Cleaning Out The DVR: Let Us Live! (dir by John Brahm)


In the 1939 film, Let Us Live!, Henry Fonda plays Brick Tennant.  Brick is a poor but honest taxi driver who has always lived a law-abiding life and who is looking forward to marrying waitress named Mary Roberts (Maureen O’Sullivan).  However, when a taxi is used as a getaway car in a violent robbery that leaves a policeman dead, Brick finds that he’s a suspect.

At first, Brick isn’t too worried.  It turns out that every taxi driver in Boston is apparently being considered a suspect.  Brick is just 1 out of 120.  However, when the police bring Brick in to take part in a lineup, one of the witnesses insists that Brick and his friend, Joe Linden (Alan Baxter), were involved in the robbery.  Despite the fact that Brick and Mary were at a church, planning their wedding, during the robbery, Brick and Joe are arrested and put on trial for murder.  Despite Brick’s initial faith in the system, he and Joe are convicted and sentenced to die.

On death row, Brick faces the inhumane reality of American justice.  He watches as other prisoners slowly lose their mind as a result of neglect and abuse.  He watches as another prisoner drops dead in front of him, to the indifference of the guards.  Even when Mary tells him that she’s still looking for evidence that will exonerate him, Brick says that he no longer cares.  The state of Massachusetts is determined to kill him and he doesn’t believe that there’s any way stop them.  As Mary puts it, Brick is now dead inside.

Still, Mary continued to investigate.  Helping her is a police detective named Everett (Ralph Bellamy).  Everett comes to realize that two innocent men are sitting on Death Row but will he and Mary be able to find the real culprits before the state executes Brick and Joe?

While watching Let Us Live, I found it impossible not to compare the film to The Wrong Man, another film in which Henry Fonda played an innocent man being railroaded by the system.  Both The Wrong Man and Let Us Live were based on a true stories, though Let Us Live takes considerably more liberty with its source material than The Wong Man does.  Whereas The Wrong Man is a docudrama that’s full of moody atmosphere courtesy of director Alfred Hitchcock, Let Us Live is much more of a fast-paced, melodramatic B-move.

That said, Let Us Live! is still a definitely effective look at how an innocent man can be railroaded by a system that’s often more concerned with getting a quick conviction than actually searching for the truth.  Sadly, the issues that Let Us Live deals with are just as relevant today as they were in 1939.  The film’s power comes from Henry Fonda’s performance as Brick.  It’s truly heart-breaking to watch Brick go from being a cheerful optimist to a man who has been so broken down by American justice that he can’t even bring himself to celebrate the news that he might be released.  The film ends on a grim note, a reminder that some damage cannot be undone.

Let Us Live! is another good but obscure film that I discovered through TCM.  Keep an eye out for it!

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


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

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

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

Or does she?

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

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

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

His name is Danny.

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

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

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

Stop the Presses!: Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Columbia 1940)


cracked rear viewer

In my opinion, Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY is one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made, a full speed ahead movie that’s pretty much got everything a film fan could want. A remake of the 1930 Lewis Milestone classic THE FRONT PAGE (itself an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway smash), Hawks adds a delightful twist by turning ace reporter Hildy Johnson into editor Walter Burns’ ex-wife… and casting no less than Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the roles!

The two stars are in top form as the bickering ex-spouses, with their rapid fire banter nothing short of verbal dynamite. Grant in particular spouts off words quicker than a rapper (where did he get all that wind!) and his facial expressions and comic squeals (reminiscent of Curly Howard!) are simply priceless! Roz is more than his match as Hildy, with one lightning-fast zinger  after another. Miss…

View original post 438 more words

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 #155: Out of the Fog (1941, directed by Anatole Litvak)


When two aging fishermen (Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen) attempt to buy a new boat, they run into a problem with local mobster, Harold Goff (John Garfield).  As Goff explains, if they do not pay him $5.00 a week, something bad could happen to their boat.  When one of the fisherman’s daughter (Ida Lupino) falls in love with Goff, she makes the mistake of letting him know that her father is planning on giving her $190 so that she can take a trip to Cuba.  When Goff demands the money for himself, the fishermen attempt to go to the police, just to be told that there is nothing that the authorities can do.  Goff tricked them into signing an “insurance” contract that allows him to demand whatever he wants.  The two fishermen are forced to consider taking drastic measures on their own.  Out of the Fog is an effective, early film noir, distinguished mostly be John Garfield’s sinister performance as Harold Goff.

