30 Days of Noir #29: Johnny O’Clock (dir by Robert Rossen)


The 1947 film, Johnny O’Clock, invites us to take a behind-the-scenes look at the sleazy and sordid world of casino management.  If that doesn’t intrigue you, just consider that the man character is named Johnny O’Clock.

Seriously, that’s a really kickass name.  I have to admit that, if my last name was O’Clock, I would be tempted to name my child Four Twenty.  But, that said, Johnny is a pretty good name too.  On the one hand, he’s got an all-American name like Johnny but he’s also got a last name — O’Clock — that promises mystery and danger.  Johnny O’Clock is also played by Dick Powell, who was always good at playing tough guys who had a heart of gold.  (Along with appearing in several noir films, Dick Powell was also the first actor to ever play the famed detective, Philip Marlowe.)

Johnny O’Clock is a partner in a casino with Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).  Johnny and Guido are longtime business partners who find the future of their casino threatened when a hat-check girl named Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch) dies under mysterious circumstances.  Even though the crime scene was clearly set up to make it appear as if Harriet committed suicide, it doesn’t take Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) long to figure out that Harriet was actually murdered.

Who killed Harriet?

Was it her boyfriend, Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon)?  Chuck is a corrupt cop who has been trying to convince Guido to force Johnny out of the casino and instead hire Chuck instead.

Or is the murderer Guido’s wife, Nellie (Ellen Drew)?  Nellie used to be Johnny’s girlfriend and, as soon becomes obvious, she still has feelings for him.  When she attempted to give Johnny a romantic present, Johnny’s response was to give it to Harriet so that Harriet could return it.  Did Johnny’s rejection of Nellie push her over the edge and did she take her anger out on Harriet?

Or maybe the murderer was Guido.  Guido, after all, is a rather shady sort.  Maybe Harriet discovered something that she shouldn’t have.

Then again, you could also say the same thing about Johnny O’Clock….

Inspector Koch isn’t the only person determined to get to the truth!  Harriet’s sister, Nancy (Evelyn Keyes), also shows up and starts to investigate on her own.  Soon, she and Johnny are falling in love but Johnny knows that the situation is too dangerous for either him or Nancy to stick around the casino.  He starts to make plans to flee with her to South America but he’s got just a few things to do before they can leave….

Johnny O’Clock was the first film to be directed by Robert Rossen, who is often credited as being one of the most important filmmaers in development of American film noir.  A year after Johnny O’Clock was released, Rossen’s All The King’s Men would win best picture.  Rossen’s career was derailed when he was accused of being a communist and blacklisted in the 50s.  Like Elia Kazan, Rossen initially took the fifth but he later relented and “named names” to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.  Though Rossen would later direct the Oscar-nominated The Hustler in 1962, it can be argued that Rossen’s career never recovered from either being blacklisted or from naming names.

Clocking in at 93 minutes, Johnny O’Clock is probably about 20 minutes too long and the murder mystery is never really as intriguing as you might hope it would be.  On the positive side, the casino is stylish and the cast is full of noir talent.  Dick Powell is a likable, if occasionally bull-headed, protagonist and Lee J. Cobb is well-cast as Inspector Koch.  (The film has some fun contrasting the glitz of the casino with the shabbiness of Koch.)  Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography gives the film a properly noirish look and, while the pace may be slow, the occasional bursts of action are well-handled.  The scene where Johnny is nearly the victim of a drive-by shooting is particularly exciting.  Johnny O’Clock is a flawed noir but the cast is good enough to hold the interest of fans of the genre.

Midnight Snack: THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (2Oth Century-Fox 1950)


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THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF made it’s TCM debut last Saturday night on Noir Alley, hosted by “The Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller. This is a ‘B’ film I’d never heard of before, and since you all know how much I love discovering new/old ‘B’ movies, I stayed up past the midnight hour to give it a watch (which I usually do on Saturday nights anyway, being a Noir Alley fan!).

The film doesn’t waste any time, quickly introducing the main characters and getting right into the story. Thinking her husband is planning to murder her, rich San Francisco socialite Lois Frazer guns him down in cold blood directly in front of her lover, Homicide Lt. Ed Cullen. Ed dumps the body at the airport to make it look like a robbery/murder, tossing the murder weapon off the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he takes the lead in the investigation, along…

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Music Video of the Day: Brando by Scott Walker + Sunn O))) (2014, dir by Gisele Vienne)


Today would have been Marlon Brando’s 94th birthday so it seems appropriate that today’s music video should be for a song that was, at least partially, inspired by Marlon Brando’s career!

In 2014 interview, Scott Walker explained the idea behind this song, saying that he found that there were several movies that features scenes of Marlon Brando being physically assaulted.  Along with detailing some of the assaults that Brando suffered on screen, the song serves as a tribute to sadomasochism in general.

