Films: Drama/Romance



ON THE WATERFRONT. Columbia, 1954. With Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden. Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger. Written by Budd Schulberg. Directed by Elia Kazan.

THE HARDER THEY FALL. Columbia, 1956. With Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, and Jan Sterling. Written by Budd Schulberg. Directed by Mark Robson.

   I should not be surprised that two movies from the same studio, with the same writer, should feel so similar, but I watched these back-to-back, and it was like having the same dream twice.

   Both films involve corrupt bosses enriching themselves by exploiting simple (and simple-minded) men who make a living by brute strength. In Waterfront it’s longshoremen jumping to the tune of Lee J. Cobb as Union Boss Johnny Friendly; Fall offers Rod Steiger as Nick Benko, Fight Promoter, but they’re both basically the same character: venal, ruthless, and possessed of a sublime indifference to the pain of others.

   But the similarities don’t end there — they’re just beginning. Early on in both films, someone who crosses the bosses meets an untimely and violent end. More to the point of the narrative, both feature a protagonist who works for the Boss, uneasy about things he sees going on, but compromised by his position in the organization:

   Waterfront’s Terry Malloy (Brando) has a brother (Rod Steiger) in Cobbs’s inner circle; in Fall, Bogart is a well-respected (but out-of-work) sportswriter, helping Steiger (again) build up odds on an oversized Bum, but both men are essentially hiring themselves out as tools to enable the exploitation of others. And in both movies, the drama builds as our heroes begin to ask themselves “What kind of tool am I?”

   Sorry about that. But the question never is satisfactorily answered in either film. In both cases, they manufacture dramatic crises to provide a “Movie-Ending” that rings palpably false — in my ears, anyway. Schulberg and Kazan don’t explain how Terry Molloy, shunned for squealing and avoided for safety’s sake one minute, becomes the rallying point for the dock workers after he gets his ass whupped by Cobb’s goons. But the ending of Fall is even worse than that, with Bogart sitting down at his typewriter to do an exposé of “The Boxing Racket.”

   I hasten to add that these unsatisfactory (to me) finales come late in the films, too late to spoil a couple of very watchable movies. On the Waterfront is an acknowledged classic, and The Harder They Fall is an underrated gem. Maybe not a spectacular coda to a career like Bogart’s but not bad at all.

   I want to say something about the acting. Waterfront was Brando’s sixth film, and by now he was comfortable on the screen, but still visibly hard-working. He’s also surrounded by actors from the same school where he learned his craft, and the interplay between them is like watching a well-oiled machine operating perfectly.

   But I find the thesping in Harder more fun to watch. Rod Steiger attacks his part with real method-madness: animated, powerful, and vigorously phony; his performance is fascinating to watch, but obviously a performance.

   Bogart, in his seventy-fifth and final film, simply walks across the screen and dominates it effortlessly with the assurance of an established Star. Acting never enters into it; he simply is Bogart. And the clash of the two actors and the two styles brings a riveting intensity to their roles that is no less impressive for having probably been inadvertent.



MURRAY FORBES – Hollow Triumph. Ziff-Davis, hardcover, 1946. Stark House, trade paperback, 2023.

HOLLOW TRIUMPH. Eagle-Lion, 1948. Also released as The Scar (Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett; directors: Steve Sekely, Paul Henreid).

   Murray Forbes’ Hollow Triumph  has an interesting idea for a book: Henry Mueller is a failed medical student and small-time chiseler with an over-sized ego, fresh out of prison when he discovers he bears an amazing resemblance to Viktor Bartok, a prominent psychologist.

   Readers of this sort of thing will figure at once that Mueller will kill Bartok and take his place, and that’s pretty much what happens, but Forbes gives it a cute twist: Mueller’s impersonation becomes a greater success than he figured on (The American Dream: if you fail at one thing, re-invent yourself as something else.) and as time passes, he wins even greater fortune and honor… and he can’t stand the fact that the murdered man is getting all the credit for his killer’s work: Mueller rubbed out Bartok, but it was Mueller who got erased, and his overweening pride leads him to….

