like a rifle.  The police quickly rush to the rooftop where they arrest the young man.  Have they caught the sniper who has been terrorizing San Francisco?

The police think that they have their man but we know that they don’t.  We know that the sniper is a guy named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz).  Eddie is a delivery man.  He’s handsome but, from the minute we first see him, we can tell that there’s something off about him.  He stumbles through life, keeping his head down and rarely speaking to anyone.  The few times he does attempt to smile, it’s painfully awkward.  He’s someone who is struggling to convince the people of San Francisco that he’s one of them but the more he tries, the more of an outsider he seems to be.  In fact, the only time that we see Eddie truly happy is when he goes to a carnival and comes across a dunk tank.  Over and over again, he throws a baseball and cause the woman inside to be submerged in cold water.

At first, Eddie tries to deal with his bad thoughts by deliberately burning his hand on an electric stove.  When he goes to the emergency room, he asks the attending doctor why he would do something like that but the doctor is soon distracted by another patient.  With his hand bandaged, Eddie goes on a shooting spree, targeting brunette women.

This dark film is fairly evenly divided, between Eddie, the cops that are trying to catch him, and the psychiatrist who tries to explain him.  Not surprisingly, the cops, led by the appropriately named Lt. Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), aren’t particularly interested in what makes the sniper tick.  They just want to get him off the street.  However, Dr. James Kent (Richard Kiley) is convinced that the only way to stop not only this killer but others is to understand what’s going on inside of his mind.  The differences between Kafka and Kent’s approaches are most obvious in a scene in which every registered sex offender in San Francisco is paraded into a squad room full of jeering cops.  While the detectives taunt the offenders that they know, the offender that they don’t know prepares to kill yet again.

The Sniper was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated (and superficially similar) Crossfire.  This was Dmytryk’s first film after his career was temporarily derailed by his refusal to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  (He later changed his mind and named names while testifying about his time as a member of the Community Party.)  Interestingly enough, top-billed Adolphe Menjou was one of the leaders of the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a prominent supporter of the blacklist that Dmytryk had narrowly escaped.

Filmed in a black-and-white, documentary style, The Sniper is a chilling and disturbing film.  When Eddie stalks through the city at night, the dark shadows that he casts against the walls of empty alleyways and closed storefronts serve to remind us that men like Eddie could be lurking anywhere, unseen and unknown.  During the day scenes, the harshly bright lighting reminds us of just how vulnerable we are.  If the night provides too many places to hide, the day provides too few.  Arthur Franz gives a disturbingly credible performance as Eddie.  While he plays Eddie as being obviously troubled, he also suggests how someone like Eddie has managed to survive without getting exposed.  Menjou is properly cynical as the world weary Kafka while Richard Kiley brings some needed passion and anger to the film’s most talky scenes.  The film ends on a note of melancholy ambiguity, leaving it to us to make up our own mind about how to deal with the Eddie Millers of the world.

Halloween Havoc!: CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (Universal 1943)


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Universal decided the time was ripe for a new monster, and 1943’s CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN introduced the world to Paula Dupree, aka The Ape Woman! What’s that you say? You’ve never HEARD of her? Don’t worry, you’re not alone – The Ape Woman is the most obscure of the Universal Monsters despite the fact she was featured in three films, with various degrees of quality. The first is the best of the bunch, a fun little ‘B’ lifted by the presence of John Carradine in the first of his patented mad scientist roles.

Animal trainer Fred Mason returns from Africa with a shipload of lions, tigers, and a powerful female gorilla named Cheela. He’s greeted at the docks by his sweetie Beth Colman, who tells Fred that her sister Dorothy has “some kind of glandular problem” and is being treated at Crestview Sanitarium by endocrinology expert Dr. Sigmund Walters. Walters…

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Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)


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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Caine Mutiny (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


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It’s the 1940s and World War II is raging.  The U.S. Navy is model of military discipline and efficiency.  Well, except for the U.S.S. Caine, that is.  The Caine is something of a disorganized mess, where no one takes his job seriously and sailors have names like Meatball (Lee Marvin) and Horrible (Claude Akins).  The men love Lt. Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), largely because he has given up on trying to enforce any sort of discipline.  However, DeVriess has recently been relieved of his command.  As he leaves, Meatball gives him a new watch, a gift from all the men.  DeVriess admonishes them, snapping that the gift is violation of Naval regulations.  He then puts the watch on his wrist and leaves the ship.

