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The Gallant Hours (1960)
A good Cagney movie that could have been far better
An unexpected *little* film from James Cagney. No snappy dancing, no slapping dames and bartenders around, no grapefruit saying hello to your face, no weird little body dance with the hitching up of pants, hunching the shoulders or snapping of fingers. No strutting or shooting locomotive engineers, no `Made it, Ma! Top of the World!.' Not even a glimpse of the old and much loved Warner Brothers logo for that matter.
In The Gallant Hours, Cagney, normally a smorgasbord of tics, sideways delights, raw energy, menace, and American good-guyism, does the least expected thing: he strips himself of all his familiar trademarks and instead delivers the most restrained, internalized, uncagneylike performance we've ever seen. Too bad it's a one-dimensional misrepresentation of the man he's playing---the crusty, bushy-eyed Fleet Admiral William F. *Bull* Halsey. But more about that in a minute.
Shot in black and white in semi-documentary style, The Gallant Hours is a low-budget, bare-bones, *cameo* production that doesn't attempt either the wide scope or the heroics of such better-known war films as Flying Fortress, Wake Island or Bataan. Instead, the film tightly focuses on the series of crucial, life-and-death decisions made by Admiral Halsey as he directs the desperate struggle in 1942 for possession of Guadalcanal, after it was discovered that the Japanese were building an airfield there from which they could launch attacks on Australia.
Produced and directed by actor and former naval officer Robert Montgomery, the film is a melange of the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The Gallant Hours has its moments, beginning auspiciously with a memorable opening scene of a lone sailor standing high up on a ship's mast, the camera then slowly panning down to reveal the rest of the ship's company massed on deck behind Halsey, who's crisply reading out his retirement orders. This is followed by a touching and well-done scene between him and his filipino valet, the two of them recalling the bloody, extended battle for Guadalcanal, which the film then turns to in extended flashback.
In place of battle action---there is none---the movie pads itself with several lightweight scenes that are either frivolous or yawn-inducing, such as when Halsey's aides, gathered on the beach, are oohing and ahhing over the ageing Admiral's prowess in the water, and, after Halsey has rejoined them, all of them then indulgently observing Dennis Weaver (as Halsey's chief pilot, Lt. Commander Andrew Jefferson 'Andy' Lowe) romping with a group of adoring navy nurses who are all agog over Dennis's tactical maneuvers.
The picture would have benefitted from scrapping fluff like this and sticking to the business of waging war, but no, the scriptwriters instead assume we require *entertainment*---the more mindless the better---in the form of multiple scenes of Dennis Weaver pursuing tail, or---the running gag for the first third of the film---Halsey finding ways of avoiding the innoculation shots that his medical officer wants to give him. Very jolly.
The production as a whole is intensely stylized and displays a palpable mood of mournfulness and regret over the horrific sacrifice of life among the Americans and their allies, who were desperately attempting to roll back the powerful Japanese advance in the South Pacific. This atmosphere is maintained throughout the film by the use of a soaring hymn-like musical score which suggests that the war at sea was virtually a holy war by the Allied Forces to save the world from the rampaging Axis powers.
Montgomery's direction is uneven and occasionally downright lazy, as when he several times settles for using the same boring establishing shot of Halsey's flagship sitting like a stilllife in port. Maybe, just once, he could have tried something else to establish the scene? And the sight of Dennis Weaver---one of my favorite actors---made to endlessly pursue more-than-willing navy nurses for comic relief shortly becomes tedious. Deprived of the opportunity to show battle action, the scriptwriters frequently appear to be vamping, for want of anything better to do.
For anyone who's seen John Ford's magnificent, eligiac 1945 wartime drama, They Were Expendable, in which Montgomery and John Wayne had starred, it will be obvious that the concept for The Gallant Hours was strongly influenced by the earlier film. Given the chance to direct, Montgomery apparently believed that what Ford could do, *he* could do better. But where Ford had sown his film with subtle tones of sadness, defeat, and loss, Montgomery drenches The Gallant Hours with painted-on emotion, conveyed primarily by its endlessly repeated score and a narrator who crisply and regularly informs you about which onscreen marine will be dead or badly injured in battle forty-five minutes later. They Were Expendable, now recognized as one of Ford's finest films, was effective without having to repeatedly cue its audience, while The Gallant Hours finds it necessary to frequently poke us when it's time to feel sad again or to grieve over incidents that are never depicted.
None of the above, however, is as off-kilter as the picture's biggest disappointment---its highly *edited* depiction of Halsey. The scriptwriters did an outrageous disservice to the public memory of Halsey by sanitizing the admiral into a nearly flawless, one-dimensional cardboard cutout---nearly a saint. He wasn't. According to his biographers, *Bull* Halsey was a salty, aggressive, Ulysses S. Grant-type warrior who liked his liquor---at one point he was receiving a monthly ration of seventeen cases of Scotch and six of bourbon, both for himself and for the purposes of entertaining others---and whose hatred of the Japanese was legendary and who exalted in killing them in large numbers, often allowing them to drown in the sea rather than picking them up and taking them prisoner. This was a man who was famous in naval circles for once erecting a large billboard that said, `Kill Japs! Kill Japs! Kill more Japs!' This wasn't a guy who, like his Japanese counterpart, Admiral Yamamoto, spent quality time arranging flowers to look just right for snapping with his Leica. Unsurprisingly, he was capable of exhibiting a ferocious temper if provoked and had other colorful human failings as well. The men who served with and under him loved and respected him in part for his being altogether human, for being one of them.
