Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE RED DANUBE. MGM, 1949. Walter Pidgeon, Ethel Barrymore, Peter Lawford, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, Louis Calhern, Melville Cooper. Based on the novel Vespers in Vienna, by Bruce Marshall. Director: George Sidney.

   For a movie that’s ostensibly about the power of faith to brighten one’s life even in the darkest of times, there’s a surprisingly dark side to MGM’s The Red Danube. Adapted for the big screen from Scottish Catholic novelist Bruce Marshall’s Vespers in Vienna (1947), the movie is fundamentally a character study of one man’s struggle with, and journey toward, Christian faith. But in the midst of that journey there is collateral damage inflicted on another character, and it’s the film’s treatment of that tragic character that left a bitter taste in my mouth.

   Let me explain. Walter Pidgeon portrays a British Army Colonel by the name of Nicobar. Stationed in Rome at the close of the Second World War, Nicobar works closely with three other staff members. There’s the dashing and womanizing Major Twingo (Peter Lawford), the highly efficient, but insecure Junior Commander Audrey Quail (Angela Lansbury), and the goofy Private David Moonlight (Melville Cooper).

   They’re so close that they’ve developed their own rendition of the English nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” a song they sing while in the car to Vienna where they are about to begin their next posting. Their task in that city is to liaison with the Soviet occupiers and help them repatriate Soviet citizens back to Russia. A problem arises when Twingo (Lawford) falls in love with Maria (Janet Leigh), a beautiful and mysterious Austrian ballet dancer. As it turns out, she’s not an Austrian at all. Rather, she’s a Volga German, a Soviet citizen of German descent who the Soviets want back.

   As the film is based on a Bruce Marshall work, it’s no surprise that Catholic themes would play a predominant role in the plot. Nicobar may be a good officer, but he’s not a good Christian. In fact, he’s bordering on atheism. It’s quite a shock to his system when he and his team are billeted in Vienna at a convent. Soon enough, he’s butting heads with the outspoken Mother Superior (Ethel Barrymore), whose anti-communism is never once in doubt. She hates the godless Reds and isn’t afraid of offending anyone, particularly those Soviet officers who want to repatriate Maria Buhlen back to the Soviet Union.

   The movie soon devolves from what might have become a Cold War thriller into a religious melodrama. Nicobar is forced to choose between his duty to the Army and his conscience. Should he forcibly repatriate Maria back to Russia against her will, or should he listen to his nascent Christian conscience and find a way to allow her to stay in Austria? Mother Superior, to no one’s great surprise, wants him to answer to a power higher than that of His Majesty’s Government; namely, Pope Pius XII.

   So what of the ugliness that I spoke of at the very beginning? (PLOT ALERT) Well, it’s in how the film ultimately treats Janet Leigh’s character. By far, she’s the most innocent and the least political. Furthermore, we have no idea what her religious beliefs – if any – are. When a bureaucratic nightmare lands her back in Vienna and almost in the hands of the Soviets, she attempts suicide by defenestration.

   Although she doesn’t die immediately, she ultimately succumbs to her wounds. Mother Superior seems more concerned than anything that Maria committed a mortal sin in her suicide attempt and only has moments to plead for forgiveness before passing away. Twingo decides that he will be able to go on living despite her death.

   And because the United Nations ultimately ends the forced repatriation of Soviet nationals, Nicobar’s faith is ultimately restored, pleasing Mother Superior to no end. As the movie ends, Nicobar and his crew are singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as they begin their journey to their next assignment in England. Maria, I imagine, was not on their minds.

   Don’t get me wrong. There are some good moments in The Red Danube. The acting and cast are top notch. But there’s not much in George Sidney’s direction to distinguish the movie from so many other forgettable dramas from the period, and the plot is too overtly political for its own good. Other films dealing with Soviet tyranny such as Night People (1954) (reviewed here) stand the test of time far better than this dated feature.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE NINA B. AFFAIR. Bavaria-Filmkunst Verleih, France-Germany, 1961. Originally released as Affäre Nina B and L’affaire Nina B. Nadjia Tiller, Pierre Brasseur, Walter Giller. Screenplay by Roger Nimier, Jacques Roberts and Robert Siodmak, who also directed. Based on the novel by Johannes Maria Simmel.

