Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Sand (1949)

It feels a bit peculiar to finally watch Sand, a film that I sought for two decades years before giving up on it some five years ago. As is often the case, good things happen when you stop trying so hard—a copy surfaced about a year ago in one of the places where such things occasionally surface. It’s surprising that this film was never released on VHS or DVD, and that it never aired TCM, AMC, or even Fox Movie Channel (given that it’s a 20th Century Fox product). Perhaps given the movie’s literary source there was some issue with the rights.

Regardless, Sand was a worthwhile nominee for 1949’s Best Color Cinematography and deserves to be seen. It was shot primarily among the high timber in Colorado’s spectacular San Juan National Forest. A pair of journeyman filmmakers, cameraman Charles Clark (who was vastly experienced but didn’t do many Westerns) and director Louis King (who did plenty), make the most of the scenery in order to compensate for an otherwise meager budget and brisk schedule. The Oscar nomination is ample proof that their efforts were worthwhile.

Aside from all that, Sand is a good B movie. It’s the sort of thing that, had anyone actually seen it, would be on a bunch of most-loved lists. The cast is led by one of my film noir favorites, Mark Stevens, as charismatic and underrated as ever. I wrote a lot about him here. The love interest / narrator is Coleen Gray, a much bigger star than Stevens and herself a noir icon. Western stalwart Rory Calhoun goes along for the ride. One of the film’s highlights is a well-staged brouhaha between him and Stevens. The human cast plays third fiddle here, following the scenery and the horse.

Sand is a straight adventure yarn with a simple plot. Rodeo showman Stevens loses his prize horse, Jubilee, in a fiery train wreck, and spends the balance of the picture searching for him. In the meantime, Jubilee gets into plenty of mischief on his own—there’s some Jack London at work here. King doesn’t ask much of his cast, instead focusing his efforts on making a pretty picture buoyed by stellar animal action sequences. One in particular, where Jubilee goes hoof to hoof with another horse while a hungry mountain lion looks on, is especially well done.

This was targeted less at Western fans than at tween girls who still dug horses. If the audience saw the older Stevens as a father figure and Calhoun as a love interest, all the better. I’d love to see a high-quality print of this, but, after all these years, I feel grateful to have seen it at all.

Sand (1949) 
Directed by Louis King 
Starring Mark Stevens, Coleen Gray, and Rory Calhoun 
Released by 20th Century Fox 
Running time: 78 minutes 
Availability: Unavailable. 

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

None Shall Escape (1944)

Alexander Knox, a great actor all but forgotten by history, gave inarguably his two greatest performances in 1944. In a way it’s a shame — he was nominated for Best Actor as the title character of one of 1944’s heavyweight contenders, Wilson. Had that picture, which earned a robust five Academy Award nominations come out in any other year, or vice-versa, he may have also been nominated for his chilling performance in None Shall Escape. Wilson was released to videocassette in a limited fashion a generation ago, while None Shall Escape was finally released on blu-ray in 2019. The marketing approach of Escape’s poster suggests that Columbia was unsure what to do with it, which isn’t surprising given the film’s concept and lack of a major star. Considering the ensemble cast, Knox could have garnered a Supporting Actor nomination — despite clearly being the film’s star.

None Shall Escape is a difficult film to write about. It’s one of those pictures about which there is simply too much to say; there are too many angles of approach, too many lenses through which to view it. If nothing else, it’s a film that simply must have an engaging production story. Director André De Toth was obviously close to the project — born in Hungary, De Toth came up through the ranks of the central European film industry, and even filmed the German invasion of Poland in 1939 as a news production cameraman. He was a Hollywood emigré when this was filmed, but the results have a certain veneer that belies both De Toth’s youth and the film’s meager budget. Escape received a nomination in the Original Story category for writers Alfred Neumann and Joe Than, though James Steffen over at TCM relates that De Toth brought in future Hollywood Ten member Lester Cole to doctor the script.

The film’s premise is a little complicated. Released while the outcome of the war was still in doubt, and told through a series of flashbacks, it is nevertheless set in the future — and a very prescient one: the Allies have prevailed and form tribunals to hold the Nazis accountable. The narrative revolves around the aptly named Wilhelm Grimm (Knox), a German who teaches school in a small village in Poland. As the film opens, Grimm is being put on trial for his actions during the war; a parade of eyewitnesses are brought to testify against him, including his brother and ex-fiancé; the story is told through their recollections.