   It’s a clever thought, and somebody should write a book about it someday; Murray Forbes just didn’t seem too interested. Time and again he just tells us about things when he should be showing them. So we get lines like “She felt suspicious,” or “He was scared,” which ain’t exactly deathless prose. There are even points where Forbes seem to lose interest entirely, and instead of storytelling, he resorts to synopsis, resulting in passages like, “He went to New York to received the honor, then came back and continued work with his patients …”

   I kept reading, but I’m not sure why.

   Fans of Old Time Radio may recall Forbes as an actor on Ma Perkins and other programs, but this was his only novel, and in 1948 the Movies bought it, discarded most of the plot, noired up the rest, and released it under the original title and as The Scar. Like Forbes’ writing Paul Henreid’s acting is just perfunctory, but there’s fine photography by john Alton, and Daniel Fuchs’ script makes intelligent use of a plot twist that would have been a facile punch-line in lesser hands.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #34, September 2004.


THE UPTURNED GLASS. General Film Distributors, UK, 1947. Universal-International, US, 1947. James Mason, Rosamund John, Pamela Mason (as Pamela Kellino), Ann Stephens, Brefni O’Rorke. Screenplay: John Monaghan and Pamela Kellino, based on a story by the former. . Director: Lawrence Huntington. Currently streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of their “gothic noir” collection.

   Dr. Michael Joyce, played quite earnestly and effectively by James Mason in one of his last few films he made in the UK, is not only a noted brain surgeon, but he often gives lectures at the university as an expert in criminology. It is in the latter role that the movie begins. The theme for his presentation is that murders can be done for rational reasons by people who are quite sane. To demonstrate the point, he tells the students of just such an instance.

   It quickly becomes apparent to the viewers that the killer in the story he tells is himself, related almost entirely in flashback. It’s an unusual structure for telling a tale, narrating as he does how it all came about, with himself playing the primary character. After he saves a young girl from going blind, he finds himself falling in love with the child’s mother, whose husband’s job keeps him long distances from home for long periods of time.

   Realizing the probable folly of their ways, they break off the affair. Soon thereafter, however, the woman in the case is found dead, having jumped to her death (possibly an accident) from a second floor window to a brick courtyard below. Joyce has another thought. Could she have been pushed? And could the pusher be the dead woman’s sister-in-law? And if so, should Joyce take matters into his own hands?

   All of the above takes up perhaps the first two-thirds of the movie, which while academically interesting is also as slow as molasses on a chily day. But with thirty minutes to go, the story suddenly shifts, catching the unwary viewer by surprise (me), and the noir nature of tale clicks in.

   It’s almost good enough to make the first hour or so worth the wait. I’m still thinking about that. If it hadn’t been James Mason in the part, twenty minutes would have more than enough time to start thinking about finding something else to do.

   And in any case, the ending does make a good fit with the beginning. Go back and read the first paragraph of this review again.

   Various reviewers on IMDb have tried to explain the title, with varying but probably futile success. The movie began its life as a story about the Bronte sisters, but when they decided it wasn’t working, they scrapped the whole thing and rewrote it from scratch, keeping only the title.


. Miramax,1998. Matt Damon. Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Martin Landau, Famke Janssen. Directed by John Dahl.

   Included in the long list of things I didn’t know before, here is the definition of the work “rounder” as used in the title of this film: “a person traveling around from city to city seeking high-stakes card games.”

   It turns out, at least in this case, that a movie about poker players follows the same template as many a film about other sporting events, be they boxing, baseball, basketball and so on: protagonist loses big in the first twenty minutes, followed by a long struggle to recoup and get back in shape for a rematch, then of course the rematch, and (giving the ending completely away, perhaps) eventual victory.

