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.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Grapes of Wrath (dir by John Ford)


(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 1940 best picture nominee, The Grapes of Wrath!)

How dark can one mainstream Hollywood film from 1940 possibly be?

Watch The Grapes of Wrath to find out.

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck and directed by John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family and their efforts to neither get sent to prison nor starve to death during the Great Depression.  When they lose their farm in Oklahoma, they head for California.  Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) has a flyer that says someone is looking for men and women to work as pickers out west.  The 12 members of the Joad Family load all of their possessions into a dilapidated old truck and they hit the road.  It quickly becomes apparent that they’re not the only family basing all of their hopes on the vague promises offered up by that flyer.  No matter how much Pa may claim different, it’s obvious that California is not going to be the promised land and that not all the members of the family are going to survive the trip.

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is the oldest of the Joad sons.  He’s just been released from prison and he’s killed in the past.  Having been in prison during the start of the Great Depression, Tom doesn’t realize how bad things truly are until he arrives home and sees someone he grew up with using a tractor to knock down a house.  (It’s just business, of course.  The owners of the house can’t pay their bills so the house gets destroyed.)  The film’s story is largely told through Tom’s eyes and Henry Fonda gives a sympathetic performance, one the gets the audience to empathize with and relate to a character who is a total outsider.

As for the rest of the Joad Family, Ma (Jane Darwell) is the glue who holds them together and who refuses to allow them to surrender to despair.  (And yet even Ma is forced to make some tough choices when the starving children of one work camp ask her to share her family’s meal with them.)  Rosasharan (Dorris Bowdon) is pregnant while Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) is too sickly for the trip but doesn’t have anywhere else to go.  And then there’s Casy (John Carradine), the former preacher turned labor organizer.  Casy is not blood-related but he soon becomes a member of the family.

The Joads have a healthy distrust of the police and other authority figures and that turns out to be a good thing because there aren’t many good cops to be found between Oklahoma and California.  Instead, the police merely serve to protect the rich from the poor.  Whenever the workers talk about forming a union and demanding more than 5 cents per box for their hard work, the police are there to break heads and arrest any troublemakers on trumped up charges.  Whenever a town decides that they don’t want any “Okies” entering the town and “stealing” jobs, the police are there to block the roads.

The Grapes of Wrath provides a portrait of the rough edges of America, the places and the people who were being ignored in 1940 and who are still too often ignored today.  John Ford may not be the first director that comes to mind when you think of “film noir” but that’s exactly what The Grapes of Wrath feels like.  During the night scenes, desperate faces emerge from the darkness while menacing figures lurk in the shadows.  When the sun does rise, the black-and-white images are so harsh that you almost wish the moon would return.  The same western landscape that Ford celebrated in his westerns emerges as a wasteland in The Grapes of Wrath.  The American frontier is full of distrust, anger, greed, and ultimately starvation.  (Reportedly, the film was often shown in the Soviet Union as a portrait of the failure of America and capitalism.  However, it was discovered that Soviet citizens were amazed that, in America, even a family as poor as the Joads could still afford a car.  The Grapes of Wrath was promptly banned after that.)  John Ford is often thought of as being a sentimental director but there’s little beauty or hope to be found in the images of The Grapes of Wrath.  (Just compare the way The Grapes of Wrath treats poverty to the way Ford portrayed it in How Green Was My Valley.)  Instead, the film’s only hint of optimism comes from the unbreakable familial bond that holds the Joads together.

As dark as it may be, the film is nowhere near as pessimistic as the original novel.  The novel ends with a stillborn baby and a stranger starving to death in a barn.  The film doesn’t go quite that far and, in fact, offers up some deus ex machina in the form of a sympathetic government bureaucrat.  (Apparently, authority figures weren’t bad as long as they worked for the federal government.)  That the book is darker than the movie is not surprising.  John Steinbeck was a socialist while John Ford was a Republican with a weakness for FDR.  That said, even though the film does end on a more hopeful note than the novel, you still never quite buy that things are ever going to get better for anyone in the movie.  You want things to get better but, deep down, you know it’s not going to happen.  Tom says that he’s going to fight for a better world and Fonda’s delivers the line with such passion that you want him to succeed even if you know he probably won’t.  Ma Joad says the people will never be defeated and, again, you briefly believe her even if there’s not much evidence to back her up.