   The irony about the work of Johannes Maria Simmel, an international bestselling Austrian author, chemical engineer, and English translator, is that virtually no one in the United States ever heard of him until writers such as Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth came to the fore of popular spy fiction in the seventies and eighties and his work began to appear here in mass market paperbacks published only as by Simmel (much less foreign sounding than Johannes Maria) and proclaimed to be in the tradition of Ludlum and Forsyth, when he was in reality a contemporary of Helen MacInnes (who his Cold War novels resemble more than Ludlum or Forsyth), Sarah Gainham, Paul Hyde Bonner, and Martha Albrand.

   Truth was, Simmell had been writing this sort of thing since 1949 over two decades before Ludlum or Forsyth stuck their hands in, and was far less a thriller writer than a novelist whose work deals with crime and espionage and his personal belief in pacifism, particularly in the aftermath of WW II and the Cold War with often autobiographical references (the antagonist in Nina B. has the same middle name as Simmel) in books like I Confess, Double Agent — Triple Cross, The Caesar Code, and Cain ’67, and who had sixteen books filmed beginning in 1960 as well as penning numerous original screenplays and adaptations. His career and success outside of the American publishing world was quite extensive with twenty-nine books published between 1949 and 1999.

   In addition his devotion to pacifism led to numerous awards over his career, including those from his native country and the UN, as well as his being one of the bestselling authors in the world.

   Among those works was The Nina B. Affair, which was filmed in Germany in 1961, pre-Bond, directed by noted film noir director Robert Siodmak (who previously filmed Simmel’s Mein Schulfreund in 1960), brother of screenwriter Curt “Donovan’s Brain” Siodmak, Robert returning to Germany and reinventing himself as a director of spectacles, Westerns, and dramas when his American career faltered.

   The plot of the 1958 novel borrows pretty freely from both Citizen Kane and Orson Welles’ novel and film Mr. Arkadan, which both owed something to Eric Ambler’s Coffin for Dimitrios, if truth be told, and a Tracy and Hepburn picture Keeper of the Flame based on an I.A.R. Wylie novel, in that it opens at the funeral of the mysterious financier Michel Maria Berrera (Pierre Brasseur), one of those able criminal types beloved by Eric Ambler, in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

   The story is told in flashback by Antoine Holden (Walter Giller), a young man just out of prison whose taciturn attitude Berrera admired and who becomes involved with him, and slowly unwinds the twisty tale of a high stakes blackmailer and corrupt businessman, who it is suggested is much darker than we ever see.

   “Nothing seems strange to me, I am open to everything.”

   Shot in black and white and using many noir touches from the camera angles, wet night streets, isolated shots of the protagonist, and such it’s difficult not to see this as Euro-noir what with the flashback story structure and the dubious nature of most of the characters including the hero and heroine.

   Holden first arrives at Berrera’s house as the ambulance has just taken away Berrera’s wife, Nina (Nadjia Tiller) who has just attempted suicide. Berrera hires Holden on the spot and from the beginning he is involved in his intrigues including an urgent trip into East Germany for a briefcase full of papers Berrera is desperate to get so he can blackmail a trio of Nazi war criminals now well to do West German businessmen out of a deal they are making with an emerging African nation.

   Berrera ends up in jail with everyone after the papers and Holden faced with violence and bribes and Berrera’s too smooth lawyer, as well as falling for Nina, once Berrera’s secretary, who wants to escape his casual cruelty and overbearing manner.

   True to the book, there are no easy answers in the film. Holden and Nina’s brief affair is doomed by her hatred and fear of Berrera, with everything tumbling out of control when Berrera gets out of jail and makes his last big gamble to win the biggest prize of all, control of the African contracts.

