Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ann Carver’s Profession (Columbia, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Ann Carter’s Profession, an odd 1933 “B”-plus from Columbia with a couple of genuine stars, though not superstars, from other studios — Fay Wray and Gene Raymond — in a 71-minute vest-pocket movie, directed speedily and surprisingly artistically by Edward Buzzell from a script by Robert Riskin. For the first two-thirds this is actually quite a good movie, until the clichés kick in with a vengeance — Schreiber theorists who want to attribute the quality of all Frank Capra’s classic films to Riskin (even the ones Riskin didn’t write, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life) are going to have a problem with this one.

When we meet our leads, Ann Carver (Wray) and “Lightning” Bill Graham (Raymond), they’re seniors in college and about to graduate, he with a degree in architecture and she with a degree in law. He’s also the campus football star and has just won a poll conducted by the student paper for the “Most Popular Man on Campus” — a designation he resents so much that when the film opens he’s burning a clipping of his photo for that article over an open flame. The only girl on campus he has his eye on is Ann — there’s an astonishing tracking shot by Buzzell and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff that discovers them through the round window of the door from the dining area of the café where she works into the kitchen, and the camera appears to pass through the window as it dollies towards them and a close-up of their clinch (and people thought Gregg Toland’s shot through the skylight of Susan Alexander Kane’s nightclub in Citizen Kane eight years later was so innovative!) — and eventually they graduate, marry (shown by inserts of, in sequence, his architecture degree, her law degree and their marriage certificate) and settle in a small cottage on the outskirts of New York City while he gets a job doing hack work for a large architectural firm.

Just in case The Fountainhead has conditioned your expectation of what a movie about an architect will be like, this one will jar it — Bill resents the continued spillover of his one-time popularity on the gridiron and resents it even more when his wife drags him to a party hosted by Judge Bingham (a surprisingly serious Claude Gillingwater), who’s actually a retired judge who’s resumed work as an attorney. Ann went to the party hoping that Bill would meet some rich people who might be interested in backing his ideas as an architect (not that he appears actually to have any!); instead she started critiquing Judge Bingham’s plans for his latest case — representing a young man from a rich family who’s being sued for breach of promise by a light-skinned Black woman — and when Bingham looks at Bill and says, “Your wife sounds like a lawyer,” Bill replies, “She is a lawyer.”

Immediately she’s offered a job at Bingham’s firm, gets assigned to the case and wins it through a stratagem Charles recognized from a real case a few years before the movie was made: in 1924, New York socialite Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander sought an annulment of his marriage to a former servant girl, Alice Jones, on the ground that she was part-Black and had concealed that fact from him. Like his counterpart in the movie, he hired a retired judge, Isaac Mills, as his counsel — and Alice in turn hired a former protégé of Mills, Lee Parson Davis, as her lawyer — and in the middle of the trial, the judge ordered her to strip in his chambers so the jury could examine the color of her skin, and in particular that of her nipples, to see for themselves whether she was Black or white. In real life, Rhinelander lost his case (which also became famous because Bernarr MacFadden published in his notorious tabloid, the New York Evening Graphic, one of his famous “composographs,” a faked photo of the unveiling since the judge hadn’t allowed reporters or real photographers in his chambers); in the movie, however, Ann Carver’s sensational courtroom stunt (even though, this being Hollywood — even so-called “pre-Code” Hollywood — all the woman in the movie had to do was pull down the sleeve of her dress to show off her shoulder) wins the case for her wealthy client and launches her on a spectacular career.

Meanwhile, hubby gets more and more alienated as they move into more and more elaborate apartments and acquire a service staff — and the last straw for him is when the first of the month rolls around and she’s out of town on the case, the head butler demands their pay and he tells them he doesn’t have the money and they’re just going to have to wait until his wife gets back. Embarrassed, he quits his job at the architecture firm and accepts the offer of his former college friend Jim Thompson (Frank Albertson) — a thoroughly obnoxious person with the repulsive habit of dropping the terminal syllable of every word at the end of a sentence (“Everything’s perf!,” he says, meaning “perfect,” whenever anyone asks how he is) — who’s now the bandleader at the Club Mirador, to sing with the band. All Thompson really wants is to exploit Bill’s former fame as a football star — and in the scenes we get of Raymond actually singing ( lists two songs from this film, “There’s Life in Music” and “Why Can’t We Love Forever?”), his voice sounds considerably more ragged than it does in his other musicals, indicating that director Buzzell was deliberately having him sing at less than his best to depict the character as having at best a mediocre voice.

He also takes up with his fellow club vocalist, Carole Rogers (Claire Dodd) — she made a specialty of playing the “other woman,” and both she and Raymond appeared in films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (he in Flying Down to Rio and she in Roberta) — and the two sink into a despond of drink and dissipation after he moves out of his wife’s palatial apartment (not that she’s there very much, since she’s almost always working late or out of town on a case). Just in case you think Ann Carver has suffered enough for the “sins” of being a successful professional woman and making much more money than her husband, Riskin really kicks out the melodramatic jams; he has Carole Rogers fall over drunk in the apartment she more or less shares with Bill and has her strangled accidentally by the strap of her purse getting caught on the arm of their couch (which is carved with a gargoyle-like face whose expression seems to be commenting on the action). Later Bill comes home after a night of nightclubbing and drinking, too drunk to notice that his girlfriend is dead or to do anything else but make it as far as his bed and then pass out himself — and naturally, when the police find him passed out and her dead they arrest him for her murder and Our Heroine offers to defend him.

Riskin isn’t through twisting the knife into the side of his heroine; he has the prosecutor relentlessly attack Bill’s character — and Ann has to defend him by blaming the death on herself, saying in an intensely emotional speech (the quality of Riskin’s writing and Wray’s delivery only makes the sexist sentiments that much more loathsome) that it was all her fault that she sought success instead of being content with love and subordinating herself to her man. Bill’s acquitted, they’re reconciled and there’s an unbelievable tag scene that reveals he’s become a successful architect after all and they’re contemplating having a baby as the film fades out. (Charles noted the irony that roles like these were being played by the most highly paid women in the country at the time — and to add to the irony of this one in particular, nine years after it was made Fay Wray married Robert Riskin for real.)

Ann Carver’s Profession is a frustrating movie because so much of it is good, but the parts that aren't are so obnoxiously sexist they tend to cast a pall over the whole movie — and for some reason this one is even more bothersome in that regard than Scarlet Pages and some of the other career-girl-gets-her-comeuppance movies Hollywood was cranking out just then. It’s a real pity because Edward Buzzell’s sensitive and surprisingly visually inventive direction proves he was good for more than just pointing his cameras at the Marx Brothers, and likewise Fay Wray’s intense, sincere performance, in particular her strength at playing the scenes in which she’s a successful attorney, indicate she had far more acting talent than one would think if all you knew her as was the damsel in distress from Lionel Atwill or King Kong.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Underworld Trilogy (Screen Gems, 2003, 2006, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Underworld, not the 1927 Josef von Sternberg silent that marked the first true gangster picture (there’d been plenty of movies about crime before but none on the peculiar mixture of criminal enterprise and above-ground business that sprang up to provide alcoholic beverages to Americans during Prohibition) but a 2003 special-effects extravaganza starring Kate Beckinsale as Celine, a member of a “Death-Dealer” squadron of vampires devoted to the extermination of “Lycans” (werewolves to you) in the middle of an unnamed city that looks awfully like London. (The final credits identify this as a U.S.-British-German-Hungarian co-production, and among the people listed in the credit roll are some with “vampiric” first names like Bela — as in Lugosi, who you’ll recall was in both the original Dracula and The Wolf Man — and Vlad, the true first name of Vlad Tepes Drakulya the Impaler, the real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire character.)

The gimmick is that Lucian (Michael Sheen), the werewolf king supposedly killed 600 years before by vampire king Kraven (Shane Brolly), is in fact alive, and he and Kraven are working together for some unspecified but undoubtedly nefarious purpose. Not surprisingly, given that this is a youth-oriented movie with a young cast aimed at a young audience, the plot, such as it is, is a mere pretext for spectacular action sequences. The promotion for the film emphasized the Romeo and Juliet-like aspects of the story, as killer vampire Celine falls for Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), an internist who’s just been bitten by Lucian and, of course, turned into a Lycan himself — and it turns out that both vampires and Lycans are descendants of a Hungarian family who were infected with plague in the 13th century but whose viruses mutated, one to cause lycanthropy, one to cause vampirism, and one which left the person normally human but immune both to conventional plague symptoms and to the lycanthropic and vampiric symptoms associated with the other two mutations. (Well, it’s as good an explanation as any for the existence of vampires and werewolves in an otherwise recognizable 21st century urban environment.)

Much of the film consists of action scenes of vampire and werewolf death squads firing at each other with automatic pistols and machine guns, and writer Danny McBride (he shares story credit with Kevin Grevioux and director Len Wiseman but gets sole credit for the actual script) at least explains how vampires and werewolves can shoot each other: the vampires’ guns are loaded with silver bullets (duh) while the werewolves’ guns are loaded with bullets with luminous pale-blue spheres in the tips that create an instant flash of light once they explode inside a body, thereby subjecting the vampires to an artificial sunlight which has the same effect on them — instant death — as the real thing. McBride even explains how the vampires can afford to go through all those silver bullets — they own a company that makes artificial blood and plasma, which is not only profitable enough to fund their ammunition needs but has the beneficial side effect of providing them a source of food so they don’t have to keep putting the bite, as it were, on human beings (though they also feed on the blood of livestock à la some of Stoker’s junior vampires).

