Films: Drama/Romance



ANGEL FACE. RKO, 1953. Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Herbert Marshall and Kenneth Tobey. Written by Frank Nugent, Oscar Millard and Frank Erskine. Directed by Otto Preminger.

   One of those movies like Woman on the Beach that puts me at a loss. It’s compelling, dull, forceful, meandering, ordinary and dreamlike all at the same time. I couldn’t call it a really successful film, but once I start watching it I have to finish.

   The plot has Robert Mitchum involved with a potential murderess, as in Out of the Past, but without that film’s lush romanticism. Everyone in Angel Face is worried about conventional things like jobs and living expenses, which mitigates against the interest of the whole thing but adds considerably to the realism. The story moves at a snail’s pace as working-stiff Mitchum tries to figure out whether or not he loves wealthy neurotic Jean Simmons, while she tries to get around to murdering her stepmother.

   So things just sort of drift along until we suddenly realize, about the same time Mitchum does, that he has somehow moved too far away from his workaday life to return to it, and that his old friends don’t want him back anyway. About this time, the story shifts into Heavy Melodrama from which, like its hero, it tries to draw back but never quite gets there.

   The ending, with another working stiff calling to a man who will never answer, somehow sums the whole thing up with a poetic terseness that lingers in the mind…. as I say, not an easy film to like, but one that stays with you.



THE TOWN. Warner Bros., 2010. Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite. Adapted from Chuck Hogan’s 2004 novel Prince of Thieves. Director: Ben Affleck. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

   It begins with a bank heist in Boston. Well-choreographed, with director Ben Affleck in full control of a fluid situation, The Town starts off with unbridled action. It sparks and sizzles with furious electricity, reminiscent of other bank robbery/heist films, most notably Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). And with a few exchanged glances between robber and captive, the plot becomes clear. This is primarily to be a movie about the relationship between a bank robber and the female assistant bank manager whom he forced into opening the vault at gunpoint. That will form the core of the tale yet to unfold.

   Ben Affleck, who stars as well directs, portrays “Doug” MacRay, a long-term resident of the Charlestown section of north Boston, with the city almost becoming a fundamental character in the list of players. He, along with his friend Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), were raised in near poverty in the townie Irish neighborhood and now lead a crew of thieves. Reporting to local kingpin Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), they are skilled professionals who are willing to use threats of violence to achieve their objectives.

   All this begins to change when Doug begins to fall for his former hostage Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Although he initially follows her around to see what she knows about the bank robbery he took part in, Doug slowly begins to imagine getting out of his life of crime and creating a new one with her. Complicating matters is Doug’s former flame, oxycontin addict Kris Coughlin (an underutilized Blake Lively), who also happens to be Jem’s sister. Not to mention the two persistent local FBI agents on his trail.

   Overall, this is a solid crime drama – with the emphasis on drama. Although there are action sequences, including a suspenseful third act robbery sequence filmed on location near Fenway Park, the film’s primary focus is on the relationships between the characters. While the complicated relationship between Doug and Claire is the central focus of the story, Doug’s decidedly mixed feelings toward his father also plays a prominent role in the narrative.

   Unfortunately, what prevents this heist film from being anything overly exceptional is the film’s reliance on too many outworn tropes. The forced sentimentalism designed to make the viewer feel sympathy for Doug occasionally feels cheap.

   Without giving anything away, let’s just say that the final ten minutes or so of the movie in particular feels artificial. It’s not that what you see couldn’t have happened; rather, it’s the way that it’s visually presented that could feel grating, especially to crime film aficionados. The ending feels at once tragically inevitable and completely out of left field. Similarly, it’s somehow off-putting to have such an ambiguously tidy ending to an emotionally messy and nuanced film.

   Affleck is a skillful director who gets the most out of his exceptionally talented cast, including Victor Garber (Alias), who has a brief cameo as a hostage, and veteran character actor Chris Cooper who portrays his incarcerated father. There are some flourishes that I found distracting, such as his tendency to repeatedly use drone footage of Boston to remind the viewer where the film was set (as if anyone would forget?) and his decision to employ grimy black and white cinematography for flashbacks.

   But don’t let that stop you from watching this one. Affleck’s immersion in his character, Boston accent and all, is near complete. Directing oneself is not always the humblest of tasks. He pulls it off with sincerity.


