Thursday, January 13, 2022

THE RIGHT TO ROMANCE (Alfred Santell, 1933)

 

This movie is maddening. The breathy Ann Harding mopes through the first act as Dr. Peggy Simmons, a well-respected plastic surgeon who can’t get laid because her career eclipses matrimonial prospects. The good Dr. must either continue with her career or submit herself to a husband: she never considers the choice of having both. It’s an interesting story as it depicts a strong-willed and intelligent woman as a Plastic Surgeon: it could have condemned the patriarchal morality of its time through her submission yet does quite the opposite and becomes a typical women’s picture...as written by men. 

Dr. Simmons slumps her shoulders and laments her joyless lifestyle, admiring her secretary whose marriage will soon lead to a full-time employment as housewife. She takes a vacation and by chance meets the handsome son (Robert Young) of one of her elderly patients. Love and impulsive marriage ensue. Of course, she has to give up her career and lounge about their mansion until a crippled child, whom she and her cohort Dr. Heppling (Nils Asther) were attempting to cure, needs emergency surgery. Her Playboy hubby parties with his old flame while she saves the boy’s life. Then hubby crashes his plane, and his old flame is torched, so Peggy has to reconstruct her face: she keeps her Hippocratic Oath even though hubby breaks his Matrimonial Vows. She then discovers “Heppy” has always loved her and promises divorce and a life with him happily ever after. Though wealthy hubby doesn’t ask her to quit or pressure her to give up her career, it’s assumed by all involved. When she chooses to love her Dr. companion one wonders if he will make her give up her job and assume the typical role of housewife. It’s so frustrating to see such a smart and independent character accept the contemporary social hierarchy without question. Well, at least everyone lives, and the little boy will walk again. But will Dr. Simmons live or walk on her own again? 

Final Grade: (C-)

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

AGGIE APPLEBY, MAKER OF MEN (Mark Sandrich, 1933)

 

Aggie makes men into her own image of machismo: physical yet tender, money optional. It’s refreshing to see such a strong woman who doesn’t pander to her paramour, belittling her femininity for male appeasement but lifts them up to her own standards! Director Mark Sandrich’s deft direction allows Wynne Gibson as the titular heroine to really shine (why wasn’t she more popular, she’s fucking amazing in this film!) and gives a substantial part to the wonderful ZaSu Pitts as her sister/cohort Sybby. DP J. Roy Hunt’s photography is excellent starting with the POV from the L-Train for the opening credits and then the long crane shot that begins on the upper floor of a tenement before settling on the first-floor café where a major brawl is happening. CUT TO: interior of café as fists fly, chairs are broken over heads, and just general pandemonium. What a way to start a melodrama! 

The plot begins as fairly simple, but the details become rather complicated as the story progresses, but the focus is always on Aggie and her survival instincts. After her beau Red Branahan is imprisoned for the opening riot for assaulting police officers she is left homeless. She adores Red and finds his pugnacious behavior endearing but has to survive in the depression era NYC. Sybby helps her snatch a few hours of sleep in a boarding house where she cleans for a living, but Aggie fails to awake before the occupant returns. Adoniram Schlump is a mild-mannered “Clark Kent” type (before Superman was created) who wants to help this homeless stranger and gradually falls in love with her. Aggie chucks his glasses, dresses him down, and teaches him how to speak tough: she even changes his name to Red Branahan! Antics ensue. Though the film is laugh-out-loud funny at times it is also deadly serious, never treating its characters as mere caricatures or demeaning them. The pugilistic original Red Branahan and the intellectual faux Branahan are two entirely different types of men, yet the film doesn’t make a hierarchical value judgement, as each change for the better: Red becomes a bit more sensitive and Schlumpy learns to stand up for himself (and his girl). It’s a neat little film though it still holds up patriarchal values of women making men better men, as opposed to women becoming more independent sans their male counterparts. 

