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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952) - Disney Pirates on Parade

 If you think that serious British actors were all stuffed shirts without a sense of humor, you need to see this film.  Charles Laughton was arguably the best actor (not movie star - actor) of the 20th Century, and here he shows a real feel for comedy.  Playing violently against type, he alone makes this into something worth watching. I watched this film because I wanted to get another dose of Laughton after viewing the original "Captain Kidd." Well, I got a lot more than I bargained for. This is one of those films that you sit through, dumbfounded, as you see some very strange antics.

They always go for the short, fat ones

 All of the sets look like they belong down in Orlando at Disneyworld. Everything is dumbed down for the young crowd, with cute little hand-drawn treasure maps and yo-ho-ho pirate outfits.  The boys bring along the goddess from their TV show of the time, Hilary Brooke, who as usual intimidates but beguiles Lou as lady pirate "Lady Jane."  She looks like she should be slinging drinks down on the Disneyworld pirate boat ride, and stands a good foot taller than Lou due to her high heels despite the fact that in reality she was only an inch taller. Naturally, she plays into the usual Abbot and Costello TVshow riff where the pretty girl develops a huge jealous crush on Lou. She's the prettiest thing in the film - no, make that the ONLY pretty thing - and that counts for an awful lot.  She is quite fetching in a lady pirate way, and, if it weren't for the awesomely hammy Charles Laughton, she would have stolen this picture right out from under the boys' feet.

Lady Jane, spreading her legs confidently

Make no mistake, this isn't a top Abbott and Costello comedy. The film print that survives is absolutely horrendous, and the gags are even lamer than usual. But Laughton is a riot if you don't take him at all seriously, which requires some serious switching of gears if you are a Laughton fan. He mugs unmercifully every chance he gets and makes asides to the audience commenting on the proceedings. In fact, half the film seems to consist of his reaction shots to the boys' routines. The other half is him bellowing every chance he gets. This, along with his other Kidd performance and his work as Captain Bligh, inspired countless imitators over the years, in which characters clearly patterned after Laughton do nothing but bellow and speak in hammy pirate-ese ("Argh, me matey, if you disobey me it would be a shame to have to RUN YOU THROUGH. AH HAHAHAHAHA."). Like that. So, this film did have influence because Laughton goes way, way over the top, and I'm sure intentionally so.

Charles was quite a good sport about things

I could do without the musical numbers, but they do contribute to the whole Disney feel of the film. They also give Abbott and Costello a chance to mug for the camera while half-heartedly making fun of the serious singing (and strange accordion playing). Being at all serious in an Abbott and Costello film is like turning yourself into a clay pigeon and throwing yourself into the air in front of a row of skeet shooters.

This is up there for best Lobby Card in film history
Did I mention that the film quality is terrible? Oh yes, I did. Well, it bears repeating. The direction and cinematography in general are way down there, in fact, the whole movie seems to be filmed at a distance. But you should get a laugh now and then if you aren't too demanding. And Hilary Brooke really is blazingly attractive.

Charade (1963) - A Romantic Hunt in Paris

Cary Grant stars as - somebody - who is pursuing - or being pursued by - Regina Lampert, played by the enchanting Audrey Hepburn. "Reggie," as Grant calls her, is soon to find out that her entire world has imploded, and that nothing is left but an airline bag containing a key, an appointment book, a toothbrush, and an unmailed letter to her. But everybody seems to think she has a fortune, and the hunt is on to find the funds.

Ah, Paris!!!!  Cary would have made a fine Bond

This is one of those delightful films that they made from around World War II until the mid-Sixties, full of romance, comedy and confusion. Everybody's identity, it seems, is in question, and there are running gags about men being killed in their pajamas, a sneezing crook and the like. It stands up there with "North By Northwest," "My Fair Lady," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and "Sabrina" as a sophisticated take on modern life which seems to be about everything but what it really is - romance.

OK, look at Audrey Hepburn.  Can you guess the year?

Scenes set in the Alps are beautiful, but the real action takes place in Paris. Hepburn looks completely at home there, and never loses a sense of being the one adult among a gang of squabbling boys arguing about some trifle. It is Hepburn at her most bewitching, seducing the charming seducer while never knowing quite who he is. Grant shows his flair for adventure laced with romantic comedy, especially in his final scene when he makes one of the classic funny faces in all of cinema. You can feel the genuine attraction between these two, Grant and Hepburn, it's a shame they only worked together on this one film.