HARD EIGHT. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1996. Philip Baker Hall (Sydney), John C. Reilly (John Finnegan), Gwyneth Paltrow (Clementine), Samuel L. Jackson (Jimmy), Philip Seymour Hoffman. Screenwriter-director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   I watched this one late last year, and if I actually rated movies and kept lists of such rankings, this one would have come out close to the top. (Please note that if I were to put together such non-existent lists, they would be for the year that I watched them, not the year they were released.)

   It was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in his feature film debut, and cinematically speaking it’s a dazzler. Or it is if you like movies set in casinos (in Reno), with lots and lots of neon lights, cheap diners and even cheaper hotels and drab apartment buildings. Anderson also wrote the screenplay, and it’s a dazzler, too, wordwise. Not in a David Mamet sense, but in the sense that the words the characters in this movie are exactly the words the characters would say, if they were in the real world.

   Plotwise? That’s something of another matter. It is thin, I admit, and it seems thinner than it really is since it is so slow to develop. An elderly man named Sidney whose face looks like it’s seen all of the woes of the world (Philip Baker Hall) takes a young man named John (John C. Reilly) whom he finds slumped outside the door of a diner, the money he needs to bury his mother all gambled away, under his wing.

   The young man, not the most sophisticated young man in any part of the world, but especially not in Reno, becomes the older man’s protégé, the latter obviously knowing his way around a gambling hall very well. Why he does so we do not know, but we are forced by the script (I do not know how) to assume (hope) it is for a good reason. And do we keep watching, although nothing really is happening? Indeed we do.

   There are two more players: Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) as a casino waitress who moonlights as a hooker and if anything is less sophisticated than John. What we do know is that he is attracted to her. Then there is Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), whose brashness Sidney dislikes immediately but whom John considers his new best friend. At this point we still do not know what is really happening, but this is also the point at which the plot finally does kick in.

   And it is also the point at which I ironically will stop talking about the plot of this movie. Suffice it to say that from this point on, some of players will do some stupid things, and we are not surprised because these are some of the stupid things people like this would do.

   We also learn a good many things that we did not know before, and although we did not know them before, everything all of sudden falls into place exactly as they would have all along, if we had known what they were.

   I’d call this neo-noir, even though it ends on what I consider a good note, but shakily so, as people such as those in this movie are not exempt from the realization on the part of the viewer that it is not guaranteed that people such as these will only do one stupid thing in each of their lives.



DESERT FURY. Paramount Pictures, 1947. Lizbeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey (debut), Mary Astor, James Flavin. Screenplay by Robert Rossen, based on the novel Desert Town by Ramona Stewart (Morrow, 1946), previously serialized as “Bitter Harvest” in Collier’s from November 24 to December 8, 1945. Director: Lewis Allen. Available on DVD.

   Paula (Lizbeth Scott) is the spoiled daughter (she’s supposed to be nineteen but seems much older) of controlling casino (The Purple Sage) owner Fritzi (Mary Astor) who tries to run her the way she does the little desert town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. She’s just run away from another boarding school tired of being looked down on because of what her Mother does, yet defiant enough to want to be part of the business.

Deputy Tom Hansen (Burt Lancaster walking into Fritiz’s office): The wages of sin.

Fritzi (counting money): Are very high.

   Complicating things are the arrival of handsome gambler Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) whose wife died in a mysterious accident years earlier and his dangerous too devoted stooge Johnny (Wendell Corey in his film debut), and washed up rodeo star turned local deputy Tom Hansen (Burt Lancaster) who is attracted to Paula too and still suspicious of the way Bendix wife died.

   When Fritzi’s meddling and Tom’s suspicions drives Paula into Eddie’s arms complications ensue.

   You couldn’t have much better Film Noir bona fides than this cast, screenwriter Robert Rossen, or director Lewis Allen, and the film is handsomely shot on location and set in color. But despite that, despite the mystery and the broken characters, Desert Fury is more soap opera than Film Noir, Gothic fiction in rancheros and with cactus instead of brooding castles on crumbling cliffs, but Gothic romance for all that.

