Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cagney & Day in "Love Me or Leave Me"

Doris Day and James Cagney
The 1955 MGM production, “Love Me or Leave Me” is a James Cagney gangster movie and a Doris Day musical, and the two elements work well together. It is also one of my favorites.

Based on the life of 1920s singer Ruth Etting, the story opens with Ruth, played by Miss Day, working as a dime-a-dance girl in a cheesy Chicago club when she is spotted by tough-guy Marty “the Gimp” Snyder. Marty is the owner of a legitimate laundry that illegitimately forces nightclub owners to use his service, thus making this intimidating thug rich and powerful. Marty is smitten by tough-cookie Ruth and introduces her to his clients securing her jobs in the chorus and then as a featured singer.

Ruth Etting has talent, but she uses Marty for his connections to advance her career. She falls in love with a musician, played by Cameron Mitchell, who urges her to get away from the gangster before it is too late. Ruth puts her career first and ends up marrying Marty.

As she rises in fame, Marty fearing he is losing control of her, causes problems everywhere she works.

Cagney, as Marty, is great as usual and is possibly more ferocious here than in his portrayal of psychopath Cody Jarrett in “White Heat.” He is also more understandable, even sympathetic, than any of his other gangster roles. Doris Day gives her best performance ever as the determined Ruth. Any other actress attempting this role would have been hated by the audience, but due to Miss Day’s charm and voice, she wins viewers.

“Love Me Or Leave Me” was directed by Charles Vidor, who made the 1946 noir classic “Gilda.” It was produced by Joe Pasternak, one of the three staff supervisors of MGM musicals.

The picture features plenty of Ruth’s 1920s songs, updated to Doris Day’s style, including the tough, “Ten Cents a Dance,” along with “At Sundown,” and this simple version of “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Noir Suspense Film “The Narrow Margin”

A little, black and white movie from 1952 with no big stars may be one of the best films in several categories.

“The Narrow Margin” is a terrific suspense picture, it is a good crime movie, and it is a classic of film noir.

While it was made on a small budget it is as good as any big-budget A-picture, and it may be the best B-movie ever produced.

Detective Walter Brown is assigned the thankless task of escorting and protecting a prosecution witness on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Brown, played by tough-guy-actor Charles McGraw, the man with the sandpaper voice, does not like the job and does not like the witness, a Mrs. Neil, played by B-movie bad-girl Marie Windsor. Mrs. Neil is the wife of a slain gangster. Brown hates gangsters and their relatives.

Minutes into the movie, Brown and his partner are ambushed by hit-men aiming to knock off Mrs. Neil. Brown’s partner is killed and Brown’s nerves start buzzing like high-tension wires.

Most of the film takes place on the train where the claustrophobic quarters, tight corridors and no-place-to hide situations tear at Brown, as he spots one, then another, and finally a third gunman on the train.

Charles McGraw does an excellent job of projecting a sense of duty-bound courage and almost overwhelming fear. The assignment is eating him alive.

His job is made no easier by Mrs. Neil, who is nearly impossible to protect. She is a wisecracking pain in the neck who does not seem to realize the mortal danger she is in. At one point, when Brown is trying to keep her hidden in her compartment, she starts blasting her record player.

“The Narrow Margin” is full of crazy twists and moments of suspense.

The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and is one of his earliest productions. Fleischer makes the most of his opportunity, coaching strong performances out of his cast and employing a camera style that projects the sweaty unease of Brown right off the screen and into the audience. His direction is the work of a young, energetic director proving he is worthy of handling bigger budget films. In a sequence at a station stop, one of the few times Brown gets outside, Fleischer’s innovative camerawork keeps Brown uncomfortably close to the audience while framing and reframing a host of suspicious characters lurking about, all keeping an eye on Brown.

For a fight scene in a compartment, Fleischer uses a hand-held camera before that technique was readily accepted. It gives the fight a brutal feeling. Watching it, I wondered if British director Terrence Young recalled “The Narrow Margin” when staging the fight scene between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in a train compartment in “From Russia With Love."

In "The Narrow Margin," Charles  McGraw (1914-1980) gets one of his few chances to play the lead. For about four decades, McGraw played supporting parts, usually as gruff military men or gruff cops. He is also remembered as one of the hit-men sent to kill Burt Lancaster in 1946's "The Killers."

Marie Windsor (1919-2000) had a long career in movies and television, often playing tough women in crime films like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.”

Richard Fleischer (1916-2016) was the son of cartoon producer Max Fleischer, and nephew of Dave Fleischer. He had a long and varied career making all sorts of films from the late 1940s through the late 1980s, including “The Boston Strangler” with Tony Curtis and the big-budget, action-picture “The Vikings” with Curtis and Kirk Douglas.