As long as you accept that what you’re going to see is a phantasmagoria of intense visual images tied to a plot that won’t make more than a lick of sense, Underworld is actually great fun. True, it’s not always that easy to tell who is who — particularly because most of the cast is young and the actors tend to look alike (especially Scott Speedman and Shane Brolly; it took me about one-third of the film before I was reliably able to tell them apart) — and some of the images are so camped-out as to be risible, particularly the sight of vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) being awakened from his tomb and revivified by plugging about 12 IV’s into the back of his body — but the sheer stunning visual quality of this film makes it entertaining, and there’s nothing as self-consciously gross as the eyeball soup in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indeed, I ordered the “unrated director’s cut” version of the film through the Columbia House DVD Club and was braced for some really gory, blood-spewing action that would have grossed out Charles and made me queasy, but nothing like that occurred (the closest to it we did get were some bizarre scenes of werewolves literally pushing out the potentially toxic silver bullets from inside, the bullets emerging back out of the entrance wounds and plopping safely to the ground beside their would-be victims). Director Len Wiseman kept his camera in almost constant motion, the fight scenes were brilliantly choreographed, and the look Wiseman and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts blessedly avoided the past-is-brown approach and created a convincing Gothic look by shooting as close to black-and-white as they could get in color and using color very sparingly. (Directors of neo-noir movies, please take note!) Wiseman even quoted one of the most famous Val Lewton gimmicks — in an early scene Celine is about to blow away some werewolves when a subway train suddenly blocks her view, and we hear the sound of the train before it enters the screen — though little of the film is at a Lewtonian level of subtlety, nor can we really expect it to be given what the modern market for the genre wants.

Like Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream (the only two films of his I’ve seen), Underworld was clearly made by people who would be capable of a subtler, more artistic approach to horror than they can get away with in today’s market, but even so it’s great entertainment and a far more appealing and believable combination of horror myths than Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the other clunkers Universal made during the dog days of their monster cycle after Lewton’s films had pushed RKO ahead of them in making truly artistic films in the genre, and it leaves me anticipating the sequel, Underworld: Evolution (which I imagine will be built around the sexual union of Celine and Michael — Michael having been established as the only human in the world who has both vampire and werewolf viruses in his system and can still survive — and what manner of creature it will produce), even though watching all those pitched battles in the subways and streets I couldn’t help but wonder why the collateral body count of normal humans caught in the crossfire wasn’t catching the attention of the human authorities — the only “cops” we see are two werewolf agents in disguise.

Still, it’s fun to see the digital effects work turning the human characters literally into feral creatures of the night, able to climb up walls and on ceilings in images Hieronymus Bosch would have loved to have painted — we’ve gone a long way since the days when John Fulton had to wait patiently for his double-exposure shots while Jack P. Pierce progressively plastered more and more of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s body with yak wool! — 9/21/06


I was finally ready to run Charles a movie: Underworld: Evolution, a 2006 sequel to the 2003 Underworld, the story of a centuries-old war between vampires and “Lycans” (werewolves) that has somehow managed to continue on earth, with a horrifically high body count on both sides, without the normal human population ever seeming to notice. (Anne Rice’s novels, whatever their deficiencies, at least did a better job of suggesting how her vampire cult could have existed under the radar of the rest of humanity for so long.) The previous film ends with “death-dealer” vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale in a hot, skin-tight black leather outfit) slicing the head off her father, Viktor (Bill Nighy), after she finds out he’s the latest in a long line of vampires that have betrayed her, and after she’s discovered Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), who has been bitten by both vampire and werewolf and therefore has become a “hybrid,” with characteristics of both.

This one begins back in the Middle Ages, with a sequence depicting the brothers Marcus (Tony Curran) and William (Brian Steele) Corvinus, sons of Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi — what a way to end a career that began so illustriously with I, Claudius, also, come to think of it, a tale of relatives murdering each other for power!) and founders of the vampire and Lycan races, respectively. (A written foreword helpfully explained that Marcus was bitten by a bat and thereby became a vampire, while William was bitten by a wolf and thereby became a werewolf; I joked, “Actually there was a third brother who was bitten by a gerbil, but we don’t talk about him.”) It seems that back then the human-to-Lycan transformation was one-way; it was only later, through internal discipline, that the Lycans learned to go back to being human once in a while -— until then they just became feral animals, raging killing machines without consciousness or conscience.

Then the film returns us to the early 21st century, with Selene opening up Marcus’s tomb — and having him turn out to be yet another deceitful baddie, though probably the coolest-looking character in either film: with extra arms that can pierce an entire body (with which he performs a bloodier version of the Vulcan mind-meld to get whatever information he needs at the moment) and cool bat-wings that descend from his original arms and enable him to fly. She goes around the world looking for other vampires with clues on how to defeat Marcus and finds vampire historian (I’m not making this up, you know!) Andreas Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), whom she discovers under house arrest made considerably more pleasurable than Marcus (who sentenced him centuries earlier) anticipated by the presence of two vampirettes (Christine Danielle and Kaja Gjesdal) who were apparently the result of a vampires’ blood-sucking raid on a Playboy Club one night.

Tanis bites the big one (pun definitely intended!) at Marcus’s hands, but not before revealing that the mysterious commander of a vampire ship (I’m not making that up, either!) is none other than Alexander Corvinus, father of both these clans and also distant ancestor of, you guessed it, Selene’s formerly mortal boyfriend, Michael Corvin, who at first turns down the bags of blood Selene offers him as his repast and then, as she warned him, gets violently ill when he tries to eat normal human food — which he does at, of all places, a Russian military base (“Yeah, we know the food is bad, but it’s usually not that bad!”).

Underworld: Evolution is one of those obnoxious sequelae that doesn’t really go beyond the earlier episode but instead offers just more: more exciting action, more blood, more gore, more bodies (it’s the sort of film where the credits include a listing for “corpse creation,” and the credited corpse creator, Joel Echallier, definitely earned whatever they paid him), and also more incomprehensible plot twists and a lot more scenes in which director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride (they collaborated on the original story and Kevin Grevioux is credited with them for having created the characters in the first place) rather rawly introduce us to new dramatis personae just by cutting them in and evoking the age-old question, “Who the hell is he?”

It has most of the virtues of the first film, particularly a steely-gray look that proves to be a good way of doing Gothic in color (thanks be to cinematographer Simon Duggan for not bathing it all in murky brown!) and would be a good way of doing noir in color as well, and a script that at least feints at explaining who all these people are and what they need to do to kill each other. Alas, it’s weaker than the first one simply because this time around the plot makes even less sense than the previous one did, and the predictable action set-piece at the end (William the werewolf is revivified — and he looks all too much like a pretty ordinary feral dog the pound is about to have to put down, and he and Marcus have the inevitable battle to the death which they both lose) offers us a pretty pat resolution of the plot.

At least we get a rather chilly sex scene between Beckinsale and Speedman, though carefully framed to avoid showing any “naughty bits,” as well as yet another orgy scene (this time between Tanis and his Playboy Bunny vampire pets) that suggests an alternate title could have been Fangs Wide Shut. I don’t want to sound too hard on the Underworld movies because they’re actually quite entertaining for the genre and the era; the gore almost never seems gratuitous and the filmmakers obviously aimed at a work of some taste (the Matrix influences are obvious in the big effects set-pieces but McBride and Wiseman are nowhere near as opportunistic in their plotting as the Wachowskis were), though they could have done better by making the movie even more restrained (their quote of the famous Val Lewton “bus” effect in the first Underworld convinces me that they’ve seen the classics and would be able to duplicate their approach if they didn’t know too well how little patience modern audiences would have for that sort of thing). — 10/2/06


I ran us the third film in the Underworld series, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, which I didn’t realize until I read the blurb on the DVD box wasn’t a sequel to the previous Underworlds but a prequel, set in medieval times two generations after the mutated plague bacteria that gave birth to the new life forms the cycle depicts, vampires and “lycans” — a.k.a., werewolves. In the first two generations of lycans, a rather unctuous narrator explains at the beginning, they were simply people who changed into wolves — they never changed back. Then another mutation arose and a baby was born with the ability to change from human to wolf and back, and Viktor (Bill Nighy), the leader of the vampire clan, decides to use him to transmit the new-style lycan mutation to other humans, then puts collars around them (parts of this movie do look like a particularly violent S/M play party!) and forces them to stand guard as slaves around the vampires’ castle, so the vampires will have a security guard to repel anyone that might try to attack them during the day, when they’re vulnerable.

Once the exposition is complete, the main part of the film is sort of Romeo and Juliet meets Spartacus, as Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first lycan “switch,” and Viktor’s vampire daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) fall in love and Lucian rallies his fellow lycans to rebel against their vampire masters, forging a key with which they can remove their collars to make that possible. The script is by the usual committee, and it’s a sign of the times that the writing credits feature nine listings even though they only represent six actual people: the screenplay is by Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (nice to know a “Blackman” and someone named McCain can work together on something!) based on a story by Len Wiseman, Robert Orr and McBride, in turn based on characters created by Wiseman, McBride and Kevin Grevioux — and Grevioux is actually in the movie as Raze, one of Lucian’s lieutenants and a rather incongruous Black person in an otherwise all-white world.