The Gallant Hours may get away with failing to show battle action, but it rolls over and dies when it fashions an utterly false picture of this great American wartime figure as a benign plaster saint who was followed by heavenly music wherever he went. Halsey's business was killing the enemy, not serving the Host to them during the Eucharist.
As for the film's lead, admittedly it is simply not possible to watch Jimmy Cagney and not enjoy him. The guy doesn't know how *not* to be interesting. But I would much rather have seen him play one of America's greatest naval warriors with all of that individual's various human qualities intact. It would have made for a much more compelling film.
It gets scarier with each new viewing
Were the 'fifties really this awful? The mind boggles.
Moviegoers in 1954 got excited when they heard that one of their favorite TV shows, Dragnet, had been made into a feature film. (I remember because I was one of them.) One now stares in wonder at this icon of the strange and far-off 'fifties, an era that was Eisenhower-sunny on the surface and dark and menacing just beneath it.
Dragnet the movie (eventually there was a second, on TV), now largely forgotten, was nothing more than an extended television episode made in color, while home sets were still black and white. Judging from the picture's low-rent set-ups, it must have been one of Warner Brothers' most cheaply made films for that year. A couple of scenes take place in empty fields, and---with the single exception when filming was done at the African wing of the Los Angeles County Museum---the indoor sets were not much more imposing. Many of the actors were frequently unemployed second-string players whose work did not make a deep impression.
In the intervening time since it was made the film has largely gone unseen and although it made it to video, it is little viewed in this form. (I found a dusty copy at a Half-Price book store, selling for a desperate-to-get-this-turkey-off-the-shelf $3.99!) Predictably, it has dated badly. That 'fifties audiences accepted the actors' rigidly stylized, robotic impersonations of police officers as representing the way they actually spoke in real life says something about Americans' willingness to uncritically accept virtually anything they saw in movies, and especially on TV. (Remember actors posing as doctors extolling the pleasures of smoking during cigarette commercials?) Dragnet's cops' signature manner of speaking---a flat, semi-technical, bureaucratic argot, spoken in low, monotonal voices---Webb's cops rarely if ever snarled---was one of the most memorable things about the show. Now this is seen for what it always was: unintentional self-satire. (On the other hand, to Webb's great credit, virtually all modern-day cop shows stemmed from Dragnet, untold imitations of which have been launched on television over the past five decades)
For more evidence of the film's antiquated point of view, watch the scene at the jazz club where Friday and Smith, seeking information about a criminal they're pursuing, converse with a musician who's one of their informants. There's a humorous moment when Smith gets a `real hip' handshake from the trumpet player that is nothing more than a quick swipe and a handful of air, then stares at his hand as if to figure out what had just transpired. This is followed by a three-way conversation during which the script clumsily has the musician work his way through an A to Z litany of now-moldy, 'fifties hipster clichés (`How's that chick?' `Really flipped, huh?' `Oh man, that's a drag,' `He was really nowhere,' `I've been diggin' it in the papers,' `He was jumpin' pretty steady with that Troy mob,' `Dig ya.') by way of what the screenwriter apparently must have regarded as establishing a well-rounded character.
Not only was the film disappointing in how little attempt was made to `open it up' for the big screen, but in some ways its narrowly focused two-for-a-nickel script was decidedly less interesting than what was shown on the television show. For example, it missed interesting possibilities for character development, especially as this pertained to Webb's Joe Friday and Ben Alexander's Frank Smith. (Some time after the film's debut, Webb finally recognized that television viewers yearned to know more about Joe Friday in his off-duty hours and so gave them glimpses of this law enforcement automaton's meager social life, including intriguing little dabs of romance.)
The film version also completely wastes the participation of Ben Alexander, the warmest and most appealing of all Joe Friday's sidekicks, leaving him with nothing to do except dutifully tag along with his superior officer and occasionally asking suspects or witnesses the odd question or two. The inspired daffy non sequiturs that his character, Frank Smith, regularly voiced in conversations with Joe Friday on the television show, which viewers loved and looked forward to, were almost entirely absent from the film. The one exception, which occurs during a brief back-and-forth with Webb about their individual food preferences, is so brief and isolated that it comes off as a self-conscious sop to audiences whom the screenwriter knew would be looking for it and falls flat.
Webb also was the film's director, and he went about most of these duties with a notable lack of imagination. The result is a picture that is dreary and monotonous from start to finish. He elicited almost uniformly wooden-and even occasionally embarrassing-performances from the cast (leaving one to wonder how much of his own money was invested in the film or what his deal was with Warner's, and whether he might even have deliberately restricted himself to printing the first take, no matter much a second or even a third might have been desirable). The scene where as Joe Friday he interrogates the crippled woman whose small-time crook of a husband has just been killed is mawkish, and the actors playing police officers are directed to be so deadly serious that scenes like this were subsequently lampooned to great effect in the Dan Aykroyd satire made in 1987. At one point a very competent actor, Richard Boone, is reduced to miming a series of grotesque scowls while instructing his subordinates. It's a wonder Webb didn't direct him to gnaw on a table leg.
