Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Don’t Bother To Knock (dir by Roy Ward Baker)


(I am currently attempting to clean out my DVR.  I recorded the 1952 film Don’t Bother To Knock off of FXM on April 3rd.)

Welcome to the McKinley Hotel in New York City!  The McKinley is a nice place, though it’s no Grand Budapest Hotel.  Presumably, the McKinley was named after the late President William McKinley.  While I’m sure that McKinley would have appreciated the gesture, I don’t know how he would feel about all the melodrama that’s occurring behind closed doors.

For instance, there’s Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, making her screen debut).  Lyn sings in the hotel bar and, though she might seem to be cynical and tough, she actually has a big heart.  In fact, she cares so much about humanity that she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), because he doesn’t seem to have a heart at all.  Of course, she broke up with Jed by sending him a letter.  When Jed checks into the hotel and tracks her down in the bar, he has questions about their breakup and he wants answers that won’t require any reading.  She tells him that he’s not capable of caring about anyone so why should she waste her time on him?  Then she sings a love song because that’s her job.

As for Jed, he’s kind of a jerk in the way that most men tend to be in movies from the 1950s.  He’s an airline pilot who served overseas during World War II and spent a year living in England.  He’s tough and he’s cynical and now, he’s single.  He’s also got a room in a hotel for the night.

And then there’s Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle), who have a function to attend in the hotel ballroom but who don’t have anyone to look after their ten year-old daughter, Bunny (Donna Corcoran).  Fortunately, the hotel’s elevator operator, Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.), has a niece named Nell (Marilyn Monroe).  Nell is quiet and shy and needs the money.  She’ll be more than willing to babysit!

Of course, the only problem with Nell is that she’s a little unstable.  This becomes obvious when she’s left alone with Bunny and promptly says that, if Bunny isn’t careful, something bad might happen to one of her toys.  Inside the apartment, Nell is impressed by all the pretty things owned by Ruth.  She tries on her jewelry.  She sprays her perfume in the air.  She puts on Nell’s negligee and looks at herself in the mirror.  Eddie is not amused when he discovers what Nell’s been doing.  If she wants all of this stuff, he tells her, she needs to marry someone rich.  That’s not bad advice but the only problem is that Nell is currently single.  She’s been single ever since her boyfriend died in a plane crash.  In fact, Nell was so upset by his death that she even tried to commit suicide afterward.

From his room, Jed has a direct view of Nell trying on Ruth’s clothes.  When he and Nell spot each other, Nell invites him over.  She tells Jed that she’s a guest at the hotel and that Bunny is her daughter.  Jed can immediately tell that there’s something strange about Nell.  Nell, meanwhile, thinks that Jed is her dead boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Bunny is helpless in her room…

Clocking in at a brisk 72 minutes, Don’t Bother To Knock feels less like a movie and more like a one-act play or maybe even an adaptation of an old television production.  (After watching the movie, I was shocked to discover that it was based on neither.)  Seen today, it’s mostly memorable for featuring Marilyn Monroe’s first true starring role.  After appearing in small roles in several films (including All About Eve), Don’t Bother To Knock was not only Marilyn’s shot at stardom but also her first dramatic performance.  Reportedly basing her performance on her troubled mother, Marilyn is sympathetic and almost painfully vulnerable.  Her scenes with Elisha Cook, Jr. are especially charged, full of a subtext that will probably be easier for modern audiences to spot than it was for audiences in 1952.  Marilyn gave an incredibly poignant performance and she is the main reason to watch Don’t Bother To Knock.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #56: Walking Tall: Final Chapter (dir by Jack Starrett)


sq_final_chapter_walking_tallFor one last time, Buford Pusser is back!  The 1977 film Walking Tall: Final Chapter ends the story that was begun in Walking Tall and continued in Walking Tall Part II.  And it turns out that the final chapter is pretty much just like the previous two chapters.  In fact, I’m tempted to just tell you go reread my review of Walking Tall Part II because that review works just as well for most of the Final Chapter.

Final Chapter starts with footage from the first Walking Tall, with Bo Svenson awkwardly inserted in place of Joe Don Baker.  Once again, we watch as Elizabeth Hartman is shot in the back of the head and Svenson — in the role of Buford Pusser — is shot in the face.  Oh my God, we think, how many times can the exact same thing happen to the exact same character!?