The writing committee never made it clear whether the collars are simply symbolic of slavery or they contain some magic power that actually saps their wearers’ wills and forces them into obedience (though, judging from Lucian’s attitude when he’s wearing one — which isn’t appreciably less rebellious than when he isn’t — it’s hard to believe they have much intrinsic power), and there really isn’t much more plot to it than the basics of a war between lycans and vampires that ends inconclusively, since according to the first two movies it’s been continuing for at least 500 years and is still going on in our own time.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is the first episode in the series that wasn’t directed by Len Wiseman, a genuinely talented filmmaker with a feel for the history of his genre (my love and respect for the first Underworld were probably cemented when it included a copy of the famous scene in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur Cat People in which the climax of a shock scene was the hissing airbrake of a bus — an innocuous sound that in this context made audiences both in1942 and 2003 leap with fright); instead, this time around they gave the direction to the effects guy, Patrick Tatopoulos. Naturally he kept the visual style Wiseman and company had established in the first two films — notably the steely-gray, almost monochrome overall “look” to establish Gothic atmosphere — and I don’t think it’s fair to blame Tatopoulos for a comparatively uninteresting script.

There are some quite spectacular scenes, including one of unearthly beauty in which Lucian calls out to his fellow Lycans in various stages of werewolf-dom; another in which Viktor consigns Sonja to execution by putting her in a room and then slowly opening the skylight, which since she’s a vampire condemns her to death by utter obliteration — her body simply turns to smoke and blows away. (Both Charles and one of the contributors noted, though, that this wasn’t the way Sonja died in the flashback exposition scene in the original Underworld.)

Overall, though, Rise of the Lycans strikes me as the weakest of the three (and audiences seemed to agree, since it was a box-office disappointment and didn’t match the success of the other two), partly because so little happens; partly because (as with the latter two Matrices) the atmosphere is so mephitic and dark that the movie is half over before we actually see a daylight exterior; partly because where the first two films were morally ambiguous and neatly divided our sympathies between werewolves and vampires, in this one the werewolves are clearly the good guys and the vampires the bad guys; and partly because we really miss the element of clash between this Gothic netherworld and our own familiar existence that the first two films had because they were set in modern times.

I faulted the first two Underworlds because it wasn’t altogether believable that this war between vampires and werewolves could exist so totally under the radar of modern humanity — Anne Rice did a much better job of explaining how her vampire cult co-existed with modern life while remaining pretty much incognito — but the solution to that credibility issue was not to set the whole movie in a medieval netherworld which fell heir to the big problem with fantasy stories in general: when anything can happen, you can’t play with audience expectations because you haven’t set up any you can then shock the audience by violating. (In fairness, merely setting a movie in modern times and avoiding blatantly fantastic elements is no guarantee of avoiding this; Duplicity is a perfect case in point.)

I’m not sure there’s going to be another Underworld movie — the first two had pretty much seemed to exhaust the premise and the lackluster returns on Rise of the Lycans are not the sort that usually inspire a sequel (nor is the Zeitgeist working in its favor; the vampire movies people are going to see today are things like Twilight that emphasize the romantic side of the vampire myth, which Underworld virtually eliminated) — but if there is another, I hope they bring it back to the modern world! — 9/29/09

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (Malibu Productions/American International, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I both wanted a cinematic palate cleanser after Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, so I searched through the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads and found it in Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent — or, to use its inexplicably endless full title, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. It’s a 1957 indie from Roger Corman’s Malibu Productions, released through American-International and probably timed to make it to theatres ahead of the prestigious 1958 film The Vikings, produced by and starring Kirk Douglas and also featuring Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine under Richard Fleischer’s direction.

Corman’s movie is also an excuse to show a lot of hot young starlets in various stages of undress, and its plot (story by Irving Block, screenplay by Lawrence L. Goldman — and yes, the MST3K crew couldn’t help but joke about the absurdity of giving two guys with such obviously Jewish names the assignment to write about ancient Scandinavians!) is pretty simple: the wives and/or girlfriends of several top Vikings are getting upset that their menfolk’s ship is well behind schedule on its return, so they decide to build a boat themselves (an absurdly flimsy-looking one) and sail off to find them. The expedition is led by blonde Desir (Abby Dalton) but only gets authorized when, after one of the weirdest-looking elections ever shown on screen (according to this movie, the Vikings voted by throwing spears at a tree; if your spear lodged in the tree that was a yes vote, if you missed — deliberately or otherwise — that was a no), raven-haired sorceress Enger (Susan Cabot, by far the best actor of either gender in this movie even though she looked so nearsighted I wondered if the character was supposed to be blind) casts, literally, the deciding vote.

The Viking women set off and find themselves trapped in a “vortex” created by the giant sea serpent (a surprisingly credible effect for a Roger Corman movie in 1957, though he wisely keeps us from seeing too much of it or seeing it too often), swimming in the sea off the shore of a country (decidedly fictitious) called Grimault and serving the Grimaultians the same purpose those deliberately misplaced lights served the Russian hunter-of-humans Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game. Their ship (such as it is) is shipwrecked by the vortex and deposits them on the coast of Grimault, where they’re taken prisoner by the Grimaultian king Stark (Richard Devon) and his son, Prince — though the actor comes off as so nellie “Queen” would have been a better title for him — Ottar (Jonathan Haze, the marvelously fey actor who played the lead in the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors). It’s unclear just what Stark and his minions intend to do with all their captives, but it turns out all the Viking men the Viking women were supposed to be looking for are on Grimault, and most of them are still alive.

The boat carrying the Viking women actually also included one male stowaway, cute blond Vedric (Brad Jackson), and though the obvious expectation (at least for a modern audience) is that Queen Vedric and Queen Ottar are going to get the hots for each other, live happily ever after and be the true pioneers of same-sex marriage in Scandinavia, in fact Ottar finds himself attracted to Desir — especially once she kills a boar that’s menacing them (obviously “played” by a pig with two crude little plastic horns glued on either side of its snout to pass it off as a boar) — only at some point he dies (thanks to Enger’s successful invocation to the god Thor, who sends a rainstorm to put out the fires that are about to burn Vedric and another character at the stake, then aims a lightning bolt straight at Ottar’s outstretched sword, conducting current straight into his body and electrocuting him) and his dad Stark blames Desir and goes out to kill all his Viking guests, and they barely flee with their lives.

The MST3K crew joked about the film’s inevitable anachronisms — including the perfectly coiffed hair of the “Viking women,” the perfectly shaved faces of the Viking men and the apparent invention of the push-up bra by the Vikings’ fashion industry (though if you’ve seen the 1940 Hal Roach version of One Million B.C. you’ll know that, at least according to the movies, the invention of the push-up bra vastly predates the Vikings!) — and also at the fact that Corman recycled the locations he’d used in Teenage Caveman (a much better movie, actually, though there were enough off-the-wall and unintentionally risible elements in it that the MST3K people gave it “the treatment” too) — but Viking Women is actually a pretty good movie within the conventions of a low-budget swashbuckler, thanks mainly to the energy of Corman’s direction and his unwillingness, at least in a project like this, to take himself or his movie too seriously.

MST3K showed this relatively short film padded out with one of their weirdest educational shorts, The Home Economics Story, produced by Iowa State College and in washed-out-color, which featured a bunch of women college students (all played by actresses — if, to steal Dwight MacDonald’s famous line about Haya Harareet, I may use that term for courtesy — who seem to be about in their early 30’s) showing off all the cool careers a home ec major can prepare you for, from fashion designer to hospital dietitian to chef to electric appliance repairperson (I’m not making this up, you know!) to just being plain old Mrs. Somebody. None of the people involved in making this film on either side of the camera are identified — probably by their own choice!

Fatal Desire (LIfetime, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched one of the Lifetime movies I’ve been recording lately, Fatal Desire, distinguished (if you can call it that) by two semi-major stars in the leads, Anne Heche and Eric Roberts (whom Charles recognized even though he’d only seen him “young” before). The promo on Lifetime’s Web site promised a considerably hotter and steamier movie than this — though supposedly it’s based on a true story — and what comes across on screen is a pretty ordinary tale of adultery and psychopathology whose only real au courant twist (this was made in 2006, though lists other movies called Fatal Desire — both either TV-movies or direct-to-video releases — from 2003 and 2004) is that the adulterous couple first meet on the Internet.

She’s Tanya Sullivan (Anne Heche), a frustrated housewife in Pittsburgh whose husband works at a junkyard and who has a job of her own as a cosmetics sales representative. He’s Joe (Eric Roberts), an ex-cop (he was a sheriff’s deputy fired for blowing the whistle on a case his boss wanted covered up) and a pit boss at a casino in Atlantic City who first hooks up with Tanya on a sexually explicit chat room and then starts an e-mail exchange with her and then gets sufficiently inflamed by her charms as she’s described them and illustrated them with her photo that he insists on what most Internet cruising buffs describe as an “F2F” — i.e., a face-to-face meeting. When they meet, he’s briefly disappointed that she’s married and she’s briefly disappointed that he’s not a casino owner, as he falsely claimed (though given how we’ve seen movies about psychopathological casino owners on Lifetime it’s probably just as well he isn’t!), but the screw like bunny rabbits anyway. In a scene that’s so silly it achieves camp, they have sex in a parked car and go at each other so intensely, and scream so loudly, it sets off the car alarm not only of their own car but of every other car in the parking lot!

