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The Invisible Wall (1947)
Noir By The Numbers
Don Castle, one of those slightly decent people earning his money in a slightly shady racket, comes up against an INVISIBLE WALL keeping him from happiness and success because he can't conquer a gambling problem. Can ingénue Virginia Christine, with the slightly shady past and the prior unfortunate marriage, save him from the dark fate that awaits most noir heroes?
This one is one a watcher really would like to like better -- given the location shooting at the Flamingo in Las Vegas -- but this one really starts off dull and predictable -- and only starts dishing out the wacky plot twists in the second half. Some of the twists are good ones -- but the ones at the very end suggest the lesser Cornell Woolrich stories with happy endings. You just don't buy the elaborate way the movie gets its lead out of the mess he's in.
Leads are OK. Direction is straightforward. It's a decent B, no worse than many similar movies with better reputations. But, unless you want to see film of Bugsy Siegel's famous casino just after its opening, there is no reason to seek this one out.
The Hour Before the Dawn (1944)
A Good Idea Gone Wrong
Pacifist Franchot Tone marries émigré (!?) Veronica Lake. Franchot won't go to war. Veronica is fighting a clandestine war for Adolf Hitler. Will Franchot survive the mental trauma of THE HOUR BEFORE THE DAWN of his consciousness that fair Veronica has been up too Nazi accented no good?
Usually, a Somerset Maugham story will adapt well to the screen, and offers its actors to play a character of a little more depth than usual. While Franchot, playing a pacifist of real principles, gets a good role (and does well with it), somebody at Paramount really had it in for Veronica Lake (or, at least, her star image), and she is stuck with a cardboard Nazi to play, and, rather shockingly, some of the most convoluted hair styles ever. I guess Washington was serious, when they decreed that the Lake hairstyle (which, when imitated, allegedly got caught in factory machinery) was a threat to the war effort. Because, there is no peekaboo hair here. Just Pippin Longstocking braids, wound around here head in odd patterns.
The plot here is how a decent guy and pacifist come around to being a bomber pilot, taking the war to the Nazis. It's all rather corny, unfortunately, and some of the plot twists belong in a Repubic serial, rather than a picture that is intended to be serious.
The Rough and the Smooth (1959)
What Happens When the Noir Scriptwriter Forgets To Include A Plot
A young archaeologist, maneuvered into an engagement he does not quite want, encounters a stunning blonde with a German accent and decides to kick over the traces, much to the surprise of anyone (except, maybe, the blonde). He becomes agitated when the young lady's colorful past starts to intrude itself on his comfortable existence, and is truly appalled when he has the true PORTRAIT OF A SINNER. Will our hero nonetheless benefit from his dance with his dark side, or will our heroine drag him into the mire of her turbulent world?
There is a lot of good in this little bit of Brit Noir, including a script that is a lot more adult than usual for 1959. Since the adult bits are handled with wit, it comes across as sophisticated (and funny) rather than coarse. William Bendix, as the vulgar fellow who may or may not be our femme fatale's employer, adds some unique art design, as well as quite a good performance, to the mix. Also featured is some really good repartee. The problem is that there really is not all that much going on here, other than the tale of a lucky young man who wants a little naughty with his luck, before he takes up his rightful place in society. As a result, you might find yourself just a shade disappointed at the end of it all, despite the obvious talent involved.
Money Madness (1948)
Ward Cleaver -- Psychopath
Hugh Beaumont -- suffering from MONEY MADNESS -- and a variety of other pathologies, runs to a small town and romances a small town girl to put in motion his unique (and ingenious) plot to launder his stolen 200 grand. How many people will he have to murder before law or fate catch up with him?
Though this is forgotten by everyone except the rare brave few who go and seek out the B-minus classics issued by PRC and, um, "Film Classics" - this film's distributor -- Hugh Beaumont, before he was father to the Beaver, acted in a fair number of minor film noirs, where he tended to play cops, detectives, and the occasional murderer. In this one, Beaumont brings his trademark likability, and family man charm to the role of a deceptive, conniving creep, on the run from the cops, and his co-conspirators in a successful bank job. And this movie turns on his unshowy but quite strong performance, as the plot depends on him being able to pretend to be "Ward" just long enough to get the heroine into his clutches, and then depends on him being the sort of Ward Cleaver that David Lynch might have used, had he got his hands on the Leave It To Beaver franchise.
It's cheap -- and the last plot twist is a bit much to take -- but it's always good to see an actor use his skills for something he's not usually known for, and succeed. There was more to Hugh Beaumont than his film/TV career really let him show, and this movie is a prime exhibit.
You're Next (1940)
Del Lord and Walter Catlett Can't Find The Humor In This
A mad scientist wants to turn a millionaire into an ape. Can detective Walter Catlett avoid a similar simian fate when the mad scientist tells him "YOU'RE NEXT"
Bad shorts even happened to Laurel & Hardy, so one can't get too upset over this collection of unfunny jokes. The racist bits are worse than typical for the 40s, though, which argues that obscurity is the best fate for this. Catlett does show he is better than the material -- acting his part like he's in His Girl Friday -- but he is let down by the whole cheapness of the Columbia short subject milieu. I'm not sure why Del Lord fell so far off form for this, though.
For short subject fans only.
The Woman Between (1931)
Lily Damita Appeals to Fathers and Sons But Not Daughters
Lily Damita, a successful businesswoman and pre-code hottie, is married to OP Heggie, aging millionaire, who can't bring himself to admit his luck. When a passionate young man woos her, despite the wedding ring, how will poor Lily escape the scandal of being THE WOMAN BETWEEN?
