June 2, 2015


The “It” in It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a lumbering thing, a slow-footed creature from a Martian lagoon terrorizing the crew of a rescue ship returning to Earth. Despite his violent blood-sucking tendencies, “It” is a lovable sort, blundering about in the spacecraft’s engine room with the stunned and disoriented gait of a medicated mastiff. Under the rubber suit was a soused Ray “Crash” Corrigan acting in his final film, a former serial adventure star battling alcoholism, the pathos of his performance pouring out his pores and through the mask designed by Paul Blaisdell. The human crew is less sympathetic, a slickly Brylcreemed group of technocrats who leave each other to die with nary a second thought. This efficient, vulgar, and remarkably suspenseful film was directed by Edward L. Cahn (one of his five 1958 credits). Once a promising director of high-toned genre fare for Universal in the 1930s (see: Afraid to Talk (crime), Law and Order (Western), Laughter in Hell (chain gang)), he descended the ranks at the studio to short subjects until he landed in 1950s B-pictures with independent producer Robert E. Kent.  It! The Terror From Beyond Spaceis their first and most famous film together, since screenwriter Dan O’Bannon lifted its scenario for use in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). And now it is the first Kent-Cahn movie to reach Blu-ray, thanks to Olive Films. It! The Terror Beyond Space should be more than a footnote in Alien oral histories, though, as it stands on its own as a resourcefully relentless scare flick.


Robert E. Kent was a screenwriter who bounced back and forth between Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers from the late 1930s through the 1950s. His credits run from the “adaptation” of the Bela Lugosi comedy Zombies on Broadway to the same credit on Max Ophuls’ prestige drama The Reckless Moment. He started his own production unit in 1957 (going by various names: Vogue Pictures, Peerless Productions, Harvard Film Corp.), and landed a distribution deal with United Artists. Kent must have met Edward L. Cahn on the set of the immortal The Gashouse Kids in Hollywood (1947), a PRC feature for which Kent wrote the screenplay and Cahn directed. Cahn was respected for his speed and reliability, and Kent surely remembered and filed that away. So Cahn was brought on to direct It! The Terror From Beyond Space for Vogue Pictures, the first of 32 features they would make together in the next four years.

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The original screenplay was written by Jerome Bixby, his first. So he likely came cheap, a priority for Kent’s nascent production unit. But Bixby was building a resume as a prolific Western and Science Fiction author, having already published “It’s a Good Life” in 1953, which would later be adapted into the evil psychic kid Twilight Zone episode of the same name. His story has echoes of A.E. Van Vogt’s story “Black Destroyer”, but it’s also influenced by the locked room monster mystery The Thing From Another World (1951). Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the only surviving member of an original nine-person Mars mission. The United States Space Commission orders that a rescue ship led by Commander Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) be sent to bring the surviving members home. Upon arrival to the red planet, Van Heusen suspects that Carruthers murdered the rest of his crew, and places Carruthers under ship arrest until they arrive back to Earth, where he will be court-martialed. It is not long before the Colonel is cleared, as a scaled, lizard-like monster picks off the crew one-by-one, sucking them dry of blood (the working title was It, the Vampire From Beyond Space). The surviving crew keeps barricading doors and moving up in the ship until there’s no place left to run.


At a high-speed 69 minutes, there’s not much time for characterization, but sub-Hawksian attempts are made at a group breakfast. The crew debates Carruthers’ guilt and reminisces about life at home. Commander Van Heusen is adamant that Carruthers is a murderer, and treats him with barely disguised contempt. The female officers are more sympathetic, especially Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith), a combo nurse and waitress (the gender politics are not, let’s say, progressive) who grows closer to Anderson with each passing corpse. The narrative is simple and irresistible, and the higher the crew climbs, the slimmer their chances of escape. The geography of the ship (thin and skyscraper tall) limits their movement, and the monster will just keep tearing through the locked bay doors until it can get to the tasty liquid coursing through their circulatory systems.

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The key to the whole frightful operation is the creature design by Paul Blaisdell, a refugee from American International Pictures. An artist for Science Fiction magazines, he was drafted into monster making by Roger Corman, who paid him a pittance to design The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes (1955). Totally self-taught, he would go on to create a dizzying bestiary of monsters for AIP and others before the Sci-Fi boom trickled out, and he retreated to a career in carpentry. Blaisdell was friendly with Bixby, recalling to biographer Randy Palmer that “Jerry Bixby wrote a hell of a script, in my opinion, and we had no problems figuring out what a Martian lizard-man should look like.” Palmer writes that Blaisdell “wanted to give the lizard-man an expanded, barrel-like chest to suggest the enormous lung capacity a living being would need to survive in the thin atmosphere.” And because it was a carnivore, he gave it needle like teeth. The flat nose and flaring nostrils were added, one assumes, because it looked cool. The problems arose with the casting of Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Blaisdell had almost always played the monsters he designed, fitting them to his own physique. But Ed Small thought Corrigan would add some name value to the marquee, as well as being an act of generosity to a struggling actor. But by all accounts Corrigan was in the midst of a terrible bender, and he never showed up to the costume fitting with Blaisdell. On a tight schedule, Blaisdell couldn’t wait, so he modeled the head on his own, which caused trouble later on, because Corrigan’s enormous sozzled melon stretched out the mask, to the point where his chin is visible in some shots in the movie. Blaisdell was also annoyed with Robert E. Kent and UA executive producer Edward Small, who kept giving him contradictory information about how they wanted the eyes to appear. After many revisions, he was able to please them both, but the experience was a frustrating one (for the full, sad story of his life, read this article by Vincent di Fate for Tor.com).


Blaisdell’s friend and collaborator Bob Burns recounts similar stories, but also reveals how the set worked as organized by Cahn:

I think it was shot in about 12 days. It had a longer shooting schedule than most of the films Eddie worked on. He also knew the limitations of Crash [brought on by his drinking], and so he kept that in mind. Eddie Cahn, I’ve got to say, was probably one of the best directors I’ve ever seen work —and especially with those short shooting schedule things, where he didn’t have any time. He did his homework every night. He came in and he knew exactly what set-ups he wanted. And, if possible, he could do forty set-ups in a day. He’d just move on. He was even better at it than Roger Corman. Of course, he’d been around a lot longer. He used to do a whole lot of those “B” westerns.

It was an intense workload for the entire production team, which Cahn had to orchestrate under extreme time constraints while juggling the demands of an obstreperous lead monster. Corrigan began his career as a fitness instructor to the stars, climbed to become a leading man in spectacular serials and B-Westerns  (Undersea Kingdom, The Painted Stallion), but ended up in ape suits (Captive Wild Woman, Nabonga, White Pongo) and  one final “It” suit. One can understand his anger.  Through it all, Cahn’s organizational vigor, the strong narrative and geographic line of Bixby’s script, and the stretched-but-still-scary monster design of Paul Blaisdell contribute to a creature-feature that that retains its bite.



“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.


