Expectation and reality don't meet in Rat Pack classic.
This is a tasty poster for Colpo grosso, and at first glance you'd expect the movie to be a dark thriller, giallo, or film noir. But then you notice the cast list at top—Martin, Sinatra, Davis, Jr.—and it probably dawns on you that this must be Ocean's Eleven. The poster was painted by Averado Ciriello and we have no idea why he went so dark with what is basically a comedy, but it's great work. Actually, it's better than the movie. For Sinatra-philes, Rat Pack lovers, or people who haven't yet seen Ocean's Eleven, that statement may seem sacriligious, so we won't try to back it up with our words—we'll just note that reviews of the day called it lazy and too long, and currently it has less than a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Basically, despite being a cultural touchstone of a film, it isn't that good, with its main problem being that it's plain boring in parts. However...
The movie has tremendous value. A lot of contemporaneous reviews hated it because of its insouciant attitude toward the heist. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther said it was “nonchalant and flippant towards crime,” and also described it as amoral. “Young people,” he wrote, “are likely to find this more appropriate and bewitching than do their elders. The latter are likely to feel less gleeful in the presence of heroes who rob and steal.” So it's clear that Ocean's Eleven flagrantly defied the strictures of the Hays Code censorship regime, which was weakening but still intact. The Code stated that in no film should the sympathy of the audience be “thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin,” yet audiences loved Sinatra and his party bros, and their laissez faire attitude was a needed course correction after decades of creative suppression. It's a shame then, that Ocean's Eleven isn't just a bit better.
Everything that matters happens while the city sleeps.
This poster for The Sleeping City says it's the exciting successor to The Naked City. That's a mighty bold claim, considering The Naked City was directed by the legendary Jules Dassin and was selected for permanent preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress's National Film Registry, while The Sleeping City was directed by the not-quite-legendary George Sherman, who mostly helmed westerns and received a Golden Boot Award for his contributions to the Western film genre. Both were skilled at their craft, no doubt. But there's a big difference between the National Film Registry and the Golden Boot.
The Sleeping City is a New York City based crime thriller, and it starts with a cheeseball introduction in which lead Richard Conte pays tribute to Bellevue Hospital and its doctors and nurses. It was tacked onto the finished picture after city officials learned that the public already viewed the hospital negatively, and a crime thriller set there might make those perceptions worse. But it was still a silly thing to do—Bellevue was a public hospital. It wasn't like it was going to lose ad revenue from bad publicity. In any case, we're glad these sorts of “the story you're about to see” preambles didn't last long in Hollywood.
Once the movie gets started, Conte plays a cop sent undercover to solve a murder at the hospital. He's posing as a doctor and has some medical experience, but is by all means to avoid being roped into a situation where he actually has to do any doctoring. If he gets in a jam of that sort he's supposed to sacrifice his cover, and as reliably as the turn of a script page, he gets trapped into treating a case of diabetic shock. He decides to forge ahead rather than step aside. One could ponder his ethics, but luckily he gets through by the skin of his teeth. Whew.
Conte sticks his long nose in various nooks and crannies around Bellevue, makes goo-goo eyes with ward nurse Coleen Gray, and finds himself roomed with a hothead doctor named Steve. The murder mystery eventually lands right in his lap when his roommate turns up dead—lucky break that—and an important clue is provided by a nurse played by Peggy “Wow*” Dow. We won't tell you how the plot unspools from that point. We'll just say The Sleeping City is a functional thriller worth a watch. With Conte and Gray on board, it's pretty hard to fail. The film premiered today in 1950.
*Not her official nickname. That's just how we think of her.
Who's afraid of him? Nobody anymore.
Isn't this a great poster? It was painted for La femme au gardénia, better known as The Blue Gardenia. Every once in a while you come across an old movie that's so ahead of its time you can't believe what you're seeing. This one is about a woman's response to sexual coercion, and law enforcement's reaction to the aftermath. Basically, Anne Baxter, who's five-three and a buck twenty, ends up in the apartment of Raymond Burr, who's six feet and goes at least 230. Burr plies Baxter with booze, and when he later tries to get her horizontal a struggle ensues and he ends up dead. Baxter escapes the apartment, and thanks to the arrival of a very efficient cleaning lady nearly all the evidence of her presence is accidentally erased the next morning before Burr's body is discovered.