The second time they meet Tanya brings a home pregnancy test and tells Joe she’s pregnant with their child — they’re both raising children of their own, she a daughter, Molly (Jessica Parsons), by her husband Mark (Mark A. Owen) and he a son, Teddy (James Edward Campbell, with an early Beatles haircut and so perfect a moon face that if they do a movie about the Beatles’ childhoods before he grows up, he’d be a good choice to play the boy John Lennon), by an ex-wife whom we never see; and Joe takes this piece of information and spins a fantasy of her divorcing her husband and the five of them forming a family. On subsequent visits Tanya tells Joe that she was molested as a child and that her husband is a member of the Mafia and beats her — she even claims to have been beaten by him (she sends him pictures of her bruises) and gang-raped by some of her husband’s hired thugs and nearly drowned in their swimming pool. By now we’re getting the idea that she’s spinning a lot of tall tales to get him to do something drastic, but he’s totally clueless — apparently he’d never seen Double Indemnity in his life — and so when she challenges him to kill her husband for her, he agrees, follows her instructions on how to get to his workplace, and does the deed with a shotgun.

Then she totally cuts off contact with him, and in the film’s most genuinely chilling scene responds to his repeated phone calls and e-mails by pressing the “delete” button on her computer and deleting his entire file. (It’s a comment not only on the psychopathology of her character but on the cruel ease with which one can drop one’s online “friends” — I’ll never forget one social-networking Web site that offered a button with which one could “Change Your Community!”) Knowing that items “deleted” from a computer actually remain on its hard drive until they are written over with new information (and even afterwards some particularly skilled IT people with special software can retrieve them), I thought her final comeuppance would come as a result of evidence she thought she had erased forever but she really hadn’t. Instead it comes from conscience-stricken Joe, who tells his confidant Paula (Kathleen York) — a dealer at the casino who had been in unrequited love with him — that he’s got something on his conscience and hints that he’s going to commit suicide. She tries to stop him by taking away his guns (suggesting a plot twist that she’s going to dispose of the murder weapon accidentally and thereby make it that much harder for the police to solve the crime), but in the end — instead of doing the obviously sensible thing, which is to turn himself in and ask for leniency in exchange for implicating her (having worked on the other side of law enforcement, an ex-cop would have known how that particular game in the system plays out!) — he actually does kill himself, but leaves behind a briefcase full of evidence that allows the Pittsburgh police to nail her.

Fatal Desire is sloppily written (the only writing credits are for Paul Janczewski and Mark Morris for writing the book on which it was based, Fatal Error — which would actually have been a better title, but less blatantly sexy and therefore presumably less appealing to the Lifetime audience) and way overdirected by Ralph Hemecker — instead of giving us the hot soft-core porn scenes Lifetime is known for, he indulges in camera tricks like shooting one of Joe’s drinking binges from above the bar, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the bartender serving him a shot and him drinking it — and it had the problem of being unable to make Anne Heche’s character that much crazier than she is for real, what with her tales of being abducted by space aliens and the fact that she’s most famous for her brief relationship with Ellen DeGeneres even though both before and after that she was otherwise totally straight. Eric Roberts is decently well preserved — even in his current state he’s a good deal more attractive than the common run of Lifetime’s leading men — though the TV delivery person whom Tanya takes up with at the end (and who’s in her house when she’s arrested) is played by Matthew MacCaull, easily the hottest guy in the movie.

It’s one of those interesting stories that could have made a much better movie than it did — and the similarities to Double Indemnity (which was also inspired by a true story — James M. Cain based his 1935 novel on Ruth Snyder’s 1927 murder of her husband Al, which she committed in partnership with her lover, Judd Grey — though in the real story, she tricked her husband into secretly signing an insurance policy on his life but the insurance agent was not her lover and co-conspirator) only underscore not only what a better movie Billy Wilder’s classic is but also how much better an actress Barbara Stanwyck was than Anne Heche and that the situation makes for more powerful drama if the man knows from the start what he’s being asked to do and that it’s wrong, but goes ahead and does it anyway.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Air Hostess (Columbia, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Air Hostess, an intriguing 1933 “B” from Columbia based on a story of the same title by one Dora Macy published serially in True Story magazine from October 1932 to February 1933. (Columbia had the movie out on January 15, 1933, just in time for the final installment of the serial to appear in print; now there’s synergistic marketing for you!) The opening title gives the locale as “Somewhere in France” during World War I, where an older man named Bob King is flying in the air corps along with another old guy, Pa Kearns (J. M. Kerrigan), younger pilot Ted Hunter (James Murray) and a guy named “Lucky.” King shows his fellow pilots a picture of his daughter, who’s still a child, and the other pilots joke about trying to date her when she grows up. All this happens while King is actually dying, shot down and lying in the wreckage of his plane after a battle.

The scene flashes forward to “Somewhere in the United States” — which turns out to be Albuquerque, New Mexico, the headquarters of TWA. That’s right; this is one 1930’s movie that uses the name of a real business, not a fictitious one — though at the time TWA stood for “Transcontinental and Western Airlines” and it wasn’t until Howard Hughes bought it that he changed it to “Trans World Airlines” and expanded its range to international flights. This incarnation of TWA is flying Ford Trimotor aircraft — the standard for commercial passenger flight in the U.S. until Douglas built the DC-3, a much larger and more comfortable plane that made long-distance air travel practical — and when we next meet Bob King’s daughter Kitty, she’s a grown woman (Evalyn Knapp) and working as, you guessed it, a TWA air hostess. Earlier she was stood up on a date by Ted Hunter — she waited inside a hangar until 4 a.m. to see him and all she got was a cold — and as a result the TWA pilots and mechanics have formed an informal gang that threatens to beat up any man who tries to date her or shows any romantic interest in her at all. Between them and her ultra-strict foster parents, Pa Kearns and his wife (Jane Darwell) — Pa continues to work in aviation even though he’s blind and therefore can’t fly anymore, because his hearing is so sensitive that when a plane comes in he can tell if it’s having mechanical trouble, and if so, precisely what — Kitty is feeling imprisoned, especially when a newly hired TWA pilot, Dick Miller (Arthur Pierson), offers her a date and then backs off rather than risk being beaten within an inch of his life.

Salvation of a sort comes in the form of Ted Hunter, who shows up at the Albuquerque airport in a barnstormer’s biplane, trailing a romantic past as a mercenary in Manchuria and Bolivia (we’re not sure ourselves how many of his stories are real and how many are made up, though he appears to have been covered in newspapers) and looking for a backer to help him build a new plane, with retractable wings, with which he hopes to fly nonstop across the Pacific and thereby make his name the way Lindbergh did by flying nonstop across the Atlantic. Hunter escapes the posse around Kitty by flying her across the border to Mexico for a wild night of gambling and drinking, though he stops short of actually having sex with her — later he asks her to marry him and she accepts, but since he doesn’t have a regular job and his typical 1930’s movie male ego makes him forbid her to work, they’re broke. Desperate, she insists on resuming her career as an air hostess (incidentally, there are very few scenes of her actually doing this work, but from what we see it’s clear that there wasn’t much an air hostess of the early 1930’s could do to make the passengers comfortable and give them refreshments in the cramped quarters of a Ford Trimotor) and runs into a passenger she sizes up as a potential backer, Sylvia Carleton (Thelma Todd, who’s billed fourth but only appears in the second half of the film).

Carleton is a gold-digger who’s accumulated a fortune from the four rich men she’s married and divorced, and as any moviegoer (then or now) over the age of about two could guess, she’s only pretending to be interested in Ted’s plane; what she’s really after is Ted’s body. Kitty is aware of this possibility but believes so strongly in Ted’s mission that he nonetheless encourages him to spend a weekend with her at her ranch estate in Albuquerque (on top of the homes she owns in L.A. and New York), and the inevitable happens and he ends up in Sylvia’s arms. Interestingly, the writers, Milton Raison and Keene Thompson blessedly avoid having Kitty actually catch her husband and Sylvia in flagrante delicto — thank goodness for small mercies — but she catches on when she sees the model of his plane in her living room with its wing broken off, she storms out in a huff and, to the consternation of Dick Miller — who flew her there and was clearly hoping to get her on the rebound — announces that she never wants to have anything to do with flying or flyers again and is going to take the train to L.A.

Then there’s a spectacular action climax in which Hunter and Miller both learn that the train is going to cross a bridge that is dangerously weak and will probably collapse, killing Kitty and everyone else on board, and both Miller in his TWA Trimotor and Hunter in his biplane try to intercept the train and get its engineer to stop. When all else fails, Hunter deliberately crashes his plane onto the railroad track ahead of the train, it stops in time and everyone is saved, and he and Kitty get back together — helped by the good news that another potential backer (a male one this time!) has come forward and it looks like he’s going to get to build his super-plane and try his record run after all.

Air Hostess isn’t exactly fresh drama — apparently Columbia’s executives thought that the sheer novelty of commercial air travel would give the movie unique appeal without needing to give it anything more than the simplest, most clichéd actual story (incidentally there seems to be uncertainty about the writer’s name — the American Film Institute Catalog says the original New York Times review listed the film as based on a story by “Grace Perkins,” a pseudonym of Dora Macy, while says Perkins was her real name and Macy the pseudonym) — but it’s one of those movies that’s redeemed by the personalities of the cast members as well as some surprisingly good special effects for a (then) cheap studio like Columbia (even though the train and the bridge, albeit convincing, are pretty obviously models).

