As for the characters themselves, they are largely one-dimensional, and unconvincingly unworldly for big-city people of the late 1930s. I found the Ida Lupino character hardly credible in her inability to resist the lure of small-time thrills promised by a fling with Goff: she does in fact resist him initially, she is gently warned about his likes by her father, with whom she has an excellent relationship, and despite her yearning for something more than what she has, Goff is no different from scores like him that she would have seen come and go over the years.
Lupino and Garfield are cast as "types," resulting in neither having an opportunity to utilize their considerable talents. Eddie Albert, as he so often does, plays an ineffectual nice guy. Aline McMahon is a complaining wife, a role that seems to have no particular function in the story. The honors do indeed go to Thomas Mitchell and John Quaylen, who make the most of characters given an opportunity to weigh things in the balance, change their minds, and act according to their principles. Even so, the "comical" closing scene is out of keeping with the overall mood of the picture.
The story itself is the stuff of pulp fiction: unsavory characters, betrayal, revenge, double-cross, triple-cross; the action often strains credibility, what with people turning a corner a split second too early or too late, someone being in the wrong (right) place at the wrong (right) time, a hail of bullets missing the intended target while a single shot in the opposite direction is fatal. B pictures aren't expected to offer much more than that, but THE OUTFIT has a solid cast and crisp direction, generating the expectation (unwarranted, as it turns out) of something more than routine. All the characters are pawns of the plot: one-dimensional, unmotivated beings who never reveal what brought them to lives of coldblooded duplicity and degradation. They are presented to us fully formed (by greed, for the most part), and do not change in the least from beginning to end.
Robert Duvall was already highly regarded when this picture was made (post-GODFATHER). It is difficult to imagine what he felt a potboiler such as this would do for his career. Maybe he was as disappointed with the result as I was.
Guy Kibbee and Roscoe Karns score highest as a couple of washed-out drummers, present and future. An added bonus is Joan's very appealing "eccentric" dance routine. But her character, around which the story revolves, is simply too extreme and inconsistent to be convincing.
Casting her in CAIN AND MABEL was a mistake. She has no discernible flair for comedy, her timing being awkward, her gestures and facial expressions being studied, rather than natural. If in fact it is her own singing voice that we hear, its lack of expressiveness is thankfully limited to a few bars. Being a former hoofer, Davies might be expected to acquit herself with some distinction as a featured dancer, but in fact in her one extended number here, her nimble and stylish male partner, Sammy White, rather than making her look good, illustrates just how numerous her limitations were. Further along, there is a balletic production number in which she poses gracefully in the close and medium shots, while the challenging movements and steps are all photographed in long shots, obviously performed by a double.
The story is trite and flimsy - not at all the screwball comedy it was clearly intended to be. Roscoe Karns and Allen Jenkins perform their characteristic screen roles, while Walter Catlett and Ruth Donnelly are unfortunately kept somewhat under wraps. Caught in the midst of all this - but doing his earnest best, as usual - is Clark Gable.
Postscript: Is it a fact that Hearst issued an order that Miss Davies was not to be kissed on the lips? In the half-dozen or so romantic clinches that follow the leading players' confession of their mutual love, Gable kisses her on the cheek and on the chin, getting as close to her mouth as possible, but clearly off-target.....like a number of other things in this forgettable picture.
So this time it's hoboes and railroad men. Though set in the Great Depression, the era seems almost an afterthought: there is no sense of desperation, the vagrants (considering their status) are relatively clean and decently dressed, and most appear to have a fair amount of spending/betting money on hand. From time to time they awkwardly lapse into hobo and railroad lingo which is delivered in a stiff, almost Shakespearean manner - i.e., about as far removed from everyday speech as one could imagine.
There are repetitions of episodes central to the story, and no effort to explain the source of the Borgnine character's intense sadism. The baptism scene, doubtless intended to be amusing, is totally gratuitous, as there was no need for Lee Marvin to be a participant in order for him and his partner to steal the others' clothing.
Good tracking shots and an effective (if overdone) use of extreme closeups, but this unoriginal adventure deserves its place in semi-obscurity.
The gags (can I call them that if they are not funny?) are so forced, so weak, so juvenile as to make an audience squirm. Wheeler and Woolsey were never worse; at their best (it says here) they were second-raters, with a very limited assortment of poses, gestures, and facial expressions. No one in this cast offers demonstrable talent. An amateur cast (and director) could have done more with the material (I've seen it happen). And let us not overlook totally mindless rendering of "I Got Rhythm" in the film's big production number.
Why did you tell me to watch this?
STAMBOUL QUEST is a cinematic comic strip in which everything is subordinate to the plot. Unfortunately, that plot sorely lacks suspenseful or adventurous elements, so that even with its reliance on double and triple cross, invisible ink, temporary insanity and a backdrop of references to Mata Hari, there is little to provoke the viewer's interest.
Despite an exalted Hollywood reputation, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz characteristically loads his films with uncinematic (and often lengthy) scenes of two characters in a room, talking...and talking. When the dialog is less than stimulating, as is the case here, the scenes are flat and the picture drags. Mankiewicz's approach is much better suited to the stage.
Myrna Loy does nicely with a part that requires her to keep her more intense emotions in check. But George Brent fails as an extroverted, happy-go-lucky American set in contrast to the formal, tradition-bound Old World characters who surround him; his high-spirited cavorting may be worthy of an adolescent, but would surely not generate feelings of love in Myrna Loy's worldly, self-possessed counterspy.
