30 Days of Noir #19: Never Trust A Gambler (dir by Ralph Murphy)


Never Trust A Gambler is a 78-minute noir gem from 1951.

It tells the story of Steve Garry (Dane Clark) and his ex-wife, Virginia (Cathy O’Donnell).  Virginia divorced Steve because he was a degenerate gambler but that doesn’t mean that she no longer has feelings for him.  Or, at the very least, that’s what Steve is hoping when, out of the blue, he shows up at her door and tells her that he needs a place to hide out.

As Steve explains it, a friend of his had been accused of murder and Steve is being pressured to testify at the man’s trial.  In a move of pure gaslighting, Steve explains that his friend is innocent but, if Steve testifies, it will lead to his friend being wrongfully convicted.  Hence, unless Virginia wants to be responsible for sending an innocent man to death row, she has to give Steve a place to hide out.  Furthermore, Steve swears to her that he’s no longer a gambler and that he’ll only need to stay with her for a few days.  Reluctantly, Virginia agrees.

Later, while Virginia is at a grocery store, she’s approached by a police sergeant named McCloy (Rhys Williams).  At first, it seems like McCloy might be following her because he’s looking for Steve but, instead, it turns out that he used to date Virginia’s former roommate, Delores.  After clumsily trying to flirt with her at the grocery store, McCloy follows Virginia home.  When McCloy tries to force himself on her, Steve comes out of the shadows and beats McCloy to death.

So now, Virginia and Steve have a dead body to contend with.  Because Steve is hiding from the cops and Virginia’s been allowing him to hide out in her house, calling the police is not an option.  Steve promises Virginia that he’ll take care of the whole thing.  Steve’s solution is to put McCloy in a car and push it over the edge of a cliff.  Given that McCloy was a drunk, it’s reasonable to think that the police might assume that McCloy was driving drunk and cashed his car.  Now, Steve and Virginia both wait to find out whether or not Steve’s plan worked….

Technically, the protagonist of this film is Sgt. Donovan (Tom Drake), the detective who investigates McCloy’s death but, for the most part, Donavon’s something of a stiff.  Instead, the film really belongs to Dane Clark and Cathy O’Donnell.  Cathy O’Donnell gives a poignant performance as a woman whose efforts to escape the past and live a normal, drama-free life are continually made unnecessarily difficult by the selfish men surrounding her.  Meanwhile, Dane Clark tears through the film like a force of nervous nature.  Clark always seems to be on the verge of jumping out of his own skin and a good deal of the film’s suspense comes from wondering when Steve is going to lose control.  At the same time, Steve Garry is a character about whom most viewers will have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, he’s sleazy and selfish but, on the other hand, he saved Virginia from someone who was even worse.  Does Steve really love Virginia or is he just taking advantage of her?  This movie will keep you guessing.

Never Trust A Gambler is a well-done and intelligent film noir and definitely one that deserves to be better known.

Horror on the Lens: The Spiral Staircase (dir by Robert Siodmak)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have the 1946 suspense film, The Spiral Staircase!

In this film, Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a young mute woman who has been hired to serve as a caretaker for wealthy old Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, who was nominated for an Oscar for this film).  At the same time, someone is murdering women in the same town.  Are they all connected?  Of course, they are!  The fun of the movie is discovering how they’re connected.

I was introduced to The Spiral Staircase by my friend and fellow member of the Late Night Movie Gang, Chris Filby.  It’s a gothic murder mystery, full of atmosphere and menace.  I think you’ll like it so, if you have 80 minutes to spend on it, please watch and enjoy!

Halloween Havoc!: MAN IN THE ATTIC (20th Century Fox 1953)


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The story of notorious 19th Century serial killer Jack the Ripper has been told countless times on the screen. The case has never been officially solved, and there are probably more theories about Jack’s identity than there were victims. Author Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote “The Lodger”, a speculative fiction novel based on the Ripper murders, that was in turn made into a silent film by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock  in 1927. The film was remade in 1932 with the same star, Ivor Novello, then again in what’s probably the most famous version, 1944’s THE LODGER , starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, and George Sanders. Almost a decade later, the tale was again remade, this time with Jack Palance as the mysterious MAN IN THE ATTIC.

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Fog shrouded London’s Whitechapel District is being terrorized by a fiend known in the press as Jack the Ripper. Scotland Yard is baffled, police patrols have been…

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The Fabulous Forties #11: The Strange Woman (dir Edgar G. Ulmer)


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The eleventh film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s The Strange Woman.  The Strange Woman is one of those film noir/small town melodrama hybrids that seem to have been something of a cinematic mainstay in the mid to late 40s.

