The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


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When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches…

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Folsom Prison Blahs: INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON (Warner Brothers 1951)


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Filmed on location inside the infamous prison, and with a testosterone-loaded cast led by Steve Cochran  , David Brian, Ted de Corsia, and Philip Carey  , I expected INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON to be slam-bang entertainment along the lines of BRUTE FORCE . Well, not so much. The trouble’s not with the cast, nor the atmospheric direction of Crane Wilbur. It’s Wilbur’s script that commits the cardinal sin of any action film: too much talk!

Even the prison itself talks, narrating the opening credits: “I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me Bloody Folsom. And I earned it…”, intones the prison, voiced by Charles Lung (an appropriate name for someone who talks to much!). The movie begins with an attempted jailbreak, put down by sadistic Warden Rickey (de Corsia) and his thugs. He then ratchets up the punishment, making life even more miserable for the cons, until…

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First Shot Fired: THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (Pathe’-America 1961)


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Maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah got his start in television, writing and directing for Westerns such as GUNSMOKE, THE RIFLEMAN, and HAVE GUN- WILL TRAVEL. In 1959, he created the series THE WESTERNER, starring Brian Keith as a drifter named Dave Blassingame, noted for its extreme (for the time) violence. When Keith was cast as the lead in THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, he suggested his friend Peckinpah as director. This was Peckinpah’s first feature film, and the result is a flawed but interesting film which has brief flourishes of the style he later perfected in THE WILD BUNCH and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

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Keith is again a drifter, this time an ex-Union soldier known only as Yellowleg. He hooks up with a pair of Southern outlaws and they ride to Hila City to rob the bank. They get sidetracked at the saloon when it converts into a church service. Next thing you know…

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The Fabulous Forties #18: The Chase (dir by Arthur Ripley)


The_Chase_1946_posterThe 18th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s The Chase, which turned out to be a pretty nifty little film noir.  Did I actually just use the word nifty in a film review?  Yes, I did but then again, everyone should use the word “nifty” at least once in their lives.

The Chase tells the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), whose life is anything but nifty.  When we first meet him, he’s standing outside in the rain, staring into a restaurant, and enviously watching the people eating inside.  Chuck is a returning serviceman.  He helped to win World War II but he’s now returned to a society that has changed in his absence.  He has no money, he has no home, and he suffers from what we would today call PTSD.

Things change for Chuck when he finds the wallet of a man named Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran).  He returns the wallet, discovering that Eddie not only lives in a mansion but he also has a sinister henchman named Gino (Peter Lorre!).  Eddie is so impressed that Chuck returned the wallet and didn’t try to steal any of the money that he offers to put Chuck on the payroll.

Soon, he is working as Eddie’s driver.  Of course, Eddie has an accelerator installed in the backseat, so that he can control how fast the car is going.  Eddie enjoys freaking Chuck out by randomly speeding up the car.  Along with being a spectacularly bad passenger, Eddie also turns out to be a gangster.

When Chuck meets the mysterious Lorna (Michele Morgan), it’s love at first sight but there’s a big problem.  Lorna happens to be married … to Eddie!  Chuck and Lorna flee to Cuba, with Eddie and Gino in pursuit…

Or do they?

Chuck, it turns out, has been suffering from nightmares since he returned from the war.  Often times, he wakes up with amnesia.  Are Eddie, Gino, and Lorna real or are they just figments of Chuck’s dream state?  Is Chuck really living in a film noir or is he just dreaming that he is?

The Chase is an effectively dark little film noir, one that will keep you guessing.  Steve Cochran appears to be having a lot of fun as the cheerfully sociopathic Eddie (and it’s interesting to note that, in the same year as The Chase, Cochran had a supporting role in another film about the struggles of returning servicemen, the Oscar-winning Best Years Of Our Lives) and, of course, Peter Lorre is great as Gino.  Michele Morgan is both sympathetic and enigmatic as Lorna and Robert Cummings does a good job of playing a man who is never quite sure whether he’s awake or he’s asleep.