The film opens with a close-up of a bank window getting smashed. Clay Anderson and his gang knock over the establishment, and instead of a clean getaway, try to burn the whole town down, dragging a flaming tumbleweed behind them.  During his escape Clay’s horse twists an ankle. He wanders onto Hollis Jarret’s farm, greeted by a church under construction,  Jarret’s young second wife Peg slicing watermelon, and  freckle-faced kid Dodie gabbing nonstop about horses.  It is Americana kitsch, which soon proves to be nothing more than a veneer which Clay begins to pick away at. Pretending to be a friendly traveler, Peg agrees to house him in their barn until his horse gets well. Clay begins needling her, asking if she was the preacher’s daughter, and upon finding her true role, advances upon her with a leer. He insists that she doesn’t belong on this isolated spread, alone, rotting on the vine. You can see the flickerings of doubt on Patricia Medina’s face. She is revolted by Clay’s aggression, but the truth of his statements are as plain as day. She is too young, Hollis is too old. She is not a devout believer, while Hollis practices a severe, self-abnegating Christianity. Clay’s poison begins its work. The Anderson character was originally intended to be Jesse James, but was changed, according to Richard Maurice Hurst in Republic Studios, due to “legal complications”. Skip Homeier was a child actor (billed as “Skippy”), and he still looks like he is outgrowing his adolescence here, now a gawky 26-year-old trying to appear menacing.


It is this youthfulness that attracts Hollis. When the preacher returns home from a trip to town and sees Clay out by the barn, he immediately knows this is a lost soul from the robbery. Instead of turning him in or urging Clay to leave, he insists that he stay. Hollis has taken a passage from St. Luke’s to heart:  “There shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance.” Hollis accepts Clay’s appearance as a challenge from God – to lead this lost lamb back to the flock, regardless of the consequences. The longer Clay stays, the more aggressive his pursuit of Peg becomes, and his paranoia at being caught has him pulling his pistol on every random visitor. It is as if Hollis has invited Death himself into his home. Peg becomes disgusted with all of them – at Clay’s boorishness and Hollis’ self-destructiveness, pushing herself towards the edges of the frame. But the men proceed onward to the inevitable violent endpoint.


Clay deflects all of Hollis’ attempts at preaching, treating his elder with contemptuous scorn. After another entreaty to turn to Christ, Clay ripostes, “”For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” Hollis, unperturbed, sees this as instruction. He purchases an unruly wild horse from a reluctant Slim Pickens, and believes that if this horse can be broken, so can Clay. Hollis names the horse “Lucifer” (played by Rex the Wonder Horse), and the beast lives up to the appellation. Dodie sneaks into the stable in an attempt to calm Lucifer himself, but instead the animal goes wild, bucking and attacking with the single-minded bloodthirstiness of a slasher movie monster. When Dodie slides underneath a cart, Lucifer goes down on his knees and tries to attack him with his teeth. It is the most terrifying equine performance in cinema history. Witney recalls the performance in a video from the 1994 Knoxville Film Festival:

 “Rex, King of the Wild Horses. This was one of the most animated, wildest horse you’ve ever seen. He had come out of a boys’ school in Flagstaff, Arizona. The trainer discovered that this horse would charge him when he cracked a whip. And I mean charge him. And you got out of the way. They were crying on the set, “Rex is loose!” I saw him chase a little actor under a car, get down on his knees and try to get to him with his teeth [laughter]. It wasn’t funny. Being a horseman myself I really appreciated this horse. There will never be another horse with the animation of this big bay, a thoroughbred Morgan horse, strangely enough.


Witney spent many of his early years at Fort Sam Houston with his uncle, which is where he learned to ride and jump horses, a passion and a skill he would carry with him the rest of his life. This led him to become friends with many of the stunt riders he worked with over the years, including the legendary Yakima Canutt. But for Witney, “the finest horseman ever to step on a horse bar none” was Joe Yrigoyen, who came up making pennies in Mascot Pictures serials, stayed on when the studio merged into Republic Pictures, and continued taking celluloid tumbles into the late 1970s, in Blazing Saddles and The Prisoner of Zenda. He was the stuntman for Clay Anderson in Stranger at my Door, given the task of calming down Rex during the freak-out sequence. In an effort to distract the horse from Dodie, Clay leaps onto Rex’s neck and wrestles him to the ground. It is a supremely athletic and dangerous feat, as Rex swings Joe around on his neck like a reverse rodeo rider.


The white-knuckle sequence proves Clay’s humanity, as he leaps in to protect Dodie. So Hollis’ plan is a success, though only after Dodie and Peg were almost stomped to death. For Peg this proves to be the end of her last frayed nerve. With the entirety of the film taking place on the Jarret farm set, there are a limited number of setups that Witney can use to generate tension. So instead of repeating another image of the stable, he flicks off the studio lights. While the rest of the family is asleep, Peg snags a shotgun and stalks towards the stable. She levels the sights onto Lucifer, ready to blast it into Kingdom Come, and her relationship with Hollis along with it. Poised there in low light, the gun raised, and the industrial fans tousling her hair, she is the closest thing the film has to an action hero. But she doesn’t have the nerve to take a life, and there is a storm brewing. The local sheriff stumbles into view, and the final shootout occurs in flames, the farm now an adjunct of hell. In the light of day the family is reconstituted, and Clay has discovered a measure of peace. But the question of whether all of the blood and thunder has been worth it is a question between Hollis and his God.


For a cheap programmer, the film was enthusiastically received, with Variety calling it an “exceptionally well-done family trade offering”, and The Hollywood Reporter praising it as containing “a theme that lifts it well out of the ordinary class and into a niche where it deserves to be considered with very special interest.” Witney always remembered it fondly, probably because of the positive critical response, not something he was used to in that period in his career. Though he always had a high reputation among serial aficionados and Western obsessives, his reputation never grew beyond these cliques. His most famous fan is Quentin Tarantino, who waxed poetic about him in a 2000 New York Times article (I made my much lower profile case at Moving Image Source a few years back).  Stranger at my Door is the first of Witney’s films to be released on Blu-ray, and it might be the last. But even if he never garners a retrospective or a door-stopping biography, his influence reverberates whenever a horse bucks a rider or a punch is thrown on screen.


January 27, 2015


Woman They Almost Lynched  is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman.  The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.

Allan Dwan signed with Republic Pictures in 1945, “set to receive $1,000 a week for 52 weeks per year, plus five percent of the net profits of all his pictures” (Frederic Lombardi, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios). In 1935 Herbert Yates merged six Poverty Row studios under the umbrella of Republic Pictures, who quickly became known for their adventure serials and B-Westerns starring John Wayne. They were built for quick turnarounds and quicker profits. Though their bread was buttered in programmers, they had four categories of productions, as described in Republic Studios: Between Poverty Row and the Majors:  Jubilee (“Westerns with a seven day schedule and $30,000 budget (later $50,000)”), Anniversary (“Westerns, action/adventure and musicals with a two-week schedule and budgets up to $120,000 (later $200,000)”), Deluxe (varied subjects with 22 day schedules and $300,000 budgets (later 500,000)), and Premiere (one month shooting schedules and million-dollar budgets). Dwan worked in all of these categories, in every genre. His first project for Republic was the wartime screwball comedy Rendezvous with Annie (1945), and went on to do musicals (Calendar Girl), “frontier operettas” (Northwest Outpost), lyrical children’s films (Driftwood), and Depression-era comic fables (The Inside Story). His received his largest budget for the “Premiere” production of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), but would never get that level of investment again.