DeVriess’s replacement is Captain Francis Queeg and, at first, we have reason to be hopeful because Captain Queeg is being played by Humphrey Bogart.  Surely, if anyone can get this ship into shape, it’ll be Humphrey Bogart!  From the moment he arrives, Queeg announces that he’s going to enforce discipline on the Caine and if that means spending hours yelling at a man for not having his shirt tucked in, that’s exactly what Queeg is prepared to do.  However, it also quickly becomes apparent that the awkward Queeg has no idea how to talk to people.  He is also overly sensitive and quick to take offense.  Whenever Queeg makes a mistake (and he does make a few), he’s quick to blame everyone else.

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Realizing that the men are turning against him, Queeg even begs his officers for their help.  He asks them if they have any suggestions.  They all sit silently, their heads bowed as Queeg somewhat poignantly rambles on about how his wife and his dog both like him but the crew of the Caine does not.

Queeg’s officers are a diverse bunch, none of whom are quite sure what to make of Queeg or the state of the Caine.  Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is a wealthy graduate of Princeton University who, at first, likes Queeg but quickly comes to doubt his abilities.  On the other hand, Lt. Steve Marsyk (Van Johnson) has doubts about Queeg from the start but, as a career Navy man, his natural instinct is to respect the chain of command above all else.

And then there’s Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).  Keefer is a self-styled intellectual, a novelist who is always quick with a snarky comment and a cynical observation.  (If The Caine Mutiny were remade as a B-horror film, Lt. Keefer’s name would probably be Lt. Sardonicus.)  From the minute the viewers meet Lt. Keefer, our inclination is to like him.  After all, he seems to be the only person in the film who has a sense of humor.  If we had to pick someone to have dinner with, most of us would definitely pick the erudite Tom Keefer over the humorless and socially awkward Francis Queeg.  As such, when Keefer starts to suggest that Queeg might be mentally unstable, our natural impulse is to agree with him.

It’s Tom Keefer who first suggests that it may be necessary to take the command away from Queeg.  And yet, when it comes time to take action, it’s Keith and Marsyk who do so while Keefer stands to the side and quietly watches.  And, once the Caine arrives back in the U.S., it Keith and Marsyk who are court martialed.  Will they be found guilty of treason or will their lawyer, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer), prove that Queeg was unfit for command?

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Made in 1954 and based on a novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is one of those big and glossy 1950s productions that holds up a lot better than you might expect.  The film has its flaws.  In the role of Keith, Robert Francis is a bit on the dull side and a subplot in which he courts May Wynn feels unneccessary and only serves to distract from the main story.  But, for the most part, it’s an intelligent and well-directed film.  Humphrey Bogart turns Queeg into a pathetic and lonely figure and you can’t help but feel sorry for him when he talks about how his dog loves him.  Van Johnson also does well as Marsyk, effectively portraying a well-meaning character who is in over his head.  Jose Ferrer gets a great drunk scene at the end of the film and, of course, you can’t go wrong with Lee Marvin as a smirking sailor, even if Marvin only appears for a handful of minutes.

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But for me, my favorite character (and performance) was Fred MacMurray’s Tom Keefer.  Technically, Keefer is not meant to be a likable character.  He’s totally passive aggressive.  He’s pretentious.  He’s smug.  At times, he’s rather cowardly.  And yet, Tom Keefer remains the most memorable and interesting character in the entire film.  He gets all of the good one-lines and MacMurray delivers them with just the right amount of barely concealed venom.  (“If only the strawberries were poisoned…” he says as he considers dinner aboard the Caine.)  It’s a great role and Fred MacMurray gives a great performance.  And you know what?  I don’t care how bad a character he may have been.  I still want to read Tom Keefer’s book!