   The film is attractive, and entertaining, but it never quite evolves into the promise of genuine noir. Maybe it’s because Hodiak’s Bendix is so obviously a bad ’un (no Maxim de Winter he, “He’s no good … you think I brought you up for the likes of Eddie Bendix … I’d rather see you dead first.”) and Lancaster’s Tom so obviously the wounded hero of a thousand Gothic novels from Jane Eyre to Rebecca.

   Corey’s Johnny, with his sinister slightly perverse devotion to Eddie and his threat of violence to anyone who might cross Eddie or come between them, is the most noirish element in the film, and Corey, self assured in his debut, cannily underplays it avoiding any temptation to compete with Van Heflin’s Oscar winning debut in the similar role opposite Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager. The undercurrents here are just that, undercurrents.

Johnny: People think they’ve been seeing Eddie, and they’ve really been seeing me. I’m Eddie Bendix.

   If a single character was enough to make a film noir, Corey’s Johnny would qualify.

   When Eddie chooses Paula over Johnny it brings things to a head and we learn the real secret of Eddie’s wife’s accident and what Eddie has been hiding.

Paula: I hope you never get finished with me.

Eddie: Why?

Paula: I’d hate to be left on a desert road at night with my luggage.

Eddie: Keep it in mind.

   Gorgeously shot in Technicolor and well written with a lush Miklos Rosza score, Desert Fury is an entertaining Gothic, but it isn’t the Film Noir it wants to be. Its dark secrets are those of romantic fiction and not Noir, its perversions those of soap opera and not existential angst. The big revelation that Eddie and Paula’s mother were once an item is still more soap than noir.

   Even the tough guy stuff between Hodiak and Lancaster is half-hearted at best.

   As Paula starts to find out who Eddie is and the truth pours out of Johnny when Eddie abandons him the tension rises (“.. he’s never been able to take the rap.”). It builds to a suspenseful finale, and if taken as the Gothic fiction decked out as Film Noir it is the film does not disappoint, but it really isn’t quite Noir however much it tries to wear the look and feel.

Paula: There was no Eddie Bendix. Everything that people thought was Eddie Bendix was Johnny.

   You could almost say the same of Desert Fury. It really isn’t Film Noir. Everything you think is Film Noir isn’t, but accept it for what it is, and it more than does the job.


CAFÉ METROPOLE. 20th Century Fox, 1937 Loretta Young, Tyrone Power, Adolphe Menjou, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley, Gregory Ratoff, Christian Rub. Screenpla: Jacques Deval. Story: Gregory Ratoff Directed by Edward H. Griffith.

   This Hollywood take on French farce written by character actor Gregory Ratoff could use a bit less romance and a bit more farce, but thanks to the cast and an intelligent screenplay has more than enough charm to get by.

   There are no real crimes here, though the police are certainly involved. It’s the sort of film where everyone is conning everyone else, sometimes even themselves.

   Monsieur Victor (Adolphe Menjou) owns the Café Metropole and his accountant Maxl (Christain Rub) has just informed him he is in the red and the auditors are coming. He needs to think and act fast, but luckily for Victor things are already falling in place in the person of an American millionaire Joseph Ridgeway (Charles Winninger), his sister Margaret (Helen Westley) and his daughter Laura (Loretta Young) who are arriving soon and hoping to meet celebrities and royalty. If Victor can arrange a royal romance, he might get the money he needs from Winninger.

   All he needs to arrange that is the right man, and who should show up but flat broke American heir Alexander Brown (Tyrone Power), who manages to fall in debt at the gaming tables to Victor with a rubber check bouncing around signed by him.

   But everything will be just fine if Alexander Brown becomes the Russian Prince Alexi Paneiev and charms the beautiful Laura.

   And almost immediately things get complicated. Alexander and Laura meet before they know who the other is (or is supposed to be) and actually start to fall in love, Daddy Ridgeway smells a rat (though the wrong one), and Paul the waiter (Gregory Ratoff) proves to be the real Prince Alexi more than a little incensed by the impostor.

   Power and Young, who were virtually a screen team, play their parts with effortless charm, their combined beauty and screen presence, even as male and female ingenues, enough to carry any film, but this one doesn’t have to rely on that alone, with Menjou as the suave continental con man Victor, Winninger the slightly befuddled comical American millionaire, Westley his sharp witted sister and advocate for Laura, and Ratoff a proud, haughty, but for sale Russian prince.