Final Grade: (B)

Saturday, January 8, 2022

DISCARDED LOVERS (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1932)

 

Irma Gladden is a falling star, her sexual friction creating a self-destructive incandescence as she plummets through the Hollywood atmosphere. That sentence is ten-times more interesting than the film itself. Fred Newmeyer directs this poverty row picture with long static takes sans establishing shots or transitions as DP William Hyer often pans his camera trying to capture the action with minimal editing, so the film can be pieced together quickly for distribution. It’s obviously shot quickly with awful sound recording; this ain’t no Warner Brothers picture! What I find most interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking in the early sound-era even if it’s a low budget insight. The film shows us rehearsals and lighting setups and the secondary character Valerie, Irma’s assistant, is also the Script Girl and she speaks about her job and duties to the Director of the fictitious film within the film. 

The plot is fairly typical as jealous men fight for the love of the famous star Irma Gladden (Natalie Moorhead) until a spurned lover finally touches her heart…with lead. This murder comes halfway through the 60-minute narrative and the rest becomes a bumbling police procedural spiced with a developing love story between a reporter and Valerie. Though the film portrays Irma in an unkind light, I can’t help but to admire her. In this patriarchal system she uses men’s own weaknesses against them to attain success in the bitter Hollywood battlefields. Seems to me it’s the men who are at fault trying to remake Irma into their own fantasy image! Her fault is in not seriously understanding the potential consequences. Hell, after she’s murdered in her car the police don’t even remove her corpse or guard the crime scene from contamination: I suppose a women’s death is only as important as the headline. 

The finale seems to be hastily written and acted as the police gather all of the suspects to watch a pre-release version of Falling Stars, the film within the film. As Irma’s fictitious murder scene reaches its climax the real murderer can’t take the emotional stress and jumps to his feet, screaming his confession to his peers. It’s quite overacted and with little narrative foundation: did they make this up as they went along? 

Final Grade: (C-)

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

TRANSGRESSION (Herbert Brenon, 1931)

 

Elsie is left to fend for herself (and fend off suitors) when her husband disappears for a year: he’s buried deep in some Indian mine while she navigates Parisian minefields of unholy matrimony. Herbert Brenon’s direction is slow and lackluster and even the great DP Leo Tover’s compositions are dull and typical, though Kay Francis suffers tragically she retains her innocent charm and erotic beauty. But it’s the final act that saves the film from complete boredom though it fails to resolve her emotionally flawed marriage and leaves the situation status quo. 

Plot: hubby goes away and his young adorable wife Elsie (Kay Francis) is sent off to Paris to kill time until his return. What did he think would happen, for god’s sake? Elsie becomes friends to the suave Arturo (Ricardo Cortez) who seeks benefits from his Platonic companion. He eventually tricks her into staying at his Spanish villa mano-a-womano. Then the shit hits the fan! So, hubby is too vanilla, and we are given no background or insight into his character; we just accept him as a decent older guy with a creeper mustache. Arturo is given some exposition as a sinister “ladies-man” and his obsessive demeanor with Elsie is troubling, yet he respects her boundaries. The film is almost entirely from Elsie’s perspective and is concerned with her struggle to make the right decision: divorce hubby to run away with another rich mysterious dude or stay in her static marriage. At the villa she pens a “Dear John” letter to hubby and off it goes in the mail moments before Arturo meets his doom at the hands of a vengeful father. Seems Arturo raped a sixteen-year-old girl and she died giving birth to his child! He’s shot dead, she flees into the moist night and must recover the letter before it reaches hubby in England. 

The final act even retains another surprise: Arturo’s mad scientist-looking cohort actually has the letter (he never mailed it) and uses it to blackmail Elsie. She finally relents and is about to tell her hubby everything when they discover that the letter is blank! Turns out Arturo burnt the original letter and shoved blank paper in the envelope when he sealed it with his ring, just before he was murdered. Was this a true act of love on his part or another form of manipulation? Hubby declares he doesn’t need to know the facts and they live happily ever after. I guess. 