The Chase is a classic mix of film noir and psychological melodrama.  Watch it below!

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: The Best Years Of Our Lives (dir by William Wyler)


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I’ve seen The Best Years Of Our Lives on TCM a few times.  There’s a part of me that always wishes that this film was dull, in the way that many best picture winners can be when watched through modern eyes, or in any other way overrated.  The Best Years Of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946 and in doing so, it defeated one of my favorite films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life.  A part of me would love to be able to say that this was one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history but, honestly, I can’t.    The Best Years Of Our Lives is an excellent film, one that remains more than worthy of every award that it won.

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The film deals with veterans returning home from World War II and struggling to adjust to life in peacetime.  That’s a topic that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1946.  If there’s anything that remains consistent about human history it’s that there is always a war being fought somewhere and the man and women who fight those wars are often forgotten and abandoned after the final shot has been fired.  The returning veterans in The Best Years Of Our Lives deal with the same issues that our soldiers have to deal with today as they return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Best Years Of Our Lives follows three veterans as they return home to Boone City, Ohio.  As they try to adjust to civilian life, their loved ones struggle to adjust to them.

 Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) is a self-described former soda jerk.  (To be honest, I’m really not sure what a soda jerk was but it doesn’t sound like a very fun job.)  During the war, he was a captain in the air force.  He returns home with several decorations and few marketable skills.  During the war, he was good at bombing cities but there’s not much that can be done with that skill during peacetime.  Nearly penniless, Fred takes a job selling perfume at a department store.  He spends his days trying to control her temper and not give into his frustration.  At night, he’s haunted by nightmares of combat.

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Meanwhile, his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), finds herself resenting the fact that Fred has come home.  She married him while he was in flight training and, as quickly becomes obvious, she’s less enamored of Fred now that he’s just another civilian with a low-paying job.  (She continually begs him to wear the uniform that he can’t wait to take off.)  The Best Years Of Our Lives is a film full of great performances but Virginia Mayo really stands out.  I have to admit that, whenever I watch this film, I find myself envious of her ability to both snarl and smile at the same time.

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was a bank loan officer who served as an infantry sergeant.  (It’s interesting to note that the educated and successful Al was outranked by Fred during the war.)  Al returns home to his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), his daughter Peggy (the beautiful Teresa Wright), and his son, Rob (Michael Hall).  At first, Al struggles to reconnect with his family and he deals with the tension by drinking too much.  Rehired by the bank, he approves a risky loan to a fellow veteran.  After the bank president (Ray Collins, a.k.a. Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) admonishes Al, Al gives a speech about what America owes to its returning veterans.

Meanwhile, Peggy has fallen in love with Fred.  When Milly and Al remind her that Fred is (unhappily) married, Peggy announces, “I am going to break that marriage up!”  It’s a wonderful line, brilliantly delivered by the great Teresa Wright.

Harold Russell

Harold Russell

Marriage is also on the mind of Homer Parrish (Harold Russell).  A former high school quarterback, Homer was planning on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) as soon as he finished serving in the Navy.  During the war, he lost both his hands and now he’s returned home with metal hooks.  Homer locks himself away from the world.  When he finally does talk to Wilma, it’s to show her how difficult life with him will be.  Wilma doesn’t care but Homer does.

Harold Russell won an Academy Award for his performance here.  Russell was not a professional actor.  Instead he was a veteran and a real-life amputee.  Watching his performance today, it’s obvious that Russell was not an experienced actor but the natural charm that enchanted the Academy still shines through.