Evalyn Knapp shines — a real surprise to me because the only two movies of hers I’d seen previously were Sinners’ Holiday (in which the leads, Knapp and Grant Withers, were inevitably upstaged by supporting players James Cagney and Joan Blondell) and Smart Money; somehow this film’s director, Albert S. Rogell, managed to get a tough, emotionally sensitive and utterly sincere performance out of her whereas her previous directors had just let her walk through her films. James Murray, remembered today almost exclusively for one film — King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) — isn’t exactly drop-dead gorgeous (one can only dream wistfully of what Cary Grant could have done with this part!), but he’s good enough to portray both his appeal to Kitty’s caged-bird character and the weakness that allows him to drift into the affair with Sylvia. Thelma Todd is perfectly competent, but her long association with comedians leaves us expecting Stan Laurel or Groucho Marx to appear just about every time she’s on screen. Overall, Air Hostess is a quite competent studio product, several cuts above the norm for independent films of the time and one that causes me to revise my opinion of Evalyn Knapp’s acting skills up a great deal!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Flaxy Martin (Warners, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Flaxy Martin, an obscure and oddly title Warners’ film noir from 1949 written by David Lang and directed by Richard L. Bare, who seems to have taken the noir “look” to almost terminal extremes. Plenty of scenes in this film, including what are supposed to be big action moments, take place in almost total darkness punctuated only by shards of light and sudden flashes on the screen and explosions on the soundtrack — time and time again we hear someone shooting someone else but we have to wait until the lights come back on to see who shot whom. The film is named after the femme fatale character played by Virginia Mayo, though the real lead is Zachary Scott as Walter Colby, young attorney (one had to do a bit of suspension of disbelief to accept Scott as the youthful age his character is supposed to be) who just got out of law school two years earlier, encountered Flaxy Martin, and was seduced by her — literally — into working for gangster Hap Richey (a nicely sinister performance by Douglas Kennedy, who ably portrays him as the small-time Mafia wannabe Lang wrote).

Colby naïvely hopes that by working for Richey he can raise enough money to marry Flaxy and get them out of that lifestyle — what he doesn’t know, but we do, is that she’s really Richey’s mistress. (We’re told that in a surprisingly blatant scene for a Code-era film; he slips her a wad of cash and says, “Here. Go buy yourself something.”) The opening scene is a typical Warners whirlwind of rapid action; Richey’s hulking hitman Caesar (Jack Overman) shoots down a woman in a tenement building, another woman in the building sees it go down and registers his face, and without any tiresome exposition about how the police put a name to her description the very next scene shows him in custody, then cuts to Richey anxiously summoning Colby at 2 a.m. and saying he must represent Caesar in court and get him acquitted because otherwise — we find out later — Caesar will turn state’s evidence and blow the whistle on Richey’s gang. Without telling Colby, Richey and Flaxy bribe a witness to provide Caesar a false alibi, then Flaxy goes to their phony witness and kills her herself when she tries to blackmail more money out of Richey. When Colby refuses to play along, Richey and Flaxy frame him for the woman’s murder, and he’s arrested — though later he breaks jail and, with the help of his garage mechanic friend Sam (Tom D’Andrea), flees to the countryside and meets “good girl” Nora Carson (Dorothy Malone). Nora hides him out, at first not knowing who he is but eventually putting two and two together and associating him with Colby from an article on the case in her local country newspaper, even though that paper (unlike the big-city dailies whose front pages we’ve seen earlier) ran the story without his photo.

Alas, Richey’s hit man Roper (Elisha Cook, Jr. in one of his very best bad-guy performances — as good as he was as the milquetoast in over his head in the criminal life, he could be equally effective as a black-hearted killer, and if anything he’s even better here than in The Maltese Falcon because he’s got more to do) traces them and is ready to kill Colby, Nora and the dumb country sheriff who was checking up on them when Roper arrived — only Colby gets away again and the finale occurs back in the city, where Flaxy re-hooks up with Colby and decides to get rid of both men in her life by enticing Colby to steal a $40,000 payroll from Hap, then killing Colby herself and getting the money. Of course it doesn’t work that way, and eventually the bad guys get what they deserve — and Colby offers the $40,00 to Nora so they can flee and start a new life together, but she won’t have anything to do with him unless he turns himself in and faces up to what he’s done, so the film ends with him becoming honest, facing a two-year sentence for perjury and the loss of his law license but at least back on the moral straight-and-narrow.

Flaxy Martin is an odd movie, not only because of how far it pushes the visual tropes of film noir but because of some of the intriguing spins it puts on the noir clichés: Flaxy herself is a businesslike femme fatale who doesn’t get a particular thrill out of manipulating the men in her life but does it coldly and calculatingly, just for the money. Colby is a marvelously complex anti-hero — well suited to Scott, whose reputation up to that point had been almost entirely built on out-and-out villain roles in movies like The Mask of Dimitrios and Mildred Pierce — who rises to the challenge of Lang’s script and suggests a man finding and getting in touch with an inner decency that had been beaten out of him by long years of economic struggle. (This isn’t stressed in Lang’s script but we do get the impression that he impoverished himself to work his way through law school.)

Certainly there’ve been plenty of other movies in which a crooked but not entirely unsympathetic protagonist disappears from an urban environment, finds himself in the country and is wholly or partly redeemed by the love of a good country girl — previous examples include The Life of Jimmy Dolan, They Made Me a Criminal, High Sierra and Out of the Past — but this one is edgier than most because Lang’s writing is good enough to give both Scott and Malone the chance to play walking-wounded characters, and they rise to the occasion. I had been under the impression that Flaxy Martin was a “B,” but that’s belied by the length (87 minutes) and a cast that, though lacking any superstars, at least featured actors that had played with superstars in major films: Mayo with James Cagney in White Heat and Scott with Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Flaxy Martin is quite an engaging movie even despite its big weakness — the title character disappears midway through and only turns up at the end — and though the title seems rather silly (I suspect it meant “Flaxy” as in “flaxen,” and was supposed to make us think Virginia Mayo was playing a “bottle blonde”) the film itself is a crackling-tough noir boosted by Warners’ trademarked breakneck pace and bolstered by a music score by William Lava, whose apprenticeship at Republic had certainly trained him to write action music!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dick Tracy (Republic serial, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had run a couple of quirky movies, also downloaded. One was the first episode of the 1937 serial Dick Tracy, made by Republic and written by the usual committee (Morgan Cox and George Morgan, story — wouldn’t it have been more fun if the names had been switched and it had been Morgan Morgan and George Cox? — and Barry Shipman and Winston Miller, screenplay), who for some reason changed him from a detective with the Chicago Police Department to an FBI agent, and moved the story to San Francisco — where the first chapter deals with a sabotage attempt against the newly opening Bay Bridge. The serial was actually quite good for the genre; Ralph Byrd played Tracy, his girifriend Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes) was also his partner in crime-fighting and an intelligent and savvy action heroine in her own right; the “comic” relief of his stupid sidekick Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette, carrying over from his usual role as comic foil to Gene Autry) and the tearjerking of Junior (a 12-year-old foundling played by Lee Van Atta, a surprisingly tough child actor who here, as in the contemporary Undersea Kingdom, is frequently the voice of reason and experience in the cast!) are both held in check.

The best part of it — aside from the cool special effects (including the magnificent “Flying Wing” aircraft used by the bad guys, which just about everyone who’s seen this or the follow-up, The Fighting Devil Dogs, which wasn’t a Tracy story but recycled the Flying Wing — incidentally there were experiments in building actual aircraft of this type but they foundered because it was hard to keep them stable, though Charles said the current “stealth” planes reminded him of the Wing) — is the excellent direction by Alan James and Ray Taylor. This isn’t one of those all-too-typical serials in which we get a lot of boring exposition scenes to set up the action-porn serial audiences wanted; it’s (so far, anyway) a quite consistent, highly taut thriller with genuine suspense editing and an overall level of excitement instead of the long lulls between action sequences typical of the serial genre.