Final Grade: C

Sunday, January 2, 2022

THE FRONT PAGE (Lewis Milestone, 1931)

 

A reporter wants to marry the gal of his dreams but has to divorce his Boss first! Lewis Milestone’s early sound film is atypical of the era, as his characters speak quickly with overlapping dialogue and seemingly without time to breath! Lines are screamed at machine-gun pace while the actors constantly move like sharks, taking substance from the very ether. The movements are expertly blocked as the camera tracks and moves without losing focus though a few times the actors almost walk quickly out of the frame! DP Glen MacWilliams does an excellent job of photographing and creating interesting compositions for what could have been such a static film. He uses reflections and mirrors to depict an altered and superficial reality to great effect and shoots low-angle with two-shots (or more!) while his camera moves and dances with the action. The dialogue is at the mercy of early sound design and can sometimes be difficult to understand while even the overhead microphone dips briefly into one scene. The film is shot in long takes with many moving parts and a subtle mistake would probably take days to re-shoot!

The story involves a gaggle of newspaper reporters waiting to get the scoop on an execution. When the convict escapes, Hildy (Pat O’Brien) and his boss Mr. Burns (Adolphe Menjou) become part of the slapstick escapade. Both actors are excellent and Menjou deserves his Academy Award Nomination but the always excellent Edward Everett Horton as the germaphobe Bensinger steals every scene he’s in! The language is bawdy even for Pre-Code but it’s the pictures of naked women on the wall that seal the deal. If you can see this on Blu-ray and on a big screen (similar resolution and size of the original projection) the pictures are obviously meant to be noticed by the audience. The opening credits are printed on a newspaper with the film’s title as the headline and a photo of each actor is depicted with a caption as the pages are turned. Very cool. 

An adrenaline-fueled comedy of criminal errors and hard-boiled reporters sacrificing morals for a headline, THE FRONT PAGE has been remade by Howard Hawks as HIS GIRL FRIDAY and is Grandfather to the entire ink stained Fourth Estate genre. 

Final Grade: (B)

Friday, December 31, 2021

MADAME SATAN (Cecil B. DeMille, 1930)

 

Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight? Director Cecil B DeMille takes the homogeneous romantic comedy trope and transforms it into a roman orgy before plunging the final act into a “titanic” disaster flick, as even the band plays while the airship goes down! Constrained by the limitations of early sound design, the music and vocals are somewhat muddled with shrill high notes and the acting rather stagey as the characters move into the frame to deliver their dialogue in two shot. The great DP Harold Rosson (Jean Harlow’s second husband!) photographs the first act in a rather static and typical fashion, but his compositions come alive in the subsequent acts when the Zeppelin and its orgiastic revelers are revealed! 

The film begins as a simple story of a cheating husband. DeMille depicts this theorem in the very first shot of a chirping bird in a gilded cage! Hubby Bob and his buddy Jimmy poorly attempt to hide the affair after a drunken night in court (for driving 65mph). Bob’s angelic wife Angela doesn’t confront him about the girl, she instead plays dumb so Bob & Jimmy must play narrative gymnastics to appease her sublime curiosity. Seems Bob needs fire in his sex life and Angela is ice cold. This first act seems to empower Angela as the one harmed as she remains above deception and plays along with the confounding stories her paramour and his cohort have concocted. They all end up in the other girl’s apartment, Trixie, a jazz singer who’s hot to trot. So, Jimmy pretends to be married to Trixie (but Trixie doesn’t know it!) when Angela shows up because she found the card with her address in Bob’s clothing. The pantomime become more pathetic when Bob shows up thinking Jimmy is making time with his gal. Trixie, that is. It’s a typical romantic farce that becomes bizarre when Jimmy MCs the masquerade ball!

Now, here it gets insanely inventive and interesting. The ball is held upon a huge, moored Zeppelin and the entrance is a musical dance routine straight out of a hallucinogenic vision of electric bolts and churning gears, shot by Rosson from directly above, then superimposed upon whirring machinery. We get scantily clad women and men frothing and roiling in carnal delight and that’s before the auction for the six most beautiful girls! We also get drinks delivered in mini-zeppelin peddle-cars! Writhing cat-girls prance and claw their way about. Of course, Trixie in her mini-pheasant costume hooks up with Bob and his mini tunic until the mysterious Madame Satan appears and sings her sinful song! Ms. Satan lures Bob away from his mistress but doesn’t reveal her identity. A dance-off like a gunfight at high-noon, only here it’s nigh-midnight between the devil and the busty pheasant. Shenanigans ensue until the revelation when lightning strikes the blimp, and it breaks loose and spirals out of control. Everyone grabs a parachute. WTF? 