Come on, pass the milk or you'll get it!

Add in a sinister James Coburn in quite possibly his finest role (and check out that last look on his face!), Walter Matthau as a looming but largely hidden presence throughout, and George Kennedy as the model for about half-a-dozen James Bond film villains, and you have "the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made." I found the greatest similarity with Hitchcock here not in the suspense area (complete with one of the master's "MacGuffins,") though that resonates too, but rather in the vivid rendering of the Hepburn/Grant relationship. The playful flirting banter between them recalls the train scenes between Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North By Northwest." "Charade," in fact, almost feels like a continuation of that Hitchcock masterpiece. Director Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone deserved so much more credit than they ever received for this underrated gem.

George Kennedy, is he the killer?

It's all about the atmosphere, Paris at its most intimate. We even get to take a ride with Hepburn and Grant on one of those sightseeing boats that still ply the Seine.  Stanley Donen directs with a sure hand, rightfully making Paris itself the key to the mystery. The score by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer is wonderfully low key and transports you to the river right there with them. If you ever wondered why Hepburn became an icon, with those classic posters from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" still selling briskly, this film is part of her mystique. She was perfection with her almost resigned but still hopeful search for a worthy man. You, too, may fall under her spell.

Cary was born to play this role
Highly recommended, a perfect film for a couple with elements that both should enjoy. "Charade" largely had been (unfairly) forgotten because nobody has an interest in promoting it - the copyright lapsed early because of a truly bone-headed mistake by the production staff - but it a true classic from the early '60s. Cary Grant could still do it, and he maneuvers between being deliciously hammy and deadly serious in a way that few actors then or now can achieve. A great way to spend an evening.


No Man of Her Own (1932) - A Sexy Little Film

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own

"No Man of Her Own" ( 1932) has a very modern look to it.  Clark Gable, playing rakish gambler "Babe," is extremely open and obvious about his intentions towards Carole Lombard, playing a librarian.  She, on the other hand, is fantastically open and frank about her own passions towards him in a "girl talk" conversation with her fellow librarian.  Meanwhile, Carole dances in her underwear, and Gable is shown in a very unfavorable light as a cheater at cards, which only enhances his rakishness.

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
How elegant, but Clark, watch those hands!

There's no doubt that this film was playing to the crowd, which was hurting badly during the Great Depression and searching for any kind of enjoyment.  There are hints of this throughout the film - Carole is shown throwing dice with the newsboy before heading to the dull job that she needs to pay the rent, while Gable fleeces some stuffed shirts without any hint of remorse.  The air of desperation in Lombard's eyes as she contemplates Gable as her possible ticket out of Boredom, USA is palpable, and her own lust for something more is shown frankly and openly.  When, overcome with desire, she squeaks out the 1930s catch-phrase "See you in church," you know that's the last place she would want to meet him.  Overall, this is one of the best films ever to deal with female passion, and one whose very openness some blame for the reactionary crowd's imposition of the dreadful Hayes Code a couple of years later.   

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
They really went for the hard sell on this one.

This film has some of the sexiest scenes from the 1930s. It is perhaps the best-known "forgotten" film of all time. That is because it is the only on-screen pairing of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, who of course later got married and had a lively and ultimately tragic romance that Hollywood has made many films about, including some fairly recently. Pretty much any time the topic of Gable and Lombard comes up, they show clips from this film, even though they supposedly didn't hook up until years later. Unless you are a film historian or fan of old movies, you are very unlikely to have ever heard of it, much less seen it. But it is a vital part of screen history.

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
So, who won the Yankees game last night?

Clark Gable, looking incredibly young and without his later mustache, exhibits a dapper charm seldom seen on the screen before or since. Carole Lombard never looked better, and there is obvious chemistry between the two.  Legend has it that she sent pointedly sent him a ham after wrapping the film, which is its own kind of subtle female flirtation.  "No Man" shows how much we missed because of the prudish Hayes film censorship code that came into effect a couple of years after this film.