   Menjou specialized in variations on this jaded but still romantic charmer no more honest than was required by the circumstances. What energy the film has comes mostly from him, Ratoff, and Westley, though Young gets her turn at the end.

   Power bridled at these sort of roles eventually and welcomed a chance after the War to play something with a bit more depth.

   Young proves smarter and tougher than anyone expects when Alexander wants out of the con game and gets framed by Victor to get money from Ridgeway, and this being American and not quite French farce, there is little edge and no sex considering the model here is known for both.

   This isn’t Lubitch, Billy Wlder, Preston Sturges, or Mitchell Leisen, and their deft hand at this sort of material is sorely missed, but it is still fun in a low key, all white tie and tails, elegant settings, good food, great wine, beautiful young people in beautiful clothes quoting François Villon in charming cafes and gorgeous suites, and charming con artists.

   The best way to describe how this material is done in the grand Hollywood style is effortless. Café Metropole is a souffle and not a meal, light, charming, romantic, and with just enough spice to keep it from being boring. Of course it is almost impossible to make this kind of film today, which may or may not be a good thing, but we will always have Paris, at least the Hollywood one.

   The sharpest bite is saved for the great last line with Westley and Ratoff getting the fade out and the laugh.

         “Get your checkbook out. Here we go again.”

   It’s almost enough to redeem the whole film on its own.




BLACK ORPHEUS. Dispat/Tupin, Brazil, 1959. Original title:  Orfeu Negro. Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliviera, and Ademar da Silva. Written by Marcel Camus & Jacques Viot, based on the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which is itself an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Directed by Marcel Camus. Winner of Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film at the 32nd Academy Awards in 1960.

   Costumes, celebration, death and voodoo — could any film be more fitting for Halloween?

   Yes, I know it’s paternalistic, simplistic, and slowed down by too many overlong dance scenes, but the sheer vibrant energy and romantic urgency of the thing sweeps me along with the uncluttered story-line: A beautiful young Eurydice comes to Rio at Carnaval, fleeing Death. She is temporarily rescued by Orpheus, but in the end, he must seek his love in the next world.

   The simple story is conveyed with memorable visuals. The shanty-towns of the city seem to hang on cliffsides as precarious as the pursuing death, the costumes glitter and shimmer in the sun, and Death itself (athletically portrayed by Ademar da Silva) moves with a coiled grace that makes me wonder if the creators of Spider-Man (whoever they may be) were inspired by his lithe and lethal acting.

   Just as striking is Orpheus’s descent into the underworld, wandering empty corridors until a benign Janitor — Charon, with a broom instead of a barge pole —  guides him down a staircase of infinite emptiness to a hellish voodoo world where the myth must play itself out once again.

   Like me, you may be used to thinking of Halloween movies in terms of Karloff, Lugosi, Universal and Lewton. Or you may be of a generation that equates Horror Movies with serial slashings and CGI monsters. But I found Black Orpheus the equal of these, and in its own way, better than most.

   Need more? Actors Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn, the star-crossed lovers of the film, died within weeks of each other, and Ademar da Silva died on the same day as the composer of the film’s justly-celebrated score:


PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Universal Picures, 1943. Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, Claude Rains, Edgar Barrier, Leo Carillo, J. Edward Bromberg. Jane Farrar, Frank Puglia, Stefan Geray, Fritz Feld, Miles Mander, Fritz Leiber, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronin. Screenplay by Eric Taylor & Samuel Hoffenstein. Adapted by Hans Jacoby as John Jacoby, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Directed by Arthur Lubin,

   When Universal sought to capitalize on the film that first made them a great studio in the silent era thanks to Lon Chaney Sr., they spared no expense. Like the original silent film, this version of the oft-told tale features lavish sets and costumes, a cast of some of the finest faces in Hollywood, including the ever popular Nelson Eddy, and one of the finest actors in Hollywood in the lead as the Phantom, Claude Rains.

   To this, add an original operatic score, cinematography by W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr, and stunning Technicolor.

   It is too bad that somewhere along the way they forgot the mystery, the horror, terror, and for the most part Eric, the Opera Phantom.

   They remembered the opera though.

   Here we have Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a violinist in the orchestra of the Paris Opera who secretly loves Christine (Susanna Foster), stand-in to vainglorious diva Biacarolli (Jane Farrar), so much so, he has secretly been paying singing master Leo Carillo to train her, But when Claudin loses his job, he needs money, so he takes the music he has written to publisher Miles Mander who dismisses him.

