Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


LES MAUDITS. Ciné Sélection, France, 1947. Released in the US as The Damned (DisCina International ,1948). Marcel Dalio, Henri Vidal, Florence Marley, Fosco Giachetti, Jo Dest and Michel Auclair. Written by Victor Alexander and René Clément. Directed by René Clément.

   You probably don’t know about this film unless you caught it on TCM a year or so ago, and more’s the pity, because it’s what cineastes call A Real Grabber: a story of suspense and survival right up there with Wages of Fear.

   The Damned of the title are a group of high-ranking Nazis, well-connected sympathizers and their bed-warmers, slipping out of Germany via U-boat — ostensibly to carry on the fight from South America, but some have plans that have nothing to do with the Reich.

   When the General’s mistress is injured, Henri Vidal gets into the mix as a doctor kidnapped from a French port and carried off with the rest. Quickly realizing they plan to kill him, Vidal diagnoses a sore throat as a contagious illness to make himself less dispensable, and the result is a claustrophobic drama of manners as the Nazis and their sycophants quarrel and murder, and Vidal schemes to stay alive.

   Writer-Director René Clément paces the whole thing skillfully, alternating the cramped U-Boat conflicts with scenes above decks and on shore before it can get too confining. And he takes time to let his characters develop as he rings in plot devices like the fall of Berlin and the reactions to it. Like:

    “If the Fuhrer were really dead, they’d never let them announce it on the Radio.”

    “So he must be alive because they say he’s dead?”

   In fact, a great deal of the interest here comes from the collapse of Germany and the efforts of the Nazis to dodge falling rubble. In South America they find their bought-and-paid-for friends hard to locate and unwilling to help. When they find a German Tanker ship and refuel, word of the armistice causes a mass desertion. And yet – this is the gripping part — they react with the steely viciousness that got them where they are, leading to some unsettlingly visceral moments. And at the same time, Vidal’s captive Doctor Guilbert keeps plotting his own escape, giving the film a sense of progress and anchoring us to a character we can identify with.

   The result is a film of complexity and tension, with unexpected twists and depth of writing that keeps one watching. Early on I likened this to Wages of Fear for its suspense and sensitivity, and the comparison is apt. This is a classic to watch and remember.


HEADLINE SHOOTER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933. William Gargan. Frances Dee, Ralph Bellamy, Jack LaRue, Gregory Ratoff, Wallace Ford, Robert Benchley, Betty Furness. Director: Otto Brower.

   William Gargan plays one of those old-fashioned newsreel cameramen whose lives consist 100 percent of their jobs and nothing but their jobs. A chance encounter with an equally scoop-conscious society writer (sob sister) played by Frances Dee (later Mrs. Joel McCrea) causes only sparks at first, but as it turns out, these are only partially nullified by the fact that Jane Mallory already has a fiancé back home in Mississippi. Take a look at the cast. You needn’t need me to tell you that Ralph Bellamy is the guy, and no, he’s not likely to keep Miss Mallory from slipping through his fingers.

   There are some comedy bits in this movie (such as Robert Benchley doing a short bit as the announcer of a beauty contest — over the radio), but what this short 60 minute film really is is nothing more (or less) than an entertaining romantic drama, set against a backdrop of newsreel footage of actual disasters: earthquakes, fires and floods. You might also guess, from seeing Jack Larue’s name in the credits, that there is a gangster subplot involved, one that tells Ralph Bellamy’s character more about his would-be wife’s true character than he wanted to know.

   I don’t think William Gargan had too many leading roles in the movies over the years, unless perhaps as a detective in charge of a murder mystery, and he seems out of place in this one. What Jane Mallory sees in Bill Allen is one those unexplained mysteries of life, I suppose. Otherwise this is a competently done melodrama that moves along quickly in very solid fashion.


Introduction: I have discovered something I did some 38 years ago and had totally forgotten about. A sizable chunk of Fatal Kiss #17, my DAPA-Em zine at the time, consisted of a diary of everything I watched on TV during the month of February 1981. This included movies watched on HBO as well as ordinary network shows. And naturally I’ve decided to share everything with you, warts (perhaps) and all. What will follow on this blog over time are not likely to be full-fledged reviews, but as I say, commentary written many years ago by me in diary format.

         February 1.

STARTING OVER. (1979) Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen. [Movie watched on HBO.]