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
No bra, scandalous! Lombard was no shrinking violet herself, she had done topless shoots years earlier. This sort of shot, though disappeared after the Hayes code went into effect a couple of years later.

The plot really doesn't matter much, but for what it's worth, Gable plays a NYC card sharp who meets attractive but mousy - apparently - librarian Carole in a sleepy upstate, NY town (upstate New York was considered the depths of rural simplicity in those days). The highlight of the film is the seduction scene in Lombard's library, with Gable taking chances with her that today most likely would land him in jail. But the scene works perfectly, thanks to Lombard, who certainly knew how to play a smitten woman resisting only because she "should." If you only want to watch about five minutes of 1930s cinema, those are the minutes to watch, and yes, that includes anything from "Gone With the Wind." Do you really think there is a chance that Lombard can resist Gable's technique?

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
Best Train scene ever

A favorite scene is Lombard prancing around her apartment in her underwear, still a sexy scene all these years later. Other terrific scenes follow, particularly one at Lombard's home where she practically swoons over Gable, but the sexual tension gradually goes down from there. Lombard awakening in the train car going down to NYC foreshadows a similar one in Hitchcock's 1958 "North By Northwest," if not also the aforementioned "Gone with the Wind" (a scene which, I think, strongly suggests that Lombard, who desperately wanted the part, could have handled the Scarlett O'Hara role just fine, thank you very much).

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
"I think I'll take that big book that's way up high and where you have to lean over."

From that point, though, we get more comedy than romance, and there isn't a whole lot of comedy. We do get humorous shots of the two taking individual showers. Ultimately, though, the film devolves into rather mundane complications with Gable's "job" hustling naive card players, pretending to have a day job, and so forth. It is pretty obvious from that point how this film is going to wind up.

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
Pretty naughty attire for a librarian. This is a crazy scene, with Lombard dancing with herself.

The easy thing to do would have been to end the film before Gable returns to everyday life. I'm sure they could have extended the seduction scenes out and concluded with the certainty of a wedding. "No Man," though, bravely ventures to show the "and they lived happily ever after" part, which has all sorts of bumps in the road. That makes the film a bit uneven and introduces a decided change in tone about midway through, not particularly for the good. But I enjoyed the second half, too. It's just different and rather formulaic.

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
She is so naughty!

There are humorous aspects throughout, but I hesitate to label this a plain comedy, or, for that matter, a "screwball" comedy. It is neither of those things. It is more a romantic comedy, with the emphasis on "romantic." Lombard is delectable. I have a difficult (though not impossible by any means) time finding female stars of the '30s attractive because of the fussy fashions and mannerisms of the day, but there's no problem with Carole Lombard in this film. She is the real deal, quite attractive by any standard.

Clark Gable Carole Lombard No Man of Her Own
Carole had such beautiful hair

Gable and Lombard went on to have their very own romance years after this film wrapped. Recommended for romantics of all ages.


The Sting (1973) - One of the Top Soundtracks Ever, And a Fun Ride

I nitpick in this review, but I want to emphasize up front that I like this film a lot.  It isn't quite the classic that it could have been with a slightly better script, but the performances and the direction by George Roy Hill are outstanding and the period atmosphere is terrific and convincing.  One must suspend belief a lot, but it's a fun ride and well worth your time.

Classic films have it all, great sound, great cinematography, great actors with chemistry, and an involving plot. "The Sting" qualifies. Paul Newman and Robert Redford light up the screen. Redford carries the picture, while Newman orchestrates the proceedings. Newman, in fact, in places wonderfully echoes his "Fast Eddie" character from "The Hustler" of a decade before. The film also has one of the best supporting casts in film history, led by Ray Walson, Harold Gould and Charles Durning. Old pros, every single one of them.

The visuals of old Chicago are gorgeous, and the plot and visual clues (note the gloves holding the steering wheel, then later turning out the light on the night stand) reward repeated viewings. The soundtrack is one of the classics of all time, up there with the zither music from "The Third Man" and the themes from "Jaws" and "Psycho." So, everyone should see "The Sting." I can't imagine many people would fail to enjoy it. But I have some reservations which you may notice, too.