Dragnet was a film that was mired deeply in its time and seems to evidence a disturbing subtext that relates to the American mindset as it was during the bland, conformist, and frightened Eisenhower/McCarthyite fifties. The Cold War was at its height in 1954 and fears by Americans of falling victim to communist manipulations and even outright mind-control were rampant. It may be no coincidence that Dragnet and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers appeared within two years of each other. The cops in Dragnet are not merely grim, intense, obsessed defenders of the law, they often border on being zombie-like. One of Dragnet's most explicit messages---brought home to audiences several times---was how, if only we didn't have so many laws and that darn Constitution, we could put a heck of a lot more criminals behind bars where they belong. I've replayed this film at least half a dozen times and each time I watched it, the scarier it seemed. It's interesting to contemplate what super-patriot Joe Friday, if given the power and left to his own devices, would have done to lawbreakers. Luckily for the bad guys in the film---and possibly for all the rest of us---he wasn't given access to nuclear weapons.
Raintree County (1957)
GWTW it's not
Raintree County, MGM's attempt to make a picture that would faintly remind audiences of Gone With the Wind, did have two things in common with the earlier film: Technicolor and length. Otherwise, it was a disaster, a clichéd period piece heavy on costumes, very light on absorbing human situations.
Raintree had two insurmountable problems: ham-handed direction and a clumsy, uninspired script that failed to flesh out the characters of several cast members including two leading players. Worst impacted was Monty Clift as Johnny Shawnessy, a role so bland that it offered the actor nothing to grab hold of. Johnny is simply a nice person, honorable, loyal, patient, and truthful. He is someone of good values, a person to rely on, occasionally funny in an adolescent sort of way, and a good son to his boring two-dimensional parents. (Correction. Agnes Moorhead as Johnny's mother is one dimensional. The script's fault, not hers.) In short, there's nothing interesting about Johnny. He's ordinary. Apparently, studio executives didn't see a problem with this, even though Johnny Shawnessy is continuously front and center in a film that originally ran for almost three hours, as it does again in the restored video version.
Clift, one of the most gifted American film actors of the twentieth century, knew he was prostituting himself by appearing in Raintree. He responded by delivering what is arguably the worst performance of his career. It's painful to watch him: in most of his scenes he appears pallid, slightly dwarfish, and insignificant, giving the impression that he was privately making believe he really wasn't in the film at all.
The first excruciating hour of the picture is almost enough to drive audiences out of the theater. Since GWTW was long, Raintree County is long--and unfocused. In one particularly vapid scene Monty and Eva Marie Saint linger amid the widescreen splendor of well-scouted, photographically appropriate locations. As the two exchange graduation presents with Laurel and Hardy-like formality, the script calls for Eva Marie to coyly break into girlish giggles and say things like `Isn't that niiieeccce?...We think the same things. Isn't that crazy? Tee-hee-hee-hee-hee.' Privately, Eva Marie must have been wondering what crime she might have committed to have caused fate to whirl her from the triumph of her 1954 performance in On the Waterfront to this swampy mess.
The film is equally inept in making use of Lee Marvin, who was reduced to doing his loutish, clumsy, I'm-so-dumb schtick. Marvin wasn't nearly as good at broad physical comedy as he and some others seemed to think he was. (Doing more subtle comedy, however, where less is more, was another thing altogether for Marvin. Watch him as a clueless wannabe in a wonderful film like Pocket Money to see what he can do with a great comic role.) We watch as Lee challenges Monty first to a race (lots of grotesquely exaggerated, manly calisthenics at the starting line), then to see who can out-drink the other, while a dozen equally buffoonish male extras shout and yell on cue. Johnny, a guileless innocent, gets thoroughly looped for the first time in his life, whoops it up, and executes a flying swan dive into a bunch of liquor barrels. (In real life, Monty was a little less innocent than Johnny Shawnessy; according to his biographers, he was a walking all-nite pharmacy of illicit substances.)
To give credit where it's due, the film is briefly buoyed by the presence of the wonderful Nigel Patrick as a roguish schoolmaster with an eye for other men's wives. Happily for us, Patrick steals all of his scenes, impatiently bellowing at or comically insulting his young charges and generally pumping some desperately needed fire and energy into the film.
After a very long time, something of major interest finally occurs: Elizabeth Taylor makes her entrance. Sexy, conniving, dark-eyed Liz steals Johnny away from poor, decent Eva Marie and soon hornswoggles him into marrying her by falsely claiming to be pregnant. While on their honeymoon aboard a paddlewheeler, she nonchalantly arranges a dozen dolls on their bed and shows Monty her all-time favorite, a hideous half-white, half-black doll, appearing burnt in a fire and looking like it was designed by Bela Lugosi. This creepy figurine seemingly makes no impression on Monty, even as members of the audience are rearing back in horror, crossing themselves, and yelling `Monty! Watch out!!'
Taylor delivers a solid performance that displays the rising talent that she had already shown a few years before in A Place in the Sun and which would later would come to fruition in such films as Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Giant. As Susanna Drake, she is initially sexually beguiling towards Johnny. Then, after they marry, she begins to show the first signs of the madness within her. As the atmosphere around her grows slowly darker, you find yourself surprised to realize you're at last being drawn into the story. The actress took a gamble with this unsympathetic role, that of a southern-born woman who fails to see anything wrong with owning slaves and is terrified of possibly finding that she might have a single drop of `negra' blood in her veins. At the same time she manages to elicit a measure of sympathy for this narrow and unbalanced woman by displaying a touching vulnerability simultaneously with her fear of what's happening to her mind.