   In his despair and desperation Claudin kills Mander accidentally and scars his own face with acid, fleeing to the sewers which lead beneath the Opera house, there beginning his reign of terror against Biancarolli so that Christine may take her place.

   And all that is well enough if Rains and his Phantom did much more than run around in a costume borrowed from Lamont Cranston, casting a few half-hearted shadows and mostly lurking offscreen unseen and unheard, while we get a parade of some of the finest character actors in Hollywood in what mostly plays as a light opera with way to much comic business between baritone Nelson Eddy and policeman Edgar Barrier fighting over Christine, and far too many operatic numbers.

   The famous chandelier scene is well-handled, and there is a well done chase between Eddy and Rains in the rigging above the stage, but mostly this generates virtually no mystery, no terror, and no horror, no Masque of the Red Death. Even the famous scene of Christine unmasking the Phantom is tossed off with no suspense or style.

   Oh, yeah, he’s disfigured. Ho, hum.

   Rains is largely wasted. The fine cast has to hold a thriller with no thrills and a mystery with no mystery there between too many musical numbers there only to justify Nelson Eddy being cast in the film.

   Just about everything you expect of the Phantom is missing. There is no Gothic atmosphere, no labyrinth sewers beneath the Opera, no menacing shadows, and the violence, when it comes is all done off camera ending anti climatically with Claudin fleeing through the large well lighted halls of the opera dressed like an escapee from Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy.

   Seldom in film history has more money been spent to less effect.

   That’s a pity, because the makings were there for a fine film of the classic, if everyone hadn’t been so overcome by the class of the project they forgot it was also a tale of murder, madness, terror, horror, and obsession.


THE NINE “Pilot.” ABC, 60m, 04 October 2006. Written by Hank Steinberg & K. J. Steinberg. Director: Alex Graves. Currently available on YouTube.

   I’m not including a list of cast credits yet, as it will take both some time and space. I’ll add them below. This is the story of bank heist gone bad, so bad that hostages are taken and are not released until over two days later. Not everyone survives. Those who do, after the media coverage subsides and eventually disappears, as it always does, find that their lives have “changed forever.” The following is taken from Wikipedia. I couldn’t do better:

Main cast, alphabetically, except for the two bank robbers, listed at the end:

   Lourdes Benedicto as Eva Rios, a teller in the bank that is robbed and single mother. Eva is injured during the standoff and dies shortly thereafter. Eva is Franny’s sister.

   John Billingsley as Egan Foote, a data processor. Egan begins the series severely depressed and suicidal. He is in the bank the day of the robbery to kill himself in the bathroom. After the standoff, he is hailed as a hero and feels that he has a “new lease on life”.

   Jessica Collins as Elizabeth “Lizzie” Miller, a social worker. Lizzie is in a serious relationship with Jeremy at the beginning of the series. She finds out she is pregnant before walking into the bank.

   Tim Daly as Nick Cavanaugh, a police officer who happens to be a customer in the bank during the robbery. Nick has a gambling problem. Just prior to the robbery, Nick and Eva arranged to go out on a date.

   Dana Davis as Felicia Jones, a high-school student and daughter of Malcolm. Felicia is in the bank when the robbery occurs. After the standoff, she develops amnesia and cannot remember anything from the event.

   Camille Guaty as Francesca “Franny” Rios, a bank teller and Eva’s sister.

   Chi McBride as Malcolm Jones, the bank manager and Felicia’s father.

   Kim Raver as Kathryn Hale, an Assistant District Attorney. Kathryn is in the bank with her mother at the time of the robbery; her mother is set free. Kathryn’s boyfriend proposes after the robbery. She accepts but has a connection with Nick.

   Scott Wolf as Jeremy Kates, a cardiothoracic surgeon. Jeremy is in a serious relationship with Lizzie at the start of the series.

   Owain Yeoman as Lucas Dalton, one of the two bank robbers. His brother is the other robber. Lucas seems to have a strange connection to Felicia.

   Jeffrey Pierce as Randall Reese, Lucas’s brother and colleague during the bank robbery.