Woman They Almost Lynched was probably an “Anniversary” production, clocking in at 90 minutes though having few sets – the whole film takes place on one Western backlot street. The film was based on a short story of the same name by Michael Fessier, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. Steve Fisher adapted the story into a screenplay, though Dwan didn’t remember him fondly. When Peter Bogdanovich asked Dwan if the writer understood that the film would be played as a parody, he responded, “I don’t think he’d know now that it wasn’t serious. If the actors said the words, it was OK with him.” The words tell the story of Border City, which straddles the Missouri-Arkansas border during the Civil War. Mayor Delilah Courtney (Nina Varela) has declared that the town is neutral, and executes by hanging anyone that stirred up Union or Confederate sentiment. When the mercenary band of Quantrill’s Raiders roll into town, the Mayor puts them on notice that they have to leave in 24 hours. Arriving at the same time as William Quantrill (Brian Donlevy) is Sally Maris (Joan Leslie), a city girl traveling to meet her saloon owner brother. When her brother gets shot and killed, Sally is burdened by his debts, and has to run the saloon herself instead of being thrown into debtors’ prison. Sally falls for a dashing Confederate spy named Lance Horton (John Lund), who wants to keep the renegade Quantrill from accessing the town’s lead mines. All the while Quantrill’s cantankerous wife Kate (Audrey Totter) has an obsession with knocking off Sally. Kate was once the fiance to Sally’s brother, and Kate now wishes to wipe that history off the face of the Earth. Dwan deftly balances these overlapping narratives in a film that hurtles along with no wasted motions.2117193ejzrm4v46ptdn.th

The heart of the film lies in the relationship that forges between Kate, Sally and the saloon girls (one of whom is played by Ann Savage of Detour, her last screen role for 30+ years). Each has learned how to live in the world of men, adapted to it and suffered for it. In Woman They Almost Lynched, Sally represents the promise of an independent, distinctly feminine future. Both Mayor Courtney and Kate have carved out their islands of independence by acting more masculine, by constantly indulging their capacities for violence. The Mayor lynches people with little provocation, and littler evidence. Coded as a “spinster”, she uses violence as sexual release by other means. Kate is a fount of uncontrollable rage, who gets her joy by rendering William Quantrill powerless. When she starts on one of her hate binges, all Quantrill can do is stand back and shrug his shoulders. In a remarkable transmutation, Kate is even able to turn the nightclub song into an act of violence, attacking Sally’s brothers with one of their old favorite tunes. Audrey Totter is a force of nature, an open nerve ready to lash out at everyone around her. She is explosive, abusive, and hilarious. Joan Leslie said that, “Audrey later told me she played the whole thing for farce, while I was doing it straight.” This dynamic is evident in their famous bar brawl, in which Totter badgers her into a scrap. Leslie is earnest, the fear and regret rippling across her face, while Totter’s expression is locked into a snarl. Leslie again:  “I had a terrible time with it. I was supposed to hit Audrey, and I just couldn’t. Not hit her on the face! Director Allan Dwan tried to explain, and Audrey told me to go on and do it. Somehow it did get done, but it was a very difficult thing to do.” This is a perfect pairing for Dwan – Leslie playing it straight and sincere while Totter is the clown, destabilizing things from within.


Jeanine Basinger described their relationship as “fighting over the issue of what it means to be a woman. In fact, the whole movie is structured on this very issue.” After Sally bests Kate in a quickdraw in the middle of the street, she yells, “Why don’t you try acting like a woman? You were born a woman but look at you. A bloodthirsty female. A disgrace to all women.” Instead of being content with being as good as a man, Sally insists on the integrity of being a woman – and urges Kate to live up to that standard. And the feminine code of the film is not one of sensitivity and lace, but of assertiveness and principle. Leslie has the grace and goodness of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. In the most moving moment of the film, Kate gives a monologue about her years of violent marriage: “At first I fought him. I tried every way I knew to try and escape. And later on I…I became just like him. Passion for vengeance and hatred. No trust in anybody, suspicious of everything. And all the time, all the time it was Quantrill I really hated for what he had done to me. So I took my rage out on the world. All hail the awakening of the ex-Kitty McCoy, cafe singer. Two years too late. Two centuries and a dead heart too late. Why don’t human beings ever learn?”


August 26, 2014

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“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!”  -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam

In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation – Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature  is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.


McCarey went independent after directing Going My Way for Paramount.  He formed Rainbow Productions to make The Bells of Mary’s, which was distributed by RKO. He had valuable experience with an independent artist early on. His first job in Hollywood was as an assistant to Tod Browning. McCarey recalled, “From film to film, I had the opportunity to propose ideas because the scenarios we were shooting were all original. It was a unique apprenticeship working with a man who wrote, directed, and edited his films himself.” The Bells of St. Mary’s grossed even more money than Going My Way, and sits at number fifty-one on the all time list (adjusted for inflation), one spot above The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. McCarey secured the same beneficial arrangement for Good Sam – a Rainbow Production released through RKO.

Good Sam originated with McCarey’s wife Stella. “I was working with Sinclair Lewis on another story and that’s when my wife told me, ‘Why don’t you make a picture about yourself? You’re always doing the most unbelievable things trying to help others.’” McCarey shared the story credit with John Klorer, with the script attributed to Ken Englund, who co-wrote Danny Kaye’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty the year before, another comic tale of a guy too kind to fit into corporate society.

Gary Cooper was going to play Sam Clayton from the start, and he is superb as the reticent nice guy (similar to his Professor in Ball of Fire). On their off days on the Good Sam shoot, Cooper and McCarey were friendly witnesses for HUAC (you can find their testimony here). Good Sam is their comic depiction of the value of religion to American life, of how it looked to them without people living by the Golden Rule. In such a world, saintliness becomes a joke. In his testimony, McCarey joked about why Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s weren’t hits in Russia:

McCarey: Well, I think I have a character in there that they do not like.

Mr. Stripling: Bing Crosby?

McCarey: No; God.

McCarey originally had Jean Arthur in mind for the part of Lucille, though she was unable to take the part. He had run into Ann Sheridan at the Kentucky Derby, who was eager to shed the label of “The Oomph Girl”. She had more than oomph to offer. Sheridan recalled their encounter in Modern Screen: “McCarey’s one of my idols; when I was a stock girl at Paramount he was a big shot there, and I’d always yearned to work with him. I have this mental picture of McCarey in Kentucky. He was standing up and lifting a julep glass when I came into his line of vision. ‘Annie’, he hollered, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’, I hollered back. ‘Let’s do a movie together’, he said. I said, “You’re on”, and kept walking”

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McCarey recounts the same meeting in a different issue of Modern Screen, in an article entitled, “My Love Affair with Ann Sheridan”. He was “struck for the nine-hundredth time with what a smick-smack, forthright, clear-eyed, redheaded, realistic gal this Annie Sheridan is.” McCarey claims that after she read the script she said she’d do it for nothing. Warner Brothers loaned her to Rainbow Productions after she agreed to add an extra picture to her WB deal. Though these articles were likely massaged by RKO PR, Sheridan’s excitement at playing a woman without “oomph” palpates off the screen. She is spectacular as Lucille: acidic, absurdist and reluctantly loving. McCarey came up through the slapsticks honing reaction shots, from Charley Chase and Max Davidson to Laurel and Hardy, mastering the art of looking askance at the world crumbling around you. Ann Sheridan has a barrage of exasperated looks to deal with Sam’s gullibility/generosity.

