Film Review: Beat the Devil (1953)

Release Date: November 24th, 1953 (London premiere)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston, Truman Capote
Based on: Beat the Devil by James Helvick
Music by: Franco Mannino
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Bernard Lee, Peter Sellers (voice, uncredited)

Romulus Films, Dear Film, Santana Pictures Corporation, 89 Minutes

Review:

“Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.” – O’Hara

I decided to check out Beat the Devil because a description I read for it referred to it as John Huston’s parody of his own movie The Maltese Falcon. Since this also starred Humphrey Bogart, I was intrigued to see what exactly that description meant.

Well, that description was terrible, as this isn’t a parody of one specific film, it is actually a crime comedy with adventure and romance thrown in. And while that description was bullshit, the movie is not. It was mostly amusing and fun.

Overall, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me but it wasn’t dull and it was cool seeing Bogart ham it up a bit with Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, along with Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida.

The story is actually about an ensemble of people stranded in Italy while trying to get to Africa. All of them are shifty types that are trying to lay claim to a property that is believed to be rich in uranium. So it’s definitely not a straight parody of The Maltese Falcon, other than it has the same director, two of the same stars and has some criminal scheming and twists.

In the end, I was disappointed by this being very different than how it was sold to me. It was still refreshing and kind of unique. I liked the camerawork, the on location shooting and how this felt like you were in a genuine space with these actors, whom are usually surrounded by lavish, indoor sets on big budget sound stages.

Beat the Devil wasn’t a waste of time and it’s kind of charming.

Side note: Bogart got into a car accident during production and lost some teeth; so he had a hard time speaking. Therefore, up and coming actor, Peter Sellers, was brought in to record dubbed dialogue for Bogart while he was having trouble adjusting to his lack of canines.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: other Humphrey Bogart films of the time, most notably his film-noir work.

Film Review: Pickup On South Street (1953)

Also known as: Pickpocket, Blaze of Glory (working titles)
Release Date: May 27th, 1953 (Boston and Philadelphia)
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller, Dwight Taylor
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter

20th Century Fox, 80 Minutes

Review:

“I know you pinched me three times and got me convicted three times and made me a three time loser. And I know you took an oath to put me away for life. Well you’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eye-wash, but get this: I didn’t grift that film and you can’t prove I did! And if I said I did, you’d slap that fourth rap across my teeth no matter what promises you made!” – Skip McCoy

For those that don’t know, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had an interesting working relationship with 20th Century Fox. Hoover allowed the studio access to investigations and files and thought that allowing some “transparency” through a Hollywood lens would make the public more supportive of the FBI under Hoover.

However, this film is what ended that relationship, as Hoover wanted it changed due to what he felt wasn’t a complete condemnation of communism. The studio stuck by writer/director Samuel Fuller and this film was released, unaltered.

Hoover was upset because this has a plot that involves Richard Widmark’s character being involved with passing off a piece of secret film to those bastard Reds. Widmark’s character, regardless of the communist involvement in the plot, seemed unfazed as to who his employer was. And he never really shows any remorse for the communists’ plot that he was a part of and certainly doesn’t have a moment of reflection where he turns over a new leaf. Apparently, this infuriated Hoover but it does seem more genuine and leaving the story as is, was probably for the better, regardless of the political climate of the time. Plus, it makes for an interesting tale that is larger than the movie itself and has thus, elevated this motion picture’s importance in a time when film-noir movies were a dime a dozen and most have been forgotten.

But regardless of all that, this is still a superb noir, carried by the solid perfromance by Widmark, as well as Jean Peters, his gal, and the always stupendous Thelma Ritter.

For the time, Ritter has a death scene here that is really damn dark and makes your heart sink. While I’m a fan of just about everything in this picture, it’s this scene where you really see the great talent of Ritter, as well as the greatness of Samuel Fuller, who picked the music and shot the scene, using fabulous camera work, lighting and cinematography. Granted, he had help in the cinematography department by Joseph MacDonald, who also worked on Panic In the Streets, Niagara, Hell and High Water, The Young Lions, Pepe and The Sand Pebbles.