   There were 13 episodes in all, but ratings were poor, and whether all 13 were shown in the US, I haven’t yet worked out. Some may have been shown only online. It’s too bad, as this is a series that is designed to be followed from beginning to end, as the viewer gradually learns what actually happened in those 52 hours, and how the closeness the hostages felt during their crisis carries over to their normal lives. It’s a show meant for bingeing now, and one that would be very difficult to jump into the middle of.

   It’s very well done, and after this first episode ended, I immediately wanted more. I think that went wrong, though, is that it’s very difficult in one 42 minute pilot, to introduce all of the players properly. Some stand out, of course, others far less so. In this pilot, also, during what is shown at the beginning of the hostage standoff and the media frenzy that occurs as they are released, is done with hand-held cameras, adding tremendously to the confusion, but this was the intent and exactly as it should be.

   It might also be that as time went on the story line just wasn’t all that interesting. I’ll probably never know.




DEAD END. Goldwyn/UA, 1937. Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrae, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor, Alan Jenkins, Marjorie Main, and the Dead End Kids. Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, from the play by Sidney Kingsley. Directed by William Wyler.

   A year after The Petrified Forest (recently reviewed here), Bogie found himself again playing a gangster on the run in a film based on a popular (and somewhat self-important) play. But in that year, he had learned how to act for the screen, and the difference is agreeable.

   Let’s dispense with the bad news first: Dead End is as pretentious and mannered as The Petrified Forest was, and even more didactic. Sylvia Sidney’s noble working woman; the insulated, uncaring rich people; the feral youths; and especially Joel McCrae as the voice of Progress… they’re all types first and characters as an afterthought. The film only flickers to anything like real life when it leaves them to check in on “Baby Face” Martin’s tragic homecoming.

   That’s Bogart, ably abetted by Alan Jenkins as his dubious stooge, and if you can wade (or fast-forward) through the other stuff, the payoff is rewarding indeed.

   First there’s Marjorie Main as Martin’s weary-unto-death mother, carrying the infamy of her notorious son like a dead baby in her womb. When they meet, we see the first chink in Martin’s tough-guy façade, and Bogie plays it splendidly, like a fighter trying not to show how bad he’s been hurt, taking his punishment and hoping to make the next round.

   When that round comes though, it’s only for Martin to find out his old girlfriend is now a hooker, and not a very classy one at that. As played by Claire Trevor in a moving cameo, her face is a mask of tragedy cast in brass. And Bogart’s face as he realizes the truth is a study in disillusion: disappointment giving way to disgust and disintegration.

   Kingsley writes a small but telling moment into this scene. Anxious to be rid of her, Bogart shoves a wad of money at Trevor, who stashes it away without counting, then asks Martin if he can spare another Twenty! The mix of need and greed in her voice evokes the character as few could, and when she caps it off by asking for one last kiss, for old time’s sake the effect is incredible.

   Director Wyler and the players do what they can with the rest, but it’s all as artificial as the massive and deliberately stagey set built for the film when Producer Sam Goldwyn refused to shoot on location. That said, it’s still worth seeing for Bogie’s bits.

   And yes, the juvenile delinquents in Dead End became stock players at Warner’s as The Dead End Kids, then elsewhere as the East Side Kids and the Little Tough Guys, before settling down at Monogram as The Bowery Boys. Which makes me wonder if Sidney Kingsley ever got any royalties for Bowery Buckaroos.




A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME. Embassy Pictures, 1964. Shelly Winters, Robert Taylor, Cesar Romero, Ralph Taeger, Kaye Ballard, Broderick Crawford, Mickey Shaugnessy, Jessie White, Lisa Seagram, Benny Rubin, Mari Welles, Tom deAndrea, Edy Williams, Connie Gilchrist, J. Pat O’Malley, Hayden Rorke, Roger C. Carmel. Screenplay by Russell Rouse & Charles Greene, based on the autobiography of Polly Adler. Directed by Russell Rouse.

   “We don’t know enough about life to be sad about this.”

   A House is Not a Home, and in this case it isn’t much of a movie either.

   Supposed to be frank and shocking this is mostly tired and trite, unless you are deeply shocked by someone shouting the word “whore” on screen, or by the fact men pay for sex there is nothing much in this that wouldn’t be perfectly at home with the board of censors.