   Some may find the finale a bit stark, but it is a great last shot and a perfect way to end the dark tale about people who are no more innocent than they have to be, caught in the web of a spider whose morals are as dubious as his weak heart, and ends on a perfect ironic note

   Despite a few touches, this is more drama than thriller or suspense, but it clearly benefits from Sidomak’s own American forays into noir storytelling. Acting honors primarily go to Brasseur, who plays Berrera as a fat spider at once threatening and cajoling, generous and ruthless, who plays god with the emotions and feelings of everyone around him, a more subtle James Bond villain, both attractive and evil, and more than deserving of his ironic fate.


DEPORTED. Universal Pictures, 1950. Marta Toren, Jeff Chandler, Claude Dauphin, Marina Berti, Richard Rober. Director: Robert Siodmak.

   Deported is far from a cinematic masterpiece, but with director Robert Siodmak at the helm, fans of crime films of the late forties and early fifties nay find several points of interest along the way. Filmed largely on location in Italy, the film’s travelogue aspects may not be of much interest today, but any film based on the life of Lucky Luciano has to have at least the headline factor going for it.

   Jeff Chandler plays Luciano’s counterpart in this film, a small time American gangster by the name of Vittorio Mario Sparducci, or as he was known in the US, Vic Smith. Shipped out of the country and back to his home town in Italy, Smith’s primary goal is to find a way to get his hands on the $100,000 in stolen money he was unable to bring with him (and for which he has spent five years in prison).

   To that end he romances the widowed Countess di Lorenzi (Marta Toren), whose primary preoccupation in life is raising money to help feed the people of her small, impoverished post-war town. Under the watchful eye of his parole officer (Claude Dauphin), Smith manages to keep his plans a secret, until…

   I needn’t tell you the whole story, need I? The pace is slow, but not terminally so, and the ending is well worth waiting for, especially to dedicated connoisseurs of noir films. The biggest flaw, as far as I was concerned, was the casting. They’re all fine actors, but Toren was Swedish, not Italian, while Dauphin was French. And of course, Jeff Chandler was born in Brooklyn, which allows him to portray a tough American gangster to perfection, but Italian? No. He stands a foot and a half taller than his relatives back in Italy, with no family resemblance at all.

   All in all, this rather pedestrian crime film is far from essential, but it’s solidly produced, with some good work done by both the cast and Oscar-winning cinematographer William Daniels. A bit more than average, but no more than that.


DIAMOND MEN. Lions Gate, 2000. Robert Forster, Donnie Wahlberg, Bess Armstrong, Jasmine Guy. Screenwriter-director: Dan Cohen.

   This a movie with a lot of facets to it, and I can’t think of a better word to use. What it is at the beginning, is a road film. After having had a heart attack and no longer insurable, a long time diamond salesman by the name of Eddie Miller (Robert Forster) is forced to show his replacement, Bobby Walker, the ropes (Donnie Wahlberg).

   It does not go well. Forster is in his mid-50s, laid back, likes jazz and quiet motels at night. Bobby is young, brash (ultra brash) and likes a lot of night life (girls picked up in bars).

   But then, not too surprisingly, it turns into a buddy film. If two men sit next to each other in the front seat of a car for miles on end, taking the same sales route through central Pennsylvania over and over again, they begin to talk to each other and reveal things about themselves, no matter how opposite in personality they are. Things they certainly wouldn’t bring up on their first day together, which goes disastrously bad.

   Eddie’s wife died several years ago. They had a happy marriage, and Eddie has not had a date with a woman since. Bobby decides to do something about that. This does not go well, but Bobby persists, and the film now transforms itself from a raunchy-ish sex film to a romantic one. What Eddie does not know, though, is that Katie (Bess Armstrong), the woman Bobby has found for him has a — shall we say — past.