Out of the Fog is also memorable as an example of how Hollywood dealt with adapting work with political content during the production code era.  Out of the Fog was based on The Gentle People, a play by Irwin Shaw.  In the play, which was staged by The Group Theater in 1939, Harold Goff was obviously meant to be a symbol of both European fascism and American capitalism.  In the play, the two fisherman had Jewish names and were meant to symbolize those being persecuted by the Third Reich and its allies.  In the transition for stage to film, Jonah Goodman became Jonah Goodwin and he was played by the very talented but definitely not Jewish Thomas Mitchell.   The play ended with Harold triumphant and apparently unstoppable.  Under the production code, all criminals had to be punished, which meant the ending had to be changed.  Out of the Fog is an effective 1940s crime thriller but, without any political subtext, it lacks the play’s bight.

One final note: while Out of the Fog had a good cast, with up and comer John Garfield squaring against old vets Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen, the original Broadway play’s cast was also distinguished.  Along with contemporary film stars Sylvia Sidney and Franchot Tone, the play’s cast was a who’s who of actors and directors who would go on to be prominent in the 1950 and 60s: Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt, and Elia Kazan all had roles.

 

The Fabulous Forties #44: His Girl Friday (dir by Howard Hawks)


His_Girl_Friday_poster

The 44th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the classic 1940 comedy, His Girl Friday.

Earlier this week, when I mentioned that Cary Grant’s Oscar-nominated work in Penny Serenade was not the equal of his work in comedies like The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story, quite a few people took the time to let me know that their favorite Cary Grant film remains His Girl Friday.  And I can’t blame them.  Not only does His Girl Friday feature Cary Grant at his best but it also features Rosalind Russell at her best too.  Not only that but it’s also one of the best films to ever be directed by the great Howard Hawks.  There are a lot of career bests to be found in His Girl Friday, and that’s not even counting a supporting cast that is full of some of the greatest character actors of the 1940s.

The film itself is a remake of The Front Page, that classic story of an editor trying to keep his star reporter from leaving the newspaper in order to get married.  (Along the way, they not only manage to expose municipal corruption but also help to hide and exonerate a man who has escaped from death row.)  The action moves fast, the dialogue is full of quips, and the whole thing is wonderfully cynical about … well, everything.  The major difference between The Front Page and His Girl Friday is that the reporter is now a woman and she’s the ex-wife of the editor.  When Cary Grant’s Walter Burns attempts to convince Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson to cover just one last story, he’s not only trying to hold onto his star reporter.  He’s also trying to keep the woman he loves from marrying the decent but boring Bruce Baldwin.

Bruce, incidentally, is played by Ralph Bellamy.  Bellamy also played Grant’s romantic rival in The Awful Truth.  To a certain extent, you really do have to feel bad for Ralph.  He excelled at playing well-meaning but dull characters.  As played by Bellamy, you can tell that Bruce would be a good husband in the most uninspiring of ways.  That’s the problem.  Hildy deserves more than just a life of boring conformity and Walter understands that.  Not only do Walter and Hildy save the life of escaped convict Earl Williams but, in doing so, Hildy is also saved from a life of being conventional.

As we all know, it’s fashionable right now to attack the news media.  Quite frankly, modern media often makes it very easy to do so.  For that matter, so do a lot of a movies about the media.  To take just two of the more acclaimed examples, there’s a smugness and a self-importance to both Good Night and Good Luck and Spotlight that becomes more and more obvious with each subsequent viewing.  (Admittedly, Edward R. Murrow was prominent way before my time but, if he was anything like the pompous windbag who was played by David Strathairn, I’m surprised that television news survived.)  Far too often, it seems like well-intentioned filmmakers, in their attempt to defend the media, end up making movies that only serve to remind people why the can’t stand the old media in the first place.

