Thursday, May 5, 2022

Eleven movies, one season

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers. Sources: Criterion Channel, TCM, YouTube.]

Arson, Inc. (dir. William Berke, 1949). A firefighter goes undercover to investigate an arson-for-hire business. A surprisingly good B-movie, with mild suspense, modest human interest (a teacher who trades off babysitting jobs with her cigarette-smoking grandmother), and a pyromaniac who provides comic relief until he doesn’t. I liked seeing the familiar face of Byron Foulger, a member of Preston Sturges’s stock company. This movie might prompt viewers here and there to recall a local fire or two, never properly investigated, set by a real-estate mogul looking to collect on the insurance and build something new. ★★★ (YT)


Insurance Investigator (dir. George Blair, 1951). An insurance investigator goes undercover to investigate the death of an executive. See, there’s a double indemnity claim at stake. Dumb from start to finish. The only redeeming element: a mustached Reed Hadley as a criminal. ★ (YT)


While the City Sleeps (dir. Leslie Roush, c. 1940). It’s a film-noir title (dir. Fritz Lang, 1956), but this a short promotional film from the Ford Motor Company is noir of another sort: about people who work at night. “Thousands of men, thousands of trucks,” the narrator says. Yes, they drive by night (as another movie says), working while everyone else sleeps, delivering bread, milk, produce, and what-not to towns and cities. If you enjoy glimpses of people loading and unloading trucks in the wee small hours of the morning (as the song says), you’ll like seeing these glimpses of the dowdy world. ★★★★ (YT)


The Window (dir. Ted Tetzlaff, 1949). Tommy Woodry (the ill-fated child-star Bobby Driscoll) likes to tell tall tales, so when he claims to have witnessed a murder, no one believes him — except the killers. A great movie, filmed on location, with clueless parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale), dangerous neighbors (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman), and great views inside a New York tenement. Talk about childhood fears: what could be more terrifying than to be locked in an apartment, alone, when someone is out to get you? My favorite moment: the hanger and the key. ★★★★ (TCM)


Key Witness (dir. D. Ross Lederman, 1947). Milton Higby (John Beal) is a diffident drafter who invents gadgets and fends off his wife’s (Barbara Read) complaints about his earning power. Milton’s life changes when he flees the scene of a murder (which he did not commit), takes to hoboing, and is mistaken for the long-lost son of a wealthy capitalist. Wildly implausible yet somehow compelling. I recognized just one face in this effort: that of Harry Hayden, the character actor who plays the diner proprietor in the (great) opening scene of The Killers. ★★★ (YT)


Shack Out on 101 (dir. Edward Dein, 1955). Deliriously odd: the setting is a California diner, whose waitress, Kotty (Terry Moore), interests everyone — proprietor George (Keenan Wynn), feral cook Slob (Lee Marvin), and nuclear scientist/shell collector Sam (Frank Lovejoy). The plot concerns sensitive secrets being passed to the Communists. But what’s really important here is the improvisatory shape of things: whole scenes appear to have been filmed as ad lib sketches. Best moment: weightlifting (Wynn and Marvin) and a beautiful legs contest (Wynn, Marvin, Moore). ★★★ (YT)


Valley of the Dolls (dir. Mark Robson, 1967). Just ridiculous, with lousy acting, and dialogue that sounds like the work of AI, minus the I. And it’s as if no one was aware that the 1960s were well underway: Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate, whose characters are the focus of this tawdry story of show biz and pills (“dolls” are downers), seem like throwbacks to another era with their bouffant hairdos and elegant outfits. The best/worst moments: Neely O’Hara’s (Duke) All About Eve metamorphosis into a next-generation Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward). It’s vaguely troubling to see Paul Burke (Naked City) and Martin Milner (Route 66, Adam-12) in these surroundings. ★★ (TCM)


Mona Lisa (dir. Neil Jordan, 1986). Out of prison (we never know what he was in for), George (Bob Hoskins) takes on work as driver and bodyguard for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high-priced call girl. George and Simone’s time together is at the heart of the movie, as a working non-relationship develops into an ambiguous alliance complicated by other allegiances, by the assumptions governing the world of sex work, and by George’s profound sense of decency. Michael Caine and Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon of The Wire) provide moments of great menace. My favorite moment: the skipping away. ★★★★ (CC)


Lou Grant (created by James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, and Gene Reynolds, 1977–1978). I have an excuse for missing this series the first time around: it was a school night, and I was studying (I think). The first season is great stuff, with strong, still-contemporary storylines (domestic abuse, hospice care, mental illness and health care, neo-Nazis, sexual abuse) and sharply drawn characters full of idiosyncrasies (Mrs. Pynchon and her ever-present dog; Rossi and his orange soda). With Ed Asner, Mason Adams, Daryl Anderson, Jack Bannon, Linda Kelsey, Nancy Marchand, and Robert Walden. ★★★★ (YT)


Three from the Criterion Channel’s Ida Lupino feature

Peter Ibbetson (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1935). A mystical love story of children (Dickie Moore, Virginia Weidler) reunited in adulthood (Gary Cooper and Ann Harding) — reunited, at least, in shared dreams. The story of young Gogo and Mimsey looks forward to the pathos of Forbidden Games; the story of the adult Peter and Mary suggests — no joke — Dante and Beatrice and the beatific vision. The luminous cinematography is by Charles Lang. Ida Lupino makes only a brief appearance. ★★★★ (CC)

Out of the Fog (dir. Anatole Litvak, 1941). A Criterion blurb describes it as an allegory of fascism set in “a small fishing village,” and I suspect that the writer was going on a 1939 New York Times review of Irwin Shaw’s play The Gentle People (the source for this movie). The film though is a working-class drama of the Brooklyn waterfront (no village!), where a cocky small-time gangster (John Garfield) is able to shake down a tailor and a cook (Thomas Mitchell, John Qualen) for weekly payments by threatening to destroy their humble motorboat. The sordidness heightens when the gangster begins wooing Stella, the tailor’s daughter (Ida Lupino), and schemes to take her for a vacation to Cuba on an additional $190 extorted from her father. Dreadfully stagey dialogue, a great performance from Lupino, and dark, misty cinematography from James Wong Howe. ★★★ (CC)

The Sea Wolf (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1941). Edward G. Robinson stars as Wolf Larsen, the sadistic captain of a scavenger. When he’s not stealing other ships’ seal hides, he reads Darwin and Nietzsche and brutalizes and humiliates his crew members (Barry Fitzgerald, John Garfield, and Gene Lockhart are among them). Also on board: two travelers rescued from a downed ship, an escaped convict (Ida Lupino) and a genteel writer (Alexander Knox). All the ship’s a stage on which Larsen gets to play out the creed underlined in his copy of Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” ★★★★ (CC)

Related reading
All OCA movie posts (Pinboard)

comments: 6

shallnot said...

re: Lou Grant

I can’t think of an other any other spin-off series where that parent was a comedy and the child was a drama. Or the reverse for that matter.

Michael Leddy said...

Nor can I.

See a blog post coming tomorrow. : )

Chris said...

My wife was actually an extra in Valley of the Dolls, not that you can see her. There's a sequence where one of the characters is riding on a train and you can see children sledding down a slope out the window. The location is a few miles from here, but there's no train line there and there never was.

Michael Leddy said...

That’s amazing!

Anonymous said...

did you ever see the "sequel" movie to valley of the dolls?

Michael Leddy said...

No. But I know Roger Ebert was involved.