Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Shane (dir by George Stevens)


“Hey, Shane!  Come back, Shane!”

There’s a few ways in which you can view the 1953 film, Shane.

The more popular view is that it’s a Western about a man named Shane (Alan Ladd) who rides into town and gets a job working for the Starretts, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur).  Joe is a farmer who is determined to hold onto his land, despite the efforts of cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) to force him off of it.  While we don’t learn much about Shane’s background, it becomes apparent that he’s a man who can fight.  That comes in handy when Ryker brings in a sinister gunfighter named Wilson (Jack Palance).

Another view is that Shane is the story of a man who just wants to settle down but, instead, finds himself continually hounded by an annoying little kid, to the extent that he finally gets involved in a gun battle just so he’ll have an excuse to leave town and get away from the little brat.  Little Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) idolizes Shane from the minute that he comes riding up.  When he hears that Shane refused to get into a fight at the local saloon, Joey demands to know whether it was true.  He tells his mom that he loves Shane almost as much as he loves his father.  When Shane does get into a brawl with all of Ryker’s men, Joey stands in the corner and eats candy.  And then, when Shane tries to leave town, Joey runs behind him shouting, “Come back, Shane!  Come back!”

Myself, I think of it as being the story of Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.).  Frank is the farmer that’s been nicknamed “Stonewall,” due to his status as a former Confederate and his quick temper.  Stonewall may be smaller than the other farmers but he’s usually the quickest to take offense.  Still, it’s impossible not to like him, largely because he’s played by Elisha Cook, Jr.  When Wilson feels the need to put the farmers in their place, he does so by picking a fight with Torrey.  Standing on a porch in the rain, looking down on the smaller man, Wilson starts to insult both him and the South.  When Torrey finally starts to reach for his gun, Wilson shoots him dead.  While Torrey lies in the mud, Wilson smirks.  It’s a shocking scene, all the more so for being shown in a long shot.  (By forcing those of us in the audience to keep our distance from the shooting, the film makes us feel as powerless as the farmers.)  If you didn’t already hate Wilson and Ryker, you certainly will after this scene.

Shane is a deceptively simple film, one in which many of the details are left open for interpretation.  We never learn anything about Shane’s background.  He’s a man who shows up, tries to make a life for himself, and then leaves.  He’s a marksman and an obviously experienced brawler but, unlike Ryker’s men, he never specifically looks for violence.  In fact, he often seems to avoid it.  Why?  The film doesn’t tell us but there are hints that Shane is haunted by his past.  Shane seems to want a chance to have a life like the Starretts but, once he’s forced to again draw his gun, he knows that possibility no longer exists.

Is Shane in love with Marian Starrett?  It certainly seems so but, again, the film never specifically tells us.  Instead, it all depends on how one interprets the often terse dialogue and the occasional glances that Marian and Shane exchance.  When Shane and Joe get into a fist fight to determine who will face Ryker and Wilson, is Shane really trying to protect Joe or is it that he knows Marian will be heart-broken if her husband is killed?

One thing’s for sure.  Little Joey sure does love Shane.  “Come back, Shane!”  Little Joey follows Shane everywhere, with a wide-eyed look on his face.  To be honest, it didn’t take too long for me to get sick of Little Joey.  Whenever director George Stevens needed a reaction shot, he would cut to Joey looking dumb-founded.  Brandon deWilde was 11 years when he appeared in Shane and he was nominated for an Oscar but he’s actually pretty annoying in the role.  Elisha Cook, Jr. was far more impressive and deserving of a nomination.

I know that many people consider Shane to be a classic.  I thought it was good, as long as the action was focused on the adults.  Alan Ladd plays Shane like a man who is afraid to get too comfortable in any situation and the film works best when it compares his reticence to Wilson’s cocky confidence.  Whenever Joey took center stage, I found myself wanting to cover my ears.

Shane was nominated for Best Picture but lost to From Here To Eternity.

Little Tin God: SHIELD FOR MURDER (United Artists 1954)


cracked rear viewer

Edmond O’Brien  is big, burly, and brutal in 1954’s SHIELD FOR MURDER, a grim film noir about a killer cop trapped in that ol’ inevitable downward spiral. It’s a good (though not great) crime drama that gave the actor a seat in the director’s chair, sharing credit with another first timer, Howard W. Koch. The film, coming at the end of the first noir cycle, strives for realism, but almost blows it in the very first scene when the shadow of a boom mike appears on an alley fence! Chalk it up to first-timer’s jitters, and a budget that probably couldn’t afford retakes.

O’Brien, noted for such noir thrillers as THE KILLERS , WHITE HEAT, and DOA, stars as crooked cop Barney Nolan, who murders a bookie in that alley I just mentioned and rips him off for 25 grand. Apartently, this isn’t the first time Nolan’s killed, with the…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing (dir by Richard Fleischer)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Forever!  For instance, she recorded 1955’s The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing off of FXM on February 1st and has now gotten around to actually watching and reviewing it.)

