Movie stars & directors


Two EDMUND LOWE Detective Films
Reviewed by David Vineyard.


GUILTY AS HELL. Paramount Pictures, 1932. Edmund Lowe (Russell Kirk), Victor McLaglen (Captain T. R. McKinley), Adrienne Ames (Vera Marsh), Henry Stephenson (Dr. Tindal), Richard Arlen (Frank Marsh). Screenplay Arthur Kober, Frank Partos, based on a play by Daniel N. Rubin. Directed by Erle C. Kenton.

MAD HOLIDAY. MGM, 1935. Edmund Lowe (Philip Trent), Elissa Landi (Peter Dean), Zazu Pitts, Edgar Kennedy, Ted Healey, Edmund Gwenn, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Raymond Hatton. Screenplay Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the story “Murder in a Chinese Theatre” by Joseph Santley. Directed by George B. Seitz.

   If anyone played more detectives in film than Edmund Lowe or appeared in more crime films as a lead actor, you would be hard pressed to find him. The number of his films where he is a detective, secret agent, or criminal is impressive. Even William Powell and Preston Foster, who run him a close second, really don’t come all that close. Lowe even played Philo Vance in The Garden Murder Case.

   These two fast-talking mystery films are a good cross section of his output, not his best (Bombay Mail, Seven Sinners) but not his worst either.

   Guilty as Hell from 1932 is an unusual stylish murder mystery (I don’t know whether to credit director Kenton or cinematographer Karl Struss for the film’s look) featuring Lowe and Victor McLaglen as reporter Russell Kirk and his best friend/greatest rival Captain. T. R. McKinley. Lowe and McLaglen were a popular screen team at the time, McLaglen replacing Louis Wohl, who had been Lowe’s foil in silent films and early talkies.

   McLaglen, who could play dumb or smart, slick or rough, was a good match for Lowe on screen and even when the script is weak, their team-ups are worth catching.

   Here we open with Dr. Tindall (Henry Stephenson) a surgeon known as “Chickels” for his habit of chewing gum while he works, murders his younger and unfaithful wife (no spoiler) in a well shot scene that effectively shows Stephenson’s wife’s face reflected in his glasses while he murders her.

   In short order, playboy Frank Marsh (Richard Arlen) is framed for the crime, convicted, and sentenced to die, all of which is fine with hard-boiled reporter Kirk until he meets Frank’s beautiful sister Vera (Adrienne Ames). Kirk still thinks Frank is guilty but sets out to clear him to win over Vera. Girl-chasing and the rivalry it causes is a running theme in he Lowe/Wohl and the Lowe/McLaglen films.

   The mystery is fairly standard stuff with the usual lapses in logic but this one is handsomely shot with the use of closeups and camera angles and shadows mindful of German Expressionist cinema. The script is rapidly paced, and the back and forth between Lowe and McLaglen well done (“There’s only one thing wrong with this country,” Lowe opines after finding out McLaglen tore up a check they were to share, “they shot the wrong McKinley.”).

   Suffice it to say, the guilty man is caught (relatively cleverly) and the innocent man saved, and rather refreshingly Lowe discovers the girl he risked all for is engaged and gets left in the lurch (another theme common to the team-ups between Lowe and Wohl and McLaglen, no one gets the girl and the bromance in more important than the romance).

   Mad Holiday from 1935 is a mystery comedy clearly trying for a Thin Man vibe, and it almost succeeds, though it doesn’t quite rise to screwball genius.

   Lowe is actor Philip Trent, sick to death of starring in mystery movies playing Shelby Lane, the Philo Vance-like sleuth of the Peter Dean novels. Having just wrapped his latest epic, Trent announces he is sick of Lane and Dean and off to take a cruise. His detective career is over.

   Of course he barely gets on the ship and away from port before a beautiful girl shows up claiming to be in danger and a corpse shows up in this room — only to disappear. That beautiful woman turns out to be Elissa Landi, who writes the Peter Dean books under a pseudonym, teamed with studio PR guy Ted Healey planning to grab a few headlines and get Trent back on the screen as Shelby Lane in her latest bestseller already sold to the studio.

   And wouldn’t you know it, no sooner has Trent outwitted that plot than a real body, Gustav von Seffertitz, shows up dead in his stateroom with a fabulous jewel he was carrying missing. Edgar Kennedy, Sgt. Donovan, who is on board to protect the jewel, is not amused by the Hollywood hi-jinks or the murder and theft.

   His patience for Lowe and Landi is stretched thin to begin with.

   There is a mysterious man in black, a thief (Raymond Hatton), Shelby Lane fan Zazu Pitts and her hungover dog, Von Seffertitz’s valet Edmund Gwenn, the wife (Soo Yen) of a famous Chinese actor (Richard Loo), who claims the jewel is her family’s property stolen during the Boxer Rebellion, and Healey and his stooge (Richard Hakins, not one of the Stooges) to complicate things as well as the attraction/resistance between Lowe and Landi.

   And then, a bit more than halfway through the film there is a twist that makes total sense and elevates the mystery angle of this thing, playing on what even then was the audience’s expectations, based on roles played by character actors. It also provides a reason for Trent to actually turn detective, as he is accused of stealing the jewel as a result and his reputation in tattlers, and leads to the finale in the Chinese theater of the story title.