“The Narrow Margin” was scripted by three writers: Earl Felton, a long-time Hollywood screenwriter who worked on several films with Fleischer, including 1950’s “Armored Car Robbery,” which also featured McGraw; Martin Goldsmith, who also wrote original story of the classic film noir “Detour” and; Jack Leonard, a screenwriter who died two years later at age 41.

The film was produced by Stanley Ruben (1917-2014) who started his career in the Paramount mail room in the 1930s and went on to produce movies and television programs into the 1990s.

“The Narrow Margin” is a lot of movie packed into a small, 71-minute package.

(For more posts on film and TV, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, October 6, 2017

FFB: Round Trip by W.R. Burnett

Robinson, Burnett, LeRoy
A bit of a cheat here for Friday's Forgotten Book. “Round Trip” may be forgotten, but it is not a book. It is a short story by W. R. Burnett.

More than 20 years ago, I read Burnett's 1949 heist novel, The Asphalt Jungle, but never returned to his work until now.

“Round Trip” is the story of George Barber, a Chicago gangster in the 1920s. He is the muscle the owner of a gambling joint uses to collect unpaid debts. George is good at his job, but tired of the grind and tells his boss he is taking off on a little vacation. He takes the train to Toledo, a small city in north-western Ohio and not exactly a vacation getaway from windy Chicago. Cabbies, bellboys and hotel clerks treat him with disdain, which annoys George who is used to being treated with respect in his home town where people know and fear him. On top of that, he comes down with a bad cold. In Toledo less than a day, he gets a visit from some hard-bitten cops who send him packing right back to Chicago.

This 1929 story is told almost entirely through dialogue, and that dialogue, along with the attitudes of George and the other tough guys, is about as hard-boiled as it gets. Burnett’s writing style is straight forward and matter of fact, but it seemed he had a great ear for the slang and speech patterns of the underworld characters of his time. It is no wonder Hollywood grabbed him after his first novel, 1929's Little Caesar, came out. “Round Trip” was written shortly after Little Caesar and the death of Rico, the main character in that book, is mentioned in this story.

William Riley Burnett was born in 1899 in Springfield, Ohio, and died in 1982 in Santa Monica, California. After working in an Ohio state government job, and writing stories on his own time, he moved to Chicago in the late 1920s. There he met many of the real-life characters he later depicted in print and on screen. Warner Bros. bought Little Caesar, and produced it as a movie in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Around the same time, Burnett moved to Hollywood. Over the next 52 years he turned out 38 more novels and wrote, co-wrote or contributed to more than 50 film and television scripts.

Now that I am reacquainted with Burnett, I want to read more and there are a several of his novels, including Nobody Lives Forever from 1943, now on my list.

“Round Trip” can be found in a 1995 collection called, Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Detroit News in a 1970 Film


News coverage has always been a lightning rod attracting criticism from all quarters.

In “Both Sides of the Question,” a 1970 film about the Michigan newspaper, the Detroit News, the then editor of the paper said some complain it is too liberal, others that it is too conservative.

“The day we get no complaints is the day we’ve put out a dull newspaper,” he said.

Whether conservative, liberal, exciting or dull, what made this movie interesting to me was watching the staffers doing their jobs in the era of typewriters, teletypes, and Linotype machines, and when smoking was permitted in the office.

Recently, I told some teenagers that I went to work in the final days of typewriters and ashtrays on desks. From their expressions you would have thought I was talking about life in ancient Rome.

As for the movie, this 27-minute film, shot like a documentary, was produced by the Detroit News to promote itself as an even-handed reporter of the news.

As a fan of corporate films, I found this one to be an enjoyable glimpse at a time long past.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Film Noir: The Street With No Name

“The Street With No Name” is a great noir title of a good noir movie. It comes from a mid-century statement by then FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

This 1948 film features Mark Stevens as Cordell, an agent sent into a city to find and infiltrate a criminal gang run by Stiles, played by Richard Widmark.

With the help of a phony criminal record, Cordell edges his way into the gang.The gangsters have been so successful, Cordell learns, because Stiles has a crooked cop on his payroll providing all sorts of valuable information. As Cordell closes in on Stiles and his contact, the contact and Stiles become suspicious of him. All this leads to a tense climax with Stiles setting up Cordell to be killed.

A decade earlier, a conclusion like that would have had no suspense at all. But “The Street With No Name” was made in the post-WWII, film-noir era, when anything could happen, including the death of the hero

Of the sub-genres of film noir, “The Street With No Name” would fall into the category of docu-noir. Much of the film was shot on location, giving the picture and extra gritty feel. The dark, shadowy look of the film is courtesy of cameraman Joe MacDonald.