Ralph Byrd acts his part as Tracy with power and authority (even though I tend to disagree with the critical consensus that his physiognomy made him especially suited to Tracy because it matched Chester Gould’s drawings), Kay Hughes is likewise a real figure of strength (you want liberated women in 1930’s movies? There were a surprising number of them in serials, especially Republic’s!), and the overall production values are excellent (reflecting Republic owner Herbert Yates’ insistence on maintaining a physical plant and equipment that were technically the equal of the major studios) — and the plot gimmick is pretty audacious: the bad guys are a group of criminals led by “The Lame One” (clearly there’s going to be a last-minute revelation that he’s an outwardly respectable person pursuing a criminal career under an assumed identity — and doing it much the way Moriarty and Mabuse did, hiding his real identity even from his subordinates and communicating with them in convoluted ways to preserve his incognito) and one of them, a mad surgeon named Moloch (John Picorri), takes Tracy’s kidnapped brother Gordon and gives him an operation that not only alters his appearance so totally he’s played by a different actor (Richard Beach “before,” Carleton Young “after”) but changes his moral sense so that he’s now a tool in the hands of the villains (a plot gimmick Republic pulled in Undersea Kingdom as well). — 8/31/09


Actually what we ended up watching were episodes two and three of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “The Bridge of Terror” and “The Fur Pirates,” which pretty much confirmed my good impression of episode one (especially both the cool design of the villains’ “Flying Wing” aircraft and the precision of the special-effects people, John T. Coyle and future Republic stalwarts Howard and Theodore Lydecker, in getting it to fly absolutely convincingly on screen) except for one detail: the utter idiocy of the writing of Dick Tracy’s escapes from the cliffhangers. At the end of episode one he’s about to be crushed by a bunch of girders released from a construction crane on the Bay Bridge (one wonders why a crane and girders were there since the bridge had supposedly already been finished) when, at the start of episode two, he simply rolls away from the danger. The end of episode two was even worse; Tracy (Ralph Byrd) and his sidekick Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) have stolen a plane from the villains and are making their escape when the baddies shoot off the plane’s propeller, it goes out of control, crashes into a bridge tower and falls to the ground below, leaving Tracy and McGurk facing certain death … only in episode three they simply walk away from the wreckage, not only alive but totally unhurt, and continue their pursuit of the villains from their conveniently parked car! — 9/1/09


We kicked off the evening with episode four of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “Death Rides the Sky” — and it certainly does, since this is a really weird farrago of serial-type action centering around the attempt of the master villain “The Lame One” and his hunchbacked (at least as credibly hunchbacked as the Republic costume department could make him, which was not very) assistant “Moloch” (John Picorri, who’s easily the most interesting actor in the whole show — indeed, he seems to anticipate Blofeld in always petting a lap cat while he’s in the middle of plotting his schemes, though his cat is black instead of white) to steal a hideous-looking bauble called the “Mogra Necklace” that looks like a very bad piece of costume jewelry.

One gimmick is that there are actually two Mogra Necklaces, a genuinely valuable one and a worthless imitation the jeweler in charge of it, M. Clare Renee (André Cheron) — apparently nobody bothered to brief the writers on which gender is which in French names — had made for security purposes. The thieves have actually made off with the real one — they infiltrated a thug onto the dirigible Pacific Queen and had him steal it at gunpoint, then parachute out, and Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) and his partner Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) gave chase in the plane they had previously docked on the underside of the dirigible (did they really do that sort of thing?), only the parathug landed and was picked up by a rope ladder hanging from the villains’ cool aircraft, the Flying Wing. But Tracy plants a story in the papers that the one they stole was the fake, ensuring that the villains will try to steal the necklace again to make sure they get the real one — and they’ve set up a dummy robot-controlled plane that supposedly carries the necklace, only Tracy’s ward Junior (Lee Van Atta) stows away inside the supposedly uninhabited (and thereby readily sacrificable) plane and Tracy has to lower himself down from his own biplane onto Junior’s and then break into the cockpit by smashing the front windows — and just as the villains are about to shoot him down, the episode ends and that’s the cliffhanger.

The 1937 Dick Tracy has some ridiculously unlikely gimmicks to get the good guys out of danger, but overall it’s one of the better serials; the villains’ plots are well thought out and the effects work, particularly the Flying Wing in action, is utterly convincing — though the whole plot gimmick of Dick Tracy’s brother Gordon (Richard Beach, pre-op; Carleton Young, post-op) having been turned against him and impressed into the villains’ service by a super-operation performed on his brain by Moloch has been horrendously underused thus far — though given that episode five is called “Brother Against Brother,” hopefully that will change! — 9/4/09


I ran Charles episode five of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “Brother Against Brother.” This was a rather silly one in which Dick Tracy finally confronted his brother Gordon, a formerly ethical lawyer who was transformed into a villain’s minion by a super-operation performed by “Moloch” (John Picorri), the hunchbacked assistant of the serial’s principal villain, “The Lame One.” (As I’ve noted earlier, the operation was so successful that it changed Gordon’s appearance completely — to the point where he’s played by different actors pre- and post-op.) What was most depressing about this episode was that there was absolutely no recognition scene between the brothers — none of the expected explosion of shock when Dick Tracy found his brother working against him on the other side of the villains’ plots — and it seems pretty much as if, after a genuinely exciting and suspenseful opening, the 1937 Dick Tracy fell into the usual serial ruts.

The plotting became simply a series of pretexts for the big action scenes; Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes), who in the first episode seemed poised to a role as a ballsy action heroine genuinely helping Dick Tracy out of his scrapes, faded out in the subsequent episodes and had virtually nothing to do in this one; and the cliffhangers were pretty dull and unimaginative. (This was always a problem with Republic; for all their skills at making serials, the chapter endings were almost invariably formulaic and tended to cheat — so many of the episodes of Zombies of the Stratosphere ended with the central character jumping his way out of danger that Charles and I started joking about it, calling out to him, “Jump! Jump!” as the cliffhanger approached.) It’s still a fun serial, but nowhere near as good as I thought it would be when I started watching it. — 9/6/09


I ran Charles and I the next two episodes in sequence of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, chapters six and seven, “Dangerous Waters” and “The Ghost Town Mystery.” These were pretty much the same mix as before, including some surprisingly dorky cliffhangers (at the end of episode five Dick Tracy was shot and fell off the roof of a building; at the start of episode six he was just scratched and fell into a bush, climbed out of it and continued his pursuit of the bad guys; the next cliffhanger was a rope being towed by a boat, in which Tracy’s foot got hooked and he was dragged underwater, but again he escaped absurdly easily at the start of episode seven), too little use made of enviably spunky actress Kay Hughes as Tracy’s secretary/assistant Gwen, and the usual nonsensical plot devices to keep the action going, including a secret new metal called “Nickolodium” which an eccentric inventor has devised (I couldn’t help but be reminded of the “Rearden Metal” in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — when Wendell Berry wrote in the current Progressive, “If we are destroying both the productive land and the rural communities and cultures, how can we assume that money will somehow attract food to us whenever we need it?,” it occurred to me that a Randite would answer that question by saying that if we allow the genius of the world’s super-entrepreneurs to operate untrammeled by regulation, they will come up with some fantastic new invention that will enable them to make a profit by selling us food produced in ways that literally — like the “Rearden Metal” and the super-engine powered by air Rand actually did create, in her imagination, in Atlas Shrugged — violate the laws of nature) and which the bad guys are, of course, trying to get their hands on.

That’s episode six; in episode seven the MacGuffin (the serial writers seemed to need a new one every week!) is a large gold mine the prospector who dug it is willing to offer the government and the bad guys, of course, want to steal it. This isn’t much of a serial, actually — Republic got better at them later on — though it’s still fun, largely because of the colorful villains and their magnificent (and quite well-done) aircraft, the “Flying Wing.” — 9/8/09


I ran the next episodes in sequence of the 1937 serial Dick Tracy (eight and nine, “Battle in the Clouds” — something of a misnomer because the titular battle doesn’t happen until the last two minutes or so — and “The Stratosphere Adventure”), which deal with the latest attempt of the principal villain, who’s referred to variously as “The Lame One” and “The Spider” (the “Spider Ring” is the name of his organization), to wreak havoc on the world, this time by stealing a super-fast airplane invented by H. T. Clayton (Wedgwood Nowell) that can go up to 700 miles an hour (20 miles per hour shy of the sound barrier, which wasn’t broken for another decade and then by a rocket plane that had to be taken up by a carrier aircraft) and has been test-flown only by Clayton’s daughter Betty (Ann Ainslee, a personable blonde whose good looks and easygoing manner should have given her more of a career than she had).

Alas, the folks at Republic’s production design and special effects department, which had created an absolutely stunning-looking aircraft for the villains in the “Flying Wing” (recycled a year later in the 1938 serial The Fighting Devil Dogs), let the side down when it came to Clayton’s plane. Despite the model of such state-of-the-art high-tech planes as Howard Hughes’ H-1 (a sleek monoplane with stubby wings and virtually nothing else on its fuselage), the plane they came up with looked all too much like a quite ordinary general-aviation aircraft, complete with a wraparound cockpit and fixed landing gear. No one — not even in 1937 — would have designed a speed plane with landing gear that couldn’t be retracted to avoid air resistance in actual flight.

Still, these two episodes were among the more entertaining ones, complete with an agent with the absolutely preposterous name of “Durston Cloggerstein” (Harrison Greene) who wants either the plans of the super-plane, the plane itself or at least its engine so he can take them back to the carefully unnamed foreign power he’s from on a dirigible that’s scheduled to pick him up within a day. The tensions between the Lame One, his assistant Moloch (John Picorri), Gordon Tracy — Dick Tracy’s brother, who by Moloch’s super-surgery has been converted from a good guy to a villain — and Durston are entertaining enough even though we have to wonder how this criminal gang is making enough money to stay in business given that Dick Tracy is anticipating its every move and frustrating its every attempt to make money off of crime.

At least part of the problem with this movie was summed up by William K. Everson in The Detective in Film: “On the detection level … the scales were always loaded very much in Tracy’s favor. A typical plot gimmick would be for Tracy to find a specific clue, perhaps a fragment of some rare mineral. A rapid check would invariably reveal that such a mineral was handled by only one specific company and, knowing that the villain needed it for some current infernal machine, off Tracy would troop to the warehouse where it was stored, either to forestall the villain’s acquisition of it or to give chase if he was too late. … Its sole purpose was to enable the hero to anticipate the plans of the villain, and keep the action moving constantly.”