   This isn’t a great film, but it is charming, moves at a pace, features attractive leads in Lowe and Landi, has a superior cast of supporting actors, and if the mystery is obvious, there is that one twist that turns the film on its head, if only for a moment.

   Lowe, a reliable leading man in films like The Great Impersonation, Scotland Yard, What Price Glory?, The Spider, Chandu the Magician, and many more was still playing detective on screen as late as the nineteen fifties, when he starred in the television incarnation of radio mystery/soap Front-Page Detective. Among his better later film roles were in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah and the comedy Western Heller in Pink Tights with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, but for a time in the thirties he was the go-to actor if you wanted a detective, spy, or slick criminal for your lead.

   At times it almost felt as if there was a rule you had to have Edmund Lowe is a crime or mystery film, and considering his output, it wasn’t a bad rule to adhere to.


Director RICHARD BOLESLAVSKY
by Dan Stumpf


   The highlight of my recent reading has been Way of the Lancer (Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1932) by Richard Boleslavsky and Helen Woodward, an autobiographical novel of Boleslavsky’s experiences (and, I suspect, those of man others that he incorporated and told as his own) for — and against — Russia in the first World War.

   It’s an intriguing account, Boleslavsky was not a Russian but a Pole; his nation had been dominated by Russia since about 1750, and when the Great War got serious, Russia promised Freedom to Poland if her sons would fight for Russia. Austria promised roughly the same thing, so regiments of Poles fought for both sides, against enemies who were often their brothers.

   Boleslavsky describes an interesting vignette off weary, “victorious” Poles escorting even wearier defeated Austrians to POW camps and finding relatives in their midst, tiredly catching up on the news as they slog through the mud to no place in particular.

   Boleslavsky, incidentally, was a Polish soldier, but not a Lancer. He passed the war as a film-make, attached to the Lancers, doing semi-documentary propaganda films. After the War, he gravitated to Hollywood, where he directed some truly remarkable movies, like The Garden of Allah, with Dietrich and Boyer, and the cynical, moving 1936 version of Three Godfathers, and others.

   His Hollywood debut was Rasputin and the Empress (a portrait of the breakdown of Imperial Russia that must have seemed very real to him), the only film to star all three Barrymores. It’s an interesting show, but not a great one. John seems ticked off that he didn’t get to play Rasputin, and sulks through the whole movie with marked disinterest until the scene where he gets to kill Lionel, which is really quite memorable.

   Boleslavsky also directed one of the two Three Stooges movies you should make an effort to see: Fugitive Lovers (MGM, 1933), a dandy little thing about Robert Montgomery as an Escaped Con being pursued with cold precision by C. Henry Gordon, catching a bus with aspiring chorus girl Madge Evans, who is herself being pursued by dumb, possessive, aspiring gangster Nat Pendleton. Also onn board are Ted Healy and his stooges,whose time onscreen is mercifully brief.

   Boleslavsky fills the film with sudden cuts and jarring camera angles that seem avant-garde even today, and make Citizen Kane look antiquated before its time. And he maintains the pace and drama quite nicely throughout, right up to a howling blizzard that had my teeth chattering despite the fact that it was done entirely inside a studio. You should look for this one.

— Reprinted in shortened form from Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.


FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   If you looked for a January column and couldn’t find one, the reason is very simple. There wasn’t any.

   Early in the morning of the day before Christmas I went into the hospital for something relatively minor and was told that I had suffered a silent heart attack and needed bypass surgery. As you can imagine, the news hit me like a ton of bricks. The operation was performed on January 3. I was told afterwards that I came very close to death. I was discharged from the hospital on the 16th of the month and since then have been recuperating at home. I’m getting stronger by the day but am still nowhere near 100%.

   Before my medical adventures began I had written much of what I thought would be my January column. A month later, here it is.

***

   It was more than half a century ago, either 1962 or 1963, an early Sunday morning around 1:00 or 1:30 A.M. I returned home from a date with the first love of my life to find my brothers still up and the TV tuned to the Late Show, or maybe the Late Late Show. The movie looked interesting so I sat down to watch the last 20 minutes. It was about a Nazi spy ring based in a Manhattan skyscraper.

   The spies are holding a young woman prisoner but she manages to get a message out. Feds raid the building. A couple of spies escape into a nearby movie theater. The gun battle with the Feds coincides with a gun battle on the screen. An unlucky moviegoer falls over dead. One spy gets out and into a cab and heads for the Battery, followed by the hero whom I recognized as Robert Cummings.

   They both wind up at the Statue of Liberty. The spy tries to escape again, crawls out onto one of the statue’s arms. Cummings reaches for him, grabs his coat sleeve. The spy starts to fall as Cummings tries to haul him in to safety. Then we get a close-up of the stitches at the shoulder of the spy’s jacket starting to give way. An unearthly scream. The End.

   Recognize the picture? It’s Hitchcock’s Saboteur, made in 1942, back when I was busy being a fetus, roughly twenty years before I caught the end of it on the small screen. Remember the name of the man who played the spy? It was a Broadway actor 27 or 28 years old named Norman Lloyd.