Veteran Hollywood director William Keighley, kept the whole thing moving at a rapid pace that never let up. Sometimes, the tempo and the jaunty acting of the gang had the slick, fast-paced feel of a 1930s Warner Bros. movie. Not a bad thing, very entertaining, but not really in keeping with the tension of film noir. This is a minor quibble considering Keighley cranked out many films at Warners in the ‘30s.

“The Street With No Name” is an above average crime picture with many good scenes between stars Stevens and Widmark. And, thankfully, director Keighley restrained Widmark from doing his manic giggle, which the actor used to great effect in “Kiss of Death,” but then overused in several subsequent films. Widmark was a fine actor who could portray cold-blooded villainy as well as cowardly panic better than most of the actors of his era. Mark Stevens seemed to have a spotty career. In the 1950s, he went on to act and direct in television. He also made an interesting noir Western called “Jack Slade."

Also featured in “The Street With No Name” were Lloyd Nolan as Cordell’s FBI superior, John McIntire as another agent on the case, Ed Begley as a senior police official, and Barbara Lawrence in the thankless role of Stiles’ wife, who spends all her scenes being abused verbally and physically.

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Suspenseful Crime Film “Strongroom”

Another terrific little crime thriller from England in the early 1960s is “Strongroom.”

The title refers to the basement vault of a bank built out of concrete and with a thick steel door.

Three young men stake out a neighborhood bank for weeks, planning to knock it over. But when they move on it, things go wrong.

Forced to lock two bank employees in the air-tight strongroom in order to make their getaway, they are faced with the moral dilemma of possibly letting those people die of asphyxiation while they beat it with the money.

That dilemma creates the tension and suspense in this small, 75-minute movie from 1962.

“Strongroom” has uniformly good performances and some great plot twists.

It stars Derren Nesbitt, Keith Faulkner, and William Morgan Sheppard as the bank robbers, and Colin Gordon and Ann Lynn as the bank workers. The movie was directed by Vernon Sewell, a veteran of small-budget pictures, and a good craftsman.

This, and films like it, are difficult to find. But finding it will have its rewards. Right now, a version of it is on YouTube. But many an English B-movie appears and then disappears off that site. So move fast if you want to catch a good one.

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

FFB: Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein

Linda Fairstein’s first book, 1997’s Final Jeopardy, featuring Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper, is two things: a good murder mystery and a well done novel depicting the hectic, stressful life of an ADA. Alex is the top prosecutor of sex crimes in the Manhattan DA’s office

Fairstein knows her subject, she spent 25 years in the Manhattan DA’s office as the leading prosecutor of sex crimes. Her book has the texture and sound of the real thing. She knows how the prosecutors, cops, and criminals think, act and talk.

In this story, an acquaintance of Alex Cooper’s, a beautiful but pushy movie star, is staying at Alex’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard when someone blows her head off. At first, the local police think the victim is Alex, and Alex reads her own obituary in the New York newspapers the next morning. To help the police, she flies up to her summer place with New York City police detective Mike Chapman. Chapman has worked with Alex for years and is assigned to escort her, in case the killer meant to shoot Alex and got the actress by accident.

The suspects in this mystery are well drawn and nicely hidden. The other cases Alex works on are equally interesting and lend a sense of reality. They show how prosecutors with heavy workloads do not focus on one case at a time, but must keep all their cases moving forward.

Since this first book, Fairstein has written 18 more Alex Cooper mysteries. She and her fictional counterpart are said to be the inspiration for the female prosecutors on the TV show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

In July, Fairstein was interviewed on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” program by her friend, reporter Leslie Stahl. The video can be seen here.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Tall Target (1951) a Civil War noir

Director Anthony Mann transitioned from making some of the best noir films of the 1940s to making some of the best westerns of the 1950s. Around the time of that transition, he made the noir period piece, “The Tall Target.”

It is the story of a New York police detective in 1861, who gets wind of an assassination plot against the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, and rushes by train toward Baltimore to intercept Lincoln, who is headed for Washington, D.C., before the plotters can get to him.

The detective, John Kennedy, is played by Dick Powell. Powell at that time in his career made a successful transition himself, from juvenile lead in Warner Bros. musicals to film-noir tough guy in movies like “Murder, My Sweet.”

Much of “The Tall Target” takes place on a train. Its passengers are the suspects. Many of them are Southerners traveling back to their home states.

Actor Marshall Thompson plays a West Point cadet who has resigned to join the Southern cause. He is traveling with some serious weapons, his worried sister, her maid, a young slave woman, played by Ruby Dee.

Also on board is a uniformed Northern militia major, played by Adolphe Menjou, a politician who glad hands Kennedy, but seems only to help if he himself can benefit.