   Note the use of my word “perhaps.” It is intentional.

   Poker games differ, perhaps, from the other sports I used as similar examples in that there is very little physical activity during the course of one. (There may be some afterward, however, warranted or not).

   There are two primary “heroes” in The Rounders. Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) who is both a young law student and an inveterate poker player, and his friend Worm (Edward Norton) who has just been released from prison, complete with debts incurred from before incarceration, plus interest. Object: find games to play to clear Worm with the mob, in spite of Mike’s promise to his live-in girl friend (Gretchen Mol) to stay clear of any such activity.

   When you’re addicted, promises are hard to keep, and of course Worm is a friend.

   Mike’s approach to poker to win by playing well. Worm can’t stop taking chances, just for the thrill of it, and thereby lies the tale.

   If you take me as a prime example, you can watch this movie, beautifully photographed in the dingiest byways of 1990s Manhattan (not a contradiction), without knowing anything about the rules of the various games played throughout the film. It might have helped, but once you realize what the basic template is that constitutes the structure of the whole setup and how it is (probably) going to turn out, you can skip the details.

   One last thought. If you would like to know a basic axiom of pick-up card games, consider this as a basic truth: “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.”

CLUB HAVANA. PRC, 1946. Tom Neal, Margaret Lindsay, Isabelita (Lita Baron), Marc Lawrence, Ernest Truex. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Currently available on YouTube (see below).

   A typical night at a Latin-American night club, with lots of intertwined stories: young love, a broken heart or two, attempted suicide – and a piano player who can break a gambler’s alibi for the slaying of a showgirl, and calls the police.

   The budget was skimpy. No expensive location shots here. All the action takes place in the night club or just outside the front door. I could have done without the floor show; it’s the characters that make the story, brought to a smashup conclusion.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.




GUERRILLAS IN PINK LACE. Mont Productions, 1964. George Montgomery, Valerie Varda, Joan Shawnlee. Screenplay by Fred Grofe Jr. Directed by George Montgomery. Currently available on YouTube (see below).

   The movie is bad.

   Bad doesn’t begin to describe it.

   The color photography is washed out. The acting is uniformly bad. The direction is ham-handed. The plot is ludicrous, bordering on racist tropes from twenty years earlier. Sexist doesn’t begin to describe it; there isn’t a woman in it credited with so much as a single brain cell. Sue Ann Langdon or Sherry North could have played every important female in the cast in different wigs, and probably should have.

   Nothing works from the goofy score, to the slightly less sexy for wear guerrillas in pink lace from the title, and there’s not really nudity in it considering it’s only possible reason for existing is sexploitation. There is one broadly slapstick swimming scene for Joan Shawnlee as a brainless brunette nude in the water trying to snatch her bra hooked on a Japanese water can while Murphy and the girls watch helpless, but that’s all the tease this film as to offer.

   And you know what?

   The stupid mess is fun.

   Stupid fun, but fun.

   You see, conman and unlucky gambler Murphy (George Montgomery) is in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor and down on his luck replete with a hangover and black eye, when Father Osgood (not Jim Montgomery, as IMDb insists, but Torn Thatcher) shows up. Father Osgood has a pass to be flown out that day, but he wants to stay behind and help his parishioners face the hardships of Japanese occupation.

   Murphy, of course, agrees to help him.

   He steals a cassock, a pair of glasses, and the Pass and manages to catch a ride to the airport with a bus load of exotic dancers whose boss has talked an officer into a pass. For Murphy it’s a fairly delightful farewell to Manila until the Japanese shoot down the plane.

   Only Murphy and the girls survive and end up on the small island of San Miguel where Murphy, who the girls still believe to be the courageous and Godly Father Osgood, all fine and well and rather cozy until it turns out there are Japanese on the island.

   Two Japanese specifically, an officer and a soldier keeping a radio observation outpost, a fat stupid officer and a cross-dressing (as a geisha girl to sing to the officer while Murphy steals from them and uses their radio to contact the Navy) idiot much put on soldier.