If anyone triumphs in this upholstered turkey, it's Liz Taylor, always a born survivor.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce the movie is only secondarily about a woman named Mildred Pierce. First and foremost it's about an actress named Joan Crawford who at that point in her career was entering the "I have survived being fired by Louie B. Mayer, and now I am emerging as an icon" stage. Crawford was, by the time of Mildred Pierce, a franchise operation, or like a popular canned product, so familiar to moviegoers that you knew you could utterly rely upon it--if that's what you liked. And in Mildred Pierce, you get the real Joan-the image, the eyebrows, the Mount Rushmore face, the will power, the stance, the furs, the held-in angst, the stoic suffering, the sacrificing, and finally the overcoming. Wohh, Daddy! Movie heaven! Or so audiences were taught to think in 1945.
Never mind that the film has an air of rank artificiality about it from first to last. Never mind that nearly all the characters are pasteboard. Never mind that the clunky, downmarket script rarely rises above the level of turgid soap opera or dares have a single line of dialogue that wouldn't pass muster with the masses of lower-middle-class audiences who sat in most of the seats in one of the hundreds of Warner Brothers theaters. Never mind that Anne Blythe's role as Veda, the scheming, duplicitous daughter, forces her to behave like one of those wind-up doll jokes: turn the key and she mechanically betrays you, over and over and over... Why Crawford as Pierce would ever love a creature as rotten as Veda is never explained. Unless of course Veda reminded Mildred of Joan Crawford. What a triangle that would have made.
None of this is to say that the film doesn't have some interest-value. Jack Carson, normally an actor I back away from, manages to inject a certain pathos to the role of the ever untrustworthy Wally, a man who just can't seem to help himself when he commits his next act of betrayal or next attempt to sexually exploit the nearest female. The cop on the beat who stops Joan from jumping into the freezing water beneath the pier has a couple of wry moments, and the cold and misty pier set itself is impressive. Zachary Scott is more or less believable as Monty, Joan's second, ne'er'-do-well husband, and he has some good lines, particularly when Joan offers to give him a load of cash in order to get rid of him and he says "Thanks, Mildred. Now I know what it feels like to be tipped." And the noir lighting, as many fans of the movie have noticed, is first rate (even though Mildred Pierce is nothing more than a noir-wannabe, one with way too much sunlight, scenes of California beaches, restaurants that are cheerful and busy and profitable--and of course the leading lady's wardrobe. No wardrobe like this ever made it into any noir that I'm aware of).
But none of the above-mentioned elements can save the film from itself. The scenes at the police station would likely induce laughter from today's audiences. For example, the unctuous chief of detectives, explaining modern crime-solving to Joan by way of a tinker toy analogy and with great solemenity, as if communicating some awfully complicated procedure to a retarded seven-year-old: "You know, Mrs. Berrigan, being a detective is like, wellllll, like making an automobile..." Minutes later, when the prime suspect---her first husband---is marched into the office to Joan's gasps of "No! No!," the chief, again in his undertaker-like presentation style: "Yes." (Pause) "He did it." (Pause) "Your first husband." (Pause) "Pierce." Loud audience gasps all around, one imagines.
This is just skimming the surface, though. Several things swamp the picture in tedium, big-time. First, as already indicated, the movie obsessively focuses on Crawford, whose willed nondisplay of emotion is apt to induce widespread sonambulism throughout the theater. Possibly she had Garbo in mind and hoped to have the same effect on audiences. The only problem with that idea was that plain-Jane Joan was no Garbo. She had no mystique; in Mildred Pierce she looks most at home wearing an apron and wiping a fine sheen of sweat from her face while emerging from a hot kitchen. This is intriguing?
The situation with the largely immobile Crawford visage was made worse by a closely related difficulty that no amount of script-doctoring could surmount. Unlike the leading character in the James M. Cain novel, the screenwriters crafted their Mildred Pierce as an inhumanly noble, patient and ever-understanding female, a sort of Culver City Mother Theresa type. Confronted with this paragon of selflessness, one might well wonder, Does an over-controlled goody two-shoes like this ever assume any but the missionary position in bed? Unlikely. (In the book Mildred is so often in and out of the sack with various bedmates that a turnstile might have been in order.) In the flick she's an elevated, yawn-inducing symbol of virtue reminiscent of nothing less than the Statue of Liberty, but with a better wardrobe.
Worst of all, parts of the script were written at different times by an endless conga line of screenwriters (including, briefly, William Faulkner), while producer Jerry Wald chose bits and pieces from as many as a dozen treatments and gingerly dropped them into the film like a twelve-year-old experimentally dropping odd-ball items into a stew and hoping for the best.
The overall result is a picture that doesn't work, whose parts don't convincingly cohere. More than anything else Mildred Pierce, the movie, projects a cold, eerie sense of anonymity. It's like an impressive, fully furnished house with all the interior lights blazing, but where there is no sign of human inhabitants and no owner to be found. It's one of the most unpersuasive films from Warner Brothers I've ever watched. From beginning to end, you never, ever forget you're watching a movie. Apart from a moment here and there, it doesn't draw you in.