First and foremost, it strains credulity that the mob boss who first appears running his organization by remote control from New York, Doyle Lonnegan (brilliantly played by Robert Shaw), would get involved directly in the shady scheme that is at the heart of this film. I could see him participating in high stakes poker games on trains, that was something gentlemen did in those days. But then to get swept up into idling around spartan coffee shops waiting for phone calls, just to make a few bucks and get revenge on someone he barely knows? Come on. I know you can build justifications for this - he really, really wanted to take down Paul Newman's Gondorff character, and that was the way to do it - but that bothers me every time I see the film. It seems odd that a mob boss as big as Lonnegan would not find it, um, curious to suddenly find a big racketeer like Gondorff operating in his own territory. Lonnegan seems awfully naive about a wire con that, according to the scam artists themselves, became obsolete years before. And isn't it awfully convenient that Lonnegan is coming to, or at least returning to, Chicago just when Newman needs him to?

Second, the plot is a bit too slick at times. Every possible source of problems is anticipated and eliminated, even highly remote ones. Geez, these guys should work for NASA! People who aren't part of the team, like Detective Snyder (what is he even doing there, shouldn't he be back in Joliet? Oh yes, he's on "vacation"), unwittingly are used to carry out crucial parts of the scam (in this case, escorting Lonnegan out of the scam premises). I like a good con, but if these guys are that good, knowing exactly how strangers will react to everything, they should be solving the theory of relativity or something. And all the locations and people hired must have cost a bundle, who was financing all this during the Great Depression?

Third, I find it odd that Lonnegan should be consorting with Redford's Hooker character at the same time that he has someone trying to kill him. It is overly confusing and unrealistic. If Lonnegan's killer knows all about Hooker's whereabouts, why wouldn't Lonnegan be told that Hooker actually is the guy Lonnegan wants killed? That's a giant assumption, that the hired killer is not going to communicate with Lonnegan, and also won't see Lonnegan and Hooker hanging out together like old chums (which happens often, right in the open).

I could go on, but I'm sure you get my drift. I just want to point out that the script, while outstanding, is not airtight. All risk of the con going wrong is eliminated in some areas, but not in others. The con itself, which is the heart of the movie, thus leaves me cold and is a bit of a let-down.

Now you probably think I dislike the film, or at least don't sufficiently appreciate it. But I do appreciate it, and love the film. Everything else about the film is wonderful, and more than makes up for the somewhat lightweight plot. This easily is one of the best films of the 1970s, a wonderful decade for film. See it!

Dirty Harry (1971) - Culmination of the Sniper Film

Around 1970, there was a feeling among ordinary citizens that things were spiraling out of control.  Protests, the Vietnam war, an errant economy, all contributed to a sense that something wasn't quite right.  Some welcomed the turmoil and even encouraged it.  Others, however, liked order and security, and were looking for someone to step up and take control.

Hollywood, always looking to fill a need, pounced.  First came "Dirty Harry," and then Charles Bronson in "Death Wish."  Both characters became iconic and spawned multiple sequels, but today, everybody knows the name of Clint's character.  Do you remember the name of Bronson's character?

It is fascinating watching certain cinematic trends, because they reflect where we have been (and perhaps going) as a society. This film takes police procedurals to a completely different level than any before it, and started a genre of "lone avenger" tales that lasted for decades and never really left us. "Dirty Harry" is raw entertainment meat, served to the masses hungry for someone, anyone to take on the social problems that had been wracking the country. At a primal level, it filled the void caused by the decline of the Western.

Do you feel lucky?  Well, do you, punk?

Comparing this to "The Sniper" from 1952 and some similar films illustrates the evolution of the crazed-killer-hunted-down theme. The subtle differences show the choices Director Don Siegel made in "Dirty Harry" that made it such an iconic hit. "The Sniper" is particularly interesting because it is set in precisely the same spot as "Dirty Harry," San Francisco, and "Harry" is almost a remake of "Sniper." The point is that the same police department and its response is portrayed in wildly different fashions in the two films.

In the Dirty Harry series, it was ALL about the gun

In "The Sniper," sniper Eddie Miller is shown as a troubled, almost sympathetic character. He just wants to be found and understood - he even leaves the police notes pleading for them to find and stop him. There are vignettes attempting to show why he is disturbed - little children demean him, attractive women humiliate him. A police psychologist hammers the point home throughout the film that the gunman is simply sick and in need of help. And everything we see of Eddie confirms that indeed, he is just a sad loner who needs to be found and helped. Ultimately, the SFPD find some clues, and we are left with the hope that the poor fellow might be helped.