Oh wait — it turns out that Buford is just remembering the death of his wife.  Buford is still haunted by that day and he’s still out for vengeance.  For the next hour or so, we follow Buford as he and his deputies blow up moonshiners across Tennessee.  After each arrest, an attorney shows up and yells at Buford for violating everyone’s civil rights.  In response, Buford smirks until the attorney gets so mad that he decides to run for sheriff himself.

Buford doesn’t give his opponent much of a chance.  As one of his deputies puts it, this guy is just a “bleeding heart liberal.”  (But if he’s so liberal, what’s he doing in Tennessee?  Off with you, sir — return to Vermont!)  Instead of campaigning, Buford spends his time hunting down more moonshiners.  When he discovers that one moonshiner is also an abusive father, he personally drives the man’s son down to the local orphanage.  Oddly enough, Buford does not offer to adopt the kid himself.

Anyway, to the shock of everyone, Buford is not reelected.  No longer sheriff, he struggles to find a full-time job and makes plans to run in the next election.  One of the moonshiners shows up and taunts Buford until Buford is forced to beat him up in the middle of the street.  The new sheriff show up and demands to know what happened.  None of the townspeople are willing to snitch on Buford.  Good for them!

After about an hour and a half of this, something interesting actually happens.  A film producer drives up to the Pusser Farm and tells Buford that he wants to make a movie out of his life.  “We’re going to tell the story exactly how it happened!” the producer assures him.  In the next scene, Buford is advising the director of Walking Tall on how to properly film a car chase.

And you know what?  These scenes of Buford watching his life story be filmed are actually rather charming.  For the only time in the series, Bo Svenson actually appears to be having fun in these scenes.  And, when Buford runs from a theater while watching the recreation of his wife’s murder, it’s actually a very effective moment.

Anyway, there’s not much running time left after all of that.  We see Buford sign a contract to play himself in the sequel and, by this point, we all know what happened afterward.  Buford was killed in a mysterious car accident.  But fear not!  The film opens with a heavenly choir and Svenson’s voice booming from the heavens so we all know that Buford Pusser is arresting moonshiners in Heaven.

And good for him!

Peace be with you, Buford Pusser.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #51: Walking Tall Part 2 (dir by Earl Bellamy)


Film_Poster_for_Walking_Tall_Part_2The 1975 southern melodrama Walking Tall Part 2 opens with a voice over telling us that we’re about to see more of the true of story Sheriff Buford Pusser, the Tennessee lawman who carried a big stick, battled the Dixie Mafia, and whose wife was killed in an ambush.  Pusser, we learn, died under suspicious circumstances shortly after the release of the film Walking Tall.

Mere hours before he died, Pusser had signed a contract to play himself in Walking Tall Part 2.  As a result of Pusser’s car “accident,” the film’s producers were forced to cast an actor as the lawman.  Now, it would have made sense to, once again, give the role to Joe Don Baker.  After all, he played the role in Walking Tall and I imagine that to most audiences at that time, he was Buford Pusser.  However, for whatever reason, Baker was not given the role for a second time.  Instead, the role was given to Bo Svenson and, while Svenson does not necessarily do a bad job in the role, he’s still no Joe Don Baker.  The difference between Baker and Svenson is the difference between someone being a redneck and someone just pretending.

The film opens almost immediately where Walking Tall ended.  Terribly wounded in the ambush that took his wife’s life, Buford is in the hospital and his face is covered in bandages.  Townspeople gather outside both his room and his farm and they wonder whether he’ll run for reelection as sheriff.  Someone else mentions that Buford has had massive facial reconstructive surgery.

Finally, the bandages are removed and we discover that Buford has turned into Bo Svenson.  Now, Svenson and Baker do have enough facial similarities that you can force yourself to believe that surgery could lead to Baker having Svenson’s features.  I mean, this isn’t like Mark Ruffalo taking over the role of Bruce Banner from Edward Norton.  At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how reconstructive surgery could have led to Buford Pusser becoming a blonde or, for that matter, apparently growing by 5 inches between Walking Tall and Walking Tall Part 2.

Anyway, Buford’s out of the hospital and, of course, he’s reelected as sheriff.  One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that everyone in the world totally loves Buford Pusser.  I lost track of how many characters specifically walked up to Buford to tell him that he was a great man and a great sheriff.  Nobody complains about Buford’s habit of ignoring civil liberties while enforcing the law.  Instead, everyone cheers for him.

(And, just in case the viewer is uncomfortable with the sight of the very white Buford taunting the mostly black moonshiners that he spends the film arresting, Buford’s black deputy constantly says stuff like, “Buford, you’re my kind of sheriff!”)