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

It’s been nearly 70 years since The Best Years Of Our Lives was first released but it remains a powerfully honest and surprisingly dark film.  All three of the veterans deal with very real issues and, somewhat surprisingly, the film refuses to provide any of them with the type of conventional happy ending that we tend to take for granted when it comes to movies made before 1967.  As the film concludes, Fred is still struggling financially.  Homer is still adjusting to life as an amputee.  Al is still drinking.   All three have a long road ahead of them but they’re all making progress.  None of them will ever be the same as they were before the war but, at the same time, they’re all working on making new lives for themselves.  They haven’t given up.  They haven’t surrendered to despair and, the film suggests, that is triumph enough.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a great film and a great best picture winner.  It’s just a shame that it had to be released the same year as It’s A Wonderful Life.

Film Review: Slander (dir by Roy Rowland)


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Slander, much like A Cry In The Night, is a B-movie from the 1950s that I recently discovered via Turner Classic Movies.  It’s appropriate that both of these relatively obscure films recently aired on TCM because both Slander and A Cry In The Night serve as interesting time capsules of the decade in which they were made.

To truly appreciate Slander, you have to know that, during the 1950s, Hollywood was terrified of magazines with names like Confidential, Exposed, and Private Affairs.  These were the magazines that claimed to tell the “sordid” truth about Hollywood.  In the 1950s, image was everything and one well-placed story that suggested that an actor or actress was a drug user, a former criminal, a communist, or — gasp! — gay, could end a career.  In the 50s, Hollywood filmmakers viewed the tabloids with the same loathing that they currently feel towards the paparazzi.  Slander was Hollywood’s attempt to expose the tabloids.  Perhaps that’s why it’s appropriate that Slander, in many ways, feels like a 50s version of Paparazzi.

Slander opens with tabloid magazine editor H.R. Manley (Steve Cochran) looking over him empire of scandal and searching for someone to destroy.  From the minute that we see Steve Cochran with his slicked back hair and hear him delivering his lines through permanently clenched teeth, we know that H.R. Manley is a bad guy.  Indeed, Cochran was best known for playing gangsters and that’s how he plays H.R. Manley.  It’s not subtle but it’s definitely entertaining.

Manley wants to destroy Mary Sawyer, an actress who is never seen but who we are assured is America’s sweetheart (or, as Manley puts it, “Everyone thinks she’s practically a nun, right?”) .  Manley becomes convinced that children’s entertainer Scott Martin (Van Johnson) has some damaging information on Mary.  When Scott refuses to betray his friend, Manley sets out to destroy Scott by revealing that, before he become America’s most beloved puppeteer, Scott served time in prison on an armed robbery conviction.

(To understand just how ludicrous this revelation is, you have to understand that Scott is played by Van Johnson who was pretty much the epitome of the fresh-faced, likeable, All-American optimist in the 50s.)

Despite the pleas of his wife (played by Ann Blyth), Scott refuses to give into blackmail.  Soon, Scott Martin is on the cover of the Manley’s magazine.  In the great tradition of the 50s social problem film, this leads to the most melodramatic conclusion possible.

Watch, in amazement, as Scott’s son reacts to the scandal of his father being a former criminal by running out in the middle of the street and getting hit by a car.

Try to look away as Manley’s drunken mother (played by Marjorie Rambeau) considers killing her own son in order to end the evil of the tabloid press.

Listen, in shock and regret, as Scott goes on television and gives an overwrought speech in which he tells us that if we’ve ever read a tabloid magazine then we are responsible for his son’s death.

Or, as one extra says when he spots Scott and his wife walking down the street, “Maybe people will stop reading those tabloids…”

It’s a bit too overwrought for its own good but I have to say, as someone who looks forward to going to the doctor specifically so she can read the copies of US Weekly that he keeps in the waiting room, I enjoyed Slander.  The film is melodramatic and totally over-the-top and, as a result, it’s also a lot of fun.  If for no other reason, the film is worth watching just for the chance to enjoy Steve Cochran’s incredibly sleazy portrayal of the apparently soulless tabloid editor.

Slander shows up on TCM occasionally but it’s also available for viewing on YouTube.  Or, if you’ve got 81 minutes to kill, you can watch it below.