   At which point the movie decides to go in a totally different direction, one that I won’t tell you about because I have to leave something for you to see on your own. And while this is a very minor film, by Hollywood blockbuster standards, I think you should. See it yourself, that is.

   And one of the major reasons why is the presence of Robert Forster in this film. He has one of those faces that looks lived in, with the ability to make you know what he’s thinking by simply watching his face, maybe even more than by the words he’s saying. I don’t know how it does it, but he does.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THREE STRANGERS. Warners, 1946. Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Joan Lorring, Robert Shayne, Arthur Shields, Rosalind Ivan, Peter Whitney and AlanNapier. Written by John Huston and Howard W.Koch. Directed by Jean Negulesco;

   For my money, the best thing John Huston ever wrote — maybe because he was working from his own story and not adapting someone else’s.

   Whatever the case, this is rich drama, starting with an ancient legend (undoubtedly of Huston’s invention) that if three strangers meet at Midnight on the eve of Chinese New Year and make a wish — just one wish, mind you — to the goddess Kwan Yin, she may open her heart and grant it.

   Here the strangers are Sydney Greenstreet as a respected solicitor, Peter Lorre, a genial drunkard wanted by the police in connection with a murder, and Geraldine Fitzgerald as an obsessive who will do anything to get her estranged husband (Alan Napier) back. To this end she has coaxed the other two to her place and persuaded them to join her in a single wish.

   They pool their wish on a ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes, and…

   And then the movie lets them go their separate ways while they await the results. Sydney starts things off in a lightly humorous vein; he’s handling the finances of a wealthy widow (Rosalind Ivan) who still gets amorous visits from her late husband. Things get serious when he uses some of her money for a risky investment that turns out the way you think it would. Meanwhile….

   Meanwhile, Peter Lorre is holed up in a cheap apartment with burly Peter Whitney, lying low till Robert Shayne’s murder trial is over. It seems Whitney and Shayne pulled a burglary, Shayne shot a cop, and Lorre got drunkenly mixed up in the whole affair. They’re aided by Joan Lorring, who is obviously smitten with Lorre’s lovable drunk, but at a crucial moment, Shayne betrays them, putting all three on the run. And while that’s going on…

   Geraldine Fitzgerald acts out in the best Joan Crawford tradition, alternately seductive and plain-damn crazy as she lies, schemes, and ultimately cuts off her unwilling spouse from everyone but her. Faced with a life in ruins, Alan Napier gets a gun and heads for her apartment, where the three principals have gathered to cheat their fates.

   And that ain’t the half of it.

   Jean Negulesco directs all this with real style, imparting a sense of movement with his camera, even when nothing much is going on, and hiding the cheap sets with tricky camera angles. The headline players are at the top of their form, but what I loved here was the well-written and perfectly-played bit parts, which I attribute to co-writer Howard Koch.

   Yeah, the story is Huston’s but when I look at the wealth of memorable supporting parts in Koch’s oeuvre — Casablanca, Sergeant York, and The 13th Letter, to name a few — I gotta give him credit for enriching the whole thing: from the clerks in Sydney’s law offices to the kindly cop who pinches Lorre, everyone acts like he’s the star and this is his movie. Negulesco lavishes time and close-ups on them, and the actors themselves, perhaps realizing they won’t get many chances like this, come through beautifully. The result is a film rich in detail and richly ironic.


PERSONAL NOTE:   Oddly enough, I have a statue of Kwan Yin around here somewhere, but I’ve never thought to pray to it or even make a wish. And even if I did, I don’t know any strangers.

   “I don’t know any strangers.” Let me think about that one for a minute.


LURED. United Artists, 1947. George Sanders, Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, Boris Karloff, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Joseph Calleia, Alan Mowbray, George Zucco, Robert Coote, Alan Napier, Tanis Chandler.
   Screenplay by Leo Rosten, based on Robert Siodmak’s 1939 French film Pieges (titled Personal Column in the United States). Screenplay of the earlier film by Jacques Companéez and Ernst Neubach. Director: Douglas Sirk.