   Now let’s time-travel in both directions at once, forward ten years or so from when Hitchcock made that movie, back a decade or so from when I watched its climax. The year was 1952, or maybe ’53. My parents had recently bought their first TV set and already I was an addict. One Sunday afternoon I happened to be watching the cultural program Omnibus, which was running a made-for-TV movie in five (I think) weekly installments.

   The title was Mr. Lincoln. The voice of the actor playing young Abe was one of the most distinctive I’ve heard in my life: biblical, prophetic, patriarchal. At the end credits I learned his name: Royal Dano. An unusual name, easy to remember. (Trivia question: Anyone know who played Ann Rutledge? It was Joanne Woodward.) I don’t remember noticing who directed the film and the name wouldn’t have meant anything to me at age 9 but, as if you haven’t guessed, it was Norman Lloyd. A cut version is now available on DVD.

   Lloyd was born in 1914, when my parents were small children. His career began in the early 1930s with the left-wing Group Theater. Later he joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and went to Hollywood with the company but returned to New York when the movie Welles was planning got cancelled. Had he stayed awhile longer, he would have had a part in Citizen Kane. As it was, his film debut was in Saboteur, and later he appeared in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Chaplin’s Limelight (1952).

   His first television role was in one of the earliest TV dramas ever broadcast, an experimental program that dates back to 1939. In the late Fifties and early Sixties he served as associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65). He also directed several episodes, usually based on short stories by John Collier, Ray Bradbury, Stanley Ellin, or literary figures like John Cheever and Philip Roth. But he never stopped being an actor, and among today’s audiences he’s perhaps best known for his role as Dr. Auschlander in St. Elsewhere (1982-88) and for playing opposite Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989).

   I bet you thought I’d next give you the year of his death. I can’t. He’s still alive today. At age 102 he’s the oldest working actor in the U.S. and probably in the world. For 75 years he was married to the same woman, who died in 2011, the same year my own wife died. Until recently he played tennis, the game which was his passion for generations. In the 1950s he played regularly with Charlie Chaplin and usually beat him, mainly because Chaplin was too vain to wear his glasses and often lost sight of the ball. His memory remains sharp as ever, and the Internet is full of reminiscences of him by himself and others. If ever there was a person with an awesomely long life and creative career, it’s Norman Lloyd. In the first months of this new year, let’s celebrate him.

***

   I can’t guarantee a March column but my health is improving so nicely that it’s far more likely than not that there will be one. They may never see the column you’re now reading, but my deepest thanks to all the people — doctors, nurses, family, friends – who helped me through this crisis.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   If this column doesn’t appeal to you, don’t blame me. Steve Lewis thought some readers might be interested in my latest book, even though it has nothing to do with our genre. So I’ll start off this month recycling the book’s introduction, which I believe conveys what it’s about, and reveals an aspect of your columnist that may surprise many who think of me as just a mystery wonk.

***

   If you leave out the accident of my birth, the origin of They Called the Shots dates back to 1952. The Korean war was raging overseas, HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy were raging on the home front, the blacklist was on full tilt, and I was nine years young, living in Roselle Park, New Jersey.

   One night my parents, taking me along, went out to an appliance store to buy their first television set. It was, if memory serves, an Admiral with a 12 -inch screen. The price was around $225 or $250. For the next several years that set drew me to it like a magnet.

   In the early Fifties the major movie studios considered TV the enemy, offering for nothing the same product that theaters charged admission for. They wouldn’t allow their old films to be shown on the small screen, and in their current pictures they often wouldn’t allow a set amid the furniture of a living-room scene.

   Growing up in the New York City area, I had access to seven channels: the CBS, NBC and ABC flagship stations (Channels 2,4 and 7 respectively), the short-lived DuMont network, plus three local independents. With the majors boycotting the medium and the number of made-for-TV series rather small, TV programmers starved for material on film had to fall back on the smaller fry among movie-making companies, mainly Republic, Monogram and PRC.

   During the Thirties and Forties those companies had put out an endless stream of B pictures, primarily but not exclusively Westerns, and Republic had also offered dozens of cliffhanger serials. This was the product, interspersed with Hopalong Cassidy movies (out of which William Boyd, the only actor to play Hoppy, made megamillions by buying the rights to those flicks and licensing them to stations across the country) and early made-for-TV series like The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, that kept me glued in front of the set for hours every evening. I became a certified telefreak.

   On that tiny screen I watched movies featuring the exploits of various Western stars of previous decades over and over. Some were trio pictures with groups like The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters and The Rough Riders. Most starred a single hero: Gene Autry, Eddie Dean, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard (Ken s less successful but perhaps more talented brother), Tim McCoy, Jack Randall, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and of course the young John Wayne.

   I got to the point where I could identify at sight dozens of the actors in B Westerns who usually fell to the heroes bullets or fists — Roy Barcroft, Tristram Coffin, Kenne Duncan, I. Stanford Jolley, Charles King, John Merton, Marshall Reed, Hal Taliaferro, Harry Woods, just to name a few at random. Eventually I caught on that the person usually named in a picture s final credit must be important, but what a director did and how he did it I hadn’t the foggiest.