   Laurel and Hardy, Japanese soldiers.

   So while the ladies bathe and exercise and bemoan, Murphy is a man of God and not available, and surprisingly show less skin than the Japanese soldiers, and Murphy steals the Japanese blind and plots to get close to the radio to get a second message out after his initial raid, there is no real threat.

   And then of course the Japanese army shows up and all bets are off.

   Montgomery was a reliable and fairly popular leading man through the Forties into the early Sixties where he moved briefly to the small screen (Cimmaron) and then made several low budget adventure film in the Philippines (this was the third after Huk and The Iron Claw). He was one of the men suspected to be the Masked Rider of the Plains in the Republic serial The Lone Ranger, and again in The Masked Marvel, he was soon co-starring as a poor man’s John Payne opposite the likes of Ginger Rogers (Roxie Hart), cast as Philip Marlowe in The Brasher Doubloon, and in numerous adventure, comedy, and other films.

   In the Fifties he moved primarily into Westerns with some success (Cripple Creek, The Texas Rangers) and was married to singer Diana Shore. He continued to act until 1988, but had long since become popular and respected as a maker of fine furniture.

   Back on San Miguel, the small island, Murphy and the women decided to go out like heroes rather than run from the Japanese. They strip Japanese uniforms off soldiers they knock unconscious, sneak into the base, steal dynamite, and light up the night with an attack that consists of nothing but tossing sticks of dynamite into the camp in the dark among the panicking troops.

   And when they wake up the next morning they find the Japanese of decamped in the night even leaving the radio behind.

   The guerrillas in pink lace have won the battle of San Miguel.

   Murphy finds himself a Major in charge of special operations of San Miguel with his “army” commended for their skills and bravery, but the girls have just found out Murphy is no priest and…

   Well, they’ve been on the island for a while…

   If I’ve spoiled this for you, believe me, the plot is telegraphed in the title. This is no Westward the Women or Guns of Fort Petticoat. None of the cast so much as lose a nail despite the plane crash and living in the jungle.

   Well, one woman gets her hair twisted in a bush. I guess that was traumatic, but as a dramatic high point, it’s fairly lame.

   And there it stands, stupid, badly written, sexist, racist (though no one is much smarter than the Japanese), inexpertly directed by Montgomery (who did better on television and elsewhere), mostly badly acted (Montgomery does manage a kind of goofy charm as Murphy — at least to me) never delivering on the sex, or the comedy, much less the adventure, just an awful movie.

   But, like some shaggy, hair knotted, smelly, overly friendly dogs, I feel a certain good will towards it. Give it a scratch behind the ears — just be sure you wash your hands afterward.

   You wouldn’t want this dog to give you fleas.

   It probably would, and frankly I wouldn’t bet against an STD or two.




BUDD SCHULBERG – The Harder They Fall. Random House, hardcover, 1947. Paperback reprints include Bantam 707, October 1949, and Signet, 1968.

THE HARDER THEY FALL. Columbia Pictures, 1956. Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling, Mike Lane, Max Baer, Jersey Joe Walcott, Edward Andrews, Harold J. Stone, Carlos Montalban, Nehemiah Persof. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, based on the novel by Budd Schulberg. Directed by Mark Robson.

   Eddie Lewis is press agent for the boxing interests of mob boss Nick Latka. Eddie still has some fantasies about being a ‘real’ writer someday. But for now, he’s getting paid a lot of dough and a percentage to hype up whatever fighter the mob tells him to.

   His newest assignment, however, promises to be harder that all of the others: hyping Man Mountain Toro Molina, Giant of the Andes (based on real life ‘boxer’ Primo Carnera). Molina (as well as Carnera) is 6’7”, 275 pounds. Slow as sludge, with a glass jaw and punches that couldn’t puncture a balloon.