   The title is appropriate. I was lured into watching this film under false pretenses. From the title and what I knew about the story line it was my general impression that this was a film noir movie. Ah, very much not so. I began to suspect something was wrong when I saw the director’s credit. I tried to reassure myself by saying that while I don’t know much about his career, the extravigant Hollywood melodramas Douglas Sirk is best known for didn’t come along until the 1950s.

   True enough that Lured is a black-and-white crime film centered on a serial killer responsible for the disappearances and deaths of a number of young women in London, each preceded by a poem sent to Scotland Yard based on the work of Charles Baudelaire. Lucille Ball is an American chorus girl stranded in England. Working at would be called a “dime a dance” hall in the US, one of her co-workers and a close friend goes missing.

   So far, so good. This is the part of the movie in which the noirish aspects are the greatest, and in 1947 Lucille Ball had the perfect face for films noir. (To my mind, however, she didn’t have the earthiness of an Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor or Gloria Grahame, but she was quite a beauty, no doubt about it.)

   But in any case, off she goes to Scotland Yard, where a totally miscast Charles Coburn as a very non-British inspector persuades her to work for him and act as bait to catch the killer. Besides being a very questionable proposition on the face of it, he hands her a gun for her to protect herself if need be.

   It didn’t make any sense to me, then or now as I’m typing this. Worse though, is the change of direction the story takes soon after, as Ball’s character meets and definitely attracts the attention of a nightclub owner played by George Sanders.

   And all of a suden the story turns into a sappy romance between two would-be lovers who have no chemistry together. Opinions may vary on this, but I can only report on what I saw.

   Which in the end, was neither solid enough to recommend as a mystery (the villain is obvious way too soon) or as a romance, the latter jerry-rigged out of nothing at all.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE STRANGER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946. Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, Philip Merivale, Richard Long. Director: Orson Welles.

   Orson Welles’ The Stranger, the auteur’s most commercially successful production, is a movie about evil. More specifically, it’s a film about the capacity of evil to mask itself in respectable bourgeois garb, to hide inconspicuously in plain sight.

   Although linear in its narrative, The Stranger makes ample use of unique camera movements and stylistic flourishes commonly associated with film noir. And as in films noir, Welles’s choice of non-traditional camera angles and use of shadows and lighting to convey impending menace serves to give the film a semi-nightmarish feeling, one that conveys to the viewer that there is something fundamentally not quite right with post-war American and its norms of surface level respectability.

   As an actor in the film, Welles is on less solid ground. While his portrayal of the Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler, now hiding in Connecticut under the name Charles Rankin, is captivating in its depiction of how seemingly ordinary men can be capable of committing atrocities, it’s also fundamentally flawed. Welles is just a bit too American in his mannerisms throughout as well as in his desperate fear of being caught by the Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson).

   This prevents him from fully disappearing into his character. To be fair, Welles was portraying a Nazi war criminal that was merely pretending to be nothing more than a respectable teacher at a New England boys’ school, one who married the daughter (Loretta Young) of one of the town’s leading public figures.

   There’s much more I could say about The Stranger, but I hesitate to say too much without viewing the film for a second, or even perhaps third, time. There’s a lot going on in the film, much more than I suspect movie audiences saw in 1946 or that I saw upon my first viewing of the Kino Classics DVD version.

   That said, two aspects of the film bear mentioning. The first is the scene in which there is a film within the film. It takes place in a typical upper class Connecticut home in which Mr. Wilson (Robinson) shows both the town judge and his daughter footage from the Nazi concentration camps. This was actual footage and was taken from Death Mills (1945), a documentary film on the Holocaust produced by director Billy Wilder, who himself lost his mother in Auschwitz. This was the first time actual footage of the Holocaust was utilized in Hollywood film.