The Strange Woman of the title is Jenny Hager (Hedy Lamarr) and she’s not just strange because she’s got an Eastern European accent despite having grown up in Bangor, Maine.  The film opens in 1824 and we watch as tween Jenny pushes one her classmates into a river, despite the fact that he can’t swim.  At first, she seems content to let him drown.  However, once she realizes that an adult is watching, Jenny jumps into the river and saves his life.

Ten years later, Jenny has grown up to be the most beautiful woman in Maine.  However, her father is abusive and regularly whips her as punishment for being too flirtatious.  Jenny has plans, though.  She wants to marry the richest man in town, a store owner and civic leader named Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockahrt).  Isaiah also happens to be the father of Ephraim (Louis Hayward), the young woman who Jenny tried drown at the beginning of the film.

And eventually, Jenny’s dream does come true.  She marries Isaiah, even though she doesn’t love him.  She just wants his money and is frustrated when the sickly Isaiah keeps recovering from his frequent illnesses.  She starts to flirt with the weak-willed Ephraim, trying to manipulate him into killing his father.

Of course, even as she’s manipulating Ephraim, she’s also flirting with John Everd (George Sanders), despite the fact that John is already engaged to the daughter of the local judge.  Though Everd is a good and decent guy, he still finds himself tempted by Jenny.

What makes all of this interesting is that Jenny isn’t just a heartless femme fatale.  Throughout the film, there are several instances when she wants to do good but can’t overcome her essentially heartless nature.  She gives money to charity and, whenever she listens to one of the local fire-and-brimstone preachers, she finds herself tempted to give up her manipulative ways.

The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who is probably best known for directing the ultimate indie film noir, Detour.  He was a childhood friend of Hedy Lamarr’s and she specifically asked that he direct her in The Strange Woman.  As a result, this film represents one of the few times that Ulmer was given a budget that was equal to his talents.  What makes The Strange Woman stand out from other 40s melodramas — like Guest In The House, for example — is that, even with the larger budget, Ulmer’s direction retains the same deep cynicism and dream-like intensity that distinguished his work in Detour.  The film remains sympathetic to Jenny, even as she often suffers the punishments that were demanded by the production code.

In the role of Jenny , Hedy Lamarr is a force of a nature.  She is so intense and determined that watching her as Jenny is a bit like seeing what Gone With The Wind would have been like if Scarlet O’Hara had been a total sociopath.  Even the fact that Lamarr’s accent is definitely not a Maine accent seems appropriate.  It sets Jenny apart from the boring people around her.

It reminds us that, even if she is “strange,” there is no one else like Jenny Hager.

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Cleaning Out The DVR #18: How Green Was My Valley (dir by John Ford)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Before I really get into this review, I should admit that I watched How Green Was My Valley with a bias.

Before the movie started, I was expecting to be disappointed with it.  I think that a lot of film lovers would have felt the same way.  How Green Was My Valley won the 1941 Oscar for best picture.  In doing so, it defeated three beloved films that have only grown in popularity and renown since they were first released: Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and The Little Foxes.  (As well, just consider some of the 1941 films that weren’t even nominated for best picture: Ball of Fire, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, High Sierra, The Lady Eve, Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, The Sea Wolf, The Wolf Man, and Sullivan’s Travels.)  Because it defeated so many great films and since we’re all used to the narrative that the Academy always screws up, there’s a tendency to assume How Green Was My Valley was really bad.

Well, after years of assumptions, I finally actually watched How Green Was My Valley?  Was it bad?  No, not really.  Was it great?  No, not all.  If anything, it felt rather typical of the type of films that often win best picture.  It was well-made, it was manipulative enough to be a crowd-pleaser while serious enough to appeal to highbrow critics, and, perhaps most importantly, it never really challenged the viewer.  Unlike Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, How Green Was My Valley is a film that doesn’t require that you give it too much thought and, as such, it really shouldn’t be surprising that it was named the best picture of the year.

How Green Was My Valley was directed by John Ford and, as you might expect from Ford, it deals with a changing way of life and features good performances and a few impressive shots of the countryside.  Taking place in the late 1800s, How Green Was My Valley tells the episodic story of the Morgans, a large family of Welsh miners.  The film is narrated by Huw (Roddy McDowall), a youngest member of the family.  Though Huw’s eyes, we watch as his once idyllic and green village is transformed by the growing mining industry and blackened with soot, poverty, and death.