   Molina is a pituitary case, with a body enlarged by glands and muscle bound by a life of lifting wine barrels in Argentina.

   Eddie expresses his concerns about hyping this oafish goon. But Nick, the Boss, reassures him (reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst’s “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”) you hype the fighter, I’ll make sure he wins the fights.

   From there it’s one fixed fight after another, building up the hype machine, praying on the gullibility of the average fan and the salability of the average reporter.

   And then, when he finally meets a legit fighter that can’t be bought (Max Baer — both in reality in the Max Baer/Primo Carnera fight as well as in the film where Max Baer reprises his role as destroyer of fake fighters), the mob is happy enough to take the 9-5 odds and lay their money on Baer for the win. Carnera/Molina is decimated in the Max Baer fight (in the book he’s named Buddy Stein — in the film Buddy Brannen).

   The book qualifies as noir. There’s nothing redemptive. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. Even the pummeling of Molina is such an absolute decimation and destruction of a basically decent, stupid ox that there’s no schadenfreude to enjoy. Everyone is bought and sold. And after the fight, when ‘El Toro’ decides he’s ready to quit and go home, he’s told that after subtracting all expenses that his total take (for his entire boxing career) amounts to $49.70.

   In the film, when Bogart finds out about this affront to human decency, he gives his entire take to Molina ($16,000). In the book, Eddie Lewis only offers Molina $5,000 — which makes a lot more sense as Eddie does everything in half-measures. In the book, Molina rejects the filthy lucre. In the film, Molina gratefully accepts: At least the world has one true friend!

   In the book, Eddie’s girlfriend dumps him: sick of his hypocrisy and his pretense of being better than the trash he traffics. In the film, Eddie is married and his wife stands by his side, nudging him lovingly towards truth, justice and the America Way.

   The book ends with Eddie in bed with a whore. The movie, with Bogart standing up to corruption: The Harder They Fall in the film is a double entendre referring both to the collapse in the ring of Man Mountain and to Eddie’s outing of mafia corruption in the Free Press! Eddie’s gonna singlehandedly bring down mafia fight fixing! Bogart reprises his role of Rick in Casablanca. Bogart’s corruption is only a pose. Deep down he’s clean and pure and strong. The final image has his devoted wife placing a tea cup and saucer lovingly beside his Remington as he types his expose.

   It’s Bogart’s final role. He looks much older than his 56 years, weak and tired and full of cancer. He tries to convince us that good will prevail, and the swelling orchestra backs him up. But he looks resigned and deathly, like the truth.


   What did I think of them? Well — like I said: the book is noir and the movie isn’t. But just because something is noir or not doesn’t mean it’s good. For me, they both hit me kind of flat. If you’re interested in the basic story it’s pretty much covered in the movie (until the truth is betrayed in the end to allow the audience to leave with a smile and comfort in the fact that all is well and justice will out).

   The movie also leaves out a tremendous amount of sex. More sex than I knew was possible in print in 1947. (Eddie says trying to remember one girl over another is like trying to remember one particular cigarette after you just chain smoked a pack.) El Toro has an affair with the mafia boss’s wife — until he catches her giving a blow job to the chauffeur’s 17-year old nephew (were only the chauffeur the beneficiary I’d make my annual Rosh Hashanah joke about blowing the shofar): ‘La puta! La puta!’ he screams at her.

   The movie also pretty much leaves out the mob element. Although Rod Steiger is a tough guy, it’s not really clear that the repercussions of not going along with his orders are ending belly up in the East River. You’ll merely be fired. (As an aside, if you close your eyes, Steiger’s voice and words sound like a dead ringer for Donald Trump — I’d be shocked if Trump didn’t watch the film when he was a 10 year old boy).