   As I grew older I lost interest in shoot-em-ups and cliffhangers, considering them beneath the notice of a young intellectual such as I fancied myself to be.

   Years slid by. I completed college and law school, passed the bar, and eventually uprooted myself from the east coast to St. Louis where I was invited to become a law professor. And then, slowly but surely, a strange thing happened. I became interested in those old movies again. I had the pleasure of meeting in their golden years some of the actors whose younger incarnations I had watched for hours on end, magnetized by that 12 -inch screen.

   Most important of all, I began to meet and become friends with some of the men whose names were familiar to me from the final credits of those pictures. The ones who called the shots. The directors. I got to watch their films again, sometimes sitting beside them. I got to listen to their stories. Eventually I began to write about them.

   This book is the culmination of that process. It s taken me thousands of hours of viewing time and hundreds of hours of writing time but in my twilight years I still consider the time well spent. I hope I ve communicated what I’ve gotten from all those films, and from the people who made them, in the following pages.

   But perhaps I can spell out here what I’ve looked for, and often found, in pictures of this sort. Reduced to two words, what the first-rate films contain and what the first-rate directors infuse into their films is visual imagination or, in two more words, visual excitement. This quality is the alpha and omega of the kind of movies discussed here.

   Each chapter is self-contained and can be read separately. But many also throw light on other chapters, and to help readers navigate among them, the first time in any chapter the name of a director is mentioned who is the subject of an earlier or later chapter, that name is highlighted.

   For example, in the chapter on William Witney you can see highlighted names like John English or Alan James or Ray Taylor from Bill s point of view, and later you can turn to the chapters on those men and see Bill from their perspective.

   The directors I knew best tend to get the longest and most quote-filled chapters but, because they contributed so much to this book, I want to single them out for mention: in the order of their births, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1893-1987), Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), Thomas Carr (1907-1997), and my closest Hollywood friend, Bill Witney (1915-2002). A few others covered here, like Oliver Drake (1903-1991) and R.G. Springsteen (1904-1989), I knew but not all that well. Others, who died too soon, I never had the pleasure of meeting.

   Every director covered here is dead, and most of them died before the beginning of this century. In a sense this book is an assortment of flowers on their graves. In another sense it brings them back, I hope, to life.

***

   While we’re on the subject of shoot-em-ups, a reader of my last month’s column asked if any of John Creasey’s contributions to that branch of literature got published in the USofA. The answer is Yes. War on the Lazy-K, as by William K. Reilly — one of three bylines under which Creasey turned out (if I’ve counted right) 29 smokeroos for low-on-the-totem-pole English houses like Wright & Brown and Stanley Paul — first appeared in London in 1941, amid the carnage of World War II, and came out over here five years later under the imprint of Phoenix Press.

   Yes, the same Phoenix Press that at the same time was presenting to an indifferent world the novels of that incomparable wackadoodle Harry Stephen Keeler. I am the proud owner of a copy of the Reilly opus, picked up for 50 cents at a YMCA book fair in St. Louis twenty or more years ago. Another copy wound up in the hands of Bill Pronzini, who devotes a couple of pages to it in his tribute to badly written Westerns, Six-Gun in Cheek (1997).

   When I was in Wales back in pre-euro days I pungled up 50 pence apiece for each of several Creasey cactus epics published only in England, but that’s another story. Let’s stick to the one that made it across the pond.

   This one actually has a plot of sorts, but what I find most amazing is that a writer who had never yet visited the U.S. and knew next to nothing about the old West could hammer out so many books of this type in a few days apiece. The narrative passages of Lazy-K are readable enough, although pockmarked with exclamation points and lacking the urgency of the Inspector West and Dr. Palfrey novels Creasey wrote during the same war years.

   But Gad, the dialogue! Just about every one of the horde of characters in this book speaks in dialect—the same wacky dialect for the whole passel of ‘em! “Why’n hell can’t yuh old-timers stop arguin’ among yourselves?” “C’n yuh use a drink?” “Yuh ain’t got a touch of whiskey with yuh, by any chance?” “Yuh’ve heerd me.” The only characters who are spared this form of discourse are the Mexicans. “Thees ees a surprise, Kennedy. I was told that you wair dead.”

   “He wanted to be kept hidden until after Deegby was gone. But undair cover he negotiated with the other outfits.” There’s also one character who’s a Kiowa — or, as Creasey spells it, Kiawa — but him no speakum much. Can you imagine having to remember to misspell so often while pumping out ten or fifteen thousand words a day? What a delight to encounter the occasional rare moment when Creasey blinks and actually spells you y-o-u!

***

   At least one other among Creasey’s posse of pistol-smokers was published over here, but not in book form. Hidden Range (1946), published in England as by Tex Riley, takes up virtually the entire February 1950 issue of Real Western Stories, one of the Columbia chain of ultra-low-budget pulps edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes. I tripped over a copy of this one in a secondhand bookstore somewhere in Ohio and snagged it for another 50 cents.

   A quick look at the invaluable FictionMags Index website revealed a curious fact I hadn’t been aware of before. A year after Lowndes used Hidden Range in Real Western Stories, he used the exact same novel, this time retitled Forgotten Range, in the February 1951 issue of Western Action, another Columbia pulp. He must have been desperate for material that month!