   The second concerns a quirky aspect of Orson Welles’ character, namely his obsession with clocks. It’s a recurring theme throughout the film and one that Welles, as director, utilizes skillfully to dramatize the fact that as Nazi hunter Wilson closes in on him, time is running out for Franz Kindler and his perverted notion of restoring the Third Reich.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE 7th DAWN. United Artists, US/UK, 1964. William Holden, Susannah York, Capucine, Tetsurô Tanba, Michael Goodliffe, Allan Cuthbertson. Director: Lewis Gilbert.

   There’s a scene in the latter part of The 7th Dawn in which William Holden, along with two traveling companions, slog their way through the humid Malay jungle in a near futile attempt to reach the city before a prisoner they hope to save is hanged. As they swing their machetes to and fro, hoping to take down trees and brush that obstruct their path, you just sense how trapped these characters feel. Most of all, you feel the slowness of it all, the overpowering sense of how little time seems to be elapsing despite their valiant effort.

   Call me overly critical, but that’s essentially how I felt watching this turgid cinematic adaptation of Australian novelist Michael Keon’s The Durian Tree (1960). Although filmed on location in Malaysia, which admittedly does provide the viewer with some captivating scenery, the film never really makes a solid case for itself. William Holden is the star. He portrays Ferris, an American rubber plantation owner caught up in the power machinations of both sides during the Malay Emergency. He is a one-note character, a committed bachelor and political maverick, loyal to no side but compelled, like so many other characters in novels and movies before and since, to live in exotic non-Western locales.

   When the British detain his long time mistress Dhana (Capucine) for terrorist activities, he’s forced to make decisions that will impact not just his own life and fortune, but also the future of Malaysia and its people as they seek independence from British rule. He soon is forced to reckon his own desire to stay aloof from politics with the knowledge that Ng (Tetsurô Tanb), a comrade in arms from from the Second World War and the fight against the Japanese occupation, is leading the violent, pro-Soviet insurgency against the British. Added to the mix is an unlikely – and frankly unconvincing – platonic May-December romance between Ferris (Holden) and Candace Trumpey (Susannah York), the daughter of the newly appointed British Resident in Malaysia.

   For a movie that appears to have been promoted as both an adventure film and as a romance, The 7th Dawn is a shockingly dull motion picture. While there are a few somewhat exciting moments scattered throughout the film, none of them, save an overwrought scene in which British soldiers torch an insurgent village, are particularly memorable. And that one was cheap, clearly designed to pull the heartstrings of theater audiences and to build a moral equivalency between the British and the Malay communists.

   Perhaps that’s part of what made watching this movie such a slog. When all is said and done, you just don’t feel particularly keen on either the British or the Malay insurgents. Why make a movie with a plot that continually raises the stakes and gives the audience no one to truly root for?

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


STELLA DALLAS. United Artists, 1925. Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt, Beatrix Pryor, Lois Moran, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Vera Lewis. Based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. Director: Henry King. Shown at Cinevent 22, Columbus OH, May 1990.

   One of the great all-time tear-jerkers, and I don’t imagine there was a dry eye in the room at the end. Colman was a major star before the talkies, and I’ve never seen him give a bad performance, but this Belle Bennett’s film, and she carries you with her all the way.

   Is her performance better than Barbara Stanwyck’s in the sound remake? Maybe not, but I think it’s just as good, and I am a great admirer of Stanwyck in almost everything she did in the thirties and forties.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


FRANKIE AND JOHNNIE. Republic, 1936. Helen Morgan, Chester Morris, Lilyan Tashman, Florence Reed, Walter Kingsford and William Harrigan. Written by Lou Goldberg, Moss Hart(!) and Jack Kirkland. Directed by Chester Erskine and John H. Auer.

HER MAN, Pathé, 1930. Helen Twelvetrees, Philips Holmes, Marjorie Rambeau, Ricardo Cortez, James Gleason, Hary Sweet, Thelma Todd and Franklin Pangborn. Written by Tom Buckingham and Tay Garnett. Directed by Tay Garnett.