At least — unlike such later and more pretentious feature films as The Guns of Navarone — serials like the 1937 Dick Tracy made no bones about being anything other than action porn, with the exposition sequences good for nothing but setting up the next action highlight and keeping things going at a breakneck pace (though later Republic serials worked much better in the pace department than this one, which still has a bit of the leaden-ness that often afflicted serials at Republic’s predecessor studio, Mascot). I also liked Betty Clayton as a character and only wish we’d got to see more of her! — 9/13/09


We ended up watching episodes ten and eleven of the 1937 Republic Dick Tracy serial, “The Gold Ship” and “Harbor Pursuit,” in which the big action centered around a freighter that had just docked in San Francisco (where the serial is mostly — almost totally, in fact — set; not only did they change Tracy from a Chicago police detective to an FBI agent, they moved him to San Francisco) with $1 million in gold missing. It turns out, of course, to be the Spider Ring again (apparently every other criminal in America has just stopped doing anything illegal in deference to the Spider Ring’s priorities); they have agents on the ship and other agents on another ship that struck the gold freighter in mid-ocean, causing damage to one of its outer plates that needs to be repaired — the gimmick being that the Spider Ring operates a ship-repair company as a front and will make sure they get the job so that, under cover of removing the plate and replacing it, they will simply take the gold out of the place on the ship to which they had relocated it instead of actually stealing it.

It’s a ridiculously complicated criminal scheme even by serial standards, and naturally Dick Tracy foils it absurdly easily despite the intervention of a cliffhanger when the heavy steel panel the bad guys have removed as part of their phony “repair” starts hurtling down and Tracy rolls away and gets out from under it just in time. In episode 11, after the titular harbor pursuit ends with much of the Spider Ring arrested and the whole enterprise coming out empty-handed (again!), their new plan is to kidnap master engraver Henry Coulter (Forbes Murray) — I couldn’t help wishing they’d kill him before he could continue his line and allow a later generation of his family to bring forth Ann Coulter — so they can force him to make plates for counterfeiting U.S. currency on the grounds that, as the mind-controlled Gordon Tracy puts it, “It would be more convenient for us to make our own money.” “Yeah, right — especially since you haven’t been able to steal any!” I fired back at the screen.

Episode 11 is also the one in which it finally starts to dawn on Dick Tracy that his brother Gordon is part of the criminal enterprise he’s fighting — indeed, at one point he thinks Gordon might actually be the head of it — after he compares a note from Spider Ring headquarters they confiscated from one of the harbor crooks they arrested to an inscription on a photo of himself Gordon once gave him. The fact that on at least two occasions Dick Tracy actually saw his brother Gordon post-op doesn’t seem to enter into it — though maybe we’re supposed to believe that the hunchbacked henchman Moloch’s super-operation on Gordon to eliminate his will and allow the gang to brainwash him also changed his appearance so much even his own brother wouldn’t recognize him … which is at least plausible, since Republic cast two actors as Gordon Tracy: Richard Beach pre-op and Carleton Young post-op. — 9/16/09


I ended up running chapters 12 and 13 of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “The Trail of the Spider” (which makes one wonder what the first 11 chapters were about!) and “The Fire Trap.” “The Trail of the Spider” turned out to be a so-called “recap episode,” in which Tracy and his crew interrogated newly discovered witnesses to the events of the exposition in episode one (which wasn’t altogether a bad thing considering how much more imaginative episode one was than the rest of it!), and there was a lot of business about the Spider, a.k.a. the Lame One (the writers seem uncertain as to whether “Spider” was the name of the criminal mastermind or just the name of his gang), coming to Tracy’s office to assassinate him — that was the cliffhanger of episode 12 — and Junior (Lee Van Atta) getting a photo of him, not that that does the good guys any good because in episode 13 the Lame One and Tracy’s brother Gordon (still under the Lame One’s control and still played by Carleton Young rather than Richard Beach, who played him before the operation by John Picorri as the Lame One’s hunchbacked sidekick Moloch undid his moral sense) sends an agent to Tracy’s house (how did they know where it was?) who walks in (apparently the super G-man is too dumb to lock his doors!) and enters the darkroom where Tracy and crew are developing the photo (how did he know where it was?) just in time to ruin the print, after which he destroys the negative, so the best clue Tracy and company had to the Lame One’s real identity is lost.

The titular fire trap is set for Tracy when a lantern on the boat where the Lame One has his headquarters (at least in this episode) overturns and sets the old tub ablaze — though knowing Republic’s writers, the way they have him get out of it will probably be a cheat … — 9/19/09

Charles and I ended up watching the last two episodes of the 1937 Dick Tracy as our movie offering last night — a bit disappointing in that the final action sequence was surprisingly unexciting, a confrontation between Tracy and the villains in the catacombs under the abandoned power station that was the lair of the Lame One, a.k.a. the Spider (the writers seemed undecided between episodes — and sometimes even within the same episode — whether “the Spider Ring” was simply the name of the villainous gang or whether its leader was actually called “the Spider”). The Lame One, a.k.a. the Spider, turned out to be a minor character named Walter Odette (Edwin Stanley), who made a surprise appearance at FBI headquarters (or was it Dick Tracy’s home? They started to look alike after a while!) in episode 14, “The Devil in White” (presumably a reference to the hospital orderly who spirits out the heavily bandaged patient they think is the master engraver Henry Coulter, played by Forbes Murray, when he’s scheduled to be released — only it’s not Coulter at all, it’s Dick Tracy hiding under the bandages and allowing himself to be used as a decoy so his fellow FBI men can follow the crooks and find their secret hideout), which set up the unsurprising revelation in the next and last episode, “Brothers United,” in which Dick Tracy and his brother Gordon finally come together after the operation by the Lame One’s henchman Moloch (John Picorri) that converted Gordon from good to evil.

In fact, the cliffhanger between the last two episodes is Moloch stretching Dick Tracy out on his operating table and threatening to perform the same operation on him. The irony was that in at least two previous episodes Dick Tracy saw Gordon in his villainous identity without any apparent awareness that this thug with a white streak in his hair was his brother (Gordon was played post-op by Carleton Young — another actor, Richard Beach, had played him pre-op and maybe we were supposed to think that Moloch’s surgery had altered Gordon’s appearance so drastically that Dick wouldn’t recognize him!), but on the operating table at the end of episode 14 Dick finally awakens some shreds of Gordon’s conscience and in episode 15 Gordon and the Lame One are fleeing in a car, Gordon is driving, and he swerves to avoid hitting Junior and Gwen (whose job description seemed to change from episode to episode; sometimes she was Dick’s lab technician, sometimes his general assistant and sometimes merely his secretary), who are in the middle of the road.

The car swerves off the road, the Lame One is killed instantly, and I was rather hoping that Gordon would survive long enough to make it to the hospital, where the operation to relieve the concussion on the brain from the crash would also reverse the effects of Moloch’s surgery and restore the good Gordon Tracy (and Richard Beach as the actor playing him!) to Dick’s family. No such luck, probably due to the Production Code and the unwillingness of the Code authorities to forgive all those reels of Gordon’s villainy just because he was under medico-psychological compulsion and therefore not responsible for his actions; instead Gordon has to die, too, though he and Dick have a surprisingly moving last scene together in which Ralph Byrd plays with real sensitivity and emotion after 15 reels that haven’t called on him to do anything but stand tall and look butch.

The 1937 Dick Tracy as a whole doesn’t deserve the opprobrium William K. Everson heaped on it in The Detective in Film (“not very good … extremely slow, cheaply made, with a maximum of back projection and other studio economies and with a dearth of imaginative chapter endings”); he’s right about the chapter endings and the low budget, but the scenes of the Flying Wing are beautiful and effective even though, alas, the Wing totally disappears in the second half of the serial — the villains talk about using it to escape but they never get that far. Interestingly, built into the last episode after it creaked to a climax (and Smiley Burnette got the final fade-out for one of his not-particularly-funny comic-relief scenes) was a trailer — back when the term meant literally that, a commercial for a future release stuck at the end (“trailing”) of the last reel of the feature film — for a Western serial called The Painted Stallion that featured Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and Kit Carson as on-screen characters. Now that might be interesting! — 9/23/09

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Riders of the Whistling Skull (Republic, 1936/37)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked a film Charles had just downloaded from, Riders of the Whistling Skull, a 1936 (the copyright and release date was January 4, 1937 but the production was obviously in the previous year) film from Republic Studios (when Nat Levine was still head of production) featuring their series characters “The Three Mesquiteers,” created by Western writer William Colt MacDonald. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, RKO shot two “Three Mesquiteers” movies in 1935 before turning over the rights to the characters to Republic, which had made their first in the series, called The Three Mesquiteers, in the summer of 1936 with Ray Livingston as Stony Brook, Ray Corrigan as Tucson Smith and Syd Saylor as the comic-relief Mesquiteer, Lullaby Joslyn. By the time of Riders of the Whistling Skull — whose credits rather awkwardly claimed it was an “original story” by Bernard McConville and Oliver Drake, turned into a screenplay by Drake and John Rathmell, but also claimed a basis in MacDonald’s 1934 novel of the same title (and the AFI Catalog claimed that this film drew on another MacDonald novel as well, The Singing Scorpion) — Max Terhune had replaced Saylor as Lullaby Joslyn, a lineup which lasted until later in the series when Livingston was replaced, at least briefly, by John Wayne.

