30 Days of Noir #1: Lady Gangster (dir by Robert Florey)


Welcome to Noirvember!

Yeah, yeah, I know.  That sounds kinda silly, doesn’t it?  However, November is traditionally the month that classic film bloggers tend to concentrate on writing about film noir.  It provides a bit of grit and cynicism in between the horror fun of October and the holiday schmaltz of December.

I have to admit that I’m a little bit torn when it comes to taking part in Noirvember.  On the one hand, I love a good film noir and there’s quite a few obscure and underrated ones available on YouTube right now.  On the other hand, as a natural-born contrarian, I don’t like the idea of hopping on any bandwagons.

In the end, my love of film noir won out.  So, welcome to my first entry in 30 Days of Noir.

 

The 1942 film, Lady Gangster, opens with Dot Burton (Faye Emerson) walking up to a bank.  She’s carrying a small white dog with her.  Though the bank isn’t due to open for another 30 minutes, she explains to the bank guard that she’s got a train to catch and she simply has to deposit a check.  The guard unlocks the door and lets both her and her dog inside.

While filling out her deposit slip, Dot puts the dog down on the floor.  The dogs runs off, distracting the guard just long enough for three men with guns to slip into the bank and rob the place.  Though the police quickly arrive, the men manage to escape, taking $400,000 with them.

The police are immediately suspicious of Dot, especially when she struggles to keep her story straight as to why she’s at the bank.  The lead detective thinks that Dot was in on it.  Dot says that she was merely out for a stroll with her dog.  Dot says that her dog is named Tiny.  The dog, which looks exactly like one that was recently reported missing, is wearing a collar that reads “Boots.”

The district attorney announces that Dot will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  However, a crusading radio broadcaster named Ken Phillips (Frank Wilcox) is convinced that Dot is being railroaded.  Once he realizes that he went to high school with her, Ken is even more determined to help Dot.  Using the power of the airwaves, he forces the district attorney to release Dot into his custody.  Once free, Dot promptly confesses to Ken that she was a part of the robbery and that she’s hidden the money.  An indignant Ken turns her into the police.

So now, Dot’s in prison and no one’s sure where the money is.  One of the bank robbers even dresses up like a woman so that he can see Dot on visiting day but she refuses to tell him anything.  Dot isn’t going to reveal where the money is unless it means she can also get parole.  She needs to get released soon because she’s already got two psychotic snitches targeting her.

Fortunately, Ken has had a change of heart and is lobbying for her release.  Unfortunately, Dot has been tricked into believing that Ken has once again betrayed her so, naturally enough, she sets him up to be murdered.  When Dot discovers that she’s been fooled, can she find a way to warn Ken before it’s too late?

Believe it or not, all of this happens over the course of 62 minutes.  With that many betrayals, twists, and crimes packed into that short of a running time, there’s never a dull moment in Lady Gangster.  Though the film itself is full of huge plot holes and Frank Wilcox is a bit of a stiff as Ken, the film is totally worth seeing for Faye Emerson’s ferocious performance as Dot Burton.  Dot is a force of nature.  When the robbers try to steal her money, Dot instead steals from them.  When Dot believes that Ken has betrayed her, she sets him up to be murdered with a moment of hesitation.  When Dot discovers that Ken didn’t betray her, she immediately starts scheming to prevent the murder that she arranged.  Even when Dot confesses to being a part of the robbery, she does it on her own terms.  Nobody tells Dot what to do and, in that way, she represents the best of America.  As Dot herself explains it, “I’ll play ball with anyone but Hitler.”

The film has a rather odd ending, one that makes you wonder just how forgiving people generally were back in 1942.  But no matter!  Lady Gangster is a quickly paced movie that’s just melodramatic enough to be enjoyable.  It’s in the public domain and on YouTube.  Watch it for Faye Emerson’s performance.