The story is also engaging and the threats in this feel genuine and real. Despite Hoover’s concerns, this certainly doesn’t paint the Reds in a positive light.

I also have to give props to Jean Peters for how physical she had to get with this role. I’m not sure if they used a double or not and I don’t think that they did, but when she literally gets the crap kicked out of her in her own apartment, it’s absolutely brutal for 1953 standards. Hell, it’s hard to watch for 2019 standards where movie audiences see some pretty violent stuff on a regular basis.

Pickup On South Street will probably always be a footnote in Hollywood history. However, it deserves its recognition in spite of its controversy. It’s a solid picture, lifted up by its players, its director and its cinematographer.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noirs: Night and the City, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Where the Sidewalk Ends and Naked City.

Film Review: The Maze (1953)

Release Date: June 24th, 1953 (Portland, Oregon premiere)
Directed by: William Cameron Menzies
Written by: Daniel Ullman
Based on: The Maze by Maurice Sandoz
Music by: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery

Allied Artists Pictures, 80 Minutes

Review:

“SHOCKING CHILLS..Bloodcurdling suspense! A thousand thrill-maddening horrors!” – tagline

I never knew of this film’s existence until I stumbled across it on YouTube. But I’m glad that I gave this a watch, as I was pleasantly surprised by it.

I was initially drawn to the film because the idea of a horror film that takes place in and around a maze intrigued me. Plus, it takes place in Scotland with a Scottish castle and promises of “The Deadliest Trap in the World!” This film actually had several good marketing taglines but there wasn’t a single trap at all, really.

Now even though I enjoyed this film, it is very slow. But it does build up suspense pretty well so that once you get to the big finale in the maze, you feel a legitimate sense of terror and tension.

The big reveal at the end was pretty damn surprising too. The first time you see the creature scurry across the ground in the shadows, it’s a really bizarre moment and it’s hard to make out what you’re looking at. However, the full reveal is pretty damn shocking even for the hokiness of the monster.

If you want to watch this movie, ignore this spoilery paragraph and skip to the next. The creature is a big frog but it’s really a dude in a suit with a pretty realistic frog head. What’s really bizarre, is that he crawls across the ground. He sort of does this hop thing but barely. And what’s even more bizarre is that the frog dude’s screams sound like an elephant. Still, this was a really cool creature and I was caught off guard by it and also amused by it.

While the slow walk through the dark maze, at the end, was really well done. The lighting needed to be better. To simulate candlelight, the crew used a spotlight to illuminate the two women. However, it just looked like they were walking towards a spotlight and it didn’t seem to work as faux candlelight. Even for 1953, there were better techniques for lighting a scene like this. The only real reason why I’m actually pointing it out though, is that it distracts the viewer during this sequence, which was near perfect other than this glaring flaw.

Regardless of that one lighting issue and the slow pace, this was still thoroughly enjoyable. The last ten or fifteen minutes were solid. But that great climax probably wouldn’t have had as much impact if not for the slow, suspenseful build up.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: The Night Walker, The Psychopath and X the Unknown.

Film Review: Hondo (1953)

Also known as: They Called Him Hondo
Release Date: November 24th, 1953 (Houston premiere)
Directed by: John Farrow, John Ford (uncredited, final scenes only)
Written by: James Edward Grant
Based on: Hondo by Louis L’Amour
Music by: Hugo W. Friedhofer, Emil Newman
Cast: John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Ward Bond, Michael Pate, James Arness, Leo Gordon

Batjac Productions, Wayne-Fellows Productions, Warner Bros., 84 Minutes

Review:

“Everybody gets dead. It was his turn.” – Hondo Lane

I haven’t watched a John Wayne movie in quite a while. Since I was working on a post about Louis L’Amour’s books, I felt like I should go back and revisit the film adaptation of Hondo, as it is my favorite L’Amour book and it stars the Duke himself, John Wayne.

I love that this movie starts out kind of small and confined but then ends with such a big, epic battle.

Now even though most of the film does take place in wide expanses of Old West wilderness, it was still a small picture for the first two-thirds. A lot of the scenes were on the ranch and in the tight quarters of the ranch home. Other scenes, while outdoors, were usually in smaller secluded places like the creek where the boy likes to fish. I don’t know if this was intentional or budgetary but when the film gets to its climax, the expanse of the open desert and the final battle feel even bigger than it normally would.