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Early on Sam invites a mechanic over for breakfast – and ends up paying for his neighbor’s repairs. Sheridan is a marvel of amusement and disdain. Upon the mechanic’s entrance she stares at Cooper mischievously, lowering her head and rolling her eyes up, backed by a disbelieving smirk – entertained by the absurdity of her cluttered life. Then the mechanic hands her dirty plates to clear, and the humor turns to contempt. Her eyebrows shoot down and her jaw drops in disbelief. Then a quick recovery into thick, dripping sarcasm. She asks for “the Crunchies too please” in a fake-civilized tone with a plasticine smile. Her hands full of plates, she raises her left arm so the cereal box can be shoved in her armpit – a perfect picture of overburdened domesticity. Staring needles at him, she says “Thank you” in a sing-song voice, and absconds with the dishes. This all happens in fifteen seconds, packing hilarity into every frame.

Her tour-de-force occurs about forty-five minutes in, when the deluge of needy humanity finally breaks her down. But not into tears – she expresses her defeat in an explosive laughter jag. Sheridan consistently shows how Lucille knows how to distance herself – to treat her life as a performance. The inciting incident is the capper to a day of good deeds with bad results. Sam had let his neighbors borrow his car over the weekend. It turns out they got into an accident, and the victim is suing. As Sam is the owner of the car, he will be the subject of the suit. When Sam comes home from work, he is ready to apologize to Lucille for all the hassles he brings home to her, oblivious to the fact that the neighbors are sitting in the living room. Sam’s apology, and his rare criticisms of others, send Lucille into convulsions. “No more Nelsons ruining our dinner, no more Butlers ruining our car”, he says, as Sheridan subtly shakes her head “no”, ramping up the joke she is about to play on him. When he calls Butler a “Four-eyed four-flusher”, she begins to break, the right side of her mouth curling up into a smile, soon followed by the left. She muffles a laugh through her nose. Soon she cracks and then, the torrent. Sam can’t understand why his sweet talk is making her laugh, so he asks, “Does my love border on the ridiculous?” Through choked chuckles she says, “Yes, in a way, yes.” It’s an uproarious scene that emerges out of everyday frustrations.


Sam’s generosity keeps backfiring, and eventually he’s squandered the entire nest egg, making it impossible for them to buy Lucille’s dream home. It is Sam’s turn to snap, and he hits the bottle. An alkie wanders into a bar, looking for a drink. The bartender wants to throw him out, but Sam still believes that “all he needs is a helping hand”. The drunk responds, “I can’t remember when I heard a more stupid remark. You’re not really helping me, all you’re doing is boosting your own ego. …You can afford to be condescending.” The idea that altruism is equivalent to self-love sends him into a spiral. He switches clothes with the bum, and seems ready for obliterate himself. A Salvation Army marching band agrees to take him home – the first kind act he’s received all day. This would be a bittersweet, complicated ending, a man of shaken faith receiving a salve.

However, McCarey and RKO opted for a miraculously happy closer that erases the satiric depiction of self-serving materialist United States of the previous two hours. It clumsily channels the communal spirit of the It’s a Wonderful Life finale, but McCarey was always better with couples than communities. As Robin Wood pointed out, he rarely even has time for families (Sam and Lucille have kids, although you’d barely know it). This particular miracle rings false, making Good Sam one of the only times McCarey places his faith in God above that of his characters. In his greatest work, they are intertwined, as in the transcendent, sanctified union of Love Affair, or the unspoken affection of a priest and a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The January 17, 1948 Showman’s Trade Newsreel reported that McCarey “decided upon an entirely new ending”, and that “preview audiences will be given their choice of two finishes”. What is not known is the content of the alternate ending, or what process led to McCarey re-shooting those pivotal sequences. There is some archival work to be done here, or perhaps a lucky discovery in some old subbasement.


April 8, 2014


With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has  fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.

This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.

Paul Muni, Joseph Losey, Henri Alekan

Stranger on the Prowl came about because a group of blacklisted artists started a production company to make films overseas. Director Bernard Vorhaus, agent John Weber, and the husband-and-wife writing team of Ben and Norma Barzman formed Riviera Films as their names kept appearing in HUAC testimony. It was the same for Losey, who was wrapping up his last Hollywood feature, The Big Night (1951), which completed retakes in June of 1951. As they were all being red baited in the trades, they knew their opportunities for stateside work were dwindling. So Riviera Films started two Italy-based productions, A Bottle of Milk for Losey, and Finishing School for Vorhaus, both with Barzman scripts. A Bottle of Milk (later changed to Stranger on the Prowl), adapted from a story by French crime fiction author Noël Calef (Elevator to the Gallows), follows an unnamed stranger (Muni) who skulks around a port city trying to sell his rusted out gun. After committing a crime out of severe hunger, he is chased through the city’s honeycomb of slum housing, befriending a poor boy who is bringing a stolen bottle of milk home to his mother. The scenario has the raw sentimentality of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and Losey mimics the street-shooting style of that neorealist classic. To aid him was the cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Roman Holiday and Wings of Desire. Though he preferred grand expressionistic effects (his mentor was Eugen Shüfftan, the creator of Metropolis’ special effects), he was also adept at more “realist” styles, as evidenced by his work in Rene Clement’s La Bataille du Rail, in which railway workers re-enacted their roles in the French Resistance during WWII.

Stranger on the Prowl

Alekan did not speak English, so the camera operator had to translate Losey’s instructions, but both valued their time working together. In the historical survey Hollywood Exiles in Europe (the main source for this article), author Rebecca Prime quotes Losey calling Alekan “a great gift”, while Alekan described their collaboration as “total and unreserved”. Their camera nimbly navigates the narrow streets and alleys of the Stranger and the boy’s elaborate escape, shot mostly at Tirennia Studios, outside Pisa. Using a mix of handheld and tracking shots, the film is more stylized, less immediate than its neorealist model, especially in the dramatic finale, a chiaroscuro suspense sequence shot on the slum roofs. Though the images impress a sense of alienated isolation, the sound is muddy and marred by poor dubbing of the local actors’ dialogue. For many scenes the boy is unintelligible. The audio was one of the casualties of the patchwork funding of the feature. The money initially came from Andrea Forzano, whose family owned the studio in Pisa, but when his cash ran out, they tapped an Italian-American businessman named Albert Salvatore. As Prime writes, both producers had ties to Mussolini, making Stranger On the Prowl a half-fascist, half-Communist film. Riviera Films had so much trouble raising money many of them got work dubbing Italian films into English to make extra cash.


Though shot on the streets, nothing feels off the cuff. It is a highly composed, artificial kind of neorealism, unaided by the presence of former Hollywood fixture Paul Muni. Though no longer a star, Muni was still a name, at least enough to get the film financed. Muni was happy for the work, but reportedly terrified of being associated with Communists, according to Losey. His terror translates to the screen, in which the already frog-faced actor uglies himself up more, skulking around corners with oily hair, deep pockets under his eyes, and a wardrobe seemingly carved out of a potato bag. He is haunted and hunted by the whole town, a seemingly stateless specter shadowing Europe. It’s a moody metaphor for Losey’s in-between status at that point, a freshly blacklisted artist with no visible means of support outside of the US.