Surprisingly, the Mesquiteers characters add little to the story of this film, directed with workmanlike skill by Mack V. Wright and coming in at just 52 minutes (I had wondered if this was one of Republic’s re-edits of their old films for TV in the 1950’s, but according to the catalog the original theatrical running time was 55 to 56 minutes, so this is probably a complete or near-complete version); instead it’s basically a ripoff of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, with leading lady Betty Marsh (a quite personable Mary Russell) attempting to organize an expedition to find her missing father, Professor Marsh (John Van Pelt), who disappeared while trying to find the mysterious lost city of Luckachakai (pronounced “LOO-kah-CHOO-kai,” by the way). Betty, her friend Henrietta McCoy (Fern Emmett as the comic-relief girl), the Mesquiteers, trading post owner Rutledge (Roger Williams), his Indian guide Otah (Yakima Canutt, looking surprisingly hunky for someone who spent most of his career as a stunt double — indeed, Henrietta briefly oohs and aahs about the “handsome primitive” before transferring her affections more appropriately, at least by Hollywood standards, to her fellow white comic-relief partner, Lullaby) and Professor Marsh’s traveling companion, Professor Faxon (C. Montague Shaw), are all in Rutledge’s trading post when Faxon is killed by a ceremonial Indian knife inscribed with so-called “Indian hieroglyphic” writing that only Betty (who learned how from her dad and their joint studies of Indian traditions) can read.

The inscription, natch, is a curse that declares death as the penalty for anyone desecrating the site of the lost city — from which Betty has shown a gold artifact to demonstrate that the claims of a buried treasure are true, and in fact she and her dad dug up the treasure and hid it elsewhere. Rutledge tries to blame Faxon’s killing on an Indian attack, even though it happened with the door closed in a building with no other exit and therefore the murderer had to be one of the people in the room at the time. Betty hits on the idea of taking all the suspects along on the planned expedition to find her father, and they split up the map to the “Whistling Skull” where the treasure was hidden so that four people each hold pieces of it, all useless without the others. One of the other professors, Fronc (George Godfrey) is abducted, and his piece of the map stolen, and though he’s found alive his shirt is gone and his chest is criss-crossed with scars (indicating that he’s been tortured) and branded with the insignia of a fanatical Indian cult.

Another professor, Cleary (Earle Ross), has earlier been killed with an arrow inscribed similarly to the knife that killed Faxon, and eventually the killers turn out to be Rutledge and Otah — so much for the hope that there might be any “good Indians” in this film! It turns out Rutledge is half-Indian and the secret leader of the cult trying to keep the whites away from the treasure of Luckachakai, and it ends with Stony kidnapped (and also, in a move beefcake fans will find welcome, stripped of his shirt to be prepared for torture and branding) but the sheriff’s deputies forming a sort of ersatz Seventh Cavalry to come to the rescue of the good guys just in time and get them out of the Whispering Skull — actually a rock formation that looks like a skull and “whispers” when the wind blows through it — where they’ve found Professor Marsh but where the bad guys have trapped them by taking away the ladder they used to get in. (Charles noted that the good guys should have pulled up the ladder after them, but this is a Republic Western so no one there thought of that!)

Riders of the Whistling Skull — a great title that deserved a better movie (it sounds like one of those Western/horror hybrids John Wayne made at Monogram before it got absorbed into Republic) — is the sort of film that literally got churned out by the yard in Hollywood’s glory days and always had a reliable audience, so there’s not much point in criticizing it aesthetically. It’s got good acting — at least from the women — and director Wright and cinematographer Jack Marta take advantage of the picturesque canyon locations (they went farther afield for this film than Republic usually did) and get some quite interesting images when they’re outdoors (notably a periodic appearance of an Indian, entirely in shadow, to symbolize the threat that is stalking Our Heroes), but when they have to shoot an interior the scenes become dull and tableau-like, more like a film from 1912 than 1936. Curiously, the AFI Catalog said the story rights were acquired by Monogram and used for one of their last Charlie Chan movies, The Feathered Serpent, in 1948 with Roland Winters as Chan and Robert Livingston playing the villain this time!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Panic in the Streets (20th Century-Fox, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had run one of my downloads, the 1950 film Panic in the Streets, a quite good noir thriller directed by Elia Kazan that proved he could make a movie just as good, if not better, with old-line Hollywood actors as he could with the Actors’ Studio “Method” crew from New York. It began life as a story called “Outbreak,” also the working title of the film, by Edna and Edward Anhalt, which was adapted by Daniel Fuchs and turned into a screenplay by Richard Murphy.

It begins in the underworld of New Orleans, specifically a poker game hosted by Blackie (Jack Palance, making his film debut and billed under his real first name, “Walter”) and Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel, showing what a fine “straight” character actor he could be before he was blacklisted and then made his comeback as a schticky comedian). They’ve inveigled a newly arrived undocumented immigrant named Kochak (Lewis Charles) into their game, and he’s won $190 from them (it’s not specified, but the impression is they were “seeding” him, letting him win a little before they started cheating and taking his money) when he complains that he’s feeling ill and tries to leave. Blackie and Fitch follow him out and chase him around on the docks before Blackie shoots him.

The scene cuts to the morgue, where the autopsy doctor is baffled by the symptoms the victim presented and the odd microscope slides of the cultures from his body. So he calls in the U.S. Public Health Service, which duly arrives in the person of Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark). He was hoping to spend the day off with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and their son (Tommy Rettig), but he goes into work — the film makes no bones about how the Public Health Service was originally organized as a branch of the U.S. military; Reed’s a doctor but he’s also an army lieutenant commander and he arrives at the morgue in a dress uniform — and soon discovers that Kochak was infected with pneumonic plague (the rarer form of the disease but also the more deadly — bubonic plague can only be spread via fleas but pneumonic is casually transmissible and airborne, and the death rate approaches 100 percent).

Reed — one suspects the writers deliberately made him the namesake of the Public Health Service’s famous founder, Dr. Walter Reed — immediately orders everyone who had contact with the body to be injected with a serum containing the antibiotic streptomycin, then announces that there’s an important potential transmission vector still unaccounted for: the person or persons who killed Kochak (the authorities do not yet know the victim’s identity). The New Orleans police put the investigation of the crime in the hands of homicide captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), who at first is incredibly skeptical of Dr. Reed’s impassioned pleas for urgency — he insists that the crime must be solved, and the killers taken into custody, within 48 hours or the plague will spread uncontrollably through New Orleans and there really will be the “panic in the streets” alluded to in the title — but in the end teams up with Dr. Reed for a rather Holmes-and-Watson-ish collaboration that takes them into the noir underworld (accompanied by a lot of sleazy-sounding jazz, including some recognizable tunes like “Johnson Rag” and Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow,” which here is sung by an unseen but definitely male singer), where they encounter a lot of people who, even if they aren’t crooks themselves, are sufficiently suspicious of the authorities that they don’t cooperate.

One of the more grimly ironic scenes is one in which a Greek restaurateur (played by future director Alexis Minotis, whose presence puts Richard Widmark one degree of separation from Maria Callas) who served a meal to the victim and his killers is dissuaded from talking by his wife (Aline Stevens) — the irony being that later she dies of plague, and had she shut up and let her husband talk to the authorities, her life might well have been saved. Panic in the Streets has some quite remarkable anticipations of later films involving Widmark (the scene in which he interrogates a woman on a houseboat, as he would in Pickup on South Street three years later) and Kazan (the New Orleans setting of A Streetcar Named Desire — which is actually used more effectively here because the story is grittier and more realistic — and the dock locations of On the Waterfront), and its story works in some finely honed ironies — particularly the way the criminals are baffled at the intense police attention being given to catching them when their crime (murdering a two-bit thug who wasn’t even in the country legally) would ordinarily end up near the bottom of law enforcement’s priorities.

The film does overdo Widmark’s action-hero credentials a bit, and the final shootout in a coffee plant is a noir set-piece along the lines of the Brooklyn Bridge finale of The Naked City that is fun to watch but somewhat breaks the realistic mode of the rest, but there are still plenty of amazing bits in this movie and overall it’s a drama both thrilling and intense. There’s an interesting analysis of it by Jonathan Benair in The Film Noir Encyclopedia that begins, “For years gangsters and criminals have been referred to in films as rats and scum, as a menace to society. Panic in the Streets takes this thought to its logical conclusion, making it literally as well as figuratively true.”

Benair notes the irony (this film is full of ironies, but they serve to add to the story instead of calling attention to themselves and saying, “Hey, look at me! I’m post-modern!”) that Blackie is caught in the end when he’s trying to climb a rope to get on a ship that is sailing out of the country, only he’s trapped by a hawser — a metal disc installed on the rope to prevent rats (which of course incubate plague germs) from climbing ropes to get on ships — and he loses his grip on the rope trying to maneuver his way around the hawser, falls into the water and is captured. Earlier there’s been an interesting argument between Reed and the police, who are being fired upon by the crooks and don’t care whether they live or die — to Reed, of course, it’s essential that they be captured alive so he can use them to do contact tracing and find who else may have been exposed to the disease.

The character of Reed is a vivid dramatization of what has been called the “robust” attitude towards public health, a sort of Dirty Harry, M.D. running roughshod over people’s rights and liberties in the single-minded pursuit of a dangerous disease — one which after 9/11 some people in the public health community called for a return to and an application even to conditions like AIDS, which even the most ardent proponents of the HIV/AIDS model admit is not casually transmissible — and it was certainly ironic after attending a lecture earlier that day by the author of a book called The God Virus to be watching a movie about a public health official in pursuit of a genuine — and deadly — biological microorganism!