   Moderately interesting. As I understand it, Reynolds thought he should have won an Oscar for his performance in this movie, or should have been nominated, or something. He plays a confused sort of guy who can’t make up his mind between is ex-wife (Bergen) who as the movie starts is in the process of divorcing him, or his new girl friend (Clayburgh).

   He and his ex-wife still get along together — in bed — but only for a little while. His girl friend is sensitive about her relationships with divorced men, and rightfully so.

   In all truth, Reynolds shows a little more acting ability than has been required of him in most of the parts he plays, but I still think he’s playing himself again. Nothing wrong with that. John Wayne did it for years.

   Rated R, apparently for the occasionally foul language (“Tommy, she said the ‘F’ word!), and for the see-through blouse Candice Bergen wears at one point, as she’s trying to win Burt back.

NO PLACE TO LAND. Republic Pictures, 1958. John Ireland, Mari Blanchard, Gail Russell, Jackie Coogan, Robert Middleton. Produced & directed by Albert C. Gannaway.

   The cast of this little known noir film is ultra fine, the story is OK, but the problem is — although it does have its moments — the filming leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. Produced late in Republic Films’ existence, the budget was tight, and it shows.

   It begins by focusing in on the swiveling gyrations of Mari Blancherd’s hips as she dances to the sound of a jukebox in a low-rent dive in the heart of produce country. Spurned by ace cropduster John Ireland, her character impulsively marries landowner Robert Middleton, which she regents immediately. Overweight, ugly and insanely jealous, Middleton is a petty villain without many equals.

   It is Ireland she continues to lust for, in spite of the marriage license now in her name. Fleeing her amorous advances (and wishing to avoid a confrontation with Middleton), Ireland finds a job on another farm quickly, and almost as quickly takes up with Gail Russell, the wife of its owner, who spends most of his time working off a drunk — or building up to one.

   You may thing this is enough of a plot, but there is more. Ireland’s assistant, Jackie Coogan, is injured saving their plane while in the air, and the diagnosis is not good. He will be blind in two months, the doctor says.

   It’s quite a mixture of story lines, the most prominent portion of which is Mari Blanchard’s role as one of the most fatal of femme fatales you will ever see this early in film history — bedding and romancing everyone in this film with pants on — or off, as the case may be — except for Ireland, who refuses her, and Middleton, whom she refuses, even though she married him. Before the story ends, more than one person will have died as a result.

   It’s quite a tale, and only its low budget production values keeps me from recommending it completely and totally. Of especial note is Gail Russell’s low key but still very effective appearance in this film. She was to make but one more movie before her untimely death. What a beautiful and talented actress she was!


WEB OF DANGER. Republic Pictures, 1947, Adele Mara, Bill Kennedy, Damian O’Flynn, Richard Loo, Victor Sen Yung, Roy Barcroft. Director: Philip Ford.

   In spite of the title, Web of Danger is not a crime film at all, and to tell you the truth, I can’t even tell you what the title means. In a small, rather slight degree, you might possibly call this a thriller, but since the danger caused a bridge-building crew by flooding far upriver, except for one specific scene, any suspense that’s conjured up is more in the mind of the viewer than from anything seen onscreen.

   What it is, more than anything else, is a romantic drama, with the supervisor and foreman of the crew (Bill Kennedy and Damian O’Flynn) fighting it out (literally) over the hand of waitress Peg Mallory (Adele Mara) — as if she had no say in the matter.

   Except for the accidental death of one of the crew members (see above), the story plays out in light and frothy fashion. Another exception is the rescue of the families whose homes are threatened by the levees about to break, which is perfunctory and anticlimactic. The part that’s light and frothy is well done, though!


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


NOTORIOUS. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern. Screenplay: Ben Hecht. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

       A lot of ink has been spilled on interpreting Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, the romantic thriller starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Some critics have posited that the film is primarily a romance in which love, despite numerous obstacles, ultimately triumphs at the end; others that it belongs in that every amorphous cinematic category known as “film noir.”

   Others have focused less on the film’s plot and more on its signature visual style and the manner by which Hitchcock creates and refines the very language of cinema. The one through which he is able to tell the story through both the placement of inanimate objects and the imposition of meaning to them.