The story of Evelyn Nesbit is an interesting one, even if it is now a largely forgotten one.

In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit was a showgirl in New York City.  While she always claimed that she was 16 at the time, there are some historians that think it more likely that she was only 14.  One night, the beautiful Evelyn was introduced to Stanford White.  At the time, White was 47 years old and the most successful and prominent architect in New York City.  White was also a notorious womanizer and Evelyn soon became his latest mistress.  He moved her into one of his many apartments.  Years later, when the details of their relationship became public knowledge, people were shocked to hear that Stanford White kept a red velvet swing in the apartment and that he enjoyed watching Evelyn swing back and forth.  They would be even more scandalized by the news that Stanford also had a “mirror room.”  As Evelyn would later testify, she “entered the room a virgin” but did not come out as one.

Though Evelyn occasionally claimed that she and Stanford were truly in love, she never married him.  (Indeed, Stanford White apparently never married anyone over the course of his life.)  Instead, she ended up meeting and marrying Harry K. Thaw.  Harry was the heir to a 40 million dollar fortune.  He also had a long history of mental illness.  When he learned that, before meeting him, Evelyn had lost her virginity to Stanford White, he was outraged.

(It’s debatable how well Stanford and Harry knew each other.  Some historians claim that they were barely acquainted.  Other accounts claim that Harry and Stanford were business rivals even before Evelyn Nesbit arrived in New York.)

In 1906, Harry and Evelyn ran into Stanford White at Madison Square Garden.  Harry promptly pulled out a pistol and, in front of hundreds of witnesses, shot Stanford dead.

Harry’s subsequent trial was reportedly the first to ever be described as being “the trial of the century.”  Because hundreds of people had seen Harry Thaw shoot Stanford White and the Thaw family was adamant about not publicizing Harry’s history of mental illness, Harry’s defense team attempted to make the trial about Stanford White.  The defense attempted to portray Stanford as being such a depraved predator that Harry really had no other option but to shoot him in cold blood.  Evelyn took the stand and testified to every single detail of her relationship with Stanford White.  The details appeared in every major newspaper in America.

In the end, Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to the  Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  (Reportedly, due to his great wealth, he had the best room in the hospital.)  Meanwhile, Evelyn became one of America’s first reality stars.  Her notoriety led to her appearing in several silent films.  It’s a fascinating story, one that very much feels ahead of his time.  If Evelyn was a star in 1906, just imagine how famous she would be today.

The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is about Evelyn Nesbit and her relationships with both Stanford White and Harry Thaw.  It’s a shame that the film isn’t as interesting as the real life story.  Ray Milland plays Stanford White.  Farley Granger is Harry Thaw.  Joan Collins is Evelyn Nesbit.  They all give good performances, especially Farley Granger.  But the film itself is just so bland.  Perhaps because it was made in the 1950s, it leaves out the majority of the sordid details that made the story so fascinating to begin with.  For instance, the red velvet swing appears but, in this film, no time is spent in the mirror room.  This true life story is pure tabloid material but The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing is way too respectful for its own good.  By refusing to come down firmly on the side of Harry Thaw or Stanford White, the film feels shallow and a bit empty.  (All good melodramas — even fact-based ones — need a good villain.)  And poor Evelyn Nesbit!  In real life, she was a savvy self-promoter who knew exactly how to manipulate the press.  In this film, she’s just an innocent ingenue.  Considering the facts of the case, the film version is unforgivably dull.

So, I don’t recommend The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing but I do recommend Paula Uruburu’s fascinating 2008 biography, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the ‘Crime of the Century.’  It goes into all of the fascinating details that were left out of this film.

A Movie A Day #126: Baby Face Nelson (1957, directed by Don Siegel)


The place is Chicago.  The time is the era of Prohibition.  The head of the Chicago Outfit, Rocca (Ted de Corsia), has arranged for a career criminal named Lester Gillis (Mickey Rooney) to be released from prison.  A crack shot and all-around tough customer, Gillis has only two insecurities: his diminutive height and his youthful appearance.  Rocca wants to use Gillis as a hit man but Gillis prefers to rob banks.  When Rocca attempts to frame Gillis for a murder, Gillis first guns down his former benefactor and then goes on the run with his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (Carolyn Jones).  Because they are both patients of the same underworld doctor (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Gillis eventually meets public enemy number one, John Dillinger (Leo Gordon).  Joining Dillinger’s gang, Gillis becomes a famous bank robber and is saddled with a nickname that he hates: Baby Face Nelson.

