Who needs a good script when you have Mitchum and Russell?
Above is a surpassingly lovely poster for the thriller Macao with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, reunited by RKO Studios after the previous year's His Kind of Woman. It's always interesting how old movies introduce the romantic leads to each other. In filmmaking parlance, these encounters are sometimes called “meet-cutes.” But it isn't very cute for the man to have to save the woman from a sexual assault. It's also not cute when the price for being saved is an uninvited kiss, but this is the early fifties and in movies you have to expect that stuff. Nonconsensual wrestling match—bad. Nonconsensual kiss—okay. Mitchum goes in for his reward and Russell doesn't mind.
We joked about these two being the best looking pair you can find in vintage cinema, and they're both in top form here. The honchos at RKO knew they had a dream pairing. Placing them in an exotic port, giving them an obstacle to overcome, writing them some quips, and hiring a respected director like Josef von Sternberg and charging him with capturing Casbalanca-style magic was a no-brainer. The adventure involves Mitchum coming across a stolen diamond, then trying to sell more gems to a local criminal kingpin. Little does he know that it's all a scheme hatched by an American police lieutenant to capture said kingpin, leaving Mitchum stuck in the dangerous middle. Russell plays a lounge singer and seems ancillary to all the intrigue, but as the plot evolves she becomes central to the caper. Macao has its moments, and we certainly enjoyed it, but objectively speaking it's a middling effort, with too many narrative holes and too much boilerplate dialogue to offer any real thrills. The caper isn't compelling, and the villain—played by Brad Dexter as if he's on Quaaludes—has no real sense of menace. So the movie has the exotic port, the obstacle, and the quips—but no magic. Mitchum gets the girl, though, so that's something. Or maybe Russell gets the boy. However you prefer. What we'd prefer is more of this pairing, but sadly this was the last time the two starred together. While both their collaborations are watchable, they never made the blockbuster their onscreen chemistry deserved. Why not? Probably because Macao flopped so hard. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1952.
Calcutta is heavy on looks but light on substance.
We'll tell you right out that Calcutta came very close to being an excellent movie, but doesn't quite get over the hump. It deals with a trio of pilots flying cargo between India and China on fictional China International Airways. The trio, Alan Ladd, William Bendix, and John Whitney, stumble upon a highly profitable international smuggling ring and quickly find that the villains play for keeps. Along with the fliers, the film has Gail Russell as Whitney's girlfriend, and June Duprez as a slinky nightclub singer. While the exotic setting marks the film as an adventure, it also fits the brief as a film noir, particularly in Ladd's cynical and icy protagonist.
As we said, the movie isn't as good as it should be, but there are some positives. Foremost among them is Edith King as a wealthy jewel merchant. She smokes a fat cigar, the masculine affectation an unspoken but clear hint of her possible lesbianism, and with a sort of jocular grandiosity simply nails her part. Another big plus is the fact that the miniature work (used in airport scenes), elaborate sets and props, and costumed extras all make for a convincing Indian illusion—definitely needed when a movie is filmed entirely in California and Arizona (Yuma City and Tucson sometimes served as stand-ins for exotic Asian cities, for example Damascus in Humphrey Bogart's Sirocco).
On the negative side, Calcutta has two narrative problems: the head villain is immediately guessable; and Russell is asked to take on more than she can handle as an actress, particularly as the movie nears its climax. Another problem for some viewers, but not all, is that the movie has the usual issues of white-centered stories set in Asia (or Africa). However, within the fictional milieu the characters themselves seem pretty much color and culture blind, which isn't always the case with old films. Even so, the phalanxes of loyal Indian servants, and the dismissiveness with which they're treated—though that treatment is historically accurate—probably won't sit well with a portion of viewers.
Here's what to focus on: Alan Ladd. He's a great screen presence, a solid actor in the tight-lipped way you often see in period crime films, and the filmmakers were even smart enough to keep him shirtless and oiled for one scene. We swear we heard eight-decade-old sighs on the wind, or maybe that was the Pulp Intl. girlfriends. They'd never seen Ladd before, but immediately became interested in his other films. We were forced to tell them he was a shrimpy 5' 6” and they were a bit bummed. But he had it—and that's what counted. His it makes all his films watchable, but doesn't quite make this one a high ranker. Calcutta had its official world premiere in London today in 1946.
What's being stolen? A previous movie's most successful ideas.