Harry doesn't take guff from some punk

Hitchcock's "Psycho" took the basic premise of "The Sniper" and made the murderer creepier, but at least explainable. While not actually a sniper, Norman Bates might as well be, since he operates hidden in the dark, picking off random passing strangers at the sinister Bates Motel. The fear factor is increased, and the clean-cut killer ultimately appears bizarre and weird, but there remains hope that his problem can be resolved. No sympathy is wasted on the killer (except perhaps by the psychiatrist at the end), but at least he is shown as a human being. As in "The Sniper," nothing great is at stake due to this sad mama's boy doing dirty deeds in his dark corner of the world.

Harry, remaining in control despite chaos

"Dirty Harry" came along, though, and completed the transition of the sniper from understandable, sad-sack killer to wild-eyed crazy who threatens everything we hold dear. Partly that is due to the fact that in the Fifties, when "The Sniper" was released, the idea that somebody would suddenly pick up a rifle and start randomly shooting was so alien that reasons for this strange behavior had to be offered. By the late Sixties, though, so much civil violence and unrest had taken place that there was no need to explain the shooter. It was widely understood then by the public that there were psychopaths running loose. Boris Karloff's 1968 "Targets" similarly shows a mindless killer on the loose, though without the "Dirty Harry" theatrics.

Harry was blessed with idiot villains

In "Harry," no background is given about the sniper, and nobody really seems to care about his motivations. He is what he is, a killer, a wild animal who needs to be be stopped or stepped on, like a cockroach. He babbles incoherently when cornered, and games the system by shouting loudly about his "rights." Who will stop him? Certainly not the weak and ineffectual police department or Mayor's Office, the modern version of the weaklings huddled in the church refusing to help the Sheriff. Harry knows he has to do whatever it takes to stop the sniper because he is not just attacking individuals, he represents a larger cultural assault on society itself. As in "High Noon," it is our hero lawman who saves civilization.

The Italian poster.

Harry is a paternal gunfighter of the Old West. Instead of Indians or killers released from prison, he subdues crazed psychos on the loose. Interfering Sheriffs and Marshals or weakling townspeople who just get in the way are replaced by a bumbling SF political bureaucracy. Observant viewers will notice a throwaway line spoken by Callahan, "That'll be the day" - which any fan of Westerns know comes straight out of the mouth of John Wayne in "The Searchers." "Dirty Harry" thus reverts from modern "understand the criminal" thinking to straight-up, kill-the-savages Westerns. There is a hunger in the public imagination for a powerful protector who uses his killing skills for good, and not evil. "Dirty Harry" was the first popular film to make the transition complete, followed by the "Death Wish" films (note how in "Death Wish," Charles Bronson's mild-mannered architect actually travels to the old West of Arizona to get his gun and complete his transition from victim to avenger).

Incidentally, in "Starship Troopers," another Western transported to other times and locales, the trend circles back. The simple kill-the-enemy philosophy of "Dirty Harry" returns to "The Sniper's" formula with the phrase, "We must understand the bugs." This is not nearly as cathartic, and certainly takes more thought than simply pulling the trigger while tossing off "Do you feel lucky, punk?" quips, but reveals a little about where Director Paul Verhoeven of "Troopers" stood on this issue and what he was really trying to say with that film.

The Western never left us. It became transmuted into the policeman-as-lone-gunfighter "Dirty Harry" line of films and its successors. And I can't say that's bad, because this is a very enjoyable film for anybody who enjoys lots of action and the triumph of simple good over pure, and easy to understand, evil. The recurrent rumors of yet another "Dirty Harry" sequel show the power of the "Dirty Harry" formula.