If he had harbored any hopes about returning home, it is not exhibited in the human wreckage of Muni’s exiled loner. Losey’s exile status may have been cemented by a two page spread afforded him by the Italian Communist newspaper L’Unita. Prime reported that soon after the article was published, HUAC announced that Losey was one of the people still unserved with a subpoena to appear before the committee. United Artists had distribution rights to the film in the U.S., but could no longer release the film with all of its Communist associations. The AFL Film Council had already submitted to HUAC a petition to ban films made overseas by Communists of fellow travelers. So UA’s Arthur Krim changed the names of the crew to those of the film’s Italian backers. So Joseph Losey and Ben Barzman became “Andrea Forzano”, while Henri Alekan turned into “Antonio Fiore”. Losey was being erased from U.S. screens, his fate as an exile sealed, just like the film’s wandering Stranger.


October 1, 2013


We associate film noir with cramped urban spaces, labyrinthine warrens of crime and vice. This slipperiest of genres, identified by French film critics years after its demise, also gained resonance by departing from the city and hitting the road. Often this takes the form of a last ditch attempt at salvation, as in the transition from city to country in On Dangerous Ground, when Robert Ryan’s cop finds humanity in the dead eyes of Ida Lupino. Olive Films recently released two curiously located 1950s noirs, the beachside diner of Shack Out on 101 (1955) and the highway heist film Plunder Road (1957). Both dispense their pleasures through their constrained locales, the first taken place almost entirely in a shabby eatery, the second inside a getaway truck. The first veers towards absurdist humor while the second is a straight-faced procedural, but both display how the noir ingredients could be combined in an endless variety of ways, and that there are always discoveries to be made in even this most picked over of genres.


Shack Out on 101 is a delirious red scare item directed and written by one Edward Dein. It was his first English language feature, having only directed the English dub tracks on a couple of Spanish movies. He started out as a screenwriter for Poverty Row outfit Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), and went on to write for RKO and Universal, his most notable credit for “additional dialogue” on Jacques Tourneur’s classic creeper The Leopard Man (1943). He hooked up with Allied Artists (formerly Monogram Pictures) for Shack, which he co-wrote with his wife Mildred. It’s a bizarre mix of Clifford Odets “realism” and hysterical McCarthy-era red-baiting, highlighted by a loose-limbed performance by a young Lee Marvin.

The movie focuses on a dingy seaside diner, owned by middle-aged manager George (Keenan Wynn), who carries a torch for his bite-sized blonde bombshell waitress Kotty (Terry Moore). She only has eyes for regular customer Sam (Frank Lovejoy), a nuclear scientist running experiments at a lab down the coast. All of them are harassed by line cook “Slob” (Marvin), a boorish pervert who just might also be a Soviet spy.


The overheated tone is established in the opening shot, in which Kotty is splayed out in her two-piece bathing suit on an abandoned beach, her body ogled by Dein’s camera with leering prurience. In the distance, a figure slowly walks forward into focus. It’s Slob, who bends down and lathers on a sloppy kiss to her revolted face. Dein and DP Floyd Crosby (High Noon) is always shoving Slob into backgrounds and skulking in corners, a creature more than a man. If he emerges into the foreground, disaster is sure to follow. The opening sequence rhymes with one of the climactic sequences, a deep focus composition in which Marvin’s head is in the far background behind the kitchen counter, while Kotty blabs her suspicions over the phone in close-up. His slow approach next to her will shift the film into a more violent phase. Marvin oozes bad intentions, his body an uncontrollable herky-jerk of flapping limbs, as if he can’t control the hurt he is about the unleash.

Set almost entirely inside the diner, it’s overtly theatrical, and early one it feels like a kitchen sink comedy about George’s unrequited love of Kotty. There are some touching moments here, including George trying to enumerate why he should feel happy to be alive. His ex-GI friend reminds him of their tour at D-Day, where he, ” still remembered how choppy the channel looked through your chest.” This greasy spoon looks like heaven in comparison. These offhand character moments clash with the broad comedy, including a pantomimed scuba diving bit, and an uproarious weightlifting scene between George and Slob before opening the joint. Comparing pecs and calves, this extended bit of delusional beefcake ends with the shirtless duo comparing legs with Kotty (she wins). By the time the conspiracy mechanics kick in it’s hard to take it seriously, and it seems Dein felt the same way, as the various subterfuges make little sense, as if he were poking a little fun at the rise of Commie-hunting.


Plunder Road aims for a complete lack of subtext, for a simplicity of procedural presentation. A group of failed professionals (a race car driver, a stunt man) rip off the U.S. Mint in a bold rain-soaked train heist. After this elaborate opener, the movie splits off into four, following each getaway car as it races for freedom to the Mexico border. There is no exposition, only action. Director Hubert Cornfield is concerned only with the mechanics of the crime, and how the roads eventually swallow all of them up. The opening credit sequence, designed by Bob Gill, consist of an extreme close-up of white road markings speeding by. The idea is that the mechanical advancements that allowed this robbery to take place will also inexorably take them all down.

In order to pull off the job they need a crane and a highly unstable explosive that they transport in a spring-loaded trailer, a nod to Wages of Fear (1953). But this technological ingenuity will also trap them on their escape routes. Everything from a police scanner to a weighing station will give them away. The film, while not well known outside of noir aficianado circles, has been studied by those interested in urban planning, as the ironic finale finds the remaining heisters stuck in snarled traffic in the newly built Harbor Freeway, which ran from Los Angeles to San Pedro and points south. Released a year and a half after the passage of the legislation which created the interstate highway system, UC Irvine Professor Edward Dimendberg found Plunder Road to be a an “allegory of that epochal event.” That is, the federal government’s creation of these interstate highways restricts personal freedom in this film, because they aid the police in oversight and collaboration in setting up roadblocks. But there is also the highway’s failure to circulate traffic as it was intended – it is one of these snarled traffic jams that ultimately trip up the bandits. An old gas station attendant reminisces to one of the robbers, before knowing who he is speaking to, about the old days when gangsters could get away with robberies like theirs, before “radio” and modern detection technologies made it impossible. Seen through this lens, as well as being a tautly produced heist film, it’s a statement on the efficacy of federal intervention, and the existential dread that intervention instills in anti-authoritarian American souls.



August 6, 2013


Second-tier actor Mark Stevens directed two first-rate film noirs in the 1950s, Cry Vengeance (1954) and Timetable (1956). Made when his acting career was in decline, these are self-lacerating works in which Stevens casts himself as a physically and morally disfigured criminal, as if doing penance for his Hollywood failures. In both films America is a prison his characters are desperate to escape, a repository of the fearful past. The destinations of his flight take on symbolic weight, from the vertiginous heights of Ketchikan, Alaska in Cry Vengeance (shot on location), to the neon claustrophobia of the studio Tijuana in Timetable. Stevens, a former handsome romantic lead, plays his obsessives with bitter quietude, his delivery a strangled monotone, as if he is devouring his own charisma. These are strikingly melancholy works made in near anonymity for Allied Artists (formerly known as Poverty Row studio Monogram), and thanks to Olive Films Cry Vengeance is now available in an appropriately funereal B&W Blu-ray. Timetable is in public domain hell, and is viewable in various samizdat versions on YouTube.