Fans of pre-code will likely enjoy this, as it features the slightly tawdry soapy plot and the well dressed (right down to their underthings) women these things often have. The hard life a woman who has married money, but wants to be loved for herself (and not her hotness) and respected has been movie fodder for years, and the familiarity of the goings on, experienced in 30s dress, provides the fascination in this movie. The main question -- which does not quite get answered -- is whether OP Heggie is quite as oblivious as he appears. What's also noteworthy is that, for once, one of those bratty daughters of society gets precisely what she deserves (rather than the male lead).
Worth finding and catching.
Honky Tonk (1929)
Sophie Tucker's Lost Star Vehicle
Sophie Leonard...er...Tucker does not like singing her heart out at the HONKY TONK that has made her the toast of Broadway. She's rather be fixing pancakes with honey (ick) for her beloved daughter. But when snobby daughter, who is educated abroad, and knows nothing about her Momma's Broadway career, dates a callow youth who knows darn well about Momma, will melodrama result?
This is a lost film with a surviving soundtrack that tantalizes mightily. Sophie sings six numbers in this, and puts on a broad, but seemingly compelling performance as a mythical Sophie who doesn't really like showbiz that much. From what can be heard, the plot, such as it is, is a watered down version of Applause, made risible by the conceit that daughter is completely ignorant of what Momma (who seems to be, well, Sophie Tucker) does for a living. Tucker, however, handles the dramatic scenes in good voice (she sounds something like Bette Midler, of all people). But the singing is the main thing here, and the soundtrack definitiely tells us Tucker was singing well.
I don't know if this film would be found disappointing if it is ever found. Everyone, except Sophie, is distressingly early talkie in their clearly enunciated vocal style. But Sophie is a force of nature on the soundtrack, and, had the film survived, it would have been the only talking film starring her, rather than having her sing a specialty number, and getting her quickly off stage.
This one needs to be found.
Chicago Calling (1951)
Brilliant Non-Noir Featuring Excellent Duryea Performance
Dan Duryea needs $52.00 to get his phone turned back on, to hear about his daughter, injured in an accident. When it is CHICAGO, CALLING on his phone, will Dan hear what happened to his wife and child, or is Duryea just as doomed to misery as any other noir protagonist.
It seems like every b&w movie made circa 1950 that doesn't have Abbott and Costello or Martin & Lewis gets labeled a noir by somebody. In this case -- the label is simply wrong, as there is no real crime, or fatalistic resignation to fate. Instead, this is a character study in which Duryea has what, one hopes, is the worst week of his life. Fate and surprises do play a role, but chance in this one flings both good and bad surprises, and provide hope and despair. There are some really lousy people, but good ones too.
Duryea, himself, plays a well-rounded character, who really is the author of his current despair, but also the author of the circumstances that might just bring about his own redemption. And Duryea, given a truly good role, responds with the sort of subtle, well-rounded performance that is supposed to earn an actor an Oscar. No such luck, alas -- the independent film that played the art houses had not been invented yet, and this out of step cheaply made story of the downwardly mobile was not the sort that got bookings -- even as the second part of a double feature.
This film is sort of semi-rediscovered. Film blogs have noticed it. IMDb rates it highly. There is a DVD, I believe. But I wonder if it will ever get the respect it deserves. The director made a few cheap noirs for Monogram, and not much else. Duryea is respected as an actor, but beloved for his villainy in westerns and noirs, rather than his occasional star turns, in which his flawed heroes suffer for their flaws. This is a brilliant film. But it does not fit a category, and its world view is perhaps not as bleak as intellectual fashion would prefer.
So, find this movie and see it. And spread the word. While the cinematic and critical sins of 1951 cannot be fixed, our view of the past and what it has to offer us can always evolve.
Blaze o' Glory (1929)
Surviving Soundtrack Suggests This May Be A Genuine Loss
A young man, a Broadway star, goes to war. He survives the war -- but can he survive the Peace, when the war has robbed him of his health and his sanity, and all of his hopes that when it all ends, he would go out in a BLAZE O'GLORY?
This movie is lost -- but its soundtrack lives on the internet. Despite some eyebrow rising coincidences in the final reel (and a real jaw dropper at the end), what one hears suggests an effective courtroom drama that has, nonetheless been fused with, of all things, a bleak, antiwar, operetta. I am not sure how all of this would look on film -- since this was released by Sono-Art Worldwide, a penny-pinching Gower Gulch studio. But the frank anti-war slant, a sad Henry B Walthall performance as a defense attorney defending our hero against a murder charge, and the good quality vocalizing by Eddie Dowling, suggest this might have been a film that aged well, even though it was much disliked by critics when released.
Search your attics. There are not a lot of non-comic musical movies from the studio era (some late 40s Warners movies come to mind), and this film's very uniqueness would qualify it for a TCM premiere, should the film elements be found.
Tip-Off Girls (1938)
Great Title -- Bland Movie
Evelyn Brent is one of the TIP-OFF GIRLS that makes Buster Crabbe's and J. Carrol Nash's truck hijack ring so profitable. Will gypsy trucker Lloyd Nolan and cute secretary Mary Carlisle mess up the operation, or will both use the rackets to get rich quick?
This is one of those flicks that promises Warner type crime thrills by its title and cast, and delivers predictable hokum from the pulps in the way the plot unwinds. The "surprises" littered through the film are as predictable as right-wing bias in a Fox News story, and Nolan, saddled with a risible Melvyn Douglas mustache (as befits his role as a gypsy truck-driver from the East), is atypically bland. Everything else is B- movie efficient -- it moves quickly enough after a slow start, but the plotting is so familiar that it is utterly forgettable.
You know you have to see it once -- because the title does promise so much, and Nolan's 'stache is just so hilarious. But once is plenty, and you have permission to walk out early.