D.O.A. (1950) - A Fine, Classic Film Noir

Edmond O'Brien failed to develop into a major headliner.  Instead, he settled into a comfortable career playing the gruff newspaperman, the gruff colleague, the gruff....  Here, though, he shines in a very polished performance as a man literally at the end of his rope, but going out with style.
Edmond O'Brien D.O.A. 1950
"D.O.A." is a film of rough gents and fast dames like Laurette Luez
"D.O.A." (1950), a Cardinal Pictures production directed by Rudolph Maté, has a plot that has been done so many times, in so many ways, in so many settings that it is difficult to enjoy the story solely for the story's sake. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, well, then this is one of the most respected films in the archives, because it seemed like every detective series of the 1970s had an episode on this theme. But even if you figure out the plot in the first five minutes, there are so many other reasons to enjoy "D.O.A." that it is still well worth viewing.
1947 Olds 66 D.O.A. 1950
1947 Olds 66 in this exquisite street scene
It is not giving anything away to reveal that Edmond O'Brien, always a good character actor and here given a chance at a solid leading role because he has that "everyman" quality, learns he has been poisoned and only has a short time in which to find out why before he dies ("D.O.A.", in case anyone was wondering, is hospital/police jargon for "Dead On Arrival"). The film concerns the O'Brien character's determined attempt to track down the perpetrator(s) and hopefully mete out some justice during his remaining hours.
Woman smoking D.O.A. 1950
This is film noir at its height
So O'Brien's character, Frank Bigelow, a mild-mannered insurance man, goes on a frantic search that turns up lead after lead, always tantalizingly close to figuring out what happened but with numerous dead ends. Naturally, everything falls into place so that an investigation that undoubtedly would take the police weeks or months to conclude, if in fact it were ever solved, falls nicely into place in a day or so. The point is made repeatedly that this quick resolution is possible only because Bigelow has nothing left to lose and can blunder around without being worried about getting shot. Along the way, Bigelow strong-arms women and takes crazy risks a healthy man would avoid, but his fearlessness alone gets him through doors others wouldn't get past (it also helps that his adversaries are crazy bad shots). Overall, it is the atmosphere that will grab you, not the plot, which weirdly resembles a modern video game - Bigelow reaches one level, solves it, then it leads him to another level, and so on. Each lead is another level of the game. Bigelow wastes no time mastering each level, and at each he gathers information, or weapons, or both. Another odd resemblance is that Bigelow specializes in giving his opponents wicked one-liners as he leaves, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger giving the "Hasta La Vista" line.
Deserted warehouse D.O.A. 1950
The chase scene through the deserted building is dynamite
The phrase "film noir" is so over-used that it is kind of annoying, but it certainly applies here. Director Maté had cinematography as his background in the '20s and '30s, so he knew just what to do with the camera. The light-and-shadow game is played out to the extreme in this film and you either like that or you don't. There are all sorts of visual metaphors that comment silently on the proceedings, and events take place at night as well as day. The acting is a little melodramatic at times, and a bit too blasé at others (such as the police to whom O'Brien tells his story), but those wild swings fit in perfectly with this type of film. There is a haunting score by Dimitri Tiomkin that helps underscore the forbidding atmosphere.
Neville Brand Edmond O'Brien D.O.A. 1950
Neville Brand, classic tough guy
One of many reasons to enjoy "D.O.A." is for the glimpse it gives at normal life in the 1950s. Bigelow runs down a street, and we see ordinary people walking along going about their 1950 business (and they really were, they didn't know about the film being shot). Bigelow gets on a city bus, and we see a 1950s downtown street, replete with diners and motorcycle cops and soda shops. There are terrific shots of San Francisco and Los Angeles that give a glimpse at what life was like in that vanished era that now seems like it is from another, well, century.
Neville Brand Edmond O'Brien D.O.A. 1950
Let's look at that again, close up. Does this remind you of any famous real-life incidents?

Jack Ruby Lee Harvey Oswald D.O.A. 1950
Thirteen years later
In terms of the performances, O'Brien is solid, if a bit uneven in his characterization at times. Neville Brand (his film debut) gives the best performance, though, overacting like crazy as a psycho killer who injects some badly needed energy into the film when it starts to drag a bit. He reminded me a bit of Clu Gulager in 1964's "The Killers," or Klaus Kinski in, well, just about everything he ever did. Evidently these sidekick or underling roles were ones where actors were told to emote like crazy and let it all hang out. "Hammy" doesn't quite capture it, but comes close.
Neville Brand D.O.A. 1950
Ever wonder where Klaus Kinski got his "crazy man" schtick from?  Does that wicked grin look familiar?
Anyway, forget the erudite comments about how this is the ultimate noir film and so forth. Who really cares, except film students? Take it for what it is, a terrific, atmospheric film that you will probably enjoy if you like black-and-white murder mysteries with some great visuals and good, if uneven, performances. A fine way to while away an afternoon.