In Harm's Way (1965)
Once again proves Wayne a superior actor
Compared to Preminger's flawlessly sewn-together Anatomy of a Murder, In Harm's Way is an uneven patchwork marred by an inept staging of the attack on Pearl Harbor, sea battles fought by obvious miniatures, grainy file footage of ships and planes, and too many subplots that dilute the film. That said, IHW remains eminently watchable for its many good things, which include one of the best jobs of acting that John Wayne ever did.
However, IHW begins so badly (with a crudely done bit on marital infidelity and its lethal consequences) that you might be tempted not to hang around for what follows. Fairly shortly, the raid on Pearl Harbor occurs--wildly careening cars, houses on fire, ships trying to escape, etc. The best part is the several huge but harmless explosions in the water (presumably from bombs dropped by swift, low-flying Jap zeros--but strangely these planes are never quite low enough to be seen in the same shot; not even the planes' shadows are seen; gee, maybe there are no low-flying planes, d'ya think? Now, dissolve to Kirk Douglas as Captain Paul Eddington, identifying his wife's body in the morgue...
And so it goes for the next 150 minutes or so. I leave it to my fellow reviewers to catalogue the hundred or so plot twists and turns that follow with metronomic regularity, some of which are tedious or unlikely.
Fortunately, the film has several key strengths: its actions at sea, its exploration of character, and the interactions and relationships among a large cast of characters. But the very best things are the two leads, Wayne and Neal. John Wayne's impressive performance as Captain--later Rear Admiral--Rockwell Torrey is possibly the best he delivered during this mature stage of his career. This isn't the commanding, dangerous and pig-headed Wayne of Red River and The Searchers, or the later one-dimensional super-patriot of The Green Berets, but a Wayne I don't think I've seen before: a thoughtful man with high-level responsibilities, lonely, sensitive, and courteous to everyone (except when he finally loses his temper with a supercilious DeWilde and threatens to toss him into the drink). When lucky enough to get a role like this, Wayne was capable of great charm and warmth, and here these qualities are on full display. One of the most persuasive elements of that charm was Wayne's ability to be a great listener when someone else was talking to him. Contrary to what many people assume, Wayne was a dedicated, lifelong student of acting, and the style he developed was so easy and natural that some folks mistakenly thought he was no actor at all. If his narrow range restricted him to repeatedly playing certain types, within that range he was capable of great nuance and subtlty.
As for Patricia Neal, she has never looked or acted better--not even in Hud--than she does here. One of the least recognized of the handful of great American actresses, she portrays a highly intelligent woman in IHW and one who's been-around-the-block several times, a woman with her own disappointments, but still game, straightforward and decent whatever the circumstances, eyes gleaming with a certain good-humored knowingness, always hoping something will turn up. Capping all this is her suggestion of the none-too-delicate sexuality of a still-attractive woman who needs and wants a good man.
Like Wayne, Neal exhibits an impressive natural quality onscreen, one that attracts you to her and makes you want to know her. As a nurse in wartime, she is utterly convincing, and her initial interactions with Wayne are marked by open curiosity, interest, and an absolute lack of female coyness. His own straightforwardness is slightly shaded by a natural senior officer's reserve, but always accompanied by courtesy and honesty. She isn't flirty; he isn't macho, and the two hit it off. Preminger directs them together with a masterly touch, light and easy, and these scenes are the best things in the film. You want to watch them over and over, they're so real, so satisfying.
Of the numerous subplots, one of the more interesting ones involves Wayne's relationship--or more accurately, his lack of relationship--with Jerre (DeWilde), the son he barely knows, produced in a long-ago brief marriage he stepped away from. Now the kid, who holds a deep-seated grudge against his father, unexpectedly finds himself under Wayne's command in the South Pacific. The interplay between the angry young man and the cautious Wayne makes it clear that a reconciliation between them may be long and difficult in coming. Yet any movie-goer with half a brain knows that all will come out right in the end, and it does, of course, but not quite as easily as you might think.
There is one very good laugh in the film. DeWilde and his PT boat captain are hurriedly getting ready to go into night action against a far superior Japanese fleet, which includes the monster battleship, the Yamamoto. There's a good chance no one aboard the torpedo boat will come back alive from this mission. As he nervously adjusts his life jacket and helmet, and tremendously tense, DeWilde grimly asks his superior, quite seriously, "Skipper, if I let you down, would you please shoot me?" Comes the laconic response from the senior officer: "Sure."
Wayne has a particular moment in this picture that shows what he could do with a one-word line that likely would have been handled in a more ordinary fashion by an actor of lesser talents. This occurs late in the film when he and Burgess Meredith, aboard ship, realize they're about to become involved in a murderous naval battle. Meredith (a fine actor himself) confesses that he's terribly frightened, then asks Wayne, "Do admirals get scared too?," meaning Wayne personally, of course. Wayne takes his time before he answers, giving Meredith a silent, appraising glance while deciding how honest he's willing to be, then, reluctantly--as if the answer is being pulled out of him--allows a simple drawn-out "Yesss" to escape his lips, giving the response a unique delivery that impresses with its mixture of reluctance and momentary self-unmasking. Spoken by a strong man who's also vulnerable and as inwardly frightened as his junior officer, this is pure, distilled John Wayne.
