Film Review: The Gangster (1947)

Also known as: Low Company (reissue title)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Gordon Wiles
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Music by: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Shelley Winters

King Brothers Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“Your wife called. What should I tell her?” – Shorty, “Tell her I dropped dead.” – Nick Jammey

The Gangster came out at a time when Hollywood was over gangster pictures. Even though it defied the big studio trends and was also put out by a studio on Poverty Row, it was still a pretty solid success and very much taps into the film-noir style.

What’s most interesting about this film is it’s production value. King Brothers didn’t believe in building expensive or elaborate sets. They also didn’t want to waste money on location shoots. Almost everything was built with light wood and cardboard on the cheap. This gives the film an otherworldly look though. It feels more like a dream sequence or a stage show production with confined sets. It’s sort of magical in this way and even with these frugal tactics, it still looks good.

One thing I like is that there is a high chiaoscuro style in a lot of scenes due to how walls and ceilings were painted. There are multiple shots of a black and white checkered or striped background, which make the actors pop off the screen in the foreground. The use of lighting is fantastic and the high contrast look with heavy shadows protects the look of the set, keeping imperfections in the dark.

For a Poverty Row production, this also has some good acting. Not only that but it has small roles for a lot of notable stars. Shelley Winters, Elisha Cook Jr., John Ireland, Charles McGraw and Akim Tamiroff all show up in some form. There are other familiar faces, as well.

The Gangster is a film that wasn’t on my radar until now, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. I was glad to see it and it’s a film that I will have to slide somewhere into my Top 100 Film-Noir list.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: DesperateScene of the Crime and White Heat.

Film Review: The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Release Date: April 27th, 1928 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Paul Leni
Written by: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whittaker
Based on: The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
Music by: Ernö Rapée, Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, William Axt, Sam Perry, Gustav Borch
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Brandon Hurst, Olga V. Baklanova, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Samuel de Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell

Universal Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“[via subtitles, to the House of Lords] A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man!” – Gwynplaine

This is sort of the swan song to the typical German Expressionist style, even though it was an American film. The director was German and Conrad Veidt, the title character, originally made his mark in the expressionist film style. Plus, even though this takes place in England, the sets look very German, especially for the time.

Now while it shares a strong resemblance to German Expressionism, it isn’t as surreal as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or as brooding as Nosferatu. But it still has a darkness to it and even though IMDb and other places categorize this as horror, it is very light in that regard. In fact, the only thing one can argue that fits the horror genre is the grotesque disfigurement of the title character.

Veidt plays Gwynplaine, a man who, as a boy, had his mouth disfigured by a king to look like a creepy smile. As a child he meets Dea and over the years they fall in love, even though Gwynplaine feels he is unworthy of her due to his disfigurement. Gwynplaine constantly wears a scarf over his mouth unless he is performing in the freak show of his traveling carnival. Dea, however, is blind and she sees her blindness as a blessing as it lets her see the true Gwynplaine.

As the film rolls on, it is revealed that Gwynplaine has a right to the throne and he is then pushed into a marriage with a Duchess, who is pretty much a horny vixen that weirdly is turned on by his disfigurement. But all Gwynplaine cares about is spending his life with Dea in his arms.

The character of Gwynplaine is one of the most iconic in cinema history, even if he is mostly forgotten by modern audiences today. His look was the inspiration of the Joker in the Batman comics. He would also inspire the look of the title character in the iconic ’60s horror picture Mr. Sardonicus. Most recently, the origin of his smile was an inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

This also came out during the time when film was transitioning from silent pictures to sound. Initially, this was released as a purely silent movie but due to its quick success it was re-released with a score, it’s own theme song and added sound effects.

The plot is based off of a Victor Hugo story, which the studio thought would help capture some of the magic they had with the adaptation of his more famous story The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Regardless of that, The Man Who Laughs stands quite strongly on its own.

This is a well crafted movie, the narrative flows nicely and the acting is exceptional, as you fall in love with a few of these characters and you want to see Gwynplaine achieve the happiness he yearns for.