Though the story empowers Angela as the wronged party and gives her control, the final act ends in her begging for forgiveness (and rescue) when her own deception is unmasked. So, Bob, who cheated on her with Trixie and then Madame Satan, is now the victim whose anger is justified. I don’t like it. The story could have cut down on some of the bedroom escapades and given us some background on their relationship so we’re mostly in the dark about their life before marriage. Bob isn’t totally unlikable he’s just typical of the contemporary patriarchal morality and Angela has no recourse but marriage on his terms or divorce...also on his terms. Her heart may be broken but the boob Bob only has his arm in a sling. Maybe some other appendage needs splinted instead. 

Final Grade: (B-)

Monday, December 27, 2021

THREE FACES EAST (Roy Del Ruth, 1930)

 

Z-1 sends her own message via morse code, 4 leaden dots and final dash from her own automatic transmitter. This tale of double-agents and double-cross (of the iron kind) reveals its encoded message from the first act by its very point-of-view, as the beautiful Frances Hawtree (code-name Z-1) is portrayed by top-billed Constance Bennett: one would have to believe that an American film about The Great War would choose to sympathize with Axis powers and celebrate the murder of our young men. 

The film is focused upon a duality between Frances and the stoic butler Valdar whose mysterious demeanor and scarred visage is excellently portrayed by the legendary Erich von Stroheim. The subtle wordplay and gestures between the two as they leverage themselves from servility into dominance is enjoyable if not a bit stale with stage-bound dialogue and wordy exposition. Frances is an American nurse captured by the Germans and is revealed to be an Axis spy while Valdar, earning his Medal of Bravery is a Belgian pretending to be loyal to a British General. Frances is sent to this British officer to infiltrate his household and secure orders concerning American troop transports across the Atlantic so they can be devoured by the Wolf-packs before ever landing on English soil. Her cover story is that she fell in love with the General’s son in a German POW camp before he died, and she must deliver his personal items as his last wish. Quickly endeared to the family, she now seeks out her contact, a man named Schiller, who will help deliver her information to the enigmatic Blecher. Her identifying password is “three faces East”. 

The story is full of false leads, shadowy subterfuge, stolen documents and chess-like strategy as the British officers begin to suspect collaboration between the ingenue and the butler. She passes her Turing Test as fully human (not fool-y human) while Valdar is the unemotional Terminator, a computer in a man’s body that is short circuited by his own horny angst. Turns out, Z-1 is a British agent masquerading as a German spy who was embedded in the household to ID Blecher. Valdez as the contact Schiller is actually the top-dog Blecher whose bark is silenced permanently. Seems an awfully contrived way to discover what was easily apparent, though somehow British Intelligence was convinced he was their own double-agent. Finally, betrayed and blinded by his lust for Frances he makes a fatal error of judgment. Fortunately for the Allies, Z-1 remains loyal to her country and not her heart. 

Final Grade: C

Thursday, December 23, 2021

MIN AND BILL (George W. Hill, 1930)

 

Min Divot’s life is like her surname, her small piece of ground ripped out by forces beyond her control. Marie Dressler as the titular Min absolutely owns this film as Director George Hill focuses his narrative almost exclusively upon her: Bill (Wallace Beery) and the ingenue Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) are just subordinate characters to her Alpha performance! 

The plot is quite simple: Min is investigated by Child Protective Services because her “adopted” daughter Nancy, who works long hours in her dockside tavern, has failed to register for school. But it’s how the story of Min’s life is depicted, her hardscrabble existence told with intimacy, bleakness and shocking violence in which she retains her self-respect against the odds, a woman whose love once earned cannot be forfeited. It’s not difficult to see why Depression-era audiences adored this film as Min is the pathos of Great Depression personified; she is victimized but not victim, she is both survivor and savior. Bill is her tempestuous paramour, a drunken dockworker who is easily tempted by forbidden fruit (or illegal hooch) yet whose boyish and aw-shucks charm seems to win Min’s forgiveness, though it may take a knock-down drag-out brawl to earn her tender mercies! Min’s relationship with Nancy is aggressively overprotective and restrictive yet one feels her motherly instincts beneath the illusion of callousness. Dorothy Jordan portrays Nancy as the waifish teen whose angst is in full bloom, struggling with her own independence and identity against Min’s dominance. 