Born Richard William Stevens in Cleveland, his name was changed to Stephen Richards as a contract player for Warner Brothers. Most able-bodied men were enlisted to fight in WWII, but Stevens had long-time back problems that exempted him, stemming from a diving accident that incapacitated him for months as a teen. It bothered him all his life, lending his motions a stuttered, tortured quality appropriate to noir heroes. He gained his modicum of fame after he jumped to 20th Century Fox. It was there that Daryl Zanuck dubbed him “Mark Stevens”, and his short-lived career as a leading man began, from Henry Hathaway’s noir The Dark Corner (1946) to the Oscar-nominated melodrama The Snake Pit (1948). They also tried him in light musicals (Oh You Beautiful Doll (’49)), but they  released him from his contract in 1950. Hathaway blamed The Dark Corner’s box office failure on Stevens, saying he, “never quite cut it. Too arrogant, cocksure.” Once one of the top ten actors “Most Likely To Achieve Stardom” in a 1946 Motion Picture Herald poll, Stevens had to take whatever work was available. In the early ’50s he moved on to a few mid-budgeted action-adventures at Columbia and Universal-International before he finally went bust at the big studios, and had to move into the independents, while expanding his work in TV. He nabbed a starring role in the short-lived ABC series News Gal (1951), and went on to a prolific career on the small screen, from the newspaper drama Big Town (1954 – 1956, which he also produced) all the way to guest spots on Magnum P.I. and Murder She Wrote.


He acted in two films for Allied Artists before becoming a director, the cheap Korean War drama Torpedo Alley (1952), directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, and the vigilante Western Jack Slade (1953). It was through these productions that Stevens met producers Lindsley Parsons and John H. Burrows, who gave him the opportunity to direct. Production began on Cry Vengeance in September 1954 at the KTTV studios in Los Angeles. Location photography would be shot in San Francisco and Ketchikan, Alaska. The script by Warren Douglas and George Bricker involves former police detective Vic Barron (Stevens), released from a three-year jail stint after being framed for taking bribes. He was set up after pursuing mobster Tino Morelli (Douglas Kennedy), and lost his wife and child in a car bomb, along with half his face. He is hell-bent on revenge. Horrifically scarred, Vic is a tense ball of hatred, his first act as a free man to purchase a revolver at the local pawn shop.


He is a ghost to his old friends in San Francisco, speaking in mono-syllables with a stooped, mechanical gait. Their sympathy clangs off his rigid exterior until he starts throwing haymakers to escape their impotent pity. The thrum of San Francisco is replaced by the chill of Alaska, as Vic tracks Morelli north, hiding as a single father in the small fishing town of Ketchikan, aping the movement of city to country in Nicholas Ray’s noir On Dangerous Ground (1952). The entrance from the airport into town is a vertiginous wooden walkway emblazoned with chamber of commerce ads like “Salmon Capital of the World”. It is a neighborly small town, where even the bar owner Peggy (Martha Hyer) is a conscientious community member. Even Morelli is softened by the ocean air, going so domestic even his hired goon has turned into a modified babysitter for his little girl.

But the past is never past, and so bleach-haired killer Roxey (a serpentine Skip Homeier) stalks into town with addled floozy Lily (Joan Vohs) in tow, ready to rub out Vic and Morelli for fun and profit. Vic is courting death, whether his own or Morelli’s, he doesn’t seem to care. Walking with tin man stiffness in the natural light of Alaska, he sees Roxey as another unnatural man with a similar talent for self-destruction, so they test each other’s gift for annihilation in a perilous chase up through a paper mill, higher and higher into obliteration.


In Timetable (1956) Stevens plays an outwardly adjusted American male, but who is inwardly even more twisted than Vic. For this film Stevens set up his own production company, Mark Stevens Productions, of which Timetable is the only result (while commonly known as Time Table, the AFI Catalog notes that “All available contemporary sources” list the title as one word, which I will follow). Mark Fertig discovered the fate of this venture in his extensively researched profile of Stevens in Noir City:

Mark Stevens Productions was formed in 1955, with huge plans: there was to be a filmed version of the dark western novel Feud at Five Rivers, a new primetime series for future Mister Ed star Alan Young, and a pilot based on the radio drama The Mysterious Traveler, set for Vincent Price. Stevens also expanded into the music business, launching Mark Stevens Music (publishing), Mark Records (distribution), and Marelle Productions (retail). None of the ventures panned out — Mark Stevens Productions officially brought just one film to theaters, Time Table(though at times Stevens claimed others, including Cry Vengeance and The Bitter Ride). All four companies crashed within a year when, as described in a Twentieth Century Fox press release for the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter, “outside management of his company forced him into bankruptcy.”

Timetable‘s Charlie Norman is close to Stevens’ heart – a hard-working striver stuck in middle-management who eventually gives up and leaves for foreign lands. Norman is an insurance investigator who goes rogue to mastermind a train payroll heist before lighting out for Tijuana. Stevens is a frustrated actor and director who eventually leaves Hollywood for Majorca, spending his days running restaurants and his nights cranking out adventure novels. He even told Los Angeles Times in 1956 that, “I don’t like to act, I’m not a very good actor and I’m not kidding myself about it.”


It is this self-doubt and makes Stevens such a riveting performer in Cry Vengeance and Timetable, a sense of exhaustion perfectly apt for his profoundly alienated characters. Norman has what seems to be the ideal American life – a solid job and a doting wife in the big city, but it is all a fragile facade. The film begins with a bravura heist sequence, one we are led to believe Norman is investigating. But less than thirty minutes into the film he is revealed to be the architect of the robbery. His reason, he later tells his astonished wife, is that “The house becomes a prison, the job a trap.” For Mark Stevens acting became his prison, and Cry Vengeance and Timetable are a bracing ventilation of all of his resentments toward his chosen art.


July 3, 2012

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On July 18th, Olive Films will begin their roll-out of the Republic Pictures library with DVD/Blu-Ray releases of High Noon (1952) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Republic has long been one of the most underutilized holdings in the home video market, passing from corporation to corporation with little concern for the treasures it contained. But upstart Olive has closed a massive licensing deal with Republic parent Paramount Pictures, and is set to release a flood of material (from B-Westerns to prestige pics) in 2012 that had mostly been overlooked in the digital age. While these first two releases have been well-represented on DVD, it is their premiere on Blu-Ray, and there are plenty of rare gems coming down the pike (all transferred in HD), including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar,  Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.

Herbert J. Yates began his career in film processing in 1915. By the 1930s his Consolidated Film Laboratories was a major developer of B-film. As the Great Depression sent many Poverty Row studios into the red, Yates took them over, combining six companies (Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield and Invincible) into one Republic in 1935. They made money off of disreputable serials and Westerns, giving daredevil action directors like William Witney endless opportunities to hone their craft on a shoestring budget.

Witney started his career at Mascot, riding horses in films for his brother-in-law, and director, Colbert Clark. Witney directed his first film, The Painted Stallion (1937), for Yates, and remembers the set-up in his autobiography, In A Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase:

Republic’s main office was in New York where taxes were lower than in California, and Consolidated Film Industries, which made all the release prints, was located next door in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The office in New York City was located at 1776 Broadway…

Then, after Yates bought out the last of the executives from the six former companies, Witney writes, “I will say one thing for him. He screwed a lot of very smart men.” Witney wasn’t one of them, working productively for the company in serials (Daredevils of the Red Circle, The Adventures of Captain Marvel), Roy Rogers Westerns and teen-sploitation (Juvenile Jungle, Young and Wild) until the company was sold in 1959. It was because of money-making B-pictures like Witney’s that Yates had the money to invest in prestige productions like Orson Welles’ Macbeth and John Ford’s The Quiet Man and (the less expensive) The Sun Shines Bright. Yates rubbed Ford the wrong way, as the curmudgeonly director told biographer Joseph McBride, regarding The Sun Shines Bright:

Well, they didn’t ruin it, they couldn’t ruin it. But they cut a lot out of it. You’re working with a stupid lot of people, the executive producers, so what the hell, you’ve got to expect it.

