April 30, 2013
As May approaches, the film world turns its eyes to the Cannes Film Festival, which will host world premiere screenings from the likes of Jia Zhangke and Alexander Payne at its Grand Théâtre Lumière. I, however, will be celebrating the Edward L. Cahn Film Festival, taking place on my mustard stained IKEA couch in Brooklyn. No accreditation was necessary aside from an active Netflix account, and travel time was limited to trips to the bathroom. Cahn, born in Brooklyn, was a promising director of incendiary corruption dramas at Universal (Afraid to Talk, Laughter in Hell) before spinning his wheels for MGM short subjects in the late ’30s. He re-emerged as a pathologically prolific director of B-Westerns and gangster films in the 1950s, at AIP and the various companies of Robert E. Kent. Seventeen of these grim 1950s features are available to stream on Netflix, but all are due to expire from the service tomorrow [UPDATE: only OKLAHOMA TERRITORY and IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE expired, the other 15 were renewed], along with almost 1,000 other titles. So I attempted to watch Cahn’s films with as much speed and urgency as he made them.
I began with The Music Box Kid (1960), a thinly veiled bio of Dutch Schulz, mob boss of the Bronx in the 1920s and 30s. Here he’s called Larry Shaw, and played by professional handsome man Ron Foster, who would later land a recurring role on the soap Guiding Light. He exaggerates his natural vanity into a monstrous maw of need, his hawk-like features pecking approval out of people. He tells his wife he is an insurance salesman, one of many double-lives led by Cahn characters, who are constantly throwing up false identities. Interior lives are more colorful than exterior ones in his movies, which take place exclusively in under-furnished office spaces and living rooms, this result of low budgets emphasizing the transitory nature of these thugs. Each room looks newly moved into, and just as easily could be left.
Foster plays a similar character in Cage of Evil (1960), although he starts out on the right side of the law. Scott Harper is an aggressive detective assigned to a jewelry robbery, first seen beating an innocent witness for his spotty memory. A chain-smoking skittish type, his cigarettes seem to act as vents to keep him from blowing his top. After he’s passed over for a promotion, even the smokes can’t temper his anger and he flips, drawing up a scheme to snag the jewels for himself and the impassive blonde he’s been investigating (Patricia Blair). More unstable than Larry Shaw, Harper is incapable of maintaining his double life for long, resorting to panicked spasms of violence that inevitably boomerang against his own vulnerable body.
Mamie Van Doren is the duplicitous vulnerable body in Vice Raid (1960), a Detroit prostitute flown into NYC to entrap a Vice cop (Richard Coogan). Van Doren was a Marilyn Monroe clone who had descended the Hollywood ladder from star player with Universal all the way down to Poverty Row and Kent’s Imperial Pictures. She was joined by former ace studio DP Stanley Cortez, who had gone from lensing the deep focus marvels of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons to the flat planes of Vice Raid and, later that same year, Dinosaurus!. The first meeting between Van Doren and Coogan is the purest representation of Cahn’s films in this period. Vice cop Coogan is undercover as a photographer in a dingy hotel room, hoping to lure her into making an indecent proposal. Van Doren has an act of her own, as the faux-innocent whore waiting to get collared so she can later accuse him of abuse. It’s a roundelay of false fronts, their characters as fake as the flimsy hotel set.
As Dave Kehr wrote, where Cahn’s crime films are personal, his Westerns are perfunctory, but strange continuities still emerged in my marathon viewing. One of the haunting set-pieces of Laughter in Hell (1933) is the death-by-hanging of a group of Black prisoners, and lynching recurs as a theme, although in the post-code 1950s, racial difference has been eroded from view. There is a thwarted lynching in the rote courtroom drama Oklahoma Territory (1960), but it becomes the central image of Noose for a Gunman (1960). Case Britton (Jim Davis) is introduced as destined for hanging. The first shot is of a noose in extreme close-up to the left, with Britton riding slowly into focus at the right. As he passes by there is a sign nailed to the tree, “Reserved for Case Britton”. The town has marked him for death, the latest in Cahn’s corrupted cities. This one is controlled by rich landowner Carl Avery (Barton MacLane), who had Britton’s son killed five years before. By the end the town is overrun by outlaws and close to dissolution. Only Britton and his friend Jim (Harey Carey, Jr.) can save it from oblivion. In one offhand moment, as the friends are gathered by a hotel door, Carey grabs his left bicep with his right. It is the same gestural tic that his father performed as a silent Western star, and made famous by John Wayne at the end of The Searchers. Here it is just a silent tribute from son to father, in a programmer lost to history but found in Netflix.
Cahn’s reputation will never fully revive until his 1930s work is made available, but his Robert E. Kent productions are addictive, relentless exercises in deglamorization. America becomes a succession of drab flophouses and emptied out apartments, populated by shadows eager to erase their selves for a shot at the good life. Hope to see you next year at the Cahn Film Festival 2014. I can comfortably seat three, and it looks like Amazon Prime still has plenty of his work on offer. See you then.