30 Days of Noir #17: Loan Shark (dir by Seymour Friedman)


The 1952 film, Loan Shark, opens with a familiar film noir situation.

A man walks down a dark city street.  Judging from the way that the man keeps looking over his shoulder, he’s obviously nervous about something.  Suddenly, we hear two sets of footsteps approaching him and it quickly becomes apparent that the man has good reason to be so nervous.  The man is being pursued by two gangsters.  (We know that they’re gangsters because of the suits and the fedoras.)  The gangsters toss the man in an alley and proceed to beat the Hell out of him.

The local tire factory has a problem.  Though its employees are highly valued, they’re not highly paid.  In order to make ends meet, many of them have resorted to gambling.  Plant foreman Charlie Thompson (Russell Johnson) always seems to have the latest tip on a sure thing.  Interestingly enough, the tips never seem to pan out and, as a result, the workers are forced to go to the local loan shark, Lou Donelli (Paul Stewart).  Lou always loans them the money but he charges exorbitant interest and, when the workers can’t pay back the loans, he sends his thugs to beat them up.  The factory’s management knows that they have to do something to take this loan shark out of commission.

Now, what would you do if you were a part of management?  Would you go to the police and maybe see if they could arrange to put a trained undercover cop in your factory?  Or would you hire an ex-con and tell him to just take care of it on his own?

The ex-con in question is Joe Gargen (George Raft).  He’s just been released from prison, though the film is quick to point out that Joe didn’t really do anything that bad.  He just hit a guy who was being obnoxious.  The guy fell back and hit his head and, as a result, Joe was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.  (As Joe explains it, he’s a former boxer and, as a result, his fists are legally considered to be deadly weapons.)  When Joe is first offered the clandestine job at the tire factory, he turns it down.  As he explains it, he’s not looking to get in any more trouble with anyone.  But then when the loan sharks kill his brother-in-law, Joe reconsiders.

Soon, Joe is working at the tire plant.  (If you’ve ever wanted to see, in meticulous detail, how a tire is made, this is the film to watch.)  After Charlie gives him a bad tip on a horse, Joe finds himself in debt to Donelli.  However, when Joe manages to beat up the thugs that Donelli sends to collect, Joe finds himself with another job offer.  Soon, Joe is working for the loan sharks!  Because he can’t reveal that he’s undercover, everyone — from the administrative assistant (Dorothy Hunt) who he once took dancing to his own sister (Helen Westcott) — is disgusted by Joe’s actions.  Joe finds himself a pariah but he’s still determined to discover the identity of Donelli’s boss.

With it’s combination of the mob and exploited blue collar workers (not to mention it’s use of an ex-boxer as its protagonist), Loan Shark lightly treads on the ground that would later be covered, in a far more exacting manner, by On The Waterfront.  Unfortunately, Loan Shark suffers a bit from the miscasting of George Raft in the lead role.  Raft was a charismatic actor but, when he made Loan Shark, he was 51 and looked about 9 years older.  When Raft shares what is meant to be a romantic dance with Dorothy Hart, he looks more like a proud father dancing with his daughter at a wedding reception than anything else.  Loan Shark is one of those films that calls out for a younger actor, a William Holden or maybe a John Garfield.  That said, Raft was a genuine tough guy and, despite his advanced age, he still looked like he could go a few rounds.

That said, Loan Shark is a tough and shadow-filled film, one that features some genuinely exciting fight scenes.  Miscast or not, when George Raft throws a punch, you believe it.

Horror On TV: Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.20 “The Sentry” (dir by Seymour Robbie)


Tonight on Kolchak….

There’s something on the loose underneath Chicago!  Could it be a …. killer lizard!?  Kolchak’s on the story!

Sadly, all good things must come to an end and this was the final episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  Darren McGavin, of course, would later go on to epitomize the ideal middle American father when he played The Old Man in A Christmas Story.

This finale originally aired on March 28th, 1975.

I hope you have enjoyed this October’s trip down Kolchak Lane!

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.

 

My Living Doll: ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (AIP 1958)


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Oh boy. TCM is running a salute to AIP every Thursday this month. Now I’ll never get that DVR cleaned out! American International Pictures released some of my favorite films of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and TCM’s showing everything from Vincent Price/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe horrors to outlaw biker flicks to Beach Party teen shenanigans. Expect to see lots of AIP posts in the near future, starting right now with 1958’s ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE.