   Okay so now that everyone has the tune running in their head, here’s one of my favorites:

   Now let’s get on to the movies, starting with Frankie and Johnnie:

   Helen Morgan, the tragic hard-boiled chanteuse of the jazz age, and virile, roguish Chester Morris. They seem born for the parts. Add seductive Lilyan Tashman as a gal named Nellie Blye, Florence Reed as the Lady that’s known as Lou, and stately Walter Kingsford as a raffish gambler with a derringer tucked in his vest, and you have a cast that should have carried this off.

   Unfortunately, they don’t.

   Frankie and Johnnie was an independent production made in 1934 and finally picked up for distribution by Republic in ’36, and the delay should be a tip-off that there was something rotten in Screenland. In this case, it’s the saccharine, Disney-esque treatment of the early parts, as the lovers meet and court each other amid flowering gardens and fluttering songbirds. A little of this goes a long way, and we get a lot of it: about an hour’s worth in a film that runs 66 minutes. And yet….

   There are two moments here that will stay in my mind long after much better movies have fled my brain cells for greener pastures. They both involve brothel-madam Florence Rice, looking down from the mezzanine where she keeps an eye on things. Sensing trouble, she daintily takes out her handkerchief, whereupon the bartenders covertly pull iron. Then she drops it and we see the wisp of fabric drift languidly down to the floor as shots ring out. The first time, it’s an interesting scene. The second time, it has the fatal resonance of a ballad.

   Which suits it just fine.

   Much much much much better is Tay Garnett’s take on the tune from 1930, Her Man. In this version, Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees) is a cheap hustler working a seedy Havana bar, exploited by knife-throwing pimp Johnny (Ricardo Cortez) because she still has her looks – though he’s casting an eye on Thelma Todd as a gal named Nellie Blye.

   Into this seamy milieu comes Dan (Philips Holmes) a lusty young sailor looking for a good time, with his perpetually drunken buddies James Gleason and Harry Sweet, who raise their inebriated slapstick to a fine art. Frankie hustles Dan, but she’s touched by his innocence to the point where she aborts an attempt to slip him a Mickey, at the risk of a slapping-around from Johnny.

   Ms. Twelvetrees over-emotes a bit, but her whipped-dog look in the presence of Cortez at his nastiest speaks volumes. Philips Holmes, normally type-cast as feckless wimps, is amazingly virile as Sailor Dan; Marjorie Rambeau casually lays out her whore-with-a-heart act, and Franklin Pangborn has a typically amusing and unusually combative part as the guy who wants his hat back – with a laugh-out-loud finish. We can see where the story is headed, with True Love on a troubled horizon for Dan & Frankie, but director Tay Garnett handles it with such rowdy enthusiasm no one minds much.

   At a time when many more prestigious films were stage-bound and static, Garnett moves his camera easily, fluidly, through mean streets, meaner back rooms, and a raucous Havana Saloon that looks like one of the less reputable circles of Hell. In fact, sometimes he’s just showing off, as when waiter Vince Barnett loads the spiked drink onto a tray, raises it overhead, and we follow the tray in close-up across a crowded dance floor and right up to the lovers’ table.

   Garnett’s adept visual style shows itself best in the slam-bang finale, as Dan storms down a crowded street, knocking by-passers aside, and into the saloon like a gunfighter in a western, followed by a classic barroom slugfest – so good in fact that Garnett did it again, almost shot-for-shot, in Seven Sinners (Universal, 1940.)

   Come to think of it, there’s a whole lot of Her Man that reappears in Seven Sinners, including the knife-wielding bad guy, the disreputable side-kicks, and sundry other bits of business, but that’s a story for another day. I’ll just say here that this is not an easy film to find (I found one dealer, whose DVD proved to be incomplete – had to catch the ending on YouTube.) but if you take the trouble, you’ll enjoy it immensely.


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