When the First World War comes, Grimm enlists in the German army but returns from the fighting grievously injured, having lost his right leg along with the better part of his soul. Embittered, he begins to see the world in a different light, and in time becomes infatuated with Nazism. Shunned by his fiancé, he commits a crime that results in the death of one of his pupils and the loss of his own left eye! A harried Grimm begs the help of the local clergy, including the village rabbi, in order to escape Poland. He heads for Munich, where he moves in with his bookish older brother and officially joins the Nazis. He quickly rises in the party, and what little humanity he had left is given over to Hitler. When his brother chooses to flee Germany for Austria, Wilhelm has him arrested and sent to a concentration camp. To add insult to injury, Wilhelm takes over the education of his nephew, and tries to create a Nazi officer in his own image. In the wake of the Blitzkreig, Grimm returns to his Polish village — this time as an SS commander — with predictable results.

None Shall Escape is mind-boggling in its accuracy. The film is so on the money that it’s actually hard to believe it wasn’t made ten years after the end of the fighting. Although it has many uncomfortable scenes, most of them are the result of things said by Grimm. One however, is quite simply astonishing: as the Nazis round up jews to be taken to forced-labor camps, the town rabbi (a man who previously helped Grimm flee the country) asks to address his congregation, being shoved onto cattle cars. Grimm consents, in hopes of quieting the scene, but is shocked when the rabbi tells his people that they are being taken to their deaths, and encourages them to stand instead, and fight. What comes next is surprising, but not in the way you might expect. It isn’t shocking that Grimm orders his troops to machine gun the jews — it’s shocking how graphic the scenes is — De Toth even shows bullets slamming into the bodies of already slumping children. At the conclusion of the scene, the rabbi staggers to confront Grimm, who at first appears to rush over to embrace the man, but instead casually draws his pistol and shoots him in the chest.

I could write many, many more words about None Shall Escape, but I don’t want to give away anymore about the story than I already have; and I hold no illusions that I could maintain interest if I did so (but I’ll reserve the right to revisit this one on the occasion of another viewing). If nothing else it’s an absolutely superior B film with a stellar performance from Alexander Knox.

None Shall Escape (1944)
Directed by André De Toth
Starring Alexander Knox
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 85 minutes
Availability: Bluray as of 2019. Has aired on TCM, bootlegs.

Grade: A

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)

Stephen King gave an interview once where he was foolishly challenged with a question about literary history. I don’t know why, but journalists always think they can show up popular authors by exposing them on literature knowledge — this one oddly asked the former English teacher if he had ever “read the classics.” It was like some poor sap trying to heckle Don Rickles. King, like nearly every other best-seller out there, not only knows his business but is usually slicker than the person asking the questions. I’ve always loved his glib response, which went something like: “I don’t know anything about William Faulkner, but I’ve read everything Dean Koontz ever wrote.”

I recently had a similar moment chatting on a Facebook message board when someone accused me of not knowing anything about “film” because I’m not a David Lynch fan. For example: “If you knew anything about surrealism you might begin to understand and appreciate Lynch’s films.” Instead of taking the easy way out, as Stephen King could have done, and sharing that in real life I’m in the chair of a university department of art and art history, I took a page out of King’s book and shot back, “I may not know anything about surrealism, but I’ve seen every picture Tyrone Power ever made.”

That was almost true — I had somehow missed this one; which you can file neatly in the forgotten gems category. Like most other musical biopics, Columbia’s 1956 film The Eddie Duchin Story relates the life events of yet another mid-century musical personality. Aside from a relatively early Kim Novak performance there’s little about the film that would really pull in contemporary audiences, which is a shame. After all, Duchin’s name is all but forgotten these days — as he wasn’t a composer or lyricist none of his tunes became standards, and his untimely death in 1951 didn’t contribute to his longevity. The Eddie Duchin Story isn’t an MGM picture either — coming instead from Harry Cohn and major-minor Columbia, not a studio well known for musicals that didn’t feature Rita Hayworth. Still though, stars and studios aside Duchin’s story is great film fodder; and the resulting movie is a fine romance and a tear-jerker of the first order.

Tyrone Power and Kim Novak are a strange match — a generation apart, Power exists in the mind as a primarily a black and white film actor while Novak is pure Technicolor. He on the tail end of a robust career and she at the beginning of one too short. Opinions differ concerning Novak’s strengths and weaknesses, but who doesn’t wish she made more films? This one cleverly handles the delicate issue of the billing: Power above Novak, same size type on the printed materials; but Novak first in the film’s titles, with Power getting a special “Starring Tyrone Power as Eddie Duchin” screen to himself just after director George Sidney’s. Although Power was nearly twenty years Novak’s senior, her character was actually supposed to be a little older than his. The film tries to split the difference, clumsily hiding Power’s age in the early scenes, and making Kim look a bit dowdier than necessary.