Min’s lie is soon to be exposed as Nancy's biological mother Bella appears like a ghostly haze of cheap whiskey, stinking up her establishment and threatening to exploit her daughter. As Min deflects Bella’s allegations and keeps Nancy and Child Protective Services from discovering the truth, Min makes the ultimate sacrifice for her daughter proving that a being true mother transcends biology. The violence is shocking but not unexpected, per the maxim of Chekhov’s Gun. And Min’s final moment of despair as she silently observes her daughter leaving for a better life as police close in, and while in custody she holds her head confidently and smiles, just a bit, at the chance she has given Nancy at attaining her dream, is fucking sublime. 

Final Grade: (A)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

PALOOKA (Benjamin Stoloff, 1934)

 

Knobby Walsh Inka Dinka Doo’s when he shoulda Inka Dinka Don’t in this corkscrew comedy of the squared circle, a farcical rise and fall of a simpleminded son who becomes the Big Palooka even if for a short while. Benjamin Stoloff’s direction is adequate which is complimented by the journeyman cinematography: it’s not art but still an enjoyable pugnacious romp and circumstance. It’s Jimmie Durante’s film even though it’s named after the father/son duo of Pete and his abandoned protege Joe, a naive and unsophisticated boy who has inherited his father’s penchant for pugilism. 

The first act focuses upon Pete’s boxing championship and his taste for a good time, specifically without his wife! But Mayme Palooka (Marjorie Rambeau) is no pushover and gives the adoring floozy Trixie (Thelma Todd) more than the high-hat, she gives her a right cross! Ha! The film then jumps 20 years ahead as Mayme has escaped to the country to raise their child (Pete is the father, though there’s a nice Pre-Code-only joke questioning this later in the film) while Pete chooses the bright lights and big city haunts of his diminished glory days. But a serendipitous crash with Knobby Walsh and his current pug allows Joe to knock out the reigning champ and leave his small town for the big time. Joe’s lovely girl Anne (who seems to always just miss her chance to kiss him. Played by the adorable Mary Carlisle) and his fierce mother Mayme aren’t happy about his decision, but they are supportive enough not to harangue him, to allow him to choose his own path. They are vigilant and hopeful even when the headlines scream of loose women and looser morals! I love these two women. 

Soon, Knobby sets up his dimwitted client for a great fall (and his own windfall) by scheduling a bout against the reigning champeen’ Al McSwatt (William Cagney). Ok, this ain’t winning no Pulitzer. [Side note: Wow, does William look exactly like his brother Jimmy! Though he doesn’t have a big speaking part, he walks with that Cagney strut and his closeups have an eerie effect like we’re seeing Jimmy’s face flash-burned into our retinas and superimposed upon someone else. When he speaks, he doesn’t have the machine-gun cadence of his younger brother or quite the hand-waiving etiquette.] But McSwatt is nursing a brutal hangover because he doesn’t take the fight seriously and Joe takes the championship. Knobby, once again his manager and main schnozzle, secretly pays off other boxers to dive for their dough while ducking a rematch that Joe’s bound to lose. Joe’s trophy gal is Nina (a beautiful Lupe Velez who shakes her stuff and boy does she shake her stuff!) whose loyalty is to the champion whomever that may currently be. Through various conflicting contortions Joe loses the fight yet wins the war, his award a lovely family amid the peace and quiet of a country store. But it’s Knobby who gets the trophy! 

It’s Jimmy Durante’s manic antics that dominate the story, full of self-deprecating humor, one-liners and put-downs like jabs in the boxing ring! He croons his signature song to a mannequin in a store display (after breaking the window with a brick) and DP Arthur Edeson makes sure to accentuate the nose with proper lighting and often hilarious compositions. The final shot of PALOOKA may be the most disturbing in Pre-Code history, more than the Universal horrors or the Warner wickedness: a close-up of Knobby’s infant, conceived with Nina, whose Durante-ish visage is swaddled in blankets and who chatters “Ha-cha-cha-cha”. Fuck it if I didn’t laugh hysterically yet at the same time suffer some deep emotional trauma.