And man, I love the final battle in this movie between the white people leaving the Apache land and the angry Apache trying to make their escape impossible. The story also serves to setup the oncoming battle that wiped out the Apache warriors soon after this film. But not without Wayne tipping his hat to the Apache and their way of life.

But that’s what I love about this movie and Louis L’Amour stories in general. Even though they are seen through the eyes of mostly white men in the Old West, there is still a respect for other cultures underneath the chaos and conflict. I feel that John Wayne felt the same way and that’s why he works so well as the protagonist in a L’Amour film adaptation. Well, John Wayne was also the king of westerns but I like how he fits within L’Amour’s literary style.

Hondo isn’t as remembered as some of John Wayne’s other westerns but it is one of his best, even if I think it’s way too short and could’ve been fleshed out a bit more.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: ChisumTrue Grit and The War Wagon.

Film Review: Angel Face (1953)

Also known as: Murder Story (original script title), The Bystander, The Murder (working titles)
Release Date: January 2nd, 1953 (London premiere)
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Frank Nugent, Oscar Millard, Chester Erskine
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall

Howard Hughes Presents, RKO Radio Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Charles, at times your charm wears dangerously thin. Right now it’s so thin I can see through it.” – Mrs. Catherine Tremayne

This was a film that Otto Preminger didn’t want to direct but he was persuaded by producer Howard Hughes, who wanted Preminger to use his rule on the film’s set to torture Jean Simmons. What can I say, Hollywood was sick. Not that much has changed, as a lot of really dark shit has been brought to light over the last few years.

A scene where Mitchum slaps Simmons was one instance of the torture that the starlet had to endure. Preminger demanded retake after retake where he instructed Mitchum to hit Simmons harder each time. Mitchum, having enough, walked over to Preminger, whacked him across the face and said, “Is that hard enough for you, Otto?”

This stuff, as far as I know, has never been revealed until TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller discussed it when this film was recently featured on the show. He had done an event with Simmons and she had a hard time, went backstage and eventually told Muller of the bad memories of her experience making Angel Face.

The script was apparently shit, which is the main reason why Preminger didn’t want to direct the film but there were rewrites and he was given control over it. The only catch, was that he had to make Jean Simmons’ life hell.

All that insanity aside, this did turn out to be a pretty good picture. Maybe all that real life tension and drama carried over into the performances by Simmons and Mitchum.

The film also benefits from having that standard RKO film-noir look. Preminger has a stellar eye behind the camera but the cinematography of Harry Stradling was really good. Not quite at the level of his Academy Award winning films: The Picture of Dorian Gray and My Fair Lady but he was certainly on his A-game and made a fine looking picture in the noir style.

The Dimitri Tiomkin score is strong but it doesn’t stand out among a lot of the more prolific film-noir pictures of the day but I did enjoy it and it helped marry the tone of the emotional context of the film, as well as its visual look. Everything came together really well but the score was the glue.

It’s unfortunate that Jean Simmons had to put up with such abuse on set. Frankly, it’s pretty unforgivable. Still, despite this, Angel Face is a much better than average film-noir.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Otto Preminger films: LauraFallen Angel and Anatomy of a Murder, as well as some of Robert Mitchum’s other noir pictures: Out of the PastThe RacketHis Kind of Woman and The Locket.

Film Review: Crime Wave (1953)

Also known as: The City Is Dark, Don’t Cry, Baby (both working titles)
Release Date: October 22nd, 1953 (Rome)
Directed by: André De Toth
Written by: Bernard Gordon, Richard Wormser
Based on: Criminal’s Mark by John Hawkins, Ward Hawkins
Music by: David Buttolph
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, Phyllis Kirk, Charles Bronson

Warner Bros., 73 Minutes

Review:

“People. They accept the love of a dog, and when it gets old and sick they say put it to sleep. ” – Dr. Otto Hessler

I feel like André De Toth doesn’t get as much love as he should. I mean, the guy directed this, House of WaxPitfall, the really cool bayou noir Dark Waters and he wrote The Gunfighter. Plus, he had a cool eyepatch like Major Bludd from G.I. Joe.