Even when viewed today, The Grapes of Wrath is still a powerful film and I can only guess what it must have been like to see the film in 1940, when the Great Depression was still going on and people like the Joads were still making the journey to California.  Not surprisingly, it was nominated for best picture of 1940, though it lost to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

A Movie A Day #180: Bullets or Ballots (1936, directed by William Keighley)


Johnny Blake (Edward G. Robinson) was one of the toughest cops in New York City, until he punched out his new captain (Joe King) and was kicked off the force.  That punch was witnessed by racketeer Al Kruger (Barton McLane).  Kruger has long wanted to get Blake to join his organization and, with Blake now out of work, Kruger makes an offer.  Blake goes to work for Kruger, much to the consternation of Kruger’s second-in-command, Bugs Fenner (Humphrey Bogart).  Bugs says that anyone who was once a cop will always be a cop.  Bugs is right.  Blake is working undercover, trying to expose and take down the mob from the inside.

Bullets or Ballots is an entertaining if predictable gangster film from the 1930s.  After making his career playing bad guys, Robinson makes the transition to the side of law and order without losing any of his trademark attitude.  Bogart plays one of the many remorseless killers that he played before Casablanca reinvented him as a hero.  Bullets or Ballots may be predictable but it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robinson and Bogart snarl hard-boiled insults at each other.

Second-billed Joan Blondell does not have much screen time but her role is still an interesting one, as a tough businesswoman who runs a numbers racket with her former maid (played by Louise Beavers).  I would have enjoyed seeing a full movie just about Blondell’s character but she mostly takes a back seat to Robinson and Bogart.

Unfortunately, unlike Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface, Bullets or Ballots was made after Hollywood started to enforce the infamous Production Code and, as a result, Bullets or Ballots never reaches the gritty, violent heights of those earlier films.  Still, fans of Robinson, Bogart, and Blondell will find much to enjoy here.

Lisa Cleans Out The DVR: Road Gang (dir by Louis King)


I was going to start this review with a quote from Gandhi: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its prisoners.”  That was something that I first heard from a perpetually stoned ex-seminarian who used to live in a trailer park in Lake Dallas.  I always figured that, being as stoned as he usually was, he probably knew what he was talking about but, upon doing research for this review, I have discovered that Gandhi actually didn’t say that.  What Gandhi said was, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”  Fortunately, it’s the same basic idea and, regardless of how you phrase it, it’s a quote that perfectly encapsulates the message of the 1936 film, Road Gang.

Road Gang tells the story of Jim (Donald Woods) and Bob (Carlyle Moore, Jr.).  Bob is fun-loving.  Jim is more serious and engaged to marry heiress Barbara Winston (Kay Linaker).  Jim and Bob live in an unnamed Southern state (though I’m going to assume that the state is supposed to be Georgia, just because).  Jim has just written an article that exposes the corruption of political boss, J.W. Moett (Joe King).  The article is so good that both Jim and Bob have been offered jobs in Chicago!  There’s a lot of corrupt political figures who can be exposed in Chicago!

However, while driving up north, Jim and Bob are arrested on trumped-up charges.  At first, Jim and Bob laugh off Moett’s desperation but, unfortunately, another criminal happens to be breaking out of jail at the same time that Jim and Bob arrives for booking.  That criminal kills the arresting officer and then forces Jim and Bob to drive him across the state.  Eventually, the police recapture the three of them.  However, the escaping criminal is killed and Jim and Bob are arrested as accessories.  Under the advice of their lawyer, Mr. Dudley (Edward Van Sloan), they plead guilty and accept a deal.  What they don’t know is that Dudley works for Moett and that, as a result of pleading guilty, they are going to be sentenced to five years in a prison camp.

Okay, so the film gets off to a pretty melodramatic start.  And, to be honest, the entire film is extremely melodramatic.  A lot of time is devoted to Barbara trying find evidence that Jim and Bob were set up, something that is made difficult by the fact that Barbara’s father, like Mr. Dudley, works for Moett.  Fast-paced and not-always-logical, this is a B-movie, in every sense of the term.

And yet, as melodramatic as it is, Road Gang is deadly serious when it comes to portraying the brutality of the prison camp.  From the minute that Bob and Jim arrive, they find themselves at the mercy of the corrupt warden and his sadistic guards.  The prisoners are largely used as slave labor and subjected to punishments that are often arbitrary and extreme.