But whatever his shortcomings as a producer and a shameless money-grubber, Herbert J. Yates, through accident or circumstance, funded some of the glories of the Hollywood Classical Cinema, both the high art of Ford and the low of Witney, and for that he deserves our reluctant thanks.

Yates sold his company’s library in toto to National Telefilm Associates (NTA) in ’59, bowing to the rising dominance of television. They had severely curtailed production, and were mainly making their money selling TV rights anyhow.  A Dec. 23rd, 1957 issue of Billboard announces the sale of syndication rights to NBC of 218 features and 15 serials for $3,5000,000, with the writer noting that, “the move by Republic to put its package in active sales is concurrent with reports that the studio is in the process of terminating film production.” At this point the demand for B-pictures had disappeared, as the 1948 anti-trust Paramount Decision had divested the studios of their theater ownership. They could no longer “block-book” their product and force theater managers to run whatever they sent them.

NTA made money syndicating the TV rights, with the rise of cable TV in the 1980s reinvigorating profits, leading them to change their name to Republic in 1986, and producing their own TV shows like Beauty and the Beast (1987). In 1994, Aaron Spelling Productions purchased NTA/Republic, and essentially used it as a distribution arm, and as a name to sell its own projects, completely divorced from the low-budget studio it once was. Now Republic Pictures Home Video would release a Spelling mini-series like James Michener’s Texas on VHS, while Johnny Guitarlanguished in the vaults. This was followed by some swift multinational swallowings, as Blockbuster purchased Spelling, and then Viacom bought Blockbuster. The Republic library then became the custody of the Viacom-owned Paramount Home Entertainment, all by the end of 1995.

There had been sluggish attempts to release the Republic library on home video during this period. Spelling licensed it to Artisan Video in 1995, who released The Quiet Man and a few others until the company was gobbled up by Lionsgate in 2003. Artisan’s rights expired in 2005, reverting briefly back to Paramount, but Lionsgate then decided to renew this license for another six years, starting in 2006. For what must have been effective but arcane accounting reasons, Lionsgate effectively sat on the Republic library. They released the comparatively unknown Arch of Triumph (1948), Only the Valiant (1951), and One Touch of Venus (1948) on DVD, but left the vast, and vastly better known, titles sitting on the shelf.

Once Lionsgate’s laissez-faire reign ended this year, Olive Films leapt into the fray, manically licensing Republic titles from Paramount, and almost immediately putting them into production. In the first few months of their stewardship, Olive will have released more of the Republic library than Artisan, Lionsgate and their forebears combined. As fast as they are releasing them, there are some quality control concerns, but the early returns are encouraging.  Both High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have received high marks from tech review site Blu-Ray.com, as well as my own eyes. The transfers are clean and sharp with rich contrast. Paramount’s archival wing had obviously had done strong HD transfers on these, and Olive presents them with no digital blow-drying. High Noon comes with a making-of documentary, while Invasion contains no extras, which is the norm for the company. And while Olive has had notoriously poor cover art in the past, their Republic discs all seem to have original poster artwork – a huge improvement over some of their early Photoshop jobs.

While it would have been ideal for Paramount to push its massive resources behind the restoration and release of the Republic library, perhaps it’s more appropriate for the scrappy and relatively under-funded Olive Films to do the job. Releasing its discs quickly, efficiently and with little marketing muscle, the Republic Pictures library has finally found a licensor that can match its huckster spirit, and that has the smarts to take advantage of other companies’ mistakes.


April 12, 2011

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Olive Films continues to raid the Paramount vaults, this time with William Dieterle’s 1949 Casablanca clone Rope of Sand. Released on April 5th, along with Edward Dmytryk’s The Mountain (1956), it’s another strong DVD presentation from the company. The spotless print is presented in a progressive transfer that showcases the inky blacks of cinematographer Charles Lang. Producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in 1944 to form his own production company, Wallis-Hazen, and was eager to recreate his biggest hit for his new distributor Paramount. He bought Walter Doniger’s Casablanca-esque script and wrangled three of that film’s actors: Paul Lorre, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains. The leads were given to Burt Lancaster, who was under contract to Wallis, and Corinne Calvet, a French siren the producer hoped to mold into the next Ingrid Bergman. The result is a prickly bit of entertainment, a threadbare and more nihilistic version of its model.

There is much less at stake in Walter Doniger’s screenplay. In Casablanca Bogart wrestles with aiding the French Resistance, and in Rope of Sand Burt Lancaster is trying to steal a cache of diamonds from a South African mine. Lancaster plays Mike Adams, a former hunting guide turned depressive. A few years back one of his clients wandered off onto the protected area of the mine, hoping to strike it rich. He succeeded in in finding a rich vein of jewels, but dies of dehydration. Davis is then caught by the mine’s security force, led by Paul Henreid’s Commandant Vogel. Vogel tries to beat the location of these diamonds out of him, but to no avail. Stripped of his license, and unable to obtain a passport, Davis is a man adrift. He returns to the mine to rip off the diamond load and get his revenge on Vogel. Claude Rains plays Arther Martingale, a mine functionary who plays both sides off each other, with the help of Corinne Calvet as the ambitious prostitute Suzanne Renaud.

Davis is a stridently unlikeable character: selfish, brutish and a little dense. Lancaster was evidently unhappy with the production, as his biographer Kate Buford reported that it was “he one he would remember as the worst movie in which he ever appeared.” Eager to play out the string of his Wallis contract, he gives Adams a cold, dumb brutality that hedges against the threat of audience identification. There are no anti-heroics here, just a profoundly unconvincing happy ending.

Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Lang follow Casablanca‘s visual template, of cluttered baroque interiors and roving tracking shots inside bustling nightclubs. Lang uses lower light than the earlier film, perhaps compensating for the lack of background activity. While Casablanca has an expressive face sitting on every barstool, the world of Rope of Sand is relatively de-populated. Peter Lorre, who crawls into the film as a philosophizing fence, enters an empty frame. With less to explore, Dieterle’s camera movements are adumbrated compared to Curtiz’s long traveling shots down the bar. What Dieterle emphasizes instead are power relations, mainly expressed through a simple but effective method of blocking his actors along with alternating camera angles.

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When Mike Davis returns to South Africa on a freighter, Vogel is there to meet him with plum-voiced taunts. Davis is physically restrained by a pair of strapping deck hands, as Vogel looks imperiously downward. The camera peeks down at Davis, and upward at Vogel, quickly sketching their respective positions in the narrative. By the end, they are framed on equally level angles as their fortunes meet in the middle. Dieterle’s framing of Corinne Calvet undergoes a similar shift, tracking her transformation from a tool of Martingale’s to a woman who asserts her will.

The image that top-lines this post shows Calvert posing for Claude Rains, an erotic puppet that he’ll use to arouse the jealousies of Henreid and Lancaster. This becomes visualized in a poker game, before which Rains whispers devious nothings into Calvert’s ear. When she sits down, Rains is placed behind and to the right of her, his mouth still in visual range of her ear. Then the camera slowly dollies forward, and Calvet moves her head to the right, obscuring Rains’ face – the puppeteer lost in his art. Then there is a cut to Lancaster, with empty space around him – the only man outside of all human entanglement.