Power was 41 when this was made, so it seems a bit strange that he would be cast in the first place, however all concerns evaporate when he sits down at the piano. Duchin’s trademark as a pianist was the speed and complexity of his fingering, and Power is certainly up to the challenge. Sidney and cameraman Harry Stradling (he of 14 Oscar nominations, Eddy Duchin included — and 2 wins) go out of their way to ensure the viewer knows that the hands on the keyboard belong to the star — and if Power is somehow faking Duchin’s virtuosity then he deserved an award for it. All of the musical scenes are well done, and any inclination viewers might want to hit the fast-forward button during the musical bits (Can anyone say Funny Lady?) is lost here. The film is beautifully photographed and makes New York City look stunning. A pseudo-montage that takes place when Power and Novak are courting is particularly beautiful, and takes full advantage of Novak’s spectacular rapport with the camera.

Surprisingly, Novak’s part is short given her billing; and there’s a great deal more to the story than has been mentioned here. As I wrote earlier this is both a romantic film and a tear-jerker, with the emotional scenes coming on heavy as the film approaches the two hour mark. There’s one moment in particular — a small one — where a uniformed Power happens upon a burnt up piano in a wrecked bar on Mindanao. It’s a brief but important scene, and certain to bring a smile to your face — for me it made the picture. In the end, this is a movie about more than just those loved and lost. It’s concerned greatly with familial relationships and the ties that bind fathers to their sons. It looks good, it sounds good, and it entertains. What’s not to like?

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
Grade: B
Directed by George Sidney
Released by Columbia Pictures
Starring Tyrone Power, Kim Novak, and James Whitmore
Running time: 121 minutes
Availability: DVD, Netflix

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Of all the riffs on this particular episode of American mythology, 1957’s big-budget Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is my favorite. Burt Lancaster is a stoic and statuesque as Wyatt Earp; Kirk Douglas does the heavy lifting as Doc Holiday. More often than not that’s how these things play out—producers bend over backwards to animate Earp, while Holiday, with his cards, his cough, and his Kate, rides into the sunset with the film tucked away in his breast pocket.

Gunfight is straight ahead, humorless, and not especially bothered about the opposite sex. Rhonda Fleming makes the expected Technicolor splash as a renowned lady gambler, but she’s not on screen long enough to be merit third billing. Her purpose is merely to oblige Lancaster to choose between a quiet future as her shopkeeper husband and the family honor—answering his brother’s call to destiny in dusty Tombstone. She won’t have him both ways and makes a hasty exit.

That leaves Jo Van Fleet as Kate Fisher, Holiday’s companion. We can tell that she loves him, but it’s a sans-affection, hate-hate relationship in Gunfight. Van Fleet sparkles as a Western femme fatale, stoking the rivalry between Holiday and Johnny Ringo as she vacillates between the two men, neither of whom actually seems to want her. Oh wait, I get it, it isn’t really about her. 

John Ireland turns in a clean-shaven Ringo, perfect for Eisenhower’s America. (Ireland played young Billy Clanton is 1946’s iteration, My Darling Clementine.) In fact, everyone here looks so coiffed and pretty that it can be difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. Perhaps that’s why professional villain caricature Lyle Bettger is Ike Clanton—there’s no mistaking him for a hero.

The climactic gunfight itself is surprisingly short on the bravado that has made this story so irresistible to filmmakers and audiences alike. Damn near every bullet is fired from cover, with combatants hiding in ditches and lurking behind wagons. The finale suffers from not having that expected moment where two enemies stand and face each other, whizzing bullets be damned. It finally winds down with an angst-filled Dennis Hopper cornered in a saloon, a cautionary episode imploring the delinquent teens of the 1950s to steer clear of wasted youth.

In the end, it’s star power (get a load of that poster) and Vistavision that puts this one over. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (who’s 101 years old and hitched 64 years as I write this—keep punchin’ champ) have a rare sort of chemistry that placed them opposite each other in seven films, each of which is somehow remarkable. Lancaster projects moral authority unlike any other actor of his generation (it’s easy to see why he earned an Oscar for upending that in Elmer Gantry) while Douglas’s screen persona is somehow able to flout Lancaster’s gravity and humanize him. Along with John Sturges’s capable direction and the panoramas we expect from a mid-century western, this is well worth your time.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Grade: B+
Directed by John Sturges
Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForest Kelley, Dennis Hopper, Ted DiCorsia.
Written by Leon Uris
Released by Paramount Pictures
Running time: 122 minutes
Availability: Airs on TCM, widely available. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

No Sad Songs for Me (1950)

No Sad Songs for Me is an atypical postwar Hollywood tearjerker. A woman learns she is dying of cancer and decides to withhold her prognosis from her family, while secretly encouraging the woman she hopes will eventually take her place.