A solid motion picture, through and through, The Man Who Laughs is one of the finest pictures of its era.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other German Expressionist films with a dark edge: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Golem, etc.

Film Review: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Also known as: Hot Spot (working title)
Release Date: October 31st, 1941
Directed by: H. Bruce Humberstone
Written by: Dwight Taylor, Steve Fisher
Based on: I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar, Elisha Cook Jr.

20th Century Fox, 82 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” – Ed Cornell

Coming out in 1941, this was a film slightly ahead of its time. Film-noir really hadn’t taken off yet but this certainly fits within the framework of the style in both the narrative and visual aspects.

There is a murder of a rising starlet. The situation pulls in her sister, her former manager and everyone else that floated within her orbit. There’s even a hulking cop that takes tremendous liberties with his job in an effort to try and pin the crime on the former manager.

This picture’s plot is well structured and it’s not an easy one to figure out. One line of dialogue tipped me off to who the killer was but I still wasn’t sure and even that was followed by a lot of twists.

The film was really carried by the acting talents of both Betty Grable and Victor Mature, a guy whose work I always want to see more of. I really loved both actors in this and Mature was superb at coming off as a bit sleazy in the beginning but slowly evolving into a lovable and romantic hero.

Carole Landis was also great as the sister who ends up murdered. While I think that Grable was definitely the show stealer, Landis held her own and to be frank, the two ladies are absolutely gorgeous in that old school Hollywood way that will just never exist again.

The film was directed by veteran H. Bruce Humberstone, who wouldn’t do much in the noir genre after this but certainly made his mark with this picture. He had a great eye for mise-en-scène and also had the help of cinematographer Edward Cronjager, who would go on to do the noir picture Desert Fury, as well as some notable westerns. But Cronjager also had dozens of pictures to his credit before this one. In fact, he was one of the more prolific directors of photography in his day with 117 credits.

The only thing that works against the film is the score, as a lot of the music is recycled from other films. There’s even different instrumental versions of “Over the Rainbow” sprinkled throughout the picture, which just felt strange and out of place. But that song predates The Wizard of Oz even.

I Wake Up Screaming definitely had an impact, even if it’s not so well known today. It was remade in 1953 as Vicki, which wasn’t as good as this but was still pretty solid.

This is an underrated film that probably should have a bigger light shown on it. Solid work by everyone working on it at every level, minus the score.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other noir pictures: The Glass KeyThe Blue Dahlia and This Gun for Hire.

Film Review: Bébé’s Kids (1992)

Also known as: Robin Harris’ Bébé’s Kids (video title)
Release Date: July 31st, 1992
Directed by: Bruce W. Smith
Written by: Reginald Hudlin
Based on: characters by Robin Harris
Music by: John Barnes
Cast: Robin Harris (archive footage), Faizon Love, Nell Carter, Myra J., Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tone Lōc, Wayne Collins, Jonell Green, Marques Houston, John Witherspoon

Hyperion Studio, Paramount Pictures, 72 Minutes

Review:

“I am pissed off to the highest level of pissivity.” – Robin Harris

I saw Bébé’s Kids in the theater when I was thirteen. I watched it again a few years later but I haven’t seen it since the ’90s. But being that I always loved Robin Harris’ comedy act and having rewatched the first House Party recently, I wanted to also go back and revisit this, which took Harris’ most famous reoccurring comedy bit and turned it into an animated film. It was also written by Reginald Hudlin, the writer and director of the first House Party, a film where he worked with Harris.

While this isn’t a classic and it doesn’t boast animation worth praising, it still works for me. I thought the bits were still funny and even though Robin Harris died before this was made, I thought Faizon Love did a stupendous job of providing the animated Robin with a voice that encapsulated his unique spirit and energy. This was also the first credit to Love’s name and for him to be able to do this so well, is pretty impressive.

A funny thing that caught me off guard is that I forgot that Tone Lōc did the voice of the baby, Peewee. Lōc really steals the show in every scene that he’s in. You also get some voice work by Nell Carter and John Witherspoon.