Perhaps the best noir ever made
I hate formal film evaluation lists that ostentatiously rate the relative value of certain films, such as Citizen Kane for example. I do think Citizen Kane is a great film. But I also think that about fifteen or twenty other films I could quickly name are every bit as good as Kane in their own way. (Almost any Richard Gere movie, for example. Just kidding.)
This brings me to D.O.A., directed by Rudolf Maté. D.O.A. in my book is the Citizen Kane of the noirs. It's so good that I often wonder about how it got made in the first place. Since many of the people who were involved in its production are now no longer with us, I may never learn anything about its origins. That's a frustration, of course, but the more important thing is that I can recognize a great noir when I see it.
Why, you ask, is D.O.A. a great noir? The most obvious reason is its plot. A guy goes out for a night on the town and someone, a total stranger, slips him a mickey in a bar-a lethal mickey. But it doesn't kill him instantly. It kills him slowly, so slowly that he's given the chance to find out who did this terrible thing to him, and why.
Second, the film is exceptionally well made in every other respect. Okay, the Pamela Britton character is one dimensional and embarrassing, we all agree on that, but who really cares when everything else in the film is so good? Edmond O'Brien had one of the best roles of his career in D.O.A., and he took full advantage, though few critics give his performance much credit for the film's success.
O'Brien, a classically trained actor, plays a small-time Southern California businessman living his ordinary little life, minding his own business, regularly boffing his secretary (this was implied rather than made explicit; after all, this was 1949), and avoiding her whiney entreaties that they tie the knot, as he's been promising her he would do for ever so long.
You can't help liking O'Brien in part precisely because of his human flaws. He's basically decent, but harassed, overworked, and stretched to the limit by the pressure put on him by Britton. What adult male couldn't identify with this man, or at least sympathize? His very insignificance as one more human ant on the planet Earth, and the terrible thing that's about to happen to him, are the essence of great film noir. (Detour, although by no means a favorite noir of mine, is nevertheless another perfect example of an ordinary man, a small-timer, minding his own business and unexpectedly colliding with Fate and all that it has in store for him.) We resonate to D.O.A. because fate and contingency have been the fundamental conditions of life on the planet earth since before the beginning of history. Our time on Earth is brief and our lives but little scraps of paper blown about by the wind toward endings we know not. We live noir lives.
The film's particulars are wonderful. From the sunny hick town of Banning, the movie switches quickly to San Francisco. If ever there were a noir town, it's Frisco. (Hitchcock picked up on that real quick; watch Vertigo again to see how he saw the eerie side to that town, with its creepy deserted streets, little ghostlike fog-blown urban hills, and other abandoned places suggestive of loneliness and soullessness.)
From here one great noir scene follows another in astonishing succession: the smoky, crowded jazz bar where the sweaty black musicians are blowing up a storm (to an all-white 1949 audience of course), while a murder is silently committed with a switched drink. The doctor holding the eerily glowing glass tube of luminescent poison and informing O'Brien, "You've been murdered." O'Brien running through the crowded downtown streets like a madman, as if velocity could help him escape his fate. O'Brien, after being shot at, a gun now in his own hand, looking for his killer in the abandoned processing plant. His encounter with Luther Adler's insane, sadistic henchman played by Neville Brand. Brand, speaking softly, glints of spittle in the corners of his mouth, nutty little eyes lighting up with anticipated pleasure: "I'm gonna give it to you in the belly. You're soft in the belly, aren't'cha? " Then the fantastic night scene in the crowded Los Angeles drugstore with Brand stalking him among oblivious customers-till shots ring out, then screams, followed by death. Finally, again at night, O'Brien's confrontation with his killer, which (inevitably) occurs in the Bradbury Building, that great architectural shrine to noir, scene of so many other noir films.
Let's stop for a moment and go back to an earlier part of the film. Fatally poisoned, still not quite believing what has happened to him, exhausted and uncertain of anything, O'Brien has run for block after block, but now his energy has finally petered out and he finds himself alone near the docks. Utterly depleted, all hope lost, he wearily leans against the side of an old wooden newsstand in an otherwise bleak, abandoned area. Eyes glazing over, he's terrified, trying to catch his breath. During a medium close-up we briefly study him, then notice something to his left, a single long vertical row of magazines, all identical covers, arranged down the side of the kiosk just half a hand away from him. He isn't looking at them, isn't really aware of them, but we are. For just a few seconds we see: Life, Life, Life, Life, Life, Life, Life. Then the film quickly moves on and goes about its business, as if we had been shown nothing of importance.
You tell me this isn't a great film noir.
Cold isn't the word for it
For reasons we may never know, Richard Burton did his most inspired work when cast as a suffering or doomed character in pictures such as Becket, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, and Night of the Iguana. As the burnt-out British spy, Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, his suffering practically becomes an alternate and truer language than mere speech. Burton portrays Leamas so effectively that you can't help but wonder what sort of depths within his being supply the peculiar energy needed for portrayals of this kind. His performance is so powerful that it would be wrong to say that watching him is a great pleasure; that would be like saying you enjoy the sight of a large animal slowly tearing itself to pieces before your eyes.
The film as a whole is relentlessly grim from start to finish, and is miles from James Bond territory. Not only is it shot in black and white, but there isn't a single scene blessed with sunlight. Such was director Martin Ritt's determination to create not merely a portrait of one man in his own personal hell, but to imply that under the conditions of cold war, life in western civilization is apt to be psychically deadening for all. Throughout, the condition of being almost permanently cold seems to be fundamental to Spy, so that by the time the film ends you want to consume a stiff hot drink and hug someone.