Road Gang doesn’t flinch when it comes to portraying why prison often not only fails to rehabilitate but also helps to transform minor offenders into hardened criminals.  There’s a disturbing scene in which Jim, Bob, and the other prisoners are forced to listen as another prisoner is whipped.  The crack of the whip and his howls of agony explode across the soundtrack in a symphony of pain and sadism.  Jim and Bob have two very different reactions to being in prison.  One survives.  One allows himself to be killed rather than take one more day in confinement.

Road Gang is often compared to I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.  Actually, beyond the theme of a fatally compromised justice system, there is no comparison.  The angry and fact-based I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a hundred times better and, quite frankly, Donald Woods was no Paul Muni.  However, Road Gang still has its moments of power.  Decades after it was made, the issues it raises continue to be relevant.  Do we send people to prison to rehabilitate them or to punish them and are the two goals mutually exclusive?  And how can we say that someone has “paid his debt to society” when, even after a prisoner serves his time, the stigma of having been imprisoned closes and locks most doors of opportunity?

Road Gang shows up occasionally on TCM.  There’s where I recorded it on January 23rd of this year.

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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Cleaning Out The DVR: Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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So, today, I got off work so that I could vote in Texas’s Super Tuesday primary.  After I cast my vote (and don’t ask me who I voted for because it’s a secret ballot for a reason!), I came home and I turned on the TV and I discovered that, as a result of spending February recording countless films off of Lifetime and TCM, I only had 9 hours of space left on my DVR.  As a result, the DVR was threatening to erase my recordings of Bend It Like Beckham, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Anthem, an episode of The Bachelor from 2011, and the entire series of Saved By The Bell: The College Years.

“Acgk!” I exclaimed in terror.

So, I immediately sat down and started the process of cleaning out the DVR.  I started things out by watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film from 1942.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of a songwriter, signer, and dancer named George M. Cohan.  I have to admit, that when the film started, I had absolutely no idea who George M. Cohan was.  Imagine my surprise as I watched the film and I discovered that Cohan had written all of the old-fashioned patriotic songs that are played by the Richardson Symphony Orchestra whenever I go to see the 4th of July fireworks show at Breckenridge Park.  He wrote You’re A Grand Old Flag, The Yankee Doodle Boy, and Over There.  Though I may not have heard of him, Cohan was an American institution during the first half of the 20th Century.  Even if I hadn’t read that on Wikipedia, I would have been able to guess from watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, which, at times, seems to be making a case for sainthood.

And that’s not meant to be a complaint!  74 years after it was originally released, Yankee Doodle Dandy is still a terrifically entertaining film.  It opens with George (played by James Cagney) accepting a Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  (We only see Roosevelt from behind and needless to say, the President did not play himself.  Instead, Captain Jack Young sat in a chair while FDR’s voice was provided by impressionist Art Gilmore.)  Cohan proceeds to tell Roosevelt his life story, starting with his birth on the 4th of July.  Cohan tells how he was born into a showbiz family and a major theme of the film is how Cohan took care of his family even after becoming famous.

The other major theme is patriotism.  As portrayed in this biopic, Cohan is perhaps the most patriotic man who ever lived.  That may sound corny but Cagney pulls it off.  When we see him sitting at the piano and coming up with the lyrics for another song extolling the greatness of America, we never doubt his sincerity.  In fact, he’s so sincere that he makes us believe as well.  Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, I found myself regretting that I have to live in such an overwhelmingly cynical time.  If George M. Cohan was alive today, he’d punch out anyone who called this country “Murica.”

Yankee Doodle Dandy is an amazingly positive film.  There are a few scenes where Cohan has to deal with a few Broadway types who are jealous of his talent and his confidence but, otherwise, it’s pretty much one triumph after another for Cohan.  Normally, of course, there’s nothing more annoying than listening to someone talk about how great his life is but fortunately, Cohan is played by James Cagney and Cagney gives one of the best performance of all time in the role.

Cagney, of course, is best remembered for playing gangsters but he got his start as a dancer.  In Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney is so energetic and so happy and such a complete and totally showman that you can’t help but get caught up in his story.  When he says that, as a result of his success, things have never been better, you don’t resent him for it.  Instead, you’re happy for him because he’s amazingly talented and deserve the best!