In the third verse, there are several references to Brando’s films.  First there’s mention of Brando getting beat up by John Saxon in The Appaloosa.  “I took it from dad” is probably a reference to One-Eyed Jacks, the only film that Brando ever directed.  Fat Johnny Friendly was the racketeer played by Lee J. Cobb in On The Waterfront while the three vigilantes are a reference to Brando’s role in The Chase.  “I took it for The Wild One” is obviously a reference to the film of the same name.  As “Lizbeth,” that’s presumably a reference to Elizabeth Taylor, who beat Brando with a riding crop in Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Enjoy!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(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 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3


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To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest…

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A Movie A Day #238: Lawman (1971, directed by Michael Winner)


In the 1880s, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is the marshal of the town of Bannock.  After a night of drinking and carousing leads to the accidental shooting of an old man, warrants are issued for the arrest of six ranch hands.  Maddox is determined to execute the arrest warrants but the problem is that the six men live in Sabbath, another town.  They all work for a wealthy rancher (Lee J. Cobb) and the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), does not see the point in causing trouble when all of the men are likely to be acquitted anyway.  Maddox doesn’t care.  The law is the law and he does not intend to leave Sabbath until he has the six men.

Lawman starts out like a standard western, with a stranger riding into town, but then it quickly turns the western traditions on their head by portraying Marshal Maddox as being a rigid fanatic and the wealthy rancher as a morally conflicted man who does not want to resort to violence and who continually tries and fails to convince Maddox to leave.  In the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, there are no real heroes to be found in Lawman and, even when Maddox starts to reconsider his strict adherence to the law and refusal to compromise, it is too late to prevent the movie from ending in a bloody massacre.  Since Lawman was made in 1971, I initially assumed it was meant to be an allegory about the Vietnam War but then I saw that it was directed by Michael Winner, a director who specialized in tricking audiences into believing that his violent movie were deeper than they actually were.

Even if Lawman never reaches the heights of a revisionist western classic like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is still pretty good, with old pros Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, and Albert Salmi all giving excellent performances.  The cast is full of familiar faces, with everyone from Robert Duvall to Richard Jordan to Ralph Waite to Joseph Wiseman to John Beck showing up in small roles.  In America, Winner is best remembered for his frequent collaborations with Charles Bronson.  Chuck is not in Lawman, though it seems like he should have been and Lee J. Cobb’s rancher is named Vincent Bronson.  Winner would not make his first film with Charles Bronson until a year later, when he directed him in Chato’s Land.

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.

 

A Movie A Day #143: The Bull of the West (1972, directed by Jerry Hopper and Paul Stanley)


Welcome to the American frontier.  The time is the 1880s and men and women everywhere are heading out west in search of their fortune.  While stowing away on a train, veteran cowboy Johnny Wade (Brian Keith) meets the naive Steve Hill (Gary Clarke) and becomes a mentor to the younger man.  Johnny teaches Steve how to shoot a gun and, when they get off the train at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, they get jobs working on the ranch of Georgia Price (Geraldine Brooks).  When Georgia and Johnny plot to overgraze the land, Steve must decide whether he’s with them or with a rival rancher, Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb).

At the same time, Ben Justin (Charles Bronson) has arrived in town with his son, Will (Robert Random), and his new wife (Lois Nettleton).  Ben is determined to start his own ranch but, because of his taciturn and stubborn personality, he alienates the Cattleman’s Association, which led by Judge Garth and Bear Suchette (George Kennedy).  Will wants to help his father but Ben keeps pushing him away.  It’s up to Judge Garth’s foreman, the Virginian (James Drury), to bring the family together.

Just like The Meanest Men In The West, The Bull of the West was created by editing together footage from two unrelated episodes of The Virginian.  It works better for the Bull of the West because the two episodes had similar themes and the footage mixes together less awkwardly than it did in The Meanest Men In The West.  But Bull of the West is still just a TV show edited into a movie.  The main reason to see it is because of all the familiar western faces in the cast.  Along with Bronson, Keith, Cobb, and Kennedy, keep an eye out for Ben Johnson, DeForest Kelley, and Clu Gulager.

A Movie A Day #142: The Meanest Men In The West (1978, directed by Sam Fuller and Charles S. Dubin)


The Meanest Men In The West may “star” Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin and Sam Fuller may be credited as being one of the film’s two directors but don’t make the same mistake that I made.  Don’t get too excited.

There was once a TV western called The Virginian.  Starring James Drury as a ranch foreman, The Virginian ran for nine seasons on NBC.  A 1962 episode, which was written and directed by Sam Fuller, featured Lee Marvin as a sadistic outlaw who kidnapped The Virginian’s employer, a judge played by Lee J. Cobb.  Five years later, another episode features Charles Bronson as a less sadistic outlaw who kidnapped the Judge’s daughter.