The plot is this: Leamas returns to Britain after a fatally botched operation in Berlin, shaken and despondent, but wanting to go back out into the field (probably in part to redeem himself in his own eyes). Control, the head of the spy organization, asks him to participate in a scheme to destroy Mundt, their East German enemy. Leamas's assignment is to pretend to have been thrown out of his job and appear to go completely to seed, leaving himself open to recruitment by East German agents in London, who quickly make their appearance on cue. The rest of the movie follows Leamas as he's lured by stages to East Germany, and ultimately brought to the realization that he's been nothing but a pawn used by both sides to accomplish Byzantine ends that he couldn't see coming.
What particularly intrigues me about all this is whether Leamas merely impersonates someone who goes to seed or actually does so after a lifetime of spying. Was he an alcoholic by the time he got this assignment, or was he only pretending to be? Did the strain of months of intentional impersonation as a drunken, defrocked agent unexpectedly take hold of him and hasten a downward slide? The film is never clear on this.
Aside from Burton, Spy offers a slew of notable British and German actors in supporting roles. Cyril Cusack as Leamas's chief is onscreen for only two brief periods, yet it's hard to take your eyes off this wily Irishman, so soft-spoken and detached as he calmly explains how he's going to spin his web to catch Mundt. In his quiet way, Cusack comes close to stealing the scenes he shares with Burton-an impossibility for any ordinary supporting actor. Claire Bloom plays an unmarried woman, an openly and sincerely devoted communist who befriends Leamas when he goes to work in the small library where she's employed. Michael Hordern, a British treasure, is a recruiter for the East German spy ring and makes Leamas's acquaintance when the latter finishes a brief prison term for savagely beating a grocer (in order to attract the East Germans' attention to himself). Hordern's character is a sensitive old queen, and Leamas is sarcastically contemptuous of him, making a series of cutting remarks that would not be politically correct nowadays. Oscar Werner, one of the most appealing film actors of the 20th century (Interlude, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Jules and Jim, Fahrenheit 451, Ship of Fools), gives another of his many impressive performances as a dedicated East German Communist who slowly forms a liking for Leamas; and Peter Van Eyck (whom you've seen playing Nazis in dozens of films) as his brutal superior, Mundt, is unpleasantly convincing as someone quite ready to destroy anyone standing in his way.
Spy, based on John LeCarré's first great espionage novel, is one of the most tightly constructed motion pictures I've ever seen. It doesn't have a wasted frame of film, never yields an inch nor gives the audience a break, and doesn't falter in its view of a career in espionage as damaging and inhuman. Everyone involved is exploited, corrupted, treacherous, or at least disillusioned, and the ones who aren't are usually murdered. Lies are the lingua franca of the people who populate this movie. There are no personal triumphs, not even of spirit remaining triumphant over loss, and the ending remains one of the classic downers in the history of sound films. This was a movie whose makers risked bad-mouth publicity and the loss of audiences. Executives at Paramount, the company that produced it, must have suffered night sweats before the reviews came out.
Made more than 30 years ago, the movie has lost none of its power to emotionally affect audiences. Martin Ritt, whose own career had been temporarily ruined by the Communist witch hunt during the McCarthy era, had a feeling of sympathy for doomed, burnt-out losers caught in a system or situation not (usually) of their own making, struggling to no avail, then ultimately being swallowed up or simply discarded (cf. The Great White Hope, Hud, The Front, and No Down Payment). After several years, Ritt managed to re-establish himself in Hollywood; many others who were driven out of their jobs were unable to ever come back.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a classic of its kind. In terms of its economy of presentation, it could be profitably studied by many of today's filmmakers as a lesson in masterly, well-honed, adult filmmaking.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
In a Lonely Place, practically an unknown Bogart film, has lately undergone a reappraisal from certain corners, with one of the actor's many biographers even proclaiming that it's a masterpiece. (Note: this same gentleman thinks The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a dull and boring failure. Questions, anyone?) Granted, any Bogart film made in the actor's prime is worth consideration, especially one directed by Nicholas Ray and co-starring Gloria Grahame, but this one is such a loser that future film school students may study it as an example of a Really Bad Picture.
Just to start with, it suffers pictorially from a surprising lack of craftsmanship, most particularly in its uninspired photography and set-ups, which give the entire film a distinctly cheesy look. This is a mere quibble, however, compared to one of the picture's more damaging problems: a dull, uninspired plot centering on a tedious murder mystery and populated by a host of two-dimensional characters, e.g., the loyal, long-suffering, good-hearted Hollywood agent, the dumb hat-check girl, the army buddy who believes in the put-upon and suspect main character (Dixon Steele, a screenwriter, played by Bogart), and the angry, overbearing masseuse (who was my guess as the real killer). The dialogue, which is humdrum, is at its worst when it wants to impress the audience with its sophistication, as when Steele expounds on "good" screenwriting to Grahame, a howler considering the caliber of the screenwriting that went into the film in which Bogart and Grahame themselves have actually found themselves!).