The controlling imagery surrounding Calvet continues when she goes home with Henreid, who pins her in-between two hanging canvas frames. She is a decoration to Henreid’s narcissistic martinet, window dressing to his tin-horn dictatorship. Little does he know that she’s under Rains’ employ, or that she is rapidly falling in love with the brusque Lancaster, for reasons that remain obscure aside from narrative necessity. By the end of the film the imagery of control and display fall away in Calvet’s scenes, and she shares equal screen space with Lancaster.

With thoughtful little stylistic strategies like these, Dieterle is able to lift his second-run scenario into something with a semblance of vitality. And thanks to the shit-eating grin of a performance by Claude Rains, as well as the reliably creepy work by Peter Lorre, Rope of Sand pulls itself together to be a diverting shadow of Casablanca.


July 27, 2010

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Like a herd of cattle ready to run down a restive kidnapper, Olive Films bursts into stores today with a phalanx of five DVDs licensed from Paramount Pictures: Union Station (1950), Appointment With Danger(1951), Dark City (1951), Crack in the World (1965), and Hannie Caulder (1971). A wholesale distributor and retailer of independent and art-house releases, Olive is now expanding its own acquisitions slate, starting with this brawny group of  genre titles. With multiple studios now experimenting with the mixed blessings of burn-on-demand technology (more releases, but higher prices and less quality control) for their library titles, it’s encouraging that a company is still willing to put out fully authored discs, in strong new transfers.

With the forthcoming, and essential, Josef Von Sternberg collection coming from Criterion, it’s clear that Paramount is becoming more aggressive in licensing its material.  Olive will release 27 Paramounts over the next year or so, including Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, Otto Preminger’s legendary and fascinating flop Skidoo, and Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face. I spoke with the Director of Acquisitions and Sales at Olive, Frank Tarzi, and he confirms that much more is on the way. Olive has closed deals with multiple studios, and their future slate shows off adventurous and eclectic taste, with Tarzi confirming the following: Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Billy Wilder’s Fedora, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair, The Stationmaster’s Wife (uncut), and I Only Want You to Love Me (uncut), Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, Claude Chabrol’s Ophelia, and, most exciting of all, Jean-Luc Godard’s complete Histoire(s) du cinema.

But enough of the tantalizing future.  Union Station is a taut, architectural noir from Rudolph Maté, the ace Polish cameraman who lensed Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. His career in Hollywood never reached those aesthetic heights, but he was a consummate craftsman with an eye for visual detail. Here he’s given a police procedural about the kidnapping of a blind girl, and although set in Chicago, much of it was shot at Los Angeles’ Union Station (Thom Anderson pinched some scenes for Los Angeles Plays Itself, his history of L.A. on film).

Maté maps out the station with a near 180 degree pan, taking in the information booth and the crowds before settling on the STATION POLICE HEADQUARTERS sign. In the same shot, he then tilts up to a filigreed window which houses the station’s security services, where William Holden barks irritated orders to his indolent staff. Knowing every inch of his turf, he seems to blend into the walls when peering around corners for the jowly perps he’s tailing. The attention to spatial detail turns the film into a documentary of Union Station, with the plot just an excuse for exploration.

Holden’s expertise is gained through repetition, and he looks appropriately bored throughout. It’s just his job, after all. In the study that essentially defined “film noir”, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953 (first published in 1955), the writers compare it unfavorably to He Walked By Night, but find some saving (violent) graces:

“The film is interesting, though, for showing how the security services of a big train station work. Aside from the ill-treatment inflicted on a blind girl by her kidnapper, there are two scenes of momentarily authentic noir cinema: a gangster flattened during his escape by a stampeding herd of steers maddened by gunfire [top image]; the pressing invitations to spill the beans exercised by the cops on an untalkative accessory to a crime. After giving him a working over using state-of-the-art methods, they drag him onto a platform overlooking the railroad track. “Make it look accidental,” the police inspector orders. When a train passes beneath, they grab hold of the “tough boy” and make as if to push him off [see left]. The guy immediately screams that he’ll “talk,” and he’s led away distraught, ready to sell out father and mother alike.”

Dark City is an altogether seedier affair, a story of greedy low-lifes who bilk a sucker out of his cash, driving him to suicide. No big deal, except the dead man’s psychopathic brother targets them for strangling. Charlton Heston, in his first starring role, is the most sympathetic low-life, Danny. But when the competition is Jack Webb at his sleaziest, playing a dirtbag named “Augie”, it’s not much of an accomplishment. Directed by Hungarian emigre William Dieterle in looming close-ups and dramatic chiaroscuro from DP Victor Millner (who has an incredible resume), it’s a woozy, sluggish and occasionally haunting noir about guilt, failure, class and forgetting. Danny is a college grad and army vet, and so, the police captain tells him, he has no excuse to live the life he does, not like the street boys he runs with.

Heston plays him as somnolent and dreamy, his every line pulled out with stubborn slowness, like Robert Mitchum on vicodin. It’s a hypnotically effective performance, of a man who no longer wants anything to do with his body. He repeatedly tells his ignored girlfriend Fran (Lizabeth Scott), of his need to be alone, but she still loves him anyway. James Naremore, who has written the best recent book on noir, More Than Night, offers an adolescent memory of the film in his introduction“What I remember best are the fetishized details – Lizabeth Scott’s unreal blondness and husky voice in Dark City, or Edmond O’ Brien’s rumpled suit as he runs desperately down the crowded street in D.O.A. [directed by Rudolph Maté]“. To that I’ll add one more: Harry Morgan’s fake upturned nose, a physical marker of his pugilist past and the cause of his punchy good humor. He’s been knocked silly once too many, but Morgan’s ebullient and melancholic turn makes him much more than a punchline.

Appointment With Danger re-teams Webb and Morgan, the future Dragnet partners, and this time they’re both hoods. They are planning a heist with the heavy-lidded Paul Stewart, but an errant corpse spied by a nun sets the plot machinery in motion. Alan Ladd is the cynical motor, an expressionless slab who is smart enough not to impede the snappy dialogue by Richard L. Breen (who would later pen the Dragnet movie) and Warren Duff (“Love is between a man and a .45 pistol that won’t jam”). He plays a postal inspector, one of the raft of government employees feted in procedurals of this era (including Holden in Union Station).

I relinquish the rest of this review to three separate pieces from Manny Farber:

“Appointment With Danger is a fascinating textbook on the Average American Flop – his speech, mien, sage misanthropy, doubt. It is also a well-done report on the geography of Gary, Indiana, a place that seems crowded with failures.”


“Tight plotting, good casting, and sinuously droopy acting by Jan Sterling, as an easily had broad who only really gets excited about – and understands – waxed bop.”


“A YMCA scene that emphasizes the wonderful fat-waisted, middle-aged physicality of people putting on tennis shoes and playing handball.”


And I will note one last notable occurrence: Harry Morgan’s quavering face as he gives a speech about his estranged son, protesting that he will not run off to St. Louis to avoid the heat of being named to the cops. His features are close to collapsing, but he re-harnesses them in a flush of machismo. He mentions his son’s bronzed booties. Webb than takes one of them and beats Morgan to death.