Final Grade: (B-) 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

WINNER TAKE ALL (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)

 

Jimmy Kane is no upstanding citizen, a punch-drunk pugilist who becomes more concerned with his looks than titles. Jimmy Cagney as the lightweight boxer punches like he talks, hard but with aplomb. Cagney does all of his own stunts as the boxing matches are filmed in long to medium shot without slow-motion or close-ups, so he jabs and punches and gets rocked in real-time! Though the punches are pulled, and the matches sometimes seem more vaudeville than violent it’s still should earn our cinematic respect. Guy Kibbee as Pop Slavin, Jimmy’s manager, knocks him flat with common sense and a firm right hook. Kane’s trainer is Rosebud (Ha! Another Citizen Kane future flourish!) who is portrayed gracefully by the great Clarence Muse in a rather significant supporting role. 

Jimmy is a successful boxer who needs a Depression era GoFundMe donation for a vacation from NYC to a desert Rest Home, 3,000 miles away from broads and booze. Of course, he finds infatuation instead of rehabilitation and falls for Peggy, a widowed woman with a charming child (Marion Nixon and Dickie Moore, respectively). Jimmy drops his guard until he is summoned back to Madison Square Garden and takes a fall for Park Avenue. He is soon the brutish boy-toy for socialite Joan Gibson (the alluring Virginia Bruce) and forgets about his promises to Peggy and son: he’s without a doubt a douche bag yet Cagney still wrings some empathy from his physically and emotionally deformed character. After plastic surgery to (mistakenly) appease Joan, he dances ring-around-the-rosy in the square circle afraid of a broken nose and cauliflower ear. But her attraction is to the tough-guy visage, so she turns ice-cold. Jimmy is too ignorant to be embarrassed by her high-society friends until he delivers his own chilly rebuttal by cold-cocking her paramour. Though Jimmy ends up with Peggy it’s on the rebound and feels disingenuous. Peggy is between her rock and a hard place so what other option does she have but to accept the illusion of love: who knows, maybe the champ will rise above being a chump. 

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, December 11, 2021

WHITE WOMAN (Stuart Walker, 1933)

 

Judith Denning is a fallen angel who must endure the green Hell of Horace Prin, King of the River, a white man who not only exploits the labor of the indigenous peoples but enslaves their very culture: he has become the alter they worship upon! Diabolical. But Director Stuart Walker isn’t concerned with making a “message picture” about white entitlement and its poisonous effects upon conflicting societal values and mores, he’s interested in weaving a sordid and violent melodrama about a broken woman who struggles to find her home, wherever that may be. 

The film opens with a close-up of Judith (Carole Lombard) crooning a sultry ballad in a seedy foreign tavern: the film’s title immediately becomes a double entendre as she’s caucasian and dressed in a white gown, both magnifying her innocence and betraying it in context of her environment. The camera tracks slowly through the bar to reveal different ethnicities as she sings, before Judith mysteriously breaks away as if summoned by some higher power. Which is exactly what happens: the local Governor (white, of course) banishes her from the country because she, as a white woman, haunts this multiracial bar, revealing his bigoted fears of miscegenation or other intolerable sins like fraternization, I suppose! This racist attitude isn’t criticized it’s just portrayed as typical for the period. Soon, Judith is between a river and a hard place so, after meeting the queerly effeminate Horace Prin (Charles Laughton), decides his home is better than homelessness. Strong willed and independent after her husband’s suicide, she surrenders her body but not herself, if you can grasp the subtle distinction. She soon discovers herself indentured to a slave driver, a cruel man who retains control of his rubber plantation through extortion and violence. Judith is now surrounded by others with criminal pasts unable to escape because the consequences are too horrific. But she falls in love with the overseer David (a deserter, traumatized by his cohort’s severed head thrown at his feet) and finds friendship with Jakey and his companion Dutch, a roguish chimpanzee. But Prin destroys that which betrays him and soon Davis is sent up-river and replaced by the viscous tyrant Ballister who doesn’t pretend to conceal his masochistic and aggressive attraction to our heroine. To his minimal credit, as she continues to rebuff his advances he eventually accepts her decision and even respects David’s heroic journey through the jungle to warn them of an impending attack. 