The Meanest Men In The West mixes scenes from those two episode with western stock footage, a bank robbery that originally appeared in The Return of Frank James, an intrusive voice-over, and an almost incoherent prologue, all in order to tell an entirely new story.  Now, Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin are brothers and rivals.  After Marvin snitches on Bronson’s plan to rob a bank, Bronson blames his former friend, The Virginian.  In order to get the Virginian to come to his hideout, Bronson kidnaps Cobb’s daughter.  The Virginian manages to convince Bronson that he didn’t betray him, just to arrive back at the ranch and discover that Cobb has been kidnapped.  Meanwhile, Bronson and his gang set off after Marvin and his gang.  It ends with Charles Bronson, in 1967, shooting at Lee Marvin, who is still in 1962.

The Meanest Men In The West is so clumsily edited that the same shot of Charles Bronson holding a gun is spliced into a dozen different scenes.  Filmed on different film stocks, the Bronson scenes and the Marvin scenes look nothing alike and, since the two episodes were filmed five years apart, James Drury literally ages backwards over the course of the film.

The Meanest Men In The West is for Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin completists only.  I think Bronson and Marvin are two of the coolest individuals who ever existed and even I had a hard time making it through this one.  If you do watch it, keep an eye out for a young Charles Grodin, thoroughly miscast as a tough outlaw.

Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Winner For Labor Day: On The Waterfront (dir by Elia Kazan)


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I like On The Waterfront.

Nowadays, that can be a dangerous thing to admit.  On The Waterfront won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1954 and Marlon Brando’s lead performance as boxer-turned-dockworker Terry Malloy is still regularly cited as one of the best of all time.  The scene where he tells his brother (played by Rod Steiger) that he “could have been a contender” is so iconic that other films still continue to either parody or pay homage to it.  On The Waterfront is one of those films that regularly shows up on TCM and on lists of the greatest films ever made.

And yet, despite all that, it’s become fashionable to criticize On The Waterfront or to cite it as an unworthy Oscar winner.  Certain film bloggers wear their disdain for On The Waterfront like a badge of honor.  Ask them and they’ll spend hours telling you exactly why they dislike On The Waterfront and, not surprisingly, it all gets tedious pretty quickly.

Like all tedious things, the answer ultimately comes down to politics.  In the early 50s, as the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee conducted its search for communists in Hollywood, hundreds of actors, writers, and directors were called before the committee.  They were asked if they were currently or ever had been a member of the Communist Party.  It was demanded that they name names.  Refusing to take part was career suicide and yet, many witnesses did just that.  They refused to testify, apologize, or name names.

And then there was the case of Elia Kazan.  When he was called in front of HUAC, he not only testified about his communist past but he named names as well.  Many of his past associates felt that Kazan had betrayed them in order to protect his own career.  On The Waterfront was Kazan’s answer to his critics.

In On The Waterfront, Terry Malloy’s dilemma is whether or not to voluntarily testify before a commission that is investigating union corruption on the waterfront.  Encouraging him to testify is the crusading priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the saintly girl who Terry loves.  Discouraging Terry from testifying is literally every one else on the waterfront, including Terry’s brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger).  Charlie is the right-hand man of gangster Johnny Friendly (a crudely intimidating Lee J. Cobb), who is the same man who earlier ordered Terry to throw a big fight.

At first, Terry is content to follow the waterfront of code of playing “D and D” (deaf and dumb) when it comes to union corruption.  However, when Johnny uses Terry to lure Edie’s brother into an ambush, Terry is forced to reconsider his previous apathy.  As Terry gets closer and closer to deciding to testify, Johnny order Charlie to kill his brother…

The issue that many contemporary critics have with On The Waterfront is that they view it as being essentially a “pro-snitch” film.  It’s easy to see that Elia Kazan viewed himself as being the damaged but noble Terry Malloy while Johnny Friendly was meant to be a stand-in for Hollywood communism.  They see the film as being both anti-union and Kazan’s attempt to defend naming names.

And maybe they’re right.

But, ultimately, that doesn’t make the film any less effective.  Judging On The Waterfront solely by its backstory ignores just how well-made, well-acted, well-photographed, well-directed, and well-written this film truly is.  Elia Kazan may (or may not) have been a lousy human being but, watching this film, you can’t deny his skill as a director.  There’s a thrilling grittiness to the film’s style that allows it to feel authentic even when it’s being totally heavy-handed.

And the performances hold up amazingly well.  Marlon Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy gets so much attention that it’s easy to forget that the entire cast is just as great.  Rod Steiger makes Charlie’s regret and guilt poignantly real.  Karl Malden, who gets stuck with the film’s more pedantic dialogue, is the perfect crusader.  Eva Marie Saint is beautiful and saintly.  And then you’ve got Lee J. Cobb, playing one of the great screen villains.

The motives behind On The Waterfront may not be the best.  But, occasionally, a great film does emerge from less than pure motives.  (Just as often, truly good intentions lead to truly bad cinema.)  Regardless of what one thinks of Elia Kazan, On The Waterfront is a great work of cinema and it’s on that basis that it should be judged.

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