The main supporting roles are handled commendably by Lionel Atwill and C. Henry Gordon, both appearing in parts they have played on more than a few other occasions: the stiff, mannered European, and the wily, scheming Middle Easterner respectively.
There is not much to recommend this picture. It has been all-but-forgotten, and deservedly so.
This is the prototypical Jean Harlow character, done to the hilt by a very skilled performer who, in the final analysis, probably has more in common with Mae West than with Marilyn Monroe. If she played virtually the same character in almost every picture, she wasn't the first to do so. Her reputation as an actress deserves to be greatly enhanced.
Playing against type (to say the least) are Bela Lugosi doing an effective comic turn as a temperamental Latin/Hungarian (his accent is variable), and Ona Munson (she of the gritty roles in "Gone With the Wind" and "Shanghai Gesture" that came later) as an ingenue. These are curiosities worth seeing. But wait.....
Thelma Todd is here, too, playing the kind of role she did best, even if she hadn't Groucho's priceless reactions to her vamping. And what of Marjorie White, someone altogether new for me (and like Thelma Todd, destined to die young): a perky pepperpot with exceptional comedic attributes, mugging and bouncing throughout, creating a very appealing character without any of the comic (sic) lines having been written for her.
All in all, a third-rate picture well worth seeing.
[Don't fail to notice the latter, in a fit of anger, ready to throw a perfume bottle against the wall, then noticing the label and substituting a lesser brand; or Loy, keeping her composure as Warner Baxter chooses not to remain in her assigned room for the night, then immediately surveying her looks - right profile, left profile, hair, makeup - in a mirror, wondering if something has been lost.]
The picture needs more grit, given its subject matter. Comic relief from Charles Butterworth and Tom Kennedy are just what it doesn't need.
Lupe Velez is very much in the background in this entry, and Mantan Moreland, with notable comic skills, has little to do. The gangsters hiding in the basement are an awkward insertion, unrelated to the story line - such as it is. MacBride steals the show, in perhaps his greatest performance.
Admittedly (or arguably?) the ending is less than totally convincing, what with Joe's change of heart occurring too quickly and without sufficient motivation. Similarly, his determination to succeed (yes, at any price) is presented at the start as a result of his gangster brother's having been murdered. This appears unnecessary, and more than a little contrived. He wants to break out of a poor, aimless existence, and has a loyal, loving girlfriend encouraging him to do so. That's more than enough.
Even with those weaknesses punctuating the first and last five minutes of this picture, it remains a first-rate drama that can easily hold its own with a host of better-known films.
Her marvelous performance must rely on nuance to acquaint us with what is going on within the character: a lowering of the eyes, a tilt of the head, an ungainly walk without swinging her arms, a halting, inarticulate stammer, and more - much more - the types of things that define excellence in acting, absent of any opportunity to chew the scenery.
Long acknowledged as a first-rate talent who never received her due (and whose career was never properly promoted), Ida Lupino demonstrates in this film just how much she was capable of achieving, if given the opportunity.
As if its entertainment value were not enough, it has something to say, so cleverly that it mocks itself along with a half-dozen other victims. Where the movie business is concerned, nothing is what it seems to be - except when it is. At the center of it all are a press agent to whom lies come so naturally that he would require a moment of intense concentration before he could utter a word of truth - if he wanted to; and a colossal star, neither educated nor bright, a small-town girl who, without half-trying, becomes what every woman yearns to become - except that she yearns to be something else.
Jean Harlow was considerably more than a glamor girl. Limited (as many studio players were) to one type of screen persona, she brought it off with success in both comedy and drama, perfecting the mannerisms, gestures and nuances. Lee Tracy, born to play the kind of role he was given here (and elsewhere), is without peer as the fast-talking, shifty-eyed conniver, a rascal beholden to no ethical sense but his own. Their supporting cast - with a special nod to Frank Morgan's tipsy, dithering poseur - is uniformly excellent. Don't miss this one.
The performances are not at all bad, but then, one-dimensional characters don't present much of a challenge.
The story would be of interest even if it did not concern a famous person. Chaney's career provides a colorful background to an essentially human drama, one which may present its characters too often as one-dimensional prototypes lacking depth or subtlety, but is nevertheless a drama which (except for the maudlin deathbed scene) effectively develops the genuine emotional conflicts at its core. In a solid cast, Dorothy Malone, as Cleva, is most notable.
A curiously ambiguous ending might make you wonder what point the film was trying to make about morality. Be assured that after the Code was in effect, this picture would have ended differently.
Lawrence Tibbett lacks the commanding presence of a leading man. He and Grace Moore do not make for an electrifying couple. She looks old enough to be his mother (or, more charitably, he looks young enough to be her son). Of course, they sing beautifully and/or vigorously, as required. That's why they're in the picture. But it's not enough. Little or no help from Roland Young and Gus Shy in supposedly humorous supporting roles.
Powell and Loy, alone and together, are fine, as always. Credit Isabel Jewell with a low-key, yet emotionally-charged performance. Jessie Ralph is excellent is one extended scene in which she babbles and equivocates as the tension builds to a quiet frenzy. Una Merkel softens her familiar screen mannerisms to play the character, rather than vice versa.
Not a well-known film, "Evelyn Prentice" is most definitely worth your while.
Many episodes of 1950s TV situation comedies produced better results than this. Someone should have warned the paying customers to stay home.