   Better movies had been much racier and more frank in this same period without once having to scream the word “whore,” out loud or repeatedly (and in a tour de force of bad overacting).

   Polish immigrant Polly Adler (Shelly Winters) is poor and innocent (and Winters at this point in the film is a parody of the kind of part she played so well in A Place in the Sun, actually painful to watch), narrating her fall and rise and moral fall in Adler’s own self serving “what’s a girl to do” style.

   After getting in trouble with a guy she is rescued by good guy Bootlegger Frank Costigan (Robert Taylor) a mobster with ties in government and crime who aides Polly in her becoming a famous madam with rich clients and lady like prostitutes who dress well and behave, mostly.

   Innocent Polly just wakes up a madam one day with absolutely no clue how it happened.

   Meanwhile still nice Polly meets bandleader Casey (Ralph Taeger) who she falls tragically in love with much to her later regret.

   No attempt is made to use period costume or clothes, and the sets are few and far between. It might as well be 1964 in most scenes, and this television instead of a movie.

   Mickey Shaughnessy is a crooked cop “Backdoor Reardon” (and no, not one person involved in the film seems to have gotten just how hilarious that is in this context); Broderick Crawford a crooked cop; Cesar Romero Lucky Luciano; Lisa Seagram a prostitute with a drug problem; Roger C. Carmel a drug addicted horn player, Hayden Rorke a crooked lawyer becoming Luciano’s private judge; Kaye Ballard young Polly’s pal in a sweat shop; J. Pat O’Malley a police inspector; and so on.

   In short a blend of old familiar faces and “and then I slept with” film bio.

   “It seems that sex was a common denominator for all stratum of society.”

   Gee, that’s profound. I think most of us figured that out around puberty, but it is nice to know the world’s most famous madam picked up on it. The Happy Hooker, Polly ain’t. By this movie, save for being raped early on, you could draw the conclusion that Polly herself is a virgin, just a poor little golden-hearted darling picked on by all the mean gangsters, politicians, and policemen wanting a cut of the pound of flesh she carves out of her girls lives.

   The screenplay is a paean to Dick and Jane level dialogue, so pretentious and self serving not a single word sounds as if it had ever passed the lips of an actual living human in the real world. Polly’s ghost writer sounds as if he read The Old Curiosity Shop and Fanny Hill over and over to get the tone he wanted.

   Attractive Meri Welles suicide is a highlight/lowlight a moment of overacting by an an under-talent that could end any career. The writing, staging, and Winters hysterics will have you on the floor laughing. The proper reaction is “throw another one in the river and see if they float.”

   You have to show people as human before their fate means anything even in a movie this bad. Welles sudden New Year’s depression and leap from a balcony is staged like a high school production of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, without context and telegraphed so broadly Marconi could read it from his grave.

   Bad movies come and go, this one mostly went, except it had one thing going for it, seems a couple of young songwriters tackled the title song, and when their names were Hal David and Burt Bacharach, the result was far better than anything in the film. “And a house is not a home, unless love is there..” may not be Cole Porter, but it blows anything in this film away.

   No one really gets a career boost from this. Taylor sleepwalks, Winters keeps trying to act as if this was a real movie. Romero tries hard not to be noticed. Everyone else just does their schtick, though Shaugnessy could be prosecuted for mugging in the first degree.

   “You’ve been a madam, you sold flesh. They haven’t made a soap that can wash that away,” Polly is told by Frank (Robert Taylor) who actually opens his eyes to deliver this gem.

   Polly tries desperately to escape her fate when Casey proposes, but Frank’s words ring too true. What is a poor girl to do, but write a bestseller and have something to retire on.

   “In my house full of people I pin my diamonds on loneliness and despair and I will never have a home.”

   Apparently Polly read one too many Cornell Woolrich novels without having learned the point about fate so she madly dances as gangster Frank looks on trapped like a poor canary in her life of sin … “she’s only a bird in a golden cage …”

   And though she would be good again, this is the exact point Winters career became a satire, a parody of what she was at her best.

   As a general rule it should be noted something about the idea of whorehouses brings out the worst in everyone involved in a Hollywood drama. They work well enough in comedy, but get serious and you can wade knee deep in the angst and overacting.

   Do yourself a favor, listen to the title song over the credits and then quickly turn to something else. It is only the only defense against this film.


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