Those filmmakers would do well to watch and learn from a film like His Girl Friday.  His Girl Friday is a cheerfully dark film that is full of cynical journalists who drink too much and have little use for the type of self-congratulation that permeates through a film like Spotlight.  Ironically, you end up loving the journalists in His Girl Friday because the film never demands that you so much as even appreciate them.  There are no long speeches about the importance of journalism or long laments about how non-journalists just aren’t smart enough to appreciate their local newspaper.  Instead, these journalists are portrayed as hard workers and driven individuals who do a good job because deliberately doing anything else is inconceivable.  They don’t have time to pat themselves on the back because they’re too busy doing their job and hopefully getting results.

If you want to see a film that will truly make you appreciate journalism and understand why freedom of the press is important, watch this unpretentious comedy from Howard Hawks.

In fact, you can watch it below!

The Fabulous Forties #9: Jungle Book (dir by Zoltan Korda)


Jungle_Book_FilmPoster

The 9th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties DVD box set was 1942’s Jungle Book.  Based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling (which was later made into an animated Disney film and of which a remake is scheduled to be released next week), Jungle Book was directed by Zoltan Korda and produced by Zoltan’s brother, Alexander.  Today, the Hungarian-born Korda Brothers are best remembered as being pioneers of the British film industry.  However, during World War II, they relocated their film making to the United States.  Jungle Book was one of the most critically and commercially successful of their American films.

Jungle Book opens in colonial India.  An elderly Indian storyteller is visited by a British woman (Faith Brook) who wants to hear a story from his youth.  The rest of the film plays out in flashback, a structure that allows Jungle Book to walk a thin line between reality and fantasy.  Is the storyteller telling the exact truth or is he exaggerating his tale?  That’s left up to the viewer to decide.  Personally, I chose to believe that he’s telling the exact truth.  It’s more magical that way.

The storyteller starts by telling the woman about the Indian jungle and the animals that live within it.  Some of the animals are kind and some of them are cruel but they all serve a purpose.  The most feared of the animals is a tiger named Shere Kahn.  When a baby disappears from a nearby village, the villagers assume that he, like his father, was killed by Shere Kahn.  What they do not know is that the baby actually wandered into the jungle and was raised by wolves.

The baby grows up to be Mowgli (Sabu), a feral young man who can talk to the animals.  When Mowgli is captured by the villagers, he is unknowing adopted by his real mother, Mesusa (Rosemary DeCamp).  At first, the wild Mowgli struggles to adapt to human ways and one of the villagers, Buldeo (Joseph Calleia), insists that Mowgli has “the evil eye.”

As Mowgli becomes a little more civilized (though he’s never exactly tamed), he starts to fall in love with a Mahala (Patricia O’Rourke).  Unfortunately, Mahala is the daughter of Buldeo and Buldeo is none to happy when Mowgli and Mahala start to spend all of their time exploring the jungle together.  However, that’s before Mowgli and Mahala come across a lost palace that is full of treasure.  When the greedy Buldeo finds out about the treasure, he demands that Mowgli tell him where the palace is.  Driven mad by Mowgli’s refusal to tell him, Buldeo goes to more and more extreme measures to find the treasure…

Jungle Book is a big epic film, one that proudly announces that it was shot in Technicolor.  The sets are big, the live animal footage (as opposed to the stock footage usually used in films like this) is impressive, and it’s just a fun movie to watch.  (Even though I was watching a typically cheap Mill Creek transfer, I was still impressed with the films visuals.)  Indian actor Sabu makes for a charismatic Sabu but the film’s best performance comes from Joseph Calleia, who brings unexpected depth to his villainous character.

(Movie lovers, like you and me, probably best know Joseph Calleia as Orson Welles’s tragic partner in Touch of Evil.)

You can watch the original Jungle Book below!

(Jungle Book is in the public domain so, if the video above gets taken down — as often seems to happen with embedded YouTube videos — I would suggest just going to YouTube and doing a search for Jungle Book 1942.  You’ll find hundreds of other uploads.  I picked the one above because it did not appear to have any commercials.)