   But could the Index be wrong here? According to other Creasey bibliographies in print and online, Forgotten Range is a different book, published in England as by Tex Riley in 1947. It strikes me as more credible that this is the title Lowndes ran early in 1951. In any event, he had earlier run another Creasey shoot-em-up, this time under the William K. Reilly byline, Brand Him for Boothill! (Western Action, July 1949), but what title and pen name this one sported in England remains a mystery.

   A word which brings us back to what this column is supposed to be about.

***

   Hundreds of Creasey’s crime novels were published in the U.S. from the early 1950s until well after his death in 1973, but only nine appeared here before he became a top name in the genre. Eight of these, chronicling the earliest exploits of Raffles-like John Mannering, a.k.a. The Baron, appeared under Creasey’s Anthony Morton byline between 1937 and 1940, although for some obscure reason the character’s nom de thief on this side of the pond was Blue Mask.

   The ninth, and the only book to bear Creasey’s own name on its spine until he became established over here years later, was Legion of the Lost (1944), one of the early espionage adventures of Dr. Palfrey and his colleagues, offered by a publishing house called Stephen Daye, Inc., which seems to have vanished into the mists a few seconds after it was born.

   At a time when I had little or no idea who Creasey was, I found a nice copy of this rarity in an old used bookstore in Elizabeth, N.J. that was a favorite hangout of mine in my formative years. What did the book set me back? One quarter. A wise investment, yes?

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part Three: Henri-Georges Clouzot
by Walter Albert


   Since I seem to be in a retrospective mood, I will recommend as the best thriller of my recent experience a French film you’re not likely to see at your neighborhood theater or on late-night TV. It’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven), financed by a German producing company and released in occupied France in 1943. Movie-goers whose memories go back to the fifties may remember the great success of two of Clouzot’s films on the art-house circuit, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diaboliques (1955), the latter with its unforgettable body-in-the-bathtub scene.

   Clouzot’s reputation had already been established in France with three films: The Murderer Lives at No. 21 (1942), based on a novel by Belgian writer André Steeman; Le Corbeau; and, one of my other favorites, Quai des Orfevres (1947), released in this country as Jenny Lamour and with a fine cast headed by Louis Jouvet, one of France’s legendary actor-directors.

   Le Corbeau was originally conceived by writer Louis Chavance in 1937 (effectively taking care of the later charge that the film was written to put the French in the worst possible light) and was based on an incident involving the writing of poison-pen letters in Marseilles. In Clouzot’s film, the anecdote which serves as the basic narrative thread is only a pretext to allow him to film a pessimistic study of provincial life in which everyone is hiding something and is a likely suspect for the writer who signs himself as “le Corbeau.”

   The initial letters expose a relationship between an idealistic doctor, Rémy Germain (played by Pierre Fresnay) and the wife of his respected elder colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Vorzet, but before the movie reaches its disturbing conclusion 850 letters have indicted what appears to be just about everybody of any importance in St. Robin.

   Clouzot has been compared to Hitchcock in his ability to play skillfully on the spectators’ nerves, but Clouzot has none of the wit of the British filmmaker, and the town seems to be tainted by a slow rot that even the exposure of the identity of the Raven will not remove. (Shadow of a Doubt is closest in tone to Le Corbeau, but the basic goodness of at least some of Hitchcock’s characters does not become suspect.)

   With his camera menacing every character’s movements, shadows mimic the black bird’s shape until, at the end, a veiled avenger, clothed in white, is costumed and photographed as a mocking parody of the bird of death.

   Two sequences deserve special note: a funeral cortege for the victim of the poison-pen letters, with superbly detailed close-ups of the townspeople silently watching the procession as the mourners step over and around a letter that has fallen from the hearse; and the flight of the chief suspect down empty streets invaded by the threatening shouts of an unseen mob, growing in intensity until glass shatters in her room where she has taken refuge and forces her to rush out into the arms of waiting authorities.

   And, in a scene which serves as a key to Clouzot’s intentions, the investigator-psychiatrist Vorzet uses a slowly swinging lamp to demonstrate to Dr. Germain our ambivalent demonic/angelic nature in a relentless alternating of light and shadow that is ironically descriptive of the director’s nightmare vision.

   Georges Méliès (in Part One), Tod Browning (in Part Two), and now Henri-Georges Clouzot: their methods may differ and they are not similar stylistically, but they are all accomplished directors,who use the camera to deceive and mystify audiences. Welles may be the first and, perhaps, the best of film magicians, but this marvelous theater of illusions that is film has many rooms, and who knows what delightful or terrifying furnishings we shall find behind the next door we open?

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.


LE CORBEAU. Continental Films/Films Sonores Tobis, France, 1943. Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, Héléna Manson, Jeanne Fusier-Gir, Sylvie. Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot.

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part Two: Tod Browning
by Walter Albert


   Méliès’ films [see Part One of this three-part essay] be thought of as marginal to films of mystery and detection, but not if one remembers the many writers and directors of mystery films who have either been accomplished magicians or interested in magic and who have made use of this in their films.