What makes this movie so atypical is the presence of the leading lady, Margaret Sullavan, a sublime actress of exceptional skill, who has nevertheless been forgotten over the years by the general public. Her life was tempestuous: married four times (including a 60-day stint with Henry Fonda), torn between Los Angeles and Broadway, and often both severely physically ill and mentally depressed. Sullavan never enjoyed the stability of one able to choose a coast and settle there. She’d give birth to three children, two of whom would eventually commit suicide, though neither would do so while Sullavan herself was still living. The troubled and unhappy actress would die of a barbiturate overdose in 1960 at the age of fifty-one.

In spite of making only sixteen films, she was as highly regarded as any actress in the business. Unlike most, she left Hollywood on her own terms. Other aging actresses faded from the film scene for a variety of reasons, but Hollywood always had a part waiting for Sullavan. Her performances are nuanced and damned smart—and she was gifted with an extraordinary voice. She starred opposite Jimmy Stewart in three bona fide classics: The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and The Mortal Storm (1940). Her best performance, in Three Comrades (1938), with Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone, earned her only Oscar nomination. She made No Sad Songs for Me after a seven-year breather, and it would end up being the final film of her career. For the remaining decade of her life, she confined her efforts to the stage and an occasional television appearance.

Although No Sad Songs for Me has the same melodramatic honeycomb as a Douglas Sirk picture, it’s saved by subtle and clever casting—and not just in Sullavan's case. Each of Columbia boss Harry Cohn and director Rudolph Maté’s choices keeps the film from straying into histrionics. Wendell Corey plays Sullavan’s husband. Most often utilized as a foil to a more charismatic and romantic male star, Corey’s sensitive, wry screen persona is perfect here. You could argue that his limited range mars the picture in one crucial moment, when he finally learns the truth about his wife’s condition, but on the whole his presence is a lesson in inspired, slow-burn restraint. The movie's other woman is Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, who plays Corey’s co-worker, and isn’t so beautiful or glamorous that you can’t imagine her ending up with him. Little Natalie Wood plays the kid.

The film benefits from a well-constructed script, tight as a drum from start to finish. It favors the romantic triangle over Sullavan’s struggle to come to grips with her illness and her relationship with her daughter, but it’s entertaining enough that you won’t care. Although there are some routine elements of 1950s scandal / gossip present, the film doesn’t linger on them. No Sad Songs for Me is worthwhile for softening the tired Depression-era cliché of the dying wife and mother. Sullavan herself had already starred in one the preeminent such films of the 1930s, Three Comrades. It’s clear that by the early 1950s (and in the wake of the war) filmmakers were less concerned with Greek tragedy and more aware that life moves on the wake of death.

No Sad Songs for Me (1950)
Grade: B+
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Starring Margaret Sullavan, Wendell Corey, Natalie Wood
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 88 minutes
Availability: Airs on TCM.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blackmail (1939)

Edward G. Robinson was flying high in 1939, confident and comfortable in his position near the top of the Hollywood heap. His box office appeal was such that he could be successfully cast in nearly anything, which possibly explains his turn in Metro’s seldom-seen Blackmail, which only vaguely resembles that other chain gang picture.

An oddly cast Eddie plays John Harrington, a wrongly imprisoned man who escapes a Deep South chain gang and starts a new life with a new name—John Ingram—with his wife (Ruth Hussey, wasted here) and son (Bobs Watson) in Oklahoma as, of all things, an oil field fire fighter. Whenever a gusher turns into a flamethrower, John and partner Moose (Guinn Williams) swoop in with nitroglycerine, dynamite, and asbestos suits and blow the inferno to kingdom come. But after a newsreel crew records some of his exploits, John’s past comes back to haunt him and he soon finds himself returned to the chain gang, craving revenge against the man “old friend” (Gene Lockhart) who blackmailed and betrayed him.