The Caine Mutiny was nominated for best picture of 1954.  However, it lost to On The Waterfront.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #28: The Carpetbaggers (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


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The 1960s was apparently a bad time for talented old school Hollywood filmmakers getting sucked into making big budget, excessively lengthy films.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz spent most of his career making movies like All About Eve and then, in 1963, he ended up directing Cleopatra.  Elia Kazan went from A Face In The Crowd to The Arrangement.  John Huston went from Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen to directing not only The Bible but Reflections in a Golden Eye as well.

And then there’s Edward Dmytryk.  Dmytryk may not be as highly regarded by modern critics as Mankiewicz and Huston but he still directed some of the best film noirs of the 1940s.  His 1947 film Crossfire was nominated for best picture and probably should have won.  In 1952, he directed one of the first true crime procedural films, The Sniper.  His 1954 best picture nominee, The Caine Mutiny, featured one of Humphrey Bogart’s best and most unusual performances.

And yet, in 1964, he somehow found himself directing The Carpetbaggers.

The Carpetbaggers tells the story of Jonas Cord (George Peppard).  Jonas is the son of the fabulously wealthy Jonas Cord, Sr. (Leif Erickson).  At the start of the film, father and son do not get along.  Senior resents that Junior is more interested in piloting airplanes than in learning the family business.  Junior is angry that Senior has married Jonas’s ex-girlfriend, actress Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker).  In fact, as far as Jonas, Jr. is concerned, Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) is more of a father to him than his actual father.

Nevada Smith is Jonas, Sr.’s best friend and occasional business partner.  He’s a former cowboy who, we are told in a lengthy bit of exposition, is legendary for tracking down and killing the three men who killed his parents.  (As we listen to Jonas, Jr. tell the entire lengthy story, we find ourselves thinking, “Okay, so why not make a movie out of that story?”  Well, they did.  Two years after the release of The Carpetbaggers, Steve McQueen starred in Nevada Smith.)  Nevada’s also a film star whose career is in deep decline.

Speaking of deep decline, Jonas, Sr. ends up having a heart attack and dramatically dropping dead before he can get a chance to disinherit his son.  Jonas, Jr. inherits the Cord fortune and the Cord business and proceed to spend the next two and a half hours abusing everyone who gets close to him.  He even mistreats his loving and neurotic wife, Monica (Elizabeth Ashley, giving the only really memorable performance in the entire film).

Yes, there’s really no reason to have any sympathy at all for Jonas Cord, Jr. but the film insists that we should because he’s the main character and he’s played by the top-billed star.  We’re also told that he’s a brilliant aviation engineer and I guess we’re supposed to admire him for being good at what does.  We also discover that Jonas believes that his mother was insane and that she passed down her insanity to him.  He fears that he’ll pass the crazy gene to any of children that he might have so that’s why he pushes everyone away.  Just in case we don’t understand how big a deal this is to him, the camera zooms in for a closeup whenever Jonas is reminded of his mother.

(In the 60s, all mental instability was represented via zoom lens.)

However, Jonas isn’t just into airplanes!  He also buys a movie studio, specifically because Rina Marlowe is under contract.  Soon, Jonas is directing movies his way.  Jonas also finds himself falling in love with another actress (Martha Hyer) so, of course, he starts treating her badly in an effort to push her away.

What can be done to save the tortured soul of Jonas Cord?  Maybe he just need to get beaten up by Nevada Smith…

The Carpetbaggers was based on a novel by Harold Robbins.  The novel was apparently quite a scandal when it was originally published.  People read it and they wondered, “Who was based on who?”  Well, if you’ve ever seen The Aviator, it’s not that difficult to figure out.  Jonas Cord, eccentric movie mogul and obsessive pilot, was obviously meant to be Howard Hughes.  Rina Marlowe was meant to be Jean Harlow, a fact that can be guessed just by looking at the last names.  And I’m guessing that Nevada Smith was probably based on former President Warren G. Harding because … well, why not?

I suppose that, by the standards of 1964, the film version of The Carpetbaggers would have been considered risqué.  For a modern audience, the main appeal of something like The Carpetbaggers is to see what was once considered to be shocking.  The film is overlong, George Peppard doesn’t exactly figure out how to make Jonas into the compelling  rogue that he needs to be, the clothes and the sets are a lot more interesting than any of the dialogue (but not interesting enough to carry a nearly 3 hour movie), and the film’s pacing is so off that some scenes seem to go on forever while others are way too short.  But, as a cultural and historical artifact, The Carpetbaggers does hold some interest.