   Tod Browning was a director who used theatrical illusion in several of his best films, and the rarely seen Miracles for Sale (MGM, 1939), based on Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, makes extensive use of magic in a suspenseful melodrama of stage magicians and psychic phenomena.

   Robert Young does a competent job as Michael Morgan, a re-named Rawson Merlini, who has unaccountably acquired a folksy father played by Frank Craven in his best Our Town style. (I wonder if MGM didn’t entertain some faint hope that this film might spawn a series with Young/Craven sharing in some of the popularity of the Ellery Queen father-son duo.)

   It’s a well-produced film in which Morgan, through damsel-in-distress Judy Barkley (played by Florence Rice), becomes involved in spiritualism and murder, but the spookiness of the premise is undercut by some conventional thirties’ farce.

   There is a seance that has some of the style — and chills — of Browning’s better work, and fanciers of such things will be interested to see Gloria Holden (the daughter of the underrated Dracula’s Daughter) in another of her frozen-face roles but with none of the sexual perversity that made her playing in the earlier film more interesting.

   Miracles for Sale comes off as a glossy, entertaining swan song for Browning, and it is unfortunate that most people now know his work through Dracula, which is his least characteristic film and far from his best.

   You will not find in Miracles for Sale the brilliance of Freaks (with its superb bridal party sequence), but it’s an accomplished bit of directing and should not be relegated to a footnote in a history of his career.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

MIRACLES FOR SALE. MGM, 1939. Robert Young, Florence Rice, Frank Craven, Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Cliff Clark, Astrid Allwyn. Based on the book Death from a Top Hat, by Clayton Rawson. Director: Tod Browning.

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part One: Georges Méliès
by Walter Albert


   One of the “givens” of film history is that French director Georges Méliès, a magician who turned his talents from stage to film enchantments, is one of the great film innovators. In my surveys of French films, I have always dutifully shown Méliès’ Trip to the Moon (1902) and talked glibly of the importance of his work.

   I was only repeating standard film history, and I had no real basis for believing it until this past weekend when I attended an extraordinary event sponsored by the film section of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute.

   Méliès’ granddaughter, Madeleine Malthète-Méliès, came to Pittsburgh to present three different programs of his films with piano accompaniment by Eric Leguen. I was able to see thirty-one of the forty-seven films she screened, including four that were hand-tinted, and what I saw on those two rainy, chilly October evenings was a revelation.

   In the dozen years from about 1898 to 1910 that Méliès was producing and directing, he made over five hundred short films. His family has been able to assemble and restore only about 150, so the series we were shown represents about one third of the surviving films.

   Working before the era of the feature-length films that were to dominate world production after 1912, Méliès drew on his experience as a stage illusionist and his incomparable visual imagination.

   Disguises and transformations abound in his films, and he devised the dissolve, fade, and superimposed image to make his fantastic tricks possible. The prints are not always properly defined, and some of them are not complete, but the witty inventions from his apparently inexhaustible box of illusions are still a delight.

   What is particularly striking about Méliès’ films is their pacing, a perfectly choreographed comic rhythm that is most impressive when Méliès himself is performing.

   For director-producer-writer Méliès was also a comic actor of rare skill, with a good-natured pleasure in fooling an audience that is still infectious after eighty years. He was very fond of playing the role of the Devil, and the final film of the series, Satan in Prison (1907), was a perfect capstone to the screenings.

   In this dazzling film, the Devil-Méliès furnishes a bare cell out of his cape, complete to a lovely lady toasted at a candlelight midnight supper. When they are surprised by her jealous husband, she collapses into a heap of crumpled fabric in one of the most magical of Méliès’ effects.

   Then, in a furious reverse movement, the Devil strips the room and, disappearing behind the cape, leaps toward the rear wall where the cape suddenly hangs suspended from two nails and, when it is pulled down, exposes a bare wall.

   I mentioned to Madame Malthète-Méliès my pleasure in her grandfather’s good humour, and she replied — her entire face lighting up — that even after he had lost everything else, he never lost his humour and was always playing the prankster, pulling innumerable cigarettes out of her ear.

   In his last years (he died in 1938) Méliès operated a toy shop in one of the Parisian train stations, but what find most painful is the anecdote of the evening that Méliès burned all of his negatives in the garden of his Montreuil home. Fortunately, prints have survived, but those wasted years when he was eclipsed by a generation of gifted comedians — all of whom drew upon his routines and inventions — is, I think, one of the great tragedies of film history.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

THE POWELL TOUCH
by Walter Albert


   In 1935 and 1936, William Powell followed his 1934 starring role in MGM’s The Thin Man with two RKO comedy-mysteries, Star of Midnight and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, both of them directed by Stephen Roberts.

   In Bradford Jean Arthur is the ex-Mrs. Bradford who turns up at the beginning of the film to have physician Bradford (Powell) served a subpoena for non-payment of alimony; in Star, Ginger Rogers is Donna Manton, a social butterfly in love with lawyer Powell who claims to have more fun solving cases than trying them and whose friends consider him to be a combination of Charlie Chan, Philo Vance and the Sphinx.