Charles Laughton’s performance as Prin is exceptional as he is able to portray incredible physical weakness while at the same moment project a devilish persona, seething with self-loathing and torment. His every subtle wink and tick speaks its own language of power and madness. This is a dangerous man not of physical prowess but devious intelligence not burdened by guilt or remorse. Prin has his men executed, David tortured by another severed head, kills the Anthropopithecus Troglodytes Dutch, serves his slaves rotting food and actually spits in the face of the native chiefs, just because he can. When the uprising arrives, he is prepared with .50 caliber machine guns that spit mana or lead from the gods. He even pretends to allow Judith and David to escape down-river, but the joke is on him: Ballister has filled the boat’s gas tank to capacity and Jakey, in retribution for the death of his simian friend, tosses the machine guns overboard. With death closing in upon them, Prin and Ballister play a game of poker to idle away their last few moments on Earth. And Prin’s final soliloquy to his dead companion, shot in skewed angled close-ups, depicts a madman still facing death on his terms. But the slave master is master, no more.

Final Grade: (B) 

CROSSFIRE (Edward Dymtryk, 1947)

The nation’s capital becomes a battleground between the rule of law and racial intolerance, as the disease of racism threatens our very Democracy with holocaust. Director Edward Dymtryk and his DP J. Roy Hunt elevate this B-film to A+ status by deftly handling the actors, pacing, low-key lighting and compositions and tell this virulent story with brutal style and suspense. Hunt’s photography is reminiscent of the Pre-Code style with long takes and two-shot framing of dialogue. Thankfully even the use of over-the-shoulder compositions is limited allowing the story to unfold unfettered and with a gritty realism. This is a film edited by composition meaning that each shot is meticulously staged and blocked which prohibits easy post-production censorship. This film is fucking great! 

The story concerns the death of a civilian and the three soldiers who were the last to be seen with him. The opening shot reveals large shadows painting the wall with violence and two figures fleeing from the crime. Identification is impossible. When Capt. Finlay shows up, the story becomes a whodunit before switching to a psychological “whydunit” as then the final act is a conflict of probable cause. The film offers some valuable subtext regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (though the term wasn’t coined in 1947) as these soldiers are WW2 veterans attempting to adjust to civilian life after years of bloody combat. They have become ghosts shimmering in the haze of alcohol just to remain “normal”, haunting bar after bar afraid of returning to the world they knew before the war because it just doesn’t exist...if it ever existed. The comradery of the soldiers, their bond welded together by the fire of combat, is nearly unbreakable yet Finlay must pull the seams apart to solve the murder. Even the title of the film is suggestive of combat. Though never used as excuse, this post-war disillusionment possesses Mitch and is the red herring during much of the film, offering his sweating and confused psychology as potential intent for the murder. But it's Monty’s casual racism dropped like surly adjectives without thought that intrigues Finley. Montgomery is an outlier, a man whose best attributes may be loyalty under fire but an egoistic bully in “real” life disliked by all. His racism isn’t hyperbole, spewing hatred and bigotry like a Sunday sermon, it’s casual like saying good morning to a smiling stranger: this makes it so much more disturbing! 

The acting is superb from the three Roberts and the angelic (the fallen kind) Gloria Graham. She inhabits her character with such earnest pathos she steals every frame she’s in. Robert Montgomery as the pipe smoking investigator, relaxed yet discouraged like a man who has seen it all and doesn’t want to see it anymore more, balances his character perfectly. Robert Mitchum and his sleepy-eyed demeanor is dour and pessimistic yet seems well adjusted. And Robert Ryan may have the most difficult role as the pejorative antagonist because if he plays it too heavy it skews the film towards parody, yet his steely gaze is like a riffle barrel and his soft voice wounds like shrapnel: he earned his Academy Award nomination! 

This is a great film about racism and its deleterious effects both physically and psychologically not only upon the individual but an entire nation. Here in Washington DC Finlay witnesses another Nuremberg Trial and sentences accordingly. 

Final Grade: (A+)