While it is true that Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis was an associate of John Dillinger’s and supposedly hated his nickname, the rest of this biopic is highly fictionalized.  The real Baby Face Nelson was a family man who, when he went on the run, took his wife and two children with him.  While he did get his start running with a Chicago street gang, there is also no evidence that Nelson was ever affiliated with the Chicago Outfit.  (The film’s Rocca is an obvious stand-in for Al Capone.)  In real life, it was Dillinger, having just recently escaped from jail, who hooked up with Nelson’s gang.  The film Nelson is jealous of Dillinger and wants to take over the gang but, in reality, the gang had no leader.  Because Nelson killed three FBI agents (more than any other criminal), he has developed a reputation for being one of the most dangerous of the Depression-era outlaws but, actually, he was no more violent than the typical 1930s bank robber.  Among the era’s outlaws, Dillinger was more unique for only having committed one murder over the course of his career.  In this film (and practically every other film that has featured Baby Face Nelson as a character), Nelson is a full on psychopath, one who even aims his gun at children.

Baby Face Nelson may be terrible history but it is still an excellent B-movie.  Don Siegel directs in his usual no-nonsense style and Mickey Rooney does a great job, playing Baby Face Nelson as a ruthless but insecure criminal with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.  As his fictional girlfriend, Carolyn Jones is both tough and sexy, a moll that any gangster would be lucky to have waiting for him back at the safe house.  B-movie veterans like Thayer David, Jack Elam, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Hoyt all have colorful supporting roles but the most unexpected name in the cast is that of Cedric Hardwicke, playing an alcoholic surgeon with broken down dignity.

Don’t watch Baby Face Nelson for a history lesson.  Watch it for an entertaining B-masterpiece.

 

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)


cracked rear viewer

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to…

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Back to School #3: Blackboard Jungle (dir by Richard Brooks)


You really can’t write about high school films without writing about 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  While the film is often cited as being the first movie to feature a rock song on its soundtrack (Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is played at the opening and the end of the film), Blackboard Jungle should also be remembered for being one of the first and most influential examples of the dedicated-teacher-in-the-inner-city film genre.

Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a newly hired teacher at an inner city high school.  As soon as he arrives for his first day at work, he meets his co-workers.  Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) is another new teacher and is convinced that he can reach the students by talking to them about his valuable collection of jazz records. Mr. Murdock (Louis Calhern) is a burned out old cynic who believes that none of the students at the school have a future.  As Dadier quickly discovers, most of his fellow teachers have more in common with Murdock than with either him or Josh.

At first, Dadier struggles to reach his students, the majority of whom don’t see why they should waste their time in English class.  The head troublemaker, psychotic Artie West (Vic Morrow) sees the new teacher as being a rival and Dadier’s attempts to reach another student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), are made difficult by the racial animosity that dominates the entire high school.  Soon, Dadier is being targeted by his students and his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts to receive anonymous letters that imply that Dadier is having an affair.  It all leads to a violent classroom confrontation in which Dadier’s students are finally forced to pick a side in the battle between the forces of education and the forces of chaos.  (If that sounds melodramatic — well, it is kinda.)

It’s a little bit difficult to judge a film like Blackboard Jungle today.  We have seen so many movies about idealistic young teachers trying to make a difference in the inner city that it’s pretty easy to guess most of what is going to happen here.  In order to appreciate Blackboard Jungle, it’s necessary to understand that the only reason why it occasionally seems predictable is because it’s such an incredibly influential film.  And there are still moments in Blackboard Jungle that can take the viewer by surprise.  The scene in which Ford lists off all of the racial slurs that he doesn’t want to hear is just one example.  It’s hard to imagine that scene appearing in a movie made today.  (If it did, it would probably be played for laughs.)

That said, the performances in the film hold up surprisingly well.  Glenn Ford is a compelling hero and he and Anne Francis make for a likable couple.  Despite being 28 years old and having already played several adult roles, Sidney Poitier is a convincing high school student and, not surprisingly, he makes for a convincing leader.  However, for me, the film was dominated by Vic Morrow.

As played by Morrow, Artie Turner is a truly frightening villain.  In previous films about juvenile delinquency, the emphasis was always put on why the delinquent went bad and usually, the blame was put not on the teenager but instead on the environment around him.  He had bad parents or maybe he listened to too much jazz but, ultimately, he was not lost.  He was merely damaged.  However, Artie Turner has no convenient excuses for his behavior.  His parents go unmentioned.  When he’s exposed to jazz, he responds by breaking all of Mr. Edwards’ records.  Among all of Dadier’s students, Artie is unique in that he cannot be reached.  He’s a force of pure destruction and ultimately, Dadier’s success as a teacher depends less on reaching Artie and more on convincing his other students to reject Artie as a role model.

Blackboard Jungle may be a film that feels very familiar but it’s still one worth watching.

Artie Turner Acting Out

Artie Turner Acting Out