The film starts out as a fairly even mix of sentiment and drama.  Huw has a crush on his brother’s fiancee.  His sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), has a flirtation with the new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon).  Much emphasis is put on communal gatherings.  There is a wildly joyful wedding celebration.  We often see the villagers in church and hear them singing both hymns and folk songs.  In their isolate village, they are are united against a changing world.

Or, at least, they think they are.  As the mining industry grows, that united front and sense of community starts to vanish.  A strike sets family members against each other, as each miner is forced to decide whether to side with management or with his fellow workers.  Each year, the wages become lower.  When management realizes that its cheaper to just continually hire new miners, several of the veteran workers are fired and end up leaving the village to seek a living elsewhere.  As new people come to the village, even Mr. Gruffydd finds himself the subject of gossip.

As for Huw, he grows up.  He goes to school, deals with a sadistic teacher, and learns how to defend himself against bullies.  And eventually, like everyone in his family, he is sent down into the mines and soon, his once innocent face is covered in soot.

And, of course, there’s a big tragedy but you probably already guessed that.  How Green Was My Valley is not a film that takes the viewer by surprise.

For the most part, it’s all pretty well done.  The big cast all inhabit their roles perfectly and Roddy McDowall is extremely likable as Huw.  Maureen O’Hara shows why she eventually became a star and even Walter Pidgeon gives a surprisingly fiery performance.  How Green Way My Valley is a good film but it’s too conventional and predictable to be a great film, which is why its victory over Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon will always be remembered as a huge Oscar injustice.

But, taken on its own terms and divorced from the Oscar controversy, How Green Was My Valley may be a conventional but it’s not a bad film.  It’s just no Citizen Kane.

Cleaning Out The DVR #15: Random Harvest (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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This morning, as a part of my continuing effort to watch 38 films by Friday and clean out the DVR, I watched Random Harvest, a romantic melodrama from 1942.

And when I say that Random Harvest is a melodrama, I’m not exaggerating.  During the first hour of the film, I found myself thinking that if Random Harvest were made today, it would probably be a Lifetime movie.  By the time the second hour started, I realized that it would actually probably be one of those heavily hyped miniseries that ends up being broadcast on A&E, Bravo, and Lifetime at the same time.  This is one of those big, epic stories where, every few minutes, a new plot twist emerges.

When the film opens during the first World War, John Smith (Ronald Colman) is a patient at a British asylum.  He knows that he was once a soldier.  He knows that he was gassed during a battle.  He knows that he’s recovering from extreme shell shock and it’s still a struggle for him to relate to other human beings. He knows that he will probably spend the rest of his life as a patient at the asylum.  He also knows that his name is not John Smith.  He’s not sure what his real name is because he suffers from amnesia.

One night, a message comes to the asylum.  The war has ended!  All of the doctor and orderlies go out to celebrate, leaving Smith unguarded.  Smith simply walks out of the asylum and eventually makes his way to a nearby town.  It’s there that he meets Paula (Greer Garson), a kind-hearted singer who invites Smith to join her traveling theatrical troupe.

Paula and Smith fall in love, end up getting married, and have a child together.  Paula encourages Smith to become a writer and eventually, a publisher in Liverpool asks to meet with him.  However, when Smith goes to Liverpool, he ends up getting hit by a car.  When he regains consciousness, he suddenly knows that his name is Charles Rainier and that he’s rich!  However, he no longer remembers that he was once named John Smith, that he’s married to Paula, or that he has a child.

The years pass.  Charles returns to his old life of servants, money, and political ambition.  His stepniece, Kitty (Susan Peters), falls in love with him but Charles, for his part, cannot stop wondering about what happened between getting gassed in World War I and getting hit by that car in Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Paula refuses to believe that Smith had abandoned her.  Even after she has him legally declared dead, she continue to believe that he’s out there.  And then one day, she sees a picture of Charles Rainier.  She also learns that Rainier needs an executive secretary, which just happens to be what Paula does when she’s not singing…

Just from reading that plot, you probably think that Random Harvest is an incredibly silly film, that type that, if it were made today, would star Katharine Heigl and maybe a British guy who had a minor role on Game of Thrones.  But, dammit, Random Harvest works!  Filmmakers in the 30s and 40s knew how to make this type of melodrama totally compelling and believable.  There’s not a hint of snarkiness or cynicism to be found in Random Harvest and, as a result, it feels almost churlish to criticize the plot for being implausible.  Sincerity saves this film.