The only people who don’t like Buford are the local crime lords.  They still want Buford dead so they hire a race car driver (Richard Jaeckel) to kill him.  The race car driver’s girlfriend (Angel Tompkins) attempts to hit on Buford but Buford has no interest in her.  Buford’s about enforcing the law and avenging his wife…

Walking Tall Part 2 is a pretty standard film.  Whereas the original Walking Tall had a raw and unpredictable vibe to it, the sequel is predictable and boring.  On the plus side, the film was made on location in rural Tennesee and some of the countryside is nice to look at.

As for Buford Pusser, he died before Part Two was released but the character would return in Walking Tall — The Final Chapter.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #46: Walking Tall (dir by Phil Karlson)


Walking_Tall_(1973_film)About 50 minutes into the 1973 film Walking Tall (not to be confused with the 2005 version that starred Dwayne Johnson), there’s a scene in which newly elected sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) gives a speech to his deputies.  As the deputies stand at attention and as Pusser announces that he’s not going to tolerate any of his men taking bribes from the Dixie Mafia, the observant viewer will notice something out-of-place about the scene.

Hovering directly above Baker’s head is a big, black, almost phallic boom mic.  It stays up there throughout the entire scene, a sudden and unexpected reminder that — though the film opens with a message that we’re about to see the true story of “an American hero” and though it was filmed on location in rural Tennessee — Walking Tall is ultimately a movie.

And yet, somehow, that phallic boom mic feels oddly appropriate.  First off, Walking Tall is an almost deliberately messy film.  That boom mic tells us that Walking Tall was not a slick studio production.  Instead, much like Phil Karlson’s previous The Phenix City Story, it was a low-budget and violent film that was filmed on location in the south, miles away from the corrupting influence of mainstream, yankee-dominated Hollywood.  Secondly, the phallic implications of the boom mic erases any doubt that Walking Tall is a film about men doing manly things, like shooting each other and beating people up.  Buford does have a wife (Elizabeth Hartman) who begs him to avoid violence and set a good example of his children.  However, she eventually gets shot in the back of the head, which frees Buford up to kill.

As I said earlier, Walking Tall opens with a message telling us that we’re about to watch a true story.  Buford Pusser is a former football player and professional wrestler who, after retiring, returns to his hometown in Tennessee.  He quickly discovers that his town is controlled by criminals and moonshiners.  When he goes to a local bar called The Lucky Spot, he is unlucky enough to discover that the bar’s patrons cheat at cards.  Buford is nearly beaten to death and dumped on the side of the road.  As Buford begs for help, several motorists slow down to stare at him before then driving on.

Obviously, if anyone’s going to change this town, it’s going to have to be Buford Pusser.

Once he recovers from his beating, Buford makes himself a wooden club and then goes back to the Lucky Spot.  After beating everyone up with his club, Buford takes back the money that he lost while playing cards and $50.00 to cover his medical bills.  When Buford is put on trial for armed robbery, he takes the stand, rips off his shirt, and shows the jury his scars.  Buford is acquitted.

Over his wife’s objections, Buford decides to run for sheriff.  The old sheriff, not appreciating the competition, attempts to assassinate Buford but, instead, ends up dying himself.  Buford is charged with murder.  Buford is acquitted.  Buford is elected sheriff.  Buford sets out to clean up his little section of Tennessee.  Violence follows…

On the one hand, it’s easy to be snarky about a film like Walking Tall.  This is one of those films that operates on a strictly black-and-white world view.  Anyone who supports Buford is good.  Anyone who opposes Buford is totally evil.  Buford is a redneck saint.  It’s a film fueled by testosterone and it’s not at all subtle…

But dangit, I liked Walking Tall.  It’s a bit like a right-wing version of Billy Jack, in that it’s so sincere that you can forgive the film’s technical faults and frequent lapses in logic.  Walking Tall was filmed on location in Tennessee and director Phil Karlson makes good use of the rural locations.  And, most importantly, Joe Don Baker was the perfect actor to play Buford Pusser.  As played by Baker, Pusser is something of renaissance redneck.  He’s a smart family man who knows how to kick ass and how to make his own weapons.  What more could you ask for out of a small town sheriff?

In real life, Buford Pusser died in a mysterious car accident shortly after the release of Walking Tall.  Cinematically, the character of Buford Pusser went on to star in two more films.