Robinson was still under contract at his home studio, Warner Bros. in 1939, and made this quick actioner on loan-out to MGM. Given the status of the performer and the studio, it’s somewhat surprising to see that Blackmail only rates 244 votes on IMDb. And while Robinson jolts any film he appears in, this is certainly one of his weakest star outings, and I spent much of my viewing time wondering if a different, and ugh—younger, taller—star, may have made for a better film. Nevertheless, at just 81 minutes this moves quickly and travels from location to location with the sort of polish that one expects from MGM—even MGM trying their best to do a Warner’s picture. The fire scenes are exciting and have a convincing sense of verisimilitude (not too much rear projection); the chain gang sequences somewhat less so, but only because they were created on the lot rather than in Louisiana, and because Eddie just can’t swing a pick axe with the same aplomb with which he brandishes a Tommy gun. However he does shine throughout the escape sequence, particularly when he clings desperately to the axle of a fruit truck as it barrels down a rocky unpaved road. It’s tense, scary stuff.

In the end Blackmail is an only mildly striking conflation of Warner Bros. exposé and Metro spectacle, albeit with one of the truly great stars. Light fare from Robinson’s most prolific period.

Read the biography of Edward G. Robinson I wrote for the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City magazine at this link. 

Blackmail (1939)
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Hussey, and Gene Lockhart.
Directed by H.C Potter
Running time: 81 minutes
Availability: airs on TCM
Grade: C+

Friday, May 24, 2013

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

In Douglas Sirk’s 1956 soaper There’s Always Tomorrow, Fred MacMurray’s perfect family learns the hard way that fathers need attention too. MacMurray plays Los Angeles toy manufacturer Clifford Groves, father of three and married these twenty years to his high school sweetheart, Marion (Joan Bennett, lovely once again after the disaster of Highway Dragnet).  As the movie unfolds, we meet a man who is taken utterly for granted by his wife and children. The kids treat him as little more than a cash machine, without pausing to consider where the money actually comes from and what their father has to put up with to earn it, while his wife is so wrapped up in the comings and goings of the kids that she’s often too busy or too tired to spend time alone with her spouse.

The Groves seem to be comfortable in their familial rut until Clifford chances into a former employee while at a business meeting in Palm Springs. Barbara Stanwyck plays Norma Vale, once a toy company employee before unrequited love forced her to flee the west coast for Manhattan and a wildly successful career as a fashion designer. She’s been carrying a torch for Clifford ever since, and the pair spend the balance of their time at the desert resort innocently reminiscing. Things go wrong when Clifford’s son Vinnie (Bill Reynolds) spies the pair having a good time and assumes the worst. Before long, the other Groves children are suspicious of their father, who moment by moment seems at risk of tipping for his old flame. So in the end it is left to Stanwyck, one of filmdom’s greatest martyrs, to do the right thing and save the Grove family from certain disaster.

It almost goes without saying that There’s Always Tomorrow props up the postwar notion of the perfect, patriarchal family unit, and that the dramatic tension (of this and countless other films just like it) springs from an external threat to the harmony of that unit. And while the outcome here is predictable, the film is interesting in the sense that it makes only the children aware of the peril to their family — the wife and mother carries on blissfully unaware. Certainly one might suggest that Joan Bennett’s Marion couldn’t be that naïve, but the movie makes no overt suggestion that anyone other than Grove children are aware that their father’s eyes are wandering. In this way the picture utilizes the vagaries of the ersatz affair to focus on the various wrong interpretations of the situation the Norma, Clifford, and most importantly, the children themselves. In this way There’s Always Tomorrow is quite successful.

In their fourth and final film together, Stanwyck and MacMurray impress — though she has the better role and does a little more with it. MacMurray’s chief task is to play a robotic family man (there’s a great piece of Sirkian symbolism for this in the film) brought back to human emotion through contact with another woman, while Stanwyck gets to sacrifice love for likely spinsterhood in an effort to save him — in exchange Sirk famously gives her the tears through the rainy window treatment. While this isn’t as soapy and outrageous as some of Sirk’s technicolor melodramas (this one is black and white) it instead favors believable scenarios and underplayed performances. At 84 minutes it is over much too quickly, but it remains a solid, entertaining, and even thoughtful outing from Sirk and company.

A note about the poster: Poor Joan, relegated to a black and white tip-in, which seems ironic in that it its placement is indicative of her standing not only in this picture, but in the business as well. In the wake of her 1951 scandal, this seems about as much as she could manage; set apart, looking longingly up at her peers. 

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Joan Bennett
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Released by Universal International
Running time: 84 minutes
Availability: widely on DVD, airs on TCM.
Grade: B+