Random Harvest was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to another film starring Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver.  However, Garson gave a far better performance in Random Harvest than she did in Miniver.  When you watch most of her film today, Greer Garson always comes across as talented but a little boring and obvious in her technique.  (She was the Meryl Streep of her day.)  In Random Harvest, Garson actually gets to sing and danger and laugh and behave like a human being.  After seeing her in Blossoms In The Dust, Mrs. Miniver, and Sunrise at Campobello, watching her performance in Random Harvest is akin to an acting revelation.

Meanwhile, Ronald Colman also does a great work at both Smith and Charles (and they really are two separate characters).  Admittedly, Colman does come across as being a little bit too old for the role (and the age difference between him and Susan Peters does add a certain odd subtext to the scenes between Charles and Kitty) but, otherwise, he’s totally and completely credible as the character.  When he’s Smith, he speaks in a halting, uncertain tone and he walks like he’s still learning how to put one foot in front of the other.  When he becomes Charles, he’s definitely more confident but he still moves like a man who feels as if it’s his duty to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

(I have to admit that I’ve always found it strange that Margaret Mitchell apparently wanted Ronald Colman to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  Watching his performance here, I still could not see Colman as Rhett but he would have made a great Ashley Wilkes.)

The beautiful Susan Peters was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance as Kitty.  Random Harvest was her first major role and she gives such a great and likable performance that it makes it all the more tragic that her career was cut short.  Just three years after appearing in Random Harvest, Susan was accidentally shot by her husband.  Though she survived, she would never walk again.  When she died, at the age of 31 in 1952, the official cause was pneumonia but it was also said that she had stopped eating and drinking and had literally lost the will to live.  Whether you love Random Harvest or you think it’s just a silly melodrama, you should watch it just to see Susan Peters’s great performance and to consider what could have been.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Mrs. Miniver (dir by William Wyler)


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Mrs. Miniver, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1942, is often treated somewhat dismissively by film historians.  The film tells the story of the Minivers, an upper middle class British family whose peaceful lives are changed forever by the start of World War II.  When the film initially went into production, the U.S. was still a neutral country.  As shooting commenced, the U.S. edged closer and closer to entering the war and, as a result, the script was continually rewritten to make Mrs. Miniver even more pro-British and anti-German than before.  The finished film was released four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, by which point Mrs. Miniver had gone from being domestic drama to being both a celebration of British resilience and the Allied war effort.  “If the Minivers can do it,” the film told audiences, “why can’t you?”  As a result, Mrs. Miniver is often described as being merely effective propaganda.

Well, Mrs. Miniver may indeed be propaganda but it’s amazingly effective propaganda.  I recently DVRed it off of TCM and I have to admit that, as a result of those previously mentioned film historians, I wasn’t expecting much.  But I was in tears by the end of the film.  Yes, World War II has long since ended.  And yes, I could watch the movie and see all of the tricks and the heavy-handed manipulations that were employed to get the desired emotional response from the audience but it didn’t matter.  The film is so effective and so well-acted that you’re willing to be manipulated.

(Of course, it helps that there’s not much nuance to World War II.  As far as wars go, WWII was as close to a fight between good and evil as you can get.  If you can’t celebrate propaganda that was designed to defeat the Nazis, then what can you celebrate?)

As for the film itself, Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, matriarch of the Miniver Family.  Her husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect.  When we first meet Kay and Clem, the only thing that they have to worry about is the annual village rose show.  (Henry Travers — who everyone should love because he played Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life — plays the eccentric stationmaster who is determined to win with his rose.)  However, that all changes when they go to church and the vicar (Henry Wilcoxin) announces that Great Britain has declared war on Germany.

Life changes.  Soon, Kay must hold her family together while bombs are falling from the sky.  When Clem is away, helping out with the Dunkirk evacuation, Kay comes across a wounded German flyer (Helmut Dantine) in her garden.  The flyer demands that Kay give him food and when she does, he snarls that the Third Reich will be victorious.  He then passes out from his injuries, allowing Kay to take his gun and call the police.  (Reportedly, this scene was rewritten and reshot several times, with the German becoming progressively more hateful with each new version.)

Kay’s son, Vincent (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force.  He also falls in love with Carol Beldon (Theresa Wright), the daughter of the aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty).  Over the concerns of Lady Beldon, Carol marries Vincent and she becomes the second Mrs. Miniver.  They do so, despite knowing that Vincent will probably be killed before the war ends.