   Bradford is a racetrack mystery and Star a Broadway mystery, both versions of the classic form of amateur detective considered by less-than-bright homicide detectives to be a prime suspect in a murder case.

   Bradford has the more original conclusion with the suspects invited to a meeting at which a film reveals the murderer’s identity, but Star is better paced and has some more polished acting in secondary roles, particularly by Vivian Oakland as a former girlfriend of Powell’s and Gene Lockhart as a somewhat unconventional butler who didn’t do it but is drafted for some ironic sleuthing.

   Arthur and Rogers, both fine actress/comediennes, are delightful foils for Powell’s stylish drollery and each has at least one scene that is a standout: Arthur in a brilliant closing sequence and Rogers in a comic tum as she foils Oakland’s play for Powell.

   Powell’s earliest appearance as an urbane amateur detective was in The Canary Murder Case, in which Jean Arthur also appeared, and by 1935 there was no more adept player of drawing-room comedy-mysteries.

   The actor is probably no less accomplished in Bradford and Star than he is in The Thin Man, but it is certainly debatable whether, as William Everson maintains in The Detective in Film (Citadel, 1972), The Thin Man is “almost” equaled by the two lesser known movies.

   The level of craftsmanship in all three of the films is very high, but I think that the decisive elements in the superiority of The Thin Man — and in its continuing popularity — are the inspired pairing of Myrna Loy, who matches Powell’s arch style with her own elegant delivery and movement, and first-rate scripting by Albert Goodrich and Frances Hackett, and directing by W.S. Van Dyck.

   Script, direction, and performance come together in an extraordinary tour-de-force that climaxes the film. The wrapup party sequence in The Thin Man still dazzles as Powell delivers what is in effect an extended monologue and it is this perfectly timed scene, a classic example of the “cosy” mystery denouement, that, for me, makes The Thin Man the success that Bradford and Star achieve only in part.

   Both actresses were on the verge of major stardom when they appeared with Powell. Loy would, of course, continue the role of Nora Charles in five sequels, and also appear in films like The Great Ziegfield, The Rains Came, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

   The Thin Man is usually seen as the one in which Loy escaped type casting as an Oriental temptress — most notably as the daughter of Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) — but non-Oriental roles in films like Love Me Tonight (1932), Topaze (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) suggest that her film roles were far more varied than they are usually thought to have been.

   An oddity in the casting of Arthur is that she had played in three Fu Manchu films (in 1929 and 1930) and in the early thirties was better known as an actress in melodramas than as the star of comedy/dramas as she was subsequently to be.

   By an equally ironic reversal, Rogers, after her dizzying success with Fred Astaire, would establish herself as a dramatic actress in the late thirties and forties, but with Astaire and with Powell she demonstrates an apparently natural comedic talent and a freshness that makes her performances with them among her most engaging.

   [Almost eighty years] after their original release dates, The Thin Man and the two “forgotten” films, Star and Bradford, are entertainments that largely defy the passage of time. In addition, all three films — and one must add to the list James Whale’s brilliant 1935 baroque send-up of the drawing-room mystery, Remember Last Night? — are a tribute to the popularity of the amateur sleuth mystery in the 1930s and to the professional and artistic integrity of this genre.

   The Thin Man gains some lustre in the context of related films but also should remind us that it operated out of a tradition that still gives pleasure for its wit and invention and, in particular, celebrates the career of one of the screen’s most distinguished player of amateur detectives, William Powell.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.


DANE CLARK CONFIDENTIAL, PART 1
by Curt Evans


BLACKOUT. Hammer Films, UK, 1954. Lippert Pictures, US, 1954. Originally released in the UK as Murder by Proxy. Dane Clark, Belinda Lee, Betty Ann Davies, Eleanor Summerfield, Andrew Osborn. Based on the novel Gold Coast Nocturne by Helen Nielsen. Director: Terence Fisher.

   Dane Clark (1912-1998) is one of those actors that you, if you are, as I am, in middle age, have almost assuredly seen on television earlier in your life, even if you don’t match the name with the face. I recall him playing an FBI agent in Season One of Angela Lansbury’s beloved mystery series, Murder She Wrote, the “Watson” in that episode to Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. I don’t know why I remember this character, but I suppose I have to chalk it up to Clark’s acting skills, having seen some of his other genre film work of late. He’s good!

   Dane Clark was known in the 1940s as the “B-list John Garfield,” but I don’t believe this appellation does him justice. (It’s a bit like when the great Ida Lupino is dismissed as the “poor man’s Bette Davis.”) Dane Clark was his own man. Both John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913) and Dane Clark (born Bernard Zanville in 1912) were Jews from New York City, but Clark came of much more comfortable circumstances than Garfield, graduating from Cornell and getting a law degree before ending up in acting (after stints in boxing, baseball, construction, sales and sculptor’s modeling — he had found lawyers weren’t doing too well in the Depression either).

   In 1941 Clark married the artist and sculptor Margot Yoder (a distant relative of my family) and the next year appeared in several films (uncredited): The Pride of the Yankees (“Fraternity Boy”); Wake Island (“Sparks”); and, most notably, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (“Henry Sloss”).