   Anyway. I guess I’d say you can safely skip both the film and the book. They’re okay. But, as good old Robert Louis Stevenson jauntily jotted: ‘the world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’



FRANCES BEEDING – The House of Dr. Edwardes. Little Brown, 1926. Filmed as Spellbound (Selznick/UA, 1945) with Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov, Leo G. Carroll, Rhonda Fleming, John Emery, Norman Lloyd, Bill Goodwin, Wallace Ford, Art Baker, and Regis Toomey. Dream sequence based on designs by Salvador Dali. Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Angus MacPhail. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

   A pleasant read, a fun movie, and an interesting glimpse into the creative process…..

   The House of Dr. Edwardes is an out-and-out Gothic, set in a remote Castle/Sanitarium staffed by a few professionals and the kind of superstitious villagers who used to populate old horror movies. Into this moody-broody set-piece steps Constance Sedgewick, pretty young thing just out of Medical School and newly hired by Dr. Edwardes, who is conveniently away. Also recently arrived is Dr. Murchison, handsome and slightly sinister in the best Gaslight tradition, who arrived with a mysterious patient in tow, a homicidal maniac who is kept locked away.

   It doesn’t take long to figure out the “surprise” here, but Beeding goes capably through the Gothic motions, with hints of Devil Worship, strange figures skulking about in the moonlight, and Constance following the standard policy of sneaking around the Castle in her nightdress. There’s also a very nice bit (probably what suggested the thing to Hitch in the first place) where an ordinary after-dinner conversation turns eerily menacing… the sort of catchy writing that makes one wish Beeding had provided a more imaginative resolution.

   Looking at the film Spellbound, one is struck first by the tricky visuals -– including the dream sequence by Salvador Dali – and how well they serve the story. One might also note how completely screenwriters Ben Hecht and Angus MacPhail opened out the claustrophobic book with a bit of symbolic progression: as the characters move closer to solving the mystery and overcoming psychosis, the narrative moves from the cramped confines of the mental hospital to the looser framework of a big city, then to the broader vistas of a small town, and finally to the open slopes of a ski lodge (evoked with laughably bad back-projection!)

   But I got the most fun reading Dr. Edwardes and reconstructing the thought processes of the writers as they tried to hammer it into a commercially viable Spellbound: “Okay we’ve got Ingrid Bergman, but no one’s gonna believe she’s just out of Med School; how ‘bout making her a cool-on-the-surface babe who takes off her glasses and her hair falls down around her shoulders? And what about Greg Peck? (WARNING!) Greg can’t be the killer but he can’t spend the whole damn film locked up in a cell, either. Hey, how about if we give it the twist-on-the-twist? He’s crazy, yeah, but the real Doc…

   However it worked out, Edwardes was worked into an undisputed classic movie and required viewing for readers here.


SOLDIER OF FORTUNE. 20th Century Fox, 1955. Clark Gable, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Gene Barry, Alex D’Arcy, Tom Tully, Jack Kruschen. Screenplay by Ernest K. Gann , based on his own novel. Director: Edward Dmytryk.

   The wife of a photographer comes to Hong Kong to find him after he disappears, apparently a prisoner on the mainland. Clark Gable is the “soldier of fortune” who helps her, even though he falls in love with her while doing so, and there’s the crux of the story.

   This was a big budget, wide screen movie, and it drags. Gable doesn’t seem to have his heart in it, and Susan Hayward’s attraction to the kind-hearted American gangster is rather mystifying. I enjoyed the people in the bit parts more than those in the big roles.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Warner Brothers/First National Pictures, 1944. Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Moran, Hoagy Carmichael, Sheldon Leonard. Screenplay: Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway. Director: Howard Hawks.

   An American fishing boat captain in wartime Martinique finds himself caught between the forces of Vichy in control and the underground movement of the Free French. Complicating matters is the presence of a young woman stranded on the island without money.

   One of my favorite movies of all time. Its only flaw, as far as I’m concerned, is that it ends too soon, almost too abruptly, and (if it could be so) too easily. The movie is tough, suspenseful, and sexy – even though nobody’s clothes are ever off.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


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