One of my earliest movie memories is watching this on the local “Four O’ Clock Movie Matinee” when I was about five years old. For some strange reason, it resonated with me. I haven’t seen it in years, and my recent re-viewing had me wondering just why it did. Maybe I was a strange kid! Anyway, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE was the brainchild of Mr. B.I.G. himself, producer/director/effects wizard Bert I. Gordon. Well, maybe…

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The Fabulous Forties #6: Trapped (dir by Richard Fleischer)


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After being disappointed with Guest In The House, I decided to go ahead and watch the sixth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set and I’m glad that I did.  1949’s Trapped turned out to be an entertaining little discovery.

Much like Port of New York, Trapped opens with documentary footage of the government at work and an official sounding narrator explaining to us that we are about to see a film about the hardworking agents of the Treasury Department.  In fact, the narrator goes on for so long about the Treasury Department that he starts to sound downright worshipful.  There’s nothing that the Treasury Department cannot do!  Who protects the President?  The Treasury Department!  Who tracks down counterfeiters?  The Treasury Department!  Who protects the coast?  The Coast Guard but guess what? The Coast Guard is actually a part of The Treasury Department!  The tone of the narration is so worshipful that it could almost pass for a Scientology recruiting film.  Just as only the Sea Org can protect us from Evil Lord Xenu, only the Treasury Department can stop phony money pushers!

Eventually, the narration ends and the actual movie begins.  Fortunately, the rest of Trapped more than makes up for that awkward introduction.  The film opens with a bunch of Treasury agents looking over a phony twenty-dollar bill.  The bill is almost perfect and the agents believe that it was printed using plates designed by one of the world’s greatest counterfeiters, Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges).  The only problem is that Stewart is in prison.  Obviously, someone else has gotten their hands on Stewart’s plates.

Stewart is upset that someone is getting rich off of his work.  So, he strikes a deal with the Treasury Department.  In return for being released, he will help them track down his plates.  The Treasury Department agrees and arranges for Stewart to “escape” during a phony prison break.

However, Stewart has plans of his own.  As soon as he’s out of jail, he knocks out his handler and escapes for real.  Tris is not only planning on tracking down his plates but he’s also going to go back into business printing and passing phony money.  He also reunites with his girlfriend, nightclub hostess Meg Dixon (Barbara Payton).

When he meets Meg, he discovers that she has a new admirer.  Johnny Hackett (John Hoyt) likes to hang out whenever Meg’s working.  Even though Johnny appears to have a thing for Meg, he and Tris still become friends.  Tris is even willing to bring Johnny in on the operation but, what Tris doesn’t realize, is that Johnny Hackett is actually Treasury agent John Downey (John Hoyt)…

Needless to say, violence, betrayal, and death follows.

Shot on location in some of the seediest parts of 1940s Los Angeles, Trapped is a fast-paced and exciting film noir.  (This is one of those films, like The Black Book, where shadows are literally everywhere.)  Lloyd Bridges (who, as a young man, could have passed for Kirk Douglas’s brother) gives a great performance as the charming but ultimately cold-hearted Tris Stewart while John Hoyt does a fairly good job as the conflicted Downey.  Barbara Payton, one of the more tragic figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age, does such a good job as Meg that it’s even more tragic to consider that, just a few years after making Trapped, her career would be destroyed by alcoholism and personal scandal and she would eventually end up as a homeless prostitute on Sunset Boulevard.

Trapped was a good discovery and you can watch it below!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #26: Cleopatra (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


Cleopatra_posterWhile watching the 1963 best picture nominee, Cleopatra, I had many thoughts.  The film lasts over 4 hours so I had a lot of time to think.

For instance, I often found myself impressed by the sheer size of the production.  I marveled at the recreation of ancient Greece and Rome.  I loved looking at the ornate costumes.  I loved feeling as if I was taking a look back at what Rome may have actually looked like at the height of the Roman Empire.  Making it all the more impressive was that this film was made in the days before CGI.  When the film’s Romans walked through the streets of Rome, they weren’t just actors standing in front of a green screen.  They were walking down real streets and surrounded by real buildings.  It reminded me of the awe and wonder that I felt when I was in Italy and I was visiting the ruins of ancient Rome.