This is a fun, silly movie but it has a good heart. It’s message and it’s purpose are noble and it actually hits you in the feels, which you just don’t expect when spending the majority of this film watching these jerk kids destroy a theme park while making everyone’s life hell.

Bébé’s Kids probably won’t resonate with most people in 2018 but I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Maybe some of that is nostalgia or my love of Robin Harris but it still hits the right notes for me.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Reginald Hudlin’s House Party movies.

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: Wind Across the Everglades (1958)

Also known as: Across the Everglades, Lost Man’s River (working titles), Inferno Verde (Uruguay), Muerte en los pantanos (Spain)
Release Date: September 11th, 1958 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray, Budd Schulberg (uncredited)
Written by: Budd Schulberg
Music by: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Cast: Burl Ives, Christopher Plummer, Gypsy Rose Lee, Chana Eden, Mackinlay Kantor, Emmett Kelly

Warner Bros., 93 Minutes

Review:

“Ah! The sweet-tastin’ joys of this world!” – Cottonmouth

I never knew about this movie, which is odd, as I have grown up and lived near the Everglades almost my entire life. I’m also a fan of Nicholas Ray’s films but I am also mostly just familiar with his work in film-noir. Needless to say, this was an interesting discovery, as I was perusing the content on FilmStruck (a streaming service every cinephile should get).

What’s fantastic about this film is its use of on location shooting. This was legitimately filmed within the Everglades, which is really impressive for a motion picture that came out in 1958.

Having lived on the edge of the ‘Glades, I know that the production must have been an insane undertaking. The swamps are a hell of an undertaking just trying to hike them and since this film really gets into the murk, lugging all that heavy equipment had to be a hell of a workout. Plus that heat, the humidity, the never knowing when the hell you’re going to get instantaneous downpour from the heavens, the bugs, the snakes, the alligators, the boar, the bears, the panthers, the snapping turtles, all of it, man. So I can’t give enough props and respect for the crew that captured this beautiful picture.

I really loved that this film put its focus on environmental conservation, especially in the Florida Everglades. I loved the opening sequence that showed a train arriving to Miami around 1900 or so. The lavish outfits of the women and their love of fashionable plumage was a good addition to the film’s backstory of showcasing how mankind doesn’t really give a crap about how it wrecks the planet, as long as they can achieve the level of status that affords them the luscious plumage of birds being hunted towards extinction. I’m not a super lefty or anything but pillaging nature for fashion is pretty f’d up, just sayin’.

Anyway, Christopher Plummer (in his first starring role and only his second film) shows up in Miami, which is pretty much just a swamp with a train station in 1900. He makes a goofy mistake and finds himself forced into being a game warden for the Audubon Society. He is warned about a man named Cottonmouth (Burl Ives), who has a posse that kills wild birds for their feathers. The two men cross paths and make their intentions clear to one another.

As the film progresses, Plummer’s Murdock falls in love with the job, the wild around him and pretty much sees God’s hand in it all. This isn’t a religious film, he just goes on some tangents about natural beauty and whatnot from the perspective of a dude from 1900ish America.

The two men, despite their rivalry and being on opposite ends of the law, develop a respect for one another, which all comes to a head in the film’s climax. This isn’t a predictable film. It actually feels a lot more realistic than Hollywood’s standard theatrics of the time.

It’s worth noting that Nicholas Ray was fired before the film was completed and Budd Schulberg, the film’s writer, took over and then handled the editing. His lack of experience is apparent in how the film is cut and paced but Ray’s vision still comes through in the framing of most of the shots and the general cinematography. There are just a handful of things that come off as weird in the film. For example, when Murdock, talking about the majestic birds, refers to the sun gleaming off of their feathers, a shot of birds in silhouette is cut over the dialogue. But maybe getting all the wildlife footage was difficult and this is all they had to work with in post-production.

I really liked this movie, despite its few flaws. Plummer and Ives had a good chemistry, the direction was mostly pretty good and it just taps into the history of a place I call my backyard.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Nicholas Ray films: Hot Blood, The Savage Innocents and Bitter Victory.