Will Geer plays a tough but tolerant train conductor who grows weary of the many hassles and scrapes detective Kennedy finds himself in.

Leif Erickson, a large actor with a booming voice, plays a dangerous baddie in a startling turn in the film.

This small, dark, 78-minute movie from 1951 is filled with complex characters, and while it has some hokey moments, it is mostly a taught, well-made and suspenseful mystery.

Credit goes to Anthony Mann for the pacing, the tension, and the look of the film. Here he worked with cameraman Paul Vogel with great results. But at that time, Mann often worked with John Alton who shot some of his great noirs like “Raw Deal,” “T-Men,” and “Border Incident.”

“The Tall Target” is an average title for an above average film.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ian McShane as an Angry Young College Man in “The Wild and the Willing”

Ian McShane and Samantha Eggar
There is a British movie I saw on television as a teenager and never saw again until recently. But all these years later, two things about the film stuck in my mind. One was the exciting climax of the picture. The other was actress Samantha Eggar.

The movie, “The Wild and the Willing” from 1962 (also called “Young and Willing”), is the story of a group of men and women at an English college, their friendships, their love affairs and their ambitions.

The main story is an “angry young man” tale which does not hold up too well. Harry, played by Ian McShane in his first movie, is a working class lad who earned a scholarship to the college, but who bridles against the institution and the older generation in charge. He believes the professors look down on him and will never accept him.

Harry comes across as a spoiled crybaby. What has he got to complain about? He can do the work. His teachers do not like him, but admit he is smart – smarter than the other students, smarter than some of the instructors. Harry is popular with classmates. And he has a beautiful, intelligent, and level-headed girlfriend, Josie – played by Miss Eggar. He also has a scholarship. I repeat myself, but that one gets me. Today, anyone in college or putting a kid through school would jump for joy at the prospect of a free ride.

The “angry young man” cycle started with John Osborne’s 1956 play, “Look Back in Anger,” which was made into a 1959 movie, and continued for a few years with films like 1960’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” Unlike the main characters in those dramas, Harry, is not stuck in a dead-end job nor facing a dull future.

The other puzzling thing about Harry is why Josie wants to be with him. Samantha Eggar is a good actress and she plays the attraction for Harry very well. All the acting here is fine, it is the script that is at fault.

Other, parallel stories are of Andrew, played by Jeremy Brett, a student having an affair with a professor’s wife, and Phil, played by John Hurt, an introverted, socially awkward guy, who looks up to his dorm roommate, Harry.

When Harry decides to pull a dangerous stunt by climbing the exterior of a stone tower, Phil insists on going with him, to prove himself. The climb is a sweaty-palm sequence.

Despite its faults, “The Wild and the Willing” is an entertaining film from the team of director Ralph Thomas and producer Betty E. Box, with a script by Nicholas Phipps and Mordecai Richler, from a play by Laurence Doble and Robert Sloman.

The young cast makes this picture go. Along with McShane, it was the first movie for Samantha Eggar, John Hurt, Jeremy Brett (although some sources say he appeared an earlier film), and others who will be familiar to viewers of English films and television.

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

FFB: A Delivery of Furies by Victor Canning

The adventure novels of Victor Canning are the kinds of books I grew up reading. But I don’t remember ever cracking open one of Canning’s books.

Then, while out of town, I found a 1964 Berkley Medallion paperback of Canning’s 1961 novel A Delivery of Furies in a used bookstore, for a price no one could resist – 25 cents.

A Delivery of Furies is the story of former Royal Air Force pilot Keith Marchant now living in South America and making money by taking on risky assignments from Barrau, a shady middleman. Sometimes the jobs reap big profits, sometimes things go bust, as happens at the beginning of the book when Marchant straggles home to his lodgings in a hotel with nothing – nothing except his life.

Marchant wants to quit this life, buy a friend’s small hotel on a Caribbean island, and live out his days in tropical ease with his girlfriend Drea. But to do that, he needs money. One big score would do it.

Barrau has one for him: Hijack a ship transporting fighter planes – the Furies of the title – and deliver the airplanes to a rebel group fighting for control of an island country. The rebels will pay him cash on delivery.

What could go wrong?

Plenty. Although some of the plot twists were pretty obvious. It is amazing the experienced Marchant could not foresee them. But Canning’s brisk writing speeds past those holes and plunges Marchant into more trouble. Along with first-person narrator Marchant, two other characters, Monk, a middle-aged former soldier who goes along on the job as Marchant’s right-hand man, and Parkes, a gruff engineer sent along by the aircraft company to supervise the assembly of the planes, are well drawn.

Canning’s writing style and his ability to keep the action moving is enjoyable, making A Delivery of Furies a fast, fun read.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)