Crime Wave is a solid picture that feels much more organic and real than the typical film-noir. It was made by a major studio but it had a very gritty and almost semidocumentary directing style unlike most major studio movies of the time. The cinematography was decent, nothing exceptional, but the camera work gave the film its energy and life. It employed a more intimate style in how it captured the characters, using closeups and fluid movements instead of feeling like it is just sitting on a tripod twenty feet away.

The way that De Toth shot Sterling Hayden was especially unique and outside of the box for the time. He was usually put in more confined sets with low ceilings and shot from low angles to enhance his already tall stature. Hayden’s performance also helped to make him seem like a giant among smaller men. He had a brooding presence and almost predatory mannerisms.

The plot is very simple. There is an ex-criminal who has been living a normal crime free life. His old gang comes calling and he refuses to play ball. The gang kidnaps the man and his wife. However, the story doesn’t just feature a criminal gang, it also features crooked cops and has a lot of moving parts that allows the film to throw some solid narrative curveballs.

Crime Wave is a pretty good outing for De Toth and it was neat seeing him reteam with Charles Bronson, who he worked with a year earlier in House of Wax, where he played Vincent Price’s evil henchman. I love seeing Bronson back in the ’50s when he was a young, muscular tough guy and usually played crooked heavies.

Anyway, this is a really good film-noir that takes a simple plot and makes it work.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: DecoyMurder by ContractPitfallAct of ViolenceCriss Cross and Nightfall.

Film Review: The Wild One (1953)

Also known as: Hot Blood, The Cyclists’ Raid (both working titles)
Release Date: December 25th, 1953 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: László Benedek
Written by: John Paxton, Ben Maddow
Based on: The Cyclists’ Raid by Frank Rooney
Music by: Leith Stevens
Cast: Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Lee Marvin

Columbia Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“I love you, Johnny. I’ve been looking in every ditch from Fresno to here hoping you was dead.” – Chino

I have never seen The Wild One, which is probably a crime, but I am a fan of biker movies, especially those of the ’60s and ’70s and this was sort of a template that many of them built off of. Granted, this isn’t as hard or edgy as the pictures that would try to emulate it but it also didn’t need to be. This was sort of a sweet story, if you look beyond the rough exterior and get right down to the human emotion.

Marlon Brando was exceptional in this, even if he wasn’t quite up to the levels of talent he would reach. His scenes with Mary Murphy were what carried the picture. However, I also enjoyed him playing off of Lee Marvin, who made a good villain, even if Brando was very far from being any sort of hero in this.

There is nothing exceptional about this motion picture, though. It is certainly heralded for all the right reasons and deserves to be held in high regard for being a trendsetter in its genre but biker movies after this would definitely find ways to push the envelope more. And this is damn good but it doesn’t present you with stellar acting or cinematography and the direction is pretty standard. It’s just really a cool movie with a cool leading man and examines a part of society that Hollywood shied away from until this made bikers a bit more mainstream. But the Hollywood of this era still had to be wholesome due to the morality code imposed on its filmmakers.

This is really just a drama film that happens to have a mean biker as its main character. In a lot of ways, this is a real character study, as it examines Brando’s Johnny much deeper than what is on his surface. The film humanizes him but it also doesn’t try to turn him into an easily reformed goody two-shoes. The hard nosed cop cuts him a break and is a bit taken back by Johnny’s apparent lack of gratitude but at his core, Johnny doesn’t know how to express his thanks. It really isn’t something he’s ever really experienced before this moment, as he is a guy that has been beaten down by life and has adopted a tough persona to shield him from real world emotions and genuine human connection.

This film wasn’t really what I expected it to be. I thought it would be an examination of counterculture but in that light ’50s Hollywood way before artists behind the camera could actually let loose and challenge their audience. Instead, this is a film that has biker culture in it but it moves most of its focus towards Johnny and the apple of his eye, the lovely Kathie.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: The LovelessRebel Without A CauseEasy Rider and The Wild Angels.