Seriously, watch him below:

James Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.  Yankee Doodle Dandy was also nominated for best picture but lost to Mrs. Miniver.

I’m really glad that I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy today.  In this time of overwhelming negativity, it was just what I needed!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Lost Weekend (dir by Billy Wilder)


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I’m currently stuck at home on this beautiful day, dealing with a really bad cold.  (Even as I sit here typing this up, I am currently in a feverish haze.)  It’s frustrating but, fortunately, I’ve got a lot of movies to watch.  After all, TCM is wrapping up their 31 Days of Oscars and my DVR is currently full of nominated films waiting to be reviewed.

For instance, I just watched the 1945 best picture winner, The Lost Weekend.  The Lost Weekend was directed by Billy Wilder, a director who is most often associated with sad-eyed comedies like Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and The Seven Year Itch.  However, The Lost Weekend is most definitely not a comedy.  Instead, it’s an incredibly harrowing and rather depressing portrait of addiction and lost promise.

Don Birnan (Ray Milland) is a struggling writer.  When we first meet him, he’s packing for a weekend trip with his brother, Wick (Philip Terry).  The conversation between Don and Wick at first sounds friendly but soon, we start to hear hints of suspicion in Wick’s voice.  Wick seems incredibly concerned about what exactly Don is packing and Don starts to get defensive.  Don says that it’s been ten days since he had a drink and that there is no more liquor in the apartment.  However, whenever Wick turns his back, Don starts to search for the bottles that he’s hidden around his bedroom.  (He’s even got a bottle of whiskey hanging on a rope outside the window.)  It gets to the point that, whenever Wick isn’t looking, Don is holding a bottle.

And while that may sound potentially humorous, there’s nothing funny about the scene.  Don’s desperation is too real.  As someone who grew up having to deal with an alcoholic father, I recognized Don and his addiction immediately.  Everything about him — from his fast smile to his continual assurances that he’s cleaned himself up — is a facade, designed to help him survive until he can get his next drink.

The main thing about alcoholics is that they’re extremely clever.  Don knows that Wick wants to get him away for the weekend so that he can’t drink.  When Don’s girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), mentions that she has two tickets for a concert, Don convinces Wick to go to the show with her.  Once Wick is out of the apartment, Don can sneak down to the neighborhood bar.  When it comes time to leave for that dry weekend vacation, Don manages to accidentally on purpose miss the train.

Left alone for the weekend, Don can now do what he wants.  He tries to write about his life as an alcoholic but discovers that his brain is too muddled for him to think straight.  So, instead, he drinks.  Unfortunately, Wick hasn’t left him any money and has also ordered all the local bars and liquor stores to not allow his brother to run up a tab.  As a result, Don finds himself scrounging for money.

In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Don carries his typewriter down to the local pawnshop so that he can get money to buy a drink.  However, the pawnshop is closed for Yom Kippur.  The camera follows Don as he staggers around New York City, looking for an open pawnshop.  Wilder shot this scene on the streets of New York City, using a hidden camera.  The people who we see reacting to Don are not Hollywood extras but instead are actual New Yorkers who had no idea that the pathetic drunk they were gawking at was actually film star Ray Milland.

As the weekend plays out, Don transforms.  He goes from being smooth and outwardly confident to being unshaven and desperate.  Eventually, Don ends up in a sanitarium, where he’s taunted by a sadistic nurse.  (The nurse is played by Frank Faylen, who played Ernie the cab driver in It’s A Wonderful Life.)  Even when Don manages to get back to his apartment, he finds himself screaming as he hallucinates a bat eating a mouse.  Blood runs down the walls.

Does the film, at least, have a happy ending?  It depends.  The local bartender, Nat (Howard Da Silva), returns Don’s typewriter to him.  Helen convinces Don to write about his lost weekend.  Don says that he’s never going to drink again but, at the same time, we can’t help but remember that the movie started with Don saying the same thing…

As directed by Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend plays out like a noir thriller, full of menacing shadows.  The score, composed by Miklos Rozsa, uses a theremin to let us hear the addiction-fueled chaos within Don’s head.  Best of all, Ray Milland totally loses himself in the role of Don Birnan, with the vanity of film stardom soon replaced with the pathos of addiction.  Even watching the film today, it’s easy to understand how The Lost Weekend won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1945.