Of course, there is tragedy.  People who we have come to love are lost, victims of the German onslaught.  Throughout it all, the Minivers (and, by extension, the rest of Great Britain) refuse to give into despair or to lose hope.  The film ends with them singing a hymn in a church that no longer has a roof and listening as the vicar tells them why they will continue to fight.

And yes, it’s all very manipulative but it’s also very effective.  I did cry and the film earned those tears.  In many ways, Mrs. Miniver is perhaps most valuable as a time capsule.  It’s a film about World War II that was actually made during the war and, as such, it provides a window into the attitudes and culture of the time.  But, if the film is valuable as history, it’s also just as valuable as a well-made melodrama.

I’m not sure if I would say that Mrs. Miniver deserved to defeat Kings Row for best picture of 1942.  But it’s still an undeniably good film.

Shattered Politics #12: The Boss (dir by Byron Haskin)


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After you’ve watched The Phenix City Story, why not go over to Netflix and watch another obscure but hard-hitting B-movie, The Boss?

First released in 1956, The Boss came out a year after The Phenix City Story but they both serve as good companion pieces to each other.  Whereas The Phenix City Story shows what it’s like to live in a city dominated by corruption and crime, The Boss shows how a city could get that way in the first place.

The Boss opens in 1919, in an unanmed midwestern city.  (A title card informs us that the city is a “middle class city.”)  World War I has ended and the returning soldiers are marching in a parade throughout the city.  Leading the march is Capt. Matt Brady (John Payne), a humorless war hero.  Marching behind him are a group of soldiers who all seem to hate his guts, even after Bob Herrick (William Bishop) attempts to defend him.  It appears that Matt was a strict officer during the war and Bob was the only one of his men who didn’t hate him.  Of course, a lot of that is because Bob was a childhood friend of Matt’s.  They both grew up in the city together.  To be exact, their home was in the third ward.  As Bob explains, the Brady family rules the third ward.

Matt’s older brother, Tim (Roy Roberts), is the 3rd ward’s alderman.  After the parade ends, Tim explains that he expects Matt to follow in the family business.  However, Matt doesn’t want anything to do with politics.  Instead, he just wants to marry Elsie (Doe Avedon) and live a normal life.  In fact, Matt says, he’s got a date with Elsie that night.

However, before Matt can go on that date, he ends up getting attacked and beaten up by some of the soldiers from the parade.  He’s late for his date and when Elsie refuses to forgive him, Matt ends up going out and getting drunk.  After getting into a few more fights, he meets an insecure woman named Lorry (Gloria McGhee) and announces that they’re getting married whether she wants to or not.

The next morning, Matt wakes up to discover that he now has a wife, Elsie never wants to see him again, and that Tim has dropped dead of a heart attack.  Bruised and hungover, Matt suddenly finds himself forced to take over the family business.

The film jumps forward a few years.  Matt is now the most powerful man in the city.  He decides who get elected to which office and, with the help of the Mafia, he’s made a lot of money for himself.  Bob, meanwhile, has married Elsie and is now Matt’s attorney and unofficial second-in-command.  Meanwhile, Lorry lives in a huge mansion that she never leaves.

It took me a while to get into The Boss.  In fact, I nearly stopped watching after the first twenty minutes because it didn’t ever seem like there would be a moment when Matt would be anything other than surly, drunk, and bruised.  But then, once Tim drops dead, the movie becomes a bit more interesting.  If you remember John Payne for anything, it’s probably for being the nice but kind of boring lawyer from the original Miracle on 34th Street.  So, it’s interesting to see him here, playing a crude and perpetually angry man who always seems to be on the verge of punching someone out.  He gives a good performance and occasionally you even feel a little sorry for Matt.  For everything he does wrong, he’s still essentially the same guy who wanted to marry a school teacher and live out in the suburbs.

Of course, I’m a history nerd so my favorite scenes in The Boss were the ones that dealt with real moments from history, like the scene where Matt panics when he hears about the 1929 Stock Market crash.  Even better, though, is a brief sequence that takes place at a political convention.  Though no names are uttered and the party is never specifically identified, it’s obvious that Matt is meant to be at the 1932 Democratic Convention and the candidate that is asking for Matt’s support is obviously meant to Franklin Roosevelt.  When Roosevelt is nominated without Matt’s support, Matt can only bitterly observe that he wishes he was from Chicago because then he could own a President.

Would a movie made today have the guts to say such a thing about FDR?  I doubt it.

The Boss is currently available on Netflix.  If you’re into politics and history (and maybe even political history), be sure to watch it before it goes away.