The Carpetbaggers was made at a time when Hollywood felt it was under attack from both television and European cinema.  With a film like The Carpetbaggers, the studios were saying, “See!?  Television will never be able to make a film this long and big!  And those Europeans aren’t the only ones who can make a movie about sex!”  Of course, as so often happened during this time, the studios failed to take into account that size and length don’t always equal quality (and ain’t that the truth?).  As for the sex — well, we hear a lot more than we actually see.  The Carpetbaggers is one of those films where everyone talks about sex, largely because showing sex wasn’t really an option.  (And it should be noted that most of the sex talk is delivered in the language of euphemism.)  As a result, The Carpetbaggers feels incredibly tame by today’s standards.  As a result, your main reaction to The Carpetbaggers will probably be to marvel at what was considered daring and shocking 50 years ago.

(And before we get too cocky and quick to dismiss those who came before us, let’s consider how our current films will look to movie audiences five decades from now…)

As far as biopics of Howard Hughes are concerned, The Carpetbaggers in no Aviator.  However, it is an occasionally interesting historical artifact.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Crossfire (dir. by Edward Dmytryk)


I recently decided that I wanted to watch and review every single movie ever nominated for the Academy Award for best picture.  As part of that mission, I recently rewatched one of my favorite also-rans, 1947’s Crossfire.

Crossfire is a message movie disguised as a B detective flick.  A group of soldiers who have just returned from World War II decide to get together for a drink.  At the bar, they run into a civilian named Joseph Samuels (Sam Levine).  The soldiers end up going back to Samuels’s apartment and the next morning, Samuels is found dead.  Obviously, he was killed by one of the soldiers but which one.  Suspicion falls on the meek (and missing) Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie) but police detective Finlay (Robert Young) and Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum) both (correctly) suspect that Samuels was actually murdered by the far more outspoken and imposing Montgomery (Robert Ryan).  It quickly becomes obvious that Montgomery is an anti-Semite who killed Samuels solely because he was Jewish.  However, neither Finlay or Keeley can prove it.  The film quickly becomes a darkly intense duel between these three men as Finlay and Keeley attempt to trick Montgomery into implicating himself while Montgomery attempts to further frame Bowers for the murder.

Before Crossfire, director Edward Dmytryk specialized in making low-budget “B” movies and he brings that noir, near-grindhouse sensibility to Crossfire.  As a result, Crossfire is a one of those rare “message” films that is actually entertaining.  Only a few times does the film start to feel preachy and luckily, Robert Mitchum is there being his usual cynical self.  If anyone could deflate the pompous nature of the mid-40s message movie, it was Robert Mitchum.  The film says, “Love one another.”  Mitchum replies, “Baby, I just don’t give a damn,” and he keeps things from getting too heavy-handed.  Mitchum is one of three Roberts to star in this film.  Robert Young plays the police inspector with just the right amount of world-weary indignation while Robert Ryan is a force of nature as the film’s brutal murderer.  Don’t get me wrong.  You can pretty much peg Ryan as a killer from the first minute he shows up on-screen.  If Mitchum and Young smartly underplay their roles, Ryan goes the exact opposite direction.  He’s an obvious brute but he’s also totally believable.  You look at his character and it’s not difficult to imagine him passing the collection plate at Westboro Baptist Church.  As well, Crossfire also features an excellent supporting term by one of my favorite noir actresses, the great and wonderful Gloria Grahame.  She plays Bowers’ married girlfriend and gives a compellingly, real performance that suggests that maybe Hollywood in the 40s wasn’t quite as clueless as we all like to assume.

Crossfire was nominated for Best Picture of 1947 but it lost to another film about anti-Semitism, Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement.  (Oddly enough, both Kazan and Dmytryk would end up naming names during the McCarthy Era.)  Like Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire was based on a novel.  However, in the original novel, the victim was not Jewish but instead was gay.  However, back in the 1940s, the Hollywood Production Code specifically forbade any open depiction of homosexuality and so, the crime went from being motivated by homophobia to anti-Semitism.