   All of the above, I think, are valid ways in which to interpret Notorious. I personally have my doubts whether this particular RKO release should be considered a proper film noir. Yes, it’s on the more cynical side of things and its subject matter – in which the U.S. government through the persona of one of its agents, T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), essentially prostitutes Alicia, a deeply damaged young woman and the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman), persuading her to infiltrate a group of Nazis in postwar Brazil – is obviously less pure than many of the morale boosting films put out by the major studios during the Second World War. But it’s a far cry from the cynical and gritty lower budget crime dramas that are now rightly considered films noir.

   For me, the film is essentially about losing and winning, both on the personal level (romance) and on the political (thriller). It’s the universalism of this subject matter that makes it compelling to viewers seventy some odd years after it first premiered. The plot, as Hitchcock himself agreed, boils down to a man who is forced to choose between his emotions (his love for Bergman’s character) and his duty to his country.

   More significantly, it’s about Devlin’s desire to win at nearly any cost. He wants to win Alicia over his competitor, the Nazi industrialist (Claude Rains) whom she has been spying on for Uncle Sam. He wants his country to win over the Nazis even after the war has ended. There’s rarely a moment in the film in which Devlin ceases to want to win on both a romantic and political level. There is no “dark night of the soul” for Devlin in which he questions his ultimate desires and goals.

   If we are to see Alicia as the film’s main character – and I think she is – then the question becomes whether Notorious is fundamentally all that different from other motion pictures about women who want to change their lives. As the film’s title indicates, she’s notorious. She drinks and has numerous love affairs with men. Devlin knows this. Yet he’s deeply conflicted about it, which is why he is alternatively madly in love with her and deeply cruel to her.

   By the end, she thinks that she has changed, that she has found her white knight in Devlin who carries her down the stairs and out of harm’s way. But no one realistically thinks that this is a fairy tale ending. Once the mission is complete and Devlin realizes he has won against the Nazi villain in two ways, will he want to stick around to “make things work,” as modern family therapists would say, or will he be poised for the next assignment?

   I should note that I recently watched the brand new Criterion Collection blu-ray release of this Hitchcock classic. There are some truly worthwhile supplemental features including an illuminating 2009 documentary about the film in which the political context at the time of the film’s writing and release is discussed by leading film critics and historians.

   Of note is the fact that soon after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, Hitchcock directed a short documentary film about the horrors discovered there. This was one of his main completed projects before working directing Notorious, which of course features Nazi industrialists who have relocated to South America after the war’s end.

   In 1946, the Cold War hadn’t yet made West Germany a vital ally to the United States so Nazis, rather than the communists, were still the villains. It’s doubtful whether such a film would have been of as much interest to studio executives had screenwriter Ben Hecht and Hitchcock pitched the film in 1950.


PICTURE SNATCHER. Warner Brothers, 1933. James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Patricia Ellis, Alice White, Ralf Harolde, Robert Emmett O’Connor. Director: Lloyd Bacon.

   What this above average little semi-crime drama has going for it most of all can be summed up in two words: James Cagney. An an ex-con looking for a new life, he’s on the screen for most of the movie and in none of those scenes is he sitting or standing still. He’s on the go every minute. Although short in stature, he can make you tired just watching him, as he kids and connives his way around his new career as a news photographer for a sleazy bottom-of-the-barrel newspaper.

   Aiding him in his new life, after he’s dumped the mob he was once the leader of, is Ralph Bellamy as the paper’s sympathetic city editor. Lusting for him — no other word will do — is Alice White, the paper’s “sob sister” writer who — surprisingly enough really is a damned good rewrite person in her own right.

   But Danny Kean (Cagney) has eyes only for the daughter of the cop who ran him in three years ago, and all kinds of complications ensure from this one small remarkable coincidence, the kind that oculd happen only in movies like this.

   Being a pre-Code movie, there some fairly explicit innuendos between Cagney and Miss White, plus some revealing shots of the latter in her lingerie. All the more bonus, you’d have to say, to Cagney’s bold, bravura performance in this one.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE CONSPIRATORS. Warner Brothers, 1944. Hedy Lamarr, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Victor Francen, Joseph Calleia. Based on the novel by Fredric Prokosch (Harper, 1943). Director: Jean Negulesco.

   Marketed on DVD as part of Warner Brothers’s Film Noir Archive Collection, The Conspirators isn’t really what most cinephiles would consider to be film noir. This film doesn’t take us down Eddie Muller’s “Noir Alley” in the way that the grittier Columbia and RKO releases of the late 1940s do. Yes, there’s a protagonist who is caught up in a web of deception and is falsely accused of murder. And there are cinematic shades and shadows thanks to director Jean Negulesco. But the overall flavor of this espionage thriller is more “romance in wartime” than an unforgivably capricious world spiraling out of control.