So Baxter's scot-free? Well, not quite. There's that whole guilt, edginess, and fear thing, which her roommates notice. And there are a few bits of evidence, which lead to police drawing ever closer. All these are good plot moves. Lacking an identity for the killer, the press begins calling her—the bit of evidence that exists indicates it's a her—the Blue Gardenia, which is a clear Black Dahlia echo. We liked that. And we also liked that, at this point, the film was a thriller built wholly around consent and power. But this was the 1950s. Of course they weren't trying to impart that lesson. What were we thinking? Instead, an ending so pat that it almost ruins the movie comes blundering over the horizon. Is it wrong to suggest watching the first 75 minutes of this and turning it off?
Okay, the movie isn't completely trashed by the ending. It's just that we thought we had something daring on hand, and in reality it's a decent-not-great semi-noir from Fritz Lang that flirts with feminism but decides not to close the deal. However, the story was derived from a novella by author and playwright Vera Caspary, and we can't help wondering if the suits overruled her on a different ending. Probably not, but we'll have to dig that tale up and read it anyway. Regardless, we think the movie is worth watching just for Anne Baxter's bravura performance. And we love the platinum poodle cut she sports too. Plus there's Nat King Cole as, presumably, himself. The Blue Gardenia opened in the U.S. in 1953, and premiered in France today in 1954
He really appreciates the wilder side of life.
Last year we posted the front and back covers of an issue of He magazine. As usual, it’s taken us longer than we intended, but today we’re back with more. The above cover appeared this month in 1953 and features a masked model shot at New York City’s annual Artists Equity Ball, which, according to He, pretty much turned into an orgy. We don’t know about that, but the photos do reveal a rather racy scene. You also get shots of (we think) Rocky Marciano knocking out someone or other and lightweight champ Jimmy Carter mashing some hapless opponent’s face, photos of Laurie Anders, Lili St. Cyr, Lilly Christine, Daniele Lamar, and other celebs of the day, an amazing still of Julie Newmar, aka Julie Newmeyer, dancing in Slaves of Babylon, plus a back cover featuring highly touted but ultimately underachieving actress Mara Corday. We don’t have to bother too much with a description today, because these digest-sized magazines have text that scans large enough to be read even on small computers. So read and enjoy.
Lesser-known noir The Big Combo is well worth a viewing.
In the old noirs criminal gangs are sometimes the Mafia, sometimes the Mob, and still other times the Syndicate. In this one the gang is the Combination, hence the title The Big Combo. While the film isn’t a big budget noir, it makes up in inventiveness what it lacks for dollars. Example: one thug who wears a hearing aid is about to be rubbed out. He begs for his life, and one of his executioners says, “I’ll do you a favor—you won’t hear the bullets.” He then snatches out the thug’s hearing aid and we see a silent close-up of muzzle flashes. The film is filled with visual treats like that, and as a bonus it has first-rate acting, with the lead Cornel Wilde even pulling off a crying scene. For real. He turns on the waterworks with no help from the make-up department and it’s an exceedingly rare feat for male actors during the 1950s.
Another characteristic of The Big Combo is its sexual undercurrents. One character is a stripper and during a backstage scene we get a surprising flash of her bikini-clad bottom. Meanwhile, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play two hired thugs who we’re supposed to suspect are gay. We’ve seen the great documentary The Celluloid Closet about the many gay characters hidden in old films, so we’re familiar with the hints screenwriters like to drop. In this case the relationship between Van Cleef and Holliman is clearer than usual, which makes us wonder if it was an accident or a deliberate attempt to push the envelope when Holliman utters the line, “I’m sick of swallowing sausage.” Shortly thereafter the two are dispatched via hand grenade, so unfortunately we don’t get to know any more about these two great characters.
We’ve already given away too much, so we’ll quit while we’re ahead. If you like film noir, definitely give this one a spin. It’ll be a good expenditure of time, we promise. Above you see the great Spanish language promo art for this underrated classic. It was released with the title Agente Especial in most Spanish speaking countries, but for Argentina the producers went with Gangsters in Fuga, which translates rather poetically as “Gangsters in Flight.” It first flew in the U.S. in 1955, and migrated to Argentina in the spring of 1956.
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