(I don’t know if any of the cast accidentally flashed everyone like I did when I visited during Pompeii on a windy day but considering how short some of the skirts on the men were, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did!)

And, as I marveled at the recreation of Rome, I also thought to myself, “How long is this freaking movie?”  Because, seriously, Cleopatra is an amazingly long movie.  It’s not just the film is over four hours long.  It’s that the film feels even longer.  Gone With The Wind, The Godfathers Part One and Part Two, Once Upon A Time In America; these are all long films but, because they’re so great, you never find yourself checking the time while watching.  Cleopatra is the opposite of that.  Cleopatra is a film that, at its slowest, will make you very much aware of how many seconds are in a minute.

I found myself marveling at the lack of chemistry between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  If anything, this is the most shocking thing about Cleopatra.  If Cleopatra is famous for anything, it’s famous for being the film where Elizabeth Taylor (cast in the role of Cleopatra) first met Richard Burton (who was playing Mark Antony).  Their affair dominated the gossip headlines.  (If TMZ and YouTube had been around back then, there would be daily videos of Richard Burton punching out paparazzi.)  Cleopatra was the first of many big-budgeted, overproduced films that Taylor and Burton co-starred in.

(Then again, they also starred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a film that is almost the exact opposite of Cleopatra.)

In the role of Mark Antony, Burton spends most of the film looking absolutely miserable.  Elizabeth Taylor, meanwhile, seems to be having a lot more fun.  It’s almost as if she understood what Cleopatra was going to become so she went out of her way to give the type of over-the-top performance that the film deserved.  The same can also be said about Rex Harrison, who plays Julius Caesar and who, perhaps because he appears to have shared her attitude, actually does have some chemistry with Taylor.

Actually, if anyone gives a truly great performance in Cleopatra, it’s Roddy McDowall.  McDowall plays the future Emperor Augustus with a mesmerizing intensity.  Again, McDowall’s performance is not exactly subtle but Cleopatra is not a film that demands subtlety.

As the film finally neared its end, I found myself wondering how Joseph L. Mankiewicz went from directing two close to perfect films, A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve, to directing this.  Even more amazing, Mankiewicz had previously directed one of the best Roman Empire films ever, 1953’s Julius Caesar.  (When compared to Cleopatra, the low-key and thoughtful Julius Caesar appears to have been filmed on an entirely different planet.)  Well, in Mankiewicz’s defense, he was not the original director.  He was brought in to replace Rouben Mamoulian, who had previously attempted to make the film with Joan Collins, Ben-Hur‘s Stephen Boyd, and Peter Finch.  When Mankiewicz was brought in, the cast was replaced with Taylor, Burton, and Harrison.  Between the expensive stars, the troubled production, and all of the offscreen romantic melodrama, Mankiewicz probably did the best that he could.

Today, Cleopatra is mostly interesting as an example of a film from the “Only Gigantic Productions Will Save Us From Television!” era of Hollywood filmmaking.  Cleopatra started out as a $2,000,000 production and ended up costing $31,000,000.  It was the number one film at the 1963 box office and it still nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.  While the film does have some kitsch appeal, the critics hated it and it’s easy to see why.

And yes, it was nominated for best picture of the year, a tribute to the size of the production and the determination of 20th Century Fox to get something — anything — in return for their money.

Cleopatra is a bit of a chore to sit through but it can be fun if you’re in a snarky mood.  It’ll do until the inevitable Angelina Jolie remake comes along.

Horror on TV: Twilight Zone 2.28 “Will The Real Martin Please Stand Up?”


 

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Tonight’s episode of The Twilight Zone examines what happens when a freak snow storm breaks out, a bus makes a stop at a late night diner, and reports come in of a UFO landing somewhere in the area. The fun starts once the bus driver realizes that he has an extra passenger. Who is the alien? Or, any other words: Will the real Martian please stand up? This episode is a classic example of how a group of strangers trapped in one location can be used to generate a lot of suspense. It has a great ending as well!

This episode was originally broadcast on May 26th, 1961. It was written by Rod Serling and directed by Montgomery Pittman.

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