Creature Double Feature 2: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (Columbia, 1955 & 1957)


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Let’s return to those thrilling days of yore before CGI and enter the wonder-filled world of Special Effects legend Ray Harryhausen! I’ve covered some of Harryhausen’s fantastic work before (ONE MILLION YEARS BC EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS THE VALLEY OF GWANGI ), and most of you regular readers know of my affection for his stop-motion wizardry. So without further ado, let’s dive right into IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

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An atomic submarine picks up a mysterious large object on its sonar. The sub’s hit hard, and radiation is detected in the surrounding area. The damaged sub is taken to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and a substance found on it is determined to be from a “living creature” by eminent scientist Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and beautiful marine biologist Prof. Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue ). Sub Commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey ) and Leslie immediately butt heads…

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Cleaning Out The DVR: Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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So, today, I got off work so that I could vote in Texas’s Super Tuesday primary.  After I cast my vote (and don’t ask me who I voted for because it’s a secret ballot for a reason!), I came home and I turned on the TV and I discovered that, as a result of spending February recording countless films off of Lifetime and TCM, I only had 9 hours of space left on my DVR.  As a result, the DVR was threatening to erase my recordings of Bend It Like Beckham, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Anthem, an episode of The Bachelor from 2011, and the entire series of Saved By The Bell: The College Years.

“Acgk!” I exclaimed in terror.

So, I immediately sat down and started the process of cleaning out the DVR.  I started things out by watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film from 1942.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of a songwriter, signer, and dancer named George M. Cohan.  I have to admit, that when the film started, I had absolutely no idea who George M. Cohan was.  Imagine my surprise as I watched the film and I discovered that Cohan had written all of the old-fashioned patriotic songs that are played by the Richardson Symphony Orchestra whenever I go to see the 4th of July fireworks show at Breckenridge Park.  He wrote You’re A Grand Old Flag, The Yankee Doodle Boy, and Over There.  Though I may not have heard of him, Cohan was an American institution during the first half of the 20th Century.  Even if I hadn’t read that on Wikipedia, I would have been able to guess from watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, which, at times, seems to be making a case for sainthood.

And that’s not meant to be a complaint!  74 years after it was originally released, Yankee Doodle Dandy is still a terrifically entertaining film.  It opens with George (played by James Cagney) accepting a Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  (We only see Roosevelt from behind and needless to say, the President did not play himself.  Instead, Captain Jack Young sat in a chair while FDR’s voice was provided by impressionist Art Gilmore.)  Cohan proceeds to tell Roosevelt his life story, starting with his birth on the 4th of July.  Cohan tells how he was born into a showbiz family and a major theme of the film is how Cohan took care of his family even after becoming famous.

The other major theme is patriotism.  As portrayed in this biopic, Cohan is perhaps the most patriotic man who ever lived.  That may sound corny but Cagney pulls it off.  When we see him sitting at the piano and coming up with the lyrics for another song extolling the greatness of America, we never doubt his sincerity.  In fact, he’s so sincere that he makes us believe as well.  Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, I found myself regretting that I have to live in such an overwhelmingly cynical time.  If George M. Cohan was alive today, he’d punch out anyone who called this country “Murica.”

Yankee Doodle Dandy is an amazingly positive film.  There are a few scenes where Cohan has to deal with a few Broadway types who are jealous of his talent and his confidence but, otherwise, it’s pretty much one triumph after another for Cohan.  Normally, of course, there’s nothing more annoying than listening to someone talk about how great his life is but fortunately, Cohan is played by James Cagney and Cagney gives one of the best performance of all time in the role.

Cagney, of course, is best remembered for playing gangsters but he got his start as a dancer.  In Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney is so energetic and so happy and such a complete and totally showman that you can’t help but get caught up in his story.  When he says that, as a result of his success, things have never been better, you don’t resent him for it.  Instead, you’re happy for him because he’s amazingly talented and deserve the best!

Seriously, watch him below:

James Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.  Yankee Doodle Dandy was also nominated for best picture but lost to Mrs. Miniver.

I’m really glad that I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy today.  In this time of overwhelming negativity, it was just what I needed!

Back to School #4: Rebel Without A Cause (dir by Nicholas Ray)


You may have heard of this one.

Traditionally, films about teenagers tend to age terribly.  The language, the clothes, the attitudes, and even the humor; it’s all usually out-of-date within five years or so.  One need only watch something like A Summer Place to both see how dated a film can become and to see how one generation’s idol can appear rather ludicrous to future generations.  (And yes, I am talking about Troy Donahue…)  What makes Rebel Without A Cause unique is that it’s a movie about teenagers that was released way back in 1955 and yet, nearly 60 years later, it still feels fresh and relatable.