The original copyright holder failed to renew the copyright, so "D.O.A." is in the public domain. Below is the full feature-length film "D.O.A." for your viewing pleasure.


Foreign Agent (1942) - Lightweight WWII Spy Tale

Gale Storm ("Mitzi Mayo") and John Shelton ("Jimmy") star as ordinary American private citizens who happen to work in the film industry in this routine spy story set in WWII Los Angeles. They find out about a German/Japanese spy ring that is trying to steal a new searchlight designed by Mitzi's father (killed by the spies) and also plotting to support a supposed Japanese raid on Los Angeles. When this film was made, such a raid was eminently possible, and in fact, some still wonder why the Japanese never bothered. So the plot of "Foreign Agent" (1942) was ripped right out of the day's headlines.

The only real innovation in the plot is that Mitzi and her man are actors who are adept at foreign accents. This comes into play at a key moment at the film's end, and is the only real twist in the entire film. Otherwise, there is a lot of talking and the usual Hollywood effort to call into question the motives of anyone who spoke out against the war (see "Spy Ship" for another 1942 example of this) by having the Germans use an "America First" type of organization as cover for their evil deeds. There also is a curious scene with a specific purpose: a first-generation American whose family was still back in mother Russia stands up to some German thugs at a rally.  The fact that he is the spitting image of Uncle Joe himself helped show support for new Ally the Soviet Union.

Both sides are using wiretaps on each other, and our heroes find out first and feed the bad guys false information. Too late, the bad guys find out they are being taped, too, and that leads to the plot's climax. For such a serious issue, though, the principals all seem to take things very lightly, which gives the film an almost carefree attitude to the whole subject. The Germans bumble around and act tough but ultimately aren't very frightening. The good guys appear to be freelancing without a whole lot of support from the Feds, who one might think would have a lot more people involved in chasing down suspected spies. But it is made very, very clear who are the good guys and who are bad - why, the bad guys are cheap and quibble over paying their killers an extra $50 a week! And the good guys are just decent, honest Americans who say they want to punch the bad guys "red, white and blue."

 Director William "One Take" Beaudine gets the story out without any unnecessary sub-plots or meandering.  The film runs just over an hour, and the time passes fairly quickly. Not a lot happens, there are no surprises, and things are wrapped up nicely.

The sets of Hollywood look authentic, as if Beaudine just filmed his own studio buildings, and the characters' apartments look very realistic as well.  Given that Monogram was a poverty-row studio, Beaudine probably cut costs wherever he could and filmed at his actors' homes, with his own studio as a set, and so on.

Wait for Gale to sing the classic "It's Taps for the Japs" and you'll see a star in the making.

Gale has a curiously short resume for someone who was in the business for 50 years, and her career barely survived the 1950s due to a drinking problem.  She later went on to star in "My Little Margie" and, of course, "The Gale Storm Show" before winding up her career, like so many others, making "The Love Boat" and "Murder, She Wrote" appearances.  Her problems were far in the future when she made this film, though.  The 1940s were a terrific time for strong young starlets - energetic and talented but not necessarily blindingly attractive (and I know some will say they ALL were stunning, but let's be real - and Storm fit neatly into this category along with Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson and several others.

The film includes lots of reinforcement of the usual wartime admonitions - signs in the background read "Remember Pearl Harbor," and object lessons are given of the saying "Loose lips sink ships." A pleasant time killer that shows that Hollywood was behind the war effort, nothing more.


42nd Street (1932) - Sure, it's a Classic, but.....

"42nd Street" is enjoyable not so much for the plot or the characters as it is for the visuals.  Busby Berkeley practically invented a new art form with his army of chorus girls, and bare legs became the raison d'etre for musicals.  Seeing dancers behind the scenes, sweating and arguing and winning and losing, is a wonderful peek behind the curtains.  This is well worth your time for those reasons alone, with the timeless songs and hokey but inspiring plot as nice bonuses.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. "42nd Street" is an outright classic, the kind of genre-creating film that comes along maybe once a decade, if that. "Airport" started the disaster craze of the early Seventies, "A Hard Day's Night" created the mold for the modern rock film in the Sixties, and "42nd Street" brought us the Busby Berkeley musical. Criticizing "42nd Street" is like saying Mount Rushmore is in bad taste. Can't do it. Not allowed, and not fair in any event.