   By the end of World War II Clark was getting bigger roles, including that of the Bohemian artist in the Bette Davis identical twins melodrama A Stolen Life (1946); the escaped convict who has a desperate romance with Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947); and, in the Oscar-nominated film Moonrise (1948), the tormented Danny Hawkins, who is in love with gorgeous Gail Russell and has, most inconveniently, killed her fiancee (played, very briefly, by Lloyd Brides). Today Moonrise pops up on lists of greatest noir films though regrettably it’s not available on DVD (you can see on it Amazon instant video, however).

   If you look around, you should be able to find on DVD some of Clark’s work as a lead actor in late 1940s and 1950s crime films (when he really came into his own as an actor), including Without Honor (1949), Backfire (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950; screenplay by Eric Ambler), Gunman in the Streets (1950, with Simone Signoret), Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), Blackout (1954; Murder by Proxy in UK), Paid to Kill (1954; Five Days in UK), Port of Hell (1954), The Toughest Man Alive (1955) and The Man Is Armed (1956).

   I’ve recently seen several of the above films, the first being, for the purpose of this review, Blackout.

   Blackout, as I have discussed on my own blog, is an English adaptation of Helen Nielsen’s Chicago-set hard-boiled crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951). Although transferring the setting from Chicago to London is slightly awkward, to be sure, overall I was really rather impressed with this film. It is quite faithful to the novel, even using some of the dialogue.

   As the beleaguered hero, Casey Morrow, an American out to solve a murder he wakes up to discover he’s suspected of having committed, Dane Clark is excellent, as are the two lead women, Belinda Lee (sexy blonde heiress Phyllis Brunner) and Eleanor Summerfield (wisecracking artist Maggie Doone). A couple crucial supporting performances could have been stronger, but overall I would quite recommend this film.

       TO BE CONTINUED


Editorial Comment:   This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE FORTY-NINERS

THE FORTY-NINERS. Allied Artists / formerly Monogram, 1954. “Wild Bill” Elliott, Virginia Grey, Harry Morgan, John Doucette, Lane Bradford. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Directed by Thomas Carr.

   But first a word about Wild Bill Elliott, born Gordon Nance, who started out his career at Columbia under the name Gordon Elliott as an all-purpose and mostly uncredited supporting player until he landed the lead in the 1938 serial The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which led to a series of low-budget westerns at Columbia, billed as Wild Bill Elliott and sometimes playing Hickok in adventures that, as you might expect, had little to do with the actual James Butler Hickok.

   Many of these were a cut above average, and a few, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, even artistic at times, but in ’43 he left Columbia for Republic. There the budgets were bigger and the films generally more fun, but it was still a loss in prestige to go from the smallest of the Major studios to the biggest of the Minors, which was Republic’s place in Hollywood’s caste system.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   Republic even tried to lift Elliott out of the “B” ranks for a time, upping his budgets, offering more “adult” story lines and dropping the “Wild” from his billing, but eventually he returned to “B” status. His last film at Republic, The Showdown, was shot entirely on studio sets with back projection, reflecting Republic’s growing disinterest in the budget prairie film in general.

   At which point Elliott moved to Monogram, which was definitely a step down, but surprisingly his films here got even more interesting — not better made, but with distinctly off-beat characterizations and story lines.

Elliott himself, billed once again as “Wild Bill Elliott” smoked and drank, cussed now and then, and wasn’t above dealing out nastiness when called for. He even played an occasional outlaw, though reformed by film’s end, and in one movie he beats information out of a bad guy while holding him at gunpoint—hardly sporting, that, and unheard of in the better class of B westerns.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   In 1955 even Monogram tired of the low-budget western and moved Elliott into a series of detective stories, but Elliott had ended his sagebrush career with a flourish of sorts, as borne out in The Forty-Niners.

   This starts out with Dragnet-style voice-over narration, and when I say “Dragnet-style” I mean you can practically hear Jack Webb’s flat monotone in Wild Bill Elliott’s voice. Her gives dates and times, tosses in cop-comments like “It was a routine assignment” and even synopsises the outcomes in Court.

   The wonder is that writer Daniel Ullman (who made kind of a specialty out of detective/westerns) still wrought a perfectly fine western out of all this.

   Wild Bill plays a U.S. Marshall cold on the trail of the owlhoots who ambushed a fellow-lawman. His only lead is a gambler (played by Harry Morgan, who also featured in Elliott’s last Republic picture) who can lead him to the baddies as long as he doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing. Morgan plays the kind of good/bad guy later personified by the likes of Arthur Kennedy, and he does it pretty well, grinning and joking as he cheats at cards and blackmails killers who are now comfortably ensconced as respectable citizens.

   His only weakness is a soft heart for the gal he left behind and an aversion to cold-blooded murder when that becomes necessary to eliminate Elliott, whom he’s come to respect and admire. It’s an interesting part in a movie that moves along at a brisk clip, with plenty of action and enough curves in the plot to keep you guessing, even as you realize the pre-ordained outcome dictated by the genre, and reflecting that as Wild Bill took his last ride into the sunset, he did it with a certain amount of style and the quiet dignity that becomes a western hero — even a cut-rate hero ending his days in the B-movies.

THE FORTY-NINERS

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