Of course, it helps that the title character is played by James Dean who, to put it lightly, was no Troy Donahue.

Rebel Without A Cause tells the story of three alienated teenagers trying to survive in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  (“…and they all came from good homes!” the film’s poster informs us.)  Plato (Sal Mineo) is a painfully sensitive 15 year-old who has been abandoned by his parents and is being raised by the family’s maid.  (Since this movie was made in 1955, the fact that Plato is gay is obvious but never explicitly stated.)  Judy (Natalie Wood) is the girlfriend of Buzz (Corey Allen) and is acting out because she feels that’s the only way she can can get her father to pay attention to her.  And then there’s Jim Stark (James Dean), whose family has just moved to Los Angeles and who is constantly in the middle of the fights between his overbearing mother (Ann Doran) and his weak-willed father (Jim Backus).

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During Jim’s first day at high school, he not only manages to make an enemy when Buzz spots him attempting to flirt with Judy but he also gets to go on a field trip to the Griffith Observatory, where the students are told that the entire universe is going to end eventually.  After the field trip, Buzz challenges Jim to a knife fight.  Jim agrees only after the rest of Buzz’s gang (including a young Dennis Hopper) accuse him of being “chicken.”  However, after a security guard breaks up the fight, Buzz challenges Jim to a “chicken run.”

(People in the 50s were obsessed with chickens.)

That night, Jim and Buzz both drive stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff.  The first driver to jump out of his car loses.  Before they start their engines, Buzz smiles and tells Jim, “I like you.”  Yay!  Jim’s finally made a friend!  Uh-oh, Buzz just drove over the cliff and his car exploded!  Well, so much for that friendship.  Now, with Buzz’s gang swearing revenge and their parents incapable of understand what happened, Jim, Judy, and Plato are on the run.  They end up hiding out in an abandoned house and find a brief moment of happiness before the gang and the police show up to ruin everything.

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The challenge of reviewing Rebel Without A Cause is trying to find a new way to say what everybody already knows.  Rebel Without A Cause is a great film that’s distinguished by Nicholas Ray’s sensitive direction and James Dean’s iconic performance in the lead role.  Whenever I see Rebel Without A Cause, I’m always struck by just how much unexpected nuance there is Dean’s interpretation of Jim Stark.  We always think of James Dean as being the epitome of cool and I think we tend to forget that, at least in the beginning of the film, Jim is anything but that.  Instead, he’s awkward and shy.  His attempts to flirt with Judy lead to her calling him “a real yo-yo.”  As much as he tried to fit in with the rest of his classmates, he’s a permanent outsider.  (Just consider what happens with his infamous “moooo” during the presentation at the observatory.)  He has a lot to say but he doesn’t know how to say it and every time that he tries to express what he’s feeling, he’s ignored by adults who don’t have the patience to listen.  Dean brings such a raw intensity to these scenes that I always find myself wanting to reach out and hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay, even though I know that it’s not.  Even today, it’s still easy to see why every teenager in the 50s either wanted to be or to be with Jim Stark.

Also, whenever I watch the film, I’m reminded of how much I relate to the character of Judy.  I think that’s because, when I was 16, I might as well have been Judy.  Natalie Wood’s performance might not be as showy as James Dean’s but it’s equally effective.

Of course, one reason why Rebel Without A Cause has become iconic is because James Dean died shortly after filming ended.  (In fact, some of his scenes had to be redubbed by Dennis Hopper, who reportedly could do an exact imitation of Dean’s voice.)  It’s interesting to wonder what would have become of James Dean if he had lived.  Would he have continued to be one of our best actors or would he have eventually been forgotten or forced to appear on television?  Personally, I like to think that James Dean would have remained a great actor but he would have been too much of an iconoclast to remain in Hollywood.  Eventually, in my alternative universe, James Dean moved to Europe and teamed up with Klaus Kinski to star in a series of spaghetti westerns.  And they were great.

As for Rebel Without A Cause, it remains a great movie nearly 60 years after it was first made.  And really, what more needs to be said?

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