There is also the matter of the picture supposedly being an "inside Hollywood" story, which it hardly is. In a Lonely Place is only superficially about Hollywood; other films from the same period have provided a much more penetrating and candid look at the motion picture industry, including the people who labor in it, the betrayals that are commonplace, and that magnificent monster, the general studio system that prevailed at the time. At its heart, the real story that the film intends-but which is muffled and obscured by nearly everything that surrounds it-is that of a lonely, sensitive, and gifted man who desperately needs a fulfilling relationship with a woman, but who frequently goes out of control, and who ultimately destroys the love that a good woman finally offers him. If this had been presented persuasively enough to move an audience, the film's other flaws probably would have been worth forgiving.
One particular difficulty dwarfs all the others, and the film is effectively sunk by it. The casting of Humphrey Bogart must have seemed the perfect choice for the role of the tortured and insecure Dixon Steele, and in scenes that call for him to act violently, he's frighteningly effective. But elsewhere, such as in his love scenes with Gloria Grahame, or when he's simply trying to show the better side of Dixon Steele's personality, he appears stiff and unpersuasive. An actor who was capable of tremendous force and audience appeal, Bogart, like many Hollywood greats, had a narrow range and was usually smart enough to pick roles he could shine in. Perhaps with a better script the actor might have been able to demonstrate some of the underlying complexities of his character, which might have led to a riveting performance like the one he gave in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (A few years later he had another chance to show what he could do with a role as a paranoid when he played Captain Queeg in producer Stanley Kramer's The Caine Mutiny: there he neatly stole the picture from his co-stars and walked away with it in his pocket.)
In a Lonely Place features one of the worst performances that Humphrey Bogart ever gave. It's a crude impersonation, nearly a pantomime, of a certain type of human being whose motivations and inner workings have completely eluded the actor. So what he settles for, and what we the audience get, is a desperate series of crude external mannerisms-grimaces, hateful looks, infantile physicality-all meant to signal a psychic disturbance that is more obscured by these things than revealed by them. (By comparison, watch James Mason in a similar role-a nasty, out-of-control drunk-in the first scenes of A Star Is Born, where his anger is almost entirely masked, except in a few spare moments of sudden and truly frightening physical visciousness toward others.) Sadly, it's also hard to resist assuming that Bogart was never given less help by a director in any motion picture of his mature period than he got from Nicholas Ray during the filming of In a Lonely Place. He is simply at sea with the character he's struggling to connect with, and Ray, perhaps because of his own marital problems at the time (he was being divorced by Gloria Grahame), was apparently of little or no help to him.
The picture does have one minor but nevertheless interesting distinction: it's not a "typical" Humphrey Bogart movie. This may have persuaded audiences and critics at that time, and some people now (mainly academics, who tend to have odd ideas about motion pictures) that In a Lonely Place is really a buried gem. It isn't.
P.S. According to another biographer, and one of his best, A.M. Sperber, Bogart disliked the film.
The Rose Tattoo (1955)
An uneven film, with one great performance
Time has not been kind to The Rose Tattoo, a 1955 release that garnered three Oscars, plus additional nominations. Originally written by Tennessee Williams as a play, the film's shortcomings now cancel out much that audiences might have found entertaining about it 47 years ago. The deficits include bad acting all around (with the exception of the star, Anna Magnani) and an uneven script by Williams (who among other things was apparently clueless about how an adolescent boy and girl, attracted to each other, might talk or behave).
Playing the role of the dim-witted but sexy truck driver who courts a grieving widow (Magnani), Burt Lancaster gives a highly exaggerated "comedy performance" that is occasionally embarrassing to watch. A great natural actor in his other films and noted for his controlled physicallity, Lancaster here gawks, bends, waves his arms, makes faces, cries (clownishly), and is generally ape-like, all the while failing to get inside the character he's portraying. (Leading American actors have always had a problem convincingly playing people less intelligent than themselves; see Lon Chaney, Jr. in Of Mice and Men or, more recently, Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor for more examples of this.)
Under the direction of Daniel Mann (who also directed the play), and intended as a comedy-drama, almost everything in Rose Tattoo is either loud or overblown (though it may have been Williams' wish that it be played this way in a misguided attempt to heighten the humorous dimension of the story). The host of supporting characters are all portrayed as one-dimensional grotesques or harpies who telegraph their every thought or emotion by arm-waving, facial contortions, or semiphoring the kind of villainousness that went out in the early '30s. Nor does Mann seem to have fine control over the physical goings-on by cast members. In some scenes small groups of people rush back and forth like obedient cattle, too obviously responding to off-camera direction; and at the high school prom a male extra noticeably freezes for a second or two as he waits for Marisa Pavan and her sailor dance partner to leave the floor ahead of him.
Magnani, for whom the play was written (though she just appeared in the film, after she had mastered the rudiments of the English language), comes across as the only real human being among a slew of posturing marionettes. Her portrayal of a terribly put-upon Sicilian widow fighting off the knowledge of her dead husband's infidelity and desperately trying to maintain her dignity in the face of snide remarks and out-and-out insults is awe-inspiring. I doubt that her performance has ever been matched by any American actress before or after. (Only Vivien Leigh, a Brit, comes to mind as a mentally disintegrating Blanche du Bois in the film version of Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.) Williams, who was famously homosexual, understood and probably identified with vulnerable women. (Years before, his own sister, when a young woman, had been seriously mentally ill, "put away," and had undergone a lobotomy. It was no coincidence that her name was Rose.)