Every Hollywood star has that brief moment when they're invincible at the box office, but it seems as if Robert Mitchum, more than most others, was a guy who maintained his power for many years. When The Big Steal came out he'd already run the gauntlet of a drug bust, jail time, and the public repentance circuit, and seemed to emerge unscathed. The executive brains at RKO decided to match teflon Rob with Jane Greer in an attempt to replicate the pair's runaway success in the film noir monument Out of the Past. This time the studio went for a lot of banter and not much in the way noir style, as Mitchum plays an army lieutenant accused of a payroll robbery who pursues the real thief Patric Knowles through Mexico. Greer plays Knowles' fiancée, who he cold-heartedly divested of two-thousand bucks, because thieves are just a little more pragmatic than they are romantic.
The movie is fueled by that Mitchum/Greer chemistry, plus high speeds, resort wardrobe, wry looks, and the Out of the Past memories of movie audiences. Greer brandishes a gun again, just as in that seminal sequence in Out of the Past. Mitchum has a desperate fistfight, just as in Out of the Past. All of this retreading is supported by visually helpful location shooting in Veracruz and other areas of Mexico. The end result is a pleasant little chase film that's even comical at times. Or maybe the laughs came from our dark senses of humor. For example, you know how car pursuits sometimes go right through flocks of chickens, but the chickens never get hurt? In this movie one actually gets run over—at least if the numerous feathers drifting in the car's wake were any indication. That really amused us. Also nearly flattened were goats, a few cows, mules, children, and middle-aged ladies. In fact, all the near misses felt like a running gag about how Americans are always in a hurry.
Other aspects of the movie are equally tongue-in-cheek, including Mitchum's ugly-American stabs at Spanish, but however lightweight this is at times, in the end it's still categorized as a thriller, which means it needs to make pulses race. We wouldn't say it fully achieves that requirement, but it isn't bad either. Mitchum gonna Mitchum, and that's all a studio needed at this moment in time to make a movie work. He'd go on to headline Where Danger Lives, Angel Face, and a long string of good-to-middling dramas and noirs, all the way up to his other cinematic monuments, 1955's The Night of the Hunter and 1962's Cape Fear. The Big Steal is an okay flick, but its true value may be that it shows what the Mitchum charm can do for material that doesn't even deserve him. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
Good weather, excellent visibility, with a 100% chance of Santa.
What says Christmas more than 72 degrees and mostly clear? These photos were made at the 1950 Santa Claus Lane Parade, a decades long Los Angeles tradition, which we bet was never cancelled due to weather. Actually, it was cancelled several times—during World War II due to blackout restrictions. Otherwise, smooth sailing. At some point the name of the event was changed to the Hollywood Christmas Parade, but it still takes place today. The extravaganza's route begins on Hollywood Boulevard and turns onto Sunset. The above shots feature, from top to bottom, show business luminaries Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Peggy Lee, Leo Carrillo, Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Red Skelton, and William Bendix.
Los Angeles homecoming goes awry for Alan Ladd.
The Blue Dahlia is often cited as a top film noir, but it really isn't. That didn't matter to the Hollywood movers and shakers who nominated Raymond Chandler's screenplay for an Oscar, but we suspect the nod was for stringing together hard boiled dialogue, since it certainly wasn't for stringing together a coherent plot. The movie tells the story of a vet who returns home to find his wife cheating with the shady owner of a Hollywood nightclub. When she's murdered, the husband is sought by police, but he goes fugitive and attempts to find the real killer. With pretty boy Alan Ladd in the lead, plus support from Veronica Lake, William Bendix, and the beautiful Doris Dowling, The Blue Dahlia has a lot going for it, including a cool nocturnal vibe, but a script too reliant on improbable occurrences and Lake's flat performance in a basically ornamental role keep it from being upper echelon. It's worth a watch just to see Bendix go bathouse crazy every time he hears what he calls “monkey music,” but go into it knowing there are at least twenty better films in the genre.
Bankhead and Co. try to deal with an ocean of differences.
The best thing about Lifeboat is Tallulah Bankhead. Simple as that. Top billed, tasked with bringing a complex character to life, and working in a film with huge expectations because it was written by literary laureate John Steinbeck and helmed by internationally renowned director Alfred Hitchcock, she delivers the goods. If you haven't seen it, it's an adventure and character study about a group of cruise ship passengers who survive a German u-boat attack and find themselves adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. There's a tinge of war propaganda to it, a touch of we're-humans-and-the-other-side-aren't, but when you consider that Germany was a genocidal regime, and news reports had been touching on this fact for two years (though visual evidence wouldn't appear until after May 1945) Lifeboat is remarkably subtle in that regard.