Someone's about to shuffle off to Buffalo

But.... There are a lot of things about this film that I find annoying. Not enough to make me not enjoy it, but sufficient to keep it off of any list of greatest films. And the sad thing is that, with a few changes, this could have been perhaps the greatest musical of all time (and certainly many would put it there already).

Most people already know the basic plot, which is a classic of showbiz lore, and if you don't, telling it here shouldn't spoil the film for you.  A troupe of performers during the Great Depression is about to put on a show called "Pretty Lady" (NOT called 42nd Street).  Everybody's finances hang in the balance, careers hang in the balance, everything is at risk.  A famous lead actress is hired, and a tough stage manager whips the chorus girls into shape to do dramatically outlandish maneuvers on stage.

My main problem is with the two leads, Julian Marsh as played by Warner Baxter, and Peggy Sawyer as played by Ruby Keeler. Julian Marsh comes across as your standard benevolent dictator, which from experience I can vouch is quite accurate for a director. However, he goes over the top a few times too often with his melodramatic harangues. Yes, it is heresy to criticize Baxter's performance, but it also is almost malpractice for a director to take an untried actor aside before her debut and grind into the poor girl how many mouths depend on her making the audience like her. Blame it on the script, blame it on the times, but such scenes completely ruin the mood for me. And perhaps it's just me. Generations of comics have had fun with this, playing with it as the ultimate in camp. But I find it annoying.

Look at those gams!

Ruby Keeler is cute and for most of the film does carry off the part of the doe-eyed newcomer who finally gets that magical big break. In reality, that would never happen, at least not as shown in the film, and there is only the barest hint earlier in the film that Sawyer knows anything about the lead role. And why a chorus girl in her first show would be asked to understudy the lead, no matter what she looks like, when there is a cast of what looks like hundreds in the production, most of whom are probably veterans, well, seems highly unlikely. And the odds that another backup would willingly demure to Sawyer because she's so much better, um....

But putting that script issue aside, Keeler is stunningly mediocre when shown playing the lead. She looks at her feet while tapping, practically trying to dig a hole in the floor, and her singing voice is, to be charitable, weak. She looks the part, and that is about it. I found the raves by the audience leaving the theater to be unsupported by anything we saw of the show, though simply managing to remember all her lines and songs would have been considered a major triumph to show insiders.

I do like the rest of the show. Bebe Daniels is brilliant as unhappy star Dorothy Brock, and Dick Powell nails the part of Billy Lawler. George Brent comes real close to stealing the film as Brock's secret lover who ultimately sets the events in motion that give Sawyer her opportunity. The atmosphere of a Broadway show behind the scenes is about as accurate as I can imagine, especially the pre-opening night tension as reflected in almost panicky partying.  The costumes are top-notch, and several are decades ahead of their time (Ruby Keeler's pantsuit in the "Shuffle off to Buffalo" number looks ripped from the 1970s).

Several of the numbers, such as "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the title song, are brilliant, though the rehearsing that occupies about 90 percent of the film doesn't appear to have much to do with the final show. It eventually does become clear why the only requirement for casting the chorus girls is the shape of their legs. Berkeley was not shy at all about showing off the charms of his ladies. If you like his style but find it perhaps a bit over the top at times, try his much later "Million Dollar Mermaid," which shows that he learned the value of subtlety.

Let me emphasize this: the definitive versions of "Lullabye of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and the title song are in this film.  They have never been done better since.  Ruby Keeler really did do a fantastic job on those numbers, showing a youthful exuberance that more than makes up for any technical lapses.  The song often thought to be in this film, "We're in the Money," is in the same year's "Gold Diggers of 1933," so you won't find it here, unfortunately.

Yes, I like "42nd Street." It deserves its accolades as a game-changing hit during the Depression. But a casting change or two, a few easy script changes, and it could have been so much better....