   Paul Henreid, who in real life was an avowed anti-Nazi, portrays Vincent Van Der Lyn, a member of the Dutch resistance who flees to Lisbon, Portgual. The Gestapo on his trail, Van Der Lyn is set to sail from Lisbon to England where he will rendezvous with the Dutch Air Force. By a sheer happenstance, he ends up getting mixed up with the personal and political affairs of one Irene Von Mohr, a beautiful and mysterious French woman (Hedy Lamarr) married to a Nazi official.

   Throughout the film, both Van Der Lyn and the audience are forced to wonder where Irene’s loyalties lie. It is clear that Van Der Lyn is quite smitten with her. Unfortunately, these romantic scenes are by far the weakest part of the picture, a fatal flaw when the characters’ romance is supposed the core of the film. There’s something so dated, so artificially tender about them. And the dialogue between the two would-be lovers is noticeably forgettable. Casablanca (1942), with its famously quotable lines, this is not.

   If Henreid and Lamarr, the two top-billed stars of the movie, don’t captivate one’s attention, it doesn’t necessitate that The Conspirators isn’t worth watching. Far from it. The supporting cast is, in a word, outstanding. There are some great character actors showcasing their work here. Even though they don’t get nearly as much screen time as Henreid and Lamarr, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet simply steal the show. Lorre, too short and too “ethnic” to be a leading man in a Hollywood romance, takes the role of Jan Bernazsky, a Polish resistance fighter who discovered an ingenious method to kill Nazis.

   Sydney Greenstreet, reunited once again with Lorre, portrays Ricardo Quintanilla, the ringleader of an anti-Nazi conspiracy. Flamboyant and determined, Quintanilla ends up being a far more compelling character than Van Der Lyn (Henreid). Joseph Calleia, the Maltese born actor who had notable roles in The Glass Key (1942), Gilda (1946), and (later on) A Touch of Evil (1959), likewise overshadows Henreid. He portrays a Lisbon police inspector who is alternatively convinced and skeptical that Van Der Lyn is a murderer.

   These three fine actors, when they are on screen, lend the film a world weariness that serves as a most welcome counterpart to the film’s maudlin romantic elements.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


FOXFIRE. Universal International Pictures, 1955. Jane Russell, Jeff Chandler, Dan Duryea, Mara Corday, Barton MacLane. Director: Joseph Pevney.

   Is there ever a movie about a mining town that somehow doesn’t involve a mining disaster? I ask because I’m not sure that there is. Or at least there doesn’t seem to be. It’s almost a rule. If you’re going to have a drama, particularly a melodrama, set in a mining town, you’re going to have to have a final act in which there’s a cave-in, an accident, a death, or a horrible something else transpiring in a mineshaft. (For supernatural tales, there’s always going to be a creature lurking in a mineshaft).

   Foxfire, a slightly lurid, slightly campy melodrama, is about as far away from the horror genre as you can get. But it’s set in a mining town – a dying little spot on the map in Arizona to be exact – and sure enough, it involves a whirlwind romance between two mismatched lovers. Jane Russell portrays Amanda Lawrence, a New York socialite vacationing in Arizona. She immediately falls for the tall and hunky Jonathan Dartland (Jeff Chandler), a local engineer consumed with the idea of rehabilitating an abandoned gold mine out in the hills.

   They are divided not only by class, but also by race. Dartland is half-Apache and believes strongly in many of their customs, particularly pertaining to the role of women. He’s also a little bit mean. But then again Amanda isn’t exactly the nicest person either.

   The movie’s view on race relations and the smugness and insular nature of small town 1950s America reminded me very much of Douglas Sirk’s films from the same era. Foxfire, with a strong supporting cast that includes Dan Duryea, Mara Corday, and Barton MacLane, is indeed both a melodrama and a penchant critique of bourgeois societal expectations regarding romance and marriage.

   But it plays in 2019 more like pure camp than like anything one would take remotely seriously. Still, with a particularly effective use of color, it’s a beautiful movie to look at. As Foxfire was the very last American commercial film filmed in three-strip Technicolor, it’s worth a look for the deep saturation alone.


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.


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