Anyway, if you ever want to see a star go full nova, check this film out—Bankhead is funny, bitter, sly, ironic, desperate, and more, helped along by reliable old William Bendix, as well as Hume Cronyn, Mary Anderson, and Walter Slezak in a pivotal role. And I guess we don't have to tell you one of Hitchcock's most famous stories came from this movie, the one about his camera accidentally getting upskirt shots of a pantyless Bankhead, and the question of whether the problem was one for hair, make-up, or wardrobe.
The poster above is a really nice piece of mid-century promo art and we spent a lot of computer time trying to discover who painted it, but to no avail. That wasn't a surprise, though. It's a painted version of the photo-illustration used on the panel length promo you see below, which means it's basically a copy job that numerous artists could have executed. But it's still nice compositionally, with its beautiful blue coloration, bright yellow title, and diagonal arrangement of faces. Lifeboat premiered in the U.S. today in 1944.
No place to run, no place to hide.
Today the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco will be screening The Dark Corner, a movie that starts fast and keeps up a breakneck pace throughout, telling the story of small-time detective who is tormented and eventually framed by an unknown enemy. The script, which is credited to five writers, is filled with entertaining jargon, and treats viewers to one of the better quotes from the film noir canon when Mark Stevens references the title with, “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”
Lucille Ball, top-billed, is pitch perfect as Stevens’ secretary, love interest, and driving force, and William Bendix, who made a career out of tough-and-volatile, nails his role even more solidly than usual here. You also get good work from Clifton Webb and femme fatale Cathy Downs. Atypically violent, and brilliantly wrapped in shadows and cut by black silhouettes by director Henry Hathaway and director of photography Joseph MacDonald, The Dark Corner is what watching film noir is all about. Favorite line: after a character is pushed thirty-one floors to his death a witness on the street gestures at a high window and remarks to a policeman, “Brother, he came out of there like a hot rivet. You know it’s a funny thing, I never yet seen one of those guys bounce.” A must-see.
Was it self-defense or murder? That’s always the question.
Do embezzlers even exist anymore, or is all that legal now? That’s the first question we had about The Web. The second was whether it’s believable for a lawyer to accept a gig moonlighting as a bodyguard for a wealthy and arrogant businessman. Well, maybe, if he wants mainly to get close to his new employer’s hot secretary Ella Raines. And his plan seems to be working, too, but just when things are heating up between them he has to shift into bodyguard mode and ends up killing an intruder bent on ventilating the businessman. But was the shooting legit or was it all a set-up to eliminate a rival? The lawyer starts to have suspicions when the dead man’s daughter appears and accuses him of being a hired murderer. From her perspective, what else could he appear to be? Raines, Edmond O’Brien, William Bendix, Vincent Price, John Abbott, and Maria Palmer do tolerable work here, but director Michael Gordon hits a few snags. For example, he shoots a restaurant scene between O’Brien and Bendix on two different sets and splices the halves together. Did one set burn down? Did the budget not include provisions for continuity? You can spot that gaffe at about 45:00. There are others. If you don’t mind such details there’s enjoyment to be had here, but if you like technical proficiency in your cinema, perhaps steer clear. The Web premiered in the U.S. today in 1947.
Good things come in small packages.
Here’s a new addition to the ever expanding roster of mid-century tabloids on Pulp Intl.—Inside, which we mentioned in relation to our post on Liberace a while ago. Inside was a pocket-sized magazine that came to newsstands in 1955 thanks to New York City’s Dodshaw Publishing Corporation. It seems to have lasted only three years. This August 1955 issue, which was originally scanned and uploaded by Darwin’s Scans, features singer Mario Lanza, filmmaker Elia Kazan, and actors George Raft and Gail Russell, among other subjects. Because the print in a pocket publication is readable when scanned and enlarged, we’re going to let you check out the stories yourself. You can read a bit more about Inside here. Enjoy.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1937—Chamberlain Becomes Prime Minister
Arthur Neville Chamberlain, who is known today mainly for his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938 which conceded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany and was supposed to appease Adolf Hitler's imperial ambitions, becomes prime minister of Great Britain. At the time Chamberlain is the second oldest man, at age sixty-eight, to ascend to the office. Three years later he would give way to Winston Churchill.
1930—Chrysler Building Opens
In New York City, after a mere eighteen months of construction, the Chrysler Building opens to the public. At 1,046 feet, 319 meters, it is the tallest building in the world at the time, but more significantly, William Van Alen's design is a landmark in art deco that is celebrated to this day as an example of skyscraper architecture at its most elegant.
1969—Jeffrey Hunter Dies
American actor Jeffrey Hunter dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a skull fracture, a mishap precipitated by his suffering a stroke seconds earlier. Hunter played many roles, including Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings, but is perhaps best known for portraying Captain Christopher Pike in the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage".
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